In a world full of heroes, we need more heroines. Just like real life, most of the leading roles in fairy and folktales have been given to men. These tales blur the line between fantasy and reality — by connecting the two worlds in myriad ways. One such way, of course, is how underrepresented women are in both worlds — and why history and fiction need to be rewritten for the present and future to do better. Author Ethel Johnston Phelps saw the importance in doing this work, and she sought to write a collection of feminist folktales for future generations to enjoy. Her work, which is brought to light in the Feminist Folktales from Around the World four-volume collection, rewrites old fairy and folktales to tell HERstory. Forget Disney — these are the stories parents should be sharing with their girls. Here we find the role models young girls truly need, and the tales that are sadly absent from the classics.
Phelps spent three years reading and studying thousands of fairy and folktales for these collections. She took the stories that she found had the most powerful female characters and rewrote the tales to make them more relevant to contemporary audiences and women-centered, so they’d truly be feminist folktales — not just tales where women play a small part or are treated as pawns for the story’s hero. As Phelps points out in the books’ introductions, strong women in fairy and folktales are often negatively painted as witches, evil stepmothers, wicked stepsisters or haggard trolls. Virtuous women in these tales are usually the object of affection for the stories’ hero, and are only known for their beauty, commitment to a husband, or for being a mother to a powerful man. These are not inspiring tales for our girls.
In Feminist Folktales from Around the World, women can get trapped, captured or endangered in myriad ways. But they're no damsels in distress. They outsmart villains and escape — and save their families, husbands and suitors from harm’s way. Usually, wit rules over violence as the means to overcome harm, as violence is more of an inkling of the patriarchy. In “Duffy and the Devil,” Duffy barters with the devil in order to avoid the loom work she dreads. She tricks the devil to avoid joining him in hell, the punishment she receives if she cannot solve the devil’s riddle. Later, she tricks her squire husband to avoid the hell he wants her to live — a lifetime of weaving socks and blankets.
The heroines in these feminist folktales aren’t entrapped by the single life, as they appear to be in the typical tales. Instead, these heroines run free and possess the same qualities commonly attributed to heroes in the storybooks — self-confidence, strength, wits, courage, fearlessness, independence. They live freely, happily ever after, without restraint or the duties kept women are expected to perform. In Maiden of the North, a maiden who does not wish to marry eventually is won over by a humble bachelor who is also happy being alone. Here, love at first sight doesn’t exist; instead, love is earned through devotion, acts of commitment and affection, and a mutual respect and desire to be loved over owning or claiming these heroines as property.
With no heroes in sight, women get to save the day in these tales. Although seeing girls run the world is simply the norm in Bey’s modern day, such a role reversal was rather extraordinary long, long ago — which is painfully clear in these texts. With her brothers dead and parents too old to hunt for survival, "The Hunter Maiden" insists on using her brothers’ hunting gear to save her family. She had, after all, watched them hunt as a child, and it was the only way, as she was the only family member alive and capable of the mission. Similarly, in "Wild Goose Lake," Sea Girl discovers a way to save her village from a drought one day as she’s fetching bamboo for the fire.
Gender role reversals play out in other ways, in “The Husband Who Stayed at Home,” where an arrogant husband complains about his wife’s ability to perform “woman’s work,” which prompts her to challenge him to stay at home and allow her to do his job instead for the day. You can probably guess how this one plays out. After the husband learns his lesson, the two form an agreement built on respect for the difficulty of household chores — which the husband learns is far more difficult than his typical day of work — and Phelps concludes the tale with this important key to a happy, healthy relationship: “With this compromise they lived quite peaceably, and neither the husband nor the wife complained very much at all.” Amen.
For this review, I read volumes three and four of the Feminist Folktales from Around the World collection, titled Sea Girl and The Hunter Maiden, respectively, and I’ll be reading the previous two (Tatterhood and Kamala) ASAP, because I simply can’t get enough of these folktales. The books themselves are simply adorable and would fit perfectly into a children’s book collection (my copies blend in nicely with my grown-up books, too). The brightly colored cover art complement these vivid stories perfectly, along with the illustrations decorating each new chapter and throughout, all done by Suki Boynton, senior graphic designer at Feminist Press.
I wish this collection was around during my formative years, as I definitely didn’t relate to or aspire to be a Disney princess as a young girl, and was starved for strong female characters. Fortunately, these books are an inspiring read for young girls and women alike, so I can enjoy them now just the same. This collection is a much-needed break from the classics — the popular stories we’ve all heard from Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and the watered-down tales made into Disney movies. Unlike those tales, Feminist Folktales from Around the World offer hope to young girls, pushing the envelope and gender roles aside to afford them the same opportunities as the boys — from the start.
top image: detail from the Hunter Maiden
More from BUST
Crystal Erickson is a writer, blogger, copy editor and proofreader. Off the clock, she freestyles cat-themed raps to Cat Mulder, watches campy horror movies, and talks to plants. You can follow her on Facebook.