Monday, April 25, 2016

Post-Feminist Fairy Tales

Tom Shippey has a great article titled "Transformations of the Fairy Tale in Contemporary Writing" (which can be found in A Companion to the Fairy Tale). Fairy tale scholarship itself has gone through phases-at certain points, academics have been more concerned with fairy tale origins or psychoanalysis. Around the 70s, feminism was sweeping through folklore research as well as the rest of the Western world. We still see the effects of this today in much writing about fairy tales-it's very common to hear concerns about gender representation, especially the dreaded stereotype: the passive fairy tale Princess who does nothing but sit around and wait for her prince to save her.

While some scholars have fully embraced certain methods of looking at fairy tales, some theories are more controversial. It can be easy to dismiss other claims, but Shippey has, I think, a very well rounded outlook-recognizing both the flaws and the values in various trends. Sexism in fairy tales is still a very important topic, but sometimes going too far in one direction can actually hurt your cause. I appreciated reading a male perspective that seems a little more moderate than Jack Zipes (who appears to be way more offended by female roles in fairy tales than I am).

A large part of the reason for unbalanced gender portrayals in stereotypes is simple the culture of the Victorian period that ultimately determined what we now consider to be "classic" versions of "standard" fairy tales. It was a patriarchal culture and this was reflected in the tales that were collected, told, edited, and retold. Yet, Shippey says, "Fairy tales may be transparently patriarchal, but once this is grasped they need be so no more; they can be rewritten with an entirely different, or inverted, orientation." Yet, how does one go about rewriting fairy tales in a non-patriarchal lens? It's not necessarily as simple as it might appear.

Some authors have decided to write more active heroines who play the traditional "hero" role, sometimes doing the rescuing, sometimes rejecting the Prince to show independence. Things things can be done well...they can also be done poorly, or simply too much. Shippey points out that these kinds of stories may still be just as moralistic as the Victorian ones that were meant to train young girls into being the ideal, submissive wives. The fact that it's an opposite moral doesn't take away from the fact that stories can lose their power when they become more about making a point (even a good one) than telling a good story. They come across as preachy (and can also suffer from being very unrealistic, especially when authors set feminist heroines in historical contexts without necessarily grasping the culture well).
Merida from "Brave" and Danielle (Cinderella) from "Ever After", modern weapon-weilding Princesses

The irony is that as more and more authors write feminist tales that reverse traditions, they are actually embedding those traditions in the fairy tale realm. If a princess rescues a prince, there is still a victim that needs rescuing and a hero that does it; if one gender is presented as negative and the other positive, that's still sexist, just reversing sexes.

The other ironic factor is that, by choosing the most well known passive princesses to use as the basis for a "twisted fairy tale," we are still only being exposed to those core Princess tales that tend to feature passive females, rather than exploring  other types of tales. There are countless dark or inverted versions of Snow White, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, etc. out there-yet the public still tends to think of the Grimm/Perrault versions of these tales as the "real" versions, and a twisted version as only that-not the new normal. Why not expose the public to Kate Crackernuts or Janet from Tam Lin? What about the many tales that don't involve romance or rescuing at all? What about "Snow White and Rose Red", a tale that shows sisters with very opposite personalities,but both seen in a positive light (because, just as we can't all fit into the prim, dainty, Victorian ideal woman, we can't all fit into the bold, athletic, feminist stereotype either!) There are countless wonderful folktales that have positive messages for modern culture (see Multicolored Diary for lots of examples!) while still having the timeless, "authentic" quality that most people crave who desire fairy tale entertainment.
Andrea Adams, illustration for "Kate Crackernuts"

Don't get me wrong, I love a good feminist tale and it's very important to question certain elements of old tales and reinvent them, but there can be dangers in going to the opposite extreme. Especially since it's been decades now and the feminist formulas are, frankly, getting kind of old. The first "twisted" fairy tales I read were very powerful experiences for me, and for some people, being exposed to this is still a fairly new concept.

Shippey also points out something really interesting-even among fairy tales themselves, the idea of "transforming" or "reversing" the stories already exists! "Bluebeard" and "Beauty and the Beast" are like opposite tales-"the one tale of an ideal husband who becomes a monster, and the other a tale of the monster who turns into an ideal husband." There's also Sleeping Beauty, waiting for a kiss to come back to life, verses the Beast, waiting for love to bring him back to his former life. Of course, I find it interesting that in the two contrasting examples he uses, he compares tales to "Beauty and the Beast." It's a tale that doesn't fit the traditional mold-it's essentially the story of a helpless male who needs to be rescued by a woman. (And yet, nobody gets all up in arms because this implies that males are helpless! Our very idea that a helpless woman in a story translates into "all women are innately helpless" is in itself kind of sexist...but I digress).

Another concern I have with the gender-focused approach to fairy tales is that, by being so fixated on gender and stereotypes, we're further emphasizing the divide between genders, whereas I would love to see children encouraged to relate to and empathize with characters of all kinds. In the words of Kate Bernheimer, "While I appreciate the celebration, both in scholarship and in popular culture, of the strong female characters in fairy tales, I think that, first and foremost, our devotion to fairy tales is with 'the whole of the mind' and not with our gender." Yes, it's important to realize that gender is usually a huge part of our identity, but it doesn't need to define us and our experiences, especially in negative ways.

Shippey makes an intruiguing suggestion: "Are all female-protagonist fairy-tales, then, all versions of each other?" An interesting thing to think about, especially when you realize that there really are dozens of versions of each of the standard Princess tales. You can find versions that end unhappily, versions in which the heroine is more passive or more active, versions that combine elements from other stories-it becomes clear that fairy tales themselves aren't sending out certain "morals" or messages, unless that message is that situations play out differently for different people, in different circumstances, at different times.

And of course, there are many authors who have written feminist tales and done it very well. He spends a lot of time discussing the stories of Angela Carter, among others. It's a great article that goes into more topics than addressed here. He ends with reminding us that the future of fairy tales in this century is yet to be determined.

What do you see as the future of fairy tales in the 21st century? How should fairy tales (or really stories in general) portray genders, and what would you  like to see in terms of either reinventing the classic tales, digging into unknowns, or creating new stories?

25 comments:

  1. Fantastic post! I couldn't agree with you more about the danger of what started as a challenge to tropes becoming an unchallengable trope in itself - and that we've been doing by-the-numbers feminist retellings of stories for far too long, when we should have been coming up with new and innovative frameworks. We also agree about Kate Crackernuts, which makes me wonder how many truly innovative tales are in the back-catalog.

    A few years ago I wrote a whole bunch of original folk tales, for a book set hundreds of years ago. I've been marketing the ones that didn't end up in the MS to various magazines, and it's interesting both that some sell outright without any updating, and that I get explicit feedback on others that they are not feminist enough and need to be revised. Of course the stories are not all the same, so the only conclusion I guess you can draw from this is that feminism is important to some editors, but its lack is not enough to make them nope out of a story entirely.

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  2. Realized I did not answer your questions - like you, I'd like to see more fairy tales in which the author takes power and invents the setting, rather than either borrowing or critiquing a setting invented by someone else.

    Part of a fairy tale's charm is that it doesn't give lots of justification for the characters' actions or the society's structure, instead challenging us to accept it as a retelling of the events. That should be a strength we build on, as it lets us present completely different worlds without having to justify them. For instance, what if fairyland were organized more like a beehive than a European court? Has there ever been a tale about what happened to someone who disturbed an ogress brooding over her eggs? Or one about how solitary deep-sea mermaids and mermen find each other and stay together? Let's stop using fantasy creatures solely as comments on people and be interested in them as themselves.

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    1. I really like how you put that, how fairy tales don't "give lots of justification for the character's actions or the society's structure," but focused on what happens. I'm sure it's very challenging for authors-of course you want your story to have a good message, and as you mention above, publishers/parents/teachers/etc. can get very upset about a perceived "message" in a story. Yet it can get exhausting always trying to evaluate the agenda of a story rather than just enjoying it!

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  3. Really, in my opinion, there already are quite a few female characters as heroes in the classic versions of the fairy tales.

    Hansel and Grethel: Grethel is the one who uses her brains to defeat the witch that wants to eat her and her brother.

    The Goose Girl: While not actually solving her own problem at the end, she is a very interesting character. I mean, what isn't cool about a girl who can control the wind and talk to decapitated horse heads?

    The Brothers Who Were Turned Into Birds: A girl saves her brothers from the curse.

    The Juniper Tree: In some versions, the murder victim is a girl. Also, even in the versions where the murder victim is a boy, it's his SISTER who places his bones under the tree, which allows him to transform into a bird in the first place.

    Beauty and the Beast: Do I really need to explain this one?

    The Nutcracker: Not actually a fairy tale, but still worth mentioning. Marie Stahlbaum is the hero of this story, willing to risk everything to save her beloved Nutcracker.

    That's all I can think of for now, but I'm sure there are a lot more.

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    1. It's so true! Especially Hansel and Gretel above, it's so well known, it's ironic that people don't more often recognize that Gretel saves Hansel and kills the witch single handed! The story is also great because it shows the two siblings working together, they each come up with clever ideas and it doesn't show one gender as strong and the other weak.

      I also added "Snow White and Rose Red" to the post, I had thought of it after I scheduled it. I think it's really significant to show different female personalities in a positive light rather than focusing on one "type" as the ideal. The sisters keep rescuing a dwarf, despite the fact that he's a jerk to them, and keep the bear/Prince warm through winter.

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    2. I just thought of some more!

      The Arabian Nights: The frame story is that Scheherazade is telling the stories to the king every night in order to prevent her death, and also to stop the King's mass-murder of wives.

      All-Kinds-of-Fur: The main character is able to prevent her father from marrying her, and also gain a husband in the process.

      The Wizard of Oz: Once again, not a fairy tale, and also not from the same time period. But it's still at a relatively early time for female roles in stories. In stark contrast to the MGM's whiny, cowardly, damsel-in-distress Dorothy, the Dorothy in the book is a very brave character who ends up saving her companions.

      By the way, I've been making blogs over the last few months about subjects that I talk about a lot (though I've really only made progress on the Oz blog). Do you think I should make a blog about fairy tales? I've been thinking about it, but I just haven't gotten around to it. Does it sound like a good idea?

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    3. Yes yes yes: Especially Scheherezade! She's a good example of a woman who is clearly brave and clever and works within her own culture, unlike the stories in which the characters are magically able to shed all their preconceived notions about gender and allow a very modern ending to a supposedly historical story.

      Also, yes to Oz! In fact, Baum's Oz books were very feminist for the time, featuring lots of female protagonists going on adventures. Baum was pretty ahead of his time in many respects!

      And-yes, absolutely, making a fairy tale blog sounds like a great idea! I really had no idea what I was doing when I started this blog, it was a spontaneous idea. I didn't have any pageviews or followers for the first few months at all but it gave me time to get used to posting and now this blog has become an important part of my life! The fairy tale blogging community is a pretty supportive one too, we love being able to share and discuss ideas and just get more fairy tale awareness out there! Let me know if/when you get the blog up and running!

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    4. Baum's wife and mother-in-law were part of the Suffragette movement, part of the First Wave of Feminism. And in many respects, Baum was a male feminist (just like me and not ashamed of it whatsoever lol).

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  4. The future of fairy tales has been a question for some time now, ever since people have started going back and discovering that they aren't as benign and squeaky clean as they thought. So the question has become what to do with a bunch of stories that seem too simple for adults but too violent for children. That said, with the way our society is going right now I could easily see a lot of fairy tales being rewritten with social justice in mind, whether it's gender, race, LGBT issues, family dynamics or what have you. Of course, this might also lead to people being upset about seeing these tales being put out there with an "agenda" in mind. And it might lead to those who actually do have an agenda taking it as a sign of how to manipulate the tales (like those ones someone from the NRA rewrote recently). I do agree about the possibility of the subversion of the trope becoming the new trope. It's something I'm actually starting to see regarding all sorts of supposed "subversions" of fairy tales in literature and media. Personally, as the author of many Folk Tale Secret Stash columns, I would love to see more of the "deep cuts" of the fairy tale world get exposure. I'd also like to see the "fairy tale canon" expanded beyond tales from Europe and the Middle East to also embrace stories from places like Africa and East Asia. It kind of makes me wish there was a Marvel Films for fairy tales. Hear me out. We went from a culture in which most people only knew about Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, The X-Men and maybe The Hulk and hobbyists knew the wider and deeper range of the comic book superhero to a world in which the general public's awareness of superhero characters has at least tripled and it's largely due to Marvel Films. No one's going to know about "Kate Crackernuts" or "Snow White and Rose Red" unless someone is able to put it out there in a way the public will accpet it.

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    1. Yes, I think you're right that fairy tales will be used to promote social justice ideals. And as you say, they could be so emphatic that they end up being preachy, but hopefully they can reflect our current values without losing quality!

      And yes to the more unknown fairy tales from all around the world getting better exposure! Ha I like the idea of comparing it to Marvel. So true though! I had no idea "Ant Man" was a superhero until the movie came out!

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  5. I've been reading some 'dark', contemporary feminist-leaning fairy tales recently, many of them by female authors. To be honest, I'm starting to find it a bit wearing. It seems as though one of the go-to ways of making a tale more feminist, is to make the female protagonist suffer horribly at the hands of men. I'm getting tired of the formulas used to do this in fairy tale stories already: handsome prince-types turn out to be abusive, boorish husbands; female characters endure a long string of horrific ordeals until a deux ex machina, deliberately-unconvincing magical solution pops up at the very end, the subtext apparently being that "in real life there is no easy escape"; etc. Even though I'm a woman myself, the thought did occur that perhaps I should start seeking out more stories with male protagonists, since reading about their lives is less depressing! On the other hand, it would also be wrong to insist that all tales ignore the dark side of life for many women. Maybe the challenge is to ensure that when making a tale satisfying in a feminist sense, it also remains satisfying in a dramatic sense. For example, perhaps a heroine does get stuck with a horrible prince for a husband; but maybe she knowingly chooses to do so because forging the alliance enables her to save her kingdom (something like Scheherazade again). Or maybe she manages to raise her son to respect women and so break the cycle, or something like that.

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    1. How interesting! I've noticed that with some of my favorite feminist tv shows, like "Buffy" and "Alias," they really do just put the characters through the worst possible situations. I think it's to show that women are strong enough to overcome even hopeless situations? I guess that's a little more typical of action movies in general, like James Bond or Indiana Jones, but then the situations are seen as fun challenges from the perspective of the audience and not depressing.

      I love your idea of breaking the cycle. For all the complaints about Cinderella and friends being too passive, really, the fact that she can be kind after all the abuse she's received is actually an incredibly significant way of showing strength. If she can be kind to animals, the creatures weaker than her, it shows she's rejected the stepmother's way of living and probably won't abuse her own child some day in the same way.

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    2. If you've read the older versions of Cinderella (long before Grimms, Disney and Charles Perrault) Cinderella was originally less passive, cunning, self-determined and self-motivated. Her original 'magical helper' was her mother's ghost, before we have the frivolous fairy godmother. The Mother's Ghost helping her living children is an ancient archetype, she protects her love ones like drops of blood on a handkerchief.

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  6. Lately I've been reading Walter Scherf again and while in my opinion he has a habit of purposeflly ignoring problematic portrayal of gender (though to be fair he ignores any interpretaion that is not based on psychology),he makes the very valid point that most if not all types of fairy tales have versions with both male and female pro- and antagonists. For every princess that needs to be rescued there is a pince and for every evil witch there is a Big Bad Wolf. In his encyclopedia "Märchenlexikon" (which unfortunately doesn't seem to be available in English) he wanted to adress not only scholars, but also parents togive them a greater variety of firy tales to choose from thanthose readily avaliable in every children's section in every book store, so they could choose the fairy tales that were best suited for their own children. And I absolutely that the selection of fairy tales most people are familir with nowadays features mostly passive heroines, which for every individual fairytale is no problem, but becomes problematic when these tales are all that gets media attention.However this goes both ways. While viewed without context a version of Hansel and Gretel in which the girl protagonist makes mistakes out of greed and stupidity and needs to be rescued by her brother may seem sexist, it might be just the right version for a young boy who feels overreached by his older sister and would maybe even benefit from a fantasy where the male hero is the smart one with power for once. A greater selection of fairy tales to choose rom could be beneficial for children f both sexes nd their parents.

    As for your question: I wouldd like to see more modernproblems tackled in fairy tales. The Multicolored Diary Blog (btw thanks for linking to it, it's a fantastic resource) had had a few articles about "new trad" a movement that aspires to make new stories from old motifs to create tales with protagonists that have been underrepresented in fairy tales until now, like LGBT people or minorities. There are also modern authors that attempt to create literary fairy tales and fables that adress problems of modern life, like burn out syndrome, through metaphors. Fairy tales have always progressed and adapted, but the reception in print and other "fix" media has halted this process somewhat, so I'm definitely not oppososed to breathing some fresh air into those old tales.

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    1. That is so interesting about all the gender reversals. I knew about "Cinderfella" versions but not that they exist for all the passive heroine tales! And as you point out with Hansel and Gretel, it can get very tricky because even when we reverse the roles there are still ways we see the opposite storyline being sexist! Although I never thought of Hansel being greedy and stupid. He did think of the whole idea of dropping things behind to find their way back, which worked successfully, and he only used bread because the mother locked the door and he couldn't gather pebbles. Both Hansel and Gretel ate the house, and they were literally starving, partially because they used the little bread they had in an attempt to find their way home-very forward thinking for two hungry kids. But I totally agree that fairy tales in different versions will work better for different children and situations! That's part of what I would love for people to realize-that fairy tales are way more fluid than we realize.

      And I think representing minorities in fairy tales is definitely one of the positive ways fairy tales should evolve in the future!

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    2. One thing to remember is that for all the revisions, retakes and rewritings of old tales for various reasons and situations, the first written versions of the tales aren't going away. They'll always be there to go back to. That's the great thing about this stuff. And with these tales not only being public domain but also folklore, they belong to everyone to use and remix as they like.

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    3. Adam-Yes that is true-although-the Grimms weren't always the authoritative source for fairy tales, they became what we consider part of the fairy tale "canon" (and not other collections of folklore from other countries, or Schonwerth). And now, although it's kind of frightening, for most people, the "authoritative" version they know of many fairy tales is now the Disney version. The articles that list the "real" versions of Disney movies always act like they're shocking people with completely unknown information, and people comment as if their minds were blown too (I think you did a whole post on this a while back!). So, it's a very long process, but even our ideas of the "originals" can change, just as most people now have never heard of Straparola and Basile, who really did write significant versions of many classic tales

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    4. I made it a point to not use the word "original". As for people viewing the Disney versions as the "cultural canon" as I like to phrase it, that has to do with how visually oriented human beings are, how big major media has gotten and how it's all resulted in pop culture essentially becoming our culture, but I digress . . .

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  7. I didn't mean to imply thatHansel was a negative character, but in the Grimmversion he is defintely put in the more powerless position. But now that you mention it there are versions that put him at fault for eating from thehouse (maybey because ofthe similarities of Hansel and Gretel and Brother and Sister in which the boy is at fault?).

    Even thoughin Hansel and Gretel both siblings are quite equal there are versions that portray either the brother or sister quite negatively make it their fault that the siblings are captured the evil witch/monster. (I'll try to find some specific examples and add them another time, I don't have the book with me) and it says a lot about me personally that I found the one that blame the sister to be sexist.

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    1. Yeah, some picture book versions have the story softened for kids. Instead of their parents abandoning them in the forest, the kids sneak out into the forest to look for berries or something, so that they can help their parents. Hansel ends up using breadcrumbs to mark the trail for no reason whatsoever (since he wasn't prevented from gathering pebbles), which makes him seem kind of dumb.

      The problem with censoring these fairy tales is that they often mess up some other aspect of it. Sure, having your own mother abandon you in the woods is quite scary, but when the Grimm brothers changed it to a stepmother, all that did was place another "evil stepmother" (a common stereotype) in the stories. And the duck scene was completely unnecessary. And then modern versions had to edit it further, and turn Hansel and Grethel into idiots. I also have a problem with "Rapunzel." Yeah, it's cleaner to have Rapunzel slip up to the witch by accident rather than become pregnant, but once again, it makes her stupid. And the scene added to later additions where they make an escape plan just adds the plot hole of why she doesn't just cut off her own hair and escape down it.

      Honestly, I grew up with the Grimm version of "Hansel and Grethel" (though it was the revised version that had the stepmother and the duck), and I turned out just fine. Now, I DID know the softened up version at the time, but I was raised to read the REAL versions of stories, not watered-down versions. My parents didn't particularly care for "Hansel and Grethel" (probably because of the cannibalism issues, and the fact that it had a witch, even though she never actually does anything magical), but it was the fact that the kids were able to overcome evil in the end that made the story so enjoyable for me. In fact, I think that this story would be pretty good material for a horror movie. I'm serious. I mean, if someone were telling you that there was some new movie coming out about a witch who was holding two children captive so that she could eat them, wouldn't you think it sounded like a horror movie? I don't really like horror movies, but if this story was made into one (but it would have to follow the story faithfully, not just get inspiration from it), I would watch it!

      I honestly think people make too big of a deal about the content in these stories. I sometimes think the fact that they get watered-down makes the stories less interesting for kids. Particularly in moral issues. In the censored version of "Red Riding Hood" she gets rescued. Don't you think more kids would pick up on the "don't talk to strangers" message if the story ended with her dying, like it does originally? Sure, it's kind of scary, but this might help kids to understand the message better. I didn't grow up with that version, since we didn't have that version in any books, but since I learned to read at a relatively early age, I was able to read the sections of the preschool books that were designed for parents to read to themselves when I was only five, and I came across a note in the "Red Riding Hood" story that said (most early versions of the story have the wolf eat Red Riding Hood, and the story ends there." And when I read that, was my first reaction, "oh, that's really weird," or something along those lines? No, my reaction was, "Oh, cool! There's a scary version of this!" And then I immediately went to my younger brother and told him about it (and he thought it was cool too). I don't know, maybe my brother and I were just really messed up, but I think these stories are fine. People make way too big of a deal.

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    2. I've read multiple sources who interpret the tale as the children being greedy for eating the candy house that didn't belong to them, so it's not completely unheard of! And of course, it depends a lot on which version you read!

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  8. Oh, I almost forgot. My new fairy tale blog is up!

    Here's the link:

    http://ozfan95fairytales.blogspot.com

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  9. If you ever get a chance, there is a book called "From Girl to Goddess; the Heroine's Journey" by Valerie Estelle Frankel. I highly recommend it; its the Hero's Journey but from the heroine's perspective. The Heroine is on a journey for identity and security, to rescue her loved one, to confront the patriarchy, to challenge her shadow self in the form of the Terrible Mother (a ruthless maternal figure like the wicked stepmother or evil queen or wicked witch), to descend into the underworld to gain knowledge and insight of darkness, and to embody all the great goddess figures of the heroic maiden, the all-powerful mother and the wise arch-crone.

    The Book covers women and heroines from different archetypes; maidens, mothers, crones, seductresses, warrior women, queer women, destroyers, tricksters, spirit guardians, wise women, great mothers and terrible mothers.

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    1. Sounds like a great book! I'll have to keep my eye out for this!

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