Many of the stories we know and love have a core motif; that of the maiden in peril. Although traditionally the word ‘maiden’ was used to mean a virgin of either gender, it is the young woman in peril, rescued by a young man (generally a prince who embodies both rescuer and reward) that is most common throughout literature and the one that resonates most strongly.
Generally females in literature take on one of the three traditional faces: virgin, whore, or hag (sometimes described as maiden, mother or crone) and there are plenty of essays on these clichés. Rarely do we see a story that dares to subvert them, or if it does, it makes certain to revert at the last minute, making sure that the apparently strong woman really does need rescuing by her Prince Charming; otherwise what are Prince Charmings for?
And there is something deeply satisfying about the stories we know best. We are able to live the vicarious thrill of peril, while assured that waiting in the wings is a beautiful boy with a sword.
But what happens when the maiden takes that sword for herself? What happens when she subverts the cliché, moves away from the reader’s comfort zone and rescues herself?
This isn’t a recent scenario. The Master-Maid is a Norwegian tale first written down in 1842 and even the title warns us to expect subversion. ‘Master’ at that time had layers of meaning. It could have meant ‘a person eminently skilled at something’ (c.f. master and apprentice), but it also indicates a masculine role. It is the same with ‘Maid’ which, as discussed above can mean virgin, but is more commonly associated with the female. So putting those two words together is already pulling the rug from beneath the reader.
The ostensible hero of the tale is a young prince out seeking his fortune, but the real hero is the ‘Master-Maid’ a woman of compassion, intelligence and personality, who helps the prince defeat the giant and fights for her happily ever after when a spell makes him forget her (for the full story, please look up ‘Master Maid’ on Wikipedia, it is brilliant). At no time is the Master-Maid dependent on the Prince for safety or happiness. He does not fight for her. In fact she saves him, first from the giant and then from a marriage based on deception. The roles are brilliantly subverted … and yet I have to wonder – did that wimp deserve her? At the end of the tale, there is an imbalance. If she is both Master and Maid, what place does the prince have?
A modern take on the Master-Maid / subversion tale is Ever After – a 1998 film starring Drew Barrymore. The cleverest thing about this is that Ever After purports to be the real story of Cinderella, thereby subverting not only the maiden in peril cliché, but perhaps the original maiden in peril story itself.
Drew Barrymore’s character Danielle is intelligent and creative; she fences and reads books. She abuses the prince for stealing, rescues him from robbers, helps him learn about governance and her ‘fairy Godmother’ is Leonardo da Vinci. In the film’s concluding scenes she is sold to the evil Baron (Richard O Brien), but while Prince Henry is rushing to rescue her from misery and loss of virtue, Danielle leaps up from her prone position grabs a sword and rescues herself. Dougray Scott turns up, late, sword drooping; sheepish, redundant and emasculated.
The feminist in me wanted to cheer. I’ve always remembered the film … and yet … it was somehow unsatisfying. I wanted to see Dougray Scott burst in, knock the villain to the floor and rescue Danielle. Without this heroic dénouement the film itself seems a little lack-lustre. Yes, Danielle has refused to be a maiden in peril, but where does that leave her prince? Doesn’t a woman that strong deserve a hero as her partner, rather than a wimp with a limp sword-hand?
Maybe I’ve been trained to expect a little rescuing in my literature, because the stories I enjoy most are those which flirt with subverting the cliché, but really allow more balance. The hero and heroine work in partnership, rescuing one another - taking turns if you like, as Disney has recently explored in Tangled. The important thing in this idea of balance is that if the prince has to win the princess, the princess has to win him right back.
In an example from recent YA literature Graceling, the wonderful debut by Kristin Cashore, has as its heroine a young girl, Katsa, with the magical ability to kill anyone; to win any fight. She is her king’s enforcer and doesn’t like the job, so she starts up her own resistance movement. She meets her match, however, and she and this man form a real partnership, saving their country and one another.
In Sisters Red, by Jackson Pearce, the heroines - sisters - are pitched against werewolves (another excellent subversion of a well known fairy tale) and together rescue the ‘prince’ from their hands.
In Devil’s Kiss, by Sarwat Chadda, the heroine, Billi (a girl with a masculine name), is a sword wielding Templar knight, who fights the ultimate evil, the angel of death.
And one reason I felt these books were so good was that, despite the strength of the heroine, the heroes are allowed to be strong too, and the ‘big wins’ for the heroines depend on the love and / or sacrifice of the ‘princes’. In the Devil’s Kiss, Kay, the male hero, whose name mirrors Billi’s with it’s ambiguous gender allocation, could perhaps be described as a Maid-Master, a hero in touch with his emotions and the perfect counter-weight to Billi’s Master-Maid.
In Graceling, Katsa almost ends up alone and sadly, in both Devil’s Kiss and Sisters Red, the ultimate punishment for being a Master-Maid; in treading too close to the line between masculine and feminine, is to lose the prince altogether.
In my own book, Angel’s Fury, the heroine seems a clichéd maiden in peril, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that she really is a Master-Maid (in more ways than one). And in order for her to win her ‘prince’ (and for he to win her), the conflicting aspects of each of their personalities must find balance.
We authors can subvert the maiden in peril cliché all we want, but for a really satisfying story there has to be balance; in order for the hero / prince to be worthy of our strong heroine, we should let him rescue her … or release him and leave our trouser-wearing heroine alone to play with her own sword.