James Riordan asks Where have all the folk heroines gone?
Most folk and fairy tales are about boys, men and male animals, and male adventures. In the major fairy tale collections, the ratio of titles featuring males to those featuring females is as follows: 81:25 in the Grimms, with 6 mixed (though the male always comes first); 65:22 in Jacobs’ collection of British fairy tales; 34:16 in Andersen; and 17:1 in Lang’s version of the Arabian Nights.
When females do feature in the tales, they often play insignificant, passive roles, or are portrayed as evil, ugly temptresses. Loving, watching, serving or hatching evil are the main activities permitted to women in fairy tales. In the Grimm tales, for example, 80 per cent of the negative characters are female.
So what? Surely no one takes fairy tales seriously? Or do they? There is plenty of evidence to show that children learn a great deal about the world through stories, about what is expected of children of their age, and what they can and ought to be when they grow up. Fairy tales play an especially important part in early development of ideas simply because of their immense popularity. They are read and told over and over again to children in the process of developing their own identity and future expectations by teachers and parents whom they trust above all others; and they are usually the first stories and films that children come into contact with.
And what do the stories say? That girls are not very important or positive characters, that females are empty creatures who do less exciting, less varied, less independent and less intelligent things than males. Even heroines like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White remain subservient females – prizes for male adventure. Females serve, males lead; and, the fairy tales imply, the former cannot exist without the latter.
The irony of fairy tales is that, although the main collectors were professional men, the original storytellers were mostly women – and humble, working women at that. Charles Perrault called his tales ‘contes de vieilles’ (old wives’ tales). They came from ordinary people, such as children’s nurses, farming women, servants and village sages who themselves often led active and robust lives. The Arabian Nights, it may be recalled, are recounted by a woman, Shaharazade, and during research into their origins I was surprised to find as many heroines as heroes.
When such fairy tales came to be recorded, published and ‘mass-marketed’, mainly in the last century, however, they were fitted to polite society’s prevailing ideology, including the contemporary view of women. The published collections of fairy tales were originally intended for the literate; the values and aspirations presented were therefore those of the middle class. And when they came to be extended to the common people (after the 1870 Education Act) they naturally bore the dominant values of thrift, hard work, acquisitiveness and rugged individualism, as well as censorious attitudes to drink, gambling and sexual promiscuity (by women). Since there was virtually no call for educated Victorian girls to earn a living, they were expected to marry early and set their sights firmly on the domestic hearth. So it was in a girl’s interest to make herself an attractive marriage proposition by acquiring certain social graces while still a child – singing, dancing, music, embroidery, pretty manners. And the prescribed feminine attributes had to be displayed: females were to be wan, decorative, quiet, gentle, neat and tidy, fearful, and helpful to the male.
On the other hand, the acceptable Victorian image to fit educated males for their roles as captains of industry and Empire was quite different from ideals of femininity: boys had to be daring, vigorous, courageous, energetic, masterful, wild, unemotional and naughty (though not rebellious). The concept of a double standard of morality condoned sexual promiscuity in men as a display of `masculinity’ and male aggression, whilst condemning it in women as a sign of ‘unfeminine’, shameful behaviour. The princes of fairy tales, as of real life, could therefore sow their wild oats, while their blushing brides had to be delivered up pure and unsullied. Fairy tales were thus adapted and selected by their collectors and publishers to reflect the prevailing mores of an industrial ruling class establishing its power over the rest of society.
While social conditions down the ages have demeaned females, making them mere handservants of the man, fairy tales are fiction; as such they do not have to reproduce injustice and inequality. Those who tell the tales today have the opportunity, the duty even, to select tales and images that can help to counteract centuries of literary abuse of the female sex. They can provide girls with all manner of exciting models, thereby helping to combat deep-rooted prejudices fostered by the much-read tales.
Such fairy tales are not easy to come by after so much neglect. But they are there. I have found plenty in our own heritage of folk tales from around the British Isles. Typically, the tales of the British people contain no splendid palaces or pretty, elegant fairies; no handsome princes and aspiring peasant brides; no wicked stepmothers and ugly sisters; no noble knights and decorative belles dames waiting to be saved. Everything is popular and from the familiar lore of these islands. Heroines and heroes are as wild, unkempt, simple, hard-working and superstitious as they probably were in fact. And bold heroines stride about the land, from Cornwall’s Cherry of Zennor to Wales’s Maid of Llyn y Fan Fach, from East Anglia’s Cap o’ Rushes and Mary Who Were Afeard o’ Nothin’ to the Lancashire Witches, from Yorkshire’s Old Mother Shipton to Lincolnshire’s Pottle of Brains; but especially in Scotland: the Black Bull of Norroway (where the heroine has adventures in search of her beloved and awakens him with a kiss, unlike the French Sleeping Beauty or the German Snow White), Kate Krakernuts, Mollie Whuppie and the Well at World’s End. Here are heroines in plenty to stir the heart and blur the eye, even curdle the blood.
Beyond our shores, the abiding matriarchal influence is readily apparent even today in East European folk tales. Slav tales, for example, feature the Frog Princess, not Frog Prince, the ubiquitous Vixen (Liza) rather than the Western Fox (Reynard), the adventurous heroine of the Bohemian Twelve Months or the Russian Fenist the Falcon, with her helpful, and often beautiful, Baba Yagas (witches).
But it is not only a matter of locating forgotten tales; it is necessary to trace back and locate stories in their original versions – before they were subverted by men’s fear of and lust for women’s power as observers and instruments of life and death. Let me illustrate. In my researches into original Arabian Nights stories, I was not surprised to find the oft-quoted lines from Prince Camaralzaman and Princess Budoor as spoken by the misogynist Prince:
If you ask my mind of women
I will tell you; I know them well.
When a man’s head is grey and his
Their love will turn to scorn.
With their fingers dyed with henna
And their hair arranged in plaits,
With their painted lids and honeyed lips
They trap unwary men in the web they
And suck out his life’s blood until
he is dry.
Among all the modern versions of the tales, only dear old Sir Richard Burton permits the Princess to respond in kind as she does in the original 15th-century version:
Men are vain and cruel
And cannot love one wife alone.And then,
Beware of men, for they will force you to obey.
The maid will not prosper who gives men their rein.
They will close her mind to life and science,
For they fear above all the liberation of her mind.
Why have so many male collectors ignored these lines?
There is a small number of collectors who have set out to redress the balance: Alison Lurie (Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales – Heinemann), Ethel Johnson Phelps (The Maid of the North and Other Folk Tale Heroines) and Jay Williams (The Practical Princess and Other Liberating Fairy Tales – Chatto. It is an interesting comment on British publishing that the response from two publishers to my own unpublished collection of ‘feminist’ folk tales was that it might `upset parents and librarians more used to traditional images’! All the same, the challenge is there to those authors and publishers who wish to take it up. And take it up we must for the price of rigidity in sex roles portrayed in folk and fairy tales is paid by males as well as females. Boys are equally constrained by the need to be strong, brave and clever, fearing to express themselves emotionally, to take on and enjoy roles defined as ‘feminine’. The oppression and exploitation of one sex inevitably inhibits the fulfilment of human potential in the other. Fairy tales can and should encourage the imagination and creativity of all children… at the expense of none.