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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif S0-S99

Cruel relatives

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

II – The Complex Tale

8. Good and bad relatives

A. Faithless Mother, Sister, or Wife

A small group of tales, with a tendency to fade into one another and thus obscure their identity, concern the evil deeds of a faithless sister or mother. The main action in these stories is nearly always the same, the differences being found in the introductions. In The Faithless Sister (Type 315) a brother and sister have been promised to a water spirit (or some other kind of monster). After they enter the services of the monster, the sister marries him and plots against her brother. In The Prince and the Arm Bands (Type 590) a boy who is traveling with his mother finds an arm band (or a blue belt) [p. 114] which gives him supernatural strength. They find lodgings with a giant, who persuades the mother to marry him. Later the mother joins the giant in his plot against the boy. Whether the young man's opponent be his mother or his sister, a succession of attempts is made against his life. Because of his strength, he defeats the giant. The mother or sister feigns sickness, and sends the boy on a quest for lion's milk. Because of his great strength he succeeds, not only in getting the milk, but in bringing the lions along with him and turning them loose on the giant. Likewise, he is sent for magic apples which grow in the garden of the giant's brother. These apples will cause him to sleep, so that the brothers may kill him, but the lions protect him. On awakening from his magic sleep, he rescues a princess from the giant's castle, marries her, and lives in the castle until she leaves to go to her father, a distant king. He now returns to his mother and she beguiles him into telling the secret of his strength. She steals the belt, blinds the boy, and sets him adrift in a boat. He is rescued from his peril by the helpful lions, who restore his sight with magic water which they have seen animals use for that purpose. He eventually recovers his belt, avenges himself, and brings back his wife.

Where the sister is involved as the faithless relative, practically the same train of events may occur, though there is a good deal of variety in the details The sending for the dangerous animals because of feigned sickness is the most characteristic trait of these two stories. This cycle of tales has not been analyzed so as to see whether that about the faithless mother is really anything more than a variant of the one about the faithless sister.

They would certainly have to be studied together, because if they are not really variations of one tale, they have influenced each other profoundly. They would seem to be primarily east European. They are found in abundance in the Baltic countries, Russia, and the Balkans (particularly Roumania), [138] and are rather well established in North Africa and the Near East. On the other hand, they are scarce in western Europe. A particularly good version of The Prince and the Arm Bands is found in Norway, and this Norwegian version is apparently responsible for the presence of this tale in almost identical form among the Chipewyan Indians of western Canada. [139]

The Faithless Sister occurs not only in the tale we have just discussed (Type 315) but also in a considerable number of versions of The Dragon Slayer [p. 115] (Type 300). In that story the hero is often a shepherd with a sister who later joins his enemies and plots against him. [140]

A story much resembling these two of the faithless mother and faithless sister is found in eastern Europe, where it is usually known as The Faithless Wife (Type 315B*). [141] This story begins with the well-known rescue of a princess from a dragon. The hero marries the princess, but she falls in love with another man. She deceives her husband into giving up his magic weapons and plots against his life. A magician teaches him how to take the form of a horse, a tree, and a duck. [142] The wife always recognizes him and orders the horse to be killed, the tree to be cut down, etc. Through the help of a servant girl the husband regains the magic weapons, avenges himself on his wife and her lover, and marries the servant girl.

Another tale of a faithless wife which is especially popular in eastern Europe is The Tsar's Dog (Type 449*), a modification and perhaps an adaptation of the story of Sidi Numan from the Thousand and One Nights. The central point of the story concerns the untrue wife who turns her husband into a dog in order that she may more easily desert him and go with her lover. [143]

If there is any doubt as to the Oriental and literary origin of The Tsar's Dog, there can certainly be none of another faithless wife story, The Three Snake Leaves (Type 612). That tale appeared in the Buddhistic legends of both India and China and became a part of the repertory of medieval monks in their collections of exempla. [144] Nevertheless, it has frequently been recorded as an oral folktale in all sections of Europe, as well as in India and Indonesia. This story begins with the hero's promise to his bride that if she dies before him he will be buried with her. Shortly after the wedding this happens, and in the grave he sees a snake revive another with leaves. By imitating the snake, he resuscitates his wife. In some other forms of the tale the wife is restored to life in reply to a prayer on condition that the husband give up twenty years of his own life. Sometimes the tale closes at this point, but frequently it proceeds as follows: the wife falls in love with a shipmaster and the two of them throw the husband into the sea. He is drowned, but is [p. 116] resuscitated by a faithful servant, who uses the snake leaves. The guilty pair are suitably punished. There is considerable difference in the motivation of the variants of this story. In some, the story-teller is obviously most interested in the marvelous cure and its discovery; in some the central point is the willingness of the husband to give up twenty years of his own life in order to recover his wife. But whether it is the central point or not, all of them emphasize the ingratitude of the wife.

Of cruel relatives in folktales the stepmother appears more often than any other. [145] We have already found her as an incidental part of several stories, and she will appear later on in the Cinderella cycle and elsewhere. In one story at least the stepmother's cruelty is the very center of the interest. The Juniper Tree (Type 720), with its bird song, is best known to the world as a German tale, not only because Faust's Marguerite sings it in prison, but because in the Grimm collection it is told in a dialect which has caught the attention of most readers of that collection. As in a number of folk stories, the father takes a second wife against the advice of his child. In this story the stepmother is very cruel to his little boy. Her own daughter, little Mary Ann, however, is fond of the boy and helps him all she can. One day while the father is away the stepmother closes the lid of a chest on the boy and kills him. She cooks him and serves him to his father, who eats him unknowingly. Little Mary Ann gathers up the bones from under the table where the father has thrown them and buries them under the juniper tree. The next day a bird comes forth from the grave. The bird goes to various places and sings a song about the murder. [146] He receives presents, which he takes back to the juniper tree. He drops a ring for his sister, slippers for his father, and, at last, a millstone on the stepmother. At her death the bird becomes a boy again. The song seems to be the most persistent part of this tradition. There are a relatively small number of European tales in which songs are an essential element, and their relation to the popular ballad is obvious. As for this story, it does not appear in any of the literary collections and it would hardly seem to have any connections with literature except its use by Goethe. As an oral tale, it is popular in all parts of Europe, and sporadic versions, certainly the result of travelers or colonists, are found in North Africa, South Africa, and Australia, and among the Louisiana Negroes. The almost purely oral nature of this tradition, along with the interesting combination of prose and verse, should make this tale a very profitable subject for comparative study.

The fact that the stories just treated are concerned entirely with the cruelty of women [147] does not mean that fathers and brothers are always kind. But the interest in such tales is most frequently in the way these cruel relatives [p.117] are defeated, rather than in the cruelty itself. Elder brothers are particularly wont to plot against the youngest in the family, and frequently a woman finds that she is married to an ogre or a cruel husband. [148]

[138] Schullerus, in his survey of Roumanian tales, lists all his 22 versions of The Prince and the Arm Bands (Type 590) under 315A, where it might well belong.

[139] It was a study of the relation of this Norwegian and Chipewyan tale which helped mark the beginning of my interest in the North American Indian tales, and which eventually led to my study, European Tales Among the North American Indians (1919) and Tales of the North American Indians (1929). Dr. Pliny Earl Goddard had sent this Chipewyan tale to the late Professor Kittredge for his opinion as to where it may have come from. Professor Kittredge happened at the moment to be working over some Roumanian variants of the same tale. He read the letter to a seminar of which I was a member and discussed the interest of the problem and later encouraged me to study it. I have never learned whether he went further with the study of this story in southeastern Europe.

[140] For references, see Balys, Motif-Index, p. 26 (37 Lithuanian); Schullerus, Verzeichnis der rumänischen Märchen, p. 35 (3 Roumanian); Afanasief, Narodnie Russkie Skazki (1938 ed.), II, 606, Nos. 208-209 (3 Russian).

[141] This whole incident is strongly reminiscent of the Egyptian story of The Two Brothers; see p. 275, below.

[142] The obvious resemblance of this story to The Golden Ass of Apuleius and indeed all other relationships of this story are discussed in Walter Anderson's Roman Apuleya i Narodnaya Skazka (Kazan, 1914), I, 376-487, 612-633; see also Afanasief, Narodnie Russkie Skazki (1938 ed.), II, 627, Nos. 254, 255; Bolte-Polívka, III, 122.

[143] For a discussion of the tale, see Gaston Paris, Zeitschrijt des Vereins für Volkskunde, XIII, 1-24, 129-150; Polívka, ibid., XIII, 399; Bolte-Polívka, I, 126; Wesselski, Märchen des Mittelalters, p. 188.

[144] For a list of these versions, see Ranke, Zwei Bruüder, p. 381. He lists 52 versions ranging from Brazil to the Caucasus.

[145] See Motif S31 for a list of tales including cruel stepmothers, and also a bibliography.

[146] For other stories about the way in which murder comes to light, see pp. 137, below.

[147] A sufficient number of examples of cruel mothers-in-law will be found in the tales of substituted brides and banished wives, the next subject of our discussion. See Motif S51 for references.

[148] For this whole subject of cruel relatives in folktales, see Motifs S0 to S99, and K2210 to K2219.


300, 315, 315A, 315B*, 449*, 590, 612, 720


K2210-K2219, S0-S99, S31, S51