I’ve been writing lately, and you know what an excellent procrastination method is? Research. So, okay, I’ve been researching lately; tracking down fairy tales about infertility and the wise women and witches who aid the Queen (it’s usually a queen) in her desire for a child. Often in her desperation (and for the sake of a good story), the Queen tempts fate a little too much. She eats two roses instead of one. She makes rash promises. She wishes just a bit too hard… though how that can be a fault, I don’t know.
We don’t have many tales left on the subject of fertility left in the canon of well known fairy tales. Stories recorded around the 1700s often spoke directly of pregnancy, birth, and desire. But by the time we came to eras of the Grimm Brothers and H. C. Anderson, and then Victorian England, the visceral aspects of life were all but eradicated from fairy tales.
Here are a few stories I found.
Prince Lindworm. A fabulous tale, with a childless Queen, a terrifying serpent, and whips in the bedroom. Really.
Thumbelina. Made famous by Hans Christian Anderson, Thumbelina is one of the more well known tales that begins with infertility.
“I should so very much like to have a little child; can you tell me where I can find one?”
“Oh, that can be easily managed,” said the fairy. “Here is a barleycorn of a different kind to those which grow in the farmer’s fields, and which the chickens eat; put it into a flower-pot, and see what will happen.”
If only it were always that easy.
The Myrtle. A good reminder that you should be careful what you wish for: “O heavens! if I might but have a little baby–I should not care, were it even a sprig of a myrtle.” You’ll never guess what she gave birth to.
One word. Splinters.
The Myrtle is one of many wonderful tales from Giambattista Basile‘s The Pentamerone, a fabulous collection of tales from the 1630s. Many of the tales were later adapted by Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers.
There are tales of accidental and surprise pregnancy too, though I’m not sure if any of them would have washed as excuses, even in the 1600s.
The mothers in these tales really don’t have a good time of it. Accidentally impregnated by a rose petal (sure…), then cursed to kill her child while combing her hair after seven years. Her daughter sleeps in a glass casket for many years, until the lethal comb is removed from her hair. Her mother has since died and she is beaten and treated like a slave by her Uncle’s cruel wife, until the truth is eventually uncovered and she lives happily ever after… But yikes, surely the psychological damage is done.
A young woman promises to look after her brother’s garden while he goes away to war. In her dedication to him and his garden, she never leaves, and eventually gives birth to a daughter with a rose on her head. So what was she doing during all those long nights under the rose bushes?
There are many stories that revolve around conception and fertility, and I’ve barely touched on them here. It’s a powerful and personal subject for many, and interesting to follow back into the history of storytelling.
I’d love to hear of other tales of magic-assisted pregnancies you may know of…
PS: Thank you to Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario and Tory Tedeschi for their reading suggestions and wise council, particularly the Nancy Canepa translation of Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone which is winging its way across the ocean to me right now.