I blame Shakespeare. In his comedies, you know that when the heroine turns to crossdressing, the fun’s about to start (unless it’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which case I would say spare yourself the pain and walk out of the theatre NOW). So it’s no surprise that I admire the titular character of the Italian folk tale ‘Fanta-Ghirò the Beautiful’ (p. 249, chapter 69, Italian Folk Tales).
It’s a typical ‘three sons, youngest wins’ story, except that there are three daughters – all beautiful, by the way; Fanta-Ghirò merely happens to be the most beautiful. She is also the one who gets to command her ailing father’s army because she can control her tongue. The others fail because they talk about women’s work while on campaign, something their father the King has expressly forbidden. Fanta-Ghirò goes riding off fully equipped with helmet, armour, sword and two pistols, and her father’s trusty squire Tonino at her side. The king of the neighbouring land has issued a declaration of war – but what does Fanta-Ghirò say? ‘Before going into battle, I’d like a word with the enemy king.’
The enemy king, (who, according to the convenient conventions of these kind of tales, is young and handsome), guesses that she is a girl the moment he sees her. So he invites her to his palace to parley and quickly runs to his mamma (delightful! A mummy’s-boy enemy king!) to beg for advice. She provides him with a list of tests guaranteed to determine the gender of this strange enemy general that her son has unaccountably fallen in love with. Fanta-Ghirò plays the male flawlessly, but with each negative result, the increasingly distressed king only convinces himself further that she must be a girl.
With eyes so black and speech so low
She’s a maiden, I know, I know!
In a last desperate attempt to prove her a female and himself a heterosexual, he invites her to go swimming, a popular scenario which you can see played out in Yentl (in fact, I’m not convinced that Freddy wasn’t suspicious of George in A Room With A View when he abruptly invited him to splash in a pond with himself and the local curate).
I won’t tell you how she gets out of that one, but she does, negotiates peace, and leaves for home. The besotted enemy king follows her and proposes marriage, which is, actually, a far more pleasant way of expanding your boundaries than invasion.
Now is this not brilliant? Can you not see the girl all dressed up in her armour, with sword belted on and two pistols stuck in her sash? And never having to draw blade or fire a shot to get what she wanted. Who says folk tales are all about languid princesses getting rescued by active, dragon-killing princes?
In similar style, but without the cross dressing, there are the two Catherines. One is ‘Catherine, Sly Country Lass’ (p. 261, chapter 72), and the other ‘Catherine the Wise’ (p. 540, Chapter 151). These two marry early on in their tales, one to a king, one to a prince. The king marries Catherine Country Lass because he is intrigued at her intelligence and amused by her wit, but he soon runs into difficulties when she begins to question and countermand his court judgements. Finally, he can’t take being undermined any more, for now the whole country looks to his queen and not to him to render justice. He orders her back to her father’s house, a decree which she bears with surprising humility. Then, one very large meal and several bottles of wine later, he wakes up, very bewildered, to find that he no longer in the palace, but rather in a small, rustic, unfamiliar bed. Catherine says to him:
Didn’t you tell me, Majesty, to return home with the thing I liked best of all? I took you, and I’m keeping you.’
He laughs, they make up, and they live happily ever after with Catherine as co-adjudicator in the king’s courts. And I, reading it, go ‘awwwww’ without the least trace of embarrassment.
Slightly darker is the other tale. The prince marries Catherine the Wise out of … revenge. In spite of her name, this Catherine is less wise than the sly country lass, and far more highly educated. She runs a university and teaches all who would learn, regardless of rank, treating them all the same. So, when the prince comes to attend her class and is unable to give an answer to a question, she gives him the standard punishment – a backhanded slap to the face.
Thinking, perhaps, that a husband would surely have more power over a wife than a student over a teacher, the prince proposes, marries her, and then immediately demands an apology for the slap. Catherine’s response is, predictably, along the lines of ‘clearly you are looking for another slap’. The prince then puts her into a pit-dungeon to wear her down, visiting her three times a day in hopes of hearing an apology.
About ten years later, he was apologising to her. Why? Well, during those years she had managed to:
– get out of the pit with her father’s help and without the prince’s knowledge;
– run off to Naples, where the prince was visiting, seduced him, married him, and bore him a son;
– caught up with the prince in Genoa, married him and bore him another son;
– proceeded on to Venice, ensnared the prince yet again, married him, and bore him a daughter;
all without him being able to say more than:
‘Would you believe, my lady, that you look like several other ladies I know – one in Palermo, one in Naples, one in Genoa –.’
Of course, by the end of it, she was able to produce the three children and the documents of acknowledgement that the polygamist prince had thoughtfully provided before leaving, and he was thoroughly embarrassed and not at all inclined to press her further on the apology for the slap. Besides, having married her (and abandoned her) about four times over without realising it, he really wasn’t in a position to complain that he had chosen poorly.
I admit, I do prefer the Sly Country Lass over the Allegedly-Wise, but no doubt there are good reasons to marry even a stupid, philandering prince. Frankly, I think she just wanted the kids.