This week’s fairy tale is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s collection The Magic Lands: folk tales of Britain and Ireland, and it certainly doesn’t mince words. Less than a year after the death of his first wife, a cash-strapped king goes looking for a wealthy new bride. The woman he chooses is a cranky, paranoid widow whose physical appearance is described in the most unflattering terms, and her reason for marrying a man who doesn’t love her is so that her daughter will inherit the crown. There is only one problem with that – the king already has an heir, his own daughter Eleanor.
Having a sad lack of witchcraft at her disposal, the stepmother launches a whisper campaign. The young princess is still grieving for her mother and her misery deepens at the unexpected distance growing between herself and her father. Taking the practical course, she goes to him and announces her intention to go on a journey. He’s all too amenable to the idea, but because he is an idiot he delegates the task of preparations to his wife. The bundle Eleanor receives contains no money and no clothing, and barely enough food to last a day.
She sets off anyway, walking all day through the beechwood beyond the palace, and only stops in the late afternoon when she comes to a glade. It is already occupied; an old man seated on a stone calls out a cheery greeting. Eleanor politely offers a share of her meagre supplies and they share a late lunch. As a reward for the kind gesture, the old man gives her directions to a thick thorn hedge just beyond the forest. That doesn’t sound like much of a reward, it’s true, but he throws in a rowan twig that will magically part the hedge. Further on, the old man continues, there will be a well and three heads floating in it. The princess should do whatever they say.
Well, Eleanor did go looking for an adventure. She follows the old man’s directions to the well and sure enough, there are three golden heads bobbing in the water. They ask her to wash and comb them, and Eleanor – who may have nothing else, but brought her comb! – does exactly that. When she’s done and all the heads are lined up on a bank of wildflowers, they discuss between themselves what to do for this lovely young lady. The first decides to give her enchanting beauty. The second gives her skin and breath a sweeter scent than a flower garden. The last head plots to match her up with ‘the best of all princes’. They then ask Eleanor to return them to the well, after which she continues calmly on her journey. She is now accompanied by an entourage of adoring birds. Basically, they’ve transformed her into a Disney princess.
The path she is following just happens to lead her through a beautiful park. Seeing a king and his huntsmen riding through the trees, Eleanor turns in a different direction; she’s had quite enough of kings for one day. Fairy tale royalty are not, however, reknown for their ability to take a hint, and the king is charmed by her amazing floral fragrance. He insists on inviting her inside. Once he has her there, he does everything he can think of to please and impress her, proving that perhaps he is the best of princes after all, only not actually a prince any more. Eleanor is won over by his skilful conversation and agrees to marry him. It is only after the wedding that she tells him who her father is; his reaction is to laugh and order his extravagantly fancy carriage for a family visit. That third head had excellent judgement.
When Eleanor arrives, her father is pacing the grounds, a tiny bit uneasy about sending his only child off into the unknown with so little ceremony. He is astounded to see her step from a royal carriage, bedecked in new jewellery with a handsome husband on her arm. The entire court goes into party mode, with feasting and music, but Eleanor’s stepmother is in no temper to join them. Drawing aside her daughter, she provides a bag of sweets and sherry and tells her to follow the same track as her stepsister. This naturally leads her to the same glade. The old man is still there, only this time the meeting doesn’t go so well; the girl won’t allow him a bite from her bag and he wishes her bad luck in her journey.
Untroubled, she continues on her way and comes to the thorn hedge. She thinks there is a gap, but as she’s squeezing through it closes around her and she emerges with torn skin and clothes. Her first thought when she sees the well is to wash away the blood and when three heads come bobbing unexpectedly to the surface, the girl reacts by whipping out her mother’s sherry and whacking each one with the bottle. “What shall we do for this girl,” the heads mutter darkly, “who has been so cruel to us?” They don’t take long to decide. The first head gives her sores, the second rancid breath, and the third predicts her marriage to a common cobbler.
There is no king awaiting her just down the track; she has to sleep on bare earth. The next morning she comes to a market town where everyone shrinks back in alarm from her livid sores – everyone apart from a kind-hearted cobbler. He offers to cure both afflictions if she will marry him, and given her options at the time, the girl accepts. In a strange turn of events, the cobbler only just mended a penniless old man’s shoes and took a bottle and box of ointments as payment. It takes a few weeks, but slowly the girl is restored to what she was. She marries the cobbler and returns home to introduce him to her mother.
That…does not go well. The queen commits suicide. Her husband inherits the wealth he married her for and has no remaining interest in his stepdaughter, so the girl returns home with her husband. While he mends shoes, she weaves cloth and dyes it all the brightest colours she can, and never returns to the palace.
There are endless variations on this particular fairy tale. A pair of sisters are subjected to the same magical test, with the first to be lavishly rewarded (note to magic-users: having diamonds drop from her mouth with every word is taking it way too far) and the second to be punished with equal severity (toads and snakes is WAY WAY too far). This one, though, is interesting. The stepsister has a story of her own – as the spoiled daughter of a wealthy, ambitious woman, brought into the household of a man who doesn’t give a damn about either of them, her brusqueness sounds like a self defence tactic to me. She takes on disembodied heads with a sherry bottle, and she only marries the cobbler after weeks experiencing his kindness. After the loss of her mother and inheritance, she makes a new life as a weaver, making cloth and dying it ‘all the colours of the rainbow’.
This is a girl who will make her own happily ever after.