Csenge Zalka, fairy tale lobby, fairy tales, fairytales, mary grace ketner, megan hicks, national storytelling network, storytelling, Tarkabarka, Vasilisa
Simplia shut Thurber’s Fables for Our Time with a loud clap! and declared, “Ergo…those disguises in fairy tales were more about enchantment than about wardrobe and good makeup artists.”
At the librarian’s approach, Sagacia braced herself for a genteel shushing. Sometimes Simplia forgot all about library deportment and using her indoor voice.
“Say that again, would you?” said the librarian. “Please excuse me for eavesdropping, but I’m doing some research on gender roles and cross dressing in fairy tales. It sounds as though we’re mining similar veins.”
Sagacia said, “We’re responding to a query about fairy tale characters who assume disguises that their nearest and dearest don’t see through until the end of the story. Our correspondent wondered whether the guise was effective because the disguise was really good or because the parties involved were under an enchantment.”
The librarian pulled up a chair and said, “That reminds me of the story about my good friend Vasilisa, back when she was daughter of Pope Vasili. She dressed and rode a horse and shot a gun and drank vodka like a man. The Tsar had his suspicions but couldn’t manage to verify her gender — even after suggesting a trip to the sauna together.”
Sagacia said, “You know Vasilisa, too?! Small world. The woman gets around, doesn’t she? So in that story, it’s all about a good disguise and not breaking character. But that’s a folk tale. There’s no magic mentioned.”
“True,” the librarian agreed.
Simplia continued, “But as soon as magic starts moving the plot along, it seems the actual disguise is secondary to the enchantment working on both the impersonator and the … the ‘impersonatee.'”
“I see,” said the librarian. “As when Uther Pendragon assumed the visage of his mortal enemy and lay with Ygraine.”
“Yep,” said Sagacia. “Nine months later — King Arthur! And before the dawn of time, Heracles was conceived by the same ruse.”
Simplia wanted to get back to the origin of her epiphany. “And what James Thurber said… Fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood had to have been under an enchantment to believe for an instant that that knobby, furry, toothy thing in her granny’s nightclothes was really her granny. A couple of props, dim lighting, the power of suggestion — she’ll won’t question it. But a post-Cartesian Red Riding Hood isn’t buying the disguise for an instant.”
Sagacia didn’t want to be distracted from looking at actual fairy tales and considering a realm where Descartes would doubtless have found himself at sea. Her train of thought was saved by the bell.
It was a electronic notification being delivered to her phone.
Oh sweet!” she said. “Tarkabarka has a new story up on her blog today, and it’s got — guess what — a young woman in full male regalia. Let’s check it out!”
In movies, books, even legends, when a man dresses as a woman, the situation devolves into comedy. If a woman dresses as a man, it is the start of drama. Certainly there are exceptions; Shakespeare’s comedies come to mind, but generally the pattern holds.
However, someone will need to point out to me where a man dressing as a woman comes up in fairy tales. These tales have their prejudices beyond how they treat gender. When has the hero of the tale been a barrel maker, even though their product appears in the tales, usually lined with nails for the distress of evil stepmothers?
Let me further muddle my point and bring in the animus and anima—the man in every woman and the woman in every man. The old storytellers were aware of this concept long before the birth of Carl Jung. Witness the old Danish tale “The Princess who became a Man.” (Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark, stories collected by Evald Tang Kristensen. Translated by Stephen Badman, volume two.) The title tells it all. But why do we get the animus side and not to anima side of the story?
The fairy tales impose limitations upon themselves. These “limitations” I called “prejudices” above. I wrestle with that notion, and now leave my point in disarray.