The Elements of Fairytales – Part Two

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Part Two – Heroes and Heroines: The Good, The Clever, and the Stupid

Fairytales abound with protagonists that manage to out smart their adversaries, remain pure of heart despite hardships and torture, and some are even considered stupid, but always win in the end.

The Clever

When I think of clever fairytale characters, my mind is drawn to Catskin. It is a tale that I fell in love with from the first and has many versions, although the differences are often subtle and they all end the same. I have read two versions, “Catskin” and “The Princess in Disguise”, and have seen another version in Jim Henson’s Storyteller where it is called “Sapsorrow” (I highly recommend folktale and fairytale buffs to watch this at least once if they remember that it was a television series and overlook the special effects. The stories are worth it, I think and I, personally, love it.).

In all three versions, the king has lost his wife, and has at least one daughter.

  1. A king has made a promise to his dying wife that he will only remarry if he is able to find a woman who is an equal to her beauty and possesses shining golden hair. Of course, in the version it should come to no surprise that the only woman that fits that description in the king’s daughter. And therefor, he decides to marry her.
  2. The king, heartbroken by his wife’s death during childbirth and the fact that she had not given him a son, departs his castle, leaving the child behind. It isn’t until the king returns 16 years later that he spies the girl in the garden and remembers he has a child. Feeling some sort of paternal obligation, he has her betrothed to a long time friend, but he is very old and she is very young.
  3.  The king promised his wife that he would not remarry unless the woman could fit her ring. The queen dies. Years later, the king’s three daughters find the ring. Two of them pick it up and play with while the third tries to get them to stop. When they are caught by the king, one of the sisters gives it to the youngest, preparing to blame her and the girl accidently slip it on her finger. It’s fairly easy to guess what happens next.

In them all, the princess requests a series of almost impossible gowns in order to buy her time. The first is usually cloth of gold so finely made that it fit into a nutshell of some kind. The second is most often made of silver to rival moonlight and it also must be skillfully made like the first. The third gown differs depending on story. It is either as sparkly as the stars (as in both “The Princess in Disguise” and “Sapsorrow”) or made of a feather from every bird in the world, so fine that it can be nestled in an eggshell. The last gown is either asked for or made by the princess herself. It is a gown of fur and it is the gown the princess wears when she escapes her fate, taking her percious gifts with her. She then becomes known as Catskin, Roughskin, or Straggle Tag and finds employment in the kitchens of a castle.

From there, the stories remain pretty much the same. In time, a ball/feast is given and our princess discards her guise of humble, hairy scullery maid and dons one of her gowns. She attends the ball. She shine magnificently in her gown of gold, easily winning the heart of the king but her duty calls and she eventually returns to her disguise. Another ball is called for and this time it is the silver gown she wears. She dances away the hours, claiming all the king’s attention and sparing none for the others. Again, she slips away becoming Catskin or Roughskin or Straggle Tag the maid. But third time is always the charm, and this time resplendent in her gown of stars or the gown of feathers, she is caught by the king as she changes back into her alter ego. Of course they marry, it wouldn’t be a fairytale if they didn’t and yes, they lived happily ever after.

Now, there are many clever characters featured in this collection. Hansel and Gretel, The Little Farmer, and Clever Else, just to name a few. I recommend reading “Clever Else”, “The Little Farmer” and “Fitcher’s Bird”, they are all are interesting tales.

The Good

Cinderella comes to mind immediately. The young woman suffered for years, reduced to being a maid, for her cruel, selfish and vain step-family. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are also endowed with kindness, loveliness, and altruism. They are the epitome of virtue. However, while reading through the collection, I met the Handless Maiden. She, I think, outshines her sister fairytale heroines and could have applied for sainthood.

“The Maiden Without Hands”

The Handless Maiden was the unwitting gift bestowed on a wizard by her father. Her father, a poor miller, walked into the forest near their home one day in search of wood when he happens across an old man. The Old Man/Wizard inquires as to why the Miller is bothering to cut down wood and kindly offers to give the Miller wealth beyond his imagining. But, the Old Man requires something in exchange for the riches and asks for the object that stands behind the mill. The Miller, thinking that it is his beloved apple tree, agrees. It seems a small price to pay for financial security.

“In three years time I will come and claim what belongs to me,” the Old Man said.

Returning home, the Miller is greeted by his wife who is excitedly bemused. She has been finding treasure in every nook and cranny of their home. Precious stones tumble from an opened drawer and coins fall in a golden rain from cupboards. The Miller explains the deal made with the Old Man and his wife tells him he is wrong, that their only child was behind the mill, sweeping it clear.

Their daughter was innocent, beautiful and modest, obedient to her parents. When three years had passed, she prepared to meet the man who would be her captor. She washed herself until she was pure as snow. Afterwards, she made a circle of chalk and stood inside it. This is how she greeted the Old Man when he appeared.

The Old Man, shedding his disguise and revealing his true nature as a wizard, arrived (most likely chuckling to himself and rubbing his hands together, pleased at his cleverness) and sauntered out to the where the maiden stood. He could not, dared not, enter her protective circle and enraged, he ordered the Miller to deny her water to wash with. The Wizard could not enthrall her while she was in current state of cleanliness.  The Miller, frightened, did as he was told.

The daughter wept all through the night, her tears washing her hands clean.

Dawn comes and with it the Wizard returns. He discovers that somehow the maiden’s hands were as pure as the day before. Flying into a rage, he demanded the Miller chop off the girl’s hands.

“How can I take my daughter’s hands?” The Miller asked.

“If you do not,” the Wizard threatened, “I shall be forced to claim you in her stead.”

Frightened, the Miller obeys and when he reached his daughter, he related the conversation he had with the Wizard. To which the daughter replied:

“But, dear father, I am your child and you may do with me as you wish.”

A table was moved to her circle and her hands laid upon it. The blade rained down, severing her hands from her wrists. Thinking he had finally won, the Wizard vowed to return  the next morning to claim his prize. But the Handless Maiden cried all through the night, washing the stubs in her tears.

By the next morning when the Wizard appears, she is clean and pure. Enraged, the Wizard must give her up, powerless. He left. The maiden’s father is relieved at the outcome, and tells her that she is more precious than any jewel to him.  She declared her wish to leave home.

“I am yet unsafe here and I would go out in the world, to find the comfort and sympathy of people,” she said.

“I fear that people of that nature are too few in the world.”

The Handless Maiden binds her stumps and departs the next morning. Traveling all day, she grows hungry and tired. As night approached she came to a beautiful garden, filled with fruit trees but it was surrounded by a deep, wide moat. She prayed, and unknown to her, a fairy guardian appeared behind her. The fairy moved the water, creating a channel of dry land for the maiden to walk through.

The maiden rushed across and at the nearest tree, she ate a pear that hung on the lowest branch, using only her mouth. Sated, she found a bush, curled up and fell asleep. But the gardener had seen this, and he had stood, terrified, unable to speak.

When the King visits his garden the next morning, he counted all the fruit on the trees and noticed that one was absent. He questioned the gardener who told him a tale of ghosts and angels. The King planned for them to hide in the garden and find out the truth. As midnight arrived, the maiden appeared and drifted to the pear tree, preparing to eat again. A beautiful woman stayed behind the maiden, gowned in white.

The King nudged the priest, and the holy man went forth to face the specter.

“Be you of this earth or heaven, child? A spirit or human?”

“I am no shade, only a poor girl forsaken by all but God,” the maiden said.

“If you let me be your friend, I will never forsake you,” the King said.

The maiden was taken into the King’s castle and over the next months, he fell in love with her and they were married. He had made for a pair of silver hands. But war came, threatening the peaceful kingdom and the King had to depart. He left his pregnant bride in the care of his mother who was good and kind.

Not long after his departure, the new Queen gave birth to a son and a message was sent to declare the new to the King. The messenger halted midday, thirsty and tired, by a quiet little stream. He drank deep of the cool, refreshing water and napped under the shade of a tree. And who should appear, but the Wizard. He switched the message with one of his own creation, a perfect match to the old mother’s hand.

“The Queen has given birth but the child is a changeling.” Were the words the King found in the message when it was delivered. Fearing after his wife, he penned one back. “Give the Queen every attention and care until I am able to return.”

Again the Wizard switched messages. The one that arrived to the Queen Mother read: “Kill both the Queen and the child.” She was terrified, unable to believe that her son would order such a thing. She wrote him. The reply (again written by the Wizard, and I imagine him chortling while penning his wicked words) came, this time it read: “Never mind killing them. Cut out the tongue of the changeling and put out the mother’s eyes.”

Well, the Dowager couldn’t follow the order. She went to the young Queen and begged her to leave, explaining what the King wanted done. The old mother strapped her grandson onto the young Queen’s back and the pair departed, the Dowager helpless to aid them further watched them leave.

And the Queen walked, once more leaving a life behind to venture into an unknown future. She trekked until she reached a vast, dense forest and following the road through, she halted at crossroad. Not knowing what path to take, the Queen knelt down and prayed. When she rose to her feet, she noticed that there was a cottage not far from where she stood. It was a cheery looking place with windows aglow and sign above the door. The sign said: “All who dwell here is safe.”

A woman robed in white emerged from the cottage.

“Welcome my Queen,” the mysterious woman greeted and she led the Queen inside, helping her remove the infant from her back and settling him down to sleep.

“How did you know I was a queen?”

“I am fairy guardian sent to watch over you and your son,” the woman said.

And so it was there that the Queen and her son lived for many years, content. The Queen was so good and pious that her hands grew back and she packed away the silver pair her husband had given her.

Not long after the Queen and her son had disappeared from the castle, the King returned home and asked to see his family.

“You horrible man, how can you ask me how your wife and son are when you ordered such terrible things done to them?” The Queen Mother wept. Confused, the King asked for an explanation and the letters were produced for him to read. He cried bitterly, broken by the fate of his love. So deeply was his sorrow that his mother took pity on him and divulged the truth, telling him that they still lived, she had sent them away.

“Then I will scour the earth, to the end of the world if need be, to I find them. I will not eat or drink until we are together.”  And the King left, starting his quest.

He is true to his words. He neither eats or drinks, searching the land for his family. It takes him seven years (he suspects that his wife had died, starved to death) before he comes upon the cottage in the forest where he is taken in by a lovely maiden. Led into the home by the hand, the fairy said to him, “My lord King is most welcome, but I must ask why are you here?”

“For seven years, it seems much longer, I have searched for my beloved and our child. Can you help me?” The fairy set him down and gave him food and drink, imploring him to replenish himself. Weary, he obeyed. And growing sleepy, he is led to a bed nearby. The fairy covered his slumbering face with a cloth and  leaves the room to inform the Queen of the visitor.

The Queen goes reluctantly, remembering the cruel letters and demands of her husband. Her son, she named Pain-Bringer, is by her side. The cloth fell from the King’s face and the Queen tells her son to cover the face of his father.

“But mother, how can I cover the face of my father for I thought my father is God. Didn’t you teach me to pray to ‘Our Father, which art in heaven’. This man is not my father,” Pain-Bringer said, his voice rousing the King from his slumber.

“Who are you?” The King asked the pair.

“I am your wife and this is our son,” the Queen said.

“You’re face and voice are familiar to me, that is true but my wife had silver hands.” And the fairy entered the room as those words were spoken, her hands holding the hands of silver.

The King then knew that the Queen was indeed his lost wife and he rejoiced, embracing her and their son. They all celebrated and the truth of the letters were discussed. The next morning the trio departed, returning home where a second wedding feast was held where they made merry, happily putting the past and hardships behind them.

The Stupid

The Old Witch

Once there was a young girl. She was stubborn and willful, disobedient and therefore, she was never happy. Having heard tales of the Old Witch that lived not far away, the girl decided she wanted to visit the crone and she told her parents so.

“Tales have been told of the Witch’s powers, the marvelous things she can do and I want to see them.”

“It’s foolish to go. The Witch is a godless woman, and the deeds accomplished by her are often wicked. You leave here to find her and you are no longer a child of ours.”

But the girl departs, ignoring her parents. By the time she finds herself in the Witch’s company, the girl is pale and quivering.

“Why are you so frightened, child?” the Witch asked.

“The people I have seen as I entered your house has caused me to shake so,” the girl said.

“What people?”

“A man, black as night, was on your step.”

“Ah, that was the collier,” the Witch said.

“And then I encountered a gray man.”

“That would be the sportsman,” the Old Witch said.

“The next man was covered in blood!” The girl shivered.

“He is the butcher,” the Witch said.

“And then, when I peered into your window, I spied a creature with a head of fire. I was most terrified!”

“You saw me, my dear, in my true form,” the Witch said. “And I have long awaited you, for you shall give me light.” The Witch changed the girl into a block of wood and tossed her upon the fire. As the fire thundered to life, the Witch sat down near the hearth and warmed herself.

“Oh how nice, for once it burns so brightly.”

Recommendations: There is one tale where the hero is named Stupid Hans, but I didn’t think his tale was fitting to go under “The Stupid”. He is anything but stupid, gullible, maybe and honest but not stupid. His story can be found in the tale called “The Griffin” and is well worth the read.

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2 responses »

  1. This is such an interesting post, Melissa! I really like how in the first story, the princess has to rely on her own cleverness and wits to get herself out of a dreadful situation. And I agree–the Queen in the second story is definitely a candidate for sainthood! As gruesome as the last story happens to be, I couldn’t help but laugh when it fell under your heading of “The Stupid.” We always think of fairy tales serving as fanciful stories to pass the time, but your post points out that they often impart lessons as well.

    • Thank you, Miranda! I’m glad that you enjoyed this post. Rereading the Grimm’s tales has been an interesting adventure. Many of the stories have different layers and while some have gone on to be made into movies or influenced novels, others have become obscure. I was surprised at some of the tales I have found. Thanks again. 🙂

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