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The Maid of the North: Feminist Folk Tales From Around The World | 20 Books of Summer

The 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge was created and is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. You can find my full TBR here, and keep reading for my thoughts on The Maid of the North: Feminist Folk Tales From Around The World by Ethel Johnston Phelps (illustrated by Lloyd Bloom).

Content Warning: Misogyny and objectification of women, violence, animal abuse 

The Maid of the North: Feminist Folk Tales From Around The World
Ethel Johnston Phelps (Illustrated by Lloyd Bloom)

FROM THE INTRODUCTION (written by Ethel Johnston Phelps):

The twenty-one folk tales retold here come from many countries; approximately seventeen different ethnic cultures are represented. However, while samples of clever heroine tales can be found on almost every continent, there are proportionately more strong heroines (in the published tales available) from Northern Europe and Britain. Undoubtedly many factors are involved, including cultural attitudes towards women; perhaps the more rugged life of early people in colder climates made strong, resourceful women valuable as marriage partners.* At any rate, in the present volume, the larger number of tales from this area reflects this availability of sources.

In giving the older tales of our heritage a fresh retelling for this generation of readers, I have exercised the traditional storyteller’s privilege. I have shaped each tale, sometimes adding or omitting details, to reflect my sense of what makes it a satisfying tale.

*This “perhaps”/conjecture is quite ridiculous; I am confident in saying the proportion of “strong heroines” is far more related to “the published tales available” than to the character or culture of women.


In the introduction to this collection (published in 1981), Ethel Johnston Phelps states “It is not my intention to delve into the psychological or social meanings behind the various images of heroines in folk tales, but simply to note that the vast majority are not particularly satisfying to readers today.” She describes female fairy tale characters as they are commonly (historically) seen throughout the genre: either beautiful and submissive or clever and feared, and not typically an active participant in their fates. What is really unsatisfying in many fairy tales (all of which—as far as I understand it—were initially written down and published by men) is the lack of agency most of the women have. Ethel Johnston Phelps thoroughly addresses this issue and the topic of published/written fairy tale availability throughout the introduction:

In actual fact, the women of much earlier centuries, particularly rural women, were strong, capable, and resourceful in a positive way as hard-working members of a family, or as widows on their own. Few folk tales reflect these qualities. Inevitably the question arises: How many, if any, folk tales of strong, capable heroines exist in the printed sources available?

In a sense, this book grew out of that question. Over a period of three years I read thousands of fairy and folk tales in a search for tales of clever, resourceful heroines; tales in which equally courageous heroines and heroes cooperated in their adventures; tales of likeable heroines who had the spirit to take action; tales that were, in themselves, strong or appealing.

As a result of that search, the heroines in this book are quite different from the usual folk and fairy tale heroines. In a few of the tales, the girls and women possess the power (or knowledge) of magic, which they use to rescue the heroes from disaster. The hero may be more physically active in the story, but he needs the powers of the self-reliant, independent heroine to save him.

In the majority of the tales, the heroines are resourceful girls and women who take action to solve a problem posed by the plot. Often they use cleverness or shrewd common sense. Duffy outwits the devil; a Zuni maiden breaks a hunting taboo; a clever monkey outwits a shark; an old Japanese woman escapes from the Oni; Mulha tricks an ogre to save her sisters.

All the heroines have self-confidence and a clear sense of their own worth. They possess courage, moral or physical; they do not meekly accept but seek to solve the dilemmas they face. The majority have leading roles in the story. However, the few who have minor roles (in terms of space) play a crucial part in the story and have an independent strength that is characteristic of all the heroines here. 

Although most of the printed sources for the tales I’ve chosen are from the nineteenth century, the tales themselves are part of an oral, primarily rural, tradition of storytelling that stretches far back into time. Each generation shaped the tales according to the tellers’ own sense of story. While the characters and basic story remained the same, it was this personal shaping of the tales that may explain the many variations of each story that now exist. 

Well, it is fortunate that the variations in this collection of 21 fairy tale and folklore retellings now exist. Not only do the stories entertain and enlighten, they open so many doors for further reading and folkloric exploration (many mentions of different cultural deities, spiritual figures, settings, etc.). And perhaps a little more importantly, Ethel Johnston Phelps incorporated such a representative range of [straight, cisgender] women and feminist figures—in terms of social class, supernatural or practical powers, parents and siblings, princes and knights—to really support the “Feminist Folk Tales” title descriptor.

I do want to point out that the representation of feminist characters in these stories does not extend beyond straight, cisgender individuals. Based on what I know about fairy tale history and gatekeeping (this article posted on Forbes just six days ago addresses how LGBTQ folklore was diminished and erased throughout the history of the genre), this is not exactly surprising. However it is worth noting that the collection lacks feminist stories that are not straight and/or cisgender.

Below I have listed out the stories that can be found in The Maid of the North collection, and linked those which Ethel Johnston Phelps made minor changes to in her retellings. If there isn’t a link, I either couldn’t find a similar version of the tale or the one(s) I did find had larger plot and/or character changes.

  • The Maid of the North (a Finnish Tale from the Kalevala)
  • Fair Exchange (a Celtic Tale)
  • Gawain and the Lady Ragnell (an English Tale)
  • The Monkey’s Heart (an African Tale)
  • The Twelve Huntsman (a German Tale)
  • The Old Woman and the Rice Cakes (a Japanese Tale)
  • The Tiger and the Jackal (a Punjab Tale from West Pakistan)
  • East of the Sun, West of the Moon (a Norwegian Tale)
  • The Hunter Maiden (a Zuni Tale from the American Southwest)
  • The Giant’s Daughter (a Scandinavian Tale)
  • Mulha (a South African Tale)
  • Elsa and the Evil Wizard (a Swedish Tale)
  • Maria Morevna (a Russian Tale)
  • Duffy and the Devil (a Cornish Tale)
  • How the Summer Queen Came to Canada (a Canadian Indian Tale)
  • The Stars in the Sky (an English Tale)
  • Lanval and the Lady Triamor (a Breton/Celtic Tale)
  • Bending Willow (an American Indian Tale)
  • Finn Magic (a Scandinavian Tale)
  • The Husband Who Stayed at Home (a Norwegian Tale)
  • Scheherazade Retold (a Persian Tale)

Have you read this collection of feminist folk tales? Are you familiar with any of the stories above? Do you have any recommendations for fairy tales retold? Let’s chat in the comments.


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