Bones Like Black Sugar on the tube-of-you, courtesy of Kirstyn McDermott (giver of good thingies).
Archive for the ‘fairy tales’ Category
Posted in fairy tales, tagged Black-Winged Angels: Theoretical Underpinnings, Blackwell, Bluebeard, brothers grimm, Charles Perrault, cinderella, cordelia, dina goldstein, Don’t Bet on the Prince, Donekyskin, Dummling, fairy tales, fallen princesses series, Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, Gilbert and Gubar, Green Serpent, Hans My Hedgehog, Highlander, jack zipes, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, karen rowe, king lear, King Thrushbeard, Lieberman, little red riding hood, Marie-Catherine d’Aulonoy, Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier, marina warner, Mendelson, ruth bottigheimer, Shaggy Top, snow white, Tatterhood, terry windling, The Yellow Dwarf on October 11, 2010| 4 Comments »
This is a little something extracted from my Masters thesis, Black-Winged Angels: Theoretical Underpinnings (which is a collection of nine reloaded fairytales and an accompanying exegesis). It’s just lying around, so why not post it here? Complete with dodgy bibliography and endnotes. Some of it appeared here already. Also, these images are from the amazing Dina Goldstein’s series, Fallen Princesses, which lives here.
The Chosen Girl
At the end of the fairytale, at the happily-ever-after end, there is invariably one girl left standing. She has come through a variety of trials set for her by fate and has triumphed by winning the heart of the prince. More often than not, she has won the competition to be chosen. She will generally have been one of a pair : a pair of sisters (full or step), the mother-daughter pair (again, full or step), aunt-niece, childhood friends, etcetera. Inevitably, there is a future up for grabs and, if we take the wisdom of Highlander to heart, in the end there can be only one. So, who is – what is – the ‘chosen girl’ and how does one become her?
First Fairy Tales
The translation of fairy tales from oral to written form brought with it a change in the messages the tales were to transmit. From stories simply meant to teach members of the tribe about life and death, they became a means of socialising young girls. The original oral tradition reflected customs, beliefs and rituals, and were stories told for adults as well as children[i]. Noted folklorist Jack Zipes described such tales as “marks that leave traces of the human struggle for immortality”[ii], but they are also a means of acculturation and present ways of teaching and learning behaviours, value systems, and consequences [iii]. Male writers/transcribers such as Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm took these tales from a variety of women, old and young, collected them and wrote them down. They did not, however, simply copy the tales verbatim, but rather changed them to suit their own purposes. The tales were transformed, the voice colonised. Essentially they became stories to teach little girls how to behave and were used to fulfil a controlling and socialising function: they were lessons in how to be a ‘chosen girl’.
When tales began to be set down in written form in the sixteenth century, they were not especially suitable for children – the collections of both Basile and Straparola are filled with illicit sex, bawdy tales and amusements generally not meant for any child’s bedtime reading[iv]. Subsequently, in the salons of seventeenth and eighteenth century France, the literary fairy tale became popular and, for a time, had an adult upper class audience. Gradually, though, there was a shift, which led to the fairy tale being regarded as the province of children. Zipes points to a convergence of the budding middle class, an increase in literacy, and the nascent idea of children as “innocent and educable”[v] leading to fairy tales being told almost exclusively to children in nurseries.
The recounting of fairy tales had traditionally been associated with women[vi], yet it became, in some ways, a tool of oppression and subjugation. Deszcz notes that the genre became aligned “with patriarchal cultural practices in Western societies”[vii], the child’s tale used to transmit messages that “sustain gendered perspectives”[viii].
Perrault operated in the salons of France in the mid-late seventeenth century, and although he was by no means the only ‘recorder’ of tales – female authors outnumbered the males working in the genre[ix] at the time – it is his versions that survived and dominated the Western fairy tale tradition. The works of his contemporary female authors such as Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier, Marie-Catherine d’Aulonoy, Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, all of whom championed the cause of independence for women in their written works, are largely forgotten[x].
Although he claimed to be “a mere conduit of past wisdom”[xi] (not creating stories but simply taking the tales from a “pristine source”[xii]), (nurses, gouvernantes, grandmothers, random old female gossips), Perrault did not leave the tales virgo intacto. He changed them, transformed them to suit his own purposes – Marina Warner notes that he “set aside aspects which struck him as crude”[xiii] and Zipes, in relation to Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood[xiv], points out that the author’s “[own] fear of women and his own sexual drives are incorporated into his new literary version, which also reflects general male attitudes about women portrayed as eager to be seduced or raped”[xv].
Perrault’s tales became moralizing stories, warning women and children that if they did not conform they would have to deal with consequences. The fact of his enduring popularity [xvi] at the expense of equally well-written and amusing tales by contemporary females, suggest that the stories and their acculturation function were seen as useful.
A Woman’s Place in Fairy Tales
Fairy tales, those most widely disseminated by children’s fairy tale collections such as the Brothers Grimm and read at bedtime, show a picture of how little girls should be – socialisation beginning in the cradle. Good girls, we are told, are silent and submissive, their value is their beauty and their fertility. Good girls are rewarded with marriage; the bad girls (those who talk back, think independently and don’t wait for the prince), are punished. In order to become the chosen girl one must follow a preordained pattern.
M K Lieberman notes the primacy of beauty in fairy tales – children are taught that the beautiful girls are the best, the sweetest, the most interesting – the ones who will be rewarded[xvii]. The homely, it seems, are in serious trouble and a good personality is no kind of saving grace for a girl. Boys can be as ordinary as can be (even downright ugly or not even human) and someone will always want to marry them (for example Hans My Hedgehog, King Thrushbeard, Dummling). The upshot of being beautiful is the assumption that you will be chosen – as Lieberman observes “The beautiful girl does not have to do anything to merit being chosen; she does not have to show pluck, resourcefulness, or wit; she is chosen because she is beautiful”[xviii]. With beauty comes passivity – Gilbert and Gubar make the wonderful observation that Snow White, as she lies in her glass coffin, for all purposes lifeless, has become “the chaste maiden in her passivity, they have made her precisely into the eternally beautiful, inanimate objet d’art patriarchal aesthetics want a girl to be”[xix]. Judgments about activity are sex-linked – passivity is for girls, activity is for boys[xx].
The very occasional ugly, active girl in fairy tales has to work much harder: in Shaggy Top (also known as Tatterhood) the title character is ugly but resourceful and extremely brave and active, protecting and rescuing her passive, victimised (very beautiful) sister, and ultimately being rewarded with beauty and a princely husband. In Green Serpent the main character, Laidronette, is also born ugly and is judged by her looks not her sweet nature – ultimately though, she too is rewarded with beauty and a handsome prince.
On the whole, however, in fairy tales women who are ugly are old, witches, ogresses, power-hungry, unnatural, unwomanly, active, wicked, non-conforming, demanding, questioning and disobedient – in short, pushy. The only real exception to this established dichotomy is the fairy godmother – she is powerful and often beautiful – but then, she isn’t real. A real girl cannot hope to become a “fairy”[xxi], all she can aspire to is to be a beautiful, passive, chosen girl.
Another key virtue for the girl who aspires to be a fairy tale princess is, if not complete silence, then at least gentle speech. King Lear lauds his dead Cordelia with “Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman”[xxii]. Warner notes that silence could be a survival mechanism for women – saying nothing meant you offended no one. The problem with survival through silence is that it means you have no voice at all.
Regarding silence as a virtue to which women were taught to aspire also meant a disinclination to dissent for fear of being thought “unwomanly”. Both Warner and Blackwell discuss Ruth Bottigheimer’s quantitative survey on the speech patterns of women in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The tales collected by the brothers came directly from the oral tradition, from a variety of women who lived around them. The Grimms’ fairy tale collections went through several editions over the space of approximately seven years and across these editions changes were made: ‘good’ girls speak less and less from edition to edition; silence as a task for men lasts up to three days, for women it is often seven years; the female voice is frequently taken away from her, whereas the male willingly stops speaking; girls speak when spoken to and generally do not ask questions unless invited; and perhaps most tellingly, those who speak most are witches (i.e. bad women who don’t conform) and boys (in whom activity and curiosity are lauded) [xxiii]. The editing out of female speech in fairy tales by male authors/ transcribers shows in a very real way how tales have been used as a means of training women how to behave in a socially (i.e. patriarchally) accepted fashion.
Blackwell observed that in Germany the phenomenon of young mothers reading to their children from the new books of “sanctioned” Grimms’ tales replaced the oral tradition of fairy tale telling in the evening. Old women – nurses, grandmothers and the like – were suspect as tellers of tales; they were the kind of old wives who would change the stories, who would improvise, and who would not conform[xxiv]. The power of the tale for the patriarchy lay in its static nature – the pattern did not change, the end did not change, girls stayed girls and boys, boys. If women tellers changed the stories, they were behaving independently and independent female action was to be feared[xxv].
This process, Blackwell notes, removes “Authority … from the oral female voice to the male editor/ author, but returned to her in a sanitized form, when she is the properly behaving dispenser of his tale”[xxvi]. The voice of the mother was used to enforce ideas of sanctioned behaviour: girls are quiet, pretty, submissive and are there to be rescued. Imagine the power of co-opted maternal voices enforcing the edicts of the ruling order. The hand that rocked the cradle worked for the other side, as models of and conduits for female behaviour women were complicit in the subjugation of their own daughters[xxvii]. Mothers now told their daughters through the medium of bedtime stories “I have no value beyond beauty, silence and fertility. My daughter, you are like me. My son, you are not like me, you are special!”
Fairy tales also teach girls about reward and punishment – those who conform are rewarded, those who do not are punished, ridiculed and subjugated, or worse, killed. The ultimate reward for good girls in fairy tales is marriage – if a girl is beautiful, passive, submissive, silent, and helpless then even if she is poor, she will get her man – or rather, he will get her. Marriage for fairy tale girls also means a step up the social ladder and access to wealth[xxviii].
Fairy tales end with marriages – Lieberman states that fairy tales are “preoccupied with marriage without portraying it; as a real condition, it’s nearly always off-stage”[xxix]. Indeed, in the main the only marriages shown are bad ones, or sad ones, in which the queen suffers a cruel husband (Bluebeard) or is about to die (Snow White, Donekyskin). Marriage in fairy tales remains a kind of happily-never-after.
Those who refuse marriage are punished for being ‘unnatural’ – the princess in The Yellow Dwarf initially refuses suitors so her father marries her to a dwarf, she then falls in love with a young man whom the dwarf, in a fit of jealousy, kills and the princess herself dies of a broken heart[xxx]. Similarly in King Thrushbeard a proud princess rejects suitor after suitor and her father marries her to a pauper who proceeds to humiliate her at every opportunity until he finally reveals himself as one of the original scorned suitors who felt it his duty to break her down and make her a proper wife[xxxi].
In addition, chosen girls don’t help. A study by Mendelson highlights the lack of collaboration between women in the Grimms’ fairy tales. He notes that whilst men frequently band together to help each other in the achievement of a goal (treasure, etcetera), women tend to be denied this option[xxxii]. While there are often one-on-one relationships for women (fairy godmothers, faithful servants, the very occasional helpful sister, or mother’s ghost) on the whole any larger group of women is regarded as suspect – a coven of sorts[xxxiii]. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the fear men have of women in groups – “[female] collaboration is tantamount to corruption, devoutly to be feared as an agent of destruction rather than praised as a means of support and empowerment”[xxxiv].
In addition to this, the ‘prize’ for a female is always a prince, always marriage – only one girl can win – in fairy tales, particularly Russian ones, men can win more than one bride. The competition for male attention and protection set up in fairy tales, “that marriage is the only estate toward which women should aspire”[xxxv], is enough to cause a schism between females vying for the same prize. Not only that, marriage is the state which is upheld by society as the desired state of being, the much lauded conformity for which women must strive – within marriage lies sanctioned sexual relations, children (proof of a woman’s fertility), and the protection of a male[xxxvi].
Karen Rowe notes that “subconsciously women may transfer from fairy tales into real life cultural norms which exalt passivity, dependency, and self-sacrifice as a female’s cardinal virtues. In short, fairy tales perpetuate the patriarchal status quo by making female subordination seem a romantically desirable, indeed an inescapable fate”[xxxvii].
It is easy to see fairy tales simply as ‘kids’ stories’ and to dismiss them, but viewing them closely shows they are actually powerful, multi-layered acculturation tools. As writers such as Rowe have observed “… such alluring fantasies gloss over the heroine’s ability to act self-assertively, total reliance on external rescues, willing bondage to father and prince, and her restriction to hearth and nursery”[xxxviii]. Assuming fairy tales are just stories ensures that women will keep “assimilating cultural imperatives”[xxxix], such as be quiet, be pretty, be submissive, your highest goal is marriage and motherhood, expect no more. Passing this onto our daughters and our sons enforces the idea that daughters should be silent, pretty and still and that boys have a right to expect them to be so – that women should be less than they can be in order to keep the status quo, and as Rowe puts it “the harmonious continuity of civilisation will be assured”[xl].
Traditionally, when tales were told in the old way, when they were spoken, they tended to end with the words “This is my story, I’ve told it, and in your hands I leave it”[xli], which recognises the communal nature of the stories and of their authorship, over time and in different contexts. It also tells us that we should tell our children the stories from which we want them to learn – that both girls and boys should be taught to be bold and brave, to make their own fates and not to simply expect them.
Blackwell, J. (2001) “Fractured Fairy Tales: German Women Authors and the Grimm Tradition”, The Germanic Review, pp. 162-174.
Deszcz, J. (2004) “Salman Rushdie’s Attempt at a Feminist Fairytale Reconfiguration in Shame”, Folklore, 115 (1): 27, pp.27-44.
Gilbert, S. M. and Gubar, S. (1979) “The Queen’s Looking Glass”, in Zipes, J. (1986) Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, Aldershot, England: Gower, pp. 201-208.
Lieberman, M. K. (1986) “’Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale”, in Zipes, J. (1986) Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, Aldershot, England: Gower, pp. 185-200.
Mendelson, M. (1997) “Forever Acting Alone: The Absence of Female Collaboration in Grimms’ Fairy Tales”, Children’s Literature in Education, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 111-125.
Rowe, K. E. (1979) “Feminism and Fairy Tales”, in Zipes, J. (1986) Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, Aldershot, England: Gower, pp. 209-226.
Slatter, Angela. (2008) “Little Red Riding Hood: Life off the Path”, Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest, Volume 1, Issue 12.
Warner, M. (1995) From the Beast to the Blonde: on Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Warner, M. (1990) “Mother Goose Tales: Female Fiction, Female Fact?”, Folklore, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 3-25
Warner, M. (1991) “The Absent Mother”, History Today, Vol. 41, Iss. 4, pp. 22-29.
Windling, T. (1997) Women and Fairy Tales, www.endicott-studio.com/rdrm/forwmnft.html, retrieved 7/05/2005.
Zipes, J. (1986) Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, Aldershot, England: Gower.
Zipes, J. (1994) Fairy Tale As Myth/Myth As Fairy Tale. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Zipes, J. (1983) Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. London: Heinemann.
Zipes, J. (ed) (1992) Spells of Enchantment: The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture. New York: Penguin Books.
[i] Zipes, 1992, p. xii
[ii] Zipes, 1992, p. xii
[iii] Lieberman, 1986, p. 187
[iv] Windling, n.d., p. 6
[v] Blackwell, 2001, p. 163
[vi] Warner, 1995, p. 23
[vii] Deszcz , 2004, p. 27
[viii] Deszcz , 2004, p. 27
[ix] Windling, n.d., p. 2
[x] Warner, 1991, p. 22
[xi] Warner, 1990, p. 4
[xii] Warner, 1990, p. 4
[xiii] Warner, 1995, 181
[xiv] An article detailing the journey of LRRH appears in Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest, Volume 1, Issue 12, 2008.
[xv] Zipes, 1986, p. 229
[xvi] Zipes, 1986, p. 227
[xvii] Lieberman, 1986, p.188
[xviii] Lieberman, 1986, p. 188
[xix] Gilbert & Gubar, 1986, p. 204
[xx] Lieberman, 1986, p. 197
[xxi] Lieberman, 1986, p. 197
[xxii] Warner, 1995, p. 389
[xxiii] Blackwell, 2001, p. 164
[xxiv] Blackwell, 2001, p. 165
[xxv] Blackwell, 2001, p. 165
[xxvi] Blackwell, 2001, p.165
[xxvii] Rowe, 1986, p. 214
[xxviii] Rowe, 1986, p. 217
[xxix] Lieberman, 1986, p. 199
[xxx] Lieberman, 1986, p. 198
[xxxi] Lieberman, 1986, p. 198
[xxxii] Mendelson, 1997, p. 111
[xxxiii] Mendelson, 1997, p. 115
[xxxiv] Mendelson, 1997, p. 118
[xxxv] Rowe, 1986, p. 211
[xxxvi] Rowe, 1986, pp. 220-1
[xxxvii] Rowe, 1986, p. 209
[xxxviii] Rowe, 1986, p. 209
[xxxix] Rowe, 1986, p. 211
[xl] Rowe, 1986, p. 221
[xli] Warner, 1995, p. XXV
… the rather glorious prose of Eugie Foster … Returning My Sister’s Face is awesome. Thank you to BDC, whose gift it was.
Five days later and Tad showed no sign of getting bored or homesick for his pond. He left a mess in his wake, ate enormous amounts of food, snored like an earthquake, and kept blowing kisses at Felicity when her parents weren’t looking. The final straw came when she walked into the royal bathroom and found Tad swimming in her bathtub – backstroking to be exact.
Much to her dismay Felicity discovered that planning to get rid of Tad and actually getting rid of him were two very different things,. She’d sourced a stout sack and taken to carrying about a croquet mallet. Tad, alas, had a habit of always being around someone like her father, or mother, or the chief minister, or the master of the king’s pigeons …
How could it have gone so spectacularly badly?
Felicity negotiated Tad down to a family dinner. Was it Great-aunt Bernadette of Grenouille-sur-le-Tapis had married a frog who’d turned into a handsome prince? Whatever, someone had married a frog and it all turned out happily ever after. If worst came to worst, there was always frogs legs for dinner.
Now, Felicity lay so close to the edge of her big princessy bed that if she breathed too heavily she would fall out. That would be better than looking at what sat on the other side of her teddy bear …
The Frog Prince
She was never a big fan of the castle pond.
It lay at the fartherest corner, hidden by scrubby shrubs, and gnarly trees that dropped leaves into the nasty brown water. Frog spawn clung to the edges of the pond like an unfashionable necklace. Really big spiders waited for short-sighted flies. Pretty awful, all in all.
Princess Felicity generally stayed away but one day when she was playing soccer with the stableboys (because she was an egalitarian sort of a princess), she mistimed a kick. Her golden soccer ball spun off into the nasty tangle of foliage. There was a splash. The stable boys disappeared speedily…
Posted in fairy tales, On Writing: General, Random, tagged Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest #12, Black-Winged Angels, Little Red Riding Hood – Life off the Path on October 14, 2009| 17 Comments »
This is an article I wrote – it formed part of my Masters “Black-Winged Angels” – and it appeared in Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest #12 (March 2008). For when boredom strikes and one is feeling particularly nerdly … it has appalling bad footnotes and a bibliography, for which I apologise profusely – my academic streak is thin, if not skeletal.
It’s been an interesting journey for Little Red Riding Hood. She started life in a tribal tale about a girl who outsmarts a wolf – all on her own, no outside help. A few centuries later, she gets a red cap, loses about twenty IQ points and gets eaten by a transvestite wolf. Add another hundred or so years, the cap becomes a hood, she loses a few more brain credits, gets molested, and then eaten by the same cross-dressing wolf but is rescued by a big, strong man and learns never to disobey the rules again. Adding insult to injury, in the 40s Tex Avery turned her into a stripper. Bruno Bettelheim looked at Gustave Dore’s 1867 Little Red Riding Hood illustrations and saw dirty pictures – Little Red in bed with the wolf, giving him the eye. A red leather-jacketed Reese Witherspoon (oh, puhleeez!) played her in an Eighties film version, Freeway, in which a friendly neighbourhood serial killer fulfils the role of the wolf. Just when you thought it was all over, Angela Carter came along, reclaimed her and set her free.
So, Lil’ Red – what happened?
Traditional versions of Little Red Riding Hood were oral tales about a young girl’s initiation into womanhood. The Italian version, which contains the crack-a-lackin’ lines: “Why is your chest so hairy, Grandmother?” “From wearing too many necklaces around my neck,” and replaces the wolf with an ogress, pitches Little Red as a girl on the cusp of growing up. In the French oral tales (often known as The Path of Needles or Pins) the heroine must choose one of two paths when she meets the wolf (or bzou) in the woods. There is no exact explanation of the difference between the Path of Needles and the Path of Pins; however, Yvonne Verdier, who studied manifold variations of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, believed the paths were symbolic of two periods of growth in a young girl’s life. When a girl was sent off to be apprenticed to a seamstress, this was the path of pins (learning a trade as part of growing up [i]) and is regarded by Verdier as the path of maidenhood, the path of change from child to young woman. The path of needles was the next stage and implied sexual maturity,[ii] the needle being emblematic of sexual penetration. Terri Windling suggests that girls who choose the path of needles before the path of pins are trying to “grow up too soon.”[iii]
Jack Zipes refers to the original tales as having a “narrative perspective … sympathetic to a young peasant girl … who learns to cope with the world around her.”[iv] The girl meets the wolf on the way to Granny’s house and discloses where she’s going (but makes no wager). The wolf kills and eats Granny, takes her place in bed, and induces the girl to eat and drink Granny’s flesh and blood before climbing into bed with him. Recognising her danger, and with no one else to turn to, the girl uses her wits to save herself. Before she can be devoured, she claims she needs to relieve herself, the wolf (after first suggesting that she do it in the bed), ties a rope to her leg and lets her out. When outside, she ties the rope to a plum tree and runs home safely.
The heroine in the oral tale eats her grandmother’s flesh and drinks her blood. Gruesome though it is, this can also be seen as a metaphor for the revolution of the life-cycle. The young replace the old, the girl is coming into the fullness of her womanhood, she is all “power in potentia;”[v] the grandmother is at the end of the cycle, she is no longer fertile, no longer desired, no longer agile and active. Although the young girl has a traumatic experience (an education in the dangers of life), she has been independent and saved herself with no help from either a prince or woodsman, nor any other male figure.
However, under the pens of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, the tale became one of a girl’s rape and murder, for which she herself is blamed.[vi]
Operating in the salons of France in the mid to late seventeenth century, Charles Perrault was one of the leading proponents of literary fairy tales. Although by no means the only “recorder” of tales – female authors vastly outnumbered the males working in the genre at the time[vii] – it is his versions of fairy tales that have survived and dominated the Western fairy tale tradition. Perrault, who also claimed to be supportive of women’s rights (at least for women of his own class), nevertheless managed to infuse his tales with patriarchal notions of how girls should behave.
Although Perrault claimed to be “a mere conduit of past wisdom,”[viii] not creating stories but simply taking the tales from a “pristine source,”[ix] (nurses, gouvernantes, grandmothers, random old female gossips) he did not leave the tales intact. He changed them, transformed them to suit his own purposes. Marina Warner notes that he “set aside aspects which struck him as crude,”[x] and Zipes, in relation to Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, points out that the author’s “[own] fear of women and his own sexual drives are incorporated into his new literary version, which also reflects general male attitudes about women portrayed as eager to be seduced or raped.”[xi]
Perrault’s tales became moralising stories, warning women and children that if they did not conform there would be consequences. Perrault introduces into the literary tale the red cap/hood and the element of a wager between the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. He also implies that she is somehow careless in taking her time to get to Granny’s house – that she is complicit in Granny’s death because she wants to lose the bet,[xii] and thus invites the wolf’s sexual advances.[xiii] When she arrives at Granny’s house she is raped and eaten. Perrault lays the blame very squarely on her shoulders (just in case anyone should miss the point):
From this story one learns that children,
Especially young lasses,
Pretty, courteous and well-bred,
Do very wrong to listen to strangers,
And it is not an unheard thing
If the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner.[xiv]
Sharon Johnson has noted that Perrault’s version of the tale reflects not only his assumption about gendered behaviour but also that of the society in which he lived – even in terms of how rape was regarded by French jurisprudence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Johnson argues that “Men are represented as naturally aggressive, and their ravishing of women is often eroticized.”[xv] In a society where sexual violence was viewed as ‘desire, women were often blamed for inciting male sexual aggression by being objects of desire.[xvi] Perrault’s central message is that she was “asking for it” and got what she deserved: “She was wearing red, Your Honour, and you know what that means!”
Warner also notes Perrault’s fusing of Granny with the wolf – the “crucial collapse of roles”[xvii] – may show that he was associating Granny, as a solitary old woman of the forest (the traditional place for witches, those with occult knowledge and therefore suspect) with the wolf, also a creature of the forest, natural, uncontrollable and an object of fear.[xviii] Perrault implies, consciously or otherwise, that those who associate with nature and the uncivilised get what they deserve.
A century or so later, the Brothers Grimm gave the story a happy ending and removed the sexual bawdiness and overt violence. Little Red is shown as a silly little girl who gets herself and her Granny into trouble by disobeying her mother, dawdling, and talking to hairy strangers. The wolf once again wins the race to Granny’s house, where he eats the old woman and then her foolish granddaughter. Luckily, there is a woodsman, a big strong man, to get them out of trouble. In this version, Little Red’s warning from her mother is more explicit than in Perrault, and although she still ignores it, she and Granny are rescued nonetheless.[xix] Zipes interprets the message as “Only a strong male figure can rescue a girl from herself and her lustful desires.”[xx]
Little Red, who in the oral tradition was a brave, resourceful little girl, is no longer able to get herself out of trouble; the only virtues allowed her are passivity and dependency, and the hope that a male will always be around to rescue her. She was pulled back onto the path, made to be safe, turned into an object requiring rescue.
When fairy tales began to be written down and published, they gradually became static after being subjected to an editing process to take out anything that wasn’t sanctioned. When their form became “satisfactory,” they became “Good Girls’ Guides on How to Behave.” In Germany, at the time of the Grimms, Jeanine Blackwell observes that the phenomenon of young mothers reading to their children from the new books of sanctioned Grimms’ tales replaced the oral tradition of tale telling in the evening. Old women – nurses, grandmothers, servants – were suspect as tellers of tales; they were the kind of old wives who would change the tales, who would improvise, and who would not conform.[xxi] The mutability of old women’s tales was due at least in part to the fact that many of them were illiterate, so the oral tradition was the only one open to them. The power of the literary tale for the patriarchy lay in its static nature – the pattern did not change, the end did not change, girls stayed girls and boys, boys. If female tellers changed the stories, they were behaving independently and subverting the patriarchy.[xxii]
Blackwell summarises Ruth Bottigheimer’s quantitative survey on the speech patterns of women in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.[xxiii] The tales collected by the brothers came directly from the oral tradition, from a variety of women whom they met on their travels (indeed, Wilhelm married one of his sources: Dortchen Wild). The Grimms’ fairy tale collections went through many editions between the early 1800s and 1856, and across these editions significant changes were made: “good” girls spoke less and less from edition to edition; silence as a task for men lasted up to three days, but for women it was often seven years; the female’s voice was frequently taken away from her, whereas the male willingly stopped speaking to achieve a goal; girls spoke when spoken to and generally did not ask questions unless invited; and, perhaps most tellingly, those characters who spoke most were witches (bad women who did not conform) and boys (in whom activity and curiosity were lauded).[xxiv]
The editing of female speech in fairy tales by male authors/transcribers shows in a very real way how tales have been used as a means of training women how to behave in a socially (i.e., patriarchally) acceptable fashion.
Blackwell makes the assessment that “authority is removed from the oral female voice to the male editor/author, but returned to her in a sanitized form, when she is the properly behaving dispenser of his tale.”[xxv] The story “teller” is no longer the old wife but the nurturing figure of the mother. The voice of the mother is used to enforce ideas of sanctioned behaviour – girls are quiet, pretty, submissive and there to be rescued. The power of maternal voices enforces the edicts of the ruling order, and with the hand that rocks the cradle co-opted by the other side, mothers as models of, and conduits for, female behaviour were now complicit in the subjugation of their own daughters.[xxvi] Women told their children through the medium of static bedtime stories: I have no value beyond beauty, passivity, silence and fertility. My daughter, you are like me. My son, you are not like me, you are special!
Fairy tales also teach girls about reward and punishment – those who conform are rewarded, those who do not are punished, ridiculed and subjugated, or worse, killed. Under the pens of male transcribers Little Red Riding Hood became such a tale.
The tales in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber are reclaimed from the patriarchy and stretched out of their sanctioned shape – Carter has firmly placed herself on the side of the “old wives” under whose hands tales were mutable and malleable. Warner says that Carter “deliberately [draws the tales] out of the separate space of “children’s stories” or “folk art” and into the world of change.”[xxvii]
Carter’s work restores female agency, independence, intelligence, and allows the heroine freedom to be a sexually active desiring object – in direct contrast to the “approved” condition of literary fairy tale heroines as passive, dependent, virginal and self-sacrificing. Warner refers to The Bloody Chamber as Carter’s “answer to Perrault’s vision of better things.”[xxviii]
Carter’s Little Red (in the Bloody Chamber tale “The Company of Wolves”) is described as “an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane; she is a closed system; she does not know how to shiver. She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.”[xxix] This is possibly the best summary of the strengths of Carter’s heroine: she is brave and independent (a closed system), she has the power of an intact virgin, she is fearless and ready to protect herself – no waiting around for the woodsman for this girl. She can and will look after herself. She is confident and when she meets the wolf/huntsman (in Carter, the huntsman and wolf suffer a similar “critical collapse of roles” to Granny and the wolf in Perrault’s version) on the path to Granny’s house she is in no way intimidated. In fact, she decides “she’s never seen such a fine fellow before, not among the rustic clowns of her native village;”[xxx] she will not settle for any old village boy.
They make a wager with a kiss the prize, and she happily dawdles so he may reach Granny’s house first. When she arrives, Granny is a rattling bundle of bones wrapped in a napkin under the bed, and the wolf makes no real attempt to pretend to be the grandmother. Their exchange, informed by knowledge rather than fear, breaks the traditional pattern. She undresses quite willingly, combs out her hair, and stands “up on tiptoe and unbutton[s] the collar of his shirt.”[xxxi] Upon hearing “All the better to eat you with” she laughs: “she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing.”[xxxii] There is no fear of sex, or of male desire, or even a hint of shame about her own desires. This girl is no one’s victim.
The tale ends “See! Sweet and sound she sleeps in Granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.”[xxxiii] Carter’s heroine is fearless on many levels: she has sex outside the bounds of the approved space of marriage, she chooses it for herself (it is not imposed upon her as a marriage duty or as an act of rape), she acts without deference to anyone, and with no thought for society’s sanctions. And there are no consequences for her actions, no societally enforced punishment for being a “loose” woman.
Importantly, when she does break her “unbroken membrane,” she does not become a broken or ruined “thing.” Her virginity is not an economic asset, the removal of which devalues her. Carter’s heroine exchanges the power of a virgin for that of a knowing woman – her “power in potentia” has been realised. She retains the core of who she is; sex has merely added to her experience, not soiled her in any way – she has not lessened.
Sex, desire, and independent female action, hinted at in the oral tradition, primly covered and clothed by the patriarchy, are all on glorious, rapturous, almost pornographic display in Carter’s works. There is no room for the “good” girl in her revisionist fairy tale.
I like to think that Carter reclaimed Little Red and gave her the chance to be more Buffy and less Little Bo Peep. She reclaimed the idea of “power in potentia,” which was the thing that frightened men: female independence and power and freedom of choice. These were precisely the things that were stripped away over time through editing and re-writing by patriarchal transcribers. Blackwell writes: “…when the brothers wrote down the tales, they omitted some of the magic words, and they jumbled up parts of the plots. They even left the wise women out of the stories they told, or changed them to be wicked, bossy, and ugly. Still, they left some of the magic in the stories.”[xxxiv] There is still magic left in the tales, and Carter found it – Little Red is now back on the path less travelled, and having a better time for it.
Carter, A. 1995. The Bloody Chamber. London: Vintage.
Blackwell, J. 2001. Fractured Fairytales: German Women Authors and the Grimm Tradition. The Germanic Review, 162-174.
Johnson, S. P. 2003. The Toleration and Erotization of Rape: Interpreting Charles Perrault’s ‘Le Petit Chaperon Rouge’ within Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Jurisprudence. Women’s Studies, 32: 325-352.
Rowe, K. E. (1986) “Feminism and Fairy Tales”, in Zipes, J. (ed.) Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, Aldershot, England: Gower, pp. 209-226.
Verdier, Y. 1978. Grands-meres, si vous saviez…: Le Petit Chaperon Rouge dans la tradition orale. http://http://www.expositions.bnf.fr/contes/cles/verdier.htm (accessed 22/12/2005).
Warner, M. 1995. From the Beast to the Blonde: on Fairytales and Their Tellers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Windling, T. 1997. Women and Fairytales. http://http://www.endicott-studio.com/rdrm/forblind.html (accessed 7/05/2005).
Windling, T. 2004. The Path of Needles or Pins: Little Red Riding Hood. http://www.endicott-studio.com/rdrm/rrPathNeedles.html 18/04/2006).(accessed
Zipes, J. 1986. Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairytales in North America and England. Aldershot, England: Gower.
[i] Windling, 2004, p.3
[ii] Verdier cited in Windling, 2004, p.4
[iii] Windling, 2004, p.4
[iv] Zipes, 1986, p.229
[v] Carter, 1995, p.97
[vi] Zipes, 1986, p.227
[vii] Windling, 1997, p.2
[viii] Warner, 1990, p.4
[x] Warner, 1995, p.181
[xi] Zipes, 1986, p.229
[xiii] Johnson, 2003, p.329
[xiv] cited in Zipes, 1986, p.242
[xv] Johnson, 2003, p.326
[xvii] Warner, 1995, pp.181-2
[xix] Zipes, 1986, p.230
[xxi] Blackwell, 2001, p.165
[xxiii] Blackwell, 1986, p.164
[xxv] Blackwell, 2001, p.165
[xxvi] Rowe, 1986, p.214
[xxvii] Warner, 1995, p.308
[xxix] Carter, 1995, p.114
[xxxi] Carter, 1995, p.118
[xxxiv] Blackwell, 2001, p.162