Marina Warner

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale


From wicked queens, beautiful princesses, elves, monsters, and goblins to giants, glass slippers, poisoned apples, magic keys, and mirrors, the characters and images of fairy tales have cast a spell over readers and audiences, both adults and children, for centuries. These fantastic stories have travelled across cultural borders, and been passed on from generation to generation, ever-changing, renewed with each re-telling. Few forms of literature have greater power to enchant us and rekindle our imagination than a fairy tale.

But what is a fairy tale? Where do they come from and what do they mean? What do they try and communicate to us about morality, sexuality, and society? The range of fairy tales stretches across great distances and time; their history is entangled with folklore and myth, and their inspiration draws on ideas about nature and the supernatural, imagination and fantasy, psychoanalysis, and feminism.

Marina Warner has loved fairy tales over a long writing life, and she explores here a multitude of tales through the ages, their different manifestations on the page, the stage, and the screen. From the phenomenal rise of Victorian and Edwardian literature to contemporary children’s stories, Warner unfolds a glittering array of examples, from classics such as Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and The Sleeping Beauty, the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel, and Hans Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, to modern-day realizations including Walt Disney’s Snow White and gothic interpretations such as Pan’s Labyrinth.

In ten succinct chapters, Marina Warner digs into a rich hoard of fairy tales in their brilliant and fantastical variations, in order to define a genre and evaluate a literary form that keeps shifting through time and history. Her book makes a persuasive case for fairy tale as a crucial repository of human understanding and culture.

‘Cuentas de Hadas’ the Spanish translation, published by Larrad Ediciones (2019)


'Marina Warner is our doyenne of fairy stories, the British equivalent to America's Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar, only, it must be said, with a better prose style than either. Her book, From the Beast to the Blonde, was a memorable bestseller, and here she follows it and a lifetime of investigation into story-telling with Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale.

Once obscure, the field has become quite a crowded one, with Sara Maitland's Gossip from the Forest and Philip Pullman's Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm published recently, but Warner's book is a little gem. What makes her special is her way of phrasing insights into the nature of the genre and into particular stories; her scholarly knowledge is not just worn lightly but presented with a flourish. "Imagine the history of fairytale as a map, like the Carte du Tendre…drawn by Parisian romantics to chart the peaks and sloughs of the heart's affections," she begins, captivatingly In 10 succinct chapters, she gives us an overview of pretty much all that we need to know about past and current thinking, from Bruno Bettelheim's influential Freudian insights to Philip Pullman's stating that "there is no psychology in a fairytale."'

Amanda Craig, The Observer, 19 October 2014

'A treasure of a book - more dependable than fairy gold and certain to endure as a brilliant and compendiously researched guide.'

Kate Kellaway in LMH The Brown Book

'Warner's elegant prose is beguiing, lyrical, and rich with metaphor and clever wordplay.'

Kirsten Mollegaard in Folklore Vol 127, Number 3, December 2016

Other editions

First published by Oxford University Press, 2014