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The White Cap in the Graveyard: a folktale

Here is my 'Simple Story' retelling of a folktale. You can also read about my process, including making a list of Plot Points for oral storytelling, looking for symbolism or links to other stories, and considering what, if anything, I'd like to change.

 

A boy played so many tricks on his sister that she grew to fear nothing, always guessing any loud noise or spooky figure or bump in the night was his doing.


Their family lived near the church yard, and often spread their washing there to dry among the graves. One day, when she was collecting it, she saw a figure all in white sitting on a tombstone, and assumed it was her brother, up to his pranks as usual. She snatched the cap off its head saying, “You don’t frighten me!”


But when she reached home, her brother was already there, though she hadn't passed him on the road. When they sorted the laundry there was a moldy old white cap half-filled with dirt, which no one would claim. And the next day the same white-clad figure sat atop the tombstone, bareheaded.


No one was brave enough to approach the ghost, but the wise old man in the next village said they must all gather around in silence and watch as the girl returned the cap to the ghost’s head. She was willing, though afraid, but first she shook out the dirt and cleaned and pressed the cap, and darned a little hole at the top so that it was as neat as a christening bonnet.


The villagers all gathered among the graves and watched without a sound. The girl bravely stepped forward, put the cap on the figure’s head, and stepped respectfully back among the others. When nothing happened, her brother stepped forward and asked, “You have your cap, are you satisfied now?”


The ghost replied by dealing him a blow to his ear so that he howled in pain. “Yes, but are you satisfied now?”


Then the ghost vanished into the grave, and was never seen again. The boy ever after had a ringing in that ear which, we may suspect grew aggravated whenever he tried any mischief. But the girl, to everyone’s surprise, was the only one in the village who willingly spread the washing in the churchyard. And if she ever came across another little white cap again, we can be sure she laundered it and returned it neatly folded, to its rightful gravestone.

 

CC 4.0 Rose Arrowsmith

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Source: “White Cap,” Tales from Iceland. “Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales,” edited by Claire Booss. (c) 1984 Crown Publishers, Inc, published by Avenel Books.

 

Plot Points:

  • Setting: Beside a small village cemetery in Iceland

  • A boy teases his sister so much she isn’t afraid of anything, always assuming he is behind it

  • She spreads the washing in the church yard to dry

  • When she collects it, she sees a figure in white. She assumes it is her brother, and snatches off its white cap

  • When she returns home, her brother is already there, though he didn’t pass her

  • They sort the laundry: no one claims the moldy white cap (half-filled with dirt)

  • The next day: the now-capless ghost in white sits on its tombstone

  • Everyone is afraid, no one will approach it

  • Wise elder says to avoid trouble they must gather silently while the girl puts its cap back on

  • They do so

  • The boy says, “Are you satisfied now?” to the ghost

  • The ghost hits the boy. “Yes, but are you satisfied now?”

  • The ghost sinks into the grave

  • The boy stops playing tricks (ringing in his ear)

  • The girl gladly lays laundry in the graveyard and washes any white caps that appear

 

Changes from the original:

In the folktale, the girl does not give any special care to the cap, and breaks the silence herself and is punished:

No one was brave enough to approach the ghost, but the wise old man in the next village said they must all gather around in silence and watch as the girl returned the cap to the ghost’s head.

Now she was indeed afraid, but bravely stepped forward and put the cap on the figure’s head. “There, are you satisfied now?” she asked.

To which the ghost replied by dealing her a blow, “Yes, but are you satisfied now?” The poor child fell down dead and the ghost vanished into the grave, and was never seen again.

Thoughts re:Changes:

  • How can this not be so punishing for her?

  • Is she punished because she speaks rather than holding silent? (That seems like it would fit the brother’s character; perhaps he says the rude remark. Maybe he isn’t killed but has a sort of birth mark ever after and no longer plays tricks on his sister or anyone else. And I’m betting they no longer spread their washing in the cemetery to dry). Maybe the ghost boxes one of his ears and he is deaf on that side ever after. (A bit like Squirrel Nutkin losing his fine tail to the Owl).

  • Otherwise it just isn’t fair. Of course, a folktale doesn’t have to be fair— life isn’t fair. But sharing stories creates culture, and I don’t want a culture that holds the harassed female at fault, whether or not she’s brave!

  • Maybe she actually doesn’t mind doing laundry among the graves after that— she has grown braver throughout the teasing of her brother, and then by facing a real danger; the ghost was, after all, rather reasonable and fair.


Other Notes:

Themes:

  • be respectful of the dead

  • brave girl when others are afraid

  • trickster is reprimanded


Questions:

  • Does she end up with other good luck?

  • Could this be the start/intro of some other “brave girl” story (about supernatural)? (Or simply the part about her brother teasing her so much she isn’t scared of anything?)


Notes:

  • I love the image of the washing spread on the graves. I picture it as all white.

  • I also love the cap being half-full of dirt.

  • I suppose it’s the whole village’s washing? Or they ask whose the cap is because everyone dries their laundry there (think of Laundry Hill in Mussoorie; laundry is a communal event/site).

  • I like that the girl isn’t just pestered but that she grows/has an advantage because of the difficulty.

  • Why in the original version do they have to ask a wise old man from another town what to do? (Why another town? Why a man? I suppose these are meant to be from real events, so might be whoever last told it was familiar with a wise old man). But it strikes me as making more sense to have the sage be an old woman. Maybe she’s a washerwoman? Or, would they ask the priest?

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