Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #20: MAOL A CHLIOBAIN

This story, collected by JR Campbell in ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’(1860) and told in Gaelic by Ann MacGillvray of Islay, is a rougher, tougher Highland version of the better known Lowland Scots fairy tale ‘Mollie Whuppie'. The heroine’s name, Maol a Chliobain, is pronounced something like: ‘Muell uh chlee pin’ – the ch sounding soft as in ‘loch’ and the ‘p’ very soft too. The second part of the name seems to mean something soft and flabby, like a cow’s dewlap, so she may have started out as one of those vivid, ugly heroines who (like Tatterhood) take no prisoners and eventually transform into beauties.[1] Refreshingly, her looks aren't mentioned at all in this tale though. 

And Maol a Chliobain is a fiery, determined character. When she and her two sisters set out to seek their fortunes, their mother bakes them bannocks and offers each daughter a choice between a small half-bannock and a blessing or a large half and a curse. The two eldest take the large half of the bannock and their mother’s curse; Maol a Chliobain, the youngest, takes the small half and her mother’s blessing. The two eldest try forcibly to dissuade the youngest from coming with them, but she persists. They spend the night at a giant’s house, sleeping in the same bed as his daughters, and Maol a Chliobain saves herself and her sisters by swapping the string necklaces they all wear for the amber necklaces the giant’s daughters wear. (This is not a story in which you are supposed to feel sorry for giants and their families.) She makes a getaway, throws a magic bridge of hair over a river, returns to rob the giant of various treasures, orchestrates his death… 

I love the lengthening litany of challenge-and-answer between Maol a Chliobain and the giant. It not only serves to remind the listeners of all that has happened, it’s a drama in itself as the girl stands her ground and answers back, proudly owning her deeds: there was a convention that when dealing with a dangerous Otherworldly enemy, you should make sure always to have the last word. The story ends with Maol a Chliobain competently marrying her sisters and herself off to the sons of a rich farmer…

Or does it? JF Campbell has recorded another, slightly different telling of this story ‘very prettily told at Easter, 1859’ by ‘a young girl, a nursemaid to Mr Robertson, Chamberlain of Argyll, at Inveraray’. In this one the heroine drowns the giant. Towards the end of the telling, somebody asked, ‘And what became of Maol a Chliobain? Did she marry?’ 

‘Oh no,’ the girl replied, ‘she did not marry at all. There was something about a key hid under a stone, and a great deal more which I cannot remember. My father did not like my mother to be telling us such stories, but she knows plenty more –’ and the lassie departed from the parlour in great perturbation. 

A key hidden under a stone! A great deal more of the story! Did she marry or didn't she...? If we only knew what happened! But maybe we're free to imagine our own endings. The storyteller's words serve to remind us (if we needed reminding) that none of these tales are set in stone. Everyone who told them would change them a little - even I, for I've tweaked it a little to make it read better. JR Campbell's version has a few passages where it's clear small points have been missed.

Vocabulary: A bannock is a cake baked on a griddle. A glave is a sword. A gillie is a manservant.


Long ago there was a widow who had three daughters, and they said to her that they would go to seek their fortune. She baked three bannocks and said to the eldest, “Which wilt thou have, the little half and my blessing or the big half and my curse?” “I like best,” said she, “the big half and thy curse.” She said to the middle one, “Which wilt thou have, the little half and my blessing or the big half and my curse?” “I like best,” said she, “the big half and thy curse.” She said to the little one, “Which wilt thou have, the little half and my blessing or the big half and my curse?”

            “I like best the little half and thy blessing.” 

            This pleased her mother; she gave her the blessing and the two other halves as well.

            The three daughters went away, but the two eldest didn’t want the youngest to be with them, and they tied her to a stone and left her; but her mother’s blessing came and freed her, and when they looked back they saw her coming with the rock on top of her! They let her alone a while, but coming to a peat stack they tied her to the peat stack and went on. But her mother’s blessing came and freed her. And when they looked back what did they see but her coming, and the peat stack on the top of her. They let her alone a turn of a while, till they reached a tree and tied her to the tree, but her mother’s blessing came and freed her, and what did they see but their sister coming with the tree on top of her! So they saw it was no good, and loosed her, and let her come with them. 

            On they went until nightfall. They saw a light a long way from them, but they made such speed they were not long in coming to it. When they knocked, what was this but a giant’s house! A carlin old woman opened the door: she was the giant’s mother. They asked to stay the night, she said they might, and they were put to bed with the giant’s three daughters, with a golden cloth spread over them. There were twists of knobs of amber about the necks of the giant’s daughters, and nothing but strings of horse-hair about their own necks. They all slept, but Maol a Chliobain did not sleep.

            In the night, a great thirst came upon the giant. He called to his bald, rough-skinned gillie with the glave of light to bring him water, and the rough-skinned gillie said there was not a drop of water to be had. “Kill,” said the giant, “one of the strange girls and bring me her blood to drink.”  
“In the dark, how will I know them?” said the bald, rough-skinned gillie. 

            “There are twists of knobs of amber around the necks of my daughters, and nothing but twists of horsehair about the necks of the rest.”

            Maol a Chliobain heard the giant, and quickly she put  the horsehair strings about the necks of the giant’s three daughters, and the twist of amber knobs she put about her own neck and her sisters, and she lay down again so quietly. And the bald, rough-skinned gillie came and killed one of the giant’s daughters with the glave of light and took the blood to him. He drank it and asked for ‘MORE’, and the next one was killed. Again he asked for ‘MORE’, and the gillie killed the third one.

            Maol a Chliobain woke her sisters and said there was need to be going; she took them on her back, and she took with her also the golden cloth that lay on the bed. The golden cloth cried out! The giant woke; he saw Maol a Chliobain leaving with her sisters, and he ran after her. So close was he, the sparks of fire she was putting out of the stones with her heels leapt up and struck the giant’s chin, while the sparks of fire the giant was bringing out of the stones with the points of his feet, they were striking Maol a Chliobain in the back of the head. And so they ran till they reached a river, and Maol a Chliobain plucked a hair from her head and flung it over the river to make a bridge, and she ran across the bridge and the giant could not follow.

             “There thou art, Maol a Chliobain!”

            “I am, though it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou didst kill my three bald brown daughters!”

“I killed them, though it is hard for thee.”

“When wilt thou come again?”

“I will come when my business brings me.”

They went on till they reached the house of a farmer, who had three sons. When they told what had happened to them, the farmer said to Maol a Chliobain, “I will give my eldest son to thy eldest sister, if thou wilt get for me the fine comb of gold and the coarse comb of silver that the giant has.”

“It will cost thee no more,” said Maol a Chliobain.

She went, she reached the giant’s house, she got in unseen, she took with her the combs and out she went. Loud cried the gold comb, loud cried the silver comb! The giant perceived her, and after her he went until they reached the river. She leaped the river, but the giant could not leap.

“Thou art over there, Maol a Chliobain!”

“I am, though it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou didst kill my three bald brown daughters!”

“I killed them, though it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou hast stolen my fine comb of gold and my coarse comb of silver!”

            “I stole them, though it is hard for thee.”

“When wilt thou come again?”

“I will come when my business brings me.”

She gave the combs to the farmer, and her big sister and the farmer’s big son married. “I will give my middle son to thy middle sister, if you will get me the giant’s glave of light.”

            “It will cost thee no more,” said Maol a Chliobain. Off went she, and when she reached the giant’s house, she climbed to the top of a tree that grew about the giant’s well.  In the night the giant grew thirsty, and along came the bald, rough-skinned gillie with the glave of light to draw water from the well. When he bent to haul up the water, Maol a Chliobain came down. She pushed him into the well and drowned him, and she took with her the glave of light.

Loud cried the glave of light! The giant ran after her till she reached the river; she leaped the river and the giant could not cross. 

“Thou art over there, Maol a Chliobain!”

“I am, if it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou didst kill my three bald brown daughters!”

“I killed them, though it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou hast stolen my fine comb of gold and my coarse comb of silver!”

            “I stole, though it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou hast killed my bald, rough-skinned gillie!”

            “I killed, though it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou hast stolen my glave of light!”

            “I stole, though it is hard for thee.”

“When wilt thou come again?”

“I will come when my business brings me.”

She reached the house of the farmer, with the glave of light, and her middle sister and the middle son of the farmer married. “To thyself, I will give my youngest son,” said the farmer, “if you will bring me a silver buck the giant has.”

“It will cost thee no more,” said Maol a Chliobain. Off she went and she reached the house of the giant, but the giant was lying in wait, and when she laid hold of the silver buck, the giant caught her. 

“What,” said the giant, “wouldst thou do to me, if I had done as much harm to thee as thou hast done to me?”

Maol a Chliobain said, “If thou hadst done as much harm to me as I have done to thee, I would make thee burst thyself eating milk porridge! I would then put thee in a sack. I would hang the sack from the rooftree and and set a fire under it, and I would belabour thee with clubs till thou shouldst fall to floor like a bundle of sticks.” 

            The giant made milk porridge and made her drink it. She smeared the milk porridge over her mouth and face and laid herself over is as if she were dead.  The giant put her in a sack, and hung it from the rooftree, and then he went away, he and his men, to fetch wood from the forest. 

The giant’s carlin mother was within the house. When the giant was gone, Maol a Chliobain began – “Ah, the wonders I can see! ’Tis I that am in the light! ’Tis I that am in the city of gold. Ah, the wonders!”

“Let me in, let me see them!” said the carlin. 

“I will not let you see them.”

“Let me in, let me see them!” The old woman let down the sack, Maol a Chliobain crept out and the carlin crept in. Maol a Chliobain hooked up the sack to the rooftree, took the silver buck and went away. 

When the giant came back, he and his men lit the fire under the sack and set about belabouring it with their clubs. The carlin was calling, “’Tis myself that’s in it!” “I know ‘tis thyself that’s in it,” the giant kept saying as he laid on the blows. Down came the sack like a bunde of sticks and what was inside it but his own mother? When the giant saw how it was, he took after Maol a Chliobain; he followed her till she reached the river. Maol a Chliobain leaped the river, but the giant could not leap it.

“Thou art over there, Maol a Chliobain!”

“I am, if it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou didst kill my three bald brown daughters!”

“I killed them, though it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou hast stolen my fine comb of gold and my coarse comb of silver!”

            “I stole, though it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou hast killed my bald, rough-skinned gillie!”

            “I killed, though it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou hast stolen my glave of light!”

            “I stole, though it is hard for thee.”

            “Thou hast killed my mother!”

“I killed, though it is hard for thee.”

“Thou hast stolen my silver buck!”

“I stole, though it is hard for thee.”

“When wilt thou come again?”

“I will come when my business brings me.”

“If thou wert over here, and I over yonder,” said the giant, “what wouldst thou do to follow me?”

“I would stick myself down,” said Maol a Chliobain, “and I would drink and drink, and I would drink the river dry.”

The giant stuck himself down and he drank and drank until he burst. Then Maol a Chliobain and the farmer’s youngest son were married.

[1] (I owe the information on the pronunciation and meaning of 'Maol a Chliobain' to my Scottish friend and fellow writer Gillian Philip.)

Picture Credits:
Maol a Chliobain is not a story which has been much illustrated, so the two illustrations to this post are from Errol le Cain's version of the story's Lowland counterpart 'Mollie Whuppie' - which is similar in plot but different in detail.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #19: THE LITTLE SEAMSTRESS

This Armenian story is a good example of a fairy tale with no fairies and no magic – but that’s more than made up for by the excellent trick the sharp-witted, poor-but-proud little heroine plays on a very gullible prince who is none of those things. His behaviour is outrageous harassment, the (doomed) ploy of a privileged, mannerless young man to get a girl’s attention. You wouldn’t think it could end well - but it does, and that’s entirely down to the heroine’s actions. Not only does she get her own back (in spades), she personally manufactures a situation in which the prince stands a good chance that his worried father will allow him to marry her. Seamstresses don’t usually marry princes – so perhaps she's had her eye on him, too!

Charles Downing who translated this story notes that the original title was Derdziki aghdjik: ‘The Tailor’s Daughter’ and that it was told in the 19th century  “by a certain Ephrem Vasakian, of whom nothing but his name is known”. It was collected in Hay zhoghovrdakan heqiathner: ‘Armenian Popular Tales’ by I. Orbeli and S. Taronian. The English translation was published in the collection ‘Armenian Folk-tales and Fables’, tr. Charles Downing, OUP 1972

Once upon a time there was a tailor and his wife. They had a little daughter whom they loved dearly, and one day the tailor took his daughter and placed her with an old woman to learn how to sew.

                Opposite the old woman’s house stood the royal palace, and every day the King’s son would walk up and down upon the balcony wondering what the girl looked like, and how he could get her to talk to him. For whenever she walked past, the little seamstress kept her eyes firmly on the ground and paid him no attention.

                One day the prince thought of a way to make her speak to him, and he called to her from the balcony as she passed by, 

                “Hey there, tailor’s daughter, little bitch! How many threads are there in a piece of cloth?”

                The girl did not reply. 

                The prince repeated his question three times, and then the little seamstress, still averting her head, said, 

                “Hey there, King’s son, son of a dog! How many stars are there in the heavens?” She repeated her question three times, and still she did not look up at the prince.

                The prince thought and thought. How was he to play a trick on this girl and get his own back? He summoned the old woman who was teaching the girl how to sew.

                “Grandmother,” said he, “I’ll give you whatever you want, but bring me to your little apprentice, so that I may give her a kiss.”

                “Very well, prince,” said the old woman, “may I be a sacrifice to your head and life! Your wish is my command.”

                She brought out  a large, wooden chest, and next morning – without telling the little seamstress – she smuggled the prince into it and hid him, covering the top with various garments. Then she called her young apprentice:

                “My child, when you have finished, put your needlework away in the large wooden chest.” The girl obeyed, and when she lifted the lid to put away her needlework, out popped the prince, who caught her around the waist and kissed her.

                The little seamstress made no song and dance about it. She said nothing and went home where she lay in bed and pretended to be ill. She did not return to the old woman’s house for several days. “What shall I do to get my revenge?” she kept asking herself. 

                Her mother and father could see something had upset her.  “Child,” said they, “what are you brooding about? Tell us what you want, and we shall do it for you if we can.”

                “Father,” said the little seamstress. “Sew me a large white cloak. Make it so that only my eyes will be visible when I put it on. Stitch feathers on the back to look like angels’ wings, and cover it so thickly with little bells and baubles that there’ll be no room for even the head of a needle.”

                Her father made the cloak and brought it to her. “It has given me a lot of trouble,” he said. “Try it on, my child, and let me see if it fits you.”

                She put it on, flounced about and flapped the wings, and was satisfied she really did look like an angel in it. She took it off. “I am going to my sewing-mistress’s house now, and I shall not be back tonight.”

                She went to the old woman’s house. “I am going to stay with you tonight,” she said. “My mother and father have had to go on a journey.”

                “Very well, my child,” said the old woman. “If you want to stay here, stay.”

                That night after supper the little seamstress secretly left the house and stole into the palace. While everyone was sleeping she crept into the prince’s antechamber, put on her costume and then tiptoed into the prince’s bedroom. Here she hopped about and flapped her wings, and the sound of tiny bells filled the room.

                The prince opened his eyes; he saw the strange white figure standing over him and was terrified! “Ah! What are you? What do you want of me?” 

                “I am the angel Gabriel,” said the vision, “and I have come to take your soul!”

                “I’m an only son!” cried the prince. “Take all my treasure, take my hidden gold, but do not take my soul!”

                “If that’s the way of it,” said the apparition, “you shall have ten days’ grace. But I shall take a token from you in surety.”

            The prince was trembling, shaking from head to foot. “Take what you wish!”

The angel picked up the prince’s golden wash-basin. “Be ready! In ten days time I shall return for your soul!” And she left.

The little seamstress took off her disguise, went home, wrapped the golden wash-basin in some old clothes and put it in a chest. Dawn broke. She sat down to work.

The prince was completely shattered by his meeting with the Angel of Death. He got up half-paralysed, then crawled out slowly on to the balcony.

“If I do have to die,” he said to himself, “I shall make that girl talk to me first.” And when she passed by he called out,

“Hey there, tailor’s daughter, little bitch! How many kisses are there in a wooden chest?”

He repeated his question three times. 

The little seamstress raised her head. “Hey there, King’s son, son of a dog! How may angel Gabriels are there? How many golden wash-basins are there? How many ten days’ grace are there?”

The prince pondered these words. “The girl is an astrologer!” he said to himself. “She has read the stars and learned of my approaching death!” He went in and flung himself on his bed. “Woe is me, woe!” he wept. “I’m going to die!” 

Then he began to think. “The girl knows all about my coming death, about the number of stars in the sky and about the angel Gabriel. She knows everything – I must marry her!”

He sent a valet to his father the King to tell him that he was dying, and his father and mother hurried to his bedside. “What does our kingdom lack, that you should lie there weeping?” they cried. “We shall send for a good doctor to cure you!”

“I want the tailor’s daughter in marriage,” said the prince. “Ask for her hand for me.”

“We shall fetch her!” said the King. “If she will come voluntarily, good; if not we shall make her. Anything, so long as you get better!”  

He sent messengers to the tailor’s house to ask his daughter’s hand in marriage for the prince. When his daughter came home from work, her father said, “They have come from the court to ask for your hand, daughter. Do you want to marry the King’s son?”

“If you are willing to give me away, father,” said she, “I am willing to marry him.”

So the parents took the little seamstress to the palace and she was married to the prince. They were put to bed together. But her husband just lay there crying, “Woe is me, woe! I’m going to die!” and didn’t pay any attention to his new bride. 

“King’s son, if you do not like me, why did you marry me?”

“Ah, tailor’s daughter!” sighed the prince, “what can I do? In six days time I am going to die!”

“If you have only six days left,” said his wife, “I am leaving you!”

She rose from the bed. She had brought her angel’s robe with her, along with her dowry and trousseau, so went out into the antechamber and donned the robe. 

“My wife has left me,” wept the prince, “and I am going to die!”

Just as he said that, the girl came into his bedroom dressed in her angel’s robe with the feathery wings and the little bells, and flapped and fluttered. 

“Alas!” lamented the prince. “The angel has come for me early!”

“I may as well take your soul right now!” said the angel. Then the prince fell dumb with fear and his knees knocked – and the little seamstress relented in case she frightened him to death.

“Silly boy!” she laughed – and nudged him with her elbow. “I am not the angel Gabriel. I am your wife!” 

The prince could not believe it. “If you are my wife, take off that robe and let me see you!”

The little seamstress took off her disguise. 

“Show me my golden wash-basin!” 

The little seamstress went to the chest, took out the golden wash-basin and placed it before the prince. 

“Wife, you must be a witch!” said the prince. “Tell me the truth. Are you on familiar terms with angels? Can you see the future?”

“I foresee that you will have a long life and never die – and will one day be king of this land!” said the little seamstress. 

“How many stars are there in the heavens, then?” asked the prince. “For since you asked me, you must know.”

“You shall tell me the number of threads there are in a piece of cloth,” replied his wife, “for that is just the number of the stars in the heavens.”

The prince saw how he had been outwitted, and he laughed. He rose from his bed and the wedding feast went on for seven days and nights – and as they achieved their hearts’ desire, so also may you!

Picture credits:

The Little Seamstress as Angel Gabriel - illustration by William Papas, from ‘Armenian Folk-tales and Fables’, tr. Charles Downing, OUP 1972

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #18: THE WOMAN OF PEACE

This fascinating story from JF Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’ (1860) opens with a mutually beneficial arrangement - perhaps of long standing - between a mortal woman and a ‘woman of peace’ from a nearby brugh or elf-mound. (Flattering circumlocutions were used when speaking of the fair folk. They didn’t like to be named, and you wouldn’t want to offend them.) Every day, the woman of peace visits a herder’s wife to borrow her kettle (a big iron cooking pot), and the herder’s wife lets her take it on condition it is returned in the evening, filled with a portion of meat and bones.

It sounds friendly, but the relationship is uneasy. It works only within a strict, formal framework. This is not like  neighbours lending each other cups of flour and gossiping over the fence, it’s more like an armed truce. Make one mistake, put a foot wrong, and the bargain will be void, with penalties. Each sees the other as problematic and unsafe, each is dumb in the other’s territory. The woman of peace speaks no word to the herder’s wife, who on every visit has to repeat a kind of rhymed spell conjuring the power of the smith who forged the kettle and restating the payment required for its use. In the ‘brugh’ the roles are reversed: it's the herder’s wife who speaks no word there, while the fairy man, the old ‘carle’, employs a counter rhyming spell to challenge her and raise the alarm. “Silent wife,” he addresses her, “that came on us from the land of chase…”  The meaning of ‘the land of chase’ isn't entirely clear to me (something to do with hunting?), but it sounds as if the old man regards the visitation of this mortal woman as something sudden, uncanny and perhaps dangerous. 

On one level this is one of those stories where the wife leaves her husband to look after the house or perform some simple domestic task like rocking the cradle, and he makes a terrible mess of it. But most of those tales are comic fantasies designed to show men up as brash fools, helpless without their women. Although this story does that, it isn’t quite like that. It isn’t funny, it’s eerie and slightly sad. The herder’s wife is used to the silent appearance of the woman of peace and she knows the rules by which they operate. Her husband doesn’t. Maybe he listens with half a ear to what his wife tells him to say – he’s sure it will be easy – but when the woman of peace approaches, there’s something so strange about her that even her shadow terrifies him. His fearfulness and inability to speak the correct words and perform the correct ritual, brings this fragile relationship to an end, with loss to both sides. 

NB: The hole in the (probably turf) roof would be to let the smoke out, and the lovely expression ‘in the mouth of the night’ means ‘in the evening’.


There was a herd’s wife in the island of Sanntraigh, and she had a kettle. A woman of peace would come every day to seek the kettle. She would not say a word when she came, but she would catch hold of the kettle. When she would catch the kettle, the woman of the house would say,

“A smith is able to make
Cold iron hot with coal.
The price of the kettle is bones,
And to bring it back again whole.”

The woman of peace would come back every day with the kettle, and meat and bones in it. One day the housewife was for going over the ferry to Baile a Chaisteil, and she said to her man, “If thou wilt say to the woman of peace as I tell you, I will go to Baile Castle.”

                “Ooh! I will say it, surely it’s I that will say it.” 

                He was spinning a heather rope to be set on the house. He saw a woman coming and a shadow from her feet, and he took fear of her. He shut the door. He stopped work. When she came to the door she did not find the door open, and he did not open it for her. She went above a hole that was in the house. The kettle gave two jumps, and at the third leap it went out at the ridge of the house. The night came, and the kettle came not.

                The wife came back over the ferry, and she did not see a bit of the kettle within, and she asked, “Where is the kettle?”

                “Well then, I don’t care where it is,” said the man, “I never took such a fright as I took at it. I shut the door and she did not come any more with it.”

                “Good-for-nothing wretch, what didst thou do? There are two that will be ill off – thyself and I!”

                “She will come tomorrow with it.”

                “She will not come.”

                She hasted herself and went away. She reached the knoll, and there was no one within. It was after dinner, and they were out in the mouth of the night. She went in, she saw the kettle and she lifted it. It was heavy for her with the remnants they had left in it. Then an old carle that was hidden within saw her going out, and he said, 

“Silent wife, silent wife
That came on us from the land of chase,
Thou man on the surface of the brugh,
Loose the black and slip the fierce.”

The two dogs were let loose; and she was not long away when she heard the clatter of the dogs coming. She kept the remnant that was in the kettle so that if she could take it with her, well, but if the dogs should come close she might throw it at them. She saw the dogs coming. She took the lid from it and threw them a quarter of what was in it: that kept them busy for a while. They were coming again, and she threw another piece at them when they closed upon her. Off she went, making all the haste she could; when she got near the farm she up-ended the pot and threw down for them all that was left in it. 

                The dogs of the farm struck up a-barking when they saw the dogs of peace stopping. 

                The woman of peace never came more to seek the kettle. 

Picture credit:

 A Highland Gypsy, Thomas Faed, 1870