Discontent with Happily-Ever-After: Folktales about Non-Monogamous Behaviour

For today’s discussion, three folktales demonstrate the now little-known tendency for folktales to explore extramarital affairs and other kinds of non-monogamous behaviour. Two of these tales come from 14-15th century Italy, Poggio’s “An Inexperienced Youth” and Boccaccio’s “The Story of Lydia and Pyrrhus.” In Poggio’s story, a recently wedded man cannot “succeed in consummating the marriage” because he doesn’t know where his wife’s vagina is. So, in order to “fix his problem,” one of his friends offers to have sex with her enough that “her orifice loosens,” to which the “simpleton” agreed. It ends with the “young woman” congratulating her husband and “his friend’s labour.” Boccaccio relates the tale of an extramarital affair between a noblewoman and one of her estate’s servants. The husband, though, is incredibly jealous and always keeps a “watchful eye” on his wife, preventing her and her lover from acting on their desires. Eventually, the servant tricks the nobleman by climbing a tree and saying that, while ascending its branches, he witnesses a hallucination of his “master and mistress” making love in broad daylight. Intrigued, the nobleman climbs the “enchanted pear tree” and, upon looking down, sees his wife and the servant going at it. But, by the time he descends from the tree, they have returned to sitting pristinely and “innocently” on the bench. Believing the whole affair to be an evil machination constructed by the tree, he has it cut down and stops policing his wife, allowing her and the servant to continue their tryst.

Closing the series of tale is a folktale/fairy tale from the Shetland Islands called “The Mermaid Wife.” On the surface, it appears to be a fairly “tame” story about a mermaid who washes up on land and, due to the obsessive “love” of a local fisherman, ends up married. Through a series of “intimate encounters” with a seal, though, she ends up getting a seal skin that will allow her to return to her aqueous home and, while departing, tells the fisherman she “loved him while on Earth, but loved her first husband more.”

In conjunction with these tales, we also read a theoretical article by Bottingheimer titled “Fertility Control and the Birth of the Modern European Fairy-Tale Heroine.” Essentially, Bottingheimer argues that the overwhelming depiction of fairy-tale women as either “good” icons of chastity or “evil” temptresses (and by extension the construction of happily-ever-after as heterosexual, monogamous marriage) to moralizing, bowdlerizing phenomenon occurring during (most famously) the Grimms’ writing, but starting far earlier around the 16th-17th century when mercantile classes rose and the Reformation brought about moralizing forces. To this end, she contrasts prominent Grimm heroines with stories by Basile, Boccaccio, and others that discuss non-monogamous behavior. Most importantly, she notes how none of these extramarital affairs end in pregnancy and, in that sense, avoid all the slut-shaming and heavy moralizing that later fairy-tale writers would employ.

1) While, as Bottingheimer draws attention to, many of the extramarital affair within 13th-15th century folktales portray non-monogamous behaviour in a largely non-negative light, it also tends to objectify and commodify the women in these relations (look at the “Inexperienced Youth” tale as an example). In this sense, are these tales truly that “liberating?” Or, is it just the specific tales I read that introduced this complication?

2) How does the difference in the depiction of women within these tales contribute to their interpretation? For example, how does the fact that the mermaid in “The Mermaid Wife” (and the noblewoman Lydia) appear to have given more consent than the unnamed wife in “The Inexperienced Youth” reveal about the power dynamics in the relationships in each of these tales? 

(Un)bound to Their Bedside: Queer Potentiality of Fairy Tales

In a series of tales and articles exploring (potentially) queer readings, alternatives to heteronormative hegemonic constraints take the limelight. Kickstarting this week’s discussion, Veronica Schanoes’ version of Snow White, titled “Lily Glass,” adopts the perspective of the stepmother (the eponymous protagonist). In this version (set in modern-day U.S.), Lily Glass, a young unknown actor, marries the well-known, alleged playboy Leo Wredde, who has a “rebellious” daughter around Lily’s age sent to a boarding school in New England for “behaviour unbecoming of a lady.” Eventually, the stepdaughter, Nivia (similar to Latin-based languages spelling/pronunciation for snow, such as nieva in Spanish) returns home and Lily starts developing feelings for her, culminating in a kiss in the backyard garden that Leo walks in on. Nivia leaves for Greenwich Village after the incident, and Lily remains behind while Leo grows more distant. Lily eventually decides to search through New York for Nivia and winds up on her doorstep, where she’s invited in and they express their longing, desire, and love for one another. When Lily awakes the next day, she stares in the mirror and, simultaneously horrified and transfixed by what she sees, ambles toward it until it transports her back to her room at Leo’s estate. Once she returns, she tears apart her mirror and any glass item in her room until Nivia awakes and follows her through the mirror. There, Nivia witnesses Lily’s final moments as her face shifts through several different forms (symbolizing all the faces she’s worn her entire life while passing) until it becomes the mirror she’s used to construct her identity then transforms to a final “unrecognizable” face, which causes her to die. Leo, after all this, returns to bury “his wife,” his age “showing at last.” Nivia travels back to her flat in Greenwich Village with Lily’s mirror set up in the corner and eventually finds love again.

After this, another (considerably more heteronormative on the surface) tale by the Grimms’, “The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces,” was read to set the stage for the theoretical work. A king, worried about why his daughters clothes and shoes are torn to tatters each morning, issues a decree promising anybody who discovers their secret one of his daughters’ “hand in marriage” and, by proxy, the kingdom. Several try, fail, and subsequently get executed. One day, a wounded soldier answers the king’s call and, by not drinking the drugged wine and by feigning sleep, tricks the princesses and manages to follow them by donning an invisibility cloak. Through a trapdoor beneath their beds, through three forests of silver and gold and diamond, to a clandestine underground lake, the soldier discovers the secret: the princesses had been making nightly rendezvous with twelve princes in this subterranean kingdom and “dancing” all night long. On the third night of his visit, the soldier reveals the truth and picks the oldest princess as his bride since “he is no longer young.” The princes are placed under a curse that lasts as long as their liaisons with the princesses.

Examining a contemporary update of this same tale by Winterson called Sexing the Cherry, Orme examines how narrative choices, motifs of women’s subalterns, refusals of heteronormative happily-ever-afters, and unravelings of audience expectations within this story open up queer readings and potentialities latent in the tale (and in all tales according to Orme). After giving a brief history of the versions & variations of the tale type, Orme argues that the “transgressive sisters” in Sexing the Cherry queer the entire fairy-tale genre by “resisting patriarchal… control, subverting normative ideals of heterosexual marriage, and refusing… to apologize for their actions in pursuing their desires.” From there, Orme argues that the multiplicity of voices, stories, and storytellers subverts normative ideals by allowing several perspectives to occupy the same space and bear equal weight in direct opposition to hegemonic narratives that support one ultimate perspective as “truth.” Not only does the “polyphony of the tale-telling situation” possess a queer potentiality, the stories divulged by the eleven princesses also subvert traditional fairy-tale tropes of “happily-ever-after” by revealing what happened to the (forced) marriages after the end of the tale as we know it. Instead of blissful images of nuclear families, the princesses reveal that most of their marriages fell apart, some ending in murder. In one case, a princess fell in love with another young woman (called Rapunzel) who was ultimately stolen away from her by her disapproving parents, and the princess’ husband left afterward. Through all these individual stories, the pervasive motif of marital, monogamous, heteronormative bliss is undercut, each of these princesses pursuing other desires and goals instead. But, what of the twelfth princess? She, Fortunata, actually escaped the evening before the mass wedding and went on to dance alone (and eventually teach others to dance). When the narrator finally finds her after years of searching, she recounts the tale from her perspective (which at times contradicts previous tellings of the story), and ultimately refuses to give closure by allowing numerous, conflicting constructions of the story to co-exist. In all these ways, this story queers this traditionally normative tale by undoing its constraining construction of heterosexual marriage as inevitable and allowing a multiplicity of “truths” to exist side-by-side.

Before closing, I want to return to the “Lily Glass” story and the protagonists’ performativity/passing. Referring constantly to her make-up routine (whether she’s working on a filmset, preparing for a special occasion, or simply hanging around her house), the tale implicitly connects this act to her closeted identity/attempts at passing. Even her construction as “being Nivia” by the costume designer on one of her sets foreshadows what will happen (since her connection to Nivia in this scene implies her “being queer” like Nivia). Finally, when she’s seen without her “make-up” by Nivia at the Greenwich flat (and when she sees herself in the mirror the following morning) is when she collapses on herself. Instead of a liberating experience, Lily’s “coming out” turns into a self-evisceration where all the suffocating layers/faces she’s applied to herself peel off and combine and reform. Considering this central motif, why does the author choose to close the story in this fashion? Is it to depict the suffocating effect that a heteronormative society has on queer-identified people in reality? How does this choice affect the reading of the tale (as opposed to an ending where Lily survives and she and Nivia live “happily-ever-after”)?   

Frau Trude

Concluding this week’s readings on queer readings of fairy tales, we focused on the Grimms’ “Frau Trude” and Kay Turner’s “Playing With Fire: Transgression as Truth in Grimms’ ‘Frau Trude.'” The Grimms’ story opens describing a “defiant” young girl who doesn’t listen to her parent’s commands forbidding her from going to Frau Trude’s house since she was a “godless woman” and threatening to disown her if she tried. Stubborn and intrigued, the young girl departs for the “witch’s” house anyway and, upon arriving there, witnesses three frightening male figures and an image of a demonic force in the house. Still, she rushes into the house and converses with Frau Trude, who tells her all the men she ran into were her butcher, hunter, and coal burner. Then, she reveals herself as the “witch properly outfitted,” transforms the girl into a piece of kindling, and throws her into the fire remarking “It gives such a bright light!”

Although traditionally read as a cautionary tale warning children against disobeying their parents, Turner argues for a queer reading of the tale that “privileges the necessity of that which not only does not fit, but chooses not to fit.” Firstly, she recounts the chronology and variations of the tale and how Frau Trude, as a character, was “moderated” over time and place (initially this tale type included descriptions of her house as being “draped in entrails” for instance) until it reached the Grimms’ collection. Within the Grimms’ editorial control, the chattiness and take-charge attitude of both the unnamed protagonist and Frau Trude in order to “announce how bad he thinks both characters are.” Despite this heavy moralizing and social engineering under the Grimms’ pen, Turner highlights the queer subtext brimming beneath the surface of the tale. She discusses how the tale possesses all “the motifs of a classic coming out narrative” in how the young girl possesses this “socially unacceptable” desire that she pursues despite her parents disowning her, experiences self-doubt as actualized in “the frightening images,” meets her first love who “stokes the fire” then transforms her. From there, Turner notes how Frau Trude’s “waiting” defies any construction of her desire as predatory. Analyzing the symbolism of the fire and burning wood, Turner demonstrates how it could represent her transformation into “the elemental condition” necessary for her to contact the witch (commonly associated with otherworldly powers) instead of the normative discourse of hellfire and damnation. Also, she points out, burning wood was a common metaphor for “sexual ripening” and “first love” in 19th-century Germany. In closing, she addresses the ontology and “philosophy” of Frau Trude, as epitomized in her line “For once it burns brightly (or It gives off such a bright light)!” This line, instead of reflecting a joy taken in harming another as it is often interpreted as, shows “this witch” seeing light for the first time in “a long history of the tale world [that] has been defined by darkness, menace, and death.” And the young girl transforms into the very symbol of life.

1) How does Frau Trude (and Turner’s reading of it) relate to the version of Rapunzel in Kissing the Witch? What similarities (or differences) do you see?

2) How does Turner’s interpretation of the tale reflect both the “symbolic” and “mimetic” approaches to examining folklore/fairy tales? 

Transformation as Sublimation: Fairy Tales as Abuse Survivor Narratives (Pt. 2)

Continuing this week’s discussion surrounding fairy tales and abuse survivor narratives, another Anne Sexton poem, re-imagining the Snow White tale type, re-tells the familiar story in a way which depicts Snow White, not the Prince or the Seven Dwarves, taking vengeance against her abusive stepmother. 

As opposed to other versions of the tale, the poem ends with Snow White utilizing her newfound power through her association with the Prince’s throne to orchestrate the punishment of the Queen, which involved attaching “red-hot iron shoes” to her feet in order to “fry” her alive. Sexton also explores the portions of the narrative involving abuse more in-depth. For instance, the Queen attempts murdering Snow White on three different occasions with objects traditionally associated with the domestic sphere/traditional femininity, including a “tightly-bound bodice” to suffocate her, a “poisoned comb,” and (finally) the infamous poison apple that “does the job.” In this way, Sexton conflates child abuse and trauma with constraining gender roles while construing the nuclear family as dangerous in multiple ways since all these “domestic” items harm her and Snow White, through her association with her “in-law” family, reverses the violence onto her abuser. By embodying this role as a powerful monarch, Snow White ends up undoing her abuser by (in a sense) becoming violent herself, implying a continuing cycle of violence.

Continuing this line of thought, Rutledge analyzes a modern novelized adaptation of the “All-Kinds-of-Fur”/”Catskin” tale type and how it depicts the protagonist’s overcoming her past trauma in her essay, “Robin McKinley’s Deerskin: Challenging Narcissisms.” Firstly, she argues that, unlike past versions of the tale which try to rationalize the king’s incestuous advances toward his daughter by framing it as a promise he made to his dying wife, this version clearly portrays that this is an abusive father’s attempt to harm and rape his daughter (undoing, to a degree, the victim-blaming/Elektra Complex interpretations of the tale type that try to justify the father’s actions). From there, Rutledge describes how Deerskin’s process of transformation as the avatar for the Moonwoman (a benevolent goddess figure committed to protecting vulnerable/marginalized people) allows her the opportunity to sublimate and cope with her traumatic experiences by creating a space for her to explore her “inner self” while preventing harm from befalling others. Eventually, this connection to the dreamscape of the divine/ethereal realm leads to a dream where she imagines her mother as a demonic being/force about to overcome her, symbolizing the inner turmoil she feels. This same image returns when she finally confronts her abusive father by exposing his past abuses in front of the courts of two kingdoms (his and the one that he planned on marrying into) in order to prevent his marriage to a young woman from the second land. In her furious decimation of his character, her form (as avatar of the Moonwoman) transforms into a being reminiscent of her “mother-as-demon” nightmare. In this way, her ability to transform and morph grants her the ability to expose her father and reclaim her self. Although, as Rutledge notes, this is problematized by the fact that she only has this power through the blessing of the Moonwoman, implying that her “normal self” would not be capable of such and empowering act. Also, Deerskin’s lack of character flaws not only make her personality static, but also makes it potentially difficult for abuse survivors to relate to her character. Although, this novel, unlike the stories and poems read earlier (and described in the previous blog about fairy tales and abuse survivor narratives), isn’t meant to be mimetic/realistic, it’s meant to be more fantastical.

Finally, we closed the reading for this discussion with an article by Alan Dundes titled “The Psychoanalytic Study of the Grimms’ Tales with Special Reference to ‘The Maiden Without Hands’ (AT 706).” Bemoaning the flippant disregard for psychoanalytical readings of fairy tales by a majority of folklorists and fairy-tale studies scholars, Dundes argues for a more open-minded approach to fairy-tale interpretations that allows for psychoanalytic explanations of symbols that might be more overlooked by what he terms “literal-minded” scholars focusing on the historical and sociological phenomenon surrounding fairy tales. He acknowledges that most psychoanalytical scholars haven’t helped their cases by focusing solely on the Grimms’ tales and labelling them the “original” fairy tales. Still, he believes that psychoanalytical analysis could open new avenues of thought to explore these stories. In closing his argument, he presents a psychoanalytical analysis of “The Maiden without Hands” tale, focusing specifically on how it depicts “the Elektra complex.” While his basic argument is strong, that psychoanalysis could help broaden the scope of fairy-tale studies by dissecting the symbols of the tales, the manner in which he presents it was (in my opinion) off-putting. As much as he laments the close-mindedeness of scholars toward Freudian theory, he, at times, makes equally dismissive remarks toward more sociological readings, outright writing off concerns of scholars that think the Oedipal/Elektra Complex interpretations are victim-blaming (which, as a survivor, was more than a little infuriating). Also, it could be easily argued that the symbols could be analyzed outside of the context of Freudian theory since imagery and metaphor have existed far longer than psychoanalytic theory has. Finally, Freudian theory could be used to analyze the sexually-charged symbols/imagery while not relying on Elektra/Oedipal interpretations of the tales, which could have been a way to bridge the gap between these different takes on fairy-tale imagery. Basically, the rhetoric of the piece appeared to replicate the same “single-mindedness” that the author was hoping to undo.

1) Would you consider the “mimetic”/”realistic” fairy-tale adaptations relaying abuse survivor narratives more potentially empowering than the “fantastical” ones we’ve read/analyzed? Or do you think they are simply potentially empowering in different ways? Why?

2) Do you think the way in which the psychoanalytical theory article was framed seemed as condescending/close-minded as the “literal-minded” scholars he was addressing? (Or, to frame it more directly, I’m not just being overly-sensitive, am I?

Snow White as B-Horror Movie Demon Child: Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” and Susan Honeyman’s “Gingerbread Wishes and Candy(land) Dreams: The Lure of Food in Cautionary Tales of Consumption”

Opening up our discussion this week on hunger and, to some extent, societal conceptions of childhood, Neil Gaiman’s story “Snow, Glass, Apples” re-imagines the Snow White tale type from the “evil Queen’s” perspective. Originally the town’s clairvoyant and (notably) not an aristocrat, the Queen gets married to the King (which she prognosticated) after they have a brief, clandestine affair. Upon arriving at the castle, the Queen encounters her stepdaughter (whose mother, the original queen, died during childbirth) and senses something distressing and haunting about her. Eventually, this foreboding proves true when the stepdaughter enters the Queen’s chambers late at night, complaining that she’s hungry. After taking a nibble of the preserved apple the Queen fetches for her, the Snow White character bares her sharp teeth and bites the Queen at the base of her thumb and begins drinking her blood. In reaction to this vampiric encounter, the Queen barricades her door and installs iron bars on her window, noticing that her husband has been sending for her less and less. Soon thereafter, he dies, his body an emaciated husk despite being a relatively healthy middle-aged man. On his corpse, the Queen finds several bite marks, including some on his penis, that adds new dimensions to the “hunger” Snow White possesses, making the implicitly sexual elements of hunger/food concrete. In response, the Queen has her guards and hunters take the bloodthirsty child to the woods and excise her heart, which the monarch ties above her bed with weaves of garlic. Over time, though, the kingdom sees far less of the “forest people” and travellers from foreign lands that gather at their annual fair, damaging the land’s economy and trade, sending its citizens into an overwhelming hunger. Realizing that the heart above her bed is still beating, the Queen consults with “gypsies” and “magicians” in order to devise a way to permanently kill her. Crafting a poison from an alchemical recipe, the Queen injects bright red apples with the toxin and waits outside Snow White’s lair then drops the basket filled with the lethal fruit as she approaches. By the time the Queen returns to her chamber, the heart has stopped. Years down the line, a young prince arrives at the castle and, desiring to strengthen her kingdom’s ties to another, propositions him. During their lovemaking session, the young prince demands the Queen to remain catatonic and, when she makes a sounds, leaves the room disappointed and impotent (a definite critique of the heterosexual male gaze and its construction of woman as passive and receptive). As he departs from the kingdom, he stumbles across the glass coffin containing Snow White and, filled with necrophilic lust, opens the casket and mounts her. Whether he and his guards became her thralls or they listened to her twisted interpretation of the story, they return to the Queen’s castle, imprison the matriarch, and eventually sentence her to die in a fiery kiln.

Extending upon this theme of hunger (in all its manifestations) and children being more of curses than blessings, Honeyman examines how childhood and hunger have been constructed in fairy-tales and children’s literature across time in different contexts. Primarily, Honeyman notes how “Hansel and Gretel,” during the Middle Ages, reflected a common reality in peasant life where parents would have to disown their helpless, dependent children in order to survive during times of famine. As such, the tale represented the need for children to contribute to family life since the story ends with their re-integration into the family after providing them the food from the witch’s house. Later on, as Victorian/Romanticist sentimentality and idealization of childhood innocence took hold in the Occidental sphere, the tale shifted more to placing blame on the parents than on societal circumstance/the children themselves. Aside from this, Honeyman explores how several children’s stories, especially within the context neoliberal consumerism, shift the focus of hunger. Many show the extremities of consumption/desire, either outright rejecting food or eating so much that the “entire world is consumed,” in rhetoric mirroring colonialist, imperialist ideologies. More specifically, she analyzes how these hungers are gendered, with young girls often baking an excess of food only to derive pleasure from watching others it, while young boys consume the globe or conquer new realms when they don’t like what they’re served (referencing Where the Wild Things Are). In these ways, gendered norms and (specific types) of overconsumption are reinforced as positive things through contemporary children’s literature, according to Honeyman.

1) How do you see the prince’s sexual behavior/desire in the context of “Snow, Glass, Apples?” Do you think it potentially is critiquing the male gaze? Why or why not?

2) Honeyman’s examination of how children’s literature and its depiction of hunger changed as societal contexts shifted followed several lines of argumentation. What do you think this says about the construction of the family as an economic unit (under feudal, colonial, and capitalist societies) and how does this idea connect to fairy tales?  

In Time We’ll Both Outpace and Outlive You: Fairy Tales about Survivors of Childhood Abuse

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? 

Cleverness Is a Virtue: The Grimms’ “Clever Gretel” and “Clever Else”

Starting off this week’s readings, the Grimms’ “Clever Gretel” relays the tale of a working-class cook who, through her cunning and wordplay, acts upon her desires and gains control of her employer’s estate. Twirling about the kitchen in her red shoes and preparing a meal for her “master” and his expected guest, Gretel starts consuming wine and bits of the succulent chicken because “the cook has to taste her meal” to make sure it’s well-made. When the estate owner returns from fetching his guest, Gretel had already eaten both chickens and drank a fair amount of wine because she (rightfully) saw the meal as her own labor and wanted to reap the rewards from it. To avoid punishment, she tells the guest (when he arrives) that he should escape while he can because her “master” plans to chop off his ears, playing off the audible knife-sharpening occurring down the hall from the estate owner who anxiously awaits his meal. After the guest flees in horror, she approaches her “master” and tells him the other man pilfered the chickens and ran, which causes him to pursue the alleged thief with his knife still in-hand. The story ends with this odd, slapstick scene.

Analyzing this tale in conjunction with another Grimms’ tale with a “clever” woman, “Clever Else,” Cristina Bacchilega analyzes how both Gretel and Else possess a radical, queer potentiality despite their respective tales portraying them/the idea of a clever woman as a joke. Gretel’s subversive qualities are readily apparent: her consumption of her “master’s” meal breaks class boundaries, her gregarious and (at times) desirous attitude/persona dismantles the “demure, passive” trope present in several Grimms’ tales, and her conquest of the estate indicates the power of her subaltern over hegemonic/patriarchal forces. Another prominent aspect of this character’s undoing of mainstream norms is rooted in the tale’s history since several chronological pretexts to the Grimms’ version specified that the “master” was a priest and his guest was a deacon. In this way, the destabilization of their meal represents not only the dissolution of patriarchal forces, but of the institutional Church as well. In sharp contrast to this bold defiance of dominant social orders, “Clever Else” and her story are typically and traditionally marked by the eponymous character’s over-sensitivity and simplicity. Yet, upon closer examination, Else’s naivety could be an act to help her escape an unwanted marriage. For instance, when Hans (her suitor) arrives at her parent’s home, Else dallies while getting some beer for him and her family, supposedly weeping because she fears the axe hanging dangerously askew in the cellar could pose a threat to her future children. While at first this reads as “selfless worry,” it could also be seen as her attempting to escape the marriage (by wasting the beer/appearing inept) while alluding to her true fear (being caught in a traditional family environment). Augmenting this point, she leaves town once her husband no longer accepts her after she “rests on the job” (which could be seen as an intentional act to anger him) and declares “she’s no longer [Clever Else].” With her sarcastic misnomer and false personality dropped, Else is now free to traverse the world as she sees fit, according to Bacchilega. In these ways, the performativity and imperceptible (by societal standards) cunning these characters demonstrate disrupt the “world as we are socialized to accept it.”

1) Why do you think the Grimms’ removed the moralizing element of “Clever Gretel” present in some previous versions of the tale? Does this strengthen or weaken Bacchilega’s argument, and how?

2) Does the tale’s reliance on “middle-class fears and stereotypes” of the working-class limit its ability to be read as a subversive/radical text? Why or why not?

Gritty Details: Drawing the Corporeal from the Vague in Modern Fairy Tale Adaptations

Starting off the readings for this week, two tales by Nalo Hopkinson, “Precious” and “The Glass Bottle Trick,” highlight how some contemporary fairy tale retellings intensify the “gritty, raw, and corporeal” aspects of stories that have (under centuries of writers) been decidedly vague, brief, or nondescript. All this said, “Precious,” based off a folktale where an old woman “blesses” a peasant girl with the “gift” of speaking jewels/precious stones, brings this story to a modern, urban setting. In this rendition, the young, working-class woman with this “gift” ultimately views it as a curse since it renders her speechless (due to the bodily harm every word can cause her) and causes her to police her own feelings and expression. Compounding these internal turmoils, several people manipulate her to amass wealth, including her stepmother and abusive partner (who stands in as the “Prince Charming” motif). Finally, though, she speaks her mind and unleashes a torrent of sharp gems against the “Prince Charming” character when he tries to harm her again, ending the story in a different tone than the original folktale since the young woman saves herself rather than the prince.

“The Glass Bottle Trick,” a Bluebeard rewriting, changes the story in a few distinct ways. Most importantly, it explores issues of racism in a pointed manner since Samuel (this story’s “Bluebeard”) possesses extreme self-hatred due to being black. Similarly, in his professions of love to Rebecca (his newest wife), he consistently refers to her “whiter” skin. Also, marriage dynamics are explored in greater detail since this story divulges more about their relationship, how it developed, and its daily minutiae. All these details drive toward the conclusion when Rebecca stumbles upon the forbidden chamber while pacing around the house anxiously waiting to tell Samuel about her pregnancy. This time, the sealed room contains the bodies of his previous wives frozen in ice with their unborn children ripped out because Samuel’s self-hatred extended to his potential kids. Yet, the story does not end here. Rebecca had destroyed the bottles/capsules that Samuel had used to trap the ghosts of his former partners, which caused them to break free. From there, it is left ambiguous whether they acted as Rebecca’s saviors or killed her thinking she was an accomplice to Samuel’s murderous acts.

Finally, we read Adam Zolkover’s “Corporealizing Fairy Tales: The Body, the Bawdy, and the Carnivalesque in the Comic Book Fables.” At first, Zolkover bemoans the lack of attention given to comic books in fairy tale studies schools given the fact that these texts draw upon folkloric and fairy tale elements/motifs and could be considered original, contemporary stories in their own right. From there, he claims that the comic book series Fables serves as a perfect example of the validity of including graphic novels into the purview of fairy tale studies. He examines how the series manages to collude and combine several characters, motifs, and items from these stories and re-imagine them in a new locale with grittier and more erotic subtexts. Multiple characters make explicit references to the sexual encounters implicit in the previous version of the tales and, in their current manifestations, act out more clearly on their desires. For instance, Rose Red embraces a (seemingly) polyamorous lifestyle, declares herself as bi, and regularly circumvents parameters of the “law.” In this way (and in many more), Fables undoes the false notion that fairy tales are sanitized stories created for children and brings the underlying erotic elements of the folklore to the surface.

1) Unlike other renditions of fairy tales we have read thus far, Nalo Hopkinson specifically mentions the racialized aspects of these characters/motifs/settings. How does this change our perception of the tales/the characters in them?

2) What do you think she is trying to say about depictions of race in mainstream adaptations of these stories?

How to Erase a Fairy Tale Character: Rose Red and Modern Romance Literature as Fairy Tale

Examining the motifs, styles, and lore of modern romance literature, Lee details how this particular genre of storytelling mirrors and appropriates several fantastical, fairy-tale elements. Aside from the “happily-ever-after” trope and escapist romantic qualities (stereotypically) associated with romance novels, Lee argues that these works utilize a pastiche of folkloric and fairy tale motifs to disrupt the dominant narrative structures brimming underneath “mainstream” tales. For example, she states that, despite feminist critiques of the romance genre, “the erotic romance portrays nontraditional sex roles, values, and power relationships as both natural and expected.” Her analysis even touches upon the “happily-ever-after” ending present in several romances and how it can be read as subversive since the climax of the story involves overpowering the male figure so much that he must collapse “on his knees to propose marriage.” She then examines how these phenomenon take place within fairy-tale based erotica like Lair of the Lion and The Prince and the Showgirl, especially how these stories handle the implicit bestiality and desire present in the past versions of fairy tales.

Focusing on how fairy tales are forgotten instead of remembered in popular culture, Friedenthal explores the erasure of Snow White’s sister, Rose Red, from most modern mainstream collections of fairy tales and how it relates to societal norms/power relations in “The Lost Sister: Lesbian Eroticism and Female Empowerment in ‘Snow White and Rose Red.'” Initially, he introduces and analyzes the Grimms’ version of Snow White and Rose Red’s story, which can be read as subversive through its focus on women’s action and heroics (rather than a man’s) and the potential for their sisterhood to be somewhat erotically charged. Considering these elements that challenged popular social norms, adaptations of Rose Red with Snow White rarely happen/ed from the 20th Century till now. Instead, most mainstream versions and variations of fairy tales hone in on Snow White’s “solo” story which emphasizes her beauty, docility, domesticity, and youth, and remove any elements that grant her agency or autonomy. And, in the few stories (typically parts of “adult”/”mature” anthologies) including Rose Red, she’s painted as Snow White’s opposite on the Virgin/Whore dichotomy: Snow White is pure, innocent, and “sexy without being too sexy” while Rose Red is “bitchy,” promiscuous, and dangerous. Friedenthal closes his analysis examining the graphic novel/comic book series Fables which fleshes out Rose Red’s character a bit more and ties her “subversive” character to how she feels betrayed by Snow for running off with Prince Charming and leaving her forgotten, despite their childhood promise to stay together “against the world.” In this way, Rose Red potentially returns, surges from the obliviating margins in order to speak her truth and undo centuries of erasure.

1) How does the disappearance of Rose Red from “common” modern fairy-tale canon relate to the erasure of other stories/characters including All-Kinds-of-Fur? Why are these specific tales removed and how do they reflect patriarchal, heteronormative, and capitalist values shaping what’s “acceptable?”

2) How do the modern variations of “Snow White and Rose Red” deal with this (general) absence of Rose Red from public knowledge?

 

Stalked in the Forest: Erotic and Sexual Politics of Carter’s Wolf Trilogy

Analyzing the erotic elements in Carter’s Wolf Trilogy, Lau calls attention to the radical/queer potential in these tales and how they can be read as undermining predominant constructs of sexuality while seemingly working within them. In “The Werewolf,” Lau reads the story as both an oedipal conflict with a “phallic mother” (since the grandmother as werewolf conflates the traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine) and an undoing/break from the nuclear family/reproductive futurism since the “happily-ever-after” involves the “Little Red” figure living on her own with her grandmother’s inheritance and overcoming the dangers present within her supposedly “safe” family. Perceiving the climax of the story “The Company of Wolves” as a subtle critique of the “nymphet/Lolita” figure pervasive in erotic literature, Lau argues that Red’s ambiguous control of the situation and assertion that she’s “nobody’s meat” highlights her agency in the situation and her desire to embrace her animalistic side, pushing back against the feminist critique that the Red figure is passively accepting her rape. Finally, Lau examines “Wolf-Alice” as a subversive figure who defies patriarchal constructs of language and symbolism (especially psychoanalytic variants) through her embrace of her liminal state as simultaneously human and animal, as seen in her response to her mirror reflection where she sees her reflected self as “shadow,” not as the “ideal self” in Lacanian terms. In all these ways, the protagonists of the Wolf trilogy, in Lau’s analysis, reject dominant forms of thought and sexuality through subversive subtleties.

Compared to the other analyses and articles covering Carter, this essay perhaps best described and highlighted the ambiguous complexities of her description/depiction of sexuality and desire, showing how these tales can be read as either subverting or upholding dominant societal norms based off of varying interpretations. This becomes especially apparent when Lau discusses the provocative, controversial ending to “The Company of Wolves” since she acknowledges the critiques while offering her alternative interpretation of the tale. Also, the way she ties in not only Carter’s examination of pornography, but also other tropes/figures/cliches of erotic literature and film (especially the Lolita figure) really bolsters her claim since she does not rely on authorial intention alone to found her argument. While the effectiveness of Carter’s play on this infantilized while sexualized figure will shift from person-to-person, along this avenue of analysis/consideration these multiple arguments (that the “Litte Red as Lolita” figure passively accepts her rape/that she is autonomous agent controlling how she desires and how others desire her/that she actively accepts this to survive) can converge. In this sense, Carter’s intention to portray a complex mural of desire “succeeds” (if intentions can really do so) since all these seemingly contradictory interpretations can exist in the same plane. And, while I might be more apt to see the ending of “The Company of Wolves” as “passive acceptance of rape,” Lau’s take on it also makes sense because of her and (to some extent) Carter’s embrace of ambiguity. 

1) Throughout most of our readings analyzing Carter, the ending of “The Company of Wolves” and its controversy have been a recurrent theme/argument. What about Carter’s writing style lends itself to these varying interpretations? Can these seemingly antithetical interpretations co-exist? Why or why not?

2) Finally, was this Carter’s intention when writing tales, and perhaps more importantly, does her “intention” even matter, especially since queer theory is all about looking at coded messages?