A Feminist in the Kingdom of Trolls

by Kathryn McMahon

[Content warning: This essay mentions sexual assault.]

The protagonist’s motivation in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” has taunted me since childhood and needled my writing. To my feminist mother’s delight, by age three I was pointing out sexism on what little TV I was allowed to watch. We lived in Maryland with my Norwegian grandfather, in whose kitchen hung a witch to ward off evil. At Christmas, tiny elf decorations called julenissen abounded. With a heart for magic and an eye for criticism, I read Scandinavian fairy tales, and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” drew both my wonder and scorn.

In the fairy tale, a peasant gives his youngest daughter to a polar bear in exchange for gold. The polar bear takes her to his castle and forbids that she speak to her mother alone. The bear is secretly a prince cursed by the troll queen. He only resumes his human form in darkness when he sleeps with the girl. She endures this until she visits home and, “disobeying” him, confides in her mother, who gives her a candle. One night while the man is asleep, the girl lights the candle and accidentally wakes him. The troll queen whisks him away to marry her daughter. How sad that our heroine has lost her handsome, royal rapist! She must go rescue him—and suffer constant victim blaming along the way—finally winning him back with her ability to clean his shirt. Whoo.

I loved the idea of traipsing through the frozen north with someone to protect me, and would later discover what a maternal archetype bears are with origins in Paleolithic bear worship. Mother bears emerging from hibernation with their cubs made bears symbols of rebirth and fertility. The “great she-bear” constellation Ursa Major has a storied past that existed long before its Greco-Roman myth. And then there is Artio, fierce protector and ultimate mama bear Celtic goddess, whose influence trickled down to my own Irish surname (McMahon means “son of the bear”). While the fairy tale evoked a Jungian response in me, I didn’t understand why the prince’s disappearance was the girl’s fault, or why she wanted him back. Stockholm syndrome was not something I knew of yet, and I remain unconvinced that wealth was her motivation. So what changed? What drove her to face death—via troll predation—to rescue her captor?

While this depends on the retelling, at an essential level, these questions spur my fiction. I write to understand people. What causes characters to act in ways that surprise themselves and even the reader? And how is this made believable?

The answer to both is rich character development made possible by feminism. To craft fully realized characters of any gender is a feminist act. This doesn’t mean the characters proceed as feminists. But giving them the capacity for the breadth of human emotion and behavior undercuts traditional forms of gender and thus creates compelling, multi-dimensional actors. And as a reader or writer, it only makes the story more satisfying when I don’t simply face the trolls, but demand to, prince or no prince.


Kathryn McMahon’s fiction has appeared in Three Drops from a Cauldron, CHEAP POP, decomP, Necessary Fiction, Menacing Hedge, and Rose Red Review, among others. She lives in Vietnam with her wife and dog and tweets at @katoscope.

Editor’s Note: The Unbeautiful Ones

Growing up, you were shy. Or maybe you were short, you were fat, you had bad teeth. You had frizzy hair, you wet the bed, you spoke with a stammer. You slept with a stuffed toy ‘til you were twelve, or ‘til you were twenty, or ‘til your monthly blood ran out and you began soaking the bed with night sweats and hot flashes and Mississippi-wide rivers of regrets. You’re almost an old woman now. Love and transcendence have passed you by. Those fairy tales you were fed by Hollywood and MTV and Hans Christian Andersen as a child, and the ones you fed yourself to get by, through the loneliness of the school playground, through the long tick-tocking overthinking of the night, through the daily treacheries of life – they all lied.

Which fairy tale was it you always went back to, the one you believed in most? The one with the song saying someday your prince would come? Or the one where the funny-looking little duckling (you don’t like to say “ugly” – it’s a word that’s been used against you so many times) turns into a stunner of a swan? Did you think that might be you one day? Did you really? All along, you should have paid more attention to the crone, the ogre, the unredeemed outcasts, the ones haunting the margins, or worse yet, the ordinary ones, the unmagical, the unnamed and underappreciated. Because these were your destiny – not the beautiful ones, not the princess and the swan.

Or maybe the fairy tales didn’t lie. You just saw in them what you wanted, took what you needed. Beauty, hope, promises of happily ever after, some danger to make things interesting, some fear to cut through the dull of the everyday. You simply ignored the despair. Even though all fairy tales, and all life, is rife with it. Like that moment in Andersen’s tale about the duckling, when the bullied little bird welcomes the beauty of spring and a bevy of swans with pure, piercing heartache:

“I will fly to those royal birds,” he exclaimed, “and they will kill me, because I am so ugly, and dare to approach them; but it does not matter…”

Then he flew to the water, and swam towards the beautiful swans. The moment they espied the stranger, they rushed to meet him with outstretched wings.

“Kill me,” said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death.

In the next moment the duckling sees his reflection in the water, sees a swan looking back – his transformed self, his true tribe, his happily ever after. I wonder though, if the duckling had seen no change, no beauty, no swan staring back at him in the water, could he still have survived? Would he still have come to know happiness, belonging, self-love?

I need to know, same as every once and for-all-time misfit. Is there magic after all in despair? Can there be beauty in forsaken hope, transcendence without transformation, belonging when you’re the only one around to hear your own questions, a happy ending when the fairy tale, or life, or maybe yourself, is found so wanting?

Think back on the ones you paid too little attention to, while you were paying as little attention to the beauty in your worst and best self. The crone, the ogre, the marginal, the ordinary. The untransformed duckling. The resilient, the persisting, the interesting and astute, the ultimately self-accepting and wise. Lucky you – these were your destiny. The unbeautiful ones, who know how to make magic out of the most disappointing circumstances, to potion up an unbreakable spell of endurance out of yesterday’s cold pot of despair. Let them teach you to love whatever reflection stares back at you, to see the beauty in even a fantastically imperfect you.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor René Madonna Ostberg. 

Illustration of the ugly ducking by Monika Laimgruber.