After a trip down to Orlando again this past weekend to see my visiting Grammy, I tried to figure out what to write about the book I just finished. Kathleen Ragan’s Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales from Around the World, is a collection of fairy tales and folklore from all over the world in a book that has been on my to-read list since my undergrad thesis (which, to put it into perspective for you, was 8 years ago. Good lord, when did that happen?!) I had however, marked this book as non-fiction on my list. Not sure why as it really was just a collection of the tales themselves with the editor’s personal commentary following each story.
The editor’s commentary often made me raise an eyebrow; it either didn’t really fit the story or made some wildly loose reference to the story that I was often thinking “really? that’s the connection you made? Ok…” But I cannot fault her selection of tales; she had a good variety from all the regions of the world and while she clearly had some favorite tropes in her stories (The woman disguising herself as a man and then continually tricking the love interest into believing she is a man appeared often), she was really good about staying away from the common tales. That said, if you know your fairy tales, you’ll recognize these heroines. Folklore, no matter its story, has common tropes so while Cinderella and her mother don’t put in an appearance (let’s face it, her mother is awesome in the original tale), a lot of fabulous mother-daughter duos do show up.
The collection mainly reminded me how fantastic the tales from the Middle East and Northern Africa are. Really, Scheherazade is in good company. So many strong women appear in these tales; women who defy tradition to save their families or themselves from villains and thieves. It is slightly problematic from the women’s studies side that these women do often have to disguise themselves as men and continually prove they are “men” to accomplish their goals in the stories but I believe Ragan quoted a friend at one point as saying “they had to! It was the only way they could do it!” I found it interesting that even though the culture frowned about women succeeding as women, they still wrote and shared stories of these clever and brave heroines. Fascinating isn’t it? This theme also came across in the tales from the Far East – China and Japan. Comparing that to the tales from the Native American tribes, that were often matrilineal societies and shows that in their stories, the difference in the agency of women as themselves and not disguised as someone else was quite startling. I guess I hadn’t made the cultural connections before which reading everything in one collection brought across.
Not that I read this in book quickly; it took me awhile actually. One of those books that by the time I read the last story, I had only vague memories of what the first one had been. Ragan was thorough in her compiling – this book holds a lot of stories, some more interesting than others so I did skim some that didn’t catch my interest as others did. I also read some aloud to my less than interested cat. Sometimes, a good tale just needs to be read aloud!