I’ve been reading through my Norton anthology of fairy tales this week, and have written a sloppy sort of essay, mostly just notes. Feel free to skim it, and be forewarned: I didn’t make it very cohesive, every paragraph goes its own way.
One of the critics wrote in an essay in the back of the book that there may be only six major stories from the Indo-European lineage, each with hundreds of variations. Animal transformation date to 300 AD in India (a Brahmin’s son is turned into a snake, the father burns the snakeskin to free his child), right up through Hans my Hedgehog. The location determines the animal, naturally. In Italy it’s a pig king, which centuries later inspired Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso. Often the cursed men are turned into animals humans either despise or eat; this makes it especially hard for them to find a bride willing to love them for their true selves, as is required to lift their curse. And 300 AD is just the first case of the story being written down; the oral tradition of folk tales goes way, way farther back—it’s impossible to say how old the foundation myths are.
Generations are sometime pitted against each other in fairy tales. The queen mother hates her daughter-in-law and vies to be midwife in the girl’s labor, then switches the baby with a dead puppy. An old necromancer posing as a tailor discovers his young apprentice has been learning his secret trade, so he chases the youth through five or more animal transformations, then the wily apprentice outwits his cruel master. In both there is an element of jealousy—the older party covets either the youth’s beauty (and youth) or their superior skills. Jealous sisters and stepsisters are another strong thread; is this because women didn’t inherit much, and it was kind of every girl for herself? Often the youngest sister saves the whole family, or, at least the family honor, after her cruel older sisters have died or disgraced themselves; the youngest of three seems to have the strongest chi.
And fairy tales encompass sacred geometry. Three, seven, and twelve are the usual numbers in a family or clan (seven dwarves, twelve brides for twelve brothers, three brothers/sisters in dozens of stories). Three, the divine trinity which just superimposed itself over a triangle, a very old symbol of power (and in eastern cultures, three denotes heaven/man/earth); seven, a mercaba (one of the most potent symbols, it’s present in Hebrew, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim art); twelve houses of the zodiac. Three sometimes lines up with past, present, and future. Seven years is the typical length that a lost protagonist wanders through the wilderness, after which the exile is over and they’re reunited with their family. This period corresponds to western law: after seven years, debts were annulled (until recently, when banks made them infinite), and criminal records were wiped clean. Besides the twelve months of the Gregorian calendar and twelve houses in the night sky, midnight is the witching hour—when you can’t trust what you see or hear.
Frequently when boys hook up with helpful animals in folk tales, the animals are fierce: bear, wolf, lion. When girls meet animals, which either help them or enchant them, the animals are small but powerful: snake, bird, frog (as in The Frog Prince, Biancabella, Cinderella). Both sexes are aided by horses, but in different capacities: boys ride horses into battle/exile/fortune-making, or turn themselves into horses in a wizard’s duel; girls ride horses to escape bad marriages (and here they’re usually the gift of a fairy godmother), and the horse offers useful information. Like the bird of truth, horses can speak when needed. If a girl meets a wolf, it usually goes badly; devour used to have a more sexual connotation—the earlier Italian versions of Little Red Riding Hood had a highway man for the villain, who raped the child. Both wild animals and outlaws populated the woods, so the two merged in some stories.
Dragons vary across cultures; in Asia, they’re more good than bad, often mountain or river guardians, and in Buddhist imagery they represent the inscrutable quality of the human spirit, that which can’t be pinned down. But in Europe, dragons got a bad rap (largely after the rise of Catholicism, which equates serpents with the devil), and they became virgin-eating demons that hid in caves. Another mythical creature that changed from east to west is the Garuda, which became the griffin in Europe. The Garuda is the lord of birds in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It’s a fantastic creature that hatched fully formed (after a 500 year incubation), never stops flying, and eats snakes (nagas), which represent deception, in this case. It has the head and wings of a bird, and the body of a man; some early Greek traveler whose name escapes me documented the Garudas flying around the Himalayas, and eventually this and other sightings inspired the griffin stories in Europe. And maybe there was such a creature once; there used to be aurochs, dodos, and who knows what else. This is getting far afield, I’ll return to the psychological notes.
The worst mutilation of women in fairy tales is chopping off their hands, followed by blinding. Is this because without hands they can’t work? Or hold a child? They become objects instead of humans, on a constant pilgrimage. And blinding: now the world is more dangerous. In medieval times blindness was regarded as a character flaw, some egregious sin was committed somewhere and blindness was the punishment. In the Grimm brothers’ The Maiden Without Hands, the heroine grows new ones through religious devotion (after her father cuts hers off), though she keeps the silver hands her husband made her as proof she was once deformed; when her lost husband finds her and their child, he’s not convinced it’s them until their fairy protector produces her old mechanical hands. (And did this story in some way inspire Edward Scissorhands?) Biancabella, an Italian heroine whose name means “blonde beauty,” has her hands cut off and eyes blinded by jealous in-laws, and only the touch of her sister, a snake/fairy, restores her former beauty. This is especially interesting to me, because snakes in western stories often represent a phallus, so it’s like a masculine force (that was born at the same time as the ultra feminine Biancabella) is required to restore the balance.
Physical beauty was linked to royal blood, and if an ugly baby was born to a king and queen it threatened the stability of the realm. There was fear the queen was carrying someone else’s baby, and also that years of inbreeding had created a diseased child. In some stories, freakishly ugly crosses over into changelings, the child of fairies, planted in human families purely for entertainment. Outer deformity was a sign of an inner badness; this was the stance of the church for a long time, but ugly baby stories preceded this. Maybe a fear of peasant genes mixing with royalty? Marrying off an ugly royal child took either money or trickery; brides were presented with their hair covering their face, or inserted into the bed of a prettier sister who conveniently disappeared after the wedding. A frequent indicator of royal blood was a physical appraisal: a ring test or a shoe test. The Grimms’ All Fur and Cinderella are two examples. Princesses were expected to have the smallest bodies, tiny fingers and feet, and “lesser” caliber women disfigured themselves to try to meet this standard (shaving the heel to fit into Cinderella’s slipper, chopping off the toes, etc). For ring tests, the hands were defiled. [Side note: while many people consider Joseph and William Grimm’s fairy tales to be the bloodiest in the European tradition, the brothers actually left out the scariest stories in the later editions of Kinder und Hausmarchen (Children and Household Fairy Stories). I’ve looked around for the earlier editions, but if you don’t speak German, they’re hard to find.]
That’s enough for one post, thanks for reading. Please add your thoughts, and let me know if you think this could turn into a more polished piece, or if I should leave it be.