I know I’m late to the game here–International Women’s Day was two days ago, after all (well, yesterday, when I started writing this post). But, look. Planning is not my strong suit. So I only just made the connection between the topic of badass women in fairy tales, folklore, and mythology and the fact that it’s Women’s History Month right freaking now.
Better late than never. Let’s get to it.
Women’s Roles in Fairy Tales and Folklore
Women tend to appear in the following roles in fairy tales and folklore:
- “Heroines” whose main/only assets are their meekness, beauty, and purity (“The Wild Swans” and variants, “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Black Bowl“);
- Object lessons (“The Red Shoes,” “Toads and Diamonds,” “The Sovereign of the Mineral Kingdom“) to illustrate the ideal image of a woman and the consequences of violating norms/tradition/authority;
- Villainesses who are (brutally) punished (the queen in “Snow White,” the stepmother in “The Juniper Tree“);
- Damsels in distress (“Sleeping Beauty,” “Jorinda and Joringel,” “The Two Brothers“); and/or
- Prizes to be won/captured by a man (tales of the Selkie and swan maidens being especially ugly examples).
Note that several of the above tales fit into more than one category (“Toads and Diamonds,” for instance).
Even when a woman is strong or clever in her own right, she usually takes the role of “helper” to a male lead–though the story could easily be retold to cast her as the protagonist. For example: “The Golden-Fleeced Ram,” “Go I Know Not Whither, Fetch I Know Not What,” “The Bad Mother“…there are quite a lot of these. (The above examples are excellent stories in their own right–I’ll get to them some other time.)
And then there are tales like “Old Rinkrank” and “The Twelve Huntsmen,” in which women refuse to accept the lots handed them by life. Yet, in return for their suffering and bravery, they just break even. They don’t gain anything, only regain what was theirs at the start of the tale. It’s a hollow victory.
**TL;DR: Click here to skip straight to the list of fairy and folk tales where the women’s roles are not super depressing in hindsight.**
When the Magic Fades
It’s not as if I don’t expect this–these tales I love are all steeped in tradition and the cultures they were born from. That they reflect the values of those who created them, that the function of such tales is to transmit traditional, often oppressive/outdated values from generation to generation–I know this, I do.
Read enough fairy tales, and the magic starts to rub off. The mundane bones begin to poke through, and you see that they form a familiar, unwelcome framework. And this is a fascinating sight, sure. I love the bones of a story, like pieces of a vast collective unconscious, like family heirlooms whose original owner is long forgotten, like holy relics–scraps of cloth, splinters of bone and wood. They have their own fascination, their own use, their own power.
On the one hand, the sexism, the outdated values, the oppression, the extravagant violence–these elements are part of fairy tales’ fascination for me. At the same time, these tales hold such beauty: the magic, complex symbolism, the commonalities that can’t always be explained. This symbiosis of the grotesque and wondrous makes these tales all the more captivating.
I still feel disappointed when, having read and reread so many tales, the bones of them start to show through that shimmering skin of magic. The hard, artificial bones of tradition, with all its good and bad. You get tired of the girls and women, the peasants and princesses, who must suffer quietly, who are beautiful and not much else, who patiently help The Hero to glory, who all too often are not even given a name.
I hate to knock the less showy forms of strength and bravery–of course there is bravery in patience and endurance in the face of hardship.
But it gets damned depressing to read about that brand of bravery. You start to want the heroine to do something. To draw blood, to speak up, to take the initiative, to take something for herself.
You start to wonder:
Where are the Badass Women?
These tales contain a female main character who not only triumphs, but comes out ahead of where she started.
- Hermod and Hadvor
This is an Icelandic tale, featuring Hadvor, the only child of the king and queen, and her foster brother, Hermod. After Hadvor’s mother dies, the king remarries an evil giantess disguised as the Queen of Hetland. The giantess turns Hermod into a lion, and Hadvor must find him and break the curse, aided by a witch and her sons.
- The Girl and the Dead Man
One by one, three sisters set out into the world to seek their fortune. Each gets employed as a maid, with the additional duty of watching over an ensorcelled corpse by night. The first two sisters fall asleep, and the undead man beats them to death. The third, however, stays awake and beats the corpse when it tries to get up. In return, she is paid generously for her work and given a potion to revive her sisters.
- Handsome Paul
Here, the female lead is nameless, as if she were merely Paul’s helper. Which is odd, because she’s the one who gets shit done. When they fall in love and elope to escape the malevolent royal family, it is the princess who plans and implements their escape through a series of magical transformations.
- How the Devil Married Three Sisters (two other variants included: “The Cobbler and His Daughters” and “The Widow and her Daughters”)
When her two sisters one after another marry and are killed by a rich man, the third also marries him, finds and reanimates her sisters, and then tricks him into carrying them all home in trunks full of gold. In the second two stories, the third sister cuts off her husband’s head for good measure.
- The Girl and the Robber
On her way to bring a sacrifice to St. Martin, a girl comes up three men plotting to rob a farmer, and cuts off the heads of two. A year later, the third thief comes to her father’s house disguised as a nobleman and asks for the girl’s hand in marriage. Her father agrees, but she recognizes the robber, takes a sword along, and cuts off his head on the way to the robber’s house. She takes his riches for her own, and marries the mayor of Cork.
A prince is employed by a giant who gives him impossible tasks. Luckily for the prince, he meet’s the giant’s “Mastermaid,” who helps him. The prince and the Mastermaid fall in love and escape the giant throught Mastermaid’s cunning use of magical items. Unfortunately, the prince is tricked and caused to forget Mastermaid before he can bring her to his father’s palace. Later, through another series of clever and amusing tricks, Mastermaid meets up with the prince again and jogs his memory.