As many you may have gathered, I love to read and write about fairy tales. However, as of late I’ve been struggling in my writing—new drafts are still-born and revisions slaughter already weak poems. One poem, which has been sitting the drawer for a while, deals with “The Three Spinners.” The problem with the poem though is all I seem to be doing is retelling fairy tale and commenting on how cool it is. So in effort to break that habit, I’m going give you a brief summary. I would suggest reading the actual thing here—I’ll wait; it’s not that long.
Fairy tales can reinforce cultural values—as seen with the Grimm’s and Disney’s Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. These stories uphold the traditional female role of being domestic, dutiful, and easy on the eyes. However, these stories can also subvert—as seen with Oscar Wilde’s and George MacDonald’s tales. What I love about “The Three Spinners” is that it’s subversive, a rare thing for the Brothers Grimm.
In the tale we’re introduced to a lazy girl who would rather comb her hair than do her chores. For this laziness, her mother beats her, as fairy tale parents are apt to do. A queen who was passing through the neighbor hears the ruckus and stops to ask the mother the reason for such a brutal beating. In moment of glorious sarcasm, the mother tells the queen “I cannot get her to leave off spinning. She insists on spinning for ever and ever, and I am poor, and cannot procure the flax.” The queen accepts this as the truth, takes the girl home, and gives her three rooms of flax to spin. The girl being true to her nature starts to cry for three days straight. Eventually, she notices three women passing by, each with a strange physical abnormality: one has a wide flat foot, one has a huge lower lip, and one had a huge thumb. The girl asks these women for help. They agree to help her, but as long as she invites them to her wedding. She accepts their conditions, and the three spin the rooms full of flax revealing that their physical abnormality are a results of the activity of spinning. The girl then presents the room to the queen, and as reward she gets to marry the prince.
At this point those of you who are familiar with the Brothers Grimm will probably have drawn certain conclusions about the ending: the girl embarrassed by the weird looks of the three spinners will fail to invite them to her wedding, and they will crash the party with some suitable (and grotesque) punishment.
If you guessed that, you’d be wrong. The girl invites them to her wedding, welcomes them like they’re family. The prince shocked by their appearances asks about their abnormalities, and they answer that it’s from spinning. Terrified that his pretty little bride may lose her looks, her orders her to never touch a spinning wheel again.
I suspect that part of the reason that this tale is not as well-known is the lack of conflict—and horrible punishments. In the similar tale, “Rumpelstiltskin,” the conflict comes from the titular character’s request for the heroine’s first born child. The stakes are high. In “The Three Spinners,” the titular characters just want an invitation to a party—not a nail-biting plot. However, there is a conflict with our expectations. We remember all the other lazy and vain females who had parts of their feet cut off, eyes pecked out, danced to death in red-hot iron shoes, or met some other horrible end in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Yet this girl gets away scot-free, and I can’t help but think that’s awesome.
In this tale, we are shown a group of women working together and taking care of each other. It also shows the impossible standards that are set upon women—and it shows women who fail to meet those standards, whether it be a their lack of work ethic or their lack of beauty, not only avoid punishment but gain reward for their camaraderie. It’s just so different from any of the fairy tales that I’ve read, I can’t help enjoy it.
As with most fairy tales I love, I want to write about it, to inhabit it, to throw my own spin on it. But so far, my poem dealing with it only repeats the plot, has the mother roll her eyes when she sarcastic to a monarch, and announces how awesome it is. I think that a retelling needs to do a little more to justify itself.
Hopefully, by writing this post I can free myself from the sense that I need to provide a faithful retelling, but if not at least I got to share an awesome fairy tale with you.