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)

Book Review: Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

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

Spindle's End Robin McKinley

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

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

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

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

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

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

Now for the not so positive stuff…

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

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

Sadly, no.

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

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

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

WHY? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!

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

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

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

Erm, still no.

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

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

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

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

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

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