Dames in Shining Armour
By Ama H.Vanniarachchy
"Behind every great man is not a woman; she is beside him, she is with him, not behind him."– Tariq Ramadan
Most of the fairy tales we know portray a female lead as the antagonist and the protagonist. Generally it is a beautiful young damsel in distress and an older wicked and ugly woman who causes all the trouble for her. However, there are fairy tales that have a male lead as the protagonist and the antagonist. In such tales the male lead is depicted as an irresponsible, immature and reckless youth who has no purpose in life. They are usually shown as carefree and lazy; nevertheless those who somehow manage to get things done. However, if we study the tales closely, they reveal how these characters are directed by a female character. These females could be his mother, sister, or lover. In fact, the male protagonist gets ‘rescued’ and ‘guided’ by a female figure that is overshadowed by the other characters.
Today we present you some enchanting tales in which the male lead is wandering aimlessly in life and is rescued by a female character.
Jack and the Beanstalk
The most famous tale of Jack and the Beanstalk was written by Joseph Jacobs in 1890. Researchers trace the origin of this tale back to 5,000 years ago when it was being told in an ancient Indo-European language.
This tale is categorised as ATU 328 - The Treasure of the Giant, by folklorists. All tales that come under this category have a man or a boy who is sent to an unknown place up in the sky which is dangerous and at the same time wealthy. His mother is the one who always protects him and in many tales, the giant’s or the ogre’s wife shows sympathy towards the boy and indirectly helps him.
The summary of this most famous tale
Jack trades his only cow to acquire some magic beans. Out of rage his mother throws them away and in the morning Jack realises that there is a giant beanstalk grown in his garden. Out of curiosity he climbs it and reaches the sky and finds out there is a giant’s castle up in the clouds. He steals something valuable every time he is inside the castle until the giant finally finds out about Jack and chases behind him. To escape the giant Jack cuts off the beanstalk. Jack and his mother then become wealthy and live happily ever after.
Some versions of this tale have some creepy aspects which might not be appropriate for young readers. One such example is the tale retold by Dick Merryman in 1734 titled The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Beans. According to this tale Jack lives with his enchantress grandma in a shabby little hut. The book says that they ‘lay together’ every night and at one point she refers to him as a good ‘bed-fellow’. One night she says to him that she has a magic bean which can make him rich. The next morning the bean falls out of her purse and he picks it up and plants it. The stalk sprouts as soon as he buries it in the sand. The magic spell that takes place is that she transforms into a toad in an hour after the plant grows but she does not tell him. Instead, she attacks Jack with a broom and to escape her, Jack climbs up the beanstalk. Jack sees the giant’s castle on top and he enters into a complex quest where he meets a woman who helps him and the tale goes on.
In some tales, Jack marries the maid or the woman who is at the giant’s castle. If not for the help he gets from this woman and his mother, and in some tales it is a fairy, Jack would not have a happily-ever- after ending.
The Snow Queen
This is a tale about a little boy who is rescued by his best friend. Although he is the focus of the story, he is clueless as to what to do. His fate is twisted and settled by two female characters.
A little girl called Gerda undertakes an epic quest to find her friend Kay when he is stolen by the Snow Queen. She eventually tracks him to the Queen’s palace and finds that he has been completely influenced by the enchantress. Gerda’s tears, born of love and compassion, melt Kay’s icy heart and free him from the Snow Queen’s grasp.
Beauty and the Beast
A tale of a brave young woman, who willingly walks into danger, embraces challenges and overcomes hardships in life by her own. It is she who rescues the male characters, both her father and the Beast. If not for her, her father would remain a prisoner of the Beast and the Beast would remain a Beast forever. There are many versions of this enchanting tale in which a young prince is punished for his selfish nature by a sorceress, and is later rescued by a young girl.
Beaumont’s La Belle et La Bête (A French Tale)
This story was first published in 1756 by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont as ‘a tale for the entertainment of juvenile readers’. It first appeared under the title La Belle et La Bête in response to the earlier, much longer version of the story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Although similar in overall plot, Beaumont changed many aspects of Villeneuve’s original, making it more suitable for younger readers.
Zelinda and the Monster (An Italian Tale)
Zelinda and the Monster was recorded in Thomas Frederick Crane’s Italian Popular Tales, published in 1885. This tale differs from the classic Beaumont version, in that the father is depicted as a poor man, with only three daughters instead of six children. The ‘Beast’ is no ordinary beast in this version either, but a fire-breathing dragon who requests the presence of his daughter. In order to save her father from the dragon, the protagonist goes to meet the dragon. She is able to save her father and eventually the fire-breathing dragon too.
Beauty and the Beast (An English Tale)
Beauty and the Beast was written down by the Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang (1844 – 1912), in The Blue Fairy Book (1889). Lang’s tale is a complex mixture of Beaumont and Villeneuve’s stories, but encompasses more of the fine details, and character development of Villeneuve.
The Enchanted Tsarévich (A Russian Tale)
The Enchanted Tsarévich was written down by Leonard Arthur Magnus (1879 – 1924) in Russian Folk Tales (1916). In this version, similarly to the story of Zelinda and the Monster, the father is a merchant with three daughters. This time though, the monster is a winged snake, as usual requesting the father’s youngest daughter after catching him picking a beautiful rose. When the young girl lives in the castle, each night the snake asks her to draw his bed a little closer; outside her door, in her room – and finally in her bed. After fulfilling the snake’s quests she finally wins his heart and he turns into his human form.
The original story of Aladdin is, maybe surprisingly, set in China. In the earliest versions of the story, Aladdin is Chinese. He’s a lazy boy living at home with his mother. All the characters in the tale are also Chinese apart from the wicked magician who is from North Africa. Some scenes of the story take place in North Africa, but the majority of the incidents take part in China. One of the main distinctions in the original story is Aladdin’s mother. In the early versions of the tale, she is alive and well and plays a significant role in aiding Aladdin meet the beautiful princess. After meeting and falling in love with the princess, it is his mother who leads Aladdin and the father of the princess through hard times and sorts out the chaos.
These are just a few examples of fairy tales where the male lead is rescued and guided by a woman. If it wasn't for these women who walk beside them, the male characters wouldn’t have succeeded in life. They are the women who acted bravely and independently within a male dominated society, and those who ruled their own by crossing all odds. They wouldn’t mind conquering all limits in order to save their loved ones. In contrast the male lead is always shown as passive, helpless or ignorant and lazy.
“A man can build a home but it needs a woman to run a home.”
– Amit Kalantri