Although darkness and violence mark several versions of fairy tales, a particular subset of these tales focuses on a specific form of violence, child abuse. From oral traditions, popular collections (including the Grimms’), and contemporary anthologies, multiple tale types emerge relaying stories of survivors of childhood abuse and the various ways they navigate these horrific traumas. Within the Grimms’ collection, two tales exploring these themes, “The Girl without Hands” and “The Juniper Tree,” will act as the starting point for the investigation of this tale type. After her father “unwittingly” sells her to the devil in exchange for a chunk of change, a young girl ends up being “too pure” for the demon to take her. In response, the father severs the protagonist’s hands (which were purified by her tears) in order to fulfill his “contractual obligation,” but she still remains too “godly” to fall into Satan’s possession and the demonic force gives up on his “claim.” Shocked and devastated by the violence committed against her for economic gain, the young woman has her parents tie her hands to a pack and she departs, leaving the site of her trauma behind. Eventually, she stumbles across the castle and, through a series of events, ends up marrying the king. Yet, this tale does not end on this “happily-ever-after,” but rather extends this tale through a sequence where the same demon reappears and, by intercepting messages being sent to the king on the battlefield, forges an “official” execution warrant against the protagonist and her newborn children. With help from her mother-in-law, the protagonist flees into the wilderness with her children. In the meantime, the king returns and discovers the forged documents, compelling him to instigate a search to find his wife and children. After “seven years of travel,” the king finally finds the cottage with his wife (who had her hands restored by God) and children, and a grand celebration including a renewed “wedding ceremony” closes the tale.
“The Juniper Tree” follows the story of a young boy who experiences severe, lethal abuse at the hands of his stepmother. During his birth, his mother died from “overwhelming happiness,” leaving him and his father alone until his dad remarries and has a daughter with his second wife. From there, the story details the daily, vicious beatings and abuse received from his stepmother who feared that he’d always overshadow her daughter. Eventually, the intense hatred directed toward the protagonist from his stepmother intensifies to the point that she decapitates him by closing a heavy chest on his neck. To cover her crime, she manipulates her daughter into accepting guilt for the act, then promises to hide the incriminating body by making it into the stew that she feeds to the father. Soon after, the Juniper Tree outside the cottage (where the boy’s mother was buried) starts flailing about and releasing a mist until a singing bird materializes and flies about the cottage. This bird, seemingly possessed by the spirit of the murdered child, sings of his “mother [who] killed me” and “father [who] ate me.” Despite its morbid subject matter, the song entrances several members of the town who ask him to do an encore, which he agrees to on the condition that he be given a golden chain, a pair of red shoes, and a millstone. Finally, he returns to his familial home and performs his song again, eventually causing the father to go out, listen, and receive the golden chain. Despite her initial misgivings, the daughter walks out when she sees the bird’s generosity and receives a pair of red shoes. Then, hoping the overcoming feeling of imminent doom will leave upon walking outside, the stepmother follows suit, only to be crushed by the millstone. Upon undoing his abuser, the young boy returns and he and his remaining family live happily.
But, the Grimms’ weren’t the only ones to explore the stories and experiences of abuse survivors through fairy tales, Anne Sexton does the same in her poems “Briar Rose” and “The Frog Prince.” At first, “Briar Rose” appears to be a poem about a young child imagining herself as the eponymous character. As the poem progresses, though, the repeated refrain of Briar Rose waking up crying “Daddy! Daddy!” and becoming an insomniac build toward the conclusion where the child remembers her inebriated father waking her up and raping her, comparing the child’s trauma to the sex forced on Briar Rose while she slept. Similarly, “The Frog Prince” details the abusive aspects of the tale by focusing on the “bedroom scene” and how the frog rapes her before his transformation. More disturbing, the frog prince places a guard by their bedroom and seals the well where they first “met” to ensure she never left him afterward.
Another (more) contemporary take on these tales comes from Terri Windling’s collection of fairy tales for abuse survivors titled The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors. Two stories within the anthology, revised versions of “All-Kinds-of-Fur” and “Donkeyskin,” introduce several variations that sharply change their interpretations. In “All-Kinds-of-Fur,” the most substantial change occurs in the ending where, instead of escaping the castle in a disguise crafted from a thousand furs, she ends up marrying her father and dying in childbirth, similar to how her mother died giving birth to her. Not only does this story heartbreakingly and honestly portray the repeating cycles of violence and erasure that allow abuse to continue within a family, it also implicitly describes the power structures that allow these injustices to occur on a societal level (since the king kills any priests or nobles who challenge him). Finally, the other major variation in this tale arises in how the king’s promise to “only marry someone as beautiful as [the original queen]” occurs. Instead of the queen making this demand of him (making her culpable for his abusive, incestuous actions in other versions of the tale), the king instead formulates this promise from her incomplete dying statement, “promise me you will never marry again, lest she be….” She never articulates her dying wish, so the king fills in the blank in an incredibly fetishistic fashion that hints at his violent actions. “Donkeyskin” pairs passages from earlier versions of the text with a story of a young woman who flees from her abusive father, works at a truck stop, and tries to find her “enchanted land.” Yet again, the “happily-ever-after” ending is sidestepped, instead portraying a more realistic ending where the protagonist does not end up meeting a “saving prince” who’ll make her forget her past traumas and decides to embark on a journey to New Mexico in search of a better future.
Perhaps the most poignant and telling motif/plot point of these tales arises from how the protagonists cope with the trauma they’ve faced. Within the Grimms’ tales, the different responses taken by the abused children fall in line with the gendered politics present in most of their work. “The Girl without Hands” relies on her faith, leaves her home, and waits for her “happily-ever-after” in order to overcome and cope with her past. Tellingly, the evils done to her are blamed on “Satan” in order to diminish the culpability of her abusers, the father and the king, and associate her passivity with being “a good Christian woman.” In sharp contrast, the young boy reacts much more actively, spreading news of his murder and abuse to the town then crushing his abuser to death with a monolithic millstone. Gender essentialism marks the responses of these protagonists to the violence they have experienced.
The other stories and poems, though, depict more realistic ends to these tales and, as such, explore much more nuanced responses. “Briar Rose” portrays how some abuse survivors attempt to make sense of what happened through storytelling/art/sublimation to express these incredibly painful and traumatic experiences. “The Frog Prince” depicts the unfortunate reality that several abusers often maintain contact, or even overwhelming control over, the survivor due to a lack of safe spaces for survivors in the context of rape culture. Similarly, “All-Kinds-of-Fur” ends in the protagonist’s death since the majority of society stayed silent (or were killed if they spoke out) about her abuse by her father. Finally, “Donkeyskin” portrays what Windling calls “the process of transformation” taking precedence over “Happily Ever After.” Instead of finding a “true love” that helps her overcome all her past traumas on a whim (despite nearly falling for a guy who stops by her workplace one day), the main character experiences an entire process of coming-to-terms with what happened on her own time and escaping the abusive situation in her own way (traveling/exploring the world/finding a job and shelter). In these ways, the protagonists in these tales depict the journey “through the wood[s]” of grief and victimization that abuse survivors experience in order to outlive their traumas.
1) How do the different responses/grieving processes taken by the abuse survivors in these tales change the depiction of these stories and reflect the perspectives of their authors? Which endings do you think best portray these circumstances?
2) How do the stories from Windling’s anthology depict the systemic issues that allow abuse, rape, and rape culture to persist? What societal changes do you think these fairy tales are calling for?