This week’s fairy tale is a Grimm brothers classic, not quite up there with the big names of ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella’ but likely to ring a few bells with your average reader all the same. It begins when a widowed queen betrothes her only daughter the prince of a distant land, whom the princess has never met, for inexplicable but apparently very important reasons. The bride-to-be is provided with a lavish trousseau but no guards; her only travelling companions are an unarmed maid and a talking horse named Falada. The queen’s idea of security is to cut off a bit of her hair and give it to her daughter as a charm. I’m sure the brigands will run screaming.
Only it isn’t brigands the princess needs to worry about. On the journey she passes a brook and asks her maid to fetch a cup of water. The maid tells her to get it herself. That’s when the princess realises that one person has the power in this new arrangement, and it isn’t her. She gets off her horse and kneels beside the brook, bending over to drink. “Alas!” the lock of hair sighs. “Alas! If thy mother knew it, sadly, sadly, her heart would rue it.” Which is not helpful in any way, really.
Exactly the same thing happens when they reach the river. This time, as the princess leans out over the water, the lock of hair falls and is carried away by the current. And that’s a greater loss than you might think, because it was a charm, keeping the queen’s daughter safe. Now she’s truly on her own. Instead of letting her remount Falada, the maid insists they swap clothes and horses. Again, the princess doesn’t argue or fight back in any way. She’s scared and bewildered. No one has treated her this way before.
Of course, when they reach the court of the promised prince, he goes straight to the beautifully dressed maid, believing her to be his bride. It’s his father who notices the real princess and wants to know who she is. The maid dismisses her existence, ordering that she be absorbed into the work of the castle. She knows the terrified girl won’t say a word against her. So the princess becomes a goose girl, under the command of a boy called Curdken.
But there’s another who knows the story. The maid’s next order is for the horse Falada to be beheaded before she can tell anyone the truth. If I were the prince, I would at this point be rethinking my marriage, but he sends the horse off to be slaughtered without protest. When the princess hears of it, she is distraught, and pleads so hard that the butcher hangs the horse’s head above a city gate so that she can see it every day as she goes back and forth. Did I mention the severed head can still talk? It offers much the same speech as the lock of hair, and is exactly as useful.
The princess’s new duties are simple. She accompanies Curdken every day, driving the geese out of the city into a meadow where they can feed. That, for whatever reason, is when she likes to do up her hair. Curdken is an annoying little creep who is fascinated by its pure silver colour and would pull some out by the roots if he could, but the princess has one form of defence against an unkind world: she’s charming. She calls on the help of the wind, and every morning it steals away Curdken’s hat so that she can brush and braid her hair in peace. This makes him terribly sulky. Eventually he goes to the actual king, who gives him an actual audience, and tells him he can’t work with this girl any more. She talks to a severed head every morning and persuades the wind to do her favours. She’s freaky, basically, and that’s admittedly a bit hard to deny.
Intrigued, the king follows them, and witnesses all the freakiness for himself. That night he pulls his goose girl aside and questions her until she breaks down in tears and tells him everything. After all he’s seen, he believes her. The situation is explained to the prince, who was maybe disturbed by the whole ‘murder my horse for me, darling’ thing after all, because he’s thrilled to know he doesn’t have to marry the other girl after all. These are two men who do not like to be lied to. They come up with a plan to trap the imposter, and set it in motion at the bridal feast. The maid sits at one end of the table – the princess, unrecognisable in full regalia, is seated at the other. When everyone is a bit drunk and the conversation’s gone a little odd anyway, the king tells the goose girl’s tale, and asks the maid what she would do to the villain of the story.
“Nothing better,” she tells him, “than that she should be thrown into a cask stuck around with sharp nails, and that two white horses should be put to it, and should drag it from street to street till she is dead.” No sooner has she finished speaking than the king sentences her to her own gruesome execution, leaving the prince free to marry the girl who was too frightened to cope with a maid who only threatened murder. Somehow I don’t think she’s going to feel awfully safe in that castle.
There are a few glaring discrepancies in this story, chief of which is that the maid would have to be reeling drunk not to notice that the king was recounting her own past. Why would anyone, given the opportunity to seal their own fate, come up with the most macabre form of execution they could imagine? Was she hoping they would be too merciful to carry it out, or that the princess would speak in her defence? But, no. This is a Grimm brothers story – the name says it all, folks.