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The Absent Mother: Women Against Women in Old Wives' Tales

Never-never land? Marina Warner delves into the world of fairy stories to discover a historical context of family discord and feminine assertiveness in the adventures of Snow White and Cinderella.

Plato defined fairytales, in the oldest theory about them, as tales told by nurses. Possibly the earliest story extant that recognisably anticipates the classic fairytales – Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast – is Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche, interpolated in his metaphysical comedy, The Golden Ass, written in the second century AD. In the novel, a young bride is captured by bandits and separated from her husband and thrown into a cave; there, a disreputable old woman chooses to tell her the story of Psyche's troubles before she reaches happiness and marriage with Cupid. It is 'an old wives' tale', she says, (anilis fabula) and it will distract her from her troubles.

Charles Perrault, in his preface to the fourth edition of his classic collection of fairytales, first published in 1695, under the title Contes du Temps Passe or Contes de ma Mere l'Oye, issued an apologia on their behalf, linking them explicitly to the comic tradition of Milesian tales to which Apuleius belongs, and comparing his own directly with Cupid and Psyche: It is 'une fiction toute pure et un conte de vieille comme celuy de Peau-d'Ane (Donkeyskin)', which was also told, he went on, by old women, grandmothers and governesses to the children in their charge. However, the moral of Cupid and Psyche is impenetrable, he wrote, while his own is patently clear.

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