Heroines with elan all their own; Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales, retold by allison Lurie. Illustrated by Margot Tomes. New York: Crowell. $7.95.

To the often-posed question: Why haven't there been folk tales with great heroines, Alison Lurie replies that there always have been. And to prove her point, she has selected and retold some 16 tales, culled from neglected European collections.

According to Lurie, professor of English and children's literature at Cornell , folk history doesn't have to be rewritten for women so much as exhumed. There's always been a feminine version of "Jack and the Beanstalk" as well as a mirror-opposite "Sleeping Beauty" called "The sleeping Prince." But like the poor princess bricked up in the castle in "Maid Maleen," these tales have been the prisoners of time and gender.

So we should all be very grateful to Alison Lurie for springing the clever Gretchens and spry Kate Crackernuts who grace her collection. Gifted with spirited intelligence and unwavering resolve, these women foil robbers, outwit ogres, slay giants, and save kingdoms. In "Mizilica," a young girl turned warrior fights a dragon who, Freud take note, turns out to be her father. No matter. There are other ogres to outmaneuver, or, as in "Manka and the Judge," to outsmart. With a mind the envy of any self-respecting sage, Manka solves riddles, settles disputes, and secures claims. Like all the heroines, she is patient, loyal, resourceful, and -- good news -- gets her man.

These tales avoid feminist cant by allowing the universal ingredients of good storymaking, that mixture of the familiar and the fantastic, to work the moral. Thus, there are heroines who tumble down wells, a woman who shakes her feathered quilt so it will snow on earth, and my favorite, a witch's hut poised on three giant hen legs that move.

As with folk tales, both children and parents can enjoy the readings. While entertaining children, parents will discover which tale inspired "King Lear" and which provided Ophelia with lines in "Hamlet." I'm sure children will howl when the cow starts nibbling a couple's thatched roof in "Gone is Gone." I'm also sure parents will exchange knowing looks as Lurie, author of "The War Between the Tates," spins this tart tale of a husband and wife switching jobs for a day.

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