A Transformed Woman: Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat.”


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“Either become a woman, or make me a cat.”

The image of a beast hiding deep within an enchanted forest in an enchanted castle, waiting to be transformed through love, is generally associated with, well, male beasts. The beasts also typically have a frightening appearance: they are often bears, or lions, or something too terrifying to describe.

But sometimes, that enchanted beast is a girl. As in Madame d’Aulnoy’s novelette, “The White Cat.”

Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Comtesse d’Aulnoy, (1650-1705) lived a life that was either mostly fabulous or mostly fabricated, depending upon precisely who you spoke to. One of those fabulous fabrications: accusing her husband of committing high treason, an allegation that eventually forced her to flee France for a time. Despite her exile, she later purchased a house in Paris in the late 1680s, without her estranged husband’s assistance but with his at least tacit ...

Hans Christian Andersen’s Somewhat Disturbing Obsession With Feet


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Read any collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales—any—and one thing becomes immediately apparent:

Dude had a really strange, unhealthy obsession with feet.

Especially the feet of little girls.

Especially especially the feet of poverty stricken little girls.

Even in stories that—at least on the surface—have nothing to do with footwear, shoes, or even feet at all.

Seriously. It pops up in tales like “The Red Shoes,” a tale of a little girl who spends—in Andersen’s opinion, at least—entirely too much time thinking about shoes AND DIES; in tales like “The Little Mermaid,” where a girl is punished with excessively painful feet AND DIES after falling in love and wanting something different in life; in tales like “The Little Girl Who Trod on a Loaf,” where a girl is literally sent to hell for trying to protect her nice shoes from getting muddy (okay, she does this by using a nice ...

Fairy Tales for Survivors: The Armless Maiden


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One of the most profound influences on my understanding of fairy tales was The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors (1995), edited by Terri Windling, an anthology I discovered quite by chance while browsing a bookstore one day. I picked it up partly because of the title, partly because it had a couple of stories from favorite authors, partly because it seemed to be about fairy tales, and mostly because it had a nice big sticker proclaiming that it was 25% off.

Never underestimate the value of nice big stickers proclaiming that things are 25% off, even if those stickers end up leaving sticky residue all over your book, which is not the point just now.

Rather, it’s how the book changed my understanding of fairy tales.

The Armless Maiden was hardly the first collection of fairy tales that I’d devoured, or even the first collection of fairy ...

A Fairy Tale with the Worst of Husbands: “The Swan Maidens”


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Many tales of animal brides and grooms are tales of high romance and love. Others are tales of arranged marriages, carefully crafted to reassure audiences that yes, happiness and even love could be found in those situations—and that appearances could be deceptive. And still others are stories of outright terrible spouses, where using the word “animal” to describe the spouse is an insult to real animals everywhere.

The version of “The Swan Maidens” collected and retold by Australian folktale scholar Joseph Jacobs in his 1916 European Folk and Fairy Tales is most definitely in that terrible spouse category.

I say “retold” here in this particular case quite strongly, since Jacobs’ version is a compilation of various stories of swan maidens told throughout Europe. Jacobs was hardly alone in this—the Grimms virtually bragged that several of their stories were more or less put together from four or five different fairy tales, ...

A Meditation on Forests, Life, and Art: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Fir Tree”


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For all of his use of Christian imagery, to the point of occasionally writing virtual Christian morality tales, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen tended to avoid mentioning specific Christian holidays in his fairy tales. The young boy in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” for instance, receives his toys as a birthday present, not a Christmas one. Even the novella-length The Snow Queen, with its focus on winter and quotes from the Bible, never mentions Christmas at all.

Perhaps it’s as well, since his one major exception, “The Fir Tree,” may not exactly get readers into the holiday spirit.

“The Fir Tree” was originally published in New Fairy Tales, Second Collection (1844) next to another winter tale, The Snow Queen. It was swiftly overshadowed by that other story and Andersen’s other tales, but Andrew Lang reprinted a fairly faithful translation in The Pink Fairy Book (1897), and it can currently be ...

Passivity and Turbulence: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier


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Even the most magical early stories of Hans Christian Andersen had, like most fairy tales, focused on, well, people and other living creatures. That is, what fairy tales were supposed to be about, at least, until then—creatures both imaginary and real who could talk and move. But in 1838, Andersen tried something a little different: a fairy tale about inanimate objects. Specifically, a tale about a tin soldier who could not talk or move.

In English, that was mostly translated to “steadfast.”

By this time, Andersen had already published several tales. None were overly popular, and none made him money, but they were enough to give Andersen a certain confidence in his craft. The idea of inanimate toys coming to life was not precisely new. Talking dolls were, if not exactly a staple of folklore, found in various oral tales, and had crept into some of the French salon ...

A Shimmering, Dancing Fairyland: Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker


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When Tsar Alexander III saw the opening performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in 1892, in a double performance with Iolanta, Tchaikovsky’s last opera, he was reportedly delighted by it.

In this, he was nearly alone. Too childish, many critics complained. Too many actual children, others added. Terrible dancing, many agreed. Incomprehensible dancing, noted others, especially in that bit between—what was it? Toy soldiers and some mice? Just dreadful. A very boring second act where absolutely nothing happened, several grumbled. Completely unfaithful to either of the original versions of the story, said fans of E.T.A. Hoffman and Alexander Dumas, pere. A few even made very unkind comments about the appearances of the various dancers, calling some of them fat.

Everyone, however, agreed on one thing: the music was outstanding.

And everyone, including the Tsar, failed to predict what would happen over the next 126 years.

After the ...

Nussknacker und Mausekönig, the Original Nutcracker Tale


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Centuries before a Hollywood studio thought it would be a great idea to spend millions on a film about a girl travelling to fairy lands created through CGI, and before shopping malls and ad agencies thought it would be an equally great idea to pound the same classical melodies into the ears of shoppers year and after year, a poet and musician bent over his desk in Berlin working on a fairy tale. A story for children, perhaps—his daughter was about 11 at the time. A story about toys coming to life and fighting mice. But as he wrote, images of war and obsession kept creeping into his tale.

Much later, someone thought it would be a great idea to turn his fantasy about inescapable war into a ballet. Which later became inescapable music during the holiday season.

You might be sensing a theme here.

Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffman (1776-1822) ...

Chicken Feet and Fiery Skulls: Tales of the Russian Witch Baba Yaga


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Despite her appearances in numerous folktales, Baba-Yaga is one of the few creatures of fairy tale that I first encountered strictly through paintings and images, rather than through text or animated cartoon. In part, this is because she was left out of my various collections of western fairy tales, especially since it was years before I encountered the Andrew Lang collections. The ones I had largely focused on English, French, German, Norwegian and Italian fairy tales, with the occasional Spanish or Arabic (or probably faked Arabic, in the case of Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) story thrown in. She is, after all, from Russia, and although the occasional Russian or Slavic element crept into my collections, these appearances were rare.

But I did see the pictures: horrific images of a person more skeleton than person, really, reaching out with clawed hands towards terrified children; tiny bizarre ...

Delicate Magics: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin


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At the entrance to the town they put on visibility. It made them no warmer, and impaired their self-esteem.

In the last decade of her life, author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) told an interviewer that “I want to write about something different.”

That different turned out to be fairy tales. Warner had played with themes of magic and enchantment in her work before, and always had an interest in folklore, but for this project, she tried something a bit different: interconnected stories of other and fairy. Most were published in The New Yorker from 1972-1975, and collected in the last book printed in Warner’s lifetime: Kingdoms of Elfin (1976). Regrettably out of print for decades, the collection is now being reissued by Handheld Press, with a foreward by Greer Gilman, an introduction by Ingrid Hotz-Davies, and extensive footnotes by Kate McDonald.

Warner came from a comfortable, well-educated family. ...

Delicate Magics: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin


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At the entrance to the town they put on visibility. It made them no warmer, and impaired their self-esteem.

In the last decade of her life, author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) told an interviewer that “I want to write about something different.”

That different turned out to be fairy tales. Warner had played with themes of magic and enchantment in her work before, and always had an interest in folklore, but for this project, she tried something a bit different: interconnected stories of other and fairy. Most were published in The New Yorker from 1972-1975, and collected in the last book printed in Warner’s lifetime: Kingdoms of Elfin (1976). Regrettably out of print for decades, the collection is now being reissued by Handheld Press, with a foreward by Greer Gilman, an introduction by Ingrid Hotz-Davies, and extensive footnotes by Kate McDonald.

Warner came from a comfortable, well-educated family. ...

Defining Princesses: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” and “The Swineherd”


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“The Princess and the Pea” is perhaps Andersen’s most famous tale about a princess, or more precisely, explaining what a princess actually is. That is, a princess is someone who will show up soaking wet on your doorstop and demand that a bed be prepared especially for her particular needs, and then will spend the next day complaining about it, but, on the bright side, the entire incident will later give you a small interesting exhibit for your museum.

Maybe not that much of a bright side.

This is Andersen’s cheerful view of princesses. He did have another one, shared in his less famous story, “The Swineherd.”

Several Andersen fairy tale collections tend to group the two tales together—partly because “The Princess and the Pea” is so short, even by fairy tale standards, and partly because the two tales match together quite well thematically. Originally, however, they were not ...

A Stolen Fairy Tale: The Swan Princess


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The animation studios at Disney in the 1980s could be a rather stressful place, to put it mildly. Even for an animator who had started with the 1973 Robin Hood, continued through the 1977 The Rescuers, and eventually found himself directing the 1981 The Fox and the Hound, which if not exactly one of Disney’s all-time great success stories, had earned a solid profit on its initial release, and would later continue to bring the company steady earnings from video and streaming sales.

Unfortunately, after these mild successes, Disney executives thought it would be a good idea to assign that animator, Richard Rich, to help direct the already troubled production of 1985 The Black Cauldron. Like many seemingly good ideas in Disney history, this one turned out poorly. Rich ended up having “creative differences” with multiple people assigned to the project, including then-animator Tim Burton, screenwriter Rosemary Anne ...

Bringing Fairy Tale to Ballet: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake


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Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky started incorporating fairy tales and fairy land in some of his earliest musical works. Two early operas, Undina and Vakula the Smith, were directly based on the popular literary fairy tales Undine, by Frederick de la Motte Fouqué, and “Christmas Eve,” by Nikolai Gogol, and Tchaikovsky referenced other fairy tales and magical motifs in the rest of his work.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that when he finally turned to writing a ballet, he chose one with a fairy tale theme.

It is perhaps surprising, given that ballet’s later near central place in ballet repertoire, that initially that ballet was a complete failure.

The ballet in question is, of course, Swan Lake, composed in 1875-1876 and first performed in 1877, arguably the first or second most famous ballet in the world, depending upon your feelings about Tchaikovsky’s other famous ballet, the 1892 The Nutcracker.

Full disclosure ...

Hans Christian Andersen’s Tales of Flight: “The Storks” and “The Marsh King’s Daughter”


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Sure, The Ugly Duckling is better known. Sure, The Little Mermaid became a multi-million—probably edging towards a billion now—franchise property. Sure, Thumbelina and The Six Swans show up in more fairy tale collections. And sure, The Emperor’s New Clothes is referenced far more frequently.

But when I was a child, the Hans Christian Andersen stories that most haunted me were the ones that featured storks.

I don’t know why Andersen loved storks so much. Perhaps, like me, he just liked watching them fly. Perhaps he just thought they were hilarious looking. Regardless, storks tend to appear in a number of his tales, and in two, the storks play center roles: “The Marsh King’s Daughter” and “The Storks.”

“The Storks” originally appeared in a small booklet containing three tales: “The Garden of Paradise,” “The Flying Trunk,” and “The Storks,” making this booklet—called, like many of Andersen’s other small booklets, Tales ...

Unnatural Love and Healing: Charles Perrault’s “Donkey-Skin” and Other Fairy Tales


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Incestuous and quasi-incestuous relationships were hardly unknown at the court of Louis XIV. The king himself had married his first cousin, Maria-Theresa of Spain, largely for political reasons. His brother Philippe, Duke of Orleans, had married another first cousin, Henrietta of England, before marrying a more distant cousin, Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatine, whose grandmother was related to the royal French family, and who could trace other connections through both parents. Various aristocrats at the court followed these royal examples for financial or other reasons, and in other countries, the occasional marriage between a niece and uncle, or an aunt and nephew—for political reasons—were not unknown. And those were just the relationships validated by the Church.

That perhaps helps explain why so many of the French salon fairy tales focus on similar relationships between cousins or even closer relations, and why Charles Perrault, working both in and against these traditions, ...

Fairy Tale Animation: La Jeune Fille Sans Mains (The Girl Without Hands)


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“You wanted to be rich. How could you be in peace?”

The fairy tale “The Girl Without Hands,” first published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 1812 Children’s and Household Tales, and revised in subsequent editions, has never been a particular favorite of filmmakers for a long list of reasons, including, but not limited to, its disturbing subject matter, its split storyline (the second half of the story almost seems to be discussing different characters), its religious themes, and the perceived difficulties of portraying a character losing both hands. It would, I think, make for a great live action horror flick—but that’s not the way Hollywood has seen the story, at least so far.

None of this, however, stopped French animator Sébastian Laudenbach from using it as the subject of his first film, which debuted at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and later at the Annecy International Animated ...

The Power of Cleverness and Research: German Fairy Tale “Rumpelstiltskin”


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Tales of magical dwarves who trade magical assistance for some future object were common enough in 19th century Germany that the Grimm brothers found four separate tales in the Hesse region alone to combine into the tale that they called “Rumpelstiltskin,”—not to mention several other closely related tales. And it wasn’t just Hesse. As the Grimms noted in their extensive footnotes to the tale, nearly every element of Rumpelstiltskin had an analogy somewhere else in European folklore and literature, from songs to the elaborately crafted French salon fairy tales to legends about the life of St. Olaf.

So what made this version stand out—particularly since it wasn’t even the only story about magical spinners in their collection?

“Rumpelstiltskin” starts out by introducing a miller and his lovely daughter. The word “miller” may conjure up thoughts of poverty and peasants, but this particular miller, as it turns out, is not ...

When Everyone Just Wants to Eat: Norwegian Fairy Tale “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”


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Although arguably the best known of the group, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were hardly the only 19th century European scholars to embark on the study of folklore and publish collections of fairy tales. Indeed, by then, the idea of fairy tale collections stretched back centuries—with authors either proudly presenting fairy tales inspired by oral sources or earlier written versions as their own creations, or, more modestly, claiming that the tales they carefully crafted were taken from stories they had heard as children. Those collections continued to be penned throughout the 19th century, augmented by academic studies that presented fairy tales as an important part of culture, often as part of creating nation states and national identity.

Among these scholars were Norwegian scholars Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe, better known to history as simply Asbjørnsen and Moe, who preserved for us the delightful tale of the “The ...

Warner Bros.’ Three Merrie and Looney Versions of “The Three Little Pigs”


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Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs was an instant legend among animators, then just starting to develop their craft. It also was an instant legend among film studios, who saw that for once, a cartoon could be a bigger draw than the main feature.

Naturally, rival Warner Bros had to get into the action, with three different cartoon takes on the three little pigs.

And equally naturally, their first take was a direct slam and parody of their great rival.

Animation director Friz Freleng (1905-1995)—born Isadore Freleng, and occasionally credited as I. Freleng —had actually worked for Walt Disney before Disney was even Disney, in the very early Laugh-o-Gram days. Enjoying the work, he followed Walt Disney to California in 1923 and worked on many of the very earliest Disney cartoons, including those focused on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In 1929, he left Disney for reasons that remain somewhat disputed, though ...