Maggie A's Meanderings




 Sept 1, 2013

Avoiding the Perils of Being a Mute Fairy Tale Heroine

Whether it was by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen even when I was a child and I read about some fairy tale heroine who couldn't communicate her plight because she couldn't talk/lost her voice, I thought she'd lost more than her voice. I thought she lost her brains too. What? She couldn't write? Or draw? Or act it out? Never heard of charades or mimes? Just because you can't speak doesn't mean you can't communicate. That premise is ludicrous. I prefer Shakespeare's heroine, Lavinia, from Titus Andronicus. When Lavinia was gang raped and her rapists tore out her tongue and cut off both her hands to keep her from naming them, she took a staff and, holding the staff with her mouth, she used her butchered stumps to guide it and write her rapists' names in the dirt. Now that's my kind of heroine. (Her father killed her rapists and baked them in a pie which he served to their mother at a party. Who says Shakespeare is boring?)

Let's just assume that the Grimm and Andersen heroines were illiterate ---- that's not uncommon for the time, probably not even for a king's daughter. And I'll therefore assume that she didn't know how to write numbers or math symbols. I still think she could have gotten her situation across to her husband. Certainly would have been worthwhile trying it when your option is you're about to be burned at the stake.

I'll use the heroine of the Brothers Grimm "The Six Swans" as an example. This is what I ----- and every other child who ever read that story ---- thinks what the heroine should have done. Along with keeping her mouth shut and sewing shirts from the starwort plant, she should have have done a drawing and shown it to her husband. (Oh, and when her evil step-mother-in-law abducts her newborn babies and accuses her of eating them, I'd advise vigorous head shaking with hands crossed over the heart then vehemently pointing at the evil step-mother-in-law.)

Drawing the mute fairy tale heroine should have done

It would have been quicker drawing that using pen and paper than it was for me to draw it using a trackball on the computer. (Just for fun, see what the heroine might have done if she'd had colored ink.) A little bit of thought, an hour's worth of drawing (using culturally relevant symbols* for male/female, death, witches, etc.), nodding her head "Yes" or shaking it for "No" while her husband asks her questions about the drawings.............and the heroine might never have been in danger of being the feature item at a barbecue.

The storytellers didn't have their heroines communicate their plights because that would have endangered the story instead of the heroine. The solution to that dilemma was one simple line added to the tale, "Thou mayst not let one single person know the reason for thy silence." But the writers left out that condition, leaving a heroine perfectly free to tell her story in any way besides talking. So the writers also left generations of fairy tale readers all wondering why she didn't. All I can say is the answer I had as child when I first read one of these "mute heroine" fairy tales and the same answer I have today as an adult: Terminal stupidity.

A Selection of Fairy Tale Stories with Mute Heroines:
"The Six Swans" by the Brothers Grimm - a princess, brothers turned into swans, married to a king and almost burned to death
"The Twelve Brothers" by the Brothers Grimm
- a princess, brothers turned into ravens, married to a king and almost burned to death
"Our Lady's Child" by the Brothers Grimm - a wood-cutter's daughter, no one gets turned into fowl, but still ends up married to a king and almost burned to death
"The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen - a princess, brothers turned into swans, engaged to a king and almost burned to death
"The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen - a mermaid princess, trades her voice for legs to be with the prince she loves and whose life she saved but then doesn't explain to the prince who she is when he tells her he only loves the girl who rescued him that she's the girl who rescued him, so the prince marries someone else and the mermaid dies though at least she doesn't end up grilled fish

* The meaning of symbols can change with time. I recall when I first saw a photo of Michelangelo's statue of Moses. I wondered why Moses had horns on his head. Turns out the horns symbolized Moses' holy glorification. Today, in that same Christian religion, if you drew someone with a pair of horns on their head, you're not implying they've been glorified by god.

For more of my take on classic literature, read "4 Classic Novels that Are Way More Depressing than You Think They Are Based on the Movies" Part 1 and Part 2 or "The Usual Characters."

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