Duckworth and I are bent upon rowing up the Isis. It’s been a while since we’ve had our fair-weather outing, he being up to Liverpool on business. To break the tedium of our effort, he asks a question.
“What’s your latest fairy-tale inquiry?”
“I’ve not thought of my interest as an ‘inquiry,’ but it’s Mother Holle.”
He knows me. I give him the synopsis.
The less-favored daughter of an old wife jumps into a well after a reel of linen thread she has dropped, knowing the punishment if she does not retrieve it. The maid wakes up in a flowered meadow. In this underworld she wanders until she comes to a bake oven from which loaves of bread call out to her, “Oh, take us out! Take us out! Or we shall burn.” This she does and travels on.
She comes across an apple tree that cries, “Shake me. Shake me. My apples are all ripe!” The girl shakes the tree and piles the apples neatly.
Next she comes to a cottage where there stands an old woman with large teeth. This scares her, but the woman speaks kindly and the maid accepts the offer of being housekeeper. The old woman has a special request that the mattress be shaken until the feathers fly, “Then it will snow on earth, for I am Mother Holle.”
The maid performs her duties faithfully. Although well treated, well fed, and a thousand times better off than before, after a time she becomes homesick.
“I’m pleased that you want to return home,” says Mother Holle, opening a door. As the girl passes through she is showered with gold coins that stick to her and is given back the reel of thread. When the door closes, she finds herself back home.
The old wife sends her other daughter to throw her reel of thread down the well and follow it. In the underworld, she does not help the bread or the tree when they speak to her. She works well for Mother Holle for only a day, then slacks off. Mother Holle dismisses the lazy girl, who returns covered in pitch after passing through the magic door. She wears the pitch for the rest of her life.
“Well,” says Duckworth, “I see why you like it.”
“Your reasoning?” I inquire.
“First, there is Mother Holle. I remember my great-grandmother saying, ‘Mother Holle is making her bed,’ every time it started to snow. I thought her addled, and she was, but now I realize that remark must have come from somewhere.
“Then there is the good sister/bad sister. I think I’ve heard before.”
“Certainly you have,” I say.
“And of course the world at the bottom of the well. That is right up your alley.”
I nod in agreement. “Overall, there is nothing really remarkable about the tale. The good sister/bad sister is a well-worn motif. The well is more common to these stories than the spinning wheel. Mother Holle is, I suspect, a watered-down deity. It’s all three crammed into one short story that entertains me.”
“Watered-down deity,” Duckworth chortles. “In this context that’s almost a pun,” and looks at me suspiciously.
“Oh dear, no. I didn’t mean it that way.”
We row on in silence.