I’ve Fallen for Who Now? The French Fairy Tale of “Bearskin”

We’re all fairly familiar with the tale of the girl who meets her prince at a ball. But what if the princess just happens to already be legally and religiously married—to an ogre? And is having just a few issues with her current personal appearance, by which I mean “sometimes she looks like a bear, although the sort of bear that collects flowers in the wood, not the sort of bear that eats people, although frankly, given the sort of story she’s in, she probably should be eating more people.”

You’d have the French salon fairy tale, “Bearskin.”

“Bearskin” is generally attributed to that crossdressing, possibly bisexual, certainly scandalous author Henriette-Julie de Murat, largely because it appeared in a revised edition of Murat’s last novel, Les Lutins du château de Kernosy (The sprites of Kernosy Castle). Since the fairy tale did not appear in the original edition of the novel, however, some scholars believe that the story was actually written by Marie-Madeleine de Lubert, who had prepared the revised edition. Other scholars believe that Lubert restored a story that was in the original manuscript, but removed by the novel’s first publishers for any number of reasons—most probably Murat’s own scandalous past episodes of dressing up like a peasant (gasp) and a man (shock). A story about dressing up in bearskins, while fitting in perfectly here, was hardly the sort of tale designed to help people forget the worst scandals of Madame de Murat—something her publishers may have assumed was necessary in order to sell the novel, and ensure that Madame de Murat could continue to pay for her fabulous parties. So, it’s possible that Lubert merely wanted to restore the original text.

On the other hand, Lubert was also a writer of fairy tales. Unlike Murat, Lubert lived a comparatively scandal free life—at least publicly; if she did sleep with women or wear male clothing or escape from prisons, she did so discreetly. This in turn means we know considerably less about her life—even the year of her death can be only guessed at. We do know that she decided to focus on writing, and also decided that marriage would be an obstacle to that goal. She apparently corresponded at some length with several major French authors of the period, including Voltaire, but most of this correspondence seems to have been lost, possibly during the French Revolution.

What we also know is that Lubert chose to publish many of her fairy tales anonymously—and sneaking one of her own stories into a Murat novel was just the way to get her work published without admitting that she’d actually written it. If, then, anyone objected to what turned out to be a rather significant, even startling, amount of bestiality, she could blame the scandalous Murat. If no one did, she could—modestly enough—admit to trusted friends that this tale was hers.

So this could be her tale. Like other tales associated with or identified as written by Lubert, “Bearskin” has a happy ending—quite unlike many of the more ambiguous or cynical or both endings associated with Murat’s fairy tales. And, like Lubert’s tale of “Princess Camion,” “Bearskin” is very very insistent that it’s all perfectly all right to feel physically attracted to and even fall in love with an animal—as long as that animal is charming, of course. It’s an insistence that no other French salon fairy tale writer felt like making, particularly to that extent—including fairy tale writers who did eventually pair up their lovely princes and princesses with beasts. Enchanted beasts, but still. Indeed, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont both went well out of their way to assure readers that Beauty did not find the Beast at all physically attractive. “Bearskin” has a different approach, one not particularly associated with Murat’s other tales.

Like Murat’s novels, “Bearskin” emphasizes the importance of women supporting one another—but the friendship between the girls in the tale is a bit truncated, and not all that supportive. And as a final note, “Bearskin” is somewhat less narratively complex than some of Murat’s other writers—by which I mean that it has only one story, not stories nestled within stories—and is not particularly interested in classical motifs. Then again, writers don’t always write within the same vein. Which is to say, “Bearskin” could be by Murat, or could be by Lubert. Or perhaps was started by Murat, and ended by Lubert. Since my French is not exactly up to analyzing stylistic and literary differences, let’s just follow Marina Warner here and go with “attributed to Murat.”

“Bearskin” has much in common with Charles Perrault’s “Donkey-Skin” (a tale we’ll be getting to) and the various versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” as well as Perrault’s version of “Sleeping Beauty”—essentially, a showcase of how the French salon fairy tale authors could mix the same elements to come up with distinct tales, but also, another reminder that the French salon fairy tale authors read and listened to one another’s works, only rarely writing with full independence.

It starts, as so many fairy tales do, with the birth of the young princess Hawthorn, who is, in pure fairy tale fashion, beautiful and charming. But almost immediately, “Bearskin” strikes another note not found in the similar opening to Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty”: The princess is an only child, yes, but not because her parents had not been able to have other children. Her brothers all died young. An echo, certainly, of real-world situations among royals and nobles alike; only one of Louis XIV’s legitimate children survived to adulthood. The tale also makes a point of noting that her royal parents had the princess carefully educated—something that helps her later survival. Murat and Lubert both championed the education of women.

And in another switch from other fairy tales, the princess is not exactly eager to find her prince—a hesitation her parents support. Alas, King Rhinoceros, an ogre, hears about her beauty and sends an ambassador—also an ogre—to warn the court that if she does not come to him to be his bride, he will send an army of ogres to eat the entire kingdom.

Somewhat reminiscent of a similar choice in “Beauty and the Beast,” but switched: In that tale, Beauty faced only the loss of her father, but more than willingly took his place—after his protests. In this tale, the princess initially protests—but eventually agrees to wed the ogre. In another echo of real-world events, she is married to the ogre by proxy, with his ambassador taking his place at the altar—a ceremony recognized as fully legal by canon law at the time, and commonly practiced with royal marriages.

Hawthorn sets off to the kingdom of the ogres—but not alone. A friend, Corianda, travels with her. Corianda turns out to be the sort of friend who heads off to talk to your fairy godmother behind your back, and then fails to tell you that your fairy godmother is really really ticked off, which seems to me to be the sort of thing that’s kinda important to know in fairy tales. I mean, pause for a moment: what would have happened to Cinderella if her godmother had been ticked off? Well. Some of those mice and rats would have had a much less exciting evening, at the least. And I can’t even excuse this by saying that Corianda isn’t aware that they are in a fairy tale—after all, not only are the two of them journeying off to the kingdom of the ogres, but one of them has a fairy godmother that the other one is gossiping with. Chat with people, Corianda, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, once at the kingdom of the ogres, Princess Hawthorn decides that she just can’t possibly go through this, even if she doesn’t have a fairy godmother. Corianda, thinking quickly, decides that the best way to proceed is to sew Hawthorn up into some bear skins that the ogre just happens to have lying around—he likes hunting bears, apparently, and hasn’t bothered to hire magical servants to put the bear skins away in their proper place. It’s not a bad idea—until Hawthorn turns into an actual bear. The one benefit here: In bear form, Hawthorn is able to escape to another kingdom. The huge freaking bad point: SHE LEAVES CORIANDA BEHIND WITH THE OGRE.

So much for friendship, guys. I mean, sure, Corianda didn’t exactly keep Hawthorn clued into all of the fairy gossip, but she did sew the princess into a bear, well enough to transform the girl, which I feel Hawthorn deeply underappreciated.

Anyway. Still a bear, Hawthorn ends up in the Kingdom of Felicity, which just happens to be ruled by a guy who likes to hunt things like bears. This could be awkward, especially given that Hawthorn can’t speak, but luckily she has the good sense to bow before the king, clueing him into the fact that she’s not exactly the ordinary sort of bear. A few sentences later, and we have this:

Overcome with joy to discover that she was capable of reason, the king kissed her.

….did I say could be awkward? Let’s go to VERY DEFINITELY AWKWARD, since Hawthorn is still—THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT—A BEAR. AND NOT A TALKING BEAR, EITHER.

The kiss does not, as you might expect, transform the bear back into a human, but it does make the bear jump back. There’s some more confusion, kinda solved by orange branches, really, and the king decides to create an elaborate grotto for her to live in with nice statues. I would have thought that honey would be a more appropriate gift, but perhaps I just have Winnie the Pooh on my mind. Moving on. The king visits the bear, like, a lot. I mean, like a suspicious amount of a lot. Like this:

He came to see her at every possible moment, and brought her into every conversation: he was crazy about her.

Most bears would figure things out by now. Hawthorn, a more humble sort of bear, instead thinks:

The delectable Zelindor had awoken her feelings, but how could he find her attractive in this frightful shape?

I dunno, Hawthorn. He already kissed you. He’s built you a grotto. I can understand you not wanting to believe that the guy you’re falling for is deeply into bears, but the clues here are kinda obvious.

Instead of thinking things through, Hawthorn responds by carving terrible poetry on trees. We’ve all been there.  The tale, I should note, calls these “the prettiest verses imaginable” but a) most French salon fairy tales are somewhat prone to exaggeration, and b) princesses transformed into bears unable to realize that when a king builds a grotto for you after kissing you this MEANS HE LIKES YOU can hardly be expected to write great poetry. Suddenly, a fish leaps out.

Said fish turns out to be the fairy Medlar, who handwaves the entire “legally married to an ogre” thing (I’m not entirely sure of the grounds for this, but I expect that transforming into a bear is grounds for annulment in most legal systems) and allows Hawthorn to stop being a bear at night. Hawthorn responds to this by writing more bad poetry and plucking flowers to leave at the king’s door. If any of you are thinking, but WAIT, what happened to the friend, well, I was thinking that too, but this story needs to rush on to the king rethinking his sexuality:

For his part, the young king, as he reflected how clever the bear was, dared not admit to himself that he found her irresistibly attractive.

Uh huh.

I am happy to tell you that this all does—eventually—work out without too much overt bestiality, within the highly proper bounds of a second marriage, this one not by proxy; and a little less happy to tell you that in a moment reminiscent of the end of Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty,” the ogre, for one, is not exactly in favor of this annulment, and decides to respond by trying to kill the young children of the bear—er, the princess—and the king, framing their murders to look like the work of the bear—er, princess. At this point, although the princess is now back in human form, the king falls out of love with her.

Uh huh.

At this point, whoever wrote the story decided—or realized—that everyone in the story had gone through quite enough, and everyone not in the story would quite possibly be starting to ask a few questions about the writer and bears, and hastily created a not overly satisfactory, but happy enough ending.

The stuff about bears aside, “Bearskin” is another fascinating meditation on the roles of women in the aristocracy, mirroring the real-life concerns of many aristocratic women: arranged marriages with strange husbands, slanderous accusations that could lead to exile and imprisonment (in the case of Madame de Murat) or even death, the critical importance of friendship, and deaths of far too young children. And, oh, yes, admitting that sometimes—just sometimes—you can find yourself attracted to the most inappropriate people. Or bears.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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