The Water-Horse of Barra
"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.
Cinderella: One Night or Three?
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, referring to a small, petty creature, or a term of affection. 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?
The King with Six Friends
This was one of my favorite fairytale books as a child. I still have my copy, although it's fraying and the spine is taped together. The illustrations have a dreamy, misty feel.
It follows a king who has lost his throne and crown, who goes out to wander the world. He encounters other travelers, who each have strange gifts. One can turn into an elephant, another into fire, and so on. They reach a kingdom where the king is offering his daughter's hand in marriage, but there are tests to complete. With the help of his extraordinary friends (the fire-man, for instance, devours an impossibly large feast), the lost king passes the tests and gains the princess's hand.
This is ATU Type 513A, a widespread tale. The Grimms published one called "The Six Servants." It's fun particularly for the image of what would, in modern terms, be a team of superheroes.
One fascinating early example is the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, possibly dated to around the 11th or 12th century. This is also one of the first existing stories connected with King Arthur.
Culhwch's stepmother curses him so that the only woman he can marry is Olwen, beautiful daughter of a giant named Ysbaddaden. (This scene, with Olwen described as snowy and rosy-red, falls in with many stories where a prince seeks a bride as white as snow. Her ogre-like father needs his heavy eyebrows lifted up so he can see - another trope from those stories.)
However, as it continues, Culhwch goes to his relative King Arthur for help. Because, of course, Ysbaddaden requires that several impossible tasks be completed before his daughter can marry anyone. This version abounds with mystical powers, so that Arthur's warriors resemble superheroes more than anything else. Cei (known better today as Sir Kay) can generate heat. A Welsh god, Gwyn ap Nudd, is among their number. The court list is prodigious. I do find it interesting that Arthur initially sends six of his warriors to scout things out when he hears of Culhwch's quest. Cei (who as mentioned is super hot), Bedwyr (who sheds blood faster than any other fighter), Kynddelig (an extraordinary guide), Gwrhyr (who knows all tongues), Gwalchmai (or Gawain, who always achieves his goals), and Menw (who can cast illusions and shapeshift into a bird).
This is also the Greek myth of Jason and Medea. Jason captains the Argo, a ship crewed by gifted heroes and demigods. Medea is the villain's daughter who works magic and helps her lover flee.
The King with Six Friends has an addition that is my favorite conclusion to this kind of tale. One might wonder why his friends don't get the kingdom and the princess, since they did all the work. And this is brought up in the text! But one of the friends responds, "He did what only a good king can do . . . He led us."
"The Name of the Helper" is the title assigned to the Aarne-Thompson type 500 family of fairytales. The main character is usually a young woman, confronted with an impossible task of spinning. She must produce a ridiculous amount of thread, or even spin it into gold. There’s no way for her to do it, until she receives otherworldly help from a strange being. However, she must now guess this creature’s name (hence the title of the tale type). Rumpelstiltskin is the most famous example, but there are many others, usually nonsense names, perhaps with a rhyme or repetitive rhythm. In Celtic countries, the helper’s name nearly always includes the syllable “tot” or “trot.” I have a theory on where this syllable came from, but first, the list:
Habetrot is interesting in that she has a whole group of associates, one of whom has the name Scantlie Mab (harkening to Queen Mab). There's a possibly connection from Habetrot to Holle, Perchta and other European goddesses associated with spinning. This goddess, who appears in many variants with hundreds of names, can be benevolent or fearsome. She usually travels at night with a group of attendants, entering houses where offerings of food should be waiting. She might be a tutelary guardian who helps women spin, or a bogeywoman who punishes them for spinning on the wrong day. The very word "fairy" might be tied to "fata" or "fate," beings in mythology who spun the thread of life.
In French, a related character bore the name Dame Abonde or Lady Habundia, meaning "abundance." She and her attendants, the good ladies, entered houses at night.
Follow this, and a character like Habetrot must be a deity associated with textiles, who leads a group of otherworldly ladies, and watches over young women.
However, the majority of the Tot/Trot family is male. They cannot be tutelary goddesses. They also tend to be malevolent. Habetrot's name may be a later addition to the Habetrot story, which is less related to Rumpelstiltskin and instead belongs to the family of "The Three Aunts" (Norway) and "The Three Spinning Women" (Germany). In these stories, rather than any baby-stealing plot, several strange-looking but kind old women (three of them, just like the Fates in Greek myth) help the heroine attain a happy marriage and a leisurely life. They ask nothing in return for their help, and remain unnamed, as there is no need to find out their names. There is a scene where the girl overhears Habetrot's name, but it's really not important to the story. Incidentally, "Habetrot" resembles "Habundia" with the "trot" sound added on, and both are benevolent fairy ladies who lead a train of followers.
Plenty of people have already looked at the "tot/trot" family. W. B. Yeats' "Even Trot" (who, like Habetrot, is benevolent) gives a very literal and moralizing translation: "Go steadily along, but let your step be even; stop little; keep always advancing; and you'll never have cause to rue the day that you first saw Even Trot."
Sir John Rhys, inspecting Welsh variants, connected Sili go Dwyt to seily or seely - happy or blessed - connected with the Seelie Court or seely wights, old fairy names. Although "go Dwyt" could literally mean tidy, Rhys suggests that the dwt came from twt or tot. Although Trwtyn-Tratyn is a masculine name, Rhys finds the word trwtan or trwdlan to mean a deformed serving maid. From Gwarwyn-a-throt, he translated gwarwyn as "white-necked" and throt as connected to trot. Trot and twt, says Rhys, are not native Welsh words - but I don't think he offers any real theory on what they do mean.
R. Morton Nance did have at theory. Based on Mollyndroat possibly meaning a druid's servant, Nance suggested that the Icelandic Gillitrut means "druid's gillie" (a ghillie being a servant). So a droat, trot or trut is a druid.
I would take a different approach. Going back to England, the Denham Tracts list of monsters and bogeys includes two intriguing names: gally-trots and tutgots.
A gally-trot is a frightening apparition in Suffolk folklore. Edward Moor wrote that it was an apparition known in Woodbridge, which sometimes appeared as a white dog as big as a bullock, and chased people. It especially haunted a place called Bathslough. Moor declares that he "can make nothing of the name; nor much of the story." (Suffolk Words and Phrases, 1823). "Gally" means to scare or worry (hence the word gally-beggar, or scarecrow). The “trot” part is less clear – perhaps because it runs at people. One English bogey-spirit of the “black dog” family is called Padfoot for the sound of its walk, so maybe this is a common idea.
Could there be a connection from the gally-trot to Gilitrutt?
As for tutgots: Tut-gut, along with tut and tom-tit, were Lincolnshire words for a hobgoblin. Tutgot may be interpreted as tut-gotten, or taken away by the fairies and goblins. (Brogden, Provincial Words and Expressions current in Lincolnshire.) (So if a tom-tit is a goblin, is Tom Tit Tot literally named "Goblin" by this reckoning? That seems a bit on-the-nose for a story about an impossible guessing game.)
The English Dialect Dictionary quotes a story where a man was spooked on the road by a glimpse of something white, and remarked, "I thowt I'd happened of a tut" - or, "I thought I'd run into a tut." Pishey Thompson, in The History and Antiquities of Boston, mentions a "hobgoblin, or sprite" known as the "Spittal Hill tut" who took the form of a horse, and would harass and chase away anyone who passed by Spittal Hill. It might have been the site of a murder, or maybe the creature was guarding treasure.
So then, a tut or trot is a bogey-beast, a white apparition which takes animal form and chases people. In the case of both the gally-trot and the Spittal Hill tut, there is a particular place which it likes to haunt. The Spittal Hill tut in particular lives at a hill where either a body or treasure could be buried, like a burial mound.
You might say that the Rumpelstiltskin fairy also has a particular haunt; the hero must find out the name by following the fairy back to his or her home, usually out in a forsaken wild place and often subterranean. Habetrot lives in a cavern and Titty Tod beneath a fairy mound. Was the tut or the trot a hobgoblin which inspired these characters?
Is this a fairy name with a forgotten root? Where does the shared ancestor lie in all these names? Two suggestions appear to me.
One is that it is derived from "tot," a word for a little child, which may come from Scottish. Maybe it is related to the Icelandic word tottr, or dwarf. Compare also the Danish name Tommeltot, used for the Danish thumbling. (In England, Tom Thumb and the possibly related Tom Tumbler appear as monsters in Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), and Tom Thumb in his earliest appearances is associated with fairyish and demonic traits.)
Tom Tit Tot is close to the bird name tomtit, which itself is a shortened version of "tom titmouse." One sense of the word "tit," like "tot," is used for anything small, and is a common name for small birds. So then, perhaps, Tom Tit Tot means Tom Little Little. The character in question is "a small little black thing with a long tail." That would fit, as would the frequent description of Rumpelstiltskin characters as little men and little women.
But in some cases, like Mollyndroat's, the Rumpelstiltskin figure is a giant. That doesn't fit.
Maybe trot is the way to go instead. "Totter" also means an uneven walk, bringing "tot" back in. Could this be a reference to the fairy having a strange walk?
There are many different types of otherworldly creatures in folklore and myth, but there is a consistent thing about their feet. They have deformed legs, backwards feet, or inverted knees. The Brazilian Curupira and Ghanaian mmoatia are described with feet affixed backward. The henkies of Shetland and the Orkney Islands were trolls who would "henk," or limp, when they danced. Fauns of Greek mythology were goat-legged and hoofed. They lent this trait to Puck and to popular depictions of the Devil. Also from Greek myth, sirens were depicted as everything from human-headed birds to women with bird feet. This is another surviving trait. Jacob Grimm mentioned a group of dwarfs who wore long cloaks covering their feet; when someone sprinkled ashes on the ground to catch their footprints, it was discovered that the dwarves had the feet of ducks and geese.
Jacob Grimm, seeking evidence of a Germanic goddess named Berhta or Perchta, found many variants on the name "Bertha with the foot" - "Berte as grans pies," "Baerte met ten breden voeten," as well as the idea of a goddess-like figure with a bird's foot. The goddess Perchta is often described with one mismatched foot - either too large, or the foot of a goose. Grimm decided that "It is apparently a swan maiden's foot, which as a mark of her higher nature she cannot lay aside (any more than... the devil his horse hoof) and at the same time the spinning-woman's splayfoot that worked the treadle."
A god or goddess associated with spinning might very well have odd feet and an unusual gait. Rumpelstiltskin types are often described to walk around or pedal at a wheel when spinning. Dancing is also a frequent activity for them. Rumpelstiltskin is caught saying his name while "jumping about as if on one leg." Terrytop and his friends dance with a clattering noise "as if they had on each foot a pewter platter." The kindlier Habetrot is found "walking backwards and forwards" spinning with her distaff. She and all of her attendants are deformed from the work of spinning nonstop all their lives.
In "The Three Spinning Women," “[t]he first [woman] had a broad flat foot, the second one had such a large lower lip that it hung down over her chin, and the third one had a broad thumb.” They attribute these traits to peddling, licking and twisting thread.
So the name might be based on "tot," for a little creature, a dwarf ("tottr"). Or it could be "trot" or "totter," meaning that the creature is an otherworldly being with strange feet or one splayfoot. Or something entirely different! Somehow I doubt that it is derived from "druid," but I could be wrong. There's also a German nightmare spirit named a "drude" or "trute." The word "trot" has been used to mean old woman.
I, for one, enjoy the idea that the tot or tut was a now-forgotten English hobgoblin, and that was how people came up with the names of Tom Tit Tot, Habetrot, the gally-trot, and others. Being "tutgot," or taken by tuts, was a worrying prospect, and indeed, Terrytop and Tom Tit Tot are eager to carry off young maidens for dark purposes. Tut or trot would be a root word, much like Puck with Puck-hairy and nisse-puk, and Hob with Hobgoblin, hobby-lantern and hobbit. Incidentally, the roots of both Puck and Hob are mysterious, too ancient to truly determine.
However, I try to be wary of tying words together based on a surface resemblance, so I'll leave it at the basics. There is a widespread folktale type where a fairy's name must be uncovered. In Celtic countries that name usually includes the stem "tot," "trot," "top," "tod," or something similar, to the point where this concept has merged into other stories - like Habetrot, who is quite different from Rumpelstiltskin, and Gwarwyn a Throt, whose story is otherwise just random antics of a brownie-like house fairy.
Despite the fact that this fairy is associated with spinning - traditionally a feminine activity - he is generally male. He is also generally evil, wanting to steal away human women and children. If female, the character is slightly more likely to be benevolent—perhaps bleeding into the archetype of Perchta and Holle—but that's not a hard and fast rule.
The Three Little Pixies
The Three Little Pigs is one of the most iconic fairytales, instantly recognizable in any list. But where did it come from? In fact, the earliest known version of the story actually features not pigs, but pixies.
This story, Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 124, resembles tales like "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids" (ATU 123) and "Little Red Riding Hood" (ATU 333) where a predator tries to gain access to its prey's home through trickery or force. The listener identifies with a child like Red Riding Hood, or a domesticated animal like the goats or pigs. Sometimes the victim escapes with a clever trick. In other versions, he or she is gobbled up whole, and may or may not escape the wolf's belly.
However, the three pigs are sort of latecomers.
In 1853, an untitled story about a fox stalking a group of pixies was published in English forests and forest trees, historical, legendary, and descriptive. The story was also recorded in “The Folk-Lore of Devonshire” in Fraser's Magazine vol. 8 (1873). The pixies in the fox story live in an oddly domestic colony; two who dwell in wooden and stone houses are eaten. The fox, in search of prey, knocks at each door and calls "Let me in, let me in" before breaking the house open. However, a clever third pixie lives in an iron house which the fox can't break into. At the end, the fox finally captures the pixy in a box. However, the pixy uses a magical charm to trick him into switching places, and the fox dies.
This is the earliest known version of the story. So how did we get to pigs?
[Edit 3/23/21: J. F. Campbell's Popular Tales of the West Highlands, first published around 1860, mentions the pig story. "There is a long and tragic story which has been current amongst at least three generations of my own family regarding a lot of little pigs who had a wise mother, who told them where they were to build their houses, and how, so as to avoid the fox. Some of the little pigs would not follow their mother's counsel, and built houses of leaves, and the fox got in and said, "I will gallop, and I'll trample, and I'll knock down your house," and he ate the foolish, little, proud pigs; but the youngest was a wise little pig, and, after many adventures, she put an end to the wicked fox when she was almost vanquished, bidding him look into the caldron to see if the dinner was ready, and then tilting him in headforemost."]
In 1877, Lippincott's Monthly Magazine featured William Owens' article "Folk-Lore of the Southern Negroes," including the story of "Tiny Pig." Seven pigs are hunted by a fox, who goes to each of their houses and asks entrance. The pigs each reply in rhyme, "No, no, Mr. Fox, by the beard on my chin! You may say what you will, but I'll not let you in." The fox proceeds to blow down each house and eat the occupant. Only the seventh one, Tiny Pig, has built a strong stone house, and the fox finds that he cannot blow it or tear it down. The fox attempts to enter through the chimney, but Tiny Pig has a fire waiting for him.
In an odd note, Owens compares "Tiny Pig" to an Anglo-Saxon tale called "The Three Blue Pigs." He implies that this was the source for the African-American tale. He gives no source for this story, but it seems he expected his readers to recognize it. However, Thomas Frederick Crane, a collector of Italian tales, seemed baffled by the reference and wrote that he was unable to find the tale.
The tale seems to have been strongly present in African-American folklore of the time. In addition to this appearance in Lippincott's Magazine, Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation by Joel Chandler Harris (1883) featured "The Story of the Pigs." Five build houses for themselves from "bresh," sticks, mud, planks, and rock. Brer Wolf sweet-talks and lures each one, coaxing them to open the doors of their respective homes. In this way, he devours them one by one. Only the Runt sees through his deception. In a scene reminiscent of both Red Riding Hood's dialogue with a disguised wolf, and the Seven Kids' protests that the wolf doesn't resemble their mother, Runt sees through each of Brer Wolf's claims that he's one of her siblings. Again, there is the ending with the chimney and the pig's waiting fire. A Harris story published later, "The Awful Fate of Mr. Wolf," told a similar narrative with Brer Rabbit as the protagonist.
"The Three Goslings" appeared in Thomas Frederick Crane's Italian Popular Tales in 1885. This is another close variation on the story, but with geese rather than pigs. Here we find the wolf blowing down houses. Ultimately, the third gosling pours boiling water into the wolf's mouth to kill him, and then cuts open his stomach to free her sisters. (I'm not sure why the boiling water didn't hurt them.) Crane collected this from Tradizioni popolari veneziane raccolte by Dom. Giuseppe Bernoni, vol. 3 (c. 1875-77). He also included a story called "The Cock," which similarly featured a wolf blowing down animals' houses (in this case built of feathers).
Our modern famous trio of pigs can be traced back to James Orchard Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes of England (1886). The tale was titled "The Story of the Three Little Pigs." Here is the final pig living in a brick house. Here are the rhyming couplets with the wolf calling out, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in" and huffing and puffing houses in. A few scenes, such as the wolf trying to lure out the pig and the pig duping him, are identical to scenes in the pixie story. As in the Italian stories, the wolf blows down the houses, and as in the African-American versions, the ending has the wolf's descent through the chimney. (However, the pig boils him and eats him, reminding one of the Italian gosling's boiling pot of water.) The British version featuring the pigs gained popularity through Joseph Jacobs' English Fairy Tales (1890), which cited Halliwell. Another version showed up in Andrew Lang's Green Fairy Book (1906).
Some African and Middle-Eastern versions tell the same story with different animals, such as sheep or goats. In some areas, human main characters seem more popular, as in the Moroccan tale of Nciç (Scellés-Millie, Paraboles et contes d’Afrique du Nord, 1982). A sultan and his seven sons travel to Mecca, but one by one the sons lose courage and build houses - one with walls of honey, another with walls of date paste. The seventh and smallest son Nciç builds an iron house and faces off against a ghoul.
The story of the fox and the pixies remains an outlier. It is the first known tale to introduce the now-familiar framework of the Three Little Pigs. However, it is also oddly rare. Pigs, fowl, goats, and humans all star in similar tales, but I've never encountered another version with pixies.
And what exactly makes foxes a natural enemy of pixies? The 1873 article in Fraser's Magazine remarks that "There is a very curious connection between the pixies and the wild animals of the moor, especially with the fox, which features in many local stories. These turn frequently on a struggle in craft and cunning between the fox and the pixie." However, the only story cited is this one - not exactly a large sample size - and the author admits that the story of the pixies living in individual houses of iron, etc., is atypical.
Meanwhile, in the other stories recorded in English Forests, pixies are "merry wicked sprites" who torment horses, lead humans astray in the woods, and steal babies. These are not cute winged fairies. They appear as "large bundles of rags," or occasionally tiny sprites dressed in filthy rags. Rather than being harmed by iron like some folkloric fae, they are miners and metalworkers. In one story, they are apparently immune to gunfire ("they were not to be harmed by weapon of 'middle earth'").
In the fox story, however, they are hapless creatures easily devoured by a woodland animal. The only pixy-ish thing they do is at the very end, when the final survivor uses an unspecified "charm" to entrap the fox.
I believe the answer is lies in a confusion between similar words. The word "pixy" is close to "pig" - and that's before you get into related words like puck or pug. One variation is pigsies or pigseys.
Pigsie is a Devonshire term for pixie. The story of the fox and the pixies is from Dartmoor, in Devon.
The pixie version could have arisen through a misinterpretation of the animal pig (or piggie) as the supernatural creature pigsie. If it was originally about pigs, that would explain why similar tales frequently feature animal heroes, and the same tale was widespread with pig protagonists even on the other side of an ocean. It would also explain why the Dartmoor tale's pixies act so unpixylike and helpless, with only one mention of magic thrown in at the end almost as an afterthought.
I can only think of a couple of versions of The Three Little Pigs which feature fairies as protagonists, and they are modern take-offs. In 1996, a book titled Feminist Fairy Tales by Barbara Walker featured a parody of the Three Little Pigs as "The Three Little Pinks." In this fable about girl power, a misogynistic gardener named Wolf comes at odds with three flower fairies who share the task of painting flowers pink. I found this parody less than impressive. But it's still intriguing in how it cycles - perhaps unknowingly - back to one of the earliest published versions of the tale.
Oh, and there was an early 20th century version of "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids" which featured a goblin and seven little breeze spirits. That was "The Gradual Fairy" by Alice Brown, published in 1911.
I do wonder about the "Three Blue Pigs" tale mentioned by William Owens, which could potentially date back before the tale of the fox and the pixies. Perhaps it didn't survive. That would be a fascinating find, though.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.