As you know, I’m taking a sort of journey: that is, I’m following along the heroine’s journey in fairy tales and trying to map its steps or stages. I call this project Mapping the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey. I started by trying to define the journey I saw in many popular fairy tales focused on heroines, and then I tested my theory by looking at two fairy tales specifically: “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty.” I want to keep going through fairy tales, until I’ve done twelve (which is a magical number), to document the steps. But in the meantime, I also want to look at the steps individually. So today, I’m going to write about “The heroine receives gifts.”
This seems to happen in almost all the tales I’m looking at, and the gifts seem to take two forms: attributes or physical objects. The attributes determine how the heroine lives her life and how people respond to her. The physical gifts help on her journey — as long as she keeps hold of them and uses them correctly.
Fairy tales in which the heroines are given gifts that are also attributes include “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty.” “Sleeping Beauty” is the best example of this sort of gift: in the Perrault version, the fairies literally come to her christening and give her beauty, wit, grace, the ability to dance and sing, even the ability to play musical instruments. Basically, everything that the perfect aristocratic girl would need at the court of Louis XIV. (Remember that literary fairy tales always reflect the time in which they were written. They may retain the common elements that make a “tale type,” but the details will differ. And details are important.) We see these sorts of gifts in a simpler form in “Snow White” as well: before she is born, her mother wishes to have a child with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, hair as black as ebony wood. Snow’s beauty is created by magic, by wishing: it is her mother’s gift. (How ironic, then, that her mother later wishes to kill her for that beauty — the Grimms substituted a stepmother, but in their first edition, it was Snow’s own mother who wanted her dead.)
Fairy tales in which the heroines are given physical gifts are perhaps more common. In “The Goose Girl,” the princess is given two gifts: the handkerchief with her mother’s blood on it, and the talking horse Falada. She loses the first gift, and so can’t rely on her mother’s help or protection — which is often deadly in fairy tales. If you go on a journey without your mother’s blessing, watch out! But in the end, Falada saves her. In “East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon,” the heroine is given a golden apple, a golden carding comb, and a golden spindle. She later gives these items to the troll princess in exchange for spending three nights with her lover. On the third night, he hears the story she is trying to tell him, and they can act together to save themselves as well as the other prisoners in the trolls’ castle. In “Cinderella,” the heroine receives dresses to go to the ball from, depending on the version, either her fairy godmother (Perrault) or the spirit of her dead mother in a hazel tree (Grimm). In an ancient Chinese Cinderella story, the dress and shoes come from a magical fish. “Donkeyskin” has an interesting and important variation on the gifts: in that story, the queen dies and the king decides to marry his daughter, since she’s the only one as beautiful as his dead wife. In order to put him off, she asks for three dresses: the colors of the sun, moon, and stars (although again the details — sometimes one of the dresses is the color of the sky). When he manages to provide those dresses, she asks for the skin of a magical donkey, or the fur of a hundred cats, or the skin of a hundred different animals. He provides that as well. Since he can’t be put off any longer, she disguises herself in the ugly skins and runs away, with the dresses. She later wears those dresses, in some versions to a ball like Cinderella. The prince sees her and falls in love with her. So she uses gifts gotten under terrible circumstances to save herself. Even terrible gifts can save you, if you use them correctly, the fairy tale tells us. The fairy tale heroine can use trauma in a positive way.
At the center of my theory is the idea that this structure, the fairytale heroine’s journey, is a deep narrative structure — and that it comes in part from women’s actual lives. So, let’s think about this: how does the idea of receiving gifts apply to a woman’s life? I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I’ve received a lot of gifts. Some of them are attributes: intelligence, talent, grace (although dance classes helped). Even beauty, although it took about forty years for me to feel that! Health, certainly. I have to cultivate and work on those gifts: my writing talent doesn’t do me any good unless I actually sit down and write. And don’t we also receive gifts that are objects? Maybe not golden apples, but for me, the gift of a college education. From friends, the gift of books. From my family, the gift of my grandmother’s jewelry, which came to me and connects me to the past.
What do fairy tales tell us about these kinds of gifts? First, do not lose them. Fairy tales tell us that all gifts, including attributes like beauty, can be lost. Second, use them wisely, and that means use them on your journey. Sometimes you have to give them away, to get something more valuable. Your gifts can help you. Often they are given to you by the friends and helpers that constitute another step of the journey (The heroine finds friends and helpers). You never know who these friends and helpers may be, so be kind to animals and old women who just happen to be spinning by the roadside. Third, even when you are in serious trouble, you may receive gifts that will eventually help you, as Donkeyskin does. Sometimes, they may not look like gifts–who wants a bunch of catskins? And yet the heroine uses them to save herself. Fourth and finally, even a curse may turn out to be a gift. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Sleeping Beauty is cursed at the same christening where she receives her gifts: it makes deep narrative sense that the curse would turn out to be what sets the princess on her journey, and what eventually gets her to the right place. The curse turns out to be what gives her the happy ending. So curses may be gifts in disguise . . .
(The illustration, by Arthur Rackham, is from a version of “Catskin.”)
Here are the previous blog posts I’ve written on the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey. If you want to follow along, go take a look!