Books, the Beast, and me

Beauty and the Beast by Eleanor Vere Boyle

It's a nuisance having a chronic health condition. In my youth, I mostly tried to ignore it -- as if by pretending that the Beast lumbering behind me wasn't there, then no one else would notice his presence. And yet there he'd be...disconcerting, disagreeable, and endlessly disruptive. Lurking over my shoulder in New York editorial meetings, pacing the floor at the Endicott Studio in Boston, riding shotgun in the truck in which I moved to Arizona, making himself entirely at home across the ocean in Devon. If this were a fairy tale, I would have learned to love him, and then discovered he was really a handsome prince in disguise....

But no, he's just Beast, and as Beastly as ever. During good stretches of time he sits muttering in the corner and I can get on with my life without paying much mind...until all of a sudden he jumps up and bellows, demanding attention, demanding my time. He is sometimes alarming, sometimes merely annoying, but always a downright nuisance -- not only to me but to family, friends, and work partners who gently, patiently take my abrupt disappearance from daily life in stride (bless them all).

There is one good turn the Beast has done me, however; one good thing that his shuffling, snuffling, discomforting presence has brought to my life: the time to read.

Reading in bed

He gives me long, still hours in quiet bedrooms, doctors' waiting rooms, hospital corridors (awaiting scans, blood draws and tests) and anxious days in hospital beds. In those places, reading is sometimes all that I can do, and that's a genuine, if back-handed, gift. Thus to the bane of my life, it seems to me now, I also owe one of my life's greatest blessings: the wide range of books that live inside me, that have shaped my mind and formed the writer I've become. Perhaps it's a fairy tale after all: not the kind that ends "happily ever after," but the kind where straw turns into gold, milk maids into heroes, Beasts into grey-muzzled old companions.

So come sit beside me, old Beast, old friend. Let me read you a story. This one's for you.

Books, bunny, and sheep Art above: "Beauty and the Beast" by Victorian painter Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916); and reading in bed with sweet Tilly, my other daily companion (since the Beast is too shy to be photographed himself). This post is dedicated not only to the Beast, but also to the patient friends, family members, and work partners mentioned above. You are saints and I love you.


The Handless Maiden

...with art by Jeanie Tomanek

The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanek

After months of pandemic lockdown, "isolation" themes in fairy tales have taken on new meaning and relevance. All of us who have been isolating at home, shut away from the world, are sister to Rapunzel now, brother to the Beast in his woodland castle, waiting for someone to break the spell of Covid-19 and restore us to life as we knew it. But fairy tales are not stories of restoration, they are stories of transformation. They say: Yes, you can escape the witch, flee from the tower, emerge from the woods and regain your humanity...but your life and your world won't be the same. You are different now. There's no going back. It is time to forge something new.

Rapunzel by A.H. WatsonYesterday, we discussed Maiden-in-a-Tower tales, and isolation as a form of imprisonment. Today, let's look at The Handless Maiden (also known as The Armless Maiden, The Girl Without Hands, and Silver Hands), in which an isolated forest hut is a place of sanctuary and, ultimately, of healing.

In this tale, a miller's daughter loses her hands as the result of a foolish bargain her father has made with the devil. (In darker variants, it is because she will not give in to incestuous demands.) She then leaves home, makes her way through the forest, and ends up foraging for pears (a fruit symbolic of female strength) in the garden of a tender-hearted king -- who falls in love, marries her, and gives her two new hands made of silver. The young woman gives birth to a son -- but this is not the usual happy ending to the story. The king is away at war and the devil interferes once again (or, in some versions, a malicious mother-in-law), tricking the court into casting both mother and child back into the forest.

The Handless Maiden then encounters an angel who leads her to a hut deep in the woods. Her human hands are magically restored during this time of forest retreat. When her husband returns from the war, learns that she's gone, and comes to fetch his wife and child home, she insists that he court her all over again, as the new woman she is now. Her husband complies -- and then, only then, does the tale conclude happily. The Handless Maiden's transformation is now complete: from wounded child to whole, healed woman; from miller's daughter to queen.

Forget-me-not by Jeanie Tomanek

In her classic book The Feminine in Fairy Tales, Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz compared the Handless Maiden's time of solitude in the woods to that of religious mystics seeking communion with god through nature.

"In the Middle Ages, there were many hermits," she noted, "and in Switzerland there were the so-called Wood Brothers and Sisters. People who did not want to live a monastic life but who wanted to live alone in the forest had both a closeness to nature and also a great experience of spiritual inner life. Such Wood Brothers and Sisters could be personalities on a high level who had a spiritual fate and had to renounce active life for a time and isolate themselves to find their own inner relationship to God. It is not very different from what the shaman does in the Polar tribes, or what the medicine men do all over the world, in order to seek immediate personal religious experience in isolation."

The Return by Jeanie Tomanek

In other versions of the Handless Maiden narrative, the young queen's time in the woods is not solitary. The angel (or "white spirit") leads her to an inn at the very heart of the forest, where she's taken in by gentle "folk of the woods." (It's not always made clear whether they are human or magical beings.) The queen stays with them for a full seven years (a traditional period of time for magical/shamanic initiation in ancient Greece and other cultures world-wide), during which time her hands slowly re-grow.

In her essay "Healing the Wounded Wild," Kim Antieau uses this variant of the story to reflect on illness, the healing process, and the ways our relationship with the natural world impacts both physical and psychic health. "In many cultures," she writes, "the prescription for chronic illness was a stay in the country (not necessarily the wild country). In ancient Greece, the chronically ill went to Asklepian Temples for relief. The priests created tenemos — sacred space — for the patient to help facilitate healing. The ill went to the temples and prepared with purification and ritual for a healing dream. Then the patient went to the abaton — the sleeping chamber — and dreamed. Often the dreams either healed the patients or told them of a remedy which would heal them.

"Today, practitioners of integrated medicine believe the body wants to heal, and the patient needs the time, encouragement, support and space to be able to get well. In many instances the time, encouragement, and support can be found, but wild spaces are lacking. Silvia [the Handless Maiden] was able to travel deep into a wild place. Where do we go? Where do the wild things go (including human beings) when no wild remains?"

Gamekeeper by Jeanie Tomanek

Midori Snyder comes at the story from a different angle in her luminous article "The Armless Maiden and the Hero's Journey," examining the tale, in its various forms, as a classic rite-of-passage narrative.

When such stories are devised for young men, she notes, the hero typically sets off from home seeking adventure or fortune in the unknown world, where the fantastic waits to challenge him. "Along the journey, his worth as a man and as a hero is tested. But when the trials are done, he returns home again in triumph, bringing to his society new-found knowledge, maturity and often a magical bride....

"While no less heroic, how different are the journeys of young women. In folktales, the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood is confirmed by marriage and the assumption of adult roles. In traditional exogamous societies, young women were required to leave forever the familiar home of their birth and become brides in foreign and sometimes faraway households. In the folktales, a young girl ventures or is turned out into the ambiguous world of the fantastic, knowing that she will never return home. Instead at the end of a perilous and solitary journey, she arrives at a new village or kingdom. There, disguised as a dirty–faced servant, a scullery maid, or a goose girl, she completes her initiation as an adult and, like her male counterpart, brings to her new community the gifts of knowledge, maturity, and fertility."

Although fairy tales have been known as children's stories from roughly the 19th century onward, older versions of these same narratives (aimed at older audiences) looked unflinchingly at the darkest parts of life: at poverty, hunger, abuse of power, domestic violence, incest, rape, the sale of young daughters to the highest bidder under the guise of arranged marriages, the effects of remarriage on family dynamics, the loss of inheritance or identity, the survival of treachery or calamity. In rite-of-passage tales devised for young women, the heroes don't tend to ride merrily off into the forest in search of fame and fortune, they are usually driven there by desperation; the forest, despite its perils, is a place of refuge from worse dangers left behind.

Communion by Jeanie Tomanek

The Handless/Armless Maiden is not a passive princess in the old Disney mold, waiting for romance to rescue her. She finds her own way to the orchard of a king in her search of food, and although she agrees to marry him, a royal wedding is not the conclusion of her story, it's the half-way point. "It is a narrative with a strange hiccup in the middle," Midori points out. "The brutality of the opening scene seems resolved as the Armless Maiden is rescued in a garden and then married to a compassionate young man. But she has not completed her journey of transformation from adolescence to adulthood. She is not whole, not the girl she was nor the woman she was meant to be. The narratives make it clear that without her arms, she is unable to fulfill her role as an adult. She can do nothing for herself, not even care for her own child.

"Conflict is reintroduced into the narrative to send the girl back on her journey of initiation in the woods. There the fantastic heals her, and she returns reborn as a woman. Every narrative version concludes with what is in effect a second marriage. The woman, now whole, her arms restored by an act of magic, has become herself the magic bride, aligned with the creative power of nature. She does not return immediately to her husband but waits with her child in the forest or a neighboring homestead for him to find her. When he comes to propose marriage this second time, it is a marriage of equals, based on respect and not pity.

Silver Hands and the Numbered Pears

"I have come to believe," Midori continues, "that robust narratives such as the Armless Maiden speak to women not only when they are young and setting out on that first rite of passage, but throughout their lives. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés presents a fascinating analysis of this tale, demonstrating the guiding role the armless maiden plays in a woman's psychic life:

" 'The Handless Maiden is about a woman's initiation into the underground forest through the rite of endurance. The word endurance sounds as though it means "to continue without cessation," and while this is an occasional part of the tasks underlying the tale, the word endurance also means "to harden, to make robust, to strengthen," and this is the principal thrust of the tale, and the generative feature of a woman's long psychic life. We don't just go on to go on. Endurance means we are making something.'

"To follow the example of the armless maiden," Midori concludes, "is an invitation to sever old identities and crippling habits by journeying again and again into the forest. There we may once more encounter emergent selves waiting for us. In the narrative, the Armless Maiden sits on the bank of a rejuvenating lake and learns to caress and care for her child, the physical manifestation of her creative power. Each time we follow the Armless Maiden she brings us face to face with our own creative selves."

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

Poet Vicki Feaver has also reflected on the story in relationship to creativity. In an interview in Poetry Magazine, Feaver discusses her poem "The Handless Maiden," inspired by the fairy tale :

"The story is that the girl’s hands are cut off by her father and she is given silver hands by the king who falls in love with her. Eventually, she goes off into the forest with her child and her own hands grow back. In the Grimms' version it is because she’s good for seven years. But there’s a Russian version which I like better where she drops her child into a spring as she bends down to drink. She plunges her handless arms into the water to save the child and it’s at that moment that her hands grow. I read a psychoanalytic interpretation by Marie Louise von France in her book, The Feminine in Fairytales in which she argues that the story reflects the way women cut off their own hands to live through powerful and creative men. They need to go into the forest, into nature, to live by themselves, as a way of regaining their own power. The child in the story represents the woman’s creativity that only the woman herself can save. This was such a powerful idea that I had to write about it. It took me three years to find a way of doing it. In the end I chose the voice of the Handless Maiden herself -- as if I was writing the poem with the hands that grew at the moment that she rescued her work, her child. 

"I suppose I go through the process of endlessly cutting off my hands and having to grow them again. You ask if I’ve found any strategies for writing. Only to go away on my own, to be myself, and just to write."

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

"Fairy tales are journey stories," says Ellen Steiber (in a beautiful essay on the fairy tale Brother and Sister). "They deal with initiation and transformation, with going into the forest where one's deepest fears and most powerful dreams are realized. Many of them offer a map for getting through to the other side."

In the universe of fairy tales, the Just often find a way to prevail, the Wicked generally receive their comeuppance -- but there's more to such tales than a formula of abuse and retribution. The trials these wounded young heroes encounter illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a maimed state to wholeness, from passivity to action. Fairy tales are, as Ellen says, maps through the woods, trails of stones to mark the path, marks carved into trees to let us know that other women and men have been this way before.

Diary by Jeanie Tomanek

Though they warn us to steer clear of gingerbread houses and huts that stalk the woods on chicken's feet, they also show the way to true shelter, sanctuary, and places of healing deep in the forest. (The real lesson here, it seems to me, is to learn to tell the difference.) Think of the hut in Brother and Sister" for example, where the siblings set up housekeeping in the woods, far from the everyday world (and their stepmother's malice), adapting to the rhythms of the forest, of self-sufficiency, and of the brother's enchantment.  Or the woodland cabin in The White Deer, where the deer-princess sleeps safely each night.  Or the cottage (or cave) where Snow White finds shelter with a band of rough forest-dwelling men (the metal-working dwarves of Teutonic folklore in some versions, outlaws and brigands in others). Even the Beast's lonely castle deep in the woods is more sanctuary than prison...a place where captor and prisoner both transform, in true fairy tale fashion.

Envoy by Jeanie TomanekThese places are linked not only by their woodland settings, but by the temporary nature of the sanctuary provided. The curse is broken or the secret revealed, or the magical task finished, or the trial survived; transformation is complete, and the hero must now return to the human world. Traditionally, rite-of-passage ceremonies are designed to propel initiates into a sacred place and sacred state (the realm of the spirits, gods, or ancestors; the place of vision, instruction, and metamorphosis)...but then to bring them back again, back to the tribe or community and to ordinary life. We're meant to come out of sweatlodge, down from the Vision Quest hill, home from the Moon Hut, back from the sacred hunt, bringing with us new knowledge, new dreams, a new status, a new name or role to play....intended not just for the sake of personal growth but in service to the whole tribe or community. Likewise, we're not meant to remain in the circle of enchantment deep in the fairy tale forest -- we're meant to come back out again, bringing our hard-won knowledge and fortune with us...in service to the family (old or new), the realm, the community; to children and the future.

Unless, that is, we stay in the woods and take on a different role in the story...not a hero this time, but one of the forest dwellers who aids (or hinders) another's journey: the woodwose, the hermit, the sage, the mad prophet...the men and woman who run with the wolves...the femme sauvage with her herbs and charms... the conjure man with his beehives and songs....

But those are stories for another day, and another journey into the woods.

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

Pictures: The paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek, who lives and works in Georgia, near Atlanta."My all-time favorite folktale is 'The Handless Maiden," she says. "It is about a woman’s journey toward wisdom and self-realization and the obstacles and helpers she encounters. This tale encompasses many of the archetypical representations of women. My 'Everywomen' portray the mothers, daughters, lovers, and crones. Strong, wise women who will survive.  These are filtered through my own experiences many times." All rights to imagery here are reserved by the artist. The drawing of Rapunzel's tower is by A.H. Watson.

Words: I am grateful to Midori Snyder for allowing me to quote such a long passage from her Armless Maiden essay.  I urge anyone interested in the tale to please read this insightful essay in full. All right to text above, included quoted passages, are reserved by the authors. 


The Maiden in the Tower

Rapunzel by Arthur Rackham

After two-and-half months of coronavirus lockdown, I've been thinking about fairy tales of isolation: young women locked away in towers or high atop steep hills of glass; young men turned to swans or beasts and likewise banished from human society. Rapunzel, isolated in her lonely tower, is one of the best known of such stories, and so I'd like to take a closer look at its history....

The version of Rapunzel we know today was published as a German folk tale by the Brothers Grimm in 1857 -- but it's now believed that their Rapunzel was neither German nor a proper folk tale. Scholars have shown that a number of the storytellers from whom the Brothers Grimm obtained their material were recounting "authored" tales from German, French, and Italian literary sources rather than anonymous folk stories passed orally from teller to teller. The Grimms' Rapunzel, for example, was derived from a story of the same name published by Friedrich Schultz in 1790 -- which was a loose translation of an earlier French story, Persinette by Charlotte-Rose de La Force, published in 1698 at the height of the "adult fairy tale" literary movement in Paris. La Force's tale was influenced by an even earlier Italian story, Petrosinella by Giambattista Basile, published in 1634 in his story collection Lo cunto de li cunti (also known as the Pentamerone).

Rapunzel by Florence Harrison & Ernest LierbermannEach writer in this chain used folk motifs drawn from oral tales (associated with peasants and the countryside), reworking them into literary tales (for adult readers who were educated, urban, and upper-class). It is difficult, however, to draw a sharp line between folk tales and literary fairy tales, placing Rapunzel in one category or another -- for after the Basile, La Force, and Schultz publications, Rapunzel slipped into the oral tradition of storytellers throughout the West, where it's now part of our folk culture even though it didn't start there.

Let's go back to the start, however, with Giambattista Basile's Petrosinella. Basile, born near Naples, drew plots and characters from the folk tales of the region, re–working them into courtly tales for the Italian aristocracy. What follows is a bare-bones summary of his story, without the clever turns of language that make Basile's work so sprightly and distinctive. (I suggest reading Basile's story in full in a good English translation -- such as the one provided by Jack Zipes in his fine book The Great Fairy Tale Tradition.)

Once upon a time, the tale begins, a woman looked out her window at the garden of her neighbor, an ogress, and developed a terrible hunger for the fine parsley growing there. Now, this woman was pregnant, and it was widely believed that denying the cravings of a pregnant woman could cause grave harm to mother and child -- so she snuck into her neighbor's garden, not once, but over and over. The ogress laid a trap and caught her. "What do you have to say for yourself, thief?"

The woman threw herself on her neighbor's mercy, but the ogress was not appeased. "I will spare your life only if you give me the child you carry, be it boy or girl." The frightened woman agreed and slunk back home, pockets full of parsley.

She soon gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and named her Petrosinella (derived from the word for parsley in the Neapolitan dialect). By the time the child was seven years old, her mother had forgotten all about her promise. But when Petrosinella started school, her path took her by the ogress's house.

1909 illustration, artist unknownEach time that Petrosinella passed, the old ogress called out to her: "Tell your mother to remember the promise she made to me, Petrosinella!" The child did as she was told. Her mother grew more and more frightened, until one day she cried out: "Tell that woman my answer is: 'Take her!'"

When Petrosinella delivered this message, the ogress grabbed her by the hair, carried her deep into the forest, and locked her in a tall stone tower. The tower had no door or stairs, just a small window at the very top, and there the child would sit, straining to catch a small ray of sun. The girl grew up in this lonely place. The ogress was her only company, climbing in and out of the tower on the long, gold braids of Petrosinella's hair.

Years passed, and Petrosinella grew into a beautiful young woman, her golden braids so long they coiled on the ground below. It happened that a prince, who was hunting nearby, became separated from his fellows. He stumbled through the forest, lost, and came upon the tower. The ogress was away and Petrosinella sat in the window sunning her hair. She was the most beautiful young woman the prince had ever seen, and he instantly fell in love. He called up to Petrosinella, and for several days they conversed and sighed and pledged their love. Then Petrosinella proposed a plan to meet when the moon had risen. That night, she gave the old ogress a dose of poppy to make her sleep, then she threw her braids over the windowsill and pulled the young man up. The prince then "made a little meal out of the parsley sauce of love."

Rapunzel by Arthur HughesMore nights of love-making followed until an old gossip got wind of this. She told the ogress what was going on, warning her that her "daughter" might up and fly if she didn't act quickly. The ogress was unperturbed, saying: "She won't be able to get very far without the use of my magic acorns, and I've carefully hidden them in a little spot above the rafters."

Petrosinella had been listening at the window, and she quickly made a plan. She told her lover to bring some rope, then she drugged the ogress to sleep again, stole the three acorns, and used the rope to leave the tower. They hadn't gone very far when the ogress woke and discovered the girl's escape, using her magic to catch up to the fleeing lovers in no time. Petrosinella threw down the first acorn. It turned into a ferocious dog — but the ogress drew bread from her pocket and fed the dog so it let her pass. Petrosinella threw down the second acorn. It turned into a raging lion. The ogress stole the skin from a grazing ass and charged into the lion, which reared back from this monstrous apparition and fled in fright. Petrosinella threw down the third acorn. It turned into a hungry wolf, which quickly gobbled up the ogress before she could use her magic again to save herself.

Now the lovers were safe. They traveled on to the prince's own kingdom, where "with the kind permission of his father, the prince made Petrosinella his wife and proved that, after many trials and tribulations, one hour in a safe harbor can make you forget one hundred years of storm."

Rapunzel by Paul O. ZelinskySixty years after Basile's Petrosinella, the French writer Charlotte-Rose de La Force borrowed elements from it to use in her own Maiden-in-a-Tower story, Persinette, published in her fairy tale collection Les contes des contes in 1697. (This, of course, was a practice much more common in the days before copyright laws; particularly among writers of fairy tales, where the practice continues to this day.) La Force was part of a group of writers (including Madame D'Aulnoy, Madame de Murat, and Charles Perrault) who created a vogue for adult fairy stories in the literary salons of Paris. Like Basile, La Force was writing for an educated, aristocratic audience, creating stories that were meant both to entertain and to comment on issues of contemporary life.

One issue of particular concern to women of the period was the common practice of arranged marriages, particularly among the upper classes. Women had no legal say in these arrangements, often conducted as business transactions between one aristocratic family and another. Daughters were used to cement alliances, to curry favor, and to settle debts. Sex was a husband's legal right, and there was no possibility of divorce. Young girls could find themselves married off to men many years their senior or of vile temper and habits; disobedient daughters could be shut away in convents or locked up in mad–houses. Little wonder, then, that French fairy tales are filled with girls handed over to various wicked creatures by cruel or feckless parents, or locked up in enchanted towers where only true love can save them.

La Force and other writers of the period championed the idea of consensual, companionate marriages ruled by love and civility. (Some also believed that Fate intended certain souls to be together.) The emphasis on love and romance in their stories can seem quaint and saccharine today, but such stories were progressive, even subversive, in the context of the time. La Force herself was an independently–minded woman from a noble family who caused several scandals in her quest to live a life that was self–determined. She fell in love and attempted to marry a young man without parental permission. When his family locked him up to prevent an elopement, she snuck into his room dressed as a bear with a traveling theater troupe! The couple escaped, and married -- but the law eventually caught up to them and the marriage was annulled. She then got caught publishing satirical works critical of King Louis XIV. La Force was exiled to a convent for this crime -- where she wrote her book of fairy tales and a series of popular historical novels. Eventually released, she spent the rest of her life earning her own living through her writing.

Like all of La Force's fairy tales, Persinette is a sensual, sparkling confection with a sly, sharp humor at its center. It's not hard to see why the tale of a girl locked away in a tower would have appealed to her.

Rapunzel's parents by Paul O. Zelinsky

Once upon a time, the tale begins, a young couple prepares for the birth of their child and all is well until the wife conceives a passionate craving for parsley. Her doting husband steals the parsley out of a fairy's enchanted garden. (The gate stands temptingly open, implying the fairy knows very well what will happen -- and may, indeed, have magically caused the craving that sets the tale in motion. Fairies are well known, after all, for their penchant for stealing infants.) The second time the husband sneaks into the garden (again he finds the gate open), the fairy catches him and demands his unborn child as payment. The man agrees "after a short deliberation." When his wife gives birth to a beautiful baby girl, she promptly hands the child over to the fairy without a word of protest.

The birth of Rapunzel by Paul O. ZelinskyThe fairy raises the child tenderly until Persinette (as she's come to be called) reaches the age of puberty. Then, in order to keep the girl safe from harm (the eyes and attention of men), the fairy builds a magnificent silver tower deep in the forest. It contains all that the girl could desire: large and airy rooms elegantly furnished; wardrobes full of sumptuous clothes; delicious meals that are gracefully served by invisible fairy servants; books, paints, and instruments so Persinette need never be bored. What it doesn't have is a door or stairs, so whenever the fairy comes to call she says, "Persinette, let down your hair," and she climbs up through the window.

Years pass, and one day the son of the king is hunting in the forest nearby. He hears the maiden singing and falls in love with her, sight unseen. He finds his way to the tower and spies a shadowy figure far above -- but when he calls to her, Persinette takes fright. It's been many years since she's seen a man, and the fairy has told her that some are monsters who can kill with a single look. The prince leaves discouraged, but he cannot forget the sound of that lonely, lovely voice. He makes inquiries in a nearby village and learns that the girl is a fairy's prisoner.

The witch cuts Rapunzel's hair by Paul O. ZelinskyThe prince returns, waits, and watches how the fairy goes in and out of the tower. The next day, when the fairy is gone, he stands and calls out in the fairy's voice: "Persinette, let down your hair." Her long gold hair comes tumbling down, he climbs, and steps into the tower. Persinette is frightened once again -- but she soon recovers her aplomb as the prince persuades her of his love. He proposes to marry her there and then, and she "consented without hardly knowing what she was doing. Even so," writes La Force archly, "she was able to complete the ceremony."

The prince continues to visit the tower, and before long Persinette grows fat. Innocent, she doesn't know she's pregnant -- but the fairy certainly does. Furious, the fairy takes up a knife and cuts off Persinette's long braids, then she sends her off in a flash of fairy magic to a remote place. The fairy hangs the braids from the tower window and waits for the prince to come. He clambers over the windowsill and is shocked to find his lover gone. The fairy angrily informs the prince he'll never see Persinette again, and she flings him from the tower. He lands in briar thorns, which blind him.

For several years the prince wanders the world, living on charity, till at last he reaches a remote place where he hears his wife singing. Persinette now has twin children, who instantly recognize the blind man as their father. Persinette cries with joy, and her tears magically restore his sight.

But wait! The fairy is still angry, and not yet prepared to leave them be. The food in the larder turns into stones, the well fills up with venomous snakes, the birds in the sky above turn into dragons breathing fire. The little family huddles together, preparing to die of the fairy's wrath -- but the lovers are happy, nonetheless, to have found each other at last. At this, the fairy's heart finally melts. She sees that their love is strong and true. She forgives them, blesses their marriage, and transports them to the king's castle, where the king and queen welcome their son and his family with open arms.

Rapunzel, the prince, and their children by Paul O. Zelinsky

Friedrich Schultz's Rapunzel, published in Germany one hundred years later, faithfully follows La Force's plot while toning down the flowery language common to fairy tales of the earlier period. The only marked change Schultz makes to the story is that the fairy is portrayed with greater sympathy. Confronting Rapunzel's pregnancy, she's more Disappointed Mother than Vengeful Fury; and she doesn't throw the prince from the tower -- he leaps himself, in a fit of despair. Overall, Schultz merely re-tells La Force's tale rather than spinning it into something new.

The oral version of "Rapunzel" collected by the Grimms half a century after the Schultz publication follows the Schultz and La Force plot and is clearly derived from one or both. But the Grimms made several changes before they published their Rapunzel in 1857. Once again, the story begins with the overwhelming cravings of a pregnant woman. She craves rapunzel (a form of lettuce), which grows in the garden of a sorceress. (The Grimms often edited fairies out of their stories, for they considered the creatures to be too French. It was not until later English versions that the sorceress became a witch.) When she reaches the age of puberty, the girl is locked up in a tower by the woman she now calls Mother Gothel (a generic name for a godmother). The tower has no door or stairs, and the only way to enter it is to stand and deliver the famous line: "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair."

Rapunzel's tower by Trina Schart Hyman

The prince hears the maiden singing, finds the tower, and cannot get into it. He rides home again, but returns each day, compelled by the beauty of her song. When he sees the sorceress come and go, he learns at last how the tower is entered. "If that's the ladder one needs," he says, "I'm also going to try my luck."

Rapunzel and the prince by Trina Schart HymanHe enters the tower, calms the frightened princess, and declares his undying love for her. He offers her his hand in marriage, and Rapunzel chastely accepts. Thereafter, he visits Rapunzel each evening when Mother Gothel is safely away. Each time he comes, he brings a skein of silk so she can weave a ladder to escape.

One day, as the sorceress climbs her hair, Rapunzel absentmindedly asks her why is she so much heavier than the prince? Mother Gothel guesses all and flies into a terrible rage. She cuts off Rapunzel's hair, banishes her to a distant wilderness, and waits for the prince to come that night, where she confronts him with his crimes. He leaps from the tower, is blinded by the thorns, and then wanders the world seeking Rapunzel -- who's now referred to as his "wife." They re-unite, his sight is restored, and he learns he has two children. He takes them home to his father's court, and no further mention is made of Mother Gothel.

Although the Grimms originally expected their folk tale collection to be of interest primarily to scholars, they soon realized they had a large and lucrative readership among children and their parents. With each subsequent edition, they edited the stories further to make them more appropriate for young readers, deleting sexual references and making heroines more virtuously moral. Thus, in their version of Rapunzel, they glide right over the conception of the twins, and over the fact of her pregnancy, until the children appear, without explanation, at the story's end. Because of the world-wide popularity of the Grimms' now-classic volume of tales, this children's version of Rapunzel is the one best known today.

As fairy tales continued to be pushed to the children's shelves in the 20th century, the Grimms' version of Rapunzel was re-told over and over in countless picture books -- sometimes edited further to delete the existence of those awkward twins altogether. In the public mind, Rapunzel's tale was one intended for very young readers -- with few realizing that at its root this is a story about puberty, sexual desire, and the evils of locking young women away from life and self–determination. In the children's version, Rapunzel is just another passive princess waiting for her prince to come. In the older tales we glimpse a different story: about a girl whose life is utterly controlled by greedy, selfish, capricious adults...until she disobeys, chooses her own fate, and bursts from captivity into adult life, symbolized by the birth of her own children in a distant land.

The blind prince and Rapunzel by Trina Schart Hyman

In the latter decades of the 20th century, Rapunzel's story began to change again as fairy tales began re-appearing in poetry and fiction for adult readers. This new literary fairy tale movement was pioneered by feminist writers such as Anne Sexton and Angela Carter, and by genre writers such as Robin McKinley, Jane Yolen, and Tanith Lee. 

Kate Forysth's Bitter Greens is my favourite retelling of the tale. In this unusual novel, Forsyth moves from the painters and palazzos of Renaissance Venice to the "fairy tale salons" of 17th century France, braiding three stories into one while mixing historical and magical characters to great effect. (The use of the life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, one of the real French salonnières, is utterly delicious.) Donna Jo Napoli's Zel, set in 16th century Switzerland, is also highly recommended. This dark, psychologically complex rendition is written in a chorus of three voices: a mother unhinged by the possessive nature of her love, a daughter scarred by imprisonment, and a young man obsessively in love with a girl he barely knows. 

Rapunzel by Paul HeyIn her fine story "Touk's House," Robin McKinley uses elements from Rapunzel, but re-works the plot extensively. Here, a woodcutter's newborn daughter is the price he pays for stealing healing herbs. The witch is a sympathetic figure, raising the girl like her own daughter and teaching her the herb lore with which she'll eventually win the hand of a prince. But the girl doesn't want the prince in the end, choosing the witch's sweet son instead. Gregory Frost's "The Root of the Matter," by contrast, is a dark and very adult tale exploring the sexual tensions inherent in the story, and its consequences. Here Mother Gothel is a woman deeply damaged by a history of abuse, and she damages the child she has forcibly adopted in turn. The story is told from three points of view: Mother Gothel, Rapunzel, and the Prince -- the latter two undergoing true transformation by the story's end. Lisa Russ Spaar's story "Rapunzel's Exile" is brief but packs an emotional wallop. Spaar imagines Rapunzel's journey as her Godmother leads her into the forest, and her dawning horror as she realizes that the tower will be her fate. For twelve years her Godmother raised her kindly — but now, with the onset of menstruation (her skirts still bloody, her body still seeping), her Godmother has turned into a different creature, pushing her into the tower at knife point, and walling up the door with stones.

Rapunzel Alix Berenzy

The heroine of Emma Donoghue's "The Tale of the Hair" has chosen to live in a crooked stone tower. She's blind, and she has come to fear the sounds of the forest around her. "Block up the windows and doors," she tells the wise-woman who is her guardian and companion. One night a prince hears her singing, climbs up the tower, and introduces her to love. But soon she learns that the unseen prince is not quite what she thought.... Elizabeth Lynn's delightful "The Princess in the Tower" is set in an obscure and remote village somewhere in the hills of Europe: a place with fabulous, fattening food, and where zaftig women are prized. Poor Margeritina is so slim that everyone thinks she's ill and hideous. She stays in the family house in shame, trying to no avail to put on weight -- until a young man stumbles into the village, hears her singing from her high window, falls in love and whisks her away to marry him and start a restaurant. The charm of the story lies in Lynn's telling, and in the sumptuous food descriptions. Anne Bishop's "Rapunzel" is a moving tale that is broken into three distinct parts: the mother's story, the witch's story, and finally Rapunzel's story. The first two parts are contrasting narratives of jealousy and greed; the third follows Rapunzel to the wilderness, where she finds new life beyond the tower.

Rapunzel by Deann Cumner

Contemporary poets have also looked at the tale through the eyes of its different characters, finding in the story's themes issues relevant to our lives today.

Carolyn Williams-Noren gives voice to the least sympathetic character in the story in "Rapunzel's Mother":

I can't explain why I wanted that simple
thing so much: dark green rampion leaves, the curled
coverlets of them stacked together on the sideboard,
the rainy steam of them cooking, the hot full softness
and the bittersweet bite in my throat, mouthful
after mouthful. It was as if there was no other way to keep alive.

Nicole Cooley reflects on a troubled mother–daughter relationship in her poem "Rampion":

Tiny blue flowers furred with dirt are all the woman desires
in the story my mother reads over and over. Once upon a time
a woman longed for a child, but see how one desire easily
replaces the next, see her husband climbing the tall garden wall
with a handful of rampion, flowering scab she's traded for a child.
Look, my mother says, see
how the mother disappears
as rampion's metallic root splits the tongue like a knife
and the daughter spends the rest of the story alone.

Dorothy Hewett's chilling poem "Grave Fairy Tale" looks at the witch, through Rapunzel's eyes:

She was there when I woke, blocking the light,
or in the night, humming, trying on my clothes.
I grew accustomed to her; she was as much a part of me
as my own self; sometimes I thought, "She is myself!"
a posturing blackness, savage as a cuckoo. . . .

Rapunzel and the witch by Paul O. Zelinsky

Both Anne Sexton and Olga Broumas cast the relationship between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel as a sexual one. In Sexton's "Rapunzel," she writes of a lesbian affair between a student and her mentor, which the younger woman ends when a "prince" offers her a more socially acceptable life:

As for Mother Gothel,
her heart shrank to the size of a pin,
never again to say: Hold me, my young dear,
hold me,
and only as she dreamt of the yellow hair
did moonlight sift into her mouth.

Broumas, by contrast, celebrates such relationships in her answering poem "Rapunzel," writing in the voice of a younger woman who has no such temptation to stray:

Climb
through my hair, climb in
to me, love / hovers here like a mother's wish.
...How many women
have yearned
for our lush perennial, found
themselves pregnant, and had
to subdue their heat, drown out their appetite
with pickles and hard weeds.

David Trinidad's "Rapunzel" grows desperate in her isolation:

Like hair, the days and nights are growing longer and longer.
...And each evening the crone comes. Her crackled fingers appear
pinching the key....
If only once she'd say: "Here,
take this pair of scissors and cut your hair before it twists
into spaces between the bricks like vines." I'd slit my wrists.

Rapunzel, the witch and the prince, by Arthur Rackham

In Liz Lochhead's "Three Twists," on the other hand, Rapunzel discovers there are worse things than solitude — like a prince who hasn't got a clue about what she really needs:

& just when our maiden had got
good & used to her isolation
stopped daily expecting to be rescued,
had come almost to love her tower,
along comes This Prince / with absolutely all the wrong answers

The prince in Sara Henderson Hay's "Rapunzel" is all too skilled at the language of love:

Oh God, let me forget the things he said.
Let me not lie another night awake
Repeating all the promises he made....
I knew I was not the first to twist
Her heartstrings to a rope for him to climb.
I might have known I would not be the last.

Alice Friman's poem "Rapunzel" displays a bit more sympathy for the prince:

If she was unwise about such things
that girls are taught of men
with chocolate kisses / who offer lifts to lessons
who stand too close in subways
playing with their change
then what was he?
Caught in that small room,
the braid
coiling the floorboards like a snake,
and she all Rubens–ripe and curious.
Oh, the tower–singing on the wheezy couch.
Forbidden fruits in platters of her flesh
and he with scars to touch along his side
and many wondrous things to name.

Rapunzel and the prince by Christa Unzner & Trina Schart Hyman

Bruce Bennett's "The Skeptical Prince" wants proof that there's really a maiden in that tower:

The town has grown accustomed to the sight:
he drinks by day, then hangs around at night,
purveying sad and antiquated lore,
insisting he will act once he is sure

Essex Hemphill's "Song of Rapunzel" reminds us that sometimes men need rescuing too:

His hair
almost touches
his shoulders.
He dreams
of long braids,
ladders,
vines of hair.
He stands
like Rapunzel,
waiting on his balcony
to be rescued
from the fire–breathing
dragons of loneliness.

Rosemary Dun's "Rapunzel" rescues herself from prince and tower alike:

. . .I cut off the long hank of my
just–for–him hair with golden shears,
so that / no more would he climb,
prick my finger,
nor ravish me awake.
Instead, my howls which once
had filled my madwoman's attic
with despair.
announce the birth of my
daughter.
We hold hands and jump.

Rapunzel after she's left the tower by Trina Schart Hyman

Lisa Russ Spaar's "Rapunzel Shorn" is a young woman tasting sweet freedom at last:

I'm redeemed, head light
as seed mote, as a fasting
girl's among these thorns, lips
and fingers bloody with fruit.
Years I dreamed of this:
the green, laughing arms
of old trees extended over me,
my shadow lost among theirs.

Gwen Strauss' "The Prince" is an old man now, living with his beloved wife and looking back over the events of his life:

For a long time I was blind,
 even before the thorns tattered my eyes.
I was bored, handsome, a Prince.
The thrill was in what I could get away with.
. . .All my childhood I heard about love
but I thought only witches could grow it
in gardens behind walls too high to climb.

Rapunzel by P.J. Lynch

Rapunzel's story has become part of our folk tradition because its themes are universal and timeless. We've all hungered for things with too high a price, we've all felt imprisoned by life at times; we've all been carried away by love, only to end up broken and alone; we all hope for grace at the end of our suffering and a happy ending.

In the end, the story tells us, we have to leave the tower one way or another, weave a ladder or leap into the thorns. We can't stay in childhood forever. The adult world, with all its terrors and wonders, waits for us just beyond the forest.

''There they lived a long and happy life '' by Paul O Zelinsky

Words: All rights to the quoted text reserved by the various authors, and to the rest of the text reserved by me. The essay above is one of three about orphaned, abandoned, or stolen children, the others two being "From Remus & Romulus to Harry Potter: The Orphaned Hero" and "The Stolen Child: Tales of Fairy Changelings." For further reading on the subject of Rapunzel, I recommend Kate Forsyth's excellent The Rebirth of Rapunzel: A Mythic Biography of the Maiden in the Tower (FableCroft Publishing, 2016).

Pictures: Credits for the Rapunzel illustrations above can be found in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.


Once upon a time in Paris...

Dawn the Golden-Haired

Happy International Women's Day! We've been looking at women in myth, folklore, and fantasy in the last few posts. Today is dedicated to the fairy tale writers of the French salons, with illustrations by French book artist Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981)....

The term "fairy tale," now used throughout the English-speaking world as a generic label for magical stories for children, was a term coined in the literary salons of 17th century Paris by a group of writers who wrote and published their tales for adult readers. These stories have come down to us through the years in simplified forms adapted for children: Cinderella, RapunzelBluebeard, Sleeping Beauty, Donkeysin, and many others. They have their roots deep in the oral folk tradition, but they are not anonymous folk tales themselves -- they are literary works by a group of French authors, primarily women, who have exerted a strong influence on fairy tale literature up to the present.

Grace and Derek by Adrienne SegurTo explore this group and their influence, first we need to distinguish between the oral folk tales and literary fairy tales of western Europe. Magical folk tales, of course, have been part of the storytelling tradition since the dawn of time -- including stories of fairies, sorcerers, witches, and human folk under enchantment. Folk tales are humbler stories than the great cosmological myth cycles or long heroic Romances, and as such have been passed through the generations largely by the lower caste portions of society: women, peasants, slaves, and outcast groups such as Tinkers and Travellers. The literary fairy tale, by contrast, began as an art form of the upper classes -- made possible by advances in printing methods and rising literacy. Literary fairy tales borrow heavily from the oral folk tales of the peasant tradition (as well from myth, Romance, and literary sources like Apuleius’ Golden Ass), but these motifs are crafted and reworked through a single author’s imagination.

The Tinderbox by Adrienne SegurAlthough we find magical elements in medieval literature (in Boccaccio’s Decameron, for instance, or Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales), 16th century Italy is where the fairy tale became a genre of its own with the publication of Giovan Francesco Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights, 1550-53) and Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, also known as Lo cunto de li cunti (The Story of Stories, 1534-36). Both authors acknowledged that their source material came from women storytellers, yet Straparola and Basile were not scholarly collectors intent on preserving the oral folk tradition; they were writers who filtered the oral tales through an educated sensibility, turning them into literary works intended for adult readers. Both authors embedded short fairy tales into a larger frame story (ala the Decameron), a narrative technique that was to become a staple of fairy tale literature. Between them, Le piacevoli notti and Il Pentamerone contain some of the earliest written renditions of many classic tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Puss-in-Boots, among others. Yet these stories were somewhat different than the fairy tales we know today. Sleeping Beauty, for instance, was not wakened by a kiss, but by the suckling of the twins that she gave birth to after the prince has come, made love to her sleeping body, and left again. The tales were sensual, dark, bawdy, and never intended for children’s ears. Straparola, in fact, had to legally defend his volume against charges of indency.

Sleeping Beauty by Adrienne Segur

In the 17th century, Italian interest in magical stories waned -- but the tales of Straparola and, particularly, Basile went on to influence a new generation of writers in Paris. Prior to the 17th century, French folk tales were considered the “vulgar” province of the peasantry, although members of the upper-classes often knew such tales via nurses and servants. In the middle of the century, however, a vogue for magical tales emerged in the women’s salons of Paris. The salons were regular gatherings hosted by prominent aristocratic women, where women and men could gather to discuss the issues of the day. At court, contact between men and women was socially constrained and ritualized; and many topics of conversation were considered inappropriate for well-bred ladies. In the 1630s, disaffected women began to host gatherings in their own homes in order to discuss the topics of their choice: arts and letters, politics (carefully, for the Sun King’s spies were everywhere), and social matters of immediate concern to the women of their class: marriage, love, financial and physical independence, and access to education. This was a time when women were barred from schools and universities; when arranged marriages were the norm, divorce virtually unheard of, birth control methods primitive, and death by childbirth common. These women, and the sympathetic men who were increasingly attracted to their lively gatherings, came to be called précieuses, for they perfected a witty, inventive, précieux mode of conversation (rather like the bon mots popular in the Aesthetic movement of Oscar Wilde’s day).

Finn the Keen Falcon by Adrienne SegurSome of the most gifted women writers of the period came out of these early salons (such as Madeleine de Scudéry and Madame de Lafayette), which encouraged women’s independence and pushed against the gender barriers that circumscribed their lives. The salonnières argued particularly for love, tendresse, and intellectual compatibility between the sexes, opposing the system of arranged marriages in which, at its worst, women of their class were basically sold off to the highest bidder. They railed against a culture that permitted men to take lovers while demanding women remain faithful to men they’d never wanted to marry in the first place. They sought to control their own money, and property, and to travel without chaperones. Most of all, they wanted the opportunity to exercise their intelligence and talents. Encouraged by their success in the salons, women began to write fiction, poetry and plays in unprecedented numbers -- and to earn a living through this work which enabled them to remain unmarried or to establish separate households. The salons became quite influential -- fashions grew out of them, artistic ideas, and even political movements; they also provided a network for women struggling to achieve independence.

In the middle of the 17th century, a passion for conversational parlor games based on the plots of old folk tales swept through the salons. The telling of folk tales was an art that had long historical associations with women – yet the use that these bluestocking women made of such tales was new and subversive. Each salonnière would be called upon to retell an old tale or rework an old theme, spinning them into clever new stories that not only showcased verbal agility and imagination, but also slyly commented on the conditions of aristocratic life. Great emphasis was placed on a mode of delivery that seemed natural and spontaneous -- but in fact people devised and practiced their stories before they trotted them out in public, and a style emerged that was both archly sophisticated and faux-naif.

Donkeyskin by Adrienne SegurToday, the salon fairy tales may seem quaintly old-fashioned, dripping with too many pearls and jewels, but to 17th century audiences the rich rococo language of the tales seemed deliciously rebellious -- in deliberate contrast with the mannered restraint of works approved by the French Academy (from which women were barred). In the Academy, in the "Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns," Boileau, Racine and other literary men insisted that French literature should strive to emulate the classical works of Greek and Rome, while the Moderns (Charles Perrault among them) believed that the home-grown source material of French folklore and myth could inspire a vigorous new literature, free of antiquated rules. (Stories of ogres in seven league boots were the true inheritors of the Homeric tradition, Perrault argued, not odes composed in Latin.) The king eventually ruled in favor of the Ancients, but Modern literary experimentation continued to go on with popular if not critical support -- particularly in the world of the salons, where women writers often had no choice but to boldly take up the Modern cause. Largely self-educated, few of them could read and write in Latin.

Bluecrest by Adrienne Segur

The rococo language of the fairy tales also served another important function: disguising the subversive subtext of the stories and sliding them past the court censors. Critiques of court life, and even of the king, were embedded in flowery utopian tales and in dark, sharply dystopian ones. Not surprisingly, the tales by women often featured young but clever aristocratic girls whose lives were controlled by the arbitrary whims of fathers, kings, and elderly wicked fairies – as well as tales in which groups of wise fairies stepped in and put all to rights.

Fairies were central to these stories, and it was here that the name contes des fées (fairy tales) was coined -- a term now used to describe a large, international body of magical tales. The fairies populating the salon tales were not quite the same as the earthy creatures to be found in the oral folk tradition, however. They shared some of the same characteristics (they wielded magic and granted wishes; they could be good or evil, helpful or capricious), yet these fairies were clearly aristocrats, intelligent, erudite, and independent, ruling over kingdoms and presiding over the workings of justice and fate -- just as intelligent, independent women ruled over the world of the salons. In short, these fairies can be seen as representing the women writers who created them.

The Royal Ram by Adrienne SegurAs the vogue for fairy stories evolved in the 1670s and ‘80s, Madame d’Aulnoy emerged as one of the most popular raconteurs in Paris, famed for her tales and for the glittering circle she drew to the salon she hosted. Eventually she wrote down her tales (The White Cat, The White Deer, Green Snake, Bluecrest and The Royal Ram, among others), publishing them to great acclaim from 1690 onward -- beginning with a fairy tale embedded in her novel L’Histoire d’Hypolite, comte de Duglas. Soon after, other salonnières began to publish fairy tales of their own, including Marie-Jeanne L’H’éritier and Catherine Bernard beginning in 1695, Charles Perrault and Comtesse de Murat in 1696, Rose de La Force in 1697, Chevalier de Mailly and Jean de Préchac in 1698, Catherine Durand in 1699, and Comtesse D’Auneuil in 1701.

Madame d’Aulnoy’s own history is just as fantastical as any of her stories. Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville was born in Normandy in 1650, and received a modest convent education -- arranged for her by Francois de la Motte, Baron d’Aulnoy, a wealthy aristocrat who was thirty years her senior. When Marie-Catherine was 15 or 16, the Baron abducted her from the convent (with the connivance of her father, who profited financially) and a forced marriage ensued -- from which, in that time and place, there was no possibility of divorce. The Baron was famed for his dissolute habits, including drunkenness, an addiction to gambling, and sexual irregularities. Three long years later, it looked as though the girl might be freed from her odious husband when the Baron was arrested and charged with a crime of high treason against the king. Then the two men who had implicated the Baron recanted their testimony under torture. These men were discovered to be the lovers of the young Baroness and her beautiful mother, and it was now believed that the whole affair had been cooked up between the four of them. The Baron was released, the men were executed, and d’Aulnoy and her mother fled to Spain. The two adventurous women spent the next several years traveling the Continent, and may have been spying for Louis XIV as a way of regaining his favor. Baroness d’Aulnoy received royal permission to return to Paris in 1685, where she promptly set up her literary salon in the rue San-benoit. Intelligent, beautiful, and tinged with an aura of mystery, she soon formed a glittering group around her of nonconformist women and men, as well as establishing a highly successful and profitable literary career.

The White Deer by Adrienne SegurHenriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat, was part of the d’Aulnoy circle -- and another writer of magical tales with a colorful history. Born in Brittany in 1670, she came to Paris at the age of 16 upon her marriage to the Comte de Murat, quickly making a name in the salons for her wit and insouciance. Her high spirits landed her in trouble when a tale she wrote was recognized as a thinly veiled satire of the king’s mistress; she was subsequently denounced by her husband for wild behavior, immodesty, and rumors of lesbianism. Banished by the king to the provincial town of Loche at the age of 24, de Murat constantly petitioned to be released from this sentence, to no avail. She was kept confined to a Loche chateau for all but one year of the rest of her life -- returning to Paris only when King Louis died, just before her own death.

Yet even in confinement, de Murat managed to maintain close contact with her women friends, and continued to play an active role in the Parisian fairy tale movement. She wrote and published a large number of novels and stories, and set up her own literary salon (dubbed the Académie du domicile) -- recreating the atmosphere of Paris in Loche and scandalizing the town. Her best known tales include Bearskin, in which a young king falls in love with a princess-in-exile disguised as a big brown bear. The bear wins the young man’s heart through the elegance of her conversation and the erudition of her beautiful letters and poems. Unlike Disney-style fairy tales today, where a beautiful face is a girl’s main attraction (think of Disney's Cinderella, or the film Pretty Woman), this king falls in love before he discovers the royal maiden inside the gentle bear -- in fact, he agonizes over his unnatural attraction to the animal and is greatly relieved when a fairy finally assures him that his beloved is actually human.

Kip the Enchanted Cat by Adrienne Segur

Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, by contrast to the authors above, was able to lead a more self-determined life -- partly because she was born into a family of scholars who saw nothing untoward in her desire to be a writer, and partly because she followed the example of her mentor, the writer and salonnière Madeleine de Scudéry, by refusing all offers of marriage. (A wealthy woman’s patronage and the income from her writing made this possible.) Charles Perrault was her uncle, as well as her colleague in the world of the salons; she was also close to de Murat, to whom she dedicated her first major collection of tales. She inherited de Scudéry’s famous salon upon her mentor’s death, and ran it with great success as her own literary reputation grew.

Scholars are now divided on whether L’Héritier (an early champion of fairy tale themes) influenced Perrault or whether it was Perrault who influenced his niece. It hardly matters, for in all likelihood the two of them influenced each other -- they were friends, they moved in the same social circles, they wrote fairy tales during the same stretch of years, and they drew their themes from a common stock of oral folk tales, as well as from Basile. L’Héritier is best remembered for The Discreet Princess -- a wry and charming tale in which a king locks his three daughters away in order to safeguard their chastity. An evil prince from a nearby kingdom manages to trick his way into the tower, and then to seduce and impregnate each of the foolish older princesses. The youngest, Finette, is a clever girl, and more than a match for the honey-tongued prince. “Once this devious prince had locked up her sisters,” writes L’Héritier, “he went in search of Finette in her room, which she had locked against him. He spoke the same compliments at her door that he had used with each of her sisters, but this princess was not so easy to dupe, and did not respond….The wicked prince lost his patience. Fetching a large wooden log, he broke the door in. He found Finette armed with a large hammer, her eyes glittering with rage. ‘Prince,’ she said, ‘if you approach me, then I shall split open your skull!’” In the end, the prince is outwitted, killed in a trap he has laid for Finette, and she marries the prince’s gentle brother, the new heir to the neighboring kingdom.

Riquet of the Tuft (aka Cowlick Rickety) by Adrienne SegurCatherine Bernard, born in Rouen in 1662, moved to Paris in order to become a writer, where she frequented d’Aulnoy’s and L’Héritier’s salons and became part of the fairy tale circle. Bernard resisted marriage and devoted herself to her literary career, writing well-received novels and tragedies known to have influenced Voltaire. As a fantasist, she’s best known for her version of an oral folk tale called Riquet of the Tuft, published around the same time as Perrault’s rendition of the story. Both versions are good ones, and thus it’s interesting to compare the two, demonstrating the differences in tales by men and women of the period. In Perrault’s charming retelling, a beautiful princess is cursed with stupidity by a malevolent fairy and then encounters Riquet of the Tuft, a courteous but ugly prince who gives her the gift of intelligence in exchange for her promise to marry him in one year’s time. During that year, the now-dazzling princess entirely forgets her benefactor…until she encounters him once again on the day she had promised to wed him. She attempts to weasel out of the promise, using all her new-found cleverness – until he assures her that it is quite within her power to make him as beautiful as herself, provided she agrees to love him. She does so, Riquet changes shape, and now he’s as handsome as he is courteous. Perrault then ends the tale with the suggestion that Riquet may have not changed his shape after all, but merely appeared to be beautiful to the princess once her love was pledged.

Green Snake by Adrienne Segur

Catherine Bernard’s version of the old folk tale is a considerably darker one, and takes a dimmer view of her heroine’s prospects for happiness. The lovely but stupid princess encounters Riquet, an ugly and bossy little gnome, ruler of a wealthy gnome kingdom in a realm deep underground. He gives the girl a spell to chant that will render her intelligent, and only then does he inform her that she has no choice but to marry him in one year’s time. (This echoed the experience of upper class girls whose limited convent educations were subsidized by older men who had arranged to marry them when they were grown.)  The princess soon grows witty and charming, suitors flock to court her, and she loses her heart to a handsome youth who has no power or wealth. Secretly, she ponders the dreadful fate that is awaiting her, and the day finally comes when she must give herself to the horrid gnome. Her deep distaste for the marriage is so obvious that Riquet presents her with a choice: she can marry him of her own free will and retain her new intelligence, or she can return to her father’s house as stupid as she was before she met him. Loathe to give up her intelligence, and fearful of losing her young lover’s regard, she chooses the lesser evil and marries Riquet of the Tuft.

The tale continues after the marriage, in Riquet’s kingdom under the ground. Angered by his wife’s continued aversion, the gnome avoids her company -- and she concocts a plan to bring her lover to the palace. Her plan succeeds, and for a time she revels in stolen happiness…but the sudden bloom in her cheeks awakens her gnome-husband’s suspicions. After various machinations, Riquet discovers his wife’s secret, and he takes ingenious revenge by turning her young lover into a replica of himself. "Thus," writes Bernard, "she lived with two husbands instead of one and could no longer distinguish between them, living in fear of mistaking the object of her hatred for the object of her love." Whereas Perrault’s version ends with a moral ("We find that what we love is wondrous fair."), Bernard’s version ends with a warning: "In the end, lovers turn into husbands anyway."

Little Red Cap by Adrienne Segur

A number of Modern, nonconformist men frequented the women’s fairy tale salons, contributing stories of their own as part of the conversational games. Foremost among them are Jean de Mailly, author of Les Illustres Fées, contes galans; Jean de Préchac, author of Contes moins contes que les autres; and Charles Perrault, author of the most famous of all French fairy tale collections: Histoires ou contes du temps passé, also known as Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (The Stories of Mother Goose).

Sleeping Beauty by Adrienne SegurPerrault was born Paris in 1628 to a distinguished family of high-achievers: his father was an accomplished lawyer and a member of the Paris Parlement, and his four brothers forged glittering careers in the areas of theology, architecture, and law. Perrault became a lawyer himself after passing examinations at the University of Orleans, but he gave it up to become a court administrator three years later. As secretary to Jean Baptiste Colbert, the Sun King’s powerful finance minister, he was able to wield his influence in support of culture and the arts. (He was one of the men in charge of the design of the Louvre and Versailles, for instance.) He published poetry, essays, and panegyrics for the king, and was elected to the French Academy in 1671, where he was one of the leading initiators of the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (arguing for the latter). In the 1690s, like his niece and other habitués of the Paris salons, Perrault turned his attention to fairy tales -- producing three poems with folklore themes, a prose version of Sleeping Beauty, and then his Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697.

Perrault turned the blunt language and earthy imagery of peasant folk stories into tales that were urbane, aristocratic, and refined, yet contain some marked differences from those of the female salonnières. First, the literary style he adopted was a simpler one, his plots less complex, his language less rococo as he played with the narrative conceit that the tales come direct from the mouth of Old Mother Goose. Second, despite his salon friendships with out-spoken, independent women, the princesses in Perrault’s tales tend to be passive, helpless creatures, praised for their beauty, modesty, and quiet obedience. His princes stride off to seek their fortunes, outwitting ogres and hacking through briars, while the princesses sleep or sit in the ashes, virtuously awaiting rescue. Compare Bluebeard’s wife, lying prostrate before him in tears while her brothers ride in to save the day, with clever Finette, in The Discreet Princess created by Perrault’s niece L’Héritier, waving her hammer at the prince and shouting: "Come closer and I’ll open your skull!"

Two illustrations by Adrienne Segur

Though L’Héritier, d’Aulnoy, and other women enjoyed readerships as large as Perrault’s, the fairy tale form was still suspect among the leading critics of the day, who reserved their praise for the simpler, less subversive tales penned by Perrault. In 1699, Abbé de Villiers published a Dialogue commending Perrault while damning all women fairy tale writers, railing in particular against the popularity and financial success those writers enjoyed. "Most women only enjoy reading because they enjoy laziness and the trivial,” de Villiers declared. “Everything that requires a little effort tires and bores them; they amuse themselves with a book in the same way they play with a fly or a ribbon. So does it astonish you that tales and little stories are popular?" In the years to come, Rosseau would also write scathingly of women’s fairy tales, and of the very idea of women's salons. "Every woman in Paris gathers in her apartment a harem of men more womanish than she," he sneered, while strongly advocating the establishment of English-style clubs exclusively for men.

He needn’t have worried. The social and literary ground that the women salonnières had gained was already slipping away from them as the 18th century dawned. One by one, their salons closed as the salonnières died or were banished from Paris. Perrault died in 1703, d’Aulnoy in 1705, Bernard in 1712, de Mailly was in trouble with the king, de Murat was still under house-arrest in Loche, and de la Force had been banished to a convent for publishing “impious” works. As the Marquise de Lambert lamented years later: "There were, in an earlier time, houses where women were allowed to talk and think, where muses joined the society of the graces. The Hôtel de Rambouillet [a famous salon], greatly honored in the past century, has become the ridicule of ours."

Three illustrations by Adrienne Segur

The Wild Swans by Adrienne Segur

As the salons ended, a "second wave" of French fairy tale literature began, consisting of stories, primarily by men this time, that were parodies of the earlier tales, as well a host of magical stories with an Oriental flavor. (The latter was due to Antoine Gallard’s phenomenally successful translation of The Thousand and One Nights, 1704-1714, which introduced Arabian fairy tales to the French reading public.) By the middle of the 18th century, however, a "third wave" of French fairy tales emerged by writers who had more in common with the 17th century salonnières than with the parodists who succeeded them. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, for example, was associated with the parodists (she’s believed to have been the mistress of Claude-Prosper de Crébillon fils) but used the fairy tale form in a manner that harked back to the 1690s, penning stories that explored the role of women in marriage and society. In her youth, de Villeneuve had been unhappily married to a military officer, turning to writing to earn a living when his death left her impoverished. Her best known fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast (1740), a long, complex, and subtly erotic story exploring issues of love, marriage, and identity. (The tale was later shortened by Madame Leprince de Beaumont, which is the version we know best today. For the interesting history of Beauty and the Beast, go here.)

Another writer who picked up the threads of the salon tradition was Marguerite de Lubert, the author of six acclaimed fairy tale novels and a number of shorter works, best known today for La Princesse Camion (1743) and Peau d’ours (1953). Like L’Héritier and Bernard before her, de Lubert studiously avoided marriage in order to pursue a literary career. Her tales have a light and sparkling surface, in keeping with the tastes of the time, but underneath lies a firm foundation of narrative sophistication. Her stories, like the salon tales, revolved around courtly, powerful fairies -- but de Lubert seems to have been more ambivalent about the nature of that power, portrayed in a manner that ranges from benevolent to meddlesome to downright sadistic.

Beauty and the Beast by Adrienne Segur

While the 17th century salon writers had composed their tales for adult readers, in the latter half of the 18th century fairy tales were increasingly aimed at younger readers. Creating a separate body of fiction for children was a relatively new notion, engendered by new printing methods and the rise of literacy in the upper classes. Prior works for children were dull and didactic, intended to inculcate moral values. It now occurred to liberal-minded parents and children’s educators that these values would be easier to swallow if sugar-coated with entertainment.

Madame Leprince de Beaumont was one of the first French writers to compose fairy tales specifically for younger readers. Having fled from a disastrous marriage to a dissolute libertine, Leprince de Beaumont worked as a governess in England, where she began to write stories, in French, for magazines aimed at “young misses”. Although a number of her fairy stories contain original elements, she also borrowed liberally from previous fairy tale writers. In 1757, she re-wrote the text of de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast, severely condensing the narrative and imbuing it with clear moral lessons. De Villenueve’s original text, over three hundred pages long, is thick with incidental characters and rambling subplots; Leprince de Beaumont stripped these away to reach the bare, timeless essentials of the tale, condensing de Villenueve’s narrative into a mere seventeen pages. She also made some significant changes. First, she toned down the eroticism: in the de Villeneuve version, the Beast repeatedly asks Belle to go to bed with him, while in the Leprince de Beaumont version, he merely asks her to marry him. Second, Leprince de Beaumont’s Beast is sympathetic, even attractive, before his transformation -- while in de Villenueve’s story (similar to “animal bridegroom” tales from the oral tradition) the Beast is a genuinely frightening character.

The White Cat by Adrienne Segur

Leprince de Beaumont was not alone in re-writing tales by earlier authors, or in turning them into stories that were simpler, shorter, and less challenging. Throughout the 18th century, the tales of d’Aulnoy, Perrault, de Murat, L’Héritier, Bernard, de la Force and the other salonnières appeared in the pages of the Bilbliotheque bleue, a series of small, inexpensive chapbooks distributed by traveling book peddlers. Intended for readers of the lower classes, these shorter tales proved enormously popular and were often read aloud -- and thus began to slip into the oral folk tradition, not only in France but in neighboring lands. It is because of this that so many readers think of literary tales like Donkeyskin, White Cat or Beauty and the Beast as "anonymous" folk tales to this day.

The Rose of Christmas by Adrienne Segur

Fortunately, the salon tales as they were originally written and published have been preserved for us in a monumental work called Le Cabinet des fées, an enormous collection of stories from the 17t and 18th centuries. First published in three volumes in Amsterdam in 1731, it swelled to an astonishing forty-one volumes, published in Paris and Amsterdam (and then Geneva) beginning in 1785. These volumes contain a treasure-trove of stories, the vast majority of them by women authors.

So how, we might ask, did Perrault become known as the only French fairy tale author of note? Elizabeth W. Harries addresses the question in her essay "Fairy Tales About Fairy Tales: Notes on Canon Formation." Aside from the gender bias, too obvious to need any explication, she points out that the next generation of fairy tale enthusiasts were men like the Brothers Grimm: fairy tale “collectors,” not literary artists, who prized a simple, "peasant" style of prose, and were deeply suspicious not only of the subversive subtext of the salon tales, but of the very language used by the women and men of the précieux movement. (One can only wonder what they’d have made of Angela Carter today!) Although Perrault’s tales were modern literary creations like those of the other salonnières, he adopted a simpler prose style than that of his "inferior imitators," as the Grimms referred to d’Aulnoy and de Murat in the Introduction to their first collection (Kinder und Hausmärchen, 1812). The Grimms, writes Harries, "had to posit a rupture or separation between literate and oral culture, between modern, self-conscious writing and older, ‘natural,’ spontaneous story-telling or ballad-singing. Their nostalgia for a vanishing or vanished culture -- assumed to be simpler or more poetic than their own -- still permeates most fairy-tale collecting and research."

Cinderella by Adrienne Segur

In the decades and centuries that followed, the salon stories, except for Perrault’s, were reprinted less and less -- or they appeared in bowdlerized form, with erroneous or missing author credits. "Tales by d’Aulnoy and Murat," writes Harries, "were no longer considered authentic or moral enough to reproduce -- or even to be mentioned, except in parentheses." By the 19th century, children’s books had become a thriving industry, and the French salon tales continued to be plundered as a cheap source of story material. The tales were shortened, simplified, and given a gloss of Victorian propriety -- and then often published under the name of that anonymous, illiterate peasant woman known only as Mother Goose, while the real women behind the 17th and 18th century contes des fées were slowly disappearing.

Yet those pioneering, scandalous, précieux women and men were not entirely forgotten. During the last two decades of the 20th century, their history began to be reclaimed by a new generation of fairy tale scholars, at the same time that their tales were being rediscovered, reappraised, and retranslated. Such tales provided inspiration for a whole new wave of fairy tale authors: Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, A.S. Byatt, Emma Donoghue, Margaret Atwood, Alice Hoffman, Kate Bernheimer, Tanith Lee, Jane Yolen, Delia Sherman, Kate Forsyth, Robin McKinley, Francesca Lia Block, and Donna Jo Napoli among them.

Bright, Dear Deer, and Kit by Adrienne Segur

The Golden Book of Fairy Tales

A number of women writers of my generation were raised, as I was, on the French salon stories in The Fairy Tale Book (Golden Books, 1958), translated into English by poet Marie Ponsot and illustrated by Adrienne Ségur, whose imagery adorns this post. That single book cast a spell on us that has lasted right up to this day, resulting in careers spent studying, writing, illustrating, and editing fairy tales, or fairy-tale-inspired literature.

I have written elsewhere about the particular importance of fairy tales in my own childhood, growing up in a troubled household, and how the quests in magic tales can prepare us for the quests we face in life. What I didn’t know as a girl was how very lucky I was to have that particular book as my introduction -- containing, as it did, stories shortened for young readers but not overly revised, rather than the sugary Disney-style versions best known today. I also didn’t know that those tales connected me -- a working-class girl in 20th century America -- with a group of strong-minded aristocratic women in 17th century Paris, who had struggled, as I was struggling, against societal expectations for an education, independence, and a self-determined life. The subversive message of their tales was buried deep in rococo imagery of fairies, princesses, diamonds and pearls…and yet I heard it. I learned at a very young age not to sit in the cinders awaiting rescue. I picked up a hammer (metaphorically speaking!) and set off to seek my fortune instead.

Adrienne Segur cover art

I like to think that d’Aulnoy and her friends would be pleased to know that the “fad” they started is still going strong more than three centuries later. And perhaps in another three hundred years Jane Yolen’s tales, or Patricia McKillip’s, or Theodora Goss's, will be read alongside d’Aulnoy’s and Perrault’s, to inspire new generations.

Thumbelina by Adrienne Segur

The artwork above is by Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981), most of it reprinted from The Golden Book of Fairy Tales. All rights to the text and art reserved by the author and the artist's estate.


Spinning straw into gold

Rumplstiltskin by Paul O Zelinsky

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), this week's Folklore Thursday theme is the folklore of women. This post looks at traditional "women's work" and its relationship to fairy tales....

Sleeping Beauty by Walter Crane"A thread now most often means a line of conversation via e-mail or other electronic means," writes Rebecca Solnit (in The Faraway Nearby), "but thread must have been an even more compelling metaphor when most people witnessed or did the women's work that is spinning. It is a mesmerizing art, the spindle revolving below the strong thread that the fingers twist  out of the mass of fiber held on an arm or a distaff. The gesture turns the cloudy mass of fiber into lines with which the world can be tied together. Likewise the spinning wheel turns, cyclical time revolving to draw out the linear time of a thread. The verb to spin first meant just this act of making, then evolved to mean anything turning rapidly, and then it came to mean telling a tale.

"Strands a few inches long twine together into a thread of yarn that can go on forever, like words becoming stories. The fairy-tale heroines spin cobwebs, straw, nettles into whatever is necessary to survive. Scheherazade forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut; she keeps spinning and spinning, incorporating new fragments, characters, incidents, into her unbroken, unbreakable narrative thread. Penelope at the other end of the treasury of stories prevents her wedding to any one of her suitors by unweaving at night what she weaves by day on her father-in-law's funeral garment. By spinning, weaving, and unraveling, these women master time  Sleeping Beauty by Jennie Harbouritself, and though master is a masculine word, this mastery is feminine.

"Women were spinsters before the word became pejorative, when distaff meant the female side of the family. In Greek mythology, each human life is a thread that the three Moirae, or Fates, spin, measure, and cut. With Rumpelstiltskin's help, the unnamed fairy-tale heroine spins straw into gold, but the wonder is that every spinner takes the amorphous mass before her and makes thread appear, from which comes the stuff that contains the world, from a fishing net to a nightgown. She makes form out of formlessness, continuity out of fragments, narrative and meaning out of scattered incidents, for the storyteller is also a spinner or weaver and a story is a thread that meanders through our lives to connect us each to each and to the purpose and meaning that appear like roads that we must travel."

A detail from 'Penelope and the Suitors' by John William Waterhouse

Sleeping Beauty by Nadezhda Illarionova

"It’s no accident that spinning is associated with language, that we may be said to 'spin' a tale or tell a 'yarn'," notes Lori Widmer Hess (in her fine essay on the subject). "Spinning brings a cosmic 'twist' into the raw materials of nature, giving them strength and continuity. When we look at events with a higher awareness, we can perceive the links between them and weave them into an ongoing story, coming to an understanding of their true essence. The spinning of straw into gold can be transformed from a mechanical search for material gain into a quest for meaning and knowledge.

Rapumplestiltskin by Paul O. Zelinsky"As anyone who has tried it knows, spinning is not a mindless task. It requires constant attention not to end up with a tangled mess or a broken thread. At the same time, the rhythmical balance of manual and mental activity, hand and mind working together to produce a continuous, even thread, is deeply satisfying and calming. The spinner often finds her thoughts becoming organized along with the fiber, leading to new insights or creative inspiration. An inner 'golden thread' can be sensed, one that we can try to cultivate ever more strongly.

"This is the thread that we can try to make of our lives, when we accept the materials we are given; on the other hand, we reject them at our peril. In 'Sleeping Beauty,' for example, the king tries to avert the prediction that his daughter will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deathlike sleep by burning all the spinning wheels in the kingdom. He thus brings about the very fate he seeks to escape, when the princess’s curiosity leads her to touch the first spindle she sees. Destiny cannot be averted through ignorance, but only transformed through knowledge."

Wild Swans by Nadezhda Illarionova

Wild Swan illustrations (knitting coats from nettles) by Mercer Mayer and Eleanor V. Abbott

In the fairy tale of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine's brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to gather nettles in a graveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell -- all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done -- running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men -- except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm.

Although the nettles in the story have magical properties (as indicated by ritual method with which they're harvested), the use of nettles for making coats is not as outlandish at it may seem to modern readers. Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas, such as the highlands of Scotland, nettle cloth is still made to this day.

The Wild Swans by Adrienne Segur

Each day she weaves for twelve brothers, twelve golden shirts
twelve pairs of slippers, twelve sets of golden mail.
The Wild Swans by Susan JeffersShe sleeps under olive trees, praying for rescue.
In her dreams doves fly in circles, crying out her name.

For a hundred years she is turned into a golden bird,
hung in a cage in a witch's castle. Her brothers
are all turned to stone. She cannot save them,
no matter how many witches she burns.

She weeps tears that cannot be heard
but turn to rubies when they hit the ground.
She lifted her hand against the light
and it became a feathered wing....

Jeannine Hall Gailey (from "Becoming the Villainess")

Sleeping Beauty by John D. Batten

Woman Sewing by Vincent Van Gogh

The Three Fates by Oliver HunterIn classical myth, the Moirai (also known as the Three Fates) portion out the threads of our lives from birth to death. Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis determines its length, and Antropos cuts it off when life is at its end. In Norse myth, it is the Norns who this work at the foot Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Certain magics can knot or smooth our fate, but the thread's length cannot be altered.

Fire shadows on the wall,
A hand rises, falls, as steady as a heart beat,
Threading the strands of life.
This is the warp thread, this the woof
This the hero-line, this the fool.

    Needle and scissors, scissors and pins,
   Where one life ends, another begins.

Jane Yolen (from "The Fates")

"Writing fiction," says Khaled Hosseini, "is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth."

So we spin our tales, knit plots and and lives together, measuring and mending, snip, snip, snip. Stir up the fire. Open the workbox. Take up the needle and let the story begin.

Girls Sewing by a Window by Carl Larsson

Loom and Thread by Carl Larsson

Woman Sewing by  Vilhelm Hammershøi

Pictures: "Rumplestiltskin" by Paul O. Zelinksy (American); "Sleeping Beauty" by Walter Crane (English, 1845-1915); "Sleeping Beauty" by Jennie Harbour (English, 1893-1959);  a detail from "Penelope and the Suitors" by John William Waterhouse (English, 1849-1917);  "Sleeping Beauty" by Nadezhda Illarionova (Russian); another illustration from "Rumplestiltskin" by Paul O. Zelinksy (American); "The Wild Swans" by Nadezhda Illarionova (Russian); "The Wild Swans" by Mercer Mayer (American) & Eleanor V. Abbott (English, 1909-1972); "The Wild Swans" by Adrienne Segur (French/Greek, 1901-18981); "The Wild Swans" by Susan Jeffers (American); "Sleeping Beauty" by John D. Batten (English, 1860-1932); "Woman Sewing" by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890); "Three Muses" by Oliver Hunter (Australian); "Two Girls Sewing at the Window" and "Loom and Thread" by Carl Larsson (Swedish, 1853-1919), and "Woman Sewing" by Vilhelm Hammershøi (Danish, 1864-1916).

Words: The prose passages above are from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013) and "Spinning a Tale" by Lory Widmer Hess (Cabinet des Fées, May 29, 2011). The poem extracts are from The Journal of Mythic Arts; follow the links to read them in full.  All rights to the text reserved by the authors. 


On Hans Christian Andersen

Anastasia Arkhipova

It's commonly supposed that all fairy tales are stories from the folk tradition, passed through the generations by storytellers since the dawn of time. While it's true that most fairy tales are rooted in oral folklore, to a greater or lesser degree, many of the best-known stories actually come to us from literary sources. In a previous post, we looked at the literary fairy tales of 16th century Italy (written by Straparola and Basile) and the salon fairy tales of 17th and 18th century France (by Madame D'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, etc.). In this one, we turn to 19th century Denmark, where Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) penned some of the best loved fairy tales of all time: The Little Mermaid, The Wild Swans, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Nightingale, The Tinder Box, The Ugly Duckling, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Red Shoes, The Fir Tree, The Snow Queen (his masterpiece), and many others.

Hans Christian Andersen's own life had aspects of a fairy tale, for he was born the son of a poor cobbler and he died a rich and famous man, celebrated around the world, the intimate of kings and queens. Although today Andersen is primarily known as a writer of stories for children, during his lifetime he was also celebrated for his other literary works, including six novels, five travel journals, three memoirs, and numerous poems and plays. The modern image of Andersen (as portrayed in the sugary 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye) is of a simple, innocent, child-like spinner of tales, a character from one of his own stories. Letters and diaries by Andersen and his contemporaries, however, draw the picture of a very different man: a sharply intelligent, ambitious writer with a hardscrabble past, a love of high society, and a tortured soul. Likewise, Andersen's fairy tales, when read in the original Danish (or in good, unabridged translations), are far more sophisticated and multi-layered than the simple children's fables they've become in all too many translated editions, retellings, and media adaptations. The writer was no innocent naïf recounting fancies whispered by the fairies; he was a serious artist, a skillful literary craftsman, a shrewd observer of human nature and of the social scene of 19th century Denmark.

Storyteller

Reading Andersen's prose after growing up with abridged and altered versions of his stories can be a surprising experience -- much like reading J.M. Barrie's sly, subversive Peter Pan in the original. Both Andersen and Barrie wrote children's stories into which they carefully, skillfully embedded comedy, social critique, satire, and philosophy aimed at adult readers. Andersen pioneered this style, and writers like Barrie are indebted to him, as are numerous children's writers today — including Jane Yolen, Roald Dahl, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, and J. K. Rowling -- whose works are beloved by adult readers. "I seize on an idea for grown-ups," Andersen explained, "and then tell the story to the little ones while always remembering that Father and Mother often listen, and you must also give them something for their minds." His fairy tales can be read simply as magical adventures, but for the discerning reader they contain much more, bristling with characters drawn from Andersen's own life and from the many worlds he traveled through in his remarkable life's journey.

Hans Christian Andersen photographed by Thora Hallager in 1869Like the Ugly Duckling, born in a humble duck-yard yet destined to become a swan, Andersen was born the son of a poor cobbler in the city of Odense, where the family shared a single room and lived a hand-to-mouth existence. There was always food, but never quite enough; there were books on the shelf, but no money for grammar school. Andersen was sent to the Poor School instead, and expected to learn a trade.

Tall and gawky, ill at ease with other children, the boy spent his time reading, dreaming, sewing costumes out of scraps for his puppet theater, and haunting the doorway of the city's theater when traveling players came to town. Odense, at that time, was a provincial city still rooted in its rural past, with a living tradition of Danish folklore and colorful folk pageantry. In The True Story of My Life, Andersen relates how he learned Danish folk tales in his youth from old women in the spinning room of the insane asylum where his grandmother worked. "They considered me a marvelous clever child," he recalls, "too clever to live long, and they rewarded my eloquence by telling me fairy tales, and a world as rich as that of The Thousand and One Nights arose before me." The Arabian tales of The Thousand and One Nights also fired the boy's imagination, for this was one of the few precious books owned by Andersen's father.

Andersen began writing at an early age (an unusual preoccupation for a boy of his class), but his true ambition was to go on the stage as an actor, dancer, or singer. He memorized scenes from plays and poems and loved to declaim them to anyone who'd listen; he also possessed a fine singing voice (he was know as the Nightingale of Odense), and this talent in particular began to open doors for him. The boy received invitations to sing at dinner parties in rich men's houses, where his precociousness, combined with his shabby appearance, provoked as much amusement as admiration. This was Andersen's first taste of superior society (as it was called in those days of rigid class demarcation), a taste that he never lost as he subsequently climbed into Denmark's highest circles.

The Snow Queen by PJ Lynch

When Andersen was 11, his father died, leaving the family more destitute than ever, and the boy was sent off to factory work, at which he lasted only a few days. In 1819, at the age of 14, he left home and Odense altogether, traveling alone to Copenhagen to make his fame and fortune. Determined to join the Royal Theater, he presented himself to the theater's director, who bluntly advised the uneducated youth to go home and learn a trade. Undaunted, the boy sought out a well-known critic, then the city's prima ballerina, both of whom turned the scruffy urchin out and told him to go home. Growing desperate, running out of money, Andersen pestered every luminary he could think of until he turned up on the doorstep of Giuseppe Siboni, director of the Royal Choir School. Christoph Weyse, an accomplished composer, happened to be dining with Siboni that day. He had risen from poverty himself, and he took pity on the boy. Weyse promptly raised a sum of money that enabled Andersen to rent a cheap room and to study with Siboni and others connected to the Royal Theater.

The Little Mermaid by Edmund DulacThus began a new period in Andersen's life. By day he studied and loitered in the theater, rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous men and women of Denmark's Golden Age; by night he lived in a mean little room in one of the city's most squalid neighborhoods, often going without meals and spending what little money he had on books. As in Odense, the boy was called upon to sing and recite at distinguished dinner parties -- and once again the smiles of his hosts were often at his own expense. The aid he received for the next three years was sporadic and precarious, never quite enough to keep hunger from the door, bestowed with a mixture of generosity and condescension that left lasting marks on Andersen's psyche. (He would draw upon this experience years later when creating tales such as The Little Mermaid, in which the heroine submits to loss and pain in order to cross into another world -- only to find she'll never be fully accepted, loved, or understood.)

Yet despite the hardships he endured, and the humiliations he suffered through, the young Andersen was thrilled to be on his way to a theatrical career...or so he thought. He practiced scenes from famous plays, he tried his hand at writing a tragedy, and he began to study dance at the Royal Theater's Ballet School. But by the age of 17, his voice had changed; his gawky physique had proven unsuited to ballet. He was dismissed from school, informed that he had no future on the stage.

Anastasia ArkhipovaAnother youth than Hans Christian Andersen might have crumbled under this blow, but throughout his life he possessed a remarkable (even exasperating) degree of confidence and never lost faith in his worth, no matter how often he faced rejection.

Determined to find success in Denmark's theater but barred from a performance career, Andersen focused on his remaining talent: he'd become a writer of plays. He'd already submitted one play to the Royal Theater, which had promptly been turned down. Now the boy dashed off another play, this time an historical tragedy. It, too, was turned away. Yet the play had shown a glimmer of promise, and this brought him to the attention of Jonas Collin, a powerful court official and the financial director of the Royal Theater. Collin perceived what everyone else had perceived: the boy was badly handicapped by his lack of formal education. Collin, however, decided to do something to solve the problem of Andersen, arranging an educational fund to be paid by the King of Denmark.

Kay and the Snow Queen by Angela Barrett

Andersen was sent away to grammar school in the town of Slagelse, 57 miles from Copenhagen in the west of Zealand. He was six years older than his fellow students, far behind them in general education, and temperamentally unsuited for long days sitting in a classroom. Nonetheless he persevered, determined to prove himself worthy of Collin's interest, the King's patronage, and the faith of his small circle of supporters back in Copenhagen.  

But life as a grammar student would prove to be especially difficult, even for a youth whose life had hardly been easy to this point. Andersen's headmaster was a pedagogue who could have stepped from the pages of a Dickens novel, fond of using ridicule, humiliation, and contempt to bully his students into learning. He was particularly vicious to dreamy young Andersen, determined to crush the boy's pride, conceit, and especially his high ambitions -- and to teach him that his place in the world (due to his origins) must be a humble one. In particular, Andersen was strictly forbidden to "indulge" in any creative work such as creative writing -- a deprivation that the boy, who'd been writing since he was small, found particularly hard.

The Story of a Mother by Adrienne SegurFor four years, Andersen endured this tyranny, suffered, worried that he was going mad, and wrote despairing letters home -- which Jonas Collin calmly dismissed as adolescent self-pity. In 1826, at the age of 21, Andersen's emotions came to a boil; he defied his headmaster by writing a poem titled "The Dying Child."

Based on a common nineteenth century theme (in the days of high infant mortality rates), this poem was unusual in being told from the child's point of view, and it evoked a haunting sadness fueled by the author's own misery. Andersen's headmaster pronounced the poem rubbish (it became one of the most famous poems of the century) and heaped such abuse on Andersen that a young teacher became alarmed. The teacher spoke to Jonas Collin directly, and Collin swiftly pulled Andersen out of school. Andersen remained haunted by nightmares of his headmaster for the rest of his life.

Andersen was now allowed to return to Copenhagen, where he lived in a small, clean attic room, studied with private tutors, and took his meals with the Collins and other prominent families, in rotation. His particular attachment to the Collin family solidified during this period and would become a steady source of both joy and pain in the years that followed. Jonas, he loved as a second father; the five Collins children were as dear to him as brothers and sisters; and the Collins, in turn, grew used to this odd young man sitting at their hearth. Much has been written by Andersen scholars about the complicated relationship he forged with the family, who were pillars of Danish society and moved in the highest court circles. Jonas Collin's support of Andersen was both generous and unwavering, and Collin's household provided the young man with the family and stability he craved. But although they opened their home to him, included him in family gatherings, and assisted him in countless ways, Andersen was never allowed to forget that he was not entirely one of them, for he was not a member of their class. Even in the days of his world-wide fame, when he was home with the Collins family he was still the cobbler's son from Odense...the Royal Theater's charity boy...the Little Match Girl with her nose pressed to the glass of a rich family's window.

The Little Match Girl by Natalia Demidova

Most complicated of all was Andersen's relationship with Jonas's son Edvard, who was not only Andersen's closest friend but also (Andersen scholars now believe) the great love of Andersen's life. Edvard's response to Andersen, by contrast, was stolid and unsentimental. He expressed his loyalty to Andersen with tireless acts of practical assistance, yet always held a small part of himself back from his friend. This was symbolized by Edvard's refusal to use the familiar pronoun Du, insisting on the formal De instead. "If you will forget the circumstances of my birth," Andersen wrote to Edvard poignantly, "and always be to me what I am to you, you will find in me the most honest and sympathetic friend." It did no good. Edvard stuck to the formal De for the rest of their lives.

A year after his return to Copenhagen, Andersen sat down in his little attic room and wrote his first book, A Walking Tour from the Holmen Canal to the Eastern Point of Anger. Though the title sounds (purposefully) like a travel book, this clever and fantastical work, written when he was just 22, follows a young poet through the streets of Copenhagen over the course of a single night. Unable to interest a publisher, Andersen scraped together the means to publish it himself -- and the book was a hit, quickly selling out its entire print run. He then wrote a play, which, to his delight, was accepted at the Royal Theater. Titled Love on St. Nicholas Tower, it proved to be a popular success.

Vladislav Erko

Now Andersen left his studies for good (after passing two university exams), and he concentrated on writing and publishing his first collection of poems. Despite this bright beginning, the early years of his career were rocky ones -- full of lows as well as highs and marred by unsympathetic reviews in the Danish press. It was not until his books and poems began to excite attention abroad, particularly in Germany, that critics started to take him seriously in his native land. This mixture of praise (from abroad) and censure (at home) was hurtful and confusing to Andersen, as were the intermingled messages of acceptance and rejection he received from his upper-class friends. He grew a protective armor of wit, but kept a tally of each hurt, each blow; and in later years, no praise was ever enough to balance the scorecard. He grew into a man with two distinct and conflicting sides to his nature. In his talents he was supremely confident, speaking candidly of his high ambitions and rhapsodizing over each success -- which made him something of an oddity to his friends (and a figure of ridicule to his enemies) in a social milieu where displaying signs of personal ambition was frowned upon. Yet Andersen could also be sensitive, emotional, and hungry for approval to a debilitating degree. This made him, at times, an exasperating companion, but many found his friendship worth the trouble, for he was also capable of great warmth, humor, kindness, and moments of surprising wisdom.

The Tinder Box by Vladislav Erko

We see this side of Andersen most clearly in his fairy tales, which he began to write at the age of 29, with great excitement. A volume containing his first four tales (The Tinder Box, The Princess and the Pea, Little Claus and Big Claus, and Little Ida's Flowers) was published in May, 1835, followed up by a volume of three more tales the following December. Andersen's earliest stories are more clearly inspired by Danish folk tales than his later works -- yet none are direct, unadorned retellings of Danish folk stories. Rather, these are original fictions that use Danish folklore as their starting point and then head off in bold new directions, borrowing further inspiration from The Thousand and One Nights, the salon tales of seventeenth century France, the German tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, and the fantasies of E.T.A. Hoffman, among other works.

It's impossible today to fully understand the sensation these little stories caused, for nothing quite like them had ever been seen in Danish literature. The tales were revolutionary for several reasons. Across Europe, the field of children's fiction was still in its very early days and was still dominated by dull, pious stories intended to teach and inculcate moral values. Andersen's magical tales were rich as chocolate cake after a diet of wholesome gruel, and the narrative voice spoke familiarly, warmly, conspiratorially to children, rather than preaching to them from on high. Despite the Christian imagery recurrent in the tales (typical of nineteenth century fiction), these are remarkably earthy, anarchic, occasionally even amoral stories -- comical, cynical, fatalistic by turns, rather than morally instructive. And unlike the folk tales collected by the Grimms, set in distant lands once upon a time, Andersen set his tales in Copenhagen and other familiar, contemporary settings, mixed fantastical descriptions with common ordinary ones, and invested everyday household objects (toys, dishes, etc.) with personalities and magic.

Angela Barrett

Even the language of the stories was fresh and radical, as Jackie Wullschlager points out in Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller:

"The raw and unpolished Danish of these first stories was so radical as to be considered vulgar at a time when literary convention demanded rigorous, high-flown sentiment of the sort practiced by the playwright Heiberg. Andersen, by contrast, was deliberately direct and informal."

Andersen carefully crafted the narration of his tales to evoke the power of oral storytelling, yet the narrative voice is a distinctive one, not the impersonal voice of most folk tales. He perfected his stories by reading them aloud within his social circle, and many a dinner party ended with children and adults alike clamoring for a story. As Andersen's fairy tales became known and loved, he found himself much in demand as a dinner guest, and he also began to receive requests to read his work in public. (3) Though he hadn't been destined for an acting career, his youthful theatrical training served him well. George Griffen, an American diplomat, wrote of Andersen's performance:

"He is a remarkably fine reader, and has often been compared in this respect to Dickens -- Dickens was in truth a superb reader, but I am inclined to think that Andersen's manner is far more impressive and eloquent. Both of these men have always read to crowded houses. Dickens voice was perhaps better suited for the stage than the reading desk. It was stronger and louder than Andersen's, but nothing like as mellow and musical. I heard Dickens read the death-bed scene of Little Nell in New York, and I was moved to tears, but I knew that the author himself was reading the story; but when I heard Andersen read the story of the Little Girl with the Matches, I did not think of the author at all, but wept like a child, unconscious of everything around me."

George Griffen was not the only adult reduced to tears by Andersen's tales -- which were startling, fresh, and urgent in ways that we can only image, now that Andersen's stories have acquired the patina of age and familiarity. Nineteenth century readers were particularly affected by the way the tales gave voice to the powerless -- the young, the poor, the very old -- and imbued them with special strength, wisdom, and connection to the natural world (in opposition to the artifice of reason or the follies of society). Gerda, for instance, goes up against her rival (the rich, dazzling, coldly intellectual Snow Queen) armed only with her youth and compassion; in The Emperor's New Clothes, a child displays more wisdom than the King. We find this theme in traditional folk tales (the good-hearted peasant girl or boy whose kindness wins them riches or a crown), but Andersen gave such figures new life by placing them in contemporary settings, layering elements of sharp social critique into their stories.

  Gerda by Edmund Dulac

Wullschlager places this aspect of the fairy tales in context, noting that:

"Andersen was a product of his times -- of Romanticism, of the revival of the imaginative spirit and of the growth of democratic ideas -- in addressing himself to the child in the adult through a shift in perspective, by allowing the child, or toy, or later farmyard animal, to speak with his or her own voice and feelings. In doing so, he joined the wider movement of cultural decentralization, which was beginning to dominate in Europe and America in the early nineteenth century. In Denmark, Blicher gave voice to Jutland peasants for the first time; in Britain, the rural themes and regional speech and images of peasant life in Sir Walter Scott's novels shaped the Victorian novel; across the Atlantic, James Fenimore Cooper painted pictures of pioneer and American Indian life on the prairies. Suddenly the disposed and the poor were acceptable literary subjects. The crucial contributions of Andersen and Dickens in the 1830s and 1840s were to focus on children, another traditionally mute and oppressed group. The urge to speak out, to claim equality of talent and emotional need...was a driving force for the new nineteenth century writers who did not come from genteel urban classes, and none came from so deprived and uneducated a background as Andersen."

Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger copy

When Andersen was 33, the specter of poverty was banished from his life forever when the King of Denmark awarded the writer an annual stipend for life. Now he no longer depended on friends, or on the fickle whims of the reading public; now he was free to write as he liked -- and for a time he put aside the writing of novels, which had been his bread and butter, and concentrated on fairy tales and works for his beloved theater. Andersen wrote two hundred and ten fairy tales in all, published over the course of his life. The tales were translated across Europe, then made their way around the world, making him the best-known Scandinavian writer of his age. The doors to noble houses opened to him, and he wandered from country manor to country manor, returning periodically to Copenhagen, to the Collins and to the Royal Theater.

He also traveled abroad extensively, unusually so for a Dane of his day, and he published several popular books about his travels. He was particularly fond of southern Italy and of Weimar (now part of Germany), and he enjoyed a close, important friendship with the literature-loving prince of Weimar. In Cassel (also part of Germany), he introduced himself to folklorist Jacob Grimm, then ran away mortified because Grimm had never heard of his stories. Wilhelm Grimm, who had read Andersen's tales, later sought him out in Copenhagen, and Anderson grew quite friendly with the Brothers Grimm and their Cassel circle of folklore enthusiasts.

The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac

Andersen made his first journey to England in 1847. His tales had appeared in English in four different volumes in 1846, and, despite uniformly poor translations, they were greatly loved by Victorian readers. Charles Dickens was an admirer, and he made a point of meeting Andersen, gifting the Danish writer with signed copies of his collected works. The two maintained a warm correspondence until, on Andersen's next journey, Dickens invited him to his country home in Kent. The visit was a disaster. The timing was atrocious, for Dickens's marriage was on the verge of collapse, and Andersen -- never noticing the tension in the household -- proved to be a needy guest. Dickens placed a sign on the guest room wall after Andersen's departure: "Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks which seemed to the family AGES." Andersen himself never understood why he never heard from Dickens again.

Part of the problem was that Andersen spoke virtually no English ("In English, he is the Deaf and Dumb Asylum," Dickens sneered to a friend), which led London society to view the writer as something of a simpleton. Also, his tales had been rendered into the English language by translators with limited literary skills, working from German texts, not the original Danish. Thus the versions of the tales that were best known to English readers (a problem that persists in some modern editions) were simpler, sweeter, less comic and ironic, than the ones that Andersen actually wrote.

Hans Christian Andersen Reading by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

This lack of sophistication in the English text caused Andersen to be labeled as a writer for children only, contrary to his broader reputation in the rest of Europe. His quiet, confused demeanor as he traveled through England (due to his inability to communicate) made the clever and witty Andersen appear as naive and child-like as his tales -- and a myth was born, later portrayed on film by the actor Danny Kaye. Andersen himself railed against the notion of being viewed as a man who'd spent his life with children when he objected to the designs for a statue surrounding him with a circle of tykes. "I said loud and clear that I was dissatisfied...that my tales were just as much for older people as for children, who only understood the outer trappings and did not comprehend and take in the whole work until they were mature -- that naiveté was only part of my tales, that humor was what really gave them their flavor."

Though Andersen's humor is indeed a salient characteristic of the tales (when they are well translated), what many readers remember most about Andersen's work is its overwhelming sadness. The Little Match Girl dies, the Little Mermaid is betrayed by her prince (4), the Fir Tree lies discarded after Christmas, sighing over past glories. Even tales that end happily -- The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, The Wild Swans -- are heart-wrenching in their depiction of anguish endured along the way.

The Snow Queen by Vladislav Erko

As a child, I found reading Andersen's tales a particularly wrenching experience -- and yet I read them over and over, both attracted to and disturbed by their unflinching depiction of pain. In a wonderful essay titled "In a Trance of Self," Deborah Eisenberg discusses the experience of reading Andersen's The Snow Queen:

"The febrile clarity and propulsion [of the story] is accomplished at the expense of the reader's nerves. Especially taxing are the claims on the reader by both Kay and Gerda. Who has not, like Gerda, been exiled from the familiar comforts of one's world by the departure or defection of a beloved? And what child has not been confounded by the daily employment of impossible obstacles and challenges? Who has not been forced to accede to a longing that nothing but its object can allay?

"On the other hand, who has not experienced some measure or some element of Kay's despair? Who has not, at one time or another, been paralyzed and estranged as his appetite and affection for life leaches away? ... Who has not, at least briefly, retreated into a shining hermetic fortress from which the rest of the world appears frozen and colorless? Who has not courted an annihilating involvement? Who has not mistaken intensity for significance? What devotee of art has not been denied art's blessing? And who, withholding sympathy from his unworthy self, has not been ennobled by the sympathy of a loving friend?"

The Snow Queen by Vladislav Erko

Passion repressed is another theme found just below the surface of Andersen's fairy tales. We see this theme most clearly in The Steadfast Tin Soldier, written in 1838. Joan G. Haahr writes in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales:

The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Adrienne Segur"The story is unusual among Andersen's early tales, both in its emphasis on sensual desire and in its ambiguities. Blind fate, not intention, determines all events. Moreover, the narrative questions the very decorum it praises. The tin soldier's passive acceptance of whatever happens to him, while exemplifying pietistic ideals of self-denial, also contributes to his doom. Were he to speak and act, the soldier might gain both life and love. Restrained, however, by inhibition and convention, he finds only tragedy and death. The tale is often read autobiographically, with the soldier viewed as symbolizing Andersen's feelings of inadequacy with women, his passive acceptance of bourgeois class attitudes, or his sense of alienation as an artist and an outsider, from full participation in everyday life."

Andersen himself was a physically awkward and homely man ("I shall have no success with my appearance," he once wrote, appraising himself with blunt honesty, "so I make use of whatever is available"), and he was prone to harboring passions for people he could never have. Publicly, Andersen courted two women during his lifetime: the sister of a student friend, who soon became engaged to another, and the Swedish singer Jenny Lind, who could offer him only friendship. (He wrote his lovely tale The Nightingale for her.)

The Nightingale by Edmund Dulac

Privately, he was more deeply obsessed with men: first with Edvard Collins, then with a young theology student, and finally in, his later years, with a handsome young ballet dancer -- the later of whom returned his interest, at least to some degree. This was an aspect of his life that was long ignored by Andersen scholars until Wullschlager explored its impact on the writer's work in Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storytelling, noting how the pain of his hidden, socially-unacceptable homosexuality added to the many psychological burdens the poor man carried.

Andersen's life was tragic one in many ways -- and yet, like a character from one of his own tales, he had the gift of turning straw into gold: transforming the sorrows and joys of his life's journey into stories we still love today.

In 1867, when he was 62 years old, Hans Christian Andersen returned to Odense. A choir sang, and the entire city was illuminated in his honor. "A star of fortune hangs above me," Andersen once wrote. "Thousands have deserved it more than I; often I cannot understand why this good should have been vouchsafed to me among so many thousands. But if the star should set, even while I am penning these lines, be it so; still I can say it has shone, and I have received a rich portion."

Andersen died in 1875, and his stories live on.


Hans Christian Andersen 2

Pictures: Artists are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.

Words: The Jackie Wullschlager quotes are fromHans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller (Knopf, 2001). The Deborah Eisenberg quote is from her essay "In a Trance of Self," published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, (Random House, 1998). Both books are highly recommended. This essay was first published in The Journal of Mythic Arts and Realms of Fantasy magazine (2003). All rights reserved by the authors.