(All illustrations by Kay Nielsen)
Some of you may already be aware of my love for fairy tales and legends. I’m currently in the process of editing the short scripts I have written for a series of animations telling modern life lessons in the fairy tale style. Reading back over some of these tales for research, I rediscovered some old favourites, and I thought I’d introduce you to a few classics and a few oddities that the modern reader might not have heard of.
1. THE DEVILS GRANDMOTHER: This is a nice odd one that kind of tickles me. The story starts off three poor men, in some versions on the run from military service, whose run of bad luck changes when they come across a dragon who offers to get them out of their awful situation and give them the high life for seven years, at the end of which he will get their souls. The dragon is of course the devil, and the devil in these stories always leaves a loophole: at the time when they must pay with their souls, they will be asked a riddle which, if they can guess correctly, will mean they do not have to pay. The seven years pass quickly, and the souls are soon due to be collected. The men despair, but one of them starts to think. He does a little research and hears about the devil’s grandmother, whom he goes and pays a visit to. The tears of the desperate man move her, and she decides to help them. She hides the man, and, when the devil visits her, she subtly encourages him to boast about the riddles he will ask them. In his pride, he tells her the answers, the man of course, overhears, and the friends can then answer the riddles correctly, and save their souls. The devil is more than a little put out.
I love that in this funny little tale, the devil has ancestry. Why would the devil have a grandmother? Who would she be? And if she’s a relative of the devil, how come she’s so sweet and foils his plans by saving the three men? One can only assume that in earlier tellings, the bad guy in the story was a wizard or other such powerful creation, and the story became corrupted in it’s retelling to be about the devil.
2. EAST OF THE SUN, WEST OF THE MOON/THE IRON SHOES: I have grouped these two stories together, because they follow a similar theme and pattern, though they are from different countries of origin. In each one, a young woman is asked by a creature to go with it to a castle and marry an unknown man, in exchange for her family being richly rewarded. As the family are poor, the girl agrees. She is only visited by her husband at night, so she does not see him, but he is lovely and kind, and when she is alone during the day, she is well taken care of. She soon learns to care for him, though the arrangement makes her a little lonely, but she is advised not to question it. She is then visited by a friend, sometimes her mother or sisters, who advise her to ease her loneliness & curiosity by lighting a candle when he’s asleep and seeing what he looks like. She does so, and he is so much more lovely than she could imagine, she falls deeply in love with him. However, wax from the candle drips on him, he wakes, and despairs, explaining that seeing him was forbidden to her, and that he was in fact the bear or creature that originally came for her, under a curse that means he can only be a man by night, their only time together. He is taken from her because she knows his identity, and she is drowned in sorrow. However, she’s made of sterner stuff that Cinderella, and she picks herself up, and goes in search of him. At this point, she is told in one version that he is housed in a castle East of the Sun, West of the Moon, or alternatively, that she must wear out four pairs of Iron Shoes searching before she will find him. Either way, he is now a prisoner of a wicked enchantress. The girl wanders the Earth, seeking help from the four winds, or four witches, each of whom give her a precious gift, and eventually, after much trial, she reaches the place where he is held captive. She exhanges the three gifts she has been given, one at a time, to see him, but each time he is in an enchanted sleep. The third night, she manages to outwit his captor and wake him, and the curse is finally lifted.
These two stories always stayed with me, because the heroine was strong and devoted. If she had not taken the initiative of seeing the true face of her husband, she would not have known about the curse and been able to lift it, allowing them to have a real relationship, though she had to prove herself first. Some sources attribute these stories to the ancient Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, and I think this could be the case. These stories, for me, are about relationships. Falling for someone is wonderful, but true love comes when you finally see who your partner really is. Relationships are not easy, but by being determined and growing, being tested by what lies between you, and not giving up, she gains her desire in the end, and they are truly together. It’s also nice to read a story about women going out into the world and getting what they need to fulfill themselves and rescuing the prince.
3. CAP O RUSHES: This English fairy story was once so well known, that Shakespeare used it as the opening premise for King Lear. Three daughters are asked by their wealthy father which of them loves him best. The elder two answer in flattering hyperbole, while the third and youngest answers that she loves him “as fresh meat loves salt”. Her father throws her out of his house with nothing but the clothes on her back as punishment, and when she wonders into the fens, she covers herself and her fine clothes in rushes so that she is unrecognisable. She begs for work, and eventually she is taken on as a servant in a wealthy household, where she works hard and keeps to herself, and becomes known as Cap o’ Rushes, as she will give no name for herself. After a while, the master of the house hosts a ball. While all the servants go to see the fine guests arrive, Cap o’ Rushes says she’s too tired, and pretends to sleep. When they’re gone, she takes of the disguise made of rushes, displaying her true finery underneath, and slips in with the guests, dancing with the masters son all night. She does this for three nights, and they fall in love, though each night she slips away from him, and is back int he servants quarters and in her rushes before the other servants return. The masters son gives her a ring, and then, since the dancing is all over, falls into a state of melancholy because he can’t find her anywhere. When the cook makes him some gruel, she takes it to him, slipping the ring into it so that he will find it, and then revealing her identity to him. He is overjoyed, and asks her to marry him, which she readily agrees to. She makes sure that her father is invited to the wedding, and requests that none of his dishes be salted. He starts to weep, because he finally understands that she loved him best of all, and his daughter goes to him, reveals herself, and they are reunited.
An odd tale, with less moral perhaps than just a good story. The father testing his daughters soon learns the true nature of love, and the girl, through her hard work and ingenuity, regains her status in the world and finds a happy marriage. I also like the visuals of a girl covering herself in rushes and looking for a job in a wealthy home.
4. SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED: As a grown up, I see that this story has plot holes, but as a child, I liked it. Two beautiful sisters live together in the woods, and are so at one with nature that birds come down from the trees to sing for them and wolves play with them like puppies, and they are so close they swear never to live apart. One night, someone knocks on their door, and they see a huge bear. They are frightened, but he is friendly and talks to them, so they let him in. He stays with them, almost like a pet, and then when spring comes, he goes on his way, telling them he has to look after his treasure so it isn’t stolen by dwarves. Later, the girls come upon a nasty dwarf who is in trouble, and they rescue him on three separate occasions, though he is very rude to them each time. The fourth time they see him, the bear appears, and the dwarf, thinking it will eat him, tells it to eat the girls first because they’ll taste better. The bear kills the dwarf, and turns into a prince, explaining that the dwarf had him under a spell. They take the dwarf’s gold, the bear marries one of the girls, and his brother marries the other, so they’ll never be apart.
The moral of the story is, apparently, that if you behave like the dwarf and are ungrateful, you’ll soon be punished, but if you are helpful and kind even when it isn’t easy, you’ll be rewarded. I think as a child, I just loved the idea of living in the forest with a best friend, playing with all the animals and having a pet bear, but I do wonder if the bear could just kill the dwarf and free himself, why didn’t he do that sooner? And how lucky that he just happened to have a brother for the other sister to marry.
5. THE GIANTS HEART: This story always moved me, because even as a little child, I was aware that hearts could get broken, and some people would do anything to avoid getting their feelings hurt. In this tale, a generic man falls for a princess, but to win her hand in marriage, he must complete an impossible task: he must find the giant’s heart. The giant is the meanest and the hardest giant there is, so most people fail, but he convinces the giant to take him on as a servant, which buys him some time to find the heart. The giant knows he’ll never find it, and there’s the ever present threat that he’ll just eat the boy. However, after searching high and low and not finding it, the giant has a magic goose, who helps the boy, and tells him that the heart is locked in an iron box in the bottom of a well in an impossible location. The boy learns the tricks to gain it, and he manages to get the heart, but he is confronted by the giant. For me this is where the story gets sad, because the giant has been awful, since someone with out a heart has no conscience, but his heart must have been badly bruised for him to lock it away so securely. The boy squeezes the heart til it bursts, which kills the giant, and the boy is free to take the magic goose, and marry the princess.
I think the story is interesting in it’s analogy of someone who has become huge and threatening through locking away their emotions in a bid to not get hurt. The story teaches that they cannot be reasoned with, but also that ultimately, the plan doesn’t work, it merely makes them into a tyrant. You cannot avoid getting your heart broken, in life. Nor can you reach someone who has chosen to hide their heart.