Category Archives: Fairy Scholarship

Hans Christian Andersen: Taking the Fairy out of Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales in Search of a Soul

"Dashed overboard and fell,  her body dissolving into foam..."  - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac

"Dashed overboard and fell, her body dissolving into foam..." - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac

I’ve been neglecting Hans Christian Andersen and I feel guilty about this. It’s partly because of all the noted fairy story tellers, he wrote mostly original work (rather than transcribing folk tales) and because of this, many of his stories labeled as “fairy tales” simply aren’t—at least from the perspective of popular assumptions about them. The popular term “fairy tale ending” presupposes a happy ending such as “lived happily ever after” and many authors and transcribers seem to assume that this is what both adult and child readers want. Andersen does provide this sort of ending, but his stories are more complex and the resolution not dependent on any of the magic that fairy stories depend on. The sense of magic we associate with fairy tales is not produced by transformations or spells, but often through the reader’s assumption of anthropomorphic qualities – and Andersen was a master of this process – thus allowing the reader to supply his own magic. His stories are not always from some distant past but rather draw from the edges of our imagination in the recent and present. Of all the fairy tale authors, he is among the most ironic. And he is nowhere more ironic than in his tragic tales of unrequited love.

He must have died if the little mermaid  had not come to his rescue  - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen

He must have died if the little mermaid had not come to his rescue - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac

One story in this mode is The Little Mermaid. What is striking about it is not the sense of wonder that magic imbues, but the sense of irony at the exchanges she must make to achieve her end. There is a mythic quality to the story of the sea princess more in accord with Greek tragedy than is comfortable for many modern fairy tales; and in The Little Mermaid, this sense of tragic irony is unrelenting.

The prince asked who she was and how she came there;  She looked at him tenderly and with a sad expressions  in her dark blue eyes, but could not speak  - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac

The prince asked who she was and how she came there; She looked at him tenderly and with a sad expressions in her dark blue eyes, but could not speak - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac

The Little Mermaid begins as a coming of age story: The mermaid princess discovers the world above the waters and sees the prince who becomes her obsessive desire. In this (I suspect with intentional literary irony), we see a reversal of the siren’s role as temptress (Odysseus plugged the ears of his crew and had himself tied to a mast) as she rescues the Prince from drowning. Tragically, she discovers that her current nature makes her unsuitable to love a prince—as a mermaid, she has no soul. To satisfy her dreams she must become human, and by achieving the love of the human prince, gain an immortal soul and attain Christian Salvation (a common Andersen theme).

The Little Mermaid seeks the aid of a sea witch crone who gives her a potion to change her fish tail into legs. Again, mythic irony appears in the price paid in the form of continuous pain at each step the little mermaid takes, and in the loss of her voice – a tragic sense of loss for a siren for whom song defines identity. She retains the mermaid grace and beauty that so attracts the prince to love her as a sister, but not enough to distract him from his own obsession to find the girl who saved his life. There is a double irony now at play since her sacrifice allows her to be near the object of her desire but renders her unable to completely close the distance between them. At the same, the Prince is unable to see her for who she really is – his rescuer whom he seeks in love. But there is yet more mythic irony to follow.

Little Mermaid, illustrated by Sulamith Wulfing.

Little Mermaid, illustrated by Sulamith Wulfing.

The prince is betrothed to another princess as a result of family politics; when he finally sees his beautiful bride-to-be, he imagines her to be his rescuer and succumbs, almost as by enchantment, into a love for her. The little mermaid now has come to a classical dilemma. She has neither union with the prince nor can she she return to being a mermaid. She is doomed to spend the rest of her life in pain and will die without an immortal soul. Andersen does not let it be; he supplies a twist wherein the mermaid’s sisters, having cut off their beautiful hair in a sacrificial exchange for a knife their sister can use to kill the prince and end the sea witch’s spell. In the end, Christian morality wins and the mermaid, who cannot bring herself to murder the man she loves, kills herself by jumping into the sea and merging, as mermaids do, into the foam of the sea.

"They sacrificed their hair to save her" Hans Christian Andersen : Little Mermaid's Sisters, Anne Anderson

"They sacrificed their hair to save her" Hans Christian Andersen : Little Mermaid's Sisters, Anne Anderson

Andersen originally let the story end there, but his editors would not allow such a tragic ending in a children’s story. Anderson introduces air spirits; by becoming an air spirit, the little mermaid can serve as a guide for the proper behavior of children – and, if done well, earn a chance for an immortal soul. (I don’t know about you, but I prefer the irony of the tragic ending).

Mermaid (Transfiguration) by Sulamith Wulfing

Mermaid (Transfiguration) by Sulamith Wulfing

Another story of unrequited love, just as ironic but even sadder as a result, is The Brave Tin Soldier. Andersen makes us ascribe human qualities to an innocent object with no ability to act on its own. We meet a toy who is incomplete; there was not enough tin left to make a second leg, and because of his incompleteness seeks redemption in love for another toy that he imagines is also one legged – she is a paper dancer who lives in a paper castle that our protagonist has only glimpsed; thus he cannot see that she actually has two legs but one is raised out of sight in a dance gesture.

He cannot posses her, but he resolutely desires her as he embarks on an accidental quest into the world (he is knocked off the window), whereupon he meets real world adventures in a sewer (including immigration and tax extortion from a rat) until he is eventually swallowed by a fish. With yet another ironic twist, the fish is caught by the family who owned him as a toy, and he is returned to the nursery now within the reach of his beloved. But they are still only toys – unable to act and at the mercy of greater forces. One child, for no particular reason, tosses him into the fireplace and he begins to melt. Nature intervenes when the wind blows the paper dancer also into the fire, and they are finally joined in one place by mutual destruction, he as a lump in the form of a heart, she in the one part of her that would not burn, a rose.

"The draught of air caught the dancer,  and she flew like a sylph just into the stove to the tin soldier", from The Flying Trunk, Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by Kay Nielsen

"The draught of air caught the dancer, and she flew like a sylph just into the stove to the tin soldier", from The Flying Trunk, Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by Kay Nielsen

One might look at these stories as a yearning for childhood sentimentality, but Andersen makes it clear that The Little Mermaid is a tragic myth and The Brave Tin Soldier is a classical allegory. He understood better than his editors our need for tragic irony to experience the genuine feeling of loss the storyteller attempts to convey. Irony heightens our compassion for and identity with the hero’s tragic dilemma, and through irony the loss is brought into sharp focus. We are more likely to see this quality in classical tragedy than in a book of children’s fairy tales.

And that is why I find Andersen so rewarding, and why he is so much more difficult a “fairy tale” writer to study than some others.

Image Credits:

Edmund Dulac, Sulamith Wulfing, Anne Anderson, Kay Nielsen

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There Be Dragons: Big, Dangerous and Sometimes Misunderstood

Medieval Lindorm Dragon, 15th century, from the alchemical scrolls of Sir George Ripley

Medieval Lindorm Dragon, 15th century, from the alchemical scrolls of Sir George Ripley

Of all the creatures encountered within the boundaries of Myth and Faerie, dragons are at once the most feared and the most admired. It is understandable that our relationships with them have not always been for the best since we, as well as our livestock and our maidens, have had to deal with issues ranging from prosaic matters, such as the avoidance of being eaten, to cosmic dilemmas involving the divisions between Heaven and Hell. Moreover, it does not help that certain dragons (and they are all individuals) tend to be rather large and powerful:

Leviathan - Arthur Rackham

Leviathan - Arthur Rackham

His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. One is so near to another, that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered. By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth. In his neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him. The flakes of his flesh are joined together: they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.
(Job 41: 15-23)

Debate continues to rage whether or not Leviathan was a true dragon although those on the dragon camp (and most of those are dragons) smilingly point out that no crocodile breathes fire. Indeed, one wishes to believe it since it is difficult to argue against fire-breathing beings. There is also no doubting the nature of Jörmungandr, the offspring of Loki and Thor’s dragon adversary:

Thor Slaying the Midgard Dragon - Henry Fuseli

Thor Slaying the Midgard Dragon - Henry Fuseli

…Then Thor was angered, and took upon him his divine strength, braced his feet so strongly that he plunged through the ship with both feet, and dashed his feet against the bottom; then he drew the Serpent up to the gunwale. And it may be said that no one has seen very fearful sights who might not see that: how Thor flashed fiery glances at the Serpent, and the Serpent in turn stared up toward him from below and blew venom.
(Prose Edda – Brodeur Trans.)

Thor defeats the serpent and drops it into the abyss where it grew great enough to encircle the earth. I feel it fair to point out however, that although Thor was credited with the deed, other mythologies compete for the distinction. Both Zeus and St. Michael claim similar feats. Zeus in order to defeat the Titans seized Typhon “from whose shoulders grew a hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon” and struggled with him until “…the earth melted in the glow of the blazing fire. And in the bitterness of his anger Zeus cast him into wide Tartarus.” (Hesiod, Theogony ll. 820-868)

St. Michael’s acts were similarly dramatic, though not as descriptive:

St. Michael and his angels fight Satan in the shape of a wyvern dragon. From the Liber Floridus, a Flemish manuscript from the 15th century.

St. Michael and his angels fight Satan in the shape of a wyvern dragon. From the Liber Floridus, a Flemish manuscript from the 15th century.

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
(Revelations 12: 7-9)

But let us not descend into that primordial abyss. This is not only about gods but also about those more familiar dragons we have to deal with on a more mundane basis. Fortunately for us, all of the old cosmically-sized creatures survived the wrath of gods, while the gods themselves seem to have devolved the duties onto heroes resulting in a wealth of tales about both. The most famous hero of them all was Siegfried (or Sigurd) and how he killed Fafnir:

Siegfried slays Fafnir with his father's sword - Konrad Dielitz, 1880

Siegfried slays Fafnir with his father's sword - Konrad Dieliz, 1880

Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went; but Sigurd neither trembled nor was adrad at the roaring of him. So when, as the worm crept over the pits, Sigurd thrust his sword under his left shoulder, so that it sank in up to the hilts; then up leapt Sigurd from the pit and drew the sword back again unto him, and therewith was his arm all bloody, up to the very shoulder.

Now when that mighty worm was ware that he had his death-wound, then he lashed out head and tail, so that all things soever that were before him were broken to pieces.
(The Volsungsaga, William Morris trans.)

There’s no doubting that swords are very useful things when dealing with dragons, but it must be a special sword. Siegfried’s was called Gram and could cut through an anvil. In another story, The Two Brothers, the Grimm brothers reported how another sword was used to save a maiden from a dragon.

The Two Brothers - Kay Nielsen, from Grimm's Fairy Tales: The seven-headed dragon came and breathed fire,  setting all the grass ablaze...

The Two Brothers - Kay Nielsen, from Grimm's Fairy Tales: The seven-headed dragon came and breathed fire, setting all the grass ablaze...

The huntsman said nothing more to this, but next morning took his animals, and with them ascended the dragon’s hill. A little church stood at the top of it, and on the altar three full cups were standing, with the inscription, “Whosoever empties the cups will become the strongest man on earth, and will be able to wield the sword which is buried before the threshold of the door.” The huntsman did not drink, but went out and sought for the sword in the ground, but was unable to move it from its place. Then he went in and emptied the cups, and now he was strong enough to take up the sword, and his hand could quite easily wield it…
…Said the dragon, “Many knights have left their lives here, I shall soon have made an end of thee too,” and he breathed fire out of seven jaws. The fire was to have lighted the dry grass, and the huntsman was to have been suffocated in the heat and smoke, but the animals came running up and trampled out the fire. Then the dragon rushed upon the huntsman, but he swung his sword until it sang through the air, and struck off three of his heads.
(The Two Brothers, Children’s and Household Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm)

Multi-headed dragons are apparently fairly common (as far as dragons can be considered “common”) since these have been appearing since the Chimera of Greek mythology, so it is not surprising that our unnamed huntsman hero had rather more difficulty. Unfortunately, he was killed treacherously soon after by the king, even though the princess was more than willing to marry him. However, this is quite unusual since in most cases the slayer of the dragon survives to either marry the princess, as Perseus did with Andromeda, or go on to a distinguished career as St. George proved was possible.

In fairness to dragons, their relationships with maidens were not always predatory:

"And I should look like a fountain of gold."  - illustration by Warwick Goble to The Mermaid, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

"And I should look like a fountain of gold." - illustration by Warwick Goble to The Mermaid, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

And I should look like a fountain of gold
Springing alone
With a shrill inner sound,
Over the throne
In the midst of the hall;
Till that great sea-snake under the sea
From his coiled sleeps in the central deeps
Would slowly trail himself sevenfold
Round the hall where I sate, and look in at the gate
With his large calm eyes for the love of me.
(Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Mermaid)

But while that is a mermaid rather than a human, the theme of sympathetic dragons is not uncommon. In Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon” the serpent is now a mushroom eating innocent who must convince St. George (who had been called out of retirement) to stage a mock fight to satisfy the superstitious townsfolk holding on to cliche stories about how dangerous dragons are.

The Reluctant Dragon - Maxfield Parrish

The Reluctant Dragon - Maxfield Parrish

In general though, it is best to assume dragons are dangerous, but sometimes not as dangerous as those who control them:

 Medea (Tanglewood Tales, The Minotaur)- Edmund Dulac: "Medea shook her hands over the multitude below."

Medea (Tanglewood Tales, The Minotaur)- Edmund Dulac: "Medea shook her hands over the multitude below."

“But when her witch’s poison had consumed the new wife, and the sea on either side had seen the royal palace all in flames, her wicked sword was drenched in her son’s blood; and, winning thus a mother’s vile revenge, she fled from Jason’s sword. Her Dracon team, the Dracones Titaniaci, carried her away to Palladiae.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses 7, tran. Melville)

Since Medea was a witch, we can forgive the dragons for being accomplices to her murder of Jason’s wife Glauce. It’s not always their fault that dragons are misunderstood, not minding the occasional mayhem they might cause, as we can see from Sulamith Wulfing’s depictions of dragons precariously embracing, beautiful human maidens in apparent safety, though the sexual overtones of the idea are quite obvious.

The Big Friend - Sulamith Wulfing

The Big Friend - Sulamith Wulfing

Sulamith Wulfing - The Dragon

Sulamith Wulfing - The Dragon

Overall though, if you are a young man and encounter a dragon in the woods, it would be helpful to have a magical sword with you – just in case.

John Bauer - The Dragon: "He gave the dragon a mighty blow."

John Bauer - The Dragon: "He gave the dragon a mighty blow."

Image Credits: Dragon Art Prints and Posters: Dragons, Lindorms, Wyverns

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Fairy Tales and Fashion: The Princess Wore Prada

Cinderella's Slippers, Aubrey Beardsley

Cinderella's Slippers by Aubrey Beardsley

It’s high time we took on the important matter of fashion in fairy tales. What these various princes and princessses, evil queens, stepmothers, stepsisters, huntsmen and orphaned children (not to mention transformed amphibians), wore in the course of stories is too often glossed over by historians. When we read the stories with a mind towards faerie-couture, we are disappointed in most cases, except for one – Charles Perrault. More specifically, we shall consider just how important fashion was considered in one particular story of his: Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre, or as we know it better in English: Cinderella or The Glass Slipper.

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Having served in various official duties in the government of Louis XIV, Perrault often drew inspiration from actual events and persons of the court, and he certainly would have been familiar with the ever-changing fashion trends of that brilliant court. More interestingly, the manners of Cinderella’s stepmother showed an interest in the social aspirations of the bourgeoisie. It seems to be an eternal truth that conforming to fashion made it possible for those with ambition to gain access to the high and powerful:

It happened that the king’s son gave a ball, and invited all persons of fashion to it. Our young misses were also invited, for they cut a very grand figure among those of quality.

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And as a fairy story about high fashion, Perrault treats us to descriptions of the stepsisters’ plans for the ball:

“For my part,” said the eldest, “I will wear my red velvet suit with French trimming.”

“And I,” said the youngest, “shall have my usual petticoat; but then, to make amends for that, I will put on my gold-flowered cloak, and my diamond stomacher, which is far from being the most ordinary one in the world.”

We also hear about a strategy familiar among today’s young ladies with aspirations to stylishness:

They were so excited that they hadn’t eaten a thing for almost two days. Then they broke more than a dozen laces trying to have themselves laced up tightly enough to give them a fine slender shape.

Perrault the moralist was certainly citing such a trend among the fashionable of all ages, something Cinderella herself did not have to resort to since:

However, Cinderella, notwithstanding her coarse apparel, was a hundred times more beautiful than her sisters, although they were always dressed very richly.

Cinderella by Arthur Rackham.

Cinderella by Arthur Rackham.

Luckily, unlike her sisters who had to depend on what they had already possesed in their wardrobes, our heroine had more expert assistance:

Her godmother then touched her with her wand, and, at the same instant, her clothes turned into cloth of gold and silver, all beset with jewels. This done, she gave her a pair of glass slippers, the prettiest in the whole world.

Cinderella - by Edmund Dulac

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

A bit of magic always helps when desiring to capture a prince’s attention I suppose, but Perrault, as always, was trying to make a point:

Young women, in the winning of a heart, graciousness is more important than a beautiful hairdo. It is a true gift of the fairies. Without it nothing is possible; with it, one can do anything.

To which he added:

…it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense… However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.

Present day fashion designers might think it odd being referred to as modern day fairy godmothers, but as long as we are expressing timeless truths, let’s close by quoting famous Vogue editor Diana Vreeland:

I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity.

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Image Credits:
Cinderella Art Prints
Images of Fashion from the Court of Louis XIV

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Puss in Boots: A Management Case Study

"You have but to give me a sack, and a pair of boots  such as gentlemen wear when they go shooting."  - Illustration by Warwick Goble to Puss in Boots

"You have but to give me a sack, and a pair of boots such as gentlemen wear when they go shooting." - Illustration by Warwick Goble to Puss in Boots

Let us briefly consider the career advancement strategies of Puss in Boots. In order to avoid a potential for being served as dinner for a dispossesed and impoverished master, he organizes a plot, apparently involving foot apparel.

He begins by using his natural feline abilities to catch prey to bribe the king with, which he declares as gifts from his master — a Marquis no less! Although Perault does not say so, his wearing of boots no doubt gave him the necessary credibility to gain an appointment with the royal CEO.

That bribery accomplished, he maneuvers his master (who is completely passive throughout the whole affair) into ‘losing’ his clothes to some imaginary robbers in a place likely for the king and his daughter to come by for a swim. With the king (and the cat’s) assistance, he is given new clothes and captures the fancy of the princess.

But now he must own land to justify his title. Fortunately for him (and for the sake of this being a fairy tale as well) we encounter a magical ogre with powers of transformation. Puss tricks him into turning into a mouse so that he may arrange a hostile takeover. He then manages labor relations with the ogres serfs (who seem not too bothered by their master’s passing) to obey the fake Marquis. Seeing such extensive assets, the king is so impressed by our hero’s master that he insists on a merger by marrying him to his daughter.

"Puss in Boots" Illustrated by Maxfield Parrish

"Puss in Boots" Illustrated by Maxfield Parrish

Now with a title, royal sympathy, fine clothes and land with convenient serfs and a royal wedding, our hero (the cat) is assured of a livelihood serving a great lord at court.

Why is this all so unsurprising?

Of all the stories by Perrault, this allegory is certainly his most autobiographical (not counting the murder of the magical ogre) since this is about status advancement via proper courtly manners. Being an official at the court of Louis XIV, he would have been intimately exposed to the Machiavellian intrigues of courtiers. His prescriptions for advancement initially seem an affront to our sensibilities for modern industrial productivity. Contrast this with the fake Marquis’ brothers who, with a sensible bourgois perspective, agree to share resources towards mutual gain. This latter atitude seems to lie closer to contemporary life strategies than the complicated plots Puss must device in order to advance his master’s and his own career.

But has life really changed so much since Perrault’s day? Career advancement and survival in any large organization requires an understanding of the manners surrounding such a millieu. When one looks at the predeliction among our upper management for owning the right house, the right car, the right school for one’s children, perhaps even the right footwear, all in an effort to conform to expectations of a corporate world, one can see as much management genius in Puss in Boots as in any modern management tome.

Image Credits: Warwick Goble, Maxfield Parrish

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Did The Princess and the Frog Really Kiss?

"A voice asked what was the matter - it was a frog" by  Anne Anderson

"A voice asked what was the matter - it was a frog" by Anne Anderson

The trailer for Walt Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” (to be released in December amid mounting hoopla, including made up controversy over the fact that everyone in the film is black except for the Prince) makes a major story element out of a universaly enjoyed activity.

“Everyone thinks they know the story of the Princess and the Frog but no one knows what happened after the kiss, until now. This holiday season comes the story of the most magical kiss the world has ever known.”

"The king's daughter was overjoyed when she beheld her pretty plaything again, picked up, and ran away with it." Illustration for The Frog Prince by Warwick Goble

"The king's daughter was overjoyed when she beheld her pretty plaything again, picked up, and ran away with it." Illustration for The Frog Prince by Warwick Goble

Well maybe not quite since the original Grimm’s tale did not actually include any kissing, although it did include the frog being thrown against the wall by the Princess upon which he turned instantly into a Prince. This solved her dilemma between having to obey her father the king and being repeatedly grossed out by a gallant (and somewhat stalkerish) amphibian whom she had to allow to drink out of her cup, eat off her plate and be carried by her to her bedroom.

"She dined with the frog prince at her side" by Anne Anderson

"She dined with the frog prince at her side" by Anne Anderson

So what’s with the kissing and where did this originate? The story of a girl having to keep her promise to care for a frog appears in several versions other than the well known (non-kissing) Grimms’ tale.

“The Well of the World’s End” which appeared in Joseph Jacob’s “English Fairy Tales” (1890) features, rather than a kiss after the same manner of indignities suffered upon our mortified heroine, the frog asks the girl to chop its head off thus ending the enchantment transforming him into a prince.

"Enchanted Prince" by Maxfield Parrish

"Enchanted Prince" by Maxfield Parrish

Other variants, most notably the one from Italo Calvino’s “Italian Folk Tales” (1956), have a frog princess who must prove her abilities at various domestic duties thus proving her suitability for an amphibiophobic prince, therefore simultaneously ending the enchantment while reinforcing gender role stereotypes.

In a more modern variant from her poetry collection “Transformations,” Anne Sexton adheres closely to the Grimms’ version:

She woke up aghast.
I suffer for birds and fireflies
but not frogs, she said,
and threw him across the room.
Kaboom!

Like a genie coming out of a samovar,
a handsome prince arose in the
corner of her bedroom.

No kissing involved there either. And in another famous story where kissing was alleged to take place, in the Grimms’ “Snow White” the Prince also does not kiss the Princess but rather the apple bit fell out of her mouth when the carriage carrying her glass coffin was jostled. The only one of their famous fairy tales where a kiss becomes a plot element is in Sleeping Beauty wherein I might add, that the kiss did not in fact break the spell because the prince just happened to come by on the day the hundred years’ spell was up.

"The Frog Bride"  by Kay Nielsen, from Grimm's Fairy Tales

"The Frog Bride" by Kay Nielsen, from Grimm's Fairy Tales

Kissing seems to have been a recent innovation, one often assumed by tradition rather than explicitly told in the collections. But that is the nature of folk tales, and since the idea of a prince and a princess kissing is satisfying to any audience, we may as well accept the fact that this oral (so to speak) tradition is here to stay.

Image credits:  Anne Anderson, Maxfield Parrish, Kay Nielsen, Warwick Goble

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Fairy Politics in Shakespeare: The Quarrel Between Oberon & Titania

The Meeting of Oberon and Titania, by Arthur Rackham (1905)

The Meeting of Oberon and Titania, by Arthur Rackham (1905)

In Act II Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare walks us right into the middle of an argument:

OBERON
Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.

TITANIA
What, jealous Oberon! Fairies, skip hence:
I have forsworn his bed and company.

OBERON
Tarry, rash wanton: am not I thy lord?

This is more than a marital spat, and more than simply a royal argument since these are gods (albeit diminutive.) Arguments between gods often have cosmic consequences that affect all mortals (like you and me) so it is important that we analyze Faerie politics in this (moon)light.

Puck and a Fairy (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

Puck and a Fairy (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

The consequences don’t seem to bother the other fairies very much as earlier in the scene we are treated to banter between Puck and one of Titania’s followers:

FAIRY:…
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?

PUCK:
Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.

The argument is ostensibly about a changeling from India in Titania’s train who was the son of one of her priestesses. Oberon desires this child as well, though we who are not brought up in English folktale traditions do not understand exactly why. But apparently followers,  especially imported ones, are the currency of power, and as a result are a matter of highest importance to the powers of Faerie (and as well, come to think of it, our own mortal politics.) We are later revealed a more complex exchange between the two monarchs of Faerie:

TITANIA: …
But that, forsooth, the bouncing Amazon,
Your buskin’d mistress and your warrior love,
To Theseus must be wedded, and you come
To give their bed joy and prosperity.

OBERON:
How canst thou thus for shame, Titania,
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta,
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?

Ah! So we are really talking about earthly politics as well. The pending marriage between Theseus and Hippolyta, both earthly powers (albeit mythical) has revealed hidden tensions among the immortals.

There could be much more to be said about the psychology and political motives of the fairies, but I believe it is not entirely possible to analyze these effectively since they are more than likely to resort to magic:

OBERON: …
Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

PUCK:
I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

This interesting exchange is difficult to understand for those who have forgotten the practice of magic. (Interestingly, it also reveals that there were reasonably accurate clocks in mythical Athenian times, at least among the fairies of  Shakespeare.)

Wake When some vile thing is near, by Warwick Goble

Wake When some vile thing is near, by Warwick Goble

Since this writer has not practiced magic for some years now, he feels it best to avoid further commentary at this point or risk being enmeshed in arguments between unearthly powers.

Image credits: 

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Severed Limbs and Vivisection: Those Gruesome Grimms

Little Red Riding Hood by Adrienne Ségur

Little Red Riding Hood by Adrienne Segur

Since most of us first encounter classic fairy tales as children, we are often fed a more palatable (as in one can still have dinner after reading) version of these tales. Folk-tales in general, and fairy stories are just a branch of these, were originally stories told by adults to each other, and as a result, the entertainment value often depended on a fair bit of gruesomeness to make the horror often associated with magic and moral lessons more interesting. The Grimm Brothers had originally meant their stories to be read by adults, but by the time of its original publication in 1812, “Children’s and Household Tales” had already undergone a transformation to make the stories more acceptable for a childhood audience. Notwithstanding that however, the stories retained much of their original gruesome folk story details.

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Most of us best recall the versions from Charles Perrault, and it is these versions that contain all the elements we are familiar with on film and in children’s books, making him (justifiably) the inventor of the modern fairy tale. His version of Cinderella, in particular, included elements he devised on his own such as the fairy godmother and her effects like the glass slipper and the pumpkin turning into a carriage. Of course the essential plot element of the prince searching for his mysterious dancing partner by looking for a girl whose foot would fit the slipper remains, and the irony of his finding a princess who had been abused by her step-family members is no less meaningful in his version where the stepsisters’ feet merely fail to fit the slipper.

The Grimms’ version is closer to its sources, thus certainly more adult, and in the process a more profound statement of human nature as the stepmother chops off one daughters big toe, and a portion of the heel of the other in order to make it possible for the shoe to fit; and in either case the prince is fooled momentarily until it is revealed to him that blood is flowing from the shoe.

Parallel versions of Red Riding Hood also share most elements between Perrault and Grimm. Perrault’s is still relatively violent by today’s standards; both the grandmother and the protagonist are eaten by the wolf, but does not delve into details and merely mentions these facts, almost in passing, which suited his purpose since he intended this story, like all his others, to contain a moral lesson.

Red Riding Hood by Warwick Goble

Red Riding Hood by Warwick Goble

The Grimms get a bit more explicit in their version “Little Red Cap” when it comes to the resolution once the additional character of the huntsman shows up and sees the sleeping wolf.

He took aim with his gun, and then it occurred to him that the wolf could have eaten the grandmother and that she could still be saved. So he did not shoot but took some scissors and started cutting open the sleeping wolf’s belly. After he made a couple of cuts, he saw the little red cap shining forth, and after he made a few more cuts, the girl jumped out and exclaimed. “Oh, how frightened I was! It was so dark in the wolf’s belly.”(1)

The grandmother is (of course) also saved as a result and the wolf’s belly filled with stones, and unable to get up, he eventually expires.

Despite the gruesome imagery, the Grimms’ versions of these stories seem more satisfying because while the moral focus of is still accomplished (if we don’t bemoan the torture of the stepsisters and the wolf) but with of a sense of justice; that evil is not only unrewarded, but eventually punished and the evil doer suffers. This is a truer sense of what both children and adults want in a story. The expurgation of morbid unpleasantness in order to avoid offence is always less satisfying than an attention to the reason for it in the first place.

Cinderella by Ann Anderson

Cinderella by Ann Anderson

Image Credits:
Adrienne Ségur
Maxfield Parrish
Warwick Goble
Ann Anderson
Notes:
(1)  Zipes, Jack . Brothers Grimm The Complete Fairy Tales.  London: Vintage Books, 2007

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Filed under Fairy Scholarship, folk tales, Grimms