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July 2019

The story of Bluebeard

Bluebeard by Edmund Dulac


Though based on older folk tales of demon lovers and devilish bridegrooms, the story of Bluebeard, as we know it today, is the creation of French writer Charles Perrault -- first published in 1697 in his collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales of Past Times). Perrault was one in a group of writers who socialized in the literary salons of Paris, collectively creating a vogue for literature inspired by peasant folk tales. These new stories were called contes des feés, from which our modern term "fairy tales" derives -- but the contes des feés of the French salons were intended for adult readers.

Bluebeard by Edmund DulacBluebeard, for example, has little to recommend it as a children's story. Rather, it's a gruesome cautionary tale about the dangers of marriage (on the one hand) and the perils of greed and curiosity (on the other) -- more akin, in our modern culture, to horror films than to Disney cartoons. The story as Perrault tells it is this: A wealthy man, wishing to wed, turns his attention to the two beautiful young daughters of his neighbor, a widow. Neither girl wants to marry the man because of his ugly blue beard -- until he invites the girls and their mother to a party at his country estate. Seduced by luxurious living, the youngest daughter agrees to accept Bluebeard's hand. The two are promptly wed and the girl becomes mistress of his great household. Soon after, Bluebeard tells his wife that business calls him to make a long journey. He leaves her behind with all the keys to his house, his strong boxes, and his caskets of jewels, telling her she may do as she likes with them and to "make good cheer." There is only one key that she may not use, to a tiny closet at the end of the hall. That alone is forbidden, he tells her, "and if you happen to open it, you may expect my just anger and resentment."

Bluebeard by Charles RobinsonOf course, the very first thing the young wife does is to run to the forbidden door "with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck." She has promised obedience to her husband, but a combination of greed and curiosity (the text implies) propels her to the fatal door the minute his back is turned. She opens it and finds a shuttered room, its floor awash in blood, containing the murdered corpses of Bluebeard's previous young wives. Horrified, the young wife drops the key into a puddle of blood. Retrieving it, she locks the room and runs back to her own chamber. Now she attempts to wash the key so that her transgression will not be revealed -- but no matter how long and hard she scrubs it, the bloodstain will not come off.

That very night, her husband returns -- his business has been suddenly concluded. Trembling, she pretends that nothing has happened and welcomes him back. In the morning, however, he demands the return of the keys and examines them carefully. "Why is there blood on the smallest key?" he asks her craftily. Bluebeard's wife protests that she does not know how it came to be there. "You do not know?" he roars. "But I know, Madame. You opened the forbidden door. Very well. You must now go back and take your place among my other wives."

Bluebeard by Edmund Dulac

Tearfully, she delays her death by asking for time to say her prayers -- for her brothers are due to visit that day, her only hope of salvation. She calls three times to her sister Anne in the tower room at the top of the house ("Sister Anne, Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?") And at last they come, just as Bluebeard raises a sword to chop off her head. The murderous husband is dispatched, his wealth disbursed among the family, and the young wife is married again, Perrault tells us, to "a very worthy gentleman who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard."

Gilles de Rais, from a painting by Éloi Firmin FéronThis bloodthirsty tale is quite different in tone from the other tales in Perrault's Histoires (the courtly confections of "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," etc.), and its history has been a source of debate among fairy tale scholars. Some assert that Perrault was inspired by the historical figure of Gilles de Rais, a fifteenth century Marshal of France and companion at arms to Joan of Arc. After driving the English out of France, this martial hero returned to his Breton estate where, a law unto himself, he practiced alchemy and dark magic while young peasant boys began to disappear across his lands. Rumors swirled around de Rais and when, at last, the Duke of Brittany intervened and investigated, the remains of over fifty boys were dug up in de Rais's castle. He later confessed to sodomizing and killing one hundred and forty boys, although the actual number may be closer to three hundred. De Rais was simultaneously hanged and burned alive for these crimes in 1440.

There is another old Breton tale, however, which relates more closely to Bluebeard's story: that of Cunmar the Accursed, who beheaded a succession of wives, one after the other, when they became pregnant. Cunmar was an historical figure, the ruler of Brittany in the mid-sixth century, but the legend attached to him has its roots in folk tales, not history.

Bluebeard by Gustav DoreThe story concerns a nobleman's daughter, Triphine, the last of Cunmar's wives. Heavily pregnant with his son, she enters Cunmar's ancestral chapel where she is warned of her fate by the bloodstained ghosts of his previous wives. She flees to the woods, but her husband pursues her, cuts off her head and leaves her to die. Her body is found by Gildas, the abbot of Rhuys, who is destined to be a saint. Miraculously, he re-attaches the head and brings her back to life. The two follow Cunmar back to his castle, where Gildas causes the walls themselves to crash down on the murderer. Triphine's son is safely delivered, given to Gildas and the church, and Triphine devotes the rest of her life to prayer and performing good works. Eventually, she too is sainted (depicted in religious statues and paintings as carrying her own severed head) -- while the ghost of Cunmar continues to haunt the country in the form of a werewolf. The Bluebeard parallel becomes stronger yet when one considers a series of frescoes depicting Triphine's story in the Breton church St. Nicholas des Eaux. One panel of these medieval paintings shows Cunmar handing a key to his young bride, while another shows her entering the chamber where his previous wives are hanging.

It's possible that Charles Perrault knew the story of Cunmar the Accursed, using details from it to color his own. Or it may simply be that he knew other similar stories from French and Italian peasant lore, with their wide range of "monstrous bridegroom" and "murderous stranger" motifs. Indeed, these motifs are ones we find in folk traditions around the world. But in marked contrast to Perrault's Bluebeard (the best known of such tales today), in the old peasant stories the heroine does not weep and wait for her brothers' rescue -- rather, she's a cunning, clever girl fully capable of rescuing herself.

Bluebeard by Gustav Dore

In the Italian tale Silvernose (as compiled by Italo Calvino from three regional variants and published in Italian Folktales), the devil, disguised as a nobleman, visits a widowed washerwoman and asks for her eldest daughter to come and work in his fine house. The widow distrusts the man's strange Bluebeard by Harry Clarkenose, but her daughter agrees to go nonetheless, bored as she is with life at home and looking for an adventure. She follows Silvernose to his palace, where she's given keys to all the fine rooms. He gives her the run of the place -- except for one door which she may not unlock. That night, Silvernose enters her room and leaves a rose in her hair as she sleeps. In the morning, he rides off on business, leaving his young servant behind. Immediately she opens the forbidden door. Inside, she finds hell itself -- a fiery room where the souls of the damned writhe in eternal torment. The horrified girl swiftly slams the door shut, but the flower in her hair has been singed. When Silvernose returns, the flower is proof of her transgression. "So that's how you obey me!" he cries, opening the door and tossing her in.

He then returns to the washerwoman, and asks for the second daughter. The middle girl meets her sister's fate. But the youngest daughter, Lucia, is cunning. She too follows Silvernose to his palace, she too is given the forbidden key, she too has a flower placed in her hair as she lies asleep. But she notices the flower and puts it safely away in a jar of water. Then she opens the door, pulls her sisters out of the flames, and plots their escape. When Silvernose comes home, the flower is back in her hair, as fresh as ever. The devil is pleased. Here's a servant at last who will bind herself to his will.

Fitcher's Bird by Arthur Rackham

Lucia prevails upon him then to carry some laundry back to her mother. Her eldest sister is hidden inside the bag, which is very heavy. "You must take it straight to my mother," she says, "for I have a special ability to see from great distances, and if you stop to rest and put that bag down, I will surely know." The devil starts upon his trip, grows tired, and begins to put the bag down. "I see you, I see you!" the eldest sister cries from inside the laundry bag; and thinking it's Lucia's voice, Silvernose hurries on. Lucia repeats this ruse for the middle sister. Then she hides in the third bag herself, along with a store of gold pilfered from the devil's treasury. Reunited with their mother (and wealthy now besides), the sisters plant a cross in the yard and the devil keeps his distance.

Fitcher's Bird by Arthur Rackham

The Italian story Silvernose is similar to an old German tale called Fitcher's Bird, collected by the Brothers Grimm and published in Kinder- und Hausmarchen. In this story, the Bluebeard figure is a mysterious wizard disguised as a beggar. The wizard appears at the door of a household with three beautiful unmarried daughters. He asks the eldest for something to eat, and just as she hands the beggar some bread he touches her, which causes her to jump into the basket he carries. He spirits the girl away to his splendid house and gives her keys to its rooms, but forbids her, under penalty of death, to use the smallest key. The next day he sets off on a journey, but before he leaves he gives her an egg, instructing the girl to carry the egg with her everywhere she goes. As soon as he leaves she explores the house, and although she tries to ignore the last key, curiosity gets the better of her and she opens the final door. Inside she finds an ax and a basin filled with blood and body parts. In shock, she drops the egg in the blood, and then cannot wipe off the stain. When the wizard comes home, he demands the return of the keys and the egg, and discovers her deed. "You entered the chamber against my wishes, now you will go back in against yours. Your life is over," he cries, and cuts her into little pieces.

Fitcher's Bird by Mercer MayerThis sequence of events is repeated with the second daughter, and then with the third -- except that the youngest girl is the clever one. She puts the egg carefully away before she enters the forbidden chamber, determined to rescue her sisters. Inside, she finds her sisters chopped up into pieces. She promptly gets to work reassembling the body parts, piece by bloody piece. When her sisters' limbs are all in place, the pieces knit themselves back together and the two elder girls come back to life with cries of joy. Then they must hide as the wizard returns. He calls for the youngest and asks for the egg. She hands it over, and he can find no stain or blemish on it. "You have passed the test," he informs her, "so tomorrow you shall be my bride."

The girl agrees that she will wed the wizard, under this condition: "First take a basket of gold to my father. You must promise to carry it on your back, and you mustn't stop along the way. I'll be watching you from the window." The two elder girls are hidden inside the basket, beneath a king's ransom in gold. The wizard picks it up and stumbles off, sweating under his burden. Yet every time he stops to rest, he hears one of the sisters saying: "I see you, I see you! Don't put the basket down! Keep moving!" Thinking it's the voice of his bride, the wizard continues on his way -- while the youngest girl invites the wizard's friends to a wedding feast. She takes a skull from the bloody room, crowns it with garlands of flowers and jewels, and sets it in the attic window, facing the road below. Then she crawls into a barrel of honey, cuts open a featherbed, and rolls in the feathers until she's completely Fitcher's Bird by Maurice Sendakdisguised as a strange white bird. As she leaves the house, she meets the wizard's equally evil friends coming toward it. They say to her:

"Oh Fitcher's bird, where are you from?"
"From feathered Fitcher's house I've come."
"The young bride there, what has she done?"
"She's cleaned and swept the house all through;
She's in the window looking at you."

She then meets the wizard himself on the road, and these questions are repeated. The wizard looks up, he sees the skull in the window, and hurries home to his bride. But by now, the brothers and relatives of the three young girls are waiting for him. They lock the door, then burn the house down with all the sorcerers inside. (The unexplained name Fitcher, according to Marina Warner, "derives from the Icelandic fitfugl, meaning 'web-footed bird', so there may well be a buried memory here of those bird-women who rule narrative enchantments.")

The Robber Bridegroom by Arthur Rackham

The Robber Bridegroom is another classic fairy tale about a murderous stranger. It too can be found in Germany and Italy, and in variants around the world. One of the most evocative of these variants is the English version of the story, in which the Bluebeard figure is known as Mr. Fox (or Reynardine). A girl is courted by a handsome russet-haired man who appears to have great wealth. He is charming, well mannered, well groomed, but his origins are mysterious. As the wedding day grows near, it troubles the girl that she's never seen his home -- so she takes matters into her own hands and sets off Mr. Fox by Herbert Colethrough the woods to seek it. In the dark of the woods, she finds a high wall and a gate. Over the gate it says: Be bold. She enters, and finds a large, dilapidated mansion inside. Over the entrance it says: Be bold, be bold. She enters a gloomy hall. Over the stairs it says: Be bold, be bold, but not too bold. She climbs the stairs to a gallery, over which she finds the words: Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest your heart's blood should run cold.

The gallery is filled with the body parts of murdered women. She turns to flee, just as Mr. Fox comes in, dragging a new victim. She hides and watches, horrified, as the girl is chopped to bits. A severed hand flies close to her hiding place, a diamond ring on one finger. She takes the hand, creeps out the door, and runs home just as fast as she can. The next day there's a feast for the wedding couple, and Mr. Fox appears, looking as handsome as ever. He comments, "How pale you are, my love!"

"Last night I had a terrible dream," she says. "I dreamed I entered the woods and found a high wall and a gate. Over the gate it said: Be bold." She proceeds to tell him, and the assembled guests, just what she found inside.

"It is not so, nor it was not so, and God forbid it should be so," said Mr. Fox.

"But it is so, and it was so, and here's the hand and the ring I have to show!" She pulls the severed hand from her dress and flings it into her bridegroom's lap. The wedding guests rise up to cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.

Mr. Fox by Henry Ryland

An Indian version of the tale has the daughter of respectable Brahmans courted by a man who is actually a tiger in disguise, anxious to procure a wife who can cook the curry dishes he loves. It is only when the girl is married and on her way to her husband's house that she learns the truth and finds herself wife and servant to a ferocious beast. She bears him a child, a tiger cub, before she finally makes her escape. As she leaves, she tears the cub in two and hangs it over the flames so that her husband will smell the roasting meat and think that she's still inside. It's an odd little tale, in which one feels sneaking sympathy for the tiger.

May Colven by Arthur Rackham

In various "demon lover" ballads found in the Celtic folk tradition, the Bluebeard figure is the devil in disguise, or else a treacherous elfin knight, or a murderous ghost, or a false lover with rape or robbery on his mind. In May Colvin, False Sir John rides off with a nobleman's daughter he's promised to marry -- but when they reach the sea, he orders the maiden to climb down from her horse, to take off her fine wedding clothes, and to hand over her May Collindowry. "Here I have drowned seven ladies," says he, "and you shall be the eighth." May begs him, for the sake of modesty, to turn as she disrobes. And then she promptly pushes him in the water to his death.

In a Scandinavian version of this ballad, a nobleman's daughter is courted by a handsome, honey-tongued, false suitor who promises to take her to the fair if she meets him in the woods. Her father will not let her go, her mother will not let her go, her brothers will not let her go, but her confessor gives permission, provided she keeps hold of her virtue. She finds her suitor in the woods busy at work digging a grave. He says the grave is for his dog; but she protests that it is too long. He says the grave is for his horse; she says it is too small. He tells her the grave is meant for her, unless she consents to lie with him. Eight maidens has he killed before, and she shall be the ninth. Now the choice is hers -- she must lose her virtue or her life. She chooses death, but advises her false suitor to remove his coat, lest her heart's blood spatter the fine cloth and ruin it. As he takes it off, she grabs the sword and strikes his head off "like a man." The head then speaks, instructing her to fetch a salve to heal the wound. Three times the girl refuses to do the bidding of a murderer. She takes the head, she takes his horse, she takes his dog, and rides back home -- but as she goes, she encounters her suitor's mother, his sisters, his brothers. Each time they ask, "Where is thy true love?" Each time she answers, "Lying in the grass, and bloody is his bridal bed." (In some versions, the entire family is made up of robbers and she must kill them too.) She then returns to her father's court, receiving a hero's welcome there. But in other "murderous lover" ballads, the heroines are not so lucky. Some meet with graves at the bottom of the sea, others in cold rivers, leaving ghosts behind to sing the sorrowful song of their tragic end.

Bluebeard by Walter Crane

Charles Perrault drew a number of elements from folk tales and ballads like these when he created the story of the urbane, murderous Bluebeard and his bloody chamber. Like the devil in the Italian tale Silvernose, Bluebeard is marked by a physical disfigurement -- the beard that "made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls run away from him." Like Mr. Fox, his wealth and his charm serve to overcome the natural suspicions Bluebeard by Walter Cranearoused by his mysterious past and the rumors of missing wives. Like the false suitors, he seduces his victims with courtly manners, presents, and flattery, all the while tenderly preparing the grave that will soon receive them. Perrault parts with these older tales, however, by apportioning blame to the maiden herself. He portrays her quite unsympathetically as a woman who marries solely from greed, and who calls Bluebeard's wrath upon herself with her act of disobedience. This is absent in the older tales, where curiosity and disobedience, combined with cunning and courage, are precisely what save the heroine from marriage to a monster, death at a robber's hands, or servitude to the devil. Perrault presents his Bluebeard as a well-mannered, even generous man who makes only one demand of his wife, marrying again and again as woman after woman betrays this trust.

 Only at the end of the tale, as the bridegroom stands revealed as a monster, does Perrault shift his sympathy to the bride, and Bluebeard is dispatched. Perrault ends the tale with a moral that stresses the heroine's transgressions and not her husband's, warning maidens that "curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret." In a second moral, Perrault remarks that the story took place long ago; modern husbands are not such "jealous malcontents." Jealous malcontent? "Homicidal maniac" would be a better description! Again Perrault's words imply that despicable as Bluebeard's actions are, they are actions in response to the provocation of his wife's behavior.

The Brothers Come to the Rescue by Walter CraneAnother departure from the older folk tales is that Bluebeard's wife, like the other fairy tale heroines in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé, is a remarkably helpless creature. She herself does not outwit Bluebeard, she weeps and trembles and waits for her brothers -- unlike the folklore heroines who, even when calling brothers to their aid, have first proven themselves to be quick-witted, courageous, and pro-active. As Maria Tatar has pointed out (in her book The Classic Fairy Tales), "Perrault's story, by underscoring the heroine's kinship with certain literary, biblical, and mythical figures (most notably Psyche, Eve, and Pandora), gives us a tale that willfully undermines a robust folkloric tradition in which the heroine is a resourceful agent of her own salvation."

This difference is particularly evident when we compare Perrault's passive heroine with those created by other fairy tale writers in the French salons -- the majority of them women writers, whose works were quite popular in their day. Perrault's niece, Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier, was also the author of fairy tales; her story The Subtle Princess, published three years before Perrault's Histoires, drew on some of the same folklore motifs as Bluebeard. In L'Héritier's tale, a king has three daughters, two of them foolish, the youngest one clever. When the king journeys away from home, he gives each of his girls a magical distaff made of glass that will shatter if the girl loses her virtue. (The tell-tale key in "murderous bridegroom" tales is often also made of glass.) The wicked prince of a neighboring kingdom enters the castle disguised as a beggar, then seduces each elder sister in turn -- marrying, bedding, and abandoning them. The youngest sister sees through his charms, whereupon he tries to take her by force. No wilting flower, she hoists an ax and threatens to chop him into pieces. The story goes on, with more attempts on the life and honor of the Subtle Princess, but she turns the tables on the wicked prince, kills him in a trap he's set for her, and goes on to marry his gentle, civil, kind-hearted younger brother. The Subtle Princess has no brothers of her own to come rushing to her aid, nor does she need them. She manages matters very well for herself, thank you.

Bluebeard by Kay Nielsen

In the following century, as women lost the social gains they'd made in the heady days of the salons, tales by L'Héritier and other women (D'Aulnoy, Murat, Bernard, etc.) fell out of fashion, while those by Perrault -- with their simpler prose style, their moral endings, their meek and mild princesses -- continued to be reprinted and recounted year after year. As the 18th and 19th centuries progressed, re-tellings of Bluebeard increasingly emphasized the "sin" of disobedience as central to the story -- a subsequent version was titled Bluebeard, or The Effects of Female Curiosity. As fairy tales became an area of scholarly inquiry in the 19th and 20th centuries, folklorists pounced upon this theme in their analysis of the tale -- and took it one step further, suggesting that Bluebeard's wife's disobedience was sexual in nature, the blood-stained key symbolizing the act of infidelity. (Never mind the fact that there are no other men in the whole of Perrault's tale until those convenient brothers come thundering out of nowhere to save her.)

Psychologist Bruno Bettlheim was one of the critics who read Bluebeard as a tale of infidelity. In his flawed but influential book of the 1970s, The Uses of Enchantment, he pronounced Bluebeard "a cautionary tale which warns: Women, don't give in to your sexual curiosity; men, don't permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed. " But as novelist Lydia Millet has pointed out in her essay, "The Wife Killer" (published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore The Favorite Fairy Tales): "Blue Beard wanted his new wife to find the corpses of his former wives. He wanted the new bride to discover their mutilated corpses; he wanted her disobedience. Otherwise, he wouldn't have given her the key to the forbidden closet; he wouldn't have left town on his so–called business trip; and he wouldn't have stashed the dead Mrs. Blue Beards in the closet in the first place. Transparently, this was a set-up."

Bluebeard by Edmund Dulac

Marina Warner, in her excellent fairy tale study From the Beast to the Blonde, suggests another way to read the tale: as an expression of young girls' fears about marriage. Perrault was writing at a time, and in a social class, when arranged marriages were commonplace, and divorce out of the question. A young woman could easily find herself married off to an old man without her consent -- or to a monster: a drunkard, a libertine, or an abusive spouse. Further, the mortality rate of women in childbirth was frighteningly high. Remarriage was commonplace for men who'd lost a wife (or wives) in this fashion, and ghosts from previous marriages hung over many a young bride's wedding. (Perrault and other writers in the fairy tale salons were firmly against arranged marriages, and this concern can be seen in the subtext of many fairy tales of the period.)

Bluebeard by Charles RobinsonAnother aspect of Bluebeard's story that we see increasingly emphasized in later re-tellings is xenophobia, with the brutal bridegroom portrayed as an Oriental. There is nothing in the text of Perrault's tale (except that extraordinary beard) to indicate that Bluebeard is anything but a wealthy, if eccentric, French nobleman -- yet illustrations to the story, from 18th century woodcuts to Victorian and Edwardian illustrations (by Edmund Dulac, Charles Robinson, Jennie Harbour, Margaret Tarrant and others) -- depict Bluebeard in Turkish garb, threatening his bride with a scimitar. It must be remembered that Arabian-Nights-style fairy tales were enormously popular in Europe from the 18th century onward, yet none of the other tales in Perrault's collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé were given this Oriental gloss as persistently as Bluebeard. Both horrible and sensual (all those wives!), Bluebeard is perhaps a more comfortable figure when he is the Other, the Outsider, the Foreigner, and not one of us. And yet, it's the fact that he is one of us -- the polite, well-mannered gentleman next door -- that makes the story so very chilling to this day. While tales like Beauty and the Beast serve to remind us that a monstrous visage can hide the heart of a truly good man, Bluebeard shows us the reverse: a man's fine facade might hide a monster.

Bluebeard by Charles RobinsonBluebeard remained well known throughout Europe right up to the 20th century, in turn inspiring new tales, dramas, operettas, and countless pantomimes. William Makepeace Thackeray published a parody called Bluebeard's Ghost in 1843 which chronicles the further romantic adventures of Bluebeard's widow. Jacques Offenbach wrote a rather burlesque operetta titled Barbe-Bleue in 1866. In 1899, the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck wrote a libretto entitled Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, set to music by Paul Dukas and performed in Paris in 1907. Maeterlinck's version, written with the aid of his lover, the singer Georgette Leblanc, combines Bluebeard with elements from the myth of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur. In this sad, fatalistic version of the tale, Ariande, the last of Bluebeard's brides, attempts to rescue his previous wives and finds them bound by chains of their own making to Bluebeard's castle. The Seven Wives of Bluebeard, by Anatole France, published in 1903, re–tells Perrault's story from Bluebeard's point of view, portraying the man as a good-hearted (if somewhat simple-minded) nobleman whose reputation has been sullied by the duplicitous women he's married. Bela Bartok's opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1911), libretto by Bela Balasz, presents a brooding, philosophical Bluebeard, reflecting on the impossibility of lasting love between men and women.

Bluebeard by Jennie HarbourAs fairy tales were relegated to the nursery in the 2oth century, Bluebeard was seldom included, for obvious reasons, in collections aimed at children. And yet the story did not disappear from popular culture; it moved from the printed page to film. As early as 1901, George Méliès directed a silent film version titled Barbe Bleue, which manages, despite cinematic limitations, to be both comic and horrific. Other film treatments over the years include Bluebeard's Eighth Wife in 1938; Bluebeard in 1944; Richard Burton's Bluebeard in 1972, and Bluebeard's Castle, a film version of Bartok's opera, in 1992. Maria Tatar makes a case that Bluebeard's tale can be seen as a precursor of modern cinematic horror. "In Bluebeard, as in cinematic horror," she writes, "we have not only a killer who is propelled by psychotic rage, but also the abject victims of his serial murders, along with a 'final girl' (Bluebeard's wife), who either saves herself or arranges her own rescue. The 'terrible place' of horror, a dark, tomblike site that harbors grisly evidence of the killer's derangement, manifests itself as Bluebeard's castle."

Bluebeard by Jennie Harbour 2Marina Warner concurs. "Bluebeard," she notes, "has entered secular mythology alongside Cinderella and Snow White. But his story possesses a characteristic with particular affinity to the present day: seriality. Whereas the violence in the heroines' lives is considered suitable for children, the ogre has metamorphosed in popular culture for adults, into mass murderer, the kidnapper, the serial killer: a collector, as in John Fowles's novel The Collector, an obsessive, like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Though cruel women, human or fairy, dominate children's stories with their powers, the Bluebeard figure, as a generic type of male murderer, has gradually entered material requiring restricted ratings as well."

Indeed, for modern prose versions of Bluebeard we must go not to the children's fairy tale shelves, as we do for other stories by Perrault, but to the shelves of adult literature, where we find a number of interesting re-tellings. Foremost among them is Angela Carter's splendid story, "The Bloody Chamber," published in her short story collection of the same name, in which the author gives full reign to the tale's inherent sensuality, and expands the role of the bride's mother to wonderful effect. "Bluebeard's Daughter" by Sylvia Townsend Warner is a wry, sly, elegant tale about the daughter of Bluebeard's third wife, with her own abiding interest in the locked room of her father's castle. "Bones" by Francesca Lia Block (from The Rose and the Beast) transplants the fairy tale to modern Los Angeles, while Margaret Atwood's "Bluebeard's Egg" (from Bluebeard's Egg & Other Stories) is a contemporary, purely realist tale of marriage and infidelity, drawing its symbolism from both Bluebeard and Fitcher's Bird.

Bluebeard by Nadezhda Illarionova

Gregory Frost's inventive novel Fitcher's Brides (a finalist for the World Fantasy Award) also draws liberally from both these tales, setting the story in upstate New York in the 19th century, at a time when religious fervor, doomsday cults, and experimental utopian communities were widespread. His Bluebeard figure is a calculating, controlling preacher named Reverend Fitcher. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut and The Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman are contemporary novels that make use of the fairy tale's symbolism in intriguing ways. Vonnegut's book is the tale of an artist with a secret in his potato barn; Hoffman's novel is the chilling study of a seemingly perfect man with a mysterious past. Bluebeard/Robber Bridegroom poetry includes Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Bluebeard " (Renascence and Other Poems), Anne Sexton's "The Gold Key " (Transformations), Gwen Strauss's "Bluebeard" (Trail of Stones), and Neil Gaiman's "The White Rose" (Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears) -- plus an entire anthology of Bluebeard poems: Bluebeard's Wives, edited by Julie Boden and Zoe Brigley (Heaventree Press, 2007).

Bluebeard paintings by Gaila Zinko

In her essay "The Wife Killer," Lydia Millet reflects on Bluebeard's potent, enduring allure. "Blue Beard retains his charm," she writes, "by being what most men and women feel they cannot be: an overt articulator of the private fantasy of egomania...he is the subject that takes itself for a god. He is omnipotent because he accepts no social compromise; he acts solely in the pursuit of his own satisfaction." She goes on to comment that "between an egotist with high expectations and a sociopath stretches only the fine thread of empathy and identification."

Bluebeard, Millet reminds us, is a story about illusion, transgression, and the dark side of carnal appetites. It cautions us to beware of strangers in the woods...and of gentleman in the front parlor.

Bluebeard by Harry Clarke

Pictures: Artists are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art, text, and quotes above reserved by the artists and authors. Related reading: "Bluebeard's Third Wife" by Helena Bell (Strange Horizons), "Bluebeard's Final Girl, or the Revisionist" by Veronica Schanoes (JOMA), and  "The White Road," a Mr. Fox poem by Neil Gaiman (JOMA). For more on Charles Perrault and other salon fairy tale writers of 17th century France: Once Upon a Time: a short history of adult fairy tales.


Wily and brave: the heroines of fairy tales

The Glassy Hill by John D. Batten

Continuing our discussion of stories, storytelling, and the fairy tale tradition, here's one more passage from Katherine Langrish's fine book Seven Miles of Steel Thistles:

"Fairy-tale heroines do not signifiy passivity and helplessness. Far more often they exhibit resourcefulness, resilience, courage. In the Norwegian fairy tale The Master-Maid, the prince would be eaten by the troll to whom he has pledged his work, were it not for the wisdom and magical power of the eponymous Master-Maid who lives in the troll's house. The prince succeeds in each perilous task only by following the Master-Maid's advice. Finally the troll orders the Master-Maid to kill and prince and cook him. Instead she cuts his little finger and lets three drops of blood fall. As the troll sleeps, she escapes with the prince and a great deal of magical treasure; when the troll awakes to demand if the meal is cooked, the drops of blood answer for her: 'Not yet'; 'Nearly'; and, 'It is boiled dry.' The troll pursues the couple, but the Master-Maid flings magical impediments in his path. Prince and Master-Maid are finally married, but not before a further development in which the prince forgets her, and is rescued on the verge of marrying the wrong woman....

Mr. Fox by John D. Batten"In one of my favourite English fairy tales Mr. Fox, the heroine Lady Mary may initially be deceived by the sly flattery of her suitor, but she is inquisitive and brave as well as rich and beautiful. She discovers for herself the bloody secrets of Mr. Fox's castle, and turns the tables on her would-be murderer in the neatest and most self-possessed of ways. The story quite definitely approves of female curiousity and courage: without these qualities, the heroine would have joined the list of this serial killer's victims. There is no marriage at all at the end of the story, and one feels Lady Mary will give the next suitor a very hard look indeed.

Tattercoats by John D. Batten"In the story variously known as Donkeyskin, Allerleirauh, or Cap o' Rushes, the heroine flees her father's house to save herself from an incestuous marriage:

When the king's daughter saw there was no hope of turning her father's heart, she resolved to run away. In the night when everyone was asleep, she got up and took three different things from her treasures, a golden ring, a golden spinning wheel, and a golden reel. The three dresses of sun, moon and stars she placed into a nutshell, put on her mantle of all kinds of fur, and blackened her face and hands with soot. Then she commended herself to God and went away.

"Disguised in ordinary clothes, a donkeyskin, a coat made of all kinds of different furs, or a cloak made of rushes, she sets out for another kingdom and finds rough work in the palace kitchens. On seeing the prince or heir of the house, she obtains his attention by a series of tricks (mysterious appearances at dances; golden rings dropped in wine cups) and finally marries him. You might call it enterprising.

The Witch by John D Batten

"Many are the heroines who get the better of the Devil himself -- in fact, this dark gentleman rarely fares well in folktales. Remember the farmer who sells his soul in return for twenty years of good harvests? And when the time comes to pay up, his clever wife saves him. 'My man won't be a minute, sir, he's just getting his things together, and please take a mouthful to eat while you wait!' she calls to the Devil, handing him a pie into which she has baked a red-hot griddle. When he bites into it, burning his tongue and breaking his teeth, she interrupts his howls with the merry cry, 'And I'm coming too, to cook for you both!' -- at which the terrified Devil takes to his heels. Of course it's comical: but note that the farmer's wife employs her wits and skills, and defeats the Devil, in a particularly feminine way.

Big Fish by John D Batten

"Just as wives can be cleverer than their husbands, daughters are frequently wiser than their fathers. In one of the Grimms' tales, a peasant digging a field discovers treasure -- and ignores his daughter's advice:

When they had dug nearly the whole of the field, they found in the earth a mortar made of pure gold. 'Listen,' said the father to the girl, 'as our lord the King has graciously given us this field, we ought to give him this mortar in return for it.' 'Father,' said the daughter, 'if we have the mortar without the pestle as well, we shall have to get the pestle, so you had much better say nothing about it.' But he would not obey her, and he carried the mortar to the king....

"It's a bad decision. Surely enough, the greedy king wants the pestle too, and imprisons the peasant for failing to produce it. The daughter's wit and courage saves her father and wins marriage with the king -- whom she later kidnaps in order to teach him a much-needed lesson.

At the Church Door by John D. Batten

"Heroines such as these know their own minds and make their own decisions. They are prudent, determined, wily and brave. They are so far from the stereotype of the fairy-tale princess that one has to ask how it arose. If there are so many stories with strong heroines, why are they not more widely known?

"Traditional tales change subtly each time they are told as, consciously or unconsciously, the teller adjusts and tinkers with them to appeal to the tastes of the moment's audience. We cannot say that this or that version of any traditional story is 'original.' All we can do is look, every time, at who is telling it, and to whom, and for what purpose. 'The prominence of certain stories is itself symptomatic of cultural production -- of the way in which culture constitues itself by constituting us.'*

Rushin' Coatie by John D Batten

"Despite the title, the first two volumes of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimms' Children's and Household Tales (1812 and 1815) were intended for adults and scholars. When in 1825 the brothers decided to bring out 'a smaller edition of 50 tales...geared to the tastes of bourgeois families'** and likely to be read to or by children, they rewrote or omitted many stories with sexual content, yet included some we would today consider inappropriately violent. Each successive generation uses, interprets and censors fairy tales according to its own standards. Not intrinsic excellence, but an ongoing process of social and editorial bias towards passive, gentle heroines has favoured and raised to prominence those tales we recognise as 'classic,' including four of the best-known of all: Sleeping Beauty, Snow-White, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast.

"Even these heroines turn out on closer scrutinty to be less passive than you suppose."

The Black Bull of Norroway by John D. Batten

To learn more about the heroines of those four stories, follow the links above.

Beauty and the Beast by John Batten

Quoted from Off With Their Heads! by Maria Tatar (Princeton University Press, 1993)
**
Quoted from
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Pictures: The art in this post is by John Dickson Batten (1860-1932), who was born and raised in Plymouth, on the south Devon coast. He studied at the Slade School of Art in London, socialized with the Pre-Raphaelites, and is best known for his illustrations for Joseph Jacabs' fairy tale collections (English Fairy Tales, Celtic Fairy Tales, Indian Fairy Tales, etc.).

Words: The passage quotes above is from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales by Katherine Langrish (The Greystones Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.


Once upon a time

Among the trees

To continue our discussion of stories and storytellers, here's another fine book that no folklore shelf should be without: Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales by Katherine Langrish, the author of West of the Moon and other excellent works of myth-based fantasy for children.

 The Terrible Head by HJ FordNow while I might seem biased because Katherine is a family friend (her daughter and ours have been best friends for many years), in truth I am sharply opinionated when it comes to books about folklore and fairy tales; I was mentored in the field by Jane Yolen, after all, which sets the bar pretty damn high. Thus it is no small praise to say that Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is an essential book for practioners of mythic arts: insightful, reliable, packed with information...and thoroughly enchanting.

"As a child I was usually deep in a book," Kath writes in the volume's introduction, "and as often as not, it would be full of fairy tales or myths and legends from around the world. I remember choosing the Norse myths for a school project, retelling and illustrating stories about Thor, Odin and Loki. I read the tales of King Arthur, I read stories from the Arabian Knights. And gradually, I hardly know how, I became aware that grown-ups made distinctions between these, to me, very similar genres. Some were taken more seriously than others. Myths -- especially the 'Greek myths' -- were top of the list and legends came second, while fairy tales were the poor cousins at the bottom. Yet there appeared to be a considerable overlap. Andrew Lang included the story of Perseus and Andromeda in The Blue Fairy Book, under the title 'The Terrible Head.'  And surely he was right. It is a fairy story, about a prince who rescues a princess from a monster....

The wildflower path

The Green Serpent by HJ Ford

Wild apple blossom

"The field of fairy stories, legends, folk tales and myths is like a great, wild meadow. The flowers and grasses seed everywhere; boundaries are impossible to maintain. Wheat grows into the hedge from the cultivated fields nearby, and poppies spring up in the middle of the oats. A story can be both things at once, a 'Greek myth' and a fairytale too: but if we're going to talk about them, broad distinctions can still be made and may still be useful. 

The Complaint of the Three Maidens by HJ Ford"Here is what I think: a myth seeks to make emotional sense of the world and our place in it. Thus, the story of Persephone's abduction by Hades is a religious and poetic exploration of winter and summer, death and rebirth. A legend recounts the deeds of heroes, such as Achilles, Arthur, or Cú Chulainn. A folk tale is a humbler, more local affair. Its protagonists may be well-known neighborhood characters or they may be anonymous, but specific places become important. Folk narratives occur in real, named landscapes. Green fairy children are found near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. A Cheshire farmer going to market to sell a white mare meets a wizard, not just anywhere, but on Alderley Ledge between Mobberley and Macclesfield. In Dorset, an ex-soldier called John Lawrence sees a phantom army marching 'from the direction of Flowers Barrow, over Grange Hill, and making for Wareham.' Local hills, lakes, stones and even churches are explained as the work of giants, trolls or the Devil.

The black hound comes

The Faithful Beasts by HJ Ford

Hound and wildflowers

"Fairy tales can be divided into literary fairy tales, the more-or-less original work of authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald and Oscar Wilde (which will not concern me very much in this book), and anonymous traditional tales originally handed down the generations by word of mouth but nowadays usually mediated to us via print. Unlike folk tales, traditional fairy tales are usually set 'far away and long ago' and lack temporal and spatial reference points. They begin like this: 'In olden times, when wishing still helped one, there lived a king...' or else, 'A long time ago there was a king who was famed for his wisdom throughout the land...' A hero goes traveling, and 'after he had traveled some days, he came one night to a Giant's house...' We are everywhere or nowhere, never somewhere. A fairy tale is universal, not local."

Blue sicklewort, healer of heartbreak

Beauty & the Beast by HJ Ford

White stitchwort, breaker of enchantments

Katherine concludes the book's introduction with the reminder that fairy tales, found all around the world, are amazingly diverse and amazingly hardy. "They've been told and retold, loved and laughed at, by generation after generation because they are of the people, by the people, for the people.  The world of fairy tales is one in which the pain and deprivation, bad luck and hard work of ordinary folk can be alleviated by a chance meeting, by luck, by courtesy, courage and quick wits -- and by the occasional miracle. The world of fairy tales is not so very different from ours. It is ours."

It is indeed.

Oak elder

The Princess and the Fox by HJ Ford

Fairy tale reflections

Seven Miles of Steel Thistle is available from The Greystones Press, an excellent publishing venture by Mary Hoffman and Stephen Barber. (Check out their other books too.) You can read Katherine's musings on folklore on her blog, also called Seven Miles of Steel Thistles; and learn more about her other books, stories, and essays here.

There are seven miles of hill on fire for you to cross, and there are seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea, says the narrator of an old Irish fairy tale.

With this delightful collection of essays as a guide, the journey is worth every step.

Once upon a time

The Night Owl & The Kiss That Gave the Victory by HJ Ford

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish

Words: The passages quoted above, and in the picture captions, are from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish (The Greystones Press, 2016); all rights reserved by the author. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in the spring of 2016.

Pictures: The Terrible Head, The Complaint of the Three Maidens, The Green Serpent, The Faithful Beasts, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Fox, The Night Owl, and The Kiss That Gave the Victory by H.J. Ford (1860-1941).

Related reading: The Virago Books of Fairy Tales (edited by Angela Carter) and Once Upon A Time: a short history of adut fairy tales.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Art by Laurence Winram

Karin Powlwart by Laurence Winram

This week, music from Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart -- beginning with three songs from her "Tiny Desk Concert" at the National Public Radio offices in Washington DC, accompanied by guitarist Steven Polwart (Karine's brother) and multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson (one of my lovely colleagues from the Modern Fairies project).

As NPR explains: "Polwart writes songs about hope, music that harnesses spiritual power and lyrics that address important social justice themes. Stories of human emotion and the human experience are also commonplace as in the first tune, 'Ophelia.' Her second song, 'I Burn But I Am Not Consumed,' includes a mesmerizing spoken word denunciation of President Donald Trump, while the closing tune, 'King of Birds,' praises the power of small things. In it Polwart recounts the legend of a wren who piggybacks a lift on an eagle's wing. Just as the large bird is unable to fly any higher in the sky, the tiny wren catches a breath of air, soars higher than the eagle and is crowned the king of all birds."

Below: A new rendition of Big Country's "Chance," from her latest album, Karine Polwart's Scottish Songbook, featuring re-imagined songs drawn from fifty years of Scottish pop music.

Above: "All of a Summer's Evening," a song from her stunning album and stage show A Pocket of Wind Resistance (created with Pippa Murphy) -- a "poetic meditation on midwifery, ecology, sanctuary and solidarity, combining elements of memoir, essay, myth, sound art and song." The gorgeous video was made by another colleague of mine from the Modern Fairies project: singer, songwriter, artist and animator Marry Waterson.

Above: "Lark in the Clear Air," also from A Pocket of Wind Resistance.

Art by Laurence Winram

The art in this post is by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram, based in Edinburgh.


The stories we need

After spending the last week basically dissing Disney's treatment of classic stories, here's a post from the Myth & Moor archives looking at Disney retellings from a different perspective, positing that bad books (and films) created for children aren't always bad for children....

The Blackberry Bush

Sleepy Time Tale

“Just as the child is born with a literal hole in its head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in its heart.  Slowly this, too, is filled up.  What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow.  Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."    - Jane Yolen

As a folklorist, fantasist, and passionate advocate for the value of fairy tales, I have written many articles and talks over the years about the fairy tales I loved as a child and how they've permeated my creative life ever since. I've spent less time thinking about the other tales that colored my childhood, especially those from the earliest years, tales read to me before I could read for myself -- tales that, whatever their objective value as literature, "intruded into the heart" during that formative time.

I wish I could say my young mind was nourished on the classics of children's literature -- the original text of J.M Barrie's sly and sardonic Peter and Wendy, for example -- but like so many children growing up in the '60s I had a Peter-Pan-simulacrum, not Peter himself: a small picture book with a re-written text that had been greatly slimmed down and simplified, based on Walt Disney's Peter, not Barrie's. Likewise for Felix Salten's Bambi, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and so many other classics in 1960s adapations: they all seemed to bear Disney's stamp, whether or not Disney Studios had ever actually made films out of them.

Little Golden Book editions

I loathe such books now. And yet, I confess, as a child I swallowed them whole. The timeless magic of stories like Peter's runs deep, no matter how badly re-tellings may ravage them. I know from my taste in fairy tales -- where I had the luck to be raised on the old, unwatered-down versions -- that I would have preferred the original texts, even when the language sailed over my head; but I took what was offered, and loved Imitation Peter and Imitation Thumper and Imitation Baloo nonetheless.

Sleepy Time Tale

My memory of my pre-reading years is patchy, but my memory of the books I adored is not, the stories entwined with the sound of my mother's voice as she read them to me at bedtime. She worked during the day, and these were among the rare moments I had her all to myself, and when she seemed contented to be with me, not sadly bewildered by my existence.

What I know today, and did not know then, is that my mother was still just a child herself, having dropped out of high school when I came along (the result of a love affair gone wrong) and still living under her own mother's roof. Her room was a frilly teenager's bedroom. I had the little bedroom next door, where through the thin walls I could hear the sound of her crying, night after night. I thought I was the cause of those tears, an unwanted baby who had ruined her life. Much later I learned the rest of the story: there had been a second love affair, and a second baby after me, a son, who had been taken away. Now those years of her bottomless grief made sense. But these clarifying details were hidden from the puzzled child I was, and in the tale that I wove from my ignorance I was the source of her misery and her shame, and the fact that I could not break through her sorrow seemed to confirm this as truth.

Little 'Fraid of the Dark (from the Book Trails series)

We lived at that time with my grandmother, my step-grandfather, and the three young daughters of that marriage: my aunts, but barely older than me and so they seemed more like sisters. I adored them, followed them everywhere (when they let me), and longed to sleep in their dorm-like room at the top of the house, instead of in my bed with my head under the pillows to block out my mother's crying. Is it any wonder that the first great love of my life was Peter Pan? I insisted on keeping the window cracked open at night, in all kinds of weather, but I never said why. I was waiting for Peter. I wanted to fly to the stars and away. I was certain he would come.

Peter Pan illustration

In addition to those dreadful Disney editions, when storytime came around at night I often requested the "red books": a children's anthology series from the 1920s that lived on my mother's shelves, not mine, for they'd been hers as a child, and she loved them, and I wasn't to touch them. (Or, god forbid, to color in them -- but of course I did and spent a whole week in disgrace.) When my mother died (again, much too young) the books came to me, and I still have them today: an eight volume series called Book Trails, published by Shepard & Lawrence in 1928.

Book Trails (Lawrence & Shepard, Inc. 1928)

Two things about these books strike me now. First, they are filled with poems and tales of Victorian and Edwardian vintage, full of children who lived in day and night nurseries, attended by nannies and servants, aired in perambulators and fed strange meals called "tea" (at which, I imagined, only the beverage of that name was served). In this way, I received a literary education more common to children of my mother's, and even my grandmother's, day. I can still quote reams of poetry by Walter de la Mare and Robert Louis Stevenson by heart...along with plenty of sickly-sweet late-Victorian rhymes that no one else has heard of now.

The Little White Bed That Ran Away

Second, I am struck by the fact that the tales I remember as favorites are all, every one of them, variations on a single theme: an unprepossessing child, or puppy, or princess, or fairy is overlooked, unwanted, or has no home...but by story's end they are claimed, loved, and recognized for their inherent worth.

The Story of the Three Little Doggies

The Chicks  That Stayed Up Late (from the Book Trails series)

One story I asked for again and again is a saccharine take on the Ugly Duckling theme, "The Little Fat Fairy" by Florence S. Page. In this tale, there's a little fairy so chubby and clumsy that he can't fly like his fellow fairies, or dance properly, or do much of anything at all. The other fairies tease him and he tries not to mind, but he knows there is something horribly wrong with him and he's deeply ashamed. One day a Lovely Lady comes to the forest looking for a fairy companion. They dance around her, all calling "Choose me! Choose me!" Each one is more beautiful than the next, and the Lovely Lady can't make up her mind...until she spies the fat fairy above her in the trees, hiding his ugliness from her.

"Oh you dear little thing," she cries. "I want you!"

The other fairies are shocked. "Why would you want him? He's so fat he can't dance or anything!"

"That's because he's a baby, not a fairy," says the woman. "He's a beautiful baby boy! And I'm going to be his mother."

It's embarrassing reading the tale today, so cloyingly sweet, so heavy-handedly moral. And yet, I admit, this silly story still makes my heart catch in the same old way. I am in my 50th decade now, but that unwanted child is still at my core. To be seen, to be valued, to be claimed without hesitation...that's a powerful magic indeed, and it doesn't matter that the tale is so badly written. The child I was didn't know that, or care. I read it now and I'm transported back: to that room, to that bed, to the window cracked open, to the nightly sobs of my teenage mother. And the waiting, the waiting, for someone to claim me. Peter Pan. Lovely Lady. Anyone.

The Fat Little Fairy

It's unsettling to write these words. Not because of painful emotions evoked -- I've made my peace with my past after all these years -- but because I'm a writer myself now, and these stories are challenging my deepest convictions. I believe it's important to write well for children; to create fantasy that is complex and true, not didactic tales or frivilous fancies steeped only in bathos and wish-fulfillment. Yet the sugary stories of the "red books" were true for me at that time, and I did not distinguish good writing from poor. I took what I needed, and if the tales were simplistic in the telling, they became something more in the hearing.

From the Book Trails series"I  don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children," says my wise friend Neil Gaiman. "Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy. It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it."

Little Milk, Little Cereal, and Grey Kitten Moorka

Another "bad book" I loved without reservation was  The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian Munn, published in 1953 and dismissed by reviewers as "sticky sentiment" even then. I can't say that assessment is wrong, but as a small child in the early '60s this book was my sacred text: profound, transcendent, and necessary. The story is simple. Mrs. Pig is the only animal on Bayberry Lane who never receives any mail. Each day she waits by her mailbox, hopeful, and each day the kind-hearted The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian MunnLittle Mailman, a chipmunk, witnesses her disappointment. Distressed by Mrs. Pig's loneliness, the Little Mailman comes up with a plan. The next day, everyone on the lane gets an invitation to a party...except poor Mrs. Pig, who is now sadder than ever. It turns out, of course, that the big event is a surprise party thrown by the mailman for her, after which she has so many friends that her mailbox never stands empty again.

Polly Pig, as depicted by illustrator Elizabeth Webbe, is quietly sad and quietly sweet -- descriptions I could also apply to my mother. No Mr. Pig is ever mentioned (another similarity), and she seems undeserving of the loneliness that suffuses her life until the Little Mailman comes along. I might easily have been a more selfish child, rejecting my mother and her suffocating sorrow, adding to the burden of grief she carried; but instead, through the Little Mailman, I learned about kindness, empathy, emotional generosity. If only I could be half so clever as he, I too might devise an ingenious plan to bring happiness back into my mother's life. I tried, and I tried, and I never succeeded. Her problems were larger than Mrs. Pig's. But the compassion that I learned from that "sticky sentimental" story I carry with me to this day.

The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane

None of these are tales I would choose to grow up with. Nor would I would give them to a child now when there are so many better stories to offer, both classic and contemporary. Yet I craved these books, asked for them over and over, and found their sugary sweetness nourishing to my soul. As a writer, I cannot approve of them. They are not, by any measure of the writing craft, good: they are simplistic, soppy, and (in the case of the Disneyfied picture books) inauthentic. They are everything that as an artist I deplore.

Yet they made me the person and writer I am. And I love them still.

7b88526df9849ffd287ab1e7619ac18f

A Story Book (from Book Trails)

Words: The quote by Jane Yolen is from her excellent book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 1981). The quote by Neil Gaiman is from "Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreams (The Guardian, October 15, 2013). Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.) The illustrations from the Book Trails series (Lawrence & Shepard, 1928) are, alas, not credited by artist.


The strange history of Snow White

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

To end this week's series of posts on folk and fairy tales:

Another discussion of Disney's fairy tale films can be found in "The Poisoned Apple," my essay on the history of Snow White. (It's available online here.) With this tale, too, the filmmakers made sweeping changes that both Americanized and altered the essence of the story.

"It's just that people now don't want fairy stories the way they were written," Walt Disney said in answer to such criticism. "They were too rough. In the end they'll probably remember the story the way we film it anyway."

Alas, I'm afraid he was right.

Snow White

Art above: Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman (1974) and from the Disney animated film (1937).


The stuff that dreams are made of

Dragon by Arthur Rackham

Today, one last passage passage from Jane Yolen's seminal book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Chilhood, which no folklore library should be without. The art, of course, is by the great Golden Age book illustrator Arthur Rackham.

"Though we are just now finding out that the dinosaur was probably a warm-blooded beast and not the cold-blooded lizard of the textbooks," Jane writes, "we have never been in doubt about dragons. We know, even without being told, that they were born, nourished, kept alive by human blood and heart and mind. They never were -- but always will be. It was Kenneth Grahaeme who wrote: 'The dragon is a more enduring animal than a pterodactyl. I have never yet met anyone who really believed in pterodactyls; but every honest person believes in dragons -- down in the back-kitchen of his consciousness.'

"Dragons and pterodactyls, actuality has nothing to do with Truth.

Fafnir and Sigurd by Arthur Rackham

"Throughout the 19th century, there was a great deal of speculation about fairies. One group of anthropologists and folklorists held that there really had been a race of diminutive prehistoric people who had been driven underground by successive invasions. These 'little folk,' who were really the size of pygmies, supposedly lived for years in communities in caves and burrows, in warrens and tunnels and in the deepest, darkest parts of the forest where, in brown-and-green camoflage, they stayed apart from their enemies. Kidnappings and mysterious disappearances were all attributed to them. These hardy guerrillas of a defeated culture became, in the folk mind, the elves and gnomes and trolls of the British Isles. There were even archeologists wo were convinced they had discovered rooms underground in the Orkney Islands that resembled the Elfland in the popular ballad Child Rowland. (And, similarly, other folk stories might have emerged by a misunderstanding of the weirs and dikes used by the Romans for their household baths.)

Fairies at work by Arthur Rackham

Three fairy paintings by Arthur Rackham

"It is a very seductive thesis, but it really begs the question. For even if we do conclusively prove that the Picts or Celts or some other smaller-than-average race are the actual precursors of the fairy folk, it will not really change a thing about those wonderful stories. The tales of Elfland do not stand or fall on their actuality but on their truthfulness, their speaking to the human condition, the longings we have for the Faerie Other. Those are the tales that touch our longing for the better, brighter world; our shared myths, our shaped dreams. The fears and longings within each of us that helped us create Heaven and Elysium, Valhalla and Tir nan og.

Fairies on a romp by Arthur Rackham

"This is the stuff that dreams are made of. Not the smaller dreams that you and I have each night, rehearsals of things to come, anticipation or dread turned into murky symbols, pastiches of traumas just passed. These are the larger dreams of humankind, a patchwork of all the smaller dreams stitched together by time.

The fairies under Kensington Gardens by Arthur Rackham

"The best of the stories we can give our children, whether they are stories that have been kept alive through the centuries by that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation we call oral transmission, or the tales that were made up only yesterday -- the best of these stories touch that larger dream, that greater vision, that infinite unknowing. They are the most potent kind of magic, these tales, for they catch a glimpse of the soul beneath the skin."

Fairies in Kensington Garden by Arthur Rackham

Words: The passage above is from the title esssay in Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 2981; August House, 2000). The poem in the picture captions, also by Jane, was first published in The National Storytelling Journal (Winter 1987). All rights to the text and art are reserved by the author and the Rackham estate.

Related reading: Jane Yolen on children and tough magic, Alison Hawthorne Deming on dragons, and me on fairies in legend, lore, and literature.


Retelling Beauty & the Beast

Beauty and the Beast by Kinuko Y Craft

When I first saw Disney Studio's Beauty and the Beast, it was in the company of a five-year-old friend. The film was, of course, a visual delight: the animation was remarkable, the Broadway-musical-style show tunes were lively and witty, the Beast was sufficiently ugly and endearing, and Beauty, bless her, was a rare media heroine who actually reads books. As with many of the best stories for children, my young companion and I both enjoyed the film, even if we were laughing at different jokes. Nonetheless, I found myself disturbed by Disney's treatment of the fairy tale -- specifically, with the liberties taken in changing classic elements of the story. But where, I wondered, do we draw the line between the use and abuse of fairy tales when creating new versions for modern audiences? Fairy tales aren't museum pieces to be preserved under glass, after all -- they are living stories: retold, reshaped, subverted, fractured, turned inside-out and upside-down by storytellers through the centuries. So why did the Disney film seem to me not so much a fresh rendition of the story as a sloppy muddling of it? A look at the history of the tale will give some context to my dismay.

Beauty and the Beast by Adrienne SegurWhile we generally think of fairy tales as anonymous stories handed down from the distant past, Beauty and the Beast, in fact, is a literary work penned by the French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. De Villeneuve was part of the "second wave" of French fairy tale writers (Madame D'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, and other salon fairy tale writers comprising the "first wave" fifty years earlier). When she sat down to create Beauty and the Beast, she was influenced by those earlier salonnières, as well by Apuleius' "Cupid and Psyche" (The Golden Ass) and the many "animal bride and bridegroom" stories to be found in the folk tradition. Like Madame D'Aulnoy and other salonnières before her, Madame de Villeneuve used the metaphorical language of  fantasy to address issues of concern to the women of her day. Chief among these was a critique of a marriage system in which women could claim few legal rights. They had no right to chose their own husbands, no right to refuse the marriage bed, no right to control their own property, and no right to divorce. Girls of her class were often wed at 14 or 15, given (sometimes virtually sold) to men who were decades older; and unsatisfactory wives could be locked up in mental institutions or banished to a convent. Many of the fairy tale salonnières were sharply critical of such practices, and promoted ideals of love, fidelity, and civilité between the sexes. Their tales reflected the realities they lived with, and their dreams of a better way of life. Their animal-bridegroom stories, in particularly, embodied the real-life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a prince or a beast in their marriage bed.

(To read more about the salonnières and their fairy tales, go here.)

Beauty & the Beast by Walter Crane

De Villeneuve's Beauty and the Beast, over one hundred pages long and published for adult readers, is somewhat different than the short version of the tale we know today. As the story begins, Beauty's destiny lies in the hands of her father, who gives her over to the Beast (to save his own life) and thus seals her fate. The Beast is a truly fierce figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur -- a creature lost to the human world that had once been his by birthright. The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere. He is a genuine monster, eventually reclaimed by civilité, magic, and love -- but it is only after that transformation that Beauty can love him in return. In metaphorical terms, he is the brutal man she's compelled to wed, now repentant and changing his ways.

Beauty and the Beast by Walter Crane

Beauty & the Beast by HJ Ford

Sixteen years later Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, shortened and rewrote Villeneuve's story, publishing her version in a magazine for well-bred young ladies. She tailored her version for her audience, toning down its sensual imagery and implicit critique of forced marriages. She also pared away much unnecessary fat -- the twisting subplots beloved by Madame de Villeneuve -- to end up with a tale that was less adult and subversive, but also more direct and memorable. In the Leprince de Beaumont version, and subsequent retellings, the story becomes an openly didactic one, with the moral emphasis on Beauty's behaviour. In this version of the tale, it is she who must change. She must learn to see beyond appearance and love the man buried in the Beast, for only this will break the curse and restore the Beast to humanity.

Beauty & the Beast by Warwick Goble

With this shift, we see the story altered from one of proto-feminist critique and rebellion to a moral lesson aimed at young girls. Subsequent versions followed suit, rewritten for younger and younger readers as fairy tales moved from adult salons (where they fell out of fashion) into children's nurseries. By the 19th century, the Beast's monstrous shape is only a kind of costume that he wears; he poses no genuine domestic danger or sexual threat to Beauty, despite keeping her isolated and imprisoned. Even this has been changed in some versions for children: Beauty is free to leave the Beast's castle but kindly chooses to stay, thus honoring her father's rash promise.

Beauty & the Beast by Magaret Tarrant and the unknown illustrator of an 1897 edition

Beauty and the Beast by Charles Robinson

Early in the 19th century, the proliferation of printing presses caused the de Beaumont version of Beauty and the Beast to be widely disseminated in inexpensive chapbook and pamphlet editions, often printed without an author credit to either de Beaumont or de Villeneuve. This is the way that literary tales sometimes slipped sidewise into the folk tradition: oral storytellers took up the best of the fairy stories they found reprinted in chapbooks and pamphets and passed them on as though they, too, were anonymous and ancient.

In her 1989 study Beauty and the Beast (Chicago University Press), Betsy Hearne points out that 19th century retellings brought new elements to Beauty's story. In sumptuously illustrated editions of the period, she is shaped into a more conventional Victorian heroine (passive, dutiful, charitable), and the idea of fate (a metaphysical obsession at that time) is introduced. In the de Villeneuve's story, Beauty goes to the Beast in her father's stead because both law and custom require blind filial obedience; in de Beaumont's version, she gives herself to the Beast as a matter of family honor; but in many Victorian retellings (including the version attributed to Charles Lamb, 1843) her submission to the Beast is an acceptance of the predestined fate that lies before her.

Beauty & the Beast by Edmund Dulac

In the 20th century the story was subtly altered again. In 1909, the French playwright Fernand Nozier wrote and produced a popular adult version of Beauty and the Beast with a fashionable Oriental flavor. Nozier's play is humorous, yet beneath its light surface is a distinctly sexual subtext, exploring the tension between the mind's ideals and the body's desires. In this version, all three sisters find themselves powerfully attracted to the Beast. When Beauty's kiss turns him into a prince she complains: "You should have warned me! Here I was smitten by an exceptional being, and all of a sudden my fiancé becomes an ordinary, distinguished young man!"

Beauty and the Beast (now a prince) by Scott GutavsonIt is a problem that plagues most dramatic representations of the tale: the Beast portrayed so compelling that his princely guise is a disappointment. This happens even in Jean Cocteau's superb film of the story (1946), which nonetheless remains the best dramatic presentation of the tale created to date. Beautifully shot in black-and-white, Cocteau and his co-director, René Clément, blend their Beauty & the Beast's magical motifs with vivid elements of dometic realism. Cocteau strove for what he called "the supernatural within realism," mixing shots of the Beast's enchanted castle with chickens pecking on the ground and other glimpses of ordinary life, skillfully grounding his fairy story within the natural world we know. The film was made in France after World War II -- a time when post-war blackouts and equipment shortages were daily problems, and when the idea of filming a fairy tale struck many as shockingly trivial. But Cocteau avoids triviality through a deep understanding of his source material, and an almost fanatical attention to the details of lighting and design. In Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film, he wrote that he aimed for "the clean, sculptured line of poetry instead of the usual diffuse lighting and use of gauze for magical effect."  The resulting film has stood the test of time, and become a classic of the art.

From Cocteau's Beauty & the Beast

Although Cocteau's fairy tale film can be watched by children, the subtext is adult, and powerfully so. Beauty's nightly refusal of the Beast, and the slow awakening of her attraction and sexuality, are contrasted with the Beast's struggles to contain his own animal nature. He comes to her door covered with the blood of the hunt, and with anguish she sends him away. This echoes the Scandinavian animal-bridegroom tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, in which a young woman is sold by her father to a big white bear -- but in the Scandinavian folktale the sexuality is more explicit. The animal bridegroom comes to his young wife's bed every night, under cover of dark. Beneath her hands, she feels the shape of a smooth young man, not a huge white bear -- but she is forbidden to light a lamp or catch a glimpse of his face. 

From Cocteau's Beauty & the Beast

Beauty and the Beast by Angela Barrett

In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche weds a hideous flying serpent -- who is really Cupid, under a spell. By night, a man makes love to her -- but she, too, is forbidden to look. She breaks this taboo, and is punished by losing her now-beloved husband. A series of arduous tasks must be completed to win him back.

Beauty and the Beast by Angela Barrett

Walter C. Scott as the Beast

An American television film of Beauty & the Beast, made in the 1970s and starring George C. Scott as the Beast, notably failed to make any improvement on Cocteau. Robin McKinley was so enraged by this production that she sat down and wrote her first novel, Beauty, in response to it. Like Cocteau, McKinley understood the importance of grounding magic in realism, and uses clear, spare prose to echo the language of stories in the folk tradition. McKinley lengthens the tale into novel form without cluttering it with spurious detail. She takes a few liberties with the original material (Beauty's sisters, for instance, are sympathetic), yet she stays faithful to the spirit of the original. Her heroine is a gawky, horse-mad, intelligent young woman whose name is a gently ironic one. Beauty's time in the Beast's castle is particularly well-rendered, and her raptures over the Beast's library (containing works from the future by Browning and Kipling) was surely the inspiration behind the book-loving Belle of the Disney film.

Beauty & the Beast by Angela BarrettMcKinley was still a young writer when she wrote Beauty, her first published work. Twenty years and several books later, she found herself attracted to Beauty and the Beast once again and wrote Rose Daughter, an alternate retelling of the fairy tale. Reading the two novels together is a fascinating study of the maturation of the author's vision and style, and both books are highly recommended.

Angela Carter is another writer who was compelled to explore Beauty and the Beast. Carter understood how to work with the adult themes in fairy tales better than any other modern author, and her early death from lung cancer has been a blow to the field of fantasy literature. In addition to editing folklore collections, Carter wrote a series of sensual, darkly magical stories based on fairy tales, collected in The Bloody Chamber and (posthumously) in Burning Your Boats. Elements of Beauty and the Beast and other animal bridegroom motifs are vividly rendered in two of Carter's best stories: the poignant "Courtship of Mr. Lyon," and the sensuous "Tiger's Bride." In the latter, a profligate father loses his lovely daughter in a game of cards, and delivers her up to a wealthy masked man who imprisons her in a crumbling mansion. This is a subversive treatment of the theme, smooth as black velvet and sharp as a thorn. In both stories, Carter is careful to sustain the Beast's charisma to the very end.

Beauty & the Beast by Pavel Tartarnikov

Beauty & the Beast by Jan Brett

"Rusina, Not Quite in Love," an enchanting novella by the Italian writer Gioia Timpanelli, published in Sometimes the Soul, transplants Beauty and the Beast to Sicily. An impoverished painter marries a rich, hideously ugly man in order to pay off her father's debts. . .and finds the princely soul hidden by the beastly exterior. Tanith Lee's story "Beauty" (published in her adult fairy tale collection Red As Blood) takes Beauty and the Beast beyond fairy tale forests and into the far future. Lee retains the magical rose, the wayward father, the two sisters, and the monstrous suitor who must not be refused. But the Beast in this case is an alien being, and the climax of the story is a clever one -- the transformation centered on the heroine and her ideas about herself and her life. Lee then returned to the theme in her chilling dark tale "Beast" (Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears), mingling Beauty and the Beast with elements of Bluebeard and Mr. Fox.

Other good versions of the story for adult readers include "Beast" by Francesca Lia Block (The Rose and the Beast), a contemporary meditation on the nature of wildness, and Wendy Wheeler's "Skin So Green and Fine" (Silver Birch, Blood Moon), the story of an innocent baker's daughter married to a mysterious man and taken to live on an isolated sugar plantation.  

Beauty and the Beast by Kinuko Y CraftJane Yolen has worked with fairy tale themes for many years in the roles of fiction writer, academic, and editor of folklore collections. Her slant-wise take on Beauty's story is "Beauty and the Beast: An Anniversary" (The Faery Flag), a poem from Beauty's point of view reflecting on her long years with the Beast and their solitary, childless lives. (You can read it online here.)

I also recommend Beast by Donna Jo Napoli, a rich, unusual, beautifully crafted novel for Young Adult readers. Inspired by the Persian fairy tale tradition, Napoli's hero is an Islamic prince transformed by a curse into a lion. Fleeing his father's lands, he makes his way to an abandoned chateau in France -- where a merchant, a rose, and a courageous young woman bring the story to its proper conclusion.

Beauty & the Beast by Gabriel Pacheco

There are countless ways one can draw on old fairy tales to inspire modern works of art and fiction, as the works discussed above clearly demonstrate, and these ways are limited only by the imaginations of the artists themselves. No single version of Beauty and the Beast can be considered "correct" or "definitive" -- for although the story by de Villeneuve and de Beaumont did not begin as an oral folk tale, it has its roots in that tradition. And it is the nature of folk tales to be fashioned anew for each new generation.

Beauty's father steals a rose  then delivers his daughter to the beast  by Edmund Dulac

And yet, Disney's film of Beauty and the Beast still disturbs me. Perhaps because it has not been billed as a new story inspired by the old fairy tale; rather, it has been presented to us as if it were the old fairy tale, and such is the power of the Disney name that audiences around the world now perceive this as truth.

But it is not the old tale. Too many fundamentals have been changed for the film to make that claim -- and changed in glib or simplistic ways that lessen the story's classic themes. The father has been changed into a harmless buffoon, his role in Beauty's imprisonment diminished to an accident of circumstance. Beauty's request for a rose, and her father's thoughtless way of procuring one, have been deleted altogether, along with Beauty's jealous, interfering sisters. There is no family conflict here. An arrogant suitor, Gaston, has been added and presented as the villain of the piece.

In short, the heroes and villains of the story are clear-cut, unambiguous -- Belle and her father are always Good, Gaston and his minions are Bad. In the old fairy tale, Beauty makes mistakes: she goes home, she falls under her sisters' sway and forgets the Beast...coming close to causing his death and losing her own humanity. In the Disney film, we have a perfect heroine who never grows, never undergoes a maturation of her own to echo the Beast's metamorphosis. The requisite happy ending is achieved, but the price for it has not been paid -- except by the dull-witted characters unfortunate enough to be wearing the black hats.

Beauty's father and Beauty in the Beast's castle by Scott Gustafson

Beauty and her sisters by Scott Gustafson

I am reminded of Jane Yolen's words in yesterday's post lamenting the fate of Cinderella, another heroine white-washed by Disney. The Cinderella of the folk tradition is clever, feisty, active girl -- while in the Disney film, as Jane points out, she's a "helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by talking mice and birds because she is 'off in a world of dreams'. It is a Cinderella who is not recognized by her prince until she is magically back in her ball gown, beribboned and bejeweled. Poor Cinderella. Poor us."

Beauty and the Beast by Scott Gustafson

Likewise, with Disney's Beauty and the Beast we take one step forward with the creation of a literate and courageous heroine, but two steps backwards as the heart of the tale is lost in the musical razzle-dazzle.

But hey, the film is entertaining and fun. My young friend and I enjoyed it thoroughly. So should we care about what's been lost in the process? In my opinion, you bet we should. It does no service to lie to children, to present the world as simpler than it is. Villains rarely appear with convenient black hats, good people are rarely perfect. Beauty has gone to Hollywood now. Poor Beauty. Poor Beast. Poor us.

I'm not suggesting we boycott Disney's films -- many people love them, especially children. But let's give our young people the old fairy tales too, the hearty fare that they need to build good mythic bones after the artificially-sweetened fast food of Disney. The rich store of world folklore and fairy tales is every child's heritage, and every adult's too. Each time I hear fairy tales dismissed as silly, saccharine, sexist stories -- generally by those who have Disney and Disney-influenced versions of the tales in mind -- I want to cry with frustration.

But, instead, I take a deep breath and say, "Okay, let me tell you a story...."

Beauty and the Beast by Eleanor Vere Boyle

Beauty & the Beast by Mercer Mayer

Art: The Beauty & the Beast illustrations above are by Kinuko Y. Craft, Adrienne Segur, Walter Crane, H.J. Ford, Warwick Goble, Margaret Tarrant, an unknown artist from an 1897 edition, Charles Robinson, Edmund Dulac, Scott Gustafson, Angela Barrett, Pavel Tartarnikov, Jan Brett, Gabriel Pacheco, Eleanor Vere Boyle, and Mercer Mayer. Each image is identified in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the pictures to see them.) Photographs: Film stills from Beauty & the Beast directed by Jean Cocteau & René Clément, starring Jean Marais and Josette Day (1946), and from Beauty and the Beast directed by Fiedler Cook, starring George C. Scott & Trish Van Devere (1976). All rights to the art and text in this post reserved by the artists and author.

Related reading: In yesterday's post, "Retelling Cinderella," Jane Yolen looks at Disney's treatment of that tale, and you'll find a discussion of Disney's retelling of Snow White in my essay "The Poisoned Apple." I also recommend Virginia Borges' essay "One Million Little Mermaids."


Retelling Cinderella

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

In her seminal collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Chilhood, Jane Yolen discusses the "changeling life" of fairy tales as they travel from teller to teller, country to country, and century to century. Here she reflects on Cinderella in her various guises:

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac"The story of Cinderella has endured for over a thousand years, first surfacing in a literary source in 9th-century China. It has since been found from the Orient to the interior of South America, and over five hundred variants have been located by folklorists in Europe alone. This best-loved tale has been brought to life  over and over so many times, no one can say for sure where the oral tale truly began. But as Joseph Jacobs, the indefatigable Victorian collector, once said of a Cinderella story he printed, it was 'an English version of an Italian adaptation of a Spanish translation of a Latin version of a Hebrew translation of an Arabic translation of an Indian original.' That is certainly an accurate statement of the hazards of folk-tale attributing: each reteller has brought to a tale something of his or her cultural orientation. The Chinese admiration for the tiny 'lotus foot' is preserved in the Cinderella tale, as is the 17th century European preoccupation with dressing for the ball.

"But beyond the cultural accoutrements, the detritus of centuries, Cinderella speaks to all of us in whatever skin we inhabit: the child mistreated, a princess or highborn lady in disguise bearing her trials with patience, fortitude, and determination. Cinderella makes intelligent decisions, for she knows that wishing solves nothing without the concomitant action. We have each of us been that child. (Even boys and men share that dream, as evidenced by the many Ash-boy variants.) It is the longing of any youngster sent supperless to bed or given less than a full share at Christmas. And of course it is the adolescent dream.

Cinderella by Arthur Rackham

Cinderella tile by Edward Coley Burne-Jones

"To make Cinderella less than she is, an ill-treated but passive princess awaiting rescue, cheapens our most cherished dreams and makes mockery of the magic inside us all -- the ability to change our own lives, the ability to control our own destinies.

Cinderella by Ruth Sanderson

Cinderella by Ruth Sanderson

"In the oldest of the Cinderella variants, the heroine is hardly catatonic. In the Grimm 'Cinder-Maid,' though she weeps, she continues to perform the proper rites and rituals at her mother's grave, instructing the birds who roost there in the way to help her get to the ball. In 'The Dirty Shepherdess' variant and 'Cap  o' Rushes' from France, '...she dried her eyes, and made a bundle of her jewels and her best dresses and hurriedly left the castle where she was born.' Off  she goes to make her own life, working first as a maid in the kitchen and sneaking off to see the master's son. Even in Perrault's 17th-century 'Cendrillon, or The Little Glass Slipper,' when the fairy godmother runs out of ideas for enchantment, and was at a loss for a coachman, 'I'll go and see,' says Cendrillon, 'if there be never a rat in the rat-trap, we'll make a coach-man of him.'

Cinderella by Liiga Klavina

"The older Cinderella is no namby-pamby forgiving heroine. Like Chesterton's children, who believe themselves innocent and demand justice -- unlike adults who know themselves guilty and look for mercy -- Cinderella believes in justice. In 'Rushen Coatie' and 'The Cinder-Maid,' the elder sisters hack Cinderella by Jennie Harbouroff their toes in order to try and fit the tiny shoe, and Cinderella never stops them. Her telltale birds warn the prince:

Turn and peep, turn and peep,
There's blood within the shoe;
A bit is cut from off the heel
And a bit from off the toe.

"Does Cinderella comfort her maimed sisters? Nary a word. And, in the least bowdlerized of the German and Nordic variants, when the two sisters attend the wedding of Cinderella and the prince, 'the elder was at the right side and the younger at the left, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them.' Did Cinderella stop the carnage -- or the wedding? There is never a misstep between that sentence and the next. 'Afterwards, as they came back, the elder was on the left, and the younger on the right, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each. And thus, for their wickeness and falsehood, they were punished with blindess all their days.'

Cinderella's Stepsisters by Charles Folkard and Harry Clarke

"Of course, all this went into the Walt Disney blender and came out emotional pap. In 1950, when the movie Cinderella burst onto the American scene, the Disney studios were going through a particularly trying time. Disney had been deserted by the intellectuals who had championed his art for some time. Because of World War II, the public had been more interested in war films than cartoons. But with the release of Cinderella, the Disney studios made a fortune, grossing $4.247 million in the first release alone. It set a new pattern for Cinderella: a helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by the talking mice and birds because she is 'off in a world of dreams.' It is a Cinderella who is not recognized by her prince until she is magically back in her ball gown, beribboned and bejeweled.

Cinderella by Mary Blair

Cinderella by Loek Koopmans

"Poor Cinderella. Poor us. The acculturation of millions of boys and girls to this passive Cinderella robs the old tale of its invigorating magic. The story has been falsified and the true meaning lost -- perhaps forever."

Cinderella by Loek Koopmans

If you'd like to know more about the history of Cinderella and it's many variants, my essay on the subject is online here: Cinderella: Ashes, Blood, and the Slipper of Glass.

Cinderella by Loak Koopmans

Pictures: The Cinderella art above is by Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Ruth Sanderson, Liiga Klavina, Jennie Harbour, Charles Folkard, Harry Clarke, Mary Blair, and Loek Hoopmans. Each image is identified in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the pictures to see them.) Words: The passage above from "Once Upon a Time" by Jane Yolen, published in Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 2981; August House, 2000), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text above are reserved by the author and artists.


Stories lean on stories

The Enchanted Wood by Ruth Sanderson

From Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Children by Jane Yolen:

"Over the last few years there have been many educational councils and conferences, papers and presentations about the need to return to the Basics -- to the teaching of the fundamental skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. But they are not the only subjects that are vital to our intellectual and human growth. An understanding of, a grounding in, a familiarity with the old lores and wisdoms of the so-called dead worlds is also a basic developmental need. Folklorist Charles Potter has written, 'Folklore is a lively fossil that refuses to die.' If children are invited to greet the great stories, to shake hands with the lively fossil, they will soon discover -- as did their parents before them -- that the well-kept bones are indispensable to the life of the mind....

Flowering by Ruth Sanderson

"One of the basic functions of myth and folk literature is to provide a landscape of allusion. With the first story a child hears, he or she takes a step toward perceiving an new environment, one that is filled with quests and questers, fated heroes and fetid monsters, intrepid heroines and trepid helpers, even incompetent oafs who achieve competence and wholeness by going out and trying. As the child hears more stories and tales that are linked in both obvious and subtle ways, the landscape is broadened and deepened, and becomes more fully populated with memorable characters. These are the same folk that the child will meet again and again, threading their archetypal ways through the cultural history of our planet.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Ruth Sanderson

"Stories lean on stories, art on art. This familiarity with the treasure-house of ancient story is necessary for any true appreciation of today's literature. A child who has never met Merlin -- how can he or she really recognize the wizards in Earthsea? The child who has never heard of Arthur -- how can he or she totally appreciate Susan Cooper's The Grey King? The child who has never known dryads or fauns will not recognize them in Narnia, or find their faces on museum walls or in the black silhouettes on Greek vases. Never to have trod the stony paths of Mount Pelion with Chiron and to have seen only the sexually precocious centaurs of Fantasia or the horsemen on TV's Hercules is to be diminished, narrowed, condemned to live in a cultural landscape that is dry as dust."

The Sleeping Beauty by Ruth Sanderson

The Sword in the Stone by Ruth Sanderson

"[Folklore also provides] a way of looking at another culture from the inside out. If a child becomes familiar with the pantheon of Greek gods, who toy with human lives as carelessly as children at play, then the Greek world view begins to come into focus. If a child learns about the range of Norse godlings who wait for heroic companions to feast with them at Valhalla, then the Vikings' emphasis on battle derring-do makes more sense. The study of the myth-making process, of those things that come together in a culture and propel a folk towards a coherent mythology, may be a very sophisticated one indeed, but its beginnings are back in the tales themselves.

The Golden Mare, the Firebird and the Magic Ring by Ruth Sanderson

"Stories lean on stories, cultures on cultures. Just as any great city is built on the stones and bones of its ancestors, so too is any mythology. And if our children can look at their own modern folklore within a broader context, they will see some very surprising shadows indeed. Spider-Man and TV's Hercules, Buffy and Xena do not spring from a void but from needs within our own culture. And those needs lean on past needs.  Maureen Duffy writes in The Erotic World of Faery: 'We remake our mythology in every age out of our own needs. We may use ideas lying around loose from a previous system or systems as part of the fabric. The human situation doesn't radically alter and therefore certain myths are constantly reappearing.' "

Rose Red & Snow White by Ruth Sanderson

Cinderella and Snow White & Rose Red by Ruth Sanderson

"And if we deny our children their cultural, historical heritage, their birthright to these stories, what then? Instead of creating men and women who have a grasp of literary allusion and symbolic language, and a metaphorical tool for dealing with the serious problems of life, we will be forming stunted boys and girls who speak only a barren language, a language that accurately reflects their equally barren minds. Language helps develop life as surely as it reflects life. It is a most import part of our human condition.

"Our children today face a serious deprivation -- the loss of the word, of words. For as stories depend on stories, lives depend on lives. Contact and continuity are essential links in the long chain of human culture....

The Snow Princess by Ruth Sanderson

"A child conversant with the old tales accepts them with an ease born of familiarity, fitting them into his own scheme of things, endowing them with new meaning. That old fossil, those old bones, walk again, and sing and dance and speak with a new tongue. The old stories bridge the centuries."

The Snow Princess by Ruth Sanderson

The Snow Princess by Ruth Sanderson

The imagery today is by Ruth Sanderson, a book artist and author based in western Massachusetts. Ruth grew up in a small town where her grandmother was a librarian, and much of her youth was spent in the woods, on the back of a horse, or with her nose in a book. She studied at Paier College of Art in Connecticut, then embarked on an illustration career focused on children's books in the mid-1970s. She has published over 80 books since then, including Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Snow White & Rose Red, Goldilocks, The Enchanted Wood, The Fairy by Ruth SandersonCrystal Mountain, The Snow Princess, and Papa Gatto, all much beloved by young (and old) readers. She is a member of the Society of Illustrators, the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, and the Western Massachusetts Illustrator's Guild, as well as co-founder of the Children's Book Illustration program at Hollins University.

"The archetypal characters and the symbolism that one finds in fairy tales," she says, "contain truths that are universal and can be as meaningful for children today as they have been for centuries past. So many of them are 'rites of passage stories,' where the hero (child) leaves home to seek adventure or to go on an impossible quest, learning in the process how to become independent and to form new relationships outside of parental influence. In The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the three magical woods that the princesses pass through are symbolic to me of their rite of passage into adulthood.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Ruth Sanderson

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Ruth Sanderson x

"My original story The Enchanted Wood grew out of my love for the woods, for paths, for fairytales. Trees have always had the ability to hold me spellbound, at sunset especially. An old tree can have such character and majesty. In the story, three sons go on a quest for the Heart of the World (which is a magical “tree of life”) The fact that success often comes at a great sacrifice is the central theme of this story.

"Papa Gatto is the result of combining a number of Italian fairytales with a similar element -- a talking cat. It is a Cinderella-type story with a bit of Puss in Boots as well. And a slightly modern twist at the end, when the young lady declines the Prince’s proposal in favor of living with her beloved cats!"

Please visit Ruth's Golden Wood Studio to learn more about her work.

Papa Gatto by Ruth Sanderson

Illustration by Ruth Sanderson

The passages quoted above are from "How Basic is Shazam?" by Jane Yolen, published in Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 2981; August House, 2000). All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist.