Thursday Fun: Story – Donkey Skin

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

24 thoughts on “Thursday Fun: Story – Donkey Skin

  1. it seems to me the message in this story, and many others of its type, is one of inalienable class. Once a princess, always a princess. No matter what horrific trials of appearance one goes through one maintains ones nature. Of course there are other types of stories in which cleverness can raise ones station, but these are generally male protagonists. I can’t recall a story in which a girl, through extreme cleverness becomes a princess…

  2. Rumplestiltskin? Beauty and the Beast?

    I’ve not done a lot of thinking about class in fairy tales, but I would argue that Princess doesn’t always line-up with sweetness and light (unless they are the protagonist of the tale). One’s nature is much more tied to gender and circumstance, I think.

  3. Agreed. It’s supposedly about virtue, but when that virtue is tied completely to class, what’s the difference? (though to be technical, you could argue that Beauty and Cinderella are neither princesses to begin with – but they are most definitely upper-class rich kids. Where with boys, they can start out as brave little tailors or stable boys and rise through the class system.)

    Little girls are often allowed to be clever, I think (Gretel, Vasilisa, Little Red) – but once they become women, or of marrying age, their agency is severely limited.

  4. I’m not sure I knew this story/version existed! How wonderfully disturbing.

    (I like parentheses.)

  5. The daughter in Rumplestiltskin doesn’t rise because she’s clever. The king wants her because she can spin straw into gold (which isn’t even true – and it isn’t even HER lie. She’s being used by her dad.)

    Beauty is the daughter of a VERY wealthy merchant. He loses all his money, yes, but that’s the same trope of noble grace falling into hard times and then rising again because she’s pretty and virtuous. Princess/noblewoman/lady does = either Pure Good or Pure Evil.

  6. Isn’t it?!? I love the dresses of the sky/moon/sun, and that they follow her underground.

  7. The daughter in Rumplestiltskin doesn’t rise because she’s clever.

    Thats a good point. She does survive because she is clever. Similar to Shaharazad in a way, though S is arguable more active in determining her fate.

    Princess/noblewoman/lady does = either Pure Good or Pure Evil.

    That’s partly my point. If they are of consequence to the tale*, they will largely be one or the other, but class doesn’t determine their character, that’s still gender.

    *Beauty’s sisters aren’t pure good or evil, they’re pretty normal. They do, however, provide a point of comparison for Beauty since we lack an evil Queen to illuminate her goodness.

  8. Beauty’s sisters are Selfish and Materialistic. In fairy tales, I think those count as serious character flaws.

    You can’t separate class and gender! You can’t say class doesn’t determine their characters – the princesses in the tales are compared to lower-class, less worthy women all the time. That’s the point of having a bunch of other ladies try on the glass slipper – only the pure, beautiful, good princess is worthy. Donkey Skin, in particular, is all about class.

  9. I think those count as serious character flaws.

    I agree, but depending on the presentation, they aren’t Pure Evil.

    I know you can’t separate class and gender! 😛 I’m trying to say that they aren’t all princesses to being with, so you can’t say that goodness is naturally associated with royalty. The eventual princess in Rumplestiltkin is a Miller’s Daughter – beautiful and poor. Rapunzel doesn’t come from nobility. You can’t say that one class determines one type of character.

    Or maybe you can, but I wouldn’t. 😉

  10. In fairy tales, there’s rarely ambiguity. A flaw makes you bad. You don’t find heroines very often who aren’t perfect, unless their imperfection is their CLASS!

    The original point Tom made is that noble women in fairy tales are only virtuous in that they are noble women and they look/behave exactly as they’re supposed to. They aren’t clever, or strong – their virtue is that they are royal. Their class MAKES them good and kind. If they end up happy and married and royal, it’s because they have merely maintained their self-hood. They don’t rise in ranks by being clever (as boys can).

    Those girls you mention don’t rise on their own merits – they are BORN with royal virtues like beauty and kindness, and those virtues are visible to kings and princes.

    And yeah, we’re totally disagreeing: in fairy tales, class definitely determines character type. If you have:

    a princess
    a stepmother
    a miller’s daughter
    a king

    you can pretty much determine exactly who is going to be good or bad. Yes, context matters. But the interconnections of gender and class are pretty well mapped out.

  11. I would say that in these instances it it a reversal of type. Character determines eventual class. They were princesses on the inside!(he he) They get to be noble because they are noble (don’tcha love english?) Girls, be good now! See what might Happen…

  12. Exactly – they’re born with it. Instead of being born clever, they’re born noble. Ha.

  13. With a donkey that poops gold, you could BUY as many princesses as you want. As many ninjas, too.

  14. What makes those virtues royal? It seems to me that those are virtues that the ‘quintessential woman’ is supposed to posses. Whether she is born noble or not, she can raise her worth by having those virtues in abundance, but they are not predetermined by her class.

    Royalty is the reward, not the context of a heroine’s virtue.

  15. What makes those virtues royal is the assumption that royalty is BETTER than non-royalty. In the context of these tales, you have to remember that royalty were chosen by God. The classes ARE predetermined. By God himself.

  16. I think we’re missing something, though. Isn’t that assumption false even within the scope of fairy tales?

    Wicked Queens (and the occasional King) are demoted or humiliated when faced with goodness – there loss of class and social standing is their punishment.

    Good Girls (blarg) are rewarded for their goodness – their inner goodness is given public manifestation via marriage and royalty.

    Did the Queen’s class make her wicked? The Miller’s Daughter’s class make her good? No. But those inner qualities do lead to their eventual, God-determined class. There may be a prevailing idea of how people within certain social classes should behave, but those qualities do not necessarily surface in the context of those classes.

    The title doesn’t make the Princess, the Princess makes the title. Or class doesn’t make the girl good, the girl gets to bear the burden of representing the ideal of her gender within the class.

  17. But the Wicked Queen is really a witch in disguise. She’s a pretender, because she isn’t virtuous.


    The Miller’s Daughter is a princess in disguise in the same way.

    (Yes, now I’m just arguing because I CAN. I think we’re in a chicken-egg situation here.)

  18. … It’s just not the same as winning them in a to-the-death gong fu tournament. But it would really help me staff my mobile undersea base!

  19. Yeah, but your argument only works if they KNOW they’re in disguise. If you’re not aware that you’re actually a princess, your class can’t make you.


  20. No way! Princess-virtue is like hormones. It acts upon you even if you don’t know it, or don’t want it to.

Comments are closed.