I'm sure its no secret that I love fairy tales. I can look across my room at any time to look at my collection of fairy tale books and novels, many of them older than myself by decades, and one is almost one hundred years old. If you give me enough time, I can even recite timelines, tracking fairy tales to their earliest origins, usually in some obscure corner of mythology. For instance, did you know that "Beauty and the Beast" is most likely descended from the myth of Cupid and Psyche? See? A million weird facts.
Beauty and the Beast
The most famous version of this popular fairy tale was abridged by Madame Jeanne-Marie Le Prince De Beaumont from a novel by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot De Villeneuve. Everyone is likely familiar with the story, a beautiful, intelligent young woman trades herself to a beast in order to save her father from his wrath. The Beast softens under her gentle manners, and returns to his true form of a handsome prince. That's the Disney version, and it has it's place, but in it's original form it is the tale of a slow courtship, where the couple becomes friends before deciding to marry. And as for the Beast being a jerk, that is not found in the source material. The Beast is a gentleman despite that unpleasantness with Beauty's father... I think that was part of the curse.
This story has been told again and again in many different mediums, from fantasy to sci-fi, to realistic fiction, proving again and again that there is something compelling about this dynamic. Indeed, it is "ever a surprise!"
Fairer Than a Fairy
Fairer than a Fairy is the story of a princess so beautiful that her parents incur the wrath of the faeries (the bad kind) by naming her Fairer Than a Fairy. No ivory tower princess, Fairer learns to deal with the faeries' persecution when they take her hostage due to her parent's error, and seeks her own way out of the clutches of the spiteful faerie Lagree with the help of her wits and her faithful pet cat and dog. Because this is an uncommon fairy tale, illustrations of the princess are rare and usually depict her calling her prince, who was imprisoned by Lagree in the form of a rainbow.
This story breaks the fairy tale princess mold by having Fairer be smart enough to figure out an escape plan and enact the rescue of Prince Rainbow (yes.) all on her own. She gets assistance from good faeries along the way, but it's up to her to save herself and her prince.
Snow White and Rose Red
This is one of the few Grimm's stories I can stick. This story tells of two sisters, Snow-White and Rose-Red who live in the forest with their mother. These two are so innocent that no animal would harm them...not even a bear! One winter's night, a speaking bear, (really a prince enchanted into that shape) comes to the home of Snow-White and Rose-Red and seeks to warm himself by their fire. The bear becomes the beloved friend of the young ladies, and eventually saves them from a wicked dwarf and frees himself from the curse.
Once again, we find a story of girls doing what good they can on their own and being rewarded for their goodness and courage. They may not be as active as some of the other female characters on my list, but not everyone has to be Wonder Woman! I suppose that's the message of this fairy tale, do your best to help others with no thought of reward, and good things will follow.
The Story of Aoyagi/Green Willow
A rarity on my list is a story that has a sad ending. This is one of them. In this Japanese fairy tale, Tomodata, a samurai in the service of his commander, the Lord of Noto undertakes a journey to another nobleman and is overtaken by a storm. Seeking shelter, he comes across a house on the moors, surrounded by three willows. Inside is a family of three, a man, his wife, and their daughter Aoyagi (also called Green Willow). Aoyagi, who has been raised in the middle of no place, somehow acts like a lady of rank, and the enchanted Tomodata falls in love with her on the spot. Grace James' version of the story then has Tomodata going into exile after Aoyagi follows him from her house, Lafacdio Hearn's version states that Tomodata took Aoyagi with him on his journey and they are married with great splendor when the nobleman sees how much they love each other. Either way, the story ends with the revelation that Aoyagi is a dryad, a spirit of one of the willow trees that surrounded her home. She dies when someone cuts down her tree. Tomodata becomes a monk and sets up a tomb for Aoyagi and her parents when he finds what remains of her old home.
Why do I love this story when I dislike fairy tales with sad endings? I am not sure. Perhaps it is the idea of a fairy leaving her life and following a human into his world for love of him. It's not unusual, Tolkien is quite famous for the same motif. Either way, I would like to imagine a better ending for these two.
The classic tale of Swan Lake follows Prince Siegfried, the newly made king of a far away land and his quest to free beautiful Princess Odette from the grips of the wizard Rothbart. On the night before Siegfried's 21st birthday, the prince spies a group of swans, the leader of which transforms into a beautiful princess. Princess Odette explains that she is under a curse, placed by the wizard Rothbart and if a man promises to love her and her alone, she and the other girls will be free. Siegfried, being solidly romantic in outlook tells Odette to come the following evening to his birthday ball, and he will make the vow and make her his queen. Rothbart gets wind of this and disguises his daughter Odile as Odette, intending to trick Siegfried and keep Odette for himself (Rothbart's motives aren't explained, but most assume he wants to marry Odette). When Siegfried promises to the wrong girl, Odette seems doomed. Now, there are two endings to Swan Lake. One is that Odette and Siegfried throw themselves in the lake, killing Rothbart and freeing the other swans, or Siegfried fights and kills Rothbart, winning the swan's freedom. You can guess my preference, love conquers all, but doesn't mean suicide.
Adapted countless times in ballet, novels, picture books, toys and animated film, Swan Lake's story is compelling in it's simplicity. Many of my peers were introduced to Swan Lake via the abysmal (opinion!) "Swan Princess" series of movies, but those could only wish to have the power of the original or even the superior animated adaptations of "Barbie of Swan Lake" and the 1981 Anime. Full adaptations are available on Youtube from the American Ballet Theater and the Kirov Ballet.
The Butterfly Lovers/Liang-Tzu
China's most famous love story is the story of the faithful lovers Liang Shanbo and Tzu Yingtai. Yingtai is a very intelligent young woman who wants more than anything in the world to go to university and learn at the feet of the great masters. Of course, being a girl, she can't go to university... unless she dresses up as a boy. This being Chinese folklore, that's exactly what she does. So off she goes to attend the university at Hangzhou; along the way, she meets a boy called Liang Shanbo. Shanbo is a brilliant, if oblivious young man going to the same school as Yingtai. They become good friends during school, and Yingtai falls in love with Shanbo. When Yingtai is called home, she tries to drop hints to Shanbo of her true identity, but poor schlemiel that he is, he doesn't pick up until it's too late. Yingtai comes home to find that her father has betrothed her to one of her classmates, Ma Wencai, who is rich. While her dad likes Shanbo, to break the engagement would incur the wrath of powerful people; he's not heartless, only scared. When Shanbo finds out, he sickens of heartbreak and dies soon after. Yingtai promises to go through with the marriage, but only if she can pay her respects at her beloved's grave on the way. She is allowed this, and the heavens, pleased with her faithful love and filial piety send a thunderstorm. A bolt of lightning splits open the grave, and Yingtai either falls or jumps in. The next moment, two butterflies fly free from the grave, the two lovers reunited.
Again, this is a sad story from the Far East, they seem to have a knack for it. ;) But there is some string that ties together the stories I enjoy, the idea true love conquers all the obstacles placed in it's path. Now that doesn't mean a free pass to do anything you want because "True Love!" No, Yingtai obeyed her parents even when it meant she couldn't marry the boy she loved. Her only wish was to visit the grave of her friend and beloved on the way to her new life. She never expected to be with him after her father's decision. She didn't run off to school, she pleaded with her father, who was in fact proud of her learning in most versions.
Most of the girls on my list have this in common (with the possible exception of Odette) they all had to work hard for what they got and they listened to their parents. They didn't pout or yell, they didn't protest "we're in love!". They did what was asked of them, but through courage and wit got their happily ever after.
I'm T.K. Wilson, Read my blog for great information and stories about dolls, toy restoration, Christian Fantasy and so much more! Blog updates Fridays.