Mothers in the world of fairy tales are often considered to be an endangered species. They have a worrying tendency to either die young, leaving the way clear for the almost inevitably evil replacement, or sink into despairing poverty from which only a magical intervention from their son/daughter/beloved pet can rescue them. What’s sad is that this was not an unlikely set of options for a woman of the times when these stories were first told. To assume that’s all there is, though, is a very common and frustrating mistake. There are strong mothers everywhere if you just look. In ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ the widow calmly faces down a talking bear. In ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ the young mother fights her way free of the contract that would steal away her baby. In ‘Vasilissa Most Lovely’, the protagonist’s dying mother leaves her a doll with secret, witch-defeating powers. But wait, there’s more!
Story 1: Jon and the Troll Wife
This Icelandic story is an old favourite of mine from Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Ogres and Trolls. A hard-working farmer whose wife died many years ago is raising his son alone on their small patch of land, and doing a pretty good job of it. In the spring and summer they work on the farm, and in the autumn they drive a wagon down to the western islands to fish until spring rolls around again. It’s not a bad life. Then one year the farmer falls sick and is unable to travel. His son Jon will have to go alone.
“Now listen carefully to what I say,” the farmer tells him. “You know that the road you must take passes under the mountains. And as you drive along under the mountains, you will come to a high overhanging rock, black and glittering. As you value your life, do not linger near that rock, for it is the haunt of the trolls. And by offending the trolls, or trying to pry into their affairs, many a good man has come to his death.”
Well, Jon does listen. Unfortunately, the weather has other ideas. A violent storm breaks out while he is on the mountain road and the only shelter to be found is that rock he was warned against. Jon decides to take his chances and drives the cart underneath the overhang, where he sees to his horses and settles down to eat something from a packed hamper of food. While he is eating, however, something wakes up in the cave behind him. Did I mention there’s a cave?
“We want food,” two voices howl from the blackness. “We want food! WE WANT FOOD!” Stuck between a storm and a pair of starving trolls, Jon throws a buttered fish from his hamper into the mouth of the cave and hopes for the best. A silence descends, allowing him to finish his own meal and lie down in an attempt to sleep.
By this point, you’re maybe thinking: where is the mother in this story? I promised you a mother. Don’t worry. She’s on her way. In fact, she’s here.
Footsteps come crunching up the dark road, up to the overhang, and there she is: the looming shape of a troll wife, her body flickering with strange lights, staring down at the human boy who has dared take a nap outside her house. She strides over him and throws down her things inside the cave, making a terrifying racket. Then before you know it she’s back, holding a candle, and Jon sees her face for the first time. It is all scars and wrinkles, marked like the mountains, and most importantly, it is kind.
“I thank you for feeding my children,” she says, and carries him unceremoniously into her cave. Jon sees two troll children curled up asleep in bed, which explains the howling, and a large net full of gleaming fish, which explains the lights. The troll wife gives Jon a bed for the night and fried fish for breakfast the next day, and while he eats he tells her about his annual fishing expedition. She knows a bit more about this year’s conditions than he does, though, and the news isn’t good. All the places on the boats have been taken and all the lodgings in the fishing grounds are occupied – except for those that belong to one very old fisherman who never has the slightest bit of luck. The troll wife intends to change all that, and help Jon into the bargain. She gives him detailed instructions on where to fish, and a pair of her own hooks, then sends him on his way with a refilled hamper. This woman does not do anything by halves.
Things play out just as she said they would. The only person who has the space for Jon is the elderly fisherman, who is in no hurry to accept him. “I won’t take you!” he cries. “I have no luck! My boat leaks! I never catch fish! You might as well go into partnership with the devil himself!” I’m maybe seeing why this man has so much bad luck.
But Jon won’t be put off. He coaxes the fisherman into allowing him a night’s lodging, and by sharing the contents of the troll wife’s hamper puts his host in such an excellent mood that the next morning the old fisherman agrees to show him his boat. Jon fixes the leaks and persuades his pessimistic new friend to come out a little way with him. They throw out the hooks and surprise, surprise: they return with an unprecedented catch.
Every day for the next six months, they have the same extraordinary luck. Other fishermen try the same spot, without success; the green young lad and the formerly unlucky old man are the only ones who have the required magic touch. Then, on the last day of the season, they go out, cast their lines, and pull them up empty – the hooks have been cut off. The loan of luck, it seems, is over.
The other fishermen, a tad jealous, find something else to tease Jon about. He has left his horses untended on the sand for the past two months, as the troll wife told him to, and the men believe that all he’ll find when he goes to load up his share of dried fish will be a pair of carcasses. They are, however, wrong. Jon’s animals are sleek and content, and accompanied by a huge brown horse that wasn’t there before. Spooked, the other fishermen retreat, and Jon happily sets off for home.
On his way, he stops underneath the overhanging rock to thank the troll wife. He willingly gives up all the fish that her horse has carried and whatever she wants from the wagon besides. She isn’t unscrupulous enough to take him up on that, but it was a nice offer and she insists he stay a couple of days with her before he goes home. The trolls are leaving that part of the country, she explains. Her husband has already returned to collect the children and she will be going to join them soon. But this isn’t the last time Jon will see her.
“One night in the spring you will dream of me,” she tells him, “and then you will know that I have gone. Then you must come back to the cave, and all that you find here will be yours – a parting present from an old troll wife, whose children you fed when they were hungry. And now off with you to your father, my lad, for he’s wearying for news of you.”
Which is very true. When Jon gets home his father is delighted with all his success, though he’s not impressed by the fact his son not only didn’t heed his warning, he did the polar opposite and got about as mixed up with trolls as it’s possible to be. Aside from, you know, marry one, which has in fact been done. What if it had all gone wrong, eh?
When Jon has the promised dream, however, he sets off anyway, returning to the rock. There he finds an empty cave and a pair of crates bound in chains, too big for Jon to have any hope of lifting. The troll wife has even thought of that; her enormous horse is waiting to carry the crates home to Jon’s farm. Inside is a trove of treasure. Jon and his father live in plenty for the rest of their lives, under the blessing of the troll wife.
But they don’t get to keep the horse. He goes home to join the trolls.
Story 2: The Sun Mother
This Transylvanian fairy tale comes from another Ruth Manning Sanders’ collection, A Book of Charms and Changelings. When they were young the Storm King and the Sun King were good friends, but one day the Sun King comes upon his friend in the middle of a fearsome tantrum, determined to go off and drown a whole country in his angst.
“Don’t dare to stop me!” he shouts. “I’m going to a land where there shall be so much rain that you’ll never, never dry up that land again! Yes, I’ll rain and rain and never stop raining for nine whole weeks!” “But the people will suffer!” the Sun King exclaims, shocked. Stormy by name and stormy by nature, his friend doesn’t care. “The king of that land has a lovely daughter,” he explains. “I wanted her for my wife, but the king said, ‘No daughter for the Storm King.’ Now I’ll show him!” Yeah, totally proving your husband credentials right now.
Being the sane one in this friendship, the Sun King points out that there are actually other people in that land apart from one snobbish king and maybe they don’t deserve to die? But the Storm King is too far gone for that sort of reasoning now. He’s just one roll of thunder short of a meglomaniacal laugh. “I will make them suffer!” he howls. “And who’s to stop me?”
“I shall,” the Sun King tells him, putting on his metaphorical superhero cloak, and shines so brightly over that land that the Storm King can’t reach it without being burned. Every day he tries to get in and is turned back, until at last he retreats to his mountain palace to rage at pompous kings and traitorous friends.
Suddenly, in the midst of all this brooding, inspiration strikes. Every morning when the Sun King flies forth he is only a little child; by midday he is a full-grown man not to be messed with, but by evening he is old and helpless, tottering home to sleep in his mother’s lap. If he can’t do that, he won’t be restored for the next day. The solution is obvious: kidnap his mum.
The Storm King promptly turns himself into a winged grey horse and flies off to the golden house of the Sun Mother, where she is sitting peaceably on her doorstep. “Sun Mother, I am the Wind Horse,” he tells her. “I bring a message from the Sun King. He begs you to come quickly. He is in a flooded land; he has used up all his strength, and yet he cannot dry it. He would sleep for an hour in your lap that he may get new strength.”
The Sun Mother is startled, but too anxious to reach her son’s side to question the story. The Storm King carries her as fast as he can to the entrance of a deep cave, changes back to his true shape and seals her in. When the Sun King gets home that night, desperately in need of his mother’s healing, she is nowhere to be seen.
After that, there is only darkness. Unrestrained by the power of his former friend, the Storm King and his servants go wild, beating at the world with wind and thunder, lightning and snow. Meanwhile, imprisoned in the cave, the Sun Mother is patiently watching her fingernails grow. When they are long enough for her purpose, she sharpens them on a stone until they are sharp as knives, then quietly digs her way out of the cavern and hurries home. She finds her son helpless and ancient on the floor, and pulls him into her lap to sing to him through her tears until he falls asleep.
In the morning, a young child flies from the golden house. As the day goes on he becomes stronger and stronger, blazing with fierce brightness. The snow melts, the rain is banished, and the Storm King is forced to retreat back to his mountains to sulk all over again. His plan has failed, and he is never able to fool the Sun Mother again.
Story 3: The Stolen Bairn and the Sìdh
This is a Scottish story from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s collection Thistle and Thyme, which introduces us to the fairy gentry that are known as the Sìdh. Two Sìdh women are walking one evening close to dusk along a wild stretch of coastline when they come across a bundle left in the middle of the cliff road. When they pull aside its wrappings, they discover that it’s a baby. There is no one in sight to claim it, so the Sìdh invoke the ancient law of finders keepers and take it home.
At around the same time, a pair of fishermen out on the water nearby find a girl stranded on the rocks underneath the cliff. They help her into their boat and take her home to be tended, but she’s not so much hurt as in shock. As soon as she regains her senses, she has only one priority: where is her baby? The fishermen’s wives don’t quite what to say. They’re pretty sure the baby must be dead, fallen into the sea with her, but she is sure that she put him safe on the ground before she fell. He’s still out there somewhere and she’s frantic to get to him.
Her having just survived falling off a cliff and all, the women looking after her are more sceptical. They compromise by sending the men back out to look for the baby where the girl says she left him. This they do, very thoroughly, but of course the baby isn’t there. Not ready to give up yet, the fishermen – who are definitely the sort of people you want to be rescued by if you fall into the sea in an inhospitable part of Scotland – ask around to see if any local found the child and took it home. No one can tell them anything. The baby has simply disappeared.
When the young mother is strong enough to leave, she thanks them for their kindness, firmly refuses their offer that she stay, and sets off to look for her baby herself. She’s sure he is alive somewhere and walks from village to village in the hope of hearing word. Eventually she comes upon a gypsy camp, where she asks her usual question. They have no more to tell her than anyone else, but she’s looking kind of a mess by now and they take her in. When she tells them her story, they insist she come with them on their journey north. They have a wise grandmother there whose advice is worth having. This part of Scotland is full of the nicest people.
The grandmother’s method of search and rescue involves throwing herbs on the fire, watching the smoke and listening to the flames. At last she takes the girl’s hand, trying to comfort her in advance. On the positive side, it’s true that the baby is alive. But she hasn’t any chance of getting it back again. “Give up thy search, poor lass,” the grandmother tells her, “for thy bairn has been stolen by the Sìdh. They have taken him into the Sìdhean, and what they take there seldom comes out again.”
The girl knows enough about the Sìdh to accept the odds aren’t good. She begs for a spell that will help her. When the gypsy grandmother sadly admits that none of her magic is strong enough, the young mother is distraught to the point of being suicidal and the grandmother hastily amends her story. There’s always hope! Don’t lie down and die yet, let’s just wait and see, all right?
And it’s good that she listens, because eventually the grandmother does come up with an idea. “The time has come for the people of the Sìdh to gather together at the Sìdhean,” she explains. “Soon they will be coming from all their corners of the land to meet together. There they will choose one among them to rule over them for the next hundred years. If you can get into the Sìdhean with them, there is a way that you may win back your bairn for yourself…For all their wisdom, the Sìdh have no art to make anything for themselves. All that they get they must either beg or steal. They have great vanity and desire always to possess a thing which has no equal. If you can find something that has not its like in all the world you may be able to buy your bairn back with it.”
So, hope…but not very strong hope. Where is a girl who has barely anything to call her own supposed to find something so remarkable that she could bribe the fairies? And how would she get into the Sìdhean in the first place? The gypsy grandmother can give her a little help with this plan. She lays a spell on the girl to protect her from the four elements. Having done all she can, she then sends her on her way.
The girl thinks the puzzle over carefully. What are the things she has heard spoken of with the most wonder? A cloak and harp of legend are what springs first to mind and that’s when she comes up with her idea. First she goes down to the sea. Clambering over the rocks, protected by the gypsy’s spell, she collects the white down of the ducks that nest there and weaves it into a thick cloudy cloak. Then she cuts off all her long lovely hair and weaves the greater part of it into the cloak as a border. When that is done and the cloak is tucked safely away, she starts work on her harp. She finds bones from a sea creature washed up on the shore and binds them into a frame, which she strings with what is left of her hair. With her two beautiful creations, she sets off for the Sìdhean.
It is a long journey, but the hardest part is when she arrives. Hidden in a thicket, she watches the fairy people arriving. One comes rather later than the others and the girl catches her alone, ignoring the Sìdh woman’s indignation at the presumption of a mortal and holding out the beautiful cloak. The moment the Sìdh sees it, she has to have it. If the price is taking the presumptious mortal into the most secret place of her people, well, okay. The girl keeps hold of the cloak until she is inside. As soon as she is seen a crowd rushes forward to be rid of her, but then they see the cloak too, and it’s collective love at first sight. Everyone wants to touch it, try it on, maybe steal it…
One of the few who remain unmoved is the new king of Sìdh, possibly because he can’t see it properly from his throne at the end of the great hall. The girl makes her way through the distracted crowd until she is standing before him, and holds out the harp. He’s not really interested…until she starts to play. The music it gives is a song of frantic love and desperate longing, a mother’s fierce determination to get back her stolen child. Then the king wants it. He offers her gold and jewels until she stands waist deep in them, but she stands fast: she wants her baby, and she won’t give up the harp until she has him. Even when the king caves and has the child brought in, he tries to get her to give over the harp first, so he can keep both. The young mother won’t be fooled. Only when her baby is safe in her arms does she give up the harp.
The king begins to play. So spellbound are the Sìdh by the music that they barely notice when the girl walks out of the Sìdhean with her baby. She returns to the fishing village, where everybody is kind, and lives there happily with her child for the rest of their lives.
Each mother in these three stories proves that it isn’t easy to have adventures of your own when there’s children to look after and no easy access to appropriate childcare (i.e. when they actually give the child back afterwards). What makes them magnificent is how they rise to the occasion anyway. From the troll wife who pays back a few hours of babysitting a hundred times over to the Sun Mother who escape her prison using only her fingernails, to the young mother who won her baby back from a whole court of fairies, these are women who have the odds stacked against them in so many different ways. It’s worth looking for them; in searching, we find treasures. If you have any recommendations of more fairy tales with remarkable mothers, please let me know!
Happy Mother’s Day for Sunday to magnificent mothers everywhere, especially mine.