Hans Christian Andersen's tale of "The Marsh King's Daughter" (1858) follows Helga, the daughter of a monster and a kidnapped princess. During the day she is beautiful like her mother but violent and cruel; during the night, she is hideous like her father but sad and gentle. There are heavy Christian themes, with Helga meeting a noble missionary priest and breaking free of her curse through the power of God. At the end, Helga and her mother return to Egypt. Helga is about to be married to a prince, but seems distracted from her impending wedding. She has spent a lot of time meditating on Christianity and the now-dead priest who saved her. She prays for a glimpse of Heaven and is allowed to see its glory for three minutes. When she returns, however, she learns that "many hundred years" have passed since she vanished on her wedding day. Upon hearing this, her body crumbles to dust, freeing her to return to Heaven.
This story always pulled me in at the beginning with its concept and descriptions, but the ending was just depressing. Yes, Helga’s greatest desire is to go to heaven, but I still found the ending dissatisfying and discomfiting. There's just something freaky about your heroine going all Infinity War at the end. And I say this as someone who grew up loving stories of martyrs and saints.
Andersen, as usual, pulled in a lot of fairy tale concepts. The beginning is very familiar, with a group of swan maidens taking off their feathery cloaks to bathe, and a man who captures and forcibly marries one of them. However, this trope usually features a human man winning a supernatural bride. In this case, the swan maidens are human princesses and the man is a literal swamp monster.
And the ending of Helga's story is a popular medieval legend. In fact, that legend is a fairy motif repackaged by Christian storytellers. This motif has been incredibly widespread from ancient times up to modern literary tales like Rip Van Winkle.
Urashima Tarō, a Japanese tale dating back to the 8th century, centers around a fisherman named Urashima who catches a turtle which turns out to be a princess of the sea. She takes him away to her blissful underwater kingdom, where he has eternal life and everything he could ever want. What he wants, though, is to visit his old home on land. He arrives only to find that centuries have passed and everything he knew is gone. The ending varies, but generally all of his years come upon him at once and he is left an old man, his immortality gone. And in The Voyage of Bran from Ireland, also from around the 8th century, much the same thing happens. After seeing a beautiful silver branch, Bran sets out for the Land of Women, the utopian island where the branch grew. He and his men live there for what seems like a year, feasting and totally happy, but one of them feels homesick. The band returns to Ireland briefly, and learns that centuries have passed and they are remembered only as legends. The homesick man steps onto dry land and turns to dust, and his companions decide they'd better book it back to the Land of Women.
King Herla, an English character from the 12th century, had the same experience after dealing with a dwarf king. And in a 12th- or 13th-century lai, the knight Guingamor (just like Urashima and Bran) immediately regrets leaving his supernatural sweetheart.
The moral in Urashima and Bran's tales is to not break taboos. In both cases, a man ignores the commands of his lover (who is basically a goddess) and dooms himself to a terrible punishment. King Herla's post-Christian story has the moral that the supernatural creatures of older religions are treacherous and evil. Herla is punished for having anything to do with the fae.
In medieval times, the story got repurposed. The land of joy and immortality was replaced by a Christian Paradise. Often, the hero of this story was a monk or bishop. The story was used to illustrate the idea that Heaven is so wonderful that a thousand years there are like three minutes, and earthly life is nothing compared to it. The main character would return long enough for people to confirm his identity and be amazed by the miracle, before he disintegrates and joyfully returns to Heaven for good. The main idea of the story is that eternity will not be boring, an issue which has apparently nagged at people for a long time.
Versions appeared in English, Spanish, Slovenian, you name it. A fourteenth-century Italian legend featured four monks who, like Bran, went off seeking Paradise after finding a wondrous tree branch from that location (MacCulloch, Medieval Faith and Fable, p. 199). The most widespread version, where a bishop is entranced by the song of an angelic bird, appeared in a homily by the 12th-century French bishop Jacques de Vitry.
At the same time, interestingly, the story has survived with fairy roots intact. For instance, a Welsh story of a farmboy who sits under a tree listening to a bird’s entrancing music parallels the story of the bishop. Despite the similarities, it's clear that the bird in the Welsh fairytale is from a very different otherworld than Heaven. (Howells, Cambrian Superstitions)
Hans Christian Andersen may have been particularly inspired by something close to home: the Danish tale of "The Aged Bride." Published in Benjamin Thorpe's Northern Mythology (1851), it follows a bride who steps out of a dance at her wedding and notices elves celebrating in a nearby field. When she approaches, they offer her wine and invite her to join in their dance. Completing the dance, she remembers her husband and hurries home. There, however, she finds herself in a situation identical to Helga's, Urashima's, and Rip Van Winkle's. The wedding party has vanished and the town looks completely different. No one recognizes her except as an old story from a hundred years ago. Upon hearing this, she falls down dead. Compared to this story illustrating the dangers of the fairy world, "The Marsh King's Daughter" is positively cheery.
In the Grimms' original 1810 draft of Rumpelstiltskin, the introduction is rather different.
A girl is supposed to spin some flax into yarn, but instead, whatever she spins turns into golden thread! Finally, a little man ("Rumpenstünzchen") finds her trying to spin, and tells her that he can get her out of it. He'll arrange for a prince to take her away and marry her. The price: her firstborn child.
In the published editions, the Grimms used a different version, where the little man named Rumpelstilzchen offers to spin thread into gold for her. It seems they collected more versions (at least four in Hesse) and decided to use those as a basis for the published version. I feel like this was probably a good decision, because the original version is extremely short and raises a ton of questions like why is she spinning gold in the first place? They mentioned the older version in their notes as an unusual variant.
Rumpelstiltskin is a weird story. There are so many questions - one of the most striking being "Why does he want her baby?"
Looking at other versions of the story from around the world, in many cases, the strange little man doesn't want to take the girl's child - he wants to take her. In "Mistress Beautiful," a woman sells herself to the devil for a dowry and then escapes by guessing his name. In "Doubleturk," "Hoppetinken," "Kugerl," and others, a wealthy dwarf tries to force a girl into marrying him.
Also, he doesn't always spin straw into gold. Sometimes he just does her mundane spinning for her - like the more benevolent Three Spinners, Three Aunts, or Habetrot. These female beings may be ugly, but they help the girl and ask no reward other than an invitation to her wedding.
In Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys, Ruth Bottigheimer went into the treatment of spinning in the Grimms' tales. Traditionally, spinning was a feminine task. All women spun. Goddesses like Athena and Holda were patronesses of weavers or spinners, and the distaff was a historical symbol of women. In popular culture, spinning became part of a homey, idyllic scene - i.e. Grandma spinning and telling stories by the fire. However, in fairytales told by women, like "Hateful Flax Spinning," you have heroines who try to get out of spinning by whatever means necessary.
In editing his stories, Wilhelm Grimm added positive descriptors (beautiful, nimble, clever) for characters who worked hard at spinning. He added negative descriptors (lazy, hateful, nasty) for characters who avoided it. In “The Lazy Spinner” (no. 128) a woman tricks her husband so she doesn’t have to spin. Wilhelm’s later editions add a final line “But you yourself must own she was an odious woman!”
He tried to put a good face on spinning and add in morals about hard work earning rewards. “The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle” (no. 188) makes spinning look like an easy, uninvolved pastime which practically does itself. Still, you'll find details that peek through his narratives and morals. Briar Rose is cursed via spindle. The Three Spinners become hideous from years of spinning. In Rumpenstünzchen, spinning normal thread is literally impossible.
And heroines in these tales are so frustrated by impossible tasks of spinning that they would even accept help from a creature which wants to steal them away or take their children. They usually get the best of this creature in the end - and by that time, they have often ascended in rank, or successfully convinced their family that they shouldn't have to spin anymore.
A king asks his seven daughters which of them loves him most. Each has a flattering compliment, except for the youngest, who says only that she loves him as much as she loves salt. Feeling insulted, the king casts her into exile.
After much wandering, she finds a palace deep in the jungle, where a handsome prince lies dead. His body is completely covered in needles. She begins pulling out the needles and doesn't stop for three weeks, even to eat or sleep. When she is almost done, she asks her servant girl to watch the prince while she goes to bathe for the first time in almost a month. As soon as she's gone, the servant girl yanks out the last few needles and the prince is magically restored to life. The servant claims to be the one who saved him, and tells him that the real princess is only a servant. So the servant becomes a prince's wife, and the princess is left as a lowly slave.
One day the prince goes on a journey. His wife asks him to bring back fine clothes and jewelry, while the heroine asks for a sun-jewel box. The prince is baffled by this request, but finally tracks one down for her. She takes it outside, at which point seven dolls come out of the box, set up a tent for her, and wait on her while she tells them her life story. This goes on from night to night. A woodcutter notices this and alerts the prince. When the prince learns the truth, he takes her as his wife and dethrones the false bride.
This is "The Princess Who Loved Her Father Like Salt," an Indian tale that falls under Aarne Thompson Type 437. This tale type is known as The Supplanted Bride or the Needle Prince. It was removed from later versions of the Aarne Thompson index, and appeared only as a part of AT 894, The Ghoulish Schoolmaster and the Stone of Pity. It seems like this was a mistake. The Supplanted Bride is often very different from the Ghoulish Schoolmaster. They seem to have been merged into the same tale type based on a couple of versions which combined both, and the final scene, where the persecuted heroine tells her story to an unusual object such as a stone or a doll.
Type 437 has been collected throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. It makes up the frame story of the Pentamerone. The heroine's task varies from story to story. Some examples are filling buckets with her tears, pulling needles out of the cursed prince's skin, fanning him, or watching over him for a period of weeks, months, or years.
It overlaps with many Sleeping Beauty stories, where a maiden falls into a cursed sleep when stabbed by a magic needle. This is what happens in "The Young Slave," a Snow White-esque story from the Pentamerone. She, too, is treated like a servant until her uncle overhears her telling her story to a doll, a stone, and a knife.
There are also strong connections to false bride stories such as "The White Bride and the Black One" or "The Three Oranges." In some versions, the false bride gets rid of the true bride by stabbing a magic pin into her head and turning her into a bird. The bird may then sing her life story.
The ugly false bride, usually a slave, is particularly likely to be a black woman, "Moorish," or a "gypsy." These are tales born of classism and racism, betraying fear of a lower class who might decide to rebel. At the end, the servant is often brutally punished for her insurrection.
On another note, variants of "The Three Oranges" usually begin with a prince who is either cursed or inspired to seek a mythical bride, who may be as white as snow and red as blood. In the Pentamerone, Zoza is cursed in exactly this way when she laughs at an old woman. In the Angolese story of Ngana Fenda Maria, the heroine cuts her finger and is struck by the image of her blood on a piece of sugarcane. In these cases, the inciting event and the quest for a wonderful spouse are exactly like "The Three Oranges."
However, the male hero of "The Three Oranges" never has to deal with the trials and travails of "The Supplanted Bride." Closer to the Supplanted Bride is the tale of The Skilful Huntsman, AT type 304, collected by the Brothers Grimm. A young man goes out to seek his fortune as a huntsman. While fighting giants, he enters a castle and finds a princess sleeping. He steals a sword, a slipper and a scrap from her dress without awakening her, and then returns to slaying the monsters. He cuts out the giants' tongues and goes on his way. When the inhabitants of the castle awake, they find the giants dead. One of the king's soldiers, an ugly one-eyed man, claims to be the giant-slayer. The princess is supposed to marry him and when she refuses, her father condemns her to live in a hut giving away food. One day the hero drops by. She asks him to tell his story and he shows her the tokens he took from the castle, along with the giants' tongues. With that, the soldier is revealed as a fraud and executed, and the hero marries the princess and becomes the next king.
Here you have the sleeper, the impostor, and the conclusion where the hero recounts his story. Some other variants are Niels and the Giants (Denmark), The King of Erin and the Queen of the Lonesome Island (Ireland), and The Sleeping Queen (Italy). There's more room here for social advancement, with the hero sometimes going from peasant to king. The sleeping maiden can either be under a curse or sleeping normally. The hero doesn't awaken her, but leaves something to show he's been there - by cutting a piece from her garment, leaving a token of his own, or impregnating her. This causes her to seek him out once she does wake.
In "The Supplanted Bride," the heroine must earn her husband by serving him for years upon years, completing ridiculously arduous tasks, and being the perfect servile wife whose whole life centers around him. It's her wifely devotion that restores the man to life. When she falters from her duty, even for a second, she loses everything and has to endure even more trials while being treated like a slave.
By contrast, the hero of Type 304 shows little attachment to the sleeping princess. He comes and goes in a brief space of time, and certainly doesn't wait to see if she wakes up. Afterwards, he might be bothered by having his fame stolen, but doesn't have much trouble setting out to make his own way in the world. The task of seeking the truth falls to his bride.
Several folklorists have commented that stories of The Supplanted Bride encourage women to obediently endure suffering and misery. In the Greek tale "The Sleeping Prince," the maiden tells her story to a hangman's rope, a butcher's knife, and a millstone of patience. The rope and knife advise her to commit suicide, while the stone encourages her to be patient and endure. In her despair, she sees these as her only two options.
However, Christine Goldberg points out that the heroine gets what she wants after she loses her patience. She complains, loudly, sometimes repeatedly, whether in public or in private. She earns her happy ending not by enduring silently, but by speaking up.
I've started researching Snow White and Sleeping Beauty tales, so I decided to check out the Schools' Collection. The Schools' Collection is a compilation of folklore, all collected by Irish schoolchildren during the 1930's. This was part of a coordinated effort in the school system to preserve folklore, both stories and superstitions. Thousands of the stories, written in English and Gaelic, have currently been digitized and can be viewed online here.
So far, I've found one strikingly unusual Snow White story: "The Bright Star of Ireland." It was told by a travelling workman named Patrick Gillispie, age 60, a native of County Louth. The collector was 13-year-old James Fox.
There’s a princess so beautiful that she’s called the Bright Star of Ireland. Her vain stepmother frequently bathes in a pond. One day when she’s admiring her reflection, a brown trout tells her that her stepdaughter is more beautiful than she is. The queen sends two black servants to kill the girl in the forest and bring back her heart and liver. Instead, the servants take pity on the girl and give the queen the heart and liver of a lapdog. (The narrator, unfortunately, uses the N-word for the servants.)
The queen finds out, of course, and tries once again to have the girl killed. This time the servants argue. They end up fighting, and the one defending Bright Star wins. He takes the heart and liver of the other servant to give to the queen, and warns Bright Star to flee.
She finds her way to an island where she enters a beautiful palace. A cat welcomes her in and tells her that in the night, a pack of huge cats will come in and tear at her. On the first night, at eleven o'clock, she is attacked and scratched by six cats; on the second night, twelve cats; on the third night, twenty-four cats. After she has endured the third time, someone enters the room - but instead of her first feline friend, it's a handsome young king. The two get married and are deeply in love.
However, yet again the stepmother learns of her survival and goes to visit. While shaking hands with the girl, she drives a “sleeping needle” under her fingernail.
The girl’s husband returns to find her seemingly dead, but instead of burying her, keeps her in a locked room which he frequently visits. He unwillingly takes a second wife. His new mother-in-law tells his second wife to investigate the locked room, so she finds the Bright Star inside and, by washing her face and hands, pulls out the needle and awakens her. Bright Star and her husband are reunited, and the second wife stays on as Bright Star’s waiting maid.
Learning of Bright Star’s survival from the trout, the stepmother makes one more attempt at visiting in order to give her poisoned wine. However, the waiting maid knocks the wine out of her hands and the murder attempt is revealed. They execute the stepmother by throwing her into the sea in a barrel, and Bright Star’s father marries the waiting maid.
The plotline is almost completely identical to “Gold-tree and Silver-tree,” a Scottish Snow White story. In both tales, rather than a magic mirror, there's a talking trout - reminiscent of the salmon of knowledge in the story of Fionn.
"The Bright Star of Ireland" has two major differences from "Gold-tree." One is the incident with the giant cats, where Bright Star must endure pain before earning an advantageous marriage. It's an unusual interlude which is never fully explained. Why must the heroine go through this? It reminds me of stories like "The Wild Swans" or "East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon" where the heroine has to go through various trials in order to save a man from a curse - like sewing with painful nettles that sting her hands, or sleeping alongside an enchanted prince at night.
The other major difference is that in "Gold-tree," the prince goes with the bigamy option and keeps both wives. I prefer this version, where the prince and second wife immediately separate (with an astonishing amount of good will on both sides) and she ends up as Bright Star’s new stepmother. It's always nice to read fairytales where women are close friends and allies.
The motif of the second wife who saves the first wife seems strange compared to other Snow Whites, but there's actually a long tradition related to this. It's not always the prince who awakens the sleeping girl, but his female relative! It grants the stories a kind of balance. One mother figure/sexual rival is predatory and jealous, and tries to kill Snow White. The second mother figure/sexual rival is loving and generous, and restores her to life.
In stories such as the Italian "The Crystal Casket" and "Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers," it's the prince's mother who opens up the room and orders servants to wash the heroine's face and dress her. This is what frees her from the curse.
However, sometimes it's the heroine's co-wife who saves her, as in the Breton poem 'The Lai of Eliduc," from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. The married Eliduc falls in love with another woman, who sinks into a deathlike sleep. His wife, Guildeluec, soon discovers this state of affairs. Rather than getting angry, she revives her husband's mistress with a magic flower and steps aside so that they can marry each other. This is more like "The Bright Star of Ireland."
Polygamy was an established custom among the Celts and Gaels. Marie du France called the Lai of Eliduc "a very old Breton lay" when she wrote it down. There may have been ancient pre-Christian versions where Eliduc, like Gold-tree's prince, kept both wives.
I have found a new favorite fairytale. It begins with a wish for a child, a maiden as white as snow and red as blood, and a stepmother.
It's not 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,' but it's clearly a response to such tales. After a very Snow White-like beginning, it runs wild in its own direction. The version I read was collected by Jon Arnason in 1852.
Once there lived a childless King and Queen, as well as an untrustworthy counselor named Rauður. One day the Queen is out for a sleigh ride, with Rauður attending her. The Queen has a nosebleed and lets her blood land on the snow, at which point she wishes for a daughter as red as blood and white as snow.
Rauður says that her wish will be granted, but the moment she sets eyes on her daughter, she will lay an evil spell on the child to burn down her father's palace, get pregnant before she's married, and murder a man. The Queen doesn't care because she so badly wants a baby, and soon enough it comes to pass. Remembering the curse, she sends the child away and never looks at her. The little girl, Ingibjorg, grows up with remarkable beauty, but by the time she's ten, the Queen is dying. The Queen has held out thus far without ever looking at her, but now that she's dying, gives in and calls Ingibjorg into her room. No sooner has she seen Ingibjorg than she pronounces the curse upon her and dies.
More time passes, and the King takes a new fiancee, Hild. They are to be married at the end of three years. Somehow, Hild is already aware of Ingibjorg's curse and she promises to help.
Hild waits until a day when everyone is out, removes everything valuable from the building, and tells Ingibjorg to burn down the palace. And then she has a nicer one built in its place. The first part of the curse is done, and no one was hurt.
The next part of the curse is that Ingibjorg will fall pregnant. Hild is ready for this too. She arranges for Ingibjorg to spend a few nights at a house in the woods with a mysterious man. Now Rauður the advisor comes back into the story. He begins telling the King that Ingibjorg is pregnant - note that the King doesn't know about the curse. However, every time Rauður tries to reveal Ingibjorg's pregnancy, Hild is ready with a trick that will protect her stepdaughter's reputation. After the baby is born, Hild whisks it away into hiding.
And then there's the final part of the curse - Ingibjorg will be compelled to kill a man. No problem, says Hild. Let's kill Rauður. She arranges it so that she and Ingibjorg allow him to fall to his death. He is not greatly missed.
The day arrives for Hild and the King's wedding. Inbigjorg's lover returns with their baby. It turns out, he's Hild's brother! Hild explains the curse to the King, who was unaware of it all this time. She also explains that her brother was under a spell that made him a monster during the day, and could only be saved if a princess slept with him for three nights. With that, they celebrate a double wedding and everyone lives happily ever after.
The story is clearly a response to stories of evil stepmothers. Hild is a clever and proactive heroine. In most tales, the characters try to subvert gloomy prophecies and avoid their fate, but inevitably fail. The original Queen attempts this by completely cutting off her daughter, but ultimately gives in. Hild, however, allows the curse to work under her conditions. In the process, she rids the kingdom of Rauður and saves both her stepdaughter and her brother.
Maria Tatar points out that even though Hild is a hero, the title "The Good Stepmother" is a bit misleading. She doesn't become a literal stepmother until the very end of the story, since her wedding is postponed for three years. In addition, she's saving Ingibjorg from a curse created by her biological mother. So this story does not totally escape the trope of the evil maternal figure.
At first I was startled by Hild's cavalier attitude towards murder, but then I thought more about it.
Rauður is the one who lays out the description of Ingibjorg's curse. It seems like he's just predicting it, but it might actually be a deal-with-the-devil situation. The text says, "The Queen was willing to do anything to get a daughter." Later, it's Rauður who becomes dead-set on revealing Ingibjorg's pregnancy and ruining her. Only after he's dead is Ingibjorg free, and only after he's dead can the truth come to light. (The King is unaware of the curse until the very end. The knowledge is available only to his wives and daughter.)
Another version of the story, in the collection All the World's Reward, makes it even clearer that Rauður is the true source of Ingibjorg's curse.
In many of these snow-white maiden stories, the girl's name emphasizes her color. Her name is typically some variation on "White as Snow." Here, however, the only character with a color name is the villain: Rauður, or Red. Historically, red is associated with blood and violence. In many cultures redheads have been considered untrustworthy or even associated with witchcraft.
Another Icelandic tale, "Surtla in Bluelands Isles," also features a girl named Ingibjorg, a woman named Hildr who eventually becomes her stepmother, and an evil troll named Raudr.
"The Good Stepmother" has its own tale type: AT 934E. Although rare, it appears in a few countries other than Iceland. If you've come across any versions of this story, let me know!
There's a story about a tiny man who comes to the king's court. The man is so tiny that when he looks into a pot of porridge, he slips, falls in, and almost drowns.
Sounds like Tom Thumb, right?
Let's go back a little ways to an Irish tale - the Saga of Fergus mac Léti. This appears in the Senchas Már and its Old Irish glossings. The Senchas Már is a compilation of early Irish law texts from the 7th and 8th centuries. The brief poem about Fergus has to do with the restitution made after the murder of a slave, and mentions Fergus' own death by drowning.
The Irish glossings of the 8th century (MSS TCD H.3.18 and Harlean 432) go into more depth. Some water-sprites (known as the "lúchorpáin," or "little bodies") try to drag the sleeping King Fergus into the sea. He wakes up and catches them. In exchange for their freedom, they give him three wishes, including the ability to breathe underwater. However, they tell him never to swim in Loch Rudraige (or Lockrury). One day he disobeys them and finds a sea monster there called Muirdris, which leaves him with a disfigured face. His court attempts to hide this, but the truth eventually comes out when a slave woman named Dorn tells him the truth. In his fury, Fergus kills her, then returns to the loch, where he and the monster both die in a battle that leaves the loch red with blood.
Many scholars believe that this story of the lúchorpáin is the first mention of leprechauns.
Flash forward to the Irish manuscript known as Egerton 1782. This was written in 1517-1518 by the scribes of the O'Mulconry family and includes over sixty tales, poems, and miscellania. Among the tales is an expanded version of the death of Fergus mac Leti. This is a longer, more comical and sexual version that names the rulers of the Lupra and Lupracan: King Iubdan (pronounced Uf-don) and Queen Bebo (Bay-voe).
One day, Iubdan holds a banquet. Bebo sits at his side. All his strongest warriors are there, including a great strongman who's mighty enough to chop down a thistle at one stroke. The ale flows, people make merry, and finally Iubdan stands up and begins to shout, "Have you ever seen a king greater than myself?" No, no, he's the greatest king, he has the mightiest warriors, the finest army the world has ever known. But suddenly, the king's chief poet Esirt bursts out laughing. An incensed Iubdan is all set to have him arrested, but Esirt tells him of the land of Emania, where the people are like giants to them. Iubdan's mighty army is worth peanuts by comparison. Esirt goes there to prove that he's right, and the people there are astonished by the "dwarf that could stand on full-sized men's hand." They carry him in to Fergus' banquet table. Esirt refuses to accept any food or drink, so Fergus plops him into his goblet, where Esirt floats around and almost drowns.
They make amends, though, and at the end of three days, Esirt goes home along with Fergus' poet Aedh. Although Aedh is the king's dwarf, he still seems a giant to the Lupra people. Now Iubdan and Bebo set off. They want to visit the palace and try the porridge (which Esirt has mentioned) before dawn, so no one will see them. But they can't reach the top of the cauldron. Iubdan has to stand on his horse, finally gets over the edge, only to fall into the porridge and be trapped. Much drama ensues, with husband and wife wailing and singing poetically to each other, until morning comes and people find them.
They're taken to Fergus and remain his prisoners for a full year, until finally the Lupra-folk send an army to find them and offer a ransom. But Fergus will accept none of their offers, until Iubhdan gives him his greatest treasure in return for his freedom. This is a pair of shoes which allow a man to walk freely underwater. However, once again, Fergus swims in Lockrury and seals his own fate.
This story is recorded around 1517 - a century before the first existing copy of Tom Thumb in 1621, where Tom falls into a pudding and later makes his way to the court of King Arthur. In a later, expanded version around 1700, Tom twice goes to Fairyland and twice returns. The first time, he announces his arrival at court by plummeting into a bowl of frumenty - a dish of boiled, cracked wheat. Basically, porridge. (The second time, he has an encounter with a chamber pot, but let's not talk about that.)
In my opinion, there are two unique elements that typically characterize Thumbling tales. The story of Iubhdan and Bebo has both. One is the focus on a character's incredibly small size. The other is the swallow cycle.
In the swallow cycle, the character is swallowed by animals and gets out - often multiple times. Tom Thumb travels through a cow's digestive system; is gulped up a giant and spit out; is eaten by a fish and escapes when the fish is caught and cut open. In the Brothers Grimm, there are two Thumbling tales; the heroes are swallowed by cows, foxes and wolves. In one case, the tiny boy yells and complains from inside the cow's belly while it's being milked. In Japan, an oni tries to eat Issun-Boshi, only for the tiny samurai to come out fighting. As you go through Thumbling stories from different cultures, you'll find heroes again and again who are swallowed by cattle, lions, or other animals, and manage to get out one way or another. It's not unlike the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale.
Why exactly does this appeal to humans across so many countries and so much time? “The Catalan Versions of AaTh 700: a Metaphor of Childbirth," an article by Carme Oriole, suggests that the swallow cycle represents pregnancy and childbirth, particularly the way a young child would see it. (A toddler might hear "The baby is in Mommy's tummy" and think Mommy had eaten the baby.) This is particularly apt because most (but not all) thumbling stories begin with the hero's unusual conception and birth. Sometimes the conception is caused by the mother eating a fruit or seed.
But it's not just swallowing, it's immersion. Tom Thumb is immersed in a pudding and must break his way out. Similarly, the Grimms' Daumerling is cooked into a sausage.
For the Italian Cecino, immersion means falling into a puddle - and death by drowning. For Tommeliten or Tume in Norwegian tales, falling into a bowl of buttered porridge also means death by drowning.
Carme Oriole may be right. For the Japanese Mamesuke and the Norse Doll i' the Grass, immersion means falling into a bathtub or a river - and then rebirth. They become human-sized and begin life with their new spouse. In the expanded Tom Thumb, Tom nearly dies, and symbolically is reborn. He returns to the human world each time while being immersed in liquid (like porridge) and reemerging.
In most cases the immersion scene is meant as comedy. I don't think the storytellers put much thought into ideas of rebirth. Just "The little man is SO tiny, he falls into some soup and thinks he's drowning!"
And the story of Fergus mac Leti manages to fit in two immersions - one in liquor, one in porridge.
Although Iubdan and Bebo are little-known today, some writers have suggested that their story inspired Gulliver's Travels, and the scenes in Lilliput and Brobdingnag. (For instance, in the land of the giants, Gulliver is dropped into a bowl of cream and nearly drowns.) I think it's possible they influenced Tom Thumb as well.
I've been thinking about how in several different tales, a Thumbling figure becomes a favored servant of a king.
Tom Thumb becomes King Arthur's dwarf and one of his favored knights. (In later versions, he runs afoul of the queen.)
Issun-boshi acts as a samurai for a daimyo, or feudal lord.
The Hazel-nut Child, in a tale from the Armenian people of Romania, Transylvania and the Ukraine, makes his way to the palace of an African king. Like Tom Thumb carrying home a coin for his parents, the Hazel-nut Child brings home a diamond given to him by the king.
Karoline Stahl (the same woman who wrote the first version of Snow White and Rose Red) wrote a story called Däumling. Daumling goes to live in the palace, where he serves the king and several times defends him from assassination attempts. The story was probably inspired by the British Tom Thumb.
Both stories have an emphasis on the main character's clothing and needle- or pin-sized sword, as well as an evil queen.
Sometimes the thumbling's encounter with the king isn't quite so pleasant. In numerous tales, the thumbling is out in the field with his father, when a rich man, sometimes a noble or king, sees him and asks to buy him. The thumbling sells himself and then runs away, cheating the rich man.
In one version, Neghinitsa, the main character does not run away, but ends up working as a king's royal spy until his death.
In other stories, like the German "Thumbling as Journeyman," or the Augur folktale "The Ear-like Boy," the Thumbling becomes a robber and a king is one of his victims. In a tale from Nepal (printed in German), the thumbling steals items from the king's palace and eventually wins the hand of one of the princesses.
Also in "Thumbling as Journeyman," the little thief takes a single kreuzer, stolen from the king's treasury, to give to his parents back home. Here again is the same motif as Tom Thumb, where the tiny knight asks King Arthur for permission to take one small coin to his parents.
In other stories, Thumbling marries the king's daughter - a common ending for fairytales.
Issun-boshi marries the daimyo's daughter.
In the Philippines, Little Shell and similar characters pursue the daughter of a chief. (See blog post.)
In India, Der Angule completes many tasks for a king and finally marries the princess.
Some retellings of Tom Thumb, such as Henry Fielding's play, have him woo a princess.
I worked a little bit on a chart comparing some of these stories. I included the Grimms' Thumbling among "trickster tales." EDIT: Now with new and improved chart!
If you're a fan of King Lindworm and other beastly bridegroom tales, check out Jenny Prater's blog Halfway to Fairyland. I've been enjoying it.
Now, on to the analysis!
Little Shell is a tale from the people of the Visayan Islands, one of the three main divisions of the Philippines. Retold by Elizabeth Hough Sechrist, it's a unique variation on the Thumbling tale, but still has many recognizable elements.
The story begins like many thumbling stories. A man and a woman, after many prayers, have a son no bigger than a seashell. When he grows a little older, the boy - known as Little Shell - begs his mother to allow him to go out on his own and work.
He crawls into a woman's fish basket and shouts, "Run! Run!" Thinking that her fish have been bewitched, the frightened woman runs off, allowing Little Shell to make his exit with one of her fish, which he takes home to his mother. He plays a similar trick on an old man carrying a cow's head (cow's heads have good meat on them). Hearing Little Shell shouting, the old man thinks that the cow's spirit has returned to haunt him, and flees.
Little Shell asks his mother to go to the chief or headman, and request the hand of his daughter in marriage. Although the headman immediately refuses, his daughter agrees to the union. Shell's mother is astonished; the headman is furious, and Shell and the princess are forced to flee. They live together, but are unhappy in exile.
However, after one week, Little Shell grows to normal size. It turns out he was enchanted by an evil spirit at birth, and the princess's love has broken the spell. They return home, the headman is ashamed of his behavior, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Sechrist drew this story from "The Enchanted Shell," which appeared in Visayan Folk-tales, II, in the Journal of American Folk-Lore in 1907. These folktales were prepared by researchers Berton L. Maxfield and W. H. Millington during their stay in the Visayan Islands. They collected them in Spring 1904, on the island of Panay. Teachers and students at schools in Iloilo and Mandurriao contributed stories.
"The Enchanted Shell" has some minor differences. Rather than telling the woman to "Run! Run!" Shell tells her "Rain! Rain!" There is also a specific location named - "a desert place called Cahana-an." Specific location names are always interesting.
The phrasing is a little confusing; Maxfield and Millington's Shell is "very small, and just like a shell," and at some points he's referred to simply as "the shell." It seems Sechrist adapted this as she felt best. However, thumbling characters can be small animals or objects. The enchanted shell does several things typical to a thumbling story. He's born as the result of a hasty wish; he goes out to do work despite his small size; he's a trickster; he climbs into an animal's ear. It's possible some aspects of this story came from European colonizers. I do think it's important to note that Maxfield and Millington say that all of the stories they published were very widespread in the Visayan islands, and everyone seemed to know them.
The revelation about an enchantment seems to come from nowhere, almost as if there's a part of the tale which has been lost. The romance plot, on the other hand, reminds me of Issun-Boshi and the Japanese family of thumbling tales. Japan and the Philippines have had relations for centuries, with trading going back at least to the 1600s and to the Muromachi period. Issun-Boshi and Little Shell could perhaps share roots.
The Living Head, another Visayan tale, is very similar - at least at the beginning. Here, the childless couple produces not a shell or a tiny baby, but a disembodied head. The head, imaginatively named Head, sees the chief's daughter and falls in love with her. He sends his mother to ask for the princess's hand in marriage. Like Little Shell and his mother, they argue back and forth, but the mother finally goes to ask the chief. However, in this case, she gets a solid no. When Head hears the news, he begins to sink into the ground. His mother calls him to dinner, but he only cries, "Sink! Sink! Sink!" He disappears into the ground, and from that spot grows the first orange tree.
A final relevant tale from the Philippines is the Bagobo tale "The Woman and the Squirrel." The Bagobo people live in southeastern Mindanao. This story was collected in 1907; collector Laura Watson Benedict noted that the myths were specifically those that hadn't been recorded yet, they were told in mixed English and Bagobo, and they were collected from "Mount Merar in the district of Talun, and at Santa Cruz on the coast."
A woman drinks some water from a leaf. She goes home and falls asleep for nine days, and when she wakes up and begins to comb her hair, a baby squirrel emerges from it. This type of unusual conception is not unusual in fairytales (see Nang Ut and the Miraculous Birth).
The squirrel grows to maturity and a week, and tells his mother that he wants to marry the chief's daughter. Despite her protests, he sends her off to the chief's house with nine necklaces and nine rings as a dowry. She chickens out and comes back without asking, so the squirrel bites her (!). Finally, she makes her request. In response, the chief tells her that he wants his entire house turned to gold. She relays this to her son the squirrel.
That night, the squirrel goes out and calls to his brother, the Mouse. The "great Mouse" has golden fur, and his eyes are glass. He gives the squirrel a bit of his fur, which the squirrel uses to turn the sultan's house and possessions completely into gold. When the chief wakes up and sees that his impossible request has been granted, he dies of shock. The squirrel then marries the princess, and after a year, he takes off his skin and becomes a handsome young man.
"The Enchanted Shell," "The Living Head," and "The Woman and the Squirrel" form a tale family of their own, with a romantic aspect that runs through all three stories. A woman gives birth to a small and monstrous son, who sets out to marry the daughter of a chief. Whether he succeeds or not - that's another story.
Another thumbling figure from the Philippines is Carancal, a Young Giant-type character who is born only one span tall. That, however, is a very different tale.
Niraidak is a tale from Siberia, told by the Evenks. This is probably one of my favorite Thumbling tales. The main character is actually larger than a thumb, but the word "thumbling" can be used for small characters in general, including characters who are one span high, or the size of a bird, or what have you. "Tough Little Niraidak" is included in Margaret Read MacDonald's Tom Thumb book and in Irina Zheleznova's folktale collection Northern Lights.
The story takes place at the beginning of time, when the sky was still being woven. On the island lives a tiny man named Niraidak. Where he came from, the tale doesn't explain.
"A squirrel to him was as big as a fox to an ordinary man, a doe as big as a moose, and the tiniest bird as big as an eagle."
It seems like he's closer to the size of a baby than the size of a thumb. In this respect, he's more similar to the Native American child-sized heroes Boy-Man and Tshakapesh (see blog posts here and here). However, his small size is a major part of the story and there are many descriptions of his clothes and so on. This is one of my benchmarks for whether a tale is a thumbling story or not. His tent is made of rose willow twigs and squirrel skins, his gloves are made from mouse skin, his hat from a mole skin, and his coat from two sable skins. For reference, sables are 15-22 inches long.
Niraidak is totally alone except for his steed, a small hornless deer. He survives by hunting. Hunting was the traditional livelihood of the Evenki people, as well as herding reindeers for riding, carrying packs, and milking. I believe Niraidak's deer is a Siberian musk deer, which grows tusks instead of antlers. Musk deers are an endangered species, and adults weigh from 15 to 37 pounds and stand 20-28 inches at the shoulder.
Since Niraidak has no one to compare himself to, he gradually begins to believe that he must be the biggest and strongest person in the world. Eventually, he decides to do three things: see how other people live, fight a giant, and marry the most beautiful woman in the world. He summons the deer and tells it to turn into a flying, fire-breathing boar.
Apparently it can do this.
So he rides off on his flying boar (formerly a deer). First, they set out to see how other people live. In Zheleznova's version, the boar tramples everyone they come across, while Niraidak takes no notice; MacDonald leaves this out. Eventually, they come across a massive giant named Dioloni, or "man of stone." (The Evenk word for stone is d'olo.) When this happens, you might expect a fight similar to that in David and Goliath or Jack the Giant Killer. Niraidak certainly does.
However, when the giant notices Niraidak (whose stealthy approach has been impeded by tripping on a twig), he picks him up. The giant seems fairly benevolent, but Niraidak is ready to fight.
“I am the great Niraidak,” the little man squeaked. “I have no fear of you, Dioloni the Giant. Beware, for I am going to slay you.”
He then begins screaming and jumping up and down in order to intimidate his foe. The giant, understandably, just thinks this is hilarious, and puts Niraidak in his pocket. Niraidak decides to cut his losses, crawls out, and flies off on his boar again with a final boast: “Take care, Dioloni the Giant, next time I’ll skin you and crush your bones to dust!”
They travel on to a camp "where the most beautiful women in the world lived." Apparently all the women hear Niraidak's bragging (or maybe see his magic boar) and are quite impressed, because they quickly line up to take their chances.
Niraidak picks out the most beautiful one and takes her home on his boar. However, he immediately realizes that his tent (made of three squirrel skins, remember) is far too small for his new wife, a normal-sized woman. He builds a new one that will fit her (which to him, of course, is incredibly spacious). Then he goes to fish, and comes back bearing a massive load of twenty-five fishes, so much that he can't carry them all and has to ask his wife for help. She's excited at first, but when she actually sees his catch, is outraged. They're nothing but minnows!
She eats them, but still feels hungry and begins to scream at Niraidak. In response, he tells her to lie down, puts a rock on her belly so she won't feel hungry, and heads into the woods.
While he's gone, the wife starts reconsidering her life choices. So: "off she went to a village where there lived strong and considerate men who did not refuse their wives anything they asked."
For his part, Niraidak isn't particularly upset to find his wife gone; now he has a big tent all to himself, and no one's screaming at him about food. So he lives happily ever after.
This short, straightforward tale is full of parody. I particularly like the bit about the "strong and considerate men."
Niraidak is both perpetually cheerful and filled with delusions of grandeur. He is a fierce hunter in his own mind, unable to grasp that he is really the weakest person around. His feats are impressive only from his own skewed perspective. (Well, except for the transforming fire-breathing boar.)
Niraidak sets out to complete three tasks, but none of them go quite the way he expects. They turn out more as embarrassments than triumphs. He remains upbeat, but never seems to mature or gain any self-awareness. As he sneaks off from Dioloni, he still boldly threatens him. After his wife leaves, he happily takes up his old life again. He doesn't change.
Fairy tales are obsessed with hunger. There’s Thumbling, Jonah, Red Riding Hood, and Zeus's siblings, all gulped up only to emerge unharmed one way or another. In many stories, In stories from all over the world, parents threaten their children that some boogeyman will gobble them up if they don't behave.
In Hop o' my Thumb, the ogre hungers for the flesh of children. In Jack and the Beanstalk, the giant chants "I smell the blood of an Englishman . . . I'll grind his bones to break my bread." These man-eating giants hearken back to monsters such as Polyphemus in the Odyssey. Hansel and Gretel's witch is the same character. The evil queen desires to eat Snow White's heart. In Perrault's Sleeping Beauty, the second half features the heroine's mother-in-law attempting to eat her and her children cooked with sauce piquante.
And on the other hand there are stories where people are tricked into eating human flesh, especially the flesh of their loved ones - as in The Juniper Tree and some older versions of Red Riding Hood. In the Vietnamese story of Tấm and Cám and the Greek myth of Philomela, it's the hero tricking the villain into cannibalism.
There's one theory that the frequently-digested Thumbling is a story related to how children process the concept of pregnancy and childbirth.
This motif of being eaten and escaping appears in other tales, like Red Riding Hood and The Seven Kids.
Earlier theories suggested Red Riding Hood was a myth-like tale of rebirth, with the girl as the sun and the wolf as the night. That school of thought has now been largely discarded, and it's more popular to read it in sexual terms, perhaps as the devourer eating a lover in order to possess her completely. Hunger in fairytales is often a stand-in for sexual desires.
There are other factors behind the stories, though. I think it's partly ancestral fear, the fear of a bigger predator snatching you from your cave.
It could also be a way to face the taboo. In the 1997 article “Incest in Indo-European Folktales,” D.L. Ashliman points out that “many fairy tales owe their longevity to an ability to address tabooed subjects in a symbolic manner."
So, along with stories containing abuse or incest, there are stories like The Juniper Tree where people, even parental figures, turn to cannibalism.
Perhaps this is also where the heroes taking harsh revenge come from. In a story, you can dance the villain to death in red-hot iron shoes or send her hurtling down the street in a barrel lined with nails.
There are some beliefs that eating your enemy - usually in a ritualized ceremony - will give you his strength, courage or life force.
The Iroquois and Aztecs would do this with prisoners of war. The Sawi (Sawuy) people of New Guinea would give the victim's name, and thus his life force, to one of the villagers.
In Tanzania and other areas of Africa, some superstitions hold that albinos are magical and their bodyparts can be used in talismans or potions.
In Europe, human fat, flesh, blood and bones were consumed in medicines until around 1750.
Consuming the life force would be the goal of Snow White's evil queen, who seeks to eat her stepdaughter's heart and once again be the fairest in the land. Similarly, in Norse mythology, eating a dragon's heart gives Sigurd the power of prophecy.
Civilization vs. Barbarism
In The Irresistible Fairytale, Jack Zipes says, “Almost all cultures have cannibalistic ogres and giants or dragons and monsters that threaten a community. Almost all cultures have tales in which a protagonist goes on a quest to combat a ferocious savage. The quest or combat tale is undertaken in the name of civilization or humanity against the forces of voracity or uncontrolled appetite.” (page 8.)
In The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, Zipes says something along the same lines: "Though each one of the Tom Thumb tales differs, they all focus on the same major concerns of The Odyssey as discussed by Adorno and Horkheimer: self-preservation and self-advancement through the use of reason to avoid being swallowed up by the appetite of unruly natural forces."
This describes the quests of Hop o' my Thumb, Jack, Gretel, and others. All three of these tales begin with families in extreme poverty, on the verge of starvation.
They begin with the hungry parents doing the unthinkable and abandoning their children in order to keep more food for themselves. Hunger thwarts the heroes again when birds eat their breadcrumb trail. Finally, they face a force trying to devour them. The tale reaches its happy ending when the heroes succeed, and in many cases even turn the monster's tools against them.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.