The Maid of the North Critical Context - Essay

Ethel Johnston Phelps

Critical Context

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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.