Oh man, do I love these ladies. I’m sad that “The Three Spinners” doesn’t get more ink in annotated collections (it’s neither in Philip Pullman’s collection of tales, or Maria Tatar’s The Annotated Brothers Grimm), because it’s a delight, and a refreshing dip into the world of good fairies—or witches, depending on your preferred nomenclature. “The Three Spinners” features, well, three spinners of yarn who rescue a girl from basic household chores because she just doesn’t care to do them. The stakes are low, the comedy is high, and the three mysterious spinners are some girls you’d really want on your side.
The tale goes like this: a girl hated to spin yarn. Hated it so much that she cried all the time, because her mother wanted her to do it. A queen, passing by in her carriage, hears the girl crying and asks the mother what’s wrong. Wanting to save face in front of royalty, the mother lies and says the girl loves spinning yarn so much that the mother can’t afford to finance her daughter’s crazy yarn-spinning habit. The queen thinks an industrious girl is a grand thing, and takes her to the palace where she’s got “plenty of flax,” and the girl “can spin as much as she likes.” Irony! The queen shows the girl a room full of flax and says that if she can spin it all, she can marry the queen’s son. Instead of doing what she’s told, the girl cries into her smooth, spinning-averse hands for three days. I think all of us champion procrastinators can relate.
Then the three spinners show up. They are not attractive. One has a long, flat foot bigger than her other foot. One’s bottom lip is huge, and droops down onto her chin. And the third has one thumb that is enormous, red, and the size of an organic carrot. With these possibly magical attributes, the three spinners set to work, and get all the girl’s flax spun. The first treads the spinner with her foot, the second licks the flax with her bottom lip, and the third twists it into yarn with her giant carrot of a thumb. The girl is grateful, and in return for this task, the spinners ask that they be invited to the wedding, introduced to the queen and prince as the girl’s cousins, and given a place at the newlyweds’ table.
Now, you might think that we’re being set up with a Frog King or Bluebeard situation here, in which the girl consents, but reluctantly, or she does the opposite of what she promises and is punished accordingly. But in a refreshing twist, the girl welcomes the odd-looking women to her wedding and embraces them. The prince remarks on how ugly they all are (what a catch), and the girl tells him to be nice to them. He asks each on in turn how they came to earn their strange features (because he’s a nice guy like that). The first one, with the foot, answers “from treading, from treading.” The second, with the lip: “from licking, from licking.” And the third: “from twisting thread, from twisting thread.” The prince vows he’ll never let his attractive bride spin flax again, and thus she never has to.
Never mind that the prince in this story is ridiculous: he’s so horrified at the thought of his bride being ugly that he forbids her from doing something that he was tricked into thinking she loved, absolutely loved to do, and was very good at. He’s not the ideal modern man. But those witches! For that’s what they definitely are, good witches, though it’s never said. They’re the best. They’re having a down day, looking for something to do besides bestow a magical object on a prince or threaten to eat small children, and they help a girl out with her housework. This is why I love witches—despite their often flat characterizations, they’re very complex. They’re not always good, they’re not always bad. As quiet and unremarkable as “The Three Spinners” is, it shows a fun little witchy gray area. They could just as easily have punished this girl for being lazy, but instead they help her out of a jam, because why not? Though I guess you could argue that the girl’s real punishment is having to live with that prince…ah well.
I think blogger Alice Zorn puts it best:
“So what is the message of this story?
With help, you can disguise your laziness.
Ugly strangers can be more helpful than your mother.
Remember your promises.
Vary your activities or you’ll end up deformed.”
Read my writing response here, and read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu.