Lt 912 The Tale: Tellings and Re-Tellings Spring Term 2012 Marina Warner Aims and objectives

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Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies

LT 912 The Tale: Tellings and Re-Tellings

Spring Term 2012

Marina Warner

Aims and objectives:

  • To offer creative readings in shorter fictions

  • To inspire new writing in the tradition of fabulism

  • To read towards a definition of the tale, uncovering its ways and manners, characteristic modes and tone, plots and motifs.

  • To look at the role of the tale in the making of cultural identity and its range of meanings and applications for contemporary experience


A tale is told: there is a feeling of the voice of the narrator or character carrying across time. Tales meet what Margaret Atwood calls the aim of literature: ‘negotiating with the dead.’ A form of short story, a tale uses the techniques of realism to enter dimensions of experience beyond reality: myths, legends, and fairy stories take the form of tales.

This course offers creative readings in such shorter narratives, both in prose and in verse, in order to inspire new writing in the long and marvellous tradition of tale-telling and fabulism. We will read some of the key writers as we work towards a definition of the tale, uncovering its ways and conventions, characteristic modes and tone, plots and motifs. We will also look at its role in the making of cultural identity and its range of meanings and applications for contemporary experience. The Tale does not constitute a genre in itself, but inheres in different genres – fantasy, ghost stories, science-fiction, parable, fairytale, and magical realism. Writing a story by telling a tale has inspired dazzling inventions – by writers such as Franz Kafka, H.G. Wells, Jorge Luis Borges, Leonora Carrington, Elizabeth Bowen, Nikolai Leskov, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter. It has also frequently involved re-tellings and re-visionings. The Renaissance tradition of ‘imitatio’ (for example Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Hero and Leander’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis’) has regained fresh vigour with translations and versions of ancient texts today (Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Cook, Anne Carson). By twisting and reshaping old materials, reconfiguring and disfiguring traditional plots and motifs, many authors, besides those already mentioned above, have seized the fabulous inheritance and enriched it – for example, Edgar Allan Poe; Robert Louis Stevenson; Isak Dinesen). Students will be encouraged to bring to the course their own experience of reading such fictions. Writing assignments can be done in either prose or verse.

Final work of this course will include one, or more tales, to a total length of between three and six thousand words in prose or verse, and an accompanying essay of between three and four thousand words, setting out the background to this creative work, its sources, inspiration, and so forth. By immersing ourselves in this genre of fictional narrative, we shall work towards adding to the fabulous inheritance of The Tale.

Each class will include discussion of the tales from the reading list, writing exercises, and further discussion and exchanges about them.


Week 16 Imitation & Disfiguration (Marlowe; Shakespeare; Zachary Mason; Alice Oswald)

Week 17 Translation (Seamus Heaney; Anne Carson)

Week 18 Re-visioning (Elizabeth Cook; Margaret Atwood)

Week 19 Masquerade and Performance (Oscar Wilde; Isak Dinesen; Angela Carter)

Week 20 Gothic (Lucy Lane Clifford; Leonora Carrington)

Week 21 Hauntings & Doubles 1 (Robert Louis Stevenson; Adolfo Bioy Casares)

Week 22 Hauntings & Doubles 2 (E.T.A.Hoffmann; Edgar Allan Poe; Charles Chesnutt)

Week 23 Parable and Allegory (Franz Kafka; Nikolai Leskov)

Week 24 Fable & Fabrication (Jorge Luis Borges)

Week 25 Science & Prophecy (H.G.Wells; Elizabeth Bowen)

Primary texts (a course reader will be provided but it does not include ALL the readings. The tales marked with an * asterisk ARE included.

But please make sure you read the other texts as well, either in copies from the Library or on the web. And do read more if you can of any of these writers and bring your thoughts to the discussion.

*Atwood, Margaret. ‘Nightingale’ from The Tent (2007)

Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Storyteller’, from Illuminations

Bioy Casares, Adolfo, The Invention of Morel (l940)

*Borges , Jorge Luis. ‘The Garden of the Forking Paths’ and ‘The Circular Ruins’ from Labyrinths (l956-64)

*Bowen, Elizabeth. ‘The Demon Lover’ from Complete Short Stories.

Carson, Anne, Autobiography of Red (1999)

*Carter, Angela. The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter’, and ‘Flesh and the Mirror’, from Fireworks (l974).

*Chesnutt, Charles, ‘Po’ Sandy’, from The Conjure Woman (l899)

* Clifford , Lucy Lane .‘The New Mother’ (1882) from Alison Lurie, ed., The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales (Oxford, 1993)

Cook, Elizabeth. Achilles (2001)

* Dinesen, Isak. ‘The Monkey’ Seven Gothic Tales (l934)

Heaney, Seamus, trans., The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables by Robert Henryson (2004)

*Hoffmann, E.T.A., ‘The Sandman’ from The Golden Pot and Other Tales, trans. Ritchie Robertson (Oxford: World’s Classics, l992)

Kafka, Franz. ‘In the Penal Colony’, ‘A Hunger Artist’, ‘The Great Wall of China’ from Complete Short Stories

* Leskov, Nikolai, 'The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea' from Short Stories

Marlowe, Christopher, ‘Hero and Leander’, 16th c. (extracts on web)

*Mason, Zachary, The Lost Books of the Odyssey (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011) (extracts)

Oswald, Alice, Memorial (London: Faber, 2011)

*Poe, Edgar Allan, ‘William Wilson’ from The Complete Tales and Poems (Penguin, l982)

Shakespeare, ‘Venus and Adonis’ (see for example

*Stevenson, R.L., ‘Thrawn Janet’ (see )

*Wells, H.G., ‘The Door in the Wall’; and another from his Complete Short Stories

*Wilde, Oscar, ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ from The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888)

Further Reading

Atwood, Margaret The Penelopiad (London, 2006)

Atwood, Margaret, Negotiating with the Dead (

Bernheimer, Kate, ed., Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales (2002)

Calasso, Roberto. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, trans. Tim Parks (1993)

Hearn, Lafcadio .Karma and other Tales (1921)

Keats, John. ‘Lamia’ ( see )

Kincaid, Jamaica. ‘Wingless’, and ‘My Mother’, from At the Bottom of the River (c.1978-84).

Kleist, Heinrich von ,‘The Marquise von O’ from The Marquise von O – and other stories. Trans. David Luke and Nigel Reeves (l978)

Lee, Vernon. Supernatural Tales

Park, Christine and Caroline Heaton, eds., Caught in a Story; Contemporary Fairytales and Fables (London, l992)

Terry, Philip, ed. Ovid Metamorphosed

Warner, Marina, Mermaids in the Basement (l994), short stories.
Warner, Marina, Murderers I Have Known (2002), short stories.
Warner, Marina, The Leto Bundle (2000), novel.
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