Fairy Tale Tuesday No.118 – Catrinella, Come Up Higher!

This week’s fairy tale is a Russian story from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses. The titular heroine is an orphan, beautiful but broke, earning a living as a household servant. One of her daily duties is collecting firewood from the forest around the foot of an imposing mountain. It is rumoured to be a stronghold of Morez, the Frost Demon, though no one has ever gone up to look and the demon never comes down to them. The village can live with this arrangement and most local girls collect their wood there. On Catrinella’s very first day, however, a voice calls down the mountainside: “Catrinella! Catrinella! Come up higher!”

The girls scatter, panicked. But they cannot stay away from the forest, because that means bringing no wood home, and every time Catrinella goes near the mountain the voice cries out the same words. Since the owner of the voice never does anything other than shout, the girls soon lose their fear and start poking fun instead. “Only fancy, the demon Morez has fallen in love with you!” they tease Catrinella, more or less good-naturedly, but the sound of her name being called so desperately gnaws at her conscience. At last she throws down her sack and, ignoring the alarmed exclamations of her friends, starts up the mountain.

Following the sound of the voice, she climbs all day. By sunset Catrinella has reached the mountaintop, a frozen plateau where she finds the mouth of a cave. Within stand a company of young huntsmen on horseback, with hounds at their sides, all encased in ice. Freaked out and half-frozen herself, Catrinella starts backing away, but the voice calls out her name again. One of the riders is still conscious and capable of speech. His name is Prince Ilya and he unwisely pursued a golden-horned stag up the mountain with his hunters at his heels. Instead of catching the beast, they ran right into Morez, who did not appreciate the intrusion.

“Ice you shall remain,” Ilya quotes, “for a hundred times a hundred years. No sun shall have power to warm you, no fire shall have power to melt you, for I am stronger than the sun, and more powerful than any fire, except the fire that glows in the heart of the great diamond that is hidden in the Palace of Shifting Rooms in the Kingdom of the Uttermost East, where the sun rises to warm the earth. None may lay hold that diamond but a maiden who has no guile.” That is what Ilya hopes Catrinella might be. He dreamed she would be the one to set him and his company free, and promises her any reward she wishes if only she’ll take on the task. Very moved by his miserable state, Catrinella is willing enough, and asks the way to the Palace of Shifting Rooms.

Ilya doesn’t know. The dream did not include directions.

Fortunately the conversation is interrupted by, of all things, a bumblebee. He knows the way to the palace and is happy to guide Catrinella as long as she leaves now. They journey across mountains, through forests and deserts and across raging rivers. Woefully under-prepared for such a trek as she is, Catrinella survives mostly on honey and roots, recommended by her guide. At last they reach the promised kingdom of Uttermost East, wherein lies another mountain and a huge chasm.

“Being underground doesn’t agree with my health,” the bumblebee announces. He tells Catrinella about a path that leads into the middle of the mountain, and how a stone wall will block her way but can by dismissed by smacking it with one of her tattered shoes. The only thing he can’t tell her is where to find the actual diamond. That, Catrinella must manage on her own.

Descending into the chasm without triggering an avalanche is no easy task, but Catrinella persists. When she reaches the wall she whacks it as hard as she can and it falls apart with a satisfying crash. On the other side is a lush meadow and a horse that bounds joyfully over to greet her. Catrinella stops a moment to pet him, because adorable.

Most of her attention, however, is fixed on the shimmering building just beyond the meadow. The palace is a labyrinth of glass chambers, each surface reflected a thousand times over and radiating light without any need for windows or lamps. In fact, there are no furnishings at all, only glass. It is impossible to conduct a methodical search when the rooms have no distinguishing features, let alone when one moment the walls are wide apart and the next they’re closing in so tight it’s all Catrinella can do to move. There is no C-3PO in the control room to help, either.

Yet Catrinella keeps going. At long last she comes to a room different from all the others – a vast space where patterned golden pillars support an arched glass roof. It looks like a place you could hide something so Catrinella searches it thoroughly, but the diamond is nowhere to be seen. Attempting to leave, she finds a wall where the door used to be.

It is entirely reasonable at this junction to burst into tears and Catrinella is so distraught that at first she doesn’t realise she’s no longer alone. “What’s the matter here? What’s the matter?” an irritable voice suddenly snaps, and she looks up. A tiny white mouse has been drawn by the sound of her sobbing. Though not immediately inclined to sympathy, his interest is aroused when she explains her story. He points her towards one of the pillars, painted with a scene of willow trees. A kingfisher is perched among the branches, its throat swollen as if caught by the artist mid-swallow. Catrinella slaps the picture hard and the painted bird opens its beak, releasing a crystal box; and within the box is a diamond so bright it could be a shard of sunlight.

“Hold onto it tightly,” advises the mouse, just in time. The palace starts spinning wildly, knocking Catrinella off her feet; unseen hands snatch at the box, but she won’t let it go. The force of the assault throws her right out of the palace. This is a bad idea on the part of the diamond’s protectors, as the horse who lives outside has taken a fancy to Catrinella and happens to know a shortcut to Morez’s mountain. Astride his back with the crystal box under her arm, the mouse perched on one shoulder and the bee on the other, Catrinella rides with all speed back to the prison of ice. Inside the cave, she shuts her eyes and opens the box. It blazes ferociously, melting everything within the cave. In fact, it is so powerful Catrinella can’t close the box again and has to leave it where it is.

Restored to life, the company of hunters ride out onto the plateau. Ilya, his priorities firmly in order, leaps off his horse and kneels at Catrinella’s feet. “I have no words to thank you,” he declares devoutly. “I can but offer you all that I have and am. If you will come to my kingdom with me and be my wife, I will love and cherish you to the end of my days.”

What a surprise, Catrinella says yes.

They ride away down the mountain, men and girl, mouse and bee and all, spring spreading in their wake as the effect of the diamond melts the snow and brings long-dormant flowers unfurling between the rocks. The prince’s throne has not been claimed by anyone else in his absence and everybody is tremendously excited at his sudden return. As for the demon Morez, he arrives home to find his mountain on fire. He’s no match for the power of the diamond so he leaves it to burn and departs in disgust.

This story would have made a much better basis for Disney’s Frozen than ‘The Snow Queen’, if you ask me. It even has inexplicable but cute animal assistants! Between them those three are the ones who really save the prince, but they wouldn’t have done it without Catrinella’s motivation. Also, that’s hands down the most romantic proposal anyone’s delivered in any fairy tale I’ve ever read. Give pointers to your fellow royals, Ilya. They really need them.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.42 – The Princess in the Mountain

As we all know, kings in fairy tales have an unfortunate predilection for locking up their daughters, so much so that it’s rather like they’ve confused young women with the silverware. This Hungarian story, from Ruth Manning Sanders’ collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses, contains one such set up. It also includes one of the more unusual ways of escaping a paternal prison.

It begins with Ambrose, a travelling musician, and Janko, his sort of apprentice, who are wandering the world trying to make a living by playing the fiddle and not doing terribly well, really. One day while caught on the road in a fierce storm, Ambrose finds a tiny green cap and a panicked little man to match it. The foul weather, it turns out, was conjured up by a jealous north-west wind that has long been attempting to steal said hat for its magical properties. Its plan was foiled this time, but the little man lives in fear of the day the wind succeeds.

Ambrose, random doer of good and amateur milliner, solves the problem by pulling out his bootlace and tying that over the hat to keep it in place. The little man is so thrilled that he teaches Ambrose a pair of magic words to turn himself into a bear and back into a man again, and promptly disappears in a flurry of somersaults.

With Janko playing the fiddle and Ambrose as a dancing bear, the friends have a distinct improvement in their fortunes. So famous does their show become that they are eventually called to perform at the palace. Now, this king is pretty famous himself. He not only locked his only daughter inside a mountain, he has set up a sadistic little game for her prospective suitors. Any man who can find the princess may have her for his wife; any man who comes looking for her and can’t find her will be decapitated.

The princess does not much like this arrangement. Hoping to appease her, her father sends Janko out into the city with a generous tip and has the tame ‘bear’ taken through a series of secret doors into the mountain so that it can perform for the princess. This Ambrose definitely does. He plays the zither, he does acrobatics, he takes the princess’s hand in his paw and dances with her. She is enchanted and the king, pleased not to part with her on the usual bad terms, is more than willing to leave her alone with the bear for a couple of hours. As soon as he leaves, though, Ambrose takes on his real shape and starts chatting up the princess with rescue plans.

The next day, the dancing bear returns to the palace as a human. He announces himself as Lord Ambrose of Outland, come to seek the princess. The king looks him over and is more or less ‘meh’ about another suicidally self-assured young man playing his stupid game. Ambrose doesn’t immediately make use of his knowledge; he has a bit of fun with the king first, leading him all over the palace and the city, through haystacks and swamps and mud. Then, when the king is a mess but certain of more axe fodder, Ambrose strikes out for the mountain. He strolls up to the first hidden door and kicks stones around until he finds its correspondingly hidden key. The king blusters desperately that this must be a robber’s den, but Ambrose keeps finding doors and opening them until they come to the princess’s own chamber. He has won the impossible game.

Does that guarantee them a wedding and a happy ever after? Not a bit of it. The king brainstorms with a rather unpleasant courtier named Ritter Rok for ways to wreck his daughter’s life a bit more. The perfect excuse comes in the form of war. A king in the south is raising an army. You really can’t blame him – his son lost his head failing to find the princess, that sort of thing does tend to damage diplomatic relations – but the princess’s father jumps on it like this is the best news he’s had in ages. He tells Ambrose that he must go fetch a flail of mass destruction from Hell itself, and can only get married when he comes back. If he comes back.

The princess is sure she will lose her fiance, but as she sits alone in tears the little man in the green hat makes a reappearance. He produces a jar of magical ointment, with which Ambrose is to cover his skin and clothes. Protected by its enchantment, Ambrose walks straight through the gates of Hell and up to the throne of Satan without any difficulty. He politely asks if he can maybe borrow the killer flail. Surprisingly, Satan agrees. He’s expecting the flail to burn off Ambrose’s hands the moment he touches it. When the ointment continues to protect him the devils descend to take him down, but maybe they should have thought of that before they gave him the all powerful weapon…Ambrose ends up getting kicked out of hell by a very embarrassed Satan, and goes calmly home.

The king is furious. He tells Ritter Rok to find a better way of getting rid of the man and Ritter Rok tries to snatch up the flail in order to do just that. He burns, all right. Ambrose, being a genuinely nice person, catches the screaming courtier’s hands between his own to rub on some magic ointment and heal the burns. With his favourite toady no longer available for evil scheming and his daughter arranging her wedding with single-minded determination, the king is out of ideas. Ambrose and the princess marry, with Janko playing at the reception. So beautiful is his music that the princess decides he has to stay and teach her the fiddle too, and the king decides that maybe, what with a master musician adopted into the family and the king of the south changing his mind about the whole going to war thing, that he might be able to put up with his daughter being free after all.

When Ambrose goes to move the flail, however, it’s burned its way right through the ground and disappeared for good. Hell isn’t into sharing.

With men like the regicidal soldier from Andersen’s ‘The Tinder-Box’ and King Thrushbeard from the Grimm tale of the same name portrayed as good marriage material, it’s not that wise to trust a fairy tale’s definition of ‘hero’, but Ambrose is an easy man to like. He returns stolen property without thinking twice, wins the princess with a dance routine and a rescue plan, and even defends his attempted murderer from the man’s own stupidity. If any suitor deserves to inherit a kingdom, it would be him. What’s more, his long imprisoned wife has barely stepped off the altar before she’s arranging music lessons. She is finally getting a life, and Ambrose is the one backing her up. Now THAT is what I call charming.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.27 – Black, Red, Gold

This Spanish fairy tale is taken from the 1978 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Enchantments and Curses and begins with the very familiar theme of the desperate childless couple whose generosity to a beggar one dark and stormy night is rewarded by truly weird advice. Provided with a good meal and a place by the fire, the next morning the beggar recounts what he insists is a prophetic dream that will grant their deepest wish. Not entirely convinced but willing to give pretty much anything a try, the husband obediently fetches out a jar of honey and sets off through forest and up mountain until he comes to the cave from his guest’s dream. Within he sees a woman lying asleep, her long hair of three colours – black, red and gold – and crawling with bees. Following the beggar’s advice, the husband opens the honey, and the bees rise in a swarm to follow it out of the cave.

The sleeping woman stirs. For a long time she simply stares at her visitor in silence, but not in any great surprise. Quite the contrary, in fact. “I know why you have come,” she says, at last. “And since you have brought honey for my bees, I will help you.” She gives him two fruits. If his wife eats the apple, she will bear a son; if she eats the pear, she will have a girl. As a final gift, the woman gives three strands of her hair to be twisted into a chain and given for good luck to the couple’s eldest child. Then she goes straight back to sleep, and the man returns home, full of hope, to his wife.

Well, fruit isn’t exactly what she was hoping for. She’s heard a lot of bunkum about ways to conceive, and doesn’t see why this time will be any different. But it’s a long time since she’s tasted a pear, so she eats that and puts the apple away on a shelf. Nine months later, she gives birth to a girl – beautiful golden-haired little Catalina. Not long afterwards, she remembers the apple, and it gives her a son, Johan. All their dreams have now come true. Even in fairy tales, though, happiness doesn’t always last forever and on Catalina’s fourteenth birthday, while she is playing with her brother on the beach, pirates come sailing into the bay. Johan, hidden behind a rock, manages to escape, but Catalina is snatched up and taken far away to be sold at a slave market.

Surrounded by a crowd of cruel and greedy men, she is noticed by one particular merchant – a rich man whose own daughter has just died. Catalina reminds him so much of the dead girl that he outbids all his rivals and brings her home to dote on as if she was his own child. Given beautiful clothes and money of her own, all Catalina really wants is to go back to her real parents and her little brother. Nor is she the only one in the merchant’s house to be homesick. There are two other girls working there of the same age as herself – one a black-haired African, the other a red-haired Greek. They become close friends to Catalina, and one day the African girl comes to her asking for help to get back home. She is sure that if Catalina, the master’s favourite, asks for this, it will be done.

Well, Catalina tries. But the merchant, though kind to the girls under his care, is sure he knows better than they do. “If I let her wander off into the wicked world,” he protests, “she will most likely come to grief.” So he gives her a ring instead, and expects her to be happy. The girl falls into a deep depression from which no coaxing can rouse her and her friends fear for her life. Then one night, Catalina dreams. A woman with hair of black, red and gold and wearing a dress all covered in bees speaks to her, showing her what to do. In the morning she obeys that advice, untwisting the black hair from the chain she wears around her neck. When it falls to the ground, a girl springs up, identical to her friend the African slave.

Catalina acts fast. She gives the simulacrum the ring and goes to her friend with money, helping her to escape the house before the merchant can realise what is happening. He is a well-intentioned man, but not an observant one. He never notices that the real girl is gone and the happy slave who serves him now is not what she seems. Then the Greek girl comes to Catalina with the same request, begging for her freedom, and once again the merchant refuses to listen, offering a pretty necklace to appease her. The girl doesn’t want a necklace. She wants her brothers and sisters and her home. This time, though, Catalina knows how to help her. She throws down the red hair from her chain and a second simulacrum appears, identical to the Greek girl, who can now run away like her friend before her.

Which leaves poor Catalina to listen to the merchant’s happy self-congratulation. “What did I tell you? My young slaves have consoled themselves. Now they are both as happy as the day is long.” And the days are long, empty of former friendship, full of painful memories. She could escape now, if she wanted – but she feels her debt of gratitude to the merchant, who may be stupid, but had always treated her kindly. Years go by, and Catalina grows up. One day, as she is sitting on her balcony watching the ships come and go in the harbour, a young knight rides past beneath her. Catalina sighs after his easy freedom and he hears her, looks up, sees her sad and lovely face and calls out a greeting. He asks her name, and she calls herself Far-From-Home, but when it is his turn to introduce himself, the name is oh so very familiar. It is her brother Johan, who no longer recognises his sister after so long, but remarks wistfully on her golden hair. He knew a girl with hair like that…Seeing her sadness, he offers to help her run away.

Catalina doesn’t know what to do. If she leaves, she breaks her master’s heart; if she doesn’t, she may never see her family again. When he comes the next day for her answer, she has chosen duty, telling him she must remain. Even so, she can’t hide her grief completely, and even her sensitivity challenged master notices her red eyes. He interprets this as a cold and coddles her appropriately with an early bedtime and lots of warm drinks, but nothing can comfort her. On the day named for Johan’s departure, she goes to her balcony to watch him sail from her life…and as she waves to him, the last strand falls from her neck to the ground. A golden-haired simulacrum springs up as if it has come straight out of a mirror and asks for its instructions. “Oh, stay here, stay here with my master the merchant, love him and make him happy!” Catalina cries out, and not stopping for anything, she runs like mad for the harbour.

The ship is already gone. But Johan, seeing her appear on the quay, forces the captain to turn around and collect her. He is delighted to see that his sad friend has decided to free herself and, quite carried away with the moment, asks her to marry him. Ah…awkward. Catalina explains that she loves him, she will always love him, but she can never marry him. She is the long-lost sister with the fondly remembered golden hair, and at last she’s going home. So happiness returns to the house of her parents as the family reunites, but that’s not quite the end of the story. One day, we are told, Catalina marries a duke, and has three little girls of her own – one with black hair, one with gold, and one with hair red as the rising sun.

This story feels a bit like a Gothic romance. Kidnapped by pirates! Adopted into wealth and misery! The terrible choice between love and duty! Only it isn’t the traditional love story, it’s the love of family that brings Catalina home – and her handsome knight is more a clarion call than a rescuer. She manages the rescuing quite well herself, in fact. It is also one of the few fairy tales I can name off the top of my head that feature people of other ethnicities from the protagonist in a positive way. I love it for all these things, and also for the sleepy sorceress who lives in a cave full of bees, quite happy to be helpful, but all things considered would rather be left to her nap.