Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Obscure Fairy Tale: Mother Holle

Today's obscure fairy tale is Mother Holle.

I think it's kind of funny (funny-peculiar, not funny ha-ha) that this is an obscure tale. It has so many of the quintessential-fairy-tale elements. It's nearly identical to the Russian tale Grandfather Frost, and it shares a lot in common with tales like The Two Daughters, The Fairies, and The Twelve Months.

Mother Holle (from the Brothers Grimm)

Once upon a time... there are two sisters, one lazy and ugly and the other one industrious and beautiful.

I love fairy tales, but I think that the idea of "beautiful = good" is one of the most insidiously damaging messages in fairy tales, even worse than "if you dress your rodents in cute little outfits and believe they sing in lisping English for your amusement, you'll marry a prince instead of being hauled off to the loony bin."

Their mother coddles the lazy one (her daughter) and overworks the industrious one (her stepdaughter). As part of her daily chores, the stepdaughter is forced to spin until her fingers bleed.


One day, she bleeds so much that when she tries to rinse the reel in a well, it slips out of her fingers and falls to the bottom.

As I said: ewww. Also, what's a reel? I'm thinking it's spinning equipment. I'm also thinking that if I were in a fairy tale and had to sew my own clothes, I'd end up in a burlap sack. I can barely sew on a button.

Her stepmother tells her that she must fetch it back. She jumps into the well, hits the bottom, and loses consciousness.

Um, hello? Ladder? Rope?

When she wakes, she discovers she's next to an oven. Inside the oven, baking bread cries to her, "Take me out, or I'll burn!" She removes the bread.

Why isn't she disturbed by the talking bread? I'd be disturbed. I mean, what would happen if you ate talking bread? Would it scream as you bit into it? Not to disgress or anything, but when I was little, my brother used to moo whenever I bit into a hamburger...

Next, she finds an apple tree overloaded with apples. "Shake me," the tree cries. "My apples are ripe!" So she shakes the tree and gathers the apples.

...and any time we ate lobsters, my brother would turn them all toward me so that they were all staring at me while I ate.

Then the stepdaughter finds a cottage with a woman (Mother Holle) whose teeth are so enormous that the girl is frightened.

How huge would someone's teeth have to be to be frightening? I'm just sayin'.

Mother Holle tells her not to be scared. If she stays and does housework, all will be well. But she must take special care to always fluff the bed. So the girl stays and does the housework, taking special care to fluff the bed, though it's made of snow and is so cold that her hands whiten and freeze.

Might I suggest some gloves?

She heals the girl's hands and treats her more kindly than she's treated in her own home. Eventually, the stepdaughter feels homesick and asks to return home.

Um, why? Does she miss the whole fingers-bleeding thing? Or is that balanced out by the fingers-freezing thing? What's up with this story's obsession with unhappy hands?

Mother Holle thanks the stepdaughter for her hard work and escorts her through the door. As she passes through the door, a shower of gold pours over her and sticks to her.

That's a reward? Molten gold poured over you? Ouch. And even if it wasn't hot (which it would have to be to be pourable), it would get all stuck in your hair, drip in your ears... You'd be sneezing out gold snot for days.

When the stepdaughter reaches home, the rooster crows, "Cock-a-doodle-doo, my golden maiden, what's new with you?"

They have a talking rooster? And no one thought to mention this earlier? Is this, like, a reject rooster from some other fairy tale who lost the important part because he made lousy rhymes? (FYI, I'm quoting the rooster verbatim from my copy of Grimm's.)

The girl is welcomed home enthusiastically.

How do they get the gold off? I presume it's stuck to her since she transported it home attached to her. It'll hurt like the worst Band-Aid ever when they rip that gold off her...

The mother wants her own daughter to have such wealth so she instructs her to bloody herself with the reel, throw it down, and jump after it, which the girl does.

I bet she's wondering why her sister didn't use a ladder too.

At the bottom, she finds an oven. The bread cries, "Take me out, or I'll burn!" The girl replies, "Take yourself out! I don't want to get dirty."

Maybe the talking bread is the next step in the evolution of bread mold... I suddenly have the urge to clean out my kitchen...

Next, she finds an apple tree. "Shake me," the tree cries. "No way," the girl says, "I'm not shaking those heavy branches."

I'm not as bothered by talking trees. Perhaps I've seen enough talking trees in other stories. You just don't run across talking food all that often, except in commercials -- and really, those never made much sense to me. Why would talking food want to encourage eating? Shouldn't the talking cereal have some self-preservation instinct?

Then she finds Mother Holle. On the first day, she tries to work hard, but by the second day, she begins to laze about. She refuses to touch the snow bed, and Mother Holle has to cook and clean for her instead.

Really don't blame her for avoiding the snow-bed thing.

Soon, Mother Holle dismisses the lazy girl and sends her home through the door. But instead of gold, a shower of pitch pours on her.

Yikes, pitch! Isn't that a little harsh? So the girl didn't make a bed or two... is that really a tar-and-feather kind of offense? Really?

When the lazy girl reaches home, the rooster crows, "Cock-a-doodle-doo, my dirty girl, what's new with you?"

Talk about insult to injury. Mocked by a rooster. If he's not careful, Mr. Chatty Fowl is going to be renamed "dinner"... unless of course these folks have my issues with talking food...

The pitch sticks to the lazy girl for the rest of her life.

And the moral is: Don't seek employment from women who live at the bottom of wells.

For more obscure fairy tales (with commentary), check out the Obscure Fairy Tales page of my website, where I've gathered links to all my prior fairy tale posts.

2 days until the Wild returns...

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At 11:34 PM, Blogger Q said...

This sounds a lot like A Colony of Cats...

At 2:17 PM, Blogger Anne Leigh said...

Her stepmother tells her that she must fetch it back. She jumps into the well, hits the bottom, and loses consciousness.

Um, hello? Ladder? Rope?

If I'm not mistaken, wells are very deep, so one would think a brooken bone might be in the mix some where >.>

Maybe they should just throw the rooster down the well so maybe Mother Holle can give him a book of new rymes...:-P

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Q: Yeah, Mother Holle has a lot of standard fairy-tale "events" such as the three creatures/things/people that ask for help, etc. I haven't heard of A Colony of Cats. Who wrote/collected it?

Savyleartist: Seriously. Jumping into wells is not a safe hobby. I like the image of the rooster spouting bad rhymes as he falls down the well... :)

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Q said...

Oh my gosh! I know a fairy tale you haven't heard of! I actually like it a lot. It's Italian, from the Andrew Lang collection.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Q: I have all the Lang books, but I still don't remember that tale. Must go find... Cannot allow a fairy tale to go forgotten!

At 8:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you do know the gold was coins right, and that this story is a FAIRY TALE! Which means anything can happen! No offence though, I love your work.

At 8:15 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Lucas: I always pictured it as liquid (or at least sludgy) gold, rather than pressed into coin-shape. I kind of like the image of lots of coins stuck to her, though -- she'd look as if she were wearing some tacky disco outfit.

At 3:20 PM, Blogger historicstitcher said...

I just discovered your blog this morning, and have become obsessed with your comments on fairy tales!!!! Outstanding!

Reading this one reminded me of my mother's favorite joke ages ago...

Two muffins were baking in the oven. The first muffin said "Gee, it's hot in here." The second muffin said "AAAAHHHHH!!! A talking muffin!!!"

Yeah, I've got issues with talking food, too. I'm still haunted by the bean and rice grain that danced together on Saturday morning cartoon PSAs when I was a kid...

I'm currently reading "Spinning Straw into Gold", an awesome look at some of the meanings behind fairy tales. Lots of fun, too!

Thanks for providing such fun reading!!

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

historicstitcher: Glad you found me, and glad you the commentary! That is an AWESOME joke. And very appropriate to this tale. I haven't read Spinning Straw into Gold yet. Looks interesting.

At 5:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the version of this story I've read, the gold just sticks to her apron. Hence that is why the vampire-snow-lady told her to hold out her apron.

At 10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I imagine Mother Holle as having non-sharp fangs.

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reel is that cylinder the thread is wrapped around. It's basically the next German step in Middle Age spinning. I'm guessing spindles went out of style when Sleeping Beauty nearly died.

At 5:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this is really different from the version I know! No talking food- or anything else- to my recollection, and no falling down a well.

The good girl comes across a woman in the woods and stops to help her... something. Wash her hair, I think? Anyway, as thanks the girl is enchanted so that gold and precious gems fall from her mouth when she speaks.

Of course the mother sends her own daughter out to find the same fortune. The girl does find the woman, but the woman is in a different form (I think she was old and bent and now she's young and beautiful; could be the other way around) and doesn't recognize her as the woman her sister mentioned. Because the girl is rude to the woman and is obviously fishing for riches rather than preparing to help someone for the sake of helping, she's cursed to have snakes and toads fall from her mouth when she speaks.

I know this comment is way late and you probably won't see it, I just couldn't make myself leave without mentioning this other version (as I'm fairly certain that it's the same story). I love your work, though!

At 1:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, uh.. Do all wells have trees, ovens, and cottages with slave driving old women in them?
Anyways, I love your commentary on all of these stories <3
You're amazing!

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Lucas: I like the term "vampire snow lady."

Anonymous: I love that version! In the collection I have, it's called "Toads and Diamonds," and the good girl who spews flowers and jewels as she speaks ends up marrying a rich man with lots of different colored dogs.

Rajajugaro: Thanks so much! Nowadays, most wells just have microwaves instead of ovens.

At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm reminded of a book my teacher read to us in elementary. Only, I think that story took place in the swamps of Louisiana. Two half-sisters, one good, one lazy and greedy.

The first one gets lost in the swamp, and comes across a woman. She works for her, and the woman says she can take some eggs from her hen house as payment, but she is instructed to take the plain eggs and leave the jeweled ones.

The eggs talk, and the plain ones say "Take me" and the golden, jewel-encrusted ones say "Don't touch me." The girl takes half a dozen plain eggs, and the woman tells her to throw them up in the air as she runs home.

The plain eggs have riches in them, including a carriage, and the girl returns home. The other sister, jealous, goes into the swamp, finds the same woman, complains about having to work, but the woman rewards her the same way, by saying she can take some eggs as payment.

This sister ignores the woman and the eggs and takes the gold ones. She throws them in the air, and when they come down again, they break on her head, and are only rotten eggs. She has to walk home, and she smells like rotten eggs forever.

I wish I could remember the name of that book.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Anonymous: Ooh, I'd never heard that variant. I like it. Thanks for sharing! I wonder if it's an old variant or a recent retelling...

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe the egg story is an early African American version. The original was Dutch?

At 10:29 PM, Blogger Charlotte Lacrym said...

You forgot my favorite part... that the girl has to fluff the bed because whenever she does, snow falls on earth. I think Holle means snow or something. But nice retelling!

At 4:05 AM, Anonymous Mairijeaan said...

The "beautiful equals good" thing super sucks, but at least this time the ugly girl is beloved by the mother. Usually it's the other way around.

At 4:00 AM, Anonymous Suris said...

Anonymous about the story with the gold and flowers from the girls throat it would totally suck to never speak again and always have stuff falling out of your mouth.
I have also heard the next part of "Toads and Diamonds" when the girl who was cursed to have rats a toads come out of her mouth when she got home to her mother to show her what had happened, the mother screamed causing the daughter to scream and so there was a flood of rats and toads and the floor was covered in vermin so the mother whacked the daughter over the head with a broomstick.

At 10:44 PM, Blogger Emma said...

could you do the love of three citrons next?

At 9:25 PM, Blogger Nell Laurel said...

It's called the talking eggs. I had been on looking for it myself. Lol

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Momma Bear said...

I hope you tortured your brother as much as he has tortured you....o0
Awesome commentary BTW. I totally agree with the first statement, It goes hand in hand with boys will be boys" for most damage caused.

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Jessica said...

wow. wells really are dangerous arnt they?!

At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Big Wow. I've definataly heard of this story, you can search up the hardworking girl and the lazy girl, from tina and tofuu or something and its just the same story, but instead of tar, the girl gets chased by a few billion swarms of insects instead.


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