I love this movie for so many reasons. It isn’t High Art, but it can be unpacked just as a ballad or a myth can be. There are layers of meaning there for the Celtic scholar, but like any good story, it isn’t necessary to be aware of them to enjoy the story. Most of all, it takes the old, old trope of the princess who steps out of her role, has adventures, and is shoved neatly back in her box at the end and stands it on its head. It also makes use of the old feminist idea of inverting the power structure–putting the boy in the girl’s place–and seeing what the situation looks like from there.
I think I’ll start with the boys. There’s a concept called ternary analogy that basically covers the place of most of the men in the story. Whenever you see three of anyone, that’s a signal to pay attention. They can be from the Otherworld, as the hounds of Arawn are, or they can be one person of particular importance seen from three sides, as the Sons of Uisliu are in the story of Deirdriu. There are two such triads in Brave, Merida’s brothers, and the three suitors. The brothers are Merida’s helpers, and the suitors are her means of freeing herself. They are the ones who truly give her the reason to change her fate. I’ll go out on a limb here and offer Mor’du, the large black bear, Fergus, her father, and a yet unknown man who will continue the story when Merida is older, as a third triad.
Yes, the male characters are not very compelling, or fully formed. They are background. The three brothers, in particular, are barely named. They are like the king’s daughter in the ballad Willy ‘o Winsbury, or Lord Donal’s wife in Matty Groves. Neither of those women even get names, because they are only there to fill a place in the boy’s story. In Brave, the boys serve the same purpose in Merida’s story Yes, they could have been fleshed out, but if they had been the point would not have been made, and the parallel with Celtic myth would not have been drawn.
When this sort of story is told, someone is always going to have a problem with parts of it. Like a fine, but assertive wine, a story must be true to itself if it is to be truly told, and not everyone is going to like it. Even Disneyfied as it was, uncomfortable issues were raised. Me, I had a real problem with the witch. She was as much of a cariacature as the boys were. But when I put aside my discomfort, and saw her as the means of Merida’s initiation, she rose to the occasion. She gave Merida exactly what she asked for, and taught her to choose her words carefully. She looked like your standard ugly hag with a cauldron, but she taught Merida wisdom. The witch gave her the keys to unlock the cage Merida’s own words created and in the end, Merida freed both herself and her mother. She changed a kingdom’s fate as well as her own. Merida also passed the test that Mor’du failed. She freed him as well. There are a few ballads where the woman frees the man. Tam Lin is one of those. Sadly, Mor’du has to die, while Tam Lin gets to live, but them’s the breaks.
Merida gives her mother quite a bit as well. She knows the wild places, and how to live in them. By inadvertently turning her mother into a bear, and then having to teach her how to survive in the forest, Merida shows her mother the value of all she has learned in the days she has been able to escape her princess role. By the time the two of them get to the stone circle where the final battle takes place, they are a true team. Merida also learns the value of what her mother knows, and gains an understanding of the power her mother has in the running of the kingdom. When Elinor, as a bear, mimes the words she needs Merida to say from across the Great Hall where she cannot be seen, Merida shows how well she has learned the lessons her mother has taught.
Merida is a true daughter of both her parents. She has her father’s strength, skill, and vitality. She has her mother’s ability to be the true power behind the throne, and to keep the clans together. She is complete unto herself, and needs no one to help her rule. But she has a heart large enough to let others in. When she rides off with her mother at the end of the movie, we know she’s going to be all right, and so will the kingdom she will inherit. She has freed her people as well as herself, and she’s taken the princess trope and taken it places I never expected to see it go.
There’s a lot more to say about this movie. There are animal and character associations that go deeper into Celtic mythology than I am going to go into here. I can’t think that these were unintentional on the part of the creative people who put this film together. I have only seen this movie once. I fully expect to see even more when I see it again.