The Unintentional and Unseen Godparents: The Light Princess’s Diabolical and Heavenly Godparents

David Russell Mosley

Old books

Epiphanytide
22 January 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

George MacDonald’s fairy tale, ‘The Light Princess’ is one of my favourites amongst his fairy tales. In many ways, it is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Let me explain. The story begins, very similarly with a king and queen who cannot have, but want, a baby. They are much sillier than the king and queen in sleeping beauty, but they are generally good people. So, eventually, a baby they have.

After the baby is born they begin planning the christening. Now, it’s true that there are no fairies invited to this christening, nor is anyone invited to be the little princesses godmother. I think, however, this is because MacDonald wants to provide her with two very different godparents: Princess Makemnoit, the little girl’s aunt who was not invited, by accident, to the christening; and God himself. Let me explain.

Like in Sleeping Beauty, Princess Makemnoit, who is a witch (and potentially a fairy as MacDonald writes, ‘she beat all the wicked fairies in wickedness, and all the clever ones in cleverness’), decides to revenge herself on the king for forgetting her. When she arrives, ‘she contrived to get next to [the baptismal font], and throw something into the water; after which she maintained a very respectful demeanour till the water was applied to the child’s face. But at that moment she turned round in her place three times, and muttered the following words, loud enough for those beside her to hear:—

“Light of spirit, by my charms,

Light of body, every part,

Never weary human arms—

Only crush thy parents’ heart!”‘

The witch deprives the little girl of all her gravity, in both senses. She is not directed downward and most all other creatures are and she has no gravitas, no sense of the grave or serious. It is telling that this is the only “gift” the princess receives on this day. And so the princess grows up, always laughing, never smiling. Even her levitas was incomplete, because it lacked gravitas.

Unlike Sleeping Beauty, this princess has had no godmother, fairy or otherwise to give her gift that will undo Princess Makemnoit’s curse. In Sleeping Beauty’s case, the final fairy godmother gives her the possibility of finding love. But in the Light Princess’s case it is the curse that leads her to love. In fact, first it leads her to water and then leads her to love. Princess Makemnoit is not only the cause of the undoing of the princess’s curse, by draining the water of the lake and causing the prince to give his life for the Light Princess, but she is also her own undoing. And so, Princess Makemnoit does good for the Light Princess. She teaches her gravitas, she gives her a reason to cry. She gives her, a bit delayed perhaps, a good gift, the gift of balance between gravitas and levitas that makes happiness and joy possible.

Up to this point, I have looked at Princess Makemnoit as an Unintentional Godmother, she is, after all, the only one who gives anything to the child on the day of her baptism. However, I think there is clearly another godparent. God is clearly present in this story, working like a godparent to the Light Princess from the first. It is he who makes it possible for the curse of Princess Makemnoit to ultimately lead to love. It is he who avenges himself and nature on Princess Makemnoit by the use of nature itself. What is more, Princess Makemnoit sins against the waters of baptism by defiling them before the princess is baptised. It is fitting then, that the mode of her destruction should be water itself. For further proof that God is the unseen godparent of the Light Princess, notice that it is in water itself that the Princess regains her right relationship with gravity. Water was the means of her curse, but it was also the means of her salvation and redemption, both in her baptism, and in the death of her love.

So, in the end, George MacDonald’s ‘The Light Princess’ gives us a very interesting look at godparenthood in fairy tales. Rather than give his Princess a fairy godparent (or at least giving her a good one), she receives instead God himself as her godparent.

Sincerely yours,
David

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Giving the Gifts of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Sleeping Beauty’s Gifts from Her Fairy Godmothers

David Russell Mosley

Christmastide
Twelfth Night
5 January 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I want to look at the fairy tale we most commonly call Sleeping Beauty. In truth, this tale has several titles, or variations, anyway. In French it is ‘La belle au bois dormant’, the Grimm’s called it ‘Little Briar Rose’, and there is an Italian story very similar to it called Sun, Moon, and Talia. I will be focusing on the French version as written/collected by Charles Perrault and translated by Andrew Lang. It is once again interesting to note that in the Grimm version of this story, the fairies are not godparents.

La belle au bois dormant begins with a royal family longing to increase from two to three (at least). They eventually conceive and a little girl is born. They have a christening (which is really just another word for a baptism) and invite to it seven fairies to serve as her godmothers (for it is at baptisms that godparents become bound to their godchildren). Her mother and father choose fairies, ‘that every one of them might give her a gift, as was the custom of fairies in those days.’ After the baptism a feast is held (remembering that festivals and gift-giving are inherent to and the foundation of the godparent-godchild relationship), and an eighth fairy shows up. She was an old fairy and was not invited for the believed her ‘dead or enchanted.’ She is given a seat at the table, but does not receive as a nice a place setting as her elven companions. And so, ‘The old fairy fancied she was slighted, and muttered some threats between her teeth. One of the young fairies who sat by her overheard how she grumbled; and, judging that she might give the little princess some unlucky gift, went, as soon as they rose from table, and hid herself behind the hangings, that she might speak last, and repair, as much as she could, the evil which the old fairy might intend.’

After the feasting is done it is time to give gifts: ‘The youngest gave her for gift that she should be the most beautiful person in the world; the next, that she should have the wit of an angel; the third, that she should have a wonderful grace in everything she did; the fourth, that she should dance perfectly well; the fifth, that she should sing like a nightingale; and the sixth, that she should play all kinds of music to the utmost perfection.’ I find these gifts interesting and informative. Again, think back to Cinderella and what her fairy godmother does for her, she makes evident to all the truth, beauty, and goodness (which naturally belong together) that are coincident in her. Here, the first fairy makes her beautiful; the second intelligent for an angel’s wit is not in humour, but in knowledge and most specifically knowledge of God and this would be truth; I do not think it a stretch to say third gives her the gift of goodness, for what else can it mean to have grace in everything that we do; the fourth, fifth, and sixth seem to give her further gifts of beauty, goodness, and truth, specifically in the things she does. Sleeping beauty is not rendered strange by her godmothers, but is given the coincidence of truth, beauty, and goodness as gifts themselves.

The old fairy gives the gift of death and terrifies the whole court. But then out comes the original seventh fairy who does not undo the gift of death, but transforms it: ‘At this very instant the young fairy came out from behind the hangings, and spake these words aloud: “Assure yourselves, O King and Queen, that your daughter shall not die of this disaster. It is true, I have no power to undo entirely what my elder has done. The princess shall indeed pierce her hand with a spindle; but, instead of dying, she shall only fall into a profound sleep, which shall last a hundred years, at the expiration of which a king’s son shall come and awake her.”‘

This fairy godmother proceeds to put the whole kingdom to sleep, excepting the girl’s natural parents, and raises up thorns and brambles in order to protect the young girl from harm while she slept. She is awakened after 100 years by her handsome prince, is married and the story takes a strange turn involving the prince’s mother who is part ogress and desires to eat his wife and children. There are no more mentions of the fairies who had served as godmothers to Sleeping Beauty, nor do we learn whether any fairies served as godparents to her children Morning and Day. Yet we can see how they continue to be protected by the triple gift of goodness, beauty, and truth. The cook cannot bring himself to kill the children: Morning’s beauty and goodness overwhelm him as she, ‘came up to him jumping and laughing, to take him about the neck, and ask him for some sugar candy.’ Day overwhelms him with his bravery, a subset of goodness in so many ways, for the cook found ‘him with a little foil in his hand, with which he was fencing with a great monkey, the child being then only three years of age.’ The Queen, that is Sleeping Beauty, overwhelms him with her love for her children, whom she believed to be dead. Love is, in so many ways, the coming together of truth, beauty, and goodness.

So while her godparents don’t take much of a role in her life after she pricks her finger on a spindle, the spiritual gifts which they gave her protected from all future evil. A human godparent can help raise a child to be proficient in the gifts given to the young princess, but they cannot give them outright, only, it would, a fairy godparent can do so. And so again we see the coming together of the Kingdom of God, since God is the true source of truth, beauty, and goodness; and the realm of Faërie.

Sincerely yours,
David

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother Renders Her Strange

David Russell Mosley

Christmastide
St Basil and St Gregory of Nazianzus
2 January 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

The first fairy godmother I want to look at is Cinderella’s. The first thing to note is that she does not appear in the Grimm’s version of the tale. I could speculate what that might say about early nineteenth century Germany and the nature of protestantism, or why it is in the more Catholic French version of the story where the godmother appears, but I won’t, not fully anyway. So, it is to the Charles Perrault version of the story I must turn. I must admit upfront, I am using an English translation (my French is so poor, poor is not an appropriate enough term for it), and it is from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Book editions. Now, to the fairy godmother.

She first appears after Cinderella watches her step-family go off to the king’s ball. At first all were told is that her godmother sees her crying and asks why. Cinderella tells her and then Perrault writes, ‘This godmother of hers, who was a fairy, said to her, “You wish that you could go to the ball; is it not so?”‘ Her being a fairy is presented in an incidental way. She’s her godmother, and she’s a fairy. But then another unexpected layer is added.

Not only is she a godmother and a fairy, but she apparently has a chamber either in the house or on the grounds, ‘Then she took her into her chamber, and said to her, “Run into the garden, and bring me a pumpkin.”‘ Now this need for Cinderella to go into her godmother’s chamber before going into the garden suggests to me that the godmother’s chamber serves as a kind of threshold into Faërie. It is from a garden accessible from her godmother’s chamber that she must go to to get the pumpkin which will become her chariot as well as the lizards who become her footmen.. It is from a mousetrap in her chamber that the mice who become horses are collected as well as the rat who becomes her coachman. Aside from the prohibition necessary to a fairy tale according to Tolkien (the midnight curfew), the only other role she plays in the story is to transform Cinderella’s clothes when the prince finds her showing to her step-family the true beauty she has always had.

Following on Pickstock’s discussion of godparenthood, we do see some fairly standard godparent duties being discharged. Pickstock writes of godparenthood, ‘It represented the creation of a formal ritual friendship, symbolized by gifts and festivals, to which natural kinship could only aspire.’ Cinderella’s godmother is most certainly a gift-giver and the gifts she gives are to allow Cinderella to attend a great festival. Now it is likely this is not the kind of festival Pickstock had in mind, but there is nevertheless an inherent relationship between giving gifts and festivals cementing Cinderella’s relationship to her godmother. Also, there is certainly a compaternitas here, as the godmother is a better kin/parent than those closest to her, her step-mother and step-sisters. And then there is the psuchic, or spiritual/soulish nature of the care that is meant to be provided by a godparent. It is easy to pass over, but when Cinderella tells her godmother that she does wish she could attend the ball, her godmother says, ‘”be but a good girl, and I will contrive that you shall go.”‘ Cinderella has already proved herself a good girl. We are told about Cinderella that she was ‘of unparalleled goodness and sweetness of temper, which she took from her mother, who was the best creature in the world.’ That her stepmother ‘could not bear the good qualities of this pretty girl, and the less because they made her own daughters appear the more odious.’ But what is more, Cinderella herself is more than beautiful, she is truly good and shows it in the way she handles her abuse, ‘The poor girl bore it all patiently, and dared not tell her father, who would have scolded her; for his wife governed him entirely.’ Also, the stepsisters, in their preparations for the ball, which Cinderella will not attend, ‘They also consulted Cinderella in all these matters, for she had excellent ideas, and her advice was always good. Indeed, she even offered her services to fix their hair, which they very willingly accepted.’ Even at the Ball where she might rub her newfound clothing and situation in her step-sisters faces, rather ‘She went and sat down by her sisters, showing them a thousand civilities, giving them part of the oranges and citrons which the prince had presented her with, which very much surprised them, for they did not know her.’ It seems clear that Perrault’s Cinderella is the unification of truth, goodness, and beauty and it is her godmother who helps bring this out and make it evident both to herself and to her step-family. And this leads to the spiritual uplifting of the step-sisters as much as it does to the change in station of Cinderella. Clearly, then we can say that the fairy godmother was not godmother only to Cinderella, but to her whole family, again as Pickstock suggests, ‘Its principle was that of compaternitas, which affirmed that a godparent was kin not only to the child, but to his natural family as well.’

This leads me finally to observe what role Faërie plays in all of this as well. Clearly, if all we see the godmother as doing is providing Cinderella with a ride and beautiful clothes, then a rich aunt or grandmother or human godmother [or a famous Renaissance painter as the demythologised version starring Drew Barrymore had it] might have served just as well. Yet it is a fairy godmother and the riches she provides are not initially lasting. As she returns from the second day of the ball she is dressed in rags having only one glass slipper left from her previous magnificence. So it is more than the finery, the ornamentation that she provides. It is, as I said above, the spiritual or psuchic parenting that she provides and in a way befitting Faërie, which isn’t simply to say the magic. Yes, the fairy godmother uses a wand and performs magic, but it is so much more than this. What she does is what, I have argued, Faërie/Fantasy in general do, she rendered Cinderella strange in order for others––the Prince, her step-family––to see her for who she truly is: beautiful, good, and true. This is why she must be a fairy godmother, for only in this way, in this marriage of the Kingdom of God and the realm of Faërie can we see the coincidence of truth, beauty, and goodness in a world that is often dressed in the rags of familiarity and even fallenness.

Sincerely yours,

David

Why Have a ‘Fairy’ Godparent: Faërie and Godparenthood

David Russell Mosley

Christmastide
30 December 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I’ve been thinking about godparenthood lately. My own boys don’t yet have godparents, the Restoration Movement having no real place for this in its liturgical or ecclesiological practices. Nevertheless, I am drawn to this practice. There is a beauty to it, this notion that your children have other parents, not merely to raise them should something happen to their natural parents, but to help raise them in the faith. Which leads me to the purpose of this letter, to consider, what is the role of the fairy Godmother (it is nearly, so far as I know, always a woman). I will write a series of letters discussing the way fairy godmothers function in their stories. To begin, then, we must try to understand what a godparent is.

Catherine Pickstock in her excellent book After Writing has this to say about Godparenthood:

‘Godparenthood, in the high Middle Ages, was more than a metaphor; it was one of the most immediate forms of kinship. Although the parenting was spiritual, it was no less a real parenting, so real, in fact, that marriage between godparent and godchild was forbidden by the barrier of incest. Its principle was that of compaternitas, which affirmed that a godparent was kin not only to the child, but to his natural family as well. It represented the creation of a formal ritual friendship, symbolized by gifts and festivals, to which natural kinship could only aspire. And such psuchic parenting, or care for the soul, was the very thing which mediated between blood relations and the wider community. The principle of compaternitas, or development of a society structure based upon contractual “bonds”‘⁠1 (143).

A godparent, argues Pickstock, is now in a real relationship with their godchild. There is, through the rites and rituals––and, note well, the gifts––, a bond created, not unlike that of the bond of marriage between the godparent and the godchild’s family. There are many elements both from the passage in Pickstock and in godparenthood’s history that are worth studying. However, there are three key aspects I want to focus on: first is the gift-giving aspect that solidifies the relationship between godparent and child, and this plays out in fairy tales; the second is the kinship that is forged between godparent and child; and the final is the ‘psuchic parenting’ this care for the soul aspect of godparenthood.

I will look at these aspects in a few key stories: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as instances in more ‘traditional’ fairy tales; and The Light Princess and the Curdie stories by George MacDonald. So join me as we examine fairy godparenthood and what role Faërie plays in raising us in the faith.

Sincerely yours,
David

1 Pickstock, After Writing, 140.