Old Mother Frost

Old Mother Frost” is a German fairy tale also known as “Mother Holle“, “Mother Hulda” and “Frau Holle“. The Grimm Brothers collected it for their book Children’s and Household Tales (1812). This story seems to comprise jigsaw pieces from Cinderella (for the wicked stepsister and mother), The Frog Princess (for the well/spring) and religious dualistic thinking. It’s clearly a story for and by women and girls. The central image of the spindle suggests it was told among spinsters. This one also has a didactic function: Good girls do housework; bad girls slack off.

Continue reading “Old Mother Frost”

The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

From Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling by Vilhelm Pedersen

A character is different from their family/tribe and feels utterly alone. Eventually they find their ‘people’ who accept them for who they really are. Understanding they are not alone in the world after all, the main character accepts themselves. Now they can be happy.

The Ugly Duckling is at its heart a transgression story. In any transgression story the mask must come off at some point, revealing the animal’s true self. Stories in which a character wears ‘someone else’s’ identity and remains hidden are rare and run counter to audience expectation.

This basic plot of loneliness to community to acceptance is ancient, and not surprisingly so, since humans are a social species. Separated from their tribe in the wild, a human won’t survive for long. Unlike all other animals species, the human woman cannot so much as give birth on her own.

Most non-human primates give birth unassisted with relatively little difficulty.

Obstretrical Dilemma, Wikipedia

Partly for biomechanical reasons, loneliness for us means death, even more than for many other species. This age-old loneliness plot taps into the most primal of human fears. And in children’s literature in particular, stories very often begin with the empathetic main character in a state of loneliness, hence all the moving house/starting new school stories. The child character also quite often starts from a state of boredom, though some loneliness researchers include ‘boredom’ as a type of loneliness (called ‘existential loneliness’ — being without a purpose in the world).

Although The Ugly Duckling features an animal main character, this is clearly a story about humans.

In The Ugly Duckling, Hans Andersen uses animal symbolism to tell a disguised human story. It unites animal transformation and animal moral tale in a unique way; it is about an unrecognised metamorphosis that really isn’t one at all. The Duckling only appears to be a strange outcast because no one knows what he really is, even his mother, who took trouble in hatching and defending him, gives up at last, wishing he had never been born.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Blount goes on to explain what Hans Christian Andersen brought afresh to this tale which otherwise relies heavily on Aesopian fable:

The pathos of this strange and beautiful fable is quite new to the form. The Aesop elements are there: the proud turkey cock, the old duck with the red rag of honour, and the incident when the animals quarrel over an eel head which is seized by the cat; and there is a house too, where the cat is master and the hen mistress. But there is far more than barnyard comedy in the rejection of the Duckling and his efforts to do what his nature demands, always thwarted by animals who, when he wants to swim, tell him to lay eggs or purr. Thrown out, hunted, half-starved, frozen, when he eventually meets the swans, his life has become so wretched and hopeless that he is only conscious of ugliness so great that he expects death.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
H. C. Andersen's 'The Ugly Duckling' Cover and illustrations by Giorgio Trevisan, 1965 hearth
H. C. Andersen’s ‘The Ugly Duckling’ Cover and illustrations by Giorgio Trevisan, 1965

THE UGLY DUCKLING AND THE LIFE OF HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN

Apparently, when Hans Christian Andersen was asked whether he would write an autobiography he replied that “The Ugly Duckling” did the job.

Perhaps Hans Andersen was writing about himself. Everyone interprets the fable in [their] own way, for the story has an echo in everyone. As a fairy tale it is, like many of Andersen’s, very odd. The happy climax is so long delayed that it almost does not happen, unlike Cinderella (with the same plot) where we know the heroine is favoured and only unrecognised by an odd quirk that magic will soon put right. The long suffereings of the lonely duck are alien to the setting which (Orwell always excepted) from Chaucer to Hepzibah Hen is usually gay and superficial. The moral is the one about appearance and reality, expressed by birds so memorably and wonderfully that there is no need to call the story a Parable from Nature; these simple symbols have expressed universal truth as only a story teller of genius can do.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

One of the well-known fairy tales that ends happily is The Ugly Duckling. The poor duckling is mocked and humiliated because he is so ugly, but he finally turns into a beautiful swan. On closer examination, what does this story say? It has been usually interpreted as follows: after many hardships, patience and perseverance will be rewarded. But if we stop to think about it, the ugly duckling has turned into a swan only bcause he was hatched from a swan’s egg. If he had been a real duckling, he would have grown into a duck. What does Andersen mean by his tale? Some biographers believe that Andersen was not the son of a washerwoman and a cobbler, but the illegitimate child of a nobleman, perhaps even the king of Denmark. There is no direct evidence for this, but the indications are strong. Perhaps The Ugly Duckling is the author’s way of saying, “I have achieved fame and wealth only because I am in fact of noble birth.”

Another possibility is that Andersen himself believed that he was of noble birth, even if it was not true. In this case, Andersen was suffereing from an obsession, a psychotic condition, traces of which we see in his fairy tale. This is an example of speculative biographical approach. It would perhaps be unwise to apply it as a consistent critical method, but it does illustrate the possibility of using literary works to illuminate the author’s life. However, this approach has little to do with the study of literature. If the focus of psychoanalysis is on the author, then the literary text is used merely as any narrative the patient may tell to the analyst.

from Aesthetic Approaches To Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
Milo Winter (1888-1956) The Ugly Duckling
Milo Winter (1888-1956) The Ugly Duckling

SETTING OF THE UGLY DUCKLING

“The Ugly Duckling” is an atemporal story that takes place on a river and riverbank. The group of birds is an animal community standing as allegory for human community.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE UGLY DUCKLING

PARATEXT

“The Ugly Duckling” (“Den grimme ælling”) is a good example of judicious title change. Hans Christian Andersen originally called this story “The Young Swans” but realised the title completely gave away the surprise ending. Don’t give away your ending in the title!

For over one hundred years The Ugly Duckling has been a childhood favorite, and Jerry Pinkney’s spectacular new adaptation brings it triumphantly to new generations of readers. With keen emotion and fresh vision, the acclaimed artist captures the essence of the tale’s timeless appeal: The journey of the awkward little bird — marching bravely through hecklers, hunters, and cruel seasons — is an unforgettable survival story; this blooming into a graceful swan is a reminder of the patience often necessary to discover true happiness. Splendid watercolors set in the lush countryside bring drama to life. 

an example of modern marketing copy for “The Ugly Duckling” turned into a picture book

SHORTCOMING

The problem is that the Ugly Duckling is different.

I’m not sure who decided ducklings are prettier than baby swans. To me they’re about even. The drake’s feathers rival the majestic outline of the grown swan. I wonder if people ranked the prettiness of these water birds before Hans Christian Andersen turned ‘ugly duckling’ into a meme.

This joke wouldn’t work if we didn’t own the basic assumption that swans simply look more elegant and classy than ducks.

In any case, the baby swan’s main shortcoming is that he is ugly. And because he is ugly, even his mother rejects him. If that’s not pulling at the reader’s heartstrings, I don’t know what will.

DESIRE

The Ugly Duckling wants to be loved. He thinks that if he weren’t ugly then he would be loved. (He is never proven wrong on this point; he is loved once he morphs into a beautiful swan.)

OPPONENT

The mother duck is most responsible for the Ugly Duckling’s rejection. She models her distaste for him and the genetic offspring all gang up. So does every single creature who comes into contact with the Ugly Duckling, though he does meet someone who wants to help him find love despite being ugly: The geese. These guys are more like allies than opponents. The Ugly Duckling never did want to be associated with ugly birds. He knew deep down he was better than that.

PLAN

THE BIG STRUGGLE

The Ugly Duckling thinks he’s going to be murdered by the massive, good-looking swans and offers himself up to them. They can murder him if they want; he feels so wretched and ugly and useless.

ANAGNORISIS

He looks into the reflection and sees that he has grown into a swan.

NEW SITUATION

The Ugly Duckling is really a swan, so will leave the ducks to live happily ever after as a beautiful swan.

Anastasia Aekhipova, illustration for The Ugly Duckling from The Steadfast Tin Soldier and Other Fairy Tales, 1980. Illustrations to this story are often done in old master style.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Everyone is happier once they are able to live as themselves, so I guess this swan doesn’t have much keeping him down anymore.

No one really disagrees with the idea that in order to be happy you must find your people and thereby find self-acceptance.

But what might Andersen have been wrong about? Which ideas feel dated when read through a modern lens?

  • The mother duck thinks her own babies are pretty because she gave birth to them. This suggests mothers love genetically related children more than adopted children. Studies don’t bear out this idea at all. Parents don’t love their children equally, but there’s no detectable difference between genetic and adopted offspring when both are raised from birth.
  • The ugly ‘duckling’ feels so ugly that ‘even a dog will not bite me’. If we take that as a stand-in for abuse in general, it is simply incorrect that a person can be too ugly to be victimised. This probably wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t used as an actual defense in court when trying to prove the innocence of rapists. This is an example of yet another thing the Ugly Duckling is wrong about. (Main characters are meant to be wrong about something otherwise there’s not much of a character arc.) However, the Ugly Duckling never learns that he is wrong on this point. It’s up to the reader to deduce that he must be wrong, because clearly he’s ugly AND he’s being abused.
  • The ugly duckling only feels legitimised once he looks into the reflection and sees a beautiful swan looking back. This is basically the make-over plot in which Beauty equals worthiness. More modern picturebook retellings of this story generally avoid the literal transformation from ugliness to beauty and instead limit the plot to ‘finds creatures who look just like him’. But what if you have some sort of facial difference and will never find your people? If we read “The Ugly Duckling” at the truly allegorical level, the baby swan was never ugly, only lacking in love. Therefore there was no literal transformation from ugly to beautiful; the bird felt beautiful after finding acceptance with creatures who accept him. The first Shrek movie works in a similar way. Shrek and Fiona are happy because they have ‘found their people’ (both of them ugly by comparison to the haughty, insecure, beautiful versions/imaginings of themselves). The message is ostensibly a positive one for kids: You’re as beautiful as you think you are. The other, unintended message: Know your level, kids. Ugly creatures belong with other ugly creatures; beautiful creatures belong with other beautiful creatures. Beauty is meaningful. Beauty is something we should all be constantly thinking about and trying to improve. In our image obsessed culture it feels hopelessly idealistic to believe that beauty doesn’t mean anything; clearly it does. But can we imagine and work towards a better world than one that runs on Beauty privilege?
  • This is basically a Chosen One story, in which bloodline is king. The Ugly Duckling is really a swan; the poor boy is really a prince. There are many ideological issues with the bloodline story, which remains popular in contemporary storytelling (see Harry Potter and all its offshoots).

RESONANCE

This story is so well-known that ‘ugly duckling’ is now a widely understood English idiom.

The Animal Who Thought He Was A Different Animal is an enduring trope across children’s literature:

Then there’s the animal who wished he were a different animal. The Saggy Baggy Elephant is a Little Golden Book by Jackson and Tenggren, first published in 1947. In the jungle, a bird taunts a baby elephant, saying his skin is too baggy. He doesn’t seem to realise he’s been separated from his tribe. The poor elephant feels self-conscious and tries to shrink his skin so he won’t be wrinkled. The tiger, whose sleek skin fits ‘perfectly’ is no help and instead offers to eat bits of it off for him. (That part is quite gruesome by today’s picture book standards.) The saggy, baggy elephant finds happiness and self-acceptance after meeting other elephants.

Header illustration from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” by Vilhelm Pedersen

The Elves and the Shoemaker

The Elves and the Shoemaker Little Golden Book

Read a modern re-telling of “The Elves and the Shoemaker” and you might conclude it’s a tale in praise of gratitude: Gratitude is noble. If someone does you a kind turn, be nice in return.

But that was not the takeaway message for earlier audiences of this tale, told to people with a very different, supernatural worldview. Back when people sort-of-really did believe in fairies, “The Elves and the Shoemaker” tales offered a warning: Do not, whatever you do, make clothes for fairies. DO NOT DABBLE IN ELF-CRAFT. DO NOT ENCOURAGE THEM INTO YOUR HOME.

Continue reading “The Elves and the Shoemaker”

Fairy Cup Legends In Modern Children’s Stories

The Final Page of The Polar Express

Is fairy land real? Some children’s stories would like us to think so. Their endings contain a ‘wink’, encouraging readers to carry the possibility of fantasy lands with them, even after the story draws to a close. This is one way of achieving resonance. We might argue this is a cheap trick.

Enter Richard Dawkins, who wrote The Magic of Reality partly as an antidote to magical thinking, which he famously despises. His main argument? Reality is far more interesting than anything fiction writers can make up. In this he is probably right.

Continue reading “Fairy Cup Legends In Modern Children’s Stories”

Snow White and Rose Red

Richard Doyle - Snow White and Rose Red 1877

“Snow White and Rose Red” exists in many forms but I’ll refer to a version set down by the Grimm Brothers. This is the story of a lesser known Snow White, and her sister Rose Red. There is indeed a dwarf, but he’s a different sort of dwarf from the crew we encounter in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

James Sant - A Thorn Amidst the Roses
James Sant – A Thorn Amidst the Roses

SETTING OF “SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED”

How big is this utopian forest? The girls keep running into the dwarf. I put it to you that this is either a tiny forest (more like a spinny) or they meet a different dwarf each time. (Turns out dwarves keep changing in size.)

Either that or the girls are stalking the dwarf. Perhaps they are not as stupid as they appear on paper, and were in on the bear’s plan from the get-go, hoping to kill him themselves, but only after he reveals his store of treasure.

None of this is on the page, of course, because fairytales as recorded by the Grimm Brothers rendered girls and women innocent naifs who required rescuing by men.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED”

Snow White belongs to a category of stories in which girls are taught self-sacrifice in order to better serve men. These stories didn’t stop appearing in the 1800s. More recent examples:

In “Snow White and Rose Red” an ursine prince asks to come in and warm by the fire. Of course the women let him in, as Mrs Tittlemouse let in the toad, also to sit in front of her fire. Because he wanted to. Because he believed he had the right to her space, her time and her attention. And because the girls fulfilled their feminine roles of caring, all worked out in the end.

SHORTCOMING

This is the story of sisters, presented as different sides of the same coin. Any personality difference is symbolised by the contrasting colour of their hair.

These archetypes have been recycled in many stories, for example in Laura and Mary from the Little House series, or Anne and George from The Famous Five series. One is quiet, the other active:

Snow-White was more gentle, and quieter than her sister, who liked better skipping about the fields, seeking flowers, and catching summer birds; while Snow-White stayed at home with her mother, either helping her in her work, or, when that was done, reading aloud.

These are the Ideal Girls, at one with nature, loving each other deeply. They always share everything and are perfectly clean and tidy. They have no moral shortcoming at all.

In a way, Snow White and Rose Red have superpowers. They are high mimetic heroines according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. Their superpower is a specifically feminine variety. These girls are so well connected to Earth and nature that nature cannot harm them. The idea that women are close to nature both elevates and hinders women. If you’re close to nature, you can’t rise up to become one with God, unlike men, who are Gods of their own domains.

Because these girls are so Good, ‘no mischance befell them’. This exposes a problematic ideology in which bad things happen to bad people. So what, exactly, is their story worthy problem? How do we make a story out of that? When the main characters of a story are Mary Sue archetypes, all the interest must come from the opponents. What tends to happen is, the main characters are so boring the contemporary reader ends up empathising with the opposition, simply because they’re not boring. This is partly why Mary Sue characters are a bad idea in modern stories, except in parody.

by Eric Winter for Snow White and Rose Red by Vera Southgate (1969) for Ladybird
by Eric Winter for Snow White and Rose Red by Vera Southgate (1969) for Ladybird

DESIRE

Snow White and Rose Red live in Arcadia, where even at night in the surrounding woods are perfectly safe, and berries available whenever they’re hungry. What more could these characters want? They want for nothing, of course. This is part of what makes them so Very Good.

(It’s easier to want for nothing when all is provided for you.)

So any desire must come from other characters. The bear is the character with the strong desire for change, so the story kicks off when he enters the story.

OPPONENT

Alphonse Mucha- a sketch

Adventure comes to the door of their idyllic, cosy cottage, inhabited only by three women (the sisters and their mother).

One evening, as they were all sitting cosily together like this, there was a knock at the door, as if someone wished to come in.

All but the youngest audience will understand that this is not a bear but a prince. He’s a talking bear. (The film Brave takes the bear transformation plot and inverts its gender by turning a queen into a bear. ) Readers convince ourselves we don’t know if he’s a goodie or a baddie, though his royalty status is telegraphed when he rips his fur on the lintel and a little bit of gold shines through. This is supposed to be a reassuring tale.

The dwarf is clearly a baddie from the start. If you’ve only ever read modern, illustrated versions of this story it’s a surprise to read the Grimm’s version and learn how very small he is at times. Case in point, the girls mistake him for a grasshopper at one point. In my childhood picture books he is almost half the height of the girls.

If you met someone cranky but they were not much bigger than a grasshopper, their rage wouldn’t really scare you, would it? On the other hand, the dwarf is able to pick up ‘a sack of jewels’. In fairytales, dwarves are as big or small as the story requires them to be at any given time.

THE SIZE OF THE DWARF

On that point, how big were fairies, dwarves and other small fantasy creatures really meant to be? That depends on where you come from and in what era you lived.

Elizabethans loved miniature creatures, and the Jacobeans even more so.

Take a creature like Oberon (fairy king). In one story he is three feet tall, in other he is the size of the King on a playing card. Take another fantasy creature, the witch’s familiar. In England the witch’s familiar is a very small creature like an insect or a bee, but in Scotland, familiars are also attached to magicians and are bigger, more powerful creatures. Take fairies. Before Shakespeare they are about as big as insects, similar to the English witch’s familiar. Shakespeare himself made his fairies ‘in shape no bigger than an agate-stone’.

In this old tale, the dwarf is small enough to be picked up by a large bird.

The trope of the human picked up and carried away by a bird clearly plays into ancient fears.

PLAN

With no plans of their own due to living in a forest utopia, agency comes from the bear. Clearly he didn’t need to warm himself beside the fire. Bears are capable of thriving in very low temperatures. His plan from the start, revealed later, was to spend time next to the girls so that they’d fall in love with him. He is rewarded with rough and tumble and close physical affection.

From Josephine Pollard‘s children’s book Hours in Fairy Land: Enchanted Princess, White Rose and Red Rose, Six Swans (1883). Artist unknown.

BIG STRUGGLE

Making use of the Rule of Three, the girls keep rescuing the angry little dwarf. The reason they do this has been proposed in the first section of the story: They help someone out of trouble because they are Good. They are basically Goodness Automatons. These girls have never considered ethical dilemmas such as The Trolley Problem, in which we sometimes help more people by sacrificing one.

Eventually the bear turns up to save the girls from the dwarf’s wrath. The dwarf tries to convince the bear to eat the girls instead.

ANAGNORISIS

“I am a king’s son, who was enchanted by the wicked dwarf lying over there. He stole my treasure, and compelled me to roam the woods transformed into a big bear until his death should set me free. Therefore he has only received a well-deserved punishment.”

SPELLS BROKEN AT DEATH

The idea that a spell can be broken once your oppressor is dead can be found across various superstitious cultures. Most disturbing is that of the houngans in Haiti, origin of zombie mythology.

A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. In this community, if you want to take revenge on someone, you pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victim’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed — they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave.
When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.

Although the supernatural parts of that story are not real, the zombie status of certain ostracised people is completely real. That’s what disturbs me the most. Imagine visiting a community in which someone is ignored, because everyone believes they’re the walking dead.

NEW SITUATION

There is only one happy ending for girls in fairy tales — marriage to royalty. The prince regains his rightful treasure. (I doubt it was rightful.) They end up with even more treasure than before. Instead of trying to return it to its owners, they keep it, because they are royalty.

Snow White marries the prince and Rose Red marries his brother.

EXTRAPOLATION

The mother moves out of the cottage and presumably into the palace with her daughters.

RESONANCE

Probably because of the Disney film, Snow White from the story with the seven dwarves is the more famous Snow White. This remains a tale for those who read fairytale collections. I think “Snow White and Rose Red” would’ve been much better known 100 years ago, which is why a soap advertisement like below worked for an earlier audience.

Erasmic Peerless Soap - Advertisement - art by Lewis Baumer - 1929
Erasmic Peerless Soap – Advertisement – art by Lewis Baumer – 1929
1931

But the trope of the female duo (twins, sisters, friends, enemies), each with a different colour hair, remains a staple. TV Tropes call one iteration the Betty and Veronica trope. On film, TV and in illustrated books, it’s really handy to give two girls different coloured hair — the audience won’t get them mixed up. This is why the actress who plays Paris on Gilmore girls was asked to colour her naturally brown hair to blonde, to make her visually distinct from Rory Gilmore.

More widely, we seem to have a bit of a thing for dangerous bears and pretty young virgins rubbed up together. I theorise this is because the bear symbolises brute masculinity, and the virginal young woman is peak femininity, and we traditionally like to see those particular outworkings in the same room.

In this case, I don’t think for a second that a veiled sexual reading of this fairy tale is the modern one; I suspect the inverse is true — bowdlerised versions of Snow White and Rose Red have tried (with only moderate success) to erase the sexual nature of a bear coming to visit maidens in their home. However, contemporary writers such as Margo Lanagan did bring the full force of bestiality back into it, where it actually always was.

The imaginative connection between women and bears goes way back into antiquity. The Roman/Greek goddess Diana/Artemis’s spirit animal was the bear. This character is goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, the Moon, and chastity.

Then there’s Callisto, Artio, Ildiko and Mielikki. All coded femme, all associated with bears.

Bear and the maiden fair 1899 by Franz Hein 1863 to 1927
Bear and the maiden fair 1899 by Franz Hein 1863 to 1927

Header illustration: Richard Doyle — Snow White and Rose Red 1877

The Oral Origin Of Fairytales

Henry Herbert La Thangue - The Harvesters' Supper

The era in which oral folktales became written fairytales was also the era in which children’s literature as a whole began to develop.

How did oral tales change once they became written-down stories?



First, the main audience shifted, notably, from the peasant class to the monied classes. Main characters were previously adults; now they were children.

Oral folktales focused on empowering the oppressed, and tended to centre on class struggles. For this reason they appealed particularly to the lower classes. As they became written fairytales, and so became the domain of the educated classes, class struggles were usually replaced by adult-child power-struggles: the child became the central focus of the story, rather than the peasant.

Elizabeth O’Reilly

This meant the ideology also shifted. Oral folk tales were often ribald. Now they became didactic, emphasising upper-class manners:

Zipes points out that, as writers appropriated the oral folk tale, they ‘converted it into a type of literary discourse about mores, values and manners’ for the socialisation of children according to the social codes of the time. Thus, ‘writers of fairytales for children acted ideologically by presenting their notions regarding social conditions and conflicts, and they interacted with each other and with past writers and storytellers of folklore in a public sphere’. This point probably applies to all children’s books (and literature as a whole)

Elizabeth O’Reilly

Most importantly, perhaps, the content of a tale was affected by the fact that storytelling was a dynamic process between narrator and listener. When retelling the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the storyteller would grab the child at “All the better to eat you with!” The child listener would probably react in a variety of ways, changing the story slightly with each retelling, perhaps pouncing on the storyteller in turn. The ability to turn the tables affected thee ending of Little Red Riding Hood. The children being told the tale were not harmed, and neither was Little Red Riding Hood, who managed to outwit the wolf in the oral tradition. It was only after being written down that Little Red Riding Hood lost her autonomy.

Another fairy tale perfectly suited to the oral tradition is Rumpelstiltskin, which is very old. Guessing the little man’s name turns the story into an interaction between storyteller and audience.

More recently, Spike Milligan wrote in the oral tradition. His story Badjelly The Witch is perfectly suited to adaptation for radio — the version I grew up with.

Below, Philip Pullman explains the extent to which oral tales vary depending on a variety of factors. He conveys the idea that fairytales were always meant to evolve. Fairy and folk tales are not meant to be set in stone forever, unlike the Gutenberg Press, which froze English spelling in time:

A fairy tale is … a transcription made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale. And all sorts of things, of course, affect the words that are finally written down. A storyteller might tell the tale more richly, more extravagantly, one day than the next, when he’s tired or not in the mood. A transcriber might find her own equipment failing: a cold in the head might make hearing more difficult, or cause the writing-down to be interrupted by sneezes or coughs. Another accident might affect it too: a good tale might find itself in the mouth of a less than adequate teller.

That matters a great deal, because tellers vary in their talents, their techniques, their attitudes to the process. The Grimms were highly impressed by the ability of one of their sources, Dorothea Viehmann, to tell a tale a second time in the same words as she’d used before, making it easy to transcribe; and the tales that come from her are typically structured with marvellous care and precision. […]

Similarly, this teller might have a talent for comedy, that one for suspense and drama, another for pathos and sentiment. Naturally they will each choose tales that make the most of their talents. When X the great comedian tells a tale, he will invent ridiculous details or funny episodes that will be remembered and passed on, so the tale will be altered a little by his telling; and when Y the mistress of suspense tells a tale of terror, she will invent in like manner, and her inventions and changes will become part of the tradition of telling that tale, until they’re forgotten, or embellished, or improved on in their turn. The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. A fairy tale is not a text.

Philip Pullman

Not everyone agrees with the idea that fairy tales came from the oral tradition:

The popular understanding is that fairytales evolved exclusively from oral folktellers – from the uneducated “Mother Goose” nurse, passing into the imaginations of children by centuries of fireside retellings.

But this story is a myth. Fairytales were invented by the blue blood and pomaded sweat of a coterie of 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses, or storytellers.

Melissa Ashley

Sure enough, some fairy tales did not come from the oral tradition. Beauty and the Beast is the stand-out example of that. I have seen these referred to as ‘literary fairy tales’ to distinguish them from ‘oral fairytales’, in which ‘oral’ is assumed.

Header painting: Henry Herbert La Thangue – The Harvesters’ Supper

Giants and Ogres In Storytelling

Jack and the Beanstalk

Giants and ogres are central archetypes in the fairytale cast. Though similar, they’re not exactly the same.

GIANTS AND OGRES: THE DIFFERENCE

Giants are big. That’s their defining feature. Ogres have a massive appetite. That’s their defining feature, and in true fairytale fashion, their body is an outworking of their inner story. Because of their massive appetites, they also happen to be big.

The songs and stories that feature ogres and cannibal devils and other monstrous eaters raise questions about the very nature of desire and our ways of expressing it: do our appetites make us monstrous?

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
Ogre on cover of L'Assiette au Beurre
Ogre on cover of L’Assiette au Beurre

Ogre stories are related to the Oedipal plot, about the big struggle of power between fathers and sons.

Ogre stories are about food and power, about food in the right place and who puts it there, and vice versa. This concern has grown, as monsters have proliferated and their appetites been ever more luridly dramatised, so that fading and monstrosity have begun to coincide in meaning: from the Cookie Monster of Sesame Street to the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

When you think of an ogre you have probably been conditioned via modern narrative to code him male. But go back to antiquity and we find fearsome female creatures who very much fit the description of an ogre.

An excellent example is the reproductive demon Gello. Reproductive demons are coded femme because they concern themselves with wreaking havoc for babies and their mothers. They kill babies, take them, eat them. Gello was thought to have been from the island of Lesbos. She died as a virgin then, because she was cut off in the prime of her life she remained incomplete. The state of incompleteness is a dangerous thing to be. It means you’ll come back and haunt people once you’re dead. So Gello did just that. She hung around as a ghost and ate babies in a rather extreme case of lateral violence.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF GIANTS IN STORYTELLING

It’s hard to think of an example of a good ogre, but giants in storytelling are often shown to be not so bad — simply misunderstood, out of place.

Defeated giants inspire a certain patronising affection, as mirrors of a buried and superseded ancestry […] and they enter the comic repertory of entertaining tales. […] Paradoxically, it is the monsters done to death by heroes who survive gloriously, narrated again and again as part of their murderers’ destinies.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
Giants in World Myth

I wonder why Africa and South America are the only continents without widely recalled tracks of giants.

  • Let’s go right back to inferno’s giganti (Virgil’s Dante), who strike terror in the poet. Dante (the character) names Nimrod, who built the tower of Babel. Ephialtes was one of the Titans who rebelled against Zeus. Also, Zeus defeated the Titans with his thunderbolts.
  • In Norse mythology, jots are ‘huge, shaggy beings of a demonic character who dwell in a distant dark chaotic land.
  • The order of the monstrous belongs to a horrible, frightening past. We continue to be fascinated by giants and we like to summon them to mind in the present.
  • Giants and ogres have been superseded in popular storytelling. Though immortal, they’re always in the throes of defeat. However, the story of the big struggles that overthrew them is rehearsed again and again. Often in contemporary storytelling The Corporation stands in for The Giant.
  • Celtic gods, who were supplanted by Christian saints, are a kind of giant.
  • The Nephilim, (from Genesis) are the heroes of days gone by, the offspring of gods coupling with the daughters of men.
  • Atlas (one of the deposed Titans) foreshadows the Catholic giant St. Christopher. Christopher is literally Christo-phoros, the Christ-bearer (suggesting he was big and strong).
  • Further back in time, beings were thought to grow larger than today (we see it in contemporary stories such as Jurassic Park). The New World was imagined as a haunt of giants. (Did people suspect dinosaurs even before dinosaur bones were unearthed?) People imagined men with one eye in the middle of their chests, who shaded themselves from the sun with a single, gigantic foot.
  • Paranormal giants: Yeti, Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yowie (Aboriginal Australia, who goes by a similar description to a Hobbit, with big, hairy feet.)
  • As mentioned, most cultures have giant myths. My home country of New Zealand had Kiharoa and Matua, among others:

There is the story of Kiharoa, a giant of the Ngati-Raukawa and Ngati-Whakatere tribes, who met his death about a hundred and fifty years ago. His stronghold was Tokanui Pa, on the middle hill of the “Three Sisters,” the conical hills which are seen close to the present motor road through the King Country a short distance south of the Puniu River. The story has it that he was twice the height of an ordinary man, and he wielded a hard-wood taiaha of unusual length and weight. He was killed at last when he slipped on some karaka leaves as he fought in a big struggle just outside his pa. His enormous head presently decorated the palisades of Totorewa, a pa of the Ngati-Maniapoto. An excavation for an oven to cook the huge body was made where he fell, and in one’s youth in those parts the “Giant’s Grave,” as it was called, in the fern, was pointed out by the Maori; the spot is close to where the Tokanui Hall now stands at the cross-roads. Two fathoms long and a foot over, is the native word-of-mouth record of Kiha-roa’s height. It may seem slightly exaggerated; but let us be generous and allow that he was at least eight feet.

There was another giant of these parts long ago, one Matau; like Kiharoa, he was a man of the Ngati-Raukawa tribe, and, too, his favourite weapon was the taiaha. He lived on a hill above the Wairaka River, a few miles beyond Orakau. Maori accounts aver that he was eleven feet high.

Legends of the Maori, Victoria University
German Fairy Tales

Jakob Grimm commented that ‘In the giants as a whole, an untamed natural force has full swing, entailing their excessive bodily size, their overbearing insolence, that is to say, their abuse of corporal and mental power.’

Seven-mile boots (or seven-league boots) are an element of European folklore. They allow the person wearing them to take strides of seven leagues per step, resulting in great speed.

The Diamond Fairy Book. c.1898. Frank Papé. LILLKORT - “Lillekort with his magic sword struck off the fifteen heads at one blow ”
The Diamond Fairy Book. c.1898. Frank Papé. LILLKORT – “Lillekort with his magic sword struck off the fifteen heads at one blow ”
English Fairy Tales

In The Chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Albion is a mighty British giant, defeated with all his giant cohorts and his brothers Got and Magog, by the founder of London, Brutus. (Albion is most remembered.)

Anywhere you have a child, or young person, dealing with giants, the comparison to Jack (of giant slayer and beanstalk fame), is inevitable

Fairytale News Blog
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

When Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself stranded on the island of Lilliput, he has no way of knowing that this is just the first of his encounters with strange and unknown people, including the giants of Brobdingnag.

In real belief from around this time, giants were thought to exist, and expected to bark like dogs. Some iconic giants even had the heads of dogs. Did you know St Christopher had a dog’s head before he was converted from paganism to Christianity? (Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travellers.) He was depicted as a kind of Anubis, the jackal-headed ferryman of lost souls, from Egypt. Perhaps his hallucinations were inspired by this imagery, but the sixteenth century explorer Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491 – c. 1531) said he heard giants barking when he sailed past Patagonia.

When Gulliver spoofed the long genre of travel writing, he sure had brilliant material to work with.

CONTEMPORARY GIANTS IN STORYTELLING

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman  Inspired by the Norse myths, Neil Gaiman takes readers on an epic journey with a boy named Odd and his animal companions as they try to save Asgard, the Norse city of the Gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl  Visit a gigantic piece of fruit and the oversized insects that live inside it. One of Dahl’s most well-known stories, this book is a starting point for reading the rest of his works.

The BFG by Roald Dahl This story is more obviously about giants, anthropomorphised. The giants draw on a long history of the cannibalistic ogre. I Kill Giants, the film  

Giants appear frequently in picture books, often as sympathetic outcasts. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, children.”

Giants And Symbolism

Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great shortcoming.

Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Giants are often depicted as hairy.

REAL LIFE GIANTS?

Mark Hall is an American scholar who has compiled global records of the existence of giants. He argues that gigantopithecus is another species of primate who were largely wiped out by us (as the Neanderthals were). But he also argues a few of them survive to this day. He describes them as we have long described giants in storytelling, conflating them with ogres:

  • cannibalistic
  • primitive
  • huge
  • far-dwelling living in areas inhospitable to humans. (Dahl used this in The BFG.)
The Giant and How He Humbugged America by Jim Murphy

The Cardiff Giant mystery became one of 19th-century America’s biggest scams. See how George Hull fooled the masses when a large statue was uncovered on his farm.

Carnival Castells

Sometimes the risk-taking [of carnivals] is no masquerade but, as in bullfighting, places the participants in real danger: on feast days throughout Catalonia, confraternities form troupes of acrobats to build human castells or towers, living giants composed of eight or more tiers of men, girls and boys climbing one above the other, gripping thighs, backs and shoulders, until at the end the whole perilous edifice is crowned by the anxaneta, a small child who shins up to the pinnacle, which towers 40 feet or more above the ground.

No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner

Wilt Chamberlain and André the Giant taking Arnold Schwarzenegger for a stroll

41 Strange (@41Strange) July 28, 2019
THE GIANT 1923 by N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth, Ladies Home Journal 1923
THE GIANT 1923 by N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth, Ladies Home Journal 1923
Andre The Giant

There have always been medical conditions which lead to large physical stature. One of the most famous is French wrestler. Unfortunately, real life ‘giants’ face real life discrimination, the result of millennia of negative storytelling archetyping (aka stereotyping).

Let’s give him the last word, at least.

Baba Yaga: Witch or old woman?

Baba Yaga is a legendary Slavic witch, or a hag, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. The predatory Baba Yaga, who has a special liking for children, is a subcategory of crone. She’s also known as Old Hag Yaga. Her name is synonymous with ved’ma, which means witch in Russian.

Vladimir Panov  ‘Russian fairy tales’ by A. Nechaev, 1959 Baba Yaga's house
Vladimir Panov ‘Russian fairy tales’ by A. Nechaev, 1959 Baba Yaga’s house

FEATURES OF BABA YAGA?

  • The first extant mentions of Baba Yaga in text date to the 18th century.
  • Sometimes ‘Baba’ is translated into English as ‘Granny’ but the word ‘baba’ contains no respect for age. A closer translation would be something like ‘crone’, even though ‘baba’ is a shortening of the respectful ‘babushka’ (grandmother). A minor insult is “Babka”, meaning a grumpy old woman.
  • She might be a chthonic goddess. Vladamir Propp proposed that her house on legs might serve as a cultural memory of initiation rituals.
  • Her house is in the forest. More specifically than that, it’s in the land of the “thrice-nine kingdom”, the land of the living dead. This realm lies between the world of the living and the thrice-ten kingdom, the land of the truly dead.
  • ‘Yaga’ May be related to Slavic words for grudge or brawl. Or the Russian word for eating.
  • Baba Yaga is a genius loci (protective spirit).
  • She is connected to children, first because she eats them, second because in some stories she has daughters (but never sons).
  • In Russian imagination she is the aunt or mistress of all witches.
  • She has been compared to Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts and necromancy.
  • Sometimes she is said to be the mother of dragons.
  • She is cunning.
  • She’s in control of natural and supernatural magic and above all of food supplies.
  • She dispenses hospitality capriciously.
  • Baba Yaga is unusually specific for a fairy tale character — she is often an individual.
  • She lives in a woodland cottage that runs about on chicken legs.
  • Unusual mode of flight ferries through the air in a pestle and mortar sweeping her tracks with besom as she goes. (The pestle is the rudder.) Sometimes she travels in a flying cauldron. In her wake, tempests, hurricanes and tornadoes boil and roil.
  • She fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)
  • She sets snapping teeth on her door for a lock with hands to bolt it and human limbs to support it.
  • Tiles are made of pancake, the walls of pies.
  • A big oven blazes in the hearth where she sleeps at night.
  • This tale is a close cousin of the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Clever children are able to trick her.
  • Witch can have several meanings and exist on several axes. What’s the gender inverse of witch? Sometimes wizard (magic), sometimes ogre (gruesome).
  • She has witchy traits. When we say Baba Yaga is the equivalent of a witch, she’s the kind of witch who corresponds to the female ogre.
  • She can take shape of bird or cat (a sexist trope which predominates throughout all types of modern literature). This shows how very old is the tendency to link femininity to birds and to cats.
  • Sometimes, occasionally though, Baba Yaga is just a regular old woman, like the queen of Snow White.

"Baba Yaga" Russian folk tale Illustrator Nikolay Kochergin
“Baba Yaga” Russian folk tale Illustrator Nikolay Kochergin

THE DUALISTIC WOMAN

Baba Yaga is not always malignant. In fact, she is notoriously ambiguous, giving rise to the archetype of the dualistic woman. Her cottage can be considered a liminal space, functioning as a sort of portal between the light and the dark sides, or the border between life and death. She can swing in either direction.

One of the best-known and strangest characters (from a Western perspective) in Russian [Slavic] folk tales is a witch called Baba Yaga. According to Elizabeth Warner, there are two Baba Yagas, a good one and a bad one. Sometimes within a single narrative, Baba Yaga may display good and evil characteristics. She benignly feeds the hero in “little Ivan The Clever Young Man,” for example, and provides him with a “hot steam-bath,” but threatens to devour Vasilisa the Beautiful. Baba Yaga lives in a dense and dark forest in a cottage built on chicken’s legs that revolves on command. She is an aged, ugly crone and her nose and teeth are long and sharp. Not only is she emaciated like a skeleton, but the fence and gates of her house are built of human bones. According to Warner, “some scholars say” that Baba Yaga’s house guards the frontier between the mortal and spirit worlds.

Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Baba Yaga Illustration of Yelena Polenova to the Russian folk tale "Son Filipko", 1890s
Baba Yaga Illustration of Yelena Polenova to the Russian folk tale “Son Filipko”, 1890s

SIMILARITIES TO HANSEL AND GRETEL

Baba Yaga, like Hansel and Gretel’s adversary, has a penchant for human flesh and kidnaps small children. Vasilisa escapes from Baba Yaga’s clutches because she has her “mother’s blessing” to help her, embodied in a doll which advises her and performs the tasks set her by the witch. When Baba Yaga finds out that Vasilisa has been blessed, she sends her home to her stepmother and stepsisters unharmed and with the light they had sent her to fetch. The light given to Vasilisa by the witch is contained in a skull stuck on a pole. The blazing eyes of the skull stare straight at the stepmother and her daughters. “They tried to hide but everywhere they went the eyes followed them. By morning they were shrivelled to a cinder and only Vasilisa was left”. Vasilisa subsequently takes a room with an old woman and waits for her father to return from his business trip. With the doll’s help, she spins a quantity of fine linen thread, weaves a cloth “so delicate it could be drawn through the eye of a needle” and sews twelve shirts for the Tsar. The Tsar is delighted with her work and invites the seamstress to his palace, falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. When Vasilisa’s father returns he is overjoyed to hear of the good fortune that has befallen his daughter. He and the old woman, with whom Vasilisa has been living, come to live in the palace.

The trajectory of the story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful” is similar to that of Hansel and Gretel in a number of ways. Just as they did, Vasilisa must come to terms with the dualistic nature of the mother figure and develop a meaningful relationship with her father/the symbolic order. Her stepmother expels her from the house and sends her into the forest, just as Hansel’s and Gretel’s did, and her stepmother and the witch figure also epitomize the bad breast/mother figure. For Vasilisa the doll embodies the blessing or loving and nurturing aspects of the mother, while the stepmother/witch again represents the evil, cannibalistic characteristics. Vasilisa is not lured into Baba Yaga’s house as Hansel and Gretel are, however. Instead, she recognizes the threat the house and the witch represent but must still approach and comply with Baba Yaga’s commands, fulfilling the onerous tasks she sets. Thus, Vasilisa must face up to the deal with that which she fears just as Maggie Kilgour suggests the infant must do in relation to the breast. The step/mother is again dealt with through matricide but Vasilisa retains the best parts of the mother figure in the body of the doll, which she carries “in her pocket until the day she dies”. Arguably Vasilisa has reconciled with her ambivalent feelings toward her mother who is then reclaimed in the figure of the old woman. Again in this story, economic wealth is associated with the paternal and provides a happy ever after ending.

The empahsis on the devouring aspects of these wicked witches is significant. Baba Yaga’s sharp teeth and the bones and skulls with which her house is constructed are described in oral sadistic terms as Campbell suggests. Vasilisa must enter the witch’s domain through gates made of human legs, with human hands for bolts and a mouth with sharp teeth for a lock. Freud discussed the significance of the teeth (in dreams) and proposed that they represented the female genitals, the lower part of the body being transposed to the upper so that “it is ost likely that the mouth refers to the vagina and the rows of teeth which open and close to a phantasy about castrating vaginal teeth”. The gateway to Baba Yaga’s house suggests some transposition of the lower body to the upper and certainly emphasizes the incorporative aspects of the maternal mouths. The devouring vagina mouth with teeth — the vagina dentata — is a symbol for the castrating and incorporating aspects of the cannibalistic female.

Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Baba Yaga in a mortar Illustrator M. Alekseev, 1970s
Baba Yaga in a mortar Illustrator M. Alekseev, 1970s

BABA YAGA IN JAPAN

Being a bit of a Japanophile, I can’t help but notice how popular the tale of Baba Yaga is in Japan. Here in the West, I grew up without ever hearing of such a folktale, but in Japan you might see its influence all over the place.

It was Diana Wynne Jones (British) who wrote Howl’s Travelling Castle upon which the anime is based but I can’t help but think of Baba Yaga when I see Hayao Miyazaki’s version of it on the big screen.

Howl's Travelling Castle
Howl’s Travelling Castle as envisioned by Studio Ghibli

Miyazaki includes the character Baba Yaga in Mr Dough And The Egg Princess, which apparently you can only see screening at the Ghibli museum in Japan.

For more examples of houses on legs, see here.

Some people think that Baba Yaga equals the Yubaba in Spirited Away. I can see how they got there — Yubaba does fly away, after turning into a creepy crow. There is a good and an evil version of her. Interestingly, the proto-Slavic word for grandma ‘baba’ may simply be coincidentally phonetically similar to the Japanese ‘Baba’, which also comes from the native Japanese word for grandmother/old woman (obaasan). It’s important to note that Baba is a derogatory term. I believe it’s derogatory in both the Japanese and in the Slavic. But Baba is not a loanword in Japanese. In fact, it’s listed here, in a list of native Japanese words often thought to be from abroad. It may have been this very phonetic correspondence that spurred Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination when it came to the creation of Yubaba. It’s a false cognate, but in Japanese the word baba also refers to an old hag. The worst thing you could call a woman is a kusobaba — a ‘shit crone’.

There is no direct equivalent of Baba Yaga in Japanese folklore, but indeed, the Japanese do not need her because they have a lengthy list of weird folkloric creatures of their own. I can only deduce that Baba Yaga fits in well with the weirdness, hence Studio Ghibli’s fascination for her. Japan does have a fire breathing chicken type thing and ghosts that eat corpses. Then there’s the bird-demon created from the spirits of freshly dead corpses.

Here’s a more in depth look at some similarities between Slavic and Japanese folkloric old ‘hags’.

Mythological cannibals don’t seem to be all that common in other cultures. I expected the Wikipedia category to be much bigger in fact. Perhaps Russia and Japan are historically more similar than I’d thought?

Adrienne Segur, French (1901-1981) 'Baba Yaga's Cat.'
Adrienne Segur, French (1901-1981) ‘Baba Yaga’s Cat.’

Happy dreams.Once Upon A Blog Baba Yaga

Fairytales and Modern Storytelling

fairytale study

This is my collection of fairytale links. I’m interested in fairytales from a writing perspective — how do fairytales help us to create new, contemporary stories?

TWO OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF FAIRYTALES

  1. the “serene, anonymous” voice in which it’s told
  2. the “conventional, stock figures” who inhabit it.

This is according to American poet James Merrill , as described at the opening of “The Book of Ephraim”.

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CERTAIN FAIRYTALES

Boy George has said that the difference between a pop song and an unpopular song is repetition. The same can be said of many popular things, including fairy tales.

Many fairytales are harrowing. Nothing written fresh today would get published and heavily marketed for children if it included cannibalism and other child abuse. Yet many of us still read Hansel and Gretel to our children before bedtime. Perhaps my real question is: Why are popular fairytales so awful, and why are they still here?

Conservative Ethics

Fairytales do not become mythic unless they are in almost perfect accord with the underlying principles of how the male members of society seek to arrange object relations to satisfy their wants and needs.

Jack Zipes

The ethics of a fairytale are not completely static; they do evolve somewhat with the times.

As they spread, folktales evolve like biological species, from The Conversation

Pacing

Celerity: swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more. The best tales are perfect examples of what you do need and what you don’t: in Rudyard Kipling’s image, fires that blaze brightly because all the ashes have been raked out.

The opening of a tale, for example. All we need is the word ‘Once . . .’ and we’re off […]

The speed is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if you’re travelling light; so none of the information you’d look for in a modern work of fiction – names, appearances, background, social context, etc – is present.

Philip Pullman

Comfort

Modern publishers know how most picturebooks are read: at night, by parents, to put their children to sleep. Harrowing as the content may be, a home-away-from home structure is considered essential for putting young kids to sleep, and fairytales provide just that. (At least, the enduring ones that get published over and over again.)

FAIRYTALE ANALYSIS AT THIS BLOG

MODERN FAIRYTALES

Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature
Harrington Mann The Fairy Tale 1902
The Fairy Tale 1902 Harrington Mann (1864-1937)

Goldilocks and The Three Bears

Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Katharine Pyle - Boucle d'OrGoldilocks and the Three Bears by Katharine Pyle - Boucle d'Or

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at a classic fairytale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

STORY STRUCTURE OF GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

Here’s the version I’m looking at:

Goldilocks, wildflower picker, enters the snug little cottage in the woods, knowing or not knowing whose it is, the owners absent as if by arrangement. Three pots of porridge, three chairs, three beds. Too hot, too cold, too high, too wide, too hard, too soft. Just right. The rule of three. G eats, breaks, crawls in. The owners return. There has been an intruder!

The Goldilocks Variations from The American Reader

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

This is an interesting question, because you could pick Goldilocks or you could pick ‘The Three Bears’, with focus on the Baby Bear, since the target audience is going to identify with him.

I’m going to pick Goldilocks. The human girl is slightly closer to the human child reader, and we’re with Goldilocks when she enters the bears’ house in the woods, which means we’re exploring a new environment along with her. You could also argue that Baby Bear is just as convincing as ‘the main character’, but if in doubt, ask the question ‘Who changes the most?’ I’d wager Goldilocks gets the biggest fright and learns the biggest lesson.

What is wrong with Goldilocks?

Oh! I just realized! You know why this struck such a chord with me? No, of course you don’t. Well, I’ll tell you: I’ve been rearranging all of our fairy tale picture books, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about various stories and whatnot, but especially about how Goldilocks is SUCH A JERK. I mean, she breaks into someone’s house, eats their food and breaks their stuff, and somehow we’re supposed to care about/root for her? NO, THANK YOU. Anyway, I love that This is Not My Hat is kind of the anti-Goldilocks.

Bookshelves Of Doom

I’m not so hard on Goldilocks, because I code her as about five or six. She probably shouldn’t have been left to wander into the woods in the first place. In most versions from my childhood, she is illustrated as a well-dressed, upper-class little girl with the Sunday frock and the ribbons. If I was illustrating her, I would dress her in a ragged tunic and bare feet. Because a well-dressed little girl wouldn’t have been afforded that amount of freedom.

On the other hand, this is the escapist longing of that well-dressed, upper-class little girl, who would never be allowed into the woods. Of course.

WHAT DOES GOLDILOCKS WANT?

A lot of children’s stories start out with a character who is basically bored. Goldilocks seems driven by pure curiosity. She’s not a thief, she’s not a starving urchin who has broken in with any purpose.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

This information is withheld until the middle, used as a reveal when the three bears arrive back home after a stroll in the woods.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Goldilocks is fascinated by a cabin in the woods, goes in and tries to work out who lives there by conducting small experiments: testing each bowl of porridge

BIG STRUGGLE

The climax (Big Battle) is very obvious: The bears find Goldilocks asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. She is so startled she escapes out the window.

This is one of those fairy tales which is designed to be retold orally, perhaps by adults who have never been taught to read and write. When the bears find Goldilocks asleep, this provides opportunity for a jump scare — a pounce, a tickle and a great burst of laughter. Another fairy tale good for this purpose is Red Riding Hood, in which the wolf eats the girl.

JESSIE WILLCOX SMITH (American, 1863-1935) Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Swift's Premium Soap Products calendar illustration, 1916
JESSIE WILLCOX SMITH (American, 1863-1935) Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Swift’s Premium Soap Products calendar illustration, 1916

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

The rest of the story is chopped off, but the narrative still feels complete because we can extrapolate (guess) the rest.

Goldilocks learns that when you break into someone’s house you might meet with danger.

In any fairy tale, it’s not just the fictional character who learns something, but also the reader:

When [Goldilocks] samples the three chairs, porridges, and beds, Goldilocks discovers that Papa Bear’s items are not right and that Mama Bear’s don’t suit; only Baby Bear’s chair, porridge, and bed are perfect. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suggests, this story teaches the child two things: that there are roles in the family and just which one is theirs. (It teaches this lesson, we might add, by means of bears.)

Jerry Griswold

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

I’m guessing those bears were left in peace, at least by Goldilocks. Someone needs to write a story about how Goldilocks became a breaker and enterer, and did three and a half years’ bird as a small-time crim.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

For a very brief synopsis of each of the main versions: The Goldilocks Variations from The American Reader

An early version is quite disturbing to modern sensibilities. Marina Warner writes of the story written and illustrated by Eleanor Mure:

Controlling children through bogeys, rather than lulling their terrors through merriment, inspires many famous tales in English in the nineteenth century. The earliest written version of “Goldilocks”, called “The Three Bears” in a manuscript of 1831, does not feature the little girl of today but another witchy old woman, and in much less benign spirit than the characters of nursery rhymes. At first, she stoves in the chair she sits on and lands, legs flailing, on her bottom; her pranks in this story are at first intended to be funny but turn ambiguous. For the end appals: the bears ‘drag forth the dame, half expiring with fear’, maltreat her for a witch, throwing her on the fire to burn her, and then ‘swimming ‘ her in a pond where, like a reputed witch, she floats. As if this were not enough, they then ‘chuck her aloft of St Paul’s churchyard steeple’. The teller also illustrated her manuscript, which she was giving as a present to her nephew. The three bears’ house is very large, gracious and well-appointed, and stands behind bayonet railings: the little nephew was learning about the social order. Violence in children’s literature changes form, and its targets differ—but it never disappears.

From The Beast To The Blonde, Marina Warner
The Three Bears large house
Not the quaint cottage today’s children are more familiar with.
Three Bears Kill Old Lady
‘Expiring’ is obviously a more child friendly way to say ‘kill’.
Burning Old Lady
You may notice the fairytale reference to witch burning.
Hair

This tale has changed a lot over the years, as all fairytales have. Originally, the intruder was an old woman. Then she was aged down, then she was given blonde hair, named ‘Goldilocks’ and has been known as Goldilocks since. Sometimes it only takes one version or illustrator to lead to a big change like that. Snow White was changed permanently by Disney, who gave the dwarves the jobs of miners. Previously they weren’t miners, and they didn’t have those names.

Clothes, or No Clothes?

The Three Bears in The Golden Goose Book, 1905, are not dressed; they live in a charming house that seems to have been transported to the wood from Hampstead Garden Suburb; they are not fearsome except by their sheer size. Their animal faces have deftly indicated human expressions of surprise and censure at their discoveries and absurd parental pride in the antics of the small Bear who wails and grouses like a child or jumps and somersaults in excited fun and naughtiness. Their bear home is full of fancies with punning human words, pictures, ornaments and books turned into their bear equivalents.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount
naked bears

 Faulty Physics In Goldilocks And The Three Bears

Baby Bear Is Mad
Gets me every time.

Fair enough that the largest bowl of porridge is too hot. Fair enough that the mother’s medium sized bowl is too cold. But how can the baby bear’s even smaller bowl of porridge be just right? If it’s the smallest mass of the lot, it holds its heat for the shortest time. It should be even colder. This just doesn’t make sense.

(Unless, of course, three separate batches of porridge were made from scratch, to cater to everyone’s preferred consistency. I do know families who prepare meals like this.)

There’s a feminist issue in here. I’m sure of it. I understand the three bears went for a walk to let their porridge cool down. Whose idea was that? I presume from the state in which Goldilocks found the porridge, that it was only the father bear’s porridge which had been too hot; I imagine also that the mother bear went along with him, even though her own porridge was probably just right and she wanted to eat it then and there. She should’ve let him go out for his own bloody walk. Then none of this sorry saga would’ve happened.

Kay Nielsen, The Story of the Three Bears, 1930
The bears all growled at once from the Tenngren Tell It Again Book, Gustaf Tenngren
The bears all growled at once from the Tenngren Tell It Again Book, Gustaf Tenngren

FURTHER READING

After researching the history of this fairy tale I wrote my own, called “The Porridge Thief”. I went back to the story’s roots and my version is an allegory of homelessness, which affects older women in particular, even today.

JESSIE WILLCOX SMITH Goldilocks and the three Bears
JESSIE WILLCOX SMITH Goldilocks and the three Bears

NOT RELATED BUT VERY INTERESTING

New Definition of The Goldilocks Zone Puts Earth Right On The Edge Of Habitability from io9

Woman Wakes Up To Find Three Bears In Her Car