Fairy Tale Tuesday No.117 – The Two Brothers

This Grimm fairy tale begins with a pair of brothers – as you may have expected from the title – who are career-coded for ease of reference. One is a goldsmith, rich and evil. The other is a broom-maker, kind-hearted and very poor. The latter brother also has two sons, twin boys who are in the habit of doing odd jobs at their uncle’s house and being rewarded with leftovers from the better table.

While out collecting wood one day, the poor brother catches sight of the most beautiful bird he’s ever seen. So of course the first thing he does is throw a stone at it. What happened to KIND-HEARTED? Luckily all he manages to do is dislodge a feather. He brings it to his brother, who identifies it as pure gold and pays a high price for it. The next day the broom-maker tracks the bird to its nest and steals all its eggs. These, too, are gold and worth a large sum to the rich brother. On the third day, the broom-maker finally succeeds in killing the poor creature, because there is no little old man there at the right moment to salvage matters. He sells the dead bird to his brother for a great deal of gold and goes home without a twinge of guilt.

Killing the goose (or whatever kind of bird it actually is) that lays the golden eggs is not quite so stupid a plan as it sounds, from a financial perspective. Unlike his brother, the goldsmith knows that whoever eats the bird’s heart and liver will find a gold piece under their pillow each morning. He has his wife set it roasting over the fire, but when she leaves the kitchen for a moment her nephews come running in and try to help. They turn the spit a few times. In the process a couple of pieces fall off and the boys eat them, thinking no one will miss the scraps.

I’m giving you one guess what those two pieces are.

The goldsmith’s wife works it out immediately. Knowing her husband will probably blame her, she quickly kills a cockerel and stuffs the heart and liver of the ordinary bird into the body of extraordinary one. The goldsmith cannot tell the difference from taste, but the absence of gold under his pillow is a bit of a giveaway. In the broom-maker’s house, meanwhile, the twins wake each morning to a growing fortune and their father blithely tells his brother. Realising what’s happened, the goldsmith takes his revenge by insisting the gold is cursed and the boys are miniature Satanists. The broom-maker pulls a woodcutter and abandons both children in the woods, deep enough that they will not find their way home. Excuse me, narrative, THIS IS NOT WHAT KIND PEOPLE DO.

But this story is not about him, or the goldsmith. Those two are decoy brothers.

So what befalls the twins? A hunter finds them lost in the forest and hears that they are human gold machines. “Well,” he says thoughtfully, “that’s really nothing terrible as long as you remain good and upright and don’t become lazy.” He takes them home, training them up to be hunters and saving all their gold as a trust find because he’s a genuinely kind-hearted person. When they are full-grown, he takes them out to test their skills. They manage to shoot down specific geese from a formation overhead (no birds are safe in this story) and he proclaims both young men to be full-fledged hunters.

Now that they are officially men of the world, they want to go exploring, so he gives each a gun, a hunting dog and a share in their fortune. “If ever you should separate,” he advises, offering one final gift, “stick this knife into a tree at the crossroad. Then if one of you comes back, he can see how his absent brother is doing, for the side of the blade facing the direction he took will rust if he’s dying but will stay bright as long as he’s alive.” The brothers take the knife and set off.

They do not bring much food with them – why should they, as skilled hunters? But that’s not so simple an equation as they thought. Their first target, a hare, cries out a protest and offers two of its young in exchange for its life. The baby hares are so adorable the hunters agree. Next they try to kill a fox, who makes the same bargain. By the time they reach the other side of the forest, they have a troupe of two hares, two foxes, two wolves, two bears and two lion cubs. Because what Germanic forest is complete without lions?

So the twins now have a menagerie of cute but nothing to eat. They have the foxes lead them to the nearest village (aka a chicken-stealing hotspot) where they buy enough food for themselves and all their animals, and continue travelling with the foxes as their guides. After some while of travelling together looking for useful employment – well done, foster dad hunter, you have instilled a solid work ethic! – they decide to separate. At the next crossroads they stick their father’s blade in a tree and turn their separate ways, with the animals dividing up accordingly.

One brother goes west. He soon comes to a city swathed in masses of black crepe, which strikes him as an eccentric choice in urban beautification. After settling his animals at an inn for the night, he inquires about the purpose of all that crepe and the innkeeper explains that it is mourning for the king’s daughter, who is about to die. “Is she that sick?” the hunter asks. The answer is no, she’s perfectly healthy, but on a mountain outside the city there lives a sanctimonious dragon who will only eat the ‘purest’ of maidens and enforces his strict diet by threatening to destroy the kingdom if he’s not well supplied. As literally the last virgin for miles around, the princess is next on his menu.

The shocked hunter wants to know why no one has done something about this situation, such as killing the dragon. The innkeeper assures him many knights have tried, but none have ever succeeded. The next day, the hunter sets off up the mountain.

At the top he finds a small church and three goblets on the altar with a ‘Drink Me’ style note announcing that whoever drinks of the contents will become the strongest man in the world and will also be able to draw the sword buried in stone outside. After testing his own strength against the sword, just to be sure, the hunter knocks back all three goblets and this time pulls the sword loose with ease. Who put all that strength potion there? Why did no other knight ever receive this kind of assistance? Why am I even hoping for an answer?

When the king’s daughter climbs the mountain – watched from a distance by her father’s marshal, presumably to ensure she doesn’t bolt – she finds the hunter waiting there. He ushers her inside the church, then stands watch for the dragon. The creature makes for a formidable sight, seven-headed and flaming, but is taken aback at the interruption to his routine. “What do you think you’re doing on this mountain?” he demands. “I’ve come to fight you,” the hunter explains. The dragon promptly opens all seven of his mouths and sets fire to the dry grass, intending to asphyxiate the hunter with all the smoke, but the menagerie of wood creatures come rushing to put out the flames and when the frustrated dragon lunges forward the hunter manages to cut off three of his heads at once.

Enraged by the pain, the dragon breathes flames directly at his enemy. The hunter deftly ducks away and cuts off three more heads. The dragon attempts another lunge; the hunter swings the sword again and this time just gets the tail. Realising he’s lost his advantage, he calls to his animals and they come to finish off the task by ripping the dragon into little pieces.

When it’s all over, the hunter opens the church doors. The princess passed out during the worst of the battle but cheers up enormously when the hunter carries her outside to see the dismembered dragon. She promptly proposes, and wins my heart at least by turning her coral necklace into adorable little collars for the hunter’s menagerie. The hunter himself is given her handkerchief. He uses it for wrapping up all seven of the dragon’s tongues. I’m pretty sure that’s not what lover’s tokens are for…

After the excitement of fighting and fainting and smoke inhalation, he suggests a restorative nap and the princess agrees. They lie down side by side, tasking the animals to keep watch – but they are all as exhausted as each other and one by one drift into sleep.

Remember the marshal? When the dragon fails to fly away, he decides to investigate and finds the sleepers peacefully settled amidst the carnage. He sees an opportunity. Drawing his own sword, he beheads the hunter and carries off the princess. When she wakes, he threatens to murder her if she doesn’t back up his story that he killed the dragon. Only once he has her properly terrified does he take her home to her father and even then, her agreement is deliberately vague. The marshal tries to claim the promised reward of her hand in marriage, but she insists on a delay of a year and a day. She hopes that by then the hunter will have returned for her.

That’s…awkward, given he’s dead and all. When the animals waken and see what has happened, they all turn on the hare, who was the last to fall asleep. The only thing that stops them killing him on the spot is his assurance that he can bring their master back to life. With the frenetic speed of the panicked and guilt-ridden, he dashes away and rapidly returns with a magical root. When the lion places it in the hunter’s mouth, he immediately comes back to life – unfortunately, in his distress, the lion put his head on backwards.

The hunter doesn’t even notice at first. He thinks the princess has ditched him and is deeply depressed. The animals explain the situation as best they can, which is not very well, and the lion rips off his head so they can put it around the right way. The hunter doesn’t even care. Instead of pressing his claim on an apparently unwilling woman, he departs like a true gentleman and travels the world with his animals as a multi-species dance troupe.

Twelve months later, he passes through the city again and sees it is now draped all in crimson. The same innkeeper tells him it is in honour of the princess’s impending marriage. The quietly furious hunter sets a wager with him: that he can partake of the wedding feast without leaving the inn. His hare bravely races through the streets, pursued by the city’s dogs; he loses them at the palace and sneaks into the princess’s room, where she recognises him by his collar and greets him delightedly. At his request, she orders the baker to carry a loaf of bread to the inn. The hare takes it from him in the street outside and carries it to his master.

Next, the hunter wants a piece of roast meat. And some vegetables. And a little something sweet to finish. Course by course each animal slips into the palace, and comes out again with a gift from the princess; until the bear comes for dessert and the guards try to stop him. He slaps them irritably aside and goes straight to the princess, who gives him enough sugarplums that he can satisfy his own sweet tooth as well.

Last of all, the hunter orders wine. His lion saunters down the street, sending citizens scattering in all directions, and is sent to the royal wine cellar with the king’s own cupbearer. He insists on tasting each wine he’s offered – none of them are good enough. “How can a stupid beast understand anything about wine?” demands the cupbearer, and gets knocked over by the exasperated critic. After that he finally brings out bottles of the king’s private vintage and the lion – by now a bit drunk – has him carry them back to the inn. The hunter dines cheerfully with his menagerie, deciding the princess must like him after all.

When the meal is finished he bounces up from the table, announcing he’s going to marry the king’s daughter. The innkeeper points out she’s marrying someone else today. Even after being shown the dragon’s seven tongues, he bets his house that the hunter isn’t her real saviour. Meanwhile, the king is asking his daughter why tempestuous animals have been treating his house like a drive-through all day. She won’t explain herself, but advises he send for the hunter at once. The servant has perfect timing, arriving at the door just as the hunter makes his bet with the innkeeper. Pushing his victory for all its worth, the hunter insists on being sent fine clothes and a carriage before coming to the palace.

While the king is by now truly bewildered, he trusts his daughter and goes to receive her eccentric guest. In a deeply awkward turn of events, the hunter ends up seated next to his murderer, who doesn’t recognise him now he’s not covered in blood and ashes. The wedding ceremony is going ahead: it begins with the dragon’s seven heads being carried out on display, as the king praises his marshal’s courage. The hunter puts a spanner in the works, wondering aloud where the dragon’s tongues are. “Dragons have no tongues,” the marshal mutters. “Liars should have no tongues,” the hunter retorts, producing the princess’s handkerchief and its grisly contents. He then takes off each animal’s coral collar, showing how they were once all one necklace. The marshal’s treachery is revealed and as punishment the outraged king has him torn apart by four oxen. While he was undoubtedly a bad person, that’s way over the top. Prison time is an option, your majesty.

Anyway, no one thinks about that because they’re so excited about the princess marrying her true rescuer. The hunter dismisses his bet with the innkeeper and gives him a generous pile of gold in thanks for the timely gossip. Married life in the royal family suits the hunter splendidly – he rides out often with his gun and his animals to practice his favourite activity – but there’s one cloud on the horizon. Nearby is a forest rumoured to be enchanted. The hunter, by now officially appointed king of the realm, is the sort of person who is magnetically attracted to this kind of place. One day he rides into the forest in pursuit of a white doe, and does not return.

This is because he gets completely lost and is forced to make camp. While he’s sitting by a fire, surrounded by his animals, he’s startled by the sound of a human voice. He looks around at the dark trees, then up – and sees an old woman clinging to a branch above his head. She’s too afraid of his animals to come down and tosses him a switch, telling him to tap each beast to prove they won’t hurt her. Instead, the touch of the switch turns them to stone. She then jumps lightly down, strikes the young king himself with the switch and drags all the new statues to join her already impressive collection.

But what, you may be wondering, has become of the brother who went east? He, too, hit upon the idea of forming a dance act with his animals and has had moderate success. Passing the crossroads where he parted from his twin, he stops to check the knife and is greatly alarmed – for though half of that side of the blade is bright, half is rusty, meaning his brother must be in mortal danger. His anxious search leads him to the gates of the same city his brother now rules, where he’s mistaken for the young king. He puts no one right about that, thinking a bit of royal privilege may make his task easier, but when he’s obliged to share a bed with his brother’s wife he lays a sword between them to show how totally not into her he is. Luckily she’s not a restless sleeper.

He spends several days making inquiries about the forest, then insists on going there himself. As before, a white doe appears and he chases it. Just like with his brother, it disappears and he’s obliged to make camp overnight. He encounters the same old woman, but does not have his twin’s trusting temperament and refuses to strike any of his animals with her switch. “Either you come down,” he tells her, “or I’ll come get you!” She laughs at this, rightly – the lead bullets of his gun do her no harm. Then he loads up his gun with three silver buttons off his jacket, and those have an effect. She falls from the tree with a scream and he pounces on her at once, demanding to know what she did to his brother. Reluctantly, she leads him to the pit where she keeps her statues. He orders her to restore them all to life. A touch of her switch does the trick – the brothers embrace joyfully, then tie up the witch and burn her alive.

That is so – not necessary. Could they not have just turned her to stone? The concept of justice in this kingdom is utterly screwed up.

The brothers return home, swapping stories about their adventures. The one who is still a hunter unwisely reveals he temporarily took over his brother’s life, including his place in the princess’s bed, and is not given a chance to explain any more – overcome by a fit of blinding jealousy, the young king cuts off his head. He is instantly remorseful, however little that’s worth. The hare, accustomed to sudden death in this man’s presence, rushes off to fetch the root of life and the hunter is restored so swiftly that he doesn’t even know he died. No one enlightens him.

The young king arranges that they should enter the palace from opposite gates, baffling the princess and her father with their mirror arrivals. At first the princess cannot tell the two men apart. Then she spies the coral collars on her husband’s animals and decides this one must be hers, but still doesn’t know how she’s been deceived. That night she asks the young king why he’s been coming to bed with a sword lately and he realises how trustworthy his brother really is.

This story does not end with a happily ever after and well may it not – these brothers do not appear to have the aptitude for quiet lives. I am deeply disappointed in the first hunter, he starts out the story behaving so well only to get all hilt-happy at the end. There are regional variations on the twins of fortune theme, including Greece’s ‘The Twins’ (in which the rescued brother confesses to having killed and resurrected his twin) and Spain’s ‘The Knights of the Fish’ (in which the issue never comes up because they just trust each other). What I find most interesting about this version is how it contains the elements of so many other stories, from the golden goose to the sword in the stone. Who knows what the brothers may encounter next? I’m sure they can handle it, if they can only keep from each other’s throats that long.

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Fairy Tale Tuesday No.115 – The Hidden Girls

Marriage, as I have said before, is a loaded concept in fairy tales, coming as it so often does as a reward or punishment (or, in particularly creepy cases, as both). I’m sure it will come as an ENORMOUS SURPRISE to know the scales are most often weighed in favour of male characters. As I have also said before, so many times, this is a problem that can generally be fixed, or at least improved, by respecting each female character’s agency and treating them like you know they’re really people.

Some stories, though, have layers of alarming subtext that you’re presumably not meant to think about en route to the pretty dress finale. This week I’m looking at the same fairy tale, told three different ways – three variations on what it takes to survive being the heroine.

Version 1: Mossycoat

This is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s collection British Folk Tales – a selection and begins with a girl who’s being courted by a very persistent pedlar. She does not want to marry him but doesn’t want to reject him outright either. She consults her mother, which is a terrible idea because the widow is a mercenary opportunist and insists the girl milk her suitor for all he’s worth before making her lack of interest plain. “You tell him,” the widow says, “that you won’t marry him unless he gets you a white satin dress embroidered with sprigs of gold as big as a man’s hand; and mind you tell him it must be a perfect fit.”

The daughter passes on her mother’s demand, the pedlar accepts the challenge, and within a week he’s back with the requested dress. His second task is to bring a silk dress the colour of ‘all the birds of the air’, which…sounds better than I think it would look, but it takes him an even shorter time to produce and I must admit, I’m impressed by his sartorial connections. The two women he’s trying to please remain unmoved.

For his third task the pedlar brings the girl a pair of tiny silver slippers, again a perfect fit, at which time the girl agrees to marriage and arranges for him to return the next morning at ten. Unknown to him, the widow has been busily sewing the whole time and that night finishes making a coat of moss and gold thread. A magic coat. “When you’ve got it on,” she explains, “you have only to wish to be somewhere, and you’ll be there that very instant. And you’ve only to wish if you want to change yourself into something else, like a swan, or a bee.” If you were making a magic coat, lady, why not GET THE DRESSES YOURSELF.

At dawn the widow wakes her daughter. It’s time to go fortune hunting – “and a handsome fortune it must be”, ugh, you’d break your neck trying to find depths in this one. Really it’s not so much of a hunt as a siege, because the widow gives very precise directions as to where the girl’s fortune will be located: a hundred miles away, at the house of a wealthy gentleman. The girl arrives plainly dressed but with her fancy wardrobe packed up in her bag, and gains employment as the undercook. She goes by the name of Mossycoat.

The other servants dislike her on sight, insulted she be given so prestigious a position above any of them. They don’t let her do the job. Instead she’s given the grimiest and most unpleasant tasks around the kitchen and repeatedly hit upon the head with a milk-skimmer when anyone’s particularly annoyed.

Not much a fortune, you might think. Certainly the girl has reason to think so. After months of scouring pans and cleaning grates, and being given milk-skimmer-induced headaches, she hears that invitations are going out for a grand house party taking place nearby. For three days there’ll be hunting and sport, and for three nights there will be dancing. The lord and lady who are Mossycoat’s employers will be attending with their son and all the servants wish they could go too. They take out their frustrations by mocking Mossycoat, imagining her showing up in her dirty rags, but it’s more wishful thinking on their parts – both the lord and lady like her pretty face and their son has taken a particular interest, to the point she actually is asked to attend the dance with them. This is weirdly egalitarian. Mossycoat says no but is unwise enough to tell the other servants of her exclusive access and they predictably react with insults and physical abuse.

The next night, the same invitation is extended and Mossycoat gives the same response – but she has plans. She puts all the other servants under a sleeping spell, takes a long and luxurious bath, then slips into her white satin dress and silver slippers. Underneath, she wears the mossycoat. She wishes herself to the dance and just appears in the ballroom, where she immediately catches the eye of her employers’ son. Not that he recognises her as the pretty servant from his own house; he thinks she’s a Mysterious Stranger and ushers his mother over to question her. All Mossycoat will reveal about her home is that people hit her on the head there. So the young man approaches her himself and pesters her until she agrees to one dance with him. When he pressures her for another dance, she wishes herself back home and disappears before his eyes.

Changing into her work clothes, she returns to the kitchen and wakes the servants. They all think they fell asleep on the job and Mossycoat threatens to tell the mistress if they continue being horrible to her. Meanwhile, the young gentleman she ditched last night is obsessing over her and wondering how he can find out where she lives. “I’ll die if I’m not able to marry her,” he declares to his mother. She’s a little more cautious in her enthusiasm, but her son is too caught up in plotting that night’s dance to listen. Mossycoat is asked to attend one more time and the servants forget they’re supposed to be nice to her, ganging up for some more bullying instead.

She gets her own back soon enough, sending them all to sleep with another spell and changing into her bird-coloured silk. The moment she reaches the ballroom, she’s ambushed by her new suitor. As before, she agrees to one dance then insists she must leave. He tries to catch hold of her but just gets one slipper. The next day he lies around in bed being lovesick. He convinces his parents to send out an announcement that whoever the slipper fits will be his bride, which brings a rush of hopeful candidates. Included among them are a number of household servants. Not Mossycoat, though.

When the mistress realises, she orders her undercook upstairs to try on the slipper. No surprise, it fits. The young man leaps up from bed to embrace her, but Mossycoat wants to savour the moment and insists on a couple of costume changes first, so he can appreciate just how fabulous she looks. She then reveals to her soon-to-be parents-in-law how badly she was treated in their kitchen and gets all the servants sacked. Her mother moves into the grand house, Mossycoat is given everything she wants, and I feel deeply cynical.

Version 2: Cat-Skin

This Grimm brothers version one-ups the first by making everybody royalty. A dying queen insists her husband promise not to remarry unless he meets with someone as beautiful as herself, and he keeps his word, despite his advisers desperately searching for someone who can meet such high expectations.

Why they are so frantic is unclear, because he already has an heir. She has the beauty and the famous golden hair but instead of retiring and making her queen in his place (which would have been the best plot twist) her father decides she must marry the Prince of the Enchanted Island. She knows this prince is a terrible person, for reasons she’s not inclined to share, so stalls as best she can. “Before I marry anyone,” she announces, “I must have three dresses; one must be of gold like the sun, another must be of shining silver like the moon, and a third must be as dazzling as the stars: besides this, I want a mantle of a thousand different kinds of fur put together, to which every beast in the kingdom must give part of his skin.” She feels pretty safe, since who could achieve all of that?

Except hah, no, she’s not safe at all. The king sets his weavers and hunters to work and far too soon all the clothes are made. Left with no choice but to run away, the princess draws on her ‘heroine of the story’ magic, hiding the new dresses inside a nutshell. Somehow. She then packs three items of golden jewellery, throws on the fur cloak, smears her skin with dirt and, while everyone else lies sleeping, departs the castle for good under the name of Cat-skin.

She walks as far as she can. Coming to a large wood – the hunting ground of a different king, though she doesn’t know it at the time – she curls in the hollow of large tree and sleeps. It’s noon when she wakes, and only then because the aforementioned king no.2 shows up with his dogs. His huntsmen describe Cat-skin as ‘a most wonderful beast’ and the king orders they bring it back to the castle, but as the men lift her the princess wakes. Very frightened, she cries out. “I am a poor child that has neither father nor mother left; have pity on me and take me with you.” The men immediately modify their attitudes, calling her ‘miss’ and giving a job in the kitchens.

The servants here are not actively horrible to her, but the work is not fun and not easy, especially for a princess unaccustomed to hard labour. One day when a feast is being held upstairs, she gets the cook’s permission to take a peep. Once out of sight, she washes up quickly and changes into the golden dress. The king is captivated and dances with her. Side note: there is no reference to him pushing. It definitely seems like she wants to dance with him. Not for long, of course, the cook is expecting her – at the end of the number she slips away, changes back into her fur mantle and returns to work.

It’s the cook’s turn to take a look at the festivities, so Cat-skin is given the task of stirring the soup. She deliberately drops her golden ring into the king’s dish, so that he finds it later as he’s finishing his meal (and luckily not choking to death on unsanitary objects hiding in the food). He calls on the cook to explain it, who in turn calls on Cat-skin, but she insists on total ignorance and the king lets the matter go.

Next time there is a feast things play out much the same way. Cat-skin shimmies into another glowing dress, rocks up to dance with the dazzled king, then slips away unseen. Left to tend the soup, she drops in her golden necklace, but refuses to admit that to the baffled king. Possibly it is simply an excuse to see him, or maybe she’s leaving clues. Regardless, at the next feast, there’s the king’s favourite gatecrasher – and he’s determined to find out who she is. He slips a ring on her finger as they dance and manages to keep her at his side for a while, but she ducks away at last. Pressed for time, she can’t take off the dress; instead she throws her fur mantle over the top, running to tend the soup. This time she drops her brooch into the dish, but doesn’t notice the king’s own act of jewellery-swapping.

Ordering her before him for a third time, he sees the ring on her finger and seizes her hand. When she tries to pull away, the fur cloak comes askew, revealing her glittering ballgown underneath. Her true identity revealed, the king proposes and they marry. Her father is not invited to the wedding.

Version 3: All Fur

I’m putting a trigger warning on this one, for attempted sexual abuse and attempted incest – if you don’t want to read it, skip straight to the last paragraph. This is another Grimm brothers’ version from a different book, and begins in almost exactly the same way – a beautiful golden-haired queen making her husband promise to remarry only if he finds her lookalike, and the councillors of court fruitlessly attempting to do just that. But one day, the king looks at his daughter and realises how much she resembles her mother. In that moment he decides he will marry her.

His councillors are appalled; the princess is horrified. What can she do to save herself when his word is literally law? She pulls the same trick as the princess from ‘Cat-skin’, insisting she cannot marry without one dress golden, another silver and another bright as the stars – and of course, the fur mantle. As before, the king manages to acquire each item with terrifying speed. He gives them to his daughter and tells her the wedding will take place the next day.

While everyone else is sleeping, the girl flees. She takes with her the dresses and three golden trinkets: a ring, a tiny spinning wheel and a little reel. Wearing the cloak, she takes the name All Fur and runs as far away from her father as she can go.

She, too, falls asleep in a wood and wakes to the inquisitive eyes of a different king’s huntsmen. Upon realising she is human, they take her home to be a kitchen hand – but when the young king holds a feast, she appears amidst the crowd in her golden gown and dances like the princess she is. Later, preparing the king’s soup, she drops her golden ring into the dish. Like Cat-skin, she denies all knowledge and insists she is ‘good for nothing but to have boots thrown at her’. King Two sends her back to the kitchen unenlightened.

She dances at the next feast, and hides her golden spinning wheel in King Two’s soup. Once again, he can’t get any explanation from her. Confused and suspicious, the cook is very reluctant to allow her upstairs for a third time. She pleads so persistently he eventually lets her go anyway, but once in the ballroom there’s King Two to contend with. He has the dance stretched out for as long as he can and slips a ring onto All Fur’s finger while holding her hand; when she runs back to the kitchen, she has no time to take off the dress and does not notice her newly acquired jewellery. When King Two finds the reel she has left in his soup and summons her, he zeroes in on the ring. Like in ‘Cat-skin’, there’s a slightly disturbing reference to his tearing away the fur cloak, making her reveal her identity. Of course she’s beautiful underneath her disguise and they marry. She did give him the clues; I so hope she’s happy.

What is interesting to me about the tellings of these three stories is how the protagonist goes from stereotype gold-digger in the first, to resourceful escapee in the second, to desperate refugee in the third, while the basic framework of the story remains much the same. What changes is the context. Plot contrivances that make no sense in ‘Mossycoat’ become devastatingly logical in ‘All Fur’. The latter two heroines are given excellent reason for their actions and we are allowed to share their feelings, not kept at a careful distance as we are with Mossycoat. Perspective matters. If you look through the heroine’s eyes, instead of just looking at her, the view can be radically different.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.111 – The Four Clever Brothers

Yes, you read that right, this Grimm fairy tale is about four brothers, not three, in a startling reversal of narrative norms – but it starts off with a totally familiar scene of the boys gathered together receiving their father’s wisdom. And for once it’s pretty good wisdom. He has no money to bequeath them so advises his sons to all go forth and seek a trade. This they do, and when they come to a crossroads each brother takes a different direction, having first promised one another to return to the same spot in four years time to see how the others have fared. This makes no sense because one of those four roads must lead back the way they came, but four is an important number to this family so let’s pretend we didn’t notice.

The eldest brother tells the first man he meets that he’s looking for a trade and this man immediately offers to teach him – how to be a thief. “No,” the eldest brother replies, shocked, “that is not an honest calling, and what can one look to earn by it in the end but the gallows?” The thief points out this is only a problem if you get caught. “I will only teach you to take what no one else wants, what no one else can get, or care anything about, and where no one can find you out.” The eldest brother overcomes his moral objections pretty quickly and turns out to be really good at thieving. So he’s all right.

The second brother takes the same approach. His random stranger offers to teach him the art of star-gazing, and thus how to read all manner of secrets in the heavens. This brother needs no convincing, and takes to the work well. At the end of his service his master gives him a spyglass. “With this,” he explains, “you can see all that is passing in the sky and on earth, and nothing can be hidden from you.” That sounds more like magic than skill, but whatever, that’s the two eldest brothers set up just fine. Normally by now they’d both be enchanted or dead. This is confusing.

The third brother runs into a friendly hunter, who takes him home and trains him up; at the end of his service, he gets a particularly impressive bow. Meanwhile the youngest brother almost bucks the trend of jumping aboard the first trade suggested to him, because he doesn’t want to be a tailor, but his prospective boss is cunningly enigmatic about the work and eventually rewards his pupil with a needle that can sew anything without leaving behind a visible seam.

So the four brothers meet up at the appointed time and return home to show off their shiny new skills. Their father tests each boy with a small but difficult task. The second brother is told to divine the number of eggs in a birdsnest; his elder brother is told to steal the eggs without the bird knowing they are gone, upon the success of which the third brother is told to shoot all the eggs in half at one shot. Afterwards, it falls to the youngest brother to sew up the eggs and the baby birds inside, so his eldest brother can slip them back into the nest. A few days later the eggs hatch and the baby birds emerge quite well, though with a thin red line across each of their necks as evidence of their brush with the brothers.

Having established the boys are experts in their individual fields, it does not take long for a real challenge to emerge. The king’s daughter is abducted by a dragon and the king has no idea what to do, beyond sending out word that whoever comes up with a successful rescue plan will win the princess’ hand in marriage. Imaginative, he is not. It has the desired effect, though, because the brothers set out straight away. The stargazer looks through his glass (please stop acting like this is science, Grimms, IT IS MAGIC) and sees the princess trapped on a rock in the middle of the sea. The brothers ask the king for a ship and travel to the aforesaid rock, where the dragon is napping, his huge head balanced on the princess’s lap. That cannot be comfortable. The hunter does not want to risk a shot, lest he kill the princess, so the thief sneaks her out from under the dragon and they sail away.

They have not gone far when the dragon wakes and realises his new pet has disappeared. As he dives for the ship, the hunter shoots him through the heart. Unfortunately, the corpse lands square on the ship, overturning it and throwing them all into the water. This is when Brother No.4 comes into his own. Quickly stitching up a few planks into a raft, he paddles about rebuilding the ship. It’s close enough to seaworthy that they reach the shore safely and the princess is returned to her home.

Here arises the first real difficulty of the whole endeavour – if the reward is marriage to the princess and there are four equally worthy candidates, what’s to be done? The brothers squabble about it in frustrated circles, pointing out the value of their own talents, until the king intervenes. “Each of you is right,” he says, “and as all cannot have the young lady, the best way is for neither of you to have her; and to make up for the loss, I will give each, as a reward for his skill, half a crown.” Not an actual crown, it should be pointed out, he’s talking about money, and not very much of it. The brothers, though, are so glad to have a solution they take the coins and go home happily.

This story is unconventional in a few different ways. The elder brothers make it through the story without turning into terrible and/or dead people! The princess doesn’t have to marry anybody! Though I’d be happier if someone had asked her what she thought about her suitors, and whether she fancied any of them. There are quite a few similar stories from all over the world, including Sicily and China – the number of brothers vary, as do their abilities, challenges and eventual reward, but in every story success depends on the whole family working together. This story may be ambiguous about the morality of thieving and financial compensation for heroic action, but its heart is in the right place.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.107 – Hans the Hedgehog

I was introduced to this Grimm fairy tale by the Jim Henson TV series The Storyteller and therefore mentally fill in all the gaps with sorrowful puppetry. It begins with a wealthy farmer whose horrible friends are always laughing at his childlessness and eventually he snaps, shouting, “I will have a child and it shall be a hedgehog.” That’ll…show them?

Soon enough, his wife does indeed give birth. Their son is an ordinary boy from the waist down, but a hedgehog from the waist up, because in fairy tales wishing for something you don’t really want guarantees you’ll get it.

The farmer’s wife is, unsurprisingly, a bit freaked out. The baby’s spikes preclude his occupying an ordinary cradle, so his parents make a bed of straw behind the kitchen stove and for eight years Hans the Hedgehog sleeps there. His father hates the sight of his mistake so much he wishes his son would die – but still asks the boy what he wants from market when going on a shopping trip, and brings back the requested bagpipes, which seems a pretty kind gesture. It’s confusing. As soon as Hans has the bagpipes, he asks for a rooster, has it fitted with a bridle and rides away on its back into the forest. With him, he takes a boar and a donkey.

For many years, Hans lives alone, tending his beasts and playing his bagpipes. One day, a king lost in the forest follows the sound of his music and asks for help returning to his kingdom. Hans agrees to give directions, if the king will give whatever first greets him upon his return. He actually has the king sign a contract, so he can’t backflip on the terms. You have to admire the forethought.

Of course, it’s the king’s daughter who first greets him, and it turns out the king double-crossed Hans after all – banking on the fact that a feral half-hedgehog man would be unable to read, he wrote that Hans would not have the first thing to greet him. The king explains the whole business to his daughter, who is very pleased at his quick thinking.

Some time later another king gets lost in the forest and encounters Hans. He gets returned to his kingdom after an identical bargain, only he writes what he’s told. Like his predecessor, he’s greeted by his daughter, and is grieved but resigned to the idea he’ll have to hand her over when Hans comes calling. She is likewise composed, if unhappy about it.

Hans takes his time in following up both deals. He’s amassed such an enormous herd of pigs that he sends them to be slaughtered in his father’s village, which makes the farmer sad and not at all for the right reasons – he assumed his son dead long ago and is disappointed at being proved wrong. Hans doesn’t linger, simply has his rooster rebridled before riding off to collect his promised princesses.

The first king has prepared his guardsmen: if anyone comes riding up on a rooster, playing the bagpipes, he’s to be killed on sight. That doesn’t work out so well, as the rooster simply flies in through a window. Hans makes his terms clear: either the girl is handed over, or he kills both her and her father. Left with no choice, she joins Hans in a royal carriage, with all the dowry her miserable father can put together at short notice. They have not driven far when Hans pulls off her shawl and pricks her cruelly with his spikes. “That is your reward for falsehood! Go away! I will have nothing to do with you!”

So according to this story, menacing a young woman into marriage in return for a basic courtesy is A-OK, but trying to escape aforesaid marriage is the height of wickedness. You can probably guess how I feel about that.

Hans is not done yet; he continues straight on to the second kingdom, where he’s allowed inside without protest. Despite her fear, this princess is not fighting her fate. She marries him the same day and Hans gives some orders of his own – when he goes to bed tonight, he’ll shuck off his hedgehog skin, and the king’s men must be ready to take and burn it. All is done exactly as he says. With the skin turned to ashes, Hans becomes fully human. He marries the princess for the second time the next day, to make his transformation official, and shortly afterwards the kingdom is passed over into his care.

A few years later he returns to the farmer’s house and introduces himself as his son. The farmer insists he has no child – that once he had one covered in spikes like a hedgehog, but he disappeared long ago. Hans then tells him the whole story, they celebrate, and the farmer comes to live in his kingdom.

Promises are important in fairy tales, and those who renege on their word are courting disaster, or at least villain status. According to this fairy tale, the second king is the better man, but give me the one who tried to protect his daughter any day.

Also, I still like The Storyteller’s version better.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.104 – Four of the Fearless

To be the protagonist of a fairy tale is to have the deck stacked against you, with suffering around pretty much every corner and an debatable definition of ‘happy’ waiting at the end. It takes courage, is what I’m saying, so this week I’m examining four different stories about heroes and heroines who don’t know the meaning of fear. Is it really bravery if that’s all you know? Is it even healthy? Settle in comfortably, because this is a long one.

Story 1: The Youth Who Wanted to Learn to Shiver

This Grimm fairy tale begins with two brothers, both of whom live with and work for their father. The elder is quick and competent but superstitious, the kind of person who avoids the churchyard after dark, while the younger – perhaps symptomatically of his general cluelessness – doesn’t even know what fear feels like. When his father asks him what trade he wants to learn, he asks to learn to shiver.

That, as his father points out, is not a trade – but it doesn’t seem difficult, either. Upon hearing the story, the parish sexton has the boy come out with him to ring the church bells at midnight. The boy climbs the tower obediently. As he reaches the belfry, a figure in white appears before him. “Who’s that?” the boy demands. “Make haste off; you have no business here tonight.” The figure in white is in fact the sexton, dressed up as a ghost. He does not reply. “Speak, if you are an honest fellow,” the boy warns him, “or else I will fling you downstairs.” He makes good on his word, knocking the sexton aside before continuing calmly into the belfry and ringing the bells as he was told.

When the sexton doesn’t return to bed, his wife wakes the boy and he relates the incident. She hurries into the belfry and finds her husband fallen in a corner with a broken rib. Though he was fairly warned, the blame is laid squarely on the boy’s shoulders and his father sends him away with a purse of money and strict orders to never come back. The boy takes his banishment well, still fixated on the idea of shivering. He mutters about it as he walks along the road and a man passing by overhears him. They strike a deal – if the man can teach him to shiver, the boy will hand over every coin he has.

The man directs him to a gallows tree, where ‘seven fellows have married the hempen maid’ and are hanging still. The boy is to sit there all night. It gets cold, though, and though he lights a fire he can’t get warm. He feels sorry for the corpses swinging around him and cuts each down, positioning them around the fire and cautioning them to beware the flames. Being foggy on the whole concept of death, it doesn’t register with him that they can’t hear – he assumes they’re being difficult. When their clothes catch fire, the boy hangs them up again and goes peacefully to sleep.

His self-appointed teacher returns in the morning for his payment and is taken aback by the boy’s vaguely disgruntled account of the night. Clearly, more extreme measures are required. The boy is back to muttering and attracts another traveller who can’t resist the challenge. This time he’s directed to an enchanted castle where piles of treasure are guarded by evil spirits. The king has declared that anyone who can withstand three nights in the castle will not only receive that fortune, but also the hand of his beautiful daughter. It’s not clear why. Maybe it used to be his castle? Or it’s just the principle of the thing. Evil spirits don’t get prime real estate in this kingdom.

The youth is more than happy to stand watch, taking with him a lathe and a cutting board. He enters the castle unimpeded, kindles a fire and sits down to wait, still depressed over his inability to shiver. Suddenly a shrieking voice erupts from the corner, complaining of the cold. The boy, unshaken, asks the unseen presence to join him by the fire and two large black cats come out from the shadows. “Shall we have a game of cards?” one suggests. The boy consents, but on seeing their claws he assumes they will cheat and kills them instead.

I now loathe this boy.

Immediately black cats and black dogs come streaming from all sides, howling their rage and pulling his fire apart. Undaunted, the boy takes his knife and beats them off; some are killed and the others flee. All this SENSELESS KILLING really takes it out of him and he decides to seek out a bed. Happening upon one, he lies down, but the bed is as cursed as everything else in the place and starts galloping around on its own. At length it tips him out on the mountainside. The boy shrugs that off and lies back down by his fire. When the king comes to check on him the next day, he mistakes sleep for death and is quite startled when the boy jumps cheerfully awake.

The second night begins with an inexplicable ringing and rattling. It stops abruptly when half a man’s body falls down the chimney, and start up again with a howling counterpoint to bring the other half down too. The two parts come together to form a man. He is only the first – more men fall down the same way, bringing with them a skull and nine bones to play at skittles. The boy is invited to play, if he has money to stake on the outcome. And…they play skittles. All night. The boy’s a bit rubbish at it.

And so we come to the third watch. Six men come into the castle, bearing a coffin, in which the boy’s cousin lies dead. Showing for the umpteenth time he really doesn’t get what death means, the boy takes the body in his arms and tries to warm it by the fire. This actually works; the corpse sits up and tries to throttle him. At this, the boy wrestles it back into the coffin.

The castle dredges up one last challenge. A big man with a long beard comes striding in, declaring his intention to kill the intruder. The boy confidently declares that to be unlikely, as he’s the stronger – successfully goading his opponent into a contest of strength. The castle, you see, has a forge around the back, complete with weaponry. Taking up an axe, the big man breaks open an anvil to prove what a tough cookie he is. The boy seizes a second axe and slams it into a second anvil, trapping the man’s beard before proceeding to beat him half to death with an iron bar. Only when he’s promised the legendary treasure does he let the man go.

The next morning, the king is greeted with a living challenger and three chests of gold. Having fulfilled his end of the bargain, the boy is rewarded with the princess’s hand in marriage, and he’s STILL complaining about how disappointing it is not knowing how to shiver. At last a chambermaid, overhearing him, tells the princess she can fix that. She draws a pail of cold water, full of tiny fish, and while her husband is sleeping the princess pours the bucket over his head. He wakes up shouting “That makes me shiver! Dear wife, that makes me shiver!”

Well, someone ends up happy.

Story 2: The Lass that Couldn’t Be Frighted

This Scottish fairy tale comes from Thistle & Thyme, and introduces us to a highly capable young woman. Her mother being dead and her drunk of a father having abandoned her, she manages the family farm on her own. The villagers disapprove. They warn her she’ll probably be devoured by wild beasts or enchanted by malicious fairies, but she snickers a bit at both threats and goes right on managing just fine.

This girl, it should be said, is also pretty and soon enough the young men of the village notice that. One by one they come to make their offers, and one by one she sends them away. She doesn’t need their protection, or their money, and she’s sure as hell not in love. Sulkily, her suitors trail off. The only one not to try his luck is Wully the weaver’s son, who knows how to mind his own business.

One night the girl runs out of meal and takes a sack of grain to the mill to be ground for the next day’s porridge. To her surprise, the windows are dark and no one answers her knock. The miller and his family have gone away on a visit. Swinging her sack back over her shoulder, the girl keeps walking until she comes to the next mill. It’s a long way, and when she gets there she’s greeted with flat refusal. This mill, it turns out, is haunted by a grumpy goblin. If you go inside during the night he’ll not only steal your grain, he’ll beat you up too. “Hoots! Toots! To your goblin!” the girl shouts. “I’ll grind my grain, goblin or no goblin! Miller, give me the key!

He gives her the key, with all his household gathered around as witnesses to say whatever happens next is her own fault. She sets about getting the wheel moving, pours her grain in the hopper and sits down to rest her feet after all that walking. As she hasn’t brought much grain, it doesn’t take long to be ground. The meal streams into her sack, and she gets up to go. All with no sign of the supernatural.

Ah, spoke too soon. As she picks up her sack a goblin rises through the floor, a club in one hand, the other reaching for her grain. “No you don’t!” she shouts furiously. Grabbing the club, she takes a swing, and the goblin takes to his heels. The girl chases him around the mill, whirling the club indiscriminately. The goblin gets backed up against the hopper and the girl kicks him straight in to spin between the millstones.

If he was human, it would kill him pretty quickly; being a goblin, it just really hurts. He screams at the girl to let him go, but she’s holding a grudge about the almost theft and is tempted to leave him there. Only when he promises to leave the mill and never come back does she shut off the water, bringing the wheel to a halt. She drags him bodily out of the hopper and he limps off, never to be seen again.

The girl collects her flour, returns the key and goes home. By the next morning, the story has spread through the miller’s villager and into hers. Wully hears it and is sad, thinking the girl really doesn’t need anyone in her life, let alone him. Walking past her farm later that day, though, he hears screaming and dashes to the rescue, thinking she must be under siege by a gang of robbers at the very least.

It’s worse. She’s under attack by misogynistic narrative contrivance, in the form of a mouse. Wully enjoys the moment with thoroughly unbecoming satisfaction and won’t get rid of the rodent until she admits she may need a man to look after her. Then they get married, and he holds it over her for THE REST OF HER LIFE.

I say she just needs more cats. And someone who doesn’t find her phobias funny, or her strength intimidating.

Story 3: The Prince Who Was Afraid of Nothing

This is another Grimm story, bearing a strong resemblance to ‘The Youth Who Wanted to Learn to Shiver’, but with extra royalty. A fearless prince grows bored in his own kingdom and sets off to explore the world. On foot. Even blisters hold no dread for him. At length he comes to the house of a giant and walks straight into the courtyard, where a game of skittles is set up. Each pin is the same height as the prince, but being exceptionally strong as well as fearless (or rather, fearless because he’s exceptionally strong) he bowls easily.

The giant overhears his whoops of victory and comes out, indignant at the prince’s meddling. Blue blood does not guarantee decent manners; instead of apologising for his intrusion, the prince challenges the giant to a contest of strength. But the giant is clever. He tells the prince to prove his strength by fetching an apple from the tree of life. He has looked himself, because his wife yearns for the fruit, but has never found the tree.

The prince accepts the challenge without a second thought and strides off in a random direction. Fate appears to be squarely on his side, because before long he finds the garden where the tree grows. It is surrounded by an iron wall, and the wall is guarded by ferocious beasts…all of which are, fortuitously, asleep. Swinging himself nimbly over the wall, the prince shins up the tree of life and reaches for the apple. His hand passes through a ring hanging in the way, causing strength to surge through his veins. As if he needed it. He exits by kicking open the gate and the lion that lay before it, far from ripping him to pieces like the intruder he is, follows him adoringly.

The prince returns triumphantly to the giant, who in turn hastens to give the apple to his wife. Though he neglects to inform her he didn’t pluck it himself, she guesses from the absence of the ring on his arm. Assuring her he merely left it at home, he hurries back to the prince, but this token doesn’t come so easy. They wrestle for it, without either party gaining ground. Cunningly, the giant proposes a temporary peace while they cool themselves in the stream. The prince blithely strips off, leaving his clothes – and more importantly, the ring – piled up on the bank. The moment he dives in, the giant takes the ring.

It’s not entirely unguarded; the lion gives chase and rips the ring away, returning it to the prince. The giant retaliates by jumping the unsuspecting prince while he’s dressing and putting out his eyes. Then, leading him to a precipice, the giant leaves him to die. His idea is to rob the inevitable corpse. The lion thwarts this plan too, seizing a mouthful of the prince’s shirt and dragging him away from the edge. Stubbornly, the giant tries again with a deeper abyss, but the lion shoves him over instead. His body breaks on the rocks below.

Immediate peril being averted, the lion leads his charge to a different stream and flicks water onto his ruined eyes, healing them instantaneously. These are miracle waters! Completely healed, the prince continues on his way.

The next place he stops is as inadvisable as the first. It is an enchanted castle, home to a girl described as ‘of fine stature and appearance, but quite black’. That’s the first sign this story’s about to get very bad. She’s been cursed by a wicked enchanter and the only way to save her is to stay in the castle for three nights without making a sound. The prince is happy to try his luck. He’s less happy later that evening, when evil spirits swarm from every nook and cranny to beat the crap out of him.

He makes it through the night without opening his mouth. Come morning, the girl comes to bathe his wounds with more miracle water. As she departs, the prince notices her feet are now white. CUE TEETH-GNASHING RAGE. Throughout the next two nights, the prince endures similar mistreatment, and each time the girl’s skin bleaches a little further. By the third morning, she’s entirely white. The enchantment now being lifted, servants appear out of nowhere to arrange a wedding feast – because this curse is RACIST AS HELL.

Story 4: The Dauntless Girl

This fourth tale is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s British Folk Tales – a selection, which introduces us to Mary the indomitable housemaid. One evening the farmer she works for is drinking at home with his friends when they run out of whisky, and as no one wants to brave the long dark walk to the village to get more, Mary’s boss sends her out instead. He also puts her at the centre of a wager with his sceptical, sexist cronies. They can’t believe any girl could be as fearless as the farmer claims, so they decide to test Mary’s mettle.

The next night she is sent out to the church at midnight and asked to bring back a skull. This order probably rings some warning bells from the word go, but she sets out obediently enough. Unknown to Mary, one of the farmer’s friends has hired the local sexton to hide among the bodies in the dead house so as to frighten her away.

He’s not very good at it. “Let that be,” he moans, when she picks up one skull. “That’s my mother’s skull bone.” Mary obligingly stoops for another, only to be stopped by a groan of, “That’s my father’s skull bone.” Exasperated, she chooses a third. “Father or mother, sister or brother,” she says firmly, “I must have a skull bone and that’s my last word.” With that she slams the door of the dead house shut and walks home.

The men are impressed and a little alarmed by her efficiency. Returning to check on the sexton, they find him lying on the floor, having apparently died of fright. The farmer feels too guilty to accept his winnings, so passes on the wagered guinea to Mary.

Word of her determination spreads and one day a squire comes to the farm, planning to poach her. His house is being haunted by the ghost of his mother, who is frightening away all the servants. Mary has no problem with ghosts, but wants that extra skill reflected in her wages before agreeing to anything. The girl has sense.

She’s also excellent at handling recently departed relatives. Instead of pretending the squire’s mother isn’t there, she lays a place for her at the table and offers her every dish. She makes such an impression that when the squire leaves on a business trip, the ghost appears to Mary alone and asks her to come down to the cellar. There she reveals two bags of gold, one large and one small – the former, her son’s inheritance, and the latter, Mary’s reward.

Mary has other ideas. When the squire gets back, she takes him down the cellar and reveals the bags. “The little one is for you,” she explains, “and the big one is for me.” The squire chooses not to argue, and by crossing the silverware at mealtimes, Mary prevents the ghost from setting him right. After thinking the matter over, the squire decides that a dauntless girl would make for a fantastic wife, and proposes. Mary accepts. So she ends up getting all the gold, and the house, and a husband who appreciates her skill set. Win.

What I find interesting about these stories is the ways in which they view fearlessness, and how gender impacts plot. Where the boy from the first story is mostly oblivious as opposed to actually brave, the prince is a traditional macho hero whose innate specialness overcomes all obstacles. Meanwhile, the girl from ‘The Lass that Couldn’t Be Frighted’ is given a ridiculous Achilles heel to make her less threatening. Mary survives rather better. Her fearlessness is really rock hard pragmatism and a confidence in her own capability. Guess which one I like best?

Review No.119 – The Wild Girl

The Wild Girl – Kate Forsyth

Vintage, 2013

Dortchen Wild is twelve years old when she meets a young scholar collecting folk tales. His name is Wilhelm Grimm and together with his poverty-stricken, ramshackle family, he lives next door to the Wilds’ apothecary shop. Dortchen dreams of one day winning his heart, like the princes and princesses in the stories she loves so much, but as the infamous Napoleon’s troops sweep across the German kingdoms in a bloody wave of revolution, the old certainties of Dortchen’s world begin to crumble. In these dark days, nothing is simple, and nothing is safe.

Though the characters and plots are unrelated, this book is the thematic sequel to Forsyth’s earlier novel Bitter Greens. Both are about real women, storytellers whose work lived on but whose lives are largely forgotten. I have mixed feelings about The Wild Girl – on one hand, so little is known about Dortchen Wild’s life that the basis for much of Forsyth’s plot feels decidedly tenuous and given the very dark turns this story takes, being so unsure of what’s the truth makes me uncomfortable. On the other hand, I admire Forsyth’s determination to resurrect Dortchen’s story and in order to do that, she had to work with what clues she had. History forgets women like Dortchen too easily – The Wild Girl is a powerful effort to remember them.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.101 – The Valiant Little Tailor

In this Grimm brothers story, a tailor purchases jam. That doesn’t sound like the beginning of anything other than lunch, but it’s summer and the tailor, having incautiously left his bread and jam unattended, finds the party crashed by a swarm of flies. He snatches up a nearby bolt of cloth and swats with sharp accuracy, killing seven flies in the one blow.

The success goes to his head somewhat. “What a fellow you are!” he tells himself. “The whole town shall knows of this. Ah – not one city alone; the whole world shall know it!” This being pre-Twitter, he hastily stitches himself a belt that reads ‘Seven at One Blow’, so that everyone who meets him shall know what a fearsome slayer of flies he is.

He now considers himself prepared for great adventures. Putting an old cheese in one pocket, and an unsuspecting bird in the other, he strides off briskly. His way leads him up a hill, at the top of which a giant sits minding his own business. The tailor bounds up to bother him. “Good-day, comrade,” he cries. “In faith, you sit there and see the whole world stretched below you. I am also on my road thither to try my luck. Have you a mind to go with me?”

The giant looks him up and down, mostly down, utterly unimpressed. The tailor responds to the dismissal by opening his coat to reveal the grandiose belt. Assuming the ‘seven at one blow’ refers to men the tailor has killed, the giant’s interest is caught and he wants to prove the claim. Thankfully not by killing random passersby; no, he wants a contest of strength. The giant squeezes a stone so hard it drips water, and asks the tailor to do the same. Instead of taking up a stone, the tailor squeezes his cheese, which yields with considerably more ease. The giant tries another challenge, tossing a stone so high it disappears from sight. The tailor throws his bird, which naturally enough doesn’t return. You’d think the giant might notice that his competitor’s stone has wings, but apparently not.

He’s not satisfied, though. Leading the tailor to a felled oak tree, he asks for help carrying it out of the forest. The tailor agrees at once and offers to hold up the boughs while the giant carries the trunk. This means that the giant must necessarily turn his back to walk in front, and far from helping carry the tree, the tailor hitches a ride amidst the branches. Delighted with his own trickery, he begins to whistle. When the giant stops to rest, he leaps down to embrace his end like he’s been holding it up all along.

Next they pass a cherry tree. The giant seizes the top of the tree and bends it sideways, giving it to the tailor to hold, who of course can’t hold it down for two seconds. It springs back and takes him with it, sending him flying through the air. He lands on the other side uninjured and tells the sceptical giant that he just wanted the view, that leaping over trees is his thing, how about you try it? The giant does, and gets stuck. He’s too embarrassed to keep asking questions.

A rapport of sorts having been struck, the giant invites the tailor home for the night. He doesn’t mention that he has two fellow giants as housemates, or that they plan to kill their guest during the night. Fortunately for the tailor, the bed he’s given is far too big for comfort and he slips off to sleep on the floor, so the blow that was meant to kill him merely ruins the bed. The next morning, he bounces out to greet his hosts and they run away in terror.

Well fortified by this encounter, the tailor continues travelling. At length he grows tired and stops to sleep. Being the kind of man he is, he chooses the courtyard of a palace for this little nap. Passersby stop to read his belt, make the same assumption as the giants and report his arrival to the king. A courtier is sent to wait with the tailor and when he wakes, asks him to lend his clearly legendary fighting skills to the service of the king. “Solely on that account did I come here,” the tailor lies, and just like that is given the cushiest possible post, because the kingdom is at peace and he need not prove anything.

His arrival stirs considerable resentment in the king’s palace. The courtiers worry that should the kingdom go to war, he’ll claim all the glory of victory for himself, and work themselves into such a state they approach the king to offer an ultimatum: the tailor goes or they do. Hiring a man who kills seven at a blow is easier than firing him – the king is too afraid to dismiss him directly, so comes up with a suicidal task. There are a pair of giant robbers living in the forest, so powerful that no one can stop them. It’s the tailor’s task to kill them both. If he succeeds, he will win the king’s daughter as his bride and reign over half the kingdom.

The tailor likes the sound of that and strides off into the forest. He soon locates the giants, who are slumped asleep under a tree. The tailor climbs that tree, shins along a branch so he’s positioned directly above the sleepers and starts dropping stones on them. Waking this way, each giant assumes the other is attacking him and they start fighting. It ends with trees broken in all directions and two giants lying dead on the ground. The tailor concludes his task by stabbing both giants through the heart so it looks like he killed them himself and goes to inform the king.

Who promptly produces another excuse. A unicorn is running rampant in the same forest – if the tailor wants to earn his princess and title, he must catch it. I’m pretty sure this is the first time a unicorn has shown up in Fairy Tale Tuesdays! The tailor sets off alone, as before. Finding the unicorn isn’t difficult; it no sooner sees him than it charges, but being very light of foot he manages to jump aside in time. The unicorn rams the tree behind him instead, and can’t get its horn free. The tailor harnesses it with rope, cuts it free and brings it back to the king.

But what kind of fairy tale monarch demands only two tasks? There has to be a third! In the Forest of All Things Havoc, there is a wild boar in need of capture. The tailor positions himself beside a conveniently isolated chapel. When the boar runs at him, he skips aside, so that it overshoots into the building and the tailor just has to shut the door. Out of excuses, the king allows his champion to marry his none too enthusiastic daughter, and hands over half his kingdom for the couple to rule.

The tailor, it turns out, talks in his sleep. One night his wife overhears him muttering about waistcoats and yard-measures and puts the clues together. It’s the last straw. She runs to her father, demanding he fix things, and he promises to have the tailor kidnapped during the night. Unfortunately for the royals, the tailor overhears their plotting and comes up with a plan of his own. Pretending to be asleep that night, he starts muttering again. “Boy, make me this waistcoat, and stitch up these trousers, or I will beat the yard-measure about your ears! Seven have I killed with one blow; two giants have I slain; a unicorn have I led captive; and a wild boar have I caught; and shall I be afraid of those who stand without my chamber?”

The king’s servants hear him and flee. After that, no one dares oppose him, and so the con artist becomes king. Self-belief can be a scary thing.

This is one of those stories coded to try and make you sympathise with a protagonist whose only valuable qualities appear to be luck, cunning and underdog status. I don’t hate the tailor, but I’m desperately sorry for the princess. An extraordinary ego does not a hero make, and she’s married to him. She should get with the princesses from ‘King Thrushbeard’ and ‘The Tinderbox’ and start a club.