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:


Lissa Sloan said...

Fascinating stuff! I love learning about early incarnations of fairy tales, and these are two of my favorites (well, not the Perrault version, but the tale). Thanks for the great column. I look forward to the next one.

Teresa Robeson said...

Delighted to have Christina join EC! I enjoyed this essay (though the tales mentioned are a bit gruesome and icky), and look forward to all her future posts. :)

Christina Ruth Johnson said...

Thanks, Lissa and Teresa, for the encouraging comments! The etiology of fairy tales is always a fascinating topic. I will definitely make a point to return to this kind of study in future posts. My next post, though, will be delving into the art world...stay tuned!

Laura B. said...

Great analysis of two thought-provoking and fascinating fairy tales. I look forward to reading more!