A Perspective on Fairy Tale Heroines

This post was written by Rocio Ramirez, Graduate Student Reading Room Coordinator. She is a graduate student in the Counseling and Development program here at George Mason.

As the cold weather rolls in, I think back to the winters spent indoors reading books by the warm space heater. One of the comforts of the winter, at least for myself, was opening and rereading classic stories like Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland or C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Overall, these were stories of heroes and heroines, epic conflicts between and within curious creatures and worlds. These stories were as immersive as they were wonderful.

However, these two stories do not encompass the vast number of fairy tales in the world. Fairy tales have spanned centuries, and every country has their own—or versions of— classic stories. Historically, fairy tales have served as teaching tools for both the young and old alike. They include lessons on morality, kindness, and virtue. They also teach about the evils of the world, e.g., witches that hide in the forest and seduce children with candy only to eat them up.

Today, people love the princesses of fairy tales for the romantic ideals and otherworldly charm their stories possess. Although we romanticize the princesses we know thanks to animation studios and entertainment giants, we forget that they sometimes are not limited to a princess “role” in fairy tales.

How many times does the princess save the prince? And how often do they save each other? I introduce: East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

Asbjornsen, Peter Christen, East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales From the North, PT8802 .A2 D35 1992, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

I was walking through the stacks (where we keep all of our books and manuscripts materials) when this beautiful, cloth-bound book caught my eye. This book is a collection of Norwegian fairy tales found in our rare book collection. This specific edition was published in 1932 and is full of beautiful illustrations that depict the dreamy landscape and heroic journeys of the characters.



In this specific story for which the book is named, we read about a princess who is taken to a castle by a large white bear. They live happily alongside each other during the day, the girl and her bear. But at night, the bear turns into a man and spends the nights with her. He tells her she must never see is face for it will bring them bad luck. She is fine with that arrangement. That is, until her mother convinces her to see his true identity. This does indeed bring bad luck, for the handsome prince has been cursed by his step mother to live his days as a bear and nights as a man. Had the maiden lived with him in this state for a year, his curse would have been lifted. She did not, and so he leaves to his home that lies east of the sun and west of the moon. Desperate, she travels across the world with the help of older women and the cardinal winds. Her journey is long but finally she arrives. With the use of cunning, wit, and cleverness, the princess and the prince work together to free him from his stepmother and future troll wife. Together, they save the other people trapped in the castle and live happily ever after.

This is not the only story that involves a more active princess role.

Hans Christian Anderson, born in Denmark, is well-known for his collection of fairy tales. SCRC has an edition of these fairy tales, beautifully bounded and gilded with gold details, which really transports the reader into feeling like they are holding a treasure from the most coveted library.

One of the most salient pop culture icons today was inspired by a story in this beautiful book: The Snow Queen. In this story, a young girl’s best friend is taken by the Snow Queen after he is pierced with glass shards that turn his heart into a lump of ice and his personality foul.  But Gerda, the little girl, decides to embark on a quest to find her dear friend Kay. She, too, receives help from animals and old women who get her to the North where the Snow Queen lives in her ice palace. Gerda is able to save Kay with her hugs and hot tears, which melt his frozen heart. Together, they escape the frigid north and return home to live the rest of their lives happily ever after.

These two stories are a reminder that there are often different kinds of heroes and heroines in fairy tales, even the romantic and lovely ones. While the love is still present in both these stories, it is not really the focus. As with all fairy tales, they teach us lessons about, yes, love—but also veracity, teamwork, and perseverance. In the end, readers are given a conflict, character development, and a resolution that is much more satisfying for its relevance and creativity. I’m sure audiences from long ago would agree. If you would like to learn more about heroes and heroines that defy the norm, check out our collection of fairy tale books from around the world at the Special Collections Research Center in Fenwick 2400! All of our books can be found in the catalog.

Follow SCRC on Social Media and look out for future posts in our Travel Series on our FacebookInstagram, and Twitter accounts.  To search the collections held at Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at speccoll@gmu.edu or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.