Monday, April 10, 2023

Feminism in Folk Tales

Centuries back, at some part of earth, inhabited by humans, someone told a funny tale to entertain their listeners. The story turned out so good that many of the listeners narrated the story to more people. This happened wherever human beings got themselves cozy and settled down. The result was a steady stream of stories, told and retold by numerous story tellers, with elements added and removed according to their imagination and social situations, stories exchanged by travellers and merchants to far out lands, stories influencing the cultures of civilisations and inturn getting influenced themselves. 

Folk tales are coded history, truths encoded within the strands of lies made of imagination, passed to us from an ancient era. In a simple communication exercise where a simple statement, when passed through a chain of ten persons, gets totally distorted and becomes unintelligible. So it is mind boggling to even imagine the history of a simple folk tale available to us now. It is evident that at various ages, various story tellers have twisted the stories- made more brutal or more soft, the characters more evil or too good, races and genders changed and more stereotyped. A recent example is that of the Disney fairy tales where the female protagonist is made just a pretty face waiting patiently for her knight in shining armor. 

Female protagonists are rare in popular fairy tales and even when shown they have always been depicted in such a passive mode in modern times and this has been the format that our society traditionally molded our girl childs- of pretty, made up beauties always in waiting for a prince to turn up for rescue. But do all the folk tales render their women just as beautiful mannequins..? 

Feminist Folktales Around The World is a series of books that collected folktales that has lady protagonists who are agents of their stories- they are integral in moving the plot forward. These are stories in which the female characters use their qualities- their wit, humor, intelligence, tact, a unique talent or sometimes even beauty to forward the story and choose not to wait for their male counterparts. 

I read one book of this collection, titled Kamala that features twelve very interesting folk tales from around the world, that can be read by children and adults alike and get entertained. These tales arrive from nations far apart in their history and culture, but are connected by a thread of universal human psychology that doesn't vary much anywhere in the world. That makes these stories relatable wherever you are. 

Heroines of the book are as varied as the regions from where they arrive. We have Kamala- the clever Punjabi housewife who fools a bunch of thieves over and over, a nameless Chinese girl who becomes the head of her family due to her wisdom and brings wealth and prosperity and Oonagh who smartly scares off the giant who has come to fight her husband in one of the hilarious stories in the collection. The lute playing queen who saved her kingdom with her skills, princess Imani who made her own fortune are all inspiring characters. But my favorite lady of the book is the old lady who turns the table on her son who wants to scare her into mending her ways. Usually old women in popular folk tales are invariably evil. They are mostly witches or scheming step mothers. But this lady busts that template and displays oodles of wit and hilarity. 

There is one story in the collection that I cherish. It is the Welsh folk tale about the Lake Maiden who marries a shepard after putting forth a condition that nothing made of it on should touch her. You already know how that turned out at the end. To me this story is a beautiful metaphor about a feminine nature that can provide every treasure to us only if we never harm her by polluting her. 

The book is a powerful and entertaining showcase of stories emanating from all over the world and defies the convention of males being heroes and female characters being relegated to minor or subservient roles. We find resourceful, adventurous heroines who hold the center of interest in these tales. 


  1. This sure appears to be an interesting read

  2. It's good to know about feminist folktales. Women didn't usually enjoy much heroism in the old days.