Year of the Witch: The Witch’s Flute

This is a Bulgarian fairy tale from Ruth Manning Sanders’ collection A Cauldron of Witches, and it begins by introducing us to a large family all living together: an old man and woman, their son and daughter-in-law and the five grandchildren, with a flock of goats to boot. You would think that someone in that household would be able to look after the goats, but apparently not, because the grandfather hires a boy called Max to drive the goats out to the meadows. He also gives Max a flute that he bought off a witch “It’ll keep you from getting bored,” is his reasoning. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, Max takes out the goats – and when he brings them back, the poor beasts look haggard despite a day of grazing. The next day it’s even worse. The grandfather decides to look into the matter, secretly following Max to the meadows. All seems well at first, but then Max takes out the flute. The moment he starts to play, the goats stop eating and dance, and dance, and dance. Not normal goat behaviour. Max doesn’t seem quite himself either. The grandfather comes running to try and stop him, but instead is forced to dance as well. He shouts at Max to stop, but the boy can’t help himself playing any more than the grandfather and goats can help dancing.

Hours pass. The whole damn day passes. The grandmother wonders where her husband has got to and goes to look for him. As soon as she gets within earshot of the flute, she joins the dreadful dancing. When she doesn’t come back, her son goes to look for her – and when he doesn’t come back, his wife follows him to the meadows. By this time, Max is dancing with the others, their shadows whirling under the light of the rising moon. There seems no escape.

The five children are left at home, waiting for their family to come home and eat supper together. Eventually they can’t take it any more and run off to the meadows to see what’s happened. Before you know it, they have been sucked into the vortex of dancers.

At this point it seems to occur to Max for the first time that he can actually move, dancing all the while, which means they can transfer the location of the worst party ever, even if they can’t end it. He leads the way towards the house, with everyone prancing and kicking and screaming behind him. The only ones having any fun are the children, who have entered into the spirit of revelry and rather more to the point, have not been dancing for hours on end.

In order to reach the house, they have to pass through the village. The flute calls the people there from their homes to dance in the streets – no one who can hear it can escape it, not even the babies. They are all forced to dance, dance, dance.

Then along comes the witch who sold the wretched flute in the first place. She is neither surprised nor dismayed by the scene which greets her, just laughs uproariously and plucks the flute from Max’s hands. Blissful silence reigns. The dancers can, finally, stop.

And that is that. I am all sympathy, but I simply have to say it: what did they EXPECT from a witch flute? I do appreciate, though, that while the witch is indirectly responsible for the chaos, she also resolves it, playing the role of a morally ambiguous trickster figure as opposed to an actual villain. Definitely a con artist. I suspect she has ‘sold’ that flute more than once.

Sweetheart Roland

This German fairy tale from Vintage Grimm does not waste any time beating about the bush. The first line establishes everything: Once upon a time there was a woman who was a real witch, and she had two daughters, one ugly and evil, whom she loved because she was her own daughter, and the other beautiful and good, whom she hated because she was her stepdaughter. It’s this sort of thing that gives fairy tales a bad name. As for either father, who knows? Not me, because the story does not see fit to mention them.

Anyway – Evil Sister sees Good Sister wearing a beautiful apron and wants it for herself. Instead of, I don’t know, acquiring the item literally any other way, the witch skips straight to murder. “Your stepsister has long since deserved to die, and tonight, when she’s asleep, I’ll come and chop off her head,” she tells Evil Sister. “Just make sure that you lie on the far side of the bed, and push her toward the front.”

Fortunately for Good Sister, she overhears this scheme. She is not permitted outside all day, thereby preventing an escape, but that night while her stepsister is sleeping in their shared bed, Good Sister very carefully pushes her from the far side to the front and positions herself up against the wall. Therefore when the witch comes up with her axe, she hacks the head off the wrong girl.

As soon as the witch is gone, Good Sister is up and running. She goes straight to her sweetheart’s house, whose name is of course Roland. She explains to him what has happened and tells him they have to get as far away as they can before the witch sees which corpse is lying in that bed. Roland is cool with the getaway plan but suggests they steal the witch’s wand first, to improve their chances. His girlfriend heads back to fetch it, which shows nerves of steel, and fetches her stepsister’s head as well, which is creepy as hell. And off they go.

Three drops of blood fell from the severed head – one by the bed, one in the kitchen and the last on the stairs. In the morning, when the witch is calling for her daughter to come and get that wretched apron, the drops of blood call out in answer. “Here I am! On the stairs sweeping,” cries the blood on the stair, but of course there is no one there when the witch goes to look. “Here I am! In the kitchen warming myself,” the second drop of blood sings out. The witch goes to the kitchen, where she hears her daughter’s voice calling again. “Here I am! In bed sleeping,” says the drop of blood by the bed, and the witch walks in to see her daughter’s headless body lying there, dead at her own hand.

The witch runs to the window and with unexpectedly acute witch-vision, she sees the runaways escaping. Seething with rage, the witch fetches out her seven-league boots and sets off in pursuit. In just one step, she can cover ground that would take an hour to walk and before long she’s right on their heels. Good Sister, however, sees her coming. Quickly she uses the wand to transform Roland into a lake and herself into a duck and if you’re thinking that sounds like a familiar strategy, you would be right. An identical scenario occurs in the Grimm story ‘Foundling’. The witch tries to lure in the duck with bread crumbs, but Good Sister simply swims and swims and the witch has to turn back.

Not for long, mind you. The lovers walk all night, creating as much distance as they can, and in the morning Good Sister puts the wand to work again. She turns Roland into a fiddler and herself into a flower, growing amidst a hedge of thorns. When the witch approaches, she does not recognise Roland and goes straight for the flower. The moment she’s inside the hedge, he begins to play a tune and the witch is forced to dance. Roland makes her dance herself to a vicious, bloody death.

He is no sweetheart, that’s for sure.

Then he goes home to arrange the wedding and hooks up with another girl instead, so Good Sister is left hiding herself as a rock in a field. She waits long enough to give up hope of her lover’s return and turns herself into a flower with a death wish, waiting to be trampled. I would feel sorrier for her if not for the whole death-by-thorns thing. No honour among murderers and all that.

She is not trampled. A shepherd picks her and takes her home, and she takes on the role of secret magic housekeeper, which is nice at first but begins to scare the shepherd, who cannot figure out how this person is getting into his house. On the advice of a wise woman, he gets up at sunrise one day and throws a white cloth over the only moving thing in the room: the flower. It turns into a beautiful girl who tells him her life story, and he is apparently not frightened by the gory details because he asks her to marry him. She says no, Roland is the man for her despite his abandonment, but she is happy to stay on as housekeeper.

Roland’s wedding is announced – not to Good Sister, surprise surprise, but all the girls from miles around come to the wedding to sing and they bring Good Sister with them. She tries in vain to avoid singing. The moment he hears her voice, Roland abruptly remembers that hey, he was going to marry this girl once. So he jilts his current bride at the altar and marries his accomplice instead. I’m not sure I could stomach a happy ever after for these two, so I’m glad for the mild ambiguity in the last line: Her sorrows came to an end just as her joy began to flourish.

Being a fairy tale witch is a dangerous business. A violent and memorable execution is a serious occupational hazard, but I think this witch’s death struck me with particular force because of the contrast to last week’s story. While Good Sister certainly has a legitimate grievance against her stepmother, her vindictive choice of magic is reminiscent of Snow White’s stepmother being danced to death in a pair of iron shoes, a death that is all about revenge. If a character is only ‘good’ because the narrative tells you so, that does not say much for the narrative.

Year of the Witch: Martin and the Lions

Trigger warning: animal cruelty

This week’s story is from Tyrol, a west Austrian state in the Alps, and the version I’m reading comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ 1988 collection A Cauldron of Witches. It is one of those stories that manages a difficult feat and makes me truly loathe the witch in question.

We begin with Martin, who is desperate for a job. He has been on the road all day, knocking on door after door with no success, but towards nightfall he comes to a big house with a promisingly overgrown garden. Hoping that he might at least get paid to do a bit of weeding, he pulls on the bell rope and waits. And waits. No one comes to the door. Martin tries again, and then again. On the third pull the door is yanked open and a woman is standing there with a candle. She is described as old and ugly so I think you can guess which stereotype the story is going for here.

The old woman asks what Martin wants. “Work, if you please, ma’am,” Martin says eagerly, “any kind of work – in the house or in the garden.” The old woman wants to know how she can trust him, which is a very reasonable thing to ask when a stranger comes to your door after dark, but Martin is offended and responds with his life story. He used to work for his father; now that his father is dead, he must make his own way, and it is has been very hard so far, thank you very much. Martin is exhausted, in need of a square meal and willing to do pretty much anything that is asked of him. That is precisely the sort of reference the woman is after, because she is a witch and she does have work and no decent person who had a choice would ever take it.

Martin is invited into the house. It is full of beautiful, ornate things, none of which are being looked after particularly well, like it’s a job lot from a palace garage sale. Looking around, Martin sees a vision of his future as a badly needed cleaner, but that dream is soon dashed by the witch. She does not care about the dust and dirt. The task she has in mind for Martin is quite different. She leads him onward, into a large hall where one wall is dedicated to paintings of horses. “All my own handiwork,” the witch says smugly. “Am I not a clever artist?” Martin is offering due admiration when a low growl turns his attention to the floor for the first time.

Chained to the ground in the middle of the hall is a lion. The poor creature is held on so tight a leash it can barely move and it’s very clear why when the witch walks up and slaps her ‘pet’ in the face. Nor is this the only animal the witch has imprisoned – an increasingly horrified Martin is walked through hall after hall where lions are kept in chains, and watches as the witch abuses every single one of them with sickening glee. When Martin protests, the witch snarls at him to hold his tongue.

After such a tour, the witch abruptly leads Martin to a well-furnished bedroom where a good meal is waiting. Though tired and hungry, Martin cannot settle after the misery he has witnessed. He asks if he can start his work now and feed the lions, but that sends the witch into a rage. The task she has in mind is not that he take care of the lions; she wants him to whip them, day in, day out. “Their chains are strong, and their collars well locked,” she coaxes. “They can’t hit back. Now, now, take that frown off your face!” And she leaves Martin alone to regret ever coming into her house.

He eats the meal and climbs into bed, but sleep does not come easily. He contemplates how he can possibly set the lions free and is still thinking about it as he drifts into a light doze. Then he is woken by a soft knock at his door. When he opens it, he is astonished to see the first of the witch’s lions standing there, mouth bloody and teeth closed around its chains. He stares at the lion walks into his room, and stares some more when it starts talking.

I am an enchanted king,” the lion explains. “The other lions are my brothers. One of the lionesses is the beloved princess to whom I was betrothed, and the other lioness is her lady-in-waiting.” They were all out riding one day when they passed by the witch on the road and one of the young squires riding with the party called out a rude command for her to move. He well and truly paid for doing that. The royals were all turned into lions; the squires and the horses became the paintings on the wall. The enchanted king cannot inflict harm on the witch himself, but Martin can, and there is a very convenient axe under the bed (convenient to the witch, who put it there should Martin get on her nerves).

Martin is not a violent man. On the other hand, the witch is a horrifying person and Martin can’t just let this situation continue, so he picks up the axe, follows the lion to the witch’s room and grapples with his conscience by her bedside. As she stirs, Martin swings the axe, chopping off her head. He’s appalled at himself, because unlike a lot of fairy tale heroes, he does not consider killing a half-asleep old woman to be a victory. It’s an execution.

The moment the witch dies, all those under her spell are freed. Martin is helped to his feet by ‘the handsomest young king in the world’ – thanks for noticing, Martin – and he is led on a bewildering reverse tour of the house, through empty room after empty room until they come to the first hall. There a group of beautiful young men and women fall upon Martin to offer heartfelt thanks. He can hardly concentrate on the experience because above his head, the paintings are waking up, the horses leaping down to the ground. The king and his betrothed affectionately greet their own horses and everyone starts mounting up, including Martin, who has been thoroughly swept up in the king’s retinue. “I think we are ready to leave these dismal halls,” the king declares, “and set off as fast as may be for my kingdom, where my people must be in sore need of me…We had best hurry too, for it seems to me that this accursed house is about tottering to a fall.”

He’s right. They have barely reached the road when the house crumbles to a ruin behind them, burying the witch’s body in the wreckage of her own prison.

The king’s capital is only a few hours ride away, which could mean he is specifically Martin’s king. In fact, his disappearance may have something to do with the economic depression that prevented Martin getting a job in the first place. Losing a king and all his heirs in one go is the sort of the thing likely to impact on a country’s stability, after all. Anyway, Martin is made a duke, falls in love with the lady-in-waiting and gets married, wanting for nothing to the end of his days.

It’s worth noting that there are a number of Ruth Manning-Sanders’ stories that have a strong stance against violence towards animals, but this one has a particularly clear message. Instead of being the next Circe, which seems to have been what she was shooting for, the witch is a cautionary tale – there can be no happy ever after until she is dead.

Year of the Witch: Baba Yaga

Trigger warning: incest

This project is technically not an exploration of Baba Yaga’s friendships, rivalries and family tree, but it’s not not that either. I am taking this version from Magicians and Fairies by Robert Ingpen and Molly Perham, published by Dragon’s World Ltd in 1995. Regular readers may remember my wild excitement upon discovering Baba Yaga’s nemesis Queen Glafyra in ‘Vanooshka’. Well, GUESS WHAT PEOPLE, she has another frenemy in her life. There is a certain elderly princess with a beautiful son and daughter and Baba Yaga kind of hates the lot of them but is on friendly enough terms with the princess that she has the perfect angle to destroy their lives.

My dear friend,” Baba Yaga says (lies), “put this ring on your son’s finger and he will always be healthy and rich. But he must not take the ring off until he finds the maiden that it fits. She is the one he must marry.” The princess believes her and dies before she can discover what a big mistake that was. The princess’s son is named Prince Danila Govorila; the daughter is Catherine. They are equally taken in by Baba Yaga’s story of the ring. Danila Govorila is so convinced that he travels all over the place seeking a woman whose finger is the right size to wear the ring, Cinderella style, but returns home in despair. Hoping to cheer him up, Catherine insists that the ring must not be such a very awkward size and tries it on herself to prove it.

The ring fits. “Dear sister,” Danila Govorila cries, “fate has chosen you for my wife.”

Catherine is horrified. She points out that it is against the actual law for them to get married, not to mention her own vehement opposition on a personal level, but the prince does not listen to a word she says and goes ahead to plan their wedding. Catherine runs outside to sob her heart out in the gardens. A group of old women pass by and pause when they see her there. “Don’t cry,” they tell her, “just do as we say and everything will be all right. Make four little dolls, and put them in the four corners of your room. Go to your wedding, but when your brother calls you to the bridal chamber, do not hurry.”

So the wedding takes place, but afterwards Catherine lingers in her room. While she stands there, the dolls start calling out. Cuckoo, earth open wide, they chant, cuckoo, sister fall inside! And as they speak, the floor gives way beneath Catherine and she begins to slip through. By the time the prince opens her door to find out what she is doing, there is no one left in there but the dolls. He beheads them all in a rage; but Catherine is gone beyond his reach.

So where did Catherine go? She has ended up underground, walking along until she emerges from a cavern and sees a hut that stands on chicken legs. A girl is sitting inside, embroidering with gold and silver. She welcomes Catherine but with a warning: this is the house of Baba Yaga, and she is Vasilissa, the witch’s daughter.

Vasilissa and Catherine hit it off straight away. They talk and sew and time passes easily, until Vasilissa hears her mother approaching. Then she turns her new friend into a needle and hides her away. Baba Yaga enters the hut suspiciously. “I smell a Russian bone,” she says. Vasilissa invents an airy story of elderly travellers, not worth eating, which does not quite satisfy Baba Yaga but at least prevents an argument. The witch flies away again. Catherine is restored to herself and the girls continue to bond until Baba Yaga comes back again. This time Vasilissa does not notice her approach; Catherine looks up suddenly and sees the witch grinning in the doorway. “Daughter,” Baba Yaga says, “stoke up the fire so that I can cook our supper.”

Catherine is sat upon a shovel, to be pushed into the oven, but refuses to sit properly. She sticks out her legs at awkward angles. She turns contortionist in her desperation. Baba Yaga loses her temper and sits in the shovel herself, to demonstrate how it’s done, which is the oldest trick in the book. The two girls give her a violent shove, locking her inside the oven. Then they run for it.

Baba Yaga tears the oven door off its hinges and storms in pursuit. Vasilissa, however, is ready for her. She throws a hairbrush behind her and it becomes an overgrown marsh; when Baba Yaga picks a way through, Vasilissa tosses a comb and it becomes a thick forest. Baba Yaga bites the trees with teeth sharp as an axe, clearing her way. Last of all, Vasilissa throws the embroidery that she and Catherine have sewn together. It becomes a sea of flames. Baba Yaga’s broom catches fire as she flies above it and she falls, to her presumed death.

The girls are catching their breath from the chase when along comes Danila Gorovila, and get this, he cannot tell the girls apart. He is so puzzled by this that he decides to trick Catherine into revealing herself. He sticks a sheep’s bladder full of blood beneath his arm and a servant who is acting as his accomplice sticks the bladder dramatically with a knife. Catherine still cares about her brother despite his…I can’t even list it all, his everything. She runs to his side and he hugs her, which is creepy, because it’s him. Fortunately for Catherine, Vasilissa tries on the ring and it fits her. She marries the prince; Catherine marries someone else, who is apparently a nice person, and there is a fairly unconvincing happily ever after tacked on at the end.

Clearly a better ending would be Vasilissa and Catherine going off to get married. I know I say this a lot about fairy tale girls, but frankly I don’t think much of Danila Gorovila’s chances if he gets on Vasilissa’s bad side. She is Baba Yaga’s daughter; her embroidery can literally set people on fire. I also do not believe this story’s claim that Baba Yaga is dead – but I suppose it may be easier for her to fake her death than admit her daughter got the better of her.