Countless words have been spilt analysing the renditions, subversions and meanings of the so called damsel in distress. That it is this classic archetype has been subject to such scrutiny, suggests that while the concept is widely recognised, either its particular qualities are less clear or have some flexibility to them. As a modern fairy tale with roots in Slavic folklore and history, it is unsurprising then that these questions echo throughout The Ghost Drum. If even the name of the trope denotes women, the book asks, then would it be possible to label its male deuteragonist, Safa, as one such damsel? Do trappings like his royal bloodline or imprisonment in a tower evidence this label? And if a character’s victimhood is not the entirety of their role in the story, then should we even begin to consider applying the term to them?
At first glance, the story appears to be a fairly straight forward reversal of fairy tale conventions; the one needing to be saved is the czarevich, the woman that rescues him is a witch, and one of the two main antagonists is a princess. Perhaps however this interpretation is too simple, for isn’t a young male heir to the throne, who is imprisoned under the guise of protection, as reminiscent of the Princes in the Tower as Rapunzel? That his disappearance is believed by many to be caused by a nefarious relative having him suffocated in his sleep? Another possible interpretation of this premise is that it is inspired by Arthurian legend, with parallels between Chingis’ protection and guidance of Safa and the mentorship of Arthur by Merlin. These alternative readings are important, for though there are similarities between them as icons of folklore, the purpose of these characters in their respective stories and the way we interpret them are distinct. Is it possible then for a character to occupy multiple roles, to not just mature from one role to another, but exemplifying forms of idealised and goodness simultaneously?
Does this then suggest that the archetype of the damsel should be refined to the character’s adherence to idealised femininity, rather than necessitating them being female? It is notable that Susan Price introduces Safa through a witch’s prediction that Chingis will be loved by him, and that one of the first things she notices about him is his beauty. Though their relationship is platonic, Safa’s devotion is such that he refuses to be made king in favour of following Chingis into the afterlife by killing himself. This willingness to suffer and to sacrifice all else for love is a distinctly feminine route to heroism, most notably portrayed in the tale of the Little Mermaid. And yet, one cannot dismiss how painfully human Safa is, regardless of whether they view these complexities to his character as a challenge to this form of femininity, or to the simpler world of folk tales. Safa may need to be rescued from captivity, but he does not merely sit there pining for another life; from an early age he tries to manipulate others to get what he wants, screams, begs and becomes violent towards people and his surroundings. Should actions such as these undermine a character’s worthiness to be saved, and thus whether they qualify as a damsel in distress, or does this portrayal add a much needed realism to the role? If it is the latter, does this therefore challenge some of the harmful implications intrinsic to the role?
A common criticism of damselled characters is that their suffering is primarily used as a narrative signifier of the heroism of their saviour, even in cases where they are not presented as a reward. That Chingis is willing, when other shamans turn away, to help Safa certainly shows her good nature, however, as already shown, Safa’s experiences are not simply dismissed in the process. Whereas the story had previously moved between perspectives chapter by chapter, following the many characters on their different paths, the rescue is depicted through the perspectives of them both crucially ending with Safa. Could one not argue – unkindly if not unfairly – that Chingis would have been better off leaving Safa imprisoned, as his rescue sparks the events that ultimately lead to her downfall? Safa’s worth as an apprentice is less questionable, for his innocence causes him to be almost entirely unteachable, though Chingis does learn from studying him. Is their relationship another rendition of the gendered hierarchies depicted in many in this genre, or be seen as a call to bridge the divide between power? Although The Ghost Drum ultimately does not offer any definitive answers to these questions, that it considers them worthy of exploration speaks to the complexity of dynamics in fairy tales, and their continual impact on us today.