My first book, The Last Princess, is about a 12-year-old girl who discovers that she’s descended from faeries, and that her mother is really a 500-year-old nymph princess. In the sequel, The Last Faerie Godmother, a botched wish sends the girl back 500 years into the body of her 13-year-old mother, in 1500’s Ireland.
This presents something of a problem. I have never been to either Ireland or the 1500s.
While she’s there, she finds herself caught in the middle of a familiar story she can’t quite place. It will turn out to be the story of Cinderella.
But not quite.
A few weeks ago I shared the story of Fair, Brown and Trembling, a traditional Irish fairy tale. With a few minor differences and the addition of a whole new (and rather brutal, if not unlikely) ending, it is basically the story of Cinderella we are all familiar with. Three sisters, the oldest two eager to marry a prince and both of them jealous of their younger, prettier sister, who they bully and oppress.
I’ve been taking great pains to learn everything I can about the period so that I can paint a fairly accurate — or at least convincing — picture. One thing I can tell you with certainty is that there were never three Gaelic princesses in the Middle Ages named “Fair,” “Brown” or “Trembling.” So the first thing I did was try to find traditional Irish or Gaelic names with those meanings.
The first two were simple enough. Fiona is derived from Aoife (pronounced ee-fa), meaning “fair or radiant.” Ciara (pronounced ki-ra) means “dark or brown of hair and eyes.”
“Trembling” turns out to be more problematic. Bheith ar crith (veth er crith) is Gaelic for trembling, but there are no names derived from it. Nor does it make a very convincing nickname. Delilah is a biblical name, originally meaning “delicate, weak and languishing.” But I need to work on that nickname.
The fairy tale takes place in the kingdom of “Tir Conal.” There was, in fact, a territory in ancient Ireland – a kingdom, actually, from 464 to 1607 – called Tyrconnell or Tír Chonaill, which is now part of a larger territory called County Donegal, in Northern Ireland. This was one of the last of the many, many small kingdoms of Ireland, most of which fell to the English well before the 1500s. However there was still a King of Tyrconnell at the time my story takes place.
The king in Fair, Brown and Trembling is King Hugh Cúrucha. My search yields no such king in the historical records. However, to my distinct advantage, there seems to be a gap in the records between King Máel Sechlainn mac Domnaill in 1247, and King Manus Ó Donnell who died in 1564. Although I did learn Manus’ father’s name was Hugh. Again, I’m not trying to tie this story to a particular king, and I doubt Hugh O’Donnell had three daughters named Fiona, Ciara and Delilah. But it’s nice to know I’m not too far from reality.
For this story, since Delilah is going to be the primary servant in the household, I imagine a fairly intimate castle. A number of actual castles used by the kings of Tyrconnell (mostly the O’Donnells) still stand today. But several of note were in use at the time my story takes place. In fact, the story specifies that the king and his girls lived in Ballyshannon, which is a real place that still exists, and there are ruins of a castle known to have been occupied by the O’Donnells there. The ruins are very minimal — none above ground — so I’m going to have to make my castle up. But there were over 1,500 medieval castles in and around Europe that still exist in one form or another; I think I can find enough details to create my own.
The Fairy Godmother
Trembling’s “fairy godmother” is described as a henwife, which as I understand it is a servant who would have been in the employ of the king to take care of the live poultry. She does seem to have magical powers, however. But her origins, her relation to Trembling and her motives are never revealed. This is where my story will intersect. In my story the henwife will actually be my villain, a high faerie (Sidhe) who wants to rule the pesky humans and put them in their place. At first she tried to seduce and marry the king (the father of our three princesses), but he jilted her and now she is bent on revenge. Her plan is to destroy the kingdom by manipulating the pliable youngest daughter into marrying a prince she can control (more on this below). So, in the greatest fairy tale tradition, she will have disguised herself as this old woman and pretended to be Delilah’s friend and confidant. Her faerie godmother, to be precise.
The prince, in Fair, Brown and Trembling is never named. He is only ever referred to as “the son of the king of Emania” or “the prince of Emania.” The only references to Emania I can find is “Emain Macha” (Old Irish), currently called Navan Fort. According to Irish mythology it was one of the great royal sites of Gaelic Ireland and the capital of modern Ulster. Emania is mentioned most prominently in the Irish legend of Cú Chulainn, an epic hero similar to Hercules. This has suggested to me that in my story, the prince will actually be a false prince, invented by the villain and based on this legendary hero. He will, in fact, be a goblin with a glamour cast over him.
Instead of the traditional Royal Ball, where all of the single women of the kingdom are invited to meet the prince, in Fair, Brown and Trembling the princesses hunt for husbands at Sunday Mass. The Church was very big in Ireland at the time of my story, and great cathedrals abound. So this fits quite nicely.
Three times the henwife dresses up Trembling in amazing outfits she creates with magic, and sends her to Mass on beautiful horses, to be seen. But she must not enter the church, and must race home before anyone gets too close. She even loses a shoe, and everything.
The ending gets tricky, however. In Fair, Brown and Trembling, the young bride is betrayed by her older sister (who had been engaged to the same prince before he met Trembling). She pushes Trembling off a cliff into the sea, where she is swallowed by a whale with dubious magic and odd eating habits. According to the story, the whale comes in on three consecutive tides and throws Trembling up on to the beach, where she can’t leave due to the whale’s “enchantment,” then the whale swallows her up again each evening. She has to convince a young lad who wanders by to tell her husband, the prince, to come kill the whale.
I need to change this to something more believable, more workable as a plotline, but still something that might be “interpreted” by a storyteller as written. I also need to incorporate my main character, and I want very much to have them both end up in a castle dungeon together. If I put the villain’s castle on a cliff (like many actual Irish castles), the dungeon could be at sea-level, and she could escape onto the secluded beach, but be unable to climb to freedom. She could get the attention of the boy, and make up the story about the whale to explain her presence.
It’s all coming together quite nicely, and I think I’m off to an excellent start. I can weave this narration quite neatly into the major plotline of my novel, which is about a war between the light fae (led by my girl in her mother’s body) and the dark fae, led by my villain with her goblin minions.
Watch this space….