My Christmas goose I thought was particularly good and my figgy pudding excellent. The best was to have good company with which to share it. That almost got away from me this year. My daughter decided to take Thalia to visit relatives for Christmas rather than their usual February jaunt to see them. Melissa is off up north to see her people, leaving me quite alone.
Fortunately for me, if not for Duckworth, he has encountered a similar dilemma. His wife and children are celebrating Christmas with her parents, an event to which he was expressly not invited. It is not mine to pry into the “why” of it, but I am sure it has to do with the word “politics.”
Carrying our figgy pudding, glasses, and a bottle of Powers, Duckworth and I have retired to the study and have settled next to the hearth.
“I hope you don’t mind,” I say, “my persistence in a family tradition and will indulge me as I read a fairy tale aloud to you.” I know the fairy and brownies are hiding in the shadows and will enjoy a tale. Johannes has the window seat and appears to be, as always, ignoring us.
“I haven’t been read to since childhood. Actually, my parents rarely read to me,” Duckworth grins, taking a sip of whiskey. “Forge ahead. I’m game.”
I pick up Lang’s The Violet Fairy Book and turn to the bookmarker I have inserted.
“The Story of the Three Wonderful Beggars,” I announce. “It’s a Serbian tale.”
Anastasia, the very young daughter of the wealthy merchant Mark the Rich, overhears three supposed beggars predict that on that snowy day in a nearby village a child is born, named Vassili, who would one day take all of Mark the Rich’s wealth. The next day Mark bargains with Vassili’s poor father for the child, promising as well to be it’s godfather.
“Good heavens, was that common back then?”
“Oh, probably not, but it serves the story,” I say, and continue.
On Mark’s way home, he throws the child over a precipice to die in the frozen waste.
“Oh, that’s cruel. Are you sure this is a children’s story?”
“It will be fine, just wait a moment.”
Other merchants, traveling to visit Mark the Rich on business, discover the babe lying on a small patch of green meadow complete with flowers between two banks of snow.
“How does that happen?”
“Well, it’s a miracle of course, although the illustrator, H.J. Ford, labels his rendition The Fairies Catch the Baby.” I show Duckworth the picture.
“But that is not what the text says?” Duckworth is dubious.
“No, but let’s continue.”
Unknowingly, they carry the babe back to Mark, who forgives their debt to him if they will give him the child. This time he seals Vassili in a barrel and throws him into the sea . . .
“Good grief!” Duckworth faceplants his palm.
. . . only to be discovered by a group of monks drying their nets by the seaside. They decide to name him (coincidentally) Vassili and raise him to be well educated. The child’s natural talents bloom.
Duckworth is now shaking his head in disbelief.
Many years later, Mark is visiting the monastery and is impressed by the youth. Inquiring, he hears the story of the barrel. Mark asks that he may bring Vassili into his service. Mark then gives Vassili a sealed letter to Mark’s wife instructing her to have Vassili killed immediately.
“Oh, this guy doesn’t give up.”
No wonder his parents didn’t read to him.
Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2021 The Story of The Three Wonderful Beggars – Part Two
On Vassili’s journey to Mark’s home, three beggar men ask him where he is going and to show them the letter. They blow upon the letter and hand it back. Now the letter reads that Vassili is to be married to Anastasia immediately. The wife and Anastasia are surprised but not at all displeased with Vassili, and the marriage takes place.
“Wait a minute,” Duckworth protests. “Don’t these three guys sound a little suspiciously like the three wise men somehow?”
“They do, I’ll agree. The wise men were also called the Magi—magicians—as well as kings. Royalty was often assumed to have magic, so the different names all make sense. This would not be the first time an idea was taken from the Bible and worked into the context of a fairy tale. And the tales have not only drawn from the Bible. There are a lot of old mythological notions that the tales appropriate, but let us get back to the story.”
Soon, Mark, not to be outdone, sends his new son-in-law on an errand to the Serpent King to collect rent due to Mark and to discover what happened to Mark’s twelve ships that disappeared three years ago.
“That doesn’t sound good.”
The true purpose of the trip was to have the Serpent King destroy Vassili.
On his travels, Vassili comes across three entities that pose questions for Vassili to ask the Serpent King, who is reputed to know all things. The first is a dying oak tree that wants to know how much longer it must stand. The second is a trapped ferryman who wants to know how much longer he must row passengers. And third is a whale serving as a bridge across a narrow strait who wants to know how much longer he needs to remain so.
“Hold on again, this story has taken a turn somewhere. Vassili kind of won the day, got to marry the princess, well, she wasn’t a princess, but you know what I mean, and now he is off on an entirely different adventure.”
“That’s observant of you, Duckworth. Yes, this tale is made up of two motifs. The first half is like the story The Fish and the Ring, where the protagonist, a female of a lowly class, is destined to marry a baron’s son. Every effort the baron makes to destroy her fails. The tale ends in the marriage. Our tale does not end there.
“The second motif is most popularly thought of as The Foolish Man, by the Armenian poet Hovhannes Tumanyan, although he is drawing from traditional tales. In this form, the protagonist is traveling to the world’s end where there is someone (In The Foolish Man tale, it is God.) “who knows everything. On the way, he encounters three things/people/animals who add their questions to his question. All the questions are answered, and the challenge becomes how this knowledge is handled. In the case of The Foolish Man, not very well. In our tale, if you will let me come to the end of it, much better.”
Duckworth nods his consent.
Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2021 The Story of The Three Wonderful Beggars – Part Three
Vassili comes to the serpent’s magnificent palace at the world’s end, searching through it until he finds a beautiful girl, who asks him why he has come.
“OK, let’s stop here,” Duckworth interrupts. “What’s with the word ‘beautiful?’”
“What? What do you mean?”
“‘Beautiful’ tells me nothing. It’s so generic. Does she have long, blonde hair? Flashing, green eyes? Sensual, red lips? Give me something to work with.”
“My dear Duckworth, you truly misunderstand the genre of fairy tales. These stories proudly bear all the hallmarks of bad writing. There is little description unless it is necessary for the story or as an aside, such as, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, that I may climb thy golden stair,’ which is the only reason we know she is a blonde.
“Same for character development. The tales depend upon stereotypes. Nor is there a lot of dialog. For example, there will be no two elder brothers discussing what they consider to be the mental limitations of the younger sibling. The story will tell us they call him a simpleton and is done with it.
“Typically, there are few character names. That there are two in this story is pretty generous. The Serpent King is technically a proper name, but is really the usual identifier of a character used by fairy tales. A prince is called the prince, a princess the princess, or a woodcutter the woodcutter. Their name is their position in life.
“The fairy tale’s brevity is its value, leaving the details to the listener’s imagination. That’s your job.
“Now, before I finish the tale, I want you to take a great mouthful of figgy pudding, but don’t swallow it.”
“To keep your mouth occupied.”
Vassili tells the girl his full story. She informs him he was not sent to collect rent but rather to be destroyed by the Serpent King.
She hides Vassili, and when the Serpent King arrives to have his head scratched and to be lulled to sleep, she tells him she had a dream in which an oak, a ferryman, and a whale asked her questions for which she had no answers.
The Serpent King, before nodding off to sleep, explains that the whale needs to disgorge the twelve ships of Mark the Rich that he has swallowed, that the ferryman need only hand the oars to his next passenger and not look back, and the oak only needs to be kicked down, which will reveal a huge treasure under its rotting roots.
When the serpent falls asleep, Vassili slips away. He tells the whale what he must do after crossing over its back. He tells the ferryman what he must do after the ferryman gives him passage. Then Vassili kicks over the oak to find the treasure. The three beggar men appear, guiding the twelve ships to Vassili, pronounce a blessing over him, then disappear. Vassili returns home in triumph.
Mark, furious, rides off to confront the Serpent King and find out why the serpent betrayed him. He gets no farther than the ferryman. Vassili is left with his loving wife and all of Mark’s wealth.
Duckworth swallows. “Satisfying.”
I look at him sidelong. “Which? The figgy pudding or the story?”
Duckworth smiles. “Both.”