"Swan Lake" and "The Little Mermaid" are the same story.
But wait, you may say. The Little Mermaid is a Danish fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen about a mermaid. Swan Lake is a Russian ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, about a princess turned into a swan by a curse. In fact, both stories take inspiration from the Fairy Bride or “Quest for the Lost Bride” tale, categorized as Aarne-Thompson-Uther 400.
In the Fairy Bride tale, a man takes an otherworldly creature as a wife. They live together for a while, possibly having children, but one day she leaves him and returns to her own world. This is similar to stories with a mortal woman and supernatural husband, like "Cupid and Psyche" or "East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon." However, while human brides usually get their supernatural husbands back, in ATU 400 - despite the title of "The Quest for the Lost Bride" - it’s less certain that a mortal husband will succeed. Many versions end with him never seeing his fairy wife again. The earliest known example is the Hindu story of Urvasi, found in the Rig Veda (c. 1200 B.C.E.).
There are different types of the Fairy Bride story:
A) It’s a story of spousal abduction. A man discovers a beautiful maiden - a selkie or swan maiden with a removable animal skin, or a mermaid with a magic cap. He hides the magical garment, trapping her in human form. She inevitably regains the garment and escapes as fast as she can.
B) The marriage is consensual, but there is some taboo the husband must not violate (never strike his wife, never spy on her while she’s bathing, etc.). He invariably violates it, and she leaves.
The most famous example is Melusine, first appearing in the Roman de Melusine by Jean d'Arras (1393). She marries a man and their union is happy at first; she builds castles for him and bears many sons. But she makes him promise never to look in at her while she's bathing. Inevitably he does so, and sees her as a half-serpent or a mermaid. When he publicly calls her a serpent, she turns into a dragon and flies away. In many versions the idea is that if he had kept his promise, she would have been freed from her curse.
There's a related folktale where a young man encounters a woman who's been turned into a serpent or half-serpent by a curse. If he can kiss her three times, she will be freed and he will receive riches and her hand in marriage. Before he can kiss her a third time, he is overcome by fear and runs away. He soon regrets his cowardice, but is never able to find her again. In fact, in some versions this woman is Melusine. The maiden-turned-serpent freed by a kiss appears in many medieval sources. The story gets a tragic, inconclusive ending in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (14th century) but a happy ending in the French romance Le Bel Inconnu (12th century) and Italian Carduino (14th century). The gender-swapped version would be the medieval story of The Knight of the Swan (tragic ending).
In a further variant of B, the taboo is taking another wife. This appeared most prominently in the medieval poem of Peter von Staufenberg (c.1310). Peter's nymph mistress showers him with good fortune but gives him one condition: he must never marry anyone else, or he'll die three days after the wedding. However, other people put pressure on Peter to marry a human woman, with many telling him the nymph is a demon, and he eventually gives in. At his wedding feast, the nymph's leg appears through the ceiling. Three days later, Peter dies.
The later story "Melusine im Stollenwald" combines this with Melusine and the Serpent Maiden tales; a man named Sebald promises to kiss Melusine three times to break her curse, but she becomes progressively more serpentine and dragon-like, and his courage fails him. Years later, at his wedding feast to another woman, the ceiling cracks and a drop of poison falls unseen onto Sebald's food. He eats it and dies. A snake tail is seen through the ceiling, implying that the poison is Melusine's venom.
Paracelsus, a Swiss philosopher, worked both Melusine's and Peter von Staufenberg's tales into his descriptions of elemental beings in A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits (published in 1566). He dubbed the water elementals "undines."
German author Friedrich de la Motte Fouque spun this into a novella, Undine, published in 1811. There's another work that probably inspired Fouque: the successful Viennese play Das Donauweibchen (1798), which follows a knight named Albrecht torn between his mortal wife Bertha and water nymph lover Hulda. The plot is very different from Undine, but the love triangle, setting, and names are similar.
Fouque's plot runs as follows:
Boy meets water-fairy. A knight named Huldbrand goes traveling through the woods, where he meets and falls in love with the mysterious Undine. It turns out that she’s a water-spirit, and she gains a human soul by marrying him.
The fidelity test. Fouque uses two taboos, straight from Paracelsus: first, the husband must never scold his nymph wife near the water or she’ll return to her own world, and second, if he ever takes another wife, the nymph will return and kill him.
The doppelganger. Huldbrand reconnects with his first love Bertalda. Bertalda is, in a way, Undine's sister; she’s the long-lost daughter of Undine’s human foster parents.
The tragic ending. Huldbrand breaks the first taboo by bringing up Undine's inhuman origins and berating her, causing her to disappear. He then breaks the second taboo by marrying Bertalda. Undine appears after the wedding and drowns him with her tears. When he is buried, she becomes a fountain flowing around his grave.
Now we come back to "The Little Mermaid" and "Swan Lake." These stories map onto the same points as Undine.
The Little Mermaid
We know from Hans Christian Andersen’s letters that he was inspired by Undine when he developed the concept for “The Little Mermaid” (1837). Like Undine, the mermaid is motivated by her desire for a soul. It hits generally the same beats as Fouque's novel:
Boy meets water-fairy. The mermaid saves a prince's life and falls for him.
The fidelity test. The mermaid can earn a soul by marrying the prince, but if he marries someone else, she will die.
The doppelganger. The prince mistakenly attributes his rescue to a human girl who physically resembles the mermaid.
The tragic ending. The prince marries the other girl. On the wedding night, the mermaid is given the option to escape death by killing him. She refuses and melts into sea foam, but is resurrected as an air spirit.
Around 1870, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky worked on an unsuccessful opera version of Undine. He destroyed most of the score, but recycled part of Undine and Huldbrand’s duet for the music of "Swan Lake," which debuted in 1877. It didn't initially do well, but in 1895 it was brought back and reworked with a simpler plot. Tchaikovsky died shortly before the new version could be completed.
Boy meets water-fairy. In the 1877 version, Prince Siegfried hunts some swans until they reach a lake. There he discovers that they are fairy maidens in disguise. Odette, the leader, is the daughter of a knight and a fairy, and is in hiding from her murderous stepmother. Her grandfather, a sorcerer, gave her a magic crown to protect her, and allows her to fly freely in swan form at night.
(In the updated 1895 version, Odette and her companions are humans transformed into swans by the evil genie Rothbart - a minor character in the original.)
The fidelity test. Marriage will permanently protect Odette from her stepmother. Siegfried promises to marry her.
(1895: Siegfried’s oath of love to Odette will break the curse, but if he marries someone else, he dooms her to remain a swan forever.)
The doppelganger. Rothbart's daughter Odile, a girl who looks physically identical to Odette (played by the same ballerina).
The tragic ending. Siegfried is tricked into proposing to Odile, betraying Odette in the process. Realizing his mistake, he runs back to the lake, where he tears off Odette's crown in an attempt to keep her with him. She dies in his arms and the lake swallows them both.
(1895: Instead of the crown scene, Siegfried and Odette drown themselves rather than live without each other. This breaks Rothbart's power.)
Inspirations and Themes
Swan Lake and The Little Mermaid are not adaptations of the Undine story. They are unique works by modern authors, and Undine was just one of many inspirations behind them.
Andersen was familiar with many mermaid stories. "The Little Mermaid" is unusual among the tales listed in this post, because it's entirely from the "fairy bride's" point of view. Her backstory, her feelings about immortal souls, her journey. Unlike Undine or Odette, who depend on their men to complete a test, she bears the knowledge of her test alone; her prince never has any idea what's really going on. The ending of her story, where she refuses to kill the prince, is an intentional reversal of Undine (and, in turn, "Peter von Staufenberg"). Undine easily gains an immortal soul but is still forced to obey her deadly otherworldly nature. The Little Mermaid earns a soul by rejecting that side of herself no matter the cost.
"Swan Lake," on the other hand, combines Undine with the traditional swan wife folktale. There are plenty of theories about Tchaikovsky's inspirations, and plenty of European swan-shifter myths. There's the Irish story of the Children of Lir, where the main characters are transformed into swans by their wicked stepmother, and similarly "The Knight of the Swan" which, as already mentioned, has its own similarities to Melusine. (When I first started working on this blog post, the Wikipedia page for Swan Lake claimed that a fairytale called "The White Duck" could have inspired the ballet; however, the stories have nothing in common. I'm not sure where this claim came from and it's been removed anyway at this point, but I wanted to document it for posterity.)
A likely influence is Johann Karl August Musäus's 1782 novella "Der geraubte Schleier" or "The Stolen Veil," itself a retelling of the swan maiden folktale. The main character, Friedbert, encounters a hermit named Benno. (“Benno” is the name of Siegfried’s best friend in Swan Lake.) The dying hermit shows him a magical pool, visited occasionally by fairies or nymphs in swan form. The nymphs gain their powers of transformation from golden crowns with attached veils. If a nymph’s crown/veil is stolen, she’ll be trapped in human form. Benno the creepy stalker hermit failed, but Friedbert succeeds in stealing one of the veils. He gives shelter to the stranded swan maiden, Callista, and convinces her to marry him. But when his mother unwittingly exposes his lies and returns the veil, Callista is furious and immediately takes off in swan form. Friedbert searches across the world until he finds her again. Despite her initial anger, she still loves him, and is so impressed by his tireless search for her that she forgives everything.
So this is why Siegfried rips off Odette's crown in the original ballet - he is trying to invoke the trope that you can capture a swan maiden by taking her garment. However, Odette's crown was actually protecting both of them. Although it was later edited out, Tchaikovky's twist feels almost like a rebuttal of the way "The Stolen Veil" rewards Friedbert's selfishness.
Tchaikovsky was probably also familiar with Russian fairy tales about swans. A different tale type, ATU 313 or "Girl Helps the Hero Flee," often has overlap with swan maiden tales. One example that Tchaikovsky could have encountered was "The Sea Tsar and Vasilissa the Wise" in Alexander Afanasyev's collection of Russian tales, published in the 1850s and 1860s. In this story, a prince spots the Sea Tsar's daughters as they transform from spoonbills into women. He steals the clothing of one princess, Vasilissa; however, unlike the typical fairy bride story, he relents and returns it to her, letting her fly away. Vasilissa later aids him with various magical tasks when he is imprisoned by her father. The Sea Tsar finally allows the prince to choose a bride from among his twelve identical daughters, and Vasilissa leaves clues for the prince to recognize her. Reunited, the prince and Vasilissa return to his kingdom together. In some versions, the prince then breaks a taboo and gets amnesia, and Vasilissa must crash his wedding to another woman so she can trigger his memories.
The plot is very different, but notice the (double!) threat of the prince mistakenly marrying a doppelganger.
Abduction variants of the Fairy Bride tale are about control. Marriages are thinly disguised kidnappings; wives are captives who will take any opportunity to escape. On the other hand, consensual variants are about a test of trust, commitment, or courage. If the male partner passes this test, he can lift the fairy bride to a higher state of existence. Freedom from a curse for Odette, Melusine or the serpent-maiden; a human soul for Undine and the Little Mermaid. It's not a one-and-done test, either; it is long-term. The serpent maiden needs repeated kisses. Undine gets her soul early on, but Huldbrand still needs to continuously honor their vows and be a good husband.
Researcher and professor Serinity Young found that the earliest recorded fairy bride stories are of divine women who lift their mortal husbands to a higher state of existence. For instance, the celestial maiden Urvasi promises her husband immortality in heaven. Young proposes that the fairy bride story in its oldest form was about marriage by abduction; Urvasi tells her mortal husband that she was miserable in their marriage, and other early versions similarly focus on the fairy bride's unhappiness and feelings of being trapped. Young suggests that as women lost social status, fairy bride stories were recast in more romantic terms. I wonder if they also blended with a separate story tradition of a cursed beast-bride or snake maiden. In addition to making the male character more sympathetic, the romantic versions also reverse the power dynamic. The mortal man is now the one holding redemptive, transformative power. This culminates in the extreme of "The Little Mermaid," written in a modern Christian European context. The Mermaid is the pursuer in her relationship, going through incredible suffering on her quest, while the prince rejects her as a romantic partner. She is the one seeking both marriage and immortality.
However, despite these changes, the mortal man’s fallible nature remains from the older stories. The love rival twist is especially interesting to me. Peter von Staufenberg and Huldbrand bend to societal pressure by marrying human women, taking the easy way out. Swan Lake's Siegfried and the Little Mermaid's prince have a different dilemma. Despite good intentions, they look only at the surface, failing to truly perceive the women they love.
Other Blog Posts
In my last two posts, I’ve discussed two proposed candidates for a historical Snow White. Margarethe von Waldeck was a gorgeous 16th-century countess who may have been poisoned for attracting a prince's attention. Maria Sophia von Erthal was a saintly 18th-century noblewoman whose family's castle featured a magnificent mirror. Much has been made of their similarities to the story of Snow White, the theory being that the Brothers Grimm encountered local stories of one of these women. This theories suffer from a fatal flaw, namely: they are not very good. And that becomes especially apparent when we look at the fairytale itself and the mythology that would have been available to the Brothers Grimm.
In this blog post I will be looking at the following:
EARLY EVIDENCE OF THE TALE'S MOTIFS
When most people think of Snow White, they think of the details provided by the Brothers Grimm. The mirror, the dwarves, etc. Now, I want to note that these details do not make up the story itself. They are just window dressing. Do not get caught up in the window dressing.
But Bartels and Sander really focused on these details, so we'll go through them. There are items like the wild boar or the seven mountains, which are part of nature. There are concepts like Snow White being a princess. There are also more elaborate, colorful tropes, like the magic mirror, which appear going far back into historical literature. It would be impossible to list everything, so I will try to collect a few key works that give an idea of how long they've been around. I'm not arguing that any of these were inspirations for Snow White, just establishing that these ideas were both ancient and immediately familiar for audiences long before the time of our "historical Snow Whites."
The imagery of snow-white skin and blood-red lips - often accompanied by raven-black hair or eyes - is an old description for striking beauty. This description is used for a man in the “The Death of the Sons of Uisnech,” from the Irish Book of Leinster, before 1164. A woman, Blancheflor ("White Flower"), gets the description in Chretien du Troyes' Le Roman de Perceval (c. 1180s), although she is blonde, probably because black was seen as a more masculine hair color at the time. George Peele's 1595 play The Old Wives' Tale features "a fair daughter, the fairest that ever was; as white as snow and as red as blood."
Physical beauty plays a major role in the plot for ATU 709. The snow-white motif appears most prominently in the German versions, and stories in other cultures sometimes keep elements of the name. However, it's actually not that common for ATU 709. Snow is not necessary to a Snow White tale. In some Middle Eastern versions, the heroine has a name along the lines of Pomegranate. The "snow-white skin" motif appears more often in variants of “The Three Citrons” (ATU 408).
A wicked stepmother:
The cruel mother or stepmother is one of the most common fairytale villains. In times with high death rates, it was common for people to remarry, and the idea that a stepparent would favor their own child was very prominent. Medea and Phaedra are troublesome stepmothers in Greek myth. The trope appears in Irish myth (the Children of Lir), Welsh (Culhwch and Olwen) and Norse (Grógaldr). (See Hui et al, 2018, for more examples of cruel stepmothers in medieval Germanic literature.)
For a particularly relevant example: in the 2nd century C.E., Apuleius’s Metamorphoses included a story appropriately titled "The Tale of the Wicked Stepmother". Like Phaedra, the beautiful yet depraved stepmother lusts after her handsome stepson, but he refuses her advances. Now filled with hate, she tries to serve him poisoned wine. When her own son drinks the wine by mistake, she accuses the stepson of his murder. The murder trial doesn't go well for the stepson, and things are looking bleak until a wise physician comes to the rescue. He reveals that not only did he recently sell poison to the stepmother’s servant, but he actually substituted a harmless sleeping potion. Everyone rushes to reopen the sarcophagus of the “murdered” boy just in time to see him awaken. With the truth revealed, the stepmother is exiled and her servant is executed.
It’s not a Snow White story, but it has some striking similarities - the stepmother's hatred towards a beautiful stepchild, the deathlike sleep, a child awakening in their coffin. Note that the servant is tortured by having his feet burned, not unlike the iron shoes in Snow White. The motif of the noble doctor who sabotages the stepmother’s poison is more obscure, but appears in a couple of early Snow White stories, “Cymbeline” and “Richilde.”
The Grimms edited many of their stories, including "Snow White," to replace evil mothers with evil stepmothers, more in keeping with their own ideals. As we’re about to see in a minute, not all ATU 709 stories have stepmothers. Biological mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, aunts, and unrelated women can all play the role of villain.
The magic mirror appears in numerous sources going back to medieval times. Prester John's mirror in the Middle High German Titurel (early 13th century – complete with talking and giving advice), Cambuscan's mirror in The Canterbury Tales (late 14th c.), and Merlin’s mirror in The Faerie Queene (1590) are just a few examples.
Mirrors are common in versions of ATU 709, but so are cases where the jealous villain talks to the moon or a fish. It can also simply be a normal person who comments on the Snow White figure's beauty.
Fairies and spirits of the dead are often subterranean, but dwarves in particular were associated with mining and metalworking. In Germanic mythology, dwarves typically dwell underground. In Norse myth, they're master smiths who create magical weapons, tools and jewelry such as Thor’s hammer or Sif’s hair of living gold. In Middle High German poetry (1200-1500), the Nibelungenlied features the treasure-guarding dwarf Alberich, and Laurin has a dwarf king who abducts a human woman to his kingdom under the mountain.
Cultures across the world believed in mine-dwelling spirits, who were often described as little men or goblins. For instance, kobolds in Germany and knockers in England. These creatures might cause mischief or warn miners of impending collapse. In many areas, food was left as an offering for them. You can see echoes of this in the Swiss philosopher Paracelsus's description of elemental spirits, published in 1566. His earth spirits - pygmies, earth manikins, gnomes and dwarves - glide through solid rock and guard veins of ore.
Other Snow White figures are aided by fairies, family members, cats, dragons, camel drivers, or scholars. Robber bands are especially popular as helpers. Dwarves appear in multiple German versions, and also in an Icelandic version, “Vilfrídr Fairer-than-Vala."
In the Grimm fairytale, the wicked queen attempts to murder Snow White first by strangling her with a stay-lace, then by poisoning her with a comb and finally an apple.
The stay-lace is an article of clothing, and shoes or ribbons are common murder instruments in ATU 709. It brings to mind Greek myth with Medea's cursed robe or the poisoned garment that kills Heracles.
A comb is made up of sharp, needle-like objects. Sharp objects are, by far, the most common cause of enchanted sleep in fairytales - combs, splinters, needles, or spindles. This suggests real-life occurrences like a bite from a venomous snake, or an infection occurring from a cut.
Finally, the apple. This functions a lot like the sharp objects - it is a foreign body, and when it is removed, Snow White awakens. In the Grimm tale, Snow White is not awakened by a kiss, but by being struck so that the apple chunk flies out of her throat. This is similar to other tales where the awakener is not the prince himself, but his mother or another family member. The concept of an apple as an instrument of death would have been immediately familiar to western Christian audiences, who depicted the fruit eaten by Eve as an apple. The fruit is directly tied to death: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."
And in Greek myth, the story of the golden apple of discord connected the fruit with beauty and jealousy. When the apple was presented as a prize for the most beautiful goddess - i.e. the fairest of them all - the contest sparked a bitter argument over who should win, ultimately causing the Trojan War.
The enchanted sleep:
It doesn't necessarily need to be sleep; it can be death, or a state like death, followed by resurrection. Note in particular the 13th-century Old Norse Völsunga saga, where Brynhild the Valkyrie is cast into a deep slumber by a sleeping-thorn (see the aforementioned sharp objects). This myth convinced the Grimms that "Sleeping Beauty" had Germanic origins and belonged in their collection.
EARLY EVIDENCE OF THE TALE'S PLOT
Now let's get into the actual bones of the story. Snow White is categorized as type 709 in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Tale Type Index, and is widespread in Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. It's important to note that the Grimms' version is not a "canon" or "main" version of the story, just one unique variant.
Different people have broken the story down to its parts, but the basic gist is this: an older woman becomes jealous of the beautiful heroine. The heroine is forced into exile, possibly spared by a sympathetic executioner. She finds a home with allies who give her shelter. The older woman discovers this and successfully kills her, or at least puts her into a coma. The heroine's body is placed on display, but then she is revived and gets married.
Graham Anderson suggested that ATU 709 can be traced to the myth of Chione ("Snow"). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the god Mercury causes Chione to fall asleep so he can rape her; Apollo, disguised as an old woman, does the same. Chione gives birth to twins, but when she boasts of her beauty, she is killed by the goddess Diana. In my opinion, Anderson has some interesting points but takes too many leaps in logic. For one thing, he puts too much emphasis on the heroine's name relating to snow. I think it's a mistake to identify Chione as a Snow White figure.
Other stories like The Lai of Eliduc (late 12th century) have also been compared to Snow White, and Andersen makes an intriguing case for The Ephesian Tale of Anthia and Habrocomes (pre-2nd century), but I'm going to keep this short by focusing on those that have the clearest plot similarities.
Cymbeline by William Shakespeare (1623) features a princess named Imogen. She is very beautiful, described in terms of white and red (she is a "fresh lily,/ And whiter than the sheets!" with lips like "Rubies unparagoned"). Her wicked stepmother tries to poison her, but a helpful doctor secretly swaps the poison with a sleeping potion. For unrelated reasons, Imogen flees into the forest, where she is given shelter by a group of men. She eventually takes the sleeping potion believing it's medicine. The men think she's dead and sadly lay her body out in state. She later reawakens, and at the end is joyfully reunited with her companions and her husband.
Some scholars argue that this is too fragmented and Cymbeline is more inspired by other works. It's true there are a lot of influences, both historical and literary, in this very busy play. However, I don't think we can ignore its core similarities to ATU 709. Cymbeline combines many folktale tropes, and we could be looking at echoes of an English Snow White story here.
“The Young Slave,” by Giambattista Basile (1634) has similarities to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and stories of the "Supplanted Bride" tale type. The heroine, Lisa, is raised by fairies but cursed to die via a comb stuck in her hair, and her body is placed within seven nested crystal coffins. Her uncle keeps her in a hidden room. Her uncle's wife finds her and, jealous of her beauty, knocks the comb out of her hair - accidentally awakening her in the process. The aunt forces Lisa to work as a slave until the uncle finds out and sets things right.
“Sun, Moon, and Talia,” also from Basile, similarly resonates with Snow White. Talia apparently dies by means of a splinter under her fingernail. A king finds her in the woods and rapes her. She gives birth to twins who suck the splinter out of her finger, waking her in the process. The king's jealous wife wants Talia executed and tries to have the twins cooked and eaten. A sympathetic cook secretly hides the children and substitutes lamb meat. When the king finds out what's going on, he executes the queen and marries Talia. "Sleeping Beauty" by Charles Perrault (1697) is a softened adaptation where the rape is omitted and the rival wife is changed to the king's mother.
Interestingly, "jealous queen" figures only appear in the final acts of these Italian and French tales. They are not the cause of the enchanted sleeps. Snow White makes more narrative sense, and modern renditions of Sleeping Beauty almost always cut the second half of the story.
Syair Bidasari (18th century?): In this Malay poem, a queen becomes fearful that another woman will catch the king’s eye, and sends out spies to seek anyone more beautiful than her. They tell her of the lovely young Bidasari. Learning that the girl’s life is connected to a fish, the jealous queen takes the fish out of the water. This causes Bidasari to seemingly die during the day, only awakening at night. For safety, her parents hide her at a remote location in the desert. However, the king discovers Bidasari's body and falls in love with her. When she’s conscious at night, she tells him her story, and he returns the fish and takes her as his new queen. The former queen is left in solitude to repent.
The surface details may be different, but it completes the core plot of Snow White in a way that none of the previous examples do. Similar tales have since been collected in India and Egypt.
The poem’s date of origin is uncertain; the oldest surviving manuscript is dated 1814, the oldest mention of the title is from 1807, and it is probably older. Another poem of this genre was theorized to have been composed sometime after 1650. This story is one we know can't have influenced the Grimms, but it shows an independent strand of the tale from a completely different part of the world around the same time.
The Tale of a Tsar and His Daughter (1710s-1730s?): This Russian text has been discovered only recently, and is tentatively dated to the early 18th century. The role of the magic mirror is played by a beggar who praises the princess's beauty. Her jealous stepmother orders her killed, and the servants bring her severed finger as proof of her death. The princess takes refuge at the home of nine brothers, keeps house for them, and slays a serpent to rescue them (!). The stepmother learns of her survival and sends a poisoned shirt which kills her. The brothers build a tomb for her and also die. A prince finds her body, falls in love with her, and takes her home, where his mother removes the poisoned shirt and revives her. The brothers are resurrected, the prince and princess celebrate their marriage, and the stepmother is punished.
I still need to investigate further, but this could be competition with Syair Bidasari for the earliest full version of Snow White discovered so far. (Kurysheva 2018)
“Richilde,” by Johann Karl August Musäus (1782): This novella appeared in Musaus’ Volksmärchen der Deutschen, a collection of literary folktale retellings. The vain Richilde becomes violently jealous of her lovely stepdaughter Blanca ("White"). She makes three attempts to kill her with a poisoned apple, soap, and a letter. However, her apothecary has secretly made the poison nonlethal and the gifts only leave Blanca unconscious and mistaken for dead. Her coffin has a glass window that allows people to look in at her, and she is rescued by a knight who heals her with a holy relic. Richilde is punished by being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes. There’s even the rhyming chant to a mirror:
"Mirror white, mirror bright,
Mirror, let me have a sight,
Of the fairest girl in Brabant!"
It feels surprisingly modern; it’s told from the wicked stepmother Richilde’s point of view, and the magical elements are mostly downplayed or given scientific explanations. For instance, Blanca is attended by court dwarfs (real people with dwarfism, forced to serve as royal attendants and jesters).
From "Richilde" we can deduce that the story of Snow White, in more or less its modern form, was already well-known in Germany by the 1780s, enough for Musaus to write an elaborate, satirical version from the villain's point of view.
The Tale of the Old Beggars (1795): a Russian folktale published anonymously. This is very close to "The Tale of a Tsar and His Daughter." Some differences: the heroine, Olga, is a merchant's daughter rather than a princess. Olga doesn't kill a dragon, but is instead possibly the most clueless Snow White ever - she tells her stepmother she’s alive by sending her some pierogis. The poisoned shirt is studded with pearls. The grieving robber-brothers build a crystal tomb for Olga and die, but are not resurrected. The conclusion with the prince and his mother is the same.
The Beautiful Sophie and Her Envious Sisters (1808), by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff. This version came from Silesia, possibly with Polish influence. (Kawan 2005, 238-239). It features a magic mirror and a glass coffin. The villains are the heroine's two evil sisters, who try to kill her with a hair ribbon and an apple. Instead of seven dwarves, there's one little old lady.
Snow White (1809), a play by Albert Ludwig Grimm (no relation to the Brothers Grimm). Here we have an evil stepmother and stepsister. Snow White takes refuge in a glass mountain with a whole kingdom of dwarves, and is given a poisoned fig.
And, finally, the Grimms' "Little Snow-White." The Grimms had a strikingly different goal from authors like Basile or Musaus. Rather than using folklore as fodder for a unique literary creation, they set out to preserve the original oral tales. Their "Snow White" was a mixture of stories from at least three informants - Marie Hassenpflug, Ferdinand Siebert, and Heinrich Leopold Stein. Christine Shojaei Kawan states that the Brothers Grimm considered Snow White one of the most popular fairytales. (Kawan 2005, 238-239).
The Grimms' 1810 draft - presumably the closest to the first versions they collected - has some startling differences from the tale we know. Snow White is a blonde with eyes as black as ebony, and the villain is her biological mother. Her hair was changed to black by the time they published their work in 1812. Starting with the 1819 edition, the mother was changed to a stepmother. This change may have been to soften the tale for children, but also remember that the Grimms collected and combined many versions. Their notes mentioned variants with stepmothers or adoptive mothers. In one version there's a talking dog named Mirror rather than a literal mirror.
The Grimms published many other fairytales which overlap with Snow White, including “Cinderella” (evil stepmother), “The Juniper Tree” (evil stepmother murders her snow-white/blood-red stepson), “The Three Ravens” (the girl’s arrival in the ravens’ home), “Briar Rose” (enchanted sleep), and “The Glass Coffin” (rescue of girl from a glass coffin).
HISTORICAL FIGURES IN FAIRYTALES
We do have many cases of real people and places that either inspired legends or were adopted into legends. For instance, Caliph Harun al-Rashid appears in many of the stories in The Thousand and One Nights. Richard the Lionheart is given a Melusine-esque fairy mother in a 14th century romance. And Bertalda of Laon, Charlemagne's mother, starred in a Goose Girl-like story from manuscripts around the 13th century.
Most of these stories were recorded long after the original people died. However, it is entirely possible for legends to spread while the subject is still alive. For a modern example, in 1936, a Newfoundland girl named Lucy Harris went missing and was found alive in the woods eleven days later. Her story quickly evolved into a tale of fairy abduction. By 1985, 49 years later, it was well-known across Newfoundland, but was still closely tied to the name and location. When folklorist Barbara Rieti investigated, she was directed straight to Harris’s then-current residence. Even more important: Rieti noted that Harris’s story was boosted by radio and newspapers. Comparable stories with similar timeframes, that didn't receive media attention, stayed within small local communities.
WHY THE HISTORICAL THEORIES JUST DON'T WORK
The proposed "historical Snow Whites” are too late to have sparked the worldwide tale of ATU 709. By the time of Maria Sophia, there were strong alternate traditions in Russia and Malaysia. Margarethe and her family were earlier, beating out Shakespeare by a hundred years, but I would say she was also too late; we're talking about an incredibly widespread tradition of stories, with all kinds of variations far beyond anything we find in the Margarethe theory.
Instead, the theory must be that these women influenced local German versions of ATU 709. That is, they were the source of colorful local details like the poisoned apple and the helpful dwarves. But this still isn't supported by the facts.
There is not a single unique characteristic of the German Snow White that can be traced to either of these women. The best they can offer is faint coincidence. Deadly poisoned apples? There were orchards in the area. Helpful dwarf miners? There were mines in the area. A trip across seven mountains? You got it - there were mountains in the area. These theories focus on the shallowest details of the story rather than on the core plot, and they don’t even do that very well.
The Maria Sophia theory totally collapses at the first sign of scrutiny. Even if we ignore that this theory started as a joke by three guys in a pub, the timeline doesn't work. As said before, there were less than 40 years for her life story to diffuse into the German fairytale and her real name to be forgotten. Compare the case of Lucy Harris: 50 years, widespread media attention, and her name and location stayed inextricably tied to the story.
The Margarethe theory has two small advantages over Maria Sophia. First: the three Margarethes were born in the 1500s, giving a bit more time for their lives to be mythicized and for storytellers to combine them into one person - but still not a lot of time. Second: Sander's theory was apparently spurred by a local claim that Snow White's dwarves were inspired by the Bergfreiheit mines. But this still doesn't work. The concept of subterranean dwarves is ancient, far older than the Bergfreiheit mines. Ultimately the Margarethe theory falls prey to the same problem as the Maria Sophia theory: this is just a marketing stunt with nothing real to back it up. Both Sanders and Bartels went about their theorizing backwards. They looked for historical noblewomen from specific areas who could fit the story, and then performed any contortions necessary to cram their histories into the shape of the Grimm fairytale. By their logic, any woman could be the real Snow White as long as she had a stepmother and someone once ate an apple within a 100-mile radius of her.
There have been other theories about historical Snow Whites. An author named Theodor Ruf, inspired by Bartels, jokingly suggested that Snow White could have been a different woman from Lohr: a medieval woman named Agnes, from the family of the Counts of Rieneck. But this never took off in the same way - that is, it was never picked up as a marketing tool.
Folklore academics have reacted to the "historical" theories with skepticism or outright scorn. Folklore professor Donald Haase called the historical figure theories “pure speculation and not at all convincing.” Heidi Anne Heiner, who runs the SurLaLune site, points out that “it is always dangerous to assign fairy tales to actual historical personages,” comparing the many proposed historical Bluebeards. Christine Shojaei Kawan dismissed Bartels's theory entirely, knowing that it was a joke (Kawan 2005).
Rather than these women inspiring the fairytale, it's the other way around. Snow White, at least in the past 30-40 years, has come to influence the way we tell the stories of Maria Sophia and Margarethe.
I do want to focus on one thing I've discovered: German storytellers had all the elements of "Snow White" at their fingertips long before Maria Sophia or even Margarethe were born. I'm also delighted that even now we are still discovering old manuscripts like "The Tale of a Tsar and His Daughter" which could shed further light on the history of the fairytale. Ultimately, I'd guess that "Snow White" is far older than we realize.
OTHER BLOG POSTS IN SERIES
Last month, I discussed 18th-century philanthropist Maria Sophia von Erthal, theorized to be the "real" Snow White. Not long after this theory was published, a similar argument was made for a completely different candidate. The theorist this time was Eckhard Sander, a mathematics and German teacher from Borken. The Maria Sophia theory had a playful feel; even its creator didn't take it too seriously. This next theory is its darker, edgier sister.
Sander's candidate for Snow White was Margarethe von Waldeck. This stunningly beautiful young woman lived near a mining town which used children as laborers. After her father remarried, she was sent away from home. Ultimately, she was poisoned for her beauty and died young - assassinated because a prince fell in love with her.
This theory seems pretty simple on its face, but it’s actually much more elaborate. Sander’s theory is not exactly that Margarethe von Waldeck was the real Snow White. Instead he proposes that the tale of Snow White originated in Waldeck in the late 16th century, with the plot points drawn from local legends and the main character a composite of three different people all named Margarethe.
Margarethe von Waldeck (1533-1554): The Beauty
Location: Bad Wildungen, Hesse
Margarethe was the daughter of Philip IV, Count of Waldeck and his wife Margarethe von Ostfriesland. They lived in the town of Bad Wildungen, in the mountain range known as the Kellerwald. Young Margarethe was exceptionally beautiful, with blonde hair. This might sound like it rules her out - Snow White is supposed to have ebony-black hair, after all - but it's a little-known fact that Snow White was blonde in the Grimms' 1810 draft.
Margarethe was the seventh or eighth child in the family. In 1537, when she was four, her mother died in childbirth. In 1539, Philipp took a second wife, the widowed Catharina von Hatzfeld. Sander hints coyly that perhaps Catharina was jealous of her lovely stepdaughter, but he presents little evidence for this. However, Margarethe was apparently sent to live elsewhere at a young age. Catharina died in 1546.
At some point, Margarethe was sent to the royal court of Brussels in Belgium. ("Richilde," a 1782 version of Snow White, also takes place in Belgium.) She attracted the romantic attentions of Prince Philip, later to be King Philip II of Spain, but then she fell ill and died in the year 1554. She was just 21. According to rumor, she had been poisoned. Was this the work of political rivals who didn't approve of the relationship?
Later that year, Count Philipp IV married his third wife, Jutta of Isenburg-Grenzau. Margarethe's brother Samuel also got married that year. From their father he inherited land including a mining settlement, which would eventually become the town of Bergfreiheit. He put up boundary markers called Bloodstones (Blutsteine). Sander compares this to an obscure Snow White variant from the Grimms' notes: driving through the woods, a count and countess see three piles of snow, three pits of blood, and three black ravens, prompting the count to wish for a girl of those colors.
Samuel built up the local copper mines and granted miners additional freedoms. However, there was a dark side to the industry. Children were used as miners because they could squeeze into the small tunnels. They lived in terrible conditions, many of them stunted in growth and prematurely aged due to their work, so that people referred to them as dwarfs. Large numbers were crammed into small houses with only a couple of rooms - hence, says Sander, the idea of the seven dwarfs living in a tiny cottage.
Margarethe von Waldeck (1564-1575): The Child
Margarethe was the youngest child of Samuel and his wife, Anna Maria von Schwarzburg. She shared a name with her paternal grandmother and aunt. She had six older brothers, all of whom died in infancy except for one, Günther. Samuel died in 1570, when little Margarethe was six. Anna Maria had been carrying on an affair with Samuel's secretary, Göbert Raben, and they secretly married after his death. The scandal infuriated her relatives, who tried to nullify the marriage. A family genealogy suggests that Anna Maria's licentious behavior continued even after she married the secretary (although I suspect some bias here).
Margarethe was sent to live with relatives. In 1575, at the age of just eleven, she fell from a cliff while picking flowers and died. Sander compares this to a variant mentioned in the Grimms' notes - here, rather than sending Snow White with the huntsman, the queen takes Snow White into the forest herself in her carriage. She tells her to pick some roses, and then drives off, abandoning her. Sander also takes note of Margarethe's young age; one early manuscript of Snow White described the heroine as an "unfortunate child."
In 1576, a year after her daughter's death, Anna Maria and her lover were imprisoned. Her lover was released after two years and sent into exile, but Anna Maria spent the rest of her life shut up in a convent.
A dead child. A perverse mother figure imprisoned for her crimes. Out of this history, Sander picked another Snow White story.
Margarethe von Waldeck (1559-1580): The Bride
Margarethe was the daughter of Johann I von Waldeck, from another branch of the same family. In 1578, at age nineteen, she traveled to marry Count Günther von Waldeck (her distant cousin, Samuel's son, Margarethe I's nephew, Margarethe II's brother). It was an elaborate wedding with an elite guest list, processions, feasting, and a four-day-long afterparty. Sander tied this to the wedding and happily-ever-after of Snow White and her prince.
But even this Margarethe didn't get a happily-ever-after; she died childless two years after the wedding. A couple years after that, Gunther took a second wife, also named Margarethe.
Folktales of Bad Wildungen
Sander bulked up his theory with various legends and historical facts from around the area.
Inaccuracies and problems
As with the Maria Sophia theory, there are a few inaccuracies that pop up now and again in articles on the subject. Again, these generally have to do with lines between the history and the fairytale being blurred.
Claim: Catharina had something to do with her stepdaughter Margarethe's poisoning.
Most people correctly spot that this is impossible, since Catharina died long before her stepdaughter. In fact, in his original book, Sander actually focused on Margarethe II's mother, Anna Maria, as the inspiration for the "evil queen" character.
Claim: This is a portrait of Margarethe von Waldeck.
This is Irish writer Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington (1789-1849). This is a mistake spread through various online articles and I'm not sure where it started, but I'd guess someone thought this woman looked Snow White-like and got confused by the fact that she was a countess named Margaret.
Claim: Margarethe's shaky handwriting on her deathbed will is a clue that she was poisoned.
This one is honestly confusing; a dying woman having shaky handwriting is not weird. I think this may be misleading wording, with the idea stemming from a 2005 German documentary titled Snow White and the Murder in Brussels. It was 45 minutes long and put forward the theory that Margarethe had been poisoned with arsenic. Dr. Gerhard Menk, a historian interviewed in the documentary, stated:
"When she wrote the will, it was absolutely clear to her that her life would not last very long. The will shows clearly blurred handwriting. She wrote with a hand that was shaky. And in this respect death is foreseeable relatively early."
As for the viability of the Margarethe theory . . . Sander pulls from everything he can find in history and in the Grimms' manuscripts. Blonde hair and a stepmother from Margarethe I (even though in the Blonde Snow White draft, her biological mother is the villain). Two more Margarethes to provide any missing Snow White-esque details. Poison apples from a local legend - never mind that they bear no resemblance to the poison apple in Snow White.
And I feel like Sander makes too much of the young Margarethes being sent to live elsewhere. He implies that family drama was the cause, particularly that the mother or stepmother was to blame. Maybe this was the case for Margarethe II. But historical nobility often sent their newborns off to wet nurses, which could mean being away from them for long periods of time. Some royal parents were very involved with their children's lives, but even they might send their children to be raised and educated elsewhere. Princes like Edward VI of England had their own households when they were still young children. In particular, Margarethe I going to Brussels would have been a natural step for a teenaged noblewoman, a huge opportunity for her education and marital prospects and a strategic political move for her family.
Where did this theory come from?
Sometime before 1990, Eckhard Sander was writing a term paper for a course at the Justus Liebig University. He was interested in writing about the history of child labor in mining, so he and his family toured a Bergfreiheit copper mine. Their guide claimed that the sight of the children in their protective felt caps emerging from the mountain had inspired the dwarfs of "Snow White."
Intrigued, Sander sought more evidence with help from his professor Gerd Rötzer. Sander was aware of the Hansel and Gretel hoax from the '60s, but unlike the Lohr "study group," he preferred to distance himself from it. He dove deep into the history of the Grimms' work and the various drafts of Snow White, and concluded that fairytales contain a kernel of truth, unconscious memories of real events. The Grimms would have collected the story of Snow White while unaware of the events that had shaped it only a couple of centuries before. Tiny, easily-missed details in the various versions still pointed to the real history.
In 1990, Sander submitted his term paper under the title "Snow White: Fairytales or Truth? An attempt to localize KHM 53 in the Kellerwald." He published it as a book in 1994, with a slightly different subtitle, A local reference to the Kellerwald.
This enjoyed similar success as the Maria Sophia theory. Bergfreiheit now hosts the tourist destination of Schneewittchendorf (Snow White Village). Sander was involved in the making of Snow White and the Murder in Brussels. In 2013, he wrote another book in collaboration with the city of Bad Wildungen, The Life of Margaretha von Waldeck, which is available directly from Bergfreiheit gift shops. Based on Sander's story of the mine tour, at least some locals were already claiming Snow White as their own, which would have added to the momentum.
But Margarethes II and III - the Child and the Bride - seem nearly forgotten, even though they provided key plot points for Sanders’ elaborate patchwork version of Snow White. Margarethe I is the famous one, who had her death dramatized in the Murder in Brussels documentary. This is probably because spreading Snow White to multiple historical figures weakens the appeal of the theory. It's basically admitting that you don't have a good argument. Margarethe I is the one best able to carry the theory on her own, so she gets the limelight.
There are many parallels between the Margarethe and Maria Sophia theories. Both theories were conceived and published within a few years of each other. Both rely on the idea that the Grimms visited or lived near the area. Both focus less on the plot of the story, and more on details like the forks, the mountains, the glassware, or the ironworking. And both became popular because the local towns saw them as perfect tourism opportunities.
Karlheinz Bartels and Eckhard Sander both went digging through history for women who matched Snow White's description. In doing so, they were proponents of euhemerism, the theory that legends are based on real people. But what if we don't set out looking for a specific historical personage? What if we look at the history of the actual folktale?
Next up: Snow White.
OTHER BLOG POSTS
Multiple towns in Germany feature Snow White-themed tourist attractions. However, two of them stand out; both claim to be the birthplace of a real woman who inspired the fairytale. In this blog post, I'll be looking at the first woman to be proposed as "the real Snow White."
As the usual summary goes, this kind-hearted young woman suffered under the authority of a harsh stepmother. In their castle hung an elaborate mirror said to speak. They lived in a forested area near a mining town with very short workers. But upon investigation, there are a lot of inaccuracies being passed around.
Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal (1725-1796)
Location: Lohr am Main, Bavaria
Maria Sophia was born in 1725 (some sources incorrectly say 1729), one of ten children of the baron Philipp Christoph von Erthal and his wife Maria Eva. (They had seven sons and three daughters, although some died young). A family genealogy remembered her as kind, pious and generous.
Maria Sophia caught smallpox when she was young, leaving her mostly blind. It's possible this also left her with facial scarring. However, the painting above - which is believed to be her portrait - does not show any scars.
Maria Eva died, and in 1743 Philipp married the widowed Claudia Elisabeth von Reichenstein. She had two children from her previous marriage. Maria Sophia would have been 18 at the time of the wedding.
According to the theory, Philipp's status seemed kinglike to local townspeople. His absences on long work trips paralleled the absence of Snow White's father in the fairytale. As for Claudia: in 1992, historian Werner Loibl uncovered a 1743 letter that she wrote while Philipp was in England on state business, not long after their wedding. The letter shows that Claudia read and responded to his mail while he was out of the country, and that she suggested her son's former tutor for a government position. Based on this, Loibl painted her as a domineering wife and stepmother.
The area of Lohr features thick woods, like the wild forest of the fairytale, and seven mountains beyond which lies the mining town of Bieber. The miners would have been short-statured in order to enter the small tunnels. The Grimm fairytale mentions that the dwarfs live beyond seven mountains.
Lohr's local industries included metalworking, glassworking, and especially high-quality mirrors - tying into the fairytale's iron shoes, glass casket, and magic mirror. The mirrors could be considered to "speak" or "tell the truth" because they showed particularly clear reflections, and/or because they came inscribed with traditional mottoes. Maria Sophia's family owned one such mirror, a magnificent red-and-silver-framed looking glass 1.6 meters tall (5.25 feet) which is still in the Lohr Castle, now a museum. The frame is decorated with the phrases "Pour la recompense et pour la peine" ("for reward and for punishment", accompanied with an image of a palm, a flowering branch, and a crown) and "Amour propre" ("self-love," with an image of the sun shining on a flower). Some online articles state that the mirror was made as a wedding gift for Claudia; however, historian Wolfgang Vorwerk suggests that the mirror may have already been in the castle when Philipp took office in 1719.
Maria Sophia never married. At some point, she moved sixty miles away to the town of Bamberg, which runs across seven hills each topped by a church. I’m not sure when she moved, but we do know that her brother Franz Ludwig took office as the town’s Prince-Bishop in 1779. She spent her final years in the care of a convent school, the Institute der Englischen Fräulein. She died in 1796, aged 71, having spent her life doing charity work. History records indicate that she was beloved by the community. Her gravestone, rediscovered in 2019, reads "The noble heroine of Christianity: here she rests after the victory of Faith, ready for transfigured resurrection.”
Two other notes:
Apple orchards are common in Lohr.
Belladonna, which causes paralysis, grows wild in the area. Supporters of the theory connect this to the poison which causes Snow White’s deathlike sleep. It is also an aphrodisiac, explaining the instant love between Snow White and her prince.
Inaccuracies and problems
In my research, I've encountered a few questionable statements that are repeated by many sources.
Claim: Claudia was a harsh stepmother who disliked her husband's children.
This is an exaggeration of Werner Loibl's article. Based on a single letter, Loibl concluded that Claudia was a bossy, self-serving woman who, only months after the wedding, was already using her new husband's position to advance the interests of her old employees and, presumably, her biological children as well.
I'm not a historian, but I feel this is an overly negative reading for just one letter, with lots of jumps in logic to cast Claudia in the worst possible light. How do we know Philipp didn't ask his wife to handle things during his long absences? Even with that, there's little to indicate that she disliked any of her stepchildren, let alone Maria Sophia. I see no evidence that there was any kind of family dysfunction here.
(Remember Werner Loibl, we'll come back to him in a minute.)
Claim: Maria Sophia was forced to flee over the mountains to Bieber after being abandoned or attacked.
This came from one of Lohr's tourist attractions, the Snow White-themed mountain hiking trail. As early as January 1999, the town's website featured a "Snow White" section under its tourism department. This page is written in the first person, narrated by “Maria Sophia... popularly known as Snow White.” Other than the nickname, it begins close to real life by describing her family tree. But it takes a turn when she explains that her father ran Lohr’s mirror manufactory and one day gave a mirror to her stepmother.
"Incidentally, this mirror still hangs in my parents' castle in Lohr a. Main and bears the inscription "Elle brille á la lumiére", roughly translated "She is as beautiful as the light". As you know, my stepmother thought she was particularly beautiful, and when one day - I had grown a bit - the mirror no longer rated my stepmother as the most beautiful in the country, the forester took me (at her behest) for a "Walk" in the forest. We walked out through the Upper Gate and then uphill to where the Rexroth Castle stands today. At the very top, in the deep forest, the forester drew his knife. Then I suspected evil and, full of panic, ran right into the forest and downhill as fast as I could. There was a couple of shots behind me. Full of horror I ran on until, past the glassworks in Reichen Grund, I came to the Lohrbach. Did my evil stepmother actually want to kill me?"
From here on, “Maria Sophia” explains step-by-step how she made her way to the mines, with a laundry list of landmarks (“Towards evening I reached the retention basin of the Bieber mines, the Wiesbüttsee...”). The story concludes by stating that she “found shelter with the seven dwarfs." It adds a link for website visitors to book the hiking trail - a deal which comes with a visit to the museum in "Snow White's family castle," a hotel stay, and a souvenir gift.
This isn't a historical document - it's a hiking guide, as should be obvious from the list of locations. It presents a story with no connection to reality - the Snow White tale with Maria Sophia's name smacked on. This has set the tone for Lohr’s marketing ever since; some mistakes are corrected in modern brochures and materials, but the misleading tone remains, and other sources repeat these blurred lines.
This webpage also includes another commonly-repeated error...
Claim: The motto on the von Erthal mirror is "Elle brille à la lumière" (She shines like the light).
The phrase is reminiscent of the Grimms' 1857 edition of fairytales, in which Snow White is described as "beautiful as the day." However, this phrase does not appear on the "Amour Propre" mirror in the castle. It was a common inscription for other Lohr mirrors in general, accompanied by an image of a pearl in an oyster. There were many other traditional emblems - see this digitized book from 1697, Devises Et Emblemes Anciennes & Modernes tirées des plus celebres Auteurs.
Wolfgang Vorwerk states that the "Amour Propre" mirror was not explicitly tied to the Maria Sophia theory at first. The media probably began describing it as the fairytale mirror sometime between 1994 and 1998 (Vorwerk 2016, p. 6). This may have contributed to the confusion about which mirror is which.
Claim: Lohr mirrors were specially made to echo people's voices through a trick of acoustics.
This seems to be a misunderstanding of the saying that the mirrors spoke. It probably originated with a 2002 news article, reprinted around the world, which called the mirror an “acoustic toy” (Hall).
Claim: Maria Sophia died of belladonna poisoning.
False. This might be confusion with Margarethe von Waldeck, who I'll discuss in my next post.
One thing I have to mention: the timeline here seriously strains credulity. Maria Sophia's father remarried in 1743. The Grimms' first draft dates to 1810, 67 years later. But the Grimms weren't the first to write down the story; that was Johann Musäus's "Richilde," published in 1782. Although this version was an elaborate satirical novella, it's clearly a retelling of the same folktale the Grimms would later transcribe.
Maria Sophia was still alive at this point. If she truly originated the fairytale, or even just influenced it, it would have had no more than 39 years to evolve into its current form and spread across all of Germany.
And there's no evidence that this happened. Thomas Kittel’s 1865 genealogy listed Maria Sophia as one of the more notable von Erthals, giving her one and a half pages of biography. In comparison, some of her siblings are barely mentioned. And yet there's nothing to indicate that she inspired any Snow White-esque legends. Kittel's description gives only the impression of a deeply religious woman with a disability who lived a normal, fulfilling life.
Where did this theory come from?
First, some stage-setting. In 1963, Germany was rocked by a newly released book. Die Wahrheit uber Hansel und Gretel (The Truth about Hansel and Gretel) revealed that the famous fairytale was based on a gruesome true story. The siblings were not children lost in the woods, but a pair of 17th-century bakers from the Spessart forest who brutally murdered a rival for her gingerbread recipe. Photos showed a researcher named Dr. Ossegg unearthing the ruins of the "witch's" home.
Except that in 1964, the real truth came out: it was all a joke. The events were made up, the evidence was forged, and "Ossegg" was actually the author Hans Traxler in a fake mustache. The hoax fooled many, and some believed in it even after the truth was revealed. One disappointed reader tried to report Traxler for fraud.
Flash forward to 1985. In Lohr am Main, a town on the opposite side of the Spessart from the "site" that Traxler had "discovered," a few men started a study group on fabulology. Fabulology was their own newly coined term for "fairytale science." The group consisted of pharmacist Karlheinz Bartels, local museum head Werner Loibl, and shoemaker Helmut Walch. And by "study group" I mean that they hung out at the local wine house together. In a 2015 interview, Bartels explained that they were inspired by the Hansel and Gretel hoax: "We said to each other at the regulars' table [of the wine house] that we need something like that for Lohr."
Although satirical, Traxler's book rested on the premise that the real story could be uncovered by careful deduction, and that's what the "study group" set out to do. As they brainstormed fairytales that could fit the area, Loibl - an expert on glassworking history - thought of Lohr's famously high-quality mirrors. Aha - the evil queen's magic mirror! From there, Bartels pinpointed Maria Sophia.
The fabulology group had started as an in-joke, but it didn't stop there. In 1986, the magazine Schönere Heimat published Bartels' tongue-in-cheek article "War Schneewittchen eine Lohrerin?: Zur Fabulologie des Spessarts" (Was Snow White a Woman of Lohr? On the Fabulology of the Spessart).
To everyone’s surprise, including Bartels's, the article took off. Bartels produced a full 80-page book, which received several editions. Loibl published articles as well, including the one about Claudia's letter. The town embraced this new marketing opportunity. At the book launch in 1990, Loibl announced that a Snow White-focused room would be set up at the Spessart Museum in Lohr Castle; the project was completed in 1992. Artifacts included "Snow White's shoes" - a pair of two-hundred-year-old children's shoes found in the castle - along with the "Amour Propre" mirror. The Snow White Trail that I mentioned previously was also created.
Snow White-themed events are now held at the museum and throughout the town. The town features art installations like the pristine Snow White statue seated on a park bench for selfie opportunities, or the more . . . controversial Snow White by Peter Wittstadt, created in 2014.
The effect was much like the success of the Hansel and Gretel hoax, but in this case, the details weren't fabricated. Obviously Maria Sophia's life did not match up exactly to the fairytale of Snow White, but there was just enough to make an argument. The popularity of the tourist attractions even led to some personal fame and local awards for Bartels.
And it seems Bartels’s attitude fluctuated as all this went on. In 2002 he announced, "We are satisfied that what the Grimm Brothers wrote about was really a documentary of sorts about our region… This all began as a bit of a joke in the local pub 17 years ago. But a lot of energy and research has gone into it since." (Hall)
In 2019, when Maria Sophia’s gravestone was located and put on show in the Diocesan Museum in Bamberg, the joking tone seemed entirely forgotten. As stated by the museum’s director, Holger Kempkens: "There are indications - though we cannot prove it for sure - that Sophia was the model for Snow White. Today when you make a film about a historic person there is also fiction in it. So in this case I think there is a historic basis, but there are also fictional elements."
A modern brochure claims that "one thing should become clear to anyone who reads [this]: Snow White was and is a daughter of Lohr," and that the Spessart Museum houses "[k]ey evidence documenting Snow White's origins." At the end it states in playful fairytale terms, "anyone who is still not convinced by our tale shall be made to pay one gold coin."
The theory made an appearance in Lee Goldberg’s 2008 novel Mr. Monk Goes to Germany, a tie-in novel to the American TV series Monk. The “beautiful baroness” is referred to as "Sophie Margaret von Erthal” and its version of her life story is straight from the Lohr hiking trail advertisement:
“Shortly after Sophie's mother died, her father remarried. The evil stepmother owned one of the famous Lohr "speaking mirrors" and was so envious of Sophie's beauty that she ordered the forest warden to kill the young woman. Sophie fled into the woods and took refuge with miners, who had to be very short to work in the cramped tunnels." (Goldberg, p. 88)
Similarly, actress Ginnifer Goodwin - who played Snow White in the TV show Once Upon a Time - assumed that her character's alter ego of Mary Margaret was inspired by "a real-life story of a princess,” “Maria Sophia Margarita.” This was not intentional by the show’s creators, who didn’t know what she was talking about when she brought it up, but Goodwin still created a new wave of buzz for Bartels’s theory when she mentioned it in an interview. (LA Times, 2012)
One historian, Wolfgang Vorwerk - who's continued the research into Maria Sophia's life - has determinedly reminded people of fabulology's joking roots. In 2016, he wrote to a Lohr newspaper stating that fabulology is not a historical argument. Essentially, says Vorwerk, it's a game of comparing the parallels between fairytale and history, with plenty of "self-mockery" and "a wine-loving wink."
Similarly, the Lohr museum's website suggests that lingering questions - like who the prince was, and where Snow White held her wedding - are riddles "that only Franconian wine can answer."
So that's the Maria Sophia von Erthal theory. There are some fun parallels, but the evidence is weak. The timeline is fishy. Tourism materials have intentionally confused the evidence to make it sound more like Snow White. The only proof for the stepmother's evil nature comes from a historian centuries later who was very interested in making her look like an evil stepmother. And it turns out that the whole thing started as a joke inspired by a famous hoax. Honestly, I just want to take a moment to savor how many deliciously bonkers moments this story includes. When I first saw a picture of the Horror White statue, I almost fell out of my chair.
So, anyway, the evidence. We'll return to this debate, but first there's more ground to cover. Next up: the other "real Snow White," Margarethe von Waldeck.
OTHER BLOG POSTS
I've written before about Childe Rowland. This story, from the moment it was written down, was greatly edited and altered, to the point where some of the themes and characters are more the work of the collectors than of tradition. I've looked specifically at the way it was tied to Arthurian legend, but there were also significant changes to the way characters traveled to Fairyland.
The story's damsel in distress, Burd Ellen, vanishes when she runs widdershins around a church to find a missing ball. When her brother Rowland sets out to follow her, he learns that he must go to a certain green hill surrounded by terrace-rings, and must circle the hill three times widdershins. On each round, he says "Open, door! open, door! And let me come in." The third time, a door appears, and Roland enters "a long passage" which eventually opens into the palace of the king of Elfland. Roland rescues his sister, and the story ends with the line that she never ran widdershins around a church again.
A church is a holy place, where most people would believe fairies and other spirits are powerless. However, in this story, walking around it widdershins would reverse that protection and put you into the fairies' power. Widdershins is the way contrary to the course of the sun, or counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. This direction, in which your shadow falls behind you so that you can't see it, was seen as unlucky. In Burd Ellen's case, the fairies are able to kidnap her because of her action.
Moving widdershins, particularly in a multiple of three, was a behavior associated with witches and the supernatural. In the Flyting between Montgomerie and Polwart (c. 1580) - a 16th-century battle of insults between two poets - Alexander Montgomerie described a procession of witches riding on pigs, black dogs or monks. Some of them ride backwards, and others "nyne times, widdershins, about the thorne raid [rode]." (Note that thorn trees have many associated superstitions and fairy associations.) Similarly, in a song titled "Betty Bathgate the Witch," about 17th-century witch Elizabeth Bathcat, the witch in the midst of her curses and cantrips goes running "widdershins nine times round the grey stane [stone]." (Henderson 60-61)
As Joseph Jacobs explained when discussing Childe Rowland, "To do things in a way opposite to the Church way was to league oneself with the enemies of the Church. Hence the door of the Dark Tower opens to him that has gone round it three times widershins, just as the Devil appeared to those who said the Paternoster backwards. This element in the story points, then, to a time when Christianity was introduced into these islands, and had the upperhand."
Just one problem: the version I just recapped is Jacobs' retelling of the tale, and it does not match the original. The original collector had already made significant changes, but Jacobs altered it further. In the original, Ellen runs around the church, but her direction is not mentioned:
"Burd Ellen round about the isle
To seek the ba' is gane."
The fairies simply strike when she is alone. Compare this to tales of changelings. Infants had to be watched carefully; if the child was not guarded at night, or if the mother left them to return to work in the fields too early, the fairies were likely to steal them. (Ashliman, "Changelings.")
Jacobs made numerous edits to simplify the tale, and his change to Ellen's abduction was "to improve the tale's internal narrative integrity" (Bihet 2020). He attempted not only to make things consistent, but explain how Ellen could be kidnapped from sacred churchground. However, in the process he makes Ellen responsible for putting herself in danger, an implication that didn't exist in the original. And the route to the fairies' realm becomes incredibly complicated: you must around a specific hill widershins three times and ask permission in order to get into Fairyland, but if you go around a church widershins once, you'll be in the fairies' power... et cetera.
Jacobs also added his reinterpretation of widershins into his version of Tamlane in More English Fairy Tales (1894):
"I was hunting one day, and as I rode widershins round yon hill, a deep drowsiness fell upon me, and when I awoke, behold! I was in Elfland."
However, the original story does have Roland walk widdershins around the hill. The round, green, terraced hill suggests a prehistoric ringfort or stone circle. These were often associated with the fae, for instance in Irish lore where they were called "fairy forts." People believed that these places should not be disturbed. Although Jacobs' version is seemingly more consistent for modern readers, this section is a more authentic representation of fairy belief.
Other Routes to Faerie
By and large, the most common way that people reach fairy realms is by going underground or through a tunnel. The 17th-century story of the Fairy Boy of Leith features people meeting beneath a hill for feasts and music, entering the secret dwelling through invisible gates. This is more about witches, but they could overlap with fairies. A tunnel makes sense because the fairies are subterranean. Sleeping under a tree, wandering in the wilderness, or crossing a river are also common themes.
Liminal spaces and places of transition are frequent - crossroads and graveyards. In the story of "Cherry of Zennor," a human girl meets a fairy man at a crossroads. Their path is interestingly described; he carries her across a river and down a narrow lane through darkness until they reach a sunlit garden. It sounds very much like an entrance to the Underworld. This story does seem like it was retold with some literary treatment. In the story of the Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor, a man gets lost on a midnight shortcut across the moor, and winds up at the home of the fairies (who are, in fact, deceased ancestors). In a Welsh legend, a boy named Elidyr hides in a hollow beneath a riverbank all night, and at dawn pigmies lead him through an underground passage into another country.
Thomas the Rhymer is by a tree when he encounters the Fairy Queen, and she guides him across a river to the otherworld. In Sir Orfeo, a medieval retelling of the Orpheus legend, Orfeo's wife attracts the attention of the Fairy King when she sleeps beneath a tree.
This extends outside European fairy stories. In an African tale, a hunter following a porcupine down its burrow ends up in an underground village, the realm of the dead (The Mythology of All Races, Volume VII. 1916). These may be memories of older myths of the spirits of the dead.
Liminal times, like Mayday and Halloween, also feature overlaps between this world and the other world. In the story of Tam Lin, Janet waits at a crossroads on Halloween to rescue her lover from the fae. T. F. Thiselton-Dyer mentioned that "according to a Danish belief, any one wandering under an elder-bush at twelve o'clock on Midsummer Eve will see the king of fairyland pass by with all his retinue."
And sleep is frequently a gateway - see Sir Orfeo again. In a 1628 chapbook titled Robin Goodfellow; his mad pranks, and merry Jests, Robin has his first near encounter with other fairies when asleep (Halliwell-Philipps 125), and further along in the story meets Oberon (his father) for the first time when Oberon awakens him at night and calls him to the fairy gathering (141).
I thought it would be interesting to look at my pages that got the most clicks this year, as seen on Google Search Console. Some of these are pretty old - from 2016! - back when this blog was barely a year old. In order from lowest to highest:
10. Lists of Fairies
9. The History of the Cambion
8. A Brief History of Jack Frost
7. Excalibur vs. The Sword in the Stone
6. Peter Pan's Shadow
5. Cinderella's Shoes: Glass or Fur?
4. Individual Fairies
3. Hybrids and Half-Fairies
2. Fish or Fowl: How did Sirens become Mermaids?
1. Why Do Fairies Steal People Away?
And here are my six personal favorite posts from 2021 - ones that I particularly enjoyed writing or felt I learned a lot from.
6. Goldilocks, Silver-Locks, and Snow White
5. Daisies, Red Verbena, and Fairy Herbs
4. Prezzemolina: Rapunzel Meets Cupid
3. Why is Aladdin's Genie Inside a Lamp?
2. The Little Mermaid: The Question of Endings
1. Pillywiggins: An Amended Theory
On to 2022!
Going forward, I may be reducing my posts to once a month or so. 2021 was a very busy year, and I think this will be more sustainable.
Thank you to all those who read, and I hope you're enjoying the ride.
For years, I've thought Nicneven was the name of a legendary Scottish fairy queen, the leader of a Wild Hunt-like procession who made her rounds on Halloween. It was a little confusing - she was also named Gyre-Carling and was the Scottish equivalent of Hecate? But also there was a real woman named Nicneven and no one was sure which came first? Recently I started researching, and discovered pretty much everything I knew was wrong.
As a character, Nicneven's first ever appearance was in the Flyting between Alexander Montgomerie and Patrick Hume of Polwarth, composed sometime between 1580 and 1585. A Flyting was an exchange of intricate poetic insults, essentially a 16th-century rap battle. Montgomerie and Hume (who is referred to throughout the Flyting as Polwart) were court poets under King James VI of Scotland.
One section of Montgomerie's Flyting is quoted constantly. This was an elaborate imaginary narrative about Polwart's birth and infancy, overflowing with folklore and superstition. It kicks into gear about here:
Jn the hinder end of harvest on Alhallow even,
When our good Neighbours do is ride, if I read right,
Some buckled on a bunewand and some on a been,
Ay trottand in troupes from the twylight,
Some sadled a shee Aipe, all grathed into greene,
Some hobland on an hemp stalk, hove and to the hight,
The King of Pharie and his court, with the Elfe Queene,
With many Elrich Incubus was rydand that Night.
So on Halloween night, the Good Neighbors go riding, many on ragwort stalks and other plants, some on apes. The King of Fairy and his court and the Elf Queen are there. During this gathering, an elf and an ape beget an "unsell," an evil creature (a form of the word "unseelie"). This is Baby Polwart. Now, it's unclear whether Polwart is conceived and born in one night or whether more time passes, but at the very least, in the version I read, the poem then moves to him being found the next morning, abandoned in a ditch. He is discovered by the Weird Sisters - i.e. the Fates, essentially the same characters who show up in MacBeth. They are disgusted by his ugliness, and foretell that he shall die in three seemingly contradictory ways (a common Celtic concept, seen in works like the story of Myrddin). One states that Nicneven shall nourish him twice. This is a reference to taboos around breastfeeding and ideas that children who nursed at both breasts were greedy or depraved.
The Weird Sisters leave the baby lying there, and Nicneven arrives with a whole crew of women. Here we get some more famous lines:
Nicneven with her nymphes, in number anew,
With charmes from Caitnes and Chanrie of Rosse,
Whose cunning consists in casting of a Clew.
The poem immediately makes it clear that these are witches; they are mounted on pigs, dogs and monks, and ride widdershins nine times around the thorn-tree where Polwart is lying. They immediately spot him and are delighted. They perform an unholy baptism, dedicating Polwart to their goddess Hecate. Finally they send Polwart off to "Kait of Crief" to be raised, where he acts much like a changeling, silent for seven years, and is brought food by fairies and breastfed by monkeys.
Montgomerie was declared winner of the Flyting.
So that's the poem. Anyone seeing a problem here? Nicneven appears in a completely different section from the fairies and the Elf Queen. She is the foremost witch, but is never described as a queen. Her ladies may be called nymphs for alliteration, but they are clearly witches in name and behavior. Apparently, it's not even Halloween anymore by the time Nicneven shows up!
And that's it for appearances of Nicneven in print . . . until the 1800s rolled around. The next mention I know of is from 1801. John Leyden, in his commentary on The Complaynt of Scotland, described a figure known as "the gyre-carlin, the Queen of Fairies, the great hag, Hecate, or mother-witch of the peasants." He states that Nicneven is one of her names, quoting Montgomerie.
This is where the problems start. Leyden is combining a ton of characters here, including a possibly hypothetical "mother witch." The gyre-carlin was a common word, often a generic term for witches in general - Polwart even mentioned it in his response to Montgomerie, saying "Leave boggles, brownies, Gyre-carlings, and Gaists (Ghosts)." Also, Nicneven cannot be Hecate. In Montgomerie's poem, she worships Hecate. This leaves massive questions about why Leyden said any of this, or where he got his information. But his interpretation quickly became widespread, appearing in dictionaries and in works by authors like Sir Walter Scott.
Some writers seem to have simply parroted Leyden - for instance, Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language defines Nicneven as "The Scottish Hecate or mother-witch." But this wasn’t the case for all; Robert Cromek, collecting Scottish folklore about witches, described a more unique Gyre-Carling or “McNeven” who wore a gray cloak and wielded a magic wand that could rearrange the landscape. (Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, 1810.)
A Historical Nicneven?
There were also several mentions of women with names similar to Nicneven, all executed for witchcraft in Scotland. Scott ran wild with this and presumed that Nicneven was a traditional Scottish title for the leader of a witches' coven. But as I read about the few scraps of evidence we have, it seems equally possible that all of these Nicnevens were one person.
According to The Historie and Life of King James the Sext, in May 1569, a woman named Nicniven or Nic Neville - a "notable sorceress" - was burnt to death at St Andrews. The spellings of her name vary from manuscript to manuscript.
A letter from Sir John Mure of Caldwell, dated 10 May 1569, offers a tantalizing look at more of the case. Mure mentions seeing the trial of an old woman called "Niknevin" that past Tuesday. She was considered dangerous, but people weren't sure whether she'd get the death penalty or not. She refused to confess to witchcraft, saying that the doctors had accused her out of envy because she was a better healer than they were. Mure notes that she is very clever and well-spoken for a woman a hundred years old. (Longueville, Pryings)
Then there was the witchcraft trial of John Brughe of Fossoway, in November 1643. Brughe, it was said, had learned spells from a sixty-year-old widow, the "sister daughter" of "Nikneveing that notorious and infamous witch in Monzie" who was burnt as a witch about eighty years before.
Quick math check: at this point, it had been seventy-four years since Niknevin/Nic Neville's execution by burning. That's close enough to eighty. But at the same time, if these are the same woman, here are more questions. Was Mure right that Niknevin was a hundred years old? How does that mesh with a niece born twenty years after her death? Is a "sister daughter" a niece, or a more distant kinswoman?
Finally, we have Kate Nevin or Kate McNevin, the subject of a local legend from Monzie, first mentioned in print in 1818. Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, in a foreword to Robert Law's Memorialls, mentioned "a tradition current in Perthshire" about a witch named Catharine Niven. He gave no date, but did suggest that her surname Niven was probably a nickname "from that of the Fairy Queen." Very mysterious . . . unless Sharpe had read Leyden's description of Nicneven as the Queen of the Fairies.
The overall story, across various versions, runs that Kate lived in Monzie and served as a nursemaid for the Graeme family of Inchbrakie. She was also a witch and healer, and in one tale she took the form of a bee to steal silverware. Ultimately she was arrested for witchcraft and burnt to death on the Knock of Crieff. As she died, she cursed the people of Monzie (versions vary on whether she focused on the Laird of Monzie or the local minister) so that their town would languish and the laird's lands would never pass from father to son in an unbroken line. The Laird of Inchbrakie - either her former employer or his son whom she had nursed - attempted to save her, and so she blessed him. She spat out a blue bead and told him that as long as he and his heirs kept it on their land, they would hold that land and always have heirs. Centuries later, the Graemes kept a gemstone they claimed was Kate McNiven's gift, and family tradition ran that it was eventually removed from the home by mistake and the land was subsequently parceled off and sold.
People have suggested a huge range of dates for Kate's death. In 1845, the Reverend George Blair wrote a poem about her ("The Holocaust, or the Witch of Monzie") and set the story in 1715, making her one of the last witches burned in the area. This date has been repeated numerous times by other authors, but Blair is pretty clear in his foreword that it was a guess. We can dismiss this one completely.
Another writer, Alexander Porteous, apparently made the connection to Nikneveing of Monzie. As a result, he called her Kate Nike Neiving, and stated that she died in 1563, exactly eighty years before Brughe's trial.
However, George F. Black dismissed Porteous' date completely, and instead estimated the date at 1615, with no explanation. Did he mean to write 1715? Or did he think 1715 was clearly wrong and "correct" it to 1615? (A Calendar of Cases of Witchcraft in Scotland 1510-1727)
To sum up, we have multiple references to a woman named something like Nicneven of Monzie, who was burnt to death for witchcraft. The existing evidence points to this happening in the 1560s. And Montgomerie's poem is historical evidence too! Particularly in a Flyting, all the jokes had to make sense and references had to be clear.
There are still discrepancies - did this woman die at St Andrews, or at the Knock of Criff in Monzie? Those two places are about 50 miles away from each other. The Kate McNiven legends were not collected until the 19th century; how reliable are they? Another odd note: remember the mention of "Kait of Crief" in Montgomerie's poem? Could this a reference to Kate and the Knock of Crieff? But then, that would imply that Nicneven and Kate were separate people. There are questions upon questions here.
Without more information on John Leyden's methods, it is unclear why he called Nicneven a Fairy Queen. Montgomerie's Nicneven, at least, is not the fairy queen who rides on Halloween. She's clearly not Hecate, either. She might be a gyre-carling, though, because a gyre-carling is a witch. You might say all of her women are gyre-carlings.
As for the question of where the character came from, there are more questions than answers. It's difficult to pin anything down with the spotty record-keeping and wildly varied spellings. Alison Hanham, who looked exhaustively at the various Nicnevens, called this "one of the minor mare's nests of Scottish history." As Jacqueline Simpson puts it, "We cannot therefore decide between two interpretations of Montgomerie's Nicneven. Was she a figure from folk tradition, a superhuman hag-ogress? Or was she a real "criminal," executed barely more than a decade before?"
At this point it's impossible to say for sure, and it's greatly debated. You'll find people arguing that Nicneven was the traditional goddess of Samhain, that Kate Niven never existed, that Kate Niven did exist and was titled after Nicneven, that Kate Niven had nothing to do with Nicneven... and so on. I do think that these are all connected - the very first printed mention of Catharine Niven references Nicneven.
I recently read Liesl Shurtliff’s series of fairytale retellings for children. The books retell, in order, Rumpelstiltskin (Rump), Jack and the Beanstalk (Jack), Red Riding Hood (Red), and Snow White (Grump). However, they bring in elements of multiple other fairytales. So for instance, Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is Rose Red from the less-retold tale of “Snow White and Rose Red.” All four books take place in the same fantasy world, with interconnected characters.
My personal favorites were Red – particularly the friendship between Red and Goldilocks - and Grump, with its worldbuilding of a dwarf society. Another interesting element was how we see the point of view swap of Rumpelstiltskin – first in Rump from the title character in Rump, then in Jack from the queen who bargained with him, who is rather foolish but also manages to be sympathetic.
I was also delighted by just how many stories Shurtliff combined to create Jack, and how creatively and seamlessly it came together. It borrows from “Tom Thumb” and “Thumbelina,” and maybe I'm reading into it but I even recognized a touch of “Thumbling the Giant” with the Tom Thumb character being kidnapped by a giant.
Shurtliff is great at setting up endearing characters and readable stories. I felt the character of Jack was hardest to get invested in. Shurtliff was clearly going for a depiction of a troublesome young boy, but he was a little too obnoxious and dumb for me to really enjoy his point of view.
Also, this is more personal, but one of my pet peeves is when fairytale retellings focus on the Disney renditions. Grump has several nods to Disney's 1937 animated film – most notably including Grumpy the dwarf. However, Shurtliff shows off plenty of knowledge of the original tales, such as the apple being half red and half white as in the Grimm story. And I liked the story enough to forgive the Disney references.
Overall, these books are simple, quick reads that I found to be enjoyable and creative adaptations. A great series for middle-grade readers.
Time for another examination of an obscure fairy legend! Who is the character "Nanny Button-cap"? Is there a real tradition to be found here?
The name "Nanny Button-cap" first appeared in Sidney Oldall Addy's Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Sheffield, published in 1888 for the English Dialect Society. Addy says only that “Nanny Button-cap” is “the name of a fairy” and that “The following lines are repeated by children”:
The moon shines bright,
The stars give light,
And little Nanny Button-cap
Will come to-morrow night.
After this nursery rhyme, Addy includes a note on the Norse goddess Nanna, who he describes as a moon goddess. This would tie in well with a nighttime fairy associated with moon and stars, and the implication is that the goddess Nanna is the source of the fairy Nanny.
The problem is, it’s actually not clear what Nanna was the goddess of. Her role was simply being wife to the god Baldr. She is certainly credited by various sources as a moon deity, but this may have been confusion with the Mesopotamian Nanna (who is a male moon deity) as well as various other similarly-named deities like Inanna. For his information on Nanna, Addy cites Viktor Rydberg's Teutonic Mythology – specifically, a section which is mainly conjecture and hypothesis. Addy does not include any of this context, making it sound like an accepted fact.
The link from Nanna to Nanny is equally suspicious, reeking of the approach that anything with a similar sound must be the same word.
Anyway, the nursery rhyme was reprinted in various books. It appeared in phonetic dialect in "Yorkshire Dialect Poems (1673-1915) and traditional poems," by F. W. Moorman (1917), and was credited as anonymous in Tom Tiddler's Ground: A Book of Poetry for Children (1932).
At the same time, Nanny Button-cap's name began to appear in a few lists of fairies. In 1913, Elizabeth Mary Wright wrote:
“It is difficult to classify all the supernatural beings known to dialect lore, otherwise than very roughly, for even a cursory glance at the whole mass of superstitions and fancies regarding them shows that there is great confusion of idea between fairies and witches, bogies and goblins... The following may, however, rank as Fairies...”
Among various other beings, she lists Nanny Button-cap, and reprints the nursery rhyme as given by Addy.
There follows a clear trail of one person quoting another. In 1976, Katharine Briggs - citing Wright - mentioned the character in her Dictionary of Fairies as “A little West Yorkshire spirit. Not much is known about her, but she is a good fairy.”
Briggs’ only other contribution was to categorize the character under the Aarne-Thompson motif F403, which refers to helpful spirits. Other creatures Briggs listed were “brownie,” “lazy Laurence,” and “seelie court.”
Next was Carol Rose in Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People. Rose cited Briggs, but went rogue with a totally new description:
"This is the name of a fairy or nursery spirit in the folklore of Yorkshire, England. She behaves in much the same way as Wee Willie Winkie, ensuring that all young children are safe and warm in their beds, ready to go to sleep." (p. 231)
Where on earth did this come from? It bears no resemblance to Briggs' description. The song is about moon and stars and nighttime, but why would a fairy that brings sleep be described as coming tomorrow night? Wouldn't she be there every night? (Compare Wee Willie Winkie, whose rhyme takes place in the present tense - "it's past ten o' clock.")
I am also skeptical that Wee Willie Winkie was ever a fairy. However, that at least did come from Briggs, who connected the nursery rhyme to a Lancashire sleep-personification named Billy Winker. Nonetheless, Rose's version of Nanny Button-cap is out there in the cultural consciousness now. Ah, Dictionary of Fairies, mother of a thousand misunderstandings.
Nanny Button-cap's most unique claim to fame was appearing in the 1997 film FairyTale: A True Story, played by Norma Cohen. There was also a tie-in doll line, and Nanny was part of the "Royal Collection," which came in more elaborate boxes with more accessories. The white, blonde doll was dressed in a gauzy white outfit and butterfly headdress. The box explains that "This merry little fairy skips about the glen tidying the flowers! From the sparkle in her eye to the shimmer in her wings, Nanny Buttoncap’s goodness shines through! Mirth and merriment are the gifts she shares! If you’re very lucky, you may glimpse her as she sweetly dances on the honeysuckle blossoms."
The description of her "goodness" makes me think this was also drawn from Briggs.
Going back to the beginning: there’s nothing to indicate why Addy categorized Nanny Button-cap as a fairy. All he provides are (a) a nursery rhyme with no obvious fairy connections and (b) a painfully forced connection to the Norse goddess Nanna. It’s possible he based this entry on personal knowledge or stories he had heard. Maybe it’s just one of those things people accept but that’s not necessarily explicit in the rhyme, like Humpty Dumpty being an egg. But Addy didn’t give any details, so we have nothing to work with except his say-so.
A few details about Nanny Button-cap are comparable to fairy stories. She is "little" and associated with nighttime. Fairies are often described wearing caps, and in some stories grabbing their caps can even put them in a human's power. Some fairies have hat names, like the Anglo-Scottish redcaps, Scottish thrummy-caps, or German hodekin (“little hat”).
"Button Cap's room" was a reputedly haunted room in a Northamptonshire house. 19th-century clergyman Charles Kingsley stayed there as a child, and years later, in 1864, he described the spirit Button Cap as the ghost of a dishonest and greedy man who wore "a cap with a button on it.” This Button Cap was a poltergeist who would roll barrels around in the cellar but return them all to their places by morning.
As for the Nanny Button-cap nursery rhyme itself, the couplet about the moon and stars appears in several other songs as well. There are probably many more, but here are three that stood out to me:
One old English song with many variants begins:
The Moon shines bright, and the Stars give light,
A little before it was day,
A Christmas version continues:
Our Lord, our God, he called on us,
And bid us awake and pray.
Alternately, a version associated with Maying runs:
So God bless you all, both great and small
And send you a joyful May.
There's also a song titled "The Mermaid," about a group of sailors who encounter a mermaid and are lost in a storm -
Oh, the moon shines bright, and the stars give light;
Oh, my mother'll be looking for me;
She may look, she may weep, she may look to the deep,
She may look to the bottom of the sea. (Hayes 15)
Finally there's an esoteric 1831 novel, Raphael's Witch!!! Or the Oracle of the Future, which features a "Fairy Song."
When the moon shines bright,
When the stars give light,
When the meadows are green,
When the glow-worm is seen...
The chorus runs:
Then we fairies appear,
And roam far and near,
Till the day-star is near!
Unfortunately, this doesn't tell us much. The moon/stars couplet does seem to be old, but it's also an obvious rhyme.
So, is Nanny Button-cap a survival of an ancient Norse moon goddess? Absolutely not.
Is Nanny Button-cap a personification of sleep? No.
Is Nanny Button-cap a fairy from the folklore of Yorkshire? . . . Maybe? Lacking any other information from Addy, we're kind of stuck. Personally, I'm skeptical. If you have any information, comment below!
Tinker Bell isn’t the only famous pixie. Another is Joan the Wad, from Cornwall . . . Queen Joan. When I looked into the history of this character, I found a faint remnant of a Cornish tradition. I also found a whole lot of advertising for mass-produced good luck charms. Also a libel case.
A wad is a torch or bundle of straw; Joan the Wad’s name classifies her as a spirit similar to the Will o’ the Wisp, a wandering light which leads people astray. This apparition is often attributed to fairies, and in Cornwall it's "pixie-light" or people are "pixie-led." As James Orchard Halliwell wrote in 1861:
A clergyman, whose veracity is unquestionable, assured me that many of the inhabitants of Paul to this day believe devoutly that the piskies control the mists, and can, when so disposed, cast a thick veil over the traveller. Sometimes the fairies throw a light before his face that completely dazzles him, and leads him backwards and forwards, without allowing him to make any progress in his journey. This is called being pixy-laden; and a man lately going from Newlyn to Paul, as straight a country road as can well be imagined, was thus teased by the fairies, and it was not until he thought of turning his coat inside out that he escaped the effects of their influence.
Another popular term is Jack o' Lantern, today especially associated with Halloween and the souls of the wandering dead. An Irish folktale runs that he's a spirit locked out of both Heaven and Hell, left to wander with a light inside a turnip (or pumpkin). Kit with the Canstick (Candlestick) was another one. As for wads, Jack-in-the-wad and Meg-with-the-wad appeared in the Denham Tracts around the 1850s.
The first recorded mention of Joan the Wad was in an 1855 letter from Thomas Q. Couch, a native of Polperro, a large village in Cornwall. Discussing local traditions of piskies and pisky-leading, Couch mentions that he had heard the following rhyme invoking two piskies by name:
That tickled the maid and made her mad,
Light me home, the weather's bad.
Unlike most will o’ the wisp or pixie-led stories, this implies that these spirits were invoked for guidance. Or perhaps this was a plea to beings which usually led people to ruin. It's unusual to see Jack o' Lantern (or Jack-the-lantern in this case) labeled as a pixie, although as already seen, there is overlap.
The tickling refers to the idea that fairies pinched lazy maids, often hard enough to leave bruises. As in Drayton’s Nymphidia:
“These make our girls their sluttery rue,
By pinching them both black and blue...”
Or Herrick’s Hesperides:
“ Sweep your house; who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe."
After Couch's work was published, a few works listed Joan-the-Wad or Joan in the wad as a fairy name. Joan's most prominent outing was in 1899, when the Cornish Magazine published the poem “Joan o’ the Wad: A Pisky Song” by Nora Hopper. In this poem, Joan torments countryfolk and animals, blights fruit, steals milk, and seduces young men.
So far, so good. But this Joan is not a queen, just a generic will o' the wisp.
Here we come to an entrepreneur named F. T. Nettleinghame, who moved to Cornwall in 1923. He began publishing postcards and several short books, but ran into business trouble, declaring bankruptcy in 1931 and also getting a divorce. This didn't stop him; in March 1932, he registered trademarks for 'Joan the Wad' and 'Jack o' Lantern'. And then he started advertising. He sold small brass charms of Joan the Wad, “Queen of the Lucky Cornish Piskeys." Joan "sees all, hears all, does all" and brings "Wonderful Luck in the way of Health, Wealth and Happiness." "Substitutes are not effective." "No one is allowed to have Joan the Wad unless they have previously possessed the History of the Lucky Cornish Piskey Folk" (a booklet also provided by the business).
Also, the charms had to be dipped in "the Lucky Saints' Well" in Polperro in order to be effective. This was a major part of the business’s mythology. The reality was a little less romantic; the charms were manufactured in Birmingham, then taken to a well in Cornwall where they were put into cages for dipping in bulk.
There were also charms of Jack o’ Lantern, now Joan's consort. And plenty of other merchandise including china plates and pamphlets of pixie stories. People could order by mail from “Joan’s Cottage” in Bodmin, Cornwall. Advertisements ran in magazines, with testimonials from satisfied customers writing in that they had won lotteries, miraculously recovered from illnesses, or married millionaires. Or that they'd lost their charms, were having awful luck and desperately needed new ones. This marketing approach was apparently quite successful. Business boomed to the point where Nettleinghame had a whole chain of shops in Devon and Cornwall.
(We know a little more about business operations because in 1934, a couple of years in, Nettleinghame’s business partner Douglas Sargeant sued a newspaper for libel. One of the various allegations was that he and Nettleinghame asked sweepstakes winners to give credit to Joan the Wad for their success - the sweepstakes in question was actually run by Sargeant.)
Even after Nettleinghame stepped back from the charm business, he was still able to live comfortably and explore other business ventures. Joan and Jack were joined by other characters like "Billy Bucca, Duke Of The Buccas" and "Sam Spriggan, Prince of the Spriggans." Other businesses saw an opportunity to piggyback, and in the 1950s, competitors included “Glama, the oriental charm of luck and love,” Lady Luck, Beppo’s Little Man, and quite a few others. Even today, there are still businesses selling Joan the Wad charms.
Joan the Wad, as a pointy-headed metal figure crouched on a mushroom, became a familiar sight in advertisements for British readers. She may even have made her way into folklore in some fashion. In the 1980s, Cornish gardener Den Tuthill told a story about the Devil invading Cornwall. Jack, King of the Giants, and Joan-the-Wad, Queen of the Piskies, teamed up to trick the Devil with the gift of an enchanted walking stick which forced him to walk away from Cornwall and never return. Considering Joan's history, it seems very appropriate that this story was part of Tuthill's advertising for his own handmade walking sticks under the brand name Kellywyck. (Williams pp. 93-95)
So, Joan the Wad may have once been an obscure name along the lines of Jack-in-the-wad and Meg-with-the-wad, but was reinvented as fairy royalty in a wildly successful marketing campaign. If you’ve heard of the pixies having a Queen Joan, it’s because of F. T. Nettleinghame.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.