Book Review: Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

Spindle’s End is a YA retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ When a princess is born, the king and queen hold an extravagant party to celebrate her name-day. In every town of their kingdom, lots are drawn to decide who will attend. Far from the palace, out in the country, a young girl called Katriona is chosen. She makes the long journey, but returns with more than she expected. After the evil fairy turns up and curses the princess, in an attempt to keep her safe she is secretly entrusted to Katriona’s care.

Spindle's End Robin McKinley

Princess Rosie grows up ordinary. She cuts off the beautiful hair her fairy godmothers gave her, and refuses to engage in any of the activities they blessed her with a talent for. She is kept ignorant of her heritage, until her 21st birthday approaches and the curse begins to catch up with her. Rosie, Katriona and her family, their friends, and an assortment of helpful talking animals set out to thwart the curse and prevent the evil fairy, Pernicia, from destroying the kingdom. But Rosie isn’t sure that she wants to be the princess, or if their plan be enough to save them all.

Sounds good, right? I thought so too. Until I started reading it. Now, to be fair, to this book isn’t awful… I managed to get to the end of it, which is something. And I have most definitely read a hell of a lot worse. But, putting the things I loved about it aside, Spindle’s End has some MAJOR issues.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Let’s start positive. I’ll talk about the things I loved first. 

The world McKinley creates for this story is one of the most intricate I have ever encountered. She spends a lot of time filling in details – the geography, what the weather is like in certain areas, what kinds of plants grow, and how the natural supply of magic affects everyone and everything. These establish a strong sense of place. I could feel the world as I read; it was tangible, and I was there. Although, in places there was also an overabundance of description which I felt slowed the story down. There’s a fine line between fleshing out a setting and spamming readers with irrelevant information, and McKinley just about manages to stay on the right side of it. However, with all the random information she took the trouble to include, you would think she could have at least given the world a name. But oh no. Every time the phrase ‘in that country’ was used I wanted to scream.

The thing I loved most about the world Spindle’s End is set in is that McKinley clearly thought about the impact the events in the story would have on it. Other versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ focus on the main characters and their motivations and reactions to the curse, but in this book the repercussions are felt throughout the kingdom. Animals pass on the story of the lost princess they must protect from evil, people speculate about Pernicia’s whereabouts, and the curse itself is almost a character, slowly draining the life from the land and its inhabitants. One of the biggest effects the curse has is to alter the way spindles are made. In an effort to prevent Rosie from pricking her finger, needles are discarded. Spindle ends become shorter and fatter, and carved with elaborate designs. People go into business making spindle ends, and they become regarded as an art form. As well as a very appropriate title for the novel! 

Now for the not so positive stuff…

The writing style. The first half of this book is literally all telling, which needless to say I found pretty dull to read. Whenever I picked it up I was full of hope that something would happen, but little did so I’d get bored and try again later. During this part of the book time also skips backwards and forwards quickly without warning. At one point Rosie goes from being 16 to 18 years old in the space of a paragraph. I wouldn’t mind so much, but with all the telling and random details about the world thrown in Rosie hasn’t actually done much by this point. Then two years of her life get thrown away, just like that. This puts a great distance between the reader and characters. Plus, with all the telling, I felt that their relationships to one another were under developed. Readers are constantly being told how they are, that Rosie didn’t like this and didn’t do that, and Katriona liked these people and wanted to do this & that, without getting the chance to find it out for themselves. It felt quite patronising.

Once Rosie finds out she’s the princess, everything changes. Suddenly stuff is happening; the plot finally begins, as though it’s been patiently waiting for its chance to take over. It’s like a different book! I got hooked then. One particular plot point I saw coming a mile off is that Rosie and her friend, Peony, swap places. Peony becomes a decoy princess, and their lives become magically intertwined as a way of trying to confuse the curse. Even though I guessed it, I still loved the idea. I loved how Rosie and Peony almost become one person, and that the princess is both and neither of them at the same time; an entity hovering between them as they hide from Pernicia. Hats off to McKinley for doing something completely new with the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ I was excited to see how things would turn out after this. With such a crucial event, such potential created, such mystery waiting to climax, I thought that perhaps I had been wrong. Perhaps this would turn out to be a bombshell of a book after all.

Sadly, no.

When Pernicia makes her curse, she specifically says that ‘on her one-and-twentieth birthday she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel; and this prick will cause her to fall into that poisoned sleep from which no-one shall rouse her’ (she also says that the curse could come into effect at any time up until her one-and-twentieth birthday, but according to Katriona’s aunt she only said this to scare people because magic doesn’t work like that in ‘that country.’ How it does work is never mentioned, though. Woohoo).

So, what do the royal family and all the citizens of ‘that country’ go and do? Arrange a 21st birthday party. To be held on the princess’ birthday. Y’know, the exact day Pernicia said she would fall into a poisoned sleep. And they all think it’s fine, because the princess is still alive to turn 21 so Pernicia has failed already.

Why hold the party on the day of the curse? JUST WHY?! Didn’t you listen when it was cast? Clearly everyone in ‘that country’ is a moron. So, they have a party, and the party attracts Pernicia. She conjures up a spinning wheel with a needle and Rosie is like ‘oh, that’s a funny shape for a spindle end, I must take a closer look.’ But Peony beats her to it. But that’s okay, because this was the plan all along. Confuse the curse, and it won’t take effect. If Peony pricks her finger, it won’t harm her. But it does! Peony falls into the poisoned sleep! I’d be willing to let this one go on the grounds that her and Rosie’s lives had been previously entangled by magic, but then everyone else falls asleep as well! Apart from a fairy called Narl, who is also Rosie’s lifelong friend. Apparently the sleep didn’t get him because he’s a blacksmith and metal blocks magic… or something like that, to be honest I didn’t really get it (plus it’s later revealed that the sleep curse is extra effective on fairies, furthering the this-makes-no-sense argument). And the only person he can wake up? Rosie.

WHY? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!

Rosie is the one the curse was targeting in the first place! Surely she should be the hardest to awaken? Why can she wake up from the spell when no-one else can? We never find out.

So okay, we’re hitting the climax of the story here. Narl and Rosie run off to find Pernicia, assisted by a group of talking animals. Firstly, they have to break through the rose bushes which have grown up to protect the sleepers – a nice touch, nice nod to the original story. The animals are pretty cool too, full of personality and a good addition to the story. Although I had no idea why or how they suddenly became magical.

Now, Pernicia lives in a floating castle, which is in no specific location. In ‘that country.’ Narl, Rosie, and the animals get there by jumping over the rose bush… Don’t even think to ask how they do that, because it’s not explained. They just jump, and suddenly they’re there. Pernicia sends minions after them, but the animals take them out with a little help from Narl’s spell casting skills (which are also not explained). The castle itself they squeeze until it falls apart, using a hair transformed into a rope by Narl. Seems legit. In fact, this whole section of the book resembles an account of someone’s acid trip, but I went along with it still hoping that the final showdown with Pernicia would finally offer explanations.

Erm, still no.

The castle collapses. They all make it back to the ballroom filled with sleepers. Rosie and Pernicia become locked in a deathly battle whilst Narl watches helplessly, wishing he could do something. Well, it turns out he doesn’t need to. Because a bird (called a ‘merrel,’ which I don’t think even exists) flies down from the ceiling, grabs Pernicia, and shoves her into a hole in the floor which is conveniently opened up by the suddenly sentient ballroom. There is then some sort of earthquake, and the hole is filled trapping Pernicia inside. That’s it. Climax over.

I’m not even sure what to say about this… Give me a minute.

A bird. A freaking bird?! Pernicia is meant to be super powerful. Her curse has tormented ‘that country’ for 21 years, and not even the finest magicians and the most reputable fairies together have been able to stop it. But a single bird can, apparently. Lesson to all fantasy writers out there: If your main protagonist is in a sticky situation with an evil sorceress, bring on a bird! Problem solved!

I almost threw the book across the room. This seems like a major cop out. It’s also not feasible that someone with so much power cannot make their way out of a hole in the ground. Okay, if she had fallen down a canyon lined with spiky rocks, poison, and flamethrowers or something more elaborate she might have a bit of trouble. But a regular hole under a ballroom? Seems a bit fishy. So okay, moving on from what it possibly the most disappointing final battle in the history of anything ever, Pernicia is gone. Everyone starts to wake up, because presumably her curse disappeared with her (we’re never told exactly). Everyone apart from Peony (and again, we’re never told why exactly). Peony is woken up by Narl, Rosie, and Katriona placing a spindle end on her chest & putting their hands over it. Then Rosie kisses her, and in doing so passes on her part of the princess. Excellent twist on the whole ‘true love’s kiss’ thing, but I don’t understand why any of this wakes her up.

Peony becomes the princess, as she is more suited to it than Rosie who just wants to resume her ordinary life. So in this respect, the ends of the story are tied up fairly well. Except for one final thing which irritated me: Rosie marries Narl. Remember all the telling I mentioned in the first half of the book? Well, somewhere in that it’s announced that Rosie suddenly realises she is in love with Narl. We never get to see this, we’re just told. And I can’t help feeling that it’s a little creepy… Rosie has been friends with Narl since she was around four years old. He’s significantly older than her, and helped look after her and watched her grow up. I find it difficult to believe romance would have grown between these two under such conditions. Maybe if McKinley had shown us their relationship develop it would have been more credible, but as it is it just appears out of nowhere and feels really random.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about this book. I didn’t hate it, but I was extremely disappointed with it. McKinley makes some wonderful innovations on the story, and has such a good setup. Her world and characters are well fleshed out, but the way she presents the story robs it of a lot of its potential. The ending doesn’t deliver enough, and way too much is left unexplained. I can’t help feeling like I’ve only been told half a story. This is an interesting take on Sleeping Beauty, but all of its issues make it fall short. I’m glad I read it, and it’s provoked several thoughts of things I can consider for my own retellings. Like having a random villain-defeating bird. Or not.

 

Fairy Tales: The Symbolism of Spinning Wheels

Spinning wheels are an object commonly associated with fairy tales, even though they only feature in a handful of tales. Aside from being mere objects, they add some degree of symbolic meaning to the stories they are present in.

Firstly though, what actually is a spinning wheel?

We probably know it’s a wooden thing with a big wheel that does something concerning yarn. At least, that’s about all I knew until I visited a friend who owns one. Basically, spinning wheels were (and still are, just not as widely) used to turn animal fleece into yarn, or wool. In order to do this, you have to feed in a thin clump of fleece, and get it hooked around the spindle. Then, as you turn the wheel, the spindle turns as well and coils up the fleece as you feed it in. Some have a foot pedal which you use to keep the wheel going steady, so that the yarn remains a consistent thickness.

ESWLK_1
This is similar to wheel I used – it doesn’t have a needle, so there’s Sleeping Beauty’s problem solved! Image from Ashford.

I have tried spinning on a couple of wheels and also with a drop spindle (a handheld method of spinning). Suffice to say that it is one of the most tedious activities I have ever done! My yarn always breaks, and to fix this you have to sort of twiddle the broken ends together and spin rapidly to bind them before continuing. And the pedal makes my ankle ache after awhile, plus it is hard to keep it going in time with the wheel. However, if I ever do it for long enough to get semi-good at it then I would probably find it therapeutic. The wheel makes a nice sound, and once you fall into a rhythm it’s quite relaxing.

‘Sleeping Beauty’ is one of the most well-known spinning wheel stories, alongside ‘Rumpelstiltskin.’ In the latter, a miller’s daughter is locked away by a king and forced to spin straw into gold. She cannot do it, but a little man (who is later revealed to be Rumpelstiltskin) appears and does it for her, but asks for her first child in return. The only way she can get out of the deal is to guess his name. She does, and in rage Rumpelstiltskin tears himself apart.

Rumpelstiltskin Anne Anderson
Rumpelstiltskin and the miller’s daughter by Anne Anderson. Image in the public domain – source

Some lesser known fairy tales also feature spinning wheels, such as the Czech fairy tale called ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel.’ In this, there are two identical sisters. One is kind, and the other malicious. Their mother favours the latter. The kind daughter is left at home to spin, whilst her mother and sister visit the city. One day, a king comes upon her spinning. They fall in love, and he says he will return to marry her once she has spun enough yarn for her wedding shift. She does so, and they wed. However, the mother and malicious sister are outraged. When the king goes away, they kidnap the kind girl and mutilate her, then abandon her in the woods. They then go back to the palace, taking some of her limbs with them, and the malicious sister takes her place. A hermit finds the kind sister’s body, and discovers she is not quite yet dead so he nurses her. He has a helper, who gives a golden spinning wheel, distaff, and spindle to the malicious sister in exchange for her sibling’s limbs. The hermit re-attaches these, and the kind sister is well again. When the king returns, he asks his wife to spin. The malicious sister sits down at the golden spinning wheel, but as she turns the wheel it sings of her’s and her mother’s evil deed. The king immediately goes off into the woods, where he finds the kind sister, his real wife, in the care of the hermit. They rejoice and travel back to the palace together, where they are told by the servants that the devil appeared and carried off the wicked sister and mother.

In the Scottish folktale ‘Habitrot,’ a girl who hates spinning hands her work over to a group of old women to complete instead. She passes their work off as her own, and a Lord sees it and is so impressed by her skill that he wants to marry her because of it. She plays along, but once they are wed she reveals her secret. The old women show her new husband their lips, twisted by years of wetting their fingers to draw thread, and warn him that his pretty young wife will end up like them if she is allowed to spin. The Lord immediately forgives her for deceiving him, and declares that she shall never touch a spinning wheel. There are also some European variants of this tale, where it is called ‘The Lazy Spinner’ or ‘The Three Spinners.’

threespinners
The Lazy Spinner: The girl sits and watches whilst the old women do her work for her. Image from One-Eleven Books.

Spinning wheels bring varying kinds of symbolism to each of these stories. They have three main connotations in fairy tales, which affect the underlying theme of the story depending on which one is prevalent.

 
Connotation 1: Social

Spinning wheels are domestic objects. They belong in the home, and so over the centuries have come to be associated with women. So much so that the term ‘spinster’ came about to describe unmarried females, particularly those past the usual age of being wed. Spinning seems to have been a desirable skill for a woman to possess — certainly all the men in ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel.’ and ‘Habitrot’ were keen on it. The implication here is that women needed to know how to spin in order to find a husband, and if they didn’t find one they would end up becoming a spinster.

However, the ending of ‘Habitrot’ humorously counters this by showing the Lord how detrimental to beauty spinning can be. He is so deeply upset that he changes his mind about wanting his wife to spin! He would rather she look good than be useful. This story also shows how spinning is relegated to women who have nothing better to do. The old spinsters have no husbands, homes, children to care for, so they take the task away from the young woman who has the potential for all of those things to occupy her.

The act of spinning in itself also nurtured storytelling. Whilst spinning, people had to amuse themselves somehow. In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar says that ‘the spinning of flax often crossed over from the storytelling context into the story itself,’ which provides a possible explanation as to why spinning wheels feature in fairy tales.

Connotation 2: Sexual

The story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is often regarded as being an analogy for sexual awakening. Tatar notes this as well, saying that ‘the story of Briar Rose has been thought to map female sexual maturation, with the touching of the spindle representing the onset of puberty, a kind of sexual awakening that leads to a passive, introspective period of latency.’ In any version of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the main protagonist pricking her finger on the spindle or flax can be seen as a metaphor for maturation. Her father’s decision to burn all of the spinning wheels fails to prevent this from happening, showing that it is an unavoidable part of growing up. The long sleep afterwards occurs because of the stress maturation can cause, especially as she wasn’t prepared for it. The girl’s isolation from spinning wheels makes her curious when she sees one, and is what draws prematurely draws her to her maturation.

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Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, which send her into an enchanted sleep. Image from Pinterest.

For a more detailed analysis of the sexual content of Sleeping Beauty, you can have a read at my previous post about it.

The connection between spinning wheels and sexual awakening also fits in with the social side of things I discussed above. The turning of the wheel is a symbol of the cycles of life, which are often associated with women due to menstruation. In many Pagan religions, the triple goddess symbol is worn to celebrate the Maiden, Mother and Crone. These three stages of a woman’s life are a cycle in themselves, and relate to spinning as it is the young women, the maidens, who spin before they are married. Then, once they have a husband, they can move on to become mothers. Finally, once their years of fertility are over, they become crones, wise from their experiences and with the time to take up spinning once again.

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The Maiden, young & pure, symbolised by the waxing moon. Then the Mother, the image of complete feminine power, symbolised by the full moon. Lastly the Crone, old and wise, symbolised by the waning moon. Image by Mickie Mueller.

Indeed, in every version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ it is an old woman she finds spinning on the spindle which invokes the curse. This shows a sort of passing of the torch, passing on spinning, and womanhood, from generation to generation. Due to her ignorance of spinning, the girl is unprepared for the move to being a mother. Therefore, her sleep symbolises her preparation for the next stage in her life.

Connotation 3: Spiritual

Spinning isn’t a term exclusive to yarn. In Greek and Roman mythology, there were three goddesses who were know as the Moirai or Parcae respectively, but have come to be known as the Fates. They were said to control the lifespan of every mortal by spinning the threads of their lives, and cutting them when it was time for them to die.

The Three Fates  by the artist Jasmine Becket-Griffith. One goddess spins the thread of life, another measures it, and the third cuts it when it’s long enough. Image from All Posters.

The existence of such goddesses would mean that lives are planned out, and that fate cannot be changed. This act of spinning focuses on the creative element, instead of the social or symbolic. When spinning, yarn is made. Or in this case, lives. It shows the true significance of spinning is in the product, not how it’s done or who by.

Fate is a strong theme in Sleeping Beauty, and despite attempts to alter it the girl’s long sleep is unavoidable. Looking at the tale as a metaphor for maturation, this makes sense as it is inevitable that we should all keep growing until we reach adulthood. We are all at the mercy of this fate, like Sleeping Beauty – whether it is spun for us or not. None of us can prevent time passing and lengthening our ethereal threads.

Today, spinning wheels are regarded as a curiosity. You might see people spinning at country fairs, exhibiting how things were done in the ‘olden days.’ For some die-hard knitters they are still a tool, albeit an archaic one. Given the choice, I’m sure many knitters would rather buy wool than spin it. However, like any antique, their charm is undiminished. Fairy tales help to keep it alive, and keep the legends and origins of the spinning wheel known.

Sources


Featured image from Education Scotland 

Richard Dawkins: Is Telling Fairy Tales to Children ‘Pernicious?’

Over the weekend, I came across this article on the Independent website and this one on the BBC website. Now, whilst I think ‘pernicious’ is a fabulous word, I feel that Richard Dawkins’s use of it in this context is, well, slightly pernicious in itself.

Dawkins questions whether telling fairy tales to children is harmful, as they ‘inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism.’ I agree that children should be aware of what is real and what isn’t, but fairy tales offer so much more than surrealism. Besides, if children aren’t told about the supernatural, then how will they be able to distinguish between it and reality?

Grimms fairy tales
Bedtime reading: Are supernatural tales harmful to children? Image by Giulianna Gadelha. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

On BBC News, the psychologist Sally Goddard Blythe states that the beginnings of fairy tales, such as ‘once upon a time,’ imply that the stories ‘do not occur in everyday life and help a child to inquire into what is real and what’s not.’ Fantasy encourages children to think beyond what they know, which promotes intelligence and curiosity. Blythe goes on to say that ‘it would be a very sanitised, clinical world’ if we only taught children about ‘statistically likely scenarios.’ And it would – if no-one bothered to push the boundaries, or to imagine.

After initially saying that fairy tales could be harmful because of their ability to install the supernatural in children, Dawkins went on to say that his real question was whether fairy tales actually do this. Well, that depends on a few things…

Firstly, the mindset of the child consuming the tale. Some are content to passively receive whatever they’re told, meaning they would be more likely to accept the supernatural elements of fairy tales. On the other hand, children who are inquisitive would be more likely to question them. The way in which they are told the tale can also have an impact on this. If they are in a classroom environment or with family and are encouraged to discuss the tale, then they will have a far greater understanding of it than if they read or hear it alone. 

Secondly, the impact of fairy tales is dependent on the other influences the child has. Anything taken in isolation will have a stronger effect, but often fairy tales are not the only type of entertainment available. The other things children consume and learn may support or conflict with fairy tales, and affect how willing they are to take on their supernatural elements. 

Finally, the tales themselves. Some contain more references to the supernatural than others, and many of them have morals beyond their content. As Neil Gaiman said in his children’s novel Coraline:

Neil Gaiman fairy tales
Image my own.

In some fairy tales, there is emphasis on a moral and as opposed to the content. It’s not important what the world the story takes place in is like or what supernatural creatures reside within it, just that they can be overcome. There is more to fairy tales than magic – they can be used to teach life lessons which are applicable to non-magical, real-life situations. For example, look at ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ Okay, so there’s a wolf who can speak to humans and is able to disguise himself as grandma. But that has little to do with the moral, which is basically ‘don’t speak to strangers or bad things will happen’ (or if you’re dealing with Charles Perrault’s version, ‘beware of attractive, smooth-talking gentlemen and keep your legs closed until after marriage’).

Fairy tales make children aware of the possibility of the supernatural, but don’t necessarily make them believe in it. Belief is founded on much more than stories alone. But if children were to grow up without their influence, then I fear they would be severely lacking in creativity curiosity. Reality and fantasy can live side by side — it’s just a case of getting the balance right. But in order to do that, the scales need to be properly loaded in the first place. Children need to be aware of all the possibilities, and adults need to give them the freedom to make their own decisions. 

 

Sources

 

Oral Tradition to Modern Media: Are Fairy Tales Being Devalued?

Laurie Anderson campfire
Campfire image by Jeff Souville. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Originally, fairy tales were shared orally. They were told amongst adults, and passed on simply by being remembered and retold. However, nowadays such gatherings are less mainstream. The invention of new media, such as the print, the internet, and films, has provided us with a variety of alternative ways to obtain stories. So, how has this affected fairy tales?

In the book Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Max Lüthi claims that ‘the fairy tale today – like the bow and arrow, the tomahawk, and the feathered headress – has sunk to the level of the children’s playroom.’

Fairy tale castle classroom
Many schools feature fairy tale-themed areas where children can play, like this fabulous castle made by Lyn Goff.

Outside of literary circles and the study of folklore, fairy tales are usually associated with children. Almost everyone will recognise a fairy tale from their childhood, they contain memorable elements which appeal to children such as talking animals, adventure plots, and magical objects. Fairy tales provide escapism, but at the same time their fantastical nature reassures children that they are not real; it’s okay to act them out and be afraid of the scary ogre, because it doesn’t really exist and once playtime ends they can return to the safety of reality.

Lüthi’s book was published in 1970, making the ‘today’ he mentions in the above quote some time ago. Since then, fairy tales have somewhat returned to adults. Lüthi’s book came before Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a landmark publication for the adult fairy tale market, and the numerous others which have followed in its footsteps such as A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and, more recently, novels such as Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl. It appears that adults are reclaiming fairy tales, but in written form instead of oral.

Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales
Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales – definitely not for the ‘playroom.’

Of course, fairy tales have been written down for hundreds of years — more so since people like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected and published them in the nineteenth century. Through books, fairy tales have been preserved indefinitely. Print has rescued them from the danger of being forgotten, and made them available to new generations. 

But fairy tales were created with the intent told, not read. Lüthi goes on to discuss how ‘our present era of newspapers, magazines, radio and television’ has ‘practically destroyed’ the oral tradition. Even since Lüthi’s time the media has moved on — now we also have digital means of getting our fairy tale fix such as video games (check out Child of Light, The Wolf Among Us, and Never Alone) and the internet. Whilst this means the default way to consume fairy tales may no longer be telling and listening to them, it also shows their versatility. Instead of dying out, they have evolved with technology. The non-specific time settings of fairy tales lends them a sense of agelessness, allowing them to be reproduced in new forms.

Besides, the oral tradition is still very much alive in the world of performance and theatre. Some theatre companies, such as The Wrong Crowd, perform fairy tales in innovative ways for multiple age groups. This is the trailer for one of The Wrong Crowd’s productions, The Girl with the Iron Claws. It is a retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale ‘White Bear King Valemon.’

The UK also has thriving communities of performance storytellers, so much so that there is even a national Society for Storytelling. Coming together to hear stories is still a popular activity, shown by the many festivals throughout the country which encourage performance storytelling such as Winchester’s Hat Fair, the Hay Festival, and Edinburgh FringeOral storytelling seems to be a special event rather than an everyday occurrence, so what status it has perhaps lost in frequency it has gained in prestige. 

As well as performance, another visual way to access fairy tales is films. Despite both being visual mediums, films create more distance between the story and the audience. When watching a live show, there is a different atmosphere compared to watching a film alone in your room. Sometimes theatre offers opportunities to participate — I’m sure most of us can recall yelling ‘he’s behind you!’ seemingly hundreds of times at the annual Christmas pantomime (which is more often than not a fairy tale, too).

Winchester Hat Fair
Performers at Winchester Hat Fair in 2015. Image my own.

Fairy tale scholar Gypsy Thornton from Once Upon A Blog says that ‘when fairy tales are put on film, especially in “live form”, there is rarely room for us to add our own details, our own flavour, our own emphasis and importance. We are told: “this is how the story is, looks, goes and if you didn’t see it there, it didn’t exist/happen” and we are not engaged except as observers. We have nothing to do with shaping the story.

When reading or listening to a fairy tale, we create images in our minds. We imagine the settings and characters, and whenever we reread or are retold the same tale, our thoughts instantly go back to that same imaginary world. Films take away the need to do this, because everything is already there for us to see. Often it’s different to what we initially imagined, so we have to adopt the new look of the story. In doing so, the personal aesthetic we imagined gradually fades. As story consumers, we become more passive.

However, not everyone is naturally imaginative. For those people, films are a way to access the worlds which they cannot build in their minds, and to experience things they previously might not have done (such as fairy tales). And it has to be said that some films are extremely pretty! They may devalue our own individual interpretations of fairy tales, but they also allow them to stay prevalent in popular culture and make them available to a wider range of people.

Tangled lantern scene
The lantern scene in the Disney film Tangled, which is a retelling of ‘Rapunzel.’ This is so pretty that is made me want to go and light hundreds of lanterns! Image from Disney Wiki.

Fairy tale audiences are continually shifting and encompassing new people, shown by how they circulate between adults and children. Fairy tales don’t belong with anyone indefinitely, which is a further display of their versatility. It can be argued that the move to the ‘playroom,’ as Lüthi put it, downgraded them, but it must not be forgotten that they do not reside exclusively in the playroom. They simultaneously live with authors, filmmakers, performers, and theatre goers — and this isn’t even scratching the surface when you take into consideration digital media and citizens of the internet (like us fairy tale bloggers!) as well.

The ways that we tell fairy tales are definitely changing, but personally I don’t think that this is harmful. Instead of relying solely on oral dissemination, there is now a host of ways to share fairy tales. The fact alone that we are still telling them, in whatever form, is enough testament to their value.

 

Sources

  • Max Lüthi, Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976)
  • Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (London: Gollancz, 1979)
  • Gypsy Thornton, ‘”Maleficent” Fairy Tale 411‘ on Once Upon a Blog

 

Disney’s Version of Sleeping Beauty

When I was a child, this was one of my favourite films. It left me convinced that when I grew up, I was going to dance around a forest and meet my one true love. Didn’t happen exactly like that, but still, a girl can dream!

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Disney’s version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was released in 1959. Of all the versions of the story I looked at in my previous post, this one mostly follows the Grimm Brothers ‘Little Briar-Rose.’ There is no second half involving cannibalism, which is probably a good thing since this film is aimed at children. Although, the addition of a vicious dragon which breathes green fire is very welcome (love me some dragons!)

The girl in this version is a princess, and her name is ‘Aurora,’ reminiscent of the name ‘Dawn’ which Perrault gives to the princess’s daughter in his story. Aurora is also given the alias ‘Briar-Rose;’ which is a nice nod to the Grimm story.

However, Aurora is betrothed to Prince Phillip, differing to all of the previous versions I have looked at. This adds a new dimension to the story, as both sets of parents try to control their childrens’ fates. Despite this, the pair meet and fall in love on their own terms, and their relationship is consensual. So when Aurora falls asleep it’s not just any old prince she wakes up to, it is indeed her one true love. And she’s not raped and doesn’t have any children whilst unconscious, either. Compared with her predecessors she gets off pretty lightly, and gets the boyfriend she wants out of it, too!

But Aurora doesn’t really do much.

Aurora sings to animals in the forest. Image from Fanpop.

She doesn’t fight for herself or have any adventures (unlike more recent Disney princesses such as Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida). Then again, her life goal to find love doesn’t really require anything like that. However, she is defiant in small ways, and she is not domestic and dull, either.

Aurora befriends animals in the forest, and tells them how she has defied her fairy guardians (more on those later) by meeting someone in her dreams. Aurora wants to be treated like an adult, although when she first meets Prince Phillip she is hesitant and awkward, showing that perhaps she is not yet ready for the relationship she craves — a feeling which the sleeping beauties of old can also relate to.

Aurora leads an almost solitary life in the forest, with only the fairies for company. They keep her hidden in an attempt to protect her from the curse. Taking this into account, I can slightly forgive her for having no other ambitions than to find a lover. Only slightly though — I’m sure there are other things she could find to aspire to! I mean, look at Rapunzel in Disney’s Tangled. She’s stuck in a tower all her life, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to see the ‘floating lights’ or taking on the world with a frying pan. Even in the old versions of the story she gives the witch a run for her money.

bcfef0cc6d9e40c5a63e91277d32b1c9
Aurora is hesitant when she first meets Prince Phillip. Image from Yify.

When the fairies reveal to Aurora that she is a princess and must return to the castle, she bursts into tears. She does this again when they arrive and she is presented with a tiara. It is shortly after this that she pricks her finger and invokes the sleep. Instead of the sleep being a metaphor for preparing for sexual awakening, as Bruno Bettelheim interpreted the older versions, I see it more as Aurora coming to terms with her new life. Everything she has known until this point — living in the forest as a peasant girl, dancing with her animal friends, and the prospect of love with Prince Phillip (whom she does not know the identity of at this point) — has been taken from her, which creates an emotional situation she cannot deal with. Pricking her finger is an act of defiance; a way of escaping her new royal title and a distraction from her current crisis. Sleeping provides her with time to come to terms with her new situation.

The finger pricking scene is very creepy, not in the least due to the music. It is taken from the score of the 1890 Sleeping Beauty ballet written by Tchaikovsky. However, in the ballet it is used for a comic scene which is a sort of mash-up with ‘Puss in Boots’ featuring dancers dressed as cats. I have to say, I love this! It’s fascinating how the music creates a completely different mood in each scene:

Now, about the aforementioned fairy guardians. There are only three of them, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, and before their first appearance they are introduced as ‘the three good fairies.’ That’s it. Just ‘good fairies,’ that’s all we’re given. That’s their only motive for giving Aurora the gifts of song and beauty, and for hiding her in the forest and caring for her. Same as the only motive the bad fairy, Maleficent, is given is that she is ‘evil.’ Simple as that. Makes perfect sense for her to curse the princess to prick her finger and die on her sixteenth birthday, because y’know, she’s evil. She even states that she’s not offended by her lack of an invite to the christening, so she’s not even slighted. Just evil.

Disney Maleficent
Maleficent, the ‘Mistress of all Evil.’ Image from Lasso the Movies.

Ah, Maleficent. She was always my favourite character as a child. I always went for the controversial villains (and still do!) There’s just something about her; the way she speaks, her posture, and her cunning nature. And she turns into a freaking dragon at the end. She certainly deserves her ‘Mistress of all Evil’ title, although it’s never explained what made her so. That’s part of why I find her such an intriguing character.

The most interesting thing about Maleficent and the fairies is that between them, they control all of the other characters. None of them have a say in their fate. Aurora is cursed to die, then sleep and only be awoken by true love’s kiss, and because of this, the king and queen are forced to give her up to the fairies. The residents of the castle are put to sleep against their will once the curse takes effect. Prince Phillip is another victim; he is taken prisoner by Maleficent, then released by the fairies’ magic, then given a magical sword and shield and sent off to use them to fight a magical thorn bush and dragon. And when all that’s over, he has to go and kiss Aurora to break the spell she is under. It feels like all of the characters are just pawns in the battle between good and evil fairies, and that this battle is what the story is really about.

As in the Grimm version, a forest of thorns grows around the castle. Only this time it isn’t to protect Aurora, but rather to ensure that she is not saved. But of course, it fails. Prince Phillip chops his way through, showing that he is willing to fight for his love. When he kisses Aurora, she awakens and they go and meet her parents and then dance together.

Happily every after (and just for the record, I think her dress looks so much better in blue than pink!) Image from Oh My Disney.

Aurora gets everything she wants quite by chance, without having to do anything apart from get a bit upset and be cursed. She is an extremely passive heroine, but not out of choice. She has no option but to follow the path magically set out for her, because she cannot do or see anything different. And okay yes, there are millions of other things out there to aspire to apart from finding love and settling down, but if Aurora is happy with doing that then fair enough. I can’t get annoyed at her too much, because her life in the forest is not bad so she doesn’t need to plot an escape from it. If she wasn’t so restricted, then perhaps she would want more out of life.

Overall, this is a pretty film that embodies everything associated with fairy tales. It’s got the magic, mysterious villain, enchanted forest, castle, love story, and happy ending. And a dragon (did I mention the dragon?!) It does a wonderful job of fleshing out the original story, but still isn’t quite all there. There are lots of unanswered questions (such as why Maleficent decides to curse Aurora in the first place) and room for plenty more plot points to be explored. Also, Aurora is still too meek. If anything, she is meeker than those who came before her. I must say, I am very interested to see if this changes in the new film, Maleficent, and what reasons are given for Maleficent’s actions.

Finally, researching this post led me to discover that Charles Perrault has a page on IMDB. I found this hilarious, and I’m not even sure why. Clearly all this fairy tale stuff is going to my head…

 

The Underlying Sexual Content of Sleeping Beauty

Beneath their plots, most fairy tales have hidden implications. Each event is symbolic of something, and can have many interpretations depending on the number of variations the story has.

Angela Carter referred to these hidden implications at ‘latent content.’ When she was writing her own collection of fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, she specified that her intention ‘was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories.’

Carter was criticised for presenting fairy tales as violent, erotic stories, but she justified this by saying that in the stories she used, ‘the latent content is violently sexual.’ She chose to bring this to the surface, to make it clear to readers what the tales are really about. Carter wrote new versions of Little Red Riding Hood, The Snow Child, Bluebeard, and Beauty and the Beast in this way.

From reading around Sleeping Beauty, I have discovered that this fairy tale also contains numerous underlying sexual themes. Bruno Bettelheim explores sexuality in Sleeping Beauty in his book The Uses of Enchantment, which is a study into the psychology of fairy tales and how they are integral to a child’s development. He says the following:

However great the variations in detail, the central theme of all versions of “The Sleeping Beauty” is that, despite all attempts on the part of the parents to prevent their child’s sexual awakening, it will take place nonetheless.

Furthermore, parents’ ill-advised efforts may postpone the reaching of maturity at the proper time, as symbolized by Sleeping Beauty’s hundred years of sleep, which separate her sexual awakening from her being united with her lover. 

The curse given to the girl by the evil fairy/goddess/Wise Woman can be seen as a metaphor for menstruation, which Bettelheim claims her father ‘does not understand the necessity of’ and therefore tries to prevent it. This is shown by his order to burn all of the spinning wheels. However, her progression into puberty is, of course, unavoidable. The girl finds a spindle despite his efforts (in a hidden chamber – ‘a formerly inaccessible [area] of existence’) and pricks her finger.

spinning wheel distaff
The long, pointy bit on the far left? That’s it. Distaffs are used to hold the un-spun fibres. As Bettelheim points out, ‘it does not take much imagination to see the possible sexual connotations in the distaff.’ Image from Southwest Spirit.

The other interpretation of the blood spilled in this story comes from these connotations. The girl pricking her finger and drawing blood mimics the blood spilled during the loss of virginity. Either way stands for the girl’s sexual maturity, and either way she still ends up falling asleep afterwards. This implies that she was not ready for such an experience, and so the sleep is her way of dealing with it and waiting for the time when she will be.

In the Grimms’ version, ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ a forest of thorns grows up around the sleeping girl to protect her until she is ready to awaken. Many potential suitors try to break through this to reach her, but they fail and perish. According to Bettelheim, this is ‘a warning’ that premature sexual arousal ‘can be destructive.’

Sleeping Beauty Trina Schart Hyman
A forest of thorns protects sleeping beauty until she is ready to receive the prince. Image by Trina Schart Hyman, found on Maleficent Magic.

However, when the hundred years are up the forest naturally withers and allows the prince to pass. When things are ready to happen, they will do so naturally and the successful prince does not have to fight for the girl like those before him; she has now come to terms with her maturity and is prepared for what comes next – love, marriage, sex, and motherhood.

It is noted at the beginning of both Perrault’s and the Grimms’ versions that the king and queen had wanted a child for a long time before she fell pregnant. It can be inferred from this that sometimes it can take awhile to find sexual fulfilment. The same can also be inferred from the girl’s hundred year sleep, and neither she nor the queen end up any the worse off for having endured this wait. Bettelheim interprets this into the moral that ‘there is no need to hurry toward sex’ because ‘it loses none of its rewards’ no matter when it is experienced.

This is reminiscent of the moral at the end of Perrault’s version:

Lovers lose nothing if they wait, and tie the knot of marriage late. They’ll not be any less content.‘ 

The prince finds Sleeping Beauty
The Prince Finds Sleeping Beauty by Ambrose Dudley. Image by Sofi. Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0

Perrault’s sleeping beauty awakens refreshed and eager to get to know the prince, and, the same as in ‘Sun, Moon and Talia,’ they wed, have children and spend the rest of their lives happily together (well, after vanquishing the evil wife/stepmother/ogress first, as you do!) After this, Perrault goes on to say that ‘young girls, though, yearn for married bliss.’ Those who rush into love before they are ready will not get the chance to mature properly, and therefore will miss out on enjoying their relationship to its full potential. So there you have it — proof that good things really do come to those who wait!

Whilst Bettelheim’s work is just one possible interpretation of Sleeping Beauty, it is nevertheless a credible one. Sexual imagery can be found in lots of fairy tales, but it seems to fit this story particularly well because of its narrative structure – an unavoidable ‘curse’ which will draw blood, the father’s attempt to prevent it, the long sleep and finally the awakening and acceptance of adulthood. In this way, the sexual content in Sleeping Beauty makes it into a coming of age story, as opposed to the sexual power struggles and feminist ideas that Carter uncovered in ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘The Snow Child,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and ‘Bluebeard.’

Once you look at a story from a different perspective, so many new things come to light. I believe that it’s healthy to question stories and look into their depths, even if you don’t find anything. At least you’re giving yourself the freedom to entertain new possibilities. For one thing, I know I will never look at a distaff in quite the same way again…

 

Sources

  • Helen Simpson, ‘Femme Fatale: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber’ on The Guardian
  • Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (London: Penguin, 1991)
  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Briar-Rose’ on Sacred Texts

 

The History of Sleeping Beauty

‘Sleeping Beauty’ is one of the most widely-known fairy tales. However, the currently recognisable version has evolved from older stories. There are four tales often referenced in the history of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ and studying these provides some insight into the themes the story deals with.

Like Chinese Whispers, fairy tales become slightly different each time they are told. Sleeping Beauty is no exception, so here is a summary of each of the four older versions.

1. Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine (anon, 1300s)

Read this version here.

This story is one in a collection entitled Le Roman de Perceforest, a fictional narrative containing many folkloric references and connections to Arthurian legends. It’s author is unknown, as well as its exact date of publication.

‘Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine’ is taken to be the earliest recorded version of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ and it goes something like this: Three goddesses, Lucina, Themis, and Venus, are invited to celebrate the birth of a girl named Zellandine. Themis is upset that her cutlery is not as fine as that given to the other two, so she curses Zellandine to fall into a sleep, from which she will not awaken, upon stabbing her finger on a piece of flax.

Sleeping Beauty Henry Meynell Rheam
Sleeping Beauty by Henry Meynell Rheam. Image in the public domain – source

When the curse is fulfilled, Zellandine’s lover enters the tower where she is sleeping. He tries and fails to awaken her, but is so overcome by her beauty that he makes love to her anyway. Nine months later, Zellandine unconsciously gives birth to a son. He sucks the piece of flax out of her finger and then she wakes up.

2. Sun, Moon and Talia (Giambattista Basile, 1636)

Read this version here.

Sleeping Beauty Alexander Zick
Sleeping Beauty by Alexander Zick. Image from Wikipedia.

A girl named Talia is born and her father, a Lord, requests that all the seers in the land come and read her fortune. They all reach the same conclusion: that she will be in danger from a piece of flax. When Talia is grown up, she sees an old woman spinning and asks to try it. As soon as she begins, a piece of flax stalk becomes lodged under her fingernail and she dies. Saddened by her fate, her father shuts her away in a palace in the country and leaves.

A travelling King discovers the palace some time later. When he beholds Talia, he believes she is asleep and tries to awaken her but cannot. So he stays awhile and admires her beauty, before returning home and soon forgetting what happened. Awhile later, two children appear by Talia’s side (a boy and a girl names ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’). Now, some versions of this story state that Talia gave birth to them, whereas others say that they just ‘wandered in’ from somewhere unknown. Either way, there is a strong implication that the King raped Talia and Sun and Moon are their offspring. As in Le Roman de Perceforest, one of the children sucks the flax out of Talia’s finger and she wakes up.

But this story doesn’t end here!

One day, the King recalls his encounter and goes looking for Talia, and finding her with the children, he is joyful and vows to take them home with him soon. But the King’s stepmother (or, in some versions, his wife) becomes suspicious that he is keeping something from her. She sends a spy, and learning of Talia’s existence, she requests to meet Sun and Moon. Talia sends them gladly, believing them to be safe with the King and his family, but the stepmother has other plans. She orders the cook to kill the children and serve them to the King for dinner. But the cook is kind and hides them, and serves up goats instead, unbeknownst to the stepmother who them summons Talia.

Upon arrival, the stepmother is hostile to Talia and angry at her for stealing the King’s affection. She orders a fire to be made and Talia to be burnt, but the King arrives in time to save her and burns his stepmother instead. The cook reveals that Sun and Moon are safe, and the family are reunited and live happily.

At the end, there is this moral:

‘He who has luck may go to bed, and bliss will rain upon his head.’

This implies that if fate is on your side, then you can sleep soundly, for any length of time, and things will still be okay when you wake up. Just like they are for Talia. 
 

3. The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood (Charles Perrault, 1697)

Read this version here.
This story follows the same narrative as Sun, Moon and Talia, but with a few alterations. 

Sleeping Beauty spindle
Image from Psychology of Fairy Tales.

Firstly, the heroine is a princess, and is given no name. At her christening, a banquet is held in honour of the fairies who were invited to become godmothers to the princess. However, one fairy was not invited, as she was believed to be dead, but she turned up anyway and the King ordered a place to be set for her. But since he had not anticipated her arrival, her cutlery was less fine than that given to the other fairies. Feeling slighted, when the time came to bestow gifts upon the princess, whilst the other fairies give her beauty, good temper, grace, dancing and music skills, the uninvited fairy declares that she will prick her hand on a spindle and die. The last fairy then attempts to undo the curse, and instead casts a spell ensuring that the princess shall sleep for 100 years and at the end of this time be awakened by a prince.

So the princess grows up, and sees an old woman spinning, then asks to try it and pricks her finger to invoke the spell. She falls asleep, and the last fairy returns and puts the rest of the people in the castle to sleep as well. Except for the King and Queen, who leave and order no-one to enter the castle. Over the years, the royal family changes and a new one takes over. The son of the new King discovers the sleeping princess, and falls to his knees before her just as the enchantment ends. She rejoices to see him, and they spend a long time talking and fall in love. Everyone else awakens, and the prince and princess are married.

But like in Sun, Moon and Talia, this is not the end. Enter the mother, who this time is related to the prince by blood and is also a child-eating ogress.

The prince and princess have two children, a girl and a boy named ‘Dawn’ and ‘Day’ respectively, and the prince hides his young family from his mother. But then his father dies, and so the prince becomes King and announces his marriage. Then he has to leave for war, and the princess, Dawn and Day and left unprotected. The ogress tells the steward that she wants to eat the children, but like the cook in Sun, Moon and Talia, he hides them and serves her a lamb and a goat instead.

The, the ogress announces that she wants to eat the princess. Stricken by grief believing her children are dead and eaten, the princess consents in the hope that in death she might see them again. But the steward tells her the truth, then takes her and reunites her with Dawn and Day and serves up hind to the ogress. The ogress discovers she has been tricked though, and ties up the princess, steward and children and plans to throw them into a pit of snakes. It is then that the King returns, and the ogress throws herself into the pit of snakes in a fit of rage. The King then lives happily with his family.

This story also has a moral:

‘For girls to wait awhile, so they may wed
A loving husband, handsome, rich and kind:
That’s natural enough, I’d say;
But just the same, to stay in bed
A hundred years asleep – you’ll never find
Such patience in a girl today.

Another lesson may be meant:
Lovers lose nothing if they wait,
And tie the knot of marriage late;
They’ll not be any less content.

Young girls, though, yearn for married bliss
So ardently, that for my part
I cannot find it in my heart
To preach a doctrine such as this.’    

What Perrault meant by this is that love grows over time and it is best to wait for the right person, and if you do so then the relationship will be better. Rushing into love doesn’t improve it, and you will enjoy the perks of it no less if you get it at a later stage.

4. Little Briar-Rose (Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, 1812)

Read this version here.

This version is much closer to the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ that is so well-known.

A King and Queen are sad because they do not have a child, when suddenly a frog appears before the queen and tells her that their desire shall be fulfilled. Nine months later, the Queen gives birth to a daughter. The King holds a feast in celebration and invites twelve of the thirteen Wise Women in the kingdom, as they only have twelve gold plates. Of course we know what’s going to happen here! The thirteenth Wise Woman arrives, upset that she was not invited. Instead of giving the baby princess a virtuous gift like the others do, she announces that the princess shall prick herself with a spindle at the age of fifteen and die. After that she leaves, and the final Wise Woman eases the curse by changing it to a sleep of one hundred years instead of death.

Sleeping Beauty thorns
The forest of thorns. Image from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.


In an attempt to protect his daughter, the King orders that every spinning wheel in the kingdom must be burnt. The princess grows up with all the attributes bestowed upon her by the good Wise Women – beauty, riches, grace, wisdom and modesty. But one day she is left alone in the castle, and come across an old woman spinning (seem to get about a bit, these random old spinning women!). Like in the previous versions, the princess tries spinning for herself, pricks her finger and falls asleep. Everyone else in the castle falls asleep as well, and a thorny hedge grows up around it.

Many princes try and penetrate the thorns, only to die in their clutches. But when the hundred years are almost up, the wither, and one prince is allowed to pass. He finds the princess, Briar-rose, as she has come to be known, and cannot turn his eyes away from her beauty. He kisses her and she wakes up, along with the rest of the castle’s inhabitants. Briar-rose and the prince marry, and live the rest of their lives happily together.

Each of these stories has its own unique message and purpose, and brings something new to the concept of Sleeping Beauty. From reading these, the only two consistent plot points are a prophecy, a reference to spinning, a sleeping girl, and a man discovering her before she awakens. And if you think about it – on the surface, that’s basically all there is to it. This also goes far in proving how versatile fairy tales are, which is what makes it possible to intervene with them.

 

Sources

  • Charles Perrault, ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ in Charles Perrault: The Complete Fairy Tales, translated by Christopher Betts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Fairy Tales: Angela Carter and Little Red Riding Hood

In my previous post about ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ I looked at versions of the tale by Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers and how it was used as a tale of warning. However, in more modern retellings, different aspects of the story become apparent.

Angela Carter’s anthology of short stories based on fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, was published in 1979 and caused great controversy around the topic of feminism. In this article, Carter stated that her intention ‘was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories.’ With this is mind, when reading her two stories inspired by Little Red Riding Hood it is clear that she took some very specific content from this tale. According to Carter, there is still much it can teach us. Instead of a tale of warning, she has made it into a tale of transformation. The content she took from Little Red Riding Hood is awareness; more specifically adolescent and sexual awareness.

The Werewolf

Read it here.

At the beginning of this story, before any characters are introduced, readers are told about the harsh lifestyle of the ‘northern country.’ Here ‘the Devil holds picnics in the graveyards and invites the witches’ and ‘wreaths of garlic on the doors keep out vampires.’ Carter impresses upon readers that superstition is prominent in this place. This prepares them for the coming tale and makes it seem more feasible, given the peculiar setting.

The Red Riding Hood character is sent to her grandmother’s house with food as per, only when she encounters the wolf, who tries to kill her instantly, she attacks it with a knife and hacks off one of its paws. Clearly she is not the standard, innocent child of Perrault’s and  the Grimm’s versions. The passive female image does not apply to her.

At the end when she discovers the wolf is actually grandmother in disguise, the grandmother is killed by the villagers. The previously mentioned superstitions foreshadow this, making the ending rather sinister. Is the grandmother actually a werewolf, or is she just a victim of superstition and paranoia? Her death is irrevocable; there is no woodcutter to rescue her. So despite Red Riding Hood surviving and happily moving into grandmother’s old house, the ending isn’t completely joyful.

Another way to read it is that because the girl is an active protagonist and goes against the idea of what females should be, she doesn’t fit into society. Therefore, she ‘prospered’ living out in the forest where she could live on her own terms. Maybe superstition provided her with a motive to get rid of grandmother, allowing her to take charge of her own life.

 

The Company of Wolves

Read it here.

This story contains another active protagonist, although of a different kind to the one seen in ‘The Werewolf.’ This girl’s power comes from seduction. She is calm, confident, and in control. From the moment she meets the wolf, she is wise to his game and freely begins to play it. When he bets her a kiss that he will make it to grandmother’s house before her she purposely dawdles, wanting him to win. Of course he does, and when she enters the house she shows no fear or grief over her dead grandmother. Like in ‘The Werewolf,’ the grandmother’s death is symbolic of the girl moving out of childhood, where she is watched over by her elders, and becoming her own person.

Showing no grief for grandmother is also a defence mechanism for survival. Grief would be of no use to her, so she doesn’t indulge in it. Instead, she sedately removes her clothes, implying that she is thrilled by the danger she is in. This is furthered by her undressing the wolf-man. She embraces the sexual experience, conveying the message that you shouldn’t be afraid of sexuality. Her laughter is the twist, the moment of realisation. The wolf-man says he wants to eat her, but ‘she knew she was nobody’s meat.’ Is is then apparent that she has been playing with him all along, revealing her to be cunning.

Like in ‘The Werewolf,’ the ending to ‘The Company of Wolves’ is ambiguous and slightly unnerving. No woodcutter comes to save the grandmother, and the girl sleeps ‘sweet and sound’ with the wolf-man after picking out the lice from his hair and eating them. That last part isn’t exactly normal human behaviour, and by doing it the girl becomes somewhat animalistic. She has undergone a transformation. By the end of the story she has engaged in sexual activity and obtained bestial qualities in order to save herself. Instead Carter could have made the wolf passive, but she goes that little bit further to reject the idea that you can return to ‘normal’ after having such experiences. So whilst the girl is happy at the end, the sting comes in that she is altered and poor grandmother is still a pile of bones under the bed. Carter is challenging readers to accept the change and move on.

In these stories, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ has morphed. Women are no longer so innocent, and much harder to trick. Carter’s characters are bold and edgy, and not just simply difficult for the wolves to mislead but impossible for them to overcome. Angela Carter is one of my favourite authors, and The Bloody Chamber is a vibrant collection of stories which still cause controversy due to their explicit content and rebelliousness. I believe that this will continue, and I admire Carter for her imagination and confidence.

 

 

Sources

  • Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (London: Vintage, 1995)
  • Jack Zipes, The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013)

 

Fairy Tales: Meanings of Little Red Riding Hood

Most people are told ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as children. It’s one of the classic tales that contains has a clear social agenda: Obey your parents, and don’t talk to strangers. In most versions there is also a woodcutter or huntsman who comes to rescue Red Riding Hood and her grandmother from the wolf, reassuring children that good people exist as well as bad ones.

However, like with most fairy tales, there are numerous versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and it has been intervened with by many authors. Whilst the main components of the story are always present in order for it to be recognisable, the events in the narrative have been altered to draw out different meanings.

Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers both published versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ but in different centuries and under different circumstances. Perrault was writing for literary salons, in the court of King Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles. The Grimms were seeking to collect and preserve their culture, and were notorious for editing their material (their later editions are noticeably more sanitised than their earlier ones). The impact these circumstances had on ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is clear to see.

Charles Perrault – Little Red Riding Hood (1697)

Read it here.

Little Red Riding Hood illustration by Gustave Doré. Image in the public domain – source

In Perrault’s tale, there is no-one to save grandmother or Red Riding Hood. They are devoured by the wolf, and that’s the end of the story. An afterword in the form of a poem entitled ‘Moral’ is included. This states that ‘mainly pretty girls with charm do wrong and often come to harm’ and ‘it is no surprise that they are caught by wolves who take them off to eat.’ It also mentions that not all wolves are ‘the savage kind’ and ‘these are the most dangerous wolves of all.’

Whilst clearly still a warning, the context here is slightly different. This version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ carries the message that some men, who may initially appear harmless, are actually ‘wolves’ in disguise and seek to steal the virtue of young ladies. The absence of the saviour makes it clear that if you are taken in by one of these men, it is your own fault for not being cautious and there will be no chances for redemption. For ladies at the Palace of Versailles, this was a valid warning. If they fooled around with unsuitable lovers, then it could damage their social standing and make it harder for them to secure a respectable marriage.  

 

Grimm Brothers – Little Red Cap (1812)

Read it here.

Little Red Riding Hood illustration by Arthur Rackham. Image in the public domain – source

The Grimm version warns children that bad people exist and to listen to their parents. However, it differs in that it has an epilogue where Red Riding Hood is once again approached by a wolf but is not distracted by him. Instead, she goes directly to grandmother’s house and tells her of the encounter. Together, Red Riding Hood and grandmother await the wolf and hatch a plan to defeat him which is successful. Red Riding Hood becomes sensible and fearless, and the grandmother quick-witted and ruthless. They have no trouble with dispatching the wolf.

This extra section shows how it is okay to make mistakes so long as they are learned from. Also, there can be joy in overcoming enemies yourself as opposed to having a metaphorical huntsman or woodcutter come to your aid. In later versions this epilogue was dropped, possibly because of dominant gender ideals during the 19th and early 20th century. Women single-handedly killing wolves went against the idea that females should be domestic and caring, which at the time was what society wanted them to be.

‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is such an iconic and well-known fairy tale that has been used in many contexts to convey a variety of messages. It has also altered over time, and consequently has undergone many shifts. My favourite retellings were written by Angela Carter in her anthology The Bloody Chamber, which I have written about in my post Fairy Tales: Angela Carter and Little Red Riding Hood.

 

Sources

  • Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (London: Penguin, 1991)
  • Charles Perrault, ‘Little Red Riding-Hood’ in Charles Perrault: The Complete Fairy Tales, translated by Christopher Betts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. by Maria Tatar (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012)

 

Book Review: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Last year I began to feel as though I was inhabiting a literary desert. Of the many books I read, nothing grabbed me enough to warrant recommendation. I wanted something to restore my faith in the power of stories. Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth was that book.

Kate Forsyth Bitter Greens

‘Rapunzel’ is one of favourite fairy tales. I have encountered so many versions of it that I thought I had seen everything, until I picked this up. The tagline says it all: ‘You think you know the story’. Well, think again. Even the most avid folklorists could not predict the plot twists and beautiful, extra details given here. Kate has taken the classic tale and made it her own, fleshed it out, and given it new meaning. It’s so much more than just a girl locked in a tower, it’s about redemption, love in its many forms, and the acutely human fear of passing time which all of us can relate to. A beautifully woven three-strand narrative follows Rapunzel, the witch, and one of the real-life tellers of the tale, Charlotte-Rose de Caumount de la Force, making it informative as well as fantastical.

It is one of the great mysteries of literature, how Charlotte-Rose came to know Giambattista Basile’s tale ‘Petrosinella,’ published many years before she wrote her own version entitled ‘Persinette.’ Kate offers a plausible explanation for this in the form of a nun at the Abbey of Gercy-en-Brie, where Charlotte-Rose was sent after being exiled from the court of Versailles by King Louis XIV. Readers discover the stories of the girl in the tower and the witch who put her there at the same pace as Charlotte-Rose, creating scandalous cliffhangers that make you keep reading.

The main characters are unquestionably alive throughout, despite each of their stories vastly differing from one another. It is easy to identify with them all, and the triple narrative is not at all confusing. In particular the witch, named Selena Leonelli, comes across strongly. Whilst not presented as the most desirable person, her motives are clear and I found myself sympathising with and hating her at the same time. Few writers can create that contrast effectively, and Kate is definitely one of them. Selena’s ambiguous personality makes her exciting and controversial; a great discussion point for book clubs.

Whilst it is somewhat of a fairy tale, Bitter Greens is definitely not for children or even the lower tier of the young adult genre. Many of the themes and issues raised, such as religion, politics, and prostitution, place it firmly in adult fiction. But overall, this is a seductive read which fans of both historical fiction and fantasy will not be able to resist. Kate has also written another fairy tale novel called The Wild Girl, which I have reviewed here. I highly recommend this one, too!

You can find out more about Bitter Greens and the research Kate carried out for it on her blog.