This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 15th–31st August 2015 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
Marina Warner and Kirsty Logan’s discussion took place on 24th August 2015.

by Naomi Richards

In 2014 Marina Warner almost magically compressed the history of the fairy tale into a pocketsize history, Once Upon A Time (Oxford University Press). This evening at the Edinburgh International Book Festival chaired by Charlotte Higgins, Warner is paired with the contemporary fairy tale writer Kirsty Logan. Logan has always been drawn to working with folklore, something I found out when I interviewed her about her earlier book of urban fairy tales, A Rental Heart (Salt, 2014). In her newly released collection of inter-related modern fairy tales, A Portable Shelter (Association for Scottish Literary Studies 2015), Logan  inventively blends aspects of Scottish and Scandinavian folktales in a beautiful limited edition book, written during her time on the Gavin Wallace Fellowship at Glasgow University.

Logan firstly introduces ‘The Keep’, a re-telling of Bluebeard, with a touch of humour, saying she often thought of stories when she was “half asleep or half drunk” or both. This immediately relaxes the audience. Then Logan goes on to talk about how the story came about; the idea of making things “small”, moving from the Gothic castle that we associate with Bluebeard to the caravan. Carefully she opens her blue linen bound copy of A Portable Shelter and begins to read:

We started with a ring. We thought she would like that…

The unusual narrators of ‘The Keep’ are the disembodied voices of dead women speaking like a Greek chorus: “We hid in the smallest cupboards and listened.” There is anarchic energy in the language, full of compound adjectives: sunny-joyful, slyfoot, clatter-clash, twist-tangled and the click-clack of her thoughts, as well as brutal descriptions of death: “our straight white bones and our tender mauve organs.” Throughout the reading I am aware of the intense concentration of the audience and I can’t help thinking about the original oral transmission of fairy tales and the power within that process. After the story finishes we are left, as Higgins says, “with all the dark things.” What follows is a lively discussion of the Bluebeard story. Warner mentions how symbols act as sort of time machines generating new forms, so that a story itself is a portable shelter of reoccurring images and fairy tale tropes. Stories teach us on an emotional level what it means to be alive at a particular time.

It is true that a combination of fairy tales and comic books often form our earliest reading experiences and are combined with the images we absorb from book illustrations. In a sense, this provides writers with a magic carpet bagful of ideas, which they can pull out to furnish a page. The dedication of A Portable Shelter reads:

To Dad –
For taking me to the great grey-green greasy Limpopo river
all set about with fever trees.

It refers to Logan’s early memories of childhood holidays spent in Nigeria — with her father, reading Kipling’s Just So Stories. The elements of the tale, as Logan points out, the castle, the house, the forest and the sea, are all around us. I agree, in a sense we are all still wearing glass slippers.

The discussion moves onto the urban fairy tale, fairy tales that are alive with the mention of Aleister Crowley, Jimmy Page, “cool brands”, Little Chef and Alton Towers: the urban landscape of so many contemporary fairy tales. Unlike the arcadia presented in Disney and other cleaned up versions, Warner believes the modern fairy tale needs to go into the “psycho-geography of the streets”. It ties in with Warner’s ideas in a recent podcast, ‘Learning My Lesson’, for the London Review of Books, where she highlighted the decline in university arts education in favour of courses that bring in more revenue.[1] Re-writing fairy tales, she urges, both preserves a cultural heritage but also challenges its ideas.

What is real and not real, true and not true is often played with in fairy tales. In Logan’s story ‘EX’, the boy narrator insists that this is not a story because this is not how stories work, “but sometimes things just happen.” Characters often step outside their story frames in Logan’s new book as well to comment on the narrative: “what a neat story, but it wasn’t really like that” and then try to start a new story for themselves. The narrator in ‘Cutting Teeth’, for example, says: “There’s no such thing as a true story.” This may be true but undoubtedly there is a longing for stories to increase our emotional understanding and to help us make sense of the world. A Portable Shelter is partly about the way we create and re-create narratives. This could be the function of dreams as well as the imagination. It also crosses over to real life. Logan gives an example from her life: On a holiday trip to the Isle of Staffa she noticed some strange looking boulders in the sea. These mythological rocks, the story goes, were thrown into the sea by giants which, to Logan, makes more immediate sense than biological or geological explanations. Stories, after all, have always been used to explain and deepen mysteries as well as making our world more interesting.

Most of us grow up with a sense of history, and history and myth can easily become entwined. I can’t help thinking of this as the discussion turns to Herodotus (C.485-425 BC). He is thought of as both the father of history and the father of lies. Warner points out that Herodotus was the first to categorize the phoenix and then adds, which is “probably not historical”, at which the audience laughs. Throughout his Histories, Herodotus peppered his prose with phrases such as “whether this is really so I do not know, but I write that which is reported; and nothing is impossible” (4th book of the Histories), which has similarities with the attitude towards stories expressed by some of the narrators in A Portable Shelter.

Then the microphone is picked up for questions. Perhaps surprisingly for an evening on fairy tales, the first question focuses on Warner’s attack on neo-liberal economics. In answer, Warner re-emphasises the importance of stewardship in the arts. This is followed by a man asking for more details about the male transmission of fairy tales; he mentions he is thinking about his daughter. Warner adds, half-jokingly, that women unlike men have already found their loom — Angela Carter explored male fantasies and also wrote about tricky feminine heroines. Logan agrees and says it is important for women to inhabit their own stories.

The final question of the evening takes us back to the contemporary noise from fairy tales, this time in best-sellers, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, whose sexual perversity has all the blueness of Bluebeard. “Is Fifty Shades of Grey really Bluebeard in disguise?”, a member of the audience is determined to find out. Warner pauses and then says:  “Bluebeard — yeah.”

Charlotte Higgins has given us much more than what she promised at the beginning, a look “at the story in its most basic and perhaps most beautiful form — the fairy tale.” It also confirmed that the fairy tale is one of the most flexible and radically controversial forms of storytelling.


[1] London Review of Books, Vol. 37 No. 6 · 19 March 2015
pages 8-14; you can listen to the podcast here.


  1. Good piece! I like its immediacy and the way it uses the present tense to give you a sense of actually being there. You sense the writer really feels the vibrancy of story in its ‘most basic … and most beautiful form’ and is keen to communicate that! Has me heading towards the bookshelves …

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