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Friday, October 15, 2021

Mr. Fox - Steel - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

One of my long-time favorite spooky tales to tell mature audiences is Mister Fox.  It's as current as any modern day news item of a serial killer.  The type goes back at least to the story of Bluebeard with its variations.  For years I've told the version collected by Joseph Jacobs.  Surprisingly enough, although I've had 15 articles here with Jacobs as a label, I've never posted the story here.  Earlier this year I found the version by Flora Annie Steel.  The two tellings are very similar, including the haunting message carved over the doors at the castle of Mr. Fox.  I suggest, however, comparing her version with the link given above to that recorded by Joseph Jacobs.  

If it were legible enough, I'd post the two copies alongside each other, but recommend you do that for yourself before telling it.  

From the title page of English Fairy Tales retold by Flora Annie Steel


Lady Mary was young and Lady Mary was fair, and she had more lovers than she could count on the fingers of both hands.

She lived with her two brothers, who were very proud and very fond of their beautiful sister, and very anxious that she should choose well amongst her many suitors.

Now amongst them there was a certain Mr. Fox, handsome and young and rich; and though nobody quite knew who he was, he was so gallant and so gay that every one liked him. And he wooed Lady Mary so well that at last she promised to marry him. But though he talked much of the beautiful home to which he would take her, and described the castle and all the wonderful things that furnished it, he never offered to show it to her, neither did he invite Lady Mary's brothers to see it.

Now this seemed to her very strange indeed; and, being a lass of spirit, she made up her mind to see the castle if she could.

So one day, just before the wedding, when she knew Mr. Fox would be away seeing the lawyers with her brothers, she just kilted up her skirts and set out unbeknownst—for, see you, the whole household was busy preparing for the marriage feastings—to see for herself what Mr. Fox's beautiful castle was like.

After many searchings, and much travelling, she found it at last; and a fine strong building it was, with high walls and a deep moat to it. A bit frowning and gloomy, but when she came up to the wide gateway she saw these words carven over the arch:


So she plucked up courage, and the gate being open, went through it and found herself in a wide, empty, open courtyard. At the end of this was a smaller door, and over this was carven:


So she went through it to a wide, empty hall, and up the wide, empty staircase. Now at the top of the staircase there was a wide, empty gallery at one end of which were wide windows with the sunlight streaming through them from a beautiful garden, and at the other end a narrow door, over the archway of which was carven:


Now Lady Mary was a lass of spirit, and so, of course, she turned her back on the sunshine, and opened the narrow, dark door. And there she was in a narrow, dark passage. But at the end there was a chink of light. So she went forward and put her eye to the chink—and what do you think she saw?

Why! a wide saloon lit with many candles, and all round it, some hanging by their necks, some seated on chairs, some lying on the floor, were the skeletons and bodies of numbers of beautiful young maidens in their wedding-dresses that were all stained with blood.

Now Lady Mary, for all she was a lass of spirit, and brave as brave, could not look for long on such a horrid sight, so she turned and fled. Down the dark narrow passage, through the dark narrow door (which she did not forget to close behind her), and along the wide gallery she fled like a hare, and was just going down the wide stairs into the wide hall when, what did she see, through the window, but Mr. Fox dragging a beautiful young lady across the wide courtyard! There was nothing for it, Lady Mary decided, but to hide herself as quickly and as best she might; so she fled faster down the wide stairs, and hid herself behind a big wine-butt that stood in a corner of the wide hall. She was only just in time, for there at the wide door was Mr. Fox dragging the poor young maiden along by the hair; and he dragged her across the wide hall and up the wide stairs. And when she clutched at the bannisters to stop herself, Mr. Fox cursed and swore dreadfully; and at last he drew his sword and brought it down so hard on the poor young lady's wrist that the hand, cut off, jumped up into the air so that the diamond ring on the finger flashed in the sunlight as it fell, of all places in the world, into Lady Mary's very lap as she crouched behind the wine-butt!

Then she was fair frightened, thinking Mr. Fox would be sure to find her; but after looking about a little while in vain (for, of course, he coveted the diamond ring), he continued his dreadful task of dragging the poor, beautiful young maiden upstairs to the horrid chamber, intending, doubtless, to return when he had finished his loathly work, and seek for the hand.

But by that time Lady Mary had fled; for no sooner did she hear the awful, dragging noise pass into the gallery, than she upped and ran for dear life—through the wide door with


engraven over the arch, across the wide courtyard past the wide gate with


engraven over it, never stopping, never thinking till she reached her own chamber. And all the while the hand with the diamond ring lay in her kilted lap.

Now the very next day, when Mr. Fox and Lady Mary's brothers returned from the lawyers, the marriage-contract had to be signed. And all the neighbourhood was asked to witness it and partake of a splendid breakfast. And there was Lady Mary in bridal array, and there was Mr. Fox, looking so gay and so gallant. He was seated at the table just opposite Lady Mary, and he looked at her and said:

"How pale you are this morning, dear heart."

Then Lady Mary looked at him quietly and said, "Yes, dear sir! I had a bad night's rest, for I had horrible dreams."

Then Mr. Fox smiled and said, "Dreams go by contraries, dear heart; but tell me your dream, and your sweet voice will speed the time till I can call you mine."

"I dreamed," said Lady Mary, with a quiet smile, and her eyes were clear, "that I went yesterday to seek the castle that is to be my home, and I found it in the woods with high walls and a deep dark moat. And over the gateway were carven these words:


Then Mr. Fox spoke in a hurry. "But it is not so—nor it was not so."

"Then I crossed the wide courtyard and went through a wide door over which was carven:


went on Lady Mary, still smiling, and her voice was cold; "but, of course, it is not so, and it was not so."

And Mr. Fox said nothing; he sate like a stone.

"Then I dreamed," continued Lady Mary, still smiling, though her eyes were stern, "that I passed through a wide hall and up a wide stair and along a wide gallery until I came to a dark narrow door, and over it was carven:


"But it is not so, of course, and it was not so."

And Mr. Fox said nothing; he sate frozen.

"Then I dreamed that I opened the door and went down a dark narrow passage," said Lady Mary, still smiling, though her voice was ice. "And at the end of the passage there was a door, and the door had a chink in it. And through the chink I saw a wide saloon lit with many candles, and all round it were the bones and bodies of poor dead maidens, their clothes all stained with blood; but of course it is not so, and it was not so."

By this time all the neighbours were looking Mr. Fox-ways with all their eyes, while he sate silent.

But Lady Mary went on, and her smiling lips were set:

"Then I dreamed that I ran downstairs and had just time to hide myself when you, Mr. Fox, came in dragging a young lady by the hair. And the sunlight glittered on her diamond ring as she clutched the stair-rail, and you out with your sword and cut off the poor lady's hand."

Then Mr. Fox rose in his seat stonily and glared about him as if to escape, and his eye-teeth showed like a fox beset by the dogs, and he grew pale.

And he said, trying to smile, though his whispering voice could scarcely be heard:

"But it is not so, dear heart, and it was not so, and God forbid it should be so!"

Then Lady Mary rose in her seat also, and the smile left her face, and her voice rang as she cried:

"But it is so, and it was so;
Here's hand and ring I have to show."

And with that she pulled out the poor dead hand with the glittering ring from her bosom and pointed it straight at Mr. Fox.

At this all the company rose, and drawing their swords cut Mr. Fox to pieces.


I find Steel's version a bit more complete and definitely prefer her Lady Mary, who Steel stressed as "a lass of spirit."  Perhaps you will prefer Jacobs, possibly considering it more streamlined.  It's interesting that his "Mr. Fox" is found in a book also titled English Fairy Tales.  His book was published in 1898, while Steel's was 1918 and she herself says she retold the stories.  

Jacobs is diligent in giving his sources in his volumes and regularly cautions younger readers not to read further.  I'm particularly fond of this drawing by his regular illustrator, John D. Batten, found in Jacobs' More Celtic Fairy Tales.

(My maternal roots include the name Batten.  Genealogy puts me to sleep, but would love there to be a personal link somewhere to John D.)

Jacobs research goes back to Shakespeare.  At the risk of putting you to sleep, he notes:

Source.—Contributed by Blakeway to Malone's Variorum Shakespeare, to illustrate Benedick's remark in Much Ado about Nothing (I. i. 146): “Like the old tale, my Lord, 'It is not so, nor 'twas not so, but, indeed, God forbid it should be so;'” which clearly refers to the tale of Mr. Fox. “The Forbidden Chamber” has been studied by Mr. Hartland, Folk-Lore Journal, iii. 193, seq.

Parallels.—Halliwell, p. 166, gives a similar tale of “An Oxford Student,” whose sweetheart saw him digging her grave. “Mr. Fox” is clearly a variant of the theme of “The Robber Bridegroom” (Grimm, No. 40, Mrs. Hunt's translation, i. 389, 395; and Cosquin, i. 180-1).

The folk process of telling means the story, along with those previously mentioned Bluebeard variations, will have slight differences from storyteller to storyteller.  The creepy nature of this story, however, remains in each.


This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in Public Domain."  The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were compensated.  I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent on works of the 20th century.  My own library of folklore includes so many books within the Public Domain I decided to share stories from them.  I hope you enjoy discovering new stories.  

At the same time, my own involvement in storytelling regularly creates projects requiring research as part of my sharing stories with an audience.  Whenever that research needs to be shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that week.  This is a return to my regular posting of a research project here.  (Don't worry, this isn't dry research, my research is always geared towards future storytelling to an audience.)  Response has convinced me that "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" should continue along with my other postings as often as I can manage it.
Other Public Domain story resources I recommend-
  • There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection.  I have long recommended it and continue to do so.  He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key.
  • You may have noticed I'm no longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking specific types of stories.  There's another site, FairyTalez claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales, folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.

    Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
The email list for storytellers, Storytell, discussed Online Story Sources and came up with these additional suggestions:            
         - David K. Brown -
         - Richard Martin -
         - Spirit of Trees -
         - Story-Lovers - is now only accessible through the Wayback Machine, described below, but the late Jackie Baldwin's wonderful site lives on there, fully searchable manually (the Google search doesn't work), at .  It's not easy, but go to snapshot for October 22 2016  and you can click on SOS: Searching Out Stories to scroll down through the many story topics and click on the story topic that interests you.
       - World of Tales - 
           - Zalka Csenge Virag - doesn't give the actual stories, but her recommendations, working her way through each country on a continent, give excellent ideas for finding new books and stories to love and tell.
You're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find some of these old links.  Tim's site, for example, is so huge probably updating it would be a full-time job.  In the case of Story-Lovers, it's great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it.  Possibly searches maintained it.  Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his Library (something you want to see!) is now only on the Wayback Machine.  It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!
    Somebody as of this writing whose stories can still be found by his website is the late Chuck Larkin -  I prefer to list these sites by their complete address so they can be found by the Wayback Machine, a.k.a., when that becomes the only way to find them.
You can see why I recommend these to you. Have fun discovering even more stories!

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