A January Evening
I stoke up the logs in the fireplace and add another as I hear Thalia padding down the hall toward my study. I have moved the comfy chair a little closer to the hearth, fending off the damp of a cold January night. I settle into the chair and watch Thalia push the study door wide open. She ambles in wearing her bathrobe over her flannel nightgown for warmth.
She tosses Teddy into my lap, climbs up—clutching my belt with her free hand, the other burdened with her dog-eared copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, wiggling her butt until she is squished between me and the stuffed arm of the chair—exchanges the book for Teddy, opening the tome in my lap to the table of contents, giving it serious consideration until pointing her finger to the title The Clever Farmer’s Daughter—all this without uttering a word or sentence to which one could put a period, very much like this paragraph.
In the story, a poor widowed farmer, at his daughter’s suggestion, petitions the king for a small holding. The king grants the request, and the farmer and his daughter begin to clear the land. They find a golden mortar, and the farmer decides they will give it to the king as a thank-you gift. The daughter advises against it since they don’t have the pestle.
Her father does not listen, but, as the daughter predicted, the king is insulted at receiving half a gift and throws the farmer into the dungeon. The despondent farmer will not eat or drink, lamenting loudly, “If only I had listened to my daughter!” over and over again until he is brought back to the king to find out what his daughter had said.
When the king hears she predicted that, if given the mortar, he would want the pestle as well, he declares he will marry this clever daughter, if she can come to him neither clothed nor naked, neither on the road or off it, and not by walking, riding, or in a coach.
The daughter comes to him wrapped in a fishing net, dragged by a donkey along the side of the road, fulfilling all of the king’s conditions.
“Cool,” says Thalia, who is holding Teddy upside down for an inexplicable reason.
True to his word, the king marries her and the farmer is released from prison. The king and his new queen are quite happy until one day the king makes an unfair and unwise judgment, which his queen shames him into reversing.
Furious, the king throws her out of the castle, but not before she extracts from him the promise she can take with her a thing that is most dear to her.
The next morning the king wakes up to find that, after being drugged, he was kidnapped and taken to the farm of his queen’s father. She explains to him that he is the thing most dear to her, and so she took him.
Thalia giggles. There is no higher compliment.
Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2017 The Clever Farmer’s Daughter – Part Two
Illustration dated 1877
The clouds hover over us as we walk in the shelter of Tom Quad. I am sure they nearly touch the steeple of Christ Church Cathedral. My hands are gloved, but still I keep them thrust into my pockets. Duckworth and I are determined to get some exercise, pitting ourselves against the January elements.
“What,” Duckworth asks, proposing a topic for our stroll, “is the role of women in fairy tales?”
He knows my preoccupation with the subject of fairy tales and I appreciate his pandering to my desires. Silence follows as I gather my thoughts.
“The role of women in fairy tales,” I echo, “is complex.”
More silence follows.
“You’re not going to leave it at that are you?”
“I probably should, and not get myself into trouble, but, no, I’m thinking.”
“I’ll start with the negatives and get them out of the way. I am referring to witches, hen wives, and evil queens. They are less about women and more about archetypes.”
A gust of wind comes through the archway of Tom Tower as we pass by, causing us to put our heads down and push forward.
“Witches, hen wives, and evil queens are,” I continue after raising my head, “a necessary evil in the tales’ need for tension. They are the antagonists, propelling the story forward. These characters are female by definition, but are they meant to represent women? The witches, at least, are supernatural beings.”
Duckworth nods, putting his mittens to his ears. “I can still hear you,” he assures. “What about evil stepmothers?”
“The evil stepmothers, and stepdaughters, are different items.” I continue. “They are not supernatural, but rather human and harmful. The Grimms were their public relations promoters; the Grimms all but invented them. However, in the primary source tales, it was the mother who destroyed her children.”
“Really?” says Duckworth, his hands still clamped over his ears as we stroll. “Why?”
“Consider that it was a different time, a time when, it is rumored by some historians, unwanted children tended to fall down wells, or encounter other accidents. But, I think more likely, stories of mothers driven to killing their children were an earlier time’s cautionary tales, which the Grimms, later, softened, or so they felt.”
“The women aren’t doing too well.” Duckworth raises an eyebrow.
“Ah, but hold,” I declare, taking my warmed hand from my pocket and pointing to the sky, “we now come to the fairy godmothers and the old women in the wood, helpers to the protagonists. Both are, again, supernatural. The fairy godmother graciously gives gifts. The old woman in the wood usually involves food, kindly given to her by the protagonist. For this trifle, the hero or heroine is richly rewarded with a gift or two and/or important knowledge.”
“Like a cloak of invisibility or a pumpkin turned into a coach?” asks Duckworth.
“Exactly, but you see, these women are secondary—are archetypes—serving the story. The real role of woman in fairy tales comes when she is the protagonist.”
“I sense you are warning to the topic,” says Duckworth. “I wish I could say as much for my ears and toes. I’m ready for Café Loco; are you?”
Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2017 The Clever Farmer’s Daughter – Part Three
Áke and Grima discover Aslaug, by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1862
Duckworth and I take a table by the row of windows overlooking Saint Aldates Street, looking back at Christ Church College, with the cold weather on the other side of the glass.
Glancing at the menu, I am tempted by the mushrooms on toast, but I go for the scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. It does come with a pot of tea.
“You were saying,” Duckworth leans back in his chair.
“I was about to say, before you came up with this excellent idea, “—I gesture to the Alice in Wonderland-themed room around us—“that the fairy tales have a strong prejudice for young protagonists, be they male or female. Folktales will occasionally have an old woman as the main character; even fairy tales will have an old soldier as the hero, but fairy-tale heroines are young.”
I see Duckworth consider my point as he crunches on his teacake.
“Also,” I continue, “they are uniformly rewarded with marriage.”
“Rewarded or fated?”
“In the context of the fairy tale, it is meant as a reward, but you are right if you are suggesting their options were limited.”
“I observe,” says Duckworth with a glint in his eye, “there are two kinds of heroines in the world (fairy-tale world that is), the winsome and the wise.”
I chortle. “Along the wise-line, I read The Clever Farmer’s Daughter to Thalia last night, but now that I think of it, it is not technically a fairy tale, not having any magic in it, despite being in the Grimm canon.”
“Was the farmer clever or the daughter?”
“Oh, the latter. Actually, I peeked at the Grimms’ notes on the tale. They traced it back to the Saga of Aslaug, daughter of the legendary Germanic hero, Sigurd, and his wife, the shieldmaiden Brynhildr. Upon the deaths of Aslaug’s parents, Brynhildr’s foster father takes the young Aslaug into hiding, concealing her in the body of a harp, he pretending to be a bard. Peasants murder him for the treasure hidden in the harp and end up raising Aslaug.
“When she reaches womanhood, King Ragnar hears of this remarkable peasant girl and tests her wit by asking her to come to him neither dressed nor naked, neither fasting or eating, and neither alone or in a company.
“She arrives dressed in a fisherman’s net, holding an onion in her teeth, traveling along with her dog.”
“How delightful. Do they marry?” Duckworth asks.
“Yes, but Ragnar dies as a result of not listening to her advice.”
“So sorry to hear that. I prefer happy endings. Still, it does not sound to me like the women are doing too well in the tales, whether they show wisdom or abide by the will of others, unless marriage is the be-all and end-all of their existence.”
I consider for a moment. “The tales would have them ‘live happily ever after,’ nothing the feminist movement would promote as a role model for young girls, but my Thalia loves these stories. What does she see in these heroines? I think there is something timeless in the message, even if I can’t put my finger on it.”