There are many variations on this story, most of which for some reason involve fishnets. The particular version I am reviewing today comes from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm – Volume 1, translated by Jack Zipes and published by Bantam Books in 1988. And just to clear up any ambiguity from that title, it is not the farmer who is clever here, it is very definitely his daughter. That is made obvious from the very first paragraph when she suggests her father, a farmer without a farm and therefore correspondingly poor, ask the king for a small piece of land. What have they to lose? And as it turns out, the king is in a generous mood, because he decides to give them a field. They set to work growing wheat and fruit, but are astonished to uncover a mortar made of gold just sitting there in the earth.
The honourable farmer thinks they should give it to the king in gratitude for their field. His more circumspect daughter points out that without a pestle to accompany it, the king will believe they are cheating him. She advises her father not to tell anyone. Her father does not listen. He presents his discovery to the king, who promptly demands the predicted pestle and will not listen to repeated assurances that there is no such object to be found. He throws the farmer in prison until such time the poor man can produce a non-existant kitchen implement. How exactly he is expected to do that from behind bars, even if it did exist, is logic known only to the king. And so the farmer languishes, bemoaning to whoever will listen that his daughter warned him about this, that he should have listened to her, why didn’t he listen to her?
Finally the servants get so fed up they go to the king with the story and the king is sufficiently intrigued to bring the farmer back before him. He wants to meet this clever daughter. When she comes before him, he is impressed enough to offer her a deal. If she can solve his riddle, he will marry her and make her his queen. The farmer’s daughter immediately accepts. Love at first sight or intricate power play? Well, the king certainly doesn’t intend to make things easy for her. She must return not dressed, but not naked; not on horseback but not in a carriage; not on the road, but not off it either. Is the girl daunted? No. She’s clever. She goes home and gets undressed, then wraps herself in a fishnet, fulfilling condition one. Then she hires a donkey and ties her nets to its tail, allowing herself to be dragged along behind in the wagon tracks on the road. Only her big toes can touch the ground. This sounds an immensely uncomfortable mode of transport, but inarguably fulfills the king’s other two conditions. She is not riding; she is not in a carriage; and she is neither on the road nor off it. He holds to his word. Releasing her father from prison, he marries her and makes her responsible for looking after the royal possessions. Presumably she convinces him to give up on the golden pestle.
But clever people are not destined to lead easy lives. Several years after his marriage, the king is asked to mediate on a rather unusual dispute. One farmer’s horse gave birth to a foal who then ran away to lay with another farmer’s oxen. The first farmer, the one with horses, says the foal is his. The second farmer opportunistically insists that the foal was found with his oxen, so they must have given birth to it. Ignoring the logic of basic biology, the king decides in favour of the oxen man. The other farmer is not rich – he can’t afford to lose that foal. Remembering the queen comes from a farming family, he appeals to her to intercede. She agrees on one condition: the king must never find out she got involved.
The next day as the king goes out to review his troops, there’s the farmer in the middle of the road, spreading a fishnet over empty air. The king wants to know why. The farmer says that if two oxen can give birth to a foal, well, it must be possible to fish on dry land. Snappy answer! The king, however, doesn’t appreciate the irony. He summons the farmer and demands to know who came up with his answer. The farmer holds to his end of the bargain and insists he came up with it himself, but he pays for his loyalty. The king has him beaten and tortured until he confesses that the queen helped him.
The king is furious. It’s one thing to make a stupid decision himself, quite another to have that so neatly exposed by his wife. He demands she leave, return to the old farmhouse from which she came, but allows her one last request – she can take from his castle the thing she loves best. She concedes to all this without the slightest argument. No hard feelings, would he share a parting drink before she goes? What she gives him is a pure sleeping potion. He falls asleep in his castle and wakes up in his father-in-law’s farmhouse. “You ordered me to take the dearest and best thing with me from the castle,” his wife tells him. “Since you are the dearest and best thing I know, I took you with me.” Aw, schmaltz. The king gets a bit teary and marries her all over again. They go home to the castle and live happily ever after, which is nice, but I’d really rather know what happened to that foal. After everything the farmer went through to get it back, I hope the king changed his mind about that too.
I do like this story. I like the version from Robert Leeson’s Smart Girls (Walker Books, 1993) better, in which she completes a whole string of impossible challenges and does not end up by marrying the rich autocrat behind them all, but this one has a strong note of medieval realism to it. The farmer’s daughter is a clever woman. The king might be moody, unreasonable and let’s face it, pretty thick, but as his queen she will be both financially secure and in a position of power from which she can help others. She does not forget her roots. She tries to help her fellow farmers and you know, I don’t think she gave up on that after her second wedding. I think that next time, she just didn’t get caught.