Year of the Witch: The Queen’s Children

This Russian fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Kings and Queens, which honestly does not bode well for the specific kings and queens involved. It begins with a tried and trying family dynamic of witchy mother, witchy daughter and beautiful, ready-to-be-wronged stepdaughter. In this case the witchy daughter is called Jutta and the stepdaughter is Angela. One night Angela has a dream that she marries King Fyador and gives birth to three beautiful sons, each born with a golden star on his chest like a birthmark. Jutta mocks the dream and tells everyone about it, intending to make a laughingstock of her sister, which backfires on her when the king himself hears about it and decides to take a chance on the dream coming true by marrying Angela.

The witch stepmother is belatedly ambitious, thinking that if the king was going to marry anyone he should have married Jutta, but disguises her resentment so well that she is invited to the palace to look after Angela when the young queen falls pregnant. It’s a great opportunity for the witch to try and curse her, but no dice: Angela gives birth to the prophesied triplets, each with sky-blue eyes and a golden star on his chest. The witch gives up on subtlety and turns the three of them into wolf cubs. Even then, she can’t get rid of the tell-tale stars, so she sends the wolf cubs running and fills the royal crib with three kittens instead.

That does not go over well with Fyador, understandably, but he decides to try again with Angela and she falls pregnant for a second time. Which must have been pretty traumatic for her, given her first three children disappeared. This time she gives birth to another boy, with dark curls and big brown eyes. Instead of welcoming his son to the world, Fyador goes to complain to his councillors about his wife’s false promises. His councillors are a thoroughly bloodthirsty lot, advocating that the queen be put to death. The oldest member of the council offers a different solution: that Angela and her baby be placed in a barrel and put to sea, which sounds like a twist on the tradition of witch trials. Should the barrel sink, the queen will be punished for her deception. If the barrel floats, God will take care of her. Either way, not Fyador’s problem any more.

So Fyador washes his hands of wife and child, but fortunately for Angela her youngest son is not quite as ordinary as he seems. The boy, who she names Vanya, grows at a startling rate, and he comforts his weeping mother with the blithe assurance that they will be all right. By the time they reach land, he is strong enough to shatter the barrel with a single punch. Angela looks around and sees a wasteland, but Vanya scrabbles about in the moss and mud and produces a bag. From the bag emerge an axe and a hammer, requesting orders. They build a beautiful house from nothing at all and furnish it with all the supplies necessary for Angela and Vanya to live in perfect luxury.

The miraculous palace draws the notice of passing merchants, who are welcomed inside as honoured guests and emerge full of wondering stories about what they have seen. They carry their gossip to the court of King Fyador, who is glumly being seduced by Jutta. He brightens a little on hearing the merchants’ news but his plans to visit the mysterious palace for himself are quickly scuppered by the witch and her daughter. Jutta hastily distracts him with wondrous stories of her own about a cat in a green garden that sings and tells fairy tales, and the witch anchors him firmly with reminders about his upcoming wedding.

The merchants return to Angela’s palace, bringing news of the depressed king and of Jutta’s marvellous cat. Vanya is intrigued. He thinks a cat like that would please his mother. He commands the axe and hammer to produce a garden and a cat like the one in Jutta’s story, which they do in a moment, so when the merchants are next at Fyador’s court they are full of more amazed stories about Angela’s island. They are unaware that Vanya stowed away on their ship in the shape of a wasp. He is listening when Jutta tells of a new wonder, a fountain that radiates golden rain that rises again from the ground as golden birds. Irritated, Vanya stings her nose and hurries home to reproduce such a fountain for his mother.

It’s unclear with Jutta is just making up whatever she thinks will sidetrack her husband-to-be or not, but everything she talks about comes from ‘beyond the thirtieth land in the thirtieth realm’ and sounds like an increasingly frantic bid for attention. How to outdo a magic fountain that turns water into birds? Have you heard about the mirror that shows you anything you like in the whole wide world? Why yes, Jutta, Vanya does hear about it, so guess what shows up at his place. Like every prize, it is shown to his mother in the hope of pleasing her. Angela looks in the mirror and sees her three lost sons in the forest, still disguised as wolf cubs but recognisable by their stars.

Vanya is up for a rescue mission. He asks his mother to make three cakes then sets out for the forest where his brothers live. The wolf cubs cannot resist the cakes and as soon as they have eaten, they are overwhelmed by thoughts of the mother they have never met. They are also quickly sent into a deep sleep. Vanya emerges from hiding and ties the wolves’ tails together, then wakes them with a shout that sends the poor creatures running – only they can’t run all tied together and as they desperately pull at their bonds, their skins slide right off, revealing human boys underneath. Blue eyes and all. So there, Fyador.

Vanya burns the wolf skins and takes his older brothers home to Angela, filling them in on the whole story of curses and kidnappings and betrayal en route. So now Angela has her four sons safe with her, not to mention a magic palace, a talking cat, a fabulous fountain and a magic mirror, and it is safe to say she’s living her best life, but the same certainly can’t be said of Fyador, who has been convinced he needs to marry Jutta but isn’t at all happy about it. Ah, the hard lot of a reactionary king. The only bright spot in his life at present is the distraction of the visiting merchants and the stories they bring with them. They tell him of the palace where three beautiful boys have suddenly appeared, each with hair like the sun and eyes like the sky and a gold star on his chest…

So THERE, Fyador.

The king is overcome by very overdue concern for his first wife. He calls himself a fool, which is undoubtedly true, leaps aboard a ship and sails off to reconcile with Angela, who is an astonishingly tolerant woman and allows him to grovel at her feet for forgiveness. Let’s hope he was down there for a while. She does in fact forgive him and agree to return to his palace, sons at her back, garden of wonders packed up for the journey by Vanya’s axe and hammer. By the time that the royal family arrive home in triumph, Jutta and her mother have wisely made themselves scarce and stay that way.

What intrigues me about this story is how the narrative gives Angela some of the framing to be a witch herself – prophetic dreams, magical children, a trial by water. Unlike the heroine of ‘The White Bride and the Black Bride’, Angela is not granted special privileges by divine authority. She just wakes up one day with enough conviction that the king chooses to take a chance on her. The story ends with her taking a chance on him, but by then the odds are heavily in her favour, what with Vanya and the three young wolf-princes standing just behind her with an axe and hammer at the ready.

Year of the Witch: Uletka

There are any number of fairy tales about people who desperately want children and go to extreme, unsafe and/or unethical lengths to get them, sometimes involving witches – ‘Tatterhood’, ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Black, Red, Gold’ to name a few. In this Hungarian fairy tale, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ 1968 collection The Glass Man and the Golden Bird, a childless woman decides to strike a deal with the Sun himself. If he sends a little girl to be her daughter, he can have the child back again when she is twelve years old. The Sun is apparently fine with that custody arrangement because he sends the woman a child called Uletka.

Mother and daughter are very happy together, but years pass and the agreed-upon birthday is suddenly very near indeed. One day Uletka is outside picking herbs when a tall and elegantly dressed man comes to her with the ominous message, “Uletka, when you go home, tell your mother to remember what she promised me.” Only Uletka’s mother has no intention of keeping that bargain. She loves her daughter and can’t bear to lose her. She closes all the windows and doors of their house, stops up every crack, so that they are in perfect darkness. The Sun, however, manages to send a single ray of light through the keyhole, and in so doing spirits Uletka away.

In the house of the Sun, Uletka is tasked with fetching straw for her new father’s golden horses. Her feet make a sighing sound in the straw, which reminds Uletka of her despairing mother, which makes her despair herself, but when she finally returns to the Sun and he asks what kept her in the barn so long, she tells him it was because her shoes were too big and her feet slipped around inside them. So he fixes her shoes. Then he sends her to the spring for water and as she watches the water flow, she pictures her longing for her mother flowing just as unstoppably. She is late back to the Sun’s house again and this time blames her petticoat for being too long. So the Sun fixes her clothes. Her next errand is to a cobbler, because someone has the job of making the Sun’s glorious golden sandals, and the creak of leather in Uletka’s hand sounds to her like the creak of a miserable heart. When the Sun asks her yet again why she is so slow in returning to his house, she tells him that her hood is too wide and she can’t see properly. So he fixes her hood.

It takes a long time, but finally the Sun sees past these excuses and realises how unhappy the girl really is. He follows her to the barn to see what she does and when he hears her sobbing for her mother, he decides to send her home. But he requires appropriate transport, and the foxes who are his first choice are entirely too inclined to view their passenger as a mid-journey snack, so the Sun asks a pair of hares to escort Uletka instead. When they get hungry, they tell Uletka to climb a tree for her own safety and wait for them to eat their fill of grass, which is quite reasonable. Unfortunately, a witch happens to pass by underneath that tree. She is a witch without much moral complexity; she looks at the girl and sees a meal.

She calls to Uletka, trying to cajole her from the tree. “Come down and see what beautiful shoes I have on!” she coaxes, but Uletka’s shoes are much nicer – hardly surprising given the Sun’s exacting fashion standards. Next the witch tries to guilt her. “I am in a hurry, my house is not yet swept,” she shouts up to Uletka, who tells her to go and sweep it then. The witch does, and when she comes back she is holding an axe. This time the sweet-talking has an ominous edge, paired as it is with a sharp blade. “Uletka, Uletka,” the witch calls, “come down and see what a beautiful apron I have on!” Uletka will not come. “Uletka, Uletka,” the witch cries, “come down, or I will cut the tree down and eat you!” As if she wasn’t planning on doing precisely that no matter what. “Cut it down,” Uletka shouts back, “and then eat me.” So the witch hacks at the tree, but it has its own magic and refuses to be cut.

Come down,” the witch yells, “for I must feed my children.” Which is an interesting insight into predatory witch psychology, if she thinks that is an argument that will have any sway with Uletka, the intended meal. It doesn’t, obviously. The witch goes away again to prepare some other dinner for her children, and Uletka calls desperately for the hares. They race back to rescue her from the tree and set off for her mother’s house as fast as they can, but the witch is soon behind them and rapidly gaining ground.

The hares run across a field and call to the workers digging there to say nothing of their passing. When the witch stops to ask where her quarries went, the workers stolidly inform her that they are planting beans and will not say another word. “A plague on your beans!” the witch declares and runs again, as fast as she can, which is very fast indeed.

Uletka’s mother has been as miserable as Uletka herself. When her dog starts barking to say that Uletka is on her way, the woman will not believe it. When the cat and the rooster tell the same story, the woman still will not listen. All the while the hares are speeding along the road with Uletka and the witch is catching up. She is almost within reach of one hare’s tail and reaches out – but it kicks hard and she’s left with just the tail, while the hares leap into the house. Uletka is safe, the door is quickly bolted behind her and the witch is left to sulk her way home.

Uletka and her mother hug each other tightly. As a sign of her gratitude, the mother makes a tail out of silver for the brave hare to wear, which it considers quite the badge of honour. The Sun gives up his claim on Uletka, wanting her to be where she is happiest, and that means her mother’s house.

If this fairy tale makes you think of ‘The Witch and the Sister of the Sun’, what with the adoptive celestial parent and hungry witch, then snap! There are interesting similarities. It is also worth noting that this is another fairy tale in which the witch is merely thwarted, not permanently defeated. I would argue this witch is less of a villain and more like a hunter trying to feed her family, and while I am certainly glad that Uletka escaped, I’m also very glad the witch’s kids did not end the story as orphans.

Year of the Witch: The Whirlwind’s Castle

After last week I think we are all due a story about a witch who is actually having fun and this Finnish story from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Cauldron of Witches is here to oblige. It opens with a king and queen and their two young sons Marko and Nicko, who are all very happy until the day the queen goes for a walk in her own garden and vanishes utterly. Years pass. The princes grow up.

When Marko is old enough, he decides to ride forth on a quest to find his mother and doesn’t so much as wait for his father’s blessing before he’s out the door. Impatience appears to be key trait of his – when an old lady steps on the road in front of him and asks where he’s going, Marko barely gives her the time of day. She offers to send him in the right direction. “If I took advice from every old fool I met,” Marko retorts, “I should soon get to my journey’s end shouldn’t I?” With that he hits the old lady with the butt of his whip and carries on his obviously doomed way.

Weeks pass. Nicko declares his intention to find both brother and mother, to his father’s understandable horror – if Nicko does not return the king will have lost his entire family and there’s no reason to think Nicko will succeed other than this being a fairy tale and him being the only prince left to get the job done. Nicko, at least, accepts his father’s blessing before he goes on his way. Like Marko before him, he meets an old lady on the road. Unlike Marko, he courteously asks what is the matter. “There is much, much the matter,” the old lady informs him. “All is wrong as wrong can be. But if you listen to me, all that is wrong can be put right.”

Nicko has acquired good manners from somewhere because he insists the old lady sit down and share a meal with him before they talk further about this whole ‘everything is terrible’ business. She ploughs steadily through the supplies he brought from the castle until every scrap is gone and then coolly dissects every single one of Nicko’s problems. Where’s his mum? Kidnapped by the Whirlwind and locked up in the castle on that hill over there. Where’s Marko? Also kidnapped because he’s an idiot who won’t listen to what other people have to say. How to rescue the pair of them? Wait until the Whirlwind whirls off then sneak in while he’s gone. Also, Marko sucks as a person and Nicko should not trust him as far as he can throw him.

Nicko is too loyal a brother to hear the old lady on that last point. She gives him her own blessing anyway and disappears on the spot, because obviously she is a witch. Nicko rides off the indicated hill, where there is indeed a castle, and before long the dreadful Whirlwind whizzes by. This is a creature of glaring eyes and long hair, clawed hands snatching indiscriminately at everything in his way. Though he spots Nicko straight off, he is in too much of a ferocious hurry to turn aside and capture him. So Nicko walks up to the door of the castle and just knocks. The door is opened by another of the Whirlwind’s captives, a girl who warns Nicko to escape while he can. He gently shifts her out of his way and goes looking for his lost relations.

He finds his mother and brother tied to chairs and is quick to free them. The long-awaited reunion with his mother is equally brief. They have to get out of there before the Whirlwind returns, and Nicko asks the girl to come with them. So they run for the door, the four of them, with Marko in the lead and Nicko at the back. Which is how the queen and the girl flee down the hill, and Marko can slam the door in Nicko’s face, locking him inside the castle. If Marko can’t play the hero, he’s certainly not going to let his brother have the glory.

So Nicko is stuck. He searches the castle for another way out but there is a reason why his mother was trapped there so long – the place is locked down tight. Nicko comes to a room where he finds a staff made of ebony, heavily carved and inscribed with the words Bah mek tant a rebeck. When Nicko reads the words aloud, a completely naked man appears from nowhere and asks what he desires. Nicko barely even startles. “Oh to get out of this accursed castle!” he replies, heartfelt, and the naked man picks him up. If this is the kind of magic that the Whirlwind accumulates, he must throw some really interesting parties.

Nicko is duly deposited outside the castle, where his horse is still waiting, and the naked man vanishes. As Nicko is riding down the hill, he sees the witch is waiting for him too. After indulging in a little ‘I told you so’, she gets to business. Marko needs to be dealt with. “There will be no peace for you, or for your father, or for your mother whilst that rascal remains in your father’s palace. Now will you take my advice?” Nicko agrees. The witch transforms him into ‘Okkin the shoemaker’, complete with shoe shop and royal clientele. Marko comes in for a pair of shoes, unaware that he is ordering around his own brother. He doesn’t even pay for his new footwear, claiming he wants to test them out thoroughly to make sure they are worth the price. He is, in short, the nightmare of retail workers everywhere, but there’s witchcraft at work here, and when Marko walks off he cannot stop walking. He walks and walks, right out of the story.

No one misses him. Nicko is restored to himself, marries the girl he freed from the Whirlwind’s castle and gets his happy ending as an only child.

There are not a lot of helpful witches out there, statistically speaking, but once you manage to get a witch on side you are set, because witches have a tendency to take things personally and that extends to the exclusive club they take under their wings. You need not bother to take vengeance yourself; a witch is infinitely better at that sort of thing. There is also a dark tinge of irony to the curse in this story – more than one witch is danced to death in fairy tales, but this witch is not only in complete control of her own feet, she can send her enemies walking on a one-way trip out of her life.

Year of the Witch: The White Bride and the Black Bride

Trigger warning: racism

This German fairy tale is from Vintage Grimm and you can probably guess what’s coming just from the title. Let’s all take deep calming breaths because we are definitely going to need them.

It begins with three women – mother, daughter, stepdaughter – who are out in the fields when they meet God. You know, like you do. He’s disguised himself as a peasant, because that’s an excellent use of ineffable resources, and asks the women for directions to the village. The mother tells him to look for himself. The stepdaughter adds sarcastically that he ought to bring a signpost with him, if he’s so worried about directions. The stepdaughter takes pity on him and shows the right way. God is so offended by the first two that he ‘cursed them so that they became black as night and ugly as sin’. Oh, but wait, it gets even worse. He rewards the stepdaughter with three wishes and the first thing she asks for is beauty and purity, so he literally whitens her skin. Then she asks for a load of money and guaranteed entry into heaven. I expect she also voted for Donald Trump while she was at it.

Deep breaths, remember, deep and calming breaths.

So, God goes off to mess with other people and the stepdaughter goes home as rich and white as it is possible for her to be, and astonishingly her family cannot stand her, but she has a brother called Reginer who sat out the whole ‘meet God in a field’ incident and he’s very fond of her. He wants to paint her picture so that he can look at her all the time, and she agrees sit for the picture on the condition that only he ever sees it.

Thing is, Reginer lives in the palace of the king, where he is a coachman. The king has just lost his very beautiful wife and is sad because he doesn’t think he can find a woman attractive enough to replace her. Word of the portrait reaches his ear and he flexes his kingly decrees to have it brought before him. It turns out that Reginer’s sister bears a striking similarity to the dead queen and the king simply has to marry her right away. Decking Reginer out in finery fit for a future brother-in-law, he sends him off to fetch the stepdaughter, who is only too happy to be pressganged onto a throne. All well and good for them, but the mother and daughter who have had to share a house with her are by now WELL AND TRULY OVER IT, and decide to take matters into their own hands through use of witchcraft. Who can blame them, honestly.

The mother steals away half of Reginer’s sight and half of her stepdaughter’s hearing, then sits in the carriage with her own daughter and awaits their opportunity. When Reginer calls back to remind his sister to take care of her appearance, in preparation for meeting the king, the stepdaughter can’t hear him properly and the mother declares Reginer actually suggested that the two young women in the carriage should swap clothes. So the stepdaughter gives up her golden gown and trades it for the other girl’s dull grey outfit. Then both the mother and daughter shove the stepdaughter out the window of the carriage into a river, where she immediately turns into a duck. What is it about the Grimm brothers and women who turn into ducks? Why is that such a consistent theme?

Anyway, as far as the witches in the carriage are concerned, the stepdaughter is dead and gone and they soon arrive at the court of the king. When he sees his bride-to-be is not as advertised, he orders that Reginer be thrown in a pit of snakes, but the witches get to work and in the end the king marries the false bride. I can’t imagine he’s a pleasant husband, but hey, they get a palace and some pretty clothes out of it.

One night, a little white duck swims up the drain into the palace kitchen and asks a kitchen boy to light a fire for her. He obligingly does so and catches her up on court gossip, including her brother’s imprisonment and the king’s marriage. The white duck swims away in distress. That does not stop her returning the next night, and the next, until the kitchen boy cannot stand it any more and tells the king. The king comes down to the kitchen, takes one look at the duck and whacks off her head with a sword.

She promptly turns back into a young woman and tells him everything. Her priority is that her brother be taken out of the snake pit; the king’s priority is taking revenge on his wife and mother-in-law. The story expects us to believe that the older witch is SO ABSENT-MINDED that she doesn’t realise he’s onto her and condemns herself and her daughter to execution in a barrel of nails. So the witches die horrible deaths, the white bride gets royal privilege on top of everything else, her clueless brother is given wealth instead of snakes, and the king gets to do whatever he wants.

I had not read this story before. I was in two minds about whether to include it in the Year of the Witch at all, but I think it does no one any favours to pretend that fairy tales such as this one don’t exist, even if they have mercifully fallen by the wayside over the centuries since the Grimms first wrote them down. While I do truly believe fairy tales as a whole are much greater than their worst elements, much stronger than the bigotry of past storytellers, that does not erase or exonerate the racism and misogyny that can be found threaded through so many of them like dry rot. When I hear complaints about fairy tales being sanitised, I have to wonder about the real issue with modern adaptations when this is what the original looks like. I’m not sure this story can possibly be salvaged but pretty much anything would be better than what it is. We have to do better.

Year of the Witch: The Witch of Fraddam

There are fairy tales that are about witches and their personal relationships with Hell, and then there are Ruth Manning-Sanders’ fairy tales about witches and their personal relationships with Hell – including that memorable time in ‘The Blackstairs Mountain’ when a bunch of witches threw an absolutely feral party and Satan showed up to play a few tunes, and that other time in ‘Old Witch Boneyleg’ when Satan was invited to a dinner party but had to rescue his witch bestie from her own oven instead. Fairy tale theology is flexible, is what I’m saying, and witches hang out with whoever the quite literal hell they choose.

In this Cornish story, from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection Peter and the Piskies, we are introduced to the Witch of Fraddam and her arch-nemesis Marec the Enchanter. She is doing her level best to become a rural supervillain, raising storms, blighting crops and ill-wishing people and beasts alike. Marec the Enchanter keeps thwarting her. One night the witch leaps astride a ragwort stalk and swoops off to a cliff where she opens a tunnel in a very showy and destructive way. From the mouth of it emerges a demon.

He casually greets the witch as a friend, which she’s not having in the least. He’s supposed to be helping her defeat her nemesis. “Marec the Enchanter still walks the earth, despite all I can do, and all you promised!” she shrieks. “Did I promise,” the demon remarks delicately. “I rather think, madam, that I merely made a bargain.” The witch does not have much patience with his ‘hair-splitting’. She screams at him, he grins at her, and the upshot of it all is that he irritates her into signing over her soul. This is a painful process. He strips off a piece of skin from her forearm, writes up a contract in her blood and gets her to sign.

Neither of them are terribly enthusiastic, which is understandable on the witch’s side and a bit offensive on the demon’s. He asks her what she wants. “To destr-r-r-roy the Enchanter Marec!” the witch screeches. The demon balks. That task is a lot harder than he is willing to take on, soul or no soul, so he weasels out of it by offering the witch advice and getting her to do all the legwork herself. There is a flower that grows blue streaked with white, blooming only at midnight, that will make an irresistibly sweet drink. Its berries are black streaked with purple and they will make a hell-broth. The sweet drink is a lure for Marec’s horse; the hell-broth is to be thrown upon the enchanter himself, to bring him under the witch’s power.

Step one: harvest the flower and berries. Step two: brew up the potions. Step three: set up an ambush. So far, so good – the witch is safely hidden behind a hedge, the sweet drink set out in a tub, the hell-broth in a crock at her elbow. Marec the Enchanter approaches and his horse is drawn to the fragrant contents of the tub. The witch is ready…she’s set…

Oh hey, guess what, Marec is telepathic. No, really, he ‘could hear her thoughts speaking’, divines the whole plan in a heartbeat and instructs his horse to kick over the tub instead of drinking. The tub tumbles into the crock, the crock knocks over the witch, the witch falls into the tub, the tub is now a COFFIN. Hear that wind blowing? The wind is the demon. He whisks up the coffin and drops it into the sea.

And so the witch becomes a sea-bound undead thing, floating about in her coffin, still raising storms with her whirling ladle – but the Enchanter Marec is still there to stop her, blowing his trumpet to calm the waves. Arch-enemies they remain, then, on and on without end.

This story is basically a superhero comic. It ought to be a superhero comic. Even damnation could not keep these nemeses apart and I think that’s beautiful.