And Fantasy Shall Set You Free…
Can Fairy Tales Help Empower and Heal
"Art and motherhood share a common trait: to give unconditionally” (Gila Gouri, Path and Shrine)
When my paternal grandmother, Gila Gouri, was in her sixties, she published a book of proverbs. A socialist, pacifist, vegan and pioneer, she wanted to be a schoolteacher. She was not admitted to the teachers college because she could not sing. She took the wisdom, love and passion that she had and put it into that little book, Derech Umikdash (Path and Shrine). My maternal grandmother, Luba Beker, used to spend hours with me, telling me funny and sad stories from her childhood days in the village in far away Poland. These two women have wrapped me with love and words. They are long gone, but their wisdom, compassion, humor and love will be with me forever. They taught me how important it is for a woman to tell her story.
Storytelling is perhaps one of the most ancient professions in the history of humankind. It is an art that was taught and passed from one generation to another, and it will probably continue to thrive as long as there are people in the world. We need stories in our lives. They teach us about ourselves, they make us laugh, and cry, and think, and sometimes even take action.
Folklorist and literary critics dealing with the literary tradition of fairy tales agree, that fairy tales, like the oral folk tale tradition, provide a framework for dealing with a variety of human conditions and emotions: problems within families and communities, fears and anxieties, hopes and aspirations for a better future. In the introduction to her book, From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner offers a sensual metaphor for the effect of fairy tales on their audiences: ”For the tongue meats that the poor man feeds the women are not material, of course. They are fairy tales, stories, jokes, songs; he nourishes them on talk, he wraps them in language; he banishes melancholy by refusing silence. Storytelling makes women thrive – and not exclusively women, the Kenyan fable implies, but other sorts of people, too, even Sultans (XV).”
In some cases, refusing silence can be a life saving act. In this paper, I intend to explore the potential of fairy tales to facilitate empowerment and healing in survivors of abuse. I seek to demonstrate how, by providing a safe space to deal with trauma and pain, and by providing an opportunity to identify with unlikely heroes, fairy tales can help people tend to their wounds.
Entering the enchanted world of fairy tales opens opportunities for various encounters: with magic and wonders, with ‘bigger than life’ characters and acts of heroism; with ancient and contemporary female voices, and, most important – the encounter with one self.
To probe these various levels of encounter, I departed on a journey in the vast time and space of fairy-tale texts and scholarship. While I have covered only a very small piece of it, the wealth of knowledge, ideas, and images it had to offer was overwhelming. I finally chose to focus on three fairy tales-types: Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH), Bluebeard (BB), and the Incestuous Father. Of the wealth of critical literature, the works of Christina Bacchilega, Bruno Bettleheim, Marina Warner, and Jack Zipes were most valuable to the topic of my paper. In this journey I came across a book: Mirror, Mirror on the wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer. Of this collection of women writer’s encounter with fairy tales, one touched me the most: “Transformation” by Terri Windling. Quotes from her poignant account of the effect of fairy tales on the abused child that she was open every section of this paper.
Empowerment and Healing
“Every child needs a fairy godmother, someone to turn to in times of peril. I found my own in the sumptuous pages of the Golden Book of Fairy Tales (golden Books (…) (350)”.
Oxford English Dictionary provides two brief definitions for each of the verbs: ‘empower’, and ‘heal’. Empower 1. Give authority or power to; authorize. 2. Give strength and confidence to. Heal: 1. Make or become sound or healthy again. 2. Correct or put right (an undesirable situation).
In the sphere of social change and feminist activism and thought, empowerment is a central concept and ideology, advocating for the delegation of power and consciousness of power to disenfranchised individuals and communities. However, the dictionary’s definition, as well as the brief one I have just offered, both exclude an important element of the notion of empowerment; the self. There is an on going discussion among activists and scholars, whether empowerment is a process instigated by an outside agent, or that it is a reflexive action, initiated by the subject herself. Historically, women, children, poor people, minorities and other marginalized segments were alienated from centers of power and decision-making. To bring about true social change; it is those with the power that have to share it with those who were deprived of it for so long. On the other hand, people need to know that they have a right for their share in the power. They need to believe that they too posses powers, spiritual assets and intellectual capacities. People need to develop their own sense of power, rather than duplicate the power constructs offered to them historically.
This discussion, concerning the active or reflexive nature of the action, applies to the concept of healing as well. Jungian Psychoanalysis emphasizes the human soul’s inherent capacity to heal itself. Professionally trained therapists, religious and spiritual counsels, or other agents of support can help facilitate the process, but its success also depends on the individual’s capacity to discover and recruit her or his inner powers and capabilities in coping with challenges and hardships. In the introduction to his book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettleheim discusses the effect that fairy tales have on children in this respect: “This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence – but if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships – one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious (8).”
My presentation of the issue of, although far from exhaustive, is relevant to the topic of this paper. The potential of texts – fairy tales in this particular case – to facilitate empowerment or healing resides not only in their structure and content, but in the emotional response they evoke in their audience, as well as in the on going dialogue she or he hold with themselves and with the texts.
Looking for messages in classical fairy tales that may facilitate empowerment or healing is not an easy task. These messages are not always evident, or may be mixed with disconcerting messages concerning the place of women and children in society. In the transition from oral folk-tale tradition to the literary fairy tale tradition, women voices and roles were often marginalized. This may be a result of the fact that the most popular collectors and publishers of fairy tales were men. Also, since classical fairy tales had, and still have, an important societal role in educating children, they often tend to duplicate and echo conservative or mainstream social norms.
Fairy tales are also filled with magic and wonders, and with bigger than life female characters. Moreover, victims of abuse often feel as if chaos has invaded their lives. The people who were supposed to protect them – hurt them or fail them. Their homes, the place where they are supposed to feel safe, become a place of torture. Fairy tales often carry dark, chaotic qualities: they often take place in dark, dangerous settings such as isolated castles, or woods swarming with predatory beasts or monsters, and the protagonists suffer from horrible acts of violence. When your life in chaos; you do not need stories that tell you, that all is well in the world. You know it is not. Terri Windling conveys this notion in her own powerful words: “Mine was not a Brady Bunch family; it was troubled, fractured, persistently violent, and I needed the stronger meat of wolves and witches, poisons and peril. In fairy tales, I had found a mirror held up to the world I knew – where adults were dangerous creatures, and Good and Evil were not abstract concepts (351).”
But fairy tales do more than hold a mirror to the world of chaos. They also provide resolution, and more often than not, a happy ending. In fairy tales chaos is usually resolved, justice is done, and closure is achieved. Bettelheim stipulates the effect of happy endings on children: “This, then, is the ultimate consolation, the one that is implied in the common fairy tale ending ‘”And they lived happily ever after (146).”’ To engage in dialogue with fairy tales as facilitators of empowerment and healing, we need to read these stories as the children we once were, still willing to believe in magic and in happy endings.
My paper, in this sense, is a quest; an attempt to contain and settle my various roles and identities: the feminist woman, the mother, the student, and the child I once was. To structure and guide my discussion, I identified five aspects that contain elements of empowerment and healing: initiation (coping with passages in life), release from shame and guilt instigated by abuse, breaking the code of silence, showing presence d’esprit, and survival.
“In the pages of myth and folklore texts I discovered what it is I had been through: a rite of passage, a shamanic initiation as practiced in cultures the world over, a journey to the underworld and a ritual rebirth (357).”
In his book Iron John Robert Bly describes a ritual practiced by the Kikuyu in Africa, where the elders draw blood and let the young boys partake of it, as part of their initiation and passage from childhood to manhood: “One of the older men takes up a knife, opens a vein in his own arm, and lets a little of his blood flow into a gourd or bowl. Each older man in the circle opens his arm with the same knife, as the bowl goes around, and lets some blood flow in. When the bowl arrives at the young man, he is invited to take nourishment from it (15).” This ritual of partaking of one’s forefather’s or mother’s blood is also found in some variants of Little Red Riding Hood. Blood is perhaps the most powerful symbol of initiation: the end of one cycle of life, and the beginning of a new one. Blood is a symbol of death and (re)birth.
The tradition of oral folk-tales played an important role in helping people deal anxieties related to life passages; by preserving and conveying the notion of initiation and transformation; the successful passage from one stage in life onto the next. At the times when such stories were circulated and disseminated wolves and other predatory beasts, poverty and hardships, harsh weather, arranged marriage and death at childbirth were real dangers, not scenes from a fairy tale book. Tales celebrating success in overcoming these perils were therefore a source of comfort and reassurance. Some fairy tale variants lost the initiatory essence of the folk-tale tradition, to become cautionary tales, designed to educate and civilize bourgeois and upper class Christian children. In this transition the tales have often lost, at least in part, the voice of the experienced and wise women who told these stories for generations. In From The Beast To The Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers Marina Warner traces fairy tales back to ancient storytelling traditions by powerful women with ample life experience and an equally sharp tongue: “The connection of old women’s speech and the consolatory, erotic, often fanciful fable appears deeply intertwined in language itself, and with women’s speaking roles, as the etymology of ‘fairy’ illuminates (14).” In reading fairy tales, women need to reclaim the female voices that generated many of these tales centuries ago.
“Little Red Riding Hood” is an example of a tale-type that lost some or most of its initiatory qualities in the transition from the seamstresses’ circles in medieval days to the nurseries and salons in Paris in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. In the classical literary versions of Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, “Little Red Riding Hood” is first and foremost a cautionary tale, designed to teach children a lesson in obedience and the perils of curiosity. However, other variants that draw on the oral folk-tale tradition emphasize the tale’s initiatory message. Jack Zipes, in the “Epilogue: Reviewing and Reframing Little Red Riding Hood”, turns our attention to the oral rendition of the tale, titled “The Story of Grandmother”: “Here it is important to refamiliarize ourselves with the rendition of the oral tale as it was properly disseminated in the French countryside during the late middle ages, before Charles Perrault refined and polishes it according to his own taste and the conventions of French high society in King Louis XIV’s time (346).” In this tale, circulated in sewing communities, the little girl outsmarts the wolf and escapes the fate to which her grandmother was doomed. In the process, the wolf manipulates her into drinking her grandmother’s blood and eating a morsel of her flesh. As Gory as these images may seem to the contemporary reader; they foreground the tale’s initiatory essence. Italo Calvino and Chiang Mi both noticed this essence in their versions of the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. In bed with the Ogress, Calvino’s heroine as if seeks to know her aggressor; she literally feels her body, touches it intimately. Knowledge – as well as cunning and generosity – help Calvino’s heroine save her life. By sharing her ring-shaped cakes with the Jordan River, and her bread with oil with the Rake Gate, she manages to escape, leaving the Ogress behind. Chiang Mi’s protagonist, Goldflower, saves her self, her brother, and grandmother from a hungry bear thanks to her cunning and inventiveness. With her mother away from home, Goldflower takes her place and protects her family. Both Calvino’s and Chiang Mi’s heroines pass the initiation test successfully, without the help of a man hunter. In these variants, there is no interdiction at the beginning of the tale, and therefore no transgression; no disobedient behavior that entails punishment. Curiosity, in these variants, is part of the girl’s survival kit; and not a disagreeable feminine trait, as implied in the Perrault version. In Postmodern Fairy Tales Christina Bacchilega discusses the contribution of postmodern renditions to the understanding of these fairy tales’ history and genealogy, as well as to the revelation of the ‘voices’ hidden in them. In the case of “Little Red Riding Hood” Bacchilega reiterates Zipes’s point concerning the tale’s initiatory qualities: “As an initiatory tale in the oral tradition, ‘”Red Riding Hood”’ did more than symbolize the child’s ability to defeat danger and evil by resorting to cunning: it also demonstrates the woman’s knowledge to survival.”
But Little Red Riding Hood is not a simple initiatory tale. It is a rape story. Most variants I have looked at include the famous striptease scene, as well as the intimate dialogue between LRRH and the wolf/grandmother. Cautionary variants tend to foreground LRRH naiveté and stupidity in conversing with the wolf, and certainly going into bed with him. Initiatory tales emphasize the notion of knowledge – in its modern as well as biblical sense – as a key to survival. In initiatory variants of the tale, when LRRH learns of the wolf’s intentions, she escapes by pretending that she needs to relieve herself. Wetting the bed, and inconsistency in general, is a common phenomenon among survivors of sexual abuse; an unconscious act designed to keep the aggressor away. This is clearly a contemporary psychological reading of the “I have to relieve myself” scene; however, in the framework of the tale itself, the threat of wetting the bed is what saves LRRH’s life.
Initiatory tales are designed to warn their audience of possible perils, but also to reassure them that they can overcome dangers and obstacles, if they trust their survival instincts and use cunning, and resourcefulness. They convey a powerful message that life may put us through terrible tests, but we can successfully pass them, and move on to the next phase.
To make a point, initiatory fairy tales often take human anxieties over life passages to the extreme. Such is the case of the Bluebeard tale-type that deals with the fear of marriage, intercourse, and child bearing. The “Bluebeard” tales feature heroines that are put to an impossible test; they are given away against their will in marriage to an abusive husband who demands their full loyalty and obedience, under the threat of death. These tales certainly provide a ‘sneak-preview’ to marriage from hell. Bluebeard is the ultimate figure of an abusive spouse; his wife can never really pass the impossible tests he is putting her through. The tale also contains a strong social justice aspect; Bluebeard is a very rich man, who lures peasant girls of a lower social status to marry him, by showing off his tremendous wealth. His vicious cruelty is coupled with false generosity: “Open everything, and go everywhere except into that little room, which I forbid you to enter. My orders are to be strictly obeyed, and if you should dare to open the door, my anger will exceed anything you have ever experienced (Charles Perrault, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, Jack Zipes, Ed. 733).”
The Perrault and Grimm's versions of “Bluebeard” emphasize the cautionary aspects of the tale and name female curiosity, not male bloodthirsty cruelty, as the source of trouble. Their protagonists fail to obey their husband’s instruction to not enter the bloody chamber. They fail the ‘curiosity/fidelity test’ and are doomed to die. They must rely on their brothers, their male siblings, to save them. In these versions, Bluebeard’s power over his wives derives from the ignorance he seeks to impose on them. The initiatory message of the tale is in full contrast to the cautionary one; it is knowledge, not ignorance that will save your life. Ignorance means death; knowledge leads to life.
This message is conveyed in two variants of the tale: The Grimm's’ “Robber Bridegroom”, and “Fitcher’s Bird”. In Fitcher’s Bird the heroine not only saves herself, she also succeeds in bringing her two dead sisters back to life. Thanks to her cleverness, she satisfies her curiosity without getting caught. She reveals the horrible secret of the bloody chamber, and of the horrible death, her husband has planned for her. Curiosity in the sense of knowing the other, and the dangers he represents is rewarded, not scolded. Moreover, once she has gained knowledge of her future husband’s murderous nature, she has also gained a sense of her own powers to deal with him. The husband’s attempt to impose ignorance and powerlessness on his wife, has failed. While his wife is empowered in the process, he is disempowered: “But he no longer had any power over her and had to do what she requested (The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, 742).”
Christina Bacchilega reiterates the Bluebeard’s tale initiatory qualities, as well as the possible moral to be learned. I found this quote to bear both wisdom and beauty, and therefore chose to bring it almost in full: “If the ‘forbidden chamber’ rather than the ‘bloody key’ is treated as the tale’s central motif, then ‘”Blurbeard”’ is no longer primarily about the consequences of failing a test (…) but about a process of initiation which requires entering the forbidden chamber (…) The heroine’s knowledge of the husband, of herself, and of sexual politics is what matters. The test is whether she can acquire this knowledge and then use it cleverly enough to triumph over death (107).”
Gaining knowledge of one self and the other is a key to a successful initiation. Choosing knowledge is choosing life. The first step to saving one self from danger or abuse is to acknowledge that one is in danger, that one is abused. While “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Bluebeard” tales in their cautionary variants worn their audiences about the dangers of exploring and knowing; their initiatory versions advocate the contrary: knowledge, not ignorance, will help you overcome death and gain a new life.
Release from Shame and Guilt
The criminal code in Israel, as in most democracies around the world, stipulates jail sentence for gender based and domestic violence crimes. However, even when offenders are brought to justice – at a great emotional cost for the victims – the ordeal does not end there. Victims of violence and abuse have to deal with feelings of anger, guilt, shame, helplessness, and a deep sense of betrayal by people they trusted the most. These notions are more severe in cases or date rape or when the victim has close relationship with the aggressor. Hosting notions of guilt and shame, on top of the suffering inflicted by abuse, is a terrible load to bear.
The three tale-types I have chosen, in both their cautionary and initiatory versions, feature a female protagonist persecuted or victimized by a villain: a wolf, an ogre, a murderous husband, even their own father. In all three tale-types, the victimization of women is related to their beauty, sexuality or insistence on making choices for themselves. The cautionary variants of these tales send a very disturbing message in general, and to victims of abuse in particular. These tales often point a finger at the victim, not the aggressor; they emphasize the protagonist’s curious and disobedient nature as the primary source of her misfortunes. The Perrault version of “Bluebeard” concludes with the statement that the dead brides’ cruel slaughter was a result of their (sexual) curiosity: “Curiosity, in spite of its appeal,//May often cost a horrendous deal//a thousand new cases arise each day,//with due respect, oh ladies, the thrill is slight//As soon as you quench it, it goes away.// In truth, the price one pays is never right (735).”
In Walter de la Mare’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood”, the protagonist is depicted as vain and gluttonous; guilty two of the seven deadly sins. De la mare as if takes special pains in depicting LRRH as an indulgent little brat: “She was so vain she couldn’t even pass a puddle without peeping down into it at the apple cheeks and yellow hair (208).” Paying little attention to her mother’s explanations and instructions, LRRH can only think about the food she’ll have, once at her grandmother’s home: “Nothing in this long speech pleased Red Riding Hood as much as the end of it (…) Red Riding liked her granny pretty well, but she liked the goodies her granny gave her even better (209).” De la mare’s protagonist does not meet her untimely death in the wolf’s belly, the way Perrault’s Little Red Cap does. Her father saves her, at the last minute. However, all three versions point a finger at LRRH and hold her responsible, if not guilty, for the ordeal she had to go through. The lesson to be learned, as the Grimm's protagonist articulates it, is that little girls should obey their parents and stay right on track: “Never again will I leave the path and run off into the wood when my mother tells me not to (101).” The wolves, as well as the parents who sent her off alone to the woods are not held accountable for their part in the girl’s suffering.
Given the tremendous popularity of these variants among children, their message is not only disconcerting, but also harmful. It serves to perpetuate the concept that victims of abuse have surely brought this upon themselves.
In her renditions of the Little Red Riding Hood tales, collected in her book, The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter works to dissolve the prevalent conservative social assumption; that women who are sexually active and curious deserve to be raped or abused. Her protagonist in “The Company of Wolves” is sensual and self-aware. She channels her own desires, as well as those of the werewolf, towards a mutually rewarding encounter: “See! Sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf (118).” While Carter’s rendition is a post-modern one, it certainly emphasizes and revives the initiatory traits of the LRRH folk-tale, where healthy sexual curiosity is perceived as a natural phase in a young girl’s passage to womanhood.
The four variants of the incestuous father tale: “Tebaldo”, by Giovan Francesco Straparola, “L’orsa” (The Bear) by Giambatista Basile, “Peau d’Ane” (Donkey-Skin) by Charles Perrault and “All Fur” by the Brothers Grimm, are initiatory in nature (all four are collected in The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: from Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, Edited by Jack Zipes). These tales feature a young heroine who runs away from home, to escape her father’s unnatural lust for her, and his plans to make her his bride. After going through different ordeals, and disguising themselves in animal shape or skins, the protagonists of these tales find happiness and security – in marriage to a prince – what else. The four variants all unequivocally condemn the father for his incestuous inclination. In “Tebaldo”, Straparola criticizes the father’s behavior in harsh language: “perfidious plans and (…) evil disposition (28).” In “All Fur” the Grimm brothers clearly stipulate the religious prohibition of incest: “God has forbidden a father to marry his daughter. Nothing good can come of such a sin, and the kingdom will be brought to ruin (47).” Marina Warner, in her discussion of the Perrault and Basile versions of the tale turns our attention to their sympathetic approach towards their protagonists: “Neither ‘”L’Orsa”’ nor ‘”Peau D’Ane”’ portray the heroines plight as deserved, and both rejoice in her escape from the father (345).” These tales therefore send a powerful and crystal clear message with regard to incest: it is not the victim’s fault, and she (or he) has a full right to defend herself. In Straparola's “Tebaldo”, the heroine’s suffering does not end when she marries the prince. Her father, consumed with hatred and jealousy, slaughters her two little children, and manipulates her husband into believing that it was his wife’s doing. The heroine, Dolarice, has to endure a slow and painful death as punishment. However, Straparola sends a reassuring message to his audience; Good will eventually win: “The queen, who has endured much misery in the past, knew that she was innocent and faced this torment with patience and dignity (32).” Straparola, in addressing his own audiences, echoes here the Judeo-Christian religious tradition of enduring pain and suffering as proof of one’s faith in God, regardless of the excruciating tests one has to face. As for contemporary audiences, regardless of one’s faith, the most powerful part of Straparola’s message is the heroine’s conviction of her innocence.
Straparola, Basile, Perrault and the Grimms were clearly concerned with the religious or societal aspects of incest. Feminist thought concerns itself with issues of gender power relations and sexual politics, in this regard. The fact that these tales not only condemn incest, but also celebrate the heroine’s right to choose her own partner indicates, that these tales are told from a woman’s perspective. Marina Warner, in her discussion of the shift in folk-tale traditions on the issue of incest, makes the following observation: “First in the middle ages, and then in the literature of the ruelles in the seventeenth century, the emphasis in incest tales shifts from the daughter’s responsibility to the father’s, the point of view revolves to consider her actions, her motives and her rights in a most interesting proto-feminist way.”
A woman’s (and a man’s) right to make choices regarding her own body is perceived nowadays as a basic right (albeit quite controversial in cases of abortions). Pre-school programs teach children that their bodies belong to them, and that no one – a stranger or family member – can touch it without their permission.
Lack of choice is a terribly un-empowering notion for both children and adults. At the core of the Bluebeard tales is a woman’s lack of choice in marriage, and therefore lack of choice regarding her body and soul. The protagonists are either given away by their fathers – in exchange for social status and financial compensation – or abducted by powerful sorcerers. Intimate relationship is forced upon them. Furthermore, at the heart of the cautionary function of these tales beats the male’s fear of female sexual curiosity and independence. Bluebeard, the possessive and abusive husband, puts his wives to an impossible ‘curiosity test’, which they simply have to fail, and they are dammed (doomed) if they do, and they are dammed (doomed) if they don’t. However, the two variants I have looked at earlier, The Grimms’ “The Robber’s Bridegroom”, and “Fitcher’s Bird”, can be read as taking a different stance vis-à-vis female sexual curiosity and freedom. In The “Robber’s Bridegroom” there’s no prohibition, and therefore no transgression. When the protagonist hides in order to witness the savage murder of another peasant girl, her curiosity in commendable, not reproached. When the protagonist in “Fitcher’s Bird” finds a smart way to satisfy her curiosity without getting caught, she gains power over her bully husband. These variants exonerate women from the ‘crime’ of (sexual) curiosity and independence. They point the finger at the real criminal – the husband. For women who are victims of emotional or physical abuse, these tales send a powerful and reassuring message: There is nothing wrong with you. Your husband is an insecure bully, who puts you through impossible tests because he is weak and a control-freak. If you know that, than you can do something about it.
Breaking the Code of Silence
“You must not speak. That’s what my stepfather said; don’t speak, don’t tell. That’s what my mother said as well… (355).”
Contemporary media and public education campaigns dealing with issues of sexual and domestic abuse have coined several slogans such as “You Are Not Alone”, “It Won’t Stop Unless You Tell”, and “No One Can Force You to Keep Silent” (in Hebrew force and rape are the same verb). These short and simple messages reveal a deeper truth: abuse can go on as long as it is kept a secret. Telling that secret, to one self and to others, often breaks the spell that makes the abuse possible.
Victims of abuse, like my own son, and like Terri Windling, keep silent because their aggressors threaten them; because they are afraid no one would believe them, or because they feel ashamed. In traditional or closed communities gender based and sexual offenses are kept hushed; thus inflicting on the victims additional (and unnecessary) suffering.
Marina Warner foregrounds the function of fairy tales in breaking the code of silence: “because the tale itself exists to excite response, to bring life, to assert vulgar rude health against pale misery and defeat, to stir laughter or wonder or tears or hope. Fairy tales put an end to mutism; even when they are about dumbness and dumblings, they break the silence (150).
In several of the variants of the tales I have looked at, the heroines share their plight with a close family member, a nanny, or a fairy godmother. These young women thus take the first, and perhaps most important step, towards salvation. In most variants of the incestuous father tale-type, the heroine shares her plight with an old nurse or a fairy godmother. In Basile’s “The Bear”, the old and wise nanny conveys the following reassuring message, in response to Presioza’s agitation: “Keep your spirits up, my daughter, and do not despair, for every evil there is remedy, except for death (35).”
In the Perrault’ and the Grimm Brothers versions of “Bluebeard”, the protagonists seek the help of their brothers. The heroine’s desperate call to her sister Anne in Perrault’s version has become a symbol of a victim’s anguished cry for help: ‘“Anne! Sister Anne! Do you see anything coming (734)?”’ From a feminist critical perspective this may represent a problem; again, the naïve and fragile heroine, like Little Red Riding Hood in most of the popular variants, gets into trouble and only a brave and benevolent male can rescue her. However, that said, asking for help when you are terrorized can be the most courageous thing you do, and certainly the smartest.
Another variant of the Bluebeard tale, “The Robber’s Bridegroom”, take the notion of fighting mutism some steps further. The tale features two female voices, breaking the circle of death and silence: an old woman, and the young bride-to-be. The old woman warns the bride about her deadly fate, and later helps her escape it: ‘“Oh, you poor child!" the old woman answered. ‘”Do you realize where you are? This is a murderer’s den! You may think you’re about to celebrate your wedding, but the only marriage you’ll celebrate will be with death. Just look (739)!”’ The young bride, having witnessed the brutal killing (and possibly rape) of yet another peasant girl, not only escapes this cruel fate, but also makes sure that justice is served. At her own wedding banquet, in the company of her family, her bridegroom and his friends, she tells the audience what she saw, as if it was a dream: ‘“All right”’, she said. ‘”I’ll tell you a dream. I was walking alone through the forest and finally came to a house (…) except for a bird in a cage on the wall that cried out: ‘”Turn back, turn back, young bride.//The den belongs to murderers,//Who’ll soon be at your side!”’ ‘”Then the bird repeated the warning. (My dear, it was only a dream.)” The mise-en-abime serves to foreground the identity of the true teller of this tale – the women. In telling her story, she saves not only her own life, but also the lives of many future victims. The aggressor is brought to justice. She is free.
Many survivors of abuse do not get a chance to stand up and tell their story. To see their aggressor convicted and brought to justice based on their own testimony. However, the courtroom, as Terri Windling tells us, is not the only place where such stories can be told. People can find comfort and power within the pages of a book: “And I continue to spin, and weave, and toss those coats made of words to the air – hoping that someday, somewhere, they will set someone free (358).” The images of spinning and weaving are certainly not accidental. Many oral folk-tales were conceived in the long, tedious hours women spent spinning and weaving. Little Red Riding Hood is but one example. Many of the fairy tales that we loved and memorized as children are tales that women told – to other women – centuries ago. The storytelling scene in “Robber’s Bridegroom” invokes the tradition of women storytelling and brings it back to life.
Presence d’esprit and the Drive to Survive
“In the universe of fairy tales, the just often find a way to prevail, the wicked generally receive their comeuppance – but there’s more to such tales than a formula of abuse and retribution. Thhe trials these wounded young women encounter illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a maimed state to wholeness, from passivity to action (356).”
The French term presence d’esprit somehow gets lost in translation; resourcefulness, cunning, initiative, and inventiveness, all constitute different aspects of this notion, rather than an adequate translation of it. Presence of spirit signifies the existence of a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’, a ‘super-natural’ power, a spiritual quality.
Bruno Bettelheim describes a poignant session with a little girl he was treating. When asked why she felt her parents failed her, she answered: “they had no hopes for me (125)”. One of the best things that we can do for ourselves and for our loved ones is to have high hopes and aspirations. In other words, to believe that we, and them, deserve the fairy tale happy ending of choice. Fairy tales offer children and adults a fantasy of power and victory that they would want to have for themselves. Bettelheim refutes the notion that fantasy is dangerous of harmful to children: “While the fantasy is unreal, the good feelings it gives us about ourselves and our future are real, and those real good feelings are what we need to sustain us (126).”
The fantasy of power and victory is found in numerous fairy tales, and certainly, in many of the variants of tales I have explored in this paper. The common denominator of all the heroes – who emerge empowered and victorious from the ordeals they encounter – is that presence d’esprit, this inner force that drives them to survive. The protagonists of Calvino’s “The False Grandmother” and Chian Mi’s “Goldflower and the Bear” are good examples. Chiang Mi’s version opens with the following statement: “Long, long ago there was a clever and brave girl called Goldflower who lived with her mother and brother. They were very happy (19).” Not only is the girl brave and clever, but also this single parent family is very happy – lo and behold – without a father. Goldflower is a source of inspiration and a role model for children. She saves herself and her family thanks to her cleverness, quick wits and courage. These girls’ Presence d’esprit serves to gradually diminish the power and might of their aggressors. Goldflower hides between the branches of the tree, while the bear looks for her in the well, where it sees her reflection. This scene depicts the bear in a ridicule light. It is not dangerous, but stupid. Calvino’s protagonist, who was smart enough to share her food with those who could facilitate her escape, makes faces at the Ogress, left helpless behind.
The protagonists of “Robber’s Bridegroom” and “Fitcher’s Bird” are another example of heroines who rely on their own survival instincts and powers. In “Fitcher’s Bird”, the heroine literally ‘picks up the pieces’ of her two slaughtered sisters, and cunningly manipulates their own murderer to carry them on his back all the way to their home and family. Christina Bacchilega emphasizes the heroine’s courage in revealing the true nature of the forbidden room: “”Bravery, not simply curiosity, lead her to unlock the forbidden chamber, especially when her husband tells her that her sisters are dead, and that she will be too if she disobeys (110).” This young woman tricks her groom and his friends into believing that she has any intent to go ahead and marry him, and sets a trap for him when he least expects it: “The bridegroom looked up and saw the decorated skull. He thought it was his bride and nodded and greeted her in a friendly way. However, once he and his guests were all gathered inside the house, the bride’s brothers arrive. They had been sent to rescue her, and they locked all the doors of the house to prevent anyone from escaping. Then they set fire to the house, and the sorcerer and all his cronies were burned to death (743).” In “Robber’s Bridegroom”, the bride-to-be (like all Bluebeard’s brides) is afraid of her fiancée and is reluctant to visit his home. She takes precautions to mark her way back home – a step that literally saves her life – especially after she’s exposed to the full savage nature of his cruelty: “At the entrance to the forest, she found that the ashes had been spread, and she followed them, while throwing peas right and left on the ground with each step that she took (738).” While the robber marks the path with ashes, – a symbol of death – the young bride marks her path with peas and lentils that sprout and yield new life. In the struggle between life and death, she has defeated death and gained life, by making her own way. Both these protagonists have gained power over their abusive fiancées thanks to their courage and cleverness.
The protagonists of the incestuous father tales survive because they disguise themselves as wild animals or repulsive, dirty creatures, wrapped in soot, dirt, or animal skin. Perrault’s Donkey Skin is described to the infatuated prince in the following manner: ‘“It is Donkey-Skin”’, he was told. ‘”But there is nothing nymphlike or beautiful about her. She’s called Donkey-Skin because of the skin that she wears on her back. She’s be a real remedy for anyone in love. In short, this beast is almost uglier than a wolf (43).”’ In temporarily hiding their external attractive features, these heroines have a chance to discover their inner qualities: their courage and perseverance. Their inner beauty shines through their beastly external appearance (with a little help from the glimpses of their real appearance at the ball, at the prince’s courtyard or bedroom, or in their little chamber). Under the dirt and animal skin, a symbol of shame and humiliation, they dare dream of a happy future. Their version of a happy ending is to marry the prince, and that’s o.k. They earned it, and they chose their husbands. The fairy tale fantasy provides the inspiration; each one can write their own happy ending to their story.
The heroines of fairy tales continue to live happily ever after among the pages of classical storybooks. They marry the prince, and they do not happen to have a witch for a mother in law – they live a long, happy and prosperous life. Moreover, they deserve it, after what they have been through. At the end of the day, this is the most reassuring message a story can convey to its readers – children and adults – victims of abuse or not. Happiness is possible, even if life seem to have taken a wrong turn.
This message is most powerfully conveyed by initiatory tales; those that celebrate a person’s painful yet vital and successful process of transformation. Initiatory tales tell you that you should die a little in order to be re-born; but that you can eventually leave most of the pain behind, or use it to shape your life the way you want it to be.
Initiatory tales often feature courageous and smart female protagonists; women who survive terrible ordeals. These tales place their heroines center-stage, where they ought to be. Initiatory tales do that perhaps as tribute to the women who once told these tales to sooth frightened children or women friends in distress.
These tales can be a source of inspiration, comfort and reassurance to people who are suffering, if only they let themselves believe in magic. Not in the kind of magic that is at the end of the tip of the fairy’s wand, but in the magic inside them: their power, their faith in themselves, and their love of life. The most magical thing about fairy tales is the encounter between the reader, and the words that are at the tip of the pen, or the tongue.
“Art and motherhood share a common trait: to give unconditionally” wrote my grandmother Gila Gouri more than forty years ago. Art is offering us her love, and we may reach out and take it.
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