The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Facets of “The Glass Coffin”

Posted on: June 27, 2007

All old stories, my cousin, will bear telling and telling again in different ways. What is required is to keep alive, to polish, the simple clean forms of the tale which must be there — in this case the angry Ocean, the terrible leap of the horse, the fall of Dahud from the crupper, the engulfment etc etc. And yet to add something of yours, of the writer, which makes all these things seem new and first seen, without having been appropriated for private or personal ends. This you have done.

– from Possession by A.S. Byatt

All through my reading of “The Glass Coffin”, the first of five “fairy stories” in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, I knew that I had read it somewhere before but could not recall where. Thanks to Google I discovered it was a Brothers Grimm story but I was as sure that their version was not the one I had read. I remained in the dark until I read Byatt’s essay, Fairy Stories, in which she revealed that it first appeared in Possession. After going through everything I was presented with something of a quandary. One’s understanding of “The Glass Coffin” shifts when read as the work of one of Byatt’s characters rather than a stand-a-lone entry by the author herself.

Byatt changed some plot details. The older version does have a simpler and cleaner form. For those not familiar with it the basic story is that a tailor’s apprentice, lost in the forest, sights a house at night from his temporary resting place up in a tree top. He persuades the owner to let him stay for the night. The next day he witnesses a fight between a stag and a bull, which the stag wins. The animal takes him to a cave, from which a disembodied voice instructs him to enter and, descending to a lower level of the cave on a stone, he discovers some colourful jars, a miniature castle in a glass case, and a sleeping maiden in a glass coffin. He awakens the maiden, she tells him her bad encounter with an evil magician, they restore her castle, her servants (from the jars), and her brother. The magician was the defeated bull, so that’s that. Of course she marries him. A quick read.

In Byatt’s tale the hero is a full-fledged tailor, not an apprentice, and was in the forest looking for work (heh) not lost. The owner of the house lets him in only after one of his animals, a mopey greyhound, gives his approval, and the tailor still has to earn his keep by cooking and helping with chores and such. His actions spur the owner to offer him three gifts of which he can choose only one. It’s the West Wind that takes him to the cave, and the interior of that is different. And so on. Her approach is somewhat similar to Milton’s in Paradise Lost in that she takes a fairly straight forward story and fleshes it out, adding more details and different sorts of complications. Perhaps intentionally her retelling has echoes of other fairy tales. The least likely connection for me was The Bremen Town-Musicians because, you know, house full of animals. More probable is the familiar tropes of the “three gifts offer”, always three, and the winds as a mode of travel.

The most compelling characteristic that justified the retelling for me was her descriptive, colour saturated style. It works like a Christopher Doyle film for me. And Byatt creates some of the most delicate, artfully conceived images in contemporary Western lit. Here she describes the moment the tailor comes upon the sleeping princess.

Have you remarked, where a fast-flowing stream comes to a little fall, how the racing water becomes glassy smooth and under it the long fine threads of the water-weed are drawn along its still-seeming race, trembling a little, but stretched out in the flow? So under the surface of the thick glass lay a mass of long gold threads, filling in the whole cavity of the box with their turns and tumbles, so that at first the little tailor thought he had come upon a box full of spun gold, to make cloth of gold. But then between the fronds he saw a face, the most beautiful face he could have dreamed of or imagined, a still white face, with long gold lashes on pale cheeks, and a perfect pale mouth. Her gold hair lay round her like a mantle, but where its strands crossed her face they stirred a little with her breathing, so that the tailor knew she was alive.

Passages like that justify everything and matter more to me than rearrangements and minor changes to story line. In the context of the novel the glass motif, the ice green colour, the blond hair, even the fact that the hero is a tailor rather than just an apprentice have added implications. Roland, the Randolph Ash scholar, had met the very blonde, “icily regular, splendidly dull” Maud Bailey, a Christabel LaMotte scholar, for the first time to investigate a hitherto unknown connection between Ash and LaMotte . He stayed the night at her on-campus resident, the Tennyson tower. Having just used her “chilly green glassy” bathroom he lay in her divan, complete with emerald cotton pillow cases and a white quilt, and read a LaMotte fairy tale collection entitled Tales for Innocents. But I’ll leave that now because it would take a proper re-reading for me to go into more detail. (That’s not gonna happen any time soon.)

As Byatt’s tale compares to the Brothers Grimm’s I prefer theirs. Byatt’s own starts out in a very self-aware, affected style, and though the affectations disappear about half way through the story there was enough to annoy. Whether this was how Byatt would have written it herself, or if it was written with the specific idea of the character Christabel in mind I cannot say, but the conscious “children’s story” tone with the persistent use of the “little tailor” and “little man” and so on came across as very artificial. The Grimm version has no such restraints. It was written in an easy yet sophisticated, engaging and enchanting manner that underscored the brothers’ view that fairy tales were stories that could appeal to all ages. The self-aware tone, the inter-textual connections, and the strikingly contemporary take on the tailor’s and princess’ first conversation also seems out-of-place for a story written by a 19th century author, if we examine it as a part of the novel. Byatt herself, in the essay, described all the stories in Djinn as “modern literary stories” that played “quite consciously” with a “post-modern creation and recreation of old forms”. I suppose this was not beyond a 19th century writer, and I don’t recall how I reacted to the story the first time I read it in Possession, but I think I’m a bit stubborn and old-fashioned when it comes to my fairy stories. I had similar issues with a few Kelly Link stories although both authors brought me around, with varying degrees of success.

There are more intriguing differences between the two versions. The Brothers Grimm’s princess, despite her weak enchanted state, proves to be a commanding figure. When the tailor’s apprentice approached her coffin, all it took was a peek over her coffin for her to awaken and exclaim her gratitude for his breaking of the spell. No kiss from him is needed, simply a shove to remove the coffin cover. She kisses him, thank you very much, a “friendly kiss on his lips”, then proceeds to tell her tale, instruct him as to what to do with the encased castle and jars and basically orders him to him to marry her, because that is how it works, all the while thanking Providence. She dominates the story from the minute she awakes and the hero dwindles his task accomplished, meekly and silently obeying all her orders.

His silence is assent but in her tale of how she fell into the clutches of the magician her silence is refusal. He put her under the spell because whenever he had asked her to marry him she silently repelled his advances, even when he temporarily paralysed her in her bed in the middle of the night and then turned her brother into a stag the next morning. Indeed after she woke up and learnt her older brother had gone out riding with him, she followed them with her servant, each on their own horse, and when her servant’s horse became lame, she went off on her own. In the confrontation she surmised what he had done to her brother and in anger shot at him with his pistol. (The bullet bounced back and killed her horse.) This is no simpering waif.

Byatt’s princess is not one either, but she stands up to the magician through words and through her status of power. Here she is not the younger sister but a twin, though the siblings are still orphans. They treated each other as equals. In the night when the magician made his first offer she speaks, refusing him outright. In the forest the next day, on discerning that her brother had been turned into a greyhound, she orders the magician off her property, forbidding him entry, and again refuses her marriage proposal. At the threat of never being able to speak again she responds with indifference because of the loss of her true companion.

The relationship between the siblings is given prominence over that of marriage. In the Grimm tale the princess was happy to remain with her brother and seek no other before but during her enchanted sleep she had visions of her rescuer and so approached the prospect of marriage with alacrity. The story ends with, “the maiden, in accordance with her promise, gave her hand at the altar with the lucky tailor.” For Byatt this ending is not a foregone conclusion. The tailor knows that she values her autonomy after listening to her story, which is when she made the marriage offer (not before like in Grimm’s), and assures her that while he’d love to take her hand, she was under no obligations. (A clever and calculated move to gain her hand, it is suggested.) She demurely disagrees and they begin “disputing, politely, the moral niceties of their interesting situation” but without a whisper of acknowledgement of heaven or Providence, an amusing moment. It takes another save by the tailor, this time by killing the magician, to settle the matter. But even in the end, everything restored to its original form, the tailor looks almost like a third wheel in the castle life. The siblings go out hunting all the time while the tailor stays at home to focus on his craft. It ends,

A craftsman is nothing without the exercise of his craft. So he ordered to be brought to him the finest silk cloth and brilliant threads, and made for pleasure what he had once needed to make for harsh necessity.

I think that what I may love best about such retellings is the opportunity to compared the old with the new. How modern sensibilities impact and modify the traditional is an endlessly fascinating and fruitful endeavour.

Quotes from the Brothers Grimm version are from the Margaret Hunt translation.

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2 Responses to "Facets of “The Glass Coffin”"

wow. What an excellent post!

I love A. S. Byatt, especially her fairy tales, but I agree with much of what you say. Her tone is often self-conscious, but I find that it works very well sometimes, especially in tales such as “The Story of the Elder Princess”.

I have read the Grimm version of “The Glass Coffin”, but it’s been much too long. You made me want to dig it up and compare!

Thank you Nymeth. You’re right, it worked best in the “Elder Princess” but my favourite ones in the bunch were probably “Gode’s Story” and the title one.

Oh you should dig the Grimm up, it’s such a short but intriguing read.

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