Between Greece and Northwestern Europe: The Fairy Tales of Penelope Delta

* This is an Author’s Accepted Manuscript of an article published in Fastitocalon: Studies in Fantasticism Ancient to Modern, volume II (2011).

From Penelope Delta’s fairy-tale “The Heart of the Princess”. Illustration by Maria Paparrigopoulou.

1. Introduction: Penelope Delta and her World

Penelope Delta, aged 33, with two of her daughters

Penelope S. Delta (1874-1941) is best known as one of the first writers of children’s literature of Modern Greece.[1] Her books were a breath of fresh air at the turn of the 20th century and they are still much loved and read by Greek children today. Books such as Crazy Antonis (1932), which recounts the adventures and mischief-making of four young brothers and sisters during a summer holiday in Piraeus, close to Athens; or The Mangas (1935), a story of little family dramas narrated via the voice of their pet dog, were refreshing not only for their innovative and entertaining subject-matter, but also for their use of demotic Greek (the vernacular variety spoken by most Greeks) as opposed to the stuffy katharevousa (a ‘purist’ version of the language which sought to artificially re-introduce ‘ancient’ Greek vocabulary and ‘cleanse’ the language of foreign influences). Delta also wrote historical novels for children, which aimed to illuminate forgotten periods of Greek history, such as For the Homeland (1909) and In the Days of the Bulgarslayer (1911) (both set in Byzantine times, during the reign of Basil II), and The Secrets of the Swamp (1937) (focusing on the much more recent ‘Macedonian Struggle’ of 1903-8). Her books are permeated by patriotic feelings, often verging on nationalism, but they also succeeded in establishing children’s literature as a literary genre in Greece.[2]

And yet, Delta is also a woman of hybrid roots, coming from the Greek Diaspora and only later moving to Greece permanently and playing such a revolutionary role in its literary culture. She was brought up in the Greek community of Alexandria, Egypt, the third child of Emmanuel Benakis, whose powerful business acumen dominated the cotton trade in different parts of Europe. Penelope lived in a very patriarchal society and family, but – as most genteel Greek children of the time – was educated by English and French teachers and nurses and wrote her first diaries in French (see Delta, Memories, 1899). Her marriage to Stefanos Deltas, who was to become her father’s business partner, trapped her into a conventional, loveless marriage. Nevertheless, her husband’s Greek education and cultural interests also introduced her to the ‘language issue’ (demotic vs. katharevousa), brought her into contact with the Greek intelligentsia of the time, and inspired her to venture into her first creative writing attempts. Penelope travelled a lot and lived in Liverpool, Alexandria and Frankfurt before settling in Athens, following her husband’s appointments to the several branches of her father’s business. The family became actively involved in Greek politics, supporting the revolutionary ideas and programme of charismatic Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936). Emmanuel Benakis was elected to Parliament and became the Finance Minister of the Venizelos Government, and later Mayor of Athens. Penelope herself took a keen interest in politics, but she also formed a doomed relationship with Ion Dragoumis, a bright young politician who was executed during the violent clashes within the highly polarised political scene in Greece at the time. He and Penelope had separated out of respect for her husband and children, but he was the love of her life, and after their separation she twice attempted suicide. After Dragoumis’ execution, some years after they had gone their separate ways, she mourned him by wearing nothing but black until the end of her life. Penelope died in 1941, at the age of 68, after taking poison in protest against the Nazi occupation of Athens on 27 April.

Delta scholarship has tended to focus on her children’s books, her contribution to the ‘language issue’, her political memoirs and letters, her Alexandrian roots, and her role in Modern Greek historiography via her research for her historical novels.[3] This essay will concentrate on a somewhat neglected side of her literary career: her fairy tales, which were often published in individual magazines and publications and later collected in the volume Fairy and Other Tales (1915). Delta succeeds in creating literary fairy tales that – like her own upbringing and cultural background – reflect a hybrid status between Northwestern and Eastern traditions, blending Greek elements and Northwestern European fairy-tale motifs.

2. Delta, Folk and Fairy Tales and the Need for a Greek Reader

Delta’s literary career began with the publication of short pieces in periodicals which she called ‘short stories’ or ‘fairy tales’. Her first published work, entitled ‘Pain of a Child’ (later re-titled ‘The Broken Violin’) was published in Laos (a new journal, insisting on the use of the demotic Greek) and which has since been characterised as ‘the most personal and autobiographical text that Penelope Delta ever published’ (Zannas, ‘Preface’, ιη΄). In fact this was not a fairy tale at all but a short story of social realism without any fantastical elements. It relates the tragic tale of a young boy whose strict and emotionally cold mother pushes him to commit suicide. However, in Delta’s correspondence it is sometimes referred to as a ‘short story’ or ‘little fairy tale’ (Delta, Correspondence, 90-1). Chrysogelou-Katsi (106) has observed that the terms ‘(little) short story’, ‘(little) fairy tale’ and ‘allegory’ are often used interchangeably in late 19th– and early 20th-century Greece. It should be noted that Delta’s and her contemporaries’ inconsistent use of these terms – in addition to ‘(little) story’ – might have to do with the discrepancy between nascent Modern Greek literary forms, as opposed to more established terminology for what was seen as a recognised genre in other European countries.

The term ‘fairy tale’ in its strict sense refers to literary texts that – although often inspired by or modelled upon folktales and the oral tradition – are written by a named author and express their particular imaginative use of magical or supernatural motifs. Delta’s fairy tales belong to this genre and can be compared to similar works by Victorian British authors. Literary fairy tales were also produced by the French 18th century court culture (e.g. Perrault) and by German Romanticism of the early 19th century (the ‘Kunstmärchen’ of e.g. Hofmann and Novalis), but Delta’s works chime more with mid- to late-19th-century British Victorian texts. Victorian literature had assimilated the ‘children and household tales’ of the Grimm Brothers’ (supposedly collected from the German ‘Volk’, but often taken from written sources, and substantially re-written – see McGlathery) and the literary fairy tales of the charismatic Hans Christian Andersen. Victorian writers such as George MacDonald, Charles Dickens, Andrew Lang and Oscar Wilde were creating new fairy tales, contributing to:

a major movement to write parodies of fairy tales for children, to turn them upside down and inside out, to question the traditional value system and suggest alternatives to the endings that appeared to contradict the notion of wonder and transformation that had been so dominant in the wonder folk tale. (Zipes, 31)

Delta’s education through English and French books would have familiarised her with some of these texts. Although she dismisses the Benaki family library as ‘classic, without value or personality’ (Delta, First Memories, 213), including only some Shakespeare or Byron that she was not allowed to read anyway (Dickens was also out of the question), Delta also notes that she had access to British Victorian periodicals, such as The Graphic and The Illustrated London News, and children’s magazines such as the Boy’s and Girl’s Own Annuals and Chatterbox (First Memories, 143-144, 152, 213, 206-207). These publications often included literary fairy tales. The example of Hans Christian Andersen is characteristic: his fairy tales were reproduced or reviewed often in Victorian periodicals, and his portrait made the cover of Howitt’s Weekly Journal in 1847, giving him celebrity status (Sumpter, 6). Delta also offers a tantalising reference to ‘other classic children’s books’ she read (First Memories, 206), which is too vague to be illuminating, but given the fact that the mid-Victorian period has been described as the first ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature (Carpenter), one would expect her familiarity with such celebrated texts as those by Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, Charles Kingsley and other writers of fantastical works or literary fairy tales.

These childhood readings were later supplemented by further contemporary texts, after Delta escaped the strict control of her family and was able to expand her horizons following her marriage. By 1909, when her own fairy tales began appearing in print, she had three young daughters, and she was getting increasingly concerned about the Greek educational system and the school readers available to Greek children. She was very disappointed with the stuffy and linguistically challenging books for children, written in the artificial katharevousa variety of Greek, and she was seriously contemplating publishing her own Reader. Her strong views on the unsuitability of Greek children’s books, not only in terms of language, but also as far as moral education and values are concerned, were powerfully expressed in her essay ‘About our School Readers’ (1913), but she was already expressing strong views in letters from 1908-1909. She thought that Greek school readers of the time promoted an unintelligible language that encouraged children to memorize long passages without understanding them. She was also worried with the ‘lowly’ moral values these books presented: punishment for bad actions, and (often material) rewards for good deeds (Delta, ‘School Readers’). The values she supported as an alternative correspond to those promoted in Victorian English literature, especially in popular adventure stories for boys or domestic tales for girls: courage, honesty, charity, patriotism and pride for one’s country, and a sense of duty that goes beyond reward and punishment (see Bristow). In her 1912 essay, Delta praises the Royal Readers, a series of readers used widely throughout the British Empire, and presents them as a model of modern school readers with the correct pedagogical approach (combining instruction and delight)[4] and ‘high’ values (Delta, ‘School Readers’). These books included a wide range of material: short stories, fairy tales, poems and extracts from longer classic literary works, alongside simple grammar, syntax and spelling rules. In 1908 and 1909, Delta exchanged a series of letters with Greek intellectuals such as Kostis Palamas, Alexandros Pallis and Fotis Fotiadis, referring to her research in European school readers, expressing her preference for the Royal Readers, and declaring that she was preparing her own version for Greek schools (Delta, Correspondence, 26-27, 67, 88-90).

Having found an appropriate model for her Reader, the problem Delta faced was utilising foreign ideas whilst creating ‘something Greek, with Greek ideas in a Greek setting’ (Delta, Correspondence, 22). She wanted to include Greek history, but also give a flavour of Greek folk tradition, as opposed to an imported Northwestern European one. She conducted a lot of research on Greek folk songs, especially on heroic figures of the historical past, and she also looked for Greek folk tales that she could possibly adapt for children. This latter research disappointed her even further. A series of letters addressed to Alexandros Delmouzos, an important Greek pedagogue and a fierce supporter of the demotic language, reveal Delta’s disgust with traditional Greek folk tales. She describes them as ‘vulgar, or wicked, or stupid’ (Delta, Correspondence, 214). A specific example she comments on is a tale that Delmouzos suggested as suitable for children: ‘The hedgehog, the turtle, the spider and the bumblebee’. This is a typical etiological folk tale that combines two widely known folklore motifs: A2220, ‘Animal characteristics as reward’ and A2230, ‘Animal characteristics as punishment’ (see Thompson). In the tale, a mother, grateful for her daughter’s help, blesses her and she becomes a bumble-bee, while her other children’s laziness or unwillingness bring about the mother’s curse and they become a hedgehog, a turtle, and a spider respectively. Delta writes to Delmouzos somewhat heatedly:

the folk tale (or tradition) of the hedgehog et al, I didn’t like it for many reasons: a) the mother that curses her children so easily seems to me vulgar and little; b) I don’t like the idea of telling a child that the turtle is cursed, and that is why it holds its washing tub upside down on its back, the same goes with the hedgehog’s spines, the same for the eternal work of the spider that never ends because it always gets destroyed; it leads to a distorted understanding of nature […] And c) and most of all, the reward of the bumblebee bothers me, that because it run to [help] her mother, she enjoyed all of the goods of the earth (and those goods are strange as it [the bee] works continuously to nourish humans). I don’t like telling children “do good deeds to get rewarded”, and “don’t do anything wrong so that you don’t get cursed”. I would like a much more proud morality, a higher one; that is, “do good deeds because you should do them” and “don’t do bad things because they make you stoop lowly”. Take most French readers (full of Catholicism and hypocrisy); you will see everywhere good people getting rewarded and bad people getting punished. On the contrary, if you open an English reader, you will always see a gentle and proud morality, either in their fairy tales or the short stories, or in the poems. I’m leaving aside the German fairy tales in which immorality is the foundation; in those slyness reigns. – So, such fairytales that, simply told, move the child and can awaken inside him higher ideas, I did not find in ours. (Delta, Correspondence, 217-218)

Delta’s comments are illuminating. To begin with, she conflates, and thus compares as equal, two narrative genres that are very different in terms of authorship, cultural background and function: the traditional, oral folk-tale and the literary fairy tale. Her preference for the latter over the former is based on her own childhood reading and value system, and shows a lack of recognition that an etiological tale shaped by oral tradition might seem crude, but is anthropologically more interesting than a literary fairy tale that expresses its author’s response to his/her (often elite) culture. These two narrative genres have very different origins and would be studied by different practitioners of the humanities: folklorists and anthropologists in the case of the former, and literary and cultural critics for the latter. Delta’s fairy tales are sitting comfortably within the second category.

Having given up on Greek folk tales as potential material for adaptation for children, Delta went on to write literary fairy tales for her proposed reader, following the models of late Victorian fairy tales and falling in line with the values and cultural expectations of the celebrated children’s literature of the time. In the event, the reader was never published. However, some of Delta’s fairy tales found their way into different Greek periodicals and other publications. The remainder of this essay will examine closely three of her fairy tales: ‘A Fairy Tale for New Year’s Day’, ‘The Heart of the Princess’, and ‘The Price of Glory’. The first two are her earliest. ‘A Fairy Tale for New Year’s Day’ was already in existence by 1909, because Delta mentions it in her correspondence (Delta, Correspondence, 90), though it did not get published until 1915. ‘The Heart of the Princess’ was published in 1909 as an appendix to Delta’s historical novella For the Homeland. Both of these fairy tales were originally intended for Delta’s abortive reader. The third tale was published in the literary magazine Estia in 1913. All three works, together with many more fairy tales, but also historical stories, were collected in the volume Fairy and Other Tales of 1915.

3. Exploring Delta’s Fairy Tales: Blending Greek and Northwestern European Traditions 

  • ‘A Fairy Tale for New Year’s Day’

From Penelope Delta’s “A Fairy Tale for New Year’s Day”. Illustration by Maria Paparrigopoulou.

‘A Fairy Tale for New Year’s Day’ is built on oppositions: a rich young boy, Vasilakis, and a poor orphan, Vasilis, are its protagonists. The boys share the same name (though the rich boy is referred to by an affectionate diminutive): they are both named after Saint Basil (Agios Vasilios, in Greek), whose memory the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates on 1st January. That makes New Year’s Day the name day of both children (name days are still very much celebrated in Greece, and are culturally more important than birthdays). But the rich boy, although inside his comfortable, cosy home, is in bed, gravely ill; while the poor orphan is abandoned outside, in the cold winter weather. And yet, Vasilakis feels restricted in his bed, despite his lovely toys and the abundance of food, and longs to go outside and play in the snow, something that his illness prevents him from doing; while Vasilis longs for warmth and for food and cannot therefore imagine how much Vasilakis is envious of his ‘freedom’. Both children are near death: the one because of ill health, the other from cold and malnourishment. The supernatural character that enters this tale and transforms it is Saint Basil himself, the equivalent to Father Christmas or Santa Claus/Saint Nicolas of Western European Tradition. He visits both children in all his splendour and offers them their heart’s desire: Vasilakis asks to be free, to go outside and play in the snow; Vasilis asks for some food and to see his mother again. Saint Basil’s very Victorian solution is for both children to die and accompany him to heaven. In the final scene, the rich boy’s parents lament his death, but Delta tags at the readers heart strings once more as no one pays attention to the lifeless body of the poor orphan outside in the cold and snow.

From Penelope Delta’s “A Fairy Tale for New Year’s Day”. Illustration by Maria Paparrigopoulou.

Delta here combines successfully Greek and Northwestern European motifs. She builds on a Western model, the Christmas story, a very traditional genre in Victorian literature, especially so following the success of Dickens’ Christmas books. But instead of a Christmas story, Delta offers a Greek equivalent: a New Year’s Day story. Traditionally, the main winter festival in Greece associated with children is New Year’s Day, not Christmas. Saint Basil has become a cognate saint with the Western Father Christmas/Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas, and likewise it is he who brings presents to the children. Each family also makes a ‘Saint Basil’s pie’, a sweet pie in which a (gold or silver) coin is placed to be found by the luckiest member of the family (compare with a sixpence in the Christmas pudding in the West). In the wealthy house of Vasilakis, readers witness the cutting of the pie, but also, uncommonly, the presence of a Christmas tree. This is a present from his parents after Vasilakis mentions seeing a Christmas tree ‘in his book’ (Delta, 1973, 23) – most probably a foreign book, as the Christmas tree was certainly a Northwestern European tradition at the time, but not common in Greece until much later. Even the snow falling outside is not quite typical of a Greek winter – the story acknowledges that this was ‘a rare occasion in Athens’ (20) – but the Christmas story genre demands the bitter cold outside be juxtaposed with the cosy warmth and family bliss inside. Still, Delta both obeys and breaks the rules by complicating the inside/outside, rich/poor, restricted/free dichotomies.

From Penelope Delta’s “A Fairy Tale for New Year’s Day”. Illustration by Maria Paparrigopoulou.

Saint Basil’s visit to both boys comprises the imaginative element of the tale, and Delta seems to play with both Western ideas of Father Christmas/Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas and the Greek Saint Basil. Saint Basil of Caesarea (or Saint Basil the Great) was one of the early Church fathers whose theological texts and works of charity made him a significant figure. When he appears to Vasilakis, he is an old man dressed in ‘the long clothes of a monk’ (Delta, 1973, 29) while to Vasilis he seems to be ‘dressed in red and gold’ (31). To the rich boy, Saint Basil’s appearance is closer to the familiar image of the saint as depicted in Greek icons: although Saint Basil became a bishop, he is also remembered as the father of monasticism in the Eastern Church tradition, and he is often depicted as an old ascetic man, dressed simply.  When he visits the poor orphan boy, however, he is either dressed in the splendid attire of an Orthodox Church bishop (traditionally very luxurious, with an abundance of colours and precious stones), or he can be possibly read as closer to the Western Santa Claus, dressed in red and gold. Delta allows an ambiguous double reading here. On the one hand, it is possible that she uses the ascetic, monastic part of Saint Basil’s character to highlight the comforts of the wealthy boy (though he does not appreciate them), while the splendid clothes of the bishop stand in contrast to the dreary conditions of the poor boy. On the other hand, Delta might be blending the Greek Saint Basil with the Western Santa Claus to create a new, hybrid fantastical character.

Delta’s New Year’s Day story also brings to mind a celebrated Christmas/New Year fairy tale that includes a poor child’s death in the cold winter weather: Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl’. Delta’s contemporaries also picked up the parallels between the two tales. Kostis Palamas, considered the ‘national’ poet of Greece at the time, corresponded with Delta and praised ‘A Fairy Tale for New Year’s Day’ noting that it ‘brings to mind the classic accounts of Andersen’ (Delta, Correspondence, 29). Delta was puzzled that Palamas liked the tale, claiming that she considered it too simple, as she wrote it in one sitting without redrafting or further work on its details. Writing to Palamas from Frankfurt, where she lived with her family at the time, she notes:

Why, I wonder, you liked ‘A Fairy Tale for New Year’s Day’? My children were singing upstairs, and outside the snow was falling thick; it was New Year’s Eve and I became nostalgic of Attica, and looking out of the window I thought of Vasilis and Vasilakis and I wrote everything that was filling my head. That is why I fear that it is not for children, because it is written just like that, without any thought, tel quell [sic] it lived and cried inside me. (Delta, Correspondence, 31).

Delta’s comment seems to point once more to the hybrid nature of this fairy tale: written in snow-covered Frankfurt, but nostalgic of Athens, it reproduces the snowy setting but focuses on the Greek celebration of New Year’s Day and expresses the author’s wistful longing to be in Greece. But at the same time this is a woman who is familiar with Northwestern European traditions, the English literary genre of the Christmas tale, and whose letters include short exclamations in English and French (as above). A later letter by Palamas (writing from Athens, but also very well versed in English, French and German literature) alludes to the Western vs. Greek opposition in terms of the main winter celebration: Christmas vs. New Year. Commenting again on the same fairy tale he writes:

You’re making the nicest Christmas, Saint Basil’s – if you prefer – present that a Greek woman could make to Greek children, a mother to children, a woman to our modern literature. (Delta, Correspondence, 32)

Palamas’ comparison of Delta’s ‘A Fairy Tale for Year’s Day’ with Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl’ demands further discussion of their similarities. Both take place on New Year’s Eve, and both feature a poor child freezing to death. In Andersen’s fairy tale, the little girl strikes the matches she is expected to sell in order to get seconds of warmth, and she has visions of warm houses and plenty of food. Tired from walking the streets of the big city, she sits ‘cowering’, ‘in a corner formed by two houses, one of which projected beyond the other’ (Andersen, 354). Delta’s Vasilis is sitting ‘crammed at the corner of a front door’ (20). Both children are looking enviously at the lit windows of the rich houses, and dream of food and warmth. Vasilis is ‘saved’ by the vision of Saint Basil, while Andersen’s little girl is carried to heaven by a vision of her dead grandmother. Delta was certainly well-read in English and French literature and her homage to Andersen may have been conscious or not: the success of her story, however, rests on its hybrid nature.

  • ‘The Heart of the Princess’

From Penelope Delta’s fairy-tale “The Heart of the Princess”. Illustration by Maria Paparrigopoulou.

‘The Heart of the Princess’ was Delta’s first fairy tale to be published. As Tsingkou (128-9) notes, it begins in a very similar way to the Grimm Brothers’ ‘Briar Rose’ (though the story was also told by Perrault earlier as ‘La Belle au bois dormant’, and there are literary versions extant before Perrault – see Goldberg). A childless king and queen are finally blessed with a baby girl and hold a feast at the palace, inviting all fairies of the land to bestow gifts upon the child. In the familiar tale by Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, a wicked fairy curses the little girl to die, pricked by a spindle, but the last good fairy is able to counteract the curse by modifying death to a hundred years of sleep. In Delta’s fairy tale, the personified Fate is not acting out of malice: she actually wants the little girl never to experience pain and suffering, so she takes away her heart. The only fairy remaining, Life, cannot restore the heart to the little princess, but she gives her a little golden key that will help her find it on her own when she grows up and wishes to look for it.

The little princess grows to be a very beautiful and very gifted, but (literally) heartless and cruel child. She is selfish and egotistical and, though very bright and clever, cannot feel any love or compassion. She tortures animals for fun, she is violent and abusive, and she does not have any emotional responses to art. At the age of sixteen, the neighbouring prince comes to woo her, but she desires so much to be queen and wear a crown that she suggests that they attack his parents and usurp the throne. The prince, aghast at her plans, but so in love with her beauty, attempts suicide on discovering her true nature. Following his suicide attempt, the princess finally realises that she is ‘missing’ something. With her mother’s blessing she takes the golden key and sets out to find her heart. The little key hops away from the palace and slowly leads her to the wild forests of the mountains, where she eventually finds her heart in a little box that the key can unlock. The fairy ‘Life’ appears to her again and explains that taking back her heart will give her happy feelings and emotions, but will also make her capable of feeling pain. The princess decides that her life might become difficult but at least she will not feel empty anymore, and takes her heart back.

From Penelope Delta’s fairy-tale “The Heart of the Princess”. Illustration by Maria Paparrigopoulou.

The princess’s way back to the palace comprises the longest part of this fairy tale. She encounters poverty and misery that she neglected on her way up to the mountains, but she now feels that she has to stop and help. Unfortunately, she fails to save a blind boy whom she ignored on her upward journey, but she does save a poor man from prison by giving him all her gold to repay his debts. She also helps a poor mother and her baby to survive by giving them emeralds plucked from the sleeves of her dress. Every time she helps someone she feels new warmth inside her, a sure sign of her heart’s power. Later on, she falls into a trap as she is ambushed by robbers, who take her luxurious clothes and dress her in rags. Meanwhile, she hears that the neighbouring king is preparing to attack her father’s kingdom after his son’s suicide attempt. After managing to escape the robbers, she thinks only about giving herself up and saving her country. She manages to present herself in front of the neighbouring king, tell her story and demonstrate her transformation. The fairy tale ends happily with the wedding of the princess and prince, and the love and continuous acts of charity of the princess towards all the poor in her kingdom.

This is Delta’s longest fairy tale, characterised as a ‘little masterpiece’ by Kostis Palamas (Delta, Correspondence, 32). In his letters he compares it, again, with ‘the artistry of Andersen, and especially it reminded me of “The Mother”, that classic fairy tale – although so different in terms of plot’ (Delta, Correspondence, 32). Palamas here refers to Andersen’s tale better known as ‘The Story of a Mother’. There might be similarities in tone that Palamas is observing, but to me Delta’s fairy tale brings to mind different aspects of Oscar Wilde’s literary fairy tales, especially ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ and ‘The Happy Prince’. ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ revels in a detailed account of the enchanting gifts and shows organised for the princess of Spain on her birthday. At the heart of the story is a little Dwarf, an ugly, grotesque little creature found in the woods by courtiers, who makes the little princess laugh with his misshapen appearance. The little Dwarf falls in love with the princess and dreams of being with her forever and looking after her, but when he sees the reflection of a little monster in one of the palace mirrors, and realises that he is staring at his own image, he knows that the princess laughed at him, and he dies of a broken heart. The little princess calls for the Dwarf to dance for her once more, but the courtiers have to explain that he cannot because ‘his heart is broken’. The fairy tale ends poignantly thus:

And the Infanta frowned, and her dainty rose-leaf lips curled in pretty disdain. ‘For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts,’ she cried, and she ran out into the garden. (Wilde, 127)

The first part of Delta’s tale which features scenes of cruelty caused by her little, heartless princess seem to chime strongly with Wilde’s Infanta. Even the change of heart of Delta’s character shows parallels with Wilde’s other celebrated fairy tale: ‘The Happy Prince’. In this fairy tale, the golden statue of the Happy Prince weeps at the sight of the misery and poverty of his people, something that was hidden from him during his sheltered palace life. He asks the swallow to pluck the ruby from his sceptre, the sapphires from his eyes, and the golden leaves from his body and give them to the poor. After the first deed of charity the swallow remarks: ‘“It is curious […] but I feel quite warm now, although it is so cold.” “That is because you have done a good action,” said the Prince.’ (Wilde, 15). Delta’s princess plucks emeralds from her dress and gives them away to the poor and downtrodden, while after her first good deed she tells the man she has just saved: ‘Don’t thank me […] I should thank you for the happiness I feel inside me’ (103).

Delta’s fairy tale seems to borrow a lot from the Grimm Brothers, Perrault, and Oscar Wilde, but this is also a tale that combines Northwestern European and Greek elements. The kingdom where the princess lives is an island with a maritime tradition, and its natural surroundings resemble the Greek landscape. After the princess has regained her heart, apart from love and compassion for the people around her, another feeling that awakens inside her is love of her country:

Her homeland… She looked around her at the bare mountains, the valleys, the sparse woods; all of these, however much poor they were, they were still her own country, her own land… And inside her awoke, suddenly, unstoppable love for this soil, which she saw with indifference until then; her poor island seemed to her so beautiful, with its stones and rocks, with its fields that were green here and there, with its grey olive trees and the endless sea all around… (113)

At the same time, the ‘fairy’ who takes the princess’s heart away is Fate personified: here we have a very Greek notion of fate or destiny as a powerful force in human life, a force that can dictate the events of one’s life. This notion is reinforced by the old woman’s words when the princess fails to save the little blind boy: ‘It was written’ (104), he was destined to die. Here Delta, again, blends successfully European fairy tale motifs and Greek elements. The fairies bestowing gifts to the baby princess on her christening day resemble those of Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, but Modern Greek folklore also shows belief in one or, in some versions, three female figures called ‘Moira’ (Fate) or ‘Moires’ (the Fates) who visit newborn children to ‘write’ or ‘spin’ the course of their lives and foretell their destiny. The power of these supernatural female characters, who have survived in the popular imagination from ancient Greek myths, cannot be contested and their decisions cannot be changed (see Alexiou, Ritual Lament, 110-17).[5] However, Delta insists that fate can be defied by personal choice. Fate appears once more in Delta’s fairy tale, at the crucial point when the princess, having escaped from the robbers, collapses at the side of the road, overwhelmed by exhaustion. Fate comes to her with a bargain: she offers to take away the princess’s heart again, save her from an inglorious death, and return her to her comfortable, but loveless life. But the princess refuses: she prefers a life with pain, rather than an empty life. On this occasion, Fate helps her by leading the nearby village doctor to her side. Delta succeeds in creating another hybrid fairy tale: she moves from a very Northwestern European type opening of her fairy tale to an ending that has a much more Greek flavour to it, one which, importantly, seems to express something of her personality and defiance against ‘destiny’.

  • ‘The Price of Glory’

Following the publication of Delta’s two Byzantine-themes historical novels (For the Homeland, 1909, which included ‘The Heart of the Princess’ as an appendix; and In the Days of the Bulgarslayer, 1911), and another short allegorical novel entitled The Nameless Story,[6] ‘The Price of Glory’ appeared in 1913 in the magazine Estia. This fairy tale was published with the subtitle: ‘War Stories’ (Zannas, ‘Published Works’, 22), presumably part of a regular column of this periodical. Indeed, the tale is set during a particular historical moment of Modern Greek history: the 1912 war against the Ottoman Empire for the liberation of Greek-speaking Balkan areas (Greece took part in this First Balkan War as a member of the Balkan League). The tale opens with a young girl in church, praying for her brother who is on the front, fighting against the Turks, ‘in order to scour the disgrace of the other war’ (Delta, 1973, 13). The ‘other war’ refers to ‘Black ‘97’, the shameful Greco-Turkish war of 1897 for the liberation of Crete: the disorganised and untrained Greek army was easily defeated by the much better-equipped Ottomans. Greece did not lose much territory as a result, but this incident became ingrained in the national psyche by a feeling of collective shame.

From Penelope Delta’s fairy-tale “The Price of Glory”. Illustration by Maria Paparrigopoulou.

In Delta’s tale, as the girl is praying, Death personified appears in front of her ‘dressed in black, on his black horse, with his black bow in his hand’ (13) and asks her to choose who he should kill instead of her brother. He shows her a little mirror, in which she can see the battlefield, and she learns about the life stories of other soldiers: one who has just got married, one who has studied hard all his life and if he survives will make an important scientific discovery, and a young widower with a picture of his little daughter in his shirt pocket. The girl cannot bring herself to sacrifice any other man, especially when she realises that other sisters, mothers and children will mourn them. Eventually she gives in to what ‘has been written’ (16), what is destined to happen, and Death takes her brother.

Interestingly, Delta uses the Modern Greek folklore portrayal of Death personified, namely Charos (or Haros). He is a figure dressed in black, riding a black horse, and carrying off the dead or reaping human lives by shooting arrows. This is not ‘Charon’, the ferryman of dead souls to Hades in Classical Greek mythology, though the name is, of course, related. Modern Greek tradition transformed Charon, the ferryman of Greek myth, to Charos as Death himself (see Alexiou, ‘Modern Greek Folklore’). Delta uses Charos again in her later fairy tale ‘The Three Small Candles’, in which he carries off dead men, women and children killed in the later ‘Macedonian Struggle’ against the Bulgarians. In ‘The Three Small Candles’ Delta quotes lines from the folk song known as ‘Charos Riding’, revealing her familiarity with Greek folk songs, songs that she researched in preparation for her Greek school reader (see Chrysogelou-Katsi, 110).

However, the idea of a bargain with death, or choice over who might die, is not common in Modern Greek tradition: this motif seems to come from Northwestern European folklore. As noted above, Kostis Palamas mentioned Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Story of a Mother’ as a possible inspiration (in terms of tone and artistry) for ‘The Heart of the Princess’, but in my view this tale contains a very brief episode that bears a strong resemblance to Delta’s ‘The Price of Glory’. In Andersen, a mother chases Death in order to claim back her young son, and, after many trials and tribulations, finds herself in Death’s company, in a greenhouse, where each human soul is represented by a tree, plant or flower. She finds the flower of her son’s soul, and when Death explains he cannot spare him as his death is God’s will, the mother attempts to blackmail Death by threatening to pluck at random other flowers and take human lives that God has not destined to die yet. The dialogue between Death and the mother is poignant:

‘Give me back my child,’ said the mother; and she implored and wept. All at once she grasped two pretty flowers with her two hands, and called to Death, ‘I’ll tear off all your flowers, for I am in despair.’
‘Do not touch them,’ said Death. ‘You say you are so unhappy, and now you would make another mother just as unhappy!’
‘Another mother?’ said the poor woman; and she let the flowers go.
(Andersen, 364)

The mother then sees in a nearby well the future lives of the two flowers she was about to pluck – just like the sister of Delta’s soldier. In both tales, the empathy with other mothers/sisters/women who will mourn lost ones makes a bargain with Death impossible. But for Delta, the sacrifice of the girl’s brother is strongly associated with national glory and patriotic feelings. Delta’s Charos laughs mockingly when the girl suggests that he should take a Turk’s life instead of her brother’s: ‘Didn’t your brother wish for glory? Glory can be bought only with blood.’ (14) he says. And when the girl makes a second suggestion: that Charos should take her own life instead, Charos cries:

‘What use can you be to me? I want those that chase Glory […] Because the price of Glory is blood, blood and tears shed like rivers. In the other war, didn’t all mothers cry just like you cry now? And didn’t I show them pity and brought back all of their children, safe, but undignified? Do you want me to do the same now? If I just turn the mirror around, they will all run away…’ (16)

Delta here makes another clear reference to ‘Black ’97’ and the national disgrace of the ‘other war’, and sure enough, the girl relents, and is no longer prepared to try and save her brother at the expense of the loss of her country’s dignity. Delta also personifies Glory: in the final scene of this fairy tale the girl sees Glory as an ethereal woman dressed in shining clothes, leaving a branch of laurel on the bodies of dead soldiers, among whom she can see her brother.

4. Conclusion: New Fairy Tales for Modern Greece

In a recent essay, Van Dyck discussed Penelope Delta’s devotion to the demotic Greek language (as opposed to katharevousa) as a reflection of her origins in the diaspora and her desire to negotiate a new Greek identity to which she could feel she belonged. Placing her within a tradition of other Greek intellectuals with similar diaspora origins and a multilingual upbringing (Adamantios Korais, Dionysios Solomos and Psycharis) who took a fierce stance in the debate over the Greek ‘Language Question’ Van Dyke observes that:

The Greek language, with its warring linguistic forms, is a problem for these reformers from the Diaspora, but it is also an expression of the way they have learned to live. Diglossia, to some degree, can thus be viewed as a by-product of a community of intellectuals from outside Greece, who themselves are always negotiating and reflecting upon the differences and similarities among languages. It serves as a matrix for working through the multilingualism of their diasporic existence […] Even when the explicit message seems quite rigid and nationalistic, the diasporic multilingualism of these texts suggests a sensitivity and an openness to change. (196)

Van Dyke’s observations about Delta’s insistence on the vernacular, demotic Greek as a way to work out creatively her own multilingualism, can also be extended to Delta’s fairy tales: the creation of her fairy tales, written in demotic Greek, was a way to channel multilingual childhood readings, the influence of a strong European tradition of literary fairy tales, and an automatic disapproval for ‘peasant’ Greek folk tales, despite their ‘authenticity’ in terms of language and origins. Her Fairy and Other Tales collect a number of texts that reveal her blending of traditions from Northwestern Europe and Greece, bridging West and East, linking a Diaspora childhood with a mature decision to take pride in being Greek.

It seems to me apposite to end this essay with the shortest of Delta’s fairy tales, which was included only in the first edition of Fairy and Other Tales.[7] It is called ‘Like a Fairy Tale’, and it presents in miniature many of the characteristics of Delta’s art: Greek elements (notice the role of fate), Western traits (observe the role of the ‘spirit’), and the personality of a woman slightly suffocated by a strict society, but also wounded by love:

Like a fairy tale

Once upon a time, there was a princess who was beautiful and sweet and proud. But the evil fate was jealous of her beauty and blew upon her such a terrible time that the Princess was broken and slumped and she bent down her head.

And then a spirit saw her and took pity on her beauty and her endless desolation, and asked her what wish she wanted fulfilled.

“Give me only a little strength to hold my head up,” said the princess “so that other people can’t see how fate bent it down”.

And the spirit blew steel inside her, and the beautiful princess stood up, erect, unbent and strong.

But the steel froze and solidified and hardened around her heart and her face was petrified just like it was at the time the spirit blew inside her.

And the princess went on her way with her head held high and unbent. But all the kings and princes could never soften her hardened face any more, and her mouth never laughed again.

Because at the moment the steel had frozen around her heart, sadness had been locked inside.



Alexiou, Margaret. The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Alexiou, Margaret. ‘Modern Greek Folklore and its Relation to the Past: The Evolution of Charos in Greek Tradition.’ The ‘Past’ in Medieval and Modern Greek Culture. Ed. Speros Vryonis, Jr. Malibu, CA: Undena Publications, 1978, 221-236.

Andersen, Hand Christian. Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales. London: Wordsworth, 1997.

Beaton, Roderick and Ricks, David (ed.). The Making of Modern Greece: Nationalism, Romanticism, & the Uses of the Past (1797–1896). Surrey: Ashgate, 2009.

Bristow, Jospeh. Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man’s World. London: HarperCollins, 1991.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985.

Chrysogelou-Katsi, Anna. ‘Penelope Delta’s Fairy Tales’. The Greek World at the End of the 19th century: Historicity, Biography, Fiction and Language in the Works of Penelope Delta: Proceedings of the 1st International Conference for Greek Culture in Egypt (Ο Ελληνισμός στα Τέλη του 19ου Αιώνα. Ιστορικότητα, Βιογραφία, Μυθοπλασία και Γλώσσα στο Έργο της Πηνελόπης Δέλτα). Ed. Maria Frangi. Cairo: The Greek Culture Center in Cairo, 2009. 102-118.

Delta, Penelope. ‘About Our School Readers’. Deltio tou Ekpaidevtikou Omilou (Δελτίο του Εκπαιδευτικού Ομίλου) 3 (1913): 232-256.

Delta, Penelope. Correspondence of P.S. Delta, 1906-1940 (Αλληλογραφία της Π.Σ.Δέλτα 1906-1940), edited by X. Lefkoparidis. Athens: Estia, 1956.

Delta, Penelope. Fairy and Other Tales (Παραμύθια και Άλλα). Athens: Ekpaidevtikos Omilos, 1915.

Delta, Penelope. Fairy and Other Tales (Παραμύθια και Άλλα). 8th ed. Athens: Estia, 1973.

Delta, Penelope. First Memories (Πρώτες Ενθυμήσεις), edited by P.A. Zannas. Athens: Ermis, 1981.

Delta, Penelope. Memories, 1899 (Αναμνήσεις 1899), edited by P.A. Zannas, and A.P. Zannas, trans. V. Louvrou. Athens: Ermis, 1990.

Goldberg, Harriet. ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ The Oxford Companion to Fairy-Tales. Ed. Jack Zipes. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 476-476.

Loukaki, Marina. Basil the Bulgar-Slayer and Penelope Delta (Ο Βασίλειος ο Βουλγαροκτόνος και η Πηνελόπη Δέλτα). Athens: Goulandri-Horn Foundation, 1996.

McGlathery, James M. (ed.). The Brothers Grimm and Folktale. Champaigne: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Spanaki, Marianna. ‘Byzantium and the novel in the twentieth century: from Penelope Delta to Maro Douka.’ Byzantium and the Modern Greek Identity. Ed. David Ricks and Paul Magdalino. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1996. 119-130.

Spanaki, Marianna. Byzantium and Macedonia in the Works of P.S. Delta: The Relation of History and Literature (Βυζάντιο και Μακεδονία στο Έργο της Π. Σ. Δέλτα: Η Σχέση Ιστορίας και Λογοτεχνίας). Athēna: Ermis, 2004.

Sumpter, Caroline.  The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folk-Tales, Ballads, Myths, etc. Bloomington, Ind.; Haminassa, 1932-36.

Tsingkou, Polyanthi. ‘P.S. Delta: An Approach to “Fairy and Other Tales”.’ The Greek World at the End of the 19th century: Historicity, Biography, Fiction and Language in the Works of Penelope Delta: Proceedings of the 1st International Conference for Greek Culture in Egypt (Ο Ελληνισμός στα Τέλη του 19ου Αιώνα. Ιστορικότητα, Βιογραφία, Μυθοπλασία και Γλώσσα στο Έργο της Πηνελόπης Δέλτα). Ed. Maria Phrankē. Kairo: Hellēniko Politistiko Kentro Kaïrou, 2009. 123-130.

Van Dyck, Karen. ‘The Language Question and the Diaspora.’ The Making of Modern Greece: Nationalism, Romanticism, & the Uses of the Past (1797–1896). Eds Roderick Beaton and David Ricks. Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. 189-198.

Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. London: Penguin, 1990.

Zannas, Al.P. (ed.). P.S. Delta: Modern Approaches to her Work (Π. Σ. Δέλτα: Σύγχρονες Προσεγγίσεις του Έργου της). Athens: Estia/Benaki Museum, 2006.

Zannas, Al.P. ‘Published Works by P.S. Delta’. P.S. Delta: Modern Approaches to her Work (Π. Σ. Δέλτα: Σύγχρονες Προσεγγίσεις του Έργου της). Athens: Estia/Benaki Museum, 2006. 17-31.

Zannas, P.A. ‘Preface.’ Delta, Penelope. First Memories (Πρώτες Ενθυμήσεις), edited by P.A. Zannas. Athens: Ermis, 1981. ζ΄-κδ΄.

Zipes, Jack. ‘Origins: Fairy Tales and Folk Tales.’ Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories.  Eds Janet Maybin and Nicola J. Watson. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 26-39.


[1] I am grateful to Mr Al.P. Zannas, great grandson of Penelope Delta and her literary executor, for his kind permission to translate one of her fairy tales for the purposes of this essay, and for his help and encouragement during the research stage. Also, many thanks to Theodora Papaliveriou-Fimi and Konstantina Fimi who helped me with the practical side of my research in Greece. All translations from Modern Greek are mine. All Modern Greek proper names have been transliterated following Beaton and Ricks, Making of Modern Greece.

[2] For a full list of Delta’s published work, both during her life and posthumously, see Zannas, ‘Published Works’.

[3] The recent collection of articles edited by Al.P. Zannas gives a good overview of modern scholarship on Delta (see especially the articles by Alexis Dimaras, Spyros Karavas, Antonia Kiousopoulou and Marie-Cécile Navet-Grémillet). See also Spanaki (1996 and 2004) and Loukaki.

[4] The phrase comes from the Latin motto of the 18th-century Little Pretty Pocket-Book by John Newbery, considered a watershed in the history of children’s literature.

[5] Tsingkou compares Fate in this fairy tale with the Three Fates of Classical mythology, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos (127).

[6] Note that the Greek title uses the term paramythi (fairy tale) for ‘story’, but this is a tale set in an imaginary kingdom that symbolises Modern Greece, but has no supernatural or fantastical occurrences. The term paramythi is used, I think, as a pointer to the allegorical elements of this tale.

[7] For a brief discussion of the changes between the first and second edition of Fairy and Other Tales, see Chrysogelou-Katsi, 107.