Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Cinderfella, Sleeping Prince: Less-known versions of popular folktales (Feminist Folktales, special edition)

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's post is a special edition: I have collected variants of well known folktales where the gender of the hero is different from what we are used to (not saying "opposite" because gender is not a binary, people). My goal was to show off how - while people tend to bash/praise folktales for promoting "traditional gender roles" - oral folklore around the world is a lot more flexible than we tend to give credit for. 
(Links in the titles.)

Cinderella is often brought up when people discuss gender roles in fairy tales (see "if Cinderella were a guy" by the creators of - the otherwise amazing - Rebel Girls). And yet, a whole lot of Cinderfellas exist in folktales around the world. There is a Hungarian folktale called Prince Cinderella (although, despite the title, the cinder-boy walks a whole different journey), and the folktale type of The princess on the Glass Mountain (ATU 530) also often revolves around an abused youngest brother showing up in disguise three times to win a princess. 
The Cameroon folktale of The unhappy stepson follows the Cinderella plot to a letter. A boy is left at home by his stepmother to sort beans, while the princess is having a ball to pick a husband. The boy is dressed for the ball by the spirit of his mother. In the end, he even leaves his shoe behind, and the princess uses it to find him. 

Sleepig beauties are not always women - in many tales, it is a sleeping prince who needs to be awakened. In the Turkish fairy tale of The dragon prince and the stepmother, the female hero wakes and rescues a prince enchanted by peris. There is a similar Greek folktale, as well as an entire folktale type (ATU 425g), where the female hero has to sit vigil over a prince for many days and nights until the curse is broken. Often she is replaced in the last minute by a false bride - but I also know at least one variant where the women become friends instead.

Boudin-Boudine is a French folktale, where the role of Little Red Riding Hood is taken up by the boy. Also, in the end the wolf is chased away by a broom-wielding grandma.

The Swedish folktale that Andersen based his Princess and the Pea on is actually much more fun than his version. It is essentially a Puss in Boots tale, except the hero is a clever girl, and she is helped by a clever dog. And she is not bothered by the pea at all.

There is a folktale type (ATU 725) about a hero who sees a prophetic dream of wealth and fortune, but either refuses to tell his parents about it, or tells them and they are angered by his inpertinence (see Joseph and his brothers). In the end, of course, the dream comes true. Well, in the Greek folktale of The Wild Man's daughter, it's a girl who sees herself as a powerful queen in a dream, and her father chases her away. She is adopted by a wild man in the woods, who takes good care of her, and makes sure her dream comes true.
(This is also a lovely adoption story.)

The story of the Clever Maid is internationally well known: this is the tale where a girl has to visit a king "walking and not walking, dressed but not dressed," etc. In at least one version I know, from Finland, this tale is told with a clever male hero. 

In another well known folktale motif, a man usually spies on fairy women who take off their bird / swan / feather dresses while they bathe. He steals the dress/skin of the most beautiful girl, so she can't escape from him (sometimes, this backfires). Creepy, right? In the Armenian tale of The magic box, it is a girl who spies on bird men, and steals a feather cloak. In her defense, it is her stolen husband she is trying to find again.

We get used to princes in folktales setting out to seek beautiful princesses. In the Greek tale of Fair as the Sun, however, it is a princess that takes on the journey to find a legendarily beautiful prince, and make him her husband (even though he already has a lover... but that's beside the point).

There are many variants of the Silent princess folktale, where a hero has to make a princess speak three times through various means - usually with telling some very clever dilemma tales. In a Georgian folktale, however, it is a king who has to break the enchantment on a silent prince, and he is helped by a talking golden apple.

You know the folktale motif where a mortal woman marries a mysterious supernatural husband, who only visits her at night, and refuses to show his true (beautiful) face? Well, in a Lithuanian folktale it is a mortal man who marries a mysterious woman, and when he spies on her, she tosses him out the window.
(They do reunite in the end, though.)

The Love of Three Oranges (ATU 408) is a folktale type where a man sets out, obtains three magical fruits, and cuts them open to summon beautiful women. The first two usually die or disappear, but the third eventually becomes his wife.  
Well, in one tale from the Dominican Republic, it is a girl who sets out to pick grapefruit, and by burning them she summons three princes. However, she can't talk to any of them, so all three disappear. Later on, when her life is in danger, they return to help her.

You might be familiar with the motif from many "animal bride" folktales where three brothers shoot arrows in three directions, and follow the arrows to find a bride. In the Turkish tale of Rose Beauty, the archery trick is done by three princesses, who then set out to seek husbands.

This is what they call the folktale type where two brothers accidentally eat the heart / liver / head etc. of a magic bird, and gain superpowers from them. After they get separated and go through many adventures, their powers bring them good fortune and they eventually find each other again (ATU 567A). 
In the Azeri version of the story, the siblings are a boy and a girl, Lala and Nergiz, and it is the girl who has the most exciting adventures - among others, she defeats a dragon, a giant, and a sea monster too! 


Hungarian, Russian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian folktales often contain the motif of a tree of golden apples being robbed every night, until the youngest of three princes manages to stay awake to spy on the mysterious thief. I recently found a Hungarian folktale variant, where a king's silk meadow is grazed every night. He sets his three daughters to guard it, but only the youngest princess manages to stay awake, with the help of a little mouse. At the end of the story, the mouse turns into a prince.

Jill and the Beanstalk

The well known tale of Jack and the Beanstalk belongs to folktale type ATU 328, Treasures of the Giant. It is a very interesting type, because it exists both with male and female heroes. The version with the female hero is especially well known in the Hungarian tradition. I translated one text here.
There are also other tales around the world where women climb up into the sky on a beanstalk. I read one from Nauru, and another one from Latvia.

"But the traditional gender roles in folktales..."

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