Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Girl in the chair: Seven blind queens raise a child in prison

Girl in the Chair is a blog series on research for storytellers. You can find the details about it in the opening post here

I did another research workshop for storytelling students recently (online, live from Berlin), and it was tons of fun, with lots of intriguing questions at the end. Once again, I am highlighting one of them, to show the steps of my search process.

The question

The person asking me was looking for a folktale where "seven blind queens raise a child together in prison."
Yes, this story exists. In more than one version.

Step one: Where have I read this before?...

I could have sworn I read a version of this in a Spanish folktale collection, but when I went through it, there was no trace of blind queens. I went through two other volumes of Spanish tales from the same publisher (the Siruela folktale series has large hardcover books with colorful covers, and I usually remember my reads visually). No luck. Sometimes, my memory tricks me.

*Edit*: In the end I remembered that I knew this story from Bierhorst's Latin American Folktales, but the Spanish edition. I wasn't entirely wrong!

Step two: Google Books

On to the starting point: I go to Google Books, and type in the most obvious search phrase, "blind queens." I get a few immediate results:
John Bierhorst's Latin American Folktales, under the title Seven Blind Queens, from Chile (this is the story the student asked about)
Joseph Jacobs's Indian Fairy Tales, where the story is called The Son of Seven Queens.
Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, under the story title The Three Blind Queens.
Flora Annie Steel's Tales of the Punjab, with the title The Son of Seven Mothers.
Arifa Naeem's Folk Tales from the Deccan, with the title The Seven Blind Queens.
A folktale collection from Pakistan that talks about seven blind queens.

It seems like this tale type is popular in India and South Asia, with occasional occurrences elsewhere.

I put in the search term in Spanish too, since the original question was about Latin America. I get a hit for "reinas ciegas" in the Spanish edition of the ATU index.

Step three: Tale type number

Even if the Spanish index didn't yield results, the Latin American folktale collection notes the type number in the end notes: ATU 462, The Outcast Queens and the Ogress Queen. The note says this type is "widespread in India, but not indexed in Europe or elsewhere Latin America." It does reference another version of Chile, noted in Hansen's tale type index (The types of the folktale in Cuba, Puerto Rico,the Dominican Republic, and Spanish South America)

Step four: Tale type indexes

I go to the Hansen index first, since it is specific to Central and South America. Sadly, it doesn't note type 462 at all; the story reference above is grouped under type 455, in which a jealous queen blinds her husband's nieces. There is no child or prison involved, they are rescued by their brother with the lion milk (still, interesting story).
Talking about lion milk...

Step five: The story basics

In the Chilean version (originally from this book) a cruel king blinds his queens one by one, and throws them into prison. Six queens eat their babies in hunger, but the first one manages to keep her son alive in secret. As the boy grows up he manages to find a way out of the dungeon, and keeps bringing in fruit from the garden to keep all seven queens alive. They all love him. One day he is caught by the gardeners and taken to the king (who has married an eighth, cruel woman in the meantime). The king takes a liking to him and, without knowing who the boy is, gives him free reign of the palace. The boy keeps feeding his mothers in secret. One day the cruel queen decides to get rid of him, so she pretends to be sick and demands lion's milk. With advice from his mother, the boy succeeds in bringing some. Next the queen demands a singing, dancing castle; the boy goes to an Enchanted city where he plays his guitar, and with the help of a sorceress finds the small castle, as well as water that cures blindness, candles that are human lives, and a pig that is the life of the cruel queen. He kills the pig, cures his mothers, the king remarries the first queen, and they all live happily ever after.
(I'm a little miffed the king gets away with everything.)

Step six: Variants

In the Italian version (from the Abruzzi) there are three queens (married to three kings), blinded by a jealous nurse and left out in the mountains. They also eat their babies, only the youngest is saved. When he is taken in by his father the king, the nurse sends him on a quest to rescue a princess. With his mothers' advice he succeeds, and the nurse is killed.
In the Indian version from Joseph Jacobs, the king encounters a bewitching maiden on a hunt, but she'll only marry him if he blinds his seven queens. He does. One of the queens has a son, who finds a way out of the dungeon and keeps bringing food to the queens. King eventually finds him and takes him in. The boy manages to piss off the wicked wife, who sends him to her mother to get killed. On the way, however, he marries a princess (who only wanted to marry a man "with seven mothers"), who rewrites the letter he is carrying, changing death sentence to reward. The prince gets the eyes of his mothers back (minus one), plus a cow with endless milk, plus ever-expanding rice, and all is well in the end. Music also plays a part in this story.
In the Deccan version a cunning maiden seduces the king and frames his seven wives for the murder of his favorite horse and dog. The queens are blinded an exiled, and as they give birth the babies are devoured by wolves, except the youngest. He ends up at his father's court and the wicked queen tries to have him killed by sending him to her wizard brother with a death message. A wise man helps him out. The boy kills a parrot that was the wizard's soul, and makes a potion to heal his mothers. Once again the king gets away scot free.
The Punjabi version is pretty much the same as Joseph Jacobs'. That explains a lot.

Step seven: The ATU index

According to the ATU, type 462 is not extremely widespread: It mostly has variants from India, South Asia, East Asia (China, Nepal, Laos), the Middle East, Spain and Catalonia, and Chile. Also, the Romani tradition, which would explain how these stories spread West. The only outliers are Iceland and Canada.
The ATU also notes motifs within the folktale type. There is no specific motif for this tale, but there is one (L71) for "Only the youngest of group of imprisoned women refuses to eat her newborn child." The reference points to the Thompson-Balys  motif index of India.
After so many references to India and South Asia, I refer to the Types of Indic Oral Tales index, the folktale index for South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka). This one lists a ton of variants to the story. I would have to sift through all of them if I wanted to dig deeper.

Conclusions and Musings

This tale type seems to be centered on South Asia. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say it spread west with the Roma to Spain, and then on to South America with colonization. There is also something distinctly celestial about the Punjabi version - the seven queens, one half-blind (Pleiades?), the endless stream of milk (Milky Way?), the countless grains of rice (stars?)... It might just be my imagination.
Anyway. Fascinating rabbit hole.
Thank you for the question, Johanna!

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful search and findings, Csenge. Interesting observation about the Punjabi version. And I didn't know there is a Spanish translation of the ATU index!