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Strong Women in Appalachian Folktales

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 24, Number 2, April 2000
pp. 225-246 | 10.1353/uni.2000.0014

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The Lion and the Unicorn 24.2 (2000) 225-246

"I'm glad there's some folks gettin' interested in the old ways. This new generation don't know such things, but when they find the old songs and the tales, they'll delight in them."

--Granny in Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase

New generations since the time of storytellers like Richard Chase and the Granny in his book have delighted in a multitude of new versions of old tales, in picture books and anthologies as well as oral and dramatic performances. This outpouring has resulted from a storytelling revival and a tremendous growth in the publication of children's books in the late twentieth century. In the quest for tales that provide contemporary children with more positive female role models than the heroines in the best-known traditional fairy tales, recent writers, editors, and storytellers have pursued a variety of approaches, which include retelling selections from older collections of European folktales, searching the folk heritage of other cultural traditions for lesser known heroines, and adapting or satirizing old stories to highlight the strengths of female characters.

In the Southern Appalachian region, there is a particularly vigorous, enduring tradition of telling stories descended from oral tales and ballads brought to these American mountains by European settlers from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Since the mid-twentieth century, public performances and published versions of folktales have quite often derived from, or audiences and reviewers have compared them to, the tales published by Chase in the 1940s, in The Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales, which have remained among the most popular collections of American folktales. Nevertheless, one category of folk hero who is still under-represented in both studies of Appalachian folklore and recent feminist anthologies is the female protagonist in Appalachian folktales. In spite of the difficulties involved in interpreting gender roles and cultural significance in traditional tales that exist in many different versions, both oral and written, comparisons of related tales show that there are Appalachian heroines who appear as strong and self-reliant as many of their more familiar male counterparts and European ancestors. Some recent adaptations, including Tom Davenport's fairy tale films produced in Virginia, enhance the status and independence of female characters in skillful and fascinating ways, while others cannot improve on Chase's lively literary accounts of Appalachian folk heroines such as Ashpet, the wife of Whitebear Whittington, and Mutsmag.

It is understandable, yet unfortunate from a feminist point of view, that the continuing popularity of Jack tales has overshadowed the Appalachian tales featuring strong women who deserve further study and wider fame. The country boy named Jack is the young Everyman who dominates the realm of Appalachian folktales. There are women characters in the background of some Jack tales who are more intelligent or sensible than Jack, but he gets the spotlight as the sometimes foolish yet also shrewd and clever trickster who usually triumphs over his adversaries. For late twentieth-century folklore scholars interested in analyzing storytelling communities and performance techniques, studying a whole body of tales within the same tradition makes the Jack tales all the more appealing, with the varying transformations of Jack's character as a unifying and familiar feature. The numerous studies of these tales and their performers include discussions of Jack as an archetypal folk hero appearing in different regions, of Jack tales as a subgenre of folktales, and so on. The Children's Literature Association included Chase's Jack Tales on its list of Touchstones of children's literature in the 1980s. New performances, audio recordings, scholarly books, articles, and editions of Jack tales continued to appear through the 1990s.

While these materials are important and enjoyable, the growing fame of Jack should not prevent us from appreciating the virtues of his girlfriends and the adventures of more independent Appalachian heroines. In her Touchstones essay, Nina Mikkelsen observes that the princess in Chase's "Old Fire Dragaman" "is seen playing a larger, a more decisive role in her own destiny and in Jack's" than her counterpart in the Grimm Brothers' parallel tale called "The Gnome" (54). The same is true of the three sisters in...



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