“Be bold, be bold, but not too bold; lest your heart’s blood run cold.” (The Robber Bridegroom)
We first begin to see the Girls Underground archetype really take shape in early fairytales and folktales. More developed than the mythological versions, these stories have detailed elements of the plotline.
A beautiful girl envied by her evil stepmother is saved from death by a kind-hearted servant but nonetheless cast out into the wilderness alone. She then meets a strange group of creatures, dwarves, who shelter her. But the adversary comes, disguised, to trick her into eating a drugged apple, at which she falls into a death-like sleep and is prepared to be buried. However, just in time a prince comes and miraculously saves her, and punishes the stepmother horribly for her wickedness. (The best film version of this is Snow White: A Tale of Terror starring Sigourney Weaver.)
Beauty and the Beast
Developed from the older Cupid & Psyche tale. An older girl enters the otherworldly Beast’s castle as a prisoner willingly in order to save her father from his foolish mistake. She roams the castle’s many halls and rooms alone, but has to face the Beast nightly and do as he wishes. She has portentous dreams and receives a magic mirror that allows her to see her sick father at home. When she is permitted to go to him, she finds that the Beast is dying without her presence. She must rush back to his side and give him the love that will make him human again. (I admit to being a fan of the old Beauty and the Beast television series with Ron Perlman.)
East of the Sun, West of the Moon
A Norwegian folktale of the same type as Beauty and the Beast, with even more direct echoes of Cupid & Psyche. A white bear comes to a house and offers riches in exchange for the youngest daughter. She rides him to an enchanted castle, and each night he comes to her as a man, but she cannot see him in the light as such. After growing homesick, the bear lets the girl return to visit her family, with the condition she not speak to her mother alone – of course she breaks this condition, ends up telling her mother about the strange enchantment, and is convinced to go back and try to see her husband in candlelight. This violates his taboo and he must return to his home and marry an awful troll woman. The girl goes in search of him, with the help of several wise old women and the wind itself. She finds him, they trick the trolls, and live happily ever after. (A rich retelling can be found by reading East by Edith Pattou, or Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George, which adds a few elements that make it even more Girls Underground.)
Bluebeard / The Robber Bridegroom / Mr. Fox / Fitcher’s Bird
There are many many variants of this story, but basically a woman is engaged to or marries a man who is revealed to be a murderer. When she discovers his grisly secret, she must escape before he murders her as well. In Bluebeard she is rescued by her brothers, but in the other stories she uses her own cunning to reveal him, and then he is killed by her family. (Neil Gaiman wrote a wonderful poem version of this tale called The White Road.)
Hansel and Gretel
Seen from Gretel’s perspective, this story fits the archetype. Cast out by their cruel parents, she and her brother (as companion) venture into the woods alone, only to be tricked and captured by a witch. However, Gretel manages to turn the tables on her adversary, rescue her brother, and escape.
The Seven Ravens / Six Swans / Twelve Brothers
A girl’s many brothers are transformed into birds, and she must rescue them through a series of difficult tasks (a journey to dangerous lands, keeping silent for years, sewing shirts from nettles, etc.). She is sometimes helped by a dwarf. (A beautiful, detailed version of this is Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. For YA audiences, there’s The Swan Kingdom by Zoe Marriott. There’s also a lovely film version in Jim Henson’s Storyteller series.)
Other folk- and fairytales with elements of the Girls Underground storyline include Tam Lin (with book versions including Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, and Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones), Little Red Riding Hood (see Freeway, The Company of Wolves, and Red Riding Hood for some interesting film adaptations of this story, the latter by far the darkest and my favorite), Rumpelstiltskin, and The Handless Maiden.