The Magic Forest
A folk tale from Croatia
The Magic Forest
Source: Dan Keding, Elder Tales: Stories of Wisdom and Courage from Around the World (2008); Allan B. Chinen, In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life (1989)
This is my version of the story, which appears in Hagitude.
Once upon a time, an old woman lived on the threshold of a magical forest with her son. One day, the son saw a snake in the forest which was so beautiful that he wanted to take it home with him – but, as soon as he touched it, the snake turned into a beautiful woman. He brought the woman home to his mother, and announced that she was his bride-to-be.
At first, the old woman was happy for her son, but the more time she spent with the young woman, the more she came to believe that something was wrong with her. She tried to warn her son, but he rejected her. He called her a witch, and set about marrying his intended.
The young couple, having no house of their own, lived with the old woman. But the new wife made the old woman do all the housework, and piled other tasks upon her, requiring her to fetch snow from mountaintops and to catch fish from beneath frozen lakes. As the old woman performed these difficult tasks, she thought about praying for help. But she believed that God might then punish her son, and so for his sake she remained silent.
One evening, the old woman picked up one of her son’s shirts to mend it, but she was scolded by his new wife. ‘Don’t do that,’ she shouted. ‘You’ll only ruin it!’ When the old woman turned to her son for support, he simply said, ‘Obey my wife.’ So the old woman set aside the shirt and went outside to sit on the freezing front porch.
Soon a young woman from the village walked by with a heavy load of kindling. She asked the old woman whether she would like to buy some, but the old woman replied that she had no need of it. ‘However,’ she said, ‘I see that your coat is torn. May I mend it for you?’ The young woman was delighted, and thanked the old woman after the repair had been completed.
That night the son and his wife attended a dinner in the village. Before they left the cottage, the snake woman gave her mother-in-law a long list of tasks to complete, and as soon as the young couple had departed, the old woman set to work. While she was starting the fire, she heard laughter – and turned around to see twelve little men, dancing. They were fire elves, and she was delighted to watch them having such a fine time. She laughed and clapped as they danced, remembering the happier days of her youth, and when they stopped she began to cry.
One of them, who was called Wee Tintilinkie, asked, ‘What’s the matter, old mother?’
She told them about her situation, and they suggested that she visit the Forest King to see if he might have a solution to her plight. She agreed, and so they all left the cottage together and travelled deep into the enchanted forest. At the centre of the forest was an enormous old oak tree. Wee Tintilinkie led the old woman inside it, and there she saw before her seven golden castles and a village which looked strangely familiar. They went inside the largest castle, which was the home of the Forest King.
When the old woman approached his throne and told him what had happened to her, the king gestured to the village beyond. ‘Look!’ he said. ‘There is your childhood village, and there is your mother, your father and your friends. If you wish, you can join them, and live again during this happier time of your life. All you have to do is clap, and then climb the fence that surrounds the village.’
The old woman smiled as she thought about entering the village, but then the smile disappeared from her face. She asked the king, ‘What about my son? What will happen to him?’
The king replied, ‘You will have no memory of him, because you will be returning to a time before he was born. He will be left to his own fate.’
The old woman knew then what she must do. ‘No,’ she said to the Forest King. ‘I can’t forget my past and my son. I can’t forget all the things that have happened to me, and all the things I am. I will return home.’
As soon as she had spoken, the king sat up straight on his throne and replied, ‘You have rejected magic and the joy of returning to your youthful past, in favour of your difficult present circumstances. With that choice, you have broken the enchantment which the snake woman cast over your son.’ The king then clapped his hands, and the castles, the fire elves, the enormous oak tree and the king himself disappeared. The old woman found herself alone in the forest, and set off eagerly to return to her cottage.
The old woman ran home to find her son crying at the hearth because his young wife had turned back into a snake, and now he understood how he had been enchanted by her. When he saw his mother at the door, he embraced her and begged her forgiveness. He later married the girl from the village who sold kindling; she remembered the old woman’s kindness to her, and the three of them lived happily together for the rest of her days.
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