ATU 450 "Little Brother and Little Sister"

Hello, and welcome to the November 2021 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. In this edition, I'll be exploring ATU 450 "Little Brother and Little Sister." Let's begin with a Child Ballad for which there is no associated tune, titled "The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea." Please note that there are spelling variations in Francis James Child's original text, and there is a line missing as well, which I have preserved below.

Child Ballad #36 "The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea"

1 'I was but seven year auld
When my mither she did die;
My father married the ae warst woman
The warld did ever see.

2 'For she has made me the laily worm,
That lies at the fit o the tree,
An my sister Masery she's made
The machrel of the sea.

3 'An every Saturday at noon
The machrel comes to me,
An she takes my laily head
An lays it on her knee,
She kaims it wi a siller kaim,
An washes 't in the sea.

4 'Seven knights hae I slain,
Sin I lay at the fit of the tree,
An ye war na my ain father,
The eight ane ye should be.'

5 'Sing on your song, ye laily worm,
That ye did sing to me:'
'I never sung a song but what
I would it sing to thee.

6 'I was but seven year auld,
When my mither she did die;
My father married the ae warst woman
The warld did ever see.

7 'For she changed me to the laily worm
That lies at the fit o the tree,
And my sister Masery
To the machrel of the sea.

8 'And every Saturday at noon
The machrel comes to me,
An she takes my laily head
An lays it on her knee,
An kaims it wi a siller kaim,
An washes it in the sea.

9 'Seven knights hae I slain,
Sin I lay at the fit o the tree,
An ye war na my ain father,
The eight ane ye shoud be.'

10 He sent for his lady,
As fast as send could he:
'Whar is my son that ye sent frae me,
And my daughter, Lady Masery?'

11 'Your son is at our king's court,
Serving for meat an fee,
An your daughter's at our queen's court,
. . . . . '

12 'Ye lie, ye ill woman,
Sae loud as I hear ye lie;
My son's the laily worm,
That lies at the fit o the tree,
And my daughter, Lady Masery,
Is the machrel of the sea!'

13 She has tane a siller wan,
An gien him strokes three,
And he has started up the bravest knight
That ever your eyes did see.

14 She has taen a small horn,
An loud an shrill blew she,
An a' the fish cam her untill
But the proud machrel of the sea:
'Ye shapeit me ance an unseemly shape,
An ye's never mare shape me.'

15 He has sent to the wood
For whins and for hawthorn,
An he has taen that gay lady,
An there he did her burn.1

Analysis

ATU 450 "Little Brother and Little Sister" is a Tale of Magic under the sub-category "Brother or Sister," and the ATU index summarizes it this way:

450 Little Brother and Little Sister. Little brother and little sister run away from their home because of their cruel stepmother [S31.5, S31] or because their parents want to eat them. In spite [sic] his sister's warning, the brother drinks from a spring or an animal's track [D555] and is transformed into a deer [D114.1.1] (lamb [D135], goat). The children live together in the forest until a prince finds them [P253.2, N711.1]. The sister hides up in a tree but the prince tricks her into coming down. She marries the prince and they take the animal brother with them.

The prince is absent when their child is born. The sister is replaced by another bride [K1911, K1911.1.2], often the daughter of a bad woman (stepmother, witch, maid). The sister is thrown into the water [S142], transformed into a bird [D150] (fish [D170]), or swallowed by a fish [K1911.2.2.1]. She returns at night to suckle her child [E323.1.1, D688] and to look after her brother. A servant overhears the conversation between the animal brother and the sister and informs the prince [H13]. The false bride and her mother are punished. Cf. Type 403.

In some variants the false bride and her mother want to kill the animal brother because they fear that the truth will be discovered. The cook saves him.2

Of interest, ATU 450 doesn't list Child Ballad #36 as an example of the tale type. However, the Motif Index of Folk Literature does list it by volume and page number alongside AT 450 from Types of the Folk-tale: A Classification and Bibliography, which is the predecessor of the plot index I use in Folklore & Fiction.3 Here's the entry:

P253.2. Sister faithful to transformed brother. *Types 450, 451; Child I 315f.4

I'll be addressing some of the other motifs in ATU 450 as part of this month's writing exercise, so let's move on to a bit more analysis for now.

"The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea" is told from the perspective of a boy who has been transformed into a serpent by a wicked stepmother who has also transformed his sister Masery into a fish. In his time as a serpent, the boy has killed seven knights but spares his knightly father and tells him the awful truth. When the father challenges his wife to disclose the whereabouts of his children, she says they're serving at the court of the king and queen. But he knows better and presses her into changing them back into children. The wicked stepmother changes the brother into a young knight, but the sister refuses her magic. The ballad ends when the father punishes his wife by burning her alive.

I selected this example because its provocative wicked stepmother and her equally wicked punishment open a window into the fairy tale depiction of women as villains. We know that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm took pains to preserve the sanctity of biological motherhood by replacing evil mothers in the stories they collected with outsiders to the nuclear family.56 However, their first two volumes of collected tales, published in 1812 and 1815, did contain evil mothers. Notably, Snow-White's biological mother is so jealous of her seven-year-old daughter's beauty that she tells a huntsman to stab the child to death and bring back her lungs and liver to be cooked and eaten.7 Francis James Child collected "The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea" from recitation in northern Scotland more than a decade earlier in 1802 or 1803, but the stepmother in the ballad is not an editorial replacement for a biological mother. In fact, Child writes that "Somewhat mutilated, and also defaced, though it be, this ballad has certainly never been retouched by a pen, but is pure tradition."8

What interests me most about the Grimm's treatment of women in the 1812 and 1857 versions of "Little Snow-White" is the relationship of their editorial changes to representations of power. In an effort to idealize Snow-White's biological mother, the Grimms strip her of flaws and kill her, leaving us with a woman who is good and weak, while the stepmother who takes her place is wicked and strong. But we can't lay the blame for this duality at Jacob and Wilhelm's feet alone, since it precedes them in traditional tales of magic, as we've seen in "The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea." Mothers-in-law, queens, and witches are all potential sources of evil in these tales, and this potential grows with the power of the women themselves. Dead mothers and beautiful maidens are safe places to direct our sympathies because their power is limited, but living women with life experience, sovereignty, and authority are not safe and cannot be trusted with the power they wield. When a woman's exercise of power is corrupt, as it so often is in these tales, she must be made an example to other women. Snow-White's stepmother is forced to dance until she dies in iron shoes held to a fire until they glow, and the little brother and sister's stepmother is burned alive.9

Adaptation, Subversion, and Exercise

Fairy tale retellings are popular among storytellers and readers, but as I've mentioned before, editors often find them stale no matter how novel the adaptation or subversion might be. This problem can sometimes be solved by retelling lesser-known fairy tales, as I did with "The Belt and the Necklace." But we don't need to borrow traditional plots to infuse a story with folkloric resonance. We can borrow motifs instead, those little chunks of story that recur in folk narratives. The motifs in this month's tale type present a rich opportunity for just this sort of borrowing, so I'm pairing them with several story prompts generated by The Story Engine Deck, created by Peter Chiykowski. 10

Here's an example:

 
  • Prompt: An earth god wants to end a conflict with a complex machine, but they will have to release something they once locked away.
  • Motif: This story should contain D114.1.1. Transformation: man to deer.

Let's get started!

Tell a story that includes one of these plots:

 
  • A cleric wants to survive a government-backed body modification, but it will introduce a dangerous technology to the world.
  • A musician wants to regain a wish-granting timepiece, but someone they love will pay the price.
  • A fanatic wants to find the path home, and their only lead is a forbidden set of keys, but they must cross a line they swore they would never cross.
  • A bully wants to destroy an eldritch museum, but they must face what they have been running from.

and also includes one of these motifs:

  • D114.1.1. Transformation: man to deer.
  • D135. Transformation: man to sheep.
  • D150. Transformation: man to bird.
  • D170. Transformation: man to fish.
  • D555. Transformation by drinking.
    • (Explanatory Note: Transformation into an animal by drinking a substance like water from a magical pool where an animal of that kind has been drinking.)
  • D688. Transformed mother suckles child.
    • (Explanatory Note: A mother transformed into an animal suckles her child.)
  • E323.1.1. Dead mother returns to suckle child.11

Tell a story that includes one of these plots:

 
  • A mimic wants to catch a serial killer whose calling card is a hovering music box, but they must confront a ghost of the past.
  • An archivist wants to end an obligation to a sentient shrine, but a terrible secret will come out.
  • An addict wants to gain the power of a life-giving incantation, but they must convince an enemy to help them.
  • A designer wants to draw attention to a radioactive set of riot gear, but they will have to betray a friend.

and also includes one of these motifs:

  • K1911. The false bride (substituted bride). An impostor takes the wife's place without the husband's knowledge and banishes (kills, transforms) the wife.
  • K1911.1.2. False bride takes true bride's place when child is born.
  • K1911.2.2.1. True bride lives in fish's belly.12

Tell a story that includes one of these plots:

 
  • An apothecary wants to stop the government from discovering a clockwork tower, but it will cost them their soul.
  • A blacksmith wants to escape the trap of a mobile inn, but it will cost them their last connection to humanity.
  • A rogue wants to solve a murder, and their only lead is a monster-slaying shotgun, but they will have to invite something evil inside.
  • A professor wants to light the powder keg of revolution with a clever broadcast, but it will put someone innocent into the crossfire.

and also includes one of these motifs:

  • N711.1. King (prince) finds maiden in woods (tree) and marries her.
  • P253.2. Sister faithful to transformed brother.
  • S31. Cruel stepmother.
  • S31.5 Girl persuades her father to marry a widow who has treated her kindly.
  • S142. Person thrown into the water and abandoned.13

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for the Winter Solstice dispatch and podcast, which are devoted to folkloric elements in my own work. Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.

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  • 1. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume I (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003), 316.
  • 2. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part 1: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011), 265-266.
  • 3. For more information on these indexes, check out the January 2021 edition of the Folklore & Fiction dispatch and podcast.
  • 4. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Volume Five L-Z (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), Electronic Edition.
  • 5. Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Expanded Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), Chap. 6.
  • 6. Claudia Schwabe, Craving Supernatural Creatures: German Fairy-Tale Figures in American Pop Culture (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2019), 94.
  • 7. You can read the 1812 version of "Little Snow-White" here and the 1857 version of "Little Snow-White" here.
  • 8. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume I (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003), 315.
  • 9. For more information on the relationship between tales of magic and morality, check out the August 2019 edition of the Folklore & Fiction newsletter.
  • 10. Peter is a longtime writing colleague and has graciously offered a 10% discount to readers and listeners who like the deck and want a copy for themselves. That discount is embedded in the following link: https://storyenginedeck.myshopify.com/discount/FOLKLORE10
  • 11. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), Electronic Edition.
  • 12. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Four J-K (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), Electronic Edition.
  • 13. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Five L-Z (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), Electronic Edition.