Wickedness and Wisdom: A Year of Witches

Trigger warning: discussion of domestic abuse

Witch is a word with serious baggage. It is the cackling caricature beside a gingerbread house in a children’s picture book. It’s a tradition of the fantasy genre, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It is a perennial Halloween costume, complete with broomstick and pointy hat. It is an insult that gets thrown at female politicians and a dangerous accusation once levelled against peasants and queens alike. It’s a word that could get you killed in many times and many places. Witch brings with it the ducking stool and the stake. Witch is storybook and power fantasy and belief and crime and slur.

Witches are an integral part of the fairy tale world. My earliest associations with fairy tales are tied to the imagery of witches and it has had a pull on me ever since. When I started this blog seven years ago – a very folkloric number – my first big project was Fairy Tale Tuesdays, which explored fairy tales from around the world. It was a wonderful way to rediscover my favourites and an excellent excuse to read more that were new to me. The Year of the Witch allowed me to return to that format. I started this project with two rules: I could not review any story that I had written about during Fairy Tale Tuesdays, which knocked out a lot of low-hanging fruit, and I could only write about stories that featured at least one character specifically labelled a witch by the narrative.

The latter point is worth thinking about. There are plenty of stories which feature women who use magic. Fairies, sorceresses, enchantresses, ogresses – there are also heroines with no explanation for their magical tendencies, such as the princess from ‘The Goose Girl’ who can call up a convenient breeze when she needs one or the titular powerhouse from ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’ who I am convinced can do anything she pleases from sheer force of will. All of these types of characters are different from a witch. Their stories are weighted in different places. They don’t curse the same way, or hold the same grudges.

No one dies quite like a witch.

I: The Witch as Victim

A witch is a villain you can kill off and walk away whistling.

In the well-known German fairy tale ‘Snow White’, the murderous stepmother is both witch and queen. At the end of the story, she is forced to dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes – which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a very gruesome way to go, but unfortunately it is pretty much par for the course. In ‘Sweetheart Roland’, another Grimm brothers’ story, the witch is tricked into a hedge of thorns and, like the unfortunate queen, is compelled to dance to death. In ‘The Witch in the Stone Boat’, the king has the witch stoned then torn apart; in ‘The White Bride and the Black Bride’, another king condemns a witch mother and daughter to execution in a barrel full of nails. Two of the witches from ‘Johnny and the Witch-Maidens’ are thrown into a river and drowned. The witch from ‘Katchen the Cat’ dies much the same way, while the witch from ‘Foundling’ is held underwater by a homicidal shapeshifting child. ‘The Chinese Princess’ burns its witch to death in an oven, as does ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and the witch in ‘Old Witch Boneyleg’ comes very close to the same end. Even Baba Yaga, who is on the whole fairly indestructible, meets a fiery death in ‘Baba Yaga’.

So what is the point of this litany of misery? Fairy tale justice is notoriously hardline and its executions tend to be memorable. The villain of ‘The Goose Girl’ also dies by barrel of nails, with no accusation of witchcraft at her door. What’s more, the witches named above are nearly all killed by those who would have been their victims or by those they have deceived – they arguably bring their deaths upon themselves.

And yet. There is such an unapologetic brutality to the deaths of these women that it reminds you, inevitably, while these stories were being told by the fire, ‘witches’ were being tied to the stake. Purely from a narrative perspective, there is a warping effect. Can you build a happy ending like a castle of legend, on foundations of blood and bone? Can you still call Snow White the heroine of the story when she stood by watching her stepmother burn? Is the Goose Girl really the victim after her nemesis is condemned to that barrel?

There is an interesting contrast in the story of ‘Martin and the Lions’. The witch is a sadistic piece of work; she abducts an entire royal court as vengeance for an insult and even then is not satisfied, trying to hire a thug to help brutalise her captives. The hero of the story, Martin, is pushed into confronting the witch in order to save everyone else. So far, fairly unremarkable in terms of fairy tale stakes. What makes Martin stand out from the crowd is his conscience. He does not want to kill the witch; he does it because he can see no other option. He looks at the witch and he sees an old woman, whose death matters. It feels strange to give cookies to a character for acknowledging the personhood of the woman he’s about to kill, but it’s a striking enough deviation from the norm to be worth noting.

II: The Witch as Politician

There is often a twisted domesticity to the lives of witches in fairy tales: a little cottage in the wood, travel by broomstick or a mortar and pestle. The axe in the woodpile. The oven. But on the other side of the equation, there are the witches who take their powers and aim high.

A popular career path is to seduce a royal. In ‘The White Bride and the Black Bride’, the witch’s daughter literally pushes her stepsister out of a moving carriage in order to get a shot at the throne; in ‘The Witch and the Swan-Maiden’ and ‘The Witch in the Stone Boat’, the witches manoeuvre the respective queens out of the way – one via a long game of court intrigue, the other with straight-up identity theft. The witch from ‘The Queen and her Children’ steals away the royal heirs then uses the king and his council as accomplices to rid herself of the queen, so that her daughter can take her place.

Marriage is one way for a witch to access kingdom-scale power; abduction is another. In ‘Katchen and the Cat’, the witch locks up the king’s children and weighs up their value in ransom money against how good they’d taste in a stewpot. The witch from ‘The White Dove’ not only keeps a princess enchanted as a dove, she corners two princes into bargaining away their unborn baby brother to be her servant.

Most intriguing of the political witches, from my perspective, is the witch from ‘King Fox’. A princess disappears and her father offers half a kingdom in exchange for her return. This is usually when a plucky youngest son steps in, but instead a witch presents herself, offering to bring back the princess – whose disappearance, please note, has nothing to do with her – if the king will give her the role of his most trusted advisor. It is a scrupulously fair arrangement. And if it has nothing to with the princess’s own wishes, well, the youngest sons would hardly have stopped to consult her either. The only reason that the witch becomes a villain in this story is because she is a witch, a clever and resourceful woman who very nearly gets what she was promised. Who knows what she would have done with it? Perhaps she would have drained the kingdom’s resources to serve her own interests. Perhaps she would have been the instigator of change, forcing the court to see the world from a new perspective.

But she is a witch, and thus a villain, and is torn to pieces by animals instead.

III: The Witch as Abuser

Let’s return to the theme of domesticity in fairy tales. Witches take on familial roles – mother, stepmother, the courtesy title of ‘grandmother’ – and become predators within the home. Motivated by ambition, jealousy, hunger or a combination thereof, they plot the captivity or death of children in their care and deceive husbands who vanish conveniently from the narrative, taking no accountability for their own oversights or absences until the very end, when they may take on the role of second-tier hero by driving the witch from the family home. In ‘The Witch’, the stepmother is abusing her husband’s children for some time before sending them off to be eaten in the woods, and there is no in-narrative reaction from him until the twins come running home after a very narrow escape from death. In ‘Vasilissa’, the titular heroine turns to a doll for help instead of her own father. In the case of Snow White, there is an entire royal court that should have noted her absence, if not the attempted assassination. Once the witch in the equation is removed from the family unit, of course, it’s a short smooth ride to the happy ending…in theory.

There is a certain amount of overlap here with the political witches, who are likewise removed one way or another to make way for a true queen. Interestingly, the wronged queens from ‘The Witch and the Swan-Maiden’, ‘The Witch in the Stone Boat’ and ‘The Queen and her Children’ are all maternal figures, as if to increase the contrast between themselves and the witches who seek to supplant them.

There are also the murky depths of witch mother-daughter relationships to be considered. ‘The Queen and her Children’ and ‘The White Bride and the Black Bride’ both feature a witch trying to take her stepdaughter off the throne and put her own daughter there instead. Though the stepmother in ‘Cinderella’ does not resort to magical means, there is a similar blunt force ambition at work that allows little room for sentiment. On the other side of the spectrum is the witch’s daughter from ‘The Riddle’, who actively sabotages her mother’s plans, and Vasilissa from ‘Baba Yaga’, who rebels in order to rescue her new friend. Then there’s Benvenuto from ‘Prunella’, the witch’s son who takes every opportunity to rescue the heroine of the story from his mother’s malice. Somewhere in the middle, I think, is the witch’s daughter from ‘Jankyn and the Witch’, who vanishes from her husband’s house without so much as a goodbye but rescues him from the murderous machinations of her family.

Dysfunctional as these family dynamics may be, they have nothing on the witch princesses I want to talk about next.

IV: The Witch as Devourer

A witch is always hungry.

This is a consistent trend throughout the fairy tales in this project. Feminine hunger seems to attract a peculiar revulsion in shared storytelling consciousness and the witch archetype would hardly be complete without all the trappings of a savage feast. ‘Hansel and Gretel’ features the infamous gingerbread house; ‘Snow White’ has its poisoned apple. The image of the oven shows up time and time again: in ‘The Old Witch’, ‘The Chinese Princess’, ‘Old Witch Boneyleg’. Cannibalism is a staple trope in witch fairy tales. From ‘Uletka’ to ‘Katchen the Cat’, Baba Yaga to ‘Moti-kata and the Water Witch’, there is a tendency for witches to literally eat their problems.

In some stories the hunger goes deeper than that. ‘The Red King and the Witch’ begins with a baby who takes on monstrous form to sate an unnatural hunger; ‘The Witch and the Sister of the Sun’ is about a princess who literally devours her kingdom and shows no sign of stopping, even at the end of the story.

There are connections to be made here with the fairy tale ogre, who is also linked to monstrous appetite, but there is also, I think, something different about the framing of a witch’s hunger in the narrative. An ogre’s role is that of monster, no questions asked. But suppose you are in the woods and you lose your way, and there is a little cottage warm with the glow of its oven, and a woman on the threshold who beckons you inside to share a meal. It takes the traditionally feminine responsibility of homemaker and housekeeper and turns it into something treacherous.

Grandmama, what big teeth you have.

There are, I think, two main aspects to a witch’s role as villain. The first is domesticity gone wrong – the abandoned or mistreated child in a home that becomes a death trap. The second aspect is about consumption: a creature that can never be satisfied, leaving a wasteland in its wake. Fairy tale witches represent an intimate and terrifying abuse, a betrayed trust; they also represent a deep-rooted resentment of social expectations and an ambitious, impassioned hunger for everything that the narrative does not want to give them. A witch knows that the crown is never going to be handed to her. Whatever she wants, she will have to fight for with tooth and claw.

V: The Witch as Mentor

The witch is the villain. Everyone knows that. Except, you know, for the times when she’s not.

In ‘The Whirlwind’s Castle’, the witch stages an intervention to ensure that the right prince succeeds in his quest and makes it home in safety. In ‘The Giant on the Mount’, the witch’s role is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief, rewarding the hero of the story for his kindness with the gift of a magic ring (inverse to the witch in ‘Katchen the Cat’, who uses her ring of power to manipulate and abuse). My personal favourite story in this vein is ‘The King’s Beard’, in which three gloomy witches more or less adopt a young girl after she makes them laugh and come to the rescue when her marriage goes perilously awry.

Most intriguing of all is the unpredictable Baba Yaga, who alternates between cannibalistic antagonism and grudging mentorship depending on the story. In ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’, she positions herself firmly on Team Ivan (though this is a rare case when her support does not indicate the clear victor). She takes on a similar role in ‘The Three Ivans’. After sending the three young men to face what she believes to be their death, she relents and warns them of danger on the road ahead. In ‘Vanooshka’, the stakes are more personal. The hero is searching for his wife, who as it turns out is Baba Yaga’s great-niece and is in the clutches of Baba Yaga’s arch-nemesis Queen Glafyra. Vanooshka continues on his quest with Baba Yaga’s advice to guide him.

A witch ought never to be frightened in the darkest forest, Granny Weatherwax had once told her, because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.” – Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

Witch is bigger than fairy tales these days. Witch means Hermione Granger and Serafina Pekkala, Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany Aching, Elphaba, Jadis. Call a girl a witch and she might wear it on a T-shirt. Stories change; the witches changed with them, and are changing still.

So after a year of writing and talking and thinking about witches, what does that word mean to me? When I was a child, it was witches I loved best. I loved the picture book illustrations of a gingerbread cottage, dressed up in black skirts and a pointed hat. What could be better than a morally ambiguous woman raising hell with a cat at her side and a chicken-legged house to come home to? As an adult I own a mortar and pestle more because of the associations with Baba Yaga than because they are useful to me and as a storyteller, I find myself returning to witches time and again. Witch means villain and hero and concerned third party who is probably sipping on herbal tea and judging royalty on Twitter while she waits for yet another youngest son to roll on through her forest. It means a character who might do anything, be anything at all. Beautiful girl out to steal your eyes for her weird serial killer collection? Check. Exasperated grandmother figures helping to sort out your relationship? Check. Raucous coven off to dance with the devil and screw over royalty? Check. The woman of the woods, who can help or harm as she chooses, who can transform herself a hundred times over? Oh, yes.

Witch means you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And I love it still.

Year of the Witch: Katchen the Cat

This German story is the last witch of the year and, fittingly, it comes from a Ruth Manning-Sanders anthology called A Book of Cats and Creatures. It wastes no time in getting to the point; the opening line declares ‘Well, now, here’s a terrible old witch for you – and my word, a hideous one too!’, as if there’s anything wrong with green spectacles and having shark-like teeth. This witch is a storm-raiser, bringing down rain or hail depending on her mood, and she wears a ruby ring that can turn her invisible. It also allows her to enchant whosoever she pleases to do her will. The witch has made much use of her ring, to transform people into animals that she can sell and to force-feed prisoners until they are fat enough for the pot. So she is certainly hideous in personality.

One day, as she is out and about masquerading as a kindly old lady, she stumbles across the very best haul of her life. The king’s young children, a boy and a girl, have slipped away from their minders and lost themselves in the woods. The witch quickly ingratiates herself with the frightened children, promising to lead them home. Instead she takes them to a little house made of birch branches, her home, where she immediately strips them of all valuables, including their expensive clothes, and locks them up in the dark with nothing but sacks to wear.

As for what she means to do with them, well, the witch can’t quite decide whether she’s in it for reward money or a royal dinner – but she’s leaning more towards dinner. The princess is sobbing her heart out, the prince is hammering at the door of their prison and trying to threaten the witch with his father’s rage, but she has neither sympathy nor fear and all the children can do is huddle together while they wait for whatever she does next.

There is, however, someone else living in the cottage. During her travels the witch encountered a young flower-seller called Katchen and, showing a really mean sense of humour, turned the girl into a tabby cat, who now serves her as a familiar. The witch believes Katchen to be entirely under her control. That, however, is never a safe assumption to make where cats or children are concerned, and Katchen has secretly been learning magic. Now, with two captives in the house and a chance to save them, Katchen decides it is time to act.

She rises very early and blows out a breath across her bed. “Bed, bed, I conjure thee,” she commands, “take my voice and speak for me.” Then she carefully picks her way down the stairs, giving the same order to each step in turn. “Hearth, should the witch enquire,” she tells the fireplace, “say that Katchen lights the fire.” Last she comes to the locked room where the children are imprisoned, and she demands the door open itself.

When the witch wakes, she screams at Katchen to get up and light the fire. The bed calls down a soothing answer, but the witch is not the type to be soothed; she is soon screaming at Katchen again to find out what she’s doing. She gradually realises that though she can hear Katchen’s voice, she can hear no other sounds of activity in the kitchen and leaps up to find out what’s going on. It is immediately apparent that Katchen has taken the royal children and fled into the woods.

So the witch mentally adds her familiar to the cooking pot and heads after the runaways. She is very quick, quick enough to start catching up despite their headstart. Katchen desperately calls out to the stag leading a passing herd of deer, begging that two of his hinds carry the children to safety. The stag goes one better and brings over a third hind to carry Katchen herself. These three gallop away while the rest of the herd fade into the woodland and the stag lies in wait for the witch. As soon as she comes into sight, he charges, lifting her onto his antlers.

In her struggles to get free, the witch’s ring slides off her finger and onto an antler. The deer feels its power as a massive increase in his already impressive strength; he powers towards the king’s castle, unstoppable, while the witch flails in vain. The stag sees a lake in the castle grounds and plunges straight into it. He soon emerges on the other side, but the witch sinks to the bottom of the lake, and so does her ring.

The death of the witch breaks her spells. By the time Katchen arrives at the palace, she’s a human girl again. The king adopts her on the spot and throws out a decree banning the hunting of deer in the royal forest. And so Katchen the witch’s servant becomes Katchen the princess, safe and adored in the arms of her new family.

I have been going on and on about rights for witches’ servants throughout this project so it seems fitting to end on the story of a rebellious familiar who ends up living her dreams. The witch in this fairy tale is a genuinely nasty piece of work, a cannibalistic opportunist who exploits anyone and everyone she meets. While her powers do have a very Tolkien flavour – right down to the manner of her death, I’d watch out for that ring in years to come – she is also a decent strategist, though her plans have a counterbalance in witchy hedonism. She’s a good villain, and Katchen – who is a better strategist, playacting subservience while she squirrels away spells – is a delightful heroine. If it down to picking a side between the witch and the cat, no prizes for guessing whose side I’m on.

Thank you to everyone who has read along and commented through the year! I will be posting a wrap-up next Friday, looking back on a year of witches, and this project would not have been nearly as fun without you.

Year of the Witch: The Bird of Truth

This Spanish fairy tale comes from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales from Around the World and begins with a poor fisherman who is out casting his nets one day when he finds a cradle made of crystal and two babies smiling adorably inside. He takes them home, where his wife points out that they are already struggling to feed eight children. But somehow they make things stretch a bit further, and both the fisherman and his wife are genuinely fond of the twins they have adopted. Unfortunately their older sons do not feel the same way. As they grow up, the twins take to escaping down to the river, where they can play in peace and feed the birds. The children spend so much time with the birds, in fact, that they learn to speak their language, which is quite a skill.

One day the eldest of the fisherman’s sons lashes out at the twins, claiming that they have no real father or mother but are instead the river’s children. “Like the toads and the frogs,” he sneers. That, as far as the twins are concerned, is the last straw. They slip out of the house early the next morning and start following the river, ready to seek their fortunes. After a long time walking they come to a hut and approach hopefully, but it is all closed up. The only thing to do is make the best of it and rest on the bench outside.

As the children slump together there, they overhear the chatter of two swallows in the eaves. It’s a little passive-aggressive at first; one swallow has recently returned to claim her parents’ nest after years living in the city and is trying to talk to a rather sullen old acquaintance. They soon bond over bad-mouthing the other birds in the neighbourhood. Then the city swallow settles in to share a juicy bit of gossip from her part of the world. The king, she informs her audience, fell in love with a tailor’s daughter and married her against the wishes of his court, but the nobility plotted against them. When the king went away to war and the queen gave birth to twins, the children were stolen away and the queen was called mad, shut away in a tower in the mountains. “At night the chamberlain came down and put them in a cradle of crystal,” the swallow continues, “which he carried to the river.” The listening children look at one another in shock and joy. Who can the swallow be talking about but themselves?

And when the children are grown up,” cry the listening birds, clearly invested by this point, “they can return to their father and set their mother free.” The swallow points out that this will be no easy task. “They will have to prove that they are the king’s children,” she says, “and also that their mother never went mad at all.” But she has heard of a creature called the Bird of Truth who is immortal and can expose any wickedness. She lives in a castle guarded by an insomniac giant, and the location of this castle is the great secret of a witch who, since she can’t kill her, has hidden her away where nobody can hear her speak. The only other living creature who can find the bird is an owl, whose only word in the human language is ‘cross’. Not the world’s best guide.

When the swallow wraps up her story and flies away, the children leap up to chase after her. They come to the king’s city and manage to charm their way into a night’s lodging. The children decide to repay their hostess with lots of little domestic tasks and she likes them so much that she asks them to live with her. The brother is happy to find a place where his sister can stay in comfort, but he’s been bitten by the quest bug and sets off to find the witch.

He’s not all that successful at first. After wandering for three days with no sign of the witch’s tower, he throws himself miserably under the tree. Looking up, he spots a dove and tries his luck with bird language. “Tell me, I pray you, where is the castle of Come-and-never-go?” he asks. The dove tells him to follow the wind, which is sound advice, because the boy soon finds himself in a bare rocky landscape and among the rocks he finds the witch’s tower.

The boy, who is apparently fearless and caution-free, knocks boldly at the door. A woman described as hideous answers the door, accompanied by a throng of creepy-crawlies like courtiers to her queen. “Who are you who dare to knock at my door and wake me?” she demands, squinting from behind her candle, and that is fair, I would probably be threatening under those circumstances as well. The boy explains that he needs to find the castle of Come-and-never-go. The witch tries to invite him in for the night but he does not accept so she instead offers him a jar. He is to fill it with many-coloured water from Come-and-never-go – if he fails, she will turn him into a lizard. So that’s where the entourage came from, then.

The witch summons a dog to act as the boy’s guide. She instructs the animal, ominously, to ‘take care that you warn my friend of his arrival’. Two hours later the dog is leading the boy towards a big black castle. Unsure whether the giant is really sleeping or not, the boy hesitates and happens to overhear a cry of ‘cross, cross’ from the branches of a nearby olive tree. The boy realises that it is the owl the swallow spoke of and eagerly implores it for help. The owl, probably relieved to meet a quester who actually speaks its language for once, is happy to oblige.

It advises the boy to fill the jar from a spring within the castle courtyard instead of the fountain of many-coloured water. Then he must enter an aviary full of beautiful murderous birds and ignore their many loud claims to be the Bird of Truth. The real thing is a small white bird hidden away in a corner. One more thing – the boy is on the clock, because the giant has literally just fallen asleep.

The boy bolts. He fills the jar at top speed then hurries to the aviary. It is a riot of voices – ravens, magpies, peacocks – the birds of Bad Faith, each screaming that it is the Bird of Truth. In the corner, tramelled by crows, the boy finds the small white bird he was sent for and he escapes with it. He runs all the way back to the witch’s tower and gives her the water. “Become a parrot!” she commands, throwing the water over him. But it’s not the right water, and instead just makes him…a spectacularly handsome human. The crowd of lizards and insects scurry to the drips of water and when it touches them, their humanity is restored. Seeing how completely her plan has backfired, the witch leaps on a broom and takes off.

The boy returns to his sister, but somehow – very possibly from the witch herself – word has spread that the Bird of Truth is on the loose and the plotting courtiers are desperate to prevent it reaching the king. Birds of prey are sent to hunt her, cages are built to trap her. They even claim that the white plumage is a facade over black feathers, presumably to indicate that this is the wrong bird? It’s also very possibly racism. But all these plans backfire as spectacularly as the witch’s, because by trying to convince the king that he will not be seeing the real Bird of Truth, he becomes very curious indeed and sends out a proclamation that it should be brought to him.

The children come to the palace, where the courtiers block their way, insisting that the king is sleeping and must not be woken. The question is settled by the Bird of Truth herself, who flies through the king’s open window and tells him what his courtiers are doing. The king sends one of his own people to fetch the children and once they arrive, the Bird of Truth explains exactly what was done to the royal family by the very people who have surrounded the king for years. Devastated, he embraces his children and leaves immediately for the mountains to free his wife. Her skin is bleached white by years of living in darkness but the sight of her husband and children brings the colour back to her and they return home together to bring justice down upon the royal court. The traitors are beheaded, their property seized.. The fisherman and his wife are rewarded for their kindness and, the story concludes that they ‘were loved and cherished to the end of their lives’. So the twins ended up with two sets of parents who wanted them, and a would-be adoptive mother, as well as several not-so-great older brothers – and as fairy tale families go, that’s not too bad.

There is an allegory in this fairy tale that strikes rather close to the bone. The Bird of Truth being a small, persecuted creature, caged and abused, in parallel to the imprisoned and abandoned queen; the traitorous courtiers doing all they can to discredit both the bird and the children, just as the Birds of Bad Faith tried over and over to murder the Bird of Truth. There is a streak of shocking cruelty running through this fairy tale, but it is also fiercely hopeful. The truth is not just out there – it is immortal, and it will get loose in the end whatever you do.

This is the penultimate fairy tale in the Year of the Witch! Next week will be the last story in the project, and the week after that (November 22nd) will be a wrap-up post looking back over the year.

Year of the Witch: King Fox

We are on the final stretch of the project now, with only a few weeks left before the last witch makes her appearance. It was honestly a shock to look at my list of fairy tales and see so few left. This one comes from Gianni and the Ogre, a collection of Mediterranean fairy tales by Ruth Manning-Sanders, and is yet another story that I have never actually read before now. It begins with familiar ground: a young man out to seek his fortune with nothing but a bottle of water and a loaf of bread to his name, and both of those are soon gone. He cries himself to sleep and wakes at dawn to find a knight on horseback looming over him, ordering him to mount up behind him or be stabbed.

Put like that, the young man doesn’t have much choice. He scrabbles his way up onto the horse and it takes off with supernatural speed, sparks flying and dust whirling as they go. When the horse comes to an abrupt halt, the dizzy young man finds himself on a plateau grown over with flowers and home to a flock of brilliantly coloured birds. The knight commands that his press-ganged passenger dismount; the young man obeys. “You seek your fortune?” the knight demands, rhetorically. “You will find it here.” He gives the young man a flint, a bow and a task: to shoot a bird and so feed himself for the day.

Either the young man is a rotten shot or the birds are very canny, or some combination thereof, because he tries again and again without success. Near the end of the day, as he begins to lose the light, he decides to take one final shot and then lie down to die. Fortunately for him, this is the shot that hits its target. The next day, he has better luck, catching two birds. As he is sitting by the fire to cook them, he is greeted by a fox who is more bone than flesh, barely able to move across the ground. The young man offers him one of the birds and the fox scarfs it down gratefully.

Now I will be your guardian,” the fox announces. “I will watch over you whilst you sleep. I will serve you by day. I am yours, heart and soul!” He begins his self-imposed duties straight away, vigilantly standing guard over the young man’s sleep. The next night, a skeletal wolf drags himself to their camp and the fox welcomes him as a brother, promising a meal that the young master is happy to share. And so the wolf adds himself to their company. When the young man returns the night after with his catch, he finds that the fox and wolf have adopted a bear in his absence. The night after that, it is a monkey – then a jackal, and a golden eagle. It’s lucky that the young man’s aim is improving so much, because he’s now responsible for feeding a household of six servants. Not so lucky for the birds of the plateau, of course.

The animals hold an election as to who will lead them and the fox is unanimously voted in as king of the council. They take the whole business very seriously, creating a flower crown and a tree trunk throne to provide the necessary trappings of authority. It’s all a little too Animal Farm for me. The fox’s first priority is to improve his master’s living conditions, which are about as basic as it’s possible to be, and to do that all the animals troop off into the desert. The eagle acts as lookout, warning the fox when a train of camels approach. The women of this local tribe are in the lead, unarmed, with the men lagging behind. The fox leads his company of bandits on a lightning raid, stealing the camels and bringing them back to the plateau with all the goods that they carry. This includes a tent, cooking pots and all sorts of good food. When the young man returns to camp and finds his life transformed, he must surely guess what his animals have been up to, but he doesn’t look the gift camels in the mouth.

For some time the fox is content, but eventually he calls together the animals for another meeting. “Our master still lacks,” he informs them. He wants to find the young an a suitable bride, and by suitable I mean he wants her to be ‘divinely beautiful’. The eagle immediately offers up a candidate, having seen a very lovely princess during his travels, so without further ado he flies off and kidnaps the poor girl. She is very dubious about the matchmaking fox, but the animals take turns to sing their master’s praises to the skies and the princess decides to roll with the situation. She cooks a magnificent meal then arranges to prank her fiance, hiding behind the bear and leaping out while all her new animal friends laugh. The young man immediately drops to his knees; the fox officiates the wedding; the monkey plays the flute and the rest of the animals burst into a chorus worthy of Disney. The princess seems quite happy to be the Maid Marian to their merry bandits.

Her father is less happy. His daughter has vanished and there’s no rock he won’t turn to find her, but even with half a kingdom on the table, all her would-be rescuers come up empty-handed. Then a ragged old woman comes to the palace, declaring that she will bring back the princess…if the king promises to take her on as his advisor. The king gives his word without hesitation, which is unwise, because the old woman is a witch and has all sorts of plans for the kingdom. First, though, she needs to deliver the princess, so she takes some jewels and rides off in an earthenware jar whipped with an unfortunate serpent.

She calls up a dark cloudbank to cover her arrival, disappearing into bushes near the camp on the plateau to spy on the company of animals. The young man goes out hunting, the animals busy themselves in the camp and the princess goes out for a walk in the sunshine. She is surprised when the old woman shows herself, but hospitably invites her back to camp for a meal and a comfortable bed. The animals take an instinctive dislike to the guest, but the princess has a great sense of courtesy and it’s easy for the witch to influence her. The young man doesn’t even need a touch of magic to let the witch stay; if his wife is happy, he’s happy.

It becomes an established routine that the princess goes out walking with the witch, who acts as lady’s maid and tells her stories. One day the witch pretends to stumble over the big earthenware jar and the two women look inside. The princess reaches inside for the jewels…and in an instant the witch has pushed her over, sealing her inside with the lid. Off and away they go, in the princess’s second kidnapping. Poor girl just cannot win.

The young man comes home to find the company of animals all in buckets of tears and as soon as he hears the news, he joins them in mourning. Still, the princess isn’t dead. The fox pulls himself together first and sends the eagle to search for their lost mistress. The witch has indeed returned the princess to her father and now the king has surrounded his beloved child with armed guards. There is no chance of the eagle carrying her away now. Instead he carries the fox, the bear and the wolf to the edge of the king’s city, where the fox puts his plans into action. He hitches up the bear and wolf to a plough and acts as ploughman himself, which becomes such a spectacle that everyone must come and watch…including the king and princess.

Whatever her feelings on the initial kidnapping, the princess is not happy to be in her father’s kingdom again. She is delighted to see the familiar faces of the animals in the field and when she looks up, she spots the eagle overhead. “I feel just a little faint,” she tells her guards. “I must get out and rest here on the grass for a moment.” She emerges from the carriage and ushers her ladies and guards onward to see the bizarre performance being played out in the field. As soon as she is alone, the eagle swoops and snatches her up.

This time her abduction is witnessed by an enormous audience. The king is in a panic; the guards take aim and shoot. In the confusion, the fox, wolf and bear disappear into the woods and wait for a rendezvous with the eagle. By nightfall the entire company is reunited and ready to celebrate a successful heist.

The danger, however, has not passed. As the fox is quick to remind everyone, the witch is sure to come back for the princess, having succeeded once before. All the animals take turns keeping watch and it is the fox who is standing guard when the witch makes her reappearance, sailing through the sky in her jar. This time when she lands, the animals are ready and waiting for her. She is dead before she can so much as scream.

That leaves the king. For forty days he waits for word of his daughter and when the witch fails to return, he raises his army to march on the plateau. Each of the animals goes to muster their own allies, amassing an impressive force, and arrive at the king’s camp by cover of darkness. They drive off the horses of the cavalry and disappear back into the wilderness before the soldiers know what is happening. The king has to send for more horses and even then, the journey is slow going. In their next attack, the animals go for bridles and belts, ripping apart all the leatherwork that holds an army together. Once again the king has to send for fresh supplies.

On the third night of the campaign, the fox has his forces dig a deep trench around the king’s camp and then disguise it expertly so that the ground looks undamaged. When the soldiers start marching out, they crash into the ditch and a flock of eagles attack from the skies. The king is forced into a furious surrender, but he has not quite given up yet. He wants his daughter back, whatever the terms. “Your daughter is the wife of my beloved master,” the fox informs him. “And if you are to have her back my master must be your heir.” The king agrees, for lack of options, and leads his army back to the city.

The princess is welcomed with open arms. Even the young man is accepted, but the gates are firmly shut on his servants. Then the young man puts down his foot. “You will give them each a room,” he declares, “and serve them every day with boiled mutton and roast fowl. If you disobey me in this, I will see to it that your heads fly from your shoulders!” He is very quick to enjoy the authority of a prince. The animals are duly brought inside the palace, where the king has his daughter, the young man has his fortune and the fox has the lovely warm glow of victory.

The witch does not get much of a role in this story, appearing mostly in the middle act, but the role she does play is intriguingly political. She talks the king into giving her the power she desires; she charms the princess into trusting her, a relationship that is helped along by a little enchantment. If she had just remembered to summon up clouds on her return to the plateau, she might very well have succeeded in kidnapping the princess all over again and winning her place as power behind the throne. I admit to being curious: what would she have done with that authority? And how is it fair to paint her as the villain when, from the perspective of anyone not on the plateau, she’s mounting a rescue operation? If it’s fair for a young male hero to win half a kingdom by rescuing a princess, it’s fair for a witch to do the same.

Year of the Witch: The Witch

Trigger warning: domestic violence

This version of the Russian story comes from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales from Around the World but I am more familiar with the Ruth Manning-Sanders’ version ‘The Twins and the Snarling Witch’, which you’ll note has a much more interesting title. Both stories start the same way – a widower with twin children, a boy and a girl, finds that he can’t do without a wife to manage the household and so marries again.

After that Lang diverges from the Manning-Sanders’ story, because the second wife gives birth to several children of her own in the years that follow. She soon divides the house into vicious factions, with herself on one side and her husband’s first children on the other. She neglects and physically abuses the twins, and is always kicking them out of the house, but none of that is enough for her. She is determined to get rid of them for good.

So she puts on a sweet face and tells the twins that she is sending them to visit her grandmother in the woods. The girl does not buy her promises for an instant and tells her brother they had better go to see their own grandmother first for advice, which is a good idea, because the old lady knows exactly who the stepmother’s ‘granny’ is: a murderous witch. The twins are advised to speak with the utmost courtesy to everyone they meet and never eat a thing that belongs to anyone else, which is good advice for a wide variety of situations, especially in fairy tales. Their grandmother also provides milk, ham and bread for the children to bring with them. Thus supplied, off they go.

It’s easy to tell when they have reached the house of the witch. The house is small; the witch is a giant, lying sideways in order to fit between her own walls, with her head on the threshold facing out into the wood. Though terrified, the children greet her politely and explain they have been sent to serve her. “If I am pleased with you,” the witch snarls, “I’ll reward you; but if I am not, I’ll put you in a pan and fry you in the oven – that’s what I’ll do with you, my pretty dears!” And with that she puts them both straight to work, the girl spinning yarn and the boy fetching water from the well. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Only no, because the girl cannot actually spin and the boy has been given a sieve to carry the water.

The girl weeps, and the sound of her tears attracts the attention of a throng of little mice. When the girl gives them bread from her grandmother’s supplies, they tell her that the witch’s cat can be bribed with ham to help with the spinning, and maybe with other things too. The girl hurries off to find the cat and on her way sees her brother struggling with the sieve. As she tries to help, a flock of wrens arrive. They too accept an offering of bread and show the boy how to plug up the holes in the sieve with clay.

The children carry the water into the house. The witch is fortunately away from home; the children find her cat napping indoors and go on a charm offensive, stroking her fur and coaxing her with ham. The cat likes the pair of them enough to help them escape the witch. She gives them a handkerchief and a comb, with the instruction to throw each behind them when it seems the witch is about to catch up.

When the witch returns, the spinning is done and the water is waiting. The witch does not eat the children, though it’s plain she would like to, but promises much more difficult tasks for the next day. The twins pass a frightening and uncomfortable night. In the morning, the girl is told to weave two pieces of linen and the boy to reduce a pile of wood to chips. As soon as the witch leaves for her own business in the wood, however, the children bolt.

The witch has guards around her house. The children encounter a watch-dog, who is won over by what’s left of their bread; then a stand of birch trees try to put out the children’s eyes, but the girl wraps their branches with ribbon and the children keep running.

The witch returns home to find rebellion on all sides. The cat points out that after years of service, the witch never gave it so much as a bone; the dog chimes in with agreement and the birch trees love their pretty ribbons. With her servants united against her, the witch has to take off after the children alone.

The twins have made it out of the woods and into the fields by the time they hear the sound of the witch’s broom behind them. Tossing the handkerchief behind them, it becomes a deep river. The witch’s broomstick does not travel high enough off the ground to fly across – she has to find a place to ford the river before she can pursue the children again, but soon enough she’s back at their heels. The girl tosses the comb over her shoulder and a vast forest rises, so impenetrable that the witch is forced to give up and go back to face the music at her own house.

When the children reach home they tell their father all about their stepmother’s abuse and he throws her out of the house. After that, the story tells us, ‘he took care of them himself, and never let a stranger come near them’.

What befalls the twins’ half-siblings is unclear. They vanish from the narrative completely, in the way non-questing relations often do. If the stepmother’s claim is true, they may have some witch blood themselves, which would make for an interesting sequel. This story follows much the same lines as the Manning-Sanders’ version, though there is no watch-dog in ‘The Twins and the Snarling Witch’ and no violent birch trees either, just a really fed-up cat and a put-upon broom. Regular readers of this blog may also note strong similarities to another Russian fairy tale, ‘The Baba Yaga’, which features a girl sent to wait on a witch and who escapes by winning over the Baba Yaga’s cat, dogs and birch tree. These witch’s servants need to start a union. What use is magic if you can’t get half-decent working conditions?

Year of the Witch: The Red King and the Witch

I have read very few Romani stories, something I would like to rectify at some point, and pretty much all that I have read come from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection The Red King and the Witch. It was published in 1965 and that does show, with a widely-used slur included throughout, but as far as I can tell from my extremely limited perspective, the tone of the collection is intended to be respectful. With that as context, let’s jump into this week’s fairy tale.

It begins with the Red King, who apparently needs no introduction and is busy cooking food he bought himself, which already makes him an interesting figure in a fairy tale landscape littered with idle monarchs who sulk around plotting murder. The Red King puts the cooked food in a cupboard and sets a guard upon it, but time and time again, food vanishes from the cupboard and no one can explain where it goes. The Red King promises half his kingdom to whoever can solve this mystery, which certainly attracts the attention of his three sons.

The eldest son reasons that it is much better half the kingdom should go to him than to some random off the street, which is a compelling argument, so he asks his father for permission to stand guard and gets the job. He settles in for the night. It is nearly dawn when a breeze brings sleep in its wake and his sister, a child young enough to sleep in a cradle, literally somersaults out of bed. Her nails become like an axe; her teeth are like a shovel. She consumes everything in that cupboard then returns peaceably to bed like the contented little NIGHTMARE BABY that she is.

So the eldest prince must go to his father empty-handed the next morning. “It would take a better man that you,” the Red King remarks bluntly, “and even then he might do nothing.” That does not deter the middle son, who stands guard the next night. He, too, is put to sleep by the enchanted breeze and his little sister takes off her swaddling to go guzzle her fill from the cupboard. The Red King is derisively unsurprised at the second prince’s failure.

And now it is the turn of the youngest prince, Peterkin, who has learned by his brothers’ failure and has countermeasures. He has jammed big needles through his pillow so that if his body tries to slide into sleep, he’ll be given a rude awakening. So it is that when the breeze drifts to him, he wakes almost as quickly as he falls asleep, and he is sitting there watching when the little princess goes on her devouring rampage. Peterkin is stunned and horrified by his sister’s transformation. In the morning, he refuses to tell his father what he saw, begging for a horse so that he can bolt the hell out of there and find a wife who will, presumably, protect him from shovel-toothed babies.

The Red King supplies him with both horse and money. Peterkin buries his money outside his father’s city and continues onward for eight years, until at last he comes to a palace made of copper. There he sees a girl carving away at a stick. She greets him with a complacent kiss, having apparently been expecting him, and sets him up for the night. When he goes to leave in the morning, she is startled and unhappy. “I go thither where there is neither death nor old age, to marry me,” Peterkin explains. The girl tells him he’s already there. She was whittling a stick when he met her; not until the entire forest has been whittled away can Death or Old Age come near her.

Peterkin’s response can be summed up as: awesome for you, but not much help to me. He leaves.

His horse speaks up at this point, to notify him that they are about to travel across the plain of Regret and they must cross it with all speed or they will not get across at all. With that warning, Peterkin gets to the other side in safety. He comes to a hut and meets a young boy who declares himself to be the Wind. Death and Old Age do not come to his house. Peterkin tosses aside his plans to find a bride and moves in.

They make pretty good housemates for quite a long time, hunting together in the Mountains of Gold and Silver. The Wind warns Peterkin not to visit the Plain of Regret or the Valley of Grief, and honestly why would you want to, but Peterkin has a Pandora moment and just has to look. Regret and grief are indeed what he feels as he remembers his home. The Wind tries to tell him how long it has been since he left, that the Red King is long dead, that his old home is dust. “I passed by the place an hour ago,” the Wind explains, “and they have planted melons on it.” But Peterkin is determined.

On his journey he passes the copper palace. There is no forest left; the girl is carving her last stick. “Do you remember telling me to stay here with you?” Peterkin asks. “Yes,” the girl replies, “I remember.” Those are her last words. As soon as the stick is whittled away, age catches up to her with a vengeance, leaving a husk behind. Peterkin buries her and continues on his way.

When he reaches the place that was once his home, it is almost unrecognisable. The only familiar landmark is an ancient well, and by the well sits a witch with nails like an axe and teeth like a shovel. She knows Peterkin at once and flies at him, her appetite having expanded into cannibalism sometime in the millennia since last they met. Peter makes the sign of the cross in her direction and anticlimactically, she immediately falls down dead.

The next person Peterkin meets is an old man with a long beard. When Peterkin asks desperately after his father, the old man dimly recalls a mythological figure from childhood stories. He does not believe Peterkin’s claim that he was a prince in the long-lost city a mere twenty years ago, mostly because that is not actually true – Peterkin has been gone for a very, very long time, though it does not feel that way to him. To prove his story, Peterkin looks for the spot where he buried his father’s money and finds the stone cross he placed as a marker still there. He digs up the money chest and opens it, only to truly take on the role of Pandora, because trapped in there beside the money are the long-denied appearances of Death and Old Age. They seize hold of Peterkin and he meets the same instantaneous end as the girl with her sticks.

The old man watches all of this happen, but being very practical about sudden horrible death, he buries Peterkin and then helps himself to the now ownerless money and horse. And that’s where we end, with his happy ending, in the literal dust of Peterkin’s.

This story is…not what I was expecting. Peterkin, framed as the hero, and his sister the genuinely creepy witch are sketched out in such significant roles at the start and then the story just screeches sideways as hard as it can. Peterkin’s eagerness for immortality battles with his ties to life and there is no victory to be had for him either way. His sister bears a strong resemblance to the unstoppable destroyer from ‘The Witch and the Sister of the Sun’, except for her sudden and unsatisfying defeat. I love the individual elements of this story with a passion, but there are such big spaces in between them that I honestly don’t know quite what to think now. It’s a story that will haunt me a little.

Year of the Witch: The Realms of Copper, Silver and Gold

In this story from Alexander Afanasyev’s Russian Fairy Folk Tales, there are three brothers, each ready to get married. Well, their parents are ready for them to get married anyway, and duly send their eldest son Egórushko Zalyót off to find himself a bride. He travels for some time without finding a woman he likes enough to get down on one knee for, and then he meets a three-headed dragon.

No, he does not marry the dragon. I’m sorry.

The dragon instead offers to show him where he might find a suitable bride, and takes him to a really big rock. Not the kind you propose with, either. The dragon tells him that if he can lift the rock, he will find what he seeks, but Egórushko cannot lift it and so goes home alone. His parents take a bit of time to think about the general concept of dragon matchmakers, then send the second son, Misha Kosolápy, to look for a wife in the same place. He is no more successful than his brother. Now the youngest brother, Iváshko Zapéchnik, is raring to go. It is unclear whether what he wants is to find a wife or to meet a dragon, but he’s a youngest son, so he gives the rock one big shove and boom, it’s gone.

Underneath is a rope ladder leading down into the dark. Iváshko hops on the ladder and the dragon lowers him into the realm of copper, where a young woman accosts Iváshko eagerly and asks where he’s from. He indignantly points out she’s offered no kind of welcome, so she wines and dines him a bit and he asks if she will marry him. “No, fair youth!” the girl tells him and in slightly Billy Goat Gruff style, informs him that there is a prettier woman waiting in the next realm. She does, however, give him a silver ring.

So down Iváshko goes to the realm of silver, where he guilts another very lovely young lady into feeding him and concludes the meal by asking if she will marry him. The girl refuses, sending him on down with a golden ring. Iváshko enters the realm of gold and finds a girl there who he considers the most beautiful of all. “Whither art thou going, fair youth; and what do you seek?” the girl asks. “Fair maiden, give me to eat and drink,” Iváshko says, “and I will tell you my news.” She puts on a veritable banquet and Iváshko asks if she will come with him as his bride. The girl agrees, sealing the deal with the gift of a golden ball.

As they ascend, the other girls join them, presumably hoping to get a lift out of the literal hole they live in. The dragon has vamoosed but Iváshko’s brothers have shown up looking for him and help pull up the rope ladder with the copper girl on it, then the silver girl, and then the girl from the realm of gold. That just leaves Iváshko. The brothers have already decided they want to marry these girls and wonder if Iváshko will try to stop them; instead of having any kind of conversation about it, they cut the rope ladder and leave him trapped.

Poor Iváshko is understandably devastated. Eventually he starts walking and meets a little old man sitting by a tree, who advises him to keep going until he comes to a hut. When he reaches the hut, Iváshko finds a giant called Ídolishsche sprawled in it. “Spare me,” Iváshko pleads, “and tell me how I shall get home again.” “Fi, fo, fum, Russian bones!” the giant replies. “I did not summon you, and still you have come. Go to the thrice-tenth sea, there stands a hut on cocks’ legs in which the Bába Yagá lives. She has an eagle who will carry you.”

So off goes Iváshko, and comes to the house of the witch. She demands to know his business, but on hearing what the young man wants, she turns very helpful. Baba Yaga is unpredictable like that. She sends him through her garden to a gate, past a watchman and through seven doors. Opening the last door frees the eagle. Iváshko leaps astride the bird and is carried into the air. Every so often the eagle turns his head and Iváshko feeds him a piece of meat, and that goes well for a while, but then Iváshko runs out of food to give his mount and the eagle tears a chunk from his back instead.

Fortunately they arrive at their destination immediately afterwards. The eagle spits out a glob of meat and orders Iváshko to lay it on himself, and in so doing the wound is healed. Iváshko then goes home to take the girl from the realm of gold to be his wife and his brothers…experience no retribution whatsoever for ditching him down a hole. ‘They then lived happily,’ the story claims of its characters, ‘and may still be living if they are not dead’. Or if Iváshko has not been HORRIBLY BETRAYED all over again. I don’t trust your happy ending as far as I can throw it.

Halfway through this story an oddly rushed feeling descends on the narrative. Iváshko’s adventures are hurried through. He meets a mysterious little old man – goodbye! He meets a giant in a little house – see you later! He rocks up at the house of the notorious witch Baba Yaga and she barely has a minute to talk, packing him off on her eagle without criticising his life choices or setting any tasks or anything else that implies she’s invested in him as a person. Iváshko’s brothers presumably marry the other two girls from the underground realms and live out their own happily ever afters unhindered by the usual fairy tale karma. I do not approve of the extreme punishments often meted out to the older siblings destined to failure by narrative tradition, but I do feel quite strongly that abandoning your little brother down a hole should come with consequences. Where’s that dragon when you need it?

Year of the Witch: Peter

This German story comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses and is unusual in that the story only starts after the titular protagonist comes back from seeing the world. His father sent him off to broaden his horizons and after three years Peter comes back bubbling over with anecdotes about his travels, so busy sharing what happened to him that he does not think to ask his parents what’s been going on for them – so it’s something of a shock when a carriage pulls up outside the front door and he is swept away to the king’s palace.

Once he gets there, Peter is startled to find everything shrouded in black drapes. The king and queen don’t look particularly happy to see him, but that’s because they do not look happy about anything. The king asks whether Peter has heard of their troubles (he has not) and if he is a loyal subject (which is a concerning question in any context). “Do you sincerely love us,” the king pursues, “and are you willing because of that love to risk your life in our service?” Peter recognises a catch-22 when he hears one and bows his acceptance, waiting to see what the king actually wants.

And what does the king want? Well, let’s rewind three years to his daughter’s fifteenth birthday. The young princess was the belle of the ball and the life of the party, with a mischievous sense of humour. There was a banquet in her honour, but as everyone rose from the table, two unexpected guests arrived: the king’s aunt and her daughter, who are both witches. The king sent the rest of his guests on to enjoy music and dancing and ordered a fresh meal to be laid out for his relatives, turning the banquet into an awkward little family reunion. As the witch and her daughter sat down to eat, the younger woman discarded her veil for the first time and – well, life is not a beauty contest, but the king put her in dead last anyway. His aunt saw things very differently. “She is as clever as she is beautiful,” she boasted to the king. “She has so many suitors that it is merely a matter of selecting the most desirable.”

The king’s own daughter might have plenty of virtues but tact sure as hell is not one of them and good manners don’t feature high on the list either. She called the witch’s daughter ugly to her face and when the witch asked for her to elaborate on what she meant, she did not hear the blaring warning sirens. Instead she went on about long noses and wide mouths and eyes like a snake. “And you, auntie,” the princess gabbled, “why you have the very same kind of eyes, so that I should be quite frightened to sit alone in the dark with you!” Another thing this girl does not possess: any self-preservation instincts at all. When a witch looks at you like that, you RUN THE OTHER WAY.

Too late for that anyway. The witch passed her hand across the princess’s face in a quick meaningful gesture. “As you have described my daughter’s face, so shall your own face be,” she announced. “And so shall your face remain until some gallant youth comes who will marry my daughter, and also perform three tasks that I shall set him.” She followed that statement by slapping the princess three times, presumably for emphasis, then stormed out with her daughter and departed the palace before the king and queen could make any kind of peace with her. It wasn’t until they went to recriminate their daughter for her rudeness that they realised what the witch had actually done. The princess was now a twin of the witch’s daughter. Her father refused to even look at her, covering her up with a scarf, and for the past three years she’s been forced to live under a veil. They put the whole palace into mourning because she’s not a beauty any more. Well, it’s clear where she got her attitude from.

Many young men have attempted to break the curse. None, so far, have come back. The king chooses to believe their nerves shattered upon encountering the witch’s ugly daughter – because nothing, it would appear, could distress the king himself more than the sight of imperfection – but there’s also the strong possibility that the witch has just killed them all. Nevertheless, running low of candidates, he’s got hold of Peter and proceeds to expertly guilt him into taking on the quest. The clincher is when the princess shows up, swathed in veils but still in possession of her beguiling storybook heroine voice, to implore Peter from her knees.

Off he goes, and makes the best of it. Peter is after all an adventurous young man and there’s a certain allure in a noble quest. I’d say this is actually more of a tacky family squabble gone out of control, but Peter is rather swept up in the romance of rescuing a princess and is quite cheerful. By nightfall he has reached the edge of a forest and it turns out, as it so often does, that the forest is a lair of violent robbers. They strip Peter of every valuable, knock him about for good measure and dump him by the side of the road.

Peter hobbles through the gathering darkness and follows a light between the trees to a little hut. A very old man answers the door with understandable surprise. “Who knocks so loud where no one knocks?” he asks. “Who comes this way where no one comes?” Peter tries to explain himself but collapses halfway through and comes to in a straw bed, being treated with an ointment that more or less magics away all his injuries. He calmly assumes his benefactor is a magician and thinks no more of it. The old man feeds him some soup, hears out the full story of Peter’s quest to restore the princess, and puts him back to bed.

The next morning, the old man is prepared to give his thoughts on Peter’s problem – and more than just thoughts, he has gifts. There is a stick that will send anything it strikes into motion, a key that will open whatever lock it touches, and a whistle that will apparently take all Peter’s courage to blow. The old man completes his semi-omniscient speech with exact directions to the witch’s house.

It’s not a very nice place. Surrounded by withered trees and thorns, the house itself has a lot of small windows that feel to Peter like the unfriendly gaze of many squinting eyes, but he knocks at the door anyway and when no one answers he walks straight inside. He walks along a hallway, calling out and again getting no answer, then goes upstairs. There he finds the witch, feeding her cat and supremely unconcerned with Peter’s existence. She calls her daughter, who is named Picnotka, to come and look him over. The impression would appear to be favourable, if one-sided. “Give us a kiss, my lovey dovey, because you please me,” she coos. “What – too shy? Never mind, never mind, we’ll be married tomorrow, and then we’ll see which of us is shy!” Which is super creepy, and is clearly meant to be read as such. Unlike, say, all the stories of beautiful girls who just have to buck up and adjust their expectations when marrying ugly men. Or actual beasts. Just saying.

Peter does not like being taunted. “If it will free the princess whom you have enchanted, I am willing to marry anyone,” he blurts, “yes, I would marry even the devil’s grandmother. But I will not be made a fool of!” Oh, kiddo, you are lucky this is not one of the stories where the devil’s actual grandmother shows up with a wedding ring. Exaggerations are a dangerous business in fairy tales. The witch kicks her cat to vent her own ill-feeling and leads the way through the dark house to a large hall that is full of statues. As Peter looks from one face to another, he is horrified to recognise the faces of young men from his town. This, then, was the fate of the would-be heroes who came before him.

Peter’s task is to drive them out. He puts the old man’s stick to work, striking left and right, and wherever a blow lands, a statue comes to life. Young men spill from the house, running and shouting. Grinding her teeth, the witch takes Peter to his next task: opening a door fastened shut with seven padlocks. Peter tries the stick, with no success. Then he takes out the old man’s key, and it barely has to touch the door before all the padlocks start springing open. So that’s task number two down.

The witch is not eager to move on to task number three, by now really worried that Peter will achieve it and break the curse. While there’s the comfort that she and her daughter would make his life one long misery, the princess would be happy and the witch cannot stand the thought of that. She offers Peter gold and jewels if he will only turn back now. “What is the princess to you, or you to her, that you should risk your very soul for her?” the witch demands. “Yes, your very soul, I tell you, for the Lord of Hell is my particular friend.” May have spoken too soon about the devil’s grandmother.

When Peter refuses the bribery, the witch threatens to summon her ‘particular friend’. “And as you have a little pipe in your pocket, let us see if he will dance to your piping!” she snaps, which Peter interprets as his third task. He blows the whistle. The sound is so overwhelming in its intensity that the whole house shakes, but Peter blows again and flames burst from the floor. The witch and her daughter are screaming and trying to wrest the whistle from Peter. One more blow seems likely to bring the house crashing down, but blow it he does, and the floor splits open with a nightmarish thunderclap. Peter is caught in a maelstrom, choking on acrid smoke, certain of imminent death.

And then…he wakes up. It’s morning. He looks down on the ruins of the witch’s house, where he’s pretty sure he whistled up the Lord of Hell to take away the witch and her daughter. The cat, I think it’s safe to assume, is safe, having run away after the witch kicked it.

There seems to be no chance of Peter marrying Picnotka now, so has he succeeded in breaking the curse or not? He isn’t sure. On his way back through the forest he meets the old man, who gives Peter a little push and magics him home in a heartbeat. A cheering crowd have gathered to celebrate having a beautiful princess again. Peter is welcomed into the palace, fussed over by king and queen, kissed by the princess and whisked into a much more welcome marriage.

A Book of Enchantments and Curses is one of the first Manning-Sanders anthologies that I read as a child, and I remember being dissatisfied with this story then. I feel the same way now. Your mileage may vary on this sort of thing, but Devil Ex Machina is not my preferred pathway to a happy ending. Although, who knows, perhaps the Lord of Hell was really the witch’s friend and just showed up to rescue her from the collapsing house, much as he is the rescuer in ‘Old Witch Boneyleg’. There is an inherent familial pettiness to the entire situation, blown out of proportion with spells and crowns, and I suppose that’s why the resolution of the story doesn’t feel like it really resolves anything. The king and his family still believe that beauty is all-important. The witch and her daughter disappear from the narrative still feeling bitter and wronged. Watch this space for offended fairies at the next royal christening.

Year of the Witch: Moti-katika and the Water Witch

This south-east African story comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Cauldron of Witches and starts off by introducing us to a woman with a delightful little boy called Moti-katika and a less delightful husband who is described as being ‘rather teasy-tempered’ and by that I think she means he’s a nightmare. One day he takes himself to bed and makes a lot of noise about being ill, but when his wife brings him water from the well he knocks the pitcher right out of her hand and insists that it is contaminated by frogs. So his wife goes to a nearby lake and brings a new pitcher back to her husband’s sickbed. He smashes this one too. “How can I drink such water?” he demands. “Don’t you know there are toads in the lake?”

His wife takes a third pitcher and presumably a very deep breath and goes off to a different lake in the hope her husband might drink from this one, but no, apparently it reeks of reeds. The woman is now running out of options. She leaves the house for the fourth time, with a fourth pitcher in hand, and walks for a long time, until she comes to a third lake. This time she takes in the state of the water with enormous care. No frogs, no reeds – could this water actually be acceptable? The woman fills her pitcher and out of the water emerges an enormous water witch. She wants to know who has the NERVE to go stealing HER water.

The woman spills her story, explaining that her husband is in need of the purest water and no water seemed more pure than what is in this lake…When this cuts no ice with the water witch, the woman pleads that her husband and son could not manage without her, which is undeniably true. The water witch is intrigued by the mention of a son. “Is he sweet, is he toothsome, is he beautiful?” she inquires. You’d think that the word ‘toothsome’ would alert the woman to what this question is really about, but she gushes unthinking praise for her boy’s beauty. The woman herself is very thin, not an appealing meal; the witch decides to let her go and come tomorrow to collect Moti-katika in her stead. She instructs the woman to cut his hair and place a necklace of white beads on him so that the witch will recognise him, because she knows that if she goes about eating random children then the village will exact retribution. “And I do not choose,” she tells the woman loftily, “to have my peace disturbed and my lake sullied by a mob of village hooligans!”

By the time the woman gets home, her husband is bored of staying in bed and downs the water without argument, announcing himself cured. When Moti-katika returns home from school his mother tells him urgently that he must hide the next day or else a water witch will eat him up. He is not concerned in the least, because Moti-katika has a secret. A while ago, he was picking wild berries and gave everything he had found to an old woman struggling past through the woods. She was really a fairy, as passing old ladies so often are, and in gratitude for his gift she gave him five bones. If he lays them out on the ground and speaks to them politely, they will show him what to do.

So, with a witch on her way, Moti-katika lays out the bones. He considers the row. “This bone is my mother,” he decides, touching the first bone. The second he calls his father, the third the witch and the fourth himself. The fifth is the bone that will tell him what to do about all of it. The bone bounces off the grass and whispers its answer straight into his ear. Moti-katika packs up the bones, goes inside and asks his mother to cut his hair.

She cries the whole time and is crying the next morning as she puts on the white bead collar specified by the witch, but her son is perfectly calm. “There is no need to cry,” he informs his mother. “Water Witches are very stupid people. But I am not stupid.” And indeed he’s not. He gathers up every boy in the village, gives them white collars, cuts their hair and gives them directions in Operation Defeat Water Witch.

Very soon the wind picks up and the ground shakes and the witch is stomping towards them. “Which one of you is Moti-katika?” she demands and every boy sings out that it’s him, can’t she see it’s him? She does not dare eat up all the children of the village so she has to leave, but she hasn’t given up. She corners Moti-katika’s mother and menaces her. The poor woman, who must be used to impossible people after dealing with her husband for so long, placates the witch by inviting her into the house for a pot of maize. The witch proceeds to eat the literal pot. While she’s busy with that, Moti-katika’s mother frantically hisses at her son to run and hide.

He does, but only to quietly consult with his bones. The fifth bone leaps up, bumps against against the boy’s shoulder and transforms into a bee. It buzzes right off and stings the witch’s nose. Moti-katika’s mother hastily assures the angry witch that her son will be here in the night, he will be in this bed right here, so if the witch returns she will get her meal. The witch believes that this downtrodden woman will give up her child that easily and comes back after dark. What she doesn’t know is that mother and son have put a big stone in the little bed, wrapped in a quilt, so when the witch comes barging into the house and snatches up what she thinks is a boy, she is actually swallowing down something that even she struggles to digest. It’s the beginning of a dreadful stomach-ache. “Boys, boys,” she wails. “If this is what comes of eating boys, though I should live for a thousand years I will never eat another!” And, we are asssured, indeed she did not.

This story would be charming just for the ‘I am Spartacus’ moment with the village boys but I also love Moti-katika’s mother, who is underestimated by the witch from the moment they meet but never for one minute plans to give up on her son. As for her husband, he’s a footnote. He’s a backstory. He is irrelevant and the story knows it, because he does not feature at all in the happy ending.

Year of the Witch: The Witch and the Swan Maiden

When I started this project, I decided that I would only write about stories that I had not covered before during Fairy Tale Tuesdays, which ruled out some of the big names in witch folklore such as ‘Snow White’ and ‘Rapunzel’ but has certainly stretched into some fascinatingly obscure corners. I have read a lot of stories that are new to me this year, including this Hungarian fairy tale from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ 1968 collection The Glass Man and the Golden Bird.

It begins when a king sees a swan, a kind of bird he has never seen before, and straight away goes to shoot it. The swan negotiates for its life by coming to him and agreeing to live in his palace. Unfortunately there is already a witch in residence, who has been putting a lot of effort into seducing the king and is not best pleased when he goes all heart-eyes for a bird. She briskly informs the king that swans are much too savage to be kept as pets and he ought to have it cooked instead. Such is her force of personality that he sadly gives way. The witch takes the swan to the kitchens to cut its throat herself, with unnecessary zeal.

The swan has other ideas. It turns three somersaults, turns into a beautiful girl and bolts out of the kitchen, running to appeal to the king’s mercy. “I lived in the land of the fairies with my mother and two sisters,” she tells him. “But I was curious to see the world, and I left them and flew away. Do not, oh do not have me killed!” The king thinks this is a good time to propose marriage. “For,” he tells her, “I do not think there exists on earth another maiden as beautiful as you are!” There is a whole Swan Princess movie about how this is the EXACT WRONG THING TO SAY, with a DANCE NUMBER and everything. But the swan maiden has already negotiated once and does so again, and doesn’t seem too unhappy about the arrangement.

Anyway, so the witch’s plan has backfired as spectacularly as it is possible to backfire. She watches with bitter fury as the king enjoys wedded bliss and the swan maiden bride gives birth to his son and heir, but she disguises her resentment so successfully that when the king sets off on a journey he puts the safety of his wife and child in the witch’s hands. “I will care for them as if they were my own children,” the witch assures him soothingly, and plays the fond friend by coaxing the queen out for a walk in the gardens. This is obviously so that the sad queen, who is missing her husband, can enjoy the birds and the flowers and admire her reflection in the waters of that not-remotely-suspicious deep well…

Drown, drown, drown!” snarls the witch, tipping her in.

When the king returns she tells him that the swan maiden grew homesick and returned to her family, but that in her absence the witch cared for the king’s son with absolute devotion. “I pray you not to grieve,” she coaxes, “but to rejoice in your son.”

Not grieve!” the king echoes, stunned, and is back on his horse in a heartbeat. He searches the lake where he first met the swan maiden, calling for her desperately, but of course there is no one there to answer him. Months pass and turn into years. The witch plays loving nursemaid to the king’s son, which is a subtler seduction than her first attempt, and when at last the king accepts that his wife is not coming back, he decides that the witch will make a good mother to his child. So a wedding is arranged and it looks like the witch is finally going to get what she wants.

Only, something odd is happening at the well. A willow tree is growing from it, spreading three branches. One day as a peasant boy is driving his flock of sheep by the garden wall, he sees the tree and cuts off the middle branch to make a flute. When he goes to play it, it sings a plaintive song. Oh boy, do not blow too hard! My heart is aching for my little son, my little son whom I left in the cradle, to be nursed on the lap of a wicked witch. The terrified boy runs home to tell his father, who tries out the flute himself. He hears the song, freaks out and locks the flute away.

The day of the king’s wedding arrives and a group of musicians pass by the peasant’s house, talking cheerfully about the reward they expect for their playing. The peasant sees an opportunity to turn a cursed instrument into a money-making curiosity. He takes out the flute and comes along to the palace. His son, who wants to come too, returns to the willow tree and cuts off the right branch, whittling it into a new instrument. It will not play a single note.

The royal wedding is not lacking in entertainment; many musicians have come to play for the king. The peasant is having second thoughts, now that he’s actually here. The king sees him lurking in a corner, looking a lot like a free-loading wedding crasher, and calls on him to play, disregarding the peasant’s warning that the flute is bewitched. So the peasant plays. O man, do not blow too hard! wails the flute and the king listens, spellbound, to its song. So does the witch, with rising unease.

The king throws down a gold coin and takes the flute, puts it to his lips. O my dear husband, croons the flute and the wedding guests whisper among themselves in awe. The witch pulls herself together and orders her husband to throw the flute away, but for once he will not listen to her and insists that she play the flute herself. She puts it to her lips, trying to cover all the stops so that it will not make a sound, but it plays regardless. O, my enemy, it sings, do not blow too hard! My heart is aching for my little son, for my little son whom I left in the cradle, to be nursed on your lap, you cruel one, who cast me into the well, thinking to drown me, but…

The witch hurls the flute to the ground with a scream. “That is the end of you!” But a woman rises from the broken shards, the queen now living. The king embraces her in bewildered joy, then turns on the witch with a drawn sword. He does not get the chance to strike. Darkness falls across the wedding and when it lifts, the witch is gone. She never returns.

This story is in a tradition of fairy tales where a murder victim speaks an accusation from beyond the grave (e.g. ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘The Juniper Tree’). I highly recommend Loreena McKennitt’s song ‘The Bonny Swans’ as another example, in which a drowned girl’s bones are made into a harp strung with her golden hair and the instrument reveals the identity of her killer. This is the stuff of myth and horror, which are never too far apart. The swan maiden is lucky; the narrative brings her back to life, albeit after missing the first few years of her son’s life. The witch is also lucky; usually it would be straight into a barrel stuck with nails or a sack sewn shut for her, but in this story she’s quick and clever enough to do a runner before her bad deeds can catch up to her. This is a story of unexpected survival all around.