Goldilocks and the Three Bears is one of the most famous fairytales today. It's also one of the most mysterious. Alan C. Elms wrote that Goldilocks "does not resemble any of the standard tale-types, and includes no indexed folktale motifs." For years, Goldilocks was believed to be a literary creation by a single author... until an older version surfaced in a library collection.
1831: Eleanor Mure wrote down "The Story of the Three Bears", (available here from the Toronto Public Library) in rhyme, with watercolor illustrations, as a birthday gift for her young nephew. She called it "the celebrated nursery tale," indicating that it was already famous, and she was just rendering it in verse.
The story is different from the version familiar today. There is no Goldilocks. Rather, the story begins with three bears (all apparently male, referred to as the first, second and little bears) who move into a house in town. A snooping old woman, with no name, breaks into their house while they're out. Rather than porridge, she drinks their milk, but she breaks chairs and sleeps in beds just like the modern Goldilocks. Hearing the bears coming home, she hides in a closet. The bears return and discover the damage one by one. They find her, have difficulty burning or drowning her, and finally throw her on top of St. Paul's Church steeple.
Mure's homemade manuscript remained unknown for years, until 1951, when it was finally rediscovered in the Toronto Public Library.
Before that, the oldest known version had been Robert Southey's.
1837: Robert Southey anonymously published The Doctor, a collection of his essays. Among those was "The Story of the Three Bears." This is, in some ways, more like modern Goldilocks. The bears' meal is porridge. Again the antagonist is a nosy old lady. In a stroke of genius, Southey had the Great, Huge Bear, the Middle Bear, and the Little, Small, Wee Bear speak in appropriately sized type. The story ends with the old woman jumping out the window, never to be seen again. Southey described the story as one he had heard as a child from his uncle. Also, in letters from 1813, Southey mentioned telling the story to his relative's young children.
1849: Joseph Cundall made a significant change when he retold the tale in Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children. Namely, instead of an elderly crone, he made the antagonist a little girl named Silver-Hair.
The "Story of the Three Bears" is a very old Nursery Tale, but it was never so well told as by the great poet Southey, whose version I have (with permission) given you, only I have made the intruder a little girl instead of an old woman. This I did because I found that the tale is better known with Silver-Hair, and because there are so many other stories of old women.
However, Cundall might not have been the first person to do this; he implies that the tale is already "better known" as Silver-Hair. Both the name and the child character caught on very quickly, another possible indicator that he didn't make it up.
The bachelor bears got a makeover, too. In 1852, illustrations were showing them as a nuclear family. And in 1859's The Three Bears. A Moral Tale, in Verse, the bears are identified as "a father, a mother, and child."
1865: An interesting aside here. In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens titles a chapter "The Feast of the Three Hobgoblins." The characters eat bread and milk, and Dickens includes this line:
It was, as Bella gaily said, like the supper provided for the three nursery hobgoblins at their house in the forest, without their thunderous low growlings of the alarming discovery, ‘Somebody’s been drinking my milk!’
As pointed out by Katharine Briggs, this could indicate another version of the story floating around. I think it should be noted that a synonym for hobgoblin is "bug-bear."
Back to the evolving story of The Three Bears! The heroine’s name varied from Silver Hair, to Silver-locks, to Golden Hair, to Golden Locks - or, occasionally, she was nameless. "Golden Hair" appeared around 1868, in Aunt Friendly's Nursery Book. The variant "Goldilocks" soon gained popularity. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this was a nickname for blonds as early as 1550. Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes (1904) is sometimes credited with the first use of the name Goldilocks for this story. However, Goldilocks was used for the Three Bears' antagonist as early as 1875 (Little Folks' Letters: Young Hearts and Old Heads, pg. 25, where the name is not capitalized).
At this point, most people believed that the tale was created by Southey. In 1890, the folklorist Joseph Jacobs stated that the story was "the only example I know of where a tale that can be definitely traced to a specific author has become a folk-tale."
However, Jacobs changed his opinion not long afterwards, when he received a story titled "Scrapefoot." This was collected by John Batten from a Mrs. H., who had heard it from her mother forty years previously. It appeared in Jacobs' More English Fairy Tales in 1894. This is close to the tale of Goldilocks that we know today, except that the main character who visits the castle of the three bears is neither a girl nor an old woman; it's a male fox named Scrapefoot. (There are quite a few parallels with Mure's version - the stolen food being milk, and the dilemma of how to kill the intruder.)
Jacobs believed that Scrapefoot must be the older, more authentic version of the tale. He publicized the theory that Southey had heard a hypothetical third version with a female fox, or vixen, and had misinterpreted the word "vixen" to mean an unpleasant woman.
However, Jacobs was building his theory based on the information he had at the time. He did not know of Mure's "Three Bears," which would not be discovered until 1951. We have two early, literary versions about an old lady, both of which state they heard the story from tradition - and one oral version, recorded later, about a male fox.
Cundall's version, with Silver-Hair, is the oldest known to feature a child intruder. But Cundall possibly implies that other people were already telling versions with a young girl. And actually, there's more evidence for this - starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Goldilocks as a Motif
In the Grimms' story of Snow White, first published in 1812, there is a long scene where the heroine - a young child in this version, seven years old - first finds the seven dwarfs' house. Inside the empty cottage she discovers a table set with seven places, and seven beds. Snow White eats a few bites from each plate and drinks a drop of wine from each cup. Then
"She tried each of the seven little beds, one after the other, but none felt right until she came to the seventh one, and she lay down in it and fell asleep."
When the dwarfs return, this happens:
The first one said, "Who has been sitting in my chair?"
The second one, "Who has been eating from my plate?"
The third one, "Who has been eating my bread?"
The fourth one, "Who has been eating my vegetables?"
The fifth one, "Who has been sticking with my fork?"
The sixth one, "Who has been cutting with my knife?"
The seventh one, "Who has been drinking from my mug?"
Then the first one said, "Who stepped on my bed?"
The second one, "And someone has been lying in my bed."
Eventually, they find Snow White lying there. Unlike the story of the Three Bears, however, the dwarves are so stricken with her beauty that they are happy to let her stay.
Another fun fact: in the Grimms' original draft from 1810, Snow White is golden-haired. Her mother wishes for a child with black eyes, and in a later scene there's a reference to Snow White's "yellow hairs" being combed.
The Grimms also published another story with a similar scene, "The Three Ravens." A girl sets out to rescue her three brothers, who were transformed into ravens. She travels through the harsh wilderness to the castle where they now live. There are three plates and three cups. The girl samples from each and drops her ring into the final cup. Just then, the ravens arrive; the girl might be hiding at this point, because the ravens don't seem to notice her. They each ask, "Who ate from my little plate? Who ate from my little cup?" But when the third raven looks into his cup, he finds the sister's ring, and the curse is broken.
The Grimms edited the story significantly and changed it to "The Seven Ravens." However, I find it significant that the earlier published version had three talking animals.
The stolen-meal scene also takes place briefly in "The Bewitched Brothers," a similar tale from Romania with two eagle-brothers. In other tales, the girl does not eat, but cleans the house and sets the table, then hides herself before her brothers come in. In a Norwegian variant called The Twelve Wild Ducks, the details are a little different, but the sister hides under the bed when her brothers arrive, and is discovered because she left her spoon on the table. In that version, at least one brother blames her for the curse, which explains why she might need to hide.
In Journal of American Folklore, Mary I. Shamburger and Vera R. Lachmann argued that Southey pulled inspiration from Snow White and also from Norwegian lore. They say,
"According to the Norwegian tale, the king's daughter comes to a cave inhabited by three bears (really Russian princes who cast off their bearskins at night). The king's daughter finds the interior of the cave very comfortable. Food and drink, especially porridge, are waiting on the table; she sees beds nearby, and after a good meal, she chooses the bed she prefers and lies not on, but underneath it!"
They're describing "Riddaren i Bjødnahame" (The Knights in Bear-shapes). I would need someone more well-versed in Norwegian dialect to weigh in, but the details seem a bit different from the previous description. The bear-knights' home is not what I'd picture as a cave; it's a Barhytte, which is apparently a hut made of pine branches. I couldn't verify whether porridge is mentioned (if you know Norwegian landsmål, I would love to hear from you). The princess doesn't just move in and get comfy - she cooks the food and tidies up. The beds are a triple bunkbed (yes). And she doesn't take a nap - she is scared that the inhabitants may turn out to be dangerous, so she hides beneath the lowest bed. In fact, the Russian princes are charmed by her, and she ends up marrying one of them.
Shamburger and Lachmann cited one other Norwegian tale in a footnote: "Jomfru Gyltrom." This is a parallel story, which does not feature the meal scene but does have three bear-princes. Incidentally, Jomfru Gyltrom's most notable characteristic is that she has a golden dove on her head. I don't think this is really connected to Goldilocks' name, but it's still an interesting parallel.
The Three Bears today features a nuclear family with Mama, Papa and Baby Bear. However, in some of the earliest versions, all the bears are male. This is closer to the Snow White-eque tales, where the home is an all-male space. Sometimes it’s a cottage, sometimes a castle (as in Scrapefoot). The intruder is the only female. The male inhabitants may be animals, humans in animal form, or otherworldly creatures (such as dwarves, or… hmmm… Dickens’ hobgoblins?).
The biggest difference is in the intruder's behavior. "Snow White" heroines are domestic goddesses who cook and clean wherever they go, but girls in "Three Bears" stories are forces of destruction.
I talk about tale types, but honestly, a lot of tales don’t stick to identified types. They’re more a collection of motifs. The Norwegian stories mentioned are Snow White tales, but not exactly. Both contain the essential elements of Snow White, but also other stories – “The Knights in Bear-shapes” turns into an East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon-type tale after the heroine wakes up, and “Jomfru Gyltrom” has an extended ending where the heroine’s stepsister impersonates her. “The Three Ravens” ends with the heroine locating her brothers, but other stories of that tale type typically continue after that point, with the heroine sewing shirts to break the curse. In a different case: one obscure English folktale, Dathera Dad, is parallel to a single scene from Tom Thumb.
The essential elements of Goldilocks are contained as a single scene in the stories of "Snow White" and "The Three Ravens," published in Germany in 1812, 19 years before Mure wrote down her version. In the 1810 version especially, Snow White was a seven-year-old blonde girl. Both Mure and Southey make reference to the story of the Three Bears being well-known. I wonder which came first. Was there a short story of a woman entering the animals' house and eating their food, which got absorbed into longer stories of a woman seeking shelter? Or did the Goldilocks scene break off from longer stories and take on a life of its own?
I believe that Goldilocks is an older story than it's been given credit for; it seems as if people are constantly finding that certain details - like the name Goldilocks - are older than previously realized. And I think the similarities to Snow White are too notable to be ignored. It's just that Southey's literary version gained notoriety and became the most influential version very quickly, while stories such as Dickens' "Three Hobgoblins" may not have been recorded.
And who knows - if Mure's version showed up more than a century after it was written, we might unearth other old versions. Mure's "Three Bears" up-ended all previous theories about Goldilocks. Joseph Jacobs thought Southey had misheard a story about a fox. Shamburger and Lachmann suggested that Southey had pulled his ideas from Norwegian folklore. But the discovery of this earlier version proved that Southey wasn't just making things up when he talked about hearing the story from his uncle; other people were already telling the story to their children.
Sometimes, if a tale doesn't contain any indexed motifs, it's time to update the index.
“Elphin Irving, the Fairies' Cupbearer” is a Scottish tale very similar to Tam Lin. There are some key differences. First, it's about siblings rather than lovers. More importantly, it's a tragedy. The story was first published by Allan Cunningham in the London Magazine, and again in 1822, in Cunningham's Traditional Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry.
The story begins with a quote from Tam Lin (spelled Tamlane here). It’s a triumphant stanza, in which the heroine rescues Tamlane, and the fairy queen declares, "She that has won him, young Tamlane, has gotten a gallant groom.” Although the wording is slightly unique, it is very close to many of the versions in the Child Ballads, which would be published in the 1860s. (The oldest confirmed written version of Tam Lin is dated 1769, but the ballad probably goes back further.)
After this quote, the story introduces the valley of Corriewater, where many of the countryfolk believe fairies still dwell. The fairies often woo human youths and maidens away to be their lovers, and people who see their nighttime processions often spot dead relatives among them. The narrator then introduces “the traditional story of the Cupbearer to the Queen of the fairies.” There is a framing device with a group of countryfolk telling the story, different people chiming in to add their own perspectives.
The countryfolk introduce the tale of the twins Elphin and Phemie Irving. When the twins are sixteen, their father drowns trying to save his sheep from the river known as the Corriewater. Their mother dies of grief seven days after his funeral. The twins are very close, and both remarkably beautiful. (At this point, one of the storytellers bursts into a song, “Fair Phemie Irving.”)
When the twins are nineteen, there’s a drought. Elphin begins driving their flock over the dried-up Corriewater to reach better pastures. One evening, Phemie is waiting for her brother and sees a vision of him entering the house. However, when she goes to check on him, he’s vanished. She screams and goes comatose. Her neighbors, who come to check on her, can’t rouse her until the following morning, when a girl mentions that the Corrie has flooded and some of the Irvings’ sheep have been found drowned. Phemie immediately wakes up, wailing that “they have ta’en him away." She believes she saw the fairies charm Elphin away, for his horse wasn't shod with iron. She denies that he was drowned, and swears she’ll win him back. The superstitious townsfolk begin to gossip, many of them believing Phemie’s account. The storming and flooding worsen.
When the storms finally clear, the local laird discovers Phemie seated at the foot of an oak tree within a fairy ring. She sings "The Fairy Oak of Corriewater." In her song, the fairies dance around the haunted oak, and the Elf-queen brags that,
"I have won me a youth...the fairest that earth may see;
This night I have won young Elph Irving
My cup-bearer to be.
His service lasts but for seven sweet years,
And his wage is a kiss of me."
Phemie (though she isn't named in the song) bursts into their dance. The Elf-queen and Elphin climb onto their horses, but Phemie grabs Elphin and calls on God for help. Elphin transforms into a bull, a river, and a raging fire. At this last transformation, Phemie lets go. In the final verse, the elves sing tauntingly that if she had held on through the fire and kissed her brother, she would have won him back.
Phemie finishes her song, raving with grief, and the laird carries her home. At the same time two shepherds return bearing Elphin’s body, finally recovered from the river. He drowned trying to save their sheep. When Phemie sees the body, she laughs and says it’s nothing but a lifeless image fashioned by the fairies to fool them all. On Hallowmass-eve, when the spirits wander, she will wait at the graveyard and try again to capture Elphin from the fairy cavalcade. Most of the superstitious countryfolk believe her. But the morning after Hallow-eve, Phemie is found frozen to death in the graveyard, still waiting for her brother.
Allan Cunningham was a Scottish author and songwriter. This book, Traditional Tales, is clearly literary; anything collected has been polished and framed in his style. In the foreword, Cunningham wrote, “I am more the collector and embellisher, than the creator of these tales; and such as are not immediately copied from recitation are founded upon traditions or stories prevalent in the north." He doesn't provide further information, so we don't know what class "Elphin Irving" might have fallen into. Was it a story he heard directly and wrote down? Or was it “founded upon traditions”? Did it draw inspiration from Tam Lin?
A sidenote: in 1809, Cunningham was supposed to collect old ballads for Robert Hartley Cromek’s Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song. However, Cunningham instead submitted his original poems, written in the style of ballads. Cunningham's biographer pointed out that other poets around the same time sometimes committed similar deceptions, presenting their own work as ancient stuff.
"Elphin Irving" is a story within a story within a story. In level one, the narrator listens to a story being told by a group of countryfolk. Level two is the tragic but mundane tale of the death of the Irving family. Level three is Phemie's account of her supernatural experience. It’s left ambiguous whether the supernatural elements are real. The only one that really seems squarely stated is that Phemie saw her brother's apparition at the moment of his death. Also, lines blur between the different levels. Rumors and superstitions are threaded through the narrative, and it’s sometimes hard to recall whether we’re reading the words of the peasant characters in the story, or the people sitting about listening in the frame narrative.
As pointed out by Carole G. Silver, the fascination of the story comes from both the familiar trope of the fairy kidnapping, and "the author's reasoned hesitation between natural and supernatural explanations of events" (Strange and Secret Peoples, 14). Cunningham loved fairy-stories, but here, he would not commit one way or the other. We are never fully sure whether the fairies are "real."
The fairy plotline parallels the story of Tam Lin or Tamlane. This is explicit in the text, and the narrator draws attention to it with the opening excerpt. (Tamlane is also mentioned in "The King of the Peak," another story in the same book.) In “Tam Lin,” the heroine keeps hold through her true love’s transformations and wins him away from the faeries. Cunningham quotes the part of "Tam Lin" where the Fairy Queen accepts defeat. But when Phemie tries to follow that example, she fails, and the elves depart with mockery.
Although Tam Lin has a happy ending, in similar folktales, it could sometimes be a toss-up. Tam Lin and Elph Irving are unusual in having a girl as the rescuer; it's typically a man pursuing his supposedly dead (actually kidnapped) wife. In the Irish tale of "The Recovered Bride," he succeeds. But in another story, a Lothian farmer attempts to rescue his wife on Halloween, but loses his nerve and will never have another chance. In "The Girl and the Fairies," two young men fail to rescue a girl from the fairies' procession, and the fairies promptly murder her. A similarly bloody fate awaits an abductee whose husband is held back by neighbors from approaching her (Napier 29).
Phemie chooses two classical places to try to recover Elphin - first a fairy ring, and then the local graveyard on Halloween night. On both occasions, she fails.
Ultimately, Elphin and Phemie repeat their parents' fate. Like their father, Elphin drowns trying to save their sheep in the very same river. Phemie dies of grief just like their mother.
The Irving family is the subject of many rumors, and there are implied ties to the fairies. One possibility is that Elphin was taken by the fairies to be someone’s lover (supported by the Fairy Queen’s talk of kissing him). But it may be more complicated than that. One person claims that the twins’ mother was related to a witch. It is also said that every seven years, the fairies turn over one of their children as a kane (tenant's fee) to the devil. They are allowed to steal a human to offer in their place. This might imply that this is why Elphin was taken, but another rumor claims that Elphin actually is one of those doomed fairy “Kane-bairns,” and was left among humans to avoid this fate. Thus, he isn't really stolen by the fairies, but is returning to his biological relatives.
I’ve been skeptical of the idea that changelings are related to the fairy hell-tithe – an idea that is often attributed to “Tam Lin” but doesn’t actually appear there. Tam Lin is in danger of being tithed to Hell, but there are no changelings mentioned in the ballad (Tam may even be a fairy himself in some versions). However, here we do have a story where the two concepts are linked.
The fairies' "debt to Hell" was also mentioned in Matthew Gregory Lewis' poem "Oberon's Henchman; Or The Legend of The Three Sisters," written in 1803. So the idea was definitely present in authors' minds in the early 1800s. But I can't help scratching my head at the fact that both Cunningham and Lewis, when writing these stories, directly referenced Tam Lin in the text or in footnotes. Evidence of a tradition, or evidence that Tam Lin was popular?
Elphin’s relationship with the fairies is ambiguous, as he seems happy to serve them in exchange for a kiss from the Fairy Queen. He even seems ready to flee from Phemie. His name sounds like Elfin, highlighting his connection to the otherworld. In the song, the fairy queen shortens his name simply to Elph; now he is not just elf-like, but truly one of them.
It may be of note that Phemie's name is short for Euphemia (Greek for "well-spoken") and a vital part of the narrative comes from her words, spoken or sung. Also, the family surname of Irving comes from the name of a river - fitting for a character who drowns.
The elaborate nature of "Elphin Irving" raises questions about its authenticity. See the flowery writing style, the nested framing devices, and the ambiguity of the fairies' existence. By including the contrasting excerpt from Tam Lin, the narrator is practically screaming for people to compare them. The science of folklore and the focus on verifiable sources were only beginning to develop when Cunningham wrote, but we know that he was willing to fake traditional material. That does not reflect well on him.
Reviewing Cunningham's book, Richard Mercer Dorson stated bluntly that "traditional tales they are not, and they might more accurately have been titled 'Literary Tales Faintly Suggested by Oral Traditions of the Scottish Peasantry.'" (History of British Folklore, 122) Carole G. Silver summarized "Elphin Irving" as "really a version of the ballad of Tamlane."
Cunningham would not be the only person to write their own version of Tam Lin. Sophie May's Little Prudy's Fairy Book (1866) included a version titled "Wild Robin". Like "Tam Lin," there's a happy ending; however, like "Elphin Irving," it's mainly prose with excerpts from the Tam Lin ballad, and it also makes the main characters siblings rather than lovers. In the case of Wild Robin, it seems like this change was purely to remove the sexual elements and tone it down for children. It is impossible to say why Cunningham might have made this change, though.
I lean towards the theory that Elphin Irving was Cunningham's own creation, inspired by folklore and especially by Tam Lin. What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
A soldier's son sets out to make his fortune, saying goodbye to his widowed mother. On the way, he pulls a thorn from a tigress's paw; the grateful tigress, who happens to be able to talk, gives him a box in thanks and tells him to open it once he has carried it nine miles. However, the further he goes, the heavier the box becomes, until at eight and a quarter miles, it's impossible to carry. Saying that he believes the tigress was a witch, he throws the box down. The box bursts open, and out steps a little old man, one hath high (19 inches), with a beard that trails on the ground. The little man, who is highly cantankerous, is named Sir Buzz.
"Perhaps if you had carried it the full nine miles you might have found something better; but that's neither here nor there. I'm good enough for you, at any rate, and will serve you faithfully according to my mistress's orders."
The soldier's son asks for dinner, and Sir Buzz immediately flashes away to the nearest town. There, he shouts at shopkeepers who don't notice him due to his size, and then leaves each shop with a massive bag of supplies, carrying them without any trouble. The soldier's son and Sir Buzz then eat a meal. Eventually the two reach the king's city, where the soldier's son sees the king's daughter, Princess Blossom. This princess is notable in that she weighs no more than the equivalent of five flowers.
The soldier's son is smitten, and begs Sir Buzz to carry him to the princess. Although he complains, Sir Buzz - "who had a kind heart" - does so He takes him to the princess's bedchamber in the middle of the night. The princess is frightened at first, but is won over by the soldier's son, and the two talk all night and finally fall asleep at dawn. In order to prevent the soldier's son from being discovered, Sir Buzz carries off the bed with them both in it to a garden, uproots a tree to use as a club, and stands guard.
As soon as it's noticed that the princess is missing, a huge search ensues. The one-eyed chief constable tries to search the garden, encounters a tiny screaming man waving a tree around, and returns to the king with this wholly original statement: "I am convinced your majesty's daughter, the Princess Blossom, is in your majesty's garden, just outside the town, as there is a tree there which fights terribly."
Sir Buzz fights off anyone who tries to come near, and the soldier's son and Princess Blossom set off happily on their own. The soldier's son feels that he has made his fortune, and tells Sir Buzz that he can return to his mistress. However, Sir Buzz leaves him with a hair from his beard, telling him to burn it in the fire if he's ever in trouble.
The princess and the soldier's son promptly get lost in a forest and reach the point of starvation. A Brahman invites them to his home, which is filled with riches. He tells them they may open any cupboard except the one locked with a golden key. Of course the soldier's son does so anyway, and in the forbidden cabinet finds a collection of human skulls. Their rescuer is not a Brahman, but a vampire who plans to eat them. At that very moment, the vampire steps in, but the quick-thinking Princess Blossom puts Sir Buzz's hair into the fire.
Sir Buzz and the vampire then have a competition of transformations; the vampire turns into a dove and Sir Buzz into a hawk, and so on. The vampire becomes a rose in the lap of King Indra, and Sir Buzz becomes a musician who plays so wonderfully that Indra gives him the rose. Finally, the vampire turns into a mouse, and Sir Buzz becomes a cat and eats him. Sir Buzz then returns to Princess Blossom and the soldier's son and announces, "You two had better go home, for you are not fit to take care of yourselves." He takes them and all the vampire's riches back to the home of the hero's mother, where they live happily ever after, and Sir Buzz is never heard from again.
This story has remained a favorite of mine because it's so colorful and silly. There's also a lot going on and all kinds of random details.
The story was collected by Flora Annie Steel, a British woman whose husband worked in India in the Indian Civil Service.
Steel published this story as "Sir Bumble" in the Indian Antiquary in 1881, and she wrote that the story was well-known in the Panjab and was "Muhammadan" in origin. It also appeared in her 1881 work Wide-Awake Stories: A Collection of Tales Told by Little children, between Sunset and Sunrise in the Panjab and Kashmir (1884). She changed the name to "Sir Buzz" in Tales of the Punjab: Told by the People (1894). The different versions are nearly identical.
She wrote in the Indian Antiquary that "It possesses considerable literary merits remarkable from their absence in most Panjabi tales. The treatment is humorous and in places poetical, and the tale as a whole gives the idea of its having been at some period committed to writing." In Wide-Awake Stories, she stated she heard it from a Muslim Panjabi child, name unknown.
The Tale Type and Characters
The story falls into Aarne-Thompson type 562. Similar tales include "Aladdin" and Hans Christian Andersen's "The Tinderbox." In tales of type 562, a man seeking his fortune (often a former soldier, in this case the son of a soldier) encounters a sorcerer, witch, or someone else who gives them a magical object. This object grants them command of a magical servant - a genie, a giant, a gnome, or a trio of magic dogs. With this servant's help, the man kidnaps and marries a princess. Unfortunately, he gets into trouble and somehow loses access to the magical servant. At the last moment, he gets the servant back and everything works out.
"Sir Buzz" has some unique touches. In many versions the sorcerer or witch is at odds with the hero, and the hero may even kill them to gain the magic source. But the tigress seems like a decent sort, and the hero willingly sends Sir Buzz back to her in the end. In most tales, the hero winds up becoming king when he marries the princess (sometimes executing her father in the process), but here the hero and princess return to his poor mother's home, and we never hear anything else about the kingdom. Heroes of Tale Type 562 tend to be jerks, but the hero of Sir Buzz is a hapless but honest type.
There are some touches of other tales. The section in the vampire's house with the forbidden key is right out of "Bluebeard," and the finale of Sir Buzz's battle is similar to "Puss in Boots."
According to Flora Annie Steel, the tigress was described in the original story as a bhut or evil spirit. Were-tigers feature in many Indian stories and could be dangerous villains. The tigress is unusual here in that she is apparently benevolent. The vampire, in the original, was a ghul, and Steel explains that the one eye of the chief constable (kotwal) indicates that he's evil.
Princess Blossom's name is Bâdshâhzâdi Phûlî (Princess Flower) or Phûlâzâdî (Born-of-a-flower). Her unusual weight is a well-known motif in Indian folktales, known as the five-flower princess (Grounds for Play: The Nautanki Theatre of North India, p. 308). Her weight shows how delicate and almost otherworldly she is.
We never hear of Princess Blossom's family or kingdom again. She does seem to be fairly capable and quick-thinking, though.
Sir Buzz, the incredibly powerful, irritable and violent sprite, is clearly the star of the story. His personality stands out, which can be rare in this tale type. As well as being opinionated and a strong source of the slapstick comedy throughout the tale, he seems to have a genuinely caring relationship with the hero. His name is Mîyân Bhûngâ, which means "Sir Beetle" or "Sir Bumble-bee."
The image of a tiny man with a long beard trailing on the ground is a common one, appearing in tales from across the world (a few are listed in my Thumbling Project here). A character with the exact same description is the tiny blacksmith in the story of Der Angule (Three-Inch), a Bengali Thumbling tale.
"The Water-Horse of Barra" is a fairytale that's stayed with me since I read it years ago. It is especially striking because it takes one of the cruelest monsters in Scottish legend and turns him into a redeemable hero. The story has been presented as a folktale, but I began to wonder if it was really traditional or not.
The tale appeared in Folk Tales of Moor and Mountain by Winifred Finlay (1969). On Barra, an island off the coast of Scotland, there lived a water-horse or each-uisge - a shapeshifting water spirit, similar to the kelpie. The water-horse went seeking a bride, and captured a young woman by tricking her into placing her hand on his pelt. However, the quick-thinking girl invited him to rest a while, and he took human form in order to sleep. While he slept, she placed a halter around his neck, trapping him in horse form and forcing him to do her bidding. She then kept him to work on her father's farm for a year and a day. However, during that year and a day, he learned love and compassion. Rather than depart for Tìr nan Òg (the Scottish Gaelic form of Tir na nOg, the Irish otherworld), he underwent a ritual to become truly human, losing even the memory of being a water-horse. He and the girl married, and lived happily ever after.
Winifred Finlay was an English author who published numerous folklore-inspired novels and collections of folktales. In Moor and Mountain, she gives no sources, leaving it mysterious how she found these stories. This should be an immediate cue to look at them critically.
Some of them are familiar. Midside Maggie and Tam Lin are well-known, and "Jeannie and the fairy spinners" is a retelling of the story of Habetrot. However, others are less familiar to me, such as "The Fair Maid and the Snow-white Unicorn" (which, like "Water-Horse," features a girl marrying a handsome man who used to be a magical horse).
I have never found an older equivalent of Finlay's water-horse romance, although it has been retold in other collections. It appeared as "The Kelpie and the Girl" in The Celtic Breeze by Heather McNeil (2001) and "The Kelpie Who Fell in Love" in Mayo Folk Tales by Tony Locke (2014).
A running theme in Finlay’s books is that the world of fairies and magic has ended, with the modern human world taking its place. In "The Water-horse of Barra," "Saint Columba and the Giants of Staffa," and "The Fishwife and the Changeling," magical creatures must either leave this world forever, or assimilate and become ordinary humans.
"The Water-Horse of Barra" bears an especially strong resemblance to "The Fishwife and the Changeling." Both tales follow a traditionally evil entity who is won over by the love of a human woman, and who opts to become mortal and stay with her rather than depart for the Land of Youth. In the second case, the woman is a devoted mother who adopts a fairy changeling and raises him alongside the child he was meant to replace. Although I adore this take on the changeling mythos, it is strikingly different from most folktales, where any compassion towards changelings would be unusual. In a tale recorded in 1866, a parent who accidentally winds up with both babies still resorts to the threat of torture to get rid of the fairy child (Henderson, Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, 153). The idea of a changeling and the original child raised as siblings is fairly new, although it seems to be growing popular in recent fiction - see, for instance, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black (2015) and The Oddmire: Changeling by William Ritter (2019).
Back to the Water-Horse of Barra. This tale features many of the usual kelpie tropes. A person who touches the water-horse will find herself trapped as if glued to his skin. However, if the creature is haltered or bridled, he becomes docile and tame - at least as long as the halter is in place.
In other ways, however, it is strikingly atypical. Kelpies are usually totally murderous. Although they are often found pursuing women, it is generally to eat them.
There is an older tale about a Water-horse of Barra. However, this tale is very short and takes a gruesome turn. A young woman of Barra encountered a handsome man on a hill. They chatted, and eventually he fell asleep with his head in her lap. However, she noticed water-weeds tangled in his hair, and realized to her horror that he was a water-horse. Thinking quickly, she cut off the part of her skirt that his head was resting on, and slipped away to safety. However, some time later when she was out with friends, he reappeared and dragged her into the lake. All that was ever found of her was part of her lung. This story was told by Anne McIntyre, recorded by Reverend Allan Macdonald of Eriskay, and published by George Henderson in 1911. (Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts)
It is rare for the kelpie to be seen with a softer side. J. F. Campbell gives a one-sentence summary of this story type in Popular Tales of the West Highlands, where he states that the kelpie "falls in love with a lady." The summary ends with her finding sand in his hair and presumably reacting with horror. The phrasing is fairly soft, suggesting that a kelpie could really fall in love, but all of the other kelpie stories Campbell gives are bloody and dark. I wonder if "falls in love" was a euphemism on Campbell's part.
One other point of interest is a song, titled "Skye Water-Kelpie's Lullaby" (Songs of the Hebrides) or "Lamentation of the Water-Horse" (The Old Songs of Skye). In this song, the singer mournfully begs a woman named Mor or Morag (depending on translation) to return to him and their infant son. This song has been interpreted as the story of a water-horse whose human bride has left him after realizing his identity.
Outside the kelpie realm, there is another story with key similarities - the Scottish ballad "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight." In this song, Isabel hears an elf-knight blowing his horn and wishes for him to be her lover. At that very moment, the elf knight leaps through her window and takes her riding with him to the woods. It’s all fun and games until he gets her into the remote wilderness, where he declares that he has murdered seven princesses and she will be the eighth. When begging for mercy doesn’t work, Isabel persuades him to relax and rest his head on her knee for a little while first. She uses a “small charm” to make him sleep, then ties him up with his own belt and kills him with his own dagger.
Finlay’s heroine has strong Isabel vibes. Her suggestion of resting, and then her capture of her would-be kidnapper, is clearly parallel. When she calls on the bees to buzz and lull the water-horse to sleep, it's similar to Isabel's "charm."
“Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight” is one member of a wide family of similar tales, although the plots vary and “Isabel” is somewhat atypical. Of course, the Elf Knight is not a kelpie. His native habitat is apparently the forest. However, in other versions, the serial killer’s method of killing is drowning (see "The Water o' Wearie's Well" and "May Colvin"). Francis James Child suggested that in these versions "the Merman or Nix may be easily recognized". A Dutch neighbor, “Heer Halewijn,” has been compared to a Strömkarl or Nikker. Unfortunately, as critics quickly pointed out, the logic fails since the serial killer dies by drowning in these versions, which would not make sense for a merman. The theory has stuck around despite lack of evidence.
The rather unique “Lady Isabel” has faced scrutiny; the unclear origins have led to many different theories, and some scholars have even suggested that it was a fake written by its collector Peter Buchan. This will have to be a post for another time. Insofar as our current subject, “Lady Isabel” and the connected water-spirit theory are definitely old and well-known enough that Finlay could have been familiar with them. However, like the old kelpie stories, these ballads are not romances but cautionary tales.
The stories in Folk Tales of Moor and Mountain are familiar folk tales, but they are all Finlay's retellings. Her "Water-Horse of Barra" is probably a reimagining of the older Barra water-horse tale. (Perhaps it's influenced by "Lady Isabel," although this might be more of a stretch.) In both Barra stories, a girl finds herself cornered by a kelpie in the form of a handsome man, and must figure out an escape as he lies sleeping. However, Finlay rewrote it with a gentler, family-friendly ending.
Finlay's water-horse is tame and toothless even at the beginning: "he was very good-natured and never caused anyone harm." The only shocking thing about his diet is that he eats raw fish. Older tales often had sexual elements; a disguised kelpie shares a victim's bed to prey on her, and sleeping with your head in someone's lap is a euphemism for sex (note especially that the girl cuts her skirt off to escape). Finlay's water-horse never does anything so improper as sleep in the girl's lap; instead he stretches out in the heather to rest. In folktales, kelpies suck girls dry of blood, or devour them and leave only scraps of viscera. But Finlay's heroine is never in fear for her life. See her reaction: “He really is extremely handsome... but I have no intention of marrying a water-horse and spending the rest of my life at the bottom of a loch.”
Finlay inverts the usual setup: here, the girl captures the kelpie. The kelpie is the one carried into a new realm and affected by their encounter. Not only is this ending more cheerful, but it ties in with Finlay's running theme. The time of magic ends to make way for a modern era. Supernatural power is exchanged for love, whether that love is romantic, familial, or belonging to a community.
Regardless of its origins, Winifred Finlay's romantic tale of a good-hearted water-horse has earned its own place in modern folklore. This shows a shift in how we comprehend and retell these stories. In 19th-century storytelling, kelpies and changelings would have been totally irredeemable, definitely not beings you'd want to invite into your home. Now, however, you can find stories removed from folk belief where kelpies and changelings are the heroes and main characters. There's a growing tendency to give even the most terrifying monsters of legend a chance for redemption.
This is a weird and obscure tale, and one of my favorites. It appeared in Andrew Lang's Yellow Fairy Book in 1889, adapted from a tale of the Armenian people living in Transylvania and Bukovina. (Bukovina is a Central European region, which was once part of Moldavia and is now divided between Romania and Ukraine.)
In the story, a childless woman accidentally swallows an icicle, and gives birth to a little girl "as white as snow and as cold as ice," who can't bear any kind of heat. Then the same woman is struck by a flying spark from their fireplace, and gives birth to a boy "as red as fire, and as hot to touch." This is part of the widespread motif of pregnancy beginning with eating.
The siblings avoid each other as they grow up, since they can't bear each other's temperatures. But when their parents die, they decide to go out into the world. They wear thick fur coats so that they won't hurt each other, and they're very happy together.
Eventually, the Snow-daughter meets a king who falls in love with her and makes her his wife. He builds her a house of ice, and makes her brother a house surrounded by furnaces, so that they can both be comfortable.
One day, the king holds a feast. When the Fire-son arrives, he has now grown so hot that no one can bear to be in the same room as him. This is, as you might expect, kind of a mood-killer. The party is totally ruined. The king yells at the Fire-son, who responds by going full-on supervillain and incinerating him. The now-widowed Snow-daughter attacks the Fire-son. The siblings have a battle "the like of which had never been seen on earth," and which is left up to the reader's imagination. However, at its conclusion, the Snow-daughter melts like the icicle she came from, and the Fire-son burns out like a spark, leaving only cinders. And that's it.
I think it's interesting that snow is feminine here and fire masculine. This also not the only story about snow-related children. It's similar to the Russian "Snegurochka" (also known as "Snegurka" or "Snowflake"). There, a childless couple makes a snow sculpture which turns into a little girl. When she tries to play a game jumping over a fire, she melts away into mist.
This tale type, "The Snow Maiden" or Aarne-Thompson 703, has the moral that you can't escape your nature. The Snow Daughter and the Fire Son varies in that the fire is actually the snow-child's sibling.
In most traditional versions, Cinderella’s ball is a multi-night affair. She visits on three nights and dances with the prince three times. Often she wears more elaborate dresses each night, building more and more on the concept. She loses her shoe on the third night. Both Perrault’s Cendrillon and the Brothers Grimm’s Aschenputtel follow this model.
The rule of three also shows in versions where she has two stepsisters. Cinderella is one of three rivals. Her two stepsisters go to the ball first and try on the shoe first. Cinderella is the triumphant final contestant.
The Rule of Three is a common storytelling or rhetorical technique across western literature including folktales. Even in modern times, think how many things come in threes, like the Three Musketeers. The number is also recurrent throughout the Bible (Jonah in the whale for three days) and in Christian teaching (like the Trinity). Three is the smallest possible number that’s still recognizable as a pattern. Patterns of three make the tale feel more satisfying, complete, or amusing, without the repetition becoming boring.
In many modern retellings, however, Cinderella goes to one ball only. I think this began with stage adaptations such as pantomimes. Films followed suit, including the 1914 Cinderella film starring Mary Pickford, and the animated Disney film from 1950.
In storytelling, it’s easy to skim quickly over the details of the ball. In stage or cinema, three spectacles of a kind might start to drag. These are visual adaptations and the fairytale’s exact repetition is not going to work. You could have three identical ball nights, or try to vary it up and make each occasion different (with all the set or animation costs involved) . . . or you could simply summarize it into one.
Does this mean something has been lost? I don’t think so. The formats of the telling are different – a play, movie or a novel is very different from an oral folktale, and the same things won’t necessarily work across different mediums. Movies frequently condense their source material.
Also, audiences’ tastes change. In the original, the three-night ball is really the main plot. Cinderella is a heroine completing a series of trials. Can she escape her family’s attention each night? Can she get another dress from her supernatural benefactor? Can she wow the prince each night and then slip away afterwards? In some versions she becomes a trickster, hiding behind a Clark Kent-esque disguise and savoring her own private joke. You can imagine Perrault’s Cinderella winking at the audience as she asks her sisters about the mysterious lady at the ball. The Grimm Cinderella gets up to some hijinks as she evades the lovelorn prince, scaling a tree or hiding in a pigeon coop.
But modern retellings typically leave this out. In the fairytale, Cinderella and the prince develop a connection over three nights; initial attraction leads immediately to marriage. He can’t even recognize her through her rags and soot, being only able to identify her by her shoe. Not particularly romantic.
Modern versions typically focus on the romance and on giving Cinderella a goal beyond just going to a party and finding a husband. The 1998 film Ever After, Marissa Meyer’s 2012 novel Cinder, and Disney’s 2015 live-action remake all spend the majority of the story building up Cinderella’s relationship with the prince, and her own personality and life goals. Instead of ball attendance being the main plot, the ball is a single dramatic scene. Cinderella gets one shot at wowing her prince, and so the ball is that much more significant.
Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted (my favorite Cinderella retelling of all time) goes for three balls. However, Levine – like the other authors mentioned – builds a more unique plot and has Ella fall in love with her prince long before the festival. (I think the movie adaptation reduced the celebrations to a single coronation ball, though I have not watched it).
The Grimm-inspired musical Into the Woods features three balls, but at least in the film adaptation, they take place mostly offscreen. The ball is not the focus. Instead, the focus is on Cinderella fleeing on three consecutive nights, and the slightly different events each time. Again, it’s avoiding too much repetition.
Another thing: particularly if it’s a contemporary or high-school retelling, one-night events are often more common than multi-night recurring festivals. The 2004 movie A Cinderella Story made it a Halloween dance. Some of these stories still include the secret identity element by making it a masquerade ball, or having Cinderella not realize her beloved is the prince at first. Contemporary versions have an advantage in that the romantic interests can chat online to begin with, preserving their anonymity until it's time for the big finale.
So it makes sense for the story to be updated. But the new emphasis on Cinderella having more personality, or more chemistry with the prince, is separate from the fact that many versions just have one ball.
A lot of this may be the effect of film. Cinderella has been retold many times, and today a lot of people get their main exposure to fairytales through movie format. Disney is one of the main heavy-hitters, but even earlier versions (like the Mary Pickford film) had just one ball.
You don’t see as many versions of Cinderella’s close cousin All-kinds-of-fur or Donkeyskin (which is probably rare because of the incest theme). I’ve seen three versions, and all featured the three balls. This story is a little different because it is an important plot point that the heroine has three different dresses, and of course she has to show them all off. However, I can’t think of any versions where the three dresses are condensed into one. If Disney had been daring enough to adapt this tale, we might have a standardized simplified version as we do with Cinderella.
(While we’re on this subject, I would heartily recommend Jim Henson’s TV episode “Sapsorrow” – a combination of Cinderella and Donkeyskin including a dark spin on the glass slipper, where a king is unhappily bound by law to marry whoever his dead wife’s ring fits.)
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One of my favorite childhood fairytales was the expressively titled "The Two Sisters Who Envied Their Cadette" (or in more modern language, "The Two Sisters Who Envied Their Younger Sister.") This is one of the Arabian Nights, but it's actually part of a group of "orphan tales," which appeared in Antoine Galland's translation from the early 1700s, and not in the original manuscripts. Some, like Aladdin and Ali Baba, are actually more well-known than the original Nights, and I have to say Periezade was my absolute favorite when I read a collection as a kid.
The story begins with a king named Khusraw Shah or Khosrouschah. There were a few real Persian kings named Khosrau. This story’s Khosrau Shah comes off as capricious and murderous, but we'll get to that in a minute.
He overhears three sisters talking. One dreams of marrying the king's baker, another of marrying the Sultan's chef, and the youngest and most beautiful says that she would marry the Sultan. While the first two make their wishes out of gluttony, the youngest is said by the narrator to have more sense. Amused, the Sultan has them fetched to the palace and performs all three weddings on the spot. Unfortunately, this sows resentment; the older sisters grow jealous and plot their sister's demise. Over the next few years, she gives birth to two sons and a daughter, and each time her sisters replace them with a puppy, a kitten, and a wooden stick that they pass off as a molar pregnancy. They secretly put the babies in a basket and boat them off down the canal.
The king initially wants to execute his wife straight off, but his advisors talk him down and he decides to instead have her imprisoned on the steps of the mosque, where everyone on their way to worship must spit on her.
The superintendent of the palace gardens, with fantastic timing, happens to be in the area each time a baby comes floating along the river. He realizes that they must have come from the queen's apartments, but decides it's better not to get involved, and just raises them as his own. He and his wife pass away before they have the chance to explain the children's true origins, so the king's children - Bahman, Perviz and Periezade - are left to live in their isolated house, living a wealthy and comfortable yet solitary life. The boys are named after Persian kings - Perviz's name means "victorious" and I found out that one of the real Khosraus had "Parviz" as a byname. Periezade's name is derived from "peri" or fairy. The narrator takes note that Periezade is formally educated and physically active just as much as her brothers.
One day, an old woman tells Periezade of three marvelous treasures: Speaking Bird, the Singing Tree, and the Golden Water. Periezade is overcome with longing for these things (I had forgotten before I reread it how weirdly obsessed she becomes). She pleads so much that her oldest brother Bahman agrees to go and find them, leaving behind a magical dagger that will become covered in blood if he dies. Soon enough the dagger turns bloody, and Perviz does the same, leaving Periezade with a string of pearls that will get stuck if he's in danger. When Perviz also falls into peril, Periezade disguises herself as a boy and sets out after them.
Now, both Bahman and Perviz had encountered an old man on their journey, and Periezade soon does the same. In many stories, when a trio of siblings encounters an old beggar in the woods, it's a chance to contrast the nobler and kinder youngest sibling. However, in this case all three siblings are courteous and generous to the old man who warns them of the dangers ahead. The difference is in how they take his warning into account. He tells them that as they climb the mountain to the Speaking Bird, they must not turn back, even though voices will taunt or frighten them. The brothers each climbed the hill, filled with over-confidence, and end up turning around only to be transformed into black stones. Periezade, however, has the practical foresight and self-knowledge to stuff her ears with cotton. Not only does she get the bird, but it tells her how to restore her brothers and all the other travelers to life with the magical Golden Water.
They return home with the treasures, and it so happens that the king encounters the brothers while they're hunting in the forest. They invite him to dinner. The Speaking Bird advises Periezade to serve a cucumber stuffed with pearls. Baffled, the king says that it makes no sense, and the Speaking Bird tells him that it makes just as much sense as a woman giving birth to animals. The Bird reveals the whole backstory, and the king embraces his long-lost children, sends the wicked sisters to be executed, and restores his queen to favor. (Even though I feel like a much more satisfying ending would be for her to take the kids and run far, far away.)
Periezade's story is an example of Aarne-Thompson Type 707, "The Bird of Truth" or "The Golden Sons." Another version does appear in the Arabian Nights, known as "The Tale of the Sultan and his Sons and the Enchanting Birds."
European versions are widespread. The persecuted wife accused of giving birth to animals, who is imprisoned but later restored to favor when her grown children return, is a very common motif that appears in all sorts of stories. Sometimes all of the children are boys. Sometimes it's twins, a boy and a girl, or a girl and several boys. Often, they are connected to stars or other celestial bodies, such as having a star on their foreheads. The blame on the queen in these stories hints that she indulged in bestiality to produce animal children, or she is responsible for bearing not a child but a molar pregnancy, disgracing her husband either way.
The old woman who tells Periezade about the treasures remains mysterious. In some versions, it’s actually the wicked aunts or one of their servants, trying to get rid of the children now that they know they’ve survived. It seems this element was lost or confused in the Galland version. In some other tales, though, the old woman is a benevolent figure.
Not all versions feature the quest for the magical objects, but the typical ending is that the king encounters the grown children - perhaps in the woods, perhaps at his own wedding to a second wife - and their story comes out, causing him to repent of his treatment to his wife.
The story has ancient roots. A similar tale appeared around 1190 in Johannes de Alta Silva's Dolopathos sive de Rege et Septem Sapientibus. A lord marries a fairylike maiden who gives birth to septuplets, six boys and a girl, each born wearing a gold chain. The jealous mother-in-law swaps the children for puppies, and the easily fooled husband punishes his wife by having her buried up to the neck in the middle of the woods. The children survive and grow up in the forest; each has the power to transform into a swan, but the mother-in-law discovers them and steals the boys’ golden chains, leaving them trapped in swan form. The sister escapes this fate and continues to take care of her brothers, and when the lord finds out, he has the chains returned to his sons and frees them. (One son, whose chain was damaged, is left as a swan.) This is closer to the tale type of the Swan-Children, but there are still familiar elements. The more modern versions of "The Wild Swans," like Hans Christian Andersen's story, have the sister imprisoned, persecuted and accused of murdering her own children. Perhaps not incidentally, at the end she saves her brothers and regains her children at the same time, and is finally able to speak and tell her husband her whole backstory.
The oldest known version of the Periezade variation is "Ancilotto, King of Provino," in The Facetious Nights of Straparola from the 1550s. The heroine is named Serena. This version has the quest as the villainous mother-in-law and aunts’ attempt to get rid of the children. The similarities in general are close enough that Galland might even have been directly influenced. Galland's contemporary, Madame D'Aulnoy, wrote her own version of the story as "Princess Belle-Etoile and the Prince Cheri."
Michael Drayton (1563-1631) was an English poet whose work varied from political to mythical. His poem "Nymphidia" was published in 1627, at the height of a new fad for tiny fairies started by his contemporary William Shakespeare. "Nymphidia" is also known by the title “The Court of Fairy” or in some later editions “The History of Queen Mab”. It has remained a classic of fairy literature ever since.
Drayton explains that he heard the story from a fairy named Nymphidia. He introduces Pigwiggen, a fairy knight who begins wooing Queen Mab - sending her a bracelet of ant's eyes and arranging to meet secretly with her inside a cowslip flower. However, Mab's husband King Oberon grows suspicious. He begins searching for Mab, attacking a wasp at one point when he mistakes it for Pigwiggen, and then generally just bumbling around until he meets Puck. Nymphidia overhears the king and Puck planning to catch Mab, and warns the queen in time for her to hide. Pigwiggen challenges Oberon to a duel for Mab's honor, donning a beetle-head helmet and riding on a mighty earwig. As the duel begins, Mab goes for help to the goddess Proserpina. Proserpina gives all of the men water from the river Lethe to drink, erasing their memory, so that the women are the only ones in the know. Everyone lives happily ever after.
The poem begins with references, each of which parallel "Nymphidia" in some way.
Old Chaucer doth of Topas tell,
Mad Rabelais of Pantagruel,
A later third of Dowsabel...
Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Sir Thopas,” from the Canterbury Tales (1387), is a parodic tale of a knight who woos a fairy queen - just like Pigwiggen with Mab.
Rabelais' novels, written in the 16th century, focus on the fantastical size of giant characters Gargantua and Pantagruel, often for humorous effect. For instance, a baby giant requires thousands of cows for milk. "Nymphidia" reverses this by going microscopic, but still plays with size by using familiar objects in unexpected ways.
Finally, the "later third" is Drayton himself. He wrote a poem called “The Ballad of Dowsabel” in The Shepherd’s Garland, published in 1593. He compared his hero to Sir Thopas there, too. Dowsabel (a variant of Dulcibella, from the Latin “dulcis” or “sweet”) became a generic name in English poetry for an ideal lady-love personifying beauty and purity.
Mab, Oberon and Puck/Hobgoblin
Here are some instantly recognizable characters. Oberon was a familiar fairy king, and comes with Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, although they appear as much more ridiculous figures here. However, Titania does not accompany them. Instead, Oberon is at odds with a different wife.
For Oberon's queen, Drayton used a different Shakespearean fairy - Mab, from Romeo and Juliet. Mab is a much tinier character than Titania, and more suited to the themes of Drayton's poem. Drayton was the first known author to pair Oberon and Mab as spouses, kicking off a tradition of using the two fairy queens interchangeably.
The fairytale character Tom Thumb makes an appearance as a page boy, and serves as Pigwiggen's squire. This was not the only occasion where Tom Thumb showed up in stories about fairies. In fact, it seems the character was instantly recognizable as a fairy name in 16th-and 17th-century England.
One that a valiant knight had been,
And to King Oberon of kin...
This was a surprising one. Drayton's fairy knight Tomalin shows up over a century before the traditional ballad of Tam Lin was recorded in the 1790s. Is there a connection?
Numerous ballads from this era featured characters with a name similar to Tam Lin. From 1549, The Complaynt of Scotland mentioned an unknown story titled "the tayl of the zong tamlene, and of the bald braband." Another song told of "Tom a lin and his wife, and his wiue's mother" falling into a river, and still another began "Tomy Linn is a Scotchman born."
Some authors have tried to group them all with the ballad of Tam Lin (see, for example, Burns 1903). However, all of the surviving works are so different that a connection seems faint. Tam Lin/Tommy Lin/Tomalin may have simply been a common male name. A shepherd named "Thomalin" appeared in Edmund Spenser's Shepheardes Calender (1579), and no one seems to have attempted to tie this character to the fairy Tam Lin. In some cases, such as the "zong tamlene," (young Tamlene? song Tamlene??), it's possible it's simply a similar-sounding word with no real connection.
Drayton’s Tomalin, however, stands out. This is the only work before the Tam Lin ballad where a Tomalin is described as a fairy knight.
Proserpina, the classical goddess, appears along with the River Lethe. Drayton imitates Chaucer again in associating the classical gods of the underworld, Pluto and Proserpine, with the fairies.
Fly Cranion is Mab’s charioteer. Shakespeare gave a famous description of Mab’s coach, made of a hazelnut and driven by a "gray-coated gnat," with atomies (tiny mites) for horses. The wagon spokes are made of spiders' legs, with the wagon's cover made of grasshopper wings, the harness of spiderwebs, the collars or moonbeams, and her whip is made from a cricket's bone.
Drayton gives his own spin on this passage. Some elements are the same, but swapped around, and the coach has a more colorful effect. His Mab rides in a snailshell, decorated with bee fuzz and butterfly-wings, with wheels made of cricket bones. The horses are gnats harnessed with gossamer. Mab’s maids, left behind in the rush, wrap themselves in a cobweb veil and ride after her on a grasshopper.
The coachman is probably an insect rather than a fairy if Drayton is following Shakespeare’s lead. Cranion has been translated as "spider," but also - based on the Nymphidia passage - as “fly.” A writer for the Folk-Lore Journal in 1885 suggested that the character was meant to be the Daddy Longlegs or Crane fly, which makes perfect sense to me, although the writer also thought this might be too big for Mab’s coach. Flies were sometimes known as witches’ familiars.
Hop, and Mop, and Drop so cleare,
Pip, and Trip, and Skip that were,
To Mab their Soveraigne ever deare:
Her speciall Maydes of Honour;
Fib, and Tib, and Pinck, and Pin,
Tick, and Quick, and Jill, and Jin,
Tit, and Nit, and Wap, and Win,
The Trayne that wayte upon her.
Jabez Allies, writing in 1846, tried to connect some of these nonsensical fairy names to old English location names, such as a "Pin's Hill" - the idea being that these were traditional characters who had inspired the names of local land formations. Samuel Lysons in 1865 tried to do something similar, tying the names to ancient myth - Nit must be connected to Gwyn ap Nudd, Tit is Teutates, and Pip is the Phrygian supreme god Attis-Papas. (Our British Ancestors, p. 156) I am not entirely sure whether either of these writers were joking. These are apparently examples of an antiquarian/folkloric movement for a while in the 1800s which drew connections based on how names sounded, rather than function or background.
It's more likely that Drayton's litany of fairies was simply a little light creative fun. The eighteen monosyllabic nonsense names echo Mab in their style. There are some generic nouns. Hop, Trip, Skip, and Quick’s names all suggest playful movement. In the play The Maid's Metamorphosis from 1600, the fairies repeatedly sing of tripping or skipping ("When a dew-drop falleth down, And doth light upon my crown. Then I shake my head and skip, And about I trip."). The fae were frequently described in Drayton’s work and elsewhere as “tripping” or dancing - see the blog British Fairies’ post here.
“Pink and Pin” might suggest the fairy act of pinching humans. Tib, Jill and Jin could be real girls’ names. Tit might be the same word meaning “small” that appears in the bird name tomtit - see also the fairy name “Tom Tit Tot.” A nit is a louse's egg. Katharine Briggs suggested in An Encyclopedia of Fairies that Wap and Win's names might have a sexual meaning, comparing them to Dekker's O Per Se O - "If she won’t wap for a winne, let her trine for a make" ("If she will not lie with a man for a penny, let her hang for a halfpenny.")
Overall, the list of names isn’t really meant to be taken seriously, but there are some interesting connections.
This rhyming style was popular, and similar lists showed up in other works of the time. One was a booklet printed in 1628 - "Robin Goodfellow: his mad prankes, and merry Jests, full of honest mirth, and is a fit medicine for melancholy." Here, Oberon's courtiers are "Patch and Pinch, Grim and Gull," "Tib and Sib, Licke and Lull." 1628 is the date of printing and it's been suggested that the poem is actually older, but there's no way to know for sure. (Take note of Tib - and also note that this is another work where Oberon, Puck and Tom Thumb all feature in the fairy court.)
Drayton's contemporary, Robert Herrick, produced "The Fairy Temple or Oberon's Chapel". Here, the names are designed not just for rhythm but for some contorted rhymes.
Saint Tit, Saint Nit, Saint Is, Saint Itis,
Who 'gainst Mab's-state placed here right is...
Saint Frip, Saint Trip, Saint Fill, Saint Fillie,
Neither those other saintships will I...
It's even been suggested that the Nymphidia fairies influenced Clement Clark Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" with its list of Santa's reindeer.
Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen! (Jones 1954)
As Drayton explains in his framing device, Nymphidia is the narrator of the poem. She is a powerful sorceress in her own right, and takes a quick and capable hand in the doings of the fairy monarchy. Oberon has Puck to be his right-hand man, and Mab has Nymphidia.
According to Plutarch and some other writers, a woman named Nymphidia was the mother of a prefect named Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus who served under Emperor Nero. This Nymphidia, according to some sources, was a courtesan. The name derives from "nymph," which comes originally from the Greek word for "bride" and came to refer to beautiful female nature spirits.
Nymphs frequently played a role in Drayton’s poetry. Nymphidia was not his only unique spin on the word, as he described “nymphets sporting” in Poly-Olbion (1612), and divided his poem "The Muses' Elysium" (1630) into ten sections labeled "Nymphalls."
In modern science, the name “nymph” is also associated with insects. The larvae of some species, such as dragonflies, are called nymphs. One family of butterflies is known as Nymphalidae (a name introduced in the 19th century), and one Asian butterfly is known as the Stiboges nymphidia. It seems possible that the poem influenced that last one. Although the butterfly associations came later, they are very appropriate to Drayton's poem.
Pigwiggen, our Sir Thopas figure, is also a new one. (Or Pigwiggin, depending on edition and spelling.) The name suggests pygmy - originally from a Greek word referring to the measure of length from wrist to elbow. There's also pixie, pronounced pigsie in some dialects, although I don't think pixies had truly gained popularity in fairy literature at that point. This poem remains the most famous use of the name - but Drayton wasn't the first to use it.
A 1594 play featured the line "Now will I be as stately to them as if I were maister Pigwiggen our constable." So the name was around before "Nymphidia," although it really picked up afterwards, referring to anything tiny and contemptible. (Mysteriously, pigwiggan or peggy wiggan is also supposed to be a word for a somersault.)
As time went on, the variant "pigwidgeon" became popular. George Powell's play "A Very Good Wife" (1693) uses the word "Pigwidgeon" to refer to someone's lady-love. More often, the word referred to a small, petty creature. As a fantasy race of little gnomes, pigwidgeons featured in some 19th- and early 20th-century literature. For instance, they were gruesome goblins in the 1912 children's book Trystie's Quest, or, Kit, King of the Pigwidgeons.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it's unclear how the split happened and whether the word initially sounded like widgin or wiggin. However, the OED leans towards wiggin.
A form of the word appeared in Nashe's Have with you to Saffron-Walden (1596), in a reference to a man's "Piggen de wiggen or gentlewoman."
According to the English Dialect Dictionary, piggin-riggin is an Irish term for "a half-grown boy or girl." However, the quote given in the Dictionary is "The eight or ten childer were what we call 'piggin riggins', too old for a dumly and too young for bacon." Searching out the source, Barrington's Personal Sketches of His Own Times, this description is referring to piglets, not to human children.
18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke was criticized for referring to lower-class people as a "swinish multitude." Burke later tried to defend himself, saying that he was talking about the French revolutionaries - "I never dreamt of our poor little English piggen-riggen, who go about squeaking and grunting quite innocently; my thoughts were on the wild boar of the Gallic forest."
Very similar is a Cornish term, piggy-whidden or piggy-wiggy for the runt of a litter of piglets, which was also known as a term of endearment (Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable). It has been interpreted as meaning "white pig," from "gwyn" or white, but this may be a false etymology.
Both "piggin-riggin" and "piggy-whidden" are probably just variants on the rhyming baby-talk "piggy-wiggy." This term for a piglet was common throughout the 19th century.
Pigsney is a term for a sweetheart meaning literally "pig's eye." It appeared as "piggesnye" in The Canterbury Tales (1380s-1390s). The word could apply to men, but was generally feminine.
Emma Wilby suggested that Pigwiggen could be connected to the name of one 16th-century witch familiar, Piggin ("The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England"). "Piggin" is actually a word for a small wooden pail.
I learned recently that Drayton may not have been the first person to mention a fairy Pigwiggen after all. "The Masque of the Twelve Months" was a fragmented script printed by John Payne Collier in 1848, with no author's name. Although some critics suggested that it was a forgery, others have argued for it being genuine. The play begins with a dialogue between an owl, "Madge Howlet," and a fairy lady, Piggwiggin.
"Lady Piggwiggin, th' only snoutfaire of the fairies. A my word, hadst thou not spoken like a maid, I had snatcht thee up for a mouse."
In the 1950s, it was suggested that the author was George Chapman. Critics such as E. K. Chambers in 1923, Kenneth Muir in 1950, Margaret Dean-Smith in 1951, and Martin Butler in 2007 have dated the masque in a range of years from 1608 to 1619. Most lean earlier, around 1611-1613. Any of these prospective dates would mean that Pigwiggen was a fairy name before the writing of "Nymphidia," and Drayton did not originate it. Not only that, but it was a feminine name! This would fit with "Piggen de wiggen," "Pigwidgeon," and "pigsnye" being used for a female sweetheart. This may have been an additional layer of satire to the poem. For his parody of courtly love and royal affairs, Drayton gave the Lancelot-like knight a unisex/feminine name meaning "sweetheart," possibly a pet name based on piglets.
Other Blog Posts
So far, in examining the history of Rapunzel, we have seen two very different endings to the Maiden in the Tower tale.
In the literary La Force/Grimm ending, Persinette/Rapunzel's hair is cut, the prince falls from the tower and goes blind, and they reunite later in the wilderness where her tears cure his blindness.
But in the older and more widespread ending, derived from oral tradition, the boy and girl flee from an ogre's chase in a "magical flight" where they use enchanted tools to evade the monster. Rapunzel is Aarne–Thompson Type 310, "The Maiden in the Tower." The oldest known Rapunzel, "Petrosinella," fits this, but is also close to Type 313, "The Girl Helps the Hero Flee." Type 313 tends to feature tough, clever heroines who use magic to get their boyfriends out of trouble and run circles around the villain. Italian Rapunzels - or more properly, Parsleys - are clever and magically powerful.
Although Basile's version is a literary tale, there are many examples of the tale in collected Italian folklore. "Snow-White-Fire-Red," recorded in 1885, overlaps with AT 408, "The Three Oranges," with its strikingly colored heroine, the prince on a hopeless search for her, and their separation when he forgets her. It lacks the significant Rapunzel "garden scene" of stolen vegetables. However, it still has the the tower, the ogress, the hair-ladder, and the heroine's use of magic to escape with her prince. In the end, the ogress curses the prince with amnesia, and Snow-White-Fire-Red has to get him to remember her. There is a Greek version titled "Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa" (Anthousa the Fair with Golden Hair).
Some stories feature the "garden scene" beginning of Rapunzel, but are actually different tale types. Italo Calvino, in his Italian Folktales (1956), includes "Prezzemolina" (meaning, again, Little Parsley). There is no hair or tower, but instead a parsley-loving girl forced to serve a witch until her magician boyfriend rescues her. Variants on this are Prunella (Plum) and Fragolette (Strawberry).
"The Old Woman of the Garden" has the same opening, but there is no prince at all. Instead, the girl shoves the witch into her own oven and goes home to her mother.
In Italian versions, the ogress is dangerous and powerful, but the girl is powerful too. By contrast, French versions make the heroine and hero totally defenseless before the fairy's or ogress's might.
La Force may have created an original ending to the tale, but the touch of tragedy ties in with oral French equivalents. The heroes are passive, with Persinette's only ability being her healing tears; the fairy wields all the power, and they get their happy ending when she feels sorry for them. "Persinette" is actually an exception from some French relatives in that it ends so happily!
Revue des traditions populaires, vol. 6 (1891) featured a French version called Parsillette (you guessed it - Little Parsley). This tale has so many similarities to Persinette that it may have been influenced by it, except for the addition of a talking parrot who betrays Parsillette's secret. Except that in the end, Parsillette is struck with ugliness by her godmother's curse. She hurries back to beg her godmother's forgiveness and plead for her beauty back, seemingly unconcerned that her boyfriend has dropped dead. It ends abruptly: "Later Parsillette married a very wealthy prince, and she never knew her parents."
"The Godchild of the Fairy in the Tower" is another strange one, very short, and apparently influenced by literary versions of the story. A talking dog, rather than a parrot, betrays the secret. At the godmother's curse, the unnamed golden-haired girl becomes a frog, and the prince grows a pig's snout. The End. I'm not making this up.
You could trace tragic endings as far back as the Greek myth of Hero and Leander, where the hero drowns trying to swim to his lover's tower prison, and she then commits suicide. Or there's the third-century legend of Saint Barbara, where the tower-dwelling heroine discovers Christianity (making Christ, in a way, her prince) and becomes a martyr at her father's hands.
However, the odd little tale of "The Godchild" reminds me of another tale, where a Rapunzel-like character ends up in a tale similar to the Frog Prince.
This is a German tale, "Das Mährchen von der Padde" (Tale of the Toad), adapted by Andrew Lang as "Puddocky." A poor woman has a daughter who will only eat parsley, and who receives the name "Petersilie" as a result. In the German version, Petersilie's parsley is stolen from a nearby convent garden. The abbess there does nothing until three princes see the girl brushing her "long, wonderful hair," and get into a brawl over her right there in the street. At that point, the infuriated abbess wishes that Petersilie would become an ugly toad at the other end of the world. (Interestingly, Laura J. Getty points out several traditional versions of the Maiden in the Tower where the girl's caretaker figure is a nun.)
In Lang's version, instead of an abbess there's a witch who takes Parsley into her home. Lang also specifies that Parsley's hair is black.
From there, in both versions the enchanted toad breaks her curse by aiding the youngest prince in his quest for some enchanted objects. She becomes human again and they marry. It's an example of the Animal Bride tale, albeit with a beginning reminiscent of Rapunzel - a similarity which Lang enhanced by turning the abbess neighbor into a witch foster mother.
"Blond Beauty" is a very short French version which, like Parsillette, has a parrot reveal the girl's affair.
There's also a much longer and more elaborate literary version from France:
The White Cat
A tragic Rapunzel tale is embedded in Madame D'Aulnoy's literary tale of the White Cat, another Animal Bride tale, published in 1697 - the same year as "Persinette," by an author from the same circle.
Late in the story, after the magical quest and curse-breaking parts are over, the heroine explains how she came to be cursed. Her mother ate fruit from the garden of the fairies, and agreed to let the fairies raise her daughter in exchange. The fairies built an elaborate tower for the heroine, which could only be accessed by their flying dragon. For company, the heroine had a talking dog and parrot. One day, however, a young king passed by, and she fell in love with him. She convinced one of the fairies to bring her twine and secretly constructed a rope ladder. When the king climbed up to her, the fairies caught him in her room. Their dragon devoured the king, and the fairies transformed the princess into a white cat. She could only be freed by a man who looked exactly like her dead lover.
Rapunzel as a "Beauty and the Beast" Tale
"Puddocky" and "The White Cat" focus more on the animal transformation than on the "Maiden in the Tower" elements. They keep Rapunzel's "garden scene," but the main plot is of a prince encountering a cursed maiden in a gender-flipped Beauty and the Beast tale. Not all "Animal Bride" tales (AT type 402) have this overlap with Rapunzel, but quite a few Rapunzel tales feature the maiden losing her beauty in some way.
Laura G. Getty mentions other versions which start out like Petrosinella, with the flight from the ogress, but which then feature an additional ending where the ogress curses the girl to have an animal's face. They have to convince the ogress to take back the curse before a marriage can take place. An Italian example is "The Fair Angiola," cursed to have the face of a dog.
The Complete Rapunzel
Put everything together from all the versions, and a much more elaborate version of Rapunzel emerges:
Take out a few scenes here or there, and you can get all sorts of combinations. Delete the animal transformation and separation and you've got the Italian Petrosinella. Focus on the transformation and leave out the magical flight, and you have the German Puddocky. Remove the happy ending and you have "The Godchild of the Fairy in the Tower." Keep it all together and you have, more or less, "Fair Angiola."
Even with La Force's unique creative twists, I was surprised to see how much Persinette matched up with other tales. The temporary loss of her prince and exile in the wilderness is a common trial.
The fairy cutting Persinette's glorious hair is parallel to the traumatic transformation in other stories. In versions like “Parsillette" or “The Fairy-Queen Godmother,” the fairy is the source of the heroine’s wondrous beauty and removes it when the heroine runs away. Persinette’s godmother also bestows beauty (including presumably her unique hair) at her baptism. When she cuts off Persinette's hair, she is removing her goddaughter's special privileges and gifts. This is accompanied by a change in location: instead of a bejewelled silver tower, Persinette now lives in an even more isolated house. This dynamic is quite different from laying a curse of animal transformation. However, the implications are lost in the Grimms' retelling.
I find it interesting that there are many versions where the girl isn't just transformed, but where she needs to heal (or perhaps resurrect?) the prince. Persinette cures her prince's blindness. Snow-White-Fire-Red and Anthousa fix their princes' amnesia. The White Cat and Parsillette replace their dead princes with suspiciously similar doppelgangers. If "The Godchild of the Fairy in the Tower" continued, one presumes that the heroine would need to not only break her own curse but cure her prince of his pig snout.
In all this, the witch-mother is a mysterious and morally grey character. Angiola's witch is a generous guardian who releases her from her curse, but is also a predatory figure (biting a piece from Angiola's finger at one point). The White Cat's fairy guardians are more malicious, pampering her but also being demanding and violent. Often the witch is merely a force to be evaded or killed. But also fairly frequently - as seen in Angiola, Blond Beauty, The Fairy-Queen Godmother, and Persinette - she does fully reconcile with the heroine and release her from her curse. In "Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa," rather than cursing the prince, the ogress warns Anthousa that he'll forget her and gives her the instructions to win him back.
Rapunzel is, at its core, a tale of an overprotective parent hiding away a maturing daughter so that she won’t encounter men. Some versions make her female guardian a nun - reminiscent of young noblewomen being sent to a convent to guard their virginity until they were of age to marry. Elements of desire and lust show through in the early garden scene, with the suggestive elements of the pregnant woman’s unstoppable cravings for parsley (an herb accompanied by erotic symbolism). In the story of Puddocky, the girl herself is the one obsessed with the food. The idea of forbidden fruit in a garden leading to sin is as old as the story of Adam and Eve. This beginning sets up the path of sexual temptation which Parsley is locked away to avoid, but her very name hearkens back to it.
Although the heroine typically ends up married despite her parent-guardian’s best efforts, she must endure trials before finally marrying her lover. These trials are directly related to her disapproving guardians, who did not bless the marriage. The emphasis on family approval is evident even in the early tale of Rudaba. In the case of Parsillette, she leaves her boyfriend, begs her godmother to take her back, and submits to an arranged marriage, restoring her to societal status quo. Less exciting, but possibly more realistic. And in "The Godchild," both lovers are simply out of luck.
La Force gave Persinette the happy ending found in Mediterranean versions, and a reconciliation with the parental figure more common in French versions. But she did so while explicitly showing that the fairy was trying to protect Persinette from a bad fate, apparently out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Other writers nodded to Parsley’s activities with the prince – Basile had the prince visit Petrosinella at night to eat "that sweet parsley sauce of love," a line that gets removed in a lot of versions. But La Force, uniquely, had that relationship lead to the natural result: pregnancy.
The Rapunzel tale type could be a romantic story of a girl escaping her strict family and running away with the boy she loves. However, the additional ending served as an extra cautionary fable for young noblewomen of the time, in a patriarchal society where they had little power. The story doesn't end with running away together and enjoying the "parsley sauce of love." The heroine has squandered the wealth and gifts of her family. She's no longer a virgin. Maybe she's even pregnant. What if she loses her beauty? What else can she offer as a bride? The boy is the one with power in the relationship; what if he forgets her and plans to marry someone else? She may have to fight for him. She may end up alone in poverty. But quite a few stories serve as reminders that her family may still be open to reaccepting her. Even with the eventual happy ending, in the era the stories were told, a young noblewoman who made the same choices as Parsley would undergo significant hardships.
The Brothers Grimm's Rapunzel is actually a rather unusual tale. It's an example of the tale type called "The Maiden in the Tower," but it's far removed from its roots among oral folktales, marked by the creative additions of a French author.
Worldwide, the image of a virginal young woman trapped in a tower has been persistent for millennia. Graham Anderson, in Fairytales in the Ancient World, attempts to tie Rapunzel to a fragmentary Egyptian story called "The Doomed Prince," in which a prince accesses his beloved's tower by jumping (pp. 121-122). Rapunzel has also been compared to the legends of Hero and Leander, or Saint Barbara.
There's a clearer ancestress in the Persian epic Shahmaneh, written around 1000 AD. This work features a woman named Rudaba (River Water Girl), locked in a tower by her father. Despite this barrier, she falls in love with a man named Zal. In a very sweet scene, she offers Zal her long hair: "Come, take these black locks which I let down for you, and use them to climb up to me." But he says in horror that he doesn't want to hurt her, and instead obtains a real rope. They eventually convince their families to let them marry, and their son becomes a great hero.
Are later versions an exaggeration of Rudaba's invitation to let someone climb her hair? Or was the writer playing on an oral tale where a man did climb a woman's hair, by pointing out that it would be painful? Either way, the scene suggests a seed of the story that would one day become Rapunzel.
"Petrosinella" is usually cited as the oldest known tale identifiable as a Rapunzel type. This was an Italian literary tale published in 1634 by Giambattista Basile. It all begins when a pregnant woman named Pascadozzia sees "a beautiful bed of parsley" in an ogress's garden. Overcome with ravenous hunger, she waits until the ogress is away and then breaks in to steal some of it - multiple times. The ogress threatens her with death unless she hands over her child. The child, Petrosinella (Little Parsley) actually reaches seven years old before before the ogress nabs her and takes her to a distant tower. This tower is accessible only by climbing Parsley's long tresses of golden hair. A prince finds her, they fall in love . . . and then Petrosinella takes complete charge of the story. She steals three magical gall-nuts from the ogress and runs away with the prince. The ogress pursues them, but Petrosinella throws the nuts onto the ground, where they become a dog, a lion, and a wolf who delay the ogress and finally gobble her up. Petrosinella and her prince live happily ever after.
I remember finding Rapunzel a rather pathetic figure when I read the story as a child. She just sat in her tower, unable to figure out how to escape when it was most important. Why didn't she find a rope, or cut her hair and use that? Where was this Rapunzel, flinging magical nuts and summoning monsters?
More than fifty years after Basile, the next step appeared, and the story changed.
The French aristocrat Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force was among other women writing literary fairytales in the 17th centuries. They took inspiration from oral folktales, but put their own spins on them and used them to comment on their society at the time. La Force's story "Persinette" was published in 1697 in a book titled Les Contes des Contes.
Persinette is derived from the French word "persil," meaning Parsley . . . so, "Little Parsley." It begins in a manner very similar to Petrosinella, but then sets out on its own path.
For one thing, rather than a pregnant woman alone, de la Force gives us a couple expecting a child. It is the father, not the mother, who goes stealing parsley on his wife's behalf, and he's the one who's caught by the fairy owner of the garden. Instead of threatening him with death, the fairy offers him all the parsley he wishes if he will hand over his unborn child. The man agrees. The fairy acts as godmother, names the child and swaddles her in golden clothing, and sprinkles her with water that makes her the most beautiful creature alive. However, the fairy knows Persinette's fate and is determined to avoid it, so when the girl turns twelve the fairy hides her in a bejewelled silver tower filled with every luxury imaginable. When the fairy visits, she does so by climbing up Persinette's conveniently tower-length blonde hair.
The story is exactly what you may remember: a prince hears Persinette singing and falls in love with her, eventually copies the fairy to climb up to the tower via hair, and their romance leads to pregnancy. The fairy is furious that her attempts to safeguard Persinette have been flaunted by Persinette herself. She cuts off Persinette's hair and sends her to a comfortable but isolated home deep in the wilderness. When the prince discovers his love gone and hears the fairy's taunts, he throws himself off the tower in despair. He doesn't die, but loses his sight. He wanders for years, until one day he happens on the house where Persinette lives with her young twin children. When Persinette's tears fall on his eyes, he regains his sight. However, the happy family realizes that the food around them (previously provided by the fairy) now turns into rocks or venomous toads when they try to eat, and they will surely starve. Despite this, Persinette and the prince affirm their love for one another. At this point the fairy takes pity on them, and carries them in a golden chariot to the prince's kingdom, where they receive a hero's welcome.
It's a clear descendant of older tales. The beginning is that of Petrosinella. The maiden hidden in a tower to keep her from men, who becomes pregnant anyway and is cast out by her parent, also features in the Greek myth of Danae.
But many of the most striking details - Rapunzel's forced haircut, the prince's blindness, the twin babies, and the healing tears - are all original creations by La Force. Our modern Rapunzel comes directly from her unique original fairytale.
German translations of Persinette
In 1790, a century later, Friedrich Schulz published a German translation of Persinette in his book Kleine Romane. It's not clear exactly how he encountered it, but it is very clearly a translation of La Force's story. His most significant contribution was to change the heroine's name. Rather than translating it to Petersilchen, the German equivalent of "Little Parsley," he replaced the coveted parsley with the salad green rapunzeln. The girl's name thus became Rapunzel.
Then along came the Grimms. Although their goal was supposedly to collect the oral tales of Germany, their sources were typically middle-class families who'd read plenty of French fairytales. They ended up removing some of their stories upon realizing that they were clearly French literary tales (anyone heard of "Okerlo"?). But some stories stuck around which modern scholars now believe were not German in origin at all.
The Grimms' first version of Rapunzel, in 1812, was very short and simple, almost terse. However, it reads like a summary of Schulz, including his unique use of the name "Rapunzel," indicating that their source was someone who had read Schulz's "Rapunzel" and was retelling it. The Grimms were aware of Schulz, mentioning him in their notes, but believed he was writing "undoubtedly from oral tradition." They do not seem to have been aware of the French tale at all.
The most important change that the Grimms made was removing all sympathy from the fairy godmother's character. No longer was Rapunzel's tower a silver palace filled with delights; it was just a tower. They left out the ending with the reconciliation between Rapunzel and her godmother. Starting in 1819, as the Grimms edited the story with more descriptions and deleted ideas that were too French, they changed the fairy to a sorceress known as Frau Gothel. (Gothel is a German dialect word for "godmother.") Over later editions, she became an old witch. They edited her into something more similar to the ogress of the older Italian tale.
They also toned down the story for children, removing references to unwed pregnancy. Rather than Rapunzel's pregnancy betraying her affair, she becomes dangerously stupid, blurting out that her godmother is much heavier than the prince. By the end she is mysteriously accompanied by her twin children, but nobody brings up pregnancy or scandalous unchaperoned visits.
You can read D. L. Ashliman's comparison of the Grimms' first and final versions of Rapunzel here.
Rapunzel is a German author's translation of a French literary tale. Analyses should take into account how different Rapunzel is from its oral ancestors. I found it interesting that while the heroine's name can vary, the most common version by far is "Parsley."
Perhaps elements of the La Force story did enter oral folklore. In their notes, the Grimms briefly mentioned a Rapunzel-like tale which began similarly to Bluebeard. A girl lived with a witch who gave her the keys but forbade her to enter one room. The girl peeked in anyway and saw the witch with two huge horns on her head. The angry witch locked the girl in a tower, accessible only by the girl's long hair, and the rest of the tale proceeded like Rapunzel. This version was summarized in their notes for The Lord Godfather (link in German). In some notes, this story seems to have become confused and attached to Friedrich Schulz’s Rapunzel, but I haven’t found any evidence that it appears in Schulz; his version of Rapunzel is identical to La Force’s Persinette.
Personally, I was inspired to look into Persinette when I stumbled upon a claim on Tumblr that La Force's 17th-century story featured a heroine with psionic hair that she could use as extra arms or wings, and who was raised by a fairy named Gothelle. Frankly, this sounded ridiculously anachronistic. For one thing, "Gothelle" is just a faux-French spelling of the German word Gothel. Yet I found people reblogging it as if it was a fact. In truth, this description is from a modern retelling of Persinette in the webcomic "Emerald Blues."
The fact that people latched onto it shows an element of wishful thinking. Modern readers want a more active heroine who could be a match for any fairy or witch. But in fact, there actually is an older Rapunzel who is an active heroine and a sorceress in her own right: Petrosinella. There's also the real Persinette, with its positive portrayal of female relationships, and a strict fairy godmother who is ultimately loving and benevolent. And there's the Persian heroine Rudaba, whose story sensibly points out over a thousand years ago that using someone's hair as a ladder might be painful. There are fairytales containing sexism and passive heroines, but just as often there are tales of brave, clever and magical women.
Next time: some alternate endings to the Rapunzel story. Did you know that some versions keep going and become a gender-flipped version of Beauty and the Beast?
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.