A Curious Girl

The musings of a girl who is curious in both senses of the word. Life, God, and York. Oh, did I say York? I meant Bradford!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Obscure Reviews Inc: Favourite Fairy Tales Part 2

Thus continues my review of Favourite Fairy Tales translated and adapted by Susanna Noel. You can read Part 1 here.

Trigger warning: Noel apparently doesn't pull her punches, and I discuss whether Little Donkey Skin is suitable for children, as child abuse is hinted at.

The next story in this compilation is Puss in Boots. This begins with a miller who has a mill, a donkey, and a cat, and when he dies, each of his three sons inherits one of these. The youngest son gets the cat and is a bit upset about this.

'My brothers have the chance to earn their living honestly... but as for me, once I have eaten the cat and made myself a coat out of its fur, I will go cold and hungry.' The cat, hearing these words, said to him in a serious tone of voice (for he didn't at all fancy being made into a fur coat):

'Don't upset yourself, master! Just give me a sack, and make me a pair of boots so that I can get through the undergrowth, and you will see that you have not been done so badly to after all.'
To my great disappointment, the miller's son does not respond, "OMG a talking cat !!!111111!!" and then do the sensible thing and take the cat to the circus. But I don't mind that much, nor do I mind that the rather capable cat does not immediately take off for the city and earn his fortune (possibly employing Dick Whittington as his agent). For I must confess, this is a story I really like.

It is, really, a sort of cross-cast Cinderella with a cat instead of a fairy godmother. This innovation is excellent in many respects. Firstly, as we've already seen, and will continue to see, fairy godmothers are rubbish. They make you sleep a hundred years, they don't turn up when you're enslaved in your own home, and they can't do much when your dad wants to make you marry him (see later in this entry for that particular tale...). Secondly, the fairy godmother has magic, which doesn't work as well as it ought to and means you have to leave parties early, whereas cats have cunning, which works as well as it reasonably can. This means that the miller's son's inevitable riches, whilst perhaps not deserved in the traditional meaning of the term, are at least won for him in a satisfying manner, rather than with the wave of a magic wand and a convenient Deus Ex Machina. Thirdly, cats are cute and make excellent loveable scoundrels, and I certainly love a good loveable scoundrel, particularly if I can also tickle him behind his ears...

One minor peeve about this retelling - Puss in Boots claims his master is called "The Marquis of Caracas", which is weird when every child and Neil Gaiman fan knows he is the "Marquis of Carabas" or the "Marquis de Carabas" if you like. But no matter. The eponymous Puss catches rabbits and partridges and presents them as gifts to the king, claiming they are from the Marquis of Caracas. The king is most impressed and mystified (I suspect kings are meant to know the noblemen of their country, but like most fairy tales, I would suggest suspending your disbelief. I mean, it's got a talking cat in it for heaven's sake...).

One day, Puss hears that the king will be driving along the river bank with his beautiful (of course!) daughter, so Puss has a cunning plan. He tells the miller's son to go and bathe in the river on that day. When the king rides past, he shouts, 'Help! Help! My master the Marquis of Caracas is drowning!" The king's men 'rescue' the young 'marquis' and Puss tells them that not only was he drowning, but someone stole his clothes. The king immediately orders his gentlemen of the wardrobe to get the marquis some clothes. I can't help but smile at the passage that follows...

Once dressed in the splendid robes, the young marquis really did look very handsome, and the king was quite taken with him.
I am disappointed that alas it's not that sort of fairy tale, for the king's beautiful daughter is very taken with him, and after one or two tender glances falls madly in love with him. Yeah, we've already established that when royalty fall in love, they do so fast and hard.

The cat realises it's all working out, and phase 2 of the plan goes into action. The cat blackmails some peasants tilling fields and harvesting corn to say that the fields belong to the Marquis of Caracas, or else he would cut them into little pieces. Peasants apparently scare easily and these immediately comply. The king and the marquis and the daughter all come by in a carriage and and all the peasants say that the fields belong to the Marquis of Caracas, and Puss runs ahead, blackmailing more peasants until eventually he comes to a castle. This castle is owned by an ogre (thankfully without daughters) and the ogre really owns all the land in the area. Yes, the ogre owns all the land in the area and yet peasants are terrified of, and take orders from, cats.

The ogre can turn into many different animals. So guess what? Puss dares him to turn into a mouse... and he does... and Puss gobbles him up.

So the Marquis takes the castle, and the land, and also the daughter. He didn't deserve it, of course, but cats don't tend to mind that sort of thing.

I wonder, actually, why this doesn't bother me as much as Cinderella does? I think it might be partly that the miller's son is never really intended to be the main character. The story teller doesn't think that the drippy passive marquis is as important as the clever, suave, and furry individual who has all the tricks. Puss-in-Boots is an appealing character... he's both adorable and debonair. Also the romance isn't the focus of the story, which is good because most fairy tale romances are rubbish and this one is no exception.

Now, after that pleasant interlude, we come to Little Donkey Skin. This isn't the most well-known story, but it is one I have a passing familiarity with. I read two versions as a child, one of which I adored and one that squicked me out. Guess which version Noel picks?

Fairy tales, as I think we've established, are not nice. And Little Donkey Skin... Well. In this tale a beautiful queen is dying, and she chokes out one final wish...

In the version I adored, she tells the king that their daughter must not marry a man unless he is dying with love for her. Awww. But unfortunately it gets about and an unscrupulous knight fakes illness and claims it is because he loves the princess so...

But I suspect this was the cleaned-up version for children (fairy tales, as we have also established, possibly aren't suitable for children).

Noel does not waste her time with such petty nonsenses, certainly.
The queen, on her deathbed, said her weeping husband:
'Before I die, I have one last thing to ask you. Please get married again! ...You need an heir, a son who can take the throne when you die; so you must find another wife. But one thing I would like you to promise me, if you really love me. Don't marry unless you can find a princesss who is more beautiful than I am!'
The king has a beautiful daughter, but this is the olden days, and she cannot inherit the throne. The noblemen remind the king that he must marry, and beauty was not important provided that a queen was virtuous and produced heirs to the throne. If the princess marries, she will marry a prince from another kingdom... Even if her husband chose to remain and rule with her, their children would be of his blood, and the neighbouring kingdoms might use this an excuse to start wars against them. So the king must marry, but the late queen, being good, was incredibly beautiful. No one can compare... except....

His daughter.

He began to realise more and more that his daughter was the only girl in the land who was more lovely than her mother had been. Her freshness and youth filled the king with such a violent love that he could not hide it from the princess and told her that she was his choice for a second wife, since she was the only woman who could release him from her promise. The young princess... threw herself at her father's feet and begged him not to make her commit such a terrible crime.
Now that's dark, creepy and not a little Freudian. In an extra, rather devious twist, the head priest is said to have sacrificed the innocence of the king's daughter by telling her that it would not be a crime for the king to marry his own daughter. The king follows up by giving orders for the princess to obey him.

I'm really intrigued by this rather dark tale, and why precisely Noel included it. In all honesty, I think it is good for children to read stories with 'the good ended happily, the bad ended unhappily', and stories with monsters defeated, stories with peril, and death even, because at the end of the day, children need both the acknowledgement that bad things exist and the reassurance that good people win but...

Well, there are plenty of children who already know that child abuse exists. Really, it's a common theme in fairy tales (we've already seen children enslaved and children abandoned), but I think this is the only story I know that contains what is tantamount to sexual abuse. Could it actually be a good thing that this story, squicky as it is, exists - precisely because it acknowledges the severe wrongness of the relationship, something paedophiles are keen to cover up? Noel's king is powerful and domineering, and even has the church on his side. He overrides the princess's consent and tries to make his actions appear wholesome and normal.

So far, so gritty, and this is probably the grimmest basis for a Cinderella type plot that I know. The princess sets off that night to see her fairy godmother (in a carriage drawn by a large sheep who knew the way to Fairyland) and the fairy godmother, who is called Lilac, tells her she already knows about the king's plans, but not to worry.
'My dear child,' she said, 'it would be a great sin to marry your father; but you can escape doing so without angering him if you do as I tell you. Go and ask your father for a dress the colour of the sky. I'm quite sure he won't be able to find anyone who can make one for him.'
This bothers me, because I can well see why the princess wouldn't want to anger him, but this is truly the most pathetic and useless bit of advice ever given... and guess what, it doesn't work. The king is delighted by this ray of hope because the princess says she will only marry him if he makes the dress.... but before she'd told him she wouldn't marry him at all. Stupid Lilac. The dress, by the way, is ready in two days, and the sky when it is filled with golden clouds could not be more beautiful. The princess goes to Lilac again who suggests trying for the colour of the moon this time. Stupid Lilac, this dress is even nicer and takes half the time.
The fairy, Lilac, who knew everything, came to the aid of the princess and said, 'If I'm not greatly mistaken, you will finally outwit your father if you ask him for a dress the colour of the sun, because he will never be able to find anyone who can do that.'
I'm actually wondering if comedy was Noel's deliberate approach here, because Lilac definitely is greatly mistaken. Like all fairy godmothers, she is useless in the face of real problems, and instead proposes dressmaking challenges like she's on Project Runway or something. And the sun dress is so dazzling that all the tailors who worked on it had to close their eyes for fear of being blinded.

Lilac, to her credit, is, more ashamed at the failure of her plan than she cared to admit, and finally suggests a terrible test - asking for the skin of the donkey that the king loves so dearly.

I must add, at this point, that the donkey is magical and produces money... the king's perversions don't stretch that far...

The king complies right away. Stupid, stupid Lilac! She finally advises our heroine to run away, wrapped in the donkey skin, and arranges for her clothes to follow her in a chest underground... She lends the princess her wand so that the chest will appear whenever she needs it.

What was I saying about fairy godmothers? Lilac must be the most useless I know of, certainly; her goddaughter is on the run and the best she can do is come up with some kind of portable luggage system. How about a disguise? And somewhere to stay? I must repeat that magic is useless. The princess should have kept a cat.

The princess sets out in her donkey skin. I am not sure why this proved such a great disguise, because the king knows that she has it, but in any case it proves effective and she travels far and wide, scorned by all because of her revolting appearance, and she ends up with a job as a farm labourer. She excels at this, but one day catches sight of her own appearance and is deeply ashamed, so the next day in private she cleans up and puts on her sky dress, and feels a lot better. She decides to do this every Sunday from now on.

However, one Sunday a prince happens to pass by, and stops for a meal at the farm. He walks around the farmhouse, and peers through the key hole of a closed door, only to see the princess, dressed in her sundress. He (guess what) falls deeply in love with her, but when he asks who the room belongs to, he is told that it is only little Donkey-Skin, whom nobody ever really talks to.

The prince becomes ill with love, but cannot tell his parents why. Eventually, after being entreated to tell them what is wrong, he asks that Donkey-Skin bake him a cake.

As it happens the princess had seen him peering through the keyhole and watched him ride off, and the memory of him made her sigh with longing. So she cleans up, makes a cake from the best ingredients, but drops her ring into the mixture. (Food hygiene note - remove jewellery before baking). The prince find the ring, which would only fit the slenderest finger in the world. Is this seeming eerily familiar yet?

Girls come from far and wide to try on the ring, but it does not fit them. Finally, the prince, who is actually quite endearingly shy for a fairy tale prince, took his courage in both hands, and asked: 'Has the girl who baked me such a fine cake the other day tried on the ring?' They all laugh because she is so dirty and ugly, but the king insists that she be brought to the palace, and she comes in her donkey skin, but wearing a silver blouse and skirt underneath.

After the ring fits, she lets the skin slip, and reveals how ravishingly lovely she actually is, and the prince feeble though he was, threw himself at her feet and kissed them. It is then that Lilac deigns to appear, descending in a chariot, to tell the king and queen her sad little life story, and they are all pleased to hear she is a real princess, and the prince's love for her increased a thousandfold, which I hope is due to her fortitude and not her royal birth.

The ending, however, bothers me. The princess insists that her father give consent for her to marry, and has a wedding invitation sent to him. He arrives with his new wife, who had not been able to have a child of her own, and moreover her father kissed her tenderly. I think it is meant to show that the princess is no longer scared and has no reason to be scared of her father, both because he has been able to marry another and because she is marrying another... And this is good, because we don't want our heroine to be haunted by her experience forever more. But in all honesty, this ending is much too good for him. I would like him to wither to a pile of dust at her feet and be lost to the four winds.

There are two more tales for our examination, and I hope you don't mind if I squeeze them in here. The penultimate story is called The Fairies, and features a widow who has two daughters. The widow and her eldest daughter are both disagreeable and haughty but the younger daughter is one of the most beautiful girls you have ever seen. The widow prefers her older daughter since people naturally like people who look like them, but makes the younger daughter do all the work, and I don't know why she didn't just rename the poor kid Cinderella and be done with it.

One day, Cinders the younger daughter is fetching water, and an old woman asks if she can have some water from the young girl's jug. The girl is very kind and finds the coolest water, and helps the old woman to drink it.
When she had had enough, the old lady said: 'You are so beautiful and good and so honest that I cannot resist giving you a special gift,' (for the old lady was a fairy who had disguised herself as an old village woman to test the goodness of the younger daughter). 'The gift I bestow on you,' continued the fairy, 'is that every word you utter will come out of your mouth either as a flower or as a precious stone.'
The advantages of such a gift being that she always has a source of wealth, she could get a career in floristry, and people would hang on her every word. The disadvantages being that she's now very open to exploitation, and also that might be a choking hazard.

The mother is amazed by this new gift, and even calls the girl "my daughter" for the first time. After hearing what had happened, and being treated to a cascade of diamonds, the greedy mother then sends the older daughter, whose name is Fenella, out to get water from the same spot. Fenella goes, fuming, and, as she is collecting the water, she sees a magnificently-dressed woman coming towards her out of the forest.
It was the same fairy who had appeared to her sister, but this time she chose to take on the airs and graces of a princess in order to test how far the older sister's courtesy went.
I find this an interesting twist. It's a given that the fairy could not use the same disguise, as the older sister would expect that, but I am not sure of Noel's, or indeed the original author's, intent for this change of disguise. Is the magnificently-dressed woman meant to impress the sister, making it more likely that she would offer her water, therefore damning her more if she does not? Or is this meant to be a harder test - we are all taught to look after an elderly person in need, but we tend to think that ostensibly young and able people should be able to fetch their own water. Or perhaps, this being a fairy tale, is Noel actually implying that a princess is more worthy of water than an old woman?

In any case, unsurprisingly Fenella fails the test, replying haughtily that she should get her own drinking water, and the fairy responds in kind.
'Well, well, since you're so disobliging, I'll give you the following gift: every time you say a word, either a snake or a toad will fall out of your mouth!'
The advantages of this gift are that you can scare away attackers, and you can get a job in a circus. The disadvantages are that it's really nasty.

The mother is upset by this turn of events, but blames the younger daughter. She rushes at her with a broom, so the daughter runs out of the house, and into the forest. The king's son comes by, and asks her what is wrong. As she is explaining, she produces a stream of jewels, and the king's son, who had fallen in love with her at first sight, decided that this gift made her even more valuable, and led her to his father's palace, where in due course they were married.

Well colour me unsurprised, I couldn't have seen that ending coming. Fenella, on the other hand, becomes hateful and the unfortunate girl, after walking for many days without finding anyone to take her in, went into a corner of the forest to die.

Moral of the story: don't be rude to strangers. Ever.

In all honesty, this story seems like a bit of a waste. Can you honesty live happily ever after knowing your prince married you because you have jewels that come out of your mouth? Is refusing to give a princess a drink of water really enough to damn someone forever? I really think this tale could form the basis of a longer story, in which Fenella earns her redemption and Cinders her younger sister learns to deal with her new strange gift. Any budding novelists out there? Also anyone betting this is what I'm going to write next time I have a free minute?

Finally, the anthology reaches Little Red Riding Hood. It is unique in this entry in that it is not a reworking of Cinderella in any way. In fact, it is, as you probably know, about a little girl who lives with her mother and wears a red cape and hood. One day, Red's grandmother is ill and her mother sends her off with a cake and a little pot of butter. I am not sure why Noel needed to include the butter, but to bite a bit of butter makes you bright and better, berhaps. Ahem, perhaps.

On her way, she meets a wolf, who would dearly have loved to gobble her up, but he didn't dare to because there were woodcutters nearby. I once heard that Little Red Riding Hood is really all about sex, and how innocent young women need to be on their guard against dodgy men. If so, I am not sure where grandmother comes in.

Red is a friendly sort, and tells the wolf exactly where she is going, and why.

Oh wait, I've just had another idea - Little Red on the Net! Red is browsing online and shares her details with a charming young man her own age only to discover he's actually a wolf who wants to eat her. Same message but for our modern age.
The wolf set off as fast as his legs could carry him on the path that was the shortest route, and the little girl walked along the longest path, amusing herself by gathering nuts, chasing after butterflies, and picking bunches of pretty wild flowers.
What a girl. And what a time waster. Bet that butter melts all over the cake.

All right, I'm bored now and this 'review' has turned into one of those mammouth English essays. You'll be pleased to hear the story unfolds as usual, but there is one odd thing, given the rest of the book - the wolf does not eat Grandma. In fact, striking a blow for both realism and age-appropriateness, instead of the woodcutter cutting the wolf in half and rescuing her from his belly (a gory but satisfying touch) instead Grandma is hidden in the cupboard and escapes later, thus ensuring her survival without any surrealist touches.

So, in conclusion, Favourite Fairy Tales is a deeply disturbing book. The pictures don't help, either, as the heroines invariably look like dolls and creepy dolls at that. The stories all emphasise beauty before all, and have a very twisted sense of age-appropriateness that doesn't seem to be at all consistent. Did I enjoy it? Of course I did, although I enjoyed writing this more. Would I recommend it? My parents have a copy, if anyone's interested.

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  • At 12:51 pm , Blogger Ceri said...

    Why is it that in fairy tales, women must always fall in love & marry anyone who calls them beautiful? That really annoys me.

    'Hello, I have fallen for you not for yourself, but through a random quirk of genetics. Now you must marry me'.

  • At 1:09 am , Blogger Rebel Saint said...

    Sorry, off topic!

    Just read your comment on Stupidchurchpeople.com. Not somewhere you expect to find a fellow Bradfordian!

    Hope you're liking the city ;o)

  • At 9:54 pm , Blogger steve3742 said...

    I hate to break it to you, but the original version of Donkey Skin was even worse. Basically the daughter (called Doralice here) flees to England to escape her father (assisted by her nurse, not a fairy godmother in this version.) After getting there she eventually marries a prince and has two children. But her father finds out where she is, follows her there in disguise and murders her two children. He plants the dagger he did this with on his daughter and so she's framed for murdering her own children and is condemned to be buried up to her neck in the earth until the worms have eaten her. But her nurse finds out, travels to England and tells the whole story, whereupon Doralice is released and eventually recovers. The Prince (now a King) invades Salerno (where Doralice's father is) and after capturing him "had him put upon the rack, where upon the wretched man made full confession. The next day he was conducted through the city in a cart drawn by four horses, and then tortured with red-hot pincers like Gano di Magazza, and after his body had been quartered his flesh was thrown to be eaten of ravenous dogs."

    Arguably not very suitable for children. But it's fascinating the way it evolves and becomes more "child friendly". Firstly Perrault's version loses the child-murder-revenge stuff at the end and has the father become reconciled with his daughter at her wedding, a version which Grimm basically keeps. Finally, Andrew Lang's version removes the incestuous lust, making the main character the king's adopted daughter (he also did another version in which he just tries to marry his daughter to one of his councillors, thereby changing the tale to a rebellion against arranged marriage rather than an escape from child abuse.)

    One of the things I liked about Neil Gaiman's Sandman was the way he'd occasionally throw in a story like this - recognisably a fairy tale but maybe not very suitable for children. For that matter, a lot of pre-Disney fairy tales have the odd gory bit in - the Wicked Queen in Snow White being forced to wear shoes made out of red hot iron and dance around till she dies, for example.

    I think, from an adult perspective, the stories do suffer when bowlderised. But I suppose there's a limit to what you can tell children. It's interesting how much of Grimm's fairy tales have to be censored these days, though. Obviously German children were less sensitive 200 years ago.


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