My father has always believed in extra sweaters. No matter where you are going, no matter what the temperature, he offers the same suggestion – take an extra sweater.
I’m the same way about stories. No matter where I go, I want to have an extra story along. Maybe even two. What if there is a Story Emergency?
That’s why I am looking at the Norwegian versions of Tale Type 1384 (A man seeks someone as stupid as his wife) and Tale Type 1460 (The Merry Wives of Windsor). I might tell fast. I might need an extra story.
I have heard and enjoyed versions of these two stories but never really looked at them closely. When read “Some Wives are Like That” and “Stupid Men and Foolish Wives” (Folktales of Norway, Reidan Christiansen, editor) I was somewhat appalled. I like these stories but each one has a touch of mean-spiritedness.
What’s going on here? When I looked carefully at “Some Wives are Like That,” I realized that the wife in that story was victimized by the butcher who, after buying the cow from her, got her drunk and tarred and feathered her while she slept. Then her husband goes looking for women as “stupid” as she is and financially victimizes three women in a row. When he comes home he discovers that she has gone and sown the fields with salt because “you reap what you sow.”
Salt destroys fields. This woman is really stupid! Or is she?
The other story, “Stupid Men and Foolish Wives” is very similar to other European versions. One wife convinces her apparently gullible husband that he is dead. and the other creates an “invisible” suit of clothes which she convinces her husband to wear to the first man’s funeral. But when the “dead” man looks out of the air holes his thoughtful wife has drilled in his coffin and laughs out loud when he sees his naked friend, the funeral comes to an abrupt and hilarious halt. In Christiansen’s version, the teller ends the story thusly: the longer they (the husbands) talked the more clear it became that the wives had arranged the whole thing between them. So the husbands went home and did the wisest thing they had ever done. And if anybody wants to know what that was, he’d better ask the birch rod!”
Each of these stories can be approached by thinking about the clue at the end.
The man who called his wife stupid for being a victim (and who financially victimized other women) ended up with his fields destroyed. Was that wife really stupid, like he said all wives were, or was she taking what revenge she could?
The women who made public fools of their husbands apparently met that birch rod.
Maybe these stories aren’t about living with idiots. Maybe it’s flipped.
In a world where people were expected to stay married, at least until the plague, childbirth disasters, or a hungry bear brought the death that do us part, these stories might be a warning.
You’ll pay a heavy price if you don’t respect your spouse.