The Three Spinners

The Three Spinners is a fairy tale told in many different versions across Europe, but one thing all the versions have in common – at least until the advent of modern sanitization – is that the story effectively starts with a mother spanking her teenage daughter for laziness.

Today we are mainly concerned with the Czech version written by the folklorist Karel Jaromir Erben (1811-70), almost an exact contemporary of Charles Dickens, who collected many of his country’s fairy tales and created a convenient repository of material for dramatists in the following century. Among his beneficiaries was the television scriptwriter Helena Sykorova, whose first work in the medium was her 1967 adaptation of The Three Spinners starring Jaroslava Tvrznikova as the idle daughter, here named Marjanka, and Libuse Havelkova as her mother. Here’s Jaroslava:


In this version, the King is looking for a hard-working bride, but finds that all the women in his court are truculently incompetent. Then he sees a beautiful commoner from afar, and sends messengers to bring her to court. They arrive at Marjanka’s house to find her being spanked – and on the seat of her bloomers, too!

This is slightly different from the more familiar German version of the story told by the Brothers Grimm, in which the Queen just happens to be passing by when she hears the noise of the spanking, and decides to intervene. Either way, the story pans out more or less the same: the embarrassed mother lies about her daughter’s shortcomings, claiming that she was being spanked for working too hard, and the girl is taken to court and given a task. She is presented with a room full of flax and told that, when it has all been spun, her reward will be marriage to the most eligible royal – the King in the Czech version, the Prince in the Brothers Grimm.

But the girl is still too lazy to work, even on that promise. She is saved from exposure and punishment by the arrival of three deformed crones, who spin all the flax and ask in return only that they be allowed to attend the royal wedding. The King is delighted to see what a hard-working fiancée he has recruited, and the marriage goes forward with the girl’s secret still safe. Curious about the aged ‘aunts’ who are present, the bridegroom asks them how they came to be so hideous, and they explain that it was through a lifetime of hard physical labor – whereupon the naughty, idle bride is told she must never again do another stroke of work!

The Czechs hadn’t finished with the story, not by a long chalk. In 1984, Sykorova’s script was adapted again for a new television version in which the daughter was renamed and the story retitled Lazy Nitka and the Ruby Ring. In this production, Blazena Holisova played the mother and Nitka was Martina Hudeckova:


One thing hadn’t changed: Nitka still got spanked!


In this version, it’s made more obvious how high-handed the royal messengers are, walking in without knocking and so interrupting a fraught domestic moment. It’s arguably less embarrassing for Nitka than it was for Marjanka in the 1967 version, because her skirt stays down, but on the other hand it’s a longer spanking too. And this time the lie about why she was being spanked is prompted as much by Nitka’s shame as her mother’s.

And from there, the next step was onto the stage. In 2016, Tomas Kraucher wrote and directed a musical adaptation of the Sykorova script, for performance by a small Prague-based touring company, Divadlo Pohadka (literally, Fairytale Theater). Mother and daughter were played by Kristina Mihalova and Andrea Waidingerova respectively, and the spanking was again present and correct:


Here’s the trailer:

And the play is still in Divadlo Pohadka’s repertory, so if you’re in the Czech Republic, why not track down a performance?

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