Fairies are iconic characters in many european fairytales. Sometimes they appear as a kind fairy godmother, helping the protagonist make their dreams come true; other times they can be slightly mischievous with an affinity for tricks. In the case of Donkey Skin, the fairy godmother is there for the princess when she most needs her. She acts a bit like Disney’s character of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, in the way that she represents morality and righteousness. She knows it is wrong for a father to marry his daughter and does everything to prevent it. When I designed the fairy godmother for the fantasy genre, I explained how I had wanted to make this character slightly different from the one of the original tale. I wanted the character to be kind and seemingly good yet ambiguous and with a penchant for tricks and games. I kept these qualities in mind when I decided to explore the different designs for her character in the historical adaptation.
Initially, the historical adaptation shouldn’t have featured magical elements as by definition, it is meant to be set in the real world during real historic events. But let’s not forget that I am trying to adapt a fairy tale and hence, magic and wonder are necessary. The film should be categorized as historical fiction. I am basically researching the different possibilities there are to make a fairy story fit in a real setting – in this case, in the middle east during the first crusade. Therefore the fairy godmother needed to be different from the other human characters. She needed to have more power. And, as mentioned in my previous post, when I first thought about setting a fairy tale in the middle east, I immediately thought about the Arabian Nights. With this thought came images of flying carpets, forty thieves and genies. That’s when I realised that the oriental equivalent to our fairy godmother could be seen as the genie (Djinn). However, that was partly due to Disney’s well-known adaptation of Aladdin, in which the genie is a kind, beloved character that has the hero’s best interest at heart. Reading more about the arabian nights, I quickly realised that the djinn is usually quite the opposite.
Djinn, Succubus and Genius
“Spending any time in the Sahara desert makes it clear how the elements can conjure up sand or wind storms in an instant, and it does not take rocket science to work out how these acts of nature could be re-configured or interpreted as the actions of Djinns (genies)” (Richard E Grant, 2011).
The djinn (or Jinni in arabic) is a magical spirit present in islamic literature. They are said to be invisible but can take the shape of Man or animal, or even objects or the Elements. The djinn is mentioned in the Koran as being born of smokeless fire. Usually, they are seen as tricksters or demons that have malicious intentions – a favour from a djinn can quickly take a turn for the worse. In Islam, the King Solomon is said to have had the ability to control djinns; there is also a tale involving Solomon’s magic ring and its powers to control these supernatural beings which would have worked on building the First Temple of Jerusalem.
It is interesting to point out that some see the mythological creature succubus as a djinn that takes the form of a woman in order to trick and deceive men.
In ancient roman religion, a genius was a sort of spirit that watched over every man. They represented powers and abilities that formed an individual’s character. They were a divine entity that would protect each individual. A woman’s genius was a juno.
The Wicked Fairy Godmother
The concept of a wicked fairy godmother may seem slightly confusing, disconcerting or even unbelievable to some. Yet, a feared character from our childhood which has gained increasing popularity in the past couple of years exactly fits that description: Maleficent. The concept of a wicked fairy godmother is quite rare as fairies are never inherently bad. For example, the character of Tinker Bell in J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan is not always the kindest of individuals. However she remains a helpful ally to the protagonist. By definition, in folklore, fairies were renown for their malice. Thus, the concept of having the fairy godmother as a trickster of sorts, helpful yet slightly unsettling is not unbelievable. As I am trying to find the middle eastern equivalent to the fairy godmother, it seems that it might be possible to reconcile the djinn with the character of the fairy. Although usually depicted as demonic, djinns could sometimes appear as neutral; the idea is to play on this possibility to justify the fairy godmother’s character being a djinn in the historical adaptation.
An Islamic Djinn in Christian Constantinople?
After making this decision and sketching out a few possible designs for the djinn, I realised that there may be some confusion regarding the fact that, while Donkey Skin is supposed to be living in christian Constantinople, djinns were islamic entities. Therefore there seems to be a sort of ambiguity regarding folklore and religion. So as not to change the story too much, the fairy godmother should be around when the father asks his daughter to marry him. This is crucial as it leads to the making of the three dresses and the eventual sacrifice of the donkey.
Therefore, what would a djinn be doing in Constantinople? Perhaps this detail wouldn’t stop an audience from believing in the story that they are viewing but I believe that it is important to justify those small details in order to add to the credibility of the tale – especially when it comes to adapting a magical story to a real world setting. I have thought of a few reasons, mainly that perhaps during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Donkey Skin’s family could have bought an old lamp on the market place and brought it back with them to their home in Constantinople. This could have happened a few years before our story actually takes place, therefore, the little princess, while playing around one day, could have opened the bottle/ rubbed the lamp and released the djinn, befriending it in the process. Another possible explanation would consist in Donkey Skin finding the lamp in the outskirts of Constantinople one day, right at the beginning of the film (perhaps before the death of her mother). The lamp could have easily fallen off a merchant’s cart. Finally, the lamp could simply be a family heirloom that has been passed down from one generation to the other. Seeing as the protagonist’s family is supposed to be incredibly wealthy, it stands to reason that they could have accumulated many riches and items that constitute a wide collection of antics and treasures. The idea of having the djinn help the protagonist out also works well with the fact that Donkey Skin flees to Jerusalem in the hopes of starting an honest life there. Indeed, djinns are said to have an extremely long life (although not immortal), therefore in all the centuries she has been living, the djinn could have been to Jerusalem and found the city a pleasant place to hide out. Thus she would have mentioned it to the princess as a possible destination.
Finally, I also realised that it may seem strange that Donkey Skin flees to Jerusalem at the same time as the crusaders march towards Nicea in the attempt to retake the city. If she knows that an army is going to attack a city, then why would she choose that same city as a place to live in? Perhaps, this decision could occur a year before the beginning of the first crusade. Therefore the crusaders would arrive but by then, she would already have rebuilt her life in Jerusalem. If I decide to follow my initial idea of her fleeing with the crusaders before parting ways and going to Jerusalem by herself (knowing full well that the city would eventually be under attack) then it should be mentioned that she had originally planned on stopping in the big city for a couple of nights before continuing her way north. However, a chance encounter with the equivalent of her prince would have changed her mind and made her stay in Jerusalem for him.
Heiner, A.H., 2002. Sur La Lune Fairy Tales: Annotations for Donkeyskin [online]. Available at http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/donkeyskin/notes.html [Accessed 16/04/2015]
Guiley, R.E., 2015. Djinn Universe: a Short Course on the Djinn [online]. Available at:
http://www.djinnuniverse.com/a-short-course-on-the-djinn [Accessed 10/03/2015]
Circa71., 2011. A Brief History of Jinns or Genies [online]. WordPress. Available at: https://circa71.wordpress.com/2011/08/25/a-brief-history-of-jinn-or-genies/ [Accessed 10/03/2015]