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.
There are actually a lot of pretty exciting books coming out this winter, particularly of the varieties that I hold near and dear. Obviously that is fairy tale and mythology inspired fictions of all stripes.
First up is Cinder, have I mentioned yet how much I love science fiction fairy tales? I’m pretty excited about it.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl… .
Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.
This title will be released on January 3, 2012.
Next is short story collection Tempting the Gods by Tanith Lee. Speaking of Cinderella if you haven’t read Lee’s short story re-telling of Cinderella do so now, it’s published in Red As Blood or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer.
Tempting the Gods by Tanith Lee
Tempting the Gods collects some of Tanith Lee’s fiction from the late 80s to the present, from a variety of venues (Asimovs’, Weird Tales, and Realms of Fantasy). They range in tone from the dark (“Cain”) and Arthurian Legend (“The Kingdoms of the Air”), to Arabian Nights adventure (“These Beasts”) and the just plain weird (“Tiger I”). All stories feature Lee’s carefully crafted language, tight plotting, vivid imagination, and matchless evocation of atmosphere. Not all tales are dark - there’s even some humor, such as the new to this collection “God and the Pig.” Like Bradbury and Vance, Lee is a unique stylist. This collection - the first part of a two part series - is a perfect introduction to her work, some of the best writing in the weird fiction category.
This title will be released on January 10, 2012.
Next book to come out is Everneath a re-telling of the myth of Persephone and Hades.
Everneath by Brodi Ashton
Last spring, Nikki Beckett vanished, sucked into an underworld known as the Everneath. Now she’s returned—to her old life, her family, her boyfriend—before she’s banished back to the underworld … this time forever. She has six months before the Everneath comes to claim her, six months for good-byes she can’t find the words for, six months to find redemption, if it exists.
Nikki longs to spend these precious months forgetting the Everneath and trying to reconnect with her boyfriend, Jack, the person most devastated by her disappearance—and the one person she loves more than anything. But there’s just one problem: Cole, the smoldering immortal who enticed her to the Everneath in the first place, has followed Nikki home. Cole wants to take over the throne in the underworld and is convinced Nikki is the key to making it happen. And he’ll do whatever it takes to bring her back, this time as his queen.
As Nikki’s time on the Surface draws to a close and her relationships begin slipping from her grasp, she is forced to make the hardest decision of her life: find a way to cheat fate and remain on the Surface with Jack or return to the Everneath and become Cole’s queen.
This title will be released on January 24, 2012.
Then we have a lovely girl-disguised-as-a-boy book (I heart those) Scarlet a re-telling of the folklore legend of Robin Hood.
Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen
Many readers know the tale of Robin Hood, but they will be swept away by this new version full of action, secrets, and romance. Posing as one of Robin Hood’s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past. Helping the people of Nottingham outwit the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham could cost Scarlet her life as Gisbourne closes in. It’s only her fierce loyalty to Robin—whose quick smiles and sharp temper have the rare power to unsettle her—that keeps Scarlet going and makes this fight worth dying for.
This title will be released on February 14, 2012.
Finally book two in the Gods and Monsters series is coming out, A Beautiful Evil, that touches on the Medusa myth among others.
A Beautiful Evil by Kelly Keaton
When Ari first arrived in the dilapidated city of New 2, all she wanted was to figure out who she was. But what she discovered was beyond her worst nightmare. Ari can already sense the evil growing inside her—a power the goddess Athena will stop at nothing to possess.
Desperate to hold on to her humanity and protect her loved ones, Ari must fight back. But Athena’s playing mind games, not just with Ari but with those she cares about most. And Athena has a very special plan for the brooding and sexy Sebastian.
Ari is determined to defeat Athena, but time is running out. With no other options, Ari must unleash the very thing she’s afraid of: herself.
This title will be released on February 21, 2012.
Any other cool fairy tale or mythology books coming out this winter that I should know about?
“Banshee” is the modern name for the bean sidhe, or “woman of the fairies,” the traditional fairy of the Irish countryside. Perhaps you recall some of the Tuatha De Danann we’ve discussed in the past? Well, after the arrival of the Milesians (the ancestors of the present-day Irish) from what is now Spain, the gods and goddesses that comprised the Tuatha De Danann disappeared underground to dwell in mounds.
In the centuries that followed, the old gods were slowly transformed into fairies. As a Christian presence infringed and absorbed Ireland’s pagan past, the old gods of the Celts became folk legend and fairies in the woods and hidden nooks of the land. Banshees were the lady spirits that haunted the woods, and it was believed that the wail of a banshee foretold the approach of a human death. The land itself, riddled with the markers and ancient customs of Celtic mythology, still attributed great power and mystery to the spirits of the old religion.
While many people from many walks of life and many cultures may have claimed (in fairy tales and in real life) to have stolen treasure from the supernatural beings of Faerie not all of them were successful. In fact many of them failed quite spectacularly at it and they didn’t generally get to walk away unscathed from the encounter either. The saying about letting sleeping dragons lie (said of course when you see one lying on a gigantic pile of treasure) goes double when dealing with a faerie (or elf, or troll, or witch).
The number one punishment generally given is loss of magical companionship. Many of the thieves in fairy tales were only given the opportunity to access such treasure because they stumbled across a door or were invited down into Faerie. There they enjoy the dance, but not the feast (see Godmother for the Elves for why that is), they play with the fairies if they are children or otherwise enjoy themselves at their magical host’s expense. While there they witness the magic of Faerie and want to take some of it back with them. Sometimes the thief takes something as simple as a flower, sometimes a golden ball, sometimes real gold or silver. In any case the first, and sometimes only, punishment is the immediate loss of Faerie. They find themselves back in the real world, sometimes without their treasure for their trouble, and the magical world they were in is lost to them forever. Sometimes on the heels of this discovery is madness for the thief in question. He or she will lose their wits for the rest of their life for daring to trifle with a magical being.
In Germany there is a fairy tale surrounding the king of the snakes, a large snake himself. He likes to go out and sun on a rock on bright and sunny afternoons and will leave his crown sitting beside him. Many fairy tales talk about attempts by various thieves to steal that crown left lying so temptingly nearby. In one famous example a man on horseback grabs it and rides off with it. He gets home safe and sound, or so he thinks, and is just about to take the crown down from the saddle when a snake that was hidden in his horses’ tail strikes out and bites him with a predictably sad ending after that.
In other fairy tales sometimes the victim will start to cry loud and long because they were robbed and will deafen the thief permanently with their cries. Other times the thief is forced to return the treasure, as we talked about in part one, or they end up having the item stolen back. The number one item stolen by thieves is a cup of some sort (or a flask, or drinking horn, or goblet, or chalice). The thief is offered it by a magical being and they will dump the contents of the drink and run with the valuable container. If they are on horse back wherever the liquid lands on their hose the hair will be singed off of it proving the magical nature of the treasure. In one memorable fairy tale this is also how it is stolen back. The next Christmas a beggar comes to the house and asks for a drink and the ditzy housewife (it’s always a ditzy housewife) offers the fairy cup her husband had stolen the year before, with predictable results as it is no beggar at all but a troll in disguise. It’s called karma.
Aside from being bitten by a snake (and, okay, maybe the madness too) many of these fairy tales have been pretty tame and fair in their retribution. But that was not always the case. Some of the most violent and sinister retributions are also the ones that cross from being a fairy tale to claiming to be true. In a Norse fairy tale a man shoots silver bullets over the heads of some trolls as they were attempting to carry off his bride (see Adult Changelings for more on that type of fairy tale). He grabs her and mounts a horse and rides off. One of the trolls tries to slow him down by offering him a cup of wine to drink on the way. He casts out the wine but keeps the cup and now he has both the girl and a golden cup for his trouble. The trolls then call out, “The red cock shall crow over thy dwelling!” By the way that is apparently troll-speak for arson. On arriving home the thief sees that his entire home has been engulfed in flames.
In a Swedish fairy tale a servant rides out to discover the source of a revelry occurring outside of the house. When there he discovered a group of trolls celebrating and is offered a cup of wine and a pipe to smoke asking him to partake in celebration of the great troll King. The servant grabbed the cup and the pipe and rode away on his horse. Having made his escape he then gave these items to his master. Two days later the horse died and the day after that the thief died as well, the mansion has since burned twice and the family has never prospered. Regardless they at least claim to still have both the cup and the pipe to this day. This is all according to a 100 year old book so I decided to look up how the place has done since then and the town this fairy tale took place in, Ljungby, has since had a large part of the town center burn to the ground in 1953, and the bass player in Metallica died near there in a tragic bus accident in 1986. Still sounds cursed to me.
In Germany the witches like to party just as much as the trolls of Sweden. One poor farmer was having his fields torn to shreds by their shenanigans and wanted the partying to stop, or at least to take place on someone else’s property. Again a servant was sent to shoo the party people away and again this was met with trouble. He was offered drink from a golden horn but was warned by a fellow servant that the witches just wanted to poison him with it. So he cast the drink out and ran home. All the doors and gates were left open so he was easily able to make it through and across the threshold where he was safe. A gentleman turned up the next day and begged for the horn to be returned. If the farmer would return it they would build walls seven feet high around his lands, if he would not his barns would burn down three times and he would face financial ruin. He was given three days to think about this but the farmer still decided that he would no return the horn. At harvest time just as the last of the fields’ bounty were brought into the barn the barn was set alight and burned to the ground with all of his stores in it. The next year this happened again and again the year after that. By the end of the third year he had nothing and only with the help of the King was he able to afford to buy seed for the next year. He started to search for the owner of the horn and sent it around to everywhere he could think of, even as far as Constantinople, to no avail. He never saw the witches again.
In a Danish fairy tale a beautiful young elf maiden offered a drink from a golden drinking horn to a young man on a journey. He didn’t trust the drink and poured it out behind him and took off with the horn on horse back. As with other fairy tales the liquid singed the hairs from the horse’s hide wherever it landed. The elf maiden pursued him but was foiled when the lad managed to cross a stream. The elf maiden begged him to return the horn and promised him the strength of twelve men if he did. The young man accepted the bargain and returned the horn. Unfortunately with the strength of twelve men came the appetite of twelve men, which is why I’m listing this in the epic fail post though he did get what he asked for.
In Germany, Norway and England there are fairy tales concerning punishments for thievery from magical beings that lasted for several generations. In a German tale many generations of a family were punished with disunity for refusing to drink the offered cup and instead casting out the contents and stealing it. In a tale from Norway the thief’s family was punished onto the 9th generation with a bodily blemish. But perhaps one of the most well known generational story comes from England. Again a group of fairies were having a party near a well and the nearby household became curious about the noise and came to check it out. As soon as the people attempted to view them the fairies vanished but left a beautiful cup behind (see the legend of Lady Godiva for more on vanishing fairies in English fairy tales). A voice cried out:
“If this glass do break or fall,
Farewell the luck of Edenhall!”
The luck of Edenhall did hold out for quite some time according to the book I read, but being 100 years out of date I decided to check up on the place and apparently it didn’t last forever. The family loaned the cup to a museum in 1926 and Eden Hall was shortly after demolished in 1934. The cup is currently in possession of the nation of England as of 1958.
There are tales from all over the world about humans stealing from supernatural beings for one reason or another, going all the way back to Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus for humankind. In later days when fairies were believed real and stories were just beginning to be recorded thefts were said to happen then too. People stealing from nymphs or fairies or ghosts or other such creatures. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes not and it was to their peril to try.
There are so many fairy tales and folktales and legends surrounding these robberies and they are used in so many stories from all over the world that I am not even going to be able to scratch the surface here. So I am going to do a short series on theft from Faerie. In all of these I will list some rules that are common to many of the stories. Today I will cover the ways that have been told over and over in many societies that garner success when stealing from a faerie. Next I will include the many that did not succeed and their punishments for daring to rob a magical being of that which is theirs. Finally I will talk about precisely what was stolen and why.
When robbing from a fairy (or troll, or pixie, or ghost, or even a rabbit) there are many ways to attempt to avoid capture and make off with your treasure. The most popular and obvious is simply crossing the threshold of home. Sometimes that alone is enough to stop the pursuers right in their tracks. Sometimes you additionally need to slam the door behind you. Occasionally even that doesn’t work as the supernatural beings will be howling outside and pounding on the door and walls threatening you. At that time sometimes it is best to simply throw the treasure back. In one case where this happened the man dashed around his home throwing the treasure into a sack and then tossed it out the door. The fairies told him that he still had treasure enough and they left. In the morning the man found a silver cup that had fallen behind a chair.
It didn’t always have to be crossing a threshold either. Sometimes simply crossing a cross roads is enough. Often crossing a stream or river helps. One man miss stepped when crossing a stream and stepped into it. The elves had to call off the pursuit because when he stood in the stream he was beyond their power. The bridge was not good enough, physically standing in the stream or river was.
There are other limits to a fairy’s power. Fairies are sometimes believed to have been divided into factions. The thief manages an escape with help from a rival faction. The rival will tell the thief what cross roads to cross or what fields to go through that are outside of the fairy’s power thus allowing them to escape. In one fairy tale the rival urged the thief to run through the rye and not the wheat. The rye stalks were taller and did help to slow down the troll more but it still was not enough. It took the crowing of the cock at dawn to finally bring an end to the pursuit.
Violence also comes into play at times in fairy tales like these. In one fairy tale a man shot silver bullets over the heads of the magical beings and they vanished leaving behind their treasure. In a different tale a troll wife appeared at the door of a knight and offered him a goblet full of wine. He took the goblet and drew his sword and beheaded the troll that gave it to him. He then offered the goblet to his king who renamed him in honor of this deed and gave him a new coat of arms with a beheaded troll on it.
Probably one of the biggest ways to defend yourself against faeries after stealing from them is to invoke Christian names or symbols. These have been shown in many fairy tales to have a strong affect on the magical beings of Faerie and are often said to save many a life. In one fairy tale where rabbits (a being often considered to be bewitched) were leaping about one threatened to bite a young man. He invoked the name of God causing them to vanish. A voice then cried out lamenting the loss of their silver beaker. Further searching later turned it up and the man sold it for a very large sum though neither he nor the goldsmith he sold it to could read the strange name engraved on it in a script they had never before seen. Other times the thief would throw a rosary on the thing they wished to steal thus preventing the fairy from reclaiming it and allowing them to claim it for themselves.
When fleeing angry fairies a thief will sometimes run into a church and find protection on their hallowed ground. Occasionally while in their flight the thief will pray to God and offer the treasure to his service if he can just find safety where ever that is. Upon successfully robbing Faerie they often donate their treasure (usually a drinking horn, chalice, goblet or cup) to a local church where it then goes on to be used in communion. Some churches have “fairy cups” with histories such as these to this very day.
In the back of my most recent fairy tale related book was a reference to this publisher’s work putting together collections of fairy tales and folklore from all over the world (Italian fairy tales, Norse myths, African folktales, and so on). While the books are going out of print they do seem to be some very nice collections if you are interested in exploring another culture’s fairy tales. I put together a list of as many as Good Reads has in their system and am now sharing the booklist for any one that might be interested.
Arming me with an Amazon gift card is a very dangerous thing. Spent the morning agonizing over book choices and finally decided I wanted to learn more about forests in fairy tales. My search for the One Book that would at least start to accomplish this led me to find many more, and finally I decided to just make a booklist. This is my largest one yet!
In this booklist I have compiled books that talk about forests, trees, plants and flowers and how they are represented in myths, folktales, legends and fairy tales. As for my quest for the One Book, it’s still ongoing but I have tentatively settled on Myths of the Sacred Tree to be my proverbial toe dip into the pool.
In The Return of the Light Carolyn McVickar Edwards assembles twelve legends, folktales and fairy tales told about the “return of light” that occurs at the winter solstice. I wanted to know more about the roots of the older traditions surrounding the Winter Solstice before it was taken over by the Church. I didn’t really find that, but I did find several different takes from around the world on just what happens during the solstice, the shortest day of the year, and their explanations for why the sun goes away, and more importantly why it comes back after.
The book is divided into three parts, each part containing four stories of a particular way in which the sun is lost at the solstice: the first through theft, the second through surrender and the third by grace. Each part is preceded with a short discussion about the method of reacquiring the sun, and each story is additionally given an introduction explaining the society it came from and where the story originated.
I thought that the introductions to the book and the sections in particular were by turns overly analytical, and then bizarrely whimsical. They could have perhaps been written in a more user friendly way. I am used to reading sociological and historical texts with a lot of technical terms in them and even I found myself lost and re-reading passages trying to get the gist of the great deal of knowledge the author attempted to cram into very little space. This also resulted in a bit of reader’s whiplash when you switched to reading the story.
In that distant beginning season, Sun Man’s warm magic flowed over all the land. Whenever he raised his arms, it was day. whenever he lowered them, it was night. The Bee People and the Elephant People and the Tic People loved the rhythm of Sun Man’s light. Their faces crinkled with pleasure in his heat.
But inside the dreamtime, Sun Man grew old. His back grew stiff and his knee joints ached. He rose later and later each morning. He napped soon after breakfast and went to bed in the afternoon.
”What’s going on here?” complained Grandfather Mantis. “I’m not getting heat anymore.” Grandfather Mantis sent the Bird People to find out. The Bird People returned, rumpled and solemn. Darkness was everywhere, even though it was supposed to be daytime. “Sun Man is getting old,” they explained. “This shining all the time is getting too much for him.”
”Well, I’m old,” snapped Grandfather Mantis. “Doesn’t stop me.”
His wife raised her eyebrows but said nothing.
The stories were simplified and written in a very easy to understand and casual manner, particularly the dialogue which was written in a very believable modern day cadence and made the stories easy to read aloud and easy for listeners of any age to relate to. With the skill exhibited here, the stories were very much the book’s strong point. I wish the introductions were similarly written, it would have made for a powerful book.
The ending includes several songs and games to be done on the winter solstice. To me these seemed like very much an after thought. The publisher might have insisted they add them, or an editor tacked them on. They were not well thought out, they were sometimes cheesy, even for families with children, and didn’t add anything to the book at all.
The stories though were well written, and powerful, reminders of the other cultures that make up this world and of the people of the past and their varying reactions to the, probably at that time terrifying, sight of the sun showing up less and less each day. These stories explained for them what was happening and reassured them that the sun would come back and light would return once again.
I was thinking when I picked it up about making this book a permanent addition to my library. Now I’ve decided to pass. I already have several of these stories (their full versions, not just the parts concerning the loss and return of the sun) in my Illustrated Book of Myths. I think I will stick with that.
If you are thinking of reading these stories to your children please read all of them in advance and decide which ones you want your children to see/hear. Some of them have older morals about society and one in particular, for example, features a raven that decides to infiltrate a family by becoming a baby in it and so turns himself into a feather and lands in a drinking gourd and then gets swallowed by the daughter in the family, she falls pregnant and then gives birth to him. Might be a little hard to explain that one, depending on how old the child is, as far as “the talk” is concerned.