Monday 21 December 2020

Flying Reindeer, Little Gerda, and the different histories of Father Christmas and Santa Claus



Re-reading Hans Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ recently, I noticed how in this lovely illustration by Errol le Cain the reindeer turns its antlered head to watch as the Snow Queen stops to lift little Kay into her sleigh. In contrast to the Queen’s smile of welcome (as she opens her fur cloak to envelop Kay), the reindeer’s expression is narrow-eyed, even predatory. Then taking a closer look at the text I realised that in fact Andersen never specifies what animal – if any – draws the Snow Queen’s sleigh. In no matter what translation, the story only says:


One day, while the boys were playing, a great white sleigh came into the square, driven by someone in a thick fur coat and white fur hat. Kay quickly tied his little sled to the big sleigh and began to ride behind.  They went faster and faster, out of the square and … out of the city gates. Kay was afraid and managed to loosen the rope at last. It was no good – the little sledge still sped after the big one; they flew like the wind.


‘They flew like the wind…’ but did they actually fly? I have always assumed they did, but the story doesn’t say so. Then, what about the reindeer little Gerda rides, the one given to her by the robber girl to take her north, and north, and further north? ‘Faster and faster the reindeer ran, day and night alike. The ham and the loaves came to an end – and then they were in Lapland.’ From Lapland the pair run on to Finland, and from there ‘the reindeer ‘ran till he came to the bush with the red berries, and there he set Gerda down’ near the Snow Queen’s palace.’ Nowhere does it say he flew – but surely such a long and magical journey could only be accomplished so swiftly by flight? 


In his wonderful book ‘Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia’ (Harper Perennial, 2005) Piers Vitebsky introduces us to the Eveni people whose ancestors migrated from north-east China ‘and spread for thousands of miles across forests and tundra, swamps and mountain ranges, from Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean, from the Pacific almost to the Urals, making them the most widely spread indigenous people on any landmass.’ The animal that made such an immense distribution possible was the reindeer: and Vitebsky, an anthropologist who spent twenty years visiting, living and travelling with a small community of the Eveny people, goes on to describe the significance of this animal: the power of reindeer transport goes far beyond terrestrial journeys. In the 1980s, Vitebky listened as Nomadic elders of the people told his Eveny friend Tolya that:


Reindeer were created by the sky god Hövki, not only to provide food and transport, but also to lift the human soul up to the sun. From their childhood, seventy, eighty or more years before, they remembered a ritual that was carried out each year on Midsummer Day, symbolising the ascent of each person on the back of a winged reindeer.


The elders told how in the ‘white night’ of the Arctic summer a rope would be stretched between two trees to signify a gateway to the sky, and as the sun rose the gateway would be filled with aromatic smoke from two bonfires. The people would circle the fires, anti-clockwise to symbolize the death of the old year, then clockwise to celebrate the birth of the new one: prayers would be said for success in hunting, increase of the reindeer herds, and healthy children. ‘Then each person was said to be borne aloft on the back of a reindeer to a land of happiness and plenty near the sun.’

Vitebsky explains that ‘the association between reindeer and flying is very ancient – much, much older than European or American ideas about Santa Claus.’ More than 3000 years ago, across the steppes of western Mongolia, people were erecting ‘reindeer stones’ either to mark graves – ‘kurgans’ – or else places of ritual celebration and sacrifice. These stones are carved with representations of various animals: the reindeer being far the most frequent.  



Sometimes the deer’s antlers hold a sun-disc, or ‘a human figure with the sun as its head.’ Over a period of about 500 years the reindeer carvings grew more elaborate: their legs stretch into a galloping leap, their bodies are elongated, and they have long flowing antlers whose prongs develop into the beaked heads of birds. 


In a fascinating work ‘Fantastic Beasts of the Eurasian Steppes’, Petya Andreeva of the University of Pennsylvania says it’s possible to track over time how the representation of the reindeer travels ‘out of Northern Mongolia and the Transbaikal … in the direction of Pazyryk valley and the larger Altai region’, undergoing significant changes along the way. ‘The composition of fantastic flying deer diminishes its presence on carved monuments above ground as it reached the Sayan-Altai area, only to find a new life in portable goods which furnish underground burial spaces such as the frozen kurgan mounds of Pazyryk’. Here, the flying deer motif appears (along with other hybrid animals) on furnishings, head-dresses and textiles, and tattoos on the bodies of those interred – all preserved by the water which filled the graves and turned to ice. You can see drawings and photos of the tattoos at this link from The Siberian Times'


The Pazyryk burials date from 500 BC, Vitebsky tells us, but the climate was becoming too dry for reindeer to survive there. However, the animal:


… persisted in the imagination like a mythic or archetypal creature. By the second century AD one of the horses sacrificed in a grave wears a face-mask made of leather, felt and fur and adorned with life-size antlers [see above], clearly dressed up to imitate a reindeer. It seems a reindeer was still better than a horse for riding into the afterlife. Some 1500 years later, in the 17th  century … a Mongolian chronicle tells us that the wife of the Kham Daldyn Bashig Tu rode into battle on ‘a reindeer with branching antlers.’ Since real reindeer had been absent from this region for 2000 years, this probably indicates a continuation of the custom of dressing a horse in a reindeer mask.


Is it pure coincidence that Santa Claus drives a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer? The answer is yes; there is no connection at all. Nor was St Nicholas, who is of course the origin of Santa Claus, though there is no historical evidence for his existence - associated with reindeer or with any other kind of deer. In ‘The Book of Christmas Folklore’ (Seabury Press, 1973) the American folklorist Tristram Potter Coffin (great name!) says there’s no doubt that the 17th century Dutch brought their tradition of the arrival of St Nicholas on December 6 to 'Nieuw Amsterdam', as New York then was. But by the 1820s the saint had been transformed into Santa by the author of the poem we usually call 'The Night Before Christmas' and by the German-born illustrator Thomas Nast. The former is usually considered to be Clement Clarke Moore, but Professor Coffin argues entertainingly that the credit should go to ‘a sometime Major in the Revolution … Henry Livingston Jr, 1748-1828’. Whoever wrote it, the poem provided Santa with a sleigh drawn by reindeer - in place of the white horse and wagon in which he had previously travelled. Thomas Nast popularised the image, producing an annual portrait of the ‘jolly old elf’, but as a staunch Republican and abolitionist, he often utilised it for propaganda.

In this engraving of 1863, in the two roundels we see a wife praying for her husband, a Civil War soldier, while in the upper right corner Santa’s sleigh visits the camps and alights on a house roof to the left. Nast went on producing Santa portraits until 1886: here's his Merry Old Santa Claus of 1881, in which Santa wears an army backpack to draw attention to a campaign for higher wages for soldiers.


As Arctic exploration gripped the imagination of the country, Nast situated Santa’s home at the still unvisited North Pole - thereby closing the circle to meet the flying reindeer of ancient Siberia of which neither he nor the poet could have had the slightest notion.

However! In Britain we have Father Christmas not Santa Claus: and Father Christmas has an entirely different history from his American counterpart. For a start, he has no connection with St Nicholas. Rather, he is a spirit or personification of the festive season: on St Thomas’s Day (then held on December 21st, the winter solstice) a man dressed as ‘Father Yule’ would ride through the city of York carrying a loaf of bread and a leg of lamb, until the custom was suppressed in 1572 by an annoyed Archbishop. We’re not told what Father Yule rode on, or drew him along: but see below. In masques and entertainments throughout the Tudor period, a ‘Captain Christmas’ or a ‘Sir Christmas’ might appear, and in a court masque of 1638 in which Shrovetide and Christmas vie for precedence, Christmas appears as ‘an old reverend Gentleman in a furr’d gown and cap’ who proclaims ‘I am the King of good cheere and feasting, though I come but once a yeare to raigne over baked, boyled, roast and plum-porridge…’

During the Interregnum following the English Civil War, the Puritans did their best to suppress Christmas, which – or whom – they portrayed as a popish relic. In a pamplet of 1658, ‘The Triall and Examination of Old Father Christmas’ (the earliest recorded use of that version of his name) the author Josiah King defends Christmas and the jury acquits. This was bold, for the restoration of the monarchy was still two years in the future. It seems to have taken Christmas a couple of centuries fully to recover from the Puritan suppression: when he does turn up again, he rides on a goat. In 1836 Thomas Hervey, later editor of the Athenaeum, wrote in 'The Book of Christmas’ how:

Old Father Christmas, at the head of his numerous and uproarious family, might ride his goat through the streets of the city and the lanes of the village, but he dismounted to sit for a few moments by each man’s hearth…

The illustration by Robert Seymour shows Father Christmas in a fur gown, crowned with holly and riding a goat. Apart from the unsettling way in which both he and the goat are regarding us (to say nothing of the bodiless head tucked under his arm) Seymour's Old Father Christmas is a clear influence on the classic illustration of the Ghost of Christmas Present, crowned with holly and wearing a furred gown – green like that of the Green Knight, another winter spirit – surrounded by a feast complete with plum pudding and wassail bowl.


And of course the Yule goat takes us right back to pagan times again. The Norse god Thor rode in a chariot pulled by two goats, which he could slaughter, devour and restore to life. Another goat, Heiðrún, stands on the roof of the gods’ hall Valhalla, nibbling the leaves of the tree Læraðr (which may be another name for Yggdrasil, the World Tree). Her udders run with mead which collects in a basin beneath her. A deer is her companion, the hart Eikþyrnir; he bites the branches while his horns drip water that is the fount of all rivers. As you can see in this charming 18th century illustration, these are clearly life-giving animals. (I love the flag with VH for Valhalla on the peak of the hall.)


Could there be any connection between the goat upon which Father Christmas rides, the goats which pull Thor’s chariot, the goat on the roof of Valhalla – and the flying reindeer of the Siberian shamans? Probably not, even if goat and reindeer are both semi-domesticated horned animals, both valued for transport and food, both connected with the otherworld... but it’s worth pondering. Happy Christmas! Merry Yule!



Picture credits:

The Snow Queen, by Errol le Cain

Gerda and the Reindeer, by Boris Diodorev

Deer stones from Uushiglin-uver in the Mongolian province of Khövsgol -Wikipedia 

A gilded wooden figurine from the Pazyryk burials, c. 5th century BCE - Wikipedia 

Griffin holding in its jaws  a reindeer whose antlers are tipped with beaked bird-heads: Pazyryk, late 4th - early 3rd century BCE. Huntingdon Archive for Buddhist and Related Art.   

Mask with antlers for a horse's head:Pazyryk Barrow No. 1(excavations by M.P. Gryaznov, 1929). Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Santa Claus - two images by Thomas Nast, plus article: Smithsonian Magazine 

Father Christmas in fur gown, crowned with holly and riding a goat - by Robert Seymour, British Library

The stag Eikþyrnir and the goat Heiðrún on top of  Valhalla: Icelandic Manuscript, SÁM 66, Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies

Gerda and the Reindeer: from The Snow Queen - by Errol le Cain





Thursday 17 December 2020

Tales from the Elf-mounds of Ireland (3)


In a fascinating, closely argued book ‘In Search of the Irish Dreamtime’ (Thames and Hudson, 2016) archaeologist and linguist J P Mallory examines the suggestion that Irish mythological cycles preserve some memories and practices of the Irish Bronze or Iron Ages. He concludes (spoiler alert) that there is little or no evidence for this - and that early medieval clerks mostly back-projected legends on to these highly visible, mysterious monuments. The mound of Brú na Bóinne/Newgrange, for example, appears in the Tochmarc Étaine (The Wooing of Étain) as the palace of Oengus, foster-son of Midir, ‘king of the elf-mounds of Ireland’, but of course the mound of was never any kind of palace.

There is however one suggestive detail. Midir, this prince of the Sidhe, comes to Bru na Bóinne to ask his foster-son for a gift, and Oengus offers him the most beautiful woman in Ireland, Étain, for his wife. The story soon becomes very complicated: Midir’s original wife Fúamnach is understandably jealous. She transforms Étain into a purple, singing fly which lives for a thousand years before falling into a cup of wine, where it is swallowed by another woman who subsequently gives birth to Étain Mk II.  (The accidental swallowing of small living things - insects or worms or  even grains of wheat - causing pregnancy and birth or rebirth, is a recurrent theme in Celtic mythology.) The reborn Étain is then married to Eochaid king of Tara, and the immortal Midir, still in love with her, has to perform a number of what might well be termed Herculean tasks in order to win permission from Eochaid to embrace her. One of these tasks is to build a causeway over a bog called Móin Lamraige which no one had ever been able to cross.

 ¶7] Then Eochaid commanded his steward to watch the effort they put forth in making the causeway. The steward went into the bog. It seemed to him as though all the men in the world from sunrise to sunset had come to the bog. They all made one mound of their clothes, and Midir went up on that mound. Into the bottom of the causeway they kept putting a forest with its trunks and roots, Midir standing and urging on the host on every side. One would think that below him all the men of the world were raising a tumult.

¶8] After that, clay and gravel and stones are placed upon the bog. Now until that night the men of Ireland used to put the strain on the foreheads of oxen, (but) it was seen that the folk of the elfmounds were putting it on their shoulders. Eochaid did the same, hence he is called Eochaid Airem - or ploughman - for he was the first of the men of Ireland to put a yoke upon the necks of oxen. And these were the words that were on the lips of the host as they were making the causeway: ‘Put in hand, throw in hand, excellent oxen, in the hours after sundown; overhard is the exaction; none knoweth whose is the gain, whose the loss, from the causeway over Móin Lámraige.’ There had been no better causeway in the world, had not a watch been set on them. … Thereafter the steward came to Eochaid and brings tidings of the vast work he had witnessed, and he said there was not on the ridge of the world a magic power that surpassed it. 

The Wooing of Etain, tr. online at

This legendary causeway is similar to the great Iron Age timber causeway running out into Corlea Bog which was discovered in the 1980s during mechanical peat excavation. The timbers were dated by dendrochonology to 148 BC, and the construction took no longer than a single year. The causeway ended at a small island and is thought to have been made for a ritual purpose: it's estimated to have used the wood of three hundred oak trees: a thousand wagonloads of cut wood. Maybe the Sidhe were involved! JP Mallory points out that since “the bog swallowed up the trackway soon after it was constructed, no tale-teller of a thousand years later would have been able to “generate a contemporary account of its construction.” And he therefore concludes that “it would be churlish not to accept … the argument that that the tale does retain remembrance that once a magnificent road had been built to cross a specific bog.”

The millenium-long love story of Étain and Midir ends happily for them, if not for poor King Eochaid. When Midir finally succeeds in holding Etain in his arms, the two of them fly up through the rooflight in the shape of two white swans.


Picture credits

The Corlea Trackway in County Longford, Ireland, 2009 (a reconstruction): Kevin King at

Midir and Etain flying up out of Eochaid's hall: “The Frenzied Prince, Being Heroic Stories of Ancient Ireland” 1943. Illustration by Willy Pogány

Thursday 10 December 2020

Tales from the Elf-Mounds of Ireland (2)



This is a side view of the magnificent passage grave of Brú na Bóinne or Newgrange, in Co. Meath, Ireland, explained in later legend as the palace of Oengus, foster-son of Midir, king of the Sidhe, lord of the elf-mounds of Ireland. The facade has been restored, and the restoration has raised eyebrows in various quarters; in fact when things gets really nasty the word 'Disneyfication' is thrown around - but when we visited in 2018, personally I rather appreciated the attempt to try and give the visitor some idea of the way the place used to look. Or might have looked.

It's not as though we'd inherited a pristine site to begin with. The exterior of the great mound had suffered much damage in the past. It was dug into during the 1600s, and by the early 19th century a folly had been built close to the site, using stones taken from it (it's still there). By the late 19th century the entrance of Brú na Bóinne looked like this. (My God, look at those spirals!)

By the early 1900s some of the debris and earth had been cleared away and it looked like this:

Between 1962 and 1975 the site was excavated by Professor Michael J. O'Kelly, who decided to reconstruct the facade of the monument from the collapsed stones lying at its base: an intriguing mixture made chiefly (here I quote from Wikipedia) of  "white quartz cobblestones from the Wicklow Mountains about 50 km to the south." But there were also "dark rounded cobbles from the Mourne Mountains about 50 km to the north; dark gabbro cobbles from the Cooley Mountains; and banded siltstone from the shore at Carlingford Lough." Noting where the stones had fallen, Professor Kelly looked at how the ratio of white quartz to dark cobblestones changed along the facade, and restored it according to his own impressions of how it might have appeared. I particularly like the gradation from dark at the far edges, to white in the middle.

Here's a close-up of the whiter part, studded with those round dark 'statement' boulders.

It's been much hated. In 1983 the French archeologist Pierre Roland Giot said it looked like "cream cheesecake with dried currants distributed about" while more recently the tv archeologist Neil Oliver has criticized as "a bit overdone, kind of like Stalin does the Stone Age". Maybe so... especially since the stones of the new wall have been set in reinforced concrete. "Another theory is that some, or all, of the white quartz cobblestones had formed a plaza on the ground at the entrance." Who can say? As a Yorkshirewoman I have a lot of respect for the dry-stone-walling techniques of our ancestors. Today however, the entrance looks like this (see below) and those dark cut-outs on either side, faced in black stone, are unashamedly modern, making room for the steps by which visitors can come and go - serving the practical purpose of protecting the vast carved stone in front of the doorway from people who might otherwise scramble over it.

I know what Neil Oliver means, though... but however the stones were once arranged, their presence is still impressive, and the vast kerbstones which rim the foot of the mound are in their original places. Just protected from rainfall erosion here and there. Here's myself and my husband, book-ending one of them.

If the impressive, restored exterior leaves doubts as to its authenticity, the interior has not been touched. The stone-lined passage into the mound (where amateur photography is forbidden), and the amazingly high, corbelled chamber like the inside of a witch's hat, with its intricate spiral and chevron carvings, and the two huge stone dishes laid in the side chambers - these remain just as they were in prehistory, as incredibly moving as they must always have been. 

The marvellous website Voices from the Dawn tells how when Professor O’Kelly began the excavation in the early 1960s he became aware of a recurrent local tradition that the sunrise used to light up the triple-spiral stone at the end recess far within the tomb. Professor Kelly wondered, having recently uncovered Newgrange’s unusual ‘roof-box’ - that rectangular aperture you can see in the photo above the entrance - whether it had been intended to admit the light of the rising sun. He tried it out at the winter solstice on 1967,  and two years later repeated the experiment:-

"At exactly 8.54 hours GMT the top edge of the ball of the sun appeared above the local horizon and at 8.58 hours, the first pencil of direct sunlight shone through the roof-box and along the passage to reach across the tomb chamber floor as far as the front edge of the basin stone in the end recess. As the thin line of light widened to a 17 cm-band and swung across the chamber floor, the tomb was dramatically illuminated and various details of the side and end recesses could be clearly seen in the light reflected from the floor. At 9.09 hours, the 17 cm-band of light began to narrow again and at exactly 9.15 hours, the direct beam was cut off from the tomb. For 17 minutes, therefore, at sunrise on the shortest day of the year, direct sunlight can enter Newgrange, not through the doorway, but through the specially contrived slit that lies under the roof-box at the outer end of the passage roof.”

Since the light-box had been blocked with stones, and covered for many centuries with the collapsed walls of the mound (see the early black and white photos above) no one could possibly have seen this effect in modern times until the professor uncovered it. 


This, then, may be a very old memory indeed. 


Quartz stone and round river boulders

Photos copyright Katherine Langrish except for the two black-and-white ones which can be found on the Wikipedia entry for Newgrange

Friday 4 December 2020

Tales from the Elf-Mounds of Ireland (1)


A couple of years ago, on our way to visit a friend in Ireland's County Donegal, we broke the journey by staying a couple of nights in the Boyne Valley, home to some of the most impressive Neolithic monuments anywhere in the world. Brú na Bóinne, also known as Newgrange, and its companion mounds Knowth and Dowth are stupendous megalithic passage graves dating to around 3,300 BC, hundreds of years older than the earliest Egyptian pyramid.

We struck lucky: the place we stayed turned out to be a beautiful old house with lovely views next door to the great mound of Dowth: and I mean next door – the mound towered right up over the garden fence; we could go out before breakfast or last thing in the evening with our dog Polly and walk around it and over it and have it completely to ourselves. Dowth, or Dubad, is not a tourist site like its companion tombs, Knowth and Newgrange. No shuttle buses visit it. There is a huge crater at its centre, the result of the local landlord blasting a hole in it with dynamite sometime in the 19th century. If he hoped to find treasure, he was disappointed. But the mound was so massive and so well built that even the explosion did not damage either of the two passage graves deep within. Here's one of the two entrances, with Polly nosing around to give it scale: in the foreground is one of the huge carved sill-stones which edge the entire perimeter of the mound. This one is carved with spirals.

You can't go in; there's a locked iron gate. I tried to take a picture through it, and maybe you can just make out the passage running back into the mound towards the inner chamber.

We walked over and all around the mound. One of the great kerb-stones is carved with seven suns; the picture I took didn't come out too well:



... but there's a lovely Youtube timelapse of it taken during a winter sunrise by Anthony Murphy of the blog Mythical Ireland:

Of course there is a legend about this amazing place: the story goes like this. Long ago in the time of a king called Bressal Bó-dibad, a plague struck down all the cattle of Ireland until at last there were only eight left, one bull and seven cows. (The second part of the king’s name means ‘lacking in cattle'.) So Bressal Bó-dibad decided to build a tower ‘like the Tower of Nimrod’, so that he could pass into heaven. Who knows what he meant to do there? Challenge God to restore his cattle? The tale doesn't say, but men from all over Ireland came to help him build the tower – the mound, that is – but there was a condition: the work must be completed within a single day. So the king’s sister told him that she would stay the sun's course in the vault of heaven, so that they might have an endless day to accomplish their task’. She worked her magic and the sun halted in mid-sky, as it did for Aaron and Moses in the Bible. But Bressal Bó-dibad went after his sister and committed incest with her; he raped her. Then her spell was undone, darkness fell and the men of Ireland abandoned their work. And the king’s sister cursed the mound, saying: 'Dubad [darkness] shall be the name of this place for ever.' 

If that doesn’t give you the shivers, I don’t know what will. And then to find the stone with the seven suns, half buried in the grasses… well!

You can read more about the legend and the mound at Anthony Murphy’s blog Mythical Ireland, here:


Thursday 26 November 2020




In this sumptuous book (published by Faber) wife-and-husband team Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett have chosen twelve classic fairy tales, and flipped the genders of all the characters. As they explain in their introduction:

 Fairytales are the ideal genre to gender swap. They are some of the earliest stories we are exposed to as children and form the very building blocks of story-telling. … Most importantly they teach us the difference between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and about the moral codes that govern our society: that boys should bravely scale giant beanstalks to claim what is rightfully theirs, or that little girls should be wary of talking to strangers in dark woods.[…] However, if we can imagine a world where harps sing and rats transform into coachmen, can we not … also imagine a world where kings want kids and where old women aren’t witches? 

  I approached the book with a mixture of interest and trepidation. It has long been my mission to try and correct the misapprehension so many people unfortunately have, that fairy tales are all about insipid princesses asleep in towers waiting for true love’s kiss. There are shedloads of fairy tales about bold, active, witty young women and passive, forgetful or foolish young men; in fact I’ve recently compiled a series of thirty such tales which you can visit at this link. But the fairy tales we know best, the ones Disney has made so popular, do tend to depict the type of gentle, patient heroine which suited the social preferences of 19th century editors. So for example the ‘Cinderella’ of most children’s fairy books is the beautiful, long-suffering, forgiving heroine of Charles Perrault’s version, not the Grimms’ more active, headstrong one.  

              Of the twelve well-known tales which Fransman and Plackett have chosen for their gender-flipping experiment, some are more successful than others. ‘Cinder’ – based on Perrault’s version of ‘Cinderella’ – works remarkably well, since the ambiance is that of the 17th century salons, where to appear suitably dressed, fashionable young gentlemen might spend a great deal of time and money. Here we find Cinder’s two step-brothers preparing for the Queen’s daughter’s ball:          

 ‘For my part,’ said the eldest, ‘I will wear my red velvet suit with French trimmings.’

                ‘And I,’ said the youngest, ‘shall have my usual pantaloons: but then, to make amends for that, I will put on my gold-flowered cloak, and my diamond chest-piece, which is far from being the most ordinary one in the world.’

                They sent for the best tire-man they could get to make up their head-dresses and adjust their neckerchiefs, and they had their red brushes and patches from Monsieur de la Poche.


The authors deliberately have not rewritten these tales, which are faithfully based on those in the Langs’ Blue, Red and Yellow Fairy Books. Gendered articles of clothing are flipped: ‘petticoat’ becomes ‘pantaloons’, for example. ‘Wigs’ might have been a better swap for the original ‘head-dresses’: but the tale’s emphasis on fashion and civility works well for Cinder the aspiring young gentleman. It was a wise choice to go for Perrault’s version and not the Grimms’, with its wilder heroine and more vengeful ethos.

                A few of the other tales don’t work quite so well. Almost nothing happens when  ‘Hansel and Gretel’ becomes ‘Gretel and Hansel’, since the brother-and-sister pair of the original fairy tale share the action equally: Hansel’s idea is to leave the trail of pebbles and later of crumbs so they can find their way home, while Gretel rescues Hansel by shoving the witch into the hot oven. Reversing their roles doesn’t strengthen the tale, in fact it makes Gretel appear more of the victim. ‘Rapunzel’ doesn’t really work for me either: in the Grimms’ original tale a man climbs a wall into a witch’s garden to steal the herbs his pregnant wife longs for. (She can’t climb into the garden herself because she’s pregnant.) In the gender-swapped version she’s still pregnant, but climbs into the (wizard’s) garden anyway to get the herbs her husband longs for; why couldn’t he do it himself? Then she promises to give the wizard her unborn child. This wreckage of narrative sense bothers me considerably more than the mildly ludicrous vision of the boy Rapunzel imprisoned in the tower with his long beard. (‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your beard!’ cries the Princess.)

‘Jaccqueline & the Beanstalk’ (although I wish she had been Jill), and ‘Handsome & the Beast’ are both very effective. In the one, we have a girl climbing a beanstalk and chopping it down; in the second, the love story works just as well with a female Beast and a male ‘Beauty’ – and it’s nice that Handsome’s mother is a prosperous merchant.


‘Snowdrop’ opens with a King who longs for a child and does embroidery. And why not? Both in and out of fairy tales, Kings have longed for children, especially heirs. At first I wasn’t convinced that the motive of the child’s stepfather (the Wicked King, so to speak) would be jealousy of Snowdrop’s looks, but then I thought further. The story forced me to imagine a fairy tale world in which a man‘s status and privilege would depend upon his beauty – where his power would depend upon the favour of women. And if that seems unnatural, well, it’s worth considering why, isn’t it? I also enjoyed the rather Amazonian Huntswoman who spares Snowdrop’s life, and it was fun to meet female dwarfs at last, who as we might suppose, work away just as diligently as the male ones.

As a title, ‘The Sleeping Handsome in the Wood’ feels clumsy in English though it might work in French: Perrault’s ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’ turning to ‘Le Beau au Bois Dormant’. (‘The Sleeping Prince in the Wood’ might have been better?) Once again, Charles Perrault’s story is so decorated and fanciful that we can easily believe it is a lively Prince who ‘diverts himself by running up and down the palace’, runs a spindle into his hand and falls asleep looking ‘like a little angel’. I like the daring  Princess who penetrates the wood to reach the castle and wake him. But the second half of the tale, which I’ve always viewed as an addendum, in which the couple’s children and their mother (in this case, their father) are almost eaten by the Prince’s ogress mother (in this case, the Princess’s ogre father) works less well, since while it’s possible to imagine the Princess – daring as she is – hiding her marriage from her parents while still living with them, it’s far more difficult to imagine her hiding two pregnancies. It’s a pleasant touch to see the children’s roles reversed so that the little girl learns to fence, and is naughty, while the little boy is the quiet one.

In ‘Thumbelin’ – based of course on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Thumbelina’ – the gentle little boy who tends the sick swallow actually works better than the original little girl. Or so I think. ‘Thumbelina’ itself was probably inspired by the English fairy tale of ‘Tom Thumb’; but that story is all accidents and adventures as Tom gets into mischief, is swallowed by cows and fishes and ends up at King Arthur’s court. (Might we see a gender-swapped ‘Tom Thumb’ one day?) Where Tom Thumb is active, Thumbelina/Thumbelin is reactive: typically of Andersen, the tale is about suffering, social rejection and loneliness, as the child avoids a series of forced marriages and at last finds a place to belong. In the gender-swapped version, here’s the bit where a beetle, a cockchafer, discards the tiny boy she has flown off with.

All the other cockchafers who lived in the same tree came to pay calls; they examined Thumbelin closely and remarked, ‘Why, he has only two legs! How very miserable!’

‘He has no feelers!’ cried another.

‘How ugly he is!’ said all the gentleman cockchafers – and yet Thumbelin was really very pretty. […] There he sat and wept, because he was so ugly that the cockchafer would have nothing to do with him; and yet he was the most beautiful creature imaginable…

  ‘Gender-Swapped Fairy Tales’ is well worth a look. Its use of 19th century texts may make it less accessible to children; though there is no reason why they shouldn’t enjoy them, they might struggle to read them alone. (And anyone reading it aloud to a child should be warned that this tough version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ ends with the child being gobbled up by the wolf. No rescue, no woodcutter!) But for fairy tale fans, it offers a thought-provoking take on some over-familiar old tales. It is also beautifully produced, and the artwork by Karrie Fransman is truly gorgeous.