This essay was my final project for The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic‘s witches in folklore and literature course, delivered by Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman. The course was extremely informative and fun, and a great opportunity to share ideas with like-minded people. I highly recommend keeping an eye out for their future courses.
Credit to Sara and Brittany for presenting the theory that the princess in the fairy tale ‘All Kinds of Fur’ could also be described as a witch. This resonated strongly with my own analysis of the story, hence why I chose to explore the matter further in my final project.
WARNING: CONTAINS REFERENCE TO POTENTIALLY TRIGGERING TOPICS (INCEST/RAPE/ABUSE/MISCARRIAGE)
As a child, my dressing up box was exclusively tailored towards transforming me into two things: a princess or a witch. These two masquerades could never coexist. The princess was what I wanted to be when I grew up; beautiful, admired, gracious (and hopefully with a handsome prince by my side!) I had my own Cinderella story planned out, certain that one day I would leave my mundane childhood behind and step into the world of the ball. On the other hand, the witch costume was only permitted to be worn on Halloween. The one time of the year which has no place for pretty; when darkness and magic reign and impossible things can happen. When I could forget my fairy tale ending and imagine being a cunning, powerful woman who was feared instead of adored.
The princess and the witch are both appealing characters, but for different reasons. In her article ‘The Princess and the Witch,’ Kat Howard notes that as a child she identified with the princess because she wanted to be ‘the girl at the heart of the story.’ Now as an adult, Kat reflects that she ‘want[s] to be the witch’ instead, because witches hold all the power. They make the stories, and know all the secrets like ‘what cup not to drink from’ and ‘will tell you, but only if you deserve to know.’ Backing this up, Kay Turner writes that witches have ‘unusual propensity for agency’ and ‘seem to take secret delight in going it alone in those cottages deep in the woods.’ Unlike the princess, who lets the story revolve around her, the witch makes her own decisions.
However, some fairy tale princesses manage to successfully adopt both sets of character traits and be the embodiment of the princess and the witch. They display agency and magical ability, whilst simultaneously remaining at the heart of the story and not dismissing their royal heritage. One example of such a princess can be found in the fairy tale ‘All Kinds of Fur’ (or ‘Allerleirauh’ in German), which was collected by the Grimm Brothers.
‘All Kinds of Fur’ is an often overlooked fairy tale, mainly because it includes the heavy topics of incest and abuse. In short, the protagonist, a princess, chooses to flee from her home when her father forcefully declares his intent to marry her and there is ‘no more hope to change [his] mind.’ She disguises herself as a furry animal, and gets a job in a palace kitchen. She courts the king of the palace, and at the end of the story marries him. However, like her father, he is far from kind and even goes so far as to physically abuse her in some versions. Furthermore, some versions also fail to differentiate between All Kinds of Fur’s father and the new king she marries, leaving readers to decide whether she actually escaped or not.
Controversial relationships aside, it is undeniable that All Kinds of Fur is not a typical princess. She proves she is capable of controlling her fate when she chooses to run away from her father, and the preparations she makes for this are also quite witchlike. She manages to fit ‘three dresses from the sun, moon, and stars into a nutshell’ to take with her. In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar notes that ‘the three dresses are affiliated with celestial bodies…and point to a connection with the heavens as well as with creatures on earth.’ Not only is she magically storing her clothes in a nutshell; the clothes themselves also connect her to traditionally magical and natural entities. Things which belong more in the realm of the witch than the princess. The final garment All Kinds of Fur takes with her is ‘a cloak of all kinds of fur,’ which she requested her father make by taking fur from all the animals in the kingdom. She put on the cloak, and ‘blackened her hands and face with soot,’ showing she is not afraid to be unsightly and dirty, which again is very witchlike. Witches are more likely to be ugly than princesses; there are few Baba Yagas to be found in the royal palace. Tatar says of the cloak that it ‘connects her with nature and with creatures in the forest where she finds refuge,’ and that its ‘gross animal form…masks a spiritual power.’ All Kinds of Fur’s cloak is more than a mere disguise. It transforms her into a strange, mystical creature who does not have a place in society. By wearing it she has chosen to remove herself from being a princess and instead entrust her life to the forest where she hides. In the world of fairy tales, the forest is the witch’s domain. She rules it, for good or ill, and those who enter risk peril. But not All Kinds of Fur. For her, the forest is a haven.
As well as her mysterious talent for hiding ballgowns in nutshells, All Kinds of Fur is also an excellent cook. Moreover, she is not afraid to use this skill to gain shelter. She finds work in a royal kitchen, where she makes soup for the king which is so good that the chef resents her for it. They even go so far as to call her ‘a witch, you furry animal.’ Judging from her horrid appearance and her mysterious culinary skills, the people around her do not perceive her to be anything other than a witch. Yet All Kinds of Fur hasn’t forgotten her heritage. She uses the celestial gowns to secretly attend balls and court the king, and when she is alone asks herself ‘oh, you beautiful princess, what will become of you?’ Both sides of her life are disguises. Where children choose to dress up as princesses and witches, this real princess is also choosing to dress up until she decides who she truly wants to be. Her liminal time as the furry creature is, as Marina Warner puts it in From the Beast to the Blonde, a ‘transitional stage’ which ‘hides her successfully’ and gives her the time to heal after the distress her father caused her.
At the end of the story, albeit at the harsh intervention of the new king, All Kinds of Fur removes the cloak and returns to being the princess. Personally, I can’t help wondering whether this is a truly happy ending. In true witchlike fashion, All Kinds of Fur seems to enjoy the anonymity of being the mysterious furry creature and creating her own destiny. At every opportunity she has to reveal her identity to the king, she lies and says ‘I do not know anything’ about the items she has magically hidden in his soup. After the third time, the king ‘grabbed the cloak and tore it off’ and she was ‘no longer able to hide,’ her healing time comes to a vicious, abrupt end which is not on her terms. She does not appear willing to give up her freedom, and the new king is not much better than the father she initially escaped from. She had the agency to run away, but now it has been taken from her.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR ROBIN MCKINLEY’S NOVEL DEERSKIN BELOW
The novel Deerskin by Robin McKinley, which is a retelling of Charles Perrault’s ‘Donkeyskin,’ features a no less peculiar, plucky princess. Just like All Kinds of Fur, Lissar has strong witchlike traits. She isolates herself from the royal court, instead preferring the company of her dog and an elderly woman who teaches her gardening. The courtiers refer to this woman as ‘a dirty, uncouth old woman, some herb-hag,’ and believe there is ‘something amiss about the princess’ because she does not act as they think a princess should. Lissar is outcast to the point that when her father declares his desire to marry her, she is called ‘witch-daughter’ and blamed for bewitching him with madness ‘to devastate his country.’ Lissar’s witchy status has two sides: the harmless reality, which is her love of animals and plants and her innocent, timid nature which isolates her from the rest of the palace, and how the courtiers perceive her, as being quietly powerful, ‘evil,’ and seeking her kingdom’s downfall. Neither side fits the image of a fairy tale princess.
Like All Kinds of Fur, Lissar also shows agency by running away from her father. However, she has a great deal more to run from after he violently rapes her and she suffers a miscarriage alone in the wilderness. She is saved by the intervention of the Moonwoman, an ethereal being who seeks to help those ‘who wish to make a choice for themselves instead of for those around them.’ The Moonwoman’s backstory is similar to Lissar’s; she too was a princess, and refused all suitors on account of them not really loving her and only wanting her to gain her father’s kingdom. After being raped by one of the suitors and rejected by her father, she ‘fled to the moon, and lived there, alone with her dog.’ In fleeing, both Lissar and the Moonwoman chose to defy the wishes of the powerful men around them and claim their lives for themselves. Moreover, both find refuge outside of society with their dogs instead of with other humans. Lissar goes to the desolate mountains and forests, and the Moonwoman to the moon. These lonely, mystical places are witch’s worlds; the moon especially has strong connections to nature, magic, and feminine power because of its cycles. Many cultures across the world worship moon goddesses, such as Selene and Luna in Greek and Roman mythology, and the Chinese Chang’e and other variations of her story across Asian countries. Throughout the novel, Lissar and the Moonwoman become synonymous. The people around Lissar call her ‘Moonwoman,’ and they trust her and her dogs to take care of them. Her agency leads her to a new life where she is accepted, in spite of having magical connotations.
The Moonwoman gives Lissar a deerskin dress, and when arriving in a new kingdom she calls herself ‘Deerskin.’ Like All Kinds of Fur, she too is not afraid to use her skills to earn shelter and employment. But instead of cooking, Lissar’s skills lie with dogs. She works in the royal palace, caring for a group of puppies which no-one believes would survive without her ‘gift’ for nursing them. Having an affinity for animals is another witchlike trait. Throughout history, many people have been accused of witchcraft for merely keeping pets, the idea behind this being that they are familiars (spirits in animal form who assist witches with magical tasks). For Lissar, although everyone thinks her gift is strange, no-one criticises her for it. She is still an outsider but because she chooses to be, as opposed to in her father’s court where she was rejected for her differences.
Lissar’s return to being the princess is gradual. Being Deerskin provides her with time and anonymity to process the trauma she has endured. When the time comes for her to reclaim her life, the emotions she has kept hidden physically manifest themselves and she becomes the full embodiment of the witch. When she next sees her father, she does not baulk from returning the hurt he caused her in a graphic, gory spectacle. It is when Lissar is her most witchlike, gathering her innate strength to finally address and expel the memories she has been too afraid to face. This is a messy, disturbing process, filled with fire, blood, and screaming, which matches the horror she suffered. Her actions are akin to conducting a ritual or casting a spell. Her skin seeped blood, and she ‘touched her hands to the red shining pool’ and ‘raised one finger and drew a red line down her cheek.’ Her hands ‘began to glow’ and her dogs were ‘pressing around her.’ When she speaks, it is not with the timid personality of the princess she once was but with a voice of conviction and power, and her words are like that of a spell; ‘I return to you now all that you did give me: all the rage and the terror, the pain and the hatred that should have been love.’ In witchcraft, blood is a potent substance because of its connections to life. It is also associated with fear, pain, death, and fertility, making it intrinsic to everyone’s existence. The patterns of Lissar’s blood on the floor later ‘came to be declared an oracle,’ showing the strength of her declaration and the power in the blood she sheds.
Despite people’s faith in her and her connection to the benevolent Moonwoman, Lissar’s father’s courtiers still dismiss her as a ‘wild woman’ in a country ‘steeped no doubt in witchcraft.’ It is easier for them to stand by their small-minded opinion that Lissar is a witch, and therefore evil and wrong by default, than it is for them to accept the truth of the situation: that their king is a devious, lying rapist.
By the end of the novel, Lissar’s life is in a position to successfully encompasses both princess and witch. She finds a patient, non-abusive prince who loves dogs as much as she does, and speaks to her ‘low and kind, as he would speak to a dog so badly frightened it might be savage in its fear.’ In contrast with the king in ‘All Kinds of Fur,’ this prince understands Lissar’s nature and her past, and with that her need to heal before she can truly love him. Her return to royalty is voluntary, and her kinship with the benevolent Moonwoman give her a simultaneously magical and positive reputation. Lissar went through the woods, both physically and metaphorically. She used her skills and connection with nature to survive, heal, and restore her life on her own terms.
The witch and the princess will always be there, warring in our childhoods, giving us the choice between making or watching our story happen. But perhaps, as All Kinds of Fur and Lissar demonstrate, it doesn’t have to be so clear cut. Be kind. Be graceful. Wear the ballgown, and dance the night away. But also use your skills. Make your own changes. Do things in your own way. Let it be known that you are wise and powerful, and never shy away from a trip into the woods alone.
- Deerskin by Robin McKinley (New York: Ace Books, 1993)
- ‘All Kinds of Fur’ (1857 version) in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, edited by Maria Tatar
- From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner
- ‘All Kinds of Fur’ (1812 version) in The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, edited by Jack Zipes
- ‘Donkeyskin’ in Charles Perrault: The Complete Fairy Tales, translated by Christopher Betts
- Kat Howard, ‘The Princess and the Witch’ on Fantasy Magazine
- Mackenzie Sage Wright, ‘Practicing Witchcraft: What You Should Know About Blood Magic’ on Exemplore
- “Playing with Fire: Transgression as Truth in Grimms’ ‘Frau Trude’” by Kay Turner in Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms, edited by Kay Turner and Pauline Greenhill
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