Thursday, January 16, 2020

Pablo and the Princess (Feminist Folktales 3.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: Philippines

The story

Three friends - Pedro, Juan, and Pablo - set out to seek their fortune. They decide to go their separate ways at the crossroads, and meet again in one year's time. Independently from each other, each of them meets an old man who gives them a magic item in exchange for sharing their food. Pedro receives a flying carpet, Juan an all-knowing book, and Pablo an ivory tube that can heal anyone if he blows into their nose with it.
When they meet again at the crossroads, the three friends discover from the book that the princess of a faraway land is dying. They fly there on the carpet, and Pablo heals her with the ivory tube. The king, however, is baffled: he doesn't know which man he should give his daughter to (he previously promised to give her hand in marriage to the one that saves her). He comes up with a new test: the three men have to shoot arrows at a banana flower, symbolizing the princess' heart. Pedro and Juan hit the flower right in the center, but Pablo refuses to compete: he doesn't want to cause harm to the princess, not even symbolically. With this caring attitude, he wins the contest, and the princess happily marries him.

What makes it a feminist folktale?

Bat pollinating a banana flower, from here
This tale has many solutions in many different cultures, ranging from definitely feminist ("let her make up her own mind") to kinda horrible (where the suitors give her as a wife to their father, because he is older). I like this version especially because the question is not decided by strength or dexterity, or even by "usefulness." Pablo wins the princess with his empathy. The king knows exactly what he is doing when he sets up a banana flower as a target. It is heart-shaped and dark red, very much reminiscent of an actual human heart. Pedro and Juan shoot at it without care or consideration, eager to prove that they are better than the other two. It is more important to them to prove their own worth than to think about the deeper meaning of the task.
Pablo is the only one who sees the symbolic message behind the practical, and he resists the competitive instinct to stop and consider the best course of action. He does not want to hurt the princess, not even symbolically. This is a lovely counterpoint to all the cases where people are blind to non-physical abuse. The two other suitors immediately shoot the "heart" of the woman they claim to be in love with, to prove a point about their manliness. Pablo takes the risk of losing by not participating at all, and puts the princess' comfort above his own need for approval. This is the kind of respectful, empathetic attitude that allows the other person the freedom to make her own choice, letting her know what her safety is more important than winning.

I also like the fact that this version of the story gives a separate, new task to the suitors instead of trying to decide which one of them was the most "useful" in saving the princess (a lot of variants declare the healer to be the winner by default). This is a good reminder that you can't win someone by doing useful things for them. Despite what writers of romantic movies might think, you can't win a woman by doing X number of favors for her until you collect enough points to exchange for a date. Just because you save someone from a bad situation, they are not obligated to marry you as a thank you. Pablo, by declining to participate in the contest, proves himself to be the most mature of the suitors - and also that he is capable of not only love, but also respect and caring, allowing the princess to draw her own conclusion.

Things to consider

In the original text it's the king that declares Pablo the winner, explaining why his choice was better. When I tell this story, it's usually the princess herself who does the same (balancing out the fact that she had been promised by her father).
Also, because I like men who read, I usually give Pablo the book instead of the ivory tube. It's not a bad option, since, according to some sources, originally the book was the healing item, and the tube used to be an all-seeing spyglass (see here). This has the added bonus of connecting reading with empathy, which is a proven phenomenon.


"Narrated by Dolores Zafra, a Tagalog from La Laguna. She heard the story from her father."

Dean S. Fansler: Filipino Popular Tales (American Folk-Lore Society, 1921.)


The tale belongs to the ATU 653B type (The most wonderful thing in the world). It is originally a dilemma tale - the audience is expected to discuss possible solutions, and come up with a satisfying ending.

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