For our second episode of WTFolklore, we traveled to Norway to explore the twists and turns of Asbjørnsen and Moe's "The Mastermaid." Despite being the second story we read, this was actually the one that truly launched the podcast. When pitching the idea to Tyler and Gordie, this was the story I quickly summarized as an example of how weird these tales could get. We ended up doing Wonderful Sheep first because I wanted to set our hard launch date to Valentine's Day (to prevent the usual procrastination that kills group projects before they start), and that one did a good job of killing romance.
So, the Mastermaid is our first introduction to two factions of the folktale realm: giants and trolls. At this point, we're not quite clear on their exact role in the overall battle between the fairy forces and birds, if any (though in the extended Andrew Lang version of Jack and the Beanstalk, it becomes clear that fairies at least are not on the side of giants, and perhaps have an active rivalry).
The giant is the first on the scene, as the employer of our young and bored prince. At first he seems like a reasonable and even lenient employer, only requiring one task per day of the prince, and giving him free rein aside from the request maintain a bit of privacy in his own home. Now, his one simple task turns out to be an elaborate trick to fill stables with horse shit, burn the prince up with horse fire breath, and... force him to do a tax audit maybe? The consequences of screwing up the tax collection aren't clear, though the demon person who's giving him the "fire tax" just ominously states that it's lucky he didn't ask for a whole horseload. Or maybe it's not ominous at all, and he is just happy that the fire tax isn't too high and is making idle conversation. Who knows?
Now, unless the giant is just secretly into hilarious pranks, it is kind of a dick move to set your employee up for failure, especially when the consequences of failure are death. This doesn't seem to be the behavior of someone looking out for the common good, so thus far there's no evidence that giants have any role on the side of the birds. The best we could figure is that there is a very specific giant code for eating humans, at least in the mortal realms (as the Jack and the Beanstalk giant doesn't need to trick Jack into screwing something up to eat him). Giant code is given further evidence in "The Brave Little Tailor," where the giant attempts to best him in a contest of skill, and then has to get him back to their own home before they're allowed to eat him. At best, giants seem to be lawful neutral.
However, our prince character is not exactly a bastion of morality either; his first action before the giant's true intents are made clear is to directly disobey the reasonable request to some privacy. He enters the forbidden rooms, messes with the giant's brews, and talks to his apparent prisoner-princess. I don't think he's clever enough to have any particular agenda; he's just another example of bored royalty who got let out of the playpen. His stupidity, self-involvement, and lack of experience with the real world make him an unwitting patsy of the true power player in this tale: the titular Mastermaid.
In this episode, we are impressed and a little terrified by the Mastermaid's coldly calculated plan to nab herself a kingdom. She's been hanging out in this giant's house with relative freedom and the means/plan to escape for enough time to have accumulated a decent collection of corpse clothes. It takes this particular easily manipulated nitwit to complete her plan, which she enacts with ease and precision. This is, after all, a lady who has killed before and cooked corpses for her boss, who she now has no problem betraying. Without hesitation, she draws blood from this prince she "loves," appears to feel no particular remorse when he disregards her warnings and never returns for her, and already has a backup plan in place (for which she carried around two live gold chickens during the whole fleeing scene, for a delightful image).
At this point in the story, the variation recorded on pitt.edu has a few points that are more detailed than my version:
- When the Mastermaid takes over the old crone/troll's house with magic gold plating, the crone/troll is so scared that she forgets to duck and crushes her head on the doorframe. Presumably the Mastermaid did not just leave her corpse in the doorway, or the three wooing bachelors might have had some reason to pause before parting with their entire life savings. So sometime after the house takeover she either cooks or buries a troll, and cleans up the mess left behind on her pristine gold home. Again, with no apparent remorse or surprise.
- Each man who woos her has a much worse time of it in this version, sustaining more injuries from the calf and the door (which opens and closes all night, yanking around the clerk in a terrible dance), but the worst is the constable, who goes to stoke the fire with a poker but ends up having to pour hot coals over himself all night until his skin is flayed and burned.
We see later that the Mastermaid's purpose in bespelling these men is to weasel her way into a wedding invitation, but stealing all of their money and causing them physical injury seems to be just for her own dark entertainment. This is strong evidence that she is not a force for good.
Additionally, as we pointed out during our reading of "Prince Unexpected," her particular powers of making body fluids speak (she makes the prince's blood speak in her own voice) and her magic flight that uses transfiguration spells to thwart her pursuer bears a remarkable similarity to one of Immortal Bony's daughters. This unnamed daughter had the power to make her own spittle speak in another's voice, and had the same casual approach to large displays of power, like stamping her foot to open a pathway to the underworld and turning a horse into a church bell.
For this reason, we are running with the theory that the Mastermaid is one of Bony's (Koschei the Deathless, as he is called on his LinkedIn profile) 12 daughters. If this is true, Bony and his daughters are planting their influence in several kingdoms in the human realm and establishing their family line in places of mortal power. Since the Mastermaid especially has displayed a callous disregard for the mortal lives she encounters, we can guess their intentions are not in favor of the people they will be ruling. Additionally, between their magical gifts and their underground home, I am theorizing that they are at least connected to the Unseelie Court, if they aren't full members of it.
Now let's dig into some troll meat.
The two trolls to whom we're introduced in this story are relatively sympathetic characters compared to all of the other major players. The first, who is in some translations just a hag, offers a stranger a home and then runs away/dies horribly when the stranger insists on changing everything about the home. She's probably the kindest character in this whole damn story.
The next is the "bride's sister" who throws an apple at the dumb prince and causes him to forget everything until the Mastermaid pulls out her counter-apple plus two gold birds. Now, enchanting someone to force them to forget everything about someone isn't exactly a good thing, but when that person you're making them forget is a manipulative serial killer who's trying to weasel her way into a kingdom, the morality goes a little more into the grey zone. The fact that the Mastermaid was prepared for this occurrence implies that they are both aware of each other and each other's plans.
Ultimately both are in competition to gain influence in a mortal kingdom, which is something we see a lot in young lady trolls (See: the "Greenish Bird", "East of the Sun, West of the Moon"). Also, if this girl's a troll, wouldn't it stand to reason that her sister is also a troll? Guess she got super lucky that slipped under the radar. If the Mastermaid doesn't kill her, she might be the only troll to successfully wed into a human kingdom.
Other random connections:
- The golden apple used by the Mastermaid may have been obtained by her sisters in "The Nine Peahens and the Golden Apples."
- The mother of the Goose Girl has some blood magic that is similar to Mastermaid's, and may be her in the future.
Things to watch:
- Troll politics, especially in relation to fairies and true-birds (not shapeshifted humans or magic birds, which may just be another kind of fairy creature)
- Giant politics and giant code, as well as their relation to fairies and true-birds
- Further links to the Immortal Bony family tree
That's all for now. If you have your own theories about the Mastermaid, or if you have any great folktales about giants and trolls, please share them with us! We need all the help we can get.