Fairy Tales: The Princess As the Witch in ‘All Kinds of Fur’

This essay was my final project for The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic‘s witches in folklore and literature course, delivered by Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman. The course was extremely informative and fun, and a great opportunity to share ideas with like-minded people. I highly recommend keeping an eye out for their future courses.

Credit to Sara and Brittany for presenting the theory that the princess in the fairy tale ‘All Kinds of Fur’ could also be described as a witch. This resonated strongly with my own analysis of the story, hence why I chose to explore the matter further in my final project.

The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic

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.

Allerleirauh Arthur Rackham
Allerleirauh by Arthur Rackham. Image in the public domain – source

‘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.

Charles Perrault Donkeyskin Gustave Doré illustration
Illustration for Charles Perrault’s fairy tale ‘Donkeyskin’ by Gustave Doré. Image in the public domain – source

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.

Allerleirauh Philipp Grot Johann
Allerleirauh by Philipp Grot Johann. Image in the public domain – source

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.

Robin McKinley Deerskin
Beautiful paperback cover for Deerskin by Robin McKinley. Image By Source, Fair Use.

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.

Allerleirauh Henry Justice Ford
Allerleirauh by Henry Justice Ford. Image in the public domain – source

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.

Sources

  • 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)
  • Kat Howard, ‘The Princess and the Witch’ on Fantasy Magazine
  • Mackenzie Sage Wright, ‘Practicing Witchcraft: What You Should Know About Blood Magic’ on Exemplore
  • 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)

Sleeping Beauty: The Meaning of Fate, Sleep, and Death

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.

Sleeping Beauty fairies ballet
National Ballet of the Kiev Opera: Fairies visit Sleeping Beauty’s christening to bestow gifts upon her. Image by Jean-Louis Zimmerman, CC BY 2.0.

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.

Greek mythology the Three Fates
The Three Fates of Greek mythology spin the threads of people’s lives. Image in the public domain – source.

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.

Wiccan triple goddess symbol
The Wiccan triple goddess moon symbol. Image in the public domain – source

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.

vampire photo shoot Angela Carter The Lady of the House of Love
Vampire Shoot by Charli Avery Make Up. Photography by Charlotte Clarke.

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.

tarot cards
The countess reads her own fate. Image by Sonya Cheney. CC BY 2.0.

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. 

Sources

  • 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.
  • Giambattista Basile, ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia‘ in Lo Cunto de li Cunti, 1634.
  • Charles Perrault, ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood‘ in Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé, 1697.
  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Briar-Rose‘ in Kinder-und Hausmärchen, 1812.

Deer Folklore: Faerie Cattle, Sacred Sika, and Our Wild Sides

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.

Glencoe deer
Deer in Glencoe, Scotland. Image from Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

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.

Kasuga Shrine deer painting
Silk painting of a Nara deer at Kasuga Shrine. Image in the public domain – source

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!

Nara Park deer
Sika deer in Nara Park, Japan. Images my own

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.

Kasuga Shrine
Torii gate at the entrance of the path leading to Kasuga Shrine, and my deer o-mikuji (thankfully it was a good one!) Images my own

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.

Arthur Rackham Little Brother and Little Sister
Little Brother and Little Sister by Arthur Rackham. Image in the public domain – source

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.

Nara Park deer
Me feeding a sika deer in Nara Park. Image my own.

Sources

  • 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)
  • Fairy Women & Their Deer‘ on The Faery Folklorist
  • Jo Woolf, ‘Ossian’s Cave in Glen Coe‘ on The Hazel Tree
  • Messengers of the Gods – Deer of Nara
  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’ available online here
  • Heidi Anne Heiner, ‘Annotations for Brother & Sister‘ on SurLaLune

 

Fairy Tales in Hanna

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!
 
Firstly, family.
 
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.

Berlin Spreepark Hanna
I’m wondering why this wolf is even in a children’s theme park in the first place. It’s terrifying! Image from The Movie Club.
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.
Hanna
Hanna befriends Sophie, an English teenager travelling with her family. They are very different, but manage to get along. Image from Wired.

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.’

Full interview can be found here.

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:

Hanna cabin the the snow
In the woods: Hanna and Erik’s cabin is straight out of a fairy tale picture book. Image from Pushing Pixels, which has some great information about the set design of Hanna.

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:

Berlin Spreepark Hanna
House where Hanna goes to meet a friend of Erik’s – whose name, oddly enough, is Mr. Grimm. Image from Worstist.
Berlin Spreepark Hanna
Swan-shaped boats. Hanna and Marissa run across these. Image by Sebastian Niedlich on Flick River.
Berlin Spreepark Hanna
Abandoned pirate-style ship with a dragon’s head (and creepy swan in the background!) Image from Ceo World.

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 Hanna here.

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.

Saoirse Ronan Hanna
In the snow, Hanna is the perfect hunter (also thought it would be nicer to have this picture than one of her with a dead deer…) Image from Plugged In.
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!
 

 

Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella: A Different Kind of Heroine

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.

Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
Lily James even makes collecting water look glamorous! Cinderella may not have the most amazing tasks to do, but she just gets on with them. That’s life. We can’t always do what we want. Image from Huffington Post.

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.

Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
Cinderella and Prince Kit meet in the forest, where else? After all, this is a fairy tale! Image from Collider.

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.
Cinderella Elenore Abbott
The spirit of Ashputtel’s mother helps her to go to the ball. Artwork by Elenore Abbott. Image from SurLaLune.

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.
Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
The ballroom scene looks very grand yet authentic. Image from Bails of Hemp.
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…

 

Blog Tour: Inspiring Blogger Award – 7 Favourite Fairy Tales

I was recently tagged for the Inspiring Blogger Award and received a shout out from Adam over at Fairy Tale Fandom. Thank you for thinking of me, and here is my post in response!

The idea of this tag is to post 7 facts about yourself that other people may not know. Since this is a fairy tale blog, I’ve decided to list 7 of my favourite fairy tales instead.


1. The Little Mermaid 

Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen. Read it 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.

Little Mermaid Ivan Bilibin
Little Mermaid by Ivan Bilibin. Image in public domain – source


2. Habitrot

George Douglas, Scotland. Read it here.

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.’


3. Petrosinella 

Italy, Giambattista Basile. Read it here.

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.


4. White Bear King Valemon 

Norway, Asbjørnsen & Moe. Read it here.

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).

White Bear King Valemon Theodor Kittelsen
White Bear King Valemon by Theodor Kittelsen. Image in public domain – source

5. Ricky of the Tuft 

France, Charles Perrault. Read it here.

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!


6. Little Brother and Little Sister

Germany, Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm. Read it here.

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!

7. Vasilisa the Fair 

Russia, Alexander Afanasyev. Read it here.

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.

Vasilisa at the Hut of Baba Yaga Ivan Bilibin
Vasilisa at the Hut of Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin. Image in the public domain – source

 

Book Review: The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

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.

Kate Forsyth The Wild Girl

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.

Kate Forsyth The Wild Girl

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:

Jack Zipes The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
Newly translated by Jack Zipes: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, containing all the stories from their 1812-1815 publications.

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 up considerably. 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.

 

Christmas Fairy Tales

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

Matorin Nikolay Vasilyevich Snegurochka
Snegurochka by Matorin Nikolay Vasilyevich. Image in the public domain – source

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.

The Fir Tree

Read it here

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!

The Little Match Girl

Read it here

The Little Match Girl Anne Anderson
The Little Match Girl by Anne Anderson. Image in the public domain – source

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

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Artuš Scheiner. By Ablakok – Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

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.

The Star Money

Read it here

Victor Paul Mohn The Star Money
The Star Money by Victor Paul Mohn. Image in the public domain – source

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!

Snow White: The Other Sleeping Beauty

‘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.

Franz Jüttner Snow White
Snow White illistration by Franz Jüttner. Image in the public domain – source

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.

Snow White Arthur Rackham
Snow White illustration by Arthur Rackham. Image in the public domain – source

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.

Snow White Darstellung von Alexander Zick
Snow White illustration by Darstellung von Alexander Zick. Image in the public domain – source

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.

Sources

  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. by Maria Tatar (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012)

 

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: 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)