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.

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