Academic journal article The Comparatist

The Silent Struggle: Autonomy for the Maiden Who Seeks Her Brothers

Academic journal article The Comparatist

The Silent Struggle: Autonomy for the Maiden Who Seeks Her Brothers

Article excerpt

The vein of fairy tales in which a girl enters into a period of silence, solitude, and weaving in order to free her brothers from a spell that has turned them into birds is quite puzzling. Referred to as "The Maiden Who Seeks Her Brothers" (previously "The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds"), these tales are classified as ATU 451 according to the basic plot types catalogued by Antti Aarne and translated by Stith Thompson in The Types of the Folktale and recently expanded by Hans-Jorg Uther in The Types of International Folktales. It would be easy to praise these tales for their active heroines who save the day. It would be just as easy to dismiss them as yet more tales in which the heroine serves as the means to establish male power. After all, the various titles of the tale refer to her brothers, not to the heroine. However, these tales, like so many others, do not have a simple either/or interpretation. The heroine is a strong female character because she does act, but the silence required from her reinforces the submissive role of women and suggests her inferiority to men. The basic tale, in every version, is highly complicated. The heroine has power that is rare in fairy-tale women and girls, particularly in the princesses popularized by Walt Disney's animated films. Yet the very act of her power--exchanging her autonomy for that of her brothers--places the heroine in a submissive position from which she has no voice to represent herself and works only to free her brothers. It is the willed submission on the part of the heroine that makes the fairy tale complex. One cannot deny the power implicit in the girl's ability to choose and act, nor can one deny the gender associations of her silent, submissive role. Although this fairy tale offers a multitude of issues worthy of critical discussion, it is the significance of the heroine's silence in contemporary interpretations and rewritings that is the focus of this article.

The best-known versions of the fairy tale are Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans" and the Grimm Brothers' "The Six Swans." (1) The details of the story vary from version to version, (2) but each tale is typically about a girl who sacrifices her ability to speak and weaves clothing from plants in order to restore her brothers to their human form. Sometimes the boys are ravens, geese, or ducks, but they are most often swans. In some versions they leave home due to the birth of the younger sibling. The brothers are often princes, so their restoration would create an heir to the throne, an establishment or continuation of the patriarchy. The boys become birds for one of two reasons: either the birth of the daughter for whom one or both of the parents have wished turns the princes into birds, or there is a stepmother who wishes to make her own child the next heir to the throne and casts a spell on the boys (the girl child is not harmed by her spell). In all of the stories, the girl chooses to take on the task of restoring their human form, accepting the silence required of her and not speaking, crying, or vocally representing herself in any way. A king finds her in the woods and marries her, after which she meets with one of two obstacles: a Christian leader accuses the girl of witchcraft, or the king's mother accuses the girl of eating her children after they are born. Either way, the girl is sentenced to burn as a witch because she does not act in accordance with the rules of the kingdom and is therefore perceived to be a threat to the patriarchy. The brothers .y around her as she is about to burn, she throws the shirts that she has woven over their heads, and they change back into humans. In some versions, she does not have time to finish the last shirt, so one of the brothers is still left with a wing.

Though there are not as many contemporary versions of this tale as there are of more popular stories such as "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty," the writers who have chosen to retell the story of "The Maiden Who Seeks Her Brothers" have done so in a variety of ways. …

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