By Bethany Tidwell
As someone who is interested in teaching English to children one day, I spend a lot of time thinking about my formative reading experiences. What should I keep/change/reject from my own education? I am interested in the identity-reflexive aspects of literature that make and are made by a subject (reader/writer). Inert lines on a page rewrite the language in which we understand our world. In this way, teaching how to read is more than interpreting these marks on a page. To me it is teaching magic: the magic of recognizing the self within and without the stranger, the magic of reconstitution, of identity reformation and forgery for both entertainment and survival. I have always been interested in this dynamic self-reflexive magic of reading, and perhaps that is why I have also always been drawn to fairy tales.
With that in mind I’d like to talk a bit about some picture books based on fairy tales I first became acquainted with as a child that left indelible impressions on me. I found these stories incredibly compelling; strange, yet familiar. It turns out this strange familiarity is rich earth for digging. I’d like to demonstrate how comparative methods can be used to explore aspects of literature that provide extraordinary insights that an un-comparative approach radically undermines, and thus promote its use in the classroom, or at least its consideration.
A quick introduction: The children’s books I want to look at are all instances of interpretations of folk/fairy tales. This means they were all transmitted between common folk way before they were ever recorded in the versions we encounter today. This is already a complication! It makes an appeal to authority difficult when it comes to analysis or interpretation. This means that they are simultaneously more and less complete when considered in isolation. In isolation, they are considered valuable cultural artifacts, the authority of an individual storyteller is revered, but held together, we can understand not only how cultures’ values relate, but also the historical circumstances in which they arose. What’s more, in the case of these and other popular fairy tales, they became most popular once rewritten, authorized, and published by Charles Perrault.
Charles Perrault published his first fairy tales, Stories or Tales from Times Past, at age 70, with Morals published in 1697, based on versions popularly circulated and “refined” among elite women’s salons influenced by the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV. Perrault edited these versions in ways he felt improved them. He trimmed away bloodiness and simplified them. It is his versions of “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Little Red Riding Hood” etc. that we most often encounter in pop culture; popularized, Disney-fied, sanitized, and moralized (literally, Perrault ended his fairytales with morals, often reinforcing conservative values for women).
For a comparative approach, this is both helpful and hurtful: Perrault’s authorized tales tell us less about a culture than an individual man’s ability to be published and have his works circulated in a certain time. (We can say the same thing about the Grimm brothers who collected, rather than invented, their tales with the intent of of preserving and elevating German culture.) But as such, they also inform us very clearly of the power of this white male authority as a commodity. This becomes essential when exploring any residual and emergent forms of the fairy tale, before or after Perrault. Factors of colonization, nationalism, patriarchy, and capitalism are paramount to the hierarchization of culture in the modern age. There is no one truth that emerges from folktales, as there is no original story, only comparisons of these smaller truths.
Now on to the books…
The Rough-Face Girl vs. Cinderella
The Rough-Face Girl is a children’s picture book published in 1988, written by Rafe Martin and illustrated by David Shannon, based on the retelling of a European fairy tale, Cinderella (made popular by Perrault), taken from an indigenous storyteller. The Miq’maq version was recorded in 1884, by Charles Leland*. There are other versions of the story, however, making its origin unclear. However, it certainly shows the effects of the French colonization of North America by the Acadians, as before their arrival, this Native American Cinderella did not exist. The earliest variant of this tale can be traced to the Egyptian story of Rhodopis, “a girl who winds up marrying a king after a bird steals her red shoe and dumps it in the king’s lap, leaving him to search for her” (NPR). Most often this tale is interpreted similarly to the way Cinderella is: the well-behaved girl will be rewarded for her trials and tribulations with a handsome husband.
Now, in contention with that idea is this interpretation from a person more acquainted with the indigenous culture at stake in the adaptation: http://www.kstrom.net/isk/stories/cincomp.html
From an analysis provided by an indigenous American, we realize that “this is the interpretation of… modern children’s stories that were mined for commercial processing as [children’s] books from Leland’s 1884 publication.” Citing the Leland recording, the writer notes “the Mi’kmaq storyteller is very taciturn about this aspect of her success [her marriage to a strong, providing man], dwelling at far greater length on the magical healing she receives at the hands of the Invisible One’s sister-guardian” (kstrom). Indeed, the writer of this analysis wholly disagrees with interpreting the story of the Rough-Face Girl along the same lines as Cinderella and makes a good case for how the taciturn storyteller’s directly antagonizes Cinderella. Cinderella is “a fantasy about simplifying the relationships between social standing and coupling — one that makes the most sense in a world in which class differences are an accepted barrier to a good man choosing to marry a woman. If the prince is a man who believes from the outset that love conquers all, the story doesn’t really make any sense. It would be hard to set Cinderella on a properly functioning egalitarian collective” (NPR). This is supported in the indigenous analysis of Rough-Face Girl being antithetical to Cinderella, especially since her wardrobe appeals more to tradition than to class, with the others in the village seeing her as ridiculous. Similarly, if the Rough-Face Girl’s society is more egalitarian, then it is only her hard work and intelligence that set her apart, her beauty being marred. All the women, regardless of class, are judged on their perception rather than their outward appearance. She comes to her “prince” in rags and ridiculous clothing and triumphs, where Cinderella would never have succeeded without the artifice of magic.
Additionally, Perrault’s Cinderella rests in the ashes after she is done with her work and is still one hundred times prettier than her sisters. The Rough-Face Girl is scarred by the cruelty of her “eldest sister [who] would hack off her hair with a knife, and burn her hands and face with hot coals. Eventually her whole body was scarred with the marks, so that people called her Oochigeaskw, the Rough-Skin Girl.” Whereas Cinderella’s beauty is not marred by her physical labor, the trauma experienced by the Rough-Face Girl leaves lasting physical marks. Beyond negating her beauty, this also shows the actual cost of labor, abuse, and traumatic experience. The writer of this analysis draws from personal and historical experience on reservations to show how the “swamp” in which the original storyteller located the story may refer to a state of social and ecological crisis, the entire despondency of the village may tie in to the effects of colonization, capitalism, and alcoholism on colonized peoples. The writer also shows how the Fairy Godmother can represent the seeming providence of capitalism without hard work, and consequently the negative effects the writer details for native communities. Thus, the writer notes the benevolent fairy’s absence as significant, directly contradictory to Cinderella’s good fortune, and draws attention to the many difficult tests the girl must endure: The Rough-Face Girl must provide for herself without a fairy godmother. The Invisible One’s sister may give hints, but it is the strength and innovation of the Rough-Face Girl is what allows her to break away form her caustic surroundings to find her way to the Invisible One, which may indeed be the realm of the dead, given “that spirit road, the Milky Way, is actually the Ghost Road, the road spirits of the dead take.” (The writer, in an amendment, later claims to think the Rough-Face Girl did not die, and extends his analysis to the longer episodic song-form listed in Leland’s footnotes.) In short, this tale takes Cinderella’s precepts and turns them on their head: the girl provides for herself and through her self-sufficiency, rather than through supernatural blessings or beauty, is able to win escape from her abusive home. And yet, as the writer states in their essay, it is the Cinderella story that is given the precedence over an indigenous one in the children’s picture book. Naturally this appeals to publishers and makes a indigenous tale more digestible to the dominant/hegemonic/colonizing one.
Other variations of Cinderella are hardly recognizable, but they all seem to include a girl, mistreated by her family, who ends up in good fortune. In reading this writer’s analysis, I picked up on an interesting distinction that I find in another emergent version of a popular French fairy tale very similar to but distinct from Cinderella, that intersects with my youth memorably. I would like to bring up some analytical tools that I think, if employed, would lead to a fruitful analysis similar to the last writer’s attempt.
The Talking Eggs vs The Kind and Unkind Sisters
The Talking Eggs is a children’s picture book written by Robert D. San Souci, and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. It came into the world in the same year as me, 1989, and is also Southern in nature (I moved to CA when I was in fourth grade). It is an illustrated version of a Creole folktale first recorded in 1895 in a collection of Louisiana folktales by Alcée Fortier. (I loved this book when I was a kid!) Now, on its own, there’s plenty to look at: the family relationships, context, texture, motifs etc. However, once compared to the dominant tale of the Kind and Unkind Sisters, in particular Les Feés (The Fairies or “Diamonds and Toads” in English) by Perrault, a much richer landscape becomes available for cultivation. In a simple comparison, the distinctions leap out at us. There is an obvious shift in geography, race, class, and cultural values. We would need to further this investigation in scholarly terms and structures in order to give it academic merit, beyond the pleasure of personal contemplation. Allow me to suggest a theoretical starting point, one I am currently enjoying…
MARXISM: Concerned with systems of power and oppression, Marxism is necessarily grounded in historical, and thus material, evidence. Raymond Williams, in his work Marxism and Literature, provides a rich and accessible framework to interpret these cultures in language and writing (a subject which has so much at stake, especially in folklore). Other Marxist critics might relegate the realm of fiction and literature to pure ideology, but Williams justifies a Marxist/material approach to literature by claiming that language and culture is lived and experienced, and necessarily interacts with the material world in various ways, particularly through its authors. Thus, something as diaphanous and permeable as shared culture becomes approachable through its variations of these stories if we use his help. He introduces vocabulary that would assist the individual on comparing works. I’ll list two concepts in particular:
1. Commitment: How invested is the author in this work? What are their personal motivations for making it, shaped by the author’s history, class, and social identity? This might involve incorporating other authorial sources for race and gender theory, for instance; there are other critics, Marxist and otherwise, who talk more about those issues that Williams. The author’s commitment to what they are writing about might allow for good critique in kids stories. For instance—The Rough-Face Girl, labeled an Algonquin tale by Rafe (as it was by Charles Leland) is actually a Mi’kmaq in origin. Where are these white authors commitment to authenticity? How does this infringe upon their work? Comparatively, we can see the commitment of the original storyteller to the incorporation and reconstitution of myths through a tale brought from French furriers (maybe). For instance, in the picture book The Talking Eggs, the illustrator Jerry Pinkney, has an outspoken commitment to representation of African American culture and was commissioned to design the first nine Black Heritage stamps in 1977. The author, though white, was a scholar of folklore and was born and raised in the Bay Area, a location that prides itself on being progressive, and so might be concerned with the preservation of marginalized communities. Of course, a lot more research would have to be done to guarantee these aren’t spurious claims, but I believe using Raymond’s framework, an analysis that incorporates culture and Marxism would lead to interesting conclusions about power within the stories and in the communities outside of them.
2. Emergent, Residual, and Dominant Forms: Some people may be so bold as to consider these adapted versions of fairy tales as “less authentic” in light of the order of their appearance, but in folklore, these stories are passed on because people are compelled to do so. What compels them? It’s a little different when one talks about picture books because they’re commodities. Would a book have sold as a commodity without the culturally dominant Cinderella theme being pushed? Comparing these stories in terms of emergent, residual, and dominant allows for an exploration in terms of what values evolve, remain, or are in the process of being lost in a culture. What do these exchanging/changing values tell us about the culture, past and present, and how does this relate to power structures? For instance, in all the adapted versions of Cinderella (Rough Face Girl) and Diamonds and Toads (The Talking Eggs), physical labor at personal cost increases as the focus. The settings shift away from provincial towns to rural landscapes. The importance of the men is dropped. (There are no men in either the picture book nor tale of The Talking Eggs.) The pictures in The Talking Eggs incorporate fantastical images such as dancing rabbits, a common character in Louisiana folklore, and so that is an emergent quality complicated by the author’s commitment; how seriously should we take those rabbits? The importance of names comes into play; Blanche and Rose in The Talking Eggs were nameless in Perrault’s, and while this may seem reminiscent of Snow White and Rose Red, they are in fact from a Grimm’s tale of a totally different nature. The Invisible One and The Rough-Face Girl are English translations of native languages, and so their significance might be irresponsibly labeled as an emergent form of the Greek myth of Cupid and Pysche. We would need to know more of the Mi’kmaq culture and mythology to understand the significance of the themes folded into those names. Therefore, it is crucial to use these tools are accurately as possible.
One thing that can help in the accuracy of interpreting these tales is the formal categorical index of fairy tale motifs called the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU), named after the scholars who realized it in stages. The ATU index organizes tales by type number. Cinderella and The Kind and Unkind Sisters are different tale types (510A, and 480) with their own distinctions. Using these tale type numbers an individual can pursue other criticisms along any theoretical lines he or she is interested in—essentially, why reinvent the wheel?
As I am primarily interested in doing a fresh analysis of Toads and Diamonds, The Talking Eggs folktale and picture book, it would behoove me to use the ATU to investigate the following aspects that leap out at me as particular to the Creole variant: importance of not laughing (respect or emotionlessness/women as hysterics), obedience to strict and absurd rules despite extreme pain (colonization trauma), the symbolism and use of eggs, the Southern Gothic notion of the grotesque (the incomplete person, the social freak) and the trials that Blanche meets (like the old lady removing her own head), lack of husband/male (centrality of the matriarch, Blanche must obey their mother as well as the matron/fairy/hag), coming to luxury through supernatural circumstances impresses the mother alone and Blanche becomes the favored daughter (in the Perrault story, it is just good as a dowry to a husband), laughter and godlessness (as in Cry the Beloved Country), regional animals like rabbits, dogs, chickens [“When her mother sent her away like a dog, and told her to go live in the woods” (Fortier 119)], whether or not the bad daughter dies at the end and why exactly she fails the test (her irreverence replaces the earlier variant’s stubbornness). Obedience to matriarchs seems to a central theme. As opposed to the Perrault version and other “Kind and Unkind Girls” stories, the good sister is not married off to a handsome prince and the wicked sister usually doesn’t die, but is rather spurned from the household, seeming to speak to the social centrality of women (adaptive family structures, pre/colonial).
This started as a simple meditation on a kid’s book I really enjoyed. The picture book The Talking Eggs was read to me as well as The Rough-Skin Girl and Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest when I was in Center Point Elementary kindergarten in Alabama around 1995, and I still remember them very well. I’m bragging a little, because I want to dispel a little of the assumptions made about the South and public education through an instance of my personal experience. And there you see my commitments showing. Of course, through this meditation, one can see how these picture books can also potentially misrepresent a culture and reaffirm power structures of patriarchy and capitalism etc. if not challenged.
Since I was young, the undercurrents of connection between stories always fascinated me. When I was young this was a huge factor in the “magic” of reading. Something is going on under the surface, road bumps and blocks snag your thoughts unconsciously (themes, motifs, images)—you are struck when you find yourself, suddenly conscious, recognizing these familiar landmarks in a different book’s terrain. You feel pretty smug, in fact. These first connections seem ideal, essential, eternal, magical, but as they multiply the reader begins to touch the material world, realizing authors’ ideas aren’t fixed points of truth, but rather a web, a network, a temporal process that responds to circumstances of reality. Connections build consciousness; their complications complicate us. Informing these connections accurately and inexhaustibly is the scholarly work of reading. Comparative Lit is thus a formal way of approaching the way I read and process literature anyway (and probably you too!). For me, it’s a crucial way of holding the magic and reality of writing together in good faith.
When you are a kindergartener, picture books seem very important. The fairy tale of Cinderella is fact, as well as the abusive mothers, repellent sisters, absent fathers. It has always disturbed me how hostile these environments are for young women. And indeed, I became the dreaded older sister, always interpreted my mother as unfair, always felt my father could be more present while paying tribute to head of the household. All of this is simultaneously constructed and experiential. I can see how elements of these themes flatten into rules, which we take as law into our lives. As shown earlier, reading Native American and Creole variants of folktales under the same thematic lens as their precursors can set one up for a plethora of cultural and historical misunderstandings, the greatest of all being when a young person does not have the skills to question and critique this authoritative influences on her or his young life. The comparative method has allowed me to show how these fairytales are infinitely more informative for children once their apparent structures have been deconstructed and opposed.
The author of this essay notes the possible existence of another collection: “The only other occurrence I know of appears in a book I’ve never found — The Red Indian Fairy Book — of 1914.”
THE TALKING EGGS (references)