My brother works in a primary school. As well as helping out with a particularly troubled/naughty little boy, he runs a weekly after-school storytelling club. This often involves discussing the week’s stories with me beforehand.
This week he was planning to use a traditional Arthurian legend: Sir Somebody-or-other and the Hideous Hag. The story irked me. In it, King Arthur is put under a sleeping spell by an ogre, who promises to lift the spell if the Arthur’s knights can answer a riddle: what do all women want? The only way the knights are able to find the answer is by kissing a wise, but hideous, old hag. The answer she gives? ‘All women want their own way.’*
We used to have a book of politically correct bedtime stories. Snow White and the seven people of small stature. Goldilocks and the three bears, in which Goldilocks rejects the condescending lumberjack’s offers of help and deals with the situation herself, thank you very much. That kind of thing.
I suggested some changes to the story along these lines, to make it a bit less dreadfully sexist.
- The whole ‘hideous hag’ concept isn’t very original. In fact, almost all folk stories ever use three basic female character tropes: the virgin, the temptress, the crone. (See: most Disney films.) How’s about we make her a more rounded character, and avoid judging her on her age and appearance alone? Just because she’s old and not conventionally attractive doesn’t mean she should be treated with less respect.
- Why does the author assume that she’s so desperate for male attention that she’d blackmail the knight for a kiss? I’m guessing this story was originally written by a man, whose self-importance had been misguidedly inflated by the patriarchal society he was brought up in. See, it’s not healthy for any of us to exist in a social system that values one gender above others.
- Both the riddle and its answer are problematic. So here’s how I think the story should go…
King Arthur is put in an enchanted sleep by an ogre. Not because ogres are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour than other magical creatures, but because this particular ogre has unresolved psychological issues which lead him to use his powers irresponsibly, to compensate for the lack of positive attention he received from his parents during childhood. The Knights (a diverse group, some of whom opt for shining armour, some of whom condemn violence in all forms and so avoid the use of its associated paraphernalia) are sent out to discover the answer to the ogre’s riddle.
The knight who finds the wise old woman is called Sir Jane (- some of the knights, of course, are women). They have a nice sit down and a cup of tea in the old woman’s hovel; the roof is a bit leaky, so Sir Jane registers it on her list of homes for repair by the Knights’ Community Outreach Programme. They discuss how much the forest has changed since they cleared all those trees to build the big new castle; how it’s made the area much more prosperous and cosmopolitan but disrupted the local unicorn population, and whether the benefits will outweigh the losses in the long run. (Now the story passes the Bechdel test. Really not hard, is it?) They move on to the topic of the ogre’s riddle, and come to the conclusion that it’s a trick question; there is no one thing that all women want, because women are individuals with their own wishes and desires and can’t be lumped together as one faceless generalisation.
Sir Jane returns home and informs the ogre that his riddle is based on sexist assumptions, hands him a reading list of key feminist texts and directs him to the nearest library. She then goes to King Arthur and wakes him up by throwing cold water on his face, because that always works in movies.
I think my version is much better.
Go forth, feminist parents, aunties, uncles, babysitters, storytellers generally! Tell feminist fairy tales to your kids. Teach your wee ones gender equality through the power of stories. May they grow up without preconception or prejudice, into confident, thoughtful young patriarchy smashers.
*I may have entirely misremembered the story. But I think that’s more or less it.
Alice finds it a bit strange talking about herself in the third person, somebody else usually does this bit. Um. She is generally a good egg. She likes making things. Cats like her. She tweets here: @alicehaswords