Ella, Sophie, and the active fantasy heroine

Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine (1997), and Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)

Ella_enchanted_(book_cover)These two books work well as source materials for that old English class stand-by, the comparison essay¹. Ella Enchanted can be set against the story of Cinderella, and both can be set against their movie versions. But what I hope teachers will do with this assignment is push their students to go beyond merely listing the similarities and differences between or among whatever works are being compared, to asking their students to explore the reasons for the differences.

UnknownFor instance: the fairy tale Cinderella² gives us a rags-to-riches story, spiced up with some sibling rivalry and a handsome prince. Levine takes the basic premise and inserts a backstory that gives the heroine not just depth and reality, but also agency. When we discussed these differences in class, we noted how flat and passive Cinderella is. The most active she becomes is when she wishes to go to the ball. Ella, however, when given the “gift” of obedience, no longer has the option of choosing to obey, so she shows agency in how she obeys. Levine also puts Ella on a quest (one of the strengths of this book is how Levine so deftly mixes genres). It’s possible to argue that Perrault, writing in the late 17th century, can’t be expected to be a feminist. Fair enough. So when Levine in the late 20th century re-envisions this story from a feminist viewpoint, she creates a tale that surprises with its depth. Even the evil step-sisters have more to them than jealousy and the desire to be rich.

We didn’t have much time to speak of Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, except as part of a larger discussion of Keeling and Sprague’s article, “Dragon-Slayer vs. Dragon-Sayer: Reimagining the Female Fantasy Heroine” (2009). To clarify this dichotomy for ourselves, we started listing characters from novels, and then from movies and TV series, whom we thought were one or the other. Lara Croft and Buffy are definitely dragon-slayers (and I’ll now add Mrs. Emma Peel, from the 1960s series The Avengers). Ella and Sophie are somewhere in between the two (as with any dichotomy, these categories are useful only as opposite ends of a spectrum; few characters are purely one or the other). Lizzie Bennet’s name came up as a candidate for the dragon-sayer side (although her face-off with Darcy’s aunt is more slayer than sayer).

Next up: two novels from non-Anglo cultural perspectives: … And now Miguel, about a family of Mexican immigrant sheep farmers in New Mexico, and I, Juan de Pareja, about Diego Velazquez’s slave. Both are Newbery Medal winners.

¹Will someone please explain to me why English teachers, so quick to stamp out redundancy in students’ writing, can’t see it in the tiresome name of this rhetorical mode, the “compare and contrast” essay.

²Andrew Lang’s excellent analysis of Perrault’s version of this European folktale can be found here, and Bruno Bettelheim provides a fascinating Freudian interpretation in The Uses of Enchantment.

Posted by BR


2 thoughts on “Ella, Sophie, and the active fantasy heroine

  1. As I understand it, and I could be wrong, “compare” means to look at two things together in order to find both the similarities and the differences, and “contrast” means to find the differences.

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