"The Two Old Women's Bet." In Richard Chase, Grandfather Tales. Boston: Houghton, 1948, pp. 156-61. With one full-page drawing of the climax of the tale, at the funeral, by Berkeley William, Jr. This humorous tale depicts two women who try to outdo each other in making fools of their husbands. One talks her man into believing he has died, while the other wife claims she is using virgin wool that cannot be seen by anyone who lies to his wife, thereby convincing her husband to go out in an invisible suit of clothes she pretends to sew for him. At the funeral, the husband who isn't really dead laughs at the husband who appears in his underwear. Reprinted in collections by Jimmy Neil Smith, Why the Possum's Tail is Bare (NY: Avon, 1993); Jane Yolen, Favorite Folktales from Around the World (NY: Pantheon, 1986); Joanna Coles, Best-Loved Folktales of the World (NY: Doubleday, 1982); Kevin Crossley-Holland, Oxford Book of Folktales (Oxford Univ. Press, 1998).

"The Bet, or Two Foolish Husbands," by storytellers Barbara Freeman and Connie Regan-Blake ("The Folktellers"), who tell the tale on their album Friends (Weston Woods), reprinted in
Loyal Jones and Billy Edd Wheeler, Laughter in Appalachia: A Festival of Southern Mountain Humor. Little Rock: August House, 1987,  pp. 143-44.

"The Foolish Bet." Told by NC storyteller Connie Regan-Blake in Dive-Into Stories: A Telling Performance. Audio CD. Asheville, NC: Storywindow Productions, 2006. The two women fool their husbands into thinking one is dead and the other has a new suit that is invisible to lying husbands. In the end no one can decide who won the bet so humorous arguments about the winner continue forever. (Other contents: "Lantern," a funny tall tale about two girls telling fishing tales; "Two Friends and One Horse," a folktale told in Israel about making peace"; "Rice Balls," a Japanese tale about a hungry old woman outsmarting hungry and perpetually hungry ogres; and "Lucky Duck," a true story about a mentally retarded man and a social worker. "Ray's Amazing Grace" tells of Regan-Blake's close friendship with Ray Hicks and his family.)

"The Three Old Women's Bet," by R. Rex Stephenson, story theatre dramatization for The Jack Tale Players, 2001. Published by I. E. Clark (Schulenburg, TX), 2002. Stephenson included a third wife found in tale type 1406, The Merry Wives Wager. He realized that the man pretending to be a dog would be a big hit with younger children in his adaptation set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The third wife convinces her paranoid silversmith husband that their dog has disappeared, so he must put on a dog collar and floppy ears to protect his silver from an approaching band of robbers, the Growling Grizzly Gunther Gang. It is even more amusing when the fearful husband can’t get the name of the gang right, calling them the Growin’ Green Gardenin’ Gang and the Genuine Gamy Generic Gang. The wife whose husband is vain about his clothing convinces him that she is making him a new brown suit “from the finest virgin wool in existence.” Since she says that a man who has lied to his wife can’t see the fabric, her husband is duped into donning an invisible suit and going out in public in his long red underwear. The story ends at the wake of the man whose wife has actually convinced her hypochondriac spouse, through her powers of persuasion, that he has fallen sick and died. In other Appalachian versions, the wives keep arguing at the end about who won the bet, but the narrator in this dramatization interrupts the action, asking the audience to decide which wife made the biggest fool out of her husband. The winner gets her house cleaned by the husbands. Since this folktale typically begins with women who are close friends even though they are competitive and argumentative, Stephenson’s ending in which the women go out together and enjoy themselves leaves us with a positive final image of female companionship and victory. The narrator declares at the very end that “if there is a moral to our story, it would be, there ain’t a woman alive that can’t make a man look foolish.” For more discussion, see AppLit article Strong Women in Appalachian Folktale Dramatizations by R. Rex Stephenson.

 Other photos of Jack Tale Players Performance of "The Three Old Women's Bet," 7/6/01 and 5/02


Although this silliest of tales may seem intended for pure fun, it does explore issues worth discussing with children and students—not only questions about how jokes and satires use exaggeration and overgeneralization, but also ideas about the character types portrayed. Each woman is especially clever at exploiting her husband’s particular fears or vanities to make him act so incredibly foolish.

Tale type 1406, with female tricksters and foolish or "noodlehead" men, is found in many countries from Iceland to Russia. Although none of the tales cited here contains explicit references to infidelity (except the Ozark tale below), this tale type is related to medieval fabliaux and jests adapted by authors such as Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Shakespeare (e.g., The Merry Wives of Windsor) in stories about unfaithful lovers or spouses and tricks played on the opposite sex. "The Miller with the Golden Thumb" is an example of a short jest from Shakespeare Jest-Books, 1864. Other examples and resources are give at The Fabliaux, in Harvard's The Geoffrey Chaucer Page. Jane Yolen notes that the Appalachian tale also includes tale type 1313, The Man Who Thought Himself Dead (Favorite Folktales from Around the World, Notes, p. 485).

Many folktale collections contain sections on "sillies," fools, noodleheads or tricksters.  In "Jack and the Three Sillies," Jack has a wife who learns that others are as foolish as he is, after Jack engages in a series of unwise trades, ending up with a rock in place of their cow.  (His mother faints after his similar foolish trading in “Jack Goes A-Swappin.’”)  In many other Jack Tales, and in "Mutsmag," giants, and sometimes witches, are gullible enough to be tricked by the smaller but smarter hero.

See also:

Stephenson, R. Rex. "Jack's Mother's Second Marriage." Jack Tales Too! Stories from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Salt Lake City, UT: Encore Performance Publishing, 2004. Reprint Jack in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Tallahassee, FL: Eldridge. Story theatre dramatization, as performed by The Ferrum Jack Tale Players. Jack and his brothers Bill and Tom try to stop their mother from marrying the hired man, Mr. Walker, even though their Pa has been dead for three years. The boys are lazy and resent Mr. Walker's efforts to enlist their help on the farm. They put lipstick on his skin and claim he has measles (with comic variations in their statements about the duration of this strain of measles). They also bring in the corpse of their father, but their tricks are all in vain. This story is based on "Early's Light," a Franklin, County, VA, legend associated with the family of Jubal Early, about sons who tried to stop their mother's wedding by digging up their father's coffin. After the mother married a farmhand nevertheless, the boys buried it in a different place so people still see the father's ghost wandering between gravesites. Stephenson wrote an earlier play called Early's Light, produced at the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre in 1982. This script also includes "Jack and the Mean Old Man" (which also contains a corpse killed by the Mean Old Man), "Foolish Jack," and "Soldier Jack."

Compare with:

"The Merry Wives," in Andrew Lang's The Pink Fairy Book. Lang used a Danish version of tale type 1406. Reprinted online at SurLaLuneFairyTales.com. Ed. Heidi Anne Heiner.

"The Emperor's New Clothes" by Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen uses tale type 1620, The King's New Clothes, with two male schemers pretending to be tailors as the tricksters, while tales based on The Merry Wives Wager show that women can easily outwit the men. Reprinted online with annotations by Heidi Anne Heiner and links to other versions, at SurLaLuneFairyTales.com. Another version based on Andersen, from Andrew Lang's The Yellow Fairy Book, is also at the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center, with an 1894 illustration.

"The Emperor's New Clothes" - more tales of type 1620 from different countries, edited by D. L. Ashliman, with his translation of Andersen's tale. Ashliman notes that "Andersen's source was a Spanish story recorded by Don Juan Manuel (1282-1348)." In "The King and the Clever Girl" from India, a girl tricks a king into lying about whether he sees God, so the king marries her and she becomes famous as an honored and wise counselor.

"Now I Should Laugh, If I Were Not Dead." In The Old Wives' Fairy Tale Book,  ed. by Angela Carter. New York: Pantheon, 1990, pp. 102-3. In this Icelandic tale, the first woman simply tells her husband she is making linen "too fine to be seen with the eye." The naked husband is proud of his wife's skill when she pretends to dress him in the invisible suit. The second wife has a window put in the coffin after convincing her husband he is dead. He cries out when everyone laughs at the naked man at the funeral. From Icelandic Legends collected by Jon Arnason, transl. George Powell and Erikr Magnusson (London, 1866), Vol. 2.  pp. 627-30. Carter notes "that if a marriage is the ultimate destination of so many fairy tales, marriage itself and its conditions are universally treated as a joke" (p. 237).

"I'd Laugh, Too, If I Weren't Dead." Another version of the Icelandic tale. In Noodlehead Stories: World Texts Kids Can Read and Tell by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weis. Little Rock, AR: August House, 2000.

"Job was Pretty Stingy." In Stiff as a Poker: A Collection of Ozark Folk Tales. Collected by Vance Randolph. Illus. Glen Rounds. Notes by Herbert Halpert. 1955. Rpt. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993, pp. 78-79. Jack and Job's wife have fun together after Jack gets some of Job's precious drink by tricking him into putting his finger in the spigot hole of his applejack keg. Job is stuck in the cellar because he is too cheap to let the applejack leak out. Later he won't admit that Jack and his wife got the best of him. Halpert's notes refer to other variants (one from NC, in Journal of American Folklore, vol. XLVII, 308), in which the husband "brings the situation on himself" or makes a bet with the wife that she can't fool him.

Graham, Jack. "Two Old Women Make a Bet." Pennsylvania Jack. No date. A storyteller's web site gives his version of two wives, Mildred and Maude, who fool their husbands into thinking one is dead and the other has a new suit of clothes.

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