Feminist Fairy Tales
Once upon a time, we met Snow White, Cinderella, and scores of other characters through beloved fairy tales. These accustomed us to the idea that the heroine is usually good-looking; her Prince Charming can be counted on to save the day; and perhaps most importantly, there is almost always a happy ending.
Which is why Barbara G. Walker’s Feminist Fairy Tales, 28 in all, comprise a refreshing collection. Some are reinterpretations of old stories and myths, while others are completely original creations. And while some may appear to be antithetical to romance, all of them depict a kind of female utopia so central to the genre. The romance consists in the premise that women may not always be beautiful, men may not always rush to their rescue, and some endings may not exactly be optimistic – but that everything will be okay, anyway.
The author of Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Walker prefaces each story with an explanatory snippet about the different designations of Woman in myth. This includes woman’s various incarnations in the trinity of the Virgin, Mother, and Crone; her intimate connection with the Goddess; and her magical function as wise woman/witch. The author also recreates such familiar elements as enchanted forests, magical creatures, and medieval kingdoms, which we’ve all seen before, but not through an unwavering feminist lens. Alleging that traditional fairy tales impart oppressive values and provide poor role models, Walker revises some of them and incorporates the following themes:
- Women are capable of remarkable heroism: Jill and the Bean Root and Ala Dean and the Wonderful Lamp illustrate how female protagonists, as opposed to traditionally male ones, would respond in circumstances similar to Jack’s or Aladdin’s. Meanwhile, the original Princess Questa stands out as an allegory dealing with the contemporary issues of domestic abuse, romance, and motherhood.
- You don’t have to be physically attractive to feel fulfilled: This holds true for both sexes, as illustrated by the Shrek-like Ugly and the Beast and Barbidol, a Toy Story-type anecdote that demystifies gender roles (i.e. that girls should be ornamental like Barbie and boys intrepid like G.I. Joe). On the other hand, The Sea Witch tells the poignant story of how a crippled boy overcomes his disability and lack of physical beauty.
- Preserve nature and respect all living things: Animals that are traditionally depicted as cruel predators play a different role in Little White Riding Hood, in which the heroine and her grandmother rescue some wolves from a couple of big, bad hunters. Meanwhile, The White God is a cautionary tale about the decimation of African fauna.
- Beware an unquestioning acceptance of dogma: Some stories are subversive against institutionalized religion and society. One example is The Gargoyle, which gives new light to the medieval idea that women are engaged in devil worship. Another is Cinder-Helle, who struggles against her wicked stepmother Christiana and stepsisters Nobility and Ecclessia. Still other stories reveal the weaknesses and perversions of Zeus/Father God, such as his power lust in How Winter Came to the World and his fascination with death and destruction in How the Sexes Were Separated.
- Abusive men will get their comeuppance: Some stories rest on the radical feminist idea that the way to combat male domination is to fight back, or to advocate separation from men (who are sometimes portrayed as murderous lechers). This is especially true in The Weaver, where a prominent sadist pursues the heroine; Snow Night, in which it is the hunter and not the stepmother who wishes to harm the princess; and Little White Riding Hood, in which the male characters are cruel not only to women and girls but also to animals.
However, this does not mean that the book is man-hating, since it also features admirable male protagonists. Sir Vivor and the Holy Cauldron indicate that men can also be protectors of life instead of its destroyers. Thomas Rhymer is the tale of an innocent, charming minstrel who wanders into fairyland. And for a change, the prince in The Littlest Mermaid does not abandon his beloved to a tragic fate.
This collection is not perfect, of course; some stories seem pointless or forgettable, while others – like Fairy Gold and The Frog Princess – end inexplicably. But some are gems that you’d want your friends to read. For the most part, the book transports you to an enchanted world where, even though things may not work out quite as expected, the last line tells you that the characters nevertheless lived happily ever after.