Illustration by Enrico Arno for similar story, "Whitebear Whittington" 1966
Illustration by Enrico Arno for similar story, “Whitebear Whittington” 1966

Happy Valentine’s Day! We actually have plans for this evening, probably the first time we’ve gone out on Valentine’s Day for years. Dinner and then the Wheeling Symphony. I’m looking forward to it.

This month, we’re looking at Beauty and the Beast variations. Today’s is an Appalachian tale called “The Three Gold Nuts,” and the beast in this case is a bear. You can read the whole story at AppLit.

Once again we have a father with three grown daughters. The father is headed to the store and the two oldest ask him to bring back fabric for them to make dresses, while the youngest asks him to stop and pick her some roses if he sees any along the road. The dad picks up the fabric and on his way home passes a grand house that has roses. As he starts picking them, he hears a voice saying, ” You pick them and I’ll pick you.” After this happens again, the voice says instead, “You can pick all the rosies you want if you will give me the first thing that meets you when you get home tonight.” The father figures his old dog will meet him and agrees, but of course, the youngest daughter runs out to meet him when he gets home.

Later that evening, as they sit down to dinner, a voice outside insists, “Bring me my pay,” and the father tells his daughters the whole story. First they try to send out the dog, then the cow, then the two older daughters volunteer, but all are sent back, scared. I like that the two older girls here volunteer to go. They are not mean sisters or jealous ones, they actually try to take the youngest’s place. Finally, the youngest goes out and there, at the gate, is a large white bear. She climbs on his back and rides away.

The bear takes her to a lovely house and gives her a choice. “And I will be a man of a night and sleep with you and a bear of a day and lay under the bed, or I’ll be a bear of a night and lay under the bed and a man of a day and talk to you. Which had you rather I would be?” She chooses he be a man during the night. Eventually they have a baby and they go back to visit her family, he in the form of a bear. He tells her that she must not tell that he is sometimes a man or the last she will see of him is going up a mountain with three drops of blood in his shirt, but of course she does and off he goes up the mountain. Instead of just giving up on him, though, she heads off determined to find him. She follows and night after night she hears that the young man had been there the night before. Along the way an old woman gives her three nuts, telling her to crack them only when she is in the most trouble she ever has been. I love old women helpers in stories, they are such a perfect contrast to all the witches and evil step-mothers.

Eventually she catches up to her husband who has no memory of who he was, but another woman tricks him into marrying her. The true wife cracks the nuts one each night, trading the gift provided each night, first gold thread, second a gold reel, then a gold loom, for a night in bed with the man. The second wife gives the man a sleeping draught each night, so for the first two nights, he doesn’t hear his first wife whispering, ” Once you was a bear and I could have you and now you are a man and I can’t have you.” Thanks to his new father-in-law telling him about hearing someone talking in his room all night, the third day the man doesn’t swallow the draught and manages to stay up all night. He finds out who the woman visiting him is and tells his father-in-law,  “you can have back your daughter. I’ve found my old wife and she suits me better than your daughter.” Notice it was the third night that he learned the truth.

They go back home and live happily ever after, and he never turns into a bear again.

I like that the woman in this one is active, finds her husband and does everything she can to get him back. He doesn’t trick her into staying with him, she does it by choice and must have come to love him, given her long, difficult search for him. Women in Appalachian tales in general seem more capable, strong, self-reliant than the traditional European versions. I do find it odd that the second wife had no trouble allowing another woman into her husband’s bed, even if she drugged him. Obviously, they didn’t have a very strong relationship. I do find it interesting that the first wife, it seems implied, would rather have sex with a man than enjoy his company during the day. I’m not sure what that means. Having children is more important than companionship? Or, as some of the women in a book I listened to recently would have said, women don’t need men except when it’s for the woman’s pleasure?

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.


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