The rhythm of rowing puts me in a state of contentment. The weather stays mild and clear, letting the sun shine on the ripples that Duckworth and I make as we take our exercise on this leg of the Thames known as the Isis.
“Look, there,” Duckworth points. I see a flash of intense orange below the surface.
“What was it?” I look to Duckworth.
“A goldfish, well, carp really. I’ve read about it and have been looking for one. People who don’t want their pet goldfish anymore let them go into the Thames. That’s illegal. Some have been arrested. Invasive species and all that. This is the first time I have seen one. A big problem in some places.”
He gives me a challenging, sideways smile. “Got any fairy tales on goldfish?”
I think for a few. “Ah, yes, I do.”
Duckworth rolls his eyes. “I should know better.”
“It’s a Grimm, The Golden Children.” I give him the synopsis as we stroke our way up stream.
A fisherman catches a golden fish, who promises wealth if the man lets him go, but there is a condition. The fisherman must tell no one how he got his riches. His wife, unrelenting in her curiosity, gets her husband to tell her, and their fortune instantly disappears.
The fisherman returns to fishing only to catch the golden fish again. The same conditions are set, he returns home, and the same thing happens as before. The wife declares, “I’d rather live in poverty than not know who’s giving us all that wealth. After all, I want to keep my peace of mind.”
When the fisherman catches the golden fish for the third time, the fish concedes he is meant to be caught and instructs the man to cut him up into six pieces, feed two to his wife, two to his mare, and plant the remaining two.
The wife gives birth to two golden boys, the mare two golden colts, and two golden lilies spring from the ground.
When the boys come of age, they ride off on their golden horses. At an inn, on the first night, they are laughed at for being golden. Disheartened, one brother returns home, but the other ventures on. He takes the guise of a vagabond by covering himself and his horse with bear skins.
Soon after, he meets and falls in love with a maiden, who, unaccountably, falls in love with him. They are married on the spot, even before her father gets home. He is enraged and threats to kill the vagabond. Peeking into their marriage room, he sees his son-in-law is golden, and changes his attitude.
That night, however, the golden youth dreams of hunting a magnificent stag. In the morning, against his wife’s fears for his safety, he insists upon going hunting.
He spots the stag and the chase is on. By evening he loses sight of the beast, and finds himself in front of the cottage of a witch. When he threatens her annoying, yapping, little dog, she turns him into a stone.
Back home, one of the golden lilies wilts. The other golden youth comes to his rescue, forcing the witch to restore his form, after which one returns to his bride and the other returns home.
“What?” says Duckworth. “That’s it? What a horrible tale.”
“It’s not so bad,” I defend (weakly).
“Yes it is. Why, there’s no moral, no lesson learned.” Duckworth puts up his oars and folds his arms.
“Should there be? Must there be?” My oars hover in the air.
“Yes!” says Duckworth.
Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2015 The Golden Children – Part Two
I am bothered by Duckworth’s assertion that fairy tales ought to have a moral. I need to contemplate the problem he has posed for me. There are two places in which I can let my thoughts wander, my study, and the Magic Forest.
I have chosen the trail that leads to the Glass Mountain. I should fear the Magic Forest more than I do, but it seems to me to be safe if one does not get off the path. As to the Glass Mountain, it is a destination for the purpose of having one. I don’t intend to attempt a climb.
At the edge of the forest I light my pipe, then enter among the ancient trees.
Why does Duckworth assume a fairy tale should instruct? Aesop’s fables, which contain fairy-tale elements, are designed to inform. The Victorian literary fairy-tale authors, such as Hans Christian Andersen, were conscious of moral content. Many of the old fairy tales have a moral to them.
Certainly they do.
I am so distracted that my pipe has gone out from my neglect to puff on it. I halt my progress, tamp down the tobacco again, and strike a match.
In the old fairy tales (not necessarily in the literary ones) the forces of good almost always triumph over those of evil, which is a fine thing, but is not the same as having a moral message. Morals have to do with the conduct of the characters, the rightfulness or wrongfulness, of their actions.
Certainly there are moral acts performed in these stories. In The Golden Children, the wife prefers their poverty over not knowing what bargain gave them their wealth. She values her peace of mind. That constitutes good moral conduct. The second golden youth puts himself in danger by confronting the witch to restore his brother’s humanity; also a moral act. But these events occur as incidental to the storyline, not at the story’s heart, allowing Duckworth to overlook them when he said the story had no moral, no lesson learned.
Scanning other fairy tales, I note similar quirks. Snow White makes a series of bad choices—nothing moral going on there. Gretel shoves an old lady into an oven—not proper conduct. Cinderella has supernatural aid—might that be an unfair advantage? Rapunzel has illegitimate children—well . . .
My path ends at the foot of the Glass Mountain. I look up at its imposing, glittering bulk, its sheer, smooth sides reaching toward the sky. Then I look straight ahead at the polished glass outcroppings in front of me.
There, distorted, fractured, reflected multiple times, I see images of myself. I also see the answer to my musings.
The fairy tales show us ourselves, distorted, fractured, reflected multiple times in the storyline. We see our hopes, disappointments, wishes, and fears. We witness our better nature and our reprehensible acts spread among the different characters. A moral act here and there is bound to come up. The tales are not about morals; they are about us—we multifaceted, complex, hard-to-comprehend beings.
Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2015 The Golden Children – Part Three
“You recall The Two Brothers don’t you?” Augustus waves his pipe in my direction.
“Yes—yes, of course, that’s where I heard some of this story before.” Why didn’t I remember?
Ensconced in his hospitality room, replete with comfy chairs, we test his experimental variation of “Elven Gold.” Our pipe smoke has laden the air. He increased the amount of Latakia I think.
Augustus blows a smoke ring and smiles. “Both stories have two brothers. Gold plays a part in each. One of the brothers gets married. When that brother chases a stag and encounters a witch, the other brother must come to save him.”
“Aren’t we talking about motifs?”
“Motifs? I can’t imagine that word being in an old storyteller’s vocabulary. To state it kindly, he ‘borrowed’ from other stories. It wouldn’t surprise me to know that a skilled storyteller had an endless supply of story-pieces, borrowed and stolen by ear.
“I get the sense that my storyteller took a little from one story and a little from another, then put a twist on it to make it his own. I see an old teller, sitting by the hearth of the inn, pulling the story-pieces out of his mental swag bag, but assembling the story he tells differently every time. One evening someone writes down what they heard, and creates the version that comes down to us.
“The notable difference between Two Brothers and The Golden Children is that in the former the brothers find gold coins under their pillows every morning. In the latter the brothers are gold.
“Oddly, in both cases the significance of the gold fades by the end of the story and the brotherly rescue becomes the point.
Actually, The Golden Children is filled with oddity. The marriage before the father gets home, and the thought of murder was interesting. The golden horses didn’t play much of a role for being golden and all that. Then we have the secret identity thing going on.”
“Yes, the bearskin,” I put in. “Why does that mean the youth will be taken as a vagabond? Does this relate to the Grimms’ Bearskin?”
“And the chase of the stag.” Augustus is waving his pipe again. “That comes right out of the beginning of The Six Swans.”
“Now that you point to it,” I say as I feel the Latakia going to my head, “The Golden Childrendoes feel like parts of other stories strung together. It starts out sounding like The Fisherman and His Wife, then slips into Two Brothers with a dash of Bearskin thrown in.”
Augustus nods his agreement. “What my teller hit upon—and a bold move on his part—was to make the brothers of gold, as well as their horses, and the lilies. Maybe it is my ignorance, but I think my storyteller came up with the golden children on his own.
“My fascination with these transcribed fairy tales is to hear the voice of a teller rise above the editing of literary collectors to come through to my ears. For that moment, I am sitting by the inn hearth listening to him.”