The common attitude toward fairy tales these days is that while they may be entertaining, they offer nothing in the way of value. Modern feminist movements urge young girls to forego fairy tales and read stories where the female characters are heroines, not damsels in distress. And sure, Cinderella is an atrocious female role model.
She lets her step family step all over her, never says a peep to her father about her abuse (in the versions where he is still alive), woos a prince just by dancing with him (no one is that interesting) and in the end, forgives everyone.Why they keep making movies about her, I’ll never know. I prefer the version where her sister’s get their eyes pecked out in revenge, but I guess that could permanently scar some five-year-olds.
Anyways, fairy tales, like any work of fiction, should not be defined solely by whether they portray women as strong and independent. The majority of these tales were written in the late 16th century, 17th century, and early 18th century, where female independence was a hidden phenomenon. Yes, many of these tales may be sexist, but that doesn’t make them worthless. They give clarity to the time and the civilizations in which they were made. They discuss common problems in a fantastical way. If we are to truly examine the worth of these tales, we have to relinquish the notion that these tales are useless, out-dated clap trap and treat them as we would any classic piece of fiction.
The story we’re discussing today was written in 1698 by a French woman called Madame d’Aulnoy. She actually originated the term “fairy tales”. The Green Snake, or Serpentin Vert, is one of the more unusual stories I’ve read in that while it retains classic fairy tale tropes, it actually features a relatively complex and dedicated heroine
My version of the tale comes from this wonderful book, which has compiled many foreign tales and translated them all into English. A great read if you want to clear your mind and escape into the weird and mystical.
The story begins like many others with the birth of two princesses. The king and queen throw the usual extravagant feast and invite every fairy in the land except for Old Mag, who they believe to be dead. The very-alive fairy is mightily offended by this slight, which I imagine is a pretty large breach of etiquette in their world, and storms in demanding to be served at their party.
The king and queen rush around trying to remedy the situation, but they’ve made such extensive preparations that they can’t quite replicate it to Old Mag’s wishes. She doesn’t get the custom-made gold plating that her colleagues eat on, so she turns the entire meal into snakes. I find it very interesting how much lee-way terrible fairies like Old Mag are given in these stories. The Salem Witch Trials happened about six years before this story was published and the fever of witch-hating was just as relevant in Europe as in the colonies. You’d think these sentiments would be portrayed in the contemporary fairy tales, but the king and queen seem terrified of Old Mag and make no show of ever opposing her. Basically, these fairies run this town like terrorists and if they don’t like their dinner, you’re eating snakes!
Old Mag gets more and more offended as the dinner progresses and finally she snaps and does the worst thing she can possibly do. She murders one of the babies. Just kidding. She curses one of the princesses with ETERNAL UGLINESS, which is apparently the worst fate any princess can have. Usually one of the kinder fairies steps in and alters the curse so that there is some remedy, but instead the fairies are like “ain’t nothing to see here” and give the other girl eternal beauty before Mag can curse her too. The queen makes a very reasonable suggestion of giving a little beauty to each of the girls, but that would be way too sensible for the fairies and they peace out of that party.
The queen decides to name the girls Laidronette and Bellotte, which basically mean “Ugly One” and “Beautiful One” so that no one can forget what is plainly obvious. In my English version they’re called Dorugly and Dorabelle, which is equally terrible.
About 15 years pass and the girls grow up at court. Laidronette gets uglier and uglier but is known as a gifted poet and artist, while Bellotte becomes more beautiful and who cares about her other qualities because she’s #smokin.
Laidronette becomes so hideous that all the fancy dukes and duchesses at court are offended by her face and her parents kick her out of the palace. I was shocked that parents could be so heartless, but I guess this would hold up in court because she’s U-G-L-Y and don’t have no alibi. Laidronette takes her faithful nurse and lives in a crumbling tower in the middle of the forest where no one can see her face and she can practice her poetry by herself.
Now, Madame d’Aulnoy isn’t condoning this face shaming. Both the queen and Bellotte are later portrayed as snooty, shallow women who only look at the face value of situations (pun intended), while L-Nette (her rapper name) is supposed to be an intelligent, curious, and sensible person. Madame d’Aulnoy was a countess during the reign of Louis XIV, better known as the Sun King, whose love of extravagance and culture are personified in his pet project Versailles. The french court had a reputation as an extremely cultured yet superficial place, so it would make sense that d’Aulnoy would taking a shot at her appearance obsessed fellow courtiers.
One day, L-Nette is strolling through her little forest clearing when she is stopped by a green serpent. He’s called a snake in the English translation, but he’s described as having bronze wings, claws, and a very magnificent way about him, so it’s more likely that he is some type of dragon. L-Nette is terrified of him, natch, and even though Green Snake tries to strike up a friendly conversation, she runs away screaming, as girls do. Some might call this an irrational response, but I think that in her situation it makes sense. L-Nette is not automatically a cowardly person because she is afraid of a strange dragon beast, just as she would not automatically be brave for standing her ground. Many feminist advocates would say that L-Nette’s reaction generalizes woman as fearful and weak, but that ignores her age and circumstances. Woman can show fear and still be strong characters.
Some time passes after L-Nette’s encounter with frightening dragon man and she gets an invitation to Bellotte’s wedding. Bear in mind that L-Nette and Bellotte are freaking sixteen years old and already getting married, but it was a standard practice in the late 1600s. L-Nette shows up at the palace after many years of not seeing her family, and as to be expected, they treat her like a worthless piece of trash.
“You’re much uglier these days,” her family says to her. “You’ll spoil the wedding guest’s enjoyment.” There is an interesting glance into L-Nette’s thoughts when she contemplates screaming at her entire family that her ugliness isn’t her fault (my what a revolutionary concept), but she thinks better of it and goes back to her hermit tower. So far, L-Nette is proving to be a rational, calm, and gentle person, not just a standard faint-hearted princess.
When she returns, she takes a moonlit stroll by the beach, which I guess happens to be by her thick wooded forest (pretty sweet hermit digs) and chances upon a beautiful little boat. L-Nette mainly enters because its enchanting exterior. Of course, the main theme of this story is that inner virtue is more important that outer appearance, but the best part is that L-Nette herself doesn’t originally ascribe to this moral. Even though she is the victim of abuse for her ugliness, she still understands the value in beauty and is unconsciously drawn to the very thing she is doomed never to have.
While L-Nette is admiring the boat’s decorations, it leaves the shore of its own accord and she doesn’t realize until she is sailing in the open ocean. Green Snake swims by ever so casually and offers to save her, but L-Nette refuses because she’s afraid of him and his ugliness. Green Snake disappears in a hurtful huff, but what did he expect? It’s implied that the boat was his creation and a way of tricking her into meeting with him. It’s really just a way of him demonstrating his prowess to her, but he shouldn’t be so hurt that she refuses to see him. So far, their only interactions have included a creepy appearance in the woods and him popping up again in the middle of the freaking ocean. But that’s beside the point, because morals! A mysterious voice tells L-Nette to “be kinder to Green Snake. After all, he’s handsome for a snake, while you’re ugly, for a girl.”
After all, he’s smart for a dog, while you’re stupid for a person. Y’all are soul mates!!!!!
After these wise words, a huge gust of wind knocks L-Nette’s boat against a giant rock that’s just sitting in the middle of the ocean and her boat goes POOF. She grabs onto a piece of wood but psyche it’s Green Snake. L-Nette almost faints because she’s really freaking terrified of this guy and he won’t freaking leave her alone, but he swims away when he sees how frightened she is. “You’d fear me less if you knew me better”, he says extremely cryptically, in a voice I imagine serial killers use when they’re tying up their sex slaves. Then, he vanishes!
L-Nette passes out on the big rock she crashed into and wakes up in a beautiful palace. It’s filled with hundreds of tiny chinese dolls who wait on her every need and hint at a mysterious prince who owns the palace. L-Nette’s chill about this whole secrecy thing and grows to love her life at the palace, even though she never meets the mysterious prince. Every night, an invisible voice, supposedly the mysterious prince, comes to her bed and tells L-Nette that he loves her. L-Nette adores the attention and comes to love this disembodied man. When he asks her to marry him, she happily consents. I admit it doesn’t seem very sensible but I mean come on. Beautiful palace + hundreds of servants + king who actually likes you = perfect marriage. So what if she can’t see him?
A few months pass in wedded bliss until suddenly, a note from her family arrives, begging L-Nette to invite them to her new palace. I get it, riches=beauty, and now suddenly she’s cool again. L-Nette jumps at the idea and what I like to call standard fairy tale trickery ensues. Her bitchy sister and mother tease her about her husband always being absent, which makes L-Nette anxious that her marriage might be a sham. You see, her husband told her on their wedding night that Old Mag had put him under a curse just like L-Nette and he had only two years left until it wore off. The only caveat- L-Nette can never try to see his true form. If she prevailed, he would regain his body and L-Nette would be beautiful again. Seems like a sweet deal, right? But the two agents of doubt plant an evil seed in L-Nette’s mind. She starts to think about betraying her husband, and thus shattering her perfect happiness.
This is where I disagree with this message. The story is all about trust, but sometimes being too trusting is naive. Is it wrong for L-Nette to want to know if she is being tricked? Of course not. I guess the whole point is that all of the good deeds her husband has done for her should make her trusting and that by doubting her husband, she surrenders to the faithless gossip of her petty family. But seriously. I’d sure want to know.
Her evil family leaves with priceless gifts and L-Nette is once again alone with her doll servants. Even though they reassure her that their prince is the kindest and most virtuous of men, L-Nette can’t resist the urge to reveal the truth. Her fatal flaw is that dastardly curiousness that some silly women seem to get. When her prince visits her that night, L-Nette shines a candle on the darkness and reveals….dun dun dun….Green Snake!
Everything suddenly goes to shit. A war breaks out in the kingdom and Old Mag appears. She waves her wand and the all of the tiny doll servants disappear. She laughs evilly and sends Green Snake down into the core of the Earth, which is Hell in the original version. L-Nette curses herself for ruining the best relationship she’s ever had and spends the next few months chugging melted ice cream and binge watching TV. But actually, Old Mag bestows on her a slightly worse fate. She curses L-Nette with seven years of trials and tribulations to repent for ruining everyone’s life. Or at least, that’s what Old Mag says.
Hold on a second. First off, Green Snake had been stalking L-Nette in her hermit home and wouldn’t take her refusals as a proper answer. He then lures her onto his magical boat, sends her into the raging ocean, and then feels hurt when she won’t let him act the hero. He kidnaps her and takes her to his enchanted kingdom where he takes advantage of her loneliness and lavishes attention onto her. And all of this mess is L-Nette’s fault? Sure, she was supposed to see beyond appearances and love Green Snake for his ultimate kindness, but the fact stands that she rejected him. She didn’t want him and Green Snake didn’t care. He decided that she would love him, even if it was a forced and manipulated love.
Old Mag doesn’t care to ponder who’s really at fault for this mess and sets L-Nette an impossible task. She’s to travel thousands of miles with a hundred pound millstone around her neck and fetch back the magical waters of discretion. Under no circumstances is she to wash in it, even though it will make her 1,000 X more beautiful, which considering her ugliness would make her a solid 5/10.
L-Nette knows that this is an impossible task, but she desperately wants to repent for her sins. She begins her journey, determined to redeem herself, but luckily that’s not necessary. Green Snake sends a flying carriage which takes L-Nette straight to the magical fountain. Knowing its magical powers, she’s tempted to wash in it, but decides instead that she’d rather drink it and see if it makes her wise. Luckily, it doesn’t poison her and she becomes immediately wiser.
A magical fairy appears and decides that L-Nette has redeemed herself by choosing wisdom over beauty. Now, L-Nette can wash herself and become beautiful too. After becoming the most beautiful creature on Earth (or so I assume, there’s no middle ground in these stories), the fairy sends her into a magical forest to wait out her enchantment. She renames her Queen Discreet or some other bullshit because L-Nette no longer applies. See, that’s the problem with naming your children after their appearance. It don’t always stick.
Queen D lives in happiness blah blah blah for the next seven years until her curse ends and then she flies the hell out of that forest prison and back to Old Mag. Seven years have given her tons of time to think over her folly and realize that she does indeed love Green Snake. I like this character development because for once it isn’t just love at first sight. Queen D originally detested Green Snake, grew to love him through trickery, and then finally grew to love him for his own merit. She’s a real character for once, not just a silly fool.
Old Mag is furious with Queen D for actually completing her task- I guess she expected her to die- and gives her one final test. She must journey into Hell, retrieve the waters of life, and return to Old Mag without opening the vial. Queen D summons all of her bravery and travels into Hell, where she finds Green Snake imprisoned. They reunite with much love and forgiveness and Green Snake is transformed into the hottest guy alive. So you see, even though the moral of this story is to look beyond beauty, it’s really all about biding your time until you’re freaking fabulous. Green Snake (who doesn’t have a real name) and Queen D journey back to Old Mag and she drinks the water, which immediately transform her into a super nice fairy. She fixes Green Snake’s kingdom and they all live happily ever after.
And that’s what’s so fantastic about this story. It tells the absolute truth while trying to hide it beneath a noble message. Even though wisdom is the supposed key to Queen D’s happiness, it’s really beauty. She is rejected because of her lack of beauty, just as Green Snake is later rejected for his. When Queen D drinks the water to become wise, her real prize is washing her face to become beautiful, the real root of her desire. When Green Snake’s curse is ended, his reward is also beauty. Even though the heroes try to be above this whole appearance thing, the truth is that the world, and especially Madame d’Aulnoy’s world is beauty obsessed, and beauty will always be its driving force.