The Three Weavers, part IV: The Girls Weave On

So with her father’s blessing light upon her, she rode away beside the prince; and ever after, all her life was crowned with happiness as it had been written for her in the stars.

In part I of this series I offered some background to Annie Fellows Johnston’s 1904 short story The Three Weavers, and in part II the story began as three weavers—Herthold, Hubert, and Hildgardmar—who live side-by-side and have similar fortunes, bore three infant daughters—Hertha, Huberta, and Hildegard. At each girl’s christening, a fairy appeared and declared that the girl would marry a prince—if she could weave him a royal mantle.

In part III the three fathers took very different courses of action in introducing the magic looms and weaving—here an analogy for love and sex—to their daughters. Hertha shamed his daughter for asking about her loom, and she is now weaving in secret. Huberta’s father gave her her loom with a laugh, and told her to have fun with it however she pleased. Hildegarde’s father spoke seriously with her about her loom, giving it to her along with a silver yardstick and careful instructions. And now we pick up as the seasons pass.

After that the winter followed the autumn and the summer the spring many times, and the children played in the garden and learned their lessons of broidery and fair needlework and songs upon the lute. And every day each stole away to the inner room, and threw the shuttle in and out among the threads of gold.

Hertha worked always in secret, peering ever in the mirror, lest perchance the long-haired page in crimson clad should slip by and she not see him. For the sheen of his fair hair dazzled her to all other sights, and his face was all she thought of by day and dreamed of by night, so that she often forgot to ply her needle or finger her lute. He was only a page, but she called him prince in her thoughts until she really believed him one. When she worked at the web she sang to herself, ‘It is for him—for him!’

Huberta laughed openly about her web, and her father often teased her about the one for whom it was intended, saying, when the village lads went by, ‘Is that thy prince?’ or, ‘Is it for this one thou weavest?’ But he never went with her into that inner room, so he never knew whether the weaving was done well or ill. And he never knew that she cut the web of one year’s weaving and gave it to the curly shepherd lad. He wore it with jaunty grace at first, and Huberta spent long hours at the mirror, watching to see him pass by all wrapped within its folds. But it grew tarnished after awhile from his long tramps over the dirty moors after his flocks, and Huberta saw other figures in the mirror which pleased her fancy, and she began another web. And that she gave to a student in cap and gown, and the next to a troubadour strolling past her window, and the next to a knight in armour who rode by one idle summer day.

The years went by, she scattering her favours to whomsoever called her sweetheart with vows of devotion, and Hertha faithful to the page alone. Hildegarde worked on, true to her promise. But there came a time when a face shone across her mirror so noble and fair that she started back in a flutter.

‘Oh, surely ’tis he,’ she whispered to her father. ‘His eyes are so blue they fill all my dreams.’ But old Hildgardmar answered her, ‘Does he measure up to the standard set by the sterling yardstick for a full-grown prince to be?’

‘No,’ she answered, sadly. ‘Only to the measure of an ordinary man. But see how perfectly the mantle I have woven would fit him!’

‘Nay, weave on, then,’ he said, kindly. ‘Thou hast not yet reached the best thou canst do. This is not the one written for thee in the stars.’

A long time after a knight flashed across the mirror blue. A knight like Sir Lancelot:

His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed.
On burnished hooves his war-horse trode.
From underneath his helmet flowed,
His coal-black curls, as on he rode
As he rode down to Camelot.”

So noble he was that she felt sure that he was the one destined to wear her mantle, and she went to her father, saying, ‘He has asked for the robe, and measured by thy own sterling yardstick, it would fit him in faultlessness, as the falcon’s feathers fit the falcon.’

Hildgardmar laid the yardstick against the web. ‘Nay,’ he said. ‘This is only the size of a knight. It lacks a handbreadth yet of the measure of a prince.’

Hildegarde hesitated, half-pouting, till he said, beseechingly, ‘I am an old man, knowing far more of the world and its ways than thou, my daughter. Have I ever deceived thee? Have I ever had aught but thy good at heart? Have patience a little longer. Another year and thou wilt be able to fashion a still larger web.’

You can see why this story might become popular as a patriocentric culture like the patriarchal wing of the Christian homeschooling movement. The entire plot revolves around Hildgardmar giving his daughter a silver yardstick to measure her future husband, and then making sure she doesn’t stray from that measure. Hildegarde comes to her father every time she sees someone she thinks might be her prince, and he carefully remeasures with the yardstick and tells her that she’s wrong, and that she must tear her glance away from the man she was considering. Coming from a patriarchal courtship background like I do, this is all very, very familiar.

And so I have to ask. First, how does Hildegarde’s father know conclusively which man is the right man for her? And second, what would be so wrong with Hildegarde choosing to marry an ordinary man or a knight rather than the prince her father has in mind for her? Like the fathers of many a girl crowing up in the Christian Patriarchy movement, Hildegarde’s father is micromanaging her love life as though he, and he alone, knows what is best for her, and as though she is on her own too immature and besmitten to every be trusted to choose for herself.

Notice how Hildegarde’s father draws on his age as to convince her to follow his instructions—he is, after all, older and wiser an “knows far more of the world.” This is very similar to the “umbrella” analogy so often invoked in patriarchal homeschool circles—this idea that it is the father’s job to shield and protect his daughter from the world by making her decisions for her, or at the very least vetting her decisions with the power of veto. The thing is, at some point young people need to be allowed to make their own decisions, and if they make bad decisions they will learn from those decisions. After all, what if Hildegarde were to go on following her father’s advice on everything and never learning how to make her own judgments and her own decisions, and then her father were to die, leaving her alone? Children should be equipped with the judgment and ability to make their own decisions, and then set free. Doing otherwise threatens to cripple them.

And before I draw the curtain here, I want to point out how very clear this section makes it that the mantles are meant to stand in for romantic favors and sex. Hertha, after all, is going around giving out mantles every which way. And apparently, sexual favors are things that can end up becoming “tarnished.” You know, just in case anyone had any doubt what kind of story this was.

For the end of the story, see Part V.

Men Rape and Women Seduce: John Piper’s Deleted Tweet
Today I’m Proud of Joshua Harris
Crosspost: When Speaking to Men about False Accusations
Things HSLDA Opposes: Social Workers in Schools
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Amtep

    It’s so creepy to read this while knowing what it’s a metaphor for.
    “But he never went with her into that inner room, so he never knew whether the weaving was done well or ill.”

  • ako

    Yeah, this is not subtle.

    As far as I can tell, the main reason why marrying a knight or a page or someone else ordinary is such a dire fate is because the story/Christian patriarchy needs it to be that way in order to work. If there were a number of different men that a woman could marry and be happy with, or if there was only one right man, but a young woman was wise enough to choose for herself, then Daddy wouldn’t have a moral entitlement to totally control his daughter’s love life. If a woman is capable of deciding for herself, then a father may have a right to advise and teach, but he’s not entitled to give commands or overrule her decision.

    • Christine

      The knight analogy doesn’t work for me at all, but at least with the page (i.e. a child) I can see the argument that they’re trying to make. (It’s stupid, but I can see it.) “If you don’t give your daughter any guidance [any guidance = total control, because as we all know there are no shades of grey] then she will end up with someone immature.

    • Jayn

      Fairy tales seem to frame marrying a prince as the ultimate goal–the song isn’t named ‘Some Day Your Knight Will Come’. Not that there’s necessarily something wrong with marrying a knight, but that a prince is best and if you’re good and kind and caring then that’s what will happen (albeit perhaps after being kidnapped or nearly killed for those same qualities). The formula is different here in that it’s about obeying more than personal qualities, but it’s the same basic idea–if you’re good enough you will attract a prince and that’s the best possible outcome, so Hildegard should hold out for her prince.

      (The analogy of the yardstick still isn’t working for me. If she’s only seeing these men through a mirror, how would she know how closely they fit the measure? Or her father, for that matter, there’s no mention of him going out and finding them to take their measure.)

  • Rachel Marcy (Bix)

    I find all the prince-princess stuff really intriguing. Do prominent Christian Patriarchy families, like the Vision Forum people, make dynastic matches with each other? Do they cement alliances through marriage?

    • Joy

      It seems to me that they do.

  • Monimonika

    Hildgardmar having the silver yardstick really does need an explanation. Did he come up with the yardstick specs himself? Were his clients so often princes that he was able to figure out the optimal body stature of the ideal prince?

    I feel most sad for Hertha. It’s one thing to fall in love with someone you don’t know very much about yet, but to refuse to acknowledge obvious facts about the person in order to stay in love with that person is a recipe for disaster.

    At least Huberta is having fun! I so wish she would end up with lots of guy friends, but since this is a sexual purity tale, she’ll probably end up being disrespected by all the men she gave a shroud/mantle/robe/mittens/cape/hoodie/sweater to and that they’ll all bad mouth her to others. Grrr…

  • Monimonika

    I just realized something. If the loom work is an analogy for sexual intimacy in this story, then what the fathers are doing is being paid to have sex with multiple customers of all ranks and ages.


    • Sgaile-beairt

      yes but it also means that teenage girls shld masturbate lots and lots and lots!! who knew that QF was on the same page w dr joyce brothers in that regard??

    • Rae

      But they’re men. They’ve got ordinary wooden looms. So obviously their sex isn’t special or precious, but something they’re expected to do.

  • centauri

    Off-topic, but what is it with these people and Lancelot as an “ideal knight”??? Out of all the Knights of the Round Table, he’s the one who cheats with the queen and eventually gets banished for it. (I think. It’s been a while since I read up on that)
    If I wanted to use a “Knight in Shining Armor” as an ideal husband for my daughte(s) I’d take Parcival or (even better LAncelot’s son) Galahad who ‘is renowned for his gallantry and purity’ (wiki) and eventually is the one who finds the Holy Grail(!)

    • Alix

      Lancelot falls square into the old courtly love ideal, and I suspect that, even though we’ve largely abandoned the whole courtly-love thing, the notion of Lancelot the perfect ideal proved harder to shake, even if we’re no longer quite sure why he’s supposedly ideal.

      I’m with you. I can’t stand the guy – not only do I find the whole courtly-love thing problematic, but in many of the stories Lancelot’s a serial rapist and murderer, so.

    • Rachel Marcy (Bix)

      I’m also bemused by the Christian Patriarchy obsession with (a sentimentalized, Victorian version) of medieval chivalry. Have any of them actually read medieval romances? Because they’re hyper-violent and frequently homoerotic. I think in Le Morte d’Arthur, anyway, that Lancelot is more ethical than most of the knights. That’s not hard, though, because most of the knights rampage around raping and murdering people. I like T.H. White’s version of The Once and Future King–Lancelot is physically ugly, the relationship between Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur is really interesting, and no one likes Galahad because he’s so irritatingly self-righteous.

      • centauri

        “Have any of them actually read medieval romances?”

        I suspect not. But I have noticed, when checking out webshops like Vision Forum and the like, if sometimes (well, alot of times lately) there’s literature from The (presumably Golden) Olden Days on sale, it’s usually an ‘updated’ edition. Not even the original text.
        I mean they practically beat themselves on the chest for reading ‘wholesome pre-1960s literature’, making me think they use the original text, and then when you check it out it’s a reworked edition??? What’s up with that?

    • Joy

      Lancelot and Guinevere are discovered in the act; Lancelot is exiled and Guinevere condemned to death at the stake. Lancelot returns to save her from her fate, slaughtering some of his Round Table comrades in the process, setting in motion the war that ends Camelot for good and for all.

      But Hildegarde wouldn’t have known that; it’s in the future for her, theoretically, although given how Saxon theses names sound, who really knows?

  • Karen

    So, is there anything in patriarchal Christianity for a mother tote.l her sons, like, say the Book of Proverbs?
    I have two sons and I would like to give them some guidance in choosing girlfriends, more than “find someone who’s never had sex.” So far, I have suggested “find someone well-educated” and “avoid anyone with substance abuse issues.”* What does this culture advise men tossed in wives?

    * I realize that many people get over these problems without any lingering problems. My advice was more to avoid people, even as friends, who have current abuse issues.

    • Meg

      I’m not sure about Christian advice, but I LOVE the book Attached by Levine and Heller. It saved me from investing my time in a very stressful, dysfunctional relationship. Sometimes the people who are worst for us are the most emotionally compelling and Attached tells you how to recognize it on the first date for the most extreme cases or fairly early for everyone else and how to deal with mismatched attachment styles in a relationship. I’ve recommended it to a number of people and they’ve told me it’s the only dating book they need.

    • Joy

      Heh, Proverbs 31 is exactly this: “The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.” The Proverbs 31 woman being, presumably, the ideal daughter in law.

  • Karen

    “To seek”

    Patheos, we can haz edit function?

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