Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Defense of Damsels and Bumpkins (as explained by an orthodox storyteller)

The two most important and vital elements to any good fairy-tale (indeed, to any good story) is the damsel and the bumpkin, and yet never have two things been more derided in our time. There is something offensive in the former and silly in the latter.

The damsel is offensive because we live in an enlightened age of unquestioned feminism, wherein women have been set free from the chains of home and hearth to cheerfully wear the chains of 9-to-5 corporate life. The bumpkin is silly because that's what a bumpkin is: a laughable and occasionally lovable oaf who deserves no more attention and serious praise than a newborn child. In the end, we worship amazonian bravado and scorn the loveliness of the princess; we condescendingly pat the good-natured fool on the head and laud the antics of the antihero. It is exactly these modern notions that good fairy-tales turn upside-down.

Such a turning is very much needed today. In fact, it should be called a returning, for I am not saying anything new, just everything that people have forgotten. For example, nobody appreciates a "damsel in distress" anymore. They assume that there is something demeaning in the whole affair, that women are somehow reduced to impersonal narrative furniture to be forcibly passed about like a brain-dead hot potato amongst men of varying moral aptitudes. The underlying assumption is that a damsel is always "distressed" because they have nothing better to do, i.e., because they are utterly useless, a mere plot foil and no more.

Such is the cynicism of our age, but even a moment's consideration on the issue will reveal its logic to be complete nonsense. If a damsel is "utterly useless," then why is she distressed? If she has no qualities of worth or value, then why would anyone bother their heads about her at all? Why is so much energy and time and military expense wasted by the villain on her capture, and why is so much toil and sorrow willfully suffered by the hero on her rescue? If she had no other purpose and point than to be moved from the Castle of Syrupy Light to the Dungeons of Stygian Slime and then back again, if her only purpose is fundamentally logistical, then why all the fuss? Surely dark lords and wandering knights (and enraptured readers) have better uses of their time.

The simple answer is that the damsel is not "useless". It is her very "use" that makes her the focus of the whole affair. What people seem to forget (and rabid feminists are loath to remember) is that the princess is the point of the fairy-tale. True, the bulk of the narrative is spent on her rescuer (a much maligned individual whom we will address in a moment), but that is because his energies (or even her energies, as in the tale of Britomart) are solely pointed towards her. Look at any great tale that involves "damsels in distress" and you will see that the princess is the most vital person on the planet. It is she who will stop the lords of shadow from enacting the great woe. It is she that will guarantee the downfall of the Abyssal King. It is she who will bring the return of the dawn and the dancing of the daffodils, and the puppies and kittens will dance together again. In short, it is she who will bring about some great thing in the larger picture of the world, and it is for that very reason that the darkness seeks to ensnare her. She is always the true threat. She is always the real hero.

This should not be surprising to any of us. The "hero" who rides to the rescue is not the ultimate hero. The princess is, and whatever heroics the "hero" has are derivative from and dependent upon her. The truth is that the "hero" (whoever he/she may be) is trying to rescue the princess because there is some greater feat to be done that only the princess can do and which, consequently, the "hero" cannot do, which is why she must be rescued. She is the vital piece. That is why so much energy is expended on her. That is why chivalric codes have been inspired by her. That is why a certain popular video game franchise is called The Legend of Zelda and not The Legend of Link. The princess is everything, the central force to the narrative centrifuge.

Even the exception proves the rule, i.e., the case of dragons kidnapping the princess. She may not have been "distressed" because of some great "thing" that she can "do", but remember what a dragon is. They represent horrible, voracious greed, a living void of endless consumption. They are hoarders, gluttons; their lairs are full of precious things, including the most precious of all: the princess. Those stories strike us the hardest, because now the damsel is rescued, not for her use, but for herself, which is the point all along. She is the most valuable one, and when that which is most valuable is imperiled, someone must take up the sword.

Of course, the one who takes up the sword is never who we expect, and that is yet another point of the fairy-tale. When the most valuable and precious one is imperiled, it is not the brawniest of knights who ultimately wins her back. Rather, it is the bumpkin who gets called kicking and screaming into the fray. In the end, it is Samwise, and not Gaston, who gets called to the rescue. This is the other vital element, viz., the hero is a bumpkin. The hero is a bumbling, lovable fool who would much rather stay at home and yet has enough good-heartedness to not leave a friend in the lurch. In short, the hero is "normal," and yet is called to the extraordinary.

This is a tale as old as time. It was not the warrior sons of Jesse who slew Goliath. It was his youngest, a shepherd boy, who had no sword to call his own. It was not a great and legendary fighter who brought an end to the wrath of Grendel and his mother. It was Beowulf, who was considered "the least amongst his brethren". It was not Eric the golden knight who slew Bavmorda and saved the baby Elora. It was Willow Ufgood, the farmer, father, and dwarf. It is the "least" who rescues the highest. It is the poor lost poet in the woods who descends through hell so that he may ascend to heaven. It is the last who becomes the first. The bumpkin is our hero. The least of these are our champions, and their trophies are innumerable, from dragons and demons to even death itself, for when God raised his glittering sword against our last enemy, he did not come riding on the white horse of the apocalypse, but on the red cross of the Romans, dying in ignominy and infamy, raising all to newness of life, and hallowing the fool forever. For God has chosen the foolish things to confound the wise, and the weak to overcome the strong.

Herein are the two vital elements of the fairy-tale: the damsel and the bumpkin. And herein lies their vital lessons. In the damsel we see this, that the most valuable and precious thing in the world is a woman. In the bumpkin we see this, that even the smallest of persons can change the course of history. Such things get lost on the majority of us today. All of our modern day "heroes" are pathetic, paltry things: sneering antiheroes with the likability of a dead toad, and sarcastic amazons whose entire femininity has been disemboweled. We waste our time on things not worth a sneeze, and yet at our fingertips are the two great inspirations of the world: the beauty and power of the princess, and the stout, fear-soaked courage of the bumbling fool. If our stories could only learn to bask in the splendor of that double-edged humility, perhaps we could find ourselves wanting more than the barren wastes of our modern mythologies.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011


  1. Amen and amen, sir! How I do wish the rest of the world would return to such thoughts and wisdoms. I needed this! Thank you for the reminders.

  2. Are the roles and the genders synonymous? What of the female bumpkins who hold no magic nor charm, merely the understanding that a great wrong has occurred and good must challenge evil?

  3. Anna:

    To your first question, my answer is no, they are not "synonymous". If you look back up at the fifth paragraph, I mention that the "hero" can be either male or female (and I cited "Britomart" as an example).

    That should answer your second question as well.

  4. Ah yes, reading comprehension.

  5. No worries. It bites us all sooner or later. 8^)