|illustration of Allerleirauh by Arthur Rackham|
I love the magic nutshell because of all the symbolic power it holds in its small, simple form.
It symbolizes femaleness, fertility, and the seed of life. The meat inside is precious food. Crack the shell in half, and you see a heart inside. Take off the green hull, and you see ink on your hands--ink that was used by many ancient people for writing.
In folklore, there are plenty of stories of magic found or held inside a tree or a part of a tree--a branch, a fruit, a hollow trunk, or a nutshell.
I just discovered another of these stories, in the 1914 Norse collection illustrated by Kay Nielsen, East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North. "The Widow's Son" mirrors the story of Allerleirauh, with the genders reversed--the hero is a boy called simply "the Lad." I was delighted to find Allerleirauh's gender-twin, having believed that it must exist somewhere, because all the old tales seem to have gender-flipped variants, from "Cinderella" to "Beauty and the Beast," throughout the folklore of Europe, from the British Isles to Eastern Russia. Until I read this book, though, I had not discovered a single one for "Allerleirauh."
Instead of a bad widower father, the Lad has a bad widow mother. Allerleirauh runs away because her father wishes to marry her; the Lad's mother kicks him out on the street because she can't afford to feed him. (At least she doesn't try to eat him as some fairy tale parents do.)
Instead of a magic nutshell, the Lad keeps his impressive treasures in the phallic trunk of a magic lime tree (not the kind that grows limes--it's a confusing local name for a linden tree).
Allerleirauh and the Lad both set out to work as servants for a royal household, disguised as vagabonds and sleeping under stairs; Allerleirauh wears a patchwork fur hood and soot, while the Lad wears a wig of fir-moss and smears of dirt.
Both are summoned to the suspicious, opposite-sex king/princess's bedroom on successive nights; Allerleirauh gets boots thrown at her face, while the Lad gets a place to sleep by the doorway.
Both appear three times in their magical garb but run away before the royals can find out their identity; Allerleirauh attends fancy balls, while the Lad engages in battle wearing shining, beautiful armor. Both are discovered while in disguise by an object placed on their bodies while they were in their magical garb--Allerleirauh by a golden ring, the Lad by a handkerchief tied around a leg wound. Both have their lovely hair forcibly uncovered by their suspecting royal; Allerleirauh's king throws off her hood, and the Lad's princess orders her maid to yank off his wig while he sleeps.
In both cases, then comes the royal wedding.
I love this story and all its densely packed symbolism. It's about growing up and leaving home, separating from one's parents to find a mate, and all the danger and indecision and vulnerability of revealing one's true nature to a romantic partner. In both gender variations, it's the vagrant (even if one is a runaway princess) who initiates contact but the royal who does the pursuing. The visual images in these stories are so evocative (even without these gorgeous illustrations), and the sensual tension runs high.
Alone, the story of Allerleirauh looks like a tale about an oppressed female character using all of her wits and resources to survive in a male-dominated world. And so it is. But if Allerleirauh shows us how bad it is to be a woman in an oppressive patriarchy, the Widow's Son shows us how much worse it is to be a man in the same context. Because in the world of folktales, filled with gender-reversed variants of every story, it becomes clear that masculinity and femininity were not defined by whether one was the hero or the prize, the brave one or the innocent, the one with the pretty hair or the one who was desperate to see it. Gender was all about tools and trades. Allerleirauh's "battles" are fought in ball gowns, and her tools are innocuous household objects. The Lad's finery is armor, and he wears it on an actual battlefield. When she is decorated with a ring, he is festooned with a bandage for his arrow wound. At first glance, it seems that Allerleirauh's love interest treats her worse than the Lad's, but it is his life that is in danger, not hers. Allerleirauh's ill-treatment is more insult than injury--certainly with the implicit threat of worse--but it would not be expected for the king to seriously injure, let alone kill her. However, when the princess brings the Lad into her bedroom to toy with him, she knows full well that her father would have him executed if he were discovered there.
If I could choose my weapons, I'd take a ball gown over a suit of armor any day--a pen over a sword, a golden trinket to trade over a spear to throw. I love prettiness, femininity, relative freedom from violence, and the emotional complexity of being a woman. I can imagine the thrill of those who enjoy wielding physical power, but I'm glad to be a lady. And so I celebrate the quiet power of the magic nutshell.