Saturday, December 26, 2020

StorySpotting: Recipe for a perfect husband (Bridgerton)

 StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Netflix dropped a new regency drama on Christmas Day, and people (including me) are binge-watching it. It quickly devolves into light syrupy bodice-ripping erotica, but it has some memorable moments and characters.

Where was the story spotted?

Bridgerton, Season 1, Episode 2 (Shock and delight)

What happens?

Eloise, the main heroine Daphne's sharp-witted proto-feminist little sister, is taking a walk with her best friend, discussing Daphne's sudden (fake) courtship with the dashing Duke Hastings. Quote: "So Daphne may be in love. Does she think it an accomplishment? What exactly has she accomplished, then? [scoff] She certainly did not build that man or bake him. He simply showed up."

What's the story?

This is just a throwaway comment on Eloise's part, pointing out how society values courtship as some kind of a feminine accomplishment, even though literally all they have to do is sit there and look pretty. 
However, in the world of legend and folklore, building or baking a husband (or a wife) is actually not outside the realm of possibility. 

The most famous example that comes to mind is from Giambattista Basile's 17th century Neapolitan fairy tale collection, the Pentamerone. The book contains a variant of the Cupid and Psyche myth (belonging to tale type ATU 425 - In search for the lost husband). The title of the tale is Pintosmalto, and it begins with a rich merchant's daughter who refuses to choose a husband for herself. Instead, she asks her father to provide her a set of very specific ingredients, and she builds her own perfect husband out of marzipan. (In case you are curious: "half a hundredweight of Palermo sugar, and as much again of sweet almonds, four to six bottles of scented water, a little musk and amber, forty pearls, two sapphires, a few garnets and rubies, some gold thread"). After bringing the perfect prince to life with prayers, she happily marries him - but Pintosmalto is kidnapped from the wedding by an evil queen, and the bride has to go on a long journey to rescue him. 

There is also a Calabrian version of this folktale type in Italo Calvino's collection, aptly titled The Handmade King (originally called Re Pipi, which means King Pepper, and also sounds hilarious). In this one, a princess sets out to make herself the perfect husband out of 176 lbs of flour and the same amount of sugar (which probably adds up to a whole lot of husband). At first she is not satisfied with the results, so she destroys her creation and tries again. She uses a pepper for a nose, and names the newly animated man King Pepper. I think we can truly say she found someone after her own tastes...

I also once heard an Italian storyteller tell a version where a princess, after burning the first attempted bread-husband and leaving the second half-baked, on the third try manages to create the perfect... pizza (on account of using cheese for his white skin, tomatoes for his red cheeks, olives for his eyes, etc.). Ultimately she discovers that pizza makes her much happier than a husband. 

On a more... direct note, there is the Inuit legend of Blubber Boy. A girl loses her lover who drowns in the sea, and since she doesn't want to marry anyone else, she carves his perfect likeness out of whale blubber, and then rubs her genitals on him until he comes to life. They marry, but hot weather eventually destroys the husband, so she carves another one...

Apart from handmade husbands being very popular all over Italy (Calvino lists other versions too), there is also a common folktale type where men create a perfect woman. 
There is a folktale motif numbered F1023 - Creation of a person by cooperation of skillful men, and it is a dilemma tale usually embedded into longer stories. Three or four men traveling together take turns keeping watch at night, and each of them contributes to the creation of a beautiful woman: a carpenter carves her shape, a tailor dresses her, a jeweler makes her adornments, and finally a teacher/wise man gives her life, and/or the ability to speak. The dilemma is, which one of them should marry her? The riddle has its own motif number: H621 - Skillful companions create a woman: to whom does she belong? There can be various answers depending on the version, or the story can be open ended. In the cases where we get an answer, she usually belongs to the one who gives her life. 

And of course, honorable mention goes to the well-known Greek myth of King Pygmalion and his lovely statuesque wife Galatea. Also, to Blodeuwedd, the woman made out of flowers for a man who was not allowed to have a human wife. One of these marriages worked out better than the other.


One could argue that some of Daphne's story actually follows the Pintosmalto tale: she marries a mysterious husband, then loses him, and has to go through various trials until they are (emotionally) reunited. 
Also, for FMA fans: do no try any of this at home. 


  1. What about the girl made of flowers,
    Blodeuwedd, as the young man is cursed never to find a woman to marry? (unfortunately flowers prove to be somewhat faithles.)