Lately, I’ve been poring over Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books and just relishing the diversity of stories in this collection. Lang (1844-1912) was a Scottish scholar who was interested in mythology, history, and anthropology. He also served as President of the Society for Psychical Research, and was interested in the spiritual ideas contained in so-called “primitive” mythology. Interestingly enough, he credits his wife for transcribing and translating most of the stories in the twelve-book collection.
While perusing The Grey Fairy Book, I came upon a charming Italian story called “The Goat-Faced Girl.” It’s a poetic tale about a peasant’s daughter who is taken into the custody of a Lizard who isn’t nearly as horrifying as she appears. In fact, she is a Fairy who bestows fortune on the girl’s family in return for raising her. She takes her to her cave, which isn’t really a cave but a palace, and the girl is brought up in a very privileged atmosphere. She gets absolutely everything her little heart desires—I’m thinking birthday parties with trendy presents, bouncy castles, and hired clowns.
One day, a king comes by and he falls in love with the beautiful girl. With the Fairy’s blessing, he marries her on the spot in the cave-palace. It doesn’t even occur to the girl to thank the Fairy as she turns to leave with the King. The Fairy is miffed, and, in her offense, she changes the girl’s head into a goat’s head. Her pretty mouth stretches into a snout, she grows a beard, and her shining plaits of hair turn into two sharp horns. The girl doesn’t realize what has happened, but the king is horrified. He’s thinking, How the hell do I get rid of this goat that is now tied to me for the rest of my life?
When the couple gets to the king’s castle, he installs his new wife in a little turret room and gives her a maid. They are ordered to spin a heap of flax, and to raise the king’s dog. The girl is outraged by her treatment. How dare the king give her this peasant work! She gathers up the flax and marches back to the Fairy, who gets the spinning done. Once again, the girl leaves without so much as a fare-thee-well. From the girl’s point of view, it’s the least the Fairy can do, given that she’s been put in a house of lunatics who have forgotten who she is! Soon after, in a fit of temper, the girl throws the dog out the tower window and he falls to his death.
When the King wants to see the dog, the girl has a problem. So back to the Fairy she goes. Only this time, the door is barred and there’s an old, white-bearded man standing there. He doesn’t recognize her at all. “Who are you and what do you want?” he asks.
“What do you mean, who am I?” the girl cries. “And how dare you address me that way, you old goat beard!”
“I would say that’s the pot calling the kettle black,” says the old man. He goes inside, gets a mirror, and holds it up to the girl’s face. When she sees what she’s become, she bursts out sobbing, and, after seeking the Fairy’s forgiveness, she gets her head back.
I’m impressed by the Fairy’s compassion in this story. She keeps helping the girl, even though she doesn’t show one ounce of appreciation. If the Fairy were to speak right now, I think she would say that she feels for the goat-faced girl. Raised in privilege, one suffers a peculiar kind of starvation. You cultivate a fine palate, but you lose your taste for life. You go to exotic places, but ordinary occasions lose their savor. Something very important is won back in this fairy tale, as the goat-faced girl comes to terms with her sense of entitlement. In the end, she expresses deep gratitude for the mirror of the old man. Why, I wonder? What is she now able to do? Or perhaps the question is, what is she now able to feel?
illustrations by H.J. Ford