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.
It’s already been a month and I’ve reviewed a lot of different books. Below are just a few of the novels and short stories I’ve looked at. Most of them have been of such an excellent quality , and filled with so many great characters, that choosing my favorites was difficult. However, there were some stories that absolutely blazed while the others merely glittered, so without further ado, here’s my pick for the best stories of the month.
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.
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:
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DARWIN AWARDS
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.
THE MAN WHO MADE THE CHERRY BLOSSOMS BLOOM OR THE RSPCA’S MOST WANTED
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.
FINALLY! A FAIRY TALE THAT AGREES WITH ME
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.
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
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