Today’s stories are two variations on what is called by some who analyze folk tales stories of the trope of the unnatural father. Now, in the future, I’ll talk a little bit about the unnatural mother, which is where all the stories of evil stepmothers come from, but for today, we’re talking about dads. One story is from the Brothers Grimm and the other is from Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales, and have big enough differences to be told distinctly, though the structure is similar. At their core, they’re the stories of two young women who are forced to flee their respective fathers and homelands, disguise themselves, and then find their way back to their rightful stations as nobility through their wits.
The first is the story of “Catskin,” from the Grimms. It’s also called “Roughskin,” which is the name I had heard originally, but the version of Grimm’s fairy tales that I have now calls it Catskin. In the story, a king has a beautiful wife with golden hair. Sadly, she dies without bearing a sun, though she does have a daughter as beautiful as herself. The king is beside himself with grief, but also must wed again. He decides that the only one beautiful enough to replace his wife is his daughter. Now, even though this takes place in medieval Europe, most people still think this is icky, especially the girl, who does not want to marry her father. But he’s pretty set on it. So she asks for four gifts before she can marry: three dress, one of gold like the sun, one of silver like the moon, and one as dazzling as the stars, plus a coat made out of a thousand different animals’ skins. Upon getting her gifts, she packs everything up, along with a few trinkets of her own, puts on the patchwork fur coat, disguises herself by smearing soot on her face and hands, and runs away.
She ends up falling asleep in a wood in another kingdom and is found by a huntsman who thinks she is an especially exotic form of animal. The huntsman catches the strange creature for his king (the king who rules the forest, not the girl’s father), and it’s revealed that it’s not a strange animal, but a particularly dirty young woman. The young woman, called Catskin because she doesn’t give another name, is offered a job as a kitchen maid, which she accepts. Some time later, there is a ball and Catskin wants to attend. She cleans herself up and wears her dress that is gold like the sun and dances with the king, who doesn’t recognize her. But she has to leave early to prepare the soup afterwards. She puts one of her trinkets, a golden ring, into the soup, and the king finds out that Catskin made the soup and asks her about the ring. She plays coy. This continues twice more, with her wearing the dress that is silver like the moon and putting a gold necklace into the soup, and a third time when she wears the dress that is as dazzling as the stars.
But the third time, the king is starting to suspect something, so he instructs the musicians to play an extra-long song so that the mysterious woman he’s dancing with doesn’t leave so early. Unfortunately, that means that Catskin realizes she might not have time to change to make the soup. In her haste to leave, she doesn’t notice the king slip a gold ring on her little finger. She also doesn’t have time to change, so she just puts her fur coat on over the stars dress, and doesn’t fully cover one of her fingers in soot. She does, however, have time to put a gold brooch in the soup. When the king calls her up again to ask about the soup, he grabs her hand and reveals the clean finger with the ring on it. He also sees a flash of her dress through the coat, so he pulls it off, revealing that she is the mysterious woman from the ball. And they get married and live happily ever after.
This version of the story is interesting because, although the girl is the one who comes up with the plan to escape her father, disguise herself, and still meet and intrigue the king, it is the king’s ingenuity that actually leads to their marriage. It’s a bit strange because, although Catskin doesn’t seem to want the king to know who she is, as she continues to disguise herself and deny putting the trinkets in the soup, she must, on some level, want him to figure it out because, well, she puts trinkets in his soup. Because of this, I prefer the alternate version of this story, “Cap o’ Rushes.”
The story of Cap o’ Rushes starts in a familiar way, if you know Shakespeare. Rather than wanting to marry his daughter, a gentleman asks his three daughters how much they each love him. One daughter says she loves her father as much as her life, the second as much as the whole world, and the third daughter says she loves her father “as fresh meat loves salt.” Naturally, the father thought that the third daughter is not only weird, but doesn’t actually love him, and casts her out. She disguises herself with a hooded cloak made from rushes and finds a job in a local nobleman’s house. They call her Cap o’ Rushes because of her distinctive fashion sense. But when there are dances held near the manor, she takes off her disguise and wears her fine clothes and dances with the son of her employer. This goes on for a few nights, and on the last night, the master’s son gives her a ring. When she’s asked to make gruel for the son because he is dying of love for his mysterious dancing partner, she puts his ring into it and reveals herself.
Now, this is where the first story ends, but the other thing I like about this story is the ending. You see, when the master’s son and Cap o’ Rushes get married, all the nearby gentry attend, including Cap o’ Rushes’ father. When she finds out that he’s coming, she tells the cook to prepare all the meat without salt, despite his protests. When the guests sit down to the wedding feast, they find the unsalted meat is inedible. But surprisingly, Cap o’ Rushes’ father (who at this point is just a random neighbor) bursts into tears and exclaims that he understands how much his daughter, whom he cast out, loved him. Once again, Cap o’ Rushes reveals herself and is reconciled with her father. And that’s how you live happily ever after.
Now, I like this version better because the heroine’s ingenuity basically takes her the whole way. She waits three nights to reveal herself not out of some coyness, but because she has proof of who she is. And at the end, she is able to redeem her father by showing him how he misunderstood her (although it helps that his “unnaturalness” was in casting out his loving daughter, not wanting to commit incest). Of course, there are some parallels to the story of Cinderella in these stories, but what I particularly like is that, other than some potentially magical packing devices, these women find their ways in the world through their own intelligence, and not with any help from fairies or gods. Perhaps I gravitate a bit much towards stories of strong women, but I think it’s important to highlight the often-forgotten heroines of folklore who fight the idea that all fairy tale princess are just waiting to be rescued.
“Catskin” from The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, by Jacob Grimm [link]
“Cap o’ Rushes” from English Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs [link]