Friday 29 March 2013

Fairytale princesses: tougher than you think

Fairytale princesses are still frequently written off as insipid, passive, and generally terrible role models for girls and young women. And while it’s easy enough to find counter examples of bold and brave fairytale heroines (The Master Maid, Mollie Whuppie, the girl in The Black Bull of Norroway) these do tend to be less well known, or at least nothing like as well known as the classics, the famous tales, the ones Disney picked: The Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast.

In fact I don't happen to believe that it's the business either of literature in general, or of fairytales in particular, to provide role models.  (The business of literature is to tell stories about people, who may or may not be admirable.)  But even if it were, is the ‘insipid’ image really deserved? While it’s true that the Sleeping Beauty hasn’t much to do except await ‘true love’s kiss’, I don’t believe this is what makes the story so memorable – as I’ve said here – and I was pleased to discover Ursula K LeGuin saying much the same thing in a fine essay, ‘Wilderness Within’, in her collection ‘Cheek By Jowl’:  she quotes a short, haunting poem by Sylvia Townsend Warner:

                        The Sleeping Beauty woke:
                        The spit began to turn,
                        The woodmen cleared the brake,
                        The gardener mowed the lawn.
                        Woe’s me!  And must one kiss
                        Revoke the silent house, the birdsong wilderness?

For LeGuin, as for me: “the story is about that still centre: ‘the silent house, the birdsong wilderness’.”

As for the heroines of the other tales, they are all pretty active.  Abandoned in the forest, Snow White doesn’t lie down and die like the ‘Babes in the Wood’ but keeps going till she finds the house of the seven dwarfs, where she pays her way by working:

The dwarfs said, “Will you attend to our housekeeping for us?  Cook, make beds, wash, sew and knit?  If you like to do all this for us, and keep everything in order for us, you may stay and shall want for nothing.”
            “With all my heart,” said the child.  So she stayed, keeping everything in excellent order. The dwarfs went every day to the mountains, to find copper and gold, and came home in the evening, and then their supper had to be ready.

I can’t see anything wrong or unworthy about this bargain.  Both sides get something out of it, both are satisfied.  

Cinderella is another hard worker: grieving too, for her mother’s death: in the Grimm's version, 'Aschenputtel', the version I read as a child, there is no fairy godmother, no rats turned into coachmen, no pumpkin.  Cinderella makes her own magic. In a motif similar to that of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, she asks her father to bring her not beautiful clothes, pearls and jewels – as her stepsisters do – but ‘the first branch which knocks against your hat on the way home’. This turns out to be a hazel twig which Cinderella plants on her mother’s grave and waters with her tears, and:

A little white bird always came on the tree, and if Cinderella expressed a wish, the bird threw down to her what she had wished for.

When her stepmother throws peas and lentils into the ashes for her to pick out, Cinderella calls the birds:

“You tame pigeons, you turtle doves and all you birds beneath the sky, come and help me to pick
                                    The good into the pot
                                    The bad into the crop.”

And when the stepmother and sisters have sped away to the prince’s wedding, she goes to her mother’s grave and calls,
“Shiver and quiver, little tree,
Silver and gold throw down on me.”
Then the bird threw a gold and silver dress down to her, and slippers embroidered with silk and silver.

And so on, for the next three nights. It’s clear that Cinderella stage-manages the whole affair:

When evening came she wished to leave, and the King’s son followed her and wanted to see into which house she went.  But she sprang away from him and into the garden behind the house.  There stood a beautiful pear tree… She clambered so nimbly between the branches that the King’s son did not know where she had gone. He waited until her father came and said to him, “The unknown maiden has escaped from me and I believe she has climbed up the pear-tree. The father thought, “Can it be Cinderella?” and had an axe brought, and cut the tree down, but no one was in it.  And when they got into the kitchen, Cinderella lay there among the ashes, for she had jumped down on the other side of the tree, had taken the beautiful dress to the bird on the hazel tree, and put on her old grey gown.

This is a girl with her own mind and her own agenda.  She is a tough cookie, a girl who makes things happen. Although the tale of ‘Cinderella’ is often regarded as the archetypical ‘rags to riches’ story, it’s not, really.  A girl who can get whatever she wishes from a magical hazel tree is not ‘poor’.  In the course of the story, she gets her own back on nearly everyone.  Her father loses his pigeon house and pear tree (chopped to pieces); the stepsisters lose toes, heels and eventually their eyes, and the prince has to (a) delay his gratification and (b) put a good deal of effort into trying to find the mysterious girl he has lost his heart to.

Beauty, in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a similarly strong-minded young woman. The original tale by 18th century Madame de Villeneuve probably protested forced marriages - as Terri Windling puts it in another excellent essay:  "...Animal Bridegroom stories, in particular, embodied the real–life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a beast or a lover in their marriage bed."  (Beauty and the Beast", Terri Windling, Endicott Studio) And the modern, Freudian interpretation is scarcely any different, declaring the fairytale a parable about virginal female fears (Beauty  regards male sexuality as brutish and bestial, before coming to womanhood and embracing it).

Here's a slightly different take:  When her father loses all his money, Beauty rolls up her sleeves.  She works. She’s physically brave, insisting on saving her father’s life by going to live with the Beast. She’s got moral courage too: when the Beast asks, as he constantly does,

“Beauty, will you be my wife?”

she refuses, because even as she grows more and more fond of him, she is not ready to say yes.

Why aren’t we all cheering? If this is a parable about sex, it’s less about fear of sex – in most of the modern versions, Beauty loses her fear of the Beast months before the end of the story – than it is about resisting pressure, about taking the time to know your own mind.  At last - she leaves it rather late, but that’s narrative tension for you – Beauty realises that this ugly Beast is someone she truly loves. She doesn't even know he's a prince until after she's committed to him.

Finally, the whole ‘poor role model’ criticism is odder than you might think.  Is there any real danger that a little girl  (this sort of angst is always about girls) might read these fairytales and come away from them not with the message that you need hard work, faithfulness, determination and courage to succeed - but that you can loll around wearing pink satin until a prince comes to carry you away? I find that bizarre. Mainly, the princes in fairy stories are symbols of success.  How else can the tale convey it?  There aren’t that many job descriptions in the castle-studded, anonymous fairytale Wald. Cinderella, Beauty and Snow White can't  become tax lawyers or doctors or bankers or members of Parliament, any more than, in 'The Lord of the Rings', Aragorn can blast the Black Riders with a well directed burst of fire from a semi-automatic. Such things simply do not exist in their worlds.

On top of that, isn't it significant that the same disapproval and disquiet is never levelled at the many male characters in fairy stories who marry princesses?  The Brave Little Tailor, the soldier in 'The Blue Light', the soldier in 'The Twelve Dancing Princesses', the boy with the Golden Goose – no one seems to have any trouble recognising, in their tales, a royal marriage as a symbol of well-deserved worldly success. 

Who would have thought to find the double standard applied even to fairytales? What's sauce for the gander ought to be sauce for the goose.

Picture credits: 

Cinderella, Walter Crane
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Jessie Willcox Smith
Beauty and the Beast, Eleanor Vere Boyle

Friday 22 March 2013

Folklore snippets: The wild white cattle of the Hidden Folk

Wild white cattle at Chillingham, Northumberland

In Scandinavia the hidden folk, or huldrefolk, are the elves, trolls and other supernatural peoples who live in the mountains, forests and under mounds.  They're not always hidden, as the following story shows, and it's interesting that their cattle are, as fairy cattle so often are, described as white or light in colour.  

The Huldres in Norway
from Scandinavian Folklore, ed William Craigie 1896

The huldres are women as beautiful as can be imagined, who live in the mountains and graze their cattle there.  These are often fat and thriving, brindled or light in colour.  They themselves, when they appear to men, are dressed in grey clothes, with a white cloth hanging over their face, and the only thing they can be recognised by, is the long tail that drags behind them, which however they for the most past manage to conceal.

White, with red ears

If one hears them play among the mountains, it is so enchanting that one can hardly contain oneself for joy.  This music is called the Huldre’s tune, and there are many peasants who have heard it and learned it, and can play it again.

One time a huldre was present at a gathering, where everyone wanted to dance with the pretty stranger, but in the midst of the merriment the young fellow who was dancing with her caught sight of her long tail. He immediately guessed what she was, and was frightened, but kept his presence of mind and did not betray her, but only said at the end of the dance, “Pretty maid, you are losing your garter.”  She immediately disappeared, but afterwards rewarded him wit fine presents and success in his cattle-rearing.

Now, the herd of wild white cattle in Chillingham Park in Northumberland is thought to have been there for at least 700 years, and is supposedly descended from the extinct European aurochs: the cattle are "small, with upright horns in both males and females. They are white with coloured ears. In the case of Chillingham Cattle, the ear-colour is red."

In the great Irish cycle The Cattle Raid of Cooley,

the Morrigan daughter of Aed Ernmas came from the fairy dwellings to destroy Cuchulain. For she had threatened on the Cattle-raid of Regomaina that she would come to undo Cuchulain what time he would be in sore distress when engaged in battle and combat with a goodly warrior, with Loch, in the course of the Cattle-spoil of Cualnge. Thither then the Morrigan came in the shape of a white, hornless, red-eared heifer, with fifty heifers about her and a chain of silvered bronze between each two of the heifers. 
(Trans Joseph Dunn, 1914: and for anyone interested, here, on a cattle breeder's website, are links to lots of references from Irish legend to white cattle with red ears.)

White with red ears is the colour of fairy hounds, too, so I wonder if the white fairy cows of the Hidden People are a memory of the non-domesticated wild cattle of the past?

Picture credits: 

The Chillingham herd:  Photographer: C. Michael Hogan, Wikimedia Commons
White with red ears: from, author Stuart Wallace, Wikimedia Commons

Friday 15 March 2013

Desiring Dragons

Desiring Dragons is the theme of Terri Windling’s latest Movable Feast.  The title of the Feast comes from J.R.R. Tolkien. “I desired dragons with a profound desire," he wrote regarding his life-long taste for myth and tales of magic. "Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.” 

So this post is my response to Terri’s enquiry: “Why are we drawn to stories and other art forms (both contemporary and historic) with their roots dug deep into the soil of myth?”

Okay.  Three quotations:

Into my heart that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills?
What spires, what farms are those?

AE Housman, A Shropshire Lad

We are the Pilgrims, master, we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born…

James Elroy Flecker, Epilogue, The Golden Journey to Samarkand

The parents had already retired to rest; the old clock ticked monotonously from the wall, the windows rattled with the whistling wind, and the chamber was dimly lighted by the flickering light of the moon.  The young man lay restless on his bed, thinking of the stranger and his tales.  ‘It is not the treasures,’ said he to himself, ‘that have awakened in me such unutterable longings… But I long to behold the blue flower.’

Novalis, Henry of Ofterdingen: A Romance

We pass through this world.  We’re the only animal which understands that it must die, that its time here is transient.  And so we are surrounded at all times and in all places by mysteries.  There is the past, which we remember but can no longer touch or affect: a magician’s backward-facing glass in which the dead are still alive and the old are still young and can be seeing going about their affairs, ignorant of our gaze, in tiny bright pictures with the sound turned down low.

There is the distance, that blue trembling elsewhere on the rim of the horizon, beyond which – perhaps – everything is different, new and wonderful. 

And there is the invisible future into which we constantly travel with our baggage of hopes and promises and longings and fears. 

We’re surrounded by things which are not, which have no physical existence. Living in such a world, it’s hardly surprising that we’re drawn to stories of mythical significance.  It’s been the aim of humans down the millennia to try to explain the world and our existence in it. Science itself springs from this desire. And the paradoxical, untouchable reality of such important things (the past: the future: the horizon) have surely taught us confidence to imagine and discover and delight in other things which can also neither be seen nor approached nor touched. The soul, the human spirit. Gods, ghosts.  Right and wrong. Philosophy. Mathematics.

I don't wish to say that all ideas are equal, just that they spring from the same ‘soil of myth’ Terri speaks of:  the soil from which all human ideas spring.  What Tolkien called sub-creation doesn’t only apply to story-tellers and artists.  The Ptolemaic universe, with the sun at its centre, looks like a fantasy world today, but was believed for centuries to be an accurate description of what was really out there. And indeed it was: it made a great deal of sense given the information then available, until Copernicus and Galileo and Newton came up with new and better descriptions, and then again Einstein: and now we have string theory and branes and multiple dimensions and bubble universes, and cosmologists are continually suggesting new or refined versions. This too is sub-creation.

I long to know what lies beyond the boundaries of my five senses.  I want to know what the bee sees in the ultraviolet. I want to know what it’s like to hear like a bat or a dolphin. I want to know what’s underneath the frozen seas of Europa, and if anything lives on Mars or on some planet circling Procyon or Alpha Centauri.  I want to visit Petra, that rose red city half as old as time; I want to cross the horizon. I want to know what really happened long ago at Stonehenge and Avebury and Carnac. I want to find out what the Druids really believed. And in the meantime, yes - I want to read about the golden dragons in the paradisal gardens at the end of the world because such stories are celebrations and extensions of the magic and the miracle of ‘this precious only endless world in which we think we live’. I'll let Robert Graves tell you the rest:


Join the Movable Feast and find more on 'Desiring Dragons' by following this link to Terri's blog - Myth and Moor: Moveable Feasts

Picture credit:
One of the dragons from The Nine Dragons handscroll (九龙图/九龍圖), painted by the Song-Dynasty Chinese artist Chen Rong (陈容/陳容) in 1244 CE. Ink and some red on paper. The entire scroll is 46.3 x 1096.4 cm. Located in the Museum of Fine Art - Boston, USA. Wikimedia Commons