Fairy Tale of the Month: November The Girl in the Bay Tree – Part One

No Villain

“I found it,” Thalia says triumphantly, storming into the kitchen.

“Found what, my dear?” I say, rolling out my dough.

“What you said I couldn’t find.” Thalia is gloating a bit.

“Well, if what you say is true, I’ll eat my pie.”

Thalia narrow-eyes me quizzically. “What kind of pie?”

“Pork pie.”

“You’d eat it any way.”

“True. It’s a punishment I can enjoy.”

Thalia rolls her eyes. “Dry, very dry.”

“What is it you found?” I query.

“A villain-less fairy tale,” she proclaims.

I recall a conversation with her about defining what is a fairy tale. I do remember a witch, evil stepmother, or rival being part of my definition. I clean my thumb and forefinger of flour dust onto a dish towel and pick up the edge of the book she has laid flat open on the table. Modern Greek Folk Tales, by  R. M. Dawkins.

“The Girl in the Bay Tree,” says Thalia.

A childless woman prays for a child, even if it is only as small as a bayberry.

“Oh,” I say, “those fairy-tale characters ought to know by now to be more cautious when they make a wish.”

Thalia giggles. 

The child she bears is as small as a bayberry, and one day, she loses the child by the river while washing clothes. A good time later, a prince is returning from a war and rests by that same spot on the river under a bay tree. He has his supper table and meal set before him but falls asleep before feasting. In the morning, all his food has been sampled.

Angry, he is determined to find the thief and repeats his actions of the day before but only pretends to sleep.

The bay tree opens up and out comes a most beautiful girl, who tastes a bite of everything on the table. The prince captures her by the hair and promises, if she will stay with him willingly, to marry her. To this, she agrees.

The prince promises to return for her shortly. She instructs him to let no one else kiss him or he will forget her. Upon returning to his home, the prince fends off his parents’ embraces and kisses, but that night his godfather visits and gives him a kiss while the prince slumbers.

Meanwhile, the bay tree will no longer open for the bay-tree girl and the prince does not return for her. She wanders, homeless, until she comes to the prince’s city. There she learns that the prince is wasting away due to an unknown grief.

She cuts her hair and disguises herself as a monk and presents herself as a doctor with a cure for lovesickness. When she reveals herself, by telling the prince their story, the prince’s memory returns and they marry.

After reading, Thalia looks up at me smiling.

“Hmmm,” I consider. “The bay tree wasn’t very cooperative.”

“But it is not a villain,” Thalia defends.

“True. Will you eat humble pork pie with me when it is done?”

“I think sooo,” Thalia stretches out that last word.

Part Two

Piero del Pollaiuolo, Apollo & Daphne, probably 1470-80

Daphne Maybe

“Daphne,” comments Melissa’s tinny, disembodied voice ringing through the study from my cell phone lying on the table. I do like the “speaker” feature on my cell, which just allowed me to hold my book with both hands and read The Girl in the Bay Tree to Melissa at the same time.

“Pardon?” I say.

Daphne. The bay-tree girl is Daphne.” I can hear her washing dishes as we talk.

“As in the Greek nymphs?”

“One of the naiads, actually,” Melissa puts a point on it.

“Remind me,” I say.

“Daphne was a naiad, as I said, that is, a nymph of streams and other fresh waters, a daughter of a river god. Due to a prank played by Cupid, Apollo falls hopelessly in love with Daphne, who had pledged to remain virgin.

“Rather than be raped by Apollo, she, while in flight from the amorous god, calls out to her father, the river god, to save her. As Apollo is laying his hands on her, she turns into a laurel tree. The laurel tree, by another name, is a bay tree.”

“I am enlightened,” I say. “Daphne was, as it were, inside a laurel tree, just as the bay-tree girl lived inside a bay tree.”

“Apollo,” Melissa continues, “a little to his credit, never did forget Daphne and made the laurel tree one of his emblems. Hence, the laurel wreaths used to crown emperors and Olympians.”

My thoughts return to the story. “If you are right and our bay-tree girl is a naiad, then it is appropriate that her tree grows by the river and almost proves the connection.”

“I am going to take my thoughts a step further.” I hear a hollow-sounding metal door clang. “The naiads made up a greater part of Artemis’s hunting party, she being a virgin goddess and all her naiads following suit. Oh, and Apollo was Artemis’s twin brother, making his assault on Daphne all the more insensitive.”

I hear a soft padding noise. I suspect she is folding laundry.

“In any case,” she picks up on her train of thought again, “the naiads were fond of dancing at night in the forest.”

“Where are you going with this?” I ask.

“All I mean is, if you add wings to the naiads, we have the fairies. Artemis is the fairy queen, her hunting party The Wild Hunt, and her dancing naiads are the original occupants of the fairy circle.”

“A tempting idea,” I say.

“Has Thalia’s fairy ever said anything about her parentage?”

“From what Thalia has told me, the fairy is pretty secretive about such things. We don’t even know her name.”

“Ah, well,” says Melissa, “to know her name would be to have power over her.  I am sure she does not want that.”

A random synapse in my brain fires off. “Wait, aren’t the tree spirits dryads?”

I tap on my computer tablet lying beside the phone and it comes to life. With a quick visit to Wiki, I have my not so clear answer.

“Yes, dryads are the tree nymphs, and the naiads the fresh water ones. But there are the Daphnaie, the nymphs of the laurel trees who are dryads, while Daphne, their namesake I take it, was a naiad. However, to support your idea, all the dryads spend most of their time sleeping behind the bark of their trees. They only come out to dance when the coast was clear.

“Then there are the Nereids, sea nymphs, and the Oreads, mountain nymphs, not to mention Oceanids, another type of sea nymph. Also, there are others nymphs specific to other trees. The list goes on forever.”

“Fairies all, I say.” I hear Melissa closing closet doors.

Part Three

Artemis and Apollo

Forgotten Bride

“I am pouring myself a glass of wine. Are you?” Melissa says.

“Good idea.” I wander toward the kitchen, my cell in my shirt pocket. “What about Thalia’s assertion that The Girl in the Bay Tree is a fairy tale without a villain?”

“Well,” I hear her say between sips, “certainly there is no villain as a character in this story. The tale’s challenge comes from fate and its vagaries that substitute for an antagonist.”

I find an open bottle of claret I can finish off. “Fate often plays a role in the tales.” I carry the bottle and a glass back to the study.

“Hmmm, let’s think about that,” Melissa muses. “It is fate that placed the prince under the bay tree to rest. In tales like Cinderella or Catskins, it is fate’s hand that created the conflict by the deaths of their mothers.

“On the other hand, with motifs such as the three brothers, it is the good actions and deeds of the youngest that determined the future.

“I am going to say the role of fate and the role of deeds is a fifty-fifty split.”

I’ve resettled myself in the study, the cell resting on the arm of the comfy chair. “I am not so sure. Magic is an integral part of a fairy tale, and doesn’t magic predetermine the story’s outcome at times?”

“No,” Melissa says, taking a long pause. “Magic is a device, an element. Let us call it a tool to be used or abused by the protagonist.”

“Nope, I can’t agree, at least not always,” I say. “Let’s take the kiss of forgetfulness. That was out of the control of either the prince or the girl. It was rather a tool used by fate in this case.”

“Ah, you mention the forgotten bride. Why is that such a popular motif? I don’t think there was ever a forgotten bridegroom.”

“There is the occasional bride with two husbands. I have found those, but you are right, never a forgotten bridegroom.”

Melissa contemplates. “The kiss is a device that allows for a dilemma without placing blame on the bridegroom. If he simply forgot, he wouldn’t be a candidate worth marrying. But that does not explain the forgotten-bride motif’s popularity.”

“Ultimately,” I say, “it’s romantic.”

“There. You have it,” she says. “And I concede to your argument about the role of magic. However, I will suggest a formula.”

“Which is?”

“In the fairy tale, fate plus deeds equals destiny.”

“That sounds pretty good, but you need to explain more about destiny.”

“There is probably some degree of fate that can be identified in any story and that fate propels the protagonist in one direction. However, the protagonist can alter that direction, defy or alter fate by their actions.

“I could say fate plus deeds equals outcome, but in the context of the fairy-tale genre what was fated and what actions are taken, determined by the nature of the protagonist, invariably leads to one result, which is usually, as in our tale, they get married and live happily ever after.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

“How do we clink glasses?”

“Against our cells?”

“I guess so.”

I bring my glass and cell phone together.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2020 Godfather Death – Part One

John Gruelle

All Hallows

Among Thalia, Melissa, and myself, we decided to observe All Hallows Eve with our own party; in costume, of course. Melissa considered whether or not she should do her same-old, same-old costume as a witch. I suggested she pose as Lady Godiva, and she told me to behave myself.

Melissa is dressed as a witch and I as a sorcerer. Thalia has chosen to be an imp. I think the pointy rubber ears become her.

Our party table is replete with three bowls of sweets that I allowed Thalia to pick out at the grocery. One bowl is full of Lion Chocolate Bars and Lion White Bars. (Thalia could not decide which she likes better.) The second bowl is of Walkers Nonsuch Salted Caramel Toffees, and the third of Taveners’ Jelly Babies. Melissa brought brownies with white chocolate chunks, and I baked a pumpkin pie dusted with icing sugar. We have to run back and forth from the study to the refrigerator in the kitchen to make the pie à la mode. Instead of apple cider there is Cidona (the fizzy, non-alcoholic one) at Thalia’s request. For those of us who prefer a drier sort of drink, a bottle of Renegade London Syrah graces the table. A sip of the syrah sends Thalia’s face into sour mode and she returns to her apple soda.

The climax of our little party is Melissa’s reading from Grimm: Godfather Death.

A poor man, on the birth of his thirteenth child, a boy, is looking for a godfather. He refuses both God and the Devil, who offer their services, and chooses Death, because he treats the rich and the poor alike. When the boy is of age, Death teaches him how to cure people with an herb. Death also tells him, if he sees Death standing at the head of the bed, the cure will work. If Death stands at the foot of the bed, the cure will not work.

Armed with this knowledge, the godson becomes a great and wealthy physician. However, when the godson is summoned to cure the king, he sees Death at the foot of the bed. Instead of allowing Death to take the king, the physician turns the king around on his bed so that Death is standing at the king’s head.

Death allows his godson to get away with that trick once, but when the physician tries the same trick again to save the princess, who’s cure promises her marriage and the kingship to the physician, Godfather Death has had enough. He whisks his godson down into the underworld.

There, in a cave, are thousands of burning candles, one candle for every living person. Death points out the physician’s candle, a short stub with a flickering flame. The godson pleads with Death to extend his life with another candle so that he may marry the princess and become a king. Death, feigning to do so, actually snuffs out the candle, and the godson falls down dead.

Thalia, a half-eaten Lion Bar in hand, contemplates the image.

“Candles. Cool.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2020 Godfather Death – Part Two

George Cruikshank

Fatal Flames

“Candles indeed,” says Melissa, as her hand hovers over the three sweets bowls in turn, then dives in for a toffee. “It brings to my mind the Catholics’ blessed candles.”

“Or the Jewish yahrzeit candles,” I reply, considering a handful of Taveners’.

“There is a difference.” Melissa knits her brow under her witch’s hat. “The blessed candles are lit when it is thought that a person is dying. I believe the yahrzeit is a memorial candle.”

“Yes,” I say, “lit in honor of someone on the anniversary of their death.”

“If I recall correctly,” Melissa takes a sip of her wine, “in both cases, the candles should be made of beeswax; at least the Catholics are pretty insistent that it be no less than 51 percent beeswax.”

While we talk, Thalia jumps up, turns off the overhead light and table lamps, and returns to where we are sitting with a single lit candle.

“Atmosphere,” Thalia grins.

“Good thought,” agrees Melissa. “But really, I think the candles in our story are corpse-candles.”

Thalia’s eyes widen. “What are corspe-candles?”

“Supposedly,” Melissa’s eyebrows arch, “the souls of the dead may appear as flickering flames floating above their graves. Or worse, they float about the marshlands at night to lure lost travelers from the path into treacherous bogs.

“A number of the tales are about a man, usually a blacksmith, who is nasty and a trickster. He is clever enough to even trick the Devil, who has come for him, into letting him live longer. The blacksmith manages to trick the Devil more than once.

“But, eventually, the blacksmith must die. When he does, he has been too bad to go to heaven, and the Devil won’t let him into hell. The Devil’s only concession is to give the blacksmith an ember, telling him to go make his own hell.

“The blacksmith takes the ember, puts it into a carved-out turnip to serve as a lantern, and wanders around in the wilderness luring, as I said, unwary travelers to their death. The blacksmith is often named Will or Jack, and his spirit form is “will-o’-the-wisp” or “jack-o’-lantern.”

Thalia’s eyes light up in recognition. “And now it’s a pumpkin!”

“Quite right.” Melissa nods.

“There is an argument,” I say, “that the blacksmith and the Devil, and the tricking of Death or the Devil is quite an old story. By old, I mean Bronze Age.”

“How could anyone know that?” protests Melissa, taking another sip of wine.

“I heard about it over the BBC. It is a little hard to follow, but it has to do with ideas borrowed from evolutionary biology. I think it’s called the phylogenetic method.”

“Pardon?” Melissa scowls.

“Well, it studies and compares things like population histories, languages, marriage practices, political institutions, material culture, and even music. When it comes to the tales, it’s the “tree” of Indo-European languages that shows traces of the tales. Actually, the idea that the tales can be traced going back through the Indo-European languages was first suggested by the Grimm brothers.”

“The Grimm brothers notwithstanding, I’m not buying any of it.” Melissa’s eyebrows fairly dance under her hat. “Phylogenetic, my foot.”

Thalia giggles.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2020 Godfather Death – Part Three

Otto Ubbelohde

Cheating Death

The fairy flutters out of the dark, and perches on my granddaughter’s shoulder. Thalia holds her Lion Bar up to her. She sniffs it suspiciously, then glares sharply at Thalia.

“I guess not,” says our costumed imp.

Melissa can hardly take her eyes off the fairy. I don’t think Melissa has seen her since she invaded the bookstore, and Thalia had to come and retrieve her.

“While I can’t agree with your phylogenetic whoevers,” Melissa says, not averting her stare from the fairy, “the blacksmith and the Devil’s motif of cheating death is certainly a popular one in these tales.”

Melissa manages to pull her attention back to me, if only for a few seconds. “I do recall a Czechoslovakian version of Godfather Death, but in this case it is Godmother Death.”

“Oh, really,” I say.

“Yes, death is a woman, a bit nicer than Grimm’s godfather. The father of the son, for whom Death agrees to stand as godmother, is able to extend his own life by lighting a longer candle for himself. Death is not pleased, but lets him get away with it. She makes the father a physician. He plays the head-to-foot trick, and, again, gets away with it. However, this physician does not press his luck any further and lives a long life due to his trick with the candle.

“Godmother Death then causes his son, her godson, to also be a successful physician.”

All this while, Melissa and the fairy have been looking at each other. Melissa extends an index finger like a bird’s perch. The fairy takes the hint and flutters over to Melissa. It is Thalia’s turn to raise an eyebrow.

“I think she likes you.”

Melissa’s smile beams as the fairy cocks her head from side to side regarding the costumed witch.

“Returning to the thought of cheating death,” I say, not wanting to lose the thread of our conversation. “There are two things that come to me.”

I look into the candle flame to focus my thoughts. “First is that the impetus for wanting to cheat death is simply wishful thinking. Death has an unpleasant finality to it that we rather put off as long as possible. These story characters sometime succeed as we would like to do.

“Second, and conversely, I believe there is a rather abnormal amount of deaths in the fairy tales. Let us consider the count when you include mothers who die at the start, leaving the heroine an orphan; princes who were beheaded in the pursuit of the princess’s hand, even before the story starts; evil stepmothers’ punishment for their cruelty, witches’ punishment for their cruelty, and evil stepmothers who are also witches getting the same treatment; the occasional dragon and giant destroyed by the hero; and even kings who die of natural causes allowing the kingdom to pass to the hero and heroine.

“Really, I think that there are as many deaths as marriages in the tales.”

Looking up from the candle flame, I see Thalia and Melissa are both watching the fairy intently; she lounges on her new friend’s finger. They haven’t heard a word I said.

So much for costumed sorcerer’s pontifications.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2020 The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples – Part One

H J Ford

A Pie

Thalia has retained her child-confidence as she moves toward young adulthood. Children usually lose this trait as they face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but not in Thalia’s case.

I say this as prelude to telling you she just announced to me that she is going to bake a pie. An apple pie.

“And I won’t need any help.” She closes the study door.

I rise to open it halfway to keep a wary ear on sounds from the kitchen, which lies a little way down the hall. Thalia has never baked a pie or boiled water from what I can recall. I know the inspiration comes from the yellow apples I got at market this morning and left setting on the kitchen counter. “Golden apples” I call them.

Apples have been a part of fairy tales for longer than fairies have, I believe. The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples springs to my mind and I reach for Andrew Lang’s The Violet Fairy Book.

In front of the emperor’s palace is a golden apple tree that blooms and bears fruit all in one night, but by morning the apples are gone. To find the thief, the emperor’s sons stand guard at night, but always fall asleep.

Only the youngest manages to wake up early enough to see nine pea-hens descending upon the golden apple tree. One of them flies down to him and transforms into a beautiful woman. Love springs between them instantly and when the pea-hens leave at dawn, she gives him two of the golden apples.

The emperor is delighted and the prince sleeps under the tree every night and visits with the pea-hen maiden. The jealous brothers employ a witch to discern what is happening and she cuts off a lock of the pea-hen maiden’s hair. She and her sisters fly up and never return to the golden apple tree.

The prince sets out to discover the home of the pea-hen maiden, who turns out to be an empress. They are reunited and marry.

One day, while exploring the empress’s palace, he enters a room that is forbidden and, through acts of kindness, inadvertently releases a dragon, who flies off with the empress. Again, the prince must venture out and find his bride. Along the way, he helps a fish, a fox, and a wolf, who give him tokens and promises of aid.

I hear a long, loud clattering of pots and pans coming from the kitchen, but nothing sounds as if it has broken.

Finding the empress again, the prince flees with her on horseback. When the dragon finds the empress missing, he confers with his talking horse, who assures the dragon they have plenty of time to catch up with the couple. The dragon takes his supper before going off to retrieve the empress.

Through her wiles, the empress finds out the only horse faster than the dragon’s is its brother, who is in the hands of a witch. The prince must earn the horse from the witch by tending to the witch’s mare and colt for three nights or lose his head.

Each night the mare turns herself and her colt into other creatures. The prince recovers the mare and colt with the aid of his animal helpers, the fish, fox, and wolf.

With the new horse, the prince and empress ride off again. This time, when the dragon’s horse catches up with the fleeing couple, their horse convinces its brother to throw off the dragon, who falls to its death upon rocks.

A loud, overwhelming “thunk” draws my attention. It is time to check on Thalia’s progress.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2020 The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples – Part Two

More Apples

The tableau that appears to me is Thalia, one hand steadying the apple on the cutting board, and her other hand raised high, brandishing a meat cleaver.

Quickly, she pulls the steadying hand away and down comes the meat cleaver, full force.

Clunk.


The apple, receiving a glancing blow, spins across the room, joining its companion in the corner.

“Ahumm,” I say emphatically.

I retrieve the errant apples, pluck the apple peeler from its hook, hold it up to Thalia, demonstrate how to peel an apple, then reach for the apple corer, press it into the flesh of the apple around the stem, slicing the apple into moon-crescent pieces. I then hand the new instrument of destruction to Thalia.

“Got it,” she says.

I retreat from the kitchen, slipping the meat cleaver out of sight under a pile of tea towels.

Back in the study, I search for and find Apples: History, Folklore, Horticulture, and Gastronomy, by Peter Wynne. I recall his two chapters on the notion that there had once been an apple goddess. He starts, of course, with the Garden of Eden, and the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life.

Interestingly, the Bible does not describe the fruit of these trees as apples. Archaeological evidence suggests the apple was unknown in the Middle East until later, according to Wynne. For Europeans, the fruit was identified as an apple from at least the start of the thirteenth century.

Going back in time, the author talks about how the apple has always been associated with women, particularly in mythology. He cites the contest between Hippomenes and Atalanta. Atalanta will marry no man but the one who can beat her in a foot race. Losers forfeit their lives—this story may be the origin of that motif. Hippomenes asks Aphrodite for help and is given three golden apples to roll in front of Atalanta to slow her down as she picks them up.

A second myth is the Judgment of Paris. At the wedding between Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilles) the goddess Discord, who was not invited, throws a golden apple amongst the guests that is inscribed, “Fair One, make this your own.” (Shades of Sleeping Beauty.)

Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena all lay claim to the golden apple. They chose Paris, Prince of Troy, to settle the dispute. All three goddesses tempt and bribe Paris for his favor. He chooses Aphrodite, who promises him the most beautiful woman in the world. Unfortunately, she is Helen, already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta. Helen runs off with Paris, triggering the Trojan War.

According to Wynne, it appears the apple is sacred to Aphrodite and also her brother, Apollo. Other male gods that Wynne associates with the apple are Dionysus, Adonis, and Hercules. With Hercules, one may recall the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. That bit of myth does remind one of the Garden of Eden.

Nonetheless, the strongest associations of the apple are with the goddesses, and the author suggests the Greek gods evolved out of Bronze Age deities, one of whom was likely an apple goddess.

I have not heard from Thalia in a while. I wander down the hall to peek into the kitchen. Thalia looks up from her cookbook.

“What’s a ‘tbl’ and a ‘tsp’?”

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2020 The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples – Part Three

H J Ford

Rather Curious

The third time I checked in on Thalia, she had moved on to the pie crust. She had the rolling pin in hand, and was rolling out the dough. I noted she had floured the top of the cutting board she was using, along with her person, the surrounding floor, and  most of the other kitchen surfaces.

I go back to the study to hide and to contemplate. On the whole, I must conclude that The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples is an unusual  and curious story in many respects.Lang’s wife translated the tale from a German collection of Serbian folktales. It is considered by folklorists to be of the Swan Maiden type of story. More accurately, it came out of Serbian epic poetry, but the storyline is drawn from a multitude of fairy-tale tropes.

The tale starts out a bit like the Grimms’ Golden Bird, except that the three brothers are the king’s gardener’s sons and it is a single golden bird stealing the apples.

After the witch sends the pea-hens fleeing, the prince sets out to find the Pea-hen Maiden. This is a strange moment in the story for a fairy-tale follower such as myself, in that the prince is drawn, without aid or travail, quickly to the capital city over which the Pen-hen Maiden is the empress. Perhaps this is done expediently to get on to the next fairy-tale trope: entering the forbidden room.

The prince knows the room is forbidden, the empress herself had warned him, but his curiosity gets the better of him. A dragon is released and carries off the empress. (I must note, dragons are fairly rare in these tales.)

What is really curious, in fairy-tale terms, is that it is the male who lets his curiosity rule him and not the female in the tale. Sprig of Rosemary jumps to my mind as an example of the usual format, but then any number of these Cupid and Psyche-inspired tales can serve as examples to which we may point.

Thalia comes into the study, her progress marked on the rug by ghostly white footprints, sits down on one of her favorite chairs instead of my comfy chair, which I occupy, and picks up a book.

“How long?” I ask.

“Thirty-five minutes, the cookbook says.”

I check my watch.

Back to my contemplation of the tale, there follows a second unusual event, in that the hero, for a second time, must find his bride. However, this time it takes months, which it should, if not years. During his travels, he comes to the aid of animals –a fish, a fox, and a wolf—who become his animal helpers. Here I can point to Child of the Sea and The Queen Bee as parallel examples.

From this point, the plot follows the usual trope of promises and tokens, and the pattern remains that the animal helpers are assigned to a hero, and not a heroine. The heroines, on these quests to find the lost husband, get their aid from celestial beings or inanimate objects. I can’t point to a single tale in which a hero asks aid of the sun, wind, or moon, even though in the Greek myths, to which so many fairy tales harken back, mortal men often plead with, even cajoled, the goddesses.

Then we come to the talking horses. Talking horses are also rare, but not unheard of. Falada in the Goose Girl is probably the most familiar. But two talking horses in the same story? I don’t recall another example.

Curiously (Again, this is a curious story.), in order to get his talking horse, the hero must tend to a mare and her colt for three nights. The theme of three is common enough, but more often than not, there are three different tasks, not the same task three times in a row. On the other hand, as expected, the animal helpers reveal the animal forms in which the mare and colt are hiding that conveniently happen to be that of fishes, foxes, and wolves.

When we get to the chase scene, there are only two attempts to escape, instead of the usual three, interrupted by the prince acquiring the horse brother of the dragon’s mount.

We also have an inconsistency with the dragon, who earlier flew off with the empress, but is now riding a horse. Also, what happened to the other eight pea-hen sisters? In total, all rather curious.

A whiff of smoke comes down the hall.

“I think your pie may be done early,” I say.

With a sharp “Oh!” Thalia dashes for the kitchen.

“Fire,” she announces.

I grab the extinguisher by the side of the hearth.

I hope she gets better at this.

Your thoughts?

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?