Year of the Witch: King Fox

We are on the final stretch of the project now, with only a few weeks left before the last witch makes her appearance. It was honestly a shock to look at my list of fairy tales and see so few left. This one comes from Gianni and the Ogre, a collection of Mediterranean fairy tales by Ruth Manning-Sanders, and is yet another story that I have never actually read before now. It begins with familiar ground: a young man out to seek his fortune with nothing but a bottle of water and a loaf of bread to his name, and both of those are soon gone. He cries himself to sleep and wakes at dawn to find a knight on horseback looming over him, ordering him to mount up behind him or be stabbed.

Put like that, the young man doesn’t have much choice. He scrabbles his way up onto the horse and it takes off with supernatural speed, sparks flying and dust whirling as they go. When the horse comes to an abrupt halt, the dizzy young man finds himself on a plateau grown over with flowers and home to a flock of brilliantly coloured birds. The knight commands that his press-ganged passenger dismount; the young man obeys. “You seek your fortune?” the knight demands, rhetorically. “You will find it here.” He gives the young man a flint, a bow and a task: to shoot a bird and so feed himself for the day.

Either the young man is a rotten shot or the birds are very canny, or some combination thereof, because he tries again and again without success. Near the end of the day, as he begins to lose the light, he decides to take one final shot and then lie down to die. Fortunately for him, this is the shot that hits its target. The next day, he has better luck, catching two birds. As he is sitting by the fire to cook them, he is greeted by a fox who is more bone than flesh, barely able to move across the ground. The young man offers him one of the birds and the fox scarfs it down gratefully.

Now I will be your guardian,” the fox announces. “I will watch over you whilst you sleep. I will serve you by day. I am yours, heart and soul!” He begins his self-imposed duties straight away, vigilantly standing guard over the young man’s sleep. The next night, a skeletal wolf drags himself to their camp and the fox welcomes him as a brother, promising a meal that the young master is happy to share. And so the wolf adds himself to their company. When the young man returns the night after with his catch, he finds that the fox and wolf have adopted a bear in his absence. The night after that, it is a monkey – then a jackal, and a golden eagle. It’s lucky that the young man’s aim is improving so much, because he’s now responsible for feeding a household of six servants. Not so lucky for the birds of the plateau, of course.

The animals hold an election as to who will lead them and the fox is unanimously voted in as king of the council. They take the whole business very seriously, creating a flower crown and a tree trunk throne to provide the necessary trappings of authority. It’s all a little too Animal Farm for me. The fox’s first priority is to improve his master’s living conditions, which are about as basic as it’s possible to be, and to do that all the animals troop off into the desert. The eagle acts as lookout, warning the fox when a train of camels approach. The women of this local tribe are in the lead, unarmed, with the men lagging behind. The fox leads his company of bandits on a lightning raid, stealing the camels and bringing them back to the plateau with all the goods that they carry. This includes a tent, cooking pots and all sorts of good food. When the young man returns to camp and finds his life transformed, he must surely guess what his animals have been up to, but he doesn’t look the gift camels in the mouth.

For some time the fox is content, but eventually he calls together the animals for another meeting. “Our master still lacks,” he informs them. He wants to find the young an a suitable bride, and by suitable I mean he wants her to be ‘divinely beautiful’. The eagle immediately offers up a candidate, having seen a very lovely princess during his travels, so without further ado he flies off and kidnaps the poor girl. She is very dubious about the matchmaking fox, but the animals take turns to sing their master’s praises to the skies and the princess decides to roll with the situation. She cooks a magnificent meal then arranges to prank her fiance, hiding behind the bear and leaping out while all her new animal friends laugh. The young man immediately drops to his knees; the fox officiates the wedding; the monkey plays the flute and the rest of the animals burst into a chorus worthy of Disney. The princess seems quite happy to be the Maid Marian to their merry bandits.

Her father is less happy. His daughter has vanished and there’s no rock he won’t turn to find her, but even with half a kingdom on the table, all her would-be rescuers come up empty-handed. Then a ragged old woman comes to the palace, declaring that she will bring back the princess…if the king promises to take her on as his advisor. The king gives his word without hesitation, which is unwise, because the old woman is a witch and has all sorts of plans for the kingdom. First, though, she needs to deliver the princess, so she takes some jewels and rides off in an earthenware jar whipped with an unfortunate serpent.

She calls up a dark cloudbank to cover her arrival, disappearing into bushes near the camp on the plateau to spy on the company of animals. The young man goes out hunting, the animals busy themselves in the camp and the princess goes out for a walk in the sunshine. She is surprised when the old woman shows herself, but hospitably invites her back to camp for a meal and a comfortable bed. The animals take an instinctive dislike to the guest, but the princess has a great sense of courtesy and it’s easy for the witch to influence her. The young man doesn’t even need a touch of magic to let the witch stay; if his wife is happy, he’s happy.

It becomes an established routine that the princess goes out walking with the witch, who acts as lady’s maid and tells her stories. One day the witch pretends to stumble over the big earthenware jar and the two women look inside. The princess reaches inside for the jewels…and in an instant the witch has pushed her over, sealing her inside with the lid. Off and away they go, in the princess’s second kidnapping. Poor girl just cannot win.

The young man comes home to find the company of animals all in buckets of tears and as soon as he hears the news, he joins them in mourning. Still, the princess isn’t dead. The fox pulls himself together first and sends the eagle to search for their lost mistress. The witch has indeed returned the princess to her father and now the king has surrounded his beloved child with armed guards. There is no chance of the eagle carrying her away now. Instead he carries the fox, the bear and the wolf to the edge of the king’s city, where the fox puts his plans into action. He hitches up the bear and wolf to a plough and acts as ploughman himself, which becomes such a spectacle that everyone must come and watch…including the king and princess.

Whatever her feelings on the initial kidnapping, the princess is not happy to be in her father’s kingdom again. She is delighted to see the familiar faces of the animals in the field and when she looks up, she spots the eagle overhead. “I feel just a little faint,” she tells her guards. “I must get out and rest here on the grass for a moment.” She emerges from the carriage and ushers her ladies and guards onward to see the bizarre performance being played out in the field. As soon as she is alone, the eagle swoops and snatches her up.

This time her abduction is witnessed by an enormous audience. The king is in a panic; the guards take aim and shoot. In the confusion, the fox, wolf and bear disappear into the woods and wait for a rendezvous with the eagle. By nightfall the entire company is reunited and ready to celebrate a successful heist.

The danger, however, has not passed. As the fox is quick to remind everyone, the witch is sure to come back for the princess, having succeeded once before. All the animals take turns keeping watch and it is the fox who is standing guard when the witch makes her reappearance, sailing through the sky in her jar. This time when she lands, the animals are ready and waiting for her. She is dead before she can so much as scream.

That leaves the king. For forty days he waits for word of his daughter and when the witch fails to return, he raises his army to march on the plateau. Each of the animals goes to muster their own allies, amassing an impressive force, and arrive at the king’s camp by cover of darkness. They drive off the horses of the cavalry and disappear back into the wilderness before the soldiers know what is happening. The king has to send for more horses and even then, the journey is slow going. In their next attack, the animals go for bridles and belts, ripping apart all the leatherwork that holds an army together. Once again the king has to send for fresh supplies.

On the third night of the campaign, the fox has his forces dig a deep trench around the king’s camp and then disguise it expertly so that the ground looks undamaged. When the soldiers start marching out, they crash into the ditch and a flock of eagles attack from the skies. The king is forced into a furious surrender, but he has not quite given up yet. He wants his daughter back, whatever the terms. “Your daughter is the wife of my beloved master,” the fox informs him. “And if you are to have her back my master must be your heir.” The king agrees, for lack of options, and leads his army back to the city.

The princess is welcomed with open arms. Even the young man is accepted, but the gates are firmly shut on his servants. Then the young man puts down his foot. “You will give them each a room,” he declares, “and serve them every day with boiled mutton and roast fowl. If you disobey me in this, I will see to it that your heads fly from your shoulders!” He is very quick to enjoy the authority of a prince. The animals are duly brought inside the palace, where the king has his daughter, the young man has his fortune and the fox has the lovely warm glow of victory.

The witch does not get much of a role in this story, appearing mostly in the middle act, but the role she does play is intriguingly political. She talks the king into giving her the power she desires; she charms the princess into trusting her, a relationship that is helped along by a little enchantment. If she had just remembered to summon up clouds on her return to the plateau, she might very well have succeeded in kidnapping the princess all over again and winning her place as power behind the throne. I admit to being curious: what would she have done with that authority? And how is it fair to paint her as the villain when, from the perspective of anyone not on the plateau, she’s mounting a rescue operation? If it’s fair for a young male hero to win half a kingdom by rescuing a princess, it’s fair for a witch to do the same.

Year of the Witch: The Witch

Trigger warning: domestic violence

This version of the Russian story comes from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales from Around the World but I am more familiar with the Ruth Manning-Sanders’ version ‘The Twins and the Snarling Witch’, which you’ll note has a much more interesting title. Both stories start the same way – a widower with twin children, a boy and a girl, finds that he can’t do without a wife to manage the household and so marries again.

After that Lang diverges from the Manning-Sanders’ story, because the second wife gives birth to several children of her own in the years that follow. She soon divides the house into vicious factions, with herself on one side and her husband’s first children on the other. She neglects and physically abuses the twins, and is always kicking them out of the house, but none of that is enough for her. She is determined to get rid of them for good.

So she puts on a sweet face and tells the twins that she is sending them to visit her grandmother in the woods. The girl does not buy her promises for an instant and tells her brother they had better go to see their own grandmother first for advice, which is a good idea, because the old lady knows exactly who the stepmother’s ‘granny’ is: a murderous witch. The twins are advised to speak with the utmost courtesy to everyone they meet and never eat a thing that belongs to anyone else, which is good advice for a wide variety of situations, especially in fairy tales. Their grandmother also provides milk, ham and bread for the children to bring with them. Thus supplied, off they go.

It’s easy to tell when they have reached the house of the witch. The house is small; the witch is a giant, lying sideways in order to fit between her own walls, with her head on the threshold facing out into the wood. Though terrified, the children greet her politely and explain they have been sent to serve her. “If I am pleased with you,” the witch snarls, “I’ll reward you; but if I am not, I’ll put you in a pan and fry you in the oven – that’s what I’ll do with you, my pretty dears!” And with that she puts them both straight to work, the girl spinning yarn and the boy fetching water from the well. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Only no, because the girl cannot actually spin and the boy has been given a sieve to carry the water.

The girl weeps, and the sound of her tears attracts the attention of a throng of little mice. When the girl gives them bread from her grandmother’s supplies, they tell her that the witch’s cat can be bribed with ham to help with the spinning, and maybe with other things too. The girl hurries off to find the cat and on her way sees her brother struggling with the sieve. As she tries to help, a flock of wrens arrive. They too accept an offering of bread and show the boy how to plug up the holes in the sieve with clay.

The children carry the water into the house. The witch is fortunately away from home; the children find her cat napping indoors and go on a charm offensive, stroking her fur and coaxing her with ham. The cat likes the pair of them enough to help them escape the witch. She gives them a handkerchief and a comb, with the instruction to throw each behind them when it seems the witch is about to catch up.

When the witch returns, the spinning is done and the water is waiting. The witch does not eat the children, though it’s plain she would like to, but promises much more difficult tasks for the next day. The twins pass a frightening and uncomfortable night. In the morning, the girl is told to weave two pieces of linen and the boy to reduce a pile of wood to chips. As soon as the witch leaves for her own business in the wood, however, the children bolt.

The witch has guards around her house. The children encounter a watch-dog, who is won over by what’s left of their bread; then a stand of birch trees try to put out the children’s eyes, but the girl wraps their branches with ribbon and the children keep running.

The witch returns home to find rebellion on all sides. The cat points out that after years of service, the witch never gave it so much as a bone; the dog chimes in with agreement and the birch trees love their pretty ribbons. With her servants united against her, the witch has to take off after the children alone.

The twins have made it out of the woods and into the fields by the time they hear the sound of the witch’s broom behind them. Tossing the handkerchief behind them, it becomes a deep river. The witch’s broomstick does not travel high enough off the ground to fly across – she has to find a place to ford the river before she can pursue the children again, but soon enough she’s back at their heels. The girl tosses the comb over her shoulder and a vast forest rises, so impenetrable that the witch is forced to give up and go back to face the music at her own house.

When the children reach home they tell their father all about their stepmother’s abuse and he throws her out of the house. After that, the story tells us, ‘he took care of them himself, and never let a stranger come near them’.

What befalls the twins’ half-siblings is unclear. They vanish from the narrative completely, in the way non-questing relations often do. If the stepmother’s claim is true, they may have some witch blood themselves, which would make for an interesting sequel. This story follows much the same lines as the Manning-Sanders’ version, though there is no watch-dog in ‘The Twins and the Snarling Witch’ and no violent birch trees either, just a really fed-up cat and a put-upon broom. Regular readers of this blog may also note strong similarities to another Russian fairy tale, ‘The Baba Yaga’, which features a girl sent to wait on a witch and who escapes by winning over the Baba Yaga’s cat, dogs and birch tree. These witch’s servants need to start a union. What use is magic if you can’t get half-decent working conditions?

Year of the Witch: The Red King and the Witch

I have read very few Romani stories, something I would like to rectify at some point, and pretty much all that I have read come from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection The Red King and the Witch. It was published in 1965 and that does show, with a widely-used slur included throughout, but as far as I can tell from my extremely limited perspective, the tone of the collection is intended to be respectful. With that as context, let’s jump into this week’s fairy tale.

It begins with the Red King, who apparently needs no introduction and is busy cooking food he bought himself, which already makes him an interesting figure in a fairy tale landscape littered with idle monarchs who sulk around plotting murder. The Red King puts the cooked food in a cupboard and sets a guard upon it, but time and time again, food vanishes from the cupboard and no one can explain where it goes. The Red King promises half his kingdom to whoever can solve this mystery, which certainly attracts the attention of his three sons.

The eldest son reasons that it is much better half the kingdom should go to him than to some random off the street, which is a compelling argument, so he asks his father for permission to stand guard and gets the job. He settles in for the night. It is nearly dawn when a breeze brings sleep in its wake and his sister, a child young enough to sleep in a cradle, literally somersaults out of bed. Her nails become like an axe; her teeth are like a shovel. She consumes everything in that cupboard then returns peaceably to bed like the contented little NIGHTMARE BABY that she is.

So the eldest prince must go to his father empty-handed the next morning. “It would take a better man that you,” the Red King remarks bluntly, “and even then he might do nothing.” That does not deter the middle son, who stands guard the next night. He, too, is put to sleep by the enchanted breeze and his little sister takes off her swaddling to go guzzle her fill from the cupboard. The Red King is derisively unsurprised at the second prince’s failure.

And now it is the turn of the youngest prince, Peterkin, who has learned by his brothers’ failure and has countermeasures. He has jammed big needles through his pillow so that if his body tries to slide into sleep, he’ll be given a rude awakening. So it is that when the breeze drifts to him, he wakes almost as quickly as he falls asleep, and he is sitting there watching when the little princess goes on her devouring rampage. Peterkin is stunned and horrified by his sister’s transformation. In the morning, he refuses to tell his father what he saw, begging for a horse so that he can bolt the hell out of there and find a wife who will, presumably, protect him from shovel-toothed babies.

The Red King supplies him with both horse and money. Peterkin buries his money outside his father’s city and continues onward for eight years, until at last he comes to a palace made of copper. There he sees a girl carving away at a stick. She greets him with a complacent kiss, having apparently been expecting him, and sets him up for the night. When he goes to leave in the morning, she is startled and unhappy. “I go thither where there is neither death nor old age, to marry me,” Peterkin explains. The girl tells him he’s already there. She was whittling a stick when he met her; not until the entire forest has been whittled away can Death or Old Age come near her.

Peterkin’s response can be summed up as: awesome for you, but not much help to me. He leaves.

His horse speaks up at this point, to notify him that they are about to travel across the plain of Regret and they must cross it with all speed or they will not get across at all. With that warning, Peterkin gets to the other side in safety. He comes to a hut and meets a young boy who declares himself to be the Wind. Death and Old Age do not come to his house. Peterkin tosses aside his plans to find a bride and moves in.

They make pretty good housemates for quite a long time, hunting together in the Mountains of Gold and Silver. The Wind warns Peterkin not to visit the Plain of Regret or the Valley of Grief, and honestly why would you want to, but Peterkin has a Pandora moment and just has to look. Regret and grief are indeed what he feels as he remembers his home. The Wind tries to tell him how long it has been since he left, that the Red King is long dead, that his old home is dust. “I passed by the place an hour ago,” the Wind explains, “and they have planted melons on it.” But Peterkin is determined.

On his journey he passes the copper palace. There is no forest left; the girl is carving her last stick. “Do you remember telling me to stay here with you?” Peterkin asks. “Yes,” the girl replies, “I remember.” Those are her last words. As soon as the stick is whittled away, age catches up to her with a vengeance, leaving a husk behind. Peterkin buries her and continues on his way.

When he reaches the place that was once his home, it is almost unrecognisable. The only familiar landmark is an ancient well, and by the well sits a witch with nails like an axe and teeth like a shovel. She knows Peterkin at once and flies at him, her appetite having expanded into cannibalism sometime in the millennia since last they met. Peter makes the sign of the cross in her direction and anticlimactically, she immediately falls down dead.

The next person Peterkin meets is an old man with a long beard. When Peterkin asks desperately after his father, the old man dimly recalls a mythological figure from childhood stories. He does not believe Peterkin’s claim that he was a prince in the long-lost city a mere twenty years ago, mostly because that is not actually true – Peterkin has been gone for a very, very long time, though it does not feel that way to him. To prove his story, Peterkin looks for the spot where he buried his father’s money and finds the stone cross he placed as a marker still there. He digs up the money chest and opens it, only to truly take on the role of Pandora, because trapped in there beside the money are the long-denied appearances of Death and Old Age. They seize hold of Peterkin and he meets the same instantaneous end as the girl with her sticks.

The old man watches all of this happen, but being very practical about sudden horrible death, he buries Peterkin and then helps himself to the now ownerless money and horse. And that’s where we end, with his happy ending, in the literal dust of Peterkin’s.

This story is…not what I was expecting. Peterkin, framed as the hero, and his sister the genuinely creepy witch are sketched out in such significant roles at the start and then the story just screeches sideways as hard as it can. Peterkin’s eagerness for immortality battles with his ties to life and there is no victory to be had for him either way. His sister bears a strong resemblance to the unstoppable destroyer from ‘The Witch and the Sister of the Sun’, except for her sudden and unsatisfying defeat. I love the individual elements of this story with a passion, but there are such big spaces in between them that I honestly don’t know quite what to think now. It’s a story that will haunt me a little.

Year of the Witch: The Realms of Copper, Silver and Gold

In this story from Alexander Afanasyev’s Russian Fairy Folk Tales, there are three brothers, each ready to get married. Well, their parents are ready for them to get married anyway, and duly send their eldest son Egórushko Zalyót off to find himself a bride. He travels for some time without finding a woman he likes enough to get down on one knee for, and then he meets a three-headed dragon.

No, he does not marry the dragon. I’m sorry.

The dragon instead offers to show him where he might find a suitable bride, and takes him to a really big rock. Not the kind you propose with, either. The dragon tells him that if he can lift the rock, he will find what he seeks, but Egórushko cannot lift it and so goes home alone. His parents take a bit of time to think about the general concept of dragon matchmakers, then send the second son, Misha Kosolápy, to look for a wife in the same place. He is no more successful than his brother. Now the youngest brother, Iváshko Zapéchnik, is raring to go. It is unclear whether what he wants is to find a wife or to meet a dragon, but he’s a youngest son, so he gives the rock one big shove and boom, it’s gone.

Underneath is a rope ladder leading down into the dark. Iváshko hops on the ladder and the dragon lowers him into the realm of copper, where a young woman accosts Iváshko eagerly and asks where he’s from. He indignantly points out she’s offered no kind of welcome, so she wines and dines him a bit and he asks if she will marry him. “No, fair youth!” the girl tells him and in slightly Billy Goat Gruff style, informs him that there is a prettier woman waiting in the next realm. She does, however, give him a silver ring.

So down Iváshko goes to the realm of silver, where he guilts another very lovely young lady into feeding him and concludes the meal by asking if she will marry him. The girl refuses, sending him on down with a golden ring. Iváshko enters the realm of gold and finds a girl there who he considers the most beautiful of all. “Whither art thou going, fair youth; and what do you seek?” the girl asks. “Fair maiden, give me to eat and drink,” Iváshko says, “and I will tell you my news.” She puts on a veritable banquet and Iváshko asks if she will come with him as his bride. The girl agrees, sealing the deal with the gift of a golden ball.

As they ascend, the other girls join them, presumably hoping to get a lift out of the literal hole they live in. The dragon has vamoosed but Iváshko’s brothers have shown up looking for him and help pull up the rope ladder with the copper girl on it, then the silver girl, and then the girl from the realm of gold. That just leaves Iváshko. The brothers have already decided they want to marry these girls and wonder if Iváshko will try to stop them; instead of having any kind of conversation about it, they cut the rope ladder and leave him trapped.

Poor Iváshko is understandably devastated. Eventually he starts walking and meets a little old man sitting by a tree, who advises him to keep going until he comes to a hut. When he reaches the hut, Iváshko finds a giant called Ídolishsche sprawled in it. “Spare me,” Iváshko pleads, “and tell me how I shall get home again.” “Fi, fo, fum, Russian bones!” the giant replies. “I did not summon you, and still you have come. Go to the thrice-tenth sea, there stands a hut on cocks’ legs in which the Bába Yagá lives. She has an eagle who will carry you.”

So off goes Iváshko, and comes to the house of the witch. She demands to know his business, but on hearing what the young man wants, she turns very helpful. Baba Yaga is unpredictable like that. She sends him through her garden to a gate, past a watchman and through seven doors. Opening the last door frees the eagle. Iváshko leaps astride the bird and is carried into the air. Every so often the eagle turns his head and Iváshko feeds him a piece of meat, and that goes well for a while, but then Iváshko runs out of food to give his mount and the eagle tears a chunk from his back instead.

Fortunately they arrive at their destination immediately afterwards. The eagle spits out a glob of meat and orders Iváshko to lay it on himself, and in so doing the wound is healed. Iváshko then goes home to take the girl from the realm of gold to be his wife and his brothers…experience no retribution whatsoever for ditching him down a hole. ‘They then lived happily,’ the story claims of its characters, ‘and may still be living if they are not dead’. Or if Iváshko has not been HORRIBLY BETRAYED all over again. I don’t trust your happy ending as far as I can throw it.

Halfway through this story an oddly rushed feeling descends on the narrative. Iváshko’s adventures are hurried through. He meets a mysterious little old man – goodbye! He meets a giant in a little house – see you later! He rocks up at the house of the notorious witch Baba Yaga and she barely has a minute to talk, packing him off on her eagle without criticising his life choices or setting any tasks or anything else that implies she’s invested in him as a person. Iváshko’s brothers presumably marry the other two girls from the underground realms and live out their own happily ever afters unhindered by the usual fairy tale karma. I do not approve of the extreme punishments often meted out to the older siblings destined to failure by narrative tradition, but I do feel quite strongly that abandoning your little brother down a hole should come with consequences. Where’s that dragon when you need it?

Year of the Witch: Peter

This German story comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses and is unusual in that the story only starts after the titular protagonist comes back from seeing the world. His father sent him off to broaden his horizons and after three years Peter comes back bubbling over with anecdotes about his travels, so busy sharing what happened to him that he does not think to ask his parents what’s been going on for them – so it’s something of a shock when a carriage pulls up outside the front door and he is swept away to the king’s palace.

Once he gets there, Peter is startled to find everything shrouded in black drapes. The king and queen don’t look particularly happy to see him, but that’s because they do not look happy about anything. The king asks whether Peter has heard of their troubles (he has not) and if he is a loyal subject (which is a concerning question in any context). “Do you sincerely love us,” the king pursues, “and are you willing because of that love to risk your life in our service?” Peter recognises a catch-22 when he hears one and bows his acceptance, waiting to see what the king actually wants.

And what does the king want? Well, let’s rewind three years to his daughter’s fifteenth birthday. The young princess was the belle of the ball and the life of the party, with a mischievous sense of humour. There was a banquet in her honour, but as everyone rose from the table, two unexpected guests arrived: the king’s aunt and her daughter, who are both witches. The king sent the rest of his guests on to enjoy music and dancing and ordered a fresh meal to be laid out for his relatives, turning the banquet into an awkward little family reunion. As the witch and her daughter sat down to eat, the younger woman discarded her veil for the first time and – well, life is not a beauty contest, but the king put her in dead last anyway. His aunt saw things very differently. “She is as clever as she is beautiful,” she boasted to the king. “She has so many suitors that it is merely a matter of selecting the most desirable.”

The king’s own daughter might have plenty of virtues but tact sure as hell is not one of them and good manners don’t feature high on the list either. She called the witch’s daughter ugly to her face and when the witch asked for her to elaborate on what she meant, she did not hear the blaring warning sirens. Instead she went on about long noses and wide mouths and eyes like a snake. “And you, auntie,” the princess gabbled, “why you have the very same kind of eyes, so that I should be quite frightened to sit alone in the dark with you!” Another thing this girl does not possess: any self-preservation instincts at all. When a witch looks at you like that, you RUN THE OTHER WAY.

Too late for that anyway. The witch passed her hand across the princess’s face in a quick meaningful gesture. “As you have described my daughter’s face, so shall your own face be,” she announced. “And so shall your face remain until some gallant youth comes who will marry my daughter, and also perform three tasks that I shall set him.” She followed that statement by slapping the princess three times, presumably for emphasis, then stormed out with her daughter and departed the palace before the king and queen could make any kind of peace with her. It wasn’t until they went to recriminate their daughter for her rudeness that they realised what the witch had actually done. The princess was now a twin of the witch’s daughter. Her father refused to even look at her, covering her up with a scarf, and for the past three years she’s been forced to live under a veil. They put the whole palace into mourning because she’s not a beauty any more. Well, it’s clear where she got her attitude from.

Many young men have attempted to break the curse. None, so far, have come back. The king chooses to believe their nerves shattered upon encountering the witch’s ugly daughter – because nothing, it would appear, could distress the king himself more than the sight of imperfection – but there’s also the strong possibility that the witch has just killed them all. Nevertheless, running low of candidates, he’s got hold of Peter and proceeds to expertly guilt him into taking on the quest. The clincher is when the princess shows up, swathed in veils but still in possession of her beguiling storybook heroine voice, to implore Peter from her knees.

Off he goes, and makes the best of it. Peter is after all an adventurous young man and there’s a certain allure in a noble quest. I’d say this is actually more of a tacky family squabble gone out of control, but Peter is rather swept up in the romance of rescuing a princess and is quite cheerful. By nightfall he has reached the edge of a forest and it turns out, as it so often does, that the forest is a lair of violent robbers. They strip Peter of every valuable, knock him about for good measure and dump him by the side of the road.

Peter hobbles through the gathering darkness and follows a light between the trees to a little hut. A very old man answers the door with understandable surprise. “Who knocks so loud where no one knocks?” he asks. “Who comes this way where no one comes?” Peter tries to explain himself but collapses halfway through and comes to in a straw bed, being treated with an ointment that more or less magics away all his injuries. He calmly assumes his benefactor is a magician and thinks no more of it. The old man feeds him some soup, hears out the full story of Peter’s quest to restore the princess, and puts him back to bed.

The next morning, the old man is prepared to give his thoughts on Peter’s problem – and more than just thoughts, he has gifts. There is a stick that will send anything it strikes into motion, a key that will open whatever lock it touches, and a whistle that will apparently take all Peter’s courage to blow. The old man completes his semi-omniscient speech with exact directions to the witch’s house.

It’s not a very nice place. Surrounded by withered trees and thorns, the house itself has a lot of small windows that feel to Peter like the unfriendly gaze of many squinting eyes, but he knocks at the door anyway and when no one answers he walks straight inside. He walks along a hallway, calling out and again getting no answer, then goes upstairs. There he finds the witch, feeding her cat and supremely unconcerned with Peter’s existence. She calls her daughter, who is named Picnotka, to come and look him over. The impression would appear to be favourable, if one-sided. “Give us a kiss, my lovey dovey, because you please me,” she coos. “What – too shy? Never mind, never mind, we’ll be married tomorrow, and then we’ll see which of us is shy!” Which is super creepy, and is clearly meant to be read as such. Unlike, say, all the stories of beautiful girls who just have to buck up and adjust their expectations when marrying ugly men. Or actual beasts. Just saying.

Peter does not like being taunted. “If it will free the princess whom you have enchanted, I am willing to marry anyone,” he blurts, “yes, I would marry even the devil’s grandmother. But I will not be made a fool of!” Oh, kiddo, you are lucky this is not one of the stories where the devil’s actual grandmother shows up with a wedding ring. Exaggerations are a dangerous business in fairy tales. The witch kicks her cat to vent her own ill-feeling and leads the way through the dark house to a large hall that is full of statues. As Peter looks from one face to another, he is horrified to recognise the faces of young men from his town. This, then, was the fate of the would-be heroes who came before him.

Peter’s task is to drive them out. He puts the old man’s stick to work, striking left and right, and wherever a blow lands, a statue comes to life. Young men spill from the house, running and shouting. Grinding her teeth, the witch takes Peter to his next task: opening a door fastened shut with seven padlocks. Peter tries the stick, with no success. Then he takes out the old man’s key, and it barely has to touch the door before all the padlocks start springing open. So that’s task number two down.

The witch is not eager to move on to task number three, by now really worried that Peter will achieve it and break the curse. While there’s the comfort that she and her daughter would make his life one long misery, the princess would be happy and the witch cannot stand the thought of that. She offers Peter gold and jewels if he will only turn back now. “What is the princess to you, or you to her, that you should risk your very soul for her?” the witch demands. “Yes, your very soul, I tell you, for the Lord of Hell is my particular friend.” May have spoken too soon about the devil’s grandmother.

When Peter refuses the bribery, the witch threatens to summon her ‘particular friend’. “And as you have a little pipe in your pocket, let us see if he will dance to your piping!” she snaps, which Peter interprets as his third task. He blows the whistle. The sound is so overwhelming in its intensity that the whole house shakes, but Peter blows again and flames burst from the floor. The witch and her daughter are screaming and trying to wrest the whistle from Peter. One more blow seems likely to bring the house crashing down, but blow it he does, and the floor splits open with a nightmarish thunderclap. Peter is caught in a maelstrom, choking on acrid smoke, certain of imminent death.

And then…he wakes up. It’s morning. He looks down on the ruins of the witch’s house, where he’s pretty sure he whistled up the Lord of Hell to take away the witch and her daughter. The cat, I think it’s safe to assume, is safe, having run away after the witch kicked it.

There seems to be no chance of Peter marrying Picnotka now, so has he succeeded in breaking the curse or not? He isn’t sure. On his way back through the forest he meets the old man, who gives Peter a little push and magics him home in a heartbeat. A cheering crowd have gathered to celebrate having a beautiful princess again. Peter is welcomed into the palace, fussed over by king and queen, kissed by the princess and whisked into a much more welcome marriage.

A Book of Enchantments and Curses is one of the first Manning-Sanders anthologies that I read as a child, and I remember being dissatisfied with this story then. I feel the same way now. Your mileage may vary on this sort of thing, but Devil Ex Machina is not my preferred pathway to a happy ending. Although, who knows, perhaps the Lord of Hell was really the witch’s friend and just showed up to rescue her from the collapsing house, much as he is the rescuer in ‘Old Witch Boneyleg’. There is an inherent familial pettiness to the entire situation, blown out of proportion with spells and crowns, and I suppose that’s why the resolution of the story doesn’t feel like it really resolves anything. The king and his family still believe that beauty is all-important. The witch and her daughter disappear from the narrative still feeling bitter and wronged. Watch this space for offended fairies at the next royal christening.