A big thank you to Underfoot Poetry for pushing me to inquire. Where did the poems for my full-length collection Doll God come from? I tried to figure it out!
Tag Archives: fairy tales
I decided to leap back into prose by taking a look at the drafts I wrote for the flash nonfiction course I took in July. While I was searching for those in my closet, I ran across a few of my Red Riding Hood books.
As a fictional character, she’s been quite an influence on me and my writing.
But who is she?
There are hundreds of versions of the story and they come from many different countries. Some are old versions from traditional literature and some are contemporary retellings of the tale. Some are children’s stories; some, such as those that spring from the oral tradition, are for the general public; and some, usually feminist or sexualized versions, are for adults.
I’m guessing that most of us are steeped in the European tradition of red hooded cloak, little girl, wolf, grandmother, and woods. We might or might not think of a huntsman. Our Little Red might get a warning from her mother–or she might not. She might get eaten up just before the reader is left with a strong “moral.” She might kill the wolf in a gruesome manner. Or the wolf might run into the woods, never to return. Pinterest is full of images that resonate, so I started collecting them onto a “Red in the Woods” board. I’ve only got 35 pins so far, but there are some beauties. Many of the classic book illustrators have created Little Red art.
Arthur Rackham’s Little Red Riding Hood
Every culture incorporates some of these elements in their little red stories, but the most important part is that a little girl is threatened by a dangerous animal (usually a wolf, but in Asian countries, sometimes a tiger) and either she becomes a victim, is rescued by someone else, or she is victorious over the “bad guy.” The undercurrents involve a girl going out into a threatening world on her own for the first time and the possibility of sexual violation. But those are adult readings, of course.
Sometimes Little Red is a bad ass. Those are the best versions! One of my favorite picture books for children is Ed Young’s Lon PoPo where the Little Red protagonist is a smart, strong oldest sister who outwits the wolf and protects her siblings.
Have you ever seen Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods? In this version, Little Red is definitely a sexual target for the wolf, but the question becomes: is she complicit? Does she in some way lead on the wolf? Is the red hood to draw attention? (And where does the red garment come from? Not from the girl herself). Or is that an adult male (pervert) reading–a Humbert version of Lolita? Another adult reading is that the red hood is a metaphor for Red’s vagina/clitoris/youpick.
In this clip of the 1991 Broadway show, the lyrics say a lot about our culture’s interpretation. It becomes clear that this version is about the loss of innocence.
In the Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ song, the wolf leers at Red.
There are other strange bits and pieces that show up in some Little Red stories. The wolf tricks Red into eating her Granny’s flesh. Red tries to get out of bed with the wolf by telling him she has to go pee. At that point he tells her to pee in the bed, but she says she can’t and he lets her go outside tied to a long rope. Some of these elements that seem vulgar or creepy have been edited out of the most popular versions published in the last few hundred years. The confusion between wolf and grandmother is still with us, though. And that alone is pretty strange. Dangerous wolf looks like beloved grandmother? Beyond strange.
Is the wolf a perv or is Red a Lolita? Or is that a red herring (sorry)? Is the story really about something else?
After reading Robin’s post about her granddaughters and the new Cinderella movie the other day, I was thinking about how I’ve always been influenced by fairy tales and folk tales. The Disney version of Sleeping Beauty was my earliest film-version fairy tale–and I loved both Flora and the music passionately. Not to mention how the colors changed! I mentioned Flora’s influence here.
When my daughter was little I had mixed feelings about the movies and illustrations of these old tales because I began to see the stories through my Korean daughter’s eyes. I’ve written both on this blog and on our adoption blog about these subjects in the past. The story of race in fairy tales was here where I wrote about my daughter’s notion of Cinderella as a blonde.
There are over 700 versions of Cinderella from around the world. The only countries that didn’t have true Cinderella stories were African countries, but there have been more contemporary Cinderella stories remedying that “deficit.” The oldest version of Cinderella is Chinese and developed when people still lived in caves. The size of the shoe was added in when foot binding entered the culture. Lots of icky little cultural “shoulds” like foot binding or fetishizing the size of women’s feet enter our stories without us realizing what we are teaching our children.
The tales, particularly the European ones, feature cannibalism, dismemberment, incest, and other immoral activities. Stepmothers are usually nasty creatures out to, at best, neglect their charges and, at worst, to murder them. Of course, there is a reason for mean stepmothers. There were a lot of stepmothers in the days when many women died in childbirth. And with limited incomes or primogeniture, women wanted to ensure the inheritance (and therefore survival) of their own children, not the older children of first wives. In my own family, over 150 years ago in the Netherlands, my great-great-grandfather and his brother were sent by their stepmother to live in the orphanage when their father died.
We can deny the horrors and sometimes the violence or we can delete it as Disney did, but the old tales spring from difficult lives. Does the grit and nastiness deter me from reading them? Hah. No. And, like most of us, there are certain tales that have stuck with me. Become part of who I am. I’ve written about the role of “The Princess and the Pea” in my life here and the role of Little Red Riding Hood here.
In Doll God I explored some of the tales that influenced me in my life. Not all, by any stretch, but some. Snow White, for instance. I had no idea she did influence me, but for some reason she showed up in two poems in my book! “Snow’s Locked Box” was just published in Grist Journal, which is mainly a print journal, so you would need to get a copy to read it at this time. The poem features Snow White in her coffin out in the woods. There is also a poem in the book about the Japanese tale of the stone cutter, relating it to the artist wishing to be both art and artist.
The older I get, the more I dislike violence and unhappy endings. I’d rather see Ariel end up with her prince than see the Little Mermaid as mere foam on the ocean, as Andersen first wrote her ending. I haven’t seen the new Cinderella movie or Frozen because I’m always behind in my movie viewing. But I loved Tangled and Puss in Boots, which reminds me of my cat Mac.
Nevertheless, the older tales, with all their horrors, have their grip on me. Once read, I can’t unread them. And there is no doubt that they have shown me a more complex world than Disney ever could.
What tales influenced you?
When I was five, Mom had a few days off work over Christmas. She rolled out sugar cookie dough and let me cut out Christmas trees and reindeer with little tin cookie cutters. I sprinkled them with colored sugar before she slipped the trays into the oven.
She led me before the cardboard fireplace hung with our Christmas stockings and pulled out a Bible, which she had marked with scraps of paper tucked here and there. She read the Christmas story to me, but it was one she created herself by mixing the versions in a way that was pleasing to her. The story of the baby Jesus brought tears to Mom’s eyes. We bowed our heads and clasped our hands together and prayed a prayer from my Little Golden Book.
Dad walked in the door, carrying a box. I thought it would be a Christmas present he planned to wrap downstairs on the ping pong table which he had set up with all his gift wrapping materials and tools. But it turned out to be a box he had discovered in a school dumpster.
“I had to get out of my truck because the dumpster was so full they had boxes spilling out all over. That’s when I spotted this.” Dad crooked his index finger for me to follow and then glanced back at me. “It’s books. Maybe you can use them now that you’re in school.” Although I had only started school in September, I already knew how to read.Recently I asked my mother if she taught me to read with flashcards, the way she did my younger brother, but she didn’t remember. When I was a toddler I knew how to spell ice cream and by age 5 I could read children’s series books, but how I got from point A to B, I don’t know.
I skipped down the hall behind Dad. Peeking into the box, I saw outdated textbooks from the forties. I couldn’t wait to open them and was glad when my father left the room. When I lifted the books out of the box, they smelled like real school, not like kindergarten where you have to take a nap and can’t read. I was glad Dad drove a garbage truck and could find presents for me.
The second-grade reader had a story where the porridge left unattended on the stove poured onto the floor, out the door, and down the hill. I tried to skim and sample each book. Some of the books had poems, and they were all illustrated with water colors. Some, in the manner of Walter Crane illustrations, featured black, white, and orange.
At the bottom of the box, missing its paper jacket and like a lot of old books covered in a plain green fabric, was a fairy tale book. The stories of witches and poor sons and goblins in this book opened my mind to the world of possibilities. I would only have the book for a year because eventually it would disappear (care of my mother). Some of the stories had a habit of giving me nightmares (thank you, Brothers Grimm). Nevertheless, I am forever grateful that I had the book long enough for the fire of my imagination to be lit.
I’ve written before how the Little Red Riding Hood image is at the center of the story I am shaping into a book-length memoir (link to post). The girl, the wolf, the grandmother, the danger, and the huntsman are all there. In my post which describes how I found out I am a Highly Sensitive Person, I wrote about the function of “The Princess and the Pea,” and how I go through my life-like the girl who feels the pea underneath all those mattresses and featherbeds. In my last post, I wrote about my terror at meeting Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.
So it’s probably not a surprise that I love to read different versions of these tales. There are a lot of movies which remake the old stories. Ever After might be one of the most popular, but there have been many versions of the Snow White and Cinderella stories. If you want to watch a really creepy Red Riding Hood tale, check out Reese Witherspoon in Freeway.
Because the majority of these tales originated either from the ancient oral tradition of storytelling or from storytellers who lived hundreds of years ago, the cultural mores and expectations are different from those of today. That’s why seeing them through modern eyes, such as witnessing the Rapunzel character in Tangled showing herself to be the opposite of the helpless princess of days gone by, can be very satisfying.
Library shelves are jam-packed with picture book versions of these traditional stories which have been re-told, either by staying true to the original or by updating to conform to today’s viewpoints. There are also feminist versions for adults, such as are found side by side with the classic versions in Maria Tatar’s The Classic Fairy Tales.
Some of my favorites are the poems by Anne Sexton. She based each poem on a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. Note: these are not Disney versions.
Sexton passed away in 1974, and her book of fairy tale poems, titled Transformations, was published in 1972. So there are some dated references. At the very ending of “Cinderella,” Cindy and the prince are described this way:
Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle- aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
For fun, here’s the full text of Sexton’s Snow White version. See what you think–is it still relevant?
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
by Anne SextonNo matter what life you lead the virgin is a lovely number: cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper, arms and legs made of Limoges, lips like Vin Du Rhône, rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut. Open to say, Good Day Mama, and shut for the thrust of the unicorn. She is unsoiled. She is as white as a bonefish. Once there was a lovely virgin called Snow White. Say she was thirteen. Her stepmother, a beauty in her own right, though eaten, of course, by age, would hear of no beauty surpassing her own. Beauty is a simple passion, but, oh my friends, in the end you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes. The stepmother had a mirror to which she referred-- something like the weather forecast-- a mirror that proclaimed the one beauty of the land. She would ask, Looking glass upon the wall, who is fairest of us all? And the mirror would reply, You are the fairest of us all. Pride pumped in her like poison. Suddenly one day the mirror replied, Queen, you are full fair, 'tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you. Until that moment Snow White had been no more important than a dust mouse under the bed. But now the queen saw brown spots on her hand and four whiskers over her lip so she condemned Snow White to be hacked to death. Bring me her heart, she said to the hunter, and I will salt it and eat it. The hunter, however, let his prisoner go and brought a boar's heart back to the castle. The queen chewed it up like a cube steak. Now I am fairest, she said, lapping her slim white fingers. Snow White walked in the wildwood for weeks and weeks. At each turn there were twenty doorways and at each stood a hungry wolf, his tongue lolling out like a worm. The birds called out lewdly, talking like pink parrots, and the snakes hung down in loops, each a noose for her sweet white neck. On the seventh week she came to the seventh mountain and there she found the dwarf house. It was as droll as a honeymoon cottage and completely equipped with seven beds, seven chairs, seven forks and seven chamber pots. Snow White ate seven chicken livers and lay down, at last, to sleep. The dwarfs, those little hot dogs, walked three times around Snow White, the sleeping virgin. They were wise and wattled like small czars. Yes. It's a good omen, they said, and will bring us luck. They stood on tiptoes to watch Snow White wake up. She told them about the mirror and the killer-queen and they asked her to stay and keep house. Beware of your stepmother, they said. Soon she will know you are here. While we are away in the mines during the day, you must not open the door. Looking glass upon the wall . . . The mirror told and so the queen dressed herself in rags and went out like a peddler to trap Snow White. She went across seven mountains. She came to the dwarf house and Snow White opened the door and bought a bit of lacing. The queen fastened it tightly around her bodice, as tight as an Ace bandage, so tight that Snow White swooned. She lay on the floor, a plucked daisy. When the dwarfs came home they undid the lace and she revived miraculously. She was as full of life as soda pop. Beware of your stepmother, they said. She will try once more. Looking glass upon the wall. . . Once more the mirror told and once more the queen dressed in rags and once more Snow White opened the door. This time she bought a poison comb, a curved eight-inch scorpion, and put it in her hair and swooned again. The dwarfs returned and took out the comb and she revived miraculously. She opened her eyes as wide as Orphan Annie. Beware, beware, they said, but the mirror told, the queen came, Snow White, the dumb bunny, opened the door and she bit into a poison apple and fell down for the final time. When the dwarfs returned they undid her bodice, they looked for a comb, but it did no good. Though they washed her with wine and rubbed her with butter it was to no avail. She lay as still as a gold piece.The seven dwarfs could not bring themselves to bury her in the black ground so they made a glass coffin and set it upon the seventh mountain so that all who passed by could peek in upon her beauty. A prince came one June day and would not budge. He stayed so long his hair turned green and still he would not leave. The dwarfs took pity upon him and gave him the glass Snow White-- its doll's eyes shut forever-- to keep in his far-off castle. As the prince's men carried the coffin they stumbled and dropped it and the chunk of apple flew out of her throat and she woke up miraculously.And thus Snow White became the prince's bride. The wicked queen was invited to the wedding feast and when she arrived there were red-hot iron shoes, in the manner of red-hot roller skates, clamped upon her feet. First your toes will smoke and then your heels will turn black and you will fry upward like a frog, she was told. And so she danced until she was dead, a subterranean figure, her tongue flicking in and out like a gas jet. Meanwhile Snow White held court, rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut and sometimes referring to her mirror as women do.