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.”