Fairy Tales of the Month: July 2012 Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree – Part One

John D. Batten

Tale Type 709

It is a little cold of Aarne and Thompson to have assigned numbers to fairy tales. I suppose they did it in the spirit of Aristotle, to organize the chaos of those things that have evolved without rules. “Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree” stood in line and received its number, but I see the story as standing alone, having come down a very different and longer path than her fellow 709ers.

The tale starts with a king, his queen, and their beautiful daughter. We are immediately alerted there is something different about this story by the names of the queen and her daughter: Silver-Tree and Gold-Tree (or Craobh-airgid and Craobh-oir in the Gaelic).

“On a certain day of the day” the queen, Silver-Tree, and her daughter, Gold-Tree, visit a glen in which is a well, in which is a trout, who, like the mirror in Grimm’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” informs the queen that Gold-Tree is more fair than she. The queen, enraged, takes to her sickbed, telling the king she will not be cured until she eats the heart and liver of their daughter.

The king (nameless as unusual) proves to be a real guy and comes up with a simple plan he thinks his wife won’t figure out. He sends Gold-Tree off to marry the son of a distant king, and gives his wife the heart and liver of a goat.

I mentioned above that the women visited the trout’s glen “on a certain day of the days.” The queen’s visits to the trout are always a year apart. This does suggest something ceremonial. Combine that with the women’s names, which we might guess have symbolic meaning, and the specter of something half-forgotten shimmers on the path behind this story.

The trout, whom the queen addresses as “Troutie, bonny little fellow,” tells her Gold-Tree yet lives. The queen goes to her husband, the king, saying she wishes to visit Gold-Tree, not having seen her for a long time. (It’s only been a year.) The king, having no suspicions (like I said, a real guy), puts a longship in order for her, and the queen personally takes the helm.

When the queen arrives, the prince is out hunting, and the servants lock Gold-Tree up in her room for protection. However, Gold-Tree relents at the entreaties of her mother, and sticks her little finger out of the keyhole for her mother to kiss. It is, instead, met with a poison “stab,” some sort of splinter apparently.

The prince keeps the body of Gold-Tree locked in a room; given that her beauty does not fade, he cannot bring himself to bury her.

The story goes on to state, “In the course of time he married again … .” This is a little confusing. Within the context of this tale less than a year lapses before Silver-Tree’s next visit to the trout, only to find that Gold-Tree still lives, and she returns to Gold-Tree. The reason Gold-Tree still lives is that the prince’s second wife (unnamed) discovers her and removes the stab, bring Gold-Tree back to life.

When Silver-Tree returns, the prince (guess what) is out hunting. Gold-Tree, as before, is helpless in avoiding her mother, and it is the second wife who tricks Silver-Tree into swallowing her own poison.

In the end, the princes and both his wives live together “pleased and peaceful.”

Tale type 709, “Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree,” standing in line with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves?” Aarne and Thompson had their reasons, but I’ll take Gold-Tree’s hand anytime and go stand somewhere else.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2012 Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree – Part Two

John D.  Batten

Back to the Garden

I found myself sitting in Miss Cox’s garden again. I didn’t remember how I got there, but it is such a pleasant place. I heard the garden gate open and hoped for a moment Miss Cox would come to join me. Instead Alfred Nutt stood at the gate, gently closing it behind him. I recognized him from his photograph in the Folklore Society journal’s remembrance of him after his demise.

He walked straight up to my bench and looked down on me gravely. “I can hear your thoughts on this matter.”

“You mean on Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree?”

“I refer to your wild speculation on their having symbolic meaning.” He sat down beside me and continued. “Have you looked at the variants?”

“Yes. ‘Snow White’ of course, but also ‘The Young Slave,’ ‘Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers,’ and ‘The Crystal Casket.’ ”

Alfred sniffed. “I refer to ‘The Lai of Eliduc,’ ‘Ille et Galeron,’ and the birth of Aed Slane in ‘The Four Masters.’

“Oh.”

“In none of these, your list or mine, are there any names remotely similar to Gold-Tree or Silver-Tree. In the ‘Lai of Eliduc’, our hero, Eliduc, a worthy knight, is obliged to venture off to serve an English king, leaving his dearly beloved wife, Guildeluec, in Breton. Eliduc quickly rises in the ranks of his new lord, and is soon in the company of the king’s daughter, Guilliadun.

“Their attraction to each other is unavoidable and fatal. It culminates with Eliduc abducting Guilliadun and attempting to sail back to Breton. A violent storm impedes their passage. Eliduc’s squire declares this to be God’s wrath for Eliduc’s infidelity. Upon hearing this, Guilliadun falls into a deathlike swoon from which she does not arise. Elliduc partly solves his problem by throwing the squire overboard and steering the boat to safety.

“He places Guilliadun’s lifeless, yet still beautiful, body in a chapel, where he visits her daily. Guildeluec, noting her husband’s daily absence and great sadness, discovers the chapel and with the aid of magic restores Guilliadun to life, being more concerned with Eliduc’s happiness than her own. She takes the veil and, in time, Guilliadun and Eliduc follow her in the service of God.”

Alfred paused a moment to collect his thoughts.

“The heroines in ‘Ille et Galeron’, they being Galeron and Ganor, both love Ille,” he continued, “but Galeron steps aside for Ganor and Ille’s happiness. Concerning the birth of Aed Slane, the wives of King Diarmaid, Mairend and Mugain, are not so cooperative.”

I stopped Alfred there. “Guildeluec/Guilliadun, Galeron/Ganor, Mairend/Mugain, Gold-Tree/Silver-Tree…”

“No, no … ” Alfred threw his hands in the air. “You are making suppositions!”

“But I see a pattern. There is a similarity in the names within each pair.”

“That is not enough.” I could see in Alfred’s eyes his struggle with patience.

“If,” he began again, “if you are looking for Gold-Tree/Silver-Tree connections you would do better to search Scandinavian tales. There is one called ‘The Castle by the Silver Wood,’ in which there are trees of both gold and silver color. Evald Tang Kristensen collected a story called ‘Twelve Black Men and Twelve Pairs of Shoes,’ in which appear a grove of silver trees and a grove of gold trees. You will recognize from the title alone its link to ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses,’ but that was of French origin and they threw in a grove of diamonds. The French would, you know.”

Alfred rose abruptly and scowled down at me. “As a folklorist and a celtologist, let me give you a piece of advice.”

“Yes?”

“Keep your thoughts to yourself.” Alfred Nutt turned and let himself out at the gate.

Really, I thought him rather rude.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2012 Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree – Part Three

Polygamy—really?

After my conversation with Mr. Nutt, I felt embarrassed into doing more research. I found an article by him in The Folk-lore, vol 3, 1892. “Lai of Eliduc and the Märchen of Little Snow-White.

Deep into the article he states, “With regard to the evidence for polygamy among the early Gaels I will cite but one instance … .” That got my attention. He went on to write about the birth of Aed Slane as told in the “Four Masters,” a medieval collection of Irish Annals.

King Diarmaid came to a great gathering of the Gaels, bringing with him his wives Mairend the Bald and Mugain of Munster. Mugain, being jealous of Mairend, contrives a plan to—in public—knock off Mairend’s crown, which she used to hide her baldness. As the crown leaves her head, Mairend cries out, “God and St. Ciaran be my help!” In the next moment she is possessed of long, wavy, golden locks of hair.

Turning on her rival, she curses Mugain, who becomes barren. Mugain now fears Diarmaid will put her aside because she is barren, while—here is the kicker—all of his other wives—note the plural—are fruitful. Desperate, she prays to St. Finden.

Her return to childbearing is a little rough. She first gives birth to a lamb, then a silver trout (There is Troutie again.), and finally Aed Slane, who becomes high king of Ireland.

We must keep in mind Ireland had its own brand of Christianity long before St. Patrick arrived to start bringing them in line with Roman Catholicism, and it would be centuries before the process was complete. Nonetheless, having polygamous relationships and entreaties to the saints coexisting within the same narrative feels a bit exotic.

Alfred Nutt felt that the “Lai of Eliduc” and “Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree” drew from a common source. The Lai, written down and probably Christianized by Marie de France in the 12th century, was a medieval romance. Apparently, she, or perhaps her source, solved the polygamy problem by having the first wife decide to become a nun. In fact, Eliduc founds an abbey for her. Layering it on, the tale has Eliduc, later in life, also found a church, and dedicate himself to God, while Guilliadun joins Guildeleuc in the abbey, the three of them exhorting each other to the love of God.

What I found of particular interest is the survival of the polygamy part of the Gold-Tree/Silver-Tree tale. With the writing down of the Eliduc story by Marie de France, a Christian sentiment has crept into a much older story. Nutt claims, from the internal evidence, the story must date at least to 1056 AD, and probably is much older. As is natural, the Lai has taken on the values of the time and place in which it exists. This is how stories change and evolve.

“Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree” on the other hand, was collected not back in the 12th century, but around 1888 by Kenneth Macleod, the polygamy element very much intact.

What happened to stories adapting to their new environment? What happened to stories passing along the values of that society? Is this throwback a racial memory of a practice now gone by a thousand years?

I am sure Alfred will think I make too much of this, but I will state nonetheless, “How curious.”

Your thoughts?

PS. My thanks to Stephen Badman for pointing out the gold tree/silver tree motifs in the Danish tales.

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7 Comments

  1. Yvonne Healy Jul 29, 2012
    Thanks for bringing me a new story to enjoy. Somehow giving birth to a trout feels fine to me. Birthing a lamb… not so much.

    cjkiernan Aug 3, 2012
    Glad to hear I have introduced a story. Nancy Donoval has recorded a version of this on her “The Dancing Rat of Paris.”

    Reply
  2. Erlese Jul 29, 2012
    this is an awesome post, i appreciated it.

    lista de emailAug 8, 2012
    The information you provided was very useful because of your help. thank you.

    cjkiernanAug 12, 2012
    I am glad you found it helpful.
    Charles K.

    lista de emails Aug 9, 2012
    I like your site thanks!

    Cjkiernan Aug 12, 2012
    Your very welcome.
    Charles K.

    Reply
  3. Charles, I think Aarne and Thompson take on an impossible task putting folktales into categories, but, IMHO, they didn’t miss the mark too much by classifying this tale as a Snow White variant. I wonder if “Gold Tree” and “Silver Tree” could be read to allude to “golden hair” and “silver hair”? If so, it is the age old tale of youth envy? If so, it is that trait which starts the ball rolling in both this tale and Snow White, as well as my favorite variant, “The Dead Princess” or “The Princess and the Seven Boyers.” That Russian folktale began life as a poetic retelling of “Snow White” by Alexander Pushkin but has drifted into oral prose narrative.
    This was a new tale to me. Thanks for your excellent examinations of it!–Mary Grace

    Reply
  4. Well, I should have reread and edited! My misplaced question mark and repeated “if so’s” are confusing. I was thinking of us grey-headed women who long for the rich, soft, colorful hair (and wrinkle-free skin) (and physical agility) (and slenderness) (and…) of youth. There comes a point of no return when we realize we will never maintain or reclaim the physical freshness we once had, so all that is left to us is the manage the longing for what is lost, the jealousy we feel of others who are just arriving at the point of having that beauty. Wouldn’t a perfect solution be if oneself, with one’s hard-won wisdom, could also have the beauty which was lost in the gaining of it? But that’s not an alternative. The hope is that we don’t turn to schadenfreude, someone else’s gain must be my loss.–mg

    Reply
  5. I don’t mean to belittle Aarne and Thompson’s accomplishment. The index is, of course, very useful, and does give order to chaos.

    I had always thought of the evil mother/queen’s anger as stemming from vanity. Your comment about aging I had not considered. A point to keep in mind.

    Reply
  6. EssGee

     /  June 6, 2017

    This is probably my new favorite fairy tale, though I’m admittedly very biased. That the second wife was never jealous or spiteful but always purely happy for them, and willing to step aside but also happy to stay when asked, pleases my polyamorous heart so much. That they asked her to stay, and that she and Goldtree seem to have developed a strong sense of loyalty to one another as well, and that she’s ultimately the one to save Goldtree for good, all just add up to such a wonderfully refreshing tale that’s all the more lovely for knowing it’s a good thousand years old.

    Reply
    • It certainly has ancient marks on it. It also did not bow down to the “evil step-mother” convention, pretty much (although not entirely) introduced by Wilhelm Grimm to avoid the depiction of mothers killing their children.

      Reply

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