Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Gender roles in two Swedish fairy tales

Again, with feminism and gender roles such a hot topic in fairy tale studies, it's kind of impossible not to read fairy tales without that gender lens. Case in point, two Swedish fairy tales, one which has a male protagonist and one female.

In "The Maiden in the Castle of Rosy Clouds," by Harald Ostenson, a beautiful maiden appears to a poor, travelling worker, telling him that he must find her. The man, who is never named, has no idea how to start. Eventually he came across an old woman who told him of an old poem that tells of the Maiden in the castle of clouds, and the way to find her is to find a certain gray stallion, a red mantle, and a sword named Gull to kill an iron serpent.

Again, the man has no idea how to get these things. He goes about his life, but every few years he comes across a situation where someone else is in trouble. He bravely-sometimes arguably foolishly-attempts to rescue them. And each time he does, he finds himself holding the sword, or wearing the mantle, or riding a horse. But it has taken years and years, and by the time he does come across the castle, he is an old man-but the maiden makes him young and handsome again. 

In "The Queen" by Anna Wahlenberg, there is a beautiful girl named Adelgunda. She has eyes that are so large and expressive that she has twofold abilities-to see inside each person's character, and to express everything she is thinking and feeling without words. She falls in love with a neighboring prince, but knows that if she looks on him, her eyes will reveal her love, and it would be improper for her to love a royal prince. When she is supposed to meet him, she wears a veil to protect her secret. 

But the fact that Adelgunda refused to look on the Prince with her eyes made rumors spread-people assumed there was something wrong with his character she did not want to be made known, and people began to think badly of the Prince. His betrothed called off their engagement, and his own people became suspicious. So finally Adelgunda went to his kingdom to look him in the eyes, and in doing so betrays her feelings for him. But as she is turning to leave in shame, the Prince calls out for her not to leave, for he will make her his queen.

So it is clear that the man and woman do fit into the stereotypes found in many fairy tales-the man does daring feats of bravery and the woman looks beautiful while remaining much less active. But first of all I should point out that, though this image of a knight in shining armor battling dragons has become the typical fairy tale princely image, that is really not often the case-this story is more of an exception. Men are more likely to leave home, but really they don't do all that much more. More often than not they happen to come across magical objects or animal helpers that advise the main character and guide him to a happy ending.

And in "The Queen," Adelgunda's actions really do show bravery-she is willing to suffer humiliation and shame rather than let someone else's reputation get ruined. It's just a quieter form of bravery, but admirable nonetheless. I'm always wary of feminist readings that seem to deem sword weilding types of bravery, or other stereotypically male actions, as "better."

And another thing I've been mulling over is how to stay historically accurate. It sometimes frustrates me that we have all these historical novels in which females go against the grain, taking initiative and sometimes joining men in more athletic pursuits-which in itself is great-but at the end everyone else just accepts it. The love interest actually likes her better for being unique, all is usually forgiven. In most cases that's just our culture interposing our current ideals on history but in a way that oversimplifies things

I was thinking of this as Tony and I were rewatching "Mulan" the other night (thank you Netflix instant play!). The ending seemed too perfect and frustratingly unrealistic to me, but then Tony told me it was based on a true story. I did a little digging-it is based on an old Chinese ballad and Mulan may or may not have been an actual woman. Either way, the fact that the culture at large valued this story of a female who dressed as a man and was greatly respected in her twelve years as a soldier speaks volumes.
"Hua Mulan Goes to War"

Yet that isn't true in every culture. The historical equivalent in Western culture, Joan of Arc, obviously did not fare so well-despite being a brave hero, she was burned at the stake. If a Cinderella in certain cultures had refused to do work, she could have been beaten or worse. One of the ways fairy tales are so powerful is their ability to give us hope, but I don't know how I feel about giving young adult fairy tale novels readers such a skewed view of history. The more I learn about history the more I realize how shocking fairy tales really were-if not in their portrayal of women, then for the fact of people marrying outside of their class, or marrying for love. So much of how we understand fairy tales is totally changed when you learn more about the historical context, and mixing eras of history can lead to misunderstanding.

Illustrations by John Bauer


  1. Happy Birthday to you, Kristin! I missed by a few days but I did remember!

  2. Good post. I really agree about the historical accuracy. If someone wrote a story now, in which someone was poor and married someone rich... no one would think much of it because it's been done so much before, but that's not how it always was. We take lots of stories for granted, and many writers don't take advantage of the story potential.