From every continent, anthologist Kathleen Ragan found the mighty girls and women in fairy tales around the world.
February 26 is Tell a Fairy Tale Day.
We are the stories we tell.
For the first people who lived in what’s now known as Australia, tales were maps designed to guide generations across miles of desert to landmarks, water and safety. For them, a certain story sequence could mean the difference between life and death beneath the blistering sun.
During America’s civil rights movement, stories were used to alter our collective sense of morality and to shift our perspective on issues as serious as slavery, justice and freedom. Beautiful tales from this era expressed the change that needed to happen and helped us all understand why.
And today, for the little girl reading the same tale over and over again, leaving no word or sentiment unturned, stories are a way for her to understand the world and even herself.
Stories are our survival tools, offering alternative solutions, warnings of danger and the locations of sinkholes. And these potent cultural artifacts exist for a reason. It’s why fairy tales, myths and folklore stick to our bones from childhood onward, and it’s why we just can’t seem to let them go.
We are born with this desire to connect, listen and understand the world around us and our fellow travelers. It’s why our stories often exist outside of time and hover within the confines of our vivid imaginations. To tell a story is to be human, and even a three-month-old baby can tell the difference between narrative and conversation.
But there are so many stories to tell, from that time you built an igloo in your yard, to how your great-grandmother overcame the Great Depression, to the fairy tales from books and dusty collections. Which ones should you tell? How do you choose?
Fairy tale anthologist Kathleen Ragan argues that we should look at a culture, and all the stories in it, like a big cloud, with the storyteller simply incapable of telling them all. “They might tell their favorites, or the ones people ask for, or maybe just the ones they know best.” But over time, the number of stories told decreases. And, for better or worse, those select tales begin to define us and the very society in which we live. We become these stories, just as these stories become us.
Consider the tale of Cinderella. Picture it in your mind. What do you see?
Maybe you’ve imagined a glass slipper, because how could Cinderella possibly exist without that? It’s essential to the story, right?
Turns out, if you were to search for every single version of the Cinderella tale in this wide world, you would discover roughly 800 variations to this story, and only a handful even feature a glass slipper. The item is practically nonexistent. Of course, once Walt Disney — a storyteller of epic proportions with an enormous audience — got a hold of Cinderella, a single version of the story became the version in everyone’s mind, and that’s merely one example.
Yet there is an even larger issue in how certain tales define us. Because if societies are the stories they tell, then where are all the women? I’m not talking about damsels in distress, or the Cinderellas of the world who aspire to live happily ever after in a mythical palace, or the ditsy princesses with infinite patience and flawless beauty. Where are the courageous young girls using their wits to save a cherished sister, or the mischievous wives who play a prank on their husbands to win a bit of gold and free rent? Where are the cantankerous old women who save their communities, or the brilliant queens who rescue their beloved husbands? Where are the wrinkled old ladies who keep their families together, or the working mothers who save their children from the underworld? If women make up half of society, where are their heroes? Where are our brave mothers, smart girls and warrior women? Surely they exist!
This was the answer Kathleen Ragan sought to find.
And so she searched throughout libraries in the United States and Australia to find the appropriate stories from the far reaches of Africa and the Middle East, across Asia and the Pacific, and throughout Europe and the Americas. On a few occasions, experts even went so far as to warn that she wouldn’t “find quality female heroines in fairy tales, because those tales were written in a time when the social mores insisted on silent, passive women.” Nevertheless, Ragan searched through 30,000 stories to find her fearless heroines and daring female protagonists.
From Indonesia, she found a female Noah, who warned of a flood and got some of the people to safety. From northeastern Siberia, she found a female shaman who rescued her son from death, all while her husband admonished her for being a “bad mother” for doing her job. From China, she found a story that highlighted the quiet way women hold communities together and weave the fabric of society with quick-witted manners and generosity, even at the dinner table. From India, she found the story of a woman who outsmarted a robber baron who had come to collect all her jewelry; she called him brother and invited him to a feast, finding a creative solution to what might have otherwise been a violent conflict.
“And after reading thousands of these fairy tales and finding inspiring heroines of all types — young, old, persevering, patient, loving, courageous, clever, stubborn, adventurous — it seemed to me that the heroines I chose no longer had to be perfect. And I think that’s a really powerful thing that I learned when I collected the stories of many women, and also from many countries — because you don’t have to be perfect. That’s a gift these days. It’s a big deal.”
At the end of her journey, Ragan published over 100 selected tales in her critically acclaimed anthology Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folk Tales from Around the World. The book is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. “I believe that by reading folk tales from around the world and traveling, you gain such a beautiful perspective and understanding of and empathy for people of other cultures. And I think, especially with globalization brought about by our new electronic media, this is particularly important.… And when I’m identifying with a woman from northeastern Siberia from 120 years ago in a folk tale, that’s exciting! We share things. There’s still stuff that we’re working out.”
But through these experiences, Ragan discovered exactly why humanity’s tales of strong women had been buried, lost or forgotten. “I counted, and in Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812), you have 40 out of 210 tales, or around 19%, that include a female protagonist. Other than Fearless Girls, today if you look at your normal anthologies of folk tales, even ones written by women, you’ll be lucky to find that same percentage. In major anthologies — I hate to mention them but there was a huge one in the 1950s — it was only 1% that had a female protagonist. That’s down from Grimm’s!”
How did these numbers get so low?
As it turns out, with all available stories existing in a cloud, storytellers tend to pick their favorites. And when most fairy tale anthologies were being created during the Victorian era, those stories were mostly handpicked by men, and they told the stories that resonated the most with them. “It doesn’t make them worse people,” Ragan points out. “It just makes them men.” Still, during her PhD studies, she discovered that while men are more likely to tell a majority of male-focused stories, women, on the other hand, are far more egalitarian. “Women are more likely to tell gender-equal stories: 25% about men, 25% about women, and 50% about both men and women.” In Ragan’s mind, it all comes down to biology.
“Male and female genders simply have different priorities, especially when you think in terms of survival and reproduction,” she says. “And that is reflected in the tales that men collect versus the tales that women collect.” However, there is an imbalance occurring, because the “more popular stories selected by men have had a major influence on our cultures and what we think of when we think ‘fairy tale.’” As a result, women have effectively been deleted from these collections, making our cultures less prepared for the obstacles ahead. So to move forward we must dig deep, find more female storytellers and collectors, and embrace “societies where cooperation was the modus operandi, because those societies are much more likely to have strong women.”
Isn’t it time for the female hero to take her rightful place beside the male one — swords, wit and all? Let us finally balance the scales, starting with the stories that we tell ourselves and each other. Because these stories are survival tools, and whether we’re crossing a desert or navigating an imposing digital landscape, we need our Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters to show us the way.
Kathleen Ragan’s follow-up anthology entitled Outfoxing Fear: Folktales from Around the World hit bookshelves in 2006 and a third book is expected soon. You can find her anthologies through Amazon and Barnes & Nobles. She encourages everyone to “please, please, please read to your children!”