The Male Hero in Fairy Tales
F. D. Lee
This essay is inspired in part by the analysis of character archetypes I did as part of my PhD and as such forms part of that academic work.
In all the Pathways Tree books, my aim has been to explore the concept of stories and accepted truths in order to highlight some of the ways in which stories can control how we perceive the world. In The Fairy’s Tale, I was focused on the way the female hero is portrayed in fairy tales, fantasy and romance, while in The Academy, I wanted to look at the Empty Protagonist, a rather alarming modern creation which sees the female lead as a blank slate. Both these novels were, therefore, focused on the representation (or lack of thereof) of women. Hamilton, et al. (2006, p. 757) argue that “stereotyped portrayals of the sexes and underrepresentation of female characters contribute negatively to children’s development, limit their career aspirations, frame their attitudes about their future roles as parents, and even influence their personality characteristics”, so it seemed that this was a good place to begin my subversion of these tropes!
In The Princess And The Orrery, however, I wanted to look a bit more into the representations of the male hero in fiction. It’s an interesting area, I think, as I suspect that most people are at least casually aware of the harmful representations of women but less so of those of men. There is, I suggest, a general feeling that men avoid harmful, controlling tropes because, normatively, they are presented as ‘winners’, without the need to be humbled that female characters suffer from. However, to say that harmful, problematic archetypal representations of the male hero do not exist is false.
Naturally, I have rooted this exploration in fairy tales and mythology because the Pathways Tree series is, ultimately, a fantasy series. However, I think that a lot of these fairy tale tropes can be seen in other genres; unsurprising, really, when one considers the huge cultural impact of fairy tales on Western culture. (And, no doubt, on all global cultures but as my novels are written from the perspective of the Anglo-Franco Literary canon - the European tradition - I will only make specific reference to the West. I would love to hear from people who can teach me about other cultural traditions!)
There are three archetypal male hero’s journeys I explore in The Orrery, each one played out by a specific character: Joseph, Hemmings, and Seven. I’d like to explain how I came to these concepts and interpretations, but first I need to outline exactly what the traditional fairy tale male hero archetype is, and to do that I need to contrast it with the role of the female heroine.
Fairy tales work as methods to create order within the society in which they originate, and these representations are seldom altered. Indeed, as Luis (2016, p. 166; original emphasis) states, “these ‘canonic’ tales are comforting because they repeat clichéd forms of gender to us in ways that make moral, cultural, and social sense”, and the chief way in which fairy tales have managed this meaning-making is through the ways in which they present gender and, crucially, gendered expectations (Baker-Sperry & Grauerholz, 2003). As such, these gendered roles in fairy tales remain largely, today, what they were hundreds of years ago despite the (assumptions of) cultural change in the intervening years.
One of the principle ways in which these narratives remain unchanged is in the journeys of the male and female characters. In fairy tales “the [male] hero gains a kingdom, a princess, and the power to rule, and the [female] heroine gains a husband, but loses her freedom” (Schubert 2016, p. 109). This is related to the concept of the ‘trial’ - the tasks that the protagonist must overcome in order to be the protagonist. For readers, the trial is how we recognise who in the story we should be rooting for to win. Take The Lord of the Rings or Dick Whittington: we know that we want Frodo or Dick to win because it is made clear through the events that befall them that they deserve to win. In fairy tales, this trial is usually broken into three stages, each of which moves our hero/heroine towards their happy ending.
Male heroes, traditionally, begin in a humble setting. Though they may already be a person of status, more often than not they grow up in a lowly position or in a family environment in which they are unappreciated - similar, in fact, to the female hero. From here, however, the two stories diverge. Female heroes’ trials are designed to humble them, ready for marriage; male heroes’ trials are designed to show their bravery, wit and guile (Schubert, 2016). In fact, in many fairy tales, the male hero does not need to show any level of compassion to be considered the hero - think, for example, of the many stories in which the male hero outwits or tricks someone in order to get what they want. To be a heroic man, these stories say, is to be focused on winning at all costs. The male hero may be ambiguous, a knave or a trickster, naïve or even unintelligent, and still progress through his story to his happy ending, in stark contrast to the female hero who must learn humility. As Tarter (1985, p. 32) explains, “In an almost perverse fashion, fairy tales featuring male protagonists chart the success story of adolescents who do not even have the good sense to heed the instructions of the many helpers and donors who rush to their aid in an effort to avert minor catastrophes and disasters”. Male heroes are not required to grow as people in order to be the hero.
What is significant here, I suggest, is that for fairy tale male heroes, their intentions or morality is not tied to their heroism nor to their happy ending. As long as the protagonist accomplishes his trials, by whatever method, he will win. He will be the hero not because he deserves the happy ending - the wife, the crown, the kingdom - but because he has successfully navigated the challenges leading up to it. Indeed, within the medieval romance and high fantasy traditions, the male hero’s fate is inextricably linked to the fate of the land (think of King Arthur or Aragon). This linking with the prosperity of the Kingdom also helps to legitimate the male hero’s success in the story; after all, no one else could bring the land back to prosperity, so such-and-such must be deserving, regardless of how they got there in the first place.
Equally, for male heroes, there is a tradition of sexual competence and emotional neglect, particularly in terms of self-awareness. Of course, this latter is also true of female characters, but we will remain focused on the men. Sexually, male heroes are, by and large, takers. They show no hesitancy nor humility towards their female prize, and the assumption is implicit within the narrative that she is lucky to be chosen by him - indeed, oftentimes, the male hero undergoes the trials set by the story in order to win her. As such, male heroes are presented with a sense of entitlement to both the woman and the crown.
This entitlement neatly dovetails with the concept of ‘deserving their reward’; the key factor of being a male hero is one of privilege and immunity, both from criticism from the outside world for the methods and behaviour of the male hero, and from self-reflection on behalf of the male hero. Male heroes are not encouraged to ‘navel gaze’, to consider their actions and their impact. Indeed, as Timmerman (1983, p. 35) explains, “Naïveté in fantasy is always a good thing which suggests that the character has retained a willingness to wonder, has not been despoiled by the world’s affairs, has not been made hard-bitten and cynical of life. And these latter characters, the pragmatists, the despoiled, the hard-bitten and cynical are often the villains of fantasy”. Critical thought, resistance to the status-quo and critique are codified as villainous behavior or, at least, certainly not the behaviour of the hero.
This representation of the male hero, embedded within Western culture, can be linked to current cultural issues: the lack of support for male mental health issues (men are not emotional); the growth in toxic masculinity (men are entitled to women); the disparagement of trans women and homo- and bi-sexual men (why would a ‘real man’ align himself with a woman/the feminine?); the disparagement of ace men (all men desire sex); and, finally, rape culture (women should be humble and available to men). I summerise here, but there is research that supports and expands on these claims (see, for example, Ferreday’s (2015) excellent essay on how concepts of the male hero’s journey have led to a lack of prosecutions in rape cases along side Gjelsviv’s (2016) essay on Jaime Lannister’s disrupted hero’s journey.)
These concepts of what makes a fairy tale male hero were the ideas I wanted to explore in The Princess And The Orrery.
Joseph is what I consider to be the logical extension of the male hero. He works under the assumption that he is and can only be the hero, and that because of this, everything he does is heroic and therefore good. This is not, of course, the case. But for Joseph, who has grown up isolated and with only the guidance of [fairy] stories, his logic makes a kind of sense. When I was writing Joseph, I inevitably found myself feeling sympathetic towards him. Not because I agree with him or his plans (and certainly not his methods), but because Joseph is acting out a story that will see him, finally, loved and wanted; a happy ending which he has been promised he deserves.
Joseph believes, genuinely and absolutely, that he is on the hero’s journey and will be the person to save everyone. That his future is fate, his desires are destiny. That his worth will be proven when, and only when, he wins. Joseph has internalised these archetypal tropes of the fairy tale male hero and, without any friends or counter-narratives to challenge him, he has no reason to consider his thinking at fault. If he can see his plan through, he will be the hero - because heroes win, and winning makes a hero. And being the hero, the winner, is what men do. He is not, in his mind, the villain. Indeed, he cannot be the villain because he is completing his trials: he is outsmarting the genie, removing the wicked ruler, and bringing happiness to the land.
And, while Joseph is undoubtedly the villain of The Orrery, I feel a lot of sympathy towards him. Not to excuse his behaviour nor to condone it, but when one understands the simplified, toxic and unaccountable structures that have shaped his idea- and belief formation, it is hard not to feel some level of sympathy for him. Had Joseph been better treated by his family, less isolated and othered, more socialised, one might wonder whether his desire to improve the world and do good would have manifested in a way that actually achieved these goals.
Hemmings, on the other hand, is a direct subversion of these tropes for male heroes. He is constantly unsure of himself, questioning everything. He is open to criticism and reflects deeply on the world around him and his interaction with it. Indeed, while Timmerman (ibid) may argue that naïveté in fantasy is a necessary requirement of the hero, Hemmings, I hope, goes someway towards debunking this. He is certainly entering the human world in a state of unknowing, but he actively engages in the lives of the people around him in order to learn and grow. Hemmings is deeply rooted in the world, even though he has lived his life at a distance. Unlike Joseph, who has submerged himself in toxic narratives that make him the central person in any situation, Hemmings is attempting to understand the lives of other people (to greater and lesser success).
Equally, while Hemmings is trying to understand the world, his trials are focused on him accepting that he has, by and large, been cosseted from it. This arc is delivered through his relationship with Alfonso, and the actor’s suspicion of his motives. For Hemmings to be proven ‘worthy’ at the end of the story, he must first realise that he had assumed a level of passivity on behalf of Alfonso - that the actor would be his reward, when he was ready to collect it. When Alfonso challenges him, Hemmings realises that he has failed this step and thus is not entitled (yet?) to a traditional happy ending.
For Hemmings, then, the journey does not end with the attainment of his ‘reward’. The journey, instead, is a process of change and development, of learning not only about himself and his conceits but also about the world and the people around him. This is also shown in his changing relationship with Melly, who at various points is both a friend to him and an antagonist. Melly challenges Hemmings to consider the difficulties in heroic behaviour, to question the utilitarian philosophy that posits that any action in service of the end goal of the narrative is justifiable.
Finally, we come to Seven. Seven has always been, to me, a challenge to male fictional tropes. In The Fairy’s Tale, Seven is the archetypal ‘romantic hero’: sexually confident, handsome, arrogant and charming. He is also selfish, bitter and cruel. I wanted, in The Fairy’s Tale, to create a character much like Heathcliff or Mr Rochester, both of whom I have critiqued elsewhere. In The Orrery, we learn the truth about Seven and his ‘heroic’ status as we see his ‘great love’ from the other side. Seven must confront the fact that what he considered to be love was in fact selfish obsession, derived from his own need to feel agented and important. Much like Joseph, Seven had constructed a narrative around himself that absolved him of all self-examination and reflection; unlike Joseph, Seven manages to see what he has done and to work towards undoing it. Seven is able to grow beyond the structures of entitlement he had built around himself through his engagement, at long last, with other people.
Moreover, in The Orrery Seven must learn to work outside of his sexual competence and without his magic. He is placed in a position where the tricks of the male hero cannot be employed, and thus he is forced, like Hemmings, to consider more carefully his behaviour and the manner in which he interacts with the world. It is telling, I think, that right up to the end of the story, Seven remains hesitant to fully engage with a heroic role and it is only when he considers, finally, the lives and safety of other people that he fully commits to acting for the benefit of others. For Seven, there is no reward in The Orrery; indeed, when he finally does act with good intention it costs him dearly. However, I would argue that in many ways this lack of reward sets Seven up as a much better protagonist than he was in The Fairy’s Tale, for all his romantic charm in that book.
In this way, none of the male protagonists in The Orrery receive their ‘reward’. This is, as you can imagine, a huge diversion from the fairy tale tropes that insist that to be a hero is to be rewarded - indeed, by this logic, neither Hemmings nor Seven are the heroes of the story (obviously, Joseph is not). However, rather than getting the thing they want - their loves - they instead have to look at how their behaviour has disrupted their chances of attaining their desires. Is this, then, a tragic ending? I think not - but of course, it’s ultimately up to readers to decide. I think that for both Hemmings and Seven, the spaces they find themselves in at the end of The Orrery are absolutely where they need to be and that there is no tragedy in that. They are both better placed to become better people. That, for me, is a truly heroic ending.
For my own part, I feel that Joseph’s, Seven’s and Hemmings’ individual story lines can be summed-up with a reflection on connectivity. All three men are, in various ways, disconnected from other people when The Princess And The Orrery begins. They have managed to wrap themselves in stories and narratives that have protected them and, largely, allowed them to maintain their self-images without growth. This may seem a particularly harsh comment to make in terms of Hemmings, but bear with me. While Hemmings has spent his life thoughsmithing, this practice has also given him an excuse to isolate himself from the world. I think that this isolation is also a central aspect of the male hero in fairy tales (and, to lesser extent, fantasy) in that the male hero is not required to engage with other people. Other people are present, certainly, but their roles are only to service the hero achieving his goal. Even the villains of fairy tales fall into this category, because they must be overcome to justify the hero’s entitlement, their happy ending.
For the three male protagonists of The Princess And The Orrery, I wanted to explore how this isolation plays out. Joseph is damaged by it; Hemmings is made naïve by it; Seven is made selfish. For each of them, redemption only occurs (or fails to occur) through their engagement with both the outside world and their internal selves. This, I think, is crucial to breaking down some of the harmful tropes that are sold to men in fairy tales (and, I would argue, by the larger Western culture). Men are not strong, nor are they heroes, because they ride roughshod through life, taking what they want, or because they are inherently entitled to their rewards. This kind of thinking leads to all kinds of psychological and social issues, as well as perpetuating the stereotype that ‘real men don’t cry’, don’t think or feel or reflect - indeed, that these skills (for skills they are) are solely the domain of women and/or the feminine.
Better, I suggest, to have protagonists of both sexes who present a more nuanced human experience. Whether they manage to end their story successfully or unsuccessfully should be a matter of their character, not the character archetype they are playing.
Baker-Sperry, L. & Grauerholz, L., 2003. The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children's Fairy Tales. Gender and Society, 17(5), pp. 711-726.
Ferreday, D., 2015. Game of Thrones, Rape Culture, and Feminist Fandom. Austrailian Feminist Studies, 30(83), pp. 21-36.
Gjelsviv, A., 2016. Unspeakable Acts of (Sexual) Terror As/In Quality Television. In: A. Gjelsviv & B. Schubart, eds. Women of Ice and Fire. New York; London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 57-79.
Hamilton, M. C., Anderson, D., Broaddus, M. & Young, K., 2006. Gender Stereotyping and Under-representation of Female Characters in 200 Popular Children’s Picture Books: A Twenty-first Century Update. Sex Roles, Volume 55, p. 757–765.
Luis, K. N., 2016. The Tale of the Woman: Female gender, gender roles, and sexuality in Emma Donoghue's Kissing The Witch. In: J. Roberts & E. MacCallum-Stewart, eds. Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy: Beyond boy wizards and kick-ass chicks. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 165 - 181.
Schubart, R., 2016. Women with Dragons: Daenerys, Pride, and Postfeminist Possibilities. In: A. Gjelsvic & R. Schubart, eds. Women of Ice and Fire. New York; London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 105-130
Tatar, M., 1985. Tests, Tasks, and Trials in the Grimms' Fairy Tales. Children's Literature,, Volume 13, pp. 31-48.
Timmerman, J. H., 1983. Other Worlds: the Fantasy Genre. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press