Fairy Tale Motifs in Medieval Literature: An Annotated Bibliography for Teachers

Dr. Alan Lupack, Curator of the Robbins Library, 
University of Rochester, presents

Library Resources on Medieval Topics

Guest Columnist:
Martha M. Johnson-Olin
University of Rochester

 

If discussing knights on horseback, heroines in need of rescue, and action adventure stories with many students of medieval literature, they may label these details a part of the romance tradition and name authors such as Chaucer, Gower, and Malory or works like Sir Isumbras. These tropes, however, are not exclusive to the romance genre, and just as groups of romances are difficult to label and classify, the fairy tale represents a similarly complex, rewarding, and conflicted genre.  With both categories stemming from oral traditions and a diverse array of sources, texts, and cultural adaptations, it is no surprise that the genres share similar narratives, plot structures, and motifs, and often, by examining tropes in one genre, we can develop questions that help us teach the other one.  Whether we read about a fairy tale heroine’s bold escape into the woods to avoid her father’s lust or a romance heroine’s quieter defiance before being cast adrift, we can begin to develop an idea of commonalities. The purpose of this bibliography is to highlight several prominent moments of potential narrative mirroring as a way to aid teachers who wish to use the popularity of fairy tales to teach medieval literature, particularly medieval romances.

Because of the vast number of fairy tale and folklore motifs possible in medieval literature, I have had to make several key decisions to limit the scope of this bibliography.  It will focus on a limited number of Middle English romances because these works contain a high concentration of fairy tale motifs and are often understudied.  While Chaucer, Gower, and Malory have been included, they typically appear when a specific episode or tale shares a motif with another romance.  For example, Gareth, Griselda, and Gowther all represent heroes and heroines who face debasement and a time at the hearth that resembles the degradation and transformation of Cinderella.  In an effort to facilitate quick comparisons of the texts and fairy tales discussed, I have limited myself to commonly used editions, such as The Riverside Chaucer or the diverse works of the Middle English Text series so that teachers may choose to access many of the romances via the printed METS editions or through the series website (http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/tmsmenu.htm).  In order to narrow the number of motifs, I have concentrated on more common fairy tales from Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Andrew Lang and have focused on tonal concerns shared by the romances. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, and Jack types of stories are situated alongside loathly ladies, ungrateful travelers, men in battle, and trips to the fairy world.  The collection below does not contain every folklore motif within a given romance as these motifs sometimes conflict, so I have focused on a number of more familiar fairy tale tropes and more prominent instances of narrative similarity.

Despite the overlapping themes present in the two genres, one cannot simply label “The Clerk’s Tale” a Cinderella story and understand the complexity of Chaucer’s work without careful consideration of the range of motifs in the fairy tales along with the genius of Chaucer’s ingenuity, nor should one ever expect to turn over a leaf in a manuscript and find “Beauty and the Beast.” Yet what cannot be ignored is the number of medieval texts that resist simple classification because they incorporate multiple folktale tropes.  For example, Sir Gowther, a curious romance about a half-demon who must cast off his demonic heritage and atone for his terrible acts before becoming an emperor and a saint contains the “rash wish” motif of Hans My Hedgehog stories, the debasement of the hero common to Cinderella versions, the death or sleeping state required of heroines in Sleeping Beauty tales, and the donning of symbolic armor common to Iron John stories.

In the lists below, I have provided a series of sections designed to offer educators a number of directions and definitions to use when teaching.  With each section, I hope to show how fairy tales and medieval literature, both fascinating areas for research, can be brought together to offer students a way to understand narrative similarities, motifs, themes, and ways to approach the more complex works medieval authors provide.

 

Fairy Tale Collections

I include these collections of familiar fairy tales so that readers can become acquainted with the motifs. While I have included print copies of the collections here, many of these fairy tales may be found online.  Because scholars debate the definition of a fairy tale and the intricacies of oral versus literary traditions, I have chosen to rely on existing collections to help provide a common definition for those unfamiliar with fairy tales.  For the purposes of this project, I have kept my definition of a fairy tale brief: a hero or heroine, sometimes conceived by magical means, enters the world, faces obstacles, and overcomes them.  The story often involves magic, adventure, transformation, and results in a happy ending, although a wedding is not required.

The Brothers Grimm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Jack Zipes. 3rd ed. New York: Bantam Books, 2003.

This collection of the Grimms’ fairy tales offers scholars and students clear and organized access to a large fairy tale compilation and includes most of the motifs discussed below.

Lang, Andrew. The Fairy Books.

Lang published hundreds of fairy tales in the 12 books that comprise this series.  While the series also draws on the work of Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, Lang gathered fairy tales from around the world.  The books can be purchased as a set or as separate volumes, and stories are always grouped by color (Blue, Brown, Crimson, Green, Grey, Lilac, Orange, Olive, Pink, Red, Yellow, Violet).  Lang’s collection has been published in many forms, including e-books and online. Scholar Laura Gibbs has gathered many links pertaining to Lang and his work at http://www.mythfolklore.net/andrewlang/.

Perrault, Charles. The Complete Fairy Tales. Trans. Christopher Betts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

This collection offers readers translations of Perrault’s work alongside illustrations by Gustave Doré. Perrault’s versions have become the standard by which many people measure fairy tale quality.

 

Suggested Criticism

Each of the fairy tales and romances referenced in this bibliography has been studied by scholars, some quite extensively.  Rather than list all of the criticism for each individual item, I have chosen to include a list of general works that help begin the comparison of fairy tale and romance narratives.

Aarne, Antti, and Stith Thompson. The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. 2nd rev. ed. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1961.

This work attempts to list and catalog a variety of fairy tale types and motifs.  It shows the relationship between some tales, the overlapping of tropes, and possible other locations of tale variants.  While no list of motifs can ever be complete, this collection represents a starting point for seeing the labels folklorists use.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. 1975. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic reading remains a popular if often disputed way to approach fairy tales, and many of his points can apply to medieval romance plots as well.  Of particular use may be his discussions of Cinderella and Jack stories.

Cooper, Helen. The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Cooper concentrates on the romance as a genre of medieval and early modern literature, and her work does not focus on fairy tales.  Instead, she develops the idea of a narrative meme and assesses how romance motifs changed over time.  The work represents a starting point for those who wish to focus heavily on early romances.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

A useful consideration of romance and folktale tropes and how to approach the romance genre.

Kline, Daniel T., ed.  Medieval Literature for Children. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Kline and his contributors wish to study the line between entertainment and didacticism in medieval literature while also exploring what texts may have been accessed by children of the medieval era.  His volume includes excerpts of the primary texts and essays offering an analysis of each piece.  His discussions of Gower’s “Tale of Adrian and Bardus” and Sir Gowther are particularly relevant to this project.

Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow, eds. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

This collection is dedicated to medieval folklore and literature and can be used by beginning and advanced scholars alike. Each folklore trope listed contains information about the texts it appears in, its historical and literary context, and potential influence.

Peck, Russell A. The Cinderella BibliographyThe Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/cinder/cinintr.htm.

This collection of resources, revisions, and adaptations of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast contains an extremely useful section on fairy tale criticism and a section of early sources of Cinderella, several of which are medieval romances.

Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Trans. Laurence Scott. 2nd ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.

A controversial work claiming to map a structure for fairy tales.  Although limited, the breakdown of fairy tale functions in “Chapter III: The Functions of Dramatis Personae” offers an excellent foundation for seeing narrative overlap between romance and fairy tale plots.

Rosenberg, Bruce A. “Medieval Popular Literature: Folkloric Sources.” In The Popular Literature of Medieval England. Ed. Thomas J. Heffernan. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1985. 61-84.

Rosenberg searches for the meeting place between folklore and medieval literature. He suggests that the medieval audience had a vast understanding of folklore and that many medieval romances contain similar narrative episodes. He believes considering folk literature as a source for the romances reveals much about authorial intent and archetype.  He addresses the concern that more than one folktale motif needs to match in order for the comparison to occur and uses Sir Degaré as one of his examples of how multiple motifs may coexist within a single romance.  He also stresses the importance of considering if the tales circulated at the same time as the romances and indicates that knowledge of the tales can help with understanding the more complex narratives.

– – -. Folklore and Literature: Rival Siblings. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

In this work, Rosenberg expands his discussion of the overlap between folktales and medieval literature with a discussion of relevant folklore studies and literary theory.  While not focused on individual fairy tales, it offers a place to start for scholars who wish to explore this intersection.

 

Medieval Resources and Modern Retellings

For each of the motifs below, I have included a basic definition of the motif and an example of a fairy tale that employs the trope before listing works where Middle English versions of the motif appears.  I have then provided a sampling of modern English and K-12 appropriate items when available.

Animals Kidnapping Children

This trope occurs in many Middle English romances where a hero or heroine must endure pain and suffering.  A variety of animals, including lions, griffins, leopards, and unicorns, steal children.  The children are usually rescued by someone else or provided for by God until a later reunion.  The incidents usually help drive the plot.  For example, the fairy tale “The Foundling,” collected by the Brothers Grimm, begins with a child rescued after a bird steals it from its mother.

Sir Eglamour of Artois. In Four Middle English Romances: Sir Isumbras, Octavian, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Tryamour. Ed. Harriet Hudson. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996. 115-71.

When Cristabelle, the heroine of this romance, is cast adrift after her father learns that she has given birth to an illegitimate child, a griffin steals the baby, Degrebelle, after mother and child wash ashore. Later, the son wins his mother in combat, and her recognition of the griffin on his equipment prevents incest.

Sir Isumbras. In Four Middle English Romances: Sir Isumbras, Octavian, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Tryamour. Ed. Harriet Hudson. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996. 7-44.

The hero of this romance agrees to suffer for his sins during his youth, and he loses everything, including his three children, who are stolen by a lion, a leopard, and a unicorn.  The children will reappear riding on the animals that stole them when they help their father fight Saracens.

Octavian. In Four Middle English Romances: Sir Isumbras, Octavian, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Tryamour. Ed. Harriet Hudson. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996. 45-114.

When the empress is exiled after her husband falsely accuses her of adultery, her children are stolen by a lioness and an ape.  Octavian, her son stolen by the lioness, will be reunited with his mother shortly thereafter, but Florent, the son stolen by the ape, is rescued by a knight and has a much longer path to his reconciliation.

Armor as a Sign of Spiritual Purity
A knight who needs either to prove himself in battle or to prove his redeemed state will enter a series of three battles over the course of three days.  Each day, his clothing will reflect the new state of his reputation and his soul.  An example occurs in the Grimm Brothers’ “Iron Hans.”

Middle English

Sir Gowther. In The Middle English Breton Lays. Ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. 263-307.

In this romance, a half-demon attains sainthood due to his extreme penance and defense of Christianity.  As Gowther, the main character, fights in three important battles, his armor changes from black, to red, to white, reflecting his redemptive process.

Modern English

Sir Gowther. In Nine Medieval Romances of Magic: Re-Rhymed in Modern English. Trans. Marijane Osborn. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2010. 161-85.

Because the romance includes several instances of sexual violence, it is best reserved for advanced students.

Beheading Games

This motif, most frequently found in versions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, involves men agreeing to cut off one another’s heads.  The trope requires the testing of courage and honor.  A variant of this motif can be seen in the Buffet Game, where warriors exchange blows. In fairy tales, this trope can shift.  Instead of a test of strength, a character must behead an animal or other figure who has helped him or her, thereby revealing their honor or gratitude, and often the character must be compelled to act correctly.  One example occurs in “The Golden Bird” in the Brothers Grimm collection.

Middle English

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon. 2nd ed. Revised by Norman Davis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

While this work contains several folklore elements, it is most famous for the challenge the Green Knight issues to the men of Arthur’s court at Christmas.  When Gawain agrees to participate and cuts off the Green Knight’s head, he finds himself at a loss when the knight picks up his head and asks Gawain to travel to his home for the second half of the contest one year later.

The Greene Knight. In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Ed. Thomas Hahn. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. 309-35.

This smaller story about Gawain offers advanced students a text that mirrors many elements of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight while providing new motivations for several of the narrative motifs.  In this version, the beheading game is more directly connected to honor and a knight’s reputation.

The Turke and Sir Gawain. In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Ed. Thomas Hahn. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. 337-58.

This unusual tale offers upper level students a variant of the Beheading Game in the Buffet Game.  The Turk appears in Arthur’s court and asks for an exchange of blows.  He will then delay Gawain’s attempts to return his blows and lead the hero on a series of adventures that take him to a magical world on the Isle of Man.  At last, the Turk asks Gawain to behead him and catch the blood in a basin, leading to the Turk’s transformation into a knight; this episode mirrors the transformation of the fox in “The Golden Bird” as retold by the Brothers Grimm.  Similarly, the Turk is actually Sir Gromer, potentially the brother of Dame Ragnelle, just as the fox is the enchanted princess’s sibling in the fairy tale narrative centered on themes of adventure, reciprocation, and honor.

Modern English

Michael Morpurgo. Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2004.

This heavily illustrated version (with illustrations by Michael Foreman) offers younger readers a translation of the story with all of the classic elements included.  It is recommended for children between ages 9-12.

Hastings, Selina. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Methuen/Walker Books, 1981.

This version, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard, retells the basic storyline while condensing some of the sexual connotations of the temptation and hunting scenes.  It is recommended for children between ages 4-8.

Morris, Gerald. The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

This young adult adaptation of the Green Knight story is Book 2 of the author’s The Squire’s Tale series.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Burton Raffel. 1970. Reprint, New York: Signet Classic, 2001.

This translation is better for advanced students.

Calumniated Wives/Queens

This motif sometimes occurs in narratives where the heroine has already been cast out of her homeland.  She often enters the world already physically constrained, such as by being cast out in a boat.  For examples, see Maidens Cast Adrift.

Death by Being Burned in a Cauldron

Many fairy tales contain evil mothers-in-law who attempt to accuse their sons’ wives of a variety of crimes including infidelity and cannibalism.  These mothers sometimes prepare a painful form of execution for the heroine and often suffer the horrible fate of being killed via the same method.  For one example, see Perrault’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” in which the ogre mother-in-law jumps in the pot of poison she had prepared for the heroine.  Occasionally, the vindictive parent is also burned at the stake, as in “The Six Swans” by the Brothers Grimm.

Octavian. (See Animals Kidnapping Children for this item’s full citation information.)

In this romance, the emperor’s mother creates an elaborate scene to suggest the queen has committed adultery.  After many years of separation, the family is reconciled, and the Emperor orders his mother burned in a hot cauldron, but she will slit her own throat instead.

Debasement of the Hero

Often the bravest, most virtuous knights begin as kitchen boys, and many medieval romances contain a moment where a hero must sleep or work at the hearth, similar to most Cinderella narratives.  This debasement can take many forms, including sitting in the ashes, cleaning kitchens, and eating food that has passed through the mouths of dogs.  The men and women of these narratives most closely resemble the heroines of Cinderella and Catskin Cinderella tales.  Because many of the romances in this bibliography include this motif, I have only listed the most prominent examples here.

Middle English

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Clerk’s Tale.” In The Canterbury Tales.” The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 138-53.

When Walter tests Griselda and finds her an obedient wife, he takes his trials to a new extreme, forcing her to return home in a simple shift.  Griselda resembles the heroine of Cinderella narratives with her evolution from a poor maiden to a queen and with her loss of riches only to have them restored at the end of the tale.

Havelok the Dane. In Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston. Ed. Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999. 73-185.

When Godard usurps Havelok’s throne, the boy must endure starvation and abuse before being taken in by a fisherman’s family.  He will begin working to help his family, and his list of manual skills resembles the list of chores that the heroines of Cinderella variants complete.

Malory, Thomas. “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney That Was Called Bewmaynes.” In Complete Works. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. 2nd ed. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1971. 175-226.

Gareth will serve as a kitchen hand and face ridicule from Sir Kay that resembles the taunts Cinderella endures from her stepsisters.  Just as they do not have her beauty, Kay lacks Gareth’s innate chivalry.  The young man also endures the abuse of the Lady Lynet on the way to achieving recognition for his skill and bravery.

Sir Gowther.  (See Armor as a Sign of Spiritual Purity for this item’s full citation information.)

Once Gowther vows to reform from his destructive, demonic ways, he must only eat food that has passed through the mouths of dogs.  This extreme test of his humility returns him to a position on the floor with the animals, similar to that of Cinderella at the hearth.  He must suffer humiliation in order to achieve a greater reward.

Modern English

Barber, Richard. Myths and Legends of the British Isles. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1999.

Barber seeks for readers to know the “old” stories again and offers a collection filled with origin myths, heroic adventures, saint lives, romances, and more.  It includes Modern English translations of King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Guy of Warwick, and Bevis of Hampton. It is better used with advanced students.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Cleric’s Tale.” In The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Burton Raffel. New York: The Modern Library, 2008. 225-59.

Given its size and complexity, this tale is better for advanced students unless using a children’s version.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Retold by Geraldine McCaughrean. 1984. Reprint, London: Puffin Books, 1996.

McCaughrean adapts many of Chaucer’s tales for children between the ages of 9 and 12. Her collection includes a version of “The Clerk’s Tale” called “The Scholar’s Tale: The Test of a Good Wife” and a retelling of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” called “The Wife of Bath’s Tale: What Women Most Desire.”

Green, Roger Lanceyln. King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. 1953. Reprint, London: Puffin Books, 2008.

This retelling of Arthurian stories is illustrated by Lotte Reiniger and is recommended for children ages 9-12. It includes the story of “Sir Gareth, or The Knight of the Kitchen.”

Gross, Gwen. Knights of the Round Table. New York: Random House, 1985.

This children’s version, illustrated by Norman Green, is recommended for readers ages 9-12. It contains a Gareth story, “The Kitchen Knight,” and a version of the loathly lady story “Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell.”

Hodges, Margaret. The Kitchen Knight: A Tale of King Arthur. New York: Holiday House, 1990.

Trina Schart Hyman illustrated this children’s version, recommended for children ages 4-8.

Malory, Thomas. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur: A New Modern English Translation Based on the Winchester Manuscript. Ed. and Trans. Dorsey Armstrong. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2009.

This translation is useful for advanced students.

Morris, Gerald. The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

This transformation of the Gareth story is Book 3 of Morris’ The Squire’s Tale series for young adults.

Encounters with the Fairy World

Encounters with the fairy world occur in many medieval romances.  While fairy tale heroes enter the woods or fall down a well to enter magical worlds, the magical realm does not always wait for the hero and may send representatives into the hero’s environment instead.

Middle English

Chestre, Thomas. Sir Launfal. In The Middle English Breton Lays. Ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. 201-62.

A destitute knight enters a forest and meets a fairy lover who will provide for him financially on the condition that he tells no one of their relationship.  After this rule is broken, she saves him from execution. Launfal will leave Arthur’s court and join his lover in the other world.

Sir Degaré. In The Middle English Breton Lays. Ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. 89-144.

An overprotective king will not allow his daughter to marry until he finds a worthy heir.  His daughter enters the forest and becomes separated from anyone who could protect her.  She will encounter a Fairy Knight, who rapes her, leading to the birth of the title character.  This encounter in the woods also addresses the problem of the kingdom lacking a male heir. The maiden will end the narrative married to the knight, and her son will inherit the throne.

Sir Orfeo. In The Middle English Breton Lays. Ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. 15-59.

Ofreo’s wife is stolen by the Fairy King, and Orfeo must learn to fight with music instead of weapons in order to enter the Fairy realm and win her back.

Modern English

Chestre, Thomas. Sir Launfal. In Nine Medieval Romances of Magic: Re-Rhymed in Modern English. Trans. Marijane Osborn. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2010. 81-114.

The translation makes the romance accessible to intermediate and advanced students.

Sir Orfeo. In Nine Medieval Romances of Magic: Re-Rhymed in Modern English. Trans. Marijane Osborn. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2010. 59-80.

This romance can be used with intermediate and advanced students.

Fruit Blooming in Winter

Fruit in winter is often a sign of a miracle that proves that God will provide for the virtuous, especially those who face hardship.  This motif appears without the snow in “The Maiden without Hands,” as an angel leads the maimed heroine to a garden where she will eat a pear and meet her future husband.

Middle English

Sir Cleges. In The Middle English Breton Lays. Ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. 367-407.

Destitute due to his extreme generosity, Cleges faces poverty and hardship.  When he finds cherries blooming in winter, his wife advises him to take them to the king, and after a series of subsequent events, he will end up serving as the king’s steward and being rewarded for his virtue and faith.  The cherries serve as the key to restoring a good man to a position where he can aid society.

Modern English

Curry, Jane Louise. The Christmas Knight. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1993.

This short book with illustrations by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan offers a retelling of the Sir Cleges story that is recommended for children ages 4-8.

“Sir Cleges.” In Medieval Cautionary Tales: An Anthology. Ed. Peter Speed. New York: Italica Press, 2003. 156-64.

This fantastic collection of tales from the medieval world contains a translation of this romance.  It also contains a number of Gower and Chaucer’s tales, so it is best to use with advanced students if using the entire collection.

Incestuous Fathers

Although a popular medieval trope, the motif of the incestuous father is commonly associated with the Catskin Cinderella tradition today. Many of the narratives containing this motif also use the calumniated queen trope where a new wife is persecuted by her mother-in-law.   Perrault’s “Donkey-Skin” is one version of this narrative. In the fairy tale versions, the heroine’s mother often provides a context for the incest by obtaining a specific promise that controls whom her husband may marry, and only his daughter fits the narrow list of requirements. For an example of such a promise, see the Grimm Brothers’ “All Fur.” This trope can vary so that the incestuous father can be replaced by an unsuitable groom, as seen in the English variant “Catkskin.”  Regardless of how the motif plays out, it typically occurs at the beginning of a narrative and serves to activate the plot.  Texts with this motif often end in a reconciliation of multiple generations.

Gower, John. “Tale of Apollonius of Tyre.” In Confessio Amantis. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006. 159-96.

In this frequently retold tale, the father, Antiochus rapes his daughter and boasts about their relationship via a riddle that her suitors have to solve.  Apollonius, the hero, will realize the answer and flee for his life.  His subsequent adventures and separation and eventual reunion with his own daughter raise important questions of father-daughter dynamics.  Due to his frequently shipwrecked status, Apollonius often resembles Maidens Cast Adrift.

Middle English

Emaré. In The Middle English Breton Lays. Ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. 145-99.

In this romance, Emaré, the heroine is cast adrift after she refuses her father’s demands that she marry him.  This refusal begins her journey.

Modern English

Emaré. In Nine Medieval Romances of Magic: Re-Rhymed in Modern English. Trans. Marijane Osborn. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2010. 127-59.

This romance may be used with advanced students.

Emaré. In Romancing the Goddess: Three Middle English Romances about Women. Ed. and Trans. Marijane Osborn. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998. 51-91.

In addition to a translation of the romance, this work includes a discussion of the mythic sources for the text as a way to form an understanding of the narrative.

Journeying to Find Identity

Many fairy tale and romance heroes have to enter the world to learn about their environment and develop a sense of identity.  Examples of this common fairy tale motif occur in Jack stories, particularly versions of Jack and the Beanstalk and Mother Holle variants.

Middle English

Sir Perceval of Galles. In Sir Perceval of Galles and Ywain and Gawain. Ed. Mary Flowers Braswell. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. 1-76.

Perceval enters the world to learn about God.  His quest and subsequent study of chivalry and how to interact with women mirrors Jack variants in that he has to learn to work for himself and others.

Sir Orfeo. (For this item’s full citation information, see Encounters with the Fairy World).

When Orfeo’s wife is taken by the Fairy King he must learn to redefine his role of leader, king, and husband and learn to fight with words and music rather than martial weapons.

Modern English

Morris, Gerald. The Quest of the Fair Unknown. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

This retelling of the “Fair Unknown” storyline is a late addition to The Squire’s Tale series. Please note that many “Fair Unknown” tales and Gareth stories are extremely similar.

A Knight Battling a Monster

I do not include a list of romances for this item because almost every chivalric romance contains some variation of this motif.  Just like Jack’s battle with the Giant, a romance hero or heroine must often defeat a creature or person that represents their fears in order to return home.  This monster can vary and can be a creature from the underworld, something grotesque, or someone who threatens his/her home, but this battle must be won.  One fairy tale that shows the price of failing this moment of initiation is “Godfather Death” found in the Grimm Brothers’ collection.

Loathly Ladies

These stories consistently focus on what women want and honoring one’s word.  They are a type of Beauty and the Beast story and also pair with Frog Prince stories because the physically “ugly” person must teach a morally “ugly” person or court how to be virtuous.  Many versions involve themes of women’s sovereignty, and they often share the motif of an evil stepmother with most Cinderella stories, for a stepmother typically curses the lady.

Middle English

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” In The Canterbury Tales. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 116-22.

In this version, an ugly woman helps a knight to atone for a rape he has committed.  She demands marriage as her reward, and she offers the knight the choice of having her beautiful or faithful.

Gower, John. “Tale of Florent.” In Confessio Amantis. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006. 106-15.

Florent is aided by an old woman after the family of a man he kills wants revenge.  On his wedding night, he withdraws into his own mind briefly, and the story can be read as suggesting that his perception of the lady changes instead of an actual physical change on her part.

The Marriage of Sir Gawain. In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Ed. Thomas Hahn. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. 359-71.

While this narrative shares the plot of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, it offers several small changes in addition to a simplified structure, making it potentially easier to use with less advanced students.  In this version, when the lady offers Gawain a  choice, she guides him to the correct answer by helping him see what is best for her.

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Ed. Thomas Hahn. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. 41-80.

This plush retelling offers a detailed narrative focusing on the manners of the court and the appearance of the lady while considering issues of magic, ugliness, and chivalry.

Modern English

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” In The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Burton Raffel. New York: The Modern Library, 2008. 182-92.

This translation is better suited to advanced students.

——— . “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” In Nine Medieval Romances of Magic: Re-Rhymed in Modern English. Trans. Marijane Osborn. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2010. 25-39.

This collection of translated romances offers another way to access this tale. See a children’s retelling of this tale under Debasement of the Hero.

Gower, John. “The Tale of Florent.” In Nine Medieval Romances of Magic: Re-Rhymed in Modern English. Trans. Marijane Osborn. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2010. 7-24.

This translation is better for intermediate to advanced students.

Hastings, Selina. Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady. 1985. Reprint, New York: Mulberry Books, 1987.

This children’s version, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard, is recommended for children between ages 4-8. For another example of a children’s version of this tale, see Debasement of the Hero.

“The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell.” In Five Middle English Arthurian Romances. Trans. Valerie Krishna. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991. 209-34.

This collection offers another translation of the romance that is suitable for intermediate and advanced students.

Lost Kings

A King who focuses on the hunt to the point that he loses his retinue and forms of protection exposes himself and his kingdom to harm.  This motif occurs in the Grimm Brothers’ “The Six Swans.” In medieval literature, this type of plot begins some versions of the Loathly Lady stories.

Maidens Cast Adrift

The meaning of the maiden cast onto the ocean is complex, but in most medieval works, the narrator stresses how God provides for the heroine.  Often, these heroines are also calumniated queens.  A common fairy tale reflecting this theme does not involve water; instead, the heroine in the Grimm Brothers’ “The Maiden without Hands” must travel over land and overcome obstacles sent by the Devil.  Many of these heroines also face a threat of incest.

Middle English

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Man of Law’s Tale.” In The Canterbury Tales. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 89-103.

Custance is cast adrift twice: once when a sultana will destroy the man she would marry along with the wedding party, and once when she is persecuted by her mother-in-law.  In this narrative, she is put to sea with money and food, but God ultimately sustains her.

Gower, John. “The Tale of Constance.” In Confessio Amantis. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Vol. 2. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2003. 71-98.

Gower’s Constance also faces death twice while at sea for the same reasons as Chaucer’s heroine.  The first time, she receives provisions and spends years on the water.  The second time, she lacks supplies but tries to remain strong to protect her child.

Emaré. (For this item’s full citation, see Incestuous Fathers.)

Emaré faces the worst journey of the Constance cycle heroines, for she never receives supplies when cast out for rejecting the incestuous demands of her father or when her mother-in-law betrays the king by ordering her execution in this manner.

Sir Eglamour of Artois. (For this item’s full citation information, see Animals Kidnapping Children.)

Unlike many of the women cast adrift, Cristabella does not fear the wrath of her mother-in-law or flee the lusts of her father; instead, her father exiles her by setting her adrift after she gives birth to a son out of wedlock.

Modern English

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Man of Law’s Tale.” In The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Burton Raffel. New York: The Modern Library, 2008. 127-57.

This translation is better for advanced students.

“Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale of Custance.” In Romancing the Goddess: Three Middle English Romances about Women. Ed. and Trans. Marijane Osborn. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998. 126-71.

This translation of Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale” is better for advanced students.

Man as Animal

While one cannot find a manuscript containing a Beauty and the Beast retelling in the way we know the story today, the tropes that make up the fairy tale are common to medieval literature, for when a man acts as a beast, his actions force others to redefine humanity.

Middle English

Gower, John. “Tale of Adrian and Bardus.” In Confessio Amantis. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Vol. 3. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. 144-49.

In this tale, Adrian falls into a pit, and his men cannot find him due to his beastly nature.  Bardus will make Adrian promise to reward him, and each time he attempts to save the man, he pulls another animal out of the pit.  The animals repay Bardus; Adrian does not.  Eventually, word of Adrian’s betrayal will reach the Emperor, and Adrian will be forced to honor his word, for the Emperor will not have a court where men behave as beasts. A similar fairy tale focusing on gratitude and innate character is the Grimm Brother’s “The Two Travelers.”

Sir Gowther.  (For this item’s full citation, see Armor as a Sign of Spiritual Purity.)

Gowther begins this romance as a half-demon.  His father is described with the furry hide of a demon, and Gowther’s early violence reflects his demonic, animalistic nature.  He will also have to accept a new social position, as lower than even the dogs, to gain his humanity.  Also see Debasement of the Hero.

The Rash Wish

Too often characters in fairy tale narratives speak without thinking carefully, and their speech acts have significant ramifications.  The desperate exclamations of a woman who longs for a child are often rewarded, but not in the way she hoped.  While this wish can lead to an unusual child who is able to overcome his or her parent’s almost unnatural desire in fairy tales such as “Hans My Hedgehog” (found in the Brothers Grimm collection), medieval versions of the trope are far more disturbing.

Sir Gowther. (See Armor as a Sign of Spiritual Purity for this item’s full citation.)

When Gowther’s mother must conceive or be set aside, she desperately prays for a child by any means.  She next sleeps with a man in the guise of her husband who turns into a demon immediately after the sex act, and Gowther, his half-demon child, is conceived.

Sacrificing Children on Behalf of a Covenant

Many fairy tales contain themes of sacrifice where heroes risk their lives, but a few take it further, when a hero or heroine must kill his or her children in order to bring back or repay someone who has helped him or her.  For an example, see “Faithful Johannes” with its test of the wife and the repayment of the servant’s labors in the Brothers Grimm collection and Lang’s “How the Hermit Helped to Win the King’s Daughter.”  Often the agent requiring the test relents when the hero agrees to the sacrifice, or as in “Faithful Johannes,” the children will be restored afterwards.

Middle English

Amis and Amiloun. In Amis and Amiloun, Robert of Cisyle, and Sir Amadace. Ed. Edward E. Foster. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007. 1-67.

Amis and Amiloun are two friends who place their friendship above all other obligations.  When Amiloun contracts leprosy, Amis learns that he can cure his friend if he sacrifices his children, for their blood can treat Amiloun.  He hopes that God will send him more children and kills them, and Amiloun recovers.  Later Amis’ wife will stand by his choice, and his children are miraculously restored to him.

Sir Amadace. In Amis and Amiloun, Robert of Cisyle, and Sir Amadace. Ed. Edward E. Foster. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007. 95-123.

When Amadace runs out of money, he makes an agreement with a white knight to share half of his income.  After Amadace becomes wealthy, the knight returns to collect his share of the riches and demands half of everything, including Amadace’s wife and new born child.  Amadace refuses, but his wife insists he honor his agreement, and the White Knight stops the challenge and rewards Amadace for his fidelity and honor.

Sleeping and/or Silent Maidens

In fairy tales, many young women fall into an unnatural slumber, whether literally, as in “Brier Rose” and “Snow White,” or figuratively, as in the case of the princess who cannot laugh in “The Golden Goose,” the princess who cannot confess her plight in “The Goose Girl,” or the princess who chooses to remain silent for years in order to save her brothers in “The Six Swans.”  All of the fairy tales mentioned are included in the Grimm Brothers’ collection.

Sir Degaré. (For this item’s full citation information, see Encounters with the Fairy World.)

When the king’s daughter becomes pregnant after being raped by a Fairy Knight in the woods, she cannot reveal her pregnancy and sends her son away.  She can only reveal the truth of his conception when he returns to the court.  The narrative depends on her silence, and like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, she needs someone to rescue her.

Sir Gowther. (See Armor as a Sign of Spiritual Purity for this item’s full citation.)

When Gowther starves at the Emperor’s court, the only person capable of realizing what he needs is the Emperor’s silent daughter.  She will later faint and fall from a tower and be presumed dead. When she miraculously awakens, she also speaks before marrying the now human Gowther.

Woman’s Clothing Causing Desire

In both traditional and Catskin Cinderella narratives, the heroine’s clothing attracts the attention of her future husband.

Emaré. (See Incestuous Fathers for this item’s full citation information.)

When the heroine wears a red robe made of expensive materials from the East, her father becomes ensnared in an unnatural desire for his child.

 

 

Martha M. Johnson-Olin is working on her dissertation at the University of Rochester. She focuses on Middle English romance and the intersections between folklore and romance as embodied by medieval heroines. She is also Assistant Editor of the Middle English Text Series, teaches for the College Writing Program, and contributes annotations to the Cinderella Bibliography.


Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume VIII, Issue 2, Fall 2010 http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/SP09/Fall2010FairyTale.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies