Fairy Tale Heroines: Being Bold.



„In traditional fairy tale, a child who has escaped an incestuous advance does not become a grown-up neurotic.“

Kate Bernheimer

 Women all know the narrative we should follow. We all know that there are rules that we need to follow, the rules our mothers followed, and, sometimes, enforce. We all know that if we don’t follow those rules, bad things will happen to us. We know it will be our fault. If only we hadn’t… walked through the forest, been out at night, worn a short skirt, worn jeans, been young, been old, got drunk, been anything other than quiet, small, thin and absent… been free… We all know the expectations on us, and the penalties for not complying. Some stories cloak the hollow truth in mists of “reasons” (for reasons, read excuses, for that is what they are), she was curious, she was disobedient, she left the footpath, or she dared to have an affair… in that case, you may murder her and all the wives that follow, just in case… Other stories don’t seem to bother so much with these women-blaming excuses, we see women bumped off, no motivation required. At least they are honest. Straying off the path only implies that: a) there is a path, i.e. the one true way for all women and girls, and b) it is the only possible path, i.e. they should stick to it.

Bluebeard is one such cautionary tale. An older man woos a much younger woman, initially wary of his blue beard, she becomes beguiled by him and accepts his offer of marriage. He whisks her away to his remote castle and they live in apparent honeymoon bliss for a while. Then he tells her he is going away and she can have the keys to the whole place, invite her sister. Go on, indulge. Except she cannot use the smallest key on the jailor-sized bunch. He leaves. The sister arrives and both have a grand old time rummaging through treasure upon treasure, immersing themselves in the luxury and splendour. However, humans are as cats with doors, we always want to be on the other side of them. And so it us that the wife manages to find the smallest room in the bowels of the house and opens it with the smallest key. Behold, a dungeon full of murdered women, their body parts or bones strewn around the place. The woman drops the key onto the blood-soaked floor in her blind panic. She gathers herself, locks the door, but cannot get the blood stain off the key, no matter how hard she scrubs. He is due back any time. She gets her sister to call for their brothers to save her. No fool, she knows her probable fate.

Bluebeard returns, and she cannot hide the key from him for long. At this point, we have to wonder if it is a set up – did he know she would use the key. Outraged at his wife disobeying him, although he seems a pretty calm outraged with time to drag her up to the roof. She tries to talk her way out of trouble, all the while asking her sister if their brothers have arrived yet. She does a wonderful job of stalling him, not so outraged that he doesn’t have time to be drawn by this then… Much is made of the wife’s apparent passivity, but what options does she have? Pacifying a husband intent on murder often works, further it is how they teach you to deal with being taken hostage or captured. We seem to judge women harshly for doing something that, frankly, often works to de-escalate a situation. Just as he loses his patience (such a patient murderer, that Bluebeard…), her brothers arrive and save her. The sensible woman inherits all his money and marries a nice guy.

Charles Perrault, who first wrote down the tale in the late 1600s, added a jaunty little moral at the end. This is the part that irks me the most. There is no mention of this being ”not to kill women”, because, as we all know, he winks, women are the ones in charge these days (in 1692, I will repeat that, in 1692…). There isn’t even a moral of not treating your wife like an errant child and that he should see her as an equal – she doesn’t even have the keys to her own house, and he forbids her from opening a door… No, Perrault leans towards the transgression of the wife, she was, of all the evil things she could be, curious, and, as he writes:

“Curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret… …and always costs dearly.”

What he means in modern day parlance is, “You strayed from the path, you got what was coming to you, love.”

I actually think that her curiosity saved her life. It is implied that he is only going to kill her because she went into the room, i.e. that her curiosity is what (nearly) kills her (another link with cats). But I believe it is maybe better to know what you are dealing with. For this to be the reason that Bluebeard kills his wives is a misleading and victim-blaming route. Even if Bluebeard applied this logic to his wives, this cannot apply to all of them as the first wife would have had nothing to find, how could she? She was the first he killed. So, he would have to have a different reason for killing her, and, if you have to have different “reasons” for the same act, now we can see how the “reasons” are nothing but excuses.

In Allerleirauh, (All-Kinds-of-Fur, literally from the German, “all kinds of rough”) as related by Grimm Brothers, the king’s logic is impeccably and chillingly logical. His wife dies. He “needs” to marry a woman as beautiful as his wife, as her dying bed request. Having scoured the kingdom and not finding one, he decides that he should marry his daughter. What better than a “chip off the old block”. Once on this path, he is not to be swayed. Not one bit. Allerleirauh sets him some tasks, that, in true fairytale style, he should not be able to achieve. Tasks to provide her with beautiful dresses, “one as golden as the sun, one as silvery as the moon, and one as bright as the stars”. She also sets him the task of making her a coat from thousands of pieces of fur/hair, one from every single animal in the kingdom. She seems, as it turns out overly, confident that he will fail, and sets her diversion smugly. However, in true fairytale style, he manages to achieve them, which seems perverse and very strange, as seemingly impossible tasks are usually about progressing a heroine or hero from underdog to “on top” whilst we cheer them on. The completion of these tasks are the opposite, they move the King nearer and nearer to his terrible goal. Our underdog will be trodden more underfoot. Whilst the king appears to be unaware of just how sick and perversely awful his course of action is, Allerleirauh is becoming more and more panicked. The King’s shocked councillors try to reason with him, and tell him God has forbidden such a move, it is a crime and that the kingdom will be implicated in this. The tale does not mention the King’s response but they are not able to dissuade him from his proposed course of action.

However, as fairy tale luck would have it, the glittery dresses and crazy-paved fur coat are also hers, and, although bequeathed to her for a sickening purpose, are ultimately going to be her passport to a new life. When he has passed all the tasks and has declared their marriage the next day, things seem as desperate as they can get for your heroine. But… she changes tack. She leaves. She flees, taking the dresses packed into a nutshell, the coat and three of “her treasures, a golden ring, a golden spinning-wheel, and a golden reel”. Threes, always the threes. She knows about hiding and making herself invisible – she puts on the scrappy fur coat, covers her skin with soot and walks until she finds a forest, and a hollow tree to sleep in. To hide your beauty, you must make yourself blend in to your surroundings. She must make herself look like dirt. She must not shine. She has to go back to “animal” as well. Far better to go back to your animal nature honestly – to re-connect to it – rather than pretend you are “civilised”, like her father, and use it as a cloaking device to do the worst things possible. To really be “below animal”, we might say “bestial”, whilst pretending you are not. It is only humans that can do this, then clean their conscience like wiping a bloody knife on a cloth. It is only some of us it stays with, like the blood Lady Macbeth can never wash from her hands. But only if we stop still long enough to see it – then amends and reparation to those we have harmed can come from us. The key is not to see your own story as the only one. It means not seeing yourself as the only protagonist, it means stepping back to make room for others as equals, with desires and needs and wants that are not yours. The king is not willing to do this. He doesn’t even seem to know that this is an option.

But, back to our heroine. Back to Allerleirauh. She knows she has to hide her light for a while – her talent, her beauty (all that fairy-tale beauty is), her skills, her warmth, her empathy, her conscience – all this has to go. It has to go so she won’t squander that inner voice screaming at her to go. The niggling knowing that this was not right has blossomed into a full on shout that is deafening her, telling her she must leave. She has more luck than Bluebeard’s wife, she goes uncaught. Never not at risk of being, but she has luck and invisibility and a huge big forest on her side. Like Ixchel, the Mayan Moon Goddess, who turns into a jaguar to escape the glare of her abusive-sun-husband, Allerleirauh turns herself invisibly beast-like by blending into her surroundings. She knows there is no shame in changing form, thus changing the stakes, to escape. This is not cowardice. It is never cowardice to know what and who you cannot fight and win. It is wise to know when you must dissemble or bury your “self”, to buy yourself time and distance. There are some men you just cannot play fair with. Knowing this is to know when to do your own thing to survive. Hiding can save your life.

Staying hidden your whole life is not so good, though, who needs to continue to have a life half-lived? So, Allerleirauh eventually leaves the forest and finds another castle. She enters still in hiding, caught by the Prince out hunting and gaining his pity by presenting as a poor orphan girl. She is a dirty servant girl, still covered in her scraps of fur, and is put to work in the kitchen. However, she soon puts on her shiny dresses and puts her golden gifts to good use. To snag her prince, to get whole, she has to bring her gifts out into the open. Which she does, beguiling him as the stranger in the beautiful other-worldly dresses and dropping treasures as hints into his food. After an alarmingly long three goes, but, it is always the threes, the Prince finally clicks. By the time her father finds her, it is too late, she has another and he can no longer justify access to her. She never lets him near her again but has found a way to keep him at arm’s length – even though he has found out where she is.

Ixchel, however, keeps on running and hiding – for the sun never stops pursuing the moon. And it is only from his light that we see her anyway – when we do. But she becomes a place of refuge for women, when the moon is dark, and we get a piece of respite from relentless light. After all, she is solid even as she reflects another’s light for some of her time. She tends to women through pregnancy and childbirth on her sacred island of Cozumel. She was the cycle of life, also keeping watch over the souls of the dead. Isla Mujeres, (Women’s Island) was once a place where she was worshipped. Islands only for women, for a breath, for all things woman, like bleeding or birthing the world or birthing our “selves”. She uses her dark and her night to incubate or disappear or camouflage herself.

Sometimes we get this chance to help our sisters, usually in the older stories, before we were so divided and lonesome. But not always the older ones, in Fitcher’s Bird, written after Bluebeard, a wizard poses as a poor man to get into people’s homes and catch girls. In a Grimm precursor to the serial killer Ted Bundy who feigned injury or disability to entrap women, the girls only have to touch the wizard and he has them captured, throws them in the basket he carries on his back. He ensnares the first sister from a family and does the Bluebeard thang, beguiles her with just how wonderful and rich he is, then leaves for a while, before he does, he also does the handing the keys over and gives the “don’t go into that room” speech. However, he also gives the sister an egg to look after. She explores, goes into the room she shouldn’t, I mean, really, who wouldn’t? Finds a basin full of dead girl parts. She drops the egg and key in the basin and can’t get the bloodstains out. The wizard returns and murders and dismembers her. He goes back for more sisters. Same for the second sister.

So that is how it goes for the first two, but the third sister uses cleverness and out and out gall, not only survive, but also to put her sisters back together, to bring them back to life. The ultimate sorceress, with skill, magic and, most importantly, a whole heap of attitude, achieves the ultimate act of healing, to bring back from the dead. She puts the egg in a safe place, so is able to discover her sisters’ bodies without being found out. She lays out the parts of their bodies in the right places and her sisters come back to life. She puts them in his basket and covers them with gold. Tells the wizard that this basket needs to go to her parents while she prepares for their wedding. She tells him she will watch him on the way, anytime he stops, one of the sisters ushers him to keep going, in the voice of his wife to be. Meanwhile, she covers herself in honey and feathers from the bed, a strange bird, puts a skull adorned with jewellery and flowers in the window, and tells all and sundry on her way back to her parents that Fitcher’s Bride is in the house preparing for their wedding. Having dropped his basket off, the wizard and his guests gather in his house, only for them to be trapped then burnt to death by the bride-to-be’s relatives.

Collected in 1898 by Joseph Jacobs, Mr Fox is an English version of “dangerous husbands or bridegrooms”, it is considered by many to have much older origins. The female protagonist even has a name, Lady Mary, who has many lovers but cares for a certain charming and rich Mr Fox the most. She goes to his house one day when he is away. If ever there was an argument for curiosity or intuition taking you to a place and time where you really find out what is happening, this would be it. On her way, she sees inscriptions over the gate, “Be bold, be bold”, over the door, “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold” and up the stairs and over a door to a gallery, “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.” Behind the door, bodies and skeletons of young women. Interestingly, in this story, Lady Mary is held up as brave, not stupid, for this move. She hides from Mr Fox, bringing in his next victim, and catches the finger he chops off trying to get at a ring. She waits and later escapes. The next morning, at the pre-wedding breakfast, she relates the whole tale as a dream, in detail to him and the whole party. He repeats three times during her tale, “It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so.” She triumphantly proves her point that her dream was real by flinging the finger and ring at him, whereupon he is hacked into a thousand pieces by her brothers.

The Robber Bridegroom, as related by the Grimm brothers, is the glorious intergenerational collaboration of an older woman forewarning (or rather confirming a young woman’s intuitions), and therefore saving both their lives. It has almost exactly the same storyline, except the heroine is not as into the bridegroom as Lady Mary initially was. She is the daughter of a miller who is attracted by the riches of the bridegroom. She avoids visiting him, and has great sense of foreboding. In the end, she cannot get out of visiting him but lays a trail of peas and lentils as she goes to his place. In the house, a very dismal place, a bird cries out, “Turn back, turn back, young maiden dear, ‘Tis a murderer’s house you enter here.” Then an extremely old woman confirms her worst fears, that the house is a den for murderers and thieves. The old woman hides the younger behind the house, and the gang come back with their victim, the poor woman is murdered and her finger ends up outside by the barrel the young woman is hiding in. The older woman dissuades the gang from investigating and drugs them so that they sleep. Both women escape by following the path where the peas and lentils have grown into spouts and show the way in the moonlight. The ending is more or less the same, the young woman relating a “dream”, then revealing the truth along with her finger, and the robber’s fate is sealed.

Going into the woods or the dark or into night can save a woman, and, is sometimes necessary. Be underhand and an escape artist. Become feral, your animal self. Do not be afraid to hide. But you need to be able to come out from time to time too. Let yourself shine in the sun, dress in moon or stars. Drag your sisters out with guile and show solidarity. Put their pieces back together to breathe life into them. Use subterfuge and cunning and play by your own rules. Leave safety, after all, if you are going to live anywhere but deep in the forest, there is danger. But there is also life. If you stay in the dungeon or the forest, you only inhabit the dark, and while this is right for the fiercest of old women (ask Baba Yaga… if you dare!), it is not for all of us. Like Bluebeard’s wives or the first two sisters in Fitcher’s bird, in the darkest (smallest) room/ dungeon, bereft of life and staying dismembered.

Like Bluebeard and Fitcher’s Bird, a woman activates not only the saving of her own life, but that of others, sometimes by killing him, sometimes, also resurrecting her sisters. Maybe, in older versions of the tales, women got to save each other on a regular basis. Maybe it is harder these days… Maybe these days it’s enough to run into the forest to save yourself, or you don’t even get to the woods but your sister helps you to play for time until your brothers come…