Doll i' the Grass: An Analysis
Doll i’ the Grass, a Norwegian tale collected by Asbjornsen and Moe, is a variant of Type 402, the Animal Bride. This character is often a kind of frog princess, but sometimes appears as a mouse, a cat, or a tick. I first encountered this tale type in For Biddle’s Sake, by Gail Carson Levine, a retelling of Puddocky.
When I read the Doll's story, it seemed extremely brief and truncated compared to some of the other variants. It’s also a very obscure tale, without much related information. I decided to try to analyze it and figure out more of what’s going on there. Without further ado:
Doll i’ the Grass
Or, more properly, Doll in the Grass. I think the contraction of “in” is an attempt to echo the sound of the original title, “Dukken i Gresset.”
Once on a time there was a King who had twelve sons.
The number twelve is highly symbolic. There are twelve months in a year, twelve Apostles, etc. It appears in stories such as The Twelve Wild Ducks or The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Other common numbers in fairytales are three and seven.
When they were grown big he told them they must go out into the world and win themselves wives, but these wives must each be able to spin, and weave, and sew a shirt in one day, else he wouldn’t have them for daughters-in-law.
Usually, the Animal Bride is given several tasks. It depends on the tone of the tale, but she is either given ridiculously impossible tests such as finding the tiniest dog ever, or tests of domestic skill such as preparing a meal for her father-in-law. Both lead up to a test of which is the most beautiful bride.
Spinning, weaving and sewing a shirt in one day would be an indicator of great domestic skill, perseverance, and diligence. Spinning often shows up in fairy tales as a feminine task. In The Three Spinners and the related Rumpelstiltskin, the girl is chosen as bride based on her apparent spinning skills. It was tedious and unlikeable work, but a necessary chore and a vital skill for women in that time – even, apparently, for princesses.
To each he gave a horse and a new suit of mail, and they went out into the world to look after their brides; but when they had gone a bit of the way, they said they wouldn’t have Boots, their youngest brother, with them—he wasn’t fit for anything.
Boots’ nickname immediately shows just how much his brothers despise him. Boots is the typical English name for the Norse stock character, Askeladden or Ash Lad, the youngest of three or more brothers and reminiscent of Cinderella. Askeladden is an invented name deriving from the older Oskefisen. Oskefisen means “the ash fart” and was changed because it was deemed too crude. It is apparently a reference to the job of blowing on the embers and keeping the hearth warm, a chore usually given to someone who “wasn’t fit for” more demanding tasks around the farm. Thus, the Ash Lad is seen as lazy, dull and daydreaming, spending far too much time lazing around poking at the fireplace.
He is contrasted with his successful brothers, but they are conventional and complacent, and invariably fail when they go out on quests. The Ash Lad follows after them, but proves to be far more witty, wily, curious, and kind, allowing him to conquer all the obstacles in his path.
Well, Boots had to stay behind, and he didn’t know what to do or whither to turn; and so he grew so downcast, he got off his horse, and sat down in the tall grass to weep. But when he had sat a little while, one of the tufts in the grass began to stir and move, and out of it came a little white thing, and when it came nearer, Boots saw it was a charming, little lassie, only such a tiny bit of a thing.
White, symbolic of purity, is paired with the green of grass, symbolizing growth and hope. The girl emerges from a tuft of grass, denoting a close connection with nature.
So the lassie went up to him, and asked if he would come down below and see “Doll i’ the Grass.”
Though she is never mentioned again, the “lassie” harkens back to other stories where the Animal Bride is a queen in her own right with many attendants.
Yes, he’d be very happy; and so he went.
Now, when he got down, there sat Doll i’ the Grass on a chair;
The name Doll i’ the Grass emphasizes both her small size and her connection with nature. This echoes other variants, where the character is an enchanted animal – like the German Puddocky, a toad, and the Finnish Forest Bride, a mouse.
Terra-Camina is another Thumbelina-like character from the border between France and Italy. Her name means something along the lines of “the earth walks,” meaning that she’s so small that she looks like a tiny bit of dirt. Here again is a link to nature, referring to soil instead of grass. Could the Doll be perhaps some kind of nature spirit?
she was so lovely and so smart, and she asked Boots whither he was going, and what was his business.
“Smart”: the original word here is pyntet, meaning adorned. So she is physically lovely, but also well-dressed and fashionable, indicating that she is a high-class lady worthy of marrying a prince.
So he told her how there were twelve brothers of them, and how the King had given them horse and mail, and said they must each go out into the world and find them a wife who could spin, and weave, and sew a shirt in a day.
“But if you’ll only say at once you’ll be my wife, I’ll not go a step farther,” said Boots to Doll i’ the Grass.
In many Animal Bride stories, the prince takes some convincing to believe that the enchanted girl can actually do all the things she claims. But Boots immediately proposes marriage. He perceives that this tiny girl is more than she might seem.
Well, she was willing enough, and so she made haste, and span, and wove, and sewed the shirt, but it was so tiny, tiny little. It wasn’t longer than so————long.
In completing the task, the Doll proves herself both hardworking and clever. No one said it had to be a human-sized shirt, after all. However, capable as she is, her offering only serves to remind us of how small she is.
So Boots set off home with it, but when he brought it out he was almost ashamed, it was so small.
In most variants, this would be the part where the prince is proven wrong about his bride’s limitations. The Forest Bride is aided by an army of mice and weaves a piece of linen so fine that it fits inside a nutshell. Terra-Camina explicitly uses magic to create the finest thread in all the world. Puddocky gives the prince a tiny piece of cloth which transforms into a huge bale of linen fine enough to fit through a small ring. The White Cat runs with this and has the most over-the-top description of cloth that I have ever read.
Here, ironically enough, Boots already has immediate faith in his chosen bride. But Doll i’ the Grass’s shirt doesn’t suddenly become amazing or magical. It remains small and mundane. In a way, though, this makes her seem much more impressive than her more magical counterparts. She knows she can’t measure up to the other potential brides, and her creation is not much to look at, but she still gives that stupid shirt her best shot.
Still the King said he should have her, and so Boots set off, glad and happy to fetch his little sweetheart. So when he got to Doll i’ the Grass, he wished to take her up before him on his horse; but she wouldn’t have that, for she said she would sit and drive along in a silver spoon, and that she had two small white horses to draw her.
The Doll proves that she is proud and independent. She already has her own mode of transportation, and despite her small size, will not deign to be carried around like the toy she’s named for.
So off they set, he on his horse and she on her silver spoon, and the two horses that drew her were two tiny white mice; but Boots always kept the other side of the road, he was so afraid lest he should ride over her, she was so little.
Here the Doll is very similar to Tom Thumb, who rides on a mouse or uses them to pull his coach. Her spoon chariot follows the trope of miniature characters using everyday objects in creative ways – such as Tom Thumb using a needle for a sword or Thumbelina sleeping inside a walnut shell.
So, when they had gone a bit of the way, they came to a great piece of water.
Water is a symbol of cleansing, healing, life and rebirth. In many folktales, evil spirits or creatures (i.e. vampires) cannot cross running water such as a river.
Here Boots’ horse got frightened, and shied across the road and upset the spoon, and Doll i’ the Grass tumbled into the water. Then Boots got so sorrowful, because he didn’t know how to get her out again; but in a little while up came a merman with her, and now she was as well and full grown as other men and women, and far lovelier than she had been before.
Here the Doll is cleansed and made perfect by water, much like baptism. Water also causes the growth of vegetation, and we have already seen that the Doll is closely associated with nature. The merman who rescues her is a kind of fairy; he might be a type of donor, like Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
In the versions of Type 402, the method of breaking her enchantment varies from the enchantment simply wearing off, to it being broken by the prince’s proposal, to the prince having to cut off her head to free her. However, there are two that are very similar to Doll I’ the Grass.
The mouse in the Forest Bride travels alongside her sweetheart in a nutshell-carriage drawn and driven by mice. When they cross a foot bridge over a river, a passing man spitefully kicks the coach and mice into the water. Her sweetheart is brokenhearted. Suddenly a golden coach drawn by horses emerges from the water, carrying the mouse bride, who is now the most beautiful woman in the world. She explains that the enchantment was broken because one human being took her as his fiancee and another human being tried to drown her. Though here water is associated with drowning and death, her transformation is a rebirth recalling the symbol of water as life.
Terra Camina rides upon a rooster. She and the prince are en route to the castle when they pass a river, where her godmother is washing – again, here is the idea of being cleansed. In a callback to the beginning of the tale, the sight of Terra Camina on her odd steed makes the godmother laugh and prompts her to turn the tiny girl into a tall, beautiful lady.
Incidentally, the Japanese Mamesuke, an Issun Boshi variant, is also restored to full size by immersion in water. When he prepares to bathe, his angry wife attempts to drown him. Instead, his body pops open and reveals a handsome youth of normal height.
So he took her up before him on his horse, and rode home.
When Boots got home all his brothers had come, back each with his sweetheart, but these were all so ugly, and foul, and wicked, that they had done nothing but fight with one another on the way home, and on their heads they had a kind of hat that was daubed over with tar and soot, and so the rain had run down off the hats on to their faces, till they got far uglier and nastier than they had been before.
Boots picks an unassuming girl who turns out to be diligent, determined and beautiful. However, his brothers prove themselves to be horrible judges of character by picking ugly and argumentative women. (I guess they did choose their brides based solely on sewing skill.)
Mirroring Doll i’ the Grass’s transformation through water, these brides encounter a rainstorm. They bring a sort of transformation upon themselves by foolishly wearing clothing that smears them with tar and soot.
When his brothers saw Boots and his sweetheart, they were all as jealous as jealous could be of her; but the King was so overjoyed with them both, that he drove all the others away,
Now the tables have turned. The formerly-despised Boots has been elevated, while his former tormentors are jealous of him. Where he was formerly the youngest and the least likely to inherit, now his brothers have been driven away and he is left as the king’s heir.
and so Boots held his wedding-feast with Doll i’ the Grass, and after that they lived well and happily together a long long time, and if they’re not dead, why, they’re alive still.
The typical thumbling is male, and primarily a trickster and a childlike figure. He usually stays the same size, and the typical tale ends with him going home to his parents after various adventures. However, the female thumbling, like Doll, often ends her story by growing to normal size, and invariably ends up as someone’s wife. Female thumblings rarely have a trickster’s attributes. They must be proper ladies, and proper ladies get married.
(Also posted on Tumblr.)
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.