"Molly Whuppie"

Hello, and welcome to the April 2022 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. Before I begin, one of my colleagues in Poland is volunteering much of her free time to help refugees arriving from Ukraine, so I asked what those of us who are far away from the war might do to help. She recommends donating to Lambda Warsaw, which is helping queer refugees find safety and support in Poland. She also recommends supporting the Kyiv Zoo, which is working to get animals out of the country and Kyiv Animal Rescue, which is helping animals in the country who have no one else. There are many ways to help Ukraine, but these are the ones that came to me through a reliable source. Slava Ukraini, and may all that is holy and good protect the people of Ukraine.

This month's exploration of traditional folk narratives and contemporary storytelling centres on "Molly Whuppie," a popular fairy tale about a girl who outwits a giant, much as "Jack and the Beanstalk" is about a boy who does the same. However, the tale's praiseworthy depiction of a clever, courageous girl is situated alongside a fair degree of story violence, so it makes for an interesting analysis of folk tale sanitization, which we'll do in this edition. We'll also look at motifs and tale types associated with "Molly Whuppie" and utilize "fee, fie, fo, fum" as a launch point into a discussion of foreign-language dialogue in story craft.

"Molly Whuppie"

ONCE upon a time there was a man and a wife had too many children, and they could not get meat for them, so they took the three youngest and left them in a wood. They travelled and travelled and could see never a house. It began to be dark, and they were hungry. At last they saw a light and made for it; it turned out to be a house. They knocked at the door, and a woman came to it, who said: "What do you want?" They said: "Please let us in and give us something to eat." The woman said: "I can't do that, as my man is a giant, and he would kill you if he comes home." They begged hard. "Let us stop for a little while," said they, "and we will go away before he comes." So she took them in, and set them down before the fire, and gave them milk and bread; but just as they had begun to eat, a great knock came to the door, and a dreadful voice said:

"Fee, fie, fo, fum,
I smell the blood of some earthly one.

Who have you there, wife?" "Eh," said the wife, "it's three poor lassies cold and hungry, and they will go away. Ye won't touch 'em, man." He said nothing, but ate up a big supper, and ordered them to stay all night. Now he had three lassies of his own, and they were to sleep in the same bed with the three strangers. The youngest of the three strange lassies was called Molly Whuppie, and she was very clever. She noticed that before they went to bed the giant put straw ropes round her neck and her sisters', and round his own lassies' necks, he put gold chains. So Molly took care and did not fall asleep, but waited till she was sure every one was sleeping sound. Then she slipped out of the bed, and took the straw ropes off her own and her sisters' necks, and took the gold chains off the giant's lassies. She then put the straw ropes on the giant's lassies and the gold on herself and her sisters, and lay down. And in the middle of the night up rose the giant, armed with a great club, and felt for the necks with the straw. It was dark. He took his own lassies out of bed on to the floor, and battered them until they were dead, and then lay down again, thinking he had managed finely. Molly thought it time she and her sisters were off and away, so she wakened them and told them to be quiet, and they slipped out of the house. They all got out safe, and they ran and ran, and never stopped until morning, when they saw a grand house before them. It turned out to be a king's house: so Molly went in, and told her story to the king. He said: "Well, Molly, you are a clever girl, and you have managed well; but, if you would manage better, and go back, and steal the giant's sword that hangs on the back of his bed, I would give your eldest sister my eldest son to marry." Molly said she would try. So she went back, and managed to slip into the giant's house, and crept in below the bed. The giant came home, and ate up a great supper, and went to bed. Molly waited until he was snoring, and she crept out, and reached over the giant and got down the sword; but just as she got it out over the bed it gave a rattle, and up jumped the giant, and Molly ran out at the door and the sword with her; and she ran, and he ran, till they came to the "Bridge of one hair"; and she got over, but he couldn't, and he says, "Woe worth ye, Molly Whuppie! never ye come again." And she says: "Twice yet, carle," quoth she, "I'll come to Spain." So Molly took the sword to the king, and her sister was married to his son.

Well, the king he says: "Ye've managed well, Molly; but if ye would manage better, and steal the purse that lies below the giant's pillow, I would marry your second sister to my second son." And Molly said she would try. So she set out for the giant's house, and slipped in, and hid again below the bed, and waited till the giant had eaten his supper, and was snoring sound asleep. She slipped out and slipped her hand below the pillow, and got out the purse; but just as she was going out the giant wakened, and ran after her; and she ran, and he ran, till they came to the "Bridge of one hair," and she got over, but he couldn't, and he said, "Woe worth ye, Molly Whuppie! never you come again." "Once yet, carle," quoth she, "I'll come to Spain." So Molly took the purse to the king, and her second sister was married to the king's second son.

After that the king says to Molly: "Molly, you are a clever girl, but if you would do better yet, and steal the giant's ring that he wears on his finger, I will give you my youngest son for yourself." Molly said she would try. So back she goes to the giant's house, and hides herself below the bed. The giant wasn't long ere he came home, and, after he had eaten a great big supper, he went to his bed, and shortly was snoring loud. Molly crept out and reached over the bed, and got hold of the giant's hand, and she pulled and she pulled until she got off the ring; but just as she got it off the giant got up, and gripped her by the hand and he says "Now I have caught you, Molly Whuppie, and, if I had done as much ill to you as ye have done to me, what would ye do to me?"

Molly says: "I would put you into a sack, and I'd put the cat inside wi' you, and the dog aside you, and a needle and thread and a shears, and I'd hang you up upon the wall, and I'd go to the wood, and choose the thickest stick I could get, and I would come home, and take you down, and bang you till you were dead."

"Well, Molly," says the giant, "I'll just do that to you."

So he gets a sack, and puts Molly into it, and the cat and the dog beside her, and a needle and thread and shears, and hangs her up upon the wall, and goes to the wood to choose a stick.

Molly she sings out: "Oh, if ye saw what I see."

"Oh," says the giant's wife, "what do ye see, Molly?"

But Molly never said a word but, "Oh, if ye saw what I see!"

The giant's wife begged that Molly would take her up into the sack till she would see what Molly saw. So Molly took the shears and cut a hole in the sack, and took out the needle and thread with her, and jumped down and helped the giant's wife up into the sack, and sewed up the hole.

The giant's wife saw nothing, and began to ask to get down again; but Molly never minded, but hid herself at the back of the door. Home came the giant, and a great big tree in his hand, and he took down the sack, and began to batter it. His wife cried, " It's me, man"; but the dog barked and the cat mewed, and he did not know his wife's voice. But Molly came out from the back of the door, and the giant saw her and he after her; and he ran, and she ran, till they came to the "Bridge of one hair," and she got over but he couldn't; and he said, "Woe worth you, Molly Whuppie! never you come again." "Never more, carle," quoth she, "will I come again to Spain."

So Molly took the ring to the king, and she was married to his youngest son, and she never saw the giant again.1


"Molly Whuppie" belongs to a cycle of related tales about children and ogres.2 It isn't listed in the Aarne-Thompson- Uther (ATU) Index as an example of its type, but A Guide to Folktales in the English Language, which is based on the preceding Aarne-Thompson (AT) classification system, lists it twice in the cycle because elements of the tale correspond with more than one type. These are:

  • 327 The Children and the Ogre, which summarizes the plot of "Molly Whuppie" from the time Molly and her sisters are abandoned until the time the giant clubs his daughters to death.
  • 328 The Boy Steals the Ogre's Treasures, which summarizes the treasure-stealing elements of "Jack and the Beanstalk" but also applies to Molly's treasure theft.3

We can use these two tale types to situate "Molly Whuppie" in the ATU Index, but the correspondence is imperfect:

  • 327B The Brothers and the Ogre places three brothers at the mercy of an ogre who intends to cut off their heads and offers them nightcaps different from those of his daughters so he can distinguish between them.
  • 328 The Boy Steals the Ogre's Treasure gives us a similar introductory plot but adds treasure theft and service at the king's court.
  • 328A Jack and the Beanstalk mentions the giant's cannibalism.4

From these three entries, we can extract the following motifs for "Molly Whuppie:"

  • G84. Fee-fi-fo-fum. Cannibal returning home smells human flesh and makes exclamation.5
  • H1151. Theft as a task.6
  • K1611. Substituted caps cause ogre to kill his own children. The hero and heroine change places in bed with the ogre's children and put on them their caps so that the ogre is deceived.7

In Joseph Jacobs' notes on the 1902 edition of English Fairy Tales, he writes that his collection is intended for children and indicates that for the most part, his changes from the source material are dialectical.8 In the specific case of "Molly Whuppie," he writes that he has only modified the dialect and changed the name "Mally" into "Molly."9 These notes are important because they tell us that Jacobs was more concerned about the language of the tales than he was their content and believed "Molly Whuppie" was suitable for children as written. They also hint at the idea that he wasn't heavy-handed in his sanitization of characters and plots.

There is much to like about this tale from a feminist perspective. Molly is clever enough to see through the giant's nefarious plans and quick enough to help her sisters escape them. She's bold, negotiating with a king to steal from the giant in exchange for good marriages and nimble enough to succeed twice before she's caught. Even then, she persuades the giant to exact a punishment she knows how to evade and persuades his wife to take her place. In a library of fairy tale heroines who succeed by means of beauty and obedience, Molly is brilliant, capable, and strong.

However, the tale is also surprisingly violent. The giant hints at cannibalism with his "Fee, fie, fo, fum, I smell the blood of some earthly one."10 He's a murderer of children, and this violence is not redeemed in the least by the fact that he murders his daughters instead of his guests. He agrees to beat his dog and cat in the sack with Molly - a terrible violence to innocent beings - and does beat his wife in the sack with them. I was honestly surprised at Jacobs' enthusiastic endorsement of "Molly Whuppie" as a suitable story "for the little ones,"11 and was unsurprised to find that later versions were hesitant to include some of the violence in the tale.

The sanitization of traditional folk narratives might be undertaken for many reasons. I've previously written that "literary fairy tale writers like Charles Perrault sought to civilize children by means of the narratives they wrote, leading folklore scholar Jack Zipes to write that his 'foremost concern is how fairy tales operate ideologically to indoctrinate children so that they will conform to dominant social standards that are not necessarily established in their behalf.'"12 13 I've also written that "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."14 15 So there is an argument to be made that the sanitization of folk tales is simply a kind of adaptation, one specifically suited to the goals and tastes of their collectors or writers and the cultures that read them. Jacobs cared about language, so his tales are written in a vernacular he hoped would appeal to children. Perrault sought to influence young minds. The Grimms had many concerns, but among them was the lionization of biological motherhood.

More recently, Walter de la Mare's 1985 version of "Molly Whuppie" is also sanitized in a few interesting ways. There is no parental abandonment of children. Instead, the poor wood-cutter sends his three youngest children to gather wood, and they forget the way home. However, the giant's cannibalism is explicit. When Molly Whuppie asks his wife for food, she exclaims "Eat! Why, my husband's a giant, and soon as say knife, he'd eat you." Rather than clubbing his daughters to death, the giant drags them downstairs and bolts them up in the cellar, thus omitting the graphic murder of children. Finally, there is no change to the fate of the wife, cat, and dog in the sack, but Molly is kind to the animals while she's tied up with them.16 Perhaps adult readers in the 1980s were more sensitive to the idea of child abandonment, but perhaps children of that era were more accustomed to story violence that could be perceived as fantastical, such as cannibalism. However, it's quite clear that de la Mare wasn't willing to depict the beating death of young daughters in a tale meant for the 1980s household. He is faithful to the beating of the wife, cat, and dog, but none of them die in the Jacobs version to begin with, and he takes steps to soften the blows against the animals with Molly's behaviour toward them.

Can we look at these sorts of changes the same way we look at our own adaptation and subversion of traditional folk narratives? To some extent, I think we can. As I've written before, I think it's important to interrogate the reasons why these tales were changed by others and why we want to change them ourselves. Jacobs', Perrault's, and the Grimm brothers' perspectives and contexts are reflected in the tales they presented to us, just as our perspectives and contexts will be reflected in the tales we present to others.

Folk Narrative and Storytelling

Longtime followers of the Folklore & Fiction project will remember the September 2020 edition of the newsletter, which discusses language and verbal lore as a genre of folk narrative and offers a few suggestions for using it in storytelling. If you haven't read it, I recommend checking it out alongside this month's "Folk Narrative and Storytelling" discussion.

Speaking of language and verbal lore, there are a number of theories about the origin of the exclamation "fee, fie, fo, fum." Perhaps the most interesting of these comes from Charles Mackay's The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe, where he writes that:

These mysterious syllables occur in the popular story of Jack the Giant Killer, so dear to all British children.

Fa, fe, fi, fo, fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman!
Let him be living, or let him be dead,
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.

The antipathy expressed to an Englishman or Saxon points to a time for this version of the story when the conquered Keltic population, having no other means of expressing their detestation of their invaders, vented it in rhymes and fairy stories.

It has been supposed that these alliterative sounds were mere inventions without meaning, but researches into the Keltic language at the early, almost primeval time, when the fascinating story first charmed the youths and maidens of our remote ancestors, show a derivation which gives sense to an otherwise incomprehensible string of jargon.

Gaelic.— Faich (fa!), behold! see! fiadh (fee-a), food; fiu, good to eat, worthy; fogh (fo), sufficient; foghair, to suffice; feum (French faim), hunger; whence faich, fiadh, fiu, fogh, feum, or "fa, fe, fi, fo, fum!" "Behold food, good to eat, sufficient for my hunger;" the exclamation of the Keltic giant, who, without being a cannibal, would have been glad to devour the Saxon.17

The language Mackay is referencing here is Scottish Gaelic, or Gàidhlig, and I have more than a passing familiarity with it, though I'm not fluent. However, Mackay's text was published in 1877, and the six living Celtic languages were well-known then. So I'm uneasy about his research into a single, primeval "Keltic language," since that would have taken him into Proto-Celtic territory, for which linguistic research is ongoing even now. I'm also concerned that he drifts into French to land his argument. Gàidhlig is a French-influenced language, but there is no reason to believe that a native Gàidhlig speaker would abruptly switch to French while cursing his Saxon enemies. Finally, there is more than a little pro-English bias in Mackay's argument about this alleged exclamation of a Scottish giant and his alleged appetites, but his book was dedicated to the Prince of Wales. Still, his Gàidhlig vocabulary is mostly sound, and patrons will find an exploration of that in their inboxes.

I'm pointing this out because Mackay's work is cited in several places online as a theory of the origins for "fee, fie, fo, fum" even though it's somewhat problematic. However, because his text is old and looks authoritative, it might be easy for a storyteller to utilize his work in its entirety for a Gàidhlig-speaking character. I've seen this sort of thing in popular fiction, notably when an author whose work I enjoy wished a dead person "health" at a fantastical Irish wake, perhaps because she had seen the word "sláinte" used as a toast. As a writer, I know how tempting it can be to research a foreign language just enough to pepper a character's speech with colourful dialogue. However, as a folklore scholar, I want to encourage the use of reputable sources in our storytelling.

So, how do we work multilingualism into our storytelling when we aren't fluent in all the languages our characters speak? I have some thoughts about this I hope might be helpful to you.

Remember the Language of Publication Is the Language Your Characters Speak

Your story will be written in the language of its publication, and your characters will speak that language most often in the story. I know this sounds like rudimentary information, and it is, but it means you don't need to go overboard with your foreign language research.

Give Your Characters Unique Speech Patterns

Is your character a taciturn person who manipulates conversations with her silences? Is he a nervous person who blabbers? Does she insist upon logical discourse? Does he speak in circles? Giving your characters unique speech patterns helps to differentiate them from one another and decreases the need for foreign language dialogue inclusions.

Tell Your Readers What Language Your Characters Are Speaking

When a character speaks a foreign language, you might simply say so in the story. (E.g. "Gabriela shouted in Spanish to get her daughter's attention, and Louisa replied in the same language.")

Name Your Character's Accent

Research regional accents in your character's home country, choose one for your character, and mention it from time to time when she speaks. For example, a Scottish character might speak with a Glaswegian accent. Note: Be sparing in your use of this suggestion; once in a short story or a few times in a novel is sufficient.

Know Your Character's Linguistic Influences

Not everyone speaks the same language in the same way. For example, Texas English contains different colloquialisms and speech patterns than Irish English does. If you're writing an English-language story, you can research these regional linguistic influences and include them with greater confidence than you can a phrase in a foreign language. Caveat: Don't overdo this or your characters will read like caricatures.

Trust a Translator

If you've done all of the above and still want to pepper your multilingual character's dialogue with foreign words and phrases, look for tutorials from professional translators online or hire one to prepare a dialogue sheet for you. I recently hired a translator from the Montreal Lebanese diaspora to prepare a dialogue sheet for a Lebanese-Canadian character who speaks Arabic, English, and French. He charged me a reasonable fee for two hours of work and returned twelve phrases in two languages tailored to my needs. Because I was building the main character for a novel series, I thought his work was worth the price I paid.

This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents over twenty hours of research, writing, and production. If you found it helpful, I hope you'll consider supporting the Folklore & Fiction project on Patreon. That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for a look at "Tam Lin." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.


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  • 1. Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902), 130-135.
  • 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), 211.
  • 3. D. L. Ashliman, A Guide to Folktales in the English Language: Based on the Aarne-Thompson Classification System (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), 69-72.
  • 4. Uther, 211-218.
  • 5. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Three F-H (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), Electronic Edition. Thompson, Electronic Edition.
  • 6. Thompson, Electronic Edition.
  • 7. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Four J-K (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), Electronic Edition.
  • 8. Jacobs, vi-viii.
  • 9. Jacobs, 266.
  • 10. Jacobs, 130.
  • 11. Jacobs, vi.
  • 12. Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran, “ATU 780 ‘The Singing Bone,’” Folklore & Fiction, accessed February 4, 2022, https://csmaccath.com/blog/atu-780-singing-bone.
  • 13. Jack Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (New York: Routledge, 2006), 34.
  • 14. Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Expanded Edition, Expanded Edition. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), Chap. 6.
  • 15. Claudia Schwabe, Craving Supernatural Creatures: German Fairy-Tale Figures in American Pop Culture (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2019), 94.
  • 16. Walter De la Mare, Molly Whuppie (Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1985).
  • 17. Charles Mackay, The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe (London: N. Trübner and Company, 1877), 160.