It’s been a while since I posted on the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey. What I’ve decided, in the last week, is that after I finish the book I’m currently writing, I’m going to write a book that brings together all the elements of the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey, and see if I can find a publisher for it. But in the meantime, I’m going to keep blogging about it, trying to generate the material from which I will write the book. That will allow me to think aloud, and also, if you want to, allow you to come on the journey with me.
Today I want to write about the fifth step in the process: The Heroine Meets Friends and Helpers.
In fairy tales that contains a heroine’s journey (not all of them do, of course), we usually find friends and helpers. Vasilisa the Beautiful has her doll, who helps her do the required chores in Baba Yaga’s hut. Snow White is most famous for the dwarves who help her out: in the Grimm version, they are simply seven dwarves, but Disney gives them names and personalities. He also adds the forest animals who help Snow White do housework in the dwarves’ house, and comfort her in the dark forest. (As we have seen, entering the dark forest is step three in the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey). In the Grimm’s version of “Cinderella,” Aschenputtel is helped by the birds that perch in the hazel tree growing on her mother’s grave. They help her sort lentils from the ashes, they give her dresses and shoes for the ball, and in the end, they peck out the stepsisters’ eyes. (Yes, I know, that’s such a harsh conclusion — why would friends and helpers do that? We’ll have to discuss the harsh conclusions of fairy tales later in the series.) In a Chinese Cinderella-type story, “Yeh-hsien,” the heroine is helped by a fish that she has fed and nurtured.
One thing we’re seeing so far is relationships of reciprocity: the dwarves take care of Snow White, and she keeps house for them. Aschenputtel cares for the hazel tree growing on her mother’s grave, and the birds in the tree help her. Yeh-hsien takes care of the fish, and even after her stepmother kills it, its bones give her clothes for the festival. The other thing we’re seeing is the power of a protective parent. Vasilisa’s doll was a gift from her mother. The hazel tree grows from Aschenputtel’s mother’s grave, and it’s clear that the gifts and protection come from her. In Perrault’s version of “Cinderella,” the fairy godmother has a parental relationship with the cinder-girl. She is, in a sense, a substitute mother figure. (Godparents did, indeed, have important roles in seventeenth-century France. They often provided what the parents could not, including financial help.) In “The Goose-Girl,” the heroine’s friend and helper is the horse Falala, whose head continues to speak even after it has been cut off. What that head does is confirm her identity: it’s the only entity that knows she is still a princess, not a goose-girl. And it’s also linked to her mother: as she passes the head each morning and evening, it says,
“Alas, young Queen, how ill you fare!
If this your tender mother knew,
Her heart would surely break in two.”
There’s a sense in which Falala speaks for the mother, who is not there to protect her daughter.
In “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” the heroine is helped by the three old women who give her golden objects, with which she can rescue her bear husband. She is also helped by the winds, who take her to that impossible place, where he is being kept by a troll queen and princess. In “Sleeping Beauty” we have the fairy who mitigates the curse of death. In the Basile and Perrault versions, we also have the cook who saves Sleeping Beauty and her children. In the Basile version, “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” a king finds and impregnates Talia (the Sleeping Beauty) while she is still asleep. She has two children, Sun and Moon. She wakes when the two children, seeking her breasts to suck, instead suck on her fingers and draw out the piece of flax that has been lodged under a nail. Once the flax is out, she wakes up again. The king’s wife (yes, he has a wife) finds out about Talia and is understandably jealous. She summons Sun and Moon to the palace, where she has them killed and served up to the king. Then she summons Talia, whom she plans to burn in a fire. At the last moment, the king finds out what has been happening and saves Talia. Then the cook confesses that he has saved Sun and Moon, who were not killed after all, and served the king ordinary meat instead. The queen is burned instead of Talia, and the king, Talia, Sun and Moon live . . . happily ever after? I don’t know, this is a depressing version, isn’t it? It’s very much of Basile’s time, the Renaissance: a tale of power struggle, violence and violation, cannibalism. Its basic structure resembles Greek tragedy or Jacobean drama, not what we’re used to in a fairy tale. For me, it’s a useful reminder that the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey, as it has come down to us, does not have a simple or purely positive history. That history contains messages about women’s lives that we will want to both examine carefully and potentially reject. That is why the journey is continually being rewritten. Perrault, making his version of “Sleeping Beauty” more respectable for a French aristocratic audience, turns the king’s wife into his mother, who is an ogress. She wants to eat the princess and her two children, simply because ogresses enjoy human meat. In this version, the cook saves all three of them. The Grimms take out this entire episode, ending with the kiss of true love and the marriage of prince and princess. Their version, “Briar Rose,” was revised specifically for children, so rape and cannibalism had to be taken out. (Although other tales in their collection are dark enough!)
In “Beauty and the Beast” we also have a fairy: no surprise, since it’s a French fairy tale. The French fairy tales are chock full of fairies, whereas the Grimms tried to take them out, deeming them too French . . . So in French versions, helpers are often fairies, whereas in other traditions, closer to the oral folktales, they are more likely to be animals or old women who are actually witches. (Lesson of the fairy tale: always be kind to old women or animals, because you never know what power they might have.) I don’t remember friends and helpers in “Rapunzel” or “Six Swans,” so they don’t necessarily appear in every story. But the pattern is clear enough that I think we can conclude finding friends and helpers is part of the pattern. And this is important: when these elements of the journey don’t appear in one version, they often appear in another. In Andersen’s “The Wild Swans,” the queen of the fairies helps Eliza, the girl whose brothers were turned into swans. She appears first as an old woman and then in her own beautiful form and tells Eliza how to break the spell. It’s as though this pattern is imprinted in us somewhere, and later storytellers will often add what is missing in earlier versions. So, for example, Disney added the three helpful fairies to his animated version of “Sleeping Beauty,” and he sent his Princess Aurora into the dark forest, although the only dark forest in earlier versions is the one that grows up around her.
I’ve spent a lot of time here talking about the tales, and not what they mean to use. But I think the lesson is that we need to find our own friends and helpers. Often, we find them when we need them most, in the dark forest, as Snow White did. If we can take some lessons from this portion of the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey, I would suggest the following:
1. When you’re lost and alone, in the dark forest (even if it’s a dark forest of the soul), look around for your friends and helpers. You might be surprised to find they’re there with you. Let them help you . . .
2. Give back, be a friend and helper yourself. Even if you’re the heroine, clean the dwarves’ house, take care of the magical fish. Reciprocate for the care and friendship you receive.
3. Never discount the friendship of animals or old women. They may help you when everyone else has turned away . . . And they might be a lot more powerful than you expect.
This illustration for “Cinderella” is by Margaret Tarrant.