[CW: violence, loss of agency for women]
Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index type 1640: The Valiant Little Tailor. This one also includes elements of type 1060 (Squeezing Water from a Stone); type 1062 (A Contest in Throwing Stones); type 1052 (A Contest in Carrying a Tree); type 1051 (Springing with a Bent Tree); and type 1115 (Attempting to Kill the Hero in His Bed).
This is a fun one! (narrator: it was not a fun one; at least not for the princess). It’s also a very busy one, with one core tale type and elements of five others.
The tailor became angry, and he took a piece of cloth. Then he hit the flies on the apple and killed seven of them. When the simple-minded tailor saw this, he thought that he had taken care of the situation quite well, and he soon had a beautiful suit of armor made for himself and also had golden letters inscribed that read: Seven with One Stroke. Then, dressed in his armor, he went onto the street, and whoever saw him believed that he had killed seven men with one stroke. After that, everyone was very terrified of him.
This version was included in the first edition of the Grimm tales. It was based on much older written and oral stories, including Der Wegkürzer which was published by Martinus Montanus around 1557. I was unable to find an extant online version of this story.
There are actually a number of versions and variations of this story, including a Russian version called “The Tale of the Bogatyr Gol’ Voyanskoy” which was collected by Alexander Afanasyev. In this one, the hero kills the flies and mosquitos that were pestering his horse, carves his heroic deed on a tree and asks other adventurers to join him. He is joined by three heroes who accompany him to defeat a kingdom that is ruled by a princess. The hero then drinks some magic water which turns him into a true noble, at which point the princess marries him.
Ostensibly, this is a story about a little dude who overcomes great odds through his wit and cunning and manages to achieve great fame and fortune, and a princess. The character of the tailor is essentially a Jack, the one fairytale archetype for whom the story will always work for and not against. No matter how lazy and foolish he is, a Jack will always win. (narrator’s note: for a weirdly good representation of fairytale archetypes, and the Jack in particular, watch The Librarians, season 1, episode 6, “And the Fables of Doom”).
The inherent and overriding issue with this story is the same that we have with many fairytales. A princess is the prize that stands to be won by the hero. And as with so many of these stories, the king acts as if he has no choice but to give his one and only daughter to whatever hero happens to come through and solve the problems that his dozens of knights couldn’t handle. The king didn’t actually want to do this so, when the tailor proves triumphant, the king creates another quest that the hero must complete before he wins the princess and half the kingdom.
Now the tailor wished to have the king’s daughter along with half the realm, but when the king saw that he had killed the giants, he regretted that he had promised his daughter in marriage to the unknown warrior and began thinking of a way to break his promise, for he had no intention of giving his daughter to him. So he said to the tailor that there was a unicorn in the forest that caused great damage by harming fish and people, and if the tailor captured the unicorn, the king would give him his daughter.
As for the princess, well, she goes along with all of this (because what choice does she have?) but she only rebels when she realizes that the tailor is, in fact, not a hero but just a poor tailor. That’s when she gets angry. She dealt with being forced into the bed of an stranger but when she finds out that he’s poor, that’s cause for an outcry. That’s when she demands blood. Or, maybe she was trying anything she could think of to get out of this and she simply saw this as a convenient way to get rid of an unwanted husband?
After he had spent some nights lying next to his bride, the tailor began talking in his sleep and said: “Boy, finish that jerkin and mend the trousers fast, or else I’ll give you a whack on your head with my yardstick.” Well, his wife happened to hear all of this, and she went to her father to complain. She begged him to help her get rid of this husband who was nothing but a tailor. The king was cut to the heart when he heard that he had given his only daughter to a tailor. So he consoled her as best he could and told her to leave the door of her bedroom open that night. Then he would post some servants outside, and when the tailor began to talk, they would go inside and do away with him.
The king too is angry that he has married his precious daughter to a tailor. Personality and temperament don’t matter. What matters is the social class of the bridegroom. Obviously this one has a lot to unpack when it comes to a woman’s agency and the rules regarding socioeconomic status and class consciousness but the inherent idea is still that one can overcome anything with enough wit and cunning.
But at least it’s nice to know that the princess can have some say when it comes to who she’s being forced to share a bed with, even if it’s for the completely wrong reasons. She’s allowed to exercise her anger within the bounds of noble society so I guess we can count that as a win?
Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.