This English story is taken from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales and the premise is familiar: a king with a beautiful daughter called Anna marries a queen with a comparatively plain one called Kate. Guess who interprets the genetic lottery as a personal insult! Here’s a clue – it’s not Kate.
The queen takes her jealousy to the henwife, a local wisewoman, who suggests she send Anna to her cottage the next morning. The henwife will then make her lift the lid on a certain pot and a Something is intended to happen. A key aspect of the spell, though, requires that Anna must have fasted the whole morning before she arrives, and that proves unexpectedly hard to achieve. The first time the queen sends her out, Anna takes a bit of bread from the palace kitchen; the second time, she comes across pea pickers by the road and is given a handful of peas for her breakfast. The third time, the queen comes with her, to be sure she doesn’t conjure any more snacks. This time, when the lid is lifted, Anna’s head falls off into the pot and a lamb’s head leaps up to take its place on her shoulders.
The queen returns home with the transformed princess. The king’s reaction is so unimportant that it doesn’t appear in the story; let’s assume no one sees fit to tell him what’s happened to his daughter. In her evil scheme of enchanted decapitations, however, his wife failed to take someone else’s reaction into account – her daughter, Kate, who loves Anna as a sister. When she sees what has been done, she veils Anna’s cursed head and takes her into the world to find a safer home for them both.
Of course, the sisters do have certain expectations that are a little…ambitious, shall I say? They stop to ask a night’s lodging at a castle. It is the home of a neighbouring king who has two sons, one of whom is dying from a mysterious ailment. What’s more, all those who have sat up with him through the night have disappeared.
It is not specifically stated in this story, but I have a dreadful feeling about why the princes don’t have a mother any more.
The king is now offering a peck of silver as reward to anyone who is still there in the morning. Kate seizes the opportunity. At first the night goes quietly. Then, on the chime of midnight, the sickly prince suddenly arises, dresses and goes downstairs to the stables, where he saddles and mounts his horse. Kate follows without his noticing, even when she swings into the saddle behind him. It’s plain that the prince is not in command of himself. Which is rather alarming when you consider he’s the one holding the reins.
He rides into the woods and Kate plucks nuts from the trees as they pass, filling her apron. They ride on until they reach a hill. The prince calls out. “Open, open, green hill, and let the young prince in with his horse and his hound.” Kate quickly adds, “And his lady him behind,” and into the hill they go. Within lies a glorious ballroom, where beautiful fairy folk draw the prince into their dancing, somehow missing Kate’s existence entirely. The genetic lottery did her well after all – she got the sneaky genes. She hides behind a door and watches all night as the prince dances himself to exhaustion in the glittering crowd.
At dawn, he remounts his horse, Kate jumps behind him once again and they ride home. When the king comes into his son’s room the next morning he finds Kate sitting peaceably by the fireside, cracking her nuts. She tells him calmly that the prince had a good night – which is, depending on your perspective, possibly true – but that she will not sit up with him again unless she is given a peck of gold. This she is granted, and the second night passes in much the same way as the first, only this time Kate watches the fairies instead of the prince. She sees a baby playing with a wand and overhears a nearby fairy’s remark: “Three strokes of that wand would make Kate’s sick sister as bonny as ever she was.” Perhaps Kate’s presence hasn’t gone unnoticed after all.
After that little hint, she rolls nuts towards the baby until it lets the wand fall to play with them instead, at which moment Kate pops it into her apron pocket. When she gets home she rushes straight to her sister’s room and taps Anna three times with the wand. Sure enough, the lamb’s head falls off and Anna is herself again.
For a third night’s watch Kate ups her price – she will stay only for the prince’s hand in marriage. The terms are agreed and she returns to the fairy hill, where the same baby is playing with a bird. Another stage whisper reaches Kate’s ear: “Three bites of that birdie would make the sick prince as well as ever he was.” Once again Kate distracts the baby by rolling nuts like marbles and seizes the bird herself.
As soon as she returns the castle, she kills and cooks the bird, and for the first time the prince registers her existence, if only in the context of a mysteriously appetising smell. With each bite of the cooked bird, he wakes a little more, until he is fully restored. When the king comes in that morning, he finds Kate and her prince sitting companionably by the fire, cracking nuts together. ROMANCE. What’s more, he has a brother. Kate has a sister. It is meant to be!
Seriously, though, if anyone will understand how much magic can screw up a family it would be them. This fairy tale has similarities to Ruth Manning-Sanders’ retelling of ‘Tatterhood’: both stories inflict the same disfigurement on the beautiful sister and ignore fairy tale tradition by making the plain sister the hero. The power of both stories lies in the fact the girls love each other too much to let stupid things like a curse mess up their lives. I love Tatterhood. I mean, she defeats a coven of witches with only her goat and a wooden spoon. However, I do believe that the marriages in ‘Kate Crackernuts’ have a better chance at success. They have time to get to know each other, there are important experiences in common. Most importantly, Kate and her prince seem to actually like each other, without her needing to be anything but herself.