Friends in Disguise: an Image of Grace from Fairy Tales

You are in a fairy tale, alone in a cottage or a castle, on a dark night, when a soft tap comes at your door. Outside stands a robed stranger, or perhaps a beggar woman all in rags. Is the stranger a fiend or a friend? Is the ragged beggar a good fairy or a wicked witch? There’s always a risk, but the repeated plot motif of fairy tales remind us that it is better to welcome than to refuse the stranger: This is the case even with the recognition that the stranger might turn out to be dangerous.

Contemporary readers of the original Grimm “Snow White” often note how stupid the heroine is, allowing the wicked queen in, disguised as a beggar woman, not once but three times. Even though she has tried to kill Snow White twice before, the princess still trusts the visitor and invites her in. Now, fairy tales are not meant to be moral or pragmatic guides: rather, they exist in an archetypal world of elemental representations of our most basic hopes, fears, and desires. So behavior that in a realistic story truly would be idiotic becomes, in a fairytale, a representation of our longings for goodness and justice, or our fears of suffering or entrapment. So Snow White invites the stranger in three times because in this dreamlike world goodness and generosity are manifested in this simple, hyperbolic way. She represents a hospitality we hope exists in the world.

The good person, in fairy tale and myth, always welcomes the stranger. That’s why the Prince in “Beauty and the Beast” is punished: because of his failure to extent hospitality, his judging by appearances. Refusing hospitality even to the poorest and most bedraggled, in these stories, is generally a bad idea.

This goes back to ancient ideas about the sacred duty of hospitality. The Greeks called it guest-friendship, or xenia. In Greek myth you never know when you might be entertaining gods in disguise. The Roman poet Ovid retells, in his Metamorphoses, the Greek myth of an old impoverished couple, Baucis and Philemon, who live in a town of wealthy but wicked people. When a pair of ragged peasants comes to town, everyone refuses them hospitality except for Baucis and Philemon, who prepare a feast for the strangers out of all that they have. But, as it turns out, these are no ordinary guests: they are the gods Jupiter and Mercury in disguise. The wicked townspeople are punished, of course – and the generous couple rewarded.

Guest-friendship was held to be sacred between mortals, also. Once you accepted someone under your roof, and especially dined with them, this established a ritual bond. We see this in the Iliad, when two warriors meeting on the battlefield realize their parents were guest friends, and make a pact of peace, exchanging armor as a pledge. For these warriors, armor was a sign of honor and identity; to steal someone’s armor was to seize his glory, his story, his whole self. So to exchange armor wasn’t just gift-giving, it was a sort of exchange of self – becoming like one another, part of one another.

Guest-friendship is especially important in this ancient epic, because the whole war started due to a violation of the laws of hospitality. Paris, a guest of Menelaus, violated his trust by abducting his wife, Helen. And prior to that: the gods failed in hospitality by not inviting the goddess of chaos, Eris, to their feast, so she retaliated by starting a feud among the gods that ultimately led to the war. Violations of hospitality, even against the least welcome guest, lead to a disruption of the cosmic order.

The tradition of sacred hospitality is present in the Biblical tradition, too.  In Genesis 18, the story of Abraham and Sarah’s generosity to the three disguised messengers of God reveals how serious hospitality was in their culture: a ritual of honoring guest and visitor, but also a sort of border-management system, because a host could keep an eye on incoming strangers, as well as giving them protection. Dining with a guest created a covenant and bond, the breaking of which was taboo. This explains why, when the two disguised angels took residence with Lot’s family in Sodom, he protected them to the extent of offering his daughters to the unruly crowd, rather than expose guests to violence. This seems horrible to a contemporary reader – and shows how little women were valued – but it also shows the seriousness of guest friendship. The destruction of the city of Sodom parallels the destruction of the village of Baucis and Philemon, in the Greek story.

This tradition of hospitality continued into the time of early Christianity: Hebrews 13:2 reads “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

To return to fairy tales: the motif of a friend in disguise is present not only in the plot formula of the beggar woman who turns out to be a fairy. It might be a beast who turns out to be a prince, a bear who turns out to be a princess; or a prince or princess might appear in the guise of a humble servant.

This motif endures in the genre of the modern romance, in the guise of the “unlikely lover.” The basic trope of every romance novel is that love emerges through some surprise twist. In the domestic comic romances of Jane Austen, the heroine ends up with the person she initially loathed (Mr. Darcy) – or her kindly older friend (Mr. Knightley) or the person she’d given up on forever. In the Gothic romances of the Brontes, the romantic interest is even more unlikely: a governess and her wealthy employer. In romance, the beloved comes in disguise, and the plot trajectory involves stepping out of the ordinary. This is why violations of social code are so common in romances.

The disguise motif is also present in stories of friendship and companionship. This is especially important for fantasy literature, involving some surprise prophecy, or quest, or conflict, in which an unlikely hero sets out on an unexpected journey. Bilbo’s first encounter with Gandalf provokes suspicion and alarm, and the arrival of the Dwarves is more like an invasion. He never intends to have an adventure, but when the Quest is over, the only truly valuable treasure Bilbo has found on his journey is friendship with Gandalf and the Dwarves. Later on in the legend of Middle Earth, we find the most unlikely companion of all: when Gollum guides the Hobbits to Mordor, even though he is plotting treachery, his presence ends up being the ultimate good, as he inadvertently fulfils Frodo’s quest.

In the Narnia chronicles we find an unlikely companionship as Eustace is dragged against his will into a seafaring adventure in another world. He is the most unpleasant companion imaginable, yet by the end of the story he has been transformed – in more ways than one – and becomes one of the Friends of Narnia, one of the two who will fight its last battle in the end.

Even in contemporary adult fantasy this motif is found: the  thread of grace running through the dark world of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is that an enemy may become a friend. In the wanderings of the characters, strange pairings occur: Brienne and Jaime, Arya and the Hound, Tyrion and Ser Jorah. While some of these pairings begin with violence and treachery, as the story develops the characters stop seeing one another as enemies or monsters, and begin to see the human face beneath the disguise.

This motif of the disguised benefactor or unlikely friend or lover is connected, I believe, to the ancient beliefs wound into traditions of hospitality: anyone could be a god or angel or fairy in disguise. Don’t turn away the stranger; don’t turn down the chance to set out on the open road. You never know what friends you might find. The irony of this makes for good plotting, but is also a reminder to us not to be arrogant in our assumptions.

But we can’t forget the other representation of the Disguised Stranger as an enemy at the door. This reflects a very real way we encounter the unfamiliar. The terror that the disguised stranger might be dangerous is a legitimate one. So, to return to the story of Bilbo, is the annoyance of the unexpected guest. But the motif of hospitality to the Other reminds us which type of person we want to be in the story: the one who welcomes the stranger, serves a feast for the unexpected guest. It is a reminder, ultimately, that divine grace may come through surprising channels, and that we may at any moment see the face of Christ where we expected simply an irritating visitor.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss

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Rebecca Bratten Weiss works part time as a lecturer in English Literature, part time as an eco gardener. She has co-authored two novels, Catholic Philosopher Chick Makes her Debut, and Catholic Philosopher Chick Comes on Strong, published by Chesterton Press, and also published a chapbook of poems, Palaces of Dust. You may follow her at Suspended in her Jar, hosted by Patheos Catholic.

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  • Viki63

    This is lovely, and a good reminder. And for me, it reminded me that I’m living a fairy tale, or at least the romance of the “unlikely lover.” 23 years and 5 children later, but it began as a very unlikely story. God is very good, and full of surprises.

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