08 Oct
Myth: Fairy tales are narratives about passive heroines.

Many people associate fairy tales with passive princesses and damsels in distress, and celebrate fairy-tale rewritings by writers and filmmakers from Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, and Margaret Atwood to Emma Donoghue, Catherine Breillat, and Marissa Meyers, among many others.

These re-writings, indeed, should be celebrated for their questioning of a certain conception of the fairy tale that emerged in the twentieth century. Walt Disney films had an important impact on how we understand the fairy tale today. Disney Studios took select tales penned by Charles Perrault and edited by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm to create their Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959), which set the trend for their princess films that remain, in ways I won't get into here, problematic. These adaptations fueled interest in these particular stories and these specific authors and editors. In France, for instance, the Grimms' "Snow White" was published as a stand-alone tale only after the 1937 release of the Disney film: the film made "Snow White" into a particularly popular tale.

However, the rising popularity of these tales and authors effaced the very important impact of fairy-tale writers like Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy (1651-1705), whose immensely popular tales were regularly adapted to the Parisian and the London stage in the nineteenth century, produced by celebrated playwrights like the Cogniard Brothers in Paris, and James Robinson Planché in London. Tales by d'Aulnoy adapted to the British stage include "The Bee and the Orange Tree" (Planché 1846; Byron n.d.); "The Benevolent Frog" (Planché 1851); "The Blue Bird" (Planché 1851); "The Fair One with the Golden Locks" (Planché 1844 with many representations); "Belle-Belle, or the knight Fortuné" (1815 panto; Planché 1843 with many further performances); "The Golden Bough" (Planché 1847); "Gracieuse and Percinet" (Planché 1844); "The Green Serpent" (Planché 1850); "The Doe in the Woods" (Planché 1852); "Princess Rosette" (Planché 1849); "The Princess Carpillon" (Planché 1854); "The Sprite Prince" (Planché 1847); one of d'Aulnoy's most celebrated tales, "The White Cat" (Kirby 1811; Planché 1848; Greenwood 1846; Burnand 1870; Leigh 1875; Blanchard 1877; Wood & Collins 1904); and another popular tale on the London stage, "The Yellow Dwarf" (Westmacott 1820; unknown 1829; Abeckett 1844; Pitt 1847; Greenwood 1851; Planché 1854; Roe 1868; Byron 1869; Reece 1878; Browne 1879; Hall 1880; Conquest & Spry 1897).

Evident from this summary of stage performances based on d'Aulnoy's tales is that her fairy tales were extremely popular in nineteenth-century England, as well as France (not to mention Germany, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Spain . . .). And many of her tales feature strong women: Aimée from "The Bee in the Orange Tree" cleverly saves her cousin Aimé from ogres; Belle-Belle is a crossdressed soldier who saves her kingdom; and the White Cat is a sovereign princess. In d'Aulnoy's tales, both women and men are qualified in terms of their beauty and their intelligence as well as their physical abilities. Often women and men are represented on equal terms: in animal bridegroom tales like "The Green Serpent" and "The Golden Bough," both prince and princess are cursed with ugliness and regain their beauty through trials put to them, often by powerful fairies; both female and male characters are similarly valued for their wit and their beauty. In the eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century in Europe, d'Aulnoy's tales remained at the very least as, if not more, popular than tales by Perrault and the Grimms.

As noted in earlier posts, we find powerful female characters as well in the works of the Italians Giovanni Francesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile: their Puss-in-Boots is a clever female cat, and female characters in both the frame narrative and the interpolated tales play important roles as storytellers and agents overcoming obstacles and propelling the narrative forward. Although tales by the early modern Italian and French storytellers often--but not always--conclude in marriage, it is not necessarily a conclusion in which the heroine is doomed to play a submissive role. D'Aulnoy's Beauty with the Golden Hair frees the hero Avenant from imprisonment, declaring: "I make you king and take you as my husband"; in d'Aulnoy's "The Ram," Merveille loses her beloved ram only to gain sovereignty over a kingdom she will rule independently; Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier's heroines Finette and Léonore/Marmoisan demonstrate advisory, diplomatic abilities and although not ideal, these heroines nevertheless are poised to play important roles in the governments headed by their husbands. Many early modern fairy tales cast heroines that are far more complex than any Disney heroine. It is important to keep in mind that the Disney princess is not a "reflection" of the history of fairy tales, but is a "creation" of a more passive, less complex brand of heroine launched in 1937.

It is also important to recognize that, in the case of tales by the Grimms, female agency is more complex than Disnified versions of their tales would suggest. And it should come as no surprise: a significant percentage of tales collected and edited by the Grimms were told to them by women informants. "The Frog King" was collected from one of the Wild sisters. In this version, the heroine refuses to submit to rules dictated by the male frog or her father; she resists obedience to male demands and it is only when she slams the frog against the wall out of anger and frustration--a grand gesture of disobedience--that she gets her prince, not through passive submission and a kiss (see Walter Crane's illustration of the scene above). "Hansel and Gretel," also from the Wild family, casts Hansel as the active agent in the first part of the tale, but Gretel demonstrates cleverness and agency in the second half to save the day. With respect to the Grimms' two Bluebeard-like tales, "The Robber Bridegroom" (told by Marie  Hassenpflug) and "The Fitcher's Bird" (told by Friederike Mannel and Dortchen Wild), the heroine proves courageous, enterprising, and quite capable of saving herself. As scholars like Maria Tatar and Ruth Bottigheimer have documented, Wilhelm in particular often toned down female agency in his edits to many tales. Nevertheless, the Grimms' corpus remains full of clever, enterprising heroines who save others as well as themselves.

Julie Koehler noted in an email communication with me that it is also important to recognize that German women writers, notably Benedikte Naubert (1752-1819) and Karoline Stahl (1776-1837), published fairy tales before and during the period of the Grimms; the brothers frequently mention Naubert's and Stahl's literary works in their notes to their tale collection. Importantly, Naubert and Stahl include many active heroines in their works. Hopefully more on the German women writers in another post!

The idea that "our" twentieth- and twenty-first conception of fairy tales is not "the" universal description of the genre is a mantra that will be repeated throughout these blog posts. It is important not to efface the voices of the many female and male writers and editors who proposed fairy-tale heroines who indeed are a far cry from the damsel in distress or the passive princess. Straparola, Basile, d'Aulnoy, and Perrault all contributed significantly to the evolution of the European fairy tale, and Perrault is in the minority for having created so many passive heroines compared to his contemporaries as well as the Grimms. Many different models of fairy-tale heroines were in circulation from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, providing the reading public and theater-goers a much broader conception of the fairy-tale princess than is the case today.

On the history of adaptations of d'Aulnoy's tales on the British stage, see H. Philip Bolton, Women Writers Dramatized. Mansell Publishing, Limited, 2000.

On the female informants of the Grimms' tales, see Jack Zipes's edition of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (2003), pp. 732-53.

See also the special of Marvels & Tales, New Directions in d'Aulnoy Studies 35.2 (2021), https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/marvels/vol35/iss2/

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