To be the protagonist of a fairy tale is to have the deck stacked against you, with suffering around pretty much every corner and an debatable definition of ‘happy’ waiting at the end. It takes courage, is what I’m saying, so this week I’m examining four different stories about heroes and heroines who don’t know the meaning of fear. Is it really bravery if that’s all you know? Is it even healthy? Settle in comfortably, because this is a long one.
Story 1: The Youth Who Wanted to Learn to Shiver
This Grimm fairy tale begins with two brothers, both of whom live with and work for their father. The elder is quick and competent but superstitious, the kind of person who avoids the churchyard after dark, while the younger – perhaps symptomatically of his general cluelessness – doesn’t even know what fear feels like. When his father asks him what trade he wants to learn, he asks to learn to shiver.
That, as his father points out, is not a trade – but it doesn’t seem difficult, either. Upon hearing the story, the parish sexton has the boy come out with him to ring the church bells at midnight. The boy climbs the tower obediently. As he reaches the belfry, a figure in white appears before him. “Who’s that?” the boy demands. “Make haste off; you have no business here tonight.” The figure in white is in fact the sexton, dressed up as a ghost. He does not reply. “Speak, if you are an honest fellow,” the boy warns him, “or else I will fling you downstairs.” He makes good on his word, knocking the sexton aside before continuing calmly into the belfry and ringing the bells as he was told.
When the sexton doesn’t return to bed, his wife wakes the boy and he relates the incident. She hurries into the belfry and finds her husband fallen in a corner with a broken rib. Though he was fairly warned, the blame is laid squarely on the boy’s shoulders and his father sends him away with a purse of money and strict orders to never come back. The boy takes his banishment well, still fixated on the idea of shivering. He mutters about it as he walks along the road and a man passing by overhears him. They strike a deal – if the man can teach him to shiver, the boy will hand over every coin he has.
The man directs him to a gallows tree, where ‘seven fellows have married the hempen maid’ and are hanging still. The boy is to sit there all night. It gets cold, though, and though he lights a fire he can’t get warm. He feels sorry for the corpses swinging around him and cuts each down, positioning them around the fire and cautioning them to beware the flames. Being foggy on the whole concept of death, it doesn’t register with him that they can’t hear – he assumes they’re being difficult. When their clothes catch fire, the boy hangs them up again and goes peacefully to sleep.
His self-appointed teacher returns in the morning for his payment and is taken aback by the boy’s vaguely disgruntled account of the night. Clearly, more extreme measures are required. The boy is back to muttering and attracts another traveller who can’t resist the challenge. This time he’s directed to an enchanted castle where piles of treasure are guarded by evil spirits. The king has declared that anyone who can withstand three nights in the castle will not only receive that fortune, but also the hand of his beautiful daughter. It’s not clear why. Maybe it used to be his castle? Or it’s just the principle of the thing. Evil spirits don’t get prime real estate in this kingdom.
The youth is more than happy to stand watch, taking with him a lathe and a cutting board. He enters the castle unimpeded, kindles a fire and sits down to wait, still depressed over his inability to shiver. Suddenly a shrieking voice erupts from the corner, complaining of the cold. The boy, unshaken, asks the unseen presence to join him by the fire and two large black cats come out from the shadows. “Shall we have a game of cards?” one suggests. The boy consents, but on seeing their claws he assumes they will cheat and kills them instead.
I now loathe this boy.
Immediately black cats and black dogs come streaming from all sides, howling their rage and pulling his fire apart. Undaunted, the boy takes his knife and beats them off; some are killed and the others flee. All this SENSELESS KILLING really takes it out of him and he decides to seek out a bed. Happening upon one, he lies down, but the bed is as cursed as everything else in the place and starts galloping around on its own. At length it tips him out on the mountainside. The boy shrugs that off and lies back down by his fire. When the king comes to check on him the next day, he mistakes sleep for death and is quite startled when the boy jumps cheerfully awake.
The second night begins with an inexplicable ringing and rattling. It stops abruptly when half a man’s body falls down the chimney, and start up again with a howling counterpoint to bring the other half down too. The two parts come together to form a man. He is only the first – more men fall down the same way, bringing with them a skull and nine bones to play at skittles. The boy is invited to play, if he has money to stake on the outcome. And…they play skittles. All night. The boy’s a bit rubbish at it.
And so we come to the third watch. Six men come into the castle, bearing a coffin, in which the boy’s cousin lies dead. Showing for the umpteenth time he really doesn’t get what death means, the boy takes the body in his arms and tries to warm it by the fire. This actually works; the corpse sits up and tries to throttle him. At this, the boy wrestles it back into the coffin.
The castle dredges up one last challenge. A big man with a long beard comes striding in, declaring his intention to kill the intruder. The boy confidently declares that to be unlikely, as he’s the stronger – successfully goading his opponent into a contest of strength. The castle, you see, has a forge around the back, complete with weaponry. Taking up an axe, the big man breaks open an anvil to prove what a tough cookie he is. The boy seizes a second axe and slams it into a second anvil, trapping the man’s beard before proceeding to beat him half to death with an iron bar. Only when he’s promised the legendary treasure does he let the man go.
The next morning, the king is greeted with a living challenger and three chests of gold. Having fulfilled his end of the bargain, the boy is rewarded with the princess’s hand in marriage, and he’s STILL complaining about how disappointing it is not knowing how to shiver. At last a chambermaid, overhearing him, tells the princess she can fix that. She draws a pail of cold water, full of tiny fish, and while her husband is sleeping the princess pours the bucket over his head. He wakes up shouting “That makes me shiver! Dear wife, that makes me shiver!”
Well, someone ends up happy.
Story 2: The Lass that Couldn’t Be Frighted
This Scottish fairy tale comes from Thistle & Thyme, and introduces us to a highly capable young woman. Her mother being dead and her drunk of a father having abandoned her, she manages the family farm on her own. The villagers disapprove. They warn her she’ll probably be devoured by wild beasts or enchanted by malicious fairies, but she snickers a bit at both threats and goes right on managing just fine.
This girl, it should be said, is also pretty and soon enough the young men of the village notice that. One by one they come to make their offers, and one by one she sends them away. She doesn’t need their protection, or their money, and she’s sure as hell not in love. Sulkily, her suitors trail off. The only one not to try his luck is Wully the weaver’s son, who knows how to mind his own business.
One night the girl runs out of meal and takes a sack of grain to the mill to be ground for the next day’s porridge. To her surprise, the windows are dark and no one answers her knock. The miller and his family have gone away on a visit. Swinging her sack back over her shoulder, the girl keeps walking until she comes to the next mill. It’s a long way, and when she gets there she’s greeted with flat refusal. This mill, it turns out, is haunted by a grumpy goblin. If you go inside during the night he’ll not only steal your grain, he’ll beat you up too. “Hoots! Toots! To your goblin!” the girl shouts. “I’ll grind my grain, goblin or no goblin! Miller, give me the key!“
He gives her the key, with all his household gathered around as witnesses to say whatever happens next is her own fault. She sets about getting the wheel moving, pours her grain in the hopper and sits down to rest her feet after all that walking. As she hasn’t brought much grain, it doesn’t take long to be ground. The meal streams into her sack, and she gets up to go. All with no sign of the supernatural.
Ah, spoke too soon. As she picks up her sack a goblin rises through the floor, a club in one hand, the other reaching for her grain. “No you don’t!” she shouts furiously. Grabbing the club, she takes a swing, and the goblin takes to his heels. The girl chases him around the mill, whirling the club indiscriminately. The goblin gets backed up against the hopper and the girl kicks him straight in to spin between the millstones.
If he was human, it would kill him pretty quickly; being a goblin, it just really hurts. He screams at the girl to let him go, but she’s holding a grudge about the almost theft and is tempted to leave him there. Only when he promises to leave the mill and never come back does she shut off the water, bringing the wheel to a halt. She drags him bodily out of the hopper and he limps off, never to be seen again.
The girl collects her flour, returns the key and goes home. By the next morning, the story has spread through the miller’s villager and into hers. Wully hears it and is sad, thinking the girl really doesn’t need anyone in her life, let alone him. Walking past her farm later that day, though, he hears screaming and dashes to the rescue, thinking she must be under siege by a gang of robbers at the very least.
It’s worse. She’s under attack by misogynistic narrative contrivance, in the form of a mouse. Wully enjoys the moment with thoroughly unbecoming satisfaction and won’t get rid of the rodent until she admits she may need a man to look after her. Then they get married, and he holds it over her for THE REST OF HER LIFE.
I say she just needs more cats. And someone who doesn’t find her phobias funny, or her strength intimidating.
Story 3: The Prince Who Was Afraid of Nothing
This is another Grimm story, bearing a strong resemblance to ‘The Youth Who Wanted to Learn to Shiver’, but with extra royalty. A fearless prince grows bored in his own kingdom and sets off to explore the world. On foot. Even blisters hold no dread for him. At length he comes to the house of a giant and walks straight into the courtyard, where a game of skittles is set up. Each pin is the same height as the prince, but being exceptionally strong as well as fearless (or rather, fearless because he’s exceptionally strong) he bowls easily.
The giant overhears his whoops of victory and comes out, indignant at the prince’s meddling. Blue blood does not guarantee decent manners; instead of apologising for his intrusion, the prince challenges the giant to a contest of strength. But the giant is clever. He tells the prince to prove his strength by fetching an apple from the tree of life. He has looked himself, because his wife yearns for the fruit, but has never found the tree.
The prince accepts the challenge without a second thought and strides off in a random direction. Fate appears to be squarely on his side, because before long he finds the garden where the tree grows. It is surrounded by an iron wall, and the wall is guarded by ferocious beasts…all of which are, fortuitously, asleep. Swinging himself nimbly over the wall, the prince shins up the tree of life and reaches for the apple. His hand passes through a ring hanging in the way, causing strength to surge through his veins. As if he needed it. He exits by kicking open the gate and the lion that lay before it, far from ripping him to pieces like the intruder he is, follows him adoringly.
The prince returns triumphantly to the giant, who in turn hastens to give the apple to his wife. Though he neglects to inform her he didn’t pluck it himself, she guesses from the absence of the ring on his arm. Assuring her he merely left it at home, he hurries back to the prince, but this token doesn’t come so easy. They wrestle for it, without either party gaining ground. Cunningly, the giant proposes a temporary peace while they cool themselves in the stream. The prince blithely strips off, leaving his clothes – and more importantly, the ring – piled up on the bank. The moment he dives in, the giant takes the ring.
It’s not entirely unguarded; the lion gives chase and rips the ring away, returning it to the prince. The giant retaliates by jumping the unsuspecting prince while he’s dressing and putting out his eyes. Then, leading him to a precipice, the giant leaves him to die. His idea is to rob the inevitable corpse. The lion thwarts this plan too, seizing a mouthful of the prince’s shirt and dragging him away from the edge. Stubbornly, the giant tries again with a deeper abyss, but the lion shoves him over instead. His body breaks on the rocks below.
Immediate peril being averted, the lion leads his charge to a different stream and flicks water onto his ruined eyes, healing them instantaneously. These are miracle waters! Completely healed, the prince continues on his way.
The next place he stops is as inadvisable as the first. It is an enchanted castle, home to a girl described as ‘of fine stature and appearance, but quite black’. That’s the first sign this story’s about to get very bad. She’s been cursed by a wicked enchanter and the only way to save her is to stay in the castle for three nights without making a sound. The prince is happy to try his luck. He’s less happy later that evening, when evil spirits swarm from every nook and cranny to beat the crap out of him.
He makes it through the night without opening his mouth. Come morning, the girl comes to bathe his wounds with more miracle water. As she departs, the prince notices her feet are now white. CUE TEETH-GNASHING RAGE. Throughout the next two nights, the prince endures similar mistreatment, and each time the girl’s skin bleaches a little further. By the third morning, she’s entirely white. The enchantment now being lifted, servants appear out of nowhere to arrange a wedding feast – because this curse is RACIST AS HELL.
Story 4: The Dauntless Girl
This fourth tale is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s British Folk Tales – a selection, which introduces us to Mary the indomitable housemaid. One evening the farmer she works for is drinking at home with his friends when they run out of whisky, and as no one wants to brave the long dark walk to the village to get more, Mary’s boss sends her out instead. He also puts her at the centre of a wager with his sceptical, sexist cronies. They can’t believe any girl could be as fearless as the farmer claims, so they decide to test Mary’s mettle.
The next night she is sent out to the church at midnight and asked to bring back a skull. This order probably rings some warning bells from the word go, but she sets out obediently enough. Unknown to Mary, one of the farmer’s friends has hired the local sexton to hide among the bodies in the dead house so as to frighten her away.
He’s not very good at it. “Let that be,” he moans, when she picks up one skull. “That’s my mother’s skull bone.” Mary obligingly stoops for another, only to be stopped by a groan of, “That’s my father’s skull bone.” Exasperated, she chooses a third. “Father or mother, sister or brother,” she says firmly, “I must have a skull bone and that’s my last word.” With that she slams the door of the dead house shut and walks home.
The men are impressed and a little alarmed by her efficiency. Returning to check on the sexton, they find him lying on the floor, having apparently died of fright. The farmer feels too guilty to accept his winnings, so passes on the wagered guinea to Mary.
Word of her determination spreads and one day a squire comes to the farm, planning to poach her. His house is being haunted by the ghost of his mother, who is frightening away all the servants. Mary has no problem with ghosts, but wants that extra skill reflected in her wages before agreeing to anything. The girl has sense.
She’s also excellent at handling recently departed relatives. Instead of pretending the squire’s mother isn’t there, she lays a place for her at the table and offers her every dish. She makes such an impression that when the squire leaves on a business trip, the ghost appears to Mary alone and asks her to come down to the cellar. There she reveals two bags of gold, one large and one small – the former, her son’s inheritance, and the latter, Mary’s reward.
Mary has other ideas. When the squire gets back, she takes him down the cellar and reveals the bags. “The little one is for you,” she explains, “and the big one is for me.” The squire chooses not to argue, and by crossing the silverware at mealtimes, Mary prevents the ghost from setting him right. After thinking the matter over, the squire decides that a dauntless girl would make for a fantastic wife, and proposes. Mary accepts. So she ends up getting all the gold, and the house, and a husband who appreciates her skill set. Win.
What I find interesting about these stories is the ways in which they view fearlessness, and how gender impacts plot. Where the boy from the first story is mostly oblivious as opposed to actually brave, the prince is a traditional macho hero whose innate specialness overcomes all obstacles. Meanwhile, the girl from ‘The Lass that Couldn’t Be Frighted’ is given a ridiculous Achilles heel to make her less threatening. Mary survives rather better. Her fearlessness is really rock hard pragmatism and a confidence in her own capability. Guess which one I like best?