In the morning I would roll from my bed without turning on the light to put on my turquoise polka-dot girdle, my pantyhose, and my dress. In the bathroom my father ran water, coughed, blew his nose, rubbed the radio dial back and forth, spat into the sink, and flushed the unhappy old toilet. I finished my reluctant dressing ritual as he burst from the bathroom in a cloud of steam, and went to wash my face, brush my hair and pee. The toilet seat was moist with steam, the mirror fogged, the bath mat damply rumpled on the floor, and the sink blobbed with his thick discharges of toothpaste. I performed my toilet cocooned in my father’s smell of hair oil, Old Spice deodorant, sweat, and faded urine, and then went to sit at the breakfast table with him.
from Two Girls, Fat And Thin by Mary Gaitskill
There’s a limited number of scenarios available to picture book storytellers for young children. In a young child’s life, bathtime features large. Bathtime can be terrifying and fun in equal measure. Commonly, the main child character (or child stand-in) does not want to have a bath, and considers it a form of torture.
But once the child gets into the bath, they generally (though not always!) start having a great time.
Parenting: Can’t get kids into the bath; then you can’t get them out.
Even for art and stories for adults, the bath is depicted as an escape, sometimes in a wacky kind of way, where our true (secret) selves are revealed.
THE CREEPY BATHROOM
Just as kitchens can be either cosy or creepy, so too can bathrooms.
Header painting: Francois Flameng – Bathing of Court Ladies in the 18th Century 1888
“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.
The contemporary reader may read “Old Mother Frost” and think of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Both stories are set in the home, which has a portal, and dualistic versions of mother.
The girl main character in “Mother Holle” comes back to the real world in a gold dress. The magnificently sparkly gold dress of James Bond is outta fairyland.
The Grimm fairytales can be found at Project Gutenberg. Old Mother Frost is occasionally included in modern collections but I didn’t come across it until I was an adult. Like many of the Grimm tales, modern storytellers have made it more palatable. The puppet animation directed by Thomas Schneider-Trumpp isn’t too harrowing, I guess. Funnily enough, it contains more of Propp’s fairytale plot points than the version recorded by the Grimms in 1812.
SETTING OF OLD MOTHER FROST
“Old Mother Frost” is set in fairytale land and fairytale logic applies. Weather isn’t mentioned in fairytales unless it’s significant. On top of its function as entertainment and domestic didacticism, this story is a pourquoi tale, explaining why it snows.
The main character is not the titular Old Mother Frost, but a young woman who lives with her stepmother and stepsister. We don’t learn how this little family unit came to be ― I deduce her father married for a second time and then died. Like Cinderella, the pretty step-daughter does all the work around the house while the ugly sister, and genetic descendent of the matriarch, gets to laze around.
Fairytales themselves don’t indulge in thumbnail character sketches. So it’s left to the reader’s imagination when determining exactly what ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’ look like. It’s only once fairytales start to be illustrated and animated that storytellers must concretise beautiful versus ugly girls.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, dribbling on into today, an easy shorthand for ‘beautiful’ is ‘blonde’; the corollary is of course that ‘ugly’ equals dark. This wide-spread imagery has realworld consequences for who gets to be Beautiful and who is Designated Ugly.
Let’s talk about the hair. Why do I call it “yellow’ hair and not “blond’ hair? Because I’m pretty sure everybody calls my hair “brown.” When I read fairy tales to my daughter I always change the word “blond’ to “yellow,’ because I don’t want her to think that blond hair is somehow better.
In her autobiography, Tina Fey goes on to say how she used to wish she had blonde hair, influenced directly by stories about good blonde girls. (Snow White is a rare exception, but still has the light skin.)
Absentation: A family member leaves home. In modern children’s literature, you’ve got the home-away-home structure which remains common. In the fairy tales as recorded by Grimm, there’s a fairytale culture in which young men go wandering in the world. But in this domestic story made for and by women, the main character is a girl, so she only goes so far as the well. Her job is to collect water.
Mediation: Misfortune or lack is made known (to the reader). This is the first stage of storytelling unmasking. The main character is approached with a request or command; they are allowed to go somewhere or they are dispatched. Joseph Campbell would call this the Call To Adventure. The Beautiful Daughter in “Frau Holle” is shown doing all the housework while the stepmother and stepsister laze around being mean and bossy to her.
Lack: One family member of a family lacks something or desires something. The Beautiful Daughter lacks love at home.
Interdiction: The main character is given an ‘interdiction’ or warning. Little Red Riding Hood is warned not to talk to strangers. This part of the fairytale contributes to the ideology that as long as we do as we’re told we’ll be fine. This is a conservative, reassuring message (though wrong). Before leaving the house, the Beautiful Daughter is told not to lose the spindle. (So of course we know she’s going to lose the precious spindle.)
Violation: The interdiction is violated. Little Red Riding Hood speaks to the wolf. The Beautiful Daughter of Frau Holle pricks her finger, gets blood on the spindle, tries to wash it off but drops the entire thing down the well by accident.
Transference to another kingdom. The well is a portal to another world. In Frau Holle, the girl catches sight of herself in the well. A tear drops into the water which turns the well into a magic portal. She’s drawn inextricably towards it and jumps into the well.
Donor Tests The Main Character: The main character is tested, and receives a magical helper. Joseph Campbell would call it the mentor. This person is often a fairy godmother, or a talking animal/object who the hero has helped. (The puppet animation gives the Beautiful Daughter a talking animal before she enters the parallel world.) When the girl comes out of the well she’s now in a Heavenly version of her own home, with a nice lady (Frau Holle) to provide comfort rather than the wicked stepmother. Neil Gaiman makes use of this storyline in Coraline, though the realworld mother in that contemporary fairytale is realistically flawed and the nasty mother tricks Coraline by pretending to be perfect.
Main Character reacts by either passing or failing test. The fairy godmother (Frau Holle) is basically testing the goodness of the Beautiful Daughter by asking her to get on with housework. (In fairytale kingdoms, good girls do housework and they do it well, even if it does not seem fair.) Femininity is highly rewarded in femme presenting characters. This much hasn’t changed, thoug h our definition of inherent femininity has evolved somewhat. But there’s a Save The Cat moment before the housework test, when loaves of bread call out to be saved from the baker’s oven, and Beautiful Daughter comes to their aid.
Provision of Magical Aid. In Cinderella, a pumpkin is turned into a carriage and horses. In “Frau Holle”, when the Beautiful Daughter thrashes the stuffing out of a pillow and makes it snow on Earth, this is Frau Holle endowing her with a magical power. She can make it snow! She’s in charge of her own realm! The girl can now see her own worth in the world.
Transference to the original kingdom. Now that she understands her worth, the girl is ready to return to the real world and face her own Minotaur, the wicked stepmother.
Branding: Main character is marked. In a fairytale, this is a visible marker that the main character has changed. (Or, the mark is made in lieu of real change.) The Beautiful Daughter of Frau Holle may have been beautiful before but now? She is literally golden!
Return of Main Character.
Struggle: Main character and villain join in direct combat. The fairytale is divided into two mirrored parts. The Ugly Daughter struggles against both mother figures. Mother Holle quietly watches the Ugly girl be lazy, then sees her punished. In the second part, the sociopathic stepmother switches allegiance from the Ugly Daughter to the Newly Returned Golden Daughter.
Victory: Main character defeats villain. In this particular fairytale, ‘the universe delivers’. Old Mother Frost gives the good, Beautiful Daughter a golden shower (hmm, that phrase has taken on a newer meaning), but the Ugly Daughter just happens to get a bucket of pitch on her head. (I don’t know about you, but I reckon Old Mother Frost set that up.)
Initial Misfortune Remedied. In the Grimm version, the Ugly girl is now super ugly forever. In the animation, the stepmother is now required to do the housework.
Recognition of main character. The Beautiful Daughter is literally golden.
Exposure of false hero/villain. When the Ugly Daughter doesn’t do as she is told and is not afraid of Frau Holle’s big teeth, this exposes her as unfeminine. Frankly, this bad girl is more in line with your modern ideal of a ‘strong female character’, refusing to be afraid, refusing to spend her day doing pointless housework.
Transfiguration:Turning golden might go here instead. The reward and transfiguration in this story are conflated. (For a female character, being beautiful is the ultimate reward. It stands her in good stead for a noble marriage.)
Punishment of villain. The Ugly Daughter is permanently uglier because now she is covered in pitch.
The 21st century animated retelling ends this tale in 21st century fashion. The good sister sticks up for the ‘bad’ sister once her own mother turns against her for failing to return covered in gold. The two sisters become friends. This is now a story about female friendship. There is an historical dearth of stories about female friendship. Historically, female characters are defined by their relationships to men. Many storytellers in the 21st century are working to make up for this.
What does the research say about genetic offspring versus adopted/step offspring an how they are differentially treated? Looking at statistics such as inheritance, contemporary research says there is no meaningful difference between ‘real’ children and others. We do know that parents treat different children differently, but blood connection is not the decider that fairytales would have us believe.
Header illustration Frau Holle illustrated by Anne Anderson
Scientists still don’t know why we need to sleep. Contrast that lack of full understanding with nutrition science, in which we fully understand why animals need to eat, how nutrition enters the blood stream, how it is metabolised and so on. Sleep remains far more mysterious.
But we do know more and more about sleep, partly thanks to people with disordered sleeping. Some people sleepwalk, drive cars and cook meals in their sleep. Because of this, we have come to understand that parts of the brain can be asleep while other parts remain fully awake. This also applies to the sleep deprived, who won’t notice that part of their brain is asleep while they are technically still ‘awake’, but they will know they’re not on top of their game.
The inverse of sleepwalking is sleep paralysis — a terrifying experience. This is where your brain is awake, but your body remains asleep. To make matters worse, this experience often goes hand in hand with the nightmarish visions in which dark figures seem to be creeping into the room.
In many ways, symbolically and experientially, sleep can feel like a form of death. Also, a common time to die is in the early hours, when metabolism plummets. People near death are at their most vulnerable at about four in the morning.
Visions of death near the bed are therefore commonly found in stories and art.
La Thangue was well-known for his realist rustic scenes. Here, uncharacteristically, he introduces a symbolic dimension to his work. A mother discovers that her young daughter has died, presumably after an illness. At the same moment, a man arrives at the gate carrying a scythe, the traditional symbol of death, the ‘grim reaper’.This rather melodramatic treatment can be compared with the more grimly realistic picture of child death Hushed, by Frank Holl, also shown in this room.
The modern Grim Reaper is more often a man, but the Black Death was seen as an old woman walking the land, with a broom and a rake. Where she raked, some survived. Where she used the broom, everybody died. Old women are more common than old men, which probably accounts for much of the opprobrium directed at old women.
Whenever folklore contains a scary old woman, later artists will always, always subvert the idea of witch-like power by depicting her as an alluring young woman.
Skeletons As Death
Not surprising, of course, that skeletons are associated with death.
The Symbolic Inverse of the Grim Reaper
In contemporary lore, death more often looks like a man. The painting below is a useful portrayal of symbolic opposites. Death is a malnourished male figure holding a scythe, whereas the inverse of death is a pregnant woman decorated in flowers and pears. The painter Ivar Arosenius did this painting three years before his own death. Perhaps he was contemplating his own demise.
Storytellers have long utilised the symbolism of dreams, which apply equally when we’re awake. Around the world, we all have a similar visceral reaction to forests, the colour red, skulls… In fiction these universal symbols indeed say something deeper about our collective anxieties and fixations.
What is the universal symbol of climate change? I can tell you already. It’s waves.I listened to an interview with an Australian climate change scientist who has recently decided to open up about her climate crisis anxiety. Other climate change scientists have thanked her for her honesty. Sounds like they’re all having these dreams. Dreams about massive waves crashing onto shore. In some dreams this particular scientist is sucked in by the wave; in others she’s trying to run away.
This imagery is echoed in a British cartoon that came through my feed last month: three waves in increasing order of magnitude, the smallest labeled ‘Pandemic’, the next labeled ‘Brexit’, the biggest labeled ‘Climate Change’.
If you haven’t joined us already, when you start having nightmares about waves, then you’ll know you’re viscerally feeling our climate crisis.