Wednesday, September 21, 2016

From the Archives: Donkeyskin and Blame

Donkeyskin, the fairy tale that deals with the threat of incest, is rarely told to children here in America, but  is more well-known in other countries such as France, where even children's toys and picture books are given this dark theme (Readers from other countries, how well known is this tale where you live?).  

Like most fairy tales, it's a story about a character who encounters awful challenges but overcomes in the end. Tragically, the theme of abuse is hardly restricted to this tale-it's estimated that 1 in 10 children are sexually abused before age 18 and percentages of women who are abused in relationships only increase as they go through high school and college. This tale can provide hope to those who are victims of abuse and understanding for those of us who aren't. 

The first recorded mention of Donkeyskin was a sermon in 1501; in 1550 Straparola included a similar tale, "Doralice," in his collection of tales. Apparently, Louis XIV was lulled to sleep by Donkeyskin tales, and Moliere most likely heard it as a child. The most famous version is Perrault's, however, Perrault didn't necessarily take his tales seriously and treated them flippantly and irreverently, which could also explain the issue of the moral in "Bluebeard." The annotated Perrault version of Donkeyskin can be read onSurlalunePerrault can be frustrating for a modern person to read. The heroine escapes her incestuous father, travels to a different kingdom where a Prince falls in love with her-for her physical beauty, the same thing that caused her father to desire her. In the Grimms' first edition of their version of the tale, Allerlieurah, there is enough ambiguity that the reader is left wondering whether or not the King the princess marries actually is her father. Even if it isn't, the lack of punishment of the father at the end of the tale is sadly typical of fairy tales in general, which allow the fathers grace but delight in tormenting female villains.

  The article "Donkeyskin, Deerskin, Allerleiurauh" by Helen Pilinovskycomments on the Perrault version and then contrasts this with three modern versions by Robin McKinley, Jane Yolen, and Terri Windling, in a fascinating look at how modern culture relates to the tale differently than Perrault 

The main differences can be seen in the issues of blame, and the "happily ever after" usually attached to fairy tales. In real cases of abuse, the victim may feel guilty, and this feeling may be enforced by society. Perrault-and several critics after him-sees the Queen mother as the guilty party for making the King promise only to remarry a woman more beautiful than she is, ignoring the fact that the King does not have to remarry at all (which is usually the intent attributed to the Queen), much less take his unwilling daughter.

The three modern writers (who are all female) spread out the blame. All of them, understandably so, put at least some of it on the father himself. McKinley includes more history on the Queen Mother, suggesting that she may have been abused herself by her father-and sadly, tragedies like abuse do tend to be cyclical through generations. Yolen includes a bitter nurse as the initial instigator, but thay all include the society around the characters in the blame as well. The other characters in the stories are quick to excuse the father, blame the daugther, and even silence those who disagree. The mothers themselves are not implicitly given blame; McKinley's mother is seen as a product of her past. Yolen's Queen mother dies before she actually makes a stipulation, and it is the King who provides it. Windling's mother was only concerned that the new wife be better than her, for fear of the stereotyped evil stepmother.

The endings of these versions are also drastically different than Perrault. There is no Prince who falls in love with Donkeyskinat first sight only because of her beauty; these stories are more realistic and dark. McKinley's heroine cannot heal from trauma quite so quickly as the classic Donkeyskin, who accepts the Prince's love without question. It takes time to heal, and even when she is ready to go back to the Prince who offered her marriage, she is afraid she will not be able to commit, and the Prince accepts her as she is-broken and scarred.

Yolen's story has this very chilling ending: "Now if this were truly a fairy tale (and what story today with a king and a queen. . . is not?) the princess would go outside to her mother's grave. . . .The neighboring kingdom would harbor her, the neighboring prince would marry her, her father would be brought to his senses, and the moment of complete happiness would be the moment of the story's end. . . .But this is not a fairy tale. The princess is married to her father and, having always wanted his love, does not question the manner of it. Except at night, late at night. . ."

Even more eerie is the conclusion. The heroine dies in childbirth like her mother before her, and the reader is left to suppose that the cycle will only repeat itself, for, " "The king knows that he will not have to wait another thirteen years. It is an old story. Perhaps the oldest."

Windling's story is set in modern America. Her heroine is not a Princess. The hard work that is Perrault's Donkeyskin must endure until the Prince discovers and saves her is this heroine's salvation-getting a job. Yet, as Pilinovsky suggests, the negative associations of hard work are taken away.

Each of these stories looks into the classic fairy tale canon and produces a new, thoughtful work that treats the themes seriously and more realistically.  

*Other sources were "From the Beast to the Blonde" by Marina Warner and the Donkeyskin History article on surlalune. Illustrations by Arthur Rackham, Margaret Evans Price, Kay Nielsen, H.J. Ford, and Gustav Dore (last two).


  1. All authors I love, though I'm not sure I can handle the Yolen one this time. But Jane Yolen's work can be very dark. She wrote a version of Hansel And Gretel set during the Holocaust and the wich's oven is the one in the concentration camp. Brr... Her version of Rumpelstiltskin is also darker than the fairytale.

    1. Ooh the Hansel and Gretel sounds terrifying but intriguing...maybe I'll wait to read that when I'm not quite so sensitive!

  2. "A rich man had become a widower and had a single daughter that grew up to be pretty and charming. His heart was filled with impure love for her, but she resisted his desires. Therefore he threatened her with violence and now she thought of a ruse..."

    That's how Karl Batsch's story "Aschenpüster" starts. A simple retelling of an oral tale he heard in Mecklenburg. As we know from the Griim's such plain language was not popular among the fairy tale readers of the 19th century and so when Johann Mussäus wrote his own version of the tale. The father wants to marry her, because "Back then there used to be different times and different customs" and the daughter refuses because she is so "demure"... until she dares to lie to her abusive father, then she suddenly becomes "loose", but at least she's allowed to get afraid when he starts threatening her and she flees. Not so in Bechstein's version of Mussäs tale. Hre the father would never think of lusting after his daughter, let alone abusing her. In fact he is the perfect dad who fulfills her all her wishes for the beautiful dresses, the jacket of crows feathers and the magic wand, just because he loves her so much... in a totally non-incestuous way.

    Aschenpüster's history of reception is typical. In most tales that once featured incest, the motif got dropped, replaced with some more placable... or an evil stepmother, because that's much better. Other tales in which the incest motif persisted changed as well. The father was excused, sometimes outright forgiven. Blame was shifted, to the mother or an amorpous "council". And now those stories are slowly being forgotten by the general public.

    I can't confirm what you said about Europe, since while in France Donkeyskin seems to be alive and well, here in Germany neither Donkeyskin nor Allerleihrauh are popular. They are conspicuously absent from fairy tale collections, though occasionally they do get an adaptation meant for an older audience.

    An exception was the 2012 children's movie "Allerleihrauh" from the miniseries "6 auf einen Streich". The movie handled the topic surprisingly maturely. The scenes with the King were intense, despite the limitations the target demographic brought, but thankfully brief, which left the main part of the movie to the heroine. She dealt with her trauma in a semi-realistic way (her running away from the ball was interpreted as her being afraid to show affection due to her traumatic experiences)and the cook - an antagonist character in the Grimm version - helped her open up to others. His role also helped even out the quite negative portrayal of men in the story.

    It's by no means a masterpiece, but it bridges between the grimdark, but realistic works you introduced in your post and adapations with a more simplisticoutloook on the abuse like Jacques Demy's Peau D'Ane, which while highly artistic stays too close to Perrault's source material to make the most of it's highly interesting initial conflict. Like in Perrault's version it's his council that instigates the marriage. He even gets led astray by a clearly evil consultant (whomaybe a jewish stereotype????). Like in Perrault it's the fairy godmother, not the heroine who thinks of an escape plan. The heroine even seems quite content with marrying her father. And while sense of obligation and feelings of guilt might be quite realistic in an abuse victim who is goaded into thinking it's their duty to comply to their abuser, in the movie it mainly seems to be used as a device to take the gravity out of the situation that a terrified princess would have caused. Like in Perrault the king gets an "Get out of jail free" card in the end.

    It's good to see that some author's try to bring these stories back to their origins that so many (male) retellings tried to muddle.

    1. Yes I had forgotten that Perrault also puts some of the blame on the counselor too, further distancing the king!

      And maybe it is just France that the story is more well known...I wonder if readers from other countries can verify?

  3. It's so strange. The theme of incest is so huge and weighty with modern society but when you read this tale and its many variants, it really adds up to little more than an inciting incident. It's basically a really, really, REALLY good reason for the princess to run away from home. You referred to it as "the fairy tale about incest" when it reads more like "The fairy tale that starts out with the possibility of incest but ends up being about a princess in disguise". I suppose that's why the writers you listed above were so interested in tackling it. They didn't think the subject of incest and abuse got the play and weight and exploration that it deserved. Variants of the story has been tackled in some other places, usually with a little more "Allerleihrauh" than "Donkeyskin". In Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics, the suggestion seemed to be that the king had actually gone insane. It was adapted into webcomic form as "All Fur" for Erstwhile. They follow the Grimm version pretty closely but they move through the part with her father wanting to marry her at a very quick pace, slowing down more for what comes after that. Now, Jim Henson's The Storyteller did their version under the name "Sapsorrow" and neither the king or the princess really wants to marry the other but they're victims of an archaic law in which whoever fits the Queen's wedding ring is obligated to marry the king. The wedding ring bit does pop up in some actual variants of it, like the Italian one "Wooden Maria".

    1. That's true, in the vast majority of versions the incest never even happens, just the threat of it...that's an important distinction to make!

    2. Yup, and in some versions the daughter is adopted, rather than being his actual daughter. In these versions, the daughter just doesn't love the king, and wants to marry someone else. And in the version from "The Green Fairy Book" (I think it's a translation of the Brothers Grimm version, but softened down), the king wants his daughter to marry a specific servant, and she doesn't want to.

    3. Now that you mention it, I realize I haven't come across too many other versions of Donkeyskin...they're not as common as some tales! I should look into them more