Welcome back to Fantasy Corner! Today we’ll be looking at three bizarre tales from Denmark, Italy, and Norway. I couldn’t make these stories up if I tried, but someone did.
People have a strange tendency to tell the same stories no matter where they are. Look into nearly any human culture and you’ll almost certainly find a variation on Cinderella, a version of Romeo and Juliet, and half a hundred retellings of the Hero’s Journey. They’ll likely have a ghost story, and maybe a variation on vampires. They’ll almost certainly have some kind of dragon. Whether we’re telling old stories we heard from our grandmother or watching the Disney version, humanity seems to love retelling the same five or so stories.
Then there are other fairy tales, which don’t appear in Disney movies. These are usually the kind of stories that make you wonder how the author got whatever they were smoking in 17th century Germany. In this article, we’ll be looking at three of these tales:
- The Shadow from Hans Christian Anderson.
- Pintosmalto from Il Pentamerone.
- Lindworm from Asbjornsen and Moe.
Hans Christian Andersen is famous for writing “The Little Mermaid,” which is famous for inspiring a whimsical Disney movie about sea witches and handsome princes. But, as anyone who’s read the original stories knows, Andersen was a sad and cynical man. Stories like “The Little Match Girl” or the gruesome original version of The Little Mermaid rarely have clear-cut happy endings.
“The Shadow” is probably the bleakest of Anderson’s stories. The story begins with a learned man in a foreign country, sitting before a fire and watching the shadows on the wall. He wonders what it would be like if his shadow were a creature with a mind of its own.
The next morning, his shadow is gone. However, a new shadow quickly takes its place. Soon enough he heads home and forgets the whole thing. Years later, a stranger appears on his doorstep. It’s his Shadow, who has grown independent and traveled the world on his own. The Shadow and the Learned Man get into an argument, and the Shadow declares that the Learned Man is too idealistic before they part ways.
The Shadow goes on to become wealthy and successful, while the Learned Man remains a starving artist. Eventually, they cross paths again, and the Shadow offers to take the Learned Man on a trip to a health resort with him. He’ll foot the bill, on one condition; the Learned Man has to be his shadow while they’re there.
At the health resort, the Shadow meets a beautiful Princess, who falls in love with him. By the end of their stay, the Shadow and the Princess are engaged to be married. The Shadow offers the Learned Man a position at the palace, on the condition that he continues to act as the Shadow’s shadow for the rest of his life. The Learned Man objects to this. When he threatens to tell the Princess, the Shadow has him locked up. The Shadow is seen as a respectable and successful man, while the Learned Man is a shadow who went mad and imagined himself to be human. After explaining his situation to the Princess, the Shadow decides to quietly put the Learned Man out of his misery.
The next day, the Learned Man is executed. The Shadow and the Princess get married. And they all, presumably, live happily ever after.
Il Pentamerone, also known as “The Tale of Tales,” is a collection of fairy tales by the Italian poet Giambattista Basile. One of the stories he wrote was Pintosmalto, a bizarre gender-flipped retelling of Pygmalion and Galatea. We begin with a wealthy merchant and his daughter Betta, who refuses to marry anyone.
One day the merchant goes to the fair and asks Betta if she wants anything. She gives him a veritable shopping list, starting with “half a hundredweight” each of sugar and blanched almonds, six bottles of scented water, a trough, and a little silver trowel. Then Betta shuts herself up in her room and spends the next week or so building a man out of marzipan. When this is done, she prays to the Goddess of Love to bring her anatomically correct life-sized Ken Doll to life. Then she goes downstairs with Pintosmalto on her arm and tells her father they’re going to get married.
Her father is strangely accepting of this, but of course, the story isn’t over yet. At the wedding, a queen sees Pintosmalto and falls in love with him on the spot. She offers him a ride in her carriage (remember, he’s about a week old at this point) and takes him away. Betta, still staunchly determined not to marry a human man, takes off across the country in the dress of a peasant girl. On the way she stops at the house of an old woman, who gives her three magic phrases to say if she gets into trouble: “Tricche varlacche, the house rains!” “Anola tranola, the fountain plays!” and “Scatola matola, the sun shines!” Betta is a little bit skeptical – but hey, it’s free advice.
Eventually, she reaches the queen’s palace and asks for a job and a place to stay. She stays in a room near the stables and waits until she sees Pintosmalto. Then she says, “Tricche varlacche, the house rains!” which produces a little golden carriage. The queen offers to buy the carriage from her, and Betta names her price: one night with Pintosmalto. The queen laughs at her, takes the carriage, and makes sure that Pintosmalto takes some sleeping pills before Betta shows up that night.
The next day, Betta says “Anola tranola, the fountain plays!” to produce a jeweled bird in a golden cage. Again, the queen takes it and drugs Pintosmalto. By the third night, Pintosmalto is getting sick of this. When the queen tries to drug him again, he makes sure to spit out the pill before going to sleep. So when Betta uses “Scatola matola, the sun shines!” for one last chance, it finally works. She catches him up to speed (I made you, we got married, don’t get into carriages with strangers) and they steal away in the night.
Then they live happily ever after, or at least until Pintosmalto started to get moldy. Basile leaves us with a moral: if you got cheated, you’re allowed to cheat back. Sure, let’s go with that.
Our last story of the night is a classic fairy tale from Norway. Unlike Pintosmalto and the Shadow, which were deliberately written, Prince Lindworm is one of those stories without an author which was passed down for generations. Which, honestly, just raises questions about what the hell was going on in ancient Norway. We begin with that classic fairy tale device: a queen without any children. The queen meets a witch who gives her a white rose and a red rose. If she eats the red rose, she’ll have a boy; the white rose will give her a girl. Under no circumstances is she to eat both – so take a wild guess what she does.
Nine months later, the queen gives birth to a ghastly creature: the titular Lindworm. But the creature has a twin, a beautiful baby boy, so the queen decides she imagined the whole thing. The boy grows up to be a handsome prince; meanwhile, everyone forgets about the Lindworm until it’s time for the human brother to find a bride. As the prince sets out to find a prince, the Lindworm – now an awful white dragon – stops his carriage in the middle of the road and announces “A bride for me before a bride for you!”
The king and queen concede that this is fair; after all, the Lindworm is older by a few minutes. They send a letter to a faraway kingdom asking for a bride, without saying anything about the prospective bridegroom. The Lindworm eats the princess, presumably starting a massive international conflict that we don’t get to see. After the second time this happens, the king gives up and arranges a marriage between the Lindworm and a shepherd’s daughter.
The shepherd’s daughter is less than thrilled about marrying a monster. She goes to an old woman for advice, and receives a very strange shopping list: ten snow-white linen shifts, a tub of lye, a tub of milk, and “as many whips as a boy can carry.” After the wedding, the shepherd’s daughter goes to the marriage bed wearing ten shifts. The Lindworm tells her to shed a shift. In response, the girl tells him to shed one of his skins.
He obliges, and this goes on until the girl is naked and the Lindworm loses all its skins. Then she whips him with the whips, washes him in the lye, and rinses him off in the milk. Then she lays down next to him and puts her arms around him. In the morning, she wakes up next to a handsome prince. The shepherd’s daughter and the Lindworm live happily ever after.
Of course, we’re not really sure what the point of this story is. An allegory for young brides, about conquering the mysteries of the bedroom? A historical metaphor for a monstrous prince? A bad trip? One has to wonder.
Humanity seems to enjoy repeating the same five stories. Maybe the classic cliches have an appeal that keeps us going back to them. Still, it’s refreshing to see some weirdness once in a while.