Heroine’s Journey: Sleeping Beauty

This is my second attempt to map the fairytale heroine’s journey in a specific tale. I’m calling this project Mapping the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey. As you may know if you’re following along, I started with a blog post called “The Heroine’s Journey,” in which I listed ten steps or stages the fairytale heroine goes through. Then, I took a look at “Snow White” to see if I could find those steps. In that blog post, “Heroine’s Journey: Snow White,” I refined the list of steps. So right now it looks like this:

1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.
3. The heroine goes into the dark forest.
4. The heroine finds a temporary home.
5. The heroine finds friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work.
7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.
8. The heroine dies or visits the dead.
9. The heroine finds her true partner.
10. The heroine is revived or revives another.
11. The heroine enters her true home.
12. The heroine’s tormentor is punished.

My hypothesis is that certain fairy tales, specifically tales about a heroine’s maturation process, follow a series of steps that can occur in different order but have an overall trajectory. Where does this journey come from? Parts of it remind me of myth, parts remind me of ritual (such as rites of passage), but what it reminds me of most is women’s lives: the lives of friends of mine, who go through dark forests and find friends and helpers, who endure temptations and trials. What interests me is narrative structure: the way we tell stories about women’s lives.

So, on to my second fairy tale: “Sleeping Beauty.” Let’s see if the structure works . . . This is the version by Charles Perrault, translated by Andrew Lang (or his wife, who did a lot of the translating, uncredited). It was published in The Blue Fairy Book (1889).

1. The heroine receives gifts.

We know this one, right? This is the gift-giving scene par excellence. If any fairy tale emphasizes the gifts, it is “Sleeping Beauty.”

There were formerly a king and a queen, who were so sorry that they had no children; so sorry that it cannot be expressed. They went to all the waters in the world; vows, pilgrimages, all ways were tried, and all to no purpose.

At last, however, the Queen had a daughter. There was a very fine christening; and the Princess had for her godmothers all the fairies they could find in the whole kingdom (they found seven), that every one of them might give her a gift, as was the custom of fairies in those days. By this means the Princess had all the perfections imaginable.

After the ceremonies of the christening were over, all the company returned to the King’s palace, where was prepared a great feast for the fairies. There was placed before every one of them a magnificent cover with a case of massive gold, wherein were a spoon, knife, and fork, all of pure gold set with diamonds and rubies. But as they were all sitting down at table they saw come into the hall a very old fairy, whom they had not invited, because it was above fifty years since she had been out of a certain tower, and she was believed to be either dead or enchanted.

The King ordered her a cover, but could not furnish her with a case of gold as the others, because they had only seven made for the seven fairies. The old Fairy fancied she was slighted, and muttered some threats between her teeth. One of the young fairies who sat by her overheard how she grumbled; and, judging that she might give the little Princess some unlucky gift, went, as soon as they rose from table, and hid herself behind the hangings, that she might speak last, and repair, as much as she could, the evil which the old Fairy might intend.

In the meanwhile all the fairies began to give their gifts to the Princess. The youngest gave her for gift that she should be the most beautiful person in the world; the next, that she should have the wit of an angel; the third, that she should have a wonderful grace in everything she did; the fourth, that she should dance perfectly well; the fifth, that she should sing like a nightingale; and the sixth, that she should play all kinds of music to the utmost perfection.

Of course, the princess is then cursed, and that curse is mitigated by the seventh fairy.

The old Fairy’s turn coming next, with a head shaking more with spite than age, she said that the Princess should have her hand pierced with a spindle and die of the wound. This terrible gift made the whole company tremble, and everybody fell a-crying.

At this very instant the young Fairy came out from behind the hangings, and spake these words aloud:

“Assure yourselves, O King and Queen, that your daughter shall not die of this disaster. It is true, I have no power to undo entirely what my elder has done. The Princess shall indeed pierce her hand with a spindle; but, instead of dying, she shall only fall into a profound sleep, which shall last a hundred years, at the expiration of which a king’s son shall come and awake her.”

You can already see two later steps implied by this scene: the heroine will metaphorically die (by falling into a death-like sleep) and will find her true partner, identified as the one who can wake her.

2. The heroine dies or visits the dead.

Wait, that’s supposed to come later, right? But I mentioned that the steps don’t always happen in the same order. Here the heroine dies first, and then all sorts of other things happen.

About fifteen or sixteen years after, the King and Queen being gone to one of their houses of pleasure, the young Princess happened one day to divert herself in running up and down the palace; when going up from one apartment to another, she came into a little room on the top of the tower, where a good old woman, alone, was spinning with her spindle. This good woman had never heard of the King’s proclamation against spindles.

“What are you doing there, goody?” said the Princess.

“I am spinning, my pretty child,” said the old woman, who did not know who she was.

“Ha!” said the Princess, “this is very pretty; how do you do it? Give it to me, that I may see if I can do so.”

3. The heroine endures temptations and trials.

I think of this as the princess’s first temptation: she is drawn to the spindle and touches it, even though it is not hers, she has no permission to do so. And, of course, she has no idea what it is.

She had no sooner taken it into her hand than, whether being very hasty at it, somewhat unhandy, or that the decree of the Fairy had so ordained it, it ran into her hand, and she fell down in a swoon.

They try to revive the princess, but nothing works: she is fast asleep. As though she were dead.

4. The heroine finds friends and helpers.

This actually happens twice. The first helper is the seventh fairy, who has already mitigated the curse. Now she causes everyone else in the palace to fall asleep.

The good Fairy who had saved her life by condemning her to sleep a hundred years was in the kingdom of Matakin, twelve thousand leagues off, when this accident befell the Princess; but she was instantly informed of it by a little dwarf, who had boots of seven leagues, that is, boots with which he could tread over seven leagues of ground in one stride. The Fairy came away immediately, and she arrived, about an hour after, in a fiery chariot drawn by dragons.

The King handed her out of the chariot, and she approved everything he had done, but as she had very great foresight, she thought when the Princess should awake she might not know what to do with herself, being all alone in this old palace; and this was what she did: she touched with her wand everything in the palace (except the King and Queen) — governesses, maids of honor, ladies of the bedchamber, gentlemen, officers, stewards, cooks, undercooks, scullions, guards, with their beefeaters, pages, footmen; she likewise touched all the horses which were in the stables, pads as well as others, the great dogs in the outward court and pretty little Mopsey too, the Princess’s little spaniel, which lay by her on the bed.

Notice that she turns the princess’s castle into a land of the dead. If sleep is a metaphorical death, then all in the castle are also dead: the princess is surrounded by them. This is the land that the prince will eventually enter.

5. The heroine leaves or loses her home.

And now the King and the Queen, having kissed their dear child without waking her, went out of the palace and put forth a proclamation that nobody should dare to come near it.

The princess does not lose her physical home, but she loses her parents. Without leaving the castle, she ventures into the dark forest, alone — except for sleeping servants who cannot help her.

6. The heroine goes into the dark forest.

And that’s the next step, except that in this case, the dark forest grows up around her.

This, however, was not necessary, for in a quarter of an hour’s time there grew up all round about the park such a vast number of trees, great and small, bushes and brambles, twining one within another, that neither man nor beast could pass through; so that nothing could be seen but the very top of the towers of the palace; and that, too, not unless it was a good way off.

The prince, intrigued by what he has heard about the beautiful princess sleeping in the dark forest, goes in quest of her. We know he is her true partner because the forest gives way in from of him. Then he comes to the castle itself. Notice the language:

He came into a spacious outward court, where everything he saw might have frozen the most fearless person with horror. There reigned all over a most frightful silence; the image of death everywhere showed itself, and there was nothing to be seen but stretched-out bodies of men and animals, all seeming to be dead.

You see, it’s a metaphorical land of the dead.

7. The heroine is revived or revives another.
8. The heroine finds her true partner.

These two steps happen at the same time.

And now, as the enchantment was at an end, the Princess awaked, and looking on him with eyes more tender than the first view might seem to admit of:

“Is it you, my Prince?” said she to him. “You have waited a long while.”

The Prince, charmed with these words, and much more with the manner in which they were spoken, knew not how to show his joy and gratitude; he assured her that he loved her better than he did himself; their discourse was not well connected, they did weep more than talk — little eloquence, a great deal of love.

This is where modern versions of the story end, with the prince carrying the princess back to his castle, where they live happily ever after. But it’s not where the Perrault version ends: it’s not where older versions ended either. Notice that some steps of the journey have been left out, so it’s not over yet.

(I should add here that Perrault’s is already a cleaned-up version. In at least one earlier version, the prince has two children with the princess while she is still asleep, and it’s only when one of those children sucks a splinter out of her finger that she wakes up.)

So what happens in the Perrault version? Well, the prince doesn’t want to tell his father that he is married. I’m not sure why? Probably because children of kings were political chess-pieces, and he thinks his father would not approve. So he leaves the princess in her castle for two years, while she bears him two children, Morning and Day. His father believes him when he claims that he’s just out hunting — for days at a time. But his mother becomes increasingly suspicious. The prince is also worried about her, because she’s an Ogress and has a taste for little children. Then, the king dies.

9. The heroine enters her true home.

But when the King was dead, which happened about two years afterward, and he saw himself lord and master, he openly declared his marriage; and he went in great ceremony to conduct his Queen to the palace. They made a magnificent entry into the capital city, she riding between her two children.

The princess’s true home is the prince’s castle, where she will take her rightful place as queen. But there are complications still to come. Remember: Ogress. (In the older versions, the prince has not yet married the princess, because he is already married, and it is his wife, rather than an Ogress mother, who causes trouble for her.)

10. The heroine finds a temporary home.

Here, she is sent to her temporary home, and it is not a refuge for her . . . (So the temporary home functions very differently than in “Snow White”).  The prince departs to fight a war in a neighboring kingdom and leaves his mother in power. You know, the Ogress.

He left the government of the kingdom to the Queen his mother, and earnestly recommended to her care his wife and children. He was obliged to continue his expedition all the summer, and as soon as he departed the Queen-mother sent her daughter-in-law to a country house among the woods, that she might with the more ease gratify her horrible longing.

Although the princess has entered her true home, she almost immediately has to leave it again: she enters a temporary home in the dark forest. Notice that she is repeating an earlier step.  First the dark forest grew around her initial home, and how she must ride into it to her temporary home.  She’s back in the dark forest.  What the Ogress wants is, of course, the children.

Some few days afterward she went thither herself, and said to her clerk of the kitchen:

“I have a mind to eat little Morning for my dinner to- morrow.”

“Ah! madam,” cried the clerk of the kitchen.

“I will have it so,” replied the Queen (and this she spoke in the tone of an Ogress who had a strong desire to eat fresh meat), “and will eat her with a sauce Robert.”

I think the sauce Robert is important.

This is when the princess finds another set of friends and helpers: human, this time, rather than fairy.

The poor man, knowing very well that he must not play tricks with Ogresses, took his great knife and went up into little Morning’s chamber. She was then four years old, and came up to him jumping and laughing, to take him about the neck, and ask him for some sugar-candy. Upon which he began to weep, the great knife fell out of his hand, and he went into the back yard, and killed a little lamb, and dressed it with such good sauce that his mistress assured him that she had never eaten anything so good in her life. He had at the same time taken up little Morning, and carried her to his wife, to conceal her in the lodging he had at the bottom of the courtyard.

The clerk of the kitchen saves Morning, and then, and then the princess herself (now queen) through a series of similar subterfuges.

I said that the spindle was her temptation: this is her trial. She must endure the fear and sorrow of losing her children, and then fear of the Ogress queen. The queen, of course, finds out.

One evening, as she was, according to her custom, rambling round about the courts and yards of the palace to see if she could smell any fresh meat, she heard, in a ground room, little Day crying, for his mamma was going to whip him, because he had been naughty; and she heard, at the same time, little Morning begging pardon for her brother.

The Ogress presently knew the voice of the Queen and her children, and being quite mad that she had been thus deceived, she commanded next morning, by break of day (with a most horrible voice, which made everybody tremble), that they should bring into the middle of the great court a large tub, which she caused to be filled with toads, vipers, snakes, and all sorts of serpents, in order to have thrown into it the Queen and her children, the clerk of the kitchen, his wife and maid; all whom she had given orders should be brought thither with their hands tied behind them.

This is the worst that the princess has endured: the hundred year’s sleep was much easier, wasn’t it? I think that’s partly why this section of the story is left out, nowadays. But the prince comes home just in time and asks, as well he might, what in the world is going on.

11. The heroine’s tormentor is punished.

No one dared to tell him, when the Ogress, all enraged to see what had happened, threw herself head foremost into the tub, and was instantly devoured by the ugly creatures she had ordered to be thrown into it for others. The King could not but be very sorry, for she was his mother; but he soon comforted himself with his beautiful wife and his pretty children.

And they lived happily ever after. With no Ogresses.

Notice that there’s something missing, a step I added last time and that I thought was important. And yet it’s not here!

12. The heroine learns to work.

No, she doesn’t. In fact, something quite different happens: the princess is menaced by the very things she might have learned to do in another fairy tale, the things that fairy tale heroines do. Spinning and cooking. The spindle puts her to sleep, and then the Ogress threatens to cook her. In a sauce Robert! I’m not sure what’s going on here yet, but I suspect it’s a reference to, and commentary on, typical seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women’s work. Somehow, in this context, it’s deadly. Or perhaps not having mastered them is deadly? Perhaps if the princess had known how to spin and cook, she would not have been menaced in the same way. After all, it was her father who forbade any spinning in the kingdom . . . Perhaps in trying to protect her, he doomed her?

The step is missing, and yet it’s still there by reference and implication.

So that’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Which fairy tale shall I do next? I’m not sure . . .

Sleeping Beauty

This is the Sleeping Beauty with her son, little Day, by Karl Larson.

Heroine’s Journey: Snow White

Earlier this week, I posted a blog post called The Heroine’s Journey. In it, I talked about the journey I had seen fairy tale heroines take in the stories I was teaching, and listed the steps of that journey. I think the journey is real: I think it’s an underlying structure of many fairy tale journeys taken by female characters. But the only way to test that intuition is against the stories themselves. So over the next few weeks, as I have time, I’ll be talking about how that journey looks in various fairy tales. Today’s tale is “Snow White.” As I do this, I’ll be refining the original steps; I already think there are a few more than I originally noticed.

Once again, the steps can happen out of order, although they have a general trajectory. “Snow White” has them in a slightly different order than I first described. What I’ll do is list the steps and then show how they appear in the story. When studying fairy tales, it’s always important to specify which version you’re quoting from. The quotations below come from Grimm’s Household Tales, a translation of the Grimms’ collection by Margaret Hunt (London: George Bell, 1884).

1. The heroine receives gifts and attributes.

This is one of the first things that happens in “Snow White”:

Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.”

Snow White’s beauty comes from her mother’s wishes; like Sleeping Beauty receiving the gifts of the fairies, she is formed by magic. Her beauty is one of her most important attributes, and will drive the plot of the tale.

2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.

After a year had passed the King took to himself another wife. She was a beautiful woman, but proud and haughty, and she could not bear that any one else should surpass her in beauty.

Either the heroine has to leave home, or her safe and comfortable home is destabilized, often by a parent’s remarriage. Both happen to Snow White: first she loses her family structure, and then she is actually sent away from her home. It’s important to note that in the first edition of 1812, Snow White’s mother does not die: instead, she herself turns against Snow White. But in either case we have a destabilization of the home.

She called a huntsman, and said, “Take the child away into the forest; I will no longer have her in my sight. Kill her, and bring me back her heart as a token.” The huntsman obeyed, and took her away; but when he had drawn his knife, and was about to pierce Snow-white’s innocent heart, she began to weep, and said, “Ah, dear huntsman, leave me my life! I will run away into the wild forest, and never come home again.”

And so, like many other fairy tale heroines, Snow White is thrust out into the world.

3. The heroine goes into the dark forest.

But now the poor child was all alone in the great forest, and so terrified that she looked at every leaf of every tree, and did not know what to do. Then she began to run, and ran over sharp stones and through thorns, and the wild beasts ran past her, but did her no harm.

This happens exactly the way I described, and in the same order: there goes Snow White, running through the trees . . .

4. The heroine finds a temporary home.

She ran as long as her feet would go until it was almost evening; then she saw a little cottage and went into it to rest herself. Everything in the cottage was small, but neater and cleaner than can be told. There was a table on which was a white cover, and seven little plates, and on each plate a little spoon; moreover, there were seven little knives and forks, and seven little mugs. Against the wall stood seven little beds side by side, and covered with snow-white counterpanes.

The dwarves’ cottage is Snow White’s temporary home, where she can rest for a while. She will eventually have to leave, of course. The temporary home is always a place that the heroine has to eventually leave.

5. The heroine finds friends and helpers.

These are of course the seven dwarves.

When it was quite dark the owners of the cottage came back; they were seven dwarfs who dug and delved in the mountains for ore. They lit their seven candles, and as it was now light within the cottage they saw that some one had been there, for everything was not in the same order in which they had left it.

They will help and protect her while she goes through the most difficult part of her journey.

6. The heroine learns to work.

I added this step to the list when I realized that often, the fairy tale heroine has to learn to work. That work is usually housework or servants’ work: she learns to clean or cook. I’m not sure why this step is important? Perhaps it has to do with a heroine needing to learn women’s work, because after all these tales come out of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But I think there’s more to it than that. Even helpless princesses have to learn how to take care of themselves and others — how to make a living and a life.

The dwarfs said, “If you will take care of our house, cook, make the beds, wash, sew, and knit, and if you will keep everything neat and clean, you can stay with us and you shall want for nothing.” “Yes,” said Snow-white, “with all my heart,” and she stayed with them. She kept the house in order for them; in the mornings they went to the mountains and looked for copper and gold, in the evenings they came back, and then their supper had to be ready.

7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.

Snow White’s temptations and trials are the three visits from her stepmother, during which her stepmother sells her corset laces, a comb, and the apple. She fails the tests, and each time she dies. But each time her friends and helpers rescue her. Granted, this makes Snow White seem a little weak, even a little stupid. But she’s a human heroine: she gives in to her vanity. The story reinforces that she’s not perfect, that she is subject to temptation. Sleeping Beauty gives in to temptation as well, when she touches the spindle. And the help Snow White gets is earned — she’s earned it by her work.

8. The heroine dies or visits the dead.

The last temptation proves so deadly that Snow White can’t be revived.

“Are you afraid of poison?” said the old woman; “look, I will cut the apple in two pieces; you eat the red cheek, and I will eat the white.” The apple was so cunningly made that only the red cheek was poisoned. Snow-white longed for the fine apple, and when she saw that the woman ate part of it she could resist no longer, and stretched out her hand and took the poisonous half. But hardly had she a bit of it in her mouth than she fell down dead. Then the Queen looked at her with a dreadful look, and laughed aloud and said, “White as snow, red as blood, black as ebony-wood! this time the dwarfs cannot wake you up again.”

And sure enough, they can’t. She’s not completely dead, of course. She still looks as though she were alive, so they put her in the glass coffin.

Then they were going to bury her, but she still looked as if she were living, and still had her pretty red cheeks. They said, “We could not bury her in the dark ground,” and they had a transparent coffin of glass made, so that she could be seen from all sides, and they laid her in it, and wrote her name upon it in golden letters, and that she was a king’s daughter.

Deep sleep counts as a metaphorical death, in fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty’s sleep also counts as being dead.

9. The heroine finds her true partner.

This is the prince.

It happened, however, that a king’s son came into the forest, and went to the dwarfs’ house to spend the night. He saw the coffin on the mountain, and the beautiful Snow-white within it, and read what was written upon it in golden letters. Then he said to the dwarfs, “Let me have the coffin, I will give you whatever you want for it.”

Yes, I know, it’s a little strange: what does he want with a dead girl? But fairy tales speak in metaphor: in that language, this is true love, and even death cannot separate you from your true love. Also, you recognize your true love at once. Even if she’s dead.

10. The heroine is revived or revives another.

Here Snow White is the one revived, as Sleeping Beauty is revived. In other tales, the heroine is the one who must revive her true partner, who is in a sort of death.

And now the King’s son had it carried away by his servants on their shoulders. And it happened that they stumbled over a tree-stump, and with the shock the poisonous piece of apple which Snow-white had bitten off came out of her throat. And before long she opened her eyes, lifted up the lid of the coffin, sat up, and was once more alive.

11. The heroine enters her true home.

This is the final home, from which she will no longer need to travel.

“Oh, heavens, where am I?” she cried. The King’s son, full of joy, said, “You are with me,” and told her what had happened, and said, “I love you more than everything in the world; come with me to my father’s palace, you shall be my wife.”

And Snow-white was willing, and went with him, and their wedding was held with great show and splendour.

Here the heroine has claimed her place in the world: she is with her true partner, in her true home. I originally thought the story ended here. But I think there’s another step, one I’m not sure I like!

12. The heroine’s tormentor is punished.

Notice that this final step is in passive voice: the heroine is rarely the one who does the punishing. The punishment comes from somewhere else, and seems almost like an act of fate, although in this case we can wonder if that’s really so.

But Snow-white’s wicked step-mother was also bidden to the feast.

Who bade her, I wonder? She’s the one who decides to go — she need not have gone. Her curiosity about this beautiful queen gets the better of her.

Then the wicked woman uttered a curse, and was so wretched, so utterly wretched, that she knew not what to do. At first she would not go to the wedding at all, but she had no peace, and must go to see the young Queen. And when she went in she knew Snow-white; and she stood still with rage and fear, and could not stir. But iron slippers had already been put upon the fire, and they were brought in with tongs, and set before her. Then she was forced to put on the red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped down dead.

Who heated the iron shoes? Who forced her to wear them? We don’t know. It’s a cruel ending, but fairy tales tell us that there are cruel endings out there.

I do think this final step is important: it completes the story, makes sure that the good and wicked get what are coming to them. But I have to think some more about how I feel about it!

So, “Snow White” seems to work with the structure I’m developing. The next thing to do is test another tale. Only when I have enough examples will I feel confident that I’m on to something . . .

Rackham Snow White

(The illustration is by Arthur Rackham.)

The Heroine’s Journey

This post is prompted by two things:

First, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert say, in an interview, that according to Joseph Campbell there was no such thing as a heroine’s journey, because the heroine did not need to go on a journey: she was the home to which the hero returned. I can imagine Campbell making such a statement, but the evidence in his own book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, contradicts it: he repeatedly describes heroines on journeys, including Ishtar descending into the underworld. Some heroines have gone on journeys; therefore, the heroine’s journey must exist.

Second, I tried to do some research on the heroine’s journey, and what I found seemed too complicated: it didn’t match up with the journeys I was seeing in the fairy tales I teach.

So I decided to write out a heroine’s journey based on the fairy tales I’m most familiar with. Here’s what I came up with. I describe each step, but sometimes the steps occur in a different order, so the chronology may differ from tale to tale. And not every tale has every step. And not every tale is a journey tale! But when the heroine is on a journey of some sort, this is basically what it looks like:

1. The heroine lives in the initial home. This can be Snow White’s Castle, Cinderella’s house, or the poor cottage where we first encounter the lassie in “East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon.” It’s a place of stability, where the heroine is happy and safe. Usually, it’s the place she spends her childhood.

2. The heroine receives gifts. Sleeping Beauty receives gifts from the fairies, Cinderella from her fairy godmother or alternatively the spirit of her dead mother in a hazel tree. Donkeyskin receives dresses from her father. Sometimes receiving gifts comes before she leaves the initial home, and sometimes after.  The lassie receives the golden apple, comb, and spinning wheel after she has lost the temporary home and been left in the dark forest, so rather late in the tale.  These gifts will later help the heroine.

3. The heroine leaves her initial home. Sometimes she has to leave because she is fleeing her father, as in Donkeyskin. Sometimes she is given away, like Rapunzel. Sometimes she chooses to leave, like Beauty, to save her father and family. If the heroine stays in her home, the home itself is somehow destroyed: Cinderella’s sense of home disappears when her stepmother arrives and she is made to work as a servant.

4. The heroine enters the dark forest. Snow White and Donkeyskin go directly from their initial homes into the dark forest. The lassie enters the dark forest after losing her temporary home: when her bear husband disappears, she is left alone among the trees. In “Sleeping Beauty,” the dark forest actually grows up around the sleeping princess. Rapunzel enters the dark forest after being expelled from her tower.

5. The heroine finds a temporary home. This can be Snow White’s home with the dwarves, or Psyche’s home with Eros in the old, mythic precursor to “Beauty and the Beast.” It can even be the Beast’s castle. In Donkeyskin, it’s the castle where the heroine serves as kitchenmaid, and in Rapunzel it’s the tower. The important thing is that it’s temporary: the heroine may think she can stay there, but she will eventually have to leave again. Sometimes, in the temporary home, she finds her true partner, but not in the right form or at the right time. Rapunzel meets her prince in the temporary home, but loses him again.

6. The heroine finds friends and helpers. These are dwarves, birds, snakes . . . The heroine finds them and enlists their aid by being kind to them, giving them what they need. And they will help her later on, when she is forced to leave the temporary home and set out on her journey once again.

7. The heroine is tested. Snow White is tempted with the ribbons, comb, and apple. Sleeping Beauty’s test is brief: can she resist touching the spindle? But some heroines go through long, agonizing periods of testing. The princess in “Six Swans” can’t speak for years, and must sew shirts for her swan-brothers. Tests can involve climbing glass mountains, wearing iron shoes, and dealing with ogres.  Even Cinderella must get home by midnight.

8. The heroine dies. The tests and trials that the heroine endures include a journey into death. This is perhaps clearest in Psyche’s descent into Hades, but Snow White in her glass coffin, Sleeping Beauty in her hundred years’ sleep, are all versions of the dead heroine.

9. The heroine finds her true partner. This time, he is in his right form: the bear has been transformed into a prince, the Beast is now a man. He recognizes her, just as she recognizes him. It may not seem like much of a love story (the prince dances with her three times, and that’s it), but that’s because fairy tales are told in a kind of shorthand. It’s a convention of the fairy tale that recognition of the true partner is immediate, if he is in his true form. If he is in his false or temporary form, the heroine must learn to see him correctly first.  And sometimes he must learn to see her correctly, because she may be in disguise as well.

10. The heroine finds her true home. She had to leave her initial home and find her true partner before she could enter her true home. Now Cinderella can live in the castle, Beauty can live with her Beast, and it’s time for happily ever after.

If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of the heroine finding her true partner (does she really need a man to be her partner?), you can think of it as a metaphor. The true partner is also the other side of herself, so the story shows us the integration of the feminine and masculine, human and animal, sides of the personality. I don’t know, really: I just know that the partner is usually there, that the heroine is eventually united to a prince. Perhaps it means that a union with the right other is one of the highest things we can achieve in this life, perhaps it’s about unity within the self. Either way, it seems to be part of the story.

I do think, looking over this list, that it’s an interesting model for looking at a woman’s life. I know that I’ve been into the dark forest, and through times of trial. I’ve found friends and helpers, as well as temporary homes. But I’ll have to think some more about whether and how this model is useful . . .

Snow White

This image from the 1920s shows Snow White entering her temporary home (the dwarves’ cottage).

Tried and True

Life is uncertain, we know that. We know that we’re on a small blue globe spinning through the darkness of space. We’ve seen maps of galaxies with the little arrow pointing: “You are here.” We know that in a moment, life can change, or end. Our planet can be hit by an asteroid. We can be hit by a bus. We know all that: the uncertainty, instability, unreliability of it all.

Which is why I like finding things that are tried and true. Things I know I can rely on. They’re always small things, because the larger things you can’t rely on: home, love, peace. Those things change and slip away. Come back and slip away again. So I hold on to small things, even silly things, the way a child clutches a favorite blanket or toy. But the small things matter in life: raindrops, fireflies, minutes all matter. If you experience it in the right way, a minute can last an eternity. In the same way, small things can keep you grounded, safely on this spinning globe. They can fill you with happiness.

So I’m going to list some of the things I rely on, and I think you should make a list of your own. What is your tried and true, no matter how small or silly? What do you know will not let you down?

1. Revlon lipstick. The cosmetics company Revlon has been around since 1932, and they’ve figured out how to make lipstick by now. The colors are rich and varied, the lipsticks are moisturizing. And they are cheap. When I wear my favorite color (Fig Jam), I feel adventurous and as though I could conquer the world. Happiness in a tube of lipstick: that’s like a small miracle, really.

2. My rice cooker. I put in dry rice and water, and an hour later I have cooked rice. How perfectly brilliant! Would that other things in life were so reliable.

3. Cotton cardigans. Is there anything better for fall in New England than a cotton cardigan? (I can’t wear wool because it’s too itchy.) You can put it on, button it or not, take it off, depending on the temperature — which, in fall in New England, is unpredictable. The cotton cardigan: an ingenious device that allows you to regular and respond to unpredictability. And it comes in pretty colors . . .

4. Alstroemeria lilies. I know, they’re not the most beautiful flowers. But the most beautiful flowers are delicate — if I bring them home and put them in a vase, they last a day or two. Alstroemeria lilies last, reliably, for a week. And over that week, I can see them open up, pink or yellow or crimson, with green veins. They bring something living and beautiful into my apartment.

5. Cetaphil face wash. If you have sensitive skin, your skin itself, the thing you live in, can be unpredictable. Will we break out into a red rash today? We never know . . . This is the gentlest and most reliable way to clean my face, the face I present the the world and that tells people what I’m thinking or feeling. Considering how much work my face does, I think it deserves to be well taken care of!

6. Agatha Christie mysteries. When I can’t read anything else, when I’m exhausted or despairing, I can always read her mysteries: the gruesome death, the labyrinthine case, the logical deductions. I think it’s because they tell me that in an uncertain world, there’s always an underlying logic, if we can just see it.

7. The sea. All right, this isn’t a small one. But the sea . . . it moves, it has moods, it gets angry sometimes. Sometimes it breaks things. You could say that it’s the principle of uncertainty itself. And that’s why it’s so reassuring. The sea is always different, yet always there. Whatever changes on the surface, underneath the sea is the same. Until our planet itself dries up, it will be with us, in constant motion. By the time the sea goes away, we will be long gone.

8. Ballet flats. You can squash them flat and pack them into a suitcase, and when you arrive in London, they’ll be ready for you. They’ll carry you through cities and down country roads. Sure, there are places where ballet flats are impractical, but I wouldn’t travel without them. With a pair of ballet flats and a pair of Keds, I can go almost anywhere . . .

9. The English language. All right, this is another big one. But it’s like the sea: it’s so uncertain, such a mishmash of other languages, always changing, and yet always the same underneath. It’s reliably unreliable. Cough? Dough? Plough? I mean, really, it’s crazy . . . And yet I love it. (Hungarian, which I also love, is also crazy, in a completely different way.)

10. Timex watches. Time slips away, but a Timex watch will at least tell you what time it is, reliably. Mine don’t even need to be wound. I have two, in case I lose one or the battery stops working and I need another watch to wear while I get it replaced. They are comparatively cheap, and they do what they’re supposed to — tell the time — perfectly. How many things in life can do that?

All things fall, all things change. Which is why we hold on to what we can, whether it’s a favorite shade of lipstick, or a dogeared book, or a walk by the seashore . . .


(This is a photo I took recently, in the park by the Boston Common. That’s the swan lake . . .)

Making Mistakes

I’ve been decorating, so I’ve been making lots of mistakes.

The latest is the Mistake of the Bedroom Curtains. Yes, they have names, like Sherlock Holmes cases. The mistake was that I bought the wrong curtains, but it actually all started with the bed.

When I first started decorating the bedroom, I put the bed in a perfectly logical place, close to the window. I added the bedside tables and hung pictures above them. I thought, that’s it: one corner of the bedroom done. And then I realized that late at night, through the wall, I could hear the low buzz of conversation from the building next door. Not words, but the buzz that lets you know a conversation is taking place, like bees in the walls. I don’t know how, since the buildings are a hundred years old and the walls are a foot thick. But then, I have very good hearing. So I had to turn the bed around, which actually ended up being a much better place for it. And the bedside tables had to move. And the bookshelves. So now I had a window with a bookshelf beneath it, which meant rehanging the paintings. I will have to find spackle and paint to cover the initial holes — to hide my mistakes.

But what about the curtains? The first set of curtains I put on the window were dark red cotton, to match the curtains in the living room. But the window in the bedroom is tall and narrow: those curtains blocked out too much light. The second set of curtains were cream, with flowers on them (one of my favorite patterns, Waverly’s Norfolk Rose). They were perfect, but always meant to be temporary because they will eventually be the bed curtains (by which I mean the ones that go over the bed — a bed doesn’t feel finished to me, without curtains). So I bought a third set of curtains, with dark red and cream stripes. I thought, that will match everything else in the room, right? And they did. They matched perfectly, and would have worked, except . . . the room was too dark again. And then I thought, why not get plain cream cotton curtains, just like the dark red curtains I started with — except, you know, not dark or red. By now you’re thinking, I never ever want to decorate with this woman . . . Because yes, I had gone through three different sets of curtains for the bedroom, although the only one I couldn’t reuse elsewhere was the striped set. But I had actually learned something from the experience. Not that I’m incredibly picky when decorating my living space — that I knew. But that the most important thing, for me, was light.

You see, the bedroom is where I have my writing desk, and sometimes I write during the day, although right now I do most of my writing at night. It’s important to me that the room get as much light as possible during the day, although at night I need to close the curtains. The mistake — buying the wrong curtains — led to the realization. So now I have plain cream cotton curtains. If I could, I would have a pattern, because I like patterns. But the most important thing is the light. Without buying the wrong curtains, I would not have realized what I actually valued the most.

And that’s why I’m writing a blog post about curtains: because they led to a revelation. I blame myself for mistakes, beat myself up mentally for them.  But the mistakes are actually part of the learning process. They aren’t wrong turns, but how I get to the right place. We’re told to forgive ourselves for our mistakes, but what I’m saying goes deeper than that: our mistakes are necessary. We could not succeed without them. Often, it’s just after doing something wrong that I suddenly realize how to do it right. If you’re not making mistakes, it’s probably because you’re not trying to do anything particularly complicated. Anything at all complicated (in which I include hanging curtains) takes time, and finding the right way to do it — and that usually involves starting with wrong ways.

So what I’m saying is, don’t blame yourself for mistakes. Don’t forgive yourself for them. Thank yourself for them . . . maybe even, if you can, celebrate them. Because without them, you can’t get wherever you’re going.


This is the window, and the shelf, and the pictures rehung. And the curtains . . .