Does the illustration at the head of this post make you feel uncomfortable? It does me; the prince looks a real voyeur, and knowing the earlier versions of this fairy tale in which he doesn't wake her, he just rapes her, doesn't help one bit. (Although I argue elsewhere that the version I read as a child and love best, the Grimms' Briar Rose, isn't about people at all: it's about the century of sleep.) Anyhow, what about all the other princesses who need rescuing? What about the ugly crones, evil queens, wicked witches and cruel stepmothers? Don’t they show that fairy tales are riddled with misogynistic tropes?
I can't argue that there is no misogyny in fairy tales, any more than I can argue that it doesn't exist in real life, but I do know that there are plenty of active, admirable female characters in fairy tales, many of whom are unknown to the general public. This is the first of two posts: in this one I’m talking about some of the young women and female children in fairy tales; in the second I'll be looking at the different ways older people of both sexes, though mainly women, are presented and apprehended in that parallel world of faerie which holds up the mirror to our own.
And just as in our own world, things are never simple. Firstly, of the two hundred and ten stories in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s unassumingly named Kinder- und Hausmärchen (‘Children’s and Household Tales’, 1857), approximately half are not not what we think of as fairy tales at all. They are fables about animals (The Dog and the Sparrow) or household objects (The Straw, the Coal and the Bean), comical tales (Frederick and Catherine), cautionary tales (The Wilful Child), nonsense tales (Fair Katrinelje and Pif-Paf-Poultrie), tall tales, stories about the Devil or Saint Peter, pious legends (Our Lady’s Little Glass) and jokes (The Maid of Brakel). These deliver a single, memorable point – a warning, a lesson or a laugh. Often they fail today because we reject the message, the humour or the punch-line – we no longer think children should be beaten, for example – and they offer nothing more.
By contrast, a fairy tale is an adventure story, a sequence of marvellous events occurring to (usually) a single protagonist (by no means always a prince or a princess) who overcomes difficulties to live happily ever after (this may involve a royal marriage but doesn’t have to). The wicked are (usually) punished, but the fairy tale has no didactic intention and no single message. Like poems, fairy tales generate an emotional and interpretative response.
And women, it turns out, play a strong part. Out of the 100+ stories in the Grimms’ Household Tales which fit the category of the classic fairy tale, forty-three have women as main or prominent characters, thirty-two of whom rescue brothers, sisters, sweethearts, fathers and sometimes themselves, gaining wealth and happiness by their own endeavours.
Breaking those 100+ stories down further I looked to see by what means their heroines and heroes achieve success. It came out like this.
Means of success Heroines Heroes
Magical assistance 44% 65%
Luck/wit/ruse 35% 20%
Innocence/simplicity 16% 14%
Personal strength 0% 11%
Personal magical skills 14% 0%
Endurance 35% 11%
Saved by female 0% 21%
Saved by male 12% 0%
Magical assistance is generally provided by old women, young women, ‘little men’, animals or supernatural helpers and is often given in reward for some generous gesture. A character may be gifted with a magical object like a wishing table, or a goose that lays golden eggs. Birds, insects or even dead men whom a character has helped will offer help in return, and magic-workers provide advice or aid in the performance of impossible tasks. Heroes need this kind of assistance more often than heroines, probably because many heroines are magic-workers themselves. (Interestingly, none of the Grimms’ heroes are magic-workers. Acquiring an object like a cloak of invisibility is magical assistance, not native skill.)
Max Lüthi speaks of the ‘isolation and universal interconnection’ of the fairy tale: protagonists are often outcasts or outsiders ‘not linked by a vital relationship to any family, people or other kind of community’ and therefore free to set out and establish new bonds with whomever they meet. Many fairy tale characters are underdogs – orphans, simpletons, ill-treated step-children and so on – which evens out any physical disparity between the sexes. In the Grimms’ tales, few heroes succeed through physical strength, and battle of any kind is rare. Women excel at sheer endurance: going on seven-year quests to find lost lovers, knitting nettle shirts, climbing glass mountains, chipping themselves out of towers. Both sexes often succeed through quick wits and the ability to seize a chance, but the heroines have the edge. Characters of both sexes succeed through innocence and lack of guile: good-hearted simpletons or pure-hearted maidens. Finally, in those tales in which they are the main or prominent character, heroes do not save as many maidens/princesses, as heroines save brothers, lovers, fathers or princes.
But who is the ‘main or prominent character’? In some tales it’s obvious. No one would argue that Cinderella and Snow White are not the main characters in the stories that bear their names. The princes they marry are mere ciphers. Snow White returns to life when one of the servants carrying the glass coffin trips, jerking the scrap of poisoned apple out of her throat; it's a happy accident, not a rescue and the prince can hardly be said to have saved her. In fact, as a rule of thumb if the main character in a story is female, then her eventual marriage-partner will have no more than a walk-on part, and the same applies in reverse. Many so-called ‘passive princesses’ are merely the walk-on partners of main characters who happen to be male. To criticize these subsidiary characters as nonentities is to misunderstand the ruthlessly concise nature of fairy tales, which seldom have room for more than one protagonist.
There are exceptions. In fairy tales the parent-child relationship is weak. Parents die, or are ineffective, like Hansel and Gretel’s father, or malevolent, like their mother. The sibling relationship is stronger, and though siblings of the same sex may be rivals, relations between brothers and sisters are usually close and tender. What often happens is that the focus switches mid-story from brother to sister. At the beginning Hansel comforts and protects Gretel, and lays the trail of white pebbles to lead them home. But once the witch has locked him up, it’s Gretel who shoves her into her own oven to burn to death, and calls a white duck to carry them across the river on their journey home. Both children have agency, but Hansel’s efforts fail and Gretel’s succeed. She rescues him.
And it nearly always is sisters who rescue their brothers – far more than the other way around. Just as in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the Grimms’ tale ‘Brother and Sister’ begins with the brother...
Little brother took his little sister by the hand and said: ‘Since our mother died we have had no happiness; our stepmother beats us every day and if we come near her she kicks us away with her foot. Our meals are the hard crusts of bread that are left overs, and the little dog under the table is better off, for she often throws it a choice morsel. God pity us, if our mother only knew! Come, we will go forth together into the wide world.’
Having precipitated their departure though, the brother ceases to have any useful narrative function. The stepmother is a witch; she creeps after them and bewitches all the brooks in the forest. Little sister can hear the voices of the brooks warning them not to drink: whoever does so will be turned into a wild beast. Her brother cannot hear the voices: too thirsty to listen to his sister, he drinks from the third stream and is transformed into a roebuck. His sister looks after him, finds shelter and food, and protects him from the King’s hunt. On the King’s promise to let this tame roebuck come to the palace with her, the sister marries the King (children grow up quickly in fairy tales), gives birth to a little son and is murdered by the witch, who enchants her own daughter to take her likeness and her place. But the dead Queen visits three nights running as a midnight apparition, asking after the welfare of her child and her brother the roebuck. On the last occasion the King recognises her, the witch is burnt to ashes, the Queen is restored to life and her brother regains his human shape.
The little sister or Queen's power to hear the voices of the brooks, and to return as an apparition, borders on magic. Some sisters are themselves magic workers. Like Lina in the Grimms’ ‘Fundevogel’ and Gilla in the Irish fairytale ‘Gilla of the Enchantments’, they use their powers of transformation to save brothers whose lives are threatened by witches. Other sisters set out on long quests to locate and rescue whole bands of brothers who‘ve been banished and transformed into swans or ravens, usually at their sister’s birth or christening. In these tales some kind of sacrifice is often demanded of the sister: she cuts off her little finger to use as a key to unlock the glass mountain in which they are imprisoned, or spends years weaving and sewing each brother a shirt of nettles, never speaking a word until the task is done. If you feel the urge to label this behaviour ‘passive’, think again. The sisters who perform these acts are full of grit and determination.
In ‘The Six Swans’ a wicked stepmother changes her six stepsons into, you guessed it, swans. Their sister tells her father what has happened. But he doesn’t believe her, so she sets off into the forest to look for them and shelters in an empty hut. Her brothers fly down to warn her that the hut belongs to robbers, but as swans they cannot protect her. ‘Can you not be set free?’ she asks. ‘Alas, no,’ they answer, ‘the conditions are too hard! For six years you may neither speak nor laugh, and in that time you must sew together six little shirts of starwort for us. And if one single word falls from your lips, all your work will be lost.’ With this, they fly away.
The maiden, however, firmly resolved to deliver her brothers, even if it should cost her her life. She left the hut, went into the midst of the forest, seated herself in a tree, and there passed the night. Next morning she went out and gathered starwort and began to sew.
Nobody asks her to do this, her brothers don’t expect it. It’s she who is active, she who makes the decision.
Finally there are stories in which the main character, the person who does everything – is obviously the girl or maiden, but owing to the unconscious bias of readers, editors and scholars, this gets overlooked. Examples from the (otherwise wonderful) Aarne Thompson Tale Type Index demonstrate the tendency. Stories such as the Norwegian ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ or 'White Bear King Valemon' in which a young woman journeys to find and win back her husband or lover – in 'White Bear King Valemon' she climbs a glass mountain with the aid of steel claws! – are listed as Tale Type 425: ‘The search for the lost husband’. The woman doing the searching is inferred but not named. Yet stories in which a young man similarly journeys to seek his wife or sweetheart fall under Tale Type 400: ‘The man on a quest for his lost wife’ – which not only credits the man but elevates his journey to a ‘quest’. Tale Type 311 is called ‘Rescue by their sister’, which prefers the male rescuees to the female rescuer. It should be ‘Sister rescues her brothers’. And although Tale Type 313: ‘The girl as helper in the hero’s flight’ at least acknowledges the girl’s existence and role, the word ‘helper’ relegates her to a subsidiary position which is in no way an accurate description of such dynamic characters as the eponymous‘Mastermaid’ in the Norwegian fairy tale of that name. A better wording might be ‘Magic-working heroine directs prince’s escape.’
A last example is Tale Type 870: ‘The princess confined in the mound’ which places emphasis on her status as victim: but in these tales the princess always digs herself out, so it would be better named ‘The princess escapes from the mound’.
This kind of unconscious bias may colour our perception of some familiar fairy tales. Rapunzel isn’t the brightest of heroines, but the prince who woos and impregnates her doesn't rescue her – he doesn’t even try – and his repeated visits cause a catastrophe. Blinded by thorns, he wanders for years in the forest until Rapunzel’s tears restore his sight. Who saves who? Cinderella is an agile young woman who can outrun the King’s son; in the Grimms’ version she also climbs walls and trees and performs lightning costume changes. No magic-worker herself, she inherits supernatural aid/magical assistance from a fairy godmother (in Perrault), from her dead mother’s spirit (in the Grimms): female forces both. The prince is Cinderella’s trophy; she wins him. He is the symbol of her success.
Next time, wicked queens, cruel stepmothers, old witches and
‘little old men’.
Sleeping Beauty - Walter Crane
Hansel and Gretel - Alexander Zick
Little Sister and Little Brother - Arthur Rackham
The Six Swans - Walter Crane
White Bear King Valemon - Jenny Nystrom
The Mastermaid - Charles Folkard