All the folktales in the collection The Maid of the North were invented long before women began demanding their right to compete on equal terms in the workplace or even to vote and hold property. Nevertheless, these stories support the contention of contemporary scholars that there has always been an undercurrent of rebellion against the roles assigned to females in a male-dominated society.
It is interesting that even the heroines who are adept in the areas generally considered to be the province of their gender—cooking, sewing, cleaning, washing, and ironing—use their skills for their own purposes. In “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” the peasant girl removes the spots from a shirt in order to prove that she is the prince’s lost bride; in “Elsa and the Evil Wizard,” the heroine outwits her antagonist by sewing up a tear in his cloak with her bright hair. One of the most comical stories in the collection is that of Duffy, who, although a good cook, abhors spinning and knitting so much that she makes a pact with the devil to do her work for her. After she has outsmarted the devil himself, admittedly with the help of a female friend, it is child’s play for Duffy to persuade her husband that the tasks she so dislikes must be performed by others.
Not only domesticity but also the very idea of marriage is questioned in some of the tales. In the title story, the Maid of the North expresses no interest in exchanging her freedom for the miserable existence of a wife, who she claims is tied to the house like a dog. A similar statement is made by Katrine in “The Twelve Huntsmen.”...
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Before the publication of Ethel Johnston Phelps’s two collections of folktales Tatterhood and Other Tales (1978) and The Maid of the North, children and young adults reading works in that genre were exposed almost exclusively to the assumption that males are superior to females. Her works were designed to correct that idea. As the author explains in the introduction to The Maid of the North, however, it was not easy to find folktales that would suit her purpose. Most of them focus on heroes, not on heroines, and when women do appear in these stories, they are often beautiful, passive, and docile. Since every society has had its strong, resourceful, and courageous women, it is clear that the image of women such tales present is a false one.
No sensible person would argue for the suppression of the more traditional stories, such as those in Die Kinder-und Hausmärchen (1812, 1815; Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1823-1826) and the books of Hans Christian Andersen, or the stories that dominate even the collections from which Phelps drew, such as Kate Wiggins’ Tales of Laughter (1908) or Andrew Lang’s well-known Lilac Fairy Book (1910). The books of Ethel Johnston Phelps, however, should appear on the shelves beside them, to remind readers of both genders that there are and have always been strong and decisive women who are courageous enough to make their own choices and to realize their dreams.