Almost a month ago now, I wrote a blog post called “The Heroine’s Journey,” in which I started mapping the journey I saw heroines going on, in the fairy tales I was teaching. Since then, I’ve gone through three fairy tales, “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “The Goose-Girl,” to see where my theory was right, and where it was wrong — or incomplete. I think that’s important, because I want my theory to use useful, to reflect what is actually there in the tales I’m talking about.
You see, I really care about good scholarship. And so much of what is written about the hero’s or heroine’s journey is not good scholarship.
So what am I actually claiming? That there is a certain set of fairy tales that have heroines, and a subset in which the heroine goes on a journey. And those journeys take a particular shape: they are metaphors for women’s lives. Not necessarily for women’s lives in general, at all times and everywhere. But at least in the societies in which the tales I’m looking at were told, which were generally European, from the 16th through the 19th centuries. So the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey is like a meta-tale type. (If you don’t know, the concept of a tale type was created by the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne. Folktales are assigned to tale types by their narrative elements: for example, “Snow White” belongs to tale type 709, along with other tales that have similar plots, even if many of their details are different. The tale type is like the trunk of the tale, the details like its branches and leaves. Cinderella can have shoes of gold, or silver, or glass, but the important element will be the shoe that only fits one woman.) There are a number of different tale types that fit into this meta-type, The Fairytale Heroine’s Journey.
I also want to make another claim, one that isn’t meant to be scholarly: that this journey can teach us things about our own journeys, because our society isn’t as different as we sometimes think from the societies in which fairy tales were told or written. And women’s lives aren’t as different, either. The Fairytale Heroine’s Journey is not inherently conservative or liberating. It can be either, depending on how it’s handled: the Grimms give us a more liberating “Cinderella” than does Perrault, I think. And the women writers of the salons, like Madame d’Aulnoy, use this structure over and over again, in part for social critique. The Fairytale Heroine’s Journey is, however, always illuminating: it teaches us things about women’s lives, how they were lived and perceived. And it can teach us something about our own lives . . .
Here’s what I’m not claiming. That this particular Heroine’s Journey is a timeless mythic structure. I don’t think it is — I think it’s very much a product of particular cultures and time periods. (As I think Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is as well. I adore and respect Campbell, but those sorts of claims ignore the extent to which stories are products of their particular societies. They focus on similarities and ignore differences. And the differences are very, very important.) I also don’t claim that what I’m describing is a psychological structure, embedded deep in the human mind. For one thing, I have no evidence for such a claim, and for another, I’m not particularly interested in it. What I do claim is that the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey is a narrative structure we return to over and over again, that we seem to find particularly useful or satisfying. It would be interesting, actually, to see where else I could find it — is there a way, for example, in which heroines in literary fiction go through a fairytale heroine’s journey? Does Tess of the d’Urbervilles? But that is so far beyond what I’m trying to do right now. Now, I’m just trying to understand it. And this post is about consolidating what I’ve learned from looking at three tales. (I told you, I’m trying to do careful scholarship, and that takes time. My goal is to go through twelve tales — and then, hopefully, I’ll have learned something.)
So, based on the stories I’ve read so far, and my general knowledge of fairy tales, here are the steps in the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey. Notice that I’ve refined this list from the one I started with, in my original post.
1. The heroine receives gifts. Sleeping Beauty receives gifts from the fairies. Donkeyskin receives three dresses from her father and a ring from her mother. Cinderella receives three dresses and magical shoes from the hazel tree.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home. Donkeyskin leaves home to escape her father. The Goose-girl leaves home to be married. Cinderella loses her home when she is forced to live in the kitchen and sleep on the hearth.
3. The heroine enters the dark forest. Snow White runs away from the huntsman, though the dark forest. The dark forest grows up around Sleeping Beauty.
4. The heroine finds a temporary home. Snow White lives with the dwarves. Donkeyskin lives in the castle kitchen. Vasilisa lives in Baba Yaga’s hut.
5. The heroine finds friends and helpers. Snow White’s dwarves, Cinderella’s doves. The head of a dead horse, three old women by the roadside, the winds themselves — all sorts of people and things can be friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work. Donkeyskin cooks, Snow White and Cinderella keep house. The Goose-girl tends geese. Vasilisa works for Baba Yaga.
7. The heroine endures temptations and trials. Snow White is tempted with lace, a comb, and an apple. Sleeping Beauty is tempted by the spinning wheel. The heroine of “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon” must travel far to find her husband. In some stories, the trials involve climbing glass mountains or wearing through iron shoes.
8. The heroine dies or loses herself. Snow White dies, Sleeping Beauty falls into a death-like sleep. The Goose-girl is not recognized as a princess. Cinderella is not recognizes as herself (despite having danced with the prince for hours).
9. The heroine finds her true partner. Sometimes this is an entire subplot, in which the heroine must first lose and then find her true partner. I’m still working on this one, but in some stories the finding just happens (“Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty”), while in others it involves losing and a long search (“East o’ the Sun” being one example).
10. The heroine is revived or recognized. Dead heroines are revived (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty), lost heroines are recognized (Donkeyskin, Cinderella).
11. The heroine enters her true home. Usually, the true home is a castle.
12. The heroine’s tormentor is punished. She is made to dance in red-hot iron shoes, or her eyes are pecked out. Or she is turned into a living statue. Or rolled down the hill in a barrel filled with nails. The punishment is usually, actually or metaphorically, created by the tormentor herself.
That’s what it looks like right now, but I’m going to keep working through stories, trying to figure this out. It’s like a tale type: there are all sorts of variations, and yet you can see — or at least I can see — an underlying pattern in these tales. And that pattern is of a woman’s life.
The illustration is by Arthur Rackham.