Donkey Skin is a version of the Cinderella story by Charles Perrault. A decent translation can be found here.
(Note on translation: in most cases fairy tales translate well and easily. Donkey Skin is one of those times when translators often take liberties. The main reason Donkey Skin has stayed with me since I first encountered it in Andrew Lang’s Grey Fairy Book is because Lang’s version is euphemized. The original contains overt incest; Lang changes the daughter to an adopted daughter. In the original, the donkey in question poops gold every morning; Lang’s version spills gold from its ears. Talk about a lost metaphor!)
What I find fascinating about this story is the way the magic works: it doesn’t. At least not in the sense that it creates illusions or solves problems. The princess finds herself in an untenable situation – her dad wants to marry her – and goes to her fairy godmother. The fairy offers advice that completely, utterly fails. Of course, by the end the advice proves useful, but it does not solve the problem in the moment. Usually, magical creatures are either good and perfectly helpful, or evil. Not incompetent.
Fairies are often representative of inhumanity: of taboo behavior, sex, violence, death, OR they are angelic and represent the best parts of the hero/heroine’s nature. But here, the taboo behavior is directly attributed to the human parents (especially the dead mother, whose word it is that causes Daddy to want to marry Daughter. If you parallel it with Cinderella, where the dead mother IS the fairy godmother and it’s Daddy’s new wife who is the Bad Guy, the difference in the role of the fairy stands out even more.)
In Donkey Skin, the fairy magic is almost like a sub-plot. It isn’t necessary. The princess could have come up with her escape on her own (as she does in the similar Grimm story “All-Kinds-of-Fur”), and there is no illusion that the prince falls in love with – in fact, here he is the only one who sees past the ugly donkey skin to the Real Princess. No pumpkins turned to carriages, no magic midnight transformations. There’s just a girl in a crappy situation (haha) dealing with bad magical advice and being her virtuous, beauty-and-kindness-are-all-that-matter self. (Which is a rant for another day.)
I guess my point is, if you’re going to have magic in your story, make it count. It shouldn’t just be fluff. Toss in faeries if they represent something, or sprinkle in a vampire if that’s the metaphor you really want to invoke: not just because they’re cool. (Which they are.)
Thanks for sticking around, (and sorry for the massive overuse of paretheticals).
*Incredibly adorable art by Maggie Stiefvater