One way in which modern authors try to achieve the goal of using fairy tales for their original purpose of teaching through example is by reworking familiar subject matter in a more realistic mold suitable to a more open society, dealing with the societal circumstances that allow such events to take place, and with the consequences of abuse not averted through magic or luck. Authors Robin McKinley, Jane Yolen, and Terri Windling demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach in their modern interpretations of tale type 510B in their works "Deerskin," "Allerleirauh," and "Donkeyskin," in which they focus upon the reality of a number of issues which had been brushed over in previous versions, even those that most closely approached the taboo aspects. Let us examine their work, going from the most overtly fantastic to the most reflectively realistic, to see how the messages which they convey compare with the older versions.
Robin McKinley deals with the monstrous, the mundane, and the marvelous with the same skill, not overemphasizing one over the others as older tales may be wont to do, but creating a skillful blended imagery which depicts a world which never was, whose reflection nonetheless can be seen both in the world of reality and in the symbolic world of traditional fairy tales. McKinley's novel Deerskin is no less magical than the folk tales from which it's drawn, but it is far more realistic in its message. Possessing the luxury of over three hundred pages in which to work, she adds a number of details which are not present in the older, shorter versions. McKinley makes mock of the self–deception that people employ when they put too much faith in the concept of "happily–ever–after" through her recurrent use of the tale that is told of the courtship of her heroine's parents. Whenever mention is made of either mother or father, they are not spoken of as individuals, but as figures who are almost archetypal in their glory: "the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms" and "the most powerful king in seven kingdoms." As their daughter herself says, "they [seemed] too splendid to be real." McKinley emphasizes the blurring of the line between fantasy and reality — for these splendid, fairy–tale parents are too caught up in their roles to be proper parents, or proper people. The danger accompanying the loss of demarcation between what is real and what is only the semblance of reality, emphasized by repetition, is illustrated by the manner in which those involved (both members of the immediate family and the kingdom as a whole) react when their illusions are shattered, when the fairy tale proves false. This is most markedly visible in the actions of the queen at the start of the novel, but is also evident in the descent into madness, which affects the other characters upon her death. The nursemaid Hurra, for example, becomes unable to contemplate anything but the fracturing of her reality, while the rest of court and country mourn in a manner that is out of proportion to their loss. Most damaging of all is the obsessive reaction of the king. Their descents, however, are predicated upon that of the queen, making her experience the rightful place from which to begin our examination of the tale.
In the older tales, the tellers rarely give any specific explanation to justify the dying queen's last request, or indeed, even her death. In a patriarchal society, where women were valued primarily for the potential of fertility (as expressed by physical beauty), the queen's life and death serve as stylistic elements, points which served no purpose but to further the plot. McKinley expands upon those points by providing a background and psychological justifications for the queen. Incest and physical abuse frequently follow familial patterns, passed down from generation to generation like malignant genetic markers. McKinley never states directly that the queen was abused by her own father, but the implication is there in the text. We are told that he "sought to drive her suitors away, or to lose them on topless mountains and in bottomless valleys or upon endless seas. . .such was the love that he bore for his only daughter, and the desire for her presence. . .But who could blame him? For she [was] the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, and [her father] died of a broken heart [after she married] and left him." These lines betray a frame of mind that is paralleled in the problems of the next generation, which places the obsession with physical beauty above the value placed upon honorable behavior.
In folk tale versions, there is no mention made of any wrongdoing up until the king's "proposal" of marriage. McKinley's depiction of the parent–child dynamic in an abusive relationship is far more true to life. On the surface, the princess of the later version, Lissla Lissar, respects her parents. However, that respect is not based upon any actual contact that she has had with them, but purely upon the tales that she has heard all her childhood, which present her parents as glorious figures, larger than life. In reality, the neglect they shower upon her is a form of abuse in and of itself. McKinley says "That they forgot their child themselves, and distracted their people into forgetting her also, was merely a natural result of their perfection," a concept which carries a grisly logic, and is accepted by everyone concerned as a matter of course. The princess, too, believes the fairy tale version of events, drummed into her by her nursemaid.
Upon the event of her mother's death, that illusion is shattered. Her parents are not the immortal figures of legend that they had been made out to be, but are as mortal as others and thus can be judged by similar standards. This half–conscious realization takes a long time to fully surface, described succinctly in the text when McKinley says that "her mother's death had changed her position in the royal household. . .she no longer believed in the shining figures of her nursemaid's stories, though she dared not think why." It is at this point that Lissar cautiously begins to emerge from the isolated chrysalis within which she had previously existed. This princess had possessed absolutely no female role models — she had only had her mother, a creature too splendid and grand to be considered of the same species, and the nursemaid Hurra, so brain–washed that she had worshipped the queen with every breath she took, both of whom appreciated only obedient quietude from the girl. As a result, Lissar developed into a creature who not only compared unfavorably to the fabled mother in the eyes of their kingdom, but who saw herself in the same manner: incapable, inadequate, and deficient. As she grows older, Lissar begins to consider the question of what she, as an individual, and not as the daughter of her parents or as a princess of the realm, might be capable of in her own right. It is at the peak of this period of emotional growth that Lissar begins to question the direction her life is to take — whether she will continue to acquiesce to whatever others desire of her, thus eventually becoming a part of (and later perhaps a perpetuator of) the cycle of abuse, or whether she will instead develop that part of herself which questions the accepted order of things, seeking answers of her own.
The king announces his intention to wed his daughter, using a form of justification that has been used by myriad tyrants and tormentors: that the subject of attention somehow belongs to them and is theirs to do with as they will. It is interesting to note the justification that members of the court evince in response to this madness: they dismiss the king's guilt and their complicity by blaming Lissar for her father's actions. For the courtiers to admit his faults would be to admit their own drawn–out error of having worshipped a mortal man as a figure of legend, proving the truth of the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely — for the king and queen in all their twisted glory were only products of the society which they ruled, and which ruled them in turn. Instead, the court chooses to believe that an outside agency is responsible for this ill fortune: Princess Lissla Lissar. Their words are ugly (and bear an unfortunate ring of familiarity in our own society, which all too often blames the victim). "He still misses his wife, of course," say the courtiers in McKinley's text, "for he has not remarried. That is probably the girl's doing. Every girl wants her father to herself. Look at her now, pretending to be so bashful, so shy that she cannot open her eyes, as if she did not like being the center of attention. Look at her, half–swooning, making sure by her weakness that her father will stand close, will hold her, protect her, not take his eyes off her. She probably has a hundred little petting, luring ways with him when they're alone together. And he, poor man, thinks the sun rises and sets in her." The ugliness is only compounded after the announcement itself, which makes it painfully obvious whose idea this grotesquerie truly is. Lissar faints; despite her obvious reaction, the court continues to blame her, refuses to blame him, making her collapse a small wonder — the sheer weight of psychic disapproval would be enough to smother anyone, let alone an individual trained to be as quiescent, as obedient, as self–sacrificing as Lissar has been.
Unlike the princess of the original story, Lissar does not ask her father for gifts in an attempt to deflect his attentions; despite her protests, the gifts are forced upon her as signs of his "love," just as his affections are forced upon her. Unlike the princess of the original story, Lissar is not given a grace period until her wedding night; her father rapes her shortly after making his announcement. It is this brutal act which forces her to flee, despite the timidity which has been taught to her, which she had only begun to overcome. But like the princess of the original version, Lissar grows stronger away from her poisonous home. In the forest (symbol of growth and change), Lissar encounters the opportunity to be self–sufficient, to be away from the judgment of others and, most importantly of all, to explore her own self, or at least those parts of herself which are not too painful to think about. However, there are limits to even the greatest feats of endurance, and finally, Lissar reaches the last of her resources when in the course of a miscarriage (the result of her rape by her father) she is attacked by the demons of her past, to use a phrase both trite and apt — literally, by the memory of what had been done to her, and by what appears to be the spirit of her dead mother.
It is at this point that the magical aspect of this story begins to become clear, when Lissar is aided by a deity who personifies the archetype of the experience that she has suffered. This figure, roughly analogous to the fairy godmother of older tales, renders unto Lissar a number of gifts — the gift of healing, the gift of camouflage, and the gift of the deerskin dress from which McKinley's novel takes its title. This garment, like the various cloaks that name the older stories, has a number of implications. It is white in color (symbolic of rites of passage and mythic initiations); it is impervious to stain, abrasion, or other forms of damage. It is not too much of an intuitive leap to say that in some way the Deerskin is meant to represent Lissar herself. Lissar continues to grow, to evolve, both through her own experience of self–sufficiency and courage, and through encounters with strong role–models — such as the compassionate, confident queen of the foreign kingdom in which she finds herself, who is quite unlike her own mother. The most important manner in which the princess continues to develop, however, is one that is not even touched upon in the old folk tales — simply, she finds more individuals about whom to care, who care about her in return. She acquires a sense of trust in, and responsibility for, the people whom she meets in town and country, and within the palace itself — especially Ossin, the most un–royal prince of the foreign kingdom.
Unlike almost anyone else whom she has encountered, Ossin does not love her for anything that she may represent — a dead wife, a form of salvation, a symbol of any type. Ossin does not love her for her beauty, or her cooking, or any such fool thing. Plainly put, he knows her for herself, and says "I believe that you're as human as I, and I'm glad of that." He is not the sort to create the fairy tale illusion that drove her mother, her father, and her country insane. He is glad that she has human flaws and human fears, that they will age together, and eventually die together, because those are aspects of his own life, which he has pragmatically accepted. The fact that she shares the "flaws" of humanity, as opposed to being a purely supernatural creature (as she appears in her deerskin), means that they can, in fact, be together. In short, a traditional fairy tale happy ending.
Not. . .just. . .yet.
There is one last, crucial difference between the older tales and McKinley's version, which can most probably be attributed to the different societies that produced their authors. Where the princess of the old tales abdicates her independence and responsibility to her new fiancÚ, this princess cannot do so. Where the first princess merely "told [her prince] her past history, and all that had happened to her," as Joanna Cole writes in her rendition of "Thousand Furs," reassuring him that "she was, as he thought, a King's daughter. . .and they lived happily till their deaths," such a simple ending is impossible in McKinley's more realistic story of abuse. Lissar, upon hearing Ossin's proposal of marriage, and his honest avowal of his love for her, feels her heart break — for she loves him too, yet believes that her experiences have rendered her forever unfit for human love. The sad reality is that this sensation of being harmed beyond healing or repair is part of the cycle of abuse, continuing on long after physical scars fade. Again, Lissar flees, not from any new physical harm, but from that which she cannot escape, that which lies within her, and again, she returns to the forest, to the cycle of healing which had previously been broken by her miscarriage.
This time, the cycle is also marked by bloodshed, but not her own. Her guard dogs are attacked by a wild animal in the woods; this is reminiscent of her attack by her father. Here, however, she acknowledges her responsibilities, rather than concentrating upon guilt, or blame. Lissar's attention is torn from the past to the present, a change in mindset which eventually helps her to develop a certain peace of mind, a distance from her memories, described as the ability to "[remember] the softness and sweet smell of the nightgowns she used to wear when her favorite bed–time story was the one of how her father courted the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, and the nightgown was still a pleasant memory, and she could spare the knowledge of sorrow for what was to come to that little girl without spoiling the understanding of that earlier innocence and trust." When she heals enough to make that connection, she has healed enough to no longer need the ameliorative tool that the wood provides, and it fades away, leaving her to finish the healing process for herself. This she does by continuing the cycle further, heading toward the city — not to change her mind, but to rectify any undeserved pain that she may have caused her friend Ossin.
The last part of this intensive, immediate healing process (the process in its entirety is likely to continue far beyond the close of the novel) comes when Lissar is granted the opportunity to confront her father, to accept the truth that what was done to her was just that — done to her — and not a thing for which she was responsible. This is coupled with the realization that even after Ossin learns the entirety of what she has suffered, he loves her still. What he says to her is completely antithetical to the words expressed by the prince in "Thousand Furs" who says, "You shall be my dear bride, and we will never be parted again, although I know not who you are." Instead, Ossin tells Lissar, "I love you, and I do not believe there is anything so wrong with you. . .I–I was there this morning, when you — when you showed the scars you bear, and accept that you bear them, and will always bear them."
Yet even in the face of this declaration, Lissar does not fall prey to the image rather than the reality. Instead of promising to "live happily ever after till their death," Lissar is honest, and warns that she will try to stay with Ossin "for as long as the length of their lives. . .but [she] did not know how strong [she] was. . .[and she] could not promise." Ossin tells her, "It is enough. . . .For who could make such promises?" This conversation is wholly realistic, and markedly unromantic in the "fairy tale" sense of undying love, portraying an unusually honest picture of what true love really is. McKinley's ending is happy, but that is not to say that it presents the idealized "happy ending" of the older tales. She is aware that the past cannot be erased, or ignored. It must be dealt with over the course of the years, for better or worse.