“There was once a King who had a son who asked in marriage the daughter of a mighty King; she was called Maid Maleen, and was very beautiful.”
Aaah, finally – you might be saying – a stereotypical, watered down (dare I say Disney?) fairy tale.
Maid Maleen is certainly one of the more neatly done fairy tales out of those I’ve read so far. What I mean by this is it has a very clear beginning, middle, and end. It has quite a clear story arc, and while it is fantastical, it’s not completely absurd. It’s a story that I believe the average modern individual would identify as a fairy tale: it has royalty, it has marriage, it has a tower in which a person (people) get locked; it even has a happily ever after-type ending.
*As always, I’m going to summarize this fairy tale below. I do this – even though you can find just about every one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales online – because typically it only takes a paragraph or so. However, as this one is longer than most, and has much more detail than those I’ve summarized in the past, I will link the actual fairy tale [here] if you would rather just read it for yourself, and then come back for my discussion.*
This prince and Maid Maleen “both loved each other with all their hearts,” so already this fairy tale is starting off pleasantly. However, this pleasantness is very short lived because Maid Maleen’s father, the mighty King, “wished to give her to another.” When Maid Maleen refuses to marry any other prince than hers, the King decides to have a dark tower built, “into which no ray of sunlight or moonlight should enter.” Maid Maleen, and her waiting-woman, is then shut in the tower for seven years as punishment.
The two women know the seven years are coming to an end after their food and drink supply falters. Therefore, they also know that if nobody rescues them, they will both die there in the tower. So Maid Maleen “took the bread-knife, and picked and bored at the mortar of a stone, and when she was tired, the waiting-maid took her turn. With great labour they succeeded in getting out one stone, and then a second, and a third, and when three days were over the first ray of light fell on their darkness, and at last the opening was so large that they could look out.” What they saw was the mighty King’s castle, as well as the rest of the kindgdom, in ruins. After they got the opening large enough so they could jump through (assumedly quite a feat, although the height of the tower is never specified, and in other versions of this tale the tower is a mound instead – I mention this very briefly later), they wander off in search of food. Can you guess where they end up?
The large city and royal palace they find belongs to the other King – from the beginning of this tale – and by this time he had chosen a new bride for the prince, a bride “whose face was as ugly as her heart was wicked,” and because of this, “shut herself in her room, and allowed no one to see her.” Maid Maleen luckily gets work as a scullion in the palace (a servant whose duties are the most basic kitchen tasks), and is tasked with serving the new bride. On the day of the wedding, the ugly bride tells Maid Maleen she must go to the wedding in her place so that the prince won’t see the her ugliness beforehand.
On the way to the church, up the stairs, and inside, Maid Maleen sings three songs which the prince finds curious, as they are about Maid Maleen and he’s not sure how “his bride” knows about the Maid. Upon returning to the castle, the ugly bride goes into the prince’s bedchamber, where she is asked about the songs. Not knowing them, of course, she goes back and forth from her room to the prince’s to get the words from Maid Maleen. However, her jealousy ends up getting the best of her, and the secret is exposed. The prince identifies Maid Maleen as his true wife, and the ugly bride is taken away. Maid Maleen then admits that she is indeed Maid Maleen, and the prince is elated. “Then they kissed each other, and were happy all the days of their lives. The false bride was rewarded for what she had done by having her head cut off.”
I must admit, that as far as reading for entertainment and adventure, this is my favorite fairy tale so far. What can I say – I’m a sucker for a complete story, and especially for a complete tale about kingdoms, adventure, and a strong princess figure.
I’m also quite drawn to how surprising the turns of events are. I was not expecting this tale to end like it did, although I am happy with the way things turned out for Maid Maleen. First, her father seemingly got what he deserved. Not only did his form of punishment serve to protect and aid Maid Maleen, he lost the two things he really cared about: his status as a mighty King, and his life (assumedly). Am I happy that the people within the entire kingdom [again, assumedly] were also wiped out? No. But in this world, that’s the way it goes (power-hungry men leading to the destruction of everything, I mean).
On the topic of the substituted bride, it appears that Maid Maleen is one of two recognized fairy tales in which this motif is not identifiable as a sister or acquaintance, but of a stranger. Folklore scholar Stith Thompson wrote in The Folktale:
Though the story of the substituted bride sometimes concerns the treachery of a servant girl or some other rival of the heroine, its most characteristic form is that in which a sister or stepsister, usually aided by her mother, takes a wife’s place without the knowledge of the husband and banishes the wife…The motif of the substituted bride also forms the central action of two stories, closely related to each other, in which the impostor is not a sister, but merely a rival. (p. 119)
Maid Maleen, or The Princess Confined in the Mound (see below in Extras), being one (The Little Goose Girl being the other). If the prince’s new bride had been a sister or an acquaintance of Maid Maleen, the story would certainly feel different. Betrayal would be a looming part, so what is stopping Maid Maleen from being the interrupting over thrower here?
The description of the substituted bride is what. It was a quick description, but for a fairy tale it gives us everything we need: the new bride had a “face [that] was as ugly as her heart was wicked.” From this description we can only deduce that the new bride is only marrying the prince for status, riches, monarchical power (true love is not wicked), and at the King’s request, no less. Additionally, this wicked bride was willing to deceive the prince throughout the wedding ceremony, and then continued to deceive him when asked what she had sung to him leading up to the vows. For love and for good, Maid Maleen must be the true bride.
The biggest thing I’ve enjoyed about this analysis project I’ve taken on is that few of these posts have ended up where I expected them to. This is an excellent example of that.
I’ve also enjoyed reading other people’s interpretations of these stories – similar interpretations I enjoy, obviously, but different ones are just as intriguing. I have found quite a big example of the latter in relation to Maid Maleen; an article written by Mari Ness entitled “Fairy Tale Towers and False Brides: ‘Maid Maleen.’” In this article, Ness has left out the crucial part of the substitute bride’s description, and because of that I find her sympathy toward the ugly bride baseless. Read Mari Ness’ article [here] to decide for yourself.
Finally, as always, I want to know if you’ve encountered this fairy tale, in its “original” form, or otherwise. I have a list of pretty great Extras (not technically a brag because it’s other people’s work) below too if you have time to check them out.
- The Folktale by Stith Thompson (The Dryden Press, 1946)
- Stith Thompson is half of the Aarne-Thompson Index (which was later revised and became the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index)
- The Princess Confined in the Mound
- Fairy Tale Towers and False Brides: ‘Maid Maleen
- Katherine Langrish on Maid Maleen and other Folklore
- Gramarye: The Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy
- Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (YA Fantasy based on Maid Maleen)