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.

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Fairy Tale Tuesday No.109 – The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies

This Scottish fairy tale is taken from Sorche Nic Leodhas’ collection Thistle and Thyme and its protagonist is the master baker of seven counties, a woman so talented that every event of significance for miles around is considered incomplete without one of her cakes. Those who can afford it are charged a fair rate, but approached by someone too poor to pay for anything more than the tiniest treat, the baker is quite likely to whip up a sugary extravaganza and send it as a gift. LET THEM EAT CAKE.

Her cooking draws the attention of the local Fair Folk, who have covetous sweet teeth and are prone to filching a slice or two wherever they can. They are extremely fond of this particular baker’s creations but rarely get a taste as any cake of hers disappears in about ten seconds flat, leaving nothing to steal. Their solution is to kidnap the woman herself and keep her under the fairy hill as their personal baker. All they require the right opportunity.

It isn’t long in coming. The baker gets a hefty commission at a local lord’s castle and she spends the whole day baking, only setting out for home after night has fallen. As she passes the fairy hill they ambush her. Mistaking the flittering throng for fireflies, and the fern seed they blow in her eyes to make her sleepy as just the long day catching up to her, she lies down on the hill for a quick nap. The next thing she knows, she’s waking up in Fairyland. Her kidnappers tell her what they want – essentially, ‘give us the cake and no one gets hurt’.

The baker has no intention of staying under the hill for the rest of her life, or even for the rest of the night, but she beams cheerily anyway. “Why, you poor wee things! To think of me baking cakes for everyone else, and not a one for you!” The fairies have no baking supplies, so she sends them out on errand after errand until she has all the necessary ingredients. Then she finds out they have no appropriately sized mixing bowls, and they have to go get hers, plus her spoons and whisk and all the odds and ends that come with making a cake.

Finally everything is assembled and the baker starts work. “‘Tis no use!” she declares, stopping abruptly. “I can’t ever seem to mix a cake without my cat beside me, purring.” The cat is fetched, and is so easygoing about the whole thing that it actually does start purring, but that’s not enough. The baker wants her dog’s snoring too. And her teething baby, because she can’t measure properly when she’s worried about him…The baby no sooner sees her than he starts wailing, expecting to be picked up and held, so the fairies have to go get his father. The baker’s husband has noticed that everything in his house keeps disappearing and is actually very glad to find out why. He trusts that his wife has a plan.

The baby keeps screaming. His mother slips him a wooden spoon and he starts whacking it about; then she leans over to her husband and tells him to pinch the dog, who of course starts barking indignantly. “Tread on the tail of the cat!” the baker mutters, adding the poor creature’s shriek to the hellish din.

The fairies are not at all used to this sort of thing. The noise goes on and on, unbearably loud, until the baker decides to conclude matters. She pacifies the baby with a lump of sugar and takes the spoon away, nods to her husband to stop pestering their pets and turns calmly to the fairies to ask where their oven is. They don’t have one – they really did not think this plan through. “Well then,” the baker says practically, “you’ll just have to be taking me and the cake home to bake it in my own oven, and bring me back later when the cake’s all done.” The fairies look at her entourage and decide she’s way too high maintenance for them. They’re too exhausted to even take her home.

The baker feels rather sorry for them, and promises to bring the cake when it’s baked. What’s more, she’ll make them one every weekend. With that she takes the batter and leaves, her husband carrying the baby and the cat and dog trailing behind until they finally reach home. True to her word, she puts the cake into her oven to bake. The house fills with the quiet sounds of purring and snoring, a clock ticking and the kettle singing, forming a peaceful hush the fairies would never believe possible. “It doesn’t seem fair on the rest of the men,” observes the baker’s husband, “that I should have the master baker and the cleverest woman in the world all in one wife.”

Her cleverness is how she escaped; her kindness brings a different reward. When she brings the promised cake to the fairy hill, she finds a little bag full of gold pieces. Every time she delivers a cake she is very generously compensated and though she never sees the fairies again, it’s fair to assume both sides are very happy with this arrangement.

This fairy tale gets points for being so fundamentally good-natured and also for containing actual fairies, which is much rarer than you might believe. I can’t approve of antagonising pets like that, but as the other choice was indentured kitchen service, it was a cunningly passive-aggressive plan. It’s also an entirely appropriate Fairy Tale Tuesday for a week of celebration in my family. Here’s to cake and cleverness and true love!

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.98 – The Lass Who Went Out at the Cry of Dawn

The last two Fairy Tale Tuesdays have been somewhat grim, what with all the crushing and devouring, so this week I’m reviewing something a little brighter. In this story from Sorche Nic Leodhas’ collection of Scottish folk lore, Thistle and Thyme, a girl goes out one morning to wash her face in the morning dew – a beauty treatment handed down through the generations – and never comes back. Her younger sister decides to do something about that. With a purse of her father’s gold and her mother’s sewing kit (plus a knife her mother thinks might come in handy too), she heads off to start searching.

At length she hears tell of a wizard who lives on the gloriously named Mischanter Hill and has been known to abduct young women before. The missing girl’s sister loses no time getting there. It’s a formidable slope, so at the foot of the hill she stops for a breather and encounters a tinker pulling along a heavily loaded cart. Taking pity on his predicament, she offers him her purse of gold to buy a horse. The grateful tinker offers a word of advice in exchange: everything she sees and hears at the top of the hill is not to be trusted, and she’d really be better off going home.

She has no intention of doing that. Even the tinker, having known her for five minutes, didn’t expect she would. Bidding him a courteous farewell, she continues on her way.

The punishing incline forces her to take a second break halfway up and she meets a man in such ragged clothes he’s trying to pin them together with thorns. The girl gives him the pins from her mother’s sewing kit. “Gold and silver are a match for evil,” he responds, mysteriously. He also tries to dissuade her from reaching the wizard’s castle, and has about as much success as you’d expect.

At the top of the hill stands a pair of gates. The girl knocks calmly and the wizard himself comes to open them. His countenance is visibly evil (I don’t know what that looks like, possibly a long moustache for twirling?), but he pretends to be polite. When the girl asks for him to hand over her sister, he tells her to come inside while he looks around. You never know what might have fallen behind the sofa…

He leaves her alone and the walls abruptly catch fire, filling the air with smoke. The girl is about to run from the blaze when she remembers the tinker’s advice and realises it’s all an illusion. She’s barely sat down again when she hears her sister crying out for her. It’s so hard not to follow, but she’s sure it is another trick and binds her arm to the chair with her mother’s thread to stop herself chasing the voice down. Only when the sobbing subsides does she cut herself free.

The wizard is startled and displeased to see her still waiting when he returns. He tells her the castle is full of maidens and she will have to pick her sister from the others. The room he leads her to has seven statues, all alike, one of whom is theoretically her sister. Remembering the ragged man’s advice, the girl takes her mother’s silver thimble from the sewing kit and puts it on the thumb of each statue. When it turns black, she knows it is touching another illusion; only when it turns silver again does she know she’s found her sister. “I’ll just take this one,” she tells the wizard firmly, and the statue is restored to flesh and blood. Seizing each other’s hands, the girls make a break for it.

The wizard is not prepared to lose so easily. He conjures up a huge wolf and sends it to run them down, but the younger sister spins around with a golden needle from the sewing kit held out like a sword. When the wolf leaps for her throat, she stabs him between the eyes and he falls down dead. Thank you, farsighted mum!

Livid with rage, the wizard flies in pursuit himself. All the girl has left to fight with is her knife, given with both parents’ blessings. She throws it directly into the wizard’s heart. As he falls, the castle collapses into a heap of stone and dust, and the sisters walk slowly down the hill.

On the way they meet a beautifully dressed young man, oddly adorned with pins. “The wizard laid a spell on me that I’d be mending my clothes with thorns until the end of time,” he tells the younger sister ruefully. “But now the spell is lifted, and I’m a free man once more.”

Next they see a second young man standing beside a grand coach. “You’ll not be remembering me,” he remarks to the younger sister, and returns the purse of gold. With all the curses now lifted, the quartet climb into his coach and set off for the girls’ home. This must be one hell of a road trip, because by the time they get there the older sister has fallen for the young man with the pins, and the younger sister is engaged to the ex-tinker. I don’t think any happily ever after would dare fail her.

I’m a sucker for a tough as nails heroine, and this girl takes down her enemies with a sewing kit. Rescuing her sister. Because she is AWESOME. Her mother is also awesome, for recognising that every girl on an adventure needs needles, thread and a really sharp knife.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.91 – The Lairdie with the Heart of Gold

This fairy tale is taken from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s collection Thistle & Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland and does not contain an actual metal heart. The lord of the title, having lost his mother at an early age, is sent away from home by his grief-stricken father to live with relatives in the north. Only when his father dies is he allowed to come home. The inheritance might look good on paper but the old lord, having devoted about as much attention to the ancestral estate as he did to his son, leaves behind only farmland gone wild and a ramshackle castle.

Instead of cutting his losses and selling off the lot, the young lord stays to fix what he can. Though technically owed rent from the villagers who live on his land, most either can’t afford to pay or pretend they can’t, and their kind-hearted landlord believes them all. What with looking after his elderly household staff, all too old to easily find new positions, that makes him about as poverty-stricken as everyone else.

After a long winter’s day collecting rent – well, collecting evasions and assurances, with the odd coin thrown in – the lord is returning to the castle on foot, having left his horse at home away from the bitter weather. At a crossroads he stumbles across what looks like a pile of toys but are in fact the worldly possessions of a family of brownies, who have been evicted from their mill by the owner’s new wife. She doesn’t believe in brownies and has mistaken her supernatural tenants for rats. Harassed by her guard dog and hunted by her cat, they have taken to the road but can’t agree on where to go next. The young lord, immediately sympathetic, offers up his castle as their new abode.”You’ll find we have not much to do with,” he confesses, “but what we have, we’ll gladly share.”

The brownies are sold. They gather up their things and follow their new friend home to the castle, where he explains to his dumbstruck housekeeper that he’s sort of adopted a clan of brownies while he was out and they’re moving in right away. One brownie makes for the world’s most reliable domestic cleaning service; a whole family of them turn the castle from a functional ruin propped up on optimism to a warm, economically efficient social hub.

Their leader, Lachie Tosh, also takes an interest in the lord’s financial affairs and doesn’t like the look of them at all. At length he stages an intervention, pointing out that the cottagers eat much better than the household at the castle. “But how would they come by the money?” the lord protests. “They’ve told me often that they can’t make ends meet.” “They get the money by not paying their rent,” Lachie Tosh explains patiently. He offers himself up a ‘factor’ – essentially a business manager, account keeper and rent collector rolled into one hard-headed individual – and is soon hard at work bullying the villagers into not only paying for their land, but looking after it to a brownie’s exacting standards too. Though this doesn’t make Lachie Tosh a popular name, it does get results. While the lord is still happy to listen to anyone’s problems, at the end of the spiel they’re told to take it up with the factor.

The lord may be rubbish at keeping accounts, but spending money effectively comes naturally to him. From village maintenance to local employment, he works hard to make his lands thrive. With that well in hand, Lachie Tosh promotes himself from estate manager to general life coach. He insists the lord see a tailor; when he returns in a dapper new suit, Lachie Tosh advises him to start dating. The lord obediently sets off to meet and greet respectable young ladies all across the country, but every girl he approaches fails the key question: can she live with brownies? Most don’t even believe in the Fair Folk, taking an attitude reminiscent of the miller’s wife, which is the exact opposite of what the young lord is looking for.

Disheartened by his failure, he eventually returns to his lands. As he passes the brownies’ erstwhile home, he sees a pretty girl sitting on a bench outside the mill, looking depressed. She’s the miller’s daughter by his first marriage and is finding life with her urbane new stepmother something of a trial. The lord takes an immediate fancy to her and pops the brownie question. She beams. “Och, the dear wee things! There were always brownies at the mill when my mother was alive!” Smitten, the lord asks a second, more traditional question and brings her home that very day, much to the delight of Lachie Tosh. When they marry shortly afterwards, all the brownies are invited.

Stories about domestic fairies tend to end badly. Someone always offers them clothes in a misguided gesture of gratitude, or antagonises them in a less well-intentioned way out of jealousy or greed. This is an exceedingly rare instance of genuine harmony. Everyone is respectful of one another’s cultural customs! Stereotype-busting brownies are taking charge! And a hero whose weight in gold is not his weight in gold. That’s quite refreshing.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.51 – The Gay Goss-Hawk

Fairy tales are usually not, in my experience, awfully romantic. When people say something is a fairy tale ending, they mean the traditional sum up of ‘happily ever after’, but let’s be honest here – how many marriages in these stories look like they have any chance of working out? How much narrative time is devoted to the central couple even talking to each other? So when a fairy tale manages to convince me this is genuinely love, it’s an accomplishment. Before anyone gets their hopes up, I should warn you that the title of this week’s is a tad misleading – ‘The Gay Goss-Hawk’ is a fairy tale about forbidden love, but the lovers aren’t literally gay. Though I suppose the bird might be. Who knows?

Anyway. The story begins when an English lady and a Scottish lord meet at the court of the English king. She is lonely and unhappy because her father has recently got himself married to a woman who hates her, and her seven brothers can’t be bothered defending her. The lord is gay in the sense that he’s happy (this book was published in 1965) and he’s so kind and good-natured that falling for him is effortless. As pledges of their love, he gives her his gold ring and she gives him her blue ribbon tied in a lover’s knot. The only thing left to do is ask her family for their approval. Her father has proved himself incapable of protecting her from the malice of his own wife, but given the chance to make amends, you’d think he’d agree, right?

You’d be WRONG. He and her brothers all got together a while ago to plan out her life and the next step is to marry her off to an ancient English lord who’s stupid rich and can give them the political influence they crave. Plus, her boyfriend is Scottish! That’s the historical equivalent of the bad boy in the black leather jacket! The girl is taken from court so she can’t even see him any more, and with her gone, he sees no point in remaining, so returns to his castle in the north.

While he broods there on lost love, there is only one thing that brings him pleasure – a goss-hawk with a pretty voice and a quick mind that soon becomes his most constant companion. It also gives him an idea. He writes a letter to his love and sends it to her by goss-hawk express, with the love knot draped around his neck to prove to her who sent it.

The bird is so clever that when it arrives at the lady’s home in England it hides the letter under its wing so the wrong person won’t notice it. Then, when the lady and her handmaidens leave home to attend church, it bursts into song so that she’ll look up. She’s the only one who could know what the blue ribbon means. Urging her handmaidens to go on ahead, she quickly runs back to the goss-hawk’s tree, and the letter is dropped into her hand. What her Scottish lord has written just about breaks her heart, and it brings out her inner steel. Her family want to stop her marrying her true love? Let them just try.

That is essentially what she says when she sends the goss-hawk back with a letter of her own. Then she retreats to her room. Her handmaidens return from church some time later, worried by her absence, and find her lying on her bed so ill she says she’ll die. Her father is brought promptly to her side and is petitioned for one last favour. “Do not ask for your Scottish laird,” is his immediate response. “Anything else I will promise to you, whatever it may be. But rather than see you wedded to yon proud Scottish laird I’d see you lying dead!” Thereby proving that he and her stepmother are a perfectly matched couple of appalling parents.

For his daughter, however, this reaction is not unexpected. Her last request is that her brothers carry her to Scotland to be buried – that Mass be sung over her body at the first church they come to, that the bells be tolled at the second, and that they lay her out in the churchyard of St. Mary’s. Her father agrees that it will be done. Late that night, while everyone else is sleeping, the lady creeps from her bed and mixes up the strongest sleeping draught she can. Once it is drunk, she returns to bed and waits.

Come morning she is found so limp and still that everyone believes her to be dead. Everyone, that is, apart from her stepmother, who pricks the corpse with a pin and drips boiling wax on her bare skin just to be sure. The lady remains lifeless. Her maidens cover her in white, her brothers build a bier to carry her coffin, and the promised procession begins. In the churchyard of St. Mary’s, though, where her brothers were told to lay down her body and keep watch over her through the night, a hundred spearmen appear out of the dark and the Scottish lord steps forward to take her hand. At that touch, she springs brightly to life. “Go home!” she tells her brothers, “for you’ve fetched me where I want to be!”

Her brothers are outraged by her scheming ways and the mistaken grief she has put her family through, but her inner steel holds strong. “Take my love to my father,” she tells them, “though he said he’d rather I were lying dead than married to my Scottish laird. But I send no love to my cruel stepmother for the sharp silver pin she stuck me with and the hot, boiling wax she burned me with, for to her I wish nothing but woe!” And she rides off with her lover to finally marry, the goss-hawk flying at their side.

It takes a true lady to deliver such a stinging ‘screw you!’ to the people who failed her. It’s interesting to see a father’s failure actually addressed for once, instead of being piled entirely onto the nearest stepmother. ‘The Gay Goss-Hawk’ is taken from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s collection Thistle and Thyme, which is full of young women figuring out how to get past stupid obstacles, but the sheer cunning of this Romeo and Juliet inversion is very hard to beat.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.39 – A Magnificence of Mothers

Mothers in the world of fairy tales are often considered to be an endangered species. They have a worrying tendency to either die young, leaving the way clear for the almost inevitably evil replacement, or sink into despairing poverty from which only a magical intervention from their son/daughter/beloved pet can rescue them. What’s sad is that this was not an unlikely set of options for a woman of the times when these stories were first told. To assume that’s all there is, though, is a very common and frustrating mistake. There are strong mothers everywhere if you just look. In ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ the widow calmly faces down a talking bear. In ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ the young mother fights her way free of the contract that would steal away her baby. In ‘Vasilissa Most Lovely’, the protagonist’s dying mother leaves her a doll with secret, witch-defeating powers. But wait, there’s more!

Story 1: Jon and the Troll Wife

This Icelandic story is an old favourite of mine from Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Ogres and Trolls. A hard-working farmer whose wife died many years ago is raising his son alone on their small patch of land, and doing a pretty good job of it. In the spring and summer they work on the farm, and in the autumn they drive a wagon down to the western islands to fish until spring rolls around again. It’s not a bad life. Then one year the farmer falls sick and is unable to travel. His son Jon will have to go alone.

“Now listen carefully to what I say,” the farmer tells him. “You know that the road you must take passes under the mountains. And as you drive along under the mountains, you will come to a high overhanging rock, black and glittering. As you value your life, do not linger near that rock, for it is the haunt of the trolls. And by offending the trolls, or trying to pry into their affairs, many a good man has come to his death.”

Well, Jon does listen. Unfortunately, the weather has other ideas. A violent storm breaks out while he is on the mountain road and the only shelter to be found is that rock he was warned against. Jon decides to take his chances and drives the cart underneath the overhang, where he sees to his horses and settles down to eat something from a packed hamper of food. While he is eating, however, something wakes up in the cave behind him. Did I mention there’s a cave?

“We want food,” two voices howl from the blackness. “We want food! WE WANT FOOD!” Stuck between a storm and a pair of starving trolls, Jon throws a buttered fish from his hamper into the mouth of the cave and hopes for the best. A silence descends, allowing him to finish his own meal and lie down in an attempt to sleep.

By this point, you’re maybe thinking: where is the mother in this story? I promised you a mother. Don’t worry. She’s on her way. In fact, she’s here.

Footsteps come crunching up the dark road, up to the overhang, and there she is: the looming shape of a troll wife, her body flickering with strange lights, staring down at the human boy who has dared take a nap outside her house. She strides over him and throws down her things inside the cave, making a terrifying racket. Then before you know it she’s back, holding a candle, and Jon sees her face for the first time. It is all scars and wrinkles, marked like the mountains, and most importantly, it is kind.

“I thank you for feeding my children,” she says, and carries him unceremoniously into her cave. Jon sees two troll children curled up asleep in bed, which explains the howling, and a large net full of gleaming fish, which explains the lights. The troll wife gives Jon a bed for the night and fried fish for breakfast the next day, and while he eats he tells her about his annual fishing expedition. She knows a bit more about this year’s conditions than he does, though, and the news isn’t good. All the places on the boats have been taken and all the lodgings in the fishing grounds are occupied – except for those that belong to one very old fisherman who never has the slightest bit of luck. The troll wife intends to change all that, and help Jon into the bargain. She gives him detailed instructions on where to fish, and a pair of her own hooks, then sends him on his way with a refilled hamper. This woman does not do anything by halves.

Things play out just as she said they would. The only person who has the space for Jon is the elderly fisherman, who is in no hurry to accept him. “I won’t take you!” he cries. “I have no luck! My boat leaks! I never catch fish! You might as well go into partnership with the devil himself!” I’m maybe seeing why this man has so much bad luck.

But Jon won’t be put off. He coaxes the fisherman into allowing him a night’s lodging, and by sharing the contents of the troll wife’s hamper puts his host in such an excellent mood that the next morning the old fisherman agrees to show him his boat. Jon fixes the leaks and persuades his pessimistic new friend to come out a little way with him. They throw out the hooks and surprise, surprise: they return with an unprecedented catch.

Every day for the next six months, they have the same extraordinary luck. Other fishermen try the same spot, without success; the green young lad and the formerly unlucky old man are the only ones who have the required magic touch. Then, on the last day of the season, they go out, cast their lines, and pull them up empty – the hooks have been cut off. The loan of luck, it seems, is over.

The other fishermen, a tad jealous, find something else to tease Jon about. He has left his horses untended on the sand for the past two months, as the troll wife told him to, and the men believe that all he’ll find when he goes to load up his share of dried fish will be a pair of carcasses. They are, however, wrong. Jon’s animals are sleek and content, and accompanied by a huge brown horse that wasn’t there before. Spooked, the other fishermen retreat, and Jon happily sets off for home.

On his way, he stops underneath the overhanging rock to thank the troll wife. He willingly gives up all the fish that her horse has carried and whatever she wants from the wagon besides. She isn’t unscrupulous enough to take him up on that, but it was a nice offer and she insists he stay a couple of days with her before he goes home. The trolls are leaving that part of the country, she explains. Her husband has already returned to collect the children and she will be going to join them soon. But this isn’t the last time Jon will see her.

“One night in the spring you will dream of me,” she tells him, “and then you will know that I have gone. Then you must come back to the cave, and all that you find here will be yours – a parting present from an old troll wife, whose children you fed when they were hungry. And now off with you to your father, my lad, for he’s wearying for news of you.”

Which is very true. When Jon gets home his father is delighted with all his success, though he’s not impressed by the fact his son not only didn’t heed his warning, he did the polar opposite and got about as mixed up with trolls as it’s possible to be. Aside from, you know, marry one, which has in fact been done. What if it had all gone wrong, eh?

When Jon has the promised dream, however, he sets off anyway, returning to the rock. There he finds an empty cave and a pair of crates bound in chains, too big for Jon to have any hope of lifting. The troll wife has even thought of that; her enormous horse is waiting to carry the crates home to Jon’s farm. Inside is a trove of treasure. Jon and his father live in plenty for the rest of their lives, under the blessing of the troll wife.

But they don’t get to keep the horse. He goes home to join the trolls.

Story 2: The Sun Mother

This Transylvanian fairy tale comes from another Ruth Manning Sanders’ collection, A Book of Charms and Changelings. When they were young the Storm King and the Sun King were good friends, but one day the Sun King comes upon his friend in the middle of a fearsome tantrum, determined to go off and drown a whole country in his angst.

“Don’t dare to stop me!” he shouts. “I’m going to a land where there shall be so much rain that you’ll never, never dry up that land again! Yes, I’ll rain and rain and never stop raining for nine whole weeks!” “But the people will suffer!” the Sun King exclaims, shocked. Stormy by name and stormy by nature, his friend doesn’t care. “The king of that land has a lovely daughter,” he explains. “I wanted her for my wife, but the king said, ‘No daughter for the Storm King.’ Now I’ll show him!” Yeah, totally proving your husband credentials right now.

Being the sane one in this friendship, the Sun King points out that there are actually other people in that land apart from one snobbish king and maybe they don’t deserve to die? But the Storm King is too far gone for that sort of reasoning now. He’s just one roll of thunder short of a meglomaniacal laugh. “I will make them suffer!” he howls. “And who’s to stop me?”

“I shall,” the Sun King tells him, putting on his metaphorical superhero cloak, and shines so brightly over that land that the Storm King can’t reach it without being burned. Every day he tries to get in and is turned back, until at last he retreats to his mountain palace to rage at pompous kings and traitorous friends.

Suddenly, in the midst of all this brooding, inspiration strikes. Every morning when the Sun King flies forth he is only a little child; by midday he is a full-grown man not to be messed with, but by evening he is old and helpless, tottering home to sleep in his mother’s lap. If he can’t do that, he won’t be restored for the next day. The solution is obvious: kidnap his mum.

The Storm King promptly turns himself into a winged grey horse and flies off to the golden house of the Sun Mother, where she is sitting peaceably on her doorstep. “Sun Mother, I am the Wind Horse,” he tells her. “I bring a message from the Sun King. He begs you to come quickly. He is in a flooded land; he has used up all his strength, and yet he cannot dry it. He would sleep for an hour in your lap that he may get new strength.”

The Sun Mother is startled, but too anxious to reach her son’s side to question the story. The Storm King carries her as fast as he can to the entrance of a deep cave, changes back to his true shape and seals her in. When the Sun King gets home that night, desperately in need of his mother’s healing, she is nowhere to be seen.

After that, there is only darkness. Unrestrained by the power of his former friend, the Storm King and his servants go wild, beating at the world with wind and thunder, lightning and snow. Meanwhile, imprisoned in the cave, the Sun Mother is patiently watching her fingernails grow. When they are long enough for her purpose, she sharpens them on a stone until they are sharp as knives, then quietly digs her way out of the cavern and hurries home. She finds her son helpless and ancient on the floor, and pulls him into her lap to sing to him through her tears until he falls asleep.

In the morning, a young child flies from the golden house. As the day goes on he becomes stronger and stronger, blazing with fierce brightness. The snow melts, the rain is banished, and the Storm King is forced to retreat back to his mountains to sulk all over again. His plan has failed, and he is never able to fool the Sun Mother again.

Story 3: The Stolen Bairn and the Sìdh

This is a Scottish story from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s collection Thistle and Thyme, which introduces us to the fairy gentry that are known as the Sìdh. Two Sìdh women are walking one evening close to dusk along a wild stretch of coastline when they come across a bundle left in the middle of the cliff road. When they pull aside its wrappings, they discover that it’s a baby. There is no one in sight to claim it, so the Sìdh invoke the ancient law of finders keepers and take it home.

At around the same time, a pair of fishermen out on the water nearby find a girl stranded on the rocks underneath the cliff. They help her into their boat and take her home to be tended, but she’s not so much hurt as in shock. As soon as she regains her senses, she has only one priority: where is her baby? The fishermen’s wives don’t quite what to say. They’re pretty sure the baby must be dead, fallen into the sea with her, but she is sure that she put him safe on the ground before she fell. He’s still out there somewhere and she’s frantic to get to him.

Her having just survived falling off a cliff and all, the women looking after her are more sceptical. They compromise by sending the men back out to look for the baby where the girl says she left him. This they do, very thoroughly, but of course the baby isn’t there. Not ready to give up yet, the fishermen – who are definitely the sort of people you want to be rescued by if you fall into the sea in an inhospitable part of Scotland – ask around to see if any local found the child and took it home. No one can tell them anything. The baby has simply disappeared.

When the young mother is strong enough to leave, she thanks them for their kindness, firmly refuses their offer that she stay, and sets off to look for her baby herself. She’s sure he is alive somewhere and walks from village to village in the hope of hearing word. Eventually she comes upon a gypsy camp, where she asks her usual question. They have no more to tell her than anyone else, but she’s looking kind of a mess by now and they take her in. When she tells them her story, they insist she come with them on their journey north. They have a wise grandmother there whose advice is worth having. This part of Scotland is full of the nicest people.

The grandmother’s method of search and rescue involves throwing herbs on the fire, watching the smoke and listening to the flames. At last she takes the girl’s hand, trying to comfort her in advance. On the positive side, it’s true that the baby is alive. But she hasn’t any chance of getting it back again. “Give up thy search, poor lass,” the grandmother tells her, “for thy bairn has been stolen by the Sìdh. They have taken him into the Sìdhean, and what they take there seldom comes out again.”

The girl knows enough about the Sìdh to accept the odds aren’t good. She begs for a spell that will help her. When the gypsy grandmother sadly admits that none of her magic is strong enough, the young mother is distraught to the point of being suicidal and the grandmother hastily amends her story. There’s always hope! Don’t lie down and die yet, let’s just wait and see, all right?

And it’s good that she listens, because eventually the grandmother does come up with an idea. “The time has come for the people of the Sìdh to gather together at the Sìdhean,” she explains. “Soon they will be coming from all their corners of the land to meet together. There they will choose one among them to rule over them for the next hundred years. If you can get into the Sìdhean with them, there is a way that you may win back your bairn for yourself…For all their wisdom, the Sìdh have no art to make anything for themselves. All that they get they must either beg or steal. They have great vanity and desire always to possess a thing which has no equal. If you can find something that has not its like in all the world you may be able to buy your bairn back with it.”

So, hope…but not very strong hope. Where is a girl who has barely anything to call her own supposed to find something so remarkable that she could bribe the fairies? And how would she get into the Sìdhean in the first place? The gypsy grandmother can give her a little help with this plan. She lays a spell on the girl to protect her from the four elements. Having done all she can, she then sends her on her way.

The girl thinks the puzzle over carefully. What are the things she has heard spoken of with the most wonder? A cloak and harp of legend are what springs first to mind and that’s when she comes up with her idea. First she goes down to the sea. Clambering over the rocks, protected by the gypsy’s spell, she collects the white down of the ducks that nest there and weaves it into a thick cloudy cloak. Then she cuts off all her long lovely hair and weaves the greater part of it into the cloak as a border. When that is done and the cloak is tucked safely away, she starts work on her harp. She finds bones from a sea creature washed up on the shore and binds them into a frame, which she strings with what is left of her hair. With her two beautiful creations, she sets off for the Sìdhean.

It is a long journey, but the hardest part is when she arrives. Hidden in a thicket, she watches the fairy people arriving. One comes rather later than the others and the girl catches her alone, ignoring the Sìdh woman’s indignation at the presumption of a mortal and holding out the beautiful cloak. The moment the Sìdh sees it, she has to have it. If the price is taking the presumptious mortal into the most secret place of her people, well, okay. The girl keeps hold of the cloak until she is inside. As soon as she is seen a crowd rushes forward to be rid of her, but then they see the cloak too, and it’s collective love at first sight. Everyone wants to touch it, try it on, maybe steal it…

One of the few who remain unmoved is the new king of Sìdh, possibly because he can’t see it properly from his throne at the end of the great hall. The girl makes her way through the distracted crowd until she is standing before him, and holds out the harp. He’s not really interested…until she starts to play. The music it gives is a song of frantic love and desperate longing, a mother’s fierce determination to get back her stolen child. Then the king wants it. He offers her gold and jewels until she stands waist deep in them, but she stands fast: she wants her baby, and she won’t give up the harp until she has him. Even when the king caves and has the child brought in, he tries to get her to give over the harp first, so he can keep both. The young mother won’t be fooled. Only when her baby is safe in her arms does she give up the harp.

The king begins to play. So spellbound are the Sìdh by the music that they barely notice when the girl walks out of the Sìdhean with her baby. She returns to the fishing village, where everybody is kind, and lives there happily with her child for the rest of their lives.

Each mother in these three stories proves that it isn’t easy to have adventures of your own when there’s children to look after and no easy access to appropriate childcare (i.e. when they actually give the child back afterwards). What makes them magnificent is how they rise to the occasion anyway. From the troll wife who pays back a few hours of babysitting a hundred times over to the Sun Mother who escape her prison using only her fingernails, to the young mother who won her baby back from a whole court of fairies, these are women who have the odds stacked against them in so many different ways. It’s worth looking for them; in searching, we find treasures. If you have any recommendations of more fairy tales with remarkable mothers, please let me know!

Happy Mother’s Day for Sunday to magnificent mothers everywhere, especially mine.