This is without a doubt the most fascinating (to me, at least) Feminism for Early Starters topic I’ve written on so far. Most fairy tales, as I’ve noted before, are inherently misogynistic. Their female protagonists are usually passive (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pea and so on ad nauseam) and their mother-figures either evil (Snow White) or uncaring and selfish (Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel). When they do display curiosity or independence, they are punished for it (Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks and the Three Bears) and in order to get what they want they are subject to severe penalty (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) or ignored completely (Patient Griselda). Indeed, there are more than a handful of tales in which women do not feature at all (The Steadfast Tin Soldier). The life of the fairy tale heroine is a constrained one. It’s okay, though. As long as we depict them in pointy hats with scarves hanging out of the top of them no one will mind, because, hey, it’s historic, innit. They’re happening in another time, another place. This land called Once Upon a Time where it’s okay that the adventures of women are destined to be more heir raising than hair raising.
But it’s not all bad. While most fairy tales in their original (where for ‘original’ we can substitute ‘most famous’ or ‘canonical’) are not exactly equality driven, there are a few fairy and folk tales that do have something of a feminist message. Sometimes you have to squint.
These are a few of my favourites, retold, badly and briefly*, by me.
The Horned Women
The Horned Woman is a story from the Celtic tradition.
A woman of great wealth is visited one night by twelve witches, the first with one horn on her head, the second with two, and so on. They sit around her fire, carding wool and singing while the woman sits paralysed by their magic. At length, the witches demand the woman of the house fetches water from the well to make them a cake. ‘Take a sieve,’ they say, ‘and bring us water in that.’
At the well, the woman pours and pours but the sieve will not fill. She sits by the well and weeps.
Suddenly, a voice speaks to her: ‘Take moss and plug the holes.’ This she does, and fills the sieve to the brim. Then the voice speaks again. ‘Return, and when you reach the house, cry out three times and say “The mountain of the Fenian women and the sky over it is all on fire.”‘
She did so, and the witches fled. The spirit of the well speaks again to the wealthy woman, and tells her how to enchant her home and protect it from the witches.
The witches return one night seeking vengeance, and try as they might to enter the woman’s home they cannot. As the once again flee, one of them drops her cloak, which the woman keeps as a souvenir, and which is passed down her family through the generations.
Now, this story is not perfect. Why the wealth of the protagonist is of any importance I have yet to comprehend, but it’s slightly better than her being described as beautiful and, since no husband in mentioned, suggests that she’s capable of earning. I could complain about the preference for magic over wit for the solving of problems**, but the protagonist and the spirit that helps her are both presented as female and frankly we’re dealing with slim pickin’s when it comes to strong women in folk and fairy tales. Ultimately, the woman does solve her own problem. Maybe she shouldn’t be letting witches into her house willy-nilly, but she gets herself out of her own fix, and that’s rare.
The Mirror of Matsuyama
This story is quintessentially Japanese.
There was once a married couple who were blessed with a daughter. One day the father had to go to Kyoto on a business trip, and he promised to bring back gifts for his daughter and wife. On his return he presented his daughter with a beautiful doll and cakes in an ornate box. To his wife he gave an ornate mirror, decorated with cranes and bamboo. She had never seen a mirror before and gazed into her reflection with awe.
Soon after the man’s wife became ill. She knew she was going to die, so she called to her daughter and said ‘whenever you look into the mirror you will see me, and I will always will be with you. You must take great care of the mirror’.
Time passed, and the man married again. His new wife was unkind to her step-daughter. When the young girl felt sad she would take up her mother’s mirror and look into it and when she did she saw a face, not gnarled and aged as her mother had been on her deathbed, but young and kind and beautiful. One day the step-mother saw the young girl gazing into the mirror and believed the poor girl to be performing magic to kill her. The woman raged and ran to her husband, who was angry for the first time in his life. He ran to his daughter who immediately hid the mirror up her sleeve.
‘What have you up your sleeve, child?’ he demanded.
‘It is just my mother’s mirror. I look at it when my heart is sad and feel she is with me, and my heart has been so sad and aching recently! Her face is so kind and so loving that it helps me better bear the unkindness of your new wife.’
The woman overheard her step-daughter’s words and she became sad and so sorry for how cruel she had been. She begged for forgiveness from her step-daughter and was granted it. The home became a happy one, and was never visited by sadness again.
Devoid of magic, elves or princesses, this is not a typical fairy tale. It has a humanity about it which is refreshing, if slightly anti-climactic. The moral is one of familial love, respect and taking responsibility for your mistakes and makes for a gently didactic narrative that speaks to youngsters (and oldsters) regardless of gender. The redemption of the step-mother character so breaks the cronish stereotype that it’s quite arresting and for this the tale earns it’s feminist stripes. In The Mirror of Matsuyama the characters genders are unimportant. The same narrative could play out among any four people with strong enough feeling for each other: no one is out to better another, no one is out to rescue another. I love it.
A story from the Scottish tradition. There is a very similar Irish variant called Smallhead.
A mother with too many children cannot afford to feed her brood, and so, with a heavy heart, she takes the three youngest children deep into the forest and abandons them there. The children, hungry and alone, wander the forest wondering what to do. They come upon a house and knock on the door and an old woman answers.
‘Please let us in, old woman, our mother has left us and we are so hungry’.
The woman agrees, but warns them that her husband is an ogre and they must leave before he returns. But just as they are finishing their meal, the ogre arrives. The old woman tells the ogre that he must not hurt the children, and he demands that they stay the night and share their three daughters’ beds. He places chains of gold around the necks of his daughters and chains of straw around the necks of the three children.
In the middle of the night while the household sleeps, Molly, the youngest of the three abandoned children wakes and swaps each of the daughters gold chains for a chain of straw, and places the gold chains about the necks of her siblings.
It is not long before the ogre enters the bedroom. Molly pretends to be asleep. Thinking his daughters to be the lost children, the ogre beats them to death with his club. Poor Molly is so scared by the massacre that she wakes her siblings and the three children run away.
They run and run until they come to the palace of a king. When the king hears of their trouble and Molly’s bravery he is impressed. He tells the children that if they can steal the sword of the ogre his oldest son will marry Molly’s oldest sister.
So Molly does so, creeping into the ogre’s cottage and stealing the sword while he sleeps. The king is impressed.
‘Go back to the ogre,’ he says, ‘and bring me the purse from under the ogres pillow, and if you do, my middle son will marry your other sister’. And Molly does so. But this time the ogre wakes, and Molly barely esacapes.
And so two of the king’s sons married both of Molly’s sisters.
‘Finally,’ says the king, ‘go and bring me the ring from the finger of the ogre, and if you do so, Molly, you will marry my youngest son’.
So Molly returns to the cottage again. She hides under the bed and waits until the ogre is asleep. She tries to remove the ring from the ogre’s finger but it is stuck fast and just as she has managed to pluck the ring from his finger, the ogre wakes. ‘What would you do to me, if I caught you doing what you have done to me?’ he asks, and Molly replies that she would put him in a sack with needles and thread, shears and a dog and a cat, hang the sack on a wall and beat him until he was dead. ‘Then that is what I shall do to you’ replies the ogre.
When Molly was inside the sack she began to call out, ‘Oh, if you could see what I see!’ and the ogre’s wife, so overcome with curiosity came to ask what it was that Molly could see. As soon as she was close enough, Molly cut herself free from the sack with the shears and sewed the ogres wife up into it. Molly hid, and when the ogre returned he began to beat the sack, and the noise from the dog and the cat so drowned out the screams of the woman that the ogre could not hear his wife’s screams and he beat her until she was dead.
Molly ran as fast as she could to the palace of the king and presented him with the ogre’s ring. The next day, she was wedded to the king’s youngest son, and was rich and happy. The ogre was never seen again.
With overtones of both Jack and the Beanstalk and Hansel and Gretal , Molly Whuppie is a typical overcoming of obstacles narrative. Here, though, out protagonist is ‘only’ a girl, she overcomes the ogre (in fairy tale lore, inherently evil) through cunning and strength and is rewarded with happiness and riches. That these come with a husband as a dubious added bonus is a shame, but, as I said, we’re rather clutching at straws here.
Molly Whuppie is essentially just a gender switch; a tale that, if it appeared today, would be called a ‘fractured fairy tale’. The violence and cunning she exhibits are typically male traits in the land of Once Upon a Time and indeed most tales that follow this narrative do have a male protagonist, making Molly Whuppie a stand-out story.
The lessons of violence as a means to an end may not sit comfortably with contemporary audiences, but the female protagonist is enough to include the story here.
There are two collections that I would heartily recommend to those seeking more feminist fairy tales. Clarissa Pinkola Estes Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, first published on audio book but now available in print, muses on the lessons that can be learned from such stories as Baba Yaga and The Little Match Girl.
Also available is a collection by the (usually brilliant) Alison Lurie named Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Fairy Tales, which, while it is an excellent collection, tends to prefer womens’ superiority over men rather than equity. Two of her other publications, Girls and Boys Forever and Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups, I cannot recommend highly enough.
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