Year of the Witch: Tow-how and the Witch

This story comes from Papua New Guinea; the version comes from the 1988 Ruth Manning-Sanders collection A Cauldron of Witches. It begins by introducing us to Tow-how, a hero armed with a magic disc that allows him to see what other people cannot and to change his shape however he wishes. It is the sort of possession that gives you confidence, which is why he decides to take a day trip to an island where nobody else ever, ever goes, because nobody ever, ever comes back. Tow-how thinks it’s time to change all that.

Arriving on the island, he searches for any trace of another living creature but finds none. It’s a bit of an anti-climax. It being such a hot day, Tow-how curls up under a tree to take a nap, only to be attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. At least, they look like mosquitoes. When Tow-how takes up his magic disc, however, they are revealed as black bats with unearthly gleaming eyes. Tow-how promptly changes himself into an ant and hides under the disc, and when the bats go for the disc, its edges turn so sharp that they are forced to retreat. The bats who are most badly wounded turn, unexpectedly, into black stones. The others hide, and wait.

Tow-how, nothing daunted, goes back to sleep. The remaining bats turn into trees and coral rocks, and come creeping closer, closer. Tow-how is woken abruptly by the fierce nudge of his magic disc. He blinks at the trees – they stop moving. He looks at the rocks – they stop moving. Tow-how is more amused than intimidated. When the creatures get close enough to be a concern, Tow-how holds out his magic disc and laughs to watch his enemies’ hasty retreat.

So the island is now a lot more interesting, worth a bit more exploration. Tow-how starts walking through the forest. Suddenly he hears footsteps behind him, and the sound of someone’s breathing. When Tow-how coughs, something coughs with him; when he hums, it hums; when he stops walking, it stops too. Tow-how experiments a little. He throws a stone into the bushes and his pursuer does the same.

Tow-how thinks that this being, whatever it is, wants him to turn around, so he does not do that. He just keeps walking. By moonrise, he has emerged onto a grass plain and sits beside a well to rest his legs. Idly glancing at the reflection of the moon in the water, Tow-how is startled to see his pursuer reflected there instead: a thin, ragged old woman who is pointing and grinning at him. Tow-how finally turns to look. The old woman leaps past him into the well.

She sinks to the bottom, which is the expected thing if you jump in wells, then rises up again, which is…not. And when she returns, she is devastatingly beautiful, not to mention exquisitely dressed. She embraces Tow-how and sings sweetly of her loneliness and her urgent need to kiss him. Tow-how bends his head, their lips almost touch. Fortunately his disc intervenes, jumping into his hand, and as it does so, Tow-how hears the wailing of spirit voices warning him of doom. This woman is why none of the men who came to the island ever came back again.

Tow-how hits her in the face with his disc and pelts off as fast as he can. Returning to the form of an old woman, the witch comes snarling after him, lashing out with clawed hands. With every step she grows taller and her voice grows louder until she is taller than the trees and screaming like a gale. Tow-how manages to keep just ahead of her, plunging down the beach into his canoe. When he looks back, he sees the vast shadowy shape of her pacing at the water’s edge and shrieking furiously. But she cannot reach him, and Tow-how returns home unscathed.

I realise this witch is very frightening and that she’s killed a lot of people, and that she turns into a giant when she is angry. And none of those are good things. But I have to admit I’m kind of pleased she gets to keep her island.

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A Note on Witches

When reviewing stories for this project, I don’t often discuss about their cultural context. I am, as a general rule, woefully unqualified to do so. There’s the additional complexity in how I source my fairy tales – the books I use collected stories from various places and retold them in a certain way, at a certain time, and then I interpret them in my way through the process of writing an analysis, and with each step we move further from the original, if an original can even be determined within the vast variability of folklore.

That is, in a sense, the point; retellings and rediscoveries are how stories breathe. They adjust to time and place and teller, and I believe that’s a good thing, as long as the journey back is not being erased. However, it’s probably worth noting at this point there is some horrific cultural baggage around the term ‘witch’. It is a word that has spread itself out to cover so much ground that it could now mean almost anything, and frequently does, from Halloween costumes to fantasy novels to real-life belief systems to community scapegoats throughout history and into the present day. It is, honestly, a bottomless pit of a word, which is why I am choosing not to dive that deep. Discussing the variations on the word ‘witch’ and what that means in different parts of the world is a big enough subject for a completely different project that I am not writing.

Over the next couple of months, there are a few fairy tales coming up that are weighted with a complicated cultural context. There is an important ongoing conversation in storytelling circles about appropriation, and this is a thorny issue when discussing international fairy tales retold by a Western storyteller. While I use a variety of sources, my go-to is Ruth Manning-Sanders, an English folklorist. I am sure Manning-Sanders made her mistakes – to begin with, she used the terminology of her day, which can now be a deeply uncomfortable experience to read. Storytelling is, by its nature, an ever-changing game of words, and it is important to become aware of which ones will wound. I do my best in this regard, and hope to be corrected if I get it wrong.

For the sake of clarification, then: when I write about witches, I am talking about the witches of fairy tales, and when I write about fairy tales I am talking about what the Cambridge English Dictionary defines as ‘a traditional story written for children that usually involves imaginary creatures and magic’. When I talk about a fairy tale, I usually take it at face value, in much the same way I would with a novel. I’ll talk about the in-world norms and societal conventions that crop up, the impression that the story has left on me, and any connections I see within an existing framework of fairy tales. Serious academia this is not. I make jokes. I argue with the characters. I’m doing this for fun, and I do hope that comes across.

What’s incredibly valuable about Manning-Sanders’ work, in my opinion, is how stories from across the world become neighbours, connected by the themes of witch, wizard, princess, curse. It is the language of fairy tales, the language I love, which is why I’m using it in this project. I want there to be enough space at the table for every fairy tale, from every place, and that starts by talking about the ones in front of me. Each post in Year of the Witch starts from a point that I know, the source material I have, but I am always eager to hear alternate versions of these stories and recommendations of other sources are also very welcome!

All that said – onward to this Friday’s post.

Year of the Witch: The Donkey Lettuce

Just because I am introducing you to this story doesn’t mean I approve of it. It just means that if I have to think about it every time I eat lettuce, so do you.

The Donkey Lettuce’ is a German fairy tale from the 1981 collection A Book of Witches by Ruth Manning-Sanders. A young hunter meets an old woman in a wood; though he does not have much money in his pocket, he gives her what he can and as a reward she gives him some weird advice. “Walk on this path to the left,” she instructs, “and very soon you will come to a tree in which nine birds will be sitting, quarrelling over a cloak which they hold in their claws. Take aim with your gun and shoot up into the midst of them. They will let the cloak fall, and one of the birds will drop down dead.” The cloak, the old woman explains, will carry the hunter wherever he wishes to go, and if he swallows the heart of the dead bird, he will wake each day to a gold coin beneath his pillow.

The hunter is not sure whether to believe her or not but, well, no harm in finding out (except obviously to the birds) so he heads off on the indicated path and sure enough there are nine birds all clutching and pecking at a cloak. Following the old woman’s instructions, the hunter claims both cloak and heart and wishes himself straight home, where he soon sleeps up a fortune to look after his parents in their old age. After that, he decides to go travelling. In time he comes to a plain, and across it a castle, and in the castle lives the very beautiful daughter of a witch.

The hunter does not realise that the girl’s mother is a witch, but the witch certainly knows all about him. She wants that heart out of him and threatens to break every bone in her daughter’s body if the girl does not help. The hunter is an easy mark – he spends a few days staring at the witch’s daughter before blurting out a proposal of marriage. The witch prepares a potion; the girl very reluctantly gives it to her fiance, and as soon as he drinks it the bird’s heart falls out of his mouth. He doesn’t even notice. So the witch’s daughter is now the one waking up with gold beneath her pillow, not that it does her any good, because of course her mother grabs the lot.

Nor is the witch stopping there. The hunter still has a magical treasure in his possession, after all. With aggressive inducement from her mother, the girl convinces the hunter to take her to a tall mountain where beautiful jewels just lie around like flowers. They fill their pockets and soon the hunter falls into an enchanted sleep. The girl tries to wake him, but he will not stir; she wraps herself in his cloak and tearfully returns to her mother, abandoning her lover to his fate.

That fate involves giants. Three of them, who live on the mountain and gather the precious stones themselves. When the hunter wakes up, and while he’s still coming to grips with how he’s been betrayed, the giants come stomping along and notice him lying there. One is in favour of squashing him; another is more lenient, remarking that if he keeps climbing the mountain, the clouds at the top will carry him away. So that’s what the hunter does, and the clouds take him to a beautiful garden.

It is worth being suspicious of beautiful gardens in fairy tales, but the hunter is hungry. He goes to a bed of lettuces, starts eating and…turns into a donkey!

He takes it quite well. He grazes his way across the garden and eventually comes to a second bed of lettuces. When he eats the leaves from this bed, he turns back into a human, full of vengeful determination.

The hunter heads for the witch’s castle, armed with a head of each lettuce. He disguises himself by cutting his hair very short and staining his skin very brown with berry juice, and however weak a masquerade that sounds, it works. The witch believes his story about being a king’s messenger and offers him a night’s lodging in exchange for a meal of what he claims to be the finest salad in the land. She goes to prepare it but cannot resist a secret taste – and promptly turns into a donkey. Next a maidservant goes to fetch the salad to serve to the witch’s daughter, and she too has to try just one leaf. Which makes two donkeys. The hunter goes down to fetch the salad himself and brings it up to his ex-girlfriend, who does not recognise him any more than her mother did. She eats the salad, and that makes three donkeys.

That’s just the start of the hunter’s revenge. Taking the three donkeys to a mill, he orders that the witch be given one meal a day and three beatings, that the maidservant be given three meals and one beating, and that the witch’s daughter is to be given three meals and no beating, for sentiment’s sake, though he thinks she deserves it. The hunter then goes back to the witch’s castle to brood.

I shall now allow a pause for the long drawn-out yikes that this entire plan deserves.

The witch, unsurprisingly, is dead by the end of the week. Her daughter and maid are in such a miserable state that the mill-owner warns the hunter he thinks they will not last much longer either. The hunter decides to relent – he grants them both a taste of the other lettuce and they turn back into women. The witch’s daughter gabbles out desperate apologies, offering to return both cloak and heart, but the hunter announces she can keep them because he’s going to marry her.

Yikes. That’s really all I have to say. That, and I sincerely hope the poor maid gets a new job fast.

Year of the Witch: The King’s Beard

Beards in fairy tales, on the whole, do not bode tremendously well. One of my longest held grudges is against the titular character of the Grimm brothers’ story ‘King Thrushbeard’, but ‘Bluebeard’ is another close contender, and there’s the dwarf from ‘Snow White and Rose Red’, and now there is this guy, from the 1978 collection Old Witch Boneyleg by Ruth Manning-Sanders.

The story doesn’t start with the king. It doesn’t even start with a witch – there is a grumpy old lady, but there’s nothing magical about her. She employs an orphan girl as a maid-of-all-work, clothing her in ugly cast-offs and keeping her busy all day long. One day she drops a pile of mending in the girl’s arms and goes off to take a nap, making it clear that the girl will go hungry if the work isn’t done when she wakes. Oh, but it’s a beautiful day, and there are green fields outside full of flowers. The girl rebels! She dumps her mending under a hedge and begins picking flowers, and then she starts sewing the flowers all over her threadbare dress. “Now I am a queen,” she declares, “the Queen of the Flowers.” She prances around the field, play-acting for all she’s worth, graciously acknowledging imaginary courtiers and practicing her regal posture.

Along come three witches. None of them are happy. One walks with a crutch, the second is bent under a heavy bundle, and the third is weeping as she walks, but when they see the young maid playing at royalty in the field, all three witches burst out laughing. “You are not very polite,” the girl observes, with admirable composure. “Don’t you see that I am a queen?” The witches decide, on the spot, that they like this girl. They are going to grant her wish. What could possibly go wrong?

So the flowers on the girl’s dress become jewels, and her pretty face becomes a Beauty of the World, and the witches take off on ragwort sticks, their work done. Because who should come along next but a king, and everyone knows that kings are magnetically attracted to enchanted young ladies. He talks to the girl for about a minute, then takes her home and introduces her to his mother as his bride-to-be. Which is A-OK with the girl! The queen mother welcomes her, the young queen’s high spirits and cheeky jokes win her general favour at court, and the king can’t get enough of her company. Unfortunately, he has a classic fairy tale king’s temper. One day, the girl jokes that his beard looks like a hearth brush and he promptly loses the plot.

Forget asking for an apology. He summons his councillors together to decide on a fitting punishment for the offence, and they declare a death sentence. For a joke. The king is a bit uncomfortable about it, enough to delay the execution by a day, enough to not actually tell his wife about it, but not uncomfortable enough to not kill her.

What he doesn’t know is that this girl has witches on her side. Forget fairy godmothers, what you need are butterfly spies who watch over events at the court and report back to the coven when there’s a dire need for magical intervention. The witches transform themselves into young men and sail off to confront the king. They announce themselves to be the princes from Outland, brothers to the young queen. The king is completely wrong-footed. His wife is locked up in her room, about to be executed, and here is a Big Diplomatic Incident waiting to happen. The witches cheerfully bully their way upstairs to where the young queen is (not unreasonably) brooding. She is horrified when they tell her the king’s plans.

Now, the solution I favour at this point is to spirit the girl away and maybe curse the king while they’re at it, but the witches decide to salvage the marriage by producing the most beautiful hearth brush ever crafted, so that the king will think his wife is used to such wonderful treasures in her own country and that she never really insulted him in the first place. The queen will take any way out that’s going and showers her benefactors with hugs and kisses, which they like very much. The queen flourishes the brush, the king is duly placated and as Manning-Sanders herself says, ‘believe it or not, they lived happily ever after’.

I do not believe it. But the queen has witchy godmothers on her side, and that counts for something.

Year of the Witch: The Old Woman in the Forest

This week we are briefly going to acknowledge that the Grimm brothers exist, and I do mean briefly, because this is a very short fairy tale. The version comes from my 2007 edition Vintage Grimm: The Complete Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes. It opens with what is probably the worst day in the life of a young servant; she’s travelling through a large forest with her employers when their party is ambushed by robbers. It is a scene of slaughter. The maid escapes by fleeing the carriage as soon as the violence begins and hiding among the trees. When the robbers have taken all the valuables they can find and vanished, the maid sobs in despair. Not only is she surrounded by corpses, she’s lost in the forest and in real danger of starvation.

For lack of anything else to do, she starts walking. Nightfall comes and she collapses under a tree, only to be accosted by a white dove that is carrying, of all things, a golden key in its beak. It drops the key in her hand. “Do you see that large tree over there?” the dove instructs the maid. “You’ll find a little lock on it, and if you open it with this key, you’ll find plenty of food in it.”

That’s incredibly helpful, thank you random dove. The maid duly opens the tree, finds bread and milk, and eats her fill. No sooner has she thought wistfully of a comfortable bed than the dove returns with another key and directs her to a different tree, which conceals – tada! – a comfortable bed. Taking a pragmatically Alice in Wonderland approach to the evening’s events, the maid curls up to sleep. The dove greets her in the morning with yet another key, which opens up a fabulous wardrobe. Days pass and the dove continues to look after the maid’s interests, appearing to have taken her on as something of a pet.

One day, out of the blue, the dove asks for a favour. It tells the maid that there is a cottage, and in the cottage there is an old woman; the maid must enter the cottage and ignore the old woman’s greeting, walking straight by her to a door on the right. Inside will be a room, the dove explains, with a pile of magnificent rings – the maid must find a simple ring among them and bring it to the dove.

The maid is very willing to help her friend. The cottage is there; so is the old woman, sitting by the fire. She greets the maid quite civilly, but when the maid proceeds past her, the old woman grabs her skirt. “This is my house,” the old woman points out. “Nobody’s allowed to go in there if I don’t want them to.” She’s bang-on right and I am immediately very uncomfortable with this situation. The maiden, however, is on a mission. She pulls away and plunges into the room on the right, where she sees the rings the dove told her about. The specific ring the dove wants is a lot trickier to locate. Suddenly the maid spots the old woman trying to sneak away, which she might have managed to do if not for the bird-cage in her hand. The maiden grabs the cage and inside there is a bird with the ring in its beak.

The maid runs off with the ring, expecting to find the dove straight away, but it does not come to her as usual. She leans against a tree to wait and all of a sudden the tree puts its branches around her in an embrace straight out a horror movie. The maid turns around – the story does not state if she is screaming at this point – and discovers that the tree has turned into a handsome young man. He tells her that the old woman was a witch who had transformed him into a tree. There’s shades of ‘Tam Lin’ in that. “For a few hours every day I was a white dove,” the young man continues. “As long as she possessed the ring, I couldn’t regain my human form.”

Other trees around them turn into his servants and horses. They then leave the significantly depleted forest and travel to the young man’s kingdom, because obviously he is a prince, this kind of thing does tend to happen in royal circles. The maid marries him and they live happily to the end of their days.

There is no explanation whatsoever of the events that led to the curse but the witch does survive the end of the story, and that’s rare enough in a Grimm brothers tale that I will take it.