The great thing about new original fairy tales is the way they take old motifs, old themes and older tales and remix them in a new way to create a new story. “The Fiddler of Bayou Teche” by Delia Sherman combines several motifs of trickster tales along with myths and legends featuring musical instruments. The story that unfolds is a wonderful down to earth tale surrounding a trickster fiddler set in a deep south bayou.
The main character is a young albino girl named Cadence who lives in the swamp with the woman that adopted her, Tante Eulalie. Her mother serves the local loup-garou community as a medicine woman and plays the fiddle. Her mother cautions her against tricksters by sharing with her tales of warning. When her mother passes one winter Cadence ends up getting into trouble and being confronted by the very trickster her mother warned her against. Are the warnings and tales her mother armed her with enough to help protect her and allow her to survive?
There is a podcast of this fairy tale on the website Podcastle that features a fantastic reader, Elizabeth Green Musselman, and I really recommend hearing this fairy tale orally in this way almost more than reading it. It definitely adds to the experience.
So…you’ve been accused of witchcraft.
What to do? Are you a woman? Well, there’s your first problem. Never fear, because Lapham’s Quarterly has provided you with a handy chart to explain your options. Join us on a hilarious trip of torture, death, and excommunication!
The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, Second Edition by Jack Zipes
I often have difficulty expressing the fact that the Grimm collection of fairy tales is a retelling of what rich people thought poor people’s storytelling (and experiences) should be like, not the actuality. Most of the stories do not even come from the peasant class at all and are largely French and not German. Zipes sums it all up nicely.
“The Twelve Brothers” by Artybel
Beautiful art inspired by The Twelve Brothers showing the princess perched in the tree with her twelve brothers, now ravens, silently spinning. I love the red thread tucked into her mouth signifying her vow of silence.
The Grimm brothers felt a deep affinity for the following fairy tale and others like it. The Twelve Brothers is just one of three variations on this theme the Grimms included in their collection. The other two are the The Six Swans and The Seven Ravens. These stories are about sibling solidarity, heroic behavior and self-sacrifice in order to survive the destruction of the family unit. This is not unlike the Grimms’ own life story. The children in these tales band together and through “industry, cleanliness, order” as Zipes puts it they overcome adversity.
Unfortunately, as all Grimm fairy tales are, this literary fairy tale is aimed at a male audience and written from a male perspective so the women in this fairy tale get put through the wringer. To be fair to The Twelve Brothers, though, this fairy tale alone of the three features a heroine who is (relatively) independent and aggressive in her pursuit of what she believes to be right.
The opening of this fairy tale was rewritten between the first publication and the second. What remains the same is this. A king and queen have twelve sons, the queen is pregnant for a thirteenth time and the king decrees that if the child is a girl the other twelve children will be killed. The reasoning is what changed between versions.
“I would rather cut off all their heads than have a girl among them.”
That’s version number one. The father would rather his sons be dead than have to have a girl for a sibling. I’m not sure why they went back and changed it but the whole tone of the opening was altered by it. The second version actually inverts this story line.
“If the thirteenth child you are about to bear turns out to be a girl, then the twelve boys will have to be put to death, so that her wealth can be great and so that she alone inherits the kingdom.”
The king acknowledges the unfairness of gendered inheritance laws and seeks to correct this oversight by murdering his sons so that they can’t inherit. Lovely. “So much for sexism in fairy tales,” Margaret Atwood quips. This also, by the way, neatly makes everything that happens after the thirteenth child’s birth her fault. Wait and see.
Freud views all this as a phantasmal fear come to life since it shows fathers murdering their sons, a fear on both sides of the knife. He cites Abraham and Issac of the Bible and Laius and Oedipus in myth as both fathers attempt to murder their sons to avoid a certain fate.
In The Twelve Brothers this murder is avoided with the intervention of the queen. The king gives her a key to a locked room containing twelve wooden coffins with twelve little pillows for their heads. He then tells her to say nothing of this and to show the room to no one.
Her youngest son Benjanmin, another biblical reference, is always at her side and is described throughout the fairy tale as “soft” and “weak” because of this. He begs to know why she is so sad and finally she breaks down and shows him the coffins and then hatches a plan. The boys will go out into the woods and climb the tallest tree so that they can watch the tower. She will run up a white flag is she has a son, but a red one if she has a daughter. If they see a red flag they are to flee.
The brothers stay out in the woods and take turns climbing the tallest tree to watch the tower. When the queen runs up a red flag at the birth of their little sister the brothers become angry.
“Are we going to die just because of a girl! Let’s take an oath to avenge ourselves. If we run into a girl, her red blood will flow.”
This misogyny is really dark and sinister. It also shows that the brothers don’t want to blame this turn of events on their father whom they love even as they are on the run from him. They would much rather shift the blame to an unknown as they face abandonment and loss of home and parents.
The boys manage to find an abandoned cottage. Fairy tale forests are full of those. There they set up a home for themselves. They realize their society construct requires a female for the household but their new oath kind of makes that awkward so…
“Let’s live here. Benjamin, you are the youngest and weakest. You can stay and keep house while we go out and look for food.”
So the eleven brothers hunt and Benjamin stays home and cooks. This works out for several years, much like how the dwarves must have lived before Snow White.
Meanwhile back at the castle many years have passed and the princess has grown and become very beautiful. She has a star on her forehead that, according to Maria Tatar, marks has as being of royal descent. Not to mention it is awesomely alliterative, in German it’s Stern (star) Stirn (forehead). On a huge laundry day the princess finds twelve small shirts. She asks her mother about them and her mother breaks down and tells her everything. That’s when the princess decides she needs to go find her brothers right away and make sure they are okay and just like that packs up the shirts and leaves.
In The Six Swans and The Seven Ravens the stories also feature shirts that are central to the story line, identifying the missing brothers, and a star is associated with the lone princess. Each story takes these same elements and remixes them into very different tales. For example the princess in The Six Swans is useless compared to the princess in The Twelve Brothers who just walked out on her parents the moment she found out what they did to her brothers. A streak of aggressive feminine independence rarely seen in Grimm fairy tales.
She heads off into the same forest her brothers disappeared into years ago and finds the same cottage. On walking in she finds Benjamin and asks after her brothers, showing him the shirts she had brought with her.
“I’m a princess, and I’m searching for my twelve brothers. I’m willing to go as far as the sky is blue to find them.”
Benjamin tells her she’s in the right place and they have a joyful reunion with lots of tears, kisses and hugs. Then Benjamin remembers his brothers and warns her about their oath to kill the first female they see. The princess isn’t bothered by this.
“I would gladly give my life if I could save my twelve brothers.”
Your brothers do not deserve you. Benjamin comes up with a plan and hides her under a tub until the brothers come home. Then he plays the “I know something you don’t know” game and annoys them so much with it they promise not to kill the first female they see. At that moment the princess is revealed and shown to be their sister that caused all the trouble in the first place. They are so happy to see her they all hug and kiss her. She is no longer an unknown and clearly values their lives to seek them out like this.
She then sets to work keeping the house clean, picking herbs, keeping food on the table and so on with Benjamin there to help her. Much like Snow White this is to show the princess’ goodness through her industriousness and good housekeeping skills. While she did do the cooking the fairy tale goes to pains to show that she puts things on the fire but does not light or put it out herself, presumably Benjamin does. According to Ruth Bottigheimer women in Grimm fairy tales never control fire. Ever.
One day the princess goes out into the garden and sees twelve white lilies growing there. She decides to pick them so that she can give one to each brother at dinner that evening. On picking the lilies her brothers suddenly turn into ravens. Frightened and now alone in the forest she turns to see an old woman who scolds her.
“Dear child, what have you done? Why didn’t you leave those twelve white flowers alone? They were your brothers, and now they’ve been turned into ravens forever.”
The princess bursts into tears and begs for a way to disenchant them. The old woman tells her there is one way but it so difficult as to be impossible. The princess must be completely silent and not smile for seven years. If she says even one word her brothers will die.
In fairy tales men are far more likely to be transformed into animals by an enchantment. Women remain human but are rendered catatonic and are forever still and beautiful like in the fairy tales Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Males on the other hand are transformed into an animal shape, often at the hands of an older woman. Just look at any of the many animal bridegroom stories for proof of this, from The Princess and the Frog to Beauty and the Beast. Maria Tatar points out how this can be viewed as commentary on women’s attitudes toward male sexuality. Of course silent and still Snow White and Briar Rose, the fairest of them all, can also be seen as “a statement on folkloristic visions of the ideal bride.”
Joyce Thomas points out how in The Twelve Brothers and similar fairy tales the brothers are always turned into birds, and because there are so many flock grouped birds at that. There is some word play involved in that as well as the German word for bird, Voegel, also is commonly used to refer to the penis. And for those that argue that some of these tales originated in France the word for bird there is Zoizeau which sounds very similar to zizi a common childish word for penis in French. The brothers in these three fairy tales are reduced to this basic form for years until long after the sister has reached adulthood.
Ruth Bottigheimer describes the princess’ sentence as a “redemptive silence” she also points out that while women are sentenced to long periods of silence the rare male character who faces a vow of silence finds they are “brief and attenuated.” Joyce Thomas points out how the terms for breaking the enchantment in fairy tales like these are more often ones of longevity and endurance not ones of feeling. The sister suffers in silence, but again is confident in herself.
“I know that I will be able to free my brothers.”
She climbs into a tree and starts silently spinning and many years pass. According to Maria Tatar the princess is spinning her way to salvation and finds deliverance by withdrawing from the world and retreating into silent domestic activities.
Marina Warner points out the irony in that many storytellers were women so in telling a tale like The Twelve Brothers they violate the edicts of silence and forbearance that the fairy tale attempts to teach.
One day a king passes through the wood and finds the princess spinning in the tree. He asks her if she will be his wife and she nods to give her consent. He then plucks her out of the tree and takes her back to the palace where they marry and are happy together for many years, though in all of that time the princess is silent and never smiles or laughs.
Enter the mother-in-law. She begins to stir up trouble, slandering the princess and accusing her of terrible things. The mother-in-law tells her son the girl must be a common beggar, that she was up to godless tricks and that even as a mute she should at least smile and laugh.
“A person who can’t laugh must have a bad conscience.”
More word play in the word Rabenmutter, there is no word for it in English but in German it literally translates as “mother of ravens” and is commonly used to refer to an abusive mother, or step-mother. In this story the mother-in-law is certainly that.
The king didn’t believe her at first but his mother kept up the accusations for so long, and his wife of course could say nothing in her defense, that finally the king became convinced that the princess was evil. He sentenced his wife to death.
So the princess was to be burned at the stake. The king watches on from an upstairs window with tears in his eyes as he still loved her. As the flames began to lick at the (still silent) princess’ clothes the seventh year came to a close. Her brothers fly in to the rescue transforming all around her from twelve ravens into the twelve brothers she loved. They then turned and began stomping out the flames, saving their sister’s life.
Once she was free and safe, reunited with her brothers once again, she told her husband everything. Once the king learned of the vow of silence and the curse he was relieved and they “lived together in harmony until their death.”
The mother-in-law on the other hand was brought before a judge and sentenced to death by being boiled in oil in a barrel full of poisonous snakes. Both of these death sentences were common at the time for witch craft. Her death ends the fairy tale.
In flower language, bluebells symbolise constancy and everlasting love.
According to folklore, the fairies were called when the bluebell was rung. Others believed that if you heard a bluebell ring, you or someone close to you will die.
It was thought to be unlucky to walk through a field of bluebells, as the spells that fairies have hung on the bluebell flowers will be disturbed.
Bluebells used to be known as “witches thimbles” and it was said the bells of the flowers would peal out at midnight calling to the fairies. Woe betides any poor unfortunate traveller who heard those bells - he would be dead in the morning.
The Latin name for this flower is “Endymion”, for a shepherd boy with whom the Moon goddess, Selene (later identified with Diana) fell in love. Selene put Endymion into an eternal sleep, so she alone could enjoy his beauty.
Bluebells were once used by herbalists to help prevent nightmares, and to cure leprosy, spider-bites and tuberculosis; but in fact, the bluebell is poisonous.
Probably one of the first things most people envision when they think of fairy tales, myths or even ancient legends is a deep, dark forest. Depending on the culture you might think of other dense pockets of nature too, whether a cave containing treasure, an oasis harboring the fountain of youth, a valley within which lies Shangri-la, or a jungle where intrepid heroes go in but never come out. Sometimes the nature is in a smaller package, it’s a single flower containing the power of the gods, a mythic tree of life or wisdom, an herb capable of granting eternal life, or a single apple promising forbidden knowledge.
Nature is a huge part of the mythic narrative no matter what part of the world you are in. Nature is a strange and mysterious mistress and stories from all over the world show her elements as magical, mythical and even legendary. What follows is a short book list that showcases books talking about the forests of the world in this context in one way or another. These books show nature’s mythical as well as very real abilities and the stories and legends that have sprung up surrounding the natural elements of our world.
While this book is not mythologically focused what it does is alphabetically go through a list of deadly plants and features a short essay about each one. These essays not only touch on the facts of the plant such as what it does, where it is found, and how it is used, but it also mentions any shining moments in history along with any myths or legends a particular plant plays a part in. The organization of the book is strictly alphabetical and not organized by category so if you are only interested in reading about flora in myth you will have to page through every one, but the book is fascinating and very light reading. This is a good non-fiction read for people who don’t like non-fiction and/or prefer their reading in bite-size chunks. Be prepared to become a bit neurotic when it comes to plants after you finish reading it, however.
Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir
In ancient Ireland, mythology and folklore were part of the general knowledge about each tree. This books gathers together the myths, legends, and folklore associated with the native Irish trees. The folklore has two main themes: the tree as a marker of important places such as royal site or holy well, and the role of different trees as source of magical power in folk customs and superstitions. Many themes are common to different trees, such as fertility, magical power, and the tree as a link between this world and the spiritual. Along with beautiful watercolors illustrating the different kinds of trees, the book features an Ogham tree calendar based on the early Irish alphabet and the ancient Celts’ lunar calendar that links the trees to the different months of that calendar.
The Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous
This book is the one I credit with introducing me to forests in myth and legend. The book contains several stories, myths and legends about forests, sacred groves and even specific trees. The stories are summarized into brief, short paragraphs to give you a taste of the tale but there are well documented sources for all of them so it is easy to look up the full length legend if you are so inclined. The author also breaks off and talks about a forest’s magical denizens as well such as sprites, fairies or even witches. The book is not organized in any way so you go from one fairy tale, myth or legend to the next without much cohesiveness. It is a fascinating read though and a great way to be introduced to several stories about the forests of the world all at once.
Myths of the Sacred Tree by Moyra Caldecott
Protecting the earth is a universal theme and it is one that is brought to light in this next book in a very interesting way. In Myths of the Sacred Tree the author highlights myths from all over the world that celebrate the sacredness of nature, often in the form of a single divine tree. There are several page long (but often still truncated) summaries of the myth or legend in question accompanied by commentary picking out the threads that unite all of these stories into a cohesive, world-wide, centuries-old message about the preservation of nature. These myths either show nature being saved, nature being brought back from destruction or nature striking back in self-defense in stories from all over the world.
A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature by Bobby J. Ward
My last selection focuses on flowers instead of trees but it’s a worthwhile side trip. The author lists 80 different types of flowers and talks about the various names each has had throughout history, its role in historical events and its practical uses. Each essay also includes name origins, symbolism, its meaning in the language of flowers and most importantly its magical or mythical stories and legends. Probably the best part of this book for a reader like myself are all the quotes and references in poems, literature and mythic writing throughout history. The author quotes work from ancient Greece straight through until Shakespeare and showcases each flower’s literary impact alongside its historical one.
While these books are a great start to forests in myth and legend they are just the tip of the iceberg. I have started a more thorough book list on GoodReads: Forests in Myth, Folklore and Fairy Tales. There you can find great collections of fairy tales, especially ones surrounding nature, like:
Have other recommended books about nature in folklore? Please share them! Especially if the titles are non-Europe centric which I realize is always hard to get away from in Western literature.
I was a bit shocked to see this image this morning on Sociological Images. The first African American Disney princess likes watermelon? Really, Disney? This is really in very poor taste and I’m shocked Disney would let this one slip past them. The origins of the stereotype that African American love watermelon dates back to pre-civil war days when it was used in propaganda posters to show that slaves were simple minded people that were happy with a watermelon and a bit of shade and would be too overwhelmed with the concept of freedom so they were best left slaves. In that light this was really tasteless and thoughtless to include on packaging for kids, especially for a character as empowering as Tiana has been for many children who now have a Disney princess that looked like them. Way to drop the ball on this one, Disney.
The Real Housewives of Disney
Probably the best spot from Saturday Night Live last night was their spoof on Real Housewives reality shows with a Disney rift (with LiLo as Rapunzel who just escaped the tower, natch). These fairy tales are such a ubiquitous part of our culture that the princess in-jokes could effortlessly be reduced to a series of one line zingers even if they were largely in poor taste.