I encountered this story for the first time in an Abbey Classics copy of Grimms Fairy Tales and I have to admit I’ve held a bit of a grudge against the book ever since. Up until then, I don’t think any fairy tale had struck me as being really sexist – just badly told. ‘King Thrushbeard’, though, choked up my feminist filters with its narrative injustice. Also known as ‘King Grisly-Beard’, it is one of the more obscure works of the Grimm canon, but somehow it’s survived its way into the 21st century. Having already reviewed two of my other Most Hated fairy tales – Perrault’s ‘Patient Griselda’ and Ruth Manning Sanders’ ‘My Lady Sea’ – I’m ready to dissect this one.
It begins with a king who, having a beautiful daughter of marriageable age, is attempting to nag her into choosing a husband.He chooses the speed dating method of holding a feast, inviting as many important single men as he can, then lining them up according to rank and telling the princess to pick one. The scene could hardly be more ripe for mockery and the princess unsheathes her claws, making cutting jokes as she peruses the rows. One man who comes in for particularly personal remarks is a tall king with a pointed chin that reminds the princess of a thrush’s beak. Thrush+beard – yep, we’ll be seeing him again.
Of course, the princess doesn’t choose any of these men. Her father is so furious at her lack of diplomacy that he makes a spontaneous vow that she must marry the first beggar to come to his door. A few days later, a travelling singer is heard playing under a window outside the castle and the brooding king calls him in to play. When the singer asks for payment, the king hands over his horrified daughter. He then compounds his credentials as Worst Father of the Year by adding, “Now, as you are a beggar-wife, you can stay no longer in my castle, so off with you and your husband.”
So they leave. On their way out of the kingdom, they pass through a thick forest, some pasture land and a large town – all of which, she is told, belong to the king she called Thrushbeard. She sighs after a lost chance at wealth, but there’s worse to come. When they stop in front of a rundown little hut and she asks who that belongs to, the peasant introduces it as her new home. He expects her to settle at once into her new role as his wife – a word which here means, ‘indentured servant’ – but being used to life in the palace, she has no idea how to do any of the things he demands of her. She can’t cook, she can’t spin, she can’t make baskets. All she can do is damage herself trying.
Eventually her husband gets her selling earthenware pots at the town market and in that she does better, being quite capable of charm when she chooses. Only then one day, while she’s sitting in a corner of the market minding her own business, a drunken horseman ploughs through the pots and shatters the lot. “Who ever heard of such a thing as sitting in the corner of the market with earthenware pots?” her husband declares. Oh, who indeed? After that he hires her out as a kitchen-maid at, of all places, her own father’s castle. And if you think that might get her better treatment, you have seriously overestimated the worth of the men in this girl’s life.
She becomes the lowest lackey of the kitchen, dependant on scraps for her survival. One day, when a celebration is being held upstairs, she watches from behind a door and mourns over the loss of her old life. A passing prince in silk and velvet sees her standing there and approaches to ask a dance. In an apparent demotion, or possibly some confusion on the storyteller’s part, this is no other than Thrushbeard himself. He pressures her out of the shadows, but the inevitable happens and the pots she keeps in her pockets to catch scraps fall out, breaking and spilling food across the floor. It is a scene of utter humiliation. The princess attempts to flee, but Thrushbeard won’t let her.
“Do not be afraid,” he tells her. “I and the beggar-man with whom you lived in the wretched little hut are one. For love of you, I disguised myself, and it was I who broke your pots in the guise of a horse-soldier. I did all that to bring down your proud heart, and to punish your haughtiness, which caused you to mock me.” Oh, absolutely. Because nothing says love like ABDUCTION AND HUMILIATION.
The princess cries. Thrushbeard continues. “Take courage, the evil days are gone over; now let us keep our wedding-day.” Yes. The celebration is in honour of her marriage – she is whisked into grand clothes, her father emerges to deliver his benediction, and they remarry in front of a glittering crowd.
The princess is not, I will freely admit, the nicest of people. She’s arrogant and abrasive and it says something about the rest of the people in this story that I feel so fiercely protective of her. The demolition of a defiant spirit is a horrible thing to witness, and that Thrushbeard does this out of ‘love’ for her says more about his mental state, I think, than it does about hers. Grisly, indeed.