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If you start researching a particular fairy tale, what does that research trajectory look like? Here’s an example (with incest)!

Photo in public domain by Tiko Giorgadze. From Unsplash.
Photo in public domain by Tiko Giorgadze. From Unsplash.

So, I’m teaching an elective on gender and sexuality in fairy tales this semester. I gave my students an assignment: to select a tale type, then research its historical and geographical distribution, using at least three versions to document the forms the tale type tends to take. After assembling at least three texts, they’re supposed to describe the content of the stories (as in, motifs and themes), the contexts in which they were told and collected, and the structures they exhibit. In another paper this semester, we’ll delve more into interpretation and function.

It occurred to me that not everyone’s been doing folkloristic research for a decade+ so maybe I should write up a sample document. I decided to write about my favorite tale type, ATU 510B, which I also wrote my masters thesis on (more on that here). So in case you want to get a glimpse of what this basic, entry-level type of folkloristic research is like, read on!

AN 380-03 Exploring a Tale Type: Sample Paper on ATU 510B

Aarne-Thompson-Uther tale 510B, “Peau d’Asne”/“Donkeyskin”/“The Dress of Gold, of Silver, and of Stars [Cap O Rushes],” is found in many regions and time periods throughout European, Semitic, and adjacent cultures. The best-known versions come from Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers, and in this paper, I will focus on three lesser-known versions to survey how tradition and variation play out in this tale type. I will survey the content, contexts, and form/structure of these three versions, and in a future paper will discuss the tale’s potential functions and interpretations.

As Hans-Jörg Uther demonstrates in his 2004 revision of the tale type index, ATU 510B is found in the British Isles, Scandinavian countries, Romance-language-speaking countries, Germanic countries, East European states, Slavic states, and throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean (as well as European-colonized locations in North and South America). Thus while this tale type is not universally known, it is certainly widespread, which makes it all the more intriguing due to its disturbing content.

The three versions I work with here come from 20th century Palestinian-Arab tellers, 19th century Sicilian tellers, and 20th century French tellers. In terms of situational context, they vary greatly in terms of the amount of information we have about collector and informant, though in terms of cultural context, they all come from patriarchal cultures. The Palestinian-Arab version, “Sackcloth,” was collected by Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana from a 58-year-old woman, Almaza, between 1978 and 1980. They were also responsible for translating it into English. The Sicilian version, “Betta Pilusa,” was collected by Laura Gonzenbach in the 1860s in Sicilian (of which she was a native speaker), which she then published in German. Jack Zipes then translated her tales into English, noting the difficulties of translation but stating: “Despite the different languages, Sicilian and high German, Gonzenbach managed to convey the spirit of insurrection and provocation with which the tellers imbued their tales” (2004: xxxii). The French version, “The She Donkey’s Skin,” was collected in 1960 from a peasant woman in her 70s from the region of Limousin. It is unclear whether the tale was collected by Geneviève Massignon, editor of the volume in which it appears (Folktales of France), or by one of her field team. It was translated by Jacqueline Hyland and appears in the English-language series Folktales of the World edited by renowned folklorist Richard Dorson. Though we lack detailed informant information for these texts, it is clear that they all have been circulating in oral tradition (quite recently, in the case of two of them), rather than being derived directly from a literary tale collection such as those of Perrault, the Grimms, or Straparola.

The content of these tales revolves around the same motif: father-daughter incest. As Uther outlines the plot in the tale type index, a king promises his dying wife that he will marry someone who fulfills a particular condition. This turns out to be their daughter. She flees after obtaining magical dresses and/or a disguise from him, often under advice of a sympathetic helper figure, and then works as a servant in another king’s castle. After wearing the magical dresses to three subsequent balls, she either reveals herself to the prince or is found out by him to have been the servant working in the castle all along (frequently, he has taunted or abused her). They marry. How closely each tale’s structure and content conforms to this plot outline varies.

The French version, “The She Donkey’s Skin,” has the father deciding to marry his daughter after the mother’s death, based on a condition she set on her deathbed: “Do not marry again unless you find a woman as beautiful as I am” (Massignon 1968: 149). The girl requests beautiful dresses from her father (the number is not specified), and then flees in a magic chest and donkey skin that her godmother give her. She settles at a farm belonging to a king, and there the prince teases her three times: he pokes her with a fire poker, gives her a puff from bellows, and then prods her with a stick. After each of these encounters, she cleans herself up, puts on a beautiful dress, and teases the prince at the ball when she dances with him, telling him her name is something like “Poker Poke” or “Bellows’ Puff.” Finally, the prince falls ill and refuses to eat soup made by anyone but her, but then he spies on her as she puts on her beautiful garb to come meet him. They are married, and no mention is made of the incestuous father.

In the Palestinian-Arab version, “Sackcloth,” there is no condition that the dying wife imposes; the father simply realizes: “No one seemed more beautiful in his eyes, so the story goes, than his own daughter, and he had no wish to marry another” (Muhawi and Kanaana 1989: 125). Nor are there three magical dresses, though the girl takes the fine clothes her father gives her in preparation for their wedding when she flees. She has a “tight-fitting sackcloth” commissioned that will cover her whole body (ibid 126), and in it, she looks like a man, and a freakish one at that, so she is able to escape the dreaded marriage and go to work in another household. There, she attends a wedding in her beautiful dress, and inspires the prince’s mother to bring him along (cross-dressed) so that he can see the beautiful girl for himself. Once the prince sees her, he wonders where she comes from, and hides the next day, only to observe her coming and going from his own household. He orders Sackcloth to bring him his meal the following day, and though she drops a number of platters while on the way up, eventually the two are alone together, and he tells her to remove the sackcloth and reveal herself. They are married.

In the Sicilian version, “Betta Pilusa,” the dying wife tells her husband not to remarry unless a particular ring fits the prospective wife. The daughter tries it on since it’s among the mother’s jewels, and the father declares that he must marry her. The girl’s father confessor tells her to ask for a dress the color of the sky, a dress the color of the sea, and a dress the color of the earth. The devil provides the father with all these dresses, and also with the girl’s final request: a dress made from the fur of a gray cat. The girl flees in the cat fur dress. The king mistakes her for an animal and almost shoots her, but then takes her to live in his chicken coop. Living under the name Betta Pilusa (which Zipes translates as “Hairy Bertha”), she attends three balls and charms the king each time. He gives her gifts, which she as Betta Pilusa cooks into buns to give the king. He threatens the cook until the cook reveals who baked the bread, and then the king threatens Betta Pilusa until she removes her cat skin dress and agrees to marry her.

All three versions have the following motifs in common: the dead mother and incestuous father, the three trips to a festive event, the hairy or ugly disguise, the relegation of the protagonist to the kitchen, and the lack of punishment for (or mention of) the father at the tale’s end. As with many fairy tales, the number three is a prominent motif (the three requested dresses appear in two of the versions considered here). Intriguingly, it is only in “Sackcloth” that the protagonist is daughter of a king; in the other two versions, it’s specified that she is the daughter of a gentleman or a rich man. In all three versions, however, she marries either a king or a prince (the king’s son). Thus, her lowly status relative her husband-to-be depends more on her being displaced from her own household than on what precise rank she held at birth.

Larger themes addressed include family, obligation, food, and marriage. These themes seem very much in tune with the life contexts of the tale’s tellers. Jack Zipes observes of the French women writing fairy tales during the height of the literary fairy-tale trend in France in the 1690s: “the sad state of the dark side of the classical fairy tales is that women writers often felt compelled to give more expression to male needs and hegemony than to their own” (2006: 53). Though these three versions come from different cultural contexts, I would argue that their themes seem in line with the daily concerns of their tellers. The tellers were likely of lower or middle class, and thus the amount of attention to kinship obligations and food preparation seems appropriate.

Structurally, each of the three tales casts the incestuous king as a hostile donor figure – combining the Proppian roles of villain and donor – to varying degrees. In “Sackcloth,” the father provides beautiful dresses, but the heroine provides her own disguise in which to escape, and at no one’s prompting. In fact, her father consults a cadi (a local Islamic authority) to establish his claim over his daughter, and the cadi backs up the father’s right to act on his desires. The father in the French version has the devil’s backing in obtaining the magical dresses. In terms of advisors, the French protagonist benefits from the advice of her godmother (who is also a fairy), and the Sicilian protagonist gets advice from her priest. The sought-after love object, the prince or king’s son, takes initiative in each tale to seek out the mysterious maiden who turns out to have been living in his household all along, showing that this tale role is not completely passive.

ATU 510B is a tale type with controversial content but remarkable conformity across time and space. Despite varying cultural contexts, versions from Sicilian, Palestinian-Arab, and French narrators align to present a tale showing a young woman escaping her father’s incestuous advances and establishing herself in a new household. This may happen with more or less magical intervention, and more or less guidance from a helper figure, showing that at the tale type’s core is a resilient and independent woman.


Works Cited

Massignon, Geneviève. Folktales of France. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Muhawi, Ibrahim, and Sharif Kanaana. 1989. Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Uther, Hans-Jörg. 2004. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography.  Helsinki:  Academia Scientiarum Fennica.

Zipes, Jack. 2004. Beautiful Angiola: The Great Treasury of Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales Collected by Laura Gonzenbach. New York: Routledge.

—. 2006. “Setting Standards for Civilization through Fairy Tales: Charles Perrault and the Subversive Role of Women Writers.” In Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge. 29-57.

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...

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