Into the Woods, 35: Fairy Blessings
The Dog's Tale

Into the Woods, 36: The Thirteenth Fairy

Sleeping Beauty, Scene 1 - doll art by Anna Brahms

To finish our trio of Sleeping Beauty posts, let's turn to the figure of the Thirteenth Fairy.* This quote comes, once again, from  About the Sleeping Beauty by P.L. Travers

The Thirteenth Fairy by Eleanor Vere Boyle"The appearance of this lady at the christening is the great moment of the tale, the hook from which everything hangs. Properly to understand why this is so, we must turn to Wise Women in general and their role in the world of men. To begin with, they are not mortal women. They are sisters, rather, of the Sirens, kin to the Fates and the World Mothers. As such, as creatures of another dimension, myth and legend have been at pains to embody them in other than human shape -- the winged female figures of Homer, the bird-headed women of the Irish tales, the wild women of ancient Russian with square heads and the wisplike Jinn of the Middle East...

Sleeping Beauty, Scene 1 - doll art by Anna Brahms

"[I]t should be remembered that no Wise Woman or Fairy is herself good or bad; she takes on one aspect or another according to the laws of the story and the necessity of events. The powers of these ladies are equivocal. They change with changing circumstances; they are as swift to take umbrage as they are to bestow a boon; they curse and bless with equal gusto. Each Wise Woman is, in fact, an aspect of the Hindu goddess, Kali, who carries in her multiple hands the powers of good and evil.

Sleeping Beauty - paper cut art by Su Blackwell

"It is clear, then, that the Thirteenth Wise Woman becomes the Wicked Fairy solely for the purpose of one particular story. It was by chance that she received no invitation; it might just as well have been one of her sisters. So, thrust by circumstances into the role, she acts according to law.

"Up she rises, obstensibly to avenge an insult but in reality to thrust the story forward and keep the drama moving. She becomes the necessary antagonist, placed there to show that whatever is 'other,' The Thirteenth Fairy by Harry Clarkeopposite and fearful, is as indispensable an instrument of creation as any force for good. The pulling of the Devas and Asuras in opposite directions in the Hindu myth and the interaction of the good and the bad Fairies produced the fairy tale. The Thirteenth Wise Woman stands as guardian of the threshold, the paradoxical adversary without whose presence no threshold may be passed.

"This is the role played in so many other stories by the Wicked Stepmother. The true mother, by her very nature, is bound to preserve, protect, and comfort; that is why she is so often disposed of before the story begins. It is the stepmother, her cold heart unwittingly cooperating with the hero's need, who thrusts the child from the warm hearth, out from the sheltering walls of home to find his own true way.

"Powers such as these, at once demonic and divine, are not to be taken lightly. They give a name to evil, free it, and bring it into the light. For evil will out, they sharply warn us, no matter how deeply buried. Down in its dungeon it plots and plans, waiting, like an unloved child, the day of its revenge. What it needs, like the unloved child, is to be recognized, not disclaimed; given its place and proper birthright and allowed to contact and cooperate with its sister beneficent forces. Only the integration of good and evil and the stern acceptance of opposites will change the situation and bring about the condition that is known as Happily Ever After. Without the Wicked Fairy there would have been no story. She, not the heroine, is the goddess in the machine."

The Thirteenth Fairy by Errol Le Cain

Sleeping Beauty and the Spinning Wheel by Trina Schart Hyman

Observing the Formalities

by Neil Gaiman

As you know, I wasn’t invited to the Christening. Get over it, you repeat.
But it’s the little formalities that keep the world turning.
My twelve sisters each had an invitation, engraved, and delivered
By a footman. I thought perhaps my footman had got lost.

Few invitations reach me here. People no longer leave visiting cards.
Illustration by Jennie HarbourAnd even when they did I would tell them I was not at home,
Deploring the unmannerliness of these more recent generations.
They eat with their mouths open. They interrupt.

Manners are all, and the formalities. When we lose those
We have lost everything. Without them, we might as well be dead.
Dull, useless things. The young should be taught a trade, should hew or spin,
Should know their place and stick to it. Be seen, not heard. Be hushed.

My youngest sister invariably is late, and interrupts. I am myself a stickler for punctuality.
I told her, no good will come of being late. I told her,
Back when we were still speaking, when she was still listening. She laughed.
It could be argued that I should not have turned up uninvited.

But people must be taught lessons. Without them, none of them will ever learn.
People are dreams and awkwardness and gawk. They prick their fingers
Bleed and snore and drool. Politeness is as quiet as a grave,
Unmoving, roses without thorns. Or white lilies. People have to learn.

Inevitably my sister turned up late. Punctuality is the politeness of princes,
That, and inviting all potential godmothers to a Christening.
They said they thought I was dead. Perhaps I am. I can no longer recall.
Still and all, it was necessary to observe the formalities.

Illustration by Jennie HarbourI would have made her future so tidy and polite. Eighteen is old enough. More than enough.
After that life gets so messy. Loves and hearts are such untidy things.
Christenings are raucous times and loud, and rancorous,
As bad as weddings. Invitations go astray. We’d argue about precedence and gifts.

They would have invited me to the funeral. 

Sleeping Beauty, Scene Two - doll art by Ann Brahms

Sleeping Beauty and the Spinning Wheel by Edmund Dulac

* There is some diagreement about which fairy, in the story's cast, should be called the Thirteenth Fairy. For some, the designation belongs to the uninvited, malevolent fairy who curses the infant princess with death. For others, it's the very last fairy to bestow her gift, mitigating the wicked fairy's curse by turning "death" into "sleep." For the purposes of this post, I'm using the former definition.

The images above are: Two views of "Sleeping Beauty, Scene 1,"  doll art by Anna Brahms (Israeli/American); "Sleeping Beauty," paper cut art by Su Blackwell (English); "The Thirteenth Fairy" by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1189-1931)  Errol Le Cain (English, 1941-1989); "Sleeping Beauty and the Spinning Wheel" by Trina Schart Hyman (American, 1939-2004); two illustrations by  Jennie Harbour (English, 1893-1959); "Sleeping Beauty, Scene 2" by Anna Brahms; and "Sleeping Beauty and the Spinning Wheel" by Edmund Dulac (French, 1882-1953). The poem is copyright 2009 by Neil Gaiman; it first appeared in Trolls Eye View (Datlow & Windling, eds).


Neil's poem is brilliant in its way, but he is a man in his prime. This is from an old woman poet! A bit different this take!

The Old Fairy at the Christening

No, I said, no,
but they dragged me out anyway,
all wrinkles and long dugs.
I scared the cats, my nails cracked
as if they were the ends of pork
too long in the fire.
My hair brittle and startled.
Eyes full of rheum
and the beginnings of a second cataract.
Old age, I told them, needs invisibility
but they hauled me to the baby's party
without listening to my complaints.
So of course I gave them
the full organ recital,
what still works, what drips,
what aches, what falls off
at inconvenient moments,
like toenails or clots of hair,
like curses.

Unlikely I will be invited
to the next christening.

©2013 Jane Yolen, all rights reserved

Oh, I love this!

"My hair brittle and startled."

Yep. That's me.

I love the imagery of finger nails split like the ends of 'pork too long in the fire'. And the idea of the old woman forcibly repatriated from her self-imposed exile from society, is excellent:'Old age, I told them, needs invisibility'

It's interesting too the way the fairy is absolved of her guilt. In effect, she becomes the victim, innocent of her evil actions because 'they' violated her right to be left alone.'they hauled me to the baby's party without listening to my complaints'

We also see this premise of mitigation in the essay by P.L. Travers: 'The powers of these ladies is equivocal' she says, they fulfill the role the story and (arguably by extrapolation) society demands of them. Therefore they are not responsible for their actions.

So could it be argued that Travers' essay is suggesting that in the context of the Faery Tale, ultimately no woman is ever truly guilty of an act of evil, but that external forces are in some way responsible?

Neil Gaiman's poem I also thought was superb, the premise was simple, of course. The Fairy wasn't invited and her reactions were vengeful. Missing the point perhaps? When taking the other pieces and poems into consideration, yes. But after all, he's a man isn't he.

I think what Travers' essay is saying is specifically that these fairies or Wise Women (depending on the variant), in her opinion, are *not* human women and should not be viewed or judged as human women. They are creatures of myth, aligned with goddesses like Kali, Tricksters like Coyote and Loki -- creatures who are both good and bad, both constructive and destructive...often at one and the same time. One would certainly hold a human woman to account for such egregious behavior, but a goddess or a Trickster may have other reasons for their actions beyond simple peevishness at not receiving an invitation.

Mind you, when I present these snippets from essays, I'm removing the quotes from their context -- which doesn't necessarily do full justice to the essays themselves. In this piece, Travers admits to a life-long attraction to the Thirteenth Fairy. "As a child," she writes, "I had no pity for the jealous queen in Snow White or the shifty old witch in Rapunzel. I could cheerfully consign all the cruel stepmothers to their cruel fates. Bull the ill luck of the Wicked Fairy [in being excluded from the party] roused all my child's compassion." In the part of the essay I've quoted from, she is exploring both the character itself (the Thirteenth Fairy's mythic roots) and her personal response to it.

I don't think Jane was dissing Neil's male point of view by presenting one from another perspective. Both poems are fantastic!

I agree, Terri, both poems are fantastic, and give an interesting insight to literary gender differences. I also agree with most of what you say about the supernatural/divine aspects of the female perpetrators of both chaos and blessings within the fairy tale tradition. But this doesn't cover the actions of the very human stepmother archetype. Travers may have been happy to see them suffer their 'cruel fates' but she also defends her as the driving force behind the story that sees the hero/heroine achieve their exalted status. Are we once again exonerating the actions of the step-mother when she is said to be 'unwittingly co-operating' with the hero figure? Does the story-telling tradition forgive and even defend her because without the powerful intervention of the stepmother, catharsis cannot be achieved.

True grit, love this!!!

Love seeing Anna Brahm's work here. Thanks to this blog, and your invitation for me to post here, Terri, Anna, who lives not far at all from here, contacted me and we met. I visited her studio - so AMAZING to see these wonderful works in person. They are just magnificent! So, you not only gather a community for conversation here, but pollinate far-off communities with airborne spores.

Again, I think the problem here is that I'm quoting P.L. Travers out of context.

In the full essay, it's pretty clear that Travers is not defending evil stepmothers. She notes that wicked fairies and wicked stepmother play similar roles within the mechanism of the plot: their heartless actions thrust the young hero out of his/her home and into the fairy tale journey, the rite-of-passage, that will eventually lead to transformation, maturation, and happiness. That this is a valuable role in the context of storytelling doesn't also mean that wicked characters are good things in real life. (I don't think anyone would try to argue that!)

If that's not coming across, than the fault is probably mine for not reproducing this whole section of the essay.

I'm so glad you and Anna met!

Not your fault, Terri; mine for reading out of context.

Disney is making a film based on P.L. Travers on set at the filming of Mary Poppins. From what I read
she seems to be considered very sarcastic and exasperated with what Disney was doing to her work. Whoever wrote this announcement sided with Disney, of course, since this is a pitch for the film, but
I am waiting to publicly defend the crone wisdom of Travers if need be.

Sort of Travers showing up at the christening, eh?

Travers was writer-in-residence at Smith College in 1966, a date I remember because my husband and I went to one of her at-homes with our four-month-old baby. (And Life magazine was photographing that evening.)
One student made a statement about Mary Poppins by stating before giving her opinion that she hadn't read the book only saw the film, "Then, my dear," snapped Travers, "you know NOTHING and I suggest you do not say another word," It was as if she'd cursed the girl, for the poor trembling Smithie was reduced to silence and to a kind of statue-ness because she was also too stunned to flee into the night.


Wow, Jane -- I never knew you'd met her. And what a great story.

There's was a very good article on P.L. Travers and Mary Poppins in The New Yorker a while back. It's on-line here:

Here's a paragraph on Disney's premier of the film:

"Inside the packed twelve-hundred-seat theatre, the members of the audience responded to the movie with enthusiasm: they gave it a five-minute standing ovation. In the midst of the celebrating crowd, it would have been easy to overlook the sixty-five-year-old woman sitting there, weeping. Anyone who recognized her as P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, could have been forgiven for assuming that her tears were the product either of artistic delight or of financial ecstasy (she owned five per cent of the gross; the movie made her rich). Neither was the case. The picture, she thought, had done a strange kind of violence to her work. She would turn the personally disastrous première into a hilarious dining-out story, with Disney as the butt of her jokes. But she had a premonition that the movie she hated was about to change everything for her. Writing to a friend, she remarked that her life would never be the same.... She spent the rest of her long life (she died in 1996, at the age of ninety-six) linked artistically and personally to Mary Poppins. It was a persona—spinsterish children’s author, creator of a spinsterish character—that overshadowed the more complicated identity she had devoted her life to creating."


"'Mary Poppins' [the film] advocates the kind of family life that Walt Disney had spent his career both chronicling and helping to foster on a national level: father at work, mother at home, children flourishing. It is tempting to imagine that in Travers he found a like-minded person, someone who embodied the virtues of conformity and traditionalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Travers was a woman who never married, wore trousers when she felt like it, had a transformative and emotionally charged relationship with an older married man, and entered into a long-term live-in relationship with another woman. As she approached forty, she decided that she wanted a child. After a bizarre incident in which she attempted to adopt the seventeen-year-old girl who cleaned her house, she travelled to Ireland and adopted an infant, one of a pair of twins, and raised him as a single mother. Her reverence for the delights of family life was perhaps as intense as Disney’s, but her opinion about the shape such a life might assume was far more nuanced."

It's a fascinating article and I highly recommend it.

I see. She wasn't very tactful. I read 'Mary Poppins,' when I was about ten and I didn't
see it as a cheerful family story. It was much more realistic in the form of the fantastic.
Disney often poured in sweetening to darker sources. I suspect I would have been
intimidated by Travers but still, I like eccentrics as long as I don't have to argue with them.
I'll see the film, though. I am curiouser and curiouser.

There's more to the Travers story, but it needs to be told in person. She showed both sides of her character that night. As she was godmother to a friend of David's and mine (our friend had come along as well) we were in an interesting position viz Travers.

And yes, she HATED the movie.

We had problems with it==the movie as well--Van Dyke's slippery and slipping Cockney accent was one, the fact that the robin MP sings to is NOT a British robin but an American robin which is a much larger thrush. And also no Mary Poppins that I knew and loved would ever have warbled that "a spoon full of honey makes the medicine go down. . ." She'd have said, "It's medicine, so no nonsense- pull up your socks and drink it."


I am so glad to have found all of this, and all of your comments. Very welcome at a time in my life when my hair is becoming startled, I am loving crone wisdom both sweet and sarcastic alike, and am suffering from many psychic ailments needing attention... among them a distinct lack of beauty (as in these stunning and delicious art pieces) and the reality that only a rich and honest fairy tale can convey (and steep me in as it steeps itself into me). Also a huge lack of Englishness and literate thought to.consider and interact with. A mighty thank you.
Linda Redmond, Asheville, NC, USA

You're very welcome, Linda!

I think that perhaps the Thirteenth Faery visits all our lives from time to time...
She is certainly very present in mine at the moment, and Googling to find out more about this archetype I came upon this huge treasure trove of exciting myths, connections and beauty!
What a boon!
Thank you

This is a story I just wrote about the Thirteenth Faery and how she has influenced and changed my life.

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