Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Colours in Fairytales

The Sleeping Beauty: Rene Cloke

It’s usual for collections of fairytales to include pictures.  When I was very small, the simple retellings I was able to read were full of lavish colour illustrations like the one above, by Rene Cloke. It's very pink.

The Andrew Lang collections, the Red, the Green, the Violet, theYellow Fairybooks had their intricate Victorian engravings (which I longed, but was never allowed, to colour in). I read the tales of Hans Christian Andersen with wonderful watercolour illustrations by Edmund Dulac, all twilight blues.

The Little Mermaid: Edmumd Dulac

And I borrowed from the library Grimm’s fairytales with pictures by Arthur Rackham, rich and dark. 

The Singing, Soaring Lark: Arthur Rackham

But fairystories don’t actually need illustrations. They contain their own colours, brilliant as any medieval painting. As red as blood, as black as ebony, as white as snow. 

In his book ‘An Experiment in Criticism’ CS Lewis talks about good and bad writing, and the possible differences between them. (I know this sounds as if I'm heading off at a tangent, but bear with me.)  He suggests that some readers prefer bad writing because they do not want or are not interested in the things which good writing can provide: richness of experience, for example, or depth of thought. Some readers simply want the action, the page-turning, the next thing. And this explains the popularity of the airport thriller, and of Dan Brown.

For such a reader, Lewis says, good writing will be either too rich or too bare for his purposes:

A woodland scene by DH Lawrence or a mountain valley by Ruskin gives him far more than he knows what to do with; on the other hand, he would be disappointed with Malory’s ‘he arrived afore a postern opened towards the sea, and was open without any keeping, save two lions kept the entry, and the moon shone clear.’ Nor would he be content with ‘I was terribly afraid’ instead of ‘my blood ran cold’. To the good reader’s imagination such statements of the bare facts are often the most evocative of all.  But the moon shining clear is not enough for the unliterary.  They would rather be told that the castle was ‘bathed in a flood of silver moonlight’.

I’m not concerned here with Lewis’s thesis about different types of reading; I think he’s right, but I also think all of us can be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ readers: I have days when I can be that attentive, sensitive reader Lewis applauds and other days when I simply feel too lazy. But I do want to point out that fairytales – traditional fairytales – tend like Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur to be economical with description.

In olden times, when wishing still helped one, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, which has seen so much, was astonished whenever it shone on her face. Close by the King’s castle lay a great dark forest, and under an old lime-tree in the forest was a well, and when the day was very warm, the King’s child went out into the forest and sat down by the side of the cool fountain; and when she was bored she took a golden ball, and threw it up on high and caught it.

            The Frog-King

Lovely as it is, the phrase ‘so beautiful that the sun was astonished’ does not tell us what the king’s daughter looks like. Hardly any modern writer who might wish to turn The Frog-King into a novel could resist providing more. The princess would have to be given a name. We would learn what colour her hair and eyes are, whether her nose turns up at the end, what she wears. In the inevitable process of extending and elaborating the tale, the writer would have to try very hard to avoid literary clichés.

A fairytale does not have to try hard.  In keeping everything simple, it also keeps everything fresh. ‘Close by the King’s castle lay a great, dark forest’ leaves almost everything to your imagination, and then comes the ‘old lime tree’ and the cool well, and that’s as much as anyone needs to know.  A novelist might add a description of the well, providing it with a carved marble parapet or a rustic stone wall.  It might be beautifully written and very fine – but in a fairytale, it would merely get in the way.

Yet how is a simile like ‘as green as grass’ or ‘as black as coal’ less of a cliché than ‘bathed in a flood of silver moonlight’?  In my opinion, because they are so brief.  They leave the imagination free. ‘Red as blood’. The colour flashes on the inward eye in all its familiar, potent brilliance, and is gone: what else can ‘red’ be as red as? Strain after another comparison as much as you like, you’ll do no better.

Colours in fairytales are strong, simple, basic, and meaningful.
 Blanche-Neige: Benjamin Lacombe

Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a Queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty on the white snow, and she thought to herself, ‘Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.’

Little Snow-White

In spite of the 'Sleeping Beauty' picture at the top of this post, you don’t get pink in fairytales. You don’t get purple. Yellow is rare. But there is white snow, white linen, white snakes, white doves, white swans, white feathers. Red blood, and roses as red as blood. There are green branches in dark forests.  Black ravens, black ebony, black coal.  Golden hair, golden straw, golden crowns, golden spinning wheels.

The dove said to her, ‘For seven years must I fly about the world, but at every seventh step that you take I will let fall a drop of red blood and a white feather, and these will show you the way.’

            The Singing, Springing Lark

White, black and red are meaningful colours because they are rare in nature and therefore noticeable. White is the colour of innocence, the colour of an untrodden fall of snow under which the whole landscape is transformed. A white dove is an emblem of peace, a black raven a signifier of wisdom. In some variants of Snow-White, it is a raven which the queen sees against the snow, a more likely and a sharper contrast than an ebony window-frame. Black is unusual. Most birds are brownish: even today with our dulled attention to nature, we notice black crows and white swans.  Before chemical dyes, black was an expensive colour for clothes: it stood out: most people could not afford to wear it. And red of course is the most meaningful of all colours, the most emotionally charged.  Red is the colour that accompanies childbirth, wounds, war, accidents. Red is the stuff of life and death.

Blanche-Neige: Benjamin Lacombe

Gold is the colour of the sun, or perhaps it should be the other way around: the sun is more glorious than gold. The princess in The Singing, Springing Lark wears a dress ‘as brilliant as the sun itself’, while the heroine of The Black Bull of Norroway cracks open nuts to reveal dresses the colours of the sun, moon and stars. Gold stands for luck, goodness, happiness and fortune.

Blue, the colour of the sky, is strangely rare in fairytales. Apart from the eerie, supernatural blue light – the witch-light – in the story of that name, the only instance I can find is a sad little tale about a toad in which the blue object is artificial, a handkerchief:

An orphan child was sitting by the town wall spinning, when she saw a paddock coming out of a hole low down in the wall.  Swiftly she spread out beside it one of the blue silk handkerchiefs for which paddocks have such a liking, and which are the only things on which they will creep. As soon as the paddock saw it, it went back, then returned, bringing with it a small golden crown…

Tales of the Paddock, II

Colours in fairytales aren’t decoration, they aren’t even ‘just’ descriptive. They carry information.  They are a form of emphasis. And they can be relied upon. A golden head which rises to the surface of a well may be strange, but it won't be evil. Magical and just, it gives the same advice to both the good and the selfish girls: it's their own natures which will bring them good or bad luck. A girl who can ask a hazel tree to shake gold and silver down upon her is sure to prove fortunate, and a white dove will aid the innocent even as it pecks out the eyes of the guilty.

The Water of Life: Arthur Rackham

Here’s a poem into which I tried to work the colours of fairytales.


Out from the pine forest stepped
the bowing yellow dwarf, and stopped the prince,
who - half despairing - told him everything.

If the bent woman, walking backwards, sets you
to sweep the green pins with an old owl's feather,
and call up storm clouds in the fine June weather,
and ride the yellow colt of your last nightmare -
what can you do but sigh and tell your story
to the first kindly stranger who has met you?

'Tell me,' the dwarf said, 'what of your princess?'
'Oh, turned into a brown thrush long ago
she sits and sings in a fine gilded cage,
and every spring she lays a pure blue egg,
which, hatched, displays a tiny golden crown.
That's why you see me wandering alone:
for hills of glass and plains of knives spring up
behind, and hinder me from turning back.'

'Where's your white horse? Your squire, young Constant Jack?'

'Jack used to fret me - always making speed.
He rode my white horse red towards the wars
a long time back. Today, I have no doubt,
sheep graze the fine new grass between their bones.'

'Ah?' said the dwarf. 'And so you're quite alone?'
'Alone. And burdened with confusing tasks.'

Then, pointing where the green ride ducked and dipped
to twist behind the dense pine barrier:
'Now,' said the dwarf, smiling, 'keep on till dark...'



  1. I love the way traditional fairytales leave the imagination free. But your example of the writer needing to flesh out the story in order to do a novel-length adaptation -- could a writer possibly create a novel without fleshing it out? Do you know of any novel-length examples? The closest I can come is Eleanor Farjeon's 'The Silver Curlew,' but even she fleshed out the protagonist quite a bit.

    Right now, I see a tension in fairytale writing. On the one hand, it is so pleasant to read a tale that leaves my imagination free to fill in the details. OTOH, one of the reasons it's pleasant is that I can fill in the details just as I currently think they should be, based on my experience with the tradition -- which leaves the story a bit alienating for people who don't find that tradition friendly. Hence the current emphasis in a lot of markets on fleshing out your protagonists enough to show that they don't match the (mainly european) stereotype. But then the fleshed-out protagonist constrains the imagination, and you lose that fairytale feeling…

    In my WIP I try to get around this by writing fairytales without fleshed-out protagonists, but with settings that make it clear in what kind of place the story is happening. That is, rather than tell what the princess looks like, put the frog in a grove of palm trees just below the temple. Maybe it will work, maybe not.

  2. I agree with you! I know and love the Silver Curlew (an adaptation of Tom Tit Tot) and I think it's remarkable. There are a lot of novels based on fairytales - Robin McKinley, for example, has retold the stories of Beauty and the Beast, and the Sleeping Beauty - and with great success: I'm not for a minute claiming it's not possible to write a good novel-length adaptation of a fairytale. But it will be a novel, not a fairytale any longer: at least not in the traditional sense. It's a transformation. I love many novel length fairytale adaptations, but the pleasure they give me is the pleasure of reading a fantasy, a fully-thought through world with fleshed-out characters, rather than the economy of a fairytale.

  3. And colours have meanings. As you say, the golden head is safe. Apart from Snow White, I can't think of any (described)heroines who aren't golden haired and no villains who are.

  4. "Red is the stuff of life and death."

    I love a good page turner as much as anyone, yet I also love to mull a phrase like the one above and see what comes of it. Thanks for another thoughtful and enlightening post!

  5. Very interesting post. One of the projects I'm working on just now came into my head as a fairytale but I couldn't help expanding it as I wrote. It's very hard to write simple things - the complicated stories are easier!

  6. That was about the most interesting and fresh post I've ever read! Your exploration in comparing the simple, the complex, and (simple and complex) bad writings was fascinating (and something that never occurred to me). The color theme, presented along with great illustrations, was also a genial and --for me--unrecognized subject. Thanks!

  7. One theory why white, red and black are so common in fairytales is, that they were the colors associated with the Great Goddess (I don't use a special name,because the deity was known under different names in many if not all culteres at one point)
    Each color representing one of her aspects. White as the color of innocence and beginning stands for the Maid, red, the color of eroticism and menstrual blood (and therefore fertility)for the Mother and black, the color of death and magic for the Crone.