The traditional evening gathering is at hand. Thalia has taken her position on her comfy chair closest to the hearth. The weather is cool enough for me to have lit a fire. I in my comfy chair, the fairy on Thalia’s shoulder, Johannes on the window pretending not to be listening, and the brownie lurking in the shadows despite how familiar we are with each other, have all gathered for the evening read in my study.
“Tonight,” Thalia announces, “I shall read from the English Fairy Tales, The Red Ettin.”
An old widow sends the older of her two sons off into the world to find his fortune. First, however, she instructs him to bring her water in a can for her to bake him a cake. The can leaks most of the water and, therefore, the cake is small. Then he has to choose if he will take half the cake with his mother’s blessings or the whole cake with her curse. The cake, being so small, he takes it whole.
Before leaving, he gives his brother a knife, telling him if the knife grows rusty then he, the elder brother, has met with trouble.
He soon comes across a shepherd, who, in these words, warns him of the Red Ettin, a three-headed monster:
The Red Ettin of Ireland
Once lived in Ballygan,
And stole King Malcolm’s daughter
The king of fair Scotland.
He beats her, he binds her,
He lays her on a band;
And every day he strikes her
With a bright silver wand.
Like Julian the Roman,
He’s one that fears no man.
It’s said there’s one predestinate
To be his mortal foe;
But that man is yet unborn,
And long may it be so.
The shepherd also warns him of the strange beasts he will soon encounter.
As the shepherd foretold, he comes across rampaging beasts with two heads and four horns on each. Terrified, he flees to a castle for shelter. Despite an old woman’s efforts, the Red Ettin, whose castle this is, discovers him but offers him that he can still save his life if he can answer three riddles.
The first head asks, “What is a thing without end?”
The second head says, “The smaller the more dangerous. What’s that?”
The third head asks, “When does the dead carry the living? Riddle me that.”
The young man cannot answer any of them, and the Ettin turns him into a stone pillar.
His brother sees the knife given to him covered in rust and tells his mother it is time for him to travel. She sends him with the leaky can to fetch water. A raven warns him that the water is being lost and he stops the leak.
The mother bakes a larger cake for him than she had for his brother but with the same conditions. He too chooses the larger cake with her curse.
He shares his cake with an old woman, actually a fairy, who gives him a magic wand and advice. He meets the shepherd, who repeats the verses but with one change. The last stanza is:
But now I fear his end is near,
And destiny at hand;
And you’re to be, I plainly see,
The heir of all his land.
He then confronts the rampaging beasts, and with the magic wand, he kills one of them, then goes off to the castle. The brother is warned by the old woman of the castle, but he does not attempt to hide from the Red Ettin.
The Ettin asks him the three riddles.
The first head asks, “What is a thing without end?” The brother, who has been given the answers by the fairy, answers, “A bowl.”
The second head says, “The smaller the more dangerous. What’s that?” The brother answers, “A bridge.”
The third head asks, “When does the dead carry the living? Riddle me that.” And the brother answers, “When a ship sails the sea with men inside her.”
The Red Ettin’s powers are undone, and the brother kills him with an axe. The old woman aids the brother, showing him where the king’s daughter is held along with many other ladies captured by the Red Ettin. With the magic wand, he also restores his brother back to life.
A happy entourage returns to the king’s castle, where the younger brother marries the king’s daughter and the older brother is wedded to a nobleman’s daughter. All ends in happily-ever-after.
“A red what?” I say. Thalia shrugs her shoulders, and the fairy flutters up.
Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2022 The Red Ettin – Part Two
“This Red Ettin thing gets complicated.” She eats one-handedly, the other busy holding what I call her oracle. It has the answers to everything.
This is a conversation that would have taken place last evening except that Jini rang her up, and the rest of the night was gone.
“First, what is an ettin?” I dig into my kipper. Its smokey scent tickles my nose.
‘Well, besides being a character in Dungeons and Dragons, it’s the same as a Nordic jötunn.”
“That does not help.”
Thalia giggles. “There is a lot of gibberish here about what happened to the word as it moved from proto-German to Old English. Anyway, it more or less means ‘giant.’ The ettin is also a bogle, but there are different sorts of those; he’s just one kind.”
“Anything about the ‘red’ part of his name?” I ask.
“Not seeing anything.”
“What jumps to my mind is ‘redcap,’ a murderous goblin, who soaks his cap in his victim’s blood.”
“My point being, ‘red’ can indicate malevolence.”
“Works for me. Anyway, the story’s got a variant.”
“All the fairy tales have a variant, but go on.” I finish my kipper and start on the eggy bread.
“Well, there’s a Lang version that starts with two widows with three sons between them, which is kind of weird. The rusty knife is still there and the leaky can, but besides the shepherd, there is also a swineherd and a goatherd, all telling him the same stuff.”
Thalia pauses to take more eggy bread.
“When we get to the riddles, they are different and aren’t riddles. They are . . .” Thalia scans the information on her cell. “Which was inhabited first, Scotland or Ireland; was man made first or woman; and was man or brute made first. I think those are stupid riddles, but then the story doesn’t even give the answers, it just says the fairy woman told him everything.
“The only thing that makes sense was the third brother, who gets the bigger cake, only took half and got his mother’s blessing. Outside of that, I didn’t like the Lang version at all. Is there still some tea?”
I pour tea for her, then go find my copy of English Fairy Tales and check the “notes and references” for our story. Jacobs informs us he edited and simplified the story and found better riddles. Both he and Lang used Popular Rhymes of Scotland, by Robert Chambers, as their source. I also found that Lang reproduced his version word for word from Chambers, making Lang the more accurate folklorist. I point this out to Thalia.
“It’s still stupid,” she says.
I decide to play devil’s advocate. “Should not we try to stick to the oldest versions of these tales, the ones closest to their origins?”
“Not if they’re stupid.”
“Perhaps this is a question for the Magic Forest.”
Thalia looks at me sideways.
“Would you like to visit the Magic Forest?”
Thalia’s eyes glow.
Fairy Tales of the Month: September 2022 The Red Ettin – Part Three
Thalia and I cross the back garden and enter the Magic Forest. We take the trail past the pond and head for the Glass Mountain, Thalia’s wide eyes taking in everything.
There, as I knew he would be, sitting on the edge of a glass cliff, just out of reach, is Old Rinkrank.
“Thought I smelled you coming,” he sneers.
“Good to see you again,” I say.
“And who’s this with ya?” he expresses a little interest.
“This is my granddaughter, Thalia.”
She smiles and curtsies.
“Good,” approves Rinkrank, “she has manners.”
Wait, she’s wearing a dress. She never wears dresses anymore. She planned on this.
We take our seats on smooth glass boulders at his feet, so to speak. Actually, we sit below his long dangling legs.
“We are here,” I announce, “to ask about the importance of finding a story’s origin.”
“I suppose I can’t stop ya,” he grumbles.
“You don’t think it is important?”
“Doesn’t matter to me.”
I try again.
“To be specific, Thalia has read to me The Red Ettin.”
“Nasty fellow. Deserved what he got.”
It crosses my mind that Rinkrank’s fate in his story was no better, but I won’t go there.
“Thalia’s story was collected by Joseph Jacobs, but we found another collected by Andrew Lang, each quite different. They both cited Robert Chambers as their source, but only Lang was faithful to the source.
“Therefore, is not Lang’s version better than Jacob’s?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Rinkrank waves his bony-fingered hand in the air. “They’re all rumors. None of them were there when it happened, not even me.
“The rumor I heard from some fellow, I forget his name, there were two widows each with a son. One goes off to find his fortune, and later the other goes off to find the unfortunate. They both meet the Red Ettin’s herders, who tell them, in rhyme, the man has not been born who will kill the Red Ettin.
“Well, these sons of widows should’ve taken warning, but, no, on they go to get turned into stone pillars.
“Eventually, one of the two widows has another son,” Rinkrank chuckles. “Think about that for a moment.”
Thalia’s eyebrows rise and Rinkrank continues.
“He grows up and goes off on his adventure. The herders tell him he’s the one to kill the ettin, not to mention the magic wand the fairy gave him. He can’t lose.
“That’s the rumor I heard.”
“Ah,” I say, “the rhyme; that explains the inconsistency. I thought maybe there was some poetic license going on.”
“I noticed that too,” Thalia nods.
“Therefore,” I say, “I now declare this earlier version to be the better.”
“Nooo,” pouts Thalia.
“Why should that be?” Rinkrank shouts me down. “Just because it’s older? Bah! If ya want a rumor to keep going ya got to make it better, more interesting. Everyone who spreads a rumor puts their own touches on it. It’s their right to do so.
“Old, bah, I’m old, do you think I’m better for it?”
He’s got a point there.
I catch him winking at Thalia. Why do I talk to him? He’s so contrary.