The Secret Life of … Cinderella

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In western literature, as we all know, Cinderella is the glass-slipper girl: the wistful stepdaughter who is forced to sit in the chimney corner, who attends the prince’s ball in frilly disguise with the magical help of her fairy godmother, and is later sought out by the lovelorn prince, whose only clue to her identity is a hurriedly-discarded shoe.

Let’s be honest: that story’s not very good. Some learned commentators have striven heroically to discern meaningful depths in it. You can judge the success of their efforts for yourself. On this blog, however, we view such attempts with some scepticism, and tend to agree with the reviewer who wisely summed up a recent movie version as “a retrograde fantasy with the depth of a dressing-up box.”

Curiously, however, in the same review, the same reviewer called the same movie “a traditional tale … well told.” A flatteringly competent telling of a weak story: that sums up the reviewer’s verdict. The reviewer drew this odd conclusion seemingly because he expected little enough from traditional tales – simply as such. But we know better. We know that, when it comes to folktales, you’re best advised to steer clear of the movies, and listen to the folk.

For, if ever a folktale had a secret life, it’s the tale of Cinderella. In the hundreds of known variants of the story, scattered over the world and through time, the heroine has been many things. She has been an orphan child, secretly helped by a wise beast, or magical tree, sent by her dead mother from beyond the grave. She has been a lonely, resourceful young woman running from an incestuous abuser. Sometimes “she” has been a boy, or a brother-and-sister pairing. The only thing she always is, is abused.

The first English version of the glass-slipper Cinderella was Robert Samber’s Cinderilla: or, The Little Glass Slipper, first published in 1729. This, of course, was a translation of a French story which is the basis, not only of Samber’s Cinderilla, but of all the Cinderellas in modern western literature and mass media: Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verrepublished in 1697 by Charles Perrault, a French civil servant. But Perrault was not the first European author to launch Cinderella into print. Shortly before he wrote, Finette Cendron was published by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville (better known, even today, by her aristocratic title: Madame d’Aulnoy). The same tale cropped up in Italian in the 1630s, as La Gatta Cennerentola (“The Cat Cinderella”), tale 6 in Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (“The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones”), by the Neapolitan courtier Giambattista Basile. Prior to that, the Cinderella story appeared in French in 1558 as a tale of “a young girl nicknamed Ass Hide,” tale 129 in extended editions of Les Nouvelles Recreations et Joyeux Devis (“Novel Pastimes and Merry Tales”) by Bonaventure des Périers, a French nobleman. And in 1501, half a century before the oldest of these tales was printed, a Strasburg preacher referred to the story in enough detail for us to recognise it by the description. From this we can infer that the story was current in Europe by the later Middle Ages at least.

Modern versions of Cinderella are derived from Perrault – mostly. For print and mass-media versions never killed the story off in oral tradition. Well over a century after Perrault wrote, the brothers Grimm included at least three Cinderella-style stories which seem unrelated to Perrault’s version. These are Aschenputtel, Allerleirauh (“All-Kinds-Of-Fur”), and Einäuglein, Zweiäuglein und Dreiäuglein (“Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes and Little Three-Eyes”). Over a thousand such versions are now available for systematic reference, and many mysteries about the story and its development remain to be explored. For the story has lived long and travelled hard. It may be going too far to say that the story is known literally all over the world, but it is very widely spread across Europe and the Middle East; India, China and the Far East; the colonial Americas, and elsewhere. Similar stories crop up in the world’s indigenous cultures. Some great variants are included in Angela Carter’s two flawed but essential Virago books of Fairy Tales. Even the English – with their notoriously sparse written record of native folktales – have contributed a good handful of Cinderellas to the record. These include Catksin, known from broadsides or cheap popular texts, and from a fragmentary version published in 1890 from one Isabella Barclay’s childhood recollection of a Cornish storyteller who worked as a servant; this story was tidied up and published by Joseph Jacobs in this versionTattercoats was also published by Jacobs, and by Mrs Balfour, who included in in the later 1800s as one of her Legends of the Cars (the Cars being the North Lincolnshire marshlands where she mainly did her research). Cap O Rushes was told in Suffolk in the mid-nineteenth century. A Romany variant, Mossycoat, was told by Taimi Boswell in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, on January 9th, 1915. Scottish storytellers, meawhile, were telling the tales of Rashin Coatie and Ashpitel.

Anyone who reads all these versions of the story will quickly discern an odd fact. The glass-slipper fairy-tale is only the second half of the story. Perrault seems eager to imply that nothing of interest happens before the ball, so many modern readers and listeners assume that it doesn’t. But it does. In the lost first half (or halves) of the story, there is cunning, trickery and disguise, double-dealing, anguish, revenge, and death, and also magic, reincarnation, and/or incestuous abuse. And this lesser-known material – let us note – is the oldest part of the story, the historical core of the tale. The ball and the glass slipper are afterthoughts, or elaborations. In moving centre-stage these details have weakened the story and blunted its edge.

This happens a lot.

Early studies of the Cinderella story, such as those of W. R. S. Ralston in 1879, tended to the then-fashionable view that the story was a broken-down memory of ancient pagan myth. But the biggest and most authoritative early study was that of Marian Roalfe Cox, who published her findings to international acclaim in 1893, under the snappy title of CINDERELLA: Three hundred and forty-five variants of CINDERELLA, CATSKIN, AND CAP O’ RUSHES, ABSTRACTED AND TABULATED, WITH A DISCUSSION OF MEDIAEVAL ANALOGUES, AND NOTES. Cox’s 600-page study (now out of copyright) compared over 300 versions of the Cinderella story. Cox made a point which is now a starting-block for Cinderella studies, which is that the mass of Cinderella stories fall into a handful of overlapping but distinct basic types.

Different scholars have different ways of labelling these types, but they describe the same basic range of stories. It’s worth noting them in a little detail. Firstly, there is the basic Perrault-style Cinderella – the girl who goes to the ball several times in several outfits, and is tracked down by a lost token (No. 510A in the ATU tale-type index). Secondly, there is a story of a girl who does something similar to this, but without magic help, while running disguised from an abusive father who may be trying to rape her. This harsher and less magical tale-type is indexed as 510B in the ATU system; in the Grimms’ collection, it appears as Allerleirauh (“All-Kinds-Of-Fur”); most of the English Cinderellas listed above seem to fall into this category, although the examples linked above avoid any mention of rape. Thirdly, there are stories of an abused girl (or boy) who is helped by a magical beast and/or tree; in the ATU index, this type is numbered 511. This third type may involve the trip to the ball (or equivalent), but it need not. It appears in the Grimms’ collection as Einäuglein, Zweiäuglein und Dreiäuglein (“Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes and Little Three-Eyes”), and by Scottish storytellers it is told as Rashin Coatie. The variety of folktale forms is as infinite as creative genius can make them, and many recorded tales fall between these categories or fail to fit them precisely, but in very broad terms the categories hold good wherever the tale has been told.

If Cox sorted the tales into types or categories, the next major study tried to explain how these broad types developed. Anna Birgitta Rooth’s 1951 The Cinderella Cycle took in around seven hundred variants of the tale. Among the oldest was a story which the Greeks and Romans knew. Strabo, a Greek geographer from what is now Turkey, who lived around the time of Christ, wrote a Geography which mentions (among other things) an Egyptian story of a courtesan, Rhodopis:

… when she [Rhodopis] was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals from her maid and carried it to Memphis; and while the king was administering justice in the open air, the eagle, when it arrived above his head, flung the sandal into his lap; and the king, stirred both by the beautiful shape of the sandal and by the strangeness of the occurrence, sent men in all directions into the country in quest of the woman who wore the sandal; and when she was found in the city of Naucratis, she was brought up to Memphis, became the wife of the king.

However, the oldest known story which can reasonably be called a complete version of Cinderella is the tale of Yeh-Hsien, written around 860 AD in China. The tale of Yeh- (or Sheh-)Hsein was told by Li Shih-Yuan, and noted down at his dictation by Tuan Ch’eng Shih. Tuan, the writer describes Li the storyteller as “a cave man of Yung Chow” who knew many of the “strange stories of the south.” Tuan himself was a junior government minister; he had previously been Li’s boss.

The Yeh-Hsien story came late to the attention of western scholars, mainly because they did not expect to find Cinderellas in China, and so they didn’t look for them, although there seem to have always been plenty. Japanese folklorists were aware of the story of Yeh-Hsien as early as 1911, but western scholars took scant notice of it until 1932, when R. D. Jameson, a languages professor at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, gave a lecture on it. It was published in English by Arthur Waley in Folklore in 1947.

The heroine of Li’s story, Yeh-Hsien, is abused by her stepmother, who ends by killing her pet fish. A mysterious man tells her where the bones of the fish are buried. At his prompting, Yeh-Hsien prays to the bones, which give her fine clothes, so that she can attend a festival, but leaves a shoe behind in her haste to make home before her stepmother notices her absence. The tiny, delicate shoe is found and sold to a distant ruler, who, stricken with desire, embarks on a search for its owner. He finds and marries her and all ends happily.

With one important qualification (which we’ll come to in a bit), the story of Yeh-Hsien is a straightforward example of the basic old animal-helper type, examined by Cox and Rooth and indexed as ATU type 511. The fish is the “fairy godmother” or magical helper; in other versions of type 511, the function is fulfilled by a bull, goat, sheep or other animal. Stories of this type often seem to imply, or state, that the wise beast is an emanation of the girl’s dead mother, continuing to watch over her lonely and struggling child even in death. This link between the dead mother and the magical helper is made more explicit in an Egyptian version recorded by French scholars (in French), where the orphans – brother and sister, in this case – plead with the cow: “O Cow, be kind to us as our mother was kind to us.”

— Ô vache, sois bonne pour nous comme notre mère était bonne pour nous.
Et la vache leur donnait de bonne nourriture …

The link is made even more explicit in the Scottish Rushen Coatie:

A queen with a daughter died. On her deathbed, she told her daughter that a red calf would come to her, and she could ask it for help.

In the Russian “Wonderful Birch Tree,” in which the mother is turned into a sheep and slaughtered by the evil stepmother, and counsels her daughter before dying:

“Eat you neither the meat nor the broth that is made of me, but gather all my bones, and bury them by the edge of the field.”… She [the daughter] did not touch the soup, but she carried the bones to the edge of the field and buried them there; and there sprang up on the spot a birch tree — a very lovely birch tree.

Rooth argued that this tale of the dead mother’s magical help was the original core of the story. Her evidence was the present-day distribution of tale-types and details, to which folklorists look for clues regarding the long-term development of the story. At first, she said, there wasn’t even a marriage at the end: a dead mother sends miraculous help to her orphaned child, in the form of a wise beast and/or a magical tree … and that’s it. Even the marriage episode, which ends so many forms of the tale, was a later addition. Rooth believed that the story in this form first took shape somewhere in Asia, long before it was first recorded in writing. It then spread outwards. One tradition spread towards China and the Far East, eventually producing the story of Yeh-Hsien. Another spread in the opposite direction, through an important pivotal point of transition in the Middle East. Only after all this had happened did the earliest extant texts enter the written record. The Middle Eastern versions of the tale then spread to Europe from the south-east through the Balkans.

Rooth believed that the story’s route into Europe was complex and many-stranded. She found the old animal-helper tale spread across Europe in its unaltered form, leading to the examples we have mentioned, such as Little One Eye… and Rashin Coatie. But she also argued that the storytellers of long ago had already cut-and-stitched the animal-helper tale to another originally separate tale, which was also Eastern in provenance and was rather similar to the Rhodopis legend. This story told how a beautiful but mysterious woman is identified by means of some item which she has discarded while leaving a feast or public festival. By such means the old storytellers created a new story as a composite of two old ones, and, for the first time, Cinderella got to go to the ball – so to speak. You will already have noted that the story of Yeh-Hsien is actually an example of this composite type (I told you there was a catch about the Yeh-Hsien story as an example of the animal-helper type). However it happened, the newer composite story now spread into Europe from the Middle East, just like the older one, leading to tales such as the haunting Norwegian Kari Trestakk (“Kari Woodencoat“). If Rooth is right, the glass-slipper Cinderella would seem to derive from this form, having retained nothing of the animal-helper section, beyond the vague premise that the girl is suffering abuse at home, at the hands of her family, or step-family.

However, as we have seen, a still more radical development took place at the Middle Eastern crossing point, leading to the later, darker and more realistic complex of tales represented by the Grimms’ Allerleirauh (“All-Kinds-Of-Fur”), and by the more muted stories of overbearing fathers, linked above. These more muted forms often revolve around the famous motif of the father who demands that his daughters declare how much they love him – and then punishes the youngest daughter for answering the question honestly, by telling him (for example) that she loves him like salt. The common theme running through these stories is father-daughter love gone bad. The daughter often gets scant assistance from her dead mother either – in fact, there may be no explicitly magical or supernatural element to the story at all. The girl tends to flee her father and trust to luck, and the stories then proceed more or less in the familiar fashion through disguise and double-dealing to recognition and a (more or less) happy ending. The story of king Leir, which forms part of the Matter of Britain and inspired Shakespeare, is, of course, a story of this type, with Cordelia as the Cinderella character and Regan and Goneril making a very effective pair of ugly sisters.

Rooth’s argument therefore defines four basic versions of the story, in the west at least, besides Perrault’s glass-slipper Cinderella. Oldest is the basic animal-helper type, revolving mainly around the magic tree. Next is the composite type, in which the girl with the animal helper ends up going to the ball in disguise. Last come the more realistic tales of a loveless and/or abusive father. If Rooth is right, the earliest forms of the story involve an element of witchlike, almost shamanic magic which gradually fades from later versions. The action of the later versions is more rationalised; the characterisation is more rounded; and I personally suspect that it’s no coincidence that these versions seem to have entered Europe via the old, settled, literate, urban civilisations of the Middle East, which already had long traditions of philosophical scepticism towards old myths and primitive superstitions – traditions which are part of their legacy to the modern world.

So Cinderella is not really a story about going to a ball at all – simply as such. It’s a story about survival. It’s about living by your wits, in worlds where friends are strange and few, but love can be stronger than death. It is usually very hard to know who told any particular version of a folktale, when or where or why. Often they were told to very mixed audiences in a wide variety of settings. But if you want my guess, the essence of Cinderella – the core of emotional energy which enabled the story to endure and spread with such extraordinary prodigality – is a woman’s account of coming of age in an inhospitable, harshly patriarchal world. It recounts the threats and opportunities confronted by girls and young women: the elemental quality of mother-love; the risk of abuse in the workplace and the home; the tactical value of keeping up appearances; the search for a marriage partner. The tale recounts these things with the authoritative voice of one who has learned them all the hard way, supportively addressing a listener who hasn’t – yet. In this respect it may be noteworthy that many of the stories’ original tellers were older women – and so, of course, were the two major scholars of the tale whose work I have cited at length in this post.

Small wonder, then, if such a story has been rendered down to “retrograde fantasy” for children in the worlds of literature, learning, and lights-camera-action, to the point that many who inhabit such worlds have sincerely forgotten that Cinderella was ever anything else. Official and public arts and media are still not that glad to hear a genuinely authoritative female voice; particularly not from an under-privileged background. Such a voice is Cinderella’s, so the editors went to work on it early and thoroughly, and they are busy still today. The signs were all there in Charles Perrault’s work: Perrault passed over the more recent and realistic tales, and selected a supernatural story of a kind which his readers were probably already predisposed to regard as fairly pathetic; he then went on to render it actually pathetic by cutting-and-pasting a genteel fairy godmother over any lingering memory of actual wild enchantment, and pimped what was left with winsome stylings like pumpkin coaches and lizard footmen. We have lived with the results for three centuries, and respected interpreters of the fairy tale have solemnly claimed to find meaning in the “retrograde fantasy with the depth of a dressing-up box.” Perhaps they have. But “a traditional tale … well told”? For that, nowadays, we must dig a little deeper. If we do, we can unearth some dark, forgotten, and sometimes terrible treasures.

Postscript: The Glass Slipper

If you’ve read this far in the hope of finding out whether Cinderella’s glass slipper was really made of glass – apologies, and congratulations on your persistence. There is a popular theory that it was ermine; but in fact the answer is yes, it probably was glass after all. The ermine theory is grounded in the fact that “glass slipper” in Perrault’s French is pantoufle de verre, and verre sounds like vair (“ermine”), so possibly Perrault (or someone) misheard the word. This is quite a sensible suggestion really. After all, ermine really was used to make shoes. Glass slippers are rare in oral traditional versions of Cinderella. They occur in only six of Marian Roalfe Cox’s 345 versions. Some of these versions are not French, so the confusion could not have arisen independently in these stories, and we can be confident that the storyteller meant glass. But this may show the influence of Perrault’s version in which the mistake would already have been made. Also, fur slippers are obviously more practical than glass ones.

But in fact there is no actual evidence to support the view that Perrault mistook the word. French was his first language, after all. More to the point, marvellous glass objects – not only shoes but mountains, trees, towers and the like – are common enough in folktales to make it needless to explain away the glass slipper. Folktales aren’t sensible, and this sensible suggestion lacks purchase. Glass it is. Not very practical – but, then again, Perrault wasn’t planning on actually wearing the damn things himself … was he?

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The Secret Life of … Goldilocks and the Three Bears

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Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a nursery tale. That is to say: it is one of the relatively few examples of oral-derived narrative which really does preach to children (or at least seek to entertain them), as ‘fairy tales’ in general are commonly, but mistakenly, assumed to do. Perhaps relatedly, this story’s credentials as a genuine oral folktale have been questioned. There is reason to doubt them, in fact, but the story is an eclectic and intriguing mix of elements.

In the form in which you probably know it best, it certainly originated as a modern literary fairy tale. It was first published anonymously by the poet Robert Southey (seen here around the time he was writing it). He called it ‘The Story of the Three Bears.’ This tale appeared in The Doctor in 1837, and quickly became so popular that, in effect, it was adopted into tradition and became an authentic folktale.

It is interesting and salutary to note the changes which the story thereby underwent. Since Southey’s days, at least, the bears have always been three in number – one large, one middle-sized, and one small. They have always lived in a house furnished with appropriately-sized beds, chairs and the like; and, of course, they have tended to eat porridge. But in Southey’s original, for example, the intrusive protagonist was not a young girl at all, but an unpleasant, interfering old woman. And Southey’s bears are all male, and most tellingly, his sympathies were firmly with them, ‘for they were good Bears – a little rough or so, as the manner of Bears is, but for all that very good-natured and hospitable.’ His ‘impudent, bad old woman’ is not a heroine, or a potential victim of the bears’ vengeance; she is a nuisance.

Southey’s tale was immediately seized on for adaptation by other authors. In the years which followed, it was rewritten repeatedly for eager audiences, becoming the tale we recognise today. The first author to make the proganist a young girl was apparently Joseph Cundall, a pioneer publisher of children’s books and also notable as a pioneer photographer; he did it for his 1849 Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children.

Cundall gave the little girl silver hair and a name to match – fashionable choices for Victorian heroines – and this set the trend for half a century or so; he also seems to have been the one who turned the middle bear female. Later in the century (in 1878, according to Katharine Briggs), the bears were finally outed explicitly as the now-familiar father, mother and baby bear. The heroine’s golden hair emerged later (in 1889, according to Katharine Briggs). and the name Goldilocks followed. By now, the reader’s sympathies were now presumed to lie at least partly with the heroine. The story, in fact, had come to resemble other cautionary tales with a toehold in oral tradition, tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, in which another heedless young heroine encounters a monstrous adversary, and wises up just in time to escape the consequences of her thoughtless actions.

While it is certainly striking to reflect that dear little Goldilocks began her literary career quite recently, as a crabby, villainous old woman, much of the real interest lies in the tantalising hints about the secret life which her story lived in oral tradition before Southey got hold of it. The emphasis here is on hint: the story’s apparent absence from oral tradition once prompted the assumption that Southey simply make the whole thing up.

But this Southey probably did not do. For one thing, when he published the tale in 1837, a version of it had already been committed to writing. This was not published till years afterwards, but it is preserved in a private collection in Toronto Public Library – a well-established modern mecca of children’s literature and library storytelling. This text was written in 1831 as a present for a young relative, by Eleanor Muir. Southey himself had apparently been telling the story for years before he wrote it up, and his contemporaries tended to speak of the tale as being already fairly well-known before he introduced it to a mass readership. The Opies, meanwhile, record that Southey learnt the tale as a child from his uncle, William Tyler; we don’t know where Tyler learned the story, but we have grounds for a guess, thanks to one very interesting clue thrown up – many years after Southey published the story of the Three Bears – by the prolific Jewish-Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs, or, more rather, by his illustrator, John Batten.

Batten – an equally prolific illustrator of folktale and fairytale collections – contributed a story to Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales of 1894 (Jacobs had included Southey’s story of the Three Bears in a previous volume of English Fairy Tales). Batten’s story, ‘Scrapefoot,’ is recognisable as a version of the story of the Three Bears in which the protagonist is neither a little girl nor an old lady but – get this, right – a fox.

In Batten’s story, Scrapefoot the fox steals into a castle inhabited by three bears (of indeterminate family status). Like the bears themselves, everything in the castle is graded in order of size, as you might expect. Scrapefoot tries everything for size, breaks things, steals the bears’ milk (not porridge), and falls asleep. The bears return and the famous ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’-style investigation ensues. Scrapefoot is discovered and threatened with punishment (including hanging and drowning); finally, the bears throw him out of the window, and he escapes, older and wiser but unharmed. Clearly this is the same story as the tale of Goldilocks. But Goldilocks has no part in it, even in her original guise as an old woman.

Instead, there’s a mother-freakin’ fox.

How come?

Well, Jacobs argued that in the story of Scrapefoot he had discovered a version of the original oral story on which Southey’s tale of the Three Bears had been based. Southey, he argued, had taken a real folktale about a fox and three bears, and replaced the fox with a little old lady.

This is not as as bizarre an idea as it might sound. Folktales about a fox and some bears are exactly what we might expect to find in the storytelling traditions of modern Europe; the mid-nineteenth century is maybe a bit late to go looking for them, but not too late.

Generally, indeed, tales of beast-like beings with human characteristics (such as the power of speech) are among the most widespread and fundamental types of oral narrative in the world. From ancient times, the most popular form of such stories in European tradition was the animal-fable. Prominent among European animal-fables from the Middle Ages onwards was ‘the early Bear and Fox tale-cycle,’ as the folklorist Katharine Briggs called it. Jacobs in fact regarded the tale of the Three Bears as ‘the last survival’ of the cycle ‘in English folk tradition.’

To give Jacobs’ argument its full weight, we need to backtrack for a rather sweeping survey of human development. The oldest artworks from prehistory include half-human, half-animal figures. Such figures seem to have had an importance in early communities which is hard to overestimate. Hybrid animal-human beings appear in the mythic iconography of many of the earliest civilisations – think of all those animal-headed Egyptian gods. Down to modern times, such figures have continued to bulk large in indigenous myths and tales, with their irrepressible and unforgettable gallery of demiurges or world-creators, tricksters and culture-heroes: such as Raven, Iktomi, Kweku Anansi, Blue Jay, Grandmother Spider, /Kaggen the Mantis, and countless others. Not least, such figures feature widely in the oral learning of the American First Nations, one of the most intensively researched indigenous cultures of modern times. There is something about the idea that seems to be almost hard-wired into our consciousness; as discussed elsewhere on this blog, it seems to relate to the tendency which myths have to invest everything which they discuss with sentience, consciousness, and motivations similar to those which drive human beings. Animals, of course, are conscious beings with motives resembling those of humans, and there’s a fun illustration here of the sort of animal behaviour which might be easily observed and serve as an inspiration for storytelling.

But the animal-tale did not retain its mythic status in younger civilisations, and it has not remained quite so central to the religious thought of the western or Muslim worlds, or India, or China. Nevertheless, these younger civilisations have sustained their habit of reference to animal-human hybrid figures as icons of wisdom, or at least of common-sense, up to and including satire of human foibles and pretentions. The expression of this was in their sustained appetite for animal-fables. Aesop’s fables are the best known animal-fables in the west. Indian collections such as the Panchatantra are vastly more extensive. In Europe, from the Middle Ages onwards, animal-fables remained a common and popular literary form, adopted by such poets as Chaucer, Henryson and Lafontaine.

Scholars gather stories of such characters – as much for convenience as for any other reason – into cycles. One good example, relevant to our theme, is the great African Hare cycle, which seems to have crossed the Atlantic with its storytellers in the course of the American slave deportations, and fetched up in the southern US in adapted form as the Bre’r Rabbit cycle, and in the Caribbean in the tales of B’Booky and B’Rabby, and so forth. Directly or indirectly, these traditions may even have informed the creation of cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote, for today, of course, human-animal hybridity remains a standard characteristic in fantastic tales for children and adults, from the Chronicles of Narnia to Planet of the Apes.

The Bear and Fox cycle is part of this vast web of story. Bear and Fox tales are widely known – the famous story of how the bear lost his tail is among the more popular ones around the world today, and is a good example of the genre. There is no scope here for a full account of the cycle and its related scholarship, but tales of Reynard the Fox were a mainstay of oral and literary storytelling in medieval Europe in more or less the way that tales of King Arthur were. Relatedly, centuries later, the cycle was the subject of a massively important case-study in the history of folktale scholarship: Kaarle Krohn‘s groundbreaking 1888 doctoral thesis, Bär (Wolf) und Fuchs: Eine Nordische Tiermärchenkette (Bear (Wolf) and Fox: A Nordic Animal-Tale Chain), which made its author’s career as a professional scholar and inspired generations of folklorists to study folktales in terms of its famous (and famously demanding) comparative or historical-geographical method.

This is the wider context of the Reynard cycle of which the tale of the Three Bears may once have formed a part. And if Jacobs was right, and the story of the Three Bears ‘belongs,’ as Katharine Briggs puts it, ‘to the early Bear and Fox tale-cycle,’ then the tale of Goldilocks is not a modern literary fairy-tale or phoney folktale at all; it’s oral narrative royalty.

In some respects Goldilocks and the Three Bears does fit surprisingly well within the vast mosaic of animal-myth and -fable. Like the tale of Goldilocks, such tales admit no real distinction between the human and natural worlds: animals, humans, and indeterminate or hybrid beings live, converse and interact in community alongside one another. Their stories revolve around conflicts or rivalries within this chaotic, mixed-up world between vividly-drawn stock characters, which show a preoccupation with the basics of life, such as home, food, safety and danger, and often dwell on the consequences of immoral, tabooed or ill-advised behaviour. All these things are as true of the tale of Goldilocks as they are of the exploits of the African Hare, or the Egyptian Seth, or Luma-Luma, the unforgettable whale-man-culture-hero of the Kunwinjku people of northern Australia.

We should not forget that Joseph Jacobs may have simply been wrong to suspect that the tale of the Three Bears was ‘the last survival of the Reynard cycle in English folk tradition.’ For one thing, if Southey heard a story about a fox and some bears, why did he change the identity of the central character? There seems to be no entirely convincing answer. It has been suggested that the young Southey misunderstood his uncle’s reference to a ‘vixen,’ taking it as a slangy reference to a nosy old lady. This strikes me as contrived and unconvincing. So perhaps we have to remain agnostic. But there is something about John Batten’s story of Scrapefoot the fox. Reading it leaves me with the strong impression that Jacobs may have been right. If he was, then it follows that the three bears can claim a surprisingly wild and exalted lineage.

I grew up with Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I can still vividly remember my terrified fascination at the thought of the three great bears, wronged and vengeful in their sunny little cottage. Jacobs suggests that their lumbering, shadowy presences hint at what the doll-like figure of Goldilocks conceals: a link with dreams and understandings which have haunted the human mind for so long that the whole of history seems a mere afterthought by comparison. Do the Three Bears really have roots that stretch through the long, tangled web of medieval fables to the animal-myths of prehistory?

We’ll never really know. But the idea, as an idea, strikes me as surprisingly resonant. Resonant enough to seem persuasive. No wonder Goldilocks scarpered.

The Secret Life of … Rapunzel

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I first knew the story of Rapunzel from the 1968 Ladybird Books version, Well-Loved Tales series, by Vera Southgate, illustrated by Eric Winter. It is, as we all know, the story of a young woman who escapes from a witch by pulling a prince up to her tower prison on her long tresses. What I didn’t realise at the time was that this tale of letting your hair down seems to have been somewhat buttoned up over time.

The Ladybird story begins with a barren wife longing for “salad” from a neighbouring witch’s garden – the salad in question being clearly lettuce, by the look of the illustration. The husband goes to steal the witch’s lettuce and the witch catches him. The witch and the husband do a deal: the husband’s life in return for the daughter which the witch knows the couple are about to have. The witch gives her foster-daughter the exotic name Rapunzel and she grows to be extraordinarily beautiful. On turning twelve, Rapunzel is shut by the witch in a high tower without doors. After that the witch is her only visitor, climbing up and down the tower on Rapunzel’s long tresses, which she hangs out of the window on request. A prince overhears Rapunzel’s singing and discovers how to get into the tower by watching the witch. After a while, the couple plan to escape together by weaving a silken ladder. But a careless word from Rapunzel alerts the witch, who then banishes Rapunzel, cutting off her tresses and fixing them to the casement of the tower so that everything will appear as normal from the outside. That night, the prince, suspecting nothing, climbs the tresses. The witch confronts him. In despair he leaps from the tower, blinding himself on the thorns below. After long wandering through a desert, the blind prince is drawn once again by Rapunzel’s singing. Rapunzel’s tears restore the prince’s eyesight. They all live happily ever after.

The Ladybird book does not give a source of this story, but “Rapunzel” is, in fact, the twelfth story in Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children and Household Tales) – the famous Grimms’ fairy tales, which appeared in numerous editions between 1812 and 1857. Grimm’s tales were being translated and freely adapted in English from the 1820s onwards, and “Rapunzel” has been a favourite of English readers ever since. The Grimms, however, did not invent the story either; nor, apparently, did they take it directly from traditional oral storytellers. A similar story, “Die Padde,” was published in the same year as the Grimms’ first volume, in Johann Gustav Büsching’s Volks-Sagen, Märchen und Legenden (Folk-Sagas, Tales and Legends) (Leipzig, 1812). The Grimms, however, seem to have taken the story from another German writer, Friedrich Schultz, who had included it twenty years earlier in his collection of Kleine Romane (Little Romances) (1790).

Schultz, however, was not the author either. He was adapting a literary story written in French a century before by a disgraced lady-in-waiting at the French court, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. Marina Warner writes that Mlle de la Force married without the consent of her husband’s family. Her husband’s family broke up the marriage, she ran into other trouble at court for writing poetry that was considered blasphemous, her court pension was stopped, and she had to enter a convent to escape destitution. Here, as an apparently reluctant nun, she wrote Les Fées, Contes des Contes (The Fairies: A Tale of Tales (?)) (1692), a cycle of stories told, Arabian Nights-fashion, within the context of a larger frame-story. One of these tales was “Persinette.” Persinette’s mother craves a forbidden savoury herb in a witch’s garden: not lettuce or salad, however, but parsley (persil). The baby is taken by the witch in exchange for the herb, named after the herb itself, and imprisoned in a tower. Mlle de la Force clearly had personal reasons for interest in a tale like this. Like her heroine, she was kept forcibly from her lover; unlike her heroine, she seems never to have escaped.

However, Mlle de la Force’s story was not the earliest “Rapunzel”-like story either. “Persinette” closely resembles the Italian “Petrosinella,” the first tale on the second day in Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone (1634 – 6), a tale of tales sixty years older than Mlle de la Force’s. While pregnant, Petrosinella’s mother, Pascadozia, is overcome with craving for parsley from an ogress’ garden. She makes the usual bargain with the ogress. Petrosinella is born with a parsley-shaped birthmark on her breast, which gives the worldly and sardonic Basile scope for plenty of bawdy humour later on in the story, when the heroine as it were serves herself up to her lover already garnished with a sprig of parsley. Basile gives a clue where to look next, in making it clear that the inspiration of his story is oral tradition: the age-old practice of oral storytelling, often by women, especially old working women, which educated readers and writers usually first encountered through listening to their nurses’ and servants’ tales in childhood.

All these stories, from Petrosinella to Rapunzel, are literary renditions of the oral folktale-type known to folklorists as The Maiden in the Tower. Once the story is traced back beyond Basile to oral tradition, it becomes quite impossible to keep track of the chain of transmission; The Maiden in the Tower is known in Lithuanian, Irish, French, Catalan, Flemish, German, Italian, Sicilian, Serbocroatian, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean variants. The individual motifs or segments of the story are more widespread still in the worlds’ narrative traditions: one version of it, of course, is the nineteenth-century Irish folktale of the birth of Lugh Lamfhada to the captive maiden Eithlinn – a personal favourite story of mine.

I’d always assumed that the name Rapunzel was just a meaningless fairytale-princess sort of a name. In fact, in the German, rapunzel is the name of the stolen herb which starts the story off, and the implication is that the herb has something directly to do with the gestation and birth of the heroine who bears its name. The Grimms’ 1837 story, for example, begins with the wife not barren, as in the Ladybird book, but already pregnant:

 

Es war einmal ein Mann und eine Frau, die wünschten sich schon lange vergeblich ein Kind, endlich machte sich die Frau Hoffnung der liebe Gott werde ihren Wunsch erfüllen.

 

Once upon a time there was a husband and wife who for quite some time had been wishing in vain for a child. Finally, the dear Lord gave the wife a sign of hope that their wish would be fulfilled.

 

In context, then, the husband’s theft seems to be prompted by his wife’s pregnancy cravings, and the theft happens exactly because of the impending birth of a child. This adds point to the angry witch’s insistence on the child as the price of the husband’s life:

 

»verhält es sich so, wie du sagst, so will ich dir gestatten Rapunzeln mitzunehmen so viel du willst, allein ich mache eine Bedingung: du muβt mir das Kind geben, das deine Frau zur Welt bringen wird … « … und als die Frau in Wochen kam, so erschien gleich die Zauberin, gab dem Kind den Namen R a p u n z e l, und nahm es sich mit fort.

 

“If it’s truly as you say, then I shall permit you to take as many rapunzel as you like, but only under one condition: when your wife gives birth, I must have the child … “ … and when his wife had the baby, the sorceress appeared at once. She gave the child the name Rapunzel and took her away.

 

Later on, in the Grimms’ 1837 text, the prince proposes marriage to Rapunzel on first sight, and Rapuzel’s reaction is hardly dithering:

 

und als … sie sah daβ er jung and schön war, so dachte sie »der wird mich lieber haben als die alte Frau Gothel«, und sagte ja, und reichte ihm ihre Hand.

 

and when … she saw that he was young and handsome, she thought, He’ll certainly love me better than old Mother Gothel. So she said yes and placed her hand in his.

 

By contrast, the courtship is a very cautious and decorous affair in the Ladybird book:

 

So, for many months, the Prince visited Rapunzel every evening and they grew to love each other. After a while the Prince asked Rapunzel to marry him and she replied, “I will gladly do so.”

 

Much of the point of the Grimms’ 1812 version revolves around an erotic pun: in the German, there is a double meaning in the Prince being “pulled up” every evening by his beloved Rapunzel, and, perhaps inevitably, the Grimms’ Rapunzel is already pregnant by the time she leaves the tower. In the 1812 version, her giveaway remark to the witch involves asking why her clothes no longer fit her, and by the time the lovers are reuinted in the desert at the end of the story, she already has twin children in tow. In the Ladybird book, of course, there is none of this. On the eve of her escape, the very chaste Rapunzel only gives the game away by asking why the witch feels heavier on her famous tresses than the Prince, and in the final scene there are, accordingly, no twins. The Grimms’ 1837 text of “Rapunzel” is much closer than the Ladybird book to Basile’s erotic story of Petrosinella, and even the Grimms’ 1837 text was much more cautious in this regard than their own earlier texts of the same story. The whole story was originally erotic, and it’s worth bearing in mind that disguising this fact removes a whole layer of symbolic meaning, relating to the herb which the expectant mother craves and which, in the earlier versions, gives the heroine her name.

What exactly is rapunzel? It’s a herb, all right, but there seem to be several possibilities as to which species of herb is meant. English-language authors such as Marina Warner tend to think of Rapunzel as rampion. This is not unreasonable. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rampion – not the round-headed rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare) or the spiked rampion (Phyteuma spicatum), but the closely related rampion bellflower (Campanula rapunculus) – has white tuberous roots which can be used as salad. Moreover, rampion seems to bear the English version of the name Rapunzel, which appears in French as raiponce, in Spanish as reponche, and most tellingly in Italian as ramponzolo – all words of unknown origin, but which have been connected with the Latin rapum. So far, so good: Rapunzel sounds like, and appears to taste like, rampion. There are, however, problems with this identification. The fact that Rapunzel and rampion are historically the same word does not guarantee that they all refer to the same thing: words don’t behave like that, especially not as they jump from language to language. In fact, German-language editors and translators of Grimms’ tales seem never to translate Rapunzel as rampion. In his 1985 edition of the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen, Heinz Rölleke derived Rapunzel from the Latin Radix puntia (“Pointed root”(?)), and paraphrased it in standard German as Baldrianwurzel (“valerian-root”).

The edible rampion is not related to valerian. But there is another wild or garden salad herb which is. This is the common cornsalad or lamb’s lettuce (Valerianella locusta), whose tiny bluish flowers, encased in large green bracts, can be seen from April to June on “cultivated, waste and disturbed land, sparsely grassy places, rocky areas, wall-tops and sand dunes” throughout the British Isles, France and Germany. Like sorrel, cornsalad has edible leaves. It flowers earlier than rampion and is a well-known ingredient in winter and spring salads. The German texts seem therefore to suggest persuasively that Rapunzel is cornsalad, not rampion.

So, to sum up: Rapunzel’s own name is a reference to the wild salad – probably cornsalad – which her pregnant mother craved, and this is just one illustration of the fact that the story is about sex, pregnancy and childbirth, and not just lettuce, witches and towers. English writers often disregard the first fact and modern editors from the Grimms onwards have tended to disguise the second. If these two points are considered together, we can begin to tell the story as perhaps it ought to be told.

A pregnant (not a barren) wife craves a wild herb which is shut up in a witch’s garden. This may be another reason to regard Rapunzel as cornsalad rather than rampion, because cornsalad is a winter and spring salad whose “value … is its earliness,” and the wife’s longing might be more acute in winter and early spring, when food in agrarian societies would be rather more monotonous than at other times, and also perhaps in relatively short supply. The husband risks everything to provide for his pregnant wife, but the witch catches the husband, and spares his life in return for the unborn daughter who prompted the theft. The daughter proves to be extraordinarily beautiful, and is named after the herb. Rapunzel the heroine is shut up by the possessive witch, like rapunzel the wild herb before her. (It is fun to note in this respect that Rapunzel the heroine, like cornsalad the herb, can be found growing at the top of a high wall.) However, just as Rapunzel’s father had planned to steal the wild rapunzel, so a prince plans to steal the human Rapunzel – or, at least, help her escape. Rapunzel meanwhile conceives twins. But the plan goes wrong, the lovers are separated, banished, and wounded, and after long wandering, the prince is drawn once again by Rapunzel’s singing and once again takes his bride and their two children.

In this way, as we can see, the story falls into two halves, each of which echoes the other. In each half, the witch tries selfishly to hoard Rapunzel (first the herb, then the heroine); but, in both cases, Rapunzel (first the herb, then the heroine) proves too much for her, irresistibly attracting a husband in from outside. On both occasions, the witch is robbed, and on both occasions, the result is renewed life and a new generation of the family. It is, moreover, interesting to note that the story treats Rapunzel’s family matrilineally – that is, it follows the fortunes of the family from mother to daughter, rather than from father to son.

Unlike my Ladybird book, then, the older stories are not simply interested in Rapunzel as an ideal of passive female beauty. Generally, they prefer to show how the women of successive generations guarantee the survival of a family against the enduring outside threat personified by the witch. If you want my own guess as to the story’s underlying meaning, it’s this: a story of a child, trafficked to a predatory stranger and locked alone in a room for years on end without even a haircut, was not meant as a polite story of a beautiful princess. It’s a story of the kind of abuse that still goes on today, in families and communities, and probably always has.