Birds of a Feather
Duckworth and I have taken advantage of a mild fall day to go rowing on the Isis. There are others on the river, teams of scullers, who slide past us with coordinated strokes, not ceding a look as two fellows sitting side by side in a rowboat, each flounder with an oar.
“What Grimm story are you obsessing over currently?” Duckworth has made an assumption.
“I am not obsessing over Grimm, at present. Thalia rarely lets me read her anything other, but I need to expand my horizons.”
“Therefore . . .” inquires Duckworth.
“I am reading Joseph Jacobs, and obsessing over “Earl of Mar’s Daughter.”
The daughter of the Earl of Mar could often be seen playing in the castle garden, and was given to sitting and listening to the birds. One day she entices a dove to settle on her shoulder. It stays with her and that evening turns into the handsome young prince Florentine. After they marry in secret, he remains her pet dove by day and her husband at night.
As their seven sons are born, the dove whisks them away, taking them to his mother, the queen, who had put the curse of transformation upon him when he would not do as she wished. The Earl of Mar, unconscious of his daughter’s true status, intends to marry her to a nobleman. The daughter declares she wishes not to marry and will be content with the company of her dove. The Earl declares he will wring the bird’s neck.
Escaping, Florentine flies over the sea to return to his mother, leaving his wife to be remarried the next day. His mother, with instructions from her mentor, the Spae Wife of Ostree, aids her son. At his request, she turns him into a goshawk, his seven sons into swans, and her dancers and pipers, who have come to celebrate the prince’s return, into herons.
This entourage returns to the Earl of Mar’s estate in time to settle on a tree along the path from the castle to the church before the wedding party arrives. At the approach of the Earl, the bridegroom, their guests, and—at the end—the melancholy bride, the birds attack. The herons scatter the guests; the goshawk, with a cord in its beak, binds the bridegroom to a tree, while the swans carry off their mother.
Upon the dove/goshawk/prince’s return to his mother’s castle with his wife, the queen removes the spell she put upon her son, and all live “ever after” as you might guess.
Another scull of athletic young men pace by us without any recognition that our rowboat is a fellow craft upon the shared waters.
Duckworth’s brow creases from mild curiosity.
“What’s with the queen cursing her son?”
“Yes, an odd element. I felt there must be a backstory of which the tale told me nothing except by inference. That didn’t turn out to be the case. I checked Jacobs’ source, which was Allingham, whose source was Buchan, and I even checked out Child.”
“Who are they?”
“Oh, sorry, nineteenth-century collectors and editors of English and Scottish ballads.”
“Ballads? I thought we were talking about fairy tales.”
“Yes, well, it turns out Jacobs was fond of taking ballads and turning them into fairy tales, and then taking some liberties with them. The ballad of Earl Mar’s Daughter says nothing of the queen cursing her son, but rather she turned him into a bird so that he could more easily seduce young women. I have no idea where Jacobs got the Spae Wife of Ostree; that’s not there either. I think he made it up to fool me.”
“I am sure he had you in mind,” says Duckworth.
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2014 Earl of Mar’s Daughter – Part Two
A Marriageable Age
I wonder at my split personality concerning books. I delight in exploring the web, searching for out-of-print titles of folk and fairy tales that I can download to my Kindle for free. Then I go looking for hardbound copies of the same to weigh down my shelves, first editions if I can find them.
Now that I have befriended Melissa, she may facilitate my bad habits. She claims she can find anything with a cover.
“Good morning,” she says, looking up from her laptop. Swiveling in her chair, she runs her finger up and down a stack of books on her desk, pulling one out. “English Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs, first edition. This one’s a little battered, which only means I got it for an excellent price.”
“Wonderful.” I hand her my card. “Still, don’t tell me how much, I don’t want to become self-conscious.”
As she rings up the sale, I peruse my purchase.
“In this work, Melissa, is a tale called Earl Mar’s Daughter that starts with the heroine playing in the garden, but when her dove turns into a young prince, BAM! she’s married. It’s the same pattern as the Frog Prince. There the heroine is playing with a golden ball, then the frog turns into a prince, and BAM! she’s married.
“When I stop to think on it, how is it acceptable that little girls are suddenly wives?”
Melissa smiles at me. “I’ve noticed that too. I propose there is an historical reason and a psychological reason.”
I settle onto a reading stool near the counter to listen.
“Historically, the average life span in earlier centuries was substantial shorter than ours. Everyone knows that, but when you look at it closely, things get a little weird. For example, during the early 1600s in England, life expectancy was about thirty-five. But that was an average, skewed largely because two-thirds of the children died before the age of four. If you got to your early twenties, chances were you would live to be seventy.
“Marriageable age started at puberty from the time of the Romans till the start of the nineteenth century. For girls that is about twelve years, only halfway to the magic age of twenty-something. After a girl’s early twenties she was an old maid. The pressure was for them to marry in their teens.”
I begin to visualize Melissa as a walking encyclopedia. She might be worse than Augustus.
“And psychologically?” I ask.
Melissa’s smile broadens. “Little girls love to fantasize about marriage. They are quick to play ‘house’ at an early age. It’s their way of being like grown-ups, similar to little boys pretending at being soldiers. I personally object to both role models, but there it is.
“I think the old storytellers were happy to appeal to the little girls in their audience by allowing the heroines of those listeners’ same age to become wives of princes. Always princes, mind you, never tailors or soldiers. That would never do.
“I will put my money on my latter notion as the dominant influence.”
I think she is right, but then I tend to think women are always right. That’s been my experience. And it’s kept me out of a lot of arguments.
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2014 Earl of Mar’s Daughter – Part Three
The cold, cloudy November weather returned this morning, but in Miss Cox’s garden the temperature is milder than outside the garden gate. The sun peeks out from behind the clouds, which it did not on my walk over here. Nonetheless, the cozy on the teapot waiting for us on the wrought-iron table is a necessity against the chill. Fortunately, Mr. Jacobsarrives promptly and the tea I pour for us sends steam rising into the air.
Because he compiled English Fairy Tales and More English Fairy Tales I think of him as a quintessential Englishman. In truth, though he spent his adulthood in England, his birth took place in Australia and his death in America. His broad popularity came from his folklorist achievements, but those in learned circles saw him as the Jewish scholar and author.
“Well, my friend,” Joseph starts our conversation, “to what inquiry do I owe this pleasant visit?”
“An inquiry and a request. My inquiry is about Earl of Mar’s Daughter and the motif of the bird/husband. In my readings I’ve not run into a bird/lover before. The seven sons being turned into seven swans brings to mind Grimm’s The Seven Swans. Stories of husbands who are animals by day and men by night abound. But the bird/husband is new to me.”
“Oh, it is not unique,” Jacobs returns. “Forgetting Leda and the Swan from the ancient Greek and The Destruction of da Derga’s Fort of Celtic legend—which aren’t fairy tales—we still have from France a twelfth-century story/poem by Marie de France called Yonec and a seventeenth-century tale called The Blue Bird by Madame d’Aulnoy, both with humans turned bird/husbands.
The Danes’ Green Knight” fits our motif. Evald Kristensen collected that one. I believe ’you’ve met Evald.”
“Yes, he’s visited this garden.” I still remember the Akvavit we drank.
“The Italians can boast The Canary Prince collected in the nineteenth century. I suspect some Italian version of this story had an influence on our tale, given that the prince’s name is Florentine and he flies home to his mother over the sea. All the way to Italy perhaps?”
“I am pleased to meet a man who feels free to conjecture as wildly as I do,” I respond.
“What may be unique,” there is doubt in Joseph’s voice, “is the element of the swans abducting their mother, the bride. It’s got a Scottish ring to it. That bit of the story I haven’t found anywhere else, but maybe I haven’t looked hard enough.
“And now, what is your request?” Joseph takes another sip of tea.
“Being a fan of yours, I ask you to sign my copy of your book.” I proffer the volume Melissa found for me.
“With pleasure.” He signs the title page with a flourish, then inspects my book’s condition.
“A bit worn isn’t it?”
“I like to think of a worn book as well used and well loved.” I take it from his hands. “You ought to see my granddaughter’s copy of Grimm.”
We clink our tea cups—the contents quickly going cold—in a salute to battered books everywhere.