Researchers have identified 700 variants in Europe alone of a story described as “The tale of the kind and the unkind girls.”
These variants are comprised of 393 binary traits, such as whether the girls are a stepdaughter and a real daughter or sisters or cousins or some other combination or whether they encounter a talking bear, a talking cat, the king of cats, some other animal or no animal at all.
A statistical analysis of these variations produced this map of cultural links:
The study, published in The Royal Society by Robert M. Ross at Macquarie University, Simon J. Greenhill at Australian National University, and Quentin D. Atkinson at University of Auckland
, demonstrates the potential of applying scientific methods to cultural analysis — which makes sense given the similarity between biological genes and cultural memes.
It also points to intriguing conclusions about Europe and the spread of culture. One observation was that geography sometimes overrode linguistic and historical links.
“Swedish speakers from Finland are placed alongside Finnish, not Swedish, reinforcing the importance of geography over cultural ancestry. This is particularly interesting because Finnish comes from an entirely different language family to Swedish,” Ross wrote in an email.
But geography alone doesn’t explain the connections.
“Interestingly, the clusters don’t perfectly match with the deep language history (going back thousands of years), nor do they fit perfectly with geography (which might imply very recent contact). Instead, they seem to reflect a combination of language and geography, perhaps indicating long-standing spheres of cultural influence in Europe,” Atkinson wrote in an email.
The cluster including German, Danish, Latvian, English, Irish, and Scottish doesn’t look like an obvious geographic fit, but it may point to the lasting significance of early migrations.
“As a result of this surprising finding we speculated in our paper that this cluster might show the trace of ancient population movements,” Ross wrote in an email. “The British Isles have met with waves of immigration and trade from the ancestors of these northern European groups, from Viking expansion beginning in the ninth century AD to trade networks such as the Hanseatic League, which linked the Baltic to Northern Europe and Britain from the thirteenth century AD. This is a particularly intriguing hypothesis because if this grouping is preserving the traces of early contact then it provides evidence that this history of this folktale stretches back beyond the earliest known written versions of the folktale, which do not appear until the fourteenth century.”
All of these insights come from a story I’d never heard of; but then again, something about it feels universal and familiar.
The story was analysed extensively by the late Professor Warren Everett Roberts in 1958. Here’s how he described its various forms:
[T]he story is concerned with two girls, one of whom is good and kind while the other is evil and unkind. The good girl leaves her home and sets out on a journey for some reason. Her bucket may fall into a well and she climbs after it, or she may pursue a rolling cake. During her journey, in one important form of the story, she usually meets a cow, an apple tree, and an oven which ask her to help them. She complies with these requests and continues her journey until she comes to a house. These encounters on the way are absent from the second important form of the tale. At the house she takes services with an old woman or witch and performs housekeeping chores and other tasks. At the end of a year the girl wishes to return to her home. As a recompense for her labour the old woman offers the girl her choice between several boxes. The girl modestly chooses the smallest and least attractive box. When she reaches home and opens her box she finds it is full of gold. The bad girl is jealous and resolves to try her fortune. She sets out in the same way that the heroine did. She haughtily refuses to help the animals or things she meets on the way and at the house either refuses to work altogether or does a very poor job. She greedily chooses the biggest box, which when opened at home, is found to be full of snakes.