Red-Headed Fairy Tales: The Turnip Princess
"What did you do with the beautiful maiden?"
The old woman just giggled: "I'm here right now. Why do you keep rejecting me?"
This tale comes to us from The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy tales, compiled in the late 1850s by Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth. Schonwerth began traveling in the 1850s, "recording his observations and the stories of the people he interviewed." About five hundred of the tales were left unpublished and were all but forgotten until discovered by Erica Eichenseer, a fairy tale expert and co-founder and director of the Schonwerth Society.
This story begins with a nameless prince who is lost in the woods. He finally finds shelter in the woods, but in the morning an old woman hovers over him. She's insistent that he become her husband. With her is a talking bear, her pet. The prince doesn't like her at all, but for some reason he is unable to leave (it is never explained why).
One day when the prince and bear are alone the bear tells him to pull a rusty nail out of the wall so the bear can be free. The bear then instructs him to take the nail into the field where there are turnips, and to place the nail under one of the turnips. His reward will be a beautiful wife.
The prince does as instructed and the bear turns into a man wearing a crown. The prince runs out into the field, but a monster (undescribed) appears out of nowhere. The nail flies from the prince's hand and he grips a hedge to steady himself. The thorns pierce deep and he bleeds so much that he faints.
When he wakes he is in unfamiliar surroundings with neither nail nor turnips. He's grown a beard as well.
He wanders for a while, and one day finds a blackthorn bush with a single red blossom. He takes the branch the red blossom is on and immediately finds a turnip field nearby. He sticks the branch into a turnip and falls asleep.
When he wakes the next morning the turnip has turned into a bowl and the nail is lying in the center. The interior of the bowl looks like a nutshell, with the form of a beautiful maiden inside.
At this point the prince looks for the cave again and finds it fairly easily. He can tell it's been abandoned for a while. The rusty nail from before is lying on the floor, so he hammers it into the wall.
Immediately the bear and old woman appear again. The prince blames the old woman for everything, demanding to know what she did to the beautiful maiden.
After a few moments where he continues to accuse her, the bear finally convinces him to remove the nail once more. The prince pulls it out halfway and looks back at his companions, seeing the bear is now half a man and the ugly old woman is now half a beautiful maiden. He pulls the nail out the rest of the way and the man and maiden are restored completely.
The prince immediately flies into the arms of the maiden and the two destroy the rusty nail. At this point the bear-man disappears from the story.
The prince and maiden return to the prince's castle (with no difficulty whatsoever) and the king is overjoyed to see them both. A great feast is held and "the two live a long, happy life."
I'm left with many questions on this one. First, who cast the spell and why? Who were the maiden and the man to each other? He wore a crown, so was he also royalty? Where did he go after he was freed?
What was the nature of the monster? Was it part of the spell, or unrelated?
Was there more than one nail? It got a little tricky when it mentioned he lost the nail when the monster appeared. Then later a nail showed up in the bowl. Finally he finds what is supposedly the same rusty nail when he returns to the cave. The text calls it "the nail" every time, indicating it's the same one, but whether or not it is moving about by magic is never explained.
In my opinion, the prince is shallow. Even when the maiden was an old woman, she wanted him as her husband, but he only wanted her once he knew she was young and beautiful. To me, this doesn't bode well for their future.
Lessons: Appearances are deceiving.
Do more investigating before jumping to conclusions.
This partially reminds me of a King Arthur story, "The Marriage of Sir Gawain." Gawain ends up marrying an old woman because of a promise he made to Arthur. He doesn't relish the idea, but at night she reveals herself to be a beautiful maiden in disguise. She asks him if he would prefer her to be beautiful by day or by night. He chooses night, but she chooses day. He leaves it to her to decide, so she says she will now be beautiful all the time. By giving her the choice, he rescued her from a curse put on her by her stepmother.