Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Tales of Kismet, Fate and Doom

Originally published as 'Inevitable Tales' in 'Unsettling Wonder' Issue 6, September 2017 

Nothing, they say, is sure but death and taxes. By creating a comic equivalence between two such different but universally unpopular processes, the maxim succinctly acknowledges the trials of life and the inevitability of death. It's a bleak lookout - and so there are many traditional stories in which the impotence of humanity in the face of what seems a hostile or indifferent world is mitigated by endowing the universe with purpose.
Kismet – fate, destiny, quadr, karma, doom, wyrd – across the world these similar yet subtly different concepts have sprung up as responses to the same anxiety. They reassure that whatever good or evil may befall us is somehow meant to be, intended, written in the stars. Kismet is the opposite of luck. Luck is happenstance, the random fall of the dice. Kismet is destiny ordained by a higher power. In ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf tells Frodo it is so unlikely that the Ring would abandon Gollum only to be picked up by Bilbo from the Shire, that some mysterious purpose must be involved:
‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put in no plainer than by saying Bilbo was meant to have the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.’
Possession of the Ring is a calamity. When times are bad, it helps to hold on to the idea that there is meaning behind it all, but how, or whose? Answers vary according to the ways different cultures, philosophies and religions express their world-views.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word ‘kismet’ is derived from the Arabic kisma(t), meaning ‘portion, division, lot’. From the outset then, kismet implies something received, not chosen: your allotted measure, your just deserts.
One of the neatest tales of kismet is to be found in the Babylonian Talmud, c. 500 CE. In sukkah 53a, 7-16, Rabbi Johanen tells a story to illustrate the saying: A man’s  feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted.
King Solomon had two Cushite scribes, Elihoreph and Ahyah. One day the King noticed that the Angel of Death was looking downcast. ‘Why are you so downcast?’ he asked. ‘Because the lives of your two scribes have been demanded of me,’ replied the Angel. In order to save the scribes, Solomon spirited them away to the district of Luz, where both men immediately died. On the following day the Angel of Death was in a cheerful mood, and again Solomon asked him why. ‘Because,’ said the Angel, ‘you sent your scribes to the very place where I was meant to slay them.’
The story shows that there is no escaping what God has ordained, for although he is not directly mentioned it cannot doubted that it is God’s demand which the Angel of Death is bound to fulfil.
Other stories of kismet begin at a child’s birth and concern themselves with prophecies of his or her future. Despite or even because of efforts to prevent them, prophecies in stories always come true. In the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘The Devil With The Three Golden Hairs’ (KHM 29), a prophecy is made at the birth of a poor boy that he will grow up to marry the king’s daughter. Learning of this, the king persuades the parents to give him the child, promising to adopt him, but instead places him in a box and throws him into a river to drown. 

The baby is rescued, however, and brought up by poor but kindly millers: when he is grown the king discovers him and tries again to have him killed by sending him to the queen with a sealed letter ordering his execution. On the way, robbers shelter the boy, examine the letter and alter it to command the boy’s immediate marriage to the princess. And so the king’s efforts to confound the prophecy actually bring it to pass.
This kind of story is Aarne-Thompson Tale Type 930, ‘Prophecy’. Closely related to it is the tale of Oedipus (AT 931). Laius, King of Thebes, learns from the Delphic Oracle that his son will murder him. According to different versions of the myth, Laius either pierces his baby son’s feet and exposes him on Mount Cithaeron, or seals him in a chest and casts him into the sea. In either case the child is adopted by the queen of Corinth, who pretends to have given birth to him. Growing up ignorant of his parentage, Oedipus kills Laius in an altercation on the road and marries his mother Jocasta. Once again the prophecy is fulfilled through the king’s very efforts to avert it. Much of the fascination of tales of this kind comes from watching the machinery of destiny inexorably at work. 

If prophecies predict the future, can they be said to cause it? The answer to that depends very much on context. The Delphic Oracle spoke for the god Apollo, but there is no sense that Apollo takes a personal interest in Oedipus’ misfortunes. For the God of the Old Testament the case is less clear. The story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis is thick with prophetic dreams: not just those of Joseph himself but of Pharoah too, and his baker and butler. Joseph famously dreams that while binding sheaves in the field, his sheaf of corn stands upright while those of his eleven brothers bow down to him; also that ‘the sun, the moon and the eleven stars’ bow down before him.
And he told it to his father and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him and said unto him […]  Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?’
Genesis 37, 10
To prevent the prophecy from coming true, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave into Egypt, a course of action which initiates his rise to power as Pharoah’s most trusted servant and governor of all the land; when famine strikes, Joseph’s brothers journey to Egypt in search of grain and do indeed bow down before him.

There seems no particular reason why any of the characters in the stories we have looked at so far should be singled out by fate. None are especially good or bad. We are told nothing about the characters of Elihoreph and Ahyah, we only see that their time has come. Oedipus did not want or intend to murder his father or marry his mother. For the young hero of ‘The Devil With The Three Golden Hairs’, it’s not so much that he deserves to succeed as that the wicked king deserves to fail, and the same is true of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s story is in style, and affect, a fairy tale. He reports his dreams, and correctly interprets those of others, but he is not required to act upon them. His father Jacob was touched by holiness: spoke to God, even wrestled with him – but Joseph has no one-on-one relationship with God, and his qualities remain those of a fairy tale hero: ordinary morals and a good work ethic. He does not earn his destiny, it is bestowed upon him, unfolding as a consequence of the actions of others and the mysterious will of God.
A story which does require some action on the part of the dreamer is ‘The Pedlar of Swaffham’, an English tale first recorded in the 17th century. A pedlar of Swaffham in Norfolk dreams that if he travels to London and stands upon London Bridge, he will hear good news. At first he doubts the dream, but after its third repetition he puts it to the test. Arriving in London he stands day after day on the bridge, but nothing happens. Finally a curious shopkeeper asks the pedlar what he is doing, the pedlar explains his dream and the shopkeeper bursts out laughing.
‘I’ll tell thee, country fellow, last night I dreamed I was in Swaffham, where me thought behind a pedlar’s house in a certain orchard and under a great oak tree, if I digged, I should find a vast treasure! Now think you,’ says he, ‘that I am such a fool as to take such a long journey on the instigation of a silly dream? No, no, I’m wiser.’
Naturally the pedlar hurries home, digs a hole in his own orchard and finds the treasure. Significantly, while the pedlar dreams only of unspecified ‘good news’, the shopkeeper’s dream contains every detail needed to find the treasure. The pedlar however, trusts in and acts upon his dream, while the shopkeeper’s scepticism and failure to act deprives him of the treasure and brings the pedlar his reward. The town of Swaffham celebrates the story to this day: 

The story certainly is not asking us to believe that God was concerned in enriching the Pedlar of Swaffham. (Unless, as I sometimes wonder, it began life as a sixteenth-century pulpit parable, with the good news turning out to be the Gospels and the treasure explained as salvation.) At any rate, in the form we have it the tale sends a more general and cautious message: ‘Trust, and all will be for the best’. But trust in what, or in whom? Need providence be a personal Providence? To put it another way, do we live in a moral universe? What about karma?
Karma may be a bit of a sixties buzz-word, but its original Sanskrit meaning refers to a spiritual principle of cause and effect: the events of a person’s life, good or bad, are the consequence of his or her actions and intentions in previous lives and are therefore quite literally earned or deserved. In one of the Buddhist Jatakas a princess, Rujā, explains to her father King Angati why it is that in spite of appearances Alāta, a general, is in a worse moral state than Bījaka, a slave:
I will tell thee a parable, O king. As the ship of merchants, heavy through taking in too large a cargo, sinks overladen into the sea, so a man, accumulating sin little by little, sinks overladen into hell … Formerly Alāta’s deeds were righteous, and it is as their result that he enjoys this prosperity. That merit of his is being spent, for he is all intent upon vice…
As the balance properly hung in the weighing house causes the end to swing up when the weight is put in, so does a man cause his fate at last to rise if he gathers together every piece of merit little by little, like that slave Bījaka intent on merit.
Jataka 544, tr. E.B. Cowell and W.H.D. Rouse, 1907
So… is anyone in charge, or is this just how the universe works? It’s not entirely clear. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (7th century BCE), speaking of the self or soul, explains: ‘As is its desire, so is its resolution; and as is its resolution, so is its deed; and whatever deed it does, that it reaps.’ What goes around comes around: the idea that karma means reaping what you sow has proved attractive to Western audiences accustomed by Christianity to ideas of judgement, reward and retribution. Less easy to grasp is the tranquil assertion that follows these lines: in order to escape the world and be united with the non-personal ultimate reality, Brahman, the self must be free from all desires, good or bad. Brahman is a difficult metaphysical concept. It must be distinguished from the Hindu creator god Brahma, who – scholars suggest – may have emerged from it at a later date, a personification people found easier to engage with, and more comprehensible.
In a story collected by G. R. Subramiah Pantalu in ‘Folk-Lore of the Telegus’ (1905) not only is karma inevitable, but Brahma seems to control it. The god Siva and his wife Parvati see a poverty-stricken Brahmin priest making his way home. Parvati wishes to gift him with gold, but Siva tells her that Brahma has not written that the Brahmin should enjoy wealth in this life. To test this, Parvati throws a thousand gold coins on the path, but as the Brahmin approaches he finds himself suddenly wondering whether he could walk along like a blind man. So, closing his eyes, he passes the coins and never sees them…
 Perhaps it’s always easier for people to believe in a directed, personal fate than an impersonal one. For in this unfair and difficult world of ours, don’t we yearn for good deeds to be rewarded, evil deeds to be discovered and punished? ‘The Cranes of Ibycus’, a story found in the 10th century Byzantine Encyclopaedia, tells of the murder of Ibycus, a Greek poet:

Captured by bandits in a deserted place he declared that the cranes which happened to be flying overhead would be his avengers; he was murdered, but afterwards one of the bandits saw some cranes in the city and exclaimed, ‘Look, the avengers of Ibycus!’ Someone overheard and followed up his words: the crime was confessed and the bandits paid the penalty; whence the proverbial expression ‘the cranes of Ibycus’.
Trans. David Campbell
In this story there is no supernatural intervention: the birds do not speak and their flight over the city might be providence or coincidence, but here – at least in the sense the West understands it – we find karma’s cause and effect at work in the space of a single life-time. The satisfactory neatness of the murderer revealed by his own involuntary exclamation might belong to a modern detective story – a genre which itself relies on and reinforces our yearning for justice and right to prevail.
Precisely because fairy tales are not meant to be realistic, they can satisfy that yearning for justice. In the make-belief world of fairy tales everyone gets what they deserve. Many are the stories in which a simple youngest brother or orphaned maiden shows pity to some animal, injured or trapped, or shares a last crust with some poor old woman. In ‘The White Snake’ (KHM 17) a kind-hearted prince who understands the speech of animals returns three stranded fish to the water, avoids trampling on an ant-hill, and feeds some starving ravens (by killing his horse, which may seem rather to undo the good deed, but in this tale the horse must be regarded as an extension of himself). In gratitude, the animals help him in a number of difficult tasks. Generous acts in fairy tales are almost always rewarded. In the Grimms’ tale ‘Mother Holle’ (KHM 24) the pretty, hardworking girl who jumps down the well into Mother Holle’s otherworldly land behaves with courtesy and kindness even to the inanimate objects which plead for her help. She takes bread out of an oven so that it won’t burn, and shakes down apples from an apple tree so the branches won’t break, and she works so diligently and well for old Mother Holle that her reward is a shower of gold which covers her from head to foot.
Karma brings like for like, however. The lazy, ugly stepsister who ignores the pleas of the oven and the apple tree and refuses to work for Mother Holle is showered with pitch, not gold. In fairy tales truth always comes to light and evil deeds are discovered and punished. ‘The Singing Bone’ (KHM 28) tells how two brothers go out to find and kill a dangerous boar. The younger boy, whose heart is ‘pure and good’, kills the boar, but his jealous elder brother murders him. Burying the body under a bridge, he takes the credit for killing the boar and marries the King’s daughter.
‘But as nothing remains hidden from God, so this black deed also came to light. Years afterwards, a shepherd was driving his flock over the bridge and saw lying in the sand beneath, a snow-white little bone...’
The shepherd makes the bone into a mouthpiece for his horn, and when he blows on it the bone begins to sing and denounce the brother for his murder. The rest of the skeleton is found and the guilty man is put to death, while ‘the bones of the murdered man were laid to rest in a beautiful tomb in the churchyard.’

 In fairy tales, helping a dead man is the most unselfish of acts, for surely the dead can never repay you? Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Travelling Companion’ tells of young Johannes who gives away all his money to prevent evildoers from abusing the corpse of a man who was in debt to them. Shortly afterwards he is joined on the road by the ‘travelling companion’ of the title who befriends and guides him, and helps him to marry a princess whose luckless suitors must answer three riddles or die. Reading the tale as a child I was thrilled when the wicked princess flies out of the castle on black wings to visit her lover, a troll king… During the course of the story the travelling companion teaches Johannes how to answer the riddles, and succeeds in killing the troll and disenchanting the princess. When Johannes thanks him and begs him to stay with them for ever, he replies:
‘No, I must go. I have but paid my debt. Do you remember the dead man whom you protected from wicked men in the church? You gave all you had so he might rest in his grave. I am that dead man.’ And with that he vanished.
A similar tale is ‘Beauty of the World’, told to William Larminie by Patrick Minahan of Mainmore, County Donegal and reproduced in ‘West Irish Folktales’ (1893). A king’s son gives all the money in his purse so that a body can be buried, and soon after is joined by a red-haired man who helps in his quest to find the beautiful woman on whom his heart is set. After many adventures the woman is won and the ‘red man’ declares:
It was I that was in the coffin that day. When I saw you starting on your journey I went to you to save you … Health be with you and blessing. You will set eyes on me no more.
Stories of the Grateful Dead (AT 506) have antecedents going back as far as the apocryphal Book of Tobit. They proclaim that good actions will always be rewarded, sometimes by God, sometimes by the less explicit workings of a mysterious yet morally weighted universe. 
As people have thought about fate or destiny, different metaphors have emerged. Your deeds may be weighed in scales to determine your fate in the next life. Or destiny may be something measured out to you like grain: your portion or lot in life. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, 7:2), Jesus combines measurement and judgement with the words, ‘with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.’ He speaks also of ‘the reaper drawing his pay and gathering a crop for eternal life’ (John 4, 36). Like ‘kismet’, it seems the Arabic term al-quadr, ‘divine fore-ordainment’ or ‘predestination’ is also derived from a root which means ‘to measure out’. Implicit in these metaphors is an imagery of field-workers or servants judged worthy or not worthy of their hire. In a patriarchal society the one who decides on and doles out the wages is perceived as the ultimate Master, and so this metaphor mirrors the unequal relationship between the human and the divine.
But there’s another equally ancient metaphor for fate and it comes not from field-work, but from house-work. It compares the course of a human life to a thread which is first spun, and then woven into cloth, and ultimately cut with shears. Weaving was a woman’s work, and the Weavers of destiny were women. 

The Greek Moirae or ‘Apportioners’ were envisaged as three old women, Clotho, ‘the spinner’, Lachesis, ‘the measurer’, and Atropos, ‘she who cannot be turned’. Clotho spun the thread of a person’s life on her distaff, Lachesis measured it with her rod, and Atropos cut it with her shears. In her book on the prehistory of weaving, ‘Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years’ (1994) Elizabeth Wayland Barber points out a stock couplet that appears ‘almost verbatim’ twice in the Iliad and once in the Odyssey and which is probably older than either:
He shall endure all that his destiny and the heavy Spinners
Spun for him with the thread at his birth, when his mother bore him.
Odyssey Book 7, 197-98; Iliad Book 20, 127-28 & Book 24, 210, tr. R. Lattimore
An imagery of spinning and weaving produces a different effect from one of harvest, wages and worth. Judgment and payment are performed at the end of a task, but spinning and weaving are tasks: dynamic, creative, ongoing processes. Yes, the weaver holds the pattern of the cloth in her mind, but she is free at any point to change it and do something different. Moreover, there is no place in the weaving metaphor for blame or judgment. The woven pattern is what it is: it is simply ‘what happens’. It cannot easily be made to represent reward or punishment.

 In Norse mythology the Norns are three maidens who sit under Yggdrasil the World Tree, and ‘shape the lives of men’. Their names are Urðr (‘that which has come to pass’), Verðandi (‘that which is happening’) and Skuld (‘that which is owed’). The Poetic Edda tells of them setting up a huge loom, with threads that stretch across the sky, to weave the destiny of a prince. In her book ‘Roles of the Northern Goddess’ (1998) Hilda Ellis Davidson provides a translation:
            It was night in the dwelling. The Norns came,
            those who shaped the life of the prince.
            They foretold him to be the most famed of warriors,
            who would be reckoned the best of rulers.
They twisted firmly the threads of fate…
Set in place the strands of gold,
held fast in the midst of the hall of the moon.
East and west they hid the ends…
while Neri’s kinswoman knotted a cord
fast to the north, and forbade it to break.
The northern valkyries too, the ‘choosers of the slain’, were known as weavers of destiny. ‘The Saga of Burnt Njal’ tells of a man of Caithness named Dorrud, who on Good Friday saw twelve valkyries working on a warp-weighted loom, using severed heads for the weights and intestines for the thread. As they wound the finished cloth on to the loom beam, the women chanted a battle poem called ‘The Song of the Spear’ including the lines ‘Valkyries decide/who lives or dies.’  They then pulled down their cloth, tore it in pieces and each holding a piece in her hand climbed on their horses and rode off – presumably to war.
When in Old English poetry we meet the concept of ‘wyrd’ – ‘fate’ – there is often an interesting tension between it and the idea of a Christian Providence. Though the Old English poem Beowulf is likely the product of an 8th century Christian court, it harks back to the heroic and pagan past, and much of its material probably existed in earlier oral forms.
Wyrd oft nereð/Unfaégne eorl ƿonne his ellen déah.
Fate often spares a man not fated to die, when his courage is strong.
Beowulf, 572-3
The modern English translation of this line appears to produce a tautology. Two different terms are translated as ‘fate’. ‘Unfaégne’ means ‘not fated to die’. But if a man isn’t fated to die, why is the state of his courage even relevant? ‘Wyrd’ is not the same as ‘unfaégne’ however. Wyrd is the Old English cognate of the Norse Urðr, the first of the Norns: not an abstraction but a personification who might choose to spare a man. (Shakepeare’s Weird Sisters are ‘wyrd’ not because they are strange, but because they can show Macbeth his future.)  I sense that for the Beowulf poet, destiny was not unalterably written in the stars, but something much more like a real-time decision that Wyrd might make. The Norns do not foretell destiny, they weave it, so a display of courage might influence them to change the pattern… In the same poem, Hrothgar complains of the misery that the monster Grendel has inflicted on him and his war-band:
Is min fletwerod/wighéap gewaned; hie wyrd forsweop/on Grendles gryre. God éaƿe maeg/ƿone dolsceaðan daéda/getwaefan.
[My hall-companions fail me, my war-band wanes; fate has swept them into Grendel’s grip. God may easily put an end to the deeds of this deadly foe.]
Here, wyrd – again translated as fate – is used by Hrothgar to describe things that have already happened, not things yet to come. His dead warriors were doomed to die: whatever has happened in the past was clearly ‘meant to be’: yet God if he wishes can easily alter the course of future events. And in contrast to kismet and karma, there isn’t any sense that Hrothgar’s warriors deserve their fate. Wyrd is ‘what happens’; it is not transactional, not linked to personal morals. ‘Cattle die, kinsmen die,’ says Odin in the poem Hávamál in the Poetic Edda:
Every man is mortal,
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well.
Tr. Paul Taylor and W.H. Auden
In the Norse world you had better behave well, because good behaviour wins you fame – but in the end nothing can ward off wyrd.  Wyrd/Urðr arises from a world-view that believed even the gods would eventually perish at the hands (or teeth) of monsters on the day of Ragnarok. 

Finally: that word doom. We now think of doom as a terrible fate lying in wait for us, but the word was originally without its modern connotations of disaster. It is derived from Old Norse dómr, a law or sentence. A kingdom is a land subject to the doom or law of a king. God, however, is Lord and King of all Christendom, and as Christianity spread to the Anglo-Saxons, the day of final judgement became known in England as ‘Domesday’ or the Day of Doom. For those whose Last Day was to have been Ragnarok, I can see the attraction of one in which God’s wrath would be softened by mercy towards repentant sinners. In this new context wyrd became archaic and finally obsolete, its meaning swallowed by Biblical concepts of measurement and justice.
It seems to me that concepts of kismet and karma, destiny and fate, have been driven by two things. One is a desire to make narrative sense of our time in the world and reconcile ourselves to inevitable death. If the Fates or Moirae or Norns spin the web of our lives, we know there must be a pattern even if we can’t see it. And stories such as the Rabbi Johanen’s parable, with which I began, make the point that since Death is bound to come, there’s no sense worrying about when: moreover, as the personified servant of God, endowed with human emotions such as sadness and cheerfulness, he loses some of his terror.
The other driver is a very human desire for fairness and justice in a demonstrably unfair world. Fairy tales provide us with make-belief utopias in which the innocent and generous are rewarded and the wicked punished. In an exactly balanced moral universe, karma delivers perfectly measured consequences for all our actions – if not in this life, at least in our next incarnation. Meanwhile, in a harsh northern world, wyrd urges sturdy acceptance of life’s hardships.
I will leave you with a short story by Somerset Maugham which has resonances of Rabbi Johanen’s parable with which I began. ‘The Appointment in Samarra’ comes at the end of Maugham’s 1933 play ‘Sheppey’. It epitomises the blend of humour, grace and resignation with which Tales of Kismet approach our mortality. The eponymous Sheppey is a kind-hearted barber who wins the Irish Lottery and gives all his money away over the course of the three acts. In the final scene a woman enters who looks like Bessie Legros, a prostitute whom he has helped, but really she is Death. She and Sheppey have a long conversation. Towards the end Sheppey asks, ‘You ain’t come here on my account?’. ‘Yes,’ says Death. ‘You’re joking,’ says Sheppey. ‘I thought you’d just come here to ‘ave a little chat … I wish now I’d gone down to the Isle of Sheppey when the doctor advised it. You wouldn’t ‘ave thought of looking for me there.’  And Death replies:
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions, and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, ‘Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned I saw it was Death who jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra, and there Death will not find me.’ The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down into the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?’ ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ I said, ‘it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’

Picture credits:

The Angel of Death by Evelyn de Morgan, 1881, wikipedia  
Moses in his basket [the Child Cast Adrift] by Charles Foste: public domain, via blog Under the Influence
The Murder of Laius by Oedipus by Joseph Blanc wikipedia
Joseph Recognised by his Brothers by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois wikipedia 
Pedlar of Swaffham Town Sign wikipedia 
The Cranes of Ibycus by Heinrich Schwemminger wikimedia commons 
The Princess Flies on Black Wings by Anne Anderson, The Mammoth Book of Wonders, author's possession
A Golden Thread [The Moirae] by John Melhuish Strudwick, wikipedia

The Norns by Arthur Rackham wikipedia 

Odin and Fenriswolf, Freyr and Surt by Emil Doepler, 1905 wikipedia

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Maid Maleen: a fairytale study of trauma?

This essay was originally published nearly two years ago in the 12th issue of Gramarye, Winter 2017
(It will take you a while to read! 😊 ) 

Maid Maleen (Kinder- und Hausmärchen, tale 198) isn’t particularly popular as fairy tales go. It was first published as Jungfer Maleen[1] by Karl Müllenhoff in a collection called Sagen, Märchen und Lieder der Herzoghümer Schleswig, Holstein und Lauenburg (1845), from whence the Grimms borrowed it for the 1850 edition of their Kinder- und Hausmarchen. I don’t know whether Müllenhoff wrote it down verbatim from some oral source: he may have touched it up, but the Grimms made several slight but significant changes to his version, transforming it into a fairy story that delves unusually deeply into the trauma caused by abandonment and suffering.        

Here is a brief account of their version: Maid Maleen, whose heart is already set on another prince, refuses to marry the suitor her father the king has chosen for her. To punish her, the king orders a dark tower to be built. Provisioning it for seven years, he seals his daughter and her maid up inside it, cutting them off from light. ‘There they sat in the darkness and knew not when day or night began.’ 

At first Maid Maleen’s lover rides uselessly around the tower calling her name, but no sound penetrates the walls and he finally gives up. The seven years pass, and Maid Maleen and her maid break out by chipping through the mortar and loosening the stones. ‘The sky was blue, and a fresh breeze played on their faces; but how melancholy everything looked all around!’ Her father’s castle lies in ruins and the land is waste and desolate. Hungry and desperate enough to eat raw nettles, Maid Maleen and her maid wander into another country and find kitchen work in the palace of the king whose son was Maid Maleen’s sweetheart. His father has chosen for him another bride ‘as ugly as her heart was wicked.’ Unwilling to show her face in public, the bullying bride forces Maid Maleen to dress in her wedding clothes and veil and impersonate her. The prince is astonished by Maid Maleen’s likeness to his lost love, but cannot believe it is she: ‘She has long been shut up in the tower, or dead.’

On the way to church Maid Maleen sees a nettle growing up between the stones, and speaks to it. ‘Oh nettle plant,’ she murmurs, 

            ‘…little nettle plant,
            What dost thou here alone?
            I have known the time
            When I ate thee unboiled,
            When I ate thee unroasted.’

‘What are you saying?’ asks the king’s son. ‘Nothing,’ she replies. ‘I was only thinking of Maid Maleen.’ They cross the foot-bridge into the churchyard. ‘Foot-bridge,’ says Maid Maleen, ‘do not break. I am not the true bride.’ She steps through the church door: ‘Church door, break not. I am not the true bride.’ ‘What are you saying?’ asks the prince. ‘Ah,’ she answers, ‘I was only thinking of Maid Maleen.’ The prince hangs a precious chain around Maid Maleen’s neck. They are married, but on the way home she does not speak to him, and arriving at the palace she ‘put off the magnificent clothes and the jewels, dressed herself in her grey gown, and kept nothing but the jewel on her neck which she had received from the bridegroom.’

Now suspicious, on the wedding night the prince tests the ‘wicked’ bride by asking her to repeat what she said to the nettle on the way to church. The bride has to run and ask Maid Maleen for the answer, and the prince tests her further, asking what she said to the foot-bridge and what she said to the church door. Each time the bride has to ask Maid Maleen, till finally the prince asks to be shown the jewel he placed around her neck. Now the bride admits the imposture. She sends her servants to have Maid Maleen’s head struck off, but Maid Maleen screams for help and the king’s son rushes to her aid. Is it possible? Can this girl really be Maid Maleen, his lost true love…? 

Why do I love this story so much?  Isn’t it just another tale of a passive princess sitting in a tower? In fact there aren’t so very many stories of princesses shut up in towers, and those that do exist are less like the stereotype than you might suppose. Like Maid Maleen, heroines quite often rescue themselves. Even in the case of Rapunzel (KHM 12) the prince not only fails to rescue Rapunzel, but wanders blind in the desert until he is saved by her. In Old Rinkrank (KHM 196), while the men in her life can only ‘weep and mourn’, a princess trapped in a glass mountain ultimately tricks her captor and engineers her own escape. More similar to Maid Maleen is a Danish tale, The Girl Clad in Mouse-Skin[2], in which the heroine digs her way out of an earthen mound. These tales are categorised in the Aarne-Thompson folk-tale index as tale type 870: The Entombed Princess or The Princess Confined in the Mound – though this description, as Torborg Lundell has pointed out, is hardly adequate. Instancing The Finn King’s Daughter, another tale in which an imprisoned heroine digs herself out from underground and rescues her lover from the false bride, Lundell writes:

In the Motif Index, practically all female pursuits are identified as “Search” and male pursuits as “Quest” … The naming of the type of tales to which the Norwegian “The Finn King’s Daughter” belongs provides another way of ignoring a heroine’s more adventurous qualities. ...Consistent with the Aarne and Thompson downplay of female activity, this folktale type, with its aggressive and capable female protagonist, has been labelled ‘The princess confined in the mound’ (type 870), which implies a passivity hardly representative of the thrust of the tale. ‘The princess escaping from the mound’ would fit better.[3]

Besides, stories know nothing of categories: they transgress boundaries, blend into one another and hang like cloudy tapestries in our minds, full of half-remembered patterns. In Maid Maleen and The Girl Clad in Mouse-Skin there are many similarities with another tale type, AT 425: ‘The Search for the Lost Husband’. In stories such as The Black Bull of Norroway or East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon, a heroine sets out in quest of a lost lover. After journeying for seven years, visiting the sun and the moon, climbing glass mountains in iron shoes and so forth, she usually arrives to find him on the point of marrying a troll or someone equally ugly and unworthy. Bribing the false bride with gifts gained on her journey – golden and silver gowns, golden spindles, a golden hen with golden chicks, etc – the heroine wins permission to spend three nights in the prince’s chamber. She sits at his bedside calling for him to wake, reminding him of who she is and what she’s done for him:

Seven lang years I served for thee
The glassy hill I clamb for thee
The bluidy shirt I wrang for thee
And wilt thou no wauken and turn to me?[4]

Drugged by the false bride, the prince sleeps too soundly to hear. By the third night though, having been informed by a servant about the beggar girl who sits by his bedside weeping and singing, the prince is wise or curious enough to throw away the sleeping draught. Hearing the song for himself, he recognises his true love and their long separation is ended: ‘He heard, and turned to her.’

The heroine of The Girl Clad in Mouse-Skin spends seven years under a mound where her father has placed her, not in punishment, but in order to protect her from war. She is provided with light and food, and a little dog for company. When she runs out of food, her little dog kills mice for her: she eats the mice and sews their skins into a cloak, and when no one comes to release her she digs herself out. Covering her gold and silver dresses with the mouse-skin cloak she presents herself at her lover’s house as a poor girl in search of work. Now she discovers that her lover’s new bride-to-be does not wish to marry him, as she herself has another sweetheart. The two young women co-operate and the heroine takes the bride’s place at the wedding. Slipping away, she hides in her mouse-skin cloak again, only to throw it off and reveal herself dramatically at the wedding dance:

[She] stood clad in her beautiful gold embroidery, and was more lovely to look at than the other bride …Her sorrow was now turned to joy, and as she wished everyone to be as happy as herself, she bestowed land and money on the other bride, that she might marry the man of her choice, to whom she had given her heart. …And now the marriage-feast was gay, when the young lord danced with his true bride, to whom he had been wedded in the church, and given the ring. 

The constant thing in most of these stories is that the bridegroom forgets what has passed between them but the bride doesn’t. Once they are separated, the bridegroom is passive, the heroine active. Throughout her troubles she knows who she is: true lover and true bride, and this conviction and sense of destiny sustains and motivates her journey. 

Maid Maleen is different.

A vein of deep seriousness runs through it from the very beginning. Maid Maleen provides no extenuating motive for the king’s incarceration of his daughter, such as to keep her safe from war. Indeed, there is a suggestive shadow of those tales in which the father feels an incestuous longing for his daughter. In Müllenhoff’s verson, the king has no alternative bridegroom planned, and so no reasonable excuse for objecting to her choice: in creating the extra suitor, the Grimms may have been trying to make the king’s motives appear a little less sinister. At any rate by constructing a dark tower in which to shut her up, Maid Maleen’s father certainly exercises abusive if not Freudian control. Both Müllenhoff and the Grimms emphasise the shocking, claustrophobic isolation of the princess and her maid, sitting in total darkness, ‘cut off from the sky and the earth,’ unable to hear any sound from outside. Passive? Yes, but I think there is psychological realism in the patience with which Maid Maleen and her maid sit out the seven years. Imprisonment deprives them of agency. They cling to the belief that though the sentence is unjust, it is at least finite. They believe they will not be forgotten, that if they wait, in the end someone will come to let them out. But they have been forgotten: by the king, by the lover, by everyone. 

The time passed by, and by the decline of food and drink they knew that the seven years were coming to an end. They thought the moment of their deliverance was come; but no stroke of the hammer was heard, no stone fell out of the wall.

All that prisoner-passivity and patience turns out to have been useless. The two women now seek actively to escape. They could have done so at any time before, but the weight of the king’s sentence, and their belief in it, lay upon them. Here Müllenhoff, emphasing the girls’ self-reliance, writes, ‘So they had to help themselves.’ (‘So mussten sie sich denn selber helfen.’) In the Grimms’ version Maid Maleen takes charge of their destiny but her words hint at the desperation she feels: ‘Maid Maleen said, “We must try our last chance, and see if we can break through the wall.”’ (‘Da sprach die Jungfrau Maleen: “Wir müssen das letzte versuchen und sehen, ob wir die Mauer dürchbrechen.”) Taking turns with a bread knife Maid Maleen and her maid scrape away the mortar between the stones and after three days of ‘great labour’ they push out a block and break through. Light rushes in. At last they can see the sky and breathe fresh air, but a new shock awaits:

Her father’s castle lay in ruins, the town and villages were, so far as could be seen, destroyed by fire, the fields far and wide laid to waste, and no human being was visible.

At this point Müllenhof repeats the purposeful phrase, ‘So they had to help themselves.’ In the Grimms’ tale the crushing effect of the discovery is conveyed by a rhetorical question, ‘But where were they to go?’ (‘Aber wo wollten sie sich hinwenden?’) During their imprisonment the world has changed. Huge events have taken place, of which they in their isolation were completely unaware. How is a prisoner to adjust, adapt? New-born into this empty, post-apocalyptic land, their hard-won freedom brings no joy. They can only wander, starving, living on handfuls of nettles, till they cross the border into a country ruled by that very King whose son was Maid Maleen’s lover. And he is about to marry another woman.

At this point in other ‘lost bridegroom’ tales there is a sense of great purpose: the girl’s arrival at the place where her lover resides is the pinnacle of her journey, and she is full of determination to win him back. By contrast Maid Maleen’s wanderings have been aimless. She’s not aspiring to find and marry her sweetheart,  she’s simply trying to survive. Even when she finds work as a kitchenmaid in the palace and is employed in carrying meals to the chamber of the royal-bride-to-be, she seems stunned, passive, futureless. When forced under threat of death to impersonate the false bride, she suffers it as another indignity rather than seizing the opportunity to reveal herself to the prince. Nothing could be further from the confident resolve of the heroine of The Black Bull of Norroway, or the mutually beneficial alliance of the two brides in The Girl Clad in Mouse-Skin. Significantly at this point, as if to emphasise Maid Maleen’s degradation, her own maid disappears from the story. Maid Maleen is the servant now. And so on her way to the church, dressed as the princess she used to be and holding her true love’s hand, Maid Maleen sees a nettle growing by the wayside and it triggers a crisis. I once ate nettles raw. Can I really be Maid Maleen? Who am I? 

‘Do you know Maid Maleen?’ the prince asks eagerly as she murmurs the name. And she denies it. ‘No, how should I know her? I have only heard of her.’ 

Is she testing him? Is this a secret reproach? I don’t think so. Maid Maleen has been a princess, a prisoner and a beggar. Her father forgot her. Her lover forgot her. The world forgot her. Now she is a kitchen-maid impersonating a princess, a pretender and cheat. ‘I am not the true bride,’ she repeats, afraid that the honest world will reject her, the foot-bridge break under her step, the church door split as she passes through. ‘I am not the true bride.’ 

In no other story I know of does this rejection of self occur.  

Maid Maleen is the true bride, but dispossessed, traumatised, damaged. There is a poignancy in her behaviour which I find deeply moving. The world has broken under her and she cannot trust it, cannot trust herself. Her loss of identity is such that she will do nothing to reinstate herself, will not speak another word. It is up to the prince to put the false bride to the test as, unable to answer his questions, she tacitly admits her deceit:

            I must go out unto my maid
            Who keeps my thoughts for me.

Should we feel sorry for the ugly bride? That would be a very modern reaction. Fairy tales operate by particular rules. Youthful beauty almost always signifies goodness, ugliness its opposite: what you see is what you get. Nevertheless Heather Robbins, to whom I owe the translation of Jungfer Maleen, has made the interesting point that unlike, say, the troll bride of The Black Bull of Norroway, this particular false bride knows she is ugly, and that when she repeats Maid Maleen’s words to the prince, she is being forced to utter the truth about herself: ‘I am not the true bride’. Is it an elaborate trap? Can Maid Maleen be deliberately tricking her?  

            In another tale she might. It’s a ruse I can imagine Tatterhood or the Mastermaid, or any number of other ingenious heroines might employ. It could even be true of Müllenhoff’s tale, but the Grimms’ story just doesn’t feel like that – at least to me. In The Girl Clad in Mouse-Skin, the mirror-opposite situation of the two brides works to their advantage. In Maid Maleen, the heroine and the false bride mirror one so another so strikingly in their low self-esteem, that on a psychological level the ugly false bride may even be Maid Maleen. In a powerful painting, False Bride Maleen, Edouard Manet makes manifest the darkness of the fairytale: the black fan guarding the face, the black dress, colour of death, the secrecy.

The truth comes out. The prince wishes to see the mysterious maidservant. In a final effort the false bride sends her servants to kill Maid Maleen. This shock of sudden physical danger at last provokes a reaction: Maid Maleen screams so loudly that the prince rushes to her aid. Here the Grimms’ telling of the tale diverges significantly from that of Müllenhoff, in whose version the prince’s eyes are opened ‘and he saw that she was no other than his former beautiful true bride that he had quite forgotten, that Maid Maleen was the same woman she herself had spoken about on the way to church.’  (‘…und er sah, dass sie auch keine andre sei als seine ehemalige Braut, die er ganz vergessen hatte, das die Jungfer Maleen selber sei, von er sie immer auf dem Kirchwege gesprochen’). With that, the story ends. Without more ado the prince orders Maid Maleen to be taken to a fine room, and the false bride’s head to be struck off. The patriarchy disposes. Maid Maleen herself says nothing.

The Grimms do a lot more with this. First, before he actually recognises her, the prince acknowledges Maid Maleen as ‘the true bride who went with me to the church,’ confirming her as someone of great importance to him whoever she is. Only after that does he tentatively explore further: ‘On the way to the church you did name Maid Maleen, who was my betrothed bride; if I could believe it possible, I should think she was standing before me – you are like her in every respect.’ 

‘You are like her in every respect.’ Following this proclamation of her worth, Maid Maleen finds her voice. Now she herself speaks out: at last comes the ‘seven long years I served for thee’ moment, the moment when, by restating her experiences, she reclaims her identity, a moment more poignant for the real suffering which has preceded it. There has been no assistance for this girl from the sun, moon and stars, no golden and silver dresses or magical gifts to barter with. No magic at all.

‘I am Maid Maleen, who for your sake was imprisoned seven years in the darkness, who suffered hunger and thirst, and has lived so long in want and poverty. Today, however, the sun is shining on me once more. I was married to you in the church, and I am your lawful wife.’ 

This fairy tale is a remarkable account of psychological trauma inflicted by suffering, all the more effective because of the other narratives with which it can be compared. There are many fairy tales in which a girl sets out to find a lost lover, but though her quest may be arduous she is always confident of her identity and what she is trying to achieve. When Maid Maleen escapes from her tower however, the empty landscape through which she wanders is her internal landscape, a waste land devoid of sustenance. There is nothing familiar in it, no one left who knows her, and she no longer knows herself. Physical survival is not enough. Unlike the heroines of other ‘lost bridegroom’ tales she is too unsure of herself to claim her lover and her place at his side.‘I am not the true bride.’ Not until at some deep level the prince recognises her does she recover her voice and, in telling her story, claiming her experiences and linking them together, reaffirms her identity and emerges from darkness. ‘Today the sun is shining on me once more.’ 

There can be little more to say. In true fairy-tale fashion the lovers live happily for the rest of their lives and the false bride has her head struck off. The story ends with a nursery rhyme which Müllenhoff places at the end of Jungfer Maleen – not as part of the tale, but as an interesting note or cross-reference. The Grimms, however, build the rhyme into the narrative so that it becomes a wonderfully evocative coda, distancing and mythologising Maid Maleen as she disappears from memory into children’s rhymes and games:

The tower in which Maid Maleen had been imprisoned remained standing for a long time, and when the children passed it by they sang,

“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 it cannot be pierced.
Little Hans with your coat so gay,
Follow me, follow me, fast as you may.’

It’s a curiously light-hearted ending to a dark and profound tale. Preceded by a peal of bells, Maid Maleen's suffering and imprisonment vanish into a children’s circle dance. I am reminded of the end of Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida when, after death, Troilus’s ‘light ghost’ ascends into the heavens and looks back at the ‘little spot of earth’ where he loved, fought and suffered, and where everything seemed to matter so much – and laughs. 

Perhaps, the wise fairy tale suggests to us, in the end, all mortal things fade so?


[1] Throughout this essay I am indebted to Heather Robbins for kindly making available to me her unpublished translation of Karl Müllenhoff’s ‘Jungfer Maleen’.
[2] Benjamin Thorpe, ‘The Girl Clad in a Mouse-Skin’, Yule Tide Stories, 1888
[3] Torborg Lundell: ‘Gender-Related Biases in the Aarne-Thompson Indexes’, Fairy Tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion and Paradigm, 1986, ed. Ruth Bottigheimer
[4] Robert Chambers, ‘The Black Bull of Norroway’, Popular Rhymes of Scotland, 1870

Picture Credits:

Maid Maleen by Arthur Rackham
Jungfrau Maleen by R. Leinweber, 1912
False Bride Maleen by Edouard Manet via the website Wonderlit (I have been unable otherwise to source this)
Irish Tower, Arthur Rackham