Rowing on the Isis with Duckworth is one of my delights. The month of May is the perfect time for such an exercise. He and I apply our backs to the oars. But something is not right.
“Duckworth,” I say, “you are being rather quiet.”
“Am I? Sorry. I am distracted.”
“Over what?” I ask, still applying strength to the oars.
“It’s my eldest daughter. She is thinking of joining the military. I am not at all fond of the idea.”
“Wait. How old is she?”
“Oh, Duckworth, there is plenty of time for her to change her mind.”
“Yes, I know,” he concedes, “but she is single-minded.”
“Well,” I say, “call it synchronicity, but I read a tale last night dealing with this issue.”
“What? My daughter joining the military?”
“Quite so. It’s a story collected by R. M. Dawkins in his Modern Greek Folktales, called The Girl Who Went to War.”
Three sisters decide, taking a dim view of their marriage prospects, to become soldiers instead when their country is invaded. Their father dissuades them, one by one, as they venture out, by disguising himself as a warrior and threatening with his sword.
However, the youngest, who when younger, had found a colt by the seaside and raised it as her own. Fully grown, it could breathe fire and had the power of speech. When she dresses herself as a young man, arms herself, and sets off to war, the horse warns her of her father’s ruse. When confronted by him, she attacks. Realizing there is no dissuading her, he gives his daughter his blessing.
“Yup,” says Duckworth, “that’s my daughter.”
Coming to the battle, she draws her double-edged sword, and her horse is soon knee-deep in blood. Single-handedly, she drives the enemy into submission.
“That’s rather Joan of Arc-ish,” Duckworth comments.
Her king, who is unaware of her true identity, is delighted with his new hero, marrying this warrior off to his very own daughter.
“Oops,” says Duckworth.
The newly wed princess is distressed when her “husband” puts a sword between them in their bed, commanding she shall not cross over it. Both the princess and the queen are enraged and convince the reluctant king to send the “youth” on an impossible quest.
The king asks his esteemed warrior to bring him an apple from paradise. With the horse’s advice, the youngest steals the clothing of one of the girls of paradise while she is bathing and returns the garments for an apple.
“That’s one,” Duckworth nods. “I bet there are two more.”
Next, she is given the task of collecting seven years of taxes from a notoriously resistive village. However, with the horse’s advice and not too many deaths, she succeeds.
For the third task, it is the queen who makes the request. There is a wild mare that guards ten thousand acres of fertile land and wears a band plaited with diamonds and “brilliants” that shine so brightly that no one can go close to it. The queen wants the mare defeated and brought to her.
With great trepidation, the girl’s horse comes up with a plan, battles with the mare, and defeats her through trickery.
For the fourth task . . .
“Wait, a fourth task? That’s not right.”
For the fourth task, they enlist the horse’s mother, who rises from the sea and would devour the girl but for the horse’s insistence that she does not. The girl rides the mare into the land of the one-eyed giants to steal their fire. By throwing magical devices behind them, they outrun the giants. Unable to cross their boundary, the giants hurtle a curse upon the girl. “If you are a boy, you will become a girl. If you are a girl, you will become a boy.”
“Ha!” says Duckworth. “Brilliant.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2023 The Girl Who Went To War – Part Two
“Would you call that a ‘trans’ fairy tale?” Duckworth inquires. “If so, the tale is way ahead of its time.”
“No, no, not at all. Questions of sexuality have always been with us. This tale only reflects that. I can think of another of this ilk, a Danish tale simply called The Princess Who Became a Man.”
The rhythm of our rowing lets my mind wander. “There is also another tale called The Lute Player. In that case, a queen disguises herself as a young male musician in order to rescue her husband. There is no question of sexual identity on her part, but she knows she’d make an attractive young man.”
“Ah, I see your point.” Duckworth stops rowing to tap a finger to his head. “Shakespeare was known to dress his female characters up as men. Let me remember; Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night.”
“I’m impressed with your memory. Have you ever considered going on a quiz show?”
Duckworth waves off my compliment. “Cross-dressing for comic effect, as Shakespeare did—having other women fall in love with the hero/heroine—and an actual ‘trans’ experience are two different things. This tale you just told me has both.”
“There is an irony in all that,” I say, still rowing, “In Shakespeare’s day, women were not allowed to perform on stage. Young men were used to represent women. In Rosalind’s and Viola’s cases, young men were pretending to be women who were pretending to be men. Did anyone ever notice?”
Duckworth takes up his share of the rowing again. “I quipped a few minutes ago about how Joan of Arc-ish the main character is, but I’m beginning to take my comment more seriously.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
Duckworth ignores the comment and continues. “When were the fairy tales, as we know them, created?”
“Oh, starting around the twelfth century they were first recorded, but certainly they evolved before that and since.”
Duckworth puts down his oars to fact-check. My shoulders are getting a bit stiff.
“Right, so, Joan of Arc is early fifteenth century. Goodness, she was only seventeen when all that started and burned as a heretic by nineteen. Ah, here is what I was looking for. She was captured by the Burgundians, who turned her over to the English. They put her on trial for heresy, one of the charges being blasphemy for wearing men’s clothing.”
Duckworth’s eyes are fixed on his cell. “This is all in the context of the Hundred Years’ War. It was her influence, even after her death, that inspired the French to keep fighting and eventually win.
“I can’t help but see shades of Joan’s history in this tale. A woman dressing as a man bursts onto the battle scene, driving the enemy before her, in a sense, single-handedly.”
Not keeping doubt from my voice, I say, “If that is so, should not there be a French version of this tale instead of a Greek one that has come down to us?”
“Stories travel,” he defends.
“Yes, they do, but the parallel between Joan of Arc and our heroine ends with the cross-dressing and the initial battle. There is neither talk of any kind of marriage concerning Joan nor does she have a talking horse.”
“Well, I did say ‘shades of Joan’s history.’ Joan’s history did not have a fairy-tale ending.”
That is true enough.
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2023 The Girl Who Went To War – Part Three
“What about all those horses in this story?” Duckworth has returned to rowing.
“Well,” I say, “talking horses are not rare in these tales. Horses contesting with each other are well enough known. However, a horse calling on its dam from out of the sea, I have not encountered before. I am not sure what to make of her.”
“I suppose,” says Duckworth, doing a good job at the oars again, “all animals can talk in the tales.”
I hesitate. “Not exactly. I think it falls into categories.”
“Ah,” Duckworth returns, “categorize away. I am listening.”
“I am thinking out loud,” I warn. First off, the animals that can talk are rather culturally dependent. For example, folktales from India can have snakes talking, which rarely, if ever, happens in European tales, despite Old Testament references to such a thing. I will stick to the European tales, which I know better.
“Category one: Animals talking to other animals. Actually, I think that category is pretty universal. I have been led to believe that in China there is a prejudice against animals and people talking to each other. I read somewhere that Alice in Wonderland was banned in China in the 1930s for that reason. Nonetheless, animals talking to animals was fine with them.
“Category two:—perforce—is animals talking to people. Under this category, I can make a number of subcategories.”
“You are pretty detailed,” Duckworth interrupts, “for just thinking out loud.”
My turn to ignore. “Subcategory one: Talking animals who are actually royalty under enchantment.”
“Oh, lots of those,” says he.
“Think I’ll call this the “East of the Sun” category. It is well populated by bears but also foxes, as in The Golden Bird. I cannot forget the frog in The Frog King, nor the beast of beauty fame.”
“My favorite is the flounder,” Duckworth puts in.
“The Fisherman and His Wife, yes, and interestingly, something of an exception. We hear from the start that the flounder is an enchanted prince and, in the course of the story, remains so. All the other tales have the talking creatures transformed at the end of the tale and revealed as humans.”
“What about,” Duckworth interjects, “characters that are transformed into animals by a witch or to escape a witch?”
“Such as in Brother and Sister? Hmmm. Difficult. That group is transformed during the story, not before the story began, and may or may not be of royalty, and may or may not talk while in that state. I might need a sub-subcategory.
“I will exclude characters that learn the language of animals and birds. That would be a bit of a cheat to get into one of my categories.”
“Oh,” says Duckworth, “now there is competition for this honor.”
I get to ignore him again. “Subcategory two comprises the animal helpers.”
“Lots of them too.”
“And here we return to the horse, mare, and dam of our story. The horse is the magical helper. He coerces the mares to do his will. I wonder if the mare and the dam were the same being in an earlier iteration of this tale. That would have been more logical, but the tales are weak on logical construction. The tellers/creators of the fairy tales were more in tune with emotional impulses than striving for believability.”
“Hmm. That might explain some things.”
“Also note, all talking animals, whether enchanted or helpers, nonetheless are helpful. The hero/heroine never receives a threat from a talking animal. From giants, witches, trolls, and dwarves, yes, but from animals, no.”
“I’ll try to remember that if ever my dog starts talking to me,” he smiles.
“And,” I’m not done yet, “horses are never enchanted royalty. They can be eerie, like the severed horse’s head hanging in the dark gateway of the city as in The Goose Girl, but not royalty.”
Duckworth nods in contemplation.
“My,” I say, “our conversation has wandered far from the subject of your daughter’s career options.”
I immediately wish I’d not said that as I see him slip back into gloominess.
“What career would you rather she follow?”
Dentistry? Where did that come from?
“You know,” I say, “the military does offer the opportunity to travel.”