Unnatural Love and Healing: Charles Perrault’s “Donkey-Skin” and Other Fairy Tales

Incestuous and quasi-incestuous relationships were hardly unknown at the court of Louis XIV. The king himself had married his first cousin, Maria-Theresa of Spain, largely for political reasons. His brother Philippe, Duke of Orleans, had married another first cousin, Henrietta of England, before marrying a more distant cousin, Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatine, whose grandmother was related to the royal French family, and who could trace other connections through both parents. Various aristocrats at the court followed these royal examples for financial or other reasons, and in other countries, the occasional marriage between a niece and uncle, or an aunt and nephew—for political reasons—were not unknown. And those were just the relationships validated by the Church.

That perhaps helps explain why so many of the French salon fairy tales focus on similar relationships between cousins or even closer relations, and why Charles Perrault, working both in and against these traditions, decided to take up the theme in what is often regarded as the least pleasant of his fairy tales, Donkey-Skin, classified by folklorists as Aarne-Thompson type 510B, unnatural love.

Not that the story starts off about love at all. Instead, it starts off about, well, a donkey. A rather magical donkey, who has earned the highest of donkey accolades: a splendid stall. Indeed, the most splendid stall in what appears to be the virtual definition of “luxury stable.” Perrault soon reveals the reason for this: every night, bushels of gold coins spill from its ears in the sanitized English translation of the tale, or from a less comfortable location in the digestive system in the original French version.

Once again I have questions. Like, yes, I realize this is the 17th century, not exactly renowned for quality high skilled veterinary services, but has anyone checked to see what physical condition might be causing this? Or worried that this sort of thing—whether going through the ears or through the digestive system—might be causing the donkey some pain? I mean, speaking just in general, and in as ungross a way as possible, traditionally, ears and colons have not been used to store gold for rather good reasons. Is this all a way for the donkey to convert straw to gold, like Rumpelstiltskin, and if so, did anyone consider handing the donkey a spinning wheel to see if a less painful method might work? And if you’re about to tell me, yes, but donkeys can’t spin, true, but usually, donkeys? Not capable of this sort of digestive activity.

And on a practical level, is keeping this donkey in a beautiful, plush stall without any particularly explanation really the best way of keeping the donkey’s abilities secret from the general public? I mean, yes, I understand wanting to keep the donkey as happy as possible to ensure that he doesn’t run away, but the story is pretty clear on this: visitors to the stables are definitely asking questions. This is not a very secure donkey, is what I’m saying.

In any case, the king soon has much bigger problems: his beloved wife is dying, and worse, she’s putting conditions on her death. The king must marry again—a sensible command, not just because they apparently don’t have a son, but because, as we’re about to see, he’s not exactly the most mentally stable monarch making it a very good idea to have a potential regent/co-ruler hanging around—but he can only marry a woman more beautiful than she.

A quick glance at the portraits of many 17th century princesses might suggest that this would not be not all that difficult of a task—the king just needs to marry someone who isn’t, well, a princess. This is, however, a fairy tale, which likes to pretend that 17th century French queens and princesses were beautiful and not just beautifully dressed, whatever their portraits might suggest, leaving the king kinda stuck.

But he does have a daughter. An adopted daughter, in the sanitized English translaton later published by Andrew Lang in The Grey Fairy Book (1900).

His actual daughter, in the original French (1695).

More beautiful than any of the portraits sent his way.

To be fair, see what I said above about many 17th century princesses.

To be less fair, the king decides that they only way he can fulfill his late wife’s command is by marrying his own daughter.

The girl, not surprisingly, is horrified. As with many other French salon fairy tale princesses, she turns immediately to her fairy godmother for aid. This one, rather than offering a magical item, or removing her to safety, or doing anything remotely useful, instead suggests that the princess ask her father for a dress that matches the sky, assuring the girl that the king can’t possibly do this. Again, I have questions, in this case mostly about the fairy godmother, and specifically: has she seen the French court? Or any pictures of the French court? Louis XIV was very very into clothes, is what I’m saying, and if he demanded a dress that matched the sky, he could easily get a dress that matched the sky. This might have been less possible in another court, but in that time and in a fairy tale—well.

The king finds the dress. The girl returns to her fairy godmother. Still stuck on fashion, the godmother suggests that the girl ask for a dress of moonbeams, and then for a dress of sunshine. None of this stops the king. Finally, the godmother suggests that the girl ask for the skin of that magical donkey, assuming that the king will never want to give up the source of his wealth.

Once again, the godmother is wrong.

The girl, defeated, slinks out of the palace, hidden in the donkey-skin.

You will perhaps not be surprised at this point to find out that the fairy godmother has kinda forgotten to provide her with any money, forcing the girl to hunt for work, which is a problem, not so much because of her lack of work experience (though that can’t be helpful) but because, well, she’s wearing a donkey skin, which even in the 17th century was not considered appropriate attire for a job interview. Especially a donkey skin which hasn’t been cleaned yet or at all and apparently still has some blood and other stains, like, yuck, and girl, I know you’re fleeing from an understandably very unwanted marriage, but, really. Soap can be your friend. Eventually, however, she is able to find a job at a farm where they are willing to let her take care of the pigs and turkeys. It all works out.

Perrault, I should note, worked his way up the social ladder, leaving him with the firm belief that, yes, hard work could and would lead to social advancement—a message he generally delivered through the figures of fantastically beautiful heroines, but I anticipate.

Anyway, all goes well, until, that is, the girl sees her reflection, and realizes just how terrible the donkey skin looks. WELL MAYBE IF YOU HAD TAKEN THE TIME TO CLEAN IT IN THE FIRST PLACE YOU WOULDN’T BE IN THIS SITUATION, but rather than thinking about this, she instead decides it’s about time to take a bath, which WELL YES, and the experience makes her decide that she needs to be a princess whenever she can, even if this is only in her room.

(Disney! In general, not your sort of tale, but I do sense a potential ad campaign idea for Disney Princesses here!)

Which is what she’s doing when a prince just happens to peek through the keyhole of her room, seeing her in her sunshine dress.

It drives him into a high fever, which, he announces, can only be cured by eating a cake made by Donkey-Skin. Look, 17th century medicine had its limitations. The girl drops her ring into the cake—Perrault carefully adds that this might or might not be an accidental sort of drop—nearly choking the prince.

And every girl in the kingdom is summoned to try on the ring—which fits only the girl.

Their wedding, incidentally, is attended by people who arrive riding tigers and eagles which is kinda awesome and also probably a nice nod to the various exotic animals sent as gifts to Louis XIV.

Perrault originally published the story in verse form in 1695, and then included it two years later in his Histories ou contes du temps passé, a collection which also included his more famous stories of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard. A few of these stories later found themselves inserted into the Grimm collection, in slightly altered form. The same may have happened in this case, with Allerleirauh, better known in English as All Kinds of Fur, collected by the Grimms from Dorchen Wild, who later married Wilhelm Grimm.

As with Donkey-Skin, Allerleirauh/All Kinds of Fur tells the tale of a dying queen who demands that the king remarry a woman more beautiful than she. As with Donkey-Skin, Allerleirauh/All Kinds of Fur, the king finds that the only woman who matches this description is his own daughter. And once again, the daughter demands three dresses—like the sun, the moon and the stars—and a coat of fur before she will marry him. As with her predecessor, once she receives these items, she flees, cloaks herself in the fur, and finds refuge working as a low end servant in a castle kitchen. And, as with Donkey-Skin, the heroine “accidentally” drops golden objects into the king’s food, allowing the king to find her.

But the stories have some significant differences as well. In Allerleirauh/All Kinds of Fur, the courtiers are horrified by the king’s plan. In Donkey-Skin, they are silent. We do hear from the terrified dressmakers, but never from the courtiers. In Donkey-Skin, the girl turns to a fairy godmother for aid. In Allerleirauh/All Kinds of Fur, perhaps aware that that an earlier fairy godmother was completely useless, the girl conceives of her demands herself. And she doesn’t simply hide in her room, wearing her glorious dresses; she flings off her cloak formed of a thousand furs, and proudly attends the ball. Not for long, but she does attend. She deliberately drops golden objects into the king’s food to gain his attention. And the king does not need to force all of the maidens of the kingdom to try on a ring. All he needs to do is seize her hand, forcing her cloak to shift just enough to show off her dress—revealing who she really is. All in all, with one minor exception, this later protagonist holds far more power—not surprising, perhaps, given that her tale was told by a woman, and Donkey-Skin by a man.

That one exception? Allerleirauh is taken to the king’s palace to work in the kitchen after hiding in a tree; Donkey-Skin makes her way to the king’s farm on her own two feet. But Allerleirauh was doing quite well for herself before this, without the help of any fairy godmothers, managing not to starve. And in Allerleirauh/All Kinds of Fur, the girl’s father vanishes after she leaves the palace. At the end of Donkey-Skin, the girl’s father attends her wedding. Oh, he’s been married since—but she is unable to escape him entirely.

And the second tale, of course, has no donkeys, magical or otherwise.

It’s possible that Dorchen Wild had read or heard some version of Donkey-Skin before she told her version to the Grimms. But it’s equally possible that both Perrault and Dorchen Wild derived their stories from other, older stories. Portions of both tales may be derived from Apuleius’ second-century tale of Cupid and Psyche, also a source for Beauty and the Beast and East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon and The Singing, Springing Lark. More directly, both Donkey-Skin and Allerleirauh/All Kinds of Fur can be traced directly back, as so often in western fairy tales, to Giambattista Basile and his tale The She-Bear, collected in his 1634 The Pentamerone, or The Story of Stories.

As in pretty much any story by Basile, this one can be basically summed up with “horrific,” “cruel,” and “over the top,” though it’s fair to say that it’s not anywhere close to the most horrific story in the collection. It is also the only version of the story where arguably the incest is not the most alarming or problematic part of the tale. It starts, as does Allerleirauh/All Kinds of Fur, with a beautiful, dying queen, who tells her husband that he must not marry unless he can find a bride as beautiful as she, and continues, as does the end of Donkey-Skin,, with a scene of every woman in the kingdom and several women beyond the kingdom lining up for the king’s inspection, not at all incidentally giving Basile the opportunity to say a number of excessively mean-spirited things about the looks of all women so unfortunate as to be born outside Italy, and more specifically, Naples, and even a few women born in Italy. Not that Basile exactly had an overly high opinion of Italy, and more specifically, Naples; he just had an even worse opinion of everything outside Italy, and more specifically, Naples.

Oh, sure, the woman from Naples also gets turned down—but only because she’s wearing high heeled shoes. The women not from Naples all have various physical defects.

Anyway, insult time over, the king eventually decides that the only woman who can meet these qualifications is his daughter. Fortunately, an old woman just happens to have a little piece of wood that can turn the daughter into a bear. I must note that none of the old women I meet ever have things like this. It seems very unfair. The girl—Prezioza—escapes into the woods. Where, of course, she meets a prince.

While she is still a bear.

I feel that once again I should let Bazile tell the story from here:

“Mother, my lady, if I don’t give this bear a kiss, my last breath will leave me!”

The queen, who saw that he was about to faint, said, “Kiss him, kiss him, my lovely animal, don’t let me see this poor son of mine perish!”

The bear went over to him, and the prince grabbed her cheeks and couldn’t get enough of kissing her.

MOVING ON. The bear, I should note, turns out to be one awesome servant—adding a nice touch of sexual harassment and a bit of a power imbalance to the bestiality, like, as said, the incest? Arguably NOT THE WORST PART HERE—largely because the bear remembers to strew flowers everywhere, which is a surprisingly nice touch given the rest of the invective here.

It all ends with literal fireworks.

It’s not at all surprising that Dorchen Wild, the Grimms, and Charles Perrault decided to leave the bestiality element out of their retellings, emphasizing that their princes and kings fell in love with the girl, not her beastly skin. Or that Andrew Lang, while deciding to collect both tales, would choose a softened version of Donkey-Skin in The Grey Fairy Book. (Apparently, the comparative independence and power of the heroine of Allerleirauh/All Kinds of Fur, as well as the horror shown by other characters to the incest of the tale, was enough to save that version from severe editing.) Or that the basics of the story appear in many other folklore traditions and fairy tales, less known, but still poignant.

But it is, perhaps, somewhat surprising that this story in nearly all of its versions so often gets classified as a “Cinderella” story. Oh, both tales often have similar elements: unpleasant housework, a girl whose beauty is hidden beneath a disguise of dirt and fur (or, in the case of The She-Bear, an actual bear transformation), a need to escape a home, a ball, and an item of clothing that only fits the girl, though notably not all of these elements are present in all versions.

But I think the differences are even more significant. For one thing, in Donkey-Skin and its variants, housework is generally a salvation, not a punishment, directly leading heroines not just to princes and kings and princes with really strong feelings about bears, but also to food and shelter and above all, safety from their fathers. For another thing, in most variants, Cinderella does not choose her rags and dirt: they are imposed on her by her stepmother. Donkey-Skin and her sisters choose their rags, dirt, and animal skins as disguises—sometimes hated disguises, but disguises. In Cinderella and its variants, the danger usually comes from other women, and the heroine is helped by magic (her own, or granted by a fairy godmother) and a prince. Donkey-Skin and her sisters are usually threatened by men, and helped and protected by women; the magic of their tales is generally not all that helpful until the girls escape.

I do not think it a coincidence that a woman gets Donkey-Skin the job at a royal farm, or that the queen is the one able to bring the bear into the palace and convince the bear to kiss the prince. Cinderella is a story of power, of social climbing, of escaping poverty into wealth. Donkey-Skin is a story of how wealth may not always protect you from powerful men, of escaping that wealth to hide in poverty before achieving it again.

And it is also a tale of how some women respond to abuse: through transformation, flight, and hard work.

For all of its happy endings, it is not an easy tale, or a tale with easy answers. Nor does it offer a hope of magical rescue, or fairy godmothers—even the transformed bear has to fight her way out of her home. But for all of its trauma, and uneasy subject matter, to put it mildly, it does offer hope that abuse and evil can be escaped and overcome, and even lead to triumph.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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