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Manuscript vs Myth: The Cruel Prince

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

“Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.”

Folklore is full of tales of humans, both adults and children, who disappear – stolen away by the fairies to never be seen again. If they are lucky, they are stolen to become a bride, or a daughter. If they are unlucky… well, dying would be the least of their worries. Folklore and superstition is also full of ways to avoid this fate, wearing your clothing inside out, avoiding the colour green or touching iron. Unfortunately for Jude, protagonist of Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince, these protections come too late. Stolen away by the fairies as a child, she and her sisters must survive in the fickle and often merciless realm of fairy-land.

The Cruel Prince begins with the kidnapping of Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, stolen away by the Redcap, Madoc. Their mother had once been married to him and their older half-sister, Vivi, is half fairy. It is a recurring aspect of British and European folklore that a fairy is bound to their word and oath, and so fairies are swift to take revenge on humans who commit the unforgivable sin of breaking their word.

Perhaps, if Jude’s mother had been more familiar with fairy tales, she would have known better than to break her wedding vows – especially with redcaps being a particularly malicious figure in Scottish and British folklore. The goblin-like creatures are said to murder travellers, dipping their hat in the blood of their victims to stain it red (the reason behind their distinctive name). In the novel, with their parents dead the twins are raised by their parents’ killer who – as their mother’s husband – is their father in oath, if not in blood, and they have little choice to adapt to a world in which the smallest mistake could see them dead.

Black draws heavily from different folklore and legends, some well-known and others rare, to create a fully fleshed world one-step left of our own. In this world imps, goblins, hobs (small household spirits) and grigs (sprite-like tricksters) all pose a threat. Jude and her sister use methods and superstitions from a variety of stories in order to protect themselves and even the playing field in a world where they are massively, magically, out-classed.

The first method that the siblings use to protect themselves was a gift from the fairy Tatterfell – who smeared ointment on their eyes to allow them the true sight. Fairy Ointment appears in several European fairy-tales – most notably the story of The Fairy Nurse. Fairies often appear to use glamours and illusions to prevent humans from seeing their true form. The ointment gives humans the ability to see through this glamour. In The Fairy Nurse, a woman hired as a nurse and childminder is instructed to rub ointment into the baby’s eyes every night. One day, out of curiosity, she used it on her own eye and saw that she was standing in a castle, rather than a cottage, and the infant she was caring for was in fact a fairy child. As with many older, fairy stories, the woman came to a sad fate, with the child’s outraged father blinding her in that eye.

Other methods of supposedly gaining second sight include washing your face in a fairy’s bath water, sleeping in a fairy knoll, and looking through the hole in an adder (or hag) stone. It was also thought to be possible to avoid fairy enchantment by turning your clothing inside out or back to front. This was particularly important if you had already been bewitched. There is no clear reason behind why this was thought to prevent fairy enchantment. Some stories posit that doing something so senseless confuses the fey and gives the victim time to escape. Other legends say that the fairy becomes convinced that the person is walking in the other direction, and so fails to enchant them. Whatever the reason, Jude and Taryn both ensure that their stockings are kept firmly inside out. As the stockings are hidden, this has the double benefit of not allowing the fey to realise what may be befuddling their spells.

Another protection that both twins wear are necklaces made from rowan berries. Rowan trees were historically thought to cast powerful protections. Planting the tree in a home, dwelling, or church was said to protect it, and people would carry crosses made from rowan twigs and bound in red thread to protect them from curses, spells, and witches. The sticks were bound specifically in red thread because the colour was also thought to offer protection against witchcraft and magic. The red berries of a rowan tree can therefore be thought to offer a particularly potent protection. Unfortunately, as Jude learns, this protection only lasts as long as the rowan berries are worn. If the necklace is removed, the twin’s lose their protection.

The last item that Jude wears to protect herself is technically not only effective on fairies. Her iron knife would, presumably, stab a human just as painfully. The significance of the blade is not in the fact that it is a weapon, but in the metal it is made from. Iron, sometimes referred to as cold iron, is a well-known defence against the fey folk, as well as providing general protection. Iron horseshoes were (and in some areas still are) nailed over doorways to prevent fairies from entering, and the belief that an iron nail in your pocket would prevent the fairies carrying you away was so prevalent that some mothers would sew them into the hems of their children’s trousers. While it is a little late to prevent them from being carried away, Jude’s secret iron knife is one of the best protections that she has – giving her the ability to kill fairies.

While not technically a way for Jude to defend herself against malicious or cruel fey, one fun detail in The Cruel Prince is that Jude and Taryn must salt their food before they eat it. In myth, fairy food is said to have a detrimental effect on humans. While it may taste otherworldly, once eaten human food no longer sustains you – like in Christina Rossetti’s famous poem, The Goblin Market, where the protagonist’s sister sells her hair for goblin fruit and begins to wither. The twins, however, have no option of human food, they live in fairy-land and they must eat something – hence the salt.

Whether or not salt offers protection from fairies varies depending on location. In some places salt and bread may be offered as a gift to the fey, in other fairies are repulsed or injured by it. In the Isle of Man, however, sprinkling a small amount of salt into or around a milk churn would prevent fairies from interfering with the butter. A similar belief in Cumberland was that you should sprinkle salt not the fire while cooking, for the same reason. Perhaps inspired by these superstitions, in The Cruel Prince, sprinkling salt over their food removes it of its enchantment, and renders it safe to eat. Even though it is a threat easily remedied, the twins’ relationship with food serves as a subtle but unsettling reminder that this is not the twins’ world, and they are very far from safe.

By including these small details, Black manages to create a full and vibrant world, that is clearly dangerous. Unlike fairy stories about magical lands, and fairy friends, The Cruel Prince draws on older legends. Of fey who are capricious, and just as likely to be callous as they are to be kind. When you add the compelling characters, and intriguing plot, you get a brilliant novel that is a must read for any fan of the darker side of fantasy and fairy tales.


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