Following on from my ‘All Kinds of Fur’ post, I did some more research into witchlike princesses. I made a poll on Twitter asking people which they would prefer to be. The results were overwhelmingly in favour of witch, with the strongest reason having magical powers. Some also specified they would like to be a ‘good’ witch. On the other hand, people who voted for princess said they would not like to be cruel and would enjoy wearing pretty clothes. Although the poll is now expired, you can still add to the discussion. Just reply to the tweet via the above link. I’d love to hear some more opinions!
I also found another fairy tale featuring a witchlike princess in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, which is an anthology of Bavarian fairy tales collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth in the mid-19th century. It’s called ‘Tricking the Witch,’ and tells of three princesses who are captured by ‘an evil witch.’ However, instead of sitting around awaiting rescue, ‘the girls learned a few magic tricks.’ In particular, the youngest princess Reinhildaproves to have quite a talent for witchcraft. When a prince stumbles upon them and is also captured by the witch, she gives him strict survival instructions and ‘fled with him using the magic she had learned.’ Of course a chase ensues; the witch sends Reinhilda’s sisters to retrieve her but she manages to evade them with her skills. First she transforms herself and the prince in to a rosebush, to ward off the middle princess who ‘can’t stand the smell of roses,’ and then into a church and a preacher giving ‘a stern sermon about witches and their sinister magic’ to scare off the eldest princess (I just LOVE this! Sassiness points +100!).
When the witch herself comes after them, Reinhilda takes the prince’s sword and transforms him into a duck and herself into a pond. The witch drinks the pond, and then Reinhilda changes herself back and kills the witch by using the sword to cut herself out of the witch’s body.
Aside from her immense skills with magic, Reinhilda is also clever. She knows what will upset her sisters the most and doesn’t hesitate to use it against them, and shows cunning in her carefully thought out plan to defeat the witch. The prince is a mere accessory along for the ride; Reinhilda is the fearless agent in this story. But, in spite of her obvious witchy abilities, at the end of the story she frees her sisters, marries the prince, and they all live together happily ever after. Presumably in the royal palace. Reinhilda successfully manages to be both the witch and the princess, by using her powers and also not having to relinquish her royal status in the process.
As shown by these fairy tales, princesses and witches do not always have to be opposing forces. They change the dynamic of the story by proving that you can be magical and independent as well as being royalty. You can get the happy ending and keep the mysterious powers.
Can you think of any other witchlike fairy tale princesses? Please let me know in the comments! I’d love to find more examples for this topic!
Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, ‘Tricking the Witch’ in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales (New York: Penguin, 2015)
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.
Robin McKinley, Deerskin (New York: Ace Books, 1993)
Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘All Kinds of Fur’ (1857 version) in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. by Maria Tatar (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012)
Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (London: Vintage, 1995)
Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘All Kinds of Fur’ (1812 version) in The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, ed. by Jack Zipes (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016)
Charles Perrault, ‘Donkeyskin’ in Charles Perrault: The Complete Fairy Tales, translated by Christopher Betts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
Kay Turner, “Playing with Fire: Transgression as Truth in Grimms’ ‘Frau Trude’” in Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms,ed. by Kay Turner and Pauline Greenhill (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012)
Throughout every version of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the presence of fate remains constant. Few other fairy tale heroines have their lives so dictated, or spend the majority of their story rendered so helpless. Although the circumstances surrounding her fate differ, Sleeping Beauty is always destined to fall asleep. But that’s not the only thing her future holds, and the line between death and sleep is not always apparent.
Some stories contain fairies or wise women, who bestow desirable qualities upon the princess. As Maria Tatar notes in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ‘the gifts given by the Wise Women promise to turn the Grimms’ Briar Rose into an “ideal” woman – virtuous, beautiful, and wealthy. In Perrault’s version, the girl is given beauty, an angelic disposition, grace, the ability to dance perfectly, the voice of a nightingale, and the ability to play instruments.’ Both sets of gifts are trivial things, putting emphasis on physical attraction instead of personality. They also reflect, as Tatar says, society’s notions of ‘ideal’ women during the times they were told. A beautiful woman who could sing, dance, and play music would certainly have been popular in 17th century Versailles.
However, none of these gifts bear any relevance to the plot. In earlier versions of the story, there is not even any mention of them. In his book Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Max Lüthi observes that in Giambattista Basile’s 1634 story ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ the ‘motif of prophecy’ and ‘threat of an unavoidable fate’ remain strong even without the gifts. The sleep curse is still predicted for Tahlia’s future, despite it not being given to her. The story doesn’t change.
The sleep is always caused by spinning — from pricking a finger on a spindle or a stray piece of flax. This also has a connection to fate, as mythology from several cultures contains beings called ‘Fates.’ These are women who spin the threads of mortal lives, determining lifespans and causes of death. My full discussion of Sleeping Beauty, fate, and mythology can be found in this article which I wrote for the University of Essex’s Centre for Myth Studies.
Aside from the gifts and the notion of spinning fate, the other irrevocable fate in Sleeping Beauty is death. Both ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ and Charles Perrault’s 1697 ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ do not end when the princess awakens. Instead, they continue to detail her life with the prince (or king in ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’) and their children. Her new mother-in-law has cannibalistic tendencies, and plans to kill and eat the children. They escape, thanks to some assistance from a compassionate servant who hides them. The mother-in-law then prepares a horrific death for the princess, but the king/prince arrives in time to prevent it.
Of this ending, Max Lüthi writes that ‘the theme of the death prophesy and the fortunate deliverance is once again called to mind.’ The princess survives not only the death-like sleep, but also attempted murder. Peril occurs at defining moments in her life. The first is during adolescence, when she is on the cusp of womanhood. The second is when she is a mother seeking to protect her children. These life stages are reminiscent of the Neopagan Triple Goddess, which represents aspects of female life through the phases of the moon. The waxing moon is the maiden, the full moon the mother, and the waning moon the crone.
The princess escapes death first as the maiden and again as the mother, which leaves only the crone stage to contend with. Things in fairy tales often happen in threes, with the third time being slightly different. Therefore, it can be assumed that when death comes the third and final time, the princess will not escape. Like for all living things, her ultimate unavoidable fate is death.
However, one Sleeping Beauty-inspired story challenges this fate. In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ by Angela Carter, the girl is already dead — or rather, undead. The main protagonist in this story is a vampiric countess; a simultaneous embodiment of life and death. Carter describes her as ‘both death and the maiden,’ showing that the mother and crone stages are absent. In an attempt to reconcile this, she wears ‘her mother’s wedding dress,’ which gives her the appearance of ‘a child dressing up.’ The countess’s servant is ‘a crone in a black dress,’ and through her the countess can vicariously experience the old age she will never have.
Instead of having her fate decided or predicted for her, the countess reads Tarot cards. But no matter how many times she shuffles them, she is ‘constantly constructing hypotheses about a future which is irreversible’ and they always show ‘the Grim Reaper.’ Her condition makes her biologically and emotionally dormant, so there cannot be any change in her future. She is, in a sense, sleeping. Carter acknowledges that ‘a single kiss woke up the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,’ but the only desire vampires feel is for blood. She longs for a lover to save her, but trapped in her maidenhood she doesn’t know how to respond when one arrives.
At the end of the story, the countess cuts her finger and the sight of her own blood overwhelms her. This could be interpreted as an analogy for menstruation, as some folklorists interpret the blood drawn by Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger. However, instead of a long sleep to process the change and move on to become the mother, spilling her own blood is what kills the Countess. In true death, ‘she looked far older, less beautiful and so, for the first time, fully human.’ Her fate could not provide the remaining life stages, so instead it returned her to nature.
Fate in Sleeping Beauty stories goes far beyond the prediction of the sleep. They connect to the perennial cycle of life and death, and how we progress through its stages. The princess is always doomed to sleep and a pivotal moment in her life, and she can never be the same once she awakens. Life’s movement and nature’s processes carry on regardless of curses, spindles, fairies, or vampirism.
Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Max Lüthi, Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Indiana University Press, 1976.
Angela Carter, ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ in The Bloody Chamber, Vintage Classics Edition, 1995.
Charming is an independent short film about the ever-present fairy tale hero, Prince Charming. In many popular stories, he swoops in to save the princess by aiding her escape from a tower, providing true love’s kiss, vanquishing the monster, or finding the foot that fits the slipper. But what about his story? Why does he save all these princesses, and what is his happy ending like?
Pondering these questions led Tom Albanese to write and direct Charming. After no success with the script in Hollywood, he wasn’t about to give up. Instead, he recruited help from some friends to bring it to life. If you ask me, this was infinitely better than anything Hollywood could have done! Charming is the result of a dedicated, caring, and passionate group of people, and whilst watching it you can see their enthusiasm. This film was made because they were determined for it it to exist, which is a story just as inspiring as Prince Charming’s quest for true love.
I was able to interview Tom about his journey with Charming to learn more about his ideas behind the film and his thoughts on fairy tales and storytelling.
So Charming was originally a feature length film. I’m assuming it had to undergo a lot of change to become a short film. What was that process like? How did you go about rewriting the script?
Yes, my writing partner (Christopher Jones) and I got the rights back to our feature script Charming after optioning it to a production company several years ago. It was tricky adapting a 105 page feature to a 15 page short, which ultimately became a much different story. What I wanted to keep in tact from the feature was intertwining characters from different fairy tales, the King’s pact with the witch (which kicks the story into gear) and the theme of ‘true love’ coming around in an unexpected way.
In some ways, I think writing a short is more challenging than writing a feature because you have such a short amount of time to A) Develop your characters and B) Tell a good story. Things that worked in the feature weren’t working in the short because while we had 105 pages to explore Charming’s problems, now we only had 15 to wrap that all up. But there’s nothing I love more than figuring out how to solve a story problem (besides the possibility of a date with Daisy Ridley), so I had a blast figuring it all out.
What was it like working alongside with friends to make Charming? Do you think you will work together again on other projects?
Totally. I have a production company with Tiago (who Assistant Directed Charming) and Francisco (Captain Hook). We have several projects in the pipeline. Joey Long (Charming’s Assistant Director & Aladdin) is my story guy, so whenever I’ve got something written that I need some thoughts on besides my own, he’s the man. We brainstormed how to frame Charming so we got more of Charming’s POV in a clever way,which ultimately led to the story being told to his big fan Gus (Lucas Royalty).
From watching Charming, it’s clear that you all had a lot of fun making it. I really enjoyed the funny, creative scenarios, like the witch pretending to be an estate agent and King Triton in his retreat. What was your favourite scene to film, and why?
Thank you! Ah, favorite to film. Well, haha there was a lot of stress that came with directing/producing and acting in most every scene (you can’t make it too easy for yourself), but the most fun was shooting the Snow White bits. We had a full day for that, so it allowed us to joke around and come up with stuff. Poor Bea (Snow White) had to put up with me kissing her for 8 hours, but I think she understands that it was all in service of a beautiful story (love you Bea!) And poor Joey had to try to move that day along in between all the outtakes. But at least I had fun!
I love the idea of Prince Charming being the same person in multiple fairy tales, just going around trying to save princesses. What made you think of this? And what first interested you in Prince Charming as a character?
I was studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City when we put on a performance of Into the Woods. I played Cinderella’s Prince. I had a blast and was shocked to find out not many people had really tackled the Prince Charming character or given him a well-rounded backstory (save for maybe Shrek) on screen. I loved the idea of taking existing public domain stories and their characters (Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, etc.) and tying them into his own tale. Because really, what the hell is going on with this guy who’s running around kissing all these princesses?
Charming makes references to many well-known fairy tales, including Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast. Why did you choose to use these particular fairy tales?
It came down to “how many references can I get in here without being annoying?” Haha, the ones I chose had to be well-known enough for people to get quick references, could somehow tie into the story, and, most importantly, be affordable and/or doable. We had to skip The Frog Prince.
What is your all-time favourite fairy tale, and why?
Ah, tough one, but I have to go with ‘Beauty & the Beast.’ The original is much darker (as most of these fairy tales are) than the Disney version most of my generation grew up with, but I love the idea of two people who are at each other’s throats, have a million outside forces keeping them apart and absolutely shouldn’t fall in love… still do. In my mind, that’s a fairy tale and a great story. And that prologue from Disney’s version in 1991 still blows me away. The music, voiceover, images, everything. It’s an incredible introduction to a fairy tale.
The set design of Charming is very realistic, but also unmistakably fantastical. For example, you can tell the buildings and rooms are just ‘normal’ places, but the decor, props, and costumes give them an unquestionable fairy tale feel. What were your artistic decisions behind the sets? Did you have a vision for them, or did you just create them naturally with your given resources?
The apartment complex I lived in at the time was built in the 1920s (give or take a few years) and a bunch of creatives/artist types made it their home before Hollywood’s Golden Age, so it naturally had that ‘fairy tale’ feel to it. It was one of those things where the pieces were all there and I thought ‘it’s stupid not to do this’. We had nickels and dimes to shoot the film, so, yes, while I would’ve loved an actual ‘castle’ and spinster’s shop, we took advantage of the resources we already had, or else the film probably never would have never been made!
Also, a major shout out to our costume designer and make-up designer Irving Green. He went above and beyond putting together the wardrobes and greatly helped give the film its ‘fairy tale’ feel.
The witch is a great character, and I would have liked to have seen more of her! Why didn’t you expand her role, or show her defeat? Personally, what do you think happens to her at the end of the story?
I love the witch. Particularly in that she’s not your typical, evil villain. She’s really a hot mess who just wants to get out of her crappy hut. My friend Patricia Castello-Branco nailed it on the head with that role. She plays a much bigger part in the feature version Chris & I wrote. As for not expanding her role — in the short, she’s a villain, but needed to get the plot rolling. She’s like the bad boss in a romantic comedy, a thorn in the hero’s side, but the real problem is the hero’s relationship with his co-star(s). Expanding her role would’ve been fun, but ultimately unnecessary to Charming’s quest for true love. We shot a longer scene with her trying to trick Snow White with the apple that’s hilarious, but at the end of the day it stopped the movie instead of pushing it forward.
I think at the end of Charming, she throws on a bunch of make-up, goes to Captain Hook’s brothel, downs ten fairy dusts and tries to seduce a Merry Man.
Regarding the ending, without giving away any spoilers, I love that you left it so open. Why did you choose to leave the story like this, instead of going for the traditional fairy tale ‘and they got married and lived happily ever after’ ending?
I love stopping a story early. I read Dracula a couple months ago for an upcoming project, and it just ends. I wanted more, but eventually realized, yeah, that’s it. The story’s over. (Dracula spoiler alert) It’s called Dracula and Dracula’s dead. The rest is just filler. Leave the audience to fill in what happens afterwards. There’s nothing worse than watching something knowing it should’ve ended 10 minutes ago.
I think whatever your ending is, it needs to solidify the story’s theme and wrap things up in a way we didn’t see coming but makes sense. Whether that be ‘happily ever after’ or leaves an ellipsis or is a combination of the two, which I think Charming is.
What are you planning to do in the future – another fairy tale project, or something different?
I’m shooting a comedy pilot in May/June that my prod. co’s planning to pitch to networks later this year. It’s called No Actor Parking and explores the hysterical madness of the ‘wannabes’ stuck on Hollywood’s bottom rung as they all struggle to ‘make it’. As for fairy tales, I’ve got a short about a demon, a feature about a vampire, and one about a mythical creature. We’ll see who bites first.
A massive thank you to Tom for providing some wonderful creative insight into this project!
After months spent touring international film festivals and racking up awards (just look at how many are on the poster alone!) Charming is now available on the Charming Short Film website and you all totally need to go and watch it! You can also follow @CharmingTheFilm and Tom Albanese on Twitter, and check out Adam’s post on Fairy Tale Fandom and Gypsy’s post on Once Upon a Blog for more behind the scenes information.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hearts recently. They’re funny things, aren’t they? Or at least our perception of them is. When we talk of hearts, instead of organs pumping blood around our bodies they become personified; magical things capable of love and adventure. They are strong and wild, and do not listen to reason. Can’t explain why you feel a certain way? Must be your heart’s doing. They defy all rational explanation, and yet still we put so much emphasis on following them.
Personally, I don’t think the word ‘heart’ is the only word to use. ‘Intuition,’ ‘instinct,’ and ‘gut’ have the same meaning. Basically, paying attention to something other than logic. Something you feel rather than think.
The heart of something is the core of it; the very essence of its being. The part where the thing (or person) in question is at its most. In fairy tales, hearts are often coveted as trophies – either for love or revenge. Think of Snow White. In some versions of the story, the evil (step)mother demands that the huntsman brings her Snow White’s heart as proof that he has killed her. Symbolically, it is not just an organ she is after. The heart contains Snow White’s vitality. It’s the most personal, violating thing she can take to exert her superiority.
As SurLaLune notes, in earlier versions of the story it was Snow White’s lungs and liver which the queen requested. Connotatively, these have little difference to the heart. Lungs represent the spirit, and in medieval times the liver was the organ associated with love and erotic feeling.
In Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy novel Howl’s Moving Castle and the Studio Ghibli film of the same name, Wizard Howl is feared because rumour dictates that he eats the hearts of young girls. This could be a metaphor, implying that instead of literally ‘eating’ hearts he charms girls and then casts them aside. That’s bad enough, and brings in the idea of a broken heart – if you hurt someone, maybe their ‘heart’ will no longer work properly and so it might as well have been eaten. But as this is a fantasy world where anything is possible (I mean, there’s a sentient fire, a moving castle, and a living scarecrow to name a few!), there’s no reason why he couldn’t be a literal heart-eating wizard. And what an abhorrent crime! To eat someone’s heart; their private, personal emotions. To remove and destroy their abilities to love and to be themselves.
If you know the story, you will know that Wizard Howl isn’t what he appears. In fact, he separated himself from his own heart because its feelings were too much to bear. In the words of the main protagonist Sophie Hatter, ‘a heart is a heavy burden’ (I won’t write any more because spoilers. If you haven’t seen/read Howl’s Moving Castle then I highly recommend that you do both!)
A heart is more than just an organ. It’s a complex, abstract entity, governed by forces we cannot understand. It contains our innermost desires and feelings. It’s fragile. Take care of it. Also, obey it. Hearts serve older laws than our modern ways of living. If you cannot explain how you feel or why you want something illogical, that is your heart speaking. You may not like what it says, but you can never deny that it is true. Because you can feel it.
This year, try to listen. Is your heart telling you something? If so, pay attention, no matter how hard it is to hear. Listening to your heart takes courage. To ignore it is to compromise yourself. Make changes, and strive for what you really want. It’ll all work out, but you need to take the risk first. Just make sure no-one eats your heart before you get the message… unless it’s Howl who is offering, because let’s face it, he’s totally gorgeous…
I feel a close affinity with deer. They can be timid creatures, and this lends them an almost mythical reputation in some places. The elusive deer, somewhere in the woods, quiet and unseen. Maybe watching you. No harm in that. Just watching, and then slipping away. Yet underneath that timidness they hold wisdom, and strength. They know their terrain, and when danger is near, and how to protect themselves.
Deer feature in the folklore of many countries. From my travels, I have come across them in Scotland and Japan. Their stories form a link between our world and the animal kingdom, and affect how we interact with these genteel creatures.
Deer in Scotland
Many Scottish legends associate deer with faeries. For one thing, deer already possess fae-like qualities. Their bodies are lean and their movements graceful, and they prefer to be hidden from human eyes. Yet they tolerate the presence of faeries. In the Highlands, red deer are said to be the faeries’ cattle, providing them with milk. In turn, the faeries protect them by targeting hunters with enchanted arrows. To be hit with a faerie arrow is fateful indeed. You’ll likely get a nasty dose of elf-shot, which can be cured by a healer if you’re lucky. If you’re less lucky, you’ll fall down and appear dead to humanity, but your soul will be carried away to Elfhame, the world of the fae.
If a hunter succeeded in killing a deer, the faeries would torment them. There is a story from the Isle of Mull, about a deer hunter called Big Hugh. After killing a deer at Torness, he was carrying it home with his friend who asked him if the deer was heavy. Big Hugh said that it was, and so his friend stuck a penknife in the deer and then asked again. Big Hugh said it felt so much lighter, he could hardly tell that he was carrying it. The extra weight had been put upon him by the faeries, and the penknife counteracted their magic.
Some faerie women also transform themselves into deer, and often encounter hunters whilst in this form. A well-known story from Irish and Scottish mythology tells of Oisín, a great bard of the legendary warriors, the Fianna. His father was Fionn Mac Cumhail, the leader of the Fianna, and his mother was Sadhbh, a woman under a spell which changed her into a deer. Only when in the presence of the Fianna could she regain her human shape. Whilst on a hunting trip, Fionn found Sadhbh and they fell in love. Soon she became pregnant, but their happiness wasn’t to last. The magician who had enchanted Sadhbh returned and tricked her into leaving Fionn. Once more a deer, she ran away and gave birth to her baby boy in the forest. He was found many years later by his father, and named Oisín which means ‘little deer.’
In Scottish folklore, there is a slightly different version of events. Oisín’s mother was a woman called Grainnhe. After being tricked away from Fionn, she was transformed into a white hind and kept under the magician’s power. When Fionn found Oisín, he had a patch of deer’s hair on his forehead. After Grainnhe’s death, her body was released by the magician. The Fianna buried her on the Isle of Skye.
Deer in Japan
In the city of Nara, the old capital of Japan, deer roam free. These are sika or spotted deer, which are native to East Asia and have white spots on their backs. At the end of a lantern-lit path, where Nara Park begins to disintegrate into the Kasuga Primeval Forest, stands Kasuga-Taisha. This Shinto shrine is a sacred place for deer, with a deer statue adorning its temizuya (purifying water fountain) and a variety of deer omamori (charms) for sale. There are four deities enshrined here, one being Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the god of thunder from Kashima in Ibaraki Prefecture. According to Japanese mythology, Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto came to visit Nara riding upon a white deer. Since then, the deer of Nara were believed to be messengers of the gods. At Kasuga-Taisha you can also purchase white deer figurines with omikuji (fortunes). Apart from being adorable, these also hark back to this belief. They are literally holding divine messages about your future in their little porcelain mouths. Choose wisely.
The reputation of Nara deer became so prolific that until the 1600s, harming one was an offence punishable by death. Today they are considered national treasures, and as such are well protected. They are also well fed, since thousands of tourists visit Nara to give them shika senbei (deer crackers). The protocol for feeding a Nara deer is first to bow, and then wait for the deer to bow in return before relinquishing the cracker. However, in practice, I just got ganged up on by a group of excited, hungry deer… so unfortunately I cannot vouch for their manners!
Meeting the Nara deer was a profound experience. It was the closest I had ever been to a wild animal, and they were gentle and sweet, but unlike domesticated animals you could simultaneously see their wariness. Their delay before approaching, and how they remained still and poised, as ready to flee at any moment as they were willing to accept my affection. I wanted to reassure them; to make them feel safe. But without their wildness, they wouldn’t be the same. And not all humans bare good intentions, so what good would I be doing if I taught them to trust and then the next people they encountered were less compassionate?
I have made many trips to Nara. My friends and colleagues in Japan jestingly nicknamed me ‘shika-onna‘ (deer lady) because I love them so much. One trip which sticks in my mind is New Year’s Eve 2016. It was around 11pm, and dark. I was alone, just behind Todaiji Temple, and I saw a torii gate leading into darkness. Everywhere else was lantern lit, except for this path. I took it. I crept up a hill gnarled with tree roots and deer tracks. I could hear them, rustling in the trees on either side of me. When I reached the top, there was a small clearing with a closed shrine (I later learned its name is Tamukeyama-Hachimangu). It was only me, with the trees, the stars, and the hidden deer. In that moment, I felt at home with them. Away from the other humans, out in the forest. I wasn’t afraid. The deer were not afraid. I trusted them.
Deer in Fairy Tales
In the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘Little Brother and Little Sister,’ two siblings run away into the forest. The brother drinks from an enchanted stream, and the water transforms him into a deer. His sister cares for him and refuses for them to be separated. Even in death, her spirit returns to check his wellbeing and ultimately break the spell. It’s almost as though they are two parts of one being, which simultaneously cannot be complete alone and cannot co-exist as a whole. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes that ‘they represent the animal and spiritual sides of our personality, which become separated [in the story] but must be integrated for human happiness.’ Bettelheim doesn’t state which way round he intends the roles to be, leaving readers to make their own decision. The deer can represent the ‘animal’ part of us; the part which is wild and carefree, whereas the human sister is the seeing and thinking spirit. But these roles could also easily be reversed: The deer can be seen as spiritual for his innocence and closeness to nature, and the sister animalistic for her contentment with living alone in the forest away from other human company.
Deer are often described as guardians of forests, especially stags who are akin to royalty in the woodland animal hierarchy. The brother becoming a deer comes with a certain amount of status. However, whilst the sister grows into a woman, he remains a fawn. As noted by Heidi Anne Heiner in SurLaLune’s annotations for the story, ‘the sister is the adult figure,’ having to arrange food and shelter and make decisions for them both, whilst as a deer the brother is free from responsibility. Eventually the sister becomes a princess, whilst the brother never gets to rut and have the chance to rule the forest. The spell does more than merely change his physical form. It freezes him in time, taking away his progression into adulthood. This story reminds us of the connection to our animal and spiritual sides, and also the need for learning and new experiences to move forward in life.
Deer have much impact on how we view natural spaces, and the stories which come out of them. Whether they truly are messengers of the gods or not, deer are creatures with flesh, blood, and feelings – not just characters from folk tales. That magical, tenuous moment in Nara when they chose to stay beside me reminded me that, for all our stories about wild animals, the only way to understand them is to see them.
John Gregorson Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld, ed. by Ronald Black (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008). First published as Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland: Tales and Traditions Collected Entirely from Oral Sources (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1902)
Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (London: Penguin, 1991)
George W. Macpherson, The Old Grey Magician: A Scottish Fionn Cycle (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2018)
Maybe you’ve heard of Hello Kitty, and how she’s actually a British schoolgirl (if not then read that article & prepare to gawp with incredulity for at least 10 minutes). But what about Sanrio’s other characters? There are many of them, each with their own stories. In the case of My Melody, her origins are entwined with a well-known fairy tale.
My Melody is a little girl bunny, who was released by Sanrio in 1975. According to her character bio, she was born in a forest. She is often depicted playing amongst trees with her woodland animal friends. She also wears a hood, which nowadays is usually pink, but when she was first introduced it was red. This hood was made by her grandmother.
In 1976, a children’s book was published in Japan featuring My Melody as Little Red Riding Hood. It was reprinted in 2015, and I was lucky enough to find a copy of this edition.
The title reads ‘My Melody’s Little Red Riding Hood.’ The text in red literally translates as ‘Akazukin’ which is the Japanese name for ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ The text at the bottom translates as ‘Little Red Riding Hood! Be careful of the wolf!’
Here are some of the inside pages:
I find it interesting that Sanrio decided to use My Melody for this fairy tale. Rabbits are prey animals, so in this story the wolf is taunted by having its meal turn on it. Also, this is a good example of how fairy tales can travel and evolve for different audiences. For Japanese children, Little Red Riding Hood is a foreign fairy tale. Perhaps attaching it to a familiar character makes it more appealing to them.
My Melody is very popular in Japan. Now that I live here, I am taking full advantage of this. Many people who know me will say that I like Hello Kitty. Whilst this is true to a degree, in England I grew to like her out of lack of choice. But I’m sorry everyone, I have a confession: My Melody is actually my favourite! Whenever I’ve needed something, I have found a My Melody option. Here are some of the more obscure ways in which she is taking over my life, filling it with her little pink ears one thing at a time…
All images my own.
My Melody’s Little Red Riding Hood is a cute fairy tale bridge between cultures, and I hope to encounter more of her stories in the future.
Live in England (preferably Hampshire!) and want to hear some fairy tales?
On Sunday 12th June, along with my friend and fellow storyteller Claire Kerry, I am are going to be storytelling at Test Valley Garden & Literary Festival! We’re doing short performances of lesser-known fairy tales, including ‘White Bear King Valemon,’ ‘Bremen Town Musicians,’ and ‘Snow White Fire Red.’
We’re so excited and honoured to be a part of this new event. Celebrating nature and literature in one festival, what could be better?! We’re also looking forward to meeting new people and having fun doing what we love. There are lots of other great activities too, including craft workshops, live music, gardening talks and demonstrations, art displays, and poetry readings.
Despite the rain, the festival was a great success and we had many visitors to our little story gazebo! If anything, the weather only added to the charm of the day. Nothing like a great British summertime festival with a good helping of mud and wellies! Thank you to everyone who attended and supported the event. Here are some photos of Claire & I and our fairy tale antics.
Last week, I travelled to the University of Chichester for a talk and book signing with Marina Warner, hosted by the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. When I saw this event being advertised I knew I had to go, because Marina Warner. Enough said.
Instead of reading from her new short story collection, Fly Away Home, Marina read a couple of off-cuts which didn’t make it into the final book. Both of these were inspired by some of Kiki Smith’s sculptures, which were themselves inspired by stories. I love how creativity can go on like this, in a chain of inspiration, from one art form to another.
After the readings, there was a short discussion and Q&A session. Marina spoke about how she believes fairy tales and folktales don’t age because they contain artificial structures. Almost like a grid, these tales have a feeling of a mythical past which can be reworked. So long as that feeling remains in some way, the tales live. They can be altered using their motifs or emotional content, and these alterations create new retellings. There is no progress as such, just constant change.
Fairy tales and folk tales are also timeless because they contain perpetually relevant topics, for example love, death, war, relationships, and nature. These will always be important, and so it’s always worthwhile to tell stories about them them.
From what I’ve read so far, many of the stories in Fly Away Home feature characters who undergo change. Transformation is threatening for some people, but it’s impossible to go back in time. As Marina herself said, nostalgia always has to be defeated in order to move on.
Marina also discussed the notion of fairy tales and myths as a way of exploring identity. Storytelling is a cultural activity, and it’s crucial to remember this now with so many people on the move and refugees being driven away from their home countries. We need to remember that they need space for their own stories and heritage in the new places they inhabit. Culture is an exchange, and stories are a driving force behind this.
As well as getting a signed copy of Fly Away Home, I also got my much-loved copy of Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale signed. This is a useful and insightful little book, and I highly recommend it to fairy tale fans. It’s concise enough to be a great starting point, and in-depth enough to supplement existing knowledge.
Marina was very friendly, and the whole conference was was a great experience. Not only is it wonderful to meet writers in person to hear them read from and discuss their work, it’s also wonderful to attend events like this and mingle with like-minded people. Thank you to the Sussex Centre for hosting this event, and to Marina for being a constant source of inspiration.
A vast, bustling metropolis like Chicago does not seem a likely place to find fairy tales. But there is magic everywhere, if you take the time to look for it. During this trip, it came in the form of a Christmas market and a visit to the Museum of Science & Industry.
The Christmas market was German-style, meaning there was lots of cute wooden toys and lebkuchen (nom!) One wooden hut even had signs made from gingerbread, and inside there was a carousel-shaped display of it. Very Hansel and Gretal! There were also glass Christmas tree ornaments inspired by fairy tales, such as Cinderella’s slipper and Little Red Riding Hood. I had the pleasure of attending this market with Kristin, who runs the blog Tales of Faerie. Her posts are so insightful, and have inspired me a great deal. When I knew I was going to Chicago, we arranged a meet up. We went out for tea and explored the market, and it was lovely to chat in person instead of via email for a change! You can read Kristin’s post about our little outing as well.
On the last day of my trip, I went to the Museum of Science & Industry with friends. Again, a science museum doesn’t sound like a very fairy tale place, but it was here that I found Colleen Moore’s castle. Colleen Moore was an American actress, most famous for her parts in silent films during the 1920s. Aside from acting, Moore had a passion for dolls houses. The castle was made by her father in 1928, and decorated with help from one of Moore’s set designers as well as a host of artists, authors, jewellers, taxidermists, and Hollywood’s most skilled crafters. Moore continued adding artefacts to it until her death in 1988.
What I found most captivating about Moore’s castle is that everything inside it is real. The miniature bearskin rug is made from real animal fur, and the bear’s teeth are actually from a mouse. The books in the library are tiny novels, written by famous authors including F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck. The world’s smallest copy of the Bible is in there, too. The toiletry set features a tiny razor which actually cuts, and the hairbrush has bristles made from strands of fox hair. The princess’s bedroom furniture is adorned with real gold and diamonds, the murals and pictures on the wall were painted by artists and designers (including a portrait of Mickey and Mini Mouse from Walt Disney Studios), the tapestries were hand-sewn by a master needle-worker, and the castle has electricity and running water.
The castle is not short of fairy tale references, either. There are two bedrooms, one for a prince and one for a princess. The princess’s bed linen is adorned with patterns of cobwebs, which is a nice nod to ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ In the entrance courtyard stands a silver coach and horses, all ready to take Cinderella to the ball. Beside it is a weeping tree, reminiscent of ‘Ashputtel’ and ‘The Juniper Tree.’ There are no banisters on the staircase in the Grand Hall, because faeries can fly so they don’t need to hold on. In the kitchen, a mural of a witch decorates the wall behind the pots and pans. On the right-hand wall is another mural of the Three Little Pigs.
The fairy castle arrived at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry in 1949. It receives an estimated 1.5 million visitors each year, and is worth around $7 million. This video shared on the museum’s website shows the castle undergoing some conservation work:
As well as a valuable exhibit and exquisite dolls house, Colleen Moore’s fairy castle is a living manifestation of her dream. She worked hard to create it exactly how she imagined it. Moore and the hundreds of people who contributed to her project are proof that you’re never too old for fairy tales, and if you’re going to follow your passion then you might as well pull out all the stops. Thanks to them, the fairy castle is now alive for everyone to enjoy – children, daydreamers, historians, artists, and fairy tale fans alike.
On the August 16th, I went to Mannington Hall in Norfolk for their fairy tales and fables day. As part of this event, I did some storytelling for families and also gave a talk about the history and context of fairy tales for adults. All in all, it was a wonderful day and I am so grateful I was given the opportunity to take part. Mannington is a beautiful, historic estate, with a little garden by a stream which was a perfect location to tell stories in the sun.
I told three of my favourite stories: Norwegian fairy tale ‘White Bear King Valemon,’ Giambattista Basile’s ‘Petrosinella,’ and a Baba Yaga story based on the one in Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. All three were very well-received; I don’t think many people had heard them before, which made me glad I chose them. My favourite moment was after telling ‘White Bear King Valemon,’ when one family went rushing out to the front of the house to look under the bridge for the troll-hag!
Inside the hall, Lady Walpole and I put together a display of fairy tale books from both of our collections. They received a lot of attention, especially after I gave the talk. It was lovely to see people engaging with them and discovering new stories. One sweet woman also came up and told me that I had inspired her to tell more fairy tales to her grandchildren, and to be more creative with them. I smiled and thanked her, and inside I was melting with joy. Such a small thing, to tell a story. But such a big difference it can make to someone’s life. I made up my mind then and there to do more events like this.
In the room next to our display there was a fabulous children’s book stall run by Norfolk Children’s Book Centre, selling a selection of children’s and YA fantasy literature. Outside in the gardens, a hidden trail of adorable metal fairies made by the talented Baron Tremain at Wolterton Forge led visitors on a treasure hunt.
Local hospices came and set up stalls in the gardens, too. In total, over £300 was raised to support them. Fairy tales and helping charity – what a great combination! Thank you to Lord & Lady Walpole for organising and hosting this event, and to everyone who came and generously supported it.
When I watched this film for the first time back in 2011, I didn’t really know what was going on and or think much of it. However, watching it again recently, I quite enjoyed it and picked up on a lot of fairy tale references. I’m sure other people have blogged about this film and fairy tales before now, but whatever. I’m chucking my thoughts into the pot!
Hanna is an action film directed by Joe Wright. It’s about a teenage girl, named Hanna, who lives with her father, Erik, in the snowy wilderness of Finland. Erik has trained her to be an assassin, and explains that when she wishes to leave home, she must flip a switch. This switch will send a signal to someone called Marissa Wiegler, who Hanna has been told by Erik that she must kill. Well, of course she flips the switch. Cue lots of fight scenes, running, murder, and uh… repeat that cycle several times.
Here’s the trailer, to give you more of an idea:
From watching that, it’s clear there’s a fairy tale theme going on here.
Personally, I linked fairy tales to two aspects of the film: Family, and Hanna’s understanding of the world.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Hanna’s birth mother is dead. I don’t need to tell anyone familiar with fairy tales that dead mothers are a common thing, and as a result, so are passive fathers and evil stepmothers. Think ‘Cinderella,’ ‘The Juniper Tree’ and ‘Hansel and Gretal.’ Hanna lives with her father, and although he teaches her all the assassin skills she could ever need, he fails to prepare her for what the world is like and how to interact with other people. Then he sends her off, leaving her without guidance and subject to danger. In the film’s climax, he can’t even protect her from Marissa – Hanna has to face the final battle alone.
Marissa fits several fairy tale character archetypes. Sticking with the family theme, she can be seen as the evil stepmother. Especially since she killed Hanna’s mother because she wanted Hanna for herself — that’s going to extreme evil stepmother lengths! Marissa is possessive and determined. If she can’t have Hanna, then no-one else can. And Hanna makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be owned my Marissa (trying to kill her is a bit of a giveaway, who knew?) Marissa also fits the stepmother role because she had a hand in Hanna’s birth. Hanna was an experiment. Marissa’s company modified her DNA to make her stronger and more fearless — in other words, a perfect assassin. Which she is. The other two characters which parallel Marissa are the wolf and the witch. In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf is a hunter. He makes a game out of reaching grandma’s house, and enjoys the chase. Marissa is similar in that she enjoys tracking Hanna and her father, and picking off their accomplices. When she finally catches up with Hanna, their final showdown takes place in an abandoned fairy tale-esque theme park (which is a real place in Berlin called Spreepark. Urban exploring, anyone?!) Marissa walks out of the mouth of a wolf to meet Hanna, reinforcing her fierce personality.
As for the witch, after Hanna kills a body double of Marissa believing it to be her, she sends her father a postcard saying nothing but ‘the witch is dead.’ Joe Wright also said in an interview that he picked Marissa’s shoes for some scenes because they looked ‘witchy.’ Marissa is the antagonist of this film, as so many witches are in fairy tales. This is an easy link to make, and especially for Hanna who grew up in isolation with only an encyclopaedia and a book of Grimm’s tales to tell her about the outside world.
Which brings me to Hanna’s understanding of the outside world. Hanna has a book of Grimm’s fairy tales, which she is seen reading from as a child and also just before leaving Finland. Fairy tales have a reputation for teaching children morals, but Hanna has a distinct lack of these implying that fairy tales alone are not enough to educate a child. Having had no contact with the outside world until she goes on the run, despite her ruthless assassin persona she is very innocent. Everything is strange to her, and she is curious and wants things she does not understand such as friends, music, and electricity.
In an interview, Joe Wright compared Hanna to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Little Mermaid:’
‘Well, The Little Mermaid is the story of Hanna. The idea that she grows up under the surface and imagines the world above as this beautiful, romantic place. And of course she gains legs and they are painful, and she discovers the world is quite cruel. Personally, growing up in this puppet theatre, this very romantic environment where everyone was painting and making puppets, then suddenly being told I had to go to school where kids bullied you and it was terrifying — in a way I identify both with The Little Mermaid and Hanna. The only thing I could accuse my parents of after years of therapy was that they led me to believe very sweetly that the world was going to be beautiful — and, often, it’s not.’
Fairy tales often have coming-of-age themes, where characters go out into the world alone to seek their destiny. Like the mermaid who is restless and wants to see what is above the water, Hanna also wants to see what is beyond the snow. But they both learn that it’s not what they expected. Hanna can handle the assassin-y stuff fine, but boiling a kettle or going on a date? Not so easy. Like in a fairy tale, she must overcome these challenges to get her happy ending. The locations used also connote fairy tales. I’ve mentioned that Hanna and Erik live in isolation, well take a look at their cabin. If this doesn’t scream ‘fairy tale’ then I don’t know what does:
It’s got everything – snow, quaint slanted roof, glowing windows, and is surrounded by a spooky forest.
Then of course there’s Spreepark, which has many fantasy and fairy tale elements:
Visually, Spreepark makes the atmosphere of Hanna very surreal. As a symbol, for me it feels like Hanna wants to go back to when her life was simple, when she was reading fairy tales, instead of living them. But now everything is broken and it’s too late for her to return.
There’s a great article about the set design of Hannahere.
Speaking of symbols, the final point I want to make about Hanna is the deer. The opening scene of the film is Hanna hunting a reindeer, and then near the end she sees a young deer in Spreepark. Again, deers are common creatures in fairy tales. For example, ‘Little Brother and Little Sister‘ and Andrew Lang’s ‘The Enchanted Deer.’ They also feature heavily in Scottish and Irish folklore. Deers are symbols of peace and innocence, as well as wisdom, strength, and sensitivity.
Here’s my interpretation: Hanna killing the reindeer at the beginning shows she is strong in that environment. She can take down one of the most powerful creatures that lives there. However, the small deer later on is almost like it’s taunting her. By this point, Hanna is weak and tired of chasing Marissa. In a new environment, she’s not so sure of herself. I already said that Hanna lacks morals, and she’s not the only one — even the ‘normal’ people in this film kill mercilessly. Given its symbolic meaning, it’s almost like the deer is standing in judgement. All the characters are one-dimensional, again similar to fairy tales, and so the deer is a reminder that this world lacks feeling.
Overall, Hanna is undeniably a strange film. It grew on me second time around, and if you watch closely there’s a lot to read into (hence this blog post). Aesthetically, is’s very artsy and uses some interesting camera angles, so it’s good if you’re looking for something different regarding style. Also, Saoirse Ronan’s acting is flawless as ever.
Joe Wright said he wanted to make a film that was a kind of fantasy, but not CGI, Hollywood fantasy. A lot of fairy tale films claim to be ‘dark’ and look adult and cutting-edge, but somehow manage to be none of these things. Hanna is the real deal.
What did everyone else make of Hanna? Let me know in the comments!
I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘Cinderella,’ but all the studying of fairy tales I’ve done for my dissertation has made me warm up to it a bit. I was willing to give it another chance, and so yesterday I went to see Disney’s new live-action version, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Not gonna lie, a big part of what drew me to it was the costumes. I’m a sucker for pretty dresses…
Actually, I’m going to discuss the dress first. In case you missed it, there’s been a massive controversy over the corset and how small Lily James’s waist appears. Just… really? It’s a freaking corset, the whole point of it is to exaggerate the shape of your body! Plus, look at the cut of that gown. When compared with a skirt that puffy, anyone’s waistline would look a bit lost. Both Branagh and James have also denied claims that her body was airbrushed. Whether that’s true or not who knows, but does it really matter? This is nothing to do with body image. Clearly people these days are just clueless about what a corset actually makes you look like.
A lot of people also seem to be criticising this film because Cinderella is too much is a passive heroine, especially when compared with Disney’s recent feisty females in films such as Brave and Frozen. I think this a very unfair and naive perspective to take, and one which misses the whole point of the film. Cinderella is not, and never has been, an active character. But that doesn’t mean she’s weak, either. Her story is about endurance, about remaining strong and hopeful through bad times. Branagh’s Cinderella certainly does that, and never once does she complain about her life. She just gets on with it in the best way that she can. Her lack of complaint isn’t a weakness — if anything, it just displays how solid her willpower is. A lot of people could do with taking a leaf out of her book. Too many of us like to moan about inconsequential things, when there is always someone who is worse off.
Kristin over at Tales of Faerie wrote this fabulous post a few months ago exploring what is expected of Cinderella. She points out that realistically, if Cinderella had been defiant then she would probably have received a beating. Which, if you think about it, is true. ‘Cinderella’ is an old fairy tale. To put it into context, think of the thousands of servant girls throughout history who were just like her. They had no way out of their situations, no chance to be the active, feisty heroine. Sometimes real life just doesn’t work that way. In this respect, Cinderella’s perseverance is quite remarkable. Many would have despaired much sooner. As Kristin says, ‘her courage makes her a good role model.’ Just a different sort of role model. Those who criticise her for being passive are not paying attention to this. It’s all in the mantra repeated throughout the film: ‘Have courage, and be kind.’ It will pay off in the end.
One thing I will say, though. Whilst I don’t believe she’s weak, Branagh’s Cinderella is sickeningly good. I know this is a stereotypical trait of fairy tale heroines, but he’s taken it to the extreme. Cinderella spends her days feeding and playing with animals. She reads to her father, and hums or sings all the time. Her hobbies include sewing and gardening. None of this is bad, but it just gives her character too much of a perfect image. It wouldn’t hurt to give her a few flaws, or a few grittier skills to make her more interesting. Of course, her sickening-goodness means that when she meets the prince (who is called ‘Kit,’ and considering I’ve recently watched the asylum season of American Horror Story I’m sure those familiar with it can imagine what my mind conjured upon hearing that name!) she is suitably awkward. And so is he, for that matter. It works, because it fits their characters, although after awhile it feels a little too twee. However, I do like that they meet in the forest before the ball and spend a lot of time alone together on the night itself to get to know one another. This somewhat banishes the insta-love vibe of Disney’s original 1950’s film.
Story-wise, Branagh’s adaptation stays very true. Thankfully, the stepmother isn’t given too much backstory. Just enough to make her sufficiently malicious. Any more would have been straying into Maleficent territory, and the less said about that the better. The whole giving-villains-backstory-thing is getting a little wearing.
When the stepmother and stepsisters leave for the ball, Cinderella cries in the garden and calls to her mother. I thought this was a nice touch, as it harks back to the Grimm Brothers ‘Ashputtel.’ In this story, instead of a fairy godmother appearing the girl cries on her mother’s grave and leaves offerings, and is helped by her mother’s spirit in the form of a bird.
Speaking of the fairy godmother, she also narrates the story throughout the film. Personally, I thought this worked really well. It made it feel like a fairy tale; like it was being told instead of us just seeing it happen.
The final thing I have to say about this film is that the imagery is stunning. The sets and costumes are so realistic, it’s like watching a period drama. Compared to Maleficent, Disney’s other live-action offering so far, Cinderella is far superior in terms of visuals. Maleficent looked very CGI and fake, but there’s none of that here. The fairy godmother’s magic looks natural — not overdone, just pretty. I hope that their future live-action remakes follow suit.
Overall, I really enjoyed Cinderella. It’s a great feel-good film, and is very bold in that it offers a new kind of heroine. Okay, she’s not as interesting or outspoken as Merida, Rapunzel, or Elsa, but that doesn’t mean her story is any the less significant. See for yourself. As a previous Cinderella skeptic, I think I’ve been converted…
There always seems to be a nucleus of well-known fairy tales, which many people don’t know there is a whole world beyond. The help rectify this, idea of this blog tour is to share some obscure fairy tales!
Whilst travelling a couple of years ago, I came across an antique bookshop. Of course I went inside, and it was there I found William Canton’s True Annals of Fairy-Land. I’d never heard of it before, and it wasn’t overly expensive so I bought it. I still don’t know that much about it – there’s an inscription on the inside cover stating it was awarded to a student at Hulme Grammar School in Manchester for ‘general form work’ in 1924, but the name is illegible and there is no date or place of publication. I’ve found out that William Canton was a British poet and journalist, who lived from 1825-1926.
I’ve chosen a tale from the True Annals of Fairy-Land for this post. It’s called ‘The Valiant Blackbird.’
Mr. Blackbird is a very good singer and lives with his mate, Mrs. Blackbird. Upon hearing his song, the king wants to keep him in a cage so he can hear it all the time. However, the king’s servants catch Mrs. Blackbird by mistake. Determined to rescue her, Mr. Blackbird dons a helmet made from half a walnut shell and armour made from frog skin, and makes a sword from a thorn. With the other half of the walnut shell he makes a drum and, beating it, sets out for the king’s palace.
On the way there, he meets a cat and some ants who also have a score to settle with the king. They jump into Mr. Blackbird’s ear and travel with him. Further on, he meets a rope with a club and a river, who also jump into his ear and join the others on the journey to the palace.
When they arrive, the king’s porter laughs at Mr. Blackbird (who now refers to himself as ‘General Blackbird,’ in light of the eclectic army hidden inside his ears) but lets him in and takes him to the king regardless. General Blackbird demands his wife back, but the king refuses and locks him in the hen house for the night thinking they will kill him. But General Blackbird has other ideas. Once alone, he sings:
‘Come out, Pussy, from my ear,
There are fowls aplenty here;
Scratch them, make their feathers fly,
Wring their necks until they die.’
The cat does exactly this, then returns to General Blackbird’s ear and they sleep. In the morning, the king sends his servants to retrieve General Blackbird’s body. Instead, they find him singing surrounded by the dead hens. Outraged, the next night the king locks General Blackbird in the stable with wild horses. Yet again, he sings:
‘Come out, Rope, and come out Stick,
Tie the horses lest they kick;
Beat the horses on the head,
Beat them till they fall down dead.’
The rope and club comply, and the next morning the king again sends in his servants to retrieve General Blackbird’s body. But again, they find him singing and all the horses dead. On the third night, the king has him locked in with the elephants. This time, General Blackbird summons the ants:
‘Come from out my ear, you Ants,
Come and sting the Elephants;
Sting their trunk, and sting their head,
Sting them till they fall down dead.’
I’m sure you can guess what happens next! The ants sting. The servants arrive in the morning, and find the elephants dead and General Blackbird singing. On the final night, wanting to find out how General Blackbird has slain his animals, the king has him tied to his own bed and watches. He sings one last time:
‘Come out, River, from my ear,
Flow about the bedroom here;
Pour yourself upon the bed,
Drown the King till he is dead.’
The river flows, and as the king’s bed begins to float he cries out and tells General Blackbird to take Mrs. Blackbird and begone. Reunited, they live happily ever after.
I find it pretty amusing that a blackbird can take on a king and win. Definitely taught him a much-deserved lesson! The full version of the story as it appears in the book is available to read online here.
I love ocean stories and mermaids, so of course this had to be on the list. I also love the ending, because I feel so conflicted about it. Part of me thinks ‘GURL what are you DOING just stab him & get the hell out of there!’ but also, I understand her decision. I’ve had my heart & soul ripped out by people, but if someone gave me a knife I plonked me at their bedside then I’d totally become sea foam, too.
Since I’ve studied ‘Sleeping Beauty’ so extensively, spinning wheels and stories associated with them really interest me. ‘Habitrot’ is one of the more comedic ones I’ve found, with a group of mysterious old women living underground and spinning. Their work makes them ugly, and so the husband of the heroine forbids her from spinning to preserve her beauty. Which is exactly what she wants, because she is lazy and hates spinning. Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm also collected a similar story called ‘The Three Spinners.’
This early version of ‘Rapunzel’ is much exciting than most of its successors. Petrosinella is a gutsy heroine, who doesn’t hesitate to plan her escape from the tower. The ogress (read ‘witch’) has Petrosinella under a spell, which requires her to retrieve three gallnuts to break it. As she flees with the prince, she throws them on the ground and they transform into animals. The final one eats the ogress, and the young lovers marry and live happily – ‘one hour in port, the sailor freed from fears, forgets the tempests of a hundred years.’
There is another, more crazy, version of this story entitled ‘Parsley Girl’ in Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. It involves cannibalistic nuns and a talking frog. Enough said.
I saw a fantastic performance of this story a few years back called The Girl with the Iron Claws. I was so enthralled by it that afterwards I sought out the original story, and found this Norwegian tale. It’s similar to ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon,’ but instead of having winds for help the princess meets old ladies and children who give her magical objects. Also she has to climb a mountain (hence needing the iron claws. Also in some versions the mountain is made of glass).
I love the message this story has, that beauty is only what you perceive it to be and when you love someone they are beautiful to you no matter what. I also want to know what happens to the stupid princess’s sister, who disappears from the story halfway through. Someday I’m going to write her ending!
My spirit animal is a deer, and this is the first fairy tale I encountered that features one. A brother and sister are out in the forest, and the brother drinks enchanted water which turns him into a deer. I like how this story incorporates both familial and romantic love, and think it’s an all-round cute little tale which is sometimes rare in the world of fairy tales!
I just love Baba Yaga stories! This one was collected in Russia by the folklorist Alexander Afanasyev, and published in his collection of fairy tales in the mid-1800s. Vasilisa is the ultimate fairy tale heroine. Brave, beautiful, clever, and resourceful. She gets on with things, and gets her happy ending. Not even a house on chicken legs surrounded by glowing human bones can stop her.
As a reader and writer, I am constantly searching for the book. Something I can become obsessed with, that will inspire me and make me feel alive. Most of the books I read I enjoy, and write positive reviews of and maybe recommend to people. And that’s fine, but after awhile I begin to crave something more. Something so that when a friend asks me what to read next, I immediately scream in their face and rave about THE book they have GOT to buy and will adore because it’s amazingly special and beautiful and ahhhh the feels!! *rolls around on floor squealing* You get the picture.
Unfortunately, these books are few and far between. But that just means that when you find one, it’s all the more precious.
When I picked up The Wild Girl, I was expecting to like it. I liked Kate Forsyth’s other fairy tale based novel, Bitter Greens, and was eager to find out about this Dortchen Wild whom I had never heard of before. It never even crossed my mind that it would turn out to be one of those books…
The Wild Girl destroyed me, in the best way. The way that only books can. It made me cry, laugh, want to curl up with it in bed and also throw it across the room. It refused to let me stop turning the pages (apart from when I had to go and get tissues!), and had pulled me into Hessen-Cassel before I even had time to protest. Not that I would have done, anyway!
Part of The Wild Girl’s charm is that it is mostly a true story. Dortchen Wild and her family lived next door to Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, the now world-famous fairy tale collectors. Many picture them as travellers, scouring the country for stories. But in reality, they were poor and initially struggled to gain interest in their collection. Most of their stories came from reading groups composed of their friends.
Whilst the Grimm Brothers are well documented, little is known about Dortchen Wild apart from that she told them some stories and eventually married Wilhelm Grimm in 1825. By writing The Wild Girl, Kate set about changing this and giving this fascinating woman a voice. In doing so, she has unearthed an epic and little-known love story. For the first time, the Grimms have been portrayed as real people, instead of just household names and old scholars. I have to say, it was very brave of Kate to undertake the task of turning Jacob and Wilhelm into characters. It’s always difficult to fictionalise real people, especially when they’re so illustrious. But she does one hell of a good job! That’s got to be some sort of writer achievement unlocked.
Dortchen’s and Wilhelm’s relationship feels very natural, showing Kate has taken great care to portray it. The idea of meeting in secret and falling in love by telling stories has got to be the most romantic thing EVER. And knowing that it literally happened makes it all the more poignant. The Wild Girl is not just a story. It is a story about stories, and ways they relate to real life and can be used to explain it. A variety of fairy tales feature, both well-known ones such as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ and also more obscure ones like ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’ and ‘The Maiden With No Hands.’ Whilst reading, I couldn’t help but think that Kate must have had fun deciding which ones to use and where to place them. In certain parts, the tales Dortchen tells reflect her own life so much it’s heartbreaking. Moreover, it’s not essential to go into this book knowing a lot about fairy tales. It’s nice if you can recognise them, but if you can’t then you can still understand the symbolism and you get to discover new tales! Even I didn’t recognise every fairy tale used, which resulted in me hunting down a copy of this as soon as I finished reading:
The work Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did is inspirational, and they didn’t even know it at the time. They just wanted to collect stories; a noble pursuit in any context if you ask me, but because of them hundreds of fairy tales have been preserved and disseminated. Where would the world of folklore be without these? Maybe someone else would have eventually recorded them instead, but that’s not the point. The Grimms were the ones and I’m glad that their story has been brought to life in such a beautiful way. Behind every fairy tale are its tellers, a fact which is often overshadowed by the tales themselves.
My only grievance with The Wild Girl is that towards the end, the pace speeds upconsiderably. It feels like it’s rushing towards the conclusion, when there are sections which it would have been nice to have a bit more detail about. This contrasts with the earlier parts of the novel where the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It provides a strong insight into the time period and culture of Hessen-Cassel, but it is much slower so when suddenly things go quicker it’s a little jarring.
However, the slow start means there is plenty of time to get emotionally invested. As a result, I spent pretty much the entirety of the last 60 pages in tears. Another writer achievement right there!
One final thing I will say is that The Wild Girl contains themes may be uncomfortable for some readers. For example, war, sickness, and sexual abuse. None of this is endorsed, but it is present. Also, I definitely wouldn’t say that any of this content is a reason to not read the book.
The Wild Girl weaves fairy tales, reality, and love into something so deep and profound that you won’t ever want to leave it alone. From looking at the Goodreads reviews, literally all of them are 4 or 5 stars so clearly it’s not just me who was enchanted. If you want a book to lose yourself in and restore your faith in love, then this is it.
You can find out more about Kate Forsyth and the work that went into The Wild Girl on her blog. I also recommend you check out her other fairy tale inspired novel Bitter Greens, which is just as amazing! My review of that is here.
Fairy tales are not something immediately associated with Christmas. At least, not anymore. Once, families used to sit beside the fire and read stories together, but this seems to have dissolved in the face of modern entertainment. Which is all the more reason to give it a go! One of the best things about the Christmas season is that it’s an excuse to get the family together. You might not have an open fire, but there’s no reason not to grab your nearest and dearest and have a bit of old-fashioned festive fun. Christmas doesn’t exactly deal with creepy things in the woods, but neither do all fairy tales. Here are some wintery ones to get you in the storytelling mood.
The Snow Child
This folktale character, known as ‘Snegurochka’ in her native country of Russia, appears in many folktales. Sometimes she is presented as the granddaughter of Ded Moroz, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus. One of the most common stories involving a snow child is about an elderly couple who long for a child. They then come across a pale little girl out in the snow and care for her, only for her to melt once Spring arrives. Variants of this include the wife swallowing a snowflake and becoming pregnant, the couple building a snowman and it turning into a child, the girl jumping over a fire and melting or the girl growing up and finding a lover, but being unable to stay with him because she must stay away from heat. Two notable adaptations of this story are ‘Snowflake’ in Andrew Lang’s Pink Fairy Book and the novel The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.
Ever wondered what a Christmas tree thinks of its job? Hans Christian Andersen did, and he wrote this story about it. The Fir-Tree starts off as a sapling in the forest, watching the taller trees being taken away and wondering where they go. When a group of swallows tell him they get beautifully decorated and displayed in people’s homes, he is excited and dreams of the day when he too will leave the forest and get a new life. He doesn’t see the beauty in the nature around him. Soon he is big enough, and gets chopped down and becomes a Christmas tree. But he finds that he misses the forest, and wishes he had appreciated it more. His branches shrivel and are taken out into the yard where they are burnt. Not the cheeriest of endings, but this is a nice little story nonetheless. It has a valuable underlying message about growing up and thinking that everyone has something better than you do, but realising once you join them that what you had initially was best. Learn from the Fir-Tree – the other man’s needles aren’t always greener!
Another of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, and another with a not too happy ending. On New Year’s Eve, a little girl sits in the snow shivering with cold. She clutches a bunch of matches which she tries to sell, but ends up striking them so she can use them for warmth. With each match she lights she has a vision of something she craves: a house, food, a Christmas tree and company. The final vision is of her deceased grandmother, whom she begs to stay. She strikes all the remaining matches in desperation to keep her grandmother with her, and sees the two of them floating into the light and happily seeing the new year arrive together. The next morning, her frozen body is found lying on the street, still holding the burnt out matches. All of the bleakness! But still poignant, in a dark way. Real children like the Match Girl exist and desire all the things which most of us take for granted. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of that once in awhile, and spare a thought or donation for them.
The Nutcracker and Mouse King is a novel written by the German author E. T. A. Hoffman and published in 1816. It has been adapted into various forms, most notably ballet. So it’s not strictly a fairy tale, but it’s certainly a good Christmas story with lots of fairy tale-esque elements. It’s about a girl called Marie (or Clara in the ballet), whose godfather gives her a Nutcracker in the shape of a man on Christmas Eve. Her brother breaks him, and once everyone has gone to bed Marie creeps downstairs and tries to fix him. But then the clock strikes midnight, and he grows to human size and comes alive, along with all the other toys on the tree. Mice enter the room, led by the fearsome Mouse King, and a battle ensues. The Mouse King is defeated and Marie saves the Nutcracker. There is a celebration, and in the ballet they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and dance the iconic Waltz of the Flowers. At the end, Marie marries the Nutcracker and goes to live with him in the Kingdom of Dolls. Theatres frequently have productions of The Nutcracker during the Christmas period, and there are also film versions. Whatever version you encounter, it’s a charming story that can be enjoyed by all the family.
This is the ultimate tale of generosity, collected by the Grimm Brothers. An orphaned, poor little girl who has nothing in the world but a crust of bread and and the tattered clothes she is wearing goes walking through the country. Although her life is hard, she still strives to be kind. She encounters others who are in as great a need as herself, and gives each of them something of hers. First the bread, then pieces of her clothing, until she is left naked and cold in the forest. Then she looks at the sky, and the stars fall down upon her and clothe her in fine linen and turn into coins which she collects. Her selflessness was rewarded, and she ends up in a much better situation than at the beginning of the story! Christmas is a time of giving, and it’s always the thought which counts. If you can be kind and spare something, you should.
Now it’s time. Go, read and tell stories. If you can’t remember any of these when your family ask you, then there’s nothing stopping you from making up your own. Keep warm, keep creative, and happy holidays!
‘Sleeping Beauty’ is not the only fairy tale heroine to experience an enchanted slumber. Snow White suffers the same fate, albeit under different circumstances. Looking at the themes of these two stories, it’s interesting to note the similarities and differences surrounding sexuality and feminism, as well as the variations in their narratives.
Like with many fairy tales, the most well-known version of ‘Snow White’ is probably the one recorded by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Theirs is entitled ‘Little Snow-White,’ a name similar to that of their version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ which is called ‘Little Briar-Rose.’ In ‘Little Snow-White,’ a queen pricks her finger on a sewing needle and longs for a child ‘as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this [window] frame.’ Shortly after, she gives birth to a daughter named ‘Snow White.’ The queen dies in childbirth, leaving Snow White to grow up with a stepmother. The stepmother has a mirror, which she looks into and asks who is the fairest. It always replies with ‘you, my queen,’ until one day, when Snow White is seven years old, it answers that she is now ‘a thousand times fairer.’ Overcome with anger, the queen sends Snow White into the forest with a huntsman and orders him to kill her. However, the huntsman is overcome with pity and tells her to run away instead.
Alone in the forest, Snow White comes upon a cottage in which seven dwarfs live. They take her in, and she does domestic chores for them in return. But the mirror informs the queen that Snow White still lives and is still fairer than she. Outraged, she disguises herself and visits the cottage selling various enchanted objects to tempt Snow White. Eventually, she succeeds in killing her with a poisoned apple. Upon finding her, the dwarfs encase her in a glass coffin and display her on a hilltop. One day, a prince rides by and begs them to give him the coffin, for he has fallen in love with Snow White’s beauty. They agree, and so the prince takes her. On the way to his palace the coffin is jolted, dislodging the poisoned apple from her throat. Snow White awakens, and the prince asks her to marry him and she consents.
The evil queen is invited to their wedding, and her mirror informs her that the young bride is much fairer than she. As punishment for her treatment of Snow White, she is forced to put on shoes made of hot iron and dance in them until she falls down dead.
Both ‘Little Briar-Rose’ and ‘Little Snow White’ feature an unconscious girl in the forest, but their symbolism varies. Blood is also referenced in both stories. In ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ the girl pricking her finger to draw blood can be interpreted as a metaphor for premature sexual awakening. Therefore, it induces the sleep until she is ready to deal with motherhood. In ‘Little Snow White,’ when the queen pricks her finger and draws blood she becomes pregnant, showing that (unlike Briar-Rose) she is ready to accept maturation. The two incidents also reference the two stages during life in which females bleed: at menstruation and during initial intercourse. I find it interesting how, as Kate Forsyth points out on her blog, that the colours used in ‘Little Snow White’ are very significant: ‘White, representing birth, is for purity, virginity, and innocence.
Red, representing life, symbolizes blood, in the menstrual flow and the breaking of the hymen and childbirth.
Black, symbolizing death, connotes the absolute and eternity.’
This reminds me of the Pagan symbol of the triple goddess: the maiden, the mother and the crone (I also referenced this in a previous post about spinning wheels and their connection to the cycle of life). White for the maiden, who is pure like Snow White herself, red for the mother who menstruates and is able to bear children, like the queen, and black for the crone. The crone is absent from both stories, but in ‘Little Snow White’ this colour reference to her seems to be a subtle hint at Snow White’s future. She is the maiden, moving towards motherhood by the end of the story and crone is what she will eventually become later. Moreover, the fact that she embodies all of these colours throughout her life implies that she is one and all at once (and women in general are, too). We all start off being the maiden, but motherhood and croning are part of our future and therefore part of who we are. Also, once the later stages have been reached, we can still remember being the maiden, so she too remains with us later in life.
Where Sleeping Beauty stories can be interpreted metaphorically as coming-of-age stories, Snow White tales instead show the power struggle between (step)mother and daughter (in some versions Snow White is persecuted by her biological mother. The Grimms changed this in order to preserve the positive image of motherhood). The queen is jealous of her (step)daughter’s youth and seeks to destroy her; a sharp contrast to parents in Sleeping Beauty stories who seek to protect their child from the curse.
In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar makes some interesting comments about this in her analysis of the story. She writes that ‘the voice in the mirror may be viewed as a judgmental voice, representing the absent father or patriarchy in general’ and that as the story progresses it ‘turns on the (sexual) rivalry between stepmother and daughter, with Snow White positioned as the classic “innocent persecuted heroine” of fairy tales.’ The mirror initiates this conflict by judging beauty. In society, people are constantly doing this to one another, resulting in pressure to conform with current trends or outdo everyone else to gain recognition. This is not exclusively a female trait, either. Whilst Snow White herself is oblivious to her beauty and the danger she is in because of it, to her stepmother it is a clear threat. Without even knowing it Snow White enters the battle for the mirror’s favour, and ultimately she wins because it is her beauty that secures her rescue by the prince. Her innocence is rewarded, and the queen’s vanity and wickedness are punishable. In the Grimms’ version I mentioned above she meets a very grisly end, but the fact that she pays for her crimes gives the story closure. This is different to ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ in which the bad fairy never suffers any consequences for cursing the baby girl and vanishes from the story.
Also, whilst I’m on the topic of endings, in both of these Grimm stories (and indeed in other, older variations I’ve come across) neither girl is awoken by a kiss. Sleeping Beauty wakes up naturally because the hundred years is up, and Snow White wakes up when her coffin is accidentally jolted and this dislodges the poisoned apple. Yet in both Disney versions, it’s true love’s kiss which awakens them. In fact, in the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), near the beginning Snow White sings about wishing for a lover. It just so happens that a prince is passing by during this song and, of course, he immediately falls for her. The evil stepmother is watching and shuts her curtains in irritation. I think this sets the scene nicely; Snow White as a pretty, naive girl and the stepmother is jealous of her beauty and youth.
There is also another song later in the film which she sings to the dwarfs called ‘Someday My Prince Will Come.’ Doesn’t take much imagination to work out what that’s about. Whereas the Grimms Snow White doesn’t have anything to do with the prince until the end, the Disney one explicitly asks for him from the very beginning. This move the emphasis from the mother-daughter conflict to romance, which is a big change from the older versions of the story.
The final point I want to make about ‘Little Snow White’ concerns the mirror again. At the beginning of the story, Snow White’s biological mother is looking out of a window. Compare this with the stepmother who constantly looks into a mirror, and there’s some interesting symbolism. Looking out of a window implies that the biological mother is aware of the world and thinking beyond her own existence. On the other hand, the stepmother only watches herself. Maria Tatar makes an observation about this in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ‘that Snow White is put on aesthetic display in a glass coffin seems to refer back to both the window and the looking glass.’
At the end of the story, Snow White becomes like her biological mother: trapped behind glass, dreaming of a different life. Glass is transparent, so you can see through it and watch the world. But mirrors aren’t, so you can only see yourself. The glass in ‘Snow White’ becomes a symbol of their approach to life, and shows that if all you see is reflections then it will lead to ruin.
Studying ‘Little Snow-White’ has been fascinating, and I’ve found much more information than what I’ve shared in this post so I will definitely be returning to it in the future. It’s amazing to see how stories which have similar elements can be so different, and to note how themes can alter depending on the symbolism used.
Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. by Maria Tatar (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012)
Last year I encountered a novel called Bitter Greens (some of you may recall the review of it I posted on here). You know those books that you just cannot put down? Bitter Greens was one of those. So when I found out that the author, Kate Forsyth, was coming to the UK to do some events, it wasn’t a case of if I was going it was a case of choosing the easiest to attend. Even the 4-hour train journey to get there & back didn’t dissuade me!
The book club at Waterstone’s in Bluewater, Kent, had read Bitter Greens and Kate went to visit them to discuss it. The talk was open to the public, not just book club members, but it seems that I was the only gatecrasher!
Bitter Greens is a retelling of the fairy tale ‘Rapunzel.’ It has three narrative strands: One for a young girl named Margherita, who is the Rapunzel figure, one for Selena Leonelli, who is the witch who imprisons her, and one for Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the real-life author of a version of ‘Rapunzel’ entitled ‘Persinettte.’ Altogether, this novel is a unique blend of fantasy and historical fiction.
Kate talked about her process of writing Bitter Greens, from the initial desire to retell ‘Rapunzel’ to how the idea developed. As a child, she spent a lot of time in hospital due to an accident which damaged her eye. Her mother gave her a book of fairy tales to read, and being so shut away from the world she found it easy to identify with Rapunzel. However, she always wondered about the fate of the witch. Did she ever get out of the tower? If so, how? What did she do afterwards? It was this line of thought that led Kate to wanting to write her own version of the story.
As a children’s author, she initially tried retelling ‘Rapunzel’ for a YA audience as a fantasy novel. However, she realised that it was never meant to be a story for children, because when you stop and analyse it there are some dark themes present (such as violence, sexuality, and madness) which could only reach their full potential in an adult novel.
Kate explained how fairy tales can vary depending on the country they’re from. Italian fairy tales tend to be very bawdy and lively, with blatant sexual references. French fairy tales, on the other hand, are more sedate and less explicit. Many were told by aristocratic women, like Charlotte-Rose, in literary salons. Women were heavily restricted by society, having their marriages arranged which often led to miserable lives. To them, thoughts of charming princes and true love were daydreams; a welcome escape from their harsh realities. Fairy tales are constantly borrowing motifs from one another, making many of them similar no matter where they’re from. This makes them both recognisable and different, because not all retellings reuse the exact same set of motifs every time.
Fairy tales also lack what Kate called a ‘crystalised’ form. There are so many variations of the same stories, it’s impossible to pinpoint a definitive ‘original.’ Therefore, when working on a retelling, it’s possible to decide for yourself which version is going to be your source.
After the book club meeting, I got the chance to speak to Kate for awhile. I had emailed her a few days before explaining that I’m a fairy tale fanatic and currently writing my dissertation about them, and asking if we could have a chat. She agreed, which made me stupidly excited followed by nervous. What was I going to say? Where fairy tales are concerned, there’s always too much! But it turned out that I didn’t need to worry, because once I got to that moment everything I’d prepared fled from my brain. I just started mindlessly babbling about Sleeping Beauty and my degree. But Kate was lovely and reassuring, and gave me some fantastic advice.
I confessed that I’m struggling with my Sleeping Beauty retelling at the moment, mostly because I’m not sure what I want to keep from my crystal and how it will all fit together. She told me that there are two different types of retellings:
A pure retelling, which more or less follows the fairy tale exactly (like she did for Bitter Greens)
A new retelling, which takes themes and/or motifs from the fairy tale and reshapes them into something else
Whichever type you’re doing, the problem with any retelling is that readers already know the story. As a writer, it becomes your job to surprise them. Make it fresh, and make them feel that perhaps they don’t know what’s going to happen after all.
It never ceases to amaze me how versatile fairy tales are, and how many people they captivate for all kinds of reasons. I’m so new to all of this — writing, studying and retelling, and hearing/reading other people’s experiences with fairy tales is rather daunting. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. We’re all just people with a common interest, and we all have our own opinions to bring to the fairy tale table. None are right, and none are wrong. And there lies their magic.
A massive thank you to Kate for agreeing to meet me, and for sharing so many writing tips and ideas. You can visit Kate’s blog to find out more about Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl and her other projects here.
Also thank you to Bluewater Waterstone’s Book Club for being extremely welcoming, it was fun to meet you all!
– You can rationalise any book purchase by saying it’s fairy tale related, and therefore you need it for your blog.
– Your bookworm friends and family get excited when you say you’ve bought a new book, anticipating what it is and wondering whether it’s something they might want to borrow. Then they realise it’s fairy tale related AGAIN and sigh at you and shake their heads.
– You constantly have piles of fairy tale anthologies beside your bed, and dip into them at random when you can’t sleep.
– You get really snobby when you hear people talking about Disney films, and have to fight the urge to butt in and say something like ‘oh no, the original version is nothing like that!’
– The Aarne-Thompson classification system will always amaze you, no matter how many times you study it.
– You’ve read so many fairy tales that they’ve all jumbled together in a big mush in your brain, so often you can’t tell what character or plot event belongs to what story.
– Similarly, when you try to think of an example of a specific type or motif your mind goes blank and you have to scramble your way through the mush. This usually ends up with you trailing through Google & your bookshelf in bewilderment.
– You insist on reading obscure fairy tales to your housemates, in the hopes of educating them.
– When ‘gender roles’ and ‘Cinderella’ come up in a discussion, your friends run away in fear for their lives.
– You go into the library and ask for fairy tale books, then have to specify you mean ones for adults, to which the librarian responds with ‘I didn’t know there were any!’ and know you’re in the wrong town.
– When you’re out and see something fairy tale related you have to take photos of it, so you can turn it into a blog post (and often you don’t get around to writing that post for awhile, so you end up with hundreds of random pictures clogging up your phone!)
That’s it from me – for now at least. I’m sure I will discover many more reasons as I continue my fairy tale blogging journey!