Fairy Tale of the Month: Jan 2011 The Goose Girl – Part One

 Arthur Rackham

Growing Up

Good triumphs over evil. The fairy tales without this message are few. Many heroes and heroines achieve a new status because of their pure and simple, even excruciating, goodness. The Goose Girl falls into that category. What stands out in our tale is her fall from status because of her flaws, and those who try to aid her to become a whole person.

The Goose Girl, as a young princess, receives from her mother, the elderly queen, all the material aid that can be offered for the princess’ journey: a dowry (wealth), a serving maid (assistance), a horse (transportation), and most precious of all, a handkerchief with the three drops of blood – protection.

OK, the maid wasn’t of much assistance. Getting decent help remains a perennial problem. In our story she embodies evil.

The princess, in her state of immaturity, does not know how to deal with the usurping maid, who refuses to serve, then denies the princess the golden drinking cup. The princess, lowered to the state of an animal, drinks from the stream on all fours. When the princess, through carelessness, loses the handkerchief—her protection—she loses all of her possessions in a moment, including her clothing—her identity.  Given the apparent age of this tale we may be witnessing the original identity theft.

The elderly queen could give her daughter things, but not inner strength. This, the Goose Girl needed to develop herself, which she does under distress. With the last of her world wealth, a coin, she pays the hacker to hang the horse’s head in the dark gateway of the city. With this odd gesture the Goose Girl, for the first time in the tale, has acted, rather than been acted upon.

She is bullied by another usurper, Conrad the goose boy, who wants to steal her golden locks.  She draws upon her innate magical powers to raise a wind to carry off Conrad hat. This starts a series of events that restores the Goose Girl to her rightful status. It is the old king who recognizes her true nature after she has matured, and begun to assert herself.

Although the Goose Girl has to learn to grow up on her own, she has the aid, or at least the attempted aid, of her elders. Note the odd construction of this story. The elderly queen’s husband has died many years ago. That is an unnecessary detail, having nothing to do with the situation in progress. In the second half of the story we meet the old king. His son is not referred to as the prince, but rather as the young king. Two kings? Note also, there is no mention of a queen.

At one end of the story we have a widowed queen holding forth material possessions to her daughter, and an old king (no queen) providing spiritual recognition of who the Goose Girl has become at the other, with the heroine traveling between the two. The moon and the sun? Ying verse Yang? Might Siddhartha have traveled the same road?

Fairy Tale of the Month: Jan. 2011 The Goose Girl – Part Two

Severed Heads

The casual reader of fairy tales may be struck by their imaginative nature: enchanted sleeping women, a child playing with a golden ball (think about that for a moment, it’s not going to bounce), someone wearing glass slippers, and, of course, talking beasts. In theGoose Girl, her horse, Falada is no generic talking animal, rather he is a severed head who talks to her.

From where comes such a grotesque thought? Is the head there for shock value? Had some storyteller, in the forgotten past, gone a little too far with the imagination thing when it came to Falada?

Have you heard of the Mari Lywd? That horse’s skull annually paraded around on a stick in Wales? This old (as in pagan) New Year’s tradition involved a group of men and boys meandering from house to house in mummer’s fashion, one of their number being the Mari Lywd.  Covered in a white shroud, he held the stick with the skull attached above his head, usually with the jaw bone spring operated to bite people. A “sergeant” accompanied the Mari Lywd, along with other Punch and Judy like characters, and at each house they would sing a song, then address the occupants of the home in rhyme, not unlike Falada when he spoke to the Goose Girl.

Incidentally, the Mari Lywd and company, though begging for food and drink, were quick to insult those inside if the occupants did not bring forth the expected treats. In this scenario the occupants felt obliged to return the insults, also in rhyme. It was considered bad form for the Mari Lywd to break down the door, however…

Have you come across, “The Three Heads of the Well”? This is a tale I know from Joseph Jacobs’, “English Fairy Tales”. In this, a young princess is pushed out into the wide world by an evil step-mother queen, then through acts of kindness, she is given a wand and instructions to approach a magical well. Up from the well’s depths floats three golden heads, whom she takes from the water and grooms. The salient point for me is that the heads talk to the princess in rhyme.

Did you know that the ancient Celts had a propensity for heads? During battle they hung the heads of their enemies around their horse’s neck. Important heads would be preserved, sometimes decorated with gold.

Forgive me as I get carried away with these tenuous links that I have been boldly making, and point your attention to the similarity between “The Three Heads of the Well” and “The Princess and the Frog”. One has a golden ball falling into a well, and the other has three golden heads bobbing to the surface. Not the same thing… but… sort of… similar?

Returning to my severed heads theme, I will let you look into “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the legend of St. Denis yourself. Suffice it to say—more heads.

Had some storyteller, in the forgotten past, gone a little too far with the imagination thing when it came to Falada? I say no. The talking heads were ready and waiting to speak to us. Why make this stuff up?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: Jan. 2011 The Goose Girl – Part Three

 Arthur Rackham

Royalty and Magic

Implicit in The Goose Girl is the idea that royalty have magical powers. We usually think of magic as the province of witches and warlocks, but that royalty posses it as well gives fairy tale listeners no pause. Let me argue it should. In what other literature are kings, queens, princes and princesses given supernatural powers? None come to my mind.

The Goose Girl provides us with three drops of on a handkerchief that cry out, “If your mother only knew it would break her heart in two.” There is a talking horse, whom we don’t hear until its severed head hangs in the dark gateway of the city. It also recites, “If your mother only knew it would break her heart in two.” The princess/goose girl harries her companion, Conrad, by raising a wind to blow his hat away. Toward the end of the tale she uses the talismanic power of iron to protect her when she crawls into a stove to confess her woes. (Oddly similar to a catholic confessional, with the King listening at the stove pipe.) And all this without a witch in sight.

Why did fairy tale tellers and listeners of these tales grace royalty with these powers? It has to do with assumptions.

Consider the time of the Goose Girl’s origins. A variant can be traced back to the Carolingian myth (9th century) of Bertha, the betrothed wife of Pepin, who is supplanted by her waiting-maid. The assumption at that time, among the peasantry, who gave these fairy tales life, was that royalty were born superior. Not lucky to be born that way, but ordained, by God, to be that way. The distinction between god, religion, and magic among the illiterate peasantry could have used some refinement. Remember the services were conducted in Latin, and meant to awe, not instruct.

There is a vein of wishful thinking expressed in some fairy tales with the motif of the commoner who gets to marry a princess and become a king. Two examples: “The Queen Bee”, and “The White Snake”. In both tales the hero does not set out to achieve that goal, and does not succeed on his own merit. He becomes a king through the aid of magical (note magical) helpers who reward him for excruciating goodness.

That royalty are not super-human is (historically) a new thought for us. It is not until the “Age of Reason” that chinks appear in the royal amour. The French Revolution can be seen as the water shed between absolute monarchy and constitutional rule. Still, it would take most of the 19th century for the assumption to be that we are who we are because of our socio-economic condition, and not the condition of our birth. Previously, royalty were born to be above commoners, their rule ordained by God. Why shouldn’t they be able to raise a meager wind to blow away a commoner’s hat?

Your thoughts? 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  January 30, 2011

    Question
    How old is this story? It has an almost feminist vibe.

    Reply
    • Re: Question
      It is always hard to say with these tales. The Grimms say “A close examination of the Carlovingian myth of Bertha, the betrothed wife of Pepin, who is supplanted by her waiting-maid, and spins and weaves in the mill, would fully prove that our story, which in its chief incident manifestly corresponds with that myth, is much more ancient, more beautiful, and more simple.” That puts around the 12th century.
      Some of the elements in the story are just as old. The three drops of blood can be found in Arthurian tales. Falada is derived from the name of Roland horse in Chanson de Roland.

      Reply
  2. Monarchy and god-given magical powers
    You’re making me think of lessons my Sunday schools teachers taught, citing New Testament injunctions to be obedient to the people with civil authority over us. This was more than “rendering unto Caesar.” This was, “God put the people who are in authority over you. They are there because God knows best.” This was the 50’s and 60’s, not so long after HUAC, on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement and we were a very white, very politically conservative denomination. Your thoughts on the divine magic of kings took me straight to my Sunday school classrooms.

    Reply
  3. Re: monarchy and god-given magical powers
    It is suprising how current the old tales can be.

    Reply

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