Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2014 Kate Crackernuts – Part One

Kate Crackernut BattenJohn Batten

Ah, Nuts

This evening’s reading of Grimm’s The Worn-out Dancing Shoes to my granddaughter and her bear inspired me to find my copy of Joseph Jacob’s English Fairy Tales in which can be found the story, Kate Crackernuts.

While the motif of the underground dance is similar in both tales―though the gender has been switched from twelve giddy princesses to one unfortunate prince―other events in the two stories are unrelated.

Kate Crackernuts begins with a  queen and her stepdaughter, Anne, who is far “bonnier” than the queen’s own daughter, Kate. Jealous, the queen visits the henwife for advice. The henwife promises to cure Anne of her good looks, if the girl will come to her while fasting.

The first two attempts fail, for Anne, innocently, finds something to eat along the way. On the third attempt the henwife tells the hungry girl to lift the lid of a pot. When Anne does, her head falls off into the pot and out jumps a sheep’s head, which attaches itself to her neck. The queen is satisfied.

Kate is not happy; she loves her stepsister and now takes over the story. She wraps Anne’s head in linen and they leave the castle to make their way in the world. They end up at another castle, where there are two brothers, one of whom is mysteriously wasting away. Stranger still, those who attend to him at night disappear. The king offers a peck of silver to anyone who will watch over his son after sunset.

Kate takes up the challenge. At midnight the prince arises in a trance, and Kate tags along unnoticed though the greenwood. She collects nuts along the way, until they enter a fairy mound. Kate has the wit to hide herself and watch while the fairies dance the prince into exhaustion.

At dawn they return and the king enters the bedroom to find Kate sitting up cracking nuts. For a peck of gold she agrees to sit up the next night.

On the second night Kate overhears the fairies say that she could cure her stepsister with the wand that a baby fairy is holding while it toddles about. She rolls nuts to the baby, who has to put down the wand to pick up the nuts. Kate returns with the wand, and cures Anne.

Now she demands to marry the prince if she is to stay up another night. On the third trip to the fairy mound she deceives the baby fairy out of a little bird, which she has learned she can feed to the prince to break his spell. On the third morning the king finds Kate and his hale and hardy son cracking nuts.

Meantime, the prince’s brother has fallen in love with the restored Anne. The story tells us the well sister marries the sick brother, and the well brother marries the sick sister, and all live happily.

I read Joseph Jacob’s notes and references, which start with the disclaimer:

Oyez, oyez, oyez. The English Fairy Tales are now closed. Little boys and girls must not read any further.

The writing becomes much drier at this point. However, I am excited by his admission that he improved the tale from the garbled version put forward by Andrew Lang, in which both girls are named Kate.

My fairy-tale red flag pops up immediately. Is it garbled? I must talk to Mr. Jacobs.


Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2014 Kate Crackernuts – Part Two

Kate Crakernuts MMWilliamsMorris Meredith Williams

Two Heads Are Better Than One

I did my research on Joseph Jacobs, determined not to make the same mistake I made with Hans Christian Andersen. I invoked Hans for a visit to Miss Cox’s garden only to find he didn’t speak a word of English.

I am safe this time. Joseph Jacobs hailed from Australia, born there in 1854. At eighteen he went to England, taking his degree at St. John’s College, Cambridge.

I know Jacobs through four of his books: English Fairy Tales, More English Fairy Tales, Celtic Fairy Tales, and More Celtic Fairy Tales. Primarily though, he was a Jewish scholar. He ended up moving to the United States to become the revising editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia. His interest in folklore constituted something of a hobby during the latter half of his life.

Miss Cox’s garden supplies its usual delights. The daffodils are beginning to wane but the tulips show off their vitality. Mr. Jacobs and I arrive at the same time, introducing ourselves at the gate. A pot of tea nestled in a cozy brews on the wrought-iron table in front of a bench, which we visitors find appropriate to our Anglophile nature.

After pouring the tea, I drive straight to my point.

“In Kate Crackernuts you renamed the king’s daughter ‘Anne,’ rather than leave them both named ‘Kate.’ I am not certain the original storyteller confused his characters, but, rather, had a subconscious message.”

Joseph looks at me sideways. I put up a hand to stop his objection and push on.

“I realize I am talking Freud-speak, and the rustic teller had no knowledge of Sigmund Freud. Let me argue that Freud simply created an academic, formalized language acceptable to fellow scholars, which categorized an understanding that others, especially storytellers, felt rather than described. Their explanations came out through their story images.”

Joseph sips his tea and lets me continue (to hang myself?).

“Could the two Kates be two aspects of the same person? Do we not see ourselves in two lights? We have our rational side (your Kate) and our irrational side (your Anne).”

I note caution in his nod at my statement. I am undeterred.

“In this story the king’s daughter is the victim of the irrational. What she does is not irrational, but her stepmother’s jealousy and the henwife’s sorcery combine to magically destroy her beauty. Haven’t we looked at ourselves in the mirror and, irrationally, dwelt on our physical faults, no longer seeing our whole selves?”

I can see Joseph is thinking about this.

“Kate also faces the magical, but she does not allow herself to fall prey to it. She is aware of her whole self. She knows where she is and how to move forward rationally, given the circumstances.”

Joseph brightens and adds to my argument.

“We can also assign a passive element to Anne’s irrationality and an active element to Kate’s rationality.”

I delight in his observation. He goes on.

“The story tells us nothing about how Anne feels having a sheep’s head in place of her own. That is certainly passive. It is Kate we see taking action, defying her own mother. That is certainly active. Interesting, but I am sure you are wrong.”

I try not to make the sound of a deflating balloon.

“If the teller wanted both girls to bear the same name for a purpose,” he says, “he would have made that clear. The teller never puts the name of the two Kates in the same sentence. The teller does not make a point of them sharing a name. No, I will stay with my ‘garbled’ assertion. Many times these stories were told in taverns. When this story was told and recorded there may have been drink involved. Sorry, my friend, but you make a fairy mound out of a mole hill.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2014 Kate Crackernuts – Part Three

hen-wife-Waitt Henwife of Castle Grant by Richard Waitt


Oars dip into the water in a practiced rhythm, the sound of which usually is enough to lull me into contemplation, as Duckworth and I take our jaunt on the river. Today, however, I blather about what is on my mind, and Duckworth is not obliged to take me seriously. I have been plumbing the depths of Kate Crackernuts for him since we shoved off.

“The story has two distinct sections, although not like two tales arbitrarily stuck together. The second half, with Kate and the prince going to the dance underground, is a variant ofThe Worn-out Dancing Shoes.

“You mean The Twelve Dancing Princesses?” Duckworth brightens. “I love that story. Why hasn’t Disney done anything with it? Twelve princesses and one guy. Kind of a fairy-tale The Bachelor.

“Yes, that’s it,” I say, schooling dismissiveness out of my voice. “But the first half of my tale would make Disney uncomfortable.”

“Why so?”

“A henwife causes the beautiful sister’s head to fall into a pot and be replaced by a sheep’s head.”

“Good heavens—but what’s a henwife?”

“Well, a woman who takes care of chickens. A lowly position, right there with washerwomen and kitchen wenches. However, henwives have the attribute of being independent, knowing charms and spells and possessing magical wisdom.”

“Perhaps she knows which came first.”

I smile as we scull past children fishing on the river bank. “If anyone does, it will be her. The henwife comes into a number of English, Scottish, and Celtic tales: The Three Daughters of King O’Hara; Fair, Brown, and Trembling; Childe Roland; and Catskins, come to mind. These crones range from being wisewomen to witches. I don’t know what their role is outside the British Isles, although the Russian witch, Baba Yaga, has a house that walks around on chicken legs.”

Duckworth and I approach a part of the river with boulders and a few rapids, and we need watch ourselves before picking up the conversation once more.

“Why,” asks Duckworth, “are witches always poor?”

“A good question. Not all witches are poor. The witch queens are young, attractive, and, of course, wealthy, but the usual ancient beings live on the fringe of society in hovels, and suffer poverty, living much like a henwife would live. Old women, witches or henwives, living not quite in the fold with normal folk, were set apart and viewed with suspicion. At times the witches have hidden treasures of gold and gems, which did them no profit.”

“Are you suggesting,” Duckworth locks his oars as we take a rest, “that henwives were the role model for the image of the witch?”

“Maybe.” I had not thought of it in quite that way.

“And what about the sheep’s head?” he continues.

I sigh audibly in answer.

Duckworth muses. “I had a Norwegian cousin serve me Smalahove one time.”


“Smalahove, sheep’s head.”

“Really? How did it taste?”

“I don’t know. The smell was enough for me. I claimed vegetarianism, ate the mashed potatoes and rutabagas, and drank the Akvavit. The Akvavit made everything better.”

“Quite. Was the Smalahove boiled?”

“It is served boiled or steamed.”

“Hmmm, the henwife had the sheep’s head in a pot. I wonder… “

Your thoughts?