Fairy Tale of the Month: Dec 2011 Sprig of Rosemary – Part One

William_Gorman_Wills-Ophelia_and_Laertes William Gorman Wills – Ophelia & Laertes

A story in Shadows 

            I walked into Wegmans one post-Halloween day to find Christmas attributes accumulated near the entrance (never mind Thanksgiving). Some of these items were little, live Christmas trees. Bonsai Christmas trees? No. Conically trimmed rosemary bushes. Talk about smelling good. I bought one, nursing it through the winter, and planting it in the spring. By summer I owned a dry, dead twig. It still smelled good.

            Although it proved an arboreal failure, I have ever since equated rosemary with Christmas.  To me, “The Sprig of Rosemary” is appropriate for my December entry.

            The tale is little known, included in Andrew Lang’s “The Pink Fairy Book”, and first appearing in “Cuentos Populars Catalans” by Dr. D. Francisco de S. Maspons y Labros. In the story, a maiden uproots a rosemary plant, evoking a handsome lord and revealing his underground palace. (Shades of Janet evoking Tam Lim in that old Scottish ballad.) It doesn’t take long for them to fall in love and get married. Upon receiving the keys to the palace, as its mistress, she is instructed to never open a particular small chest. (Shades of Pandora’s box from Greek myth.)

            Unavoidably, she opens the chest to find inside a snake’s skin. Immediately all disappears, leaving her standing in a meadow. (Shades of Lucius Apuleius’ “Cupid and Psyche.”) Breaking off a sprig of another rosemary bush, she becomes determined to find her husband.

            Before questing, she tarries at a house built of straw, becoming a servant to the mistress. The mistress gives her the advice to seek out the sun, moon, and wind, who travel far, see much, and may know where to find her husband. (Shades of the Russian epic, “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign,” in which Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna, calls upon the sun, the wind and the River Dneiper. Or Grimm’s “Seven Ravens,” although the sun and moon are pretty nasty.)

            The sun, moon, and wind cannot help her, but each gives her a nut to be opened in her greatest time of need. The wind, however, does her one better, going out to seek news of her husband and finding him, but bears the sad news that her lord, under a spell, is to be married the next day to an ugly princesses.

            Cracking open the nuts, out springs a mantle, petticoats, and a gown. (Shades of Grimm’s “All Fur”.) These she exchanges with the ugly princess for a visit with the bridegroom, her husband. Only after he smells her sprig of rosemary does he recognize her and declare her his wife, whom he loves. (Shades of the end of Grimm’s “Sweetheart Roland. Actually, the whole story bears shades of the Norwegian fairy tale, “Soria Moria Castle,” made famous by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, and appearing in translation in Lang’s “The Red Fairy Book.”)

            Between this story, the song refrain “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”, and Ophelia’s mention of rosemary in her decent into madness in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the herb has its own special place in the arts. In the art of herbology, the association of rosemary with memory goes back to the ancient Greeks

            The tale appeals to me because of its surreal nature: underground castles, the maiden seeking out celestial beings, magnificent clothes sprung from nuts. This is a dream world in which we follow the heroine through her travail. I fear I will wake up and forget the dream, forget the maiden as did her husband when their castle disappeared. Did the castle disappear or was it forgotten? May this herb preserve my memory. As Ophelia says, “There’s Rosemary, that’s for Remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: Dec 2011 Sprig of Rosemary – Part Two

 H. J. Ford

An amble

Take my hand and walk with me through Fairy Tale, down by the Sea of Stories. Look, a few of those stories rise up from the murky depths and wash ashore to our feet. Which ones are so chosen? Pick one up; I will tell you.

Ah, look, it’s “Cinderella.” Now, turn it over. What is there? “By Charles Perrault.” Why do we easily find this one, and not one of its hundreds of variants—really, hundreds—that remain in the depths out of sight?

In this world it’s the perfect ones that wash ashore—perfect because they are crafted. “The Sprig of Rosemary” I fished out of the murky waters. It is not perfect.

I see two blots on the story. In one of the inciting incidents, the heroine, determined to find out what lays in the box she has been warned not to open, finds that the key cannot work in the rust-stiffened lock. Undeterred, she breaks the lock. Inside she sees a snake’s skin. Immediately her world of wealth and her loving husband disappear.

I find this a striking, powerful image. The narrator then attempts to explain it all away. We are told that her husband, unknown to her, is a magician and wears the snake skin when he performs magic. All the internal evidence in the story is against this assertion. The lock is rusted, unused. When did he last perform magic? We already know that he is magical. He lives in an underground palace, for goodness sakes, but nowhere in the story does he perform magic. Rather, he falls under the magic spell of another character. Some magician!

Somewhere in the course of the telling someone felt the need to explain the inexplicable, thereby defusing the image’s power.

The second blot involves loss of consistency. When the heroine learns from the wind that her husband is to be married the next day, she pleads with the wind to delay the wedding for two or three days until she can travel to this distant kingdom. The wind agrees and rushes off to snatch the wedding dress away from the tailors and scatter its parts over the countryside. The King, furious, allows the tailors a few hours to come up with a new gown. Into this chaos arrives the heroine. What happened to the days of travel?

Perhaps the confused time lapse comes from a bad translation of the story out of Spanish, its original language. (Imagine “in the twinkling of an eye” being translated into another language as “He closed his eyes than opened them.”) Was Andrew Lang (the English collector of this tale) more of a folklorist than an author, reticent to make corrections? In any case, this tale bears few marks of skillful crafting.

May I craft this tale, make it perfect, throw it back into the surf, and see it if washes ashore somewhere else? Or has the time for crafting these tales passed? Are fairy tales the Latin of literature? Latin is the basis for the Romance languages, but is, itself, no longer spoken. Are the fairy tales a dead language, not longer allowed to evolve?


Fairy Tale of the Month: Dec 2011 Sprig of Rosemary – Part Three

 H. J. Ford

Oh Nuts!

Nuts constitute one of my reasons for covering this tale. What is with full garments springing out of nuts?

In “The Sprig of Rosemary” the maiden uses the three nuts given to her by the sun, moon, and wind in her greatest moment of need. Each contains a marvelous article of clothing: a mantle, petticoats, and a gown, which the maiden ultimately uses to regain her husband.

The sun’s gift is described as being in a nut, the moon’s gift in an almond, and the wind’s in a walnut. Why the sun’s gift is not in a specific type of nut may have to do with the lack of crafting in this story as it appears in Andrew Lang’s “Pink Fairy Book.” I will ignore that problem, and focus in largely on the walnut.

Looking at this story, all we can see is that the walnut holds the most important article—the gown. Looking at this story’s variants and other stories in which nuts appear, casts a brighter light, and longer shadow, on the role of the walnut in these tales.

In Grimm’s “The Two King’s Children,” we revisit the three garments used by the heroine to reclaim her bridegroom in the context of a far more complex story than “The Sprig of Rosemary.” In this story all three garments are in walnut shells.

In another Grimm story, “All Fur,” the princess, running away to avoid a forced marriage to her father, takes with her a number of magical items, one being three gowns associated with the sun, moon, and stars, which she packs in a nut shell.

In “Romeo and Juilet,” Mercutio describes Queen Mab—the midwife of dreams—as driving a chariot made out of an empty Hazelnut shell.

In “The Magic Egg and Other Tales from Ukraine” by Barbara J. Suwyn, I found a version of “Pea-Roll-Along” in which the antagonist’s soul is hidden in a walnut on the world tree, and he cannot be destroyed until the nut is found.

Certain images in fairy tales resonant with the listener: Cinderella’s glass slipper, Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel, Rapunzel’s golden hair. To a lesser degree, the walnut (and to the extent it represents nuts in general) is one of those imagines. Why this is so may be a hard nut to crack.

Immediately, two possibilities jumped to my mind. First is the secretive nature of the nut, with the edible heart hidden away inside the shell. We discover its secret by breaking into the inner sanctum. However, the content is pretty predictable. Why would the expectations of our fancy jump from finding an edible nut to some other sort of gift?

My second notion involves the brain-like shape of the nut, particularly the English walnut. It does look rather like a brain sitting inside a brainpan. Certainly the peasants, who butchered mammals and used every part of the mammal short of the sound they made, would have recognized the similarity. However, this line of thought leads to zombies, who simply are not part of the European fairy tale tradition. I will go not farther down that path. Something at the end of it might attack me.

I abandon both of my notions (after some prowling on the internet) in preference to the walnut purse. These were little drawstring bags made from covered walnut shells given as gifts in the time of Elizabeth I. By the 18th century, Limerick gloves, similar to kid gloves, being so sheer and delicate, were presented inside a walnut shell.  That the garments in our stories could also fit inside a walnut shell was a testament to the exquisite nature of these articles, and not so much a matter of magic. Well, good things come in small packages, do they not?

Your thoughts?

From the Hunt Museum collection, Limerick, Ireland.


 PS. While we old hippies think of “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” as one of the lyrics in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” the source is much older. Check out “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume 1” by Francis James Child, ballad #2 “The Elfin knight” version G. While this five volume work is highly scholastic, there is here a wealth of folkloric themes.

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