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Feminism for early starters – More Traditional Folk and Fairy Tales

My last post on this subject was so popular that I felt I had to bring you more. So here we are: three more traditional fairy and folk tales with a feminist message.

Kate Crackernuts

This story originates in Scotland.

A King had a daughter named Anne and a Queen had a daughter named Kate. The King’s daughter was more beautiful than the Queen’s daughter and the Queen was jealous, but Kate loved her.

The Queen went to a henwife and asked her to ruin the beauty of the King’s daughter, Anne. Their first attempts failed, but in the end they enchanted Anne’s head so that it appeared as that of a sheep.

So it came to pass that the princesses decided they ought to be married. They set off to seek their husbands and came across a castle where the King had two sons, one of whom was very sick. Kate asked for shelter for her and said that Anne too was sick. She promised to watch over the King’s sickening son.

At midnight on the first night, the sick Prince rose from his bed and took to his horse. Kate sneaked onto his horse too, and together they rode through the woods, gathering nuts.

At a clearing in the woods, the Prince met with wood-faries who forced him to dance with them, while Kate remained unnoticed.

On the second night, the same thing happened again. This time, though, Kate found a fairy baby in the clearing who played with a wand. She heard the fairies say that the wand could cure poor Anne with three strokes, so she distracted the fairy baby by rolling and cracking the nuts she had collected, and took the wand. Back at the King’s castle, she cured her sister.

On the third night, Kate decided she would only stay if the Prince would marry her. Once again, they rode off to the clearing in the woods and found the fairy baby. This time, the baby played with a bird which could cure the sick Prince of his illness. She distracted the fairy baby with her nuts again.

Back at the castle, she cooked the bird and fed it to the Prince, and he was cured instantly. Meanwhile, the second Prince had seen Anne and fallen in love with her, and so they were all married; the well sister to the sick brother and the sick sister to the well brother.

The ‘complete a task to get your man’ trope is a well-worn one in fairy tales, the difference in this story is that the origin of the quest lies with Kate herself. She is not made to find a husband by a wicked step-mother or overbearing father, but by herself. Further, her decision to marry the Prince is delayed until her sister is cured of her sheep-headedness.

Kate watches as the Prince dances with fairies

The fairies forcing of the Prince to dance to exhaustion is reminiscent of both The Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Red Shoes, both of which see female characters forced to dance through vanity and self-interest, so it is interesting here that with a male dancer the root is mystical.

Uzu the White Dogai

This tale originates in The Torres Straits of Australia. Dogai are demonic creatures with witch-like skills that live among rocks, trees and reefs. They are considered to be of low intelligence, but cunning. Their raison d’être is the kidnapping of boys and young men to be their husband. They are capable of impersonating human women.

A Dogai (artists impression)

Uzu was tall and thin with a face like a flying fox, just like all the other dogai, but she was a kind dogai, and good to people in trouble.

One day a party of women and girls ventured from their village and went out fishing on the reef where Uzi lived. They fished late into the day, and when they had strung their fish together they set off back to the village.

One poor girl, who was also called Uzi, was stung by a stone fish. The pain was so bad that she could not walk and as she slowed and sat down her friends disappeared over the horizon. Uzi was scared and alone.

From her home, the white Dogai saw the girl and went to her. The girl screamed, ‘The Dogai is going to kill me!’ But she did not.

The Dogai pulled a hair from her head and tied it round little Uzi’s wound, then lifted her over her shoulder and carried her to her home in the reef. She told the girl to sleep and went off to forage for yams.

The next morning Uzi cooked the yams and gave the little girl the best parts to eat, herself eating the burned, crusted outer parts. Every day she dressed little Uzi’s wounds freshly and fed her well, and when her foot was healed, she carried her back to her village and said, ‘when the men are cutting up the dugong and the turtle, save a portion for me. Go to your village, and give them this present of yams.”

This she did, and she told her mother the whole story.

From then on, when the men were returned from hunting, little Uzi filled her basket with meat and took it to the Dogai, crying ‘Granny, Granny, I have brought you your share of meat!’

This story is an early subversion of the wicked woman archetype, proving that revision is not a modern phenomenon. Uzi the white Dogai is compassionate and friendly, yes, but the real message of the story is to not judge a book by its cover.

The Dogai, and Uzu in particular, are a fascinating subject. TreasuryIslands recommends ‘The Ear-Sleepers: Some Permutations of a Traveler’s Tale’ (The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 76, No. 300 (Apr. – Jun., 1963), pp. 119-130) by the excellently named Bacil F. Kirtley for more on the subject.

The Hand of Glory, or, The Robbers’ Charm

A Southern English story.

In the final decade of the eighteenth century a traveller arrived at the Old Spital Inn dressed as a woman. The traveller begged to stay the night, and said that, since she had to depart so early in the morning, if the family should just leave a morsel for her to breakfast on, they needn’t be disturbed when she left.

The family was unsure, and asked a serving girl to sit up through the night to keep an eye on the stranger.

The serving girl lay down by the fire to take a nap, and saw peeping out from beneath the travellers skirts a pair of trousered legs. Though tired, she no longer felt she could sleep and so feigned it, letting out great snores so the robber could hear.

Thinking the serving girl asleep, the traveller rose from his chair and pulled from a pocket of his travelling cloak a dead man’s hand. He lit a candle and fixed it between the fingers of the dead man’s hand then passed it three times over the servant girl’s face saying, ‘Let those who are sleeping sleep, and those who are wakeful be awake’. He went to the door of the inn and whistled for his companions.

The girl, who had not been asleep, saw danger in the traveller and came up behind him and pushed him down the in steps. As the traveller fell, she quickly locked the inn door and ran to wake the family, which she could not do.

Thinking quickly, she remembered the travellers words and ran downstairs to extinguish the candle with skimmed milk. She then ran back up the stairs and woke the family without difficulty. She told the family what she had seen.

The master of the house went to the window and shouted to the men, asking what they wanted. They replied, ‘return to us our dead man’s hand and we shall away without any fuss, and do no harm to you’.

He refused, and took his musket and fired at them, and in the light of the morning their blood filled the streets.

The hand of glory

The myth of the hand of glory – the hand of a hanged man made into (or holding) a candle with magical powers that can only be extinguisted with milk – has been traced back as far as 1440. Inevitably told as a true story by some, this story utilises a heroine for whom quick thinking, self-control and ability to think on her feet saves the household from robbery at least, and possibly worse. She is not motivated by the promise of marriage or riches, but self-preservation.

Older posts in this series

Feminism for early starters – Traditional Folk and Fairy Tales

Feminism for early starters – Fairy tales and Folk tales retold

Feminism for early starters Books for Boys

Feminism for early starters Young Adult and Teen

Feminism for early startersPrimary Years

Feminism for early starters Picturebooks


One response »

  1. Pingback: Disney* Hates Your Daughters, part 1 | TreasuryIslands

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