It’s been a long time since I did a Princess of The Week; a series where I look beyond Snow White and Beauty, to the Awesome heroines who are just as strong and adventurous as their male counterparts Last time, we looked at a dragonslayer and a woman who used her wits to become the Sultan.
I’m going to put it bluntly: Thakane is awesome and it’s a crime against childhood (most notably mine) that she was never a Princess that every kid grew up with. Not only is Thakane amongst the strongest female leads I’ve come across in fairy tales – but she’s one of the toughest females in fantasy as well.
Thakane is the heroine from an African folktale who travels across Africa on a mission that is usually reserved for male leads only: slaying a dragon. Let’s have a look at her story and why she is so awesome.
Poor Thakane didn’t have an easy life. At the beginning of her story, her parents are dead and so she’s landed with the work of ‘two wives’ in raising her kid brothers.
When boys came of age, it’s one of her tribe’s customs that they receive a leather jacket and a shield made from the hides of animals their father killed;but the hide of a buffalo or wild cat isn’t good enough for the pampered princes. They want their gifts made from the hides of dragons.
Of course, the other villagers think her brothers are being spoilt little wee leeches and tell her not to go, but Thakane’s having none of it.
“If they lack anything, these sons of a chief, I will not be to blame for it. I will go and hunt these dragons.”
She asks for brave men of the village to accompany her on her quest, but no man will step up to the challenge;more and more men refuse to accompany her, and eventually news of this request spreads all over Africa…
Eventually, prince Masilo hears of her strange request and is intrigued.
‘When Masilo heard of this brave girl who decided to go on a hunting expedition for the sake of the family honor, he felt a strange excitement at such a bold plan. He also felt ashamed that no man in the whole country could be found willing to go with her to the land of dragons to kill one for her.’
LET’S JUST TAKE A STEP BACK AND THINK HOW REVOLUTIONARY THIS IS
What a badass! This is makes Misalo a pretty revolutionary prince, because a prince admiring a princess because of her strength is uncommon. Even in the modern fairy tale ‘The Paper Bag Princess’, the main character , princess Elizabeth, is rejected for being strong and ends up dumping the ungrateful prince because of it. This is a glorious subversion of fairy tale conventions and an act of strength on the Princess Elizabeth’s part, but … Quite a sad message lurks underneath. For both women and men, finding someone to love is a pretty important part of happiness in life; it isn’t weak, it isn’t patriarchal, it’s human nature. Presenting woman with the choice of being strong or being condemned to a life of loneliness is a horrible message.
But in this story, her courage doesn’t make her less feminine or desirable; its what brings the prince into her life. Centuries before ‘The Paperbag Princess’, the message behind Thakane is even more positive.
The Prince takes a leaf out of princess Jasmine’s book and escapes the palace and an overprotective father to seek out this intriguing lass. He falls in love with her at first sight (this is pre-Frozen and three pages long, it’s to be expected), and they head off on their journey. All good Princesses seem to like singing and have some kind of magical animal affinity, so hey, might as well use it for practical purposes. Using a magic song, she summons magical animals and asks them to recce the dragon’s locations. They should probably be more confused by the talking eels, but this is African myth, so getting animals to talk is pretty par for the course.
They then arrive and meet an old lady in a ghost town. When they ask her why no one’s there, she tells them ‘that her skin’s too tough, so they prefer to use her as a housekeeper.’ I like this description,
The old lady then tells them to set an ambush while she’s feeding the dragon and when they do that, Misalo drives a spear through the beast’s hide.
The old lady thanks them and then gives them a magical stone that will protect them from dragons on their way home, which raises so many questions: where did this stone come from? How long did she have it? Why didn’t she use it to save the villagers in the first place? Why didn’t she use it to escape? Why is she staying alone in an empty village instead of coming… okay, old woman, magical plot device- turn brain off; it’s a fairy tale, and this is hardly the biggest plot hole I’ve come across.
Moving on, they go use this stone to protect them from future dragon attacks and go on their merry way.
It all ends with Thakane and Masilo arriving home to a hero’s welcome, the spoilt brats getting their dragon hide coat, and Thakane marrying the prince and spending the rest of her days as Queen leading a life of luxury.
Even though this is an old African myth, this is one of the most revolutionary Princess stories out there.
She went further than Elizabeth in that she got to be both strong and beloved.And not just by any prince, but by a prince who loved her for her courage and who possessed more personality in this short story than most of the princes I’ve come across in most other stories.
WHERE TO FIND THIS
Why hasn’t Disney jumped on this? When did African myth feature Dragons? (except the creation myth of Kweku Tsin) and since when did African myth star creatures other than Anansi because we all know the greedy bastard took all the stories for himself? Why haven’t I heard of it until now?
Well, this story, is really, really obscure and really hard to find. It took a lot of work to find this story in the first place, and the only source is an out of print book on Swahili myth. It is worth checking out and a preview of the book can be found on this website:
Now that we’ve had a Princess teaming up with her Prince, how can we match this? Well, next week we’re looking at a Princesses who does the unthinkable- a Princess who saves her prince. Here’s a hint as to what story we’re looking at…
This week we travel to Ghana, to look at the Akan tale of Princess Yaa aka the proud princess. I’ve read a few versions of this story, where sometimes the princess is referred to as Princess Afiong or Ewabunmi; sometimes she marries a wolf, other times a skull monster, but in each version, she’s portrayed as spoilt and arrogant princess whom believes no man is good enough for her. In every version her parents want her to marry, but she rejects numerous suitors because they’re not handsome or rich enough until she meets one who deceives her and turns into a monster. The moral of the story is that ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’.
EXAMINING THE DOUBLE STANDARD
Yet… it has to be said… the gender double standards are strong with this one. Let’s look at what the Princess is punished for. She’s condemned for being vain because she wants to marry someone who’s extremely handsome and rich … yet she is so sought after because she is beautiful and rich herself. In some versions, they know her reputation for being ‘haughty’, but flock to marry her anyway because she’s an exceptional beauty (and her parent’s wealth couldn’t hurt either). But are they ever called out for it? Not at all.
It’s expected that a male lead (even if he himself is ugly) is entitled to marry a girl who is pretty, no matter what the situation. He will sometimes be called out if he falls for a woman who is pretty but nothing else, but even then, it’s usually she who is condemned for being vain, cold etc, while he is never called out for loving her solely on looks. In the end he will always meet another woman who is kind and equally pretty (although usually in a less glamorous, more understated ‘girl next door’ way).
It’s always women who are hit with the ‘looks aren’t that important in a partner’, when with men its a given that his potential partner has to be pretty even if he’s not. Because of this, I can’t help but salute this princess; she wants a prince that does it for her, and she’s not accepting anything less.
WHAT MAKES THIS PRINCESS SO STRONG?
Yet, if this story is so negative, then why is it included on the list of strong princesses? Simple: Farida Salifu’s retelling is amazing.
Salifu is an absolutely astounding writer who retells dozens of Akan myths on her website, most notably the Anansi tales, all of which are brilliantly written. She injects so much character into this princess that you can’t help but love her. She’s vain, spoilt, mischievous and she doesn’t just know it; she revels in it. She rolls around her luxurious bedchamber, wrapping herself with jewels and musing about all the trouble she’s going to cause her poor future husband; even the servant girls can’t resist giggling at her exploits. Princess Yaa’s just too much fun and oozes too much charisma.
And the wolf is excellent as well, and shatters the traditional fairy tale convention a way that is reminiscent of a certain Disney film:
‘Is it funny how you never even asked me my name, but you agreed to marry me?’
He just cuts right to the core. Seriously, that’s a good point that’s never really been brought up in fairytales until Frozen (at least Anna got her intended’s name and knew he liked pudding).Whatever we have to say about the treatment of Princesses in Western fairytales, half the time the Prince is so forgettable we don’t even know his name.
All in all- this is a very, very well told story. I can’t praise Farida Salifa enough as a storyteller, and it’s worth checking out all her tales- especially her retelling of the Anansi stories, Africa’s most prominent funny and infuriating fairytale antihero.
If you know any children, I would strongly recommend reading her work- all of her stories are lively and entertaining, and has the added bonus of teaching them a little about African culture.
But now we’ve had an African Princess who epitomizes bad judgement and selfishness. Next week I’m going to look at another African Princess- this one who exemplifies self-sacrifice and wins the attention of her Prince by her extreme courage and determination. Also, she charms mermaids and slays dragons.
What’s better than a strong princess? A powerful Empress who ruled one of the world’s most advanced civilizations.
Empress Jokwa And The Five Stones is a story that originated from China, but found its way to Japan. It tells the tale of a benevolent Ogress who ascended the throne of ancient China, and the battle that ensued as a result of a power struggle between her and a jealous sorcerer Kokai who tried to use his magic to seize the throne.
IS THIS STORY ANY GOOD?
Yes, yes and yes. It’s one of the most action packed fairy tales you’ll come across, filled with giants, magical battles and a fire king who shows up to deliver a major smack down.
The focus of ‘Empress Jokwa and the Five Stones’ is on the exploits of the Empress’ two strongest warriors, Hako and Eiko, who lead her army into battle against the powerful sorcerer. The main story is an exciting and tense battle between the warriors and Kokai who can only be overcome by teamwork and a little help from their allies…
WHY JOKWA IS SO STRONG
While Empress Jokwa is the titular character, she’s little more than a support character in this story, and only plays a real role in the last three pages.
However, she’s a great figure none the less. In the fairy tale world where lone female rulers are often demonized as witches (ala the magical queen from the Arabian nights tale ‘Prince Beder and the Princess Giauhara’- the most probable inspiration for the evil queen regnants who populate the Chronicles of Narnia), it’s amazing to hear of a regnant queen whose not noted for her beauty but instead described as ‘a wonderful woman, and an able ruler’ and adored by all her people. Especially considering the misogynistic culture of ancient China.
The main reason for the comfort with this example of female power is because of the fact that she’s not human. Typically, the (male) writers of fairytales were far more comfortable with women possessing vast amounts of power if she’s a powerful creature like a fairy, djinn, spirit or goddess. A special, untouchable exception who can’t upset the status quo and doesn’t follow the rules of our world.
Even so, it is unusual to see a female monarch portrayed this favorably. It’s often been the case in history that whenever a woman took the throne, there was a lot of contention from subjects and male rivals about her credibility (as in the case with the historical Queen Cordelia). What’s so subversive is that the main antagonist of this tale is a man who tried to usurp the throne from her after her brother died – something he would never have tried if Jokwa was male- and he is vilified for doing so. In fact, the sorcerer Kokai is portrayed as an opportunist, an illegitimate usurper, while Jokwa is the good and rightful heir to the throne.
Queen Jokwa and the Five Stones is a great action / adventure fairystory which brought us cool, magical battles centuries before Shounen anime came on the scene. Jokwa may be a side character, but she is a rare positive example of female power. If we’re going to read stories where men fight for the sake of a woman, it might as well be about keeping a good female ruler on the throne rather than a damsel in distress.
Source: This story can be found in numerous compendiums, but the one I used was ‘Japanese Fairy tales’ by Yei Theodora Ozaki.
Alternatively, an online version of the story can be found here:
With the popularity of Tangled, Frozen, Cinderella, Maleficent and the long overdue arrival of Disney’s first (and the cynic in me suspects probably the last) black Princess in The Princess and the Frog, fairy tales are as popular as ever.
And it’s no wonder; these tales have captivated us from childhood and stayed with us well into adulthood. There’s something about the sense of mystery and wonder, the crazy objects, the breath taking environments and the idea that anything can happen whether you’re a princess, pauper or knight that only fairy tales can create. And then there’s the princesses.
With the most famous European Fairytales being Briar Rose, Little Snow White, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, cemented in our imaginations by the early Disney films, we’ve come to see the fairy tale heroine of old as useless but pretty ornaments; ‘pure of heart’ (not morally good mind, but rather sweet and inoffensive), with little going for them but their beauty and inexperience;the archetypical princess waits for her prince to save her.
It got to the point where Belle, (in spite of the fact that it was her sexuality, rather than her knowledge and intellect, that saved the day), was considered revolutionary just because she had a brain and some semblance of a personality. Princess Fiona’s random kung-fu was subversive because ‘Whoah! A princess did something useful!’
However, what if I told you that the passive, brainless but pretty ‘damsel in distress’ may be the rule, but not the only rule? Even before Frozen, Brave and the Princess and The Frog came on the scene, there were lots of examples of strong and active women in fairy tales and mythology, who were accomplished, used their brains and even fought dragons?
To that end I’m going to begin ‘Badass Princess of The Week’ project, where each week I’m going to look at a different strong female from fairy tale and myth who proves that women were educated, active, strong and capable, way before Elsa, Anna and Tiana came along to redeem them.