Thursday, January 30, 2020

The proud king (Feminist Folktales 5.)

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.

CW: domestic abuse 
I promise I'll have some nice men in the stories starting next week!

Origin: Mahakoshal, India 

What's the story?

Image from this movie
Every night when he gets home a proud raja makes his wife hold up her nose ring, and throws a spear through it with such force that even the ground trembles on impact. He then asks her "Who is the most powerful raja in the world?", to which she always says "you." However, a female gardener observes all this, and worries for the queen, so in secret she gives her advice for the next time. The following evening, when the raja does his usual power move, the queen answers "You are the most powerful to me, but there are stars and stars and the earth is greater." The raja takes this as a claim that there is someone stronger than him, and immediately sets out to find them and kill them.
After eight days of traveling the raja ends up in the kingdom of the rakshasas, and finds their king plowing a field of black rock with a cobra-plow drawn by tigers. The raja is terrified by the monsters and runs all the way home to his wife, begging her to save him from the pursuing rakshasas. The queen gathers her maids, they quickly slaughter a goat, splatter everything with blood, wrap the king in a swaddling cloth, and pretend the queen just gave birth (they even put the goat's stomach on the bed for a placenta). When the rakshasa shows it is terrified to see the baby with a mustache, and the queen says "his father just went out to get a rakshasa for a sacrifice." The monster runs away, and the king's pride is broken because "his wife became his mother."

What makes it a feminist folktale?

First things first: The queen in the story proves her bravery and cleverness by saving her husband's life. This, however, is only a part of why this story if interesting to this "feminist folktales" series. Following the topic from last week, we one again have a tale that symbolically deals with the issue of domestic violence.
First off, on a positive note: The queen is helped by a bystander in breaking the endless cycle of abuse. In addition, this bystander is another woman (the female gardener) who does not only notice something is wrong, but also worries for the queen enough to offer actual help for changing the situation (even though she is terrified of the raja too). Female friendships in traditional tales are very rare, and in a story like this it is especially important that the abused wife gets help from another woman.
The representation of abuse in this tale is especially powerful. The spear thrown with excessive force through the nose-ring (a symbol of femininity and a personal, intimate possession of the queen) is very expressive in itself, and then comes the question: "Is there anyone more powerful?" The whole ritual exists for the raja to humiliate his wife every night, and reinforce his belief that there is no one greater than him. It is a power trip, making him feel great at the expense of his weaker, defenseless wife. Abuse is about power and control. The moment the thought of someone even greater appears, the raja loses his sense and sets out in a murderous rage to end them. When he encounters someone actually stronger than him - the rakshasa -, however, he is not prepared to face them. Quite the opposite. His entire ego is built on dominating others who are weaker, not being challenged by those who are strong. This raja is not a folktale hero who goes up against a monster when he sees one. He runs.
He runs back to the same place where he got his ego boosts from: literally to his wife's skirts, begging to be saved. The queen could simply throw her husband to the demons at this point, but instead she decides to prove that she can face her fears. With the help of other women (once again, community) she defends the king, with a solution that involves the feminine rites of giving birth. The raja's pride is broken. He is not only rescued by his wife, but she does so in the most humiliating way possible: by making him an actual baby to match his baby-sized masculinity; it turns him from warrior into a helpless, whining child. Abusers are never brave or powerful on the inside. In a home where the woman is either doormat or mom, there is no space for a happy marriage.

Things to consider

A question to consider: what constitutes a "happy ending" for this story? In traditional societies a woman could rarely ever just leave her husband, especially if she was a queen, but to modern audiences it might be strange to see her stay with him, instead of walking out the door and leaving the raja to stew in his own diapers. Plus, an abusive mentality can't really be cured by one humiliating act of defiance - quite the contrary, usually.
Suggestions and opinions welcome in the comments.


Verrier Elwin: Folk-tales of Mahakoshal (Oxford University Press, 1944.)


For a long time I imagined the king throwing the spear through the nose ring while his wife was still wearing it. The text is not clear, but it's pretty bad either way.

1 comment:

  1. This is similar to the story of the boastful giant Finn McCool who runs home terrified when he hears the young giant Cuchulain is looking for him to challenge him to a fight. His wife makes him put on her nightdress and hides him in the baby's cradle. Cuchulain is alarmed when he sees the size of this 'baby' which eventually bites off the finger which contains his strength, and Finn is saved by his wife's cleverness.