Thursday, January 17, 2019

#FolkloreThursday: Badass folk versions of the classic fairy tales you're bored of

This post was born at an intersection of two issues that keep coming up when the media latches onto the topic of fairy tales. One of them is people making sweeping statements about folktales based on a very narrow canon, such as "women are always passive princesses in fairy tales" (I have blogged about this before). The other is the ever-present question of representation - what can we do if we don't like the kissy part of Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty? (I have blogged about this too). 
Since these questions keep circling around, and since I have a lot of data on my hands from Following folktales around the world, today I wanted to bring you a selection of lesser known, more badass folk variants of the stories we all love and are bored of.

Here we go.

Demon hunter Sleeping Beauty
Jan Knappert: Aicha's tasks on earth (The World and I, 2002.)

Contrary to popular belief, the central motif of Sleeping Beauty is not the kiss at all - it is the moment when something stabs her finger, and she falls under enchantment. While this enchantment is most often sleep, there are notable exceptions to the rule - Aicha among them. Aicha, the hero of an Algerian folktale, defeats and burns an evil ghoul, but a single splinter of bone remains, and it gets under her skin. With the injury comes the curse: Aicha cannot stay in one place, she has to travel the world. Taking advantage of her constant wandering (as well as her skills as a swordsman and a geomancer), she goes from city to city, killing demons, sea monsters, werewolves, and the like. She eventually gets rid of her own curse, and becomes a queen.

Cat burglar Cinderella
Jack Zipes: Catarina the Wise (University of Chicago Press, 2017.)

The Sicilian folktale of The Little Date Tree is by far my favorite version of the Cinderella story. Locked into the house with her two boring sisters, Ninetta decides to climb down the well after a stray thimble. She accidentally discovers a portal that leads straight into the king's gardens - and she decides this is a good opportunity to rob him blind. After days of coming and going, and stealing fruit, flowers, and decorations, she is eventually noticed by the prince - who announces a ball with the sole purpose of catching the pretty yet mysterious thief. Ninetta shows up repeatedly, makes fun of the prince, and eventually drives a hard bargain, getting the king to make her her father's heir before asking for the prince's hand in marriage.

Wolf hunter Riding Hood
Dékány Rafael: A pityke és a kökény (Argumentum, 2004.)

In this Hungarian folktale, a little girl lives in a cave in the forest all alone. She lives in comfort through the summer, but when winter hits, wolves get hungrier as the weather gets colder, and finally one of them sniffs out her home. The girl, who is in the process of boiling lye for soap when the wolf appears, pours the whole cauldron of it on the hungry beast, scalding its fur off. Later the wolf returns with a whole pack for revenge. The girl climbs a tree to get away from them. In true cartoon fashion, the wolves stand on each other's shoulders to reach her, with the naked wolf at the bottom. When they get close enough, she screams "More boiling water!", and the naked one jumps out of the bottom of the pile. The girl has wolf furs to warm her for the rest of the winter.

Sorceress Rapunzel
Italo Calvino: Italian folktales (Mariner Books, 1992.)

Okay, so The Canary Prince is not technically the same folktale type as Rapunzel, but it does feature a girl locked in a tower. In this case, it happens to keep her out of the way of her evil stepmother. Looking out of the tower, she falls in love with a prince who is hunting in the woods, and thanks to a mysterious old woman, she acquires a book of magic. She learns how to turn the prince into a canary so that he can visit her, and how to turn him back. The stepmother eventually tries to sabotage the secret affair, and mortally wounds the prince. The girl is not deterred; she rescues herself from the tower, gains some knowledge from a group of witches in the woods, and goes off to save the prince.

Sister rescue from Bluebeard's castle
Clara Stroebe: The Danish Fairy Book (New York, 1922.)

Bluebeard is widely regarded as a cautionary tale about marrying a handsome stranger, and finding out that he has dead wives locked in his closet. In the eponymous version, the girl's brothers arrive just in time to get rid of the evil man and save their sisters. There is another tale type, however - such as the Danish tale of The Pig in the book above - which is essentially the same story, except here the youngest sister first helps her older sisters escape from the murder castle (usually by reviving them, and hiding them in luggage), and then she smuggles herself out as well. In a Hungarian variant, the evil man goes on to stalk her, until the Virgin Mary pops out of Heaven to tell him that he has no right to any woman. 

Cajun Snow White
W. B. McCarthy: Cinderella in America (University Press of Mississippi, 2007.)

Okay, so this one is more cute than badass, but here it is: In Snow Bella, the persecuted princess finds shelter in the house of two Dwarves and their adopted (human) younger brother. The evil queen tries to kill her three times; the first two she is saved by the youngest brother's quick thinking and keen eyes for detail. The poison apple thing goes the usual way, except there is no kiss: When they are taking her to be buried, one of the brothers stumbles with the coffin (probably because of the height difference), the apple bite dislodges from her throat, and she wakes up. In the end, she marries the youngest brother, because they have fallen in love over the years spent together. No questionable prince in sight. 

Moral of the story: Variants of folktales can differ a lot from each other, and there are some true gems out there for the telling. Have fun!


  1. Thanks for sharing
    New post

  2. Nice to know you don’t even have to rewrite your favourite boring fairytales to get a variation!

  3. I love these! Particularly the sticky-fingered Cinderella, demon hunter Sleeping Beauty, and prince-free Snow White. Great stuff!