The story of "Prince Lindworm" or "Kong Lindorm" is ATU 433B, related to the Animal Bridegroom tale family. Many variants of the Animal Bridegroom story feature serpents, but this one is rather unique. And upon researching it, I soon learned that pretty much everything I knew about this story was wrong.
A lindworm is a dragon usually shown with just two legs, often seen on coats of arms. Although the stories are very different, "Prince Lindworm" begins with a scene almost identical to the start of "Tatterhood." In both, a queen who wants a child encounters an old woman who gives her instructions on getting one. Tatterhood's mother pours water beneath her bed, and the next morning finds a lovely flower and an ugly flower there. Lindworm's mother places a cup upside-down in her garden, and the next morning finds a white rose and a red rose underneath.
In both cases, there's a warning. Tatterhood's mother is instructed not to eat the ugly flower, while Lindworm's mother is told to pick only one (red for a boy, white for a girl). But both are overcome by temptation, because the first flower "tasted so sweet" - the same reason in both versions.
This hunger and greed symbolizes sexual temptation. It also hearkens to myths that blamed women for birth defects - like "maternal impression," the idea that the mother's thoughts or surroundings could influence her unborn child.
For Tatterhood, a connection seems clear: Tatterhood's pretty twin is created by the beautiful flower, and the outwardly repellent Tatterhood by the foul-looking plant. The twins are fundamentally opposite, yet love each other deeply. The same motif drives "Biancabella and the Snake," an Italian tale by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, where a woman gives birth to a baby girl with a snake around her neck. The snake, Samaritana, serves as a supernatural helper to her human sister, Biancabella. She eventually doffs her serpent skin and becomes a woman without explanation. (Italo Calvino collected a folktale, "The Snake," with the same story - except that the snake is merely a helpful animal, not an enchanted sibling.)
In the opposite of these tales with diametrically opposed siblings, there are stories where two women eat of the same food and bear identical children. You find this in the Italian "Pome and Peel" and the Russian tale of "Storm-Bogatyr, Ivan the Cow's Son." In "Ivan the Cow's Son," rather than a woman giving birth to an animal, a cow gives birth to a human.
But Prince Lindworm apparently follows a different internal logic. The queen is hoping to have both a son and a daughter when she eats both roses; this makes sense, even though it's incredibly stupid to disobey instructions in a fairytale. In fact, she eats the white rose first, so you would think she would have a daughter first. However, what she gets is a male lindworm and a baby boy - twins, as in "Tatterhood" or "Biancabella," one perfect, the other monstrous.
The lindworm baby escapes and is not seen again until, years later, the second prince prepares to marry. The lindworm returns; as he is firstborn, he says he should get married first. The royal family obtains a bride for him, but the lindworm eats her on their wedding night. Before you know it, we're on Bride #3, and she quickly deduces that this isn't going to end well for her. However, an old woman gives her advice. Bride #3 is savvier than the queen and follows the instructions exactly. On her wedding night she wears ten white shifts and tells the lindworm to shed one skin every time she takes off a layer of clothing. Once he's removed nine skins, there's nothing left of him but a mass of bloody flesh. She beats him with whips dipped in lye, then bathes him in milk, and finally takes him in her arms. When people come to check on them the next morning, they find her sleeping beside a handsome human prince.
Marie-Luise von Franz interpreted the lindworm as a "hermaphrodite": “a masculine being . . . wrapped up in the feminine or the dragon skin. . . . Prince Lindworm is also a man surrounded by the woman, but he is in the form of a lump of bleeding flesh surrounded by a dragon skin, a regressive form of the union of the opposites.” In alchemy, according to von Franz, hermaphrodites are closely connected to dragons and serpents.
This explanation fails for me. The white rose was eaten first. Surely the feminine element should be at the center of the lindworm's being? What makes scales feminine and blood masculine? The biggest stumbling block is the existence of the twin brother. Why wasn't he affected? Going by the opening scene, it seems to me, the lindworm should either be a princess or have an older sister.
Taking a step back: the motif of the enchanted prince removing his animal skin is familiar. In "Hans My Hedgehog," a couple wishes desperately for a child, but their son is born as (wait for it) a hedgehog. He tries several times to take a bride, but the first girl is unwilling and he stabs her with his prickles. The second is willing, and on their wedding night he removes his hedgehog skin to become a handsome man. The same thing happens in the Italian "The Pig King." Both stories are Aarne Thompson type 441, the hog bridegroom. Very often this tale includes a number of false starts to marriage, where the enchanted bridegroom turns horrifyingly violent towards the maidens who reject him.
The removable skin seems more appropriate for serpents, which really do shed their skin, and which in many cultures are symbols of rebirth and transformation. And there is a widespread tale type of snake and serpent husbands, type 433C. Prince Lindworm is unusual in that he must remove multiple skins. His transformation is more involved than these other examples. He must also be whipped and bathed.
The act of bathing suggests baptism, and thus forgiveness of sins and rebirth. (And he needs that forgiveness of sins after all that snacking on maidens.) It's a little more odd that he is bathed in milk. However, there's a widespread tradition of offering milk to snakes. In Hinduism, milk is offered to snake idols, for instance on the feast of Nag Panchmi. So you get Indian folktales like "The Snake Prince," where in order to restore her husband from his serpent form, the heroine must put out bowls of milk and sugar to attract all the snakes and gain an audience with their queen. According to Arthur Evans, a similar tradition of milk offerings for "household snakes" existed in Greece, Dalmatia and Germany. Marija Gimbutas said that this practice persisted in Lithuania up into the 20th century. Snakes actually can't digest dairy products and do not drink milk unless suffering from dehydration.
In the Turkish tale of "The Stepdaughter and the Black Serpent," the heroine serves as a nursemaid for the serpent prince. When he's an infant, she keeps him contained in a box of milk. When he leaves the box, she beats him with rose and holly branches to deter him from hurting her. He eventually wants to take a wife, but kills forty (!) brides one after another. The heroine, chosen as his bride, wears forty hedgehog skins and asks the snake to remove one skin every time she does. After removing forty snake skins, he is left as a human and they burn the snake skins.It's the same tale as Prince Lindworm, except that the order of events is different. There's also no twin brother to complicate things.
"The Stepdaughter and the Black Serpent" was recorded long after Prince Lindworm, but what if it's closer to the original form of the story? I began to wonder if the opening scene and the twin brother were foreign to the essential tale. They certainly do not appear in most variants of the tale type. The Animal Bridegroom, which often begins with the desire for a child, could easily have been combined with similar stories like Tatterhood or Biancabella. The twin brother/missing sister problem would then exist because that element was added later.
Soon after, I learned Prince Lindworm's true origins. Most modern sources call it Norwegian, but it's actually Danish. It was collected in 1854, and the original version is very different.
D. L. Ashliman did an English translation. In the oldest version of "Kong Lindorm," the queen eats both roses, but has only one child - the lindworm. There is no twin brother. Marie-Luise von Franz's premise finally begins to make sense!
The story otherwise proceeds roughly as I knew it, but there is a second half that was completely new to me. Now happily married to the former lindworm, the heroine gives birth to twin boys, but an enemy at court gets her exiled. She uses her own breast milk to disenchant two more cursed men (King Swan and King Crane), before her husband finds out what happened and retrieves her.
"Kong Lindorm" was first published by Svend Grundtvig in Gamle danske Minder i Folkemunde (1854). A variant appeared in Axel Olrik's Danske Sagn og Æventyr fra Folkemunde (1913); this might be the one responsible for the shorter version with the twin brother. The short version was translated into English in 1922, in a book titled East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North. There, it was thrown in alongside Norwegian stories collected by the famous Asbjornsen and Moe, leading to the confusion around its origins.
So there you have it. The version I knew had been simplified and altered. The second half was hacked off, perhaps because the writer didn't want to talk about breast milk, and also because that's where the story starts to drag. They might have added the twin brother because they confused this story with Tatterhood, which - as previously mentioned - has a strikingly similar beginning.
Ultimately, the story's sense of confusion stems from careless editing and a misunderstanding of the tale's logic. Adding in a second child obscures the idea of the older tale. In fact, the white rose leads to a daughter, a red rose leads to a son, and both roses together make a giant dragon monster. Simple, right?
Okay, I think it's really about 19th-century sexual mores for women. The queen's intemperance leads to a curse which affects her unborn child and generations to come. She hungered for extra roses (read: she was lustful), so her child is neither man nor woman and can't have a normal marriage. Echoing his mother's method of conception by eating, the only way he can engage with a woman is by devouring her. And his wives die because they are not behaving correctly on the wedding night. When Bride #3 follows proper instructions, she redeems her husband and can look forward to a happy and fruitful marriage. Note that she is still wearing one shift by the end of the cursebreaking ritual, indicating modesty and chastity. This is different from the Indian version, where the girl and the serpent shed the same number of skins. There's also an Oedipal note to it; she must bathe him in milk in order for him to be reborn. That original maternal sin has to be corrected. The longer version even doubles down on the milk motif.
You can read a translation of the original version here, and the popular English version here.
Have you ever wondered how you say "Prince Charming" in other languages? In several Romance languages, the term translates to "The Blue Prince" and is a common term for the perfect man. There's the "príncipe azul" (Spanish), "príncep blau" (Catalan), "principe azzurro" (Italian), and "prince bleu" (French). In all cases, the idea translates to what an English-speaker would call a Prince Charming or a knight in shining armor. Variants of this term go back at least to the 18th century.
Zadig ou la Destinée by Voltaire (1747) features a joust in which the hero Zadig wears white armor and defeats a man in blue armor, who is referred to briefly as "le prince bleu." This is only a passing line, but one wonders if it was a reference to a well-known phrase.
Sur la scène et dans la salle. Miroir des théâtres de Paris (1854) describes a play featuring the role of "prince Azur" (p. 46).
The Revue de France in 1879 mentions "le prince bleu des contes de fées."
Victor Hugo's Les quatre vents de l'esprit (1881) has "le prince Azur" (p. 252).
"Le prince Bleu" and "roi Charmant" (King Charming) both get a mention in Jules Claretie's Noris: mœurs du jour (1883, p. 37).
In Contes populaires de Basse-Bretagne by Francois-Marie Luzel (1887), a character in the tale of "Le Prix des Belles Pommes" is called Le Prince-Bleu. He is the hero's strongest rival for the princess's hand, but receives a dismal fate while the despised hero triumphs.
By 1893, La Union literaria defines "Príncipe Azul" as a character "de una mitologia fastidiosa ser inverosimil y aereo" (of an annoying mythology, improbable and airy).
This isn't even close to an exhaustive list. Oddly enough, in quite a few of these examples, the blue prince gets set up as the classic knight in shining armor, but is either disparaged as a foolish idea by the narrator or given a comeuppance by the story.
So why "blue"?
Apparently there has been some speculation that King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy was the original for the Blue Prince. Blue was the traditional color of his family, the House of Savoy. An article by Paolo Zollo was titled "Che il Principe Azzurro sia stato Vittorio Emanuele?" (Was the Blue Prince Vittorio Emanuele?) in Messaggero veneto (1982). A connection had been drawn previously by Giovanni Artieri, who described Vittorio's wife Elena as "Cenerentola" (Cinderella) and Vittorio as "un Principe Azzurro, azzurro Savoja" - "a Blue Prince, Savoyan blue." (Il tempo della Regina, 1950, p.52). Unfortunately for this theory, Vittorio and his wedding (which seems to have inspired the comparison) are a bit late.
One possibility is that "the blue prince" comes from the idea of blue-blooded royals. Blue-blooded has long been a way to refer to the nobility. The nickname is derived from the Spanish "sangre azul" dating at least to 1778. It was theoretically inspired by the nobility, with their fair skin that showed off blue veins.
Or the prince might literally be wearing blue. Blue pigment was expensive in the past and often marked the clothing of the nobility.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists a number of uses of the term "royal blue," including an advertisement in the 1782 Morning Herald & Daily Advertiser: "Among other colours are the royal blue, the green, pink, the Emperor's eye, straw, &c." Similarly, there is a 1787 reference to a sky "of the deepest royal blue."
There are a multitude of possible explanations for the "blue prince" term. According to this forum thread, one Hungarian term for a Prince Charming is "kék szemű herceg," or the blue-eyed prince.
So depending on how you look at it, the term could be a reference to blue blood, blue clothing, blue eyes, or something else entirely. Whichever the case, those three things all accentuate the relevant traits of the archetypal fairytale prince. He's royal, rich, and good-looking.
All the same, it seems writers had tired of this ideal even in the 19th century, disparaging the character as unrealistic or showing a less promising hero who defeats him.
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.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.