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


  1. Hooray! Looking forward to reading these. I published a book, Crack A Story, where every story had a strong, self-sufficient heroine. There over 300 versions of Cinderella and in every one except Perrault, the heroine rescues herself. I'm amazed that the idea still persists that fairy-tales are about passive, meek princesses.

  2. Can't wait to read more of these posts - I love fairytales and am always excited to share lesser-known stories with more people!

  3. Great essay! It was the perfect Folklore Thursday read for this week's Women theme.