Note: I’m working on a research paper for one of my classes, an English class titled Myth and Archetype: Feminist Fairy Tales. My paper is about animals in fairy tales, their significance and how they reflect how people of the time perceived certain elements of human nature, as well as the gender roles many of them are placed in, depending on their sex. I just wanted to type out some blurb that I could reference back to when I start typing the paper up. Take a look if you want, but otherwise, don’t mind me!
An animal isn’t just a…well, an animal. If we are to believe that fairy tales are full of allegorical themes, then these animals are more like allegories than creatures. Many of these animals also seem to retain a role that is somewhat gendered.
For example, when it comes to a wolf or a fox (in some cases, a bear), when the animal is male, the animal represents male sexuality and aggression–such as in the Little Red Riding Hood story. These male animals are often predatory, usually carrying on an undertone of the sexual kind, usually when it comes to interacting with children (mostly little girls). In one version of Bluebeard, the Bluebeard figure is played by a Hare; though the Hare doesn’t make any sexual advances toward the little girl that he kidnaps, he still intends to marry her against her will. Take from that what you will.
When it comes to the female versions of these animals, there is a different tone; they all have a different role. They aren’t representatives of sexuality (at least, not all of them). As a matter of fact, many of them are more like mother figures. The dove present in Cinderella (or at least in one of the main Cinderella variants) helps Cinderella to achieve her goals; the dove even pecks out the eyes of the evil step-sisters at the end of the story. Though it isn’t stated explicitly, it’s heavily implied that the dove is supposed to be the spirit of Cinderella’s mother, especially considering that it is first seen near the mother’s grave.
In a variant of Donkey-skin, titled “The She-Bear”, the Donkey-skin figure in the tale bites a piece of enchanted wood and transforms into a female bear in order to escape from her incestuous father. As a female bear, Donkey-skin aggressively protects herself from other people, in a way a mother would. Since Donkey-skin’s mother is dead at this point and is unable to protect her from her abusive father, it’s up to Donkey-skin to be her own mother, to protect herself. It can also be argued that this is a reflection of how childhood abuse can impact a person and how they act around other people, especially when they didn’t have anyone else to protect them from their abuser. Motherhood doesn’t have to be represented through another person, another mother figure; sometimes, we have to be our own mothers (or parents) and learn how to survive on our own.
Probably one of the most infamous displays of female animals displaying motherhood is the story of Remus and Romulus, and the She-wolf who suckled them and helped to keep them alive. The She-wolf was apparently a prominent figure in Ancient Rome, as well as other cultures. The She-wolf can either represent motherhood, or promiscuity, usually pertaining to a prostitute. However, one of the most popular portrayals of a she-wolf is that of a mother; this portrayal is also present in other stories (not just folklore), such as The Jungle Book. In Angela Carter’s short story, “Wolf Alice”, the character Alice is taken care of by a she-wolf, who she views as a mother figure; everything that she’d learned about being a mother are lessons she had learned from the she-wolf who raised her.