Five Fairy Tales that Smash Stereotypes
Many well-known fairy tales feature stereotypes: the evil old witch, the female-in-distress, the heroic male, and the happily-ever-after that involves heterosexual marriage into a royal family…
But by no means are all fairy tales like this! I love to discover fairy tales that break the traditional stereotypes that have tarnished the genre and contributed to perpetuating false expectations and ideals in society.
There are many old tales that still feel fresh and exciting today, and in recent years we have been blessed with wonderful retellings and reimaginings that have breathed new life into the genre and better represent the world today. Here are a few of my favourite tales, new and old, from around the world that smash fairy-tale stereotypes.
1. The Little Mermaid
The original story of The Little Mermaid, written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, is very different from the Disney retelling. The little mermaid pins all her hopes for happiness on the human prince, trading her voice for legs, even though this causes her great pain: she will never be able to return to the ocean, and if she fails to marry the prince she will die. There is no happily-ever-after in the original, as the prince marries another, and the little mermaid’s body dissolves into sea foam.
Whilst happily-ever-afters feature in many well-known fairy tales, they are not characteristic of the genre and are often later additions, to make stories more palatable for children. Hans Christian Andersen wrote several dark fairy tales without happy endings which can be found in Little Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales, illustrated with striking interactive artwork by MinaLima.
I am also hugely excited for The Surface Breaks, a feminist reimagining of The Little Mermaid by Louise O’Neill, published this May.
2. Blackberry Blue
In this reimagining by Jamila Gavin, inspired by European fairy tales, a woodcutter’s wife finds a baby in a blackberry bush and names her Blackberry Blue. The child grows up happy, and every year visits the bush where she was found. The bush gives her advice and gifts: dresses woven with flowers, so she can attend balls at the palace, and a cloak of briar and thorn to protect her from Prince Just’s evil stepfamily. The dresses leave trails of petals so Prince Just can find her, and Blackberry Blue saves him with the help of her cloak.
Blackberry Blue is a courageous, clever heroine with a beauty beyond the limited depictions found in traditional European tales. The story is found in Blackberry Blue: And Other Fairy Tales written by Jamila Gavin, with captivating illustrations by Richard Collingridge, along with five other stories reimagined with diverse characters that better represent Europe today.
3. Gulnara the Tartar Warrior
In this Mongolian fairy tale, when the khan calls the men of Altai to war, Gulnara takes her father’s place. She joins the khan’s army of nine thousand warriors, wearing men’s armour but retaining her female identity. She is skilled in combat, an expert archer and military strategist, and defeats the forces of the khan’s rival, Kuzlan. To protect themselves, Kuzlan, his wife, daughter and people turn themselves into a camel, an anvil, a birch and ash, but Gulnara brings them to the khan. Fearful of this powerful woman, the khan and his generals plot to kill Gulnara, but she throws them into the pit of snakes they intended for her. Then she returns to Altai and tells her people they no longer have to pay taxes or go to war, as the khan is dead.
Gulnara is a young girl who sets out to save her father, but through her strength, wits, and determination, becomes a formidable warrior, revolutionary and saviour of her people. Her story is found in The Woman in the Moon and other stories of forgotten heroines, written by James Riordan and beautifully illustrated by Angela Barrett. Sadly, this book is out of print, but there are many other strong heroines in Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters edited by Kathleen Ragan:
4. Little Knife
In this original fairy tale by Leigh Bardugo, the duke’s daughter, Yeva, is so beautiful everyone falls in love with her; people try to steal her, and men fight over her. When Yeva turns sixteen, the duke declares she must marry before the town is torn apart, and he sets challenges for suitors. A rich prince uses his wealth to complete the tasks, and a poor man uses the river’s magic, but neither pay attention to Yeva’s wishes.
Little Knife takes the familiar fairy tale narrative of a rich man’s daughter being offered as a prize and gives it a fresh new ending. Yeva is saved from her predicament, not by the prince or the poor man, but by a powerful female water spirit.
Little Knife is found in The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, with breath-taking illustrations by Sara Kipin, along with five other tales full of twists and turns that smash all kinds of stereotypes.
5. Vasilisa the Fair
In this Russian fairy tale, collected by Alexander Afanasyev in 1855, Vasilisa is sent by her stepmother to get a light from Baba Yaga, the witch who lives in a hut on hen’s legs deep in the forest. Baba Yaga threatens to eat Vasilisa unless she completes seemingly impossible tasks, but Vasilisa succeeds and earns a skull with blazing eyes that burns her stepmother to ashes.
Vasilisa is a heroine who journeys from subservience to strength and independence, through facing fear and discovering things are not always as they seem. Baba Yaga is both villain and helper in this tale that pulls apart the evil witch stereotype. She is a fascinating character; wild and wise, fierce and formidable. Vasilisa the Fair is found in my favourite adult collection of fairy tales: Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales.
The fairy tale genre has a great deal to offer readers; stories filled with wonder that contain a wealth of information about the world and what it means to be human, and that provide a safe space to explore difficult or dark ideas. Where stereotypes feature, they can be identified and challenged, and their appearance offers the opportunity to discuss the historical, social and cultural context of the tale, and can encourage readers to think about how times have changed, and how things might be improved in the future.
I love how the genre is flourishing with stories that enchant modern audiences, and in writing The House with Chicken Legs this is what I hoped to achieve: to reimagine an old tale so it was relevant and appealing today. I tried to exclude stereotypes, and portray characters as individuals, not defined by appearance or labels, and I particularly wanted to challenge stereotypes surrounding death and portray death as part of the natural cycle of life: something not to be feared or intensely solemn about, rather that these lives are to be celebrated, valued and remembered.
Ultimately, I hope The House with Chicken Legs inspires readers to embrace life, with all its joys and sorrows, strive to escape whatever boundaries might have been drawn around them, and follow their dreams, whatever they are.