If someone tries to tell you that fairy tales are all about helpless females being rescued by princes with big swords (and/or great kissing lips) then you can tell them to think again. Not that the scenario mentioned in the first sentence never happens. It does. But there are also tales in which females rescue males, males rescue males, females rescue females… It’s pretty diverse is what I’m trying to say. Let’s take a look at some different examples of “Who Rescues Who?”
Male Rescues Female
- Sleeping Beauty. A classic example of this kind. The Prince comes at the right time to find the hidden castle and wake the Princess from her hundred-year sleep.
- Snow White. Another classic. In fact, you could argue that Snow White is rescued by male figures twice: firstly by the Dwarves and secondly by the Prince who wakes her from the glass coffin.
- Jorinde and Joringel. A tale from the Brothers Grimm’s collection. Jorinde rescues his sweetheart Joringel from a Witch, who has transformed her into a bird.
- The Princess on the Glass Hill. From the Nordic collection East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The archetypal youngest brother bests his brothers (and everyone else) to rescue a Princess who for some reason is doomed to sit on top of a glass hill. (So, a bit like Old Norse Total Wipeout…)
- The Glass Coffin. This is where it starts to diverge. In this, one of my favourite Grimm’s tales, the Tailor does indeed free a girl from a glass coffin and from the Enchanter who put her there. But he also frees her brother, whom the Enchanter has turned into a goat, and they become a Harry Potter-style threesome.
- The Pink aka China Rose. In this variation, a boy rescues his mother from the machinations of an evil servant. But first he is rescued by a girl, the China Rose of the title. Already, things are becoming more complex. Time to move on…
Female Rescues Male
- The Snow Queen. Surely the masterpiece of girl-rescues-boy stories. Gerda goes on a quest as epic as that of any Arthurian knight, in order to rescue Kay from the power of the Snow Queen.
- Hansel and Gretel. In this classic tale of brother and sister, Gretel shoves the Witch into the oven and rescues Hansel from being eaten.
- Beauty and the Beast. Sometimes women’s weapons are gentler. Beauty first rescues her father from death by going to the Beast’s castle, and ultimately rescues the Beast from his curse by the power of love. What a girl!
- The Frog Prince. Another well-loved tale of an animal bridegroom. In some versions, the Princess restores the frog’s true nature with a kiss. In others, she throws him at the wall…
- The Wild Swans. In this story with many versions, a noble sister rescues her brothers, whom a wicked stepmother has turned to swans, by sewing them garments of nettles and not speaking a word. In the process, she comes perilously close to losing her own life. A true tale of self-sacrifice.
- The Iron Stove. In this Grimm’s fairy tale, a Princess rescues a Prince, who is stuck in an iron stove in the middle of the forest. (Why not?) She then loses him by absentmindedly breaking a taboo, and not only has to climb her own glass hill to get him back, but also pass three sharp swords and a wide lake. (This really is Total Wipeout, isn’t it?)
Male and Female Rescue Each Other
- Rapunzel. I made this category with this specific tale in mind, because sometimes both parties must put something in to help the other. The Prince rescues Rapunzel from the tower (or at least, makes a start) but then she cures him of his blindness. It’s a team effort.
- Snow White and Rose Red. Yes, this is a different Snow White, in case you didn’t know, who lives with her sister, Rose Red. The sisters rescue the Prince-turned-bear from the harsh winter by caring for him, and later he rescues them by killing the evil Dwarf who has plagued them all. In fact, you could argue that it was the sisters’ kindness that gave him the strength to do so.
Male Rescues Male
- The Man of Iron. Time for some bromance now. Because sometimes guys rescue guys. In this tale, a young Prince is trained and aided at every stage of his quest towards manhood by a Wild Man of Iron, whom the Prince freed from being a sideshow freak in his father’s palace. At the end of the tale, the Wild Man comes to the Prince’s wedding as a king, saying the boy has saved him from his wild nature.
- The Ensorceled Prince. Not sure if this tale from The Thousand and One Nights counts as a fairy tale, but I like it so it’s going in. A Sultan rescues the Prince of the title from the Prince’s wife (I kid you not!) who has cast a spell so he is half-man, half-plinth, and unable to escape her nightly tortures. Because not all dudes are tough guys.
- The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body. Another Nordic tale, and the point at which this category gets complex. The youngest son (him again!) rescues his older brothers, who have been turned to stone by a Giant. He also rescues a Princess, whom the Giant is holding prisoner. But he has help of his own, in the form of various birds and beasts, notably a Wolf, whom he rides with a saddle. (Yeah, that’s cool, isn’t it?) Because humans need animals. More on that later.
- The Two Brothers. In a similar story from the Brothers’ Grimm, twin brother huntsmen with twin animal entourages (ranging from Bee to Lion) take diverging paths. One falls into dire straits and must be rescued by his brother, who incidentally also slays a dragon to free a Princess. And again, both brothers require help from their faithful beasts. Actually, this is a great story – way too long to go into here – with deceit, mistaken identity, resurrection… Just read it!
Female Rescues Female
- Tatterhood. Time for the sisters now. And possibly the best example of its kind is this Nordic tale, in which the ugly, unconventional Tatterhood goes on a quest to rescue her beautiful, demure twin sister. The power of sisterly love!
- Cinderella. I’m putting this here because, when you think about it, it’s not the Prince who rescues Cinderella (although he finds her by means of the shoe) but rather a female figure. Depending on which version you’re reading, it’s either a fairy godmother or the spirit of Cinderella’s own dead mother (buried beneath the tree) who enables Cinderella to fulfill her ambition to go to the ball and make a match with the Prince. And while we’re on the subject, let’s not judge Cinders for her dreams. She gets to escape her stepmother’s house, be mistress of her own domain, potentially have children to love, and have security in her old age. Just think about Pride and Prejudice for a moment…
- Little Red Riding Hood. This one’s debatable, depending on whether or not you go for the version in which a huntsman arrives to kill the Wolf. In my copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, there is an alternative ending in which Grandmother instructs Little Red Riding Hood to trick the Wolf into falling into a trough of boiling water (like in The Three Little Pigs). In other versions, Red Riding Hood herself outsmarts the Wolf. (It may or may not be too late for Granny!)
- The Robber Bridegroom. Grannies – or more correctly, crones – are often helpers in fairy tales. This could well go back to old religions with goddesses in the form of crones. In this tale from the Grimms, a Crone in the cellar helps a Girl escape the Robber Bridegroom of the title.
Animal Rescues Human
- Puss in Boots. As promised, we end on this category, as animal helpers are also common in fairy tales (again, possibly for religious reasons, or just to show that we’re all part of the same Earth). In this pantomime favourite (also beloved by fans of Antonio Banderas), Puss blags his way past every obstacle in his master’s path, until they’re both living in the lap of luxury. He may not get first prize for honesty, but you can’t fault his ingenuity!
- The Tinder Box. There are variations on this story, but in Hans Anderson’s version, the poor Soldier of the tale is helped on his way by a trio of Dogs, with increasing sizes of eyes. I’m not sure what a dog with eyes the size of millstones looks like; probably something like a manga character.
- The Goose Girl. Some animals help even when they’re dead. In this tale, a Princess is ousted by her Maid and forced to work as a Goose Girl. The Maid takes the precaution of decapitating the Princess’s talking horse, Falada, so it can’t tell tales. But the head keeps talking, and soon the King’s suspicions are raised as to who is the true Princess.
So there you have it. A whole variety of rescues. It just goes to show that – basically – we all need each other. And it’s OK to be rescued. Because next time, you can return the favour.
Do you agree? Disagree? Is it okay for fairy tale characters to be rescued? Sound off in the comments…
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1 thought on “Fairy Tales – Who Rescues Who?”
What a fun article, Elizabeth! Love how you put it together and offered so many scenarios of rescues. That ending paragraph is great – we DO need to remember it’s okay to be rescued or more likely in our culture, to except help. Well done. 🙂