Feminine Counter-Narrative in Folklore and Fairy Tales
The literary importance of folklore and fairy tales is evidenced by a vast body of scholarly research and psychoanalytical criticism developed over the centuries since the Middle Ages. Jungian psychoanalytical theory and Archetypal literary theory are the primary lenses of many of these studies, and both perspectives share in common a fundamentally patriarchal construction of methodology and practice. Buried beneath this traditional system of thought lies an apatriarchal voice that is both ancient and independent of the dictates of masculine design, and, when expressed with the authentic modulations of the original folkloric motifs, can inform and empower the modern feminine.
The history of the evolution of fairy tales reveals that the erosion of the feminine voice coincides with the socio-political development of patriarchy. However, a slow, Post-Victorian rediscovery of these feminine counter-narratives has fueled a proactive literary movement toward the empowering of women and girls, as well as a growing awareness that the voice of the feminine has never been entirely silenced – only suppressed. In her book, “Dancing with Goddesses: Archetypes, Poetry, and Empowerment,” archetypalist and feminist scholar Annis Pratt describes it this way:
We [women] became more and more like blackbirds baked in the pie and set before the king, convinced that the crowded, hot, sticky patriarchal crust was our whole world – past, and present, and to come – [An] analysis of archetypal patterns in women’s literature…suggested that [it] is not entirely determined by patriarchy, but is structured from a tension between our cultural and our authentic selves, and that our authentic voices are not merely reactive but are endowed with qualities independent of patriarchal prescriptions about selfhood (xiv).
Originally an oral tradition, folklore gained many cultural layers over the centuries, each one demarcating an increased level of absorption of the feminine experience into masculine constructs. From the dawn of storytelling, ancient rituals of marriage, kingship, talking animals, and sorcery were among the customs and beliefs alluded to in tales. This age was followed by one in which the role of the storyteller became inseparable from the story itself. Medieval bards and minstrels spun tales that were heavily populated by castles, gold, and magic caverns. During the middle ages, Christianity appeared in Europe and the British Isles. Rome inserted not only Papal values into these evolving stories, but a particular kind of patriarchy that exerted control over women under the guise of religion, commerce, and progress (James, 336).
From primitive ages to modern day, many folk and fairy tales have undergone such radical changes that they are often little more than a collage of conflicting ideologies, patriarchal oppression, and innocuous feminine voice. In the beginning, though, they were something far more powerful: a profoundly irresistible force that shaped and preserved the values, ideologies, and belief systems of countless primitive societies. Folklore and fairy tales in this definition were the traditional knowledge of a people, a reflection of social order, and symbolic of those things that were common to a given society, such as aspirations, needs, dreams, fears. These stories either affirmed community values, or expressed a need to change them (Zipes, 7).
Until the high Middle Ages and the advent of the printing press, the wise women or other leaders of a community delivered fairy tales through a respected oral tradition. Such tales served as a voice of unity for the common people. In feudal societies, the common people were serfs and laborers struggling to eke out a living in the subsistence circumstances imposed upon them by a literate ruling class. The emergence of kingdoms and fiefdoms that replaced the simpler structures of primitive social orders introduced not only imbalanced social stratum, but a devaluation of the wisdom and experience of the feminine as well.
The printing press offered collectors of folklore and fairy tales an unprecedented opportunity to aid the new order by retelling and re-purposing many of the ancient stories. The political and religious atmosphere of the high Middle Ages and early Renaissance expressed intolerance for the tawdry, violent nature of the original tales (Tatar, 11). This process of collection and printing imposed unnatural evolutionary forces on the ancient tales, unnatural because the metamorphosis of the tales did not reflect a need to preserve or change the values of the common people; rather, it introduced the didactic patriarchal sensibilities of a new, elite order in society.
Transformations of the feminine in folklore and fairy tales can be studied in the hundreds of evolutions of a single tale from China: “Yeh-Shin.” Originally an ancient story about the enduring aspects of a distinctly feminine heroine who is rewarded for her uniqueness, honor and steadfast courage, the tale changed dramatically as it crossed into Europe. Today, it is known as “Cinderella,” the story of a victimized woman who is rewarded not for her inner character, but for her outward beauty. Not only is the system of reward shallow, but also the reward itself is impossibly utopian. Lacking the strong feminine motifs of the original tale, “Cinderella” informs a modern female audience not with modulations of cultural feminine wisdom, but with the trivial, disingenuous patriarchal assumptions that beauty is a woman’s greatest value, wealth and status are a her greatest ambition, and all must be attained through the intervention of men.
The motifs of other tales have survived intact, and still describe the great value and strength of the feminine apart from any masculine constructions. “The Armless Maiden,” or “Silverhands,” is one of these powerful remnants of feminine history that stands in striking contrast to the superficial, manipulative nature of the “Cinderella” story. It is a classic heroine’s journey toward the rebirth of the feminine, replete with echoes of the Wild Woman (the submerged, authentic feminine) archetype.
In the tale, a young girl allows herself to be victimized for her father’s sake. She loses her hands, or her ability to create, and therefore also loses her worth. By the end of the tale, Silverhands has not only brought about her own restoration, but she has revealed and honored the previously unrecognized power and authority of her inner feminine, her Wild Woman. Hers is a resounding triumph of feminine spirit over masculine constructs. Silverhands’s transformation mirrors the unique feminine experience observed in situations of illness, disfigurement, or other strife. In her article, “Healing the Wounded Wild,” Kim Antieau articulates the power of story to reawaken a primitive knowledge of the feminine:
We look for meaning to our suffering in stories, under sofa cushions, in the forest, up in the mountains, beneath the clouds, in the dirty clothes hamper. We ache to discover ourselves as we once were. Yet finding our whole healthy bodies again, restoring ourselves to ourselves, seems nearly impossible without first delving into our own inner wild – our soul.
The heroine of this ancient tale of rebirth first begins to reconnect with her soul, then her creativity, and, finally, to her own unique self when she returns to the wild home of her origin: the forest. The primitive wisdom in this fairy tale is linked to what Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., calls the “Rio Abajo Rio,” or ‘the river beneath the river,’ in the female psyche (297). Archetypalists know it as the Wild Woman, or the birthplace of feminine creativity. Estes is a Cantadora, or purveyor of the wisdom of the ancients through the art of oral storytelling. She draws upon the modulations of an authentic feminine voice in primitive folklore to encourage, inspire, and heal her female audiences, either in the controlled context of her analyst’s office, or friendly, casual gatherings. She writes of a woman’s life-giving, creative soul:
Creating one thing at a certain point in the river feeds those who come to the river, feeds creatures far downstream, yet others in the deep. Creativity is not a solitary movement. That is its power. Whatever is touched by it, whoever hears it, sees it, senses it, knows it, is fed. […] A single creative act can cause a torrent to break through stone (298).
Told as originally constructed, stories like “Silverhands” continue to connect modern women and girls with the wisdom of their primitive ancestors, reintroducing them to the unique character of the feminine that has been eroded away and buried under a landslide of patriarchal constructions. In the particular case of “Silverhands,” the modern woman is informed of her own condition through the timeless motif of the feminine struggles echoed in the tale. Though wounded and abandoned, Silverhands presses on bravely through a harsh rite of passage, a transformative journey that gives hope and encouragement to modern women experiencing similar circumstances.
In addition to transformations, the tale presents a shocking, horrifying image of the feminine psyche silenced through an act of mutilation. The loss of the heroine’s hands represents the psychological amputation of the feminine voice in many cultures where social pressures discourage girls from speaking their minds or asserting themselves (Chinen, 102). This is a form of social castration, fitting women and girls into manageable stereotypes that leave their passions for mastering the world unrequited and their dreams forever out of reach.
The patriarchal re-purposing of fairy tales has, for centuries, aided in the social and individual mutilation of the feminine; and, although a surge of strong interest in authentic folklore and fairy tales has emerged over the recent century, there are still modern authors whose retelling of primitive and classic tales is a literary exercise in submissiveness to the social constructs of patriarchy.
Stephanie Meyer, popular female author of young adult fiction for girls, has written a bestseller series of vampire tales. Within a seductively familiar setting of multiple teenage issues facing young women and girls today, the books conceal a damaging affirmation of the same old misogynistic stereotypes that have harmed women and girls for centuries. A golden opportunity to offer new hope for coping with maturation crises particular to the feminine has been sacrificed on the stale, bloody altar of patriarchy. Meyer’s young female readership is indoctrinated with a regressive, tragic message: the feminine cannot be whole until given worth and love by a man.
The feminine identity conflict in Meyer’s series takes a backseat, however, to the brutal motif of a ‘rape fantasy” in her latest installment. What has been termed ‘abstinence porn’ (Seifert) in the first three novels gives way to a fully detailed marriage consummation that is little more than a barely concealed, horrific rape in the fourth novel. This kind of storytelling, aimed specifically at young girls, causes untold damage to the feminine maturation processes of modern generations.
Today, purpose and transformation are two grails that remain especially elusive for girls and young women. The feminine search for meaning and voice is truly heroic, a journey fraught with dangerous tests of character and commitment. The power of story to shed light on that path is not unlike the unmatched wisdom of the crone, or wise woman, archetype. In modern retellings of primitive folklore and fairy tales, the voices of this wisdom are the authentic modulations of the feminine counter-narrative, offering resistance for today’s conflicting social messages of feminine identity and worth.
Antieau, Kim. “Healing the Wounded Wild.” The Endicott Studio of Mythic Arts and Journal of Mythic Arts. 2006. Endicott Studio. Online: 8 January 2008.
Chinen, A.B., M.D. Waking the World: Classic Tales of Women and the Heroic Feminine. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1997.
Estes, Clarissa Pinkola, Ph.D. Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.
James, Clarese A. “Folklore and Fairy Tales.” Folklore 56:4 (Dec. 1945): 336-341. Union Inst. & Univ., Gary Library, Montpelier, VT. 10 January 2009.
Pratt, Annis. Dancing With Goddesses: Archetypes, Poetry, and Empowerment. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Seifert, Christine. “Bite Me! (Or Don’t).” Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture Iss. 42, (Spring, 2008). Online: 9 January 2009.
Tatar, Maria. Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. Kentucky: UP Kentucky, 1979.