There’s truth to the idea that it takes more intellectual energy to be successfully deceptive than to be senselessly sincere.

It’s also true that there’s a difference between being ‘good’ and ‘nice’. Being ‘good’- standing up for what’s right in the face of adversity- is laudable. Being relentlessly ‘nice’ – tolerating bad behaviour for fear of being ‘mean’ or  ‘starting trouble’- is not; it’s intellectual and moral cowardice that should never be rewarded. Unfortunately, in fairy tales, it often is.

It’s a delicate balancing act to walk the line between being ‘nice’ and being ‘a doormat’ or ‘a complete moron’, and so often in fairy tales not only do the leads fail to walk this tightrope; they fall, crash and drag the beams that held up the tightrope down on everyone else in the vicinity. Let’s look at a couple of examples:


In Little Snow White, the titular heroine falls for the same assassination ploy not once, not twice, but THREE times in the original. Three. With her lemming- like skills of self preservation and her prince’s questionable behaviour around women in coffins, I worry about their future children. Here’s hoping that seven fairies come along and bless their kids with something more useful than ‘song’ and ‘music’ this time, otherwise the kingdom’s future leadership is in trouble.

If we had a facepalm for every time Snow White's stupidity imperllied her, this still wouldn't cover it
If we had a facepalm for every time Snow White imperilled herself, this still wouldn’t cover it


It’s not only women who are susceptible to the trope of ‘passive niceness’. Things only gets worse in the Japanese tale, ‘The Man who made the cherry blossoms bloom’; the old man knows his neighbour abuses his dog at every chance he gets, but he lends his dog to the neighbour anyway because he is ‘a kind man’.

His neighbour beats the dog to death. But is the old man deemed to be guilty of ‘criminal neglect?’ No, his only crime is ‘kindness’, so why should the old man learn anything from his actions? All he needs to do is keep on letting his neighbour walk over him and defile his pet’s memory over and over again until magical karma solves everything.

If Mr Orange was like the old man from the original myth, Ammy, you'd be making those Cherry-blossoms bloom with your ashes instead of your paint brush
If Mr Orange was like the old man from the original myth, Ammy would be making those Cherry-blossoms bloom with her ashes instead of her paint brush


The examples above are stories where being ‘nice’ means being relentlessly stupid or passive, which isn’t a good message for adulthood. It may work for getting kids not to bicker with each other or talk back, but it doesn’t prepare them for the real world.

However, there is a brilliant antidote to this message- and that antidote can be found in the little known Iraqi tale of ‘The Honest Man’.


This tale is subversive right from the word ‘go.’ From its opening paragraph it begins:

There was once an honest man, upon whom fortune never smiled. His wife deceived him, his sons robbed him, and when his beard was white he found himself without either money or honour.’

We have the similar set up to your Cinderellas, your Princess Hases (a fairy tale I’ll look at in another post)… your poor good person being relentlessly abused by the people around him.

He then goes and asks his friend at the local suq what needs to be done about it- and his friend advises him to go on a pilgrimage to pray at the tomb of a holy man. This introduction of a potential supernatural moral guardian, a sort of ‘fairy godmother’ or  ‘divine parent’ if you will, would usually mean that magic will make the world right without him having to do anything.

On his pilgrimage, the honest man meets various creatures who tell him their tales of woe and he promises to pray for them. His most notable encounter is with a talking lion with a massive headache. When he meets the prophet, the prophet tells him how to solve all the problems of the various people he encountered. Simple enough. But when he gets to the lion’s dilemma things get dark:

“His case is also easy,’ answered the Imam.”All that he has to do is is to eat the head of a fool, and he will instantly be cured.”

Uh oh. I can see where this is going. Things get even darker when the honest man finally asks the Imam to help him with his own problem :

“Go in peace,” said the saint [probably with an evil smile] “I have already told thee that which is necessary to end thy troubles.” [emphasis mine]

Whoa! What kind of saint is this man?

After this point, the honest man travels back home and helps everyone he met on the way. Each time, he’s rewarded with a vast amount of riches, but each time he refuses to take the reward for some senseless reason.

Finally, he encounters the lion and tells him what the prophet told him. You can guess what happened next.

chow time
“Thanks for all your help, chump.”

Needless to say, this was the end of his streak of bad luck.


After reading this story, I was pretty surprised by the ending . After all, in any other fairy tale the honest man would be the hero. Why wasn’t he here?

The point of this tale is not to discourage people from being kind and honest; in fact, every time the honest man helps someone, karma rewards him  with worldly wealth. He’s offered a big sum of money for helping the brothers and he finds an expensive pearl after helping the fish. Clearly, his kindness is rewarded.

But the honest man’s problem isn’t compassion; his problem is that he’s too stupid to make the most of his situation. He complains that ‘fortune never smiled’ on him, but the truth is it does but his own stupidity causes all his blessings to be undone.

It is arguably laudable that he rejected the brothers’ inheritance, because it didn’t belong to him. However, it got ridiculous when he threw the pearl the fish spat out back into the lake. The pearl belonged to no one and throwing it back into the lake was of no use to anybody. He was offered good fortune but he tossed it away like trash because he was too stupid to seize the opportunity.

The honest man was given every opportunity to change his fortune. However, each time he proved to be the undoing of every gift fate threw at him; he was so stupid, so incapable of changing that in the end, the lion did provide him with the only way that could end his woes.

The moral is ‘being nice is good, but don’t be a moron’. And that’s a moral we can all get behind.


‘The Honest Man’, Folktales of Iraq, Edited and Translated by E.S. Stevens, Dover Publications, Inc

Other Sources:

Little Snow White, Grimm’s Fairy Stories, Public Domain

Cinderella, Grimm’s Fairy Stories, Public Domain

‘The Story Of Princess Hase’, Japanese Fairy Tales, Yei Theodora Ozaki, Bibliobazaar

‘The Story Of The Old Man Who Made Withered Trees to Flower’, Japanese Fairy Tales, Yei Theodora Ozaki


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.


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…


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 Jadis
Whenever a woman rules without a male in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, she’s always evil and destructive witch.


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!’

Everything about Peach pretty much sums up the archetypical princess
Everything about Peach pretty much sums up the archetypical princess

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.

BOOK REVIEW: Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories, Book 2 by Sakade, Florence, Hayashi, Yoshio (2004) Hardcover

This is the second book in the ‘Japanese Children’s Favourite Stories’ series, a compendium of traditional Japanese fairy tales shortened and simplified to the bare basics (and stripped of their more violent aspects) in order to make them accessible to children. This is the second book in the series, and though it repeats a couple of stories from the first book, the stories here are just as good as, if not better , than those of book one.

What appeals to me about fairy tales is the sense of magic and mystery they create. You don’t read  Grimm’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ for its interesting characters; you read them for their brilliant atmosphere- to feel like you’re walking through the castle frozen in time.

In this book, the environments are unique and fascinating; we visit underwater kingdoms (‘Urashimo Taro’), magical princesses (‘The Princess and the Herdboy’ and ‘Urashimo Taro’), what’s translated as ‘elves’ and ‘goblins’ (‘The Sandal Seller’ and ‘Why the Red Elf Cried’), and of course, benevolent dragons (‘The Dragon’s Tears’). These are very bare bones versions of the original tales, so not a lot of time is spent dwelling on atmosphere, but the strange worlds and devices that inhabit this book are engaging in and of themselves.

The sense of wonder is brilliant, and the feel and morality of the stories are different. We have the traditional trickster story of ‘How To Fool A Cat’; the stories where kindness is rewarded in various supernatural ways (‘The Dragon’s Tears’, ‘The Rolling Rice Cakes’ and ‘The Fairy Crane’); and we have  the ‘Princess and the herdboy’, which is the mythological story that inspired the Japanese Tanabata (star festival).

However, the crown jewels in this collection are definitely ‘The Singing Turtle’, ‘Why the Red Elf Cried’ and ‘Urashima Taro’. ‘Urashima Taro’ is the story of the man who visits the underworld Kingdom of the Dragon King (Japan’s answer to the world of ‘The Little Mermaid’ or Arabian Night’s ‘Gulnare of the Sea’). It has a great feel of magic and mystery, and its ending is deeply tragic without being inappropriate for kids.

There was also something quite funny about the titular sea creature in ‘The Singing Turtle’, while ‘Why the Red Elf Cried’ is a surprisingly moving tale of friendship.

Each of the stories are illustrated with a few simple watercolour images, which though aren’t stunning, are cute and lend this book a real Japanese feel and will help keep kids engaged.

This compendium of stories is a decent introduction to Japanese fairy tales for older readers, and presents a fun alternative to the usual Grimm’s fairy tales for younger readers. However, one thing that should be noted is that although the style is simple and engaging, the writing style can be a bit complex for especially young readers.  This is probably a book that is more suited to being read out to younger readers rather than being one that they read by themselves.

RATING: 3.5 magical moon bunnies making mochi on a mystical mortar/ out of 5

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BOOK REVIEW : THE CRANE LADY by Warabe Wakabayashi

crane ladyThis kindle exclusive is a simple version of a popular Japanese fairy tale aimed at young children. The original fairy tale itself is popular in Japan for good reason, as it has all the storytelling ingredients we expect from a good fairy tale; we have the protagonist rewarded for an act of kindness; the mystery and magic; the hero being warned never to do something, which you know they will do in the end, and the tension throughout the story of waiting for the inevitable to happen.

As far as this retelling goes, however, the writing quality is extremely uneven. It is sadly apparent that English is not the writer’s first language, and in spite of the simplicity of the sentence structures, it did feel like I was reading subtitles, littered with awkward phrasing throughout like:

The old man went to the town to sell the woods.”


“He helped Crane from the trap.”

If you want a book for your kids to read to improve their reading ability, this is not one you should give them. But this book was never about the writing quality; the writing’s just a framework to allow Wakabayashi to tell the story through the art.

Warabe Wakabayashi is a Japanese manga artist and she is clearly very talented. You can see from the front cover what the quality of the artwork is like and it’s consistently good throughout the story. The Crane lady herself is breath taking in every picture she appears in, with the vivid colours and textures on the fabrics masterfully drawn. Its unique, beautiful, and wonderful to look at.

The artwork is worth the price of admission and overlooking the awkward phrasing. The beautiful pictures of the magnificent crane lady, and all the vivid patterns and colours that bring to life her beautiful outfits, is definitely something that will appeal to young girls.


2.5 warnings to ‘never look in there’ out of 5

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