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!
The Heroine’s Journey
Heroine’s Journey: Snow White
Heroine’s Journey: Sleeping Beauty
I’ve just recently found your site and I’m really enjoying this series. This topic on ‘Gifts’ reminds me of the book by Lewis Hyde called ‘The Gift.’ It’s a lot to contemplate. What do we do with these gifts? How do we receive and share them? How do they change us? It’s all so beautiful.
I’m glad you’re enjoying it, Nicole! I read Hyde in a class on gift theory when I was doing my PhD — it’s a great book! And yes, I think you’re absolutely right. What are they? What do we do with them? How do they help us on our personal journeys? It’s so important to know what your gifts are, and that you have gifts. In other words, no one is giftless, ungifted, however we put it . . . 🙂
I’m really enjoying this series of posts. I’ve gotten a few books on the subject of the Heroine’s journey and have disliked all of them.
Melissa, I’m interested in why you disliked them. I’ve generally felt unsatisfied with formulations of the heroine’s journey because they try to do too much, to claim a universal mythic/psychological journey that isn’t as grounded in scholarship and the texts as I would like. But tell me what you found wanting or unsatisfying? I’d love to know . . .
In some contexts, giving gifts is a contract, or implies a sense of obligation from the receiver to the gifter. (I’m thinking of the Beowulf poem, where kings are expected to be generous to their warriors, by giving them gold and/or weapons, but then the warriors are expected to defend the king and his tribe in return; this kind of dynamic also holds true in other gift-giving cultures.) In modern stories about the Fey, they often show a marked resistance to receiving gifts from humans, because of the obligation it implies; however, in these stories I don’t see that the heroine is beholden to the giftgiver–except, perhaps to use the gifts as wisely as she can.
I think that’s because all of these stories are from societies that were based and focused on trade, in which you had a rising middle class. Gift giving as an economic system, the way it is in Beowulf, had ended centuries before, and in the emerging capitalist system, gift-giving had a very different function. Hyde describes all this well. In a capitalist society, trade is assumed to be reciprocal: I give you something, you give me something for it. So gift-giving becomes non-reciprocal: you expect a thank you, but that’s it. The fairy tales may be old, in terms of their origins in oral tales, but they were written down during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and very much reflect the values of the times they were written in.
I stumbled upon Your site after reading the Hungarian Faieries article of Yours (I was looking for a foreign perpective about Hungarian folk tales). So, may I suggest the Woodland Fairie mentioned there (or even this variant:
) as one of the twelve ?
Just an idea.
How beautiful! I have to keep working on my Hungarian so I can do more work on Hungarian fairy tales. This is very good incentive for me to practice! And I can see patterns here that I’ve seen in other fairy tales . . . Thank you! 🙂
You are more than welcome.
As a side note, I choose this particular video, because there are English subtitles (with a fairly good translation).
Always, you bring so much insight to things otherwise overlooked. This is such a valuable piece.
Thank you! 🙂
Late to the party, but have time now. In my longtime belief I am living in a fairy tale,
I thought it was interesting for those of us who also do so, to count our gifts. Mine
are many; nine years of wisdom and delight in art, music and good reads from my
mother, learning how to gentle horses from my father – it is amazing how useful
that it when frightened or worried about being attacked – And magical good luck in
times of desperation. Oh, and also from my mother. When you need to know something, go to the library.
Those are wonderful gifts, Phyllis! And I very much endorse the counting of gifts. It’s important to know what we have for the journey! 🙂