Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Fairy Tales as Alchemical Stories?

Bess Livings

Alchemy is a topic I know virtually nothing about (unless you count Harry Potter, explained below), but a couple posts on other blogs have introduced me to a completely new way of thinking about/interpreting fairy tales.

A while back, Spinning Straw into Gold provided a link to this article, Snow White and the Philosopher's Stone, by John Patrick Pazdziora, which sheds light on the color symbolism in Snow White. Christie and her readers go on in the comments to consider the colors in Little Red Riding Hood as alchemical as well. From the article:

Arthur Rackham

"If you’ve read Harry Potter, you’ve encountered a great example of literary alchemy, though the tradition is hundreds of years old. Here’s a crash introduction.* Each color represents a different phase of the alchemical process, or Great Work as the alchemists called it. Black signifies the nigredo stage, where the lead or base metal is burned, to remove its impurities. White is the second stage, albedo, where the purified matter is washed repeatedly to transmute it into the final stage, rubedo, signified by (you guessed it) red and gold. The beginning of the rubedo is signified by the blossoming of streak of red on the white metal; the metal is put into a container, symbolised by burial or interment in a coffin, until the transmutation is complete. The elements in the metal that were in opposition—fluid and solid, female and male, life and death, and so on—become reconciled; this is called the alchemical marriage."

Eleanor Vere Boyle

Recently, reader Kelli Orazi of The Middle Page wrote an excellent post which looked at Beauty and the Beast as a potential alchemical tale.

As Christie and Kelli point out, this was not necesssarily the author's intentions when writing the tales, but something to consider, especially when looking at earlier versions of fairy tales. It would certainly help to explain why the colors black, white, red, and gold are so prevalent across stories from multiple cultures.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Walt Disney's Laugh-O-Grams

Walt Disney was inspired by fairy tales before the famous full-length cartoons were created-here are several shorts he did in the early 1920s (I think my favorite is the "Alice's Wonderland"-the cartoons interacting with humans made me smile, especially the cartoon mouse poking the cat). These are a preview for a future post on Jack Zipes' essay "Breaking the Disney spell"

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Issue of the Moral in Bluebeard: Part II

  I tackled the issue of the moral in Bluebeard back in the early days of this blog, in 2010. Though authors have excused Perrault for blaming a serial killing husband's actions on the curiosity of his wife and not himself, saying he was probably being tongue-in-cheek, after further reading I've come to wonder if, no, some cultures that have interpreted this tale really were that blind to their own gender prejudice.

Though Perrault may have intended irony in his moral, the people who read and redistributed his tale seem to have taken it seriously. Many chapbook versions that were circulated among those who couldn't afford full priced books continued to condemn the wife. Like this from 1808-"Inquisitive tempers/To mischeif may lead/But placid Obedience/Will always succeed." 1900-"She never forgot, that to her own indiscreet and foolish curiosity, she owed the terrible trial through which she had passed." 1817-"She never forgot that she should keep her promise, obey those who were entitled to her submission; and restrain her curiosity within moderate bounds."

This excerpt from John M'Culloch's version in 1797 surprisingly admonishes both genders-"The curiosity of Blue Beard's wife had well nigh cost her her head; and this disposition will bring all of all sexes, who indulge it beyond the bound of prudence, into difficulties they can hardly escape from. Yet the reader is desired to take notice that there are two species of this turn of mind: the one commendable, when it leads to knowledge; the other blameable, when it only serves to gratify an idle inquisitiveness."

It seems so obvious that killing wives is so far beyond the crime of invading your spouse's privacy that the latter doesn't even deserve to be condemned. I'm not supporting snooping around your husband's email accounts or whatever the modern equivalent is, but I would be highly suspicious of anyone who had a whole room in the house his wife wasn't allowed to enter. Curiosity is so encouraged in our culture, and the above quote is unique in that it even admits a positive aspect of curiosity.

Yet there seems to be double standards, for the same stories that condemn the wife also call Bluebeard's actions cruel and evil. A chapbook from 1852 describes Bluebeard's servants saying that "his punishment was not adequate to what he deserved." A story from 1860 has his conscience awakened right before his death, and "the image of every unhappy being whom he had destroyed, appeared to his imagination, and embittered the misery he now endured." Also, Bluebeard's wife is frequently depicted as going on to generously give away much of the money she inherited from Bluebeard's death to the poor and going on to live a happy life, and her brothers who kill Bluebeard are lauded as heroes. So she is painted in a positive light and clearly on some level we are rooting for her. The elements of the story itself seem to indicate she is the hero-it is only the insertions of the authors that unnaturally try to moralize her actions.

But the intentions of the author is only one link in the chain of what surrounds the history and meaning of a tale. Also important are the reactions of the readers and listeners and how they interpret what they hear. The other day I was spending time with my friend Christy (a young woman with Down Syndrome, who is basically the reason I got into the field of special education), and we were acting out scenes from her favorite Disney Princess movies-and it struck me that in each one, the scene she chose to act out was the scene of the main character's temptation-Snow White and the Apple, Sleeping Beauty and the spindle, Belle in the West Wing (that last one is significant because Disney ADDED that into the tale, despite being in an era where it was trying to be more gender-conscious). We could also include scenes like Cinderella at the ball and, of course, Bleabeard's wife with the key as examples of females that face temptation in the most important part of the fairy tale.

We can get all up in arms because so often this curiositsy is attacked in the moral of the tale, but the fact is, Christy was simply acting out her favorite parts-she was not conscious of the pattern or how adamantly female curiosity was attacked in past versions. Maybe these tales have remained so popular not because of their admonitions, but because we enjoy the fact that the main characters give in to temptation. On one level it simply serves to heighten the plot and introduce conflict, but especially in an era where women's rights were so suppressed, they enjoyed the idea of the female breaking the stereotype. And in each example, although some storytellers have inserted narration to condemn the curiosity, in each case the heroine ends up being rewarded anyway. I think audiences have secretly (or not so secretly) been rooting for the curious, even downright disobedient fairy tale princess for a long time...

Speaking of Christy, she just turned 16 recently. She is probably the only person I know as passionate about fairy tales as I am (her reaction to seeing a mirror on the wall of my room was to go up to it and say, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?") and I absolutely knew I had to get her something Sleeping Beauty for her birthday, so I collaged this journal for her:

I was pretty proud of it...

*Bluebeard illustrations by W. Heath Robinson
*Information taken from Casie E. Hermansson's Bluebeard: A Reader's Guide to the English Tradition

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


It's hard to believe that I started this blog three years ago! Already I've had opportunities I never dreamed I'd have when I started, and I'm thankful I've been able to find a community of people I can explore fairy tales with. Thanks for reading!

Picture of cake from here

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Beyond happily ever after

Image from here
Although "and they all lived happily ever after" is the phrase thought to end the majority of, if not all, fairy tales, very few tales end with this exact phrase. Many imply through other similar words that the characters live happily, but other tales end rather abruptly once all the important plot elements have been related, and others end with some kind of indication that the storyteller was somehow a witness to the events of the story.

Here are some sample tale endings from around the world that I found interesting:
"I've gone as far as my fields extend,
So my tale is at the end"

"Never since the world's creation
Was there such a celebration;
I was there, drank mead and yet
Barely got my whiskers wet"
-Russian (Pushkin)

"They all lived as happily as they could, until they died"

"And if she hasn't died, she is still alive"
Haha-image from here

"I was invited to the wedding, and I dressed up in my most beautiful clothes to go to it. I had a dress of spiderweb, a hat of butter, and shoes of glass. But as I went through the forest I tore my dress, and when I crossed the field the sun melted my hat, and when I passed over the ice my shoes crumbled. And there you have the story out of my bag."
Charles Robinson

"Not stopping to think, they quickly married and began to live happily ever after together."
-Russian (Afanasyev)

"And I jumped on a Saddle, and came to tell you so..."

"I was invited too. I was at the wedding, but I was very hungry. I was so hungry, I chewed the cloth I used for dish-washing. They are still living if they haven't died."

"I was there but they gave me nothing."

"Little shoes run to a brook. Who is jealous, tell something better"
-Cape Verde

"I also was there, and I begged so much pilaw from the cook, and I got so much in the palm of my hand that I limp to this day."

There are many tales that end with the characters living happily and/or getting married that I didn't include, because they do tend to get repetitive and are the most predictable, but I like this ending from the Punjabi tale Dorani, which is especially fitting for Valentine's Day:
"So the prince won his beautiful bride; and though they neither of them dealt any further with fairies and their magic, they learnt more daily of the magic of Love, which one may still learn, although fairy magic has fled away."

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Underground Kingdom: Part II

This is a continuation of my previous post, discussing the nature of the secret underground kingdoms in Twelve Dancing Princesses variants, as found in Heidi Anne Heiner's Twelve Dancing Princesses: Tales from Around the World.

In Denmark, the Princess dances each night with a troll. The hero of this tale kills the troll himself, and once he does, "all the trees, flowers, and grasses turned into as many men, women, and children. They were so happy to be released from their enchantment that they begged him to be their king." The Princess, who throughout the tale had been glad at the death of each man who attempted to find her secret (this city is surrounded by the "chopped-off heads of human beings," those who failed), was also under an enchantment, and never given any blame for the many deaths she caused.

A Portugese version took a Christian Princess on a journey so hard she wore out thirteen pairs of iron shoes each night, visiting a giant, who was a Moorish Prince she was in love with. I was rooting for this couple-it has similarities to Cupid and Psyche, or maybe just because my own Prince Charming lives an hour away...but in the end she decided that to do so for the twenty years left in his enchantment would be "tortuous" and so she married the man who discovered her secret. I'm sure cultural religious prejudice had a lot to do with the outcome of this story.

A Princess from Cape Verde goes to a palace filled with forty men, and she is the only woman there. Though the story itself gave no indication that the men were evil, in the end the hero chooses not to marry the woman who dances with devils and went on his way.

One Turkish woman was under a spell: a Peri king "had carried her off by force from her room one day, and so enchanted her with his power that she had been unable to set herself free."

There are Bengali and Punjabi tales which are slightly less related to the Western Twelve Dancing Princesses, in which the women actually go to the house of the gods to dance each night, resisting their human husbands at first, eventually leaving their supernatural balls to live with their husbands.

I've mentioned the Scottish Kate Crackernuts on the blog before, which is noteable for being a gender-reversed Twelve Dancing Princesses. In this story she follows the Prince to a fairy ball where she learns the secret of healing her sister and the Prince.

The Icelandic Hildur also goes to Fairyland, but not against her will. Her fairy lover is there, but his mother was furious at the match and cursed Hildur to live in the human world and only be able to make the journey back to Fairyland once a year, at Christmas, but the cost was that she had to kill a man each time. She was cursed to do this against her will until she was discovered and convicted of murder, unless "a man so courageous as to dare to go with me to the world of Fairies, and then be able to show plain proofs that he had been ther and seen what was done" could go with her. Because the hero fulfills the conditions of this curse, she is able to return to her true home and husband in Fairyland.

The Princesses are sometimes willing and sometimes under a spell; the land they travel to is usually an evil and dangerous place in most Western versions but even then there are exeptions. Either way the reader is generally excited to hear about the forbidden journey and the supernatural secrets that are revealed. In her introduction to the book, Heidi Anne Heiner speculates that since the Princesses generally don't want to be rescued, that may be part of the appeal of the tale. What do you think, readers? Do you have a particular favorite variant? Why do you like or not like this tale?
Illustrations by Kay Nielsen

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Underground Kingdom: Part I

I am beyond thrilled to finally own my first (of many, I hope!) book in the Surlalune series! My favorite fairy tale other than Beauty and the Beast is the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and it's incredibly hard to find anything written about it, so being able to delve into multiple variants, most of which were completely unfamiliar to me, was like discovering hidden treasure!

One of the things which always fascinated/mystified me about this tale was the nature of the underground kingdom the Princesses travelled to each night-why did it need to be destroyed? Was it evil in any way other than being an inconvenience due to the rate at which the Princesses went through dancing shoes? The Grimm version provides no explanation. Fortunately the variants from around the world did provide some insight.

In  many versions of this tale, the underground kingdom is more specifically defined as hell, or a land of giants, trolls, etc. In Afanasyev's tale from Russia, the Princesses went to the home of the Accursed Tsar.

Some versions explain the nature of the Princess' curse. In Romania, "these Princesses were fore-doomed, and they couldn't marry until someone was found who would guess their doom and make one of them love him. The doom that weighed upond them was a passion for dancing. They were mad on dancing, and so every night they wore out a new pair of white silk slippers each."...later it is implied that another side effect of the curse was that they had icy hearts and were incapable of love, and that the music in the castle was enchanted such that any listener was forced to dance, whether willing or not.

Helen Stratton

A German tale (not the Grimms') describes the spell: the princesses had been dancing for five years. If they had danced one more year, they (the Enchanted Princes, I assume) would have been saved. The other alternative was for the princesses' heads to be cut off, as they were, for denying everything. The exact words say the elder sisters had "allowed" their heads to be cut off, so I guess they sacrificially saved the princes from enchantment? Yet they are still punished and the daughter who confesses rewarded.

Another story from Romania explains that the Princess' dancing partners were the "Emperor's sons who had tried to discover the secret of the Princesses. These latter had enticed them to a midnight expedition, and had given them to drink at table, an enchanted beverage, which had frozen their blood, killed in them every sentiment of love, every rememberance, or worldly desire, leaving them only the ardent pleasure of the dance." Which begs the question...where did the sisters go before there were dancing partners? Much like Bluebeard and the question of what caused him to kill his first wife, before there was a room of dead bodies to discover...
Elenore Abbott

In Hungary, the girls travel by broom to hell, where they dance on a floor full of razors-which explains why these three daughters destroy three hundred pairs of shoes. The girls in this story are rewarded according to their willingness to go-the older two had a lover and a son in hell and were killed, but the youngest was pure because she had no one there. Another very similar tale is found in the Czech Republic.

Yet another Hungarian story describes sisters which spend the night dancing with fairy youths, who are killed (except the youngest) for witchcraft.

I started this post and realized there are so many interesting variants that this really needs to be split up into two posts! More secret underground kingdoms to come soon-

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dorothy Lathrop-The Little Mermaid

 I discovered these beautiful images over on The Art of Narrative-though from 1939, I had never seen these Little Mermaid illustrations before!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Solomon, Jinn, and Arabian Nights

It may surprise some readers, as it surprised me, how often Solomon is referenced in the Arabian Nights. I was only familiar with the Solomon of the Old Testament, but as it turns out, Solomon is also mentioned in the Koran, although the Muslim Solomon is slightly different. Other writings have told stories of Solomon that would have been considered common knowledge to the earlier audiences of the Nights.

Arthur Rackham

More specifically to the tales of the Nights, Solomon is given power over the jinn (or genie, the more commonly known term, also interchangeably djinn or jinni). Jinn are similar to the Christian idea of angels and demons, but also have more similarities to the Western ideas of fairies. They are not either good or evil, but often provide the element of unpredictability to the stories. Just like fairies, they may reward the protagonist, or unfairly punish them. Such as the jinn in the story "The Fisherman and the Genie", who is grateful for being released from his copper bottle, but after years of longing to be released and intentions of rewarding his rescuer, the jinn became so weary of waiting he resolved to kill whoever released him.

The fisherman uses trickery to get the jinn to return to his bottle ("I'll only believe it [the jinn's ability to fit into the bottle] when I see it with my own eyes"-ah, the power of reverse psychology), and throws the jinn in his bottle back out to sea.
Errol Le Cain

According to tradition, the jinn's confinement in said bottle was because of Solomon. As some of the jinn remained true to Solomon and Allah, others became evil and rebellious. To punish the evil ones, Solomon used his power to trap them in various flasks/bottles. Thus when a person discovers a jinn, they are not automatically guaranteed a servant who will grant all their wishes-they may have to cleverly fight for their lives.
                                                                 Image from here

Interestingly, though folklore all around the world dapples with the idea of marriage between natural and supernatural beings, the conclusion of virtually all Western stories of such unions are that they are doomed to failure. Yet marriages between female jinn who can take the forms of swans or creatures of the sea have a higher likelihood of success. In fact, a Syrian legal treatise from the fourteenth century condemns such marriages, but the fact that it is a law reveals that they were thought possible by the people at the time.

The Islamic Solomon also has power over animals and nature, and like the Biblical Solomon, is the possessor of great wisdom. Marina Warner even calls him the "chief model in fantasy for the white wizard," comparing him to Gandalf and Dumbledore.

*Information taken from Marina Warner's Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, chapter 1

The above illustrations of jinn are a huge contrast to the bubbly, comic relief genie of Disney's Aladdin, once again following the trend of...just about everything in history (fairies, vampires, and pirates get a lot of discussion on this blog)...the dangerous and mysterious has become controlled, cute, and funny.