I’m going back a bit. As you may remember, the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey looks like this:
1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.
3. The heroine enters 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 is in disguise.
9. The heroine is revived or recognized.
10. The heroine finds her true partner.
11. The heroine enters her permanent home.
12. The heroine’s tormentors are punished.
So far I’ve covered receiving gits, entering the dark forest, finding a temporary home, and learning to work. But I never dealt with that initial leaving or loss of home. Perhaps it’s too personal? This month, I’m putting together my second short story collection: gathering all the stories to be included, editing them, and writing a new one. That new one is probably the most autobiographical story I’ve ever written. And I’m finding it very hard to write, in part because it’s about loss. My childhood was a series of losses: when we left Hungary (I was five), I lost both my country and most of my family. Then we left Belgium, so I lost that country as well. Two languages lost: Hungarian and French. Even in the United States, we kept moving, so I don’t have a childhood friend I still keep in touch with. I lost them all.
I left my home and I lost my home, which may be one reason why fairy tales resonate with me. They are so much about leaving or losing home. Consider: Snow White leaves her home for the dark forest and loses it when she realizes the Wicked Queen is trying to kill her. Donkeyskin must leave her home because it is no longer a safe place: her father wants to marry her. The heroine of “Six Swans” is threatened by an evil stepmother, so she leaves too, for the dark forest. There are heroines who leave to be married, only to find out that marriage isn’t what they thought it would be: the Goose Girl leaves her home to be married to a king, but loses her identity in the dark forest and becomes a servant, for a while. The heroine of “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon” also leaves, to marry a bear. And that leaving is also a loss — when she does come home to visit, her mother advises her to spy on her bear husband, which leads to his disappearance and her long quest. Beauty loses her home when her father becomes bankrupt, then leaves her second temporary home to go to the Beast’s castle. Her return home is also dangerous, because she almost forgets him, almost loses him forever.
There are heroines who never leave home, but nevertheless lose it: Sleeping Beauty stays at home, but when she falls asleep and time passes, it transforms into the dark forest. When she wakes up, it is no longer the home she had: for one thing, in the Charles Perrault version, her parents did not fall asleep with her. They died long ago. She is now an adult and must fend for herself. Cinderella is famous for staying at home, but the home she knew is nevertheless lost to her when her stepmother reduces her to a servant in her own house.
Fairy tales heroines are always leaving or losing their homes. I suppose they have to: you can’t have an adventure if you’re still at home, safe, comfortable. In my class on fairy tales, I ask my students what Cinderella’s story would be like without the cruelty of her stepmother and stepsisters. Once upon a time, Ella’s father married a woman who was as good as she was beautiful, who became like a second mother to Ella. She had two daughters, also good and beautiful, and they loved Ella just as though they were her true sisters. The three girls grew up together, and when they were invited to the ball, her stepmother took her shopping and her stepsisters helped her get dressed. The prince fell in love with her, but her stepsisters were not jealous. Ella married the prince and invited her sisters to live with her in the palace. They all lived happily ever after. The End. My students laugh and are dismayed — we don’t like that story, they say. It’s boring. We can’t relate to it. No one is happy all the time.
They are asking for a heroine who suffers, because we all do, in our own ways. We can’t relate to a heroine who doesn’t. And if she doesn’t, the end becomes meaningless. Who cares if she eventually marries the prince, if she didn’t have to experience oppression and poverty for a while?
There’s a more important reason for leaving and loss in fairy tales, I think. We learn and grow through them. When Vasilisa is sent to Baba Yaga’s hut, she must learn how to fend for herself, respond to Baba Yaga’s anger, use her resources (including the magical doll her mother gave her). She shows her cleverness and also her worthiness — like Donkeyskin or the heroine of “Six Swans.” Donkeyskin responds to adversity by being clever, the heroine of “Six Swans” responds by being virtuous, self-sacrificing. That is how they earn their happy endings. Happy endings that just happen, without loss or distress, feel unearned. I think even in our own lives, we want that sense of having earned something, of having created or participated in our good outcomes. It feels hollow just to be handed “happily ever after.”
That doesn’t negate how horrible it can feel, leaving or losing home, in the real world. But one comfort fairy tales provide is the realization that only afterward can you learn and grow. That’s when the adventure begins. In “The Snow Queen,” Gerda’s quest for Kai is a journey during which she learns about the world, saves what she loves, and proves herself. That’s what we all do on our journeys, I think. Or what we should do . . . Gerda couldn’t do those things without leaving home, venturing out into a strange and dangerous world.
And fairy tales remind you that if you’re feeling a sense of loss, if you’re lost in the dark forest, if you’re surrounded by Wicked Queens or Kings who force you to spin straw into gold, it’s because you’re the heroine, and it’s a journey, and it will get better. And you’ll learn things along the way. Maybe even how to talk to animals . . .
The illustration is attributed to Florence Mary Anderson. Here are my previous posts on the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey:
The Heroine’s Journey
Heroine’s Journey: Snow White
Heroine’s Journey: Sleeping Beauty
Heroine’s Journey: Receiving Gifts
Heroine’s Journey: The Goose-Girl
The Heroine’s Journey II
Heroine’s Journey: The Dark Forest
Heroine’s Journey: Learning to Work
Heroine’s Journey: A Temporary Home