"You Must Be The Prince" - Traditional Fairy Tale Motifs in A.S. Byatt's "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye"

Term Paper, 2007

16 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Sleeping Maiden

3. The Fairy Tale Wedding

4. The Three Siblings and the Quest

5. Hunter, Woodcutter & Co.

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The British female author A.S Byatt has always been fascinated by fairy stories, “from years of reading myths and fairytales under the bedclothes, from the delights and freedoms and terrors of worlds and creatures that never existed.”[1]In 1994, she published her own collection of fairy tales, titled “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”.[2]Four of the five tales are quite short and told in a narrative style typical for the genre, whereas the title story, which merges realism and fantasy, is of the length of a novella. The first two stories of the collection, “The Glass Coffin” and “Gode’s Story”, were originally published in Byatt’s successful novel “Possession” and are reprinted verbatim in combination with three new stories in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”.[3]

Byatt’s work is remarkably intertextual, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” seems virtually to be a rich collage of fairy tale motifs. While the title story brims over with references to narratives of Oriental origin, as the Tales from Arabian Nights, the epics of Gilgamesh or the ancient myth of Cybele, and the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer, “The Glass Coffin” and “The Story of the Eldest Princess” are based on many themes and elements alluding to the traditional European fairy tales collected by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Byatt herself mentions that “I read through the whole collection (in German) and made a kind of patchwork or jigsaw Tale out of all the motifs that most moved and excited me […].”[4]This essay wants to examine how Byatt uses and transforms these familiar motifs, plots and characters from the “old stories” in order to give her heroines more power over her own life in her new stories.[5]

2. The Sleeping Maiden

In Byatt’s story “The Glass Coffin”, which is a modern modification of a tale by the Grimms (“Der Gläserne Sarg”), the reader encounters a motif he is familiar with from various traditional fairy tales: A beautiful and usually nubile sleeping maiden in distress, waiting for her male rescuer. “Sleeping Beauty” is supposed to be the best known example, not least because it has been popularised by the Disney movies. On her fifteenth birthday the heroine of “Sleeping Beauty” pricks her finger on a spindle and so a wicked fairy’s curse is fulfilled. The young princess falls asleep for a hundred years and can only be awakened by the kiss of a prince.

Similar to the “Sleeping Beauty” theme, in a manner of speaking a special variation of it, is the motif of the young lady lying in a quasi- sleeping state in a transparent glass or crystal coffin. Nearly every reader has been familiar with the story of “Snow White” from childhood. After being poisened by her wicked stepmother, Snow White falls in a comatose sleep. The Seven Dwarfs, her fellows, do not have the heart to bury her because she still looks so alive and beautiful, and decide to lay her up in a coffin made of glass. A prince, who happens to come by, is enchanted by her beauty and instantly falls in love with her. He beggs the dwarfs to let him take the coffin to his castle, and during the bumpy transport, Snow White coughs out the piece of poison apple and awakens. “The Glass Coffin” is a less common tale by the Brothers Grimm, as well containing a sleeping young woman in a transparent glass chest. The heroine, bewitched by a black magician for rejecting his proposal, lies silenced and imprisoned in a glass coffin, hidden in an underground dungeon. An unimpressive but brave tailor adventures to enter the dungeon and frees the sleeping maiden from her imprisonment and thus wins her as his bride.

Considering the given examples, one might say that the sleeping maiden, imprisoned in a tower or a glass coffin, is a motif which ostentatiously permeates the Grimms’ collection of fairy tales. Feminist fairy tale scholars have brought a special sensivity to gender associations and representations to the traditional fairy tales. In the late 1970s, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar rendered outstanding services in exposing the sexist double-standards and the pervasiveness of patriarchal values in traditional fairy tales.[6]In another influential essay Marcia Lieberman analyses the representation of female characters in traditional fairy tales and concludes that the heroines of the best known tales are portrayed passive and helpless, relying on external liberation, which is usually brought by a male character. As a prototype she mentions Sleeping Beauty, “who lies asleep, in the ultimate state of passivity, waiting for a brave prince to awaken and save her.”[7]

Furthermore, Lieberman argues that fairy tales play an important role in the socialisation of children and adolescents. The plots, and in particular the endings, convey patterns of behaviour and reward, thus the reprensentation of helpless and submissive heroines serves to educate girls and young women to traditional roles: [8]

Millions of women must surely have formed their psycho-sexual self- concepts, and their ideas of what they could or could not accomplish, what sort of behaviour would be rewarded, and of the nature of the reward itself, in part from their favorite fairy tales.[9]

Karen Rowe considers fairy tales to be narration which abstract essential problems of human life, particularly those of adolescents entering society on the threshold from childhood to maturity, and offer a precept for a socially acceptable solution. Thus traditional fairy tales romanticise the submissive character of traditional gender relations:

Yet, such alluring fantasies gloss the heroine’s inability to act self- assertively, total reliance on external rescues, willing bondage to father and prince, and her restriction to hearth and nursery. […] Thus, subconsciously

women may transfer from fairy tales into real life cultural norms which exalt passivity, dependency, and self-sacrifice as a female’s cardinal virtues. In short, fairy tales perpetuate the patriarchal status quo by making female subordination seem a romantically desirable, indeed an inescapable fate.[10]

The sleeping maidens, particularly those imprisoned in the glass coffins, are reduced to aesthetical objects.[11]The prince only adventures to free Sleeping Beauty because he heard people talking about her beauty and Snow White is saved because the prince was enchanted by her outer appearance. So the traditional fairy tale pattern conveys that beauty is a girl’s most valuable attitude. Consequently, fairy stories do not incite their heroines to act self-determined. The only thing they have to do is to look beautiful and act friendly, for an attractive outer appearance regularly is connected to personal qualities as kindness and helpfulness. Lieberman points out the pattern of reward, which supports submissive female behaviour: “She is chosen because she is beautiful”[12], and thus she does not have to be active or clever or brave to be chosen. Just the converse is the case, female characters acting target-oriented and purposeful are punished, as the example of Snow White’ stepmother illustrates.

Byatt’s version of “The Glass Coffin” starts as a story being congruent with the above mentioned observations. The young woman is silenced by an evil black magician and imprisoned in a coffin made of glass because she rejected his proposal. Ruth Bottigheimer points out that Perrault’s collection of fairy tale does not contain any mute woman, whereas “silence in connection with girls and women […] seems to have become […] a narrative necessity […]” in the Grimms’ collection, where being silenced is an exclusively feminine form of punishment.[13]


[1] A.S. Byatt, “Fairy Stories: The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.” A.S. Byatt Homepage 24/03/2007 http://www.asbyatt.com/oh_Fairies.aspx>, see appendix.

[2] A.S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. Five Fairy Stories, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994). In the following abbreviated DNE.

[3] Richard Todd, A.S. Byatt. (Plymouth: North Cote House, 1997) 39-54. Todd points out that the stories bear a meaning relavant to the characters in “Possession” and that they change their form just by being reprinted without the embedding narrative matrix in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”.

[4] A.S. Byatt, Fairy Stories.

[5] The focus is obviously placed on “The Glass Coffin” and “The Story of The Eldest Princess”, for they are full of allusions to the Grimms’ fairy tale collection, whereas “Gode’s Story” and “Dragon’s Breath” do not present such clear references to familiar motifs.

[6] Cf. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth- centuryLiterary Iimagination, (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979) 3-44.

[7] Marcia K. Lieberman, “`Some Day My Prince Will Come´: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale,”Don’t bet on the Prince, ed. Jack Zipes (New York: Methuen, 1986) 191.

[8] Which disagrees with the opinion of Alison Lurie who argued that fairy tales can advance the cause of women’s liberation and considered them to be “one of the sorts of the few sorts of classic children’s literature of which a radical feminist would approve,” qtd. in Donald Haase, ed., Fairy Tales and Feminism: New Approaches (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004) 1.

[9] Lieberman 189.

[10] Karen E. Rowe, “Feminism and Fairy Tales,” Don’t bet on the Prince, ed. Jack Zipes (New York: Methuen, 1986) 209.

[11] Cf. A.S. Byatt, “Ice, Snow, Glass,” Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. Women Writers Explore their favorite Fairy Tale, ed. Kate Bernheimer (New York: Anchor Books, 1998) 72.

[12] Lieberman 188.

[13] Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Grimms’ Bad Girls & Bold Boys. The moral and social Vision of the Tales (New Haven: Yale UP, 1987) 75. Bottigheimer considers that speech is closely connected to the aspect of being “mündig”, being silenced thus means the lack or the loss of personal rights, 74.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


"You Must Be The Prince" - Traditional Fairy Tale Motifs in A.S. Byatt's "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye"
University of Göttingen  (Englisches Seminar)
Gender and Intertextuality in Contemporary Retellings of Fairy Tales
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
958 KB
A.S.Byatt, Fairy Tales, Feminism, Djinn, Retellings, Intertextuality, Gender, Gender Studies, Anglistik, Contemporary Literature
Quote paper
Florian Unzicker (Author), 2007, "You Must Be The Prince" - Traditional Fairy Tale Motifs in A.S. Byatt's "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/122617


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: "You Must Be The Prince" - Traditional Fairy Tale Motifs in A.S. Byatt's "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free