Monday, February 12, 2018

Cinder Jack

This Hungarian tale is found in Surlalune's Frog Tales collection but it's also a gender reversed version of Cinderella (by the way that's an idea for a collection I'd love to get my hands on some day, I love a good gender reversed fairy tale!)
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A peasant had three sons, and he sent the eldest to guard the vineyard. During the night, a frog came up to him and asked for a piece of the cake he was eating. Angrily, the young man threw a stone at the frog and in the morning the vineyard was ruined. The same thing happened to the second son the next night.

The following night, the youngest son offered to watch the vineyard. The family thought very little of him, and he always sat in the cinders, so he was called Cinder Jack. But they allowed him to try. When the frog approached, he shared his cake. In return, the frog gave him three rods of copper, silver, and gold; and told him that three horses of the same material would come to destroy the vineyard unless he used the rods. Cinder Jack was able to subdue the horses, and the vineyard flourished; but he did not tell his family the secret of his success.

One day, the king erected a high pole and hung a golden rosemary on the top, promising his daughter to whoever could reach it in one jump on horseback. All the knights of the realm tried, but failed. Then, a knight in copper mail, on a copper horse, came and took the rosemary, and disappeared. When Cinder Jack's brothers returned home, they told him all about the mysterious knight. Their brother claimed he had seen the whole thing from the top of the hoarding, so his brothers had it pulled down, so he wouldn't be able to see anything else.

The next week an even higher pole was put up with a golden apple at the top, and the same promise. This time a silver knight on a silver horse took it and disappeared. When Cinder Jack told his brothers he witnessed the whole thing from the pigstye, they had it destroyed.

The following week, a gold and silk kerchief was placed on yet a higher pole, and a gold knight took it and disappeared. Cinder Jack claimed to have seen it from the top of the house, so his brothers had the roof taken off.

The king invited the mystery knight to come forward with the rosemary, apple, and kerchief. The people were astonished to see that it was Cinder Jack, and he was good hearted enough to rebuild his brothers' house and give them gifts. "Cinder Jack is reigning still, and is respected and honored by all his subjects!"
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I find gender bent fairy tales to be fascinating-in some ways they might seem to confirm gender bias but the mere fact that they exist proves that gender roles in folklore may be more flexible than we often assume. For example, I like the fact that Jack forgives his brothers. Although Cinderella gets criticized for forgiving her sisters in some versions, and it can be troubling and seem naive, when a man forgives and even goes beyond that to restore their house and give them gifts, it comes across less as weakness and more as him being the better man taking the high road, at least to me--(which makes me wonder how much of my/culture's interpretations themselves are biased and not the character's actions themselves?). Then again, it depends on each story; in this tale, Cinder Jack was clearly manipulating his brothers and Cinderellas don't tend to do that.

Then there's the matter of how Jack wins the bride-rather than simply appearing beautiful as Cinderella does, he performs feats of strength, which on the surface seems unfair and to reveal unbalanced gender expectations. And yet...is jumping really high on a horse that much more impressive than Cinderella's feats of dexterity, sorting grains, etc.? Especially when considering the fact that neither of them are actually performing their impossible tasks on their own merits, but using aid of magical helpers they befriended because they were kind?
What do you think of Cinder Jack?

Illustration by Charles Folkard