Fairy Tale Towers and False Brides: “Maid Maleen”

As we’ve previously discussed here, the practice of locking women up in towers of one sort of another was not exactly unknown in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. In some cases, the women entered willingly, interested in pursuing a religious life—out of either genuine religious devotion, or interest in the opportunities offered by cloisters, which included education, culture and the opportunity to avoid the risks of childbirth. In other cases, the women did not enter willingly at all, but found themselves forced into prison and death. Some for crimes they committed; some for purely political reasons; and at least two because if you’re going to marry six women but not do that all at once you have got to hurry up the process by imprisoning and then executing them in towers.

Not at all surprisingly, this historical reality bled into fairy tales. Rapunzel and its variants are probably the best known, especially after a certain recent movie, but equally interesting is a story of a maiden imprisoned not by a witch, but by her own father: Maid Maleen.

The tale begins where many fairy tales end. Maleen has fallen in love with a presumably handsome and charming prince. Her father, however, has someone else in mind, and rejects Maleen’s choice. Maleen does not simply go along with this, announcing that she will only marry her chosen prince. Her infuriated father builds a tower without windows or doors, and bricks her up inside this. He may have had Saint Barbara in mind, also imprisoned by her father for refusing to marry, and thus doomed to be shown clutching or standing near a tower for the rest of her artistic existence. (She later became the patron saint of explosions, which seems kinda appropriate.) Or possibly not, since Saint Barbara refused to marry at all, clinging to her Christian faith. Maleen, in contrast, has no desire to stay chaste. She wants her prince.

Alas, she is sealed away with her maid into this dark tower with just seven years of food and water, and I have to immediately ask: (a) what did the poor maid do to deserve this (presumably nothing, but I’d love to know how exactly she got chosen and buried into this) and (b) given the complete lack of windows, what, exactly, were the sanitary arrangements? I know most of us don’t want to think about something like that, but, you know, in seven years, certain things could, uh, back up. Also, appreciate the seven years of water and other assorted beverages but bacteria love water, and as I mentioned, the sanitary arrangements do not sound at all well thought out. I just kinda feel that ordinary convent imprisonment might have worked out just as well for everyone, not to mention given Maleen the opportunity to catch up on religious reading or needlework, or maybe even put in a spot of gardening.

And also, they did put in air holes someplace, right? Just checking.

Maleen’s prince wanders around and around the tower, calling out kinda hopelessly, creating a phallic joke of sorts that I’ll just skip for the moment. Maleen and the maid can’t hear him since the walls are too thick—not boding too well for those airholes, so now I need to ask, how are they breathing—and eventually, he just wanders off.

What can I say? Some fairy tale princes are useful, and others… are not.

Seven years later, and Maleen and the maid realize that their food supplies are running low—and that they have not heard a single sound indicating that help, let alone more food, is on the way. So, they begin to dig themselves out with a bread knife. Remarkably, this works in three days, and let me just say (a) wow, what an inefficient prison, (b) why on earth didn’t you think of doing this earlier if only for the maid’s sake, not yours, and (c) did I mention the uselessness of this fairy tale prince? Maleen and her maid dug herself out in three days with just a bread knife, and he—wandered outside their prison. Helpful, prince. Very helpful.

Matters don’t improve all that much after they batter their way out of prison; the countryside has been ravaged, with no food or shelter available, which is to say, maybe shutting your daughter up in a dark tower for seven years wasn’t the best use of your available resources, oh king, and, also, hi, karma, but why did you also have to hit all of the peasants who presumably did not ask for this?

Anyway. From here, the story abruptly changes directions, as a starving Maleen and her maid leave their country in search of food and shelter. Eventually they end up in the land of Maleen’s still incredibly useless prince, where, after considerable begging, they manage to obtain jobs in the kitchen. Why exactly Maleen doesn’t go to her prince and ask directly for help is a good question, though, to be fair, as noted, the story has already gone to some lengths to focus on just how useless the guy is.

Also, to be fair, the prince has since become engaged to someone else.

This shifts the tale into something else: a false bride story. That is, a tale where the struggling girl or princess finally reaches her prince, only to find him married off, or about to be married off, to a dreadful woman—in some cases, a troll. In most stories, this forces the girl to trade what few belongings she has left to the false bride in the hopes of just getting a conversation with the guy. On her side, the false bride is usually so desperate to get the prince to notice and love her that she agrees to all sorts of wildly inappropriate things just to get the magical dress, or the lovely ring, or whatever magical item might finally—finally—get the prince to fall in love. That is, a magically hellish love triangle, and one that almost inevitably ends poorly for the false bride, who is sometimes evil (or a troll), and sometimes not. Ugly, or pregnant, or just wrong, but not necessarily evil.

The idea, of course, is that the lovely girl must free the prince from the wrong marriage because, gasp, fairy tales forbid that a handsome, charming prince, useless or not, end up married to a—gasp—ugly woman (or troll). There’s something to be said for that, especially in tales like “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” (a story that I promise we’ll get to eventually) where the prince is under an enchantment: I rather like the idea of girls doing the rescuing and getting all of the adventures. At the same time, having to rescue their princes from the monstrous women who ensnared them….well. Hmm. And at times, I can’t help but have some sympathy for the false brides.

As in this case. This particular bride isn’t just ugly, but deeply ashamed of her looks, to the point where she’s terrified of heading to her own wedding, since people will see her. Her solution? Getting a kitchen maid—Maleen—to stand in her place at the wedding. Why a kitchen maid? Well, partly to heighten the dramatic irony of just happening to choose the girl who just happens to be her prince’s first choice of bride, but also presumably because any marriage with that great of a gulf in social rank could be easily invalidated, and also because, also presumably, the ugly bride assumes that no one will look at the girl and go, wait, didn’t I see you in the kitchens? A bit snobbish, sure, but also, at least a few people there presumably see all other people as just colorful blurs thanks to a lack of access to prescription lenses.

I’m presuming a lot here, but to be fair, so is the tale. Maleen, however, refuses to presume anything, noting that it’s not exactly her place to pretend to be a king’s bride. The false bride solves this by threatening to kill Maleen, so, off everyone goes, with Maleen singing a little song about nettles to a nettle bush, presumably to cheer everyone up, or at least herself up. She also chats to a little footbridge and to the church door. The prince is understandably a little surprised about this—my understanding (gathered entirely from the American television coverage of the wedding of Harry and Meghan whoops sorry Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk to be all fairy tale and proper about it) is that singing to nettles and chatting with inanimate objects is not part of Royal Wedding Traditions. He’s also a little astonished that his father has somehow found a new bride who looks and sounds almost exactly like his old and apparently dead bride, like “astonished” is probably not the world you should be going for here, Prince Useless, as I’m now going to call you. “Creepy” is the right term.

Anyway, it’s all a bit brutal for Maleen, what with the singing to nettles and having to pretend to be the other woman who is marrying her true love, plus, the prince giving her some jewelry during the ceremony. She hastily removes her fancy clothes, allowing the false bride to join the prince, and I can’t help but think that maybe—just maybe—her prince’s failure to remember that she’s the sort of person who will sing to nettles and be kinda passive-aggressive about how she once needed to eat him in part because he couldn’t break through a wall that she could with a bread knife had something to do with her decision here.

Unfortunately, since Prince Useless wants to know why, exactly, his bride was more interested in talking with nettles, bridges and doors than, say, him, this also puts the false bride in an uncomfortable situation, since as she says—quite understandably—”I don’t talk to nettle plants.” This leads to a comedy of errors with the false bride (heavily veiled) continually jumping up and running out of the room to find out what, exactly, was said to the various objects.

Eveeeeeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnnnntttuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuaaalllllllllllllyyyyyyyyyyyy, even Prince Useless figures out that something is slightly off here—and pulls the veil from the false bride’s face. She explains that she was terrified that people would make fun of her. The prince’s compassionate response to this? To ask her to bring the kitchen maid who took her place to him. Instead, the false bride orders the servants to cut off the kitchen maid’s head. It’s a real threat—the servants are on the edge of obeying until Maleen screams, finally stirring Prince Useless to do something. He comes out, kisses Maid Maleen, and orders the false bride to be executed.

And, well, I can’t help wondering several things about this. Starting with the political implications: yes, given that it’s taken his father a full seven years to find another bride, I have to assume that many, many others agreed with me that Prince Useless was not much of a catch—but at the same time, I think it’s fair to say that in this case, the false bride is probably at least of aristocratic origins, and may have some annoyed family members. And continuing with the personal implications: ok, yes, the false bride did threaten Maleen’s life….

….but otherwise, what, exactly, is she guilty of? In the other false bride tales, the false bride is often guilty of putting the court under some sort of deception. In this one, however, she is initially guilty only of getting engaged to Prince Useless—something that the story explicitly states was the work of his father, not her—and of being so ugly that she’s terrified of being seen in public. Especially since it can be argued that Maleen went to work more or less willingly in the palace kitchens (more or less, since as a princess apparently not trained to do much and shut up in a tower for seven years, her job skills seem limited, and she has few other options). As a kitchenmaid, she is, as the story makes clear, the employee of the false bride. Sure, “pretend to be me at my wedding” is just a touch outside the usual duties of a servant, and “I’ll kill you if you don’t” is more than a trifle overdone—but, still, the false bride is not wrong to expect a servant to more or less obey her—and to expect that the servant will not chatter to nettles, bridges and doors along the way. Is ordering another woman to take her place at a wedding really the best way to handle her insecurities? I’d go with no. But at the same time, this is a false bride that I can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy for, a false bride trapped by her own insecurities and standards of beauty almost as much as Maleen was back in her tower. Just, without a bread knife.

And given that the false bride does end up executed, maybe she was right to feel so insecure. Just a thought.

By the way, no, we never do find out what happened to the maid imprisoned with Maleen. She vanishes from the story soon after entering the kitchens, presumably deciding that since the kitchens have doors and food, they are a vast improvement over the rest of her life so far. But I like to think that at some point—possibly during the wedding—the maid looked around and decided that this story was not for her, took some bread from the kitchen, and headed out to find her own tale.

The tale of Maid Maleen appeared in the 1850 edition of Household Tales, collected and edited by the Brothers Grimm. This was not, however, a tale they collected from one of their usual oral sources, but rather a tale they took from another collection, the 1845 Sagen, Marchen und Leider der Herzogthumer Schleswig, Holstein und Lauenberg (Sagas, Tales and Songs from the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenberg), edited by Karl Mullenhoff, a former student of Wilhelm Grimm. The collection has not, as far as I can tell, been translated into English, but the original German edition is available on the Kindle and in paperback.

Perhaps because it did not appear in the Grimms’ original edition of Household Tales, Andrew Lang did not include it in any of his Fairy Tale books. And thus, Maid Maleen, who at least eventually found the motivation to dig her way out of her tower, never had quite the same opportunity to become as well known to English readers as Rapunzel, who dragged witches and a prince into hers. Then again, Rapunzel never stood by and watched as her ugly rival was executed. Perhaps Rapunzel deserves the greater fame, after all.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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