Disability is common within European folktale canon. Charles Perrault’s literary tale, “Ricky the Tuft,” features a deformed protagonist (Betts, 2009). Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” becomes mute and suffers chronic pain (Hersholt, 1949). The Brothers Grimm added disability to stories in which none were present (Schmiesing, 2014). Disability is also a component of lesser-known tales. Consider “Conall Cra Bhuidhe” (Campbell, 1890). The story is Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 953, “The Robber and His Sons” (Uther, 2004) and recounts a man’s efforts to save his sons from execution, initially by stealing a foreign king’s horse, then by telling the monarch thrilling anecdotes. The text notably avoids common and problematic tropes regarding disability.
Three stereotypes are specifically absent. Firstly, the sexless and unpartnered disabled person (Kingsbury, 2022). Not only does Conall have four biological children and a wife, the latter admits she would rather lose their sons than lose him. Secondly, the disabled character being a villain (Leduc, 2020). While the story does feature a blind, cannibalistic giant as an antagonist, any association between disability and evil is negated by the fact that Conall is missing a finger, making him disabled too. Thirdly, disabilities are cured as part of happy endings (Maaren, 2019). Conall lost a digit at some point during early adulthood and remains disabled by the narrative’s end. It’s even implied that he doesn’t wear a prosthetic or do anything to hide his condition.
Despite these positives, the narrative contains problematic tropes. It uses disability as a form of punishment (Kingsbury, 2022). This applies to Conall and the giant. The former is forced to sever his finger because he boasted to his enemy, then wore a magic ring his enemy gave him. The latter is blinded for trying to kill and eat the protagonist. At least the context provides justification; people are likelier to suffer permanent injury during battle than when attending their abused stepsister’s wedding, as occurs in the Grimm’s tale “Ashputtle” (Manheim, 1983). Additionally, disability is treated as superficial (Kingsbury, 2022). This is most evident with Conall, both in the main narrative and the third embedded one. Despite his missing finger, he’s never shown to struggle with fine motor activities like climbing or tying knots.
This unusually nuanced quality may relate to the informant. According to Campbell’s notes, the tale was recited by James Wilson, a blind fiddler from Islay, whose blindness influenced his telling. Assuming this information is accurate, “Conall Cra Bhuidhe” is a milestone in the history of disability representation because it’s the story of a disabled protagonist by a disabled narrator.
“Conall Cra Bhuidhe” has a lot to offer in terms of disability studies and general entertainment. People concerned with the former receive a glimpse into the treatment of disabled people in nineteenth-century Scotland and get to experience a disabled character as the protagonist. As for the latter, people will find a story that appeals to our desire to protect the ones we love. Few other narratives are so multifaceted.
Betts, Christopher. (2009). The complete fairy tales. Oxford University Press.
Kingsbury, Margaret. (2022, Feb 21). 9 ableist tropes in fiction I could do without. Book Riot. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20220221122918/https://bookriot.com/ableist-tropes-in-fiction/
Campbell, John. F. (1890). Popular tales of the west highlands. Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas.
Hersholt, Jean. (1949). The complete andersen. New York: The Limited Editions Club. Retrieved from https://andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheLittleMermaid_e.html
Leduc, Amanda. (2020). Disfigured: On fairy tales, disability, and making space. Toronto: Coach House Books.
Maaren, Kari. (2019). The blind prince reimagined: Disability in fairy tales. Uncanny Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.uncannymagazine.com/article/the-blind-prince-reimagined-disability-in-fairy-tales/
Manheim, Ralph. (1983). Grimms’ tales for young and old: The complete stories. Anchor Books.
Schmiesing, Ann. (2014). Disability, deformity, disease in the grimms’ fairy tales. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Uther, Hans-Jorg. (2004). The types of international folktales. A classification and bibliography. Based on the system of antti aarne and stith thompson. Part I. Animal tales, tales of magic, religious tales, and realistic tales, with an introduction. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.
About the author:
You can follow Diego Morales on twitter: @DiegoLMoralesR1.
‘In his despair the prince threw himself from the tower. He escaped with his life, but lost both eyes.’
The above quote comes from The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (translated by Jack Zipes). In the first version of this tale recorded by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (published in 1812), Rapunzel conceives a child with her prince. It is only when Rapunzel asks why her clothes are becoming too tight that Mother Gothel learns of her relationship with the prince. This betrayal causes her to banish Rapunzel to a ‘desolate land’. When Mother Gothel tells the prince that Rapunzel is gone forever, he jumps from the tower as described above.
This holds several points of interest. Firstly, we have a very clear example of disability being used as a symbol for sadness and suffering. The prince is heart broken and grieving. But he could have roamed the desolate lands looking for Rapunzel ‘eating nothing but grass and roots, and [doing] nothing but weep’ whether or not he was blinded by thorns.
The prince’s blinding is included to emphasise his misery based on the ableist assumption that to be blind is to be unhappy.
The symbolic nature of the prince’s disability is further implied because the chances of falling from a tower and landing precisely on one’s eyeballs has to be very small. Arguably, it would have been more realistic if he had jumped from the tower and broken a leg, maybe even his back. The fact that the prince is described as having ‘escaped’ with his life demonstrates how deadly that fall might have been. But no— he goes blind at the very moment he is separated from Rapunzel.
What’s more, his blindness is miraculously cured when he is reunited with Rapunzel. Once again, this hammers home the association of blindness with despair, and sightedness with joy. The prince recognises Rapunzel’s voice and she recognises him in return. But it is only when two of Rapunzel’s tears land on the prince’s eyes— in keeping with the theme of unlikely aim!— that the prince’s vision is cured. Are they happy tears? Pity tears? Who knows. But Disney’s Tangled replaces this prince’s blindness with a stab wound to the heart: I.e death. But luckily, again, Rapunzel’s tears have unexplained healing powers here too! On a serious note, that blindness and death are used interchangeably speaks volumes for the ongoing representation of blindness as a tragic state.
The problem with this is the single emotion (sadness) attached to being blind. It takes a complex lived experience and reduces it to an assumption made by sighted people. As a child growing up, this was one of the few representations of visual impairment I had and I didn’t want to be a miserable prince crying my way through a boggy landscape. Representation is important. It’s not about removing disabled characters from fairy tales, it’s about having them there as rounded people. It’s about separating the assumption that happiness is only achievable after a cure.
Let me know what you think about this? Maybe your go-to version of Rapunzel is different to mine? Is Mother Gothel a fairy, a witch, or ogress? Does she curse the prince, or is he blinded by thorns? Is he cured at the end?
About the author:
Beth O'Brien is a writer and PhD student, researching the (mis)representation of disability in contemporary fairy tales. You can follow her on twitter: @bethobwriter
Discussing disabled characters in fairy tales and folklore!