Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part One

Sweetheart Roland oneArthur Rackham

It’s Saturday

Saturday and I have a special relationship. Saturday is when I take Thalia to Serious Books to purchase her reading for the week. If no other time, this is when I get to visit with Melissa Serious. That Thalia’s room is filling up with books worries her mother, who claims books accumulate dust, invoking the threat of allergies. I will hear none of it.

Augustus has a bell above his door in the tobacco shop to announce customers. Melissa has no such thing. One can slip in and out without notice, as Melissa usually has her nose buried in a book and may not see you.

Thalia, of course, declares her arrival and rushes to Melissa for a hug. Melissa is a little startled, so deep into what she is reading.

After the hug, I knit my brow at Melissa in question as to what absorbs her attention. Thalia is running off to her section of the bookstore, but does a 180-degree turn when Melissa says, “I am angered by this fairy tale.”

“Which tale?” asks Thalia.

I sense Melissa’s embarrassment at drawing Thalia into her personal conflict with a tale, but Melissa does not falter.

Sweetheart Roland,” she says, opening her book again and reading to us.

The evil and ugly daughter of a witch covets the apron of her kind and lovely stepsister. The witch decides to kill her stepdaughter while she sleeps. However, the good daughter overhears their plan and arranges things so that the witch, in the dark of night, murders her own daughter.

The girl runs off to her sweetheart Roland, saying they must flee. Roland suggests she steal the witch’s wand. This the girl does, also taking the head of her stepsister, letting three drops of blood fall; one at the foot of the bed, one in the hallway, and one in the kitchen.

In the morning, the witch calls to her daughter to give her the apron and the drop of blood in the hallway answers. Seeing no one there, the witch calls again and the drop of blood in the kitchen answers. On the third call, the blood in the bedroom answers and the witch finds her beheaded daughter. Putting on her seven-league boots, she takes off after the girl.

Seeing her coming, the girl uses the wand to turn Roland into a lake and herself into a duck. For all the bread crumbs the witch casts onto the water, the duck is not lured in and at night the witch returns home.

The couple resumes their human form and they travel all night. In the morning the girl turns herself into a flower inside a briar patch and Roland into a fiddler.

When the witch appears again she recognizes the flower in the briar patch as the girl and asks the fiddler if she may pick it. He agrees, but as soon as the witch climbs into the briars, he plays a tune on his fiddle, forcing the witch to dance about, getting lashed by the thorns until she bleeds to death.

Roland returns to his father to prepare for a wedding and the girls waits for Roland in the form of a red stone. Roland does not return, being ensnared by another woman.

The girl changes herself into a flower and is picked by a shepherd and put into a chest. To the shepherd’s surprise, some mysterious being is now cleaning his house and preparing his meals. A wisewoman tells him to rise very early and throw a white cloth over anything that moves. This he does when he sees the flower coming out of the chest, and it turns back into the girl. The shepherd wants to marry her, but she only agrees to keep house for him.

Soon she hears Roland is to be married. Heartbroken, she does not want to go to the wedding, but the other girls come and take her away with them to sing songs to the bridal couple. When Roland hears her, his memory returns. He declares she is the true bride and he will have no other.

“Humph, I don’t like Roland,” Thalia grouses.

“Nor do I,” agrees Melissa.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part Two

Sweetheart Roland two Illustration 1909

The Sweetheart

“That’s Grimm, isn’t it?” I whisper after Thalia is far enough away, safely ensconced in “her” aisle.

“And a little too typical for my taste,” replied Melissa.

I take a seat in one of her overstuffed chairs.

“It sounds like a perfectly good tale to me,” I say, and see her expression shift, telegraphing that I am going to regret my words.

“Perfectly good tale?” she shrills a bit. “I should say not. I am happy Thalia sensed its failings as I have.”

“What failings?” I protest.

“Wilhelm Grimm’s view of women.” She takes a seat across from mine.

Half my mind knows better than to argue a politically incorrect point, but the other half pushes on.

“What?” I demand.

“Wilhelm makes two assumptions about women. First, women are keen on seeing each other as rivals, to the point of murder. There is no sense of ‘brotherhood’ among them. Second, men are naturally superior with no need to defend that position.”

Ouch. This is going to be hard. She’s thought this out.

“Give me a ‘for example,’” I challenge.

“All of Sweetheart Roland,” Melissa returns.

“I really don’t think Wilhelm set out to be offensive to women,” I say.

“And that is my point. He made assumptions. He didn’t think about his depiction of his female protagonists. He represents women as being their own worst enemies. It is the girl’s own stepmother and stepsister who plot against her for the possession of an apron. Note, the stepfather is nowhere mentioned and therefore blameless whether he is alive or dead.”

“He’s really kind of nonexistent in this tale,” I comment.

“True. Wilhelm shows a women’s world full of female backstabbers. Let’s visit Cinderella, Snow White, the Three Forest Gnomes, The Goose Girl, even Hansel and Gretel; mothers, witches, servants, and siblings try to destroy the heroines. What sort of role model are they for Thalia?”

I shift uneasily in my chair. She’s got me close to home on that one.

“Wait, there are evil men in the Grimm tales. What about Bluebeard?”

“For every evil male, Wilhelm tells tales of ten evil females.”

I haven’t counted them up, but that is probably true.

“However,” Mellissa continues, “when Wilhelm does have an evil male, the culprit is usually waylaying some poor female. And here I will give Wilhelm credit; the heroine will best the antagonist and come out on top.”

“I am glad you give Wilhelm a little credit. He haunts my study sometimes, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know, but I am not surprised. I should not be there when he does.”

I smile. “What of your objection to Roland?”

Melissa takes a deep breath. “I have sworn not to utter my former husband’s name and I will not. But his image rises before me as I read Sweetheart Roland.”

I am not even going to try to win this argument. I have stepped on Melissa’s toes.

Melissa launches into her point, “I did my research. I read to you the final 1857 version. In the 1812 version the girl has already taken the wand and dripped the drops of blood before she goes to Roland. Apparently, on rewrite, Wilhelm sensed Roland’s uselessness and gave him a role in their escape by suggesting she steal the wand. Making him even more distasteful in my eyes, Wilhelm presents Roland as self-seeking, though I think he did not intend too.

“Then, after the girl destroys the witch, he goes and gets stolen by another woman. Wilhelm uses the word ‘ensnared’ that does not suggest magic, for which we could have forgiven him. Rather, Roland seems to have given into his immediate sensual desires; the girl, after all, is a red stone at this point and forgettable. Wilhelm does not identify this as a fault of character.”

I think she is being a little hard on Roland, but I will keep my mouth shut.

Thalia appears with her stack of books, ready to check out. I notice the title Wind in the Willows in her pile. She may not be a fan of Roland, but she is a fan of good literature.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part Three

Sweetheart Roland threeWalter Crane

Disembodied Voices

“Three drops of blood,” Augustus repeats the subject of my inquiry through a cloud of tobacco smoke thickening the air between our comfy chairs. “To which story do you refer? The Goose Girl? Snow White?”

Sweetheart Roland,” I say.

“Oh, but you do like the obscure ones.”

Augustus pauses to collect his thoughts. “The three drops of blood have a long lineage, going back to at least the Arthurian legends with no one less than Percival seeing three drops of blood in the snow that remind him of his sweetheart’s countenance; her pale skin and rosy cheeks. This image probably predates Percival

“In the fairy tales the most prominent colors are white, red, and black. There is a formula here. If the colors are white and red only that is an indication of the demonic. The hounds of hell are white dogs with red ears.

“It is not until the color black comes into the story, usually in the form of a crow, that the image relates to mortals. More than once in the tales, a queen sees a crow that has downed its prey in the snow, it’s victim’s blood spilling onto the ground, and the queen wishes for a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as dark as the crow.”

“What,” I ask, “do the three drops of blood represent in Sweetheart Roland?”

“Let me start with what they don’t represent. I have read a number of academic papers that argue the three drops of blood symbolize a young woman’s start of menstruation, loss of maidenhood, and birth of a child, which is appealing in intellectual terms, but that argument does not consider the tale’s audience.

“The tale’s audience was the peasantry. They routinely slaughtered animals for their meals. Blood was as common to the peasant as water, not the mysterious province of women.

“I will allow in the cities there were butchers, who began to separate their customers from the blood of what they ate, but the culture at that time was still largely rural and that is where the tales were being told. Blood was a common talisman, like garlic and iron, to be used against evil.”

I know our concentration on our topic is deep. I can hardly see Augustus through the dense smoke we are creating. We think and we puff.

“What interests me,” Augustus goes on, “is inanimate objects talking.”

“As in the three drops of blood in Sweetheart Roland,” I say.

“Exactly. The most famous, of course, is the magic mirror in Snow White, which also contains the three-drops-of-blood motif, but there they have no voice.”

“What jumps to my mind,” I say, “is The Horned Women.”

“Good example,” Augustus agrees. “The barred door, the cakes made with the children’s blood, and the half-sewn cloak all speak audibly to the twelve witches.”

“I will rephrase my original question. What is the role of these talking things?”

“Limited,” Augustus smiles. “Take the magic mirror. It, very appropriately, appeals to or upsets the evil queen’s vanity. In The Horned Women, the door, cakes, and cloak only confess why they cannot aid the witches. In Sweetheart Roland, the three drops of blood are planted to delay the witch, if not for very long, but when one is fleeing every second may count.

“Talking objects are not all-knowing. They have one, small, defined purpose in their particular story. Seldom do they give advice. The exception that comes to me is the spirit of the spring in The Horned Women, who instructs the woman of the house in how to proceed. But even then, it is a spirit and not the spring itself that is the helper.”

“Disembodied voices,” I contemplate. “This is the stuff of the dream-world.”

“Fairy tales are our waking dreams,” Augustus says with finality.

Your thoughts?


Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2011 King Thrushbeard – Part One

 Arthur Rackham

The Marriage Test


            In “King Thrushbeard” we find an elaborate expression of that old and venerable fairy tale tradition, the marriage test. In the usual form of the marriage test, the hero or heroine goes through a series of trials in order to claim (or in some cases reclaim) their spouse.


            I am not sure if the “marriage test” is an accepted term in folklore studies. Let me give two examples of what I mean.


            In “The White Snake” our hero is given the tasks of retrieving a ring thrown into the sea, gathering ten bags of millet seed scattered across the ground at night, and seeking an apple from the Tree of Life as preconditions before he is allowed to marry the princess. Such tasks are never achieved without magical helpers, in this case creatures our hero had saved, and who now return the favor.


            In “Sweetheart Roland” it is the heroine who, with her lover, goes through a series of escapes from her evil witch-stepmother, only to have Roland enchanted away by another woman. In the end the heroine reclaims him with her song. These tasks are not stated as preconditions before marriage, but the heroine must pass through the trials before the marriage can take place.


            The interesting feature in “King Thrushbeard” is that the princess is unaware that she is in the midst of a marriage test. She believes her husband is a beggar, to whom she is given without benefit of any celebration. She has no goal in sight, only sincere remorse for her actions, which becomes her redemption, leading to the celebration of her union with King Thrushbeard.


            The marriage test expresses itself in many different ways in the fairy tale oeuvre. (The French never did learn how to spell, but remember this word the next time you play Scrabble.) Whatever form it takes, it is easily recognizable: the tale ends in a marriage, a fantasy reflection of what in our world is called…the…a


            Wait a minute. There is no marriage test on this side of the veil, or anything like it. There are marriage licenses, but any dummy can get one of those. There are marriage-for-dummies books for the dummies that get marriage licenses, but there isn’t a mandatory aptitude test for marriage or a competency test (that’s a thought though). 


            Let’s look back at the time from which these fairy tales emerged. Commonly, marriages were arranged; there were financial considerations, dowries to be collected, family ties to bind. But no marriage test.


            What purpose does the marriage test motif serve? We can easily find reasons for the marriage test to be in a story. The marriage test drives the plot of the tales in which it appears. It creates the tension and conflict within the story, and what is a story without conflict? There is the “true love conquers all” message, which is the satisfying ending to the tale.


            But when I look beyond reason, what enchants me is that in the fairy tale culture there exists a way of thinking about, a way of dealing with, a way of approaching the state of matrimony that has no parallel in our culture.


            Where does it come from?


Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2011 King Thrushbeard – Part Two

 Walter Crane


In “King Thrushbeard” I can’t help noticing an undercurrent that I have not noticed in other fairy tales—the helplessness of royalty outside their realm.

The princess in King Thrushbeard raises the act of insulting her suitors to an art form. Her natural talents end there. The King condemns her to the status of a commoner by turning her over to a beggar for her refusal to marry a worthy husband. Her further disappointments come along quickly when she finds her new dwelling dismal and devoid of servants.

Her beggar-husband soon finds she cannot cook, weave or spin. Her attempts to sell his earthenware in the marketplace come to calamity, and she ends up as a kitchen maid in the castle, working for scraps of food. The commoner-husband calls her “a bad bargain” to her face.

A commoner is calling someone of royal birth a bad bargain? Let’s ignore the plot; let’s ignore that the beggar is really a king and the set-up is a lesson for the princess. The central focus of the story is the princess’s descent in status. That is what is expected to be compelling to the listener. We, a modern audience, feel sympathy for her plight. But how does this story fall on a commoner’s ears in a world where royalty matters?  Does this tale become social commentary? Veiled social commentary, but a critique none the less?

What was the emotional context of commoners and royalty at the time these fairy tales were current? There haven’t been royal families that mattered in Western culture for a century, and they were tending to get shot and bombed by the rebellious/anarchistic rabble toward the end. We would have to go to the Middle East to find people whose lives are at least partly defined by the presence of a royal family.

But when these tales were current, kings, queens, princesses and princes strode through many of the stories like actors and actress on stage usually cast in sympathetic light. A queen might be evil, resulting from her dabbling in witchcraft. Sibling rivalry may raise its head. But neither of these faults is inherent in blue blood.

Usually, a prince will venture forth to fulfill a challenge or request by the king. A princess may fall from high status, but will regain it through cleverness, honesty, or sometimes magic. A queen will protect her children against unusual odds.

Then there is the commoner who marries into royalty after accomplishing impossible tasks with the aid of magical helpers. Let me speculate that this theme has to do with the fanciful wish of commoners to be royal.

We are still fascinated with royalty. Even Americans, who rebelled against the Crown, tarred and feather loyalists, can think of few things more exciting than a royal wedding.

Where is “King Thrushbeard” coming from that it criticizes the princess, if ever so gently? I find it an anomaly in the fairy tale lexicon. I, for one, don’t know what to make of it.


Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2011 King Thrushbeard – Part Three

 Margaret Evans Price

In a Different Light

King Thrushbeard”, like a lot of Grimm, is politically incorrect. In the course of depicting an ancient male-dominated world, the early tale tellers would have been perplexed, even aghast, at the feminism of the future. They didn’t know to give a passing nod to the modern feminist movement.

The gist of Thrushbeard is that a royal princess does not get to marry the king until she is humbled. At the start, her father wishes her to marry, but she belittles and insults all the suitors, including the one she nicknames “Thrushbeard”. Furious, her father pledges her to the next beggar who walks through the gates, and she is sent off with a beggar/fiddler. Now, living as a commoner, she has no skills and descends in status. When thoroughly humbled and full of remorse, it is revealed that her fiddler husband is actually King Thrushbeard in disguise, and she is restored to her former position by his hand.

Understandably, feminists gag on such tripe and look warily on anyone reading such demeaning-to-women works. The last time I read “King Thrushbeard” I did so at night, under the covers with a flashlight.

However, my flashlight was made by Anima & Animus Inc. a Division of Jung Industries. It shed a different light.

To oversimplify the Anima/Animus concept, it is the woman in every man, and the man in every woman. (May Jung forgive me.)

The princess, in her rejection of the suitors, is aggressive, controlling and confrontational. She clearly displays her animus in the form of negative masculine attributes. Outside of her beauty, she lacks anything feminine.

In King Thrushbeard, disguised as a beggar, we see his masculine side as cold, uncaring, and logical, applying his princess/wife unsuccessfully to various forms of manual labor, until she devolves to a mere kitchen wench. At the end of the tale, he reveals his true nature and purpose during the wedding feast. In this, he is tender, patient and forgiving. We see his anima.

Interestingly, the princess does not recognize the beggar as King Thrushbeard, even though the king has remarkable physical features. As the beggar, he hides his anima; all she sees is his male side. She sees only half a person. That is the real disguise.

Not until they both inhabit the feminine realm can there be a marriage. While her animus dominates, while she demeans all suitors, she remains unattainable. Fairy tales are generally supportive of feminine attributes in both the hero and the heroine. Usually, act of kindness, thoughtfulness and honesty win the day, rather than do-or-die heroics. What fairy tale ends with “To the victor belong the spoils!”? King Thrushbeard wins his wife by subtlety and not by the sword.

Your thoughts?

  1. After a little more research, I found Marie-Louise Von Franz, a Jungian who wrote a lot about the psychology behind fairy tales, wrote about King Thrushbeard in terms of the anima and animus. Just when I thought I’d come up with a pretty good idea… Well, as that old Egyptian saying goes, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”