Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Queen Bee (Feminist Folktales 18.)

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.

Today is World Bee Day, so I decided to post about one of my favorite bee-related folktales :) 

Origin: Germany (Grimm)

The story

Image from here
The two eldest of three brothers fall into a "decadent way of life" and go out adventuring. Their youngest brother, nicknamed Simpleton, goes to find them and tags along on the adventure, despite their claims that he is useless, and they are much smarter. Along the way the brothers encounter various animals the two eldest try to hurt: an anthill they want to destroy for fun, ducks they want to kill, bees they want to smoke out. Simpleton stops them from doing so every time, feeling sorry for the animals.
The three brothers eventually end up at an enchanted castle, where a little grey man gives them three tasks to break the spell. They have to gather a thousand pearls from the moss in the woods, retrieve a golden key from a lake, and select the youngest out of three identical princesses. The two elder brothers fail, but the youngest gets help from the grateful animals, completes the tasks, and wins a princess for his kindness.
(And his disenchanted brothers marry the two other princesses.)

What makes it a feminist story?

This is the first story that comes to my mind when someone talks about "feminist male heroes." I had a post in this series earlier about a hero whose strength is empathy. Here, we see the same thing, except said hero is male. On top of that, he is not just casually kind to someone on his way to kill dragons or whatever, but rather, the entire story revolves around his kindness. His main power is empathy.
Simpleton starts out from a disadvantaged position. His brothers believe that he is stupid and useless, and has no business seeking his fortune. An early English translation calls him an "insignificant little dwarf." Simpleton is not strong, masculine, or dashing, and because of this, his brothers look down on him. Since his main virtue is kindness, his brothers, who follow toxic patterns of masculinity, believe that he is weak. This is a common phenomenon: if a man shows traits that are traditionally deemed "feminine", toxic masculinity labels it as a sign of weakness and ridiculousness (think of all the jokes about male nurses or kindergarden teachers - caregiving is traditionally seen as a "woman's job").

The two elder brothers are the textbook example of violent, toxic, destructive behaviors. They want to destroy an anthill just to laugh about the scared ants scurrying around. They want to eat the ducks. They want to steal the honey. They don't need to do any of this, but they enjoy exercising their power over defenseless creatures. They feel like they are entitled to their enjoyment at the expense of others, and to fulfill their wants without any regard for the pain they cause to those who are weaker. On top of that, they base their ego on thinking they are stronger and smarter than their victims. This is pretty much the definition of toxic masculinity. 
(For those in the back: "toxic masculinity" is one form of masculinity. NO ONE is saying that masculinity is bad in general.)

Simpleton, in his own quiet way, is actually very strong character. He is kind and has empathy - he cares for what happens to defenseless, small creatures like ants, bees, and ducks. Also, and this is a crucial part of the story, he stands up to his brothers to defend their victims. "Leave those animals alone! I won't let you hurt them." He doesn't wait to quietly clean up the mess later, but rather stands up and stops his stronger elder brothers from causing harm in the first place. This is what we call bystander intervention. A man with healthy masculinity does not only avoid causing harm, but also actively works to keep others from doing harm either. The former is passive, while the latter is active behavior. It is a whole new level of male role model when he doesn't just avoid "ever doing that" himself (which is indeed good), but actively intervenes when something is not okay. "Hey, that joke was sexist." "Dude, don't talk like that about her." "Hey. No means no." Even when it makes him a target of ridicule.
(Also, this is not unique in the world of folktales, but it is an important and attractive trait that he accepts help when he needs it. It doesn't bruise his ego to solve the tasks with the help of the animals.)

Simpleton is a likable, empathetic, strong character, who doesn't think he is better than others, and stands up for those who are defenseless. This is what makes him a feminist role model.

Things to consider

As a storyteller I feel like Simpleton should earn himself a better name at the end of the story.
The Grimm tale is beautiful, but it is worth digging up and reading other variants of the same tale type. I got into researching African versions, and some of those were equally gorgeous, featuring a wide variety of animals. I ended up including a Malagasy variant in my upcoming feminist folktales book.


This story is in the Grimm collection under KHM 62, and belongs to tale type ATU 554 (Grateful animals). It has many versions around the world.

Read an older translation here.
Jack Zipes: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (Princeton University Press, 2016.)
Oliver Loo: The 1810 Grimm Manuscripts (2015.)


According to research notes, the story was contributed to the collection by Albert Ludewig Grimm (who was not actually related to the Grimm brothers). 


  1. Wait, you're putting out a whole book of Feminist Folktales? How did I miss that in reading your other Thursday posts?!?

    1. I am, but this one is going to be in Hungarian :)

  2. I really like the interpretation you give of 'feminist' story.
    I was doing some reflections on the same lines about Tolkien's stories recently. Tolkien is often considered as not very sympathetic to female characters, which I find extremely ungenerous to him. His stories present a very high number of very strong female characters... only they are less known that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
    But recently I've noticed another thing: rather than a distiction between male and female characters, he makes a distiction between male and female traits, which both male and female characters present.
    It's much the same argument you are doing here, and I'm happy to see I'm not the only one to think it this way.

  3. I look forward to your book becoming available.
    It is so important to show that "feminism" is not something just for women, but something for all people! Also that it doesn't just mean warrior women, who are embraced because of their "masculine" traits, but also puts value on "feminine" traits, even when displayed by men.