In the Dark Wood: Abuse Themes in Common Fairy Tales  

            The version of "Allerleirauh" told by the Brothers Grimm (called "All-Fur" or "All-Kinds-of Fur" in translation from German) begins with a king whose queen, on her deathbed, demands that he marry no one, unless she is as beautiful as the queen.  The king promises; but no woman is found who is the dead queen's equal, except for the king's daughter.  The king announces that he intends to marry her, "...for she is the living image of my dead wife" (Zipes 260).  The daughter, frightened, tries to stall her father with impossible demands, but he meets each one.  She is forced to flee to a neighboring kingdom disguised in a cloak of tattered furs.  She works in the king's kitchen, and manages to catch the attention of the king with the enchanted dresses she's brought with her.  They marry, and live happily ever after (Zipes 259-263). 

The last sentence of the Grimm brothers' "All-Kinds-of-Fur" tells us that this story, like most fairy tales, has a happy ending. But the assurance that "they lived happily until they died," tacked onto a long account of abuse and suffering, is not convincing. The final sentence notwithstanding, this tale is a tragedy, a story that symbolically--but lucidly--portrays the unhappy life of a sexually abused child.  (Ashliman)

            Yolen's retelling is short and brutal.  She explores the idea, in a few brief pages, that abuse is rarely an isolated incident.  "As she has said in a discussion of this tale, 'while I wanted this to have a happy ending, the story insisted otherwise'" (qtd. by Pilinovsky).  Yolen's story begins, as do the traditional versions, with the death of a queen.   The promises the king makes, however, are different. He promises to love the baby that the queen died giving birth to – which he does not do in the traditional versions; it’s a promise he twists to suit himself as his daughter grows up.  And in Yolen's retelling, the king's  promise to marry no one unless the new wife is as beautiful as the queen is not extracted from him, but volunteered, unasked (Yolen 36-39).

           A common motif in tales of threatened incest is the promise extracted from the king by his dying wife. This promise, combined in many tales with subsequent acts of the daughter, further helps to protect the father's reputation by shifting the responsibility for his incestuous advances elsewhere, most often to the deceased queen, since the king can fulfill the promise made at her behest only by marrying his own daughter. (Ashliman)

           Helen Pilinovsky, in her article "Donkeyskin, Deerskin, Allerleirauh," writes, that Yolen's retelling "is a very interesting variation, removing, as it does, any onus of guilt from the easily scapegoated female figure" (Pilinovsky).  Yolen holds the king, and no one else, accountable for the abuse of his daughter.

           As in the traditional versions, the king discovers that his daughter is the only woman as beautiful as his queen.  But in Yolen's story, the princess does not make impossible demands of her father, and does not run away to escape.  Yolen reminds her audience that certain magics are expected in fairy tales: "Now if this were truly a fairy tale...the princess would go outside to her mother's grave.  And there, on her knees, she would learn a magic greater than any craft..." (39).  Then Yolen abruptly rips those expectations away from her reader: "But this is not a fairy tale.  The princess is married to her father and, always having wanted his love, does not question the manner of it.  Except at night, late at night, when he is away from her bed and she is alone in the vastness of it" (39).  Yolen's princess dies giving birth to a daughter "as lovely as her mother.  The king knows he will not have to wait another thirteen years.  It is an old story.  Perhaps the oldest" (39). 

           Yolen's princess cannot expect a happy ending.  The adults who might have stepped in are kept quiet out of fear of the king's retaliation. "Silence becomes the conspiracy; silence becomes the conspirators" (Yolen 39).  This retelling is "a painfully insightful tale of what it is in society at large, and in the individual human spirit that makes such abuse possible" (Pilinovsky).  The princess is representative of every child with a shameful secret, with no one willing to help, and no magic key for her escape.

           Another folk tale with an underlying theme of abuse is "Donkey Skin".  It is the same type of tale as "Allerleirauh", classified as Aarne-Thompson Type 510B, or Unnatural Love; Donkey Skin is very similar to "Allerleirauh."  The version most familiar is Charles Perrault's, though it's been omitted from most fairy tale collections meant for children (Warner 351).  Perrault's story begins with the same motif as "Allerleirauh," with a dying queen and a promise from the king to love no one unless she is as beautiful and worthy as the queen herself is.  The king, in this case, has a magic donkey that excretes gold instead of dung; the princess' final "impossible demand" of her father is that he slaughter the donkey, the source of the his wealth, and have a cloak made from its skin.  He does so, and the princess flees wrapped in the donkey skin cloak (Perrault).  "For in this early fairy tale [Perrault] marks the daughter with her father's sin: the sign of the donkey conveys his lust.  She becomes a beast, after her father has behaved like one" (Warner 325).  In a panel discussion at WisCon 23 in Madison, Wisconsin, Terri Windling likened the cloak that Donkey Skin and Allerleirauh wear to the cloak of shame that covers the children of abuse: while the survivors of abuse spend their lives trying to escape it, it becomes a shield that protects them from being hurt again.

           "Donkey Skin" shares the theme of incest with "Allerleirauh", but at the end of Perrault's tale, the king comes to his senses and appears at his daughter's wedding: "But neither the prince nor the many visiting kings appeared in such splendor as the bride's father, who now recognized his daughter and begged her forgiveness" (Perrault).  By bringing him out of his madness, Perrault shifts all blame away from the king; he was crazed, and therefore not responsible for his actions.

           Windling's prose poem "Donkeyskin" blends the traditional plot of the fairy tale with an account of a modern runaway teenager, shifting back and forth between the magical tale and the modern one.  Windling uses the customary dream-like language and imagery of the fairy tale even in the harsh story of the contemporary girl; the poem is surreal but unflinching.  Windling's retelling begins after the Maria Alvarez, the runaway, has fled.  In Windling's tale, "the daughter is shown to have suffered actual abuse and not, as in the older tales, merely the threat of it" (Pilinovsky).  Windling writes that some time after Maria has fled that "the bruise on her face has faded to yellow and she walks without limping" (Windling, Donkeyskin 297).  "The explanation for her limp – a beating, a rape – is left to the discretion of the observer" (Pilinovsky).  Windling never gives the father the chance to shift the blame away from himself, and her heroine goes on as do most survivors of abuse: trying to put the past behind her.  "She pulls the donkeyskin back around her shoulders, taking comfort in the soft, familiar fur.  She knows one day she will have to learn to live without it" (Windling, Donkeyskin 299).

           In the hands of writers like Snyder, Yolen and Windling, the fairy tale is stripped of bright, sanitized veneer that most contemporary readers associate with the stories.  In these writers' hands, stories of the fantastic become much more than escapist literature; they become vehicles for powerful truths about the dark forest we pass through on the road to adulthood, and the dangers that lurk there.   "Once upon a time, they say, there was a girl . . . there was a boy . . . there was a person who was in trouble. And this is what she did . . . and what he did . . . and how they learned to survive it" (Windling, Ashes).  These stories do not flinch from topics deemed taboo by our society; "they go to the very heart of truth. They've spoken the truth for a thousand years" (Windling, Ashes).


Works Cited

Ashliman, D.L.  "Incest in Indo-European Folktales."  Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. 

Ed. D.L. Ashliman.  1997 <>.

Perrault, Charles. "Donkey Skin."  Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts.  Ed. D.L.


Pilinovsky, Helen. "Donkeyskin, Deerskin, Allerleirauh: The Reality of the Fairy Tale." 

The Endicott Studio.  Ed. Terri Windling.  2001 <>

Snyder, Midori. "The Armless Maiden."

The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood's Survivors.  Ed. Terri Windling. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1995. 17-30.

Snyder, Midori. "The Hero's Journey."

The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood's Survivors.  Ed. Terri Windling. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1995. 31-34.

Warner, Marina.  From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers.  New York:

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Windling, Terri.  "Ashes, Blood and the Slipper of Glass."  The Edicott Studio. Ed. Terri

Windling.  1997 <>.

Windling, Terri.  "Donkeyskin."

The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood's Survivors.  Ed. Terri Windling. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1995. 295-299.

Windling, Terri.  "Introduction."

The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood's Survivors.  Ed. Terri Windling. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1995. 13-16.

Yolen, Jane.  "Allerleirauh"

The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood's Survivors.  Ed. Terri Windling. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1995. 36-39.

Zipes, Jack, ed. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.  New York: Bantam Books,


Anna Roberts  
Written in 2003  

         In modern parlance, the phrase "fairy tale" has come to mean different things; at best, a fairy tale is a story that begins with "once upon a time" and ends with "happily ever after."  It evokes images of beautiful heroines, brave heroes, and adventures long ago and far away.  At worst, we use the term to mean an untruth, a falsehood so incredible that only a child would believe it.   The tales out of the older traditions, however, are more than flights of fancy or pretty lies.  "The fairy tale journey...can be seen as a metaphor for the therapeutic journey into the depths of the soul" (Windling, Introduction 15).   Stories out of the oral tradition were told "not only to entertain but to teach: to show listeners that they were not alone, to communicate societal attitudes towards topics deemed unspeakable in open society, and to present possible solutions through the metaphor of magic" (Pinlinovsky).    In her article "Ashes, Blood and the Slipper of Glass, Terri Windling writes: "[Fairy tales] plunge heroines and heroes into the dark wood, into danger and despair and enchantment and deception, and only then offer them the tools to save themselves."  A handful of contemporary writers, including Midori Snyder, Jane Yolen and Terri Windling, restore the fairy tale to the dark wood; they use fairy tale language, imagery and magic to delve into topics we deem too frightening or uncomfortable for open discussion, in particular the theme of child abuse.

            Fairy and folk tales are a natural source of material for writers who wish to examine abuse themes.  The tales most familiar to contemporary Western readers have been watered down by their recorders (Warner 351) and by Hollywood's renditions, but still include old women who terrorize the young women they look after, fathers who leave their children in the woods to die, and stepmothers who give their husbands' children poisoned apples.  The more graphic tales often contain an undercurrent of violence, incest and sexual abuse.  "However common such abuse may have been among our European forebears, their frequent use of incest motifs in folktales and their graphic descriptions of the victims' subsequent suffering indicate that the associated fears and anxieties were both widespread and deep" (Ashliman).   In her essay "The Hero's Journey," Midori Snyder says that in folk and fairy tales, "abstract ideas are represented by concrete images" (31).  Folk tales couch the unspeakable in images of the dark forest, of heroes riding to battle, of young women locked in towers. "Traditional storytellers have used terrifying events to create the emotional experience of grief and abandonment" (Snyder, Journey 32).

           Snyder employs these images in her retelling of "The Armless Maiden."  The Grimms' version, titled "The Maiden Without Hands," begins with a poor miller who meets a stranger in the woods.  The old man says that he'll make the miller rich if he promises " 'to give [the old man] what's behind [the] mill' " (Zipes 119).  The miller, thinking that the old man means the apple tree that stands behind the mill, agrees in writing.  The miller's wife tells the miller that the old man he met was the devil. " 'He didn't mean the apple tree but our daughter, who was behind the mill sweeping out the yard' " (Zipes 119).  The devil, however, has no power over the daughter because of her purity; he tells the miller to take away the maiden's water so that she can't wash herself.  But the maiden weeps on her hands, making them clean, and so the devil cannot touch her.  The devil orders that the miller chop off the girl's hands.  The maiden, seeing her father's dilemma, extends her hands so that her father may chop them off.  But she weeps so much on the stumps that they're clean.  The devil has to keep his promise to the miller even though he can't touch the girl.  But the daughter tells her father that she can't stay with him anymore; she will go away and "depend on the kindness of the people to provide me with whatever I need" (Zipes 120).  In her travels she meets a king, who falls in love with her and marries her.  While the king is away at war, the girl gives birth to a boy; the devil, still trying to harm the girl, contrives to send news to the king that the girl has given birth to a changeling.  When the king sends a reply telling his mother to protect his queen until he returns, the devil substitutes a letter of his own, telling the king's mother that she should kill the girl and her child.  The king's mother refuses, and sends the girl away with her child tied to her back.  The queen prays to be saved, and finds a cottage occupied by an angel sent to protect the girl and her child.  The girl's hands are restored; the king finds the girl and their child after searching for seven years, when he comes across the cottage where they've been living.  They celebrate a second wedding and live happily ever after (Zipes 118-123).

           Snyder's story "The Armless Maiden" begins: "There once was a husband and wife who lived beside a great forest" (17).  Snyder uses the familiar fairy tale beginning to draw her readers in, but the story leaves the impersonal narrative of the Grimms' fairy tale behind.  Her version substitutes a brother for the father, and a jealous new wife for the devil.  Her characters, unlike the Grimms', have names – the maiden is Marion, Richard is her brother, and Fiona is the new wife.  The characters are more fully realized than those in the Grimms' text; in developing the characters, Snyder gives the reader people to identify with.  Her plot deviates from the Grimms' version; the jealous wife commits heinous acts – killing Richard's dogs and murdering the son she's given Richard – and tells Richard that Marion is responsible.  Richard is all too willing to believe Fiona; he chops Marion's arms off at the shoulders and leaves her in the woods to die (Snyder, Maiden 17-30).

           The imagery Snyder employs is decidedly more graphic than that found in the fairy tales most readers are accustomed to:  "Marion shook with fear...Richard's anguished cry had released her from Fiona's spell and now there was blood on her sheets, blood on the sleeves of her nightdress, and on her pillow was laid the body of her murdered nephew and a silver blade" (Snyder, Maiden 19).  The Grimms' most graphic image is of the girl weeping on the stumps of her hands: "Then she extended both her hands and let [her father] chop them off.  The devil came a third time, but she had wept so long and so much on the stumps that they too were all clean" (119-120).  The maiden's blood is so pure it leaves no stain.

            Snyder's storyline is more ambiguous than that of the more familiar tales.  In the Grimms' version of the tale, the heroine is granted a "happily ever after" ending by an angel who comes to earth to save the maiden and her child; nothing is said of the maiden's father, who held the blade that chopped his daughter's hands off, or of the devil who ordered it to begin with (Zipes 123).  Snyder's ending, however, is more vengeful and more ambiguous; Fiona, the brother's wife who in Snyder's retelling is the cause of Marion's troubles, is transformed into a thorny rosebush, while Marion saves her brother from being trapped by the thorns.  And while the Prince finds Marion and begs her to come home, as he does in the Grimms' version, there is no clear-cut "happily ever after" ending.  Marion says to the Prince:  "When I first came to you, I was a creature of the woods.  You pitied me and gave me shelter.  But now I am a woman and you must court me as a woman" (Snyder, Maiden 28).

            Snyder first encountered "The Armless Maiden" as told by a South African storyteller, Nongenile Masithatu Zenani (Snyder, Journey 32).  In Zenani's telling, a widowed man tries to force his daughter to take his dead wife's place in his home and his bed.  When the daughter refuses, he cuts off her arms and leaves her in the woods to die (Snyder, Journey 32).  Snyder, fascinated by the story, began to research other versions of the tale.  "There were versions told all over Europe and Asia, some less sexual in their tone, but every bit as gruesome" (Snyder, Journey 32).  Snyder says that although she believes the "Armless Maiden" stories are about rites of passage, the narratives contain an echo of abuse. "Heroes may be impoverished or robbed of their royal birthrights, but rarely are they so vindictively mutilated before they are turned out into their journeys" (Snyder, Journey 33).  The reader or listener is repulsed by the graphic violence of the tales, "not because such events never happen, but because they do" (Snyder, Journey 33).

            Of her own retelling, Snyder says that she selected images from various versions of the "Armless Maiden" stories that convey the threat of abuse.  However, the story is not about survival as a victim: "...rather it is about [the maiden's] journey as a committed traveller fully aware of her destination" (Snyder, Journey 33).  Snyder wrote her version with the intention that the maiden's life would be restored, and that she would forgive her abusive brother. Snyder says that the need for healing that the story conveys is not simply for the abused, but for the abuser as well. "Abusers too are isolated by the shame and brutality of their violent acts" (Snyder, Journey 33).  In forgiving her abusive brother, Marion "removes forever the corrupting taint of violence, allowing them both to continue in their new lives, unshackled by the past" (Snyder, Journey 33).

            Snyder creates a scene in her retelling that does not appear in any of the traditional "Armless Maiden" narratives.  In the earlier versions, the maiden's hands are miraculously restored, but the maiden is passive;  in the Grimms' "The Maiden Without Hands," an angel is sent to look after the girl and her child, and the maiden's hands are restored "by the grace of God" (Zipes 122) in reward for her piety.  Snyder's Marion, however, has to literally grab her restoration for herself; she bends to drink from a lake, and her baby, who is secured to her back by a cloth, falls into the water.  Marion plunges in after him, and, nearly drowning herself, begs the spirit of the lake, in the form of a huge fish, to restore her arms so that she can save her child: 

'As spirit of this lake, I would save you if you whish.  Or I can save your child. You must choose,' said the fish, its whiskers quivering as it spoke.

'My arms,' Marion cried.  "Give me hands and I will save us both!'  (Snyder, Maiden 26).

            Snyder says that this moment is Marion's first real step in her passage to adulthood, and her first step toward healing.  "In one luminous moment, her past is restored, her present made manifest in the power of her hands, and her future assured, as she lifts her child out of the foaming water" (Journey 34).  Marion's greatest asset is not piety; it is self-reliance.  Unlike the Grimms' maiden, Marion bears her scars and reaches for healing in a way that no stock character can.

            While Snyder leaves intact the magical aspects of the fairy tale, other writers purge the supernatural from their stories in order to bring home their themes.  Jane Yolen's retelling of "Allerleirauh" is set, like Snyder's "The Armless Maiden" in the mythic past common to most fairy tales, but all other elements of the numinous, shared by traditional versions, are absent in Yolen's story.

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