Fairy Tale Tuesday No.115 – The Hidden Girls

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

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

Version 1: Mossycoat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Version 2: Cat-Skin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Version 3: All Fur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fairy Tale Tuesday No.104 – Four of the Fearless

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

Story 1: The Youth Who Wanted to Learn to Shiver

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

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

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

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

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

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

I now loathe this boy.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, someone ends up happy.

Story 2: The Lass that Couldn’t Be Frighted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story 3: The Prince Who Was Afraid of Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story 4: The Dauntless Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.84 – Yellow Lily

This week’s fairy tale is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Magic Lands: folk tales of Britain and Ireland, this specific story being an Irish one – or at least that’s where the prince is from. He is a reckless young man who loves to gamble on his wit and strength. His parents find his behaviour troubling, but can do little to stop him. One day he goes out hunting and meets with a giant who wants to play cards.

Most people might find such a situation alarming. Not so this prince! He wagers two farms that he will win, and indeed he does. Very pleased with himself, he returns the next day for another match of skill. The prince wins again, this time a herd of fine cattle. His parents try to convince him to stop while he’s ahead, but he can’t resist one last game. This time, the giant suggests they wager their heads. Lulled by his previous success, the prince agrees – and of course, this time he loses. The giant graciously allows him a year and a day’s grace, at the end of which time he must come to the castle at Loch Lein.

The prince returns home in a daze. “No game is finished until the last hand has been played,” the king encourages him, but the time passes all too swiftly and in the end the prince leaves without so much as a goodbye.

It’s a long journey to the giant’s castle. By nightfall on the first day the prince has reached an unfamiliar valley where the only light comes from a small cottage. Inside, an old woman with a mouthful of fangs is sitting peaceably by the fire. She knows who the prince is at once. Of course she does, she’s an old lady in a lonely cottage, they know everything. She not only lets him sleep in her house, she washes his feet and makes him an excellent breakfast the next morning. “Tonight you’ll be staying with my sister,” she announces. “Be sure to do whatever she tells you. Otherwise your head will be in danger.” Then she gives him a ball of thread and tells him to follow where it goes.

The thread takes him to another cottage, at the base of a high hill, where a second fanged lady welcomes him indoors. She, too, gives him a ball of thread, and it leads him to a third night’s lodging with the oldest of the three sisters. “The giant of Loch Lein has a huge castle,” she tells the prince, “and it’s surrounded by seven hundred iron spikes. Every spike – every spike but one – is topped with the head of a king, or a queen, or a king’s son. The last spike is waiting, and nothing in the world can save you from it unless you take my advice.” Her plan is for him to hide by a certain lake where the giant’s three daughters come to bathe, and to steal the youngest girl’s clothes while she’s in the water. This girl, known as Yellow Lily for the flower she wears, will then makes all sorts of rash promises to get her clothes back.

I do not like this solution at all! The prince, however, whose head is at risk, makes no argument. He does as the old lady advised. Discovering her clothes to be gone, Yellow Lily’s sisters prove completely unsympathetic and go home without her. She’s so desperate that she cries aloud, “Let the man who took my clothes give them back to me. I swear I’ll save him from whatever danger he is in.”

The prince returns her clothes. She recognises him at once as the man her father plans to drown in a tank of water. Helpful as she promised to be, she warns the prince to refuse all food offered by the giant and to wait in the tank until she comes to save him. By now the prince is pretty good at following instructions and does as she bids him, though being thrown into a tank by a giant is a pretty big leap of trust. Yellow Lily is good as her word, sneaking in as soon as her father is asleep and pulling the prince out. She then gives him dry clothes, a solid meal, and a real bed.

Through the night she keeps watch, and near morning she drops the prince back into the tank. The giant is surprised at his guest’s continued survival, but not bothered – he has lots of ideas for killing royalty, and the one he has in mind for the day is all about humiliation. He shows the prince to his stables, which hold five hundred horses and have not been cleaned for seven hundred years. “When my great-grandmother was a girl,” the giant muses, “she lost a slumber-pin somewhere in that stable. And often as she looked for it, she was never able to find it.” Apparently, the possibility of cleaning her poor horses’ stable did not occur to her. The prince is to find that pin by nightfall or his head will be put on a spike.

The day does not progress well. All the prince’s efforts to clear the stable only make matters worse, until he’s practically walled in with filth. At this junction, Yellow Lily comes sauntering past to see how he’s doing. I’m guessing it’s quite satisfying for her to see her blackmailer in such straits, but she did promise to help him. Using her bare hands on the mess, within minutes she has the whole place clean. Then she points out the precise location of her great-great-grandmother’s lost pin and leaves, presumably to have a bath. The prince gets thrown back in the tank, but hey, at least he’s clean! And Yellow Lily quickly comes to fish him back out, allowing him to survive a second night of Loch Lein’s hospitality.

By morning the giant has thought up another task. The stables have not been thatched for seven hundred years; not only must the prince manage that in one day, he must do it with feathers, no two the same. The only tool he is permitted is a whistle.

The prince spends all day whistling without attracting a single bird. Eventually Yellow Lily comes by with a picnic. “You stay here,” she says, all but patting him on the head, “and I’ll thatch the stables.” Before he’s even finished eating, she’s done the job exactly to her father’s specifications. The giant is deeply suspicious, rightfully convinced that the prince is getting help from somewhere, and on the third morning comes up with the most difficult task of all. On the slopes below the castle, there is a tree nine hundred feet high, with glass for bark and only one branch right at the very top. A crow has nested there and the giant wants its egg for supper.

Knowing full well it’s an impossible ask, the prince makes the attempt anyway. When he’s failed resoundingly in several different ways, he turns around to find Yellow Lily watching. They have another picnic while she gives the matter some thought. At the end of the meal, she produces a huge carving knife and calmly instructs the prince to kill her. With steps made from her flesh, he will be able to reach the nest.

Appalled, the prince refuses. He has not taken into account the eccentric anatomy of giants, however; once he has the egg, he must arrange all her flesh on the picnic cloth and sprinkle it with spring water, and she will be restored. So the prince does as she asks, slaughtering her with the knife and hacking her body into pieces to use as steps. He fetches the egg, then returns to the ground, collecting the pieces of the giant’s daughter on the way down. One bone is mislaid and the first thing Yellow Lily says as she’s restored to life is a protest at the fact she now has only nine toes.

Unable to prove his daughter had a hand in the task, the giant has no choice but to let his prisoner go. The prince’s parents are astonished at the sight of their son on the doorstep, alive and well, and quickly consult a wise man about how they can keep him that way. He does have a history of idiocy, after all. The wise man advises they marry him off and they choose the princess of Denmark. The prince does not argue about this arrangement, but insists that the giant of Loch Lein and his daughter Yellow Lily be invited to the wedding.

On the day before the marriage the prince’s father holds a grand feast, but the giant is left unimpressed by the festivities. “I’ve never been to a gathering like this one without one man singing a song, another telling a story, and a third playing a trick,” he scoffs. Careful to appease his most dangerous guest, the king sings a song and the Danish bride’s father tells a story. That leaves the giant to play a trick. Not well handled, your Majesties. The giant gives his turn to Yellow Lily, who conjures up a series of illusions. Grains of wheat become two pigeons; the male pigeon pecks and jostles the hen, who protests in a girl’s voice. “You wouldn’t have done that to me on the day I cleaned the stables for you.” “You wouldn’t have done that to me on the day I thatched the stables for you.” “You wouldn’t have done that to me on the day you killed me and took my bones to make steps.”

Ahem. The italics are mine.

The prince has a speech of his own to make. Once, he reminds the guests, he roamed all over Ireland looking for tests of skill, and lost the key to a casket he owned. After having a new one made, he found the old. Which should he keep? The king of Denmark advises he use the old, as it must fit the lock better, and the prince resoundingly agrees. The story is a metaphor; he introduces Yellow Lily as his true bride. “Your daughter,” he tells the outraged Danish king, ” has lost little. She’s been saved from a loveless marriage. And she will be my father’s most honoured guest.” So he marries Yellow Lily instead, and the party rages on for weeks. Even the giant of Loch Lein stays for that.

This story is notable for unusual character growth and a love story that is actually convincing. Yellow Lily meets the prince in an awful, exploitative situation, but he has a good reason for blackmailing her, he doesn’t hesitate to return her clothes once her help has been pledged, and best of all, she gets some payback. There’s humour, and horror, and cunning tricks. This is a happily ever after I really believe.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.78 – Three Heads of the Well

This week’s fairy tale is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s collection The Magic Lands: folk tales of Britain and Ireland, and it certainly doesn’t mince words. Less than a year after the death of his first wife, a cash-strapped king goes looking for a wealthy new bride. The woman he chooses is a cranky, paranoid widow whose physical appearance is described in the most unflattering terms, and her reason for marrying a man who doesn’t love her is so that her daughter will inherit the crown. There is only one problem with that – the king already has an heir, his own daughter Eleanor.

Having a sad lack of witchcraft at her disposal, the stepmother launches a whisper campaign. The young princess is still grieving for her mother and her misery deepens at the unexpected distance growing between herself and her father. Taking the practical course, she goes to him and announces her intention to go on a journey. He’s all too amenable to the idea, but because he is an idiot he delegates the task of preparations to his wife. The bundle Eleanor receives contains no money and no clothing, and barely enough food to last a day.

She sets off anyway, walking all day through the beechwood beyond the palace, and only stops in the late afternoon when she comes to a glade. It is already occupied; an old man seated on a stone calls out a cheery greeting. Eleanor politely offers a share of her meagre supplies and they share a late lunch. As a reward for the kind gesture, the old man gives her directions to a thick thorn hedge just beyond the forest. That doesn’t sound like much of a reward, it’s true, but he throws in a rowan twig that will magically part the hedge. Further on, the old man continues, there will be a well and three heads floating in it. The princess should do whatever they say.

Well, Eleanor did go looking for an adventure. She follows the old man’s directions to the well and sure enough, there are three golden heads bobbing in the water. They ask her to wash and comb them, and Eleanor – who may have nothing else, but brought her comb! – does exactly that. When she’s done and all the heads are lined up on a bank of wildflowers, they discuss between themselves what to do for this lovely young lady. The first decides to give her enchanting beauty. The second gives her skin and breath a sweeter scent than a flower garden. The last head plots to match her up with ‘the best of all princes’. They then ask Eleanor to return them to the well, after which she continues calmly on her journey. She is now accompanied by an entourage of adoring birds. Basically, they’ve transformed her into a Disney princess.

The path she is following just happens to lead her through a beautiful park. Seeing a king and his huntsmen riding through the trees, Eleanor turns in a different direction; she’s had quite enough of kings for one day. Fairy tale royalty are not, however, reknown for their ability to take a hint, and the king is charmed by her amazing floral fragrance. He insists on inviting her inside. Once he has her there, he does everything he can think of to please and impress her, proving that perhaps he is the best of princes after all, only not actually a prince any more. Eleanor is won over by his skilful conversation and agrees to marry him. It is only after the wedding that she tells him who her father is; his reaction is to laugh and order his extravagantly fancy carriage for a family visit. That third head had excellent judgement.

When Eleanor arrives, her father is pacing the grounds, a tiny bit uneasy about sending his only child off into the unknown with so little ceremony. He is astounded to see her step from a royal carriage, bedecked in new jewellery with a handsome husband on her arm. The entire court goes into party mode, with feasting and music, but Eleanor’s stepmother is in no temper to join them. Drawing aside her daughter, she provides a bag of sweets and sherry and tells her to follow the same track as her stepsister. This naturally leads her to the same glade. The old man is still there, only this time the meeting doesn’t go so well; the girl won’t allow him a bite from her bag and he wishes her bad luck in her journey.

Untroubled, she continues on her way and comes to the thorn hedge. She thinks there is a gap, but as she’s squeezing through it closes around her and she emerges with torn skin and clothes. Her first thought when she sees the well is to wash away the blood and when three heads come bobbing unexpectedly to the surface, the girl reacts by whipping out her mother’s sherry and whacking each one with the bottle. “What shall we do for this girl,” the heads mutter darkly, “who has been so cruel to us?” They don’t take long to decide. The first head gives her sores, the second rancid breath, and the third predicts her marriage to a common cobbler.

There is no king awaiting her just down the track; she has to sleep on bare earth. The next morning she comes to a market town where everyone shrinks back in alarm from her livid sores – everyone apart from a kind-hearted cobbler. He offers to cure both afflictions if she will marry him, and given her options at the time, the girl accepts. In a strange turn of events, the cobbler only just mended a penniless old man’s shoes and took a bottle and box of ointments as payment. It takes a few weeks, but slowly the girl is restored to what she was. She marries the cobbler and returns home to introduce him to her mother.

That…does not go well. The queen commits suicide. Her husband inherits the wealth he married her for and has no remaining interest in his stepdaughter, so the girl returns home with her husband. While he mends shoes, she weaves cloth and dyes it all the brightest colours she can, and never returns to the palace.

There are endless variations on this particular fairy tale. A pair of sisters are subjected to the same magical test, with the first to be lavishly rewarded (note to magic-users: having diamonds drop from her mouth with every word is taking it way too far) and the second to be punished with equal severity (toads and snakes is WAY WAY too far). This one, though, is interesting. The stepsister has a story of her own – as the spoiled daughter of a wealthy, ambitious woman, brought into the household of a man who doesn’t give a damn about either of them, her brusqueness sounds like a self defence tactic to me. She takes on disembodied heads with a sherry bottle, and she only marries the cobbler after weeks experiencing his kindness. After the loss of her mother and inheritance, she makes a new life as a weaver, making cloth and dying it ‘all the colours of the rainbow’.

This is a girl who will make her own happily ever after.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.26 – Spinning Out The Story

You know how people in fairy tales are just a teeny bit crazy about gold? Well, let’s say that a girl could spin straw into gold. Hypothetically speaking, of course. Do you think there might be any kings who’d be interested at all? ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ is a strange beast even by fairy tale standards, with so many delicate tints of moral grey. This week I’m taking on four stories of mysterious spinners, and let me put it this way, turning straw into gold isn’t the half of how weird things are going to get.

Version 1: Rumpelstiltskin

Let’s begin with the famous one, a version of which is taken from Dean&Son’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A miller short on both money and common sense becomes so proud of his beautiful daughter that he boasts to the king himself that she is clever enough to spin straw into gold! Yes, a poverty-stricken small businessman apparently has the ear of the monarch, who is not only credulous enough to believe the boast, he also insists the girl turn her powers to the service of the crown. Leading her to a chamber full of straw, he informs her that it must all be spun to gold before morning…if she wants to live. The girl tries to explain that she has no idea how to do such a thing, but it’s a case of talk to the door, sweetheart, no one is listening. She is left locked up alone with a task she has no hope of accomplishing. What’s there left to do except burst into tears?

But perhaps someone was listening, after all, because just then the door opens and a strange-looking little man limps in. The miller’s daughter explains her troubles to him and when the little man hints that perhaps his expertise in this field outweighs her own, she is more than happy to exchange her necklace for his help. By the time king returns, the little man is gone and the straw is a pile of shimmering gold. So, is he satisfied? Stupid question. With the greed for gold worse than ever, he shuts the girl up with more straw and the same threat as before. And once again the little man returns to help her, this time accepting her ring as his reward. Because obviously a man who can sneak around a king’s palace, and for that matter, can spin straw into gold, would need the jewellery of a miller’s daughter. The king is delighted with his new treasure, but he’s not satisfied yet, demanding a third night of spinning. If she succeeds, he promises her, he will make her his queen. A debatable reward, in my opinion, but on balance probably better than dying a horrible death. Only thing is, the girl has no jewellery left to trade for the little man’s help. So he makes a new bargain with her: the king’s gold in exchange for her firstborn child.

Backed into the worst sort of corner, she agrees to his terms. In the morning, the king is given his gold and, finally satisfied with his wealth, fulfils his word by making the girl his queen. Then their first child is born, and her bargain comes back to haunt her. The little man wants the baby he was promised. The panicked young queen offers him anything and everything else in exchange, and his heart is softened enough by her desperation to offer her the smallest of chances. If she can guess his name in three days time, she may keep the child.

She uses all resources available to her new position, collecting all the names to be found in the kingdom, and when the little man comes she lists them all, but not one is right. On the second day she tries nicknames – Bandy-legs, Hunch-back, Crook-shanks – which is actually rude, and also incorrect. On the third day one of her messengers, sent out to seek new names, returns to tell her that there are no more to be found. What he discovered instead was a strange little hut, and a little man dancing before it, singing a most unwise song… That day, when her visitor comes for the third time, the Queen is waiting. Rumpelstiltskin, she names him, and he flees the palace empty-handed, the laughter of the court ringing in his ears.

Version 2: The Three Old Maids

This story comes from the same collection as the first, but this time the girl is the disappointment of a fiercely hard-working woman who one day loses her patience and slaps her daughter hard enough to make her cry. In a case of rather unfortunate timing the queen happens to be passing through the street outside, close enough to hear and kind enough to investigate. The mother, not wanting to admit to her daughter’s laziness (or her own corporal methods of discipline) promptly makes up a lie, saying that the girl will not leave off spinning, and they had not enough flax left for her to work. The queen, who is very fond of spinning herself, immediately offers an invitation to the castle, where there is flax enough for the hardest of workers. Wish fulfilment vs. reality – guess who wins? The mother, swept up with success, packs her daughter off to face the consequences of her lie.

In the castle, the queen fills a room with the finest flax and leaves it for the girl to spin. There are no death threats, but she does make one very tantalising offer: if the girl is as industrious as her mother implied, she has a worthy talent and may be rewarded by the queen’s favourite son for her husband. The only difficulty is, the girl can’t spin for love or money, and the only way she prevents herself getting kicked out of the castle straight away is by showing as innate an ability to lie as her mother. On the third night of her stay, the girl is crying herself to sleep when she looks up and finds three extraordinary old women standing before her. One has a right foot so broad it is almost square; another has an underlip dropping to her chin; and the third has a thumb like a spade. They ask the girl what troubles her, and who CARES what these people look like, they are the first sympathetic ear the girl has had in a long time. She tells them all.

They offer her a bargain. If they spin all the flax for her, she must invite them to her wedding and introduce them to her bridegroom as her aunts. To this she agrees without a moment’s thought. As soon as the queen is heard upon the stair, they disappear into the closet, leaving the girl to be praised for their magnificent work – and as soon as the queen is gone, they return to their spinning. When all the flax is gone, the queen keeps her word about the wedding, and the girl keeps hers. The three old women are invited, as they were promised. And the bridegroom…his name is not Prince Tact, let’s put it that way. He asks each woman about her deformity, and each calmly explains it is the inevitable result of so much spinning. Appalled, the prince insists his wife never spin again. To which I say, awesome aunts.

Version 3: Tom Tit Tot

This third story comes from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s British Folk Tales – a selection, published in 1987 by Chivers Press. It, too, has a mother instead of a miller. Having overcooked five pies, she orders her daughter put them in the larder to ‘come again’, or soften. Only the girl, who is more than slightly scatterbrained, interprets this as meaning that the pies will magically reappear and eats the lot. Wrong fairytale, my friend, you’ll be wanting ‘The Magic Table, the Golden Donkey and the Club in the Sack’. When her mother finds out what she’s done, she angrily calls her a dardledumdue – a most fearsome and incomprehensible insult – and starts spinning on the doorstep to soothe her mood. As she spins, she sings. Because as we all know, no one is ever ever listening. Except, it would seem, the king, who wanders over to see what’s up.

The woman is too embarassed to admit her song was ‘My daughter’s ate five pies today’. For one thing, it’s a stupid thing to sing about! She changes the words to ‘My daughter’s spun five skeins today’ and the king is very impressed. He takes a look at the girl, who is sweet and pretty even if she is completely clueless about cooking, and decides on the spot to marry her. For eleven months, he tells her mother, she can eat as much as she chooses and buy all the clothes she likes, but during the twelfth month she either spins five skeins a day or he cuts off her head.

Fair enough, says her mum. Surely a year is enough time for the king to forget his own terms! So off the girl goes with the king, and for eleven months of their marriage everything is as wonderful as he promised. But the last month of the year rolls around at last, and he most certainly hasn’t forgotten their agreement. He leads her to a room she’s never seen before, with nothing in it but a spinning wheel, a stool and ridiculous amounts of flax. Five skeins tomorrow, the king tells her, or the chop. Night night!

The girl is sixteen years old, far from home, and very scared. She hasn’t been locked in yet, it’s true – the month of spinning starts tomorrow – but if she ran away, where would she go for help? So she does the only thing she really knows how to do in this kind of situation, retreating to the palace kitchens and crying her heart out. Which turns out to be a good move. Something knocks on the door beside her, and when she opens it she sees a strange little black creature standing outside, twirling its long tail and regarding her curiously. It wants to know why she’s crying. The girl is not inclined to talk about it, but the little creature wheedles it out of her in the end, and at the end of her story magnanimously offers to do the whole thing for her. “What will it cost me?” she asked suspiciously. Not entirely clueless, then. The creature looks at her slyly from the corners of its eyes and tells her, “Every night I’ll give you three guesses at my name. And if you haven’t guessed it before the month’s up, you shall be mine.”

Well, not a good deal, all things considered, but an axe to the neck looks worse, so the girl agrees. Three guesses a night for a month – the odds are in her favour, right? The next day the king locks her away, and he has scarcely left the room when there’s a knocking at her window and she finds the little black creature with the long tail sitting there on the sill. It whisks away the flax. Come evening, another knock, and there are five skeins, as promised. The girl takes them and makes her three guesses, and each one is wrong. Later that night, the king comes in for his skeins. “I see I shan’t have to kill you tonight, my dear,” says the old softie, and off he goes to do whatever the hell it is he intends to do with all that yarn.

This sets up the pattern for the rest of the month. All day, every day, with nothing else to do, the girl thinks of names – but not one of them is ever right. Every time she makes a guess, the little black creature twirls its tail faster, looking wickeder and wickeder, until the second last day of the month arrives. The girl makes her three guesses, and has as much success with them as before. The look the creature gives her is so frightening that when the king comes to collect his five skeins that night, and decides to stay for supper, it’s actually a welcome distraction. And, as if this is some normal meal of their married life, he tells her a funny story from his day. He was lost out hunting when he saw the strangest little creature spinning in the woods, singing as it spun: Nimmy nimmy not, my name’s Tom Tit Tot

Finally, the king has been useful! Not that he knows it. The girl carefully hides her excitement. In the morning she gives the little black creature its flax as usual, and come nightfall there’s the knocking at her window. It’s sitting on the sill, grinning, twirling its tail faster than ever. She takes her skeins, and makes her guesses. Solomon? Zebedee? With each wrong guess the creature dances forward, twirling its tail so fast you can barely see it, stretching out its hands to take her – then the girl starts to laugh. Nimmy nimmy not, she sings, you name’s Tom Tit Tot. The creature shrieks its rages and flies away into the dark, never to be seen again, leaving the triumphant young queen with…her crazy husband. Who will now hopefully come out about his knitting fetish and get psychological help.

Version 4: Spin, Weave, Wear

The last story comes from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s anthology of Scottish tales, Thistle and Thyme. Its heroine is a girl who is both pretty and, wonder of wonders, good at spinning. So good, in fact, that when her father is out with his friends – all of whom are doing the usual thing of boasting about their brilliant offspring – he tells them that his daughter can spin in the morning, weave in the afternoon, and have a fully made garment sewn for you that night. She’s a little cross with him when he gets home and tells her about it, but a little pleased too, because how could you stay angry at someone so proud of you?

Only the story doesn’t stay within the farmer’s circle of friends. It spreads like the plague, actually, and eventually it reaches the ear of the king, who is bored enough to take one stupid man’s boast and turn it into a full-on spinning tournament. Yes, you heard me. All the ambitious girls of the land are summoned together to his castle to try their hand against this champion of the spinning wheel! The obvious thing to do at this point would be to sit down somewhere near an open window and cry loudly, but this girl’s not in for that. She doesn’t even tell her father, so she could have someone to yell at. She thinks through her options carefully, then sighs to herself in dejection at how dangerous they look. Her cat, sitting on the other side of the hearth, disagrees.

The girl is definitely taken aback by her Tom suddenly deciding to talk, but he’s pretty laid back about it all, and as she sensibly reasons, if he can talk, he might also have a solution to her situation. He does: become a witch. When she turns that one down flat, he regretfully agrees to come up with an alternative, heading off into the night to meet with his contacts. Two mornings later he comes back, grinning through his whiskers and being mysterious. This new plan involves going out on the moor at night, walking into a dark glen, to where a pair of old crones are huddled around a small fire. Tom gets straight down to business. How much for a spell? The witches consult each other, then the girl, and a deal is struck. Two brooms that have never touched the ground, they want, two flasks of water that have never been touched by the sun, two bits of silver out of gypsy lad’s pocket, and two rings of gold that were never mined or minted.

Well, the first three are achievable. The fourth is just weird. But before the girl can stop him, Tom has agreed to all terms. He steals the silver then sleeps the rest of the day away while the girl makes the brooms and fetches the water. Night is falling, it is almost time to return to the moor for the spell…but she still doesn’t have the rings. Then, as she’s brushing her hair, she sees its golden colour shining in the firelight and realises what it is the witches want. With everything now ready, she makes supper and sends her oblivious father off to bed, before setting out back into the night with her cat. They hand over the brooms and water, silver and rings, and get – no spell. It’s not ready yet. Not only that, the witches need ingredients, a lot of ingredients. Which involves sending the girl and Tom off to steal other people’s straw, fetch thistledown in the dark, and break three black thorns on the stroke of midnight. I wonder who this deal favoured…?

But at last everything is assembled and the witches work their spell. The enchanted thistledown is to be spun, they tell the girl, the wheat straw – now bullied into the shape of yarn – is to be used for weaving, and the black thorns are turned to needles for her sewing. All this is hers for the competition, under one condition. If she speaks one word between the time she enters the king’s castle and returns to her father’s house, the spell will be broken.

With that, the witches fly off on their new brooms, and the girl and her cat go home. Presumably at some point she’s seen fit to explain about the competition to her father, because he’s giving her a lift to the king’s castle, but all she tells him about her own plans is that she has decided not to speak while she’s there and will he be kind enough to do the talking for her? On the day appointed, they arrive, the first contestants to do so. Only three other girls have accepted the king’s challenge, and they’re late. The court rather takes to the farmer’s daughter, and it’s fortunate she’s there to keep her father in check, because all the attention is rather going to his head. Nor is he the only one determined to talk. A young lord falls for the girl and follows her around chatting away, not at all deterred by her lack of reply. On the second day of her being there, he actually asks her to marry him, but all he gets is a smile and a shake of the head. He sulks, then tries again, and gets exactly the same response. He almost leaves after that, but the other girls have at last arrived and the competition is about to start – so he stays.

You’d think after all that hype, it would at least be an exhibition. Instead, the three girls are each taken to a different tower where the tools for their work are waiting. The farmer’s daughter ignores these. She has her own things. The moment the thistledown touches the wheel, it begins to spin on its own; by noon, all the thread is spun. She has a calm lunch, scatters her crumbs for the birds, and begins her afternoon’s labour at the loom, setting the thistledown thread to weave with the enchanted yarn. By evening, she has three webs of beautiful cloth. She enjoys her supper, puts the plates neatly outside the door for the servants, lights a candle, and starts cutting her cloth. No sooner has she threaded the needles than they stitch away by themselves at the outlines she’s cut. At the stroke of midnight, they are done, and the outfit of a proper Scottish king is lying complete on the table, kilt and all. Then the girl blows out her candle and enjoys the sleep of the truly competent.

So, the king is thrilled. He has a champion! But at this point, when she should be celebrating – and is, in her own way, alone in the great hall with a nice bowl of porridge – the infatuated young lord comes storming in for a final and not especially prepossessing proposal. The girl sees something in him that she likes, though, and impetuously agrees. Of course, that breaks the spell and she has to explain the situation to her new fiance. He proves he’s actually worth marrying by being okay with it all. He wouldn’t want his wife to spend all her time spinning and weaving and sewing and stuff, he tells her, and besides, he gets all his clothes from a tailor. They don’t have the heart to tell the king, though. The other girls go home with a nice present for their trouble, the farmer sells his land to come live at court and entertain the king with his stories, and the girl and her lord get married, riding off to live in his castle together…taking her beloved cat Tom with them. That, my friends, is what I call a very happy ending.

Let’s get this clear, first of all: Rumpelstiltskin is not a villain in my house. No, not even the one from TV in Once Upon a Time, who is admittedly a bit more psycho than the original. As for Tom Tit Tot, he frankly sounds a lot better than a homicidal husband obsessed with yarn, and the tail is cute. The three aunts are very excellent, and I do like that girl for not second-guessing about her bargain with them, but you just can’t beat the Scottish girl who hired a pair of witches and paid them in homemade brooms. My favourite thing about this story – apart from the tough talking, problem solving cat, of course – is how the girl puts her crumbs out for the birds during the competition at the king’s palace. And nothing happens. It is a kindness for kindness’s sake. You know, if she’d met Rumpelstiltskin, I don’t think she’d have taunted him. More likely, she would have quizzed him on his parenting plans and got him in touch with a local orphanage.

Common sense is, after all, worth its weight in gold.

(If you’re curious about what kind of parent he might have made, try tracking down Diane Stanley’s brilliant picture book retelling, Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter, published by Morrow Junior Books in 1997. You will be on my side of this one by the time you’ve finished reading, believe me.)