Fairy tales get a bad rap for how they reinforce gender roles and hold up heterosexuality as a guarantee of a happy ending. By now we’ve all read the hot takes about “Cinderella” or “The Little Mermaid.” But this is a big genre; fairy tales exist in nearly every culture on the planet, and have been told and retold for centuries. There are no shortage of fun retellings and reimaginings of fairy tales that spotlight LGBTQ+ leads, but for this article, I’m looking for something a little different: fairy tales from across Europe that already are queer, in content, tone, or implication. Each is a different magic mirror that reflects to the world that there has always been a place for us and our stories. Allow me to introduce some of my favorites:
Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree: Snow White’s Polyamorous Cousin from Scotland
This story comes from 1892’s Celtic Fairy Tales, collected by Joseph Jacobs, and follows the titular mother-daughter duo. When Queen Silver-Tree learns that Princess Gold-Tree has supplanted her as fairest of them all, she vows to kill her. Luckily, a prince from another land has proposed to the princess, and she escapes by eloping to his kingdom. Silver-Tree tracks her daughter down and poisons her. Thinking she’s dead, the prince remarries. Then one day, the second princess wanders into Gold-Tree’s chamber and breaks the spell. Silver-Tree is killed, and Gold-Tree, her husband, and her wife live happily ever after.
The Dog and the Sailor: A Gay Gem Recently Unearthed
The Dog and the Sailor is less a story and more a classification in the Stith Thompson Motif Index, which classifies hundreds of stories from multiple languages around the world. It only recently made its English language debut as a picture book by Pete Jordi Wood, and thank god it did because it is adorable: a prince-turned-dog teams up with a down-on-his-luck sailor to defeat a wicked witch. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate the source Wood used (I have to spend some time on homework, after all), but it has all the surreal and wonderful staples of a classic folk tale, and I’m more than willing to add it to my rotation of classics.
The Marquise-Marquis de Banneville: The Trans Love Story We All Need
Written by either Charles Perrault, Francois-Timoleon de Choisy, or Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier in 1695 (it was published anonymously), this is the charming tale of Mariane, the daughter of the Marquise of Banneville. Mariane falls in love with the charming Marquis de Bercourt, and they have the kind of whirlwind romance that only these types of stories can pull off. But Mariane’s overprotective mother and the Marquis himself keep coming up with excuses to avoid the wedding. As it turns out, Mariane and the Marquis are both trans, and fear rejection if they disclose their status. And yes, it has a happy ending for the two lovers. They accept each other for who they are, continue living their lives as suits them, and guarantees the existence of a rightful heir that will keep Mariane’s scheming uncle away from the family fortune. This one gets bonus points for the non-binary Prince(ss) Sionad, a key supporting player who proves their worth on the battlefield and the ballroom. Where’s their movie, Disney?
Fet-Fruners: The Transgender Prince Charming of Romania
Let’s keep riding the trans train to eastern Europe and meet Fet-Fruners. Assigned “princess” at birth, Fet-Fruners learns his kingdom needs him and sets off with his talking horse to the court of a powerful emperor. He battles shape-shifters, evil spirits, witches, and heteronormative gender standards. The ultimate challenge comes when he is sent on a mission to rescue the beautiful and clever Princess Iliane from monsters so his evil boss can marry her instead. But Iliane finds a way to destroy the evil emperor and put herself and her true love on the throne, in the single most wholesome “Lady Macbeth”-alike I’ve ever read.
There’s also the big “transition” scene, which, while incredibly awkward, is still one of the most positive portrayals of coming out and into your own out there (which reflects pretty poorly on modern mass media, but that’s for another time). On one of his adventures, Fet-Fruners annoys a magical old man, who tries to punish him with a curse that will change his sex. “But punishments are things about which people do not always agree, and when the princess suddenly felt she was really the man she had pretended to be, she was delighted, and if the hermit had only been within reach she would have thanked him from her heart.” An entire thesis could be (and in fact, has been) written about the weirdness at play here, but it’s still incredibly sweet.
The Wood Maiden: Tragic Dancing Lesbians from Czechoslovakia
Every day at noon, a mysterious and beautiful maiden appears to the farm girl Betushka. The maiden offers to dance with her, and, well, just read the passage:
With that she tucked up her skirt, put her arm about Betushka's waist, and they began to dance....Betushka's cheeks burned, her eyes shone. She forgot her spinning, she forgot her goats. All she could do was gaze at her partner who was moving with such grace and lightness that the grass didn't seem to bend under her slender feet.
They dance until the sun goes down, and the maiden presents Betushka with miraculous gifts. On the third day, the maiden gives Betushka something especially impressive, but has her promise not to look into the basket until she gets home. In a moment of Orpheus-style weakness, Betushka breaks her vow and sees only tree leaves. But when she gets home, they all turn to gold.
Thanks to the wood maiden’s gifts, Betushka and her mother are rich, but happily ever after is undercut by the broken promise: “no matter what she did, no matter how cheerful and happy she was, still nothing ever again gave her quite so much pleasure as the dance with the wood maiden.” It’s a beautiful tale of lost love, and while we’re all sick of tragic lesbian stories, this one’s worth checking out.
The Robber Bridegroom: Grimm’s Aro/Ace vs. Serial Killer Action Movie
Let’s wrap up with this story from the Brothers Grimm about an awesome ace heroine and her badass granny sidekick. Despite his daughter’s wishes to remain unmarried, a miller pairs her up with a seemingly respectable and wealthy man, only for her to quickly discover that he is the leader of a cult of serial killers/cannibals/robbers. Teaming up with an old lady the cult has enslaved, the two women find their way back home and bring the murderers to justice. The violence in the story is probably why it’s told less often than some of their other stories, but if you’ve got the stomach for it, this is a story about solidarity between women, the importance of curiosity, and staying true to your convictions in scary situations. For all the action aces out there, this one’s for you.
And like I said at the start, the six I’ve highlighted here are just the tip of the iceberg. From two bros going to St. James’s shrine, to a Twelfth Night-alike with satyrs and even more crossdressing, to trans icon and original “friend of Dorothy” Princess Ozma, fairy tales are a gold mine of queerness and complexities in a seemingly rigid hetero-patriarchal system, once you know where to look. And the trip over the rainbow is definitely worth taking.