Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction dispatch. At the summer and winter solstices, I mimic the sun and pause to reflect on my own creative work. In this edition, I'm discussing my theatrical adaptation of a little-known tale of magic titled "The Belt and the Necklace," forthcoming as part of the Odyssey Theatre's "Other Path Podcast" series. The play is still in production, but I do have an excerpt to share with you a little later in the dispatch. For now, let's have a look at the original story. Here it is.
"The Belt and the Necklace"
There was once a king with a daughter named Barbara. She was so ugly that everyone made fun of her. She lived a lonely life.
One day she was up in her room feeling sad about her bad luck. Suddenly a gnome appeared before her and gave her three plums. He said to her: “March straight down to the sea and throw one of the plums into it. Two mermaids will rise up out of the water, bright as the sun. Throw the second plum into the sea and one of the two mermaids will come on land. She will be wearing a magical belt, and you should take it off her. When you throw the third plum into the water, the other mermaid will come on land. She will be wearing a necklace that can be yours as well. As soon as you put on the belt and necklace, you will become the most beautiful woman of all, as dazzling as the sun. If you wear the necklace as a belt and vice versa, you will become invisible. Make sure you don’t take off the belt and necklace, and above all else, don’t lose them. But come what may, I will still be there to help you.”
The princess did as she was told. She went over to the sea and threw a plum into the water. Two mermaids emerged from below. They were so dazzlingly beautiful that it hurt her eyes. She threw the second plum into the water, and one of the two women came out of the water and gave her the belt she was wearing. It would turn her into a queen. But she set one condition: Barbara would have to turn over her third child, when it turned three. Barbara threw the third plum into the water. The second mermaid came on land and gave her the necklace in exchange for the most beautiful of her children. Barbara put on the belt and necklace and was declared to be the most beautiful in the land. She became queen. Whenever she walked on the grounds, she was as radiant as the sun, and the gardens around her looked like paradise.
Barbara gave birth to her third child, and it was a little boy, just as beautiful as the first two. When the boy turned three, the nursemaid took a walk with him near the sea. Suddenly one of the mermaids rose up from the water and grabbed the child. More children were born to the queen, and the sixth was a boy, the most beautiful of them all. The king loved him more than life itself. The queen put out an order that no one was to allow the child near water. One evening an old woman appeared, and she asked for shelter. A white veil hid her face. The stranger was given a place to sleep and stayed in the corner she had been given. When everyone was asleep, she took the boy and fled with him.
The king’s messengers were sent out to search for the boy, but they returned without any news. The queen had to confess how everything had come to pass. The king was furious and had the queen thrown in the water, into the very sea where she had acquired the belt and necklace. But the water could do nothing to her, and she did not even get damp. She sank down until she reached the splendid palace in which the mermaids lived, and there she found her two boys.
When the two mermaids decided to spend some time up on the surface of the water, the mother wore the necklace as a belt and vice versa. She became invisible and fled with the two boys, who had already started to grow webbed feet. The mermaids began to create a disturbance in the waves. They stirred up such powerful storms that it seemed as if everything would perish and go under. But at the king and queen’s palace there was nothing but joy.1
The Folklore Behind the Fiction
"The Belt and the Necklace" is a tale of magic collected from oral tradition in the nineteenth century. There is no literary embellishment in the tale, the gnome has less agency than it promises, and the role of the villain is alternately occupied by Barbara's community and the man she marries. This leaves Barbara caught between her benefactor and two villains until the tale's last sentence, which unsuccessfully resolves these tensions. Meanwhile, the much-maligned Barbara makes an unfortunate bargain with mermaids to surrender her third-born child and the most beautiful of her children in exchange for the use of a magical belt and necklace that will either make her lovely or invisible, depending upon how they are worn. However, because the role of the villain shifts, and the tale is somewhat incomplete besides, whatever moral lesson it might have imparted is lost. Still, "The Belt and the Necklace" contains much of what we love about tales of magic; a maligned princess, an offer of help from otherworldly beings, magical objects, transformations, abductions, and a happy (if somewhat stunted) ending.
There are other virtues to be found in "The Belt and the Necklace", notably in the manner of its collection and preservation. While it is German, it was not collected by those famous sanitizers of traditional tales, the Grimm brothers. Rather, it was collected by a civil servant and folklore enthusiast named Franz Xaver von Schönwerth. Victoria Sussens-Messerer writes in her 2012 article for The Guardian that Schönwerth "spent decades asking country folk, labourers and servants about local habits, traditions, customs and history, and putting down on paper what had only been passed on by word of mouth."2Among the folk narratives he received from these people were five hundred fairy tales, which were subsequently lost in a Regensburg archive until 2009. So these tales read much as they were told by the storytellers themselves, and they haven't been heavily adapted in books, television, or film. We are fortunate to have them.
A Peek Into the Writing Process
Tales of magic are short narratives passed down from oral traditions that weave elements of the supernatural into the everyday lives of people. These tales are infused with moral lessons, and they're resolved by rewarding characters who behave morally according to the story world's standards and punishing characters who do not. Careful readers of "The Belt and the Necklace" will find this morality missing along with its associated reward and punishment, so I thought it important to reintroduce them all in my theatrical adaptation. Given that the Odyssey Theatre's "Other Path Podcast" series combines the aesthetic of traditional folk tales with contemporary settings and themes, another important task was to bring "The Belt and the Necklace" into the twenty-first century.
I combined these two tasks by giving some thought to what constitutes ugliness in modern society and settled on fatness. As a woman of size myself, I had some ideas about the internal and external challenges a fat hero might face, and I also had some ideas about the villains who would oppose her. But the mermaids interested me too; they're capricious in the original tale, but I wanted more from them than magic, child-theft, and fury. Because they're the source of transformative magic in "The Belt and the Necklace," they needed to be a source of reward and punishment as well, and for that they needed motivation. So I gave them a good one. As for the magic itself, it changes a bit from the original tale to my theatrical adaptation because of time constraints, but I endeavoured to remain true to its spirit.
In all, I was excited to adapt a fairy tale I doubt any modern storyteller has touched, and for a radio play, too! Having been a part of both theatrical workshops for the production this year, I can tell you that the cast is stellar. It was a privilege to watch them bring my adaptation of an old, wonderful story to life, and I can't wait for you to hear it.
"The Belt and the Necklace" Teaser
Speaking of hearing it, I did promise a teaser. Gentle folk, I'm delighted to introduce you to Neta J. Rose in the role of Beyla Bee and Nicole Wilson in the role of Barbara Blackthorn in this excerpt from "The Belt and the Necklace."
Please note that the teaser you've just heard was specially produced for this podcast by a busy production team, and Nicole is mis-identified as Chandel Gambles in the credits. However, Ms. Gambles does indeed bring her considerable talents to "The Belt and the Necklace," and you'll get to hear both her voice and Jeremy Hutton's in February 2022.
Podcasting the Folklore & Fiction Archive
In other news, longtime followers of the Folklore & Fiction project will remember my two-year series on folk genre, written and published before my first podcast aired in January 2021. Earlier this year, I promised to record that series for listeners, and the time has come to make good on my promise. Starting in January 2022, I'll be releasing a newsletter from the archives as a supplemental podcast on the second Thursday of each month for the next two years.
That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month as I continue my exploration of folk narrative with a second year of motifs, tale types, analysis, and inspiration for storytellers. Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.
Monthly Meme Archive
Folklore & Fiction Facebook Group
Are you a storyteller with an interest in folklore? Would you like to join the conversation about this edition of the dispatch and podcast? If so, the Folklore & Fiction Facebook group might interest you.
- 1. Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, ed. Erika Eichenseer, trans. Maria Tatar (Penguin Classics, 2015), 130-131.
- 2. Victoria Sussens-Messerer, “Five Hundred New Fairytales Discovered in Germany,” The Guardian, March 5, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/05/five-hundred-fairytales-discovered-germany