ONCE upon a time there lived an old woman who had a small cottage on the edge of the forest. Behind the cottage was a garden in which all sorts of vegetables grew, and, beyond that, a field with two or three cows in it, so her neighbors considered her quite rich, and envied her greatly.
As long as she was strong enough to work all day in her garden the old woman never felt lonely, but after a while she had a bad illness, which left her much weaker than before, and she began to think that now and then it would be nice to have some one to speak to. Just at this moment she heard of the death of a shepherd and his wife, who dwelt on the other side of the plain, leaving a little boy quite alone in the world.
'That will just suit me,' she said; and sent a man over to bring the child, whom she intended to adopt for her own.
Now the boy, who was about twelve years old, ought to have considered himself very lucky, for his new mother was as kind to him as the old one. But, unfortunately, he made friends with some bad rude companions whose tricks caused them to be a terror to everyone, and the poor old woman never ceased regretting her lost solitude.
Things went on in this way for some years, till the boy became a man.
'Perhaps, if he were to be married he might sober down,' she thought to herself. And she inquired among the neighbor what girls there were of an age to choose from. At length one was found, good and industrious, as well as pretty; and as the young man raised no objections the wedding took place at once, and the bride and bridegroom went to live in the cottage with the old woman. But no change was to be seen in the husband's conduct. All day long he was out amusing himself in the company of his former friends, and if his wife dared to say anything to him on his return home he beat her with his stick. And next year, when a baby was born to them, he beat it also.
At length the old woman's patience was worn out. She saw that it was quite useless to expect the lazy, idle creature to mend his ways, and one day she said to him:
'Do you mean to go on like this for ever? Remember, you are no longer a boy, and it is time that you left off behaving like one. Come, shake off your bad habits, and work for your wife and child, and above all, stop beating them. If not I will transform you into an ass, and heavy loads shall be piled on your back, and men shall ride you. Briars shall be your food, a goad shall prick you, and in your turn you shall know how it feels to be beaten.'
But if she expected her words to do any good she soon found out her mistake, for the young man only grew angry and cried rudely:
'Bah! hold your tongue or I will whip you also.'
'Will you?' she answered grimly: and, swift as lightning she picked up a steel cane that stood in the corner and laid it across his shoulders. In an instant his ears had grown long and his face longer, his arms had become legs, and his body was covered with close grey hair. Truly, he was an ass; and a very ugly one, too!
'Leave the house!' commanded the old woman. And, shambling awkwardly, he went.
As he was standing in the path outside, not knowing what to do, a man passed by.
'Ho! my fine fellow, you are exactly what I was looking for! You don't seem to have a master, so come with me. I will find something for you to do.' And taking him by the ear he led him from the cottage.
For seven years the ass led a hard life, just as the old woman had foretold. But instead of remembering that he had brought all his suffering on himself, and being sorry for his evil ways, he grew harder, and more bitter. At the end of the seven years his ass skin wore out, and he became a man again, and one day returned to the cottage.
His wife opened the door in answer to his knock; then, letting fall the latch, she ran inside, crying:
'Grandmother! grandmother! your son has come back!'
'I thought he would,' replied the old woman, going on with her spinning. 'Well, we could have done very well without him. But as he is here I suppose he must come in.'
And come in he did. But as the old woman expected, he behaved still worse than before. For some weeks she allowed him to do what he liked; then at last she said:
'So experience has taught you nothing! After all, there are very few people who have sense to learn by it. But take care lest I change you into a wolf, to be a prey for dogs and men!'
'You talk too much. I shall break your head for you!' was all the answer she got.
Had the young man looked at her face he might have taken warning, but he was busy making a pipe, and took no notice. The next moment the steel cane had touched his shoulders, and a big grey wolf bounded through the door.
Oh! what a yapping among the dogs, and what a shouting among the neighbours as they gave chase.
For seven years he led the life of a hunted animal, often cold and nearly always hungry, and never daring to allow himself a sound sleep. At the end of that time his wolf skin wore out also, and again he appeared at the cottage door. But the second seven years had taught him no more than the first--his conduct was worse than before; and one day he beat his wife and son so brutally that they screamed to the old woman to come to their aid.
She did, and brought the steel cane with her. In a second the ruffian had vanished, and a big black crow was flying about the room, crying 'Gour! Gour!'
The window was open, and he darted through it; and seeking the companions who had ruined him, he managed to make them understand what had happened.
'We will avenge you,' said they; and taking up a rope, set out to strangle the old woman.
But she was ready for them. One stroke of her cane and they were all changed into a troop of black crows, and this time their feathers are lasting still.
Macler, Frederic, "The Steel Cane," in The Olive Fairy Book, ed. Andrew Lang (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907).
While the story is named “The Steel Cane,” it begins with the life of an old woman and ends with the life of a crone. This woman lives in a small cottage at the edge of the forest. This is where the forest meets the plains. She is not at the center of the forest where most of these characters reside. She is creative and hardworking, keeping her garden and livestock thriving. Many older women still wish to live in two worlds. This is especially true if they live alone, for age brings with it a sense of vulnerability. One world is peaceful and comfortable – an ideal life away from the stress and anxiety of the workaday world. The other, still holds on to that busyness for fear of losing touch or being disconnected. “Who will help me if I fall, if I move far away?” she asks. “I’ll live on the edge of the forest instead, so I can still get some help if I need it.”
Her neighbors think she is rich and envy her. They must be unable or unwilling to keep a garden or cows as well as she does. Sadly, the world for her (and for many today), is not filled with kind and generous people. No one befriends her, they only grumble and envy her at a distance. Still, she is not willing to give up yet. The crone has a strong connection to life and nature. That connection filled and enriched the old woman, so she never felt lonely.
But after a bad illness, she was weaker and could not work as long in her garden. With the bond broken, she now becomes lonely. When a shepherd and his wife die, she decides to adopt their son. It seems like the perfect solution to both of their problems. The boy had lived on “the other side of the plain.” This indicates a life quite different from hers. The forest, you see, is full of green life. Its soil is rich. The old woman is a part of that landscape. The plain, however, is filled with grasses that dry in the heat of summer. Nothing grows without tilling the soil that is harden like clay. We will soon discover this does not bode well for the boy. His parents might have been those who grumbled and envied the old woman after all.
Even so, she was kind to the boy. Perhaps she thought she could tend him with the same care and skill she did her garden. Sadly, it did not turn out that way. Her son was rebellious and ungrateful. Rather than helping her, he took up with a bad crowd, and together they began to terrorize the community. The old woman soon was sorry she took him in. Life was not turning out as she planned. Solitude was better than turmoil. We might say, it’s not the “retirement” she expected. The old woman allows the young man to sow some wild oats, and then attempts to settle him down, by marrying him off. It seemed the logical and expected solution to his youthful outburst. And so, her son was married to a good, industrious, and pretty girl. (She sounds a bit like the old woman might have been years ago.) Marriage did not change him. He spent most of his days with his lazy friends, leaving his wife to work and care for their baby alone. Whenever he returned home, he beat them both badly.
Finally, the old woman ran out of patience and confronted him. She asked if he would change his ways. “If not,” she said, “I will transform you into an ass, and heavy loads shall be piled on your back and men shall ride you.” Instead of offering forgiveness or agreeing to change, this lazy man threatened to beat the old woman! Really? After all she had done for him? What an ingrate! But does she feel this way? Perhaps, but she doesn’t let her feelings get in the way of becoming a good mother.
The old woman’s words are magic. Her son may believe he can harm her, but she knows better. She picks up her steel cane and laid it across his shoulders. Instantly, he became an ass. For after all, he was already the most foolish of animals and deserved to become a beast of burden. The old woman wisely knew that the best way to build empathy was to walk in the shoes of another. The man would learn what it felt like to be beaten. He would learn what it is like to be downtrodden. Soon a traveler came by the cottage, found the ass, and led it away.
Did you pay attention to the word “laid” in this story? The old woman “picks up her steel cane and laid it across his shoulders.” She didn’t slap him, spank him or strike him. She merely laid the cane across his shoulder, which by definition, means that she “put [it] down, especially gently or carefully.” This might be where the old woman becomes a crone. She does not strike her son. She does not meet violence with violence. Instead, in the words we use today, she spoke “Truth to Power.”
But this experience taught the man nothing. He stayed entrenched in the bitter thoughts and beliefs of the “plain’s people.” After seven years, he returned home behaving even worse than he did before. His wife doesn’t go to the men in the village for help. She doesn’t even call out to the neighbors. She cries out to the old woman. Again, the old woman doesn’t rush in, she lets things settle a bit. She gives him a chance. But to no avail, he is even more violent than before. When asked to stop, her hateful son threatens her with more violence. This time the old woman turns him into a wolf, an animal as wild as he is. He is hunted by man and beast, never feeling safe – just like his wife and child. Still, he is stubborn. He refuses to learn the lesson.
When he returns seven years later, his behavior was even worse. (How can it be worse, you say? Well, it was!) Once again, for the third time (things always happen in threes, you know), he comes home to beat his wife and child. “Grandmother! Grandmother!” the wife calls out and the old woman runs to their rescue. Do you spot the irony here? The hero of this story is the old woman who is weak from illness. She may seem harmless, but she is the only one wise enough and powerful enough to confront this man. For you see, while the old woman did not find love and companionship with her son, she found it with her daughter-in-law and grandchild.
When his wife cries out again for the old woman (who lives with them), she no longer tries to reason with the man. She simply turns him into a crow. A crow is a quarrelsome, noisy bird, that often steals from others. Crows hold a grudge and pass that grudge on to other crows. We see that in this story as the crow sets his human friends off to kill the old woman! But they found her waiting. She touches each with her steel cane. One by one they turn into crows – never to take human form again. They live out their days, complaining and squawking forever.
What does this old woman have to teach us about the wise crone archetype? First, she chooses to live at the edge of the forest, where she can still see and connect to community. It’s sort of a liminal space between two worlds. We know little about this community except that the people are envious of her “wealth,” even though it was acquired through hard work and a deep connection to the land. The people don’t befriend her. They are not worthy. She learns to manage on her own. When the boy becomes orphaned, when the need is great, no one else steps in to help. The old woman adopts the child and cares lovingly for him, even though he “grew up on the other side of the plain.” The old woman shows compassion and hopes she can tend him for good. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Some people (how many we just don’t know) can’t be turned to good, no matter how hard we try. 'So experience has taught you nothing!" she says. "After all, there are very few people who have sense to learn by it."
What is the moral of the story? No matter how well we plan for our golden years, the unexpected can happen. The crone is wise enough and experienced enough not to rush into a situation. Neither should we. Hopefully, our children and grandchildren can figure out how to solve their own problems. But patience runs out eventually, even for those we love. When that happens, remember your inner power. You aren’t invisible. The old woman finds the power within to confront the evil in life. She is not frightened. The wise crone may be the smallest and the oldest in the cottage, but she is also the mightiest, just like the trees in her forest. The old woman wanted to give the boy a better life, but when that didn’t work, she knew exactly what to do. She spoke Truth to Power, working hard to spark empathy in her son. She did not respond to violence with violence. “Protect the vulnerable and the innocent any way you can. Keep them safe at all cost,” she says. While the story did not end happily ever after, the old woman did find love and companionship. Perhaps that is the greatest miracle of all but only the wise crone knows for sure.