Beyond the Ever After

Once upon a time, I started talking about fairy tales and I have not stopped.

Today I posted up my hundred and twenty first Fairy Tale Tuesday, and my last, and I’m feeling a bit emotional about that. This project has been a big part of my life for the past two and a half years, almost since I first started blogging. Because of this project I’ve found some of my favourite stories ever – like, up until a year ago I had never heard of Princess Blue-Eyes and now I drop her into conversation WHENEVER I CAN because she’s the best (I’d include a link but WordPress is still having none of that. Try searching ‘ivan and the princess blue-eyes’ on my blog). Because I was writing Fairy Tale Tuesdays and I needed another story fast, I grabbed books off my shelves I’d never got around to reading before. That’s how I met Tokoyo and the Sun Princess and so many others. I shared my favourites here, the stories I felt like only I had ever read, and I like to think there are people out there I will never meet who now have those stories in their heads too. I shared the ones I hated, the cockroach stories that made me grind my teeth and growl over my keyboard. Folklore has a nasty side. It’s not wise to forget that.

I started this project mostly because I really love fairy tales, but I was also infuriated at the way I kept seeing them diminished to cardboard clichés. Though people tend to revert to the same core of classics when they think of fairy tales, there’s a wide wicked world out there where all your expectations will be ripped into tiny pieces and trampled by the hooves of a really vicious unicorn. Heroines are not always beautiful, or good, and they’re sure as hell not all confined to towers. They can go on quests, learn sorcery, battle their enemies, marry sorcerers or witch’s sons. You don’t need to shove a sword in your princess’s hand to make her strong. If she wants one, she’ll take it. In fact, she might not be a princess at all. Royal blood is not a requirement for kindness or courage.

Princes can be evil. They can be innocent. They can be ensorcelled and imprisoned, in need of a brave maiden’s rescue. A youngest son isn’t always right and an eldest isn’t always wrong. A troll’s daughter can become a queen. Dragons can become foster parents. These are stories that need to be remembered, retold, reimagined. Fairy tales are anything but simple. They are wild and thorny and strange, tangles of gold and briar, and in their bittersweet soil grow the most fantastic flowers of the imagination.

I am not ending Fairy Tale Tuesdays because I’ve run out of material. There are enough folk tales in the world to keep me going for many years yet, but this road has become too familiar and I need a new horizon. So I’m starting a project on an altogether larger scale – one I’ve been planning to try for years. I’m going to read my way through the entire Thousand and One Nights and blog the whole thing. The first part will go up on the 6th of January, 2015.

It may take a while.

I would like to say thank you to every reader who has shared the Fairy Tale Tuesday project with me. To everyone who commented and linked to my posts, particular good wishes go your way – sometimes writing is a little like singing from a tower, never really expecting to be heard, and it can come as the best surprise to know someone cares about the same thing you do. I hope that you will have just as much fun with the Sharazad Project. In the meantime: may there always be a path in your dark forest and a happy ending waiting over the next page. The story you need most is out there somewhere.

So go find it.

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Fairy Tale Tuesday No.121 – The Golden Valley

I have a theory. The fairy tale economy would at first glance appear to be in constant jeopardy, given the bottomless sacks of gold coins and whole meadows of jewels that people keep stumbling across, but my theory is that dragons are protecting everybody from wild inflation by hoarding as much magic gold as they can.

Let’s face it, though, a passionate love of gold is a constant throughout the fairy tale world. We have already met a prince with a golden hand, a sorcerer with a golden head and countless women with golden hair. Princesses lose golden balls, wear golden gowns and hide golden trinkets. In this Sicilian story, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Monsters, one royal family locate the natural phenomenon of their dreams: a whole valley of gold.

It begins, as so many fairy tales do, with a king and his three sons. They are unusually content for fairy tale royals, even taking little father and son bonding trips to survey the kingdom. One day the king and his eldest boy, Rosario, set out together with a full retinue and near midday reach a beautiful green valley. Rosario is very much taken with the spot and wants to stop for a picnic, but his father is sure somewhere better is close at hand. They keep riding. The next valley they come to is a wasteland, where the only buildings are ruins. Rosario wants to go back. The king insists on travelling onward.

And what a good decision that is on his part, because as they reach the crest of the third valley they are dazzled. Everything in this valley, from the encircling mountains to the trees and the stream and even the birds, is living gold. Rosario is smitten and wants to stay here forever. He asks his father to build him a little house in the valley. The king is incredulous; while the valley is pretty amazing, it is also the middle of nowhere. But Rosario is determined, so the king has the house built and stocked with provisions. Once it is done, Rosario’s parents come to see their son settled in. “A prince, and heir to the throne, to live like a hermit in the desert,” the king worries on the way home. “He will soon tire and come back to us,” the queen reassures him. “It is only a foolish fancy.”

She’s proven right faster than anyone expected. Rosario is at first delighted with his house and new-found independence, but in the night he’s woken by a thunderous banging. The walls shake, the windows shatter and Rosario is thrown from his bed. He snatches a cloak and runs for his life. Behind him, the house collapses and the night air is filled with roaring laughter. For the valley is already occupied: a giant creature approaches the prince, sparking gold, and Rosario flees. He doesn’t stop until he gets home. He tells his family that the valley is bewitched and his father approves his choice to return home, but his younger brother Giovanni scoffs at the story and asks permission to build another house in the valley. “It was merely a little earthquake,” Giovanni insists, “and earthquakes only happen once in a blue moon!” So a second house is built and he moves in.

He’s home very soon afterwards, thoroughly convinced it was not an earthquake.

That leaves only one brother who has not tried the grown-up royal version of camping in the back yard. Cosmo believes his brothers’ tales but is captivated by the mystery and wants to go see the valley for himself. The king tries to protest, pointing out how dangerous the monster is likely to be, all to no use. Rather wearily, he has a third house built.

Cosmo spends the day peacefully enjoying his new home. Instead of going to bed like his brothers did, he stays up with a book by the fireside. At midnight, he hears heavy footfalls approaching the house and sees two huge golden eyes peering in the window. Cosmo gets up and politely opens the door, bidding the monster good evening. “Why aren’t you in bed?” the monster demands. “I don’t go to bed when I’m expecting a guest,” Cosmo replies. “I stay up to welcome him.” The monster is astounded. He expected awe and terror, but the prince wants rational conversation.

The house, as it turns out, is the problem. This is the monster’s valley and he doesn’t like the sudden invasion of princes. “It belonged to me before your father, or your father’s father, or your father’s father’s father, were born,” he shouts. “It’s my home! Mine! It was my home before any of you mannikins existed on earth! And here you come messing it up with your lath and plaster, after all the trouble I’ve taken to make it pretty!”

Cosmo acknowledges it is exceptionally pretty. The monster won’t be mollified. He suggests, rather wildly, that they fight. Cosmo is willing to do so, but points out the monster has the advantage of size and weight and the ability to bring down houses on top of their owners. Reluctant to start an unfair contest, the monster wants an alternative and Cosmo proposes a battle of wits. No, monster, no! Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!

I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.

The contest does not involve poison or pirates, anyway, it is a game of riddles. The monster is so very old that most his riddles are terribly well-known, so to avoid hurting his feelings Cosmo pretends to think very hard before answering each. The monster has more trouble with Cosmo’s offerings. The prince gives him broad hints when he gets stuck, but he simply cannot puzzle out the last riddle and the prince wins the game.

“I don’t see how you’re going to kill me,” the monster remarks. “Kill you!” Cosmo exclaims, appalled. “Why should I want to kill you?” The contest was not a matter of who should live or die; it was about whether Cosmo could stay in the valley. The monster admits he’s earned the spot, but laments his lack of architectural flair. To put it simply, the house is an eyesore. “Well then, big clever boy,” Cosmo says gently, “make it prettier.” Eagerly the monster elbows him aside and starts running his enormous hands all over the house – and whatever he touches turns to gold. Now the place matches the rest of his décor and the valley’s two residents can focus on the really important matter: becoming the most adorable best friends ever. Because though the monster’s hugs are really terrifying (the prince almost gets crushed on the trial run), he’s good company when you get to know him.

The king and queen do not know him. They are getting very worried about their youngest boy, and being excellent parents, decide to go investigate. The whole family return to the valley with soldiers as backup, only to find Cosmo peacefully feeding crumbs to the golden birds. His brothers stare. His parents are deeply relieved and want him to come home. “I think I would rather stay here for a while,” Cosmo says. “I am only a younger son, I am not needed at court, and I am looking forward to more visits from my monster. He can teach me a lot of things.” “Teach you things!” repeats his mother. “What sort of things?” “Things about monsters,” Cosmo explains, and will not leave.

So every evening the monster comes to Cosmo’s house and tells him stories about the world before humans came along. Being millions of years old, he’s got quite an interesting history. In exchange, Cosmo tells him riddles. One night, the monster arrives with one of his own. “What makes the world to shine?” “You, with your golden touch?” the prince suggests, but that is not it. Nor is the sun. The prince keeps guessing, and each time he is wrong. At last he gives up and the monster shouts the answer triumphantly. “A good friend! And I’ve got one!

SO. MANY. FEELS.

It wasn’t easy deciding what to review for my very last Fairy Tale Tuesday – whether I should choose an old favourite or one newly found, a traditional tale or one more obscure. In the end, though, it had to be a Ruth Manning-Sanders retelling. My love of fairy tales began with her, and always goes back to her. It was because of her I knew how complex fairy tales could really be, how much they deserve to be remembered, and retold. Because a king and queen can be wonderful parents, and three brothers can love each other. Sometimes gold is just pretty, and a monster can become the best friend you’ve ever had.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.120 – Five Gold Rings

Let’s be honest: I adore December and when I see an opportunity to create a Christmas special, nothing shall stand in my way. Thus this week I bring you what is probably the most enormous Fairy Tale Tuesday I have ever written, all wrapped up with a shiny bow. Which is not to say all of these stories shall be seasonal, or particularly sweet. I can’t even guarantee that all the rings are really made of gold. What I can promise are magicians. And mermaids! Giants! And of course that fairy tale staple, people making very bad decisions.

Story 1: Jack and the Wizard (A Book of Wizards, retold by Ruth Manning-Sanders)

We kick things off with another Jack – but don’t worry, this one is Welsh and not a giant killer at all. He’s the younger of two brothers, both very poor. The elder marries money so Jack goes to work for him, but when he’s refused pay he sets off to look for a better situation. Unfortunately, no one is hiring. At last he meets a fellow traveller with a suggestion. Pointing out a nearby castle, the traveller explains that it is the Black Enchanted Castle, and that its owner always has work. He’s also a wizard. “Is he a bad one?” asks Jack. “Some find him bad, and some find him good,” the traveller says cryptically, continuing on his way. Jack decides to take the risk and makes for the castle.

The door is answered by a cheerful rosy-cheeked man who doesn’t fulfil Jack’s cliched expectations of a scary sorcerer at all, so he asks for that job. “To all who come here I give three days’ work,” the wizard replies. “And they can’t do it, and I can’t pay them.” Jack insists he’ll manage. He’s given a square meal for the promise, a comfortable bed for the night and breakfast to boot.

Once he’s eaten, the wizard gives more details about the day’s task. He shows Jack a golden watch and asks the boy to find its key. Jack sets to with a will, looking throughout the castle and grounds, persisting through the whole day. By sunset he’s forced to return empty-handed. Frustrated and depressed, he sits by the pig trough and toys absently with a twig in the water. Then he gets annoyed with himself and splits the twig in two.

Out falls the golden key.

Thoroughly relieved, Jack hurries into the castle to show his employer, who is equally pleased. Two more meals and a good night’s sleep later, he feels prepared to handle whatever strange work the wizard has in store. He’s given a basket of coltsfoot plants, which are very magic and not weeds, as the wizard takes takes some pains to make clear. Jack’s deceptively simple job is to plant them. He tries one bed of earth; the plants all somersault out of the ground and turn their roots in the air. He tries another bed; same result. All day he labours to plant them, and at every turn they make it plain they don’t intend to be planted.

It’s almost dark when Jack, by now throwing clods of earth around in a fit of despair, happens upon a filthy old ring. Slipping it into his pocket, he’s struck by a sudden new conviction. He jumps up and starts ramming the plants into the ground leaves first. When he glances behind to check his progress, he sees they have made their usual somersault and are now roots down. Reverse psychology carries the day and he returns to the castle tired but happy. The wizard is every bit as excited by this success as Jack himself and gives him a splendid meal as his reward.

The next day is Jack’s final test. Today he must find the wizard himself.

Jack looks all day, without success. “What a senseless task!” he thinks bitterly. “How can I find a man who vanishes? A thousand times better to look for a needle in a haystack, because at least the needle is in the haystack, and if you search long enough you’re bound to find it. But this old fellow, he may be at my elbow, laughing at me, for all I know – or care! I give up!” He stops in the stable to rest and sees an egg, which he decides to take for his supper, since losing the day’s challenge means he’s lost his bed and board too. When he cracks it open, however, out bounces the wizard with a shout of delight.

In the morning the wizard settles the matter of wages with typical magic-person logic. “Which will you have, one gold coin with my blessing, or a hatful of gold coins with my cursing?” Jack is smart enough to pick option A, though it only lasts him a couple of weeks. When he has run out of money he brings out the dirty ring from his pocket and sets to cleaning it, trying to ascertain its value. He’s no sooner started than a beautiful girl appears from nowhere. The ring is hers and she’s here to grant wishes. This is the only explanation she chooses to give.

Jack gapes for a bit, then pulls himself together and very politely asks for something to eat. The girl flourishes over his table and cupboard, leaving food in her wake; then, with a stately nod, she vanishes. Jack waits until he’s eaten all the food before trying to bring her back. When he does, and asks for his pantry to be restocked, she urges him to think a little bigger. Looking around, he realises his one-roomed, earth-floored cottage is a shabby location for such a visitor and hesitantly wishes for a nicer house. The girl produces a beautiful mansion, manageably sized and fully furnished, not forgetting pictures for the walls, flowers for the garden, horses for the stables and BOOKS. She remembered books! Jack spends days admiring the place before gathering his courage to call on his benefactress for a third time. “Lady, I am very lonely,” he tells her. “Could you find it in your heart to live here with me?”

She laughs. It is a good kind of laugh, though, because that’s precisely where she wants to be and they are married the next day when Jack puts the magic ring on her own finger. I approve this choice. The wizard is invited to the wedding and reveals in typical wizard fashion, i.e. at the last minute, that the girl is his daughter. Given the circumstances, he reiterates that blessing.

Story 2: The Garden of Health (Fairy Tales from Spain, retold by J. Munoz Escomez)

This story begins with a boy called Enrique, who is walking on the outskirts of his village and crying over the inescapable fate of his dying sister Luisa. A young goat grazing nearby hears his sobbing and tells him not to worry, she has a solution. “Look there, to the right in that spring,” she instructs, “and you will see a ring that was left there and forgotten by the magician Agrajes. Put it on and ask to go to the Garden of Health, and immediately it will take you there.” He must ask for the Blue Ivy, the juice of which will cure his sister.

First, Enrique would like to know what he’s dealing with. In his experience, goats don’t talk much. “I am a well-bred and compassionate kid,” his advisor coolly replies. “Anyway, I cannot tell you who I am. If you are grateful you will know.” With that, she sends him on his way.

The ring deposits him outside a silver wall. At the gate stand two young women, one dressed in white and carrying an apple, the other in black with a scythe in her hand. The boy tells them what he has come for, and the first woman – who introduces herself as Life – is willing to give it, if her sister Death agrees. Death does not agree; she sees Luisa as her own. The boy must enter the garden and find the ivy for himself. Death does her best to prevent him getting in at all, striking out with her scythe, but Life holds her apple to Enrique’s nose and revives him at the last moment.

As you might have gathered from the name, this is not an ornamental garden; every plant it contains is the treatment to an illness, and the moment Enrique enters they all start calling out to him, hawking their skills. The cacophony is too much. “That’s enough!” Enrique cries, “otherwise you will drive me mad.” “I cure madness!” a helpful little shrub shouts back. The Blue Ivy, however, remains elusive. Death is hiding it in plain sight.

Enrique suddenly remembers he’s wearing a magic ring. He commands it to show him the plant he seeks and bingo, an oak tree appears swathed in magical ivy. “Do not cut me now,” the ivy calls out, “because your sister is going to die, and you will not arrive in time. Death is now close to her bedside.” Enrique’s having none of that. He orders the ring to bring Death to the garden, tied up. When the woman in black appears, scytheless, the plants applaud gleefully and advise Enrique to kill her on the spot. Is that actually possible?

Well, he decides to test the theory, ordering for sticks to appear from thin air and start beating her. They knock out her teeth (though the narrative insists those were fake anyway, so it’s all okay!), drag out her hair and ruin one eye before Enrique cuts himself some ivy and departs. It’s not clear what happens to Death after that. Perhaps her sister comes in to fix her up – perhaps she’s immortal and will heal just fine on her own – perhaps she’s a severely beaten woman who’s had her scythe stolen by the borrowed power of an adolescent boy.

Anyway, Enrique doesn’t care, the ring has taken him to his sister’s bedside and the juice of Blue Ivy fixes her up immediately. Their startled family shower Enrique in praise, but he remembers he owes his success to the kid and goes to thank her. When he can’t find her, he uses the ring to summon her to his side.

Turns out she’s not a kid at all – or at least, not the goat kind. She’s actually Atala, the daughter of Agrajes, and planted her father’s ring in the hope Enrique would be able to save his sister. Enrique enthusiastically invites her home to play, at which point she somewhat tartly reminds him he’s wearing a ring of great and terrible power and she can’t actually say no. He quickly gives it back, and she disappears. Not for long – she was going to consult with her father, who says she can go play if she wants. Enrique’s family indulge her sweet tooth to the hilt and she becomes a regular at the house. One day, her dad comes to visit too and leaves behind a chestful of gold coins, enough to set up both his daughter’s friends for life.

Excellent magician, excellent parenting. He needs to keep a closer eye on that ring, though.

Story 3: The Magic Lake (A Book of Mermaids, retold by Ruth Manning-Sanders)

This Irish story introduces us to Rory Keating, who has just bought a wedding ring for his girlfriend and is bounding home with his friends, tossing the ring high into the air so that it sparkles in the sunlight. This is not a good idea. It’s an even worse idea if you happen to be passing over a lake. Before you know it, the ring has tumbled past his fingers and into the deep water.

Rory wants to jump in after it but this particular lake has a nasty reputation. Boys who go swimming there have a tendency not to come back and Rory has a feeling his girlfriend would rather have him than the ring. Determined to give her both, he offers the highest reward he can to any of his friends who might be willing to retrieve the lost jewellery. While sympathetic to his plight, they are not that sympathetic – but one boy, Padeen, is willing to focus more on the offered five guineas than the dangers of the lake. Once he’s ascertained Rory’s good for the money, he jumps in without hesitation.

It is a good deal deeper than he expected. When he finally stops sinking, he has come out the other side of water to dry ground, with a blue sky above and beautiful gardens all around. To his astonishment, he recognises the gardeners working there as the boys who have gone missing over the years. He calls out to them, but not one will acknowledge him. As they labour, they sing praises to the beauty of their employer. Padeen’s curiosity quickens his pace. He comes to a grand house and walks through the open door – and sees the owner almost at once. She comes as a bit of a shock, being basically a cross between a very large walrus and a jewellery box. There’s a bit too much judgement of her weight and probably green hair is very attractive to other mermaids, but I have to admit the wolf’s teeth might be a little alarming.

Though taken aback, Padeen retains common courtesy. He greets the mermaid politely and she giggles coquettishly, sure he’s come to court her. “Well, ma’am,” he admits, “first and foremost I’m come after Rory Keating’s gold ring.” The mermaid obligingly hands it over and Padeen asks her how to leave, which does not go down half as well. She expects male adoration from all sides and preferably a marriage proposal too. Padeen quickly backs up, assuring her he’ll return once he’s been paid. He wonders aloud if she has been married many times. “A few good offers,” she agrees. “But they didn’t please me, so I set them to till the pleasure grounds.” Turns out that if the men don’t sing her praises, they don’t get fed. I think she’d get along great with the Sun Princess.

Padeen lays the flattery on thick, slowly backing out of her house and along her garden path while the captive men grimly raise their voices in her honour. First chance he gets, Padeen slams a gate between them and strikes for the surface. The mermaid is too weighed down with jewels to follow.

He breaks the surface at last with the ring in his hand. The young men gathered by the shore had almost given up hope, given how long he’d been down there, and Rory is delighted to hand over the five guineas in exchange for his ring. Padeen, who is an honourable soul, considers for a while whether he ought to go back to the mermaid, but decides that she’s already kidnapped herself enough suitors – if she’s that desperate to get married she can pick one of them. There’s such a thing as taking honour too far.

Though now the men have seen someone escape, she may not have them much longer…

Story 4: Molly Whuppie (Classic Folk-Tales From Around the World, published by Leopard)

This tale is grouped in with the ‘English and Welsh’ section of the anthology, so I’m just going with Celtic as its origin. Proving how badly fairy tales need decent contraception, a couple with too many children and not enough money decide the solution to their problem is pick three of their daughters and dump them in the middle of a forest. That’s the third fairy tale I can name offhand in which parents do this, despite the number of ogres, monsters and dragons who have stated their canonical desire to be foster parents. Someone start an adoption system already.

Anyway, the three girls have to search for somewhere to spend the night and eventually, when it is almost full dark, find a house. The woman who lives there is more than happy to let them in but her husband is a giant and anything but charitable. She has only just set them at the table with milk and bread when the man himself comes storming in shouting “Fee, fie, fo, fum/ I smell the blood of some earthly one.” His wife comes immediately to the sisters’ defence, telling him to leave them be, and he appears to come around to the idea of being charitable, suggesting they stay the night. They can squeeze into the same bed as the couple’s own three daughters.

It seems a kind offer, but the youngest of the human girls is Molly Whuppie and she’s understandably cynical. When the giant makes his three guests put straw ropes around their necks while his children wear gold chains, Molly smells a rat and swaps the ornaments around.

Lucky for her she does – during the night the giant comes in with a club, feels for the markers and takes the girls wearing straw ropes out the bed. Laying them out on the floor, he proceeds to batter them to death with his club. I am sickened. His intent was terrible, but his daughters should not have paid the price. When he has gone, Molly wakens her sisters and they creep out of the house, then run like mad.

The next house they come across is home to the king and when he hears their story, he decides to employ Molly as a thief. The giant owns a sword he fancies. If Molly can retrieve that, he’ll give her eldest sister his eldest son as a husband, leaving me a bit confused about the ages of these girls.

Anyway, Molly considers it a good bargain. She sneaks back into the giant’s house and hides under his bed. Once the couple are sleeping, she pulls the sword down from its place behind the bed, but it gives a tell-tale rattle – the giant leaps awake and Molly flees, racing out the door with the sword in hand. She escapes by running across a bridge too narrow for her enormous pursuer, and he’s left on the far shore shouting threats.

The king is pleased. So pleased he thinks of another job. If Molly can bring him the giant’s purse of gold, her second sister will marry the second prince. So back she goes, once again waiting for the giant to sleep before slipping the purse from under his pillow. This of course wakes him up and he chases her from the house to the same bridge. “Woe worth ye, Molly Whuppie!” he howls at her retreating figure. “Never you come again.” “Once yet, carle,” she shouts back, “I’ll come to Spain.” I’m not sure what that means but it sounds like sass.

The king likes his sword and his gold but is not quite satisfied. This time he wants Molly to steal the giant’s ring from his finger. As a reward for this final task, she is promised his youngest son as her husband. Molly must like him, or the stability he represents, because that night she slips into the giant’s house and carefully pulls the ring off his finger. It is a brave but reckless decision; he wakes fast enough this time to seize her. He’s so livid he can’t think of an appropriate punishment and so wonders aloud what he should do. “I would put you in a sack,” Molly suggests, “and I’d put the cat inside with you, and the dog aside you, and a needle and thread and shears, and I’d hang you upon the wall, and I’d go to the wood, and choose the thickest stick I could get, and I would come home, and take you down, and bang you till you were dead.”

The giant thinks that sounds a great plan and makes it his own. He is not a clever person.

Once he’s gone looking for the stick Molly sets to work on his wife. “Oh, if ye saw what I see,” she sings, and is so generally irritating that the giant’s wife can’t handle it any more and asks to be allowed into the sack so she can see whatever the hell it is. Molly cuts a hole with the shears, lets the woman in and sews up behind her. When the giant returns he starts beating the sack with both his pets and his wife inside, and even if he doesn’t know about the last he does know about the dog and cat. It is so heinously unfair that his totally innocent household keep paying for HIS CRIMES. Suddenly, he catches sight of Molly slipping out the door and realises he has been tricked. Her headstart takes her easily to the bridge, out of his reach. She gives the king the ring, he gives her his son and she never goes thieving for him again.

Though she quite possibly goes into business with Jack the Giant Killer.

Story 5: The Fisherlad and the Mermaid’s Ring (Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland, retold by Sorcha Nic Leodhas)

The titular fisherlad begins the story by proposing to a girl who is actually in love with someone else and says no in the nicest possible way. The fisherlad is so upset that he denounces any possibility of ever finding someone else to love and avoids all his friends by fishing in another  cove. The fish he catches, he sells at a different market. He even builds a hut, giving a worrying permanence to his hermitage. For a whole year he broods in isolation, but for all his determination he can’t quite avoid people altogether. One day as he pulls in his nets, he sees a huge silver tail and long hair and realises he’s caught a mermaid.

He seizes her arm and tangles her so tight in the net she can’t get loose. Panicked, she offers him any ransom he chooses – gold or gems from her father’s treasure – but that’s not the reward he has in mind. “I want the lass I love best in all the world,” the fisherlad tells her. “She’s not to be had for gold nor jewels, nor will a true heart win her. For I offered her my own and she would not take it.” I really don’t like this boy. The mermaid, also unimpressed by his broody talk, wants to know what’s so special about the girl in question. The fisherlad tries to describe her, but she’s underwhelmed by his gushing praises of blue eyes and golden hair. Still, the mermaid is willing to give his cause a go, if he’ll release her. He must come to her father for a consultation. Hope overriding his need for a captive listener, he cuts the net and follows her into the sea.

The sea king is very relieved to see his daughter alive and free, having heard from his spy network of fishes that she was in trouble. He’s angry that the fisherman held her captive at all. SO MUCH YES. But the promise has been made and he agrees to help the boy get what he wants, though it might take a while. “For another year and a day,” he explains, “you must bide in your cove and do as you have done day in and night out.” He then produces a golden ring set with pearls. “When the year and the day are over, if you go to the lass you love best in all the world, you’ll find her waiting for you. Take this ring and keep it carefully, and when you find her, put it on her finger and wed her with it.”

With that the fisherlad is sent back to the surface. He’s all hope and excitement now. Drawing up on the beach a few days later with his catch of fish, he sees what looks like a pile of seaweed on his doorstep but when he gets closer, he realises it is the long brown hair of a girl huddled there. Her eyes are red from crying. The fisherlad is indignant that someone else dares to have problems and demands to know what she’s doing outside his hut. “I’ve run off from my father’s house,” she confesses. “There’s a new stepmother there and she no older than myself. There’s no place for me there because she can’t abide me, and I came away lest she do me some harm.” Honey, I somehow get the feeling you’ve been told you’re in a fairy tale.

The fisherlad tells her to go back home. She begs him to give her a job and a place to stay, promising to be no trouble; when all that fails, she bursts into tears and threatens to drown herself. The fisherlad may be a terribly selfish person, but he has his limits. Seeing how distraught she really is, he lets her inside.

As it happens, she is an excellent housekeeper. She also keeps out of his way as much as she can, recognising she’s not really welcome. For weeks they live this way, as separate as possible, until the fisherlad realises he’s being an idiot and tells her she can eat at the table with him. It takes a couple more weeks before they manage to make conversation. Once they reach that milestone, though, things get better. He agrees her father sounds awful and she admires the conjured blue eyes and golden hair of his obsession. She takes to coming down to shore and helping him with the boat. Tiny and curvaceous, brown-skinned with dark hair and eyes, she’s the polar opposite of his fantasy ice queen, but he has to acknowledge she’s very pretty in her own way.

She’s also very kind, and very capable. Now she’s more sure of her welcome, she starts planting flowers around the hut and sewing curtains and generally making it less of a primitive place to live. She even makes the fisherlad a chart to mark off the days of his wait, so he’ll know how long is left until he can marry his true love. It finally occurs to him to find out where she’s been sleeping and when he realises she’s been bunking down in the shed with his fishing gear, he stirs himself to build another room onto the hut for her. She starts singing as she goes about her work.

Months pass. One day the fisherlad comes in and finds the girl holding up her hand to the light, with the gold ring on her finger. She whips it off as soon as she sees him and quickly puts it away. Soon after that, she announces her intention to leave. “The year and the day will soon be up and you’ll be going to fetch your own true love,” she reminds him, when he protests she’d much better stay. She is older now, and stronger, and feels she can return to her father’s house. The year is gone; on the last day she rises early, packs her few things and quietly leaves. He sits staring after her for a while, slow on the uptake as ever. It takes him a whole day of sitting there to realise he has been tricked. The mermaid gave him the ring, not to make another girl fall for him against her own heart, but to make him pull himself together.

The next day he dresses with care and start walking inland. Before long he comes to a house and the girl in its garden. “I thought you had gone to claim your own true love,” she says hesitantly, at the sight of him. “I have so!” he agrees, and offers her the ring. I think she could do better, myself, but she likes him and is delighted to accept. The wedding is a happy one and she’s actually managed to make friends with her stepmother, so the whole family is there. Afterwards the fisherlad takes her to meet his friends in the other cove. While there he sees the girl he used to love, who is unchanged, but does not hold the same enchantment. Together he and his brown-eyed bride go home to the house they made together.

On the shore there they meet with the mermaid. “Did you get your true love?” she inquires, and the fisherlad proudly introduces his wife. The mermaid drily points out the lack of blonde hair and blue eyes, and the fisherlad says he wants her just the way she is. For all he’s prone to self-obsession, he does say the odd sweet thing. “Well,” the mermaid concludes, “you’ll not be saying we did not give you what you asked for,” and she dives away into the sea, leaving them to their happy ending.

Not all of these rings are magic. Their real value is not monetary, but what they mean to those who own them. In these fairy tales a ring can represent hope, or love, or a challenge – or all three at once – but the power comes from what you choose to do with it.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.119 – Jack the Giant Killer

If you’re at all familiar with Western fairy tales, you’ve probably heard of the Jack who sold his cow for magic beans, climbed a gargantuan beanstalk and robbed a giant blind. He is, to say the least, a morally dubious hero – but he’s got nothing on this Jack, who has a whole saga of violent adventures.

Jack and the Giant Cormoran

This telling, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Giants, actually begins with a careful disassociation. “It wasn’t any Jack you know, and it wasn’t any Jack I know. It was Jack, the farmer’s son, who lived in Cornwall a long time ago.” Also resident in Cornwall at the time is the giant Cormoran, an insatiable terror who will eat anything and everything that can be hammered to death with his spiked club.

Something has to be done, only nobody knows what. The mayor and all his councillors are going in circles debating the issues when a pounding at the door sends them all scurrying under the table, sure Cormoran has come to eat them up. But it is not Cormoran. It is Jack the farmer’s son. When no one answers his knocking he breaks a window and jumps inside, demanding to know what he’ll get if he can kill the giant. “I’ve heard tell there’s enough treasure in his cave to make a man rich for life,” the mayor assures him. “You’re welcome to all of it, if you can kill him. But you must mend that window.”

Jack brushes off this admonishment. He collects a pickaxe, shovel and horn, plus some long planks, and that night rows over to the island where Cormoran lives. His activities well disguised by the giant’s own thunderous snoring, Jack works at the cave mouth all night, digging a huge pit and covering it over with planks, then covering the planks with seaweed. By sunrise the trap is ready. Jack stands on the far side of the hidden pit and starts blowing at his horn. Cormoran wakes in a bleary fury and races to silence the intruder; instead he tumbles into the pit and Jack finishes him off with a blow from the pickaxe. Digging a channel from the pit to the sea, Jack turns the pit into a pool so that all of the sea creatures can feast on the corpse. He then raids the cave, piling chests of gold and jewels into his boat, and goes calmly home.

To his credit, he does much good with that money. Not only does he set up his parents on the best farm for miles around and shower his mother in beautiful jewellery, he gives gold away to anyone who needs it like a one-man super charity. The councillors issue him a sword and a belt embroidered with the catchy slogan: Here’s the valiant Cornishman/ Who slew the giant Cormoran.

Jack and the Giant Tantarem

But this encounter leaves Jack with a bloodthirsty new hobby. Instead of staying in town and enjoying his hero status, he sets off on a walking tour of Wales, hoping to kill a few more giants.

He strikes lucky almost at once, because turns out there’s a giant looking for him. Cormoran’s cousin Tantarem lives in a nearby wood and, having heard of his relative’s execution, is determined to take revenge. It’s not that hard. While travelling through Tantarem’s wood, Jack stops to rest and falls asleep – Tantarem spots him and the belt gives it all away. Here’s a tip, Jack, if you’re going giant hunting, maybe don’t advertise that fact on first sight? Fortunately for him, Tantarem doesn’t plan on just killing him. He wants to cook Jack and eat him. Lifting the sleeping boy onto his shoulder, he sets off for his castle.

Jack wakes to leaves brushing over his face and quickly realises what’s happened. It’s a bad situation from every angle – Tantarem has killed so many people that the path underfoot is lined with human bones and the closer they go to the castle, the more bones Jack sees. Once inside Tantarem locks him up and goes to fetch water to boil him in. Jack’s prison is a room overlooking the castle’s main door, with a barred grating instead of a window. The bars are very closely spaced for a giant but Jack can fit his head through. He considers trying to squeeze through the rest of his body, but when he looks down the drop is too great.

Tantarem has left a coil of rope in the room. He’s good at killing, not so much at this imprisonment business.

Jack has just laid hands on the rope when he hears the giant coming back and switches plans. Quickly knotting a noose, he throws it through the bars and the loop lands neatly around Tantarem’s neck. As we have already established, Tantarem is not clever – he shouts at Jack instead of pulling off the noose. Jack starts pulling. By the time Tantarem realises what he’s doing, it is too late. Half-throttled, he’s defenceless when Jack slides down the rope and cuts off his head.

Jack and the Welsh Giant

And still that’s not enough for the pint-sized killing machine! He continues his travels through Wales and, having neglected to bring a map, gets himself thoroughly lost. No problem, though, he finds what he’s really looking for. As night falls in the wilderness he sees a light and follows it to a huge house, where he knocks at the door. “‘Tis the valiant Cornishman,” he calls, “who slew the giant Cormoran. Food and shelter does he lack – open then to little Jack.”

You are scary as hell, little Jack. I would be pushing things against the door myself, but the occupant opens up. He’s big even for a giant and has two heads, who have a habit of talking to each other like no one else can hear. Having very obviously plotted Jack’s death, he smilingly invites the boy in and shows him to a room. “It’s pleasant dreams I will be wishing you,” he says. “And should there come any noises in the night, don’t you be scared now. ‘Twill only be the dratted rats at their dancing, whatever.”

Jack is not fooled. He stays awake, listening to the giant’s muttered conversations with himself. Once he knows what’s being plotted he tucks a chunk of wood between the bedcovers and hides in a cupboard. When the giant sneaks in and hammers the bed with his club, he thinks the splintering wood is the sound of Jack’s bones cracking – apparently he doesn’t think of looking for blood – so when Jack bounces out for breakfast the next morning it is an unwelcome surprise. Jack seizes the opportunity to mythologise himself some more, pretending that the blows of the club felt like flicks of a rat’s tail and he slept straight through them. The puzzled giant dishes up vast bowls of porridge and Jack continues his charade by tipping most of the meal into a bag hidden inside his coat, so it looks like he can eat as much as his host.

“I could eat that much again,” he announces. “But first I’ll show you a trick.” He slits open the bag, letting the porridge gush out, and challenges the giant to do the same. The poor stupid creature accepts the challenge and cuts open his stomach.

He loses.

Jack, the King of England’s Son, and the Giant with Three Heads

While Jack has been busy killing giants, other people have been dealing with their own problems. A princess has been carried off by a demon to its stronghold in Wales and an English prince goes riding to her rescue, only to be caught by bandits on the road, stripped of his horse and valuables, and left pretty much helpless.

Lucky for him, he meets Jack and not being a giant, is treated well. Hearing the whole story, Jack suggests they travel together. “But where shall we sleep this night?” worries the prince, who has no money to pay for a room. “No matter,” Jack assures him. “A mile or two from here lives a giant with three heads. I was on my way to kill him. It’s in his castle we’ll sleep this night.” That is one SERIOUSLY WARPED world view. The prince is told to wait outside and, not knowing Jack very well yet, frets over his new friend’s safety. We know it’s the giant who is in trouble.

Jack bounds up to the castle and knocks on the gate, bringing the resident giant to look suspiciously down at him with all three of its heads. Introducing himself as ‘your poor cousin, Jack’, the boy proceeds to tell the giant that the prince of England is leading an company of sixty thousand men down the road on a giant-slaying expedition. The giant can handle a few hundred soldiers but a whole army is beyond him. Panicked, he asks Jack what he should do, and is advised to hide. So Jack locks him in his own vault and goes to fetch the prince. They spend a comfortable night, then load up one of the giant’s horses with as much gold as it can carry and the prince sets off again on his rescue mission.

“What news now, poor cousin Jack?” asks the giant, when Jack finally comes to let him out. The imaginary army are now marching on to Scotland, having helped themselves to treasure and a new horse, which means Jack deserves a reward for his timely warning – he’s set his eye on a tattered cap and coat, moth-eaten slippers and a rusty sword which, by the laws of fairy tales, must naturally be the most valuable items in the castle. The cap will tell you whatever you wish to know, the coat will make you invisible, the shoes will take you wherever you need to go and the sword will cut through anything. How can any of these things benefit the giant if they are Jack sized? As bribes, perhaps? He does not want to give them up, of course, but being genuinely grateful for what he thinks is a great favour, he hands them over.

Kitted up with the tools of invincibility, Jack considers killing this giant like he’s done to all the others, but can’t quite bring himself to do it. This is progress!

Instead he catches up to the prince and joins in the rescue mission, using his new powers to arrive at the castle first. He expects to find the princess chained up or charmed to sleep or at the very least imprisoned, but instead she’s holding court over the castle like a proper evil queen. Nevertheless, she is enspelled – the demon has made her see things the way he does. When told the prince is coming, she pretends to be delighted and orders a banquet prepared. All the traditional praise is thrown over him like flowers, assurances that he’s her white knight and deliverer and they’ll be together forever. If he can find her handkerchief, that is. If not, she’ll hang him from the castle wall.

Lady, you should really marry Jack. He’s into that kind of thing.

The task seems easy, as the prince has seen her tuck the handkerchief into her bodice, but during the night she calls to her demon and has him carry it away to his den. What a very obliging kidnapper. Jack is watching, however, and follows unseen. He takes the handkerchief back and gives it to the prince. “I knew you would easily find it,” the princess laughs.

That night, she kisses the prince on the mouth and sets him a new task. “Tomorrow morning you must show me the lips I last kissed tonight,” she purrs, “or my executioner will cut off your head.” The prince is troubled and confused. Anyone can see it’s a set up. During the night the princess once again summons the demon and tears strips off him (metaphorically!) for his failure with the handkerchief. “But now we have the prince in our power,” she concludes, calming, and kisses him on the lips. With that, she sends him back to his den.

Where Jack appears from nowhere and cuts off his head. In the morning, when the prince produces the head, the princess falls into a dead faint and wakes completely pure of heart – well, so she says, and no one’s arguing. She cannot remember a thing that’s happened since her abduction. To my deep disappointment, she marries the prince, who knights Jack and wisely tries to keep him at court. Jack, however, has not given up on giant killing and has the whole of England to scour for new targets.

Take the princess with you, Jack! THIS COULD BE TRUE LOVE.

Jack and the Giant Thunderdell

He doesn’t. He finds two more giants instead, minding their own business in a cavern. As they have only one head between them, they are throwing it between them in order to talk. Jack leaps between them and runs the head through. “That was almost too easy,” he says, and goes looking for treasure.

What he finds is a hallway leading deeper under the hill, into a huge dining room. Bones are scattered everywhere and the sound of crying fills the room. My outrage on behalf of the dead giants is considerably lessened when Jack finds a pantry full of live men and women, all of whom he compensates for their horrific ordeal by sharing out the giants’ treasure. One of the captives happens to own a nearby castle and they all head over there to celebrate life. It’s quite well-fortified, but then they hear the giants’ nephew Thunderdell is on the warpath and they know the castle defences won’t be enough.

Jack laughs. “Now you shall see some sport,” he says and goes stand alone on the drawbridge, slicing it up with his sword so it’s nothing but a gangway. When Thunderdell arrives, gnashing his two sets of teeth and whirling his club, he is singing the traditional giant hunting song, with minor variations. “Fee! Fi! Foh! Fum! I smell the blood of a Cornishman! Be he alive, be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!” Jack is prepared with a counter song. “Here’s little Jack, the Cornishman,” he calls out, “Who slew the giant Cormoran. If you can touch him, ‘fore or ‘hind, I give you leave his bones to grind!” With that he leaps up and runs around and around the moat, his magical shoes giving him such speed that Thunderdell cannot quite catch up. Adding to the confusion, Jack keeps slipping in and out of his coat, appearing and disappearing like a mirage.

Unaided by magic, Thunderdell wears out fast. Jack ends the game by jumping onto what’s left of the drawbridge. It cannot take the giant’s weight and Thunderdell falls through into the moat. As he struggles to get out, Jack slices off both heads. “I told you I’d show you some sport,” Jack says lightly to his stunned audience, and heads inside to continue the party.

Jack, the Giant Galligantua and the Enchanter

Jack continues travelling. At length he comes to a wasteland, where the only landmark is a huge mountain and a tiny cottage at its foot. Within lives a very old, half blind man with a very long white beard. Though he has not much to offer, he agrees to let Jack to stay the night, possibly just because he wants someone to talk to. “Once, and not long ago, this hovel was a palace,” he says sadly, “and I was a strong and happy man, lord over wide and fertile lands, to the east, to the west, to the south, farther than eye could see. All gone, all changed!”

This is all thanks to the giant Galligantua. He wanted to marry to the old man’s daughter, and the old man said no. That’s not an answer the giant was willing to accept, so Galligantua called on his bestie the Enchanter to make father and daughter pay. The Enchanter came down from the mountain in a flaming griffin-drawn chariot, turned the girl into a doe and all the people of the land into birds and beasts. To finish his task thoroughly, he then turned the land itself into a wasteland and the girl’s father into the tottering old man he is now.

“Would he had killed me!” mourns Jack’s host. “For whilst I live I nurse the crazy hope that my daughter will one day be rescued.” This is no time for modesty – Jack points to his belt and announces his intention of saving the girl. Plus killing the giant, of course. The old man is not  immediately convinced, and not just because he finds the belt very hard to read. The gate at the top of the mountain is guarded by the Enchanter’s griffins, and anyone who wants to pass through must somehow elude their beaks and claws.

Jack, however, is well prepared for that. Early the next morning he bounds up the mountain with his magic shoes, beheads the griffins with his magic sword and comes up to the gate untroubled. A horn hangs there, with magic writing underneath it that Jack can understand because of his magic hat. It essentially says ‘this is the doom horn, blow this and your enemies are goners’.

WHY WOULD YOU HANG THIS ON YOUR FRONT GATE. WHY.

Jack, of course, snatches it up and blows it. The giant pokes his head out to see what’s going on; Jack cuts it off. He blows twice more and the castle begins to fall apart. The Enchanter, bat-winged and wearing a dramatic pointy hat, screams furiously in the ruins, presumably wondering why he left the horn there too. Jack blows it three more times. The Enchanter burns up completely, leaving only the echo of his screams behind.

The enchanted animals, among them the white doe, come running from the rubble. As the mountain sinks away and the Enchanter’s magic fades, Jack finds himself surrounded by newly restored humans in a beautiful green land. The old man becomes a good-looking middle-aged duke, his hovel becomes a palace and the doe becomes a beautiful girl. To my continued disappointment, Jack marries her instead of the murderous princess, and despite now being a duke-in-waiting-by-marriage, he keeps on slaughtering giants until the end of his days. By the time of his death, there is only one giant left in the country, the three-headed one who unknowingly gave him the tools of his trade and whom he never went back to kill. That giant eventually dies of old age, and then there are none of his kind left.

Though they come from different fairy tales, I find it very easy to believe this Jack actually is the one who grew the beanstalk. It would be the logical backstory. He’s certainly ruthless enough for the robbery and murder, and completely unashamed of it. I do accept that the giants often have it coming, what with slaughtering humans wholesale, but Jack is so obviously having fun. He’s terrifying. So is the princess, but I kind of wish she’d stayed that way and become a Welsh Princess Blue-Eyes. Did the demon really kidnap her at all, or did she kidnap him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a surprise, Catrinella says yes.

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

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

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.117 – The Two Brothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.116 – Rake Up!

This Danish fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Mermaids and begins with a mermaid who has established an unexpected career in agriculture. Her herd of cows usually graze on seaweed, but that’s not working for them and at length they demand some real grass. The mermaid swings atop one of the cows and leads the herd to a nearby field. “Now, my darling grey cows, and you, my huge bull Mark, eat your fill,” the mermaid says, and they do exactly that – until the humans come along to spoil everything.

You see, near the field is a small town. No one there owns any cows, therefore the grass is of no particular use to them, but the sight of the mermaid happily combing out her hair while her beasts graze ignites their latent xenophobic possessiveness. Forming a mob, they block the mermaid’s path as she tries to return to the sea, throwing stones and beating the cows with sticks. They are terrible people. The bull Mark wants to retaliate with his considerable force, but the mermaid has queenly good manners and won’t let him hurt anyone. She and her herd are instead locked away in a yard while the townsfolk debate what to do.

One man wants to kill them all. He is, appropriately enough, the town butcher. A tailor protests, not because he is ethically superior but because he’s scared of Mark. A third man, this one a lawyer, comes up with an alternative suggestion: making the mermaid pay damages for the eaten grass. “Don’t mermaids possess riches?” he points out, and the crowd starts cheering.

They go to the mermaid with their demands. “I can’t pay,” she says blankly. “I haven’t any money.” This is a cultural misunderstanding on her part – she is wearing a heavily bejewelled girdle that will do quite nicely. There are easily enough precious stones there to set up all the townsfolk for life, but given how little worth the mermaid seems to place on her girdle, they assume she must possess far greater riches. “In three days time,” they tell her, “come to the shore where we shall be waiting, and bring us three more such girdles.” She agrees to the terms and they let her go back to the sea.

The cows wade into the sea, disappearing underwater, until only the mermaid and her bull are left on the beach. “Rake up, my bull!” the mermaid instructs, and Mark goes to work with his horns. Sand fills the air. The crowd of onlookers who followed them down to the water quickly retreat, but Mark keeps raking and sand keeps flying, settling like drifts of snow upon rooftops and streets, piling against windows and blocking doors. When the town is half-buried, the mermaid tells Mark to stop and he gives a smug bellow for anyone listening before following her into the sea.

That’s what you get when you mess with a mermaid. The townsfolk clean up as best they can, but two days of shovelling is not enough to make a dent and soon patience is in short supply. The lawyer throws down his shovel, announcing he’ll go to the city and sell the mermaid’s girdle. A distrustful chorus is raised. In the end the butcher and tailor accompany him, to make sure no one cheats anyone else.

On the way to the city, they stop and the lawyer draws the girdle from his pack. The stones shine winningly in the sunlight. “Thousands of pounds we shall get for these gems!” he gloats. “What, only thousands? Nay, millions!” This attitude does not inspire trust from his companions, each of whom insist on carrying it the rest of the way – the argument turns into a fight, each man grabbing a side of the girdle and pulling with all his might. Unsurprisingly, it breaks. Jewels roll everywhere. When the men hurry to gather them up, they find only dried seaweed. They can do nothing but return to town, empty handed.

The mermaid is a woman of her word. On the third day she comes to the beach as agreed, bringing the promised jewels. “Your girdles!” she calls. “Come and fetch them!” No one comes near; in the distance, the lawyer shakes his fist. The mermaid laughs and dives deep.

Given how often fairy tales portray the other – be that minority groups, non-humans or just non-pretty people – as evil or at the least untrustworthy, it’s rather wonderful to encounter a story in which such attitudes are so roundly criticised. The mermaid is dignified and courteous in the face of other people’s awful behaviour, but at the same time she’s nobody’s victim. Something else worth noting? The only descriptor of her looks is ‘queenly’. She doesn’t need to be hyperbolically beautiful to be stone cold fabulous.