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…


The Season of Fairy Tales

what you can do with art and fairy tales – this is gorgeous stuff from https://divyamchayabernstein.wordpress.com

follow the brush

If you go deep,
deep into the heart,
the heart of the forest,
you will find her.

I have loved The Season of Fairy Tales at Get Messy so much, I don’t want it to end. It is a subject very close to my heart and I feel that during the last two months I have only just begun exploring the realm of fairy tales in the pages of my art journal.

‘The Heart of the Forest’ – While some of my pages touched upon specific fairy tales, many of them drew upon the images that exist across many tales. I was particularly attracted by the image of the forest. I loved the idea of the heart of the forest as a place where all the juicy stuff happens in a fairy tale. It is an external setting and at the same time it is a place within us, a…

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…these hands…

these hands have been cut and slashed. have held knives and swords and swung a battle axe. thes ehands have seen bood. these hands have pulled babies’ bodies from women’s cunts, cradling their shell-like heads, bones still vulnerably soft. these hands have kneaded dough, stirred the cauldron, scrubbed the pot – with horsehair, with plastic bristles, with sponges. these hands have rubbed themselves together to keep warm and held them selves over the fire to chase away the chill. these hands have wiped away tears, held small babies to their body, settled and calmed and soothed. these hands have stroked heads and foreheads. these hands have entered the warm, inviting, wet places. have teased the hardened skin. in all kinds of places. these hands have felt skin soft as down, and stoked the fire underneath it. these hands have rolled in the bed, and on the sofa, and brought gass of hard, soaking, riotess pleasure. these hands have felt the bark of many a tree. have pulled aside the plants to snap and break off medicine. these hands have dug deep into the earth, through mud and humus and the bones of old leaves. these hands have closed the eyes of the newly dead. have gently and with honour, washed their bodies and laid them too, to the earth. these hands have twirled and danced to the music. have clapped together to show their approval. these hands are smooth. these hands are rough. these hands are mine, these hands are yours. these hands have pulled and shaped the red clay into figures, into pots. these hands have held paintbrushes, pulled themselves along in the paint itself. these hands channel everything you were and everything i could be. these hands are mine and yet, somehow not… these hands hold the mysteries of all of time. these hands leap up for joy or cover my mouth in censorship, or sadness, or contemplation. these hands, that were yours. these hands…

What Makes a Fairytale “A Fairytale”?

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“I burned to learn to read novels and I tortured my mother into telling me the meaning of every strange word I saw”… “because it was the gateway to a forbidden and enchanting land”.       Robert Wright

What Makes a Fairytale “A Fairytale”? Get Messy Season of Fairytales prompt 2 from week 3 by EMK.

I was in Lisbon and the fairytales were closing in all around me and opening up like petals in front of me. A woman with a tattoo of a woman’s hand offering an apple on her shoulder stood next to me on the tube, a russian doll on the other arm, the woman who got off 2 stops after her with 3 russian dolls on her purse.

I wandered aroud Sintra’s Quinta da Regaleira… drinking in the crazy millionaire’s scattered visions and experiments in various esoteric traditions. Nods to the mysticism of the Tarot rubbed shoulders with the promenading Greek and Roman Goddesses and Gods, Initiation Wells or upside down towers replete with masonic and alchemic references, grottoes, watery and dry caves, dark underground passageways, Knights Templar symbols jostled churches depicting Jesus Christ, and, most surreally, dragons suggestively hanging onto a conch shell…

and then… the fairytale tower – THE tower – where, as a girl of 8, I would have seen myself lifting my skirts to show my ankles… to skip (princesses always skip, never run) the circular staircase wound around the tower. I would have been a particular style of princess, dressed in the long, crinkling dress… with a pointy hat with veil flowing from its tip.


I was trying to draw the fairytale tower… it failed… or rather, I didn’t like what I drew… The shape of a fairytale is always winding, there are towers, or steps, or a path through a forest. You always find the path, even if you lose your way. The path is always there and it always winds. It is really a circular path that spirals in. I saw my perspective shift, and I drew the spiralling path, the tower and its stairs winding around it, from above. The well from the bottom. You always find yourself journeying to the centre. You end at the centre, you are alive and whole. You have escaped death, sometimes by acheiving impossible tasks, sometimes by your wits and sometimes with the help of other beings. You grow a little more – you start outward, go inward, and mature that little bit more. You move towards your centre. Maybe you move toward the moon…

You can set a trail, but it won’t help you, you have to have the adventure first, and, even though you may think yourself lost, the lesson is always just around the corner, and it will not lose you. I think it strange and beautifully ephemeral that people so often talk about Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs and not the white stones, when they recall the tale. Even though the successful trail was the white stones, their home was no longer theirs and they had to leave. The breadcrumbs had to be eaten by the birds (probably crows) so that they could get lost in the forest and find the next stage of ther lives, however dangerous it was.

Fairytales are full of extreme colours. Metallics – gold, silver, bronze – or the severe contrasts of whites and blacks. Look for fairytale images on the internet and your search will come back full of red – apples, blood, roses and a shock of red cloak. Red, the colour of fire and youth – the colour of extremes… of adventure and danger, of anger and passion, of potential violence, of breaking and birthing, of sex and its scarier cousin, love…

We set off on our inner spiralling adventure, not knowing which version of the tale we will end up in. Will we be eaten by the wolf? Will we unwittingly eat our grandmother? Will a wolf encourage us to throw our clothes on the fire? Can we use our cunning to slip the wolf’s grasp, tying the string he winds around us to a tree-stump and making our escape? Who will our tale be told by?


“Fairy tales were not my escape from reality as a child; rather, they were my reality — for mine was a world in which good and evil were not abstract concepts, and like fairy-tale heroines, no magic would save me unless I had the wit and heart and courage to use it widely.”

Terri Windling

…if my mothers were alive…



if my mothers were alive,

i wouldn’t have to search for the bones.

i would sit, my grandmother’s skull on my desk,

gossiping me the secrets of her world.


if my mothers were alive,

i wouldn’t have to lay the bones out, so in death as in life.

i would wear a necklace of her knuckle bones,

and howl in my back garden, on a moonlit night.


if my mothers were alive,

i wouldn’t have to sing them whole.

their voices would sit at the back of my throat,

a growl, a gasp, a song for every work task,

a lick of my lips.


i am doing a course on art journaling, i thought, if i don’t do it, i will not fill my pages with drawings… i love the written word, but sometimes it sticks you to the page… sometimes only am image will do to unfurl a flag… to lever up those ideas from the unconscious…

so i signed up for the Get Messy (https://getmessyartjournal.com/) season on fairy tales… i haven’t felt the flow of writing on this for a while now, work gets in the way (time and energy wise), i get easily distracted by social media… i found out about Get Messy through the blog “Follow the Brush:explorations in creativity” – https://divyamchayabernstein.wordpress.com/ … it has not disappointed so far… i have not disappointed myself… i have a thousand unfinished, sometimes unstarted, ideas of art projects i want to do – this makes me get shit done – and for that i am immensely scared and immensely thankful…

i spent the first week feeling overwhelmed and undertalented… the thousand ideas and then not one that sticks. flapping around my head but never landing.

then i read an excellent article by amber sparks on “the useful dangers of fairy tales” (http://lithub.com/the-useful-dangers-of-fairy-tales/), on the absence of living mothers in fairy tales, she wrote this:

“Someday, my daughter will ask me why there are no mothers in these fairy tales, and I will tell her that the world was a dangerous place for women back then.

Back then, I will say, and I will load that phrase with as much meaning as I can. I will not add, “and now.” I’ll let her come to that conclusion just as I did, just as the fairy tale readers before me and before me and before me did, all the way back to the beginnings of the tales themselves. She won’t be scared, I hope—and she’ll be empowered as hell, I hope—but also, grimly ready to go into the world and do battle with all she finds there. Kings and queens and witches and magic mirrors and stepmothers and passive fathers and disguises and huntsman and, yes—beautiful, dangerous wolves.”

and i thought about how all those mothers die or are already dead… about how the step-mothers don’t get it, or are distant, or actively cruel – those damaged women who inhabit the spaces where our mothers should be, those imposters, those sheep in wolves clothing… where did all that nourishment of women for the ones who are to follow them go? why do we judge each other so much? what is the nature of that “wound” that gets passed down if you don’t choose not to… and that is so very hard, how not to pass on the damage done to you down the line… if the mothering was alive and not squished into too small shoes, or doing a stupid father-king’s bidding when he decides he just as to marry you, his own daughter, or avoiding the wolves who look like our grandmothers, or the ones who don’t – the ones who sing to the birds…

but I was not yet settled, so, i painted wardrobe doors and listened to clarissa pinkola estes talk about those lupine women (http://www.clarissapinkolaestes.com/bio.htm) …

3 phrases came to me, in this order:

  1. put my bones in order
  2. if my mothers were still alive
  3. i sing me whole

i thought, yes! finally something comes, something i can work with… and so i did…

and finally she crept in, and she wouldn’t leave… vasilisa, sometimes the wise, sometimes the beautiful… always interesting… hence the russian doll in the picture.and the crow… a postcard from Perrin Sparks (http://www.perrinsparks.com/etchings.htm#) because, crows… you can do nothing without them.. and the cut outs, i did until the picture felt ready…