Robin: About the fairy godmother – fairies can be helpful to humans, and often are, especially when the human is properly polite or helps the fairy first, and fairies have been known to take an interest in a child when they have helped the mother to conceive – I mean, with a spell or an enchanted nut or something of the sort.

But the idea of fairies being godmothers, which is after all a religious role, is a very odd one. Priests and fairies generally rub each other up the wrong way, though there are occasional exceptions, like Robert Kirk who wrote The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies and is said to be still living with the folk under the green hills.

I believe the fairy godmother notion started with Madame d’Aulnoy in the seventeenth century. In both “The Blue Bird” and “The Hind in the Wood” (sometimes called “The White Doe”) the fairy godmother belongs to the heroine’s enemy and so works against her. In “The Blue Bird”, the fairy godmother attempts to force King Charming, who loves Florine, to marry her ugly goddaughter Truitonne. Frustrated by his stubbornness, she turns him into a bird.

In “The Hind in the Wood”, the fairy of the spring is offended when she is not invited to the princess’s birth, especially as she has earlier helped the queen, and despite her occasional lobster disguise has been described as “a delightful old lady” who only wished the queen happiness. Later she promises to help her goddaughter the Black Princess against Princess Desiree, again because the two princesses loved the same man.

As you can see, it would certainly be unfair to describe either as a “wicked fairy godmother” as they were only helping their goddaughters.

Illustration by Virginia Sterrett In “Finette Cendron”, a mixture of “Babes in the Wood” and “Cinderella”, the heroine’s fairy godmother, after helping her in the early part of the tale, is offended when her goddaughter does not take her advice, and Finette must manage her cruel sisters and the ogres who capture them without her assistance. Finette only disobeys because she is tender-hearted, and she makes peace with her godmother in the end.

Carabosse, later identified with the evil fairy in “Sleeping Beauty”, makes an appearance in “Princess Mayblossom” as an old enemy of the king’s. Now she is truly a wicked one! She is remarkable in appearance: a little wheelbarrow was seen coming up, pushed along by two ugly little dwarfs, and in it a hideous creature with crooked feet, her knees touching her chin, with a great hump on her back, squinting eyes, and skin as black as ink. In her arms she held a little monkey, which she was nursing. Though the fairies are invited to attend the princess’s birth and do give her magical gifts, there is no mention of godmothers. Carabosse actually comes down the chimney to curse the princess!

Columbine: Though they may be rare in traditional tales, fairy godmothers are very popular in new fairy stories and are sometimes very wise, but also sometimes rather funny characters, perhaps because they have a certain fairy unpredictability.

In Charles Dickens’s story “The Magic Fishbone”, which was originally part of “A Holiday Romance” and attributed to Miss Alice Rainbird (aged seven), the fairy godmother is quite formidable and capricious:

The king was beginning, ‘Might I ask the reason?’ when the fairy became absolutely furious.

‘WILL you be good, sir?’ she exclaimed, stamping her foot on the ground. ‘The reason for this, and the reason for that, indeed! You are always wanting the reason. No reason. There! Hoity toity me! I am sick of your grown-up reasons.’

The king was extremely frightened by the old lady’s flying into such a passion, and said he was very sorry to have offended her, and he wouldn’t ask for reasons any more.

‘Be good, then,’ said the old lady, ‘and don’t!’

Robin: She is so right! It is boring having to explain yourself, especially when you can’t!

Melisande by E. Nesbit Columbine: In E. Nesbit’s story “Melisande, or Long-and-Short Division” the hapless royal parents decide not to have a christening party so as to avoid the risk of offending a fairy – of course they offend them all! Fortunately the king is able to cut them off at the pass by invoking the tradition of only one bad fairy per christening before the baby can be deluged in curses. Eventually the king’s own fairy godmother comes to the rescue, though poor mathematics make the cure worse than the disease for a while! These touchy and quirky fairies seem much more true to life than the grand and proper fairies in many tales.

The very delightful Marigold in Godmother’s House by Joyce Lankester Brisley has a little girl staying for a while with her fairy godmother and enjoying various magical adventures. It was written in the 1930s and has recently been republished.

My Scary Fairy Godmother by Rose Impey sounds promising, but it is the heroine Isabella’s very human cousin Maxine who plans to transform her from a mouse to a princess. She is even bossier than a real fairy godmother though.

Princess Emily and the Beautiful Fairy is one of the Tiara Club series for very small princesses. All the princesses in this book attend a Princess Academy to learn how to become Perfect Princesses, and it seems in their world fairies also have to train for their positions at the Fairy Godmother Agency! Fairy Angora comes to teach the princesses even though she is not qualified and causes chaos by granting too many wishes.

Robin: The Academy has some useful lessons – like Avoiding Magical Mistakes, also Wishes, and how to use them Wisely. I know some fairies who would strongly disapprove – they regard the granting of wishes to unwise humans as an excellent source of entertainment. As a friend to humanity I couldn’t possibly comment!

Columbine: Humans find it entertaining too, judging by the stories. In The Diary of a Fairy Godmother by Esme Raji Codell, a modern young witch called Hunky Dory decides she would rather be a fairy godmother, and grant people’s wishes instead of casting wicked spells. She decides to start at the bottom – the bottom of a wishing well, that is, granting wishes for passers-by. It seems odd for a witch to attend school, let alone switch “careers” in this fashion, but it adds to the modernity of the story, even if fairy-tale characters do pop up all over the place!

The Fairy Godmother - The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye is a beautifully-written and fascinating account of a seventh princess who receives a very unusual gift. Her sisters have grown beautiful and charming without fairy gifts, but it is the custom for fairies to be invited to a seventh christening. The king is as worried as the king in “Melisande”, so no effort is spared to invite every single fairy in Oberon’s court.

Unfortunately, the roads are so crowded on the day of the christening party that the most powerful fairy of all is delayed. She reminds me of the fairy of the spring in “The Hind in the Wood”, watery, old and cranky. She looks with scorn at the beautiful perfection of the royal family and the decorated court before giving the baby Amethyst a gift which dismays them all: “My child,” said the Fairy Crustacea, “I am going to give you a gift that will probably bring you more happiness than all these fal-lals and fripperies put together. You shall be Ordinary!”

The princess is certainly happy enough (another of her gifts was Cheerfulness) and she is able to enjoy many things her sisters cannot, but as she grows older the court despairs of finding her a husband. Apparently even dull and plain princes expect perfection in a princess! Hearing of the dreadful plan that has been cooked up to entice one, Princess Amy (as she is now called) runs away to live in the forest where she makes friends with a squirrel and a crow.

Crustacea appears again, emerging from a forest pool: “Standing half in and half out of the water… was the queerest old lady she had ever seen. She had long, greenish hair, a long hooky nose, and a pair of very twinkling eyes. She leaned on a stick made out of a knobbly branch of coral and wore a cloak of something that looked like seaweed.” She is pleased that Amy is glad to be ordinary, and points her in the right direction to continue a more ordinary life.

The fairy later appears again at the wedding (come on, you knew there was going to be a wedding): she “arrived in a chariot entirely made out of oyster shells and drawn by a hundred golden frogs”. Her wedding gift is much less controversial, and it is good to know that even ordinary princesses can have their happy ending.

If you were invited to be a godmother, what would you give for a christening gift?

“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

Read more about Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother

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