Fairy Godmothers

by Terri Windling

Illustration for "Blue Crest"

"Every child needs a fairy godmother, someone to turn to in times of peril. I found my own in the sumptuous pages of The Golden Book of Fairy Tales (Golden Books, 1958), selected and illustrated by Adrienne Ségur, translated from the French by Marie Ponsot.Without this volume, fairy tales would have been what they were for so many of my generation: stories of passive princesses dreaming of rescue by rich Prince Charmings as portrayed in Walt Disney cartoons and the picture books they inspired. Instead, through Ségur’s exquisite, rococo paintings, I was introduced to fairy tales in their thrilling pre—Disney (and pre—Victorian)forms — their darker themes toned down slightly for children, but only slightly. Here, Sleeping Beauty woke not to wedded bliss, but to an ogress mother–in–law, determined to eat her and her children; and Red Riding Hood was devoured by the wolf, awaiting rescue in his belly. One princess lost her finger; another caused the death of the beast who loved her — for happy endingswere not guaranteed, and they always came at a price. The pictures and stories in this book were both deeply sad and gloriously triumphant. They were trail maps through the deep, dark woods, pointing the way to the brighter lands beyond. Like poetry, they spoke to the soul in richly symbolic language.

Illustration for "White Cat"

"There were two things about this particular book that made it vital to the child I was. First, it contained a remarkable number of stories about courageous, active girls; and second, it portrayed the various evils they faced in unflinching terms. Just below their diamond surface, these were stories of great brutality and anguish, many of which had never been originally intended for children at all.(Although Ségur included tales from the Brothers Grimm and Andersen, the majority of her selections were drawn from the French contes de fées tradition — stories created as part of the vogue for fairy tales in seventeenth century Paris, recounted in literary salons and published for adult readers.) I hungered for a narrative with which to make some sense of my life, but in schoolbooksand on television all I could find was the sugar water of Dick and Jane, Leave it to Beaver and the happy, wholesome Brady Bunch. Mine was not a Brady Bunch family; it was troubled, fractured, persistently violent, and I needed the stronger meat of wolves and witches, poisons and peril. In fairy tales, I had found a mirror held up to the world I knew . . . ."

The text above comes from Windling’s autobiographical essay "Transformations." You can read the entire piece here.