In ‘The Hunter Maiden’ Morals Are Learned and Lessons Realized

These stories demonstrate a sweeping range of complex characters whose dynamic standpoints spark the imaginations of any reader.

The Hunter Maiden: Feminist Folktales from Around the World
Ethel Johnston Phelps (Editor)
Feminist Press
Oct 2017

Thinking back to what I read as a teen, female characters were not excluded but they certainly were not the central focus. The formidable exceptions being Anne Shirley and Ramona Quimby. Despite my love for these two characters, they are interchangeable: white, intelligent, and privileged. The other characters I remember were mythological tricksters who used their bodies and sexualities for gain. To 12-year-old me, seducing someone for my own benefit was not relatable. The Hunter Maiden: Feminist Folktales from Around the World edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps, presents a counternarrative to the limited representation of girls in folk history while also creating a unique feminist community within the YA genre.

The Hunter Maiden is the fourth volume of folktales drawing on female protagonists from around the world. The target audience is tween readers; however, the stories will certainly engage a wider audience. Eleven stories frame this volume. Legends range from a South African girl, Mulha, who outsmarts a monster to a Norwegian tale depicting an underwater fairyland inhabited by the spirits of the drowned. The title story “The Hunter Maiden” is derived from the Zuni tradition while Swedish, Russian, and Japanese legends are also represented. The editor draws on a long ranging chronology, for example, “Lanval and the Lady Triamor” is a Brenton story drawn from 14th and 15th century manuscripts. For the most part, the stories follow their precursors closely. In cases such as “Duffy and the Devil” readers can easily see the connection to Rumpelstiltskin. “Scheherazade Retold” is perhaps the furthest from the original because Johnston Phelps uses some storytelling privileges to rewrite the ending. Each story includes pen and ink illustrations by Suki Boynton. The whimsical artwork further adds to the collection’s depth.

In The Hunter Maiden, morals are learned and lessons are realized. It is especially important to notice that the heroines and secondary characters in these tales are flawed. Due to their errors, each character develops critical self-awareness that endows them with confidence. In “The Hunter Maiden” for instance, the main character is determined to prove to her family and community that she can hunt. Due to her blind determinism she looses track of her day and is forced to seek shelter in a cave. Realizing her mistake she uses the opportunity to assess her skills and become a more proficient hunter. She doesn’t give up or will herself to being saved. She exhibits absolute agency. Each character featured in this collection avoids problematic stereotypes and in their editing are endowed with physical and intellectual fortitude. These stories demonstrate a sweeping range of complex characters whose dynamic standpoints spark the imaginations of any reader.

The characters are multidimensional and range in age, class, race, and abilities. By combining their stories into one collection, The Hunter Maiden understands intersectionality and the power of the individual. Individualistic characters such as Bending Willow from the tale of the same name and Elsa from “Elsa and the Wizard” are completely relatable in their own unique challenges. Yet readers realize that despite all their differences, their methods to overcoming obstacles interconnect. Bending Willow is so self-assured in her convictions she risks ridicule and ostracization. Elsa is resolute in her refusal of a heinous wizard despite all his attempts to manipulate her. Both girls share unwaning courage. Folklore tends to reflect the values and beliefs of their times. Therefore, The Hunter Maiden sets the foundation for younger readers to incorporate intersectionality and intrepidity as part of their narratives.

The Hunter Maiden gives girls a channel to voice their standpoints. Girl characters are so often denied voice or their stories show readers that being silent will guarantee some social advantage; marriage mostly. Elsa’s story, as well as “Scheherazade Retold”, dispels this commonality. In “The Husband Who Stayed at Home” an individual’s voice matters and creates change. This story establishes that circumventing archaic gender stereotypes or socially proscribed restrictions is never easy but it is possible.

Yet while the characters are racially and geographically diverse they are heteronormative and the opportunity to create a body positive narrative is scrubbed from the collection. More so I wanted to learn how each culture perceives feminism or similar ideologies. In some cases calling the legend “feminist” seems anachronistic. It’s not possible that the 14th century “Lanval and the Lady Triamor” was labeled as feminist. It would have been interesting to learn how specific cultures understood female empowerment outside of the western and contemporary definition.

The Hunter Maiden projects the narratives that show girls’ and women’s abilities, strengths, and flaws. As a whole, The Hunter Maiden frames girls and women as powerful individuals who fully control their own lives while positively impacting their communities. These girls’ and women’s extraordinary stories are illuminated in these legends, illustrations, and availability of texts such as The Hunter Maiden.

RATING 8 / 10
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