Literature / Donkeyskin

"Donkeyskin" is a popular Fairy Tale transcribed by Charles Perrault in 1697. The Brothers Grimm recorded another variant — "All-Kind-of-Furs" — in 1812, and the tale type has been adapted as "Sapsorrow" in The Storyteller, Deerskin by Robin McKinley, and in 1970 adapted as a musical by Jacques Demy, among other adaptations.

A king loses his wife; on her death bed, she demands that he promise not to remarry except to a woman more beautiful than she is. The king finds it impossible to find such a woman, until he realizes that his daughter is the only one who surpasses her mother's beauty.

The king therefore plans to marry his daughter. The princess in despair begs for her Fairy Godmother's help, and the godmother advises her to declare that she will not marry unless she is brought three impossible dresses: one which is of the color of sky, one which shines like the moon, and a third like the sun. When the king succeeds in providing each of these three dresses in turn, the fairy godmother advises the princess to ask for the skin of the king's magic donkey, from the ears of which tumble gold pieces.

Despite the animal's usefulness, the king slaughters it and presents the unfortunate princess with the skin. The princess then decides to run away, and on her fairy godmother's advice clothes herself in the donkey's skin so that no one will recognize her.

She travels to a far-away kingdom, and takes a menial job at a farm, calling herself "Donkeyskin." The kingdom's prince happens to pass by Donkeyskin's hut while she is entertaining herself by dressing up in her sun-gold dress. He is very taken with her, and in an effort to ascertain her identity he requests that she bake him a cake, in which he finds the princess's ring. The prince then announces that he will marry only the girl on whose finger the ring fits, and tries it on every woman in the kingdom. When the ring fits Donkeyskin's finger, her identity is revealed and the two are married.

The Aarne-Thompson Number is type 510B, the "unnatural love" type of the "persecuted heroine". Others of this type include "Catskin", "Cap o' Rushes" and "Tattercoats", which elide the incestous aspects. Compare to Cinderella, a persecuted heroine whose nemesis is female, and so is type 510A. See also The One-Handed Girl for a different tale type with a male persecutor.

Full text here, along with many of its variants.

This fairytale and its variations provide examples of:

  • Amulet of Dependency: Some versions have the princess with three items made of gold - a ring, thimble and spinning wheel. Each morning after the ball she hides one in the prince's soup.
  • Arranged Marriage: In one bowdlerised version of the story, instead of wanting to marry his daughter himself, the king wants her to marry a suitor he has chosen so that she can become queen and take over the throne, as his wife's death has made him lose any interest in continuing as king himself. However, the princess doesn't want to marry the intended suitor, prompting her to seek her fairy godmother's help.
  • Bowdlerise: In Victorian era, the fact that the donkey could poop gold was changed to the coins tumble from its ears. Also, many Victorian writers portrayed the princess as the adopted daughter of the king, whereas she was his biological daughter in the Perrault version.
  • Engagement Challenge: In this case, the challenge is there to be impossible so the marriage can't happen.
  • Fairy Godmother: Perhaps the most famous example alongside "Cinderella".
  • Impossibly Cool Clothes: The three dresses, the whole point of which is that they're so impossibly cool that the princess hopes her father will not be able to supply them. The golden dress really does shine like the sun; it's not possible to look directly at it with unshielded eyes. Some versions, such as "Sapsorrow," also describe one of the dresses as "sparkling with stars."
  • The Lost Lenore: The dead wife whose deathbed wish kicks off the plot.
  • Love Before First Sight: In some versions the princess has never seen the prince before being asked to bake a cake for him. But she still puts her ring in the cake so he can find her later, ultimately marrying him.
  • No Antagonist:
    • Not even the king, in many versions of the story. He's forgiven at the very end, and even finally remarries a beautiful widow queen. This is not necessarily true in adaptations, since attempted Parental Incest makes a character pretty unsympathetic to modern audiences.
    • Some adaptions choose to stress the fact that he is bound by his wife's death-bed promise.
      • Inverted in a primitive version called Doralice by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, the titular princess run away from her father king Thibaud who wanted to marry her. When he learned she finally married king of England Genese, Thibaud hide in the castle and kill his grandchildren. He let Doralice be accused of the crime and be condemned to death by scaphism. Fortunately, Doralice 's nurse testimony for her and it's Thibaud who end up dismembered. Let's say this version of the king was a bona fide villain.
  • Pair the Spares:
    • In some versions, the prince's mother is a widow and she and the princess's father hit it off at the wedding.
    • In others versions he remarries the Fairy Godmother.
  • Pretty in Mink: Subverted. She wears the fur coat when she's working as a servant. She's also initially mistaken for an animal by the palace soldiers.
  • Rule of Three: The three dresses. Sometimes the heroine wears them at three different balls.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Each night the princess cleans her face and puts on her dresses. The usual Cinderella version is played with as the prince initially doesn't recognise her when she takes him the soup (and really you wouldn't expect a supposed noblewoman you were dancing with to be serving you food the next day) but he does by the third time.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Some retellings try to downplay the incest by making the king Donkeyskin's stepfather (specifically, her adopted father - the most notable example of this is found in Andrew Lang's retelling).