Category: cautionary tales

Dark Fairy Tales II: Heads in a Fountain, Bones in a Bag

Dark Fairy Tales II: Heads in a Fountain, Bones in a Bag

Dark fairy tale elements including floating heads and bags of bones are featured in a family of tales classified under the Aarne-Thompson system as Type 480, “Kind and Unkind Girls.”  Imaginative punishments and rewards for the kind and unkind characters in question are a further interesting element.  The girls in these tales are always sisters or stepsisters, and a wicked stepmother (sometimes mother) is part of the formula.

Our first example is the English tale, “The Three Heads of the Well.”  The fairy tale bears a strange connection to an earlier 11th-century British legend featuring as its heroine the Byzantine Empress Helena, here portrayed as the daughter of the mythical “Old King Cole” of nursery rhyme fame.  Both legend and fairy tale are set to the town of Colchester in Essex, understood to be named for King Cole.

King Cole
Father of Empress Helena?

From “The Three Heads of the Well,” we learn that being polite to heads floating out of magic wells serves one well, while rude behavior is strictly punished.  A curious element of the narrative  is the request made by the floating heads that their hair be combed.

Our next tale, “Three Fairies,” comes from Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, or Lo cunto de li cunti (“The Tale of Tales), a source used in our previous episode for the story “Penta the Handless.” The tale involves an encounter with fairies living in a fantastic palace hidden deep within a chasm.

Basile’s tales are particularly noteworthy for their extravagant and playful verbiage, illustrated in several lengthy passages read for us by Mrs. Karswell.

In this tale, we learn the value of diplomacy in discussing the hair and scalp conditions of fairies. A second lesson: one must be particularly wary when allowing oneself to be sealed in a barrel.

Perrault
Perrault’s 1697 Tales of Passed Times

Our next story, “The Fairies,” comes from perhaps the most famous collection of fairy tales pre-Grimm, Charles Perrault’s 1697 volume Tales of Passed Times, sometimes subtitled Tales of Mother Goose.  This French story can be found in certain English-language collections under the title “Diamonds and Toads,” referring to what falls from the mouths of its kind and unkind girls respectively — a blessing or curse depending on the girls’ charity toward fairies disguised as mortals.

The Grimms’ story, “Frau Holle” is introduced with a snippet of the “Frau Holle Lied,”  a children’s song describing the grandmotherly (and witch-like) Frau Holle shaking feathers from her featherbed to make the snow in winter, an element from the Grimm story.

As in the Perrault’s “The Fairies” the Kind Sister in “Frau Holle” is sent to fetch water, and ends up not in an enchanted chasm, but falling into an enchanted well, passage to a sort of parallel dimension in which ovens demand their bread be baked, apple trees their fruit be picked, and Frau Holle has all sorts of housework for the heroine to perform.  The girl’s unkind sister, however fails miserably when confronted with identical tasks, and we see both the rewarding and punishing side of Holle, an aspect of the story that relates it loosely to the winter mythology of the Frau Holle/Frau Perchta figure I discuss in other shows and my book as inspiration for the Krampus.

The rewards and punishments doled out in “Frau Holle” are likely borrowed from Basile’s “The Three Fairies,” as you might be able to guess from these depictions:

We introduce our next  iteration of this tale with a clip is from an English-dubbed version of the 1964 Soviet folklore film Morozko (or Father Frost) by pre-eminent Russian fairy-tale director Alexander Rou.  The film weaves its own elaborate story around the bare bones of the classic tale “Father Frost” collected by Alexander Afanasyev in the 1850s. Here, goodness is demonstrated by the Kind Girl’s willingness to endure cold, a particularly Russian virtue.

Illustration of Father Frost from a 1932 volume

Our last story is the most obscure (and gruesome): “Rattle-Rattle-Rattle and Chink-Chink-Chink” from a 1919 collection by Parker Fillmore called Czechoslovak Fairy Tales.  As with several of our stories, a key role is played by an all-knowing housepet who can speak.

We wrap up with a footnote to our first story, “The Three Heads of the Well” and its connection via an Elizabethan play, George Peele’s “The Old Wives’ Tale” to “Willow’s Song” from The Wicker Man (1973), all of which leads us into the bizarre folklore of an aphrodisiac charm known as “cockle bread.”

(NOTE: For details on the 2022 Bone and Sickle shirts and merch mentioned in the show, please visit boneandsickle.com, or go directly to our Etsy shop.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terrible Tales for Terrible Tots

Terrible Tales for Terrible Tots

Books of cautionary stories for children were a popular Christmas gift in Victorian times. These tales of misbehaving children and the tragic consequences of their deeds, like the Krampus myth, served as not-so subtle reminders of parental expectations.

This episode consists mainly of readings by your host and Mrs. Karswell of these grim (and amusing) stories intended to be enjoyed along with a hot cup of cocoa, eggnog or the more dangerous adult concoctions of the season.

We begin with an example from Jane & Ann Taylor’s 1800 publication Original Poems for Infant Minds.  The Taylor sisters’ 1806 sequel to the book, Rhymes for the Nursery, happened to include a poem called “The Star,” providing the lyric to the “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” which we hear interpreted from a 2019 album called, naturally, Possessed Children: Creepy Nursery Rhymes.

From Taylor’s “Original Poems for Infant Minds”

We also hear a poem about a lad who embraces a hot poker as a toy, one from Elizabeth Turner’s 1807 collection The Daisy or, Cautionary Stories in Verse, adapted to Ideas of Children from Four to Eight Years Old 

Then we turn to the mother of all cautionary tales for children, known to many simply as “that scary German children’s book,” but actually titled Der Struwwelpeter, Merry Tales and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folks. Written in 1854 by Heinrich Hoffmann, Der Struwwelpeter (“un-groomed Peter”) pairs charmingly awkward drawings executed by the writer himself with tales of children who play with matches, refuse to eat, suck their thumbs, torment animals, or commit other childish misdemeanors meet ghastly fates. 

Created for Hoffmann’s three-year old son as a Christmas gift, Der Struwwelpeter’s opening page identifies the book as one specifically to be given at Christmas, to well-behaved children exclusively. 

Struwwelpeter opening page

We hear a clip of this introductory poem set to music by the British punk-cabaret artists The Tiger Lillies, as part of their 1998 opera Shockheaded Peter.

Der Struwwelpeter went on to inspire all manner of imitations in Germany, England, and particularly in America.  We hear a few examples of these including one from the most famous volume inspired by this book, Max and Moritz, A Tale of Seven Boyish Pranks, written and illustrated in 1865 by Wilhelm Busch. 

 Our last author in this genre, one whose intent was actually to exaggerate and parody the pedantic tone of the Victorians was Hilaire Belloc, a friend of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.  His first book of this type, whimsically illustrated by his friend Basil T. Blackwood, was The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896), followed a year later by More Beasts (for Worse Children). Longer, more dreadful stories appear in the verses of his 1907 book, Cautionary Tales for Children, Designed for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen years, from which we hear a number of fine examples.  Edward Gorey recognized a kindred spirit in the collection illustrating a version published posthumously in 2002.

Gorey illustration
Gorey illustration for Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales”