Fairy Tale Tuesday No.22 – The Old Witch

Getting employment in the world of fairy tales is a dangerous business. Before you know what you’re doing, you might end up working for a troll with impossible expectations or the sort of queen who expects you to cut out the hearts of girls she doesn’t like. The witch of this English story, taken from the 1981 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Witches, is not like that. When a father of two girls falls ill and someone has to go out to work, one of the sisters falls into a miserable stupor while the other goes out into the world to look for a job. It’s not a good time to be out of work. No one in the nearby town wants her, so she keeps walking out into the country. That’s when strange things begin to happen.

As she walks along the road, she sees an oven, full of cooking loaves that call out to her to help them. “We have been baking for seven years, and no one has come to take us out.” The girl obediently does so, no questions asked, and goes on her way. She soon passes a field where a cow stands surrounded by empty pails. It calls out to her in the same way that the loaves did. “Seven years I have been waiting here, and no one has come to milk me.” Showing a remarkable ability to take bizarre things in her stride, the girl obligingly comes into the field and milks the cow. She drinks a little of the milk, but most of it she just leaves there when she returns to the road. Not much further on is an apple tree. By this point it’s hardly surprising any more when it calls out to her. “Seven years have I waited for someone to shake down my fruit, and my branches are so heavy that they will surely break!” The girl relieves it of its harvest and continues down the road.

The most normal person living in this part of the country is an elderly witch whose house the girl encounters shortly afterwards. When she knocks and asks for work, the witch takes her on as a maid servant. The work is straightforward enough – sweeping, dusting, cooking and washing. There is only one rule: the girl must never look up the chimney, or she will regret it. Well, of course the moment that’s said you know it’s going to happen. One day while the witch is out, the girl is scrubbing the hearth stones when she happens to look up by accident. She’s nearly brained by a large bag that falls down in front of her, spilling gold coins. Every time she looks up, and she looks up a great many times, an identical bag falls down, until she has a huge pile of money.

This is thieving. But she’s stealing from a witch so it apparently doesn’t count. The girl gathers up as much gold as she can carry and runs away. Arriving home earlier than expected, the witch realises what has happened and comes after her with startling speed. The girl takes shelter with the apple tree, claiming somewhat melodramatically that the witch intends to kill her and bury her under the hearth she so lately cleaned. The tree is all sympathy. It hides her under its branches and lies to the witch when she asks where the girl has gone. The same thing happens with the cow and the loaves. They all like the pretty young thief more than they like the witch who probably made them in the first place. The baker of the loaves, who has returned to tend his oven, actually shuts the poor old witch in the oven to stop her continuing her pursuit, and though he lets her out again unharmed it must have been a very uncomfortable experience.

The girl gets home with her ill-gotten gold and for a while all is well. Better than well, it’s wonderful. They have enough money to buy everything they could need or want, the girl’s father gets well again and no one need work if they don’t want to. But that’s not enough for the girl’s sister. She wants more wealth, and sets off to the witch’s cottage in order to get it. On the way she encounters the same strange individuals that the first girl did, who tell her the same story they told her sister. Seven years, my foot – unless she’s been very patient, it hasn’t been nearly so long as that. Still, they ask for her help, and she will not give it. She arrives at the witch’s cottage, is taken on, and the very first time her employer leaves the house she gathers as much gold from the chimney hoard as she can before hoofing it for home.

The witch must have some way of knowing when she is being robbed, because she is soon hot on the girl’s heels. Passing the apple tree, the girl asks for help, but its branches are too heavy to lift and so she must run on. This time, when the witch asks where the thief has gone, the tree tells her the truth. She catches the girl, beats her and sends her home with many bruises but not a single coin.

It’s a strange little story. Kindness is rewarded, but thieving doesn’t get punished. The treatment of the witch is what upsets me, and I can’t say I was sorry for the second girl when she got caught, especially since her story of being buried under the hearth stones turned out to be a serious exaggeration. The witch retrieved her property, with some violence, but not murder. She is just a rich old lady who gets some form of justice on an opportunistic ex-employee. And good for her!

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