Transformations (Continued)

by Terri Windling

Illustration by Adrienne Ségur for "Alenka and her Brother"

In "Donkeyskin" and "The Wild Swans," crisis is the catalyst that sends each princess into the world, where she will face more trials, then win her way to a better life. I began to search for other tales of innocent and honorable girls imperiledby parents and other adults, finding their way through disaster. Each ended in marriage, symbolizing the passage from adolescence to maturity, but between family crisis and happy ending there was always a journey to make. Take "The Girl With No Hands," the brutal storyof a miller’s daughter whose own father cuts off her hands in order to save himself from the devil. The girl’s purity defeats the devil; the family is left with a fine sack of gold. "Now all is well," the miller assures her. "Now we can live together in splendor.""No," his daughter tells him, "for you would have given me to the devil himself. Here I can stay no longer. I must make my own way in the world." Handless, friendless, she goes to the woods and begins her metamorphosis.By the end of the tale, she is healed, married, a mother, and wearing a crown. In the universe of fairy tales, the Just often find a way to prevail, the Wicked generally receive their comeuppance — but there’s more to such tales than a formula of abuse and retribution.The trials these wounded young women encounter illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a maimed state to wholeness, from passivity to action.

Illustration by Adrienne Ségur for "Little Red Riding Hood"

Fairy tales taught me the lessons of transformation; they schooled me in courage, honor, and endurance. Someday I, too, would enter the woods, and I’d have to be prepared. I bid my time in my parents’ house, and my grandparents’ house, till I was fifteen. And then the fairy tale crisis came to propel me out into the world. I won’t describe that dark day here; suffice it to say that, like Donkeyskin,I knew all hope of aid was past, so I wrapped myself in the tattered skin and fled to a distant land. Now I was the princess of the tale: alone and maimed in the heart of the woods. But I knew this story. I knew what to do. I knew that if I was brave and true, I’d find a brighter world beyond the cold of the streets, the dark of the trees, and this knowledge pulled me past each wolf and witch who lay in wait.

And yes, I did eventually find my way to the realm that lies happily ever after — not marriage and wealth, but the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world: a college education, to open the door to a different life. I shed my child–self in the woods, emerged from the trees as a new creature, and on that quiet campus I knew that I’d found safe harbour at last.

Illustration by Adrienne Ségur for "Sleeping Beauty"

In the pages of myth and folklore texts, I discovered what it was I had been through: a rite of passage, a shamanic initiation as practiced in cultures the world over, a journey to the underworld and a ritual rebirth.I had a new name, a new role to play, a new family of friends, a new community. My hands grew back, and no one ever asked if I knew how to smile again.

Yet it took some years before I could speak of the past. The habit of silence was strong. It was only when my stepfather died that this last spell was finally broken. Until then, I lived inside the old donkeyskin, comfortable, disguised, and safe. There were in those days no shelves full of "self–help" books for people with pasts like mine. In retrospect, I’m glad it was myth and folklore I turned to instead.Too many books portray child abuse as though it’s an illness from which one must heal, like cancer . . .or malaria . . .or perhaps a broken leg. Eventually, this kind of book promises, the leg will be strong enough to use, despite a limp betraying deeper wounds that might never mend.