The First Snow White Retelling
Some time ago, a book of collected fairy tale retellings was published. Anyone who picked up this book would have found a nontraditional version of Snow White. The author had written it from the wicked stepmother’s point of view, telling the story of her life. It was also historical fiction, the magical elements replaced with scientific explanations. This is nothing too out of the ordinary for modern readers. This description suits books such as Gregory Maguire’s Mirror, Mirror (2003) or Donna Jo Napoli’s Dark Shimmer (2015).
But the retelling I’m talking about was published in 1782.
“Richilde,” by Johann Karl August Musäus, appeared in the first volume of his collection Volksmärchen der Deutschen (Folktales of the Germans). Musäus wrote that he collected these stories from the German folk, but this is not the style of the Brothers Grimm and later folklorists; instead it’s more of the highly literary style of Charles Perrault and Giambattista Basile. It is also the first existing example that we have of the German fairy tale of Snow White, published a generation before the Brothers Grimm got to it. It’s definitely a hefty tale, almost more like a novelette, and the English translation I found was written in older language that takes some getting used to for modern readers. But its ideas and themes fit in strikingly well with modern renditions of the story.
Snow White researcher Christine Shojaei Kawan at one point considered this the earliest literary version of the tale, but later apparently had second thoughts as she claims that it doesn't fit with the folktale all that well and can't be considered authentic. There is, for instance, no scene where the Snow White figure has to flee into the wilderness. I would have to agree with Kawan that this is a retelling more than it is a straightforward fairytale. But what a retelling!
Honestly, Richilde does not work as a standalone piece. It makes much more sense when understood as a reimagining from the villain’s point of view. From studying "Richilde," it’s clear that Snow White was already very well-known - proving the Brothers Grimm were right when they considered it one of the most popular German fairy tales. As is common for fairy tales, we got elaborate literary adaptations before anyone set to the task of transcribing the original folktales. The fairy tales of Perrault and Basile and the French conteuses are very similar cases, and one of the Grimms' tasks was actually to preserve the folk tales before they could be forgotten and lost in adaptation.
But back to the story of Richilde. The tale begins with her birth as the much-wanted child of the Count and Countess of Brabant. She grows up beautiful and, due to realizing from the magic mirror that she’s the fairest girl in the land, extremely vain. It explains how she meets her husband: needing to marry, she asks the mirror to show her the most handsome man in the land. Problem is, he's already married - but not for long, as he is quite flattered by this glamorous younger woman's attentions, and divorces his wife to be with her.
The plotline stays mostly with Richilde, leading to some hilarity. When Richilde realizes that her husband’s abandoned daughter Blanca has grown into the fairest maiden in Brabant, she arranges to have her poisoned. But then Blanca keeps popping up alive again, with no explanation, and it’s driving Richilde nuts as she scrambles to fix the situation and figure out what went wrong. I love this scenario so much.
There is a mysteriously powerful mirror, created through the mysterious and wise arts of Albertus Magnus (a real historical figure and the subject of many legends), and given to the young Richilde as a gift. The mirror doesn’t talk, but does show images when a rhyming chant is said. In a particularly nice touch, the more evil Richilde’s actions become, the more it rusts until it’s ruined. It’s clearly a magic mirror, complete with moral judgment, but there is at least some handwaving about how it could be Magnus’s practical scientific arts.
There are three murder attempts via poison, and the first is an apple or pomegranate with one half poisoned. So it does seem that the poisoned fruit was particularly deep-rooted in German folklore. Although Kawan complained that Richilde fails to hit the correct beats of the full folktale, this is where we have the sympathetic executioner, the equivalent of the fairy tale’s huntsman: Richilde’s Jewish court physician, Sambul, who is tasked with creating these poisoned gifts.
Here, the story is surprisingly tolerant for an 18th-century German book, or at least subverts antisemitic expectations. Sambul ultimately turns out to be the real hero of the story. I should be clear that there are still antisemitic elements. It feels especially uncomfortable that Sambul is the victim of the most violence in the story. But as the story nears its ending, it is revealed that Sambul has a strong conscience and has been working against Richilde all along even at the risk of his own life. He substituted harmless sedatives for the poisons, so that Blanca appeared to die but actually woke up a while later. And at the very end, the focus is not on Blanca and her husband’s wedded bliss, but on Sambul being rewarded and going on to live in happiness and prosperity.
There is an equivalent to the Grimms’ dwarfs: Blanca, who has been consigned to one of her father’s castles, is attended by court dwarfs. This is another historical twist. These are not mystical woodland or subterranean creatures, but ordinary people, and many historical nobles employed court dwarfs. However, there is still a blurring of lines here. The court dwarfs are apparently skilled smiths and craftsmen, whipping up a coffin with a window - the equivalent of the fairy tale’s glass coffin - and the red-hot iron shoes for Richilde. This hints that these characters were inspired by mythical dwarfs, who were metalworkers in Nordic myth.
There is a handsome prince figure: Gottfried of Ardenne, a young nobleman who comes across Blanca’s castle, hears her story, and is at the right time to bring forth a holy relic in an attempt to ward off sorcery just as she wakes up.
Richilde attends their wedding having been tricked into thinking that she is the bride, which is a neat little explanation for why she’d be there, and shows her all-encompassing vanity. Before the ceremony, Gottfried tells her of a woman who murdered her daughter out of jealousy, and asks her what punishment is suitable. Richilde, bored and annoyed by what she sees as a delay to her wedding, says that the mother should be forced to dance in burning iron shoes - and then Blanca appears and Richilde realizes to her terror that she has just named her own fate.
This scenario of the villain being tricked into choosing their own fate is a classic one, also seen in the fairy tale of “The Goose Girl.” A Danish oral variant of Snow White, "Snehvide," also ends with the stepmother choosing her own execution. In Richilde’s case, her punishment is surprisingly merciful. Instead of dancing until she dies, as in the Grimms’ Snow White, she is only left with burns and blisters on her feet, and people actually put a salve on her feet before throwing her into the dungeon.
The Brothers Grimm’s first draft of the Snow White tale was pretty different from the one we currently have - biological mother as villain, biological father as rescuer and breaker of the curse. In many ways, the modern version more closely resembles Richilde.
“Ondine’s Curse” is the name of a rare form of apnea, a condition in which people stop breathing. According to various medical texts, it's based on an old Germanic legend - the story of Undine or Ondine, who cursed her faithless lover to stop breathing. Except . . . this doesn't sound anything like the story of Undine, which isn't even exactly a legend. What's going on here?
As I've described before on this blog, "undines" originally came from the writings of 16th-century philosopher Paracelsus. The word was evidently his original creation, referring to water elementals or nymphs. Combining the medieval legends of "Melusine," "Peter von Stauffenberg," and various folktales about fairy wives, Paracelsus wrote that undines could gain a soul by marrying a human. However, such relationships were fraught with danger; these water-wives could all too easily be lost to the realm they'd come from, and if the mortal husband took another wife, the water-wife would come back to murder him. This story was passed around and adapted by various authors.
Most famously, it found form in the 19th-century novella Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. Undine is a nymph who marries the knight Huldbrand and gains a soul as a result. However, he ditches her for a human lover - which, by the rules of spirits and the otherworld, means he must die. Although Undine still loves him, she is forced to kill him on the night of his second wedding. She appears and embraces him, weeping.
"Tears rushed into the knight's eyes, and seemed to surge through his heaving breast, till at length his breathing ceased, and he fell softly back from the beautiful arms of Undine, upon the pillows of his couch—a corpse."
Undine then states mournfully, "I have wept him to death."
So where did things go off track?
This novella became extremely popular, inspiring many adaptations. There were plays, operas, ballets. Even Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid took inspiration from it.
One play adaptation, Ondine, by Jean Giraudoux, came out in 1938. In this version, the characters are named Ondine and Hans. Although Hans betrays Ondine with another woman, she still loves him and attempts to stop her people from executing him by running away. However, her efforts are of no avail, and Hans is condemned to death by the king of the water spirits.
The former lovers get the chance to say goodbye. The tormented Hans tells Ondine, “Since you went away, I've had to force my body to do things it should do automatically. I no longer see unless I order my eyes to see... I have to control five senses, thirty muscles, even my bones; it's an exhausting stewardship. A moment of inattention, and I will forget to hear, to breathe... He died, they will say, because he got tired of breathing..."
As the two share a final kiss, Hans dies and Ondine's memories of him are erased.
Losing the Way
In 1962, a California-based doctor named John Severinghaus and his colleague Robert Mitchell worked with three patients who all shared similar symptoms. After operations on the brain stem, these patients could not breathe automatically. They had to consciously decide to breathe, and they needed artificial respiration when asleep. Severinghaus and Mitchell wrote a paper about their studies, coining the term "Ondine's Curse" for the phenomenon. They stated briefly:
"The syndrome was first described in German legend. The water nymph, Ondine, having been jilted by her mortal husband, took from him all automatic functions, requiring him to remember to breathe. When he finally fell asleep, he died."
This is a garbled version of Giraudoux's play. They were clearly inspired by Hans's speech, and as pointed out by researcher Fernando Navarro, they use Giraudoux's spelling, "Ondine." But you can see the play being misunderstood and slanted here, misremembered just a little.
Their summary was soon picked up, gaining a life of its own as other medical professionals repeated and mangled it further. Many versions simply repeat some variation on Severinghaus and Mitchell, but we see an emerging image of Ondine as a forceful figure who delivers judgment on her traitorous husband. She, not the ruler of the water spirits, curses Hans. Across various versions, she is angry, a purveyor of revenge or punishment (Navarro 1997).
Usually the husband or lover is unnamed, but Hans remains a common moniker (as in Naughton 2006). Some retellings get much more elaborate, with their own mythology. A popular variant explains that if a nymph ever falls in love with a mortal and gives birth to his child, then she will become an ordinary mortal, subject to aging. Nevertheless, the nymph Ondine falls in love with a human, and he with her. One version names him Lawrence (Coren 1997); another calls him Palemon, borrowing from Frederick Ashton's 1958 ballet adaptation Ondine (Mawer 2009).
Lawrence/Palemon/whoever swears to her that “My every waking breath shall be my pledge of love and faithfulness to you." However, after she bears his son, Ondine begins to age, and her beauty fades. Her shallow husband dallies with other women. When Ondine catches him in bed with a mistress, she is enraged. With the last of her magic, she calls down a curse which mocks her husband's broken vow: as soon as he falls asleep, he'll stop breathing. Her husband inevitably falls asleep from exhaustion and dies.
This variant upends the original worldbuilding. In Fouque’s novel, marriage grants Undine a soul, but she remains otherworldly and powerful. Huldbrand rejects her out of fear and resentment. However, in this variant, marriage transforms Ondine into an ordinary woman, and that's why her husband strays.
Some of the shorter retellings are so clumsily phrased that they mix up vital information. One skips over the husband's infidelity:
"[T]he beautiful water nymph . . . punished her mortal husband by depriving him of the ability to breathe automatically. Without the benefit of tracheostomy, the poor wretch, having forgotten how to breathe, died in his sleep." (Vaisrub 1978)
Another makes Ondine the cheater in the situation!
"Ondine, a German water nymph, invoked a curse upon her jilted husband so that he would forget to breathe (and die) when he fell asleep." (Swift 1976, as cited in Navarro 1997)
Or was Ondine the one who was cursed?
"[T]he water nymph Ondine was punished by the gods after falling in love with a knight by being condemned to stay awake in order to breathe." (BBC 2003)
In some versions, Ondine is a succubus-like serial killer:
"...a water-spirit of German mythology called Ondine who could cause the death of her victims by stopping their respiration." (Taitz et al 1971, as cited in Navarro 1997)
"Ondine was a mythological water nymph who exhausted her human lovers." This author quotes Giraudoux's play, but labels Hans as just "one victim"! (Sege 1992)
And sometimes the nature of the curse itself changes to a perpetual sleep, as in one dictionary where Ondine is "A water nymph who caused a human male who loved her to sleep forever." (Firkin 1996)
The story goes completely off the rails in one article on spine surgery:
"Ondine, a shepherd in Greek mythology, was cursed for his misdeeds by being put into a sleep from which there was no awakening." (Fielding et al, 1975, as cited in Navarro 1997)
Critics were rightfully outraged at this summary, which manages to get every single detail wrong. The writers were following blindly in the footsteps of a very confused 1968 article which evidently mixed up Undine with the Greek myth of Endymion. The mistake is so wildly far off that I'm honestly impressed.
This is what happens when a bunch of people start retelling a story they've never read. The heart of the modern character Undine – carrying through to her spiritual successor, the Little Mermaid – is that she loves her husband. Her love is self-sacrificing and all-forgiving. The medical myth around “Ondine’s Curse” inverts this, making her a vindictive wife, a vampiric seductress, or a sheep-tending Greek man.
One article examines the history but concludes lackadaisically, "Whether Ondine kissed or clasped her husband to death depends on the version of the tale, and one can never know who cursed whom" (Tamarin et al, 1989). That's not true, though! This isn't like traditional oral folktales where there really are multiple unique variants and no one can determine an original. This is more like saying that we can never really know whether Dorothy's slippers were silver or ruby in The Wizard of Oz.
At what point does urban legend or commonly-repeated misconception become folklore? Can Ondine be considered a myth or legend, as it is often called? Perhaps it has become something of an oral folktale in the medical community. But given that it came specifically from literature, I hesitate to call it that.
This is part of a larger issue surrounding the story of Undine. It left its stamp on Western culture, but the work itself has become pretty obscure. For instance, many readers take jabs at Hans Christian Andersen for the theme of souls and salvation in The Little Mermaid, calling it tacked-on or a case of preachy Christian moralizing. But that plotline wasn’t original to Andersen – it was his response to Undine.
Scholars such as Oscar Sugar, Ravindra Nannapaneni, and Fernando Navarro have put significant work into tracing the fragmented and confused medical legend of Ondine's Curse. Many of them have argued against using the name at all, calling it a misnomer. From the other side, psychology professor Stanley Coren complained that the term was losing favor because of political correctness and "language sensitivity, where labeling people as suffering from some form of curse is seen as being insensitive rather than colorful." However, Coren says this right after weaving an elaborate summary which bears almost no resemblance to the real story. He also incorrectly attributes the coining of the term to the 1950s. And the vast majority of critics don't complain that it's mean to call a medical syndrome a curse; instead they focus on the fact that the name is fundamentally a bad fit.
On the literary level, Ondine neither causes the "curse" nor experiences it, and Hans's experience goes way beyond apnea. You could get pedantic and say "Well, it's named after the play, not the character" but clearly it has not been taken that way.
On the medical level, the shifting definitions lead to inconsistency on what the medical condition is. As Nannapaneni et al point out, the name "Ondine's Curse" has come to be used inconsistently for all sorts of conditions related to respiration. Not ideal for a medical term. They suggest that “this wide and nonspecific usage reflects a lack of awareness of the origins of this eponymous term.”
These days, the condition is typically known as Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome (CCHS); however, the name "Ondine's Curse" is still around in casual language, and is apparently here to stay.
Other Blog Posts
Syair Bidasari is a story with many parallels to the Brothers Grimm story of Snow White and the worldwide tale type of ATU 709. A syair is a traditional Malay poetry form, and Bidasari is the name of the heroine. Going through it piece by piece, we find many things which seem very different on the surface from Snow White.
We don’t know the date of origin or the author. The oldest extant manuscript dates to the 1810s, with the oldest surviving reference from the previous decade. A similar syair was dated to the 1650s, so this may very well be one of the earliest versions of Snow White that we have today. Julian Millie found that the story was known throughout Southeast Asia, ranging from Indonesia to the Philippines. It was adapted into music and theater, and translations were published in English, German and Russian.
Syair Bidasari is an epic poem with intricate language and structure, and it’s been impossible for translators to do it full justice in English. It also keeps going after Bidasari marries the king. See, she was a lost princess adopted as an infant by a kindly merchant. After her wedding, her biological family tracks her down, and there are endless reunions and celebrations and a long digression where her brother slays a monster and marries the princess it was holding captive. (This kind of elaborate runtime is not unfamiliar for old literary fairy tales; compare the original French novella that was Beauty and the Beast, which takes a deep dive into fairy politics and Beauty’s Surprise Secret Backstory as a lost princess. Adaptations immediately dropped that part, with good reason.)
Bidasari is not a folktale, but it does seem based on oral tradition. And we can see traces of that tradition continuing in folklore collected much later - in the Indian tales “Princess Aubergine” and “Sodewa Bai,” and the Jewish Egyptian story “The Wonder Child.” These stories vary in some details. “Sodewa Bai” even has a bit of a Cinderella motif, with the prince finding her because of her tiny slipper. But they generally stick to the same plot - this very specific strand of ATU 709.
One of the most intriguing differences from the European Snow White is how the death-sleep works. European heroines are usually invaded in some way, a foreign body intruding on hers - a bite of apple stuck in Snow White’s throat, a splinter in Talia’s finger. It must be removed in order to awaken her. But in these Asian and Middle-Eastern versions, something is stolen from the heroine and must be returned to her.
And here we have the motif of the removable soul. Bidasari’s soul is inside a golden fish, which is nested inside two precious boxes and kept in a pond in her family’s garden. Aubergine’s life is tied to a magical necklace, hidden inside a tiny box, inside a bumble bee, inside a red and green fish. In “Sodewa Bai” the heroine is born with a necklace, in “The Wonder Child” with a glowing jewel; if she doesn’t have her magical item with her, she’ll fall asleep. In all of these cases, the object is worn as a necklace.
This resembles ATU 302, "The Giant who had no heart in his body." In these stories, the owner of the removable soul is typically a villain who has nested his heart or life force inside several different things, sometimes animals or insects, sometimes and egg. The hero must seek out the life source to destroy it.
It seems like the hero being the one with the removable soul may be common in Indian tales. In "Chundun Rajah" (from the same collector who published "Sodewa Bai"), it's a man who suffers the daily death when his soul-necklace is stolen.
Is the soul-necklace in these stories a unique folk tradition variant? Or was the legend affected by the fame of the epic poem adaptation Syair Bidasari? I do find it intriguing that it made it all the way into Jewish storytelling in Egypt.
A major theme in these stories is the rivalry between two wives. Bidasari faces Queen Lila Sari, who is driven by her fear that the king will marry someone else and lose interest in her. You can feel for Lila Sari at first, when her devoted husband states that he would take another wife if he found someone more beautiful. However, then she turns to torture and murder. (Bidasari, in contrast, holds no deep resentment towards Lila Sari and is content to be one of several wives.)
The Punjabi tale of “Princess Aubergine” gets even more horrifying. When the queen tries to magically force Aubergine to confess where her life is kept, Aubergine claims that it is tied to the queen’s son - and the queen promptly murders her own offspring. This continues until the queen has killed all of her own children. Aubergine is attempting to shield herself by appealing to the queen’s maternal instincts and humanity, but the queen has none - weeping afterwards only because she’s enraged that Aubergine still lives.
There are particularly strong similarities between “Princess Aubergine,” “Sodewa Bai,” and the 17th-century Italian “Sun, Moon and Talia,” which is also close to Snow White - although the plot is reversed and fragmented, with the enchanted sleep plot wrapped up before the contest with the jealous queen. In all three stories, the villain is an older first wife, and the heroine gives birth to the king's child in her sleep. There's an unspoken focus on fertility. This is especially clear with Talia, who gives birth to twins, while the queen trying to kill her is childless. In “Princess Aubergine,” the queen has seven sons, but she murders them all, effectively becoming anti-fertile.
Here, we're starting to see a particular theme becoming prominent - and I want to compare this to what we know about Snow White's villain.
A STEPMOTHER OR A RIVAL WIFE?
Maria Tatar examined the Snow White tale in The Fairest of Them All: Snow White and 21 Tales of Mothers and Daughters, from the premise that the story is inherently about a rivalry between a beautiful maiden and her cruel mother: a story not only about beauty and aging, but about family dynamics at their most dysfunctional. However, quite a few of the stories Tatar collects are not about mothers and daughters at all. At one point, she notes of Chinese tales that "it is something of a challenge to find stories directly representing mother-daughter conflict" (p. 165).
Searching for ancient versions of "Snow White," Graham Anderson wrote that "[c]lose family tensions tend to be toned down in the romances, and their role supplied by external rivals instead" (p. 53). Dropping the "requirement" that Snow White stories must include a wicked mother allowed Anderson to open up the playing field to more stories. But this is begging the question. Who says that close family tension is an inherent part of the folktale? What if the wicked mother is the newer version?
We can actually track the development of some Snow White-like tales where it does seem like this is the case: by changing the character relationships, a story of bigamy is transformed into a story of more general jealousy. Charles Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" is an adaptation of "Sun, Moon, and Talia" where, instead of a rival wife, the evil queen is the king's mother. The villain is also the prince's mother in "The Wonder Child," published in the 1990s, and the prince's stepmother in a 1965 film adaptation of Bidasari.
In "Snow White," of course, the villain is a mother (or stepmother) who feels threatened by her daughter's superior beauty. But even in the German versions, this isn't so straightforward as it seems at first glance. In the Grimms' earliest draft, titled "Snow White, or the Unfortunate Child" (the one where Snow White is blonde), not only is the villain Snow White's biological mother, but her father is the one who rescues her. He discovers the glass coffin, grieves over his daughter's "death," and causes her to be woken (he has doctors in his entourage, fortunately). At the end Snow White marries a previously unmentioned prince, and the queen is executed at their wedding.
In another variant from the Grimms' notes, the story begins with a count and countess riding through the woods when they encounter the lovely heroine; the count takes her into the carriage with him and the countess becomes instantly jealous. In the earliest versions, the king is an important character, but in the most famous version he has been almost completely erased from the story. Still, commentators have suggested that the magic mirror is a stand-in for the now-absent king, judging between the beauty of his wife and daughter.
In stories like these, we start to see a different side to the Snow White tale type: it's not about jealousy over beauty in general, but a contest for the affection of one specific man. In the German "Richilde" (1782), the villain first seduces Blanca's father away from his wife, and then attempts to seduce the Prince Charming figure who's in love with Blanca. Further afield, in "The Hunter and His Sister," a Dagur tale from Mongolia, two women grow jealous of their husband lavishing attention on his sister.
And I'm not even getting into the apparent doubling of the jealous mother figure in other tales. In the Italian "The Young Slave" and "Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers" and the Scottish "Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree," the heroine's mother puts her into a death-sleep, and the heroine's lover (or uncle) takes her home only for his mother or wife to awaken her via jealousy or curiosity.
Going further afield again: in a search for "Snow White" tales in Africa, Sigrid Schmidt found many tales which showed marks of colonizing European influence, and even some late tales which were directly derived from the Brothers Grimm. Schmidt suggested that a purer African parallel to "Snow White" can be found in the tale type "The Beautiful Girl." It is not the same tale, but its similarities bear noticing.
These stories follow a young, innocent girl who is remarkably beautiful. The other local girls become jealous - perhaps especially when a man proposes marriage to her even though she's still too young, or when a group of herdboys point her out as the loveliest. The other girls take her out into the wilderness, where they trap her and leave her for dead. She is later rescued. There is no prince in this story, nor is there a death-sleep, but Schmidt argues that the Beautiful Girl goes through a metaphorical death before being rescued. Also, Schmidt did find versions in which the Beautiful Girl is murdered and later resurrected.
Notably, there is no familial relationship between the heroine and the villains. Also, the Beautiful Girl is rescued because people hear her singing (sometimes even in versions where she's dead). Compare this to Syair Bidasari, where Bidasari is able to awaken during the night and tell the king her story.
Syair Bidasari and these other Indian or Middle Eastern tales have their own elements which are quite different from European tales of type 709. Most notable is the consistent motif of the magical necklace containing the heroine's life. However, by comparing and contrasting these with European variants, I suspect we can get a hint of what an ancient version of Snow White may have looked like.
What if the most ancient versions of Snow White were something closer to Syair Bidasari - a story where an older woman and a younger woman vie for their husband's attention? From there, it could have split into various versions. In some, the older woman might be the heroine's mother. In others, the older woman might be the love interest's mother. Or there might be a totally different relationship between characters.
What do you think?
I recently came across an article by Lauren and Alan Dundes stating that Hans Christian Andersen used two famous motifs in his fairytale “The Little Mermaid.” First is the motif of mermaids which, yeah. But second is ATU K1911, “The False Bride.” The authors state that "This second motif, though critical for an understanding of the plot of 'The Little Mermaid' has not received much attention” (56). This article gets more into Freudian analysis, which is not really my thing, but I was really intrigued by the connection from the False Bride motif to The Little Mermaid.
So, in the False Bride motif, the villain steals the heroine’s identity and marries her intended husband. The heroine lives in servitude, in exile, or under a curse. Eventually someone alerts the husband, usually the true bride herself. The false bride is disposed of – often executed in gruesome ways, for instance buried alive or dragged by horses in a barrel full of nails. The true bride then takes her rightful place.
This is one of those universal elements that can easily be attached to many wildly varying tales - for instance “The Goose Girl” (ATU 533), “The Three Citrons” (ATU 408) and “The White Bride and the Black One” (ATU 403). In these cases, the swap takes place en route to the wedding. There’s no physical resemblance, but the imposter gets away with it by claiming she’s been transformed, or more often, because it’s an arranged marriage where the betrothed parties have never met.
In “Little Brother and Little Sister” (ATU 450) the switch takes place after the wedding, but the impostor is physically transformed to resemble the heroine.
In “The Sleeping Prince” (ATU 437), the heroine saves her prince from a Snow White-esque sleeping death. But a villainous servant orchestrates things so that she’s the one present when the prince awakens, so she takes all the credit and marries him.
(Note that frequently these stories are inherently racist, ableist and/or classist. Imposter brides are black or Romani, disabled, or of a lower social status. I’m looking particularly at “The Three Citrons” and “The White Bride and the Black One” here.)
As I’ve previously discussed, “The Little Mermaid” was especially influenced by the Paracelsus-inspired novella “Undine.” In this 1811 German novella, the husband casts off his water-nymph wife because he's uncomfortable with her magic, and replaces her with a human lover. It's the difference between the two women that's most important to him.
But the two women were, in fact, swapped at one point – it’s just that it happened in childhood, not at the wedding. The nymph child Undine was sent to replace the fisherman’s daughter Bertalda, who ended up being raised by a duke and duchess.
Andersen has the same love triangle featuring mermaid and human girl, but the approach is very different. The prince has no idea the mermaid exists, or that she saved him from drowning; instead he gives the credit for his rescue to a human girl who found him on the shore.
“Yes, you are dear to me,” said the prince; “for you have the best heart, and you are the most devoted to me; you are like a young maiden whom I once saw, but whom I shall never meet again. I was in a ship that was wrecked, and the waves cast me ashore near a holy temple, where several young maidens performed the service. The youngest of them found me on the shore, and saved my life. I saw her but twice, and she is the only one in the world whom I could love; but you are like her."
Much like “The Sleeping Prince,” the prince’s mistaken belief is what draws him to this other girl. In this case, though, she’s innocent in this whole debacle.
The mermaid is unable to reveal the truth because she is mute. This forced silence resembles “The Goose Girl” or the gender-flipped “The Lord of Lorn and the False Steward,” where the main character is compelled to swear they will tell no one their true identity. It’s also reminiscent of the heroine’s transformation into an animal in “The White Bride and the Black One” or “The Three Citrons.”
But there’s no intentional swap going on in “The Little Mermaid,” as there is in “False Bride” tales. Although the physical resemblance between the two girls blurs the lines, the human girl did play a role in the rescue, and the prince’s love for her seems genuine, while he never really sees the mermaid romantically. (He’s still a cad, though.) Ultimately the mermaid chooses to let the prince and his bride live happily ever after, in a self-sacrificial act which shows the story’s moral.
However, the Disney adaptation added a happy ending and simplified the cast list by combining two characters – the sea witch who gives the mermaid legs, and the girl who marries the prince. In the process, they gave the story the full False Bride motif. Prince Eric longs for his mysterious rescuer, but doesn’t realize it’s Ariel. Ursula the sea witch takes advantage of this by magically disguising herself to look similar to Ariel. (Also, mind control.) The swap is an intentional act by the villain. Ariel is barred from speaking by the villain, but ultimately gets the opportunity to publicly reveal the truth. False bride Ursula gets a gruesome death, and Ariel regains her identity and marries Eric.
Dundes and Dundes make the case that The Little Mermaid, like many of Disney's movies, is unintentionally about the Electra complex, where a girl competes with her mother for her father's affection. I'm simplifying a lot here, but it's gender-swapped Oedipus. According to Dundes and Dundes, the False Bride motif is integral to the story because of the Electra complex, the sexual rivalry between the young Ariel and the older Ursula. You can make a case for Snow White, where the sexual rivalry between mother and daughter is explicit ("Who's the fairest of them all?"), but The Little Mermaid seems like a slim connection. You have to squint to see Ursula as any kind of mother figure to Ariel. Their rivalry is ultimately about political power. And if you go back to Andersen's story, there is no way you can view the mermaid's romantic rival as a mother figure. The False Bride motif itself isn't Electral anyway because it is not ultimately a rivalry between mother and daughter. It's between two peers, or sisters of similar age, or a princess and a servant.
So, did Disney insert the Electra complex into The Little Mermaid? I don't think so, because I feel like it's a stretch to identify it that way. This brand of psychoanalysis has been discredited for a long time but does hang around in literary analysis. However, identifying the False Bride motif in Disney's Little Mermaid was a stroke of genius.
In the story of "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp," a sorcerer convinces a young boy, Aladdin, to fetch him a magic lamp from underground cavern. Abandoned in the cave, Aladdin finds himself in possession of a magic ring that summons a genie, and of course the lamp, which summons an even more powerful genie. Aladdin falls for the local princess and orders the lamp-genie to bring her to his chambers at night, then marries her and moves into a magnificent palace built by the lamp-genie. Then the sorcerer steals the lamp back, and Aladdin must recover it. In an epilogue, the sorcerer's brother makes a try for the lamp, but Aladdin wins again. The story was an instant classic, but contains many questions about the nature of genies.
The ring and lamp don’t actually contain the genies; rather, they summon them from somewhere else, and the genies must obey whoever hold the objects. There is clearly a power hierarchy, with one genie stronger than the other. But where did they come from? Why do they serve the holder of the objects? Why a lamp?
The History of Aladdin
Before tackling the lamp, it's important to look at where the story came from. "Aladdin" is grouped with the stories of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights. However, there is no Arabic textual source. Aladdin did not enter the collection until the French writer Antoine Galland began publishing Les mille et une nuits, from 1704 to 1717 - the first known European translation of the Nights. The collection was a huge hit and became incredibly influential. However, Galland was working from an incomplete manuscript, and eventually ran out of stories. He went looking for new ones to insert, stories that had never been part of the collection before – including “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” He got these from a Syrian storyteller named Hanna Diyab, in 1709. When Galland published Diyab’s stories, he never mentioned his source or gave any credit.
Other genies in the Arabian Nights
If you look at the older Nights, most of the djinni are free agents, not unlike fairies or other spirits in European stories. They may play matchmaker, or marry humans, or work mischief. But there are some who are imprisoned, or who serve humans.
In the story "The Fisherman and the Jinni," a fisherman's nets bring up a copper bottle with Solomon's seal. When he uncaps the bottle, a djinn bursts out. We learn that he’s been in the bottle for centuries. He explains that he was one of a movement of djinn, alongside Sekhr, who rebelled against King Solomon. As punishment, this djinn was imprisoned and thrown into the sea.
In the first couple of centuries, he swore to grant riches to anyone who freed him. In the third century, he swore to grant his rescuer three wishes. After four hundred years, however, he was pretty fed up and decided to grant his rescuer his preferred choice of death.
King Solomon – yes, the one in the Bible – is the subject of numerous non-Biblical legends, including stories about djinn. In a Jewish legend, Solomon had a seal ring engraved with the name of God, with which he could command the spirits. One named Sekhr, Sakhr, or Asmodeus stole the ring and replaced Solomon. Solomon was forced to wander in poverty until he managed to get the ring back.
Solomon's signet ring appears in other Arabian Nights tales, "The Adventures of Bulukiya" and "The City of Brass." The latter even details the war between Solomon, his army of good djinn, and an opposing army of evil djinn, which ended with the evil djinn sealed in copper jars or bottles. One is imprisoned in a pillar with his head and arms sticking out.
Another genie servant appears in the story of "Judar and his Brethren," where the main character gains a magic ring. Whenever he rubs the ring, the djinn who serves it will appear and obey any request. This story does bear a passing resemblance to Aladdin; the djinni Al-Ra’ad al-Kasif transports Judar home and helps him gain riches. Judar marries a princess and becomes Sultan, only for envious thieves to steal the magic ring and his wife. Unlike Aladdin, Judar is murdered by those who want the ring. In the end, the princess poisons Judar’s murderer and destroys the ring so that no one can ever possess it again. “Judar” does not appear in Galland’s translation.
Dom Denis Chavis, a Syrian priest, published a Galland-inspired continuation of the Nights. One story, "The Tale of the Warlock and the Young Cook of Baghdad," bears a resemblance to the story of Aladdin, with a young man magically kidnapping a certain princess every night. To do this, the young man learns from a sorcerer how to summon the Jánn from beneath the earth. This is more of an involved black magic ritual involving needles, clay and meat.
So there are traces of a legend where King Solomon imprisoned rebellious djinn inside bottles. They might be grateful enough to grant wishes when released, but they might also kill their rescuer out of sheer spite.
Separately, in the story of Judar, is the theme of a ring which can summon an obedient djinn. There are several magical treasures in "Judar" – saddlebags which generate food, a sword which summons fire and lightning. The ring is just another object with mystical properties - a common theme across many mythologies.
So, back to Aladdin. The magic ring is familiar. However, the magic lamp still raises some questions. Why is it a lamp? Why not another ring, or why not a jar, which most imprisoned genies seem to be stuck with?
The Spirit in the Blue Light
Aladdin has a neighbor in European fairy tales categorized as Aarne Thompson 562, "The Spirit in the Blue Light." This tale type gets its name from the Brothers Grimm's story, “The Blue Light.” In this tale, a witch sends a soldier down a well filled with treasure to retrieve a blue light which never goes out. Abandoned at the bottom of the well, he discovers that when he uses the blue light to light his pipe, a dwarf will appear and carry out any request. The soldier commands the dwarf to get him out of the well, and not much later, to bring the local princess to his home at night. The princess manages to leave a trail marking his house. When the king finds out, the soldier loses the blue light and is about to be executed, but regains it at the last second and ends up marrying the princess and becoming king. Aside from the ending, the plot is identical to Aladdin.
Blue fire is the hottest part of a flame, and has otherworldly associations, like will o’ the wisps that may lead the way to treasure. It might also be connected to lightning. However, the Grimms focused not on the otherworldly blue light, but on the fact that the soldier used it to light a pipe. They compared it to a Hungarian tale titled “The Wonderful Tobacco-pipe,” and to the flute in one of their other stories, “The Gnome.” Near the very end of “The Gnome,” there is one Aladdin-esque scene: a huntsman is trapped in an underground chamber and finds a flute. When he plays it, a huge crowd of elves appear and grant his request to be freed. The Grimms theorized that all of these stories were based on a story of a magic flute. However, going through a few different versions, there is an equally strong theme of light or heat sources.
This is not even close to an exhaustive examination, but some common spirit-summoning tools in Tale Type 562 are:
The Grimms also mention the legend of a thirteenth-century friar called Albertus Magnus. Rumors and legends about Albertus' magical studies abounded, one being a fifteenth-century poem, "Es war ein Kung in Frankereich.” There is no magical helper here, but part of the shape of Type 562 is clear. In his rebellious youth, Albertus magically carried a certain princess to his apartment every night. She was able to leave a trail of red paint to identify him. Albertus was set to be executed by the furious king, but escaped using a magical ball of yarn.
How did the summoning of a spirit become tied to a light source? It reminds me a little of the idea of candles lit in prayer. But ultimately, searching for a reason for Aladdin's lamp in European fairytales is backwards, because Aladdin may be the ultimate source for the magical candle or light. Galland's version of the Arabian Nights was hugely popular, and obvious descendants of Aladdin appear in many European folktale collections. For instance, in 1853 Heinrich Pröhle collected a German folktale titled "Der Geist des Ringes und der Geist des Lichtes" which is a straightforward retelling of Aladdin with every single plot beat.
There does seem to be a division between wholesale Aladdin retellings and variants of "The Blue Light." In “The Blue Light,” the protagonist uses his magical servant to kidnap the princess nightly, until she marks his house and her enraged father has the protagonist imprisoned. The protagonist loses his magical servant, regains it at the last second, defeats the king’s forces, and marries the princess.
Aladdin does steal the princess away at night on a few occasions, but otherwise goes through the proper channels to marry her. The problem arises from his old enemy, the sorcerer. Aladdin does briefly face execution from his father-in-law when the sorcerer causes trouble, but the focus is on his battle against the old enemy who’s turned his tricks against him.
The story of the young man kidnapping the princess via magic can be tracked at least the fifteenth century with the legend of Albertus Magnus. But the idea of the magic light summoning an obedient spirit can be tracked back to . . . uh . . . Aladdin, told by Hanna Diyab in 1709.
The Life of Hanna Diyab
Diyab's autobiography was rediscovered in the Vatican Library in 1993. Since then, some scholars have suggested that his stories were inspired by his own life.
Hanna Diyab was a nineteen-year-old Maronite Christian from Aleppo with a longing to travel, when he encountered Paul Lucas, a French traveler (plus tomb raider and con artist). Lucas offered to hire Diyab as a manservant and take him to meet the king of France. Along the way, it was Lucas who would introduce him to Antoine Galland.
Modern scholars have drawn connections between Diyab's autobiography and the story of Aladdin. Paulo Horta compares Diyab’s account of Louis XIV’s court to Aladdin’s processions, princesses and palaces. Diyab met Galland a few months after being introduced to court. Horta also mentioned that Diyab compared the bell of Notre Dame to an "egg made out of iron," located atop a "minaret," which rang so loudly that it scared the citizens. I wasn't able to check this against the source, but this would be an intriguing parallel to the deadly roc's egg that Aladdin's princess wants to hang in the dome of the palace.
Not only can you see Diyab as Aladdin and Lucas as the magician, but one of Lucas' main goals was to bring home treasures and artifacts. Early in their travels, they found an underground tomb that Lucas wanted to investigate.
He [Lucas] walked around the tomb, looking for a way in. He only saw a small opening, and asked one of the armed escort to go down through it. None of them did; they said that it could contain a wild animal, like a hyena, leopard, or something. … As we were talking, a shepherd walked by, and the officers asked him to go down. … The tomb was six feet and one span of the hand deep. The Frenchman said to the shepherd: ‘Go around the tomb and give me everything you find.’ He started to walk around and saw a human skull, which he handed over. It was the size of a large watermelon. The Frenchman told us it was the skull of a man. Then, the shepherd handed him another skull, which was smaller. The Frenchman said it belonged to a woman. He claimed that the tomb was that of rulers of the area. He threw the shepherd a piece of cloth and said: ‘gather everything you find on the ground and give it to me.’ The shepherd proceeded to do so, and among the things he collected we saw a large flat ring. The Frenchman examined it and said that it was rusty, and that there was no clear writing on it. He was not able to identify the metal from which it was made, nor whether it was gold, silver, or something else. He kept it with him. Then he said to the shepherd: ‘Feel around the walls of the tomb.’ As the shepherd did so, he felt a niche inside of which there was a lamp, similar to those of butter vendors, but he could not identify the material….
So someone is sent underground to retrieve treasures, and returns with a lamp and a ring. Was this an incident that influenced Diyab when he told the story of Aladdin? Or was his storytelling style affecting the way he wrote down his life story decades later? Hanna Diyab’s memoir is likely at least partially fictionalized. He had probably retold his journey many times over the years, embroidering or exaggerating. Paulo Horta points out a story of a private meeting with a French princess that probably would not have been allowed.
Lucas described the tomb incident in his own memoirs, but only mentioned the skulls. (Diyab and Lucas’s travelogues cover some of the same events but portray them differently – for instance, they both describe being raided by pirates, but Lucas is an innocent victim in his version and a conniving sleazeball in Diyab’s.)
In-story, I think the lamp and ring would be most equivalent to the magical ring in the story of Judar. It's simply a property of the magical objects that they summon otherworldly servants. Out-of-story, we know that Aladdin is the result of a collaboration between Hanna Diyab and Antoine Galland, and I agree that most of the story came from Diyab. What inspired him to make the magical object a lamp? I do like the idea that he was influenced by an incident on his journey, where a lamp was found in a buried tomb. Or the tomb incident could be irrelevant, just Diyab retelling his own life in the style of a fairytale. Maybe there is something in the idea of candles lit in prayer. Either way, I think Diyab's magic lamp is comparable to Perrault's glass slipper - a stroke of storytelling genius that forever defined the popular image of the fairytale.
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The opening of the Italian fairytale "Prezzemolina" is near-identical to Rapunzel, but then the story takes a totally different direction. It becomes something like a gender-flipped versions of stories like "Master Maid" or "Petrosinella," where the hero is in danger from a villain, but is rescued by the villain's beautiful and magical daughter. In this version, it's a heroine who's rescued by the wicked witch's handsome son. There are two primary versions of the tale, so I'll list them in the order of publication.
The story of "La Prezzemolina" begins just like Rapunzel and the older Italian "Petrosinella," with a pregnant woman craving parsley. Some fairies live next door, so she climbs into their walled garden to steal their parsley. They eventually catch her, and tell her that they will one day take away her child. The woman has her baby, who is named Prezzemolina (Little Parsley). The fairies collect her when she reaches school-age, and she grows up as their servant. They give her impossible tasks and threaten to eat her if she fails. Fortunately Memé, the fairies' cousin, arrives and offers to help in exchange for a kiss. She sharply refuses the kiss, but he helps anyway with a magic wand and mysterious powers. She goes through several tasks, including going to Fata Morgana (Morgan le Fay) to collect the "Handsome Minstrel's" or "Handsome Clown's" box, only to open the box and lose the contents. But Memé is always there to assist, and in the end they destroy all of the fairies and get married.
The tale appeared in Vittorio Imbriani's La Novellaja fiorentina (1871, p. 121). Italo Calvino, who adapted it in his Italian Folktales (1956), called it "one of the best-known folktales, found throughout Italy." He noted the presence of "that cheerful figure of Memé, cousin of the fairies." This could imply that Memé is a popular folk figure.
Imbriani, the original collector, suggested that Memé is Demogorgon, the terrifying lord of the fairies in the 15th-century poem Orlando Innamorato. The name Demogorgon probably came from a misreading of the word “demiurge” in a 4th-century text, and developed to mean either an ancient supreme god or a demon. The biggest similarity I can see is that Fata Morgana plays a villainous role in both “Prezzemolina” and Orlando Innamorato. I’m not sure of Imbriani’s thought process, other than the fact that Orlando vividly describes Demogorgon punishing the fairies.
Imbriani also compared Memé to the fairy cat Mammone, who hands out magical rewards and punishments in the fairytale “La Bella Caterina.” Again, I’m not clear on why, except that Memé sounds kind of like Mammone. I may be missing Italian context.
In both cases, Imbriani implies that Memé holds some kind of power or authority over the fairies. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me; Memé seems to be on the same level as the fairies, and is apparently the black sheep of the family. The fairies seem automatically suspicious that he might help a human girl. When they see Prezzemolina’s first impossible task completed, they immediately guess (as Calvino puts it), “our cousin Memé came by, didn't he?" They later tell Meme their plans to kill Prezzemolina, perhaps in an attempt to goad him.
Another version, also titled "Prezzemolina," appeared in Canti e racconti del popolo italiano by Isaia Visentini (1879). This version begins with seven-year-old Prezzemolina eating parsley from a garden on her way to school and being kidnapped by the angry witch gardener. Here, the handsome rescuer who only wants a kiss is Bensiabel, the witch's son. This version features different tasks, but one quest still involves retrieving a casket, and in the end Bensiabel kills the witch and Prezzemolina finally agrees to marry him.
Andrew Lang published a translation in The Grey Fairy Book (1900), but changed the plant and the name. The vegetable garden became an orchard, the parsley became a plum, and the heroine's name became Prunella. This resembles early translations of Rapunzel where English writers struggled to render the name and came up with "Violet" or "Letitia." However, in this case the reason may be that Lang had already published The Green Fairy Book (1892) with the German tale "Puddocky," which had a near-identical opening with a heroine named Parsley. Lang did not mention a source, but "Prunella" is clearly drawn from Visentini's story.
Bensiabel's name may come from the Italian "ben" (well) and "bel" (nice). This seems supported by the French translation, Belèbon, in Edouard Laboulaye's 1881 retelling "Fragolette." Belèbon may be from the French "bel" (attractive) and "bon" (good). Like Lang, Laboulaye turned the parsley into a fruit, in this case strawberries (Italian fragola).
Cupid and Psyche
As Calvino implies, there are a number of similar tales.
Charlotte-Rose de la Force - the author who gave us the modern Rapunzel - also wrote a story in 1698 called "Fairer-than-a-Fairy" which followed some of the same motifs as Prezzemolina. The heroine, Fairer-than-a-fairy, is kidnapped by Nabote, Queen of the Fairies. Nabote's son Phratis falls for Fairer and helps her.
Calvino published another tale with similar plot beats, titled "The Little Girl Sold with the Pears" (p. 35), noting that he made numerous edits. The original, "Margheritina," collected by Domenico Comparetti, is even closer to Prezzemolina, with the heroine's unnamed prince being the one to magically aid her.
Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 425, The Search for the Lost Husband, is a large family of tales with many subtypes. 425C is Beauty and the Beast. In the current breakdown, 425B is "The Son of the Witch." When Hans-Jorg Uther codified this, he wrote "The essential feature of this type is the quest for the casket, which entails the visit to the second witch’s house. Usually the supernatural bridegroom is the witch’s son, and he helps his wife perform the tasks."
In the Pentamerone (1634-1636) is a story titled "Lo Turzo d'Oro" - literally "The Trunk of Gold," but also titled "The Golden Root" in translation. When the heroine Parmetella is completing her tasks to win back her husband Thunder-and-Lightning (Truone-e-llampe), he helps her through each task. This is the bloodiest variant I've read.
Laura Gonzenbach's story "King Cardiddu" also features a male character who's imprisoned by the villain but manages to provide magical help to the heroine.
Giuseppe Pitre collected a Sicilian tale called "Marvizia" (Fiabe, novelle e racconti popolari siciliani, 1875). The heroine is named for her resemblance to a "marva" or mallow plant. The villain is an ogress named Mamma-Draga. It's a long and elaborate tale, but in a section similar to Prezzemolina's quests, Marvizia is assisted in her tasks by a giant named Ali who works for Mamma-Draga. However, he's not the love interest; Marvizia marries a captured prince whom the villainess turned into a bird. (This story features an ogress who eats people "like biscotti," and the hero wishes for a literal bomb with which to blow up her castle. I just felt that was important to note.)
"Cupid and Psyche," recorded in the second century, is the uber-example. Psyche loses her divine husband Cupid and must complete her goddess-mother-in-law Venus's tasks to get him back. Although the tasks are meant to be impossible, Psyche completes each one with help from nearby creatures. Finally she must go to the Underworld and retrieve a box from Persephone, but foolishly opening it, falls into a deep sleep. At this final point, Cupid steps in and rescues her.
Prezzemolina and similar tales are neighbors of the "Cupid and Psyche" tale - related to stories like "East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon." They don't have the beastly transformation, or the scene where the love interest is about to be forced to marry the wrong girl. However, they share the motif of the girl faced with impossible tasks including retrieving a magical box, and being aided by her supernatural lover. Taken to its furthest conclusion, this casts interesting parallels from Prezzemolina to Beauty and the Beast tales. Beauty's father is forced to hand his daughter over because he stole a flower from the Beast's garden - a very Rapunzel moment. Prezzemolina's suitor constantly begs for a kiss, the Beast asks Beauty to marry him, and the Frog Prince requests to sleep on his princess's pillow.
Memé and Bensiabel would then be related to Cupid and the family of beastly bridegrooms. Echoing Cupid, they're benevolent sorcerers or minor deities smitten with a mortal girl, who defy their divine or monstrous mothers to help. Unlike the lost husband figure, the Memé figure is never under a curse, and is right there alongside the heroine for the whole tale. She has no need to pursue him, because he's wooing her the entire time.
With its unique mix of fairytale tropes, I'm not sure whether the Prezzemolina type would be best categorized as 425B, "The Son of the Witch," as 310, "The Maiden in the Tower," or as something else entirely.
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Hans the Mermaid's Son
The Little Mermaid isn't the only Danish tale about mermaids. I first discovered the tale of "Hans the Mermaid’s Son" in Andrew Lang’s Pink Fairy Book. Published 1897, this book gets sloppy with attributions. Some sources are given in detail, but other stories are simply labeled “From the Danish” or “From the Swedish.” A note in the foreword specifies that the Danish and Swedish tales were translated by MR. W. A. Craigie, but not where he got them.
This made tracking down the story a real pain, but I finally worked out that the Danish tales are from Svend Grundtvig’s series Danske Folkeaeventyr (1876-1884). It's possible the editors thought "the Danish" was enough for readers to understand what they meant.
This is Aarne-Thompson Type 650A, the Strong Boy. Way back in 2016, I analyzed a different version of this tale – “The Young Giant,” from the Brothers Grimm. The story is a comical tale of a super-strong laborer, who performs Herculean feats and makes fools out of his bosses and coworkers. It still strikes me as a gloomy tale when you think about the internal journey of the main character – from a tiny boy who just wants to help his father on the farm, to a strapping giant whose parents reject him out of fear, to a mean-spirited bully who uses his strength to hurt or humiliate others.
So how does Hans the Mermaid’s Son measure up?
Hans Havfruesøn was published in Danske Folkeæventyr volume II. Aside from Lang's translation, it appeared in German in 1878 as "Hans Meernixensohn," and in Gustav Hein's 1914 translation, it showed up as "Olaf the Mermaid's Son."
The story begins by introducing a man named Rasmus Madsen. Rasmus is a common Scandinavian men’s name, short for Erasmus, and Madsen is a common Danish surname. At least, that's what it was in the version I found online. In the German, it is “Rasmus Matzen.” In Hein’s version, it is “Rasmus Natzen.” And in the Andrew Lang version, it’s simply “Basmus" (sic). Rasmus lives in a town called Furreby, by the strait called the Skagerrak. (Lang cuts this description, but oddly still mentions Furreby at the end of the tale.)
Rasmus, a smith, struggles to earn enough to feed his wife and small children. He makes some money on the side by fishing. He goes out alone on a fishing expedition, but vanishes for several days and then turns up again mysteriously. What no one knows is that he was caught by a mermaid and spent several days with her.
Seven years later, a boy named Hans shows up and announces that he is the mermaid's son, here to visit his dad, Rasmus. He's six years old, but looks at least eighteen. Like many heroes of Type 650A, Hans comes into being in a mythical way. Other equivalents may be the son of a woman and a bear, or may hatch out of an egg. Hans does not seem visibly half-merman, and his amazing size and strength aren't obviously related to his origin. However, there is one later scene where he doesn't seem to mind doing battle beneath a lake - more on that later.
Hans has a massive appetite. After an entire loaf of bread doesn't fill him up, he declares that he must set out, for he won't have enough to eat here, and asks for the smith to make him an iron staff. It takes several tries before the smith crafts an iron rod that Hans cannot break. Hans thanks him and sets out. He winds up at a farm, where he offers to do the work of twelve men if he will also be fed the same amount as twelve men. However, the next day, Hans sleeps late into the morning and the gentleman (his boss) has to wake him. The men are threshing, and Hans has six threshing-floors to complete all by himself. Hans immediately smashes his flails by accident, so he makes his own flail so large that he must take the barn's roof off in order to use it. He threshes all of his work, but mixes up the different types of grain in the process. When told he must clean it up, he blows on the grain to filter all the chaff out.
After another meal, Hans then sleeps the rest of the afternoon. The gentleman, meanwhile, is not too pleased with Hans, and makes a plan with his wife and the steward. The next day, they send all the men to the forest for firewood with a bet that the last one back will be hanged--they bet on Hans oversleeping, which he does. When he finally rises, the others have taken all the equipment, so he cobbles together a makeshift cart and gets two old horses to draw it. He accidentally breaks the gate on his way out, so replaces it with a huge boulder seven ells across (fourteen feet or so). When he catches up with the other workers, they laugh at him, since they already have carts loaded and ready with trees. Hans begins cutting down trees, but immediately breaks his axe, so he begins tearing up trees by the roots. The other workers stand staring openmouthed until they realize it's time to get going, and hurry back. Hans, meanwhile, finds that his weak old horses can't move the cart. "He was annoyed with this," so naturally carries the cart and all the trees on his back. The other workers, of course, cannot get past the boulder. "What!" Hans says, "Can twelve men not move that stone?" He throws the boulder out of the way, and arrives at the farm first. The gentleman sees him coming and bars the courtyard door in terror. When Hans knocks and doesn't hear an answer, he decides to throw the trees and the cart into the courtyard instead. The gentleman hurriedly opens the door before Hans can do the same with the horses. When the workers gather for their meal, Hans asks who's going to be hanged, and everyone hastily says it was just a joke.
The gentleman, his wife and the farm's steward are now even more alarmed by Hans, and decide to send him to clean the well the next day, then drop stones on top of him. (This will also save them funeral expenses!) The workers are all in on this and drop heavy stones, but Hans calls up to them that gravel is landing on him. Finally they try the big millstone, but it lands on him like a collar instead. At this Hans comes out of the well complaining that the other workers are making fun of him, and shakes off the stone, which falls and crushes the gentleman's toe.
The steward comes up with a final plan: sending Hans to fish by night in Djævlemose - which is a real place name. Lang renders it as "Devilmoss Lake"; Hein calls it "the devil's pool." There Hans will surely be captured by Gammel Erik, or Old Erik. This is a Norwegian folk-name for the Devil, equivalent to the English “Old Nick.” The Norwegian folklorists Asbjornsen and Moe collected a tale titled “Skipperen og Gamle-Erik,” or “The Skipper and Old Erik,” in which a sea-captain makes a bargain with the devil and outwits him. This story, like Hans Havfrueson's, is set on the water.
Hans agrees to go fishing as long as he has a good meal, and rows out onto the lake. He decides to begin his snack before doing any fishing, but as he's eating, Old Erik drags him out of the boat and to the bottom of the lake. Hans happens to have his iron walking-stick, and beats Old Erik until the devil promises to bring all the lake's fish to the gentleman's courtyard. Hans then finishes his meal and goes home to bed. The next morning, the entire courtyard is filled with a mountain of fish. This time, the gentleman's wife suggests sending Hans to Hell to demand three years tribute, and tells her husband at random to send Hans south. (Lang changes this to Purgatory, presumably to censor it for children, even though it ruins the tale's theological consistency. Hein glosses it as "the infernal regions.")
With a good supply of food, Hans sets out (and discovers that he has forgotten his butter-knife, but fortunately finds a plow to use instead). He meets a man riding by who says he's from Hell, and accompanies him. No one will let him in at the gate, so he smashes through it and beats up the demons who try to attack him. They run to Old Erik, who's still recovering in bed and who yells for them to give Hans whatever he wants. Hans returns to his master with a treasure trove of gold and silver coins, but is now "tired of living on shore among mortal men." He gives half of the treasure to the gentleman, takes the other half to his father, and then goes home to his mother.
This tale strikes me oddly as softer than "The Young Giant." There is still the conflict between the uncontrollably strong youth and the complacent villagers who are all terrified of him and try to get rid of him by any means. The sequence of events is almost the same. Both heroes have legendary origins and go through parallel challenges. The iron walking stick and the millstone-around-the-neck scenes are near-identical.
However, Hans doesn't seem to have the Young Giant's mean streak. Thumbling the Giant's masters fear him because he wants to beat them rather than getting paid in money. Hans' master also wants to get rid of him, but it's because Hans is unpredictable and unwittingly destructive. You can read Hans' dialogue as either clueless or slyly knowing - I'd lean towards clueless - but Thumbling speaks "coarsely and sarcastically." Hans blocks the way home with a boulder because he's accidentally broken the gate, but Thumbling stops and blocks the path purely to spite his coworkers. And though the gentleman and his wife plot multiple times to kill Hans, he leaves them with a massive pile of treasure. Thumbling kicks his boss into the sky, and kicks his wife after him even though she has done nothing that we know of.
Overall, Hans feels like a more heroic character. When he gets into fights, it's with people who attack him first. Despite being lazy, gluttonous and oblivious, he seems good-natured (aside from not objecting to the idea that someone will get hanged for returning home last). Even with that, I do think it's relevant that he's really just six years old.
Although both stories use the hero's physical strength for comedy, "Hans" leans harder on the parodic aspects (such as casually taking the roof off the barn to work, and Hans' meals getting progressively larger as the story goes on).
There is still a sense of loneliness to a story where no one wants the hero around. However, I was better able to enjoy this version as a comedy. And with Hans disappearing into the boundless ocean at the end, it's possible to imagine him eventually finding a home where he fits in better, and maybe maturing a little.
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Goldilocks and the Three Bears is one of the most famous fairytales today. It's also one of the most mysterious. Alan C. Elms wrote that Goldilocks "does not resemble any of the standard tale-types, and includes no indexed folktale motifs." For years, Goldilocks was believed to be a literary creation by a single author... until an older version surfaced in a library collection.
1831: Eleanor Mure wrote down "The Story of the Three Bears", (available here from the Toronto Public Library) in rhyme, with watercolor illustrations, as a birthday gift for her young nephew. She called it "the celebrated nursery tale," indicating that it was already famous, and she was just rendering it in verse.
The story is different from the version familiar today. There is no Goldilocks. Rather, the story begins with three bears (all apparently male, referred to as the first, second and little bears) who move into a house in town. A snooping old woman, with no name, breaks into their house while they're out. Rather than porridge, she drinks their milk, but she breaks chairs and sleeps in beds just like the modern Goldilocks. Hearing the bears coming home, she hides in a closet. The bears return and discover the damage one by one. They find her, have difficulty burning or drowning her, and finally throw her on top of St. Paul's Church steeple.
Mure's homemade manuscript remained unknown for years, until 1951, when it was finally rediscovered in the Toronto Public Library.
Before that, the oldest known version had been Robert Southey's.
1837: Robert Southey anonymously published The Doctor, a collection of his essays. Among those was "The Story of the Three Bears." This is, in some ways, more like modern Goldilocks. The bears' meal is porridge. Again the antagonist is a nosy old lady. In a stroke of genius, Southey had the Great, Huge Bear, the Middle Bear, and the Little, Small, Wee Bear speak in appropriately sized type. The story ends with the old woman jumping out the window, never to be seen again. Southey described the story as one he had heard as a child from his uncle. Also, in letters from 1813, Southey mentioned telling the story to his relative's young children.
1849: Joseph Cundall made a significant change when he retold the tale in Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children. Namely, instead of an elderly crone, he made the antagonist a little girl named Silver-Hair.
The "Story of the Three Bears" is a very old Nursery Tale, but it was never so well told as by the great poet Southey, whose version I have (with permission) given you, only I have made the intruder a little girl instead of an old woman. This I did because I found that the tale is better known with Silver-Hair, and because there are so many other stories of old women.
However, Cundall might not have been the first person to do this; he implies that the tale is already "better known" as Silver-Hair. Both the name and the child character caught on very quickly, another possible indicator that he didn't make it up.
The bachelor bears got a makeover, too. In 1852, illustrations were showing them as a nuclear family. And in 1859's The Three Bears. A Moral Tale, in Verse, the bears are identified as "a father, a mother, and child."
1865: An interesting aside here. In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens titles a chapter "The Feast of the Three Hobgoblins." The characters eat bread and milk, and Dickens includes this line:
It was, as Bella gaily said, like the supper provided for the three nursery hobgoblins at their house in the forest, without their thunderous low growlings of the alarming discovery, ‘Somebody’s been drinking my milk!’
As pointed out by Katharine Briggs, this could indicate another version of the story floating around. I think it should be noted that a synonym for hobgoblin is "bug-bear."
Back to the evolving story of The Three Bears! The heroine’s name varied from Silver Hair, to Silver-locks, to Golden Hair, to Golden Locks - or, occasionally, she was nameless. "Golden Hair" appeared around 1868, in Aunt Friendly's Nursery Book. The variant "Goldilocks" soon gained popularity. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this was a nickname for blonds as early as 1550. Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes (1904) is sometimes credited with the first use of the name Goldilocks for this story. However, Goldilocks was used for the Three Bears' antagonist as early as 1875 (Little Folks' Letters: Young Hearts and Old Heads, pg. 25, where the name is not capitalized).
At this point, most people believed that the tale was created by Southey. In 1890, the folklorist Joseph Jacobs stated that the story was "the only example I know of where a tale that can be definitely traced to a specific author has become a folk-tale."
However, Jacobs changed his opinion not long afterwards, when he received a story titled "Scrapefoot." This was collected by John Batten from a Mrs. H., who had heard it from her mother forty years previously. It appeared in Jacobs' More English Fairy Tales in 1894. This is close to the tale of Goldilocks that we know today, except that the main character who visits the castle of the three bears is neither a girl nor an old woman; it's a male fox named Scrapefoot. (There are quite a few parallels with Mure's version - the stolen food being milk, and the dilemma of how to kill the intruder.)
Jacobs believed that Scrapefoot must be the older, more authentic version of the tale. He publicized the theory that Southey had heard a hypothetical third version with a female fox, or vixen, and had misinterpreted the word "vixen" to mean an unpleasant woman.
However, Jacobs was building his theory based on the information he had at the time. He did not know of Mure's "Three Bears," which would not be discovered until 1951. We have two early, literary versions about an old lady, both of which state they heard the story from tradition - and one oral version, recorded later, about a male fox.
Cundall's version, with Silver-Hair, is the oldest known to feature a child intruder. But Cundall possibly implies that other people were already telling versions with a young girl. And actually, there's more evidence for this - starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Goldilocks as a Motif
In the Grimms' story of Snow White, first published in 1812, there is a long scene where the heroine - a young child in this version, seven years old - first finds the seven dwarfs' house. Inside the empty cottage she discovers a table set with seven places, and seven beds. Snow White eats a few bites from each plate and drinks a drop of wine from each cup. Then
"She tried each of the seven little beds, one after the other, but none felt right until she came to the seventh one, and she lay down in it and fell asleep."
When the dwarfs return, this happens:
The first one said, "Who has been sitting in my chair?"
The second one, "Who has been eating from my plate?"
The third one, "Who has been eating my bread?"
The fourth one, "Who has been eating my vegetables?"
The fifth one, "Who has been sticking with my fork?"
The sixth one, "Who has been cutting with my knife?"
The seventh one, "Who has been drinking from my mug?"
Then the first one said, "Who stepped on my bed?"
The second one, "And someone has been lying in my bed."
Eventually, they find Snow White lying there. Unlike the story of the Three Bears, however, the dwarves are so stricken with her beauty that they are happy to let her stay.
Another fun fact: in the Grimms' original draft from 1810, Snow White is golden-haired. Her mother wishes for a child with black eyes, and in a later scene there's a reference to Snow White's "yellow hairs" being combed.
The Grimms also published another story with a similar scene, "The Three Ravens." A girl sets out to rescue her three brothers, who were transformed into ravens. She travels through the harsh wilderness to the castle where they now live. There are three plates and three cups. The girl samples from each and drops her ring into the final cup. Just then, the ravens arrive; the girl might be hiding at this point, because the ravens don't seem to notice her. They each ask, "Who ate from my little plate? Who ate from my little cup?" But when the third raven looks into his cup, he finds the sister's ring, and the curse is broken.
The Grimms edited the story significantly and changed it to "The Seven Ravens." However, I find it significant that the earlier published version had three talking animals.
The stolen-meal scene also takes place briefly in "The Bewitched Brothers," a similar tale from Romania with two eagle-brothers. In other tales, the girl does not eat, but cleans the house and sets the table, then hides herself before her brothers come in. In a Norwegian variant called The Twelve Wild Ducks, the details are a little different, but the sister hides under the bed when her brothers arrive, and is discovered because she left her spoon on the table. In that version, at least one brother blames her for the curse, which explains why she might need to hide.
In Journal of American Folklore, Mary I. Shamburger and Vera R. Lachmann argued that Southey pulled inspiration from Snow White and also from Norwegian lore. They say,
"According to the Norwegian tale, the king's daughter comes to a cave inhabited by three bears (really Russian princes who cast off their bearskins at night). The king's daughter finds the interior of the cave very comfortable. Food and drink, especially porridge, are waiting on the table; she sees beds nearby, and after a good meal, she chooses the bed she prefers and lies not on, but underneath it!"
They're describing "Riddaren i Bjødnahame" (The Knights in Bear-shapes). I would need someone more well-versed in Norwegian dialect to weigh in, but the details seem a bit different from the previous description. The bear-knights' home is not what I'd picture as a cave; it's a Barhytte, which is apparently a hut made of pine branches. I couldn't verify whether porridge is mentioned (if you know Norwegian landsmål, I would love to hear from you). The princess doesn't just move in and get comfy - she cooks the food and tidies up. The beds are a triple bunkbed (yes). And she doesn't take a nap - she is scared that the inhabitants may turn out to be dangerous, so she hides beneath the lowest bed. In fact, the Russian princes are charmed by her, and she ends up marrying one of them.
Shamburger and Lachmann cited one other Norwegian tale in a footnote: "Jomfru Gyltrom." This is a parallel story, which does not feature the meal scene but does have three bear-princes. Incidentally, Jomfru Gyltrom's most notable characteristic is that she has a golden dove on her head. I don't think this is really connected to Goldilocks' name, but it's still an interesting parallel.
The Three Bears today features a nuclear family with Mama, Papa and Baby Bear. However, in some of the earliest versions, all the bears are male. This is closer to the Snow White-eque tales, where the home is an all-male space. Sometimes it’s a cottage, sometimes a castle (as in Scrapefoot). The intruder is the only female. The male inhabitants may be animals, humans in animal form, or otherworldly creatures (such as dwarves, or… hmmm… Dickens’ hobgoblins?).
The biggest difference is in the intruder's behavior. "Snow White" heroines are domestic goddesses who cook and clean wherever they go, but girls in "Three Bears" stories are forces of destruction.
I talk about tale types, but honestly, a lot of tales don’t stick to identified types. They’re more a collection of motifs. The Norwegian stories mentioned are Snow White tales, but not exactly. Both contain the essential elements of Snow White, but also other stories – “The Knights in Bear-shapes” turns into an East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon-type tale after the heroine wakes up, and “Jomfru Gyltrom” has an extended ending where the heroine’s stepsister impersonates her. “The Three Ravens” ends with the heroine locating her brothers, but other stories of that tale type typically continue after that point, with the heroine sewing shirts to break the curse. In a different case: one obscure English folktale, Dathera Dad, is parallel to a single scene from Tom Thumb.
The essential elements of Goldilocks are contained as a single scene in the stories of "Snow White" and "The Three Ravens," published in Germany in 1812, 19 years before Mure wrote down her version. In the 1810 version especially, Snow White was a seven-year-old blonde girl. Both Mure and Southey make reference to the story of the Three Bears being well-known. I wonder which came first. Was there a short story of a woman entering the animals' house and eating their food, which got absorbed into longer stories of a woman seeking shelter? Or did the Goldilocks scene break off from longer stories and take on a life of its own?
I believe that Goldilocks is an older story than it's been given credit for; it seems as if people are constantly finding that certain details - like the name Goldilocks - are older than previously realized. And I think the similarities to Snow White are too notable to be ignored. It's just that Southey's literary version gained notoriety and became the most influential version very quickly, while stories such as Dickens' "Three Hobgoblins" may not have been recorded.
And who knows - if Mure's version showed up more than a century after it was written, we might unearth other old versions. Mure's "Three Bears" up-ended all previous theories about Goldilocks. Joseph Jacobs thought Southey had misheard a story about a fox. Shamburger and Lachmann suggested that Southey had pulled his ideas from Norwegian folklore. But the discovery of this earlier version proved that Southey wasn't just making things up when he talked about hearing the story from his uncle; other people were already telling the story to their children.
Sometimes, if a tale doesn't contain any indexed motifs, it's time to update the index.
Elphin Irving: A Tragic Tam Lin
“Elphin Irving, the Fairies' Cupbearer” is a Scottish tale very similar to Tam Lin. There are some key differences. First, it's about siblings rather than lovers. More importantly, it's a tragedy. The story was first published by Allan Cunningham in the London Magazine, and again in 1822, in Cunningham's Traditional Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry.
The story begins with a quote from Tam Lin (spelled Tamlane here). It’s a triumphant stanza, in which the heroine rescues Tamlane, and the fairy queen declares, "She that has won him, young Tamlane, has gotten a gallant groom.” Although the wording is slightly unique, it is very close to many of the versions in the Child Ballads, which would be published in the 1860s. (The oldest confirmed written version of Tam Lin is dated 1769, but the ballad probably goes back further.)
After this quote, the story introduces the valley of Corriewater, where many of the countryfolk believe fairies still dwell. The fairies often woo human youths and maidens away to be their lovers, and people who see their nighttime processions often spot dead relatives among them. The narrator then introduces “the traditional story of the Cupbearer to the Queen of the fairies.” There is a framing device with a group of countryfolk telling the story, different people chiming in to add their own perspectives.
The countryfolk introduce the tale of the twins Elphin and Phemie Irving. When the twins are sixteen, their father drowns trying to save his sheep from the river known as the Corriewater. Their mother dies of grief seven days after his funeral. The twins are very close, and both remarkably beautiful. (At this point, one of the storytellers bursts into a song, “Fair Phemie Irving.”)
When the twins are nineteen, there’s a drought. Elphin begins driving their flock over the dried-up Corriewater to reach better pastures. One evening, Phemie is waiting for her brother and sees a vision of him entering the house. However, when she goes to check on him, he’s vanished. She screams and goes comatose. Her neighbors, who come to check on her, can’t rouse her until the following morning, when a girl mentions that the Corrie has flooded and some of the Irvings’ sheep have been found drowned. Phemie immediately wakes up, wailing that “they have ta’en him away." She believes she saw the fairies charm Elphin away, for his horse wasn't shod with iron. She denies that he was drowned, and swears she’ll win him back. The superstitious townsfolk begin to gossip, many of them believing Phemie’s account. The storming and flooding worsen.
When the storms finally clear, the local laird discovers Phemie seated at the foot of an oak tree within a fairy ring. She sings "The Fairy Oak of Corriewater." In her song, the fairies dance around the haunted oak, and the Elf-queen brags that,
"I have won me a youth...the fairest that earth may see;
This night I have won young Elph Irving
My cup-bearer to be.
His service lasts but for seven sweet years,
And his wage is a kiss of me."
Phemie (though she isn't named in the song) bursts into their dance. The Elf-queen and Elphin climb onto their horses, but Phemie grabs Elphin and calls on God for help. Elphin transforms into a bull, a river, and a raging fire. At this last transformation, Phemie lets go. In the final verse, the elves sing tauntingly that if she had held on through the fire and kissed her brother, she would have won him back.
Phemie finishes her song, raving with grief, and the laird carries her home. At the same time two shepherds return bearing Elphin’s body, finally recovered from the river. He drowned trying to save their sheep. When Phemie sees the body, she laughs and says it’s nothing but a lifeless image fashioned by the fairies to fool them all. On Hallowmass-eve, when the spirits wander, she will wait at the graveyard and try again to capture Elphin from the fairy cavalcade. Most of the superstitious countryfolk believe her. But the morning after Hallow-eve, Phemie is found frozen to death in the graveyard, still waiting for her brother.
Allan Cunningham was a Scottish author and songwriter. This book, Traditional Tales, is clearly literary; anything collected has been polished and framed in his style. In the foreword, Cunningham wrote, “I am more the collector and embellisher, than the creator of these tales; and such as are not immediately copied from recitation are founded upon traditions or stories prevalent in the north." He doesn't provide further information, so we don't know what class "Elphin Irving" might have fallen into. Was it a story he heard directly and wrote down? Or was it “founded upon traditions”? Did it draw inspiration from Tam Lin?
A sidenote: in 1809, Cunningham was supposed to collect old ballads for Robert Hartley Cromek’s Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song. However, Cunningham instead submitted his original poems, written in the style of ballads. Cunningham's biographer pointed out that other poets around the same time sometimes committed similar deceptions, presenting their own work as ancient stuff.
"Elphin Irving" is a story within a story within a story. In level one, the narrator listens to a story being told by a group of countryfolk. Level two is the tragic but mundane tale of the death of the Irving family. Level three is Phemie's account of her supernatural experience. It’s left ambiguous whether the supernatural elements are real. The only one that really seems squarely stated is that Phemie saw her brother's apparition at the moment of his death. Also, lines blur between the different levels. Rumors and superstitions are threaded through the narrative, and it’s sometimes hard to recall whether we’re reading the words of the peasant characters in the story, or the people sitting about listening in the frame narrative.
As pointed out by Carole G. Silver, the fascination of the story comes from both the familiar trope of the fairy kidnapping, and "the author's reasoned hesitation between natural and supernatural explanations of events" (Strange and Secret Peoples, 14). Cunningham loved fairy-stories, but here, he would not commit one way or the other. We are never fully sure whether the fairies are "real."
The fairy plotline parallels the story of Tam Lin or Tamlane. This is explicit in the text, and the narrator draws attention to it with the opening excerpt. (Tamlane is also mentioned in "The King of the Peak," another story in the same book.) In “Tam Lin,” the heroine keeps hold through her true love’s transformations and wins him away from the faeries. Cunningham quotes the part of "Tam Lin" where the Fairy Queen accepts defeat. But when Phemie tries to follow that example, she fails, and the elves depart with mockery.
Although Tam Lin has a happy ending, in similar folktales, it could sometimes be a toss-up. Tam Lin and Elph Irving are unusual in having a girl as the rescuer; it's typically a man pursuing his supposedly dead (actually kidnapped) wife. In the Irish tale of "The Recovered Bride," he succeeds. But in another story, a Lothian farmer attempts to rescue his wife on Halloween, but loses his nerve and will never have another chance. In "The Girl and the Fairies," two young men fail to rescue a girl from the fairies' procession, and the fairies promptly murder her. A similarly bloody fate awaits an abductee whose husband is held back by neighbors from approaching her (Napier 29).
Phemie chooses two classical places to try to recover Elphin - first a fairy ring, and then the local graveyard on Halloween night. On both occasions, she fails.
Ultimately, Elphin and Phemie repeat their parents' fate. Like their father, Elphin drowns trying to save their sheep in the very same river. Phemie dies of grief just like their mother.
The Irving family is the subject of many rumors, and there are implied ties to the fairies. One possibility is that Elphin was taken by the fairies to be someone’s lover (supported by the Fairy Queen’s talk of kissing him). But it may be more complicated than that. One person claims that the twins’ mother was related to a witch. It is also said that every seven years, the fairies turn over one of their children as a kane (tenant's fee) to the devil. They are allowed to steal a human to offer in their place. This might imply that this is why Elphin was taken, but another rumor claims that Elphin actually is one of those doomed fairy “Kane-bairns,” and was left among humans to avoid this fate. Thus, he isn't really stolen by the fairies, but is returning to his biological relatives.
I’ve been skeptical of the idea that changelings are related to the fairy hell-tithe – an idea that is often attributed to “Tam Lin” but doesn’t actually appear there. Tam Lin is in danger of being tithed to Hell, but there are no changelings mentioned in the ballad (Tam may even be a fairy himself in some versions). However, here we do have a story where the two concepts are linked.
The fairies' "debt to Hell" was also mentioned in Matthew Gregory Lewis' poem "Oberon's Henchman; Or The Legend of The Three Sisters," written in 1803. So the idea was definitely present in authors' minds in the early 1800s. But I can't help scratching my head at the fact that both Cunningham and Lewis, when writing these stories, directly referenced Tam Lin in the text or in footnotes. Evidence of a tradition, or evidence that Tam Lin was popular?
Elphin’s relationship with the fairies is ambiguous, as he seems happy to serve them in exchange for a kiss from the Fairy Queen. He even seems ready to flee from Phemie. His name sounds like Elfin, highlighting his connection to the otherworld. In the song, the fairy queen shortens his name simply to Elph; now he is not just elf-like, but truly one of them.
It may be of note that Phemie's name is short for Euphemia (Greek for "well-spoken") and a vital part of the narrative comes from her words, spoken or sung. Also, the family surname of Irving comes from the name of a river - fitting for a character who drowns.
The elaborate nature of "Elphin Irving" raises questions about its authenticity. See the flowery writing style, the nested framing devices, and the ambiguity of the fairies' existence. By including the contrasting excerpt from Tam Lin, the narrator is practically screaming for people to compare them. The science of folklore and the focus on verifiable sources were only beginning to develop when Cunningham wrote, but we know that he was willing to fake traditional material. That does not reflect well on him.
Reviewing Cunningham's book, Richard Mercer Dorson stated bluntly that "traditional tales they are not, and they might more accurately have been titled 'Literary Tales Faintly Suggested by Oral Traditions of the Scottish Peasantry.'" (History of British Folklore, 122) Carole G. Silver summarized "Elphin Irving" as "really a version of the ballad of Tamlane."
Cunningham would not be the only person to write their own version of Tam Lin. Sophie May's Little Prudy's Fairy Book (1866) included a version titled "Wild Robin". Like "Tam Lin," there's a happy ending; however, like "Elphin Irving," it's mainly prose with excerpts from the Tam Lin ballad, and it also makes the main characters siblings rather than lovers. In the case of Wild Robin, it seems like this change was purely to remove the sexual elements and tone it down for children. It is impossible to say why Cunningham might have made this change, though.
I lean towards the theory that Elphin Irving was Cunningham's own creation, inspired by folklore and especially by Tam Lin. What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Sir Buzz: A Fairytale
A soldier's son sets out to make his fortune, saying goodbye to his widowed mother. On the way, he pulls a thorn from a tigress's paw; the grateful tigress, who happens to be able to talk, gives him a box in thanks and tells him to open it once he has carried it nine miles. However, the further he goes, the heavier the box becomes, until at eight and a quarter miles, it's impossible to carry. Saying that he believes the tigress was a witch, he throws the box down. The box bursts open, and out steps a little old man, one hath high (19 inches), with a beard that trails on the ground. The little man, who is highly cantankerous, is named Sir Buzz.
"Perhaps if you had carried it the full nine miles you might have found something better; but that's neither here nor there. I'm good enough for you, at any rate, and will serve you faithfully according to my mistress's orders."
The soldier's son asks for dinner, and Sir Buzz immediately flashes away to the nearest town. There, he shouts at shopkeepers who don't notice him due to his size, and then leaves each shop with a massive bag of supplies, carrying them without any trouble. The soldier's son and Sir Buzz then eat a meal. Eventually the two reach the king's city, where the soldier's son sees the king's daughter, Princess Blossom. This princess is notable in that she weighs no more than the equivalent of five flowers.
The soldier's son is smitten, and begs Sir Buzz to carry him to the princess. Although he complains, Sir Buzz - "who had a kind heart" - does so He takes him to the princess's bedchamber in the middle of the night. The princess is frightened at first, but is won over by the soldier's son, and the two talk all night and finally fall asleep at dawn. In order to prevent the soldier's son from being discovered, Sir Buzz carries off the bed with them both in it to a garden, uproots a tree to use as a club, and stands guard.
As soon as it's noticed that the princess is missing, a huge search ensues. The one-eyed chief constable tries to search the garden, encounters a tiny screaming man waving a tree around, and returns to the king with this wholly original statement: "I am convinced your majesty's daughter, the Princess Blossom, is in your majesty's garden, just outside the town, as there is a tree there which fights terribly."
Sir Buzz fights off anyone who tries to come near, and the soldier's son and Princess Blossom set off happily on their own. The soldier's son feels that he has made his fortune, and tells Sir Buzz that he can return to his mistress. However, Sir Buzz leaves him with a hair from his beard, telling him to burn it in the fire if he's ever in trouble.
The princess and the soldier's son promptly get lost in a forest and reach the point of starvation. A Brahman invites them to his home, which is filled with riches. He tells them they may open any cupboard except the one locked with a golden key. Of course the soldier's son does so anyway, and in the forbidden cabinet finds a collection of human skulls. Their rescuer is not a Brahman, but a vampire who plans to eat them. At that very moment, the vampire steps in, but the quick-thinking Princess Blossom puts Sir Buzz's hair into the fire.
Sir Buzz and the vampire then have a competition of transformations; the vampire turns into a dove and Sir Buzz into a hawk, and so on. The vampire becomes a rose in the lap of King Indra, and Sir Buzz becomes a musician who plays so wonderfully that Indra gives him the rose. Finally, the vampire turns into a mouse, and Sir Buzz becomes a cat and eats him. Sir Buzz then returns to Princess Blossom and the soldier's son and announces, "You two had better go home, for you are not fit to take care of yourselves." He takes them and all the vampire's riches back to the home of the hero's mother, where they live happily ever after, and Sir Buzz is never heard from again.
This story has remained a favorite of mine because it's so colorful and silly. There's also a lot going on and all kinds of random details.
The story was collected by Flora Annie Steel, a British woman whose husband worked in India in the Indian Civil Service.
Steel published this story as "Sir Bumble" in the Indian Antiquary in 1881, and she wrote that the story was well-known in the Panjab and was "Muhammadan" in origin. It also appeared in her 1881 work Wide-Awake Stories: A Collection of Tales Told by Little children, between Sunset and Sunrise in the Panjab and Kashmir (1884). She changed the name to "Sir Buzz" in Tales of the Punjab: Told by the People (1894). The different versions are nearly identical.
She wrote in the Indian Antiquary that "It possesses considerable literary merits remarkable from their absence in most Panjabi tales. The treatment is humorous and in places poetical, and the tale as a whole gives the idea of its having been at some period committed to writing." In Wide-Awake Stories, she stated she heard it from a Muslim Panjabi child, name unknown.
The Tale Type and Characters
The story falls into Aarne-Thompson type 562. Similar tales include "Aladdin" and Hans Christian Andersen's "The Tinderbox." In tales of type 562, a man seeking his fortune (often a former soldier, in this case the son of a soldier) encounters a sorcerer, witch, or someone else who gives them a magical object. This object grants them command of a magical servant - a genie, a giant, a gnome, or a trio of magic dogs. With this servant's help, the man kidnaps and marries a princess. Unfortunately, he gets into trouble and somehow loses access to the magical servant. At the last moment, he gets the servant back and everything works out.
"Sir Buzz" has some unique touches. In many versions the sorcerer or witch is at odds with the hero, and the hero may even kill them to gain the magic source. But the tigress seems like a decent sort, and the hero willingly sends Sir Buzz back to her in the end. In most tales, the hero winds up becoming king when he marries the princess (sometimes executing her father in the process), but here the hero and princess return to his poor mother's home, and we never hear anything else about the kingdom. Heroes of Tale Type 562 tend to be jerks, but the hero of Sir Buzz is a hapless but honest type.
There are some touches of other tales. The section in the vampire's house with the forbidden key is right out of "Bluebeard," and the finale of Sir Buzz's battle is similar to "Puss in Boots."
According to Flora Annie Steel, the tigress was described in the original story as a bhut or evil spirit. Were-tigers feature in many Indian stories and could be dangerous villains. The tigress is unusual here in that she is apparently benevolent. The vampire, in the original, was a ghul, and Steel explains that the one eye of the chief constable (kotwal) indicates that he's evil.
Princess Blossom's name is Bâdshâhzâdi Phûlî (Princess Flower) or Phûlâzâdî (Born-of-a-flower). Her unusual weight is a well-known motif in Indian folktales, known as the five-flower princess (Grounds for Play: The Nautanki Theatre of North India, p. 308). Her weight shows how delicate and almost otherworldly she is.
We never hear of Princess Blossom's family or kingdom again. She does seem to be fairly capable and quick-thinking, though.
Sir Buzz, the incredibly powerful, irritable and violent sprite, is clearly the star of the story. His personality stands out, which can be rare in this tale type. As well as being opinionated and a strong source of the slapstick comedy throughout the tale, he seems to have a genuinely caring relationship with the hero. His name is Mîyân Bhûngâ, which means "Sir Beetle" or "Sir Bumble-bee."
The image of a tiny man with a long beard trailing on the ground is a common one, appearing in tales from across the world (a few are listed in my Thumbling Project here). A character with the exact same description is the tiny blacksmith in the story of Der Angule (Three-Inch), a Bengali Thumbling tale.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.