Think about fables and folktales for a moment. Most of the ones that come to mind (usually filtered through the point of view of Walt Disney and the company that bears his name) feature girls and women not at all; as evil step-mothers and/or witches or as helpless idiots in need of rescue because they can’t handle the particular situation alone.
But there are a lot of folktales out there in which girls and women hold their own as well (if not better) than boys or men would in comparable situations. More than 100 of such fables from all over the world are collected in Kathleen Ragan’s 1998 book Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales from Around the World.
And some of them seem rather familiar. Remember “Rumplestiltskin”? As Ragan points out, that story has “a female protagonist (who) gets bumped around from one obnoxious man to another.” These being her father, the king and Rumplestiltskin himself. And in that story, she’s saved by happenstance, not by her own actions. Ragan asks why in “Rumplestiltskin” the woman wouldn’t tell the king the truth about spinning straw into gold. Or why she’d agree to give away her child. This woman’s a bit of a moron, isn’t she?
Not so the woman in the very similar tale from Scotland called “Whuppity Stoorie.” This woman, whose husband ran off and left her with a young child and little to live on (and who receives no help from anyone else in the community), discovers one day that a sow soon to farrow is lying on her back, “grunting and groaning, and ready to die.”
This comes as a blow to the woman, who’d hoped for a “fine litter of pigs”, and she sits down and cries. An old woman comes up the hillside and— somehow knowing the sow is sick— asks what the woman will give in exchange for curing the animal.
“Anything”, says the woman, whom the text describes as stupid. And in a way she is stupid, because the “anything” turns out to be her child. But she’s not as stupid as the nitwit in “Rumplestiltskin”, because she gets herself out of the situation, without any outside help. As in “Rumplestiltskin”, the woman can keep her child if she guesses the trickster’s name. In “Whuppity Stoorie”, the woman later hears the old woman singing and sneaks up to investigate. And she hears the old woman state her name: Whuppity Stoorie.
Now armed with this information, the woman succeeds in keeping her baby when Whuppity Stoorie returns, demanding “payment.” And again, she handled her situation without help from anyone else (in “Rumplestiltskin” someone else hears Rumplestiltskin say his name and is nice enough to tell the woman in that story what it is). And as Ragan points out, because she’s preoccupied by the fact that the sow (likely her only source of income) might die, the woman is tricked into a bad bargain.
A story out of England called “Molly Whuppie” involves three sisters, the youngest children of a family that abandoned them in the woods because they felt they’d too many mouths to feed.
The girls come to a house and ask for something to eat. The woman there urges them to go away before her husband, a giant, returns. He’d kill them when he returns, she warns.
The girls say they’ll leave before he comes home and the giant’s wife relents.
But they don’t leave before then and the giant arrives, proclaiming…
Well, you know.
Instead of killing the girls, the giant orders them to stay the night and to sleep in the same bed with his three daughters. The youngest of the abandoned girls, the eponymous Molly Whuppie, notes that the giant had put straw ropes on her neck and those of her sisters and gold chains around his own daughters’ necks. So she waits until the other girls are all asleep and switches the necklaces. The giant comes in the dark room later, feels for the straw and takes and kills his own daughters.
Molly and her sisters then slip out of the house and soon reach another house, the King’s. He gives her three challenges in succession, each involving going back and facing the giant. The reward is that each of her sisters and herself will have one of his sons to marry.
So Molly goes back and in turn gets from the giant a sword, a purse from beneath his pillow and the ring he wears on his finger. On that last expedition, she’s captured and put in a sack. But she tricks the giant’s wife into letting her out and putting herself into the sack.
And she successfully completes her final task.
“Molly Whuppie” is very similar to stories about Jack and his exploits in fighting a giant. But in this case, it’s a clever girl who wins out.
And those are just two of the stories in this book. Even those stories we’re familiar with, like “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood”, have older variations in which the female characters are capable of handling things on their own. In the introduction to the book, for example, Jane Yolen points out that more than 500 European variants of “Cinderella” have her winning a share of a kingdom on her own.
And in early versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”, the girl and her grandmother handle things on their own, without need of rescue by a woodsman. And in one version, Red Riding Hood meets and defeats a second wolf.
If you like folktales and/or want to give your daughters, nieces and/or young cousins access to more than just Disneyfied damsels in distress, Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters is worth a look.
Copyright 2015 Patrick Keating