Year of the Witch: Foundling

This German fairy tale is from Vintage Grimm: The Complete Fairy Tales and it begins very Grimmly with a small child being snatched from his sleeping mother’s lap by a hawk. The hawk then drops its prey into the branches of a tall tree and takes off out of the story, never looking back. Meanwhile the child’s crying draws the attention of a passing forester who adopts him on the spot, names him with Foundling in much the same way people name their dogs Rover, and raises the boy alongside his own little girl Lena. The children are inseparable.

Unfortunately, there is a fourth member of their little household: Sanna, the forester’s old cook, who is a witch of the cannibalistic type.

She’s not a very good witch. She’s not a very good murderer either. Observant little Lena notices that she is bringing a startling number of buckets back from the well and when she asks why Sanna needs so much water, the cook freely informs her that she places to cook Foundling as soon as the forester leaves the house the next day. What she expects Lena to make of such a statement is unclear. She swears her to secrecy, but Lena is not a girl to contort herself into keeping stupid promises. Instead she wakes Foundling very early in the morning to share the terrible scheme. “If you won’t forsake me,” Lena tells him, “I won’t forsake you.”

The children run away together. When Sanna realises they are gone, she sends three servants to bring them back. Are they servants of the forester’s household? Are they magic servants enslaved to Sanna’s will? Who knows. They are no better at tracking children than Sanna was at killing them. As soon as the servants approach, Foundling becomes a rosebush and Lena turns into a rose upon it. How they accomplish that is another very foggy aspect of this fairy tale. Not that it is an unprecedented solution – see ‘Kojata’ for a particularly good example – but usually magic is involved in some acknowledged way, as opposed to the ‘power of friendship’ connotations in this fairy tale, as if we could all shapeshift if we were doing our relationships properly.

Anyway, the servants are fooled and return empty-handed to Sanna, who is furious. “You blockheads!” she cries. “You should have cut the rosebush in two, plucked the rose, and brought it back with you. Now go quickly and do it!” They scurry off to do her bidding, but the children are ready for them with more completely unexplained shape-shifting. Foundling turns into a church; Lena becomes a chandelier. The servants once again fail to recognise their targets. Looks like if Sanna wants this job done, she’ll have to do it herself, so the third time she sends out the servants she comes along with them.

Foundling transforms into a pond. Lena becomes a duck. Sanna recognises them straight away and leans down to start drinking up the pond, only for Lena the murder-duck to swim over and push her face into the water until she drowns. When Sanna is definitely dead, Lena and Foundling become human again and return home, where they apparently live happily ever after. What happens to the servants is not recorded. They probably run away. That seems like the most advisable course of action.

Foundling’ fits in the same category of Grimm brothers’ fairy tale as ‘Hansel and Gretel’: that is, sibling combo with obedient, endangered brother and resourceful, moderately murderous sister. At least this one has well-intentioned, if completely ineffective, parental figures. Another point in its favour is that it actually names the witch, which is rarer than you might think. So other witches can tell the story of Sanna and not make her choices.

Advertisements

Year of the Witch: the Baba Yaga

Trigger warning: domestic abuse

When it comes to fairy tales, the Russians have an ace up their sleeve: Baba Yaga. She is one of those characters whose personality overpowers literally everyone else in whatever story she happens to occupy, even if it is technically about someone else. This fairy tale, taken from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, does not even pretend.

It begins with a man who is only relevant because he has a daughter by his first wife, and because once he’s a widower he makes the mistake of marrying BABA YAGA’S SISTER – who takes to the evil stepmother lifestyle as a natural. I am now seriously tempted to try and figure out Baba Yaga’s family tree, what with all these siblings coming out of the woodwork. Anyway, the poor girl stuck in this house is already having a terrible time of it when her stepmother decides it is time to get rid of her for good.”Go to your aunt, my sister,” the stepmother instructs, “and ask her for a needle and thread to make you a shift.” And she will probably eat you, is the unspoken codicil to that statement.

The girl does not trust her stepmother an inch. She goes to one of her own aunts first for advice, and the aunt is unexpectedly prepared for this situation, to the point of knowing literally every threat she is going to face in Baba Yaga’s house and advising the girl on how to deal with all of them. There is a prequel just waiting to be acknowledged there. Fortified, the girl starts off on her stepmother’s errand. She greets Baba Yaga politely and Baba Yaga responds by calling her ‘my dear’, which may or may not be ominous – you never know with Baba Yaga. There is a loom standing inside the house. Baba Yaga tells the girl to sit down and weave while she goes to fetch the needle and thread.

Only what Baba Yaga actually does is go straight outside and order her maid to prepare a bath to wash the girl so that she will be all nice and clean to cook for breakfast.

The girl appeals to the maid’s kindness, convincing her to dampen the firewood and fetch the bathwater in a sieve, and bribes her with a handkerchief. So preparing the bath takes a very long time. Baba Yaga does not appreciate waiting. She prowls around outside and goes to the window to check that the girl is still weaving away indoors.

However frightened she is, the girl is ready for action. She feeds Baba Yaga’s cat a piece of bacon and asks if there is a way to escape the house. The cat likes her. It gives her a towel that can transform into a wide river and a comb that will become a thick forest. With these things, she stands a chance.

Baba Yaga has other guards around her house. There are the dogs, but the girl throws bread to them and they allow her to pass. There are doors, but the girl oils their hinges and they do not make a sound as she opens them. There is a birch tree with vicious branches, ready to put out her eyes, but the girl ties a ribbon around it and the tree lets her go by in peace. Meanwhile, the cat has busied itself at the loom, answering Baba Yaga in its best ‘totally a human girl’ mimicry when Baba Yaga calls through the window again. Not that Baba Yaga is convinced – she runs into the house and sees that the girl is gone. “Long as I’ve served you,” the cat hisses, “you’ve never given me so much as a bone; but she gave me bacon.” Ditch this joint, kitty, you deserve better.

Similar accusations come thick and fast from the witch’s other servants. If you’re a crappy employer, you’d better be prepared for your henchcreatures to turn on you and let your prisoners escape. Baba Yaga spreads her anger around for a bit then hurries in pursuit of her prey, flying away in her mortar and pestle. The girl quickly throws the towel behind her. Baba Yaga is temporarily stymied by the sudden river that springs into being, but soon comes up with a solution; she goes home for her oxen and they drink up all the water. Before long Baba Yaga is hard on the girl’s heels again. The girl throws the comb and the forest that leaps into being is so thick and so tangled that even Baba Yaga cannot force her way through.

By now the girl’s father has noticed her absence. When she comes running home, full of the story of her terrifying adventures, he is roused to protect her at last and reacts by shooting his wife. After that, the girl and her father are safe. And I sincerely hope they end up adopting a witch’s cat.

I love Baba Yaga stories. This one is full of interesting crunchy details, even if it cannot match up to the glory of Queen Glafyra in ‘Vanooshka’. I don’t know how I feel about Baba Yaga’s sister getting killed off – while yes, she was a horror story of a relative, I’m very uncomfortable with any character being murdered by their significant other in the name of ‘justice’. Especially when the father turned a blind eye to her abuse of his daughter for so long, only paying attention when the girl almost died. No wonder the girl managed to make an alliance with Baba Yaga’s servants. They all share the experience of being completely taken for granted.

Year of the Witch: The Beekeeper and the Bewitched Hare

This week’s story comes from Thistle & Thyme: Tales & Legends from Scotland by Sorche Nic Leodhas, published in 1962 by The Bodley Head Ltd. The fairy tale begins by introducing us to the beekeeper from the title, who lives alone in a cottage on the moor. He likes to talk to his bees and they like to buzz to him and even if neither party fully understands what the other is saying, they understand one another’s affection and it is adorable.

One evening the beekeeper hears the baying of hounds near his house. He barely has the time to register that there’s a hunt in progress on the moors when a hare bolts straight at him and launches itself into his arms, two dogs in hot pursuit. The beekeeper rolls with this, driving off the dogs and soothing the terrified hare before placing it on the ground. He expects the hare to be off in an instant now that the dogs are gone. Instead, the hare follows him into the house and hops onto the table to look expectantly at his plate until it is fed a share of his supper. Up this close, the beekeeper realises his new friend’s eyes are a startling brilliant blue unlike any other hare he has ever seen. He also realises that the hare has pretty much moved in with him and decides to roll with that too.

The next morning the beekeeper introduces the hare to his bees and both parties are very chill about the new living arrangements. The hare follows the beekeeper about his business and the bees go about their business and the whole thing is a little rural idyll until one day an old woman comes to the house to try and buy the hare. The beekeeper is instantly suspicious of her. He refuses to sell. The old woman tries to snatch up the hare by force but the bees are having absolutely none of that and swarm on her, chasing her away across the moor. “Look well to yourself and your hare, beekeeper!” she yells over her shoulder, which would be a more impressive threat if not for the apian army on her heels.

Soon after, the beekeeper heads into town for market day to sell his honey and sees the old woman again, though she does not see him. He asks a friend who she is and gets the anxiously whispered response that she is a witch. The beekeeper takes that with a pinch of salt. He is not the judgy type. But she did try to steal his pet, so he’s going to take her advice literally and look well to himself and his hare.

Months pass and all seems well. Summer gives way to autumn and the bees settle in their hives. Romani caravans are heading south but few venture across the rough tracks of the moor so when the beekeeper sees one close to his house, he comes to the door, waving to the young man behind the reins. It’s hours later before he spots a sack of grain on the track, which can only have fallen off the caravan. The beekeeper decides he’d better get out his own wagon and go return the sack, before the Romani get too far away.

The young man he waved to earlier is startled but pleased at the kind gesture. “We’re travellers,” he remarks. “Folks don’t have no use for travellers as a rule.” I am now wondering how often social injustice is directly referenced like that in fairy tales, without reinforcing negative stereotypes? I think not often but I’m not sure. Though this book shows its age in outdated terminology, using a slur for the Romani people, all the interactions with their characters are very positive. Anyway, the beekeeper is here to do the right thing and has no patience with people who are not. He’s about to head home when the Romani man notices the hare bundled up in his jacket. “There aren’t any blue-eyed hares!” the young man blurts, and since the hare continues to exist, he calls his grandmother for a second opinion.

The grandmother comes out to look and promptly pronounces that the hare is not, in fact, a hare. It is a girl under a curse. The beekeeper connects the dots and realises that the witch is, in fact, a witch. He explains how she came sniffing around for the hare and was sent running. “Are you friends with the bees?” the grandmother asks. “I love them well,” the beekeeper says. That they love him is not really a question and that’s lucky because they are pretty much all that is keeping the witch away. The grandmother believes that she will return on All Hallows’ Eve, when her powers will be at their strongest. The beekeeper is firmly told to go home, explain his problems to the bees (like he wouldn’t have done that anyway) and make sure he’s not around when the witch rocks up on All Hallows’. That is very solid advice. The grandmother has one further insight: the enchanted hare will be drawn by the witch’s magic, so the beekeeper will have to do a Fair Janet and keep hold of her no matter what.

With that, a round of thank yous are exchanged and the beekeeper goes on his way as the Romani go on theirs. The beekeeper goes home and duly makes a tour of his hives, sharing the news with the bees, who buzz with what sounds an awful lot like rage.

On All Hallow’s Eve, the beekeeper follows the grandmother’s advice to the letter. He ties the hare to his arm and leaves his house, the door wide open, to drive his wagon across the moor. At midnight, the hare tries to bolt. The beekeeper snatches her back against him. It is very dark but he can feel the writhing, wild shape in his arms, a shape that is suddenly much bigger than a hare. When the clouds across the moon part and the beekeeper can see what is happening, he discovers that he’s holding a girl with bright blue eyes. The curse is broken.

They immediately drive off to get married and whoa, this relationship is moving a tad fast given that the girl has not had a single line of dialogue or even a description of her facial expressions at any point, but she has been living with the man for months and I have to agree he’s been demonstrating straight A husband material all this time. A week later – their honeymoon involved taking the scenic route home – they are passing through the market town and hear that the witch was found on the morning after All Hallow’s Eve, stung to death. The beekeeper and his wife make sure to thank the bees as soon as they get home, and if they can’t understand exactly what the bees say back, it’s close enough.

I have a soft spot for fairy tales that involve bees and the folklore that surrounds them. This fairy tale appears to be based on the European tradition of ‘telling the bees’, according to which a beekeeper would notify their bees of major life events. Those bees probably didn’t go murdering any witches, but hey, you never do know.

Year of the Witch: Vanooshka

This one’s from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Kings and Queens. It was published in the UK by Methuen Children’s Books in 1977 and arrived on my bookshelf via a cull by the National Library of New Zealand, which is their loss but my gain. The fairy tale is Russian. The story opens when the titular Vanooshka’s father decides that his boy is old enough to go learn a trade and the pair of them set off to town. On the way they are caught in rain while passing a large house and the elderly owner of the place invites them inside to dry themselves by the fire.

Upon hearing of their business, the old man offers to teach Vanooshka. “Give him to me for three years,” he says to Vanooshka’s father. “I will teach him to know what is good and what is evil.” That is a concerning mission statement, if you ask me. But the old man is certainly a generous host, putting up father and son for the night, and Vanooshka wants to stay, and his father ends up leaving him there to learn…morals? Philosophy? Who knows.

Not Vanooshka, that’s for sure. Two years pass and he is literally doing nothing at all. At last, bored out of his mind, he asks the old man to actually teach something and is given a set of keys that will unlock six doors. Behind each is a different trade. Vanooshka just has to pick one.

Behind each is the master of a trade. Vanooshka just has to pick one. His options are as follows: sailor, gardener, soldier, musician, huntsman…and residency of a palace, possibly as royalty, complete with his own portrait in the picture gallery. Wildly enthusiastic as he is about each option in turn, the prospect of living in such wealth and splendour easily outshines all the other lives Vanooshka could lead. He is about to return to his mentor when he notices a seventh door.

He has no key to this door, which naturally makes him intensely curious about what’s on the other side. Putting his ear to the wood, he hears girls laughing on the other side. Vanooshka has not only been bored in the old man’s house, he’s been lonely, and knocks hopefully on the door. The voices go silent; the door stays shut. Vanooshka does not give up. Spotting a knothole, he works at it with a knife until there is a hole big enough to see through. Which is honestly a tad creepy, all things considered.

Inside the room sit three beautiful girls, who do not seem at all surprised by Vanooshka’s presence. They ask why he does not visit them and when Vanooshka explains that he has no key to their room, the third and presumably youngest of the girls offers a solution: get the old man blind drunk and steal the key from under his moustache. Which is also creepy! This is a creepy house! But Vanooshka is happy to give the idea a go and it works out, he gets the key, he gets into the room. The girls are bright and laughing. They tells Vanooshka to unlock a second door inside their room and fetch out their dancing dresses.

Now they are glittering, whirling, spinning Vanooshka into their dance so fast he can barely keep up. And then he’s on the floor. And then the girls all turn into bees, and fly out the window.

In a panic, Vanooshka hurries to wake up the old man, who takes the news without particular surprise. “So my grand-daughters have flown away, have they?” he remarks. “I must go after them. It will take me three years to collect them. Bring me my clothes and my travelling cloak.” Vanooshka spends those three years mooching around the house, waiting. He still has the six keys and uses them now and again, but never settles to any of the trades. At the end of the three years, the old man returns with his granddaughters and announces that Vanooshka is to pick one as his wife.

“I will have the youngest,” Vanooshka says. “But see, Grandaddy, I don’t even know her name.” Oh my. The girl’s name is Nadya and no one asks her what she wants. Far from setting the newlyweds up in the palace of Vanooshka’s dreams, the old man gives them a small house neighbouring his own, the better to keep an eye on them. He gives Vanooshka something else as well: a dress, one of the glittering dancing dresses that allowed the girls to escape before. The old man instructs Vanooshka to never let Nadya have it. I see a plot point rising on the horizon.

Nadya does not say ‘screw this patriarchal domesticity, I want to dance and turn into a bee’, but she does put her best effort into getting that dress back. She wears her ugliest clothes to embarrass Vanooshka by association, and cries her heart out until Vanooshka crumples like wet paper. As soon as she has the dress, Nadya turns into a dove and is gone out the nearest window.

For lack of a better idea – the story of his life to date – Vanooshka chases after her. He runs and runs until he runs out of puff, stuck in the middle of a swamp. When he manages to get out of the swamp, it is near nightfall, he’s terribly hungry and there is nothing but moorland for miles. Eventually he comes to the edge of a forest and sees a light shining through the trees. He follows it and comes to a little hut. There is no answer to his knock,  but as we’ve already seen, that’s hardly going to stop him. He lets himself in and lies down by the fire to dry out his muddy clothes.

Unfortunately for him, this is Baba Yaga’s house. She arrives home shortly after Vanooshka has fallen asleep. “Ah ha!” she cries, at the sight of the young man in front of her fire. “My supper!”

Instead of fleeing screaming into the night, Vanooshka sits up. “You ought to say ‘Welcome, traveller!’,” he sulks at her. “You ought to heat the bath, wash me, comb the tangles from my hair, feed me, and ask ‘Where are you from, and how have you spent your life?’” High maintenance and a death wish. But Baba Yaga is oddly charmed. The boy has nerve and she likes that. She actually mothers him a bit and asks him about himself. Vanooshka explains about his non-apprenticeship and disastrous marriage and Baba Yaga in turn explains that Vanooshka is an idiot. The old man is her brother. Nadya is her grand-niece. I am floored. I have never heard of a story where Baba Yaga has a brother, let alone a grand-niece, how have I gone SO MANY YEARS without this knowledge?

Nadya passed through the forest but would not stop. Vanooshka is frantic to set out after her right away but Baba Yaga is still trying out this whole hostess thing and insists he sleeps first. And it isn’t even a trick. She cooks breakfast in the morning instead of Vanooshka and packs him a pancake for later on. After Vanooshka has eaten, she takes him to the top of a tall hill and points south to where the light of what appears to be a distant fire can be seen. It is not a fire; it is light playing across the golden palace of Queen Glafyra, who has kidnapped Nadya and is holding her prisoner. I cannot believe that Baba Yaga has had a nemesis ALL THIS TIME and NO ONE EVER TOLD ME. My life has been a lie.

It is Vanooshka’s task to go rescue his wife. Baba Yaga gives him a bone from a raven and a bone from a pike, just in case – always the bones with Baba Yaga – then finishes up with a good shove and off he goes. Vanooshka walks and walks, and runs, and walks again, until he comes to Glafyra’s palace.

The gate is guarded by three lions. Following Baba Yaga’s instructions, Vanooshka feeds them pieces of pancake and they allow him through to the courtyard. Two sentries stand guard on the stairs there, but Vanooshka follows Baba Yaga’s advice again, knocking one sentry off his feet with such a powerful punch that the other man hastily waves him through. Vanooshka searches the palace, room after room, seeking his wife. Instead he finds Queen Glafyra.

She is described as ‘black-haired, dark-eyed, majestic, wonderful to behold’ and completes the picture by lounging on a throne. She greets Vanooshka by name in a casual power move and asks what he’s going to do about it if she does not give back his wife. “I will scream the place down!” Vanooshka vows. “I will thrust my fist into your cruel eyes! I will tear the heart out of your evil body!”

Glafyra laughs at him. “Your little tantrums are very amusing, Vanooshka,” is her response. But she offers him a bargain: if he can successfully hide from her, then she will free the caged dove who is his wife. If he fails, he loses his head. He will have three tries. “Now don’t stand glaring at me,” Glafyra instructs. “Be off and hide yourself.”

I love her.

Vanooshka looks here and there for a good hiding place. In his frustration and distress, he flings the raven bone upon the ground and immediately a huge raven comes to scoop up and drop him in a swamp. The boy is spending a lot of time in swamps lately. This time he has a giant bird sitting on his head, which can’t be comfortable. Glafyra, meanwhile, does not even get up. She sends her servants to fetch her magic mirror and hunts from the comfort of her throne. She sees the swamp; she sees the raven; from beneath the raven’s wing, she glimpses a curl of Vanooshka’s hair. “Raven,” she commands, “pull Vanooshka out of the swamp, and bring him here.”

Raven obeys. Who wouldn’t? Glafyra is magnificent. Vanooshka is permitted his second attempt and uses the pike bone, whereupon he’s promptly gulped down by an enormous fish. For good measure, the pike hides underneath a stone on the seabed – but Vanooshka is just a little too big to fit in his mouth and in her mirror, Glafyra sees the tip of one boot sticking out. All her servants find this hilarious. When Glafyra orders the pike to spit up Vanooshka, he looks an absolute sight and knows it, and has an emotional breakdown. Glafyra is actually quite nice about it. She orders her servants to clean Vanooshka and supply him with fresh clothes, serve him a fine meal and put him to bed. The prospect of having his head cut off has a less than soporific effect, however, and he’s lying awake in a state of dread when he hears a voice calling his name very quietly.

It is Nadya. She has fought her way out of the cage, bleeding from the bars, because she has thought of the one hiding place that Glafyra will not be able to find: behind another mirror. It’s unclear to me whether Nadya was running away from Vanooshka of her own free will or if Glafyra was somehow involved, but either way, husband and wife are a team now.

Nadya’s idea works. Glafyra is so exasperated that she gets out of her chair and starts looking for herself, ransacking the palace but finding no trace of Vanooshka. She calls out to him that it is time to come out – he stays where he is and does not make a sound. She assures him that he is safe from her – still he doesn’t move. It is only when she frees Nadya and Nadya herself calls to Vanooshka that he emerges from behind the mirror. Glafyra snarls at the pair of them to get out her sight and they are very glad to go, hurrying home to the house of Nadya’s grandfather.

He asks if Vanooshka knows now what is good and what is evil. Vanooshka thinks he does and that’s enough, apparently, to win the key to the palace. Vanooshka’s father comes to live with them and Vanooshka shows him around proudly, including the picture gallery. There is a new portrait hanging there, showing Nadya flanked by two little boys and a baby girl sitting in her lap. These are the children that she does not yet have, but will in time. Because yes, Baba Yaga’s brother can see the future. AND NO ONE EVER TOLD ME.

Year of the Witch: The Chinese Princess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Year of the Witch: Lazy Hans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Year of the Witch: The Riddle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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