My copy of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Witches is a creased 1986 reprint complete with the very memorable Robin Jacques illustrations and a peculiar hot pink cover. There are twelve stories inside and I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite, but Tatterhood might be on the hypothetical shortlist if I did. It’s a strange story about sisters, witches, identity and the dangers of eating flowers that grow under your bed.
Once upon a time, a royal couple who cannot conceive meet with a kind witch who takes pity on the weeping queen and offers her what must be the all-time most bizarre advice for falling pregnant – to wash in two pails and throw the water from each under the bed to grow two polar-opposite flowers, one beautiful and one ugly. The queen is warned to eat only the beautiful flower, but predictably enough cannot resist and eats both. The witch’s warning is quickly explained; the queen soon gives birth to two daughters, the exquisitely beautiful Berenice and the hideous Tatterhood. The royal parents attempt to lock their ugly daughter in a room alone, but the girl has ideas of her own and as charming Berenice adores her sister there is not much that can be done to separate them.
The sisters are nearly grown when one Christmas Eve a pack of less civically-minded witches arrive to hold a raucous party in the castle itself. The queen has always just endured her uninvited guests, but Tatterhood decides enough is enough. Instructing her mother to lock all the gallery doors, she heads off to do battle with nothing but a wooden spoon. Amazingly, she is winning – but her mother has a history of ignoring advice. A door to the gallery has been left unlocked and Berenice comes into the room to find out what is going on. The one remaining witch steals her beautiful head, replacing it with a calf’s, and flees before she can be stopped.
Tatterhood is furious. She demands a ship and sets off with her disfigured sister to get back Berenice’s head. When they find the witches’ castle, Tatterhood rides out alone on a goat with her wooden spoon, fighting her way to retrieve the beautiful head and returning to give it back to her sister. Understandably loathe to return to her parents’ kingdom, Tatterhood suggests a long voyage and the two sail alone together for three years until they reach the shores of a new country. Its unmarried king is intrigued by the travellers and on being introduced to Berenice, falls instantly in love, so much so he pledges his adult son’s hand to Tatterhood if she will only allow him to marry her sister. The prince has to be threatened with execution before he will agree, but eventually the double marriage takes place. During the procession to church, Tatterhood finally reveals herself to be even lovelier than the beautiful Berenice (and tellingly, her wooden spoon to be a wand). The prince quickly abandons his plans to lock his new wife in a dungeon and the wedding ends in a grand bridal feast.
I love how this Norwegian fairy tale refuses to pit beauty and ugliness against each other as metaphors for good and evil. Tatterhood is hideous because she chooses to be. So what? She is an indomitable fighter and loyal sister. Beautiful Berenice, while not powerful herself, has more perception than anyone else in the story – she is the only one left unsurprised by her sister’s transformation at the wedding, having always seen Tatterhood that way. Nor are all those wicked witches described as ugly – in fact their physical appearances are not described at all in the actual story, and while the illustrations portray most of them as crone archetypes there is one spectacularly pretty one wielding a broomstick, so clearly there’s a solid equal opportunities policy here. And that advice the first, helpful witch gave? The queen flouted it and things turned out okay anyway. I don’t know if there is one other fairy tale I’ve ever read where that’s the case. Life isn’t set in stone. Myself, I’d take that as moral of the story any day. It’s a pity Tatterhood had to turn stunningly attractive at the end in order to win her prince’s affections, but to be honest I don’t think any woman with the option of magic would choose to keep an ‘ashen grey face’ for the rest of her life. And she did pick the prince in the first place. Somehow, you know, I don’t think he was ugly at all.