Some fairy tales fill me with wonder. Some with anger. Some with glee.
And some fairy tales just make me think, whoa, that would be painful.
In this last category is “Diamonds and Toads,” a tale of two sisters who, thanks to an unthinking fairy, end up having some severe oral issues—and that’s before we even consider the economic consequences.
As with so many of the most horrifying fairy tales, the first literary record of this tale came from Giambattista Basile, that cheerful storyteller from Naples who brought the world a version of Sleeping Beauty where Sleeping Beauty fails to wake up. Like that story, “The Two Cakes,” his version of “Diamonds and Toads,” appeared in his Il Pentamerone, published in 1634 and 1636. “The Two Cakes” is a slightly misleading title. Oh, the story does mention a couple of cakes, but it’s really the story of two sisters, Luceta and Troccola, and their two daughters, Marziela and Puccia. Luceta and Marziela are beautiful and kind. Troccola and Puccia are ugly and mean and rude.
She might be kind, but Luceta doesn’t exactly let Marziela just loaf around, sending her daughter to a nearby well to fetch some water. Marziela demands a little cake in return, which Luceta gives her—fortunately enough, since Marziela just happens to meet an old woman at the fountain who wants some cake. Marziela gives the entire cake to the delighted old woman, who hopes that Marziela will breathe roses and jessamines, comb pearls and garnets out of her hair, and have lilies spring up beneath her feet.
This does, I must say, sounds rather uncomfortable. Marziela, however, is delighted by the pearls and garnets. Her mother rushes off to the usurer, a “friend.” I sense a story there, but it’s not one that Basile is interested in telling, since just moments later, Marziela’s ugly aunt Troccola appears, and is understandably rather interested in why, exactly, her previously not all that wealthy niece is counting pearls. Marziela explains, and an excited Troccola sends her own daughter off to the well—where things do not go nearly as well.
And that is kinda the end of the cakes, as, in pure Basile style, the story next proceeds to go completely off the rails, what with betrayal, tossing people off boats, a lesbian mermaid apparently rather into bondage, geese, fireworks, and a king intelligent enough to realize that this might help out his coffers. And since it’s a Basile tale, it all ends more or less happily with a nice moral:
He who shows no pity finds none.
(Incidentally, the version currently available for free on the net is a Victorian translation that rather downplays the bondage and the violence. The original apparently felt that its adult readers could handle learning about the kinkier sides of mermaids.)
As a story, “The Two Cakes” doesn’t quite work, not so much because of the mermaid, but because it has the feel of two tales squished together—the first, about the beautiful/ugly cousins, and the second, about a prince trying to rescue a girl from a mermaid, which suddenly remembers that oh, yes, it’s also a tale about beautiful/ugly cousins, squishing a mention of that into the last few sentences so we aren’t left wondering, “But what happened to the ugly cousin? Did she end up with a kinky merman?” (Spoiler: no.) This probably explains why elements of this story later ended up in very different tales: all of the stuff about the geese, for instance, eventually found its way into the otherwise completely different “The Goose Girl,” although—surprisingly enough, given that the original is a Basile tale—with an even more violent ending. This may be one of the few times that statement can be made about anything in Il Pentamerone.
The disconnect bothered Charles Perrault, for one, a great deal: he not only decided to rewrite the tale, but toss out most of the second half of the tale, keeping only the prince. And I do mean only the prince: the rest of the guy’s story was also tossed out, transforming him from the sort of prince who goes around rescuing people from kinky situations to the sort of prince who merely seizes the opportunity to marry a beautiful, crying, but potentially very wealthy girl that he meets in the woods. It’s not exactly as romantic as the original, is what I’m saying, not to mention leaving me with the sense that this prince might not deserve his good fortune, especially since all we know of him, from Perrault’s text, is that he likes to hunt and he’s certainly thinking of the girl’s money.
But I anticipate. As in Basile’s tale, Perrault’s version, “Diamonds and Toads,” also tells the story of two girls, one beautiful, one ugly. Their mother hates the younger, more beautiful girl, forcing her to work as a house servant. In some fairness, the household doesn’t seem to have enough money to hire an actual servant, but fairness doesn’t seem to be the key factor here. Among her other tasks, the girl has to go fetch a pitcher of water twice a day from a fountain a mile and a half off. I have several questions about this, including, but not limited to, are the three of them all trying to survive on just two pitchers of water per day, and if so, it is really any wonder that the mother and eldest daughter are so bad tempered? Dehydration is a real thing, people. So are headaches.
The younger, more beautiful girl meets an old woman at the well—an old woman who immediately agrees with me, asking for a drink of water—much less than the cake demanded in the earlier story. The girl does so immediately, and for this very small act, and because, as the story and the old woman immediately clarify, she is so beautiful, she receives a “reward.” Every time she speaks, flowers and jewels will come out of her mouth.
So, ok, so much for this girl’s future financial problems. But also, and I cannot say this too strongly, yet again, ouch. The first flowers out of her mouth are roses, complete with thorns, followed by diamonds. Need I point that diamonds are used to cut things? No, no I do not. And exactly how does this work during a casual family dinner? Does she have to stay silent through the whole meal, or just hope that the flowers and gemstones don’t fall into her food whenever she wants to say something? Did you think about any of this, supposedly good fairy? No, no you did not. How fragile or tough are your lips and tongue? Well, er, you are a supernatural creature, so maybe this didn’t come up for you.
The mother, as impractical as the fairy, immediately sends the older, uglier girl off to the fountain, where things fare less well—the girl is rude, and so, ends up getting a curse instead: every time she speaks, she spits out snakes and toads. Again, I have questions, since some snakes and toads produce substances toxic to humans. How is she not poisoned?
This is not of any interest to anyone in the tale. Their immediate focus is to pass blame, which they do—onto the pretty girl, because, why not, beating her severely and sending her out to the woods. Where, sigh, she meets a prince, who, impressed with the wealth dropping from the girl’s lips, agrees to marry her. For the record, girl, you don’t have to marry a prince here. You have diamonds and pearls dropping out of your mouth on a regular basis. Even in the most misogynistic land in the world—which Perrault’s world wasn’t exactly—you are kinda set for life.
Meanwhile, I have another question: what exactly happened to the local economy after this influx of diamonds poured in?
That was something that Perrault might have been aware of—the days of the Spanish kings filling their coffers with gold from the Americas were not all that far off. Once again, however, the courtly Perrault was uninterested in economic concerns, and more interested in social matters. As someone who had flourished under the court of Louis XIV, he felt convinced that marriage to a prince did offer a chance of happiness for a woman—at least in his fairy tales. The prince of this tale hardly earns the girl or the wealth that comes with her, but it is a happy ending for her, and, for Perrault, a chance to point out, not for the first time, the critical importance of manners. Correct manners, at the court of Versailles, were crucial to advancement, something shown in this fairy tale.
As always, it was left to the Grimm Brothers to publish a version of the tale that focused on the critical importance of hard work, “Mother Holle,” in their Children’s and Household Tales (1812). In this version, both sisters are forced to do considerably more than simply feed a cake to an old woman at a well, or offer her a cup of water. Instead, both girls end up jumping into the well—the first to rescue a shuttle for spinning, which has fallen down into the well, and the second in hopes of repeating her sister’s luck.
Both find themselves in the home of Mother Holle, who brings snow to the earth when her bed is shaken. Somewhat oddly, the narration of the tale wants both girls to shake Mother Holle’s bed vigorously, burying the poor people beneath them with piles and piles of thick snow, like, I get that you want a clean and fluffy bed, Mother Holle, but not EVERYONE wants to be buried in snow. Have some consideration.
Naturally, the beautiful sister—who, you will perhaps not be surprised to hear, is a stepdaughter—works hard for Mother Holle, shaking the bed very hard. As a reward, she is allowed to return home, covered with gold. I can’t help but think that the process, as described in the tale, also sounds somewhat painful—the girl is covered by a shower of golden rain which sticks to her and ouch. Her stepmother and stepsister, however, are deeply unconcerned by such issues, and much more interested in the gold. They can earn it, they think, if the stepsister does exactly what the beautiful girl does.
And the stepsister does. Almost. She pricks her finger on a spindle, bleeds, falls into a well, and finds herself in the enchanted realm of Mother Holle. She even works quite hard for one day. And then, she becomes lazy. When she leaves, she finds herself covered with pitch that remains on her for the rest of her life. It’s not exactly a subtle message—work hard, and find yourself showered with gold; be lazy, and find yourself covered in pitch. A harder fate, I tend to think, than even the toads that the other girls had to endure. After all, at least Perrault’s ugly stepsister had the option of remaining silent and keeping the toads from leaping out of her mouth. The Grimms’ ugly stepsister has no such options.
But “Mother Holle” isn’t just a tale of hard work and just rewards, but also of enchantment and other realms. Both daughters can only reach the home of Mother Holle by falling into a well—that is, dying—and Mother Holle herself is a supernatural figure, capable of bringing snow to the world. I hesitate to use the word “goddess” to describe her, exactly, given her appearance in a collection edited by two devout Calvinists who used their collections of fairy tales to emphasize solid Christian virtues, but she seems to be a bit beyond the usual fairy. In their notes for the tale, the Grimms added that describing snow as “Frau Holle making her bed” was a typical saying in Hesse, the German country where the Grimms were from. Holle, or Hulda, seems to have connections to an ancient German or Norse goddess, associated with spinning and death.
Andrew Lang chose Perrault’s “Diamonds and Toads,” for his The Blue Fairy Book (1889), adding “Mother Holle” to The Red Fairy Book (1890) one year later, helping to bring both tales to a wider English-reading audience. And making me, at least, realize just how painful some fairy tales can be.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.