Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Kate Crackernuts

There are few things I like more than discovering and recommending folk and fairy tales that break the rules.  Or, at least, break what people think are the rules.  You see, many people have this set of expectations for how fairy tales are supposed to go based on what they see in the media.  Such fairy tale “rules” are as follows: 1) All princesses and princes are good, 2) Princesses get rescued by princes, 3) Step-families are always trouble and 4) True love’s kiss dispels all sorts of enchantments, among others.  You know the sort of thing.  Would it surprise you that folklorists and fairy tale fans have all sorts of different guidelines and earmarks by which to recognize a fairy tale?  Well, I’ll get to those another time.  First I want to showcase a tale that breaks three of those supposed rules.

The story is entitled “Kate Crackernuts”.  The earliest version of this story was collected on one of the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland.  It then made it’s way into one of Andrew Lang’s colored Fairy Books and was later included in Joseph Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales (Jacobs wasn’t overly picky about how “English” his English fairy tales were).

The story starts with a blended royal family.  There’s a queen with a daughter named Kate and a king with a daughter named Anne.  Now, as these things usually go, the queen starts to worry that Anne is prettier than her own daughter Kate.  So, she enlists the help of a henwife who knows magic.  The henwife tells the queen to send Anne to her, but she must be fasting for her magic to work (who knew magic had the same requirements as getting blood drawn?).  So, the queen sends Anne out to the henwife under the pretense of getting some eggs.  The first time, it doesn’t work because she takes a crust of bread with her and eats it as she goes. The second time, it also doesn’t work because she comes on some commoners picking peas and takes a handful and eats them along the way.  The third time, the queen goes with her to make sure she doesn’t eat anything.  When she gets there, she lifts the lid off the henwife’s pot and walks away with a sheep’s head instead of her own.  Actually, there’s some rather interesting phrasing of it in Jacobs’s book.  He wrote: “off falls her own pretty head, and on jumps a sheep’s head”.  Now tell me that visual won’t stick with you for the rest of the day!

Now, here comes the interesting part.  If Kate were the stepsister of someone like Cinderella, she would have been overjoyed that her pretty stepsister now had a sheep’s head.  She’d probably even come up with a nickname for her like Ewe-Face or Woolhead.  Instead, Kate took a fine linen cloth and wrapped it around Anne’s head to hide her features and decided it was time for the both of them to get the hell out of there.  And that, my friends, is how the “wicked stepsister rule” gets broken.

The two travel on until they find their way to a castle.  It turns out that it’s a king’s castle.  What’s more, it turns out that one of the king’s sons is sick and no one can figure out what’s wrong with him.  Also, anyone who sits up with the sick prince disappears.  Now, Kate’s a brave girl and after she and her “sick sister” get settled in as the king’s guests, volunteers to stay up with the sick prince.  Now, Kate’s sitting up and all is well until the stroke of midnight.  At that point, the prince rose, dressed himself and left.  He went to the stable where he saddled his horse, called to his hound and rode off.  Naturally, Kate followed him.  She even jumped up on the horse behind him.  Now, as they rode, Kate started to pluck nuts from the trees around them (which leads to the title of the story).  They rode until they got to a green hill, where the prince said “Open, open, green hill, and let the young prince in with his horse and his hound”.  Kate would add in “and his lady him behind”.  Then, the green hill opened up and they passed inside. 

And that’s where I’ll leave you.

Yes, I know I usually stop my plot synopses at a later point for Folk Tale Secret Stash, but this just feels like the perfect stopping point.  You can read the rest of the story HERE.  I will tell you that the rest of it includes some eavesdropping on fairies, more good step-sistering and a princess working to un-enchant a prince.  That last bit actually serves to break both fake rule #2 and fake rule #4 of the ones I listed above.
I would like to talk for a minute or two about why this particular tale that breaks so many of Hollywood’s rules may not have been noticed by Hollywood.  Granted, it’s not the only one, but it serves as a good test case.  This is especially notable as we see Hollywood and certain animation companies (:cough: Disney :cough: ) seemingly work overtime to break the rules they created.  Heck, between Frozen and Big Hero Six, Disney seems particularly interested in sibling relationships.  So, why not a story about a positive step-sister relationship?  Well, Hollywood’s requirements often go beyond a simple list of “fairy tale rules” like the ones I listed above.  For one thing, there’s the issue of structure.  Hollywood movies usually use a three act structure.  Despite how European fairy tales often use cycles of three, they don’t necessarily use that structure over the course of the whole story.  In fact, this story like many others could almost be two stories from a TV or movie perspective.  The bit with Anne and the sheep’s head would be one and the part after Kate and Anne get to the king’s palace could be another.  Also, most Hollywood versions of fairy tales are generally thought to need a clear antagonist.  Fairy tales often don’t need a clear antagonist as much as they need a bad situation that must be overcome.  In this story, the closest thing to an antagonist would be Kate’s mother who got Anne sheep-headed.  Expanding her part into the second half of the story would be difficult.  I imagine adapting this story would take a fair bit of rewriting (like they did to get Frozen out of "The Snow Queen").  Folk tales like this one often came from a tradition of storytelling that had a whole different set of rules that existed before the rules of mass market storytelling were even written.  They broke the rules before there were even rules to break.

Still, it’s a pretty great story to read or tell aloud.

Any thoughts or ideas regarding “Kate Crackernuts” or Hollywood “fairy tale rules”, post in the comments below.


  1. Kate Crackernuts is such a hidden gem, and such a shame that it's so hidden. We must wonder yet again why Hollywood will rework the same fairy tales over and over again to make them more "feminist" when there are so many already feminist tales...as we were just discussing over in the comments on Tales of Faerie, I think it has mostly to do with audience familiarity and the fact that Hollywood writers and producers probably simply don't know these tales

  2. Just wanted to add that there is a movie version of Kate Crackernuts. It's called "Anicka s lískovymi orísky", was produced in the ČSSR/Czech Republic (Some sources list the country as Czechia and some as Chechoslowakia, so I assume the film started production before the dismembration of the ČSSR, but was released aftwerwards) and came out 1993. The names of the characters were changed, but except for that it's a fairly (but not completely) faithful adaption. All the info I can find is either in Czech or German. I'm afraid the movie was never released in the anglosphere.

  3. It's on YouTube in full, if you don't mind the lack of sub titles.