The bare bones of the Twa Sisters ballad goes something like this:*
- two sisters walk by the water’s edge
- the elder pushes the younger in
- the younger sister drowns
Most variants, of course, have more in the way of details and explanation:
- the two sisters are the noble daughters of a powerful and titled man
- the sisters are opposites: the youngest is good and beautiful; the eldest is cold and cruel
- a handsome young man comes courting
- the two sisters both fall in love with the handsome young man
- the elder sister persuades the younger to walk by the water’s edge, where she pushes her unfortunate sister in with the clear intent of murder
- the younger sister pleads for her life and offers her lands; the elder refuses
- the younger sister pleads for her life and offers her handsome young man; the elder refuses
- the younger sister swims away and washes up, half-drowned, at the miller’s dam
- the miller’s daughter mistakes her for a swan
- the younger sister offers the miller her gold ring if he will rescue her
- the miller takes her ring and then drowns the young woman
- the miller is punished
- the elder sister is punished
Which doesn’t explain, obviously, how anybody knew to punish the miller and the elder sister – but don’t worry, there are variants that take care of that, too:
- the younger sister washes up on the sides of the body of water (lake, river, pond, or sea; take it from me, bodies of water in folksongs are bad news)
- her body is found by a harper
- the harper, having an enterprising, if morbid, turn of mind, cuts up the dead young woman to make a harp: her breastbone serves as the main body; her fingers form the tuning pegs; and her golden hair he uses for strings.
- when the harper comes to perform before the king/lord/dead woman’s father, the harp plays by itself, and sings a goodbye to her family and a malediction on her sister
- the elder sister is promptly punished
Some details (unsurprisingly, given the nature of regional variations), conflict with other versions:
- there are two sisters (sometimes three)
- they are the daughters of a king (or a lord or a local landowner)
- the handsome young man is a knight, or not
- the handsome young man courts the elder sister but loves the younger sister (or only has eyes for the younger, much to the fury of the elder)
- the miller has a daughter who is baking bread (or the miller doesn’t have a daughter)
- the miller is the final murderer (or there is no miller, and the elder sister alone is responsible for her sister’s death)
- the names of the sisters are Anne and Kate (or something else entirely, or they are not named)
- the harp sings goodbye to her father and mother (and sometimes her brother) and to her handsome young man (sometimes named William – William is another dangerous name in folktales; unless there is a more obvious villain around, beware of William; he’s probably cheating on you and/or planning your demise) before accusing her sister and repeating the whole song
Patricia C. Wrede’s short story “Cruel Sisters” from the collection Book of Enchantments takes the contradictions between the versions – and within the longer variants – to create a bewitching whole. Sororicide – check, but with a more complicated relationship than mere jealousy. The third sister mentioned in one verse and ignored for the rest of the song – check, and there’s a reason for that. Sweet William, who courts one and/or both of the sisters – check. Thoughtless harper who gives the dead sister a voice – check, most definitely.
“Cruel Sisters” (the title in itself is a propos, both a reference to one title of the ballad, “Cruel Sister,” and a revelatory nod to the story as Wrede as remade it) is narrated by the middle sister, Meg.
“I am Margaret, plain Meg, in all things the middle daughter.” (p. 185)
Unlike her elder and younger sisters, Anne and Eleanor (respectively), Meg is not a dark flashing beauty, an imperious one-day queen, nor a golden-haired, blue-eyed beauty, fond of luxury.
“My father calls me the quiet one, when he thinks of me; my mother says I am too much on the sidelines, watching and thinking and saying little. By the common wisdom, it should have been I who was jealous of my sisters, but I loved them both.” (p. 185)
Meg loves both her sisters, and their constant enmity hurts her. Even in rivalry, Anne and Eleanor act according to their different natures: Eleanor lies and manipulates others to get the better of Anne, and Anne acts directly against Eleanor in angry dignity and spite. This is not a relationship rent apart by the arrival of a love interest; as Meg well knows,
“They were bitter rivals from the time we were very small.” (p. 184)
Meg is narrating her story after the event, a little like the frame story of Ever After, she addresses a well-known tale with the intention of righting a lie. Meg’s opening line is a direct contradiction to the popular narrative:
“The harper would have you believe that it was all for the love of sweet William that my sisters came to hate each other so, but that is not true.” (p. 184)
Unlike the narrator of Ever After, however, Meg bears a share of grief and guilt for the tragedy that befell her family, a source of suffering – and determination – that spurs her address to the readers, perhaps because no one else will fully listen. Far more complex than a villain-victim narrative, “Cruel Sisters” paints a miniature portrait of three sisters: two who act, and one who tries to be peace-maker, and holds her tongue. The story raises questions about the making of truth, and the truth of the dead, about listening and perception.
“It is not enough to see. One must speak out as well.” (p. 202)
* If you’ve never heard this ballad sung, here’s a lovely live performance.