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Literature / The Baker's Daughter

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The Baker's Daughter is an English Fairy Tale about a young woman who is punished for her greed and made to live out her days as an owl.

There once lived a baker and his daughter who were known for their greed and dishonesty. At a time the daughter managed the store by herself, an elderly woman in rags entered and asked for some bread. Loathly, the daughter gave her a tiny ball of dough. The beggar then asked that she too would bake it in her oven and the daughter granted it. But out of the tiny ball of dough a full bread formed. Unwilling to part with it, the daughter claimed there was no bread and that the dough must have fallen through the grill. The beggar nodded and let the daughter bake her a new bread, this time from even less dough. Again a full bread formed from it, even bigger than the other one, and again the daughter claimed that there was no bread. Unfazed, the beggar accepted the offer of a new bread from barely any dough at all. When the daughter went to see if it was done, the bread was humongous. She turned around, stammering "Who...? Who...?" to the beggar who threw off her cloak to reveal herself as a fairy. Well aware of the tricks the daughter had tried to pull, the fairy turned her into an owl, explaining that for her selfish deceit, she'd be saying that and nothing more until her final breath. Through an open window, the now-owl flew off into the night, crying "Whooo-whooo!".

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In older versions, the beggar isn't a fairy, but Jesus. These versions have a role for the baker (either male or female) themself: instead of being the source of their daughter's greed, they're the one to offer the dough and to bake it for the beggar. When the resulting bread is much bigger than it should be, it's not they who get back on their word, but it's the daughter who refuses to hand over the bread. In these older versions, the baker's daughter doesn't say "who", but "heugh", Old English for "huge".

There's a related Nursery Rhyme from the point-of-view of the owl, but instead of a baker's daughter, this owl used to be a king's daughter. The rhyme does not explain how she came to be an owl.

The Baker's Daughter is not as known today as it used to be. Testament to that is that the best chance to learn of it is to read Hamlet, due to Ophelia's words to Claudius that "[t]hey say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be."

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Tropes found in this story include:

  • Adaptational Nice Guy:
    • Newer versions remove the baker and give their traits to the daughter. This means that her modern self is the one to offer the dough, little as it may be. She didn't offer anything in the older versions.
    • The secretly-not-a-beggar is also kinder in newer versions. Jesus gives the daughter only one chance. The fairy gives her three.
  • An Aesop: The older versions contain the aesops that greed is bad, the importance of keeping your promise, and Sacred Hospitality. The newer versions add that you should be mindful what example you set for your children and what path you lead them on.
  • Angel Unaware: Whether Jesus or a fairy, the beggar is far from an actual beggar.
  • Baleful Polymorph: The story ends with the daughter being turned into an owl, bound to only ever utter "who".
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  • Cooking Stories: There is much baking in the The Baker's Daughter.
  • The Fair Folk: Newer versions have the beggar be a fairy in disguise.
  • Gender Flip: Whether the baker is male or female varies for the older versions, but they're always male in the newer versions.
  • Karma Houdini: Versions that say the daughter has her greed from the baker leave him out of the story and thus he isn't punished for the same vice. Then again, his daughter never came home that one day...
  • Magic Wand: The fairy has a magic wand, which she uses to turn the daughter into an owl.
  • The Oath-Breaker: The daughter breaks either her own promise or that of her parent.
  • Owls Ask "Who?": There's no reason to the daughter specifically being turned into an owl but for her stammering of "Who...? Who...?".
  • Rule of Three: In newer versions, the daughter three times promises the bread baked from the dough and each time she breaks the promise because there's much more bread she'd part with than she anticipated.
  • The Scrooge: The daughter in all versions, and the baker in newer versions.
  • Secret Test of Character: Either Jesus or the fairy gives the bakery's owners one to see how they're doing in terms of hospitality. The daughter fails the test.
  • Sweet Baker: Averted with a vengeace. That may or may not be the point.
  • Old Maid: Some newer versions make it a point that the daughter is unmarried in a way that implies this, with the further reasoning being that no man would want a woman as greedy as she is. Becomes a Double Standard when you realize she's got her greed from her father and evidently his greed didn't stop him from finding someone.
  • Too Dumb to Live: In the newer versions, the daughter bakes a huge bread from a tiny ball of dough three times. You'd think at least by the second time she'd realize something is terribly amiss, especially with that unfazed beggar waiting patiently yet persistently for her bread.

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