Charles Perrault's fairytale "Le Petit Poucet" - literally "The Little Thumb," my preferred name for it being "Hop o' my Thumb" - has a lot to unpack. In one of the most memorable scenes, Hop o' my Thumb flees with his brothers while the ogre pursues them in seven-league boots. However, the ogre tires and falls asleep, and Hop steals the boots for himself. He goes on to use them as a royal messenger.
Seven-league boots (or as Perrault called them, "bottes de sept lieues," will allow the wearer to walk seven leagues in one step. A league was roughly the distance that a person could walk in one hour, so about three miles. Seven-league boots would thus carry you twenty-one miles at every stride.
Seven is a number rich in symbolism and particularly recurrent in "Hop o' my Thumb." Hop is one of seven brothers. The ogre has seven daughters.
This was not the first appearance of seven-league boots in Perrault's fairytales. In his version of Sleeping Beauty, there is a brief appearance by "a little dwarf who had a pair of seven-league boots, which are boots that enable one to cover seven leagues at a single step." This is where we actually learn what the boots do - "Le Petit Poucet" leaves the definition out. The dwarf in Sleeping Beauty even serves as a messenger, exactly the same vocation as Hop o' my Thumb. He is a bit character and most adaptations do not include him.
Is this a cameo by Hop? Do Perrault's tales share a universe? And what drew Perrault more than once to this specific image, of the incredibly small man in the magic boots?
The idea of magical footwear that enables people to travel incredible distances is a universal one, but it seems Perrault made up this particular variation. It spread quickly. In Finnish, they are "seitsemän peninkulman saappaat." In Russian, сапоги-скороходы (sapogi-skorokhody, or fast-walker boots). In German, they are siebenmeilenstiefel.
In the Hungarian tale of "Zsuzska and the Devil" - basically a genderflip of Hop o' my Thumb - the heroine steals tengerlépő cipődet, or sea-striding shoes. "The Bee and the Orange Tree" by Madame d'Aulnoy and "Okerlo" by the Grimms feature seven-league boots and a chase scene. The Grimms' "Sweetheart Roland" includes meilenstiefel, literally "mile-boots." An African-American version of the story is "John and the Devil's Daughter," by Virginia Hamilton in The People Could Fly.
The idea goes far back in history and mythology. In Greek mythology, of course, there are the Talaria, the winged sandals which allow the god Hermes to fly. In Chinese myth, there are the Ǒusībùyúnlǚ (Cloud-stepping Shoes), which allow the wearer to walk on the clouds. In the Irish tale of King Fergus, the luchorpain gives Fergus shoes that let him safely walk underwater or on water. In Teutonic Mythology, Jacob Grimm mentioned "gefeite schuhe" or "fairy shoes," "with which one could travel faster on the ground, and perhaps through the air." He directly compares these to Hermes' winged sandals and to the seven-league boots.
In some versions, the magical traveling shoes are part of a set.
In the 1621 version of Tom Thumb, Tom receives multiple gifts from his fairy godmother: a cap that bestows knowledge, a ring of invisibility, a girdle that enables shapeshifting, and finally “a payre of shooes, (that being on his feete) would in a moment carry him to any part of the earth, and to be any time where hee pleased.” In a brief scene, Tom dons the shoes and is "carried as quicke as thought" across the world to view anthropophages, cyclopes, and other monsters.
"Jack the Giant-Killer" (1711) borrowed these elements, with Jack winning from a giant a coat of invisibility, a cap of knowledge, a fine sword, and "shoes of swiftness."
This is similar to "The King of the Golden Mountain" (Grimm), where the hero tricks three giants into giving him a magic sword, a cloak of invisibility, and "a pair of boots which could transport the wearer to any place he wished in a moment." A similar tale is the Norwegian "Soria Moria Castle" (Asbjørnsen and Moe) with boots that make strides of twenty miles. In "The Iron Shoes," a Bavarian tale collected by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, the hero's boots let him travel a hundred miles per step and run alongside the wind. There are a multitude of other examples.
These objects are all common in legend and might originate in Greek mythology: the sandals of Hermes, the helm of Hades which grants invisibility, and the many transformations of Proteus. A mantle of invisibility belonging to King Arthur is mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen (c. 1100) and other Welsh myths. The tarnkappe - a similar object - plays a role in the Middle High German epic of the Nibelungenlied (c. 1200). Shapeshifting with or without the help of a magic object is a widespread trope throughout world mythology.
The hero typically receives these magical tools from a supernatural force: he receives them from the gods or a fairy, or steals them from a monster. The ancestor of them all is the Greek hero Perseus. He is entrusted by the gods with the helm of invisibility and winged sandals, which he uses to slay Medusa the Gorgo.
Hop o’ my Thumb bears absolutely no resemblance to the popular modern version of Tom Thumb - which is why it drives me nuts when people mix up the titles! However, there are a few similarities to the 1621 prose Tom Thumb.
Could Perrault have been inspired by Tom Thumb? Is that why he included an unusually small character wearing magic running shoes in two separate stories? Or did he take inspiration from the many other tales of magical shoes?
In this case, I think it's very possible he was inspired by the 1621 Tom Thumb. The beginning of Hop o' my Thumb always struck me as a bit out of place; his nickname and implied supernatural state of birth are irrelevant to the story. It's almost as if they were imported from another tale . . . a tale closer to Tom Thumb.
On a final note that interested me: unlike Perseus, Hop o’ my Thumb, and Jack the Giant-Killer, Tom Thumb does not use his magical tools to fight any monsters (although he has two run-ins with murderous giants). However, when traveling with his magic shoes, he does see monsters: "men without heads, their faces on their breasts, some with one legge, some with one eye in the forehead, some of one shape, some of another."
Their presence serves to indicate just how far he has traveled. Monopods or sciapods are legendary people with only one leg. Blemmyae or akephaloi are headless men with their faces on their chests. Cyclopes or Arimaspi are beings with only one eye. They appeared in the work of Greek writers like Herodotus and Pliny the Elder. Their legends showed up in bestiaries and maps throughout the Middle Ages. Pliny the Elder placed cyclopes in Italy, blemmyae in North Africa, and monopods in India. Some bestiaries put the one-eyed "Arimaspians" in Scythia, in eastern Europe.
So magical boots of travel are a very widespread and old idea, usually used in combination with other magical tools, but occasionally appearing on their own. They may have been Perrault's own creative touch. In tales similar to Hop o' my Thumb, there is frequently a chase where the hero must escape the villain, and does so by various means. Hansel and Gretel ride away on a duck. Other characters, like those in Sweetheart Roland, disguise themselves in a transformation chase. Perrault gave his hero magic boots for this scene, and codified them not just as magic boots but as seven-league boots (repeating the use of the number seven). Their presence, along with Petit Poucet's name, is fascinatingly reminiscent of the 1621 English Tom Thumb. What makes it even more interesting to me is that Perrault also used that Tom Thumb-esque character in Perrault's Sleeping Beauty.
One thing I didn't realize until I started researching folklore in depth is how much drama there is behind the scenes. For instance, take the story of "The Soul Cages."
The whole thing started when Thomas Crofton Croker began his collection Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. However, as the story goes, he lost his manuscript right before publication. A number of his Irish friends generously lent their help, writing out material and adding the folktales they knew. The result was a collaborative effort between many authors. Croker chose to publish the book anonymously, as the work of many, and it hit shelves in 1825. It was instantly popular. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm translated it into German as Irische Elfenmarchen in 1826.
Croker claimed all credit. Then he got right to work on producing more material. Around 1827, he published Volume 2, but this one was under his name alone.
One of the tales in Volume 2 was "The Soul Cages." Here, a fisherman befriends a merrow (merman) named Coomara (sea-hound). Coomara lends him a hat that will let him breathe underwater and invites him to visit his home on the seafloor. They have a nice meal and chat, but as the merrow shows him around, the fisherman notices a strange collection of lobster traps. Coomara explains that they are "soul-cages," containing the spirits of drowned sailors which he traps. The merrow makes out that he's doing the souls a favor by keeping them safe with him, but the Catholic fisherman is horrified. He contrives to get the merrow drunk, and then opens each of the cages to release the souls inside. From then on, the fisherman regularly pulls this trick to release souls as the merrow catches them.
Croker noted the story's striking resemblance to the German "Der Wassermann und der Bauer," or "The Waterman and the Peasant," which had appeared in the Brothers Grimm's Deutsche Sagen (1816-1818). In fact, when placed side by side, the stories shared identical plots. "The Soul Cages" is simply a more elaborate retelling of the Grimms' tale with Irish names and stereotypes stapled on.
There arose another issue. It seems there was controversy over Croker's manner of attributing sources - or rather, not attributing them. As one example, contemporary poet A. A. Watts wrote in Literary souvenir (1832):
...See Crofton Croker,
That dull, inveterate, would-be joker,
I wish he'd take a friendly hint,
And when he next appears in print,
Would tell us how he came to claim,
And to book prefix his name –
Those Fairy legends terse and smart,
Of which he penned so small a part,
Wherefore he owned them all himself,
And gave his friends nor fame, nor pelf.
One of Croker's helpers was the Irish writer Thomas Keightley. He went on to publish his own work, including the highly ambitious collection The Fairy Mythology in 1828. And he was steamed about not being credited properly in Fairy Legends. He said several times that credit wasn't important to him, but he still displayed a strong feeling that he had been used and cheated.
In his 1834 work Tales and Popular Fictions, Keightley declared that he was the uncredited source for a large number of tales in the first and second volumes of Fairy Legends. He laid claim to "The Young Piper," "Seeing is Believing," "Field of Boliauns," "Harvest Dinner," "Scath-a-Legaune," "Barry of Cairn Thierna," various pieces of other tales, and - most pertinently at the moment - "The Soul Cages." But it was a collaborative effort, as "another hand" - i. e., Croker - added details to these stories. Keightley adds that he had nothing to do with Volume 3, "which was apparently intended to rival my Fairy Mythology". Although hinting that he has experienced "hostility" over it, he also says he has "been amused at seeing [himself] quoted by those who intended to praise another person." He dismisses Fairy Legends as a bad depiction of Irish culture and dismissively says that he doesn't really care about getting the credit for such a "trifling" book. There are layers of cattiness here.
Croker never explicitly denied that Keightley had authored those stories. His combined volume of Fairy Legends in 1834 left out a number of stories, including "The Soul Cages." The new foreword suggested that the removal of these tales would "sufficiently answer doubts idly raised as to the question of authorship." This contributed to public perception that Keightley really had written the stories he claimed.
In an 1849 interview, Croker included Keightley in a list of people who helped him with the book, but indicated that they were essentially secretaries "writing, in most instances, from dictation." However, they were all skilled authors and scholars in their own right, and considering his apparent bow to pressure in 1834, this seems suspicious.
Collaboration on folktale collections was not uncommon, but in this case there were clearly both confusion and hard feelings.
Keightley did not include "The Soul Cages" or any of his Croker-collaboration material in The Fairy Mythology in 1828. But by 1850, a new edition had appeared. This time, Keightley included an English translation of "The Waterman and the Peasant" - and tucked away in the appendix was "The Soul Cages." Here, as a footnote, Keightley made a stunning announcement:
We must here make an honest confession. This story had no foundation but the German legend in p. 259 [The Peasant and the Waterman]. All that is not to be found there is our own pure invention. Yet we afterwards found that it was well-known on the coast of Cork and Wicklow. "But," said one of our informants, "It was things like flower-pots he kept them in." So faithful is popular tradition is these matters! In this and the following tale there are some traits by another hand which we are now unable to discriminate.
So here we are. "The Soul Cages" was an original creation by Keightley. More than that, it was plagiarized. It was stolen from the Brothers Grimm and not Irish at all.
Keightley has drawn harsh criticism from those who noticed the tiny note. Anne Markey called The Soul Cages "an elaborate confidence trick on Croker, Grimm, and subsequent commentators." (However, she also dated Keightley's confession to an 1878 edition, much later.)
But was it a confidence trick? Was it revenge against Croker for not citing his sources - an attempt to discredit him? Was it a test to see if Croker would even notice?
Honestly, I'm glad that Keightley confessed, even in the sneaky side way he did it. His confession, hidden in a footnote of an appendix of a later edition, was too little, too late. The story had already spread into the public consciousness, and is still circulated by people who never got that easily missed memo. But at least he told the truth at some late point. He even personally wrote to the Grimms to explain.
Or so I'd heard. Then I found out that there are reproductions of Keightley's letters to the Grimms in Volume 7 of the series Brüder Grimm Gedenken.
Keightley wrote to the Grimms to ask advice and feedback on The Fairy Mythology. When he mentioned Croker, the level of venom was astounding. He called Croker “a shallow void pretender” and “a parasitical plant.” According to him, Croker couldn't even speak German, and when he had corresponded with the Grimms, it had really been Keightley translating everything. In his version of the story, Croker was working on “a mere childs book” when Keightley suggested something grander; Keightley and friends then generously contributed material for two volumes of Fairy Legends. But Croker (a writer of “feebleness and puerility”) hogged the spotlight and insulted Keightley's writing abilities to boot, calling him simply a "drudge" good for nothing but writing down what he was told. Keightley insisted that he had been "defrauded" of the tales he collected for Legends, and that Croker was still trying to one-up him and compete with him.
Keightley quickly realized that his colorful account might be taken as unprofessional. In a letter dated April 13, 1829, he backtracked, demurring that he was just an Irishman with "hot blood" - but reiterating that his version contained the hard facts. He explained further,
I know not whether you have translated the 2nd vol. of the Fairy Legends or not. If you have not I cannot blame you for Mr. C. intoxicated with the success of the first volume thought the public would swallow any nonsense & he therefore in spite of me put in some pieces of disgraceful absurdity. The history of the legend called the Soul-cages is curious. I had read, in English, to Mr. C. several of your Deutsche Sagen. One morning he called on me & said that he thought the “Waterman" would make an excellent subject for a tale & that he wished I would write it. I objected that we did not know it to be an Irish legend. “Oh what matter! said he, who will know it? I accordingly wrote the tale which is therefore entirely my invention except the groundwork. You will however except the nonsense-verses & some other puerilities which you will give me credit for not being capable of. But the most curious circumstance is that after the Soul-cage was written I met with two persons from different parts of Ireland who were well acquainted with the legend from their childhood.
According to Keightley's version, this was no prank or confidence trick - at least not on his part. Croker had the idea to plagiarize the Grimms. If there are any scenes you think are dumb, it's because Croker added them. But it's actually okay, Keightley says, because people really were telling similar stories in Ireland.
If this reproduction of the letter is accurate, then I now feel less sympathetic to Keightley. In his casting of blame, he comes off as immature and two-faced.
Keightley may not have published his thoughts on Croker in Fairy Mythology, but he made very sure to always include that he had heard the Soul Cages story in Ireland afterwards. He needed that excuse. Admitting he'd fabricated a story torpedoed his credibility as a folklorist. At least this way he could cling to some plausible deniability. He was practically forced to write the story, he claimed, and afterwards he found out it was genuine anyway.
No one can really say whether or not he really heard the story in this later context. Anne Markey suggests the story slipped into folklore after its origins in Croker's book, but this depends on timing. Keightley's public confession was later, but he confessed to the Grimms only two years after "The Soul Cages" was published. That was hardly enough time for the story to have seeped into public consciousness, especially when Keightley's new informants had supposedly known the story since childhood.
I do not know of any other stories of this type in Ireland. Thomas Westropp, in his "Folklore Survey of County Clare" (1910-1913), noted that he'd found no other examples of this story in Ireland. He expressed "great doubt" on its authenticity.
However, we do have the German tale of "The Waterman and the Peasant," and similar tales from Czech areas.
"Yanechek and the Water Demon" ends with the main characters drowning and being collected by the demonic vodník. "Lidushka and the Water Demon's Wife" has a happier ending, in which a girl successfully releases the souls in the form of white doves. These tales were identified as Bohemian in origin in Slavonic Fairy Tales (1874) by John Theophilus Naaké.
Elfenreigen deutsche und nordische Märchen, by Marie Timme, an 1877 collection of Germanic-based fairytales, features the melancholy story of "The Fallen Bell." A nix, furious that he no longer receives human sacrifices, drowns a small girl and keeps her soul beneath a sunken bell.
These examples point to an origin around Germany and the Czech Republic. They retain a creepy tone which "The Soul-Cages" lost. The villains are explicitly demonic, the trapped souls truly suffering. Meanwhile in "The Soul-Cages," the fisherman remains drinking buddies with the easily duped merman while freeing any souls he catches. Coomara isn’t even an evil being. By his own account, he is just trying to help the drowned souls, and this is supported by the fact that he never does the fisherman or his family any harm. The story is goofy rather than eerie, and the main takeaway is the Irish stereotypes.
The tormented history of "The Soul-Cages" betrays the ease with which any folklorist could sneak in a story and claim it was traditional. Everyone was aware of this. Markey points out that Keightley himself highlighted at least two tales of suspicious origin in other collections. Even the Grimms, whom both Croker and Keightley idolized, hadn't really gotten their stories from the German peasant folk, but from middle-class readers of French fairytale collections. The Grimms also made major edits to polish the collection for a public audience.
So, in summary:
If you believe Keightley's letter, "The Soul Cages" was not intended as a prank on Croker, or anything of that nature. He said Croker was fully aware of its nature and was the person who came up with the idea. At this point we will never know for sure whether that's true. However, Croker himself pointed out the similarities to the Grimms' story and printed the two tales in the same volume. Publishing your plagiarized work with the original for comparison seems phenomenally stupid. Keightley would probably love to inform us that Croker was exactly that stupid. I still don't know if Croker ever responded to the reveal of The Soul Cages' true origin.
Whatever else occurred, I find it interesting that this story gave us the song "The Soul Cages" by Sting.
One classic fairytale is "Le Petit Poucet" by Charles Perrault - often translated in English as Hop o' My Thumb. A poor woodcutter and his wife, starving in poverty, decide to lighten their burden by abandoning their seven children in the woods. The youngest child, Hop o' my Thumb, attempts to mark the way home with a trail of breadcrumbs, but it's eaten by birds. The lost boys make their way to an ogre's house where they sleep for the night. The ogre prepares to kill them in their sleep; however, an alert Hop o' my Thumb switches the boys' nightcaps for the golden crowns worn by the ogre's seven daughters. While the ogre mistakenly slaughters his own children in the dark, the boys escape. Hop also manages to steal the ogre's seven league boots and treasure, ensuring his family will never starve again.
This tale is Aarne Thompson type 327B, "The Dwarf and the Giant" or "The Small Boy Defeats the Ogre." However, this title ignores the fact that there are stories where a girl fights the ogre, and that these stories are just as widespread and enduring.
One ogre-fighting girl is the Scottish "Molly Whuppie." Three abandoned girls wind up at the home of a giant and his wife, who take them in for the night. The giant, plotting to eat the lost girls, places straw ropes around their necks and gold chains around the necks of his own daughters. Molly swaps the necklaces and, while the giant kills his own children, she and her sisters escape. Then, to win princely husbands for her sisters and herself, Molly sneaks back into the giant's house three times. Each time she steals marvelous treasures (much like Jack and the Beanstalk). At one point the giant captures her in a sack, but she tricks his wife into taking her place. She makes her final escape by running across a bridge of one hair, where the giant can't follow her.
This tale was published by Joseph Jacobs; his source was the Aberdeenshire tale "Mally Whuppy." He rendered the story in standard English text and changed Mally to Molly. In Scottish, Whuppie or Whippy could be a contemptuous name for a disrespectful girl, but it was also an adjective for active, agile, or clever.
This story probably originated with a near-identical tale from the isle of Islay: Maol a Chliobain or Maol a Mhoibean. J. F. Campbell, the collector, says that the spelling is phonetic but doesn't provide many clues to the meaning. Maol means, literally, bare or bald. Hannah Aitken pointed out that it could mean a devotee, a follower or servant who would have shaved their head in a tonsure. This word begins many Irish surnames, like Malcolm, meaning "devotee of St. Columba." When the story reached Aberdeenshire, the unfamiliar "Maol" became Mally or Molly, a nickname for Mary.
According to Norman Macleod's Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, "moibean" is a mop. "Clib" is any dangling thing or the act of stumbling - leading to "clibein" or "cliobain," a hanging fold of loose skin, and "cliobaire," a clumsy person or a simpleton. Perhaps Maol a Chliobain means something like "Servant Simpleton" - a likely name for a despised youngest child in a fairytale. Maol a Mhoibean could mean something like "Servant Mop."
There are a wealth of similar heroines. The Scottish Kitty Ill-Pretts is named for her cleverness, ill pretts being "nasty tricks." The Irish Hairy Rouchy and Hairy Rucky have rough appearances, and Máirín Rua is named for her red hair and beard (!). Another Irish tale with similar elements is Smallhead and the King's Sons, although this is more a confusion of different tales.
The bridge of one hair which Molly/Mally crosses is a striking image. This perhaps emphasizes the heroine's smallness and lightness, in contrast to the giant's size. In "Maol a Chliobain," the hair comes from her own head. In "Smallhead and the King's Sons," it's the "Bridge of Blood," over which murderers cannot walk.
Based on examples like these, Joseph Jacobs theorized that this tale was Celtic in origin. However, female variants of 327B span far beyond Celtic countries.
Finette Cendron is a French literary tale by Madame d'Aulnoy, published in 1697, which blends into Cinderella. The heroine has multiple names - Fine-Oreille (Sharp-Ear), Finette (Cunning) and Cendron (Cinders).
Zsuzska and the Devil is a Hungarian version. Zsuzska (whose name translates basically to "Susie") steals ocean-striding shoes from the devil, echoing Hop o' My Thumb's seven-league boots. According to Linda Dégh, female-led versions of AT 327B are quite popular in Hungary.
Fatma the Beautiful is a fairly long tale from Sudan. In the central section, Fatma the Beautiful and her six companions are captured by an ogress. Fatma stays awake all night, preventing the ogress from eating them, and the group is able to escape and feed the ogress to a crocodile. In the ending section, the girls find husbands; Fatma wears the skin of an old man, only removing it to bathe, and her would-be husband must uncover her true identity. (This last motif seems to be common in tales from the African continent.) Christine Goldberg counted twelve versions of this tale in Africa and the Middle East.
The Algerian tale of "Histoire de Moche et des sept petites filles," or The Story of Moche and the Seven Little Girls, features a youngest-daughter-hero named Aïcha. She combines traits of Hop o' my Thumb and Cinderella, and defends her older sisters from a monstrous cat. This is only one of many African and Middle Eastern tales of a girl named Aicha who fights monsters.
And the tale has made its way to the Americas. Mutsmag and Muncimeg, in the Appalachians, are identical to Molly Whuppie. Meg is a typical girl's name, and I've seen theories that the "muts" in Mutsmag means "dirty" (making the name a similar construction to Cinderella). It could also be "muns," small, or from the Scottish "munsie," an "odd-looking or ridiculously-dressed person" (see McCarthy). German "mut" is bravery. (See a rundown of name theories here.)
In the 1930s, "Belle Finette" was recorded in Missouri. Peg Bearskin is a variant from Newfoundland.
In Old-Fashioned Fairy Tales (1882) by Juliana Horatia Ewing, we have "The Little Darner," where a young girl uses her darning skills to charm and manipulate an ogre.
One of the largest differences between the male and female variants of 327B is the naming pattern. Male heroes of 327B are likely to be stunted in growth - a dwarf, a half-man, or a precocious newborn infant.
Le Petit Poucet is "when born no bigger than one's thumb" - earning him his name. In English, he has been called Thumbling, Little Tom Thumb, or Hop o' My Thumb. The last name is my favorite, since it helps to distinguish him. Note that despite the confusion of names, he is not really a thumbling character. His size is only remarked upon at his birth. He is thumb-sized at birth, but in the story proper, he is apparently an unusually small but still perfectly normal child.
Look at other similar heroes' names:
The names of girls who fight ogres focus on the heroine's intelligence or beauty (or lack of beauty). The heroine is often a youngest child, but I have never encountered a version where she's tiny, as Hop o' My Thumb is. The girl's appearance can play a role in the tale, but if so, the focus is usually on her being dirty, wild or hairy. Where the hero of 327B is shrunken and shrimpy, the heroine has a masculine appearance. Máirín Rua has a beard; Fatma the Beautiful disguises herself as an old man.
Outside Type 327B, there are still other female characters who face trials similar to Hop o' my Thumb and Molly Whuppie. Aarne-Thompson 327A, "The Children and the Witch," includes "Hansel and Gretel" (German) and "Nennello and Nennella" (Italian). Nennello and Nennella mean something like "little dwarf boy and little dwarf girl." Nennella, with her name and her adventure being swallowed by a large fish, is the closest to a Thumbling character. Bâpkhâdi, in a tale from India, is born from a blister on her father's thumb - a birth similar to many thumbling stories. In the opening to the tale, her parents abandon her and her six older sisters in the woods. However, after this episode, the tale turns into Cinderella.
In Aarne-Thompson type 711, the beautiful and the ugly twin, an ugly sister protects a more beautiful sister, fights otherworldly forces, and wins a husband. This encompasses the Norwegian "Tatterhood," Scottish "Katie Crackernuts," and French Canadian "La Poiluse." It overlaps with previously mentioned tales like Mairin Rua and Peg Bearskin.
One central motif to 327B is the trick where the hero swaps clothes, beds, or another identifying object, so that the villain kills their own offspring by mistake. This motif appears in in many other tales, even ones with completely different plots. A girl plays this trick in a Lyela tale from Africa mentioned by Christine Goldberg. In fact, one of the oldest appearances of this motif appears in Greek myth. There, two women - Ino and Themisto - play the roles of trickster heroine and villain.
Madame D’Aulnoy’s “The Bee and the Orange Tree” and the Grimms’ "Sweetheart Roland" and "Okerlo" are very similar to 327B. However, they are their own tale type, ATU 313 or “The Magic Flight.” In these tales, a young woman is always the one fighting off the witch or ogre. She’s the one who switches hats, steals magic tools, and rescues others. The main difference is that while the heroes of ATU 327 are lost children, the heroes of ATU 313 are young lovers.
But back to the the basic 327B tale. Both "The Dwarf and the Giant" and "Small Boy Defeats the Ogre" are flawed names, given that stories where a girl defeats the ogre are so widespread. These ogre-slaying girls pop up in Ireland, Scotland, Hungary, France, Egypt, and Persia, and have thrived in the Americas. I fully expect to find more out there.
You might think I was out of things to say about pillywiggins, but you would be wrong! I've begun keeping a list of any books I can find that mention them. This is an opportunity to see how new folklore develops in the era of the Internet. There are far too many works to list here, but here are a few:
Haunts & taunts: a book for Halloweén and all the nights of the year by Jean Chapman (1983)
At this point, the second book ever that I know features pillywiggins. Here, "Pillywiggins" is the given name of a baby fairy in a retelling of the fairytale "Katie Crackernuts." The name also appears in a list of fairies later on.
Fairies & Elves, the "Enchanted World" series (1985)
The Enchanted World was a twenty-one-book series released by Time Life Books. The books were edited by Ellen Phillips, with Tristram Potter Coffin as primary consultant. The series was available through mail order. TV commercials struck a creepy, mysterious tone and featured horror actor Vincent Price. Fairies & Elves was book three. It primarily recounts folktales from around the world, with one very brief description of pillywiggins, mentioning that they hide inside flowers and are about the size of bees.
The illustration shows long-haired, butterfly-winged nymphs peeking out of the tops of wildflowers. This is the earliest picture of pillywiggins I have found, unless you count the unidentified dancing gnomes in Haunts & Taunts.
Various books by Pierre Dubois, 1991-onwards
Dubois has mentioned pillywiggins in many of his works, but I am unsure what the first one was. I know he was including them at least by 1991, namedropping them in his graphic novel Pixies.
The thing about Dubois is that he is a creative writer, not a folklore scholar. He regularly alters folklore creatures to suit his purposes. Parisette (a plant) and Tisanière (an herbal tea infusion) show up as fae creatures in his books. “Freddy” – Freddy Krueger! - gets an entry in a list of bogeymen. And then there are the many creatures which appear nowhere before Dubois's writings: Danthienne, H'awouahoua, Lorialet, Scarille, Tiddyfollicoles, etc. Many of these have since made their way into other fantasy works.
In La grande encyclopédie des lutins (1992), Dubois claims to have found a mention of pillywiggins among other fae in an 11th-century manuscript titled Aelfsidem, translated by "W.T. Dodgsons Luchtat, 1334, Meinster, p. 526." Dubois and people quoting him are the only ones ever to mention this manuscript. In addition, the "quotes" from Aelfsidem read exactly like everything else Dubois writes, and the fairies, pixies, and undines it lists are highly anachronistic. (If you look for fairylike beings in medieval manuscripts, you’re more likely to find incubi, neptuni, fauni, and dryades.) Dubois frequently makes up fictional quotes in the playful way of a fantasy writer building a world. One example is his famous scholar “Petrus Barbygère” - who is, in fact, a fictional character and the lead of one of Dubois's comic series. This has not stopped a few confused authors from quoting Dubois's in-universe books and people as sources.
His Encyclopédie des Fées gives a longer description of pillywiggins, explaining that they have insectoid characteristics and can take the form of bees or dragonflies. The text is rife with errors. Francis James Childe becomes "Frances Jammes," and the artist Cicely Mary Barker is "Cecily Mary Broker." Nevertheless, Dubois' work ushered pillywiggins into French fairylore.
A Witch’s Guide to Faery Folk by Edain McCoy (1994)
Okay, so first off, McCoy has been a figure of some controversy among Wiccans, being particularly infamous for claiming that the potato was sacred to the ancient Irish Celts. (The potato was introduced to Ireland around the 16th century.)
She bases this book in folklore, but then runs in her own direction with it, creating fanciful and detailed descriptions for various “faery” races. She introduces the "saleerandee," a Welsh lizard faery whose name resembles the salamander, and the “attorcroppe,” a serpent-like faery. She is the only source for these creatures. She also transforms the Yucatec deity Sip into teensy, shy Mayan fairies called Zips and the German moss-covered dwarves, Mooseleute, into the pretty butterfly-winged Moss People.
She makes the pillywiggins friendly, cute and sweet, concerned only with blossoms and springtime. They ride upon bees. She names their sexy, scantily-clad blonde queen "Ariel." Everything about this Ariel corresponds to the Ariel of Shakespeare's Tempest.
In fact, in art and costuming, Ariel is frequently a feminine figure with golden hair and gauzy white clothing.
McCoy may have been inspired by Fairies & Elves’ mention of cowslips and honeybees, combined with Ariel’s speech in The Tempest. There would have been plenty of available artwork featuring Ariel that increased the similarities.
McCoy’s guide to fairies has been copied and circulated online in its entirety since at least 2001.
A Basket of Wishes, by Rebecca Paisley (1995)
A romance. Splendor, princess of the Pillywiggins, who has vast magic powers and weeps diamonds, has to bear some human guy's child.
Here, Pillywiggin is a realm of Faery. Its inhabitants are referred to as Pillywiggins, Pillywiggin fairies, pixies, sprites, elves or imps. Their natural form is tiny humanoids the size of "the span of a large butterfly's wings." They can grant wishes as well as fly with or without the aid of wings (which are apparently detachable). Physically, they are identical to humans except that they are incredibly beautiful and exude stardust, not unlike Tinker Bell. Overall, they serve as an amalgam of fairy traditions old and new. Their queen is the Tooth Fairy.
Buttercup Baby by Karen Fox (October 2001)
A romance. Ariel, queen of the Pillywiggins, who has vast magic powers and weeps opals, has to bear some human guy's child.
Karen Fox wrote four books for Jove Books' "Magical Love" series, and she used pillywiggins as a race of garden fairies. They apparently make up the majority of the fae and serve King Oberon. They seem uniformly female and very beautiful, and they are distinct from pixies (mischievous miniature trolls who serve Queen Titania). Fox's use of Queen Ariel points to Edain McCoy's work.
Pillywiggins and the Tree Witch, by Julia Jarman (2011)
A chapter book for younger readers, in which Pillywiggins is the personal name of one fairy.
Jarman's Pillywiggins is a refreshing departure from the twee miniature flower goddesses seen elsewhere on this list. She's a tough, tomboyish loner, repeatedly contrasted with the other sparkly pink fairies. Although she looks eerie, she's a heroic figure. There is a scene where she senses plants coming alive on Midsummer’s Eve, but otherwise she doesn’t seem to be associated with flowers that much.
I contacted Ms. Jarman and learned that this Pillywiggins was based on a doll found at a craft fair. Ms. Jarman turned to the Internet in order to find out what the name meant, which is the case for many authors and researchers these days, including me.
Atlantide: La naissance by T. A. Barron (2016)
This is a weird example. In the original English version, Atlantis Rising, the characters encounter tiny forest fairies with wings and antennae. These fairies are called "Quiggleypottles." In the French translation, their name is mysteriously replaced with "pillywiggins."
I’m not sure why it was necessary to substitute anything for Barron’s original creation. Does Quiggleypottle sound bad in French? This does indicate, however, that the translators were familiar with pillywiggin as a word for tiny flower fairies.
Pillywiggins have inspired songs (at least three; the ones I've found are either French or attribute pillywiggins to French tradition). They are monster-insects in the video game Final Fantasy XI. Quite a few small businesses are named after them. You can buy pillywiggin dolls on Etsy. A book of cat names suggests Pillywiggin as a charming name for a kitten. And, as of April 2019, a pillywiggin has appeared in the anime "Fairy Gone" (though it doesn't look much like a traditional fairy).
I still can't trace pillywiggins any farther back than 1977, and I have yet to find a single scholarly collection that mentions them. It’s entirely possible that they originated in the 70s, and over the next 42 years, took root in the modern imagination and spread across the globe.
I wrote to English folklorist Jeremy Harte as part of my continuing research. He could find no evidence of pillywiggins as part of folklore - which has been typical for me and everyone I've contacted. There are, of course, similar words like Pigwiggen, and he pointed out another similar fairy name, Skillywiddens. Pillywiggin is actually a perfect combo of those two.
He also pointed out a very interesting possibility: "from the way that [the 1977 source] mentions them, it’s possible that she may mean, not ‘there is a Dorset tradition about Pillywiggins’ but ‘there are traditions about tiny flower spirits, just like the (sc. literary) Pillywiggins from Dorset’. In that case we’re back to searching children’s literature."
The source might also be TV or radio rather than a book.
The only thing that can truly settle the issue is to find a source for pillywiggins that predates Field Guide to the Little People. If an older source is found, it will probably be a piece of media from the 60’s or 70’s, possibly connected to Dorset and intended for children.
Again - if you have any information to add, please let me know!
In 1697, Charles Perrault published the story of "Cendrillon: ou la Petite Pantoufle de verre" (Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper). This is probably the most widespread version of Cinderella, thanks in large part to its adaptation by Walt Disney. I often see people on the Internet insist that "the original Cinderella wore gold slippers and had the stepsisters cut off their toes and get their eyes pecked out by birds!" But that was "Aschenputtel," the version from the Brothers Grimm. Perrault published his work 115 years before the Grimms did. It's impossible to identify an "original" version of Cinderella, but at least in terms of publication, the glass slipper came first.
But was it really a glass slipper? There is a persistent theory that the shoes were originally made of fur - which is about as far from glass as you can get!
This theory may have originated with Honore de Balzac, in La Comédie humaine: Sur Catherine de Médicis, published between 1830 and 1842 and finalized in 1846. The word for glass, "verre," sounds the same as "vair" or squirrel fur. This fur was a luxury item which only the upper class was allowed to wear. Therefore, claimed Balzac, Cinderella's slipper was "no doubt" made of fur.
Since then, quite a few authors have relied on this alternate origin for Cinderella's origins, usually in order to fit the story into a more "realistic" mold. It has also produced a persistent legend in the English-speaking world that Perrault used fur slippers and was mistranslated.
Yes, glass shoes raise questions. How did she dance in them? How did she run in them? Wouldn't they have shattered? Wouldn't they have been super noisy? Fur slippers erase those questions entirely.
But Cinderella stories regularly include things like dresses made of sunlight, moonlight and starlight. Forests grow of silver, gold and diamonds. Prisoners are confined atop glass mountains. In Perrault's version alone, mice are transformed into horses and pumpkins into carriages.
Glass slippers should not be an issue.
In fact, they fit perfectly well with the internal logic of the fairytale. As has been pointed out by others, the whole point of the slippers is that only Cinderella can wear them. Fur slippers are soft and yielding. Glass slippers are rigid and you can see clearly whether they fit a certain foot. Moving into symbolism: they are expensive, delicate, unique, magical. Cinderella must be light and delicate, too, in order to dance in them. They are a contradiction in terms (of course it would be impossible for a woman to dance in glass shoes! That's the whole point!) and that's why they have captured so many imaginations.
The fact is that Perrault wrote about "pantoufles de verre," glass slippers. He used those words multiple times. There is no question that he was talking about glass. No one mistranslated Perrault.
However, did he misunderstand an oral tale which mentioned slippers of vair?
It's important to note that "vair" was popular in the Middle Ages. By Perrault's time, this medieval word was long out of use!
It is still possible that Perrault could have heard a version with vair slippers - but is it probable? What stories might Perrault have heard?
In her extensive work on Cinderella, Marian Roalfe Cox found only six versions with glass shoes. She found many that were not described, many that were small or tiny, and many that were silver, silk, covered in jewels or pearls, or embroidered with gold. A Venetian story had diamond shoes, and an Irish tale had blue glass shoes. Cox believed that other versions with glass slippers were based on Perrault's Cendrillon. Paul Delarue, on the other hand, thought these versions were too far away in origin, which would make them independent sources - which means Perrault could have drawn on an older tradition of Cinderella in glass shoes.
Gold shoes are perhaps significant. Ye Xian or Yeh-hsien, a Chinese tale, was first published about 850, and its heroine's shoes are gold. Centuries later, the Grimms' Aschenputtel takes off her heavy wooden clogs to wear slippers “embroidered with silk and silver,” but her final slippers - the ones which identify her - are simply “pure gold.” It’s not clear whether this means gold fabric or solid metal.
As for other early Cinderellas: Madame D'Aulnoy published her story "Finette Cendron" (Cunning Cinders) in 1697, the same year as Perrault's Cendrillon. Her heroine wears red velvet slippers braided with pearls. Realistic enough.
The Pentamerone (1634) has "La Gatta Cenerenterola" (Cat Cinderella). It's not said what the heroine's shoes are made of, but she does ride in a golden coach.
Note that shoes are not always the object that identifies the heroine. In many tales, it's a ring - something likely to be made of gold or studded with gems. What if, at some pivotal point, far back in history, a storyteller combined the tiny shoe and the golden ring into a single object?
On the other hand, I have never found a Cinderella who wears fur slippers to a ball. Fur clothing appears in Cinderella stories such as "All-Kinds-of-Fur," but it's used as a hideous disguise. Rebecca-Anne do Rozario points out that "Finette Cendron" (which, again, came out the same year as Perrault's "Cendrillon") has Finette instruct an ogress to cast off her unfashionable bear-pelts. Fur clothing was not a symbol of wealth or status, but of wildness and ugliness.
Glass slippers were most likely Perrault's own invention dating from when he retold his folktales in literary format. No translation error, no misheard "vair" - just a really good idea and his own storytelling touch. If anything, he probably heard stories where the slippers were made of gold, or where their material was not mentioned.
It was only later writers like Honore de Balzac who added the confusion of the squirrel-fur slippers, and folklorists and linguists have been arguing against it ever since. James Planché wrote in 1858, "I thank the stars that I have not been able to discover any foundation for this alarming report." That was twelve years after Balzac's book was officially completed.
Heidi Anne Heiner at SurLaLune points out that the vair slipper theory dismisses Perrault's "adept literacy," and "negates [his] interest in the fantastic and magical, discounting his brilliant creativity."
Unfortunately, as shown by Alan Dundes, the vair/verre theory made it into influential sources such as the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, and thus has been fed as fact to successive generations of readers. Who's going to question the Encyclopaedia Brittanica? And so this rumor remains persistent.
As a final bit of trivia: there is one mention of glass shoes in the Brothers Grimm's tales. “Okerlo” appeared only in their 1812 manuscript and was quickly removed. (This is perhaps because it is clearly a retelling of a French literary tale, “The Bee and the Orange Tree.” Not unusual for the Grimms, but in this case it may have been just too blatant.) In the final lines, the narrator is asked what they wore to a wedding. They describe ridiculous clothes, with hair made of butter that melts, a dress of cobwebs that tears, and finally: “My slippers were made of glass, and as I stepped on a stone, they broke in two.” Here, the destruction of the fairytale clothing points out how impossible the magical tale is, and signals the end of the story and a return to reality.
Where did the tiny flower fairy come from? A lot of people blame Victorian authors, but the idea's older than that. The finger's also been pointed at William Shakespeare, but although he codified them and made them famous, he was not the one to introduce tiny fairies either.
Going back into medieval legend and earlier, human-scale fairies seem to be the rule. Nymphs and fauns were the nature fairies of Greek mythology, although they were of human stature. In medieval literature, fairies usually seemed to be human-sized. At their smallest, they were the size of children, like Oberon in "Huon of Bordeaux." In John Lyly's play "Endymion" (1588), the fairies are "fair babies," probably played by children.
However, occasional appearances by very tiny fairies have survived. In Gervase of Tilbury's Otia Imperialia ("Recreation for an Emperor") c.1210-1214, we get the first truly miniature fairies: “portunes,” little old men half an inch tall. There's been some debate over whether this was a textual error, and whether it should be read as closer to half a foot tall. However, I don't see any reason why they couldn't be half an inch tall. In fact, people were probably familiar with the idea of tiny otherworldly beings. In the Middle Ages, both demons and human souls were often portrayed as very tiny. In one medieval story, a priest celebrating a Mass for the dead suddenly sees the church filled with souls. They appear as people no bigger than a finger ("homuncionibus ad mensuram digiti").
In an Irish tale transcribed around 1517, King Fergus mac Leti meets Iubhdan and Bebo, rulers of the Luchra. One of them can stand upon a human man's palm or drown in a pot of porridge. These beings are clearly fairies. Iubhdan's hare-sized horse is golden with a crimson mane and green legs (red and green being traditionally associated with the fae). They bestow Fergus with magical gifts, like shoes which allow him to walk underwater. The story is an expansion of previously known tales where Fergus encounters "lúchorpáin," or "little bodies," evidently some type of water-dwelling creature and possibly the predecessors of the modern leprechaun.
Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) gives a list of bogeymen and fairies. Included in the list is "Tom thombe" - a character no bigger than a finger. There are other clues that might connect the supernatural to the miniature: the fairies turn hemp stalks into horses, and witches sail in eggshells or cockleshells.
Then came Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1595), we finally find tiny nature fairies. Oberon and Titania are nature gods. Their servants have plant names like Peaseblossom and their tasks include dewing the cowslips and making clothing from bats' pelts. Queen Mab appears in Romeo and Juliet (1597) and is a diminutive force to be reckoned with. In The Tempest (c. 1610), the fairylike Ariel is not exactly a fairy, but he does share their size and affinity with flowers: "In a cowslip's bell I lie."
This began an obsession. Another play, "The Maid's Metamorphosis," was published around 1600. Fairies named Penny, Cricket and Little Pricke "trip . . . lightly as the little Bee" and sing:
‘I do come about the coppes
Leaping upon flowers toppes;
Then I get upon a Flie,
Shee carries me abouve the skie."
In the first known version of Tom Thumb, printed in 1621, Tom's fairy-made wardrobe consists of plants and found objects. His hat is an oak leaf. In one scene, he sleeps “upon the top of a Red Rose new blowne.”
Michael Drayton's "Nymphidia" came out in 1627. This long narrative poem shrinks Shakespeare's fairies even further to the point where Mab and all of her servants can comfortably house themselves inside a nutshell. Tom Thumb, appropriately, appears among them, and a fairy knight wears armor fashioned out of insect parts. Drayton also wrote "A Fairy Wedding" (1630) with a bride robed entirely in petals.
In William Browne of Tavistocke's third book of Britania's Pastorales, Oberon is "clad in a suit of speckled gilliflow'r." His hat is a lily and his ruff a daisy. A servant wears a monkshood flower for a hat. Elsewhere, Browne’s fairies guard the flowers: "water'd the root and kiss'd her pretty shade."
Robert Herrick, writing in the 1620s and 1630s, brought us "The beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen," "The Fairy Temple, or Oberon's Chapel," and "Oberon’s Feast." "Oberon's Clothing" is a poem of similar fare. The author is unknown but has been attributed to Simon Steward or possibly Robert Herrick.
Lady Margaret Newcastle's "The Pastime, and Recreation of the Queen of Fairies in Fairy-land, the Center of the Earth" (1653) is much the same thing.
These works deal with the food, clothing, housing, transportation, and hobbies of flower fairies in exquisite detail. These were smaller, cuter forms of the folklore fairy, and this whimsical form of escapism had captured the popular imagination. However, some of these works may also have served to critique the excesses of royalty. Marjorie Swann suggested that William Browne was subtly mocking King James and other rulers by parodying their lavish banquets and hunting parties.
This interest in the supernatural was not just literary. There were witch hunts actively going on at this time. A Pleasant Treatise of Witches (1673) purports to be a collection of factual accounts of supernatural phenomena. In Chapter 6, a woman sees a tiny man - only a foot tall on horseback - emerge from behind a flowerbed. He introduces himself as "a Prince amongst the Pharies." Later, his army appears at dinner to "[prance] on their horses round the brims of a large dish of white-broth." One soldier slips and falls into the dish! Despite the connection with flowers and the inherent comedy of the fairies' size, there was still a great danger to anyone involved with them. In this particular tale, the woman quickly wastes away and dies after her otherworldly encounter.
All the same, the cute fairy continued strong into the 18th century with Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1717) and Thomas Tickell's Kensington Garden (1722). Plays like "The Fairy Favour" by Thomas Hull, produced in 1766, used fairy imagery and Shakespearean allusions to flatter royalty, continuing a theme popular with Queen Elizabeth. However, Elizabethan fairy literature included works like The Faerie Queene with heroic human-sized fae. Now, the sprites of "The Fairy Favour" slept in the shade of a primrose and wore robes made from butterfly wings.
The Rape of the Lock, a parodic work very much in the tradition of Nymphidia, is particularly significant. Drawing on the work of Paracelsus and the esoteric Comte de Gabalis, it presents a pantheon of elemental spirits. There are sylphs, gnomes, nymphs and salamanders, which Pope makes the reincarnated souls of the dead. They are tiny enough to hide in a woman's hair and dangle from her earrings. (As with other fairy literature, their size is a source of comedy.) Most importantly, they have "insect-wings." A 1798 edition, illustrated by Thomas Stothard, gives the sylphs butterfly wings. This is the earliest known appearance of the modern winged fairy.
In the 19th century, the movement of folklore collecting became a significant force. In the folklore that was collected, and the writings inspired by it, we meet wave upon wave of miniature flower fairies. In Teutonic Mythology volume 2 (1835), Jacob Grimm described elves and wights ranging from "the stature of a four years' child" to "measured by the span or thumb." Thomas Crofton Croker, in Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825), explained that the foxglove is known as the Fairy Cap "from the supposed resemblance of its bells to this part of fairy dress." This inspired Hartley Coleridge to write of "Fays sweetly nestled in the foxglove bells." In British Goblins by Wirt Sikes (1880), we learn that foxgloves serve the Welsh ellyllon for gloves. Anna Eliza Bray's pixies use tulips as cradles (1879). And the "greenies" in James Bowker's Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878) perhaps show the influence of Nymphidia, with a "dainty dwarf in a burnished suit of beetles' wing cases."
At the same time, new fairy tales and fantasy literature were being produced. In 1835, Hans Christian Andersen published the story of Thumbelina. The thumb-sized heroine is born from a flower and eventually becomes queen of the winged flower fairies. The first of these people is introduced as "the angel of the flower" (Blomstens Engel), and we learn that such a being dwells inside every blossom. In 1839, Andersen produced "The Rose Elf" (Rosen-alfen) with a main character "so tiny that no mortal eye could see him" who lived in a rose.
These fairies for children, however, took on a strong educational bent. The Heroes of Asgard, by Annie Keary (1856) turned the Norse Ljósálfar into tiny elves who tended flowers under the tutelage of their "schoolmaster," the god Frey. This story was frequently reprinted in publications like A phonic reading book (1876). Other fairy-centric books included The Novel Adventures of Tom Thumb the Great, Showing How He Visited the Insect World by Louisa Mary Barwell (1838); Fairy Know-a-bit; or, a Nutshell of Knowledge (1866) by Charlotte Tucker; and Old Farm Fairies: A Summer Campaign in Brownieland Against King Cobweaver's Pixies by Henry Christopher McCook (1895). These used a fantasy framework to teach children about the natural world, encouraging them to examine insect and plant life.
But there was a stark divide between fairies for children and fairies for adults. In George Macdonald's Phantastes (1858), the fairies are explicitly flower fairies - hiding in "every bell-shaped flower" - but they are grotesque and not at all benevolent. This was also the era of Victorian fairy paintings like those of Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, and John Anster Fitzgerald. Victorian fairy painting was a movement in and of itself, hitting its high point from 1840 to 1870. These paintings often featured obsessive levels of minute detail, but could have an eerie, ominous, even violent atmosphere. In Dadd's intricate "Contradiction: Oberon and Titania" (c. 1854), the fairy queen inadvertently crushes a mini-fairy under one foot. Fitzgerald's work sometimes held references to drugs and hallucinations, as in his painting "The Nightmare." And a lot of Victorian fairy art was sensual. In a society otherwise bound by the rules of propriety, fairies were allowed to be barely-clothed, undeniably erotic beings.
J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, transformed the fairy genre again at the turn of the century. He published his first Peter Pan book, The Little White Bird, in 1902; there, his fairies disguise themselves as flowers to avoid attention. Barrie's most famous fairy is, of course, Tinker Bell. She first appeared (as a light projected by a mirror) in Barrie's 1904 play, and quickly came to dominate the modern perception of fairies. According to Laura Forsberg:
"[Barrie] changed the terms of the discussion around fairies from observation and imagination to nostalgia and belief. While the Victorian fairy was always accompanied by the adult’s urging the child to look closer at the natural world, Tinkerbell was a trick of mechanical lighting that would be revealed as a fraud if the child approached. Tinkerbell so captured the public imagination that she overshadowed the Victorian fairies who preceded her." (p. 662)
According to author Diane Purkiss, the cult of the flower fairy faltered with the advent of the First World War. A jaded world was no longer interested in cutesy twee pixies. The human-sized elves of J. R. R. Tolkien set a new standard for fantasy literature.
But as far as I can see, the tiny fairy continued to conquer media. The first of Cicely Mary Barker's wildly popular "Flower Fairies" picture books appeared in 1923. Enid Blyton, a classic children's author, described fairies painting the colors of nature. "To Spring," a 1936 cartoon, shows microscopic gnomes laboring to bring the colors of spring. In the 21st century, the Disney Fairies franchise is a marketing behemoth and "fairy gardens" have taken over Pinterest.
This reaches into modern belief in fairies. The Cottingley Fairies were a famous hoax in the 1910s which even took in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His book The Coming of the Fairies, released in 1922, included many testimonials from fairy-believers. Similarly, in 1955, Marjorie Johnson began the work that would eventually become Seeing Fairies, released in English in 2014. It's a collection of "fairy sightings" from many different people who believed they had genuinely seen otherworldly beings. In many of these cases, the fairies they reported were small winged creatures living in nature.
It is true that today the tiny flower fairy is frequently viewed with disdain as something only for children. Works on fairies for older readers usually take pains to specify that these are not the same-old-same-old cute fairies, but the ancient, bloodier, sexier versions. A typical example: The Iron King by Julie Kagawa (2010) dismissively references Tinker Bell as the usual human concept of fairies, calling her "some kind of pixie with glitter dust and butterfly wings," while introducing a darker and crueller Fairyland. There is no longer the same adult fascination with miniature fae that flourished in the 17th and 19th centuries.
It's still unclear where flower fairies originally came from. Shakespeare undoubtedly popularized them, but he apparently expected his audience to take his incredibly miniature nature spirits in stride. There are surviving hints of tiny fairies in literature predating him. And that brings me back to the ghosts of medieval art.
Fairies and ghosts overlap. The further you go back, the more intertwined they are. Anna Eliza Bray's pixies (the ones sleeping in tulips) are "the souls of infants" who died unbaptized. The elementals in The Rape of the Lock are the spirits of the dead. In The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400), Geoffrey Chaucer calls Pluto (Roman god of the underworld) the king of the fairies. And it's not just in Europe; in the lore of West and Central Africa, ancestral spirits can be diminutive figures who behave a lot like European fairies. This makes that medieval story about finger-sized souls, particularly fascinating.
There are two famous accounts of how King Arthur won his sword.
This has led to some confusion. Different sources may use one sword or the other or both. In many works, such as the 1981 film Excalibur and the 1998 miniseries Merlin, the two swords are one and the same.
This has caused a reactionary response: these should properly be two different weapons, wielded by Arthur at different times. On a DeviantArt submission in 2006, multiple users bobbed in to remark that Excalibur, the sword from the lake, was not the same as the Sword in the Stone. A 2014 post on StackExchange said much the same thing. The sword in the stone, according to sources like these, is actually called Clarent.
Going back to the earliest sources: Arthur's sword in Welsh was named Caledfwlch. This could have developed into Excalibur. That's another debate. Throughout the history of Arthurian legend, Excalibur (or Caliburn, Caliburnus, Escalibor, Chalabrum, etc.) has always been The Arthurian Sword. King Arthur bears it, or one of his champions like Gawaine wields it for him.
The Sword in the Stone appears in Robert de Boron's Merlin, but doesn't get a name.
In the Vulgate Merlin Continuation, Escalibor is the sword pulled from the stone, which Arthur eventually passes down to Gawain.
In the post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin, they are separate swords. The sword from the stone is broken, and Arthur receives Escalibor from the lake as a replacement. The Suite also introduces Excalibur's magical scabbard.
In Thomas Malory's Morte d' Arthur, drawing from many Arthurian sources, Arthur draws the sword from the stone. It is not named until Chapter IX, where it's called "Excalibur," shining with "light like thirty torches." This sword eventually breaks, and the Lady of the Lake gives Arthur . . . another sword named Excalibur. Malory's pretty inconsistent throughout this work. It may be that he included Excalibur's name early on by mistake. All the same, here it seems that Arthur had two separate swords and both were named Excalibur.
Now for Clarent.
Clarent appears in one source: the Alliterative Morte Arthur. It is Arthur's beloved, sacred sword used only in ceremonies and knightings. Arthur views it with reverence and uses his other sword, Caliburn, for battle. Mordred gains Clarent through his treachery and, eventually, slays Arthur with it.
There are a few possible sources for the name. In the Estoire de Merlin, Arthur uses the battlecry "Clarent." There was also a city of Clarent in Sorgalles that was part of Arthur's dominion. An interesting similarity exists in the romance The history of the valiant knight Arthur of Little Britain, where a knight named Arthur wins a sword called Clarence.
But nowhere else does Clarent appear, and it is never identified as the sword in the stone. It has generally survived as a footnote. In 1895, Selections from Tennyson described it rather dismissively as Arthur's "second-best sword"!
However, some Arthurian scholars have taken note of it.
In 1960, William Matthews theorized that the Alliterative Morte's two swords were an attempt to reconcile confusing accounts of what swords Arthur used and when.
"[I]t seems likely that [Clarent] may be the sword-in-the-stone . . . and that Caliburn is, as usual (though not always), the sword of the Lady of the Lake."
Similarly, Kathleen Toohey reviews Arthur's reverential treatment of the sword: "from what we learn of Clarent no better role could have been found for the sword in the stone than the one assigned to Clarent."
Note those phrases, though: "It seems likely." "Not always." "From what we learn." "Could have been."
Anyone who ties the obscure name Clarent to the sword in the stone is theorizing. It's a valid theory, but still a theory. There's no solid evidence for it. Unhelpfully, for some time there was a Wikipedia article identifying Clarent as the Sword in the Stone. It was nominated for deletion in September 2012.
Clarent has gotten a popularity boost in recent years. It's shown as Mordred's sword in the Japanese light novel Fate/Apocrypha (2012-2014). Its origin is very close to that of the canonical Clarent, but I can't find any mention of it being the Sword in the Stone.
There are alternate options. Nightbringer, an extensive online Arthurian dictionary, suggests that the sword in the stone could be identified with Sequence, another sword belonging to Arthur, which was borrowed by Lancelot. Alternately, based on romances where Gawaine inherits Arthur's first sword, maybe the sword he wields in Malory - "Galatine" - is the original sword in the stone. (I don't quite follow this, since in those romances the original sword is Escalibor.) These guesses hit the same issues as the Clarent theory: namely, they're guesses.
We have a confusion of sources where Excalibur is sometimes the Sword in the Stone and sometimes its replacement. Or, as in Malory, both!
Ultimately, the Sword in the Stone cannot be definitively linked to Clarent, Sequence, Galatine, or any of the swords belonging to Arthur . . . except for Excalibur.
Hey guys! Be sure to check out this short documentary by Molly Likovich, analyzing the story of Red Riding Hood. Molly very kindly invited me to interview, so I am in there at a few points (look for Sarah Allison).
This is one of the most omnipresent fairytales in our culture and the video provides a really interesting look at its origins. Molly has other similar video essays on her channel.
The story of "Prince Lindworm" or "Kong Lindorm" is ATU 433B, related to the Animal Bridegroom tale family. Many variants of the Animal Bridegroom story feature serpents, but this one is rather unique. And upon researching it, I soon learned that pretty much everything I knew about this story was wrong.
A lindworm is a dragon usually shown with just two legs, often seen on coats of arms. Although the stories are very different, "Prince Lindworm" begins with a scene almost identical to the start of "Tatterhood." In both, a queen who wants a child encounters an old woman who gives her instructions on getting one. Tatterhood's mother pours water beneath her bed, and the next morning finds a lovely flower and an ugly flower there. Lindworm's mother places a cup upside-down in her garden, and the next morning finds a white rose and a red rose underneath.
In both cases, there's a warning. Tatterhood's mother is instructed not to eat the ugly flower, while Lindworm's mother is told to pick only one (red for a boy, white for a girl). But both are overcome by temptation, because the first flower "tasted so sweet" - the same reason in both versions.
This hunger and greed symbolizes sexual temptation. It also hearkens to myths that blamed women for birth defects - like "maternal impression," the idea that the mother's thoughts or surroundings could influence her unborn child.
For Tatterhood, a connection seems clear: Tatterhood's pretty twin is created by the beautiful flower, and the outwardly repellent Tatterhood by the foul-looking plant. The twins are fundamentally opposite, yet love each other deeply. The same motif drives "Biancabella and the Snake," an Italian tale by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, where a woman gives birth to a baby girl with a snake around her neck. The snake, Samaritana, serves as a supernatural helper to her human sister, Biancabella. She eventually doffs her serpent skin and becomes a woman without explanation. (Italo Calvino collected a folktale, "The Snake," with the same story - except that the snake is merely a helpful animal, not an enchanted sibling.)
In the opposite of these tales with diametrically opposed siblings, there are stories where two women eat of the same food and bear identical children. You find this in the Italian "Pome and Peel" and the Russian tale of "Storm-Bogatyr, Ivan the Cow's Son." In "Ivan the Cow's Son," rather than a woman giving birth to an animal, a cow gives birth to a human.
But Prince Lindworm apparently follows a different internal logic. The queen is hoping to have both a son and a daughter when she eats both roses; this makes sense, even though it's incredibly stupid to disobey instructions in a fairytale. In fact, she eats the white rose first, so you would think she would have a daughter first. However, what she gets is a male lindworm and a baby boy - twins, as in "Tatterhood" or "Biancabella," one perfect, the other monstrous.
The lindworm baby escapes and is not seen again until, years later, the second prince prepares to marry. The lindworm returns; as he is firstborn, he says he should get married first. The royal family obtains a bride for him, but the lindworm eats her on their wedding night. Before you know it, we're on Bride #3, and she quickly deduces that this isn't going to end well for her. However, an old woman gives her advice. Bride #3 is savvier than the queen and follows the instructions exactly. On her wedding night she wears ten white shifts and tells the lindworm to shed one skin every time she takes off a layer of clothing. Once he's removed nine skins, there's nothing left of him but a mass of bloody flesh. She beats him with whips dipped in lye, then bathes him in milk, and finally takes him in her arms. When people come to check on them the next morning, they find her sleeping beside a handsome human prince.
Marie-Luise von Franz interpreted the lindworm as a "hermaphrodite": “a masculine being . . . wrapped up in the feminine or the dragon skin. . . . Prince Lindworm is also a man surrounded by the woman, but he is in the form of a lump of bleeding flesh surrounded by a dragon skin, a regressive form of the union of the opposites.” In alchemy, according to von Franz, hermaphrodites are closely connected to dragons and serpents.
This explanation fails for me. The white rose was eaten first. Surely the feminine element should be at the center of the lindworm's being? What makes scales feminine and blood masculine? The biggest stumbling block is the existence of the twin brother. Why wasn't he affected? Going by the opening scene, it seems to me, the lindworm should either be a princess or have an older sister.
Taking a step back: the motif of the enchanted prince removing his animal skin is familiar. In "Hans My Hedgehog," a couple wishes desperately for a child, but their son is born as (wait for it) a hedgehog. He tries several times to take a bride, but the first girl is unwilling and he stabs her with his prickles. The second is willing, and on their wedding night he removes his hedgehog skin to become a handsome man. The same thing happens in the Italian "The Pig King." Both stories are Aarne Thompson type 441, the hog bridegroom. Very often this tale includes a number of false starts to marriage, where the enchanted bridegroom turns horrifyingly violent towards the maidens who reject him.
The removable skin seems more appropriate for serpents, which really do shed their skin, and which in many cultures are symbols of rebirth and transformation. And there is a widespread tale type of snake and serpent husbands, type 433C. Prince Lindworm is unusual in that he must remove multiple skins. His transformation is more involved than these other examples. He must also be whipped and bathed.
The act of bathing suggests baptism, and thus forgiveness of sins and rebirth. (And he needs that forgiveness of sins after all that snacking on maidens.) It's a little more odd that he is bathed in milk. However, there's a widespread tradition of offering milk to snakes. In Hinduism, milk is offered to snake idols, for instance on the feast of Nag Panchmi. So you get Indian folktales like "The Snake Prince," where in order to restore her husband from his serpent form, the heroine must put out bowls of milk and sugar to attract all the snakes and gain an audience with their queen. According to Arthur Evans, a similar tradition of milk offerings for "household snakes" existed in Greece, Dalmatia and Germany. Marija Gimbutas said that this practice persisted in Lithuania up into the 20th century. Snakes actually can't digest dairy products and do not drink milk unless suffering from dehydration.
In the Turkish tale of "The Stepdaughter and the Black Serpent," the heroine serves as a nursemaid for the serpent prince. When he's an infant, she keeps him contained in a box of milk. When he leaves the box, she beats him with rose and holly branches to deter him from hurting her. He eventually wants to take a wife, but kills forty (!) brides one after another. The heroine, chosen as his bride, wears forty hedgehog skins and asks the snake to remove one skin every time she does. After removing forty snake skins, he is left as a human and they burn the snake skins.It's the same tale as Prince Lindworm, except that the order of events is different. There's also no twin brother to complicate things.
"The Stepdaughter and the Black Serpent" was recorded long after Prince Lindworm, but what if it's closer to the original form of the story? I began to wonder if the opening scene and the twin brother were foreign to the essential tale. They certainly do not appear in most variants of the tale type. The Animal Bridegroom, which often begins with the desire for a child, could easily have been combined with similar stories like Tatterhood or Biancabella. The twin brother/missing sister problem would then exist because that element was added later.
Soon after, I learned Prince Lindworm's true origins. Most modern sources call it Norwegian, but it's actually Danish. It was collected in 1854, and the original version is very different.
D. L. Ashliman did an English translation. In the oldest version of "Kong Lindorm," the queen eats both roses, but has only one child - the lindworm. There is no twin brother. Marie-Luise von Franz's premise finally begins to make sense!
The story otherwise proceeds roughly as I knew it, but there is a second half that was completely new to me. Now happily married to the former lindworm, the heroine gives birth to twin boys, but an enemy at court gets her exiled. She uses her own breast milk to disenchant two more cursed men (King Swan and King Crane), before her husband finds out what happened and retrieves her.
"Kong Lindorm" was first published by Svend Grundtvig in Gamle danske Minder i Folkemunde (1854).
A Swedish version, "Prins Lindorm," was published in 1880. This was a very close retelling of the first version, with one important difference: the opening. This time, the queen is given instructions for bearing twins, no mention of whether they will be male or female. She is supposed to carefully peel the two red onions she grows, but she forgets to peel the first one. Storytellers might have added the twin brother because they confused this story with Tatterhood, which - as previously mentioned - has a strikingly similar beginning.
Then a variant appeared in Axel Olrik's Danske Sagn og Æventyr fra Folkemunde (1913). This was almost identical to the first Kong Lindorm, except that it included the twin brother. However, the storyteller did not otherwise alter the opening, so the birth of twins made no sense. The second half was hacked off, perhaps because the writer didn't want to talk about breast milk, and also because that's where the story starts to drag. This short version was translated into English in 1922, in a book titled East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North. There, it was thrown in alongside Norwegian stories collected by the famous Asbjornsen and Moe, leading to the confusion around its origins.
So there you have it. The version I knew had been simplified and altered.
Ultimately, the story's sense of confusion stems from careless editing and a misunderstanding of the tale's logic. Adding in a second child obscures the idea of the older tale. In fact, the white rose leads to a daughter, a red rose leads to a son, and both roses together make a giant dragon monster. Simple, right?
Okay, I think it's really about 19th-century sexual mores for women. The queen's intemperance leads to a curse which affects her unborn child and generations to come. She hungered for extra roses (read: she was lustful), so her child is neither man nor woman and can't have a normal marriage. Echoing his mother's method of conception by eating, the only way he can engage with a woman is by devouring her. And his wives die because they are not behaving correctly on the wedding night. When Bride #3 follows proper instructions, she redeems her husband and can look forward to a happy and fruitful marriage. Note that she is still wearing one shift by the end of the cursebreaking ritual, indicating modesty and chastity. This is different from the Indian version, where the girl and the serpent shed the same number of skins. There's also an Oedipal note to it; she must bathe him in milk in order for him to be reborn. That original maternal sin has to be corrected. The longer version even doubles down on the milk motif.
You can read a translation of the original version here, and the popular English version here.
Hi guys! Check out this podcast episode on "Thumbling as Journeyman" at https://grimmreading.podbean.com. The series goes through the tales of the Brothers Grimm, and in this episode they mention Writing in Margins.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.