Once upon a time
The story of Bluebeard

Wily and brave: the heroines of fairy tales

The Glassy Hill by John D. Batten

Continuing our discussion of stories, storytelling, and the fairy tale tradition, here's one more passage from Katherine Langrish's fine book Seven Miles of Steel Thistles:

"Fairy-tale heroines do not signifiy passivity and helplessness. Far more often they exhibit resourcefulness, resilience, courage. In the Norwegian fairy tale The Master-Maid, the prince would be eaten by the troll to whom he has pledged his work, were it not for the wisdom and magical power of the eponymous Master-Maid who lives in the troll's house. The prince succeeds in each perilous task only by following the Master-Maid's advice. Finally the troll orders the Master-Maid to kill and prince and cook him. Instead she cuts his little finger and lets three drops of blood fall. As the troll sleeps, she escapes with the prince and a great deal of magical treasure; when the troll awakes to demand if the meal is cooked, the drops of blood answer for her: 'Not yet'; 'Nearly'; and, 'It is boiled dry.' The troll pursues the couple, but the Master-Maid flings magical impediments in his path. Prince and Master-Maid are finally married, but not before a further development in which the prince forgets her, and is rescued on the verge of marrying the wrong woman....

Mr. Fox by John D. Batten"In one of my favourite English fairy tales Mr. Fox, the heroine Lady Mary may initially be deceived by the sly flattery of her suitor, but she is inquisitive and brave as well as rich and beautiful. She discovers for herself the bloody secrets of Mr. Fox's castle, and turns the tables on her would-be murderer in the neatest and most self-possessed of ways. The story quite definitely approves of female curiousity and courage: without these qualities, the heroine would have joined the list of this serial killer's victims. There is no marriage at all at the end of the story, and one feels Lady Mary will give the next suitor a very hard look indeed.

Tattercoats by John D. Batten"In the story variously known as Donkeyskin, Allerleirauh, or Cap o' Rushes, the heroine flees her father's house to save herself from an incestuous marriage:

When the king's daughter saw there was no hope of turning her father's heart, she resolved to run away. In the night when everyone was asleep, she got up and took three different things from her treasures, a golden ring, a golden spinning wheel, and a golden reel. The three dresses of sun, moon and stars she placed into a nutshell, put on her mantle of all kinds of fur, and blackened her face and hands with soot. Then she commended herself to God and went away.

"Disguised in ordinary clothes, a donkeyskin, a coat made of all kinds of different furs, or a cloak made of rushes, she sets out for another kingdom and finds rough work in the palace kitchens. On seeing the prince or heir of the house, she obtains his attention by a series of tricks (mysterious appearances at dances; golden rings dropped in wine cups) and finally marries him. You might call it enterprising.

The Witch by John D Batten

"Many are the heroines who get the better of the Devil himself -- in fact, this dark gentleman rarely fares well in folktales. Remember the farmer who sells his soul in return for twenty years of good harvests? And when the time comes to pay up, his clever wife saves him. 'My man won't be a minute, sir, he's just getting his things together, and please take a mouthful to eat while you wait!' she calls to the Devil, handing him a pie into which she has baked a red-hot griddle. When he bites into it, burning his tongue and breaking his teeth, she interrupts his howls with the merry cry, 'And I'm coming too, to cook for you both!' -- at which the terrified Devil takes to his heels. Of course it's comical: but note that the farmer's wife employs her wits and skills, and defeats the Devil, in a particularly feminine way.

Big Fish by John D Batten

"Just as wives can be cleverer than their husbands, daughters are frequently wiser than their fathers. In one of the Grimms' tales, a peasant digging a field discovers treasure -- and ignores his daughter's advice:

When they had dug nearly the whole of the field, they found in the earth a mortar made of pure gold. 'Listen,' said the father to the girl, 'as our lord the King has graciously given us this field, we ought to give him this mortar in return for it.' 'Father,' said the daughter, 'if we have the mortar without the pestle as well, we shall have to get the pestle, so you had much better say nothing about it.' But he would not obey her, and he carried the mortar to the king....

"It's a bad decision. Surely enough, the greedy king wants the pestle too, and imprisons the peasant for failing to produce it. The daughter's wit and courage saves her father and wins marriage with the king -- whom she later kidnaps in order to teach him a much-needed lesson.

At the Church Door by John D. Batten

"Heroines such as these know their own minds and make their own decisions. They are prudent, determined, wily and brave. They are so far from the stereotype of the fairy-tale princess that one has to ask how it arose. If there are so many stories with strong heroines, why are they not more widely known?

"Traditional tales change subtly each time they are told as, consciously or unconsciously, the teller adjusts and tinkers with them to appeal to the tastes of the moment's audience. We cannot say that this or that version of any traditional story is 'original.' All we can do is look, every time, at who is telling it, and to whom, and for what purpose. 'The prominence of certain stories is itself symptomatic of cultural production -- of the way in which culture constitues itself by constituting us.'*

Rushin' Coatie by John D Batten

"Despite the title, the first two volumes of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimms' Children's and Household Tales (1812 and 1815) were intended for adults and scholars. When in 1825 the brothers decided to bring out 'a smaller edition of 50 tales...geared to the tastes of bourgeois families'** and likely to be read to or by children, they rewrote or omitted many stories with sexual content, yet included some we would today consider inappropriately violent. Each successive generation uses, interprets and censors fairy tales according to its own standards. Not intrinsic excellence, but an ongoing process of social and editorial bias towards passive, gentle heroines has favoured and raised to prominence those tales we recognise as 'classic,' including four of the best-known of all: Sleeping Beauty, Snow-White, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast.

"Even these heroines turn out on closer scrutinty to be less passive than you suppose."

The Black Bull of Norroway by John D. Batten

To learn more about the heroines of those four stories, follow the links above.

Beauty and the Beast by John Batten

Quoted from Off With Their Heads! by Maria Tatar (Princeton University Press, 1993)
Quoted from
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Pictures: The art in this post is by John Dickson Batten (1860-1932), who was born and raised in Plymouth, on the south Devon coast. He studied at the Slade School of Art in London, socialized with the Pre-Raphaelites, and is best known for his illustrations for Joseph Jacabs' fairy tale collections (English Fairy Tales, Celtic Fairy Tales, Indian Fairy Tales, etc.).

Words: The passage quotes above is from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales by Katherine Langrish (The Greystones Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.