Fairy tales are obsessed with hunger. There’s Thumbling, Jonah, Red Riding Hood, and Zeus's siblings, all gulped up only to emerge unharmed one way or another. In many stories, In stories from all over the world, parents threaten their children that some boogeyman will gobble them up if they don't behave.
In Hop o' my Thumb, the ogre hungers for the flesh of children. In Jack and the Beanstalk, the giant chants "I smell the blood of an Englishman . . . I'll grind his bones to break my bread." These man-eating giants hearken back to monsters such as Polyphemus in the Odyssey. Hansel and Gretel's witch is the same character. The evil queen desires to eat Snow White's heart. In Perrault's Sleeping Beauty, the second half features the heroine's mother-in-law attempting to eat her and her children cooked with sauce piquante.
And on the other hand there are stories where people are tricked into eating human flesh, especially the flesh of their loved ones - as in The Juniper Tree and some older versions of Red Riding Hood. In the Vietnamese story of Tấm and Cám and the Greek myth of Philomela, it's the hero tricking the villain into cannibalism.
There's one theory that the frequently-digested Thumbling is a story related to how children process the concept of pregnancy and childbirth.
This motif of being eaten and escaping appears in other tales, like Red Riding Hood and The Seven Kids.
Earlier theories suggested Red Riding Hood was a myth-like tale of rebirth, with the girl as the sun and the wolf as the night. That school of thought has now been largely discarded, and it's more popular to read it in sexual terms, perhaps as the devourer eating a lover in order to possess her completely. Hunger in fairytales is often a stand-in for sexual desires.
There are other factors behind the stories, though. I think it's partly ancestral fear, the fear of a bigger predator snatching you from your cave.
It could also be a way to face the taboo. In the 1997 article “Incest in Indo-European Folktales,” D.L. Ashliman points out that “many fairy tales owe their longevity to an ability to address tabooed subjects in a symbolic manner."
So, along with stories containing abuse or incest, there are stories like The Juniper Tree where people, even parental figures, turn to cannibalism.
Perhaps this is also where the heroes taking harsh revenge come from. In a story, you can dance the villain to death in red-hot iron shoes or send her hurtling down the street in a barrel lined with nails.
There are some beliefs that eating your enemy - usually in a ritualized ceremony - will give you his strength, courage or life force.
The Iroquois and Aztecs would do this with prisoners of war. The Sawi (Sawuy) people of New Guinea would give the victim's name, and thus his life force, to one of the villagers.
In Tanzania and other areas of Africa, some superstitions hold that albinos are magical and their bodyparts can be used in talismans or potions.
In Europe, human fat, flesh, blood and bones were consumed in medicines until around 1750.
Consuming the life force would be the goal of Snow White's evil queen, who seeks to eat her stepdaughter's heart and once again be the fairest in the land. Similarly, in Norse mythology, eating a dragon's heart gives Sigurd the power of prophecy.
Civilization vs. Barbarism
In The Irresistible Fairytale, Jack Zipes says, “Almost all cultures have cannibalistic ogres and giants or dragons and monsters that threaten a community. Almost all cultures have tales in which a protagonist goes on a quest to combat a ferocious savage. The quest or combat tale is undertaken in the name of civilization or humanity against the forces of voracity or uncontrolled appetite.” (page 8.)
In The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, Zipes says something along the same lines: "Though each one of the Tom Thumb tales differs, they all focus on the same major concerns of The Odyssey as discussed by Adorno and Horkheimer: self-preservation and self-advancement through the use of reason to avoid being swallowed up by the appetite of unruly natural forces."
This describes the quests of Hop o' my Thumb, Jack, Gretel, and others. All three of these tales begin with families in extreme poverty, on the verge of starvation.
They begin with the hungry parents doing the unthinkable and abandoning their children in order to keep more food for themselves. Hunger thwarts the heroes again when birds eat their breadcrumb trail. Finally, they face a force trying to devour them. The tale reaches its happy ending when the heroes succeed, and in many cases even turn the monster's tools against them.
Italo Calvino called the story of "The Love for Three Oranges" uniquely Italian; variants are widespread across the world. There are lots of different familiar motifs here. The red-and-white maiden, the woman inside a plant, and the false bride.
Calvino himself published two versions of this story: the more classical "The Love of the Three Pomegranates" (from Abruzzi) and a more unusual variant, "The Little Shepherd" (from Liguria). A more accurate translation of the title would be "The Shepherd who never grew" (Il pastore che non cresceva mai). It was originally collected by P. E. Guarnerio in 1892.
A little shepherd boy plays a mean prank on a poultry dealer, who curses him "You shall get no bigger until you've found lovely Bargaglina of the three singing apples!" When her curse comes true, he sets out to find Bargaglina.
He encounters a little lady in a walnut shell and a little lady bathing in an eggshell, who bid him lift up their eyelids, and a man collecting fog in a bag. None know of Bargaglina or the singing apples, but they give him a stone, a comb, and a pocketful of fog. He meets a miller (who is a talking fox), who tells him to go to a house where he'll find a crystal cage, hung with bells and containing the singing apples. But he must watch out for an old woman who guards them and sleeps with her eyes open. Sure enough, he finds the house and is able to steal the cage. Awakened by the bells, the old woman sends squadrons of soldiers after him, but he throws back the stone, comb and fog, which turn into mountains and obstacles.
The shepherd, now safe, cuts an apple in half. He hears a voice telling him to be gentle. He eats half the apple and puts the other in his pocket. When he later reaches into his pocket for the rest of the apple, he finds instead a tiny, tiny lady.
"I'm lovely Bargaglina," she said, "and I like cake. Go get me a cake, I'm famished."
I really like Bargaglina, you guys.
He places her on the edge of a nearby well, and goes to get a cake. Meanwhile, a servant named Ugly Slave visits the well for water. Seeing the extraordinarily beautiful Bargaglina, she grows envious and angry, and throws her into the well.
The shepherd is heartbroken to find Bargaglina missing, but one day his mother draws water from the well and finds a fish in her bucket. They eat the fish and throw the bones out the window; from the bones grow a tree, which the shepherd cuts down for firewood. By this point his mother has died, but when he comes home from the pasture, he finds that someone has been doing the housework. One day he hides to see what's happening, and sees a resurrected Bargaglina emerge from the woodpile. She explains her transformation sequence, and the pair soon grow to normal size. They marry with a big feast, and "I was there, under the table. They threw me a bone, which hit me on the nose and stuck for good."
Why the character is named Bargaglina, I don't know. An article on biochemistry mentions this story and explains that Bargaglina is the "nickname of a young woman born and raised in Bargaglina" (Trapani 50). I think this refers to Bargagli, a city in Genoa. Its name may come from the name of the Bergalli people (mountaineers), which is from the Ligurian base bergo (mountain).
This is a pretty unique variant of "The Three Oranges" tale. The hero here is a peasant, rather than the usual prince. And yes, it's about apples rather than oranges.
The earliest known version of this story is "The Three Citrons" in the Pentamerone. At the time it was published, citrus fruits were frequently identified with the golden apples of the Garden of the Hesperides from Greek mythology.
Like the citron, the apples were guarded carefully and retrieving them was an arduous task. These fruits were associated with love and beauty, as in the myths of Aphrodite, Paris, and Helen, or Atalanta and Hippomenes.
Basile contrasts the sour yellow citron with the milk-white, strawberry-sweet maiden who emerges from it. There is a strong emphasis on her white and red color. She has “a whiteness beyond all imagination,” driven home further by her rivalry with a black woman, and later when she becomes a white dove.
Calvino mentions “forty other Italian versions” including nuts like "a walnut, a hazelnut, and a chestnut" or such fruits as “watermelons, lemons, oranges, apples, pomegranates, or melangole (which means in some places ‘oranges,’ in others ‘bitter oranges’)” (738).
Orange trees must be cultivated, which meant they came with a connotation of civilization. The fruit itself was associated with many pleasant things, being both beautiful and delicious, and “the maidens who come out of them share in the mystique of the fruit” (Goldberg 191).
In "The Little Shepherd," of course, the fruit are simply apples. (In "Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf," the golden apples are also kept in a cage covered in bells.)
There is a running theme throughout "The Little Shepherd" of unusual eyelids. Both the old people with drooping eyelids and the monster who sleeps with its eyes open are common motifs; drooping eyelids or eyebrows indicate extreme old age. This scene is usually a chance for the hero to showcase his kindness to others. There are some Celtic or Slavic tales where monsters have eyelids that must be propped up. The “reversed eyes” of the old witch create a “topsy-turvy" effect at this dangerous portion of the tale (Goldberg 129-131).
The shepherd finds Bargaglina in the first apple he opens. This differs from many tales, where the prince finds a maiden in each fruit, and is supposed to have water ready when he opens them. However, when he opens the first fruit, a fairy emerges so beautiful that he forgets to give her water, and she either vanishes or dies in his arms. Only on the third fruit does he get it right, being next to a well. In some versions, the maidens ask for both bread and water.
In "The Little Shepherd," the need for water is gone. Bargaglina still requests food, but there is no urgency here.
After watering the fairy, the prince usually tells her to wait in a tree by the well while he goes to get proper clothing, tell his mother, fetch a carriage, or some other errand. (In the Pentamerone, the implication is that she's naked.) At this point, the tale takes a swift turn into "WHOA is this racist." A slave comes to fetch water from the well. She is identified as black, Moorish, a Saracen, or a gypsy. She is markedly hideous, and switches between stupid or cunning depending on what the story needs.
Usually, she mistakes the fairy's reflection in the well for her own and declares herself too pretty to serve; when she realizes the truth, she grows crafty. She may stab the citron-girl with a pin, causing her to become a bird, or push her into the well, causing her to become a fish. Then she takes the girl's place and pretends to have been transformed - and hey, the prince just saw a woman appear out of an orange, so there's not much room to be skeptical. So the prince goes home with the wrong bride.
"The Little Shepherd" gives no clues to the slave's appearance or nationality, referring to her only as Ugly Slave. Also, the well in The Little Shepherd feels like an orphaned remnant of the more well-known tale. There is no need for Bargaglina to have water. The slave does not mistake Bargaglina's reflection for her own. The well is only there so that she can throw Bargaglina in. After this, the slave departs from the tale, never to be heard from again. No false-bride narrative here.
Although the heroine was originally difficult to keep alive, she becomes impossible to permanently kill, and is finally reunited with the prince. (Or in this case, the shepherd.) The motif of the reincarnation/transformation cycle dates back to the oldest known fairytale, the ancient Egyptian “Two Brothers.”
These tales always seem to raise more questions than they answer. For instance, in "The Three Citrons," the wounded citron-girl becomes a dove, the dove dies, its feathers grow into a new tree, and the prince cuts open the citrons and sees the three fairies emerge all over again. Wouldn't you know it, the last girl is the same one he lost. As Martha Atelia Prince says, "where did the first two fairies come from? how did the princess get back into the citrus? and what happened to the enchanted pin?" (34)
I can follow that up with questions for "The Little Shepherd": why does Bargaglina need to hide in the woodpile? Where did she get her name? And what happened to the other two apples? Overall, though, it's a weird and fun little tale.
Other Variants of this tale
The person with a star, sun or moon on their face appears in several different tale types. However, depending on the tale, the details are a little baffling. What does having a star on your forehead even look like? Is it a literal star? Is it some kind of crown? Is it a birthmark shaped like a star?
The unusually-decorated girl appears in The Twelve Brothers (Germany), "The unnatural mother and the girl with a star on her forehead" (Mozambique), and The Maiden with the Rose on her Forehead (Portugual).
In some versions of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 850, "The Birthmarks of the Princess," she has birthmarks shaped like stars, suns, or moons.
Sometimes, in the tale of "The Kind and Unkind Girls," the star is a reward given to a generous young woman. Her selfish and greedy sister receives horns, a donkey's tail, or some other ugly object on her forehead. I read one where it was a sausage.
Examples of this variation include:
The last tale type that is well-known for the forehead-star is ATU type 707: The Three Golden Children. A woman gives birth to marvelous children, who have unusually shiny characteristics.
The star functions as a tangible sign of royalty and/or virtue. If a color is given, it is usually gold. Golden hair or skin can appear in similar roles, instantly marking someone as beautiful and extraordinary.
The Grimms published two tales that were very similar: Thumbling (Daumesdick) and Thumbling's Travels (Daumerling's Wanderschaft).
Although they're both commonly referred to as Thumbling, these are not the same character.
Thumbling's Travels, or Thumbling as Journeyman begins with Thumbling telling his father, a tailor, that he wants to go out into the world. He takes a darning needle for a sword. Before he can do anything else, he's blown up the chimney on the steam from a hot meal.
When he lands, he goes to become a tailor's apprentice, but is displeased with the food. He mocks the cook, telling her, "I will go away, and early to-morrow morning I will write with chalk on the door of your house, 'Too many potatoes, too little meat! Farewell, Mr. Potato-King.'" She does not react well.
Taking up his journey again, he joins a band of robbers and they rob the king's treasury. The impressed robbers want to make Thumbling their captain but he wants to see the world first. He goes on his way, taking only one kreuzer (a small silver coin) because it's all he can carry.
He takes a job as a manservant at an inn, but snitches on the maids when they steal food. A vengeful maid catches Thumbling in the garden and gives him to the cows with the grass clippings, causing him to be swallowed. When someone milks the cow, Thumbling calls, "Strip, strap, strull, will the pail soon be full?" They slaughter the cow, and Thumbling is sealed into a black-pudding or sausage and hung up all winter. He only escapes when someone cuts it open. Once outside, he is swallowed by a fox, and promises to let it eat the chickens in his father's yard if it will take him home. This happens, and Thumbling is reunited with his overjoyed father, who doesn't mind the fox eating his chickens now that he has his son back. The end.
The hero being a tailor suggests a connection to the story of the Brave Little Tailor. There are actually many songs and jokes about tailors being very small or thin. In Eucharius Eyering's Sprichwörter (1601), a tailor as light as elder-wood is blown into the air and gets caught in a spider's web. There is one folk song about a tailor falling into a soup bowl and being swallowed, and another about tailors feasting on a fried flea and drinking out of a thimble - for the second, see "Nine Tailors Held a Council" by William Davis Snodgrass.
SurLaLune's annotation of the Brave Little Tailor explains, "tailors were poor and not highly regarded by society because they were seen as weak men." Because of the Industrial Revolution and the decline of guilds, tailors were poor and travelled around. Townspeople saw these wanderers as shifty, lazy and dishonest.
As seen in this German list of idioms, there were sayings like "freezing like a tailor" for oversensitivity to cold, and "eating like a tailor" for not eating very much. The weakness of tailors was attributed to a lack of food and it was said they couldn't bear much in contrast to the strong appetite of the agricultural workers. The Schneider-Geiß-Spott or Schneider-Spottlied (tailor-mocking) was a specific type of German joke which originated as a crude sexual gag. These date back to at least 1408, when a Strasbourg council banned such a joke.
The Grimms' tailors, however, are courageous, clever tricksters. Cleverness is the most esteemed virtue in Grimm tales. Thumbling is called a journeyman, meaning he's completed his apprenticeship but is not a master tailor.
Like all the Grimms' stories, Thumbling's Travels changed in the telling. The first edition preserves the stories more exactly as they were first told. Later editions, after the stories became popular, soften unsavory elements and polish the plots. Wilhelm was the principal editor after their first edition, and revised the tales extensively to make them more dramatic and literary.
In The 1810 Grimm Manuscripts, Oliver Loo compares the Grimms' first edition from 1812 with an earlier surviving draft. There are some small differences, mostly literary embellishments and polishing. The original edition lacked the "Farewell, Mr. Potato King" and indeed any mention of potatoes. Jacob and Wilhelm heard the potato line from a maid, completely separately from the tale, and Jacob called it a “handwerksspaß” (workers jest). Jacob did not seem entirely pleased with the inclusion of a joke foreign to the original story. (pp. 212-219).
Some sources say the the source of Daumerling's Wanderschaft was Marie Hassenpflug, a frequent source of the Grimms', but in the index, the Grimms say that the story comes from "stories current in the districts of the Maine, Hesse, and Paderborn, which reciprocally complete each other." This implies they patched together quite a few stories, probably including Marie Hassenpflug's.
They add, "a continuation or special combination of the detached stories, which belong to this group, contains the story of Thumbling (No. 37)" - that is, Daumesdick.
Daumesdick is usually translated as Thumbling but might be better referred to as Thumbthick. It begins with a childless couple wishing for a baby, even if it's only the size of a thumb. The woman then falls pregnant and gives birth after seven months to a thumb-sized child.
Thumbthick never gets any larger, but is very clever. One day Thumbthick takes the horse and cart to his father who is cutting wood, and rides in the horse's ear, calling directions. Two men see the horse apparently by itself, and when they see Thumbthick, want to buy him so that they can exhibit him for money. Thumbthick tells his father to take their money, and goes off with the men, only to slip away from them. He then encounters two thieves and offers to help them rob the wealthy pastor. When they get to the pastor's house, however, Thumbthick makes such a racket that he wakes the people inside and the robbers flee.
Thumbthick intends to head home, but is swallowed by the pastor's cow. He cries out, "Am I in the fulling mill?" (In a fulling mill, wool is beaten and boiled to make felt.) People hear him yelling inside the cow's stomach. The pastor, believing the animal is possessed, has it slaughtered. The stomach is thrown on the midden (trash heap), where a wolf eats it before Thumbthick can escape. Thumbthick tricks the wolf into going to his house, promising it a feast, and directs it to the larder of its house. It gorges itself so much it can't get back out, and Thumbling screams for his parents, who kill the wolf. Thumbthick is reunited with his family and says that he will never leave them again.
This story was not in the first 1812 edition, and first appeared in the expanded and edited version in 1819. Thumbthick comes from Mühlheim on the Rhine, a town near Cologne. Although it is very similar to Daumerling's Wanderschaft, it has some strong variations and is closer to the most widespread Thumbling formula. It includes the wish for a child no matter how small. Thumbthick helps his father on the farm, drives a wagon or plow, sells himself and cheats the buyer, and frightens off robbers. You see these themes again and again, so perhaps it's fitting that it gets its own space in the Grimms' collection. The 1958 film "tom thumb" is an adaptation of this story.
The scene with the men wanting to exhibit him is interesting, because it has a hint of the life a person with dwarfism might have led at that time, performing for the public. This shows a change from the older English story of Tom Thumb, where the main character is a court dwarf performing for royalty.
I always used to imagine these two Grimm tales being connected, like Thumbthick somehow growing up to be Thumbling, but the two characters are very different. This is most clearly seen in their treatment of the robbers and of the fox/wolf.
Thumbling works so well with the robbers that they want to make him their captain, and in the end the fox that swallows him is rewarded for taking him home.
Thumbthick is more manipulative and opportunistic. He entices and then double-crosses the men who want to exhibit him, the thieves who want to use him, and the wolf that swallows him.
Both Thumblings are tricksters, but one plays tricks on wealthy kings and dishonest maids, and the other plays tricks on robbers and beasts.
Those strange, benevolent fairies who show up to give advice or magical artifacts. When did they start to appear in fairy tales? How many people have them? What are their powers? Where did they come from?
Let's start with the most well-known - Sleeping Beauty's and Cinderella's.
Fairies attend Sleeping Beauty's christening and give her gifts such as beauty and a sweet singing voice. An angry fairy, however, dispenses a curse.
The most famous is Cinderella's fairy godmother, who appears with magical clothing and a coach just when Cinderella needs them.
Both of these stories with their attendant fairies were first published by Charles Perrault in 1697. The older Sleeping Beauty story, Sun, Moon and Talia, had no fairies or magic. As for Cinderella, the Grimms' Aschenputtel had the heroine aided by the ghost of her dead mother. The Chinese Ye Xian has the ghost of a pet fish which was originally a guardian spirit sent by her deceased mother, and the Scottish Rashin-Coatie has a red calf.
There are plenty of tales where the hero is aided by a fairy or other magical creature, but Charles Perrault and probably also Madame D'Aulnoy popularized the fairy godmother. In 1697, they both put out books of fairytales in which such beings were heavily featured. D’Aulnoy wrote "Finette Cendron," "Princess Rosette," and "Princess Mayblossom," as well as “The Blue Bird” and “The White Doe,” where the villain has a fairy godmother.
The trope of the fairy godmother became more and more common during the era of literary French tales such as "Prince Fatal and Prince Fortune" or "Princess Camion" (1743), where they typically show up at births and give prophecies.
The relationship reflects a Catholic environment. In medieval times, the godparents served an important role in the child's life, including their religious education.
Although fairy godmothers didn't become a widespread thing until Perrault and D'Aulnoy, their roots do go back into legends and myth. In medieval romances, the "fays" frequently preside over births and give out gifts and prophecies.
Six fays arrive to bestow heroic qualities on the newborn Ogier the Dane. The final one, Morgain picks him as her future husband.
A similar scene, also with Morgain, appears in the Enfances Garin de Montglane.
In the 13th century Huon de Bordeaux, Oberon was cursed by a fairy at his christening.
In the stories of Merlin, a man named Dionas is the godson of the goddess Diane. Diane gives his daughter Niniane a destiny as a great sorceress.
In 1621, Tom Thumb has "the Queene of Fayres" as "his kind Midwife, & good Godmother." She helps at his birth, and throughout his life provides him with magical aid and tools - including fancy clothing and impractical footwear.
Marian Roalfe Cox collected 345 variants of Cinderella. In her collection, fairy godmothers appear in Peau d'ane (Perrault 1697), Finette Aschenbrodel (1845), the Russian Zamarashka (1860), Hubac's Peau d'Ane (1874), Baissac's Story of Peau d'Ane (1888), Catarina (1892), and The White Goat.
In the Basque tale of Ass'-Skin (1877), there is a human godmother who gives the heroine advice. In both "Marie Robe de Bois" and "Le Pays des Brides" (1892), the heroine has a "sorceress-godmother."
In "The Young Countess and the Water-Nymph" (1852), a water-nymph agrees to stand godmother to the child of her friend the countess.
In "Ditu Migniulellu" (1881), the word godmother is not used, but fairies do show up at the girl's birth to dispense gifts, and one returns to help her get to the ball.
In "Terra Camina" (1892), there is a christening and a godmother with magical powers. However, it's hard to tell whether she's a fairy or not.
The Estonian tale of Rebuliina (1895) describes the christening in detail. The godmother is mysterious and is never identified, but clearly has magical powers.
There are countless stories where fairies aid the heroine, but the ones I've mentioned are specifically godmothers or have a connection to the heroine beginning at her birth.
These magical godmothers are not like typical fairies, which are not creatures you would want around your newborn baby. Indeed, many types of fairies and spirits flee church bells and would never be seen at a christening. They're more likely to steal an infant than bless it, and babies aren't safe until they've been baptized.
In contrast, fairy godmothers are wise women, typically benevolent, focused only on furthering their godchild's lot in life. (They still have a capacity for evil, as seen with Oberon or Sleeping Beauty.)
When the Cinderella figure is aided by the ghost of her mother, it has a hint of ancestor-worship. In a different direction, I think there's a version where Buddha steps in.
Fairy godmothers, who preside over births and prophesy the newborn's fate, are descended from the Fates of mythology - like the Roman Parcae, Greek Mourae, and Norse Norns.
The Mourae appear shortly after Meleager's birth to prophesy his death.
The Prose Edda says that besides the three main norns Urd, Skuld and Verdandi, "there are yet more norns, namely those who come to every man when he is born, to shape his life".
There are other mythologies featuring similar figures. Pi-Hsia Yüan-Chün was a Chinese goddess of childbirth; she had two attendants, one of whom brought children and the other who gave them good eyesight. Latvian folklore tells of a birth goddess named Lauma, and fairies known as Laumė that foretell a newborn's future. The Albanian Fatit or Miren, butterfly-riding fairies, approach the cradle three days after the baby's birth to determine its fate.
The story of the fairy godmother puts these myths into a Christian context. It formalizes the relationship between the child and the spirit overseeing her birth, and brings them closer together, explaining why the fairy's so invested.
Going from the other direction, it plays up godparents. The godmother steps in for the deceased mother and provides guidance, but this approach turns her from a mere advice-giver into an incredibly powerful guardian.
I haven't found anything on fairy godfathers. Well, except Godfather Death, a very different kind of story, where a very different mythical being takes the role of godparent.
Snow White must be a popular name in Fairytale Land. There's:
Of course, the most well-known Snow White is the one with the dwarves, and she gets her name in an unusual scene. While sewing, a queen pricks her finger and drops of her blood fall onto the snow. She remarks, “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.” The resulting child is Snow White.
This scene appears often in other fairytales. The Grimms also collected a Cinderella variant, beginning “A beautiful Countess had a rose in one hand and a snowball in the other, and wished for a child as red as the rose, and as white as the snow. God grants her wish.”
In a Snow White variant, a count and countess are driving in the countryside. They pass three heaps of white snow, three pits full of blood, and three black ravens. What the pits of blood were doing there I have no idea. In this tale it is the husband who wishes for a girl “white as snow, red as blood, and with hair as black as the ravens,” and she instantly appears. The jealous countess tries to get rid of her, which segues into the more well-known Snow White story.
In A Hundred and One Nights from North Africa (not to be confused with A Thousand and One Nights), King Sulayman ibn ‘Abd al-Malik sees two ravens fighting in his courtyard. This causes him to wonder, “Did God ever create a girl with skin as white as this marble, with hair as black as those ravens and with cheeks as red as their blood on the marble floor?” (The answer is yes. He finds her.)
Similar incidents with a dying black-feathered bird against white marble or snow appear in “The Crow" (from Italy), "La princesse aux trois couleurs" (from Brittany) and "The Snow, the Crow and the Blood" (from Ireland).
In "The King of Spain and the English Milord" from Italy, there's a maiden "as white as ricotta and rosy as a rose."
In the Italian tale of “The Three Citrons,” a prince cuts his hand slicing ricotta cheese and decides he wants a wife “exactly as white and red as that cheese tinged with blood.” When trying to capture a fairy, he finds a girl as white as milk and red as a strawberry, and then a girl "as tender and white as curds and whey, with a streak of red on her face that made her look like an Abruzzo ham or a Nola salami." Not making that up.
It’s strange that these violent scenes move the character’s mind to human beauty. The emphasis is on the colors being so so vivid, beautiful and significant that they cause this kind of reaction.
Red represents life and passion, and white represents purity. Black is mentioned less often and is left out of some stories, but can represent death. These are the most significant colors in folklore and in some languages, and also in the early history of clothing dye. Some writers connect them to a Maiden/Mother/Crone Triple Goddess. The focus of the red blood with the pure white color can have sexual connotations and makes most analyses lean towards a girl going through her menstrual period or losing her virginity.
But the colors aren’t just feminine. Although it's much rarer, they can be gender-neutral.
In The Juniper Tree, a mother wishes, “ah, if I had but a child as red as blood and as white as snow.” She then gives birth to a son.
In the Irish legend “Deirdre and the Fate of the Sons of Usnach,” Deirdre declares, "I can love only a man with those three colors: cheeks red as blood, hair black as a raven, and body white as snow."
In the Italian tale "Pome and Peel," a young nobleman is as white as an apple's flesh, and his foster-brother is red and white like an apple peel. (Red, white and black are thematic colors throughout the tale.)
These three colors were the marks of idealized beauty in many European countries, seen in descriptions throughout plays and Renaissance poetry.
In Arabian poetry, the colors were for men or women. In one poem, the ideal man has “cheeks beautiful as a red rose on lily-white.” And according to another piece: “That woman is beautiful who possesses three white qualities, three black, three red; white body, teeth and the white of the eyes; black hair, eyebrows, and pupils; red lips, cheeks and gums.”
The red and white coloration marks the person as beautiful and healthy. They are fair-skinned and unblemished, meaning they are upper class and don't work outside much, but not sickly pale. That poetry example lays out exactly what is supposed to be red and what is supposed to be white. The standard of beauty is someone with nice skin, clear eyes and healthy teeth.
Bluebeard is a nobleman with unnerving facial hair who has been married many times. He leaves on a journey, leaving his new bride with the keys to the house and a warning not to open one particular door. Overcome by curiosity, she opens the door, only to find the corpses of all his previous wives. She gets blood on the key, which cannot be washed off. Bluebeard sees the key when he returns, realizes she's seen his murder room, and flies into a rage. He's about to kill her and add her to the collection when her relatives arrive, just in time to save the day.
The story was first published by Perrault, who gave two morals.
One: Curiosity bad. Specifically, female curiosity. "Curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret. To the displeasure of many a maiden, its enjoyment is short lived."
Two: husbands don't murder people anymore, so you should obey them without questions (like why you keep hearing bloodcurdling screams from the basement).
"Fitcher's Bird," published by the Grimms, takes a different spin on the tale. The bride is given an egg, but because of her foresight, she doesn't get blood on it and tip off her sorcerer-husband. Instead she resurrects and rescues the previous wives, escapes in disguise, and has the sorcerer executed. Here, curiosity isn't bad at all, as long as you don't get caught.
If you go in the exact opposite direction, you get "Our Lady's Child."
This is a very different tale type, but has the same motif of the forbidden door. Fitcher's Bird absolves the curious heroine; Our Lady's Child demonizes her. The Virgin Mary - yes, that Virgin Mary - fills the role of Bluebeard and, later, the evil mother-in-law who takes the heroine's children, causes the heroine to be suspected of cannibalism, and almost gets her burned at the stake.
(The theological implications often just get weird when religious figures pop up in fairytales. There are quite a few where the Devil shows up in a generic tricksy magical troll role. Holy or unholy figures turn out to have quite mundane lives, like a story featuring the Devil's granny.)
"Our Lady's Child" begins with Mary offering to adopt the daughter of a poor couple. The little girl grows up in Heaven, leading an idyllic life. One day Mary goes on a journey and leaves her with the key. Behind the forbidden door, the girl sees the Trinity in all its glory, but touching the light causes her finger to turn gold. Upon her return, Mary instantly spots her hand and casts her out of heaven. The girl, who refuses to admit she opened the door, is stricken mute and survives in the wilderness for years, until a king finds her and marries her. Then Mary takes away her children as they're born, trying again and again to get the heroine to tell the truth. The heroine doesn't give in until she's arrested for infanticide and is about to be executed; then she confesses, Mary appears, and her children and her voice are returned. Mary delivers a moral about asking for forgiveness. All is well.
Mary's inclusion turns the story from a horror tale into a straightforward morality piece. Some critics have defended Bluebeard because, after all, the real crime is snooping. (Not, say, murdering people and hanging up their bodies like curtains.) Unlike Bluebeard, Mary is irreproachable, and this puts the focus on the heroine's wrongdoing. The blood that stains the key or egg is a reminder of the husband's crimes. The indelible golden mark on the girl's finger is a reminder that she has trespassed on something holy. She's guilty of sacrilege.
Despite the moral of asking for forgiveness, it seems odd that Mary takes roles that are traditionally so villainous. When she does these things, it drives home the message that the girl’s behavior is truly reprehensible, wholly deserving of brutal punishments. (I'm reminded of "King Thrushbeard," which also delivers disturbing levels of retribution on its heroine, in that case for mocking her suitors.)
Handing the girl the key to the forbidden door is a test. Bruno Bettelheim suggests that Bluebeard feels a constant need to test his wife's fidelity, and the bloody key is a sexual symbol indicating she has strayed.
We don't know exactly why Mary tests the girl's obedience. It does have echoes of the story of Eden and man's fall from grace, particularly when the girl initially tries to hide her wrongdoing and is cast into the wilderness. Had she refrained from opening the door, the reward would presumably been great. Since she does open it, and then lies about it, the punishment is equally great. Mary's actions are presented as justified. You really, really shouldn't snoop, kids, because the only place that leads is being executed for infanticide.
A study of early Tom Thumb variants reveals a tale about a boy in weird predicaments, mostly involving pudding. He may even have been a kind of spirit or fairy originally.
However, the Japanese counterpart, Issun Boshi, is a romance: the tale of a less-than-impressive man, who manages to marry a woman far above his social stature. It's been compared to the tales of Lazy Taro (whose laziness makes him unappealing) and Ko-otoko no soshi (The Little Man, who is only about a foot tall).
In Jane Kelley's Analyzing Ideology in a Japanese Fairy Tale, she goes very in-depth on modern retellings of Issun-Boshi. The hero is raised by parents who adore him even though he's tiny. He eventually falls in love with a princess, rescues her from an oni, and grows to full size with the use of the oni's magic hammer. However, the "official" version that emerges through her article may not represent the original version of the story.
It's impossible to say what the original version was. There are many variants with different names. However, the Japanese Wikipedia article indicates that the original version was a little more adult.
In the Yanagita Kunio Guide to the Japanese Folktale (1948), the first tale listed under "Issun Boshi," the one with the longest and most detailed entry, is Mamesuke (Bean Boy). He's born from a woman’s thumb and at seventeen is only the size of a bean. He goes and finds work, and there's a scene where he hides under a wooden clog. He works for a winemaker with three daughters. To trick his way into getting a wife, he smears flour on the middle daughter’s lips while she sleeps. Thinking she's stolen his food, the family agrees that he can take her home. She tries to drown him in the bathtub, but instead of dying, he becomes a full-sized man. Everyone lives happily ever after.
Another important puzzle piece is “Two Companion Booklets” in Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology by Helen Craig McCullough (1990).
In this otogi-zoshi, Issun-Boshi is born in Naniwa village in Settsu Province. (This story is full of specific details like that.) His parents are ashamed of his size (something Kelley said was un-Japanese). There are frequent poetry sections.
Here, again, while seeking work, he hides under a man's clogs.
When he’s sixteen and the princess is thirteen, he woos her. The wooing consists, again, of pretending she ate his rice. He leaves following his new wife as she heads towards Naniwa.
Then they’re overtaken by two oni. Issun fights them off and gets a magic mallet that makes him full-size. The newlyweds go off together happy. Later, the Emperor hears the story, learns Issun is of noble heritage, and honors him greatly.
These retellings indicate an older version of Issun-Boshi that was eventually toned down for children. Modern stories tend to be simpler. The trick that wins him a wife is disturbing and a little suggestive, with his accosting her in her sleep and ruining her reputation and honor - so that's gone. His parents are more affectionate, which is both softer for children and more in line with Japanese values (see Kelley).
The scene where he hides under clogs is a nice illustration of his size. Buddha's crystal and other fairy stories (1908) preserves a lot of these details, including the Emperor's interest in Issun Boshi, but does not include the rice bit.
There is a wealth of analysis on this Japanese site, and it's helpful even through Google Translate. The writer suggests that Issun was originally killed with the magic hammer, similar to traumatic transformations like the Frog Prince or Mamesuke.
There are some interesting links between Issun Boshi and Ko-otoko no soshi. At the end, the Little Man becomes the god of Gojo shrine and his wife becomes the goddess Kannon (Tales of Tears and Laughter: Short Fiction of Medieval Japan). One of the gods of Gojo shrine is Sukuna-biko, an incredibly tiny god. As for Kannon: in most versions of Issun Boshi, she's the deity his parents ask for a son, and in some variants the princess is on her way to visit Kannon's shrine when Issun Boshi saves her.
The Search for the Lost Husband is a very widespread tale, closely related to Beauty and the Beast. Sometimes it seems like it's a default ending for fairy tales.
A woman marries a supernatural male being, who seems monstrous at first and might be enchanted in animal form, only appearing human at night. The wife breaks a taboo, and her husband vanishes. She then searches the world until she finds him and they are reunited.
A non-exhaustive list of stories falling into this category:
The hero is a woman, and her opponent is usually a woman - an enchantress who's trapped the husband, or a rival princess who wishes to wed him.
In their notes, the Grimms wax a little poetical on how the story is about the heart being tried so that "everything earthly and evil falls away in recognition of pure love." There's also an interesting note about, in this case, light being an ill omen and darkness being good. This goes back to the taboo. Often, she takes a candle and spies on her husband in the night to see his human form, or attempts to break his curse by burning his animal skin.
Karen Bamford has a good analysis. The wife's journey is an act of atonement; she does penance for sinning against her divine husband, and wins him back through toil and effort.
In many cases, her long journey takes her through some kind of otherworld. In an Arabic version, "The Camel Husband," the heroine goes to the land of the djinn. The land East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon is a place beyond the bounds of the physical world and the laws of nature. Psyche literally goes through hell.
This quest allows her to finally truly break the spell on her husband and resurrect him from a "metaphoric death" (Bamford). In many tales, the wife visits the husband during the night, while he lies in a drugged sleep, and tries repeatedly to awaken him. In "Nix Nought Nothing," the husband falls into sleep similar to Sleeping Beauty, and only the true bride can symbolically raise him from the dead with the power of love. In Cupid and Psyche, Cupid lies wounded for quite some time.
I found a Japanese folklore site that had an interesting perspective. (As seen through Google Translate, but whatever.) The groom's animal shape is the body, and his human shape represents the soul, but the soul belongs to the otherworld. Death and rebirth are required to truly bring it into the real world. So then you have stories like the "Frog King" or "The White Bride and the Black One" where the enchanted animal must be thrown against a wall or have its head cut off.
There are stories where a husband seeks a lost wife; this is its own tale type, AT 420, The Quest for the Lost Bride. A couple of examples are the Russian Frog Princess, and the story of the Swan Maidens. In Household Tales, the Grimms mention "a man in a Hungarian story, whose wife has been stolen from him, seeks [help], first from the sea-king, then from the moon-king, and finally from the star-king (Molbech's Udvalgte Eventyr, No. 14)."
Incidentally, Joseph Jacobs' version of the Swan Maidens also features the Land East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon, but that's from Europa's Fairy Book, in which he mashed up a lot of different traditions.
Tales of Faerie had a post a while ago on Beauty's request for a rose in Beauty and the Beast. The unique request differentiates Beauty from her materialistic and greedy sisters, who ask for clothes, shoes, or other expensive ornaments.
Some themes emerge when you look at different tales, and they might not be the themes you expect.
In most, she asks for a rose or other flower. Other objects close to nature might be a lily, a grape, or a green nut-twig. In "The Sprig of Rosemary," the heroine picks the titular sprig herself while gathering firewood. This is a simple request in contrast to her sisters' pleas for material goods.
Unless she asks for it in winter. Then it's a fantastical request that should be impossible to grant.
So her request is not necessarily simple, but impossible. The rose is the most common theme that I've found, but there are other versions that make this even clearer.
A singing, springing lark. Maria Tatar says the rose and the lark, like the rose, is emblematic of the girl's character. The rose symbolizes her inner beauty and the lark symbolizes her energy and liveliness.
A clinking, clanking lowesleaf. This is definitely a leaf; it's just the lowe part that's confusing. There is an impossibility implied, with a simple piece of plant matter clinking and clanking like a piece of metal.
Lowe might mean lion, but that's a guess. Similarly, the German for dandelion is Loewenzahn.
A pennyworth of “sorrow and love” in one English tale. Here she's asking for abstract concepts.
A slice of roach off a green meadow, from one Portuguese tale. This one baffled me for a long time, but turns out, it's a FISH!
There's a kind of fish called a roach. (Goraz is the word in the original Portuguese.) She is asking for a fish native to a green, grassy field - something that can't possibly exist.
This website is based on my research into folklore.