The astonishing Erzebet YellowBoy Carr just told me that the very first print issue of the new print version of Scheherezade’s Bequest (which I had to type several times before I spelled it right) is now available. It’s topic is the Loathly Lady, and if you love fairy tale retellings and fantasy, then you’ll live this project. It’s a great inaugural issue, and I’m happy to say I have an essay in, called ‘The Loathly Lady as Mystagogue’. Here’s a picture of the cover and my introduction to my article, for your enjoyment:
The story begins, the way many do, with a mother. The mother is arguing with her teenage daughter for not doing her share of the housework. It’s when a queen pulls up in a coach and asks what all the shouting is about that things start getting rather odd.
This story from the Brothers Grimm, ‘The Three Spinners’ (KHM 14), may not be the most obvious place to begin a discussion of the Loathly Lady motif (Thompson D732). The story seems to fall outside the pale of the usual classification; Thompson details D732 as ‘[m]an disenchants loathsome woman by embracing her’. The most immediately recognisable appearance of the Loathly Lady is of course in Chaucer, when the Wife of Bath tells her own idiosyncratic version of the tale. And it is easy enough to see what that version of the story has to say about sex and sexual attraction, and how it influences interaction between the genders. But the Loathly Lady, as a figure in folklore and fairy tale, should not be reduced simply to a metonym for gender relations. And there is, I think, an overlapping narrative function of the Loathly Ladies in both KHM 14 and D732; the question is less the disenchantment of the ‘loathsome woman’, and more the role she plays in the initiatory passage of the protagonist into maturity.
Aging, after all, and the fear of aging, is not simply a matter of changing sexual drive, no matter what Hollywood tells us. Aging turns one’s self into the other—first by the growing disparity between the image of one’s self held in the mind, and that seen in the mirror. But, secondly and more insidiously, by distancing the aged self of the present from the youthful self of the past. We forget too easily what we were like when we were young, or what it’s like to be a child. The challenge is, then, not to project our own misbegotten nostalgia on other children and young people, but to reconcile with, and understand, the other that is our self.
The Loathly Lady, then, stands in folk literature as a question and a warning. She represents the person we will all become eventually, the person we’ve seen our parents become, the person always present in every society, sometimes revered and sometimes despised. And she asks us not only how society treats the outcast and the aged, but how we treat ourselves.