Be Bold, Be Bold: Fairy-Tale Heroines and A Challenge

March 9, 2020

In “Mr. Fox,” an English fairy tale collected by Joseph Jacobs, Lady Mary has a suitor who is gallant, rich, and (as the narrative tells us at least twice) brave. Lady Mary is all about this guy, and she and he agree to marry. But when he doesn’t invite her to see his house, she grows suspicious and curious.

Illustration by Herbert Cole

Lady Mary decides that she needs answers, and so she searches out his house, a castle with high walls, surrounded by a moat.

And when she came up to the gateway she saw written on it:

Be Bold, Be Bold.

But as the gate was open, she went through it, and found no one there. So she went up to the doorway, and over it she found written:

Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold.

Still she went on, till she came into the hall, and went up the broad stairs till she came to a door in the gallery, over which was written:

Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold, Lest That Your Heart’s Blood Should Run Cold.

But Lady Mary was a brave one, she was, and she opened the door, and what do you think she saw?

Nothing good, we assure you. She finds out that her fine, handsome, brave fiancé is actually a serial killer. But instead of collapsing into a heap, she hightails it back home (after grabbing some gristly evidence: the finger of one of Mr. Fox’s victims, encircled in a ring) and hatches a plan. The day of her wedding, she retells her journey through Mr. Fox’s castle, including the architectural pleas for varying degrees of boldness. Her relatives, and Mr. Fox, hang upon her every word until, at last, she pulls the finger out of her dress and reveals her groom as a murderer. Her relatives and friends promptly draw their swords and cut Mr. Fox into pieces.

Illustration by John Batten

Lady Mary is kind of our hero. And it’s obvious that it is she who is the brave one in this story.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that fairy-tale heroines aren’t brave.

In “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a Norwegian fairy tale collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, the young heroine is brave enough to take up with a magical talking bear. And she’s bold enough to look at the man who sleeps beside her every night (spoiler: it’s the enchanted bear in human form). When she accidentally wakes him up by dripping tallow from her candle onto him, triggering a curse and forcing him to go marry a troll, the girl chases. him. down. She travels across the world, gaining the help of witchy ladies and elemental spirits:

Illustration by Kay Nielsen

Early next morning the north wind woke her, and puffed himself up, and blew himself out, and made himself so stout and big that he was gruesome to look at. Off they went high up through the air, as if they would not stop until they reached the end of the world.

Here on earth there was a terrible storm; acres of forest and many houses were blown down, and when it swept over the sea, ships wrecked by the hundred.

They tore on and on — no one can believe how far they went — and all the while they still went over the sea, and the north wind got more and more weary, and so out of breath he could barely bring out a puff, and his wings drooped and drooped, until at last he sunk so low that the tops of the waves splashed over his heels.

“Are you afraid?” said the north wind.

No, she wasn’t.

She finds her bear-man, marries him, and lives happily ever after.

Illustration by Kay Nielsen

Men, of course, can be wonderfully brave in fairy tales, too. When the prince in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s “Little Brier-Rose” hears about a creepy, haunted castle, he’s like “YES, I’m totally in!” Behold:

Then one day a prince was traveling through the land. An old man told him about the belief that there was a castle behind the thorn hedge, with a wonderfully beautiful princess asleep inside with all of her attendants. His grandfather had told him that many princes had tried to penetrate the hedge, but that they had gotten stuck in the thorns and had been pricked to death.

“I’m not afraid of that,” said the prince. “I shall penetrate the hedge and free the beautiful Brier-Rose.”

He went forth, but when he came to the thorn hedge, it turned into flowers.

His bravery (and admittedly, his good luck – it had been 100 years since the spell had ensnared the sleeping princess, so it was curse-breaking time!) turns thorns into flowers. He walks through the seriously creepy castle, wakes up the princess, and has a fabulous wedding. An afternoon well-spent!

Illustration by Charles Folkard

Even the mother in the Grimms’ “Snow White and Rose Red” is unexpectedly bold. When a bear arrives at the door of their woodland cottage, the two sisters are not about it – they run and hide. Their mother, however, can see his gentleness and welcomes him in:

‘Poor bear,’ said the mother, ‘lie down by the fire, only take care that you do not burn your coat.’ Then she cried: ‘Snow-white, Rose-red, come out, the bear will do you no harm, he means well.’ So they both came out, and by-and-by the lamb and dove came nearer, and were not afraid of him.

Mom’s bravery and good instincts end up with her daughters married to princes, and the entire family, herself included, moving into a castle, where they continue their harmonious ways on an even grander scale.

Illustration by Hermann Vogel

When we met, back in 2009, neither of us had published any of our writing. (What does this have to do with bears and murder and anthropomorphic winds, you might be wondering? We’ll get there, we promise!) We’d both been writing poetry and short stories since we were about eight, but we’d never had the guts to send them out to a magazine or journal.

We decided to be bold – we traded stories.

It was terrifying. We’d just met, and we really liked each other, and we each thought that the other one was like TWELVE times cooler than we thought we were. Sharing writing, especially when we weren’t in the habit of letting anyone see it, was like…staring down a wall of really pointy briars and deciding to go for it anyway.

Sara basically bullied Brittany into submitting her short story (be bold, be bold!)

Brittany said she’d only submit her story if Sara submitted hers. Sara, who has a keenly honed sense of fairness and isn’t always happy about it, agreed. They sat down on Sara’s dining room floor (it was the beginning of grad school, and Sara didn’t have a lot of furniture yet!), counted down from 10, and hit “send” at the same time.

It was hardly life and death, but we’re not going to lie, our heart’s blood ran kind of cold.

As luck would have it, both of those stories were accepted. Brittany’s tale was about the longing and loneliness of the Japanese kitsune (fox shapeshifters!), and Sara’s was somewhere between “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Goose Girl.”

But, honestly, that wasn’t the most important part. Because we’d already decided to be bold. We’d listened to Lady Mary, the bear bride, and the prince of briars. And, when we get rejections or face disappointments or fall flat on our faces, yes, we feel mopey and blergh for a while. But then we count down from ten, find a new journal, try a new path, smack a different briar with our swords. Because, eventually, you find the castle. You reclaim your bear. You publish a poem. You make a friend.

This week, we propose A CHALLENGE!

What have you been putting off? What are you scared to do? What do you want, so much, to do? Do you want to make something? Write something? Go somewhere new? Get a crazy haircut? Tell someone you love them?

We want you to come sit, metaphorically, on Sara’s empty dining room floor with us. Tell us what you want to do. What you’re GOING to do, this week! Send us an email at or leave a comment below, and tell us how you’re going to be bold. We can’t wait to hear what every day, fairy-tale adventure you’ll make this week.

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