Tuesday 18 August 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #25: FAIR, BROWN AND TREMBLING

This Irish tale was collected by American folklorist Jeremiah Curtin who travelled through Kerry, Galway and Donegal in 1887 to transcribe and translate folk- and fairy tales from speakers of Erse. Curtin didn’t publish detailed notes on his sources, so the name of whoever told him the story is lost to history. 

Fair, Brown and Trembling are princesses, daughters of the King of Tir Conal (Donegal in Ulster). We quickly forget their status though, since they live without servants in what seems to be no more than a small farmhouse. The tale falls into two halves: the first half is a Cinderella variant in which the two elder sisters make the youngest one, Trembling, do all the cooking and housework – and prevent her from attending church, which is the only social occasion available to them. But Trembling has a magical ally in the henwife – always a powerful figure in Irish tales – who sends her to church marvellously dressed and riding a succession of splendid mares. The second half of the story combines the various motifs of ‘the false bride’, ‘one sister pushes another into the water to drown’, and ‘being swallowed by a sea-monster’ – so there is plenty of action! 

                A thing I love about this story is that the Cinderella-figure, Trembling, gets to decide for herself the colour and style of the magically-produced fine clothes she wears to church. And she does this with delighted exuberance. After all, magic can do anything, so why not test the limits? Most fairy tale dresses are gold as the sun or silver as the moon and stars, but Trembling’s dresses put these into the shade – with no lack of specificity. First she asks for a white dress with green shoes, next for a dress of black satin with red shoes – and finally a dress of red and white with a green cape to wear over it, a multi-coloured feathered hat, and shoes with 'the toes red, the middle white, and the backs and heels green'. And that's before we even get to the horses. Such innocent flamboyance reminds me of my neighbour’s little girl, who was invited to choose a name for the family’s new kitten. After some thought she announced it would be called ‘Sparkling Rosy Crystal Pendant’ – and why not? (She was cross when her parents shortened it to Rosy.) 

 No wonder Trembling’s sisters (determined followers of fashion) can find no such dresses in all Erin. And if fashion can work such miracles, no wonder the son of the King of Omanya (Emain Macha) forgets his original attachment to the eldest sister, Fair, and transfers it to Trembling. Red and green are fairy colours, while black satin, splendid as it sounds, is not the usual garb for a simple maiden, so it’s hardly surprising when, dressed in magical clothes and riding on magical mares, all conjured up with the aid of a 'cloak of darkness', Trembling is strictly warned by the henwife not to go inside the church. (If she did, would the magical clothes vanish?) As the finishing touch, the henwife places ‘a honey-bird’ on Trembling’s right shoulder and a ‘honey-finger’ on her left. The story does not explain the significance of these, and I was left wondering what on earth a honey-finger could be? Some kind of sweetmeat? 

Then I found a strikingly similar fairy tale which sheds light on it. ‘The Snow-White Maiden, and The Fair Maid, and The Swarthy Maid, and Frizzle or Bald-Pate Their Mother’ is a tale from Tiree in the Inner Hebrides which appeared in The Celtic Magazine, No. CLIV, August 1888, Vol XIII, contributed by the translator, Mrs Jessie Wallace, sister to the folklorist J G Campbell. (You will notice that although the heroines’ names are different, they both have one sister called ‘Fair’ and one called ‘Brown’; swarthy of course being simply another word that means ‘dark’.) 

In this Hebridean tale the heroine’s magical helper is named in the Gaelic 'an Eachrais Urlair', which Wallace translates as ‘Trouble the House’ but glosses as ‘Cantrip’- a spell. 'Cantrip' places three twittering starlings on the girl’s right shoulder and three more on her left - a choice perhaps of magical significance. Starlings can be easily tamed and are great mimics; in the Second Branch of the Mabinogion it’s a starling which Branwen raises, teaches to speak, and sends from Ireland to Wales with a message to her brother Bendigeidfran which prompts war between the countries. The magical ‘Cantrip’ also grants to the Snow-White Maiden the gift that whenever she is thirsty all she has to do is put her hand to her mouth ‘and wine and honey will flow from your fingers’. The ‘honey-finger’ of the Irish tale must be a memory of this. The heroine's sister Fair Maid’s inability to refresh the prince with wine and honey in this way leads him to suspect her when, having pushed the Snow-White Maiden into a loch to be swallowed by a creature called the ‘Huge Senseless Beast’, she takes her place and pretends to be his wife. (Somehow it’s easier to accept the death of the Huge Senseless Beast than that of the whale in 'Fair, Brown and Trembling', but wincingly vivid as the details of its demise may be, we should regard this particular whale as simply another fairy tale monster.) Fair Maid lured her sister to the brink of the loch by calling her to look at their reflections and see how alike they are, which of course explains why she is able to deceive the prince at all. With nothing written down, details like these may often have been left out or forgotten by individual storytellers. 

A distinctive feature of 'Fair, Brown and Trembling' is the combat between the princes to win Trembling’s hand in marriage. It doesn’t occur in most Cinderella variants, but oral story-telling is all about matching and mending and spinning a tale out to last a whole evening if necessary. I’ve left the passage in – but if I were telling it aloud I’d leave it out: it adds nothing of any real interest and distracts attention from the heroine, who is otherwise centre stage. Trembling directs events even after the whale has swallowed her, and her specific consent seems to be required for the marriage of her daughter to the little herd-boy. I have to add that the usually excellent John D Batten's illustrations for the story err on the tame side. Why show Trembling sitting passively on the horse, and lying in a heap on the beach, when he could have shown her galloping away from church and telling the herd-boy what to do? And - when you get to it - imagine the fun you could have, painting the third mare! It would be lovely to know of any illustrations which better express the colour and vigour of this tale.

King Aedh Cúracha lived in Tir Conal, and he had three daughters whose names were Fair, Brown, and Trembling.

                Fair and Brown had new dresses, and went to church every Sunday. Trembling was kept at home to do the cooking and work. They would not let her go out of the house at all, for she was more beautiful than the other two, and they were in dread she might marry before themselves.

                They carried on in this way for seven years. At the end of seven years the son of the king of Omanya fell in love with the eldest sister.

                One Sunday morning, after the other two had gone to church, the old henwife came into the kitchen to Trembling and said, “It’s at church you ought to be this day, instead of working here at home.”

                “How could I go?” said Trembling. “I have no clothes good enough to wear at church, and if my sisters were to see me there, they’d kill me for going out of the house.”

                “I’ll give you,” said the henwife, “a finer dress than either of them has ever seen. And now be telling me what dress will you have?”

                “I’ll have,” said Trembling, “a dress as white as snow, and green shoes to my feet.”

                Then the henwife put on the cloak of darkness, clipped a piece from the old clothes the young woman had on, and asked for the whitest robes in the world and the most beautiful, and a pair of green shoes.

                That moment she had the robe and the shoes, and she brought them to Trembling, who put them on. When Trembling was dressed and ready, the henwife said, “I have a honey-bird here to sit on your right shoulder, and a honey-finger to put on your left. At the door stands a milk-white mare, with a golden saddle for you to sit on, and a golden bridle to hold in your hand.”

                Trembing sat on the golden saddle, and when she was ready to start, the henwife said, “You must not go inside the door of the church, and the minute the people rise up at the end of Mass, you must ride home as fast as the mare can carry you.”

                When Trembling came to the door of the church there was no one inside who caught a glimpse of her but was striving to see who she was; and when they saw her hurrying away at the end of the Mass they ran out after her. But no use in their running: she was away before any man could come near her, and from the minute she left the church until she got home she overtook the wind before her and outstripped the wind behind.

                She came down at the door, went in, and found the henwife had dinner ready. She put off the white robes and had her old dress on in a twinkling.

                When the two sisters came home the henwife asked, “Have you any news today from the church?”

                “We have, and great news,” they said. “We saw a grand, wonderful lady at the church door. We never saw the like of the robes she had on; it’s little was thought of our dresses beside what she was wearing, and there wasn’t a man at the church from the king to the beggar but was trying to look at her and see who she was.”

                The sisters would give no peace till they had two dresses like the robes of the strange rich lady; but honey-birds and honey-fingers were not to be found.

                Next Sunday the two sisters went to church again, and left the youngest at home to cook the dinner. After they had gone, the henwife came in and asked, “Will you go to church today?”

                “I would go,” said Trembling, “if I could get the going.”

                “What robe will you wear?” asked the henwife.

                “The finest black satin that can be found, and red shoes to my feet.”

                “What colour do you want the mare to be?”

                “I want her to be so black and so glossy I can see myself in her body.”

                The henwife put on the robes of darkness and asked for the robes and the mare. That moment, she had them. When Trembling was dressed, the henwife put the honey-bird on her right shoulder and the honey-finger on her left. The saddle on the mare was silver, and so was the bridle.

                When Trembling sat in the saddle and was going away, the henwife ordered her strictly not to go inside the door of the church, but to rush away as soon as the people rose at the end of Mass, and hurry home on the mare before any man could stop her.

                That Sunday the people were more astonished than ever, and gazed at her more than the first time; and all they were thinking of was to know who she was. But they had no chance, for the moment the people rose at the end of Mass she slipped from the church, was in the silver saddle, and home before a man could stop her or talk to her.

                The henwife had the dinner ready. Trembling took off her satin robe, and had on her old clothes before her sisters got home.

                “What news have you today?” asked the henwife of the sisters when they came from the church.

                “Oh, we saw the grand, strange lady again! And it’s little that any man could think of our dresses after looking at the robes of satin she had on! And all at church, from high to low, had their mouths open, gazing at her, and no man was looking at us.”

                The two sisters gave neither rest nor peace till they got dresses as nearly like the strange lady’s as could be found. Of course they were not so good; for the like of those robes could not be found in Erin.

                When the third Sunday came, Fair and Brown went to church dressed in black satin. They left Trembling at home to work in the kitchen, and told her to be sure and have the dinner ready when they came back.

                After they were out of sight, the henwife came to the kitchen and said, “Well my dear, are you for church today?”

                “I would go if I had a new dress to wear.”

                “What dress would you like?” asked the henwife.

                “A dress red as a rose from the waist down, and white as snow from the waist up; a cape of green on my shoulders; and a hat on my head with a red, a white and a green feather in it; and shoes for my feet with the toes red, the middle white, and the backs and heels green.”  

                The henwife put on the cloak of darkness, wished for all these things and had them. When Trembling was dressed, the henwife put the honey-bird on her right shoulder and the honey-finger on her left, and placing the hat on her head, clipped a few hairs from one lock and a few from another with her scissors, and that moment the most beautiful golden hair was flowing down over the girl’s shoulders. Then the henwife asked what kind of a mare she would ride. She said white, with blue and gold-coloured diamond spots all over her body, on her back a saddle of gold, and on her head a golden bridle.

                The mare stood there before the door, and a bird sitting between her ears, which began to sing as soon as Trembling was in the saddle, and never stopped till she came home from the church.

                The fame of the beautiful strange lady had gone out through the world, and all the princes and great men that were in it came to church that Sunday, each one hoping that it was himself would have her home with him after Mass.

                Now the son of the king of Omanya forgot all about the eldest sister whom he’d fallen in love with, and he remained outside the church so as to catch the strange lady before she could hurry away.

                The church was more crowded than ever before, and there were three times as many outside. There was such a throng before the church that Trembling could only come inside the gate.

                As soon as the people were rising at the end of Mass, the lady slipped out through the gate, was in the golden saddle in an instant, and sweeping away ahead of the wind. But if she was, the prince of Omanya was at her side, and seizing her by the foot he ran with the mare for thirty perches and never let go of the beautiful lady till the shoe was pulled from her foot, and he was left behind with it in his hand. She came home as fast as the mare could carry her, and was thinking all the time that the henwife would kill her for losing the shoe.

                Seeing her so vexed and so changed in the face, the old woman asked: “What’s the trouble that’s on you now?”

                “Oh! I’ve lost one of the shoes off my feet,” said Trembling.

                “Don’t mind that, don’t be vexed,” said the henwife; “maybe it’s the best thing that ever happened to you.”

                Then Trembling gave up all the things she had to the henwife, put on her old clothes and went to work in the kitchen. When the sisters came home, the henwife asked, “Have you any news from the church?”

                “We have indeed,” said they, “for we saw the grandest sight today. The strange lady came again, in grander array than before. On herself and the horse she rode were the finest colours of the world, and between the ears of the horse was a bird which never stopped singing from the time she came till the she went away. The lady herself is the most beautiful woman ever seen by man in Erin.”

                After Trembling had disappeared from the church, the son of the king of Omanya said to the other kings’ sons, “I will have that lady for my own.”

                They all said, “You didn’t win her just by taking the shoe off her foot, you’ll have to win her by the point of the sword; you’ll have to fight for her with us before you can call her your own.”

                “Well,” said the son of the king of Omanya, “when I find the lady that shoe will fit, I’ll fight for her, never fear, before I leave her to any of you.”

                Then all the kings’ sons were uneasy, and anxious to know who was she that lost the shoe, and they began to travel all over Erin to know could they find her. The prince of Omanya and all the others went in a great company together, north, south, east and west: not a house in the kingdom did they leave out, to find the woman the shoe would fit, nor did they care whether she was rich or poor, of high or low degree.

                The prince of Omanya always kept the shoe, and when the young women saw it they had great hopes, for it was of proper size, neither large nor small, though it would beat any man to know of what material it was made. One woman thought it would fit her if she cut a little from her great toe, and another, whose foot was too short, put something in the toe of her stocking. But no use, they only spoiled their feet, and were curing them for months afterwards.

                The two sisters, Fair and Brown, heard that the princes of the world were looking all over Erin for the woman that could wear the shoe, and every day they were talking of trying it on, and one day Trembling spoke up and said, “Maybe it’s my foot that the shoe will fit.”

                “Oh, the breaking of the dog’s foot on you! Why say so when you were at home every Sunday?”

                So that way they went on waiting, and scolding the younger sister. The day the princes were to come, the sisters put Trembling in a closet and locked the door on her, and when the company came to the house, the prince of Omanya gave the shoe to the sisters. But though they tried and tried, it would fit neither of them.

                “Is there any other young woman in the house?” asked the prince.

                “There is!” said Trembling, speaking up in the closet. “I’m here.”

                “Oh, we only have her here to put out the ashes,” said the sisters, but the prince and the others wouldn’t leave the house till they had seen her, so the two sisters had to open the door. When Trembling came out, the shoe was given to her, and it fitted exactly.

                The prince of Omanya looked at her and said, “You are the woman the shoe fits, and you are the woman I took the shoe from.”

                Then Trembling spoke up and said, “Do you stay here till I return.”

                She went to the henwife’s house. The old woman put on the cloak of darkness, got everything for her she had the first Sunday at church, and put her on the white mare in the same fashion. Then Trembling rode along the highway to the front of the house, and all who saw her the first time said, “This is the lady we saw at church!”

                Then she went away a second time, and a second time came back on the black mare, in the black dress the henwife gave her. All who saw her the second Sunday said, “That is the lady we saw at church.”

A third time she asked for a short absence, and soon came back on the third mare and in the third dress. All who saw her the third time said, “That is the lady we saw at church.” Everyone was satisfied and knew that she was the woman.

Then all the princes and great men spoke up. They said to the son of the king of Omanya, “You’ll have to fight now for her, before we let her go with you.”

“I’m here before you, ready for combat!”

So the son of the king of Lochlin stepped forth and a terrible struggle began. They fought for nine hours, and then the son of the king of Lochlin gave up the claim and left the field. Next day the son of the king of Spain fought six hours and yielded his claim. On the third day the son of the king of Nyerfói fought eight hours and stopped. The fourth day the son of the king of Greece fought six hours and stopped. On the fifth day no more strange princes wanted to fight, and all the sons of the kings in Erin said they would not fight with a man of their own land, that the strangers had had their chance, and as no others came to claim the woman, she belonged of right to the son of the king of Omanya.

The marriage day was fixed and the invitations were sent out. The wedding lasted for a year and a day. When the wedding was over, the king’s son brought home the bride, and when the time came, a son was born. Trembling sent for her eldest sister, Fair, to be with her and care for her.  One day, when Trembling was well and her husband was away hunting, the two sisters went out to walk; and when they came to the seaside, the eldest pushed the youngest sister in. A great whale came and swallowed her.

The eldest sister came home alone, and the husband asked, “Where is your sister?”

“She has gone home to her father in Ballyshannon; now that I am well I don’t need her.”

“Well,” said the husband, looking at her, “I’m in dread it’s my wife that’s gone.”

“Oh no!” said she, “it’s my sister Fair that’s gone.”

Since the sisters were very much alike, the prince was in doubt. That night he put his sword between them and said, “If you are my wife, this sword will get warm; if not, it will stay cold.”

In the morning when he rose up, the sword was as cold as when he put it there.

It happened that when the two sisters were walking by the seashore, a little boy was down by the water minding cattle, and he saw Fair push Trembling into the sea; and next day when the tide came in he saw the whale swim up and throw her out on the sand. When she was on the sand she said to the little boy, “When you go home in the evening with the cows, tell your master that my sister Fair pushed me into the sea yesterday, that a whale swallowed me and then threw me out, but will come again and swallow me with tomorrow’s tide and throw me out again on the strand. The whale will throw me out three times. I’m under the geas of this whale and cannot leave the beach or escape myself. Unless my husband saves me before I’m swallowed the fourth time, I shall be lost. He must come and shoot the whale with a silver bullet when he turns on the broad of his back. Under the breast-fin of the whale is a reddish-brown spot. My husband must hit him in that spot, for it is the only place in which he can be killed.”

When the little boy got home, the eldest sister gave him a draught of oblivion, and he did not tell.

Next day he went to the sea again. The whale came and cast Trembling up on the shore. She asked the boy, “Did you tell your master?”

“I did not,” said he. “I forgot.”

“How did you forget?” asked she.

“The woman of the house gave me a drink that made me forget.”

“Well don’t forget telling him this night, and if she gives you a drink, don’t take it from her.”

As soon as the boy came home, the eldest sister offered him a drink. He refused to take it till he had delivered his message and told all to the master. The third day he prince went down to the shore with his gun and a silver bullet in it. He was not long down when the whale came and threw Trembling upon the beach as the two days before. She had no power to speak to her husband till he had killed the whale. Then the whale went out, turned over one on the broad of his back and showed the spot for a moment only. That moment the prince fired. He had but the one chance, and a short one at that, but he took it and hit the spot, and the whale, mad with pain, made the sea all around red with blood and died.

That minute Trembling was able to speak, and went home with her husband, and as for the eldest sister, they had her put out to sea in a barrel, with provisions in it for seven years, to drift where the waves would bring her.

In time Trembling had a second child, a daughter. The prince and she sent the little herd boy to school and trained him up as one of their own children, and said, “If the little girl that is born to us now lives, no other man in the world will marry her but him.”

The herd boy and the prince’s daughter lived on till they were married. Trembling said to her husband, “You could not have saved me from the whale but for the little herd boy, and on that account I don’t grudge him my daughter.”

The son of the king of Omanya and Trembling had fourteen children, and they lived happily until the two of them died of old age.

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