Year of the Witch: The Witch and her Servants

This is a Russian fairy tale taken from what has to be one of the most beautiful books I own, a gilded 2014 Barnes and Noble hardback edition of Fairy Tales From Around the World by Andrew Lang. It’s so pretty I feel nervous about opening it. I have not read much Andrew Lang before and am unfamiliar with this particular fairy tale but it looks to be a long one, so get comfy and we’ll get started.

It begins with a king who has three sons: Szabo, Warza and Iwanich. This king owns beautiful gardens and extensive orchards, but while he is out walking one day with his sons, they come across a stretch of wasteland where three trees stand flourishing in isolation. Surprised at their father’s sorrowful reaction, the princes ask what is wrong and unlock a Backstory.

When the princes’ grandfather was on the throne, a great magician gifted him with a seed that – according to him – would grow into three glorious trees. On the old king’s deathbed, he commanded his son to plant the seed, which he duly did. The king ascended to the throne at the age of twenty; when he was twenty-five, the trees bore their first fruit, and what fruit it was. The gardeners were given strict orders to guard the trees, for a condition of harvest was that if one unripe apple was picked then all the rest of the crop would be ruined. The king was so desperate for a taste that he dreamed of it. Yet despite the vigilance of the gardeners, the entire harvest was stolen before the king could have so much as one bite.

He decided to disregard the magician’s instructions the next year and had all the fruit picked before it could ripen, but the apple he ate was bitter and the rest of the fruit rotted within a day. After that, the king threw himself into planning security arrangements, but no matter how trusted and watchful the guards, the fruit was always stolen by mysterious forces. By the present day, the king has just given up. This, then, is why the sight of the fruit trees is depressing for him.

His eldest son volunteers to guard the fruit trees himself. Fired up with determination, he climbs one of the trees, settles in for a night of constant vigilance and…topples into a deep sleep. The same thing happens the next year when Prince Warza tries his luck. Which leaves Iwanich, the youngest brother by a significant margin. He too climbs a tree and waits, watching by moonlight for some sign of robbers.

What he sees is a white bird like a swan, sinking gently onto his chest. The prince grapples with it, catching hold of its wings, and it transforms into a beautiful young woman. Her name is Militza and she tells Iwanich, with great dignity, that he need not fear her. The magician who gave the seed had no rights to it in the first place – he stole it off Militza’s mother, sending her to a premature grave, so in another deathbed promise Militza vowed to strip the trees of their harvest every year. Having been caught in the act, she is apparently no longer obligated to keep to her promise and spends the rest of the night in conversation with an increasingly besotted Iwanich. Near dawn she casually reveals that there is another magic force governing her life: a witch is in possession of a lock of her hair and will take it badly if Militza blows her off to stay with Iwanich.

Militza is, by the way, the kind of person who refers to herself in the third person. She gives Iwanich a diamond ring and tells him, “Keep this ring in memory of Militza, and think of her sometimes if you never see her again. But if your love is really true, come and find me in my own kingdom.” The ring will guide him there. With a goodbye kiss to the prince’s forehead, Militza vanishes.

The last thing on Iwanich’s mind right now is the state of the harvest, but yay, it’s lasted the night unmolested for the first time ever and everyone who is not languishing after a beautiful swan enchantress lady is over the moon about it. The king swallows Iwanich’s vague story about fighting a wasp all night and goes bouncing off to order celebratory feasts. While his father is busy with the glorious fruit, Iwanich fills his pockets with money, steals a fast horse from the stables and takes off.

At first the worried king ransacks the land for a sign of his son, but after six months Iwanich is presumed dead and at the end of a year, he’s more or less been forgotten. Which says horrible things about his family, but Iwanich himself is fine. While the kingdom’s still on red alert looking for him, he’s come to a vast forest. He is about to start down the only visible path when a voice calls out to him, demanding to know what he’s up to.

The voice belongs to a thin, ragged-looking man sitting at the roots of an oak tree. He has upsetting things to say about the forest, namely that it is full of terrifying creatures. “If I were to cut you and your horse up into tiny morsels and throw them to the beasts,” he says, “there wouldn’t be one bit for each hundred of them.” Which isn’t at all a horrifying thing to say! The prince, we are told, is‘rather taken aback’ but is reassured by the shimmer of his ring. If it still urges him on, he must be going the right way. He’s about take off down the path when the old man shrieks at him to come back. If Iwanich is really set on risking life and limb in the forest, the old man will provide a little assistance. He gives Iwanich a bag of bread crumbs and a live hare. When the wild beasts inevitably descend, Iwanich must distract them with the bread and the hare in order to flee for his own life. Also, the old man insists he leave his horse behind, because there is no way he’s getting through the dense undergrowth on horseback.

Upon entering the forest, Iwanich soon finds himself surrounded by a tiger, a wolf, a bear and an enormous snake – all of whom are really into bread, but even more into chasing hares. Iwanich seizes the opportunity to bolt away himself, following the light of his ring through the forest. But he is not left alone for long. He is soon approached by a very small man with crooked legs, prickles like a hedgehog growing all over his skin and a beard so long he’s split it in half and is using the two ends as leashes for the pair of lions accompanying him. He wants to know if Iwanich is the one who just fed his ‘body-guard’, and if so, Iwanich may choose a reward for his kindness.

Iwanich just wants to make it through the forest in one piece, so the little man deputises a lion to watch over him. Beyond the little man’s lands lie a palace; when Iwanich reaches that point, he’s on his own, lest the lion fall into the hands of an enemy. I like this man and I like his priorities.

By nightfall, Iwanich reaches the edge of the forest. On the other side of the treeline is a great plain and on it, the promised palace glinting in the distance. Iwanich thanks the lion politely and heads off on his own. Early the next day, he reaches the palace and just walks in, wandering about for some time like a lost moth, before coming across a beautiful garden and a group of beautiful girls weaving flower wreaths. The prince sees Militza and greets her exuberantly; she is equally delighted to see him, introducing him to her companions as her fiance. She’s not wasting any time either – before you know it, they are married and getting straight into the happy ever after.

Except, it’s not quite so simple as that. Three months of marital bliss later, Militza is invited to visit her aunt and settles it that she will be gone for seven days. In her absence, Iwanich has the keys to her palace in his keeping. “Only one thing I beg and beseech you,” Miltiza says before she leaves, “do not open the little iron door in the north tower, which is closed with seven locks and seven bolts; for it you do, we shall both suffer for it.”

Guess what Iwanich suddenly desperately wants to do. It’s like no one’s learned a thing about human nature since the Pandora days.

By the third day, Iwanich cannot resist the gravitational pull of his curiosity any longer and has to take a look. Whereupon he has a serious Bluebeard’s castle moment. Inside the forbidden room a cauldron of boiling pitch is hung above a fire, and chained inside the cauldron is a man, screaming in agony.

When the man begs for water, Iwanich hurries to his aid without a second thought because he is a good person and this whole situation would be deeply disturbing to anyone. In an instant, however, there is a terrible crash and the palace disappears, leaving the prince abandoned in a wasteland.

Stunned and despairing, he starts walking for lack of anything else to do and eventually comes upon a little hut. The geography of fairy tales demands that this place belong to none other than the old man who warned Iwanich about the perils of the forest. He gives the prince shelter overnight and in the morning Iwanich pulls himself together, enquiring if the old man knows where he might find work.

Unfortunately the only person in these parts who is hiring is the witch Corva. She lives in a grim-looking little black house with an iron door and two cobwebbed windows. She’s also into traditional witch exterior decorating – which is to say, the house is surrounded by a fence of spikes, each of which is impaled with a man’s skull. Nevertheless, Iwanich walks up to the door and knocks.

The witch is seated inside by the fire. She promptly agrees to take Iwanich on as her servant and leads him deeper into the house, to a stable where two black horses are kept. Iwanich’s work is to lead mare and foal to the fields each day, and if he manages the task for a year he may name his own wages; but if the horses escape him, Iwanich’s head will be used to decorate the spiked fence.

Iwanich is so deep in his own problems that he barely even acknowledges the threat. And at first the job goes well. The horses do not attempt to bolt; the witch treats him kindly and feeds him well. One day, while the horses are grazing near the banks of the river, Iwanich sees a stranded fish and returns it to the water. The fish offers him a reward, but Iwanich waves this off like the sweetheart that he is and the fish instead insists he takes a scale from its body, so that he may call on it should he ever need help. Another day, Iwanich rescues an eagle from a flock of ravens and is given a feather so that he can call on the bird as well. Then he finds a fox in a farmer’s trap and by freeing it, adds to his collection of favours with a couple of hairs from its tail.

Time passes. The year is nearly up when Iwanich notices the witch sneaking into her own stable and slips after her to eavesdrop. She is ordering her horses to hide themselves in the river when Iwanich takes them out the next day, or else she’ll beat them bloody. Despite his best intentions to keep watch and prevent the horses obeying this order, Iwanich is sent to sleep by the witch’s magic and awakens alone. While he’s visualising his head on a spike, he remembers the fish and hurries to throw its scale in the river. The fish obligingly creates a wave that sends the horses fleeing onto the bank.

The witch is not happy. Her next plan is that the horses must hide themselves in the clouds, but Iwanich has an answer for that too: by blowing the eagle’s feather into the air, he calls on its help to drive his charges out of the sky. The poor horses are furiously berated when Iwanich brings them back to their mistress. Tomorrow is the last day of Iwanich’s employment and the witch is determined to cheat him out of his wages. She instructs the horses to hide in the king’s hen-house, but who better to find them there than a fox? Iwanich throws the tail hairs on a fire and calls his friend to help. By sneaking into the hen-house and rousing the horses to make a ruckus, the fox draws the attention of the royal henwives, who promptly send the horses packing. Iwanich happily leads them home.

While he is riding across the heath, the mare abruptly speaks. “You are the first person who has ever succeeded in outwitting the old witch Corva, and now you may ask what reward you like for your service,” she observes. “If you promise never to betray me I will give you a piece of advice which you will do well to follow.”

Iwanich promises. The mare tells him to name her foal as his reward, for it has powers of astonishing speed. And probably also because the witch is a horrible person to live with, so the prospect of escape must look pretty good. Certainly, Corva does not want to give the foal away, but once she sees that it is inevitable, she throws her own advice into the bargain. She explains that the man in the cauldron of boiling pitch was none other than a powerful magician who used his freedom to kidnap Miltiza and steal her palace for good measure. Apparently he can only be defeated by Iwanich and is so alarmed at the prospect that he’s set spies on the prince to report his every move. To speak a word to him will be to fall into his power; the only way to defeat him, Corva says, is to grab him by the beard and yank him to the ground.

Iwanich thanks the witch and rides away. It is a very, very short trip, the foal being every bit as swift as promised. Iwanich is brought straight to the magician, who is travelling with friends in a carriage drawn by owls. The magician assumes good cheer and greets Iwanich with a cry of “Thrice my benefactor!”, but Iwanich is having none of it and throws him to the ground, whereupon his horse stamps the man to death. Which, wow. Harsh country around here.

The magician’s death restores Iwanich to the palace and Militza to Iwanich’s arms, and they get back to their happily ever after, this time in possession of a superpowered murder horse. I suppose there are worse people to have that kind of power than Iwanich, who is a darling, but I don’t know about Militza. If I were Corva, I’d be keeping a very close eye on her.

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Year of the Witch: The White Dove

This Danish story is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches, and opens unconventionally with a king and queen who are not pining away for an heir – they already have kids, two sons with no sense of self-preservation. One day the princes go to sea when a dangerously strong wind is blowing and pretty soon they are in bad trouble. Just as they reach the realisation that they are about to die, the boys see an old woman heading toward them in a kneading-trough for a boat, rowing with two big ladles. “Hey, my lads!” she calls to the princes. “What will you give me to send you safely home?”

They unwisely promise her anything, and she demands their brother. Only they don’t have a brother and as the elder of the boys points out with admirable principle, even if they did have one, their brother would not belong to them. “I think you mother would rather keep the two sons she has than the one she hasn’t yet got,” the witch retorts, and the storm whips up even wilder to add punctuation to her point.

The options are thus: drown in righteousness or hope like hell that they get a sister instead. The moment that the princes agree to give away their theoretical brother, the storm dies away to nothing. The queen is so desperately relieved to have her boys safe in her arms again that the young princes can bury their guilt under maybes and nevers – but a year later, a third prince is born. He adores his older brothers and they adore him, living with the constant fear of losing him to the witch, but time passes and the little boy grows up safe and sound in the middle of his loving family.

The youngest prince is an academic, often staying up late to read and think, and one such night the weather turns wild like it did on the day his brothers nearly drowned. The young prince is startled by three knocks on the door, and even more startled when the witch leaps inside without waiting for an answer, commanding the prince to come with her. She tells him of his brothers’ promise and he decides it is only fair to go with her. Bundled into her kneading-trough, he’s taken away across the lashing waves to the witch’s house.

Now you are my servant,” the witch informs him. If he cannot do the tasks she asks of him, she’s going to throw him into the sea. “I will do my best,” the prince says bravely, which doesn’t do him much good when the witch kicks off his employment with the impossible. She takes him to a barn stuffed full of feathers and instructs him to organise the lot by colour and size. She also expects the job to be done by nightfall.

Well, the prince does what he can, and turns out his best is very good indeed, because the task is practically finished when all of a sudden a wind blows through the barn and sends the piled feathers everywhere. Though the prince sets to work again immediately, he knows he does not have time to complete the task before the witch returns. Then he hears a tap at the window. “Coo, coo, coo, please let me in,” whispers a white dove perched on the ledge. “If we work together, we’ll always win.” The prince does let her in, and between them – but mostly due to her exceptional speed – they get the feathers sorted out just in time.

Next morning, the witch takes the prince to chop firewood. A lot of firewood. However much the prince chops, the pile of logs behind him only grows bigger. Soaked in sweat and despairing, he throws down his axe, only for the white dove to make a reappearance. She advises he chop with the axe handle instead of the blade. This makes the wood fall to bits of its own accord and before long the job is done. The prince pets the dove gratefully and kisses it on the beak – and immediately the dove turns into a beautiful girl. The prince has accidentally broken the enchantment laid on her by the witch, and now the girl can move onto Phase 2: Escape the Witch. She has very clearly been planning her own rescue in detail and is ready for all sorts of trickery.

She tells the prince to tie a red thread around her finger, so that he can recognise her no matter what. He continues to follow her instructions when the witch returns – offered a reward for completing the tasks, he asks for a princess who takes the shape of a white dove, and sticks to his request even when the witch tries to laugh him off. Then she takes another tack, offering him first a shaggy grey donkey as his reward, then a blind and toothless old woman, assuming the prince will recoil. The red thread, however, does its work, and when the prince takes the old woman’s hand, she turns into his princess.

The witch throws an epic tantrum, smashing everything she can lay hands on to express how not happy she is about this situation, but she has to hold to her word. The prince will have his princess. Once he’s got her, the gloves can come off.

The princess is prepared for that as well. She warns the prince to drink neither water nor wine at their wedding feast, which is already frankly a bit of a shambles, attended as it is by a gang of other witches. The food is so terribly hot that the prince can’t resist the lure of a drink, but the princess knocks the cup from his hand and the witch’s enchantment of forgetfulness is thus foiled. The witch once again loses the plot, wrecking everything on the table. While her friends are cheerfully joining in the food fight, the princess leads her new husband away to the bridal chamber.

During her captivity, the princess learned some magic, and uses a spell now to enchant two pieces of wood to act as decoys. She orders the prince to pack a flower pot off the window ledge and a bottle of water from the table (presumably this water is safe?) and with that, they’re off. Having no boat, they start running along the shore of the great bay that separates them from the prince’s home.

The witch goes to their door at midnight and the pieces of wood call out to her, tricking her into believing that bride and groom are still within. She tries again before dawn and is turned away; but when the sun rises and she is sure that the prince and princess must be sleeping, she bursts into the room, only to find blocks of wood in the bed.

The witch sets off in pursuit, a dark cloud chasing after the lovers. The princess orders her husband to throw the flower pot behind them, and it becomes a range of hills that the witch cannot climb. That wins the lovers a little more time, but soon enough the witch has run around the hills and is back on their trail. Next the prince throws the bottle of water. It become a lake, and the witch has to go home for her kneading-trough in order to cross it. By the time she reaches the far side, the prince and princess are at his castle, about to climb in through an open window.

Ah! Ah! Ah! I have you now!” the witch howls, but the princess is not beaten yet. She turns around and blows into the witch’s face. A flock of white doves pour from her mouth, surrounding the witch with a storm of white feathers, and when they fly away there is nothing left of the witch but a tall grey stone.

The royal family are overjoyed at their boy’s safe return. In penance for their long-ago promise, the older brothers give up their claims to the throne so that the youngest prince will rule as the next king. Unlike so many other fairy tale siblings, power does not corrupt – the entire family gets to live out their days in peace and harmony. Which is lucky for them, honestly, because after that stunt with the birds who knows what other spells the princess might have up her sleeve.

The Little Grey Donkey

This is a fairy tale that is completely new to me, a Swedish story from the 1988 Ruth Manning-Sanders collection A Cauldron of Witches. Since I traumatised you all with donkeys last month by reviewing ‘The Donkey Lettuce’, I sincerely hope this one contains better fates for all donkeys involved, and apologise in advance if it doesn’t.

It starts off ominously with a boy called Jock who literally grows up with a gun in his hand and by the time he’s a young man, he’s a hell of a shot. One day he sees an enormous eagle swooping on a small child and hurries to the rescue, shooting the bird dead. The little boy explains to Jock that he is a Troll child and leads Jock home to his parents’ castle, where Jock is offered his choice of lavish financial rewards. The Troll child, however, has a trick up his sleeve. On his instructions, Jock asks for a grey donkey, a little whistle and the Troll father’s old musket. The Troll child also advised that Jock go seek service with the king, so off Jock goes to the palace and is immediately hired.

He’s a good hunter, but the Troll gifts allow him to cheat. His whistle brings forth any bird or animal the king desires for his table and the musket never misses, and Jock is very popular as a result – with the king, anyway, if not with the local wildlife. Unfortunately for Jock, there is a courtier who is basically Snow White’s stepmother without the mirror and he will be the most popular of them all or kill someone trying. His name is Sir Red. What’s entertaining about this is that an envious Sir Red appears in a completely different fairy tale, ‘Esben and the Witch’, and he does exactly the same thing. Whether or not this is Ruth Manning-Sanders making the name do double duty, I don’t know, but I’m choosing to believe it’s the same man flouncing from court to court causing trouble.

The king’s only daughter, and from the sound of it only child, was kidnapped by a witch before Jock arrived at the palace, and in his attempt to get Jock gone, Sir Red goes to the king and announces that Jock knows how to bring the princess home. Jock tries to explain that he knows no such thing, but kings want what they want and facts don’t come into it. Jock has the job of hero whether he wants it or not.

Jock thinks wistfully of the Trolls and their magic, then perks up and blows on the whistle. The grey donkey appears beside him and promptly starts bossing him about. “If you will do as I say,” it tells him, “the princess shall be yours. But if you are faint-hearted and try to turn back, we shall all three of us be lost.” Jock swings onto the donkey’s back and off they go.

The witch lives in a palace and greets all comers with a chimera version of herself: legs of an ostrich, body of a toad, neck of a goose and head of an eagle. Jock desperately wants to look at anything that’s not her but manages to produce a polite greeting and explains that he’s here to collect the princess, as if she’s been at an abnormally long sleepover but it’s time to go home. The witch grumpily dismisses her monstrous shape and is revealed as an old woman. She has Jock settle his donkey in the stable and then takes Jock inside to the princess. Continuing the feeling that this is a social visit gone a bit wrong, the witch asks the princess if she’d like to go home and the princess says yes, she would.

The civilities end there. Jock must find the princess three times over the course of three days or the witch will keep them both. She extends the offer of a bedroom in the palace while the task is underway, but Jock retreats to the stable to consult with the donkey, who as it turns out is very good at this game. The next morning, Jock heads unerringly for the princess’s sewing basket and takes out the smallest reel of silk, prompting the princess to appear with a cry of “Here I am!” On the second day, Jock goes to the table and starts to slice into a loaf of bread, causing the princess to leap out of it and take her own size again. But the witch has figured out what’s happening and casts a spell to keep the donkey from spying on her. This time Jock has to hunt for the princess himself, to no avail. As he shares his fear with the donkey, he spots a horsefly on its back and goes to slap it away – but it is in fact the princess, and that’s the third time he’s found her, even if it was by accident. According to the deal with the witch, they can go home. The witch is so furious that she explodes into flint stones and that is, well, that.

The grey donkey disappears and is revealed to have been the Troll child all along. “You have vanquished our enemy, the old Witch, and now you shall be king over her land,” he explains gleefully. He acts as underage coachman, driving Jock and the princess back to her father’s castle, where the two of them quickly get married. The Troll child maintains an interest in their lives, acting as Jock’s advisor, and by so doing more or less gets a kingdom of his own.

Damsel & Co.

It is a common belief that fairy tales are not in keeping with feminist philosophy. There are various arguments around this point. The most entrenched ones that I personally have heard sum up to a) princesses are poor role models because they are weak and passive and dependent on the men around them, and b) witches and wicked stepmothers are misogynistic caricatures. These are indeed tropes to handle with care, and awareness of their weight.

HOWEVER.

There are a lot of fairy tales out there. Like, honestly, a lot, if you’ve been thinking ‘she has to stop talking about fairy tales eventually, she will run out of material one blessed day’, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. There are, interestingly enough, plenty of wicked enchanters and terrible fathers whose motivations go unquestioned; there are a long list of princes in dire need of a rescue, and a matching list of heroines who roll up their sleeves and get on with defeating the forces of evil.

The American Disney dream of white spires, sparkling frocks and blonde curls is but one aspect of the fairy tale kaleidoscope. That is by no means an attempt to diminish it: while I do not always agree the alterations that Disney movies have made to the original fairy tales, I have a hearty respect for their popularity and staying power. This is a brand empire built with fairy tales as its cornerstones. From glass slipper to plastic Barbie princess shoe, Cinderella keeps running.

I would argue (I argue often and loudly) that Disney princesses are rarely as weak or dependent as they are widely reputed to be. Tiana is, of course, a powerhouse of indomitable personality and Elsa is a literal whirlwind of barely controlled anxiety who nevertheless overcomes her worst fears to help her sister, but the older princesses are no pushovers either. Ariel is an unstoppable explorer who assembles a hoard of lost artefacts to try and understand another culture; Snow White survives an assassination attempt and comes through the other side as a ray of goddamn sunshine, refusing to let the betrayal harden her against any new chance at friendship; Cinderella endures day after day in an abusive household and still manages to hold onto her hopes for a better life. To dismiss their strengths, to perceive their stories as lesser because they are nearly always love stories, is in my opinion based on the same type of thinking that dismisses anything loved by and popular among young girls. Because it’s fine to tell stories about women until you’re telling stories about those women. And no one ever really escapes being that woman, because if you’re already looking for something to hate, you are going to find it.

But I’m not here to talk about that today. No, really, I wrote a whole series of posts on this a few years back, I can move on now. Deep breaths.

Fairy tales are shapeshifting creatures by their very nature and the women in them are equally variable, depending on the ideas and intentions of their storyteller – and to a certain extent, the wishes of their reader. Grimm, Perrault, Andersen, Lang, Manning-Sanders, Carter, you, me, everyone has a different slant on how the story ought to go.

In honour of International Women’s Day, here’s a round-up of seven of my favourite ladies from fairy tales. They are not always pleasant, they are not always safe, but damn they know how to make a story their own.

  1. Tatterhood, from ‘Tatterhood’. Rides around on a goat, armed with a wooden spoon, decidedly not beautiful unless she’s busy seducing a prince. Took down a coven of witches that one time in order to rescue her sister.
  2. Tokoyo, from ‘Tokoyo’. Daughter of a disgraced samurai, she heads off to rescue her father and ends up fighting a sea monster to save a beautiful maiden, in the process saving her dad as well. If anyone knows a movie version of this story, hit me up.
  3. Kate Crackernuts from ‘Kate Crackernuts’. In a similar vein to Tatterhood, Kate takes on the job of defending her much prettier stepsister after her own mother’s mean-spirited magic disfigures the girl. Follows an enchanted prince into Fairyland three times, restores him to himself and does not change her appearance one iota.
  4. Snow White and Rose Red from ‘Snow White and Rose Red’. Raised to high moral standards by their stalwart mother, these girls adopt a bear into the family and repeatedly rescue an exceptionally rude little man, until the day the bear eats the man and turns into a prince. The girls are always armed with scissors, because you never know.
  5. The Sun Princess from ‘The Sun Princess and the Prince’. Lives in an enchanted tower full of astonishing things, locks up her suitors for centuries because she can, completely amoral. She is basically Lady Bluebeard, with a team of henchwomen. I would never ever want to meet her, but wow, she’s an interesting character.
  6. Catalina from ‘Black, Red, Gold’. Gets kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave but uses the gift of her sorceress sort-of-godmother to not only save herself, she frees the other slaves in the household as well.
  7. Princess Blue-Eyes from ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’. Much like a witch-maiden, the princess has a habit of stealing people’s eyes. When a prince tries to liberate his father’s eyes from her hoard, she chases him down but decided to get hitched instead of killing him; she puts up with him less than a month after the wedding before deciding she’s got other things to do, but rocks up three years later with their terrifying toddlers in tow when her husband’s brothers are slandering him. Princess Blue-Eyes is not a woman to cross if you value your life.

These are only seven on a long, long list. Here’s to heroines everywhere.

Year of the Witch: Jankyn and the Witch

This week’s fairy tale comes from the 1964 Ruth Manning-Sanders collection The Red King and the Witch and why yes, we will indeed by exploring the titular fairy tale at some point. There is a subtitle to the book, but I won’t be using it as it contains a slur; while the tone of Manning-Sanders’ introduction reads as respectful, she was using the common terminology of her day. The stories in this collection are Romani. This is actually the first time I’ve read anything from the book, and the opening of ‘Jankyn and the Witch’ is so good I’m going to quote it here: There was a nobleman and his wife, and they had one son. The nobleman said to his son, “Jankyn, it’s time you married.” “I do not think it is time,” Jankyn said.

The nobleman goes ahead and throws a ball anyway, because hey, it works for other fairy tale fathers. He invites as many girls as he can and waits for Jankyn to pick one, like this is some sort of marital buffet. Jankyn refuses to engage. He sulks in a corner and the girls go dance with other people.

That night, Jankyn dreams of a meadow and a lake, and of three beautiful girls bathing in the lake. The youngest of the three (how he knows that she is the youngest is unclear) officially Floats his Boat and in the morning he barely stops to notify his parents before heading off into the world to seek her out. He looks here, he looks there, he looks more or less everywhere, and in time comes to the meadow from his dream. There’s the lake – there are the girls. Jankyn sneaks down to the water’s edge like an absolute creep and tries to grab the girl of his dreams, literally grab her. He fails. The girls don their smocks and fly home to their mother the witch. Jankyn sits down and cries because girls don’t want to be kidnapped by random men who have dreamed about them, who knew?

As Jankyn is weeping by the lake, an old man comes along and in a show of patriarchal solidarity, offers advice on how better to go about this business – no, not flowers and chocolates and grovelling apologies, the trick is to dig a deep pit and hide in it so the girls won’t see Jankyn coming. I am sitting here lost for words. Jankyn duly conceals himself and next time the girls show up, he sneaks out just long enough to snatch up the youngest sister’s smock. Without it she cannot fly away.

When she realises it is gone, she is distraught. She begs Jankyn to give it back, so that she can fly home with her sisters. Instead, he gives her his cloak and rides home with her. Once there he embarks on a charm offensive – well, it’s not like there’s any stake in it for him now, she can hardly ignore her kidnapper – and soon afterwards they get married, to his parents’ delight. Jankyn hides the smock in a locked room and entrusts the key to his mother, telling her the door must never be opened without telling her exactly why.

Five years into the marriage, the witch’s daughter goes to her mother-in-law and remarks on the door that is never ever opened. She wants to know what is inside. Jankyn’s mother also wants to know what is inside. It is a room in the house where they live – of course they want to know. You may have noticed that I italicise more when I am annoyed.

So Jankyn’s mother opens the door and the witch’s daughter gives a cry of joy when she sees her smock. As soon as she puts it on, she hears her own mother calling her home, and the smock carries her home, as it was always meant to do.

All is misery in Jankyn’s house. He sets off once again to seek the girl he loves, and it seems she misses him enough to exert a little magic of her own, enough to guide him in the right direction. Jankyn comes to the house of a miller in the witch’s employment, and in exchange for Jankyn’s fine horse, the miller agrees to smuggle him to the witch’s house in a sack.

This does not fool the witch. She takes one look at the sack and slits it open with a knife, hauling Jankyn out by the hair. Jankyn tries to attack her with his sword, but at her whistle the weapon freezes in midair. She toys with Jankyn a little, pondering aloud whether or not to kill him, then decides to draw the whole business out into a game. If Jankyn can complete four tasks, his wife will be returned to him. If he fails, he dies.

Jankyn’s first task is to uproot every tree in the forest and cut each down to logs, using nothing more than a wooden axe and a wooden spade. It is obviously impossible, but Jankyn gives it a good shot anyway, working until the mockery of tools splinter in his hands. He’s on the brink of despair when the witch’s youngest daughter appears beside him. “Let us fly together!” Jankyn suggests wildly. She hushes him with food and drink, pets him to sleep, and sets about whistling up an actual horde of demons. That is one way to get a job done. Could she do that all along, even without her smock? Anyway, the forest is reduced to logs and the witch furiously tells Jankyn to put the whole thing back together exactly as it was, not a leaf out of place.

Jankyn, bless him, tries his best. He piles the logs on top of each other and sticks handfuls of withering leaves onto the wood, only for them to blow away at the first breeze. Fortunately, his wife returns and summons her demons to sort out the mess, restoring the forest to its former glory. Who even knows what all the chopping and changing has done to the surrounding ecosystem. The witch is slightly more considerate of local wildlife in her next task – Jankyn must empty a lake with a sieve, without killing a single fish. The witch’s daughter drains the lake to dry sand and the fish swim about as happily as if they were in water. This family and their witch powers have me fascinated.

The witch knows by now that someone is helping Jankyn, and it does not take a genius to work out who. She orders that the lake be restored, which of course is done, and promises that Jankyn will be reunited with his wife the next day, as agreed. But Jankyn’s wife comes to him in the night. “My mother sleeps, my father sleeps, my two sisters sleep,” she tells him. “Come, we must flee away. My mother will not keep her word. At dawn she will come with her knife to kill you.”

She’s right. Come first light, the witch comes with her knife and when she discovers that Jankyn is gone, she goes raging to her eldest daughter, commanding her to catch the lovers and bring them back. Jankyn’s wife transforms him into a meadow and herself into a flower, tricking her eldest sister into returning home empty-handed. The witch screams at her, then kicks her husband out of bed to go do the job instead. She literally takes a whip to him, but Jankyn’s wife quickly turns herself into a church with a steeple of amythest and disguises her husband as a monk. The witch’s husband goes home and is screamed at some more for allowing himself to be fooled.

It is the second daughter’s turn to go after the lovers and she very nearly succeeds, appealing to her younger sister’s compassion. “Darling sister whom I love, come home! Or my mother will beat me!” Even disguised as a goose, Jankyn’s wife is in tears; but Jankyn, as a gander, has no such sympathy and pecks at the witch’s second daughter until she returns home.

The witch finally decides to just go and handle the problem herself. She rides a jar in rapid pursuit and when she comes to her daughter, transformed into a pond, she begins to scoop the water into the jar. But Jankyn has been turned into a swan, and if there’s anything swans are absolutely cut out for, it’s a battle. He fights the witch for a day and a night, and beats her to death with his wings.

Afterwards, Jankyn is a happy man. All his problems are over! Except, no. The witch’s daughter announces that she is going on a pilgrimage to expiate her mother’s sins. She breaks a ring in half and gives one piece to Jankyn, explaining that she will be gone for three years, and if she does not come back after that time, he must simply assume she is dead and move on.

He’s significantly less happy after that conversation.

He spends the next three years of his life mourning like his wife is already dead, then lets himself get talked into an engagement with some pretty girl his parents picked out. During the betrothal feast, while everyone else is partying and Jankyn is lurking at the table like he can’t figure out why he’s there, a pilgrim sits down across from Jankyn’s betrothed. When the wine is being poured, the pilgrim leans over and tosses half of a ring into Jankyn’s cup.

He doesn’t choke on it, which is lucky; instead he stares at the woman across the table in a state of shock. “This is my wife!” he cries. “This one saved me from death!” “Yes,” the witch’s daughter says, with admirable patience, “I am your wife.” Jankyn apologises to the girl he almost married and backs up the apology with a lot of money; she takes it pretty gracefully. The story concludes by bringing in its narrator, a harpist brought out to play at the end of the feast, and who walked away with the story of Jankyn and his wife the witch.

There are some really messed-up family dynamics to unpack in this story, but honestly, I am still not over the fact that the witch’s daughter can whistle for an army of demons whenever she wants. I may never be over that. Rock on, lady, and conquer.