Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2020 Puss in Boots – Part One

Gustave Doré

Cat Tale

Thalia reaffirms she has broadened her literary tastes in fairy tales. As her audience gathers for the evening reading in the study—an audience of me, Johannes, and the brownies—I see her enter the room with her fairy on her shoulder and Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book in her hand. She is not exclusively Grimm in her story selections.

We take to our comfy chairs, window seat, or comfortable, dark corner. The fairy flutters to the mantelpiece to rest upon the bust of Wilhelm.

“This evening,” Thalia announces, “I will read a tale for Johannes.”

The cat eyes her suspiciously.

Puss in Boots,” says Thalia.

Johannes grins and curls up to listen.

A poor miller wills his possessions to his sons, the youngest getting only a cat. However, the cat instructs the youth to give him a pair of boots and a bag, promising to make the young man’s fortune.  

With the bag and a few tricks, the cat catches rabbits and partridges, which, with great flourish and compliments, he presents to the king in the name of the cat’s master, the Marquis of Carabas. This flow of presents goes on for a number of months.

Puss in Boots discovers on what day the king has decided to “take the air” in a coach along the riverside with his daughter. The cat launches his plan into action, telling his master to undress, get into the river, and leave everything else to him.

As the king passes by, the cat calls out that his master has been set upon by thieves and is drowning in the river. The king’s men save the Marquis of Carabas and the king sends back to the castle for a suit of royal clothes for the unfortunate young lord.

The cat runs on ahead, calling out to the reapers and mowers he encounters, who are working the fields, declaring they are to say these lands belong to the Marquis of Carabas or they will be chopped up as fine as herbs for the pot.

Johannes’s tail twitches from side to side and he nods approvingly.

As the king, his daughter, and the marquis drive down the road, the king stops to ask to whom these fields belong. The frightened workers reply, “The Marquis of Carabas.”

On ran Puss in Boots to the castle of the ogre, to whom the fields really belonged. The cat professes he cannot pass the castle without paying his respects to the ogre. Flattered, the ogre receives the cat.

Puss in Boots asks if it is true that the ogre can change shapes. The ogre obliges by turning himself into a lion, quite frightening the cat. Then Puss in Boots asks if it is possible—expressing some doubt—that the ogre can turn himself into something as small as a mouse. Again, the ogre obliges and is immediately pounced upon and eaten by the cat.

Johannes is crouching and ready to leap in reenactment of the scene.

The end of the ogre comes just in time, as the king’s carriage arrives and Puss in Boots rushes out to welcome them to the castle of the Marquis of Carabas. Impressed, the king wishes the marquis to marry his daughter, who during their ride has fallen madly in love with the handsome young man.

The tale concludes that Puss in Boots becomes a great lord and never again has to catch his own mice.

I have never seen Johannes look quite so satisfied with a story.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2020 Puss in Boots – Part Two

From Couverture des Contes du temps passé 1843.

Uncle Cornelius

“I know,” I say to Johannes after everyone else has drifted off to their nighttime abodes, “that I read this tale to you once before, but this time you really identified with Puss in Boots.”

“Well I should, since that time I have found the tale springs from my Great, Great, Great, Great Uncle Cornelius.”

“You mean to say Charles Perrault was recording history?” I exclaim.

If cats could roll their eyes, I think Johannes would have. Instead, he closes them as if in pain. 

“Let me correct you on more than one account,” he says with a bit of a growl. “First, Cornelius told his story to Fiovanni Straparola. That was around 1550, but Fiovanni got most of the facts wrong, or simply didn’t believe all of Uncle Cornelius’s amazing story.”

“Wait, are you taking about The Facetious Nights?

 “That might be what he called it.” Johannes blinks, then continues. “Great Uncle Cornelius’s son tried to set the record straight by telling the tale to Giambattista Basile. That version appeared around 1634, but with less accuracy.”

“OK,” I say, “now you are referring to the Pentamerone.”

“Perhaps,” says Johannes, “but he wasn’t any better than Fiovanni. Why he even changed Uncle Cornelius into a female.

“By 1697 the family gave up on the Italians to set things right, and tried a Frenchman, whose English version we heard tonight, namely Perrault’s. He did better. He remembered the bit about the boots that the earlier two neglected to mention, and at least gave Great Uncle Cornelius a nom de plume, ‘Puss in Boots.’”

“It is too bad the Grimms never got hold of this tale,” I say.

“Oh, but they did!” Johannes stares at me. “Their source was Jeanette Hassenpflug, one of a family of sisters who told many of the stories that the Grimms collected. What the Grimms didn’t know was that Jeanette pretty much paraphrased Perrault. While this version of the story appeared in their first edition, 1812, it was omitted thereafter.”

“I’ll assume, “I say, “that is why Thalia chose Perrault’s treatment.”

“I’ll suppose,” answers Johannes, “but, while liberties were taken again, either by Jeanette or Wilhelm (here he glances up at the bust on the mantelpiece), I rather like the Grimm version.

“Oh, everyone is amazed that a cat can speak, a given in the other stories as it should be. Our cat confines itself to catching partridges, the king’s favorite fowl. The king gives our cat good welcome and gold in exchange. There are a hundred workers in the fields. There are also foresters felling trees. The ogre is turned into a sorcerer.  The young man is a count, but with no fancy name and no moral at the end, as with Charles.”

“Moral?” I ask.

“Yes,” Johannes sighs, “it was left out by Lang in The Blue Fairy Book. He should have included:

If the son of a miller so quickly could gain

The heart of a princess, it seems pretty plain

With good looks and good manners and some aid from dress

The humblest need not quite despair of success.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2020 Puss in Boots – Part Three

Gustave Doré

Cat Helpers

I have opened the bay window to let in the night air. It flows in over the sleeping cat on the window seat and over me as well as I perch beside him. I look out across the lawn toward the Magic Forest above which hangs the moon. I contemplate cats as animal helpers.

Johannes is, of course, not an ordinary cat, but rather a sith cat. With a little research, after Johannes alluded to the Facetious Nights, I found that Straparola does describe the cat as actually a fairy, jiving with Johannes’s claim.

Cats do make an appearance in Grimm beyond the omitted Puss in Boots. Perusing the table of contents, I find the Companionship of the Cat and the Mouse, which does not end well for the mouse. A cat plays a part in the Bremen Town Musicians. The Fox and the Cat is a short cautionary tale. There is also The Three Army Surgeons, which does not, in this case, end well for the cat. And there is a moment when cats appear in the Tale about the Land of Cockaigne.

I may have missed one or two references to cats in Grimm, but not one of them, after you subtract Puss in Boots, has a cat as an animal helper to the protagonist.

Outside the Grimm canon things are not much better. There is the motif of a sailor, or merchant, or youngest son, who has a cat and comes to a kingdom overrun with rats and thus makes his fortune. But the cats in these cases are just being cats.

Sometimes the cats are sinister. In the Scottish tale King of the Cats, a poor gravedigger encounters a burial party made up of cats, who tell him to tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Tildrum is dead. When the gravedigger tells his wife, their tom cat rises up on its haunches saying, “Tim Tildrum’s dead? Then I’m king of the cats,” and disappears.

In the Danish tale, Gabriel Rider, a poor soldier solves the mystery of why a mill is being burned down every Christmas Eve. It turns out twenty-four cats come to visit the mill on that night to dance with fire. The soldier thwarts the cats’ design with a bit of magic and the sign of the cross. He is able to harm each one before they can escape.

The next day he goes to the village to find which women have received wounds during the night and cannot make it to church. He bribes each of the twenty-four women, who are witches, also making them promise to never again burn down the mill. He leaves the village a wealthy man.

While the soldier benefited, it was not because the cats were helpful.

Sitting here on my window seat, gazing at the Magic Forest, the only tale of a cat-helper that comes to mind is The White Cat; again, to be found in The Blue Fairy Book.

A king tasks his sons with three trials. First is to find the smallest of dogs and he grants a year to fulfill the task. In his wandering, the youngest comes across a society of cats, the White Cat being their queen. At the end of the year, the queen gives him an acorn containing the smallest of dogs to give to his father.

The second task is to find the finest of muslin, which can pass through the eye of a needle. The White Cat aids him in this task as well.

The third task is to find a worthy bride. As the third year draws to an end, the White Cat insists the prince cut off her head. With reluctance he does and she transforms into her true shape, the most lovely of princesses.

One could argue she is a cat-helper, but she was not truly a cat, but a princess in cat form, cursed by the fairies.

To my knowledge, this makes Puss in Boots the only cat-helper in the entire fairy-tale genre.

I eye Johannes sleeping beside me. This is a credit to his family, but I don’t think I’ll mention it.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2020 The Lambton Worm – Part One

Lambton_Worm c e Brock C E Brock

Slow Worm

Melissa, armed with a wicker basket; Thalia, turning over every stone along the path; and I, with my walking stick, wind our way up a path through Oxleas Wood. We are intent on our goal of picnicking at Severndroog Castle. It is not a real castle, rather a monument to Sir William James, built by his wife. Architecturally, it is called a folly, but it’s got a gate, rooms, and a parapet, nonetheless, and quite a view of London.

“I found one,” Thalia calls out.

“Found one what?” I ask.

She proffers her hand in which she holds a reptile.

“Thalia, put that down; it’s a snake.” I feel myself repelled.

Thalia tsk-tsks at me. “Oh, Grandfather, it’s not a snake. It’s a slow worm.”

“Worm? As in a dragon?” I am worried.

Melissa laughs lightly at my discomfort.

“No, Grandfather, as in a lizard.”

“I’m sure it’s a snake.”

“No. See.” Thalia thrusts its head so close to my face I fear it will sink its fangs into my nose. “Watch its eyes. They blink. Snakes don’t have eyelids. Only lizards blink.”

We come to the castle’s terrace where we settle down for our picnic. Melissa reaches into her basket, pulls out three books, then hands the basket to me.

“I didn’t know which story to read to us,” Melissa checks the book spines for the titles, “so I just grabbed books, but now I know I did bring the right book.” She holds up More English Fairy Tales.

Thalia grins at the prospect of a story while she sits on a wooden bench playing with her snake. She has gotten too old for me to read to her, but Melissa, for some reason, gets away with it. I lay out the picnic goodies while Melissa commences with the story, The Lambton Worm.

The young, wild son of the Lord of Lambton, not given to going to church, spent his Sundays fishing. He caught little on these Sundays, causing him to swear loudly, probably taking the Lord’s name in vain.

One Sunday he caught an unnatural creature, with nine holes along the sides of its head and a worm-like body.

An old man appeared by his side, declaring the catch an ill omen, but that the lad must keep it. Instead, the youth cast it down a well. It became known as the Well of the Worm when, after some little time, the creature emerged from it a full-grown dragon that proceeded to devastate the countryside.

It spent its days curled around a rock in the middle of the River Wear, and at night sucked the cows of their milk and ate the lambs. It crushed to death anyone who attacked it.

Meanwhile, the youth had repented of his ways, took up the cross, and went off to fight in the Holy Crusade.

As the worm’s evening ventures brought it closer and closer to Lambton Hall, every day the lord had the milk of nine cows poured into a trough. The dragon contented itself with this and was kept at bay for the most part, if not always.

Seven years later, the lord’s son returned to find farms and fields abandoned because of the worm. His father suggested the youth confer with the Wise Woman of Brugeford. From her, he confirmed that the worm was his fault and that only he could destroy it. The youth needed armor spiked with spear tips that would pierce the dragon when it tried to crush him. In addition, after the battle he must kill the first living creature that greeted him.

The youth arranged, with the signal of his hunting horn, that his hound should be the first to greet him. The battle took place and the youth killed the worm. At the signal, the forgetful father rushed forth ahead of the hound being released.

Still, the youth killed the hound instead of his father, but to no avail. For nine generations the men of Lambton Hall would not die in their beds.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2020 The Lambton Worn – Part Two

Lambton John G by Thomas Phillips John George Lambton by Thomas Phillips

Radical Jack

Thalia’s little snake slithers from the fingers of one hand to the fingers of her other.

“Careful it doesn’t bite you,” I say.

“Slow worms don’t bite people,” she answers. “Slugs and things like that, but not people.”

I am dubious.

I turn to Melissa. “There are rather few dragons in fairy tales, almost as scarce as fairies. They don’t come near to the number of witches found there.”

“True,” says Melissa, “and we can hardly call this story a fairy tale. It is really a legend.”

“How so?”

“Fairy tales usually occur somewhere lost in time and place. This tale comes from county Durham and nowhere else.”

“How do you know that?”

“I ran across this story two years ago and made a small study of it.”

“Of course you did,” I say. “Tell me what you know.”

“The tale is fairly medieval in origin, but the serpent was the “Sockburn Worm” attached to the prominent Conyers family in Durham.

“However, over time, the fortunes of the Conyers diminished and their estate sold off around the start of the Industrial Age. Another old family in the area was on the rise. Owners of the Lambton estate profited from the coal trade.”

I venture to poke a finger at Thalia’s snake. She looks at me warily. “Don’t frighten it. It might drop off its tail if you do.”

“That,” I declare, “sounds like an old wives’ tale.”

“No,” says Melissa, “they will do that if frightened,” and returns to the Lambton history. “In 1812, John George Lambton became a member of Parliament. When his father-in-law, Earl Grey, became prime minister, John became the first Earl of Durham.”

“Wait,” I say, “Earl Grey as in Earl Grey tea?”

“The very same,” Melissa smiles. “Both Earl Grey and the Earl of Durham were reformers, supporters of the rights of the people. John Lambton earned the nickname, ‘Radical Jack’ for his efforts.”

“And those radical ideas were?” I ask.

“Oh, things like the secret ballot and universal suffrage.”

“Norms today,” I say.

“Radical then,” she replies. “The people loved him. Somehow, the romantic story of the ‘Sockburn Worm’ of the declining Conyers family got transferred to the favored Lambton family in the minds of the common people, the progenitors of this tale.”

“No one noticed the sleight of hand?”

“I’ll say no. Nor will I accuse the people of trickery. I think the transfer of the legend was subconscious. In any case, the term ‘fact-checking’ had not come into the lexicon.

“Historically, the curse of the lords not dying in their beds rather fits. The first generation, Robert Lambton, drowned. The second generation, Sir William, died in battle, as did the third generation, also a William. There is a gap in the family history, until Henry Lambton dies in his carriage crossing the bridge at Lambton in 1761, presumably ending the curse shortly before Radical Jack came on the scene. But even he died at the age of 48.

“If the shoe fits, wear it,” I say.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2020 The Lambton Worn – Part Three

Lambton_Castle_Durham_Morris_edited Illustrator unknown

Saint George

“Remind me to introduce you to Ultima Flossbottom,” I say. “She knows more about dragons than the rest of our world put together.”

Melissa smiles at me with mild interest. “I am sure with a name like that she is notable.”

Thalia giggles.

We are well into our open-air feast. The cold, corn quiche Melissa made is particularly splendid.

“The milk of nine cows in the trough has an echo for me,” I muse.

“Yes, it comes up in The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh, collected in Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales, one of his other books.”

“Yes, right,” I say. “A similar tale?”

“Only in that there is a milk-filled trough, a worm, a body of water, and a hero involved. Outside of that they are very different stories.”

“Thalia,” I say, “stop stuffing yourself with crisps for a moment and hand over the merlot, two glasses, and a corkscrew from the wicker, please.”

Thalia obliges. I would have gotten them myself, but I saw her put her serpent into the basket for safekeeping while she ate.

“Then,” I continue, “there is Saint George and the dragon.”

“Well,” says Melissa, accepting the glass I offer, “here we get into the damsel-and-dragon pairing, which constitutes the majority of the dragon stories. That motif can be traced back to Perseus saving Andromeda from the sea serpent, Cetus, although the through-line between the two is not direct.

“Stories of George, Demetrius and Theodore, all soldier-saints, were circulated in Europe by the returning knights of the First Crusade. However, it was Saint Theodore to whom the dragon slaying was attributed. Saint George and Saint Theodore were sometimes depicted as riding together.

“Saint George’s reputation as the dragon slayer was solidified with the popular work The Golden Legend, a collection of saintly stories that appeared about 1260. In it a princess, dressed as a bride, is to be fed to a marauding dragon. She is saved by Saint George.”

“Dressed as a bride?” I say.

“Yes, isn’t that interesting, a very subtle sexual inference. Theodore never had the benefit of a damsel.”

“Transferring of the dragon slaying from Theodore to George does not sound much different than the transference from the Conyers to the Lambtons.”

Melissa nods, sipping her wine, and I continue.

“It occurs to me, we could categorize our dragon stories.”

“What categories do you propose?” Melissa samples a brownie that I baked and brought.

“Well, the Lambton Worm is of the wanton, destructive kind to be placated and eventually killed.”

“Let’s call him the Beowulf Dragon. That’s the earliest example of that kind I can think of,” Melissa suggests.

“Then there is the dragon possessing a maiden to be rescued.”

“The Perseus Dragon,” Melissa declares, raising a finger, “and the third category should be the Jason Dragon, the dragon protecting the Golden Fleece or some other treasure horde.”

“There weren’t any helpful dragons, were there?” I ask.

“Not in the fairy-tale genre that I know of,” Melissa concludes.

Glancing at Thalia, I see her take her pet from the basket to play with again.

“I think you should put the poor little thing back under its rock. And whatever you do, don’t throw it down a well.”

Thalia rolls her eyes. “Yes, Grandfather.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2020 The Princess’s Kerchief – Part One

Kerchief Princess The Princess Deryabar, Edmund Dulac, 1908

The Bench

It is officially summer. I feel as if I missed out on spring. It is time to be in nature. I am thinking of Clapham Common.

I go to my study and dance my fingers across the book spines until, without looking, I grab a volume, put in under my arm, and head for the door.

Clapham Common is a bit of a walk, but the day is glorious and I don’t mind. Clapham is a nice mixture of grassy swards, trees, and ponds.

I find a bench in sight of the bandstand and for the first time I look at the book I grabbed. Modern Greek Folktales, R. M. Dawkins.

Good, one of my favorites.

Using Thalia’s method, I wave my finger over the table of contents and bring it down without judgment.

The Princess’s Kerchief. I’ve not read this one.

A princess spends twelve years embroidering a kerchief with gold. Finishing it, she celebrates with friends with a countryside outing. A crane snatches the kerchief and flies off. Inconsolable, she asks her father to build a bathhouse to which all can come for a free bath as long as they tell her, the bath woman, a story. In this way she hopes to hear tell of the kerchief. This she does for two years.

I look up from my book. There is a pigeon sitting on the far side of my bench, looking at me accusingly. I never thought to bring popcorn for the birds. It coos under its breath—something nasty I’m sure—and flutters off.

The tale then switches to a mad girl, one of three daughters. The mad girl is wont to wander around outside at night. As punishment, her sisters beat her, but still she wanders.

Eventually, after delivering a good beating, the sisters lock up the house in such a way as to prevent the girl from wandering. The mad girl makes her bed by the front door and peers out into the night through the keyhole.

During the night she sees a dervish with a kerchief tied around his cap, riding a horse, followed by a train of camels. The dervish plays a flute. The mad girl must follow, and breaks down the door.

The dervish travels to a palace, where he takes off his robes, revealing himself to be as beautiful as an angel. He takes no pleasure in his meal and goes to bed. Before lying down, he takes a golden kerchief from under his pillow, saying,

“Ah, little hands which worked you

To wear on breast and head.

When will God grant the spell to break

That we two may be wed.”

 

The next day, after another beating, the mad girl goes to the bath and after her bath tells the princess her story. The princess promises the girl half her kingdom if the mad girl will help her. That night they both sleep by the mad girl’s front door until they hear the piping and spy the dervish again through the keyhole. They follow him, seeing and hearing a repeat of the night before.

With a medicine the princess brought with her, she breaks the spell. She and the mysterious youth are married. With the same medicine, the princess cures the mad girl and gives her half the kingdom as promised.

I look up again from my book. There are five pigeons on the end of the bench staring at me. That old horror movie by Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds, comes to mind and I decide now is a good time to visit my friend Augustus.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2020 The Princess’s Kerchief – Part Two

kerchief whirling-dervishes Amedeo Preziosi, Watercolour, c. 1857

That Kerchief

I sit in Augustus’s smoking room, enjoying some of his blend called Whirling Dervish, which I just purchased for this occasion. It has a good bit of Arabic Latakia tobacco which does make one’s head spin. Augustus reads The Princess’s Kerchief.

He snaps the book shut, hands it back, and looks at me quizzically through our smoky haze.

“How to go about disassembling this one?” he proffers the question for our conversation.

“First of all,” I say, “the kerchief is obviously not what I think of as a kerchief.”

“You are, perhaps, thinking of a handkerchief,” Augustus suggests. “The princess’s kerchief is more like a hijab, although the dervish’s kerchief tied around his cap must be more of a bandana.”

“The kerchief around the cap of the dervish,” I say, “is a device to connect him, from the start, to the princess’s kerchief. But, further, I will suppose kerchiefs come in all sizes.”

“Speaking of the dervish, what a strange image.” Augustus blows a smoke ring.

“How so?” I ask.

“The dervishes are Sufis, a mystical Muslim sect that avows poverty, although, historically, they were supported by endowments, and their institutions were fairly wealthy and sometimes powerful. They were somewhat monastic, although not celibate, dedicated to poetry, music, and dance to approach God. Their founder was the poet Rumi.

“Our dervish, riding a horse leading a train of camels, looks to me like a merchant. His residence being a castle is even at greater odds with the identity of a dervish.”

Augustus pauses to relight his pipe and I interject, “When the dervish gets to his castle, he takes off his dervish robe and appears as his true self. The robe appears to be a disguise.”

“No,” counters my friend, “someone pretending to be a dervish would not include a train of camels in his disguise. But look, here we are trying to get a fairy tale to make sense. We should know better.”

“The pipe he is playing?” I probe.

“That makes sense. Music is part of Sufi worship.”

“I couldn’t help thinking of the Pied Piper. The mad girl is compelled to follow him.”

“There is that,” Augustus nods.

“And,” I pick up steam, “the dervish appears to be a shapeshifter. As a crane he steals the kerchief.”

“Does he?”

“Doesn’t he?”

Augustus stretches out his hand for the book. He then reads, “. . . the princess showed herself and said: ‘It was you who took my kerchief?’

“And the dervish’s response is, ‘It was you whom I had been watching for so long.’

“Note, he does not actually say that he was the crane. It is implied, but not stated. The crane could have stolen the kerchief at his bidding. But greater still, why the subterfuge? Why the indirection? Why did the princess need to discover him, rather than he present himself to her?”

“Isn’t that the challenge of these tales?” I say. “They don’t tell us everything. The tales are not essays on wisdom. I think they contain wisdom, but we need to immerse our hand into the murky waters of the tales and hope that something down there does not bite us.”

“And that,” Augustus smiles at me through our tobacco cloud, “is what we are doing. I feel my fingertips being nibbled.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2020 The Princess’s Kerchief – Part Three

Kerchief keyhole Peeking Through Keyhole, Peter Fendi, 1834

Mad Girl

“Let’s move on to the mad girl.” Augustus blows another smoke ring. “I am trying to think of any other fairy tale that has such a clear shift in point of view. There are really two protagonists in this tale.”

“And why a mad girl?” I ask.

“Again, the story does not tell us, but I am happy to make inferences, if you will allow me.”

Augustus blows a large, lazy smoke ring, and then a quick, smaller one through it.

“Feel free.” I wave a hand.

“Mad people are not of the same order of mind as the rest of us. This is usually to their disadvantage, but they can perceive the world differently.  In the case of our mad girl, when she looks through the keyhole she is looking into another world.”

“I believe I am following you,” I declare, “but must she not be both mad and looking through the keyhole?”

“Oh, quite,” says Augustus. “The keyhole is very important. Gazing out a door or window won’t do. If you are surreptitiously peering with one eye through an escutcheon, then you are tapping into something forbidden.

“Having espied the dervish in this way, the mad girl could then open the door and follow.”

“Let me add to that,” I say. “Having seen the dervish, heard his Pied Piper like music, she now had the power to break through the door to follow, a door that previously held her in.”

“There’s a bit of magic for you.” Augustus nods. “And note, she watches him intimately, but the dervish seems not to notice her.”

“Then,” I pick up on the thread of this idea of magic, “she knows to go straight to the bathhouse to tell her tale to the princess, the event the princess has been waiting for, and the princess promises the mad girl half the kingdom for her help.”

Augustus raises a finger. “I think the mad girl is best described as becoming the princess’s guide. Sleeping by the mad girl’s door, looking through the mad girl’s keyhole, but without the mad girl by her side, the princess would never have seen the dervish riding by. The mad girl guides the princess into the other world where the dervish was trapped.”

“Ah!” I say, “The medicine, which the princess so conveniently brought with her . . .  She uses it to break the dervish’s enchantment. She uses the same medicine to cure the mad girl. By marrying the dervish and giving the mad girl half her kingdom, she brought them both back from the mystical world to the material world.”

“That all fits together for me,” answers Augustus, tapping out his pipe.

“One more item,” I say. “What about that bathhouse? Why did she have her father build her a bathhouse?”

“Well,” considers Augustus, “she needed a public place to hear stories. She is a princess. She could not be seen hanging out in local taverns. The marketplace is public and a place for story, but royalty usually abhor anything mercantile.  A free public bath, supported by the royal family, filled the bill rather well.”

I agree.

As I leave his shop a little later, to my great discomfort, I see all along the rooflines of the buildings across the street, the outline of pigeons. Many pigeons. I fear for my life.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2020 The Swan Maidens – Part One

Swan Maiden Valkyries_with_swan_skins  Jenny Nyström (1854-1946)

Two Swans

Miss Cox’s garden makes for me a wonderful refuge when I want to distance myself from my fellow humans. Usually there is someone to meet here in the garden, but no appointments today. I merely want to stretch my legs far from any crowds.

I amble from the gate, passing my usual sitting bench by the sundial and walk down toward the pond. I delight to see two swans stately gliding on the pond’s surface.  I take a seat on the bench beside the pond to admire them.

On the bench is a book with a marker peering from its folios.

Has Miss Cox laid this in my path?

I pick it up.

Ah, Europa’s Fairy Tales by my old friend Joseph Jacobs.

I open the book to its marker.

The Swan Maidens.

I look suspiciously at the swans; planting this book on the bench might be their doing.  My glance turns to the text.

A hunter comes across seven swan maidens, their feathery swan skins lying on the bank of the lake. He takes the skin of the youngest sister and, at dawn, the other sisters fly off, abandoning the seventh to her fate. Because the hunter will not return her swan skin, she is obliged to marry him.

They have two children together and are happy. One day the young daughter, while playing hide-and-seek with her brother, discovers the hidden swan skin and shows it to her mother. The swan maiden flies off, leaving the message for her husband that, if he wishes to seek her, she has returned to her home East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.

The hunter travels far and wide, asking everyone if they know where is the land East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon. Along the way he helps an old man, who turns out to be the King of the Beasts. With his aid, and the aid of his brothers, the King of the Birds and the King of the Fishes; and the directions given by a dolphin, the hunter finds his way to the Wild Forest at the foot of the Crystal Mountain at the top of which is the land of East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.

At the edge of the Wild Forest two men are arguing over the ownership of a hat of invisibility and shoes of travel to anywhere and propose the hunter settle their dispute. The hunter suggests they run a contest, and while they are away he dons the hat, puts on the shoes, and wishes himself to the top of the Crystal Mountain.

There he reclaims his bride from the King of East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon by identifying his bride from among her identical sisters by the needle pricks on her fingertips from sewing clothing for their children.

They are reunited and live happily again together.

I look up from the book.

Where are those swans?

I didn’t hear them fly away.

I set the book down on the bench.

Where do I go from here?

The swan maidens are creatures of the air and water.

Women and water.

Ah, I must visit my nixie.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2020 The Swan Maidens – Part Two

Swan Maiden John batten 2 John Batten

Nixie’s Pool

Melissa and I enter the Magic Forest, I with the necessary bag of popcorn.

“How did you know I intended to visit the nixie?” I ask.

Melissa does not answer right away. She was at my door when I returned from the garden. The light of dusk shows me the path toward the nixie’s pool.

“I knew it as clearly as if you had invited me to come. I never gave it a second thought until now.”

We come to the high bank of the pool, the height of which affords us a safe distance from the nixie. We sit on rocks and wait for her to appear.

“Hello, my human, and hello, Melissa.” Her pale green face, surrounded by a halo of floating hair, appears on the rippled surface of the pool. Melissa nods, a bit reverentially.

“My nixie,” I say, ceremoniously tossing her the first kernels of popcorn. “I have some curiosity about the swan maidens.”

She lunges up from the water to catch the kernels in her mouth, then makes a disgusted ticking noise at my question. “Changelings; not my choice of company among my fellow fays.”

“Oh,” Melissa murmurs, “prejudice in the fairy ranks.”

“If one wants to be of the fay,” the nixie scowls, “then one should stay a fay.” She looks hard at Melissa and not at me, who asked the question.

“But who are they?” I persist.

“From what my sister nixies tell me, the first was Swanhilde, born of a marriage between a mortal woman and a fairy king. She and her six sisters could assume the form of swans. She married the renowned smith, Wayland, son of the King of the Finns, after he rescued her from death when she was struck by a spear. Swanhilde put aside her wings and took off her ring of power for him.

“Unfortunately for them, a rival king, Niõhad, kidnapped Swanhilde, stole her ring, and destroyed Wayland’s home. When Wayland searched for his bride, Niõhad captured and hamstrung him, forcing Wayland to forge magical weapons for him.

“Wayland had his revenge when he lured the king’s sons to him with promises of gifts, killed them, and forged their skulls into goblets, their eyes into jewels, and a brooch from their teeth. After sending these gifts to the king, the king’s daughter appeared with Swanhilde’s ring to be mended. Wayland raped her, then he and Swanhilde flew off with wings he had forged, but not before stopping off at court to brag about the destruction he had wrought upon the king.”
“Not a pleasant crowd,” I observe, throwing the nixie more popcorn, which she gobbles down. “What more can you tell me about Wayland?”

“He was trained by Mimir the Smith, then by dwarves, whom he was forced to murder at the end of his apprenticeship. Certainly, he forged the sword Mimung, but it is said he forged the magical swords Excalibur and Gram, as well as the chainmail worn by Beowulf, but I believe that to be hearsay.”

“I suspect these alternative facts might have come out of the medieval romances,” Melissa smiles. “Those romances produced as many variants as our fairy tales.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2020 The Swan Maidens – Part Three

Swan Maiden John Batten John Batten

Marriage Victims

Melissa turns her attention to the nixie.

“My question is, What are the swan maidens?”

“Being changelings,” the nixie pronounces, “and occasionally taking on human form, they leave themselves open to compromise. They are, by their own fault, victims of mortal men.”

“Victims?” I echo.

“Victims, of course,” Melissa responds. “They don’t become wives of their own choosing. Their swan skins are held captive and the women denied their true nature.”

“Do they not come to love their husbands?” I question.

Melissa pauses before speaking. “They commit to their fate. Yes, they are depicted as at least accepting their husbands and more likely loving their children, but the moment their swan skins reappear, they immediately seize their liberation. “

Melissa turns to the nixie. “The story of Wayland that I know is that he and his two brothers snatched the swan skins of three Valkyrie maidens, forcing them to be their brides. The women stayed amiably with their husbands for nine years until, inexplicably, they flew off, never to be seen again. In Wayland’s case, his wife left him her ring, coveted by King Niõhad, leading to the history you described. But Swanhilde and her sisters had freed themselves from human concerns before King Niõhad made his moves.”

“But in Jacob’s version,” I consider, “at least the husband searches out and reclaims his wife. Is that not a better, happier ending?”

“For men and the institution of marriage,” Melissa shoots back. “Joseph Jacobs, for all that I appreciate about him, was a Victorian man. During his day, the women’s rights movement, the enfranchisement of women, underlay—along with other issues—the tide of change between the centuries. Women, more frequently, divorced their husbands, seeking independence.

“Jacob’s choosing to construct his version of The Swan Maidens to reflect the patriarchal attitude of the time comes as no surprise to me. However, the majority of the swan-maiden tales end in the victims reclaiming their swan form and disappearing forever, ending their marriages.”

“Marriage; what is the value of this thing you call marriage? For you mortals it seems to be the be-all-and-end-all. I see that it is to be embraced or rejected, but not ignored.” The nixie looks at us, her eyes narrowed. “Why is it so central to your thoughts? Marriage is such a passing thing; it lasts at best until the death of one of you, and from the stories I hear, causes more pain than joy.” The nixie glances at Melissa.

“We,” I protest, “consider marriage a sacred thing.”

“Oh,” replies the nixie, “would you marry me? Bring me into the sacred circle?” Her green eyes sparkle at me.

My heart palpitates at the lustful, exotic notion. My trembling hand tosses more popcorn, giving me a moment to collect myself.

“No, no,” I say, “I am too old for that.” I regain my composure. “Besides, you would drag me beneath the water’s surface to my demise.”

“Oh,” whines the nixie, smirking at me, “maybe not!”

Melissa rolls her eyes at the nixie mocking me. The nixie giggles. Her giggle has the overtone of a cackle, emanating from a loveless interior.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2020 The Curse of Pantannas – Part One

Fairy Ring Dulac Edmund Dulac

New Tradition

Tradition is not cut in stone. Thalia has taken over my comfy chair in the study as she reads aloud. I am relegated to a lesser chair, but make myself useful by tending the fire in the hearth as she reads to the company.

And I do mean company. Prime among them is the fairy perched on her shoulder, but also in attendance are Johannes curled up on the window seat, myself seated in the lesser chair, and even the brownie lurking in a dark corner with two more brownies peeking from behind him.

I didn’t know there was more than one brownie in the household.

The fairy chooses the story, flying down from her shoulder perch, alighting on the table of contents of the book on Thalia’s lap. She puts her tiny foot on a title.

“That one.” Her little voice has the tinkle of breaking glass.

The Curse of Pantannas,” Thalia announces.

The owner of the farm of Pantannas, near Glamorgan, annoyed by the fairies dancing in his field by night, took the advice of a witch and plowed the fairy ring using an iron ploughshare.

Soon, a little man with a small sword confronted the farmer, saying, “Vengeance cometh.”

Nothing more happened for months, until harvest time. One evening, the farmer and his family heard a noise that shook the house and a voice repeated, “Vengeance cometh.” In the morning they saw the crops were turned to ashes.

The little man reappeared and said, “It but beginneth.”

Fearing his destruction, the farmer pleaded with the little man and promised to leave the fairy ring alone. The little man declared the king of the fairies had pronounced revenge on the farmer and it could not be taken back, but allowed he would intercede for the farmer if he could.

As a result, the curse was deferred and would not fall on the farmer, or his son, or his son’s son, but rather on a future generation. The farmer, content with that, later died in peaceful old age.

A hundred years later, young Madoc, heir to Pantannas, celebrated his betrothal to Teleri, daughter of the local squire, at Christmastide by inviting all her kin to a feast. During the course of the evening, three times the gathering heard declarations that “vengeance comes,” and was visited by a hag who spoke of a waiting doom.

Late that evening, Madoc escorted Teleri to her home, but then did not return to Pantannas. Madoc’s parents conferred with a hermit, who suggested that even if Madoc were still alive, he would not return in their lifetime.

However, Teleri never gave up hope. Every day she climbed to a summit overlooking the landscape and watched for a sign of her returning lover. This she did year after year until her hair turned silver, and her eyes dimmed. It was said she died before her time.

Eventually, all who had known Madoc died as well.

Madoc, however, while returning home after seeing Teleri to her home, heard marvelous music coming from a cave. He entered it, following the sound, trying to discover its source. For some time he went deeper and deeper into the cave until the music stopped.

Retracing his steps, he returned to Pantannas to find an old man sitting by the fire, who treated him as an intruder, demanding his name. The old man only knew the name “Madoc” from an old tale of a man who mysteriously disappeared.

Realizing his fate, Madoc sat down and wept. The old man, showing sympathy, put a hand on his shoulder and Madoc turned to dust.

Thalia solemnly closes the book and the fairy flutters her wings in pleasure, reminding me that fairies are nasty little creatures.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2020 The Curse of Pantannas – Part Two

Fairy Ring Oberon Rackham Arthur Rackham

My Thoughts

The company wanders off—Thalia to bed where she will sit up and read till midnight, the fairy settling in Thalia’s bedroom as well, and the brownies creeping back into the kitchen—leaving Johannes and me in the study. I pour a glass of sherry from the decanter on the library table and reclaim my comfy chair, turning it toward the hearth, pulling my patchwork quilt about my legs.

The story Thalia read came from The Welsh Fairy Book, by W. Jenkyn Thomas. When I contemplate a tale, I usually break it down by motifs. This one makes me think it is made up of bits and pieces.

With a long sip of sherry, I start by thinking about the farmer plowing up the fairy ring with the iron ploughshare, iron a talisman against anything fey. Fairies can hardly be mentioned without the fairy ring being part of the conversation. It is the circle on the ground where the fairies have danced, a pattern left behind, usually manifested by mushrooms growing in a perfect circle. Nonbelievers dismiss the rings as a natural phenomenon, but one cannot look upon that ring of mushrooms without a certain amount of wonder.

When the story speaks of the king of the fairies, who might that be other than Oberon? We first meet Oberon in a Merovingian legend (the Franks, fifth to sixth century). He winds his way into other French stories; and Shakespeare embroiders his play with both Oberon and his queen Titania. Although we never see the king of the fairies in our story, he is the backing for everything that happens.

I put another log on the fire and sip a bit more sherry before returning to my contemplations.

The unfortunate Madoc holds the celebration of his betrothal at Christmastide. That may appear insignificant but is another piece of the pattern that makes up this tale. The Danes, historically, made great inroads into our isle; just witness the area of England once called the Danelaw. There is a tradition in all those Nordic countries that during the period from the start of Christmastide until New Year’s Day there is a thinning of the veil between the worlds. Numerous, uncanny tales take place just before the year’s end.

I reach for my pipe and tamp in tobacco from my canister labeled Fairies’ Delight.

The matter of time passing quickly while in the company of fairies goes back at least to the Fenian Cycle of Celtic legend when Oisín takes a fairy wife. After three years in fairyland—Tir na nÓg—he visits his family to find them gone three hundred years. When he is accidentally dismounted from his horse, as his wife warned, he is turned into an ancient being and no longer able to return to Tir na nÓg, not unlike the misfortunate Madoc turning into dust; another piece of the fabric of our story.

Forlorn love is certainly a rarity in fairy tales. At least the German fairy tales do not end until the heroine is safely married. In our tale, Teleri pines away in the best romantic fashion.

This Welsh tale does not strike me as a variant of a similar tale, but rather a composite of notions, characters, traditions, and styles, sewn together like a patchwork quilt.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2020 The Curse of Pantannas – Part Three

Fairy Ring Oisin Codex Manesse

It’s Unfair

“Johannes,” I say, “did Thalia’s fairy tale tonight strike you as a little unfair?”

“Unfair,” echoes Johannes. “How so?”

“Well obviously, the punishment for the committed offense was deferred, because of the farmer’s sincere regret,  and put upon an innocent heir.”

“I suppose,” Johannes yawns. “But the king of the fairies declared vengeance and there is no taking such a thing back.”

“And why not take it back?” I argue.

“Because a fairy’s sworn word is law. Neither can they utter a lie, by the way. Fairies make up for not lying with misdirection and deceit, but their word is sacred, immutable, and takes on a life of its own.

“Think of it as similar to gossip and rumor in the mortal world. Once spoken and out of a person’s mouth, the words cannot be put back in the mouth, and substitute for truth whether they contain any or not.”

“I will grant that, but, back to my point,” I complain, relighting my pipe, “wasn’t the punishment clearly unfair?”

Johannes’s fur ruffles, which I take as a shrug.

“Vengeance had been declared and needed to be exacted, if not on the original perpetrator, the farmer,  then on someone, his heir.”

“Why do you refuse to see my point about the unwarranted unfairness of it all?”

“Shouldn’t it be expected?” Johannes returns. “Certainly it is common enough. For example, take you humans’ concern for the environment.”

“What does the environment have to do with Madoc’s misfortune?”

“The stories are very similar. Humans are using up the earth’s resources—plowing up the fairy rings as it were—and anticipating that the future generation will pay for their neglect, possibly—like Madoc—with their very existence. Perhaps the story is a warning to you humans rather than meant to be pleasing and entertaining.”

Johannes can be so disturbingly moral.

I will ignore his slight on our existential conundrum, and focus on his implication that we expect a fairy tale to please and entertain us. The Grimms were aware of happy endings and wanted to please their bourgeois audience and young readers. After the success of the Grimms’ work, it became the benchmark for other popular collections.

I won’t saddle the Grimms with the accusation of inventing happy endings in fairy tales. It is simply human nature to be attracted to both humorous and pleasing tales. We will take heed of a few cautionary tales, but our love of entertaining tales abounds.

I guess my issue is with our expectations. We have come to expect fairy tales to end happily ever after. Those three words seem to evoke the essence of these tales for us.  When the fairy tale does not end in marriage but rather in tragedy, we feel disappointed, even cheated. We crave an acceptable resolution. Losing one’s bride and being turned into dust is not an acceptable resolution in our minds.

“Besides,” Johannes speaks again after a long pause, “it’s Welsh.”

Well, that does account for an unhappy ending, doesn’t it?

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2020 The Gnome – Part One

Gnome Arthur RackhamArthur Rackham

Not Again

I come into the study with a bit of water in a glass to save my aspidistra, and see Thalia’s copy of Grimm lying open on the study table. The title at the top catches my eye. The Gnome.

I don’t think I’ve read that one.

The king has protected his favorite apple tree with the curse that anyone who picks and eats one of these apples will be sent a hundred fathoms underground. His three daughters, thinking the curse does not apply to them, pick and eat one of the apples, and disappear.

The king declares any man who can reclaim his daughters may marry one of them.

Among the many searchers are three huntsmen, who happen upon an empty castle with hot food waiting for them on the table.

The next day, using the castle as their base, the two youngest huntsmen venture out to find the princesses while the eldest stays to keep an eye on the castle. At noon, a gnome comes in asking for some bread. The huntsman cuts him a piece, but the gnome drops it and asks him to pick it up. When the huntsman does, the gnome grabs him by the hair and gives the huntsman a good thrashing.

Rotating duties the next day, the second huntsman gets the same treatment, but the two of them do not tell the youngest huntsman what to expect.

The youngest does not fall for the trick and gives the gnome a good thrashing, stopping only when the gnome promises to tell him how to save the princesses. The gnome shows him a deep well without water, at the bottom of which are the three princesses under the control of multi-headed dragons.

Before the gnome disappears, he tells the youth not to trust his companions.

The young huntsman tells his brothers what he has learned—the story revealing for the first time that they are siblings.

Wait, it’s that motif again, the one that keeps haunting me. I’ll bet Melissa is reading this too.

The elder two are not willing to be lowered in a basket at the end of a long rope into the well, and it is the youngest who descends with a bell and a knife.

At the bottom are three rooms, the first door of which he carefully opens. In the room is a princess delousing a nine-headed, sleeping dragon. The huntsman cuts off the heads, and the princess showers him with kisses and gives him a golden necklace.

The youth saves the other princesses from their dragons, one of seven heads and the other of four heads,  and is showered with more kisses.

Returning to the basket, he puts the first princess into it, rings the bell, and his brothers haul her up. When the princesses are safe, the youth remembers the gnome’s warning and puts a large stone in the basket. The brothers begin to haul it up, but then let it go crashing down to the floor.

Betrayed but alive, the youth is trapped in the well. At length, he discovers a flute hanging on the wall. For every note he plays on the flute, a gnome appears. When the room is filled with gnomes, they ask him what he wants of them. He tells them he wishes to be upon the earth’s surface. Each gnome grabs a strand of the huntsman’s hair and fly him up to the surface.

He goes to the king’s castle where one of the marriages between an elder brother and a princess is about to take place. The elder brothers had made the princesses promise not to tell the truth. When the younger brother appears, the princesses faint and the king throws him into prison. The princesses want their father to release him but will not tell the king why. The king instructs his daughters to tell the truth to the iron stove and he listens to the stovepipe to learn what really happened.

The two elder brothers are hanged and the younger brother marries the youngest princess.

The tale ends with a bit of traditional foolishness as the narrator claims, “When the wedding took place, I was wearing a pair of glass shoes and stumbled over a stone. The stone said, ‘clink’ and my slipper broke in two.”

“Oh,” says Thalia at the study door, “there’s my book. What’s it doing in here?”

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2020 The Gnome – Part Two

Gnome dragon

Yes Again

“Melissa,” I type into my email to her, “did you just read The Gnome? It lay open on my study table and no one knows how it got there. And guess what. . . ?”

I wait a minute and she answers, “When I came downstairs this morning, it lay open on my counter. I don’t know how it got there either.

“At least we know how the three princesses got to the bottom of the well. This is an example of the unintended wish-fulfillment, which starts so many fairy tales.”

I adjust the font size to read her response more easily and type, “That is followed by the obligatory promise of marriage to a princess as reward for the rescue, but after that, things turn a little odd.

“The three huntsmen, whom we find out much later are brothers, stumble onto the empty castle with food on the table. The empty castle is a common-enough motif, but it plays no role in the story.”

I hit send, thinking I haven’t completed my thought. Melissa completes it. “The golden necklace given to the younger huntsman, another common motif, also plays no part in the story.

“What I enjoyed was having the youngest-brother-being-the-gentlest-and-kindest-motif getting turned on its head when the gnome asks for bread.”

“The eldest brothers were not exactly saintly either,” I respond. “Also, I find it inexplicable that the Gnome did the youngest the courtesy of warning him about his companions. And what about those dragons?”

“9,7,4,” the numbers appear on my screen. “More oddness. The seven-headed beast could be a hydra, but in this context, I don’t think so. Usually, when meeting multiheaded dragons—or multiheaded giants—the number of heads increases, raising the tension in the tale. Here, again, it is the opposite. Besides the diminishing tension of fewer and fewer heads, the task of dispatching the dragons with only a hunting knife felt far too easy.”

“They were asleep,” I defend the tale.

“Still,” is her one-word reply.

“And the flute hanging on the wall?” I type.

“My favorite part. For every note a gnome. Arthur Rackham did a wonderful illustration of that. Then being carried away by your hair! What fun.”

“I took note,” I tap eagerly on the keyboard, “of the reappearance of the iron stove, after the princesses had promised to tell no one the truth, but can tell it to an iron stove. Stolen right out of The Goose Girl.”

“Maybe,” Melissa returns. “The Grimms in their notes mention some variants, but none mention the stove.”

“You read their notes already?” I query.

“You don’t think I haven’t done my research, do you?”

“Of course not,” I cover. “Tell me more.”

“The variants are similar, the hero and his companions are knights or princes. The helpers are sometimes elves brought forth by the flute instead of gnomes. The many elves form a staircase for the hero to climb up. One of the punishments for the unfaithful companions is to be sewn into a bag of snakes. But none mention an iron stove.

“I have the unfounded suspicion that Wilhelm stole the stove from The Goose Girl for his own purposes.”

“Or,” I consider, “The Goose Girl stole from The Gnome. Which came first?”

“Or was it one teller stealing from another and the Grimms simply recorded it?”

“We are devolving into nonsense,” I try to conclude.

“There was a man upon the stairs,” she quotes.

“A little man who wasn’t there,” I type.

“He wasn’t there again today,”

“Oh, gee I wish he’d go away,” I end.

Fairy Tales of the Month: March 2020 The Gnome – Part Three

Gnome Siegfried_8  Woodcut from Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid

And Again

Time for a walk in the forest. The sun is high in the sky, noon I’ll guess. I am in the bad habit of waiting until close to sunset when the Magic Forest is not safe. I congratulate myself for getting here in a timely fashion. I approach the pond surrounded by sitting-stones and hear someone call to me. “Oh, there you are.”

“Ultima,” I say. “How good to see you again.” I sit on a stone near her.

“How are you and your dragon?” she asks politely.

“Well, I am fine but . . .”

“I knew you’d be coming,” she rushes on. “I sensed it the moment I woke up this morning.”

“How extraordinary,” I say. “I do have a question for you. I am reading a fairy tale in which the hero must defeat a nine-headed dragon, followed by the seven-headed dragon, and at end, a four-headed dragon.”

Ultima looks at me with a bit of alarm, but I continue. “Is there some significance in the number of heads?”

“My,” she says, “what a violent tale. I’m not aware of any significance in the multiple heads of dragons. This is, of course, the stuff of fairy tales. I don’t think there has ever been a dragon with more than one head.”

“Well,” I answer, “I wouldn’t know. Where I come from there are no dragons.”

“No dragons!” Ultima is truly shocked. “Where do you come from?”

“London.”

“So do I.” Ultima is staring at me. “Not the same London, I expect.”

“Not the same London, I am sure,” I answer.

Ultima stares at me a bit longer. “How ever do you get along? Don’t you have war, famine, pestilence?”

“Well . . .” I hesitate, “yes.”

“I should think so! Without dragons, of course you do. And how do you get around without dragons?”

“We have various mechanical devices to transport us,” I reply.

“Mechanical devices? Aren’t they dangerous?”

“Well, yes.”

Ultima rolls her eyes. “Why don’t you have dragons?”

“There never were any dragons.”

“I’m sure there were. You just referred to a fairy tale with multiheaded dragons. The inspiration for them must have come from somewhere. What is your oldest story about dragons.”

I rack my brain. “We have images of dragons from all our cultures going back to the dawn of civilization, but the oldest story I can think of with a dragon is Beowulf.”

“Yes,” Ultima delights, “when Beowulf faces the Dragon of Earnanæs and makes the Eternal Pact with him.”

“No, in our version, they kill each other.”

“Ah, well, there you have it. In your world Beowulf and the dragon do not agree to cease fighting with each other and among themselves—with the dragons enforcing the pact—and Beowulf does not go out on the grand adventure to find his dragon a mate, from which all dragons now living are descended. Because of the pact, peace and cooperation rule my world.”

“You are ruled over by dragons?” I ask.

“No, not ruled over. We are in a symbiotic relationship.” Ultima leans in and whispers, “Really, they are just big babies and love to be pampered.”

Your thoughts?

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2020 The Three Kingdoms – Part One

Three Kingdoms wood cut copper Copper Kingdom (woodcut)

Reading Aloud

I finish up the supper dishes and head down the hall. I hear Thalia’s voice drifting from the study.

Who could she be talking to?

Peeping around the study door, I see Thalia occupying my comfy chair, reading aloud. The fairy, her black hair floating in a static cloud around her head, is perched on Thalia’s shoulder. With a bit of a shock, I see that Thalia’s feet almost touch the floor.

My, but she is getting a bit gangly.

Cautiously, not to make too much noise, I add two logs to the fire in the hearth and peer over Thalia’s shoulder—not the one the fairy sits on—to see what she is reading to her miniature companion.

I recognize the book as my copy of Russian Fairy Tales, collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev; the story title is The Three Kingdoms. I settle into my not-quite-so comfy chair to listen.

The parents of three brothers wish to get their sons married off. They send the eldest out to seek a bride. A three-headed dragon sets him a task to move a stone, declaring that when he fails the test, “There is no bride for you.”

The middle brother fails the same test, but the youngest, the Lazy Jack of the family, succeeds.

Under the stone is an opening to an underworld into which the dragon lowers him.

The youngest brother comes to a copper kingdom where a princess greets him and feeds him. He proposes marriage, but she counsels him to go on to the silver kingdom and gives him a silver ring. The same thing happens in the silver kingdom, and he is told to go on to the golden kingdom and he is given a golden ring. The princess at the golden kingdom agrees to marry him and he receives a golden ball.

They return through the silver and copper kingdoms, taking those princesses along with them. They come to the spot where he entered the underground world. There, above them are his brothers, come to look for him. They pull up the beautiful princesses, then decide to abandon their younger brother.

Wait, this is a Russian version of the Greek Underground Adventure!

Trapped in the underworld, he happens upon an inch-high man with a cubit-long beard, sitting in a tree, who tells him to find a little house in which lies a tall giant and ask him how to get back to Russia. The giant directs him to find the house of Baba Yaga, which stands on chicken legs. She tells him to go into the garden, take the keys from the sentry, go through the seven doors, climb onto the back of the eagle he finds there, and feed him meat as they fly back to Russia.

Yes, this is the tale that called to me and to Melissa at three in the morning. I must talk to her about this.

Unfortunately, he runs out of meat and the eagle takes a bite out of his shoulder. Then, and here I quote, “…dragged him out through the same hole to Russia.”

The youngest brother reclaims the Golden Princess from his brothers and they live happily ever after until this very day.

“Why did you choose this tale to read to the fairy?”

“Well, these are tales for fairies.”

“What?”

“Fairy tales,” Thalia answers.

“Oh, of course.”

The fairy glared at me with a superior expression, indicating I should have known that.

Perhaps I should have.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2020 The Three Kingdoms – Part Two

Three Kingdoms wood cut silver Silver Kingdom

What About

I am standing across the street from Serious Books, but even from here I can see through Melissa’s store window to her choice for the Book-of-the-Day display. Today’s choice is Russian Fairy Tales, identical to my copy.

As I enter the shop, Melissa is helping a customer but motions me toward the store’s reading room. In front of the sofa, on an occasional table, is a pot of tea wrapped in its cozy, and two teacups. She, apparently, expected me.

“You and I are being stalked by this tale,” Melissa declares when she settles beside me on the sofa. “You saw my choice for the Book of the Day? Why does it call us again?”

“I am guessing it wants us the make comparisons,” I say.

“Between The Three Kingdoms and The Underworld Adventure?” Melissa considers, then continues. “They are quite different in tone. Take the protagonist for example. In the Greek version, the hero is the eldest of the three brothers and does battle with a serpent to earn his way back. In the Russian version, the youngest and laziest brother is wined and dined as well as given presents by the princesses. The Greek hero is worthy; the Russian hero—well—not heroic.”

“The tales’ thoughtless treatment of women is the same,” I suggest.

“That they are. In both cases, the three women are the prize and where the brothers have their falling-out. I couldn’t help noticing, a number the Russian tales in this book were critical of women in general, such as in The Bad Wife, The Stubborn Wife, and The Mayoress.

“What about that three-headed dragon?” I interject, to keep Melissa from going down her favorite rabbit hole.

“Yes, unusual. Dragons are fairly rare in the Grimm fairy tales but thoroughly populate the Slavic tales. In any case, their role is to whisk away beautiful maidens, usually a princess. These tales are all heir apparent to Saint George and the Dragon.

“To have a dragon, no less a three-headed one, as a magical helper, potentially facilitating a marriage, is out of character for the scaly beast.”

“However,” I say, “as a device to start off the story, I like it better than its Greek counterpart. The dragon poses a challenge, to roll away the stone that conceals the underworld entrance. In the Greek tale, three brothers hear about women at the bottom of a well and they go to see what they can see; kind of offhanded for an inciting incident.”

“I will grant you that.” Melissa pours out our tea. “It will get cold soon.” She takes a sip before saying, “But after that odd opening, the Greek version makes more sense than the Russian. The eldest is give two nuts containing dresses that he uses to reclaim his bride at the end of the story. Our lazy Russian youth, as he goes from the copper kingdom, to the silver, to the gold, is given a silver ring, a gold ring, and a golden ball, all of which totally disappear from the story and serve no purpose.”

“Oh, but wait,” I protest. “I always like the progression through the copper realm, be it a kingdom, castle, or forest, followed by a silver one and ending in a golden or diamond place.”

“A little overused for my taste,” Melissa frowns. “But I get the attraction. As like as not, these copper/silver/gold castles or trees are part of the underworld and connote an image of the unnatural and strange.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2020 The Three Kingdoms – Part Three

Three Kingdoms wood cut gold Gold Kingdom

Unnatural Images

“Speaking of unnatural images,” I say, draining my teacup, “when our Russian youth is abandoned by his brothers, he first comes across an inch-high old man with a cubit-long beard. Now, little old men with long beards are common enough, but this fellow is extreme.”

Melissa gives me a laughing smile. “I’ll suppose that has to do with the Russians’ bent toward exaggeration, which carries over into the tall giant lying in a small house.”

“He bothers me, too,” I say. “I am haunted by the notion that I have heard of him before.”

“Well,” Melissa reflects, “there are sleeping giants, like the Russian Svyatogor, and giants who are too big to live in houses, like the Welsh Bran, but I have not come across a tall giant in a small house before.”

I pour myself more tea. “Then those two visits are followed by a visit to Baba Yaga and her house on chicken legs.”

“Certainly unnatural but rather familiar to fairy-tale readers.” Melissa nods.

“Wait.” I put my teacup down. “I discern a pattern. I remember you describing The Underworld Adventure as being in three acts, the descent, the return, and the reclaiming of the bride. Here I see two acts that mirror each other.”

“How’s that?” Melissa peers into the teapot to see if there is more.

“In act one, after the dragon has lowered him into the underworld, each princess sends the youth on to the next kingdom. In each kingdom he is fed, receives a gift, and asks for marriage; all rather genteel and orderly.

“In act two, after he is abandoned by his brothers, he stumbles about, encountering rather frightening beings. The first one sends him to the second one, and the second one sends him to the third one, following the same pattern as the princesses.

“In act one, after the golden princess agrees to marry him, he retraces his steps, collecting the other princesses in his progress, returning to the underworld entrance.

“In act two, he is on the back of an eagle, feeding it meat until he runs out, at which point the eagle takes a chunk out of him; a pretty messy retreat.

“In other words, act one is sedate and orderly, act two, while the action is constructed in a similar manner, is full of disorder and danger.”

Melissa temples her fingers together. “About that bite the eagle takes out of his shoulder—the wording of the story is, ‘. . . dragged him out through the same hole to Russia.’ Which hole? The one just created in the youth’s shoulder or the same hole as at the start of the story?”

“Yes, I know,” I say. “That stopped me too. I wonder if we are being misled by translation. There is what the original teller intended, what the collector of the tale heard, and how that was translated into English.

“I feel having the youth dragged through the hole in his own shoulder is a little too surreal even for the Russians.”

Melissa smiles sadly. “I knew a Russian once. Actually, I married him. I wouldn’t put it past them.”

I’m not going to pry.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2020 The Red Cow – Part One

Red Cow_mosaic_abduction_europa Mosaic 200 CE, Abduction of Europa

Fortieth Floor

Melissa and I peruse the brunch menu of the Duck and Waffle. I realize I am clutching the menu in both hands, tamping down a surge of vertigo. Our table is next to the floor-to-ceiling windows on the fortieth floor of the Heron Tower overlooking London. And I really mean overlooking London. I am sure I could see all of it from here if I dared look. I allow my eyes to scan the floor, with its lovely blue and white tiles, and the strange, old wine-bottle chandeliers attached to the ceiling—but not its windows.

“I’m thinking of the Spiced Dhal,” Melissa states.

“What’s that?”

“Lentil stew with poached hen’s egg and cumin flatbread.”

Of course I’m going for the Duck and Waffle, their signature dish and namesake. I do love mustard and maple syrup.

“I’ve found a story,” Melissa says as she folds close her menu, “that I’d like to read to Thalia. One of the Evald Tang Kristensen stories Stephen Badman translated, The Red Cow.

“Ah, well,” I say, “entertain me.”

The king is under the onus placed on him by his deceased wife that he not remarry any other woman than the one who can fit into her black dress. His daughter, while sporting with her maids, tries on the black dress, which fits her perfectly. The king declares he will marry her.

On the verge of killing herself, she is approached by an old woman who gives her two pieces of advice. One, to insist that her father give her a dress made of crows’ bills or she will not marry him. Second, failing that, she go to the red cow for help.

The king, with a mass slaughter of crows, produces the desired dress. The princess runs to the red cow’s stall and tells the cow her woes. The cow instructs her to fetch the crows-bill dress, open up the stall, and climb onto her back. They quickly flee the kingdom.

Then the cow tells the princess to stand on her back and tell her what the princess sees. She sees copper-colored shimmering. The cow explains that it is the copper forest through which they must pass. If the princess picks a leaf from a tree, the cow will have to fight and defeat the bull of the forest. The princess promises not to pluck a leaf.

Our waiter arrives, and Melissa and I order. Handing the menus back to the waiter, I turn to Melissa. “She picks a leaf, of course,” I say.

“Of course. This is a fairy tale.”

The pattern repeats itself with a silver forest and a gold forest. The cow tells the princess to climb off her back, then defeats each of the increasingly larger bulls, each in their turn, the first battle taking a day, the second two days, and the third three days. The cow’s recovery from each battle is the same number of days as the battle, but the cow never complains of the princess’s broken promises.

For a fourth time the cow tells the princess to stand on her back and tell her what the princess sees; the princess sees what she thinks is a green bush. The cow corrects her and tells her it is a green hill, beyond which is the castle that is their destination. The princess must leave the red cow, go to the castle, and ask for employment in the kitchen. This the princess succeeds in doing.

On Sunday, the princess is left behind in the kitchen to prepare supper for everyone as they attend church. The princess goes to the red cow, who tells her to put on the crows-bill dress, take the copper leaf, go to church, and the cow will take her place in the kitchen. On leaving the church, before everyone else, she must take the copper leaf, throw it to the ground and recite a charm. No one will see her leave, return to the kitchen, and take on her old disguise.

The next Sunday is the same, the princess dropping the silver leaf, but not before catching the prince’s attention. On the third Sunday, the prince manages to chase after her and grab her shoe before she disappears.

“Ah,” I say, “the Cinderella motif. He uses the shoe to find her.”

“Of course,” Melissa nods. “There is a party and every woman must try on the shoe. It’s the queen who realizes that it is the kitchen maid who has not tried it on. The shoe fits and the princess produces the crows-bill dress. The prince is delighted to find out she really is a princess.

“Interestingly, the father of the princess is invited to the wedding to give away the bride.”

“And all lived happily ever after?”

“Of course.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2020 The Red Cow – Part Two

Red Cow crow Audubon

Good Meal

“Crows-bill dress,” I say as the waiter arrives with our order, giving me a sideways glance. I refrain from speaking again until he is out of earshot. “What an unusual request.”

Melissa tests her lentil stew, followed by an approving nod. “A father wanting to marry a daughter is a motif, and she demanding a hopefully unattainable wedding dress is the usual response.

“In Donkey Skin the demand is for three dresses, equal to the blue of the sky, the silver of the moon, and the brilliant gold of the sun. In all the variants, these dresses are produced by the father.”

“The tale would not go on if they weren’t, but a dress made of crows’ bills?” I consider whether to start with the duck or the waffle.

“In another variant,” Melissa says between mouthfuls, “All Fur, besides the three dresses, she asks for a mantle made from all the birds and beasts of the kingdom. In Donkey Skin the fourth request is for a donkey skin, which is used as her disguise, as with the mantle in All Fur. Another variant is Catskin. I leave it to you to imagine what happens in that story.”

“Still,” I say, “a dress made of bird beaks?”

“Well,” Melissa picks up her flatbread, “I image it would be black and shiny. The story implies it is beautiful. And, oh,” Melissa pauses, “does it relate back to her mother’s black dress?”

“Hmmm,” I consider.

“But,” Melissa continues, “that is not why I want to read this to Thalia.”

The duck is delicious. “And your reason?” I ask.

“I see it as a feminist’s story.”

“OK,” I pause, my fork halfway to my mouth. “Explain.”

“I’ll start with the obvious. The protagonist is female.”

“Granted,” I say after delivering the fork to my mouth.

“Second, all of the helpers are female. There is the old woman who gives her advice, the red cow who is her savior, and even the queen who pops into the story for a second to bring the protagonist forward.

“With the exception of the prince—the reward—all the male figures have a negative aspect. Certainly the king, although they are reconciled at the end, is a harmful character. All the bulls—male figures—need to be defeated.”

“Wait,” I say, “what about the mother?”

“Well challenged.” Melissa spears her fork into her poached egg. “She is complex and unexplained.”

“Fairy tales are good at the unexplained,” I agree.

“Her motive for the black-dress test,” Melissa waves her fork in the air, “is unclear. Did she put that onus on her husband thinking that only a woman of quality could fit into her dress? Or did she think no other woman would fit into it? Or did she know only her daughter was the one?”

“The story does not say,” I quote myself, having said that many times before.

“The mother notwithstanding, I see the story as a triumph of the feminine over the masculine.”

I’m feeling slightly neutered, but I see her point.

“By the way,’ she says, “have you been taking in this view?” pointing her fork toward the window.

“No,” I say.

Melissa looks at me blankly. “Why ever not?”

“I’ve enjoyed my brunch,” I say. “It rests contently in my tummy. I want to keep it there.”

A moment of silence follows, interrupted by Melissa’s slightly hysterical laughter.

She can be unsympathetic.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2020 The Red Cow – Part Three

Red Cow St Dymphna

Well Maybe

“There was once a king and a queen. The queen was very ill and, before she died, she told the king that he should marry again.”

“‘You’ll know the one to wed when she puts on my black dress and it fits her perfectly.’”

Melissa’s voice lilts through my study as Thalia and her button-eyed Teddy, who are settled into Melissa’s lap, listen intently.

Their comfy chair is angled toward the fire in the hearth. My comfy chair is a bit behind theirs. I can discreetly use my computer tablet without annoying them. The tablet is a generous Christmas gift from Duckworth, who wants to keep me up-to-date.

Typing in “The Red Cow,” I think I will find the fairy tale. Instead, the tablet points me to the Wikipedia article on the Red Cow—also known as the Red Heifer. It tells me the Red Cow was a special, sacrificial animal in the Hebrew tradition. And not just any red cow, but one without spot or blemish and one that has never been yoked.

The Red Cow also appears in the Christian tradition in the Epistle of Barnabas (noncanonical), where the Red Cow is equated with Jesus, both said to be sacrificed by the Jews. Yes, there is an anti-Semitic undertone to the Epistle of Barnabas.

Might the common Danish listener at the time this story was told orally, before it was collected, recognize the connection between the Red Cow and Jesus?

“’Stand on my back and tell me if you can see anything in the distance.’”

“’There’s a copper shimmer on the horizon.’”

“’That comes from a wood where the trees are made of copper.’”

Melissa does have such a wonderful contralto, storytelling voice.

Before she started reading to Thalia, I grabbed her copy of Evald Tang Kristensen’s collection and found in the notes that Evald collected the story from a Niels Pedersen, which does not bolster Melissa’s claim that this is a feminist tale.

However, in reading on, I blundered across the note for The Blue Bullock, a title I had not noticed before. In this tale appears the same traveling bovine motif, but the protagonist is a young boy, who rides  on the bullock’s back and picks apples that he should not, causing the bullock to fight the bulls of the woods. In the third and last battle the bullock is killed. Has he died for the boy’s sins?

Then there is the slaughter of the crows for their beaks. Is this an echo of the slaughter of the innocents?

The greater sin in The Red Cow is the king wanting to marry his daughter. On my tablet, I search the keywords “fathers who want to marry their daughter” and come up with a link to Saint Dymphna.

According to tradition, she lived in the seventh century, the daughter of a pagan, Irish king and his Christian wife. At the age of fourteen, she consecrates herself to Christ and takes a vow of chastity. Shortly thereafter, her mother dies, and her father, who dearly loved his wife, becomes mentally unhinged and determines to marry his daughter, who closely resembles her mother.

She flees to Belgium in the company of her father confessor, two servants, and the king’s fool. Her father pursues her, and when she refuses to return to Ireland, he cuts off her head in a rage. She was only fifteen.

I much prefer the ending of The Red Cow to the ending of Saint Dymphna, but the origin of this uncomfortable motif is pretty clear to me. Not that the Danish peasants were well-read and we must remember the church services were spoken in Latin. Nonetheless, I imagine monks, some of whom were pretty earthy, explaining the stories behind the cathedrals’ stained-glass windows to the parishioners. Stories of the saints have been ever popular.

“’Light in front and dark behind, let no one see what becomes of me.’”

“She disappeared in front of the prince who had followed her out.”

I hear Melissa winding up the tale. Shall I tell her what I have stumbled across? I think not. Those with modern ears will hear this story to suit themselves. Archaic ears, steeped in Christian lore, may have heard a different story. I will let the past and present listeners decide for themselves. What of future listeners?

“. . . and there has never been a harsh word spoken between the prince and princess from that day to this.”

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part One

Water of Life Louis Rhead king Louis Rhead

Christmas Pudding

Onto my kitchen table I gather currants, sultanas, raisins, orange peels, breadcrumbs and shredded suet. Thalia peeks in at the door, dressed in her nightgown.

“There you are,” she scolds. “I looked for you in the study.”

“Goodness,” I say, “what time is it?”

Thalia scowls. “Bedtime!”

“Oh, I am so sorry, but I must get this done. It needs to set overnight.”

“What is it?” The scowl turns to a frown.

The Christmas pudding.”

“Oh!” sparkle returns to her eyes. “You bake. I’ll read.”

She plops herself on a chair at the table, props Teddy up against the flour canister, and opens up her battered copy of Grimm in her lap.

“Delightful,” I say and reach for the demerara sugar. “What will I hear?”

She considers the table of contents for a minute. “Ah! The Water of Life.”

The three sons of a king, in distress over the impending death of their father, are approached by an old man, who tells them of the Water of Life, which can cure their father. The eldest convinces the king to let him go search for the Water of Life, hoping that will make him his father’s favorite.

However, on his travels he is rude to and dismissive of a dwarf who inquired where the prince was going. With the dwarf’s curse, the prince gets no farther. The second brother takes the identical path with the same result.

I blanch the almonds with boiling water and let them soak to remove the skins.

The third brother talks respectfully to the dwarf and tells him of his search for the Water of Life. The dwarf gives him specific instructions, an iron wand, and two loaves of bread.

The iron wand the prince uses to knock on the gate of an enchanted castle three times. When the doors spring open, he feeds the loaves of bread to the two guardian lions, which let him pass unmolested. Before coming to the fountain of the Water of Life, he enters a magnificent hall with statue-like enchanted princes sitting around. He takes the rings off their fingers, and picks up another loaf of bread and a sword from the floor.

“Where did I put the breadcrumbs,” I mumble. Thalia glances up, but for only a second.

In the next room is a beautiful woman, who treats him as her savior and instructs him to return in a year when they will be married and he will become the new king of the enchanted castle. Unfortunately, in the next room is a bed upon which he lies down and falls asleep.

He is aroused when a bell chimes a quarter to twelve. The dwarf told him he needed to get the water and escape before midnight. He dashes to the fountain, gets the water, and rushes for the gate as the clock strikes twelve. The gate closes so suddenly it clips off a bit of his heel.

I sift the flour, salt, and spices together.

On his return trip, he gets his two brothers released, and saves three kingdoms from starvation and war (the loaf of bread being an unending source of food, and the sword being unconquerable). While traveling on a ship, the two elder brothers switch the Water of Life with sea water. When the younger brother gives it to his father, the elder brothers accuse him of trying to poison their father, and they give the king the Water of Life.

Believing his elder sons, the king arranges for a huntsman to kill his youngest. The huntsman warns the prince, they exchange clothes, and the younger brother escapes.

I add the beaten eggs, lemon juice, and half a pint of stout to the flour mixture.

Soon after, three wagonloads of gold are sent to the father of the youngest son in thanks for saving their kingdoms. The king sees that his youngest son is not evil as the elder sons proposed, finds out from the huntsman that he is not dead, and pardons the prince.

“My, this is a long story,” I say.

“Shush, we’re coming to my favorite part.”

Meanwhile, the princess of the enchanted castle has a golden road built for the castle’s entrance and tells her guards not to allow any man into the castle who does not ride down its center. The eldest son, a little before a year had passed, schemed to present himself as the princess’s suitor, thinking his younger brother was dead, and comes to the golden road. Deciding it’s a shame to mar gold by walking upon it, he treads to the side of the road and is not allowed to enter. The second brother has the same thoughts and fails.

The youngest brother appears after the full year is over, thinking of his true love, and doesn’t even notice the golden road. The marriage takes place and the princess tells him of his pardon. He and his father are reconciled, and the elder brothers flee, never to be seen again.

Thalia snaps the book closed. “And that’s the end of that story.” She collars Teddy, a bit whiter with flour dust, and swishes her way to the door, the hem of her nightgown picking up bits of kitchen debris.

“Thank you!” I call after her. I begin the long process of stirring.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part Two

Water of Life Rackham Arthur Rackham

A Walk

My mother always used a simple crockery bowl for the Christmas pudding. I know others use a fancy mould but a bowl does well for me. It only needs a lip around the rim to keep the string from slipping off.

I am covering the bowl and its pudding contents with the pleated parchment and foil wrap when Duckworth enters the kitchen.

“You’re cooking,” he states. “I thought we were to walk this morning.”

“Baking,” I correct. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you knock.”

“Thalia let me in. She’s a little lady, I tell you.”

I smile. “This won’t take long. When I am done, it needs to simmer for eight hours.”

I finish the string handle, lift it into the pot of boiling water, cover, and turn down the heat.

“There. Let’s go,” I say.

As we stroll down my street, Duckworth asks, “And what did you read to Thalia last night?”

“I was busy with the figgy pudding. She read to me!”

“Delightful.”

“That’s what I said. She read The Water of Life.” As usual, I give him the summary.

“Well, well, well, plenty of ‘threes’ in this one,” Duckworth observes. “You know, I think it would be better if each of the three brothers represented something.”

“How’s that?”

“Well,” Duckworth speculates, “what if the elder brother represented ‘greed,’ the second brother ‘sloth,’ and the youngest ‘honesty?’ Why does the fairy tale make the elder brothers mirror images of each other?”

I waver. “It’s traditional.”

Duckworth gives me a sideways glance.

“OK,” I concede, “that is not an answer.” I reflect a bit. “The fairy tale, despite its love of three, only deals with good and evil; not good, could be better, and evil.  The fairy tale condenses the elder brothers into evil-heartedness and the younger brother is all about good-heartedness.”

We turn the corner at the far end of my street and enter a park. Even though the trees are bare, it is delightful.

“Now,” Duckworth picks up the thread of our conversation, “you mentioned that the dwarf gave our protagonist an iron wand.” He waves an illustrative hand in the air. “You’ve taught me that iron is a talisman against evil; good enough. Then there are the two loaves of bread to sate the lions. Although lions are carnivores, I will let that pass. But in one of the halls of the enchanted castle, he takes the rings off of the fingers of the enchanted—obviously sleeping—princes. What of that? Have you forgotten to tell me part of the story?”
“No, the fairy tale has forgotten to tell us the consequence of his taking the rings. He also, in the same chamber, picks up a sword and another magical loaf of bread. The sword and bread he uses to help others. In that spirit, I don’t think he stole the rings. He took the rings for a greater purpose. Did he release the princes from their enchantment by taking away their status? Did he accumulate power he would need later? Did this represent something earlier listeners understood and did not need to be explained?”

Duckworth nodded and we say together, “The fairy tale does not say.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part Three

Water of Life Philip Grot Philipp Grot Johann

To Travel

We pass by some of the deer that inhabit this park.

“Let me continue to nitpick,” says Duckworth.

“You always do,” I say.

“Does that annoy you?”
“I look forward to it.”

“Good.” Duckworth applies himself to his argument. “When the three brothers start off, each of them encounter the dwarf. On the return trip the youngest brother again meets the dwarf, presumably at the same spot, and collects his wayward brothers, but now there is a sea voyage between them and home that was not there before. How do we account for that?”

“Oh, you are such a stickler for detail. As you know, the fairy tale has no respect for logic and order. The sea voyage is not needed on the adventure out to the enchanted castle. It is needed on the return trip to give the elder brothers a chance to betray our hero.”

“What? They could betray him anywhere.” I hear the protest in his voice.

“True, but there is no better place to ‘change the rules’ than at sea. When you are on land, you are in a country filled with roads, villages, and towns, some with their own jurisdiction. At sea, there is a skill involved in knowing where you are; there are no road signs. The water itself does not stay in one spot; it’s a current. When you stand on firm ground the law of the land applies. At sea, the law washes away.”

“We even have different names for the same thing whether it’s on land or at sea. On land, when men rise up against their masters, they call it a revolt. At sea, they call it a mutiny.”

We pass by the park’s fountain as Duckworth remarks, “You bring to my mind Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, two remarkably different stories, one on land and one at sea, both by the same poet. He must have sensed what you are talking about.”

“I think of Jonah and the whale. Jonah’s shipmates made up their own rules and judgments,” I say.

“But here, what about the golden road thing?” Duckworth changes the subject.

“Yes, what about that! That makes the story for Thalia and me. As in all fairy tales, it has its familiar motifs, the three brothers, the sympathetic huntsman, the magical devices, and magical helper. And while the golden road is a test—and tests are familiar motifs too—I don’t know of another golden road in these tales. As for being a test, it is not one of strength or cleverness, but of temperament. The elder brothers notice the gold (earthly wealth); the younger thinks only of the princess (spiritual reward). For Thalia and me, the golden road makes this story special.”

We find a park bench and settle ourselves down.

“I have one more critique,” Duckworth says while pulling a small paper bag of bread cubes from his coat pocket for the gathering pigeons. “Why did the princess need to build a golden road to determine who was the true suitor? Would she not recognize him?”

“Good point,” I say. “The fairy tales are mysteriously ‘face blind.’ There are even tales where the ugly sister tries to supplant the pretty sister and no one quite notices. There is often a sign, stigmata, or act that needs to happen for the true hero or heroine to be recognized.”

We watch the pigeons greedily chasing after bread pieces.

“By the way,” Duckworth squints at me, “aren’t you starting the Christmas pudding a little early?”

“Oh no, not at all. It improves by setting a few days.”

“And then?”

“And then I steam it up again for two more hours.”

“And then?”

“And then I invert it onto a plate. It should fall right out of the bowl.”

“And then?”

“And then I pour on the brandy and light it. There is no more beautiful a flame.”

“And then?”

“And then I lather on the hard sauce and serve, of course.”

“Good. I was just checking that you are doing it right. Will you save me a piece?”

“I will make a point of it.”

Your thoughts.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part One

Black Bull of Norroway oneJohn D. Batten

Queen’s Walk

Duckworth and I stroll along the banks of the Thames, following the Queen’s Walk on this mild November day. Rowing on the river might be a bit too cold; therefore we opt for a walk along the South Bank. We intend to take the full walk from Tower Bridge to Lambeth Bridge.

“Well,” says Duckworth, “What sort of disconcerting, confusing, and questionable diatribes have you been inflicting upon your granddaughter of late?”

I hear the bait, but bite for the sake of conversation. “I only read fairy tales to her.”

“Isn’t that what I said?” Duckworth grins.

We pass the lopsided, glassy ball of City Hall. “The Black Bull of Norroway, last night. I am fond of Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales. That one is Scottish, actually.”

“Almost not English,” muses Duckworth. “Tell me of this tale.”

There are three sisters and the eldest asks her mother to bake her a bannock and roast her collop because she is going off to seek her fortune.”

“Wait,” says Duckworth, “a girl going off to seek her fortune? Only sons do that.”

“Shush,” I say, “do you want to hear the story?” Duckworth rolls his eyes and I continue.

The sister goes to the old witch washerwife for advice.

“Who?”

“Shush.”

The washerwife tells her to stay and watch out the back door. On the third day the sister sees a coach drawn by six horses that takes her away.

The second sister follows suit and is taken away by a coach with four horses.

The third sister gets the bannock and collop, and advice from the washerwife, but is taken away by a black bull.

“Dear me,” says Duckworth.

Beside us I see the imposing shape of the HMS Belfast anchored along the banks of the Thames.

At the bull’s instruction, she sustains herself by drawing food from his right ear and drink from his left.

“What?” says Duckworth. I glare at him and continue.

The girl and the bull travel In turn to three castles ruled over by the bull’s three human brothers. At each castle she is given a gift, one of an apple, another a pear, and last a plum, which she is not to “break” until she is in dire straits.

Then they travel to a glen, where the bull tells her to wait, not move an inch, while he goes to battle the Old One.

“Who?”

I ignore him.

If she moves at all, he will not be able to find her on his return. He also says that if all about her turns blue, then he has defeated the Old One. If all turns red, then he, the bull, has been conquered.

This she does until all turns blue and her foot moves in a reflex of joy for her friend’s victory, but now the bull cannot find her.

Duckworth and I approach London Bridge on our ramble.

At length she wanders until she comes to the glass mountain. She cannot get over it until she serves seven years to a blacksmith, who will then forge iron shoes for her that will grip the glass of the mountain.

She comes to the house of a washerwife.

“Hold on, the same washerwife as at the start of the story?”

“The story does not say.”

Duckworth sighs.

The washerwife and her daughter are trying to wash out the blood on the clothes of a gallant knight, who will marry the one to accomplish the task. Failing to remove the stains, they give the clothes to the girl for whom the work is easily done.

Of course, the washerwife claims it is her daughter who did the deed and it is she who should marry the knight.

The girl now breaks open the fruits that hold much treasure, which she uses to bribe the daughter to let her into the knight’s bedchamber. This goes on for two nights, the washerwife drugging the knight so that he does not hear the girl’s pleas. It is not until the third night, after the knight has gotten wind of what is happening, that he stays awake. The knight then has the washerwife and her daughter burnt, and marries the girl.

“Are you kidding?” Duckworth exclaims.

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Two

Black Bull of Norroway twoJohn D. Batten

Strolling On

Passing by Southwark Cathedral, we wind our way toward the Globe Theatre.

“Let me get a few things straight,” Duckworth insists. “First, three sisters go off to make their way in the world. I think that unseemly for young women at the time. I’ll let that pass, but what happened to the eldest sisters?”

“They rode off in coaches. I’m sure they did fine.”

“Why were they in the story? Isn’t every element of a story there to propel the story forward?”

“You are talking about literary fairy tales. The traditional tales are of a different order. Yet, I feel the sequence of events—the first two sisters getting a free ride as it were—marks the youngest sister as special, having to struggle for her husband, giving their union greater value.”

“OK,” says Duckworth, “what about the bull?”

“Well, females abducted by bulls may start with the Greek myth of Europa being kidnapped by Zeus in the form of a white bull, but a closer relative, I think, is East of the Sun, West of the Moon, where the  youngest sister is taken away by a great white bear.”

“Hmm,” Duckworth looks thoughtful for a moment. “Is this the Beauty-and-the-Beast thing?”

“Not exactly, in my opinion. The beast is a monster, at least outwardly. The bull is a common enough animal, but one with a mission.”

“Ah, yes, his fight with the Old One. Who is he?” Duckworth asks.

“We can only guess. My guess is that the name is a euphemism for the devil, though there is nothing particularly Christian in the gloss of this story. One could suggest this is a reflection of the bull of the Mithra religion fighting with the state religion of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think the folk memory concerns itself with such politics.”

I feel a certain thrill as we pass the Shakespeare’s Globe. The Tate Modern, in contrast, comes into sight.

“Nonetheless,” I continue, “bulls have a special place in both Greek and Roman mythology, the vestige of which turns up in the Spanish bull fights. You’ve heard of the running of the bulls, haven’t you? That moment when we allow them to try and kill us?”

“Not my cup of tea, thank you, but what about this red, blue, disappearing thing? How do you explain that?”

“I don’t have a coherent explanation for that.”

“Do you have an incoherent explanation?” Duckworth knows me.

“Well, call me crazy, but I am thinking of the astronomical red shift and blue shift. Red shift occurs when an astronomer sees a star moving away. The waveband is stretching out and appears red. If the star moves toward the astronomer, then the waveband length is shorter and the light appears blue.

“Not that red and blue are opposites on the color wheel, but in this case they are opposed. Did some storyteller sense this and apply it to victory and defeat?”

Duckworth takes out his cellphone, stabs at it, and talks. “Insane asylums near me.”

“No wait, my notion gets a little worse to be honest, when it comes to the bull not being able to find the girl after she moves. That brings to mind the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat, which addresses the idea that, at the subatomic level, a particle may and/or may not exist at the same time. That is to say, there and not there. That does describe the bull’s problem after the girl moves her foot. She is there and not there when the bull tries to find her. He, unfortunately, exists in the ‘not there’ state and the story goes on to the next stage.”

We walk through the shadow of the Oxo Tower as Duckworth contemplates my words, then addresses his cell again. “Requirements for commitment.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Three

Black Bull of Norroway threeAbundance   Peter Paul Reuben

Another Stroll

On my own walk into the Magic Forest, I make for the Glass Mountain. As I hoped, Old Rink Rank sits on a crystal ledge, barely above my head, his thin, long shanks dangling down.

“Good day to you,” I offer.

He eyes me with a hoary brow raised.

“May I ask a question or two?” I propose.

“I have no answers,” Rink Rank scowls.

“Do you recall a girl scaling your mountain with iron shoes.”

“Which one? Happened a number of times.”

“Her dear friend was the Bull of Norroway.”

“Oh, her. Think I remember. Lived happily ever after, didn’t she.” I note his devilish grin.

“I am not sure that distinguishes her. Nonetheless, as she rode on the bull’s back, she pulled food from his right ear and drink from his left. How does that work?”

“How should I know? The storytellers assigned me to this glass mountain. They didn’t make me a cowherd. How do you think it works? That’s the question.”

“Well, the image that jumps to mind is the cornucopia. Now, I know that the horn of plenty is a goat’s horn, but the baby Zeus was raised by a goat, actually a goat-goddess. In play, he broke off one of her horns, which then had the power of unending nourishment.

“In another story, Zeus, as a bull, abducts Europa. The Bull of Norroway carries off our heroine and produces food and drink from his ears, which, of course, are next to his horns.

“My logic might be thin, but I think there is a thread that runs through my reasoning. What do you think?”

Rink Rank reaches into his pocket and pulls out what looks like a cellphone and speaks. “Insane asylum near me.”

“Oh, cut that out!”

Rink Rank’s wicked grin broadens as the cellphone appears to dissolve into thin air. Yet I push on.

“There is also the washerwife. She is at the beginning as a helper and later on as the antagonist. My friend Duckworth questioned if they were the same person. I had no answer.”

“And how should I know?” Rink Rank fumes. “You’re the one reading or listening to the story. If you think they are the same washerwife then they are. I’m just a figment of your imagination, just like you’re the figment of someone else’s imagination.”

“What?” I exclaim, “I am not the figment of anyone’s imagination any more than you are.”

“Oh, you don’t think so?” There’s that devilish grim again. He is trying to distract me from my point.

“And the Bull of Norroway and the gallant knight, are they the same person?”

Rink Rank slaps his forehead. “What do you think?”

“I want to hear it from you!” I all but scream.

“I told you, I have no answers. Of course we tales don’t tell you everything. Those answers are yours to find out or make up. That’s your part, your role in the story.”

He settles his back up against the glass mountain with the air of having given his final say.

I am not sure I should believe him.

Your thoughts?