Tuesday 18 May 2010

Fairytale heroines

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.

There’s a widespread notion that fairytales present a very passive picture of women and are dreadful role-models for little girls. This is due to ignorance. Many people who do not actually read fairytales, or have not read any since childhood, vaguely associate them with a picture of a Barbie-blonde lady wearing a pink silk dress and diamonds, lying on a bed in a tower, awaiting rescue from a prince on a white horse, and ‘love’s first kiss’. Like this illustration by Rene Cloke from ‘My First Book of Fairy Tales’, which I was given as a child.

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.

Getting back to heroines: fairytale heroines to me do not signal passivity and helplessness. Far more often they exhibit resourcefulness, resilience, ambition, courage – even ruthlessness. Cinderella does get to the ball, and in some of the earlier versions she is not helped by a fairy godmother, but by the hazel tree planted on her mother’s grave, suggesting that the strength and riches she finds come from within, from her own heredity. Beauty, of Beauty and the Beast, is braver than her father (seen here losing his wig in fright at the beast's approach).  Beauty ventures alone into the Beast’s castle and learns to distinguish the true worth behind his ugliness. (And yes – Freudian deconstruction says this too is all about the awakening of sexuality. But really, wouldn’t you rather have the story than the moral?) In the original tale, the Beast treats Beauty from the beginning with melancholy courtesy: she has no need to teach him manners as in the cartoon.

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.

In one of my favourite English fairytales, ‘Mr Fox’, a version of ‘Bluebeard’, the heroine Lady Mary may be initially taken in by the sly flattery of her suitor, but she is inquisitive and brave as well as rich and beautiful, discovers for herself the bloody secrets of Mr Fox’s castle, and turns the tables on him in the neatest and most self-possessed of ways. The story quite definitely approves of female curiosity and courage; without these qualities, the heroine would have joined the list of this serial killer’s victims. There is no marriage at all at the end of the tale, and one feels Lady Mary will give the next suitor a very hard look indeed.

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?


  1. I loved these sort of stories ( and still do). Thanks for letting me revisit an important part of my childhood.
    It's not surprising that I had a very soft spot for Gerda in the Snow Queen, or Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings, is it?

  2. Glad to see you are another McKinley fan--though personally I think that 'Spindle's End' deals with that tricky matter of sleep in a perfectly valid way. I quite agree that those ordinary girls are excellent role models. Where did we lose sight of that? Was it Disney? Or was it that feminism somehow signalled implicit disapproval of the 'happy ever after' ending in which the heroine (however resourceful) married her dream prince/frog/beast? I'm not usually a fan of Freudian deconstruction of stories--but one book I would recommend most highly for a deeper look into the meaning of fairytale is 'Women who run with the Wolves' by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (a Jungian, as it happens). I'm sure you already know it, Kath...?

    Lucy at http://scribblecitycentral.blogspot.com

  3. I always found the younger female characters in fairy tales to be quite empowering. Perhaps not the princesses but the working class or poor children. They seemed to be practical, brave and ingenious.

  4. I love this post! And about Sleeping Beauty - there's an essay in one of those Ursula Le Guin essay collections I was talking about the other day (the most recent one, I think) that makes the exact same point you made here about time standing still. I think both you and Le Guin are absolutely right.

    Your post is very timely, as over the weekend I was editing an academic manuscript and getting very, very angry because of an essay on Angela Carter that suggested that what she wrote were "anti-fairy-tales" and hers was an "anti-children's literature" aesthetics exactly because - gasp! - her heroines are so empowered. Now, I absolutely adore Carter, but it seems completely clear to me that she was working WITHIN a tradition, not against it. And yes, both her retold fairy tales and the tradition you so eloquently write about here do work against something, but that's a whole separate point.

    Also, don't get me started on the assumption that nobody else before or after Carter has done what she did... I suppose that's true for much of the academic world, as she's the only "genre" author they deem worthy and they wouldn't touch children's lit or the rest of genre fiction with a ten foot pole, but gah, does that kind of blindness and completely reliance on unchecked assumptions make me mad.

    It amazes me that this belief that fairy tales are by definition reactionary is so widespread that people actually get paid to spew ignorant nonsense, and have half the world believe that their ignorance is in fact a marvellous insight.

  5. Dear Nymeth, I so agree - Angela Carter clearly drew strength from fairytales. I have still to get hold of the LeGuin collections, but can't wait to read them. I think one of the point Lurie makes in her book is the valid one that fairytales were (it's an obvious point, but an interestinf one) told by women AS OFTEN AS BY MEN, and then when men became literate earlier than women (schooling being expensive) women WENT ON TELLING THEM longer than men - until the times when MEN STARTED COLLECTING the tales. And after that came the rewriting, the anthologising, when choices began to be made as to what was considered suitable for children (as the audience had then become). Old wives' tales. I think I haven't fisnished with this subject yet!

    Thanks to all of you for your comments. Lucy, I must confess to having heard of but not read yet that classic text! You have spurred me on.

  6. Sorry for the typos. Getting excited!

  7. I love this post, so incredible. I love fairy tale retellings and seeing their evolution through the ages. I have a few books on the subject now, and reviewed one at some point awhile ago (Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked). It is so interesting to see how these things change through time, with heroines having more and less (and then more again) power, confidence, and butt-kicking strength.

    As a genre there is so much to work with and simply by retelling a story we don't lose the original, we simply change the story to suit the values of our time. Obviously the 'Disney-fied' versions have lost a lot of that strength and power - why? That is what I want to know!

  8. I always admired Thumbelina when I was a child. She seemed so brave and able to withstand huge challenges. I often think back to the world of fairytale I was immersed in as a child. Its something you can never really get back to.
    Great post as ever Kath. I'm full of admiration.

  9. Terrific post, Kath. I dealt with the problem of time passing in Watching the Roses (which is a version of Sleeping Beauty) by a combination of the garden outside going to hell and the fact that Alice falls into the 'hundred year sleep' effects of becoming a volunteer mute. Rendered silent and unmoving by what's happened to her.

  10. Adele, you're right - how could I have forgotten? Your modern handling of the Sleeping Beauty story was the most satisfying I ever read. Everybody - go and read it! It's in 'Happy Ever After' by Adele Geras, (Definitions 2001), along with her versions of Rapunzel and Snow White.

    Miriam, thankyou - I hadn't begun to address Hans Andersen, since he was such a conscious artist and I wanted to talk about folktales - but you are right, Thumbelina certainly overcomes plenty of challenges.

  11. What a fantastic post! This is what the best fairy tale adaptations do--open up new levels of meaning for the reader. The original stories are all so dark and layered; there's so much to find there beyond the simple "prince marries princess."

  12. Kath, have you read BEAUTY by Sheri S Tepper? It is a refreshing take on the Sleeping Beauty legend, where 16-year old Beauty sidesteps the sleeping curse on her birthday only to be kidnapped by time travellers and taken into a savage future where she alone represents "beauty". I have a copy, if you want to borrow it!

  13. That's a new one on me. I'd love to!

  14. What a brilliant post! Thanks Katherine, and I’ve really enjoyed reading all the comments as well. This is a subject I get very passionate about too. I have young children and have seen first hand that the Disney princess culture is still going strong (if anything it seems worse than when I was growing up in the 80s) – I’ve seen too many little girls dressed in pink frilly gowns and high heels role-playing needing to be rescued. I can’t believe that in 2010 fairy tales are still so widely misrepresented and misunderstood. And that it’s still the case despite the work of so many fantastic writers and editors, many of whom have already been mentioned above (Carter’s Virago collections and Lurie’s Clever Gretchen are amongst my favourite books) is ridiculous.

    Also, there is a wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin essay on Sleeping Beauty in Mirror Mirror on the Wall (edited by Kate Bernheimer – it’s a fantastic book I highly recommend it), I wonder if it’s the same essay Nymeth mentions just collected in a different place. In it she talks about a Sylvia Townsend Warner poem that includes the wonderful lines: ‘Woe’s me! And must one kiss/ Revoke the silent house, the birdsong wilderness?’ and how it influenced her own take on Sleeping Beauty ‘The Poacher’.

    Last thing (I promise!) did you see the Germaine Greer article on old wives’ tales in the Guardian at the weekend? http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/15/germaine-greer-old-wives-tales

  15. Ah... Sylvia Townsend Warner. Don't get me started!...

  16. Claire Massey, yes, it is the same essay! I originally read it in Mirror, Mirror (a wonderful book!) and then re-read it in Cheek by Jowl, where it was republished.

  17. Well, I now have both collections of LeGuin essays on order from abebooks; but Mirror Mirror is actually in my bookcase. I'll look it up!

  18. ...and Claire,yes, I saw the Greer essay in last week's Guardian, but only got round to reading it yesterday. I thought it was excellent, and especially pleased with the reference to Peele's 'Old Wives Tale' - a play I really love. I think it was also an inspiration for Milton's 'Comus' - hmmm, but that's a post for another day.

  19. (Here via Charlotte's Library)
    I have to admit, I am one of the people who has felt that fairy-tale heroines have not always been the best of role-models. But I really appreciate what you are saying here, and I think you make an excellent point about delving into the older tales themselves, to see what they were like before they became Disneyfied (one of my favorites is Tatterhood http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatterhood).

    Indeed, the resourcefulness and bravery of the heroines in the tales you mention here is admirable, and I am very much a fan of those modern retellings that allow such elements to shine (McKinley, etc). Perhaps a better way to describe my own concerns is not so much that I am bothered by fairy-tale heroines per se, but by the "princess archetype" (especially as populized by Disney, etc) and the notion that the best possible reward a girl can have in life is a prince who wants to marry her.

    Anyways, you have given me much to think on, so thank you! Perhaps I have been blinded by the Disney princess effect and have been unfair to the original source material.

    I will also second the recommendation for Sheri S Tepper's Beauty as an intriguing retelling of Sleeping Beauty!

  20. Deva, thankyou, and thanks to Charlotte too! This was exactly my point, I think - the original tales are still there, but too little read, while we (or our generation) rely on a few dubious retellings of a very few selected tales. It should be easy to come up with a much better set of feminine role models without going beyond the traditional tales themselves.

  21. Have you read Theodora Goss' version of Sleeping Beauty? It's a stunningly unusual and poignant perspective on the story and really makes one's heart ache for all those long silent years.

  22. No, I haven't, Sarah - can you provide the title?

  23. Every girl deserves a fairy-tale life. Of course, most fairy tales are full of misery and woe, but chances are, when it's all over, you'll end up marrying a prince--whether you want to or not. Fairy tales came long before the age of women's liberation, and most fairy tale heroines are far from captains of their own ship. Thus, this is less an analysis of your personality than an analysis of the influences on your life. In this case, what has happened to you determines who you are.

  24. DISNEY doesn't do it justice? is that a joke?! they added so much to the simple Tchaikovsky story (though it was rich as it was too). Aurora is a fantastic role model, though she was not intended to be a role model (though idealized she is for sure). She's obedient, respectful, dutiful, but is fascinating to watch- she really is a perfect fairy tale character with her elegant, ethereal, dreamy personality.

  25. Coming to these last two comments late - AdWizards, yours in particular seems an odd one to me, and I wonder how many fairytales you've actually read. You say, 'You'll end up marrying a prince whether you want to or not'? And 'What has happened to you determines who you are'? You seem to have a rather bleak and deterministic view on life. Most fairytales are about heroines and heroes too, surmounting the difficulties placed on them by life.

    Anomymous, when I said Disney doesn't do 'Sleeping Beauty' justice, I made it clear that I was talking about the fact that they missed out what is - for me - the kernel of the story, the century of sleep. That's only my opinion, and of course you are welcome to enjoy the cartoon! Tchaikovsky did not invent the story, which was first published by Charles Perrault in the late 17th century.

  26. Absolutely gorgeous post and just what I needed to read today!

  27. Thank you for this fantastic post. I make stop-motion films from fairy tales I modernize. These are great suggestions for my research.