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.
She is the one people see. The one they think they know. But it is only the bones of her. Without me, she is incomplete. I am the night to her day, the weakness to her strength. The wax to her bone.
In May 2020, I had a short story published by Reflex Press called “Wax Sister, Bone Sister”. It is based on the Zimbabwean folktale “Sister of Bones” (which I first read in Alexander McCall Smith’s 2004 collection The Girl Who Married a Lion) with motifs from three more Sub-Saharan folktales: “Children of Wax” (Zimbabwe, Ibid.) , “The Wife Who Could Not Work” (Zimbabwe, Ibud.) and “Of the Fat Woman Who Melted Away” (Nigeria, African Myths Ed. Jake Jackson, 2019).
“Sister of Bones” tells of a weak sister and a strong sister. When the strong sister dies, the weak sister must take on the departed sister’s chores. The work becomes too much for her. She sings to the river in which her sister drowned, and the crocodiles take pity and put the dead sister’s bones back together. This Bone Sister helps the weak sister carry water, but must remain by the river. So, there are two sisters at the end of the tale: the strong one at the river and the weak one in the village.
I developed fibromyalgia in 2016, following a chest infection. At first, when it was undiagnosed, the pain was so bad and the drugs so strong that I was bed-bound. Later, I became able to resume a more “normal” life. But as anyone with the same or a similar condition will know, levels of pain and fatigue can fluctuate wildly from day to day. Sometimes I can go for a five-mile walk or redecorate my hall. Sometimes I can’t even get a bra on.
Hence, the motif of the weak and the strong sister. Usually when people look at someone with fibromyalgia or similar conditions, they see only one version of us. We either get overpowering pity that we don’t need, or the cringe-inducing comments, “You don’t look ill,” “You’re looking well” (usually when you haven’t slept properly for three nights), or “Yes, I’ve been quite tired, too.” Most of our friends only see us on our good days, because that’s when we’re able to get out. They don’t see us on those mornings when we’re silently willing the cat to walk over us, just to stimulate any kind of movement in our muscles. They don’t see how, in order to be productive, we must be efficient in the short space of time we have before we collapse on the bed again.
What I like about “Sister of Bones” (and its cousin stories listed above) is that it does see us. Both the weak sister and the strong.
I come from a line of strong women. I was never one of them, even before I developed fibromyalgia. “The Wife Who Could Not Work” and “Of the Fat Woman Who Melted Away” both depict a woman who is ostracised by the other women in her community because she must sit in the shade all day and not work. They call her lazy. They shame her into working, with disastrous results.
I’m not saying my family treats me like that. (Far from it). But those of us with chronic illness or disability can feel that kind of pressure, either from society or from our own thoughts. We can feel guilty about the little we are able to do on our “bad days”. Perhaps we had to give up a job and we now feel guilty about not contributing to the household budget. Perhaps we encounter shaming from others for being on benefits, especially when our disability is not visible to the general public. These two stories recognise that there are perfectly legitimate reasons why some people cannot work. The village learns a lesson. It’s a lesson we all need to learn.
The Fat Woman Who Melted is made of oil. The Children of Wax similarly melt if they go into the sun, and must hide away. I find this wax motif very powerful, especially where my fibromyalgia intersects with my depression/anxiety and my asexuality. (I retold “Children of Wax” in my 2020 collection Asexual Myths & Tales). It helps me articulate something about “invisible” disabilities and an “invisible” orientation. That’s why I made it part of “Wax Sister, Bone Sister”.
I am the sister no one sees. The silent sister, the indoor sister, who oozes down the stairwell, who quivers in pools on the kitchen floor. The one who – come morning – must be scraped from the slats of the bed. Flaking. Falling.
It is inevitable in all these stories that the sisters, wives and children must come out of the shadow and into the sunlight. People must see them melt.
It is the same with us. People need to see our “invisible” health conditions, with all their contradictions.
The Wax Sister and the Bone Sister.
Read "Wax Sister, Bone Sister" by Elizabeth Hopkinson.
About the author:
Elizabeth Hopkinson is the author of the Asexual Fairy Tales series. She was featured in the BBC’s We Are Bradford project, and was on Stonewall's first ace/aro panel.
Her short stories have appeared in The Forgotten & the Fantastical and Dancing with Mr Darcy, along with many other anthologies and magazines. Her story “A Short History of the Dream Library” won the James White Award.
Elizabeth has appeared at Leeds LGBT+ Literature Festival, Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe and Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. She lives in Bradford with her husband, daughter and cat.
Elizabeth is a romantic asexual and is committed to asexual representation in fiction. She is currently crowdfunding More Asexual Fairy Tales.
Discussing disabled characters in fairy tales and folklore!