In my last two posts, I’ve discussed two proposed candidates for a historical Snow White. Margarethe von Waldeck was a gorgeous 16th-century countess who may have been poisoned for attracting a prince's attention. Maria Sophia von Erthal was a saintly 18th-century noblewoman whose family's castle featured a magnificent mirror. Much has been made of their similarities to the story of Snow White, the theory being that the Brothers Grimm encountered local stories of one of these women. This theories suffer from a fatal flaw, namely: they are not very good. And that becomes especially apparent when we look at the fairytale itself and the mythology that would have been available to the Brothers Grimm.
In this blog post I will be looking at the following:
EARLY EVIDENCE OF THE TALE'S MOTIFS
When most people think of Snow White, they think of the details provided by the Brothers Grimm. The mirror, the dwarves, etc. Now, I want to note that these details do not make up the story itself. They are just window dressing. Do not get caught up in the window dressing.
But Bartels and Sander really focused on these details, so we'll go through them. There are items like the wild boar or the seven mountains, which are part of nature. There are concepts like Snow White being a princess. There are also more elaborate, colorful tropes, like the magic mirror, which appear going far back into historical literature. It would be impossible to list everything, so I will try to collect a few key works that give an idea of how long they've been around. I'm not arguing that any of these were inspirations for Snow White, just establishing that these ideas were both ancient and immediately familiar for audiences long before the time of our "historical Snow Whites."
The imagery of snow-white skin and blood-red lips - often accompanied by raven-black hair or eyes - is an old description for striking beauty. This description is used for a man in the “The Death of the Sons of Uisnech,” from the Irish Book of Leinster, before 1164. A woman, Blancheflor ("White Flower"), gets the description in Chretien du Troyes' Le Roman de Perceval (c. 1180s), although she is blonde, probably because black was seen as a more masculine hair color at the time. George Peele's 1595 play The Old Wives' Tale features "a fair daughter, the fairest that ever was; as white as snow and as red as blood."
Physical beauty plays a major role in the plot for ATU 709. The snow-white motif appears most prominently in the German versions, and stories in other cultures sometimes keep elements of the name. However, it's actually not that common for ATU 709. Snow is not necessary to a Snow White tale. In some Middle Eastern versions, the heroine has a name along the lines of Pomegranate. The "snow-white skin" motif appears more often in variants of “The Three Citrons” (ATU 408).
A wicked stepmother:
The cruel mother or stepmother is one of the most common fairytale villains. In times with high death rates, it was common for people to remarry, and the idea that a stepparent would favor their own child was very prominent. Medea and Phaedra are troublesome stepmothers in Greek myth. The trope appears in Irish myth (the Children of Lir), Welsh (Culhwch and Olwen) and Norse (Grógaldr). (See Hui et al, 2018, for more examples of cruel stepmothers in medieval Germanic literature.)
For a particularly relevant example: in the 2nd century C.E., Apuleius’s Metamorphoses included a story appropriately titled "The Tale of the Wicked Stepmother". Like Phaedra, the beautiful yet depraved stepmother lusts after her handsome stepson, but he refuses her advances. Now filled with hate, she tries to serve him poisoned wine. When her own son drinks the wine by mistake, she accuses the stepson of his murder. The murder trial doesn't go well for the stepson, and things are looking bleak until a wise physician comes to the rescue. He reveals that not only did he recently sell poison to the stepmother’s servant, but he actually substituted a harmless sleeping potion. Everyone rushes to reopen the sarcophagus of the “murdered” boy just in time to see him awaken. With the truth revealed, the stepmother is exiled and her servant is executed.
It’s not a Snow White story, but it has some striking similarities - the stepmother's hatred towards a beautiful stepchild, the deathlike sleep, a child awakening in their coffin. Note that the servant is tortured by having his feet burned, not unlike the iron shoes in Snow White. The motif of the noble doctor who sabotages the stepmother’s poison is more obscure, but appears in a couple of early Snow White stories, “Cymbeline” and “Richilde.”
The Grimms edited many of their stories, including "Snow White," to replace evil mothers with evil stepmothers, more in keeping with their own ideals. As we’re about to see in a minute, not all ATU 709 stories have stepmothers. Biological mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, aunts, and unrelated women can all play the role of villain.
The magic mirror appears in numerous sources going back to medieval times. Prester John's mirror in the Middle High German Titurel (early 13th century – complete with talking and giving advice), Cambuscan's mirror in The Canterbury Tales (late 14th c.), and Merlin’s mirror in The Faerie Queene (1590) are just a few examples.
Mirrors are common in versions of ATU 709, but so are cases where the jealous villain talks to the moon or a fish. It can also simply be a normal person who comments on the Snow White figure's beauty.
Fairies and spirits of the dead are often subterranean, but dwarves in particular were associated with mining and metalworking. In Germanic mythology, dwarves typically dwell underground. In Norse myth, they're master smiths who create magical weapons, tools and jewelry such as Thor’s hammer or Sif’s hair of living gold. In Middle High German poetry (1200-1500), the Nibelungenlied features the treasure-guarding dwarf Alberich, and Laurin has a dwarf king who abducts a human woman to his kingdom under the mountain.
Cultures across the world believed in mine-dwelling spirits, who were often described as little men or goblins. For instance, kobolds in Germany and knockers in England. These creatures might cause mischief or warn miners of impending collapse. In many areas, food was left as an offering for them. You can see echoes of this in the Swiss philosopher Paracelsus's description of elemental spirits, published in 1566. His earth spirits - pygmies, earth manikins, gnomes and dwarves - glide through solid rock and guard veins of ore.
Other Snow White figures are aided by fairies, family members, cats, dragons, camel drivers, or scholars. Robber bands are especially popular as helpers. Dwarves appear in multiple German versions, and also in an Icelandic version, “Vilfrídr Fairer-than-Vala."
In the Grimm fairytale, the wicked queen attempts to murder Snow White first by strangling her with a stay-lace, then by poisoning her with a comb and finally an apple.
The stay-lace is an article of clothing, and shoes or ribbons are common murder instruments in ATU 709. It brings to mind Greek myth with Medea's cursed robe or the poisoned garment that kills Heracles.
A comb is made up of sharp, needle-like objects. Sharp objects are, by far, the most common cause of enchanted sleep in fairytales - combs, splinters, needles, or spindles. This suggests real-life occurrences like a bite from a venomous snake, or an infection occurring from a cut.
Finally, the apple. This functions a lot like the sharp objects - it is a foreign body, and when it is removed, Snow White awakens. In the Grimm tale, Snow White is not awakened by a kiss, but by being struck so that the apple chunk flies out of her throat. This is similar to other tales where the awakener is not the prince himself, but his mother or another family member. The concept of an apple as an instrument of death would have been immediately familiar to western Christian audiences, who depicted the fruit eaten by Eve as an apple. The fruit is directly tied to death: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."
And in Greek myth, the story of the golden apple of discord connected the fruit with beauty and jealousy. When the apple was presented as a prize for the most beautiful goddess - i.e. the fairest of them all - the contest sparked a bitter argument over who should win, ultimately causing the Trojan War.
The enchanted sleep:
It doesn't necessarily need to be sleep; it can be death, or a state like death, followed by resurrection. Note in particular the 13th-century Old Norse Völsunga saga, where Brynhild the Valkyrie is cast into a deep slumber by a sleeping-thorn (see the aforementioned sharp objects). This myth convinced the Grimms that "Sleeping Beauty" had Germanic origins and belonged in their collection.
EARLY EVIDENCE OF THE TALE'S PLOT
Now let's get into the actual bones of the story. Snow White is categorized as type 709 in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Tale Type Index, and is widespread in Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. It's important to note that the Grimms' version is not a "canon" or "main" version of the story, just one unique variant.
Different people have broken the story down to its parts, but the basic gist is this: an older woman becomes jealous of the beautiful heroine. The heroine is forced into exile, possibly spared by a sympathetic executioner. She finds a home with allies who give her shelter. The older woman discovers this and successfully kills her, or at least puts her into a coma. The heroine's body is placed on display, but then she is revived and gets married.
Graham Anderson suggested that ATU 709 can be traced to the myth of Chione ("Snow"). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the god Mercury causes Chione to fall asleep so he can rape her; Apollo, disguised as an old woman, does the same. Chione gives birth to twins, but when she boasts of her beauty, she is killed by the goddess Diana. In my opinion, Anderson has some interesting points but takes too many leaps in logic. For one thing, he puts too much emphasis on the heroine's name relating to snow. I think it's a mistake to identify Chione as a Snow White figure.
Other stories like The Lai of Eliduc (late 12th century) have also been compared to Snow White, and Andersen makes an intriguing case for The Ephesian Tale of Anthia and Habrocomes (pre-2nd century), but I'm going to keep this short by focusing on those that have the clearest plot similarities.
Cymbeline by William Shakespeare (1623) features a princess named Imogen. She is very beautiful, described in terms of white and red (she is a "fresh lily,/ And whiter than the sheets!" with lips like "Rubies unparagoned"). Her wicked stepmother tries to poison her, but a helpful doctor secretly swaps the poison with a sleeping potion. For unrelated reasons, Imogen flees into the forest, where she is given shelter by a group of men. She eventually takes the sleeping potion believing it's medicine. The men think she's dead and sadly lay her body out in state. She later reawakens, and at the end is joyfully reunited with her companions and her husband.
Some scholars argue that this is too fragmented and Cymbeline is more inspired by other works. It's true there are a lot of influences, both historical and literary, in this very busy play. However, I don't think we can ignore its core similarities to ATU 709. Cymbeline combines many folktale tropes, and we could be looking at echoes of an English Snow White story here.
“The Young Slave,” by Giambattista Basile (1634) has similarities to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and stories of the "Supplanted Bride" tale type. The heroine, Lisa, is raised by fairies but cursed to die via a comb stuck in her hair, and her body is placed within seven nested crystal coffins. Her uncle keeps her in a hidden room. Her uncle's wife finds her and, jealous of her beauty, knocks the comb out of her hair - accidentally awakening her in the process. The aunt forces Lisa to work as a slave until the uncle finds out and sets things right.
“Sun, Moon, and Talia,” also from Basile, similarly resonates with Snow White. Talia apparently dies by means of a splinter under her fingernail. A king finds her in the woods and rapes her. She gives birth to twins who suck the splinter out of her finger, waking her in the process. The king's jealous wife wants Talia executed and tries to have the twins cooked and eaten. A sympathetic cook secretly hides the children and substitutes lamb meat. When the king finds out what's going on, he executes the queen and marries Talia. "Sleeping Beauty" by Charles Perrault (1697) is a softened adaptation where the rape is omitted and the rival wife is changed to the king's mother.
Interestingly, "jealous queen" figures only appear in the final acts of these Italian and French tales. They are not the cause of the enchanted sleeps. Snow White makes more narrative sense, and modern renditions of Sleeping Beauty almost always cut the second half of the story.
Syair Bidasari (18th century?): In this Malay poem, a queen becomes fearful that another woman will catch the king’s eye, and sends out spies to seek anyone more beautiful than her. They tell her of the lovely young Bidasari. Learning that the girl’s life is connected to a fish, the jealous queen takes the fish out of the water. This causes Bidasari to seemingly die during the day, only awakening at night. For safety, her parents hide her at a remote location in the desert. However, the king discovers Bidasari's body and falls in love with her. When she’s conscious at night, she tells him her story, and he returns the fish and takes her as his new queen. The former queen is left in solitude to repent.
The surface details may be different, but it completes the core plot of Snow White in a way that none of the previous examples do. Similar tales have since been collected in India and Egypt.
The poem’s date of origin is uncertain; the oldest surviving manuscript is dated 1814, the oldest mention of the title is from 1807, and it is probably older. Another poem of this genre was theorized to have been composed sometime after 1650. This story is one we know can't have influenced the Grimms, but it shows an independent strand of the tale from a completely different part of the world around the same time.
The Tale of a Tsar and His Daughter (1710s-1730s?): This Russian text has been discovered only recently, and is tentatively dated to the early 18th century. The role of the magic mirror is played by a beggar who praises the princess's beauty. Her jealous stepmother orders her killed, and the servants bring her severed finger as proof of her death. The princess takes refuge at the home of nine brothers, keeps house for them, and slays a serpent to rescue them (!). The stepmother learns of her survival and sends a poisoned shirt which kills her. The brothers build a tomb for her and also die. A prince finds her body, falls in love with her, and takes her home, where his mother removes the poisoned shirt and revives her. The brothers are resurrected, the prince and princess celebrate their marriage, and the stepmother is punished.
I still need to investigate further, but this could be competition with Syair Bidasari for the earliest full version of Snow White discovered so far. (Kurysheva 2018)
“Richilde,” by Johann Karl August Musäus (1782): This novella appeared in Musaus’ Volksmärchen der Deutschen, a collection of literary folktale retellings. The vain Richilde becomes violently jealous of her lovely stepdaughter Blanca ("White"). She makes three attempts to kill her with a poisoned apple, soap, and a letter. However, her apothecary has secretly made the poison nonlethal and the gifts only leave Blanca unconscious and mistaken for dead. Her coffin has a glass window that allows people to look in at her, and she is rescued by a knight who heals her with a holy relic. Richilde is punished by being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes. There’s even the rhyming chant to a mirror:
"Mirror white, mirror bright,
Mirror, let me have a sight,
Of the fairest girl in Brabant!"
It feels surprisingly modern; it’s told from the wicked stepmother Richilde’s point of view, and the magical elements are mostly downplayed or given scientific explanations. For instance, Blanca is attended by court dwarfs (real people with dwarfism, forced to serve as royal attendants and jesters).
From "Richilde" we can deduce that the story of Snow White, in more or less its modern form, was already well-known in Germany by the 1780s, enough for Musaus to write an elaborate, satirical version from the villain's point of view.
The Tale of the Old Beggars (1795): a Russian folktale published anonymously. This is very close to "The Tale of a Tsar and His Daughter." Some differences: the heroine, Olga, is a merchant's daughter rather than a princess. Olga doesn't kill a dragon, but is instead possibly the most clueless Snow White ever - she tells her stepmother she’s alive by sending her some pierogis. The poisoned shirt is studded with pearls. The grieving robber-brothers build a crystal tomb for Olga and die, but are not resurrected. The conclusion with the prince and his mother is the same.
The Beautiful Sophie and Her Envious Sisters (1808), by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff. This version came from Silesia, possibly with Polish influence. (Kawan 2005, 238-239). It features a magic mirror and a glass coffin. The villains are the heroine's two evil sisters, who try to kill her with a hair ribbon and an apple. Instead of seven dwarves, there's one little old lady.
Snow White (1809), a play by Albert Ludwig Grimm (no relation to the Brothers Grimm). Here we have an evil stepmother and stepsister. Snow White takes refuge in a glass mountain with a whole kingdom of dwarves, and is given a poisoned fig.
And, finally, the Grimms' "Little Snow-White." The Grimms had a strikingly different goal from authors like Basile or Musaus. Rather than using folklore as fodder for a unique literary creation, they set out to preserve the original oral tales. Their "Snow White" was a mixture of stories from at least three informants - Marie Hassenpflug, Ferdinand Siebert, and Heinrich Leopold Stein. Christine Shojaei Kawan states that the Brothers Grimm considered Snow White one of the most popular fairytales. (Kawan 2005, 238-239).
The Grimms' 1810 draft - presumably the closest to the first versions they collected - has some startling differences from the tale we know. Snow White is a blonde with eyes as black as ebony, and the villain is her biological mother. Her hair was changed to black by the time they published their work in 1812. Starting with the 1819 edition, the mother was changed to a stepmother. This change may have been to soften the tale for children, but also remember that the Grimms collected and combined many versions. Their notes mentioned variants with stepmothers or adoptive mothers. In one version there's a talking dog named Mirror rather than a literal mirror.
The Grimms published many other fairytales which overlap with Snow White, including “Cinderella” (evil stepmother), “The Juniper Tree” (evil stepmother murders her snow-white/blood-red stepson), “The Three Ravens” (the girl’s arrival in the ravens’ home), “Briar Rose” (enchanted sleep), and “The Glass Coffin” (rescue of girl from a glass coffin).
HISTORICAL FIGURES IN FAIRYTALES
We do have many cases of real people and places that either inspired legends or were adopted into legends. For instance, Caliph Harun al-Rashid appears in many of the stories in The Thousand and One Nights. Richard the Lionheart is given a Melusine-esque fairy mother in a 14th century romance. And Bertalda of Laon, Charlemagne's mother, starred in a Goose Girl-like story from manuscripts around the 13th century.
Most of these stories were recorded long after the original people died. However, it is entirely possible for legends to spread while the subject is still alive. For a modern example, in 1936, a Newfoundland girl named Lucy Harris went missing and was found alive in the woods eleven days later. Her story quickly evolved into a tale of fairy abduction. By 1985, 49 years later, it was well-known across Newfoundland, but was still closely tied to the name and location. When folklorist Barbara Rieti investigated, she was directed straight to Harris’s then-current residence. Even more important: Rieti noted that Harris’s story was boosted by radio and newspapers. Comparable stories with similar timeframes, that didn't receive media attention, stayed within small local communities.
WHY THE HISTORICAL THEORIES JUST DON'T WORK
The proposed "historical Snow Whites” are too late to have sparked the worldwide tale of ATU 709. By the time of Maria Sophia, there were strong alternate traditions in Russia and Malaysia. Margarethe and her family were earlier, beating out Shakespeare by a hundred years, but I would say she was also too late; we're talking about an incredibly widespread tradition of stories, with all kinds of variations far beyond anything we find in the Margarethe theory.
Instead, the theory must be that these women influenced local German versions of ATU 709. That is, they were the source of colorful local details like the poisoned apple and the helpful dwarves. But this still isn't supported by the facts.
There is not a single unique characteristic of the German Snow White that can be traced to either of these women. The best they can offer is faint coincidence. Deadly poisoned apples? There were orchards in the area. Helpful dwarf miners? There were mines in the area. A trip across seven mountains? You got it - there were mountains in the area. These theories focus on the shallowest details of the story rather than on the core plot, and they don’t even do that very well.
The Maria Sophia theory totally collapses at the first sign of scrutiny. Even if we ignore that this theory started as a joke by three guys in a pub, the timeline doesn't work. As said before, there were less than 40 years for her life story to diffuse into the German fairytale and her real name to be forgotten. Compare the case of Lucy Harris: 50 years, widespread media attention, and her name and location stayed inextricably tied to the story.
The Margarethe theory has two small advantages over Maria Sophia. First: the three Margarethes were born in the 1500s, giving a bit more time for their lives to be mythicized and for storytellers to combine them into one person - but still not a lot of time. Second: Sander's theory was apparently spurred by a local claim that Snow White's dwarves were inspired by the Bergfreiheit mines. But this still doesn't work. The concept of subterranean dwarves is ancient, far older than the Bergfreiheit mines. Ultimately the Margarethe theory falls prey to the same problem as the Maria Sophia theory: this is just a marketing stunt with nothing real to back it up. Both Sanders and Bartels went about their theorizing backwards. They looked for historical noblewomen from specific areas who could fit the story, and then performed any contortions necessary to cram their histories into the shape of the Grimm fairytale. By their logic, any woman could be the real Snow White as long as she had a stepmother and someone once ate an apple within a 100-mile radius of her.
There have been other theories about historical Snow Whites. An author named Theodor Ruf, inspired by Bartels, jokingly suggested that Snow White could have been a different woman from Lohr: a medieval woman named Agnes, from the family of the Counts of Rieneck. But this never took off in the same way - that is, it was never picked up as a marketing tool.
Folklore academics have reacted to the "historical" theories with skepticism or outright scorn. Folklore professor Donald Haase called the historical figure theories “pure speculation and not at all convincing.” Heidi Anne Heiner, who runs the SurLaLune site, points out that “it is always dangerous to assign fairy tales to actual historical personages,” comparing the many proposed historical Bluebeards. Christine Shojaei Kawan dismissed Bartels's theory entirely, knowing that it was a joke (Kawan 2005).
Rather than these women inspiring the fairytale, it's the other way around. Snow White, at least in the past 30-40 years, has come to influence the way we tell the stories of Maria Sophia and Margarethe.
I do want to focus on one thing I've discovered: German storytellers had all the elements of "Snow White" at their fingertips long before Maria Sophia or even Margarethe were born. I'm also delighted that even now we are still discovering old manuscripts like "The Tale of a Tsar and His Daughter" which could shed further light on the history of the fairytale. Ultimately, I'd guess that "Snow White" is far older than we realize.
OTHER BLOG POSTS IN SERIES
Last month, I discussed 18th-century philanthropist Maria Sophia von Erthal, theorized to be the "real" Snow White. Not long after this theory was published, a similar argument was made for a completely different candidate. The theorist this time was Eckhard Sander, a mathematics and German teacher from Borken. The Maria Sophia theory had a playful feel; even its creator didn't take it too seriously. This next theory is its darker, edgier sister.
Sander's candidate for Snow White was Margarethe von Waldeck. This stunningly beautiful young woman lived near a mining town which used children as laborers. After her father remarried, she was sent away from home. Ultimately, she was poisoned for her beauty and died young - assassinated because a prince fell in love with her.
This theory seems pretty simple on its face, but it’s actually much more elaborate. Sander’s theory is not exactly that Margarethe von Waldeck was the real Snow White. Instead he proposes that the tale of Snow White originated in Waldeck in the late 16th century, with the plot points drawn from local legends and the main character a composite of three different people all named Margarethe.
Margarethe von Waldeck (1533-1554): The Beauty
Location: Bad Wildungen, Hesse
Margarethe was the daughter of Philip IV, Count of Waldeck and his wife Margarethe von Ostfriesland. They lived in the town of Bad Wildungen, in the mountain range known as the Kellerwald. Young Margarethe was exceptionally beautiful, with blonde hair. This might sound like it rules her out - Snow White is supposed to have ebony-black hair, after all - but it's a little-known fact that Snow White was blonde in the Grimms' 1810 draft.
Margarethe was the seventh or eighth child in the family. In 1537, when she was four, her mother died in childbirth. In 1539, Philipp took a second wife, the widowed Catharina von Hatzfeld. Sander hints coyly that perhaps Catharina was jealous of her lovely stepdaughter, but he presents little evidence for this. However, Margarethe was apparently sent to live elsewhere at a young age. Catharina died in 1546.
At some point, Margarethe was sent to the royal court of Brussels in Belgium. ("Richilde," a 1782 version of Snow White, also takes place in Belgium.) She attracted the romantic attentions of Prince Philip, later to be King Philip II of Spain, but then she fell ill and died in the year 1554. She was just 21. According to rumor, she had been poisoned. Was this the work of political rivals who didn't approve of the relationship?
Later that year, Count Philipp IV married his third wife, Jutta of Isenburg-Grenzau. Margarethe's brother Samuel also got married that year. From their father he inherited land including a mining settlement, which would eventually become the town of Bergfreiheit. He put up boundary markers called Bloodstones (Blutsteine). Sander compares this to an obscure Snow White variant from the Grimms' notes: driving through the woods, a count and countess see three piles of snow, three pits of blood, and three black ravens, prompting the count to wish for a girl of those colors.
Samuel built up the local copper mines and granted miners additional freedoms. However, there was a dark side to the industry. Children were used as miners because they could squeeze into the small tunnels. They lived in terrible conditions, many of them stunted in growth and prematurely aged due to their work, so that people referred to them as dwarfs. Large numbers were crammed into small houses with only a couple of rooms - hence, says Sander, the idea of the seven dwarfs living in a tiny cottage.
Margarethe von Waldeck (1564-1575): The Child
Margarethe was the youngest child of Samuel and his wife, Anna Maria von Schwarzburg. She shared a name with her paternal grandmother and aunt. She had six older brothers, all of whom died in infancy except for one, Günther. Samuel died in 1570, when little Margarethe was six. Anna Maria had been carrying on an affair with Samuel's secretary, Göbert Raben, and they secretly married after his death. The scandal infuriated her relatives, who tried to nullify the marriage. A family genealogy suggests that Anna Maria's licentious behavior continued even after she married the secretary (although I suspect some bias here).
Margarethe was sent to live with relatives. In 1575, at the age of just eleven, she fell from a cliff while picking flowers and died. Sander compares this to a variant mentioned in the Grimms' notes - here, rather than sending Snow White with the huntsman, the queen takes Snow White into the forest herself in her carriage. She tells her to pick some roses, and then drives off, abandoning her. Sander also takes note of Margarethe's young age; one early manuscript of Snow White described the heroine as an "unfortunate child."
In 1576, a year after her daughter's death, Anna Maria and her lover were imprisoned. Her lover was released after two years and sent into exile, but Anna Maria spent the rest of her life shut up in a convent.
A dead child. A perverse mother figure imprisoned for her crimes. Out of this history, Sander picked another Snow White story.
Margarethe von Waldeck (1559-1580): The Bride
Margarethe was the daughter of Johann I von Waldeck, from another branch of the same family. In 1578, at age nineteen, she traveled to marry Count Günther von Waldeck (her distant cousin, Samuel's son, Margarethe I's nephew, Margarethe II's brother). It was an elaborate wedding with an elite guest list, processions, feasting, and a four-day-long afterparty. Sander tied this to the wedding and happily-ever-after of Snow White and her prince.
But even this Margarethe didn't get a happily-ever-after; she died childless two years after the wedding. A couple years after that, Gunther took a second wife, also named Margarethe.
Folktales of Bad Wildungen
Sander bulked up his theory with various legends and historical facts from around the area.
Inaccuracies and problems
As with the Maria Sophia theory, there are a few inaccuracies that pop up now and again in articles on the subject. Again, these generally have to do with lines between the history and the fairytale being blurred.
Claim: Catharina had something to do with her stepdaughter Margarethe's poisoning.
Most people correctly spot that this is impossible, since Catharina died long before her stepdaughter. In fact, in his original book, Sander actually focused on Margarethe II's mother, Anna Maria, as the inspiration for the "evil queen" character.
Claim: This is a portrait of Margarethe von Waldeck.
This is Irish writer Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington (1789-1849). This is a mistake spread through various online articles and I'm not sure where it started, but I'd guess someone thought this woman looked Snow White-like and got confused by the fact that she was a countess named Margaret.
Claim: Margarethe's shaky handwriting on her deathbed will is a clue that she was poisoned.
This one is honestly confusing; a dying woman having shaky handwriting is not weird. I think this may be misleading wording, with the idea stemming from a 2005 German documentary titled Snow White and the Murder in Brussels. It was 45 minutes long and put forward the theory that Margarethe had been poisoned with arsenic. Dr. Gerhard Menk, a historian interviewed in the documentary, stated:
"When she wrote the will, it was absolutely clear to her that her life would not last very long. The will shows clearly blurred handwriting. She wrote with a hand that was shaky. And in this respect death is foreseeable relatively early."
As for the viability of the Margarethe theory . . . Sander pulls from everything he can find in history and in the Grimms' manuscripts. Blonde hair and a stepmother from Margarethe I (even though in the Blonde Snow White draft, her biological mother is the villain). Two more Margarethes to provide any missing Snow White-esque details. Poison apples from a local legend - never mind that they bear no resemblance to the poison apple in Snow White.
And I feel like Sander makes too much of the young Margarethes being sent to live elsewhere. He implies that family drama was the cause, particularly that the mother or stepmother was to blame. Maybe this was the case for Margarethe II. But historical nobility often sent their newborns off to wet nurses, which could mean being away from them for long periods of time. Some royal parents were very involved with their children's lives, but even they might send their children to be raised and educated elsewhere. Princes like Edward VI of England had their own households when they were still young children. In particular, Margarethe I going to Brussels would have been a natural step for a teenaged noblewoman, a huge opportunity for her education and marital prospects and a strategic political move for her family.
Where did this theory come from?
Sometime before 1990, Eckhard Sander was writing a term paper for a course at the Justus Liebig University. He was interested in writing about the history of child labor in mining, so he and his family toured a Bergfreiheit copper mine. Their guide claimed that the sight of the children in their protective felt caps emerging from the mountain had inspired the dwarfs of "Snow White."
Intrigued, Sander sought more evidence with help from his professor Gerd Rötzer. Sander was aware of the Hansel and Gretel hoax from the '60s, but unlike the Lohr "study group," he preferred to distance himself from it. He dove deep into the history of the Grimms' work and the various drafts of Snow White, and concluded that fairytales contain a kernel of truth, unconscious memories of real events. The Grimms would have collected the story of Snow White while unaware of the events that had shaped it only a couple of centuries before. Tiny, easily-missed details in the various versions still pointed to the real history.
In 1990, Sander submitted his term paper under the title "Snow White: Fairytales or Truth? An attempt to localize KHM 53 in the Kellerwald." He published it as a book in 1994, with a slightly different subtitle, A local reference to the Kellerwald.
This enjoyed similar success as the Maria Sophia theory. Bergfreiheit now hosts the tourist destination of Schneewittchendorf (Snow White Village). Sander was involved in the making of Snow White and the Murder in Brussels. In 2013, he wrote another book in collaboration with the city of Bad Wildungen, The Life of Margaretha von Waldeck, which is available directly from Bergfreiheit gift shops. Based on Sander's story of the mine tour, at least some locals were already claiming Snow White as their own, which would have added to the momentum.
But Margarethes II and III - the Child and the Bride - seem nearly forgotten, even though they provided key plot points for Sanders’ elaborate patchwork version of Snow White. Margarethe I is the famous one, who had her death dramatized in the Murder in Brussels documentary. This is probably because spreading Snow White to multiple historical figures weakens the appeal of the theory. It's basically admitting that you don't have a good argument. Margarethe I is the one best able to carry the theory on her own, so she gets the limelight.
There are many parallels between the Margarethe and Maria Sophia theories. Both theories were conceived and published within a few years of each other. Both rely on the idea that the Grimms visited or lived near the area. Both focus less on the plot of the story, and more on details like the forks, the mountains, the glassware, or the ironworking. And both became popular because the local towns saw them as perfect tourism opportunities.
Karlheinz Bartels and Eckhard Sander both went digging through history for women who matched Snow White's description. In doing so, they were proponents of euhemerism, the theory that legends are based on real people. But what if we don't set out looking for a specific historical personage? What if we look at the history of the actual folktale?
Next up: Snow White.
OTHER BLOG POSTS
Multiple towns in Germany feature Snow White-themed tourist attractions. However, two of them stand out; both claim to be the birthplace of a real woman who inspired the fairytale. In this blog post, I'll be looking at the first woman to be proposed as "the real Snow White."
As the usual summary goes, this kind-hearted young woman suffered under the authority of a harsh stepmother. In their castle hung an elaborate mirror said to speak. They lived in a forested area near a mining town with very short workers. But upon investigation, there are a lot of inaccuracies being passed around.
Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal (1725-1796)
Location: Lohr am Main, Bavaria
Maria Sophia was born in 1725 (some sources incorrectly say 1729), one of ten children of the baron Philipp Christoph von Erthal and his wife Maria Eva. (They had seven sons and three daughters, although some died young). A family genealogy remembered her as kind, pious and generous.
Maria Sophia caught smallpox when she was young, leaving her mostly blind. It's possible this also left her with facial scarring. However, the painting above - which is believed to be her portrait - does not show any scars.
Maria Eva died, and in 1743 Philipp married the widowed Claudia Elisabeth von Reichenstein. She had two children from her previous marriage. Maria Sophia would have been 18 at the time of the wedding.
According to the theory, Philipp's status seemed kinglike to local townspeople. His absences on long work trips paralleled the absence of Snow White's father in the fairytale. As for Claudia: in 1992, historian Werner Loibl uncovered a 1743 letter that she wrote while Philipp was in England on state business, not long after their wedding. The letter shows that Claudia read and responded to his mail while he was out of the country, and that she suggested her son's former tutor for a government position. Based on this, Loibl painted her as a domineering wife and stepmother.
The area of Lohr features thick woods, like the wild forest of the fairytale, and seven mountains beyond which lies the mining town of Bieber. The miners would have been short-statured in order to enter the small tunnels. The Grimm fairytale mentions that the dwarfs live beyond seven mountains.
Lohr's local industries included metalworking, glassworking, and especially high-quality mirrors - tying into the fairytale's iron shoes, glass casket, and magic mirror. The mirrors could be considered to "speak" or "tell the truth" because they showed particularly clear reflections, and/or because they came inscribed with traditional mottoes. Maria Sophia's family owned one such mirror, a magnificent red-and-silver-framed looking glass 1.6 meters tall (5.25 feet) which is still in the Lohr Castle, now a museum. The frame is decorated with the phrases "Pour la recompense et pour la peine" ("for reward and for punishment", accompanied with an image of a palm, a flowering branch, and a crown) and "Amour propre" ("self-love," with an image of the sun shining on a flower). Some online articles state that the mirror was made as a wedding gift for Claudia; however, historian Wolfgang Vorwerk suggests that the mirror may have already been in the castle when Philipp took office in 1719.
Maria Sophia never married. At some point, she moved sixty miles away to the town of Bamberg, which runs across seven hills each topped by a church. I’m not sure when she moved, but we do know that her brother Franz Ludwig took office as the town’s Prince-Bishop in 1779. She spent her final years in the care of a convent school, the Institute der Englischen Fräulein. She died in 1796, aged 71, having spent her life doing charity work. History records indicate that she was beloved by the community. Her gravestone, rediscovered in 2019, reads "The noble heroine of Christianity: here she rests after the victory of Faith, ready for transfigured resurrection.”
Two other notes:
Apple orchards are common in Lohr.
Belladonna, which causes paralysis, grows wild in the area. Supporters of the theory connect this to the poison which causes Snow White’s deathlike sleep. It is also an aphrodisiac, explaining the instant love between Snow White and her prince.
Inaccuracies and problems
In my research, I've encountered a few questionable statements that are repeated by many sources.
Claim: Claudia was a harsh stepmother who disliked her husband's children.
This is an exaggeration of Werner Loibl's article. Based on a single letter, Loibl concluded that Claudia was a bossy, self-serving woman who, only months after the wedding, was already using her new husband's position to advance the interests of her old employees and, presumably, her biological children as well.
I'm not a historian, but I feel this is an overly negative reading for just one letter, with lots of jumps in logic to cast Claudia in the worst possible light. How do we know Philipp didn't ask his wife to handle things during his long absences? Even with that, there's little to indicate that she disliked any of her stepchildren, let alone Maria Sophia. I see no evidence that there was any kind of family dysfunction here.
(Remember Werner Loibl, we'll come back to him in a minute.)
Claim: Maria Sophia was forced to flee over the mountains to Bieber after being abandoned or attacked.
This came from one of Lohr's tourist attractions, the Snow White-themed mountain hiking trail. As early as January 1999, the town's website featured a "Snow White" section under its tourism department. This page is written in the first person, narrated by “Maria Sophia... popularly known as Snow White.” Other than the nickname, it begins close to real life by describing her family tree. But it takes a turn when she explains that her father ran Lohr’s mirror manufactory and one day gave a mirror to her stepmother.
"Incidentally, this mirror still hangs in my parents' castle in Lohr a. Main and bears the inscription "Elle brille á la lumiére", roughly translated "She is as beautiful as the light". As you know, my stepmother thought she was particularly beautiful, and when one day - I had grown a bit - the mirror no longer rated my stepmother as the most beautiful in the country, the forester took me (at her behest) for a "Walk" in the forest. We walked out through the Upper Gate and then uphill to where the Rexroth Castle stands today. At the very top, in the deep forest, the forester drew his knife. Then I suspected evil and, full of panic, ran right into the forest and downhill as fast as I could. There was a couple of shots behind me. Full of horror I ran on until, past the glassworks in Reichen Grund, I came to the Lohrbach. Did my evil stepmother actually want to kill me?"
From here on, “Maria Sophia” explains step-by-step how she made her way to the mines, with a laundry list of landmarks (“Towards evening I reached the retention basin of the Bieber mines, the Wiesbüttsee...”). The story concludes by stating that she “found shelter with the seven dwarfs." It adds a link for website visitors to book the hiking trail - a deal which comes with a visit to the museum in "Snow White's family castle," a hotel stay, and a souvenir gift.
This isn't a historical document - it's a hiking guide, as should be obvious from the list of locations. It presents a story with no connection to reality - the Snow White tale with Maria Sophia's name smacked on. This has set the tone for Lohr’s marketing ever since; some mistakes are corrected in modern brochures and materials, but the misleading tone remains, and other sources repeat these blurred lines.
This webpage also includes another commonly-repeated error...
Claim: The motto on the von Erthal mirror is "Elle brille à la lumière" (She shines like the light).
The phrase is reminiscent of the Grimms' 1857 edition of fairytales, in which Snow White is described as "beautiful as the day." However, this phrase does not appear on the "Amour Propre" mirror in the castle. It was a common inscription for other Lohr mirrors in general, accompanied by an image of a pearl in an oyster. There were many other traditional emblems - see this digitized book from 1697, Devises Et Emblemes Anciennes & Modernes tirées des plus celebres Auteurs.
Wolfgang Vorwerk states that the "Amour Propre" mirror was not explicitly tied to the Maria Sophia theory at first. The media probably began describing it as the fairytale mirror sometime between 1994 and 1998 (Vorwerk 2016, p. 6). This may have contributed to the confusion about which mirror is which.
Claim: Lohr mirrors were specially made to echo people's voices through a trick of acoustics.
This seems to be a misunderstanding of the saying that the mirrors spoke. It probably originated with a 2002 news article, reprinted around the world, which called the mirror an “acoustic toy” (Hall).
Claim: Maria Sophia died of belladonna poisoning.
False. This might be confusion with Margarethe von Waldeck, who I'll discuss in my next post.
One thing I have to mention: the timeline here seriously strains credulity. Maria Sophia's father remarried in 1743. The Grimms' first draft dates to 1810, 67 years later. But the Grimms weren't the first to write down the story; that was Johann Musäus's "Richilde," published in 1782. Although this version was an elaborate satirical novella, it's clearly a retelling of the same folktale the Grimms would later transcribe.
Maria Sophia was still alive at this point. If she truly originated the fairytale, or even just influenced it, it would have had no more than 39 years to evolve into its current form and spread across all of Germany.
And there's no evidence that this happened. Thomas Kittel’s 1865 genealogy listed Maria Sophia as one of the more notable von Erthals, giving her one and a half pages of biography. In comparison, some of her siblings are barely mentioned. And yet there's nothing to indicate that she inspired any Snow White-esque legends. Kittel's description gives only the impression of a deeply religious woman with a disability who lived a normal, fulfilling life.
Where did this theory come from?
First, some stage-setting. In 1963, Germany was rocked by a newly released book. Die Wahrheit uber Hansel und Gretel (The Truth about Hansel and Gretel) revealed that the famous fairytale was based on a gruesome true story. The siblings were not children lost in the woods, but a pair of 17th-century bakers from the Spessart forest who brutally murdered a rival for her gingerbread recipe. Photos showed a researcher named Dr. Ossegg unearthing the ruins of the "witch's" home.
Except that in 1964, the real truth came out: it was all a joke. The events were made up, the evidence was forged, and "Ossegg" was actually the author Hans Traxler in a fake mustache. The hoax fooled many, and some believed in it even after the truth was revealed. One disappointed reader tried to report Traxler for fraud.
Flash forward to 1985. In Lohr am Main, a town on the opposite side of the Spessart from the "site" that Traxler had "discovered," a few men started a study group on fabulology. Fabulology was their own newly coined term for "fairytale science." The group consisted of pharmacist Karlheinz Bartels, local museum head Werner Loibl, and shoemaker Helmut Walch. And by "study group" I mean that they hung out at the local wine house together. In a 2015 interview, Bartels explained that they were inspired by the Hansel and Gretel hoax: "We said to each other at the regulars' table [of the wine house] that we need something like that for Lohr."
Although satirical, Traxler's book rested on the premise that the real story could be uncovered by careful deduction, and that's what the "study group" set out to do. As they brainstormed fairytales that could fit the area, Loibl - an expert on glassworking history - thought of Lohr's famously high-quality mirrors. Aha - the evil queen's magic mirror! From there, Bartels pinpointed Maria Sophia.
The fabulology group had started as an in-joke, but it didn't stop there. In 1986, the magazine Schönere Heimat published Bartels' tongue-in-cheek article "War Schneewittchen eine Lohrerin?: Zur Fabulologie des Spessarts" (Was Snow White a Woman of Lohr? On the Fabulology of the Spessart).
To everyone’s surprise, including Bartels's, the article took off. Bartels produced a full 80-page book, which received several editions. Loibl published articles as well, including the one about Claudia's letter. The town embraced this new marketing opportunity. At the book launch in 1990, Loibl announced that a Snow White-focused room would be set up at the Spessart Museum in Lohr Castle; the project was completed in 1992. Artifacts included "Snow White's shoes" - a pair of two-hundred-year-old children's shoes found in the castle - along with the "Amour Propre" mirror. The Snow White Trail that I mentioned previously was also created.
Snow White-themed events are now held at the museum and throughout the town. The town features art installations like the pristine Snow White statue seated on a park bench for selfie opportunities, or the more . . . controversial Snow White by Peter Wittstadt, created in 2014.
The effect was much like the success of the Hansel and Gretel hoax, but in this case, the details weren't fabricated. Obviously Maria Sophia's life did not match up exactly to the fairytale of Snow White, but there was just enough to make an argument. The popularity of the tourist attractions even led to some personal fame and local awards for Bartels.
And it seems Bartels’s attitude fluctuated as all this went on. In 2002 he announced, "We are satisfied that what the Grimm Brothers wrote about was really a documentary of sorts about our region… This all began as a bit of a joke in the local pub 17 years ago. But a lot of energy and research has gone into it since." (Hall)
In 2019, when Maria Sophia’s gravestone was located and put on show in the Diocesan Museum in Bamberg, the joking tone seemed entirely forgotten. As stated by the museum’s director, Holger Kempkens: "There are indications - though we cannot prove it for sure - that Sophia was the model for Snow White. Today when you make a film about a historic person there is also fiction in it. So in this case I think there is a historic basis, but there are also fictional elements."
A modern brochure claims that "one thing should become clear to anyone who reads [this]: Snow White was and is a daughter of Lohr," and that the Spessart Museum houses "[k]ey evidence documenting Snow White's origins." At the end it states in playful fairytale terms, "anyone who is still not convinced by our tale shall be made to pay one gold coin."
The theory made an appearance in Lee Goldberg’s 2008 novel Mr. Monk Goes to Germany, a tie-in novel to the American TV series Monk. The “beautiful baroness” is referred to as "Sophie Margaret von Erthal” and its version of her life story is straight from the Lohr hiking trail advertisement:
“Shortly after Sophie's mother died, her father remarried. The evil stepmother owned one of the famous Lohr "speaking mirrors" and was so envious of Sophie's beauty that she ordered the forest warden to kill the young woman. Sophie fled into the woods and took refuge with miners, who had to be very short to work in the cramped tunnels." (Goldberg, p. 88)
Similarly, actress Ginnifer Goodwin - who played Snow White in the TV show Once Upon a Time - assumed that her character's alter ego of Mary Margaret was inspired by "a real-life story of a princess,” “Maria Sophia Margarita.” This was not intentional by the show’s creators, who didn’t know what she was talking about when she brought it up, but Goodwin still created a new wave of buzz for Bartels’s theory when she mentioned it in an interview. (LA Times, 2012)
One historian, Wolfgang Vorwerk - who's continued the research into Maria Sophia's life - has determinedly reminded people of fabulology's joking roots. In 2016, he wrote to a Lohr newspaper stating that fabulology is not a historical argument. Essentially, says Vorwerk, it's a game of comparing the parallels between fairytale and history, with plenty of "self-mockery" and "a wine-loving wink."
Similarly, the Lohr museum's website suggests that lingering questions - like who the prince was, and where Snow White held her wedding - are riddles "that only Franconian wine can answer."
So that's the Maria Sophia von Erthal theory. There are some fun parallels, but the evidence is weak. The timeline is fishy. Tourism materials have intentionally confused the evidence to make it sound more like Snow White. The only proof for the stepmother's evil nature comes from a historian centuries later who was very interested in making her look like an evil stepmother. And it turns out that the whole thing started as a joke inspired by a famous hoax. Honestly, I just want to take a moment to savor how many deliciously bonkers moments this story includes. When I first saw a picture of the Horror White statue, I almost fell out of my chair.
So, anyway, the evidence. We'll return to this debate, but first there's more ground to cover. Next up: the other "real Snow White," Margarethe von Waldeck.
OTHER BLOG POSTS
Lorialets and Mooncalves
I've been researching "lorialets," moonlight-loving spritesdescribed by French fantasy author Pierre Dubois in his Great Encyclopedia of Fairies. Lorialets will have to be a post for another time; Dubois' Encyclopedia is not so much a collection of folklore as it is a guide to the world of his comics, and the only real-world sources he gave for lorialets were the Chroniques Gargantuines or Grandes Chroniques Gargantuines. These are a group of 16th-century chapbooks, not to be confused with the famous Gargantua books by Rabelais. I haven't been able to track these down yet. However, my research along the way took me into some fascinating superstitions about mooncalves.
The belief was that the moon influenced congenital defects. "Mooncalf" was a word for a "monstrous birth."
The historian Preserved Smith suggested that the mooncalf was a translation from the German Mondkalb. In December 1522, a deformed calf was born in Saxony. People thought that the folded skin on its head looked like a monk's cowl, and within a month, a popular new broadside compared the creature to controversial contemporary Martin Luther. The calf's birth was supposed to be a divine sign pointing out the unnatural Luther. It was dubbed the "monk-calf," which Smith suggested was a pun on Mondkalb. An English version referred to it as a "Moonkish Calfe," pretty good evidence for a pun. And this was big news, in part because Martin Luther quickly fired back with a pamphlet saying that the monk-calf symbolized the evil of the Church. Not long after this, the word "mooncalf" started to become popular.
Farther back in history, Pliny's Natural History spoke of "molas" - hard, lifeless masses of flesh, which it was believed a woman conceived on her own without a man. This is where you get the term "molar pregnancy." In Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus Linguæ Romanæ & Britannicæ (1565), Pliny's "mola" was interpreted as "moone calfe." Not too much later, in 1601, Philemon Holland translated Pliny's work as The History of the World, commonly called the Natural Historie of C. Plinius Secundus. Holland also chose to render "mola" as "moonecalfe."
To modern eyes, there's not much connection from Pliny's "mola" to the British authors calling it a "moonecalfe." But if the "Moonkish Calf" was fresh in the author's memory, it makes more sense.
Alternately (and perhaps not exclusively), J. W. Ballantine suggested that "calf" did not mean a baby cow, but a swelling, like the calf of the leg. (Calf coming from a word meaning "to swell" is an established theory.) "Moon" would come from the associations with menstruation found in Pliny. So mooncalf could mean, in Ballantine's theory, "menstrual lump." A 1676 German work used the word "monkalb" or "mutterkalb."
In the early 17th century, mooncalf became a popular term for either a monster, or a fool - this second similar to lunatic, from "luna". Shakespeare used the word for the monstrous character Caliban, from The Tempest, written around 1610; the misshapen Caliban was born to a witch who could control the moon. Chapman's Bussy d'Amboise (1607) calls women "the most perfect images of the Moone (Or still-unweand sweet Mooncalves with white faces)."
There were, in fact, superstitions about what the moon might do to pregnant women. In Breton superstition, if a woman or girl urinates outside under the moonlight, she runs the risk of giving birth to a monstrous being. An account is given of such a thing happening; upon being born the monster scurried beneath the bed, and people killed him with a stick. A second anecdote mentions a Breton servant woman who declared that she had never been with a man, and didn't know how she could have fallen pregnant unless it was the moon's influence. (Revue des Traditions Populaires, xv. (1900) p. 471.)
To sum up: there is a long history of superstition that the moon could influence pregnancy, either causing women to conceive monsters on their own, or creating congenital defects.
What’s the deal with Kensington Gardens and fairies?
Kensington Gardens in London were originally part of a hunting ground created by Henry VIII. In the early 1700s, Henry Wise (Royal Gardener under Queen Anne and later King George I) made numerous adaptations including turning a gravel pit into a sunken Dutch garden. Queen Caroline ordered additional redesigns in 1728. In the 19th century, the Gardens transitioned from the royal family's private gardens to a popular public park and a place for families with children to walk or play.
Over the years, the gardens have gained associations with fairies in literature. This can be traced to the 18th century, when Thomas Tickell (1685-1740) wrote the 1722 poem "Kensington Garden," a mock-epic starring flower fairies and the classical Roman pantheon, which gave the location a mythical origin. The basic plot is that the fairies once lived in that location, until King Oberon's daughter Kenna fell in love with a mortal changeling boy named Albion. This, naturally, led to war. Albion was killed, and while the fairies scattered across the realm in the brutal aftermath of the war, Kenna remained to mourn over his tomb. She eventually instilled royalty and architects with the inspiration for Kensington Palace's garden. Thus, the garden is based directly on the fairy kingdom that once stood there, and the name "Kensington" is derived from the fairy princess Kenna.
"Kensington Garden" was evidently influenced by Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock (also known as the first poem to give fairies wings). Both are mock epics imitating Paradise Lost, but with overwrought adventures of comically tiny fairies. Tickell's fairies are larger than Pope's, though, standing about ten inches tall. (Tickell and Pope were familiar with each other; both produced translations of the Iliad in 1715, and this caused a clash as Pope suspected Tickell of trying to undermine him.)
Note that the title of the poem is "Garden," not "Gardens"; the modern Kensington Gardens were yet to begin construction. The poem was specifically focused on Henry Wise's sunken garden, explaining how that exact spot once held the "proud Palace of the Elfin King."
Despite the faint note of absurdity in the tiny flower sprites, Tickell was working to create a mythical origin for Britain and its notable sites. Tickell's Albion is the son of a faux-mythical English king, also named Albion, who was the son of Neptune. Albion, senior, appeared in Holinshed's Chronicles in the 16th century, and in the fantasy works of Edmund Spenser and Michael Drayton.
Tickell fashioned a story in which "the myths of rural and royal Kensington united" (Feldman, Routledge Revivals, 15). Inspired by the artistic renovations of the palace garden, he created a mythical prince from the dawn of England, whose fairy lover still watched over the modern royal family's home. He wanted to build a mythology showing the British royals' ancient pedigree. It was all part of England's grand heritage, leading back to classical Greece and Rome. Kenna resembles a patron goddess, but you can also see in her an idea of past English monarchs who might not have had children of their own, but whose influence was still felt.
Tickell's influence shows in other works in the years following.
James Elphinston's Education, in Four Books (1763) created a verse description ostensibly of education in general. When he got to the subject of Kensington House (a boys' school which he ran from 1756 to 1776), he described the location in grandiose terms as "Kenna's town... where elfin tribes were oft... seen". (p. 129) The description of the town echoes Tickell's poetry.
Thomas Hull (1728–1808) wrote a masque called "The Fairy Favour" in 1766. It ran in 1767 as the scheduled entertainment for the Prince of Wales' first visit to Covent Garden. This short play is set in a realm called Kenna. As in Tickell's poem, there are fairies named "Milkah" and "Oriel", although in different roles, and changelings are important.
(Interestingly, there were multiple plays written for this occasion, and I'm wondering if the playwrights were given a theme. Rev. Samuel Bishop wrote "The Fairy Benison," which also features Oberon, Titania and Puck celebrating the arrival of the Prince of Wales and blessing him. However, the managers preferred Hull's take on the subject, and that was the one that was presented before the royal family.)
Since then, Tickell's poem has faded from the scene. It popped up now and then. A mention of the poem made it into Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's 1880 Reader's Handbook of Allusions. An 1881 book on the park was titled Kenna's Kingdom: a Ramble Through Kingly Kensington.
Around 1900, there were a couple of resurgences of Kensington Gardens' fairy connections.
First was The Little White Bird by J. M. Barrie, published in 1902. The story was Peter Pan's first foray into the public eye. In this early version, he was a week-old infant who escaped from his pram, learned to fly from the birds, and went to live with the fairies in Kensington Gardens. In 1903, as thanks for The Little White Bird's publicity, Barrie received a private key to Kensington Gardens, and in 1907, several chapters of the book were published on their own under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.
As early as 1907, John Oxberry wrote in the magazine "Notes and Queries" that Barrie had "followed the example" of Tickell. There are certainly parallels. Both stories feature miniature fairies who live among the flowers in Kensington Gardens. In both stories, a human infant is parted from his family and comes to live among the fairies, taking on some of their nature in the process. There are some attractively similar lines; Tickell's colorful fairies resemble "a moving Tulip-bed" from afar, while Barrie's fairies "dress exactly like flowers" (although, in a reversal, they dislike tulips).
British biographer Roger Lancelyn Green, however, emphasized that "there is no proof" and "there is no need to insist that Barrie had read Tickell's poem" (Green pp. 16-17). Miniature fairies clad in petals were generic ideas, everywhere in children's literature. As Green said, Barrie "could easily have arrived at the same conclusions without knowing of this earlier attempt to people Kensington Gardens with fairies." Barrie's strongest influence in using Kensington Gardens was probably that he lived nearby, and it was where he met the family who inspired him to write Peter Pan.
Around the same time as Barrie, Tickell's poem got a second chance at popularity in the form of a sequel: the comic opera "A Princess of Kensington," by Basil Hood and Edward German. It debuted at the Savoy Theatre in London in 1903, and met with mixed success, running for only 115 performances. (Oddly enough, it undermines the original poem, with Kenna beginning the play by stating that she never really had feelings for poor deceased Albion and actually likes some other dude.)
Kensington Gardens has embraced its fairy associations. A statue of Peter Pan was added to the gardens in 1912. In the 1920s, the Elfin Oak was installed. This was a centuries-old stump of wood, gradually decorated by the artist Ivor Innes with carvings and paintings of gnomes, elves, and pixies. With his wife Elsie, Innes produced a 1930 children's book titled The Elfin Oak of Kensington Gardens. Like their predecessors, the fairies of this book emerged by moonlight to dance and frolic.
Was there a pre-Tickell association with fairies? Was there, as Lewis Spence wrote in 1948, "an old folk-belief" that "this locality was anciently a fairy haunt"?
Although Tickell wrote in the poem that he had heard the story as a child from his nurse, Katharine Briggs expressed skepticism. He might well have heard fairy legends, and he certainly included some folklore in the poem, but "since he was born in Cumberland it is perhaps unlikely that his nurse had any traditional lore about Kensington Gardens" (The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, 183). Also note that Tickell was focused on some specific recent renovations to the garden, which wouldn't have had time to collect mythical status. In a book on the garden, Derek Hudson wrote that "Tickell seems to have been the first to establish a fairy mythology for Kensington" (p. 110).
Despite all this, according to a writer in 1909, some people "have gravely taken... Kenna... as a real personage instead of a mere poetic myth."
Tickell and Barrie both placed fairy kingdoms in Kensington Gardens. However, they did so for different reasons, and with different associations for fairies.
For Tickell, the fairies were royalty. This was a long-standing English literary tradition. Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590) treated Queen Elizabeth as a fairy monarch, and Ben Jonson's 1611 masque Oberon, the Faery Prince depicted James I's son as Oberon. In 1767, when celebrating the Prince of Wales' first visit to Covent Garden, playwrights rushed to script plays in which Oberon and Titania welcomed him. The Fairy Favour, the one chosen for performance, actually greets the prince as the son of Oberon and Titania. That prince was King George IV.
The same tradition continued with George IV's niece, Queen Victoria. The 1883 book Queen Victoria: Her Girlhood and Womanhood described the young princess in otherworldly terms: "Victoria might almost have been a fairy-princess, emerging from some enchanted dell in Windsor forest, or a water-nymph evoked from the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens" (emphasis added). Note that the Serpentine, a recreational lake, was added under the direction of Victoria's great great grandmother Queen Caroline.
The royal family were described as fairies and gods in literature. The royal family lived in Kensington Palace. It was natural for Kensington Palace and its surrounding gardens, structured and developed under the royal family's direction, to be a fairy realm.
As the 19th century progressed, this changed. In literature, Fairyland became more and more the domain of children. At the same time, Kensington Gardens became a public park and a place for children. Matthew Arnold's 1852 poem Lines Written in Kensington Gardens imagined the gardens as a forested realm for little ones, "breathed on by the rural Pan." James Douglas's 1916 essays, collected as Magic in Kensington Gardens, depicted the children at play in the gardens as "solemn little fairies weaving enchantments." Barrie's work is, of course, the gold standard, where Kensington is intertwined with fairies and eternal childhood.
So far, Barrie's work seems more enduring than Tickell's. Although most people would probably associate Peter Pan's location with Neverland, the actual Kensington Gardens location now has references to Peter Pan such as the statue. Although both writers drew inspiration from the same location, officials embraced Barrie's work and made it part of the park's identity.
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?
A History of Fairy Dust
Fairy dust: maybe it’s the stuff that sparkles from a fairy godmother’s magic wand. Or maybe fairies just naturally exude it. (Or, if you delve into Disney’s expanded Tinker Bell universe, fairies need it to fly and it is a vital resource for which the characters must occasionally go on perilous quests.) Alternately, in craft stores I’ve come across little bottles of glitter labeled “fairy dust” to be used in a fairy garden. But where did the idea of fairy dust come from?
I went looking for older sources which mentioned fairies in connection with dust. Some are fairly mundane. The fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, like helpful household brownies, “sweep the dust behind the door.” Okay, so that’s not really their dust. In reverse, according to Thomas Keightley, the German kobold “brings chips and saw-dust into the house, and throws dirt into the milk vessels.”
Closer is John Rhys' Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, where he tells of a fisherman named William Ellis who - out on a dark misty day - saw a large crowd of little people about a foot tall, all dancing and making music. Entranced, he watched for hours, but when he approached too close, "they threw a kind of dust into his eyes, and, while he was wiping it away, the little family took the opportunity of betaking themselves somewhere out of his sight, so that he neither saw nor heard anything more of them."
Similar, though it doesn't feature dust per se, is the tale of Yallery Brown. There, the titular elf blows a dandelion puff into a boy's eyes and ears. "Soon as Tom could see again the tiddy [tiny] creature was gone."
George Sand's short story "La fee poussiere" was translated as "The Fairy Dust" in 1891. "Fairy Dust" in this case is the name of a character, a fairylike being who oversees everything from the earth itself to tiny particles of dust. The main character encounters her in a dream.
In Félicité de Choiseul-Meuse's 1820 fairytale "The Marble Princess," a fairy godmother gives a prince "gold dust of the purest quality" to blind serpents so that he can fight them.
"What Mr. Maguire Saw in the Kitchen," an 1862 story, a character waking from a disorienting dream refers to "dust . . . fairy dust that took away my five senses to the other world, and put me beyond myself." (Dialect removed.)
Mary Augusta Ward's Milly and Olly: or, A Holiday Among the Mountains (1881) features a mention of a fairy throwing golden "fairy-dust" into a girl's eyes so that she sees the beauty in a certain place. There are no literal fairies in the book, but the description is significant.
So far, two tales feature dreams, two have dust used to physically blind others, and the last has dust which alters someone's perception of the world.
Why this connection between fairies and dust in the first place? An interesting link might lie with mushrooms. Many varieties are named for the fairies, and they have traditionally been associated with fairies in a number of ways, possibly in part because of some toadstools' hallucinogenic properties.
One particular fungi tied to fairies is the puffball, a mushroom full of brown dust-like spores that are released when it bursts. Other names include "puckball," “puckfist,” “pixie-puff” or “devil’s snuffbox." (In this case, "fist" does not mean a closed hand, but a fart or foul odor. So these mushrooms were the Devil’s/Puck’s/Fairy’s farts.)
In Scotland they were known as Blind Man’s Ball or Blind Man’s Een (eyes). John Jamieson suggested in 1808 that this was due to a belief that the spores caused blindness. However, it’s also possible that they were named for their resemblance to eyeballs. The mushroom connection is fun, but European puffball mushrooms are evidently not hallucinogenic.
Another possible plant association: pollen, which can look like golden (yellow) dust, and which would have become a stronger link as the modern flower fairy gained popularity. The Victorian educational children's book, Fairy Know-a-Bit, or, A Nutshell of Knowledge (1866) declares that fairies refer to pollen as "gold-dust" and love "to sprinkle [it] over each other in sport."
There is another very old tie between fairies and dust. Traditionally, fairies were believed to be present in the dust clouds stirred up by the wind on the road. Any humans on the road should beware, and show respect to the otherworldly travelers. The cloud of dust might even contain kidnapped humans who were carried along with the fairies. It's been suggested that the Rumpelstiltskin-like character Whuppity Stoorie has a name meaning whipped-up dust, or stoor. For a similar concept, think of the term "dust devil" for a whirlwind.
This idea may be tracked back to the 17th century at least. In 1662, accused witch Isobel Gowdie pulled from fairy lore for her confession. She described how witches, like fairies, would use tiny grass stalks as horses to "fly away, where we would, even as straws fly upon a highway" – in a whirlwind of bits of straw above the road. She added that "If anyone sees these straws in a whirlwind, and do not bless themselves, we may shoot them dead at our pleasure. Any that are shot by us... will fly as our horses, as small as straws."
There's also a touch of the idea of perception here. Humans perceive only a cloud of dust, but those "in the know" realize that fairies are traveling unseen.
In Teutonic Mythology vol. 3, Jacob Grimm makes a reference to witches' or devil's ashes being strewn to raise storms, and Richilde (enemy of Robert the Frisian) throwing dust in the air with "formulas of imprecation" to destroy her enemies.
One more traditional connection between fairies and dust is quite sinister. In many stories, when a human returns from Fairyland, they do so without realizing that they’ve unwittingly spent centuries away from our world. King Herla, for instance, gets a nasty shock when some of his friends dismount from their horses only to crumble into dust the second their feet touch the ground.
However, the key to modern fairy dust is the story of the Sandman. In European folklore, every night a mythical being sprinkles sand or dust into children’s eyes to send them to sleep and give them dreams. The sand/dust may be a way to explain the “sleep” or gritty discharge left in someone’s eyes when they wake up in the morning.
E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story Der Sandmann features a sinister Sandman who steals children’s eyes after throwing sand at them. Hans Christian Andersen’s 1841 tale "Ole Lukøje" ("Mr. Shut-eye") has a gentle sleep-bringer who sprinkles “sweet milk” into children’s eyes. However, subsequent translations changed this to “powder” or “dust" as the character was gradually merged with the Sandman.
There was overlap with the fairy world, and this would only increase. A 1915 dictionary defined the Sandman as "a household elf.”
The children's play “Bluebell in Fairyland,” first produced in 1901, was one of the inspirations for Peter Pan. The main character's travel to Fairyland is framed as a dream. Per John Kruse's site British Fairies, the play mentions the "dustman" (Sandman) and features golden dust being strewn as the characters fall asleep and enter Fairyland. Unfortunately, the play's script and lyrics are not currently available where I can access them.
Algernon Blackwood's 1913 book A Prisoner of Fairyland may also have been influenced by Bluebell. It features a “Dustman” who sprinkles golden dust “fine as star-dust” into people’s eyes to cause them to sleep. Again: sleep, dreams and fairyland are interconnected.
But it was J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (play published 1904, novel published 1911) which really popularized the modern view of fairy dust. From the moment Peter Pan first physically appears in the novel, he is accompanied by fairy dust: “the window was blown open by the breathing of the little stars, and Peter dropped in. He had carried Tinker Bell part of the way, and his hand was still messy with the fairy dust.”
The dust which Tinker Bell exudes bestows children with the ability to fly, and to travel to Neverland, which is made up of their own imaginative stories and daydreams. The island is first described in a sequence where the Darlings' mother examines her sleeping children's minds. When the children reach the island, they find all the locations and characters they've dreamed up. At one point Peter Pan speaks to "all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think."
Disney’s animated adaptation came out in 1953. They altered it a little, calling the stuff “pixie dust.” Tinker Bell became an instant mascot, and her pixie dust was a callword for Disney. (They use "pixie" and "fairy" interchangeably to refer to the character, which is a post for another time.) Neverland's status as both fairyland and dreamworld is toned down in the film version, but still hinted at. The Darling children meet Peter Pan when he wakes them in the middle of the night, and - unlike the book - after they return, their parents enter the room only to find them fast asleep, as if they never left.
Disney's ubiquitous Peter Pan helped popularize the modern idea of fairy dust as glittering stuff given off by fairies or pixies. It was also an important step in leaving behind the associations with dreams and, thus, the Sandman.
Associations between fairies and dust are very old, seen in the whirlwind transportation and in puffball mushrooms. By the 1800s, we have mentions in literature tying fairy dust to vision, eyesight, dreams, and perception of reality. Ultimately fairies and the Sandman were equated, as were Fairyland and Dreamland. At this point, they've diverged. However, I am reminded of the 2012 animated film Rise of the Guardians, where the Sandman works with glowing golden sand that looks a lot like Disney Tinker Bell's pixie dust. Also, "fairy dust" and similarly "angel dust" are slang terms for drugs, keeping that idea of a change in perception.
References and Further Reading
Today, if you search around on the Internet, you may encounter the idea that Titania and Mab are opposing queens, representing Summer and Winter Courts or "Seelie and Unseelie" Courts. I've even found the claim that this is drawn from ancient legend - but is that true? There is also a common idea that Mab as queen of fairies is somehow older than Titania. In 1993, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica claimed that Mab's "place as queen of the fairies in English folklore was eventually taken over by Titania." The entry is misleading, as we will see that both Mab and Titania are Shakespeare's creations. If you go back to the source, Mab may not be a queen at all. It was in literature after Shakespeare that Mab usurped the place of the more regal and powerful Titania as Oberon's wife.
Around Shakespeare’s time - just before, and just after - fairy queen characters showed up under varied names: Gloriana, Chloris, Aureola, Caelia. Proserpina, or Persephone, was sometimes the leading lady. In grimoires, there were Micol and Sybillia. There was also the old medieval tradition of a queen of witches or fairies, who led her followers in a midnight revel traveling across the world. This figure might be known as Herodias, Diana, or a thousand variations.
However, perhaps most often, fairy queens were nameless figures. William Shakespeare changed that.
A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet were both likely composed sometime in the mid-1590s. Which came first? That's up for debate. But it seems generally agreed that they were written within a few years of each other.
A Midsummer Night's Dream featured Oberon and Titania as godlike figures. Although their subjects were miniscule beings who tended flowers and could hide inside acorn cups, the rulers commanded the weather and hailed from far-flung realms like India. "Proud Titania" has human worshippers, and with her husband she holds sway over the four seasons. Her romances with humans imply that she is of roughly human scale.
The name "Titania" or "Titanis" appeared in Ovid's Metamorphoses as an epithet for several goddesses who were descendants of Titans. One "Titania" is Circe, a sorceress who transforms men into beasts. Another is Diana, who is called Titania while bathing in a woodland pond within a sacred grove. When a man sees her naked, she transforms him into a stag to be torn apart by his own hunting hounds. Both of these scenes are echoed in Shakespeare's character Bottom, whose head is switched for a donkey's, and with whom a magically roofied Titania falls in love.
Diana was a Roman goddess, equivalent to the Greek Artemis - goddess of the moon, the hunt, wild animals, and unwed girls. The wilderness and the night are both fitting associations for a fairy queen. However, it also brings to mind the medieval Diana as leader of a nighttime witches' revel. James VI's Daemonologie (1597) said that "Diana and her wandering court . . . amongst us is called Fairy . . . or our good neighbours."
Diana has ties to Hecate, and Hecate to Persephone. So Titania is a super-combo of classical and medieval references – Artemis, Circe, Hecate, Persephone. Goddesses of night, nature, the underworld, witchcraft, and transformation.
Titania is not the only reference here to Ovid; the play also features the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Honestly, the play is set in the time of Greek myth and features the hero Theseus.
Romeo and Juliet featured a very different fairy queen. She does not appear onstage, but is described in jest. "Queen Mab" is "the fairies' midwife." She is also the "hag" who presses people as they sleep - making her a nightmare or succubus. Hag was a common name for this type of spirit.
Mab is a being on bug scale, who as a midwife brings forth not children, but dreams, sex dreams and nightmares. She does ride at night, like some older fairy queens, but her passage is through people's minds, "through lovers' brains." She is so tiny that her ride is not a rampage through forests and air, but over people’s lips or fingers. Her physical actions consist of tickling noses, tangling hair in knots, and delivering blisters or cold sores.
There have been numerous suggestions for Mab's etymology.
Mab is Welsh for "child," tying to her small size.
Mab comes from Medb or Maeve, an imposing warrior queen of Irish mythology. This is perhaps the most commonly cited explanation: Goddess-queen Medb evolved into Fairy Queen Mab.
Mab is connected to the medieval French "Domina Abundia" or "Dame Habonde." Her name means "Lady Abundance." According to William of Auvergne (d. 1249), Domina Abundia and her attendants were believed to enter houses at night and bless anyone who left out food for them - a lot like the Diana/Herodias figure. The M would have been added in the same way you get Ned from Edward, etc., or perhaps from "Dame Abonde" running together into one word.
Wirt Sikes wrote in 1880 that the queen of the Welsh ellyllon (tiny elves) was none other than Mab, and thus Shakespeare must have gotten Mab from "his Welsh informant."
Mab is short for "Amabilis," or lovable.
There is another option. Before Romeo and Juliet, there was a play titled The Historie of Jacob and Esau. This play, performed in 1558 and published in 1568, featured a midwife named Deborra, who is called a witch, a "heg" (hag), "Tib" (a typical name for lower-class English woman, used to mean girl, sweetheart, or prostitute), and finally Mab - "thou mother Mab... olde rotten witche."
Queen Mab is a hag and a midwife . . . just like Deborra. She is not a teeny-tiny Medb or Dame Abonde, but she is a teeny-tiny Deborra.
In fact, is Queen Mab a queen? Or is she a quean - a word for either a woman or a prostitute? This fits with the sexual innuendo throughout the passage. It also makes more sense than a member of royalty working at such a job as midwifery. Other than her title, she is not queenly in the slightest. She's identified as "the fairies' midwife," not "the fairies' queen." We do not see her in any kind of leadership role, as we do Titania. Jennifer Ailes even suggests that Mab is never directly identified as a fairy or a [royal] queen. She is just the fairies' midwife - and there is a large body of tales with titles like "The Fairy's Midwife," where fairies do not go to one of their own for help with childbirth, but to a human. Clearly Mab is not human, but just because she is the fairies' midwife does not mean she is a fairy herself.
In addition, "Mab" was a word for a slattern or dirty, unkempt woman, dating to the 1550s. Ailes suggests that "Mother Mab" was a traditional name for a witch, explaining why it was used for Deborra. Or maybe Mab was simply a nickname for a dirty, slovenly woman. So then, Queen Mab's name might be simply "Mistress Slattern" or "Mrs. Lazybones."
This “mab” could be derived from Mabel – much as the girls’ name Tib (possibly short for Isabel) gained similar connotations. In Elizabethan times, "Tom and Tib" were common names used to mean boy and girl, much like Jack and Jill. Tib became a generic word for girl, sweetheart or prostitute. Tib is another name used for Deborra. Incidentally, around the 1630s, a fairy named Tib shows up independently in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, and in the poem Nymphidia. Both Tibs are close to the leadership ranks – at least, Robin Goodfellow’s Tib is one of the chief female fairies, and Nymphidia’s Tib is one of the fairy queen’s maids of honor. Also, both Tibs are part of a team of fairies with rhythmic, monosyllabic names – “Sib and Tib, and Licke and Lull” in the first, and “Fib and Tib, and Pink and Pin, Tick and Quick,” etc., etc. in the second. So, two things: first, this was the fashion for fairy names at the time. Second, it was quite common for a generic human name to be applied to an otherworldly being. Another example is Thomas, seen as Tom Thumb, Tam Lin, Tom Tit Tot, and Thomas the Feary.
Shakespeare was the apparent tipping point in a huge fad of tiny fairies. Previously, fairies had been either human-scale or the size of children - the old Oberon, of Huon fame, was three feet tall. But now everyone was jumping on the bandwagon with flowery poetry about fairies who, unlike their folkloric ancestors, were practically jokes. They were far too small to be effectual at anything. They skipped about and hid inside flowers. Oberon remained as the fairy king. However, the goddess-like Titania did not accompany him. Instead, as Thomas Keightley said, Mab was such a hit that she "completely dethroned Titania." The wee lady called "Queen" who rode in a hazelnut-shell chariot was the only fitting empress for this generation of fairy.
The first known sign of this was in Ben Jonson's Entertainment at Althorp, presented to Queen Anne in 1603. In this performance, Queen Mab and her attendants welcome the queen. She is described as a prankster, like Shakespeare's Mab - she "rob[s] the dairy" and partakes in typical fairy mischief, but she also has regal associations. She is undeniably queen and ruler of the fairies. She pays homage to Anne as previous fairy queens did to her predecessor, Elizabeth. In a similar masque years before, fairy queen "Aureola" gave Elizabeth a flowery garland; in this one, stage directions call for Mab to give Anne a "jewel." In literature, Elizabeth was obeyed by and represented by fairy queens. Now it was Anne's turn.
Mab was not yet paired with Oberon, but that was soon to come - in "Nymphidia," a mock-epic poem by Michael Drayton, published in 1627. Here again we have Oberon and Puck running around with lots of furor over romance... but Oberon's queen is Mab. Many of the fairies in this play have cutesy monosyllabic names (like Tib); this may be why Drayton leaned towards Mab. Her name fit his style. Drayton also mentioned Mab in his work "The Muses Elyzium." Despite the comedy of their tiny size, there is still a touch of fear to the fairies, with reminders that Mab is really a succubus.
Robert Herrick followed suit in the 1620s and 1630s with many fairy poems. Oberon and Mab feature together in "The beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen," and in the rather disturbing "Oberon's Palace." As in Nymphidia, there is an eerie sense with these fairies, whose palaces are crafted from the body parts of humans, animals and insects.
In following years, Mab continued to be a hit, appearing as Oberon's consort in:
Newcastle and Randolph give the longest descriptions of Mab and Oberon; the others are just brief mentions, with no explanations necessary, for Mab was familiar enough to their audiences as the Fairy Queen. As time went on, Mab continued to be instantly recognizable. She was mentioned in Peter Pan, for instance. Such is Mab's ubiquity that she could be the ancient, evil queen of the Old Magic in the 1998 TV miniseries Merlin, while also the benevolent monarch of the pixies in the 1999 film FairyTale: A True Story.
On that note, back to Titania. After her adventure in A Midsummer Night's Dream, her history was much less busy than Mab's. She didn't capture the popular mind the way Mab did. There were a few exceptions. She was the fairy queen in Dekker's work "The Whore of Babylon" in 1607, and in The Changeling, a 1622 play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. She also appeared in the heavily Shakespeare-based masque "The Fairy Favour" by Thomas Hull (1766).
Like Mab, Titania apparently made it into at least some oral folklore. In Thomas Pennant’s 1772 book Tour in Scotland, and voyage to the Hebrides, Titania is identified not only as queen of fairies and wife of Oberon, but as the “ben-shi,” literally “fairy woman,” who gave the MacLeod clan a blessed Fairy Flag.
She made a comeback as centuries passed, not really becoming popular until around the Victorian era, when she began regaining her status as Oberon's consort in literature and other media. She appeared in Christoph Martin Wieland’s 1780 poem Oberon, based on both the Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Huon narrative. This influential poem was adapted several times, including into an opera. She was also in the comic opera A Princess of Kensington (1903).
This was also the era when Titania and Mab both began showing up in the same stories. There was some waffling over whether the two were interchangeable.
"We have noticed the general name given to the queen of the fairies, that of Titania; we must not forget that she was sometimes called Mab," according to Henry Christmas, writing in 1841. John Ogilvie's Imperial Dictionary (1859) concludes that Oberon's "wife's name was Titania or Mab." An article in the 1910 Fortnightly Review questioned if Titania and Mab were the same being or not, but seemed to tend towards "yes."
In 1847, in The People's Journal, W. Cooke Stafford suggested that Mab was queen of "dark spirits" of the night, and Titania rules the "superior intelligences" (?) who do not fear sunlight. This is the closest I've seen so far to Mab and Titania being queens of dark and light or whatever.
According to The Century Dictionary in 1895, "Titania, the fairy queen, is not the same person" as Mab. Even more audacious, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) listed Mab as “the faries’ [sic] midwife. Sometimes incorrectly called queen of the fairies."
On to Titania and Mab appearing in the same works:
The Sloane Manuscript 1727 (a 17th-century manuscript in the British Museum) includes a treatise on magic. Katharine Briggs quoted it describing the "treasures of the earth" as "florella, Mical, Tytan, Mabb lady to the queene." The queen whom "Mabb" serves may be Mical or Micol, who is called "regina pigmeorum" in the same book. Tytan and Mabb recall Titania and Mab. In particular, Titan, Titem and other variations were often invoked in grimoires.
In Thomas Hood's 1827 poem "The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies," both Mab and Titania make an appearance, and in 1876, both appeared in in the story "Titania's Farewell" in The Case of Mr Lucraft and Other Tales. In these tales, Mab is a queen, but apparently subordinate to Titania, who is the real queen bee. (Their positions are flipped in the 1913 play "A Good Little Devil" by Rosemond Gerard and Maurice Rostand, later turned into a film starring Mary Pickford.)
Titania and Mab were at odds for perhaps the first time in Camilla Crosland's 1866 children's book The Island of the Rainbow. Here Queen Titania is the wise and gracious queen of the fairies, while "Quean Mab" is a "little spiteful mischievous old Fairy - who, by the bye, must herself have put it into the heads of mortals that she was a Queen." Mab is actually on trial when she appears in the book. Of course by this point in time, being written for children, any good fairies must distance themselves from traditional fairy activities of spoiling milk or making mischief. Still, it seems a little ironic when Mab is the one accused of these crimes, while Puck is a humble servant to the morally upright Titania.
So what about Titania and Mab as leaders of opposing forces?
I think the idea has its basis in a new movement towards classifying all these folktales. Researchers in the 19th and 20th centuries - like William Butler Yeats, Wirt Sikes, and Katharine Mary Briggs - became concerned with categorizing fairies. This moved into fiction, as authors began breaking up fairies into categories. Good and evil. Light and dark. Seelie and unseelie (drawing on a Scottish fairy term meaning essentially "blessed people"). Or summer and winter.
As for Titania and Mab being the leaders: I tried to track this idea through published books. Here is what I have found:
The idea of opposing fairy courts known as Summer and Winter or Seelie and Unseelie has also become very prevalent in recent literature. I can think of multiple YA novel examples from the past 20 years.
Another common idea is that Mab was the first fairy queen, and that Titania is her successor. This has appeared in extra-canonical materials for the 90's TV show Gargoyles, as well as the novels God Save the Queen by Mike Carey (2009) and The Treachery of Beautiful Things by Ruth Long (2013).
To sum up: Titania and Mab as counterparts or enemies is a new idea. Both were created by Shakespeare around the same time, but served very different roles. They weren't even opposing roles - just unique. Titania, inspired by classical Greek goddesses, was a queenly nature deity. Mab, based on stereotypical English midwives and the idea of the nightmare demon, was a microscopic hag who delivered dreams instead of babies.
However, unlike Titania Mab entered popular culture from the beginning. She tied in better with fashions of the time. She even usurped Titania's place as Oberon's bride; he was the archetypal fairy king even before Shakespeare, and Mab became the archetypal fairy queen. I wonder if even royal themes at the time at something to do with it - Mab's name is the same number of syllables as Queen Anne, and one of Mab's most important early appearances was in a play for Anne. Meanwhile, Titania made a comeback around the time of Queen Victoria.
Today, the idea of the two Shakespearean fairy queens as rivals has been popularized by authors like Jim Butcher. Titania, who appears in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and who proclaims "The summer still doth tend upon my state" is the clear front-runner for summer (even though she really oversees all seasons). For a counterpart, why not Mab, who is equally Shakespearean and has associations with nightmares and mischief?
Do you know of other sources where Titania and Mab are either the same person, or diametrically opposed? Leave a comment!
If there's one historical mystery I'm dying to know the answer to, it's what was going on with General Tom Thumb's baby. The baby hoax has become one in a long litany of P. T. Barnum's frauds and humbugs. To cut a long story short, two of his performers, under the stage names General and Mrs. Tom Thumb, posed with a baby and performed with it to fake the impression that they had had a child. One website I encountered suggested that as part of the offensive hoax, a different baby was used for every single publicity photo. Another took the opposite tack: that the Thumbs really had a daughter, but that another baby was borrowed for photos because the real baby wasn't "photogenic" enough. Confusion abounds. So now, I'm going to take a plunge into the actual news articles from the time.
Charles Sherwood Stratton, or General Tom Thumb, began his life as one of Barnum's most famous performers when he was about four years old. He and his wife Lavinia Warren - who Barnum "discovered" when she was 21 and Charles 25 - were little people. In December 1862, to drum up attention, Barnum coyly published letters dated December 1862, where he begged Lavinia to come work with him. This method seems to have worked well. In January 1863, Harper's Weekly raved about Lavinia's first appearance and crowed, "General Tom Thumb and Commodore Nutt are henceforth not without hope." From her first appearance, people were trying to pair her off.
The showrunners wasted no time. Her wedding to General Tom Thumb was the following month, in February. The New York Times had all the details, from the design of Lavinia's gown to the list of wedding gifts - “all of which were very nice, excepting the common affair of a cradel [sic] with which some person of little wit and less modesty encumbered the table.” For contemporaries, the idea of the Strattons reproducing was both engrossing and taboo. In the Sketch of the life, personal appearance, character and manners of Charles S. Stratton, the man in miniature, known as General Tom Thumb, and his wife, Lavinia Warren Stratton, an 1863 pamphlet possibly penned by Barnum himself, the Strattons were called a "mimic miniature Adam and Eve." The writer pondered whether they should be "the inventors of a race of humanity which . . . shall grow small by degrees."
The Strattons began entertaining, giving their "levees" and often posing in their wedding costumes. They worked with fellow performer Commodore Nutt and Lavinia's younger sister Minnie.
However, the rumors had begun, which was doubtlessly what Barnum had hoped for all along. On 15 December 1863, the South Australian Register noted, "The American papers record that the wife of General Tom Thumb is enceinte."
The Strattons were performing through November, December and January.
The New York Reformer. February 09, 1864. "Mrs. Gen. Tom Thumb became a mother a few weeks since. Tom is said to have danced a hornpipe at the announcement."
The Daily Ohio Statesman. February 16, 1864. “‘Mrs. Tom Thumb,’ says the Boston Post, ‘is a mother.’ ‘The Post is more premature than the Princess of Wales,’ responds the Cincinnati Commercial, and says to the Post--”Don’t be in a hurry about the little Thumb.’ Of course the Commercial knows, or ought to know, all about the delicate point, as Mrs. Thumb is on exhibition in that city.”
The Quad-City Times, Davenport, Iowa. February 20, 1864. "Mrs. General Tom Thumb is reported to have become a mother, to the great joy of the General."
Tri-states Union. March 4, 1864. "If the report be true, why, look out for a profitable show in six or eight months - Tom Thumb, and Tom Thumb's Wife, and Tom Thumb's Wife's Baby!"
Liverpool Mercury, etc. Tuesday, March 8, 1864. "The wife of General Tom Thumb was delivered of a son and heir on the 22nd of January.”
The Sacramento Daily Union, March 14, 1864. "Mrs. General Tom Thumb, it is said, gave birth to a child on the 12th of January."
The Burlington Weekly Sentinel. March 18, 1864. "The newspapers (scaly fellows) report that Mrs. Gen. Tom Thumb was -- and has --. It turns out, however, to be a hoax... So Tom didn't dance the hornpipe after all, as was reported. In other words, there isn't any little Thumb yet."
The Troy Weekly Times, March 19, 1864. "A Connecticut paper [Charles was from Connecticut] says that 'the statement which has appeared in numerous journals to the effect that Mrs. Tom Thumb had become a mother is somewhat premature as we are assured upon the very best authority that the great event is not expected to occur before the month of July next.'"
Rumors flew from place to place, varying from paper to paper and by word of mouth. The baby might be a boy. The birth might have occurred in January, or it might be expected in July. During all this, the Strattons were apparently still performing.
In October 1864, the troupe departed for a tour in England. They arrived in Liverpool on the steamship City of Washington, and with them was their baby. The Daily Post from Liverpool reported on November 12th, 1864, that the Strattons were accompanied by their "infant daughter" who would be "twelve months old on the 5th of December."
The birthdate could just be the result of careless reporting. However, Barnum had advertised a five-year-old Charles as an older child to make him seem smaller. Maybe this was the same principle. All that aside, December 5, 1863, was the official birth date for the Thumb baby. A medal produced by the Barnum Museum shows an image of the family trio, and refers to the Strattons' daughter with that birthdate. The Sketch of the Lives of C. S. Stratton and his wife, etc (1865) repeats this: "On the 5th of December, 1863, Mrs. Stratton gave birth to a female infant, weighing at the time of its birth but three pounds."
The baby was an instant hit, but the main question was how big she was. Charles and Lavinia were both average-sized infants but stopped growing at a young age. It would have been impossible to say whether the baby was done growing. Everyone had an opinion, though.
The Morning Post in London said that she "partakes of the proportions of her parents."
The Lancet wrote "The diminutive pair seem very proud of their offspring; whether it will be of the same Liliputian stamp we cannot at present say."
And the Morning Herald called the child "heiress to the Stratton name and fortune, but not to the Thumb inches, if we may judge by present looks, for the little girl (called Minnie, after her aunt) is just a year old and already weighs 7 3/4 lbs."
In the midst of all this, the baby had a name: Minnie Stratton, after Lavinia's beloved sister and fellow performer.
On November 24, 1864, the Morning Post in London reported the Tom Thumb company's visit to the Prince and Princess of Wales. "The Princess of Wales bestowed much attention on the pretty little infant."
The baby was "a pretty little girl, with light silken hair and a vivacious disposition," according to the Soldiers' Journal on December 14, 1864.
The London Daily News, on December 20 1864, reported the Thumb party's performance at the Crystal Palace, where Baby Minnie was a hit. "The ladies enjoyed the luxury of a close inspection of the General's baby, and of overwhelming the poor little thing, much to its annoyance, with kisses."
The reporter seems taken with the comedy of Charles Stratton being defeated by a fretful baby: "He made several valiant attempts to induce her to put on a pair of gloves nearly an inch long, and when at last he had had his ears sufficiently boxed, and the gloves thrown in his face for his pains, he made a very skilful retreat, and left the baby in possession of the field. "
The reporter also remarked on the resemblance of the child to her parents.
The advertisements continued, milking the Stratton family image for all it was worth. A letter published in the Times-Picayune in January 1865, and in the Santa Fe Weekly Post, in February 1865, described meeting the performers in Paris. The description of Minnie Stratton ends on an odd note.
"[T]he lion of the party was the baby, a little girl twelve months old, looking the picture of health and, without exaggeration, extremely beautiful. The face has nothing of the dwarf about it, but my observation that she looked as big as an ordinary child of her age was not approved by the secretary, who assured me that the weight was something very far below the average, and, lifting up the expensive lace frock, showed me her little feet in red morocco shoes, which are not larger than those of a moderate sized doll. My inquiry whether the child was expected to grow up a dwarf, met with the cautious answer that there was 'no precedent.' This is, I believe, true. There is, I am pretty sure, no instance of such a small child as Tom Thumb and his wife having been the progenitors of a child. I venture to prophecy, however, that Miss Minnie Stratton (that is the name of the infant) will, if she lives to attain her majority, be nearer the ordinary size of mankind than that of her parents. I do not believe in the foundation of a race of pigmies."
In August 1865, the Sacramento Daily Union reported on the party's visit to Windsor Castle, and actually gave an idea of what their performances were like.
"The performance commenced shortly before four o'clock, being opened by Mrs. Tom Thumb with a song, "My Native Land." This was followed by "Impersonations of Billy O'Rourke" and "Napoleon Bonaparte" by General Tom Thumb. Mrs. Stratton, the General's wife, then introduced her infant daughter."
The baby was yet another part of the act, to be brought out, passed around and cooed over between songs and jokes.
But it was not to last. The Morning Post reported on 26 September 1866 that "Yesterday Minnie Stratton— or, as the child used to call herself, Minnie Tom Thumb— the infant daughter of General and Mrs. Tom Thumb, died at the Norfolk Hotel, Norwich."
She would have been roughly two years old.
The Norfolk News reported on her burial in the local cemetery. Cause of death was given as "gastric fever;" other papers reported it as "inflammation of the brain." Although the funeral was supposed to be private, it was mobbed by about a thousand people. "It is said to be the intention the General to apply for an order to have the corpse removed to America, his native land, when he himself returns.”
The grave still stands in the Norfolk cemetery, and Minnie is listed in the local death records as the daughter of Charles Stratton. Newspapers reported cancellations of performances "owing to the death of little Minnie Stratton." The Strattons' fellow performers Commodore Nutt and Minnie Warren were on their own for several shows. Minnie Stratton's death was treated seriously.
And that was it. The party went back to performing.
In July 1878, Minnie Warren died in childbirth. Her baby, who also died, weighed six pounds. According to obituaries, Minnie had expected a miniature baby and sewed clothes based on doll patterns, "one-sixth the size of garments for ordinary babies." Her husband, however, as well as P.T. Barnum, had been apprehensive, according to the news.
One obituary for Minnie Warren mentioned "the memory of the spurious Thumb baby." At this point, at least some Americans had decided that Minnie Stratton - whose heyday took place an ocean away - was a hoax.
But the troupe itself made no such admission. Sylvester Bleeker, the Strattons' manager for many years, gave an 1882 interview mentioning the child.
"Mrs. General Tom Thumb's baby was one of the prettiest little girls I have ever seen...It was a perfect picture of Minnie Warren, Mrs. Thumb's sister, and everybody knows how beautiful she was. Lavinia Warren was married to Charles S. Stratton (Gen. Tom Thumb) in 1863... The baby was born a year after, and the event was heralded all over the world. The child was like other children in size, but was prettier than the average, and was healthy and bright. Mrs. Thumb idolized her baby, and when death took it from her, the blow was almost more than she could bear. The little girl lived to be two years and eight months old, and died of gastric fever in Norwich, England. She was made a great pet by the English ladies, who were in the habit of giving her sweet meats and candies, and I think this was one of the causes that led to little Minnie's death."
Charles Stratton's obituary in the New York Times, published July 1883, mentioned that "He had one child, born in Brooklyn 14 years ago, who only lived two years. It was of ordinary size.” (This would place the child’s birth in 1869 and death in 1871.)
An odd sidenote: the Galveston Daily News, in August 1892, reported the wedding of another couple of performers with dwarfism. There, the writer mentioned in passing "They say . . . that Tom Thumb's son is nearly 6 feet high and that he is very proud of his little mother.”
Then, in April 1901, an article was published in several papers titled "Tom Thumb's Widow Reveals Secrets of the Show." It claims that about a year after the Strattons' wedding:
"an innocent little item was smuggled into the English papers to the effect that the Tom Thumbs had A Baby Son. It was widely copied, and by the time Mr. Barnum and his midget charges arrived the British public was worked up to a considerable degree of expectancy as regarded the baby. In Egyptian Hall, London, they were exhibited all over again - General Thumb, Mrs. Thumb, and the baby. The performance was repeated all over Europe, and the Thumbs came back richer than they had ever been before. People have occasionally wondered since then whatever became of that baby! ...
"I never had a baby," [Lavinia] declared recently. “The Exhibition Baby came from a foundling hospital in the the first place, and was renewed as often as we found it necessary. A real baby would have grown. Our first baby - a boy - grew very rapidly. At the age of four years he was taller than his father. This would never do... We appealed to Mr. Barnum. He agreed with us. He thought our baby should not grow. Thus we exhibited English babies in England, French babies in France, and German babies in Germany. It was - they were - a great success."
This article is widely quoted, but does nothing but raise questions. Early reports did say that they had a son - but when they went touring, it was with a baby girl. This also implies they paraded around with a baby for over 4 years. They were married at the beginning of 1863 and could not have debuted their baby until at least November 1863. The baby's death was announced in England in September 1866. There wasn't time for a baby boy to grow to age four and for more babies to follow. Something here is fishy. Was Lavinia misremembering her past?What was going on here?
And "taller than his father"? This phrase is reminiscent of the declaration that Minnie Stratton, age one, weighed “7 ¾ lbs., which we take it is more than her father weighed at the same age.” That’s as much as an average newborn weighs today, so I’m not sure what they were trying to say there. It is clear that the marketing team was trying to push the idea that the baby was unusually small, but observers were not always convinced and there was some arguing over whether the baby would grow. Now we’ve got an affirmation that the baby did indeed grow. Or is this line, perhaps, an echo of the rumor that Tom Thumb’s son grew up to be six feet tall?
Lavinia would be of no further help. In 1906, she wrote a series of five articles for the New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, and went on to publish an autobiography. She never mentioned the baby, though she included many details about her tour through Europe beginning in 1864. That year, newspapers had made much of the baby - but in Lavinia's account, there's not even a hint of any baby's existence. No real baby, no hoax baby. No babies whatsoever, except for her sister's tragic pregnancy.
In April 1946, Edna L. Bump - wife of Lavinia's nephew Benjamin J. Bump - wrote a letter to the editor of New York Times regarding an article on the Strattons.
"The Tom Thumbs never had a child. The child shown in that picture was borrowed for a publicity stunt when they were employed by Barnum."
Benjamin mentioned the baby hoax in his own pamphlet about the Strattons, "The Story that Never Grows Old," in 1953. Alice Curtis Desmond, in her 1954 book Barnum Presents General Tom Thumb, quoted Benjamin on this strange "family secret." In Desmond's account, Barnum was solely responsible for the hoax. "He hired infants wherever the circus happened to be, with their mothers as nursemaids" (page 215). (Note that these are not foundling hospital babies; their parents are along for the ride.) Here, Lavinia was a victim of the hoax, broken-hearted by her inability to have a child.
Gradually, this new narrative spread. People stopped mentioning a child born to General Tom Thumb, and instead told the story of a manipulative baby-exploiting hoax. The rediscovery of Minnie Stratton's grave and death records came as a shock when publicized in the BBC documentary The Real Tom Thumb: History's Smallest Superstar (2014).
One online article declares that the baby in the photographs was actually Lavinia's nephew "Gus." I have been unable to find any support for this suggestion. However, with research through ancestry.com, I did learn that Lavinia had a nephew named William Sherwood Wilbar, or Willie, born to her sister Sarah on May 9, 1864. The same time as those birth rumors.
There’s nothing to indicate that William ever posed as the Strattons’ child for photos. However, it’s intriguing that he shared a middle name with Charles. Could the rumors have been colored by the fact that Lavinia’s sister was pregnant, and that the Strattons might have been seen in the vicinity of a newborn boy?
I still hold that Lavinia probably could not have carried a child to term. If it was anything like her or Charles, it would have been a fairly large baby and complications would easily have arisen. That was exactly how her sister Minnie later died. The official narrative was that Lavinia gave birth to a three-pound girl. Improbable, but Minnie Warren seems to have bought into the idea.
Lavinia was also touring during the time a Stratton baby would have been born. It makes sense for the baby to be a fraud, although that makes the grave mysterious. But the later account of the fraud is just as confusing and doesn't match up with the timeline shown by newspapers.
A big part of the hoax is the photos that are left. These would have been sold as souvenirs. I’ve been collecting all the photos I can of the Stratton family, and there are two groups in particular that seem to have been taken in long photo sessions at different periods in time. You can identify two studios, with common set pieces. The clothes – particularly Lavinia’s gowns – are also clear markers.
As for the baby, there are clear differences between the two groups of photos, BUT it is hard to say whether we are looking at two different children, or one child at different stages of development. There is no obvious “OMG that’s a completely different kid!!!” There’s no huge difference in facial structure.
In the first group of photos, attributed to the famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, the baby lies cradled in Lavinia’s arms, wearing a long christening-syle gown as she gazes directly at the camera. (A photo where she is smiling - here - is the most-reproduced picture of the trio). Her long wisps of hair are visible in several copies, and in one colorized photo have been painted bright yellow. The image at the top of this post has several pictures of the Mathew Brady baby.
In the second group of photos, which I believe were taken by the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company, the baby now sits unsupported, and is much more active (typically seen with face slightly blurred in movement, often looking away from the camera). Her hair looks like it is parted in the middle and smoothed back. She wears dresses with wide skirts. Her size relative to the Strattons does seem roughly the same as before, but it’s hard to tell due to the long gown used in the previous photos. You can see one such photo in this post.
You can find more photos with a simple Google search. What do you think? Are there different babies in the different photos? What was going on with Lavinia's mysteriously inconsistent interview? And who is the child buried in Minnie Stratton's grave?
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.