Thursday, August 13, 2020

Lady Nardan (Feminist Folktales 21.)

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: Azerbaijan

The story

A cruel padisah named Goguz has a dream that foretells that his reign will be ended by a 14 year old girl. He orders in secret that all girl children should be kidnapped and killed, all the while pretending to be furiously investigating the kidnappings. Meanwhile, his vizier buys a box from a mysterious stranger, and finds a pomegranate in it. Out of the pomegranate springs a 10 year old girl named Nardan. She had been transformed into a fruit by her father to keep her safe from another cruel padisah. News of the vizier's beautiful daughter eventually reach Goguz, who wants her as his wife. She refuses, and the padisah has the vizier killed in revenge. At this, Nardan disguises herself as a boy, and starts to investigate the disappearances in the city. She discovers details about the cruelty of the padisah, and eventually catches Goguz in the act of kidnapping a baby. She confronts him, but his guards capture her, and they burn the building that houses the kidnapped girls. Goguz announces that they caught the evil kidnapper, and publicly sentences Nardan to death. However, on the day of the execution a sand storm blows in, and Nardan escapes.
Dressed as a man, she ventures into another kingdom, where she meets a princess who's so far refused to marry anyone who isn't her choice. The princess falls in love with the mysterious stranger... and Nardan falls in love with the princess' gardener. She splits her time between the princess and the gardener, changing between male and female appearance. Eventually the princess' father sees her as a girl, and wants her as his wife. Nardan reject him, and when he tries to rape her she punches his face bloody. The padisah throws her and he gardener into prison, but with the help of the princess they escape. Nardan duels the padisah and kills him, then sets out to return to Goguz's kingdom. The princess and the gardener accompany her. Nardan defeats Goguz's soldiers, then duels the padisah and kills him too. From there, she travels back home to her birth family, and duels and kills the third evil padisah (the one because of whom she had been turned into fruit). After all that, she marries the gardener, and lives happily ever after.

What makes it a feminist story?

What doesn't? This story could be the textbook example of "strong female hero" anywhere. Nardan ends the reign of not one, but three cruel kings, as she is prophesied to do so (a favorite trope of YA novels). She is brave, clever, persistent, a good investigator and a great warrior. She faces many challenges, occasionally fails, and has to deal with loss and grief (when her foster father dies, or when she can't stop the killing of the girls), but she picks herself up again and again, and keeps fighting. I especially like that she is not simply fighting for herself, or for a romantic partner - she is fighting for her city and her people. She is a female hero who is trying to protect the girls of the next generation, and save people from tyranny. And all this while her origins are also not privileged: Her father, a shepherd, gave her to a childless padisah, hoping she'd be raised as a princess. Instead, the padisah wanted her as a wife by the time she was ten, which is why she was rescued by being turned into a pomegranate.

We should also talk about the cast of supporting characters. Zernigar, the princess who thinks Nardan is a man, is a lady who knows her own mind (and extracted a promise from her father that she can choose her own husband). When she finds out the truth, she doesn't only not get upset, but also faithfully accompanies Nardan on her quest. Another interesting character is an old man whose bride had been stolen by Goguz once upon a time; his legs don't work anymore, but he is raising two children, a boy and a girl, to take revenge for him one day. They both grow up to be formidable warriors. And the girl is the better wrestler.

Things to consider

I personally think that Nardan, the princess, and the gardener should have ended up as a throuple. Just sayin'. 


Százegy azerbajdzsáni népmese II. (Magyar-Azerbajdzsán Baráti Társaság, 2014.)


I can't find this tale in English anywhere online. If you have any leads, do share in the comments, so that English-speaking readers can find it too!