Smiling villains

The Lady under the control of Comus: William Blake, 1801

“O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…”
—Hamlet: Act I, Scene 5

I began with Comus, Milton’s 1634 masque, the touchstone of which I identified as chastity ensnared. Its horrifying story of a young woman trapped by a villain — smiling or otherwise — the likely victim of perdition through seduction is distressingly all too familiar these days. In Milton’s drama she puts up a spirited defence, but if it weren’t for the intervention of her brothers and a third party she may have indeed been lost; rescue, tragically, is all too rarely at hand in real life.

Many tales where the female is menaced by a male figure are still seen as inferring that it’s the woman who’s the instigator of her own victimhood, the architect of her own misfortunes. Like mythical Pandora or Psyche, who succumb to what’s often referred to as ‘transgressive curiosity’, they may stray where they shouldn’t, open storage containers, shine lights in dark corners, enter locked rooms or go widdershins. The astonishing message appears to be that it’s their own fault that they find trouble by, for instance, dressing provocatively, walking alone, or just being a woman.

But not all narratives take this line; whether implicitly or explicitly they pin the blame fully on the predator, the male — and more often than not it is a male — who perversely sees women as deserving abuse, rape or death. Many scholars have discussed this aspect and in what follows I shall allude to some of them (because, of course, my argument is in no way original). I want then to take up a couple or more threads: the implication that women bring misfortune on themselves; the intervention of one or more rescuers; and instances when sisters are actually doing it for themselves.

John D Batten frontispiece for ‘English Fairy Tales’ (1890)

Transgressive curiosity?

In Comus the nameless Lady is more proactive than at first appears. Lost in a wood, it’s her two brothers who together go off to find a way out, leaving her alone: whatever were they thinking? The wicked sorcerer Comus appears in the guise of a rustic helper to lead her to safety, only to trap and tempt her, threatening her with a potion which will turn her into beast. Steadfast in her refusal to be cowed, she may still fall prey to the sorcerer’s conjuring-rod.

With expert advice and a magic herb from a spirit disguised as a shepherd her brothers arrive in the nick of time to dash the potion to the ground, though Comus manages to escape with his magic wand. With further aid from a river nymph the Lady is freed from the magic spell and the siblings are able to return to their noble family.

Represented here are many of folklorist Vladimir Propp’s proposed cast of fairytale characters: a villain, a donor (the spirit), a helper (the nymph), a princess (the Lady), and a dispatcher and a hero (the brothers, after a fashion). A similar cast list is also found in Childe Rowland, a Scottish tale from at least the 18th century edited and retold by Joseph Jacobs in 1890. In this analogue to Comus some siblings are playing at ball by a church, but when Burd Ellen goes to fetch it she goes the wrong way round the church and so is abducted by the King of Elfland. Two brothers fail to follow advice given by a wise man (Merlin) and are also trapped in Elfland, but Childe Rowland follows instructions and defeats the Elf King, who is then forced to unspell Rowland’s siblings with a magical liquid. While Burd Ellen is rescued successfully by at least one of her brothers (conforming to the Arne-Thompson tale type 312), narratives in which the young daughter rescues herself (and perhaps her sisters) from the villain are apparently much more common in oral traditions than those in which the heroine’s brother or brothers rescue her.

In fact in Childe Rowland Ellen, as much as the Lady in Comus, despite being bespelled does what she can to circumvent the villain, as when she shakes her head when Rowland is about to eat forbidden food. Often in fact the would-be male rescuers’ attempts are inept: they fail to follow instructions and are easily distracted from their primary task, jeopardising the rescue mission.

In Charles Perrault’s telling of the Bluebeard tale (1697) the male author suggests that the villain’s unnamed wife suffers from what Maria Tatar has characterised as “transgressive desire,” Perrault’s moral emphasising “the evils of female curiosity” (Tatar 139ff) — in other words the vice ascribed to Pandora by Hesiod or to Eve by the Bible. However, Tatar rightly disputes this interpretation, pointing to Grimm’s tales such as Fitcher’s Bird and The Robber Bridegroom in which the satisfying of female curiosity is of vital importance. Further, listeners to such tales told orally are inevitably shown to be complicit in such curiosity, because has any audience member, on hearing what the heroine is about to do, ever declared they didn’t want to hear what was about to be revealed to the inquisitive protagonist? I’m sure we all would be agog to know what was in store!

Fantasy prison by Piranesi

Proactive heroines

How are the heroines shown to be more proactive in the tales, given that in many traditionalist cultures they are denied power? One way is to use Scheherazade’s ploy and employ delaying tactics: Scheherazade staved off her execution by never quite finishing her newly begun story, stopping just as the narrative became most involving. Bluebeard’s wife does something similar by never quite completing her prayers, until the moment her brothers arrive and kill her serial killer of a husband.

In the 18th-century English folk tale Mr Fox (which in an earlier form could well predate Spencer’s Elizabethan poem The Faërie Queene) Lady Mary’s curiosity about her betrothed, Mr Fox, takes her to his castle when he is absent; there, when hidden, she witnesses Mr Fox drag a young woman towards a Bloody Chamber where the bodies of other women lie. The next day at the signing of the marriage contract she produces, in front of witnesses, the hand which Mr Fox had severed from the young lady, which leads to her appalled brothers and friends killing and dismembering him. Her bravery and ingenuity in recounting what she’d seen initially as a dream is evidence of Lady Mary’s sang-froid in mastering her nerves, testament to her proactive sleuthing, and indicative of her Portia-like ability to lay out, as if in court, her evidence of MrFox’s perfidy.

Though sharing some of the features of the Childe Rowland tale Mr Fox is allocated a different Arne-Thompson tale type category, AT 955c, which as Neil Philip notes in his comments on the tale align it with Grimm’s The Robber Bridegroom, in which the crime is recounted as though it was the potential victim’s dream. Philip also includes on his collection — as does Katharine Briggs — the friend of a friend (or foaf) tale from 1900 by Augustus Hare called The Wooden Legs: this begins as if it is a Bluebeard-type narrative but has a surprising twist, making it “a kind of Bluebeard in reverse” as Briggs says.

Female agency

Many traditional tales which remain popular assign the principal female the role of victim, a princess or damsel to be rescued from the villain by a brave Knight or similar. But, looking more closely at these miscellaneous tales it seems that, even given the misogynistic attitude prevalent at any given time in history, the female protagonists have more agency than that associated with Cinderella, say, or Sleeping Beauty. They may search out the facts behind the façade presented by the male predator or, having been waylaid, attempt an angry defence; they may even use the evidence provided by their detective work to aid them in prosecuting.

Tatar is absolutely right however in questioning (1999:141) the “interpretive confidence” folklorists have shown

in reading “Bluebeard” as a story about a woman’s marital disobedience or sexual infidelity rather than about her husband’s murderous violence.

Such interpretations are not only, as she says, wrongheaded, they wilfully distract attention from where the finger of guilt should be pointed, namely at the predator who, far from being the victim of his own aggressive or jealous instincts, needs to take responsibility for them and modify them long before misdeeds are done.

Thus, while the ostensible subject matter, as Philip points out (1992:160), is

murder and attempted murder, the theme of these tales is sexual violence. A man who preys on women receives his comeuppance through the wiliness of his intended victim. The imagery [serves] as a warning to young girls and in its denouement as a warning to male predators.

Unfortunately, in a time of social upheaval, the warning to male sociopaths generally goes unheeded and the chances of them being held to task for their sexual violence approaches near zero; women’s righteous protests against such institutional injustice are entirely justified. Female agency can only go so far without a consensual approach to righting wrongs, and men — and societies in general — have to first address that.


  • Katherine M Briggs. British Folk Tales and Legends: a Sampler. Paladin, 1977. This selection from a longer compilation includes Mr Fox and The Wooden Legs.
  • Joseph Jacobs, editor. English Fairy Tales. Schoken Books, 1967. Jacobs’ end notes (257-266) citing parallels for the Childe Rowland tale are fascinating but need to be taken with a pinch of salt. He also includes his edited version of the Mr Fox story.
  • Neil Philip. The Penguin Book of English Folktales. Penguin Books, 1992. This collection includes a sequence of tales with related motifs beginning with The Story of Mr Fox and ending with The Hand of Glory.
  • Vladímir Propp. Morphology of the Folktale. Translated by Laurence Scott. University of Texas Press, 2001. Highly theoretical, Propp’s complex structural analysis of Russian folklore nevertheless repays careful attention.
  • Maria Tatar, editor. The Classic Fairy Tales. W W Norton & Company, 1999. As well as a discussion of the Bluebeard tale Tatar includes related tales (including Margaret Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg”) and outlines the relevance of Jane Eyre and film treatments of the theme.

12 thoughts on “Smiling villains

  1. Reading your post, I couldn’t help but think of the contrasting heroines in Nicholas Nickleby (I’m finally in the last segment)–we have Nicholas’ love interest Madeline Bray who is the typical damsel in distress, so saintly that she rejects any offers of rescue and is willing to sacrifice herself for her father; on the other is Nicholas’ sister Kate who has to suffer much initially when she is in the care of her uncle Ralph and must take up employment. While she doesn’t actively fight she stands up against injustice, and has no hesitation in reprimanding her despicable uncle when he puts her in harms way for his own profit. Naturally I prefer the latter as a character.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A very interesting post, Chris!
    I think that, as always, interpretation lies mostly with the reader – we can now see smarts and wilfulness where in times past the critics liked to see punished curiosity and damsels in distress 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’d like to think that the tide was turning in favour of the former but that, unlike the tide, it won’t return to a former status quo.

      I also could’ve mentioned the Attendant Spirit, Thyrsis, who might so easily have represented supine bystanders who go along with what bullies do when picking on the weak and helpless, but instead proffers advice and moral support to the brothers in their proactive efforts to counter the bully — but such a mention might have strained the reader’s patience!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. With the current emphasis on female empowerment, I think we perhaps overlook the other aspect of these stories – that decent men are expected to protect women from bad men. May not be the height of current feminism, but I think it’s not a bad message to send our sons…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right to point out that positive behaviour and intervention is required when wrongs are being done, and not just headshaking and tut-tutting—this isn’t really a question of men becoming knights in shining armour, I think, but being decent human beings. Actions which are too gung-ho though risk turning into another aspect of toxic masculinity (witness the wars against Saddam Hussein, or the so-called War on Terror).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating, Chris.

    “Transgressive curiosity” and Psyche brings me to CS Lewis and his reimagining of Cupid and Psyche, “Till we have faces.” Here agency is one of the things the main character struggles with, and she is at once unaware of her power and beset by the circumstances of her life and what she perceives as its injustice. For once, Lewis seems able to portray a woman with agency, and does so subtly, obliquely.

    I attended Neil Philip’s lecture last night on fairytales with unhappy endings, and I think with Lewis and your blog in mind I will have to go back and listen to it again when the recording is released.

    Thanks for this: it’s given me lots to think about!

    Like

    1. Pleased you found this of interest, Nick. Though unfamiliar with Till we have faces I’m hoping to reread Lewis’s That Hideous Strength along with the fragmentary The Dark Tower soon, and would be interested to remind myself how he portrays women, particularly in the former.

      I don’t know how I missed the notice of Neil’s lecture; but I do remember his tweeting a call for unhappy endings in traditional tales, though I couldn’t at the time recall any examples. Sounds to have been a valuable talk!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A really interesting post Chris – it seems that attitudes are never going to change and that the blame will always be laid at the women’s door, which is infuriating. Totally agree with Josie’s statement and I find it depressing we still haven’t seen real change despite decades of protest and attempts to reform things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is depressing, Karen, I agree. Just as it’s never women’s fault so it shouldn’t just be up to women to protest and attempt reforms. It seems to me that it has to be a combination, of education and man-to-man work, to effect real change: that men should talk to other men, not to exhort but persuade, and above to role-model how to behave to women, in fact to every human. Toxic masculinity will never disappear but its effects can be modified, hopefully mitigated, with determined and prolonged effort.

      Liked by 1 person

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