By Elizabeth Hopkinson
Almost everyone knows the familiar fairy tale ending: the prince marries the princess and they live happily ever after. But does this simple conclusion embody all that fairy tales have to tell us about human sexuality? By no means!
“Intentionally or not, (fairy tales) have been used to enforce what has been termed “compulsory heterosexuality”… But…folktales and fairy tales portrayed anything but a monolithic image of sexuality.”[i]
Even when stories end in marriage, the body of the tale can sometimes be found to explore more complex issues of sex and sexuality, and often in a more honest and helpful way than today’s media, with its sensationalism and mis- or non-representation of minorities. One such minority is that of the asexual (someone who does not experience sexual attraction or desire).[ii] This orientation has been largely ignored by today’s society but is, I believe, represented in traditional tales.
In this essay, I would like to look at two similar tales: “The Glass Coffin” from Grimm’s Household Tales and “The Ensorceled Prince” from 1001 Nights. These two stories seem to me to represent the female and male experience of asexuality, so I wish to present an asexual reading of the tales. I will look at the tales both together and separately, considering two different versions of each. I will also look at the relevance of other “asexual icons” to these stories. This, I hope, will put them in context and help create a greater understanding of the issues involved.
Both stories have very similar plotlines. In “The Glass Coffin”, a tailor is sent on a quest to an underground hall, where a young woman lies in a glass coffin, waiting to be disenchanted. She originally lives happily with her brother, until a suitor arrives, who refuses to take no for an answer. He renders her immobile with enchanted music, and when she still resists, puts her in glass coffin, transforming her brother to a goat (or a hound, in another version), her castle to a miniature in a glass case, and her servants to coloured smokes or liquids in glass bottles. Only when the enchantment is destroyed can she be freed. In “The Ensorceled Prince”, the hero is a sultan. His quest takes him to a secret palace in the mountains, where a young prince has been enchanted so that from the waist down he is made of marble. The spell is cast by his wife, who becomes dissatisfied with him and drugs him nightly so she can have an affair with a slave. When the prince confronts them, she enchants him, transforming islands to mountains, the city to a lake, and its people to fish of four different colours. Only when the enchantress and her lover are destroyed can the prince be freed.
There are several points shared by both stories that stand out for me. To begin with, the captor in both cases is overtly sexual, and exercises frightening power over the captive. This could refer to a fear or distaste for sex. In “The Glass Coffin”, this power is really quite terrifying. The enchanter charms the girl with music, which pins her to the bed and removes her powers of speech. He then enters her bedroom and proposes marriage with increasing force, until, “he declared passionately that he would revenge himself, and find some means to punish my haughtiness.”[iii] This almost feels like attempted rape (and perhaps was, in some earlier version?) which is how any advance can feel to those who do not desire it. The ensorceled prince is also rendered helpless, this time by drugged wine, which puts him in a “death-like state”[iv] while his wife indulges her sexual appetites elsewhere. Note that both characters sleep in their beds, rather than using them for other activities, and that the villains exaggerate this sleep, as if ridiculing their lack of interest. Silence also features in both stories. The girl is rendered speechless; the prince cuts the slave’s vocal cords. This could refer to the taboo surrounding asexuality.
Ultimately, both characters are punished for their lack of sexual response by being enchanted. The girl is placed in a glass coffin where she sleeps, “enveloped from head to foot in her own yellow hair!”[v] The prince is made half-man, half-statue, “neither dead nor alive”.[vi] There is an obvious reference to death here: the characters are not sexually “alive” (although neither are they wholly dead, reminding us perhaps that to lack a sex life is not to lack a life). But what stands out for me is the beauty and purity of their enchanted state. Both are physically beautiful in themselves: the girl with her golden hair, the prince with “his forehead… flower-white, his cheek rosy bright, and a mole on his cheek like an ambergris mite”.[vii] In their enchanted state, they become more beautiful. Rather than being degraded, they seem to have been glorified. The underground hall glows “like the glimmering of pearls in the depth of water”[viii] with glass artefacts, coloured smokes and miniature dwellings. The mountain palace has gold-starred hangings, birds in golden nets and lion-shaped fountains, “spouting from their mouths water clear as pearls and diaphanous gems”.[ix] The enchanted ones have almost become works of art in themselves: the girl encased in glass, the prince half-stone or, in one version, crystalline marble. They have become asexual icons: untouchable, intact and unassailably beautiful. Like Pygmalion’s Galatea or Keats’ Grecian Urn[x], their beauty and their unassailability go hand in hand; once they become “touchable” the enchantment is lost.
In traditional versions of the stories, the captives are released to take up marriage partners. (The girl marries the tailor; the prince a daughter of the fisherman who began the quest). We are back to “enforced heterosexuality” and the typical “happy ending”, it could be said. Our characters are not offered the choice of staying unassailable. But it is worth noting the sympathetic and non-threatening nature of their rescuers. Both are a far cry from the over-sexed captors. The humble tailor is a very different man from the cruel enchanter. One imagines he would not force the girl as her first suitor did. “The Ensorceled Prince” takes the matter even further. Here the rescuer is the sultan, who adopts the prince as his heir. It is this father figure (rather than a marriage partner) that seems to be crucial to the prince’s disenchantment: a figure who can maybe offer fatherly advice and support on intimate matters.
Modern versions of the stories, however, offer alternative paths for the ending. It is to these versions that I would now like to turn, along with other “asexual icons”, as I look at the individual stories in turn.
“The Glass Coffin”: The Intact Female
One alternative version of “The Glass Coffin”, complementing that of the Brothers Grimm, is A S Byatt’s re-telling in her novel, Possession. The re-telling is purported to be by one of the novel’s characters, fictitious Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte. Both Christabel and her 20th-century biographer Maud Bailey (motte and bailey together forming parts of a castle) show a strong desire for unassailability as females (Christabel by living reclusively, Maud by keeping her long, golden hair constantly covered). The character Roland, on beginning to read “The Glass Coffin” muses: “He was an intruder into their female fastnesses”.[xi] In this version of the story, the tailor offers the liberated girl the option of not marrying him, and in the end the girl, the tailor and her brother live together without saying for certain whether a marriage has taken place. This could be seen as a validation of an asexual lifestyle. However, both Maud and Christabel do have sexual relationships during the novel, coming out of their fastnesses as the girl comes out of the coffin. (Although Christabel then retreats again). There are two more characters that appear to be asexual — Ellen Ash (who experiences vaginismus[xii]) and her biographer Beatrice Nest. Both these women, however, come across as deeply frustrated characters; their personal castles and glass coffins really do seem like prisons for them. They may in fact desire sex but be unable to engage in it. This is not the same as being asexual.
Possession is a complex novel, and it difficult to know the author’s interpretation of “The Glass Coffin”. What is clear is that she wishes to use it to explore the idea of female intactness. Despite its similarities to “The Ensorceled Prince”, “The Glass Coffin does seem to present a particularly feminine experience.
One unique feature is the girl’s relationship with her brother. In both versions of the story, brother and sister have vowed never to marry, but to live together in a kind of sexless marriage. In Grimm’s version, the brother is transformed to a goat: an animal associated with male sexuality. Perhaps, having experienced the enchanter’s advances, the girl can no longer view any man, even a brother without frightening associations of sex, and this is what she needs to be freed from. The moment when the goat defeats the enchanter could represent a return to an untainted relationship with her brother. In Byatt’s version, however, the brother takes a much more passive role as a hound. It is a piece of the glass coffin itself, in the hands of the tailor, which kills the enchanter. Ultimately, some fragment of the girl’s own unassailability overcomes the intruding male.
This militant virginity harks back to the figure of Artemis/Diana in classical mythology, who punished Actaeon for seeing her bathing by having him turned to a stag. Artemis was the goddess not only of chastity but also of hunting, so it is interesting that the girl and her brother live in the forest, “forever peacefully in the castle, and hunt and play together the livelong day”.[xiii]
In the Christian world, the ultimate virgin icon has long been the Virgin Mary, whose beautiful devotional names include “Tower of Ivory”, an image of inviolate beauty. One analogy for the Virgin Birth is that of light passing through glass without breaking it, reminding us of the glowing light and glass artefacts in “The Glass Coffin”. Mary also became a model for other virgin saints, such as Saint Etheldreda (also mentioned in Possession). Her story has much in common with that of the heroine of “The Glass Coffin”. “Although forced to marry, she felt called to be a “bride of Christ” (and) remained a virgin,”[xiv] (suggesting that she may well have been asexual). She was forced to remarry; her new husband agreeing she could remain a virgin but later changing his mind, forcing her to flee to a convent.
Interestingly, her body was said to have been found incorrupt seventeen years after death. This is a remarkably similar image to that of the virgin girl asleep in the glass coffin, still young and beautiful, suggesting a link between sexual and corporeal incorruptibility.
All this seems very strong and positive as far as the female is concerned. Her unassailability or intactness actually gives her a kind of power against men. She can be incorruptibly female without the need for sex. Of course, that over-simplifies the matter rather — which the fairy tale never does — but it does point to a difference between what asexuality can mean for a woman and what it can mean for a man.
“The Ensorceled Prince”: The Virtual Eunuch
Things are more problematic when we turn to “The Ensorceled Prince” to look at the male experience of asexuality. Even the so-called traditional version of the tale has a complex history. It is believed to originate in either India or Iran and takes place in a Muslim context, but comes to us via the French adaptation of Antoine Gallard (1704-17) and the Victorian English re-telling of Richard Burton, who we are told, “…took pleasure in… stressing, rather than suppressing, any sexual undertones or explicit scenes to be found”.[xv] So it is wise not to expect it to reflect the values of any particular time and culture: even within the story itself we see multiculturalism in the fish of four colours, representing Muslim, Zoroastrian, Jew and Christian. The modern version I wish to compare it with, however, has a definite ideological focus. This is Moyra Caldecott’s re-telling (called by her “The King of the Ebony Isles”) in her book Crystal Legends. Caldecott says in her introduction to the book, “This is a book about the stories, the myths and legends, that use crystals and precious and semi-precious stones as potent and powerful symbols”.[xvi] Therefore, it is worth bearing in mind the symbolism of crystal and jewels when looking at her version of the tale.
One thing that stands out from “The Ensorceled Prince” by contrast with “The Glass Coffin” is the prince’s unhappiness and pain. While the girl in the coffin lies peacefully sleeping, the prince weeps and laments. He also reacts to his potential captor with much greater anger and violence, attempting to kill both the slave and his wife. Whereas, in the Grimm’s version, the girl takes up a pistol only when passive resistance has failed, the prince takes up his sword as a first resort twice (when he finds out about his wife’s lover and when he realises the lover is still alive). This suggests a deep unease with the idea of asexuality in a man, and a sense of shame in having such an orientation publicly revealed. None of this is surprising, given the traditional importance of men’s virility and the association of that virility with masculinity itself. The prince is apparently desperate to prove he is still a man. He will not allow another man to take his wife (whether or not he desires to bed her) and he is active is trying to deal out vengeance. (The ineffectiveness of his attacks with the sword may relate to the idea of impotency in sexual matters and martial matters going hand in hand).
It is extremely relevant that it is the lower half of the prince’s body — that containing his sexual organs — that is turned to marble. The transformation renders him literally asexual. In Caldecott’s version: “from the waist downwards he was pure white crystalline marble,”[xvii] and his palace is made from the same substance. If we look at what Caldecott has to say in her introduction about crystal and jewels, she says: “The real value of the gem… (is) the sense it gives us of wonder that the earth can produce such extraordinary and secret beauty”.[xviii] The prince’s statue body also creates a sense of wonder, and of secret beauty. Whatever it contains is possessed by him alone.
However, the prince suffers continually for keeping his intactness. He says: “every day she (his wife) leaves the side of her lover for a while and comes to my chamber to thrash me with a whip until I bleed”.[xvix] This echoes the violence of the enchanter in “The Glass Coffin,” and could show the wife’s anger in failing to get a sexual response from her husband, or even the cruel attitude of society to a man who prefers to live without sex. It could also show the prince’s own inner torment over his orientation, particularly as a married man, expected to produce an heir. Interestingly, although she claims the story is about female sexual satisfaction, Caldecott leaves the story with an asexual ending. Re-marriage for the prince is never mentioned. In fact, the sultan’s adoption of the prince could even point the way to finding an heir without the need for sex.
The prince’s beauty is particularly interesting because he is described in a way that seems almost androgynous. Burton quotes a poem:
A youth slim-waisted from whose locks and brow
The world in blackness and in light is set.
Throughout Creation’s round no fairer show
No rarer sight thine eye hath ever met.
A nut-brown mole sits enthroned upon a cheek
Of rosiest red beneath an eye of jet.[xx]
This is a man who is definitely pretty rather than handsome. Androgyny — especially male androgyny — is a double-edged sword as far as asexuality is concerned. For some, androgyny suggests asexuality itself, and the androgynous become “asexual icons”. For an asexual woman in particular, the idea of a man without male sexuality can be deeply attractive. For others, androgyny is viewed in quite the opposite way. An online essay on, “What Tolkien Officially Said about Elf Sex” begins, “Ever since the movie of the book Fellowship of the Ring came out, there seem to be two popular ideas about Elves’ sex lives. Either they are radiantly asexual, or they are all screwing each other madly, along with any dwarves, hobbits or men who happen along”.[xxi] This is true for other androgynous figures too. The castrato opera singers, wildly popular in the 1720s and 30s were famously adored by women. “This may seem to anticipate the safe, sexless allure of 1950s teen idols,”[xxii] but they were also reputed to be great lovers (whether or not this was medically possible).
With his upper body only made of flesh and his lower body cold (if beautiful) stone, the ensorceled prince has much in common with the castrati and other eunuchs. It could be said that the wife has carried out some symbolic act of castration on him in her enchantment. Perhaps she is suggesting that he has, “lost his manhood”, as they had. Even the drugged wine she gives him seems to parallel the drugs used in the castration process. Like the castrati of the 18th-century opera, he then becomes a thing of artifice — part living man, part man-made (or in this case, woman-made) creation. The castrati were known for their emotional outbursts; likewise the prince, “wept with sore weeping till his bosom was drenched with tears.”[xxiii] and going back to the symbolism of crystal, we note that the last recorded castrato, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922) had a voice that an Austrian musicologist said, “…can only be compared to the clarity and purity of crystal”.[xxiv] The purity of the prince is surely another meaning of crystal in this story.
It could be said that the ensorceled prince is a virtual eunuch in his asexuality. In fact, a Greek word for eunuch — spadones — can also be translated as “virgin” or “celibate” and was sometimes used to refer to those who had withdrawn from sexual activity. (In antiquity, some of these practised self-castration). This could also help to account for his pain and suffering: the story does not skirt around the fact that a man is perceived to have lost something vital in rejecting sex.[xxv] Its sadness highlights the painful taboo that has existed around the topic of asexuality for many centuries.
Obviously, the reading I have given is not the only way these stories can be read. But in highlighting the asexual themes to be found in “The Glass Coffin” and “The Ensorceled Prince”, I hope I have may have helped to foster a kindlier attitude towards a world-view many people find hard to understand or to believe truly exists. Within these tales passed down by our ancestors lies a safe place — a secret castle or palace — in which those who desire only unassailable beauty may work out questions of identity, while being assured that this under-represented viewpoint has not been forgotten.
[i] The Greenwood Encyclopaedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales ed. Donald Haase (Westport, Connecticut, London: 2008) Vol.2 p.401
[ii] see www.asexuality.org for further information
[iii] “The Glass Coffin”, The Complete Illustrated Works of the Brothers Grimm (London: 1989) p.680
[iv] “The Tale of the Ensorceled Prince”, 1001 Nights trans. Richard Burton (www.sacred-texts.com) p.1
[v] Grimm, p.679
[vi] Burton, “The Tale of the Ensorceled Prince” p.3
[vii] “The Fisherman and the Jinni”, 1001 Nights trans. Richard Burton (www.sacred-texts.com) p.7
[viii] “The Glass Coffin”, Possession: A Romance by A S Byatt (London: 1990) p.62
[ix] Burton, “The Fisherman and the Jinni” p.7
[x] In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion creates his ideal woman, the statue Galatea, with whom he falls in love. In Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” a pair of lovers is fixed forever in the act of being about to kiss, never kissing but never losing love or beauty.
[xi] Possession p.58
[xii] Spasm of the muscles that makes penetration painful or impossible
[xiii] Possession p.64
[xiv] Saints of the Isles: A Year of Feasts by Ray Simpson (Stowmarket, Suffolk: 2003)
[xv] Greenwood Encyclopaedia Vol. 1 p.58
[xvi] Crystal Legends by Moyra Caldecott (Wellingborough: 1990) p.12
[xvii] “The Fisherman and the Genie and The King of the Ebony Isles,” Crystal Legends p.128
[xviii] Ibid p.12
[xix] Ibid p.128
[xx] Burton, “The Fisherman and the Jinni” p.7
[xxii] www.thesmartset.com from Drexel University, “Why Castrati Made Better Lovers”
[xxiii] Burton, “The Fisherman and the Jinni” p.7
[xxiv] “Why Castrati Made Better Lovers”
[xxv] There are, of course, numerous positive male role models for celibacy, including Jesus, St Paul and the “Pure Knight” of the Holy Grail, Sir Galahad (who comes across in Thomas Mallory as having asexual orientation). But they do not appear to have direct relevance to this story.
Elizabeth Hopkinson has had over 30 stories published in magazines, webzines and anthologies, won prizes in 3 competitions, and her first novel Silver Hands is currently being considered by agents.
Illustration by Rosa Rosà (Edith von Haynau) for the 1923 edition of “One Thousand and One Nights” adapted by Ernst Rosenbaum.