Thursday, 30 September 2021

Old Women (and some old men) in Fairy Tales


Probably every parent in a fairy tale should be considered old. They are the previous generation. We may hear something of their lives: how a queen is advised to eat a magical flower in order to bear a child, or how a king lost in the forest promises to marry his son or daughter to a witch or a bear – but only in order to set the scene for the adventures of their sons and daughters. Fairy tale parents cause problems for their children. They abandon them in the woods, or send them off to perform difficult tasks. They saddle them with obligations incurred before their birth, like Rapunzel's parents, or the king in a Hungarian tale who (in return for good fortune out hunting) promises to give an evil spirit ‘whatever you have not got in your house’ – which turns out to be his unborn daughter. Fathers threaten to marry their daughters, or demand proofs of extreme affection from them and then throw them out for not being sufficiently fulsome. Mothers usually die in the first paragraph and the husband remarries, leaving the child of the first marriage to the mercy of a stepmother. Stepmothers are nearly always bad, but are balanced on the male side by a whole parade of unreasonable, greedy, weak or incestuous fathers, and I do mean fathers, not stepfathers. The family, in fairy tales, is not a safe space. Just as in real life, it is often disfunctional, sometimes dangerous, and full of generational tension. It is a place to leave, as soon as possible.

Look at the the murderous jealousy shown to Snow White by her stepmother the wicked queen, who resents seeing her beauty surpassed by that of a young girl. (Underlining the general uselessness of fathers, the King who is Snow White’s father gets a single mention and then apparently ceases to exist: we never hear of him again.) The cruelty of most fairy tale stepmothers is motivated by a preference for their own offspring over a step-child, but Snow White’s stepmother is unusual in being childless. Is her rage mere vanity? Or fear of mortality? Paradoxically, after learning from the magic mirror that Snow White still lives, she adopts the trappings of age.

…she thought and thought again how she might kill her, for so long as she was not the fairest in the whole land, envy let her have no rest. And when she had at last thought of something, she painted her face, and dressed herself like an old pedlar woman, and no one could have known her. In this disguise she went over the seven mountains to the seven dwarfs and knocked on the door and cried, ‘Pretty things to sell, very cheap, very cheap.’


In her attempt to remain young and fair, she makes herself old and ugly: everyone who’s seen the Disney cartoon will remember how through the second half of the film, she appears as an old hag with warts on her nose. Fairy tales are generally sceptical about attempts to reverse age, or cheat death. One person can perform such a miracle, and that is Our Lord who, stopping with St Peter one evening at a blacksmiths’ house in the Grimms’ tale ‘The Old Man Made Young Again’, takes pity on an aged beggar who asks for alms.

The Lord said kindly, ‘Smith, lend me your forge, and put on some coals for me, and then I will make this ailing old man young again.’ The smith was quite willing, and St Peter blew the bellows, and when the coal fire sparkled up large and high our Lord took the little old man, pushed him in the forge in the middle of the red-hot fire, so that he glowed like a rose bush, and praised God with a loud voice. After that the Lord went to the quenching tub, put the glowing little man into it, and after he had carefully cooled him, gave him his blessing, when behold the little man sprang nimbly out, looking … as if he were but twenty.

Unfortunately the smith has been studying this process, and next day after the Lord has gone on his way, he tries to replicate it with his mother-in-law, who gets horribly burned. (Yes, there are tasteless mother-in-law jokes in the Grimms’ fairy tales.)

‘Ugly old witch’ is a description which neatly combines misogyny and ageism. And there do seem to be many more old women in the Grimms’ tales than there are old men: by this I mean characters specifically described as old, rather than the parents we may assume belong to the older generation. I’ve counted twenty-seven old women including the twelfth Wise Woman in ‘Briar Rose’ but not her eleven sisters (who are narrative clones), and only five old men. The disparity is striking. It may be due to a perception of women as witches and magic-workers, or it may have something to do with 19th century rural society; possibly those women who escaped death in childbirth went on to outlive the men of their generation. But the split between good and bad old people is close to 50/50 for both sexes: twelve of the old women are helpful, fifteen are bad, while of the old men, two are good and three bad. Most of these old people are subsidiary characters with magical powers, briefly encountered either for good or ill. At the beginning of ‘The Six Swans’ for example, a King lost in the forest meets an old witch who guides him out on the promise that he will marry her daughter. He does so: the new Queen is also a witch, and we hear nothing more of her old mother.

But there are many helpful old women. The ones who keep house for bands of robbers nearly always take pity upon the hapless young man or woman who needs shelter for the night, and the same is true of ogres’ wives – and the Devil’s grandmother, a personage who appears in numerous fairy tales and is particularly active in teasing from her devilish grandson the answers to various puzzling questions the hero has been sent to ask.

An interesting Grimms’ tale ‘The Goosegirl at the Well’ plays with the presumption that any crooked old woman must be a witch. The countryfolk whisper, ‘Beware of the old woman. She has claws beneath her gloves’. When a kind young count offers to carry her load, it grows heavier and heavier as he toils up hill. He's unable to throw it off, and when the old woman springs on his back and hits his legs with stinging nettles to urge him on, we feel sure the countryfolk were right… but we’re wrong! The old woman turns out to be ‘no witch, as people thought, but a wise woman, who meant well.’  Having tested and proved the count's good nature, she jests that he may fall in love with her ugly daughter, but sends him off with a box carved from a single emerald, which contains a pearl wept by the king's daughter, banished for comparing her love for him to salt. The king has repented of his folly; the count promises to find the princess, and she turns out to be none other than the 'ugly' daughter of the wise woman, who has sheltered her all this time. The ugliness is only a disguise; she and the count marry, and all are reunited.

The magical old women of ‘The Three Spinners’ (pictured above) help a young woman to perform the impossible feat of spinning a room full of flax within three days. Unlike Rumpelstiltskin, they are benevolent; all they ask in return is to be invited to the girl’s wedding. And just as in the English version of this tale (‘Dame Habbitrot’), much is made of the ugliness of these three magical women:

When the feast began, the three women entered in strange apparel, and the bride said, ‘Welcome, dear aunts.’  ‘Ah,’ said the bridegroom, ‘how do you come by these odious friends?’ Thereupon he went to the one with the broad, flat foot and said, ‘How do you come by such a broad foot?’ ‘By treading,’ she answered, ‘by treading.’ Then the bridegroom went to the second and said, ‘How do you come by your drooping lip?’ ‘By licking, she answered, ‘by licking.’ Then he asked the third, ‘How do you come by your broad thumb?’ ‘By twisting the thread,’ she answered, ‘by twisting the thread.’ On this the King’s son was alarmed and said, ‘Neither now nor ever shall my beautiful bride touch a spinning wheel.’ And thus [the bride] got rid of the hateful flax-spinning.

Maybe to us this sounds like an invitation to laugh at such grotesque characters, but I’m not sure that’s how it works. The old women are helping a girl whose mother first beat her for laziness in spinning, then lied about it and landed her with this impossible task. They appear at the wedding with the deliberate intention of flaunting their deformities to save the girl from spending a lifetime spinning. Consider the likely audience for this story, and who might be telling it. It’s surely told for women by women, women who spent every spare moment spinning, who may even have been spinning while they listened. And it pays tribute to the sheer hard work, the endless, repetitive nature of domestic tasks, and the damage they do to the body. These powerful old women are ugly because they’ve worked and therefore deserve honour. I think the people listening to this story would have taken that in. 

The most iconic crone of all is Baba Yaga, who is terrifyingly difficult to predict. She can be either helpful or very very dangerous, and it pays to address her with great courtesy. Her house stands on chicken legs and is ringed with a bone fence set with skulls whose eye sockets light up red as dusk falls. Of course she is ugly: she has iron teeth and bony legs, and flies through the woods in a mortar, steering with her pestle, but ugliness for Baba Yaga is no drawback, it's part of her mystique, her terror, her ambiguous power. She reminds me of the Hindu goddess and demon-slayer Kali who sometimes wears a garland of human heads. According to Dr Thomas Coburn's Devī-Māhātmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition,kālī is the feminine form of time or the fullness of time ... and by extension, time as the changing aspect of nature that bring things to life or death. Her other epithets include Kālarātri (the black night) and Kālikā (the black one).” In this context it's interesting to remember the Russian story of how, as Vasilisa the Beautiful approaches Baba Yaga's hut, a white horse and rider gallop past her as dawn breaks, followed at noon by a red horse and rider, and a black rider on a black horse as dusk falls. Baba Yaga tells the girl that the white rider is Day, the red one is the Sun, and the black one, Night.

And talking of powerful goddesses, there’s Mother Holle in the tale of that name, who presides over a whole Otherworld at the bottom of a well. She has frighteningly ‘large teeth’ but calls reassuringly to the girl who has jumped down the well:

‘What are you afraid of, dear child? Stay with me; if you will do all the work in the house properly, you shall be the better for it. Only you must take care to make my bed well and to shake it thoroughly till the feathers fly – for then there is snow on the earth. I am Mother Holle.’

As the girl works hard and well, Mother Holle rewards her: a shower of gold will fall upon her whenever she crosses a threshold, while her lazy and rude stepsister ends up covered in a shower of pitch. Mother Holle is a folk memory of the Germanic goddess Holda or Hulde, whom Jacob Grimm describes as ‘a being of the sky’; like the Norse Freyja she ‘drives about in a waggon’ and ‘can ride on the winds, clothed in terror’. She is also a domestic goddess, visiting spinners and weavers and rewarding them for good work; she appears as either a beautiful white lady or ‘an ugly old woman’ (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology. Vol I, 265 et seq). I love the energy of this illustration in which the girl is having so much fun shaking out Mother Holle's feather bed. Work isn't always grind.


Whether they be wicked witches or wise women, fairy tales depict old women as repositories of knowledge and power. Like the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ many live in cottages of their own, signifying their independence and autonomy. The notion that, in growing old, women lose beauty but gain wisdom is borne out by a peculiar little fairy tale in the Grimms’ collection, ‘Old Rink-Rank’. The story goes like this:

A king proclaims that his daughter’s suitors must cross a glass mountain without falling. When the princess’s sweetheart volunteers to try, she goes along to help him. Halfway over, she slips and the glass mountain opens and swallows her. Sweetheart and father mourn, unable to find her. Meanwhile inside the mountain the princess meets a greybearded man called Old Rinkrank, who threatens her with death unless she becomes his servant. She serves him for years until she too is old, when he names her Mother Mansrot. Then one day he goes out, and she shuts all the doors and windows except for one little window, and won’t let him in. He stands outside calling plaintively,

Here stand I, poor Rink-Rank

On my seventeen long shanks,

On my weary, worn-out foot,

Wash my dishes, Mother Mansrot.

The original of this strange rhyme is in the Frisian dialect and no one seems sure what it means, or even if this is a correct translation. Nor do we know what the names ‘Rink-Rank’ or ‘Mother Mansrot’ may imply; neither did the Grimms, who have nothing to say about any of it in their notes. Old Rink-Rank repeats the rhyme twice more, begging or ordering Mother Mansrot to make his bed, and to open the door, but she replies that she’s already done all these things for him. (I can’t help feeling she’s mentally adding, ‘And I’ve had enough!’) Then he runs around his ‘house’ to find a way in, and finds the little open window, but as he climbs through she shuts it, trapping his beard. Rinkrank screams and cries, but she refuses to release him until he tells her where to find a ladder. Tying a cord to the window, she ascends the ladder to the top of the mountain and pulls the cord to release Old Rinkrank. Then she marries her sweetheart, who is still alive, while the king has Old Rinkrank put to death and takes all his gold and silver.

Time does curious things in this story. Maybe Old Rinkrank is an aspect of the difficult, possessive father. Fathers are always locking their daughters away in ‘princess in the mound’ tales, sometimes in anger and sometimes for their ‘safety’: either way, the princess generally gets no say. So perhaps the story’s about how she escapes from him, escapes the glass prison of her father’s control. In this, she out-performs the Lady of Shalott in Tennyson's poem another young woman imprisoned in a tower to spin and weave, and forbidden even to look out of the window except indirectly through a mirror. (More of mirrors later.) Holman Hunt depicts the Lady as a self-consuming whirl of claustrophobic, imprisoned energy, ringed in brass, her hair floating in electrically-charged clouds yet the only thing Tennyson can find for her to do in the outside world, once the mirror has cracked from side to side, is to lie down in a barge and drift to Camelot for Launcelot to admire her face in death. Given this kind of hopeless attitude to women's roles in the world, no wonder characters like Mother Mansrot were overlooked.  


It’s when Old Rinkrank perceives the princess as old no longer sexually attractive and therefore safe to leave that Mother Mansrot gets her chance and reverses the power vector. Now he pleads and cries for her help while she punishes and deserts him. Men, after all, depended upon women to look after them... But since her father and lover are still alive (‘The King rejoiced greatly and her betrothed was still there’) perhaps the ageing of the princess in the glass mountain is a metaphor more than anything else. She grows wise enough to trick Old Rinkrank and free herself. Wisdom is the gift of time and experience.


[This painting, 'If she would be his servant, she might live' is one of a wonderful series inspired by 'Old Rinkrank', by artist Emily C McPhie. See the rest at this link: emily c mc phie: an artist's journal.]


Old Rinkrank is one of the three wicked old men I found in the Grimms’ tales. The other two are the unpleasant old dwarf of ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ and a murderous male cook in ‘The Pink’. Of the two good old men, one is a ‘hoary’ or ‘icy little man’ (which may mean grey or white-headed) who gives good advice to a boy called Stupid Hans in ‘The Griffin’. The other, described as ‘an old man with a white beard’ in ‘The Hut in the Forest’ turns out to have been a young prince under a spell which (of course) is broken by the good conduct of a girl who treats him and his animals with care and courtesy.

One final, touching story is little-known. ‘The Crystal Ball’ was borrowed by the Grimms from an 1844 collection ‘Hundert neue Mährchen in Gebirge gesammelt’ (‘A Hundred New Tales Collected in the Mountains’) by Friedmund von Arnim (1815-1883). An enchantress has three sons ‘who loved each other as brothers, but the old woman did not trust them, and thought they wanted to steal her power from her.’ She changes the eldest into an eagle and the second into a whale, but the third escapes before she can change him, and heads for the Castle of the Golden Sun, from which he hopes to rescue a King’s daughter. On arrival (via a wishing cap which he obtains from some giants) he seaches the castle for the princess.

He … went through all the rooms, until in the last he found the King’s daughter. But how shocked he was when he found her. She had an ashen-gray face full of wrinkles, bleary eyes, and red [sic] hair. ‘Are you the King’s daughter, whose beauty the whole world praises?’ cried he. ‘Ah,’ she answered, ‘this is not my form; human eyes can only see me in this state of ugliness, but that you may know what I am like, look in the mirror – it does not let itself be misled – it will show you my image as it is in truth.’ She gave him the mirror in his hand, and he saw therein the likeness of the most beautiful maiden on earth, and saw too, how the tears were rolling down her cheeks with grief.

The princess tells the young man that to free her from the enchantment, he must first fight a wild bull by a spring. If he kills the bull, ‘a fiery bird will spring out of it, which bears in its body a red-hot egg, and in the egg the crystal ball lies in as its yolk.’ The crystal ball will undo all enchantments, but if the egg falls to the ground it will set everything on fire, and the crystal ball will melt… The young man kills the bull, and as the fiery bird flies up, his brother the eagle swoops down and strikes it. The egg falls, but the other brother, the whale, drives a wave ashore, extinguishing the flames. The egg cracks in the cold water, the youth retrieves the crystal ball, his brothers are restored to human form, and the princess is once again young and beautiful.  

The firebird resembles a phoenix, symbol of resurrection. The egg it drops holds the promise of rebirth. And the princess’s magic mirror is very different from that of the Queen’s in Snow White which reflected only the outside and could tell her only that she was growing old and losing everything that mattered. This mirror shows a deep, inward truth: the beauty that appeared to have vanished is still there. ‘This is not my form; human eyes can only see me in this state of ugliness, but that you may know what I am like, look in the mirror – it does not let itself be misled – it will show you my image as it is in truth.’ Even when we’re old we remain ourselves, and our past doesn’t vanish at all. It’s still there within us, creating us.  




Picture credits:

Blanche-Neige/Snow White - Benjamin Lacombe

Snow-White and the Wicked Queen - Gustaf Tenggren  wikipedia 

The Three Spinners - Artuše Scheinera, wikimeda commons

Baba Yaga - Ivan Bilibin 

Mother Holle - Adolf  Münzer

Old Rinkrank: 'If she would be his servant, she might live' -  Emily C McPhie

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