Evenings will often find me in my study. My routine, before I settle into work, is to take down one of the glass canisters of tobacco from the mantle and stuff my pipe. My choice is either Leprechaun Gold, Old Rinkrank, or Black Dwarf. I then light the bowl with my blue light. Actually, with The Blue Light, a gift from Wilhelm.
Our story starts with the scarred and crippled soldier turned out of the king’s army without even the traditional loaf of bread. Near collapse, he begs food and shelter from a witch. She makes him work for his lodgings, one of his tasks being to reclaim her Blue Light from the bottom of a dry well. We are given no description of the Blue Light other than it never goes out.
The witch and the soldier disagree, and our protagonist ends up at the bottom of the dry well, albeit with the Blue Light. When using it to light his pipe it produces a magical black dwarf, who does the soldier’s bidding. Escape is first on the soldier’s mind, quickly followed by revenge on the witch. After consigning her to the gallows, he turns his thoughts to the king.
Having purloined the witch’s gold and established himself comfortably at an inn, the soldier has the black dwarf bring the king’s daughter to him at night to be his serving maid. The abuse of his daughter does not go unnoticed by the king, who succeeds in capturing the culprit despite the black dwarf’s efforts to protect his master from the consequences of such a less-than-admirable trick.
Imprisoned, separated from his Blue Light, the soldier’s last resource is one ducat. This is all he needs to bribe an old comrade of his to retrieve his pipe, tobacco, and Blue Light from the inn. After the king’s judges condemned the soldier to death for his high jinx, he asks to be allowed to have one last pipe. As the smoke rises, the black dwarf appears with a cudgel. In the 1815 version of the story, the black dwarf beats the judges to death, but by 1857 Wilhelm has softened this to simply beating them to the ground. In both versions, the king pleads for leniency and surrenders his kingdom and his daughter to the soldier.
The revenge element is clear and needs no further comment from me. What is not so clear, although it is the central element, is the nature of the Blue Light. I have not encountered a blue light in any other story, yet Aarne-Thompson type 562 is titled “Spirit in the Blue Light.” Heidi Anne Heiner (Sur La Lune) suggests it is a will-of-the-wisp, but I cannot agree. The will-of-the-wisp is seen by, or serves as a guide to, travelers. The Blue Light has more in common with Aladdin’s lamp.
Now and again, an element appears in these fairy tales that (pardon the pun) drops out of the blue. They seem to have no connections, no predecessors, no point. The Blue Light is one of these. The nature of the Blue Light remains at the bottom of the dry well. I have spoken of wells before, and they hold their secrets.
The Blue Light Wilhelm gave me came without the black dwarf. I wonder what he did with the dwarf. Imagine what a research assistant he’d make.
Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2012 The Blue Light – Part Two
About That Dwarf
I have a special affinity for the black dwarf who appears in The Blue Light, I being a Kiernan. That connection is not immediately obvious; it has to do with the meaning behind the name.
As a youth, I looked up the meaning of my surname, part of my adolescent search for identity. The result left me without further insight, there being some ambiguity. Kiernan is an alternate spelling for two Irish names. One is Tighearnaigh, also spelled Tierney, O’Tierney, MacTiernan, MacKiernan, and McKernon. It means “lord or master.” The other is Ciarán, anglicised as Ceiran, Kieran, Kieren, Kieron, or Kiernan, meaning “one of the little dark people.”
The first meaning sounded good to the adolescent me, the other would haunt me the rest of my life. That is the meaning that calls out to me, putting its claim on my soul.
When we think of Ireland we think of the Celtic people, but they came late to the party, waiting until the Iron Age. Before them came the Fomorians, Nemedians, Fir Bolg, Tuatha Dé Danann, and Milesians, if The Book of Invasions is to be trusted. They came as one Bronze Age immigration after another.
My fancy is struck by the Fir Bolg, described as a short, dark-skinned people. I can imagine them (my adopted ancient ancestors) roaming through a still-forested Ireland in a time before any Irishman forged an iron axe or farmed a potato. Across the water came the Tuatha Dé Danann, a tall, lighter-skinned people, who defeated the Fir Bolg, enslaving them or pushing them to the fringes of the land. As the Fir Bolg declined, were absorbed, and disappeared, they remained in the Tuatha Dé Danann memory as hidden, malignant beings, whose religion became dark magic, which they practiced by the light of the moon, populating the nightmares of Tuatha Dé Danann children.
History is repetitive and vengeful. On the sea’s horizon appeared the Milesians, a dark-skinned people from Iberia (Spain). After the Battle of Mag Tuired, the Tuatha Dé Danann withdrew to the fringes. Did they find there the remnants of the Fir Bolg? Did they come face to face with the demons of their dream world?
As the Tuatha Dé Danann disappeared, another world arose to absorb them: the fairy land—a time and place different from Ireland, yet forever tethered to it, the original moorings never lost.
Then arrived the Celts. They came bearing weapons and tools of iron, driving all other cultures before them into the fairy world as their chariots rolled across the land. Perhaps it is not by chance that iron is a talisman against fairy magic. The Celts were the last of the warrior cultures of Ireland. Christianity defeated them with a gentle hand.
Are all the characters of the fairy tales, my black dwarf included, remembrances of otherwise forgotten people? Kings and queens, princes and princesses, millers and farmers, sons and daughters, who once walked this earth, but through no fault of their own are now consigned to the fairy world, often losing their names, and sometimes their shape, becoming elves and dwarves.
These stories may not spring so much from the ingenuity of imagination as from the ageless yet half-forgotten memories of our kind.
Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2012 The Blue Light – Part Three
A Popularity Contest
As I sit in my overstuffed chair gazing through smoke drifting up from my bowl of Black Dwarf, and through the bay windows out onto the countryside beyond, I consider why The Blue Light is not more popular.
No one read The Blue Light to me during my childhood. I found it while paging through the table of contents while looking for something else. I see in this story a lot that should carry popular appeal.
Item one: Our protagonist is an underdog. I can’t speak for all audiences, but most hearts will go out to the underdog; certainly mine does. The poor soldier, disabled in service to the king is dismissed by the king because the soldier is no longer serviceable.
“You can go home,” says the monarch. “I don’t need you anymore, and you won’t get any pay because I pay wages only to those who can serve me.”
This fall from grace through no fault of his own, is similar to Cinderella’s loss of status when her father remarries and she is demoted to a scullery maid.
Item two: The soldier has his run-in with a witch, but keeps his wits about him. Although trapped, he escapes and brings about the witch’s demise. I see shades of Hansel and Gretelwhen Gretel keeps her wits about her and defeats the witch. We are always pleased to join in on a round of “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”
Item three: The humble soldier succeeds in outsmarting his supposed superiors. When they think they have the advantage, the soldier becomes a trickster and turns it around. Isn’t this in the same mode as Puss in Boots, who outwits giants and kings?
Item four: “From rags to riches” seldom fails to appeal to us. Our protagonist moves from being a soldier to the status of a king. (Now there’s veteran’s benefits for you.) Again I can evoke comparisons to Cinderella and Puss in Boots.
Why does this resourceful old fellow–down on his luck, but not down and out–not appeal to us? The answer you probably already share with me. We don’t like him.
When the story starts, the soldier has our sympathy. The king’s unfair treatment and the witch’s deceit lead the soldier to think his life is over. When the black dwarf appears, the soldier’s first thought is escape. After that it is all about revenge. We could forgive him for having the witch hung; evil should be punished. But when he takes out his grievance toward the king on the king’s daughter, he crosses the line of civility.
Even when the judges exceed justice, condemning him to death, and the soldier reverses the punishment, it is tit-for-tat. Wilhelm tried to soften the blow (literally) by having the dwarf beat the judges to the ground as opposed to killing them as in the earlier version, but it is too late. The soldier is morally no better than his victims.
A popular hero or heroine must be pure in heart, noble in spirit, and forgiving in nature. Any punishment dealt out to the evil ones needs to be done by other hands or by fate. The hero/heroine’s name cannot be sullied by retribution.
The Blue Light, in attitude, does reflect the real world and how people often do react to travail. But we do not read fairy tales for real-world reflections. That is the role of mainstream fiction. Fairy tales should take us to a different conclusion, getting there by different rules, followed by characters of a nature different from our own. The real world has no right intruding into fairyland.