Heroine’s Journey: Death and Disguise

At some point during the fairytale heroine’s journey, she dies. Or she’s in disguise: actually, it’s much the same thing.

You remember the fairytale heroine’s journey, right? I haven’t written about it for a while, because I’ve been so busy. But today I thought I would return to it. Here, in case you’ve forgotten, are the steps:

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 meets 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 now we’re on Step 8, and here the strangest thing happens, and it happens in so many fairy tales: the heroine essentially loses herself. Snow White dies from the apple and is laid in her glass coffin. Sleeping Beauty sleeps for a hundred years. Cinderella and Donkeyskin are disfigured by ashes and the donkey’s hide: no one knows who they truly are. The Goose Girl is disguised as a goose girl, of course. In “Six Swans” the heroine must stay silent for seven years. Rapunzel is in her tower, just as Sleeping Beauty is in her forest. Vasilisa is in Baba Yaga’s hut, which is a place of the dead. The heroine is immured, lost to the world in some way. And lost to herself. The exception is “Beauty and the Beast”-type tales, which includes “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.” In those tales, it’s the male love interest who dies or sleeps, who is lost. The heroine’s task is to find him, to recognize him — which as we will see is the next step. But in most of the tales I’m familiar with, it’s the heroine herself who dies or is in disguise for a while.

One of my hypotheses is that this pattern is so strong, it gets put onto fairy tales that didn’t originally contain it. So for example, oral versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” did not include Little Red being eaten by the wolf. “Little Red Riding Hood” is not part of this family of tales about a woman’s development, from birth to marriage. But in the Grimm version, we have the disguise: Grandmother is really the wolf. And we have the death: Grandmother and Little Red in the wolf’s belly. The logical outcome would be for Little Red to marry the Hunter, and I bet someone has written or will write that version, because in fairy tales, patterns have a way of playing themselves out.

But anyway, back to our dying, disguised heroines. Why do they die? Why must they lose themselves?

My theory is that fairy tales reflect a mishmash of old stories, customs, rituals . . . and of course history. All sorts of things went into the making of fairy tales. Medieval famines went into them, and myths went into them, and the patterns of ritual went into them. I think that’s partly what we have here. What this death and disguise reminds me of, more than anything else, is a rite of passage. That pattern was described by Arnold Van Gennep in The Rites of Passage, which I read in graduate school. Van Gennep studied rites of passage from all over the world and concluded that they all share a three-part structure: they all have a pre-liminal stage, a liminal stage, and finally a post-liminal stage. So what is “liminal”?

A “limen” is a threshold: it’s the thing you cross over when you step through a door. At least, if you’re doing it in Latin! In a rite of passage, the pre-liminal state is stable: it’s the stage you were at before things changed. The post-liminal stage is also stable. So, for example, in a rite of passage you might change from a boy to a man, or an unmarried girl to a married woman. (I use those examples because they are two of the most common, and yes, rites of passage are usually gendered.) The liminal stage, between them, is unstable. It’s dangerous: to the person undergoing the rite of passage, and to anyone connected to that person. It must be closely supervised, protected by ritual. As traditional societies know, to change is to be in peril, at least for a while. The typical plot of the Victorian novel is this: “a rite of passage goes awry.” Usually the rite of passage is marriage, and poor Jane Eyre is left at the alter in her ritual wedding gown. What she must undergo next is a symbolic death on the moors, sleeping on the earth as though in a grave. I think it’s important that Charlotte Brontë made Jane’s rite of passage not marriage, but communion with the earth, which is described as a great mother.

Back to our fairy tale heroine. It was once common for girls, as well as boys, to go through rites of passage. These tended to disappear over time . . . But the important thing, for understanding fairy tales, is that girls did once go through them, and the central stage of the rite of passage, the liminal stage, often involved a ritual death. Disguise was also a kind of death: young boys would be sent out into the wilderness, where they would ritually become animals. They were dead to the human community. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that just as society was losing so many of its traditional rites of passage, the color of a wedding dress changed. Yes, fashions were following Victoria, and white is the color of innocence, a virginal color . . . but it’s also the color of a shroud. I think that’s why in the West, white has stuck as wedding-dress color. A bride also looks like a corpse. So the girl undergoing a rite of passage is ritually dead, or ritually something other than what she is — she is in disguise.

That’s what we have in fairy tales: a memory, an echo, of the rite of passage.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? If these particular types of tales, the fairytale heroine’s journey tales, were about the progress of a woman’s life, they would include a rite of passage in which she changes from a girl into a woman. That’s exactly what we have in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Some scholars have seen these instances of being dead as examples of extreme passivity, but because they occur so frequently in fairy tales, and are not always associated with being passive, I would call them times of transformation. It particularly interests me that they’re often associated with hearths. The Goose Girl must crawl into a hearth and whisper her secrets before she is recognized. Cinderella’s disguise comes from the hearth. Donkeyskin works in a kitchen, next to the hearth. Why a hearth? Well, for one thing, the hearth is a sacred space. It’s where food is cooked, where what is inedible is transformed into the edible. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss identified the difference between raw and cooked as the central difference between primitive and civilized. The hearth is the symbol of civilization itself. It was once presided over by the goddess Hestia or Vesta, who is one of the most important goddesses of the classical pantheon. (We tend to forget her, because there aren’t a lot of stories associated with her. But in actual belief and ritual, Vesta was absolutely central. She’s the one to whom the Vestal Virgins owed allegiance, and they kept the sacred fire of Rome itself lit.) The hearth is where transformation happens, and it’s also a tomb. In ancient belief, life was most often seen as a cycle: before things were born, they had to die. The hearth is a symbol of that. And hearths were sometimes used for burials . . .

Is it all starting to make sense? What I haven’t yet touched on is what use we, as modern human beings, can make of this. Perhaps that has to wait for another post. But the important thing is that before she can reach her happy ending, the fairytale heroine has to die or lose herself in some way. Or, in the “Beauty and the Beast” variant I described above, she has to revive or recognize the man she loves. But more on that another time . . .

Snow White by Marianne Stokes

This painting of Snow White in her coffin is by the Austrian painter Marianne Stokes.

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5 Responses to Heroine’s Journey: Death and Disguise

  1. richardcambridge1970 says:

    Dora, I’ve been meaning to say I often find the fragrance of “Women Who Run with the Wolves” around your work. This entry reminded me of the way Clarissa Pinkola-Estes unpacked the many ancient and layered tales in her book. Here is a poem that came from reading it.

    The Woman, the Wolf, and I

    This morning, as I pushed off the steps and
    onto the street, a woman appeared parallel
    to me walking, a wolf in front of her, leading.

    She had on fur and I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t her own.

    She looked at me and smiled, then at the wolf
    and said something, and the wolf broke into a run
    and the woman broke after it, and I breaking also,
    running with the woman who was running with the wolf.

    • Richard, I love that! 🙂 And thank you, I’ve read Estes and while I can’t do quite what she does–I don’t have the training in psychoanalytic theory–I can do what I am trained in, which is look at these stories as a literary critic would. Hopefully someday it will turn into a book . . .

  2. richardcambridge1970 says:

    Dora, What I see unfolding with your sparkling posts is exactly that—a book…

  3. Again, I have to say beautiful — and, again, this resonates strongly with me. I’m excited by the idea that these fairy tales contain a girl’s rite of passage to woman-hood … and part of me says: well, of course it does. Isn’t that obvious? Not in the way you describe it. Please keep writing!

    • It does seem obvious in a way, but I think people have missed seeing a woman’s journey in these tales partly because they weren’t looking for one. We have such an assumption that only male heroes get journeys. Although the psychoanalytic critics do describe a sort of journey in them . . . We also often forget that many of the old tales contain clever girl heroines, not just beautiful princesses. Once you read enough of the tales, as I had to do to teach them, the patterns become clearer.

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