The Body in Folklore Keynote: Folk Narrative

The Body in Folklore Keynote: Folk Narrative May 13, 2016

If you wanna read this in order, first read the introduction, and then read Part 1 on the body in folklore history and theory. This is Part 2 (of 5, but if you’re skipping around, here are links to part 3 and part 4).

The bodies of folk narrative characters are branded by contrast. Mythical bodies are cosmic in scope, cut apart and reassembled, sacrificed and sanctified and precedent-setting. Legendary bodies, as Gillian Bennett chronicles in her excellent book, are permeable, vulnerable, alternating between gross and grotesque. As I’ll point out, folktale and fairy-tale bodies can also be grotesque, but they are more frequently, in the words of Max Lüthi, depthless, superficial, shining, and ideally beautiful.

The body has been recognized as a significant motif in folk narrative, though there is a lack of interpretive work here. The word “body” appears numerous times in Stith Thompson’s Motif Index, but it is not always clear what these bodies mean or whose bodies they refer to. For instance, in section E, “The Dead,” there is motif E446.3, “Ghost laid by decapitating body.” Here the gender of the person does not seem to matter, whereas in motif E710, External soul, “A person (often a giant or ogre) keeps his soul or life separate from the rest of his body,” the gender is indicated as male. I would argue that gender matters, even when we’re talking about disembodied identity, as Jeannie Banks Thomas posits in her essay “Ghosts and Gender,” documenting that even in the supernatural world, male and female spirits behave according to cultural expectations.

Specific body parts are occasionally named in the motif and tale-type indices, as they cross linguistic and national boundaries as units of narrative meaning. As I documented in my dissertation, hands and eyes get special attention in fairy tales, possibly due to their relevance to various supernatural practices worldwide. The appearance of specific body part motifs also occurs in tale types; in most versions of ATU 706 (“The Girl Without Hands”), the maiden loses and later regains her hands (though occasionally other body parts are substituted). Various body parts thus constitute international folk narrative motifs, and have been noted as such by comparative folklorists such as Stith Thompson and Hasan el-Shamy. I’m heartened by the recognition of the body’s traditionality, in the sense that the body and its parts comprise independent motifs that are utilized in cross-cultural folklore. However, to view the body as detached from identity is yet another expression of mind-body dualism, which has proven to be an almost inescapable part of Western thought.

Now, I have a tendency to wonder about the bodies in these accounts of folk narrative—the bodies of the tellers, the audience, the collectors, and the scholars, but also the bodies within the tales: the bodies of heroes and heroines, villains and helpers, royal children and slandered sisters. At the time when I wrote my dissertation, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales & Fairy Tales contained entries for birth and blood, but not for the body or bodies. I’m pleased to note that this changed when I was asked to write an entry on the Body for the next edition, and some of the patterns I note here also appear in that entry.

Overall, though, we get tantalizing glimpses of gendered bodies in snippets of fairy-tale scholarship, but until my dissertation there was no comprehensive overview of bodies in fairy tales. For instance, Jack Zipes has observed of Basile’s tales: “Bodies are enmeshed in the plot. They are beautified, tortured, demolished, rejuvenated, and transformed as the protagonist seeks to survive at all costs and improve his social status in the ever-changing world” (67). Yet rather than sticking with bodies, Zipes continues on to his next point, leaving fairy-tale bodies still largely unexamined.

There have, of course, been a handful of good studies on the body in fairy tales; however, they all present partial views of the subject based on a specific cultural context or time period. Lewis Seifert’s work on gender and sexuality in French fairy tales from 1690-1715, for example, demonstrates that “The representations of the body can, ultimately, conform to the prevailing moral, social, and ontological codes…defy them, or maintain an uneasy tension between conformity and resistance” (42). Similarly, Patricia Hannon limits herself to seventeenth-century France when analyzing how “women writers embrace the future through the enchanted, disguised, and amorous bodies that…explore alternative identities for a changing order” (216). Focusing on Italian early modern tales, Suzanne Magnanini explores how cultural conditions led to the particular constructions of fairy-tale bodies of the time, arguing “that the monstrous body came to function as a nexus where the literary fairy tale and the emerging New Science met in a mutually defining contiguity” (6). These studies lay important groundwork for understanding the body in folk narrative.

However, in dealing with bodies in folk narrative and fairy tales, it’s tough to tell what role desire, metaphor, and symbolism play. Dundes famously criticized folklorists for denying, “that folktales (or any folklore for that matter) refer to basic human drives and emotions” (122), He continued on to argue that folktales represent artistic projections of interpersonal conflicts. Dundes’s psychoanalytic scholarship on fairy tales does take bodies into account, and he certainly does not shy away from discussing taboo body parts such as genitals and secondary sex characteristics like breasts—thereby proving less prude than many folklorists—but Dundes was not critical enough of the sexism inherent in psychoanalysis. Further, as Ann Schmiesing points out in her excellent book on disability in the Grimms’ fairy tales, Dundes’s reading of tales like “The Maiden without Hands” “disembodies the girl’s impairment by viewing it only symbolically” (89). If we only ever read bodies in tales symbolically, where does that leave the study of bodies in folk narrative?

To stay with the Grimms for another moment, Martin Sutton’s study The Sin-Complex analyzes how English-language translators of the Grimms’ tales have sanitized the body references by eliminating mentions of natural bodily functions. These translators consistently reframed the human body—especially those eroticized areas. Sutton gives examples like the male giant who nurses Tom Thumb (ATU 700), and Faithful John sucking three drops of blood from the prince’s bride’s breast (in ATU 516, Faithful John). These were either edited out or described in less sexual terms, such as Faithful John somehow surgically removing the tainted blood from the princess. The list of things that Victorian-era translators edited out include: scatological matters, cannibalism, dismemberment, sexuality, and simply taking pleasure in one’s body and appearance.

For those of us who do feminist work, I think it’s important to note that the very premise of a feminist critique of fairy tales is predicated upon the notion that fairy tales construct and represent bodies differentially according to gender. For the most part, however, feminist scholars do not dwell upon the construction of bodies in fairy tales, preferring instead more abstract gender roles, though there are a few notable exceptions. Cristina Bacchilega analyzes the narrative and framing strategies that create a vision of “natural” female bodies in postmodern fairy tales, for example, in renditions of “Snow White” that falsely oppose the beautiful young protagonist and the wicked, significantly older antagonist. Holly Tucker’s research on female fairy-tale writers in early-modern France significantly places childbirth at the center of her analysis, juxtaposing actual childbirth and midwifery beliefs with those that occur in the fairy tales that female writers used to explore discourse about gendered bodies. Ruth Bottigheimer posits that women in Europe prior to the 1500s were in control of their own fertility, and it is after social changes shifted this balance in men’s favor that fairy tales emerged wherein women no longer seek consequence-free sex, but rather, beginning with Straparola’s tales, one finds “the heroine’s sexual exposure, pregnancy under the control of others, and the fear of such a pregnancy” (48). These feminist accounts of the bodies that create fairy tales and the bodies inhabiting fairy tales are fascinating, but they tend to focus on reproductive bodies (as with Tucker and Bottigheimer), or bodies in contemporary renditions of fairy tales (as with Bacchilega).

Clearly, there is a need in folk narrative and fairy-tale scholarship to analyze bodies more and better, using a variety of analytical tools, from our own discipline and others…which is where my dissertation comes in (this blog post at the Oxford University Press blog explains some of my aims in easy-to-understand language; if you’d like more dense methodology and academese, check out this PDF of a revised chapter I published in The Journal of History and Cultures).

Here are some highlights from my dissertation: gender matters for fairy-tale bodies, but so does age, more than I’d expected; as a modifying adjective, “old” was very important in mentions of women’s bodies. For women, evaluative descriptions relating to beauty were very significant, as were body parts like hair, skin, and blood. For men, their bodies were evaluated more by size and birth order, and men were vulnerable to magical transformations and bodily violence. Grotesque bodies and various dualisms also made an appearance in my findings.

One thing I want to emphasize is that bodies in fairy tales, like bodies in legends and often myths, correlate appearances with values. We all know from Disney that beauty equals good, and ugly equals bad. Classical fairy tales present a more nuanced version, with protagonists who start off plain or disguise themselves as ugly, and with antagonists who briefly manage to be beautiful. In legends, especially contemporary legends, we see the bodies of foreigners, the diseased, the seductive, and serial killers as malformed, dangerous, and different. Thus folk narrative constructions of the body interact with larger cultural codes assigning morality and value.

While my dissertation focused on the body in classical European fairy tales, it’s also important to study the body in new media texts and retellings of fairy tales. Numerous examples come to mind, but for now I’ll share a classroom revelation. I was showing the “Hans My Hedgehog” episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller in a class on women’s folklore, during a unit on representations of women in folk narrative. We watched as the princess, promised in marriage to the titular hedgehog-human hybrid, reclined in bed on their wedding night. The camera zoomed in on her face, blank with fear, as the shadow of the monster loomed for a moment behind her. That visual representation, unique to filmed or performed retellings, reinforced for me the polyvalent meanings of fairy tales. Seeing her face in this depiction made me realize that she was afraid, among other things, of being raped on her wedding night. We can read bodies as metaphorical all we want, and the animal bridegroom in fairy tales can represent a great many things…but this seems to me to be a clear example of a coded message[i]. This visual conveys an all-too-common experience and fear for many women, albeit one that it was taboo to voice until fairly recently.

I’ll close this section with some major concerns:

  • Censorship: overt, as in the case of Aleksandr Afanasyev’s Russian Secret Tales, which appeared in print long after his death. Covert, as with other bawdy tale or erotic tale collections, like Vance Randolph’s Ozark tales, which take some hunting down to find
  • Ideally? We’re not just describing representations of bodies, but taking a stand: what does the body mean? Why is it being represented the way it is? Whose values does it represent?
  • To read body symbolically or literally is a huge issue; I address it in father-daughter incest fairy tales (specifically ATU 510B; read my article here), and Schmeising does a good job addressing it in terms of disability in the Grimms. We need to ask… if we only ever read disabled bodies as metaphors, do actual disabled bodies ever get any representation? What does it say about us, if we erase every body that is different by reading it symbolically? So only able-bodied folks get to be “real” in folk narrative? This is a problem, as Schmiesing points out, when disabled bodies in fairy tales are always miraculously fixed, as when the handless maiden gets her hands back, or when they’re supercrips, like Thumbling who, disturbingly, compensates for his tiny size with exaggerated wit and luck, making this seem like a natural/inevitable outcome
  • Representation of gendered bodies matters, too; Bruno Bettelheim claimed in The Uses of Enchantment (a classic Freudian take on fairy tales) that kids can empathize with both male and female characters equally…but what about E. Tang Kristensen’s data about gender of storyteller and gender of protagonist in Danish folktales? Bengt Holbek, in his interpretation of Kristensen’s data, notes that the male tellers had around 88% male protagonists and 12% female protagonists, while for female tellers, they tend to have slightly less than half featuring female protagonists (168). So clearly gender is a big issue when accounting for fairy-tale repertoires
  • People doing the work who I want to briefly mention: William Pooley (on bodies in/of French folk narrative, especially those that are grotesque and gendered) and Margaret Lyngdoh (on tiger-men and –women of Khasis of northeast India, situating the physical body in the social and symbolic world of that region; the body is seen as “clothing,” as the inner continuity of spirit which is maintained through different body transformations)
  • To sum up: we see some work on body, but less attention to embodiment, and I think this ties in to the question of whose bodies are fair game for folklore studies

The next part of my speech describes how the body is handled in two other genres I study: body art and dance.



Bacchilega, Cristina. Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Bennett, Gillian. Bodies: Sex, Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2005.

Bottigheimer, Ruth. “Fertility Control and the Birth of the Modern European Fairy-Tale Heroine.” In Fairy Tales and Feminism: New Approaches. Ed. Donald Haase. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004. 37-51.

Dundes, Alan. “The Psychoanalytic Study of the Grimms’ Tales: ‘The Maiden Without Hands’ (AT 706).” In Folklore Matters. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1989. 112-150.

Hannon, Patricia. Fabulous Identities: Women’s Fairy Tales in Seventeenth-Century France. Amsterdam; Atlanta, Georgia: Rodopi, 1998.

Holbek, Bengt. Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Folklore Fellows Communications. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1998.

Magnanini, Suzanne. Fairy-Tale Science: Monstrous Generation in the Tales of Straparola and Basile. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Schmiesing, Ann. Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014.

Seifert, Lewis. Fairy Tales, Sexuality, and Gender in France, 1690-1715: Nostalgic Utopias. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Sutton, Martin. The Sin-Complex: A Critical Study of English Versions of the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen in the Nineteenth Century. Kassel: Schriften der Brüder Grimm Gesellschaft, 1996.

Thomas, Jeannie Banks. “Gender and Ghosts.” In Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore. Eds. Diane E. Goldstein, Sylvia Grider, and Jeannie Banks Thomas. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2007. 81-110.

Tucker, Holly. Pregnant Fictions: Childbirth and the Fairy Tale in Early-Modern France. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003.

Zipes, Jack. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. New York & London: Routledge, 2006.

[i] I borrow the concept of coding from Joan Radner’s edited book Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture (University of Illinois Press, 1993). Many of the book’s examples of coding, “covert expressions of disturbing or subversive ideas” (vii) are expressed on the body, using the body as medium, or in genres that are closely tied to the body.

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