Let’s talk about “King Thrushbeard,” shall we?
This Grimm fairy tale is lesser-known than “Snow White” or “Little Red Riding Hood.” However, it has multiple incarnations within European folklore, including a parallel to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. If you’ve never read it or need more than the following summary, you can access the full story HERE.
(I’m going to analyze it to death below, so consider yourself forewarned.)
The King Thrushbeard plot in a nutshell
A haughty, well-born woman insults all her suitors. As retribution, her father marries her to a beggar, who humbles and humiliates her until she’s in a state of abject misery. Only then does he reveal himself as the highest ranked of her scorned suitors and elevates her to the position of queen beside him.
I have, shall we say, some issues.
Usually when I rewrite a fairy tale, there’s something I want to fix. It’s not always a flaw with the tale itself. For GOLDMAYNE, I wanted to fix that “Scurvyhead” and “Sir Goldenhair” had no adaptations (that I knew of). For BRINE AND BONE, it was my desire to keep Andersen’s original ending, so often abandoned in retellings of “The Little Mermaid.” And, for SOOT AND SLIPPER, it was simply to answer my own question of why someone might stay in the abusive “Cinderella” family situation.
With “King Thrushbeard,” though, the plot itself rubs me wrong. The beggar is outright mean, and the power imbalance between him and the haughty princess, where he keeps his true identity concealed, is gross. As with The Taming of the Shrew (which, spoiler alert, I also despised the first time I read it) this story seems to be a cautionary tale for women not to speak their mind, not to get too full of themselves, not to have high expectations for their partners, but to instead be submissive and always defer to the men around them.
But, Kate, she was really mean too.
Was she, though? At the start of the fairy tale, the narrator tells us how conceited and rude this princess is. She makes fun of every guy who shows up to woo her. She calls them names and picks out their flaws.
And yet, for some weird reason, she still has a horde of men lining up to marry her. Which begs the question: if she’s so awful, why do they even like her?
- She’s beautiful.
- She’s titled.
It’s safe to assume that if she’d been plain and middle-class, the number of suitors would be significantly lower. So I guess it’s fine for the men in this story to be shallow and grasping. Always nice to start off a cautionary tale with a glaring double standard.
But even so, is our princess really that terrible? All of her insults have to do with looks rather than personality. This indicates that she knows basically nothing about these people other than the image they present.
And her dad’s like, “Okay, honey, pick from this crowd of strangers who you’re going to spend the literal rest of your life with.”
I guess this is where my perception of her as conceited falls apart. She’s a physically perfect specimen—so perfect that men from all over her country and the surrounding kingdoms come for a chance to marry her, and even her awful personality doesn’t dissuade them. Why shouldn’t she have high expectations for a husband? Why shouldn’t she be able to judge him by his looks the same way he’s judging her?
Because again, if she was Goody Wart-face instead of Princess Pretty, would any of these men come within a hundred miles of her?
Awful is as awful does
Her behavior for the rest of the story belies the initial claim that she’s such an awful person.
- She marries a beggar and obediently traipses along behind him into a life of poverty. (So awful.)
- When he tells her what an idiot she was to reject King Thrushbeard, she’s like, “Yeah, you’re right. That was really dumb of me.” (SO awful.)
- When he tells her to get a job, she injures herself trying two different trades, to the point of bleeding fingers, and then she almost gets trampled to death while in the course of a third trade. (SO AWFUL.)
- When she goes to work as a kitchen maid she performs the dirtiest tasks and manages to provide dinner every night from the food she collects. (TOTALLY THE WORST.)
- When she has the audacity to look in on a fancy party, she resists a former suitor’s attempt to force her to dance with him. (CAN SHE BE MORE AWFUL?)
- When she learns the truth of who King Thrushbeard is, she abases herself in asking his forgiveness and submits to him as his wife.
Okay that last one actually is awful, not because she herself is awful but because her jerkface husband has ground every last shred of dignity from her and we as the readers get to witness the birth of a genuinely terrifying relationship.
Our princess’s cardinal sin is making fun of men—men she doesn’t know and has no interest in marrying.
Guess what? If a bunch of random dudes showed up at my house expecting me to pick one of them, I might resort to insults as well. The big difference between me and this princess—aside from the whole “medieval royalty” bit—is that my dad was awesome and would never in a million years have tried to force me into any relationship against my will.
So the dad in this story? AWFUL.
And the suitors? ALSO AWFUL. (Aside: who would take an off-the-cuff insult and turn it into someone’s name from that point onward? Grade-schoolers, that’s who. These are grown men acting like children. “Heh heh, Thrushbeard. That’s your name now.”)
But Thrushbeard himself? THE LITERAL WORST.
Shall we break down his behavior? (Do we dare?)
He disguises himself to maneuver into a marriage with a woman who obviously didn’t care for him.
He knows who he’s marrying but she doesn’t recognize him, which creates a huge power imbalance. All of the needling questions he asks her, all of the rebukes he gives, take on a sinister light when you realize he’s being mean on purpose.
His contributions to their marriage amount to a crappy shack and some resources for her to work.
Like, what’s his job? Why isn’t he out making money? Or pan-handling? Anything? Because repeatedly, they live off the money or the food that she brings home. He’s just this worthless lump that sits around complaining about how she’s not good enough or doing enough.
The marketplace incident. Ugh.
This really cements him as scum-of-the-earth. She’s good at selling pottery, and he can’t have her succeed at anything or she might gain some particle of confidence and a backbone to go with it. Not only does he intentionally destroy her trade, but he berates her afterward as though this not-at-all-random-or-accidental act of destruction is her fault.
Friends, if you are ever in a relationship with someone who treats you this way, run. Run so far away. Don’t look back. This is TOXIC and you deserve better. Yes, even if you’ve slung petty insults at your peers during an earlier point in your life, you still deserve to be treated better than this.
Finally, when he reveals himself at the castle, he forces her out in front of a crowd for one last humiliation.
He knows how much he’s belittled her, how much he’s abased her. She’s been doing filthy work and collecting food for him to eat every night, and he yanks her out in the open so that she falls and is just an absolute mess in front of all these pristine people.
And only then is she “humble” enough to know the truth.
So magnanimous a hero.
The moral of King Thrushbeard…?
Is it okay to make fun of people for their physical shortcomings? Absolutely not. But this poor, stupid girl, that was her crime: slinging insults against powerful men. She wasn’t punching down. The story doesn’t say that she ever went out into the street and was like, “Oh, look at that homeless person! What an eyesore! Let’s call them Stinky McTatters from now on!”
No, she insulted peers who had flocked to her like she was a collectable curio.
And her punishment? Utter, thorough humiliation.
I mean, I guess you could argue that she gets elevated back to her rightful place in the end, but does she? She’ll be a queen, sure, but all the gold and prestige in the world can’t compensate for being married to a psychopath.
(And he’s also kind of ugly, remember? So she doesn’t even have a nice face to look at over the dinner table while she’s contemplating what horrible punishment he might mete out to her next.)
Those are the issues that I aimed to address when I rewrote “King Thrushbeard” as MAID AND MINSTREL.
The story, for all the aforementioned faults, has its charms as well. I love the princess’s perseverance, and her growing self-awareness. Despite my above apologetics, she is haughty at the start. However, she reforms, which is always a lovely character arc. I was intrigued to adapt her tale into something of my own.
In the end, though, because I focused so much on making the hero a decent human being instead of a villain in disguise, I didn’t get to play as much as I usually do with my retellings.
So, I wrote a second version.
“Thrushbeard” is an urban fantasy short story about a faultfinding girl with a fairy contract gone wrong. It’s part of A GRIMM EVER AFTER, the 2022 ANWA Anthology that releases, officially, on September 12.
BUT, if you follow the above link and switch over to the paperback, that format has already published. Unexpectedly, my story’s the first in the collection.
Meaning, if you click the “look inside” option, you can read the first 8 pages as a sample.
This is a “scholarship” book. All proceeds go to fund less affluent members of the American Night Writers Association in attending the yearly writer’s conference or other ANWA-sponsored events. I have been a member of ANWA for almost a decade. I love its mission to nurture writers at whatever stage they are, beginners to advanced, regardless of whether they want to publish or merely to explore their creativity.
My rights on “Thrushbeard” revert in about 6 months. At that point, I’ll decide what future this story holds.