Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the most romantic of all?
As a beautiful American girl prepares to marry a British prince we smile at their love and talk about another fairy tale wedding. We know that actually, fairy tales aren’t that romantic. The royal wedding at the end of a fairy tale is just a reward at the end for the brave hero or long-suffering heroine, isn’t it?
Let’s go back to some of the classic tellings and see. I’m going to take Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, stories we’ve grown up with in film and retellings, and look at how they were told when they were first recorded.
A romance is not just about kisses and lingering looks, is it? It ‘s about characters we want to root for, speeches that pull on the heartstrings, extravagant gestures, and a gorgeous setting, ideally with some beautiful gowns! Do we get that in the classic versions?
Mirror, Mirror: The Classic Tale of Cinderella
Let’s start with Cinderella with a version by Giovanni Batiste Basile, who collected and retold Neopolitan tales in the 1600’s in a book called “Il Pentamerone,” the Tale of Tales.
Zezolla, as she is called before the stepsisters begin to mock her, is something of a shock. In Basile’s version, she has not one but two step-mothers, one after another. Why? Because, encouraged by her governess, she actually murders the first stepmother! Feisty? She’s no doormat. It doesn’t bring her peace, though, because the governess becomes the second step-mother and turns out to be nastier than the first, and she has not two but six daughters of her own!
Zezolla certainly suffers after that, not least because her father turns from doting to neglectful. “She is not worthy of anyone’s notice,” he tells the king. She continues to fight, compelling her father to bring her magical gifts that clothe her for the ball. It depends on your viewpoint as to whether you want to root for this determined girl. The king (not prince) who sees her at the ball is no pushover either. He threatens to kick the servant that he sends to find Cinderella if the servant fails.
RELATED | WHY FAIRY TALES MAKE GREAT STORIES (AND HOW TO WRITE YOUR OWN) – A GUEST POST BY RACHEL STEDMAN
So much for the characters. How about their actual romance? Well, it is the king who is besotted. “The king…on beholding Zezolla fell enamoured of her.” He describes her as his “delight.” Rather than sending out a servant with the slipper, this lover invites everyone to a banquet. He recognises Zezolla instantly, but goes through a pretence, trying the slipper on every guest.
“But no sooner came he to Zezolla than the foot was caught by love like steel to the magnet; and the king surprised her by putting his arms around her, and seating her under the dais, and putting the crown on her head, commanded that all should do her obeisance as to their queen.”
Zezolla’s feelings are something of a mystery. She goes to the ball (festival here) because she wants to get out of the house without her sisters knowing. Nowhere does Basile say she went to snare a rich husband or that she is falling in love. The only indication that she might have feelings for him is that her slipper flies out of her carriage as she leaves in haste, suggesting she has lost track of time in the magic of the moment and is now in turmoil.
The setting is minimal. If you want details about her pretty dresses you will be disappointed. There is more detail about her transport – first a steed, later a golden carriage – and the number of retainers that go with her. There is no pumpkin and none of the servants have alternate lives as kitchen pests. The language, too, of the story (translated by Sir Richard Burton in the late 18oo’s) is florid and old-fashioned, wrenching a moral out of this violent tale.
All in all? Nine out of ten for the king for extravagant gestures, but Zezolla is a calculating minx in my opinion. With his temper and her unscrupulous character, this might be a fiery coupling.
Cinderella: As Told by Perrault
How about Perrault? We have all heard of him. He wrote later in the 1600s. How did he treat the tale?
His Cinderella is gentle and good, with a sense of humour. When the stepsisters tell her about the beautiful unknown at the ball she is “beside herself with delight,” as if hugging to herself the knowledge that they have unwittingly acknowledged her as a paragon of beauty. She asks one of them, Jayotte, if she can borrow her everyday yellow gown and go to the ball herself, knowing full well that Jayotte will sneer and refuse.
The prince here does not have the temper of Basile’s king, but nor does he throw any extravagant gestures. He is at home while his men tour the country with the slipper. However, he is clearly deeply smitten with her at the ball. His first encounter with her is when he hears an unknown grand princess has arrived, so he goes to greet her. This is a polite and diplomatic move, but soon he is enchanted:
“She danced with so much grace that everyone’s admiration increased. A very fine supper was served, but the prince could not eat anything because he was so wrapped up in watching her.”
After she drops her slipper he does “nothing but gaze at it during the remainder of the evening,” and when she is brought to him at the end he “found her more beautiful than ever.” This Cinderella shows no more indication that she is in love with him than Zezolla: again, her mission is to go to the ball, rather than find a royal match. The only suggestion that her priorities have changed is that on the second night (Perrault gives us two, not three balls) she “enjoyed herself so much that she forgot her godmother’s advice and was dumbfounded when the flock began to strike twelve.” She could just as well, however, be lost in the fun of the dancing.
Perrault’s setting, however, is far more detailed than Basile’s. He not only gives her “garments of gold and silver dotted with jewels” and glass slippers, he also has fun with the stepsisters’ clothes, detailing their ruffles, a red velvet dress, some English point-lace trimmings and some double-frilled caps, among others. And of course, he gives us the pumpkin and the wonderful retinue magicked up from lizards, mice and a rat. The tone, too, is lighter than Basile’s with two tongue-in-cheek morals at the end: it’s all very well, says Perrault, to have courage, wit and good breeding, but
“Without the help of godparents
Your life will never have great events.”
Cinderella: As Told by the Grimm Brothers
The Grimm brothers tell this tale too. They call it Ashenputtel, and replace the fairy godmother with a little white bird in a tree planted on her mother’s grave, a scene told very lyrically. This Cinderella is good and pious. She clearly suffers a lot, with step-sisters who torment her and a father who, far from protecting her, tells the prince that she is deformed. She does nothing, however, to stop her pigeon helpers from pecking out the eyes of her stepsisters at the wedding. Like Basile’s and Perrault’s Cinderella, she shows no sign of falling for the prince, unless this is the reason she loses track of time.
As for the prince, he’s very devoted – he won’t let go of her hand, and wants to go home with her – but he does seem to be pretty stupid: twice he rides off with the wrong girl (each stepsister tries to fool him, one by cutting off her toe, one her heel, to fit the slipper) only to be corrected by those pesky pigeons. He earns a few Hero Points for sweeping her onto his steed once he’s worked out who she is, but all in all, I’d say this telling is the loser in the race for Romance points.
In summary, Cinderella’s Prince is besotted but flawed, and Cinderella may not be in love with him at all.
Mirror, Mirror: The Classic Tale of Snow White
Let’s look at Snow White now.
Basile tells a tale called “The Young Slave” that scholars see as an early version of Snow White. Here, the heroine, called Lisa, falls into a deep sleep after getting a comb stuck in her head, and is kept in seven crystal chests nested one inside the other, locked in a secret room. There is no mirror and no dwarves. She is actually revived by her uncle’s wife, who has slipped into the room because she suspects the forbidden room hides a mistress for her husband.
The wife then abuses Lisa, who becomes a Cinderella figure, tormented and humiliated before being rescued by her uncle and married off to a worthy and handsome man. The groom is compensation for her suffering: we learn nothing about the groom apart from the fact that he is honorable and easy on the eye. The setting of the story has its attraction: there is an episode where Lisa’s mother takes part in a competition to jump over a rose bush, and some fairies that help her out when she gives birth, but all in all the story falls well short of what we would expect in a Romance.
Perrault does not retell this tale. Instead, let’s look at “Richilda,” a story by Johann Karl August Musäus, writing at the end of the 1700s. This story is more recognisable as the Snow White we know, with a jealous stepmother, a magic mirror, several death attempts and devoted dwarves, although Bianca, as the heroine is called here, stays in a castle guarded by the dwarves and her maidens. The story is, in fact, far more about the stepmother, Richilda Countess of Brabant, than about Bianca, a young girl who is merely characterised by being beautiful and innocent. She is the object of her step mother’s hatred due to her superior looks but remains naïve and trusting:
“When she heard the horses trotting up to the gates, [she] flew out to meet her mother, and received her with great respect and affection.”
In fact, the story focusses so much on Richilda that Bianca only appears on stage to be poisoned yet again. Bianca’s mate is Godfrey of Ardenne, who is on a pilgrimage to get his father out of purgatory. He is interested to see Bianca because he thinks he can revive her with a holy relic he has collected on his journey. This is not a cold-blooded event; he is charmed at the sight of the beautiful alabaster statue through the glass window.
However, his method of reviving her – laying the relic on her heart – is not as romantic as a kiss, and there is a lack of ardour in the way he tells her he will finish his pilgrimage first, then pick her up on his return. Nor is their conversation on his return to our modern tastes. She says “with a bashful and blushing countenance, ‘Take heed what you do, young man; question your heart whether it be upright, or a deceiver: if you abuse the confidence I repose in you, Heaven, be assured, will pursue you with its vengeance.’ The knight modestly replied, ‘I call the Holy Virgin to witness the purity of my intentions; and may the curse of God overtake me, if one evil thought dwell in my soul!’ Thereupon Blanca mounted behind him in confidence.”
If you want passion, you need to look at her father, Gornbald, and her step-mother. Richilda sees him in her mirror and finds him quite a stunner: “his manly brown cheek, tinged with red, glowed with warmth and health; the gently rising upper-lip of his purple mouth seemed to advance for a thrilling kiss; his full calf was big with strength and manly vigour. As soon as the virgin perceived the noble form of the knight, the yet slumbering sensations of love awakened all at once in her soul; she drank deep of joy and rapture from his eyes, and made a solemn vow never to bestow her hand on any other man.” Now that’s romance, isn’t it? Musäus doesn’t think so.
He shows the ardour breaking up Gornbald’s first marriage and burning out quite quickly after his second. However, where Musäus wins on the romance front is with his setting. The story is set very firmly in the Middle Ages, during the time of the crusades, and is rich with fighting knights, monks and castles.
Snow White: As Told by the Grimm Brothers
How does the Grimms’ version compare? Snow White is centre stage here. She may not be a very rounded character, but she has a little more life than Bianca, her fascination with combs, laces and pretty apples suggesting a touch of vanity as well as a naivety. The prince is not given any characteristics other than his admiration for her, but that is powerful. He is so impressed by his sight of her in the coffin that he offers to buy it for whatever price they name. When the dwarves won’t give it up he says,
“Then give it to me as a gift, for I can’t go on living without being able to see Snow White. I’ll honour her and cherish her as my dearly beloved.”
This may not be based on any first-hand experience of her character, but his passion is obvious. It is disappointing, after this, to see that he doesn’t wake her with a kiss; that is Disney’s addition to the story. Instead, she is woken by a jolt to the coffin. How about Snow White? She hasn’t had much chance to fall for the prince – she has been asleep. When he proposes she “felt that he was sincere, so she went with him.” This is rather cool.
Like Cinderella, the ardour of a rich groom is the compensation for her past suffering. The tale loses more romance points for its ending when you start to wonder who actually made the queen put on the red-hot slippers. If Snow White doesn’t instigate this act of vengeance, she makes no move to stop it, and the same can be said of her prince. But the setting is surely worth a few romance points – a threatening forest, a sinister mirror, a little house and a band of loyal dwarves.
To sum up, Snow White has had no chance to fall in love with her admiring prince, and both are complicit in the nasty death of the stepmother.
Mirror, Mirror: The Classic Tale of Sleeping Beauty
On to the third fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty.
Basile’s version is notorious now. The setting is romantic enough – Talia, as he names her, is placed on a velvet throne under a dais of brocade. The king, (not prince), however, falls far short of our standards of a romantic hero. His “blood courses hotly” and he has non-consensual sex with her which she sleeps through, and then goes back to his wife and forgets all about her for a while.
She gives birth while still asleep and one of the twins, trying to nurse, sucks out the flax splinter in Talia’s finger that originally sent her to sleep. The king remembers her, comes back, and they have a nice little chat. She longs to see her “light and joy” the king again. Unsurprisingly, the King’s wife is a little upset when she learns about Talia’s existence and tries to kill her and the children, but the king saves them just on time.
Sleeping Beauty: As Told by Perrault
Perrault takes this story and cleans it up. The king becomes an unmarried prince, who starts to love the princess as soon as he hears of her. As the trees and brambles open up for him, they close behind as well, so that his attendants cannot follow. It is just him and the princess. On seeing her, he kneels in awe – he doesn’t even steal a kiss. This is when she wakes: “she bestowed on him a look more tender than a first glance might warrant. ‘Is it you, my prince?’ she said. ‘You have been long awaited.’” The hint is that she was dreaming of him. The prince is almost incoherent with love: “he hardly knew how to express his joy and gratitude.”
Perrault does go on to relate the macabre incident of the threat to Sleeping Beauty and the children of the marriage, but the jealous wife has been turned into a mother-in-law, a hungry ogre with a taste for tender flesh. The prince loses some hero points for leaving his beloved wife and children with an ogre, but altogether it is a much more charming story than Basile’s. I love the details Perrault adds: there are courtly details about the supper, for instance, some world-building when he describes the way the good fairy is sent for by a dwarf with seven-league boots, and the little joke about the princess’s outdated fashion sense:
“Her gown was magnificent, but [the prince] took care not to tell her that she was attired like his grandmother, who also wore stand-up collars.”
The morals at the end are quite humorous: first, he says no woman nowadays would be so patient as to wait one hundred years for the ideal man, and then he says he hasn’t the heart to preach at lovers who can’t wait to get married.
Sleeping Beauty: As Told by the Grimm Brothers
The Grimm brothers took this tale and put their own stamp on it. They cut out the ogre event altogether, ending the story with the marriage. Here, the courtiers and palace staff all fall asleep straight away, and the details are charming: from the king and queen to the flies on the wall, everyone grows quiet, and the cook, who is about to pull the kitchen boy’s hair, falls asleep too. The brier hedge grows by itself, and when the prince approaches they burst into bloom. This prince actually kisses the princess. Does the kiss wake her or the fact that a hundred years has now passed? It’s left a little mysterious, and here there is no hint that she has been dreaming of him, but she does look at him “fondly.”
In summary, thanks to Perrault turning a tale of lust into a tale of innocent attraction and the Grimms adding lyrical detail, we finally have a romantic happy ever after – an adventurous, smitten prince, a princess who dreams of her hero, and true love’s kiss. The story won’t please a feminist, but it will please a romantic.
So, are these fairy tales romantic? Yes and no. The characters in Basile and Grimm can be violent, spiteful and stupid, and two of the heroines don’t seem to be in love, but the princes are passionate and the settings charming. Luckily, the final version of Sleeping Beauty has the elements we have been questing for all this while.
How about you? Do you think fairy tales are romantic? What are your favourite retellings? If you love fairy tale retellings, look out for the JL Anthology series, which includes three collections of fairy tale retellings, some romantic, others decidedly not! The first, From the Stories of Old, is available now on Amazon, while the other two are out March and April 2018.
BIO – ABOUT LYNDEN WADE
Lynden Wade spends as much time as possible in other worlds to avoid the dirty dishes piling up in her home. She enjoys writing stories inspired by fairy tales, legends, and history. She has had two fairy tales and a poem published in anthologies so far, and three stories accepted for 2018. She is still hoping for a house elf. You can find out more about the JL anthologies at Just-Us League.
Feature Castle image: Unsplash