Witches’ Cats In Art and Storytelling

Illustrators frequently depict witches in two mutually exclusive ways: erotic and alluring, or as ugly as the dominant culture can possibly proscribe. Here are some ugly witches dancing around a fire.

The “Crazy Cat Lady” is a modern day burlesque witch, but you know what they say about crazy ladies. In stories they’re almost always right.

Alien is a movie where nobody listens to the smart woman, and then they all die except for the smart woman and her cat. Four stars.

For more on the misogyny, ageism and also racism behind witch persecution, see this post.

Now for some attention to the witch’s most archetypal familiar: The cat. Like witches themselves, cats can be cute as heck or unappealing as hell.

Not all black cats are witches cats, but all black cats inherit a long tradition of superstition.

A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

Groucho Marx
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Nymphs and their Habitat

WHAT ARE NYMPHS?

Nymphs are minor female nature deities from Ancient Greek folklore. Like Pan, they serve as personifications of nature but unlike Pan, who can turn up anywhere (e.g. in The Wind In The Willows or as a character in The Secret Garden), nymphs are typically tied to a specific place. They are usually depicted by horny heterosexual male artists as beautiful maidens.

ARE NYMPHS GODS?

Well, they are not necessarily immortal, but are thought to live much longer than humans. In this respect they’re like the djinn, or like characters such as Noah from the Bible, who also lived an extremely long time, apparently?

Some nymphs are depicted with wings; sometimes nymph wings look like cherub wings, suggesting they can fly close to the Heavens, and perhaps occupy a liminal space between Heaven and Earth.

More similar to Greek gods than to monotheistic Gods, nymphs sit at all points along a morality spectrum: Some are simply beautiful and laze around next to rivers as a beautiful addition to nature while others have far too much sex and encourage men to do very bad sex things which will send them to Hell.

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A Glossary of Fairytale Words

150 CONSTITUENTS

Vladimir Propp counted the number of constituents all fairy tales are built from and came to 150.

31 FUNCTIONS OF FAIRYTALE

Vladimir Propp counted 31 functions of a fairytale. Propp defines’ function’ as an act of a character, understood fromt he point of view of its significance for the course of the action.

Propp’s method is the most famous way of conceptualising the constituent elements of fairytales.

See: Propp, Vladimir . (1928) 1968. Morphology of the Folktale, translated by Laurence Scott . Austin: U Texas P.

Morphology will in all probability be regarded by future generations as one of the major theoretical breakthroughs in the field of folklore in the twentieth century. — Alan Dundes. Propp’s work is seminal…[and], now that it is available in a new edition, should be even more valuable to folklorists who are directing their attention to the form of the folktale, especially to those structural characteristics which are common to many entries coming from even different cultures.

Advantages of the Propp classification system:

  • It is relatively concrete
  • Avoids weird combinations of different levels and forms of motif
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Variations On Once Upon A Time

Eloise Wilkin time

When creating a fairytale world, certain language marks the tale as timeless.

Why timeless? Stories which begin in a fairytale fashion share the quality of essential truth. Earlier audiences assumed this essential truth to be the essence of God’s own voice:

In the beginning was the Word.

John 1:1

Fairytales begin with a similar, familar phrase. This phrase sets the tone and tells the reader: “This is an old and distant story tied to modern times only thinly.” These beginnings all serve the function of effacing a particular voice. For more on that see Psycho Narration, especially the bit about dissonant and consonant narrators. (A Once Upon A Time story has a ‘dissonant’ narrator, with no personality of its own.)

A Once Upon A Time beginning also tells the reader that “This could be anywhere. Its heroes could be anyone. This hero could be you.” For the same reason, fairytale characters are archetypes.

FAIRYTALE BEGINNINGS IN VARIOUS LANGUAGES

Some languages e.g. Japanese say ‘A long time ago…’ (Mukashi, mukashi…)

There once was a king/queen/princess…

It was once…

German: Es war einmal… (Once upon a time)

Armenian: There was and there was not…

Korean: Once, in the old days, when tigers smoked…

Czech: Beyond seven mountain ranges, beyond seven rivers…

Lithuiana/Persian/Thai etc: Once upon a time, a long long time ago…

VARIATIONS ON ONCE UPON A TIME

Some stories simply start with the word ‘Once’. This is enough to invoke the ‘Once upon a time’ tone.

Other stories utilise “Once Upon A [X]”

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Header illustration by Eloise Wilkin

The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tale Analysis

The Princess and the Pea was first published in 1835, one of a handful of satirical, colloquial fairy tales in an unbound collection by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. The colloquial language didn’t go down well with critics at the time, who also didn’t appreciate that Andersen’s silly little “wonder tales” failed to convey a moral suitable for children.

It took another 11 years for English speakers to read this story in translation, but it wasn’t the same story at all. Translator Charles Boner didn’t pick up on Andersen’s satire. Or perhaps he did pick up on it, but didn’t find it funny. In any case, Boner (great name, huh?) did not simply translate Andersen’s tale, he changed the ending and left English readers with something quite different.

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The Fairytale Importance of the Literary Salon and Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy

“Grand Salon” Hôtel du Collectioneur, Paris 1925. Arch. Emile Jaques Ruhlmann

First, what is a salon?

1. A RECEPTION ROOM IN A LARGE HOUSE

The common feature of a salon: It is set up for social interaction.

Madeleine Lemaire - Le Gouter au Salon du Peintre 1891
Madeleine Lemaire – Le Gouter au Salon du Peintre, 1891.

As shown in the header illustration, “Grand Salon” Hôtel du Collectioneur, Paris 1925. Arch. Emile Jaques Ruhlmann, a salon is also a feature of a grand hotel.

2. WHERE A HAIRDRESSER / BEAUTICIAN / COURTIER CONDUCTS TRADE

(A courtier is often in attendance at the court of a monarch or other royal personage. They’re not all noble, because courtiers include the clergy, soldiers, secretaries and so on.)

Fiep Westendorp, Dutch illustrator (1916-2004)
Fiep Westendorp, Dutch illustrator (1916-2004)

3. THE LITERARY SALON WHICH STARTED IN FRANCE

Innovation is driven by the recombination of ideas. So the larger a population you have and the more interconnected it is, the more ideas can flow among diverse minds and create baby ideas. … Jeffrey West … in his book Scale tries to make this case that just getting a bunch of people together in the same place, talking to each other is a huge accelerant to new ideas

Sean Carroll and Joe Henrich in conversation

The literary salon originated in seventeen-century France and was the birthplace of conte de fées: fairy tales, in which the ‘fairies’ are magical creatures.

Charles Perrault, along with other men, is remembered today as a significant figure in establishing this genre of story but, as often happens in historical accounts of important figures, it was actually women who mostly hung out in these French salons, interacting, swapping stories and talking about literature. The fairy stories functioned as commentary on power structures and wealth.

In the 1630s, the Marquise de Ramboillet owned a salon in Paris called Chamber bleue. Highly educated women from aristocratic families gathered there. They were called the précieuses. In contemporary English, this loanword now refers to a pretentious woman who puts on airs, which should tell us a lot about how we feel, as a culture, about women who are genuinely smart: Fakers.

Later that century, one of the woman authors of these new fairy tales started to make a splash. Her name was Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. In 1690 she released “The Island of Happiness”. (It was novel-length.) Seven years later she released four volumes of conte de fées, Tales of the Fairies (1697), establishing her for centuries as a significant figure in European fairytale history. It was actually D’Aulnoy who coined the term conte de fée.

D’Aulnoy had reason to be interested in fairytales as a vehicle to express emotions around gender injustice. She had been married off at 15 to an abusive man three decades older. Like all women of her time, she could not inherit, and could not work to earn money.

Seventeenth century France is known for its ‘gender wars’. During this century a number of all-male academies were being founded. Women quite rightly felt marginalised and saw the need for a revolution.

Today, fairytales which all end with the heroine marrying the man she loves seem retrograde, but marrying for love was itself a radical idea in the context of a culture which married its girls off and gave them no autonomy whatsoever to marry who they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with.

The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns begaun in 1687. The ‘ancients’ were all about Greco-Roman literary archetypes. In oppsition, the ‘moderns’ praised archetypes from French folklore and from medieval, courtly tradition. In case you’re wondering, Charles Perrault was on the side of the Moderns. His fairy tale “Griselda” (1691) was written to exemplify his modern views. Perrault was publishing fairy tales at the same time as Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy.

Excluded from The Establishment, aristocratic french women decided to start their own private space for recitations, performance and general storytelling. Fairy tales are perfect for this kind of storytelling because they sit between the oral tradition, can easily incorporate aspects of pop culture and also classical literary traditions of the so-called elite. A fairytale can be anything the storyteller wants it to be, because the backbone of plot is so robust. The form is also very welcoming; you don’t even have to know how to read and write to have a solid appreciation of fairytale.

I don’t want to make these aristocratic women seem too liberal. I mean, they were still wealthy white women practising wealthy white feminism in their private salons. The stories they used as base were from ‘the common folk’, but they weren’t interested in inviting the actual common folk to these salons. They didn’t want to be associated with the nursemaids and peasant women of the world. Charles Perrault was happy to write about such women because he didn’t need to worry about being taken for one. In contrast, the female salonnieres preferred reciting fairytales starring sibyls and fairies. These ladies were fans of Giambattista Basile (1566 – 1632) and Giovanni Francesco Straparola. Basile was an Italian fairytale collector remembered today for the earliest known European versions of Rapunzel and Cinderella. Straparola (1485?-1558) was also Italian. He published a collection of stories in two volumes called The Facetious Nights or The Pleasant Nights. This collection includes some of the first known printed versions of fairy tales in Europe, as they are known today. We don’t know much about him, partly because Strapola is unlikely to have been his real name.

Fast forward to the time of the Grimms, who today catch a disproportionate amount of the credit for tales they collected (largely from women), and who dismissed the fairy tales of D’Aulnoy for being sentimental, feminine and domestic in nature. Before the Grimms came along, D’Aulnoy’s work was hugely popular, and distributed in translation all across Europe in The Fairies Cabinet (1785-89). Andrew Lang was happy to include a number of her stories in his Fairy Books. In contrast, renowned misogynists the Grimm Brothers actively sought to minimise the importance of D’Aulnoy in fairy story tradition, and they were successful in their mission. How many readers know of the Grimm brothers (and Charles Perrault) but not the name of Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy today?

When she is mentioned, she is often positioned as secondary to the male actors in the history of fairy tale. Note the wording of the following sentence from Britannica online:

Her best-remembered works are Contes de fées (1697; “Fairy Tales”) and Les Contes nouveaux ou les fées à la mode (1698; “New Tales, or the Fancy of the Fairies”), written in the manner of the great fairy tales of Charles Perrault but laced with her own sardonic touch. 

Britannica
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Creepy Donkey Skin Fairy Tales Analysis

“Donkey Skin” is an old tale which appealed to Charlies Perrault. Perrault included his own version (called “Peau-d’ Ane, Conte”) in Old-time Stories told by Master Charles Perrault (1921), ensuring the tale’s enduring popularity, and cementing Perrault’s particular spin on it in popular imagination. There are many similar takes on this story, known collectively as Aarne-Thompson type 510B.

This category includes three main strains. One is the “Donkey Skin” strain (a.k.a. “Catskin”, “Cap o’ Rushes”). These stories all include beautiful dresses, parties, and a ‘recognition token’. (In “Cinderella” the ‘recognition token’ is the slipper — how true lovers recognise each other.) Oh yes, and incest. Creepy.

In another strain (from Italy, Sudan, India, New Guinea, and Japan) the girl wears a human skin. Creepy. She is discovered while bathing. Also creepy. Cf. Silence of the Lambs.

In the third strain, the girl hides inside an item of furniture. Less creepy.

Perrault’s is a blend of the first two strains. There are dresses but no party. The girl is discovered bathing.

SYMBOLISM OF DONKEY SKIN TALES

In fairytales, when a female character on the cusp of adulthood wears a coat like this — shaggy, dishevelled — it is part of a larger symbol web (commonly also involving wells, towers, dragons, werewolves and flowers) in which she is about to shed blood. In this case, the blood of deflowering. While the girl wears this coat, she is under the spell of enchantment. This state can be broken by doing various things; one of them is getting married to a man.

Adrienne Segur (23 November 1901 – 11 August 1981); French children's book illustrator. From The Fairy Tales of Perrault cat
Adrienne Segur (23 November 1901 – 11 August 1981); French children’s book illustrator. From The Fairy Tales of Perrault
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The Golden Age Of Brownies

Palmer Cox (1840 - 1924) for The Brownie Year Book 1895

A brownie is a fairy from English and Scottish folklore.

They live in houses (so are a type of hobgoblin — ‘hob’ referring to the cooking equipment with hot plates).

They are industrious.

Like German poltergeists, they sometimes mess up the joint. This is done out of mischief rather than malice.

However, the Yorkshire boggarts and bogles of Scotland are malicious, no different in their behaviour from poltergeists.

If you hear soimething at night, it might be a brownie cleaning your house. (I guess mischievous brownies like to mess things up because they like cleaning so much.)

They are offended by gifts left out for them, except for bread and milk/cream, which they love. Leave it by the hearth. (The hearth is considered a liminal space in a house, where fairies can get in.) The tradition of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa (a sanctified chimney demon) is clearly descended from brownie folklore.

They’re similar to the Scandinavian tomte in that they keep watch over the farmstead at night. (Though I’m not sure if brownies are thought to peer in through windows and keep watch over children.)

A brownie cleaning the house (I'm guessing at night). Artwork by Arthur Rackham. Brooms themselves are thought to have magical powers.
A brownie cleaning the house (I’m guessing at night). Artwork by Arthur Rackham. Brooms themselves are thought to have magical powers.

A puck is similar to a brownie. In old Middle English the word ‘puck’ meant ‘demon’. Fast forward to Elizabethan times (1558 – 1603) and pucks are more fairy than demon, indisguishable from hobgoblins/brownies. You may know the character of a ‘puck’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595/96) by William Shakespeare. Written near the end of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare’s Puck is of course an Elizabethan archetype, mischievous rather than ‘demonic’.

Brownies endured in UK folklore as mischievous creatures with childlike qualities. Naturally, when the phenemonon of ‘literature for children’ emerged, brownies were perfect as characters in children’s books. The Golden Age of Brownies began in the late 1800s. A guy called Palmer Cox led the charge.

Palmer Cox (1840 – 1924) was a Canadian illustrator and author. He wrote a series of funny rhyme called The Brownies. These are thought to be some of the first comic books. The cartoons were published in several books, such as The Brownies and Their Book (1887). One of the earliest cameras purchased by consumers was called the box brownie, apparently inspired by Palmer Cox’s stories.

How big are brownies? In The Brownies and Prince Florimel, Palmer Cox said they were the size of twelve-year-olds, but in other stories he shrinks them right down. Basically, fairies can be as big or as small as a story requires. Take a fairytale such as Snow White and Rose Red: The dwarf in that story seems to increase and decrease in size as fits the scene. Brownies are no different, though I had never thought they were as big as twelve-year-olds. (I saw a large group of twelve-year-olds last week — some are the size of adults, others the size of children.)

Palmer Cox encoded another significant change to popular conception of brownies: Beforehand they had been considered solitary creatures. But Cox’s brownies hang out in large mobs, more like today’s Minions. In the wild, solitary creatures are the most formidable: You don’t want to meet a male grizzly, for instance. By giving these creatures lots of friends he gave them a party vibe, and now they were properly bowdlerised. Despite being called Brownies, these are folkloric brownies in name only. They are now basically pixies.

Another influential person in the Golden Age Of Brownies was Julia Horatia Ewing. In 1870 she wrote a short story called “The Brownies”. (She was only 23 at the time.) Although brownie stories were common in oral folklore, this is one of the first written works to feature brownies.

As far as their gendering goes, big mobs of Cox brownies are kind of like Smurfs: We are to use the masculine pronoun, while also considering them ‘gender-free’. (A linguist’s commentary on that.) Cox describes the brownies as age-less and super beautiful — virtues more traditionally associated with idealised femininity.

Their loveliness of face and form was beyond all description.  Just try to think of the prettiest girl you ever saw.  Well, even the plainest of these fairies were ever so much prettier.

The Brownies and Prince Florimel

Instead of a patriarchal Papa Smurf, Cox’s brownies are ruled by Queen Titania.

ENID BLYTON

I grew up reading Enid Blyton’s stories, which were already old by the time I got to them. Influenced by Cox’s version of Brownies, Blyton’s ‘brownies’ are basically pixies. These creatures make for excellent main characters in stories because audiences love tricksters.

C.S. LEWIS

When creating his Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis utilised pretty much every folkloric character he’d ever encountered and smooshed them together in a bizarre creation which somehow, for some reason, worked. Lewis’s brownies are more similar to the folkloric kind — hobgoblins who stay in the house and do your housework.

THE GUIDES (BROWNIES)

Settling upon a name for the younger (formally Girl) Guides has proven problematic. At first the 7-10 year olds were called ‘Rosebuds’. Lord Baden Powell listened to the girls who complained that they did not like this name. He decided to rename the younger girls Brownies after Julia Horatia Ewing’s short story. Younger Guides were called Brownies until 1996. Now, Guides of all ages are simply called Guides.

It makes sense that Baden Powell renamed 20th century guides after folkloric brownies. Like archetypal little-mothers, brownies are homebound, industrious and always cleaning up after people. It may have felt somewhat progressive to name girls after brownies, because brownies are also mischievous and enjoy a degree of self-determination. Reading the story today, I wonder if “The Brownies” was ever enjoyed by children. Like the vast majority of Victorian writers for children, Ewing wasn’t really interested in entertaining children. She was teaching them to be helpful and submissive.

An illustration of (Girl Guide) Brownies by South London illustrator Margaret Tarrant, 1888-1959. This is one of a series of works commissioned for the Girl Guide and Brownies. Brownies used to wear these blue tunics.

Although we no longer call the younger guides ‘Brownies’, the phrase ‘Brownie points’ remains in common English usage. This originally referred to the merit badges (or six points) earned by Brownies for carrying out good deeds.

Brownie Scout Handbook, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, illustrated by Ruth Wood, 1954
Brownie Scout Handbook, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, illustrated by Ruth Wood, 1954

BROWNIES IN CONTEMPORARY CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

I don’t know for sure what prompted the Guides’ shift away from the word ‘brownie’ in the mid 1990s, but I feel it is indicative of a shift in the associations we have with the word. Few kids grow up with stories about folkloric (pixie-like) brownies anymore. Do an Internet search and the brownie is more commonly associated with a chocolate-y baked good. Even J.K. Rowling, who has certainly done her bit to keep old folkloric characters alive for younger generations of readers, has ensured brownies go the way of baked goods:

The brownie is a flat, baked square or bar sliced from a type of dense chocolate cake, which is, in texture, like a cross between a cake and a cookie, and is made by the Hogwarts kitchen House-elves .

The Harry Potter Wiki

As you can see, Rowling does utilise the folklore of the brownie; she simply does not call them ‘brownies’. She calls them house-elves, and she also rounds out their characters.

Aside from the baked goods, there’s also the ‘drop a brownie in your pants’ association, as well as offensive ones. This may have contributed to the demise of the children’s book brownie, whose Golden Age has long since gone, but who remains with us, mostly under different guises. A bestselling exception is The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Toni diTerlizzi, with standout brownie creature called Thimbletack.

Palmer Cox Our Brownies ABC Adventures; 1898
Palmer Cox Our Brownies ABC Adventures; 1898
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Header: Palmer Cox (1840 – 1924) for The Brownie Year Book 1895

Fear of Engulfment in Storytelling

There’s a very good reason why girls should be told the truth about baby-making as soon as they ask: If she’s old enough to be asking, she’s old enough to be worrying. Unless they’re told exactly how pregnancy happens, young girls often worry that it may happen to them at any time, without warning. The prospect is terrifying.

For people without a womb, it’s perhaps difficult to imagine the terror of becoming impregnated against one’s will, to have a human growing inside, to endure excruciating labour. For those exact reasons, existing reproductive rights must not be lost. Full reproductive rights must be afforded to all.

For most of human history, the womb-bearers had little to no choice about becoming the receptacles of new life, often at the expense of their own life. The act of giving birth was historically far more dangerous than it is now, at least for many, in many countries around the world. Before giving birth myself, I used to marvel at the nonchalant looks on pregnant women’s faces. How did they look so serene? Why weren’t they terrified? Turns out they probably were, among many other emotions. The terrifying aspect of pregnancy and labour remains largely hidden to those not currently experiencing it. I believe many mothers also forget that terror once it’s safely over (otherwise no one would go back for subsequent rounds).

But the specific terror of pregnancy and childbirth is right there in our collective consciousness, and we only need look at the history of storytelling. We can trace this specifically feminine fear across our mythologies, folk tales and fairytales, right back to antiquity. Women have always been afraid of pregnancy and childbirth. Women have also been afraid of subjugation to men they’re married of too, often without their full (or partial) consent.

by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
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Creating A Fairytale World

To a modern audience, what makes a setting feel ‘fairytale’? What is it about the tone, style and plot? I argue here that what makes a fairytale setting feel ‘fairytale’ is mostly the ‘fairytale logic’.

Just as we know, almost intuitively, that a particular narrative is a fairy tale when we read it, it seems we know immediately that a particular film is a fairy tale when we see it.

Jack Zipes (1996)

[Fairy tales display a distinctive quality] in the sense of a characteristic, instantly recognizable feel or style […] recognizable in the level of structure and content as much as language.

Jessica Tiffin (2009)
cover is by Hans Helweg
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