Reclaiming Agnes: More musings on Fairy Tales by Assistant Editor Christina Collins

The Little Mermaid’s Predecessor That Most Feminists Don’t Know About.

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is a goldmine for contemporary feminist fairy tale re-writers. Regardless of how they choose to respond to the original tale, they find plenty of material to work with. What they emphasize, what they change, and what they reject all together provide insight into whether the little mermaid, as she initially stands, should be considered a positive female figure. One of the tale’s more sensitive issues among feminist writers is the notion that the woman must cater to the man’s world and adapt to his life. To feminists’ disappointment, Andersen’s mermaid willingly adapts.

Most rewriters of “The Little Mermaid,” however, are not familiar with the little mermaid’s surprisingly progressive ancestor, Agnes, from the medieval folk ballad “Agnes and the Merman” (sometimes known as “Agnete and the Merman”), an early literary example of exogamous marriage. In the first half of both the folk-song and Andersen’s tale, the protagonist immigrates to the man’s world, leaving her own world behind. The second half of Agnes’ story, however, will surprise and interest feminists. It is necessary to disclose what becomes of the human girl, Agnes, after she has immigrated to a merman’s world, for her ending may be the very ending that feminist rewriters unknowingly seek.

After Agnes lives with the merman for many years and bears him seven sons, she soon longs to return home. The merman gives her leave to visit the land as long as she promises to return to her “children small” (Olrik 114). Instead of keeping her promise, she chooses to remain on land and abandon her mer-husband and children. When the merman comes on land to retrieve her, he beckons to her: “Heed now, Agnes, what I say to thee! / All thy little children are longing after thee” (115). Agnes’ answer is harsh and surprising: “Let them long as they will, let their longing be sore, / I shall return to them nevermore” (116). Indeed, she rejects her role as wife and mother. Even when the merman tries to exploit her maternal sympathies by asking her to think of their children, Agnes remains firm in her final answer: “I think not of the grown ones, nor yet of the small, / Of the baby in the cradle I’ll think least of all” (116). She rejects all that is traditionally thought to be a woman’s lot in life: marriage and motherhood. By refusing to return to the sea, she rejects the limitations of this ideal, as well as the notion that a woman must cater to her husband’s lifestyle.

Whether or not one agrees with Agnes’ choice, her self-directed and unapologetic repudiation is remarkable. Her ending presents an alternative to the little mermaid’s outcome—the possibility of liberation from the traditional path through a means other than death. For this reason, Agnes’ liberating ending may indeed be the ending that feminist writers seek but cannot find in their revisions of “The Little Mermaid.”  Feminist revisions, after all, seek to expose, question, and challenge the implausibility of traditional gender constraints and social expectations, and, above all, liberate the original text and its readers from those constraints and expectations. Agnes is the embodiment of that liberation—a kind of radical feminism far ahead of its time—but, unfortunately, her story has been lost. Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” as a newer tale of “the double world” theme, was so popular that medieval Agnes was inevitably forgotten. Perhaps feminist rewriters of “The Little Mermaid” are, without realizing it, attempting to reclaim some trace of Agnes. Or if they’re not, then maybe they should be.

Three writers in particular have striven to reconstruct Andersen’s protagonist: Barbara Walker in “The Littlest Mermaid,” Joanna Russ in “Russalka or The Seacoast of Bohemia,” and Emma Donoghue in “The Tale of the Voice.”  They each have something different to offer, but all three respond in some way to the problems of voice and autonomy in the original tale. Interestingly, none of these revisions responds to the original little mermaid’s goal of immortality. All three stories focus only on her secondary goal of winning the prince and attack her pursuit of a romantic ideal. This focus may perhaps be explained by the fact that the romantic ideal and the notion of self-sacrifice for romantic love are dominant in the minds and lives of contemporary women.

Ideally, a feminist version of Andersen’s mermaid would remain able to rely upon herself for success rather than upon another. Perhaps, even feminist revisions cannot break free of certain contradictions; perhaps we still embrace the notion of woman as self-sacrificer. It seems, then, that the most realistic goal is to find a happy medium. Perhaps there is no definitive way to achieve this medium—perhaps Andersen’s mermaid can only be happy in death, and perhaps Agnes’ abandonment of her mer-family is not an ideal model of behavior—but in the end, every little mermaid should maintain the human right to pursue her own ends on her own terms, with her own voice intact to guide her.

Works Cited

Olrik, Axel, ed. A Book of Danish Ballads. Trans. E.M. Smith-Dampier. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1968.


Christina Elaine Collins, in addition to serving as So to Speak’s Assistant Editor, is a Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction writer, an MFA candidate and English instructor at George Mason University. Her fiction can be found in various literary journals such as Jabberwock Review, Poiesis Review, Weave Magazine, and Rose Red Review. She has been a writer-in-residence at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts as well as the Art Commune program in Armenia. You can find her on Twitter at


Remembering Philomela: Origins of the Mute Woman, and Why She Remains Pertinent to Feminists

February 16, 2014 by So to Speak · 1 Comment
Filed under: Christina C, Fiction, Nonfiction, Opinion, Uncategorized 

By Christina Elaine Collins

The mute woman found in myths and folklore embodies issues of marginalization, subjection, and self-determination.  She is an intriguing figure because she invokes both empathy and irritation, embodying both women’s experiences with silence and women’s resentment of that silence.  Folk narratives offer a particularly compelling context for exploring silence as a feminist issue.  Folk narratives exhibit patterns in character roles and gendered themes, and female silence is easily identifiable as one such pattern.  It can be detected as early as 8 AD, when the Roman poet Ovid retold the Greek myth of Philomela in Book VI of the Metamorphoses, a fifteen-volume narrative poem.

In lines 401-674 of Book VI, Ovid explains how Philomela is raped by her sister’s husband, king Tereus of Thrace.  When Philomela threatens to tell the world of his rape, Tereus violently cuts off her tongue, rapes her again, and locks her in a cabin in the woods.  Thinking her absolutely silenced, he tells his wife, Procne, that her sister is dead.  Philomela, undeterred, passes a year in the cabin weaving “purple signs” onto a tapestry that “tells the story of her wrongs” (Ovid 329).  She gives this tapestry to her attendant, who delivers it to Procne.  The enraged queen releases her sister and brings her back to her palace, where she seeks revenge on her husband by killing their son and serving the body to him as a meal.  While eating, Tereus asks to see his son, and the sisters delight in their triumph; Procne informs him that his son is in his stomach, and Philomela bursts onto the scene with his son’s head.  As Tereus attempts to kill the sisters, all three are transformed into birds.  According to Ovid, Tereus becomes a hoopoe, Procne a swallow, and Philomela, most significantly, a nightingale (329-335).  The nightingale’s song is particularly plaintive and mournful, and this transformation gives Philomela a voice to mourn her real voice and the violation that its loss represents.

Philomela is unmistakably a forerunner for the mute protagonists of folk and fairy tales that we see from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.  Philomela’s voice, like that of the sister in the “The Six Swans” and the mermaid in “The Little Mermaid,” is something valuable that has been taken from her.  The very power of her voice threatens Tereus, when she tells him, “I myself will cast shame aside and proclaim what you have done.  If I should have the chance, I would go where people throng and tell it” (Ovid 327).  This threat is what prompts Tereus to remove her tongue, her organ of speech, so that her “speechless lips can give no token of her wrongs” (329).  The removal is violent, forceful, and clearly unwanted. “But he seized her tongue with pincers, as it protested against the outrage, calling ever on the name of her father and struggling to speak, and cut it off with his merciless blade” (327).  The tongue itself, the physical manifestation of Philomela’s voice, becomes the subject of the narrative as it clings in vain to speech, “calling” and “struggling to speak.”  The very fact that it “protested” indicates Philomela’s dissent and proves that her muteness is forced upon her completely against her will.

Image from the Center for Hellanic Studies

This tale not only describes a woman’s enforced silence, but also presents her perseverance in spite of losing her physical voice, as we will see in European folk and fairy tales of mute women.  In fact, the myth of Philomela presents the prototype for stories of women who devise other ways of speaking when they cannot speak physically.  Without a physical voice, Philomela resorts to storytelling through weaving; she writes her story because she cannot speak it. Elissa Marder argues that “[t]his text invites a feminist reading […] because it establishes a relationship between the experience of the violation and access to language” (160).  According to Marder, Philomela “writes out of necessity and in response to violation”; that is, she discovers a secondary way to manifest her voice in the absence of the conventional means.   Karen E. Rowe similarly points out that “Philomela’s trick reflects the ‘trickiness’ of weaving, its uncanny ability to make meaning out of inarticulate matter, to make silent material speak” (56).  Rowe thus emphasizes the importance of voice as well as silence in Philomela’s story, viewing the myth as a paradigm for understanding the female voice in folklore and fairy tale.  By weaving tales and singing songs, Philomela not only embodies the later archetype of the female storyteller, but also “breaks her enforced silence by speaking in another mode—through a craft presumed to be harmlessly domestic, as fairy tales would also be regarded in later centuries” (57).

Rowe’s concept of “enforced silence” is the key link between the tale of Philomela and later European tales like “The Six Swans” and “The Little Mermaid.”  In those tales, silence is also imposed on the protagonist.  The major difference is that Philomela is brutally robbed of her voice by another character, whereas “The Six Swans” and “The Little Mermaid” concern women who appear to give up their voices voluntarily.  This difference is trivial in light of the shared theme of female silence, which always involves some degree of coercion, raising the overarching questions of voice and autonomy, questions that remain pertinent to feminists today.  We must not forget Philomela.

Works Cited

Marder, Elissa.  “Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomela.”  Language and Liberation: Feminism, Philosophy, and Language.  Eds. Christina Hendricks and Kelly Oliver. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.  149-169.

Ovid.  Metamorphoses: Books I-VIII.  Trans. Frank Justus Miller. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: Heinemann, 1977.

Rowe, Karen E. “To Spin a Yarn: The Female Voice in Folklore and Fairy Tale.” In Fairy Tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm.  Ed. Ruth B. Bottigheimer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.  53-74.


Christina Elaine Collins is a Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction writer, an MFA candidate and English instructor at George Mason University, and So to Speak’s assistant editor. Her fiction can be found in various literary journals such as Jabberwock Review, Poiesis Review, Weave Magazine, and Rose Red Review. She has been a writer-in-residence at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts as well as the Art Commune program in Armenia. You can find her on Twitter at


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