Responses to Rex Stephenson's "Mutsmag" by College Students

Journal Entry by Laurie Borslien
Ferrum College
October 2002


Note: Laurie Borslien (class of 2003) was a student in English 301, Literature for Children and Adolescents, in Fall 2002. This is a literature course at Ferrum College, taught by Tina Hanlon. Laurie wrote this page as an informal writing assignment in her reading journal, after reading Rex Stephenson's version of "Mutsmag" and other tales. Other teaching guides on this tale are listed at this link, which also takes you to AppLit's online version of Stephenson's story with illustrations by Virginia school children.

One thing I loved about the online version of "Mutsmag" is the way it sounds. The words used and the way they’re used sound like casual speech. The casual, personal relationship with the story starts with the very fist line, “Now this is an old story that has been told and retold in the Appalachian Mountains since about forever.” I can see how kids would be intrigued by the story from the start because of that first line. Starting the line with “Now” and ending it with “since about forever” are things kids would find funny because they are uncommon in many works of literature. It is probably a nice relief from the typical “Once upon a time” introduction.

Throughout the story, words and phrases are used that are associated with Appalachian culture. Some examples are: “Back over in England” and “didn’t like Mutsmag a lick” and “we best kill you.” My favorites were, “‘What about me? I got no place to live and no money. I got nothin’ but this old knife’” and “they’s good to their word.” Ever since I was a kid, I loved to hear nonstandard grammar used in stories on purpose.

The illustrations really added to the story because it showed me what the children saw in their minds when they heard the words. It’s interesting to see the audience’s interpretation instead of the author’s or the illustrator’s. I especially loved the picture of the three robbers. I liked the way they were portrayed with one dark eye, which I suspect is because the actors were wearing eye patches. I also loved the depiction of the giant as being a person on someone else’s shoulders. It’s interesting that the children depicted the robbers and the giant just as they had seen them.

I liked the part in the story where Mutsmag had sympathy on her sisters even though they had been very cruel to her. Instead of telling the robbers to do what they wished with her sisters, Mutsmag asked them not to harm them. Even though she was hurt by the way they had treated her, Mutsmag didn’t want anything bad to happen to them because she’d be stooping to their level.

The only part of this story I’ve ever heard before was where Mutsmag and her sisters came upon the house with the three ugly sisters and the cannibal parents. But in the version I heard, I don’t remember what happened after the sisters escaped from the giant. I found it amusing that the girls in Mutsmag went on to see the King of Virginia. I can see how children would be greatly amused at that because Virginia doesn’t have a king.

I liked how the story also had a nontraditional ending. Instead of Mutsmag wanting to marry the prince, she wanted to take the money and make a living for herself. It showed that women could not only be smart, but also interested in things other than boys. I liked that the prince pined for Mutsmag instead, but he didn’t get her.

I really liked this story and I plan to show the online version of it to my baby sisters. I’m sure they would like it too.


“Mutsmag” and “Molly Whuppie”: The Antithesis of the Usual Female Heroine

By Corey Brooks

Presented November 17, 2008 at the Ferrum College Conference on Gender Roles in a Shrinking World

Note: Corey Brooks originally wrote these comments for an online discussion forum in English 207, World Folktales and Literature.


The stories of “Mutsmag” and “Molly Whuppie,” from the oral tradition, are interesting twists in the classic picture of a heroine in fairytales. The usual qualifications for being the heroine of a tale are to be female, and have a main character role. However, Mutsmag or Molly Whuppie puts a different spin on that role, a female heroine who is actually heroic. For the purpose of this speech I will concentrate on the story of Mutsmag since they are so similar. When Mutsmag and her two older sisters are orphaned, her older sisters decide to sell the house and go out and explore the world. Mutsmag decides to follow them because she has no home of her own. They stumble upon the home of a witch and a giant and ask for shelter for the night. That night it is Mutsmag’s cleverness that saves her and her sisters. She sees that the three girls that belong to the witch and the giant are all wearing golden chains. She decides to take them and put them on her and her sisters. She saved their lives because when the giant comes home, he feels in the loft for the three girls that did not have the chains. Instead of taking Mutsmag and her sisters as was his intention, he takes his own daughters. Mutsmag wakes up her sisters, and they all escape through a hole in the roof. After the escape from the giant’s home they stumble upon the king’s palace. Mutsmag explains their tale and from where they have come. The king is delighted to hear that they are safe, and perceiving Mutsmag’s cleverness, he asks her a favor. The giant and his wife the witch have been causing much trouble in the area. If Mutsmag can kill both the witch and the giant he will give her three large sacks of gold as a reward. Mutsmag goes back bravely and accomplishes the task. However, this is where the stories “Mutsmag” and “Molly Whuppie” differ. In “Molly Whuppie” she and her sisters marry the three princes and live happily ever after. I don’t like that ending. I prefer the “Mutsmag” version, because Mutsmag is offered three sacks of gold or she can marry the prince as her reward for defeating the giant and witch. Mutsmag chooses the money and lives out the rest of her life content. I like that Mutsmag fought for her freedom, and unlike heroines from the past, she does not want to be taken care of for the rest of her life.

This is a turn from the usual heroine role. Generally in all the older folktales, in "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "Snow White," and others the heroine gets rescued by the prince and marries him. It is a happily ever after scenario that we have come to associate with most fairytales. However it is not really a healthy scenario. It teaches young girls that all they need to do to be happy is find a prince, and let them take care of them for the rest of their lives. This is not true; girls can do anything if they put their minds to it, as Mutsmag models. Though there is nothing wrong with finding your prince, it should not define who you are. Mutsmag is a better role model for little girls. She is a strong female heroine who uses her brains to get herself out of a sticky situation and shows girls that there is another way to be. Women do not always have to be taken care of at the end of their fairy tales; they can do for themselves.


By Brandon Showell

Presented November 17, 2008 at the Ferrum College Conference on Gender Roles in a Shrinking World

Note: Brandon Showell originally wrote these comments for an online discussion forum in English 207, World Folktales and Literature.


The online retelling of the folktale "Mutsmag," by Rex Stephenson, was very interesting to me and the illustrations by Franklin County school children were even more entertaining. The adventure that Mutsmag faced was somewhat similar to the typical journey of a male hero, in the sense that she was the youngest of three and she was also the brains of everything that was done. It was also similar because the older siblings did not like her and they treated her badly; however, the youngest always seemed to prevail in the end. The elements appeal to modern values, in that even though Mutsmag knew that her sisters treated her poorly, she still made it a priority to save them when they were all in trouble. I think that is a popular aspect in modern families.

It was also realistic that Mutsmag told the robbers to tie her sisters to a tree and take their money, as her way to get back at them. This showed that the youngest is always trying to look for a way to get back at their older sibling(s), and as the youngest sibling in my family, I found this to be a true appeal to modern values because even though I love my older brothers, they still pick on me and I'm always trying to get back at them when I can.

One noteworthy fact that I remembered precisely about Rex Stephenson's speech [when he visited our class] is how he discussed his experience of growing up with oral traditions, due to the absence of a TV in his childhood. This explains a lot when it comes to storytelling and it helped me to understand the meaning and foundation of oral traditions much better.


By Ty'Neisha Atkins

Note: Ty'Neisha Atkins wrote these comments for an online discussion forum on tricksters and a final exam question on fairy tale heroines, in English 207, World Folktales and Literature, an E-term course in May 2009.

One story that I have read that contained trickery in it was "Mutsmag." Mutsmag tricks her sisters, the three girls, the old lady, and the giant. Mutsmag tricks her sisters by setting them up into getting robbed and tied to a tree. The purpose of this trick was to get her sisters to need her and treat her fairly. She tricks the three girls into taking their lockets off so that she and her sisters would be safe from the giant. She tricks the witch by putting salt in the stew, and making her leave to drink the whole Atlantic pond. She also tricks the giant into thinking his wife was trying to kill him and influencing him to think that the pepper he was sniffing was magic powder, which caused him to split into two. Yes, Mutsmag succeeds in all of them and is free at the end with gold.


The heroine Mutsmag is very similar to Cinderella. Both Mutsmag and Cinderella's mothers died. They both also had two siblings that treated them very badly. The difference in the two is that Mutsmag is almost killed but with her trickery she escapes and saves her sisters as well. Cinderella never comes near death. Both Mutsmag and Cinderella have encounters with a prince but Cinderella is the only one who falls for the prince and marries him.


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