Thursday, 21 October 2021

True Ghost Stories

 

'The Ghosts' by Lord Dunsany, illustrated by Sidney Sime
 

There is a great difference between a supposedly true ghost story and a fictional one. I used to live in a small Yorkshire village full of very old houses; the one my parents owned dated in part from the late seventeenth century. To the best of my knowledge we didn't have a ghost, but our neighbours in the even older whitewashed farmhouse down by the beck claimed to have a Red Lady who sometimes looked out of one of the small upstairs windows. And they were used to hearing footsteps cross the floor overhead when no one should be there. But that was it: there was no story attached. 

Further down the road was a ford across the beck, accompanied by a medieval ‘clapper bridge’ of two huge stone slabs. This was (and still is) known as ‘Monks Bridge’ because in the days of the monasteries, Fountains Abbey had owned the land. The cottage beside the bridge was said to be haunted. Coming on foot up the narrow, unlit road one dark chilly night at about two o’clock in the morning, I was disconcerted to see someone lingering near the bridge, wearing a hooded garment which I took to be a cagoule. As I passed, the hooded person – whoever it was – slowly and very silently moved away from me, down towards the ford and the rushing water. I didn’t think ‘ghost’, I thought ‘oddball’ and hurried on. Later, I wondered. And on another occasion, close to the same spot on a pitch black night, I walked close past a person who was standing stock still in the centre of the road. I had no torch (which may have been just as well), and whoever it was did not move or speak, and it was the creepiest thing I have ever experienced.

The point about these stories is that there is no point. They have no real beginning, no middle, no end, no structure. In fact they aren’t stories at all, they are anecdotes. You hear them, you are impatient or fascinated according to your nature, and then you shrug, because there is no way to take them any further. People prefer explanations of course, so often there’s an attempt to provide some kind of Gothic rationale for the spectre, involving hidden treasure, wicked lords, seduced nuns, suicides and murders. These are rarely convincing. ‘Real’ ghost stories (and nearly everybody has one) are open-ended oddities, and quite frequently the person involved does not realise anything strange is happening until afterwards.

Few ‘true’ ghost stories are as good as the strange tale of Margaret Richard, reported in a book called ‘The Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales’ by Edmund Jones, an eighteenth century Welsh minister who compiled narratives of supernatural encounters in an attempt to prove the existence of both God and the Devil. Margaret’s sweetheart got her pregnant and then jilted her at the altar, sending word he was sick. Furious, Margaret fell on her knees and prayed he should have no rest in this world or the next. He may really have been sick though, for shortly afterwards he died and his ghost kept appearing to Margaret until finally she took his hand and forgave him. He vanished and never troubled her again, but here’s the creepy bit: ‘His hand did not feel like the hand of a man, but like moist moss.’

‘No one could have made that up!’ is the first reaction to this kind of thing. But of course, the ability to do just that is one of the prerequisites for writing a good fictional ghost story. If Edmund Jones had not been a minister, he had the imaginative and descriptive power to have become an excellent writer of such tales. Here he lies half-awake in a dank Monmouthshire bedroom, ‘partly underground and known to be an unfriendly place’, being assailed by Satan:

 

After I had slept some time and awaked, the enemy violently came upon me. I heard him say in my ear: ‘Here the devil comes in his strength.’ (And that was true.) He made a noise by my face, such as is made when a man opens his mouth wide and draws in his breath, as if he would swallow something. He also made a sound over me like that of dry leather and, by my left ear, a sound something like the squeaking of a pig. The clothes moved under me and my flesh trembled, and the terror was so great that I sweated under the great diabolical influence.

 

He must at least, if you will excuse the phrase, have been one hell of a preacher.

The least strained of traditional explanations for hauntings is that the troubled spirit cannot rest until some wrong it did or suffered in life has been put right. Here’s an account from Andrew Lang’s collection of true ghost tales, The Book of Dreams and Ghosts. Lang quotes verbatim from a seventeenth century pamphlet with the pleasing title: Pandaemonium, or the Devil’s Cloister Opened. Note the use of incidental details to lend verisimilitude:

 

About the month of November in the year 1682, in the parish of Spraiton, in the county of Devon, one Francis Fey (servant to Mr Philip Furze) being in a field near the dwelling place of his said master, there appeared to him the resemblance of an aged gentleman like his master’s father, with a pole or staff in his hand, resembling that he was wont to carry when living to kill the moles withal… The spectrum…bid him not to be afraid of him, but tell his master that several legacies which by his testament he had bequeathed were unpaid, naming ten shillings to one and ten shillings to another…

 

This restless spirit was considered to be of dubious origin, suspicions soon confirmed by events. The ghost was joined by that of his second wife, after which the neighbourhood was plagued with poltergeist activities which nowadays might point to the aptly named Francis Fey himself as the source of the problems:

 

Divers times the feet and legs of the young man have been so entangled about his neck that he has been loosed with great difficulty: sometimes they have been so twisted about the frames of chairs and stools that they have hardly been set at liberty. 

 

Hmmm… However, Fey’s master and neighbours pitied him as the simple victim of the devil’s malevolence, and no further explanation seemed to be required.

Lang’s book touches upon all kinds of occult anecdotes, from premonitory dreams (“mental telegraphy”) to the full blown and richly detailed ghost story of the ‘Hauntings At Fródá’ from Eyrbyggja Saga. Too long to retell here, the tale follows the disastrous series of events following the death of a strange Hebridean woman, Thorgunna, at the farm of Fródá on Snaefellnes. The haunting begins when her hostess Thurid refuses to honour a promise she'd made at Thorgunna's deathbed to burn her guest's sumptuous bed-hangings (which Thurid herself had long coveted). It must be one of the best and most matter-of-fact accounts ever of ghost-as-reanimated-corpse – a phenomen which Iceland does particularly well – and it ends on another splendidly Icelandic note when the hosts of the dead are finally banished by a legal decision in a court of law. Though obviously ‘written up’ by the author of the saga, this tale retains much of the loose-ended mystery of the oral tradition. We never find out any more about Thorgunna, or quite why the violation of the taboo laid on her bed-hangings should have had such drastic consequences.

For me, the very best literary ghost stories are those which manage to combine both worlds – enough of a structure to provide a balanced, causal feel to the story, enough open-ended mystery to fascinate. A ghost story which is tied off too tightly is never entirely satisfying. They are very hard things to write, especially if you want to avoid Victorian pastiche. I recommend Alison Lurie's collection of short stories 'Women and Ghosts', Robert Westall's 'The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral' (Westall was very good at ghosts), Ann Halam's 'King Death's Garden', which is brilliantly funny as well as scary, Candy Gourlay's 'Shine' and Michelle Paver's chilling novella 'Dark Matter'. 

To end with, here’s a 'true' ghost story told to me many years ago by a friend...

 

We were living in France at the time, and my friend was an American woman married to a Frenchman. They lived in a modern house in Fontainebleau, but her husband had elderly aunts who owned a little chateau – one of those elegant small eighteenth century houses with shuttered windows and walled grounds that are scattered around the French countryside. This one was somewhere north of Paris, and the family would descend upon it for get-togethers at Christmas and Easter. 

The bedrooms all had names, a charming custom – the Chambre Rouge, the Chambre Jaune, etc – but, said my friend, there was one bedroom everyone hoped they wouldn’t get, which latecomers would unavoidably be stuck with – the Chambre des Mouches: ‘The Bedroom of the Flies.’ It wasn’t just, my friend said, that there always seemed to be a number of flies in the room – big, sleepy, buzzy flies, crawling on the windows. One of the windows had been walled up, which was a little creepy. And there was a small powder room off the main chamber, which might once have used as a nursery. But mainly, you never got a good night’s sleep there. You lay awake listening to noises. As if something was shuffling about, or dragging something else across the floor. That was all. But she didn’t like it. 

And so when a young woman called Meredith came visiting from the States – and a visit to the chateau was proposed – and she was given the Chambre des Mouches – no one in the family said anything. Because the house was full and no other bedroom was available, and really, the whole thing was probably nonsense… but there was a certain interest around the breakfast table next morning when Meredith came downstairs.

“How did you sleep?” they asked. Meredith hesitated. “Oh, I was comfortable enough – but I didn’t sleep too well because of that darned cuckoo clock. It went off every hour, bing bong, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, and kept waking me up.” “But, Meredith,” said my friend, as an indrawn breath went around the table there isn’t any cuckoo clock.”

 

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Old Women (and some old men) in Fairy Tales

 


Probably every parent in a fairy tale should be considered old. They are the previous generation. We may hear something of their lives: how a queen is advised to eat a magical flower in order to bear a child, or how a king lost in the forest promises to marry his son or daughter to a witch or a bear – but only in order to set the scene for the adventures of their sons and daughters. Fairy tale parents cause problems for their children. They abandon them in the woods, or send them off to perform difficult tasks. They saddle them with obligations incurred before their birth, like Rapunzel's parents, or the king in a Hungarian tale who (in return for good fortune out hunting) promises to give an evil spirit ‘whatever you have not got in your house’ – which turns out to be his unborn daughter. Fathers threaten to marry their daughters, or demand proofs of extreme affection from them and then throw them out for not being sufficiently fulsome. Mothers usually die in the first paragraph and the husband remarries, leaving the child of the first marriage to the mercy of a stepmother. Stepmothers are nearly always bad, but are balanced on the male side by a whole parade of unreasonable, greedy, weak or incestuous fathers, and I do mean fathers, not stepfathers. The family, in fairy tales, is not a safe space. Just as in real life, it is often disfunctional, sometimes dangerous, and full of generational tension. It is a place to leave, as soon as possible.

Look at the the murderous jealousy shown to Snow White by her stepmother the wicked queen, who resents seeing her beauty surpassed by that of a young girl. (Underlining the general uselessness of fathers, the King who is Snow White’s father gets a single mention and then apparently ceases to exist: we never hear of him again.) The cruelty of most fairy tale stepmothers is motivated by a preference for their own offspring over a step-child, but Snow White’s stepmother is unusual in being childless. Is her rage mere vanity? Or fear of mortality? Paradoxically, after learning from the magic mirror that Snow White still lives, she adopts the trappings of age.

…she thought and thought again how she might kill her, for so long as she was not the fairest in the whole land, envy let her have no rest. And when she had at last thought of something, she painted her face, and dressed herself like an old pedlar woman, and no one could have known her. In this disguise she went over the seven mountains to the seven dwarfs and knocked on the door and cried, ‘Pretty things to sell, very cheap, very cheap.’

 


In her attempt to remain young and fair, she makes herself old and ugly: everyone who’s seen the Disney cartoon will remember how through the second half of the film, she appears as an old hag with warts on her nose. Fairy tales are generally sceptical about attempts to reverse age, or cheat death. One person can perform such a miracle, and that is Our Lord who, stopping with St Peter one evening at a blacksmiths’ house in the Grimms’ tale ‘The Old Man Made Young Again’, takes pity on an aged beggar who asks for alms.

The Lord said kindly, ‘Smith, lend me your forge, and put on some coals for me, and then I will make this ailing old man young again.’ The smith was quite willing, and St Peter blew the bellows, and when the coal fire sparkled up large and high our Lord took the little old man, pushed him in the forge in the middle of the red-hot fire, so that he glowed like a rose bush, and praised God with a loud voice. After that the Lord went to the quenching tub, put the glowing little man into it, and after he had carefully cooled him, gave him his blessing, when behold the little man sprang nimbly out, looking … as if he were but twenty.

Unfortunately the smith has been studying this process, and next day after the Lord has gone on his way, he tries to replicate it with his mother-in-law, who gets horribly burned. (Yes, there are tasteless mother-in-law jokes in the Grimms’ fairy tales.)

‘Ugly old witch’ is a description which neatly combines misogyny and ageism. And there do seem to be many more old women in the Grimms’ tales than there are old men: by this I mean characters specifically described as old, rather than the parents we may assume belong to the older generation. I’ve counted twenty-seven old women including the twelfth Wise Woman in ‘Briar Rose’ but not her eleven sisters (who are narrative clones), and only five old men. The disparity is striking. It may be due to a perception of women as witches and magic-workers, or it may have something to do with 19th century rural society; possibly those women who escaped death in childbirth went on to outlive the men of their generation. But the split between good and bad old people is close to 50/50 for both sexes: twelve of the old women are helpful, fifteen are bad, while of the old men, two are good and three bad. Most of these old people are subsidiary characters with magical powers, briefly encountered either for good or ill. At the beginning of ‘The Six Swans’ for example, a King lost in the forest meets an old witch who guides him out on the promise that he will marry her daughter. He does so: the new Queen is also a witch, and we hear nothing more of her old mother.

But there are many helpful old women. The ones who keep house for bands of robbers nearly always take pity upon the hapless young man or woman who needs shelter for the night, and the same is true of ogres’ wives – and the Devil’s grandmother, a personage who appears in numerous fairy tales and is particularly active in teasing from her devilish grandson the answers to various puzzling questions the hero has been sent to ask.

An interesting Grimms’ tale ‘The Goosegirl at the Well’ plays with the presumption that any crooked old woman must be a witch. The countryfolk whisper, ‘Beware of the old woman. She has claws beneath her gloves’. When a kind young count offers to carry her load, it grows heavier and heavier as he toils up hill. He's unable to throw it off, and when the old woman springs on his back and hits his legs with stinging nettles to urge him on, we feel sure the countryfolk were right… but we’re wrong! The old woman turns out to be ‘no witch, as people thought, but a wise woman, who meant well.’  Having tested and proved the count's good nature, she jests that he may fall in love with her ugly daughter, but sends him off with a box carved from a single emerald, which contains a pearl wept by the king's daughter, banished for comparing her love for him to salt. The king has repented of his folly; the count promises to find the princess, and she turns out to be none other than the 'ugly' daughter of the wise woman, who has sheltered her all this time. The ugliness is only a disguise; she and the count marry, and all are reunited.


The magical old women of ‘The Three Spinners’ (pictured above) help a young woman to perform the impossible feat of spinning a room full of flax within three days. Unlike Rumpelstiltskin, they are benevolent; all they ask in return is to be invited to the girl’s wedding. And just as in the English version of this tale (‘Dame Habbitrot’), much is made of the ugliness of these three magical women:

When the feast began, the three women entered in strange apparel, and the bride said, ‘Welcome, dear aunts.’  ‘Ah,’ said the bridegroom, ‘how do you come by these odious friends?’ Thereupon he went to the one with the broad, flat foot and said, ‘How do you come by such a broad foot?’ ‘By treading,’ she answered, ‘by treading.’ Then the bridegroom went to the second and said, ‘How do you come by your drooping lip?’ ‘By licking, she answered, ‘by licking.’ Then he asked the third, ‘How do you come by your broad thumb?’ ‘By twisting the thread,’ she answered, ‘by twisting the thread.’ On this the King’s son was alarmed and said, ‘Neither now nor ever shall my beautiful bride touch a spinning wheel.’ And thus [the bride] got rid of the hateful flax-spinning.

Maybe to us this sounds like an invitation to laugh at such grotesque characters, but I’m not sure that’s how it works. The old women are helping a girl whose mother first beat her for laziness in spinning, then lied about it and landed her with this impossible task. They appear at the wedding with the deliberate intention of flaunting their deformities to save the girl from spending a lifetime spinning. Consider the likely audience for this story, and who might be telling it. It’s surely told for women by women, women who spent every spare moment spinning, who may even have been spinning while they listened. And it pays tribute to the sheer hard work, the endless, repetitive nature of domestic tasks, and the damage they do to the body. These powerful old women are ugly because they’ve worked and therefore deserve honour. I think the people listening to this story would have taken that in. 

The most iconic crone of all is Baba Yaga, who is terrifyingly difficult to predict. She can be either helpful or very very dangerous, and it pays to address her with great courtesy. Her house stands on chicken legs and is ringed with a bone fence set with skulls whose eye sockets light up red as dusk falls. Of course she is ugly: she has iron teeth and bony legs, and flies through the woods in a mortar, steering with her pestle, but ugliness for Baba Yaga is no drawback, it's part of her mystique, her terror, her ambiguous power. She reminds me of the Hindu goddess and demon-slayer Kali who sometimes wears a garland of human heads. According to Dr Thomas Coburn's Devī-Māhātmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition,kālī is the feminine form of time or the fullness of time ... and by extension, time as the changing aspect of nature that bring things to life or death. Her other epithets include Kālarātri (the black night) and Kālikā (the black one).” In this context it's interesting to remember the Russian story of how, as Vasilisa the Beautiful approaches Baba Yaga's hut, a white horse and rider gallop past her as dawn breaks, followed at noon by a red horse and rider, and a black rider on a black horse as dusk falls. Baba Yaga tells the girl that the white rider is Day, the red one is the Sun, and the black one, Night.


And talking of powerful goddesses, there’s Mother Holle in the tale of that name, who presides over a whole Otherworld at the bottom of a well. She has frighteningly ‘large teeth’ but calls reassuringly to the girl who has jumped down the well:

‘What are you afraid of, dear child? Stay with me; if you will do all the work in the house properly, you shall be the better for it. Only you must take care to make my bed well and to shake it thoroughly till the feathers fly – for then there is snow on the earth. I am Mother Holle.’

As the girl works hard and well, Mother Holle rewards her: a shower of gold will fall upon her whenever she crosses a threshold, while her lazy and rude stepsister ends up covered in a shower of pitch. Mother Holle is a folk memory of the Germanic goddess Holda or Hulde, whom Jacob Grimm describes as ‘a being of the sky’; like the Norse Freyja she ‘drives about in a waggon’ and ‘can ride on the winds, clothed in terror’. She is also a domestic goddess, visiting spinners and weavers and rewarding them for good work; she appears as either a beautiful white lady or ‘an ugly old woman’ (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology. Vol I, 265 et seq). I love the energy of this illustration in which the girl is having so much fun shaking out Mother Holle's feather bed. Work isn't always grind.

 


Whether they be wicked witches or wise women, fairy tales depict old women as repositories of knowledge and power. Like the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ many live in cottages of their own, signifying their independence and autonomy. The notion that, in growing old, women lose beauty but gain wisdom is borne out by a peculiar little fairy tale in the Grimms’ collection, ‘Old Rink-Rank’. The story goes like this:

A king proclaims that his daughter’s suitors must cross a glass mountain without falling. When the princess’s sweetheart volunteers to try, she goes along to help him. Halfway over, she slips and the glass mountain opens and swallows her. Sweetheart and father mourn, unable to find her. Meanwhile inside the mountain the princess meets a greybearded man called Old Rinkrank, who threatens her with death unless she becomes his servant. She serves him for years until she too is old, when he names her Mother Mansrot. Then one day he goes out, and she shuts all the doors and windows except for one little window, and won’t let him in. He stands outside calling plaintively,

Here stand I, poor Rink-Rank

On my seventeen long shanks,

On my weary, worn-out foot,

Wash my dishes, Mother Mansrot.

The original of this strange rhyme is in the Frisian dialect and no one seems sure what it means, or even if this is a correct translation. Nor do we know what the names ‘Rink-Rank’ or ‘Mother Mansrot’ may imply; neither did the Grimms, who have nothing to say about any of it in their notes. Old Rink-Rank repeats the rhyme twice more, begging or ordering Mother Mansrot to make his bed, and to open the door, but she replies that she’s already done all these things for him. (I can’t help feeling she’s mentally adding, ‘And I’ve had enough!’) Then he runs around his ‘house’ to find a way in, and finds the little open window, but as he climbs through she shuts it, trapping his beard. Rinkrank screams and cries, but she refuses to release him until he tells her where to find a ladder. Tying a cord to the window, she ascends the ladder to the top of the mountain and pulls the cord to release Old Rinkrank. Then she marries her sweetheart, who is still alive, while the king has Old Rinkrank put to death and takes all his gold and silver.

Time does curious things in this story. Maybe Old Rinkrank is an aspect of the difficult, possessive father. Fathers are always locking their daughters away in ‘princess in the mound’ tales, sometimes in anger and sometimes for their ‘safety’: either way, the princess generally gets no say. So perhaps the story’s about how she escapes from him, escapes the glass prison of her father’s control. In this, she out-performs the Lady of Shalott in Tennyson's poem another young woman imprisoned in a tower to spin and weave, and forbidden even to look out of the window except indirectly through a mirror. (More of mirrors later.) Holman Hunt depicts the Lady as a self-consuming whirl of claustrophobic, imprisoned energy, ringed in brass, her hair floating in electrically-charged clouds yet the only thing Tennyson can find for her to do in the outside world, once the mirror has cracked from side to side, is to lie down in a barge and drift to Camelot for Launcelot to admire her face in death. Given this kind of hopeless attitude to women's roles in the world, no wonder characters like Mother Mansrot were overlooked.  

 


It’s when Old Rinkrank perceives the princess as old no longer sexually attractive and therefore safe to leave that Mother Mansrot gets her chance and reverses the power vector. Now he pleads and cries for her help while she punishes and deserts him. Men, after all, depended upon women to look after them... But since her father and lover are still alive (‘The King rejoiced greatly and her betrothed was still there’) perhaps the ageing of the princess in the glass mountain is a metaphor more than anything else. She grows wise enough to trick Old Rinkrank and free herself. Wisdom is the gift of time and experience.

 

[This painting, 'If she would be his servant, she might live' is one of a wonderful series inspired by 'Old Rinkrank', by artist Emily C McPhie. See the rest at this link: emily c mc phie: an artist's journal.]

 

Old Rinkrank is one of the three wicked old men I found in the Grimms’ tales. The other two are the unpleasant old dwarf of ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ and a murderous male cook in ‘The Pink’. Of the two good old men, one is a ‘hoary’ or ‘icy little man’ (which may mean grey or white-headed) who gives good advice to a boy called Stupid Hans in ‘The Griffin’. The other, described as ‘an old man with a white beard’ in ‘The Hut in the Forest’ turns out to have been a young prince under a spell which (of course) is broken by the good conduct of a girl who treats him and his animals with care and courtesy.

One final, touching story is little-known. ‘The Crystal Ball’ was borrowed by the Grimms from an 1844 collection ‘Hundert neue Mährchen in Gebirge gesammelt’ (‘A Hundred New Tales Collected in the Mountains’) by Friedmund von Arnim (1815-1883). An enchantress has three sons ‘who loved each other as brothers, but the old woman did not trust them, and thought they wanted to steal her power from her.’ She changes the eldest into an eagle and the second into a whale, but the third escapes before she can change him, and heads for the Castle of the Golden Sun, from which he hopes to rescue a King’s daughter. On arrival (via a wishing cap which he obtains from some giants) he seaches the castle for the princess.

He … went through all the rooms, until in the last he found the King’s daughter. But how shocked he was when he found her. She had an ashen-gray face full of wrinkles, bleary eyes, and red [sic] hair. ‘Are you the King’s daughter, whose beauty the whole world praises?’ cried he. ‘Ah,’ she answered, ‘this is not my form; human eyes can only see me in this state of ugliness, but that you may know what I am like, look in the mirror – it does not let itself be misled – it will show you my image as it is in truth.’ She gave him the mirror in his hand, and he saw therein the likeness of the most beautiful maiden on earth, and saw too, how the tears were rolling down her cheeks with grief.

The princess tells the young man that to free her from the enchantment, he must first fight a wild bull by a spring. If he kills the bull, ‘a fiery bird will spring out of it, which bears in its body a red-hot egg, and in the egg the crystal ball lies in as its yolk.’ The crystal ball will undo all enchantments, but if the egg falls to the ground it will set everything on fire, and the crystal ball will melt… The young man kills the bull, and as the fiery bird flies up, his brother the eagle swoops down and strikes it. The egg falls, but the other brother, the whale, drives a wave ashore, extinguishing the flames. The egg cracks in the cold water, the youth retrieves the crystal ball, his brothers are restored to human form, and the princess is once again young and beautiful.  

The firebird resembles a phoenix, symbol of resurrection. The egg it drops holds the promise of rebirth. And the princess’s magic mirror is very different from that of the Queen’s in Snow White which reflected only the outside and could tell her only that she was growing old and losing everything that mattered. This mirror shows a deep, inward truth: the beauty that appeared to have vanished is still there. ‘This is not my form; human eyes can only see me in this state of ugliness, but that you may know what I am like, look in the mirror – it does not let itself be misled – it will show you my image as it is in truth.’ Even when we’re old we remain ourselves, and our past doesn’t vanish at all. It’s still there within us, creating us.  

 


 

 

Picture credits:

Blanche-Neige/Snow White - Benjamin Lacombe

Snow-White and the Wicked Queen - Gustaf Tenggren  wikipedia 

The Three Spinners - Artuše Scheinera, wikimeda commons

Baba Yaga - Ivan Bilibin 

Mother Holle - Adolf  Münzer

Old Rinkrank: 'If she would be his servant, she might live' -  Emily C McPhie

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Misogyny in Fairy Tales?

 



Does the illustration at the head of this post make you feel uncomfortable? It does me; the prince looks a real voyeur, and knowing the earlier versions of this fairy tale in which he doesn't wake her, he just rapes her, doesn't help one bit. (Although I argue elsewhere that the version I read as a child and love best, the Grimms' Briar Rose, isn't about people at all: it's about the century of sleep.) Anyhow, what about all the other princesses who need rescuing? What about the ugly crones, evil queens, wicked witches and cruel stepmothers? Don’t they show that fairy tales are riddled with misogynistic tropes? 

I can't argue that there is no misogyny in fairy tales, any more than I can argue that it doesn't exist in real life, but I do know that there are plenty of active, admirable female characters in fairy tales, many of whom are unknown to the general public. This is the first of two posts: in this one I’m talking about some of the young women and female children in fairy tales; in the second I'll be looking at the different ways older people of both sexes, though mainly women, are presented and apprehended in that parallel world of faerie which holds up the mirror to our own.

And just as in our own world, things are never simple. Firstly, of the two hundred and ten stories in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s unassumingly named Kinder- und Hausmärchen (‘Children’s and Household Tales’, 1857), approximately half are not not what we think of as fairy tales at all. They are fables about animals (The Dog and the Sparrow) or household objects (The Straw, the Coal and the Bean), comical tales (Frederick and Catherine), cautionary tales (The Wilful Child), nonsense tales (Fair Katrinelje and Pif-Paf-Poultrie), tall tales, stories about the Devil or Saint Peter, pious legends (Our Lady’s Little Glass) and jokes (The Maid of Brakel). These deliver a single, memorable point a warning, a lesson or a laugh. Often they fail today because we reject the message, the humour or the punch-line – we no longer think children should be beaten, for example – and they offer nothing more.

By contrast, a fairy tale is an adventure story, a sequence of marvellous events occurring to (usually) a single protagonist (by no means always a prince or a princess) who overcomes difficulties to live happily ever after (this may involve a royal marriage but doesn’t have to). The wicked are (usually) punished, but the fairy tale has no didactic intention and no single message. Like poems, fairy tales generate an emotional and interpretative response.

And women, it turns out, play a strong part. Out of the 100+ stories in the Grimms’ Household Tales which fit the category of the classic fairy tale, forty-three have women as main or prominent characters, thirty-two of whom rescue brothers, sisters, sweethearts, fathers and sometimes themselves, gaining wealth and happiness by their own endeavours.

Breaking those 100+ stories down further I looked to see by what means their heroines and heroes achieve success. It came out like this.

 

Means of success                    Heroines          Heroes

Magical assistance                  44%                 65%

Luck/wit/ruse                          35%                 20%

Innocence/simplicity               16%                 14%

Personal strength                     0%                   11%

Personal magical skills           14%                 0%

Endurance                               35%                 11%

Saved by female                      0%                   21%

Saved by male                         12%                 0%

 

Magical assistance is generally provided by old women, young women, ‘little men’, animals or supernatural helpers and is often given in reward for some generous gesture. A character may be gifted with a magical object like a wishing table, or a goose that lays golden eggs. Birds, insects or even dead men whom a character has helped will offer help in return, and magic-workers provide advice or aid in the performance of impossible tasks. Heroes need this kind of assistance more often than heroines, probably because many heroines are magic-workers themselves. (Interestingly, none of the Grimms’ heroes are magic-workers. Acquiring an object like a cloak of invisibility is magical assistance, not native skill.) 

Max Lüthi speaks of the ‘isolation and universal interconnection’ of the fairy tale: protagonists are often outcasts or outsiders ‘not linked by a vital relationship to any family, people or other kind of community’ and therefore free to set out and establish new bonds with whomever they meet. Many fairy tale characters are underdogs – orphans, simpletons, ill-treated step-children and so on – which evens out any physical disparity between the sexes. In the Grimms’ tales, few heroes succeed through physical strength, and battle of any kind is rare. Women excel at sheer endurance: going on seven-year quests to find lost lovers, knitting nettle shirts, climbing glass mountains, chipping themselves out of towers. Both sexes often succeed through quick wits and the ability to seize a chance, but the heroines have the edge. Characters of both sexes succeed through innocence and lack of guile: good-hearted simpletons or pure-hearted maidens. Finally, in those tales in which they are the main or prominent character, heroes do not save as many maidens/princesses, as heroines save brothers, lovers, fathers or princes.

But who is the ‘main or prominent character’? In some tales it’s obvious. No one would argue that Cinderella and Snow White are not the main characters in the stories that bear their names. The princes they marry are mere ciphers. Snow White returns to life when one of the servants carrying the glass coffin trips, jerking the scrap of poisoned apple out of her throat; it's a happy accident, not a rescue and the prince can hardly be said to have saved her. In fact, as a rule of thumb if the main character in a story is female, then her eventual marriage-partner will have no more than a walk-on part, and the same applies in reverse. Many so-called ‘passive princesses’ are merely the walk-on partners of main characters who happen to be male. To criticize these subsidiary characters as nonentities is to misunderstand the ruthlessly concise nature of fairy tales, which seldom have room for more than one protagonist. 

 

 

There are exceptions. In fairy tales the parent-child relationship is weak. Parents die, or are ineffective, like Hansel and Gretel’s father, or malevolent, like their mother. The sibling relationship is stronger, and though siblings of the same sex may be rivals, relations between brothers and sisters are usually close and tender. What often happens is that the focus switches mid-story from brother to sister. At the beginning Hansel comforts and protects Gretel, and lays the trail of white pebbles to lead them home. But once the witch has locked him up, it’s Gretel who shoves her into her own oven to burn to death, and calls a white duck to carry them across the river on their journey home. Both children have agency, but Hansel’s efforts fail and Gretel’s succeed. She rescues him.

And it nearly always is sisters who rescue their brothers – far more than the other way around. Just as in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the Grimms’ tale ‘Brother and Sister’ begins with the brother...

Little brother took his little sister by the hand and said: ‘Since our mother died we have had no happiness; our stepmother beats us every day and if we come near her she kicks us away with her foot. Our meals are the hard crusts of bread that are left overs, and the little dog under the table is better off, for she often throws it a choice morsel. God pity us, if our mother only knew! Come, we will go forth together into the wide world.’

 


Having precipitated their departure though, the brother ceases to have any useful narrative function. The stepmother is a witch; she creeps after them and bewitches all the brooks in the forest. Little sister can hear the voices of the brooks warning them not to drink: whoever does so will be turned into a wild beast. Her brother cannot hear the voices: too thirsty to listen to his sister, he drinks from the third stream and is transformed into a roebuck. His sister looks after him, finds shelter and food, and protects him from the King’s hunt. On the King’s promise to let this tame roebuck come to the palace with her, the sister marries the King (children grow up quickly in fairy tales), gives birth to a little son and is murdered by the witch, who enchants her own daughter to take her likeness and her place. But the dead Queen visits three nights running as a midnight apparition, asking after the welfare of her child and her brother the roebuck. On the last occasion the King recognises her, the witch is burnt to ashes, the Queen is restored to life and her brother regains his human shape. 

The little sister or Queen's power to hear the voices of the brooks, and to return as an apparition, borders on magic. Some sisters are themselves magic workers. Like Lina in the Grimms’ ‘Fundevogel’ and Gilla in the Irish fairytale Gilla of the Enchantments’, they use their powers of transformation to save brothers whose lives are threatened by witches. Other sisters set out on long quests to locate and rescue whole bands of brothers who‘ve been banished and transformed into swans or ravens, usually at their sister’s birth or christening. In these tales some kind of sacrifice is often demanded of the sister: she cuts off her little finger to use as a key to unlock the glass mountain in which they are imprisoned, or spends years weaving and sewing each brother a shirt of nettles, never speaking a word until the task is done. If you feel the urge to label this behaviour ‘passive’, think again. The sisters who perform these acts are full of grit and determination. 

 


In ‘The Six Swans’ a wicked stepmother changes her six stepsons into, you guessed it, swans. Their sister tells her father what has happened. But he doesn’t believe her, so she sets off into the forest to look for them and shelters in an empty hut. Her brothers fly down to warn her that the hut belongs to robbers, but as swans they cannot protect her. ‘Can you not be set free?’ she asks. ‘Alas, no,’ they answer, ‘the conditions are too hard! For six years you may neither speak nor laugh, and in that time you must sew together six little shirts of starwort for us. And if one single word falls from your lips, all your work will be lost.’ With this, they fly away.

The maiden, however, firmly resolved to deliver her brothers, even if it should cost her her life. She left the hut, went into the midst of the forest, seated herself in a tree, and there passed the night. Next morning she went out and gathered starwort and began to sew.

Nobody asks her to do this, her brothers don’t expect it. It’s she who is active, she who makes the decision. 

 

Finally there are stories in which the main character, the person who does everything – is obviously the girl or maiden, but owing to the unconscious bias of readers, editors and scholars, this gets overlooked. Examples from the (otherwise wonderful) Aarne Thompson Tale Type Index demonstrate the tendency. Stories such as the Norwegian ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ or 'White Bear King Valemon' in which a young woman journeys to find and win back her husband or lover in 'White Bear King Valemon' she climbs a glass mountain with the aid of steel claws! are listed as Tale Type 425: ‘The search for the lost husband’. The woman doing the searching is inferred but not named. Yet stories in which a young man similarly journeys to seek his wife or sweetheart fall under Tale Type 400: ‘The man on a quest for his lost wife’ which not only credits the man but elevates his journey to a ‘quest’. Tale Type 311 is called ‘Rescue by their sister’, which prefers the male rescuees to the female rescuer. It should be ‘Sister rescues her brothers’. And although Tale Type 313: ‘The girl as helper in the hero’s flight’ at least acknowledges the girl’s existence and role, the word ‘helper’ relegates her to a subsidiary position which is in no way an accurate description of such dynamic characters as the eponymousMastermaid’ in the Norwegian fairy tale of that name. A better wording might be ‘Magic-working heroine directs prince’s escape.’ 


A last example is Tale Type 870: ‘The princess confined in the mound’ which places emphasis on her status as victim: but in these tales the princess always digs herself out, so it would be better named ‘The princess escapes from the mound’.

This kind of unconscious bias may colour our perception of some familiar fairy tales. Rapunzel isn’t the brightest of heroines, but the prince who woos and impregnates her doesn't rescue her – he doesn’t even try and his repeated visits cause a catastrophe. Blinded by thorns, he wanders for years in the forest until Rapunzel’s tears restore his sight. Who saves who? Cinderella is an agile young woman who can outrun the King’s son; in the Grimms’ version she also climbs walls and trees and performs lightning costume changes. No magic-worker herself, she inherits supernatural aid/magical assistance from a fairy godmother (in Perrault), from her dead mother’s spirit (in the Grimms): female forces both. The prince is Cinderella’s trophy; she wins him. He is the symbol of her success. 

Next time, wicked queens, cruel stepmothers, old witches and ‘little old men’.


 

Picture credits

Sleeping Beauty - Walter Crane

Hansel and Gretel - Alexander Zick

Little Sister and Little Brother - Arthur Rackham

The Six Swans - Walter Crane

White Bear King Valemon - Jenny Nystrom 

The Mastermaid - Charles Folkard