Book Review- Once Upon a Time

by Elaine S. Wiener

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book coverOnce Upon a Time
(2014) Dr. Marina Warner
Oxford University Press
Hardcover, $18.95, 201 pp.
ISBN 978-0-19-871865-9

Once Upon a Time is a phrase that comes with one’s DNA. Even as an adult, I feel like a child listening to a fairy tale when I see it written.

And so, it is fitting and proper that Dr. Marina Warner (Dame Marina Warner) called her book “Once Upon a Time.” The book is smaller than a regular sized book so it even feels mysterious and historical. And historical it is! I learned more about the history of fairy tales than I really wanted to know. And I would never tell a little child the true stories until she or he is older.

(I also re-learned how much we all like our own rules… depending upon our culture. The punctuation was so out of sync and the wording so overloaded with long flowery phrases that until I remembered that Dr. Warner is English, I was extremely mystified. When I did remember, all fell into place. English rules from England become our heritage and must be respected even when not followed.)

Dr. Warner starts off with this statement.

Few people believe in fairies, now, but they featured powerfully in the belief systems of the past, and not always benignly. Like witches, fairies have inspired fears that led to terrible acts, and not in only pre-modern societies far away, but ones closer to hand: King James I believed in demons. Fairy tales have a tangled relation to this history, for the stories develop within a complex of fancies, superstitions, and stories around supernatural creatures such as elves or jinn, but they also, over a long and varied development, express a way of discounting the terrors attached…

The other Worlds which fairy tales explore open a way for writers and storytellers to speak in Other terms, especially when the native inhabitants of the imaginary places do not belong to an established living faith and therefore do not command belief or repudiation. The tongue can be very free when it is speaking outside the jurisdiction of religion.

Dame Warner continues on. (I love English Titles because they, too, belong to fairy tales in my American mind.) In these early modern fairylands we meet many returning magical motifs of fairy tales: uncanny powers of clairvoyance (second sight), abductions, spellbound sleep, doubles, curses, prophecies, and powerful charmed things…there is nothing like belief in the reality of something you think unreal to sharpen a sense of mystery and wonder.

The most comprehensive statement by the scholar Maria Tatar that summarizes what a fairy tale is tells us that “fairy tales register an effort on the part of both women and men to develop maps for coping with personal anxieties, family conflicts, social fictions, and the myriad frustrations of everyday life.”

That summarizes it all. The rest of the book tell us about all the tales that are familiar to us, some that were not, and the details of how stories morphed through history, becoming easier to hear in modern times because the evolutions in early times were barbaric.

Some of the illustrations were from Russian Folk Tales, William Blake, and the Brothers Grimm. Even though this is a small book, the lists of readings and the index were very informative and will be helpful to those who want to go even further into fairy-folk tales. For myself, I am happy with the standard stories.

ElaineElaine S. Wiener is Associate Editor for Book Reviews for the Gifted Education Communicator and can be reached at

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