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Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Stuff of Dreams and Nightmares

I was shuffling through books the other day, trying to find something I can't remember now, when I came across my old childhood fairytale book, The Golden Book of Fairy Tales. I opened it and the pages took me away. It wasn't the stories but the pictures, for my childhood was dreamily suspended in the imagination of artist Adrienne Ségur. There is more magic in one of her illustrations than in all of Grimm.
"The Tinderbox"
"Kip, the Enchanted Cat"

It's difficult to share one image without trying to share them all. Notice how still, how private, each of these images is. The heroines are beautiful, but unemotional. What better way for a child to superimpose her own dreams and emotions onto them?

"Vasilisa the Beautiful" with Baba Yaga
Even Baba Yaga, that most horrific and mysterious of fairyland's inhabitants, seems unconcerned as Vasilisa whispers to her doll in a garden surrounded by a fence of skulls. (Note: This illustration comes not from the Golden Book edition, but a lesser known French collection, Contes des Pays de Neige (Tales from the Land of Snow).)

It is only now that I noticed how passive, even resigned, these girls seem, despite the most compelling of circumstances: riding through the night on the back of a hound, nesting among wise winged creatures, accepting the enormous embrace of a magical cat. They seem as immune to their surroundings as dolls.

I know now that Ségur's depiction is appropriate. The tale of Vasilisa and many other fairy tales encompasses the feminine fate: the three inescapable stages--maiden, mother and crone-- through which each woman must pass. The flesh and blood creature is translated into the archetypal plaything of time. The heroine can't step off this path any more than the King can escape having three sons or three daughters, the youngest of whom is the apple of his eye.

There's no dearth of maidens in fairy tales, always in starring roles even if, like Snow White, they convey the appearance of death (or at least sleep) at the most important events of their lives. Mothers are likewise essential to the tales. That's where princesses come from. But when the story takes place, they are almost always absent: they have either died or morphed into the role if evil step-mother. In Vasilisa's story, her dead mother advises her through the voice of a doll which leads her safely to the prince and marriage.

And then what? Motherhood and death? Is that all there is to the maiden's journey? It seems to be so. Even Joseph Campbell identified the heroine's journey as one of biological imperative in the service of nature.

Old Mag in "Green Snake"
But what about crones? Baba Yaga rules them all, flying through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. Deep in the woods, in a hut supported by dancing chicken legs, she awaits the unwary traveler and the quest that burdens them. She holds her secrets close for every question she answers ages her another year. I know just how she feels.

Except for witches and fairies disguised as crones, there are a few old wise women and they don't seem to have been mothers. Is this what becomes of wicked step-sisters who miss out on the prince and marriage? Does the knowledge gained in the quiet of a spinster's life bring this transformation into the hideous yet powerful?

No wonder all the maidens in Ségur's images seem so ambivalent. They know their own stories. They best they can hope for is death or, if unmarried, a warm corner for cackling.
These are powerful stories, these tales of girls who achieve their quest through marriage and death.

I am well on my childless way to cronedom without regret. If I have only one bit of cronish wisdom to share with girls it's this: Be careful of fairy tales. Don't read them. Just look at the pictures. They'll tell you all you need to know.



  1. From the male perspective, these tales tend to mirror life pretty closely. Kings always end up having terrible, self-serving advisers that they listen to closely to the detriment of the kingdom. And no, it wouldn't change if the advisers had to have a resume and references before hire!

    1. So the lesson is-- always ask the crone to run the background check!

  2. I've always thought the old stories had a somewhat sinister edge to them.

    Got an award for you on my blog. Come by and pick it up sometime. ^_^

    1. Thanks for the award, Aldrea! Yes,these are pretty dark tales. Not for children.