Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Iseult Is No Smartypants

I'm currently reading Rosemary Sutcliff's version of Tristan and Iseult. I don't believe I've ever read another version, despite having an entire class in Arthurian myth in my college years. (Clearly, elements of the Arthur, Guenivere, and Lancelot story are derivative of T&I, or the other way around.)

I'm enjoying it pretty much, but there's one recurring element of the story that really bugs me. It's not Sutcliff's fault, since I'm sure it's part of the source material, and it's an element that occurs in way too many European fairy tales.

Iseult comes to Cornwall because Tristan wins her from her father, the King of Ireland, by defeating a dragon. He hands her over to King Marc of Cornwall and complications ensue. Later, Tristan wins a different woman, Iseult of the White Hands, because he helped her father defeat an enemy.

It seems that daughters are being handed out as prizes in every other chapter.

I know this is an old trope. I remember hearing it as a child and thinking nothing of it, that I recall. But what damage did it do to me and to other girls to hear that we are objects to be given away, and not just in an arranged marriage, but as a prize? Even if a girl today knows it's not practiced in her culture, hearing about it as the way things used to be has to be undermining. It's part of the ongoing message that says, You are not fully human.

When Daughter Number Three-Point-One was little, we frequently read her a book called Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole. In it, Smartypants is ordered by her parents to select a husband -- which is a step up from awarding her in a contest, I suppose. A parade of inept suitors burn out trying to overcome Smartypants' challenges, until one named Prince Swashbuckle appears. He can climb a tower, ride a wild horse, and blah blah blah.

And yet in the end, he doesn't "get the girl" either. Princess Smartypants continues to live happily ever after with her dragon other odd pets.

I don't know if Smartypants inoculated my daughter against all of the future princess-as-prize stories I'm sure she heard and read. I can only hope it did.


Postscript: In searching for a cover image of Princess Smartypants, I discovered that sometime in the past 20 years it was changed, so that it no longer has the white cover shown above. Now it's pink.

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