A Gaslighting Fairy Tale: King Thrushbeard

The tale of “King Thrushbeard” begins with a woman assessing, often cruelly, a group of suitors assembled in her honor. From her viewpoint, she has reason: every man there has visible flaws, in particular, a man with a slightly crooked chin, which she compares to a thrush’s beak.

It ends with her crying in a staircase, right before she is dressed up for a royal party.

In between this, things are not all that much more cheerful.

The Grimm brothers collected “King Thrushbeard” in the early 19th century and added it to their first edition of Household Tales, published in 1812. It was an era where middle class and women from the minor aristocracy—the social groups that the Grimms collected their tales from—could, to a certain extent, choose or at least reject potential marriage partners, but where the majority of princesses still had little to say about their marriages.

Little, not nothing. Princesses could, on occasion, turn down potential marriage partners—sometimes with a touch of sarcasm or contempt. Princess Charlotte of Wales, for instance, managed to break off an engagement with the Hereditary Prince of Orange in 1814—though to do so, she had to flee from her house into the street and into a hackney cab, to find shelter with other relatives. Later, after obtaining the approval of her father and the British Parliament, she managed to marry the husband of her choice, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg in 1816. (All of this after, I should note, the Grimms first published “King Thrushbeard.”)

Princess Charlotte was not the only royal woman to successfully refuse an arranged marriage. A well-known if possibly fictitious story, for instance, claims that centuries earlier, Christina of Denmark and later Milan, when offered the opportunity to become the fourth wife of Henry VIII, said that if she had two heads, one would be at his majesty’s disposal. But although this mocking statement does smack of freedom, Christina had before this been married off to Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan. She does not seem to have made a public protest—but she was 12 at the time; he 39. He died shortly afterwards, leaving her a widow at 13. Two of her other potential marriages, to William of Cleves and Rene of Chalon, Prince of Orange, were forbidden by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Her second marriage, to Francis I, the eventual Duke of Lorraine, was arranged. Other princesses escaped unwanted marriages by protest, or by entering convents.

But even by the early 19th century, these still remained the exceptions. Princess Charlotte of Wales had the advantage of being, at the time, the only legitimate grandchild of George III, and thus, heir to the British throne, giving her a certain independence. Princesses that lacked such power—including her aunts, further back in the line of succession—had their marriages arranged, delayed, or forbidden by others, usually male relatives. Some of these arranged marriages turned out well. Others, understandably, did not. The middle class and merchant families who recited tales to the Grimm brothers knew those stories all too well. A few had even met or worked for princesses in arranged marriages; those who did not at the very least knew the then-all too recent tales of the Princess de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette and other high ranking French princesses and noblewomen who had lost their heads after their arranged marriages. A touch of that reality seeped into their oral tales.

“King Thrushbeard” acknowledges this lack of power just a few paragraphs after its opening scenes giving its protagonist the illusion of choice and power. Infuriated that his daughter has not just rejected all of the suitors brought to the castle for her consideration but also insulted every last one of them, the king announces that his daughter will marry the next beggar who comes to the castle. When a minstrel strolls up a few days later, hoping to get a few coins by singing at the windows, the king keeps his word. As the narrator explains:

The king’s daughter was horrified, but the king said, “I swore I’d give you to the very first beggar who came along, and I intend to keep my word.”

All of her objections were no avail. The minister was fetched, and she was compelled to wed the minstrel. When that was done, the king said, “It’s not fitting for you to say in my palace any longer since you’re now a beggar woman. I want you to depart with your husband.”

(translated from the original German by Jack Zipes)

Naturally, no one bothers to ask the minstrel’s opinion about any of this, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the king’s opinion of minstrels, a possible reflection not just of the king’s autocracy, but the uncertain, shifting status of musicians of the time. Composers and musicians could and did move on the edge of court circles—this version was recorded after Mozart had dazzled the courts of Europe—but still, at least in this tale, musicians forced to sing below castle windows for money are apparently a common sight, and the story takes it for granted that a poor musician can be forced to marry a complete stranger at the king’s command.

Anyway, after this unpromising start, the marriage goes rapidly downhill. To reach their new home, the minstrel and the princess have to travel through lands (supposedly) owned by the king with the crooked chin, aka King Thrushbeard. (I say supposedly because the end of the story, as edited by the Grimms, leaves me questioning whether King Thrushbeard in fact owns anything, but I anticipate.) This leads the princess to the belated realization that had she married King Thrushbeard, she could have been rich, an observation that irritates her current, poverty stricken husband.

Once in their new home, the couple encounter a new problem: the princess, understandably, has not been trained to do any physical labor, or even anything remotely useful. Again and again she fails—at lighting a fire (to be fair, electricity-trained me would struggle with this one too), cooking, basket weaving (harder on the hands than it looks), and spinning.

Even her one success—selling pots and earthenware at the market—turns to disaster when a soldier on horseback plunges through her stall, destroying everything. Which kinda leads me to ask, just how poorly made were those pots and pans? I mean, sure, I get why anything made of porcelain would have cracked, but you’d think an iron pot or two might have escaped. But moving on.

The minstrel’s talents apparently haven’t been bringing in any cash either—or at least, not enough to cover their various business investments. To keep them both from starving, the minstrel arranges for the princess to get a job as a mere kitchenmaid, following the path of numerous other fairy tale princesses, but with an added realistic touch: they sew jars in her skirts so that she can bring back leftovers for them to eat. This job goes better, in the sense that she isn’t immediately fired. Indeed, she has the chance to step upstairs and watch a ball, where (a) she realizes that the king’s son is King Thrushbeard, (b) everyone laughs at her and (c) this:

She ran out the door and tried to escape, but a man caught up with her on the stairs and brought her back.

Yes, this sounds ominous, but don’t worry:

“When she looked at him, she saw that it was King Thrushbeard.”

Wait. This worries you? Let him explain:

“Don’t be afraid. I and the minstrel who lived with you in the wretched cottage are one and the same person. I disguised myself out of love for you, and I was also the hussar who rode over your pots and smashed them to pieces. I did all that to humble your proud spirit and to punish you for the insolent way you behaved toward me.”

Naturally, the princess bursts into tears.

A little less naturally, they then head to a party and live happily ever after.

I have questions. Many questions. Like, ok, given that this king’s son’s chin is so distinctive it’s turned into his nickname, how did the princess not recognize him when he was the minstrel? Was he wearing some sort of false beard at the time, and if so, was it still on when he presumably demanded his marital rights? He seems like the sort of dude who would demand his marital rights. How did the rest of the kitchen servants, who were not manhandled into a hallway and laughed at, respond to finding out that their fellow servant was secretly married to the king’s son all the time? (In an alarming clue, the original German suggests that the people at the end of the tale rejoicing at the marriage are her former subjects, not his.) How did the king’s son account for his nights at the dismal cottage during the first few days of their marriage?

And more importantly: Dude. All this because a girl made fun of your chin? Can we say overreaction much?

But what really gets me now, reading the story, is not the girl’s initial humiliating marriage, or even her father’s decision to kick her out of the castle. After all, although I’m not falling into the tale’s trap of believing that she deserved everything that happened to her, her father does do this only after the princess has humiliated multiple nobles and kings—some of whom live right across the border, and hold no particular loyalty to her father or his kingdom. It’s not simply a punishment for failing to choose a husband—although that’s certainly part of her father’s reaction—but also for a lack of diplomacy and tact, something that could put the kingdom into genuine danger.

After all, in an earlier version of this tale, “Cannetella,” found in the 17th century Italian collection Il Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, the princess has the tact not to give her true opinions of her potential husbands right in front of them, even as her requirements for her potential husband keep mounting. When an evil sorcerer does manage to fulfill her final, fantastic conditions—her husband must have a head and teeth made of gold—her father tries to stop the sorcerer from taking Cannetella off after the marriage, and later welcomes his abused daughter back to his home.

So although I’m not exactly going YAY DAD here, and my major reaction to him is also, “Geesh, overreacting much?” along with “just maybe marrying off your daughter to the first beggar who shows up is not the healthiest or best plan here,” I’ll just say that this princess does not exactly fit the innocent fairy tale mode—and in her father’s defense, one of the men she insults is willing to go to considerable lengths in revenge. It’s just lucky for others that the insulted guy didn’t use an army.

No, for me, the most horrifying and heartbreaking moment of the story comes right after the princess has finally found something she’s good at: selling pots and earthenware. True, the story—or the Grimms—immediately denigrate this, noting that she sells pots because she’s good-looking, not because of any marketing skill, but still, she’s a success. She has a skill. She’s contributing to her own upkeep, and proving that even proud aristocrats can have some use.

And then, that one success is destroyed in a single instant when that Hussar rides his horse right through her stand.

The Hussar who just happens to be her husband in disguise.

The same incredibly wealthy husband who forced his wife to work that job in the first place, threatening her with starvation if she did not.

And has the nerve to say that the pot selling went badly because she chose a poor location, not because he destroyed the merchandise. A location where, until he plowed through it, she was making a profit.

The same husband who tells her that all of this only happened because she once insulted him, so he had to do it, out of love for her.

We have a word for this: gaslighting.

Which means that although the story wants me to feel that the princess deserved every moment of this, and wants me to recognize the issues with proud aristocrats unable to do a regular day’s work (in another echo of the not all that distant French Revolution), it has the complete opposite effect on me: I’m cheering this girl on. Ok, so, mocking all kinds of powerful men in and around your kingdom, not great, and mocking this guy’s physical appearance, definitely not great, but otherwise, this guy deserves every nasty nickname you can throw at him, princess, and now that you’re properly dressed again, feel free to march right out of that palace door and into the marketing career you’re so perfectly qualified for.

(She doesn’t, and won’t, of course. Except in my head.)

Oh, and as a sidenote, all of those grandiose land-owning and king claims King Thrushbeard made at the beginning of the tale? Turn out to be complete crap. He’s only the king’s son, not the king. And possibly not even the oldest son, although the story is a bit muddled here: the princess creeps upstairs to watch what the story calls the wedding of the king’s son. When she sees the king’s son, she immediately identifies him as King Thrushbeard (despite her failure to recognize him earlier; maybe she really can’t see past clothing, I don’t know, but then again, I’m pretty much on her side here). But this can’t be his wedding; he’s already married. To her. Or if he is the oldest son, then this is his wedding, meaning that he’s now married two women without informing either of them about this little tidbit, and he’s even worse than I thought.

And yet, despite the princess’ tears, the narrator assures us that this is a happy ending.

The Grimms presumably included the tale in their collection in part because, as they documented, they had collected three separate versions of the story, attesting to its popularity. The tale also emphasized the same values they wanted to emphasize: the importance of modesty, obedience, and hard work in the lives of women. The situation described in the tale, that of choosing between manual labor and starvation, was a situation women could find themselves in all too easily. “King Thrushbeard” also acknowledges that work done by women often requires training and skill—something its audience of middle class and skilled workers knew all too well, but something often left out of the tales told by tellers from more aristocratic backgrounds. That was something the Grimms both wanted to emphasize and thought that their middle class readers might appreciate.

But the Grimms presumably had another motive as well: their awareness of the long standing literary tradition of the tales of shrewish wives tamed by their husbands, which had appeared in several French and Italian collections and in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. A point of Household Tales, after all, was to document and celebrate the superiority of German culture, and explore its place in European culture, and wanted to include a German variation of this tale in their collection.

Like many of the various retellings of Beauty and the Beast, tales of this sort were meant in part to provide guidance, warning, and comfort to young women, forced by custom and law to obey their husbands. Guidance, in terms of expected gender roles for women; warning, in terms of what could happen to women who failed to conform to those expectations; and comfort, assuring young girls that yes, they could find happiness, even in a marriage shaded by cruelty. At the very least, in an era where divorce was often not an option, and where even powerful, wealthy women could find themselves trapped in abusive marriages, unable to escape, these tales could assure women that they weren’t alone. These sorts of things could even happen to princesses.

But by presenting outspokenness as something that needed to be tamed, by arguing—as this version does—that women could deserve the abuse they received from spouses, these tales could also be very dangerous. “King Thrushbeard,” by wrapping all of this up into a happy ending with a party that the narrator wants to attend, not only emphasizes values of modesty and hard work, but also sanctions emotional abuse—in a collection that also features Cinderella allowing crows to pick out the eyes of her stepsisters.

Interestingly enough, perhaps because English literature already had Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, or because the tale simply didn’t appeal to him, Andrew Lang chose not to include “King Thrushbeard” in any of his fairy tale books, although he did include several other Grimm tales as well as a cleaned up for children translation of “Cannetella.” Nonetheless, as other English translations of the Grimm tales continued to appear, the tale slowly crept into English consciousness, as an example of how even a fairy tale princess can find herself told that it’s her fault that a man has to punish her.

Top image: Illustration by Margaret Evans Price from “King Hawksbeak” in Once Upon a Time, ed. by Katharine Lee Bates. Rand McNally & Company: Chicago & New York. 1921.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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