Year of the Witch: Lazy Hans

This German fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches and introduces us to the titular Hans, who makes himself as useless around the house as it is possible to be while his mother does all the work of keeping the pair of them alive. One day she hits her limit and kicks him out the door. “Earn your own bread and trouble me no more!” she yells after him. “Oh, all right,” Hans replies, “if that’s how you feel,” and off he goes, ambling along the road and foraging with the bare minimum of effort. He lives quite contentedly in this way for a while, eating nuts and berries from the hedgerows and drinking water from the streams, but in time his aimless wandering brings him to a place where nothing grows and the water cannot be drunk.

Hans is an optimist. He keeps walking in the same direction, assuming that he will cross through into green lands again soon enough, but his surroundings only grow worse. At length he comes to a withered little wood and in it, a little stone house where he hopes to beg a meal.

A witch lives in the house. If he wants food from her, he’s going to have to work for it. “Oh, all right,” Hans says, “if that’s how you feel, I will work.” So he gets a preemptive plate of bread and cheese and a chilly night in the witch’s barn. To his dismay, she wakes him at dawn and won’t even give him more cheese with breakfast. He’s inclined to sidle off now he’s got what he wants, but witches are not to be crossed. “I’ll twist your neck round three times if you don’t mind your manners!” she warns him, so Hans reluctantly agrees to break his track record and actually do something.

Witches have a marked tendency to pile impossible tasks upon their servants, but Hans is more of a passing contractor and he’s barely meeting the expectations of ‘possible’ as it is. The witch gives him what sounds like an incredibly easy job: he is to take a tall stick, walk west until he comes to a field of corn, and plant the stick there. Even Hans is pretty sure he can do that. Only…he doesn’t. He doesn’t even make it out of the wood before deciding to take a nap, and when he wakes up it’s already nightfall, so he just jams the stick into the nearest pile of leaves and calls it a day.

He then goes back to the witch, breezily assures her the work is done, and settles down to sleep in the barn. In the middle of the night, he wakes to an unexpected rattle at the door and gets up in time to see it fly open by itself. A whirlwind of leaves billow into the barn, piling up in drifts, almost burying Hans before he escapes through the open door. In the moonlight, he sees the witch’s stick herding the leaves along. It does not stop until the barn is full to the rafters.

The witch comes to check on the barn in the morning. She is horrified to find it full of dry leaves instead of a stockpile of corn against the coming winter. “You lazy pig!” she shrieks at Hans, and flings an iron ring into his face. In a moment, he’s turned into a literal pig. This in itself probably wouldn’t bother Hans too much but the witch plans on fattening him up and eating him, and as she takes the precaution of encircling the woods with a spell, he can’t just sneak off and be a pig somewhere else. For once, Hans has to think. Though the witch feeds him well, he eats as little as he can so that he will not get fat enough to provide her with a satisfying meal. She decides to cut her losses and take him as a servant again. Retrieving the ring turns Hans back into a man.

This time, his job is to plant the stick in a dairy. Hans pulls himself together and walks. And walks. And…look, it’s a really long walk, and the witch isn’t there to provide terrifying motivation. Hans runs out of puff. He jabs the stick into a mound of old rubbish by the side of the road and takes five minutes to rest – which in Hans terms means something closer to five hours. When he wakes up, he can’t get the stick out of the mound; when Hans tries to walk away, he finds the witch has enchanted the road so it takes him straight back to her house. This time, the barn fills up with rubbish, battering Hans from all sides. He has a horrible night, and that’s before the witch finds out what he’s done. She’s so enraged that she flings a scarf around his neck that turns him into a gander. “Fat or thin, I’ll cook you for Christmas!” she tells him, which leads to some interesting questions about witch culture and what her Christmas celebrations might actually involve.

Hans is not concerned with those questions. He pecks the witch, making her jump back, then takes to the skies before she can cast a spell to stop him. Hans flies until he spots a gaggle of geese in a meadow below. Alighting there, he proceeds to invent a noble and adventurous backstory for himself to impress them all. The scarf around his neck, he tells them, is a gift from a grateful queen for whom he endured great dangers and performed astonishing feats. In short, he sells the geese a pack of lies and they react with adoring admiration. Hans has finally achieved the life of his dreams: no work, no disapproval, just green grass and blue skies.

Until spring comes, and a rival gander rocks up in the meadow. By this point, the scarf has been exposed to all weathers and no longer looks particularly impressive. The new gander calls it a rag and the fight is on. In the midst of the vicious pecking and flapping, the scarf comes undone and Hans shoots to his feet as a man, the witch’s spell broken.

Hans starts walking. He sees the witch’s wood in the distance and keeps well away from it, turning his steps west. At last he comes to his mother’s cottage and it’s a testament to how relieved he is to be home that he actually starts running. His mother is also relieved, glad to see her son safe and sound, but she takes care to establish some boundaries before letting him back in the door. If Hans is going to live with her, he’s going to work. And Hans does want to live with her, so he agrees. And the story makes a point of telling us that while he does live happily ever after, so does his mother, so presumably he keeps to his word.

It’s no wonder witches turn unreasonable and murderous if they have to deal with people like Hans on a regular basis. My sympathies in this story lay entirely with the two long-suffering women who had to put up with him, but I must admit to a certain reluctant amazement at how thoroughly Hans breaks the usual rules of fairy tales through sheer inertia. Quests? Magical tasks? Freeing himself from enchantment? Nope, not a chance. Hans scrapes through the story without doing a thing to justify being in it, and it’s sort of heartening in a way. If Lazy Hans can be a protagonist, anyone can.

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Year of the Witch: The Riddle

Usually I will defend fairy tales to the death from all comers, but sometimes I’ll flip through some of the Grimm brothers’ canon and I kinda see what people mean. There’s the rabidly sexist ones, the startlingly murder-y ones, and the ones that just leave you going “…what?”

With that as a warning, welcome to this week’s fairy tale, taken from Vintage Grimm: The Complete Fairy Tales. It opens with a prince bitten by the travel bug, who sets off to explore the world with his loyal servant in tow. Upon coming to a great forest, the two men are in need of lodgings for the night and decide the best thing to do is accost a passing young woman to see if they can stay at her place.

She is willing to let them stay the night but advises against it, because the house belongs to her stepmother and the old lady is a witch. The prince waves this concern aside. The witch is red-eyed and prone to snarling, but attempts to lull her guests into a false sense of security while she cooks suspicious concoctions on the fire. The two men somehow manage to get a good night’s sleep and prepare to leave early the next morning.

The witch seizes her last chance to poison someone and goes to fetch a potion. The prince bolts off before she can offer it to him but the servant is not so lucky, having been delayed by a problem with his saddle. The witch isn’t even very good at poisoning people. While she is trying to hand the servant her potion, the glass containing it cracks and the contents are scattered on the horse’s back. The poor horse dies; the servant runs to tell the prince what happened, then comes back for his saddle. A raven is already ripping into the horse’s carcass and, being an intensely practical person, the servant kills the bird in case no better meal presents itself later on.

Another day’s travel does not bring them to the end of the forest, but by evening they’ve at least come to an inn. The servant gives the raven to the innkeeper so that it can be cooked, but surprise! The inn is really a robbers’ den! And the twelve robbers are on pretty good terms with the witch, who sits down to dinner with them for a pre-murder supper. The innkeeper serves everyone a bowl of raven soup, including himself. What the witch doesn’t know is that the raven fed on poisoned flesh and was poisoned itself. After a few bites of soup the entire party fall down dead.

The innkeeper’s daughter, who refused to affiliate herself with the robbers, did not eat the poisoned soup. Nor did the prince and his servant. The innkeeper’s daughter shows them the robbers’ hoard of treasure but the prince tells her to keep it all and continues on his travels. The servant’s feelings at passing up a fortune are not recorded.

Sadly the next part of the story is not about the witch’s stepdaughter and the innkeeper’s daughter falling in love and living in wealth for the rest of their days. Let’s just assume that happens, shall we? Instead, the story follows the prince into the city of a beautiful but bloodthirsty princess. She has made it known that she will marry any man who can produce a riddle she can’t solve; if she solves a suitor’s riddle within three days, she beheads him. Nine men are already dead. The prince weighs the prospect of meaningless death against the princess’s pretty face and decides it’s worth trying his luck.

His riddle is this: One slew nobody and yet slew twelve. The princess ponders, but cannot guess what it means. She looks through all her books to no avail, so resorts to trickery, sending her maid to spy on the prince in the hope he might talk in his sleep. The servant intercepts the maid, snatching off her cloak and beating her up in the bargain. The princess sends a different maid the next night, but the same thing happens to her. Only one thing is left to do. The princess slips into the bedroom wearing a mist grey cloak and whispers to the sleeping prince, hoping to trigger his subconscious into an answer. But he’s not sleeping. He answers the riddle – a raven ate of a poisoned horse and died, and it in turn poisoned twelve murderers. This is technically inaccurate, fourteen people died at that table, but whatever! The princess doesn’t care. Since her cloak is held in the ‘sleeping’ man’s grip, she slips from the room without it.

In the morning, she summons twelve judges and answers the prince’s riddle before them. The prince counters by telling the judges that she totally cheated and he’s got her cloak to prove it, plus the cloaks of her maids. Recognising the princess’s cloak, the judges order that it be embroidered in gold and silver for her wedding, for the prince has won. The princess’s feelings about being summarily handed over like a gold trophy cup are not recorded, but can probably be guessed.

And that’s that. I thoroughly dislike the prince, I can’t say I like the princess either, and the judges are making me gnash my teeth a little, so I’m going back to my mental version of the story where the witch’s daughter just moved into the inn.

Year of the Witch: The Giant on the Mount

Jack is a name you’ll run into time and again in fairy tales, usually in conjunction with robbery. This French fairy tale, from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Cauldron of Witches, is a Jack story, which does not bode good things for the giant in the title.

It’s baking day for Jack’s widowed mother. Once she’s done making bread she whips up a pancake for Jack and shoos him out the door so she can get on with cleaning. There is no suggestion he might help out with any of this work.

Jack sits down on a grassy bank beside the road to eat his pancake but before he can take a bite, he is stopped by a hungry old woman hoping for a piece. Jack easily hands over the whole thing and the old woman – who is really a witch – is so pleased with him (and his mum’s cooking) that she gives Jack a golden ring. “It’s no use to me,” she assures him. “I’ve my own way of doing things. It’s a wishing ring and it may help you to find your fortune.” The trick of the ring is to change its wearer’s size according to his or her wishes.

Having explained this, the friendly witch vanishes and leaves Jack to contemplate his options. By that, I mean he briefly turns himself into a giant then dashes home to say goodbye to his mother. “I’m off into the world to seek my fortune!” he yells. “See you again sometime!” He does not give her a chance to make any kind of reply before he’s off. Typical Jack.

Soon enough, Jack comes to a forest and a band of robbers. He promptly shrinks himself to the size of an ant and leaves the robbers to run about in complete confusion, unable to figure out where he’s gone. The most dangerous moment for Jack is when one of the robbers almost treads on him without even realising he’s there. But Jack is well-hidden under an eggshell and spends a safe night asleep there, before taking his own size in the morning. He breakfasts on wild mushrooms and shortly afterwards arrives in the king’s city, where absolute chaos reigns. This is not just what happens when Jack shows up in a place – when he finally bullies someone into explaining what’s going on, he learns that the king’s daughter has just been carried off by a giant, a real one. In desperation, the king has offered the princess’s hand in marriage to anyone who can save her.

You can practically see the lightbulb above Jack’s head.

He pushes his way into the palace and asks for the loan of a sword so that he can go fight the knight. It’s probably useful at this point to note that Jack is sixteen years old. The king does not quite take him seriously, but an elderly knight unable to go on the quest himself kindly offers the use of his weapon and Jack bolts off with it before the king can do anything about it. Jack then charms his way into the palace kitchens for a square meal, asks the cook for directions to the giant’s castle and sets off in excellent spirits.

The giant lives on an island that can be reached by a causeway, in a castle that is locked up so tight that the only way Jack get inside is by shrinking himself small enough to fit underneath the door. He sneaks about, finding room after empty room, until up the stairs he finds the princess being harassed by her kidnapper. “Pretty in tears!” the giant says. “But prettier in smiles! Come smile, smile, my honey-bird! And Daddy Giant will love you and take care of you for ever more.”

Oh. My. God. Look, it’s an established thing that sometimes giants and trolls will kidnap children to raise as their own, but that is…not the vibe I’m getting here. Also, when someone orders a girl to smile, it should be narrative inevitability that someone comes up to sock them in the face, and Jack is good for that. He lunges at the giant in his usual size, makes himself so small the giant can’t see him, then shoots up until he’s even bigger than the giant. At that point, Jack just picks him up and throws him out the window into the sea. The giant swims off in a panic and the princess is hardly less terrified. Jack hastily shrinks himself to his real size and explains about the witch’s ring, then politely suggests he make himself a giant again in order to carry the princess home. She laughs. “If the giant should happen to be called Jack,” she says, “I will permit it.”

Of course, the sight of a new giant descending on the king’s city causes as much kerfuffle as one might expect, but once they reach the gates Jack puts the princess down and takes his own size, and the princess leads Jack to the palace to present the tale of his heroic deeds to her father. The king decides to keep Jack at court and arrange a wedding when both Jack and the princess are a bit older. The widow is sent for and provided with a new house, complete with servants. Two years later, Jack and the princess marry, and you know what? We never hear from the witch again. I’m feeling cheated. The book is called A Cauldron of Witches, after all. On the other hand, I can at least chalk up another good-natured witch on the list, and there are not enough of those around.

Also, the ring’s powers have put me so much in mind of the Marvel superhero Ant-Man that I am now envisioning a superhero team-up of fairy tale characters and how unbearable the Jacks of the team would be.

Year of the Witch: The Witch and her Servants

This is a Russian fairy tale taken from what has to be one of the most beautiful books I own, a gilded 2014 Barnes and Noble hardback edition of Fairy Tales From Around the World by Andrew Lang. It’s so pretty I feel nervous about opening it. I have not read much Andrew Lang before and am unfamiliar with this particular fairy tale but it looks to be a long one, so get comfy and we’ll get started.

It begins with a king who has three sons: Szabo, Warza and Iwanich. This king owns beautiful gardens and extensive orchards, but while he is out walking one day with his sons, they come across a stretch of wasteland where three trees stand flourishing in isolation. Surprised at their father’s sorrowful reaction, the princes ask what is wrong and unlock a Backstory.

When the princes’ grandfather was on the throne, a great magician gifted him with a seed that – according to him – would grow into three glorious trees. On the old king’s deathbed, he commanded his son to plant the seed, which he duly did. The king ascended to the throne at the age of twenty; when he was twenty-five, the trees bore their first fruit, and what fruit it was. The gardeners were given strict orders to guard the trees, for a condition of harvest was that if one unripe apple was picked then all the rest of the crop would be ruined. The king was so desperate for a taste that he dreamed of it. Yet despite the vigilance of the gardeners, the entire harvest was stolen before the king could have so much as one bite.

He decided to disregard the magician’s instructions the next year and had all the fruit picked before it could ripen, but the apple he ate was bitter and the rest of the fruit rotted within a day. After that, the king threw himself into planning security arrangements, but no matter how trusted and watchful the guards, the fruit was always stolen by mysterious forces. By the present day, the king has just given up. This, then, is why the sight of the fruit trees is depressing for him.

His eldest son volunteers to guard the fruit trees himself. Fired up with determination, he climbs one of the trees, settles in for a night of constant vigilance and…topples into a deep sleep. The same thing happens the next year when Prince Warza tries his luck. Which leaves Iwanich, the youngest brother by a significant margin. He too climbs a tree and waits, watching by moonlight for some sign of robbers.

What he sees is a white bird like a swan, sinking gently onto his chest. The prince grapples with it, catching hold of its wings, and it transforms into a beautiful young woman. Her name is Militza and she tells Iwanich, with great dignity, that he need not fear her. The magician who gave the seed had no rights to it in the first place – he stole it off Militza’s mother, sending her to a premature grave, so in another deathbed promise Militza vowed to strip the trees of their harvest every year. Having been caught in the act, she is apparently no longer obligated to keep to her promise and spends the rest of the night in conversation with an increasingly besotted Iwanich. Near dawn she casually reveals that there is another magic force governing her life: a witch is in possession of a lock of her hair and will take it badly if Militza blows her off to stay with Iwanich.

Militza is, by the way, the kind of person who refers to herself in the third person. She gives Iwanich a diamond ring and tells him, “Keep this ring in memory of Militza, and think of her sometimes if you never see her again. But if your love is really true, come and find me in my own kingdom.” The ring will guide him there. With a goodbye kiss to the prince’s forehead, Militza vanishes.

The last thing on Iwanich’s mind right now is the state of the harvest, but yay, it’s lasted the night unmolested for the first time ever and everyone who is not languishing after a beautiful swan enchantress lady is over the moon about it. The king swallows Iwanich’s vague story about fighting a wasp all night and goes bouncing off to order celebratory feasts. While his father is busy with the glorious fruit, Iwanich fills his pockets with money, steals a fast horse from the stables and takes off.

At first the worried king ransacks the land for a sign of his son, but after six months Iwanich is presumed dead and at the end of a year, he’s more or less been forgotten. Which says horrible things about his family, but Iwanich himself is fine. While the kingdom’s still on red alert looking for him, he’s come to a vast forest. He is about to start down the only visible path when a voice calls out to him, demanding to know what he’s up to.

The voice belongs to a thin, ragged-looking man sitting at the roots of an oak tree. He has upsetting things to say about the forest, namely that it is full of terrifying creatures. “If I were to cut you and your horse up into tiny morsels and throw them to the beasts,” he says, “there wouldn’t be one bit for each hundred of them.” Which isn’t at all a horrifying thing to say! The prince, we are told, is‘rather taken aback’ but is reassured by the shimmer of his ring. If it still urges him on, he must be going the right way. He’s about take off down the path when the old man shrieks at him to come back. If Iwanich is really set on risking life and limb in the forest, the old man will provide a little assistance. He gives Iwanich a bag of bread crumbs and a live hare. When the wild beasts inevitably descend, Iwanich must distract them with the bread and the hare in order to flee for his own life. Also, the old man insists he leave his horse behind, because there is no way he’s getting through the dense undergrowth on horseback.

Upon entering the forest, Iwanich soon finds himself surrounded by a tiger, a wolf, a bear and an enormous snake – all of whom are really into bread, but even more into chasing hares. Iwanich seizes the opportunity to bolt away himself, following the light of his ring through the forest. But he is not left alone for long. He is soon approached by a very small man with crooked legs, prickles like a hedgehog growing all over his skin and a beard so long he’s split it in half and is using the two ends as leashes for the pair of lions accompanying him. He wants to know if Iwanich is the one who just fed his ‘body-guard’, and if so, Iwanich may choose a reward for his kindness.

Iwanich just wants to make it through the forest in one piece, so the little man deputises a lion to watch over him. Beyond the little man’s lands lie a palace; when Iwanich reaches that point, he’s on his own, lest the lion fall into the hands of an enemy. I like this man and I like his priorities.

By nightfall, Iwanich reaches the edge of the forest. On the other side of the treeline is a great plain and on it, the promised palace glinting in the distance. Iwanich thanks the lion politely and heads off on his own. Early the next day, he reaches the palace and just walks in, wandering about for some time like a lost moth, before coming across a beautiful garden and a group of beautiful girls weaving flower wreaths. The prince sees Militza and greets her exuberantly; she is equally delighted to see him, introducing him to her companions as her fiance. She’s not wasting any time either – before you know it, they are married and getting straight into the happy ever after.

Except, it’s not quite so simple as that. Three months of marital bliss later, Militza is invited to visit her aunt and settles it that she will be gone for seven days. In her absence, Iwanich has the keys to her palace in his keeping. “Only one thing I beg and beseech you,” Miltiza says before she leaves, “do not open the little iron door in the north tower, which is closed with seven locks and seven bolts; for it you do, we shall both suffer for it.”

Guess what Iwanich suddenly desperately wants to do. It’s like no one’s learned a thing about human nature since the Pandora days.

By the third day, Iwanich cannot resist the gravitational pull of his curiosity any longer and has to take a look. Whereupon he has a serious Bluebeard’s castle moment. Inside the forbidden room a cauldron of boiling pitch is hung above a fire, and chained inside the cauldron is a man, screaming in agony.

When the man begs for water, Iwanich hurries to his aid without a second thought because he is a good person and this whole situation would be deeply disturbing to anyone. In an instant, however, there is a terrible crash and the palace disappears, leaving the prince abandoned in a wasteland.

Stunned and despairing, he starts walking for lack of anything else to do and eventually comes upon a little hut. The geography of fairy tales demands that this place belong to none other than the old man who warned Iwanich about the perils of the forest. He gives the prince shelter overnight and in the morning Iwanich pulls himself together, enquiring if the old man knows where he might find work.

Unfortunately the only person in these parts who is hiring is the witch Corva. She lives in a grim-looking little black house with an iron door and two cobwebbed windows. She’s also into traditional witch exterior decorating – which is to say, the house is surrounded by a fence of spikes, each of which is impaled with a man’s skull. Nevertheless, Iwanich walks up to the door and knocks.

The witch is seated inside by the fire. She promptly agrees to take Iwanich on as her servant and leads him deeper into the house, to a stable where two black horses are kept. Iwanich’s work is to lead mare and foal to the fields each day, and if he manages the task for a year he may name his own wages; but if the horses escape him, Iwanich’s head will be used to decorate the spiked fence.

Iwanich is so deep in his own problems that he barely even acknowledges the threat. And at first the job goes well. The horses do not attempt to bolt; the witch treats him kindly and feeds him well. One day, while the horses are grazing near the banks of the river, Iwanich sees a stranded fish and returns it to the water. The fish offers him a reward, but Iwanich waves this off like the sweetheart that he is and the fish instead insists he takes a scale from its body, so that he may call on it should he ever need help. Another day, Iwanich rescues an eagle from a flock of ravens and is given a feather so that he can call on the bird as well. Then he finds a fox in a farmer’s trap and by freeing it, adds to his collection of favours with a couple of hairs from its tail.

Time passes. The year is nearly up when Iwanich notices the witch sneaking into her own stable and slips after her to eavesdrop. She is ordering her horses to hide themselves in the river when Iwanich takes them out the next day, or else she’ll beat them bloody. Despite his best intentions to keep watch and prevent the horses obeying this order, Iwanich is sent to sleep by the witch’s magic and awakens alone. While he’s visualising his head on a spike, he remembers the fish and hurries to throw its scale in the river. The fish obligingly creates a wave that sends the horses fleeing onto the bank.

The witch is not happy. Her next plan is that the horses must hide themselves in the clouds, but Iwanich has an answer for that too: by blowing the eagle’s feather into the air, he calls on its help to drive his charges out of the sky. The poor horses are furiously berated when Iwanich brings them back to their mistress. Tomorrow is the last day of Iwanich’s employment and the witch is determined to cheat him out of his wages. She instructs the horses to hide in the king’s hen-house, but who better to find them there than a fox? Iwanich throws the tail hairs on a fire and calls his friend to help. By sneaking into the hen-house and rousing the horses to make a ruckus, the fox draws the attention of the royal henwives, who promptly send the horses packing. Iwanich happily leads them home.

While he is riding across the heath, the mare abruptly speaks. “You are the first person who has ever succeeded in outwitting the old witch Corva, and now you may ask what reward you like for your service,” she observes. “If you promise never to betray me I will give you a piece of advice which you will do well to follow.”

Iwanich promises. The mare tells him to name her foal as his reward, for it has powers of astonishing speed. And probably also because the witch is a horrible person to live with, so the prospect of escape must look pretty good. Certainly, Corva does not want to give the foal away, but once she sees that it is inevitable, she throws her own advice into the bargain. She explains that the man in the cauldron of boiling pitch was none other than a powerful magician who used his freedom to kidnap Miltiza and steal her palace for good measure. Apparently he can only be defeated by Iwanich and is so alarmed at the prospect that he’s set spies on the prince to report his every move. To speak a word to him will be to fall into his power; the only way to defeat him, Corva says, is to grab him by the beard and yank him to the ground.

Iwanich thanks the witch and rides away. It is a very, very short trip, the foal being every bit as swift as promised. Iwanich is brought straight to the magician, who is travelling with friends in a carriage drawn by owls. The magician assumes good cheer and greets Iwanich with a cry of “Thrice my benefactor!”, but Iwanich is having none of it and throws him to the ground, whereupon his horse stamps the man to death. Which, wow. Harsh country around here.

The magician’s death restores Iwanich to the palace and Militza to Iwanich’s arms, and they get back to their happily ever after, this time in possession of a superpowered murder horse. I suppose there are worse people to have that kind of power than Iwanich, who is a darling, but I don’t know about Militza. If I were Corva, I’d be keeping a very close eye on her.

Year of the Witch: The White Dove

This Danish story is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches, and opens unconventionally with a king and queen who are not pining away for an heir – they already have kids, two sons with no sense of self-preservation. One day the princes go to sea when a dangerously strong wind is blowing and pretty soon they are in bad trouble. Just as they reach the realisation that they are about to die, the boys see an old woman heading toward them in a kneading-trough for a boat, rowing with two big ladles. “Hey, my lads!” she calls to the princes. “What will you give me to send you safely home?”

They unwisely promise her anything, and she demands their brother. Only they don’t have a brother and as the elder of the boys points out with admirable principle, even if they did have one, their brother would not belong to them. “I think you mother would rather keep the two sons she has than the one she hasn’t yet got,” the witch retorts, and the storm whips up even wilder to add punctuation to her point.

The options are thus: drown in righteousness or hope like hell that they get a sister instead. The moment that the princes agree to give away their theoretical brother, the storm dies away to nothing. The queen is so desperately relieved to have her boys safe in her arms again that the young princes can bury their guilt under maybes and nevers – but a year later, a third prince is born. He adores his older brothers and they adore him, living with the constant fear of losing him to the witch, but time passes and the little boy grows up safe and sound in the middle of his loving family.

The youngest prince is an academic, often staying up late to read and think, and one such night the weather turns wild like it did on the day his brothers nearly drowned. The young prince is startled by three knocks on the door, and even more startled when the witch leaps inside without waiting for an answer, commanding the prince to come with her. She tells him of his brothers’ promise and he decides it is only fair to go with her. Bundled into her kneading-trough, he’s taken away across the lashing waves to the witch’s house.

Now you are my servant,” the witch informs him. If he cannot do the tasks she asks of him, she’s going to throw him into the sea. “I will do my best,” the prince says bravely, which doesn’t do him much good when the witch kicks off his employment with the impossible. She takes him to a barn stuffed full of feathers and instructs him to organise the lot by colour and size. She also expects the job to be done by nightfall.

Well, the prince does what he can, and turns out his best is very good indeed, because the task is practically finished when all of a sudden a wind blows through the barn and sends the piled feathers everywhere. Though the prince sets to work again immediately, he knows he does not have time to complete the task before the witch returns. Then he hears a tap at the window. “Coo, coo, coo, please let me in,” whispers a white dove perched on the ledge. “If we work together, we’ll always win.” The prince does let her in, and between them – but mostly due to her exceptional speed – they get the feathers sorted out just in time.

Next morning, the witch takes the prince to chop firewood. A lot of firewood. However much the prince chops, the pile of logs behind him only grows bigger. Soaked in sweat and despairing, he throws down his axe, only for the white dove to make a reappearance. She advises he chop with the axe handle instead of the blade. This makes the wood fall to bits of its own accord and before long the job is done. The prince pets the dove gratefully and kisses it on the beak – and immediately the dove turns into a beautiful girl. The prince has accidentally broken the enchantment laid on her by the witch, and now the girl can move onto Phase 2: Escape the Witch. She has very clearly been planning her own rescue in detail and is ready for all sorts of trickery.

She tells the prince to tie a red thread around her finger, so that he can recognise her no matter what. He continues to follow her instructions when the witch returns – offered a reward for completing the tasks, he asks for a princess who takes the shape of a white dove, and sticks to his request even when the witch tries to laugh him off. Then she takes another tack, offering him first a shaggy grey donkey as his reward, then a blind and toothless old woman, assuming the prince will recoil. The red thread, however, does its work, and when the prince takes the old woman’s hand, she turns into his princess.

The witch throws an epic tantrum, smashing everything she can lay hands on to express how not happy she is about this situation, but she has to hold to her word. The prince will have his princess. Once he’s got her, the gloves can come off.

The princess is prepared for that as well. She warns the prince to drink neither water nor wine at their wedding feast, which is already frankly a bit of a shambles, attended as it is by a gang of other witches. The food is so terribly hot that the prince can’t resist the lure of a drink, but the princess knocks the cup from his hand and the witch’s enchantment of forgetfulness is thus foiled. The witch once again loses the plot, wrecking everything on the table. While her friends are cheerfully joining in the food fight, the princess leads her new husband away to the bridal chamber.

During her captivity, the princess learned some magic, and uses a spell now to enchant two pieces of wood to act as decoys. She orders the prince to pack a flower pot off the window ledge and a bottle of water from the table (presumably this water is safe?) and with that, they’re off. Having no boat, they start running along the shore of the great bay that separates them from the prince’s home.

The witch goes to their door at midnight and the pieces of wood call out to her, tricking her into believing that bride and groom are still within. She tries again before dawn and is turned away; but when the sun rises and she is sure that the prince and princess must be sleeping, she bursts into the room, only to find blocks of wood in the bed.

The witch sets off in pursuit, a dark cloud chasing after the lovers. The princess orders her husband to throw the flower pot behind them, and it becomes a range of hills that the witch cannot climb. That wins the lovers a little more time, but soon enough the witch has run around the hills and is back on their trail. Next the prince throws the bottle of water. It become a lake, and the witch has to go home for her kneading-trough in order to cross it. By the time she reaches the far side, the prince and princess are at his castle, about to climb in through an open window.

Ah! Ah! Ah! I have you now!” the witch howls, but the princess is not beaten yet. She turns around and blows into the witch’s face. A flock of white doves pour from her mouth, surrounding the witch with a storm of white feathers, and when they fly away there is nothing left of the witch but a tall grey stone.

The royal family are overjoyed at their boy’s safe return. In penance for their long-ago promise, the older brothers give up their claims to the throne so that the youngest prince will rule as the next king. Unlike so many other fairy tale siblings, power does not corrupt – the entire family gets to live out their days in peace and harmony. Which is lucky for them, honestly, because after that stunt with the birds who knows what other spells the princess might have up her sleeve.

The Little Grey Donkey

This is a fairy tale that is completely new to me, a Swedish story from the 1988 Ruth Manning-Sanders collection A Cauldron of Witches. Since I traumatised you all with donkeys last month by reviewing ‘The Donkey Lettuce’, I sincerely hope this one contains better fates for all donkeys involved, and apologise in advance if it doesn’t.

It starts off ominously with a boy called Jock who literally grows up with a gun in his hand and by the time he’s a young man, he’s a hell of a shot. One day he sees an enormous eagle swooping on a small child and hurries to the rescue, shooting the bird dead. The little boy explains to Jock that he is a Troll child and leads Jock home to his parents’ castle, where Jock is offered his choice of lavish financial rewards. The Troll child, however, has a trick up his sleeve. On his instructions, Jock asks for a grey donkey, a little whistle and the Troll father’s old musket. The Troll child also advised that Jock go seek service with the king, so off Jock goes to the palace and is immediately hired.

He’s a good hunter, but the Troll gifts allow him to cheat. His whistle brings forth any bird or animal the king desires for his table and the musket never misses, and Jock is very popular as a result – with the king, anyway, if not with the local wildlife. Unfortunately for Jock, there is a courtier who is basically Snow White’s stepmother without the mirror and he will be the most popular of them all or kill someone trying. His name is Sir Red. What’s entertaining about this is that an envious Sir Red appears in a completely different fairy tale, ‘Esben and the Witch’, and he does exactly the same thing. Whether or not this is Ruth Manning-Sanders making the name do double duty, I don’t know, but I’m choosing to believe it’s the same man flouncing from court to court causing trouble.

The king’s only daughter, and from the sound of it only child, was kidnapped by a witch before Jock arrived at the palace, and in his attempt to get Jock gone, Sir Red goes to the king and announces that Jock knows how to bring the princess home. Jock tries to explain that he knows no such thing, but kings want what they want and facts don’t come into it. Jock has the job of hero whether he wants it or not.

Jock thinks wistfully of the Trolls and their magic, then perks up and blows on the whistle. The grey donkey appears beside him and promptly starts bossing him about. “If you will do as I say,” it tells him, “the princess shall be yours. But if you are faint-hearted and try to turn back, we shall all three of us be lost.” Jock swings onto the donkey’s back and off they go.

The witch lives in a palace and greets all comers with a chimera version of herself: legs of an ostrich, body of a toad, neck of a goose and head of an eagle. Jock desperately wants to look at anything that’s not her but manages to produce a polite greeting and explains that he’s here to collect the princess, as if she’s been at an abnormally long sleepover but it’s time to go home. The witch grumpily dismisses her monstrous shape and is revealed as an old woman. She has Jock settle his donkey in the stable and then takes Jock inside to the princess. Continuing the feeling that this is a social visit gone a bit wrong, the witch asks the princess if she’d like to go home and the princess says yes, she would.

The civilities end there. Jock must find the princess three times over the course of three days or the witch will keep them both. She extends the offer of a bedroom in the palace while the task is underway, but Jock retreats to the stable to consult with the donkey, who as it turns out is very good at this game. The next morning, Jock heads unerringly for the princess’s sewing basket and takes out the smallest reel of silk, prompting the princess to appear with a cry of “Here I am!” On the second day, Jock goes to the table and starts to slice into a loaf of bread, causing the princess to leap out of it and take her own size again. But the witch has figured out what’s happening and casts a spell to keep the donkey from spying on her. This time Jock has to hunt for the princess himself, to no avail. As he shares his fear with the donkey, he spots a horsefly on its back and goes to slap it away – but it is in fact the princess, and that’s the third time he’s found her, even if it was by accident. According to the deal with the witch, they can go home. The witch is so furious that she explodes into flint stones and that is, well, that.

The grey donkey disappears and is revealed to have been the Troll child all along. “You have vanquished our enemy, the old Witch, and now you shall be king over her land,” he explains gleefully. He acts as underage coachman, driving Jock and the princess back to her father’s castle, where the two of them quickly get married. The Troll child maintains an interest in their lives, acting as Jock’s advisor, and by so doing more or less gets a kingdom of his own.

Damsel & Co.

It is a common belief that fairy tales are not in keeping with feminist philosophy. There are various arguments around this point. The most entrenched ones that I personally have heard sum up to a) princesses are poor role models because they are weak and passive and dependent on the men around them, and b) witches and wicked stepmothers are misogynistic caricatures. These are indeed tropes to handle with care, and awareness of their weight.

HOWEVER.

There are a lot of fairy tales out there. Like, honestly, a lot, if you’ve been thinking ‘she has to stop talking about fairy tales eventually, she will run out of material one blessed day’, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. There are, interestingly enough, plenty of wicked enchanters and terrible fathers whose motivations go unquestioned; there are a long list of princes in dire need of a rescue, and a matching list of heroines who roll up their sleeves and get on with defeating the forces of evil.

The American Disney dream of white spires, sparkling frocks and blonde curls is but one aspect of the fairy tale kaleidoscope. That is by no means an attempt to diminish it: while I do not always agree the alterations that Disney movies have made to the original fairy tales, I have a hearty respect for their popularity and staying power. This is a brand empire built with fairy tales as its cornerstones. From glass slipper to plastic Barbie princess shoe, Cinderella keeps running.

I would argue (I argue often and loudly) that Disney princesses are rarely as weak or dependent as they are widely reputed to be. Tiana is, of course, a powerhouse of indomitable personality and Elsa is a literal whirlwind of barely controlled anxiety who nevertheless overcomes her worst fears to help her sister, but the older princesses are no pushovers either. Ariel is an unstoppable explorer who assembles a hoard of lost artefacts to try and understand another culture; Snow White survives an assassination attempt and comes through the other side as a ray of goddamn sunshine, refusing to let the betrayal harden her against any new chance at friendship; Cinderella endures day after day in an abusive household and still manages to hold onto her hopes for a better life. To dismiss their strengths, to perceive their stories as lesser because they are nearly always love stories, is in my opinion based on the same type of thinking that dismisses anything loved by and popular among young girls. Because it’s fine to tell stories about women until you’re telling stories about those women. And no one ever really escapes being that woman, because if you’re already looking for something to hate, you are going to find it.

But I’m not here to talk about that today. No, really, I wrote a whole series of posts on this a few years back, I can move on now. Deep breaths.

Fairy tales are shapeshifting creatures by their very nature and the women in them are equally variable, depending on the ideas and intentions of their storyteller – and to a certain extent, the wishes of their reader. Grimm, Perrault, Andersen, Lang, Manning-Sanders, Carter, you, me, everyone has a different slant on how the story ought to go.

In honour of International Women’s Day, here’s a round-up of seven of my favourite ladies from fairy tales. They are not always pleasant, they are not always safe, but damn they know how to make a story their own.

  1. Tatterhood, from ‘Tatterhood’. Rides around on a goat, armed with a wooden spoon, decidedly not beautiful unless she’s busy seducing a prince. Took down a coven of witches that one time in order to rescue her sister.
  2. Tokoyo, from ‘Tokoyo’. Daughter of a disgraced samurai, she heads off to rescue her father and ends up fighting a sea monster to save a beautiful maiden, in the process saving her dad as well. If anyone knows a movie version of this story, hit me up.
  3. Kate Crackernuts from ‘Kate Crackernuts’. In a similar vein to Tatterhood, Kate takes on the job of defending her much prettier stepsister after her own mother’s mean-spirited magic disfigures the girl. Follows an enchanted prince into Fairyland three times, restores him to himself and does not change her appearance one iota.
  4. Snow White and Rose Red from ‘Snow White and Rose Red’. Raised to high moral standards by their stalwart mother, these girls adopt a bear into the family and repeatedly rescue an exceptionally rude little man, until the day the bear eats the man and turns into a prince. The girls are always armed with scissors, because you never know.
  5. The Sun Princess from ‘The Sun Princess and the Prince’. Lives in an enchanted tower full of astonishing things, locks up her suitors for centuries because she can, completely amoral. She is basically Lady Bluebeard, with a team of henchwomen. I would never ever want to meet her, but wow, she’s an interesting character.
  6. Catalina from ‘Black, Red, Gold’. Gets kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave but uses the gift of her sorceress sort-of-godmother to not only save herself, she frees the other slaves in the household as well.
  7. Princess Blue-Eyes from ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’. Much like a witch-maiden, the princess has a habit of stealing people’s eyes. When a prince tries to liberate his father’s eyes from her hoard, she chases him down but decided to get hitched instead of killing him; she puts up with him less than a month after the wedding before deciding she’s got other things to do, but rocks up three years later with their terrifying toddlers in tow when her husband’s brothers are slandering him. Princess Blue-Eyes is not a woman to cross if you value your life.

These are only seven on a long, long list. Here’s to heroines everywhere.