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.