3 Fairy Tales to Tell Your Daughter
That don’t involve princes, a princess to be rescued, or end in marriage
“Rather than design a life for themselves, the women “in thrall” to fairy tale patterns wait for male rescue, or at least for something to happen. They half-consciously submit to being male property, handed from father to suitor or husband without complaint or violation. And it is the gender economy of the often-repeated fairy tales that has betrayed them.” Elizabeth Wanning Harries, in The Mirror Broken.
Once upon a time, in a land far away, a young girl lived in a quaint little house. Her Stepmother was jealous of her physical beauty, as well as her father’s affection. She tried to have the young girl killed and failed. The young girl met a Prince. They got married, and the young girl became a Princess. And won?
Unfortunately for us girls, most fairy tales do not give us female characters to root for or look up to. To be honest, most of the female characters are just simply there. They are used more as plot devices as opposed to actual characters.
Fortunately, we have incredible feminist writers like Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter, who both rewrote some of our favourite fairy tales. Although, they are not exactly for children (I still highly recommend them though).
The fairy tales we remember however are the ones written by such authors as Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, who censored the stories and turned them into cautionary tales, namely for little girls. With some exceptions.
Here are some fairy tales where girls are represented with bravery, intellect, and cunning, in pursuit of their own rescue.
1. Little Red Riding Hood (probably not the one you remember)
The tale of Little Red Riding Hood has been revised many times since it was first told. The most well-known version is that Red Riding Hood and her grandmother get eaten by the wolf and are saved by a woodcutter who happens to be passing by. However, you may be surprised by what the earliest version of this story actually entails (see what I did there). The first part of the story remains somewhat the same.
Red Riding Hood meets the wolf in the woods on the way to her grandmother’s cottage, he asks her if she is taking the path of needles or the path of pins. She replies that she is taking the path of pins, and so the wolf takes the path of needles. The wolf reaches the cottage first, eats Red’s grandmother, and disguises himself in her clothing. When Red arrives, she notices something strange about her, raising some suspicions. However, she remains calm. The wolf tells her to eat the meat and wine on the table, and to take off her cloak and come into bed (in the early story the meat and wine is actually her grannies flesh and blood, but for the purpose of not scaring your daughter too much it might be best to leave that part out!) Red does as she is told and sits by her “grandmother” in the bed, and of course, everyone remembers ‘grandmother what big ears, eyes, teeth you have” etc. She then says she has a call to nature (has to pee) and asks to be excused for a moment. The wolf ties a string to her ankle, so that she won’t escape, and lets her go outside to relieve herself. Red, however, outsmarts him and ties the string to a tree outside, and by the time the wolf realises, she is already gone and out of sight.
This version of the tale gives a greater lesson to young girls to use their intelligence and wit to escape a bad situation, as opposed to the better-known version of waiting for someone to come and rescue her.
By simply changing a few lines of the tale, Red Riding Hood's character is changed from naïve and senseless, to intelligent and cunning. By telling this version you will be removing the prejudiced notion of girls as natural victims and replacing it with the importance of a female’s knowledge for survival.
Where to find it: There is a short film directed by David Kaplan, and starring a young Christina Ricci >> https://vimeo.com/100666128
2. The Robber Bridegroom (Bluebeard)
I believe the Bluebeard fairy tale is not as well-known as others, potentially because it was thought to be too frightening for children. Unlike many fairy tales that are romantic or adventurous, Bluebeard is a gothic horror fairy tale.
The general story is about a young maiden who is betrothed to a rich gentleman with (you guessed it) a blue beard. In his home, she is given keys to every room in the mansion but is told not to enter one specific room. However, she enters the room and discovers all the dead bodies of his previous wives. When the gentleman discovers her insubordination, he tries to kill her too. The endings of this tale differ, but the most common is that the maiden is rescued by her brothers.
The version I want to tell you about is The Grimm Brother’s The Robber Bridegroom. It begins with a miller who wishes to find a suitable partner for his daughter, someone who can provide for her. One day a wealthy suitor arrives, and the miller promises him to his daughter. However, she does not want to marry this man, and in fact, senses something dark in him which makes her uncomfortable. Her betrothed continuously asks her to pay him a visit to his wealthy home, which she tries to excuse herself from. Eventually, she is given no other choice than to obey. When she arrives at his home, she hears a bird warning her to turn back, and that she is entering a murderer’s house. The maiden searches the house but finds nothing. She goes down into the cellar and finds a very old woman, who tells her that her betrothed and his friends will kill her and eat her. The old woman hides her and tells her they will escape when the men are all asleep.
The men return, dragging a young girl along with them. They ignore her screams as they force-feed her wine, lay her on the table, and cut her to pieces. One of the men notices a ring on the dead girl’s finger, but when they cannot remove it, they chop the finger off. The finger flings up into the air and lands next to the hidden maiden. Her betrothed gets up to look for it, but the old woman says to finish their meal and look for it in the morning. The old woman then spikes their drinks with a sleeping draft, and once they all drift off, she and the young maiden run away.
At the wedding celebration, around a table with all the maiden’s relatives, they exchange stories and anecdotes. Her bridegroom then asks her to tell them something. The maiden obliges and relates a dream she had. She tells the events of the night she hid from her bridegroom in the cellar, every once in a while, reiterating to her bridegroom that she only dreamt it, as he gets increasingly more nervous. Eventually, she gets to the part where the dead girl’s finger landed next to her, as she does so, she shows everyone at the table the real finger.
Her bridegroom tries to run and escape but is stopped by the other guests, and he and his robber friends are executed for their crimes.
Again, this version of the story shows the maiden being brave and having the foresight to keep the finger in her possession to use as evidence, and in turn, prevents the marriage.
Where to find it: Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales (Barnes & Noble, 2012)
3. Hansel and Gretel
I assume most, if not all, will know the story of Hansel and Gretel. Although this may not be a singular heroine story, it is a good example of a young girl using her wits, along with her equally clever and brave brother.
Deep in the forest lives a woodcutter, his wife, and his two children, Hansel, and Gretel. The family suffers from hunger, scarcely able to procure a loaf of bread. The woodcutter’s wife forces the woodcutter to take his children deep into the forest and leave them there so that they no longer have to share their food. Although it pains him, the woodcutter agrees and does as she bids.
Hansel, hearing his stepmother’s plan, goes outside and picks up some white pebbles, that shine in the moonlight. When taken into the forest the next morning, Hansel throws the pebbles along the path they take, so they can find their way home again.
The stepmother is very displeased when the children return and orders the woodcutter to try again. Hansel, again hearing his stepmother’s plan, goes to pick up some more pebbles, but his stepmother locks them inside. Instead, Hansel uses the bread they are given to drop breadcrumbs along their path.
However, unlucky for Hansel and Gretel the birds had picked and eaten the breadcrumbs while they slept, and they have no clear path home. As they wander, they come upon a house (you know where this is going), made of bread and cakes and sweets. The starving children begin to eat when suddenly an old woman appears from inside the house. The woman kindly invites them in and offers them more food. However, this was not a kind woman, but a wicked witch who lay in wait for children to become prey to her delicious house of treats.
She seizes Hansel and locks him away in a stable, where she keeps him until he is fat enough to eat. Hansel is fed scrumptious meals, where Gretel survives on crumbs and is put to work by the wicked witch. She takes her to the oven, already hot with flames, and tells her to get inside to see if it is ready for the bread. Gretel knows however that the wicked witch is going to cook her, and instead, absentmindedly says “I do not know how I am to do it; how do you get in?”. The wicked witch, exasperated, thrusts herself up to the oven to demonstrate, and as she does so, Gretel pushes her into the oven and fastens the iron bolt.
She runs to Hansel to tell him they are saved and lets him out of the stables. They then take what they can from the witch's house, items of value, pearls, and jewels, so that they will never go poor or hungry again. By the time they find their way home, their cruel stepmother is dead, and their father rejoices on their return.
Both Hansel and Gretel use their intelligence and bravery to stay alive and fed and worked together to do so. Gretel, knowing that she needed to save her brother, and playing on the witch's expectations of a naïve little girl, cunningly lies, and deceives her to defeat her.
Where to find it: Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales (Barned & Noble, 2012)
One of the great things about fairy tales is that they are interpretive and have been continuously adapted through several forms of entertainment to appeal to a modern audience.
So, readers of today can read hundreds of fairy tales that include girls being smart, brave, and saving the day. However, it is nice to know that these fairy tales existed so long ago and that not all the original tales conformed to the traditional formulaic structure and archetypes that pigeonhole our gender.
If you liked these fairy tales and want more, try reading Gender Swapped Fairy Tales by Karrie Fransman & Jonathan Plackett