Three Heads of the Well
Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Our anniversary is today, so I tried to find an anniversary fairy tale. I failed. This one, however, features two marriages and three golden heads. “The Three Heads of the Well” is from Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales by James Orchard Halliwell, published in 1849.

In the days before King Arthur, a king held his court in Colchester. He had a beautiful daughter by his beautiful wife, but his wife died when the daughter was 15. The king heard of a rich widow who also had an only daughter. Even though the widow was ugly and mean, he married her. Her daughter was just as bad as she was. Eventually, the new wife and step-daughter turned the king against his own lovely daughter through lies. The daughter was miserable and begged the king’s leave to go and seek her fortune. He permitted her and told his wife to give her a small sum to take with her. His wife gave her brown bread, hard cheese, and a bottle of beer and the daughter left.

She started on her journey and shortly sees an old man sitting on a stone. When he asks what she has, she tells him and offers him some. After he eats, he gives her a wand and tells her how to get through a hedge that is just ahead. He also tells her she will find a well and three golden heads will rise up in it. She should do whatever they tell her. Once again, helping the poor old stranger bodes well for our young adventurer.

She goes to the well and the heads, each in turn, ask her to comb them and wash them and lay them on the bank to dry. After she does so, each of the heads grants her a gift- one says she shall be beautiful, the next that both her breath and body will be sweetly perfumed, and the third that she shall be fortunate and queen to the greatest prince that reigns. She lowered the heads back into the well at their request and continued on her journey.

She goes on, and a king sees her and falls in love with her. They marry and go back to visit her father. The couple arrive in a grand chariot and are dressed magnificently. Her stepmother is enraged that her stepdaughter and not her own daughter had gained all this, and sent her daughter on the same journey. The daughter was rude to the old man, and slighted the three heads, who cursed her with leprosy, stinky breath, and marriage to a cobbler.

She goes on. A cobbler offers to cure her leprosy and voice if she will marry him, and she agrees.

Her mother, finding she had married a cobbler, hangs herself, and the king gives his stepdaughter’s husband a hundred pounds to quit the court and live elsewhere. Meanwhile the beautiful good daughter and her kind live happily ever after.

I think the second wife’s daughter got off fairly easily. Her mom ended up dead, but she just ended up married to a cobbler. Granted she had to work and maybe didn’t have a rich, handsome husband, but at least she probably lived fairly comfortably.

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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