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:


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.


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).


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. 


Kate Bernheimer on Fairy Tale & Form – Part 2

Previous: Kate Bernheimer on Fairy Tale and Form (Part 1)


Intuitive Logic

Intuitive Logic is where we really start to work our way into the language of fairy tales.

Kate refers to Intuitive Logic as “a sort of nonsensical sense” and what she is really talking about is the fairy tale’s ‘unconventional’ approach to narrative as we know it.

As writers, we’re often taught that every beginning must have an end. Everything must be cause and effect, scene and sequel, set up and pay off. Everything must make sense and flow consequentially. Actions and reactions.

In fairy tales, however, motivations and logic are often left at the door. Actions and scenes move from one to the next, but without much explanation:

“The language of traditional fairy tales tells us that first this happened, then that happened. There is never an explanation of why.” This is something we don’t question in fairy tales – as readers, we accept what is being told.

In a sense, we accept that we are inside the fairy tale.

This concept is brought to life in The Water Nixie at almost every turn. We’re not told how or why the brother and sister fall into the well, only that they do.

We don’t know why there is a water nixie at the bottom of the well or why she makes the girl spin flax and forces the boy to chop down trees.

When it comes time to throw down the brush, comb and mirror, there’s also no reason why the children even have these items or how they are able to create mountains.

Only the Intuitive Logic of the narrative (and the element of Normalized Magic) draws all of these events together – and yet almost magically, nothing is logically related.

In The Sweet Porridge, Intuitive Logic becomes even more apparent. This is the second sentence of the story:

When they had nothing left to eat, the girl went out into the forest, where she met an old woman who already knew about her troubles and gave her a small pot. 

If this were a contemporary story, you’d probably be thinking “Huh…?” Why does the girl even go into the forest? And how does the old woman already know about the girl’s problems? And what the hell is she doing going around with a magical pot?

But in a fairy tale, all of these happenings make sense because the language brings them together, encapsulates them in a sentence and simply makes them so.

This use of language in the realm of fairy tale narrative creates a type of “lyrical disconnect” for the reader.

The narrative doesn’t come together through logic, but through language – what happens doesn’t always connect, except through the telling and the language itself.

As readers, we read these stories and cherish them nonetheless, and we make these “intuitive” connections based on the way they are told, their structure.

This way of reading, this Intuitive Logic, is vital to fairy tale form. And much of its logic also depends on our acceptance of Normalized Magic.

Normalized Magic

This is my favourite fairy tale element. Normalized Magic tells us that everything is magical in a fairy tale.

Normalized Magic equates the fantastical to the ordinary and everyday – no one ever overreacts to a talking wolf or questions how a sorceress could climb up Rapunzel’s hair or thinks that spinning straw into gold is silly or unrealistic.

“The day to day is collapsed with the wondrous,” writes Kate. “Enchantment is not astounding.”

No matter how removed or fantastical the magic is in a fairy story, it is immediately accepted and considered normal, both by the characters and the reader. Magic is simply a part of everyday life. We just shrug and say, ‘it’s a fairy tale.’

This way of reading also comes into play when we look at The Water Nixie and The Sweet Porridge. Both of these fairy tales are saturated with Normalized Magic.

The second half of The Water Nixie, after the children escape, is entirely dependent on this element of everyday magic. We don’t question that a comb, brush and mirror have the ability to create mountains or scoff at the story’s use of such ordinary objects.

When the water nixie simply cuts down the mountains with an axe, we don’t sit there and say, “how incredulous!”

Even at the start of the story, the children’s act of falling down a well and “discovering” the nixie are also somewhat magical.

Yet we accept these narrative events for what they are – not only because of the presence of Normalized Magic, but because everything about the fairy tale structure – flatness, abstraction, logic – is working together throughout the text.

Let’s turn to The Sweet Porridge. One of the things I love most about this tale is its use of Normalized Magic: At the centre of this story is a magical pot that produces porridge upon command.

But when we read about this, Kate is right, the magic is not astounding. It’s not shocking or surprising or “built up” in the narrative in any way, nor are the events towards the end of the story, when the pot gets completely out of control.

Instead, magic is reduced to normality at every turn here – and this, I think, is what makes fairy tales so remarkable and captivating and easily readable.

Magic might make up much of the narrative, but it is not heightened to appear notable or impressive or even magical at all.

It’s simply part of the way things are in the fairy tale world, brought together by the Intuitive Logic of the narrative and also our intuitive understanding of flatness and abstraction (even if we don’t know these terms, we still “feel” them when we read a fairy tale).

For me, the existence of Normalized Magic works to reinforce these structural elements of Flatness and Abstraction – the magic of fairy stories is not deep or complex, and it is not described or explained in detail.

We don’t know how the comb, brush and mirror can conjure up protective mountains and we aren’t told anything about how the pot works.

Like the characters themselves and the worlds around them, the magic in fairy tales is flat and abstract.

We are positioned as readers to “imagine” the magic, the same way we are expected to imagine the characters and their environments, even when we are only presented with very basic tellings.

One last thing about fairy tales…

Despite their flatness and abstraction, their odd narrative logic and their ordinary-ised magic, they are still magical. 

Anyone’s that been charmed by Snow White or the Ugly Duckling or the Wolf and Seven Kids knows the true power that lies behind a fairy tale.

And it’s critics like Kate Bernheimer and Jack Zipes and Propp who deepen our understanding of what fairy tales are and how they continue to captivate us, even in this contemporary age.

Previous: Kate Bernheimer on Fairy Tale and Form (Part 1)



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

‘The Water Nixie’ (no. 79) in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. 3rd Ed, Translated by Jack Zipes, Bantam Books: USA 2003, p267.

‘The Sweet Porridge’ (no. 103) in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. 3rd Ed, Translated by Jack Zipes, Bantam Books: USA 2003, pp345-346.

This post was originally published at 

Welcome to Fairy Tale Fantastica…

Fairy Tale Fantastica is dedicated to writings about fairy tales, folk tales and fantasy narratives, along with their forms, motifs, histories and themes.

It’s the magic of these stories and the captivating characteristics of their genres that led me to create this blog, and that in a fundamental way, made me want to become the writer I am today.

From an early age, I remember being read lots of stories and many of them were fairy tales and other narratives that touched on fantasy. I remember sitting on my bed and hearing Snow White, Hansel & Gretal and The Princess and the Pea, as well as more modern stories like Tikki Tikki Tembo, Peter Rabbit, The Magic Faraway Tree, and John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat.

I’m by no means a fairy tale expert – I’m still reading and learning (so, please feel free to ask questions and challenge my thinking). My blog posts are not definitive; they are ideas and speculations. They are inspired by other critics who have studied more and know more than me.

But I hope that they’ll open your world to fairy tale, too.

So, welcome to Fairy Tale Fantastica. Whoever you are, I invite you to hold my hand, close your eyes, and come with me  on this fairy-fantasy adventure…