Year of the Witch: Johnny and the Witch Maidens

Last month I wrote about witch maidens and how much I love them. This Bohemian story from Ruth Manning-Sanders’1986 edition of A Book of Witches was the gateway drug.

It’s technically about Johnny, an orphan boy who is travelling in search of employment. In time he comes to a forest. On the outskirts of the forest is a little house; in the house lives an old man with empty spaces where his eyes ought to be, and on the hill above the forest live the witch maidens who took his eyes away.

Johnny is given the job of taking the old man’s goats out to pasture and bringing them back again. The old man is a kindly employer, giving Johnny only one rule to follow: he must not take the goats to the hill above the forest, for if Johnny meets the witch maidens they are sure to steal his eyes as well.

The old man may be paying the wages but Johnny rapidly ends up in charge of the farm. He is a whirlwind of energy, tending to the goats and managing all of the housework and generally making himself indispensable. Johnny, it should be noted here, is the kind of person who waltzes into your life and then does exactly what he thinks best, which is how he comes to the decision to take the old man’s goats up to the hill above the forest. His only precaution is to tuck three sprigs of bramble into his hat and to polish up his worst attitude.

While he is watching the goats, he hears a voice cry “God bless you, young goat herd!” and turns to see a very beautiful girl. She could be a relative to Snow White: long black hair, cherry red lips, pale skin and a white dress. She’s also carrying a basket of apples.

The girl offers Johnny an apple from her basket. Guessing that eating the apple will put him under an enchantment, Johnny coolly refuses and the witch maiden stalks off. Soon enough a second witch maiden appears, this one producing a rose that Johnny refuses to smell; and then a third witch maiden tries to comb his hair, only for her wrists to be bound up with bramble. When her sisters come running to try and help her, Johnny pounces on them too.

Once all three are tied up with thorns, he hurries to fetch the old man and tells the witch maidens to return his eyes. “I don’t know where they are,” the first witch maiden declares. Johnny threatens to throw her into the river and she relents, bringing him into the cavern where the witch maidens keep their impressive collection of eyes. It’s kind of a serial killer aesthetic they’ve got going on in there. The witch maiden rummages for a bit and produces a pair of eyes that she says are the right ones. Johnny fits them into the old man’s sockets, but oh dear, the only things he can see are owls. Furious, Johnny really does throw the witch maiden in the river. I am not going to forgive him for that.

Johnny moves on to the second witch maiden, who pretends to find the old man’s eyes and instead gives him ones that see nothing but wolves. She, too, is thrown into the river, which means there is only one sister left. She’s no more willing than the other witch maidens to give up the old man’s eyes – she gives him ones that see nothing but fish – but she’s also Johnny’s last shot at restoring his beloved employer’s sight so he gives the witch maiden another chance and she very reluctantly hands over two blue eyes. The old man cries out in delight. He can see everything…except for the witch maiden, who hoofed it while Johnny was distracted.

Johnny and the old man return home to the farm and live happily ever after, and I choose to believe that the third witch maiden managed to rescue her sisters from the river and they lived happily ever after too. Eye of the beholder!

Year of the Witch: The Amber Witch

Anyone who has been following this blog for some time may be aware that one of my pet hates in life is to hear fairy tale princesses being bad-mouthed for perceived weakness and passivity – as if there is only one allowable way to be strong, as if it is remotely achievable to be strong all the time, as if needing to be rescued is a shameful thing. If you too experience this annoyance like nails down a chalkboard, take note of this fairy tale and name drop it with me.

The Amber Witch’ is a Norwegian fairy tale from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ 1988 collection A Cauldron of Witches. It begins by introducing us to Princess Rosalinda, beautiful heiress to the kingdom of Norway and focus of the attention of many eligible suitors. While Rosalinda is an impeccable hostess, she’s keeping a firm distance from the altar, so her father decides it’s time for a heart-to-heart. The palace has been cluttered up with swooning young men for too long. “Just tell me now which one of them you would prefer for a husband,” the king says, “and I will send all the rest about their business.”

Rosalinda responds with equal honesty. “I don’t care a pin about any of them, Father,” she explains. The man she loves is Eric Clementson, one of the king’s own guards, and she will have him or no one. The king, in his shock, errs more on the side of no one. However upstanding a character Eric may have, he’s an employee of the royal family, without fortune or title to recommend him. The king does not want to force his beloved daughter to marry against her will, so he gives the matter some thought and decides the solution to this problem is to send Eric on a fool’s errand that will, with any luck, get him killed. Father of the year material, this one.

There is an island off the west coast where the most beautiful amber is to be found. The king’s terms are these: if Eric brings back a sack full of that amber, he can marry the princess. Rosalinda is horrified. “We must run away together, there is no other way,” she tells Eric, but he’s too honorable to do something like that and is full of confidence that he can complete the king’s task. And certainly it starts off well enough. The king provides him with passage on a ship and Eric has barely set foot on the island when he sees a small cottage where he can ask for directions. The cottage is home to a hermit, who tells Eric that the amber he seeks can be found under the water on the far side of the island, but it is guarded by a beautiful witch who will stop him taking it if she can. Eric believes the power of True Love will protect him. The hermit offers his blessing and sends Eric on his way.

Between two promontories of rock lies the amber-rich water, and seated on one of those rocks is the witch, as beautiful as promised and singing dreamily to herself. “Welcome, welcome, stranger,” she calls to Eric, and asks how she can help him. Like an idiot, he tells her what he’s after. Claiming to have inherited powers from her grandfather, the witch tells Eric that if she blows into his nostrils he will be able to breathe underwater. Like an IDIOT, he believes her.

Well, she does give him the ability to breathe underwater, right before she shoves him into the sea and sets him slaving away collecting the amber for her benefit.

Days pass and become months, and after a year the king quietly sets about arranging a marriage between Rosalinda and the crown prince of Sweden. “When you are a happy wife,” he coaxes his daughter, “living at the court of my most revered neighbour, the king of Sweden, you will forget about this little trouble.” But Rosalinda is convinced that Eric is alive and she has no intention of marrying someone else. Locked up in her room to await the marriage, Rosalinda manages to rid herself of her bridesmaids and instead of putting on her wedding dress, she takes out a gift from her mother: a cloak of swan’s feathers. Before the queen died, she told Rosalinda that the cloak would help her in times of trouble, and does it ever. Rosalinda flies out the window, away from the palace and straight to the notorious island, where she lands outside the hermit’s house. When she tells him who she is looking for, the hermit explains what has happened to Eric. “It will be no easy task for you to rescue him,” he warns. “The more difficult the task the more welcome,” Rosalinda declares. “If it were the giving of my life I would give it gladly.”

What the hermit has her do is go around collecting cobwebs. He teaches her how to weave them into a net, and sends her off to rescue her lover with his blessing. It’s a very good blessing, because it turns Rosalinda temporarily invisible. Some of us might call that a spell.

Rosalinda flies to the far end of the island. When she sees the witch there, she pulls feathers from her cloak and scatters them about so that the witch is tricked into thinking it’s snowing. As soon as the witch leaves to investigate this peculiar weather phenomenon, Rosalinda casts her net into the sea and whispers Eric’s name. He leaps into the net, she hauls him onto the beach and they book it for the hermit’s cottage, which is apparently safe ground. When the witch returns to find Eric gone, she loses her temper so passionately that she topples into the sea and drowns. Her bones come to rest in the amber, which thereafter goes undisturbed.

Eric, however, escaped with a sack full of it. When Rosalinda brings him home, it’s for an immediate confrontation with her father. “I have been to the island and brought back the precious amber,” Eric tells the king. “And I have been to the island,” Rosalinda says, “and brought back what is more precious to me than all the amber in the world. I have brought back Eric. And if you will not give your consent to our marriage we can of course sail away together and…”

Faced with losing his daughter, the king caves. Rosalinda marries her Eric and in time succeeds to the throne. The couple are popular monarchs, which is for the best, because messing with Eric would mean messing with Rosalinda and I think we had all better avoid doing that.

Year of the Witch: The Old Witch

This fairy tale is English, taken from the 1986 Magnet edition of A Book of Witches by Ruth Manning-Sanders. It makes me think of Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, asking Dorothy ‘Are you a good witch or a bad witch?’. Were the question posed to the titular character in this story, the answer would surely be ‘I am a pissed-off witch’.

The story starts when the breadwinner of a small household falls sick and it falls to his daughters to keep the family from ruin. One sister is fully occupied with bemoaning their bad luck; the other sister packs her things and goes to look for a job. Unfortunately it’s a bad time to get employment as a servant and as she is turned from door after door, she goes further and further from home until she comes to a…shall we say eccentric part of the countryside.

As she passes a place where there is a hot oven, the loaves inside call out to her, “Little girl, little girl, take us out, take us out! We have been baking for seven years, and no one has come to take us out.” Possessing an admirable degree of chill, the girl takes out the bread and continues on her way. Next thing she knows, there’s a cow calling out for her help, declaring that it has not been milked in seven years. The girl stops, milks the cow, drinks a little milk and leaves the rest in pails in a field. On she goes until another cry for help reaches her ear, this time from an apple tree loaded down with ripe fruit. It has apparently been waiting seven years for its harvest to be picked. The girl calmly shakes down the fruit and walks on.

This is precisely the sort of country where you would expect to find a witch in residence, and what’s more, she’s hiring. Though the work is hard, it’s not Baba Yaga impossible – the witch wants someone to do all her housework, and her only stipulation is that the girl must never, ever look up the chimney. “Or you will repent it,” the witch assures her.

There’s only one problem with this job. The witch doesn’t want to pay her servant, because then the girl will leave and the witch will have to scrub her own floors. The girl puts up with the delays for some time, but one day while the witch is out of the house and the girl is cleaning the hearth stones, she absent-mindedly glances up the chimney. Immediately, a jingling bag of coins falls to the ground. Naturally, the girl looks again, and soon discovers that every time she looks up that chimney, it gives her money. Before long, she has more bags of gold than she can possibly carry. She loads herself up and books it out the door.

All of sudden she hears the witch shrieking behind her. Panicked, the girl runs to the apple tree that she helped and cries out:

Apple tree, apple tree, hide me

So the old witch can’t find me

If she does, she’ll pick my bones

And bury me under the marble stones.”

The apple tree conceals her among its branches and lies its leaves off when the witch asks whether her thieving servant came that way. The way she phrases her question (opening with ‘Tree of mine, tree of mine, have you seen a girl’) implies that the peculiar creatures around these parts are also in her service, and their respectful replies (‘no, mother; not for seven years’) support that, but they don’t seem to like her all that much. When the girl scrambles out of the apple tree and takes refuge with the cow, it lies to the witch as well, and the baker responsible for the talking bread does that same thing. The oven goes further. When the witch looks into its depths, the door slams shut on her, and she is stuck inside while the girl runs safely away.

Enter sister number two. When the first girl returns home with armfuls of gold it is the end of all the family’s financial worries, but that’s not quite enough riches for the second daughter of the household and she sets off to find the witch’s house for herself. There’s a second fortune there for the claiming – after all, how hard could it possibly be to look up a chimney? This girl encounters the loaves of bread, the cow and the tree, but though they call to her, she has no interest in stopping to help any of them. She can barely keep a civil tongue with the witch, secretly giggling to herself over the old woman’s gullibility. The first time the witch leaves her alone in the house, the second sister grabs as many bags of gold as she can and takes off. But the witch quickly realises that she has been robbed and when the girl asks the apple tree to hide her, the tree’s response can be boiled down to ‘Karma’. The witch catches up, beats the would-be thief and sends her home without a penny.

Very much in the manner of Ruth Manning-Sanders retellings, the witch is not portrayed as good or bad so much as simply there. If you mess with her, you take your chances; the story will not take your side.

Year of the Witch: Old Witch Boneyleg

I have not read this story before and have no idea what it is about, other than a strong likelihood that witches are involved. That’s good enough for me, so off we go.

Old Witch Boneyleg’ is a Russian fairy tale that comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ 1978 collection of the same name, published by Angus & Robertson. The story opens in a little house where a cat and a sparrow are for some unidentified reason bringing up a child called Jeekhar. The cat and sparrow can also wield axes, paws and wings notwithstanding, well enough to cut firewood, and that is what they do during the day while little Jeekhar keeps house. Before they leave for the day, they warn Jeekhar to beware visitors. “If old witch Boneyleg should come,” Cat instructs, “you hide, and don’t you speak a word.”

Jeekhar industriously cleans the house. While he is arranging the spoons on the table, he hears noises from outside, and through the window sees the approach of none other than the dreaded Boneyleg travelling in a tub swept along by a broom, in true Baba Yaga style. It is entirely possible that she is Baba Yaga with a rude nickname – Wikipedia indicates that this is so – but whatever else she gets up to, she’s definitely a thief. She bounces right into the house and starts stealing the spoons. Jeekhar emerges from his hiding place to make an indignant protest and is promptly scooped up into the tub, stolen along with his spoon. The poor boy shouts out for help and his guardians come leaping like the peculiar and really quite formidable individuals they are. Cat mauls the witch, Sparrow’s beak proves ruthless, and before you know it Jeekhar is safely back home.

And that is the end of the matter.

Except, no, obviously it isn’t. We’re dealing with a witch here and they do not give up easily. The very next day old witch Boneyleg breaks in again. “This is Cat’s spoon,” she says aloud, prowling about the kitchen, “this is Sparrow’s spoon, this is little Jeekhar’s spoon. Ah ha! It’s little Jeekhar’s spoon I’m going to have!” Jeekhar calls out a rebuttal from behind the stove, like an idiot, and gets kidnapped on the spot.

But Cat and Sparrow hear his screams and come after him. They attack the witch, she throws Jeekhar out of the tub, and he’s taken home for a thorough scolding. “Now, Jeekhar,” Cat and Sparrow tell him the next morning, “if old witch Boneyleg should come, remember, remember, just hide and don’t say a word! Better she should run off with your spoon than run off with you. We can get you another little spoon, but we can’t get another little you!” Jeekhar promises to be more careful this time.

And falls for the same trick for the third time in a row. This time, Cat and Sparrow are too deep in the forest to hear his cries, and the tub sails on and on until it reaches old witch Boneyleg’s house. She locks him in her cellar and lights her stove, then goes…No, you know what, I need to quote some more because I love this bit so much: So while the stove was getting hot, off went old witch Boneyleg to invite her friend, the Devil, to the feast. But the Devil was very busy, sticking forks into lost souls. No, he couldn’t come that minute but he’d come in an hour.’

Supper party for two arranged, Boneyleg brings out a baking dish and drops Jeekhar into it. He’s a disobliging dinner. Flailing his arms and legs, he makes himself impossible to stuff into the oven and ignores all the witch’s orders to curl himself up properly. “Is that curling up?” he asks innocently, turning somersaults. Beyond exasperated, Boneyleg demonstrates the proper way to lie in a baking dish by doing it herself, and Jeekhar pulls a flawless Gretel manoeuvre by shoving her straight in the oven. He leaps into the tub and sets off as fast as he can, sweeping along with the broom, racing for home.

So the witch is roasting instead of the boy, but along comes the Devil, who has managed to deal with his hellish commitments in time for dinner, and he rescues his screaming, cursing friend from the oven. Here I must quote again: ‘Well, he doesn’t want to eat her, the tough old thing! So he dips her in cold water, wraps her in a blanket, and puts her to bed. And when she’s cooled off a bit, she gnashes her teeth, and screams out “Boys! Boys! Don’t speak to me of boys! They don’t know how to behave! They’ve no manners I tell you, no manners!”

Little Jeekhar, and his beloved spoon, are forever safe from her. And presumably the Devil orders takeaway, as it doesn’t look like Boneyleg is using that oven again any time soon.

Year of the Witch: The Three Witch Maidens

When it comes to witch fairy tales, the ones that I love best are the ones with witch maidens. They are a highly specific subgroup of witches who gather in sisterhoods, mess with people’s eyesight, steal all the things and generally appear to be living their best evil lives. I am hopelessly fond of them, and only Ruth Manning-Sanders has ever indulged me with their existence, so let me indoctrinate you straight off the bat so that you can love them too.

The Three Witch Maidens’ is a Transylvanian fairy tale that comes from a book of the same name, a 1977 collection by Ruth Manning-Sanders. It begins with a shepherd, his sheep and a very tall tree. Instead of watching his sheep, he watches the tree. Finally temptation overcomes him and he starts climbing. Nine days later – yes, I did say days – he emerges onto a wide plain where there is a city of copper, and a forest of copper, and a stream of copper flowing like water. Above the stream, a copper bird is perched asleep. It is the only living thing in sight. The land around is silent as death.

Does the shepherd boy decide now is a good point to go check out what his sheep are up to? Not a bit of it. He looks at the tree where the bird is sleeping, the highest tree in the land, and decides to climb it. Nine days later, he arrives in a land of silver: a silver city on a silver plain, beyond that a silver forest, and a silver bird perched above a silver stream in a very tall silver tree. Our indefatigable shepherd launches himself up that tree, climbs for – you guessed it – nine days, and emerges into a kingdom under the Midas touch. Everything is gold, including a golden bird in a golden tree. This tree is so smooth that even the shepherd does not have a hope of climbing it. He turns around and climbs all the way down to the meadow, only to find the meadow is not there any more and neither are his sheep. The countryside is unknown to him and in the distance is a city he’s never seen before.

That’s concerning. On the other hand, he’s been climbing up and down trees for fifty four days and he’s a bit out of it, so instead of worrying too much about his situation, he sits down at the foot of the tree and falls asleep. When he wakes up, he is not alone. A little frog is doing its damnedest to climb the tree, despite being unable to reach the lowest branch. The shepherd advises the frog not to bother since there’s nothing useful up there and gets a furiously indignant response. “Nothing of use to me! Are three kingdoms of no use? Is disenchantment of no use? Am I to remain a frog forever, I who have been a queen? Yes, a queen who ruled over three kingdoms! But the witch maidens turned me into this miserable shape, and stole my kingdoms from me.” The witch maidens, having conquered these kingdoms, have taken the form of birds and are apparently sleeping off their exertions indefinitely. I told you they’re living their best evil life.

The only time the witch maidens take human form is at dawn, when each descends from her tree to doff her feathers and bathe. The frog queen’s plan is to steal these feathers and hold them ransom until the witch maidens return her kingdoms. It’s an excellent plan except for the bit where she can’t climb. The shepherd, moved by her story, offers to act on her behalf and take the feathers. The frog queen bursts into tears and promises him proof of her gratitude. “I’m not looking for rewards,” the shepherd says gently, and off he goes.

When he reaches the copper kingdom, he hides and waits for dawn. The sleeping bird flies down to the copper waters, shrugs off her feathers and goes to bathe in the shape of a woman. The shepherd promptly snatches her feathers and bolts up the copper tree into the silver kingdom, where he pulls the same trick, and does it again in the gold kingdom, then throws himself down again as fast as he can and tumbles out into the meadow with the witches hot on his heels.

Give us back our feather garments!” the witch maidens howl. The shepherd makes some gender essentialist comments about his physical abilities comparative to theirs. Fortunately for him, the witch maidens’ powers are connected to their feathers and they cannot curse him on the spot. The shepherd hands negotiations over the frog queen, who demands that her kingdoms be returned. The witch maidens don’t think that’s much of a negotiation, but they haven’t much choice. Holding hands, they circle the tree and sing.

The incantation brings the copper kingdom down, then the silver, and finally the gold, stretching across the landscape in a vast sprawl. What’s more, the kingdoms are suddenly filled with people flinging open doors and windows, calling out, laughing, living. As for the frog, she is once again a beautiful, powerful queen – more beautiful than the witch maidens, the story tells us, like that’s particularly relevant to the matter at hand and not subjective to the eye of the beholder at all. Anyway, the shepherd returns the feathers to their owners and the witch maidens fly away.

They will not trouble us again,” the queen says with amazing confidence, given that the last time she dealt with these witches they turned her into a frog. The queen then turns to the shepherd. “But I intend to trouble you all my life.” This is her proposing marriage, and the shepherd is 110% on board with the idea. They marry amidst the celebrations of three kingdoms, and the witch maidens do indeed leave them alone, which can only mean they are off troubling someone else.

But that’s a story for another day.