Let’s be honest: I adore December and when I see an opportunity to create a Christmas special, nothing shall stand in my way. Thus this week I bring you what is probably the most enormous Fairy Tale Tuesday I have ever written, all wrapped up with a shiny bow. Which is not to say all of these stories shall be seasonal, or particularly sweet. I can’t even guarantee that all the rings are really made of gold. What I can promise are magicians. And mermaids! Giants! And of course that fairy tale staple, people making very bad decisions.
Story 1: Jack and the Wizard (A Book of Wizards, retold by Ruth Manning-Sanders)
We kick things off with another Jack – but don’t worry, this one is Welsh and not a giant killer at all. He’s the younger of two brothers, both very poor. The elder marries money so Jack goes to work for him, but when he’s refused pay he sets off to look for a better situation. Unfortunately, no one is hiring. At last he meets a fellow traveller with a suggestion. Pointing out a nearby castle, the traveller explains that it is the Black Enchanted Castle, and that its owner always has work. He’s also a wizard. “Is he a bad one?” asks Jack. “Some find him bad, and some find him good,” the traveller says cryptically, continuing on his way. Jack decides to take the risk and makes for the castle.
The door is answered by a cheerful rosy-cheeked man who doesn’t fulfil Jack’s cliched expectations of a scary sorcerer at all, so he asks for that job. “To all who come here I give three days’ work,” the wizard replies. “And they can’t do it, and I can’t pay them.” Jack insists he’ll manage. He’s given a square meal for the promise, a comfortable bed for the night and breakfast to boot.
Once he’s eaten, the wizard gives more details about the day’s task. He shows Jack a golden watch and asks the boy to find its key. Jack sets to with a will, looking throughout the castle and grounds, persisting through the whole day. By sunset he’s forced to return empty-handed. Frustrated and depressed, he sits by the pig trough and toys absently with a twig in the water. Then he gets annoyed with himself and splits the twig in two.
Out falls the golden key.
Thoroughly relieved, Jack hurries into the castle to show his employer, who is equally pleased. Two more meals and a good night’s sleep later, he feels prepared to handle whatever strange work the wizard has in store. He’s given a basket of coltsfoot plants, which are very magic and not weeds, as the wizard takes takes some pains to make clear. Jack’s deceptively simple job is to plant them. He tries one bed of earth; the plants all somersault out of the ground and turn their roots in the air. He tries another bed; same result. All day he labours to plant them, and at every turn they make it plain they don’t intend to be planted.
It’s almost dark when Jack, by now throwing clods of earth around in a fit of despair, happens upon a filthy old ring. Slipping it into his pocket, he’s struck by a sudden new conviction. He jumps up and starts ramming the plants into the ground leaves first. When he glances behind to check his progress, he sees they have made their usual somersault and are now roots down. Reverse psychology carries the day and he returns to the castle tired but happy. The wizard is every bit as excited by this success as Jack himself and gives him a splendid meal as his reward.
The next day is Jack’s final test. Today he must find the wizard himself.
Jack looks all day, without success. “What a senseless task!” he thinks bitterly. “How can I find a man who vanishes? A thousand times better to look for a needle in a haystack, because at least the needle is in the haystack, and if you search long enough you’re bound to find it. But this old fellow, he may be at my elbow, laughing at me, for all I know – or care! I give up!” He stops in the stable to rest and sees an egg, which he decides to take for his supper, since losing the day’s challenge means he’s lost his bed and board too. When he cracks it open, however, out bounces the wizard with a shout of delight.
In the morning the wizard settles the matter of wages with typical magic-person logic. “Which will you have, one gold coin with my blessing, or a hatful of gold coins with my cursing?” Jack is smart enough to pick option A, though it only lasts him a couple of weeks. When he has run out of money he brings out the dirty ring from his pocket and sets to cleaning it, trying to ascertain its value. He’s no sooner started than a beautiful girl appears from nowhere. The ring is hers and she’s here to grant wishes. This is the only explanation she chooses to give.
Jack gapes for a bit, then pulls himself together and very politely asks for something to eat. The girl flourishes over his table and cupboard, leaving food in her wake; then, with a stately nod, she vanishes. Jack waits until he’s eaten all the food before trying to bring her back. When he does, and asks for his pantry to be restocked, she urges him to think a little bigger. Looking around, he realises his one-roomed, earth-floored cottage is a shabby location for such a visitor and hesitantly wishes for a nicer house. The girl produces a beautiful mansion, manageably sized and fully furnished, not forgetting pictures for the walls, flowers for the garden, horses for the stables and BOOKS. She remembered books! Jack spends days admiring the place before gathering his courage to call on his benefactress for a third time. “Lady, I am very lonely,” he tells her. “Could you find it in your heart to live here with me?”
She laughs. It is a good kind of laugh, though, because that’s precisely where she wants to be and they are married the next day when Jack puts the magic ring on her own finger. I approve this choice. The wizard is invited to the wedding and reveals in typical wizard fashion, i.e. at the last minute, that the girl is his daughter. Given the circumstances, he reiterates that blessing.
Story 2: The Garden of Health (Fairy Tales from Spain, retold by J. Munoz Escomez)
This story begins with a boy called Enrique, who is walking on the outskirts of his village and crying over the inescapable fate of his dying sister Luisa. A young goat grazing nearby hears his sobbing and tells him not to worry, she has a solution. “Look there, to the right in that spring,” she instructs, “and you will see a ring that was left there and forgotten by the magician Agrajes. Put it on and ask to go to the Garden of Health, and immediately it will take you there.” He must ask for the Blue Ivy, the juice of which will cure his sister.
First, Enrique would like to know what he’s dealing with. In his experience, goats don’t talk much. “I am a well-bred and compassionate kid,” his advisor coolly replies. “Anyway, I cannot tell you who I am. If you are grateful you will know.” With that, she sends him on his way.
The ring deposits him outside a silver wall. At the gate stand two young women, one dressed in white and carrying an apple, the other in black with a scythe in her hand. The boy tells them what he has come for, and the first woman – who introduces herself as Life – is willing to give it, if her sister Death agrees. Death does not agree; she sees Luisa as her own. The boy must enter the garden and find the ivy for himself. Death does her best to prevent him getting in at all, striking out with her scythe, but Life holds her apple to Enrique’s nose and revives him at the last moment.
As you might have gathered from the name, this is not an ornamental garden; every plant it contains is the treatment to an illness, and the moment Enrique enters they all start calling out to him, hawking their skills. The cacophony is too much. “That’s enough!” Enrique cries, “otherwise you will drive me mad.” “I cure madness!” a helpful little shrub shouts back. The Blue Ivy, however, remains elusive. Death is hiding it in plain sight.
Enrique suddenly remembers he’s wearing a magic ring. He commands it to show him the plant he seeks and bingo, an oak tree appears swathed in magical ivy. “Do not cut me now,” the ivy calls out, “because your sister is going to die, and you will not arrive in time. Death is now close to her bedside.” Enrique’s having none of that. He orders the ring to bring Death to the garden, tied up. When the woman in black appears, scytheless, the plants applaud gleefully and advise Enrique to kill her on the spot. Is that actually possible?
Well, he decides to test the theory, ordering for sticks to appear from thin air and start beating her. They knock out her teeth (though the narrative insists those were fake anyway, so it’s all okay!), drag out her hair and ruin one eye before Enrique cuts himself some ivy and departs. It’s not clear what happens to Death after that. Perhaps her sister comes in to fix her up – perhaps she’s immortal and will heal just fine on her own – perhaps she’s a severely beaten woman who’s had her scythe stolen by the borrowed power of an adolescent boy.
Anyway, Enrique doesn’t care, the ring has taken him to his sister’s bedside and the juice of Blue Ivy fixes her up immediately. Their startled family shower Enrique in praise, but he remembers he owes his success to the kid and goes to thank her. When he can’t find her, he uses the ring to summon her to his side.
Turns out she’s not a kid at all – or at least, not the goat kind. She’s actually Atala, the daughter of Agrajes, and planted her father’s ring in the hope Enrique would be able to save his sister. Enrique enthusiastically invites her home to play, at which point she somewhat tartly reminds him he’s wearing a ring of great and terrible power and she can’t actually say no. He quickly gives it back, and she disappears. Not for long – she was going to consult with her father, who says she can go play if she wants. Enrique’s family indulge her sweet tooth to the hilt and she becomes a regular at the house. One day, her dad comes to visit too and leaves behind a chestful of gold coins, enough to set up both his daughter’s friends for life.
Excellent magician, excellent parenting. He needs to keep a closer eye on that ring, though.
Story 3: The Magic Lake (A Book of Mermaids, retold by Ruth Manning-Sanders)
This Irish story introduces us to Rory Keating, who has just bought a wedding ring for his girlfriend and is bounding home with his friends, tossing the ring high into the air so that it sparkles in the sunlight. This is not a good idea. It’s an even worse idea if you happen to be passing over a lake. Before you know it, the ring has tumbled past his fingers and into the deep water.
Rory wants to jump in after it but this particular lake has a nasty reputation. Boys who go swimming there have a tendency not to come back and Rory has a feeling his girlfriend would rather have him than the ring. Determined to give her both, he offers the highest reward he can to any of his friends who might be willing to retrieve the lost jewellery. While sympathetic to his plight, they are not that sympathetic – but one boy, Padeen, is willing to focus more on the offered five guineas than the dangers of the lake. Once he’s ascertained Rory’s good for the money, he jumps in without hesitation.
It is a good deal deeper than he expected. When he finally stops sinking, he has come out the other side of water to dry ground, with a blue sky above and beautiful gardens all around. To his astonishment, he recognises the gardeners working there as the boys who have gone missing over the years. He calls out to them, but not one will acknowledge him. As they labour, they sing praises to the beauty of their employer. Padeen’s curiosity quickens his pace. He comes to a grand house and walks through the open door – and sees the owner almost at once. She comes as a bit of a shock, being basically a cross between a very large walrus and a jewellery box. There’s a bit too much judgement of her weight and probably green hair is very attractive to other mermaids, but I have to admit the wolf’s teeth might be a little alarming.
Though taken aback, Padeen retains common courtesy. He greets the mermaid politely and she giggles coquettishly, sure he’s come to court her. “Well, ma’am,” he admits, “first and foremost I’m come after Rory Keating’s gold ring.” The mermaid obligingly hands it over and Padeen asks her how to leave, which does not go down half as well. She expects male adoration from all sides and preferably a marriage proposal too. Padeen quickly backs up, assuring her he’ll return once he’s been paid. He wonders aloud if she has been married many times. “A few good offers,” she agrees. “But they didn’t please me, so I set them to till the pleasure grounds.” Turns out that if the men don’t sing her praises, they don’t get fed. I think she’d get along great with the Sun Princess.
Padeen lays the flattery on thick, slowly backing out of her house and along her garden path while the captive men grimly raise their voices in her honour. First chance he gets, Padeen slams a gate between them and strikes for the surface. The mermaid is too weighed down with jewels to follow.
He breaks the surface at last with the ring in his hand. The young men gathered by the shore had almost given up hope, given how long he’d been down there, and Rory is delighted to hand over the five guineas in exchange for his ring. Padeen, who is an honourable soul, considers for a while whether he ought to go back to the mermaid, but decides that she’s already kidnapped herself enough suitors – if she’s that desperate to get married she can pick one of them. There’s such a thing as taking honour too far.
Though now the men have seen someone escape, she may not have them much longer…
Story 4: Molly Whuppie (Classic Folk-Tales From Around the World, published by Leopard)
This tale is grouped in with the ‘English and Welsh’ section of the anthology, so I’m just going with Celtic as its origin. Proving how badly fairy tales need decent contraception, a couple with too many children and not enough money decide the solution to their problem is pick three of their daughters and dump them in the middle of a forest. That’s the third fairy tale I can name offhand in which parents do this, despite the number of ogres, monsters and dragons who have stated their canonical desire to be foster parents. Someone start an adoption system already.
Anyway, the three girls have to search for somewhere to spend the night and eventually, when it is almost full dark, find a house. The woman who lives there is more than happy to let them in but her husband is a giant and anything but charitable. She has only just set them at the table with milk and bread when the man himself comes storming in shouting “Fee, fie, fo, fum/ I smell the blood of some earthly one.” His wife comes immediately to the sisters’ defence, telling him to leave them be, and he appears to come around to the idea of being charitable, suggesting they stay the night. They can squeeze into the same bed as the couple’s own three daughters.
It seems a kind offer, but the youngest of the human girls is Molly Whuppie and she’s understandably cynical. When the giant makes his three guests put straw ropes around their necks while his children wear gold chains, Molly smells a rat and swaps the ornaments around.
Lucky for her she does – during the night the giant comes in with a club, feels for the markers and takes the girls wearing straw ropes out the bed. Laying them out on the floor, he proceeds to batter them to death with his club. I am sickened. His intent was terrible, but his daughters should not have paid the price. When he has gone, Molly wakens her sisters and they creep out of the house, then run like mad.
The next house they come across is home to the king and when he hears their story, he decides to employ Molly as a thief. The giant owns a sword he fancies. If Molly can retrieve that, he’ll give her eldest sister his eldest son as a husband, leaving me a bit confused about the ages of these girls.
Anyway, Molly considers it a good bargain. She sneaks back into the giant’s house and hides under his bed. Once the couple are sleeping, she pulls the sword down from its place behind the bed, but it gives a tell-tale rattle – the giant leaps awake and Molly flees, racing out the door with the sword in hand. She escapes by running across a bridge too narrow for her enormous pursuer, and he’s left on the far shore shouting threats.
The king is pleased. So pleased he thinks of another job. If Molly can bring him the giant’s purse of gold, her second sister will marry the second prince. So back she goes, once again waiting for the giant to sleep before slipping the purse from under his pillow. This of course wakes him up and he chases her from the house to the same bridge. “Woe worth ye, Molly Whuppie!” he howls at her retreating figure. “Never you come again.” “Once yet, carle,” she shouts back, “I’ll come to Spain.” I’m not sure what that means but it sounds like sass.
The king likes his sword and his gold but is not quite satisfied. This time he wants Molly to steal the giant’s ring from his finger. As a reward for this final task, she is promised his youngest son as her husband. Molly must like him, or the stability he represents, because that night she slips into the giant’s house and carefully pulls the ring off his finger. It is a brave but reckless decision; he wakes fast enough this time to seize her. He’s so livid he can’t think of an appropriate punishment and so wonders aloud what he should do. “I would put you in a sack,” Molly suggests, “and I’d put the cat inside with you, and the dog aside you, and a needle and thread and shears, and I’d hang you upon the wall, and I’d go to the wood, and choose the thickest stick I could get, and I would come home, and take you down, and bang you till you were dead.”
The giant thinks that sounds a great plan and makes it his own. He is not a clever person.
Once he’s gone looking for the stick Molly sets to work on his wife. “Oh, if ye saw what I see,” she sings, and is so generally irritating that the giant’s wife can’t handle it any more and asks to be allowed into the sack so she can see whatever the hell it is. Molly cuts a hole with the shears, lets the woman in and sews up behind her. When the giant returns he starts beating the sack with both his pets and his wife inside, and even if he doesn’t know about the last he does know about the dog and cat. It is so heinously unfair that his totally innocent household keep paying for HIS CRIMES. Suddenly, he catches sight of Molly slipping out the door and realises he has been tricked. Her headstart takes her easily to the bridge, out of his reach. She gives the king the ring, he gives her his son and she never goes thieving for him again.
Though she quite possibly goes into business with Jack the Giant Killer.
Story 5: The Fisherlad and the Mermaid’s Ring (Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland, retold by Sorcha Nic Leodhas)
The titular fisherlad begins the story by proposing to a girl who is actually in love with someone else and says no in the nicest possible way. The fisherlad is so upset that he denounces any possibility of ever finding someone else to love and avoids all his friends by fishing in another cove. The fish he catches, he sells at a different market. He even builds a hut, giving a worrying permanence to his hermitage. For a whole year he broods in isolation, but for all his determination he can’t quite avoid people altogether. One day as he pulls in his nets, he sees a huge silver tail and long hair and realises he’s caught a mermaid.
He seizes her arm and tangles her so tight in the net she can’t get loose. Panicked, she offers him any ransom he chooses – gold or gems from her father’s treasure – but that’s not the reward he has in mind. “I want the lass I love best in all the world,” the fisherlad tells her. “She’s not to be had for gold nor jewels, nor will a true heart win her. For I offered her my own and she would not take it.” I really don’t like this boy. The mermaid, also unimpressed by his broody talk, wants to know what’s so special about the girl in question. The fisherlad tries to describe her, but she’s underwhelmed by his gushing praises of blue eyes and golden hair. Still, the mermaid is willing to give his cause a go, if he’ll release her. He must come to her father for a consultation. Hope overriding his need for a captive listener, he cuts the net and follows her into the sea.
The sea king is very relieved to see his daughter alive and free, having heard from his spy network of fishes that she was in trouble. He’s angry that the fisherman held her captive at all. SO MUCH YES. But the promise has been made and he agrees to help the boy get what he wants, though it might take a while. “For another year and a day,” he explains, “you must bide in your cove and do as you have done day in and night out.” He then produces a golden ring set with pearls. “When the year and the day are over, if you go to the lass you love best in all the world, you’ll find her waiting for you. Take this ring and keep it carefully, and when you find her, put it on her finger and wed her with it.”
With that the fisherlad is sent back to the surface. He’s all hope and excitement now. Drawing up on the beach a few days later with his catch of fish, he sees what looks like a pile of seaweed on his doorstep but when he gets closer, he realises it is the long brown hair of a girl huddled there. Her eyes are red from crying. The fisherlad is indignant that someone else dares to have problems and demands to know what she’s doing outside his hut. “I’ve run off from my father’s house,” she confesses. “There’s a new stepmother there and she no older than myself. There’s no place for me there because she can’t abide me, and I came away lest she do me some harm.” Honey, I somehow get the feeling you’ve been told you’re in a fairy tale.
The fisherlad tells her to go back home. She begs him to give her a job and a place to stay, promising to be no trouble; when all that fails, she bursts into tears and threatens to drown herself. The fisherlad may be a terribly selfish person, but he has his limits. Seeing how distraught she really is, he lets her inside.
As it happens, she is an excellent housekeeper. She also keeps out of his way as much as she can, recognising she’s not really welcome. For weeks they live this way, as separate as possible, until the fisherlad realises he’s being an idiot and tells her she can eat at the table with him. It takes a couple more weeks before they manage to make conversation. Once they reach that milestone, though, things get better. He agrees her father sounds awful and she admires the conjured blue eyes and golden hair of his obsession. She takes to coming down to shore and helping him with the boat. Tiny and curvaceous, brown-skinned with dark hair and eyes, she’s the polar opposite of his fantasy ice queen, but he has to acknowledge she’s very pretty in her own way.
She’s also very kind, and very capable. Now she’s more sure of her welcome, she starts planting flowers around the hut and sewing curtains and generally making it less of a primitive place to live. She even makes the fisherlad a chart to mark off the days of his wait, so he’ll know how long is left until he can marry his true love. It finally occurs to him to find out where she’s been sleeping and when he realises she’s been bunking down in the shed with his fishing gear, he stirs himself to build another room onto the hut for her. She starts singing as she goes about her work.
Months pass. One day the fisherlad comes in and finds the girl holding up her hand to the light, with the gold ring on her finger. She whips it off as soon as she sees him and quickly puts it away. Soon after that, she announces her intention to leave. “The year and the day will soon be up and you’ll be going to fetch your own true love,” she reminds him, when he protests she’d much better stay. She is older now, and stronger, and feels she can return to her father’s house. The year is gone; on the last day she rises early, packs her few things and quietly leaves. He sits staring after her for a while, slow on the uptake as ever. It takes him a whole day of sitting there to realise he has been tricked. The mermaid gave him the ring, not to make another girl fall for him against her own heart, but to make him pull himself together.
The next day he dresses with care and start walking inland. Before long he comes to a house and the girl in its garden. “I thought you had gone to claim your own true love,” she says hesitantly, at the sight of him. “I have so!” he agrees, and offers her the ring. I think she could do better, myself, but she likes him and is delighted to accept. The wedding is a happy one and she’s actually managed to make friends with her stepmother, so the whole family is there. Afterwards the fisherlad takes her to meet his friends in the other cove. While there he sees the girl he used to love, who is unchanged, but does not hold the same enchantment. Together he and his brown-eyed bride go home to the house they made together.
On the shore there they meet with the mermaid. “Did you get your true love?” she inquires, and the fisherlad proudly introduces his wife. The mermaid drily points out the lack of blonde hair and blue eyes, and the fisherlad says he wants her just the way she is. For all he’s prone to self-obsession, he does say the odd sweet thing. “Well,” the mermaid concludes, “you’ll not be saying we did not give you what you asked for,” and she dives away into the sea, leaving them to their happy ending.
Not all of these rings are magic. Their real value is not monetary, but what they mean to those who own them. In these fairy tales a ring can represent hope, or love, or a challenge – or all three at once – but the power comes from what you choose to do with it.