The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And you'll need it to keep your wits about you when everyone else is losing their heads! Journey through the hazel wood with Katherine, a woman who chooses truth over tradition, has no patience for evil, and uses her wits, resourcefulness, and a handful of nuts to tear down the strongholds of the enemy and rescue those in her charge.
What was that cool Greek word for gentleness again?
What about the one for quiet?
The true meaning of gentleness.
How smart are sheep?
Shield Maidens: Episode 7
“Katherine Crackernuts”: Watch Your Head
Welcome to Lost in the Woods: Finding Your Way as God’s Daughter Through Fairy Tales ™. I’m your host, Autumn Woods, and I’m so excited you’re here. We’re coming to the end of Season 2 with our seventh episode, but Season 3 will be here before you know it. Check back for updates on its release through my Buy Me A Coffee, Instagram, and Facebook pages. Season 3 is called The Lost Husbands and will focus on stories of women who bravely venture forth, enduring extraordinary trials and tribulations to rescue the men they love. If you’ve been hanging on with me in hopes of hearing stories like “Beauty and the Beast,” “East of the Sun West of the Moon,” and “The Snow Queen,” this is your season!
To help us transition from our Shield Maiden tales to the Lost Husband stories, I’m going to introduce you to one of my favorite Scottish fairy tales that has the best elements of both types: “Katherine Crackernuts.” Yes, laugh at the alliteration, I know I did the first time. There are many versions of this story, and the English one may be more well-known, but I prefer the Scottish version because the language displays a wider range of emotion for the characters involved. I apologize in advance to my Scottish listeners for my very American attempts to capture your dialects, and I hope you forgive any mistakes you hear in favor of the spirit of the story. There are some lines in here that, as you well know, lose their flavor without a bit of Scottish burr.
Like Vasilisa the Beautiful, Katherine Crackernuts is already strong and courageous. She has a good head on her shoulders, a keen sense of justice, and an adventurous spirit. She’s also a cunning problem solver who performs multiple daring rescues. We’re taken on the journey with a woman who chooses truth over tradition, has no patience for evil, and uses her wits, resourcefulness, and a handful of nuts to tear down the strongholds of the enemy and rescue those in her charge.
So, let’s get lost, as we read the story of (Katherine Crackernuts).
| | | | There was once a King whose wife died, leaving him with an only daughter, whom he dearly loved. The little Princess’s name was Velvet-Cheek, and she was so good, and bonnie, and kind-hearted that all her father’s subjects loved her. But as the King was generally engaged in transacting the business of the State, the poor little maiden had rather a lonely life, and often wished that she had a sister with whom she could play, and who would be a companion to her.
The King, hearing this, made up his mind to marry a middle-aged Countess, whom he had met at a neighboring Court, who had one daughter, named Katherine, who was just a little younger than the Princess Velvet-Cheek, and who, he thought, would make a nice playfellow for her.
He did so, and in one way the arrangement turned out very well, for the two girls loved one another dearly, and had everything in common, just as if they had really been sisters.
But in another way it turned out very badly, for the new Queen was a cruel and ambitious woman, and she wanted her own daughter to do as she had done, and make a grand marriage, and perhaps even become a Queen. And when she saw that Princess Velvet-Cheek was growing into a very beautiful young woman—more beautiful by far than her own daughter—she began to hate her, and to wish that in some way she would lose her good looks.
“For,” thought she, “what suitor will heed my daughter as long as her step-sister is by her side?”
Now, among the servants and retainers at her husband's Castle there was an old Hen-wife, who, men said, was in league with the Evil Spirits of the air, and who was skilled in the knowledge of charms, and philtres, and love potions.
“Perhaps she could help me to do what I seek to do,” said the wicked Queen; and one night, when it was growing dusk, she wrapped a cloak round her, and set out to this old Hen-wife's cottage.
“Send the lassie to me to-morrow morning ere she hath broken her fast,” replied the old Dame when she heard what her visitor had to say. “I will find out a way to mar her beauty.” And the wicked Queen went home content.
Next morning she went to the Princess's room while she was dressing, and told her to go out before breakfast and get the eggs that the Hen-wife had gathered. “And see,” added she, “that thou dost not eat anything ere thou goest, for there is nothing that maketh the roses bloom on a young maiden's cheeks like going out fasting in the fresh morning air.”
Princess Velvet-Cheek promised to do as she was bid, and go and fetch the eggs; but as she was not fond of going out of doors before she had had something to eat, and as, moreover, she suspected that her step-mother had some hidden reason for giving her such an unusual order, and she did not trust her step-mother's hidden reasons, she slipped into the pantry as she went downstairs and helped herself to a large slice of cake. Then, after she had eaten it, she went straight to the Hen-wife's cottage and asked for the eggs.
“Lift the lid of that pot there, your Highness, and you will see them," said the old woman, pointing to the big pot standing in the corner in which she boiled her hens' meat.
The Princess did so, and found a heap of eggs lying inside, which she lifted into her basket, while the old woman watched her with a curious smile.
"Go home to your Lady Mother, Hinny,” she said at last, “and tell her from me to keep the press door better snibbit.”
The Princess went home, and gave this extraordinary message to her step-mother, wondering to herself the while what it meant.
But if she did not understand the Hen-wife's words, the Queen understood them only too well. For from them she gathered that the Princess had in some way prevented the old Witch's spell doing what she intended it to do.
So next morning, when she sent her step-daughter once more on the same errand, she accompanied her to the door of the Castle herself, so that the poor girl had no chance of paying a visit to the pantry. But as she went along the road that led to the cottage, she felt so hungry that, when she passed a party of country-folk picking peas by the roadside, she asked them to give her a handful.
They did so, and she ate the peas; and so it came about that the same thing happened that had happened yesterday.
The Hen-wife sent her to look for the eggs; but she could work no spell upon her, because she had broken her fast. So the old woman bade her go home again and give the same message to the Queen.
The Queen was very angry when she. heard it, for she felt that she was being outwitted by this slip of a girl, and she determined that, although she was not fond of getting up early, she would accompany her next day herself, and make sure that she had nothing to eat as she went.
So next morning she walked with the Princess to the Hen-wife’s cottage, and, as had happened twice before, the old woman sent the Royal maiden to lift the lid off the pot in the corner in order to get the eggs.
And the moment that the Princess did so off jumped her own pretty head, and on jumped that of a sheep.
Then the wicked Queen thanked the cruel old Witch for the service that she had rendered to her, and went home quite delighted with the success of her scheme; while the poor Princess picked up her own head and put it into her basket along with the eggs, and went home crying, keeping behind the hedge all the way, for she felt so ashamed of her sheep’s head that she was afraid that anyone saw her. Now, as I told you, the Princess’s step-sister Katherine loved her dearly, and when she saw what a cruel deed had been wrought on her she was so angry that she declared that she would not remain another hour in the Castle. “For,” said she, "if my Lady Mother can order one such deed to be done, who can hinder her ordering another. So, methinks, ’twere better for us both to be where she cannot reach us.”
So she wrapped a fine shawl round her poor step-sister’s head, so that none could tell what it was like, and, putting the real head in the basket, she took her by the hand, and the two set out to seek their fortunes.
They walked and they walked, till they reached a splendid Palace, and when they came to it Katherine made as though she would go boldly up and knock at the door.
“I may perchance find work here,” she explained, “and earn enough money to keep us both in comfort.”
But the poor Princess would fain have pulled her back. “They will have nothing to do with thee,” she whispered, “when they see that thou hast a sister with a sheep’s head.”
“And who is to know that thon hast a sheep’s head?” asked Katherine. “If thou hold thy tongue, and keep the shawl well round thy face, and leave the rest to me.” So up she went and knocked at the kitchen door, and when the housekeeper came to answer it she asked her if there was any work that she could give her to do. “For,” said she, “I have a sick sister, who is sore troubled with the migraine in her head, and I would fain find a quiet lodging for her where she could rest for the night.”
“Dost thou know aught of sickness?” asked the housekeeper, who was greatly struck by Katherine’s soft voice and gentle ways.
“Ay, do I,” replied Katherine, “for when one’s sister is troubled with the migraine, one has to learn to go about softly and not to make a noise.”
Now it chanced that the King’s eldest son, the Crown Prince, was lying ill in the Palace of a strange disease, which seemed to have touched his brain. For he was so restless, especially at nights, that someone had always to be with him to watch that he did himself no harm; and this state of things had gone on so long that everyone was quite worn out.
And the old housekeeper thought that it would be a good chance to get a quiet night’s sleep if this capable-looking stranger could be trusted to sit up with the Prince.
So she left her at the door, and went and consulted the King; and the King came out and spoke to Katherine and he, too, was so pleased with her voice and her appearance that he gave orders that a room should be set apart in the Castle for her sick sister and herself, and he promised that, if she would sit up that night with the Prince, and see that no harm befell him, she would have, as her reward, a bag of silver Pennies in the morning.
Katherine agreed to the bargain readily, “for,” thought she, “’twill always be a night’s lodging for the Princess; and, forbye that, a bag of silver Pennies is not to be got every day.”
So the Princess went to bed in the comfortable chamber that was set apart for her, and Katherine went to watch by the sick Prince.
He was a handsome, comely young man, who seemed to be in some sort of fever, for his brain was not quite clear, and he tossed and tumbled from side to side, gazing anxiously in front of him, and stretching out his hands as if he were in search of something.
And at twelve o’clock at night, just when Katherine thought that he was going to fall into a refreshing sleep, what was her horror to see him rise from his bed, dress himself hastily, open the door, and slip downstairs, as if he were going to look for somebody.
“There be something strange in this,” said the girl to herself. “Methinks I had better follow him and see what happens.”
So she stole out of the room after the Prince and followed him safely downstairs; and what was her astonishment to find that apparently he was going some distance, for he put on his hat and riding-coat, and, unlocking the door crossed the courtyard to the stable, and began to saddle his horse.
When he had done so, he led it out, and mounted, and whistling softly to a hound which lay asleep in a corner, he prepared to ride away.
“I must go too, and see the end of this,” said Katherine bravely; “for methinks he is bewitched. These be not the actions of a sick man.”
So, just as the horse was about to start, she jumped lightly on its back, and settled herself comfortably behind its rider, all unnoticed by him.
Then this strange pair rode away through the woods, and, as they went, Katherine pulled the hazel-nuts that nodded in great clusters in her face. “For,” said she to herself, “Dear only knows where next I may get anything to eat.”
On and on they rode, till they left the greenwood far behind them and came out on an open moor. Soon they reached a hillock, and here the Prince drew rein, and, stooping down, cried in a strange, uncanny whisper, “Open, open, Green Hill, and let the Prince, and his horse, and his hound enter.”
“And,” whispered Katherine quickly, “let his lady enter behind him.”
Instantly, to her great astonishment, the top of the knowe seemed to tip up, leaving an aperture large enough for the little company to enter; then it closed gently behind them again.
They found themselves in a magnificent hall, brilliantly lighted by hundreds of candles stuck in sconces round the walls. In the centre of this apartment was a group of the most beautiful maidens that Katherine had ever seen, all dressed in shimmering ball-gowns, with wreaths of roses and violets in their hair. And there were sprightly gallants also, who had been treading a measure with these beauteous damsels to the strains of fairy music.
When the maidens saw the Prince, they ran to him, and led him away to join their revels. And at the touch of their hands all his languor seemed to disappear, and he became the gayest of all the throng, and laughed, and danced, and sang as if he had never known what it was to be ill.
As no one took any notice of Katherine, she sat down quietly on a bit of rock to watch what would befall. And as she watched, she became aware of a wee, wee bairnie, playing with a tiny wand, quite close to her feet.
He was a bonnie bit bairn, and she was just thinking of trying to make friends with him when one of the beautiful maidens passed, and, looking at the wand, said to her partner, in a meaning tone, “Three strokes of that wand would give Katherine’s sister back her pretty face.”
Here was news indeed! Katherine’s breath came thick and fast; and with trembling fingers she drew some of the nuts out of her pocket, and began rolling them carelessly towards the child. Apparently he did not get nuts very often, for he dropped his little wand at once, and stretched out his tiny hands to pick them up.
This was just what she wanted; and she slipped down from her seat to the ground, and drew a little nearer to him. Then she threw one or two more nuts in his way, and, when he was picking these up, she managed to lift the wand unobserved, and to hide it under her apron. After this, she crept cautiously back to her seat again; and not a moment too soon, for just then a cock crew, and at the sound the whole of the dancers vanished—all but the Prince, who ran to mount his horse, and was in such a hurry to be gone that Katherine had much ado to get up behind him before the hillock opened, and he rode swiftly into the outer world once more.
But she managed it, and, as they rode homewards in the grey morning light, she sat and cracked her nuts and ate them as fast as she could, for her adventures had made her marvelously hungry.
When she and her strange patient had once more reached the Castle she just waited to see him go back to bed, and begin to toss and tumble as he had done before; then she ran to her step-sister’s room, and, finding her asleep, with her poor misshapen head lying peacefully on the pillow, she gave it three sharp little strokes with the fairy wand and, lo and behold! the sheep’s head vanished, and the Princess’s own pretty one took its place.
In the morning the King and the old housekeeper came to inquire what kind of night the Prince had had. Katherine answered that he had had a very good night; for she was very anxious to stay with him longer, for now that she had found out that the Elfin Maidens who dwelt in the Green Knowe had thrown a spell over him, she was resolved to find out also how that spell could be loosed.
And Fortune favored her; for the King was so pleased to think that such a suitable nurse had been found for the Prince, and he was also so charmed with the looks of her step-sister, who came out of her chamber as bright and bonnie as in the old days, declaring that her migraine was all gone, and that she was now able to do any work that the housekeeper might find for her, that he begged Katherine to stay with his son a little longer, adding that if she would do so, he would give, her a bag of gold Bonnet Pieces.
So Katherine agreed readily; and that night she watched by the Prince as she had done the night before. And at twelve o’clock he rose and dressed himself, and rode to the Fairy Knowe, just as she had expected him to do, for she was quite certain that the poor young man was bewitched, and not suffering from a fever, as everyone thought he was.
And you may be sure that she accompanied him, riding behind him all unnoticed, and filling her pockets with nuts as she rode.
When they reached the Fairy Knowe, he spoke the same words that he had spoken the night before. “Open, open, Green Hill, and let the young Prince in with his horse and his hound.” And when the Green Hill opened, Katherine added softly, “And his lady behind him.” So they all passed in together.
Katherine seated herself on a stone, and looked around her. The same revels were going on as yesternight, and the Prince was soon in the thick of them, dancing and laughing madly. The girl watched him narrowly, wondering if she would ever be able to find out what would restore him to his right mind; and, as she was watching him, the same little bairn who had played with the magic wand came up to her again. Only this time he was playing with a little bird.
And as he played, one of the dancers passed by, and, turning to her partner, said lightly, “Three bites of that birdie would lift the Prince’s sickness, and make him as well as he ever was.” Then she joined in the dance again, leaving Katherine sitting upright on her stone quivering with excitement.
If only she could get that bird the Prince might be cured! Very carefully she began to shake some nuts out of her pocket, and roll them across the floor towards the child.
He picked them up eagerly, letting go the bird as he did so; and, in an instant, Katherine caught it, and hid it under her apron.
In no long time after that the cock crew, and the Prince and she set out on their homeward ride. But this morning, instead of cracking nuts, she killed and plucked the bird, scattering its feathers all along the road; and the instant she gained the Prince's room, and had seen him safely into bed, she put it on a spit in front of the fire and began to roast it.
And soon it began to frizzle, and get brown, and smell deliciously, and the Prince, in his bed in the corner, opened his eyes and murmured faintly, “How I wish I had a bite of that birdie."
When she heard the words Katherine's heart jumped for joy, and as soon as the bird was roasted she cut a little piece from its breast and popped it into the Prince's mouth.
When he had eaten it his strength seemed to come back somewhat, for he rose on his elbow and looked at his nurse. “Oh! if I had but another bite of that birdie!" he said. And his voice was certainly stronger.
So Katherine gave him another piece, and when he had eaten that he sat right up in bed.
"Oh! if I had but a third bite o' that birdie!" he cried. And now the color was coming back into his face, and his eyes were shining.
This time Katherine brought him the whole of the rest of the bird; and he ate it up greedily, picking the bones quite clean with his fingers; and when it was finished, he sprang out of bed and dressed himself, and sat down by the fire.
And when the King came in the morning, with his old housekeeper at his back, to see how the Prince was, he found him sitting cracking nuts with his nurse, for Katherine had brought home quite a lot in her apron pocket.
The King was so delighted to find his son cured that he gave all the credit to Katherine Crackernuts, as he called her, and he gave orders at once that the Prince should marry her. “For," said he, “a maiden who is such a good nurse is sure to make a good Queen."
The Prince was quite willing to do as his father bade him; and, while they were talking together, his younger brother came in, leading Princess Velvet-Cheek by the hand, whose acquaintance he had made but yesterday, declaring that he had fallen in love with her, and that he wanted to marry her immediately.
So it all fell out very well, and everybody was quite pleased; and the two weddings took place at once, and, unless they be dead since then, the young couples are living yet.
There are so many things I love about this story. Like its heroine, it defies fairy tale rules all over the place. It demonstrates the good that comes from living out the commandment to love one another as Jesus loved us. Selflessly. Ferociously. Unconditionally. Don’t wander away from the campfire. We’re about to shed some light on the incredible treasure hidden in this story.
We begin with a lonely princess. She has just lost her mother and her father is busy running his kingdom. But he loves his daughter very much, and when he hears that she wishes for a sister her age with whom she can play and keep company, he selflessly marries a countess with a daughter who fits that description so that the princess is no longer alone. Although we are briefly given the elements of the standard heroine formula in her bio—the dead mother, the caring but absent father, a bereft girl who is as kind as she is beautiful—Princess Velvet-Cheek is not our main protagonist. Our first clue is that we are not drawn with her to the deathbed of the queen. There is no first-born blessing as in “Cinderella,” “The Goose Girl,” or “Vasilisa the Beautiful.” Why is this formula seemingly attached to the wrong girl?
Princess Velvet-Cheek is given the heroine’s introduction to encourage us as the audience to feel for her, to root for her success. She’s not our enemy, but our friend. We are introduced to the princess from Katherine’s perspective, and while we assume that, in compliance with fairy tale rules, Katherine will hate her stepsister and see the beautiful girl as a rival, she instead loves her as a true sister and friend. This strong David and Jonathan relationship dismissively swats away expectations of sibling rivalry and rejects the idea that only one girl per story may have a happy ending. Katherine has no aspirations toward the throne and Princess Velvet-Cheek has no fear of her new friend. It’s the Saul figure in the story who has her worried.
The countess turns out to be a wickedly ambitious stepmother. She is jealous of Princess Velvet-Cheek, and fears that her blossoming beauty will prevent Katherine from marrying into royalty. This is troubling for many reasons, but the primary one is that the evil queen has no faith in her daughter to be successful in life based on her character and her good heart. Your beauty might get you on the ship but it’s your heart that takes the helm. A beautiful, selfish idiot does not make a good leader. That takes wisdom, compassion, fierce love, justice, mercy, determination, strength, and courage. And Katherine has all of that. She has the raw materials to make an excellent queen. Her mother is correct in recognizing that her daughter is meant for more, but she goes about her preparations the wrong way, trying to manipulate the situation and hurt her stepdaughter in the name of her—I mean, her daughter’s—success. Mama Rose, much?
Princess Velvet-Cheek’s destiny does lie far away from her kingdom, and in the end, she will not become queen, but it will be due to a peaceable arrangement suited to her gifts and temperament, not this violent one orchestrated by her manipulative stepmother. Like Saul creeping in to meet the witch of Endor, the queen slinks to the cottage of a henwife, seeking her aid in destroying Princess Velvet-Cheek’s beauty. Fairy tale henwives do more than tend chickens and gather eggs. They are also consultants of the mysteries of the feminine and alchemy, and practitioners of the dark arts. We are blatantly told that this henwife is no wise-woman but a full-on witch “in league with the evil spirits of the air.” She’s in the king’s employ, so she’s not far from the castle. We don’t know if the king is aware of her illicit activities, but everyone else in the area knows what it really means when someone says they’re “going to get some eggs.” Like the sea witch in “The Little Mermaid,” the henwife has no scruples about ruining the life of an innocent girl with her craft and treasonously agrees to help the queen against the princess.
These women drive me crazy. They are completely shirking their duty to protect and guide the generation coming up behind them, choosing to wreak havoc on it through witchcraft and manipulation instead. The queen considers it a failure on her part if Katherine is spurned by suitors in favor of the princess. But rather than being so obsessed with the physical differences between her daughter and stepdaughter, she should be more concerned about helping them both develop their characters so that they can survive and thrive even if their outer beauty expires. According to Titus 2:3-5, “older women [are meant] to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers… but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love… to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy… to be kind.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with physical beauty. God created a beautiful world with gorgeous creatures in it representing many kinds of beauty because He is many kinds of beautiful. But He is so much more than that, and being made in His image, we are too. When you limit someone’s worth to a single trait, they in turn attempt to limit God because they don’t believe He can use them in any other capacity. Fortunately, in spite of her mother’s narrow-minded negligence, Katherine has managed to cultivate a heart “with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4).
Before we move forward, let me break that scripture down for you because it’s one I always struggle with at first glance. It’s not meant to banish women to a corner where we sit manically mending laundry, giving birth, burning ourselves on the stove, and dreaming of cosmetics and free speech with no hope of escape. That is not the destiny God has in mind for His warrior princess daughters! The word “gentle” here does not mean timid or ineffectual. Remember that meekness is not weakness. The original Greek word used for gentleness in this and many other biblical passages is praüs. While it is difficult to get a complete translation of praüs, HELPS Word-studies states that it “refers to exercising God's strength under His control – [for example], demonstrating power without undue harshness.” It’s the same word Jesus uses to describe Himself when He says, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). Jesus is a ferocious man. Read a little bit of Isaiah for a clearer picture. He could have destroyed everyone who stood in His way, but it would have defeated the purpose of His coming here as a holy and living sacrifice to redeem creation. He withheld the full measure of His wrath out of love and mercy. Katherine is just as cunning and action-oriented as her mother, but because she is gentle, like Jesus, she wisely uses her power for restoration instead of destruction. The word “quiet” in this passage does not mean someone who never speaks up or has her own opinion. The original Greek word, hesuchios, refers to being still and settled, with a divine calm, and having no need to stir up trouble (HELPS Word-studies). Katherine is confident in who God made her to be. She doesn’t need to strive to prove to anyone that she is valuable and would never needlessly stir up trouble for her friend.
Her mother, on the other hand, has a lot to prove, or at least, she thinks she does. Following the witch’s instructions, she commands the princess to go to the henwife for eggs the next morning, and to refrain from eating anything before she arrives at the cottage. She pretends that this last admonition is for the princess’ own good and that not eating will make her more beautiful. There are several things wrong with this picture. Let’s look at the physical side first. Starving yourself can cause your body to turn on itself as it devours its own nutrients to keep you alive. While intermittent fasting can be beneficial, the intent behind the queen’s advice to the princess is evil. Yes, she is following the henwife’s instructions, but why would the witch need the princess to fast for the spell to work?
Get ready for a soap box. In Naomi Wolf’s book, The Beauty Myth, she dissects the psychological warfare behind eating disorders, particularly anorexia. The roots of it go deeper than the desires to be loved, admired, or to drop a dress size. In a militant setting, when someone in power wants to break the wills and spirits of those they wish to control, they will deny their victims food, especially meat. Food replenishes your body and boosts your moral because you are no longer feeding on yourself for survival when outside nutrients are introduced. If you aren’t eating, your body will become weaker as it begins snacking on your muscles—including your brain—in order to maintain homeostasis. The water in your body will be depleted, disorienting you and leading to organ failure. Eventually, you won’t have the strength to resist the influence of your persecutors in your heart or on your feet. They can now bend you to their will. Why do you think Satan waited until Jesus had gone through His 40-day fast before trying to tempt Him?
As long as Princess Velvet-Cheek does not eat anything before arriving at the henwife’s home, the spell will be effective. She will be susceptible to the suggestions of the kingdom of darkness because she does not have the wherewithal to fight back. This brings me to the spiritual side of what’s wrong with the witch’s instructions. Jesus reiterates that we do not live “by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). We get our spiritual nourishment from taking in God’s word. Instead of relying on our own understanding, we receive fresh manna, our daily bread, to sustain us throughout the day. In this fairy tale, the physical act of eating represents consuming the word of God. It also symbolizes preparation through prayer. Notice that before each nighttime journey, Katherine gathers nuts to store in her pocket and eats them afterward to keep her energy up and stay alert. More on that later. The princess does not like to go without eating in the morning because it gives her strength to start her day. If I miss my morning time with God, it’s like skipping a crucial meal. I feel unprepared because I haven’t replenished my strength and honed my focus for the day. There is a real concern that I won’t snap to as quickly when trouble comes. If you haven’t filled yourself with God’s truth, you’ll wind up snacking on the junk the enemy throws at you to fill your emptiness. The princess knows this about herself. She doesn’t trust her stepmother to begin with, and when she commands the girl to do something contrary to her wellbeing, she refuses to comply. Defiantly, she slips into the pantry and eats a slice of cake before setting off on her errand. In effect, she has plugged her worship music into her ears and opened her Bible to the scriptures she’ll need for the day, thumbing her nose at the enemy all the while.
When she arrives at the cottage, the henwife knows right away that she has no power over the girl since she has fortified herself with food. She’s armed and dangerous and no weapon formed against her shall prosper because she has not left herself open for an enemy assault (Isaiah 54:17). We are told that the cauldron from which the princess gathers her eggs is the same one that the witch uses to “boil her hens’ meat.” It is a container of life and death. This is similar to the concept of “life and death [being] in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). It can also be argued that the deaths occurring in the cauldron help to sustain the lives of those who eat the chickens and the eggs, but there is a sordid feeling to this line of thinking. Because the henwife has given herself over to the powers of darkness, hers is a house of death. And anything that comes out of it can only result in destruction. The princess gathers life, represented by the eggs, because she has guarded herself against evil, but it is not sustainable life. The eggs will be broken and eaten and she will have to return to the henwife again the next day for more.
The henwife sends her back with a coded message for the queen to let her know that their plan has failed and they’ll need to try again. “Keep the press door better snibbet” basically means “do a better job of keeping her mouth shut,” as in “make sure the princess doesn’t open her mouth to eat anything before you send her next time.” Vexed, the queen sends her stepdaughter out on the same errand the next morning, but escorts her all the way to the door, steering her away from the pantry. Fortunately, the princess comes upon some pea-pickers, who share some of their bounty with her. She pops the peas in her mouth before arriving at the cottage, once again foiling her stepmother’s plot. After collecting eggs from the cauldron a second time, she once again relays the henwife’s strange message to the wicked queen, who wakes up early the next day and accompanies the girl to the cottage herself. This time, the poor princess has no opportunity to get any nourishment before facing the witch, and the old hag knows that the girl is in her power. When the princess lifts the lid from the cauldron this time, the spell works. Her head falls off and is replaced with that of a sheep. Horrified, she gathers both the eggs and her head and lays them in the basket, cowering in shame as the wicked queen rejoices over the success of her scheme. The princess may have a symbol of life in her basket, but it is now accompanied by the death of her former existence.
Ever hear of the word muttonhead? It’s a derogatory term for someone who is idiotic, clueless. Sheep are flocking animals, and they will stay close to other members of the pack for survival, which leads to the popular notion that they cannot think for themselves. Sheep are actually very intelligent and emotional creatures, but this is not something the queen would know because she’s never spent time with them. From her point of view, the princess can now be broken like any other animal and shamed into staying out of her stepmother’s way. This spell is doubly insulting to the princess. Not only has she been betrayed by a female authority figure and stripped of her outer beauty, but her identity has come under attack. She is an independent thinker and does not blindly follow orders. She is also very emotionally intelligent and cares about her flock. But the witch has turned her into a walking joke: a literal muttonhead. That is so typical of the enemy. When he becomes aware of your destiny and who you will become, the first thing he does is whip up a campaign to convince you that you could never be any of the things God has called you to be. “If you’re the Son of God…,” “did God really say…” It’s easy to shake someone else’s shoulders and tell them the truth about who they are, but when your spiritual reserves are running low, it’s hard not to be shackled by the derogatory whispers of the accuser. You need a Katherine in your life to help you take the next step to freedom. And then you need to practice being a Katherine yourself.
Instead of being thrilled with the queen’s plot to ensure her daughter’s success, Katherine berates her mother for her despicable behavior. She knows that she and the princess aren’t safe as long as the queen’s power remains unchecked. Compassionately, Katherine wraps a beautiful mantle around her stepsister’s head so that she may travel in peace without anyone staring at her. Then, she empties the basket of the witch’s eggs, so that only Princess Velvet-Cheek’s head remains inside. Grabbing her by the hand, Katherine leads her sister away from the house of sadness toward the start of a new adventure.
It takes courage to pick up the broken pieces of a shattered life and start over. And it takes a special kind of bravery to cut ties with toxic people and environments that would only hamper your healing process in order to do it. I’m not just talking about deleting numbers and Facebook groups. I’m talking about taking yourself out of your comfort zone, away from the life you thought was secure, and heading out into the great unknown with nothing but your faith in God and the dreams He placed in your heart. Think Abraham and Sarah, Rebekah, Jacob, the children of Israel; think Ruth. This part of our story is very much a Ruth and Naomi situation. Like Ruth, Katherine is determined to stick with Princess Velvet-Cheek no matter what. When they arrive in a new kingdom, she volunteers to find work at the palace to support them both. Like Naomi, Princess Velvet-Cheek is sad and fearful. What if her misfortune should cause everyone to reproach Katherine and refuse her a job? Katherine won’t let her talk that way. No one need know of the princess’ enchantment. Or of her head in the basket. All she needs to do is keep her mouth shut and let Katherine handle everything. She will not allow her sister to be reviled or forced to beg in the streets because of someone else’s wickedness.
This is the best kind of friend to have and be. While Katherine cares for her sister’s wellbeing and shares in her hurt, she does not allow it to hobble the princess. She acknowledges that evil has been done and that they must deal with the consequences, but she encourages Velvet-Cheek to keep moving forward. There will be time for rest and reflection, but it is not a place to live. It’s a rest-stop on the journey to a new life. Katherine acts as an agent of restoration. Later, she returns her stepsister’s beauty, healing her inner turmoil and giving her the courage to leave their room and begin to live again. But even before this, Katherine attempts to heal the heart wounds left by the bereavement of the princess’ mother and the cruelty of her wicked stepmother, through her steadfast love, devotion, and friendship. And at the moment, that means taking the lead while her wounded sister is sorting things out.
When they knock on the kitchen door of the palace, the housekeeper answers. Cleverly, Katherine explains that her mantle-wrapped sister suffers from migraines, and that she is searching for work and lodgings to allow her sister to rest in peace and quiet. Something in Katherine’s voice captures the housekeeper’s attention. “Her soft voice and gentle ways,” may be exactly what is needed to help the crown prince recover from his strange malady. He’s exhausted all his nurses who have sat up with him day and night during his fits of madness, including the housekeeper, but perhaps our “capable looking” heroine will be able to set things right. The housekeeper quickly consults the king, who comes out to meet Katherine himself. He, too, is impressed with her voice and manner, and entrusts her with the care of his eldest son. In exchange, a quiet room is set apart for Princess Velvet-Cheek to rest, and Katherine is promised a bag of silver pennies in the morning if she can guard the prince well.
I love everything about this section. What stands out to me the most is that Katherine’s voice and bearing inspire awe and confidence in others. Already, she demonstrates the traits of a capable leader and protector. It’s very clear that she is an ezer kenegdo. The king and the housekeeper see that she is kind and compassionate because she cares and provides for her ailing sister. Her strength and courage radiate through her words and the way she carries herself. Like Cinderella, Thousandfurs, and the goose girl, her true inner beauty makes her stand out strikingly in spite of her humble station. Remember that Jesus demonstrated to us that a good leader must first be a good servant (Luke 22:27).
If we are faithful with the little things, we will be given charge of much. Katherine chooses to love her stepsister rather than undermine her early in the story. When tragedy strikes, she does not rejoice in the princess’ misfortune, but loyally continues to love her and guide her out of a terrible living situation into a better one. Now, she is to protect the heir to the throne of a nearby kingdom and be rewarded with silver, representing righteousness and purification. I’d say that qualifies as a territorial expansion.
While Princess Velvet-Cheek retires to their chamber to rest, Katherine makes her way to the bedside of the tortured prince. He is a handsome young man, but his features are twisted by restlessness. He constantly reaches out for something invisible in front of him, only to drop his hands in despair and fitfully toss and turn until midnight. Then, he quickly leaps out of bed, dresses himself, and tears down the stairs. Bravely, Katherine follows at his heels. She knows now that this is no ordinary wasting sickness. There is something strange and supernatural in it and she intends to find out what. Swiftly donning his riding coat and hat, the prince dashes to the stables, saddles his horse, whistles for his dog, and gallops away through the forest, but not before Katherine mounts the horse behind him. Unaware of her presence, the prince presses on toward his destination. As they ride through the woods, Katherine snatches the clusters of hazelnuts hanging in front of her face and stores them in her pocket. She has no idea how long they will be gone or where they are going and refuses to let hunger slow her down.
Earlier I mentioned that Katherine collecting the nuts is symbolic of preparation through prayer and studying the word of God. It is especially important to note that the storyteller specifies that these are hazelnuts. You may remember their significance from the Cinderella episode. In folklore, the hazel tree is a symbol of wisdom and creativity. In fact, hazelnuts themselves contain a significant amount of protein and Vitamin E and are often considered brain food. By pocketing the hazelnuts, Katherine is storing up knowledge and creative wisdom to use on her adventure.
And she’s going to need it, because she is about to enter the realm of the fairies. Fairies are usually beautiful tricksters in Celtic folklore and are often compared to demons. They are capricious and crafty, as well as creative. It makes sense, then, that our cunning lass would consume something meant to boost her wisdom before encountering such clever creatures. “Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men” (Proverbs 2:12).
After tearing through the hazel wood and crossing the moor, the travelers stop before the fairy mound. The prince speaks magic words to open the knowe’s portal, and Katherine quickly adds to them so that she may pass through as well. Once they arrive inside the great hall, the beautiful fairy maidens swarm around the prince and press him to dance with them, ignoring Katherine completely. The fairies in this story are something akin to Andersen’s merpeople in “The Little Mermaid.” They are more concerned with their own fun and pleasure and with very few exceptions, pay no heed to the deeper needs of others. It’s one ongoing fantasy party in the fairy mound, and the prince is cordially invited—or rather, compelled—to attend every night. As the fairies draw him in, he becomes lively and animated, dancing, laughing and singing, “as if he had never known what it was to be ill.” But we know that when he returns to his bed, he will be as feverish and restless as ever.
As Katherine watches him from her perch on a rock, it becomes clear to her that the fairy maidens have enchanted the prince, enslaving him for their pleasure. He shirks his duties as a son and future ruler by day and wastes himself partying at with them night. The people who matter the most get the worst of him, and the ones who selfishly use him get his best. The whole thing resembles the warning in Proverbs 7 with the fairies as the adulterous woman who lures “the youth who [has no sense]” into her house, in this case, the fairy mound, which is the “highway to the grave leading down to the chambers of death.” At some point, most people struggle with the problem of giving their time and energy to the wrong things as a form of revenge against obligation and responsibility. The more lost and bound you feel, the easier it is to give yourself to the thing, person, or people that seems to accept you the most. When we are desperate for relief, sometimes turning to God doesn’t seem like the most effective option. It requires stillness to listen for His response to our cries, and sometimes, it’s too hard to be still. So, we self-medicate with whatever comes our way in hopes that the agony will stop, only to find that it’s grown worse because we didn’t wait to drink from the true source of life.
This can happen at any time, but the transition into adulthood is probably the interval most of us identify with best. The prince’s enchantment in the story is a metaphor for the difficulties of growing up and assuming responsibility while balancing the freedoms that come with maturity. The closer he comes to assuming the throne, the more the mantle of kingship chafes his wild heart. He wants to live and explore and have adventures before his feet are fused into his father’s footsteps. Perhaps he originally sought the fairies out in hopes of having one last thrill and got more than he bargained for. Maybe he was always an upstanding man who never let himself experience wildness, and the fairies caught him to perversely teach him a lesson. Whatever the case, the prince is now bound by their spell, seeking respite in mindless revelry with no hope of freedom. He has forgotten how to love. How to exercise his free will. How to be the prince and king he is destined to be. Like Princess Velvet cheek, he has become a muttonhead and lost his identity.
When we come across someone like that, it’s our job to be their Katherine, their ezer. They need protection and guidance and it’s our job to bring them out of darkness and back into the light. We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves and do to others as we would have done to us (Luke 10:27; Matthew 7:12). If you expect someone to bring you back to the light when you are stumbling in darkness away from God and the woman He calls you to be, practice doing that for others. Look at each situation and determine how best to encourage that person to choose to come back to God of their own free will. The answers don’t always come right away, but nothing you learn in your search is wasted. Store the knowledge and wisdom you glean like Katherine stores the nuts in her pocket. You never know when you’ll need them.
Notice that our heroine has perched herself on a rock during the party, referring to the house the wise man builds on a rock and Jesus being the cornerstone of the living temple of God (Luke 6:48; Ephesians 2: 19-22). She sees through the revelry and gaiety around her because she is grounded in the truth. Like the house built on sand, none of the indulgences the prince experiences here can last. He will waste away and fail to fulfill his purpose as his body destroys itself in reaction to the erosion of his soul.
As Katherine waits to see what will happen next, a child toddles up to her feet playing with a wand. Just as she is about to try and make friends with him, a fairy maiden passes by with her partner and catches sight of the wand. Under her breath, with no intention of helping our heroine, she mutters that “Three strokes of that wand would give Katherine’s sister back her pretty face.”
Instantly, Katherine springs into action. Even if she cannot use the wand to help the prince, at least she can restore her sister’s rightful shape and coax her out of her despair. Gingerly, she takes a few hazelnuts out of her pocket and rolls them toward the boy. Distracted by the rare treat of nuts, the boy drops the wand, allowing Katherine to pick it up and hide it under her apron. Symbolically, she is sharing her wisdom with the boy, who in turn unwittingly gives her the key to her sister’s freedom. Jesus says that “the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Sometimes a person who isn’t saved yet will have mastered a lesson that you haven’t even though you follow Jesus. You’ll still have to chew the meat and spit out the bones, but if they tell you a truth you hadn’t considered before that lines up with God’s word and character, seize it and use it the next time it’s called for.
Just as Katherine creeps back to her stone seat, the cock crows, the fairies vanish, and the prince hurries to mount his horse and return home. She barely has time to leap into the saddle behind him before they pass through the entrance to the mound and head for the castle.
On the way home, Katherine cracks her nuts and quickly devours them, replenishing her strength, energy, and mental faculties for the day and night ahead. It’s always a good idea to refuel yourself with a new dose of scripture and revelation about God and His character between battles and missions. That way, you don’t get ahead of yourself and are able to accomplish the good works He has ordained for you with a mind sharply focused on His glory (Ephesians 2:10).
After seeing the prince off to bed, Katherine creeps into her sister’s room to apply her newfound knowledge. Sure enough, three sharp strokes of the wand cause the sheep’s head to vanish, replaced by Velvet-Cheek’s own beautiful face. Katherine doesn’t stay to celebrate with her sister once she is restored. The miracle itself is enough. She doesn’t need to take credit. Her reward will come when she sees the princess rise from her bed the next day and greet the world with grateful eyes and a healed heart.
Now that her sister is on the road to recovery, Katherine turns her full attention to discovering how the prince can be rescued from his enchantment. Intending to stay with him until he is set free, she returns to his room to keep watch over him until they ride out the next night. The king is so pleased to hear that his son passed the night well and that the nurse’s beautiful sister has recovered from her migraine and is willing to help the housekeeper in her work, that he begs Katherine to stay with the prince again in exchange for “a bag of gold-Bonnet pieces.” Here’s another promotion. Katherine is promised silver for her first night’s work, and now gold for the second. She has passed the test of righteousness and refinement and will soon be rewarded with majesty, glory, and perfection.
But first, she must bring the prince back to real life. Once again, she accompanies the prince on his midnight ride to the fairy hill, grabbing as many nuts as she can on the way. Everything happens as before. They enter the knowe by the magic words, the prince is enfolded in the embrace of the fickle fey women, and Katherine perches on her rock, watching and waiting for a solution to the prince’s problem. His revelry looks more maniacal to her this time. She can see the toll this shallow existence is taking on him and wonders if there is anything that can be done to save him. No sooner does this thought cross her mind than the boy from the night before comes tottering up to her with a little bird. Another fairy maid whirls past them on the dance floor and remarks that the prince could be cured by eating three bites of the bird. Katherine loses no time in distracting the little boy with more hazelnuts. While he scoops them up, she catches the bird and hides it in her apron. Then the cock crows, the party ends, and the prince prepares to ride back to the castle, his unseen passenger behind him on the saddle.
I do not agree with her killing the bird, I don’t like it, I don’t like it at all, I can’t stand animal death and almost chose to do the version where an apple cures the prince, but the biblical significance is stronger with the sacrifice of the innocent bird, so let’s forgive Katherine and explore it. Here we go. It only takes Katherine two visits into the fairy realm to break the enchantments of those in her charge because she is a wise, discerning individual and two is the number of judgement. Two also represents the two blood covenants, one of animal sacrifice and circumcision, the other of Jesus’ sacrifice and circumcision of the heart. Both cures, the wand and the bird, are administered in passes of three for completion. The death of the bird is symbolic of Jesus’ sacrifice in order to restore us and the rest of creation to former glory and eternal life. Innocent blood had to be shed in the name of love so that our sin need never separate us from God again.
The three broken bites of the bird represent Jesus’ body, broken for us, as we break communion wafers in remembrance of his death and resurrection. As the Holy Lamb of God, Jesus spent time living among the people who would sentence Him to death, the very people who would be given the opportunity of salvation by His blood. Under the old covenant, the Passover lamb was to live with the family before its death, just as the bird is held close to Katherine before the ride back to the castle (Exodus 12:6). Once the Passover lamb was killed, it was to be roasted and eaten whole; nothing was to remain of it but the bones (12:9-10). This was done to foreshadow God choosing to hold nothing back when He gave up His only Son as a sacrifice for us. Once they reach the prince’s room, Katherine roasts the bird whole on the fire. First, she gives it to the prince in pieces, but when it comes time for the third bite, he eats it whole, leaving only the bones.
It is important to note that Katherine does not force the prince to partake of the cure. She quietly prepares it and waits for him to be intrigued by the aroma and ask her for a bite of his own free will. He does so each time before consuming the entire bird. In the same way, salvation cannot be forced on anyone. It is freely offered. We can encourage others to come to Jesus by our quiet example, allowing His influence in our words, actions, and lives to intrigue others the way a sweet aroma inspires hunger. They will ask what makes us different and we must always be ready to give an answer about the living hope inside of us and do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). I would like to point out that the word gentleness in this verse is once again, praüs, and it is directed at all believers.
With each bite of the bird, the prince regains his strength and becomes more of himself. This is what happens when we find our salvation and identity in Christ. He came to give us life and life more abundantly (John 10:10). No longer is the prince madly chasing shadows, bound by the powers of darkness. He has been restored with a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind.
We “were dead in [our] transgressions and sins, in which [we] used to live when [we] followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts… But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace [we] have been saved” (Ephesians 2:1-5).
Like Jesus, Katherine has followed the prince into darkness and rescued him from a living death by way of creative wisdom, fierce protective love and sacrifice. After eating the rest of the bird, the man cannot get enough of this rejuvenated abundant life after walking in the shadow of death for so long. Excitedly, leaps out of bed, dresses himself, and begins cracking hazelnuts with Katherine by the fire, energizing himself with wisdom. The fire itself represents the Holy Spirit as in the flame-like tongues that settled on those in the upper room in the book of Acts. The prince draws near to it in order to warm himself and better see what he is doing as he works wisdom out of the nutshells. He and Katherine keep cracking hazelnuts well into the morning, until the king and his housekeeper pop their heads into the room to check on the prince. To them, it must look like the aftermath of the Gadarene deliverance, with the prince sitting clothed in his right mind and taking care of himself, rather than participating in his own destruction.
The king rejoices to see his son restored and holds Katherine Crackernuts in the highest regard for this deliverance. Her perseverance, gentleness, and bravery have saved both her sister and the prince, and a woman who operates like that is “sure to make a good queen.” The king orders that the crown prince should marry her and he happily agrees. Katherine has proven herself a true Proverbs 31 woman, valuable and trustworthy, using her skills, knowledge, and wisdom to make the world around her a free and glorious place to live. She really is an ezer kenegdo, watching her husband’s back, guarding him where he is weak, and encouraging him to become the man God made him to be through her gentle, quiet spirit.
Because of Katherine’s good heart, even her sister gets a happy ending, as the prince’s younger brother has fallen in love with her and wishes to make her his wife. Princess Velvet-Cheek is no longer afraid of what anyone can do to her. She has gone from being all alone and scared to being a cherished sister, a helpful worker, and a beloved wife. She also gets a father figure more attentive to her than the one she left behind. And even though she is not next in line for the throne, it doesn’t matter. What she really wants is to be part of a loving family, and with Katherine and her husband and in-laws, she has exactly that.
Like Katherine, we should be bold and gentle, always ready to step in and help the ones who need us most. As daughters of the Living God, we are meant to spur each other on to right the wrongs in this world and rescue our brothers and sisters from darkness, guiding them back from death to life. The more time we spend gathering wisdom from the word of God, the more skilled we’ll be at tearing down the lies of the enemy with the truth. We have each been given a unique skillset by God to reach the people in our immediate spheres and beyond. It is woven into the foundation of the women God calls you to be. Sharpen your sword, ezer kenegdo, and use the tools you have to set captives free and speak God’s kingdom into this earth.
Thanks for stopping by. Be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode and rate the show on your favorite podcast platform. If you’d like to see what else is going on in the fairy tale forest or support the show, check out the Lost in the Woods Buy Me A Coffee Page. I’m Autumn Woods and I can’t wait to see you on the path next time you get Lost in the Woods.