When I pick up a fairy tale, I feel like a child again. Reading about mythical creatures, about the dangers of the woods, and the needle-sharp motives of villains, I can almost hear the classic warnings; don’t talk to strangers, never trust a faerie.
But no one mentions: beware of the power of women.
Immersed in these tales, I would speak to faeries sitting on the leaves of the strawberry patches outside my window. I was the wolf that stalked the woods, the witch who stole children from their cribs. I smiled at the moon and thanked her for her light, for her energy. When the mist faded and sunlight broke through my curtains, my human body felt insignificant, just flesh, ripe for the wolf.
In the old fairy tales, a woman is as dangerous as talons in the night, she is her own being. Modern takes on old fairy tales often spin a fantasy that strips women of their agency—Cinderella, Snow White—they are products of their time. But read Angela Carter’s 1979 The Company of Wolves, an adaption of the original Red Riding Hood tale, and the wolf is subject to the will of the woman. She chooses to be with him. ‘The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.’
The theme of female empowerment, no matter how subtle, is seen in Leigh Bardugo’s 2017 The Language of Thorns, a collection of dark faerie tales that take place in the Grisha universe – the setting of her earlier trilogy for young adults. I rode through an atmospheric wave of haunting folklore as the book plunged me into a world of ‘slicing’ rivers, howling wolves and blackened hearts. Tiny pieces of the classics—such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast—are twisted into gnarled renditions where Russian folklore simultaneously refreshes and obscures them.
Most enthralling is ‘Little Knife’, the tale of a fair maiden – Yeva, who is so beautiful she cannot be looked upon, a competition for her hand takes place, a trio of challenges ensue, a poor suitor and a rich but arrogant prince vie for her attention. The fable follows the familiar tropes of older tales but matures when the supernatural river known as the Little Knife offers Yeva a choice:
Will you remain here with the father who tried to sell you, or the prince who hoped to buy you, or the man too weak to solve his riddles for himself? Or will you come with me and be bride to nothing but the shore?
This choice liberates Yeva from the bonds of the patriarchal society in which she lives. She is carried away by the Little Knife to live in peace and solitude. The tale ends as Yeva’s heart grows silent, the turmoils of her existence are washed clean by the magical river and the narrative becomes one of female identity and agency.
I have also discovered audiobooks this year, and the standout so far is Mythos, written and narrated by Stephen Fry. Fry’s enunciation is resonant, and the myths he retells are entertaining and faceted with a multitude of perspectives. Hera, the goddess of marriage, is vindictive yet powerful; Zeus, the sky father, is promiscuous yet gentle when he chooses to be; and Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and virginity, strikes down any man who looks upon her with lust. These ancient tales, again, are a testament to the power of the female heroine.
One tells the story of Hades and his abduction of Persephone. But, the story fails to acknowledge Persephone’s love for Hades, of her happiness when at his side, and more pertinently, of her formidable reputation as the Dread Queen of the Underworld. It is Persephone’s mother, Demeter, whose reaction to her daughter’s abduction shines the unfavourable light on the myth. But Demeter’s determination to bring her daughter home is also an ode to the bond between women, the bond between mother and daughter and the bond between the goddesses of the harvest and the spring. Both Demeter and Persephone are forces to be reckoned with.
The final piece of literature I’ve been devouring is Jen Campbell’s latest collection The Beginning of the World at the Middle of the Night. Each story is a unique reimagining of the fairy tale in a modern setting—but still macabre, gritty, haunted, and inhuman. Among my favourites is ‘Little Deaths’; a child-like interpretation of the spirit world, where ghosts are hunted, captured in jam jars and sold as remedies. It reminded me of that scene in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where Professor Dumbledore snuffs out then re-lights the streetlamps on Privet Drive; if only the lights were ghosts.
Another tale was so perfectly grim and strange, I was nauseous by the last page. ‘Animals’ features a world where hearts—animal or human—are a commodity, brought, sold and stolen. A husband attempts to transplant the heart of a swan into his comatose wife, it flutters next to her own, reacts in time to her own heart-beat, it murmurs its happiness and its displeasure. The swan heart is meant to tame her, because the deer heart made her flee and the wolf heart gave her rage. The husband selfishly manipulates the body of his wife repeatedly, apparently stripping her of her agency so that he can possess her, have her alive on his terms. But even comatose she rejects this; therefore, she is still an instrument for impact.
The agency of the female heroine in this collection of tales is subtle, but it is present and a testament to the growth of literature.
Sofia Casanova is an emerging writer and editor from Sydney. Her writing focuses on mental health, feminism and pop culture. She tweets @sofiaecasanova.