Have you ever heard the fairy tale of the girl who rode on a black bull? Of the sword-wielding maiden who cut unwanted suitors into pieces? The miller’s daughter who could turn thread to gold but was rubbish at housework? The princess who grew up amongst giants and ended up saving her prince?
I thought not.
So how come all these exciting fairy tale girls and women have been forgotten in favour of the hapless, hopeless heroines waiting for princes to rescue them, or fairy godmothers to clothe them?
I blame the Brothers Grimm.
The Brothers Grimm spun a marketing-savvy yarn, saying that that they gathered fairytales by strolling about lush Germanic countryside, faithfully recording the tales the Volk shared with them by the fireside in their derelict (but charming) farmers’ cottages.
In actual fact, the Brothers Grimm were two geeky, middle class blokes who used stories they heard from their friends, stole from already existing collections, and then adjusted their tales to fit the attitudes of their time.
In the 19th century, fierce maidens were not to be encouraged, and nobody wanted to behold a wild woman. Out went the fierce maidens and wild women, in stayed the meek ones.
Then they adapted their collection for children. Out went the sex, but weirdly, the violence stayed in.
At the same time, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, in came mass printing while oral storytelling dwindled. The Grimm stories (alongside Perrault and Andersen) became the stories that were told and retold, and sold as the ‘real deal’ when it came to fairy tales. And this is how thousands of stories about exciting, proactive heroines came to be mostly lost to the world.
For every Cinderella (read: hapless girl) there is a feisty heroine somewhere out there in the truly traditional fairy tale world. Marina Warner, Angela Carter, Isabel Otter, Sharon Blackie, Sophie Anderson, among many others, have worked to redress the balance. Let’s join them by reviving these tales, retelling them, re-inventing them for the 21st century.
It’s about time women took charge of the narrative.
Walburga Appleseed’s The Princess and the Prick, Fairytales for Feminists, is out October 15th 2020.