Hello, everyone! It’s time for another installment of Let’s Talk Fairytales, otherwise known as the best way to spend 30 minutes forgetting about the horrors of the real world. Today we’re going to discuss “Maid Maleen,” a tale from the collection Grimm’s Household Tales, which was originally translated from German into English by Margaret Hunt and published in 1884. Prepare yourselves, people, we’re going old-school! My interest in this story comes from reading Shannon Hale’s gorgeous novel Book of a Thousand Days, which is loosely adapted from this story. If you like this tale, and want to read a more in-depth re-telling of it, I highly recommend Hale’s book, which sets the story in a fantasy world and draws inspiration from Mongolian culture.
The story starts when a princess named Maid Maleen falls in love with a prince whom her father has forbidden her from marrying. Possessing some gumption (which society tried and often failed to breed out of women), Maid Maleen refuses to marry the prince that her father has selected for her, and as punishment, he decides to wall her in a tower for seven years to see if that will break her “perverse spirit.” Seems reasonable, no? Whether the selected prince would still want to marry Maid Maleen after almost a decade of solitary confinement remains to be seen, but the King, like many royal fathers, seems more interested in bending his daughter to his iron will than thinking rationally about political alliances.
The time passed, and by the diminution of the food and drink they knew that seven years were coming to an end. They thought the moment of their deliverance was come; but no stroke of the hammer was heard, no stone fell out of the wall, and it seemed to Maid Maleen that her father had forgotten her. As they only had food for a short time longer, and saw a miserable death awaiting them, Maid Maleen said, “We must try our last chance, and see if we can break through the wall.”p.59-60, Grimm
Now this is a quandary that they never mention in tower-based fairytales like Rapunzel. What if the food runs out? What if your captors simply forgets that you exist? Both possibilities seem likely, since imprisoning someone in a tower is an inherently irrational and short-sighted problem-solving solution. Luckily, as mentioned above, Maid Maleen isn’t the type of woman to let a man’s bad planning put her in a corner. She and her maid use their bread knives to pick at the mortar of the brick tower until they excavate an opening large enough to escape through. You might be wondering at how their escape could be so easy. Wouldn’t an angry royal father determined on proving an idiotic point have at least invested in some security to keep his wayward daughter locked up in timeout? As it turns out, even angry kings are susceptible to the ravaging hordes of the enemy!
Her father’s castle lay in ruins, the town and the villages were, so far as could be seen, destroyed by fire, the fields far and wide laid to waste, and no human being was visible…The enemy had ravaged the whole kingdom, driven away the King, and slain all the inhabitants.p.60, Grimm
Now that they’ve been freed, Maid Maleen and her actual maid realize that maybe being locked up in a tower was a better idea than wandering around their war-torn country. But with no other options, they travel to the next country, where the only employment they can find is in the kitchens of that country’s palace. And whose palace would it be but the very prince who Maid Maleen once loved? That bitch, who decided there was nothing he could do to prevent the imprisonment of his true love, is now betrothed to another woman, whose “face was ugly as her heart was wicked.” You might be thinking “but why does it matter if she’s ugly?” And that’s because you forgot the cardinal rule of fairytales, which is that ugliness is the outward manifestation of evil. Consequently, all ugly people are evil, and all beautiful people are nice, and Maid Maleen is sorry if people are so jealous of her, but she can’t help it that she’s popular.
The bride, ashamed of her ugliness, locks herself in her room and demands that Maid Maleen bring her food from the kitchens. On her wedding day, still worried that people might find out that she’s ugly, the bride orders Maid Maleen to trade places with her, put on her wedding gown, and get married in her place. Aware of the legal ramifications, Maid Maleen refuses, and after offering her gold, the bride instead tells Maid Maleen that if she doesn’t switch places with her, she will be killed. So under pain of death, Maid Maleen agrees to this strange episode of Trading Places and walks to the church in all the bride’s finery.
When she entered the royal hall, everyone was amazed at her great beauty, and the King said to his son, “This is the bride whom I have chosen for thee.” The bridegroom was astonished, and thought, “She is like my Maid Maleen, and I should believe that it was she herself, but she has long been shut up in the tower, or dead.”p. 61, Grimm
Clearly, the prince has come to terms with the fact that his true love has starved to death in a tower, and is ready to get married to her hot twin. But Maid Maleen is not so quick to forgive. As they walk to the church, Maid Maleen sings some truly chilling verses, such as “Foot-bridge do not break, I am not the true bride” and “Church-door, break not, I am not the true bride.” After every verse, the bridegroom is like “what the fuck are you saying” and Maid Maleen feigns idiocy and says “I was only thinking of Maid Maleen.”
At this point you might be wondering, has the bridegroom never seen a Japanese horror movie? Knowing nothing of the power of creepy nursery rhymes and revenge-obsessed ghosts, the bridegroom gleans no meaning from Maid Maleen’s cryptic messages, and goes through with the marriage ceremony, gifting Maid Maleen a beautiful necklace. After the ceremony, Maid Maleen trades in the real bride’s finery for her maid’s rags, but keeps the necklace, because she earned it!
When the night came, and the bride was to be led into the prince’s apartment, she let her veil fall over her face, that he might not observe the deception. As soon as everyone had gone away, he said to her, “What didst thou say to the nettle-plant which was growing by the way?”
“To which nettle plant?” asked she. “I don’t talk to nettle plants.”
“If thou didst not do it, then thou art not the true bride,” said he. So she bethought herself and said, “I must go out unto my maid who keeps my thoughts for me.”p. 62, Grimm
What a wacky and unforeseen conundrum! Who would have thought that by trading places with your maid, you would risk your marriage and position in the kingdom? Clearly, the angry King Dad of yore is not the only character in this story who lacks foresight, as the ugly bride sees no issue with the idea that she might have to hide her real face from the public for all of eternity. Also, why does the prince care all of a sudden about Maid Maleen’s eerie nursery rhymes when he didn’t care before? Is he having second thoughts about letting his true love rot to death in a tower?
Desperate to prove that she is the “true bride,” she begins a game of telephone with Maid Maleen, asking her what she said during the ceremony, and reporting that to the prince. But when the prince asks her about the necklace he gave her, the bride has no answer, and the prince pulls up her veil and reveals her true ugliness! OH THE HORROR!
The bride explains to the prince that she only traded places with Maid Maleen so that he wouldn’t see her ugliness, but that backfires, because he asks her to bring him Maid Maleen. Instead of accepting her plan has failed, the bride tells her guards that her maid is an “imposter” and orders them to kill her. An imposter of what? Who would pretend to be a maid? It’s not like they get healthcare and benefits.
The guards capture Maid Maleen, but she screams so loudly that the prince hears and orders her set free. Now free to vent her grievances, Maid Maleen spits the truth.
“I am Maid Maleen, who for thy sake was imprisoned seven years in the darkness, who suffered hunger and thirst, and has lived so long in want and poverty. Today, however, the sun is shining on me once more. I was married to thee in the church, and I am thy lawful wife.”p.64, Grimm
Another obvious but unforeseen plot twist on the part of the ugly bride! Maid Maleen and the prince kiss and live happily for the rest of their lives, while the false bride, who has committed the fatal crime of being born ugly, is executed for her trickery. All’s well that ends well, right? Except, is it really the false bride’s fault that she was betrothed to this prince and then executed when he found a hotter girl to marry? This seems like a diplomatic snafu in the making. Also, if someone marries someone else under false pretense, even if it turns out that they want to marry that girl because she’s hot, does that become a legal marriage? Won’t anyone answer these pressing legal questions?
The story of Maid Maleen is a tale as morally tangled and legally ambiguous as they come. But what are we supposed to take away from this?
The dubious moral: Don’t lock your daughter in a tower. Or actually, do lock your daughter in a tower, because your country will be invaded by enemy forces anyway and your daughter can treat her imprisonment as a character-building exercise. Additionally, if your true love is locked in a tower, don’t lend a hand in helping her, because that way she will do all the hard work of escaping, starving, laboring, and performing legally ambiguous tasks under pain of death, and you’ll reap the eventual rewards. And if you’re the poor soul in the actual tower, make sure you have a sharp bread knife.