The common feature of a salon: It is set up for social interaction.
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.)
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
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 Rapunzeland 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.
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’.
“Old Mother Frost” is a German fairy tale also known as “Mother Holle“, “Mother Hulda” and “Frau Holle“. Across cultures, other weather conditions are used: Lady Snowstorm, Old Mother Blizzard in Russia. The Grimm Brothers collected this story for their book Children’s and Household Tales (1812). The narrative 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.
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.
“The Erl-King” is a short story by Angela Carter based on an old ballad by Goethe, one of the most famous ballads ever told. Carter’s re-visioning doesn’t take the plot from Goethe’s ballad, but borrows some of the atmosphere, inverting the gaze, turning it into something new. As you might expect from Angela Carter, her re-visioning expands notions of gender.
Below I take a look at both, as a compare and contrast exercise.
Goethe’s Erl-King (“Der Erlkönig”) is a terrifying narrative poem written by a German called Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1782. The Erl-King was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel (light opera) called Die Fischerin.
What Happens In “Der Erlkönig”
A boy and his father are out riding one windy night.
The boy is safe and secure, wrapped warmly in his father’s arms.
Suddenly the boy hides his face.
The boy has seen the Erl-King, or fairy king, who he recognises by the Erl-King’s cloak and crown. The Erl-king is King of the Elves and is hideous.
The father reassures the boy, telling him there’s nothing around them but mist. Perhaps he even persuades himself there’s nothing there. The father’s shortcoming is that he has learned not to trust his senses. He is probably doing that very adult and logical thing by relying on past experience, in which he thinks he sees some terrible creature out of the corner of his eye but it always turns out to be nothing.
Who’s riding so late, in the night and wind? It is the father with his child. He grasps the boy in his arm. He holds him securely; he keeps him warm.
My son, why do you hide your face so fearfully? “Father, don’t you see the Erl-King there? The Erl-King with his crown and train?” My son, it’s a streak of mist.
But the Erl-King starts to sing right into the little boy’s ear, asking the boy to come with him. He promises to play games and find bright flowers together on the shore. We never learn why the Erl-King wants the boy. As in Rumpelstiltskin, we just assume that everyone wants children, especially boy children, fantasy creatures included.
Only the boy can hear the Erl-King speak. The father insists there’s no sound but dry leaves in the wind.
The Erl-King keeps promising things to the boy — daughters who will dance for him all night, holding him and rocking him and loving him. (There are realworld religions which promise feminine care and sex to male followers in the after life.)
Now the Erl-King’s daughters beckon to the boy.
The father doesn’t see (or acknowledge) these supernatural creatures and insists the beckoning girls are nothing but willows.
The Erl-King becomes desperate for the boy and says if he won’t come willingly, he’ll take him anyway.
The boy tells his father the Erl-King is gripping him.
Finally the father believes the son. (It’s not clear why he suddenly believes the boy now. Why not before?)
The father quickly dashes home with his son in his arms.
But when the father reaches home, he discovers his son is dead in his arms.
RESONANCE OF GOETHE’S ERL-KING
The trope of the adult who lies to children hoping to protect them from very real fears is utilised frequently to this day in stories. This kind of adult dishonesty continues to be punished in the majority of these narratives, if only because the child is proven correct, exposing the adult as a fool and a liar.
[Goethe’s] ‘Erlking’ … personifies death as a danger above all to the young, who are credited with a more intense perception of the other world in the first place; this intimacy with the supernatural makes them vulnerable to its charms and its desires. Fear is the child’s bedfellow.
Goethe’s ballad has been set to music by several composers, most notably by Franz Schubert.
Many artists have illustrated Goethe’s “Erl-King”. The etching below evinces an unmistakably scary, Gothic tone.
But other artists, long before Angela Carter got to it, saw the erotic potential in Goethe’s ballad. The natural target for this objectification was not The Erl-King himself, because these classic artists were largely heterosexual men, but the Erl-King’s daughters.
ANGELA CARTER’S RE-VISIONING
Once Angela Carter gets hold of the Erl-King story, she gets rid of the daughters and instead sexually objectifies the Erl-King, handing the gaze to our narrator. (She also inverts the gender of the male gaze with various other tales in her Bloody Chamber collection.)
Most readers coming to Carter’s short story will be at least somewhat familiar with Goethe’s original, though it stands alone. This is a prospective retelling, though familiarity with Goethe’s ballad illuminates Carter’s feminist take.
I came to Carter’s “Erl-King” expecting she’d do more with the misty, windy environment, but she does much more with the autumn leaves. I thought there’d be a horse but there isn’t. Familiar with many of Carter’s other works, I thought the story might be about the Erl-King’s daughters, but my expectations were wrong.
I own an out-of-print copy of the collected short stories of Angela Carter and I think the image on this 1996 cover might depict “The Erl-King”. The character manifests a 1990s version of femme-androgyny. They are crowned like royalty. There’s a forest in the background, and the character becomes one with the dropped foliage in the foreground. This character is part human, part forest; betwixt female and male; neither real nor unreal (like any fear); both powerful and vulnerably lying back; unmistakably inviting our gaze.
CARTER’S TREATMENT OF TIME
Carter’s re-visioning takes place in a fairytale world, with a forest both protective and scary, and in a place which runs on mythic time (kairos) rather than linear time (chronos).
Unlike classic fairytales, Carter does give us some specificity with the time. The story opens with a rainy day in late October. This accounts for the crunchy leaves of Goethe’s ballad, of course. “Withered blackberries withered like their own dour spooks”. Blackberries are paradoxically symbolic, being both delicious and a pest of a plant, covered in thorns. Here they indicate that summer was a forest cornucopia, but now — in another example of liminality — summer is turning into winter. (The in-between seasons have liminal potential.)
The autumnal light is personified (striking the wood ‘with nicotine-stained fingers); winter is subsequently personified (it ‘grips hold of your belly and holds it tight’). The little stream has ‘grown sullen’, the trees make sounds like the taffeta skirts of women lost in the woods, and so on. This is a story in which the setting is a character in its own right. Carter takes this storytelling technique to its extreme, because The Erl-King equals the forest.
But when does this story take place, exactly? It works on ancient, fairytale time, which turns back on itself, repeats with each season (the underlying reason why Carter mentions season), and note that although Carter places us firmly in a particular season, ‘grass grew over the tracks years ago’, which reminds me of the timelessness of fantasy worlds such as Narnia. Clearly, time works differently through the gates of this forest portal: because ‘once you are inside [the wood] you must stay there until it lets you out’. There is no specificity of time in these details.
Also, the story begins in present tense and later switches to past tense, which is another way of making the switch from iterative (kairos) to singulative (chronos). (It’s done a bit differently in most children’s stories.) Kairos is all about the time of antiquity whereas chronos describes modern, linear time. Kairos is sometimes switched out for the phrase ‘mythic time’.
Notice the story opens with second-person narration, unusual outside the genre of pick-a-path adventures. In general, audiences don’t have much patience for lengthy passages of second person narration. Carter doesn’t stick with it for long — just long enough to make us feel as if we are the main characters of our own story. This forest is the subconscious, and every single one of us has one of those — this story is about all of us, and no one in particular.
The second person narration ends at mention of Little Red Riding Hood, which reminds us that this is a fairytale world. “She will be trapped in her own illusion because everything in the wood is exactly as it seems.” This is the perfect metaphor for the deep, dark subconcious; though the veridical world is nothing like our dreams, our dreams are nonetheless real to us, because we experience them as real while asleep; our fears and desires guide our actions in a very real way.
Little Red Riding Hood turns into a ‘character’ called ‘the interloper’.
Then the unseen character becomes ‘I’ before switching back to ‘you’: ‘Erl-King will do you grievous harm’, but this time the second person address is clearly ‘universal you’, something dished out as eternal advice.
SPATIAL HORROR OF CARTER’S “ERL-KING”
Writers use a variety of tricks to produce discomfort in the reader and no writer I’ve ever seen has a larger toolbox than Angela Carter. Her stories are full of spatial horror. She is constantly working to disorient. What’s in her toolbox?
MISE EN ABYME
Carter uses mise en abyme in “Peter and the Wolf”. She uses it here too when describing how the woods ‘enclose and then enclose again’. This mise en abyme effect is repeated in Carter’s description of the stripping of the heroine, who has several layers; first her clothes, then another layer, her ‘last nakedness, that underskin of mauve, peralised satin, like a skinned rabbit’. Then the mise en abyme reverses as the Erl-King dresses her again.
the intimate perspectives of the wood changed endlessly around the interloper, the imaginary traveler walking toward an invented distance
There’s something very Escher about that.
I am not afraid of him; only afraid of vertigo, of the vertigo with which he seizes hem Afraid of falling down.
Falling as a bird would fall thorugh the air if the Erl-King tied up the winds in his handkerchief and knotted the ends together so they could not get out.
The equinotical gales seize the bare elms and make them whizz and whirl like dervishes
THE FOREST SETTING AND ITS CONNECTION TO THE REAL WORLD
“The Erl-King” is basically an evocation of setting, but this is no ordinary forest: This is a forest of the imagination, and an allegory for how it feels to be a woman straddling that impossible dichotomy between ‘virgin’ vs ‘whore’. That’s the well-known feminist reading.
LIMINALITY AND GENDER
Carter’s Erl-King transgresses gender lines:
He goes out i the morning to gather his unnatural treasres, he handles them as delicately as he does pigeon’s eggs He makes salads He is an excellent housewife.
Carter wrote “The Erl-King” over 40 years ago in the midst of second wave activism. Fast forward to 2020 and I propose the virgin-whore dichotomy has lessened a little for women, at least in some cultures and subcultures. But there are many outworkings of liminality. These days the word ‘intersectionality’ is widely known. ‘Liminal’ in allegory might equal ‘intersectionality’ when applied to social justice activism. Carter’s liminal, feminist, gender expansive “Erl-King” remains relevant as ever.
THE GENDER OF THE NARRATOR
The Erl-King’s gender is not very important to the narrator. Commentators have assumed the narrator is female. For example, Marina Warner calls our narrator-guide ‘the heroine’, because she embodies femme-coded characteristics. This is a fair conclusion because this story is clearly a critique of prison-like matrimony. Doves settle on the Erl-King and those rings around their necks are ‘wedding rings’.
There are other intertextual clues that tell us the narrator is female. The Erl-King keeps other femme-coded characters in cages and captures this narrator. We traditionally associate birds and cages with femme-coded characters, no doubt about that. (And no story stands in isolation from its cultural context, etcetera.)
I suspect Angela Carter was very familiar with the trope of women compared to birds (and also cats). If you spend half a day looking through classic art from Europe it really stands out — young women and girls with birds, birdcages, birds all around them. In literature, women are often compared to birds via metaphor and simile. This is two-fold: A human being with an affinity for birds embodies appropriately gentle feminine attributes. Also, birds are small and vulnerable, much like women-and-children (I mindfully hyphenate that phrase).
But what if the story is more gender expansive than that? If The Erl-King transgresses gender roles, might our narrator be of any gender when re-read in the age of marriage equality?
Okay forget the here and now, let’s briefly go back to Ancient Rome, when sexual identity was not contingent upon a person’s attraction to a particular gender/s, but instead on how much ‘control’ people were able to exert over their impulses (sexual, economic and so on).
Our modern focus on gender as a main determinant of our orientation and identity is very new in the history of humankind. (Michel Foucault went deep into this.) But what if we instead divided people into ‘those turned on by satin sheets’ or ‘my orientation is feather boas’ or whatever? What might we call someone turned on by their awe of personified nature? The narrator in this story is clearly aroused by the forest, which they regard as alive, personified throughout the entire story, evinced by Carter’s choice of imagery. Might attraction to ‘the power of nature’ not just as easily function as an orientation in its own right? And if you are part human, part forest, do you even have a gender? Reading this story in 2020 makes me want to throw the boundaries of gender identity and sexual orientation out the window.
Although Carter’s “Erl-King” is a lyrical exploration of setting and character (one and the same in this case), does it have a structure to speak of? First requirement: a character shortcoming.
Before looking into any moral or psychological shortcomings we need a main character. This is an example of a story in which a viewpoint character (the narrator) looks on and describes another character in great detail, in which case the very concept of ‘main character’ becomes moot.
Warner describes the narrator’s main shortcoming thusly:
Like Goethe’s poems, Carter angles the terror through the fascinated eyes of the Wellings prey. The heroine is in thrall despite herself to the woodland spirit’s feral, eldritch [sinister or ghostly] charms.
So let’s call her ‘the heroine’. We might also call her the ‘victim muse’, a Gothic archetype of the Romantic era.
The heroine may be a victim of Stockholm syndrome, in which a person falls in love (or in this case, lust) with their captor.
[A]nxiety about sexuality and the imagery of engulfment are also combined in [The Bloody Chamber]. This is particularly visible in “The Erl-King” … In the story, the protagonist dwells on her attraction to a fae figured called the Erl-King. The Erl-King captures women who stray into the woods and transforms them into birds that he keeps in cages. Despite this danger, the protagonist allows him to seduce her.
In “The Erl-King”, Angela Carter creates a man who literally transforms a woman into a bird, but this is allegory for how men typically consider women: As both gentle and vulnerable.
Is this heroine both gentle and vulnerable? I argue no, not until The Erl-King turns her into a bird and puts her inside that cage. She is brave. You have to be brave (or stupid, I guess) to enter a creepy forest all the while knowing you might not come out alive. She is also fully in touch with her erotic side, slightly wild. He tames her via the metaphorical equivalent of marriage.
So at the start of the story, the heroine/victim muse is basically horny, driven by a baser instinct. The forest is so overwhelming that she is sexually in awe of it. ‘Nature’ is her orientation. I’m reminded of a scene from Melancholia.
‘Desire’ in Carter’s “Erl-king” is both narrative and sexual. Apart from communing with nature, the narrator doesn’t want anything.
This is because they are written in the Romantic style.
In tales influenced by the Romance era, character desire is less important than mood and symbolism. Romantic poets weren’t about creating an active participant, giving them a goal then showing the audience how they go after it, foiled at every turn. Instead, Romantic characters are tortured souls, the original Goths, haunted by poetry, at the whims of strong forces, often supernatural, outside their control and understanding.
Angela Carter retains Romantic characterisation in her re-visioning. Like Goethe’s ballad, we know nothing about what the characters want. We don’t know where the father and son had been, for what purpose. We don’t know what the Erl-King wants with the boy (and it doesn’t bear thinking about). I suspect contemporary audiences of Goethe would not have even asked why the Erl-King wanted the boy; nor would they have asked why Rumpelstiltskin wanted a firstborn in exchange for spinning straw into gold. Babies, especially boy babies, were considered desirable alongside gold. Everyone wants gold and everyone wants a baby. This is assumed fact.
The heroine knows that the Erl-King (nature) could kill her. She seems to believe in some kind of reincarnation and tells us ‘He could thrust me into the seed-bed of next year’s generation and I would have to wait until he whistled me up from my darkness before I could come back again.’
He wields a magic over her. When he beckons, she comes, both literally and sexually. He beckons her to his cottage in the woods where he vampirically sinks his teeth into her neck, draining the life force out of her.
Angela Carter, as Anton Pieck does his illustration above, does not create an outright hideous Erl-King. Pieck creates a pretty regular old man. If Angela Carter’s Erl-King is hideous, this is because of his chimerical one-ness with leaves and the earth. But chimeras throughout the history of art are often depicted as sexually alluring characters. (Take a look at some of the classic art in this post.)
Carter uses the colour green to connect the Erl-King to the fairy realm — fairies and green are closely associated throughout folklore: ‘Eyes green as apples. Green as dead sea fruit.’
Driven by her awe of nature, the narrator enters the subconscious/forest, follows the Erl-King, enters his cottage and lies on his bed.
To call this a ‘plan’ is a bit of a stretch. Whatever it is, it’s the Romantic equivalent. This narrator is under some kind of influence bigger than themselves. Awe and horniness are both forms of arousal, and it seems a legit theory to me that sometimes they become conflated. I suspect this is what goes on in the minds of pyromaniacs, both awed by their own ability to create catastrophic damage and also sexually aroused by it (accounting for the young male demographic skew), though it’s a point of pride that I will never fully understand the urge to light murderous fires at the peak of an Australian summer.
All of Carter’s pre-introduced moments of spatial horror culminate at the climax of “The Erl-King” — the description of the Erl-King’s eyes, a blend of claustrophobia, warped perspective and the whirlpool effect.
By comparing his eyes to a mirror, Carter even manages a fresh take on mise en abyme. Note how she plays with warped perspective:
What big eyes you have [RED RIDING HOOD REFERENCE]. Eyes of an incomparable luminosity, the numinous phosphorescence of the eyes of lycanthropes. The gelid green of your eyes fixes my reflective face [MISE EN ABYME, MIRROR]. It is a preservative, like a green liquid amber; it catches me. I am afraid I will be trapped [CLAUSTROPHOBIA] in it for ever like the poor little ants and flies that stuck their feet in resin before the sea covered the Baltic. He winds me into the circle [WHIRLPOOL] of his eye on a reel of birdsong. There is a black hole in the middle of both your eyes; it is there still centre, looking there makes me giddy [DIZZINESS], as if I might fall into it [VERTIGO].
Your green eye is a reducing chamber. If I look into it long enough, I will become as small as my own reflection. I will diminish to a point and vanish. I will be drawn down into that black whirlpool and be consumed by you.
I looked up ‘reducing chamber’ wondering if it were a real world contraption but it appears to be a fantasy technology invented by Carter, perhaps a riff on the decompression chamber utilised by scuba divers. The ‘chamber’ is another type of cage.
Now the reason for all of this spatial horror becomes apparent:
I shall become so small you can keep me in one of your osier cages and mock my loss of liberty. I have seen the cage you are weaving for me; it is a very pretty one and I shall sit, hereafter, in my cage among the other singing birds but I — I shall be dumb, from spite.
Welp, the narrator is beholden to him now. Captured by a rush of love hormones, he might as well have locked our narrator in a cage using allure alone, though she entered into this arrangement supposedly of her own volition, knowing her fate full well.
This uneasy combo of choice versus being drawn in reminds me of something said by James Flynn (before he became so controversial) when asked in an interview why young women keep having babies if children so clearly make poor women’s life worse. His response was that procreation is a human impulse, and we should not expect anyone to restrain it in the face of economic logic. Also, for the least privileged women of all, having children is a logical way to live a meaningful life, far more logical a choice than a privileged outsider often assumes.
In Angela Carter’s lifetime, matrimony for women, despite its restrictions, was the safest, most logical way for many women to live their lives. Matrimony itself was an allure as much as a gilded cage.
The narrator secretly plans to kill the Erl-King and tells the reader exactly how she means to do it. It involves cutting off the Erl-King’s hair. But will she? Does she have a hope in hell against this supernatural creature who can shrink people and stuff them into bird cages? Doubt it. If this were ever going to happen, I’d expect Carter would show it. She didn’t exactly shy away.
There is no escape from patriarchy, even if there is escape from matrimony in individual cases.
Our narrator will eke out a living imaginatively, ie., by imagining how she might kill her captor.
A related take:
The reflection [in the Erl-King’s eyes at the climax] could be symbolic of the view of these women from the perspective of the male figure, which holds them in a particular image that they have trouble finding their way out of. The narrator, at the end, plans to find her way out, though; still, she has to ask him to turn his gaze away first before she can do so.
The narrator is also comforted by the fact they are not alone. Take for example the cock robin, whose plumage implies it has been stabbed in the heart. (Note how Carter also used the ‘wedding’ ring around the pigeon’s neck — part of its plumage — for symbolic reasons.)
Robins have long been illustrated dead with their legs in the air, as you can see in the collection below.
Surface reading: The narrator is terrified of a sexual encounter with the Erl-King but because they’re under some kind of magic spell, they’re required to go through with it anyway.
A feminist reading: The struggle is between the narrator’s wish for freedom from the patriarchal nature of partnership with a ‘king’ (archetypically identical to ‘father’ in fairytales), and their simultaneous sexual attraction to these king-fathers.
When we consider this story and its place within a real world that still runs by the rules of patriarchy, Carter illuminates the relationship between sex, gender, power and entrapment.
People who have come out of emotionally abusive relationships often explain that love for a coercive controller acts as an invisible cage. This story is the perfect allegory for that. An episode of Dear Sugar Radio features an episode called Emotional Abuse, and Steve Almond mentions another short story which also makes an excellent allegory: “Runaway” by Alice Munro.
Header painting: Moritz von Schwind, Illustration to Goethe’s Poem “Erlkönig”, 1849.
In stories, mice are to rats as frogs are to toads. Unlike hares and rabbits, toads and frogs are actually the same category of animal, but one has garnered a better reputation. I’ve heard ‘toad’ used as an insult, but I’ve only ever heard ‘froggy’ to describe the shape of someone’s mouth. Neither is especially complimentary, but frogs seem cuter.
The Real Difference Between Frogs And Toads
Wheras the categories of ‘mice’ and ‘rats’ encompass many different small mammals who may or may not be closely related to each other, toads are a subcategory of frog.
Generally speaking, whether we call an amphibian a frog or a toad will depend on a few visible markers:
moist and slimy
dry and bumpy
long and lean
short and squat
in a mass
in a chain
So how is this distinction useful for storytellers making use of anthropomorphised amphibians?
I’m thinking slime. I think flies, quick movements combined with general sloth. I think of The Frog Princess, literally and metaphorically ‘slimy’, imposing himself on a young woman knowing full well she doesn’t want him anywhere near her.
The Quack Frog
Toads As Mark Of Healthy Boyhood
Especially in nineteenth and twentieth century children’s books, boys and frogs are linked. The painting by Dirk Sargeant below is an excellent visual depiction of what I’m talking about:
The boy takes a natural and mischievous delight in these disgusting creatures, usually while a disapproving girl or woman looks on. In Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White wrote a brother (Avery) who is the stereotypically perfect representation of rural boyhood — part of that requires a fascination with frogs.
Though the famous nursery rhyme below doesn’t mention frogs and toads exactly, they fit into the same category as snails:
What are little boys made of? What are little boys made of? Snips and snails And puppy-dogs’ tails That’s what little boys are made of
What are little girls made of? What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice And everything nice [or “all things nice”] That’s what little girls are made of
Toads are basically gross-out material, related to Bakhtin’s ideas about bodily discomfort.
The Posh Dandy Toad
I believe the underlying idea in this archetype is that the ugly middle-aged man tries to improve himself by dressing in a way his gentlemanly salary allows. The juxtaposition is the joke, and another take on ‘making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ or ‘lipstick on a pig’. The best-known example of this kind of toad is probably Toad from The Wind In The Willows, published 1908. The illustration below is also from around that time.
Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Jeremy Fisher was published in 1893, and it may have been Potter who ushered in the age of the well-dressed toad in children’s stories. Her publishers weren’t confident a slimy amphibian could be empathetic, so Potter was required to compensate for Jeremy’s ugliness by painting unusually beautiful backgrounds. It was Potter’s book which proved even a toady type thing can be sympathetic.
WHAT DID AESOP HAVE TO SAY ABOUT FROGS AND TOADS?
Make any slimy thing cuter by giving them clothes. Extend cuteness further by depicting them in mid-action, putting on those clothes, behaving like humans. The cutest thing you can do with a frog is to make it behave like a child human.
Literary scholars today write about a type of plot known as The Harlot’s Progress. This is a narrative archetype — a type of story — which still gets written today, though in different form. In the 18th century the story of the ‘harlot’ who did immoral sex things for money then died would have been very familiar to anyone living in the West. The story was everywhere, in art, in literature, in newspapers, and in the way people talked about women.
Many of the following notes are from Chastity and Transgression in Women’s Writing 1792-1897: Interrupting the Harlot’s Progress by Roxanne Eberle, 2002.
WHERE DID THE NAME “HARLOT’S PROGRESS” COME FROM?
The narrative of women punished for sex work goes back further than this, but “Harlot’s Progress” is a series of six paintings by William Hogarth, painted in 1731. He was riffing on The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Hogarth did the engravings over following year. His paintings have been destroyed but the engravings still exist.
In the first plate, an old woman tells a young woman, Moll Hackabout, that she’s beautiful and that she might consider sex work.
In the second plate Moll has two lovers. She then becomes a mistress and finally a sex worker. She is arrested and sent to prison. Then, at age 23, Moll dies from a sexually transmitted disease. All six plates can be viewed at full size over at Wikipedia.
THE HARLOT’S PROGRESS IN LITERATURE
The narrative of the harlot who comes to grief can be seen across English literature of the 18th century, as well as in these famous images. This archetype is not only applied to women who become sex workers, but is used as a moralistic tale to control the sex lives of women across the board.
Although Moll’s story was a didactic tale (for women), it was also presented as erotica (for men).
Pretty much everyone in the 19th century was familiar with this story. Hogarth’s images were printed onto decorative items such as fan-mounts (the part of a fan that’s not the stick and handle) and onto household items such as cups and saucers.
Newspaper articles about real women were influenced by this dominant narrative. “Fallen women”, “harlots” and “prostitutes” were presented to the hegemonic public as immoral and dangerous to society.
FEATURES OF A HARLOT’S PROGRESS STORY
Harlot’s Progress stories are linear — typically a form which serves masculine desire, in both the rhetorical and sexual sense of the word. (Feminine stories — those for and about women — more often tend to be circular in shape.)
Heroines in Harlot’s Progress stories are presented as Good characters who deserve the best possible fate. However, until she is claimed by a man, all of her virtues remain suspect. (The man who claims her recognises her intrinsic goodness.)
This ideal heroine follows a set path towards marriage and domesticity. Her quest is always the same: for the protective security of a publicly established virtuous reputation. [DESIRE]
The Harlot’s Progress narrative starts with either seduction or sexual violence. This will show the audience how vulnerable she is.
If she doesn’t have a father, she will need to find a father figure before she can secure a husband. [MENTOR]
Before achieving marriage, the heroine navigates her way through hoards of scary men in landscapes fraught with sexual transgression. [SETTING]
In these spaces, female modesty is presented as fragile. [WEAKNESS]
If she succumbs to sexual impulses she will sabotage her chance at marriage and instead become a “fallen woman”. [MORAL DILEMMA]
But the reader is constantly encouraged to worry that she will be a victim of male violence.
The BIG STRUGGLE scene will include a situation in which the heroine has to evade predatory men and not be turned on by the threat of their violence.
She must avoid venturing off the path (seen also in the Grimm versions of Little Red Riding Hood, heavily influenced by the Harlot’s Progress narrative in the versions they collected). If she ventures off the path, she will run the risk of falling into a much more dangerous story.
COULD THE HARLOT’S PROGRESS NARRATIVE BE FEMINIST?
Some critics (e.g. Margaret Homans) have argued that linear narratives tend to correlate with static narratives. By static, we mean narratives which deliberately invoke stasis. However, critics such as Roxanne Eberle have argued that (proto-) feminists made use of familiar linear narratives in order to do feminist things with them. Linear stories are perfectly adequate in allowing for much experimentation. (E.g. A story can still be linear and not kill the heroine off at the end.)
The heroines of these books were rewarded with good husbands, financial resources and a domestic form of power. (Nancy Armstrong calls this specific form of power ‘the power of domestic surveillance’ in her book Desire and Domestic Fiction.)
Ultimately, these scripts serve the middle-class by presenting us with an ideal of the public male entrepreneur and his private angel in the house.
Importantly, these weren’t the only books being written in this era. At the turn of the 19th century the very construct of the British woman was much debated. The world was at war and Britain was grappling with social upheaval — there were massive changes going on in their rural, agrarian and feudal class system. How important were women in all this? Many people were talking about it.
‘Conservatives’ wanted to keep women virtuous and in the domestic/private sphere. ‘Radicals’ wanted to educate women well and enter the public sphere.
So alongside these archetypal Harlot’s Progress narratives we now saw the rise of the sexually transgressive but articulate heroine in fiction. Proto-feminist works (e.g. by Mary Wollstonecraft) starred heroines who had been ‘robbed’ of their chastity by men uninterested in marriage. Some heroines robbed of chastity critiqued the social system rather than succumbed to self-abasement. Proto-feminist writers found the Harlot’s Progress useful because it contained a paradox: It was very well-known by audiences, so provided a framework for variation. (Much as the mythic structure functions in popular storytelling today.) These porto-feminist variations on The Harlot’s Progress was also linear in shape, but also discursive (jumping from subject to subject, probably back and forth through time).
Progressive women were interested in Harlot’s Progress stories because they offer an extreme example of the duality of ‘body’ and ‘mind’ (morality) that enlightened women were dealing with in their own lives. Conservatives believed that unchaste women were dangerous and therefore dangerous members of society. Radical women writers challenged this belief by asking people to locate morality in the mind, separate from what a woman did with her body, or what others did to her body. (Occasionally these writers even dealt with matters of the heart.)
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN REAL SEX WORK AND FICTIONAL SEX WORK
Importantly, novels were not written for the labouring-poor classes. Books were expensive and largely read by richer people who had no idea what real sex work looked like.
Real world sex work of this era looked very little like the archetypal fictional version. Most English sex workers were poor urban women who moved in and out of sex work as a way to supplement their families’ incomes. These women were not necessarily stigmatised within their own communities. This depended on their class. Norms within the sex work/labouring-poor culture of England at the time were distinct from the norms of the dominant culture. Any type of sex outside marriage was frowned upon. Let’s just say sex work didn’t receive especial scorn.
Sex work wasn’t pathologised and regulated until the 1880s. It was at this point that English sex workers started to become stigmatised even within their own communities.
THE HARLOT’S PROGRESS AND CONTEMPORARY STORYTELLING
WOMEN ARE STILL HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR (AVOIDING) SEXUAL ASSAULTS
I have just described 18th and 19th novels which starred heroines whose virtue alone could overcome sexual aggression, transforming male desire into middle-class love. But is this idea really dead?
When a police officer speaks to the public about a violent rape that took place in a public park, he’ll all-too-often tell women to stay away from parks. He’ll tell women not to get drunk if women don’t want to get raped. The problem with these broad service public announcements is this: Individual women may indeed avoid rapes in parks by restricting their own movements. But women are still far more likely to endure abuse in their own homes. And if individual women were able to avoid parks, predators would move on to another victim. Perpetrators are still not held to full account.
SEX WORKERS ARE STILL SEEN AS FALLEN, OSTRACISED WOMEN
Sex trafficking (and other kinds of human trafficking) remain a significant international problem. However, many sex workers today have chosen their profession and resent the enduring idea that they must be stuck in that job because of desperation, substance abuse or morally bad choices.
QUESTIONS TO ASK WHEN EVALUATING NARRATIVES
When a story contains the rape/abuse of a woman or marginalised identity, is this presented as punishment for sexual transgression?
Outside specific realms of erotica, is this punishment meted out in such a way that a voyeuristic audience would enjoy it? Would a misogynistic audience enjoy it?
When reading/watching stories about LGBTQ characters, do these characters die? If so, what is the narrative purpose?
Header painting: Thoughts of the Past exhibited 1859 John Roddam Spencer Stanhope 1829-1908. Stanhope’s portrayal of a prostitute in her lodging, who is suddenly overcome with remorse for her situation, reproduces the theme of the guilt-ridden prostitute that was prevalent in literature and paintings of the 1850s and 1860s, especially among the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers.
Shoes and footwear contain plenty of symbolic meaning. Horse shoes are different again, but I’ll include horse shoes here for comparison.
Early Nancy Drew stories were high concept hooks which generally paired two disparate things which are nonetheless related in some obscure way. In The Clue of the Tapping Heels, those two things are tap dancing and morse code. Tap dancing is a ‘girl’ thing; Morse code is a detective thing. Both involve tapping, voila, there’s the basis for a story.
Why does the imagery of disembodied shoes with a life of their own intrigue us? Why does it work beautifully as horror comedy? There’s a long fairytale history of dancing shoes. Some of these stories end in genuine horror and are commonly dialled down for a young audience.
In fairytales, shoes come in a variety of types: ballet shoes, slippers (all Medieval shoes were like slippers), moccasins, clogs, sandals and other marvellous footwear. One example of marvellous footwear were seven league boots.
Seven League Boots
A league is an ancient measure of distance, equivalent to about 3 miles. Seven league boots come up frequently in fairy tales. These were boots which allowed the wearer to traverse vast distances in a single leap. The mythology clearly influenced the modern superhero narrative. In children’s literature, Roald Dahl‘s The BFG is also able to traverse vast distances. Ostensibly this is because the character is a giant and has very long legs, but the distances covered suggests he is aided by some kind of fairytale magic akin to the seven league boots of fairytale.
Keahi Seymour needed to get to the airport, but Manhattan traffic was gridlocked. So he ran the two-and-change miles across the island — in 12 minutes. “A taxi driver was like, ‘You beat me across the whole of Manhattan!’” Seymour isn’t a sprinter or a distance runner, but his five-minute miles were made possible with help from the Bionic Boots he’s invented, which allow him to run up to 25 miles an hour. Looking like a seven-foot-tall superhero when he wears them, he towers over the average person. “Nice robot legs!” shouted a child he passed on the street.
More widely, then, shoes symbolise travel. This symbolic meaning precedes the era of quick and easy motorised transport. Your shoes were your vehicle.
In some Northern European territories (The Netherlands, Germany and Iceland) children leave shoes out instead of stockings. Father Christmas fills the shoes with gifts. The symbolism is two-fold:
Father Christmas has himself made an arduous journey
His gifts help children with their ‘journey’ over the coming year. (In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas appears — weirdly — and gives the children gifts which are very clearly meant to help them on their journeys.)
Boots which take you to faraway places very quickly go back further than fairytales, back to Greek and Roman legend. Hermes and Perseus have winged sandals, basically the mythological equivalent of flying shoes found in fairytales.
Iron shoes come up in fairy tales all the time. They’re sometimes a punishment, sometimes a trial to be endured, in order to achieve something or expiate some ill. Everything in fairy tales is both real and a metaphor. That’s the way that they work. In this case … (it’s) all the horrible poisonous narratives that women kind of have to drag around with them in order to navigate the world. Early on in this story, Tabitha is thinking about shoes and thinking about, isn’t it odd that in stories, the shoes that men get to wear make everything easier – their seven-league boots or their winged sandals – but the shoes women wear are made of glass or are iron shoes that are heated red hot? I definitely feel like there are two governing metaphors in this. These are two women who have very different lives. One of them is governed entirely by constraint. She can only survive if she holds completely still, and someone else has to constantly endure hardship. These are equal and opposite terrible situations.
Even more famous than the iron shoes of fairytales: The glass slipper dropped by Cinderella. Early versions of Cinderella have no glass slipper. It was an old European tradition that a potential suitor would show his sincerity by making a pair of fur boots for his potential wife. The word for ‘fur’ was vair. Scholars think that vair was confused with verre, meaning glass. The glass slipper may have started as a mistranslation but caught on because this is a beautifully resonant and unexpected detail.
There’s another similar tale from ancient Greece.
“Rhodopis” is an ancient tale about a Greek slave girl who marries the king of Egypt. The story was first recorded by the Greek historian Strabo in the late first century BC or early first century AD and is considered the earliest known variant of the “Cinderella” story.
In that tale, Psammetichos catches sight of Rhodopis’s sandal and basically becomes sexually aroused.
The Shoe As Sexual Symbol
Feet and footwear are traditionally linked to sexuality. Going back to the Cinderella example, the old word for fur happens to share its roots with a word meaning ‘sheath’.
Shoes and slippers are historically very sexualised in parts of China, where foot-binding practices occurred until late in the 20th century. In Northern China the word for ‘slipper’ and ‘mutual agreement’ are homophones, which is partly why slippers are given as wedding presents.
The Shoe As Status Symbol
Perhaps more than anything else worn on the body, shoes indicate how much money you have. While it’s always been possible to buy a cheaper coat or a cheaper dress, shoes have until very recently remained a major expense even for middle class families.
This is why shoes are a status symbol. Since slaves generally went barefoot, to wear shoes meant you were not a slave.
But going barefoot for free children equals more freedom.
The gold shoes in this story function as seven league boots from classic fairytales.
In the fairytale “Puss In Boots“, the high boots worn by the cat are a caricature of pretended high social status. This is a classic example of ‘dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.’
Shoes As Ownership Of Territory
In many sacred places around the world visitors must remove shoes before entering. Why is that? It’s partly about dirt and wear-and-tear inside ancient buildings but there’s more to it than that. Why would the wearing of shoes offend the gods?
Symbolically, when you place your foot upon the ground, you are taking possession of the earth beneath it. This is why some people get so irrationally cranky about trespassers.
Territory at a holy site does not symbolically belong to humans. It belongs to the supernatural realm. This is the main reason why you take your shoes off. You are acknowledging to the gods that you are a visitor in this space and have no claim to sacred territory. The space really belongs to the gods.
Famously, there’s a scene in Robinson Crusoe where the hero discovers a footprint. At this moment he realises he is not alone. Any scene in which one character discovers footprints will be reminiscent of this famous one.
There’s also a footprints sequence in The Wind In The Willows when Ratty goes searching for Mole, who has been attracted to the home of the mysterious Badger.
Oftentimes when we go somewhere, we may aim to leave nothing behind but we can’t help but leave footprints. Therefore, footprints are of use to characters in chase scenes, whether in detective stories, thrillers or Westerns. Footprint is a proxy for any sort of left-behind-evidence, especially in stories relying on easily recognisable tropes, such as picture books. The footprint is the ‘storybook forensic evidence’.
In the winter of 1855, after a heavy fall of snow, residents across a large area of the county of Devon, in the South West of the UK, awoke to find a mysterious trail of prints in the snow. Looking like an hoof, the single-file line of prints allegedly covered a distance of some 100 miles, ignoring obstructions in their path and continuing over high walls hayricks and even the roofs of houses. No satisfactory explanation has ever been given for the event, which became known as the Great Devon Mystery.
Although the case has been widely reported, interestingly it is not the only time that this has happened. Very similar lines of marks have been found in different parts of the world over the last 175 years or so. It’s just that the other cases are much more obscure.
As a child I was never allowed to put a new box of shoes on the table. If I ever did this, it elicited a cry of alarm from my superstitious parent. Depending on what you do with them, shoes can bring both bad luck and good luck.
Concealed shoes hidden in the fabric of a building have been discovered in many European countries, as well as in other parts of the world, since at least the early modern period. Independent researcher Brian Hoggard has observed that the locations in which these shoes are typically found – in chimneys, under floors, above ceilings, around doors and windows, in the roof – suggest that some may have been concealed as magical charms to protect the occupants of the building against evil influences such as demons, ghosts and witches. Others may have been intended to bestow fertility on a female member of the household, or been an offering to a household deity.
Cats … shoes … bottles … coins. At first glance these objects don’t seem to have much in common. But these, and many other objects, are all items which have been found concealed within the fabric of old buildings during renovations or other works. Why were they placed there?
In many ways, shoes function the same as a coat. A pair of abandoned shoes, like a coat, suggests the presence of a person, even when the person is not there.
First, horse shoes may be older technology than you realise:
Writers and artists like Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin popularized the image of the Middle Ages as an unmechanical, rustic arcadia. This latest revision has greatly influenced our own view of the Middle Ages, and has given rise to the idea that medieval society was both untechnological, and uninterested in technology.
This notion is altogether mistaken. The Middle Ages not only produced illuminated books, but also eyeglasses, not only the cathedral, but also the coal mine. Revolutionary changes occurred in both primary industry and manufacturing. The first recorded instance of mass production — of horse-shoes — occurred during the Middle Ages.
Home by Witold Rybczynski
Okay so horse shoes are technically also ‘footwear’ but the symbolism behind horse shoes has nothing to do with the symbolism behind human shoes. The symbolism of the horse shoe comes partly from its shape.
The horse shoe is shaped like an arc. The arc was one of the first sacred symbols to represent the vault of the Heavens.
Upside down, the horse shoe resembles the last letter in the Greek alphabet, the omega.
Turn it again. Now you have a crescent moon. Now the shape invokes the Moon Goddess. Added to that, it kind of reminds people of yoni (the womb). (Does everything end up reminding people of penises, breasts and wombs?)
Apart from that, the horse shoe is made of iron, a heavy, protective metal. This imbues the horse shoe with the apotropaic power of an amulet. The horse shoe is therefore a good luck charm. People nail them over doorways, give them to newlyweds as gifts.
No one can agree which way up the lucky horse shoe should go. I’ve been told to hold a wedding souvenir horseshoe as if it’s a vessel, so its imaginary luck can’t ‘tip out’. But in the pre-Christian era, it was meant to be held the other way so it resembles the sky (and also the womb, with a vaginal opening the right way down, presumably).
Also, iron was thought to repel fairies. That exaplains why horseshoes, nails and shears have all been used to keep travellers and newborns safe. Smiths and smithys, who worked with iron, were seen as magical places in former times, probably because their work was highly skilled and so important to humanity. On top of that, objects made of iron are clearly human constructions, and represent humans’ ability to dominate nature, with nature including evil fairies. In Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evan-Wentz says that the fairies of Britian and Ireland were unable to make iron and that’s why they feared it. They may also be afraid of its magnetic properties (which is more a comment on human fear of magnetic properties: “What on earth are these two pieces of metal doing? They feel alive in my hands!.”)
WEIRD FEET IN FOLK AND FAIRYTALE
Read a lot of fairytales and you’ll soon notice how many weird feet there are. Feet which are actually hooves, chicken feet, deformed feet…
The shoe in Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter is especially interesting.
The Elves and the Shoemaker isn’t really about shoe symbolism despite the story being full of shoes. But it is a very interesting example of a fairytale whose meaning changed pretty much permanently after the Grimm Brothers wrote a certain version down. If shoes are important in this story, it’s because they are highly desirable. Until just two or three generations ago, footwear was very expensive.
SCIENCE FICTION SHOES
SPRING HEELED JACK
SHOE RELATED WORDS
BUSKINS: (kothorni in Greek) Buskins is a Renaissance term for the laced boots worn by actors in ancient Greek tragedy. The buskins later became elevator shoes that made the actor wearing them unusually tall to emphasize the royal status or importance of the character.
COTHURNI:The Greek word for the elevator shoes worn by important actors on stage
SHOD ALL ROUND: A parson who attends a funeral is said to be shod all round, when he receives a hat-band, gloves, and scarf: many shoeings being only partial. (from a 1703 dictionary of slang)
SHOEMAKER’S STOCKS: New or strait shows. I was in the shoemaker’s stocks; i.e. had on a new pair of shoes that were too small for me. (from a 1703 dictionary of slang)
How big is this utopianforest? 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Scenes of pretty young women taking care of hirsuite beasts in front of the hearth is a common scene across fairytale. Below, an illustration for a Scandinavian tale. And because it is Scandinavian, the beast is translated into English as ‘troll’.
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.
“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.
The living person who thinks they are really dead is utilised in the comic book series House of Whispers, written by Nalo Hopkinson (a Jamaican-born Canadian author). Jamaica is very close to Haiti, and Hopkinson has clearly made use of ancestral belief in her original additions to the Sandman universe.
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.
The mother moves out of the cottage and presumably into the palace with her daughters.
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.
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.