Emma Donoghue's Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins

©1998 L.Timmel Duchamp

1. The key to the story.

I had keys to every room in the castle except the one where the beast slept. The first book I opened said in gold letters: You are the mistress: ask for whatever you wish.

I didn't know what to ask for. I had a room of my own, and time and treasures at my command. I had everything I could want except the key to the story. ("Tale of the Rose," p. 34)

The key to the story, the key to all the stories that Emma Donoghue (re)tells in Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins (HarperCollins, 1997), is what could never be in the versions we were told as children, viz., that a woman can like a woman, that a woman can love a woman, that women are only occasional, rather than necessary and essential, enemies. Princes, in these stories, tend to be the problem rather than the solution (except when they turn out to be women in disguise). Princesses and maids and goose girls can be interchanged, being not essentially, beneath their exterior appearances, one or the other (as the old versions of the tales generally had it). In every case, the conflict and solution in these tales hinge on what in the old versions tended to be relegated to the periphery. So the princess-- or the poor maiden-- marries the prince? That's never an end to the story, but simply one (mis)step along the way to the end.

In "The Tale of the Apple," (a re-versioned "Snow White,"), the stepmother and then king's daughter are both deeply ambivalent in their feelings for one another. Very similar in appearance and age, they share a natural attraction; but three obstacles make them mutually distrustful and keep them apart. The princess, who narrates the tale, says

I know now that I would have liked her if we could have met as girls, ankle deep in a river. I would have taken her hand in mine if I had not found it weighted down by the ruby stolen from my mother's cooling finger. I could have loved her if, if, if. (46)
Several things work to make them enemies rather than friends. First, there is "common sense," conveyed by the stories that teach children the limits of their possible roles and relationships in life:
I knew from the songs that a stepmother's smile is like a snake's, so I shut my mind to her from that very first day when I was rigid with the letting of first blood. (46)
Then there is the powerful male, in this case the king, playing the two women off against one another to encourage them in jealousy and competition for his (and every other male's) favor:
My father was cheered to see us so close. Once when he came to her room at night he found us both there, cross-legged on her bed under a sea of velvets and laces, trying how each earring looked against the other's ear. He put his head back and laughed to see us. Two such fair ladies, he remarked, have never been seen on one bed. But which of you is the fairest of them all?

We looked at each other, she and I, and chimed in the chorus of his laughter. Am I imagining in retrospect that our voices rang a little out of tune? (47)


He let out another guffaw. Tell me, he asked, how am I to judge between two such beauties? (48)

The stepmother is barren. When the king dies, she wants his throne and is determined that the king's daughter will not have it. The king's daughter flees for her life. Later, after keeping house for seven woodsmen, the princess is found by the queen, courted and wooed. The third obstacle between them, the personal history of the queen and her driving ambition and insecurity, is revealed only after the story ends, when the princess asks her about her life before marrying the king. The queen tells "The Tale of the Handkerchief" that follows, relating how she had been born to the maid of the queen and had herself been maid to the queen's daughter who was supposed to marry a king. Rather than accepting her fate, she wrote her own story (and forcibly rewrote that of the princess she was supposed to serve). Consequently she is wracked by the sense of being an impostor and the longing for security in her position. Her best hope is that
Once I had the crown settled on my head and a baby or two on my lap, who knew what kind of woman I might turn out to be? (79)
Though the queen never gets to have a baby or two on her lap, she discovers what kind of woman she can be when she yields to (and trusts) her desire for the princess and lets go of her insecurity.

2. What do women want?

The old versions of these fairy tales omitted not only affectionate and sexual relations between women, but any consideration of women's want, will, and desire. In many of Donoghue's versions, the princess or maid assumes, without question, that she wants what the usual stories about princesses and maids have said they want, and must learn the hard way that she wants something altogether different. In "The Tale of the Voice," the hard-working adult daughter of fishers sees the son of a merchant "like an angel come down to earth" (p.186) and decides he's "worth any price." She asks the witch, whom she goes to for assistance in catching his eye, to "make me like a woman he could love" (p.192). The witch tells her that he's not worth what she'll have to pay for it.
No matter how greedy he may be you'll think everything belongs to him by right. No matter how stupid he is you'll think he converses like an angel. Am I right?

I have to have him, I told her coldly.

Good, good, she said, a girl who knows what she wants. (191)

When the witch advises her simply to dance for him, and the narrator insists that the witch make her "better," "right," "like a woman he could love," the witch says,
Change for your own sake, if you must, not for what you imagine another will ask of you. (192)
The narrator doesn't understand and insists that she's asking the witch to help her do just that. The witch warns her that it will cost her her voice.
You won't be able to laugh or answer a question, to shout when something spills on you or cry out with delight at the full moon. You will neither be able to speak your love nor sing it with that famous voice of yours. (193)
The witch also warns her that there will be pain, "like a sword cutting you in half." The narrator expects to lose her voice at once-- as a tradeoff for the witch's deployment of power, but of course it's more mundane than that. She loses her voice as she's packing her bundle and her mother asks her what she is doing.

So she goes to the city, finds the merchant's son, throws herself at him and lets him do as he wishes with her.

After a while I would have liked to ask when we were going to be married. My eyes put the question, but all he did was kiss them shut. That was the first time I felt the loss of my voice.

But I was coming to realize that my predicament was not unique. At the balls he took me to there were many beautiful young women who didn't say a word. They answered every question with a shrug or a smile. If champagne got spilt down their dresses they only sighed; when the full moon slid out from behind the castle they watched it in silence. I could not understand it. Had they sold their voices too? (197-198)

Her greatest shock comes when she discovers her lover is unfaithful. And the narrator-- writing from the future perspective of one who understands her mistake-- reflects that she can't blame him.
How was he to know what mattered to me? Perhaps we get, not what we deserve, but what we demand. His sweet dumb little foundling asked so little of him, and that little was so easy for the flesh to give, why should she get anything more? (200)
Defeated, the narrator returns to the witch's cave. The witch tells her that she can find her songs "still out there on the clifftop, hanging in the air."
Wish to speak and you will speak, girl. Wish to die and you can do it. (202)
What do women want? This tale tells us that the girls and young women who think the old and infinitely repeated stories of happily-ever-after submission tell them what they want are simply walking into a trap. By giving up their voices for merely the attention of a man, they're giving up all chance of even being able to say what it is they want. And wanting to be wanted, as the witch notes, is not the same as willing or desiring.

3. Making the connections.

Every tale in this book is connected to every other tale in a sort of Farmer-in-the-Dell logic until we reach the last tale, the tale of the witch, the witch who can say "there are some tales not for telling" (p.227-228), and who ends the book
This is the story you asked for. I leave it in your mouth. (228)
She leaves the story in the listener's mouth (the listener being the teller of the penultimate tale) rather than her ear, so (for the reader) to pass on. Every other story, however, ends with the narrator becoming the audience of the next tale. And thus when the narrator of the first tale (a re-versioned Cinderella) queries her lover (who, rather than the prince, had turned out to be the narrator's main interest) "Who were you before you walked into my kitchen?", the lover replies, "Will I tell you my own story? It is a tale of a bird." And so it is that every story is linked to every other. Some of the connections are apparent, namely lovers or friends telling one another their stories, or an older woman telling a younger woman her history. Other connections are less than obvious, when antagonists are joined by story-- granting insight and understanding and generating an empathy that had not been. And isn't this the point of telling stories? Donoghue seems to be saying. If we don't tell the real stories of our lives, we won't find a way to break out of the traditional stories that trap us into not asking for what we want-- or even not recognizing that we might want something different than the old stories tell us it's natural for us to want.

And so this linkage of tales, this tissue of connections, gives the reader a sense of a textured continuity of the stories that haven't gotten told. We see at the end of each story that though the narrator's (in)sight of a previously invisible reality was hard-won, in fact a person very close to her has had her own (in)sight of a different piece of that invisible reality that fits with her own like pieces in a jigsaw. Not that the book is a completed jigsaw puzzle! One "finishes" it with a sense of having glimpsed a small section of a great mosaic work, a tantalizing clue to the larger picture. As though Donoghue has cleaned oil and dust off a few pieces of the mosaic, allowing us to see the brilliance and unexpected vision of a fragment granting our imaginations a glimpse of what the whole might be like. And so it is she leaves us with the last tale in our mouths, an inspiration to imagination she invites us to explore.

4. The magic of fairy tales

In the course of reading these stories, I found myself reflecting on the elements of fairy tales that made them so magically appealing and emotionally satisfying for me as a child and concluded that what appealed to and satisfied me as a child differs significantly from what appeals to and satisfies me as an adult. Donoghue's book of fairy tales succeeds with me as an adult, succeeds so wonderfully that the writer in me wants to know how that can be. These are fairy tales for adult women not because they have a content not fit for children (something I don't think is true), but because they conjure up a response that ordinary fairy tales (the ones people-- often unsuitably-- tell children) are unlikely to provoke in adults.

So what are the elements of successful fairy tales? A mixture of the prosaic with the magical, the archetypal with the arbitrary, the familiar with the unexpected. Disguise. Chance as well as fate, justice as well as undeserved rewards or punishment. Bad judgment and second chances. Individual initiative, human ingenuity, and assistance from unexpected quarters. The individual either triumphing and living happily ever after, or suffering a comeuppance and ending up with nothing.

In children's tales, characters are either essentially good or evil, essentially princesses or essentially beggarmaids. The endings always put everyone and everything neatly into their proper place, exposed for what they are. In Donoghue's re-versioning, however, good and evil aren't essences producing causality, but the result of a concatenation of circumstances and actions. In her world, hierarchy is not merely a matter of proper placement of true essences--- the boy who proves himself a prince by performing three impossible tasks to win the princess, the drudge who has the heart and beauty of a princess just waiting to be discovered for what she is--- but is, rather, evidence that no one is essentially anything that can be appropriately identified by one's social and financial status. In Donoghue's world, the servant of the princess can switch places with her because (a) she's physically and psychologically stronger than the princess and (b) neither of them is essentially a servant or a princess. The servant forces the princess to strip, and when they are both naked, asks her "Where is the difference between us now?" (p. 69) She steps into the princess's dress and rides the princess's wonderful horse and wields the princess's fan (having only to take care that she wears gloves to conceal the history of work written on her hands). The servant-now-princess notes, "I found that I knew how to behave like a princess, from my short lifetime of watching... At times I forgot for a moment that I was acting." (p. 72)

The magic in Donoghue's tales lies in her taking such familiar, worn stories and illuminating the previously invisible that, in her hands, seems always to have been present, in the background, overshadowed by the masculinist agenda that characterizes the old versions. She gives us just as much of a mixture of the prosaic and the archetypal, loads of disguise, chance and fate, and a world of bad judgment and second chances. The individuals that are the heroes of these stories, though, are all women, and their happily-ever-after endings neither involve marrying a prince nor are ever the last word. The ultimate magic is Donoghue's promise, that there always is another story that will illuminate the one just told. Happily-ever-after, for the reader, is knowing there's always another story from another angle, if one only thinks to ask for it.

June, 1998

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