Tricking the witch: In a newly discovered fairy tale by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, the princess wields the sword.

Read a Just-Discovered Fairy Tale in Which the Princess Wields the Sword

Read a Just-Discovered Fairy Tale in Which the Princess Wields the Sword

Reading between the lines.
March 2 2015 9:30 AM

Tricking the Witch

A newly discovered fairy tale by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth.

Illustration by Roman Muradov.

Illustration by Roman Muradov

Excerpted from The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, edited by Erika Eichenseer, translated by Maria Tatar. Out now from Penguin Classics.

The British press reported in 2012 that 500 unknown fairy tales, languishing for more than a century in the municipal archive of Regensburg, Germany, had come to light. The fairy tales were compiled in the mid-19th century by a man named Franz Xaver von Schönwerth. Erika Eichenseer, a resident of Regensburg, opened 30 dusty cardboard boxes of von Schönwerth’s tales and turned them into fairy-tale gold by reading, sorting, transcribing, and providing context for them. Now, with the new English translation, a broader audience will have access to the tales.

An evil witch kidnapped three princesses and would not set them free. While they were in captivity, the girls learned a few magic tricks from the witch.

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One day a young prince lost his way in the woods, and the two-faced witch welcomed him warmly, but she was actually plotting to kill him that night.

Although the princesses were not allowed to speak, the youngest of the three, Reinhilda, alerted the prince to the perils facing him. She had taken a liking to him, and she whispered in his ear: “When the old woman takes you to your room, don’t step on the threshold but jump over it! When she gives you something to drink for the night, don’t touch it because it will be a sleeping potion. Don’t sleep in the bed but under it. Leave everything else to me!”

After dinner the witch took the stranger up the stairs to his bedroom, and the youngest of the three sisters lit the way with her candle. The young man jumped over the threshold, and when the witch handed him something to drink, the candle went out, as if by accident. The prince poured the brew into his boot and settled down to sleep under the bed. Later that night the princess woke the prince up and fled with him using the magic she had learned while in captivity.

The two were able to soar through the air, but just as the day was dawning, Reinhilda realized that they were being followed. And indeed the witch, as soon as she had woken up, had known exactly what had happened with the prince and the youngest of the three princesses. She had sent one of the two other princesses out to catch her and bring her back.

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It looked as if the two were about to be caught, when the princess said: “I’m going to change into a rosebush, and I’ll turn you into a rose. My sister is chasing us, and she won’t be able to do a thing because she can’t stand the smell of roses.” Just when the girl was closing in on them, a fragrant rosebush sprang up right in her path with a magnificent rose in bloom. The girl had been tricked, and she had to turn back. The witch scolded her to no end. “You stupid girl,” she grumbled angrily. “If you had just plucked the rose, the bush would have followed.” And then she sent the eldest of the three to find the two fugitives.

In the meantime the couple returned to their human shapes, and they continued on their way. Reinhilda turned around at one point, and she saw that they were still being pursued. She decided to take advantage of her magic powers again, and she said to the prince: “I’m going to turn myself into a church, and you are going to climb up into the pulpit and hold a stern sermon about witches and their sinister magic.”

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When the third sister caught up with the pair and was just about to overtake them, she suddenly found herself near a church, and right there in the pulpit was a preacher raging against witches and their black magic. The sister returned, and when the old woman asked her what she had seen, she said: “I could see her from a distance, but when I reached the spot where she had been, there was nothing but a church there with a preacher denouncing witches.”

“Oh, you foolish thing!” the old woman said. “If only you had just shoved the preacher out of the pulpit, the church would have come back with you. Now I have to go after them. Well, they don’t stand a chance against me.”

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The princess resumed her natural form, but now the old woman was chasing the two of them, and she was hot on their trail. “My magic is not as powerful as a witch’s,” Reinhilda said to her beloved. “Give me your sword. I’m going to turn myself into a pond and you will become a duck. Just stay in the middle of the pond, no matter how much the old woman tries to lure you to come on shore. Otherwise we will be lost.”

The old woman did what she could to bring the duck on land, using terms of endearment and throwing tasty morsels on the water, all in vain. The duck stayed in the middle of the pond and would not paddle any closer. Then the old woman climbed to the top of a dam in the pond and drank every drop of water in sight. The princess was now in the belly of the witch. She turned back into a human and cut the witch open from inside with the sword the prince had given to her. The witch was now as dead as a doornail.

The loving couple were reunited and in safety. The princess gave her hand to the prince at the altar, and the two lived happily together with the sisters, who had been freed from the spell.

From The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, published on Feb. 24, 2015, by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Selection and foreword copyright by Erika Eichenseer, 2015. Translation, introduction, and commentary copyright by Maria Tatar, 2015.

Franz Xaver von Schönwerth was a Bavarian civil servant and creator and compiler of fairy tales. He died in 1886.