Most of the fairy tales we know today we owe to versions collected during the 19th or early 20th centuries. But although fairy tales were certainly being told during the 16th century – along with legends and ballads and the kinds of tale which Sir Philip Sidney describes in ‘An Apologie for Poetry’ as holding ‘children from play and old men from the chimney corner’ – we have little direct evidence for them and many must have simply disappeared.
course there are hints and inferences. Thomas Nashe name-checks the tale of
‘Tom Thumb’ in ‘Pierce Penniless’ (1592), complaining sourly that ‘…every
gross-brained idiot is suffered to come into print, who if he set forth a
pamphlet of the praise of pudding-pricks
[skewers], or write a treatise of Tom Thumb … it is bought up, thick and
threefold, when better things lie dead.’ People clearly knew about ‘Tom Thumb’,
but there’s no printed trace of it until it was published as a chapbook in
1621. With woodcuts!
The English fairy tale ‘Mr Fox’ must also have been widely known in the 16th century, since Edmund Spenser and Shakespeare both quote from it – Spenser in ‘The Faerie Queene’ (1596) and Shakespeare in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1598). But the story has only survived because a certain Mr Blakeway contributed a note to Edmond Malone’s 1790 edition of the complete works of Shakespeare (‘Malones’s Variorum Shakespeare’), to clarify the lines in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Act I, Sc 1, where Benedick says to Claudio: ‘Like the old tale, my lord: it is not so, nor ‘twas not so; but, indeed, God forbid it should be so.’ Blakeway wrote: ‘I believe none of the commentators have understood this; it is an allusion, as the speaker says, to an old tale, which may perhaps still be extant in some collections of such things, or which Shakspeare may have heard, as I have, related by a great aunt, in his childhood.’ And he then went on to recount the whole story, as well he could remember it. [To read more about that, click here.]Edgar, in ‘King Lear’ (1605), refers to the fairy story or ballad of ‘Childe Roland’:
‘Child Roland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, “Fie, fo and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”’
Yet again, we're lucky to have it. The story survives only in a single, imperfectly remembered version recorded by the Scots writer Robert Jamieson in his book ‘Illustrations of Northern Antiquities’ (1814). It had been told to him in boyhood by a journeyman tailor, who recited it ‘in a sort of formal, drowsy, mannered, monotonous recitative, mixing prose and verse, in the manner of the Icelandic sagas and as is still the manner … among the Lowlanders in the north of Scotland, and among the Highlanders and Irish.’ It is an elaborate and haunting tale, in which Childe Roland (or Rowland) goes to rescue his sister Burd Ellen from the Elf-King who lives in a hall under a green hill. Like a giant, the Elf-king bounds out, crying:
‘With fee, fi, fo and fum!
I smell the blood of a Christian man!
Be he dead, be he living, wi’ my brand
I’ll clash his harns [brains] frae his harn-pan!’
Thomas Nashe preserves perhaps the earliest version of this ‘giant’s chant’ in ‘Have With You to Saffron Walden’ (1596), in which he gleefully attacks his enemy the writer and schoolman Gabriel Harvey, accusing him of being a time-wasting pedant ‘who will find matter enough to dilate a whole day of the first invention of Fy, fah and fum, I smell the blood of an English-man.’ (Exactly what I’m doing in this essay; and by the way, Nashe is inventing all this to belittle Harvey. He doesn’t expect to be believed.)
A similar rhyme appears in ‘The Red Etin’, a Scottish story about a monstrous giant which I first read as a child in ‘The Blue Fairy Book’. The Etin chants:
‘Snouk but and snouk ben,
I find the smell of an earthly man;
Be he living or be he dead
His heart shall be kitchen to my bread.’
The Langs found the tale in Robert Chambers’ ‘Popular Rhymes of Scotland’ (1841), but the story is very old. It is mentioned in the ‘Complaynt of Scotland’ (1548) as ‘the tale of the Red Ettin with the three heads’ – and earlier still in Sir Robert Lyndsay’s poem ‘The Dreme’ (1528), in which he reminds the 16 year-old King James V of Scotland of the stories he told him as a child, including:
The propheceis of Rymour, Beid and Marlyng,
And of mony uther pleasand storye
Of the Reid Etin, and the Gyir Carlyng…
[The prophecies of Rhymer, Bede and Merlin,
And of many other pleasing stories,
Of the Red Etin, and the Giant Woman.]
So far we’ve clocked up ‘Tom Thumb’, ‘Mr Fox’, ‘Childe Roland’ and ‘The Red Etin’, with tantalising hints of other tales. I wonder when ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ was first told in the form we know it? It is found in a chapbook ‘The History of Jack and the Giants’, printed in Newcastle in 1711 in two parts, of which only the second still exists. But, say the Opies in ‘The Classic Fairy Tales’, the title-page set out a full account of Jack’s deeds:
Victorious conquests over the North Country Giants, destroying the inchanted Castle kept by Galligantus, dispers’d the fiery Griffins, put the Conjuror to flight, and released not only many Knights and Ladies, but likewise a Duke’s Daughter to whom he was honourably married.
The mid-16th century ‘Complaynt of Scotland’ contains a long and fascinating list of titles, some of which sound very much like lost fairy tales. One is ‘The Tale of the Giant that Ate Men Alive’. Did it feature a hero named Jack - or Jock? Who knows? There is also ‘The Tale of the Three-Footed Dog of Norway’, ‘The Tale of the Pure Tint’, ‘The Tale How the King of Eastmoreland Married the King’s Daughter of Westmoreland’… but however much they were told and enjoyed, they are lost. Nobody ever wrote them down.
We can add to the list, however. ‘The Old Wives Tale’ by the Elizabethan poet George Peele is a short one-act play ‘of magic and adventure, farce and mystery’ which was published in 1595: the title-page declares it to have been performed by ‘the Queene’s Majesties’ Players’. It’s utterly charming, and I find it fascinating because it contains so many fairy tale references and motifs. The story opens like this:
Three servants benighted in a dark wood take shelter in a blacksmith’s cottage. As there is only one bed and the blacksmith needs his sleep, his old wife Madge suggests that one of the three young fellows should share with him while the other two sit up with her: ‘They that ply their work must keep good hours,’ she tells them. ‘One of you go lie with him; he is a clean-skinned man, I tell you, without either spavin or windgall.’ Then to pass the time, she agrees to tell ‘an old wife’s winter tale’: an offer that is met with enthusiasm. ‘A tale of an hour long were as good as an hour’s sleep,’ exclaims one, and the other, ‘Look you, gammer, of the giant and the king’s daughter…’ In fact they want to hear a fairy tale, and the old woman begins telling one, in a rambling, forgetful manner.
“Once upon a time there was a king, or a lord, or a duke that had a fair daughter, the fairest that ever was, as white as snow and as red as blood; and once upon a time, his daughter was stolen away, and he sent out all his men to seek for his daughter, and he sent so long that he sent all of his men out of his land. […]
There was a conjuror, and this conjuror could do anything, and he turned himself into a great dragon, and carried the king’s daughter away in his mouth to a castle that he made of stone, and there he kept her I know not how long, till at last all the king’s men went out so long that her two brothers went to seek her. Oh, I forgot! He [the conjuror] turned a proper young man to a bear in the night and an old man by day, and he made his lady run mad… God’s me bones! Who comes here?”
She breaks off in surprise: the kidnapped lady’s two brothers have suddenly appeared on stage to seek their lost sister. Seeing the Old Man (the enchanted youth) picking ‘hips and haws and sticks and straws’ at a wayside cross, they give him alms; he in return gives them mysterious advice from ‘the White Bear of England’s Wood’ – which sounds like another lost fairy tale in itself, especially as we hear no more of it. Anyway, Madge’s story has come to life, and the play now unfolds before her startled eyes.
The villain is Sacrapant the Conjuror. Previously, he was besotted with Venelia, the betrothed of young Erestus. Sacrapant turned Erestus into an Old Man by day and a White Bear by night, and enspelled the lady Venelia to run mute and distracted through the woods. More recently he has abducted Delia, daughter of the king of Thessaly, and caused her to forget her true identity – so that when she encounters her brothers, she doesn’t know them. Sacrapant is old, but by his art is able to look like a ‘fair young man’; his power is stored in a little glass vial with a flame in it, which he keeps buried. Also searching for Delia is her lover, the Wandering Knight, Eumenides.
‘The Old Wives Tale’ is stuffed with fairy tale references which George Peele clearly expected everyone in the audience to recognise – as we still do. ‘As white as snow and as red as blood’, says old Madge. Peele probably never knew a version of ‘Snow White’, but we remember how the mother wishes for a daughter ‘as white as snow, as red as blood, as black as ebony’: it is a common fairy tale description.
And there is much, much more. About a third of the way through the play, Sacrapant asks Delia what she would like to eat and drink, and she playfully demands ‘the best meat from the king of England’s table and the best wine in all France, brought in by the veriest knave in all Spain.’ He responds:
‘Well, sit thee down.
Spread, table, spread; meat, drink and bread.
Ever may I have what I ever crave.’
These words demonstrate that Sacrapant possesses a Magic Table which supplies food and drink (the well-known fairy tale motif Aarne Thompson Index D1472.1.7). In the Grimms tale, ‘The Wishing Table, the Gold-Ass and the Cudgel in the Sack’ (KHM 36), a youth is given a little wooden table. It doesn’t look much, but he only has to say, ‘Little table, spread yourself’, and it covers itself at once with ‘a clean little cloth, a plate, knife and fork, dishes with boiled and roasted meats … and a great glass of red wine that shone so as to make his heart glad.’ Sacrapant uses just the same form of words, ‘Spread, table, spread.’
Stories involving Wishing Tables, then, were clearly being told during the 16th century: Peele expects his audience to recognise this one as a standard magical prop that needs no explanation. Staging such magic would of course be difficult: the get-out is Delia’s demand that the food be served by ‘the veriest knave in all Spain’, so the magic duly conjures up a Spanish Friar (Spanish! Friar! Hiss! Boo!) to bring the food to the table.
In a sub-plot that runs through the play, a poor man called Lampriscus has two daughters: Zantippa, beautiful but shrewish and Celanta, ugly but kind. This is a deliberate reversal of The Kind and Unkind Girls (AT tale type 480): usually the beautiful sister is kind; the unkind one, ugly. Lampriscus sends the pair to find their fortunes by drawing water from the Well of Life. When Zantippa brings her pitcher to the well, a voice speaks and a Head rises from the water, saying,
‘Gently dip, but not too deep,
For fear you make the golden beard to weep.
Fair maiden, white and red,
Comb me smooth and stroke my head
And thou shalt have some cockle-bread.’
Zantippa takes offence at this request and smashes her pitcher over the Head. Maybe she simply objects to combing and smoothing the Head, but the editor of the Mermaid edition of the play, Charles Whitworth, believed that cockle-bread ‘may have been’ made with seeds of the weed corn-cockle and thought to be an aphrodisiac; he quotes Aubrey recording a ‘wanton sport’ called ‘moulding of cockle-bread’ which involved young maids climbing on to a table with skirts and knees raised and then ‘wabbl[ing] to and fro with their Buttocks as if they were kneading of dough with their Ayrses.’ Here is a great glimpse of 17th century kitchen-life; you can hear their shrieks of laughter – but I doubt if corn-cockle would ever have been deliberately introduced into bread, as it seems to have had a bad taste. As John Gerard in The Herball or Generalle Historie of Plantes (1597) writes: ‘the spoil unto bread, as well as colour, taste and unholesomnes, is better known than desired’.
Whatever the implication of the song, Zantippa is angered and departs without any water. But when the ill-favoured but kind Celanto arrives and obligingly strokes and combs the Head, it sinks into the well to rise again with gold for her to comb into her lap, singing:
‘Fair maiden, white and red,
Stroke me smooth and comb my head,
And every hair a sheaf shall be,
And every sheaf a golden tree.’
Heads in wells turn up in many later fairy tales. In ‘The Princess of Colchester’, from ‘The History of the Four Kings of Canterbury, Colchester, Cornwall and Cumberland’ (a chapbook printed in Falkirk, Scotland, in 1823), an old man advises a princess how to get through a dense, thorny thicket. Hidden beyond it is a well. ‘Sit down on the brink,’ he tells her, ‘and there will come up three golden heads, which will speak, and whatever they require, that do.’ One by one, the heads come up, singing:
‘Wash me, comb me,
Lay me down softly.’
She complies and the three heads reward her with beauty, sweetness of breath and body, and ‘marriage to the greatest prince that reigns.’ Joseph Jacobs adapted this story for his ‘English Fairytales’ (1890), renaming it ‘The Three Heads in the Well’, the title by which it’s now best known. He modernised the style – ‘will you please to partake?’ becomes ‘would you like to have some?’ – and less successfully prettied up the rhyme:
‘Wash me and comb me
And lay me softly:
And lay me on a bank to dry;
That I may look pretty
When somebody passes by.’
The last two lines somehow trivialise the Heads, which I feel in my bones have gravitas and power.
notes the similarities between ‘The Three Heads in the Well’ and ‘The Old Wives
Tale’ but incorrectly claims ‘The Old Wives Tale’ as the first recorded
instance of the Heads in the Well
motif. In fact there’s a Scottish variant, ‘The Wal at the Warldis End’, which
is name-checked in the ‘Complaynt of Scotland’ (1548) although misspelt as ‘The
Wolf of the Warldis End’. It is told in full in Robert Chambers’ ‘Popular
Rhymes of Scotland’ (1841): a king’s daughter is sent by her stepmother to
fetch a bottle of water from, yes, the well at the world’s end. After crossing
‘a moor of hecklepins’ – sharp pins packed together and used for teasing out
wool – the girl finds the well too deep to reach with her bottle; as she
wonders what to do, she sees ‘three scaud men’s heads’ looking up at her.
(‘Scaud’ means scalded or burned; it may mean the heads are bald or blackened.)
The heads say together,
‘Wash me, wash me, my bonnie May
And dry me wi’ yer clean linen apron.’
When the girl obliges they fill her bottle with water and give her three gifts: to be ten times bonnier than before, that jewels shall fall from her mouth every time she speaks, and for her to be able to comb gold and silver out of her hair. Her rude and careless stepsister of course fares badly.
Returning to the main story-line, you’ll remember the conjuror Sacrapant’s magical power is contained in a buried, light-filled vial? This resembles the many fairy tales around the world in which a giant, ogre or magician keeps his heart, soul, or power separately hidden, and the trope is known as The Ogre’s Heart in the Egg (AT tale type 302). An example is the Russian tale ‘Koshchei the Deathless’. Koshchei is a semi-mythological character, a monstrous magician who has carried off not only a king’s daughter but also the mother of the hero Prince Ivan.
When Ivan arrives at Koshchei’s mountain fortress, his mother wheedles from Koshchei the secret of his hidden death. ‘There stands an oak,’ he tells her, ‘and under the oak is a casket, and in the casket is a hare, and in the hare is a duck, and in the duck is an egg, and in the egg is my death.’ Of course in the end, Prince Ivan succeeds in finding and smashing the egg, and Koshchei the Deathless dies.
Our magician Sacrapant boasts of his vial:
‘With this enchantment do I anything,
And till this fade, my skill shall still endure,
And never none shall break this little glass.
But she that’s neither wife, widow nor maid.
Then cheer thyself; this is thy destiny
Never to die but by a dead man’s hand.’
There are two points here. Firstly, Sacrapant’s confidence that no one can break the glass is based on his belief that there is no such thing as a woman who is neither wife, widow or maid. But this is one of those apparently reassuring prophecies which contains its own destruction – like that of the witches who tell Macbeth to ‘Laugh to scorn/The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth’. Though true, their words are deceptive – as Macbeth finds out while he’s fighting Macduff.
Macbeth: I bear a charmèd life, which must not yield
To one of woman born.
Macduff: Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still has served
Tell thee Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Like Macbeth, Sacrapant fails to read the small print. A 16th century betrothal was a contract, after which sexual intercourse might legitimately take place prior to the expected wedding. (In Measure for Measure, Mariana is betrothed to Lord Angelo but he has abandoned her, which is very much to his discredit.) Betrothed to Erestus, no longer a maid, but as yet unmarried, Venelia will be able to break Sacrapant’s glass. Second, Sacrapant’s confidence in his invulnerabilty is bolstered by the belief that he is destined ‘never to die, but at a dead man’s hand’: an apparent impossibility. I haven’t been able to find a tale-type for this particular trope, but the example best known today must surely be the Lord of the Nazgûl’s certainty that ‘no living man’ can slay him. Cue: Eowyn!
And cue: the Grateful Dead Man! (AT tale type E341: the best known version must be Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Travelling Companion’.) Delia's lover Eumenides meets the Old Man (Erestus) who tells him, ‘Bestow thy alms, give more than all/Till dead men’s bones come at thy call.’ Unsure what this means, Eumenides sleeps on it and is awakened by an altercation. A Churchwarden and Sexton are refusing to bury a poor man, Jack, who has died leaving no money for the funeral. Eumenides pays for the burial and shortly afterwards is overtaken by a young lad who offers to serve him: ‘Are you not the man, sir – deny it if you can, sir – that gave all the money you had to the burying of a poor man, and but one three-halfpence left in your purse? Content you, sir, I’ll serve you – that is flat.’ He gives his name as Jack – a name so common that Eumenides does not associate him with the dead man. (After all why should he?) Arranging a fee of half of whatever his master wins, Jack assists and protects Eumenides. Invisible, he steals away Sacrapant’s sword and wreath – and probably runs him through with the sword (there is no stage direction) as the conjuror cries,
‘My blood is pierced, my breath fleeting away
And now my timeless date is come to end’.
Slain by the dead man, Sacrapant dies and goes to hell, but his magic is still contained in the vial. Jack now summons Venelia to break the glass, all the wicked enchantments are undone and Delia and Eumenides are reunited: but under the terms of Jack’s agreement with Eumenides, he was to share half of all that Eumenides gained. Testing his master’s faith, he asks Eumenides to cut Delia in two. (You can get away with this in fairy tales, which are about action, not characterisation.) Eumenides reluctantly agrees and Delia exclaims ‘Farewell, world!’: then –
Jack: Stay, master! It is sufficient that I have tried your constancy. Do you now remember since you paid for the burying of a poor fellow?
Eumenides: Ay, very well, Jack.
Jack: Then, master, thank that good deed for this good turn. And so, God be with you all.
Jack leaps down in the ground.
A theory about ‘The Old Wives Tale’ is that it was written for a company of child actors, which could explain why it’s so short. You can imagine the intelligentsia permitting themselves to enjoy the charming sight of children acting out a rustic fairy tale; if Thomas Nashe’s contempt for ‘Tom Thumb’ and ‘Fee fi foh fum’ was generally held, this offered the excuse. In fact the play is not naïve; there’s more than a hint of tongue-in-cheek fun about it: but it’s kindly. There’s no derision. Perhaps it's more a masque than a play, and Milton borrowed the story of brothers seeking a sister imprisoned by a magician for his masque ‘Comus’, presented at Ludlow Castle on Michaelmas night, 1634. He subdued the folksy elements, however, giving the role of the Dead Man to the rather more ethereal Attendant Spirit, and replacing the watery Heads in the Well with Sabrina, goddess of the River Severn. His magician Comus is the son of Circe, and he dignified his work with plenty of other classical references.
Old Wives Tale’ is not ashamed of its humble fairy and folk-tale sources. It
uses them with genuine delight. I will stick out my neck and suggest that no educated people would treat common fairy
tales quite like this again for the next two hundred years, or think them worth
writing down. Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’ was published a year after ‘The Old
Wives Tale’, in 1596, and though it too takes delight in romances and
fairy tales, it renders them respectable by allegorising them: the Red-Cross
Knight who slays the Dragon represents Holiness conquering Sin. (So now you can enjoy the story without feeling guilty about it, because really it's doing your soul good.)
John Bunyan did the same thing in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ about eighty years later. The chapter in which Christian fights and vanquishes Apollyon, for example, reads just like a fairy tale. The humble ‘old wives’ tales’ were still popular at street-level in chapbooks and ballads, but could not be taken seriously without this extra dimension. Even after the revival of interest triggered by the Grimm brothers in the first decades of the 19th century, it took the English a long time to turn their attention to their native tales. The Scots did better. But traces of many once-loved fairy tales that have since been lost are still visible in 16th century literature.
If you enjoyed this essay, read more like it in my book 'Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales', available in paperback and ebook from Amazon
The Three Heads of the Well - Arthur Rackham
Adventures of Tom Thumb - chapbook frontispiece: wikimedia
Childe Rowland draws his sword - John Batten: illustration to Joseph Jacobs' 'English Fairy Tales'
The Red Etin of Ireland - H J Ford: illustration to The Blue Fairy Book
The Wishing Table, The Gold Ass, and The Cudgel - illustrated by Georg Mühlberg (1863-1925)
The Heads in the Well - HJ Ford: illustration to The Bushy Bride
Koschei the Deathless abducts Marya Morevna - illustration by Zvorykin.
Christian fights Apollyon - 18th century print