Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales is a collection of fifteen folktales from various cultural and ethnic traditions rewritten by Alison Lurie. She selected these tales because each narrates an adventure in which a female protagonist shows her bravery and intelligence. Lurie prefaces the collection with a brief introduction in which she explains her foremost aim: to restore the active nature of girls and women to folktales and to combat the stereotype of passivity and helplessness in most stories, in which the female characters are totally dependent on male heroism to rescue them from situations in which the male characters have placed them. The fifteen stories vary in length and complexity, and each is accompanied by a black-and-white illustration by Margot Tomes done in a simple style.

The title story introduces the theme of ingenuity with the tale of Gretchen, a lord’s daughter whose father will not marry her to anyone he does not judge to be the best horseman in the world. A poor widow’s son attempts to win Gretchen in marriage, but she must intervene and help him in his quest when he makes a pact with the Devil, who is disguised as a wandering stranger. Gretchen recognizes the trick and devises a question for her suitor to ask the Devil that he will not be able to answer after he has helped Hans prove his skills; the Devil must accept his defeat and leave Gretchen and Hans to marry happily.

The second story, “Manka and the Judge,” presents a clever young poor woman who wins the favor of a young judge by solving all the riddles that he likes to pose. They marry, and she evens helps him resolve difficult cases by showing him that feelings and emotions are more valuable than material goods, a lesson that he accepts from her.

“The Black Geese,” the third story, combines Russian folklore of the evil witch Baba Yaga with the virtues of being kind...

(The entire section is 782 words.)