The Yellow Fairy Book: Some Thoughts

The Yellow Fairy Book (1894).

Every Fairy Book thus fair has included at least a few familiar favourites, and the Yellow Fairy Book, not to be left out of the loop, includes “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “How to Tell a True Princess” (an ironic retelling of “The Princess and the Pea”), “The Nightingale”, “Thumbelina”, “The Steadfast Tin-soldier”, and “The Tinder-box”, a fairy tale by Andersen which I’d actually never heard of but which bears a resemblance to the story of Aladdin. There are lesser-known tales from Mme d’Aulnoy, Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm, and other tales from Iceland, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Germany, France, and England. There are even a few (mostly depressing) stories from the Native Americans.

Frontispiece of "The Swineherd" and Title Page.

For this post, I decided to compile a few observations that I found intriguing, whether hilarious, quirky, or kind of disturbing. They are haphazard and in no particular order.

1. All stepmothers are bad. This is because it is biologically “unnatural” and counter to one’s basic instincts of self-interest to put children who don’t carry one’s own genes before children who do. “This propensity [to dispose of nonbiological children] is connected to a basic human drive to invest love, time, and energy in children that are biologically reproduced to carry on one’s species [i.e. one’s bloodline]” [1]. Perfectly natural, but highly immoral. The popularity of adoption today is a mark of how civilised humans have become. Indeed, “[f]airy tales are all about basic instincts and genetic evolution within a civilizing process” [2].

The childless stepmother turns her stepsons into swans.

Childless stepmothers, too (one hardly ever meets stepfathers, if indeed they exist [and if they do, I don’t think murdering stepkids would be their crime…]), are expected to be evil [3]. They desire to eliminate all competition for male parental investment in order to optimize the chance of perpetuating their own genes [4] (a phenomenon more commonly known as “jealousy”). Alas, stepmotherhood causes even apparently good women to go to the bad [5]–it is unescapable.

2. Princesses do not always live happily ever after. At least, not within certain tales. There is a certain type of fairy tale in which the princess scorns the prince who desires to marry her. Traditionally, the undaunted prince returns in lowly disguise to woo the lady, who is won over and marries him once his royal identity is revealed. In “The Swineherd”, however, the prince spurns the princess in the end, because she “would have nothing to do with a noble Prince; [she] did not understand the rose or the nightingale, but [she] could kiss the Swineherd [alias the selfsame Prince] for the sake of a toy”. The insipid girl has no appreciation for real roses or songbirds, but is willing to pay (i.e. prostitute herself) with kisses, and to a swineherd no less. He actually shuts the door in her face. Proud and inelegant princesses do get punished (though I don’t think she could have had a particle of pride left once that first kiss had been forfeited). But who can say she didn’t find her happy ending beyond this fairy tale?

3. Daughters of evil, oppressive witch mothers are not assumed to be inherently bad and may hope to win the sympathies and love of good men. This is because evil witch mothers treat their daughters abominably. Perhaps the witch beats her daughter to obey her, or has turned her into an African [6], or has had her confined. The evil witch mother, on the other hand, is to expect no sympathy from anyone–least of all her own daughter, who she has abused or transfigured or imprisoned.

The black girl, actually a white girl under enchantment, attacks her mother the witch.

For instance, the Hunter in “The Donkey Cabbage” revenges himself by turning a witch, her daughter, and their maid into donkeys which he entrusts to a farmer, enjoining him to deal the  old one “three beatings and no meal”, the youngest one “no beating and three meals”, and the middle one, the servant, “one beating and three meals”. Shortly afterwards the “old one” dies, and the other two become depressed. The compassionate Hunter restores them to their true forms, whereupon the daughter, ostensibly unmoved by her mother’s death, confesses that she’d only done her mother’s bidding under bodily threat and happily marries the man. In another tale, “The Three Brothers”, a daughter’s freedom is contingent upon her mother the witch’s demise–about which the former seems to have no qualms whatsoever.

The evil witch mother hovers over her daughter as she does her bidding (which is to make the Hunter disgorge a swallow's heart that gives him gold under his pillow every night).

4. The youngest of three brothers is invariably the hero of the fairy tale. If you are the third brother, a happy ending awaits you at the end of your tale–but not before you attend to many trials, which may or may not include getting blinded, your legs broken, and left for dead by your two backstabbing brothers who obviously never liked you very much. They will prove to feel threatened by your superior handsomeness and will want to snuff you out in order to succeed better at court themselves. But do not fret! Justice will be served, for you will set a pack of wolves on them or they will flee in terror from you, seemingly come back from the dead. You will have been healed and your invidious beauty restored, and that will carry you through [7], unless you have also been endowed with intelligence [8], in which case your wits will carry you the day.

Ferko is the third and youngest brother. His two treacherous brothers malign him.

If your brothers do not attempt to kill you, it will be because you are not worth it: you are a dunderhead. Banish the thought of affectionate brothers–there is no such thing, unless you are a sister. For if your brothers are not vicious would-be fratricides, they are arrogant, derisive churls. But their words shan’t hurt you because you are a shade too thick to comprehend. Nevertheless, your ignorance and innocence will win the day. Plus, if you are especially muttonheaded, you will have earned a colourful name for readers to remember you by, such as “Simpleton” [9], or “Blockhead-Hans”[10]. And if you are in actual fact not a dunderhead, but merely misperceived as one, well, you shall all the same proceed more or less as if you were.

Blockhead-Hans with mud, broken clog, crow carcass, and his noble steed. Is it just me or is his cap reminiscent of a dunce cap?

5. Heroes with supernatural assistants should take care that their helpers do not outshine them to the point of looking impotent. In “Prince Ring”, the eponymous prince has a massive, talking dog named Snati-Snati, no doubt magical in some way, who thoroughly outdoes his owner in every feat. When Ring and his rival go out to cut wood, Ring, with the help of his dog, presents a heap “more than twice as big” as his competitor’s. I think it’s clear whence the “more than” came. When Ring and his dog set out to slay two monstrous oxen, the former, at the latter’s counsel, takes on the smaller ox, while the latter falls on the bigger one: “With this Snati leapt at the big one, and was not long in bringing him down. Meanwhile the Prince went against the other with fear and trembling…”

Snati-Snati worrying big ox and Prince Ring being overpowered by little ox.

Later, when they need to top a sheer cliff, Snati climbs its face, pulling Ring up by his tail. His master, it would seem, has a fear of heights: “…he pulled Ring up the lowest shelf of the rock. The Prince began to get giddy, but up went Snati on to the second shelf. Ring was nearly swooning by this time, but Snati made a third effort and reach the topped of the cliff, where the Prince fell down in a faint.” The writers of this tale tried really hard, one can see, to ennoble this character. Finally, in their fight with a troll’s ghost, the roles of master and servant are reversed: “Snati immediately sprang upon him, and Ring assisted in the attack”.

A wonderful illustration of Prince Ring hanging by Snati's tail.

Now, heroes often have magical or animal helpers who aid them in their tasks by completing them in their stead. One might think this looks worse on the hero since he does nothing at all, but I say it is better, on the contrary. Where one does not lift a finger, there is no opportunity for one to look incompetent. But where one does take action, and only manages to take little, well! Not very impressive to the onlooker, is it?

Furthermore, if Snati were a genuine super-dog, I might hold off comparing Ring with him. But, as it turns out, Snati is actually a prince under enchantment, which Ring breaks. And Snati’s real name is Prince Ring as well! Gah!

6. Abducting a princess is the tried and true way of earning her loathing. Sometimes a male, normally a magic user, will fall so hopelessly in love with a princess that he will whisk her away on the spot. Confinement of the girl always follows, and plenty of rejection, for a girl cannot love him who is her captor. All she can do is repulse his advances and wait for her Prince Charming to deliver her. In the case of “The Wizard King,” the Wizard King, a widower, kidnaps a princess and tries to persuade her to marry him. She refuses, is sprung by the King’s son the Prince, whom she quickly weds. It was quite she lucky did, because otherwise she would have become a stepmother! And we all know stepmothers come to no good end.

A captive princess surrounded by her guards.

"I can only look on you as my worst enemy," said the Princess.

7. Exceedingly long facial hair can be surprisingly useful. But beware! If the option is available to you, always choose the lengthy moustache over the lengthy beard. The former may come in handy as leashes for your pet lions; the latter, however, is not useful to you, but your enemy, who will seize you by your ill-advised extent of beard and dash you to your doom, as vividly illustrated below.

One of my favourite illustrations in this book.

All observations were made based solely upon the Yellow Fairy Book. I am aware that material from other fairy/folk tales may and do qualify what I have said, but I do not address them here.

All images courtesy of the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Libraries.

1. p. 131: Zipes, Jack. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. New York: Routledge, 2006.
2. p. 131, Ibid.
3. In “The Six Swans”. In this tale, the stepmother has no children of her own nor does she have a particularly evil bent. Her husband the king, however, “could not look at her without a secret feeling of horror” and conceals the fact of his children by ensconcing them in the woods. I cannot help but think that the king himself triggered he evilness of his second wife in not trusting her with even the knowledge of his children. He keeps sneaking off to visit his kids. The queen becomes jealous and suspicious, and when she finds out about them she turns them into swans. So it seems that no stepmother is safe from harming her stepchildren, and that vying even for the husband’s attention will incur her wrath.
4. p. 134-135, Zipes.
5. Such as the Queen of Hetland the Good from “Hermod and Hadvor”.
6. In “The Glass Axe”.
7. In “The Grateful Beasts”.
8. In “The Three Brothers”.
9. In “The Flying Ship”.
10. In “Blockhead-Hans”.

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