Who, Really, Is the Big Bad Wolf?

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When I think about fairy tales, I always think of the Big Bad Wolf. He is the ultimate predator, the fundamental villain at the heart of some of the genre’s most popular stories, and one of the most fascinating.

But who, really, is this wolf?

Red Riding Hood and Little Red Cap

In fairy tale times, the Big Bad Wolf was intended to be the embodiment of temptation and evil. In Red Riding Hood and Little Red Cap, he is literally the one who forces us to stray from the path, into the woods, only to be eaten alive.

He is clever and cunning and driven by greed. He’s also incredibly deceitful and capable of disguise.

In Perrault’s Red Riding Hood (1697), he is able to distract Red Riding Hood by turning her adventure into a kind of game:

‘Well,’ said the wolf, ‘and I’ll go and see her too. I’ll go this way and go you that, and we shall see who will be there first.’

And in the Grimm version of Little Red Cap, the wolf is much more Machiavellian in trying to delay her:

‘Little Red Cap, just look at the beautiful flowers that are growing all around you! Why don’t you look around? I believe you haven’t even noticed how lovely the birds are singing. You march along as if you were going straight to school, and yet it’s so delightful out here in the woods!”

When we read (or are read) tales like Red Riding Hood and The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids as children, the moral of the Big Bad Wolf tales seems incredibly clear, even if we don’t realise it in our young age: Do not listen to big bad wolves. If you do, you’ll get yourself into trouble.

The caution of these tales, for me, also echoes the creation myth of Adam and Eve. The wolf is the serpent, and Red Riding Hood is essentially Eve, tricked into eating the forbidden apple and subsequently getting herself and Adam (and all of mankind) kicked out of Eden.

Yet there is another theory that goes beyond on the mere idea of the wolf as tempter and the little girl as the innocent, helpless victim – that of the wolf as a sexual predator.

The Big Bad Wolf as a sexual predator

Perrault essentially admits at the end of his telling of Red Riding Hood that the tale is fundamentally a warning to young girls about sexual predators:

Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.

Other fairy tale theorists — notably Jack Zipes — have also become pioneers of the interpretation of the Big Bad Wolf as a predator rapist of Red Riding Hood, though it is a violation that Red Riding Hood brings about herself by playing into the wolf’s games and ‘asking’ to be seduced. In other words, she is ultimately “devoured” by her own sexuality.

Although Red Riding Hood is “shrewd, brave, tough, and independent” in the original oral tale, Perrault also revised it to resonate with the Christian values of his time — and thus imposed his own sexual convictions onto the tale. Zipes writes:

… his fear of women and his own sexual drives are incorporated into his new literary version, which also reflects general male attitudes about women portrayed as eager to be seduced or raped.

In this regard, Perrault began a series of literary transformations which have caused nothing but trouble for the female object of male desire and have also reflected the crippling aspect of male desire itself.

From this perspective, the Big Bad Wolf becomes not only a tempter or a predator, as we originally thought him to be, but a perpetrator of the male desire or gaze, and a symbol of the fantasies the male projects onto the female (if you this approach is absurd, check out Zipes’s great article on the Second Gaze, referenced below).

The Big Bad Wolf never wins

There is one more important thing to note about the Big Bad Wolf — despite however you choose to read him or whatever you feel he symbolises, he is always overcome in the end.

In the Grimm version of Red Riding Hood, his death comes at the hands of another male, the woodcutter/hunter (which begs a whole other discussion; as Zipes states, “Only a strong male figure can rescue a girl from herself and her lustful desires”).

In other tales he is defeated by the characters themselves: The mother goat and her kids fill his belly stones so that he drowns in The Wolf and the Seven Young Kidsin The Wolf and the Fox he is undone by his own gluttony; in The Story of the Three Little Pigs, he gets boiled and eaten himself by the brick-building pig.  

Hence, the wolf never learns his lesson, never gets it right. He is proud and gluttonous, boastful and willing to inflict harm, and he always has a vice that undoes him. Just as we all have vices that could undo us as well.

The wolf within

For me (or my naive childhood self), this cautionary element of all fairy tales will always stand.

But perhaps it is this characterisation of the Big Bad Wolf as a reflection of something within ourselves, as a fictional embodiment of fear/desire, that draws us to the fairy tale — and makes us truly want to know and meet the wolf, to experience his wrath, to defeat him in some way, even if we all remain afraid of him in the tales we read.

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REFERENCES

All fairy tales referenced in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: Translated and With an Introduction by Jack Zipes, 3rd ed. Bantam Books, USA & Canada, 2003.

A Second Gaze at Little Red Riding Hood’s Trials and Tribulations by Jack Zipes in The Lion and the Unicorn. Volume 7/8, 1983-1984  pp. 78-109. 

Commentary: The Sweet House

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I had a lot of fun writing The Sweet House (or The Witch & the Wolf).

I knew I wanted to write a story based around the idea of deceit and disguise in fairy tales, and I also wanted the story to be amusingly intertextual, with allusions to other fairy tale elements, characters and stories.

I enjoyed playing with the motif of the wolf in disguise as Red Riding Hood/Little Red Cap, and setting this against the backdrop of Hansel and Gretal, with the witch as the supposed ‘victim’ of the wolf’s ways.

As the story unfolded, I realised it ended up becoming much more parodic than I had originally intended, so I just decided to run with this. For me, the story takes the most interesting turn when the witch, instead of being afraid (since witches rarely are), stands up to the wolf and their dialogue becomes somewhat farcical.

I struggled for a while with the resolution, trying to figure out how to end it.

Originally, I had intentions of introducing a third character of a real boy or girl and somehow having he or she overpower both antagonists, but eventually, I found that the cliffhanger ending worked nicely – and I like how it ties back to the rest of the cliches that run through the story, and kind of takes the ending to a new ‘cliched’ height.

 

The Sweet House (or The Witch & the Wolf)

1375728324-300pxIn the midst of a deep forest, a witch built a house made of bread and cake and sugar.

She knew that children loved sweet things and couldn’t wait for a young girl or boy (or both) to happen upon her sweet home. She lined the windows with candy, covered the steps with gingerbread and even grew flowers that were made of chocolate.

When the house was built, she readied her fire and boiled her water and the next morning, as expected, she woke to see a young girl traipsing through the woods.

‘There’s a fine girl for me to eat,’ thought the witch, and then said to her cat, ‘let’s be very quiet and hide so we don’t scare her off.’

Just as the witch hoped, the little girl saw the house and smiled. ‘Oh my, look at that house made of bread and cake and sugar and candy!’ she said. ‘I shall help myself!’

The little girl skipped up to the house and began to eat it. She took bites out of the porch steps and peeled off the candy that made up the eaves. She licked the windows made of sugar and plucked a flower to suck on.

‘Oh, it tastes just like chocolate,’ the little girl cried, ‘how wonderful!’

The witch clapped her hands together in delight. She put on her best disguise, wrapping a scarf around her head and picking up a crutch. She threw open the door and said, in her softest voice, ‘Nibble, nibble, like a mouse, who is nibbling at my house?’

At the sight of the old woman, the little girl began to tremble.

‘Why, hello there, little girl!’ the witch said. ‘So very nice of you to come by my house.’

The little girl, who was always wary of strangers, said, ‘I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to … I’m so very sorry. I was just very hungry is all.’

‘Oh, don’t be sorry,’ the witch said. ‘This house was made to be eaten. Would you like to come inside? There’s so much more to eat in here.’

‘Really?’ the little girl said.

‘Come indoors and stay with me, you’ll be no trouble.’

‘It’s just – we’re very poor, you see,’ the girl said as the witch held out her hand and welcomed her inside. ‘And my stepmother is horrid and we don’t have enough food for the family.’

Inside, the little girl realised that the witch was right – there entire house could be eaten! The couch was made of sweet bread, the rug was made of solid syrup and even the pots and pans tasted like slices of apples.

‘You shall stay for supper,’ she said to the little girl. ‘I can cook up a special sweet broth and then you can take the rest home to your mother and father to eat.’

Meanwhile, the little girl went about tasting everything she could see. She chewed on the walls, nibbled on the mantle piece and even gobbled down the cushions.

‘Indeed, she must be hungry,’ whispered the witch to the cat. ‘Too bad for her! All this eating will fatten her up.’She threw back her head and let out a loud cackle and thought, ‘A great feast for me!’

When the girl was done eating, the witch said, ‘Here, come and have a taste of my sweet broth.’

Quickly, she placed two small bowls of broth on the table. The girl sat down across from her, cupped the bowl in her hands and drank the broth down.

‘Well?’ the witched asked.

‘It’s very tasty,’ the girl said as she slurped it down. She placed the bowl on the table and smiled. ‘May I have some more?’

As she said this, the witch began to notice something very strange about the little girl.

In some ways, now that she looked a little closer, she didn’t seem like a little girl at all. Her cloak was too small and her cap was not quite right and even her hands seems oddly big.

‘Oh, little girl, what large ears you have!’ the witch said suddenly, noticing the long ears poking out from beneath her red cap.

‘The better to hear you with, of course,’ the girl replied sweetly.

‘And what big eyes!’

‘The more I can see, the more I’ll be able to eat!’

‘What about your mouth? It seems a little big for such a little girl?’

‘All the better to eat you with!’ the girl shouted, leaping up. lone-wolf-pngdispositionattachment

Suddenly the witch realised her mistake. For as the girl threw off her cloak and her cap, she saw that the little girl was not a girl at all – she was actually a great, big, nasty wolf!

A big bad wolf, right in her house, under her nose!

The witch stood up, gathering up all her courage. She put her hands on her hips and said sternly, ‘You’ll not eat me, you silly wolf. I’m not some poor lass for your pleasure.’

‘Oh? And how do you expect to escape?’ the wolf asked. He leaped over the table and snarled, showing all of his sharp teeth. ‘I shall eat you, and the things in your house, and then I shall wait here for all those little children to come by, and I’ll eat them up too!’

The wolf lunged at her, his mouth wide open, but the witch, having encountered many wolves before in the fairy tale world, darted sideways just in time. The wolf, of course, went crashing into the wall.

‘You just try that once more and I’ll weave a spell that will fill your belly with stones,’ the witch said, ‘and then it’ll be the river for you!’

‘Ha! I would like to see that, you old crone,’ the wolf replied. ‘Maybe I’ll push you into this pot of water or bake you in your own oven!’

‘I know a good woodcutter,’ the witch said. ‘He could be here in an instant!’

‘Well, I know a man that can forge red-hot iron shoes, and you’ll put them on and dance until you die. How about that?’

‘I’m not afraid of you, you lousy wolf!’

‘I’m not scared of you either, you wretched hag!’

And before either of them could say another word, there came a knock at the door.

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(Image courtesy of liftart [witch] and wordlabel [wolf] at openclipart.org)

Magic in Fairy Tale & Fantasy

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Is magic in fairy tales the same as magic in fantasy?

In fairy tales, magic is ultimately ‘normalized,’ as Kate Bernheimer tells us: “In a traditional fairy tale there is no need for a portal. Enchantment is not astounding. Magic is
normal.”

We see this in numerous fairy tales, from pots that spring endless porridge to birds that bestow young maids like Cinderella with beautiful gowns; from beanstalks that grow up into the clouds to wolves and even mirrors that talk.

All of this is considered normal fairy tale substance. Magic exists everywhere in the fairy tale. Yet it is never highlighted or discussed. Magic is not ‘learned’ and it is never the subject of education. Witches and fairy godmothers simply have magical skill. We don’t know how or why. In a fairy tale, magic just ‘is.’

In many fantasy stories, on the other hand, magic often lives in the foreground. Rather than simply existing as a part of the landscape, it becomes a crucial part of the plot, and often a part of the central character’s journey, like in Harry Potter or the Wizard of Earthsea. A lot of the time, in fantasy, magic is craft. And only a few lucky ones are able to master it.

But what about other fantasy stories that don’t place the element of magic in the foreground, as something to be learned or mastered? In tales like Alice in Wonderland, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it would seem that magic is an intrinsic part of the background, too. After all, caterpillars smoke, fauns and lions talk, and scarecrows desire brains.

But all of these stories have one thing that fairy tales do not – a framing device. Each story takes the characters out of their ordinary, everyday realms (where there is no magic) and into fantastical ones. Alice falls down the rabbit hole, Lucy passes through the wardrobe and Dorothy is whisked away by a cyclone into Oz. Unlike that of fairy tale, the real world and the magical world are still separate in these narratives.

So, I suppose when it comes to definition – is the theme of magic something that we could use (in addition to form, history, discourse etc.) to truly differentiate fairy tale and fantasy?

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 REFERENCES

Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairytale by Kate Bernheimer in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. Tin House Books: 2009.

 

Origins of Cinderella – Part 2

Previous: Origins of Cinderella – Part 1

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Perrault’s Cendrillon or the Little Glass Slipper

Writing in the late 17th century (1697) and for the French bourgeois, Charles Perrault adapted Cinderella to be much more appealing to the (European) child reader. (NB: Among others, there is also a slightly earlier Italian form of the Cinderella tale from 1634, Basile’s Cenerentola, but I’ll save that one for another day).

In Perrault’s version, the fairy tale also takes place within the family household. But the main revision Perrault made when he ‘collected’ the story was to bring the magic of the tale into the foreground. He introduced the figure of the Fairy Godmother, and the appearance of more magic: the Godmother uses her wand to turn a lowly pumpkin into a beautiful coach, mice into horses, a rat into a coachman and lizards into footmen.

She also turns Cinderella’s rags into a beautiful gown and her slippers in this version are not gold, but glass.

The fairy then said to Cinderella, “Well, you see here an equipage fit to go to the ball with; are you not pleased with it?”

“Oh, yes,” she cried; “but must I go in these nasty rags?”

Her godmother then touched her with her wand, and, at the same instant, her clothes turned into cloth of gold and silver, all beset with jewels. This done, she gave her a pair of glass slippers, the prettiest in the whole world.

Perrault also imposes the Fairy Godmother’s time warning on Cinderella and on the narrative; if she stays past midnight, everything will turn back into its previous form:

Being thus decked out, she got up into her coach; but her godmother, above all things, commanded her not to stay past midnight, telling her, at the same time, that if she stayed one moment longer, the coach would be a pumpkin again, her horses mice, her coachman a rat, her footmen lizards, and that her clothes would become just as they were before.

In this Perrault version, there are also now two stepdaughters instead of one (as in Yeh Shen), and the relationship Cinderella has with them is not so straightforward.

Only the older of the two stepsisters is definitively horrible, while the younger one is “not so rude and uncivil as the older one.” This younger sister is also the one who calls her ‘Cinderella,’ instead of ‘Cinderwench.’

They also consulted Cinderella in all these matters [of getting ready for the ball], for she had excellent ideas, and her advice was always good.

Indeed, she even offered her services to fix their hair, which they very willingly accepted. As she was doing this, they said to her, ‘Cinderella, would you not like to go to the ball?’

‘Alas!’ said she, ‘you only jeer me; it is not for such as I am to go to such a place.’

‘You are quite right,’ they replied. ‘It would make the people laugh to see a Cinderwench at a ball.’

Perrault, trying to laden his tale with teachings about good behaviour, also changed the ending of the story from the one we hear in Yeh Shen.

Instead of banishing the stepmother and stepsisters (and sealing their fate/deaths), he has them beg for mercy and institutes a happy ending for all:

They threw themselves at her feet to beg pardon for all the ill treatment they had made her undergo. Cinderella took them up, and, as she embraced them, said that she forgave them with all her heart, and wanted them always to love her …

… Cinderella, who was no less good than beautiful, gave her two sisters lodgings in the palace, and that very same day matched them with two great lords of the court.

The Grimm Brothers’ Aschenputtel

Over a century later, the Grimm Brothers (in 1812) also revised and wrote their own version of Cinderella, called Aschenputtel. In this story, we see a shift away from Perrault’s Cendrillon, and more similarities to the Yeh Shen tale.

Most notably, we don’t see much magic in the Grimm Brothers Aschenputtel. There is no Fairy Godmother, and hence no pumpkins turned into coaches, mice turned into horses and so on.

Instead of the Godmother, the Grimm Brothers introduce the character of Cinderella’s mother at the beginning of the tale to act as the mentor/godmother character (who is linked to both the hazel tree and the birds). The fairy tale begins:

The wife of a rich man fell ill, and as she felt her end approaching, she called her only daughter to her bedside and said, “Dear child, be good and pious. Then the dear Lord shall always assist you, and I shall look down from heaven and take care of you.” She then closed her eyes and departed.

Later in the story, Cinderella’s father brings her a twig, which she plants on her mother’s grave. The twig grows into a hazel tree. After she’s prevented from attending the wedding at the castle, the pigeons tell her to ask the tree/grave for help, much in the same way Yeh Shen made wishes to the fish bones on advice of the fish’s spirit:

Just go to the little tree on your mother’s grave, shake it, and wish yourself some beautiful clothes. But come back before midnight.”

The bird then responds by “throwing” her a “gold and silver dress and silk slippers embroidered with silver.” She goes to the wedding, dances with the prince, but manages to slip away before midnight. The third time this happens (on the third day of the celebration), she loses her slipper after the prince tries to trick her by coating the stairs with pitch.

Cinderella is much less of a mystery in the Grimm Brothers’ version as well. The father suspects from the beginning that the beautiful maiden at the festival is Cinderella, but his attempts to prove it fall through. After the prince finds the shoe, he also approaches the father and demands to see the girl who’s foot fits. Both stepsisters try on the slipper and fail, and upon prompting from the prince, the father confesses he has another “deformed” daughter, Cinderella. She tries on the shoe and the prince realises she is indeed the maiden from the ball.

In 1857, the Grimms again revised Cinderella but this time, they also stripped their story of the happy ending, making it much more similar in resolution to Yeh Shen.

Cinderella does marry her prince, but the end of the story ultimately focuses on the fate and punishment of the two sisters:

When the wedding with the prince was to be held, the two false sisters came, wanting to gain favour with Cinderella and to share her good fortune. When the bridal couple walked into the church, the older sister walked on their right side and the younger on their left side, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them.

Afterwards, as they came out of the church, the older one was on the left side, and the younger one on the right side, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each of them. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.

The lost slipper

For me, when I look at all of these Cinderella stories, the main element that ties them all together is the motif of the lost (or stolen) slipper.

While the other characteristics of the narrative shift and develop  — the persecuted girl, the involvement of some magic or spirit (eagle, fish, fairy godmother, pigeons), the theme of ‘love,’ the union of marriage — it is the  fatalistic role of the slipper that allows us to trace the origins of Cinderella all the way back to the 1st century and ultimately see where it came from.

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REFERENCES  

‘Cinderella: Aarne-Thompson-Uther Folktale type 510A and related stories of persecuted heroines’ translated and/or edited by D.L. Ashliman: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0510a.html#grimm.

‘Cinderella’ (no. 21) in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. 3rd Ed, Translated by Jack Zipes, Bantam Books: USA 2003, pp79-84.

‘Cinderella And Other Girls Who Lost Their Slippers’ by Amelia Curruthers. Pook Press, Warwickshire: 2015.

‘Rhodopis and Her Little Gilded Sandals: An Egyptian Tale’ from Beaupré, Olive Miller, editor, Fairy Halls of My Bookhouse, Chicago: The Bookhouse for Children Publisher, 1920; accessed via SurLaLune Fairy Tales, 2015: http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/cinderella/stories/rhodopis.html.

‘Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story.’ Accessed via http://traditions.cultural-china.com/en/211Traditions8980.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ye_Xian.

Origins of Cinderella – Part 1

Linguists recently posited that some fairy tales, such as Rumpelstiltskin and Beauty and the Beast could potentially be thousands of years old, a notion I found fascinating.

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Around the same time, reading Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, I “discovered” that Cinderella wasn’t actually a western/European creation at all; it came from an ancient Egyptian story, and a 9th century fairy tale that originated in China, and this fascinated me, too.

Not because I assumed that other cultures didn’t have their own fairy tales, but because I didn’t realise there were such direct links between these tales and the common Cinderella fairy tale we so readily know and commonly associate with Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers.

Origins of Cinderella

The origins of Cinderella — or The Little Glass Slipper as Perrault called it — can be glimpsed in the ancient, Egyptian story of Rhodopis, first written down by Strabo in c. 1 BC.

And, as mentioned above, in the Chinese fairy tale of Yeh Shen or Ye Xian/Yeh Hsien, which was published, scholars believe, around 850-60 AD.

So, just how similar is Cinderella to these old fairy stories?

Below, I take a look at both of these ancient narratives and in Part 2, go on to discuss how the Cinderella story evolved under Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, who adapted it for western audiences.

Rhodopis 

In Rhodopis, a young, pure Greek girl (who was thought to have been a real life slave some 500 years before, as accounted by Herodotus) works in the town of Naucratis, in ancient Egypt. She goes for a dip in the Nile and leaves her clothes and gilded sandals on the bank.

While she’s swimming, one of the sandals is stolen by a bird, which in most tales I’ve found, is an eagle or a falcon.

The bird drops the shoe into the lap of the Pharaoh or King, who takes this as a sign from the Gods and is instantly captivated by the girl whose foot could fit into such a tiny slipper.

He sets out to find her, but doesn’t have much luck until a scribe tells him to go to the Sphinx at dawn, where a beautiful maiden can be seen every morning. He does so, and realises that Rhodopis is the one he’s been looking for.

He approaches her and shows her the slipper. She puts it on and also reveals she has the other, matching slipper. The King is delighted and asks her to be his Queen. She agrees, and goes on to rule over Egypt by his side.

In this tale, it’s obvious that many elements have trickled down into today’s telling of Cinderella, namely the breaking down of class borders. Like Cinderella, Rhodopis is a lowly, persecuted girl — in many versions, the tale incorporates the detail that she is a courtesan (slave/prostitute) and others show her being teased by other girls because of her appearance.

While the narrative of the lost slipper remains, the key difference in Rhodopis is the absence of the ‘festival’ or ‘ball.’ The ending, however, is a similarly happy one: the King finds Rhodopis and they marry and live happily ever after.

Yeh Shen or Ye Xian/Yeh Hsien

In the Chinese story of Yeh Shen, we see much more similarities that lead us to the modern version of Cinderella. Unlike Rhodopis, Yeh Shen shifts the story away from the world of slavery and prostitution and into a family setting. There’s also a little more magic in the Yeh Shen version, and we’re introduced to the archetype of the mentor/godmother here, reflected in the spirit.

Yeh Shen is a young Chinese girl with a wicked stepmother and a horrid stepsister. She is forced to carry out lowly chores around the home.

In her despair, she befriends a fish in the local lake. But upon discovering this friendship, the stepmother grows angry. She captures the fish, cooks it and serves it for dinner. However, a male spirit (presumably of one of her ancestors) appears and tells Yeh Shen to bury the bones of the fish and that if she asks, it will be able to grant her wishes.

When the New Year festival arrives, the stepmother and stepsister prohibit Yeh Shen from attending; she is to stay home and clean the house. But, desperate to attend the festival, she makes a wish to the fish bones and suddenly finds herself in a beautiful gown and the infamous golden slippers.

Yeh Shen goes to the festival, but leaves in a rush when she suspects she has been recognised. And and as we all know, in her haste to leave, she loses one of her slippers.

The slipper is eventually found by a poor man, traded, and brought to a nearby King who (like the king in Rhodopis) is enthralled by the thought of a girl with a foot so small it could fit into the shoe (in Chinese culture, the practice of foot binding and having small feet is often a symbol of beauty and status). The King goes in search of the slipper’s owner, but unable to find her, puts the shoe on display in his kingdom.

Yeh Shen eventually comes to take her slipper back and is instantly suspected as a thief. She is brought before the King and relates her tragic story, and the King quickly realises that she is the one he has been searching for.

At the end of the tale, Yeh Shen and the King marry. And we learn that the stepmother and stepsister are banished from the kingdom and eventually killed by a shower of stones.

In this Chinese story, the narrative elements that come to make up the Cinderella tale are clear. Characters like the stepmother and stepsisters are present and equally as horrible, the ballgown and shoes are magically bestowed upon her after she makes a wish, and she attends a festival, where she loses her slipper in the process, and so on.

The themes of transcending class barriers and the rise of the servant girl to a status of royalty still remain; and this is theme we continue to see in many other fairy stories, such as Snow White, the Goose Girl and Rapunzel.

It’s a little unclear exactly how (other than through oral storytelling in general) these ancient tales passed down through time and subsequently spread from one culture to another, and how the Yeh Shen story in particular became embodied in the western canon (if anyone has any ideas or knowledge on this, please share!).

Nevertheless, let’s take a closer look at how Perrault and the Grimm Brothers further evolved the Cinderella tale and adapted it into the common story we know so well today.

Continue Reading > Origins of Cinderella – Part 2

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The Art of Villainous Disguise in Fairy Tales

Have you ever dressed up in disguise to deceive someone? And more importantly, did they fall for it?

In fairy tales, villains in particular love to disguise themselves to try and trick their protagonists and achieve their malevolent goals.

But what’s the ‘art’ behind these disguises? How are they achieved, and what do they mean for the reader?

The art of dressing up

Dressing up in some type of clothing is perhaps the most common form of disguise in fairy tales.

In Fitcher’s Bird, two forms of disguise take place: the sorcerer first disguises himself as a “poor man” so that he can go begging from house to house and kidnap women to be his brides, and later on, his bride disguises herself as a bird by dipping herself “into a barrel of honey” and rolling around in feathers.

In the Goose Girl, the bitter chambermaid forces the princess to swap clothes with her, handing over her “royal garments” and thereby tricking the betrothed prince and his kingdom.

But the most obvious example that comes to mind is Little Red Cap. Of course, we all know the story of Red Riding Hood and its iconic scene where she encounters the wolf in her grandmother’s clothing.

We are not given much detail about how the wolf’s disguise comes about; we are only told that the wolf eats grandma and then puts on “her clothes and her nightcap.”

And when Little Red Cap arrives at the house, we learn that, “there lay her grandmother with her cap pulled down over her face giving her a strange appearance.”

Disguises thicken

In the fairy tale of Snow White (one of my favourites), Snow White’s stepmother, the wicked queen, also utilises the act of ‘dressing up’ to disguise herself, so that she can get rid of Snow White and become the “fairest of all.”

In three instances, the queen dresses up as an old peddler, an old woman and a peasant woman and each time, she succeeds in her plan to attempt to kill Snow White.

But in this fairy tale, the art of disguise also thickens a little. Here, it goes beyond mere dressing up — the queen also uses makeup to achieve her desired look: “She painted her face and dressed as an old peddler woman so that nobody could recognize her.”

In another much-loved tale of mine, The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids (as a child, I was fascinated by the idea of ‘zipping’ open the wolf’s belly and filling it up with stones), we also see other forms of disguise that don’t rely on clothing.

“I want you to be on your guard against the wolf,” the old goat explains to her kids before she goes into the forest to fetch some food. “That villain often disguises himself, but you can recognise him right away by his gruff voice and black feet.”

As expected, the wolf tries to get into the house several times while the mother goat is gone. At first, the kids recognise his ‘gruff voice’ and refuse to let him in. So, the wolf attempts to disguise his voice:

“The wolf went away to a shopkeeper and bought a big piece of chalk, which he ate, and it made his voice soft. Then he returned, knocked at the door, and called out, ‘Open up dear children. Your mother’s back and has brought something for each one of you.”

Of course, it doesn’t work, because the kids also recognise the wolf’s black paw.

The wolf intimidates a miller into sprinkling “white flour” on his paw (a similar application to the queen’s makeup, perhaps) and finally, his ‘disguise’ works.

Disguises and how they work

Disguises in fairy stories represent yet another element of the dangers and tests we must face, navigate and overcome (whether in the fairy tale world or the real one or within our own psyche) as we grow up and achieve maturity.

I would also like to point out three other things that I think are significant about how disguises work in the fairy realm:

1. DISGUISES ARE SIMPLE AND PRACTICAL Disguise2mask

Like must else in fairy tales, they are not elaborate or elaborately described within the language. We are simply told he puts something on or she paints her face and dresses in these clothes. There’s no detail; it’s up to our imaginations as to what these disguises really look like.

Villainous disguises are also achieved by practical means in fairy tales (using clothes, applying makeup etc.). They are not achieved via magic.

This practicality is a stark contradiction within a world that is filled with immediate wonder and enchantment, a place where everything is magical. By keeping disguises practical, we are being told: Look, deceit does not belong here! It is not a part of our norm.

In contrast, when ‘good’ characters try to disguise themselves, they are often helped by magic.

Even Cinderella, who disguises herself to go the King’s wedding, has her dress bestowed upon her (or thrown down to her) by a bird, who is commonly said to represent the spirit of her dead mother.

2. DISGUISES ALWAYS WORK

Whoever is at the receiving end of the disguise always falls for it, if not immediately than at least eventually.

And succumbing to the deception always leads to dire outcomes within the narrative:

Snow White essentially dies, as does Little Red Cap, who is also metaphorically raped.

The goat’s kids end up being eaten. The Goose Girl has her identity stolen altogether.

And the daughters in Fitcher’s Bird are abducted, killed and chopped into parts (except for the last daughter, of course).

3. DISGUISES ARE DRAMATICALLY IRONIC

That is, they rely on dramatic irony to work.

In almost every tale that includes a disguise, we are positioned by the narrative as readers who know that a disguise is in play, even when the protagonists or other characters don’t.

We know that Grandma is really the Big Bad Wolf, even though Red Riding Hood doesn’t. We know that the old peddler woman is really the wicked queen, even though Snow White is oblivious to this. In Cinderella, we know she’s the beauty of the ball, despite the fact that no one else can pick it.

We’re privy to what the villains are doing and to the fact that they are dressing up, and much of the conflict in fairy tales develops as we are forced to watch the encounters between the protagonist and the antagonist (and other characters) play out. 

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