A Flying Wheelchair and a Deaf Fairy: An Exploration of Disability in Fairy Tales

by | Nov 5, 2018 | IBBYLink Spring 2018

Rebecca R. Butler

In classic children’s fiction there are unfortunately instances of disabled characters depicted as evil, deformed or both. Two examples will make the point.

Rumpelstiltskin is an evil dwarf whose attempt to possess a woman’s first-born child is frustrated only when she discovers his name. It is significant that the identity of this disabled character is a dark secret, and that his ruthlessness in seeking to acquire the child overshadows the ruthlessness of the king who threatens to execute the girl if she does not make him rich, or of her father who lies about his daughter’s ability and comes close to sealing her fate. Research by scholars from Durham and Lisbon has suggested that this fable is 4000 years old. It was popularised in the Grimm brothers’ 1812 collection. In 2017 Hilary McKay’s Straw into Gold: A Rumpelstiltskin Retelling embarked on the first serious attempt in 4000 years to retell the myth and rehabilitate the evil dwarf.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin uses his flute music to draw the rats away from the town. When the people refuse to pay him the agreed fee for his service, he uses his music to draw the children away. According to one version of the story only three children are saved. One is too lame to keep up with the others, one too deaf to hear the music and one is blind and so cannot see the way.

The outcome of the story is a trade-off. The children who have a disability have the good fortune to survive because they are variously disabled. But they also have to deal with the fact of their exclusion on account of their disability. They are ‘the others’. Their families and others who lost their children will never look at the disabled survivors without thinking of those they lost. The ironic suggestion is that as punishment for its dishonesty the community has kept three of its least valuable members.

In the classic versions of the Rumpelstiltskin story, before McKay’s effort at redemption, the dwarf is a more or less the unmitigated villain whose discomfort is to be enjoyed by the reader. The disabled children who survive abduction by the Piper in contrast are mere ciphers. The reader knows nothing of them as individuals, only as tokens in the fierce exchange between the Piper and the townsfolk. Evil or characterless, the disabled are depicted without humanity.

Taking two modern fairy tales in which disabled characters play a part, I turn first to Freddie and the Fairy (2010) written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Karen George. Freddy is a small boy desperate for a pet. By chance he encounters a fairy called Bessie Belle who claims to be able to grant wishes. Unfortunately however, she keeps getting Freddy’s wishes wrong. It transpires that Bessie Belle is deaf. Freddy has no knowledge of any variant of sign language. He also has a tendency to mumble, fatal in this context. When he makes the effort to speak clearly and turns to look square on at the fairy, he communicates his wishes and gets his pet. The important point of this story is that the difficulty arises not from the fairy’s impairment but from Freddy’s failure to respond effectively to that impairment. Donaldson here is reading from the so-called social model of disability theory, whereby the real problem of disability is said to arise from society’s failure to respond to people’s various impairments. The fairy is an agent for good when she is empowered by her non-disabled partner.
Cinderella’s Magical Wheelchair (2011) is written by Jewel Kats and illustrated by Richa Kinra. In this story Cinderella uses a manual as opposed to a powered wheelchair. Although the text is silent on the nature of her impairment, it seems likely that she has suffered a spinal injury, since she has good upper-body strength and propels her own chair. As might be expected, her stepsisters are not exactly supportive. When they discuss going to the ball, they state that this is a proper ball quite unsuited to charity cases like her. Cinderella incidentally has been cleaning for the family from her wheelchair. My dread at this point of the story is that Kats might opt for a magical cure like Pollyanna or Katy Carr. Or that Cinderella might be transposed to a golden carriage disguising her impairment. But Kats, who herself has a spinal injury, knows better. Cinderella’s earthbound manual wheelchair magically takes flight. When the Prince marries Cinderella, some time and effort are devoted to making the palace wheelchair accessible before the happy couple move in. There is in this story a weakness that arises in most texts when a disabled character appears. There is very little context, personal or social. We know little else about Cinderella but her disability and its direct consequences. But the story is unique. If a wheelchair has appeared in a fairy tale before, it is a story I have never seen. Kats has taken some fantasy tropes and turned them upside down. Bravo.

There is a branch of modern literary criticism that holds biographical detail about an author to be irrelevant in relation to a work and to its understanding. In the case of these two modern fairy stories nothing could be further from the truth. Donaldson has an auditory impairment and Kats has a spinal injury. Of course I would not recommend that authors should write only of situations in which they happen to find themselves. Far from it. But as a wheelchair user myself and as a student of children’s literature

I applaud the efforts of authors with impairments to use their own experience to widen the imaginative boundaries of the genre.

Works cited

Donaldson, Julia (illus.Karen George) (2010) Freddie and the Fairy. London: Macmillan Children’s Books.

Kats, Jewel (illus .Richa Kinra )(2011) Cinderella’s Magical Wheelchair. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.

McKay, Hilary (illus. Sarah Gibb) (2017) Straw into Gold: A Rumpelstiltskin Retelling.

London: Macmillan Children’s Books.

Rebecca R. Butler holds a BA in English Literature, a Masters in Children’s Literature and a Doctorate in Education, all from the University of Roehampton. She is a volunteer tutor in literacy in two schools. She reviews children’s books for three journals. She is the author of numerous articles on children’s literature and a regular conference speaker. She is also a member of the committee of IBBY UK.