August 23, 2013

Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth Column: The Constancy of Fairy Tales, By Christina Ruth Johnson

"Furball," (a story variant of "Donkeysin,") by Margaret Evans Price
Editor's note: I am excited to see what Christina Ruth Johnson is going to do with her excursions into the fabulous lore of fairy tales. I think her first trip is a big success. Read on into the past!

I want to extend a hearty thank you to Kate Wolford for bringing me on board as the new “Fairy Tale Vintage Sleuth.” I am so thrilled to be a part of this wonderful blogazine, and I hope everyone will enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy writing them.

For my first post, I would like to stretch the “vintage” concept and travel back in time to the Middle Ages. This period gave birth to a bevy of fantastic tales full of adventure and chivalry, betrayal and love, good and evil. These stories came not only from oral folklore but also from literature written for the upper classes. We can see remnants of this literature in many of the fairy tales that we know and love today.

Two tales of particular interest are “Donkeyskin” by Charles Perrault (and its variants) and “Girl Without Hands” by the Brothers Grimm (and its variants). Each tale owes integral elements of its plot to what medievalists refer to as the “Constance-cycle”—a set of narratives with similar plots, themes, etc., including, most famously, Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale from his late-fourteenth century Canterbury Tales. The name Constance comes from Nicholas Trevet’s Anglo-Norman prose chronicle from the early-fourteenth century, which includes one of the earliest versions of the narrative. The oldest known narrative in the cycle is the Vitae duorum Offarum, a literary history written as early as the late-twelfth century. Another prominent permutation is the anonymous romance poem Emaré from the late-fourteenth century. The narrative also appears in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, again from the late-fourteenth century—both Gower’s and Chaucer’s versions were based on Trevet’s. Many other versions and variations survive in multiple languages.

The main plot element inherited by Perrault’s “Donkeyskin” from the Constance-cycle is the desire of the father (a king) to marry his daughter. She rejects him, which results in her exile from her homeland. Although incest does not play a part in all the medieval narratives within the cycle, it plays an integral role in the beginnings of both Vitae duorum Offarum and Emaré. Despite their trials, the heroines of both of these stories and of “Donkeyskin” eventually find suitable royal husbands. The impossible dresses in “Donkeykin” made out of sky, moonbeams, and sunshine do not appear in the Constance-cycle as such, but Emaré does posses a beautiful if somewhat enigmatic robe that seems to have supernatural qualities pertaining to love and desire.

Unlike the heroine of “Donkeyskin,” the heroine of the medieval narratives (let’s call her Constance, though she takes on a variety of names) must face further trials after her marriage: she gives birth to a son, but due to the falsification of letters sent to her husband, the king, who is abroad when she gives birth, Constance and her son are exiled. This same series of events occurs in “Girl Without Hands.” The traitor who substitutes the false letters in both The Man of Law’s Tale and Emaré is the king’s mother, while in “Girl Without Hands” it is the very devil himself. Although Constance is never disfigured like the title character in “Girl Without Hands,” scholars interpret the father cutting off his daughter’s hands in the Grimms’ tale as symbolic of incest. This interpretation more closely aligns “Girl Without Hands” with the two Constance-cycle narratives mentioned above, Vitae duorum Offarum and Emaré, as well as with “Donkeyskin,” each of which figures incest more explicitly. (It also brings to mind an earlier version of the Grimms’ tale found in Giambattista Basile’s seventeenth-century compendium Il Pentamerone. In this version, “Penta the Handless,” Penta’s trials begin when she refuses to marry her brother.)

While both “Donkeyskin” and “Girl Without Hands” can clearly be seen as descendents of the medieval Constance-cycle, “Girl Without Hands” certainly has the most elements in common. Like Emaré and the princess of York from Vitae duorum Offarum, the heroine is molested by her father; then, like the “Constances” from all the narratives listed above, the heroine leaves her home, marries a king, gives birth, is betrayed through false letters, and is exiled with her child(ren), before she is finally found once again by her loving husband. 
Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

Christina Ruth Johnson just received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day.

eChaucer: “The Man of Law’s Tale”
TEAMS online Middle English Texts series: Emaré
Wikipedia: Vitaeduorum Offarum
Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic [chapter 4], 2003

Further reading:
Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer’s Constance and Accused Queens, 1969
Christine Li-ju Tsai, “Emaré’s Fabulous Robe,” 2003:

August 17, 2013

Wolves and Witches, EC's First Book Review Column, By Lissa Sloan

Editor's note: Today we begin our first monthly column, and while Lissa Sloan will be focusing on book reviews, upcoming columns by two other regular writers will feature vintage fairy tale information and current fairy tale news. Lissa kicks things of with a intriguing trio of books.

Lissa's official EC avatar,
drawn by Lissa Sloan, herself!
Wolves and Witches: In which I review three books, one containing wolves (some of whom might be werewolves) and witches, one containing a wairwolf (who is not exactly a werewolf) and witches, and one called Wolves and Witches, which contains both wolves and witches.
Between 1764 and 1767 the residents of the French province of Gevaudan lived in fear of the beast or beasts which killed many of their number.

In Scarlette: A Paranormal Fairy Tale, author Davonna Juroe weaves these historical events together with the "Little Red Riding Hood" tale, werewolves, and witches.  Nineteen-year-old Scarlette ekes out a living as a seamstress in her beast-ravaged village.  When her beloved Grandmother is bitten by one of the creatures, Scarlette is forced to go hunting for a cure, and the truth behind the attacks. 

Scarlette is well paced, with the action constantly building as Scarlette seeks answers to her questions while dealing with her antagonistic mother and a lecherous employer.  She must also sort out the intentions of a local nobleman and a mysterious woodcutter.  Scarlette’s weakness lies in its language. The narrator’s contemporary speech and frequent employment of over-used expressions distracted me from an otherwise absorbing story.  Those reservations aside, Juroe quite effectively tells a tale full of adventure, intrigue, and romance, never forgetting that Little Red Riding Hood is the story of a girl, a grandmother, a red cloak, and the woods.   And one other thing—it’s still a cautionary tale about the dangers of getting into bed with a wolf.

In The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, twelve-year-old September is spirited away from World War II-era Omaha to an adventure in Fairyland.  While there, she is drawn in to a quest to retrieve an enchanted sword for the Marquess, a disagreeable girl who rules Fairyland with an iron grip.  She won’t allow any of her winged subjects to fly, and there is never hot cocoa anymore.  (She does, however, have a very fine hat.)  Along the way, September meets an unusual cast of characters including three witches (one who is also a wairwolf), a Wyverary (the offspring of a wyvern and a library), a soap golem named Lye, and a Marid, a wish-granting sea creature. 

The plot is reminiscent of classic stories such as The Wizard of Oz, but every story has its roots somewhere, and author Catherynne M. Valente acknowledges that, making sly references to Oz, Narnia, and the Persephone myth in the course of the story.  The action begins so suddenly I had no time to know September or feel any sympathy for her.  Eventually, though, her story does prove to have heart, and a lot of it.  September is a resourceful girl who journeys through an unknown country with the welfare of her friends always in mind and sometimes nothing but herself to rely on. 

Fairyland is a wondrous and frightening place, filled with cities sewn from cloth or baked into bread buildings, angry household objects, and wild bicycles.  Valente guides the reader through this wonderland with a lyrical and whimsical style.  The sophisticated vocabulary may ask a lot from a middle grade reader, and sometimes seems very formal coming the Midwestern twentieth-century September, but it is a pleasure to read and adds to the book’s Victorian, Alice-in-Wonderland feel.         
Wolves and Witches is an anthology of fairy tale poems and short stories by sisters Amanda C. Davis and Megan Engelhardt, who are no strangers to Enchanted Conversation fans.  Both authors are adept at playing with endings, themes, and settings of the classic fairy tales they tell.  Davis and Engelhardt’s voices work well together.  They are at times touching, creepy, funny, and empowering as they re-invent, twist, and turn familiar favorites on their heads.   Standouts are Davis’s story "Gold in the Straw" and Engelhardt’s poem "Untruths About the Desirability of Wolves." 

I might have wished for more variety when it comes to the fairy tales featured, for "Hansel and Gretel," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" are each treated by both authors.  But on the other hand, perhaps it only proves the point that the ways any fairy tale can be interpreted and reimagined are endless.  And I would have found it difficult indeed to choose between "Bones in the Branches," and "A Letter Concerning Shoes," the two stories based on the "Twelve Dancing Princesses."  They are very different, but equally compelling.  Wolves and Witches is full of consistently strong writing touched with a sly humor both authors share. 

Have you read any of these books?   Join the Enchanted Conversation and let us know what you thought.  Happy reading!

Lissa Sloan has contributed stories, poems, and guest posts to Enchanted Conversation, but she also writes and illustrates for younger readers. Visit her online at her website,, or on Twitter, @LissaSloan.