(10/26/00 7:35:21 am)
|Brothers and Sisters|
Breaking my vow of silence (again)...
I felt a sudden flash of recognition when Terri (on the sister thread) mentioned that female characters in fairy tales so often face their journeys alone. When they are not alone, they are generally accompanied by a male character, usually a brother. The "traditional" format puts the brother in the role of savior.
But actually, the more I think about it the more I realize that I can think of several traditional tales, off the top of my head, where the sister is the savior. Hansel and Gretel, for example--although Hansel throws down the bread crumbs, it is Gretel who pushes the witch into the oven. Another prime example is the Swan story (I don't recall the title), where the sister sews coats to free her brothers.
In all the stories I can think of, brother and sister are clearly aligned. But add another sister into the brew and you probably up the ante on antagonism.
Does anyone have ideas on why the women are alone, and the men are not? Most male characters begin their journeys with their brothers, and while the youngest brother is always the good one, his older brothers are more likely to be foolish or stupid than cruel and vindictive. I would hypothesize that this is because women had very little ability to take control of their own fate, and relied primarily on their powers of attraction (or at least on their ability to be more attractive than anyone else around), but I think I'm overlooking something with that theory.
(10/26/00 5:55:07 pm)
|Walking by Themselves|
Perhaps the women go alone because Adventure was never an ambition parents had for their daughters? In the tales, parents send the sons off into the world on directed quests, with horses, gifts and advice, but the girls seem to find their quests on their own - unless they're sent out with the expectation of failure by cruel stepmothers and the like. I wish I could think of specific tales to use as examples here, but I worked twelve hours today and can barely think at all.
Sister-Saviour story: The girl and her brother when he drinks from the magicked stream and is transformed into a deer?
(10/26/00 6:05:42 pm)
It's a tad obvious- but I'm adding The Juniper Tree to the list of Sister Saviour stories.
Cory-Ellen- interesting question. Perhaps "the quest", the departure from the parental home, is more closely associated with marriage in the case of the female characters- an initiation into a new household and, quite possibly, a new community in which allegiances have to be forged afresh. I think Warner writes somewhere that, although many tales conclude with a marriage, they often prefigure the conditions of marriage in the course of their telling. Perhaps the tales you're thinking of prefigure the new bride's sense of isolation and exploration.
(10/27/00 12:22:30 am)
|Re: Sister saviours|
CoryEllen--the tale you are thinking of is Brother and Sister or Little Brother and Little Sister. It is interesting that you brought the topic up because the reason I asked about sister tales is my recent reading of brother and sister tales--such as in the new Barefoot Book of Brother and Sister tales. Hansel and Gretel is included in that one and I began wondering about sister tales. In both Hansel and Gretel and Brother and Sister, the sister is wiser. Bettelheim enjoys iding and egoing their individual roles. I am too tired to think about it in depth right now, but I'll try to return tomorrow with better thoughts.
(10/27/00 4:47:35 am)
|Waving their Tales in the Air|
That's a depressing thought, isn't it, Karen? That women's Adventure is marriage. Not that it isn't likely; just depressing. I find myself resisting it as a reason for the solitary quest, however. As marriage WAS the ambition for daughters, wouldn't they have been sent off on their quests as gladly as sons? Why would death of one or both parents be a prerequisite for questing (as it seems to be in so many stories), when ideally the girls would have been married off before that point? Also, if we're talking Western European stories here, how common was exogamy? My anthropological training was mainly in Aboriginal Australian cultures, I pretty much ignored those European types :-)
I haven't read Warner's book (though I can see I must, now), could you explain a little more about how the conditions for marriage are prefigured in stories?
(10/27/00 3:09:27 pm)
Actually I wrote an article on this subject which is on the Endicott-studio site. I think the female narratives have this one way journey toward marriage because of the demands of exogamous society--girls are required to leave home and become members of strange and at times hostile households (at least their status can be very questionable initially, especially in households where the mother-in-law competes for the husband/son's attention. In boys-to-men tales it seems to follow the Campbell cycle of separation-initiation-return. The boy returns as the initiated and enlightened adult male...sometimes bringing not only his new found knowledge but gifts--the apples of youth, the water of life or a magical bride (fanatastic and quite capable herself of magical feats--linking the human and the creative aspect of the fantastic in a potentially fertile unity.) Boys must come home. They must assume the roles of their aging, or dead fathers. Girls, because they will belong to other households must not be tempted to return home but forge their way in the new household. I think that's why we see so many narratives of girls where there are terrible crimes committed (incest, mutilation as in the Armless Maiden) death, (of the mother in the Goose Girl, of both parents in East of the Sun...)--there can be no chance of going home.
Remember these fairy tales were told in a society that believed in these roles for women and men--that was the next step in the rite of passage. No matter how heroic our heroines are in their solitary journeys, they were still part of a traditional society that saw their reintegration into adult community as married women. Maybe the insistence of such endings speaks to the uneasy ambivalence young women felt about the whole marriage deal...but then so too does the male hero tale suggest more than a little anxiety about getting it right as an adult man. (all those tests!)
And yet...there is something remarkably affirming about the tales (at least when they haven't been stripped of the more shocking images that do evoke those fears and ambivalences!). The best of the tales do not ignore those fears but expose them in charged images like the Armless Maiden, or the youngest son who is torn to pieces by a magical bull and must be brought back to life by the scorcer's daughter with the help of magic water. But throughout those trials there is a sense of dignity and emerging identity in the figure of the hero and heroine. They are resourceful, smart, connected to the fantastic. And I think its that part of the journey, the emotional turmoil of making it from the home as a child, into the role of an adult, that is the heart of the narrative. Everyone knows how its going to end, more or less. It's getting there that matters and what the individual brings to the table by way of experience.
Is it the same in endogamous societies? I'm not sure....though I would bet that there is something similar, to enact the separation of the child from the home of birth, and the emergence of the adult as a partner in marriage. Let's see...I think Tibetans are endogamous maybe...that's a big maybe...and mostly I have trickster tales...but I may have a few tucked in the back of my shelf.
(10/27/00 5:09:59 pm)
Wow, Midori. You've got my vote
in the upcoming election. I clearly need to do a lot more reading
on this subject, and must also read the Endicott site more closely.
(10/28/00 12:57:32 am)
|Re: Brothers and Sisters|
Midori, that article of yours isn't on the Endicott site; it's in the archives of the Phantastes site:
(There's a link to it from our site, but Staci D. at Phantastes
asked you for it first!)
(10/28/00 2:46:04 pm)
|Warping the status quo|
Obviously, Midori has explained matters far more eloquently and extensively than I could, but I just wanted to add a few cents...
I was thinking predominantly of a Western European tradition and, in particular, about the salon fairy tales of D'Aulnoy, L'Heritier and co. I do think the idea that marriage is the ultimate female quest is terribly depressing and, like Cory-Ellen, I would be inclined to resist it. However, I also think the form is more lithe, more slippery than any straight-forward explanation would suggest. While there's no escaping the fact that marriage was a large (almost compulsory) component of female experience when the earlier versions of the tales were recorded, I think a lot of writers and storytellers find quite a bit of freedom to play within (what seems like) a restricted narrative. For instance, the female storytellers of the French salon not only spoke/wrote about marriage, they also spoke/wrote about women's experience of marriage (an entirely different subject), critiqued the marriage state itself. It's a more subtle subversion- working within the prescribed structures, shifting the parameters just slightly- like a trickster....
I think Austen novels are like this. You know the happy marriage will come as a matter of course and, on the surface, she conforms to all the strictures of the standard romantic comedy- it is the critique that she weaves into that frame, the way she warps the shape just a little, which many readers (especially women, I think) find so appealing.
It's never quite a simple reinforcement of the staus quo...
(10/29/00 1:05:15 am)
|French salon tales|
Thanks for bringing up these points, Karen. The French salon tales do indeed need closer examination in this context, when you consider who was writing them. D'Aulnoy had run away from a marriage so bad that she'd plotted to have her husband executed for treason; de Murat was cast off by her husband for "indecent behaviour" and suspected lesbianism and spent most of her life under a form of house-arrest (she pissed off the king, too) outside of Paris; L'Heritier, Bernard and others managed to have independent lives and careers as writers only by vowing never to marry. A critique of marriage, as practiced among the aristocracy, was an important ingredient in the Salon tales....although this, of course, is less evident today, since Charles Perrault's tales, with their docile heroines, were the ones male editors through the centuries chose to canonize and reprint.
(11/11/00 12:41:55 pm)
|Brothers and Sisters|
I've been wondering about that
too...I've come up with a tentative hypothesis, that everyone can
feel free to shoot down! In the Grimm tales, relations between natural
sisters is usually helpful, and between brothers and sisters as
well, but natural brothers are nearly always antagonistic, as are
stepsisters. Why is that? I suspect it may have something to do
with property division. Among the boys, I think there is a tension
between partitive inheritance and primogeniture systems -- there
is often a competition among siblings for property, or a sense that
the eldest will take all, and the younger siblings will be left
out in the cold. Among stepsiblings, there is something similar
going on -- who gets the property, the natural child or the stepchild?
Among natural sisters, however, there is less of a competition for
property, since the major issue is the handing over of a dowry to
a husband, in presumably equal amounts. Similarly, among a brother
and a sister, there is rarely that kind of tension, as it's understood
that the boy will inherit the bulk of the property, while the girl
will merely get enough for her dowry.
I know that's a bit incoherent, but what does everyone think?
(11/11/00 1:41:53 pm)
I think those are really interesting ideas about the narratives. The only reason I would hold back a little is because I can think of a number of tales where natural sister-brother dynamics have terrible tensions (a version of the Armless Maiden, where the brother cuts off his sister's arms) and Untombi Yapansi, (a Xhosa tale) where the brother becomes an malevolent scorcerer, murders the elder sister and tries to get the younger sister to eat the flesh. The tension in these two narrative isn't about the material social context of the characters, but something a bit deeper. In Armless Maiden the brother and sister vow never to part once their parents have died. They remain in a closed and static state. The fantastic introduces a wedge between them, which encourages the brother to regard his sister as a murderer. Because there are other versions of this narratives where the pair is a potentially incestuous father/daughter relationship, I think the tension has to do with forces that prevent the young woman from assuming an independent and adult identity.
The same is true of Untombi Yapansi--here the tension between the brother and sister also represents the tension between two possibilities of a collaboration with the fantastic. Untombi Yapansi escapes the crime of cannibalism because she is warned by a fly, and the earth opens up and allows her to escape beyond the reach of her brother. Her brother's actions destroy the village, but Untombi Yapansi moves forward into her rite of passage to adulthood. When she succeeds at last in being reinititated, one of her acts is to bring her village out from beneath the earth where it has waited for her to complete her journey. As the young woman herself has been purified, so has the village.
But having said that--I think that some of your ideas are definately there in the European tales. Have to be since the story tellers are themselves surrounded by such a context. But because the some tales are older--much older than the social contexts in which they are still told, I think one must be careful not lock the images too firmly into an historical materialist reading...usually there are details that never quite fit-or other ambiguities that get marginalized because they don't appear to have a voice in the action.
Or else...I'm having way too much with a deconstructionalist reading of the narratives! Play, play....we must have play!
(11/11/00 7:50:18 pm)
Excellent points. My focus area is on the European tales, and my knowledge of non-European tales is a bit sketchy, which I hope to correct.
I do agree that a strict historical-materialist reading can be limiting (as a strict *anything* is!); however, I also believe that it can't be stressed enough that specific versions of fairy tales are products of specific times and places -- protection against the Bettelheimian assault, maybe? Of course, the very fact that particular versions of some tales still have currency today, and the reasons for that, are also a major area of consideration.
Ages of tales...a bit tricky, as we can't really know, in a lot of cases, exactly how far back these tales go. We can make educated guesses, of course, but it really comes down to the first recorded version of the tale. I'm working on an article about "Bluebeard" right now, and the critics are divided between those who claim it as wholly Perrault's invention, and those who see earlier folk analogues. I'm struggling a bit with the Grimms' "Fitcher's Bird" (KHM 46); what on earth is that weird bird thing for? Maybe that represents something really archaic in the story? I haven't a clue. Maybe it's all just for fun...?
(11/11/00 8:33:57 pm)
I'm so ashamed to do this again, but, Catja, Margaret Atwood has a lovely, graceful essay in Mirror, Mirror (an anthology of essays on fairy tales I edited) called 'Of Souls as Birds.' She uses Perrault's Bluebeard and Fitcher's Bird in this, and her ideas might be useful to you in your consternation about the bird in the tale.
I have always loved Fitcher's Bird, by the way. It is just so strange, no? I'm going to summarize Atwood's theory of the bird, here, rather ineloquently due to lack of time...
First, and I think this must be relevant even more so to the bird motif than she stresses later, Margaret points out that 'egg' in German is also a term for testicles, something I never knew. (She learned this when the title of a story of hers could not be directly translated in the German volume--'Bluebeard's Egg' would have become 'Bluebeard's Single Ball,' apparently.) She also links the dirtied eggs in Fitcher's Bird to some perception of sexual treachery--all who were cut up were the 'egg-dirtying girls,' girls who had sullied the man's sexual honor somehow. Rather than seeing them as impure, sullied by their curiousity about his other girls, she sees them as impure for their curiousity about their own sexuality. In any case, for Atwood the one who escapes, in her bird disguise paired with that skull disguise, manages a sort of triple-escape: she dies, she flies, she comes back to life as a girl. A resurrection. The bird is a useful mode of saving herself (obviously--I guess I just circled arond your question which is, why a bird...? Why a girl rolled in honey and feathers? And is it a naked girl rolled in feathers? Atwood sweetly asks.) That is as far as Atwood goes, and her essay is, as I said, quite lovely.
I may be stretching this too far but if the girl is disguised as a bird, and one accepts that the egg is linked imagistically and literally to both male and female sexuality, then mustn't her mode of saving herself, becoming a bird, also be linked to a positive--generative--notion of (female) sexuality? I am rushing this off, and as I said I am just coming to the form of the fairy tale as an artist, not as a scholar, so I may be way off base. Perhaps this isn't what confused you about the bird at all. Birds appear so much in fairy tales, I'm sure you know more about them than I do. (I particularly like the one in 'The Juniper Tree,' who sings 'My mother slew me/My father ate me' throughout the tale.)
(11/19/00 1:53:26 am)
|More Fitcher's Bird|
Kate and everyone,
Your comments are very helpful; I found the essay, and enjoyed it -- thanks for pointing me to it!
What follows are my none-too-coherent musings on the subject; I'm hip-deep in my "Bluebeard" article (deadline Wednesday), and am not thinking too clearly!
Personally, I always hesitate a bit to assign a strictly sexual meaning to the egg/key/whatever, and to fairy tales in general...The symbolism is there, but it's never a 1:1 correlation. Virginity=unbloodied egg or key -- logical, but does it work that way in "Fitcher's Bird"? Remember, she does, in fact, enter the chamber -- she just manages to do so in such a way that the egg remains clean. She performs a three-fold deception to effect her own escape from the wizard:
1) False proof: she doesn't so much pass the test of innocence as subvert it -- the egg, which should proclaim her guilt, she has robbed of its function. Words, words, words -- I'm trying to think of a better way to express this -- any ideas?
2) Substitution: the skull in the window, which fools the wizard into believing it is his bride.
3) Disguise: the honey-and-feather outfit, which enables her to pass the wizard unharmed.
I read Sharon Rose Wilson's book on Atwood's "fairy-tale politics"; she connects the bird with ancient bird-goddesses, and with Isis, who revived her dead husband by reassembling his limbs (although that's a *slightly* different motif -- resurrection with crucial part missing, as opposed to plain old resurrection).
Her curiosity is literally life-giving; however, he displays an ultimately fatal LACK of curiosity -- he trusts the egg, the skull, and the bird, without ever investigating. Also, once she's worked the first deception, with the egg, he loses power, while she gains it: she has the power over life and death, restoring her sisters. Interesting how curiosity and suspicion are linked; both of these motives are present in the sister's desire to enter the forbidden chamber. However, the wizard never inquires nor suspects, having externalized both in his egg test -- the female symbol, and locus of the sister's deception deception.
BTW, thank you for pointing out the link between the bird disguise
and the egg ::whacking forehead with hand, and grinning sheepishly::.
Makes absolutely perfect sense, and yet I never made the connection,
at least consciously. Some folklorist I am! Still, it's odd -- the
wizard's cronies, and the wizard, Fitcher himself, address her as
"Fitcher's Bird." Both claim/acknowledge/recognize a connection,
a possessive one, between the "bird" and the wizard, and
yet don't act upon it (i.e., recapture the girl). She is "Fitcher's
Bird [chick]," in a sense.
Wow, do I need to get some rest! Does any of this make any sense whatsoever?
(11/19/00 7:31:59 pm)
|Yes, You Are Making Sense!|
Yes, exactly--she's the bird (his 'chick'). You couldn't have said it better.
Re: ascribing sexual--or any--exclusive 'meaning' to images in fairy tales, I agree it can be tenuous from an academic point of view. But from an art interpretation angle (reading literature as art) I find it useful and valid. More on this later--I am blurry eyed myself from too much work and travel.
I hope your writing went well and that you've gotten some rest, but rest assured, you were making perfect sense!
(11/20/00 1:18:48 am)
|query for Catja|
Catja, what is the Sharon Rose Wilson book you mentioned???
(11/20/00 8:31:02 pm)
The book is _Margaret Atwood's Fairy Tale Sexual Politics_ by Sharon Rose Wilson, published by U of Mississippi P in 1993. It's a fairly interesting discussion of Atwood's fairy tale imagery throughout her body of work, with a heavy emphasis on psychological, archetypical, and mythic symbolism. It's pretty good, but marred by the fact that Wilson tries to cover so many of Atwood's works; I would have appreciated a more in-depth focus on a few works. It's definitely worth checking out, though.