Of all the recurring motifs in fairy tales, of all the many plot devices fairy tale tellers employ, my absolute favorite has got to be the bad bargain. People are forever accepting the help of magical creatures and promising things that somehow turn out to be much more than they’d ever intended to give. (Stupid people, don’t you know better than to give away the first thing that runs out to meet you when you get home?)
It’s a storytelling device that’s as ancient as it is effective, FTF alum Uncle Vinny even found a version of it in the Bible:
On behalf of Israel as a whole, and in reliance on the might of God the Judge, Jephthah challenges the Ammonites. Jephthah swears an oath:
“Whatever/whoever emerges and comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be God’s, and I shall sacrifice him/her/it as a holocaust.” (Judges 11:31 – a holocaust is a burnt offering).
Who does that? Who thinks that’s a good idea? But you know what? Without this plot device, some of the world’s best fairy tales would never have been written.
And so, in celebration of the Bad Bargain, today’s fairy tale is “The Nixie of the Mill-Pond,” in which a desperate man makes a terrible bargain with a watery tart, then has to live with the consequences.
There was once upon a time a miller who lived with his wife in great contentment. They had money and land, and their prosperity increased year by year more and more. But ill luck comes like a thief in the night. As their wealth had increased so did it again decrease, year by year, and at last the miller could hardly call the mill in which he lived, his own. He was in great distress, and when he lay down after his day’s work, found no
rest, but tossed about in his bed, sorely troubled.
One morning he rose before daybreak and went out into the open air, thinking that perhaps there his heart might become lighter. As he was stepping over the mill-dam the first sunbeam was just breaking forth, and he heard a rippling sound in the pond. He turned round and perceived a beautiful woman, rising slowly out of the water. Her long hair, which she was holding off her shoulders with her soft hands, fell down on both sides, and covered her white body. He soon saw that she was the nixie of the mill-pond, and in his fright did not know whether he should run away or stay where he was. But the nixie made her sweet voice heard, called him by his name, and asked him why he was so sad.
The miller was at first struck dumb, but when he heard her speak so kindly, he took heart, and told her how he had formerly lived in wealth and happiness, but that now he was so poor that he did not know what to do.
Be easy, answered the nixie, I will make you richer and happier than you have ever been before, only you must promise to give me the young thing which has just been born in your house.
What else can that be, thought the miller, but a puppy or a kitten, and he promised her what she desired.
The nixie descended into the water again, and he hurried back to his mill, consoled and in good spirits. He had not yet reached it, when the maid-servant came out of the house and cried to him to rejoice, for his wife had given birth to a little boy. The miller stood as if struck by lightning. He saw very well that the cunning nixie had been aware of it, and had cheated him.
Hanging his head, he went up to his wife’s bedside and when she said, why do you not rejoice over the fine boy, he told her what had befallen him, and what kind of a promise he had given to the nixie…
Read the rest of the story. [Caveat: The original site is an academic site with tiny font, and no spaces between paragraphs. BUT. It is not the story’s fault that it’s poorly formatted. It’s still a good story, and worth reading through to the end.]