Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Frog Princess

 So today we're going to talk about "The Frog Princess." This is a completely different story from "The Frog Prince"; literally all they have in common is an enchanted frog. The Frog Princess is found in a lot of different cultures, but I first encountered it as a Russian fairy tale, so that's the version we're going with today. Also, like. I just finished my post about "King Thrushbeard", and I feel like I've learned my lesson about the disappointments of actually rereading fairy tales instead of just going off my memory.  Today we are going to tell fairy tales the way they were meant to be told, the way they were told in the days of oral tradition: however the teller happens to remember them. (So don't anybody be coming in here and telling me I'm wrong, don't tell me I botched the details, don't tell me I just left out the entire second half; dude, I know. That's the point.)

We open with a scene sort of like the end of Robin Hood, where he shoots an arrow from his deathbed and tells the Merry Men to bury him wherever it lands? The king has his three sons shoot arrows, and they're supposed to find their brides wherever the arrow lands.

Now, how could that possibly go wrong?

Miraculously, no one is killed in this fun little bride search, and two of the three arrows actually happen to land somewhere in the general vicinity of an unmarried young woman.

Unfortunately for our third prince, the only living thing anywhere near where his arrow lands is a frog. So he goes home and explains the situation to his dad, probably hoping for a reasonable response, like, "Oh, that sucks, try again," or maybe even, "You know what? Bridal acquisition via a literal shot in the dark was a stupid and dangerous idea. Forget it. Go meet a nice girl the normal way."

But our king is not a reasonable man, so what he tells the prince is "Well, I guess you're marrying a frog."

And then he says that whichever son has the most impressive wife gets to be the next king. Like, dude. Just come right out and say you hate prince number three.

First task to impress the king: make him a shirt.

The first two girls work hard to sew nice shirts. And prince number three, he goes home and tells the frog what's up, but he's not really expecting anything, because she's, you know, a frog. In the morning he has to go and not present his dad with a shirt, and before he leaves the frog gives him an acorn, and she's all like, "Look, I made you a shirt," and he just sort of says "Thanks, honey," and pats her slimy little head, because, I mean, what are you gonna do? She's a frog. They don't even wear shirts. Why should she know the difference between a shirt and an acorn?

"You have to open it," she says as he leaves.

"Sure, honey," he says, humoring her.

So he gets home. His dad looks over the other two shirts, makes his judgement, and then it's our dude's turn. He takes the little acorn cap off, and--there's fabric in there? Okay, weird. He pulls it out and it's a beautiful shirt made of the finest linen. Round one goes to our now very baffled third prince. Round two: bake some bread.

Now our prince isn't super quick on the uptake here. I'd think that the combination of talking frog and beautiful human-sized shirt folded into an acorn without even wrinkling would naturally lead to the conclusion that something magical is going on. But instead, he decides that the shirt must have been a fluke and, woe is him, there's no way his frog wife is ever gonna produce a loaf of bread. Frogs don't even eat bread. And how will she operate an oven?

The prince's new sisters-in-law are a little smarter, and have worked out the magic angle by now, so they go to spy on the frog. They watch her just sort of pour the dough into the oven through a hole on top, and go home to do the same thing. But, like, they don't have magic. So that backfires.

Frog presents prince with a second acorn. He pats her slimy little head and says "Thanks, honey," because he's sure she did her best. You can't fit a lot of bread in an acorn; bread isn't nearly as foldable as linen. But it's the thought that counts. And if he had to marry a frog, well, out of all the frogs in the world, he figures he's pretty lucky to have wound up with this one.

The first two princes show the king their very, very sad loaves of bread, and our prince is thinking, okay, maybe I have a shot. My loaf of bread might be incredibly tiny, but the shirt was good, and this other bread is pretty crappy. So he takes the cap off the acorn, and a beautiful, full-sized loaf of bread. They cut it up, and it tastes great. Round two goes to our prince. Third round: impress the king at a banquet.

Now our prince is thinking there's really no way his wife is going to perform well at a fancy party, because, again, she is literally a frog. She tells him to go ahead to the banquet, and she'll catch up later. He goes, thinking he's probably going to be stood up, because how is a frog going to get herself across town?

His brothers tease him about his frog wife and how she stood him up, and he just sits there and takes it because he knows his frog wife does her best, and at least she produced an edible loaf of bread. There's a commotion outside; a frog is riding up the driveway in a cardboard box pulled by mice. Which is, okay, all kinds of embarrassing. But the prince loves his frog wife, he's sure she's doing her best. And as she reaches the palace, she transforms into a beautiful woman. At which point the king declares our boy the winner of this bizarre little contest and the heir to the throne, and he and his frog wife, now de-frogged, live happily ever after.

-

Okay, fine, I can't just not read the original story. So just to let you know where I got it wrong: can't find evidence of that acorn detail, don't know where I got it. Possibly from a German variant called "Puddocky," in which the second task is to find a dog that can fit inside a walnut shell. And the entire last scene with the frog arriving is from the German version, not the Russian one, as well. Having jest reread them both, I can see the story that exists in my memory is a very jumbled combination of the two. 

Also, like, the frog doesn't do anything for herself in the Russian version? She has attendants the prince can't see who sew the shirt and bake the bread and everything, which is totally lame, and also cheating; the king said he'd leave the kingdom to the prince whose wife did the best job, not the one whose wife had the best servants. And there is a second half, in the Russian version, though the German version ends with the banquet. After that scene, in the Russian version, when the prince realizes his wife doesn't have to be a frog, he burns the skin, which in his defense, seems like the thing to do, based on folkloric precedence. But it doesn't pan out this time. Ends up being a more "East of the Sun West of the Moon" style screw-up, and he has to go on a quest to get her back. Which is actually kind of fun; you don't see a lot of gender reversal on the "I screwed up my SO's transformation spell and now I gotta fix it" quest. Anyway, he does that thing where he spares the lives of a bunch of animals and in return they help him out later. (I think the only time I've talked about that before is in "The Sea Hare".) Baba Yaga tells him our frog girl is now with Kaschey the Deathless, and how to kill him; it's one of those "you have to stab him in his heart, but instead of being in his body it's in an egg in a chest in a tower underwater or whatever" situations, like in "The Troll With No Heart In His Body". The animals help out with that, and then we live happily ever after, for real this time.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

King Thrushbeard

King Thrushbeard has always been one of my favorite fairy tales. Top five, easily. (The top five, in no particular order: King Thrushbeard, Prince Lindworm, Donkey Cabbages, East of the Sun West of the Moon, and Beauty and the Beast.) This is partly because (spoiler) I'm a total sucker for secret identities (I blame this on early exposure to Robin Hood and The Princess Bride), and I think partly because of a blog post I read years and years and years ago, which analyzed King Thrushbeard as a Christian allegory. It was a really fascinating post, and I wish I could link it for you, but I first encountered it over a decade ago, and I wouldn't know where to even begin looking for it now.

So recently I reread King Thrushbeard for the first time in at least five years. Which. Kind of a mistake. Some things are just better in memory. (Which is why I no longer read favorite books from my childhood. Some things you just can't bear to have ruined by, like, good taste.) 

Anyway. Let's get into it.

Our story starts with a princess who doesn't want to get married, which. Fair. But we're in a setting, where,  like, you kinda gotta anyway. Princesses in this culture are not doing a lot of marrying for love, even in fairy tales. And our girl, she's being pretty much as difficult as possible about it. Her father keeps on bringing in suitors, and she keeps on rejecting them in the rudest ways possible. Mostly stuff about their physical appearances. "I can't marry this guy; he's so fat he looks like a wine barrel." "He's so red he looks like a rooster." "His chin is so crooked it looks like a thrush's beak." Etc., etc. Except that the thrush beak one - I'm glancing through the pitt.edu version as I write this post and that's what it says, but in other translations I know they've said his beard looks like a thrush's nest, which makes much more sense to me because facial hair is much more easily changed than chin shape.

Now, okay, I get that marrying a total stranger to strengthen your father's political alliances isn't fun. But insulting powerful men as you reject them is just not the best idea, hon. You're gonna cause problems there. People are gonna blame your dad for your rudeness and not want to be in treaties with him anymore. Which you should know.

So. Dad gets fed up with this whole thing after princess rejects the latest batch of suitors, and swears to marry her to the next beggar that comes to the door. Minstrel beggar comes by shortly afterwards, and beggar and princess are married despite strenuous objections by both. King kicks princess out, because it's "not proper for a beggar's wife to live in the palace."

Princess and beggar walk a ways. They pass through a number of beautiful places owned by King Thrushbeard (which is what we're calling chin/beard dude now), and princess bemoans her foolishness in refusing to marry him. Out loud, which her new husband points out is pretty rude, as she's married to him now. 

Eventually they reach the tiny hut where they're going to live. Princess is shocked and horrified by lack of servants. Beggar immediately sets her to cooking and housework, neither of which she has any idea how to do. And then he decides she needs to get a job.

(Once he gets married we never see him beg again, or do any other kind of work; he just expects his brand new wife with no marketable skills to provide for him and contributes absolutely nothing to the relationship. Fantastic. Real stand-up guy.)

Princess is set to weaving baskets, but the materials cut her delicate princess hands. She's set to spinning thread, but those materials also cut her delicate princess hands, and, like, what? Exactly how delicate do your hands have to be to be cut by thread? Apparently we just have a full-on Princess and the Pea situation here. Okay.

Beggar sets her to selling pottery in the marketplace. That goes really well; people buy her pots because she's pretty and sad and they feel sorry for her. This is apparently pottery that the beggar bought from someone else, making the princess sort of the middleman here. Which is where the trouble comes in; some drunk dude on a horse comes through the market and smashes all her pots. Which she and the beggar then have to pay for.

And of course, according to the beggar, this is all her fault, because of the part of the market she chose to work in? If she'd set up somewhere else the pots wouldn't have been trampled. And, like, I'm not liking the beggar. Not an appealing character. Kind of a jerk.

He gets the princess a job as a kitchen maid at King Thrushbeard's palace. She starts smuggling food home in her pockets, which will become relevant in a minute here, because she and her husband are very poor, and food is hard to come by.

All goes well until the king's wedding day. She's got her pockets full of food, and the king - King Thrushbeard, who she so rudely rejected - demands that she, a random kitchen maid, dance with him. While they're dancing, all her pockets burst, spilling the stolen food, and she's in filthy rags in a ballroom in front of a suitor she rejected, so she makes the only logical choice and runs right out of there.

The king follows her. He says, "Surprise! I'm your beggar husband and somehow you didn't recognize me just now? I orchestrated this whole big thing - the marriage, the broken pots, that fun little wardrobe malfunction you just had - to teach you a lesson. And now that you've learned it we can live happily ever after!"

To which the princess replies, "I suck and I'm not worthy to be your wife," which. Just. Oh, honey, no. You were really rude to him once, so he made the next several months of your life a living hell. You are not the unworthy one. Why do you think you're unworthy? Is this Stockholm Syndrome? Do you have Stockholm Syndrome? Is that even how Stockholm Syndrome works? Probably not, but I am Concerned.

(One of these days I'd like to make it through a whole fairy tale summary without being Concerned. Hasn't happened yet.)

So. The wedding that's happening is her surprise wedding, she changes clothes quick before the ceremony, and they live happily ever after. Good times. Our beggar/Thrushbeard was a lot more likeable in my memory before this reread.


(This post was available early on my Patreon.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Beauty and the Beast: Dream Prince

I’m going to take some time today to talk about one of my (many) favorite aspects of the original Beauty and the Beast, which I’ve somehow managed to go all these years without covering.

The Superman love triangle.

Is there some sort of official name for this phenomenon that I haven’t bothered to look up? Probably.

But you know what I’m talking about. Lois likes Clark, but she’s really hung up on Superman. So this poor guy is in competition with himself for her affections.

In “The Beauty and the Beast,” the beauty is living with a beast who proposes to her every night, and every night she says no. But she’s growing increasingly fond of him, and one of the main things preventing her from saying yes is her Dream Guy.

Now. A brief explanation of the beast’s situation here. Part of his curse is that he seems as dumb as the beast he looks like. So he’s sort of trapped inside his own head, and it’s not possible for the beauty to really get to know him.

But he’s visiting her in her dreams, as a prince - as his real self. And she’s fallen in love with the dream prince, who she hasn’t connected with the beast.

So she’s refusing to marry him because she’s in love with the person he’ll become as soon as she says yes.

Basically, it’s a mess.

And ultimately she does agree to marry the beast, when it seems he’ll die if she doesn’t. At which point we have two options.

She agreed to marry him because she does care for him deeply, even if she’s not in love with him, and has decided that she’d rather keep him alive than keep waiting on a man who might be only a figment of her imagination. In which case everything is gonna be great when he changes; she saved the beast she’s fond of, and now gets to marry the man she loves.

The beast’s near death has made her realize that it’s him she truly loves, not a man who may only be a figment of her imagination. And as soon as she realizes she loves the beast more than the man, the beast ceases to exist forever and is replaced by the man. Which is a major bummer, and much awkwardness is bound to ensue.

It’s a worse situation than Superman’s; once he comes clean to Lois, it’s all good, because Clark and Superman are the same person in different clothes. But while the beast may be fundamentally the same person he always was, the terms of his curse prevent him from acting like himself while he’s a beast. Which means that the two people the beauty is torn between are, in a way, simultaneously the same person and two different people.

And it’s just - honestly I’m not sure I see this working out well. If you’ve fallen for this big, kinda ugly guy who’s a little slow, a little dumb, are you going to be happy with a whip-smart hottie? And if the girl you like was always nice to you when you were slow and ugly, but is suddenly all over you when the spell breaks, if she agreed to marry you, but is clearly delighted when this causes you to become a radically different person from the one she agreed to marry, how are you going to feel about that?

Overall, it’s this “seem like a beast” clause that continues to be problematic. Because if you love someone, it shouldn’t really matter what he looks like, right? But if the spell changes how you act, that’s...it’s just difficult. That fairy who cursed him knew what she was doing; he is thoroughly screwed over.

 

 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Write What You Know

I frequently write what I know. I write about fairy tales, which I’ve been studying since I was a child. I write about high school and college, which I attended. I write about church, about characters with mental illness, about camping and cats and families that love each other. And I write about things I don’t know—princesses and romantic relationships and living in tiny cottages without modern amenities. But there are some things that I don’t write specifically *because* I know them. Some things, I’m just too close to.

I’ve never written a character that’s specifically bipolar. I’ve never written a character that deals with the specific romantic issues and experiences I’ve dealt with. I can’t.

Often, authors will say “I want to read a book like this,” and the responses they get are usually along the lines of “Well, write it, then.”

The books I want most, the characters I could relate to in the most meaningful ways—I can’t write those. It would be too difficult, too painful, and even too dangerous.

At this point, you may be wondering, how can writing something be dangerous?

When you are mentally ill, at least, writing something very personal can be extremely risky.

When I was 21, I wrote a novel featuring a protagonist who dealt with a lot of the same mental health issues I had dealt with, by that point in my life. I wrote this during the year I spent in one of the lowest spots I’ve ever been in. Now, there’s a discussion to be had there about correlation and causation. Writing this story didn’t necessarily trigger a breakdown—it’s entirely possible that already being in a bad spot is what inspired me to write about a character in similar circumstances.

But I am absolutely certain that writing that story worsened my mental health in that year. Because this was what I was writing about, writing ceased to be an escape—I went to hide from my real life, and found myself deep in the headspace of a fictional character who was even worse off than me. I always get very entangled with my protagonists when I’m writing, especially if I’m writing in first person, as I was at the time.

My protagonist started the book with an eating disorder. I ended the book with an eating disorder. And, to be clear, I’m not accusing a figment of my imagination, or the process of writing about her, of making me anorexic. But I’d been dancing around the edges of disordered eating for at least five years at that point. I’d known that I was the kind of person who was at risk for developing one. And I do believe that sharing headspace with an anorexic character is a large part of what finally pushed me over the edge. I do still write about mentally ill characters, but I never let their problems come quite that close to me. They’re on good meds when I start writing them. They have problems similar to mine, but not quite the same. I certainly will never again write a self-harm scene pulled directly, exactly, from my own experience.

That was….that was bad.

A very real danger of being a writer with OCD is that you become obsessed, very easily, with whatever you’re writing. My stories consume me. And when I was already in a bad place, continuing to work on that story made everything worse.

I’m still really proud of that book, but none of you are ever going to read it, because I’m scared that thorough revisions would pull me back into that bad place.

I want to read stories about characters who deal with the same really serious, intense stuff I deal with. Reading those stories gives me a few hours of relief, which is the exact opposite of what writing them does. I need to see myself in fiction—I think we all do. But there are parts of myself that I, myself, can’t put into fiction.

I spend a lot of time writing what I know, but I can’t write what I know best.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

How To Buy My Books

So occasionally someone will ask me where to buy my books from/what format to buy so that I will profit the most from the sale. Which is such a sweet thing to ask! But the answer is sort of complicated. And I thought I’d just take some time today to go over why. 

The way I make the most money per book is definitely from sales of an ebook directly from waxheartpress.com. I actually make 100% profit on those books - every cent of the sale price comes directly to me.

I’m not actually sure how it breaks down from there, because frankly deals with retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble kind of confuse me. But I’d guess that next best is buying a hard copy of the book from Wax Heart Press.

The thing is, that’s only about money. And it’s not all about money. Because if you buy a hard copy, maybe someday when you don’t want it anymore it’ll wind up in a thrift store, and go home with someone who otherwise would never have heard of me. And there is just something sort of thrilling about seeing your very own book sitting on someone’s shelf, which you don’t really get from seeing it on their Kindle.

So that’s the two ways you can buy my books directly from Wax Heart; let’s talk about buying them from retailers like Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

I probably make slightly less money on a retailer-purchased physical book; I definitely make a fair amount less on a retailer-purchased ebook. But again, it’s not all about the money.

If enough people order my ebook from Amazon (especially if they leave positive reviews), Amazon will start recommending my book to people who’ve purchased something similar.

If enough people go into Barnes and Noble  (especially if it’s the same Barnes and Noble, or a few pretty close to each other) and ask the story to order in a copy of my book for them to buy, the store might start ordering a few copies to keep on shelves in case more people want it. And that means that a bunch of people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard of me will see it.

Different ways of buying my book are going to benefit me in different ways. But they’re all going to benefit me. And ultimately I’m just really happy that you want to read my book at all, however you buy it! (Just, you know, do buy it; don’t download it illegally or anything.)

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Lindworm: Chapter 1

(This is a little over half of the first chapter I had planned to share the whole thing, but then I realized it was 7,000 words. You can buy and read the rest of Lindworm here!) 

“Thank you so much for thinking of me,” Marit said, “but really I would rather not marry a monster.”

Marit would not have thought herself the sort of person to talk back to kings, had she ever had cause to contemplate such matters. But then she never would have thought the king the sort of person to sacrifice a girl to a lindworm, and yet here she was, the third victim.

She was only seventeen, and this wedding was a death sentence.

Six months ago, Prince Harald had set out to find a bride, and had been stopped by a great serpent in the road. Since then, the serpent—the lindworm—had eaten two foreign princesses, both after a sham of a wedding. Both women had thought they were coming to marry Prince Harald.

Here, in the forest outside the capital city, rumors had flown. Rumors that they would shortly be at war with both kingdoms that had lost a princess, and rumors, more interesting to their small family with no members likely to be sent to the battlefield, of the lindworm, of why a man-eating dragon would be welcomed to the palace and fed. Rumors that said the lindworm was Prince Harald’s brother, that the king humored it instead of killing it because the monster was family.

Marit didn’t know how much truth there might be to such rumors. She didn’t know how a queen could bear and birth a serpent, but she did know the world was full of strange, incomprehensible things.

The king stared at her, his men standing stiffly by. It had not, of course, been thoughtfulness that led him to her cottage in the woods. Marit knew this, and knew that the marriage was not optional, and that one could not speak to a king in this manner and expect to keep one’s head. But when one has already been sentenced to death, such things as respect for royalty matter very little.

“It is not an offer,” the king informed her when he found his voice. “It is a command, and you may choose to obey or not, but willing or unwilling, you will find yourself before a priest in my great hall one week from now.”

One week, she thought. One week to live the rest of her life. She could run—could she run?

No, if the king was leaving her a few days to say her goodbyes, it was only because he knew she could not run. There would be guards posted. She would be caught and brought back. She would still end the week dead, and likely her father and sister, too, if the king suspected they had helped her. As they certainly would.

Her family—they were away from the house now, deeper into the woods, scavenging. There was little left to eat, their winter stores almost empty by March, and the ground still too frozen to begin the year’s planting. She had stayed behind to tend to the animals, too likely to slow them down after twisting her ankle yesterday, falling from a tree; it had barely hurt, and would be healed by tomorrow. The king would be long gone before they returned, and it would fall to her to explain her upcoming death.

“There will be a bride price, of course,” said the king.

Marit wasn’t quite sure what a bride price was, thought it may be like a dowry—she’d sewn items, slowly, over the last several years for her dowry, but doubted the lindworm would demand her linens as well as her life.

The king went on to explain the bride price, the amount of money her father would be given for this farce of a marriage—the opposite of a dowry, then, and a staggering amount.

It had been a long, brutal winter following a short, dry summer, and for that price Marit may have volunteered herself. Any number of young women may have; it was enough to save not only their own small farm, but those of a few near neighbors. Enough to buy a second goat, a few more chickens, enough to pay all of their debts in the city and have their broken tools repaired.

For such a sum, she would have volunteered. She would have gladly given her life to so dramatically improve the lives of her father and younger sister.

But the king had not asked. The king had demanded, and Marit knew she would resent him for however many days she had left to do so.

He left her, as she’d expected, with guards posted nearby, and she led the animals back to their shed and let herself back into the cottage, not wanting to look at them, their clean uniforms with shiny brass buttons, their polished boots slowly gathering mud, their faces as they avoided her eyes, because they knew, must know, that this was wrong, and yet they were loyal to their king, and would not let her run.

~

Marit watched through the back window, working idly on her knitting, unable to stay focused on the difficult stitch she’d meant to master this week, until she saw her sister and her father coming out from the woods. She ran to meet them, and hurried them inside before they could ask about the soldiers scattered about. And then she told them.

“Why you?” Greta cried. “Why you?”

She hadn’t asked how he’d chosen her, out of all the unwed maids within walking distance of the palace. She didn’t think she wanted to know why it was her that must die, and not Annette, who had no father to protect her, or Martine, who was more beautiful, or Signe or Gretchen or any of the other girls she knew.

She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to be the kind of person who wished death on her friends, either.

Besides, the lindworm had already eaten two women, and there was no reason to expect he might stop at a third. They may all be dead before this ended, Gretchen and Signe and Annette and Martine, and the younger girls, Greta and her friends, all the forest, all the city, someday all the kingdom sacrificed to satisfy the appetite of a monster that should have been killed the moment it showed itself to Prince Harald.

She could only hope that the fathers of the dead princesses would declare war, that they would kill her king and his lindworm with him before the whole country was devoured.

King Olaf had always been known as a kind and noble king. He’d lowered taxes and held festivals and been much loved, before these last six months, and Marit didn’t understand. She didn’t understand how a good king could become a bad one overnight because of one monster.

Maybe it was his son. Marit would throw the whole world over for Greta, she knew, but she’d been at Greta’s side since she’d emerged from their mother’s stomach, been the first to hold the new baby, tiny and wrinkled and red, getting blood all over her vest, as their father had said his goodbyes to Mama, only turning his attention to Marit and the new baby when his wife was gone.

For Greta, for her father, for Mama if she’d lived, Marit would do anything. But if a boar walked out of the woods and claimed to be her long lost brother, she wouldn’t take him at his word, wouldn’t escort him into the city to trample the blacksmith just because he asked her.

She didn’t think the king could hide a paternal relationship with a lindworm for several years. They must have met only when he stopped the prince on the road. And Marit didn’t understand.

She gathered Greta in her arms and listened to the younger girl cry, unable to shed any tears for herself, unsure why. She looked over Greta’s head at her father, and saw the same desperate sadness in his eyes that she had seen when she was five years old, and her mother was dying in childbirth. Her father loved her, but he could do nothing to save her, and they all knew it. He could not defy the king; to try would only make him angry, would likely risk Greta’s life too.

He came and wrapped himself around them both, and Marit thought, but was not quite sure, that he wept too. She sat, dry-eyed, between them, for long hours, until it was time for dinner and bed.

They watched out the window as a new group of soldiers marched in, and the first group left. At least they weren’t expected to feed and board their prison guards.

In the morning they found that the soldiers would let Marit go where she pleased, but one or two would always follow, from a respectful distance. No one followed her sister or father, so they went in three different directions, to the neighbors and to the city, Marit to make her farewells, and all of them to give warning. The king is feeding maidens to his lindworm. Marit is the first; she will not likely be the last. Send your daughters quietly to family in other cities, if you can. Marry them quickly to boys in the village, if you can. We do not know why the lindworm wants weddings, but he does, so make your daughters unweddable.

Gretchen, when Marit told her, said it probably had to do with a dragon’s fondness for virgins. She then said that if the king came to her, she would rid herself of virginity with the first man she could find before she would go to the lindworm, with the whole town to watch as proof, if necessary.

Gretchen’s older brother, the only other person there save the guards, too far away to overhear, made a sound of disapproval in the back of his throat, but said nothing.

Marit wondered if it was too late to try Gretchen’s plan for herself, and concluded it probably was—if the lindworm demanded a virgin, then the soldiers would not let her cease to be one. The small chance of success wasn’t worth giving herself to a man she didn’t want and wouldn’t be allowed to keep. And the kind of man who might cooperate with such a plan would likely not make it a happy experience to cherish in her final days. She reminded Gretchen of the soldiers before moving on to the next neighbors.

~

Marit spend her days wandering, mostly. There was work to be done, and she helped, or tried to—her father said not to trouble herself with anything in these last few days, and when she insisted, she often found herself too distracted to finish, or at least to finish well, haunted constantly by imaginings of what the lindworm might be like, how it might feel to be eaten. She remembered breaking a finger in a slamming door as a child, the sharp crack of it, the pain. She imagined the pain and the cracking both amplified as an enormous snake swallowed her whole, as snakes will do, and then, bizarrely, imagined cowering on a banquet table as the lindworm sliced her to pieces with a knife held in its tail, popping each slice into its mouth one at a time, sometimes dipping a slice in a butter-sauce first.

She still had not cried, though she had found herself several times laughing hysterically at humorless jokes she couldn’t explain. Greta didn’t need to know about the butter sauce.

When there were two days left before the wedding, she went out intending to collect eggs from the chickens, and her feet carried her, instead, deeper into the woods.

The guards followed at a distance.

Marit stopped when she saw an old woman ahead. She was short, with white hair spilling from her cap, bright and cheerful in a blue skirt and red vest, and she smiled like an old friend at Marit, and asked why she was so sad.

Marit wasn’t a fool. She knew how it was with mysterious old women in forests, knew they were to be respected. Knew how often they carried magic within themselves. Knew that to cross them was idiocy, and that to be kind and respectful could change the course of one’s life.

So Marit told the woman her troubles, and the woman smiled again. “It will be all right,” she said. “If you obey me, it will be all right. Now, here is what you must do.”

Marit wasn’t foolish enough to think she might live through this, but she wasn’t foolish enough to ignore the gift of a wise woman in the wood, either, even when that gift was the strangest advice she’d ever been given. Wear ten shifts beneath your dress, have milk and lye and whips waiting in your bedchamber.

She was already going to die; what did it matter if the king’s servants thought her a madwoman?

Ten shifts, though, would not be an easy thing to manage. Marit had two shifts, and two night shifts, which were wool instead of linen, with sleeves too wide to be hidden beneath her dress. She would have to rip them off. Greta owned the same, not much smaller as she was tall for her age, but Marit could not deprive her sister of all her undergarments, so only took one day shift and one night shift from her. That brought her to six, and four more yet to find. She couldn’t buy them; the king’s money wouldn’t come to her father until the day after the wedding. She had her dowry linens, unneeded now, and could use the fabric to make more shifts. But she had two days left to live, and wasn’t willing to spend her last precious moments sewing. With Greta’s help she converted one white bedsheet into a shift, but would sacrifice no more time when she had so many goodbyes to say—to friends, to livestock, to trees and streams and every future she had ever imagined for herself.

She begged one more shift from Olga, whose family was wealthier and who had one to spare for an acquaintance going to her death. Eight shifts, eight, two short, and no time to find more. It would have to be enough.

~

The morning she was to be taken away, Marit’s father pulled out her mother’s wedding dress and offered it to her.

Marit shook her head. “It should go to Greta. To a real wedding.”

“You shouldn’t be alone,” her father said. “Take it, so your mother can be with you, as Greta and I cannot.”

So Marit put on her eight shifts, and she put on the dress. She was a bit smaller than her mother had been when she married, and it still fit despite the extra layers. Greta had wanted to make her a crown of flowers to match, but there were still few flowers in bloom, so she wove the crown from evergreen branches instead, coating her hands in sap, and placed it carefully on her sister’s head.

The three of them waited, solemnly, for Marit to be taken away. There was nothing left to say. All of the goodbyes were finished, all of the plans made. The next morning someone would come from the palace with the bride price and whatever was left of Marit to be buried. Her father would sell the animals and the house, give them away if he couldn’t sell them fast enough, and he would hire a wagon to take them far, far from the capital, to start a new life where the lindworm would never touch Greta. They’d gone over the details last night. Greta had cried again.

Marit still hadn’t cried, and thought she might be able to, now, but would not let herself; she didn’t want her tears seen by whoever took her away. She found she was more angry than sad. She felt a sharpness growing within her. Her life was forfeit, and so too was her sense of obligation to respect, to loyalty. The king, the queen, the prince, the priests who’d performed the weddings and the soldiers and couriers who’d stood by—damn them, she thought, damn them all, and damn the idea she owed them the barest amount of anything.

The king came to fetch her himself, and she refrained from spitting in his face only because of the guards that surrounded him, the fear they might kill her where she stood and cost her father the bride price.

The king was different, not angry and demanding as he had been a week ago, but stiff with an awkwardness that might almost be shame. Marit hugged her father and Greta one last time, and followed him back toward the city, his guards forming a circle around them. She didn’t care that he may feel shame; she had enough anger by now for the both of them.

He was quiet, and Marit didn’t want quiet. Not quite understanding the compulsion, she found herself goading him.

“What will happen after this?” she asked, and the king looked at her, then quickly away again. It was a long walk on foot, and she didn’t know why a king wouldn’t take a carriage, but she didn’t mind the extra time in her forest.

“You will be prepared for the wedding by lady’s maids. The wedding will be in the great hall, and after that we will have a banquet.”

“Not tonight,” Marit said, spurred by the thought of Annette being sent hundreds of miles away to an uncle she’d never met, of Gretchen searching for a man to defile her rather than be eaten. “Not to me. What will happen to your kingdom? After me, you’ll kill off every maid in the country, and then I suppose you’ll have to go to war, and find slaves to feed his appetite? Discipline is important for growing boys, Your Majesty. Learn to say no to your son.”

He raised a hand as if to slap her, and she tilted her chin forward, daring him—let him hit her, here surrounded by a small army, let all these soldiers, already uneasy with their roles, go home and report to their friends and families that their king was a man who struck defenseless maidens.

He lowered his hand, leaving Marit oddly disappointed. It would have been another reason to be angry, and her anger was protecting her from her fear.

The king sighed heavily. “We all do foolish things for our children.”

She wondered if he meant the lindworm, or only Prince Harald, who could not be married until it was satisfied. It didn’t matter—the result was the same for her.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” she said, suddenly exhausted. Maybe a king could afford to do foolish things for his children. Her own father had to be sensible—foolishness would only have hurt Greta. She felt the anger draining away, the fear rising up again. She didn’t want to die.

~

They arrived at the palace from a side gate, not taking the wide, paved road beneath the cherry trees, where any number of people might have seen their arrival. The king and his soldiers handed her off to a large group of women, some more elegant than others, and she asked him, before he left, what time the wedding would be.

“At eight o’clock,” he said. “Will that give you enough time to prepare?” One of the more elegant women assured him it would, and he told her, “Give the girl whatever she wants. It’s her wedding day, after all.” He laughed, unamused, more bitter than cruel, and then he was gone.

“Is there anything special we can do for you, miss?” asked one of the plainer women, who was likely a maid.

Marit thought of the old woman in the forest. “This is going to sound a little strange.”

All of the more plainly dressed women left to carry out her last request, leaving Marit with a flock of beautiful women whose most simple everyday clothes were likely ten times more expensive than her mother’s wedding dress. They tried to have her out of it, into borrowed silks instead, but she refused. It was the last gift from her father, the only familiar thing in this place. She kept her evergreen crown as well, but let them take it away long enough to clean away the sap, rubbing it from the branches and brushing it out of her hair.

They re-braided her hair into a more elaborate style, stringing in gemstones to match her dress, and applied powders and creams to her face, which itched and made her sneeze. She watched them carefully, picking out one who seemed both kind and fancy enough to know little of a peasant’s daily life. She drew her away from the crowd and explained, in a whisper, “I haven’t any underthings. I only own the one shift, and I left it for my sister, so she would have one to wear on laundry day. I didn’t think it would matter, when I’m only to die tonight, but I’m—I’m embarrassed to have all these fine people watching me, thinking that if the light hits just so they’ll see I’m not dressed properly.”

The woman believed, somehow, that a peasant girl might have come to a royal wedding with no undergarments, and offered to find a spare shift.

“Could I have two, please?” The woman raised her eyebrows, and Marit ducked her head. “It’s a tradition—I know it shan’t be a real wedding night, but it’s a tradition to make the groom work a little harder the first time.”

The woman believed the tradition she’d never heard of, as well, and came back shortly with two more shifts, beautiful, silken things, bringing Marit to the required ten.

The next problem came when she realized the women had no intention of leaving her alone while she took off her wedding dress and put on the shifts, which was awkward for more reasons than the eight shifts she already wore. She explained that she was not accustomed to being seen undressed by strangers, and finally they left her, for the first moment of privacy she’d had in hours, and the last she expected to have in her life.

She took off the dress and put on the shifts. She paused to look in the mirror—a thing she’d heard of but never before seen—and wondered if that was what she truly looked like, or only the effect of the powders and creams. She pulled the dress back on, took a few deep breaths—she had not cried yet, she would not cry now—and reopened the door so that the women could help re-fasten the dress in the back.

They set the evergreen crown back on her head, and took her to the priest that would read her last rites.

The hall where they held the wedding was gorgeous, with shining wood floors and dark walls covered in rosemåling, blue and gold and red. All the court was seated when she arrived, dressed in their finest clothes, looking horrified. She recognized the king and the queen and the prince, familiar from a dozen parades, sitting in the front row. The rest were strangers.

And then she saw the lindworm.

It was the height of six or seven men, white like a maggot, or the mold on stale bread. It had dark wings on its back, too small to hold its weight in flight, and shiny white fangs quite visible even when its mouth was shut. It had no legs. There was a crown balanced at the top of its head, the size a man would wear, which might have been funny if it hadn’t planned to eat her.

It was staring at her with an expression of mild curiosity, recognizable because its eyes were the eyes of a man, over-large, but still small in its serpent head, the same shade of blue as a dozen young men she’d seen in the city.

 

 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Transformation Through Love

I've talked before about the transforming power of love, and specifically about the transforming power of love in "Prince Lindworm." But that was a 20+ page academic essay, and who wants to read a 20+ page academic essay? (Although, if you do, it's here.) So let's talk about it again, in a more casual setting. 

We've gone over the bizarro transformation sequence before, but let's run through it again for anyone who's new here: Girl forced to marry snake monster with history of eating wives. Girl wears 10 shifts under her wedding dress. Lindworm asks girl to take off shift, girl demands lindworm take off skin first. Lindworm complies, repeat 10 times. Girl whips nasty mass of skinless lindworm with whips dipped in lye. Girl dunks nasty mass of skinless, whipped lindworm in tub of milk. Girl embraces nasty mass of sticky, skinless, whipped lindworm. Lindworm turns into hot guy.

Now, the majority of the transformation process is extremely violent. It also sort of matches up with the Catholic sacrament of penance, which is consistent with the whole story being a Christian allegory, which you can read about here. And transformation through violence is certainly an established pattern in folklore, as we see most prominently in The Frog King, but also in more minor forms in a number of stories from throughout Europe. Which I will talk about more in a future blog.

But today we're going to focus on that last step. On that embrace.

There are a few things to keep in mind here. Firstly, hugging a dragon-thing that wants to eat you? Really gross and unpleasant. Secondly, hugging any sort of creature that has, through various abuses, become a quivering mass of exposed muscle and veins, likely bleeding profusely? Really, really gross and unpleasant. Thirdly, is "embrace" a euphemism? Maybe. Let's not dwell on the logistics of that. Fourthly, this girl is the lindworm's third bride, which probably means she's the third shot at transformation. An old woman in the forest told her what to do; there's no reason to believe she didn't give the same instructions to the two brides the lindworm ate, even if the text doesn't spell this out; there's a strong tradition in folklore of three people speaking to a mysterious old woman, and the first two ignoring her and dying.

So, my theory: the first two girls may have ignored the instructions entirely, but even if they didn't, they wouldn't have been able to complete the last step. Because it's the last step that makes our heroine remarkable. The last step is a kindness. To take up in your arms a disgusting, suffering thing, which would have destroyed you given the chance, to provide comfort - that takes a special kind of person.

A lot of weird, creepy things went into making the lindworm a man. But ultimately, the thing that changed him was one moment of kindness.


Buy my book here!

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Transformation Through Violence

There are a lot of enchanted bridegroom stories out there. And there are a lot of different ways for the spells to be broken. Although a lot of them are at least…subtly sexual in nature. Sometimes, as in the case of the original French novel “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s literally sex that breaks the spell, although this often gets sanitized in translation to an agreement to marry. In stories like “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” it’s sharing a bed for a full year without seeing the enchanted bridegroom’s face. 

In fact, this is also an element in “Prince Lindworm”—she embraces him, and when they wake in the morning he’s a man. More about that later, although we won’t get into the sex, exactly, because that’s not really my thing.

But before that part, she makes him shed more layers of skin than can possibly be healthy, then whips him. With lye. Which, just. Ouch.

(And after that there’s the part where she dips him in milk, which has clear baptismal elements, but why milk? I still don’t know. Someday I’ll figure that one out.)

So here we’re going to talk about the transformations that are about violence instead of sex or love. There are stories like “Hans My Hedgehog,” where no harm is actually inflicted on the enchanted bridegroom, only on whatever facilitates his transformation—in most of these variants, it’s an animal skin, which is burned by the bride figure in the story. Also, in most of these stories, the bridegroom has the ability to go back and forth between forms, and it’s the bride who gets fed up and puts a stop to the transformations. It’s probably no surprise that transformation-through-violence stories feature brides who are a little less friendly and sympathetic than most.

But the only fairy tale I know of that features such explicit violence as a catalyst for transformation (though I’m sure there are others out there; I can only know so many stories) is “The Frog Prince”—you can read what I’ve written about that in the past here.

This does, of course, include variants of what we’re going to call the Frogged Bridegroom, specifically. (There are a surprising number of frog-based enchanted bridegroom stories. Which, for the record, should not be confused with frog bride stories—eventually I’m going to make a post about the Russian “Frog Princess.”) So we’ve got the German “Frog King” and the Scottish “The Well of the World’s End,” among several others, but we’re going to focus on those two, as they’re the ones I have hard copies of on hand at the moment.

In “The Frog King,” the frog tries to get in bed with the princess, and she responds by picking him up and flinging him into the wall. Which, for a frog, is pretty much a death sentence. But instead of going splat, he turns into a hot dude who, inexplicably, decides to marry her. (I mean, I guess his eagerness to get in her bed while still a frog indicates a certain romantic interest, but for me, a crush would not survive attempted murder. Although, does it count as murder when the victim is a pervy amphibian?)

In “The Well of the World’s End,” a girl agrees to do whatever a frog asks for one night in exchange for a favor. This frog also gets in bed with the girl, but her subsequent violence isn’t an understandable reaction to that skeeviness—the last thing the frog asks her to do before the night is over is chop off his head. Which she does, and, bam! Handsome prince. (Gonna make a full blog about this story too—it has a lot more nuance than “The Frog King.”)

So there’s a significant difference, obviously, between these two stories—one girl is attacking her enchanted bridegroom, and one is doing something she’s been asked to do to help him. And “Prince Lindworm” exists, weirdly, in the middle.

Is our girl’s initial attack a response to unwanted sexual advances? No, because she was given instructions on what to do before she even met the lindworm. But also, sort of, maybe? I mean, she knew she was going to be marrying the lindworm, so unwanted sexual advances are likely a given. And the fact that he was willing to shed several layers of skin—certainly more than his body seems able to handle—just to get her naked is…well, that’s a little worrying.

But does the lindworm want to be attacked because he knows it’s an avenue for transformation? Maybe. We don’t know. Probably not? As far as we can tell his plan is just to spend the rest of his life marrying and eating a girl every few months. Which doesn’t seem really sustainable. The thing is, he knows his parents are the king and queen. So presumably he knows that he should be a human. Is he attempting to provoke the girls by threatening to eat them, knowing that a sufficiently violent response is going to restore his true form? Again, probably not. But maybe.

The question, I think, is why does violence trigger a transformation? Love, I get. And sex, as an indication of love, yeah, sure. But why violence?

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

So, as bizarre and nonsensical as “Prince Lindworm” seems to me at times, I think it actually makes more sense than the frog stories—it combines the violence with these other elements in a way that makes the whole thing more complex and meaningful. (And this is the second time in this post I’m going to link to my Lindworm as an Allegory post.)


(Reminder that you can preorder my book based on "Prince Lindworm" here!)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Growing Up Beastly

As you probably know by now, I’m kind of obsessed with Beauty and the Beast. And I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the nature of the Beast, and especially on his origins and on the idea of the Beast as a victim. (Like this post in my Sexual Abuse in the Folk Tradition series, and this post and this one about why we don’t curse children.) 

Today we’re going to talk about a slightly different Beast, from a different variant of this story type. This is, of course, Prince Lindworm.

Like our usual beloved Beast, it’s not the lindworm’s fault that he’s a lindworm, although for slightly different reasons—his mom screwed up, and he was born a lindworm. This enchanted bridegroom has literally never been unenchanted; there’s no natural state for him to return to. He’s always been a beast. (Sort of like Hans My Hedgehog, actually; maybe I’ll come back to that in another post.)

Before the lindworm gets transformed into a man, he eats two princesses. Which is…not great. However. He is a lindworm. Which is a kind of dragon. Which is, you know—I mean presumably they have dietary needs that differ from a human’s?

I have so, so many questions about this story that are not addressed in the original text. But the main one is what on earth did the lindworm think was going on here? So. Several points.

Firstly. There is a distinct possibility that he’s sort of a baby lindworm. (At least in the early Danish version. In the later version incorrectly attributed to Asbjorsen and Moe, we have a clearer timeline.) The queen gives birth while the king is at war. The lindworm slithers away, and reappears as the king is coming home from war.

Is this a war that’s lasted fifteen to twenty years? Did the king come home from the first war, stay home for several years, then go fight in another war that he’s returning from when the lindworm approaches him? Did the queen give birth to a fully grown lindworm that met the king a few months later? Did the queen give birth to a baby lindworm that was an adult by the time the king got home, either because lindworms grow faster than humans or because magic? Did she give birth to a baby lindworm that’s still a baby? How old is this lindworm?

Secondly. How did the lindworm know the king was his dad? Because he clearly did. He just slithered up one day and said “Hey, I’m your son. I wanna get married.”

Who raised this lindworm? Who told him who his real parents were? The text says he burrows under the bedchamber as soon as he’s born, and doesn’t mention him having any further contact with the queen or with anyone else.

Thirdly. Did the lindworm even know he was under a spell? Dude’s been a lindworm for his entire life. He knows his parents are human, but, like, do lindworms have access to comprehensive sex education? For all he knows, all lindworms might have human parents. Is he aware that he’s not supposed to be a lindworm? Even if he is, does that necessarily mean he wants to stop being a lindworm?

Fourthly. What was his ultimate goal here? He demands brides. He eats them. He demands more. Why?

Personally, I know nothing about lindworm culture and tradition. Maybe they’re, like, reverse black widows or praying mantises, and eating their wives is just, like, what they do. Or maybe he was just really hungry—though surely there would be people other than his new wives available to eat.

Why did he want to get married? Did he ever intend for a wife to survive past the wedding night?

Fifthly. The transformation. Did he see this coming? Again, did he even realize it was a possibility? When this chick starts demanding that he molt out of season and then whips him and bathes him in milk, what does he think is happening? Does he realize it’s a transformation spell? Was he expecting it or hoping for it? Does he think it’s just a bizarre human wedding tradition? Did the other two girls try to break the spell too, and do it wrong?

Shedding ten layers of skin in a row is gonna be pretty incapacitating for any sort of reptile. Once he’s done that, there’s no defending himself from things like the whipping. If the other girls tried to break the spell too, but skipped the shedding step and went right to whipping, he might have eaten them in self-defense.

Sixthly. The aftermath. So our lindworm is now a handsome prince. Okay, now what? What does that even mean? He’s literally always been a lindworm, with, as far as we can tell, lindworm behaviors and a lindworm palate. You aren’t turning him back into a prince—you’re turning him into a prince. Even if he always knew he was under a spell and it would someday be broken, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s like, inherently, fundamentally, a lindworm. He grew up as a lindworm, doing lindworm things.

He has no idea how to be a person, much less a prince. Walking, gesturing, chewing food—all exciting new experiences.

I mean, on the bright side, the king and queen didn’t actually miss out on their only child’s babyhood, after all—they still get to have all those fun experiences, just with an adult man who’s on his third wife and ate the first two.

I just, like, I don’t get how this whole thing is going to work. I have questions. I have concerns. I have many, many concerns.

Th circumstances are wildly different, but ultimately I think he’s a victim, too. Brides for lunch and all.

It’s not his fault he’s a lindworm, and while he was a lindworm, he did, presumably, what lindworms do. And now he’s a man, whether he wants to be or not. So he’s lost everything he’s ever known and been, and now he has to learn how to be a different kind of creature, from scratch, twenty years too late. (And depending on that whole king-at-war timeline, he may have just transitioned over night from a baby dragon to an adult man, which….yikes.)

What is the learning curve going to be like here? Let’s assume he’s not going to try to eat any more people, because of the sizing issue if nothing else—lindworms are probably a lot bigger than men. (How does he feel about the bride eating, looking back? Does he feel guilty? Does he shrug it off as a lindworm thing that he did when he was a lindworm? Is it all just kind of awkward?) Is he going to eat—or try to eat—a few cats or rats or lap dogs? How many months or years will it take him to remember he has to step out of bed in the mornings, instead of trying to slither and falling in a heap on the floor? When molting season comes around, is he going to try it and sprain something? (Or will molting forever be associated with terrible, terrible trauma after that bizarro transformation sequence?)

This guy has been totally screwed over since literally the moment of his conception. And for the stupidest reason. He didn’t insult someone, didn’t turn down their advances or refuse to share or help. His mom ate too many flowers. That’s it. That’s the whole reason he’s a monster, the whole reason two innocent girls are dead.

(Also, on the subject of those flowers, he should have been a girl. The queen ate the girl flower first, then the boy flower; she should have had a girl. I think I’ve done everything I’m going to with this story, but if you want to write a retelling where the lindworm is a girl, hit me up in like five years when my publishing company has expanded a little and I’ll publish it for you.)


(I wrote a book about the crazy aftermath, and you can get it here.)