April 3, 2012

Defying Fairy Tale Conventions

 I read a lot of fairy tales, myths, and folklore as a kid -- everything from A Thousand and One Nights to the Popol Vuh to Norse mythology, with a heap of Hans Christen Anderson for good measure.  I still have and enjoy these books.  They're full of all kinds of people, from clever slave girls who win their freedom to burly gods who have to cross dress to get their Mjölnir back.

So, when someone says a book "defies fairy tale conventions," I usually end up biting my lip.  I adore retold fairy tales.  But from the way people talk about them, fairy tales only contain princesses who sit, sigh, and wait for someone else to solve their problems.  I'm not sure if I simply struck upon a lot of good stuff as a kid or if I should blame watered-down retellings.  Fairy tales were, after all, once considered adult fare and continue to change as they're adapted for kids (I love Starfall, but this is still my favorite example of a story so sanitized the original meaning is lost).

I'm not a fairy tale scholar, though, so instead of rambling, I'm just going to post a handful fairy tales that "defy fairy tale conventions" by featuring proactive women (I left off myths; maybe I'll make another list sometime).

Scheherazade: One of the oldest and bravest examples of women in literature.  Her story frames all of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.  By risking her life and telling amazing tales, she saves a city.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves: Ali Baba stumbled upon great wealth quite by accident.  Then his slave girl, the clever Morgiana, saves his life from the revenge of thieves a number of times by her wits -- as she goes about her daily tasks.  She doesn't even bother to mention what she's done until she kills the head of the thieves in front of her master.  She's granted her freedom and Ali Baba offers his son for her husband.  The son meekly accepts.

The Rain Maiden: This is a German fairy tale that unfortunately I can't find a web copy of -- apparently it's a more recently, literary fairy tale, like those of Hans Christian Andersen.  If anyone's from Germany, I'd be interested to hear if it's well-known there; I've been reading this one since I was four.  In short, the Rain Maiden's fallen asleep and a young woman braves a dangerous journey to wake her, stop the drought, and win a bet so she can marry the guy she loves.

Princess Furball: This is a lot like Cinderella, except there's no fairy godmother.  The king promises his daughter to marry an ogre.  She objects, of course, and says she'll only agree if he'll provide her a bunch of nifty dresses and a coat made of fur from each of the animals in the kingdom.  To her horror, the king manages to deliver.  She flees, ends up working as a scullery maid in another kingdom, then uses her wits and superior cooking skills to attract the eligible king.

The Little Mermaid: Which is nothing like the movie.  In the original, the unnamed mermaid's greatest desire is to gain an immortal soul: merepeople live for three hundred years, then turn to ocean foam.  The only way for her to gain an immortal soul like a human is to marry one...or so she thinks.  This story doesn't end in a wedding.

Anyone else have a favorite fairytale to add?


  1. I have to admit the Little Mermaid movie (while full of wonderful music and some great scenes) always drove me nuts. The girl wants to change her species for crying out loud! And all because the guy is cute - she hasn't even spoken with him at that point. Drives me batty!

  2. I'd never read Tatterhood until five minutes ago. Awesome!