Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Marina Warner speaks at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Today I had the great privilege of hearing Marina Warner give an inspiring and engaging talk on The Fairy Way of Writing as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The event was sold out, and a diverse queue of people had already snaked around half of Charlotte's Square, home of the festival, when I arrived. Conversation in the queue was excited, lively and intelligent, and at the end of the talk audience members asked very insightful questions; I don't think I've ever been in a room full of so many people passionate about fairy tales. What a buzz!

crowds gather in Charlotte's Square at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
Charlotte Square. Image source: Edinburgh International Book Festival
After a glowing introduction, Warner began by talking about the 'territory of enchantment' and the language of imagination. She highlighted the importance of children in the transmission of stories, as historically they would have been the ones to more easily pick up new languages and introduce their stories to the new places they arrived in. The transmission of fairy tales can be mapped like trade routes in this way. And yet, despite this, it is impossible to know how and where they started.

She played us a beautiful ballad by Emily Portman, 'Two Sisters' (The Glamoury, 2010) based on the story of the singing bone. This was used to show that the story itself is not only a fairy tale, but the singing bone (in the form of a harp) is transmitting its own fairy tale, sharing its learned experience to a new audience. The act of the tale within the tale itself.

Warner took us on a whirlwind journey through time to link the tales to the tellers and the situation of the telling, from the 15th century, through the familiar names of d'Aulnoy, Perrault, Grimm (and most pertinently to her audience today, Lang) right up to the present day where we have women at the helm in Disney's animation studios. Particular note was given to Jennifer Lee, screenwriter and co-director of Frozen.

girls react positively to female empowerment messages in Frozen
image source: incredible gifts

Some good points were made about Frozen; it is the highest grossing Disney film of all time, and girls have reacted positively to the messages of female solidarity. I do wonder why, then, we're still seeing the girls dress up and idolise Elsa rather than Anna (the rescuee rather than the rescuer) ...but then my less sceptical side reminds me that Elsa has magic powers, and that must be pretty awesome and factor into the equation somewhat!

One thing I never would have expected was an interpretation of Frozen as a commentary on our state of mind in the digital age. Elsa is stuck in the idea of her own image, and that limits her abilities socially (like the obsession with how we come across on social media platforms such as Facebook) until with a little bit of passion and dynamism she is able to live life fully in the moment (not worrying about how it will later look uploaded!) and she thaws and is able to enjoy herself more because of it.

platform 9 3/4 is the gateway to the territory of enchantment and wonderment in the universe of Harry Potter
image source: collider
I was also pleased to hear her critique Richard Dawkins and his comments last year, when he berated parents for reading fairy tales to children. You can read her full counter attack on The Observer website. Without going into that argument (we've all done it already), Warner reiterated her counter argument on behalf of team fairy tale perfectly: we don't all go and queue up in King's Cross Station because we believe that if we push that luggage cart handle we'll be transported to Platform 9 3/4; we do it because we believe it will be fun to pretend.

And it is that belief that makes us come back time and time again to the territory of enchantment and wonderment. We may not know how it started, but I'm pretty sure it will never end.

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