Fairy Tale Tuesday No.95 – Prunella

This Italian fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches. It begins when a little girl reaches into the abundant branches of a wayside plum tree and is snatched up by a witch in need of free domestic service. Her house is built entirely of plum stones and plums are the only food the girl ever gets to eat; the witch even renames her ‘Prunella’, which means ‘little plum’. Though the girl tries repeatedly to escape her new mistress, the magic laid over the witch’s house always brings her back. So Prunella remains, and somehow despite her enforced servitude and extreme diet, she grows into a healthy, beautiful young woman.

Not that she’s aware of the beautiful part – the witch has no mirrors in the house – until one day she glimpses her reflection in the still water of their well and lingers so long admiring it that the witch comes to find out what she’s doing. They look at their reflections side by side and it’s plain that while this lifestyle suits Prunella, it’s done nothing for the witch. Prunella is tactless enough to say so outright. She’ll regret that.

The witch’s first effort at retribution is to assign her servant a traditionally impossible task: she gives Prunella a basket to fill with water, and if she fails, her life will be forfeit. Prunella takes an equally traditional approach, falling into a heap beside the well and crying her heart out. At this point, a handsome young man conveniently materialises at her elbow. His name is Benvenuto, he’s the witch’s son, and he is in love with Prunella. In exchange for a kiss, he’ll fill the basket. Blackmail much?

Prunella turns him down flat, because she hates his mother. He respects that and fills the basket anyway. The witch is infuriated when Prunella comes back with the task completed, immediately realising who must have helped her. She storms out of the house, but leaves Prunella another task to be getting on with – she must turn a sack of raw wheat into loaves of bread in the space of an hour, or die.

And Prunella tries, though she’s well aware it can’t be done. With only five minutes left before the witch’s return, she’s not even finished grinding the flour, and surrenders again to tears. Benvenuto reappears like this is a pre-arranged signal. He makes the same offer, she rejects him again, and he works his magic on the wheat just the same. The witch walks through the door to find a pile of crusty loaves on the table.

Of course she knows it’s her son’s doing and his clear line of alliance doesn’t improve her mood AT ALL, but she decides to have a go at subtlety. She rouses Prunella at dawn with an unconvincing apology and a new task. “My sister lives on the other side of that mountain. She has a casket of jewels belonging to me, and I want you to go and fetch it. There is a pretty little string of pearls in it, I seem to remember. I fancy they would look well round your white neck.” On the one hand, she’s making super suspicious offers – on the other, Prunella gets to leave the house. She’s accustomed to living by the witch’s whims anyway, so she sets off happily enough.

Benvenuto intercepts her at the foot of the mountain with the bad news: his aunt is a witch too, and a particularly nasty piece of work besides. She’ll kill Prunella as soon as look at her. “But give me just one kiss, and I will save you!” Benvenuto declares. Prunella tosses her hair scornfully. “If I am going to my death, then I go to my death. I will not kiss the son of a witch.” You have to admire her consistency. Benvenuto, who does, helps her out for a third time with four seemingly unremarkable gifts to ease her way.

Continuing up the mountainside, Prunella comes to the witch’s gate and pours the first gift, oil, on its rusty hinges. This allows her to sneak inside unheard – well, unheard by everyone except the enormous guard dog, who comes racing over to rip out her throat. Prunella tosses him a loaf of bread and he falls on that instead. Crossing the courtyard, she sees a woman at the well trying to draw up a bucket with her long hair. Prunella offers her Benvenuto’s third gift, a rope. Inside the house, another woman is trying to clean the hearth with her tongue and gets a broom. Prunella snatches the promised casket off its shelf and runs out the door.

In her haste, the door slams, and the witch wakens. She screams at each of her servants in turn to kill the thief, but they all react to the witch’s cruelty by letting Prunella pass. She returns to her own mistress with the casket, and the first witch throws a violent tantrum. Yet another task is devised: Prunella must guess which of the witch’s three roosters is crowing throughout the night or be killed for her failure.

As before, Benvenuto turns up at the last minute with his kiss-or-be-killed special offer. When the first rooster crows at midnight, he tells Prunella it is the yellow bird. The second crow comes from the black bird. When the third rooster crows, however, Benvenuto falls silent and Prunella has no answer for the witch. Instead of letting herself to be murdered by her raging mistress, she jumps from her window.

Benvenuto catches her. “I love you, Prunella,” he tells her. “I do not ask anything of you, except to be allowed to save you.” She falls unconscious, and when she wakes she’s on the other side of the sea, where the witch will never find her. Benvenuto bids her a quiet goodbye and turns to go, but Prunella calls him back. “Have you forgotten that I am the son of a witch?” he asks. “Yes,” she answers, “I remember only that you are good and kind.” So they make a new life for themselves together, far away from the house of plum stones and the wrathful witch.

The moral of the story: you just can’t trust fruit in a fairy tale. I’ve always had a soft spot for Prunella, who might be brutally blunt but survives her servitude with healthy self-respect and a strong sense of boundaries. She only consents to marry Benvenuto when her circumstances don’t depend on it; when, in short, it’s a real choice. He’s a rather sad character, clearly estranged from his maniacal mother, feeling he has to blackmail a girl into caring about him but helping her no matter what. As for the witch sisters – seriously, they are so not prepared for the inevitable minion’s union.

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