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)

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)

 

Fairy Tales: The Symbolism of Spinning Wheels

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

Firstly though, what actually is a spinning wheel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Connotation 1: Social

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

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

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

Connotation 2: Sexual

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connotation 3: Spiritual

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

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

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

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

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

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Featured image from Education Scotland