"Donkeyskin" by Beatrice Billard
Fairy tales are stories which are based upon those issues which affect everyday life — hate and love, poverty and wealth, ugliness and beauty, hardship and happiness — disguised by a thin veneer of metaphor and magic which removes them from the immediate world, making them universal in tone, as applicable today as it was when the phrase "fairy tale" was first coined in the literary salons of 17th–century France. The term "fairy tale" itself has in recent times become a euphemism for a certain frame of reality, which, while it may not necessarily contain all those factors, certainly does contain at least some element of magic, in this case being the achievement of results unattainable through normal means.
The phrase "fairy tale ending" has acquired a ring of familiarity to even the most innocent, and also, conversely, the most jaded ear. Thanks to the changes in the old tales made first by Victorian editors, and then by modern film–makers, "fairy tale endings" are now associated with unrealistic, inhuman flawlessness and situations in which everything, however improbably, goes right — a condition which can only be attained completely through magic, as reality is somewhat less obliging. That quality of perfection, however, is not representative of the fairy tale genre as a whole, for the unbowdlerized tales possess examples of behavior, which, when read literally, are but all too real: abandonment, incest, abuse.
While the modern attitude of Victorian editors and Walt Disney serves the purposes of entertainment in the short run, it ultimately creates a version of "how things should be," which, when compared to the reality of how things are, can be very damaging. The original purpose of folk stories was not only to entertain but to teach: to show listeners that they were not alone, to communicate societal attitudes towards topics deemed unspeakable in open society, and to present possible solutions through the metaphor of magic.
One tale that has done just that for countless generations is known to folklorists as the Aarne–Thompson tale type 510B (The Types of the Folktale, Antti Aarne & Stith Thompson, 1964), also known as "Unnatural Love." To the less technically minded, it may be familiar as "Donkeyskin," "Tatter–Coats," or "Allerleirauh," to name only a few of the many versions of this all but universal tale. The fundamental story is the same in each case.
We begin with a dying queen, a king who is described as being the most powerful monarch in the world, and their daughter. In the queen's final conversation with her spouse, she extracts a promise that should he wed again, he will marry no woman who does not fulfill a particular condition: to match her in beauty, to fit her wedding ring, to have hair of a hue as golden as her own, and so forth — conditions differing from culture to culture. It is apparent that this archetypal queen most emphatically does not want to be replaced, and chooses to set an impossible condition before her husband, thus rendering the option of remarriage impossible, rather than simply stating her intentions outright — passive/aggressive to say the least, but not directly ill–intentioned. The king remains single for a number of years, unable to meet the conditions of his promise to his wife, until their only daughter matures. It becomes apparent that she, and she alone, fulfills the necessary conditions, and he resolves to marry her, much to the horror of kingdom and princess alike.
Seeking to evade her fate, the princess follows her mother's example by attempting to set an impossible condition to prevent, or at least delay, the impending union (in some versions, through her own wiles; in others, through the advice of a substitute mother figure such as a fairy godmother; and sometimes, though more rarely than is common in other tales such as "Cinderella" or "The Goose Girl," through the direct advice of her dead mother's spirit). Typically, she asks her father for a dress as shining as the sun, a dress as lucent as the moon, and a coat made from the skin of either a single precious animal, or from skins representative of all of the animals in the woods. In some variants, the princess asks directly for the source of her father's wealth, such as the skin of the donkey, which excretes gold in the French "Donkeyskin," or for items more extravagant than any possible article of clothing in the Russian tale "The Gold Lantern."
Regardless, the father is so driven by his incestuous urges that impossible condition after impossible condition is met. As folklore scholar D. L. Ashliman has pointed out ("Incest in Indo–European Folktales," 1997), "The fact that the father can easily acquire these dresses patterned after celestial bodies must lead her to believe that the heavens themselves have joined in a conspiracy against her, leaving her no alternative but to flee."
It is interesting to note that in this particular story, the action which fits the mold of unassertive femininity starts the ball rolling, indirectly causing a series of harmful effects, while the more assertive, independent actions of the daughter are both required and rewarded. When her conditions are met, instead of choosing to follow her father's path and acquiesce to immorality, our heroine chooses to take her fate into her own hands and flees, disguised by her coat of skin, her link to the natural world, carrying the precious dresses that represent her heritage and worldly position.
Once this character is away from civilization, she finds herself at something of a loss. Her only advantage in her new environment is the cloak of skins, which she has finagled away from her father. The implications of this garment are interesting. First, there is the fact that it was created, whole cloth, from the harm that her father wished to do her and the manner in which she avoided that fate. As such, it can be described as being the product of courage and cunning. Also, the fact that it consists of skins, either from a creature magical in itself, or procured through magical means (as a skin consisting of the fur of a thousand creatures)cannot be ignored: the basic Law of Contagnation (dictating that any given part of a thing carries a connection and a portion of that thing in its entirety), which is a product of both magic and of fairy tales as a whole, dictates that this cloak is more than simply a source of warmth or a method of camouflage. It is also a resource that allows her to tap into a deeper part of nature and thus succeed in her future attempts at happiness through craft and cunning, where her past attempts had failed.
After a time spent wandering the forest, a place symbolic of change and transformation, the princess is discovered by a hunting party, and taken to a foreign court on the strength of her value as a curiosity. After spending some time persevering by dint of hard labor in the court kitchens, the princess develops a strategy. She determines to catch the interest of this kingdom's prince through traditionally "feminine gifts" (which Maria Tatar points out in The Classic Fairy Tales, 1999). She uses her physical appearance, her cooking skills, and her general ability to maintain his continued interest and fascination. This threefold plan succeeds: the prince in a German version called "Thousand Furs" (Best–Loved Folktales of the World, Joanna Cole, 1983) says of those three fields, respectively, that his "eyes have never seen any maiden before who was so beautiful," that "This soup [which she provides] is made quite differently and much better than [the cook] had ever made it," and finally, that although he knows not who she is, that she will be his dear bride, and they will never be parted from one another again, for so long as they both shall live.
Although the princess in each version of tale type 510B does face the possibility of sexual abuse, she is portrayed as being able to avoid it through a combination of unlikely luck (that a father willing to force an incestuous marriage on his own daughter would wait until the wedding night to offer an immediate threat) and unrealistically achieved accomplishments (such as being able to travel the space of a kingdom in a single day's worth of walking, being discovered and supported by kindly citizens, luckily finding that the foreign kingdom to which she has run belongs to a man worthy of her love, etc.). While this story does send a positive message to its audience — that abuse is not in any way the fault of the victim — it has a number of problematic qualities, which can be attributed largely to the taboo nature of the subject matter in the societies that produced the tales. Ironically, in the period when this tale was first published in the form best known today (Charles Perrault's "Donkeyskin," 1694), this was probably as much information as young people of the literate classes were likely to receive on the subject of sexual predation.
Art: "Furball" by Margaret Evans Price, "Catskin" by Arthur Rackham, Illustration by Otto Ubbelohde