Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Blood Red Fairy Book

A lovely girl is left to tend the ashes at home while the mother takes her ugly sister to the ball at the king's palace. However, by magic the cinder-girl is dressed like a princess and transported to the ball where the handsome prince falls in love with her. When she disappears, all he has of her is a slipper and some other personal items. He vows to marry the one whose foot fits the slipper. Eventually the prince finds the cinder-girl, and they are wed.
    Sounds familiar enough, doesn't it? But in the version told (as “The Wonderful Birch”) in the first of Andrew Lang's famous color fairy books (The Red Fairy Book, first published in 1890) and identified as “Russo-Karelian” in origin there are certain further elements.
     Cinder-girl's mother is neither her birth mother nor her stepmother; she is a witch who turned the real mother into a black sheep and took possession of her body. The father didn't notice the swap; he “thought the witch was really his wife, and he did not know that the wife was the sheep.” At the witch's suggestion, he killed the sheep for dinner, but before it died it counseled cinder-girl, in her true mother's voice, not to eat of the meat or broth but to keep the bones and bury them at the edge of this field.
    This she did, and a birch tree grew at the spot in which the girl could commune with her mother’s spirit, which told her to lay birch branches over the hearth to work magic on the three nights of the royal entertainments. So cinder-girl appeared in glorious garments, winning the prince's heart, while the ugly sister gnawed bones like a dog under the banquet table. On successive nights the king, kicking without noticing what was under foot, broke her arm, her leg, and gouged out an eye.
     Despite these aesthetic challenges, when the prince comes looking for the girl who will fit the slipper (and a ring and a gold circlet) the witch files and cuts the ugly sister’s various appendages so she’s a match. The prince is obliged to keep his promise. But when cinder girl later appears and identifies herself in a whisper, he throws the witch's daughter over a ravine where she becomes a bridge from which a hemlock grows.
    Now prince and cinder-girl marry and have a baby boy. Do they live happily ever after? Not yet. The witch changes cinder-princess into a reindeer and inserts her daughter - released from the hemlock - into the prince's bed.
    Baby isn’t happy. A wise widow woman is consulted who advises that the baby should be carried into the forest, among the reindeer. He is nuzzled and nursed by his mother in reindeer form. Is she still lost to the prince? Not if the wise woman can trick her into taking off her reindeer skin - which the wise woman burns. Reindeer-woman shifts into other forms, all of which are burned, until she is obliged to stay human.
   Now witch and ugly sister flee and we may presume happy-ever-aftering...but, boy, how much violence and dark-side sorcery we had to go through.

How wild and primal is the world of the pre-Disney fairy story! The raw accounts of shapeshifting and dismemberment and the imaginal geography of ladders of bones, and talking trees, where a palace can fit inside an egg and an egg can open into a world, are in no way strange to the shaman, and appeal to the natural shamanism of children. While grown-ups marvel at the current vogue for vampires, witches and demons in children's literature, we see that this is not a novel phenomenon. Kids have always loved scary stories, and they used to be a lot scarier than in most popular fantasy today.
    My youngest daughter loved the color fairy books as she approached her teens, and we managed to acquire the whole set over the years, at a favorite used bookstore. She told me last night, “they got me through my difficult patch in middle school. They were my reading therapy, and they tuned up my imagination.” She has permitted me borrow the color fairy books, on condition that I “don't mess them up”.    
    Forests have been felled to publish books about what is going on in fairytales. You can read a sympathetic Freudian (Bruno Bettelheim) or reductionist ones, a legion of Jungians (commanded by Marie-Louise von Franz), or the Guild of the Goddess (who contend that fairytales are essentially women's work and come from a matriarchal past), feminists and anti-feminists, on and on. What counts is the stories themselves, best consumed neat and unbowdlerized. Transactional analyst Eric Berne rightly observes that the stories we remember are the ones that matter most to us.
    Our favorite fairytales are clues to our character and life history. Do you recognize anything of your own trajectory in the tale of a mother who was turned into a sheep and replaced by a witch? No? Then keep looking. When you have found the story that resonates with your life, you can claim it - or change it.

I first posted this article here in 2008. Re-posting because of related discussion of another Red Book, Jung's.


Jessica said...

this story has resonated with me through so much of my life. I love the Native American version The Scar Face Girl.
As a Waldorf Early Childhood teacher, I certainly agree with the idea that what really nurtures children are stories that are "truer than true" (a description a 5 yr-old once gave of fairy tales.)

Robert Moss said...

"Truer than true" - I love that child wisdom. Better even than Joseph Campbell's statement that a myth is something that never happened but is always going on.

Nancy said...

To the child in me, seeing the mother who treats me badly as "not herself" (literally in this case!), or possessed, or distracted, or acting out of her own childhood wounds, is comforting -- SHE'S not the one being mean to me.

Last night I dreamed about reaching down to caress a female infant, who almost leaped out of the cradle in pursuit of my hand when I withdrew it, she wanted so badly to be touched/loved. I told her mother "She really needs to be picked up" & the mother replied that she was too little & it wasn't safe.

My best remedy for this now is re-parenting myself, forgiving my mother (who after all did the best she could), & being loving to all children I encounter. Curiously, later in the dream I lost my car which could be my ka/energy body, & I certainly want to prevent this from happening in waking life!

Robert Moss said...

That's a touching thought, Nancy - that there may be comfort for the child in us to know that the adult who did harm (knowingly or not) was not his or her self. This may be part of the essential truth in fairytales. Yes, re-parenting ourselves may be essential to healing. Sometimes, too, we are called on to parent our parents.

Wanda said...

I loved Grimm's Fairy Tales when I was a child - I still have my volumes, pages yellow and somewhat brittle and old four leaf clovers still marking my favorite stories. The more terrifying the better. In fact the most terrifying of them got me through the equivalent of Middle School. Perhaps I thought that Vengence Terrible - in the guise of ghouls, night terrors, and monsters - would fall on some of the Princesses that were the bane of my existence in my pre-teen and early teen years. Ah, Hope springs Eternal. I loved the stories, the more horrible the better.

Carol said...

I loved the raw strength of this fairy tale. I've never been a princess. I think I am going to find some blood red fairy tale to make it through later middle age. Real life is not for the faint of heart, whether one be a child neglected, stuck in the culture of middle school, or whatever is currently tough.

Robin O'Neal said...

Do I recognize "sheep turned witch" in relationship to mother-daughter relationship? hello? Did we elect Obama to be our next president? Yikes. Yes, I see the sheep-witch in my own mother. I see her in myself. This is frighteningly astute, reaching into the core of something painful and disturbing. I know that's ultimately good, but right now, I'm not feeling it. Especially since it's just about time to put my head to the pillow and dream....
Robert, couldn't you just let a wounded daughter/mom/woman rest? ;-)

I'm kidding.;-) This is powerful stuff and, no matter what I dream tonight, I thank you for the provocation (or someday I will).

Robert Moss said...

Hey Robin, thanks for confirming the raw power of the fairytale in its un-cutesy original form. Who remembers that the good fairy who only appears at the end of "Jack and the Beanstalk" arranged for Jack to be conned into trading his poor mother's cow for a handful of beans to see if he had the wit to plant them, and then climb the giant beanstalk they produced, and then face and overcome the giant? Our real teachers set tests, and shock us awake!

Naomi said...

How interesting that you have used the word trajectory in your story, Robert.

I have been dealing with the issue of trajectory of my life as it was blunted and destroyed by my mother and father many years ago.

It took many dreams, anger, rage, forgiveness, understanding, re-parenting (which I am still doing) learning to love that angry child and adolescent and to understand her and to nurture her has been a difficult task. Primarily because I didn't want to see that I was wounded in my mother and father's house.

I'll never forget at a dream workshop in Santa Fe, an older woman whose hair was just coming in from chemo came up to me after I had related a painful dream, full of rage and anger.....she looked up to me and said "you must remember that you have to learn to dance in your own blood"...I will never forget her or her advice.

I'm dancing now.

Patricia said...

I had a marvelous late morning dream about going to a gathering of yours. The Robert in my dream looked like your face book picture. He had gorgeous brown eyes and his belly button looked funny. I had just brought some college friends from a campus I was at where there was an Odin’s hall. We meet in this most marvelous library for your gathering. It was filled with books, a toy making section and a science experimenting section. It had this balcony that over looked a spectacular landscape of a mountain whose stream came right to the library and greenery as green can be. Dream Robert had me stepping away from the science table to join his group in the children’s section where the balcony was. You read a most interesting fairy tale. Then we did theater that involved a big bad wolf that turned out to be the hero. On and on... including cloud gazing and meditation. I love the imaginal realm in dreaming. In ordinary time, yesterday after work I purchased The Little Prince and read to page 47 before I fell asleep. Have a marvelous day and may the winds be heartfilled in all that you do.

Patricia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patricia said...

Dear Robert,
I delete my PS comment. After seeing into the gorgeous brown eyes of two beautiful boys I work with friday I know I will be helping them in a nontraditional therapy way. One with a GI tube and the other with a scarred heart. If I am anything like the Robert character in this dream I feel extremely confident I will beable to make a difference in their lives. Honored to do the work. Sometimes it is work and I would not wish to play anyother way.

nance Thacker said...

I love that I typed in a comment about this entry on my I-phone (which took me quite a while) and then I couldn't get it to post because I couldn't remember my Google password.

Maybe it's because there was more to come...

Here's the comment: I agree with what Wanda said. I loved Grimm's Fairy Tales - the more gruesome the better. They were my favourite bedtime stories, and my Dad would be very animated when he read them to me.
On the flip side I also adored FRACTURED FAIRY TALES from the ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW. I picked up on how the real version was messed with and it delighted me no end to be in on the gag.

So, the next night at Gore Mountain a woman is recounting her dream as she stands underneath the moose head on the fireplace...her dream involves a flying squirrel...someone in the group shouts out, "Rocky and Bulwinkle".

I'm delighted that "somebody" was messing with me - it set the tone for a fun weekend!