It is a rare fairy tale indeed that does not involve a marriage. They exist, but it takes some looking to find them. I have explored the problematic side of this in a previous post, Three Men Not To Marry, in which I talked about three different fairy tales that show women actively escaping terrible relationships. This week I’m talking about the ones who weren’t so lucky.
Version 1: The Sea Maid
This first story comes from the 2005 reprint of Michael Scott’s Irish Folk and Fairy Tales, in which Brendan the fisherman is wandering along the beach searching through the debris thrown up by the sea in the hope of finding something valuable. He certainly doesn’t expect to find a woman. She is tall, beautiful and unmistakeably alien, with webbed feet and fingers. Climbing from the water, she unfastens a cloak from around her shoulders, and Brendan remembers the stories of water women who rely upon their cloaks to move between one element and another. If you possess such a woman’s cloak, you control her.
The young woman falls asleep on the sand, believing herself alone and unobserved. Does Brendan leave her be, satisfied with his glimpse of magic? Sadly, no. He creeps up behind her and drags the cloak from underneath her before footing it for the cliffs. She wakes up with a vengeance then, running after him, her nails scoring down his back as she almost catches up with him. But the pebbles at the base of the cliffs cut her bare feet, slowing her down, and so Brendan reaches his cottage with the skin still in his hands. She staggers up behind him, holding out her hands in a silent plea. She even dredges out a fragment of human language to beg him for mercy. In his obsession, he has none.
So the girl becomes his wife, living in his house and bearing three children. Brendan has no illusions that she loves him; he moves her cloak around from hiding place to hiding place over the years to make sure she never reclaims it, and one summer while rethatching the roof he thinks he has found the perfect place, burying it between the reeds. What he has forgotten is that his wife is not the only one who might be watching. The next day, as he sets off for the beach and the sea girl stares longingly out at the sea, their son Brian drags out a ladder to try and get up to the roof. When his mother asks him what he’s doing, he tells her of the shining cloth Brendan hid away in the thatch. She knows at once what it must be. That night, she is distracted and clumsy; her husband mistakes it for the first signs of another pregnancy. It is only when she goes out to get water and never comes back that he realises what has happened.
He runs down to the sea and finds her there at its edge, wearing her cloak, her daughters in her arms. Little Brian is at her side. Brendan screams at them to stop; his wife looks up in fear and dives into the sea with her daughters. He catches his son before the boy can follow mother and sisters into the water. But the girls are not sea maids; they are human, and they drown.
This fairy tale isn’t even going to pretend there’s a happy ending.
Version 2: The Heavenly Maiden and the Woodcutter
This one comes from 1995’s Korean Children’s Favorite Folk Tales, published by Saem Toh Publishing Co. It begins by introducing us to a hard-working single woodcutter whose introduction reads like a dating profile. One day while he’s at work in the woods a talking deer comes racing past, fleeing a hunter, and the woodcutter hides it under his pile of firewood, misdirecting said hunter to allow the deer to escape. In reward for his kindness, the deer tells him where the Heavenly Maidens come down to bathe, in the lakes of the Diamond Mountain. If he takes one of their robes, one girl will have to stay with him.
I don’t know about you, but I just lost all my sympathy.
The woodcutter gets up early the next morning to go do a bit of mountain climbing. The Diamond Mountain is very beautiful and very isolated, the sort of place celestial maidens would be sure to get a little privacy if it wasn’t for a certain peeping tom deer. As it is, the woodcutter is there behind the bushes the whole time they are bathing, and takes the robe of the youngest Maiden while no one is looking. When the others return to Heaven, she is left behind, bewildered and abandoned. This is when the woodcutter emerges from his hiding place, apologises for his behaviour, begs her forgiveness, and asks her to move in with him. AS YOU DO.
Well, she marries him. She seems very content with her domestic lot, but after the birth of her second child she asks her husband to return her robes, and he refuses, afraid she will return to Heaven with both children. After their third child is born, though, he believes she can’t possibly carry them all and feels safe enough that he finally shows her where her robes have been concealed. The moment she puts them on, her magical powers are restored and she soars out of there, carrying all three children with her. Because, magical powers. And formidable innate juggling skills.
Her husband is distraught. He returns to the place where he met the deer in the hopes of more advice, and by good luck on his part it happens to be passing through. “Since the day you hid the Heavenly Maiden’s robes,” it tells him, “they do not come down to bathe there any more.” (Gee, I wonder why?) “So if you wish to find your wife and children, you must go to them yourself. Happily, there is a way.” It goes on to explain about Heaven’s plumbing system, which is terribly advanced and magic and involves a bucket on a string. If the woodcutter returns to the same lake and climbs into the bucket, he will be pulled up to Heaven before anyone realises there has been a switch.
This he does. It turns out his wife is the youngest child of the Heavenly King, but the King’s not holding any grudges about robbery and coercion – he lets the woodcutter stay, reunited with his wife and children and living a life of luxury. Eventually, though, the woodcutter gets homesick. He worries about his mother, left alone in the world below. His wife has a bad feeling about this. When she sees he is determined, she obtains him a dragonhorse, and tells him that he must not dismount or he will never be able to return to her.
The reunion is a happy one. Mother and son chat happily from horseback. But then the woodcutter’s mother presses a bowl of her pumpkin porridge on him as a farewell, and it is so hot he drops it on the horse’s back. The horse, reasonably enough, rears. Thrown from its back, the woodcutter lands on solid ground and is in that moment exiled from Heaven forever. He grieves for the remainder of his life, and at the end of it, turns into a rooster, crowing each day at the unreachable sky.
Version 3: The Bird Wife
This Siberian story comes from the 1983 reprint of A Book of Cats and Creatures by Ruth Manning Sanders. Its protagonist is Marek, a young man with a less than functional relationship with his mother. She is a bad-tempered sort, and he escapes her scoldings by just not being in the house all that much. One day, walking by a nearby lake, he witnesses a cloud of birds alighting on the shore who turn into laughing girls and jump into the water. He calls out to them, but they won’t pay him any attention, and he responds to this with the immense maturity of nicking all their clothes, which he won’t return until they talk to him. So they do. “We are bird women. And if you won’t give us back our feathers how are we to fly home? Would you have us stay here all night, shaking and shivering? Oh, how cruel you are!” “No, I am not cruel,” Marek tells them, “only curious,” and he starts giving their feathers back. Only then he gets to the last girl. And he changes his mind. He takes her home and marries her instead.
It’s not made clear how the girl feels about that. Like the women in the two previous stories, she soon has two children to look after, binding her more than ever to the man who took her feathers. But confinement to earth is not the end of her troubles. Remember Marek’s mother? Well, she hasn’t turned any the nicer since her son’s marriage. The opposite, in fact – she is horrible to the bird girl and a hellish grandmother to boot. Marek knows his wife is not happy, but he can think of no way to fix things, so he does absolutely nothing at all. Then one day his mother tells the bird girl to go fetch some willow leaves for soup. She doesn’t care that it’s the end of winter and the willows are bare – she kicks mother and children out into the cold and slams the door on them.
They are going to die of the cold if they stay out in this weather. Weeping with despair, the bird girl wanders with her children clinging to her skirts until they come to the lake where all this began. There are birds sweeping in over the water and the girl calls out to them for help. “Sisters! Brothers!” she cries. “Take me home!” They gather around her, protective, and in taking feathers from their own bodies their give their poor grounded sister and her children the wings to fly away.
Marek comes home that night to find his mother waiting alone with supper. She calmly tells him that his silly little wife got it into her head to go out hunting willow leaves and hasn’t come back. When Marek stutters out his disbelief, she goes into a rage, demanding if he thinks his own mother is a liar. Well, she is. And he knows it. But he won’t say so. Instead he eats his supper in his nice warm house and waits, hoping his family will come back on their own. All through that night he listens out for them, but of course they don’t come. Early the next morning he goes down to look by the lake, and finds no birds there at all apart from one eagle, who tells him his wife has returned to Bird Land. Their conversation goes something like this:
EAGLE: Your little wife was shedding tears – such pretty little tears, they glittered like the morning dew. But her tears ceased to fall when she turned into a bird. I think she was glad to be a bird again.
MAREK: No, no, no! She was not glad! She could not have been glad to leave me!
EAGLE: (shrugging) You young men think so much of yourselves.
What you said, Eagle.
Given directions to Bird Land, Marek sets off, taking a magical canoe that doesn’t like him much. He manages to get to his destination in one piece, emerging into a land of steep cliffs and high trees, where the only sound is birdsong. Marek jumps out of the killer canoe and runs into the forest, calling. In time he comes to a spot where a group of children are playing – among them, a boy and girl who comes running to him. They are his own children and are only too happy to show him to the house of woven grass where his wife is sitting, halfway between bird and woman. She is halfway between love and fear too, missing her husband, terrified of his mother.
To Marek it is simple. He is here, she will come home. The King of the Sea Birds thinks differently. “Our sister is better here with us,” he snaps. “With us she is honoured; with you she is tormented by your old hag of a mother.” Hard to argue with that. But the bird woman decides to go with Marek all the same, and despite the fury of birds that descend to stop him he carries her to the canoe with the children running at his side. As it takes them away from Bird Land, her feathers fall away, leaving only a woman behind. Marek is thrilled. His wife, less so. What to do about his mother? “She shall no more trouble you,” Marek promises. “I will build us a separate house.” Brilliant idea, Marek! Maybe you could have thought of that BEFORE?
The canoe brings them back to the lake, where they meet again with the Eagle. He kindly offers to give the entire family a lift to their house. Marek’s mother, seeing them coming, shrieks at them to go away, and that is exactly what the Eagle does – he goes away, taking her with him back to Bird Land. Where she becomes a bird too. In short, the Eagle does a better job of looking after Marek’s family than Marek does. For the bird girl’s sake, I do hope he sticks around.
These stories are confronting. They depress me, and none more so than the last, because even the all-around excellence of the Eagle and older-brother protectiveness of the Sea Bird King cannot detract from the fact that Marek is a terrible person and he is rewarded for being so. The men in all three stories are the opposite of the chivalrous fairy tale ideal; instead of being the ones riding to the rescue, they spy on vulnerable young women and entrap them in situations they are unable to escape. They profess love when what they mean is obsession. If they really loved those women, they wouldn’t just let them go. They would never have trapped them in the first place.
In the end, though, the women do get away. Even when they are bound into a mockery of domestic bliss, you know it won’t last. You can steal a skin, but happy endings are earned.