Tag: Pentamerone

Dark Fairy Tales I: The Girl with No Hands

Dark Fairy Tales I: The Girl with No Hands

“The Girl with No Hands” is the name of a a folk-tale motif shared by a number of gruesome fairy stories in which the the amputation of the heroine’s hands allows her to escape death, the Devil, or a repugnant suitor.

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

We begin our show with a religious legend differing in narrative details but sharing the amputation theme. It’s a medieval story told in Eastern Orthodox lands of the terrible cost of bad manners at a funeral, specifically that of the Virgin Mary. As a further preliminary to our stories, we also offer a quick rundown on the Aarne–Thompson–Uther system of folk-tale classification, in which “The Girl with No Hands” is identified as ATU 706.

The oldest written example of this motif is the Italian story “Biancabella,” from Le piacevoli notti (“The Pleasant Nights”), a book published in two volumes between 1550 and 1553.  The author, Giovanni Francesco Straparola, appears to have modeled his collection on Boccaccio’s Decameron as it uses a similar frame-story, Straparola’s involving characters pleasantly passing their nights (hence the title) in the telling of tales.  Among the stories Straparola included, is the first version of “Puss in Boots.”

Le piacevoli nott
Straparola ‘s “The Pleasant Nights”

I won’t spoil listeners’ pleasure in hearing Mrs. Karswell read for you the original text but will divulge that its hand-losing heroine Biancabella shares a birth kinship with a serpentine fairy; also, that her hands are sacrificed in an effort to convince her wicked stepmother that her orders to execute her step-daughter have been carried out, and that guilty parties endure in the end a fiery foretaste of hell.

Our second story is “Penta the Handless” from Il Pentamerone (or “The Tale of Tales”) was written about a century later, in 1634, by the Italian poet Giambattista Basile. This collection of stories also makes use of the framing device, having the stories told by a group of courtiers attempting to cheer a melancholy princess.  Among the 50 stories included are the first written versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel.

In this story, Penta’s mutilation is self-inflicted as a means of repelling the incestuous advances of her brother.  Her royal sibling has an exotic means of expelling her from the kingdom, namely, sealing her  in a tarred chest and casting her into the sea (a motif that dates back to the plays of Euripides or even the story of the infant Moses).

Pentamerone
Basile’s Il Pentamerone

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm provide a relatively late example of this narrative, one however that has provided the ATU #706 with a name:,”The Girl with No Hands.” The story is ncluded in the Grimm’s first 1812 edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, i.e., “Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” Our Grimm segment, by the way, begins with a clip from the trailer for the 1962 film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.

As an oral folk-tale, this German version dispenses with some of the detailed intrigues that mark its two Italian antecedents. Rather than a wicked in-law or brother, it’s the  Devil, who tricks a down-on-his-luck miller into doing the gruesome deed.  As is frequent in German stories collected by the Grimms, a magical forest-dwelling man also plays a role.

We also briefly discuss a few versions of the story published after Jacob & Wilhelm’s version — other German, Italian, and Hungarian tales which place blame for the amputation not on the Devil but on wicked family members.  A gruesome detail included in a few of these mirrors a similarly faux-cannibalistic scene from the Grimms’ original “Snow White.”

We return to Russian for our final story, “The Armless Maiden,” one of the nearly 600 folk tales or skazki contained in the multi-volume Russian Fairy Tales collection compiled by state ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev between 1855 and 1863.

The heroine here is an orphan happily living with her brother until the day her brother takes a bride, as she turns out to be a witch, who is less than happy sharing the household with another female —  and has a particularly brutal way of showing it.  A strange example of sort Lamarckian evolutionary magic marks this one, with the armless maiden giving birth to a child with silver arms. A particularly gruesome manner of dispatching the sorceress is also a highlight.

We end the show with a Russian musical snippet from an electronic band from Moscow, a duo making music since 2013, under the name IC3PEAK.  The song in question rather appropriately  begins with the line “I come from a Russian Horror Fairy Tale” and  further endears itself with the delightful Baba-Yaga-esque animation of its music video.

Afanasyev
1895 edition of Afanasyev’s “Russian Fairy Tales”

 

The Lover’s Head

The Lover’s Head

The motif of lovers retaining the head of a decapitated partner is surprisingly widespread. In this — our romantic Valentine’s Day episode  — we have a look at old ballads, literature, fairy tales, legends, and even a few historical anecdotes in which such things occur.

We begin with the English murder ballad, “In Bruton Town,” also known as “The Bramble Briar,” “The Jealous Brothers,” or “The Constant Farmer’s Son.”  It might seem a strange inclusion at first as there is actually no decapitated lover in the song, but it’s widely recognized by scholars as having derived from a 14th-century story identical in all other elements of the narrative.  Though no heads are removed, there is a murder, namely that of a suitor courting the sister of two brothers who find his social status unacceptable (as well as the fact that he is slipping into their sister’s bedroom along the way). There is also a visitation by the ghost of the dead lover, in which he reveals the location of his corpse, with whom the woman lives for three days in the woods before being forced home by hunger — all of which may remind some listeners to the lover’s ghost in “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” discussed in our Undead Lovers episode.  The segment begins with a snippet from a version of the song given a enthusiastically gothic treatment by The Transmutations.  The a cappella version is by A.L. Lloyd.

The probable source story  for the ballad is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a tale told to entertain her fellow travelers by Filomena, one of the refugees fleeing plague-stricken Florence in the novel’s frame story.  She describes the tragic romance of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. As in our ballad, Lorenzo is an unworthy suitor engaging in secret rendezvous with Lisabetta, whose brothers are similarly protective of her and their sister and family status. Lorenzo meets his end when invited by the brothers to join them on an excursion out beyond the city.  He later appears in a dream to reveal the location of his corpse.

Maestro di Jean Mansel
Illustration for tale of Lisabetta of Messina from The Decameron by Maestro di Jean Mansel (1430-1450)

As she grieves over her lover’s body, Lisabetta recognizes that she is physically unable to transport it back for burial, and so does the next best thing, removing the head with a handy razor.  The rest of the story relates how the head is hidden in pot planted with basil, the discovery of which causes the brothers to flee from justice. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the grisly details Boccaccio provides.

Roughly three centuries later, we find a lover’s remains planted in a pot in Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone or “The Tale of Tales,” perhaps the earliest compilation of European fairy tales. The story, “The Myrtle,” presents a fairy who lives in a sprig of mirtle kept by a prince who nightly makes love to her as when she assumes a human form. When she is murdered by jealous rivals, the prince’s servant mops up her bloody remains and dumps them in the pot where they regenerate through the mirtle. The understandably annoyed fairy sees to it that her would-be assassins meet a fitting fate.

We then take a quick look at other writers who picked up Boccaccio’s tale, including the 16th-century German playwright Hans Sachs and 19th-century English poet John Keats (“Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”). The derivation of the folk ballad may have come through an English version of Sach’s play, but there’s no documentation to prove this.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868.

Another interesting iteration of the story comes from Denmark, from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen — from his 1872 story “The Rose-Elf,” or “The Elf of the Rose.”  This one tells much the same tale, but presents it through the eyes of an invisibly small elf who occupies a rose, and later a leaf in the tree under which the murderer buries the lover’s body. While the elf may have been inserted in an effort to position the tale as one for children, the story is grim even by Andersen standards.

We then examine a couple historical cases of loved one’s heads kept as postmortem mementos, among these, the head of Sir Walter Raleigh kept after his beheading by his wife Elizabeth Throckmorton and that of Thomas More kept not by his wife but his daughter, Margaret Roper.

Next up, a few tales of the preserved heads of lovers serving as objects of terror and disgust rather than romantic attachment.  The first is that of Arthur and Gorlagon, one probably composed in 14th-century Wales.  It’s a truly weird narrative, so much so that some scholars have suggested it was composed as a joke or parody.

Without giving too much away, the story (which we hear at length) is perhaps best described an Arthurian Shaggy Dog story, a werewolf story actually, one that meanders in the classic shaggy-dog mode and likewise can’t be expected to deliver the anticipated payoff, though it does provide us the preserved head of a deceased lover.

A similar tale with an embalmed head employed as an ever-present, shaming reminder of a wife’s infidelity is found in The Palace of Pleasure a collection of stories by John Painter published in several volumes first appearing in 1566. This one features a pleasingly gothic scene of a black-clad woman with shaven head employing some rather gruesome tableware.

We wrap up with the tale of Willem Mons, an unfortunate lover of Catherine the Great who lost his head (though Catherine hung on to it) and the 2016 story of Davie Dauzat of Bellmont, Texas, who decided the family freezer would be a good place to retain the head of the wife he decapitated. The closing song snippet is by Arrogant Worms.