Monday, November 13, 2017

Sea Girl: Feminist Folktales from Around the World, edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps, illustrated by Suki Boynton

In his introduction to Sea Girl, author Daniel José Older writes that we need a new mythology, a new mythology that catches all the myths, folktales, and other narratives of women’s empowerment that have fallen through the cracks of history or just weren’t “marketable” enough for Disney. Older should know what he’s talking about. After all, he’s given us Sierra Santiago, hero of Older’s books Shadowshaper and Shadowhouse Fall. And now, the Feminist Press has reissued its series of feminist folktales from around the world in four volumes.

Edited by the late Ethel Johnston Phelps, who held a master’s degree in Medieval literature, Sea Girl is volume III in the series and it includes 10 fairy and folktales based on stories that have been handed down for generations. 

For instance, there is a changeling tale from Ireland about a single mother whose healthy child is taken by the fairy folk and replaced with a sickly child of theirs. Determined to get her own child back, she cares for the sickly child and brings it back to health and on May Eve, she confronts the Queen of the fairy folk, who had taken her son. The single mother is resourceful and brave in this tale, and confronting the fairy Queen takes a certain kind of courage, even the Queen admits that. But now that her own son is a healthy, robust little boy, will the fairy Queen be willing to exchange babies, so each goes with its own mother, or will be decide to keep both?

I’m a medievalist at heart, so naturally I found the English tale about Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell very appealing. Older that even Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (published in1476). In this story, Sir Gawain is given one year to answer a question posed by Sir Gromer, who is looking to avenge the loss of his lands to Arthur. The question: What is it that women most desire, above all else? The answer and end of the tale will really surprise you. 

In the Norwegian tale, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a large white bear falls in love with a woodcutter’s daughter. Though the woodcutter refuses to let his daughter go live with the bear in his castle, the daughter isn’t afraid and agrees to go with him. She notices that night after night, someone comes into her room and lays down next to her. Curious, she discovers a handsome young man, who it turns out has been cursed by trolls. By day, he is a large bear, by night, a handsome man. The man and castle immediately disappear, and the lass finds herself sitting in the forest. Determined to break the enchantment, she decides to travel to the Land of the Trolls and find the young man. But first she must get to the castle that lay East of the Sun and West of the Moon with the help of the North Wind. But will she arrive in time to save him from his fate in the Land of the Trolls?

There are also tales from China (“Wild Goose Lake” - a wonderful tale about the titular Sea Girl), Finland (“The Maid of the North”), and a Punjabi tale (“he Tiger and the Jackal”), as well as an ancient Swahili fairy tale (“The Monkey’s Heart”), and one from Germany (“The Twelve Huntsmen”).  And though the tales vary greatly, they have one thing in common - here are women who, through their own wits and common sense, determine their own fate, one way or the other.

The beauty of folktales is that they root us not just in our own culture, but in the world at large, providing examples of women's courage and resourcefulness in the face of great odds. And they can be enjoyed again and again.

If Sea Girl sounds like a book you would like to read, you might want to check out the other three companion volumes of Feminist Folktales from Around the World:
Tatterhood - introduced by Gayle Forman
Kamala - introduced by Kate Schatz
The Hunter Maiden - introduced by Renée Watson

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Feminist Press of the City University of New York

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