Tuesday 25 February 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #1: SIMON AND MARGARET


This tale was told in the 1880s by Gaelic-speaking Michael Faherty of Renvyle in Connemara, Co Galway to William Hartpole Lecky, who wrote it down verbatim; it was then translated by Irish poet William Larminie for his collection ‘West-Irish Folk Tales (1893). Larminie was a careful and responsible collector who took down most of his tales in person. He not only names his sources but gives brief descriptions of them: 'Michael Faherty,' he says, 'was when I first made his acquaintance, a lad of about seventeen. He ... lived with his uncle, who had, or has still, a small holding... and who was also a pilot and repairer of boats.' Unlike many 19th century collectors Larminie did not attempt to improve or embellish the stories he was told; he was so conscientious that his collection even includes one unfinished tale, with a note to explain that the storyteller had forgotten the ending!

In this complete tale, the heroine Margaret follows her married lover Simon to sea, only to be cast overboard like Jonah when the ship is threatened by a female sea serpent with a great dislike of the Irish... It's easy to imagine this story being told aloud: deadpan and deceptively naïve, with elisions, sudden surprises and touches of sly humour. We hear how the two lovers are reunited, how the level-headed Margaret saves Simon by fighting the giant of the White Doon, and how in spite of his attempt to take credit for the victory, he's forced to admit that she was the one who did it. 

Long ago there was a king’s son called Simon, and he came in a ship from the east to Eire. In the place where he came to harbour he met with a woman whose name was Margaret, and she fell in love with him. And she asked him if he would take her with him on the ship. He said he would not take her, that he had no business with her, “for I am married already,” said he.  But the day he was going to sea she followed him to the ship, and such a beautiful woman was she, that he said to himself that he would not put her out of the ship, “but before I go further I must get beef.” He returned back and got the beef. He took the woman and the beef to the ship and ordered the sailors to make everything ready that they might be sailing on the sea.

            They were not long from land when they saw a great bulk making towards them, and it seemed to them that it was more like a serpent than anything else whatever. And it was not long before the serpent cried out, “Throw me the Irish person you have on board.”

            “We have no Irish person in the ship,” said the king’s son, “for it is foreign people we are; but we have meat we took from Eire, and, if you wish, we will give you that.”

            “Give it to me,” said the serpent, “and everything else you took from Eire.”

            He threw out a quarter of the beef, and the serpent went away that day, and on the morrow morning she came again, and they threw out another quarter, and one every day till the meat was gone. And next day the serpent came again, and she cried out to the king’s son, “Throw the Irish flesh out to me.”

            “I have no more flesh,” said the prince.

            “If you have no flesh, you have an Irish person,” said the serpent, “and don’t be telling your lies to me any longer. I knew from the beginning you had an Irish person in the ship, and unless you throw her out to me, and quickly, I will eat up yourself and your men.”

            Margaret came up, and no sooner did the serpent see her than she opened her mouth, and put on an appearance as if she were going to swallow the ship.

 “I will not be guilty of the death of you all,” said Margaret; “get me a boat, and if I go far safe it is better, and if I do not, I had rather I perished than the whole of us.”

            “What shall we do to save you?” said Simon.

            “You can do nothing better than put me in the boat,” said she, “and lower me on the the sea, and leave me to the will of God.”

            As soon as she got on the sea, no sooner did the serpent see her than she desired to swallow her, but before she reached as far as her, a billow of the sea rose between them, and left herself and the boat on dry land. She saw not a house in sight she could go to. “Now,” she said, “I am as unfortunate as ever I was. This is no place for me to be!” She arose and began to walk, and after a long while she saw a house a good way from her. “I am not as unfortunate as I thought,” said she. “Perhaps I shall get lodging in that house tonight.” She went in, and there was no one in it but an old woman who was getting her supper ready. “I am asking for lodging till morning.”

            “I will give you no lodging,” said the old woman.

            “Before I go further, there is a boat there below, and it will be better for you to take it into your hands.”

            “Come in,” said the old woman, “and I will give you lodging for the night.”

            The old woman was always praying by night and day. Margaret asked her, “Why are you always saying your prayers?”

            “I and my mother were living a long while ago in the place they call the White Doon, and a giant came and killed my mother, and I had to come away for fear he would kill myself; and I am praying every night and every day that some one may come and kill the giant.”

The old woman owns a ring, which will only fit the finger of the one destined to kill the giant. Simon’s wife and his brother Stephen arrive together to kill the giant, but the ring will not fit Stephen’s finger, and the giant slays them both. At last, Simon himself arrives at the old woman’s house.

            The next morning there came a gentleman and a beautiful woman to the house, and he gave the old woman the full  of a quart of money to say paternosters for them till morning. The old woman opened a chest and took out a handsome ring and tried to place it on his finger, but it would not go on. “Perhaps it would fit you,” said she to the lady. But her finger was too big.

            When they went out, Margaret asked the old woman who were the man and woman.

            “That is the son of a king of the Eastern World, and the name that is on him is Stephen, and he and the woman are going to the White Doon to fight the giant, and I am afraid they will never come back; for the ring did not fit either of them; and it was told to the people that no one would kill the giant but he whom the ring would fit.”

            The two of them remained during the night praying for him, for fear the giant would kill him; and early in the morning they went out to see what had happened to Stephen and the lady that was with him, and they found them dead near the White Doon.

            “I knew,” said the old woman, “this is what would happen to them. It is better for us to take them with us and bury them in the churchyard.”

            About a month after, a man came into the house, and no sooner was he inside the door than Margaret recognised him.

            “How have you been ever since, Simon?”

            “I am very well,” said he; “it can’t be that you are Margaret?”

            “It is I,” said she.

            “I thought that billow that rose after you, when you got in the boat, drowned you.”

            “It only left me on dry land,” said Margaret.

           “I went to the Eastern World, and my father said to me that he sent my brother to go and fight with the giant, who was doing great damage to the people near the White Doon, and that my wife went to carry his sword.”

            “If that was your brother and your wife,” said Margaret, “the giant killed them.”

            “I will go on the spot and kill the giant, if I am able.”

            “Wait while I try the ring on your finger,” said the old woman.

            “It is too small to go on my finger,” said he.

            “It will go on mine,” said Margaret.

            “It will fit you,” said the old woman.

            Simon gave the full of a quart of money to the old woman, that she might pray for him till he came back. When he was about to go, Margaret said, “Will you let me go with you?”

            “I will not,” said Simon, “for I don’t know that the giant won’t kill myself, and I think it too much that one of us should be in his danger.”

            “I don’t care,” said Margaret.  “In the place where you die, there am I content to die.”

            “Come with me,” said he.

            When they were on their way to the White Doon, a man came before them.

“Do you see that house near the castle?” said the man.

“I see,” said Simon.

“You must go into it and keep a candle lighted till morning in it.”

“Where is the giant?” said Simon.

“He will come to fight you there,” said the man.

They went and kindled a light, and they were not long there when Margaret said to Simon, “Come, and let us see the giants.” [There are baby giants as well as the old one.]

            “I cannot,” said the king’s son, “for the light will go out if I leave the house.”

            “It will not go out,” said Margaret; “I will keep it lighted till we come back.”

            And they went together and got into the castle, to the giant’s house, and they saw no one there but an old woman cooking; and it was not long till she opened an iron chest and took out the young giants and gave them boiled blood to eat.

            “Come,” said Margaret, “and let us go to the house we left.”

            They were not long in it when the king’s son was falling asleep.  Margaret said to him, “If you fall asleep, it will not be long till the giants come and kill us.”

            “I cannot help it,” he said.  “I am falling asleep in spite of me.”

            He fell asleep, and it was not long till Margaret heard a noise approaching, and the giant cried from outside for the king’s son to come out to him.

            “Fum, far, faysogue!  I feel the smell of a lying churl of an Irishman.  You are too great for one bite and too little for two, and I don’t know whether it is better for me to send you into the Eastern World with a breath or put you under my feet in a puddle.  Which would you rather have – striking with knives in your ribs or fighting on the grey stones?”

            “Great, dirty giant,” said Margaret, “not with right or rule did I come in, but by rule and by right to cut your head off in spite of you, when my fine silken feet go up, and your big, dirty feet go down.”

            They wrestled till they brought the wells of fresh water up through the gray stones with fighting and breaking of bones, till the night was all but gone. Margaret squeezed him, and first squeeze she put him down to his knees, the second squeeze to his waist, and the third squeeze to his armpits.  

            “You are the best woman I have ever met. I will give you my court and my sword of light and the half of my estate for my life, and spare to slay me.”

            “Where shall I try your sword of light?”

            “Try it on the ugliest block in the wood.”

            “I see no block at all that is uglier than your own great block.”

She struck him at the joining of the head and the neck, and cut the head off him.

In the morning when she wakened the king’s son, “Was not that a good proof I gave of myself last night?” said he to Margaret. “That is the head outside, and we shall try to bring it home.”

He went out, and was not able to stir it from the ground.  He went in and told Margaret he could not take it with him, that there was a pound’s weight in the head.  She went out and took the head with her.

            “Come with me,” he said.

            “Where are you going?”

            “I will go the Eastern World, and come with me till you see the place.”

            When they got home, Simon took Margaret with him to his father the king.

            “What has happened to your brother and your wife?” said the king.

            “They have both been killed by giants.  And it is Margaret, this woman here who has killed them.”  

The king gave Margaret a hundred thousand welcomes, and she and Simon were married - and how they are since then, I do not know!

Find more about fairy tales and folklore in my essays "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles" available from Amazon here and here.

Picture credits:
'Leviathan' by Arthur Rackham
Illustration by Arthur Rackham to 'The Manuscript Found in a Bottle' by Edgar Allen Poe

Tuesday 18 February 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines: An Introduction

In 2013 Disney released the story of two princesses: Elsa, with power over ice and snow, and her young sister Anna. When Elsa’s magic accidentally strikes frost into her sister’s heart, the film plays on our expectation that a prince’s kiss will save Anna. Instead, in a feminist twist, the spell is broken by sisterly love and courage while romance is sidelined. It seemed utterly fresh and exciting. 'Inspired by' rather than 'based upon' Hans Andersen's 'The Snow Queen', 'Frozen' wowed children and parents worldwide and became the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

Why was 'Frozen' so successful? It satisfied the hunger of a modern audience keen to identify with strong heroines. Why did the focus on Anna and Elsa seem so unusual? Because there is a persistent misconception that fairy tale heroines are passive. People who may not have read a fairy tale in years recall Snow-White in her glass coffin or Cinderella weeping in the ashes, and assume they stand for all. A discussion on BBC Radio 4’s The Misogyny Book Club (back in December 6 2015) dismissed the entire genre as projecting images of insipid princesses whose role is to lie asleep in towers waiting for princes to rescue them with ‘true love’s kiss’. Fairy-tale fans on Twitter and Facebook erupted, posting examples of tales featuring strong heroines: even so, a relatively small handful of titles kept recurring. There are many, many more.

It would be astonishing if the thousands of traditional tales told across Europe didn’t include characters who could appeal to and satisfy the desire of women as well as men for action and adventure. And of course, they do. In the Grimms’ fairy tales alone, there are more than twice as many heroines who save princes, as there are heroes who save princesses. In fact, taking the collected Grimms’ tales as an example, and discounting the hundred or so which are animal tales, nonsense tales, religious fables and so on, about half of the remaining stories contain main or prominent female characters who rescue brothers or sweethearts, save themselves and others and win wealth and happiness.

This is less surprising when you remember that whether male or female, fairy-tale protagonists are generally underdogs – orphans, simpletons, the youngest child or step-child, whose success is achieved by other means than strength. The major cause of any protagonist’s success is some sort of magical assistance gained by kindness, innocence, quick wits or luck. Not only does this put the sexes on an equal footing, but several heroines have the added advantage of being magic-workers themselves, a skill few heroes possess.

How has this gone unnoticed? Because a long-standing process of social and editorial bias has favoured and raised to prominence the handful of fairy tales we recognise as ‘classic’. When we think of Cinderella’s glass slipper, fairy godmother, pumpkin coach and passive, gentle heroine, we’re thinking of Charles Perrault’s literary version of the story, written to amuse a seventeenth century salon. The Grimms’ version contains none of these elements. Their Cinderella – Aschenputtel – is a girl with her own mind and her own agenda. Her power comes from a magical tree she plants on her mother’s grave: she runs, jumps, climbs and gets her own back on those who have mistreated her. Yet Perrault’s version is the best known, the one found in most picture books for children, the one adapted by Walt Disney for the cartoon and the more recent film.

Seventeenth century writers like Giambattiste Basile, Charles Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy and others transformed nursery and folk tales into a sophisticated literary art form for the amusement of genteel audiences. Yet Perrault’s conscious, arch rendering of ‘Cinderella’ is certainly not less authentic than the version the Grimm brothers patched together more than a century later ‘from three stories current in Hesse’ which all had different beginnings and endings. In fact, both versions are literary: the search for authenticity is vain. Driven by Romantic taste and nationalist motives, the Grimms touched up or wholly rewrote many of the fairy tales they collected, looking to achieve an apparently artless, pure style which would represent the true voice of ‘the folk’. To them we owe the ‘fairy tale’ we recognise today: a construct, but an extraordinarily powerful one.

Inspired by the Grimms, nineteenth century collectors from Russia to Ireland, from Norway to Romania turned to their own peasantry to record and improve traditional tales in the mould of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen. In the process they not only uncovered but contributed to what Joseph Campbell has called the ‘homogeneity of style and character’ of the European fairy tale. And from the nineteenth century on, social and moral gatekeepers have preferred the docile charm of Perrault’s heroine to the energy and wild magic of the Grimms’. Most of the famous fairy tales are those whose heroines display the qualities Victorian gentlemen most wished to see in women: gentleness, beauty and passivity. Sir George Dasent who translated the Norwegian tales collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe recognised the strength of Tatterhood or the Mastermaid, but he preferred heroines of ‘the true womanly type’. Surprise, surprise.

And so to illustrate the vitality and strength of the neglected heroines within the classic European fairy tale tradition, from next week I’m beginning a series of new posts. In each, I will introduce a fairy tale with a strong heroine, which can then be read in full. Most of the stories I’ve chosen have been been in print for well over a hundred years, available to everyone, yet most are unknown to the general public. Tatterhood, Lady Mary and the Mastermaid are not household names like the Sleeping Beauty and Snow-White. And ‘The Woman who Went to Hell’ and Margaret, from ‘Simon and Margaret’ are likely to be new even to the most die-hard of fairy tale enthusiasts. At least I think so! I hope there’ll be surprises for everyone.

Of course it’s been done before, notably by Angela Carter. Her seminal collections of folk and fairy tales for Virago in 1990 and 1992 (republished as ‘Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales’, 2005) present a wonderfully diverse selection, a kaleidoscope of different story forms from a worldwide range of cultures and featuring women in all kinds of roles, ‘clever, or brave, or good, or silly, or cruel, or sinister’. She sets a characteristically bold, adult tone for the anthology, opening with a brief Inuit tale about the powerful woman, Sermerssuaq, whose clitoris is so big ‘the skin of a fox would not wholly cover it’. Though striking, this seems to be a tall tale rather than a fairy tale, and one of several which are not easy to interpret. Is Sermerssuaq human, shaman, some kind of goddess? Does she figure in other Inuit stories? Carter’s collection is dazzling, but includes a number of tales which, divorced from their cultural context, we are in danger of reading as exotic oddities.

Fables, cautionary tales, tall tales and jokes are forms intended to deliver a single, memorable point: a warning, a lesson or a laugh. They sometimes fail today because we reject the message (a hen-pecked man asserting himself by beating a bossy wife, for example), and they offer nothing more. By contrast, I take the classic fairy tale to be an adventure story: a sequence of marvellous events occurring to a single main character, or perhaps to a pair of lovers or siblings; and it’s the adventure, not the conclusion, which is important. Though the good usually achieve happiness while the wicked are punished, fairy tales have no didactic intention and no single message. Rather, like poetry, they generate an emotional and interpretative response.

For the purposes of this series I’ll be using the word ‘heroine’ to mean more than ‘main character’: it will indicate someone whose actions and qualities deserve admiration or respect. This might rule out characters like Rapunzel. She’s certainly the protagonist, but the best we can feel for her is pity. Or is it? Look more closely even at that story, and we remember that the prince fails spectacularly to rescue her, and she restores his sight: some of the most passive heroines have more about them than you might suppose. But there is no need for special pleading when so many fairy tales across Europe celebrate active, courageous young women who seize control of their own destinies. How about the heroine of a Romanian tale who sets off in armour on her war-horse to save her father’s honour? Hailed as a hero, she fights dragons and genies, and ultimately rescues and marries another princess, Iliane Goldenhair. The heroine of an Irish fairy tale ‘Simon and Margaret’ fights and kills a giant while her lover sleeps. The flamboyant heroine of the Norwegian ‘Tatterhood’ drives off trolls and witches as she gallops about on a goat. And when brothers and sisters adventure together, it is nearly always the sisters who do the rescuing, not the other way around.

Even the heroes of fairy tales rarely make their way by force. A good heart is more use than a sword. Kindness to animals or old women is rewarded by valuable advice or magical assistance: and where heroes rely on others, heroines often possess their own magical powers. The young peasant girl Bellah of the Breton story ‘The Groac’h of the Isle of Lok’ uses her magic skills to rescue her sweetheart from an enchantress. The giant’s daughter of the ‘The Battle of the Birds’ and the eponymous Mastermaid save their hapless lovers by conjuring up whole catalogues of magical ruses and illusions.

Female intelligence is valued, too. The fiery Scottish heroine Maol a Chliobain uses both magic and sharp wits to trick a giant, while the peasant girl in ‘The Peasant’s Wise Daughter’ is clever enough to save her father and marry a king – whom she later kidnaps in order to teach him a much-deserved lesson. Finally, quietly determined heroines also deserve admiration: the ones who trek stubbornly over glass mountains and wear out iron shoes, the ones who win through by their resolute endurance. Renelde in the Flemish tale ‘The Nettle Spinner’ rejects the advances of her rich overlord and brings about his death by patiently weaving him a nettle shroud. ‘The Woman Who Went to Hell’ endures seven years in Hell and outwits the Devil to bring her lover, an Irish peasant boy, back from the dead. And Maid Maleen survives seven years’ imprisonment in a dark tower, chipping her way out through the wall. All these heroines are brave and not one of them needs rescuing by a man: but fortitude is also courage, historically perhaps particularly the courage of women, and it’s underestimated.

Finally, fairy tales are not romances. In spite of the Disney song ‘One day my prince will come’, ‘Snow-White’ is not a love story. It’s a tale of a cruel queen, a lost child, a dark forest, a magic mirror. The arrival of the prince at the end is no more than a neat way to wrap the story up. Not every fairy tale ends in a marriage, and when they do, something more hard-headed is usually going on. Few fairy tale heroines are princesses by birth. Most are the daughters of merchants, millers, woodcutters or even giants; they are orphans, peasants and servant-girls – the same kind of people who told the tales in the first place, and who prized financial security. Marriage-with-the-prince (or princess) combines wealth and high status in an easily-grasped symbol, and indicates that a person’s endeavours have lifted them to the top of the social heap. I’ve said this elsewhere, but it’s significant that the disapproval directed at heroines who marry princes never seems to be aimed at the many heroes who marry princesses. All those tailors, pensioned-off soldiers, youngest sons and simpletons – no one seems to have any trouble recognising, in their tales, a royal marriage as a metaphor for well-deserved worldly success.

Fairy tales continue to pervade popular culture. Besides Frozen, in the last few years Walt Disney Studios has released Tangled (2010), Maleficent (2014), Into the Woods and Cinderella (2015), Maleficent 2 (2019), a live-action film of Beauty and the Beast ( 2017), and Frozen II (2019). Universal has released Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and its sequel The Huntsman (2016). More are bound to follow, but it’s a pity that most of these films are based upon the same few well-worn tales – about a girl locked in a tower, a girl who sleeps for a hundred years, a girl who has to marry a Beast, and a girl in a glass coffin. Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair here, but that’s the gist. In the effort to turn these modest heroines into something feisty enough to appeal to 21st century audiences, scriptwriters have gone so far as to transform the wicked fairy of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ into the central, sympathetic character. It was ingenious and successful… but there is plenty more choice out there. And you can read a whole bunch of them, right here:  Strong Fairy Tale Heroines: A Series

Picture credits:

Mollie Whuppie, by Errol le Cain
Cinderella, silhouette, by Arthur Rackham 
Tatterhood, Princess of Wands, from The Fairy Tarot by Lisa Hunt
Bellah finds the Korandon, by HJ Ford
Maid Maleen by Arthur Rackham
Snow White by Benjamin Lacombe