Monday, September 05, 2005

The Goose Girl and other escapist fantasies. One of my favourite fairytales as a child was The Goose Girl by the Brothers Grimm. I have dear memories of reading it whenever we went to my grandmother's house, in a bumper hardback collection of fairytales retold by Jane Carruth. I saved this now-tattered book when my grandmother was shamefully incarcerated in a nursing home several years ago. In the tale, a fair and gentle princess sets off to marry the handsome prince of a neighbouring kingdom. Before she leaves, her mother the queen gives her a talking horse called Falada, and a small white handkerchief on which are three drops of the queen's own royal blood. "Keep this handkerchief always," says the Queen, who loves her only daughter. "As long as you have it, you will come to no great harm."

The queen sends off the daughter accompanied by a maid who is astonishingly rude to the princess. The handkerchief whispers, "Woe is this; if your mother knew, it would break her heart." Eventually the princess is forced to get herself a drink of water because the maid won't do it, and she drops the hanky in the stream, where it disappears from sight. Then the maid laughs triumphantly, saying, "Now you are completely in my power!" She forces the princess to exchange clothes with her and ride on her nag while the maid rides on Falada, threatening to kill the terrified princess if she says anything to anyone. They ride into the neighbouring realm where the maid passes herself off as the princess, and the real princess is relegated to helping out Conrad, the royal goose-keeper.

Worse, the false princess has Falada killed because she knows he can talk. But when the real princess finds out, she weeps bitterly. She pays the knacker a gold piece to nail the horse's head to the city arch, so she can see it every day as she passes underneath to guard the geese in the fields. The princess sees the head and says, "Ah Falada, how unhappy I am!" And Falada answers:
Alas, young Queen, how ill you fare;
If this your mother knew,
Her heart would break in two.

Conrad looks at her very strangely after this. Out in the fields, she unbraids "her long golden hair, which was as fine and beautiful as spun silk." Conrad is fascinated and asks for a strand. The princess refuses, but before he can pluck one himself, she starts singing:
Blow, blow, gentle wind, I say;
Blow Conrad's little hat away.

And Conrad duly has to go chasing after his hat. That night, he goes to the wise old King and tells him everything. The king decides to follow the two of them the next day, and observes Falada saying his little poem, and Conrad being forced to chase his hat. That night, the king sends for the goose-girl and asks her why she acts so strangely.
"Alas, kind sir," she cries, "I dare not tell you, for I have given my solemn promise never to speak of what has befallen me to any human being."

The crafty king persuades her instead to tell her sorrows to an old iron stove; and while she's pouring her heart out with her head inside the stove, the king puts his ear to the pipe and hears everything: "No one in the whole world can help me," sobs the princess. "Yet I am truly a Queen's daughter, a Princess by royal birth, who must stand aside and watch a cruel and treacherous serving-maid, robed in my own gowns, take my place. I cannot break my solemn word so I must remain forever a goose-girl."

The next day the princess finds a splendid gown of shimmering satin laid out instead of her rags. When she's all dressed up, with jewels in her golden hair, the king leads her to the great banqueting hall. By way of conversation, the king asks the false princess, "What would you do to a girl who betrayed her mistress and was ready to steal her mistress' husband?"
"Why, I would have her head cut off," cries the false princess, adding for good measure, "And I would throw it to the dogs."
"You have spoken well," says the king, and the false princess is promptly dragged off to the dungeons. The true situation is explained to the prince, who naturally is dazzled by the princess's beauty. They are married the next day, "and were happy together for the rest of their lives."

Reading this story now, the princess seems like a bit of a sap, and the serving maid like someone who simply knows how the world works and is trying to make the best life she can within the feudal class system. There is a weird, distastefully eugenic idea of 'royal blood' being intrinsically more noble and worthy: the handkerchief, the way the blonde princess is both beautiful and good, and the way only the king can solve the mystery. And it's also strange that it is the old king, and not his son, who is the agent of the princess's salvation.

But I don't care about any of that. This is the same kind of fantasy that has sustained generations of women. In this story, women are thrown on the mercy of an uncaring world, but are rescued from their own unhappiness by latent and 'special' qualities that can only be identified by men of sufficient intelligence, charisma and tenderness. The funny thing is that I identify with the goose-girl in this escapist fairytale even though in real life I am not the goose-girl. I am the resourceful maid who, lacking nobility and beauty, is forced to pretend to be someone she isn't in order to win love, and is punished for it in the end. I want to believe men can recognise my special, hidden attractions; but even the most brilliant and sophisticated man will only cherish these qualities if a woman is also beautiful.

It's funny how when a beautiful woman cries, when she says, "How unhappy I am!", people's hearts swell with sympathy, but when an ugly woman cries, her fat face wobbles and puckers and goes blotchy and people look away and wish they - or, more precisely, she - were somewhere else. I am grieving for my own stupidity. I was seduced by the idea that the boy was attracted to me; now I realise that he was only attracted to the idea of me: the maid dressed up as a princess. And do you know what? He must be feeling such relief at his narrow escape from entanglement with this crazy bitch who can't stop crying. That is what makes me saddest.

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