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Literature / The Nix in the Mill-Pond

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The miller meets the nixie, by H. J. Ford

The Nix in the Mill-Pond (or The Nixie of the Mill-Pond) (German: Die Nixe im Teich) is a German Fairy Tale collected by The Brothers Grimm in Grimms' Fairy Tales (originally known as the Children's and Household Tales. Or, in German, Kinder- und Hausmärchen). Andrew Lang collected another variant, called The Nixy, in The Yellow Fairy Book. It is classified as Aarne-Thompson Type 316, "The Nix of the Mill-Pond".

Once Upon a Time, a once-prosperous husband and wife fell on hard times. Concerned about how he is going to provide for his wife, the husband goes for a walk in the woods, where he chances upon a nix (or a nixie, depending on how the translator interprets the Grimms' word). The mysterious and beautiful water spirit asks him about his troubles, and she offers him a bargain: she will make him and his wife wealthy again, and as payment she will take "that which has just been born in your house". Figuring she means some stray animal, he agrees, only to return home to learn that his wife has unexpectedly given birth to a baby boy.

The nix keeps her end of the bargain and the young family's riches are restored, but the mother and father take special care to keep their son away from the nixie's pond. Years go by and the boy grows to be a dashing hunter, happily married to a beautiful wife, the nixie never collecting her payment.

Then one fateful day while hunting, the hunter gets some deer's blood on his hands not far from the nix's pond. He means only to splash himself to wash his hands, but the moment his skin comes in contact with the water, the nixie emerges and pulls him under, laughing maniacally all the way down.

When her husband does not come home, his wife realizes that her husband must have finally succumbed to the nix. For days, she sits by the pond and sobs. Finally her strength gives out and she begins to dream of a wise old woman in a mountain cottage. When she wakes, she figures this must be an omen and seeks out the woman, who advises her on how to reunite with her beloved.

Following the old woman's instructions to the letter, the heroine sits by the pond at the next full moon. She runs a golden comb through her black hair, then sets it on the bank when she is done. It works, but only temporarily: her husband's head surfaces from the water just long enough for her to see his anguished face before submerging again.

The wife returns to her mentor's cottage and leaves with a second magical item, a golden flute. Under the full moon, the woman plays a beautiful tune, then sets it on the sand when the song is done. Just as last time, the wave rushes up, carries the magical item away, and her husband briefly reemerges. This time, she can see his upper body along with his head, but another wave quickly pulls him back under.

On the third trip to the cottage, the old woman gives the young woman a golden spinning wheel. The following full moon, she diligently spins the flax into thread. A massive wave takes the spinning wheel, and her husband finally reemerges entirely. Hand in hand, the couple make their way home.

However, the nix is not ready to give up and sends a giant wave to sweep them away. The woman cries out for her mentor, and she and her husband are magically changed into a toad and frog, respectively, to survive the flood. After the flood subsides, husband and wife wash ashore, human but separated once again. Lost in strange lands, they earn their livings as shepherds.

Years pass. One day both of them have to chase down some stray sheep, and coincidentally find each other again. They do not recognize the other, but quickly strike up a friendship and move in together. Then one night, under the full moon, the shepherd offers his companion some entertainment with his flute. Upon hearing the tune, the shepherdess breaks down in tears. When he asks her why, she says that she recognizes that song from another full moon long ago, the second-to-last time she saw her husband.

Finally recognizing each other, the couple reunites, and live Happily Ever After.

Translations of the story can be read in Grimms' Fairy Tales, here, and in the SurLaLune site. For the Andrew Lang's variant, go here.

A Hungarian variant was adapted into an episode of the Hungarian television series Magyar népmesék ("Hungarian Folk Tales"). It was titled "A víz tündére" ("The Water Fairy").

The 2018 "The Siren" opera created by British composer Sandy Clark is based on the tale.

"The Nix in the Mill Pond" includes examples of:

  • Action Girl: When the huntsman goes missing, his wife sets off to look for him. When she guesses he has been taken by the nixie, she climbs one mountain thrice to ask for help until she manages to rescue her husband.
  • Animorphism: The wife and her husband are turned into a frog and a toad by an old witch.
  • Antagonist Title: The titular Nix/Nixie is the Big Bad who tricks a poor miller into making a wicked deal.
  • Baby as Payment: The water sprite offers the husband money in exchange for the youngest thing on his property - his newborn baby.
  • Bewitched Amphibians: Briefly, the husband becomes a frog and the wife becomes a toad so they can survive the vengeful nixie's flood.
  • Big Bad: The titular Nixie tricks a poor miller into promising her his only child. The miller teaches his son to avoid her pond as he grows up, but the nixie eventually lures him into her realm. When the man's wife manages to rescue her husband, the nixie angrily unleashes a flood to keep them apart.
  • Big Damn Reunion: The vengeful nixie floods the countryside, separating both spouses again when they wash ashore in different kingdoms. One day years later, but utter coincidence, they cross paths and bond, not suspecting that their new friend is actually their lost love. When he offers to entertain her with a song on his flute — the same song she used to try and save him — they finally recognize each other and live happily ever after.
  • Color Motif: The tale regularly calls attention to colors: the nixie is white, as is the wise old lady's hair. The husband succumbs to the nixie when trying to get rid of the red blood of the deer he killed. The heroine has black hair. The magical items she uses to try to rescue her husband are all gold.
  • Deal with the Devil: A poor miller makes a deal with a Nixie, who will make him a rich man in return for "that which has just been born in [his] house." The miller foolishly thinks it was a puppy or a kitten, and then he finds out his wife has just given birth.
  • Distressed Dude: The huntsman is captured by the nixie, and he is rescued by his wife.
  • Doomed Hometown: The huntsman and his wife's hometown is flooded by the nixie when the latter gets the former out of her mill-pond.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The nix forces the couple through multiple trials before they finally reunite.
  • Evil Laugh: The Nixie laughs with wicked delight when the hero makes his fatal mistake that allows her to kidnap him.
  • The Fair Folk: The titular nixie promises the poor miller she will make him a rich man if he gives her "that which has just been born in your house." The miller naively assumes the nixie is referring to some puppy or kitten, and he promises what she demands. Then he goes back home and finds out his wife has just given birth. Later, she manages to lure the miller's son into her pond, but he is rescued by his wife. In reaction, the nixie unleashes a deluge which flood the whole countryside.
  • Forced Transformation: Both main characters are transformed into animals by the old witch to protect them from the malicious and vengeful nixie.
  • Godiva Hair: The nix has long hair that conceals her naked body.
    Turning around, he saw a beautiful woman rising slowly out of the water. Her long hair, which she was holding above her shoulders with her soft hands, flowed down on both sides, and covered her white body. He saw very well that she was the nixie of the pond, and he was so frightened that he did not know whether to run away or stay where he was.
  • The Great Flood: Out of spite, the fairy sends a flood to separate the couple once the wife finally frees her husband.
  • Happily Ever After: The last line of the story: "They embraced and kissed one another, and no one needs to ask if they were happy."
  • Have We Met?: After their years-long separation, husband and wife don't recognize each other when they finally cross paths again. It isn't until he entertains her with a song on his flute and she recognizes the tune that they finally reunite and live happily ever after.
  • Karma Houdini: Losing her prize is the only bad thing that happens to the Nix after tricking an impoverished man, kidnapping his son and flooding the countryside in retaliation for his wife rescuing him. Probably justified by her being one of The Fair Folk.
  • Leonine Contract: The titular water sprite offers a poor man money in exchange for the youngest thing on his property. He assumes that a stray cat must have given birth, or some bird's egg has hatched, only to go home to find that his wife has had a baby.
  • Love Theme: The heroine plays a tune on a magic flute that temporarily allows her to see her husband. When they are separated again, they don't recognize each other until he plays the same tune on his own flute.
  • Lunacy: For whatever reason, the magic that will reunite the couple only works under the full moon.
  • Magical Flutist: On the second full moon, the wife uses a golden flute to play the most beautiful song she can to appease the nixie and reclaim her beloved. Their memories of the tune years later are what allow them to finally reunite.
  • Maternity Crisis: The hero's mother gives birth immediately after her husband strikes a deal with a fairy for the youngest living thing in their house. There's no indication that the miller even knew she was pregnant when he made the bargain.
  • Nameless Narrative: Like many fairy tales.
  • Nature Spirit: The nix embodies the water, and she can be just as generous or as callous as her element.
  • No Name Given: The characters' names are never revealed.
  • Rags to Riches: The poor miller becomes wealthy after making a deal with the Nixie.
  • Riches to Rags: The hero's parents used to be quite wealthy, but are barely scraping by as poor millers when the tale begins. In the family's attempts to cheat the nixie out of her end of the deal, they become quite well off again and their son starts working for a lord. At the tale's end, husband and wife have nothing but each other and their sheep — and they couldn't be happier.
    Once upon a time there was a miller. He lived contentedly with his wife. They had money and land, and their prosperity increased from year to year. But misfortune comes overnight. Just as their wealth had increased, so did it decrease from year to year, until finally the miller scarcely owned even the mill where he lived.
  • Rule of Three: Three dreams, three trips to the cottage on the mountaintop, three nights, and three magical objects for three attempts to get her husband back. Then the nixie forces her into a fourth round.
  • The Sacred Darkness: The tale flips the traditional color symbolism expected from fairy tales: night is a time of hope, restoration, and joy, and the heroine is associated with the color black while the villain is identified as white.
  • Solitary Sorceress: The benevolent enchantress lives alone in the mountains.
  • Sore Loser: The nixie sends a flood to separate the couple after the heroine has already paid for her husband's freedom three times over.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The nixie drops out of the story altogether after the flood, as does the old woman.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: The family manages to avoid it for decades, but ultimately the nix takes what was promised her and his wife spends the rest of the narrative trying to get him back.