• Leslie Hudson

Secret passages and portals are irresistible

If we're paying attention, sometimes the smallest of creatures lead us right to them.

Magical passageways. 6/30

Doorways are not always what they appear to be in fairy tales. As children we are on the lookout for secret ways to get places we're not expected to go. To be honest, I still am. I love secret passages and hidden doors, puzzle boxes and false bottomed suitcases. The mystery and magic that surround their very appearance in a tale is a testament to their long history of association in folklore and mythology.

My favourite moments in Frances Hodgson Burnett's famous book, The Secret Garden, happen when Mary finds a secret door and goes where she's not supposed to. The best thing I can imagine is having my own secret garden, and I consider it a dream fulfilled when she finds the door and the key to let her inside. It is a robin she befriends, and this bird shows her the way to both key and door.

Often there is a messenger, a guide who comes and leads the way in fairy tales. In Astrid Lindgren's story, Sunnanäng (in English it was published as The Red Bird in 2005), a red bird leads two little orphans to a land of ever-spring and plenty that is hidden behind a wall in the woods. To reach the wall they must first pass through a mountain, and enter via a door that must never be closed. (There's a song inspired by this story called "Red Bird" on my album, The Wanderlings Volume One.)

In the case of our folktale today, it is not a bird but a spindle that leads our girl to find a portal to another realm.

She'd been spinning all day without rest at the behest of her cruel stepmother, and her fingers began to bleed. So she goes to the well to wash the spindle clean, but it slips from her hands and falls into the well. Her mother is not a merciful woman so the girl does what she must and dives in after it.

When she comes to, she's in a beautiful meadow and she begins to explore it, meeting enchanted bread (which she saves from the oven) and an enchanted apple tree (whose apples she helps to fall free to the ground by shaking the tree) as she walks, both tasks she completes upon request. She then finds an old woman with huge, frightening teeth, but she swallows her fear and agrees to work for her, upon discovering her identity is Mother Snow.

Mother Snow is kind and feeds her well so she works hard and happily so, but soon begins to miss her home and asks if she might return. The old woman leads her to a doorway, and when the girl walks through she is showered with gold and it sticks to her. On the other side she finds herself back home again, and the rooster crows, "Cock-a-doodle-doodle-doo! Our golden girl's come home -- it's true!" (p 130)

Her mother sees the gold all over her and sends her other daughter off to get some for herself, instructing her to do everything as her sister has done.

Of course, as stories like this go, the lazy daughter does none of the work required to gain her good fortune, by pricking her finger with a thorn instead of spinning, throwing the spindle down the well intentionally, and refusing to fulfill the enchanted requests. She has no fear of Mother Snow when she meets her because of the warning she's received from her sister.

True to form, she only manages to work hard the first day, doing less the next and less the next until the old woman gets sick of her and sends her through the magic door. But this time, instead of gold, a thickness of tar falls down and sticks to the lazy sister forever. When the rooster sees her he crows, "Cock-a-doodle-doodle-doo! Our dirty girl's come home -- it's true!" (p 133)

Lesson(s) learned: sometimes you find your fate at the bottom of a well; and your hard work pays off when you work for the right people.

"Mother Snow" as retold by Neil Philip in his collection of Best-Loved Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen & the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Isabelle Brent (London: Little, Brown, 2007), pp. 128-33.

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