Every generation likes to think they are the first, that no one has, for instance, ever dyed and spiked their hair before (the Celts were at it over two thousand years ago), or shown off their underpants (check out the medieval fashion just prior to the popularity of the codpiece), or foolishly wasted their artistic promise in an excess of booze and drugs (I point casually to the mountain of poetic corpses atop of which lie the ravaged remains of Byron and his ilk).
Outside of fashion it goes on too, I heard a programme on radio 4 the other day showing astonishment that the most recent feminist writers appear to have no idea that Germaine Greer even existed. Yet throughout the seventies I heard very little from the trailblazers of women’s rights referencing the legions of clever girls that leap from the lips of storytellers. For every fainting flower populating the pages of literature there is a ‘Maiden Wiser Than The Tsar’ or a ‘Clever Queen’ on offer from the oral tradition to redress the balance.
For those who want a full on battle of the sexes the middle ages is replete with chaste women outwitting their suitors and lusty wives cuckolding their husbands. ‘Three Wily Women’ even have a competition as to who can hoodwink her husband most. One shaves her husbands head while he is passed out drunk and on waking persuades him he is a monk; another hides her man’s clothes and tells him he is fully dressed so he walks to church naked; whilst the third gets her unfortunate spouse to believe he is dead, covers him in a shroud and then enjoys her lover in front of his baffled ‘corpse’!
Returning to the more positive application of feminine intellect, tales such as ‘Maiden wiser ..’ or ‘The Riddles’ often present a series of conundrums, unanswerable questions or impossible tasks. Sometimes these are are set by the king and other times they are posed by an outside agency threatening the kingdom whilst an army of advisors, sages and wise men have tried and failed to find solutions. It is at this point that the poor goose girl or goat herd at the edge of the kingdom comes to the rescue.
The most common scene is brought about by a challenge for the girl (who has usually already shown some wit) to come to the palace and meet the king neither indoors nor outdoors; neither in daytime nor night time; neither walking nor riding; and neither clothed nor naked. The clever girl, naturally sees through these polarised options and lies across the threshold at dusk claiming to have been dragged there by her goats and wearing nothing but a fishing net! The king is duly impressed by her lateral thinking (which is what this tale type is all about) and her appearance, so once the kingdom is secured he marries her. Now, this may not sound like a result from the modern, emancipated perspective but it did make her the most powerful woman in the country and rich to boot. It is also often not the end of the story but I’ll save the last episode for another time.
We are rarely the first to be faced with a problem, no matter how impossible. May we all avoid the trap of polarised thought and find that free thinking, clever girl inside us in our every day lives; even if her apparently fresh and new ideas might have been whispered into our subconscious by an ancient ancestor long, long ago.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.