Pamela L. Travers believed that all prototypes of womanhood were contained in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, or at least, that is what she wrote in her essay “Grimm’s Women”.
To persuade her readers to accept her point of view she presents in her essay, albeit briefly, her interpretation of the meanings of a few of their stories. Like a dexterous magician, she masterfully shuffles the meanings of these stories to the point of presenting a seemingly knowledgeable standpoint. But did she see that clearly into the meanings of these stories?
In order to answer this question a careful examination of Pamela L. Travers’s understanding of the meanings of the fates of the female characters in these fairy tales is required. I believe that Pamela’s appreciation of these stories can give us an indication about how she might have experienced her own womanliness.
It is true that the Grimm’s fairy tales date back to a time when the roles of women and their living conditions were much different from our current ways of living. And yet, despite our technological and scientific discoveries and social advancements, the human dynamics depicted in these stories not only remain the same but they underlie all aspects of our modern lives.
Now, I must admit (and I wrote about it in my last post) that I thought that Pamela’s advise to her friend to model herself on the Grimm’s women seemed quite peculiar. The Grimm’s princesses appear, for the most part, to be passive victims and what woman in her right mind would want to be a victim? But then I realized that the problem with these old fairy tales is that we all get side tracked by their most obvious interpretation. Yes, back then women were powerless and their survival depended greatly on men (and in many parts of the world today this is still true.) So, of course the fairy tales reflect the social reality of their times. However, if you peel off that first layer of meaning another one appears. The Grimm’s stories which Pamela examined in her essay can be separated into different categories depending on their major themes. There is the theme of the passage from childhood to maidenhood and theme of the passage from maidenhood to motherhood.
From child to maiden
The narrative in all of these fairy tales is about a female character in a psychologically dire situation. The obstacles that must be surmounted could potentially prevent the heroine’s passage from one stage of her life into the next. Another common element in these stories is the role played by the parental authority figures as the threshold guardians to the passage leading to maidenhood.
I do agree with Pamela, now that I have read the Grimm’s fairy tales, that the Disney versions of these tales are quite superficial and do not take into account the psychological dynamics in play.
Now let’s revisit the original versions of two of these stories: Cinderella and Snow White, and ponder on Pamela L. Travers’s interpretation of their meanings.
When I read the first English translation of the first edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales I was amazed at how different the original Cinderella story was from the story most people know today. Surprisingly what is left out from the story is what I believe to be its most significant element, the key that allows to unlock its meaning.
Just before she dies Cinderella’s mother makes a promise and a request. She promises Cinderella that she will look after her from heaven and then asks Cinderella to plant a tree. The tree, her mother tells her will give Cinderella everything she wishes for, all she has to do is to shake it. After her mother dies, Cinderella plants a tree on her grave and waters it with her tears. Then, eventually, her father remarries and from that point on in the story he disappears from the narrative.
As we all know, Cinderella is forced by her stepmother and stepsisters to do the heavy chores around the house, which she accepts without complaining (and without shaking the tree). Then, the time comes in the fairy tale when the prince must find a bride. A ball, which is to last three nights is organized for that purpose and Cinderella’s sisters are attending. Not only is Cinderella left behind, but before the stepsisters leave, they throw lentils in the hearth and order Cinderella to separate them from the ashes. Unexpected help comes in the form of white pigeons who also encourage Cinderella to go to the tree and ask to go to the ball.
Cinderella follows their advice and shakes the tree making her plea: “Shake and wobble little tree! Let beautiful clothes fall down to me“. Beautiful clothes and a carriage appear and Cinderella goes to the ball and dances all night with the prince. The third night of the ball the prince wants to make sure Cinderella does not escape him when midnight strikes, so he paints the stairs of the castle with black pitch and posts guards on the road. But again, Cinderella runs away, only this time one of her golden shoes (not glass!) remains stuck on the stairs of the castle. The prince announces that he will marry the maiden who fits the shoe. The two evil sisters try to force their feet into the small shoe by following their mother’s advise. One sister cuts off a piece from her heel, the other cuts of her toes and each time the prince brings them back because their bloody deceit is uncovered. Then Cinderella must try the shoe… well we all know how that ends.
Now, what did Pamela write in her essay about Cinderella? She wrote: “Cinderella, in Grimm’s at least is wise enough to know that nothing is to be got by wishing. It is only by performing the necessary rites at her mother’s grave that she goes to the Prince’s ball.”
What is, according to Pamela the feminine prototype embodied by Cinderella? What should a woman who wants to model herself to Cinderella do? What proper rites must she perform? For one thing Pamela was right though, nothing can be achieved simply by wishing.
Clearly Pamela’s convoluted interpretation does not unveil the meaning of the story but it is articulated around its key element: the relationship between Cinderella and her mother.
Cinderella’s story is a story about the blooming of an orphan child into a beautiful confident woman. I believe that Cinderella’s story teaches us that the successful transition from childhood to womanhood is closely linked to the quality of the nurturing a little girl receives from her mother at the very early stages of her life.
In this story both the mother’s promise and the tree symbolize the healthy bond between a mother and her daughter and the life-giving force of the mother even from the beyond. The story is truly about the most important gift a mother can give to her daughter: a strong sense of self-worth.
It is this early imprint of self-worth that allows the young Cinderella to outstand the attacks of the outside world. Her mother’s love taught her that she deserves to be loved regardless of her condition. Cinderella is resilient and patient but when the opportunity knocks on her door she rises up to cease it and all this is possible because of the love she received from her mother. She doesn’t tell herself things like: I am not worth it! It is impossible, so why even bother? My stepsisters are right I am ugly and dirty! The Prince will never pay any attention to me, why would he?
Judging by what she wrote about Cinderella, it is obvious that Pamela did not fully understand the meaning of the story. This fact is not the least surprising. Pamela’s bond to her mother was severed early in her life (See blog post Pamela L. Travers’s First Gods (Part II)) and this may have been the cause of the inner torments and physical ailments she experienced until the very end of her log life.
Another surprise here too. The original story is about a narcistic Queen and her beautiful little daughter. It is not the stepmother who wants to kill Snow White but her real mother. When Snow White turns seven years old, her mother orders a huntsman to kill her.
The huntsman takes pity on the little girl and leaves her in the forest where he believes she will be devoured by the wild animals. Instead, Snow White finds her way to the house of the seven dwarfs who offer her shelter in exchange for her help around the house. Eventually the Queen finds out that Snow White is living with the seven dwarfs in the seven mountains and decides to go there and kill her herself. She makes three attempts on Snow White’s life and each time her disguises allow her to deceive Snow White.
The first time she pretends to sell laces and laces Snow White’s dress so tight that Show White loses consciousness. In the evening when the dwarfs return home they untie the lace and Snow White recovers her breath. The second time the evil Queen combs Snow White’s hair with a poisonous comb but again, the dwarfs find it and remove it and Snow White is safe one more time. The third time the Queen makes a poisonous apple. This time Snow White cannot be helped. The dwarfs build a glass coffin and write Snow White’s name on it in golden letters. Time passes but unexplainably Snow White remains fresh and beautiful in her glass coffin. One day a prince comes into the dwarfs’ house and falls in love with dead Show White. The dwarfs let the prince carry her to his castle. The prince, infatuated with Show White, orders his servants to carry her everywhere he goes. One time, one of the servants gets really upset with the absurdity of the situation, opens the coffin and shakes Show White. The poisonous piece of the apple pops out of her mouth and Snow White becomes the prince’s bride.
What did Pamela L. Travers have to say about this female heroine? Not much: “...before becoming a candidate for Happy Ever After (she) had to surmount inordinate obstacles.” Fine, but what are the obstacles Pamela?
In this story the mother hates her daughter and does all she can to destroy her. Snow White in her child’s innocence cannot protect herself even if the dwarfs warn her about the evil ways of her mother. The child is prevented from maturing and crossing over the threshold to maidenhood because she is unable to truly recognize the meanness of her mother. Snow White is not awaken from her unconscious state by the prince’s love but by the servant’s anger. The prince’s love was not enough to heal the damage caused by the evil Queen. Snow White needed to be shaken in order to awaken. It comes a time in everyone’s life when one must see people (including and especially family members) for what they are and not what they look like they are, or what one wants them to be, this is the adult way. To disengage from an unhealthy relationship, one must first be able to see it for what it is.
What fascinates me personnaly is the fact that despite all the life shaking events in Pamela L. Travers’s life nothing seems to have succeeded in totally awakening her to life. It is significant that the fairy tale that appealed the most to her was the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Another story of girl stuck at the threshold to maidenhood and unconscious of all the gifts bestowed upon her by the good fairies at her christening. Pamela even wrote her own retelling of the tale of Sleeping Beauty which I examined in detail on this blog see: About the Sleeping Beauty Part I, II, III, IV, V and VI.
In conclusion to this post, I must point out that to a certain extend Pamela L. Travers was right, the fairy tales can teach us about womanhood however, it is not a question of modelling oneself to the characters as she believed, as it is a question of understanding the patterns of human emotion and behaviour in play in these tales and use them as road maps.
In my next post I will continue exploring Pamela L. Travers’s analysis of the Grimm’s tales: Goose Girl, All Fur, The Twelve Princesses and Rapunzel. Hope you stay tuned.