Flights of Foundry: Transforming the Castle

Watched Flights of Foundry by Katharine Duckett from

Fairy tales provide a template for much of our modern fantasy fiction, and for enduring constructions of disability that come loaded with stereotypes, harmful messaging, and a tendency toward tragedy. In this presentation, we will explore those tropes and how disabled and chronically ill writers have subverted and transformed them.

Fairy tales revolve around transformation

Trad fairy tales feature elements of the fantastical, possess their own internal logic, and may involve a quest

Disability often used in fairy tales as:

  • disability as punishment
  • disability as obstacle
  • disability as loss of agency
  • disability as mark of moral deficiency or inhumanity

Examples of fairy tales with disability:

  • Rapunzel – punishment – prince is blinded
  • Cinderella – punishment – stepsisters are blinded and/or maimed to fit their feet in the slipper
  • Little Mermaid – loss of agency, punishment – chronic pain as the price of legs, unable to communicate
  • Beauty and the Beast – punishment / inhumanity – his appearance makes him an object of pity and terror
  • The Twelve Brothers – lost agency – sister must remain mute to restore her brothers from swans to humans

Grimms notoriously removed dialogue from female characters because they believed silent women were virtuous

“In fairy tales, the transformation of the individual relies on fairs and magic – or the gods – because it is understood that society itself can’t (and indeed won’t) improve” – Amanda Leduc, Disfigured

Burden of transformation is on the individual

Grimms added disability to their stories a lot – able-bodiedness was the idea, not the norm

Something that is needed > something added > balance (lack > fulfillment) (disability > ability)

“Reading disability merely as a metaphor for something else is in itself a form of erasure, because it abstracts the disabled individual.” — Ann Schmiesing, Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales

“We turn disability into a symbol because it has been socialized to be not useful…” Amanda Leduc, Disfigured

Reading Recommendations:

Creating New Disabled Fairy Tales

  • center the experience and agency of disabled characters
  • write disability as a lived reality, not only metaphor
  • prioritize research from disabled communities
  • recognize harmful legacies
  • examine the ableist foundations of worldbuilding in fairy tales

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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