"Donkeyskin" by Beatrice Billard

Donkeyskin, Deerskin, Allerleirauh (Continued)

by Helen Pilinovsky

The next tale, written by Jane Yolen, deals with the other side of the coin, with consequences worse rather than better. Jane Yolen is one of the most respected authors both in the field of fairy tale scholarship, and in the field of fairy tale authorship. She has published over seventy works dealing with fairy tales; "Allerleirauh" is one of the shorter works, but also one of the most haunting. In this tale, written for a collection of fairy tale fiction dealing with child abuse, Yolen examines the idea that abuse seldom consists of a single type, or of a single incident or encounter. As she has said in a discussion of this tale, "while I wanted this to have a happy ending, the story insisted otherwise."

"Peau d'Ane" by J. C. Demerville

"Allerleirauh" begins in the traditional fashion, with the dying queen and the grief–stricken king. Here, however, the queen dies in childbirth, and the promise concerning remarriage is not exacted by the queen, but offered voluntarily by the king. This is a very interesting variation, removing, as it does, any onus of guilt from the easily scapegoated female figure. In the original folk tales, the queen is typically a rather thinly written character. While malignant motivations are not unthinkable from a mother to a child, as other fairy tales prove (the original "Hansel and Gretel," for example, before the Grimms lessened the shock of the careless mother by removing the blood–bond and making the abandoning mother a literal "wicked stepmother"), in the case of tale type 510B, we find no standard material indicating any such intent. The story can be made to read that way, with the careful addition of explanatory background material, as Robin McKinley does in her version of the tale; however, for the older tales to be read in such a way would imply a critical slant inherent to the reader's cultural assumptions. Maria Tatar notes (in The Classic Fairy Tales, 1999) that the queen's condition for remarriage is read by some critics as a justification for the king's incestuous urges. She cites two critics who say, respectively, that "The dying queen had a vengeful streak: she made her husband. . .swear not to remarry unless he found a woman superior to her in beauty and goodness. Entrapped, the king eventually discovers that only his lovely daughter can fit the bill" and that the heroine's degradation is consequent upon her dying mother's unfortunate imprudence." Tatar is at first ironic, and then all too serious, in her observation that "Again and again, mothers are the real villains, extracting promises that end by victimizing both father and daughter. Everywhere we look, the tendency to defame women and magnify maternal evil emerges. Even when a tale turns upon a father's incestuous urges, the mother becomes more than complicit: she has stirred up the trouble in the first place by setting the conditions for her husband's remarriage."

Thus, the fact that the promises concerning remarriage are offered by the king in Yolen's version serves to focus the story, to pare it away to its most essential qualities, as is necessary in such a brief reworking of the tale — Yolen's story is approximately two pages long. Yolen leaves her readers with no room for ambiguity; she makes her interpretation of the tale painfully clear. She writes: "He had made two promises to the blanched figure that lay on the rude bed. . .'Promise me.' Her voice had stumbled between [her] lips, once red, now white. . .'Promise me that you will love the child,' she said, for even in her dying she knew his mind, knew his heart, knew his dark soul. . .'And promise me that you will not marry again, lest she be. . .' and her voice trembled, sighed, died."

Illustration by H. J. Ford

Using the logic of older tales, and of mothers, one can assume that the queen intended to ask her husband not to remarry, lest his new wife be cruel to this child of a dead wife. Using the logic of a lover, however, and the logic of a "dark soul," he chooses to finish her sentence, not with parental concern, but with a final, if backhanded compliment; he swears not to replace her unless it is with a woman who is her physical double. He finishes his wife's sentence, saying he will not remarry "'Lest she be as beautiful as thee,' he promised wildly. . .'Lest she have thy heart, thy mind, thy breasts, thy eyes. . .' and his rota continued long past her life." In a very real way, that rota continues not only long past the point where her life has ended, but also long past the end of his actual speech. Brought out of his reverie by the thin wail of his newborn child, reminded anew of the presence that has cost him his wife, he ran from the cottage screaming "I shall go mad!" Though he manages to rule, his words prove true; his madness manifests in his behavior toward his child, whom he refers to privately as Undoing, though her given name is Allerleirauh. Translated from the German, this name can be read as Thousand Coarse or Thousand Fur. Yolen removes the aspect of the story concerning the flight of the princess and her cloak of furs, so one assumes that the first meaning is the intended one, serving to show the father's distaste for his daughter.

The king's peculiarity is noted at first by two people, and two alone: his daughter, and her nurse. Yolen writes, "Only two in the kingdom felt the brunt of his neglect. Allerleirauh, of course, who would have loved to please him; but she scarcely knew him. And her Nanny, who had been her mother's Nanny. . .Where Allerleirauh knew hunger, the nurse knew hate. She blamed the king as he blamed the child for the young queen's death, and she swore in her dark way to bring sorrow to him and his line." The figure of the nurse plays a fascinating role in this narrative. As in the older stories, she is a surrogate mother figure; however, unlike the archetypal fairy godmother, her goal is not to help, but to harm. Whereas McKinley's nurse played a role in the mental subjugation of her princess, her actions were unconscious, the result of her own indoctrination into the propaganda of the kingdom. Here, we see the embodiment of the deliberately vengeful female figure foreseen by the critics. The nurse sees the king as deserving punishment for his role in the death of the queen; she achieves her goal by using his desire for a surrogate bride against him. As the king sees his daughter as an extension of her mother, so the nurse sees the princess as a living extension of her father. Thus, in illustration of the wisdom of being careful what you wish for, the king is presented with his desire, and his doom.

The nurse brings about the downfall of her enemy, the king, through the utilization of a sacrificial virgin, the princess. On the occasion of a great ball, intended to bring the king a suitable spouse, the nurse says to her charge: "I will make you three dresses. . .the first dress will be as gold as the sun, the second as silver as the moon, and the third one will shine like the stars." The nurse "hoped that in this way, the princess would stand out. She hoped in this way to ruin the king." Yolen does not specify what form she hopes that ruin might take. Her nurse might hope that the king will froth at the mouth, rage at the sight of the healthy child whose life cost him his lover's life, prove himself unfit for his office. Or, she might hope for the events that follow, which will, by any moral standard, ruin the king, damn him. Yolen does not say, and we are left to wonder. Seen in the kindest light, the nurse's actions are a sin of omission, a failure to protect her charge from the potential consequences. Seen through a harsher lens, she commits the same sin that the king does, differing in degree, but not in kind; though she does not directly abuse the child, she does not prevent it, and perhaps encourages it to happen. Like the king, she sees the princess as the means to an end, rather than as a person; in his case the end is matrimonial satisfaction, in hers, vengeance.

Yolen's tone is musing as she pens the conclusion of the piece. She writes, "Now if this were truly a fairy tale (and what story today with a king and a queen. . . is not?) the princess would go outside to her mother's grave. . . .The neighboring kingdom would harbor her, the neighboring prince would marry her, her father would be brought to his senses, and the moment of complete happiness would be the moment of the story's end. . . .But this is not a fairy tale. The princess is married to her father and, having always wanted his love, does not question the manner of it. Except at night, late at night. . ."

"Furball" by Margaret Evans Price

Yolen explains how the affair, despite its horror, is permitted to continue, how "[t]he marriage is sanctioned and made pure by the priests," how one priest who dissents "is murdered in his sleep" and another is "burned at the stake." As she puts it, "Silence becomes the conspiracy; silence becomes the conspirators." This last line is particularly poignant, showing how the act of abuse is not only the action of a single sick man, but also the unspoken consensus of a society feeling that the sacrifice of one for the continued good of the many is somehow an acceptable loss. We learn, in the last lines, that "Like her mother, the princess is weak–wombed. She dies in childbirth. . . .The child she bears is a girl, as lovely as her mother." The "her" in this case is ambiguous; Yolen could be referring to the queen, who birthed the unfortunate princess molested and dying on the verge of adolescence; she could be referring to the princess herself. In either case, "The king knows that he will not have to wait another thirteen years. It is an old story. Perhaps the oldest." And thus, we conclude this chapter of the oldest of tales. . .with the unspoken certainty that it will be repeated, again and again.

The nurse achieves her vengeance against the king. The king is granted his desire for a bride. And what of the princess? The "satisfaction" of the adults in this tale comes at the unthinkable cost of the innocence, and life, of at least one child, if not more. The child is treated as a symbol, discounted as a being, in a painfully insightful tale of what it is in society at large, and in the individual human spirit, that makes such abuse possible: "the tendency toward personal safety even at the cost of willful blindness to what is wrong."



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