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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Deconstructing The Goosegirl

Illustration by Walter Crane

This post contains thoughts I had while planning a lesson for a residency that is exploring the idea of “alter egos.” It’s not a formal post and I hope it will begin a conversation, through comments by readers and posts by other SAI tellers about the stories we are learning, telling, and teaching. I have been telling Goosegirl for many years and, although, with the exception of the notes on symbolism and the description of a knacker’s duties, these thoughts came spontaneously as I reread and wrote, I do not claim that they are original. I’m sure that some have been gleaned from other sources I've read over the years, and that many readers, tellers, and interpreters of folktales have arrived at similar conclusions. I’m also certain that many people smarter than I could set me straight on some of the things I’ve gotten wrong and I welcome such correction.

Characters (in order of appearance)
Old Queen
Handkerchief & Blood
Young King
Old King
the Knacker

Character Connections

The Old Queen is the princess’s mother. She arranges her betrothal to the young king. Not only does the mother shower her daughter with extravagant material goods, she also sheds blood for her. She gives her a charm, a blessing in the form of three drops of her own blood on a white rag. Neither the goods nor the blood can help the princess in her time of need.

The old queen is the maid’s mistress and her sovereign. She puts her only child in the keeping of the maid. Does she have some reason to trust her? The old queen is also Falada’s mistress, in the sense that she rules or owns every sentient being in her realm. Was it her decision that he should be the princess’s mount for the journey? Falada repeats the words spoken by the blood.

The old queen uses the handkerchief to hold the blood she gives her daughter. The rag falls into the river (water is feminine, symbolizes mother -- source of all life), presumably the blood becomes one with the water.

The old queen bestows her daughter on the young king and she sends her daughter to the realm of the old king. She knows nothing of Conrad. Is the river where Conrad takes the geese to graze the same one that carried away the rag and blood?

The old queen and the geese – geese are symbols of mother earth, female sexuality and fertility.

The old queen and the knacker – the queen approaches death; the knacker renders the body, finds uses for the body once the soul has fled.

The Princess / Goosegirl embarks on a journey with the maid. (It’s strange that these two women, the princess and the maid, travel alone. Perhaps one is always alone on the journey.) Like her mother, she is the maid’s mistress and sovereign. She gives orders to the maid. She ends up giving her clothes, her horse, and her voice (her promise) to the maid. The maid takes the princess’s betrothed and her rightful place in the house of the two kings.

The princess rides Falada as she embarks on her journey. She bargains for his head when she hears he is going to die. She speaks to Falada’s head. He is the only one to whom she can speak openly because he saw what happened by the river bank. There is no need to reveal her secret to him; he knows it and is clearly sympathetic.

The princess is betrothed to the young king, yet he doesn’t recognize her when they meet. He doesn’t even seem to see her.

The princess is seen by the old king. He does recognize her, but he doesn’t know who she is. He begins to put things into balance. He is the first man who acts on her behalf. She begins to gain power once he enters the story.

The princess is plagued by Conrad but his antics seem to help her understand her power. She calls the wind to rescue her from his advances.

The princess and the geese – does she also derive power from their influence?

The princess and the knacker – Falada seems to become useful to the princess only after his death. She gives the knacker gold for the head. (gold in the story – golden cup, golden coin, golden hair.)

When The Maid switches places with the princess, she is taking the only chance she will ever have to escape her caste. She also, inadvertently, gives the princess her only chance to discover her own strengths. In a conglomerate character, she may be the princess’s id.

The maid takes Falada from the Princess. She fears him, his power of speech, and is responsible for his death. The maid fools the young king. She tricks him into ordering Falada’s death, then into marriage. The maid doesn’t fool the old king. He watches her and bides his time. I don’t think he knows what he knows, but he paves the way for the princess’s return to power. The king sets up the maid’s self-destruction.

The maid might be Conrad’s feminine counterpart. She is wily where he seems simple, but that fits the pattern. The maid is separate from the geese. She has closed herself in a castle, away from natural forces. The maid brings the knacker into the story when she calls for Falada’s death.

Falada can speak with a human voice, but we hear this voice only after he is dead. Falada bears the princess away from her mother, the old queen. When he speaks, he reminds her of her mother’s love? fate? wisdom?

Falada carries the maid to the castle of the two kings. He dies at the order of the young king.
His head speaks and is heard by the old king. Falada’s head hangs over Conrad as he drives the geese through the gate to the river bank. Falada’s head hangs over the geese as they pass through the gate. Falada and the geese are animal characters, but not the kind we expect to find in folktales. The don’t advise or help the protagonist in any simple way. Falada’s life is taken by the knacker.

Rag and Blood - This talisman contains part of the old queen. The blood speaks to the princess like a conscience, reminding her that things aren’t what they should be. I imagine that it speaks in her mother’s voice. The blood protects the princess from the evil designs of the maid. The maid can’t hurt her until she loses it. Then the princess becomes the maid. With no ego (she can’t take a stand against the maid at the stream) and no super-ego to remind her of how things should be, she becomes all id.

The old king notices the ‘other girl’ and it bothers him. He has picked up the thread that was dropped at the river.

Conrad doesn’t know about the blood, but he feels its long-suppressed effects on the princess as she comes into her own by the river bank.

Do the geese drink from the same river into which the rag feel and the queen’s blood was dispersed?

When the knacker spills Falada’s blood, the horse’s head begins to speak in the voice of the old queen.

The Young King is the princess’s male other. He is also too inexperienced to recognize the maid’s ruse, although he seems disturbed to be aligned with the woman who spitefully demands the death of a horse. He takes no part in the life of the ‘true bride’ when she enters his realm. His father arranges everything. However, when he finally meets the real princess, he recognizes her immediately.

The Old King begins to put the male/female power into balance. He is the old queen’s male other, the princess/young king’s male superego. He has the power to control the impulses of Conrad and the maid. The old king hears Falada’s voice; he sees the princess wrapped in her golden hair among the geese at the river bank. He watches her put Conrad in his place. Finally, through the medium of the stove, he restores her voice.

Conrad is the male other of the maid. He is all id, all desire. He becomes so obsessed with the princess’s gold(en hair -- gold represents virtue, intelligence, superiority, revealed truth, marriage, and fruitfulness (Olderr)) that he tries to take it for himself. He spends his days among the geese beside the river and seems influenced by their feminine power. However, the old king, the male superego can control him and, in the old king’s realm, the princess also learns to control him.

The Geese symbolize feminine traits, both wise and stupid (earth, fertility, motherhood, love, constancy, female sexuality, silliness, innocence). They move between the castle and the river. Until the day the princess arrives at the castle, they have been under the hand of Conrad who drove them back and forth. Do their lives change when goosegirl enters their world?

The Knacker is responsible for doing away with the animals who are no longer useful. Unlike a butcher, he doesn’t kill the beast to turn it into food. He renders the body for other uses – the hooves for glue, the bones for soap, the hide for leather, etc. The butcher, because he kills for the nourishment of life could be said to extend the life of the beast. How does the knacker’s job affect his victim’s afterlife?

Illustration by Arthur Rackham
Summary – putting them all together
The Goosegirl begins in an exclusively feminine environment. The old queen’s husband is “long since dead,” but she has a daughter and a serving maid who become the protagonist and antagonist of the tale. So, in the beginning, we have the complete female: youth and age; superego, id. However, these characters constitute a trinity so the princess, herself, must fit in somewhere. I think she is the kore/maiden in the age/youth cycle. The maid is older, or at least, more worldly. Because she is the central character of the tale, the princess is also what will become the ego, the place where everything converges to balance the character. (I am using Freudian terminology for the convenience of brevity. I don’t have a sophisticated understanding of his work.)
So in the beginning of the tale, the kore/ego kernel leaves the mother/crone to seek her (the princess’s) male counterpart and unite in marriage. She is accompanied by the maid and by the horse, Falada. (Falada is a talking horse who never uses his voice to advise or speak in defense of the princess. I think this is unusual for talking animals in folktales. Falada is male.) When she leaves home, she also takes a part of her mother – the blood on the rag. This she is advised to “keep with her always (so that she) will always be protected by (the mother’s) blessing.” The blood, as it turns out, can also speak. The queen’s advisement is tantamount to telling the reader/listener that the talisman will be lost.
Shortly after the princess passes the threshold of her home, the id/maid begins to assert herself and the princess seems to have no power to stand up to her on her own. She doesn't even know how to use her own golden cup. Only the blood, the mother’s charm, the reminder that “if this your mother knew, her heart would break in two” keeps her from falling completely under the power of the maid. When the blood stained rag falls into the river, the maid’s power becomes complete. She becomes the princess (takes away her clothes, horse, and voice) and the little shell of the maiden ego becomes silent and almost invisible. When the two women arrive at their destination, the realm of two kings, the young king, her betrothed, does not seem to see her at all, and takes the maid to wife.
However, it is here that the masculine influence comes into play and begins to put things back in balance. Although the young king doesn’t notice the true bride, his father, the old king, does. He doesn’t see through the maid’s ruse, but on some level, he recognizes the princess and asks what is to be done with her. The maid, who seems to have forgotten the girl’s existence tells him to “find something for her to do so her hands won’t be idle.” This instruction puts the princess in a position to begin to integrate her soul. The father, so conspicuously missing in the beginning of the story, is replaced in the person of the old king. The male ego counterpart has been introduced, and the little kore is put to doing women’s work, driving and grazing the geese and dealing with the maid’s male counterpart, Conrad the goose boy.
At this point in the story, Falada, who has thus far remained mute, is killed by the knacker. The young king orders the horse’s death at the insistence of the false bride/maid. This is an unnatural act in every sense. For one thing, Falada is by no means a useless beast. He is a mount fit for a princess and, presumably, has many useful years left before he should become fodder for the knacker’s blade. However, because she knows he is capable of speech, and because he witnessed the transformation of the maid into princess, the maid fears he will speak on the princess’s behalf. So it is Falada’s supernatural power that seals his fate.
The princess, we now learn, isn’t completely powerless and is already coming into herself, for she produces a golden (royalty, virtue, intelligence, power) coin which she uses to buy the head of Falada from the knacker. She has this head placed over the gate through which she passes every morning and evening as she drives the geese back and forth to the river. Once the head is in place, the mother’s voice returns. Now it not only reminds the princess that things are out of order, it also mentions her proper role in her present life – “alas, dear queen, how much you bear.”
The picture of the princess tending the geese by the river bank teems with symbols of feminine power: the flowing water, the grazing, gabbling geese, the cloud of golden hair. The mother/crone is present, symbolically in the earth, water, and geese; and actually, in the homeopathic trace of blood that washed from the rag into the flowing river. The maid is also present in the male form of Conrad. Here by the river, the prime-mover power of the wild, animal part of the soul becomes apparent. Without the actions of the maid, our princess would have remained the meek, voiceless girl who couldn’t properly get herself a drink of water, but in her present position, she finds the power to reintegrate with the mother and to protect herself from the desires of the beastly boy. She commands the wind (which must be a masculine force, since we know it inseminated mares in ancient Greece!) and it does her bidding. Her actions force Conrad to interact with the old king who, consequently acts to close the circle, to bring the princess back to her rightful place – giving her back her voice, her clothing, and uniting her with her male counterpart (who, presumably has gained some wisdom from his own interactions with the female id persona).
When the maid is finally rendered passive enough to be reintegrated, it is through her own voice. The old king sets the stage, but she doesn’t recognize (willfully refuses to acknowledge? acquiesces to?) the trap and designs the punishment that results in her painful demise. By the end of the tale, the princess has found both a father and a husband, has synthesized the wisdom and knowledge of her mother, and has gained control of the wilder parts of her soul. 


  1. Thorough job! Can't think of anything to add. The story is a perfect illustration of the hero's journey. My favorite image is her sitting and combing her golden hair growing hea
    Thy, straightening out her power and wisdom. Julie DT

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  3. Paula, I really enjoyed following your character connections and thinking about this story again. I was struck in re-reading the tale with the relationship between the mother and daughter, and how the queen's gifts of the rag and blood and Falada are guides to help her daughter find her way in the world that she must internalize to realize her full power.

    This sent me back to a book by Jane Yolen and her daughter, Heidi Stemple, Mirror, Mirror: Forty Folktales for Mothers and Daughters to Share, and a story I started – and now hope to continue -- to learn, a Japanese tale, The Mirror of Matsuyama, in which the mother leaves her daughter the mirror of the title.


    1. Thanks, Maria. I don't know that book. I'll definitely check it out.