This Scottish fairy tale is taken from Sorche Nic Leodhas’ collection Thistle and Thyme and its protagonist is the master baker of seven counties, a woman so talented that every event of significance for miles around is considered incomplete without one of her cakes. Those who can afford it are charged a fair rate, but approached by someone too poor to pay for anything more than the tiniest treat, the baker is quite likely to whip up a sugary extravaganza and send it as a gift. LET THEM EAT CAKE.
Her cooking draws the attention of the local Fair Folk, who have covetous sweet teeth and are prone to filching a slice or two wherever they can. They are extremely fond of this particular baker’s creations but rarely get a taste as any cake of hers disappears in about ten seconds flat, leaving nothing to steal. Their solution is to kidnap the woman herself and keep her under the fairy hill as their personal baker. All they require the right opportunity.
It isn’t long in coming. The baker gets a hefty commission at a local lord’s castle and she spends the whole day baking, only setting out for home after night has fallen. As she passes the fairy hill they ambush her. Mistaking the flittering throng for fireflies, and the fern seed they blow in her eyes to make her sleepy as just the long day catching up to her, she lies down on the hill for a quick nap. The next thing she knows, she’s waking up in Fairyland. Her kidnappers tell her what they want – essentially, ‘give us the cake and no one gets hurt’.
The baker has no intention of staying under the hill for the rest of her life, or even for the rest of the night, but she beams cheerily anyway. “Why, you poor wee things! To think of me baking cakes for everyone else, and not a one for you!” The fairies have no baking supplies, so she sends them out on errand after errand until she has all the necessary ingredients. Then she finds out they have no appropriately sized mixing bowls, and they have to go get hers, plus her spoons and whisk and all the odds and ends that come with making a cake.
Finally everything is assembled and the baker starts work. “‘Tis no use!” she declares, stopping abruptly. “I can’t ever seem to mix a cake without my cat beside me, purring.” The cat is fetched, and is so easygoing about the whole thing that it actually does start purring, but that’s not enough. The baker wants her dog’s snoring too. And her teething baby, because she can’t measure properly when she’s worried about him…The baby no sooner sees her than he starts wailing, expecting to be picked up and held, so the fairies have to go get his father. The baker’s husband has noticed that everything in his house keeps disappearing and is actually very glad to find out why. He trusts that his wife has a plan.
The baby keeps screaming. His mother slips him a wooden spoon and he starts whacking it about; then she leans over to her husband and tells him to pinch the dog, who of course starts barking indignantly. “Tread on the tail of the cat!” the baker mutters, adding the poor creature’s shriek to the hellish din.
The fairies are not at all used to this sort of thing. The noise goes on and on, unbearably loud, until the baker decides to conclude matters. She pacifies the baby with a lump of sugar and takes the spoon away, nods to her husband to stop pestering their pets and turns calmly to the fairies to ask where their oven is. They don’t have one – they really did not think this plan through. “Well then,” the baker says practically, “you’ll just have to be taking me and the cake home to bake it in my own oven, and bring me back later when the cake’s all done.” The fairies look at her entourage and decide she’s way too high maintenance for them. They’re too exhausted to even take her home.
The baker feels rather sorry for them, and promises to bring the cake when it’s baked. What’s more, she’ll make them one every weekend. With that she takes the batter and leaves, her husband carrying the baby and the cat and dog trailing behind until they finally reach home. True to her word, she puts the cake into her oven to bake. The house fills with the quiet sounds of purring and snoring, a clock ticking and the kettle singing, forming a peaceful hush the fairies would never believe possible. “It doesn’t seem fair on the rest of the men,” observes the baker’s husband, “that I should have the master baker and the cleverest woman in the world all in one wife.”
Her cleverness is how she escaped; her kindness brings a different reward. When she brings the promised cake to the fairy hill, she finds a little bag full of gold pieces. Every time she delivers a cake she is very generously compensated and though she never sees the fairies again, it’s fair to assume both sides are very happy with this arrangement.
This fairy tale gets points for being so fundamentally good-natured and also for containing actual fairies, which is much rarer than you might believe. I can’t approve of antagonising pets like that, but as the other choice was indentured kitchen service, it was a cunningly passive-aggressive plan. It’s also an entirely appropriate Fairy Tale Tuesday for a week of celebration in my family. Here’s to cake and cleverness and true love!