AppLit Home Appalachian Tales of Strong Women Tina L. Hanlon

   Summaries of Tales Related to "Mutsmag," with Girls Who Outwit Giants

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An Appalachian Tale from Beech Mountain:

"Two Children and the Giant." Told by Hattie Presnell to Barbara McDermitt. Cassette tape MCD-5. Barbara McDermitt Collection. Archives of Appalachia, East Tennessee State University. On this tape, Presnell comments on the storytelling tradition of Beech Mountain, NC, and tells swiftly narrated versions of some tales to McDermitt, admitting that there are some she can't remember of the vast number told by her family. This tale begins like "The Two Lost Babes" or "Hansel and Gretel" with a family abandoning their children in the woods because they are too poor to feed them, but this version observes that the parents did this because they did not want to see their children die. Cocklepea (a name also used in versions of "Two Lost Babes" for another boy, not the brother) protects his sister throughout the story. They return home because he suspects something and scatters rocks on the path when their parents take them to the woods. Then he scatters breadcrumbs that disappear. Then he carries his sister on his back and climbs tall trees to find his way. When he sees a light and knocks on a door, a woman warns them that her husband is a giant who will try to kill them, at which point the tale begins to resemble "Mutsmag." The giant twice says, "Fee Fie Fum, I smell the blood of English," and won't be convinced that the smell is sheep. When his wife explains about the poor hidden children starving to death, he tells her to "fatten 'em up, fatten 'em up." The children are given good food and red caps to wear at night. Cocklepea switches the caps for the black ones on the giant's two children, so the giant cuts off their heads and cooks his own children. The other two children meanwhile run far away. When the giant realizes what has happened, he puts on his "mile-at-a-step boots" to pursue the children but can't get them out from under a big rock where they are hiding during the daytime. While the giant waits and then falls asleep, Cocklepea takes the giant's boots, goes to the wife, tells her the giant is in jail and needs money, acquires a knife, and cuts off the giant's head. The children live happy ever after.

Other Tales Related to "Mutsmag" and "Molly Whuppie":

"Maol a Chliobain," collected from Ann MacGilvray, Islay. In Popular Tales of the West Highlands by J. F. Campbell, Volume I [1890]. "Orally collected with a translation by" Campbell. Reprinted in The Internet Sacred Text Archive. When Maol and her sisters go off to seek their fortune, Maol chooses a small bannock with her widowed mother's blessing, instead of more food and her mother's curse, so her mother gives her more food and the other sisters resent her. Her mother's blessing frees her (this phrase came from a nursemaid in Inverary) when her sisters tie Maol to a rock, a peat stack, and a tree. In a giant's house, Maol stays awake and hears the giant ask for one of the strange girls to have a drink of her blood. Maol exchanges the twists of horse hair around her neck with the twists of amber knob that the giant's girls wear so the giant's gillie (servant) kills his girls. Maol tries to flee with her sisters and takes a gold cloth from the bed but it cries out (also "a golden cock and a silver hen, which also called out" in the nursemaid's version). As the giant chases her, they strike each other with sparks of fire as their feet strike the stones; then Maol takes a hair from her head to escape on a bridge of one hair. Each time she is safely on the other side, she tells the giant she will return when her business takes her. A farmer with sons to offer the girls sends Maol back to take the giant's combs of gold and silver and his sword of gold and a buck. On her second trip back, Maol pushes the gillie in the well and drowns him. On her last trip to take the giant's buck, Maol is caught but she tricks the giant and tricks his mother to take her place in a pock (poke or sack), so that the giant kills his mother, Maol escapes, tells the giant to drink the river dry so "he drank till he burst," and she marries the farmer's youngest son. Lengthy notes tell about the three 1859 versions that were translated from Gaelic and combined for this book. The nursemaid at Inverary said Maol enticed the giant to cross the bridge of one hair and he drowned. When asked if Maol married the farmer's son, the nursemaid replied, "'Oh, no; she did not marry at all. There was something about a key hid under a stone, and a great deal more which I cannot remember. My father did not like my mother to be telling us such stories, but she knows plenty more,'--and the lassie departed in great perturbation from the parlour." In a longer 1860 version from a fisherman, the others call the heroine Maol a Mhoibean. Only she can cross a bridge of two hairs, so she must carry her sisters across. Campbell speculates that it may be a double rainbow, such as spirits or Norse gods would cross from earth to heaven, and he says Moslems crossed a bridge of fine hair to Paradise, and fall off if they are not helped. (Go back to main Mutsmag page for reference to this tale in an Angela Carter anthology.)

"Molly Whuppie and the Double-Faced Giant." From English Fairy Tales, retold by Flora Annie Steel. 1918. The Macmillan Company, 1962. Reprinted in The Baldwin Online Children's Literature Project, 2000-2008. A hungry man and wife with many children abandon the three youngest girls in this tale. "Now the two eldest were just ordinary girls, so they cried a bit and felt afraid; but the youngest, whose name was Molly Whuppie, was bold, so she counselled her sisters not to despair." The sisters predict that the huge house they find is a giant's house, but Molly is "as bold as brass." Molly is described as crafty, clever, wise and self-confident. The kind giant's wife tries to persuade her husband not to hurt the girls, who are like her three girls. He makes chains of straw for the girls, like his daughters' chains of gold. This duplicity makes him "double-faced." Molly thinks and thinks in bed before switching the necklaces, causing the giant to half strangle and beat to death his daughters. Molly leads her sisters in slipping out of the castle but the drawbridge over the moat of a castle they find at dawn is up and she uses a Single Hair rope that only someone "very light-footed could cross." The king sends her alone to fetch the giant's silver sword, "the giant's purse in which part of his strength lies" from under his pillow, and "the giant's ring in which all his strength lies." Each time she escapes over the Bridge of One Hair. When caught, she tricks the giant into putting her into a sack with things she needs and tricks his wife into taking her place, so that the wife is almost beaten to death inside the sack. Molly and her sisters marry the king's sons and the giant is never seen again.

Werth, Kurt and Mabel Watts. Molly and the Giant. Illus. Kurth Werth. New York: Parents Magazine Press, 1973. N. pag. Werth, a German artist, was a political cartoonist and illustrator in New York after escaping from Nazi Germany. "He found Molly and the Giant... in an old collection of Irish folktales." Watts, a native of England, lived in California. Molly O'Shea is a beautiful girl in a poor Irish cottage, "beautiful as a bog flower, brave as a lion, and smart as a treeful of owls." Her two older sisters are "shy as violets and timid as hares." Molly and the Giant coverTheir father sends them out to seek their fortunes since food is so scarce at home. After a weary day of walking, the sisters find "a hidden house in a tangled woods" with "the door ajar." The woman says they are foolish to enter the house of the giant, her husband. "'Giant or no,' said Molly, 'being tired and hungry, we are willing to take our chances, even if it should be the end of us.'" The wife welcomes them and gives them Irish stew. The giant says, "Bedad... if there's anything better than Irish stew, 'tis a girl in a pot with parsley sauce." The cheerful wife tells the hidden girls there is room for six if there is room for three in the loft where three giant children are sleeping. The giant puts chains of straw and gold on the children, which Molly switches so that she and her sisters wear the gold instead of straw. They creep downstairs and out the door, "through thicket and bramble in the stormy, desperate weather till they reached the castle of the king." The guards think they are princesses visiting King Erin in their gold necklaces, which were stolen from this castle years ago, so Molly tells the king how they got the necklaces. As she tries to rest, the king says, "A girl like you could be very helpful." He offers the eldest sister his eldest son and a castle if Molly brings back the sword the giant had stolen. "I'll be after doing my best, even if it should be the end of me," Molly says, and the king tells her to be smart and brave.  When the giant catches Molly stealing the sword while he sleeps, she runs "over hump and hollow" and over "the Bridge of True Love's Hair in the nick of time." As she tries to rest at her sister's wedding banquet, the king asks her to recover a bag of gold. Molly, finding the giant drinking tea from a bucket, slips in a bottle of wine the king gave her so the giant falls asleep "giddy as a goose." Molly pulls the bag of gold from under the giant's pillow and he thinks it's walking off by itself for a stroll until his wife says it's Molly O'Shea "walking and talking," and then regrets exposing Molly. After Molly escapes over the bridge and her second sister weds a prince, the king asks for a ring on the giant's thumb, promising Molly his youngest son and a castle. The youngest prince gives Molly a locket "to help you when you need it most." Molly finds the king's youngest son "a handsome, dashing lad, and Molly was fair enchanted. For him she would do just about anything!" The locket is full of goose grease that Molly uses to get the ring off the thumb of the sleeping giant. The giant wakes and asks how she would punish him if he were the one caught. "Being smart as a treefull of owls, Molly carefully thought out her answer." She says she'd put him in a sack with a dog, cat, needle, thread, and sharp pair of scissors, and then beat the sack with a stick. While he is getting the stick, Molly cuts a hole in the sack, jumps out with the cat and dog who escape, and fills the sack with oatmeal to make it "fat and bumpy as before." Molly hides, "brave as ever but twice as scared," as the giant, "full of meanness and full of glee," beats the sack. The giant says "You'll be the death of me yet" when he sees her out the window, but she escapes over the Bridge of One True Love (without killing the giant). In the end, "Dizzy with joy, she gave [the youngest prince] her promise true, just like a proper princess, and there was great rejoicing." She goes to a castle to live "happily ever after" with her husband, "with her fortune found and her future bright." The cover shows little Molly escaping over a gorge by the sea on a bridge made of hairs, toward the castle, while the giant looms in the foreground with his huge stick, shaking his fist at her.

"The Bear-Maiden: An Ojibwa Folk-Tale from lac Courte Oreille Reservation, Wisconsin." Recorded by Albert Ernest Jenks. The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 15, no. 56 (Jan.-Mar. 1902): pp. 33-35. Available online through library services such as JSTOR. In 1899 "the Bear-Maiden was told by old Pa-skin', an Ojibwa woman considerably more than one hundred years old" (p. 35). While Jenks notes that only the last three paragraphs (with the horse, bells, and dishes) are definitely post-Columbian, most of the plot is strikingly like "Molly Whuppie." The youngest of three daughters is a little bear and her sisters tie her to the doorposts of the wigwam and bind her to a rock to keep her from following them when they go to seek their fortunes (as in the Irish "Hairy Rouchy"), but she lifts the doorposts, pine-tree and rock and follows them, helping them cross a river with the rock. They stay with an old woman and sleep with her daughters but the little Bear, who sits up telling stories, watches the woman get out knives at night and gets her sisters out of the wigwam after changing places with the woman's daughters and pretending to sleep. Little Bear illustrationThe old woman is angry after she cuts off her own daughters' heads in the night, so she tears the sun from the sky and hides it in her wigwam to make the sisters get lost. They meet a man with a light searching for the sun. His chief, sick without the sun, asks the little Bear to retrieve the sun. She asks for two handfuls of maple sugar and one of his sons. She puts sugar through a hole in the wigwam of the old woman so that her rice is too sweet and when she goes for water, the little Bear takes back the sun and tosses it back into the sky. The old woman tears down the moon, making the nights dark, so the little Bear repeats her feat with salt in the woman's kettle. After allowing two sons to marry the little Bear's sisters, the chief becomes ill again and sends the little Bear to recover a missing horse with a collar of bells. This time the little Bear is caught when she leaves one bell on the horse, and is put into a bag by the old woman. While she looks for a large club to break the little Bear's neck, the little Bear bites a hole in the bag and fills the bag with the woman's pet animals and dishes, which break when beaten. The little Bear takes the horse back to the chief, who lets her marry his youngest son (illustration at right by Clifford N. Grady). The son will not sleep with his wife, so she tells him in anger to throw her into the fire, which transforms her into a beautiful young woman, and she will not sleep with her husband. Jenks observes that this tale "is a version of the struggle between the Earth personated by the old woman with the two daughters, and forms of light, as the morning star, personated by the little Bear, and other stars personated by the men searching for the sun and moon with artificial lights" (p. 35). Note that in the Irish "Hairy Rouchy," the older sisters are "handsome as the moon and the evening star, but the youngest was all covered with hair, and her face was brown as a berry." When Hairy Rouchy runs from the giant with her sisters under each arm, she and the giant are compared to the west and north wind, and to "sparks of fire."
       Reprinted as "Little Bear," with some editing, in Jean Cothran, ed. With a Wig, With a Wag, and Other American Folk Tales. Illus. Clifford N. Grady. New York: David McKay, 1954, pp. 84-89. Cothran omits some of the more violent details, such as deaths of the old woman's daughters, the animals being beaten in the bag, and the couple's anger at the end. In Cothran's version, Little Bear also uses two handfuls of maple sugar to recover the North Star, which the chief's hunters need as a guide.

"Smallhead and the King's Sons." In Jacobs, Joseph. More Celtic Fairy Tales. Illus. John D. Batten, 1894. Reprinted in Internet Sacred Text Archive as well as Project Gutenberg. The same tale is included in William Butler Yeats' Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland in a section on Ghosts (not in all editions). This long tale, which is crosslisted with "Molly Whuppie" in a 1915 fairy tale index and linked by Jacobs in his notes, has some remarkable differences, including more brutal details than most variants (but no giants) and more explicit exchanges about the heroine's self-sacrificing goodness in conflict with a wicked hag who curses her. Once Smallhead gains magic power and control of her life, she resists marrying the prince she loves for a couple years, living as a servant and gaining experience in several households before using complex tricks to win back her prince. She does menial tasks to help ordinary people as well as causing the deaths of a couple characters who get in her way. Jacobs gives as his source "Mr. Curtin's 'Hero Tales of Ireland,' contributed to the New York Sun," and references "Maol a Chliobain" (see above), which is "Molly Whuppie" in his English Fairy Tales.
      Bridge of Blood illustration by Batten A depressed Irish widow is murdered by her two daughters who call their mother's favorite, their half-sister, Smallhead; they fear that no one will marry them because of their foolish sister. Smallhead follows them when they leave home, so they return and threaten to kill her if she cannot do impossible tasks. A grey cat helps her gather twenty needles in a haystack, says it's her mother, and tells her to be good to the sisters. She follows the sisters again, finding them in the home of an old hag with wicked powers. Despite warnings, Smallhead goes in to save her sisters, and gets them to sleep in the bed of the hag's daughters. She puts those daughters' ribbons on the necks of her sisters. The hag's son is reluctant to kill the visitors but gives in to his mother and kills the girls with no ribbons while the visitors escape. The sisters cannot cross a Bridge of Blood because they have committed murder. Smallhead repulses the hag at the bridge and carries her sisters across, guiding them to get higher positions than she takes at a King's castle.
       Smallhead fetches a Sword of Light from the hag's house to enable a prince to marry her sister, because he has killed in battle and can't cross the Bridge of Blood. She takes it from the hag's son after putting salt in the stirabout (porridge) he is preparing, so that the hag has to give him the Sword of Light to go fetch water. To get the second prince to marry her other sister, Smallhead gets the Black Book that the hag had stolen from the royal family. It shines brighter than the Sword of Light. She drops chimney soot into the hag's son's stirabout, so after arguing, the hag gives him the Black Book to go to the well. Smallhead pushes him in the well and in a rage the hag kills her son for losing the book. When the hag curses her, Smallhead retorts, "I am not afraid of a curse from the like of you. If you had lived an honest life you wouldn't be as you are to-day." Smallhead promises to care for the hag, who withdraws her curse, after her more beautiful sisters are married. When it is time to eat the hag's pig that Smallhead cares for, the pig turns into a handsome prince after Smallhead hits it with a rod. He is the son of the King of Munster, kidnapped seven years earlier. Having learned some magic from the hag, Smallhead promises to rescue him if he will marry her.
        While the hag's sister from the Eastern World is visiting, Smallhead takes a magic book, turns the pig back into a man and the man and herself into doves, and they fly away. The hag's sister chases them as a hawk, finding them in the form of brooms sweeping a village. The villagers nearly kill her, thinking God sent them these magic brooms, so she escapes as a hawk and vows never to help her sister again. When Smallhead and the prince find his father's castle, she makes herself supremely beautiful with the magic she has acquired. The prince vows that no one will kiss him when she sends him alone to reunite with his people, but a dog licks his face and he forgets Smallhead, as she predicted. She goes from inadvertently tricking a foolish blacksmith's wife and stepdaughter into thinking her beautiful face reflected in a well is theirs, to keeping house for the blacksmith after they run off, and doing such incredible ironing that she is taken into the king's household and becomes known for her amazing skills. When the king's son becomes engaged, she outshines the tricks of the King of Ulster's household by walking on a thread she throws out a window from a ball of string. The King of Ulster's daughter tries it and falls to her death but Smallhead is admired, not blamed. To entertain the King of Connacht's party, she uses three grains of wheat to enact a magic conversation between chickens that makes her prince remember her (similar to a traditional act of divination). The King of Connacht's daughter is left to marry whoever will have her, since the prince of Munster loved Smallhead first. The tale ends stating simply that Smallhead marries him.

Mutsmag's Name

Muncimeg is the name in Leonard Roberts' Kentucky collections and Gail Haley's retelling. Munsmeg (like the name of the gun at Edinburgh Castle) was used by Richard Chase or maybe James Taylor Adams (whoever did the typing and decided on the spelling) when collecting tales in Wise County, Virginia, but Chase used Mutsmag in Grandfather Tales, where his notes don't mention variants of the name. Cratis Williams of Boone, NC was Chase's other source outside Wise County, and Williams' posthumously published writings give the name as Mutts Mag. Storyteller Michael Badhair Williams of NC tells his tale about Muts Mag. Charlotte Ross refers to Cratis Williams' mother and Mutzmag in Encyclopedia of Appalachia, while her own retelling in the Jack Tales Festival video gives the name as Mutsmag. Filmmaker Tom Davenport used the spelling Mutzmag in 1992. Mutsmeg is the name in Loyal Jones's retelling. Appalachian storyteller Anne Shelby returned to the British name Molly Whuppie in her play, book, and oral storytelling, because she likes it better. (Molly Whipple is the name in several books of British tales, and two items called Molly Whipple's cake appear in Recipes, an American cookbook of c. 1840, according to

The name appears to be like Cinderella, with a descriptive syllable(s) before a diminutive version of common female names (Margaret, Maggie, Meg). The first part might refer to the girl being the smallest, least significant, or most contemptible or demeaned sister in her family, but some contemporary readers think it might relate to German or Celtic words referring to strength or goddess power. In German mut refers to qualities such as bravery, pluck, hardiness, spirit, and nerve. Below are copies of comments relating to the name that are scattered through AppLit's pages on Mutsmag.

  • William Bernard McCarthy observes that "Muncimeg's name seems Scottish. The Scots word munsie means 'a person deserving contempt or ridicule; an odd-looking or ridiculously-dressed person'.... Just the sort of thing a mean older sister might call her little sister." He also refers to the Edinburgh cannon called Muncy Meg (Cinderella in America: A Book of Folk and Fairy Tales. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007, p. 317). The Oxford English Dictionary cites an 1808 use of munsie as "a designation expressive of contempt or ridicule; a bonny munsie, a pretty figure indeed."
  • A 1734 manuscript on the gun called Munsmeg at Edinburgh Castle, Scotland, traces it to 1511, but that is disputed by scholars. "It asserts that the name is after James IV's Queen, Margaret, and the word 'muns' meaning 'little', 'on account of her extraordinary size' [ie. the gun's size, not the Queen's]" (WorldCat entry on Munsmeg gun document).
  • Charlotte Ross in Encyclopedia of Appalachia: "the first written record foreshadowing the story known as 'Mutzmag' was in the 1100s in Scotland. By the 1400s, it was known there as 'Molly Whuppie.'" Ross refers to Cratis Williams' mother Mona Williams tracing the story in her family to 1805. "However, the story's Scottish antecedents puzzled her; she thought the story was German, as the spelling of the heroine's name and certain internal clues suggest. By 1805, 'Mutzmag,' a feminist tale about a resourceful young girl, showed distinct signs of ethnic blending" (pp. 1267-68).
  • Jacobs, Joseph. "Molly Whuppie." English Fairy Tales. 3rd ed. 1898. Rpt. New York: Dover, 1967. pp.125-30. Jacobs' source notes acknowledge that the tale is "originally Celtic" and he changed the name Mally to Molly. Maol a Chliobain is the name in Jacobs' source and in collections that record Scottish tales. Hannah Aitken wrote that "Maol means in Gaelic a devotee, literally a tonsured person...but the word being unfamiliar in Aberdeenshire, it was taken to be a girl's forename" (A Forgotten Heritage: Original Folk Tales of Lowland Scotland, Rowman and Littlefield, 1974, p. xiv).
  • "My name's Mutsmag if you ever need my help again." Anndrena Belcher's video retelling of "Mutsmag" is summarized in Telling Tales Teacher's Guide, where notes also link "Mutsmag" with an Irish tale, "Molly and the Giant" (see above). Belcher says that Mutsmag is the "least little one" and Belcher doesn't know how she got that old name.
  • Tom Davenport's live action film Mutzmag ends with the heroine proclaiming confidently that her name is Mutzmag, and we can call her if we need help getting rid of a giant or witch.
  • Herbert Halpert noted that "Folktale heroines, as the AT index shows, rarely have names or nicknames." The odd names or nicknames he lists include Mutsmag and Muncimeg in the U.S.; as well as Malty Whuppie, Maol a Chliobain and Maol a Mhoibean in Scotland. Only Kitty Ill-Pretts in Scotland has a name that is explained, referring to "'nasty tricks.' It is likely that some of the other names also refer to the girl's characteristic behavior."

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Tina L. Hanlon, 2001-13