Once upon a time, redefined
Are today’s zombies more nihilistic than Ovid’s shapeshifters and are our increasingly darker fairy tales a denunciation of the age of violence in which we live? Award-winning writer Marina Warner discusses these and other elements pertaining to fairy tales with Gloria Lauri-Lucente ahead of her participation in the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival.
Her studies on myths and fairy tales have won her multiple awards, including the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2013 and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in 2012.
And now, self-described mytographer Marina Warner will be giving a talk and a reading at this year’s edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, which is organised by Inizjamed in collaboration with Literature Across Frontiers.
Marina’s works involve detailed studies of myths and fairy tales that range from the fantastical, like From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers and Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, to the religious, like Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary.
Her most recent publication, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale, explores the enduring appeal of fairy tales and their permutations through the ages from the written page to the stage and the screen.
In your recently published work on the history of the fairy tale, you write that the underlying principle of such stories in literature, art, film, dance and song is their attempt to find “the truth and give us glimpses of the greater things”. Can you elaborate on this definition of the fairy tale?
I’m quoting from the autobiographical novel, The Servant’s Tale, by Paula Fox, who is a very perceptive writer from the US.
Fox opens her book with a scene between a grandma and a little girl, who asks what the difference is between a story and a lie. Her granny replies, impatiently, that a lie hides the truth whereas a story tries to find it. I find this is a luminous definition.
The narrator, remembering this, comments that her grandmother saw something other people didn’t see, that “for her the meaning of one thing could also be the meaning of a greater thing”. Fairy tales are simple, set in distant times and far away and they describe situations that often seem unlikely, even preposterous. But they are coded literature, sharing features with other old forms of story-telling, such as allegory, fable and parable. They pass on – often at an unconscious level – a great deal of accumulated experience of life, truths that are larger and deeper than the surface appearance of the stories.
You also write that, in times of violence, fairy tales tend to become darker and less optimistic and consoling. Would you say that fairy tales have now become more sombre, and therefore also more difficult for adults to convey to children their truth-telling component?
Victorian publishing defined fairy tales as children’s literature andin the Edwardian period continued to aim at the new child reader. But, for a long time now, interpretations in books and on stage and screen have reclaimed the older audience and reader. The fiction of Margaret Atwood, Dvorak’s Rusalka and, more recently, Polly Teale’s Mermaid, spring to mind.
The paradox that Aristotle pointed out, that we enjoy representations of things we would abhor in reality, still operates in the darkest fairy tales today. Both children and adults are thrilled by the revenge meted out to villains, for example.
However, the darkening mood means that fairy tales are growing closer to myths. The balance has tilted and they have lost their pretence at innocence. They don’t offer the same sweet dreams of happiness at the end any more and so in many ways have become less child-friendly and less child-like.
But the truth-telling function remains. In my opinion this works more benignly than realist fiction about life’s problems, as created by many writers today for children.
The fairy tale offers a disguise: a wicked queen who torments a child is not flinching from recognising that child abuse happens, but does so metaphorically in a narrative that lifts through its poetic and dream-like qualities.
And there is the dimension of en-chantment, central to the definition of a fairy tale. Many of the plots in fairy tales find their counterparts in the medieval lives of saints.
The difference is that in the case of St Dympna, St Elizabeth or St Margaret, they’re killed and the only miraculous reprieve happens in heaven.
In the fairy tales, the falsely accused queen or the abused daughter, escapes and survives in triumph. The immorality of reality stops – through the hope given by the fairy tale.
You have written extensively on fantasy not only in literature, but also in film, with particular interest for the zombie genre. What makes the figure of the zombie so appealing to the cultural imagination?
The figure of the zombie travelled into western culture from Africa via the Caribbean, with 18th-century slavery. In its earlier forms, it expresses very powerfully the subjugation that slaves suffered: denied personhood.
But in later incarnations, for example the seminal film The Night of the Living Dead (l968), the zombie merges with the vampire and becomes a driven, cannibalistic force, overwhelmingly powerful in its rage against its enemies.
It has become a very potent hero of the digital age, expressing the fear that the conditions of late capitalism and digital surveillance are emptying individuals of their being.
But zombies have achieved huge popularity because they are also comic in a horrific way: extreme ghoulishness acts as a shield against despair.
The mutation zombies undergo is more terrifying and also more drastic than the shifting of shapes that takes place in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Do you think that our fascination with the total extermination of selfhood in the zombie is the sign of a darker age of violence in which we live?
Yes. Ovid is very clear, through Pythagoras’s speech in the Metamorphoses, that the unique, individual spirit survives inside the change of shape. The tragedy for his transformed subjects, like Actaeon or Io, is that in their animal form they can no longer speak… language being a supreme sign of the human, acting as the supreme wager against oblivion (and he was right, we have not forgotten him). The rise of the bloodthirsty zombie does reflect the widespread threat of nonentity. But it’s also a riposte, energetic and rude and, as I said before, comic.
A number of contemporary filmic retellings of fairy tales such as Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011) and Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves (2012) which you discuss in Once Upon A Time are marked by an eerie atmosphere and a sense of impending doom. The same can be said of Matteo Garrone’s 2015 filmic appropriation of the Neapolitan Giambattista Basile’s A Tale of Tales, which has been described as a “triptych of fairy tales for adults”. Do you feel that our current canon of fairy tales is now made up of stories that are more suitable for adult audiences rather than for children?
I am longing to see the Garrone film, it hasn’t come to the UK yet, alas. Basile’s book is raunchy, extravagant, sophisticated, sly and a superb example of wild baroque style – not at all suitable for children and quite beyond their grasp. Angela Carter said about her l979 collection The Bloody Chamber that she wanted to expose the latent content of fairy tales. And, since then, we can’t look back and become oblivious again. I welcome this new material, on film or in other media. There are lots of wonderfully inventive narratives created specifically for children – sometimes they borrow fairy tale motifs and adapt the plots, as with Frozen and the Shrek series. Other writers work a different vein, such as The Hobbit. We’re fortunate that the fantastic tradition is so inexhaustibly rich.
You will be taking part in this year’s Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. In a culture in which the power of images seems to have a much greater impact than the power of words, how important is it for writers to participate in literature festivals and to uphold the written word?
We are developing a new literary culture of performance – writers are increasingly asked to talk and read and lecture and appear in person. This goes with the growth of digital media and their capacity to transmit images as well as sound and text. In many ways, we now resemble pre-print culture when many, if not most, people heard poems and stories and philosophical texts and not everyone could read and certainly couldn’t afford books of their own.
This trend interests me: it fits with my own long engagement with myths and legends and material that keeps moving between media, visual and aural as well as textual.
There’s never been a clear divide between orature and literature, but a constant interplay. So I am not at all against this development, except that I wish author’s personalities weren’t the lens through which readers understand the work.
I like encountering a work when I don’t know a thing about the person who made it. Imagine if we knew that Homer was a complete bastard.
Gloria Lauri-Lucente is deputy dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Malta.
The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival takes place at 8pm between Thursday and Saturday at the Piazza d’Armi, Fort St Elmo, Valletta. Besides Marina Warner, the following writers are also taking part: Tamim Barghouthi, John Bonello, Norbert Bugeja, Efe Duyan, Moëz Majed, Hisham Matar, Nadia Mifsud, Jana Putrle Srdic, James Vella and Trevor Zahra. Entrance is free and the event is supported by the Malta Arts Fund.
‘Libya is being eaten up by the disease of revenge’ | Hisham Matar
Ahead of his participation at this year’s edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, world-famous Libyan writer Hisham Matar speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the genesis of his acclaimed novels In the Country of Men and Anatomy of Disappearance, and the writer’s role in making sense of the Libyan crisis
The reaction to In the Country of Men was pretty explosive – both from critics and fellow novelists, such as JM Coetzee. How did it feel to get such glowing recognition for your debut, and what kind of nerve do you think it struck?
It was wonderful that the book gained the appreciation of authors whose work I admire and respect, such as Mr Coetzee. But the biggest reward did not come from praise or prizes, but from the pleasure and challenge of writing the book itself. I enjoy my work, and get pleasure from the daily toil. It’s hard work, but it is deeply rewarding. This is why if I have any advice to a young author it is to work and enjoy the work. Everything else is extra. As to why the book did well, I am the wrong person to ask, but I would say perhaps because of its sentences and what they are about. All worthwhile books reach into a silence, and in that sense mine is no different.
How would you describe the progression from In the Country of Men to Anatomy of a Disappearance? In terms of the ratio of autobiography to fiction, and in terms of both their formal make-up and their commentary on the state of Libya, how do you think they differ and/or feed off each other?
Whereas In the Country of Men focuses on a rupture and its consequences, Anatomy of a Disappearance is concerned with how to endure loss, how an absence can often seem a presence. Both novels are part of a similar territory, but approach it differently. They are both, of course, books from a son’s point of view, and are about sons and fathers, as is my third book, which will be out next year, and is my nonfiction contribution to this theme. Its title is The Return, and it takes as its starting point my visit to Libya in 2012, which was the first time I returned to Libya in thirty-three years.
Having been exposed to arguably some of the highest echelons of contemporary literary culture – by dint of the awards you’ve both won and been shortlisted for, as well as being published by the likes of Penguin – how would you describe the state of literary fiction today?
It would be hard and probably inaccurate to give a general view. For what it’s worth, my impression is rather positive. I think the appetite for serious fiction is there, and, if anything, authors and publishers stand more of a risk of underestimating it.
It is exactly because of the internet and television, and all the other distractions, that the need for a more considered and deeper engagement with nature, narrative, ideas and history is made more urgent and necessary. If I have a criticism, it is for the current obsession with identity, by which I mean an unjustifiable focus on the provincial characteristics of a work of literature rather than its universal value.
What role could your work, and Libyan contemporary literature, can play in the much needed reconciliation process in Libya, which is plagued by deep divisions (tribal, regional, political etc.)?
Libya is being eaten up by the disease of revenge. In her 1847 masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë writes, “Treachery and violence are spears pointed at both ends – they wound those who resort to them worse than their enemies.” If you want to see a vivid example of this, look at Libya today.
Literature helps you to see both ends of that spear. It trains one’s ability to analyze and empathize with both sides of an argument, and therefore can increase the territory of compassion.
It would be too simplistic to say that if people read more, they would fight less. History does not bear this out. But I think reading great literature is an integral part of an individual’s education. It, together with the other arts, is central to the peace and prosperity of society, not least of all because of its ability to make us sympathise with characters who are entirely different from us, and therefore literature can acquaint us with the fundamental truth about human nature, that we all share essential qualities, and that what binds us together is far more significant than what divides us.
Given that your father was abducted and handed to Libyan secret services and his whereabouts are still unknown, how easy is it to forgive, reconcile and live next door to enemies?
Forgiveness is never easy. It’s not a passive or weak activity, but rather an active engagement with the past. It cannot be a one-way street, though. One needs accountability and remorse. In other words, what’s important is the recognition of the injustice, by which I mean an understanding on the part of the perpetrator of the extent and measure of their crime, the consequences of their action. But, yes, before all this, there is a private liberation that can be attained, one not hinged on anyone else. And perhaps for this reason it is the most difficult. It is gained only through silent, solitary steps, until the heart shifts its hunger for revenge into a desire for forgiveness.
Is the cycle of hate, antagonism and violence that has gripped the country inevitable or will it return to normality?
I said during the revolution that it would be much easier to defeat Gaddafi in the battlefield than in our psyche, where he still lives. Gaddafi not only ruled the country for two generations, but he was engaged in a project of re-educating the populous, instilling a misguided understanding of power, where authority is exercised through coercion, humiliation and violence, rather than negotiation, compromise and mutual respect.
These days, I’m as despairing as the next man, but I know history must take its course and once the vying factions tire, they would have to do the only sensible thing, which is to sit and talk. The tragedy is that in the meantime, cataclysmic damage is being inflicted on the people and their young.
Hisham Matar will be reading at the Xth edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, by Inizjamed at Fort St Elmo, in Valletta, on August 27, 28 and 29. The readings start at 20:00, entrance is free. On Friday, Matar will read from his novels and answer questions by Albert Gatt.
The Festival, part of the Literature Across Frontiers initiative, is supported by the Malta Arts Fund, Heritage Malta, Arts Council Malta, Valletta 2018, Għaqda tal-Malti – Università, The Fortress Builders, Aġenzija Żgħażagħ, Malta Tourism Authority, Centre for Slovenian Literature, Slovenian Book Agency, and Reel