Year of the Witch: The Chinese Princess

This Kashmiri story comes from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, published by Virago Press in 2009. The blurb inside the front cover declares ‘once upon a time fairy tales weren’t meant just for children’ and goes on to list a contents of ‘lyrical tales, bloody tales, hilariously funny and ripely bawdy stories from countries all around the world from the Arctic to Asia – and no dippy princesses or soppy fairies’. So I have mixed feelings about this book for what I hope are obvious reasons! I’m also going into this fairy tale blind, having never read it before. All I know is that it’s been sorted under the category of ‘Witches’. Here we go!

The first character we meet is Ali Mardan Khan, governor of the Valley of Kashmir. Ali Mardan loves hunting and one day, while he’s riding through the forest, he outpaces his friends in pursuit of a stag. The animal eludes him but as he’s looking about to find where it’s gone, he hears the sound of weeping and finds instead a beautiful and fabulously dressed young woman who introduces herself as the daughter of a Chinese king. The princess explains that her father was killed in battle and she had to flee for her life. “I weep for my father, I weep for my mother, I weep for my country and I weep for myself,” she cries out. “What will become of me, friendless and homeless, how can I live?”

Ali Mardan tries to soothe her, offering a place in his palace. “And were you to ask me to become your wife,” the princess replies, which sounds like a fairly broad hint, “I should not be able to refuse you.” Ali Mardan thinks that is a great idea and they promptly get married. At first, all seems well. The princess convinces her husband to build her a new palace overlooking the nearby lake, a beautiful building surrounded by flower gardens, and Ali Mardan is happy because she is happy. But one day Ali Mardan wakes with a pain in his stomach that grows worse over the course of the day. Though the royal physician treats him with medicine and the princess stays in his sickroom to tend his needs, days pass and Ali Mardan’s condition does not improve.

A passing Yogi notices the palace and stops to rest in its gardens, falling asleep beneath a tree. Ali Mardan finds him there while taking a rare and very slow walk, surrounded by attentive courtiers. He orders that the Yogi be lifted onto the best of beds and that the jar of water at his side be treated with great care. When the Yogi wakes, there is even an attendant on hand to explain where he is and what’s going on, and to escort him to meet his host. The Yogi explains that he is the disciple of a Guru who lives in the forest, and was sent to fetch water from a sacred spring. When he returns to the Guru, the Yogi praises Ali Mardan’s hospitality and speaks of his mysterious ailment. The Guru decides to pay a visit himself and see if there’s anything to be done.

The Guru is welcomed into the palace and examines Ali Mardan. He immediately asks if Ali Mardan is recently married. “Just as I suspected,” the Guru says grimly, when Ali Mardan describes his meeting with the Chinese princess. Step 1 in the Guru’s plan to heal the governor is to prepare two meals, one sweet and one heavily salted, arranged so that when the princess comes to eat with her husband, the salty food is laid before her. Step 2: the Guru orders that all water be removed from the room and the door is locked from the outside, trapping the sleeping princess inside. When she wakes, desperately thirsty, she checks to see that her husband is still asleep then transforms herself into a snake and slides out the window to drink from the lake.

Only Ali Mardan was not sleeping and is now completely freaked out. He doesn’t feel much better the next morning when the Guru calmly explains that the princess is in fact a Lamia. According to him, if a snake lives a hundred years away from human eyes, it will become king of snakes; after two hundred years, it becomes a dragon; and after three hundred years, it becomes a Lamia, possessed of great powers such as the ability to change shapes. If the Lamia suspects that her secret has been revealed, the Guru fears she’ll not only kill Ali Mardan, she’ll savage his country as well.

The Guru arranges for a little house to be built, no more than a bedroom, a kitchen and an ominously large oven. Ali Mardan relocates there and his wife comes with him. After a few days, Ali Mardan asks her to prepare a special kind of loaf. “I dislike ovens,” the Lamia comments, but Ali Mardan coaxes her into it. While she is bent over the oven to tend to the loaf, he comes up behind her and pushes her in, locking the lid down tight so that she cannot escape. And then, just to be on the safe side, he sets the house on fire. That’s one hell of a Gretel manoeuvre.

The Guru sends Ali Mardan back to the palace to rest. Within two days his pain is gone, his health returning in full measure. On the third day he returns to the site of the burnt cottage to meet with the Guru. All that’s left behind are a heap of ashes and a single pebble. “Which will you have,” the Guru asks, “the pebble or the ashes?” Ali Mardan chooses the pebble, which turns out to be a philosopher’s stone that turns any metal into gold. As for the ashes, the Guru takes those with them, and whatever their secret, it’s one he keeps. Ali Mardan never sees him again.

What is it about witches dying in ovens? There is a strong parallel to be drawn between this story and the German Hansel and Gretel, as well as the Russian Old Witch Boneyleg. For that matter, there’s a disturbing similarity to witch burnings. Perhaps that’s why the Lamia, who is never explicitly referred to as a witch within the story, is grouped under the category of ‘Witches’ in this collection. One more point of interest: this is a story in which the archetypes of witch and princess are combined in the same shapeshifting con artist snake person, and technically she, or it, is a king to boot. That’s quite the claim to fame.

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Year of the Witch: Lazy Hans

This German fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches and introduces us to the titular Hans, who makes himself as useless around the house as it is possible to be while his mother does all the work of keeping the pair of them alive. One day she hits her limit and kicks him out the door. “Earn your own bread and trouble me no more!” she yells after him. “Oh, all right,” Hans replies, “if that’s how you feel,” and off he goes, ambling along the road and foraging with the bare minimum of effort. He lives quite contentedly in this way for a while, eating nuts and berries from the hedgerows and drinking water from the streams, but in time his aimless wandering brings him to a place where nothing grows and the water cannot be drunk.

Hans is an optimist. He keeps walking in the same direction, assuming that he will cross through into green lands again soon enough, but his surroundings only grow worse. At length he comes to a withered little wood and in it, a little stone house where he hopes to beg a meal.

A witch lives in the house. If he wants food from her, he’s going to have to work for it. “Oh, all right,” Hans says, “if that’s how you feel, I will work.” So he gets a preemptive plate of bread and cheese and a chilly night in the witch’s barn. To his dismay, she wakes him at dawn and won’t even give him more cheese with breakfast. He’s inclined to sidle off now he’s got what he wants, but witches are not to be crossed. “I’ll twist your neck round three times if you don’t mind your manners!” she warns him, so Hans reluctantly agrees to break his track record and actually do something.

Witches have a marked tendency to pile impossible tasks upon their servants, but Hans is more of a passing contractor and he’s barely meeting the expectations of ‘possible’ as it is. The witch gives him what sounds like an incredibly easy job: he is to take a tall stick, walk west until he comes to a field of corn, and plant the stick there. Even Hans is pretty sure he can do that. Only…he doesn’t. He doesn’t even make it out of the wood before deciding to take a nap, and when he wakes up it’s already nightfall, so he just jams the stick into the nearest pile of leaves and calls it a day.

He then goes back to the witch, breezily assures her the work is done, and settles down to sleep in the barn. In the middle of the night, he wakes to an unexpected rattle at the door and gets up in time to see it fly open by itself. A whirlwind of leaves billow into the barn, piling up in drifts, almost burying Hans before he escapes through the open door. In the moonlight, he sees the witch’s stick herding the leaves along. It does not stop until the barn is full to the rafters.

The witch comes to check on the barn in the morning. She is horrified to find it full of dry leaves instead of a stockpile of corn against the coming winter. “You lazy pig!” she shrieks at Hans, and flings an iron ring into his face. In a moment, he’s turned into a literal pig. This in itself probably wouldn’t bother Hans too much but the witch plans on fattening him up and eating him, and as she takes the precaution of encircling the woods with a spell, he can’t just sneak off and be a pig somewhere else. For once, Hans has to think. Though the witch feeds him well, he eats as little as he can so that he will not get fat enough to provide her with a satisfying meal. She decides to cut her losses and take him as a servant again. Retrieving the ring turns Hans back into a man.

This time, his job is to plant the stick in a dairy. Hans pulls himself together and walks. And walks. And…look, it’s a really long walk, and the witch isn’t there to provide terrifying motivation. Hans runs out of puff. He jabs the stick into a mound of old rubbish by the side of the road and takes five minutes to rest – which in Hans terms means something closer to five hours. When he wakes up, he can’t get the stick out of the mound; when Hans tries to walk away, he finds the witch has enchanted the road so it takes him straight back to her house. This time, the barn fills up with rubbish, battering Hans from all sides. He has a horrible night, and that’s before the witch finds out what he’s done. She’s so enraged that she flings a scarf around his neck that turns him into a gander. “Fat or thin, I’ll cook you for Christmas!” she tells him, which leads to some interesting questions about witch culture and what her Christmas celebrations might actually involve.

Hans is not concerned with those questions. He pecks the witch, making her jump back, then takes to the skies before she can cast a spell to stop him. Hans flies until he spots a gaggle of geese in a meadow below. Alighting there, he proceeds to invent a noble and adventurous backstory for himself to impress them all. The scarf around his neck, he tells them, is a gift from a grateful queen for whom he endured great dangers and performed astonishing feats. In short, he sells the geese a pack of lies and they react with adoring admiration. Hans has finally achieved the life of his dreams: no work, no disapproval, just green grass and blue skies.

Until spring comes, and a rival gander rocks up in the meadow. By this point, the scarf has been exposed to all weathers and no longer looks particularly impressive. The new gander calls it a rag and the fight is on. In the midst of the vicious pecking and flapping, the scarf comes undone and Hans shoots to his feet as a man, the witch’s spell broken.

Hans starts walking. He sees the witch’s wood in the distance and keeps well away from it, turning his steps west. At last he comes to his mother’s cottage and it’s a testament to how relieved he is to be home that he actually starts running. His mother is also relieved, glad to see her son safe and sound, but she takes care to establish some boundaries before letting him back in the door. If Hans is going to live with her, he’s going to work. And Hans does want to live with her, so he agrees. And the story makes a point of telling us that while he does live happily ever after, so does his mother, so presumably he keeps to his word.

It’s no wonder witches turn unreasonable and murderous if they have to deal with people like Hans on a regular basis. My sympathies in this story lay entirely with the two long-suffering women who had to put up with him, but I must admit to a certain reluctant amazement at how thoroughly Hans breaks the usual rules of fairy tales through sheer inertia. Quests? Magical tasks? Freeing himself from enchantment? Nope, not a chance. Hans scrapes through the story without doing a thing to justify being in it, and it’s sort of heartening in a way. If Lazy Hans can be a protagonist, anyone can.

Year of the Witch: The Riddle

Usually I will defend fairy tales to the death from all comers, but sometimes I’ll flip through some of the Grimm brothers’ canon and I kinda see what people mean. There’s the rabidly sexist ones, the startlingly murder-y ones, and the ones that just leave you going “…what?”

With that as a warning, welcome to this week’s fairy tale, taken from Vintage Grimm: The Complete Fairy Tales. It opens with a prince bitten by the travel bug, who sets off to explore the world with his loyal servant in tow. Upon coming to a great forest, the two men are in need of lodgings for the night and decide the best thing to do is accost a passing young woman to see if they can stay at her place.

She is willing to let them stay the night but advises against it, because the house belongs to her stepmother and the old lady is a witch. The prince waves this concern aside. The witch is red-eyed and prone to snarling, but attempts to lull her guests into a false sense of security while she cooks suspicious concoctions on the fire. The two men somehow manage to get a good night’s sleep and prepare to leave early the next morning.

The witch seizes her last chance to poison someone and goes to fetch a potion. The prince bolts off before she can offer it to him but the servant is not so lucky, having been delayed by a problem with his saddle. The witch isn’t even very good at poisoning people. While she is trying to hand the servant her potion, the glass containing it cracks and the contents are scattered on the horse’s back. The poor horse dies; the servant runs to tell the prince what happened, then comes back for his saddle. A raven is already ripping into the horse’s carcass and, being an intensely practical person, the servant kills the bird in case no better meal presents itself later on.

Another day’s travel does not bring them to the end of the forest, but by evening they’ve at least come to an inn. The servant gives the raven to the innkeeper so that it can be cooked, but surprise! The inn is really a robbers’ den! And the twelve robbers are on pretty good terms with the witch, who sits down to dinner with them for a pre-murder supper. The innkeeper serves everyone a bowl of raven soup, including himself. What the witch doesn’t know is that the raven fed on poisoned flesh and was poisoned itself. After a few bites of soup the entire party fall down dead.

The innkeeper’s daughter, who refused to affiliate herself with the robbers, did not eat the poisoned soup. Nor did the prince and his servant. The innkeeper’s daughter shows them the robbers’ hoard of treasure but the prince tells her to keep it all and continues on his travels. The servant’s feelings at passing up a fortune are not recorded.

Sadly the next part of the story is not about the witch’s stepdaughter and the innkeeper’s daughter falling in love and living in wealth for the rest of their days. Let’s just assume that happens, shall we? Instead, the story follows the prince into the city of a beautiful but bloodthirsty princess. She has made it known that she will marry any man who can produce a riddle she can’t solve; if she solves a suitor’s riddle within three days, she beheads him. Nine men are already dead. The prince weighs the prospect of meaningless death against the princess’s pretty face and decides it’s worth trying his luck.

His riddle is this: One slew nobody and yet slew twelve. The princess ponders, but cannot guess what it means. She looks through all her books to no avail, so resorts to trickery, sending her maid to spy on the prince in the hope he might talk in his sleep. The servant intercepts the maid, snatching off her cloak and beating her up in the bargain. The princess sends a different maid the next night, but the same thing happens to her. Only one thing is left to do. The princess slips into the bedroom wearing a mist grey cloak and whispers to the sleeping prince, hoping to trigger his subconscious into an answer. But he’s not sleeping. He answers the riddle – a raven ate of a poisoned horse and died, and it in turn poisoned twelve murderers. This is technically inaccurate, fourteen people died at that table, but whatever! The princess doesn’t care. Since her cloak is held in the ‘sleeping’ man’s grip, she slips from the room without it.

In the morning, she summons twelve judges and answers the prince’s riddle before them. The prince counters by telling the judges that she totally cheated and he’s got her cloak to prove it, plus the cloaks of her maids. Recognising the princess’s cloak, the judges order that it be embroidered in gold and silver for her wedding, for the prince has won. The princess’s feelings about being summarily handed over like a gold trophy cup are not recorded, but can probably be guessed.

And that’s that. I thoroughly dislike the prince, I can’t say I like the princess either, and the judges are making me gnash my teeth a little, so I’m going back to my mental version of the story where the witch’s daughter just moved into the inn.

Year of the Witch: The Giant on the Mount

Jack is a name you’ll run into time and again in fairy tales, usually in conjunction with robbery. This French fairy tale, from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Cauldron of Witches, is a Jack story, which does not bode good things for the giant in the title.

It’s baking day for Jack’s widowed mother. Once she’s done making bread she whips up a pancake for Jack and shoos him out the door so she can get on with cleaning. There is no suggestion he might help out with any of this work.

Jack sits down on a grassy bank beside the road to eat his pancake but before he can take a bite, he is stopped by a hungry old woman hoping for a piece. Jack easily hands over the whole thing and the old woman – who is really a witch – is so pleased with him (and his mum’s cooking) that she gives Jack a golden ring. “It’s no use to me,” she assures him. “I’ve my own way of doing things. It’s a wishing ring and it may help you to find your fortune.” The trick of the ring is to change its wearer’s size according to his or her wishes.

Having explained this, the friendly witch vanishes and leaves Jack to contemplate his options. By that, I mean he briefly turns himself into a giant then dashes home to say goodbye to his mother. “I’m off into the world to seek my fortune!” he yells. “See you again sometime!” He does not give her a chance to make any kind of reply before he’s off. Typical Jack.

Soon enough, Jack comes to a forest and a band of robbers. He promptly shrinks himself to the size of an ant and leaves the robbers to run about in complete confusion, unable to figure out where he’s gone. The most dangerous moment for Jack is when one of the robbers almost treads on him without even realising he’s there. But Jack is well-hidden under an eggshell and spends a safe night asleep there, before taking his own size in the morning. He breakfasts on wild mushrooms and shortly afterwards arrives in the king’s city, where absolute chaos reigns. This is not just what happens when Jack shows up in a place – when he finally bullies someone into explaining what’s going on, he learns that the king’s daughter has just been carried off by a giant, a real one. In desperation, the king has offered the princess’s hand in marriage to anyone who can save her.

You can practically see the lightbulb above Jack’s head.

He pushes his way into the palace and asks for the loan of a sword so that he can go fight the knight. It’s probably useful at this point to note that Jack is sixteen years old. The king does not quite take him seriously, but an elderly knight unable to go on the quest himself kindly offers the use of his weapon and Jack bolts off with it before the king can do anything about it. Jack then charms his way into the palace kitchens for a square meal, asks the cook for directions to the giant’s castle and sets off in excellent spirits.

The giant lives on an island that can be reached by a causeway, in a castle that is locked up so tight that the only way Jack get inside is by shrinking himself small enough to fit underneath the door. He sneaks about, finding room after empty room, until up the stairs he finds the princess being harassed by her kidnapper. “Pretty in tears!” the giant says. “But prettier in smiles! Come smile, smile, my honey-bird! And Daddy Giant will love you and take care of you for ever more.”

Oh. My. God. Look, it’s an established thing that sometimes giants and trolls will kidnap children to raise as their own, but that is…not the vibe I’m getting here. Also, when someone orders a girl to smile, it should be narrative inevitability that someone comes up to sock them in the face, and Jack is good for that. He lunges at the giant in his usual size, makes himself so small the giant can’t see him, then shoots up until he’s even bigger than the giant. At that point, Jack just picks him up and throws him out the window into the sea. The giant swims off in a panic and the princess is hardly less terrified. Jack hastily shrinks himself to his real size and explains about the witch’s ring, then politely suggests he make himself a giant again in order to carry the princess home. She laughs. “If the giant should happen to be called Jack,” she says, “I will permit it.”

Of course, the sight of a new giant descending on the king’s city causes as much kerfuffle as one might expect, but once they reach the gates Jack puts the princess down and takes his own size, and the princess leads Jack to the palace to present the tale of his heroic deeds to her father. The king decides to keep Jack at court and arrange a wedding when both Jack and the princess are a bit older. The widow is sent for and provided with a new house, complete with servants. Two years later, Jack and the princess marry, and you know what? We never hear from the witch again. I’m feeling cheated. The book is called A Cauldron of Witches, after all. On the other hand, I can at least chalk up another good-natured witch on the list, and there are not enough of those around.

Also, the ring’s powers have put me so much in mind of the Marvel superhero Ant-Man that I am now envisioning a superhero team-up of fairy tale characters and how unbearable the Jacks of the team would be.