This post is part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.
For today’s Witch Week post, I’m delighted to welcome guest blogger Chris from Calmgrove to offer his thoughts on a groundbreaking collection of feminist fairy tales and critical essays, Don’t Bet on the Prince.
Nearly thirty years ago, the work of editor Jack Zipes paved the way for a veritable explosion of creative and scholarly activity in the field since — and yet, as we’re seeing in so many ways today, we may not have come all that far on our journey toward true gender equality. What do stories, old and new, have to teach us today? Can we make out of them workable “training manuals” for the challenges we all face, in what we share as fellow human beings as well as in our differences? Thanks to Chris for pointing us toward a book that can help us to remember these still-relevant questions.
Jack Zipes, editor
Don’t Bet on the Prince:
Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England
Fairy tales are never static: they’re always changing according to the teller, the medium, the audience, the prevailing culture. What we call ‘classic’ fairy tales are products of the early modern period, edited and retold by men (or women within a male-oriented or male-dominated culture). Marcia K Lieberman succinctly calls traditional fairy tales “training manuals for girls,” telling them the acceptable ways to behave and what to expect out of life. But these narratives – culturally determined dreamscapes peopled with archetypes – can and should change to reflect our awareness that all is not set in stone. As Jack Zipes, the editor of this now historic collection of tales and essays, writes, feminist fairy tales “explore new possibilities for gender rearrangement.”
Lieberman’s essay usefully underscores how literary fairy tales ended with a moral, either explicit or implicit. Virtue is rewarded, sometimes in this world, sometimes in the next: and female virtues included passivity, patience and victimhood. Lieberman reminds us that in The Blue Fairy Book – as edited by Andrew Lang in 1889 – “most of the heroines are entirely passive, submissive, and helpless,” as for example is the Sleeping Beauty. She points out that “the system of rewards in fairy tales equates with these three factors: being beautiful, being chosen, and getting rich.” When the female protagonist achieves one or more of these goals life for her stops, as the rubric “lived happy ever after” indicates.
What feminist takes on these tales do is re-envisage ideas of attractiveness, passiveness and blatant gold-digging. Lieberman notes that it’s interesting that in these tales “powerful good women are nearly always fairies” (that is, non-human) whereas remote evil women are shown as “active, ambitious, strong-willed and, most often, ugly” – with the added vice of jealousy where the protagonist is concerned.
The sixteen pieces – mostly prose tales but with some powerful poetry by the likes of Anne Sexton – mostly date from the 70s and 80s, as do the four essays. There’s only space to mention a handful but all are rarely just subversive, for they strive to right the balance in favour of our common humanity by giving the female leads active, positive characters and roles. They don’t always end happily ever after either.
Michael de Larrabeiti’s ‘Malagan and the Lady of Rascas’ is not a straight retelling of any one classic tale, but points out the danger of males believing they ‘own’ their wives. Sorcery and the vagaries of war combine to ensure a baron’s wife never regains her beauty; but her innate goodness, belying the notion that beauty is only skin deep, eventually proves the redemption of much that she holds dear. As for the heroine being ‘chosen’ by her suitor, Jeanne Desy’s ‘The Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet’ definitely subverts the traditional tale of ‘King Thrushbeard’ as well as being an implicit commentary on Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ (as Zipes points out). Finally, the cliché of the lead female being motivated solely by cupidity is shown the door in Jane Yolen’s poignant ‘The Moon Ribbon,’ a re-visioning of the Cinderella tale.
Zipes’s own essay is an illuminating examination of how the Little Red Riding Hood theme subtly evolves in narration and book illustration, so it’s entirely appropriate that I mention in conclusion Tanith Lee’s ‘Wolfland.’ Here is a powerful telling of the young woman in the familiar depths of an eerie woodland infested with wolves, but here the resemblances end. The grandmother is not in fact the victim of the wolf but a werewolf, the young woman not the disobedient (and some might say willing) victim but heiress to a blood legacy. But then I could as equally mention any of the tales by Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Meghan B Collins or Joanna Russ – or indeed by all the other writers – as worthy of note. In an era when, thankfully, the incidence of kickass heroines is proliferating it’s important to recognise some of the pioneering authors who paved the way.
And the moral? Ah, there’s always a moral. This one will do, from the end of ‘Malagan’: He who turns to evil will, at the end, find it turned against him. If not in the present, then at some future date. That would be very appropriate in a radically rewritten training manual for girls.
Chris Lovegrove posts photos on My New Shy, micropoetry on Zenrinji and book reviews on Calmgrove. After a career in music education he now has time to lavish on more selfish pursuits like reading and reflecting on books, including those he didn’t take the time over in his youth. He now appreciates Zappa’s heartfelt cry, “So many books, so little time.”