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A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy

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In a number of international fairy tale types, such as ATU 451 ("The Maiden Who Seeks Her Brothers"), the female protagonist voluntarily stops speaking in order to attain the object of her quest. In ATU 451, found in the collected tales of the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen as well as in oral tradition, the protagonist remains silent while weaving the shirts needed to disenchant her brothers from their birdlike forms. While this silence is undoubtedly disempowering in some ways as she cannot defend herself from persecution and accusations of wickedness, here I argue that the choice to remain silent is a coded form of protest. Drawing on feminist, queer, and folkloristic theories, I demonstrate that the fairy-tale female hero who chooses to remain silent does so strategically in a coded protest against patriarchal norms and constraints.

When studying female heroes in oral tradition, it is important to take into account the values and associations of silence in the cultures that transmit these tales.2 Ruth Bottigheimer has studied the social context influencing the valuation of silence in the Grimms' fairy tales ("Silenced Women"; Grimms' Bad Girls). In her account, the voiceless heroines of the Grimms' tales reflect larger social norms that oppressively pressure women into silence as a matter of decorum. In contrast, Bethany Joy Bear's analysis of traditional versions and modern revisions of ATU 451 concentrates on the agency of the silent sister-saviors. She notes that the multiple versions of the tale in the Grimms' collection "illustrate various ways of empowering the heroine ... in 'The Twelve Brothers' and 'The Six Swans' her success requires redemptive silence" ( 45). How, then, should scholars read the silence of female heroes in fairy tales-as empowering or disempowering? Or must we move beyond simplistic binaries towards a more complex interpretation of silence? With an eye toward international folkloric versions, I hope to illuminate how strategic silence and voicelessness create a different type of fairy-tale hero, one whose self-sacrificing nature is both coded protest and invitation to dialogue on the nature of gender, kinship, and life. By surveying scholarly approaches to the female hero, silence in various folktales and fairy tales, and the use of silence as coding specifically in ATU 451 texts, I establish how silent folktale and fairy-tale heroines act as pathfinders for the modern female hero, patterning possibilities of selfhood and heroism.


This book chapter was archived with permission from McFarland & Company, all rights reserved. Document also available from Jorgensen, Jeana, 2014. “Strategic Silences: Voiceless Heroes in Fairy Tales.” In A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy, ed. Lori M. Campbell. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. 15-34.