This week’s fairy tale is a German story from Maggie Pearson’s 2013 collection The House of Cats and other traditional tales from Europe. It begins with a motivated young woman who sets off to find work. After walking all day, she needs a place to stay for the night. She knocks on the door of the first house she passes and, finding it open, looks inside. The homeowner is waiting, sitting on the table.
This is only one of several strange things about him. He is extremely small, the size of a toddler, but appears as a very old man. He is also awash in an extraordinarily long beard, like a less genetically blessed version of Rapunzel, and he speaks in song. “I am the Mannikin Spanalong,” he announces to his startled visitor, “I have a beard that’s ten ells long. Girl! Come in and make my supper.” So, not really blessed with manners either, but she did want a place to stay and she doesn’t mind making a meal that she gets to share.
After they’ve eaten and she’s washed the dishes, Mannikin Spanalong demands that she put him to bed. This is a slightly weirder request, but the girl obliges, carefully arranging the mass of hair to make a kind of quilt. She sleeps on the floor beside the fire. In the morning, he wants her help to dress and comb out his beard before she goes on her way. The more she combs, however, the less hair he has – and the shorter his beard becomes, the taller Mannikin Spanalong grows. Also, younger. Eventually the beard is just drifts of hair on the floor and there’s a tall young man standing there. Hopefully his clothes changed size with him or this will be slightly awkward.
This is generally the point when the rescued party explains their curse, announces their proper title and offers marriage as a reward for services rendered. Mannikin Spanalong, or whoever he is now, does none of these things. He thanks his rescuer politely, tells her to keep the cottage and everything in it, and walks out without another word.
And the girl is perfectly happy with this arrangement. She gets a free house, no strings attached. She also gets the mass of discarded hair. Whipping up a makeshift spindle, she sets to work transforming it into yarn, and some trace of magic must still remain because however much yarn she makes, there is always hair left. That means she can’t ever sweep her floor clean – on the other hand, she has an inexhaustible resource for her very own cottage industry, and her yarn becomes a big thing at the local market. So she makes her own living, her own way, and if she ever marries the story doesn’t care.
It is very rare to find a fairy tale about a woman with a happy ending that is not a marriage. To find one that considers a woman supporting herself a happy ending is…well, I’ll put it this way, I can’t think of another one offhand. The nature of the spell makes no sense at all. I’m beginning to suspect there is a club of witches out there somewhere, egging one another on to increasingly bizarre escape clauses for their curses.