The cruelest women in fairy tales, if you were to ask the Grimms, are not the witches, but the women who slay innocent men in order to avoid marriage. They live in the Aarne-Thompson type #851, “The Princess Who Cannot Solve a Riddle,” and have a lineage that reaches as far back as the Greek Atalanta, who challenged her would-be suitors to a foot race. If they lost, they died. If she lost, she would marry them. Similarly, in tales like “The Riddle,” the princesses who riddle ask that their would-be suitors pose a clever question: if she can guess the answer, the suitor will be executed. The first one to posit a riddle that stumps her will be her husband. In this particular tale, the unsolvable riddle is “One slew nobody, and yet slew twelve”—meaning a raven that died from eating poisoned horse meat, and the twelve people who died after eating the raven.
Despite setting the challenge and then being served her match, the riddling princess is not too keen on marrying the winner, in this or most any tale of the type. In “The Riddle,” the princess sends two servants, then sneaks herself into the suitor’s chamber at night to hear whether he will say in the answer in his sleep. Yep, the riddling princesses are women who really doesn’t want to get married. They are the Grimms’ versions of bra-burners, proto-feminazis. And I love them.
Of course, I always wonder why the heroes of these stories always end up marrying them anyway—you would think ordering the deaths of several men and then falling for a trick would turn most people off, but no. A hopeful part of me likes to think that our protagonists admire their brides’ independent spirits, but then, our protagonists are part of the cage around those spirits, in the end. In this day and age, when marriage by itself is not always a happy ending, one might wish for another ending beyond the final words—when the blushing bride flees the tower in the night, clutching a knife.