Likely Stories: Wonder Tales by Marina Warner

Feb 7, 2019

French fairy tales to delight children and adults alike


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Recently, my bride and I stumbled on a fantastic used book store in Eastern Texas.  The owner estimated he had over 100,000 books in his shop and perhaps an equal number in a nearby warehouse.  To say this was a treasure trove of collectable books could not be over-exaggerated. We only had time for a short visit, but we walked away with about 60 books.  Something like this rarely happens.  One of our purchases was a small book titled Wonder Tales.  This slim volume was about 6-1/2 x 5 inches, and it contains six French fairy tales.  Each was translated by a separate writer.  For instance, John Ashbery and A.S. Byatt.  These two alone made this a real treasure. 

In the first story, “The White Cat” by Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy and translated by John Ashbery, is my clear favorite.  It tells the story of a king with three sons.  He wants to retire, but he also wants to test the young men to see who was most fit to take over the kingdom.  The first test requires each of the sons to find the cutest puppy.  They have a year to return and have their choices offered to the king.  The youngest son is perplexed about the test.  He stumbles on a castle ruled by cats.  Ashbery writes, “The prince spent this year doing what he had done in the preceding ones, that is to say in hunting, fishing, and gaming, for the White Cat was an excellent chess player.  From time to time he couldn’t resist plying her with new questions, so as to know by what miracle she was able to speak.  He asked her if she was a fairy, or whether someone had transformed her into a cat; but she never said anything but what she wished to say, neither did she answer anything but what she wished to answer, which were random words signifying nothing, so that he had no trouble concluding that she didn’t choose to share her secrets with him” (38-39).  This is a long but absorbing story, with quite a wonderful ending.

My next favorite tale is “The Great Green Worm” also by Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy and translated by A.S. Byatt.  She writes, “There was once a great queen who gave birth to twin daughters, and immediately invited twelve neighboring fairies to visit, and to make gifts to the little girls, as was the custom in those days—a very good custom, since the power of the fairies set to rights almost every thing that nature had spoiled; although sometimes, it must be admitted, this power spoiled what nature had made perfectly well” (189).  This tale reminds me of the Greek myth of Dis, who was not invited to a banquet of other deities.  Because she was not invited, she tossed a golden apple into the middle of the table and said, ‘Only the most beautiful among you can possess this golden apple.’  A squabble among Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite caused an uproar. 

Another tale of interest is “The Subtle Princess” by Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier De Villandon translated by Gilbert Adair.  This tale resembles “Rapunzel of the Golden Hair, except that three princesses were confined to a tower.”

If you love fairy tales, and have become quite acquainted with the Grimm Brothers, Marina Warner’s Wonder Tales will more than fill your appetite for knights and ladies, princesses and princes.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!