by Terri Windling
Trigger warning: this essay contains discussion of child abuse issues.
Every child needs a fairy godmother, someone to turn to in times of peril. I found my own in the sumptuous pages of The Golden Book of Fairy Tales (Golden Books, 1958), translated from the French by Marie Ponsot and illustrated by Adrienne Ségur. Without this volume, fairy tales would have been what they were for so many of my generation: stories of passive princesses dreaming of rescue by rich Prince Charmings as portrayed in Walt Disney cartoons and the picture books they inspired.
Instead, through Ponsot's evocative words and Ségur's exquisite, rococo paintings, I was introduced to fairy tales in their thrilling pre-Disney (and pre-Victorian) forms -- their darker themes toned down slightly for children, but only slightly. Here, Sleeping Beauty woke not to wedded bliss, but to an ogress mother-in-law, determined to eat her and her children; and Red Riding Hood was devoured by the wolf, awaiting rescue in his belly. One princess lost her finger; another caused the death of the beast who loved her -- for happy endings were not guaranteed, and they always came at a price. The stories in this book were both deeply sad and gloriously triumphant. They were trail maps through the deep, dark woods, pointing the way to the brighter lands beyond. Like poetry, they spoke to the soul in richly symbolic language.
There were two things about this particular book that made it vital to the child I was. First, it contained a remarkable number of stories about courageous, active girls; and second, it portrayed the various evils they faced in unflinching terms. Just below their diamond surface, these were stories of great brutality and anguish, many of which had never been originally intended for children at all. (Although the volume included tales from the Brothers Grimm and Andersen, the majority of the selections were drawn from the French contes de fées tradition -- stories created as part of the vogue for fairy tales in seventeenth century Paris, recounted in literary salons and published for adult readers.)
I hungered for a narrative with which to make some sense of my life, but in schoolbooks and on television all I could find was the sugar water of Dick and Jane, Leave it to Beaver and the happy, wholesome Brady Bunch. Mine was not a Brady Bunch family; it was troubled, fractured, persistently violent, and I needed the stronger meat of wolves and witches, poisons and peril. In fairy tales, I had found a mirror held up to the world I knew -- where adults were dangerous creatures, and Good and Evil were not abstract concepts.
When I look now at the stories I loved the best, I see that they have one thing in common: each has a "wounded hero," a young person physically scarred, disguised, or maimed, forced from home and required to make her own way in the world. As Midori Snyder points out in her fine essay The Armless Maiden and the Hero's Journey, young men in hero narratives leave home intent on making their fortune, soon finding challenges on the road to initiate them into manhood. "When the trials are done," she writes, the young male hero "returns home again in triumph, bringing to his society new found knowledge, maturity — and often a magic bride."
Only rarely, by contrast, do young women stride off simply to seek their fate. Instead, fate comes knocking on their door in the form of crisis, betrayal, or magic, propelling them forcibly onto the path to transformation. Nor are young women often allowed to return again when the tale is done; instead, they must make new lives and new alliances, usually far from home. The mythic structure of such stories was something I came to appreciate later, when my own hero's journey led me on to college and the study of folklore.
As a child, I only cared that these girls were desperate, scarred, and scared, like me. Their tales assured me that with perseverance I could find my way to my own happy ending -- provided I did not sit weeping in the cinders awaiting rescue. I'd have to earn a happy ending, and this was the "magic" that I would need: courage, compassion, determination, quick wits, clear sight, and luck.
"Once upon a time," Donkeyskin begins, "there was a lucky king. He was strong, noble, and wise. His subjects loved him. His neighbors respected him. His wife was fair and good." But the king's luck runs out. His queen lies dying and summons her husband to her side, saying, "Promise me you will not marry till you find a woman better than I." The promise is made, and the king soon discovers the difficulty of this condition. No woman compares in loveliness to his late queen — except their own daughter. And so the king announces his determination to wed and bed his child. Horrified, the girl runs to her fairy godmother, begging for help. "Tell your father that he must make you a dress the color of the sun," says she. "This he'll never be able to do, and then you will be safe."
But the king procures a dress that shines as gold and bright as the sun itself. Likewise, he fulfills each subsequent demand: a dress the color of the moon, a dress the color of the weather, and the skin of the magical donkey who shits coins of gold, the source of his wealth. When he gives his daughter the donkeyskin, she understands he will stop at nothing -- and so she wraps herself in the skin and flees to a distant kingdom. In that new place, she takes a lowly, filthy job as a pig keeper, hiding her royal beauty beneath the dirt and the donkeyskin.
Eventually, a gentle prince falls sick with love for Donkeyskin, informing his distraught parents that he means to marry the pig keeper. As he pines away with love for her, his parents give their consent at last. Only then does the princess drop the donkeyskin to reveal her true face. Hearing her tale, "the prince rejoiced at her bravery, and fell twice as much in love." The story ends with marriage and reconciliation with her chastened father.
Variants of this incest tale can be found in cultures all around the world under a variety of names: Allerleirauh, Thousand Furs, Mossycoat, among others. Each version begins with the father, whose word is law, despite his mad intentions. His councilors seem curiously unable or unwilling to stop him.
My stepfather was not a king, but a factory worker and truck driver, often unemployed, and usually drunk, sitting slumped in the neighborhood bars. Powerless in the wider world, low in the social pecking order, at home he relished his sovereignty and ruled with an iron fist. In the fairy tale, the queen dies young. In life, my mother was gone as well -- not dead, but absent physically, working hard hours at ill-paying jobs, and absent mentally, unable or unwilling to protect her children. This was the early 1960s, before strict child abuse reporting laws -- when jaded, overworked doctors (all too common in working class neighborhoods) routinely stitched my brothers and me back together and sent us home. Silence surrounded those cuts and bruises, those scalded hands and broken bones. We didn't use the word "abuse"; this was just something that fathers did. Fathers, I'd learned from fairy tales, were sometimes good and sometimes wicked. Mine, it appeared, was wicked, and so I needed a godmother's advice.
I chose a favorite teacher. She was gentle, kind, and pretty as a Ségur illustration. She had once called me a "smart little girl" -- three words that I treasured like pearls. I lingered by her desk one day and haltingly told my dark little tale, throwing the words like pebbles into the deep well of her silence. I couldn't lift my eyes -- I still remember the dusty floor tiles, the black and white of my saddle shoes, my frayed laces tied up in knots, my voice the barest whisper.
"Where are you hurt?" my teacher said, "show me." I mutely shook my head, too embarrassed to lift my skirt to show what lay beneath. "Tell your mother to call me," she said, and then the subject closed. I never relayed the message to my mother. Nothing changed. I grew increasingly silent.
One classmate teased me sharply: "You never smile. Do you even know how?"
Silence is another element we find in classic fairy tales: girls muted by magic or sworn to silence in order to break enchantment. In The Wild Swans, a princess is imprisoned by her stepmother, rolled in filth, then banished from home -- as her older brothers had been. She goes in search of her missing brothers, discovers that they've been turned into swans, whereupon the young girl vows to find a way to break the spell.
A mysterious woman comes to her in a dream and tells her what to do: "Pick the nettles that grow in graveyards, crush and spin them into thread, then weave them into coats and throw them over your brothers' backs." The nettles burn and blister, yet she never falters: picking, spinning, weaving, working with wounded, crippled hands, determined to save her brothers. All this time she's silent. "You must not speak," the dream woman has warned, "for a single world will be like a knife plunged into your brothers' hearts."
You must not speak. That's what my stepfather said: don't speak, don't cry, don't tell. That's what my mother said as well, as we sat in hospital waiting rooms -- and I obeyed, as did my brothers. We sat as still and silent as stone while my mother spun false tales to explain each bruise and break and burn. Our family moved just often enough that her stories were fresh and plausible; each new doctor believed her, and chided us children to be more careful. I never contradicted those tales. I wouldn't have dared, or wanted to. They'd send me into foster care. They'd send my young brothers away. And so we sat, and the unspoken truth was as sharp as the point of a knife.
In Donkeyskin and The Wild Swans, crisis is the catalyst that sends each princess into the world, where she will face more trials, then win her way to a better life. I began to search for other tales of innocent and honorable girls imperiled by parents and other adults, finding their way through disaster. Each ended in marriage, symbolizing the passage from adolescence to maturity, but between family crisis and happy ending there was always a journey to make.
Take The Girl With No Hands, the brutal story of a miller's daughter whose own father cuts off her hands in order to save himself from the devil. The girl's purity defeats the devil; the family is left with a fine sack of gold. "Now all is well," the miller assures her. "Now we can live together in splendor."
"No," his daughter tells him, "for you would have given me to the devil himself. Here I can stay no longer. I must make my own way in the world." Handless, friendless, she goes to the woods and begins her metamorphosis. By the end of the tale, she is healed, married, a mother, and wearing a crown.
In the universe of fairy tales, the Just often find a way to prevail, the Wicked generally receive their comeuppance -- but there's more to such tales than a formula of abuse and retribution. The trials these wounded young women encounter illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a maimed state to wholeness, from passivity to action.
Fairy tales taught me the lessons of transformation; they schooled me in courage, honor, and endurance. Someday I, too, would enter the woods, and I'd have to be prepared. I bid my time in my parents' house, and my grandparents' house, till I was fifteen. And then the fairy tale crisis came to propel me out into the world. I won't describe that dark day here; suffice it to say that, like Donkeyskin, I knew all hope of aid was past, so I wrapped myself in the tattered skin and fled to a distant land. Now I was the princess of the tale: alone and maimed in the heart of the woods. But I knew this story. I knew what to do. I knew that if I was brave and true, I'd find a brighter world beyond the cold of the streets, the dark of the trees, and this knowledge pulled me past each wolf and witch who lay in wait.
And yes, I did eventually find my way to the realm that lies happily ever after -- not marriage and wealth, but the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world: a university education, to open the door to a different life. I shed my child-self in the woods, emerged from the trees as a new creature, and on my school's quiet campus I knew that I'd found safe harbor at last.
By studying myth and folklore texts, I discovered what it was I had just been through: a rite of passage, a shamanic initiation as practiced in cultures the world over: a journey to the underworld and back, a form of ritual rebirth. I had a new name, a new role to play, a new family of friends, a new community. My hands grew back, and no one ever asked if I knew how to smile again.
Yet it took some years before I could speak of the past. The habit of silence was strong, and it was only when my stepfather died that this last spell was finally broken. Until then, I lived in the donkeyskin, comfortable, disguised, and safe. There were in those days no shelves full of "self-help" books for people with pasts like mine, and the cultural silence on childhood sexual abuse was even greater than my own. In retrospect, I'm glad it was myth and folklore I was forced to turn to instead. Too many books portray child abuse as a form of damage from which one never quite heals, or a broken bone that never quite mends. We survive, we get better, but we limp on into the future damaged and fragile. Through fairy tales, however, I understood my past in different terms: not as damage and victimhood, but as a hero narrative.
It was a story. My story. A hero's journey through the dark of the woods; and the trials faced on that road, if stoutly faced, make us wiser and stronger. Scars are simply a record of battles fought -- not shameful, weakening things. And at trial's end, the hero's world has been tranformed. Enlarged, not diminished.
I always hesitate to speak of the good that can come from a traumatic past, for there is no good that is good enough to justify a child's terror. My stepfather's actions were clearly immoral. Could I go back and prevent them, I would. Yet in that troubled household I learned something that I treasure today: the secret of spinning straw into gold, fear into courage, misery into joy. I don't thank my stepfather for this gift, but the gift is valuable nonetheless. It's the treasure whisked from the sorcer's tower, from the well that lies at the end of the world: the hero's reward, which comes only after dragons and monsters are faced.
Today, my past is a patch of green nettles. The memories sting as I pluck them up, then crush them, spin them into burning thread, and weave them into coats of stories. My brothers are grown, but too many other children live trapped beneath feathers and donkeyskins. And so I'll continue to spin, and weave, and toss coats made out of words to the air -- hoping that someday, somewhere, they will set somebody free.
Some further reading:
The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
In the Bleak Midwinter by Andra Brynn
The Onion Girl by Charles de Lint
Jumper by Steven Gould
Tender Morsels by Margot Lanagan
Deerskin by Robin McKinley
Flying in Place by Susan Palwick
Among Others by Jo Walton
The Armless Maiden & Other Stories for Childhood's Survivors, edited by Terri Windling
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer
(expanded edition, Anchor Books/Random House, 2002)
Brothers and Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (WSU Press, 2007)
"Silverhands: Healing the Wounded Wild" by Kim Antieau (The Journal of Mythic Arts)
"Donkeyskin, Deerskin, Allerleirauh: The Reality of a Fairy Tale" by Helen Pilinovsky (The Journal of Mythic Arts)
"The Armless Maiden & the Hero's Journey" by Midori Snyder (In the Labyrinth)
"The Monkey Girl" by Midori Snyder (In the Labyrinth)
"Brother and Sister: A Matter of Seeing" by Ellen Steiber (The Journal of Mythic Arts)
"Fairy Tale Reflections" by Terri Windling (Seven Miles of Steel Thistles)
"The Handless Maiden & Forest Sanctuary" by Terri Windling (Myth & Moor)
"Wild Children" by Terri Windling (Myth & Moor)
Credits & copyrights:
The art above is from The Golden Book of Fairy Tales (original American edition: Golden Books, 1958; reprint edition: Penguin Random House, 1999), translated from the French by Marie Ponsot and illustrated by Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981). The stories and illustrations originally appeared in two fairy tale editions from the French publisher Flammerion.
A version of this essay first appeared in the expanded edition of Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Penguin Random House, 2002); copyright 2002. It may not be reproduced without the author's permission. For information on obtaining permission, please go here.