One of my favorite fairy tales is East of the Sun, West of the Moon*. This is a slightly less well-known story, but it shares themes with Beauty and the Beast and Cupid and Psyche.
A peasant girl goes to live with a polar bear in his enchanted castle, in exchange for making her family wealthy. She has a great time in the polar bear’s snazzy castle (cause what polar bear castle isn’t snazzy?); however, every night after she blows out the candle, a strange man comes to her room and lies next to her. She can’t see him in the dark, and he never speaks to her. By morning he is gone. Of course, this is suspicious, and very interesting.
So when the polar bear lets her go visit her family, her mother gives her a candle and tells her she must light it and look at the man, because he might be a monster. The girl, in possession of the contraband candle, can’t resist her curiosity and lights it one night, discovering that the man in bed is, in fact, a handsome prince who is cursed to appear as a polar bear by an evil troll queen and now he has to go to the castle East of the Sun and West of the Moon and marry the evil troll queen’s even eviller even trollier daughter and it’s all the girl’s fault for looking at him and why couldn’t she just have not lit the freaking candle?! Then *poof* he disappears, and the girl wakes up alone in a huge dark forest.
Instead of blowing off this whole weird adventure as a weird adventure and going back to her family, the girl sets off on an epic journey to find the unfindable castle and rescue the prince from his troll bride. Because everyone knows princes can’t rescue themselves from troll brides.
Unlike many other fairy tales, such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or Rapunzel, this is a story about a girl who does things. Case in point: Cinderella has a terrible life, so instead of running away, she cries. Then a magic fairy sends her to a party, and the rich guy marries her. Easy-peasy. Sleeping Beauty, the laziest princess ever, takes a 100-year nap, is kissed by a stranger in her sleep (consent much?) who just happens not to be a creep, wakes up, and marries him. This sends a great message to kids. Got a problem? Sleep ’til someone else solves it for you. Rapunzel has a dead-beat prince who, in addition to not rescuing her from the tower, impregnates her outside of wedlock. As a result, Rapunzel gets herself kicked out of the tower and lives in the wilderness with her babies until the blind prince finally finds her. After she forgives him, he is cured of blindness, and they go back to his kingdom where he finally marries her. Granted, Rapuzel didn’t have it that easy. But she made no effort to get herself out of that wilderness. If the prince hadn’t happened along, she could’ve spent her entire life there.
In contrast, the girl in East of the Sun, West of the Moon volunteers to go with a polar bear in order to help out her family. She doesn’t make any inexcusably dumb mistakes, like taking dubious poisoned objects from strangers. (Looking at you, Snow White.) She doesn’t take any extended naps. She doesn’t let her stepmother walk all over her. When she finds herself alone in the wilderness, she gets herself the heck outta there and goes to save the day. She is resourceful, courageous, and strong, which makes her a perfect fairy-tale role model.
*Aarne-Thompson tale type 425 A, Search for the Lost Husband. Beauty and the Beast, which is similar, is tale type 425 C. I like this classification system. It’s cool and makes me feel all literary.