Fabulous erudition marks this intricate study of the classic tales of wonder. Novelist and scholar Warner (Indigo, 1992; Monuments and Maidens, 1985; etc.) avows her sympathy for the fairy tales and tale-tellers on whom she focuses her keen feminist lens. Warner begins by arguing for the centrality to European fairy-tale culture, since ancient times, of old women, both as the oral historians who have passed it on and as key characters in its iconography. Reviled by some, the crones whom Warner spotlights nevertheless appear in formidable guises. Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, turns out to be the patron saint of gossips; her attributes survive in fairy tale figures (e.g., fairy godmothers). In a tour de force of scholarly speculation, Warner links the Queen of Sheba, whose riddles were the stuff of legend and who was known for her singular deformity of a webbed foot, to Mother Goose herself. Thus reweaving our understanding of the cultural unconscious, Warner draws on psychoanalysis, on philology, and on a trenchant feminism. While some connections seem stretched, for the most part these threads blend smoothly. The second part of Warner's book analyzes the tales themselves. ``Bluebeard,'' ``Beauty and the Beast,'' and ``Donkeyskin,'' a little-discussed tale of a girl's escape from incest, are the central exhibits. Occasionally Warner lapses into self-indulgence, as in a reverie on the blue of Bluebeard's beard (``the marvellous . . . rare steak . . . melancholy . . . orgone energy''). But her genuine originality shows in her ability to wring fresh psychoanalytic insight out of texts that have been in intensive analysis for decades. The discussion of feet developed in passages on the Queen of Sheba, for example, casts new light on Cinderella's glass slipper; the golden hair and archetypal beasts named in the title are illuminated in similarly provocative ways. One factor contributing to this originality is Warner's astute readings of artworks throughout this sumptuously illustrated book. Marvelously energetic cultural criticism.