It’s International Women’s Day today. It’s also Thursday, which invariably generates a flurry of Twitter posts under the hashtag #FolkloreThursday. So, of course, today a fairy tale nerd’s Twitter feed is awash in tweets about women in folklore.
“Ah, women in fairy tales,” you say, “damsels in distress, passively waiting for a prince to come rescue them – right?” Bwhahahahah! Excuse me while I laugh loud and long (not to mention a little scornfully). Yes, sure, they exist, the Sleeping Beauties and Snow Whites in their glass coffins or rose-covered castles (and we love ’em). But just as common are the wide-awake Beauties who are the ones that do the rescuing – of Beasts or Frogs, for example, to mention just two of the best-known tales. And not all of those tales’ happy endings are weddings, either – there are people other than lovers or boyfriends to rescue, you know.
Here is one such story, one that’s always been one of my favourites, featuring a very heroic little girl indeed. It’s well-known in German-speaking countries, but not so much hereabouts. So, in honour of International Women’s Folklore Thursday, let me tell it to you. It’s Grimms’ fairy tale #25, and if you want to read the original without silly side comments, you can find it here. So here goes:
THE SEVEN RAVENS
Once there was a man and his wife who had seven sons. (No, this isn’t an advertisement for my book, Seventh Son. Although – hmm, there’s possibilities. What if that youngest son went on to have seven sons himself… Sorry, I digress.) So after a lot of years of wishing, the wife finally gave birth again, and this time it was the longed-for girl. However, the poor little mite was sickly, so the parents decided to do an emergency baptism. They sent the boys to the well to fetch some water.
The seven boys were so excited to have a baby sister, they fought over who would get to dip the jug in the well, and as was inevitable, the jug fell into the well. Now, the kids feared their dad’s temper (with good reason, as you’ll see in a minute) and they didn’t dare go home (I guess the fate of their sister’s soul wasn’t as important as the possibility of getting a smack around the head).
Sure enough, when the boys didn’t come back with the water, Dad got really ticked off (to be fair to him, he was a little stressed at the moment, with the possibility of his baby girl dying without baptism). “They’re probably just fooling around again!” he said. “I wish they’d all turn into black ravens!”
And what do you know – they did.
Dad was very, very sorry, but by then it was too late. The raven boys were gone, and all they had left was one tiny, sick little baby girl.
However, fortunately for them, she survived. Not only that, she grew up beautiful, kind, smart, and, as you shall see, quite determined.
Mom and Dad, feeling rather guilty about the boys, carefully never mentioned their existence to the girl (and I suppose she never thought to ask why her bedroom was full of Lego and GI Joe action figures and the family car was a 12-seater van). But one day, she overheard a couple of gossippy neighbours talking, and she pricked up her ears.
“Mom,” she said, “Mrs Schlipfengruber from next door says it’s because of me that my brothers got lost! What brothers?”
So the parents had to own up, but, being rather decent parents, they assured her that it really wasn’t her fault and there was nothing she could do about it.
Still, the girl wasn’t buying it. She realised quite clearly that even if what happened wasn’t precisely her fault, it still was her birth that had precipitated her brothers’ bad fortune. And besides, she wanted somebody to play Lego with (her pink girlfriends’ Barbie games bored her to tears), so she decided she would go and rescue her brothers. All seven of them.
As she knew her parents well, she didn’t bother telling them what she was up to (they would only have thrown their hands in the air and said “No! You can’t do that! You’re a girl!”). She packed her provisions, which consisted of a loaf of bread and a jug of water (possibly even the same one that had fallen in the well on that fateful day – I’m sure somebody fished it back out), and a little chair to sit on when she got tired (it always seemed tedious to me that she’d carry a chair around with her, but maybe it was one of those collapsible lawn chairs with a carry strap). She also took along a golden ring to remember her parents by.
So she set out, and she walked on, and on, and on, and on, and… (you get the picture). Finally, she reached the end of the world (which is right past the white parts on the map where it says “Here be dragons”), and what’s beyond the end of the world is, of course, the sun.
But the sun really isn’t very nice – quite apart from being a giant flaming ball of gas, it’s also fond of eating children. (Who knew, right?) So the girl grabbed her lawn chair and jug of water, the last drops of which had evaporated when she got close to the sun, and she skedaddled.
Next she got to the moon, but it was no better. It was freezing cold, and it was also fond of children – for breakfast. When it got a whiff of her, it started going “Fee fi fo furl, I smell a little human girl” (or something equally ogrish), and the girl beat it out of there as fast as she could.
But then she got to the stars, and they were actually quite nice. They each had their own chair to sit on (some of them saying “Director” on the back), and they all gave her their autographs, but the morning star, who was the nicest of the lot, gave her something much more useful: he handed her a chicken bone. “This bone,” he said, “is the key to the glass mountain, which is where you’ll find your brothers.”
The little girl, although she wondered what seven ravens were doing inside a glass mountain, thanked the morning star profusely, wrapped up the chicken bone, which was just the size of her pinkie finger, in her hankie (which she, like any well-brought-up child, carried in her pocket) and went on her way.
When she got to the glass mountain, she couldn’t see inside it, so she had no way of verifying if, in fact, her brothers were there, but then that glass mountain wasn’t really the sort of giant paperweight that I always pictured it to be, because it had a door. And that door was locked and had a chicken-bone-shaped keyhole.
So the girl pulled out her hankie, but when she unwrapped it, to her great shock, it was – empty. (The bone had probably dropped out of her pocket somewhere on the edge of Star Land among the crowds of fans pushing and shoving to get autographs from the stars.) So there she was, standing in front of a great glass mountain without a key.
However, as I mentioned, she was determined. She was also good at problem-solving (probably due to all the Lego-building she’d done; it trains the logic brain). You know where this is going, don’t you? That’s right. She pulled out her Swiss Army knife (another legacy of her brothers), and she chopped off her pinkie finger (I know – Ouch!). Being stoic, as well as smart and determined, she didn’t even blink, but took the gruesome relic, inserted it into the keyhole and unlocked the door (although I could never figure out why she had to chop the finger off first).
She walked into the glass mountain and met a dwarf with a great big tray full of food plates. He was by way of being the ravens’ gentlemen’s gentleman, and having been trained in the best butler schools, he politely ignored the fact that she was dripping blood on his freshly polished parquet floors, and asked, “How can I be of assistance, little miss?”
“I’m looking for my brothers, the ravens,” the girl said.
“Ah, yes. Their Lordships Raven will be back momentarily, if you would be so kind as to step this way.” He led the way into the dining room, where he unloaded his tray and set the table with plates and cups and silverware. (Then he probably got the girl a good-sized bandaid, although the Grimms don’t mention the fact. Well, they were linguists, so not the most practical-minded. But I’m sure the dwarf had it covered.)
The dwarf left to do whatever gentlemen’s gentlemen do while waiting for their masters, and the girl (who was acquainted with Snow White and knew how things are done), made the round of the table, taking a bite of food from each plate and a sip of drink from every cup. But when she got to the last place setting, she pulled her parents’ gold ring from her finger and dropped it into the cup.
All of a sudden there was a great rushing of feathers and whirring of wings. The girl quickly scuttled behind the door, hiding. In came seven large coal-black ravens, and they hopped on the table, each in front of one of the plates.
“Hey, dudes,” said the first raven, “somebody’s been at my grub.” (Okay, he probably worded it a bit more elegantly, but that’s the gist of it.)
“Yeah, mine too,” said the next one, “and it was a human!”
One after the other, the raven brothers agreed, until they got to the youngest one, who’d been so hungry he just gulped the food down in one go, and now stuck his yellow beak in the cup for a long drink.
“Whoa!” he cried, “Get a load of this, dudes!” In the end of his beak he held a ring, which he dropped on his plate. “That’s Mom and Dad’s ring,” he said. “Oh man, I wish our little sister were here – then this ‘being ravens’ gig would be over and done with!”
When the girl heard this, she didn’t bother waiting any longer. “Surprise!” she yelled and jumped out from behind the door.
And just like that – WHOOSH! – the ravens’ feathers dropped from them, and her brothers stood in front of her, fully human again. (The Grimms don’t mention whether they had clothes on or not – that’s always an interesting question in these animal-to-human transformations. But kind of beside the point here.)
So of course, everyone was extremely happy, and they packed up their gear (the oldest brother carrying the girl’s lawn chair) and went home to Mom and Dad, who were beside themselves with joy.
Dad never again lost his temper with his children, even when they left their Lego lying on the living room rug and he stepped on it in the middle of the night in bare feet, which proves beyond all doubt that he was a reformed character.
And that is a happy ending indeed.
There are a couple of other tales in Grimms’ that are quite similar and sometimes get mashed up with “The Seven Ravens” – Grimms #49, “The Six Swans“, and #9, “The Twelve Brothers” – they’re even more dramatic, with wicked mother-in-laws and a very narrow escape from being burned at the stake; definitely worth a read, too. But this one always was my favourite (even though my childhood version had no Lego in it).
Life, the Universe, and “The Seven Ravens”. Happy International Women’s Folklore Thursday!