This week’s fairy tale is a Greek story from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection Damian and the Dragon and is unusual in a few ways right from the start. A widower king with three beautiful daughters is required to go to war and leave them behind, and being a responsible father, he hires a friendly old lady as their companion – not so much to keep an eye on them, as the girls are exceptionally well-behaved, but to amuse them with funny stories. This is excellent parenting. You don’t want your daughters wandering off and meeting with a cursed spindle? Keep them entertained!
The old lady is witty, irreverent and genuinely fond of her charges, but it’s tiring always being the entertainer. For her sanity’s sake, she takes some time for herself every now and again to explore the king’s gardens. Though the princesses are somewhat amazed that her life isn’t 100 % about them, that’s ignorance more than arrogance and they don’t try to stop her.
The gardens, it should be said, are vast. Early one morning the old lady decides to go all the way to the end just to see what’s there, and – well, there aren’t fairies at the bottom of the king’s garden. There’s a stairwell instead, cunningly concealed under a stone, that leads into an entire underground palace. Being an adventurous sort, the old lady marches straight inside and starts poking about. She soon locates a kitchen, where an old man is busy cooking. He is Big Matsiko, servant of three absentee princes, and a soft touch to chatty intruders. In no time at all the old lady has talked him into giving her a nice breakfast. The only thing that’s missing is a spot of dessert, so Big Matsiko goes to fetch some honey. All he has is a thin layer at the bottom of a huge jar. While he is bending over it to scrape up the old lady’s treat, she neatly pushes him inside and goes home to entertain her princesses with the story. They, of course, don’t know it’s true, and find it hilarious.
Big Matsiko fails to see the funny side of the situation. He’s still stuck in the honey pot when his three princes get home, and is so embarrassed at being tricked by an elderly little prankster that when they ask him how he fell, he tells them he slipped.
The next day the old lady returns. She pretends it was all an accident and flatters Big Matsiko into another meal. By the time they finished eating she has him so charmed that he agrees to show her around the palace. When he climbs up a ladder to a high window to demonstrate how he watches for his masters, she knocks down the ladder and leaves him there clinging to the sill. To cap off her troublemaking, she over-salts everything in the kitchen. Because…well, no reason really, it seems she just gets a kick out of being disastrous.
While the princesses are listening to another of their minder’s funny stories, the princes are rescuing the real man and tasting their inedible meal. They are not pleased. Threatened with unemployment, Big Matsiko is determined to rebuff the old lady if she comes again.
Being utterly shameless, she does. What’s more, she brings a beautiful robe and headscarf and an array of cosmetics all wrapped up in a bundle. These are gifts from the princesses for a fictional niece’s wedding, and the tools for the old lady’s latest trick. Big Matsiko greets her with outrage, but she smothers him in apologies and protestations, and before he knows what he’s doing they’re sharing a third meal. This is such a bad idea. When he gets up from the table, she pours a sleeping draught into his glass, and as soon as he’s asleep she sets to work. Coming home that night, the princes find him in the youngest brother’s bed – shaven, rouged and decked out in the embroidered robe, sleeping so deeply that all their efforts can’t waken him.
The other two incidences could be written off as carelessness, but this is just too weird. They carry him back to his own room and question him in the morning. He’s so excruciatingly humiliated that he confesses everything. “If she come again today,” he vows, “I’ll wring her neck!” The princes, who are quite curious about their troublesome visitor, convince him to be more lenient. Instead of going hunting as usual, they hide in a cupboard and wait for the old lady to visit.
Sure enough, she does, brushing off Big Matsiko’s fury by declaring it was all done to amuse his young masters. At this, the three princes emerge in person from their cupboard and demand a better explanation. It would sound more impressive if they weren’t laughing. The old lady reverts to ‘naughty but charming’ and tells them all about her princesses. The princes grow thoughtful at that. Released on the condition she arranges a meeting, she returns to the palace above ground, gathers the girls for a walk and takes them to the very end of the garden, where she theatrically discovers the stairway. The princesses are not entirely comfortable about exploring the place, but are goaded on by the old lady and come within sight of the princes, who have hidden themselves again upon her instruction. When the girls return the same way, they find three handsome young men lined up bowing. The old lady immediately arranges three weddings, off-handedly proposing to Big Matsiko in mid-spiel. By the time the king comes back from the war, everyone is in love and waiting for his blessing. The king makes no objection, although possibly he’s regretting putting this particular old lady in charge of his daughters.
It’s not uncommon to find an old woman at work in a fairy tale, but it is unusual for her to be the protagonist with a love interest of her own – if that’s what you can call Big Matsiko. A better word might be ‘victim’. Her pranks put him in physical danger twice and each time, she risks his employment for her own amusement. She is a classic trickster figure, and that’s a rare thing too; usually, the trickster figures are male. This old lady proves that men do not have the monopoly on a wicked sense of humour, and for that reason I can’t bring myself to be too exasperated with her either.