One of the greatest risks you can possibly take in the world of fairy tales is to exaggerate, for there Murphy’s Law is enshrined as a force of nature more powerful than gravity. Are you so desperate for a child that you declare aloud you wouldn’t care if it looked like a hedgehog? So colour co-ordinated you want your daughter to come in white, red and black? Narrative inevitability demands that someone will be there to overhear you, and they will oblige you in twisty, generally unpleasant ways. Parents in particular need beware. For one mistake or misunderstanding you will PAY FOREVER.
Story 1: The Seven Ravens
In this Grimm fairy tale a father sends one of his seven sons to fetch water for their sick sister, but the other six run along all the way to the spring and squabble over who will draw first. In the confusion, all of their pitchers are broken. The boys are too afraid of facing their father to go home, but as time passes he grows angry anyway at their unexplained delay. At last he works himself into such a fury that he wishes aloud that all seven boys be turned to ravens. No sooner has he spoken than a mournful croaking is heard overhead and he sees seven black birds flying away.
Wishes are, as a rule, non-refundable, however unintentional the consequences. The boys are gone; all their parents have left is their youngest child, the sickly daughter, who ironically recovers without any need for the spring water. They tell her nothing of the tragedy, but this is not the sort of secret that can be kept forever. Eventually she hears a dreadful rumour and goes to her parents demanding the truth. Instead of blaming her father for his hasty temper or whatever capricious individual chose to grant a stupid wish, she takes the burden of her brothers’ fate onto her own shoulders and broods. One day she can’t bear it any more and sets off to find them herself.
She travels until she comes to the world’s end. One path leads her to the burning sun, another to the bloodthirsty moon. A third leads her to the stars, who welcome her and gift her with a piece of wood that they promise will unlock the castle where her brothers now live. They direct her to a glass mountain, where the castle stands, but when she gets there she discovers that she has lost the wooden key. In desperation, she cuts off her own little finger to fit in the castle’s lock instead. Fortunately, the extreme measure works.
Inside, she is met by a dwarf, who acts as butler to the ravens. He politely invites her inside while he prepares their dinner. She sneaks a little from each plate and glass, and into the last glass she lets fall a ring that was a gift from her parents. When the raven brothers return, the seventh finds the ring and cries out aloud “Oh, that our little sister would but come! Then we should be free.” Hearing this, she springs from hiding, and the brothers are restored to their human shapes. So the maimed young adventuress and her traumatised brothers return home to…live happily ever…after? I lack confidence in this statement. I do, however, believe that the next time someone in that family says ‘I wish’, that girl will have a gag on them before you can blink.
Story 2: The Girl Who Banished Seven Youths
In this Moroccan story, the mother of seven boys goes into labour for an eighth time. The boys tell their aunt to hang a spindle over the door if the baby is a girl, and they will come home, but a sickle if it is yet another boy, in which case they will head off into the world and be seen no more. It’s a stupid thing to say, and a dreadful opportunity to give. The aunt, who for whatever reason despises her nephews, hangs a sickle over the door despite the child being a girl, and the boys disappear into the desert.
Life being eminently unfair, especially to girls, the daughter is named Wudei’a Who Sent Away Subei’a: The Girl Who Banished Seven. One day in a quarrel with friends she is told her brothers all went away the day she was born, and she runs home for confirmation from her mother. Hearing the whole story (or as much as the mother knows, this not including the evil aunt), Wudei’a decides to go off and fetch her brothers home. Her mother is okay with this. She kits her out with a camel and two servants and sees her off quite confidently.
Unfortunately, she does not know the tale of ‘The Goose Girl’, or she’d have anticipated what happens next: the manservant kicks Wudei’a off her own camel, covers her in tar as a makeshift disguise, and when they reach the castle where the brothers now reside (wow, running away did good things for them) he announces the maid as their long-lost sister. Once convinced they really have a sister, and not a brother as they were led to believe, they allow the three travellers inside and postpone their hunting trip to get to know their unexpected sibling. The eldest brother, mistaking Wudei’a for a slave, calls her over to comb his hair. He is very startled when her tears begin to melt away the tar (which was a TERRIBLE DISGUISE anyway, can I point out) and demands to hear the story behind it. When he realises Wudei’a is his real sister, he grabs a sword and goes off to execute the frauds. So that didn’t work out well.
Wudei’a washes off the rest of the black tar, revealing fair skin like her brothers’, which ironically leads to her becoming their very own Snow White. They insist she lock herself up in the castle while they go hunting, and tell her she is not to eat anything without giving a share to the castle cat. On the first hunting trip, all goes well. When the brothers leave for a second time, however, Wudei’a absent-mindedly eats one bean without sharing and the outraged cat puts out the fire in retaliation.
Wudei’a cannot restart it on her own, so she sets out after a light in the distance. That fire, however, belongs to a ghoul, who demands a strip of skin in repayment for an ember. He also talks in rhyme. It’s scary. Wudei’a, given little choice, accepts the terms, then walks back to the castle with blood dripping a trail behind her and an obliging raven concealing it with earth. She’s not aware of the favour; when the raven swoops up behind her, she scolds it, and pettishly it goes back to uncover the trail of blood so that the ghoul may follow her home.
He makes short work of the gate, but reaching Wudei’a herself proves more difficult. Her bedroom is behind six wooden doors and one of iron, her brothers being the sort of people who think in sevens. Each night the ghoul comes to break down one of the wooden doors, until only the iron one is left. Frantic, Wudei’a sends a message to her brothers with a castle dove, begging them to return home at once, and by that afternoon they are back. They tell her off for not feeding the cat properly, then dig a pit inside her room in preparation for the ghoul’s arrival. When he comes and breaks down the iron door, he falls into the trap and the brothers burn him alive.
They are kind of scary too.
Yet even then Wudei’a is not safe from him. His fingernail remains unnoticed in the room, and later while Wudei’a is cleaning it stabs into her hand. She falls senseless, apparently lifeless, to the floor. Her brothers cannot wake her and so send her body home on the back of her camel. They do not, however, think to accompany her, and when a trio of travellers on the same road see the camel they decide to capture it, chasing after it fruitlessly until one man accidentally uses the same word the brothers do for halting it (this being ‘Shoo'; the man actually says ‘shoe’, but camels cannot be expected to make such fine distinctions).
So, obediently, it stops. The three men are astonished to find a dead girl on the camel’s back, but don’t allow themselves to get bogged down in romanticism or honour; they’re here for the money, and she’s wearing an awfully nice ring. In stealing it off her finger, the ghoul’s fingernail is accidentally dislodged and Wudei’a wakes. “Long life to him who brought me back from death,” she says, and turns the camel towards her brothers’ castle without getting caught up in the romance of the moment either. Win for common sense!
Her brothers are overjoyed to find her alive after all. The shock of almost losing her makes them decide to visit home before another calamity befalls the family, so from their parents’ perspective, that’s eight children coming back from the dead at the same time. The boys finally tell their side of the story, revealing their perfidious aunt’s role in their disappearance, and everyone (except, presumably, the aunt) ends up living happily together after all.
If she has any sense, she will be running for the hills. Those brothers are not people you would want to cross.
The two stories have a great deal in common – in particular, the wrongful assigning of blame to a defenceless young girl who turns out to be better at dealing with adversity than anyone else in the story. The lost brothers in both stories actually appear to benefit from their banishment and there is seemingly nothing to stop their return home apart from their own stubborn perversity; all wrongs done to them are undone by the end of the story, while their sister is left physically scarred. Somehow I have the feeling that next time there’s a family quarrel, someone else is chopping off a finger.