“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” asks King Lear of his three daughters at the opening of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Shakespeare often re-interpreted well known tales & legends in his plays—the Lear story is a very old European folk motif that turns up in literally hundreds of variants of the “Cinderella” tale. English versions include “Cap ‘o Rushes,” “Sugar and Salt,” and “As Meat Loves Salt.” In Germany the themes appear in “As Dear as Salt.”
The basic story: Ungrateful or foolish father thinks third daughter doesn’t love him, because her older sisters love him like gold or silver and she “as meat loves salt.” There’s generally a happy ending: She gets the man she loves, and her father, who is served meat without salt at dinner, learns a lesson.
Shakespeare chose to eliminate the happy ending, killing off Cordelia. Of course, there are also lessons in greed and jealousy with Goneril and Regan. . . . and how hard it is to be really sure which is the good child. It’s a rich mixture of evil and foolish decisions.
The King Lear story, though not identified as such, made its way into the oral folk tradition of Appalachia via Scots Irish settlers who had heard the original in the British Isles. Mid-20th century teacher, folklorist and storyteller Richard Chase was one of the first to transcribe and publish an Appalachian version. The tale, as told to him by a seventh grade student in Wise County, VA, appeared in ‘Grandfather Tales’ (1948).
In October 1940 Chase learned from R. M. Ward of Beech Creek, NC, that Ward had been receiving folksongs, ballads, and tales in the mail from James Taylor Adams of Wise County, VA.
The following year, Chase put together a Works Progress Administration proposal to edit a book on Wise County folklore, got the Virginia Writers’ Project to provide some travel funds, and began to type up outlines for the proposed Wise County book.
His first letter to James Taylor Adams about the proposed book is dated September 19, 1941, and he made his first trip to Wise County on October 11. He followed that with another eight or so trips of two to four days each and ultimately spent about twenty-five days in the county between October 1941 and April 1942.
The Wise County book was never published, but much of what had been collected for that project saw print in The Jack Tales (1943), Grandfather Tales (1948), and American Folk Tales and Songs (1956).
“This ???? ???? analogue is told by a girl in the back of the room in response to [hearing the story] Ashpet,” Chases says before presenting the local girl’s Wise County version of the Lear tale:
“An old king had three daughters. He went to town and promised to bring each what she wished. The oldest asked for a green dress, the next for a red dress, and the youngest, whom the king loved better than the others, a white dress.
“When he returned he pinned a white rose on the green dress and asked the oldest how much she loved him. She said “more than life.” The second got her dress by responding “more than words.” The youngest said “I love you like meat loves salt.”
“When questioned what that meant she replied that she loved him as much as duty will allow. The king became angry and locked her in a tower on the prairie. The Duke of England rides by, sees her there, climbs up, rescues her, and takes her to England as his bride.
“The other daughters marry too. The king gets old and lonesome and goes to live with the eldest. She scorns him, and he goes to his next daughter. She puts him in the stable to sleep. Meanwhile the husbands wage war on England.
“The youngest girl and the duke come over and find the king wandering around crazy with honeysuckle vines for a crown. They care for him and find the elder sisters stuck in a thornbush. Their husbands put them there. ‘Good enough for ye!’ says the old king.
“The duke wins the war and takes the king back to England. The youngest serves a meal without salt. The king complains. Then she brings him a dish of salt and just stands there. He understands and gets his senses back. He sends his servant across the water to fetch the white dress and a whole bough of white roses, fresh as the day they were picked. The king gives them to his daughter.”
Sources: Ten variants of the tale – “Love Like Salt”: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/salt.html
‘Grandfather Tales,’ by Richard Chase, Illustrated by Berkeley Williams, Jr. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1948.
Is Old Jack Really Richard Chase?(Critical Essay), Journal of Folklore Research, by Charles L. Perdue, Jr., January 01, 2001