Marriage, as I have said before, is a loaded concept in fairy tales, coming as it so often does as a reward or punishment (or, in particularly creepy cases, as both). I’m sure it will come as an ENORMOUS SURPRISE to know the scales are most often weighed in favour of male characters. As I have also said before, so many times, this is a problem that can generally be fixed, or at least improved, by respecting each female character’s agency and treating them like you know they’re really people.
Some stories, though, have layers of alarming subtext that you’re presumably not meant to think about en route to the pretty dress finale. This week I’m looking at the same fairy tale, told three different ways – three variations on what it takes to survive being the heroine.
Version 1: Mossycoat
This is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s collection British Folk Tales – a selection and begins with a girl who’s being courted by a very persistent pedlar. She does not want to marry him but doesn’t want to reject him outright either. She consults her mother, which is a terrible idea because the widow is a mercenary opportunist and insists the girl milk her suitor for all he’s worth before making her lack of interest plain. “You tell him,” the widow says, “that you won’t marry him unless he gets you a white satin dress embroidered with sprigs of gold as big as a man’s hand; and mind you tell him it must be a perfect fit.”
The daughter passes on her mother’s demand, the pedlar accepts the challenge, and within a week he’s back with the requested dress. His second task is to bring a silk dress the colour of ‘all the birds of the air’, which…sounds better than I think it would look, but it takes him an even shorter time to produce and I must admit, I’m impressed by his sartorial connections. The two women he’s trying to please remain unmoved.
For his third task the pedlar brings the girl a pair of tiny silver slippers, again a perfect fit, at which time the girl agrees to marriage and arranges for him to return the next morning at ten. Unknown to him, the widow has been busily sewing the whole time and that night finishes making a coat of moss and gold thread. A magic coat. “When you’ve got it on,” she explains, “you have only to wish to be somewhere, and you’ll be there that very instant. And you’ve only to wish if you want to change yourself into something else, like a swan, or a bee.” If you were making a magic coat, lady, why not GET THE DRESSES YOURSELF.
At dawn the widow wakes her daughter. It’s time to go fortune hunting – “and a handsome fortune it must be”, ugh, you’d break your neck trying to find depths in this one. Really it’s not so much of a hunt as a siege, because the widow gives very precise directions as to where the girl’s fortune will be located: a hundred miles away, at the house of a wealthy gentleman. The girl arrives plainly dressed but with her fancy wardrobe packed up in her bag, and gains employment as the undercook. She goes by the name of Mossycoat.
The other servants dislike her on sight, insulted she be given so prestigious a position above any of them. They don’t let her do the job. Instead she’s given the grimiest and most unpleasant tasks around the kitchen and repeatedly hit upon the head with a milk-skimmer when anyone’s particularly annoyed.
Not much a fortune, you might think. Certainly the girl has reason to think so. After months of scouring pans and cleaning grates, and being given milk-skimmer-induced headaches, she hears that invitations are going out for a grand house party taking place nearby. For three days there’ll be hunting and sport, and for three nights there will be dancing. The lord and lady who are Mossycoat’s employers will be attending with their son and all the servants wish they could go too. They take out their frustrations by mocking Mossycoat, imagining her showing up in her dirty rags, but it’s more wishful thinking on their parts – both the lord and lady like her pretty face and their son has taken a particular interest, to the point she actually is asked to attend the dance with them. This is weirdly egalitarian. Mossycoat says no but is unwise enough to tell the other servants of her exclusive access and they predictably react with insults and physical abuse.
The next night, the same invitation is extended and Mossycoat gives the same response – but she has plans. She puts all the other servants under a sleeping spell, takes a long and luxurious bath, then slips into her white satin dress and silver slippers. Underneath, she wears the mossycoat. She wishes herself to the dance and just appears in the ballroom, where she immediately catches the eye of her employers’ son. Not that he recognises her as the pretty servant from his own house; he thinks she’s a Mysterious Stranger and ushers his mother over to question her. All Mossycoat will reveal about her home is that people hit her on the head there. So the young man approaches her himself and pesters her until she agrees to one dance with him. When he pressures her for another dance, she wishes herself back home and disappears before his eyes.
Changing into her work clothes, she returns to the kitchen and wakes the servants. They all think they fell asleep on the job and Mossycoat threatens to tell the mistress if they continue being horrible to her. Meanwhile, the young gentleman she ditched last night is obsessing over her and wondering how he can find out where she lives. “I’ll die if I’m not able to marry her,” he declares to his mother. She’s a little more cautious in her enthusiasm, but her son is too caught up in plotting that night’s dance to listen. Mossycoat is asked to attend one more time and the servants forget they’re supposed to be nice to her, ganging up for some more bullying instead.
She gets her own back soon enough, sending them all to sleep with another spell and changing into her bird-coloured silk. The moment she reaches the ballroom, she’s ambushed by her new suitor. As before, she agrees to one dance then insists she must leave. He tries to catch hold of her but just gets one slipper. The next day he lies around in bed being lovesick. He convinces his parents to send out an announcement that whoever the slipper fits will be his bride, which brings a rush of hopeful candidates. Included among them are a number of household servants. Not Mossycoat, though.
When the mistress realises, she orders her undercook upstairs to try on the slipper. No surprise, it fits. The young man leaps up from bed to embrace her, but Mossycoat wants to savour the moment and insists on a couple of costume changes first, so he can appreciate just how fabulous she looks. She then reveals to her soon-to-be parents-in-law how badly she was treated in their kitchen and gets all the servants sacked. Her mother moves into the grand house, Mossycoat is given everything she wants, and I feel deeply cynical.
Version 2: Cat-Skin
This Grimm brothers version one-ups the first by making everybody royalty. A dying queen insists her husband promise not to remarry unless he meets with someone as beautiful as herself, and he keeps his word, despite his advisers desperately searching for someone who can meet such high expectations.
Why they are so frantic is unclear, because he already has an heir. She has the beauty and the famous golden hair but instead of retiring and making her queen in his place (which would have been the best plot twist) her father decides she must marry the Prince of the Enchanted Island. She knows this prince is a terrible person, for reasons she’s not inclined to share, so stalls as best she can. “Before I marry anyone,” she announces, “I must have three dresses; one must be of gold like the sun, another must be of shining silver like the moon, and a third must be as dazzling as the stars: besides this, I want a mantle of a thousand different kinds of fur put together, to which every beast in the kingdom must give part of his skin.” She feels pretty safe, since who could achieve all of that?
Except hah, no, she’s not safe at all. The king sets his weavers and hunters to work and far too soon all the clothes are made. Left with no choice but to run away, the princess draws on her ‘heroine of the story’ magic, hiding the new dresses inside a nutshell. Somehow. She then packs three items of golden jewellery, throws on the fur cloak, smears her skin with dirt and, while everyone else lies sleeping, departs the castle for good under the name of Cat-skin.
She walks as far as she can. Coming to a large wood – the hunting ground of a different king, though she doesn’t know it at the time – she curls in the hollow of large tree and sleeps. It’s noon when she wakes, and only then because the aforementioned king no.2 shows up with his dogs. His huntsmen describe Cat-skin as ‘a most wonderful beast’ and the king orders they bring it back to the castle, but as the men lift her the princess wakes. Very frightened, she cries out. “I am a poor child that has neither father nor mother left; have pity on me and take me with you.” The men immediately modify their attitudes, calling her ‘miss’ and giving a job in the kitchens.
The servants here are not actively horrible to her, but the work is not fun and not easy, especially for a princess unaccustomed to hard labour. One day when a feast is being held upstairs, she gets the cook’s permission to take a peep. Once out of sight, she washes up quickly and changes into the golden dress. The king is captivated and dances with her. Side note: there is no reference to him pushing. It definitely seems like she wants to dance with him. Not for long, of course, the cook is expecting her – at the end of the number she slips away, changes back into her fur mantle and returns to work.
It’s the cook’s turn to take a look at the festivities, so Cat-skin is given the task of stirring the soup. She deliberately drops her golden ring into the king’s dish, so that he finds it later as he’s finishing his meal (and luckily not choking to death on unsanitary objects hiding in the food). He calls on the cook to explain it, who in turn calls on Cat-skin, but she insists on total ignorance and the king lets the matter go.
Next time there is a feast things play out much the same way. Cat-skin shimmies into another glowing dress, rocks up to dance with the dazzled king, then slips away unseen. Left to tend the soup, she drops in her golden necklace, but refuses to admit that to the baffled king. Possibly it is simply an excuse to see him, or maybe she’s leaving clues. Regardless, at the next feast, there’s the king’s favourite gatecrasher – and he’s determined to find out who she is. He slips a ring on her finger as they dance and manages to keep her at his side for a while, but she ducks away at last. Pressed for time, she can’t take off the dress; instead she throws her fur mantle over the top, running to tend the soup. This time she drops her brooch into the dish, but doesn’t notice the king’s own act of jewellery-swapping.
Ordering her before him for a third time, he sees the ring on her finger and seizes her hand. When she tries to pull away, the fur cloak comes askew, revealing her glittering ballgown underneath. Her true identity revealed, the king proposes and they marry. Her father is not invited to the wedding.
Version 3: All Fur
I’m putting a trigger warning on this one, for attempted sexual abuse and attempted incest – if you don’t want to read it, skip straight to the last paragraph. This is another Grimm brothers’ version from a different book, and begins in almost exactly the same way – a beautiful golden-haired queen making her husband promise to remarry only if he finds her lookalike, and the councillors of court fruitlessly attempting to do just that. But one day, the king looks at his daughter and realises how much she resembles her mother. In that moment he decides he will marry her.
His councillors are appalled; the princess is horrified. What can she do to save herself when his word is literally law? She pulls the same trick as the princess from ‘Cat-skin’, insisting she cannot marry without one dress golden, another silver and another bright as the stars – and of course, the fur mantle. As before, the king manages to acquire each item with terrifying speed. He gives them to his daughter and tells her the wedding will take place the next day.
While everyone else is sleeping, the girl flees. She takes with her the dresses and three golden trinkets: a ring, a tiny spinning wheel and a little reel. Wearing the cloak, she takes the name All Fur and runs as far away from her father as she can go.
She, too, falls asleep in a wood and wakes to the inquisitive eyes of a different king’s huntsmen. Upon realising she is human, they take her home to be a kitchen hand – but when the young king holds a feast, she appears amidst the crowd in her golden gown and dances like the princess she is. Later, preparing the king’s soup, she drops her golden ring into the dish. Like Cat-skin, she denies all knowledge and insists she is ‘good for nothing but to have boots thrown at her’. King Two sends her back to the kitchen unenlightened.
She dances at the next feast, and hides her golden spinning wheel in King Two’s soup. Once again, he can’t get any explanation from her. Confused and suspicious, the cook is very reluctant to allow her upstairs for a third time. She pleads so persistently he eventually lets her go anyway, but once in the ballroom there’s King Two to contend with. He has the dance stretched out for as long as he can and slips a ring onto All Fur’s finger while holding her hand; when she runs back to the kitchen, she has no time to take off the dress and does not notice her newly acquired jewellery. When King Two finds the reel she has left in his soup and summons her, he zeroes in on the ring. Like in ‘Cat-skin’, there’s a slightly disturbing reference to his tearing away the fur cloak, making her reveal her identity. Of course she’s beautiful underneath her disguise and they marry. She did give him the clues; I so hope she’s happy.
What is interesting to me about the tellings of these three stories is how the protagonist goes from stereotype gold-digger in the first, to resourceful escapee in the second, to desperate refugee in the third, while the basic framework of the story remains much the same. What changes is the context. Plot contrivances that make no sense in ‘Mossycoat’ become devastatingly logical in ‘All Fur’. The latter two heroines are given excellent reason for their actions and we are allowed to share their feelings, not kept at a careful distance as we are with Mossycoat. Perspective matters. If you look through the heroine’s eyes, instead of just looking at her, the view can be radically different.