alexandra alger


Archive for the month “April, 2018”

Fairy Tales, Part II


In search of the more obscure fairy tales—in other words, the stranger, more disturbing ones—I checked out of the library The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, translated by Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell, with black-and-white drawings by Maurice Sendak (1973). Segal and Sendak chose twenty-seven tales, and most of them were new to me.  

And fantastically strange many of them are. In “Hans My Hedgehog,” a boy is born with the head and torso of the prickly woodlands creature. Sendak makes him menacing rather than adorable in the way of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Wiggle, but he’s also kind of…dashing. Rejected by his parents, Hans goes off to the forest, where he raises pigs, plays the bagpipes and rides a cockerel that’s been shod like a horse. Hans bullies a king into handing over his daughter as a bride, and when she shrinks from him he scratches her with his spines until she’s bloody.  Then she’s sent back to her father,”disgraced her life long.” Hans gets a second chance at a princess, and when she accept him for who he is, she’s rewarded big time: Hans zips out of his hedgehog skin, as if it were a costume. I was quite enjoying this story until the ending jolted me: Now a full-bodied man, Hans is “coal-black” and has to be scrubbed until he is “white,” at which point he’s deemed a “beautiful young man.”  I wondered why Segal didn’t edit this; she made changes to other tales, according to the New York Public Library notes. She could’ve simply excised the reference to coal-black. No one can be surprised that a nineteenth-century German storyteller believes white is beautiful; it’s the comparison to coal-black that rankles.

Then there’s “Many Fur,” an incest story with elements of Repunzel and Cinderella. A dying queen makes her husband promise to marry a woman as beautiful as she and with the same golden hair. (The Germans and their obsession with golden hair!) The king looks around, and there isn’t anyone who is equal to the queen—except, why, his own daughter! The king’s counsellors try to dissuade him (I was relieved to read), and the princess herself is horrified, but the king is firm. The princess has no choice but to run away to the forest. There are no dwarves to rescue her, alas. The king’s men find her, disguised in a fur coat made from the hide of every animal in the kingdom (hence the title). She ends up working in the royal kitchen, carrying wood and sweeping ashes. And this is where the story changes course. The princess is never again identified as the king’s daughter, nor he as the king who wants to do this wicked deed of marrying his own daughter. One day, there’s a ball, and the princess cleans herself up, dons one of her old dresses, and heads to the ball. Mysteriously, no one recognizes her, including the king, though he does note a strong resemblance to his “dear bride.” And mysteriously, she doesn’t identify herself. She hustles back to the kitchen and her role as an abused servant. Eventually, the king discovers who she is—his dear bride!—and they live happily ever after.

As you can tell from my retelling, the story drives me crazy. It’s completely unsatisfying, how the incest is sneakily circumvented. It turns out Sendak found the story utterly delightful, with “such lovely incest disguised & such sweet nonsense,” (See the notes that are in the collection of the New York Public Library, easily found at 

I wonder what he made of “The Jupiter Tree.” I’ve never liked stew, and now suspect that my aversion is tied to some long-repressed reading of this tale. A stepmother chops a boy’s head off, then chops up his body and makes a stew with it, and serves it to the boy’s unsuspecting father (who compliments her on how good it is). Oh, and the boy’s sister is made to believe she’s responsible for his death. It’s all so awful, you keep reading, wondering, what next? How will there be a happily ever after? Incredibly, there is—the stepmother dies, and the boy is even brought back to life. Is this really a children’s story? Or am I simply too old and too soft to handle it? The writer Amanda Katz, in a piece for NPR a few years ago, recalls loving “The Juniper Tree” as a child. As an adult she finds it “horrific.”

There was a tale I particularly liked—”The Master Thief.” It celebrates cleverness  without a drop of blood. And for a change, our man doesn’t end up with a princess. This thief (who is never given a name) could be Jack the giant-killer, grown up. Even though stealing is wrong, you can’t help liking his derring-do and imagination. Also, he specializes in the kind of theft that almost sounds heroic: He only steals from the rich, and he only steals that which is challenging to procure. The local authority figure, the count, gives the MT a challenge: If he pulls off three seemingly impossible thefts, he’s free to leave with his life; if not, he’ll hang—in the count’s colorful terms, “tie the marriage knot with the rope maker’s daughter.” If I’ve piqued your interest, look for it online—or click here: 



My Life: A Fairy Tale?


The psychologist Eric Berne, a best-selling author in the 1960s and 1970s, once hypothesized that a child’s favorite fairy tale influences that child’s life choices. I read this in Alison Lurie’s 1989 book of essays, Don’t Tell the Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature.  Consider his examples, as quoted by Lurie: 

“The boy who once admired Jack the Giant Killer has grown up to work for Ralph Nader; the girl who loved the tale The Frog Prince is married now to an ugly but very successful man, while the one who preferred Little Red Riding Hood still keeps getting deceived and seduced, often with rather nasty consequences for her seducer.”

The child who likes Little Red—in for a lifetime of disappointing and abusive relationships? A boy (or a girl) who admires Jack’s nervy escapades—inevitably a do-gooder? As for the Frog Prince, Berne has the story wrong: The princess doesn’t fall in love with a frog. The frog is a prince under a spell, and when the spell is broken (mysteriously), the princess marries the prince. (Come on Berne, you’ve got to up your game.)

An extreme and fantastically reductive theory, I decided. One story couldn’t dictate the path of a complex human being. 

Then with a sense of unease I remembered Cinderella. Tales about a poor girl who winds up marrying a prince exist in centuries-old folklore of many countries around the world. In the U.S., there can’t be many young girls who haven’t heard of Cinderella, her glass slipper and her romance with Prince Charming. The notion that a romance, and a wedding, can be fairy-tale perfect, has become a cliché.  Prince Charming is a noun (in dictionaries!) that refers to an ideal mate or lover.

A woman has to fight against it—at the very least confront it: Does she or doesn’t she want the fairy-tale wedding? Does she or doesn’t she want the bell-shaped poof that we all think of as the “princess” dress? I remember rejecting the princess dress, though I can’t claim to have been much of a rebel; I ended up with a to-the-toes look, despite having hopes for short and snappy. 

Disney has everything to do with why Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are the classic trio of tales that girls learn about by time they’re three or four (today Disney’s own Frozen may have dislodged them—or joined them). I myself spent countless hours listening to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty record while tracing images of Disney’s Aurora from the album cover. (Yes, this was a very long time ago.)

Could my countless hours with the fair Aurora have had an effect on how I’ve lived my life? I never went blond, even though I coveted her cartoon-lush waves of yellow hair. I didn’t stand by, a victim to events beyond my control, nor did I need rescuing from events beyond my control. I didn’t have a godmother (though I envied my friends who had godparents—all those extra presents for birthdays and Christmas).

 No, Dr. Berne, your theory doesn’t work for me. But I’m grateful to you, Alison Lurie and the Stonybrook Children’s Lit Fellows program (which assigned the reading) for turning my thoughts to fairy tales for the first time in years. 


A sleeping beauty whose parents would be very glad if she slept the whole night through.

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