Interview: Pauline Greenhill

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In 2014, when I began studying fairy tales, I came across Pauline Greenhill’s “‘Fitcher’s [Queer] Bird’: A Fairy-Tale Heroine and Her Avatars,”  an academic article that offers a queer reading of “Fitcher’s Bird,” my favorite Grimm fairy tale. The article has deeply influenced my thinking and writing on fairy tales and so I was thrilled when, after sending off an email to Greenhill, she agreed to an interview.

Greenhill is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her most recent book is Screening Justice: Canadian Crime Films, Culture and Society, which was co-edited with Steven Kohm and Sonia Bookman, and published in 2016. She also co-edited Fairy-Tale Films Beyond Disney: International Perspectives with Jack Zipes and Kendra Magnus-Johnston in 2016; Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag with Diane Tye in 2014; Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television with Jill Terry Rudy in 2014; Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms with Kay Turner in 2012; and Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity with Sidney Eve Matrix in 2010. She is the author of Make the Night Hideous: Four English Canadian Charivaris, 1881-1940 (2010). She has fairy-tale research published in Feral Feminisms; Law, Culture and the Humanities; Marvels & Tales; Narrative Culture; Studies in European Cinema; and Theoretical Criminology among others.

There’s a storied tradition of studying fairy tales through a feminist lens, but you take that work further, examining queerness in fairy tales. How did you find your way into this field of research?

Absolutely my queer/trans research is an extension of my feminist research! But my route to queer and trans fairy tales was circuitous. I started a masters in Folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1977. At the time, and to a sad extent now, the cool kids avoided traditionally recognised forms of folklore like ballads and fairy tales. Trying to be one of them, I did my masters thesis on family photography.

However, when I got to the University of Texas at Austin in 1981, where I did my PhD, I worked with Roger deV. Renwick, a ballad and folk song scholar who has always been an advocate for studying traditional genres (see e.g. Renwick 1980 and 2009). So for my PhD dissertation on folk poetry in Ontario under Roger’s supervision, I was looking for the old in the new, as it were (Greenhill 1989).

After five years teaching Canadian Studies at the University of Waterloo, I came to the University of Winnipeg’s (then) Women’s Studies program in 1991. (We’re now a Department with six full time faculty and we’ve included “and Gender.”) At the time I was working on Newfoundland ballads about women who dress as men to follow their lovers or seek adventure as sailors, soldiers, or robbers. You can listen to one example here, sung by the fabulous Newfoundland traditional source singer Anita Best on the compilation album Bristol’s Hope–Lately Come Over. Hitherto folklorists’ readings assumed that these songs were about men and their experiences, and my feminist reading asserted that they were also about women.

Continue reading Interview: Pauline Greenhill

Editor’s Note: How to Give Readers the Shivers

wanda1by Kate Bernheimer

Popular culture reviews of new fairy-tale movies or television shows frequently note, with authority, that old fairy tales had a cruelty to them that has been “sanitized” since. I challenge that notion. Cruelty has been alive and well in American fairy tales for a long time.

Visit your local library and look for a copy of an illustrated version of “Hansel and Gretel.” In just about every variation you’ll find, the parents send their children out to the woods where the parents believe they are certain to perish. After some time wandering, the children stumble upon a witch’s cottage decorated with cookies and candy — perhaps they are hallucinating this, which starvation can incline one to do — but, whether it’s real or not, in their lightheaded condition (or perhaps desperation), they nibble the house, enter when they are invited to do so, and, drat — geez, these kids aren’t too bright, but they are super hungry and perhaps, good lord, altruistic — in any case, the boy Hansel is locked in a shed by a witch with absolutely no apparent supernatural powers at all. This red-eyed (hungover? sad?) witch proceeds to try to fatten Hansel up while verbally abusing Gretel, employed doing chores. Eventually, in just about every version under the sun, the “clever” children outsmart the witch: Hansel holds out a bone pretending it is his finger, and thus avoids being eaten; Gretel shoves the witch into the oven. They return home. The end!

Child abandonment, child abuse, murder — albeit self defense, but by a child, incinerating an old woman alive! — well this is just so, you know, sentimental and innocent. So sanitized. Thank goodness we’ve restored this stupid, light-hearted story to its dark ways.

Or have we?

Just under a hundred years ago — a blink of the eye — Wanda Gag’s 1920s version ends with this flourish:

Sing every one,
My story is done,
And look! round the house
There runs a little mouse
He that can catch her before she scamps in

May make himself a very very large cap out of her skin.

I don’t understand how anyone can read this as sanitized. I don’t understand when people fail to see the cruelty in life, or in art — which doesn’t mean there is not also beauty.

Look. There is serious charm and menace to the Grimm fairy-tale form. These are really small words; they have the aura of a nursery song; and this is a tiny tale of evil predation. A little mouse — a girl-mouse, of course the little mouse is a her — is to be caught and skinned! And this little mouse, well, she seems to have quite magical powers, or offer them to her predators, because whoever catches her can make — what? A very, very large cap from her skin.

I love Wanda Gag’s work. (She grew up in poverty in Minnesota, attended art school in New York City, and is author of one of the oddest, saddest, and most violent children’s books to have become wildly popular in America, Millions of Cats. Among other things that are haunting in this inky, strange story, millions of cats devour each other.)

Gag has terrific poetics. She ends her variation of “Hansel and Gretel” on the word skin — skin, that one-syllable word that starts with a hiss and ends on the word that begins the word “no.” This is how to give readers the shivers.

Growing up in a family haunted by genocide in Nazi times — in ways I would only discover in my 30s — Gag’s coda speaks volumes to me. I am not writing this essay about the aesthetics of cruelty. I am writing it about violence — in art and in life — that goes too often denied.

The Brothers Grimm stories, by my reading, resisted such ignorance and still resist ignorance in just about every retelling I’ve seen of “Hansel and Gretel,” even those that seek to remove details deemed overly dark for those littlest of eyes — and largest of feeling. These stories invite readers into a radical acceptance that human cruelty is a reality — and, thus, challenge readers to resist human cruelty at the same time. They also invite us to be open to beauty and to find peaceful homes.

Wanda gag056


Kate Bernheimer is the author of a novel trilogy and two story collections, including How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales (Coffee House Press) and the editor of four fairy-tale anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award winning and bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin Books). Her recent novella, Office at Night, co-authored with Laird Hunt and a joint commission of Coffee House Press and the Walker Art Center, was a finalist for the  2015 Shirley Jackson Awards.

A Ditmarsh Comedy

by E.C. Messer

Beset by the desire to identify and explain the effects of Poetry—his word for drama—upon his sensibilities, Aristotle explains the difference between tragedy and comedy this way: tragedy begins in order and ends in chaos; comedy begins in chaos and ends in order. The tragic fable of Hamlet, for example, shows the disintegration of the State; the comedic fable of Tartuffe the reinstatement of the nuclear family.

In the traditional fables and fairy stories of Western literature, there are no tragedies: the wicked are punished, the good rewarded. Benefits gained by the former and hardships suffered by the latter, in the interim, are of no consequence to the story’s driving force, its resolution. There are, however, many Aristotelian comedies to be found among these fabulist ranks.

A Tall Tale From Ditmarsh, collected by the Brothers Grimm, is an ideal tiny, bizarre encapsulation of the impulse toward order. Its opening, “I want to tell you something,” implies monologue, from which dialogue originally emerged. At first it appears to be all chaos—neither comedy nor tragedy but farce, or, in modern terms, absurdism. Absurdism can be funny, funnier even than certain comedies, but it is not itself comedy. It’s laughing while Rome burns, sometimes laughing because Rome is burning.

Ditmarsh, instead, is the kind of controlled madness that reinforces order: to consider the anvil and the millstone swimming across the Rhine acknowledges the existence of anvils, millstones, rivers that can be swum. More than that, it insinuates the whole domestic, quotidian world of tools to be hammered into useful shapes, grain to be ground into bread, and human mouths to consume it for sustenance.

The open-ended nature of pseudo-absurdism allows for infinite variation. Local household objects and native fauna may be substituted as the storyteller desires. In London the Thames might replace the Rhine, in Japan an usu for pounding mochi replaces the millstone, here in San Francisco a bicycle across the bay replaces sails across fields. Folk tales are fundamentally artisanal, but the result is the same: a Brechtian estrangement without which we would be unable to understand the most ordinary objects and behaviors.

And there’s even a catharsis, for those who require a catharsis: “Open the window so the lies can fly out.” Literally a release, a banishment, a moral exorcism that leaves the listener (reader) with truth—the ultimate order—restored. Unless the window won’t open.


E.C. Messer lives in the sunniest part of San Francisco with her husband and four cats. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @ecmesser. She would like very much to know you.

Fairy Tale Cluedo

by Elizabeth Hopkinson

cluedo

Fairy tales are well known for their use of familiar tropes and motifs. The persecuted heroine, the animal helper, the three wishes, the unassailable tower. I thought it would be fun to show the interplay of motifs across different fairy tales by mapping the fairy tale world in the form of a traditional Cluedo board. Instead of the usual weapons (dagger, revolver, lead piping etc.) I would substitute a selection of familiar fairy tale objects. Namely: key, spinning wheel, ring, apple, scissors, needle and slippers. All of these are common, everyday objects, but when they appear in fairy tales they are often imbued with magical powers or significance.

In the game of Cluedo, different combinations can be created by selecting person, room and weapon. I wanted to create similar combinations of character, room and object. I kept the traditional Cluedo rooms, with the exception of Billiard Room, which I changed to Turret. The connection of each character to their respective room may be tentative, but it exists nonetheless. My aim was to have at least one character in each room, and at least two characters sharing the same object or motif. In each case, the object (apple, needle etc.) features somewhere in a version of that character’s tale.

One feature of Cluedo that always excited me as a child was the use of secret passages. Fairy tales, too, have secret portals leading to strange underworlds. So I marked each passageway on the board with an underground destination from a different fairy tale, to which it might lead.

We cannot forget that the original game of Cluedo centers on a murder. Death and murder feature in fairy tales, too. So I marked the spot where the Murder Cards would traditionally be placed with the name of that shadowy fairy tale character, Godfather Death.

The fairy tales I have used for this map are as follows. For the characters in the rooms: Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Allerleirauh (The Coat of all Colours), Bearskin, The Almond Tree, Snow-White and Rose-Red, The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids, The Experienced Huntsman, The Six Swans, Rumpelstiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), The Glass Coffin, and Snow White. And for the secret passages: The Shoes Which Were Danced to Pieces, The Blue Lamp, The Glass Coffin (again) and Frau Holle.


Elizabeth Hopkinson is from Bradford, West Yorkshire (UK), home of the Brontë sisters and the Cottingley Fairies. She does her best writing in Waterstones, Bradford Wool Exchange, where a staff member was recently heard to say of her: “She can do anything she likes. She keeps this place running.” Elizabeth has had over 50 short stories published and one novel, Silver Hands, with Top Hat Books in 2013. She has won the James White Award, Jane Austen Short Story Contest and the Historic House Short Story Contest. Her website is hiddengrove.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

“Fairy Tale Cluedo” won fourth place in Tiny Donkey’s Once Upon a Cartographer Contest.

What We Lose

by Richard Leis

What must a boy lose to become a little bird? In “The Juniper Tree,” by the Brothers Grimm, the boy loses more than just his head and his life after he is murdered by his evil stepmother. All that fat and skin and tissue sliced up, made into stew, fed to his oblivious father. All that bone wrapped up in a silk scarf and deposited under the juniper tree by his grieving half-sister. Then the tree works its magic and the dead boy is transformed into a living bird, a singing bird, a busy bird, a vengeful bird. He is without human arms, hands, and fingers now that they are wings. His legs are tiny and his feet are missing toes. His bones are hollow and light. His lips are rigid beaks.

People lose huge chunks of self—limbs, organs, functionality, quality of life—to disease and trauma every day. The survivors learn to fly and sing in their remaining bodies. They rise and fall and rise again with new routines and augmentations. They do not, however, receive for their efforts the bird’s reward at the end of the fairy tale: upon crushing his stepmother with a millstone, he immediately transforms back into the living boy he once was.

Transformative rewards may be coming, though. Recent medical breakthroughs promise to give back what survivors have lost: 3D-printed windpipes and other organs infused with the patient’s own cells. [1] Thought-controlled prosthetics. [2] Face transplants. [3] Rewritten genetic code to prevent and treat genetic diseases. [4] These and other emerging technologies arrive and improve so rapidly that we have to wonder where all of this is heading. For a few years yet, these technologies will only approximate what survivors have lost, but there may soon come a time when technology returns full functionality to the human body and imbues it with better-than-human capabilities and performance.

After a terrible accident, the protagonist in Sunny Moraine’s recent short story, “Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained,” grapples with a cutting-edge prosthetic arm, an arm that provides enhancements and capabilities the original did not have, an arm that may be sentient, an arm that may be seeking friendship. [5] When a medical breakthrough arrives that fully regrows lost biological limbs, the protagonist ponders the question “The Juniper Tree” never thought to ask: What must the little bird lose to become the boy again?


Richard Leis is a reader for Tiny Donkey, an editorial assistant for Fairy Tale Review, and a writer of speculative fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He studies Creative Writing and English at the University of Arizona, where he is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE).


[1] “Doctors Create A 3D Printed Trachea on a MakerBot.” 3D Print. 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 4 June 2015. <http://3dprint.com/40128/3d-printed-trachea/>.

[2] “Prosthetic Limbs, Controlled by Thought.” The New York Times. 20 May 2015. Web. 4 June 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/21/technology/a-bionic-approach-to-prosthetics-controlled-by-thought.html?_r=0>.

[3] “Face transplant.” Wikipedia. Web. 4 June 2015. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Face_transplant>.

[4] Cimons, Marlene. “Rewriting genetic information to prevent disease.” The National Science Foundation. 25 February 2015. Web. 4 July 2015. <http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=134286>.

[5] Moraine, Sunny. “Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained.” Uncanny Magazine. 2015. Web. 4 June 2015. <http://uncannymagazine.com/article/love-letters-things-lost-gained/>

What Am I Missing Here?

by Joyce Goldenstern

Folktale behavior often bewilders me, as does my own. My thoughts wander to trace hidden patterns, more easily discerned in folktales than in my own life. This morning, a tale opens with the death of a beautiful queen. Before the queen dies, she makes her husband promise not to remarry anyone who does not have hair as golden as her own. Has she forgotten that her own daughter has such hair? Allerleiruh.

This afternoon, a tale opens with an old queen who has betrothed her daughter to a prince in a distant land. It is a tale of a long journey, of a true bride and of a chambermaid who takes the place of the true bride. The Goose Girl.

Allerleiruh, distraught upon hearing of her father’s desire to marry her, gathers her wits to dissuade him. She makes an impossible demand. He must provide her with a cloak made of 1000 furs, one from each animal in the kingdom. Undaunted, the king presents his daughter with said cloak and sets a date for the wedding.

Meanwhile, the talking head of a slain horse reveals the chambermaid’s deception, so the prince decides to ask a fatal question at a feast. “How would you sentence a false bride?” the prince asks the chambermaid, his own false bride.

Allerleiruh chars her face and wraps herself in furs. She runs away to a forest where she sleeps night and day in a hollow trunk until finally a hunter, identified as “the king,” finds her. This reference to “king” is so jarring that once when I presented this tale to an adult seminar, many participants ended up thinking that it was indeed the father who had found his daughter. How startling that the tale does not proffer a “prince”—a royal title which would distinguish generations and relations more clearly. Yet, not clarifying can blur relationships in psychologically significant ways.

That Allerleiruh marries the “new” king who is confused with the old … That the chambermaid does not recognize her own crime and thus sentences herself to torture and cruel death…. Such predicaments attest to the human capacity to self-deceive and force me to ask, “What is obvious in my own behavior that I do not see?”


Joyce Goldenstern leads seminars in folktales and in literature at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Her adapted tales have been published in Western Humanities Review, North American Review, Pacific Review and other venues. She also writes and publishes fiction.


Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. [1819] 1977. Grimms’ Tales for Young and Old. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday.

_______________. [1819] 1992. The Complete Fairy Tale of the Brothers Grimm. Translated by Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam Books.

Kid Cages

by Wren Awry

In Reserve, New Mexico, kids wait for the school bus inside of wood and wire mesh cages. They were built after Mexican grey wolves were re-introduced to the area in 1998 because, some say, the wolves were following children home from school. [1] Mexican wolves seldom attack humans, and there are no recorded deaths at their paws. [2] So, where does the fear come from? Environmentalists blame rancher propaganda and ranchers blame the wolves. I also blame wolves. Not the real, flesh-and fur-kind. I blame “stranger danger” wolves made of celluloid and sentences.

I imagine parents have stopped reading “Little Red Riding Hood” to children; they skip the scene where Belle is surrounded by snarling, yellow-eyed monsters in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. They tell their children to look out for upright canines with deep tenors, who will urge them to “pick a few flowers for granny.” Wolves, we all know, blow houses down, so when the wind comes, kid, please assume wolf-hiding position. Lycanthropy is not funny here.

But there are other kinds of wolves, and other kinds of fears, in the European fairy-tale canon.

“What should happen to a mother who throws her sons to the wolves?” a prince asks his wife in “The Wolves,” a Bavarian tale. The princess mentions red-hot iron shoes, and is duly punished.

Before death, did the princess recall the two wolves that shaped her fate? The one snarling back at her, in the mirror, during a fit of jealousy; and the one she sent her seven newborn sons to, in hopes that the canis lupus would eat them (“Multiple births,” she had, unfortunately, just told her husband, “Is a sure sign of adultery”).

She does not know—will never know, though she might guess—that the prince ran in to the midwife bringing the infants to the wolf. That the prince intercepted, saved his sons, had them raised by a loyal subject. Perhaps he re-routed. But in my mind, he followed the same path. The wolf the princess hoped would eat her sons raised them instead. When they returned to the court eighteen years later, the boys were long-haired and lupine. [3]

In the kid cages of Reserve, do students peer through the wire mesh to look for wolves in the piñion and juniper? And, if yes: out of fright, or desire? Some must spin daydreams out of their mothers’ worst fears; must long to join up with the wolves out there in the wild world.


Wren Awry studies Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. Their creative nonfiction has been published in Loom Art Zine, and they occasionally write criticism for the Anarcho-Geek Review.


[1] “Miller, Joshua Rhett. “Are ‘kid Cages’ Protecting N.M. Children, or a Case of Ranchers Crying Wolf?” Fox News. FOX News Network, 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2015. <http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/10/29/are-kid-cages-protecting-nm-children-or-case-ranchers-crying-wolf/?intcmp=trending>.

[2] “Mexican Gray Wolf.” Arizona Game and Fish Department. AZGFD, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2015. <http://www.azgfd.gov/pdfs/w_c/wolf/WEB_Mexican_Wolf_details.pdf>.

[3] Eichenseer, Erika, Engelbert Suss, and Maria Tatar. “The Wolves.” The Turnip Princess & Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales. By Francis Xavier Von Schonwerth. New York: Penguin Classics, 2015. N. pag. Print. Penguin Classics.