In her "Donkeyskin," Windling takes an updated text allusive to Charles Perrault's version of tale type 510B, and inserts the experiences of a modern child in a similar situation to that of the heroine of the older tale. The functions of the tale — to use a Proppian analysis — follow the order of memory, rather than chronological positioning, strengthening the poignancy of the tale. Each verse begins with a header, taken either from the fairy tale text, or from the text of the headlines; the phrase, "Once Upon a Time. . ." is juxtaposed with the unfortunately equally familiar opening of "Have You Seen This Child?", found on milk cartons and bus station posters. The combination serves as a painful reminder of just how common the themes of this fairy tale can be. Her tale begins in a familiar fashion; Windling writes: "Once upon a time there was a fortunate King. . .his wife was as lovely as she was good, and gave him a daughter just as lovely. . . . But one day, the Queen fell ill, and knew that she was dying. She called the King to her bedside and said, 'My dear, you must make me a promise. You must promise that you will not marry unless you find a wife who is better than me.' For she worried about her young daughter, and tales of stepmothers evil and cruel."
As it turns out, as in all other versions of this tale, the queen would have done better to be concerned with the behavior from her husband's quarter. Similarly to the king of Yolen's story, Windling's king's interpretation of his wife's intentions is explicitly quite different from that which she'd had in mind. She'd meant a wife who would be better for their daughter, for her family; he'd taken her meaning more selfishly, and thought in terms of the wife who would be better for him, who would be lovely and desirable.
Windling writes that the king "was bound by his promise — and there was no maid to be found better than the Queen, unless it was their own daughter. . .he saw that she was lovely indeed. . .[and] he was mad with desire. . . ." The use of the word mad, which surfaces in these three modern tales as well as in many of the older versions, is quite interesting; some critics feel that the motif of madness is used to distance the motivations of abusers from their actions, removing the responsibility from their shoulders, and making it clear that such actions are outside the bounds of human behavior. For example, Perrault makes it clear that his king has lost his senses during the period when he attempts to wed his daughter. He regains them by the conclusion of the story, and in fact attends her wedding.
Historian Marina Warner, in her book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (1994), relates the tale of 510B, or "Unlawful Love," to the life of Saint Dympna of the seventh century, whose life was similar in that she too was desired by her father, and fled from an incestuous union. In her case, though, her father eventually captured and beheaded her, with no happy ending other than that which is assumed to be granted to the virtuous in the afterlife; she was eventually declared the patron saint of the insane. Warner writes, "Dympna's patronage of madness reveals imaginative associations at work in the minds of her votaries. . .[and that]. . .Her cult, whatever its deficiencies in practice, admits that such an unlawful passion happens, has consequences for all around it. . .that the object of the passion cannot but be involved in its madness, however much s/he pulls away."
Windling, however, allows no illusion that the father's madness is unique, or justifiable; as in McKinley's tale, the daughter is shown to have suffered actual abuse and not, as in the older tales, merely the threat of it. Windling writes that some time after she has fled "The bruise on her face. . .faded to yellow and she [walked] without limping." The explanation for her limp — a beating, a rape — is left to the discretion of the observer. Further on in her tale, the abuse of the father is shown to be possible in other elements of society. The men who frequent the truck–stop diner in which the daughter takes refuge are drawn as possible parallels to her father in two instances: once, when "a dark, heavy man comes in; Maria turns and feels her heart twisting, lodging there like a stone in her breast, a knife blade pressed against hot skin. Until she sees that it's not her father at all, just a stranger looking for the phone." Here, we see the event through the glass of the daughter's perceptions. The other situation is seen separately through the view of an omniscient narrator, wherein a man is condemned through his own words, saying, "That girl at the counter, sixteen if she's a day, mebbe younger. Lookit how she struts her little ass — you know exactly what she's looking for, and I've a mind to give it to her." The words of the latter individual are reminiscent both of the abuse of the father, and of the attitudes of society exhibited in McKinley's story as well: that, somehow, the victims have drawn their situations upon themselves. In the majority of the older tales, however, and in the majority of the modern ones as well — Yolen's version being a particular, pointed exception detailing the worst-case scenario — the denouement of the tales indicates a framing societal agreement that such attitudes are biased, unfair, wrong.
In Windling's version, the words of the abusive customer are silently rebutted by the inner thoughts of another trucker, thinking that the girl behind the counter is similar to his younger sister. He thinks, "A girl that age out on her own, she was probably running away from trouble; she wasn't out here looking for it. He wishes Joe would leave the poor kid alone." Yet, like the cowed citizens of Yolen's tale, he offers no overt disagreement. Windling makes it quite clear that the problem here is not in the singular case of her heroine's father; it is a societal epidemic caused by the twinned factors of sexual predation and the inaction of those who are not personally affected.
Windling's heroine flees from her father; this is attributable in part to the advice of her Godmother. But it is interesting to note that here the role of this surrogate mother–type has been reduced enormously. The Godmother is mentioned almost exclusively in the sections which quote older, purely fantastic versions of events; only in one instance does the Godmother cross over from the purely fairy tale narrative into the "real world" parallel: in one instance, as "Maria leans her head against the bathroom window and thinks 'Oh Godmother, what shall I do now?'. . .Someone is knocking on the door and she cannot wait here any longer." The Godmother in question could be a figment of Maria's imagination, or a factual personage who is no longer present. Regardless, the implication is that the heroine cannot rely on her, and must act independently.
The bathroom where Maria suffers her crisis of conscience is roughly analogous to the tree or natural dwelling that provides camouflage for the heroine of the older tales. Likewise, the forest — place of change, of travel — has been transposed to a highway, the castle to the diner. Here, the heroine, Maria, is not brought into servitude through the decisions of those who find her; she accepts the idea of independence willingly and eagerly. Windling writes, "The cook [in the diner can be seen] through a little window. She prays he will give her a break and a job, for he looks like a man acquainted with hunger." Her work is not seen as being a temporary break until the potential resumption of her given social position; Windling's tale reflects the changing social structure of aristocracy to democracy. Her heroine may be compared to a princess, insofar, to embrace cliché, as every girl is a princess, but there is no implication that such work, such a life, is inherently dishonorable or unfit. It is interesting to note that her version is among the few that does not, still, distance the issue of abuse from contemporary reality through the device of "A kingdom far, far, away. . ."
As Maria leaves the bathroom, before she asks for her job, she notices a billboard "with its notices of goods bought and sold, men wanted and women and children misplaced." This sentence sets the atmosphere quite firmly in place; in a society where one out of four girls, and one out of nine boys, according to recent statistics, is abused, this tale is unfortunately commonplace. Windling underscores this point by enclosing within her tale a sadly familiar paragraph; she writes, "HAVE YOU SEEN THIS CHILD? Donna Maria Alvarez. Fifteen years old. Brown hair, brown eyes, 5'2" tall. Last seen February 15th in Boise, Idaho. Have you seen this child? Her family is very concerned about her whereabouts. If you have any information, please call the National Hotline for Missing and Exploited Children: 800–572–9054. All information confidential."
Such plaintive statements echo in the modern collective unconscious; echoing the sentiments of the trucker, we feel it likely that the subjects of these inquiries have fled either from trouble, or into trouble. Windling's heroine is lucky; in the last paragraph, as the girl flees her situation, she finds herself "on a long, straight road where a sign said WELCOME TO NEW MEXICO: THE LAND OF ENCHANTMENT in bold black script. The past stretched out behind her. The future stretched out before her. And she knew which way she had to go." Windling's heroine survives, and perseveres, by dint of her wits and strength of will; whether the same can be said for the countless other children in such situations, either in the past or the present, is unknown. We do know that their chances for healing depend in part upon the examples that are set for them — both individually and societally.
The examples offered in the genre of the fairy tale have been said to serve a therapeutic psychological function. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, felt that "The fairy tale is a verification of the inner life of a child." Windling's brilliant essay, "Surviving Childhood," expands upon that idea through the medium of personal experience, providing readers with an undeniable argument for the relevance of fairy tales to life in the modern world. After referring to Bettelheim's statement, Windling says, "I needed that verification. I needed to know about stepmothers so cruel they would order a child's heart cut out and boiled and salted and served for dinner. I needed to know about the heroine who climbed seven mountains and wore out seven pairs of iron shoes before she found her true love. I needed to know that fairy godmothers sometimes come in unlikely disguises, or that a fair face could hide a black and wicked heart. I needed to know that with honor and steadfastness and pluck I could survive." Windling continues on, saying, "I may never really know why I survived, why I finally fled. . .or where I found the courage to make that journey. But I do know that fairy tales set me on my road. . . . They told me that the only way to reach the lands of Happily Ever After was to gather my wits about me and set off through the Unknown Woods."
In her essay, as in her prose–poem, as in the works of Yolen and McKinley and countless others before them, Windling returns to the idea of telling the truth, exposing it, and dealing with it in whatever form is possible; she admits that "it's hard to look truth in the face. To look beneath the polished surface of things. Instead we live the Walt Disney version of life in which the scary bits are toned down, the dark corners are not peered into, the unpalatable is explained away. The Talmud tells us, 'To look away from evil: is this not the sin of all 'good' people?"
Terri Windling's life's work serves as an illustration of that concept; in her work, she has exposed the problems that plague society, repeatedly, through the medium of metaphor, which has served civilization steadfastly over the years. As she says, in a moment of epiphany, looking back upon what she has produced in art and literature, "I saw that I had been telling the truth all along, in the metaphoric language of fairy tales, in its age–old symbols. Here were the poisoned apples, the coat of nettles, the girl whose hands were cut off and replaced with silver. Here was the princess Donkeyskin, who fled from her father and her father's bed. Sleeping Beauty was an image that I returned to again and again: the sleeping girl, innocent, vulnerable and yet protected by a wall of thorns as sharp as knives. Fairy tales were a kind of magic that protected me as a child. Not my body, bruised and battered; they protected my spirit and kept it alive."
Windling concludes with a statement that can be held almost as an inversion of Charles Perrault's closing maxim from his version of "Donkeyskin." "The tale of Donkeyskin is hard to believe," he wrote, "but as long as there are children, mothers, and grandmothers in the world the memory of it will not die." His tale is aimed at those who have need of warnings, and those who, terribly, have the experience to provide them. In much the same tone, but with a key difference, Windling says "These are stories for the Hansels and Gretels still imprisoned in the witch’s cottage. And for the lucky ones, the brave ones, who have found their way out of that terrible wood." Windling, too, dedicates her tale to those who have suffered — but, importantly, does not doubt the truth of her words. These similarities are a sign that, while we have come far, there is still a while to go before we, collectively, are out of the woods.
The older stories, with their myriad permutations, as well as the modern tales that we have examined in this essay, all share more than their subject matter. They are told not merely from the desire to entertain but from the conscious longing to help, to warn, to heal, and to inform of the potential for happiness that lies beyond. D. L. Ashliman has stated "Many fairy tales owe their longevity to an ability to address tabooed subjects in a symbolic manner." Today, it is no longer as difficult, as frowned upon, to discuss matters of sexuality and abuse directly; yet, the symbols of story still serve as bridges to the deeper truths which cannot be easily articulated. The idea of danger from trusted sources, unfortunately, is as real today as it was a hundred years ago, or a thousand. So too is the attraction of the idea of the armor of the second skin. The concept of wanting to be recognized for the true self within, rather than the camouflage of that armor, or the artifice of the cosmetic; that, too, is true. The most eternal factor of all, perhaps, is that of inherent strength, individual courage, personal perseverance; we hope, and we know, that even if we as a species should ever manage to grow beyond the need for the first two, the latter will always be integral to our natures. The stories shift, the details evolve, the characters change their names; but the fundamental nature of the stories, and our need for them, will remain the same.
The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar
From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes
"The Tale of the Skin" by Emma Donoghue (from Kissing the Witch)
"Suit of Leather" by Barbara Wilson (from Salt Water and Other Stories)
"Donkeyskin" by Terri Windling (from The Armless Maiden)
"Allerleirauh" by Jane Yolen (from The Armless Maiden)
Peau d'ane (French, 1970)
On the Web:
"Donkeyskin" on the Surlalune Fairy Tales website
"Incest in Indo–European Folktales," on D. L. Ashliman's Folktexts website
"In the Dark of the Woods: Abuse Themes in Common Fairy Tales" by Anna Roberts
"Donkeyskin," a poem by Midori Snyder
About the Author:
Helen Pilinovsky has a doctoral degree in Folklore Studies from Columbia University. She currently teaches at the University of California, San Bernardino.
Copyright © 2001 by Helen Pilinovsky; updated 2007. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine in 2001. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's permission.
Art: "Catskin" by Kay Nielsen, "Tattercoats" by Arthur Rackham, "Furball" by Margaret Evans Price. "Cap o' Rushes" by John Batten, "Tattercoats" by John Batten