Being a girl in a terrible world was akin to being a princess, wicked queen, heroine, ugly stepdaughter, witch and fairy and child and mother in one fiery package, a bomb beribboned like a beautiful gift and left to tick tock tick tock behind high castle walls.
– Allyse Near, Fairytales for Wilde Girls
Stories change because we do, because that’s what everything does in order to survive. Ancient kings become mythical heroes. Goddesses become saints, or queens, or witches. And stories build on each other, endless towers rising from almost forgotten foundation stones, formed from names with a half-understood resonance centuries old.
I started both fairy tales and feminism at an early age, before I had the language to express myself properly in either, and let me assure you, if you would like to lose a few teeth to rage-grinding, you could do worse than contemplate the gender politics of myth and legend. Double standards abound. But I would not write what I do, would not be who I am, if those stories hadn’t sunk under my skin and entered my mental lexicon. I’ve always known witches. The Ruth Manning-Sanders witch-maidens who steal eyes from the unwary, the enigmatic sorceresses of Greek myth, Russia’s Baba Yaga with her flying house and fence of bones. The queens with vengeance on their minds and spellbooks at their service. The girls with magic in their veins and crowns on their heads. The women who are wicked, or golden, or wise – or all three. The stories that told me, we exist. This is power. This is possible.
My first blog project, Fairy Tale Tuesdays, allowed me to revisit many of those women and discover quite a few more. Tatterhood, Tokoyo, the Princess Blue-Eyes, Nadya, Kate Crackernuts. Last year’s Sharazad Project gave me more women to admire. Sitt al-Husn, Dhat al-Dawahi, Abriza, Nuzhat al-Zaman, among others. It’s the names I have been thinking about lately, what it means to know those names. There is power in archetypes – queen and princess, witch and sorceress and fairy godmother – but it means something more to have a name. You can keep that. You can give it to a protagonist or a pet. For that matter, to your firstborn, in true fairy tale fashion. Most of all, you can remember it. You can retell it.
For this year’s blog series, Ladies of Legend, I will be posting monthly articles on the women whose stories are interwoven into myth, legend and folklore. It is likely to be Eurocentric, because these are the names most familiar to me, but if you have a favourite lady you think might be overlooked, by all means tell me in the comments! Bring me your witches, your queens, your damsels and fairies, wives and warriors.
There’s so much more to legends than a man with a sword.