Heroines, you will note, not ‘fairytale princesses’. For though princesses do figure in fairytales, the heroine is just as often a peasant – or a farmer’s daughter – or perhaps the child of a powerful magician. Even in the so-called Classic Fairytales, the ones which have been anthologised and Disneyfied almost to death, Sleeping Beauty and Snow-White are princesses, yes. But Cinderella and Beauty are merchant’s daughters; Red Riding Hood is an ordinary little girl; Rapunzel is a peasant woman’s child; the heroine of Rumpelstiltskin is a miller’s daughter – and so on.
Sleeping Beauty herself may not be a brilliant role model. But though the Freudians among us are no doubt correct about the story’s underlying imagery (the tower, the young girl’s awakening to sexuality, etc), for me what really makes the tale stand out is the arresting of time within the castle walls. There’s beauty and terror there: the whole little jewelled world frozen and forgotten, like Pompei under its ash, for a hundred years. (There are other tales of unearthly sleepers, like King Arthur’s knights under their hill, who still haven’t woken.) No one, to my mind – not even Robin McKinley in ‘Spindle’s End’, and certainly not the Disney film – has yet retold ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in a way which does the story justice: because nobody can find a way to dramatise that hundred years of sleep. And what’s the point of the Sleeping Beauty if she sleeps for only a few hours? My own daughters have regularly done better than that.
And what about the many, many heroines of less well-known tales? What about Mollie Whuppie, abandoned in the woods by her parents, whose quick wits defeat a giant and win the hand of three princes in marriage for her and her two sisters? Or Kate Crackernuts, who, when her own mother conjures a sheep’s head on to her prettier stepsister’s shoulders, takes ‘a fine linen cloth and wrapped it around her sister’s head and took her by the hand and they both went out to seek their fortune.’ They come to a king’s castle ‘who had two sons, and one of them was sickening away to death, and no one could find out what ailed him.’ Kate offers her services, and when the prince rises at midnight she follows him into a green hill where he dances all night with the fairies until he drops from exhaustion. By persistence, courage, and intelligence, Kate manages to cure both the prince and her sister, and: ‘The sick son married the well sister and the well son married the sick sister, and they all lived and died happy and never drank out of a dry cappy.’ Katherine Briggs wrote a full length novel based on this tale – ‘Kate Crackernuts’ – and very good it is, too.
Then there’s the Norwegian fairytale ‘The Master-Maid’ in which the prince would be eaten by the troll to whom he has pledged his work, were it not for the wisdom and power of the ‘Master-Maid’ who lives in the troll’s house. The prince succeeds at each perilous task only by following the Master-Maid’s advice. Finally the troll orders the Master-Maid to kill the prince and cook him, but the Master-Maid cuts her finger and lets three drops of blood fall. Then, as the troll sleeps, she escapes with the prince and a great deal of magical treasure; and when the troll awakes to demand if the meal is cooked, the drops of blood answer for her: ‘Not yet,’ ‘Nearly’, and ‘It is boiled dry’.
The troll pursues the couple, but the Master-Maid flings magical impediments in his path which change into mountains and seas. In the end, prince and Master-Maid are married, but not without a further development in which the prince forgets her, and is rescued on the verge of marrying the wrong woman…
Clearly, in this kind of story, women are more than matches for men. The fact that the happy ending is nearly always marriage does not invalidate the energy and determination of these heroines. Marriage-with-the-prince is a metaphor for success in life. These tales aren’t telling us to wish for Prince Charming and a life of idle luxury. They are telling us to be active, to use our wits, to be undaunted, to see what we want and to go for it.
Downtrodden heroines more often rescue themselves than they are rescued. The heroine of the story variously known as ‘Donkeyskin’, ‘Ashiepattle’, ‘Allerleirauh’, or ‘Cap o’ Rushes’ has to flee her father’s house either because, like Cordelia in ‘King Lear’, she has given what he considers insufficient proof of filial affection, or in some versions because she is the spitting image of her dead mother and he has incestuously decided to marry her. (Robin McKinley wrote a magnificent version of this tale: ‘Deerskin’; to my mind even better than Margo Lanagan's recent 'Tender Morsels'.) Disguised in extraordinary shabby clothes, a donkey skin, a coat made of all kinds of different furs, or a cloak made of rushes, she sets out for another kingdom and finds rough work in the palace kitchens, thereby demonstrating independence and resilience. On seeing the prince or heir of the house, she obtains his attention by a series of tricks (mysterious appearances at dances; golden rings dropped in winecups) and finally marries him. I call it enterprising.
Many are the heroines who get the better of the Devil himself (this dark gentleman rarely does well in folktales.) Remember the farmer who sells his soul in return for twenty years of good harvests? And when the time comes to pay up, his clever wife saves him. “My man won’t be a minute, sir, he’s just getting his things together, and please take a mouthful to eat while you wait!” she calls to the Devil, handing him a pie into which she has baked a red-hot griddle. When he bites into it, burning his tongue and breaking his teeth, she interrupts his howls with the merry cry, “And I’m coming too, to cook for you both!” – at which the terrified Devil takes to his heels. Of course it’s comical: but note that the farmer’s wife employs her wits and her skills, and defeats the Devil in a particularly feminine way.
Alison Lurie, in ‘Don’t Tell the Grownups’ (Bloomsbury, 1990) points out that ‘Gretel, not Hansel, defeated the witch’, and adds, ‘In the Grimms’ original ‘Household Tales’ (1812), there are sixty-one women and girl characters who have magic powers as against only twenty-one men and boys: and these men are usually dwarfs and not humans.’ Compared to the ‘classic’ children’s literature which I wrote about last week, in which only 12 out of 66 titles featured girls as the main character, this is pretty impressive.
When the king’s daughter saw there was no hope of turning her father’s heart, she resolved to run away. In the night when everyone was asleep, she got up and took three different things from her treasures, a golden ring, a golden spinning wheel, and a golden reel. The three dresses of sun, moon and stars she placed into a nutshell, put on her mantle of all kinds of fur, and blackened her face and hands with soot. Then she commended herself to God and went away.
('Allerleirauh': in which the princess saves herself from an incestuous marriage and wins a prince.)
The maiden went forth into the wide world to search for her brothers and set them free, cost what it might. And now she went onwards, far, far, to the very end of the world. Then she came to the sun, but it was too hot and terrible, and devoured little children. Hastily she ran away, and ran to the moon, but it was far too cold, and also awful and malicious, and when it saw the child it said, “I smell, I smell the flesh of men.” …So the maiden went onwards until she came to the Glass Mountain…
('The Seven Ravens': in which the princess saves her long lost enchanted brothers.)
When they [father and daughter] had dug nearly the whole of the field, they found in the earth a mortar made of pure gold. ‘Listen,’ said the father to the girl, ‘as our lord the King has graciously given us this field, we ought to give him this mortar in return for it.’ ‘Father,’ said the daughter, ‘if we have the mortar without having the pestle as well, we shall have to get the pestle, so you had much better say nothing about it.’ But he would not obey her, and carried the mortar to the king…
('The Peasant’s Wise Daughter': the daughter’s wit and courage saves her father and wins marriage with the king – whom she later kidnaps to teach him a much-needed lesson.)
The heroines in these tales know their own minds and make their own decisions. They are wise, prudent, determined, wily and brave. They are so far from the stereotype of the fairytale princess that one has to ask how it arose, and to wonder whether late 19th/early 20th century editorial bias – to say nothing of rewriting – had anything to do with choosing more ‘properly behaved’ heroines for children’s anthologies?