I have found a new favorite fairytale. It begins with a wish for a child, a maiden as white as snow and red as blood, and a stepmother.
It's not 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,' but it's clearly a response to such tales. After a very Snow White-like beginning, it runs wild in its own direction. The version I read was collected by Jon Arnason in 1852.
Once there lived a childless King and Queen, as well as an untrustworthy counselor named Rauður. One day the Queen is out for a sleigh ride, with Rauður attending her. The Queen has a nosebleed and lets her blood land on the snow, at which point she wishes for a daughter as red as blood and white as snow.
Rauður says that her wish will be granted, but the moment she sets eyes on her daughter, she will lay an evil spell on the child to burn down her father's palace, get pregnant before she's married, and murder a man. The Queen doesn't care because she so badly wants a baby, and soon enough it comes to pass. Remembering the curse, she sends the child away and never looks at her. The little girl, Ingibjorg, grows up with remarkable beauty, but by the time she's ten, the Queen is dying. The Queen has held out thus far without ever looking at her, but now that she's dying, gives in and calls Ingibjorg into her room. No sooner has she seen Ingibjorg than she pronounces the curse upon her and dies.
More time passes, and the King takes a new fiancee, Hild. They are to be married at the end of three years. Somehow, Hild is already aware of Ingibjorg's curse and she promises to help.
Hild waits until a day when everyone is out, removes everything valuable from the building, and tells Ingibjorg to burn down the palace. And then she has a nicer one built in its place. The first part of the curse is done, and no one was hurt.
The next part of the curse is that Ingibjorg will fall pregnant. Hild is ready for this too. She arranges for Ingibjorg to spend a few nights at a house in the woods with a mysterious man. Now Rauður the advisor comes back into the story. He begins telling the King that Ingibjorg is pregnant - note that the King doesn't know about the curse. However, every time Rauður tries to reveal Ingibjorg's pregnancy, Hild is ready with a trick that will protect her stepdaughter's reputation. After the baby is born, Hild whisks it away into hiding.
And then there's the final part of the curse - Ingibjorg will be compelled to kill a man. No problem, says Hild. Let's kill Rauður. She arranges it so that she and Ingibjorg allow him to fall to his death. He is not greatly missed.
The day arrives for Hild and the King's wedding. Inbigjorg's lover returns with their baby. It turns out, he's Hild's brother! Hild explains the curse to the King, who was unaware of it all this time. She also explains that her brother was under a spell that made him a monster during the day, and could only be saved if a princess slept with him for three nights. With that, they celebrate a double wedding and everyone lives happily ever after.
The story is clearly a response to stories of evil stepmothers. Hild is a clever and proactive heroine. In most tales, the characters try to subvert gloomy prophecies and avoid their fate, but inevitably fail. The original Queen attempts this by completely cutting off her daughter, but ultimately gives in. Hild, however, allows the curse to work under her conditions. In the process, she rids the kingdom of Rauður and saves both her stepdaughter and her brother.
Maria Tatar points out that even though Hild is a hero, the title "The Good Stepmother" is a bit misleading. She doesn't become a literal stepmother until the very end of the story, since her wedding is postponed for three years. In addition, she's saving Ingibjorg from a curse created by her biological mother. So this story does not totally escape the trope of the evil maternal figure.
At first I was startled by Hild's cavalier attitude towards murder, but then I thought more about it.
Rauður is the one who lays out the description of Ingibjorg's curse. It seems like he's just predicting it, but it might actually be a deal-with-the-devil situation. The text says, "The Queen was willing to do anything to get a daughter." Later, it's Rauður who becomes dead-set on revealing Ingibjorg's pregnancy and ruining her. Only after he's dead is Ingibjorg free, and only after he's dead can the truth come to light. (The King is unaware of the curse until the very end. The knowledge is available only to his wives and daughter.)
Another version of the story, in the collection All the World's Reward, makes it even clearer that Rauður is the true source of Ingibjorg's curse.
In many of these snow-white maiden stories, the girl's name emphasizes her color. Her name is typically some variation on "White as Snow." Here, however, the only character with a color name is the villain: Rauður, or Red. Historically, red is associated with blood and violence. In many cultures redheads have been considered untrustworthy or even associated with witchcraft.
Another Icelandic tale, "Surtla in Bluelands Isles," also features a girl named Ingibjorg, a woman named Hildr who eventually becomes her stepmother, and an evil troll named Raudr.
"The Good Stepmother" has its own tale type: AT 934E. Although rare, it appears in a few countries other than Iceland. If you've come across any versions of this story, let me know!
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.