Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #15: TATTERHOOD


This wonderfully vigorous story from Norway was collected in 'Norske Folkeeventyr', by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, and translated into English by Sir George W Dasent in ‘Popular Tales from the North’ (1859). It has echoes of the  Scottish tale 'Kate Crackernuts', in which sisters stick together after a witch has given one of them a sheep’s head, and of the Norwegian tale 'Prince Lindworm' in which a queen eats two flowers and gives birth to a poisonous lindworm, the northern dragon. While Dasent’s translation is in many ways delightful, his mid-19th century style  now feels rather too formal to do the story justice, so I’ve loosened it up to make it more colloquial. Do check the 'Picture Credits' at the bottom of the post for links to the artists and to see more of their beautiful work.


As so many fairy tales do, it begins with a queen who longs for a child. To satisfy her longing, the king and queen adopt ‘a stranger lassie’, no kin to them, and bring her up as their own. One day the child strikes up a friendship with a little beggar-girl. The queen scolds her for making an acquaintance unsuited to her adoptive rank, and the beggar-girl, piqued, boasts that her old mother has the power to help the queen get a child of her own. The old woman does this: and that’s the last we hear of the adopted daughter or the beggar-girl, though to me it feels as if by some fairy tale alchemy or karma the pair reappear – are reborn – as the queen’s own children! For the queen disobeys the old woman’s instructions. Told to eat just one of the two flowers that spring up under her bed, she eats both – first the pretty one and then the ugly one – and in due course gives birth to twins, one lovely and cherished, the other ugly and neglected. This child is the marvellous Tatterhood - and surely in some way the avatar of the unsuitable beggar-girl?


Ugliness in fairy tales often signifies wickedness, but this is never so if the ugly person is the main character. His or her ugliness conceals real worth, and puts other characters in the story to the test. (Will they recognise it?) Initially despised or rejected, the ugly protagonist - often like Tatterhood an ebullient, self confident character - sets off on a series of successful adventures and finally persuades someone to marry them. If the betrothed person keeps their promise, no matter how reluctantly, the protagonist’s ugliness changes to beauty. 


That is how the the story of the Frog-King works: the princess doesn’t want the ugly frog to share her plate and sleep in her bed. She is constrained to do so, not by her own but by her father’s sense of honour:“You must do what you have promised,” he says. She even hurls the poor frog at the wall! But so long as the contract is kept to the letter, the spirit doesn’t matter: the transformation will occur. Breaking a promise, in a fairy tale, is one of the worst things you can do. In the Grimms’ tale 'Hans My Hedgehog', a peasant rashly exclaims, “I’ll have a child even it’s a hedgehog,” and the babe is born half-hedgehog, covered in spikes from the waist up. (His poor mother!) Like Tatterhood with her goat and wooden spoon, Hans rides away on his cockerel, merrily playing the bagpipes. He assists a couple of kings and obtains promises from each of them to marry him to their respective daughters. One father-daughter pair renege on the promise and are disgraced: the other pair honour it and are rewarded by the usual transformation of the apparent monster into a handsome young man.


So these stories say something about the importance of keeping faith: also about not judging by appearances. In 'Tatterhood', though the prince is unflatteringly miserable about his approaching nuptials, he intends to keep his word. It's not about how you feel, it's what you do that counts. And I love the way Tatterhood makes the prince talk to her question her, take an interest in her – and it's this process of questioning, this dialogue, which reveals her and allows him to see her as she really is.


Art by Lisa Hunt


Once upon a time there was a king and queen who had no children, which made the queen very unhappy. How dull and lonely the palace was! “If we only had children, there’d be plenty of life!” she said, for as she travelled around the kingdom she saw children everywhere, and saw their mothers scolding them and cuddling them. Oh how she wished she could do the same!

            At last the king and queen took a young stranger lassie into their palace to bring up as their own, and one day this little lassie ran down into the palace yard and began playing with a golden apple. Just then an old beggar woman came by with a little girl, and in no time at all the little lassie and the beggar’s child were playing together like best friends, playing catch and tossing the golden apple between them. 

            When the queen noticed, she tapped on the window for her foster-daughter to come up. She obeyed at once, but the beggar-girl came too, and they went into the queen’s bower holding hands. Then the queen scolded her foster-daughter: “You’re a little lady! You shouldn’t be chasing about with a tattered beggar’s brat!” And she tried to drive the beggar-girl downstairs. 

            “If the queen knew my mother’s power, she wouldn’t drive me out,” said the little beggar-girl, and when the queen asked what she meant, she told her that her mother could help her get children of her own. The queen wouldn’t believe it, but the beggar-lassie stood her ground and insisted every word was true. So the queen sent her downstairs to fetch her mother.  

            Well, the old woman came up. “Your daughter says you can get me children,” says the queen.

            “Queens shouldn’t listen to silly tales from beggar-girls,” says the old wife, and she turned around and marched out of the room. Then the queen was angry, but the beggar-girl swore it was all true. “Give her a drop to drink and get her merry, then she’ll soon find a way to help you!” 

            The queen wanted a child so very much, she decided to try it, so the beggar wife was fetched up again and treated with as much wine and mead as she wanted. Her tongue began to wag, and she told the queen what to do. 

            “Wash yourself this evening in two pails of water, and throw the water under the bed. Look under the bed next morning and two flowers will be growing there, one pretty and one ugly. Eat the pretty one, but leave the ugly one alone. And mind you don’t forget it!” That’s what the beggar woman said. 

            So the queen had water brought up in two pails, washed herself and emptied them under the bed. Next morning, two flowers stood there. One was ugly with black, prickly leaves, but the other was so bright she’d never seen anything lovelier. She gobbled it up at once. It tasted so sweet, she couldn’t resist eating the other one too, for – she thought – “It’s not going to help or harm me either way, I’m sure.”         

            But time went by, and the queen gave birth to twins. The first to pop out was a girl. She was gripping a wooden spoon in her hand and riding on a goat; she was dreadfully ugly, and she came into the world bawling, “Mamma!”

            “I must have done something terribly wrong to be your mamma,” said the queen. “God help me mend my ways!”  

            “No need to be sorry,” said the girl who rode on the goat. “The next one will be much better looking!” and sure enough, a short while later the queen gave birth to a second girl, the loveliest child imaginable – and with this one at least, she was well pleased. 

            The two girls grew up together. They called the eldest twin ‘Tatterhood’ because she was so ugly and ragged, and wore a hood that hung about her ears in tatters. Her mother could hardly bear to look at her, and the nurses tried to keep her out of sight, but it didn’t work. For the sisters loved each other dearly, and wherever one was, the other would always be there too. 

            Well! One Christmas Eve when they were half grown up, a dreadful banging and clattering and burst out in the gallery beyond the queen’s bower. Tatterhood asked what it was it that was dashing and crashing about so?

            “Oh,” said the queen, “nothing worth asking about.” 

            But Tatterhood wouldn’t take that for an answer! She wouldn’t give up until at last the queen told her that a pack of trolls and witches had invaded the palace and meant to spend the whole of Christmas there, partying and misbehaving and doing as they liked.

            “I’ll get rid of them!” said Tatterhood. The queen feared it would only make things worse and begged her not to, but Tatterhood was determined to drive the trolls and witches out. She warned the queen to keep every door closed tight, and to make sure no one opened them by even so much as a crack. Then out she rushed brandishing her wooden spoon and began hunting the trolls and harrying the hags and driving them up and down, and it made so much noise out there in the gallery that it sounded as if the floorboards were splitting and the roofbeams breaking. 

            How it happened I just don’t know, but somehow a door was opened a chink, and Tatterhood’s sister peeped through to see how her twin was doing, and as soon as she put her head just a tiny bit out – POP! – up came an old witch and whipped her head off, and stuck a calf’s head on her shoulders instead. And the princess jumped back into the room and ran around it on all fours, mooing. 

Art by Lauren Mills


            When Tatterhood saw what had happened she was furious with everyone, including the Queen. Why hadn’t done what they were told, and kept her sister safe? “See what your carelessness has done!” she scolded. “Look at the poor child, turned into a calf! Still, I’ll see what I can do to save her.”

            She told the King to get her a ship all ready to sail and fitted with plenty of stores. She didn’t want any captain or sailors, oh no! She was going to sail away with her sister, just the two of them alone. Of course the King argued, but there was no stopping Tatterhood. And she got her way! 

            Off she sailed and steered her ship to the land where the witches lived. When she came to the landing place she told her sister to stay quietly on board, while she herself rode her goat straight up to the witches’ castle. There she saw that one of the windows in the gallery was open, and her sister’s head was hanging by the window frame. Tatterhood leaped her goat right through the window, snatched up the head and galloped off with it. The pack of witches rushed after her, thick as a swarm of bees: but the goat snorted and puffed and butted them with his horns, and Tatterhood banged and bashed them with her wooden spoon until the witches gave way and fled. 

            So Tatterhood got back to her ship. She took the calf’s head off her sister’s shoulders and put her own back in its place, and she was a girl again, as pretty as before. Then Tatterhood sailed the ship a long, long way across the sea to the shores of another country. 

            The king of this land was a widower with just one son, and when he saw the strange sail approaching he sent messengers down to the strand to discover where it had come from and who owned it. But when the king’s men arrived they could see no soul on board but Tatterhood, riding round and round the deck on her goat at top speed, till her elf-locks streamed in the wind. The folk from the palace were astonished. “Who are you? Is no one else on board?” they called. 

            “Oh yes!” said Tatterhood, pulling the goat up. “My sister is with me.”

            “Let us see her!”

            “No one shall see her, unless the king himself comes!” she cried, and set to galloping about on her goat again till the deck boomed and thundered.

            When the servants got back to the palace and told him what they’d witnessed down at the ship, the king wanted to set out at once to see for himself. As soon as he got there, Tatterhood led out her sister who was so gentle and pretty that the king fell head over heels in love with her on the spot. He invited them back to the palace with him, and wanted to have the sister for his queen. But Tatterhood said, “No! You shall not have her in any way – unless your son the prince pledges to marry me as well.” And this set the cat among the pigeons, for the prince thought Tatterhood the ugliest girl he’d ever seen. He wouldn’t have her! He didn’t like her! But the king and the others in the palace talked at him and persuaded him, and at last he gave in and promised to take Tatterhood for his wife and princess; but it went very much against the grain, and he was a doleful man.

            So there was brewing and baking and much making ready for the wedding, and when it was done they all set off for the church. In front went the king in his carriage with his bride at his side, and she was so lovely and so grand that people all along the road stopped whatever they were doing to stare, and gazed after her until she was out of sight. 

            Then came the prince, riding on horseback with Tatterhood at his side, trotting along on her goat with the wooden spoon in her fist. But to look at him, you’d think the prince was going to a burial rather than a wedding – and his own burial at that, he was so doleful and he had nothing to say for himself. 

            “Why don’t you talk to me?” asked Tatterhood, when they had ridden for a bit.

            “Why, what should I talk about?” answered the prince. 

            “Well you might at least ask why I ride upon this ugly goat,” said Tatterhood.

            “Why do you ride on that ugly goat?” asked the prince.

            “Is it an ugly goat? Why, it’s the most splendid horse any bride ever rode on,” answered Tatterhood, and in the blink of an eye the goat became a horse, the finest ever seen.

            Then they rode on again, but the prince was as woeful as before and couldn’t get a word out. So Tatterhood asked him again why he didn’t talk, and when the prince answered that he didn’t know what to talk about, she said, “You can at least ask me why I ride with this ugly spoon in my fist.”

            “Why do your ride with that ugly spoon?” asked the prince. 

            “Is it an ugly spoon? Why, it’s the loveliest silver wand any bride ever carried,” said Tatterhood; and in a trice it became a silver wand, flashing brightly in the sun. 

            Well they rode on another bit, but the prince was still sorrowful and never said a word. In a little while, Tatterhood asked him again why he didn’t talk. This time she told him to ask why she wore that ugly grey hood upon her head. 

            “Why do you wear that ugly grey hood on your head?” asked the prince.

            “Is it an ugly grey hood? Why, it’s the brightest golden crown a bride ever wore,” answered Tatterhood, and it became a crown upon the spot.           

            Now they rode on for a long time, and still the prince was sad, and sat on his horse without sound or speech as before. So again Tatterhood asked him again why he didn’t talk, and she told him to ask her now, why her face was so ugly and ashen-grey.

            “Ah!” said the prince, “why is your face so ugly and ashen-grey?”

            “I, ugly?” said Tatterhood. “You think my sister is pretty, but I am ten times prettier,” and when the prince looked at her she was so lovely, he thought there could never have been a lovelier woman in all the world. And with that he found his tongue at last, and no longer rode along with his head hanging.

            So they drank the bridal cup both long and deep, and then the king and the prince set out with their two brides to Tatterhood’s father’s palace, where they had another bridal feast and even more to drink, and if you run to the palace – quick, be quick! – you might even get there before they drink it all.



Picture credits:

'Tatterhood as the Knight of Wands' is by Yoshi Yoshitani, whose delightful fairytale Tarot series can be viewed here on tumblr: https://yoshiyoshitani.tumblr.com/  

(Tatterhood seems to lend herself to the energy and disruption of the Tarot:)

Tatterhood as Princess of Wands' by Lisa Hunt, from 'The Fairytale Tarot' - whose fascinating website can be viewed here: http://lisahuntgallery.com/
https://www.thefairytaletarot.com/index.html

'Tatterhood scolding the household' is from 'Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins', gorgeously illustrated and retold by Lauren Mills. I love the sister's shocked calf-head peeping out at the bottom right. The link to her website seems broken, but here's a profile, with more of her lovely art: https://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/illustrator-saturday-lauren-mills/

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