Friday, March 8, 2024

Folktales about women who save themselves (International Women's Day)

It's International Women's Day again, and it has become tradition for me to post a list of folktales on this day. In previous years I have done lists of women who slay monsters, women in war, woman healers, women helping women, and badass grandmas.

Strange Craft by Josephine Wall

This year, today also marks the premiere of the much-anticipated Damsel movie. The whole media hype about "this is not a fairy tale" and "this princess saves herself" just rubs me the wrong way - once again, major outlets are making the sweeping assumption that in folktales, these things don't happen. Since I have already posted last year about women who slay dragons, this year I wanted to make a list of folktales where women save themselves. With or without a sword.

Links in the titles, as usual.

Old Rinkrank (Grimm)

A princess tries to help her beloved prince complete an imposisble task, and she ends up being swallowed up by the Glass Mountain, trapped by a gnome named Old Rinkrank. She grows old waiting for the prince to rescue her - when nothing happens, she comes up with a plan to break free and save herself.

The ring (Spain)

A female "Odysseus and the Cyclops" story. A girl is captured by a one-eyed giant, and escapes the same way Odysseus did. When the giant's ring gets stuck on her finger and keeps calling out to the giant, the girl cuts off her own finger and tosses it into a river, successfully getting away. The blind giant, following the ring's call, drowns.

The old woman who lost her dumplings (Japan)

A funny old woman drops a rice dumpling, and it rolls into a hole in the ground. She follows, and plummets into the underworld. She encounters a group of fearsome oni monsters who capture her and make her cook for them. Eventually she runs away. When the oni pursue her, she deters them by flashing them and making them laugh.

The three sisters (Georgia)

This is a classic "golden haired children" folktale, but I enjoy the beginning: three sisters fall into a pit, and are abandoned by their father. The two oldest want to eat the youngest girl, but she prays so fervently that her hands turn into a shovel and a pickaxe, and she literally digs her way out of the hole into freedom.

The legend of the Rosstrappe (Harz Mountains)

The beautiful princess Brünhilda is promised to a giant by her father. She comes up with a plan of escape: she secretly learns to ride one of the giant's terrible horses, and escapes on horseback the night before the wedding. The giant pursues her, but when she jumps the horse across a wide valley, the giant can't follow her, and he crashes to his death.

Mr. Fox and Molly Cottontail (African-American)

Molly Cottontail is a trickster rabbit, the female equivalent of Br'er Rabbit. When Mr. Fox pretends to be dead, and organizes his own funeral, to lure Molly out of hiding, Molly appears at the funeral and steals the show. She manages to uncover the deception, and gets away scot free.

Rübezahl (Giant Mountains)

Rübezahl, the gnome king of the mountains, kidnaps a princess and keeps her captive in his underground realm. She first figures out a way to stall the wedding, and then to send messages to her beloved prince above. Finally, she tricks the gnome into counting turnips in a field, long enough for her to saddle a horse and ride away to safety.

The tortoise husband (Italy)

A mysterious man courts three sisters, but the two older girls reject him because he is only ever seen at night. The youngest agrees to the marriage, and finds out her husband is under a spell: he is a tortoise during the day, and a man at night. He has to travel around the world to break the spell. She stays home to wait for him. In the meantime, three men keep trying to seduce her. She uses her wits, and a bit of magic, to give them their comeuppance.

Sister Lace (Miao people)

I mentioned it recently, but it's worth repeating. A girl is famous for making lace that she can even bring to life. When an evil emperor kidnaps her and forces her to create fantastic creatures, she eventually makes a dragon out of lace, and uses it to break out of captivity. 

The pirate princess (Jewish)

A princess is separated from her beloved and kidnapped by a merchant. She manages to save herself... and then does it two more times, once by getting a bunch of pirates drunk and sailing away with an all-female crew. Finally she becomes a king (disguised as a man) and finds her true love again.

Eternal friendship (Taiwan)

This story mostly revolves around the friendship of two men, but at one point we encounter a girl who climbs out of a window to run away with her lover. The lover, however, doesn't show. She decides to leave her home anyway, and go see the world in the company of one of the protagonists.

The ghouleh of Trans-Jordan (Palestine)

A ghoul tricks a man into thinking she is his aunt. Even when his wife and daughter warn him, the man refuses to see the truth, and is eventually devoured by the monster. When the ghoul comes for the women, mother and daughter find a way to kill it.

The three little eggs (Eswatini)

A woman leaves her abusive husband, taking her two childen with her. She even defeats some monsters along the way, and finally becomes a queen.

Thabaton (India)

A girl is left home alone by her seven brothers. An old woman gives her up to a demon, and the demon kidnaps her, keeping her captive for years. Her brothers eventually return and find her, but they can't seem to rescue her. Instead, Thabaton comes up with a plan to save herself, and take revenge on the monster and the old woman.

The canary prince (Italy)

A girl is locked in a tower, but falls in love with a prince who can visit her in the form of a canary. The princess' evil stepmother wounds the canary, and it never returns. The princess makes rope out of her bedding and escpaes from the tower to go cure the prince.

The girl and the wolves (Hungary)

This is a variant of Little Red Riding Hood, with a different ending. A girl first scalds the wolf with water, and then finds a way to outwit a whole pack of them in a very painful way. After that, they leave her alone.

The clever maiden and the robbers 

This is an entire folktale type, ATU 956B. A girl is alone at home when 12 (or 13) robbers try to sneak into her house. She quickly and mercilessly kills all of them, except their leader, whom she wounds. He later returns in disguise and asks for her hand in marriage. Eventually the girl recognizes who her suitor is, and finds a way to escape, and have the robber (and his new companions) arrested and executed.

Honestly, I could keep going, but I used up a lot of stories about women saving themselves in the previous years' posts (especially where they also slay monsters), and I don't want to repeat myself. Look them up through the links at the top if you are curious!

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