Thursday 30 October 2014


by Jane Rosenberg LaForge

A combination of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella’’, with an equal part of “The Cat-Skin’’ and a good dose of Job, “The Bearskin” (Der Bärenhäuter in the original German) is a tale of one man testing his endurance against the Devil’s. Some versions of the story, such as the one told in the Philippines, don’t necessarily pronounce a winner in this contest. But the original Grimm’s fable makes it abundantly clear: the Devil triumphs again. At times the story has been known as “The Devil, a Bearskin” (Der Teufel ein Bärenhäuter) as if to reinforce this idea. The Bearskin, a starving young man who makes his deal with the Devil so he might survive, undergoes a transformation, but he is no Cinderella, and no friendly and misunderstood Beast either. But this story, I have come to understand, still has had its own impact on the culture, or at least on mass entertainment.

In traditional tellings of “The Bearskin,” a soldier without a war to fight has no food, money, or shelter, and no prospects of finding any; his brothers have rejected him. He appears to be close to suicide when a cloven-hoofed creature in a green jacket reveals himself, and offers a way out. The green jacket will produce all the money he needs if the soldier does not say the Lord’s Prayer; if he does not wash, cut his hair, or clip his nails—if he becomes a monster by sleeping, eating, and living in a bearskin the Devil has just harvested from a bear that threatened to kill the both of them, moments earlier. If the soldier can live as the Bearskin for seven years, he’ll be returned to his natural state again.  

 Without any options, the soldier says yes. He wanders about the country, paying poor people to pray for him; and his transformation from man to monster is gradual. Eventually, though, he is forced to retreat to a room at an inn because his appearance is so appalling. While at the inn, he hears a man in great distress, and discovers the man has lost his fortune. He offers to help the man by giving him money; to thank him, the man promises Bearskin one of his three daughters in marriage. The two older daughters refuse Bearskin, but the youngest agrees because Bearskin has helped her father. Bearskin breaks a ring in two, gives half to this daughter, and keeps the other half. Then he leaves to complete his odyssey.  

After serving his seven years, the Bearskin summons the Devil and demands that he be cleaned up; in some versions, he forces the Devil to say the Lord’s Prayer. He then returns to the inn to retrieve his bride but is mistaken for a more desirable colonel; the two older daughters vie for his attentions. But by presenting his half of the ring, he reveals himself to the youngest daughter and declares: “I am your betrothed bridegroom, whom you saw as Bearskin. Through God's grace I have regained my human form and have become clean again." When the older sisters see the two embracing, they are overcome with rage and anger. One sister hangs herself; the other drowns herself in a well.

The Devil arrives at the home of the new bride and groom that evening. "You see, I now have two souls for the one of yours,’’ he says, referring to the two sisters’ suicides. And so the tale ends. Maybe.

 I was raised in the 1960s in the United States, so what I knew from fairy tales came in the form of Disney movies, books, and costumes. “The Bearskin” was not suitable for such purposes. Perhaps there was no way for Disney to tidy up its message. I did not encounter “The Bearskin” until graduate school, when I was studying German as part of my English degree. “Der Bärenhäuter” was one of the short selections in our textbook. This is appropriate, since fairy tales are one way we pass language and all its shadings onto our children, and yet at the same time, I was too old, and possibly too cynical, to buy into its message.  

Because the story appeared in a language instruction book, it emphasized the vocabulary we were studying at that time, so my recollection of the story is filled with the many irregular verbs that must have described how uncomfortable the bearskin was for the soldier. I also remember the young man who leases his soul to the Devil not as a soldier but as a profligate who wakes up after a bender to find himself in dire straits, and this is truly his motivating factor. I was so certain that this was the case that I complained to the professor about the Bearskin’s supposed conversion. He was paying people to pray for him, I argued. He didn’t make any essential changes in his own thought or nature. The instructor laughed, as he would many more times with me, because he served as an advisor on other translation projects I worked on, and to which I added far more errors than I ever did with “The Bearskin.”

German is a language I have studied for many years, and both my memory and my initial understanding of “The Bearskin” are tied up in that experience. My grandfather and uncle, with whom I briefly lived while in high school, both spoke German, and the language was their go-to code when they were deciding how to discipline me for some adolescent infraction. I thought if I could learn it, I could figure out what they were saying. I still have no idea what they were planning. That also seems appropriate, considering the Job-like tests they put me through, although they were only Job-like because of my limited perspective.  

Now that I have given myself permission to think about the story in English, I can see how ingeniously it was put together, for the Devil and the soldier reverse roles toward the end of the story, when Bearskin demands penance from the Devil. But crime does not pay in fairy tales; it doesn’t pay for Rumplestiltskin, for example, and the new family created in the process of the Bearskin’s rebirth cannot live happily ever after without some sacrifice. This back-and-forth seems to be a reflection of the language that bore this story, with its flexible syntax, but only to a point: the action, or the verb, always has the same position in a sentence. And the Devil always wins. 

Bruno Bettlelheim, in his introduction to The Uses of Enchantment, argues that religious motifs and morals have always been a part of fairy tales; Jack Zipes, in his introduction to Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, blames conservative religious forces for sanitizing fairy tales as early as the 17th century.  Nevertheless, the warnings of “The Bearskin” are unmistakably grounded in Christianity, given its plot, and it lends a theological interpretation to tales such as “Cinderella.’’ In light of “The Bearskin,’’ Cinderella’s makeover at the hands of the Fairy Godmother is as joyous as an Easter resurrection. Together with “The Cat-Skin,’’ these fairy tales demonstrate the gamut of the possibilities in the rebirthing process: from poor to rich; from rich to poor; maddeningly temporary or rewardingly permanent.  (The story bears, for lack of a better word, other striking similarities to “The Cat-Skin;’’ the retreat into an animal identity for the protagonist, and the contrivance of jewelry, hidden in food or drink, to reverse that identity back to a worthy human one again.)

I am particularly impressed by the religious nature of this tale, given my early education within the wallet of Walt Disney, who did not care to muddy his profit margin with tenants of charity and self-sacrifice. Yet at the same time, “The Bearskin” is deterministic, or fatalistic, in its faith that the Devil can work his way around the most valiant of men. There is no God in this text, or at least not an explicit God who extends a visible and helping hand to one of his flock. The only assistance he has, he finds from other imperfect humans like himself. Man is on his own here. The soldier saves himself, which some might argue makes “The Bearskin” fulfill an essential function of a fairy tale: showing the powerless or marginalized a path to power, or at least one out of the peril they thought they could not escape. 

I have my daughter, a voracious consumer of science fiction and urban fantasy books, television, and movies, to thank for explaining the story’s discomfiting end.   When someone is rescued from Hell, she said, that person has to be replaced by another soul, to maintain the balance between worlds. So of course the Devil, after losing possession of the soldier’s soul, would attempt to replace it—if not improve on his investment.         

For close to two decades I have been turning “The Bearskin” over in my mind, so much so that I have made it the centerpiece of the next modern fairy tale I hope to write. So perhaps this tale is not quite finished, after all. 

Jane Rosenberg LaForge lives and writes in New York City. She is the author of "An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir'' (Jaded Ibis Press 2014); three chapbooks of poetry, and one full-length poetry collection, "With Apologies to Mick Jagger, Other Gods, and All Women" (The Aldrich Press 2012). Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in numerous online and print journals, such as THRUSH, Fruita Pulp and The Linnet's Wings; and she has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. More information is available at

Picture credits:

Bearskin - Arthur Rackham
Bearskin - Louis Rhead
Bearskin - John Gruelle

Monday 27 October 2014

Review: An Unsuitable Princess by Jane Rosenberg Laforge

A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir

In this unusual book, part love-story, part coming-of age story, and a combination of memoir and fable, Jane Rosenberg LaForge interweaves two narratives. One is a tale of the forbidden love between Jenny, a mysterious dumb orphan and Samuel, a young blacksmith, living in a Renaissance-style fantasy world riven by politics, war and intrigue. The other is a wry, poignant and often bitterly funny backwards glance at the author’s own experience of growing up in Hollywood during the sixties. It, too, is ultimately a love story. The first is a tale of redemption, the second of failure: and turn by turn, passage by passage, as each narrative interrupts the other in layers of commentary, the effect is a contrapuntal dialogue between fantasy and memoir.  

LaForge is a poet, and in the passages of ‘True Fantasy’ her prose is laden with sensuous poetic imagery. Samuel the blacksmith eats ‘tiny red tomatoes that fell on his tongue sweetly and with a spark’; when he and Jenny make love ‘she was liquid in his hands; she was sand; she was the raw stuff – the spines of last year’s leaves, stems and roots – the tillable riches of the earth.’ It has to be read like poetry, I think: slowly. By contrast, in the ‘Fantastical Memoir’ the style is austere and autobiographical (and some of the cultural references pass over my British head).  But LaForge mercilessly  pinpoints the awkwardness, difficulties and perceived failures of a teenage self desperate for the trappings of success – clothes, joints, a date for the prom, a proper boyfriend and above all a role at the fashionable Renaissance Pleasure Faire – and who feels certain that everyone else her age is prettier, sexier, and having more fun.

As the respective love stories approach their culmination, the two narratives gradually collide. In the fantasy, Samuel the blacksmith’s boy owns up to and takes full responsibility for his love of Jenny. But in sixties Hollywood the young LaForge is unable to deal with the reality of her boyfriend’s illness. ‘An Unsuitable Princess’ isn’t children’s or YA fiction, I should make clear. Not because of anything unsuitable about it. But at a time when YA literature is full of romantic young teens romantically dying of romantic cancer, LaForge honestly charts her own inability even to know what to say to a dying boy – her apparent callousness, a mixture of fear and denial – and ultimately the exhaustion, guilt and shame of grief. She is very hard on herself.

This book isn’t an easy read, and the prose is occasionally a little laboured, difficult to get through. But persistence brings rewards. There’s plenty of shrewd, dark humour that made me laugh – such as LaForge’s frank admission of the thrill a teenage girl can get out of discovering she is admired even by older and unattractive men: it’s all so new: ‘A letch, by definition, is overly keen to notice the wiles of a seventeen-year-old girl, but I was overly keen to be noticed. I became an object, possibly blunter than most, and as the weeks went by I felt I no longer had to feign a personality to attract attention.’  And in the fantasy, the lush prose brings moments of delight, as in the passage when Samuel declares his love for Jenny: ‘everything around them, around her, felt stunningly promising, as when the air is first kissed by a storm.’ In the final chapters, the fantasy melts away into the thin air that perhaps it always was, and the ending is poignant and true. 

An Unsuitable Princess by Jane Rosenberg LaForge is published by Jaded Ibis Press