“Seven years?” Thalia’s eyes fill with wonderment and concern. “She lived in a place like this for seven years?”
“Yes,” I say, “but without doors or windows. No light.”
Thalia and I stand in the Tower of London, Beauchamp Tower, precisely. It was the best I could do on the short notice given to me after we read Maid Maleen and she wanted to see a prison tower.
Princess Maleen refused to marry her father’s choice for a husband, she being in love with another suitor. Angered, the king walls up his daughter, with a serving maid, in a stone tower, declaring she will stay there for seven years to break her spirit.
Maleen and the maid lament for seven years, but at the end no one comes to release them. With a butter knife they gouge out the mortar between the stones. After three days they free themselves to find the kingdom burnt and ruined, with no one about.
Surviving on nettles, they travel to another kingdom to find work as kitchen wenches. The prince of this kingdom is none other than her former suitor. Thinking that Princess Maleen must be dead, he has consented to his father’s choice for a bride, an ugly, unreasonable woman. Maleen becomes the ugly bride’s maid.
The ugly bride, aware of her ugliness, does not want to show herself to the court. She substitutes her maid as a stand-in for the marriage ceremony, unbeknownst to anyone else.
On the way to the church, Maleen utters three rhymes. The first is to some nettles by the road:
What dost thou here alone?
I have known the time
When I ate thee unboiled,
When I ate thee unroasted.
The second rhyme is spoken to a footbridge:
Foot-bridge, do not break,
I am not the true bride.
Then finally, she speaks to the church door:
Church-door, break not,
I am not the true bride.
These the prince overhears. He has become alarmed at her resemblance to his Princess Maleen. At the church door he puts a necklace about her throat before going in to be wed.
That evening the ugly bride takes up her role again, wearing a veil. The prince now asks her the meaning of the rhyme she spoke to the nettles. The ugly bride declares:
I must go out unto my maid,
Who keeps my thoughts for me.
This happens three times for all three rhymes. Then the prince wants to know why she is not wearing the necklace he gave her. Furious, the ugly brides goes off to have her maid killed. Maleen’s screams as she is being taken away bring the prince to her rescue.
Maleen now tells him the truth that he has indeed married his true bride.
The story ends with yet another rhyme, spoken by children who pass the tower in which she spent seven years:
Kling, klang, gloria.
Who sits within this tower?
A King’s daughter, she sits within,
A sight of her I cannot win,
The wall it will not break,
The stone cannot be pierced.
Little Hans, with your coat so gay,
Follow me, follow me, fast as you may.
Augustus and I have talked about rhymes in fairy tales. We suspect some of these tales came out of ballads. Broadsides—single sheets of inexpensive paper printed on one side, often with a ballad—were among the most common forms of printed material between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. How often did storytellers adapt these to oral stories, retaining scraps of the original song?
I realize Thalia and I have been staring at prison walls and bars for some time, a rather bleak sight.
“There are other things to explore here at the Tower. Would you like to see the Crown Jewels?”
“No. I want to see the ravens.”
“Of course you do. I think they are this way.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2013 Maid Maleen – Part Two
Of Maids and Years
The two story elements in Maid Maleen that capture my interest are the seven years of isolation from which Maleen emerges to find her father’s kingdom destroyed, and the enigmatic maid, who bears with Maleen her laments. These appear to be two separate story elements, sharing in common the same story space. Yet one senses an interweaving that creates the mood of the tale.
I am stuck first by the seven years. Seven, in the realm of numbers, has a vaunted place. Let’s start with the seven days of the week, contemplate the seven deadly sins, and remember the biblical seven years of feast and seven years of famine.
The Seven Years’ War comes to my mind as well, a candidate for the first true world war. Starting around 1756, cascading battles drew in the European countries with colonial ambitions. The Seven Years’ War was made manifest in America as the French and Indian War. Conflicts also erupted in West Africa, India, and the Philippines.
On the European continent military sieges and the arson of cities became the hallmark of that period’s conflicts. Such a scene, after her seven years in the tower, greeted Maid Maleen.
The story appeared in the Grimm edition of Children’s and Household Tales in 1850. They found it in Sagen, Marchen und Lieder der Herzogthumer Schleswig, Holstein und Lauenberg, edited by Karl Mullenhoff, published in 1845. That is less than a hundred years after the Seven Years’ War, almost within living memory.
On an entirely different level, the image of the tower and its inhabitants wrapped in darkness can be taken metaphorically as a cocoon, and Maleen’s breaking out of it as the emergence of a chrysalis. Into this transformation enters the role of the maid.
The word “maid” carries the meaning of both a young unmarried girl and a serving woman. The word in the Grimm story is “Jungfrau,” which carries the same connotation as does its English counterpart. Neither language has a comparable male version of the word.
Towers can have all sorts of meaning. In this tale, that there are no doors or windows, and yet Maleen and her maid break through, brings to mind a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.
A butterfly does not burst forth from its captivity, but rather the chrysalis is still in a fragile state, its transformation not complete. Maleen is in a fragile state, no longer a person of position. I cannot help noting, at least in the Grimm version, it is the maid who first steps out of the tower.
Maleen and the maid travel on together and enter the service of another king. At this point in the story the maid disappears and Maleen becomes the maid.
Are we loosing track of a character, or is something else happening? Has Maleen, subliminally, transformed into/merged with the maid? Is she embracing her lower status to complete her transformation—which, ironically, allows her to return to royal status and reunite with her first suitor.
The seven years in the tower and the presence of the maid are instrumental to the feel of this story. Some of its variants have a princess and her maid trapped underground for a long time. Similar, but that image does not evoke a chrysalis or a nod to the Seven Years’ War.
Fairy Tales of the Month: August 2013 Maid Maleen – Part Three
As You Like It
Augustus and I sit in his comfy chairs sampling a new tobacco mixture, True Bride. I’ve finished explaining my thoughts on Maid Maleen, and wait for his appraisal. Augustus, for his part, has remained silent too long.
“I am not buying the Seven Years’ War part,” he finally says.
“Oh? I thought that was clever of me.”
“You’re conjecturing, snatching things out of the air. As for the cocoon and chrysalis, that’s your romanticism showing through a thin argument.”
“Well then,” I puff. “How do you see Maid Maleen?”
Augustus considers while I pack another bowl of True Bride. “Not bad by the way. I can taste the Cavendish, but what is the other flavor?”
Augustus is still considering.
“Shakespeare won’t get out of my head,” he sighs. “You know:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
“Perhaps my brain is trying to suggest Maleen has spent, not seven years but all her seven ages—her life—in the tower. Her world, in the meantime, disappears.
“I am not thinking so much on the lines of this being a transformation story, but rather a reincarnation story. Maleen enters the tower as a princess. When she is reborn from the tower she is born a maid. Her karma draws her back to the prince to fulfill what she failed in her previous life.”
I stare at Augustus. “That’s wilder conjecture than mine.”
“Yes, rather,” Augustus smiles. “I think I was being too hard on you. I’m not coming up with anything coherent myself. But this is what I love about the fairy tales.”
“What’s that?” I relight my pipe.
“We get to author our own meanings because there are no story authors to tell us otherwise. With authored works, be it novels, plays, or poetry, we readers and listeners are, more often than not, voyeurs to another’s personal creation. With the folk tale, and its subgenre the fairy tale, we deal in common property, created for us by us, yet no one owns these tales. The tales live as an ongoing project, changing, evolving, becoming variants, and being transmitted into the future by us through collections, recordings and tellings.”
“Then,” I conclude, “neither of us may have the final word.”
“Quite so.” Augustus reaches for his cold pipe.
“What is the other ingredient?”
I wonder if he is kidding.