Fairy Tale Tuesday No.20 – Friends of the Frog

Witches turn people into frogs. Everyone knows that. It’s traditional. Some authors have even turned it into a joke – Terry Pratchett exploring the hard physics of transformation in his Tiffany Aching novel A Hat Full of Sky is genius fantasy – but this week I’m exploring the origins of the legend by comparing four different fairy tales that introduce us to talking frogs. If they prove anything, it’s that frogs are a resourceful lot, and they also attract the lost possessions of royalty like iron filings to a magnet.

Version 1: The Queen’s Ring

Taken from the 1985 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’s collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses, this story introduces us to a beautiful but deeply depressed queen who is walking alone in the meadows around her palace wondering what has become of her husband. He went away to war and for months she has had no news of him. At last, tired out by her restless wandering, the queen finds her way to a well where she sits to rest. It is a favourite place with her, the place where the king gave her a beautiful diamond ring as a memento of their love and one last kiss before he rode away to war. Lost in memory, the queen slips the ring from her finger and presses it against her cheek, begging it to tell her where her husband is. Instead it slips from her hand, falling into the well. Horrified, the queen sobs like she has lost her husband all over again.

Her tears do not go unnoticed. A curious frog climbs out of the well and inquires why she is so upset. Apparently too upset to worry about trifling things like frogs who can talk, the queen tells it about her ring. The frog offers to retrieve it for her if she will provide a favour in return, and the queen, rather rashly, promises it anything it wants if it will only find her ring. The frog duly returns with the ring in one webbed hand and claims its favour – a kiss from the queen, on the mouth. She is completely taken aback. Of course she doesn’t want to kiss a slimy frog. She phrases her feelings with more care, grateful for its assistance, explaining that she will kiss no one but her husband. The frog is unmoved by this connubial loyalty. No kiss, no ring. It is prepared to jump back into the well, taking the queen’s ring with it; she relents, lifting it so that she can kiss its cold mouth.

But then she’s not kissing a frog any more, she’s kissing a man, a man with her husband’s laughing voice who is putting his arms around her. After the war, he tells her, when he was riding home, a mist descended and he was separated from the rest of his men. When the mist cleared, he was alone in front of a small house in the forest where a beautiful girl sat spinning silver thread. She was happy to offer him a night’s lodging, but in return for a kiss, and the king won’t kiss anyone except his own wife. The girl leaps up, turning into a raging witch. He’s no king, she screams, he’s nothing but a cold-blooded frog. No sooner has she said that then that is what he is, and until a beautiful woman kisses his new shape of her own free will, he will stay that way.

It is a long way back to his own kingdom with legs so short. On his way he sees many lovely women and perhaps one of them might have taken pity on him – but he has never kissed anyone but his wife the queen, and he will kiss no one else. So he makes his slow and painful way back to his own kingdom, where his wife was waiting by a well. With that, the king puts the diamond ring back on her finger and together they return to their palace. The story concludes with a happily ever after, but I could see that anyway. This couple took their vows pretty seriously. For wetter or for worse…

Version 2: The Friendly Frog

This fairy tale is taken from the 1999 Puffin Books anthology Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales but was actually written by Madame d’Aulnoy, a prolific contemporary of Perrault. Her story also begins with a king at war. Fearing for his wife, he ignores her protests to remain with him and hides her away in a forest stronghold where his enemies cannot possibly find her. Once there, however, she broods on the loss of her home and husband to the point where she decides he must be trying to make her suffer, though he writes many letters to explain the situation at home. Eventually the queen decides she’s been exiled long enough. Pretending she wants a chariot for hunting, she formulates an escape plan and orders a grand hunt to be commenced. Instead of taking her back to the king, the horses go wild and run away with her, overturning the chariot and pinning her foot underneath. Not exactly the escape she had planned.

When she opens her eyes at long last, she is no longer alone. A female giant is standing over her, wearing a lion’s skin and carrying a stone club. The queen is convinced this must be what lies on the other side of death, but the giantess just laughs. She is, she explains, the lion-witch. She is also lonely, bored and planning to take the protesting queen home with her as a sort of pet. With this explanation, she takes the form of a lion and carries the queen home with her down an endless stair into a vast cavern, where monsters dwell in a lake of quicksilver – but there is nothing more dangerous here than the lion-witch herself. Having recovered from her injuries, the queen is set her first task, the making of a fly-pasty. For a resourceful peasant, that might not be so impossible, even with a chronic lack of flies. The queen, however, has never made pastry in her life and is inclined to fall into despair instead of making a plan. She doesn’t even try looking for flies. Instead she starts sobbing about how much she misses her husband and how worried she is he’ll fall in love with somebody else.

She looks up, eventually, and sees someone who has more problems than she does – a frog who is being swallowed alive by a raven. This is enough to lift her from her depressed lethargy and she goes at the raven with a stick, scaring it enough to make it release the frog. It is very grateful to the queen. She knows this because it tells her so. Unlike the queen in the previous story, she doesn’t take the matter of a talking frog in her stride and demands explanations, which the frog duly provides. She is not, in fact, a real frog – she has a little fairy blood, a strong sense of curiosity, and a cap of roses that is supposed to protect her but got left behind at an inopportune moment, hence her encounter with a hungry raven. To thank the queen for her kindness, the frog then gathers together an army of her frog friends (six thousand of them, to be precise) to hunt down flies for the lion-witch’s pasty.

That’s not the end of their friendship, though. The air of the witch’s cave is toxic and the queen begins to build herself a hut for some protection against it. The frog reunites her army of followers and somehow, with mysterious architectural prowess for creatures who don’t actually possess opposable thumbs, they create a beautiful little hut. She doesn’t get to keep it for long. The monsters from the lake drive her out with their screaming and wailing and promptly move in the moment she’s out the door, so she goes again to the frog, who’s very sympathetic and quickly puts together an even better house that same night.

The queen needs its sanctuary more than ever now, because she has discovered she is expecting a child. Not that this induces any kindness from the lion-witch. The queen’s next task is to produce, from somewhere in this wasteland, a bouquet of flowers. She turns to the frog, who enlists the assistance of a kindly bat, who – with the loan of the magical cap of roses – returns shortly with a beautiful posy tucked under her wing. The frog is a very useful friend to have, but if you’re thinking she can conjure a similarly successful plan of escape, you’d be wrong. She goes through a few rites and announces to her horror-struck friend that actually, Fate says no. The queen will not escape. She’ll have a very pretty daughter though, the frog adds in a dismal attempt to cheer her up. It’s not all bad news!

Tell that to the king. When the war is over, he sends word to the queen, only to be told by her servants that she died in a hunting accident. He is overcome at first by his grief, withdrawing to the palace to mourn alone, but he’s a dutiful leader and pulls himself together to start rebuilding after the war. He doesn’t know that the woman he’s literally tearing his hair out over is not only alive, but has just given birth to their first child, a baby girl of extraordinary beauty. The queen names her Moufette and manages, with considerable difficulty, to convince the lion-witch not to eat her. Months go past. As the baby grows, the queen’s mind returns to her husband and her fears that he will have already replaced her. It disturbs her so much that the frog offers to make the long and difficult journey from the lion-witch’s cavern to Moufette’s father’s kingdom so that she can tell him the truth. She takes with her a message written by the queen in her own blood – the only ink she has to use in this place – and, in a strange little carriage made from tortoise-shell and lizard-skin, she sets off, accompanied by frogs and rats for servants, with snails for mounts. Which makes for a remarkable spectacle if you happen to see them passing by, but isn’t so good for speed.

It takes her NINE YEARS to get there. And when she does, it’s to a scene of festivity, because the queen’s fears have finally been realised – the king’s getting married again. The frog is affronted on her friend’s behalf. She tells the king about his wife’s imprisonment and the birth of his daughter, providing as evidence the ragged letter written by the queen. He is ecstatic. In the middle of his eager questioning, though, a guest loudly denounces the frog as ‘scum of the marshes’, insisting that she is no more than an attention-seeking liar trying to hoodwink the whole court. She throws that back in his face with a display of fairy magic, turning her company into humans dressed so well they could have come from the greatest of courts. They keep changing, turning into dancing flowers, leaping waterfalls and gleaming boats, before finally returning to their original shapes as frogs and rats. The king drops his wedding plans. With a ring given to him by the frog to help him find his way, he sets forth alone to rescue his wife and daughter.

They’re not doing so badly, though. The lion-witch has for some years been permitting them to leave the cavern to hunt with her, and little Moufette’s aim is excellent. It is during one of these hunts, while the queen and her daughter are riding on the witch’s lion form, that the king sees them and recognises his wife. Though they are moving too fast for him to follow, he is guided by the frog’s ring to the cavern where they live. The lion-witch is aware of him. Fate organised this one too, but she’s not letting him in that easily, and constructs a palace of crystal at the centre of the quicksilver lake where she hides her two prisoners. The monsters surround it. This is phase two of her plan, phase one being to attack the king herself the moment he enters the cavern by launching herself at him in lioness form. This doesn’t work out too well. He is handy with a sword and furious about the loss of his family to boot. Cutting off one of her paws, he presses his advantage and pins her beneath the tip of his sword, demanding the return of his wife and child. She jeeringly points at the lake – if you want them, go and get them. She then disappears and the king is left to find a way to the crystal palace alone.

And it takes him a while. Three years, in fact, living off bitter fruits and sleeping on the hard ground, spending each day running around the lake trying to catch the palace as it floats from one side to the other. The monsters seem to find it all a bit entertaining. Eventually, one of the dragons approaches him with an offer – it will help him rescue his wife and daughter, in exchange for a certain tit-bit to which the dragon has taken a fancy. Suspicious? Oh, yes. But the king’s spent three years getting nowhere and is so grateful for the help that right now he would give the dragon anything at all. With its assistance, they fight their way to the palace. The queen, who has had to wait a whole lot longer than three years, starts kicking down the walls and uses chunks of crystal to join the fight. Go, queen! At last the battle is won. The long-parted couple fly into each other’s arms, and…

…just like that, they’re home. In the king’s own palace, around a feast no less, with Moufette beside them and everyone in an amazed uproar at this extraordinary turn of events. Yay! Happy endings! The celebrations draw royalty from all over the world and among them is Prince Moufy, who falls immediately in love with Moufette. Well, their names match. That’s a good omen, right? And the king makes no objections, he will let his daughter marry anyone she thinks will make her happy. Of course, unless a lot more time has passed since their miraculous return than specified by the story, Moufette is only about thirteen years old. Apparently that’s okay in this part of the world, because the betrothal is quickly announced and Prince Moufy returns to his own country to make preparations for the wedding.

The prince has been gone for several months when an envoy arrives from the dragon. You didn’t think he was just going to go away, did you? He reminds the king of his promise and explains that the tid-bit he has in mind is Moufette, baked into a pie. The king is one of those people who takes honour very, very seriously and realising he’s actually thinking about this, the queen is sent into a state of livid shock. She pleads with the envoy herself, begging him to spare her daughter, but is met with polite, firm denial. She then faints and the princess, who is after all the one who may soon be eaten, is forced to pull herself together so that she could look after her mother.

The king doesn’t give her up after all, and the dragon offers an unexpected alternative. The princess will be spared if she will consent to marry his nephew, who is reportedly young, handsome and rich. Moufette’s parents think this sounds a much better option, but she’s having none of it. She will marry Prince Moufy or be a pie. Her determination is so immoveable that at last she is brought to a mountain top to await the dragon, surrounded by a company of mourners and her grieving parents. The queen wails aloud, accusing the frog of deserting her, but when the dragon’s envoy demands the mourners disperse, no one tries to resist. They decamp instead to a neighbouring hill-top so that they can at least see what happens to the princess. The dragon is already on his way – huge, blue, and overweight. That’s what happens when you eat too many pies.

As he slowly flaps his way towards the mountain where the princess is waiting for him, the mistakenly accused frog is also winging away, riding on hawk-back to find Prince Moufy. She creates for him a three-headed, fire-breathing horse, a weightless sword and a coat made from flexible diamond, then sends him off at an impossible speed, so that he reaches Moufette before the dragon. With his killer steed, the prince draws first blood in the ensuing battle, and with the watching mourners cheering him on he fights the dragon down to the ground, where he finishes it off with his fairy sword. To everyone’s shock, a dandyishly dressed young man steps from the dragon’s severed neck and starts hitting on the prince. “How can I ever repay you, my gallant deliverer?” he declares, before explaining that he was enchanted by the lion-witch and it was on her command that he was to devour the princess. He pays his respects to the bemused princess and the whole scene descends into happy pandemonium.

To crown off the rejoicing, the frog flies down from on high and transforms into a majestic noblewoman. And the crowning is quite literal, because she is so impressed by Moufette’s constancy that she gives each lover a myrtle wreath and turns the dragon’s bones into an arch in commemoration of the event. The marriage takes place the next day. Between a fairy frog and a dragon prince, it must have been an interesting ceremony. Madame d’Aulnoy leaves it to her reader’s imagination. I don’t blame her.

Version 3: Cherry, or the Frog-Bride

Taken from the Dean&Son Ltd. collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales, this story is named after a young girl who is so fond of cherries that Cherry is what everyone calls her. When the king of the land sends out his three sons to see the world, all three happen to see Cherry standing at her window brushing her hair and fall madly in love with her. So madly that they all take out their swords and start fighting. The abbess of a local nunnery comes to see what is going on. Now, she has some unpleasant history with Cherry already, being very fond of cherries herself and none too pleased at the scarcity of supply. Blaming her for the fight instead of the brutish princes, she wishes the girl would turn into an ugly frog and end up under a bridge at the world’s end. Perhaps it is her good relationship with God, but no sooner has she wished it than Cherry disappears. The princes come to their senses, shake hands and go home without a second thought for the poor cursed girl.

The king, meanwhile, has decided he is too old to rule and arranges three trials to determine which of his sons would rule best in his stead. The first task is to seek out one hundred ells of cloth so fine in weave that it can be drawn through his ring. I have no idea how much a hundred ells of cloth might mean. Let’s assume it’s a lot. The elder two brothers ride off with large companies to seek out the finest of fabrics, but the third prince goes off on his own and for some reason chooses a dirty, depressing road. It takes him not to a weaver, but a certain bridge, where his sighs draw the attention of a kind-hearted frog. Though he’s quite rude to her, she offers him her help in the form of a length of fine, if grubby, cloth. He reluctantly thanks her and, having nothing better to show for his journey, brings it home to his father. When he draws it from his pocket to be compared with the offerings of his brothers, it is magically clean and goes through the ring without the slightest difficulty.

Well, the first task was at least humanly possible. The second task would imply that the king is having second thoughts about giving up his throne. He wants a dog so small that it can lie down in a nutshell. While the older brothers head off in a definite panic, the youngest returns to the frog’s bridge, where his problems are once again solved. He comes back with a hazel nut, and when his father cracks it, a white dog runs out so little that it can scamper around on the king’s palm. The king is thrilled with his new pet. Reconciled to retirement, his last task would seem to be the easiest – whoever brings home the fairest bride will be crowned in his place.

The elder two brothers have renewed optimism. The youngest, for once, does not. He doubts that the frog can produce a beautiful young woman the same way it has found him cloth and nut-dogs, but he goes to ask anyway. The frog tells him that she can help – only he must not laugh at anything that happens. Still not convinced that she can do what she promises, the prince returns home, followed by a peculiar little carriage made from an actual pumpkin, drawn by actual water rats. Take note, Cinderella, this is how girls without fairy godmothers get to the ball. At the last minute, though, magic does intervene, and the prince turns around to find himself facing a grand carriage. When the door opens, down steps the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen – and he has seen her before, because it’s none other than poor Cherry, restored to her own shape. The prince is awarded the crown and gets the girl. Hopefully her newly discovered streak of sorcery will be enough to defend her if her husband’s brothers decide to recommence the fight that started the whole mess in the first place.

Version 4: The Frog Prince

This one is from the 1974 Children’s Press edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the concerns the most famous frog of them all. When a king’s youngest and loveliest daughter is out playing in the castle gardens one hot day, tossing her golden ball up and down beside a quiet little fountain, it falls from her hand and rolls into the water, which is so deep she can’t see even the glint of her favourite toy. She begins to cry. A voice rises from the water, asking what is wrong, and she looks around to see a frog watching her. She tells him mournfully about her ball and he agrees to retrieve it for her, if in exchange she will allow him to be her constant companion – eating from her plate, drinking from her cup, sleeping in her bed. It’s a creepy proposition and the princess, though she agrees, has no intention of actually doing as he asks. When the frog returns with her ball in his mouth, she runs off happily, leaving him behind without so much as a thank you.

But oh dear, promises are a dangerous matter in a fairy tale. They have a habit of catching up with you. The next day, while the royal court is at dinner in the great hall, a strange splashing sound is heard on the steps outside and a knock is heard at the door, with a voice calling for the king’s youngest daughter. She rises to open it, sees the frog, and slams it quickly shut again. When she returns to her seat, the king is surprised at her distress and wants to know who was waiting outside, joking jovially about giants coming to take her away. He is less sympathetic when the princess explains the story and insists she lets the frog in.

It’s not an enjoyable meal for her. She is forced to lift the frog up so that he can reach her plate and eat with her, though his presence is enough to almost make her sick. Afterwards he wants to go to bed. The princess begins to cry, horrified at the thought of the cold slimy frog in her own clean, safe bed. You’d think her father might draw the line here, but instead he totally backs the frog and the princess has to take her unwanted guest with her to her bedchamber. She tries to compromise by leaving him in a corner of the room. He won’t leave her alone, coming up to the bed and threatening to go to her father if she doesn’t lift him up. Furiously, she snatches him up and – in an act of startling cruelty – hurls him at the wall.

But it isn’t a frog who falls to the ground. It is a beautiful prince, enchanted by a witch to remain in that shape, in the fountain. It isn’t explained why throwing him at a wall was enough to free him, or how he managed to leave the fountain after all without the princess’s help. The power of a promise seems completely unlimited. The princess likes this version of her guest much better and the next morning, when a magnificent carriage arrives out of the blue, happily accepts that she will be whisked away to the prince’s own kingdom. With the carriage has arrived his loyal servant Henry, who grieved so much when his master was turned into a frog that he had three iron bands placed around his heart for fear it would break. As he helps the young couple into the carriage, it apparently having been decided in the night that they will get married, he is so full of joy that the iron around his heart splits apart.

Possibly I am being unnecessarily literally minded, but riding around with bits of sharp metal inside you? It doesn’t sound like a joy that is going to be very long-lived if he doesn’t get to a surgeon right now. Also, what is the king thinking at this point? The Grimms are in such haste to conclude everything with a wedding that they are marrying off a pair of volatile children who have only known each other for ONE DAY!

The frogs of these stories are each described as ugly at least once, which is strange, because I personally think frogs are pretty cute. Not cute enough to kiss, though, or take home to sleep on my pillow. Something I find intriguing about these four stories is how both female frogs appear to have a considerable degree of control over their return to human form and at least some command of magic. The male frogs, on the other hand, have to bribe the right royal into restoring them. And only one frog requires a kiss to be human again. In the same collection as this version of ‘The Frog Prince’ is one of ‘Briar Rose’, in which a childless queen finds a fortune telling frog in her bath who predicts the birth of her daughter. It just goes to show, you can find them anywhere.

This is the last Fairy Tale Tuesday of the year – I will be back with heroic birds and musical espionage on the first of January 2013.

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Fairy Tale Tuesday No.19 – Ricky of the Tuft

Ricky is not a name automatically associated with fairy tales – generally if someone is named, they will hold the traditional hero name of Jack, or possibly Hans – but in this fairy tale, taken from the Puffin Books collection Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales, Ricky is apparently the family name of royalty. When a queen produces a son so misshapen he can barely be recognised as human, the fairy present at the birth tries to mitigate her depression by predicting that the boy will be brilliant of mind, and gives him a very surprising gift – not beauty, as might have been expected in the circumstances, but the ability to bestow his own degree of intelligence upon whomsoever he should love most. Fortunately for him, he lives up to the hype from an early age, entertaining the court with his wit and wisdom. He is given the nickname Ricky of the Tuft in consequence of his one small tuft of hair, but it seems more affectionate than malicious. He is clever enough to make himself popular.

Seven or eight years later, the queen of a neighbouring kingdom gives birth to two daughters. The first is so exquisitely beautiful that the fairy present for her birth – the same who was there for Ricky’s, is she some sort of a midwife? – decides to moderate the queen’s gleeful gloating by pronouncing that the girl will grow up as stupid as she is beautiful. Because obviously a little infant can’t be allowed an ego moment. The queen’s horror is compounded moments later when the second princess is born, if not as ugly as Ricky, then at least extremely plain. Here, the fairy is on more solid ground. She decrees that this girl will be so sensible that no one will care whether she is pretty or not. As for the elder girl, the fairy backtracks slightly, giving her the gift of bestowing beauty on the one she loves. I expect you can see where this is going already. Fairy tale romance is not subtle.

As the sisters grow older, their gifts and flaws grow in equal measure. When in company together, it is the eldest to whom everyone flocks at first, drawn by her beauty – but her inanity and awkwardness quickly drive them away, while her sister’s intelligent conversation is always appreciated. The first princess is not so stupid that she isn’t aware of that, or that she can’t wish for some of her sister’s innate poise. None of this is her fault, but nothing she does can help, and even her mother doesn’t understand how hard it is for her. One day she is sitting alone in the woods, crying over her impossible situation, when an ugly little man in very pretty clothes comes towards her and introduces himself. Yes, it is Ricky of the Tuft – how did you know? He has seen the princess’s portrait and fell so deeply in love with it that he has left his father’s kingdom in order to meet her.

Her misery is unexpected. To him, beauty is the ultimate achievement, and once you have it you should be completely happy. The princess tries, somewhat ineptly, to explain her troubles. At first he refuses to accept that the princess is stupid at all – “nothing more clearly displays good sense, madam,” he insists, “than a belief that one is not possessed of it. It follows, therefore, that the more one has, the more one fears it to be wanting.” Told you he was clever. The princess doesn’t know how to argue with this, so she just tells him again how miserable she is, and he announces triumphantly that he can solve her problems with the gift bestowed on him at birth. The only condition is that she will agree to marry him. She isn’t entirely sold, weighing his looks against his promises, but at the end of the year he gives her to make up her mind, she accepts his hand. No sooner has she given her word than everything becomes clear to her. Not only can she express all the things she never could before, she can hold her own in a debate with Ricky so capably that he’s worried she’s actually cleverer than he is.

When she returns to the palace, her transformation is feted as a miracle. The only person who doesn’t like this new princess is her sister, who cannot compete with beauty and brilliance combined, and is sidelined by everybody who used to listen to her. Proposals pour in – it seems that every prince in the surrounding kingdoms wants to marry the elder princess now – but she can find none with the sense to match her own and so refuses them all. Then she meets with another prince, one who is both handsome and clever, and rich to boot. It’s tempting. She retreats to the wood to think the matter over, and there encounters Ricky once again. Well, actually, the first thing she sees are his staff. He has established a massive underground kitchen in preparation for his wedding.

Now, the princess made her promise while still without sense. When transformed, the memories of her previous life were suppressed, and she completely forgot that she had a fiance already. As if the resurfacing memory alone is enough to conjure his presence, Ricky himself appears and greets her in full expectation of her being his wife the next day. But that’s not how the princess sees things. She coolly argues her point, explaining that a promise she hesitated to make even while cursed with stupidity should not chain her against the promptings of her newfound intelligence. If he had wanted her, he should have married her while she was still stupid enough to accept. As an intelligent man himself, surely he can see that.

Ricky is in no mood for this sort of debate. Frankly, it’s insulting. “Is it reasonable,” he demands, “that people who have sense should be treated worse than those who have not?” Then he pulls himself together, making use of his own intellect. He wants to know what it is, apart from his appearance, that she finds objectionable about him – his family, his personality, his manners? The princess has to concede that she likes all these things about him. Ricky tells her of the gift she was given at birth, the mirror image of his own, and in relief she bestows it on him, as he bestowed his on her. No sooner has she agreed once more to marry him, this time intending to honour the promise, than Ricky of the Tuft is transformed into the handsomest man she has ever seen.

Some romantics of the kingdom, Perrault tells us, claim that this transformation was no fairy enchantment, but love – that in remembering all his good traits and the kindness he had shown her, that she looked at him with new eyes and he was made beautiful to her. It’s a lovely idea, but doesn’t explain her IQ count. I would have found more to like in this story if Ricky had fallen in love with the plain but clever princess. For all his intelligence, he’s still every bit as shallow as her beautiful sister.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.17 – Three Men Not To Marry

People seem to think that just because a person’s female and pretty they’re not supposed to do magic, and they’re supposed to stay at home and have babies and be obedient and be married…Why is that? Why?

– Diana Wynne Jones, Year of the Griffin

In most fairy tales, marriage is the happy ending, the reward for everything that the hero or heroine (or in some cases, both) have slugged through to get there. The finding, losing and reclaiming of spouses is a popular theme in stories such as ‘The Goose Girl’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘The Beauty and the Beast’, ‘The Real Princess’ (otherwise known as ‘The Princess and the Pea’), ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, and so on. This is quite reasonable when you consider that for a long time, marrying into money was the best chance you had to transform your life. Even now, girls fantasise about being whisked away by handsome millionaires; how much greater a dream that would have been for a peasant’s daughter with a short, hard life ahead of her and little hope of changing it.

There are, however, fairy tales in which marriage is not a reward, but something to be escaped at all costs, in what I suppose could be described as the Bluebeard Phenomenon. Funnily enough they don’t seem to attract many modern retellings. As storytellers, humans really haven’t changed all that much: a love story trumps an escape. For this week’s Fairy Tale Tuesday, however, I have collected three different stories on the same theme, in which the wedding is no happy ever after.

Version 1: The Robber Bridegroom

This story comes from the Dean&Sons collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales and begins with a miller’s pretty daughter who gets loaded off onto the first rich man who comes along. Her fiance has good manners and is liked by her father, but something about him bothers her. When one day he suggests she come and visit the house where she will live once they are married, the girl tries to find excuses not to go, but her bridegroom insists and sets a date for the visit, telling her that the right path will be strewn with ashes. It’s difficult to take that as a good omen.

So the next Sunday the girl goes into the woods and finds a path of ashes waiting for her. She doesn’t trust it though, and having filled her pockets with peas and beans, Hansel and Gretel style, she scatters them behind her to mark her own path. She is alone, which seems puzzling in what was a very moral time, and the journey takes all day. The woods are very dark by the time she reaches her fiance’s house. Everything seems very still, and then suddenly a voice cries out from nowhere, warning her to run away. When she looks around, the girl realises it’s coming from a little bird in a cage hanging over the door. Still, this is her fiance, it isn’t like she can avoid him forever – so she goes inside.

Wandering from room to room, she finds no one in the house but a very old woman who is horrified to see her. Because this is no innocent visit planned by her fiance. The girl has been tricked into a robber’s den, and if they find her, they will kill her. The old woman hides her behind a large cask, warning her not to move or make a sound, and it’s lucky she does because the next minute the robbers return, bringing with them another girl drawn into their trap. In all their feasting and carousing they give her three draughts of wine, and their victim falls to the floor dead. The miller’s daughter watches, appalled, as the man chosen to be her husband tries to snatch a ring from the hand of the girl they’ve just killed. It flies up into the air and falls into his fiance’s lap. The robbers search for it but, fortunately for the terrified bride, the old woman distracts them with more food and wine. Only this time, she’s drugged it. Never underestimate a dissatisfied cook.

Soon the robbers are sprawled across the floor, snoring away. The girl is forced to walk over them in order to get away, but they do not wake, and together she and the old woman flee into the woods. The path of ashes has been blown away by the wind, but the girl’s foresight is rewarded – her peas and beans are still there, showing her the way home. They walk all night. By morning they have reached the safety of the mill and the girl pours out her story to her father. Who hopefully feels bad about his terrible judgement and promises to let her pick her own husband next time, although I wouldn’t count on that.

The day of the wedding arrives. The robber bridegroom arrives and during the celebrations one of the other guests, a friend of the miller’s, asks everybody present to tell a tale. Well, the miller’s daughter has quite an interesting one in mind. She had a dream once, she tells the wedding party, in which she was going through a wood, and when she came to a house there was a bird who warned her away…And she blithely tells the whole story, concluding by showing everyone the ring. Her fiance tries to escape but is surrounded by the other guests. When they say he and his robber friends meet the due reward of their wickedness, let me put it this way, I don’t think it was a wedding.

Version 2: Cannatella

This Italian fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1982 reprint of A Book of Wizards and bears some unfortunate similarities to a Grimm brothers story called ‘King Thrushbeard’, which I loathe. A king is trying to marry off his beautiful daughter but she doesn’t like any of the young gallants he throws at her head and jokes that her dream husband should have a head of gold and teeth to match. She of course believes that no such man exists, but that’s never a safe assumption in the world of fairy tales and the king takes her at her word, sending out a proclamation in the hope that such a man will come forward. A wizard called Sciorovante hears of this. Summoning up his imps, he has them conjure him a golden head and rides off to the palace to claim his bride.

Cannatella is in her room, trying on dresses, and ignores the king’s summons until she’s quite ready to come. Maybe if she had been prompter, things would have turned out differently, but she’s a sullen eighteen-year-old princess and incredibly good at infuriating her father. By the time she arrives, the king has already decided to marry her off to Sciorovante whether she likes it or not. And she doesn’t like it. He’s hideous and terrifying and gold is in fact not such a good look. But Cannatella has her pride and she refuses to show her fear. Sciorovante whisks her onto his black horse and rides away, telling the king that they will marry in his own country and he’ll claim the kingdom when he’s ready. The king is fine with that. He wants to plan his retirement anyway. What he doesn’t realise is that Sciorovante doesn’t intend to look after his daughter at all. Instead they stop at a stable and the wizard throws the girl in an empty stall. He is going away for seven years, he tells her, to return to his own country and arrange the wedding, and if Cannatella is not in this very stable when he returns, she will regret it.

And so Cannatella is left there, to live off what the horses leave, drinking from their troughs and sleeping in the straw. They won’t even let her stroke them – Sciorovante is not the sort of owner who makes his beasts happy or well-adjusted. For months the princess lives like this, growing thinner and sicker and more miserable with each day, until one morning she notices a little crack in the wall. On the other side is a beautiful garden full of the most luscious looking fruit. Sciorovante is far away and she’s starving; there is no reason she can see not to slip out of the stable and eat as much of that fruit as she can.

Only the next day, the door won’t open, leaving her with an incriminating pile of fruit stones that she is forced to hide in the straw. To her horror, Sciorovante appears that very evening. Instead of talking to Cannatella, maybe asking her how she’s survived all this time or telling her a few of his wedding plans, he goes straight to his black horse and asks what’s been happening in his absence. The black horse tells him exactly where to find the fruit stones and the wizard goes half mad. For a minute Cannatella thinks he’s going to kill her; he pulls an enormous knife and it takes all her sobbing and pleading to change his mind. Eventually he puts away the knife and tells her what he did when she first came to this awful place, that he’s going away for seven years and she has to find a way to survive in the stable until he gets back. Again.

For a whole year Cannatella lives on oats and bran. Then one day she hears wheels and hooves outside and the whistling tune of a familiar song. Running to the stable door, she hammers on the door, screaming for help, and it is pushed open by none other than her father’s cooper, the man who makes wine barrels in the palace at home. He doesn’t recognise Cannatella at first, but when she tells him the whole story he agrees to help her escape. Hiding her away in a barrel, he brings her back with him and rouses the whole palace in his excitement. The king is not pleased to be woken in the middle of the night by the delivery of a barrel, but when his long-lost daughter emerges he can’t believe his eyes. He has been regretting his hasty decision ever since he let her go and now is his chance to make things up to her.

But she isn’t safe yet. Sciorovante, who seems to have a very flexible approach to the timing of this journey of his, has returned to the stable and found his prisoner gone. The black horse tells him where Cannatella went and the wizard immediately sets about getting her back. Goodness knows why. He didn’t seem to want her much when he had her. Anyway, removing his golden head and replacing it with the more ordinary-looking original, he bribes an old woman to let him spy on the palace from her rooftop. But Cannatella sees him. The golden head may be gone, but she knows who he is all the same. She runs to her father and has him make her a room with seven iron doors, all of which are securely locked behind her. Surely, she thinks, even Sciorovante can’t get through them all.

Only he doesn’t have to. He bribes the same old woman into bringing a beautiful rose-coloured bowl into the palace, which the unthinking king has brought to his daughter. While Cannatella is admiring her present, the old woman slips a piece of paper underneath her pillow. It reads, May all other folks be fast asleep, and only Cannatella be left awake. When the wizard comes for her, there is no one left conscious to hear her screams. One by one the iron doors fall. Cannatella, in a mad panic, leaps onto the bed and refuses to be dislodged; Sciorovante just picks the whole bed up and carries it away. On the way out, however, he stumbles over one of the fallen iron doors, and the slip of bespelled paper falls out from under Cannatella’s pillow. Immediately, the palace awakens. And everyone, from the king and his guards to every cook and scullery maid, fall upon the wizard with every weapon they have to hand. Take our princess? Not bloody likely.

Sciorovante turns into a lion, then a serpent, then a fire and after that a hare, but in no shape can he escape his attackers. Even a rat is too much of a target. Turning into a gnat, he is just about to fly away up the chimney when the king spies him and squashes him flat. Cannatella is finally safe. She marries the next prince who comes calling, perhaps on the principle that however dull he is, that way she will never be the victim of another wizard’s schemes. That isn’t quite the end of the story, though. Freed from Sciorovante’s cruel mastery, the black horse returns to his master’s stable and sets all the other horses loose, then leads them away to live on their terms, happily ever after.

Version 3: Blue Beard

Taken from Puffin Books’ 1999 collection Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales, this is the story of a man who is arguably the most famous evil fictional bridegroom in the English language. You might not think so, though, from the way the story starts – we are introduced to Blue Beard as a wealthy and powerful man who is simply unfortunate enough to have facial hair in an unusual colour. Girls don’t exactly flock to him. When he proposes to the beautiful daughters of his neighbour, allowing their mother to choose which girl will marry him, another reason springs to mind. He’s just weird, really.

But he’s also persistent. When both sisters make it clear that neither of them like him, he arranges a grand house party in the country for them and their friends, and the younger girl decides that if life with him is this fun all the time he might not make such a bad husband after all. They are married. Less than a month later, Blue Beard is obliged to go away on business, but he encourages his young wife to invite some friends down to the country and entertain herself as she likes while he’s gone. He produces a ring of keys with detailed instructions for each one. These are for the storerooms, this one is to lock up the silver and gold plate, these are for the strongboxes…and this little key right here, it’s for a room you must never ever enter. Then he gives her directions on where that room is. Because if you don’t want someone to go somewhere in your house, you want them to know exactly how to find where they aren’t allowed to go. Obviously.

No sooner has he departed than his wife’s friends descend for an enjoyable snoop around the house, running from room to room and admiring his wealth. She, of course, is distracted – she wants to know what’s in that hidden room. Leaving her guests to poke around a bit more, she sneaks off and Pandora-like, unlocks the forbidden door. The windows are closed, so at first she can’t see what’s inside. Then, as her eyes become more used to the dark, she realises the floor is thick with clotted blood. Hung on the walls are the bodies of dead women – the lost wives of Blue Beard, their throats all cut.

The girl is so terror-stricken that she drops the key. Later, shutting herself in her own room to try and pull herself together, she notices that the key is now stained with blood and nothing she does can wash that away. Who knows why she doesn’t tell her guests straight away and leave with them – perhaps she’s still in a panic – but by the evening it’s too late anyway, because Blue Beard returns. He received letters on his way that meant his business is already concluded. His wife, scared almost out of her wits, tries to look as if she thinks this is a good thing. The next morning, Blue Beard asks for the keys. Her panic betrays her immediately; the key seals her fate. “You wanted to enter the little room!” Blue Beard cries. “Well, madam, enter it you shall – you shall go and take your place among the ladies you have seen there.”

His wife sobs and pleads. Her beauty and misery win her but a quarter of an hour to say her prayers. This is when things get even weirder, because she immediately calls her sister Anne to her. What is her sister doing in the house, and why aren’t they formulating a plan that is slightly more reliable than ‘go to the tower and see if our brothers are coming to visit’? The minutes pass and Anne sees nothing on the road, only dust and grass and sheep. Meanwhile, Blue Beard has brought his cutlass and is standing by the stairs shouting for his wife to come down to her death. At the very last minute, when he has her by the hair and his cutlass is about to cut open her throat, the brothers burst in on horseback. Blue Beard tries to run, but they catch him, and they run him through. Grisly, but poetic justice, I think.

Blue Beard’s very relieved widow is now sole mistress of an enormous estate. She rewards her sister’s loyalty by settling on her a large sum that pays for Anne’s wedding and buys a captain’s commission for each of her brothers. At length she herself marries again and this time her husband is a perfectly normal man instead of a homicidal maniac, so even if she doesn’t necessarily live happily ever after, at least she lives.

Unlike the other two versions of this story, though, this one comes with official morals, courtesy of Perrault. In two smug little rhymes, he both tut-tuts at female curiosity (because girls who don’t do what their husbands say clearly deserve to be murdered) and praises 18th century men, who control their households without going around killing their wives. Oh, yay. I feel so safe now.

But really, you know, I think he’s completely misinterpreted what the story means. Each of the girls from these three fairy tales are pushed into marriages with men they neither like nor trust and in each, their natural curiosity leads them to discover the truth. It is not what puts them in danger – on the contrary, it is what saves them. If there is a moral to these stories, it is to tell women to trust their instincts. The man who asks for your hand isn’t always Prince Charming. Unlock the forbidden doors and see what he’s hiding on the other side.

Just don’t drop the damn key.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.13 – A Trio of Transformations

There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognise for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise.

– Erin Morgernstern, The Night Circus

But of course beasts have never just been beasts, not in the fairy tale world, anyway. Cats come to the rescue with elaborate heists. A horse’s severed head exposes betrayals. Talking wolves masquerade as other people’s grandmothers. And then there are the transformed – frog princes, raven brothers, a swan princess – held against their wills in a shape that is not their own.

Like most of the great fairy tales, the theme of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ has seen numerous retellings. There have been novelisations, such as Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, Juliet Marillier’s Heart’s Blood and Cameron Dokey’s Belle; there have also been screen adaptations, most memorably Disney’s animation with a bibliophile Belle and porridge-slurping Beast. The film is set in France, possibly because the most familiar version of the story is from Charles Perrault. But just like so many other fairy tales, the story of the beautiful girl and the transformed man is a universal theme. For this week’s Fairy Tale Tuesday, I have collected three different takes on it by three different storytellers. See if you can guess which one might be my favourite.

Version 1: Beauty and the Beast

This telling of the French fairy tale comes from Classic Folk Tales From Around the World, published in 1996 by Leopard. A very wealthy merchant loses his wife but is left with a large family of six children, three sons and three daughters, on whom he lavishes every advantage that his status can provide. I’m not sure what becomes of his sons. They pop up every now and again, but as to what they are doing with themselves in the meantime, the story doesn’t seem to care. This one is all about the girls.

The elder two of the merchant’s daughters are very pretty, but unfortunately also spoiled and kind of bitchy. They dismiss the children of other merchants, laugh at all their gold-digging suitors and mock their intellectual little sister. In the latter case, at least, a bit of jealousy is perhaps understandable. The merchant’s third daughter is so universally adored by friends and family (well, some of her family) that she is given the pet name of ‘Beauty’. She, too, receives many marriage proposals, but wriggles her way out of them without ever giving offence, insisting she is too young yet to marry.

Then, completely without warning, the merchant loses all his vast fortune and is forced to move to the country, where he and his family will have to live like peasants just to make ends meet. The suitors of his elder daughters have changed their minds now that the girls have no money; Beauty, on the other hand, has the option of a good marriage and life in comparative luxury, but turns it down to look after her family instead. And do they need it! While her father and brothers try to cultivate their farm, and her older sisters wander about aimlessly bemoaning their circumstances, Beauty looks after the house and teaches herself how to cook. Her siblings aren’t terribly appreciative, but Beauty’s patience does not go unnoticed by her father, and she becomes more of a favourite with him than ever.

They have been on the farm for about a year when they receive an unexpected piece of good news – one of the merchant’s lost ships has arrived in port with a valuable cargo and just maybe a return to his former wealth. His delighted elder daughters rattle off lists of all the things they want from town; Beauty says nothing, realising that one cargo will not go very far, but when pushed to name a present by her father, she asks for a rose. The merchant sets off full of hope. When he arrives in town, however, someone brings a lawsuit against him and it takes all his newly acquired cargo to pay off the lawyers who clear his name. After all his trouble, he will return home no better off than when he left it.

But things are about to get worse. On his way home, riding along a forest road, it begins to snow and he loses his way. When he sees a distant light, he heads gratefully towards it. Deep in the forest, he finds an enormous castle all lit up as if for a great banquet, but with not a soul in sight. The merchant stables his horse, then goes into the house to beg shelter for the night. He sees a fire blazing in the hearth and a hot dinner on the table, but though he waits, his host doesn’t arrive, so he eats the meal and goes to sleep in one of the castle’s many bedrooms. When he wakes in the morning, his dirty clothes are gone, replaced by a beautiful new suit. The merchant decides to put all this inexplicability down to the work of a kind fairy and goes downstairs for a delicious breakfast. He is just leaving – on his way to collect his horse from the stables, in fact – when he passes beneath a bower entwined with roses and remembers Beauty’s request. He can bring nothing for his other daughters, but breaks off a branch to bring home for his youngest.

That turns out to be a seriously bad idea. A monstrous beast appears, ferocious with rage at this evidence of ingratitude. It is a peculiar piece of logic, really; he was fine with feeding the merchant and providing him with new clothes but turns murderous when his precious roses are stolen. The merchant, terrified, drops to his knees and tries to explain his reasoning. The Beast decides that a fair trade for the roses would be the girl for whom they were intended. The merchant may return home, but only if one of his daughters will return to take his place. To this the merchant agrees, with the intention of saying a final farewell to his family before returning to face the Beast’s wrath. When he gets home, however, and his tale is told, his children are nowhere near so resigned. His older daughters burst into tears and accusations, his sons threaten to hunt down the Beast and kill it, all while Beauty sits quiet and dry-eyed, coming to her own decision. She ignores all her father’s protestations and insists that she will accompany him back to the Beast’s castle.

This is when the older girls stop being understandable and become a pair of ugly stepsisters instead. They are for some reason thrilled to be rid of Beauty and have to fake tears on her departure with cunning use of onions. The brothers are genuinely upset but otherwise useless. Their father and sister ride into the forest, where the horse finds its own way back to the Beast’s castle. Everything is brightly illuminated, as before, with a magnificent meal set out for two – as if a terrified girl and her grieving father are in any state of mind to appreciate the feast. Beauty assumes that her ‘host’ intends to fatten her up before devouring her, but when she wakes up the next morning and searches the castle she finds a room with her name on the door and an array of entertainments set out for her inside. Why would the Beast have provided her with a harpsichord if he intended to eat her? There is even a mirror that allows Beauty to see her family whenever she wishes. That is both comforting and distressing, because she knows her father got home safely, but also that he’s half out of his mind with grief for the daughter he now thinks is dead.

That night at dinner the Beast arrives to eat (with her, please note) and Beauty discovers that he’s less scary, more depressed, his being fixated on the idea of his own ugliness and stupidity. She tries to cheer him up, but that rather backfires when he asks her to marry him. For all his kindness, that’s something she simply cannot do. Three months pass this way; each day Beauty is alone in the castle, and each night the Beast asks her to marry him. Though she has come to enjoy his company and appreciate his gentle conversation, she always says no, and eventually tries to make him stop asking because she can see how much every refusal hurts him. He begs her never to leave him, but she cannot promise that either. In her enchanted mirror she has seen that her father is very ill and she is desperate to go to him. In the ensuing discussion between herself and the Beast there are some mutual threats about dying of grief and in the end he agrees to let her stay with her family for a week. If she takes off her ring, he tells her, she will transported back to his castle in her sleep, and he will be waiting for her.

In the morning Beauty wakes in her father’s house. The merchant is overjoyed to see her, and presumably her brothers are too, but her sisters are less impressed by Beauty’s triumphant return. They have both married since she disappeared, but unwisely, and they plot to destroy Beauty’s happiness (and possibly her actual life) by convincing her to stay longer than her promised week. On the tenth night of her stay, however, she dreams of the Beast, lying alone and dying in the gardens of his palace. She is horrified at herself for staying away for so long, and for not realising how much he means to her until now. She pulls off her ring and goes back to bed, and when she wakes she finds herself back in the Beast’s castle. But when the usual hour of his daily visit approaches, he does not come. Beauty runs through the castle, calling for him, then remembers her dream and hurries out into the gardens. Her Beast lies on the grass, almost dead. In his despair over losing her, he tried to starve himself to death. Which is terribly sad, I know, but also disturbingly obsessive. Beauty doesn’t see it like that, though. She begs him to recover, to live and to marry her.

Abracadabra! The whole castle is lit up with fireworks and music. In the time it takes Beauty to glance bewilderedly around her, the Beast has vanished, replaced by a beautiful young prince who is trying to thank her for breaking his curse. Beauty brushes him off – she wants to know what’s happened to her Beast. The prince explains that she’s actually looking at him. An angry fairy gave him that hideous shape until such time as a beautiful young woman should choose, of her own free will, to marry him. Now that he is restored to himself, the prince/Beast wants Beauty to be his queen.

They enter the castle together and to Beauty’s amazement she finds her entire family there, waiting for her. A fairy (another one…?) has transported them there to tie up a few loose ends. Fairies are pretty intense about morals, and this one is not pleased by what she has seen of Beauty’s sisters. She turns them into statues until such time as they really repent of their wicked ways and then, with a single flick of her wand, whisks everyone away to the prince’s realm, where the people have been waiting for his return instead of replacing him with somebody else. They are thrilled to restore him to the throne with his new bride. Now, that couldn’t possibly be because there’s a scary fairy lady tapping her wand in the background…

Version 2: The Lady and the Lion

This version comes from Dean&Son Ltd.’s collection, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and is the likely basis for the Patricia A. McKillip short story (to be found in her anthology Harrowing the Dragon) entitled ‘The Lion and the Lark’. This merchant has only three daughters and is still quite rich, thank you very much. When he sets out on a voyage, he is charged to bring back pearls for his eldest, jewels for the middle child, and a rose for his youngest. It being the middle of winter, that’s no easy task she’s set him. He has looked everywhere without success when, on the journey home, he chances upon a very strange castle where half the garden appears to be in winter and the other half in summer. The merchant doesn’t seem to notice how weird that is. He just thinks of it as a bit of good luck and picks a lovely red rose. He and his servant are riding away when an outraged lion springs from nowhere to eat the thieves.

The merchant babbles explanations. Intrigued by the mention of this beautiful rose-loving daughter, the lion agrees to let him go if he will send in his stead whatever greets him first when he gets home. The merchant sees that this could go very badly wrong, but his servant talks him into agreeing and they continue on their journey. Unfortunately, just as the merchant predicted, it is his youngest daughter who comes running to greet him and he bursts into tears as he tells her of his terrible bargain.

Bravely, she sets out into the wood, thinking that perhaps she can soothe the lion and come home again unscathed. What she doesn’t expect is to find a prince there instead. He tells her about the curse laid upon him and his court, that they should take the form of lions during the day and be human only by night. He is charming enough that the merchant’s daughter agrees to marry him and for a long time they live very happily together, if a bit unconventionally. The lion prince even encourages her to attend her eldest sister’s wedding, where she is met with amazement and delight, everyone having believed her dead long ago. It is such a success that when her next sister is to be married, she wants to bring her lion prince with her. He doesn’t like this idea. If even the slightest ray of torch light falls on him in his human shape, he tells her, the curse will transform him into a dove that must wander the earth for seven years. There are worse things than being a lion. She is determined, though, and eventually he agrees. She is sure she can keep him safe from light, but one crack in the door is his undoing and she returns from the wedding feast to find a dove where her husband should be. He flies away, and the merchant’s daughter follows, guided by nothing more than the occasional white feather. How she survives the next seven years is a mystery. She must keep moving or she will lose him forever.

As time passes, she begins to hope that soon their ordeal may be over and they can be together again. Then the white feathers stop falling. The dove has disappeared. The merchant’s daughter asks the sun if it has seen him, and the moon, but neither can tell her where her husband has gone. The sun gives her a casket and the moon an egg, tokens of their sympathy to be kept for the hour of her greatest need. That, it seems, is still yet to come. Still she persists, offering her question to the night-wind. It in turn asks its kin and at last there is news – the south wind has seen the white dove. He has changed into a lion again and is fighting a dragon who is, by a startling coincidence, an enchanted princess. Carefully instructed by the south wind, the merchant’s daughter comes between the combatants and strikes them both with a rod (I think this may mean a reed?), turning them back into a prince and a princess.

But just because the princess is no longer a dragon doesn’t mean she isn’t dangerous. In an outrageous sleight of hand, she whisks the lion prince away and decides to marry him herself. It takes his long-suffering wife a long time to find them again, by which time his second wedding feast is already prepared. This is the hour to which the sun and moon were referring and the merchant’s daughter cracks open her casket, drawing out a dazzling golden dress. Seeing her wearing it, the princess immediately wants it so much that she even agrees to let her rival into the prince’s room a night. She covers her back, however, by giving him a potion that means he sleeps right through his wife’s impassioned pleading. But the merchant’s daughter is not the type to give up. She breaks open the moon’s egg and out comes a hen of living gold with twelve chicks that play so charmingly around her that the princess agrees to a second night with the prince in exchange for them.

She fully intends to give the prince another draught of sleeping potion, but the chamberlain has already warned him about this and told him about the sad girl who visited him in the night too, so the prince throws away his fiance’s offered drink and is fully awake when his wife returns for the last time. He recognises her voice and the princess’s spell is broken, allowing him to once again remember the past. They sneak out of the palace together in the dead of night and go home. Then – ONLY THEN – do we find out they have a child. Whom they both abandoned. For seven years. And who ends up as nothing more than a footnote at the end of the story. I’m sorry, what?

My advice is, read McKillip’s version. It makes more sense.

Version 3: The Snake Prince

This Danish fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1982 collection A Book of Heroes and Heroines and starts off by introducing us to a handsome young prince whom nobody actually likes. He’s something of a Lothario and breaks so many hearts that at last a certain good fairy decides enough is enough. Disguised as a pretty young woman, she becomes an immediate target for the prince’s attentions, but instead of falling into his arms she slaps him across the face and turns him into a snake. If he can find some innocent young girl who feels sorry enough for him to kiss him without fear, she tells him, he will be free. In the meantime, she takes him to an island in the middle of a lake and leaves him there to stew over his problems and feel sorry for himself. No one misses him much. His parents assume he’s off somewhere up to no good and the ordinary people who dread his future rule just hope he never comes back.

When the fairy changed his shape, however, she left him his voice, and it’s an alluring sort of sound as you might expect with a prince like this. Sometimes he swims across the lake and tries to charm innocent young women into kissing him, but while he succeeds in bringing many of them back to his island home, none can kiss him without fear, and none of them ever return. Stories spread about him, but not everybody believes them. Margretta is one such sceptic. She lives in a village near the lake and often drives cattle close to the water with her fiance Jacob, confident the Snake Prince will never come for her. But then one day Jacob is called back to the village and Margretta is left alone by the water, drowsing in the hot summer sun with the cattle grazing around her. When she wakes up the Snake Prince is there. He’s beautiful and strange and bewitching, and Margretta forgets all the warnings she’s ever heard when he begins to sing. It is only when she is almost at the lake’s edge that she comes to herself and realises what danger she’s in. By then it’s too late. The Snake Prince snatches her up and swims away with her while she screams in vain for Jacob.

She wakes up in the gardens of a silver palace. Proceeding across the lawns towards her are a hundred young girls wearing white and carrying candles. The first two to reach Margretta help her to her feet and lead her inside, into a grand hall where she is given food she won’t eat and a bed she can’t sleep in. She is lying awake when the door to her room opens and the Snake Prince creeps inside. He hisses into her ear about his being an enchanted prince and her being his chosen bride and how all it will take to make everything perfect is just one kiss…Margretta’s response is to punch him on the nose. As Amy Pond would say, she’s kind of engaged. The Snake Prince flees and the next morning the other kidnapped girls come to explain her situation. Having refused the prince once, he won’t ever ask her for a kiss again but neither will he let her go. She is his servant now, like all the others. They’re pretty philosophical about it. One is just a little girl who, having been carried away by accident with her older sister, doesn’t really remember anything else. She likes the palace. Unfortunately, she’s the only one.

Meanwhile, Jacob has returned to the lakeside to find his cows wandering all over the place and no Margretta. His initial annoyance turns into horror when he sees the trail leading down into the water and realises what has happened. Panicked and enraged, Jacob heads for the nearest boat and is about to launch himself off in pursuit when the good fairy who started all this in the first place appears in front of him in full magical majesty. Jacob, all his thoughts with his sweetheart, only notices that there is somebody impeding him and tells her to get out of his way. The fairy patiently points out to him that this is a suicide mission and he’s really better off taking her advice. So he goes home that night to sleep and in the morning goes looking for a rowan tree.

Rowans have magic. Only those with true hearts and clear consciences can touch a rowan without coming to harm. Jacob, with his heart full of love for Margretta, has no difficulty in breaking off a branch, which he then brings down to the lakeside where Margretta was taken just the day before. When he sees the Snake Prince coming, he strides forward to block his way. Being a snake hasn’t improved the prince’s attitude much, his response being “Out of my way, peasant!”, albeit delivered in a hiss. Jacob is having none of that. He whacks the Snake Prince with his rowan branch and immediately the creature begins to shrink, dwindling away to the size of an earthworm who is – to add insult to injury – stuck to the rowan branch. He still won’t give back Margretta though, so Jacob rams the branch into the ground and leaves him there for three days, each morning coming back in the hope of a different answer.

Eventually the fairy intervenes. She gives the prince a thorough telling-off and then turns him back to his former size, on the strict condition he take Jacob back with him to the island palace where he keeps all his kidnapped maidens. The Snake Prince is cowed enough to agree. They arrive to find all the girls busy in the palace gardens, including Margretta, who has no sooner seen Jacob than thrown herself into his arms. The fairy pronounces her approval on all the romance by conjuring a golden bridge across the lake so that all the girls can finally escape. The Snake Prince tearfully watches them go, convinced that he will never be freed.

But at the end of the procession is that little girl, the one for whom the palace has always been home. She sees the Snake Prince crying and runs over to comfort him, saying goodbye with a hug and – wait for it! – a kiss. Much to the little girl’s astonishment, the Snake is transformed back into a handsome prince. He doesn’t know quite what to do with his rescuer, who has just turned seven and still has the cake to prove it, but he does what he always does and proposes. If he’s very, very good for the next ten years and doesn’t break any hearts, will she marry him then? Perhaps, says the little girl. I think she liked him better as a snake.

Yes, I like this one best. Was it too easy to guess? I like that Margretta punches the prince who kidnaps her. I like it that girls have obviously been taking this approach for a long time, because the prince has totally missed to point of his transformation and the fairy has to come back and clarify matters before he can free himself. I like that the little girl doesn’t promise to marry him someday! But all these stories have a special charm to them. They are about the transformative power of love, about how when you really care about someone, you don’t care what they look like. Even the ugliest beast in the forest can become beautiful to you if his heart is truly kind. It’s worth noting, though, that most transformation stories cast men as the tragically ugly but essentially good-hearted creatures that can only be saved by…beautiful young girls falling in love with them. I wonder if there are any beautiful young men out there who would do the same for a female Beast? I would really like to think so. Apart from the Arthurian tale of the Loathsome Lady, however, I can’t actually think of any.

Then again, maybe enchantresses just don’t get so mad at other women, only at bratty young princes. It’s as good a way as any to save a kingdom.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.7 – A Cinderella Triptych

Some fairy tales attract retellings the same way spinning wheels attract blood. Storytellers in every medium simply cannot resist them. Look at ‘Cinderella’. The story has been retold over and over with astonishing frequency. There are novelisations (e.g. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, Sophie Masson’s Moonlight and Ashes, Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, shall I go on?), a plethora of short stories, films (Disney’s blue ballroom-gowned princess of the dressmaking mice, Drew Barrymore’s Ever After). In the new TV series Once Upon a Time she gets magically transported to another world along with the entire population of the land where fairy tales come true. She gets Rumpelstiltskin back for blowing up her fairy godmother by capsicum spraying him in his own shop, but she still finds her Prince Charming in the end, and a very special pair of shoes.

So what is it about ‘Cinderella’ that keeps drawing everyone back? What is it that fascinates us so about the girl in the glass slippers?

I think maybe it is because at heart, we understand this story. We’ve lived it. Everyone has been lonely in their lives – lost, abandoned, underappreciated – someone kicked us out of the way and took over what we thought was ours, someone pushed us into the ashes and forgot we were there. Even the luckiest person in the world must have longed for a fairy godmother to conjure some stardust into their life at one time or another. It’s a human thing. Every country in the world has a Cinderella. She’s everywhere from China to Germany, Russia to Jamaica. There are even male Cinderellas, complete with wicked stepbrothers and eligible princesses – though oddly enough, not usually fairy godmothers.

That’s why for this post I’m doing something a little different. Instead of reviewing just one fairy tale, I’m reviewing three – a triptych of variations on a very familiar story that can made new again at the wave of a wand. Or a pen.

Version 1: Sarah Winyan

This Jamaican fairy tale is in my 1985 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Enchantments and Curses, which is falling to bits from being read too many times. It opens with a sad little girl sitting under a tree while two birds gossip together over her head. Her name is Sarah Winyan and everything for miles belongs to her, but her parents are dead and all she has is a vindictive stepmother who keeps in rags and misery. Sarah Winyan sings of her troubles on her way home and is unfortunately overheard by the stepmother, who goes kind of crazy. She summons up a devil in the shape of a huge shaggy dog and calls it Tiger. If he tears Sarah Winyan to pieces, the stepmother promises, she will give him gold, and what’s more, she’ll come to dance with him on the Lord of Hell’s mountain. The devil’s pretty clever though. He knows he’s dealing with a tricky customer, so he makes her sign a contract agreeing to his terms. When their deal is struck, he sets off into the dark woods after Sarah Winyan.

The little girl is trying to gather wood. She looks up and sees a pair of burning eyes in the night behind her. Terrified, she scrabbles her way up a tree to hide – not very successfully. As the devil looks up at the ragged little thing, however, he takes pity on her. By the terms of his contract, the little girl now belongs to him, which means he can decide not to kill her if he wants. So instead of tearing her apart he leads her safely away into the woods – though he hates her singing too and makes her stop.

Meanwhile the stepmother is busy with her spell book. She conjures a coffin and the image of Sarah Winyan inside it, then arranges a funeral for the girl she’s sure is now dead at Tiger’s claws. While she’s hamming it up with the weeping and wailing, though, a pair of foresters called Aldred and Oti are picking apart her story. They’ve only just heard Sarah Winyan singing in the woods, so how can the little girl be dead? They go back in search of her and hear her whispered song like the words of a ghost. But she’s alive all right, crying beside a fire in the depths of the wood while Tiger sleeps on her lap. When she sees the brothers she eases her way out and Oti seizes his opportunity, shooting Tiger with a silver bullet. The devil leaps from his shattered body and roars off to the fake funeral, where he snatches up the stepmother and whisks her off to Hell. Sarah Winyan is reinstated in her grand house with Aldred and Oti as her friends and protectors. The story closes on her happy new song as Lady Winyan. If there’s a prince in this girl’s future, he’s coming to her, not the other way around.

Version 2: Vasilissa Most Lovely

This Russian fairy tale comes from the same collection and is probably my favourite Cinderella story, for Baba Yaga and her horsemen if nothing else. A merchant’s wife falls ill and gives her daughter a very special doll with the promise that if she is ever in trouble, all she must do is feed the doll and it will give her aid. With that the mother dies and her predictions of trouble come true, because the father shows predictably poor judgement and marries an extremely unpleasant type with two daughters of her own. The three gang up on little Vasilissa, but since her father is away so much on business he doesn’t seem to notice. Luckily for Vasilissa, she has her doll, and it’s everything her mother promised. When she’s sad, it comforts her; when she’s overworked, it does her tasks for her.

And so Vasilissa grows up, a beautiful young woman surrounded by suitors, while her stepsisters get ignored. Their mother is furious. “We do not marry the youngest before her elder sisters!” she screams, and sets to plotting how she can get rid of the girl. One night when her husband is away, the stepmother sets the three young women to work knitting, lace-making and spinning by the light of a single candle. When it goes out, they are left in total darkness. The stepsisters insist they must finish their work and Vasilissa is sent off to borrow a light from a neighbour. But the only neighbour awake at this hour of the night is Baba Yaga the witch who is more likely to eat anyone daring to disturb her evening than lend them a candle.

Vasilissa doesn’t know what to do. She’s shut out in the dark and won’t be allowed back inside until she returns with a light. So she feeds her doll a bit of biscuit and abracadabra, it lights up like a lamp! For some reason, probably because she wants to keep her doll a secret, Vasilissa uses the light not to get back into the house but instead to find a path through the forest to the witch’s house. In between the trees comes riding a horseman all in white, followed soon after by a rider all in red. Neither stops to help Vasilissa. In fact, she has to walk for so long that it is almost nightfall again by the time she comes to Baba Yaga’s hut and frankly all she wants to do then is turn around and walk away again. The place is surrounded by a fence of human skulls and as Vasilissa stands there, shivering, a horseman all in black comes riding past. As though his passage is a signal, the skulls blaze with sudden light.

Then Baba Yaga herself, riding a mortar and pestle down through the sky, returns home and sniffs Vasilissa out from the trees. The girl is terrified, of course, but comes forward with curtsey and asks for a light. She’s come all this way, after all, and it’s not like she can back out now she’s actually here. The witch is amused. She decides to put Vasilissa to work and if she’s satisfied with the results, she may give the girl a light. Or she might eat her. Who knows? Not the best job offer ever, but Vasilissa serves up a dinner that isn’t herself and listens politely while the witch lists her a set of impossible tasks. No sooner is the witch asleep than Vasilissa is pleading with her doll for help. Its advice is to sleep and see what happens. Vasilissa has little choice but to obey.

And it’s good advice, too, because when she looks around her in the morning the tasks are already done. All that’s left to do is make dinner that evening when Baba Yaga gets home. The witch is surprised and pleased with her new employee’s success, but she’s not ready to give up that light yet. Another day passes – another set of tasks are completed by the doll. On the third night of Vasilissa’s stay Baba Yaga’s mood turns conversational and Vasilissa dares inquire after the identity of the three horsemen she has seen riding through the forest outside each day and night. The white horseman is Dawn; the red is Sun; and the third is Night. All three are Baba Yaga’s faithful servants, which is a really scary idea when you think about it. The witch has a question of her own. She knows she has asked the impossible and yet Vasilissa has succeeded. How? Vasilissa explains it is the blessing of her mother and the witch is disgusted. She won’t eat anything blessed. Ew! She doesn’t forget their bargain, however. Vasilissa is given a skull lamp and is sent home.

The girl’s been missing for days and what started out as a ploy to get her eaten has become a curse, for no light will last in the stepmother’s house. Even a skull lamp is better than nothing and they bring it inside. That’s a decision they will soon regret. The skull leaps from the table and chases the stepmother and her daughters upstairs, downstairs, all over the house and out into the dark forest. They are never seen again. Baba Yaga does not, after all, appreciate being disturbed. The merchant comes home to find his daughter alone with her doll. He learns his lesson, taking her with him next time he departs, and in the course of their travels she meets the young Tsar, who falls in love with her. From a sad little girl with nothing on her side but a doll, she becomes Empress of all Russia. And maybe, just maybe, one day she’ll have a daughter of her own, who will carry a very special doll everywhere, just in case she meets a witch someday. You can never be too careful.

Version 3: Ashputtel

This is the German version, taken from the Dean & Son Ltd. volume Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A rich man’s wife dies and less than a year later he remarries, bringing home a stepmother for his young daughter and two pretty stepsisters. Yes, they’re described as being ‘fair in face’, but don’t be fooled. In behaviour at least, they’re as ugly as it gets. The little girl is turned into a drudge in her own house while her father does…nothing. At. All. Unlike Vasilissa’s dad, he’s not even a merchant, so it’s not like his neglect can be explained away on absence. He just doesn’t care enough to intervene.

Pretending everything’s okay, he sets off to the fair one day and promises to bring a present home for each girl. The eldest asks for fine clothes, the second asks for pearls and diamonds, and the youngest – by now so dirty and downtrodden she is known only Ashputtel – asks for the first sprig to brush against his hat on his way home. Me, I’d have asked for a one way carriage ride out of there, but Ashputtel is a sentimental little thing and she gets what she asks for. Planting the sprig on her mother’s grave, she waters it every day with her tears until it becomes a fully grown tree where a bird comes to build its nest and watch over her.

Now the king of this particular country gets it into his head to hold a three day long feast, at the end of which his son will choose a bride. Ashputtel’s stepsisters are terribly excited by their invitation and insist on her help to get ready. When she begs her stepmother to let her accompany them, however, she is told to sort peas out of the ashes, which is a mean and slightly noncommittal way of saying Not A Chance. But Ashputtel has a secret weapon. Is it a fairy godmother? No, actually, it is a whole host of birds who fly in through the kitchen window to do the task for her. Denied her excuse, the stepmother backpedals abruptly and says Ashputtel can’t go anyway.

Is that going to stop her? Certainly not! Ashputtel has no mice, but the bird from her tree manages to rustle up a gown of gold and silver, along with a pair of spangled silk slippers. She looks so beautiful that even her sisters don’t recognise her. The king’s son dances with her all night, but instead of letting him see her home she slips off and returns to the cold ashes undetected. The next night, and the night after that, she returns to the palace to dance the night away with the increasingly smitten prince. She won’t tell him who she is and when he tries to follow her, she gives him the slip outside her father’s house, leaving only a slipper behind. The prince announces he will marry whichever lady the shoe fits. Ashputtel’s sisters actually do have beautiful feet, but they can’t make the shoes fit. That’s not enough for this stepmother, however. She takes a knife and cuts off a bit of her eldest girl’s foot to make it small enough. Because, you know, who needs to walk when there’s a crown up for grabs?

It doesn’t work. The prince is fooled, no one said royals had to be smart, but as he is departing he passes under Ashputtel’s tree and a little bird warns him of the deception. Nothing daunted, the stepmother tries it again with her second daughter, and is again foiled by Ashputtel’s bird. The prince decides that surprise, surprise, the stepmother can’t be trusted, and asks Ashputtel’s father instead whether there are any other girls in the house. The answer is “Only a little dirty Ashputtel…the child of my first wife; I am sure she cannot be the bride”. Oh, you think so? The prince has her called in and of course the shoe, which by now must be soaked in blood and totally disgusting, fits first try. Without her having to cut anything off. The prince finally recognises her and whirls her onto his horse. Passing under her tree, the bird confirms the matter once and for all and alights on Ashputtel’s shoulder to join her in her new life as the prince’s bride.

There is a version of this in which the stepsisters lose not only parts of their feet, but also – at the beak of Ashputtel’s bird – both eyes. I do not like this version. I believe it was Charles Perrault who first replaced the bird with a fairy godmother and the spangled silk by glass; it was also Perrault who decided Cinderella should forgive her stepsisters instead of taking bloody revenge in the good old Grimm tradition. Some people resent the ‘sanitisation’, but I think that’s sort of missing the point. This is a fairytale that adapts to fit its listener, whenever and wherever it is told. Once there were killer doves. Then there were dressmaking mice. Now there’s a Cinderella who’s taking on Rumpelstiltskin with capsicum spray. There’s room enough for them all in the Cinderella family, room enough for the Vasilissas and Sarah Winyans and so many more. You haven’t seen the last of the girl from the ashes.

In fact, I don’t think you ever will.