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I Choose: In Defence of Consent in Fairy Tales

3 min read
A selection of fairy tale books

That’s something a character says in an upcoming novella. ‘I choose you.’

But I write with fairy tale in my background. Andrew Lang is in my veins as much as Sayers, Lindskold, Snyder, as well as Lewis and Tolkien.   

From the various tales in the Color series (including my favorite in The Brown Fairy Book, “What the Rose did to the Cypress”) there is often this idea of a woman seeming to be on some kind of pedestal. 

Originally published between 1889 and 1913, many of the translations were done by women, including Lang’s wife Leonora Blanche Alleyne who also assumed editorial control in the 1890s. One interesting note is that women were often the translators of the fairy tales which came from all over the world.  There are African myths, Native American Myths.  “What the Rose did to the Cyprus” features the travels through and past the Caucuses.  

Common in many tales are women who refuse to marry just anybody, and men dying to prove that they can just take and have.  The hero in my favorite tale in fact goes to avenge his brothers, who all died because they could not answer the princess’ question of, “What did the Rose do to the Cypress?” Of course he ends up marrying her, along with a few other women. 

One could say that he won them by his intelligence. He is the younger son, and pretty much takes on the fool’s role (Foolish younger sons often win the prize in these tales.)  OR you could say he proved himself worthy to the princesses, the handmaiden, the nice sorceress sister.  

We often take a stance of seeing these tales as women on some pedestal, forgetting an essential point: Not only is it good for the story (stakes, tension), but she’s being selective in her choice.  Not just anyone gets to reach her.  

The tales are not novels, so not always strong on motive.  The stories are also bowdlerized, though in places fairly brutal enough.  Grimm light, not Grimm original.  They were intended for children. And while translated by women in a time with little do but embroider cushions (I exaggerate), it’s still a pretty neat feat most were translated despite the wide range of cultures the tales came from.  

The princess who demands someone answer a supposedly ridiculous question, or climb a glass tower, or whatever else either has men unable to do it or risk death to do it, she’s created a boundary that delineates her work. While perhaps not healthy boundaries (either for herself or her myriad victims), it’s still a statement of: I’m worth something, and I’m going to be picky. 

Regardless of any hero’s ire or upset, many of the “man wins woman” fairy tales start with the women deciding they could choose, and not just anyone.  There are a ridiculous number of men who slide down the glass tower walls with as much frustration as Sisyphus and his bolder, or die at her feet for failing all because they ALSO believed her worthy.   

Prove you are worthy.  Prove you value the woman. 

It was this thought that helped me write a story where love was defined by choice, but both hero and heroine had to get past their own virtual towers to reach love, where they got to choose.  

P.S. The reason I love “What the Rose Did to the Cyprus” is that it is the longest in the whole canon and has all the elements of a good fairy tale.  The numbers of 3 and 7, the choice a princess is enforcing for her own value, the adventure, the aid of various magical people and creatures, and even near failure half the time.  

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