Category Archives: fairy tales

How the Devil Married Three Sisters

Italy (1885)

Once upon a time the devil was seized with a desire to marry. He therefore left hell, took the form of a handsome young man, and built a fine large house. When it was completed and furnished in the most fashionable style he introduced himself to a family where there were three pretty daughters, and paid his addresses to the eldest of them. The handsome man pleased the maiden, her parents were glad to see a daughter so well provided for, and it was not long before the wedding was celebrated.

When he had taken his bride home, he presented her with a very tastefully arranged bouquet, led her through all the rooms of the house, and finally to a closed door. “The whole house is at your disposal,” said he, “only I must request one thing of you; that is, that you do not on any account open this door.”

devil_and_womanOf course the young wife promised faithfully; but equally, of course, she could scarcely wait for the moment to come when she might break her promise. When the devil had left the house the next morning, under pretence of going hunting, she ran hastily to the forbidden door, opened it, and saw a terrible abyss full of fire that shot up towards her, and singed the flowers on her bosom. When her husband came home and asked her whether she had kept her promise, she unhesitatingly said “Yes.” But he saw by the flowers that she was telling a lie, and said, “Now I will not put your curiosity to the test any longer. Come with me. I will show you myself what is behind the door.” Thereupon he led her to the door, opened it, gave her such a push that she fell down into hell, and shut the door again.

A few months after he wooed the next sister for his wife, and won her; but with her everything that had happened with the first wife was exactly repeated.

Finally he courted the third sister. She was a prudent maiden, and said to herself, “He has certainly murdered my two sisters; but then it is a splendid match for me, so I will try and see whether I cannot be more fortunate than they.” And accordingly she consented. After the wedding the bridegroom gave her a beautiful bouquet, but forbade her, also, to open the door which he pointed out.

Not a whit less curious than her sisters, she, too, opened the forbidden door when the devil had gone hunting, but she had previously put her flowers in water. Then she saw behind the door the fatal abyss and her sisters therein. “Ah!” she exclaimed, “poor creature that I am; I thought I had married an ordinary man, and instead of that he is the devil! How can I get away from him?” She carefully pulled her two sisters out of hell and hid them. When the devil came home he immediately looked at the bouquet, which she again wore on her bosom, and when he found the flowers so fresh he asked no questions; but reassured as to his secret, he now, for the first time, really loved her.

After a few days she asked him if he would carry three chests for her to her parents’ house, without putting them down or resting on the way. “But,” she added, “you must keep your word, for I shall be watching you.”

The devil promised to do exactly as she wished. So the next morning she put one of her sisters in a chest, and laid it on her husband’s shoulders. The devil, who is very strong, but also very lazy and unaccustomed to work, soon got tired of carrying the heavy chest, and wanted to rest before he was out of the street on which he lived; but his wife called out to him, “Don’t put it down; I see you!”

The devil went reluctantly on with the chest until he had turned the corner, and then said to himself, “She cannot see me here; I will rest a little.”

But scarcely had he begun to put the chest down when the sister inside cried out, “Don’t put it down; I see you still!” Cursing, he dragged the chest on into another street, and was going to lay it down on a doorstep, but he again heard the voice, “Don’t lay it down, you rascal; I see you still!”

“What kind of eyes must my wife have,” he thought, “to see around corners as well as straight ahead, and through walls as if they were made of glass!” and thus thinking he arrived, all in a perspiration and quite tired out, at the house of his mother-in-law, to whom he hastily delivered the chest, and then hurried home to strengthen himself with a good breakfast.

The same thing was repeated the next day with the second chest. On the third day she herself was to be taken home in the chest. She therefore prepared a figure which she dressed in her own clothes, and placed on the balcony, under the pretext of being able to watch him better; slipped quickly into the chest, and had the maid put it on the devil’s back. “The deuce!” said he; “this chest is a great deal heavier than the others; and today, when she is sitting on the balcony, I shall have so much the less chance to rest.” So by dint of the greatest exertions he carried it, without stopping, to his mother-in-law, and then hastened home to breakfast, scolding, and with his back almost broken.

But quite contrary to custom, his wife did not come out to meet him, and there was no breakfast ready. “Margerita, where are you?” he cried, but received no answer. As he was running through the corridors, he at length looked out of a window and saw the figure on the balcony. “Margerita, have you gone to sleep? Come down. I am as tired as a dog, and as hungry as a wolf.” But there was no reply. “If you do not come down instantly I will go up and bring you down,” he cried, angrily; but Margerita did not stir. Enraged, he hastened up to the balcony, and gave her such a box on the ear that her head flew off, and he saw that the head was nothing but a milliner’s form, and the body, a bundle of rags. Raging, he rushed down and rummaged through the whole house, but in vain; he found only his wife’s empty jewel box. “Ha!” he cried; “she has been stolen from me and her jewels, too!” and he immediately ran to inform her parents of the misfortune. But when he came near the house, to his great surprise he saw on the balcony above the door all three sisters, his wives, who were looking down on him with scornful laughter.

Three wives at once terrified the devil so much that he took his flight with all possible speed.

Since that time he has lost his taste for marrying.

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Shakespeare’s Fairies as Dreams

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare - 1781

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare - 1781

We see them only at the edge of sight, in dreams, so it’s no wonder that we are often confused by them. But the Bard did a turn with dreams of various sorts, and in his sight was keener than most others. See how he did his research:

Henry Fuseli - Fairy Mab - c1815-20

Henry Fuseli - Fairy Mab - c1815-20

“O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;”
— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s Speech

But Mab, she seems to have been plucked out of that nowhere we visit each night (which is her realm). But it was good enough for at least one other poet with a gothic tale.

Turner - Queen Mab's Cave

J. M. W. Turner, Queen Mab's Cave, 1846

Behold the chariot of the Fairy Queen!
Celestial coursers paw the unyielding air;
Their filmy pennons at her word they furl
And stop obedient to the reins of light;
These the Queen of Spells drew in;
She spread a charm around the spot,
And, leaning graceful from the ethereal car,
Long did she gaze, and silently,
Upon the slumbering maid.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem; With Notes

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1906

Perhaps even the Bard was confused for there is another with that title named Titania. Or perhaps Faerie is broad enough for multiple monarchs. At any rate, more celebrated than Mab, and older than any modern literature, is Oberon’s consort, whose dreams are made from fairies’ lullabies:

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakening - 1785-90

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakening - 1785-90

Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
— William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

But it’s well she were asleep, for in other forms that goddess is also the huntress we dare not bother as she bathes:

Hendrick van Balen -- Diana and Actaeon

Hendrick van Balen -- Diana and Actaeon

While Titania is bathing there, in her accustomed place, Cadmus’s grandson, free of his share of the labour, strays with aimless steps through the strange wood, and enters the sacred grove. So the fates would have it. As soon as he reaches the cave mouth dampened by the fountain, the naked nymphs, seeing a man’s face, beat at their breasts and filling the whole wood with their sudden outcry, crowd round Diana to hide her with their bodies. But the goddess stood head and shoulders above all the others. Diana’s face, seen there, while she herself was naked, was the colour of clouds stained by the opposing shafts of sun, or Aurora’s brightness.
— Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3

The Meeting of Oberon and Titania, by Arthur Rackham (1905)

Since Theseus is also referenced later in tale, it seems Ovid and Shakespeare had the same dream (or perhaps Shakespeare read rather widely, but that’s between us). At any rate, sweet dreams.

Image Links: Arthur Rackham at ArtsyCraftsy, Henry Fuselli at Art History Archive, Hendrick van Balen at Hellenica

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Arabian Nights: Curious Coincidences and Obscenities

The Sultan and Scheherazade, Arabian Nights - Kay Nielsen

The Sultan and Scheherazade, Arabian Nights - Kay Nielsen

Of Fairy Tales and Folklore

We should not be surprised that the transliterator of Cinderella and Snow White, and the transliterator of Aladin and Ali Baba, were friends. Working for the same boss in separate cultural offices, Charles Perrault and Antoine Galland carved out different facets of a literary niche that has endured across centuries, not unlike the stories they retold. Both profoundly influenced later authors.

In 1695, at the age of 67, Charles Perrault lost his job as Secretary to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres. With plenty of time on his hands, he embarked on a project to bring the stories he had heard since childhood into printed form, and published his Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals in the same year.

Arabian Nights : Fisherman and the Genie, Maxfield Parrish

Arabian Nights : Fisherman and the Genie, Maxfield Parrish

When Scheherazade Met Sinbad

The Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres where Perrault had worked was under the administrative control of Loius XIV’s finance minster, Jean Baptise Colbert. During that period, another of Colbert’s employees, Antoine Galland, was occupied with preparations for a compendium of Middle Eastern Literature, the Bibliothèque Oriental. In this library was a manuscript of a cycle of stories that Galland translated and published with the name The Tale of Sinbad the Sailor. Partly due to the popularity of his friend’s work on fairy tales, Sinbad became immediately popular as well. Perrault himself then encouraged him to complete a more ambitious project, a translation of a manuscript that Galland had collected in Instanbul called “Alf Laylah wa Laylah” or The Thousand and One Nights.

Curiously, of all the most popular stories in that collection, only the framing tale of Scheherazade was part of that manuscript. The Sinbad tales came from a separate source, but those stories that came to be called in English “Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” were drawn directly from oral tradition: A Maronite Christian from Allepo in Syria visited Galland in Paris and narrated those stories to him from memory.

Aladdin and the Genie of the Ring - Virginia Frances Sterrett

Aladdin and the Genie of the Ring - Virginia Frances Sterrett

The Arabian Nights in England

Of the two contemporary authors, Gallard had traveled more extensively than Perrault, though less so than another well-traveled translator of the Thousand and One Nights, Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton’s biography is a tale on its own; Burton began his travels as an officer in the army of the British East India Company, spending time in Afghanistan and India and becoming familiar with the local cultures. He then took leave to work for the Royal Geographic Society, disguising himself as an Arab and going on a pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the few non-Muslims who ever managed to do so. Returning to India to rejoin his regiment, he joined instead the political department of the India Company and was again engaged by the Geographic Society to explore the coasts of Arabia and East Africa. He eventually explored inland as far as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria while seeking the true source of the Nile River. His notes became important sources of information for later central African expeditions.

Upon his return to England in 1861 (at the age of 40), Burton entered the British Foreign Service for whom he served as ambassador in various locations in India and the Middle East. Even while doing that, he also made time to co-found the Anthropological Society of London. He was eventually granted a knighthood by Queen Victoria in 1886.

Layla - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Layla - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Racy Racism in Victorian England

It was during this latter period of his life that Burton turned to the translation of Oriental classics, most notably the first English translation of the Kama Sutra and the unexpurgated version of our topic, The Thousand Nights and One Night. Burton’s unashamedly sexual version was shocking to his Victorian contemporaries:

They walked under the very lattice and advanced a little way into the garden till they came to a jetting fountain middlemost a great basin of water; then they stripped off their clothes and behold, ten of them were women, concubines of the King, and the other ten were white slaves. Then they all paired off, each with each: but the Queen, who was left alone, presently cried out in a loud voice, “Here to me, O my lord Saeed!” and then sprang with a drop leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly; then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her.

Asenath - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Asenath - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

This version did not receive the acclaim in Victorian England that Burton might have wished. Criticized as pornography by some critics while admired by others, it was never as popular as Galland’s original translation. But it did represent the most complete version of the stories in English up to that point, and captured to the fullest extent the exotic Orientalism that he encountered in his travels.

Despite later retellings and translations, it’s interesting to see the durability of the original Arabian Nights concept of Galland’s translation. The intertwining of the frame tale and stories within stories matches the mood of exotic orientalism that the tales provide us. These are not all fairy tales. Many of the stories are simple romances while the Sinbad voyages are too epic in scope to simply be called a fairy tale, but they all maintain the same sense of the exotic.  But underneath the exoticism is a realization of the truest spirit of the folktale; that popular stories can be adapted to any generation of readers with the right storyteller.

Image credits: Arabian Nights

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