Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Pirate Princess (Feminist Folktales 14.)

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: Jewish tale (see Sources)

The story

A king and an emperor make a pact that if one of them has a son and the other a daughter, they will marry them when they come of age. However, both of them almost immediately forget about the pact when their children are born. Totally by accident the prince and princess go to the same school, fall in love, and decide to marry. The emperor is not keen on letting his daughter marry the prince, but that can't stop the lovers, who hop on a ship and elope together.
Landing on an island the prince and princess lose each other in the forest. The girl sleeps in a tree, and is spotted by a merchant's son from his ship. He orders his sailors to bring her to him, as he immediately wants her for a wife. She comes up with a clever plan to get away, manages to get all the sailor drunk, steals the ship and cargo, and sails away.
Soon the princess lands in a seaside kingdom, where the king also wants to force her to marry him. She manages to convince him to plan a great wedding, and while the preparations are under way she escapes along with eleven of her handmaids, steals the ship again, and sails off. Avoiding further kingdoms, they land on an island and run into pirates who - surprise - also want to marry them. The girls get everyone drunk, kill the pirates, steal their treasures, and sail on disguised as men.
The ship eventually lands in a kingdom where the king just died without an heir. Their random selection falls on the princess, who thus becomes a king. Her first order is for her picture to be put up everywhere, and for every stranger to be arrested if they look distressed when they see a picture. Soon three men are brought to her: the merchant's son (kicked out of home for losing a ship), the seaside king (exiled for losing eleven noble maidens), and her original love, the prince, who has been searching the world for her. The emperor's daughter passes judgment on the merchant and the king and sends them home, and happily marries the prince.

What makes it a feminist folktale?

Here we have a princess (an emperor's daughter) who goes to school, speaks multiple languages, sails, plays music, and in addition is also clever and brave. She finds a way out of any trouble. She sticks with her convictions, stands up for herself, chooses her own husband and doesn't cave to pressure. When she is lost in the jungle she sleeps in a tree (I have always loved tree-climbing princesses), and when she gets into trouble she makes clever plans to save herself.
She finds herself in a similar situation multiple times: a strange man sees her, and immediately wants to marry her, even by force. At the end of the story, when these men are in her power, she calls them out on their behavior: "I was in trouble, and you did not ask what I need. You didn't ask, What do you want? Let me help you with whatever you need. Are you hungry? Why did you run away?... Instead you wanted to sleep with me right away." For most men in this story the princess' appearance was her entire value, and while they pretended to be helping her (the merchant's son by "rescuing" her from the island, the king by "saving" her from the ship) all they really cared about was claiming her as a trophy. This is a red flag, in folktales as well as reality: if someone assumes he knows what is best for you, and never actually asks, they probably don't have your best interest in mind. (As a counter-example, see Kristoff from Frozen II whose first princess-saving words are "What do you need?")
Despite their behavior, the princess doesn't take revenge on the merchant's son or the king (she does on the pirates, but then again they wanted to kill her first). She calls them out on their mistakes, and sends them home instead.

Things to consider

The oldest text, by Rabbi Nachman, has some parts that are questionable to the modern reader. For one, the princess becomes king after accidentally killing the kingdom's prince (by blinding him with a mirror so he falls off the mast of his ship), taking his place as the husband of his widow. She also doesn't escape with the eleven maidens as much as gets them drunk and kidnaps them on the ship. In one version she cuts off the pirates' noses instead of killing them. This tale, while known as a story by Rabbi Nachman, has also appeared in the oral tradition in multiple variants, many of which don't include these episodes.


Tale created by Nachman Mi Breslov rabbi (1772-1810).

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: Story tales of ancient years (Kulanu Haverim, 2011.)
Dov Noy, Dan Ben-Amos, Ellen Frankel: Folktales of the Jews I. (Jewish Publication Society, 2006.)
Jane Yolen: Not one damsel in distress (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.)
Howard Schwartz: Elijah’s violin and other Jewish fairy tales (Oxford University Press, 1994.)
Peninnah Schram: Stories within stories: From the Jewish oral tradition (Jason Aronson, 2000.)


This is a very popular "feminist folktale" - it has even made its way to the cover of some collections (see the images above). It should be a Disney movie...

1 comment:

  1. This is great! I love to see posts like this. Keep those empowered tales coming!