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.

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