Beautiful Brown Eyes–a fairy tale

I come to you today with a beautiful West African folktale! This one is a tale from the Yoruba people. I found it from this book called African-American Folktales For Young Readers, in case you wanted to read more. I haven’t read it all yet, but I really liked this fairy tale!

A girl with beautiful brown eyes lived beside a river in Benin. Every boy who saw those eyes was sure to fall a little bit in love, and the old folk in her village often talked among themselves about who she would marry, and what beautiful children she would surely have.* But when she grew up, everyone had more on their mind than her marriage. A drought had struck the village, withering the plants and drying the river. The hot sun beat down upon the earth, and there was no water to be found except for small muddy pools where the river had been.

*(As a side note, it always annoys me when old people do that. WHAT IF SHE GROWS UP TO BE A LESBIAN, CHARLES.)

The girl made many trips back and forth from the river, carrying water that saved the lives of the villagers. She always seemed to find more water than everyone else, but it was only because she was so dutiful and resourceful. But the drought continued, and eventually, even she could find no water to bring home. She sat down in the dry riverbed and began to weep.

Her tear hit the ground, and out of her tear came a fish.

The fish had beautiful dark eyes. “Give me your jar, and I will fill it for you,” he told her.

She was frightened at first, of course, but the fish’s voice was gentle and kind, and she had no other choice. She lowered the jar in front of him. The fish put his mouth to the opening of the jar, and spewed clear, sparkling water into it. The girl could hardly believe her luck.

The people at her village wanted to know where she had gotten such clear water, but she didn’t tell them, because she did not think they would believe her. Which, yeah, can’t say I’d blame them. This story is a drug trip and I love it. It’s a very beautiful drug trip.

She came to the fish for water the next day, and the next, until a week had passed. The fish had a gentle voice, and beautiful, colorful scales that reflected the bright light of the sun. She grew to love the fish, for his kindness as well as his beauty. And so the girl became the bride of the fish.

Yeah, the real horror of reading fairy tales is finding out your ancestors were all furries. ALL of them. They all sat around the fire and told stories about some boy with a beautiful seal-wife, or a girl with a fish-husband. I do not know for the life of me why this is such a common fairy tale trope, but it is.

I, for one, am supportive of fish-husband!

The girl’s parents were as in the dark about how she was getting the water as anyone else. They sent her youngest brother to follow her down to the river in secret. As he watched her from his hiding place, the girl got the water from the fish as always, and bent down to give the fish a kiss. The brother slipped away and told his parents what he had seen. The parents were angry, because now there would be no wedding, and the village would consider her an outcast. Additionally, the village might ostracize her family, as well, because apparently fish aren’t considered to be respectable in-laws. Who knew.

Okay. Okay this is hilarious. You live in a rural area where everyone knows each other and whenever something big happens, people talk about it for a while, you know? Anyway, you’re just peaceably living your life when suddenly, out of nowhere, you get eternally labeled as ‘that guy who’s daughter married a fish.’ I don’t know how I’d show my face again.

Anyway, the parents decide to take matters into their own hands. Of course, since they’re parents in a fairy tale, they do this in the most traumatizing way possible. They stopped the daughter from going down to the river, and sent the brother instead. The brother took a knife and a jar, carrying the jar the same way that the women did. When the fish came up out of the mud, the brother stabbed him. He took the fish’s body back home and gave it to his father, and the father tossed the body at the daughter’s feet. To the dad’s credit, the story does say that he thought the fish was an evil spirit. But still! That was her husband! Put some thought into how she must feel!

Also, like…the fish was providing the village with water, so exactly how evil a spirit are we talking here

The daughter took the fish in her hands and carried it through the village and down to the riverside. And so she stood in the empty riverbed and wept. As the tears ran down her face, the riverbed began to fill, until the water was up to her waist and the currents tore through, sending her skirts billowing. But still she cried, until the water rose over her head, and she drowned in the river. But instead of sinking to the bottom, she was transformed into a water lily, and all the water lilies in the river are her descendants.

Anyway, the moral of this story is to not come between your daughter and her furry lifestyle

I’m kidding, I think it’s a beautiful story and I love how brave the heroine is. I guess you could interpret the ending as a suicide, but I think you can also interpret it as her sacrificing herself to save the same people who killed her husband, and that’s kind of how I prefer to interpret it? She just comes across as a loving, kind person who honestly deserves better. I really like her.

Thomas the Rhymer

Thomas the Rhymer is one of my favorite Scottish ballads. It has a lot of things going for it: Thomas is a fairly nice man who is not squatting on other people’s property; no one has sacrificed seven princesses; and there are no crows who discuss pecking out a dead person’s eyes. (I fully admit I love those ballads. But sometimes it’s nice for a break?) Instead, we have an excellent fairy queen and a fully consensual relationship. And do you know how rare it is in a fairy tale for a relationship between a fey and a human to work out? It’s kind of rare.

Anyway, the story opens with Thomas the Rhymer lounging on ‘Huntlie bank’, wherever that is, presumably enjoying his day and not expecting to get accosted by random fairy queens. Of course he does, because this is a ballad. The fairy queen comes riding up to him on a white horse, with fifty-nine silver bells hanging from each lock of its mane. That is a blinged-out horse.

Thomas mistakes her for the Virgin Mary, because he knows she’s at least not earthly, and greets her as such. She explains that she is the queen of the fairies, not the Virgin Mary, and that she has come to visit him. Thomas is remarkably chill about this.

She asks him to kiss her, and I love this part of the poem so much I’m quoting it:

‘Harp and carp, Thomas,’ she said, ‘Harp and carp along wi me, And if ye dare to kiss my lips, Sure of your bodie I will be.’

Thomas, who at this point I’m pretty sure is crushing hard, does so, and she tells him that he must go with her to fairyland for seven years. Um…maybe going from ‘we just met’ to ‘let’s elope together’ is moving kind of fast? But it’s a fairy tale, what do I expect. She pulls him up onto her horse and gallops off with him, until they come to a desert. She stops there to rest and gets down from her horse, and points out three roads to Thomas. One of these roads is narrow and thorny, and is the path of righteousness, though not many choose it; one of the roads is broad and is the path of wickedness, though some call it the road to heaven; and one of them is a bonny road that winds across a woody hillside, and that is the road to fairyland, where they are going.

After she explains this to him, she tells him that he must not speak a word while in fairyland, or else he’ll never be able to get back to his own country. So, it’s like reverse-gender Ariel, except without the chronic pain! (And yes, Ariel had chronic pain after she was turned into a human, in the Hans Christian Anderson story. I’m a little annoyed at Disney for not including that.) Also, I don’t remember seeing this rule about not speaking in any other fairy tale? As far as I remember, it’s an anomaly to this one. But I could be wrong, of course.

And then they ride on, riding through blood-filled rivers, and no that is not a typo. And I’m quoting this, too:

“O they rade on, and farther on,

And they waded thro rivers aboon the knee,

And they saw neither sun nor moon,

But they heard the roaring of the sea.

It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light,

And they waded thro red blude to the knee;

For a’ the blude that’s shed on earth

Rins thro the springs o that countrie.”

And finally they come to a garden, where an apple tree grows. She picks an apple and gives it to Thomas, explaining that it will give him a tongue that cannot lie, which sounds like a curse as well as a gift, honestly. Interestingly, in other versions she explicitly tells him not to pick the apple, because apparently the tree is the tree of knowledge? I have no idea which version is older. Anyway, Thomas demurs for a little bit, I think because it’s too great of a gift, but I’m not sure because Scottish English is hard. But she insists, and of course she has her way. And the poem ends with,

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth, And a pair of shoes of velvet green, And till seven years were gane and past True Thomas on earth was never seen.

Green is a color traditionally associated with fairies, and the ‘being kidnapped for seven years’ thing is also fairly common in these folktales, according to Lady Wilde. (I love Lady Wilde’s book. It’s a great resource on Irish folklore. Seriously, go check it out if you haven’t already.) According to Wikipedia, there is also a version where the fairy queen tells Thomas that she can’t keep him for longer than seven years or else she’ll be forced to sacrifice him in the teind to hell, but I can’t find that one. I feel kind of cheated.

Interestingly enough, Thomas was based on a real person, named Sir Thomas de Ercildoun (no telling if he ever eloped with the fairy queen, though). He was a Scottish laird and prophet from Earlston, living in the thirteenth century. There was a romance written about him in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, which this ballad comes from. There isn’t really any telling as to how old this poem is, as the earliest one they’ve found has been from the eighteenth century, but ballads and folktales are often much older than when they were first written down, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it dated back at least to the renaissance.

There are plenty of folktales about kidnapped brides, but it’s far rarer to find a folktale about a kidnapped bridegroom (the only one I can think of right off the bat is Tam Lin), and rarer still where it is actually totally consensual? I am loving this. I mean, I don’t mind Beauty and the Beast type stories, or stories where the fairy king decides to kidnap yet another pretty human girl and is certain that this time nothing will go wrong (spoiler: something always goes wrong). But an actually healthy relationship between a fairy and a human that is 100% consensual and doesn’t end tragically? Sign me up.

Sources: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch037.htm (This has four different versions of the poem, and my favorite is the last one)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_the_Rhymer

https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/index.htm

Did you like this story? What’s your favorite folktale involving a romance (one-sided or no) between a fairy and a human? Heck, what’s your favorite folktale involving fairies?