• Jem Roberts

Tales of Britain Princesses & The Saffron Cockatrice

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Happy Folklore Thursday AND International Women's Day, folkie folks!

Whatever you think about Disney's 'Princesses', as you can see, our 77 tales offer our own pantheon of women heroes. We're not short of legendary Queens, Princesses and powerful protagonists aplenty – one of our core drives has always been to make up for millennia of damsels in distress being handed over to male heroes as rewards, or nymphs being shamelessly assaulted by errant knights (who then get let off by Queen Guinevere). But, having an equal intention of showing maximum respect to the source material, there's no denying that with Arthur, Jack, Robin et al, male protagonists still outnumber them – just about. Sometimes it's brain-bruisingly tricky to retell an existing legend respectfully, while defusing or re-contextualising the swathes of inherent misogyny which can sometimes be the driver of the whole plot. The issues we mentioned in last week's Tamlane blog are also part of the puzzle of reviving these myths for a modern audience.

Some have demanded that our book has full 50-50 gender equality, but it's impossible to do that without being tokenistic, and/or tearing apart the traditions of the stories we're telling. Also, it's much easier to represent more women in the stories than it is to show the same respect to people of other sexualities or ethnicities – those issues just don't arise in our tales, at least not directly, and to crowbar them in would come across as the weakest desperation to tick boxes. I hope the whole book reeks of tolerance and inclusivity, and stresses that Britain is a mongrel country where all are welcome, no matter where on the spectrum their gender, sexuality, or racial roots may lie. But gender is the main issue we can act on.

Therefore, where any character or protagonist needn't necessarily be either gender, we've tried to use the opportunity to even things up a bit – without, I hope, falling into the usual traps of turning every non-male character into a 'feisty' manic pixie dreamgirl-type. Certainly, none of the above 'Princesses' could be described as such. Which brings us to THE SAFFRON COCKATRICE.



We'll openly admit that our rather silly retelling of this Essex legend was one of the two or three which our copy-editor marked for deletion – which we strongly refuse to do, as it's one of our favourites, and more to the point, a recurring favourite of girls in our audience – because our hero is a young woman who shows up all the men around her. Those familiar with the tale may be taken aback at this, and we apologise to Saffron Walden residents who take offence at their local legend facing a gender-swap, but we're proud of the way it works now.

The thing is, complete transparency here, this collection of 77 tales does contain the same story at least 5 times – certainly, following the rules of your average academic 'folklorist': there's a monster terrorising the neighbourhood, and a protagonist comes along and, with some quirk of technique or magic, they vanquish them. Sometimes the hero lives, sometimes they die, sometimes it's a dragon or wyrm, sometimes it's... well, a cross between a chicken and a snake, but they break down to the same shape tale. However, those five tales have all been given vastly different flavours for Tales of Britain, and we chose The Saffron Cockatrice to make the key differentiation, of portraying the slayer as a woman rather than a man.

It's not a widely known story outside of Essex, but the hero has always been known as 'The Glass Knight', whose key triumph was in shining their armour so well, the basilisk's killer glare rebounds back on it, and the day is saved. When we first began retelling the legend, we made the hero a victim of bullying, a wannabe knight whose efforts were sneered at by other knights until they proved the best of them all – and making the protagonist female just seemed to make that dynamic work all the better. What, a girl? Slay a monster? JUST WATCH.

Actually, there is one further quite silly alteration we made to this legend, but to find out what it is, I'm afraid you're going to have to wait until the book is in your hands, we don't want to give everything away. All we'll say is, with our misogynist-trouncing hero 'Sir' Billie vanquishing the Saffron Cockatrice, making the streets safe for tourists, the place is now clearly one of the most gorgeous places to visit in Essex! And we would say this recommendation is offered as some recompense to locals who are offended that their hero is now a woman, but then, if it really bothers you, we're not sure you deserve recompense. Long live 'Sir' Billie, say we!

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Getting ready for print
Publication date: November 2018
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