© Copyright 2011, Andrew Held and Myles Berdock.
Perrault, Charles, “Donkey Skin.” Andrew Lang, ed. The Grey Fairy Book. Ill Ford, H.J. New York: Dover Publications, 1967. 1-15. Print.
“Donkey Skin” is one of the many pieces of children’s fantasy by Charles Perrault, a talented French author who had a different view on life than most. He spent much of his time studying and writing different types of literature, but it wasn’t until he retired from public life that he began writing children’s fantasy. The tale “Donkey Skin” describes a king who wishes to marry his step-daughter. Disinterested, she turns to a fairy godmother to help her escape. The godmother makes the princess look like a peasant with the skin of the king’s former pet donkey (hence the title). When she removes the skin one day, a prince sees her and is love-struck. The prince finds a ring in a cake and decides he will marry the girl whose finger it fits. The princess’s finger is a perfect fit, and the two get married and live happily ever after.
This is the first story that appears in The Grey Fairy Book, a compilation of tales edited by Andrew Lang in the early 20th century. Henry Justice Ford does all the illustrations for “Donkey Skin.” The pair has quite the history together, working on a dozen fairy books with a different colour on the cover and in the title. Throughout this exhibit, we will be looking at the importance of the fairy godmother’s role in the story, split into two sections: category and context. A common themewill be the fairy’s mother-like characteristics, helping the princess when she is in trouble. The fairy’s actions will be examined in relation to her role as caregiver and refuge.
The Use of Fairies in Donkey Skin
The fairy godmother’s role is of great significance in the tale, guiding and shaping the princess’s life. After the king demands her hand in marriage, the princess turns to her fairy godmother. After the fairy is unable to prevent it outright, she assists in the princess’s escape. The big turning point of the story, the wearing of the donkey skin, is by her advice. She also provides the princess with a magic chest containing her most precious dresses. As a result of the supernatural gift, a prince discovers the princess’s true beauty. Eventually both of them are able to live happily together. Although the fairy godmother is no longer seen or mentioned in the rest of the story, her actions result in the princess finding her true love, while also allowing the king to find his true love with a different woman.
The Importance of Fairies
The use of fairies to overcome personal trials is common. A famous example is “Cinderella.” The fairy godmother uses her magic so Cinderella can go to the ball, and thanks to her assistance the heroine ends up finding her prince. There are many similarities between the two tales, but when it comes to the fairy godmothers’ respective roles they are nearly identical: both protagonists are faced with an issue regarding their step-parent, and the fairy godmother appears to provide a solution. While this method of problem solving is creative for storytelling purposes, it also creates controversy among readers. It is argued that magic and other fantastical means for characters to overcome their dilemmas will complicate a reader’s ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. Contrary to that belief, there are psychologists, such as Bruno Bettelheim, who argue that people reading fairy tales can have a better understanding of problems people face than they could by reading other forms of literature (Hallett and Karasek, 312).
A fairy’s intervention in times of crisis benefits the character’s development in the story. The fairy is able to provide people alternatives to dealing with their problems, like the unwanted marriage in “Donkey Skin.” The importance of the fairy godmother’s role is emphasized by her representation as a maternal figure that comes to save the princess. Her biological mother is never mentioned in the story. In the absence of a real mother to guide the princess, the fairy godmother acts a maternal substitute. The fairy godmother is seen as a magical being that transforms her physically and emotionally. When the princess needs comfort, the fairy godmother comes to her aid, offering wisdom and a solution. In contrast to “Cinderella,” the plan causes the princess to lose her beauty as a way to save her. This intervention allows the princess to overcome her belief that she cannot be saved by presenting an opportunity to escape her unwanted reality. The decision to make the princess’s protector a female, especially one that has mother-like qualities, is not arbitrary. It stems from an ancient belief that if a female wishes to assert her independence from the restraints of paternal authority, she will only be able to do so within the roles of a wife and/or mother (Rowe, 212).
Visual Representation of Fairies in “Donkey Skin”
This illustration from “Donkey Skin“ in The Grey Fairy Book shows the fairy’s role as savior. She is depicted looking down on the princess while reaching her hand out as a sign of assurance. The princess is kneeling in front of the fairy godmother, with a tearful expression on her face. Here, the fairy is a symbol of relief and unconditional support. This is shown in the fairy godmother’s expression as well, which is both caring and sincere. In addition, a religious element is introduced that shows the fairy godmother as savior. The fairy’s stance (reaching out her hand) and clothing bear a striking resemblance to depictions of the holy mother. To further the idea of superhuman assistance, the image shows the fairy godmother in midair with an aura around her body. This aura could represent the godmother’s divine powers and presents her as a shining beacon of hope. The princess in this image appears as if she is praying to her godmother when she is faced with a problem she cannot escape alone.
The image at the end of the story shows the princess beautiful and happy. It should be noted that, while in the previous image she was kneeling and asking someone for help, now she is in the position of strength. The person kneeling is the prince. This could not have happened if the fairy godmother did not aid her in the first place. The actions of the fairy are what allowed the princess to become a person of both physical and spiritual beauty, clearly depicted in the image to the left.
History of Fairy Godmothers
Fairy godmothers are very common in the folk and fairy tale genre of fiction. But why? When asked to name a story with a fairy godmother in it, most people would say “Cinderella” or perhaps “Sleeping Beauty” because that is how we have been introduced to them. However, the fact is that the archetypal fairy godmother has appeared in religious literature for centuries, (Knapp, 70) dating back to characters such as the Virgin Mary, Innana (Sumerian Queen of Heaven), Demeter (Persephone’s mother), Kali (Hindu fertility goddess) and Kuan Yin (Chinese deity of compassion).
The reason that fairy tales are common to so many cultures is not simply because they are accessible or taught at a young age, but also because they have characters whom we are meant to relate to. In this exhibit, I’ll discuss the use of fairies in popular culture and how they are designed to be reflections of us in two distinctly different ways. In one way, the fairies act as a surrogate mother figure to characters, reflecting our own deep-seated need for maternal guidance. On the other hand, fairies (as mystical beings) can be given characteristics that we do not possess. In this way, we can project whatever we want onto them. In the case of “Donkey Skin,” it is entirely possible that the fairy is merely a construct of the main characters subconscious.
A Psychological Approach to “Donkey Skin”
In Charles Perrault’s “Donkey Skin,” we see a princess with a serious problem. Her step-father, the king, promises his wife on her deathbed that he will not marry again unless his new wife is smarter, prettier and wiser than she is. After the appropriate mourning period, the king comes to the conclusion that the only woman that meets these high standards is his own step-daughter. While admittedly jarring at first, the theme of incest is not unusual in historical literature: consider Adam and Eve, Osiris and Isis, and of course Oedipus (Knapp 67). As interesting a topic as this is, we will focus elsewhere.
In such cases, whether real or fictitious, the absence of a mother often causes adolescents to search out a supplemental maternal figure. With no intention of marrying her father, the princess seeks guidance from her fairy godmother. In this way, the fairy godmother provides a source of maternal advice and guidance to the young princess. It could be said of all of us that at some point or another we feel lost or directionless. With alienation in society seen as commonplace, the idea of being nurtured by a maternal figure can be greatly comforting.
The Use of Setting in “Donkey Skin”
If we read a little deeper into the story, another layer to the fairy’s characteristics begin to appear. The area that the godmother lives in could be called a grotto or underground cave, decorated with warm soothing colours and smooth surfaces. These features are meant to inspire feelings of comfort in the young girl, acting as a sort of emotional sedative. This soothing effect can be seen as part and parcel with the maternal guidance.
Another interesting sub-textual reference is in Perrault’s use of a grotto. Since prehistoric times, caves and grottos have been symbolic of a womb (Knapp, 70). They are often portrayed as sheltering, and sometimes as a source of spiritual guidance. If we conceive of the grotto as a symbolic womb, then we can interpret the princess entering the womb as a case of regressus ad uterum; that is to say, “to inhabit one’s consciousness where latent energies can be stirred up.”(Knapp, 70). In the case of the princess, this return to a symbol of maternal solace might allow for new ideas on how to deal with her incestuous father. The cave itself is a symbol for personal growth and perspective, allowing the princess to focus on how to deal with the task at hand.
Fairy Godmothers as Alternative Maternal Figures
We often see fairy godmothers as a staple amongst the folk and fairy tale genres. It is easy to see why we find such solace in a mystical being that can give us advice in our most desperate times of need. The idea of a godparent is already prevalent in society as someone who acts as a mentor or confidant. Writers like Perrault and the Grimm Brothers simply added a mystical element to it. A fairy godmother is a strong pillar of order for a downtrodden character to find solace in. In “Donkey Skin” the fairy godmother acts as a conduit to personal growth. Through her advice the princess finds the strength to rise up against her father’s wishes (which was almost unheard of when Perrault was writing). Without the presence of a mystical being offering maternal guidance, she would have been condemned to a life of unhappiness with her step-father. It should not be surprising that when deconstruct the fairy godmother as a character, we see a reflection of what we desire ourselves: the strong hand of a mother figure, guiding us through life’s problems.
Selected Works Cited
“Charles Perrault biography.” Biography.com. A E Television Networks, LLC, n.d. 19 Nov 2011. <http://www.biography.com/people/charles-perrault-9438047>. Web.
Goldberg, Christine. “The Donkey Skin Folktale Cycle (AT 510B).” Journal of American Folklore. 110.435 (1997): 28-46. Web. 5 Oct. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable /541584>. Web.
Hallett, Martin and Barbara Karasek. eds. Folk and Fairy Tales. 4th ed. Canada: Broadview Press, 2009. Print.
Knapp, Bettina L. French Fairy Tales: A Jungian Approach. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Print.
Perrault, Charles. “Cinderella.” The Blue Fairy Book. Ed. Andrew Lang. New York: Dover Publications, 1965. 64-71. Print.
Rowe, Karen E. “Feminism and Fairy Tales.” Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England. Ed. Jack Zipes. New York: Routledge, 1989. 209-226. Print.
Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. Print.