“Melissa stole my fairy.” Thalia enters my study in her pajamas, dragging Teddy behind her.
I consider. “You took the fairy to the bookstore?”
“She crawled into my pocket.”
“She is a bookish fairy. I fear you tempted her fey nature to indulge herself. She probably thinks she is in Nirvana.”
Thalia and Teddy settle in beside me on the comfy chair. “Nearwana?”
“The best of all possible places.”
“Oh. Yeah. Melissa’s is pretty cool.”
“I am sure the fairy will come out every time you are there.”
“Maybe.” Thalia pouts.
“Well, tonight I have a story with a dragon in it.”
“Really?” she brightens.
I read her Grimms’ The Devil and His Grandmother.
Three soldiers desert by hiding in a wheat field, expecting the encampment to move on in the morning, leaving them behind. The army doesn’t move. By the second day the deserters are desperate.
“What’s a desserter?”
I note Thalia’s arms are crossed. “One who likes ice cream and does not want to fight in a war.”
A dragon, who proves to be the Devil, descends from the sky to ask them what they are doing. He then promises them if they will serve him for seven years he will get them out of their predicament. The soldiers readily agree. The dragon goes on to offer them an extravagant life for seven years at the end of which their souls belong to him unless they can guess his riddles. He gives them a small whip, which when they snap, sends gold coins dancing through the air.
“Can the Devil be a dragon?” Thalia’s brow knits.
“In this story he can.”
The seven years pass quickly—as time does when one is having fun—and two of the soldiers fall into depression as their end nears. The third of their number remains hopeful, and on the advice of an old woman, who comes wandering down the road, he visits the Devil’s grandmother to plead his case.
“The Devil has a grandmother?” Her brow knits again.
“Apparently. Did you ever notice that “Devil” is evil with a ‘D’?”
The Devil’s grandmother takes a liking to this optimist and hides him in her cellar when the dragon comes home for supper. She engages her grandson in a conversation about the riddles for the next day. The devil is preparing a feast in hell for the three soldiers. To avoid the feast, they must guess that the roast will be a dead monkey floating in the North Sea, their spoon will be the rib bone of a whale, and their wine glass a hollow horse’s hoof.
Armed with the answers, the soldier returns to his companions. The next day the dragon is cheated out of his victims and loses his power over them. He flies off leaving them behind, along with the small whip that keeps them in luxury for the rest of their lives.
“I like the money whip. I don’t like the dead monkey,” she muses.
“Both are striking images.”
“I still want my fairy back.”
“I’m afraid that’s the fairy’s choice.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2015 The Devil and His Grandmother – Part Two
“Hello, my nixie,” I call, as I settle myself on a rock above the water’s edge of the magic forest’s pond. Slowly she comes from below. I see her high cheekbones and the arc of her brow before she breaks the water’s surface.
“Hello, my human.”
I toss her an unshelled peanut from my paper bag, which she breaks between her long, pale greenish fingers to get the kernel inside.
“Can you tell me,” I ask, as I toss her another, “can the Devil be a dragon and have a grandmother?”
“No, I can’t.” She raises her hand for another peanut.
“Why won’t you tell me?” I withhold the nut.
“Because he is not of my pantheon. I know little of him.”
I relent and throw her the treat. “Sorry, I assumed all the (here I almost say ‘evil creatures’) adversaries of humans knew each other.”
“Adversaries? You and I are not adversaries. I am of the merfolk. We often have love for humans.”
“Whom you seduce, and sometimes drown,” I add.
“Drown if they deserve it, but that does not make us adversaries.”
“What can you tell me of the Devil?”
“He is a fallen angel, along with his other demons. Their conflict is with their god. I see where you mortals get trapped in the center.”
The nixie and I have fallen into a rhythm of tossing and catching peanuts as we talk.
“Now that you mention different pantheons, it occurs to me, I don’t recall any stories with merfolk and demons together in the same tale.”
“I wouldn’t keep company with them.” The nixie frowns.
“Nor do you merfolk look for souls to steal. You might steal the whole body, but you are not after the soul.”
“Possess.” I correct. “Do you have a soul?”
“Of course not. Why would we immortals want souls, ours or anyone else’s, unless we have a heaven or hell to populate?”
I see a pattern I had not seen before. “You merfolk often look for human lovers. The Devil is looking for souls. Witches are looking to harm humans by death or enchantment.”
I absently shell a peanut and pop it into my mouth.
“Hey!” The nixie glares.
“Oh, sorry. Now elves are a little more complicated. They can be helpers or tricksters. Giants and trolls are simply problems.”
“Stepmothers?” the nixie puts in.
“Now there is an adversary,” I agree, “at least in fairy tales.”
I continue pitching her peanuts while I think.
“Wait a moment. Pantheons you say. What about the Roman pantheon? Fauns, satyrs, nymphs? The Romans conquered most of Europe and moved well into the Isles, but they left not a single dryad behind in the tales. Why is that?”
“Fauns, satyrs, and nymphs did not arise here. We did—the nixies, elves, dwarves, and giants. The mystic realms of this land belong to us.”
My hand rustles inside an empty paper bag. I look to find the peanuts are gone. I hear a splash and my nixie is gone as well.
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2015 The Devil and His Grandmother – Part Three
A Dragon’s Grandmother
“Tell me, can the Devil be a dragon and have a grandmother?”
Augustus eyes me suspiciously, then relaxes. “Ah, you are talking about The Devil and His Grandmother.” Augustus is easily the sharpest person I know; at least among fairy-tale aficionados like myself. As always, we inhabit his comfy chairs, surrounded by tobacco smoke.
“It is a rather unGrimm-like story; there is more of the tavern than the nursery in it.”
“True, Thalia was a little uneasy about parts. She didn’t like the dead monkey.”
“Yes, the dead monkey floating in the North Sea. What an image. I suspect that is the invention of a particular storyteller. Monkeys are not native to northern climes. By asking the poor soldiers to guess that it might be their roast, the Devil set up an impossible task. Storywise, the teller presents an informed, sophisticated device within the riddle. That speaks to a modern addition to the motif of the three questions. When did the monkey come into the folk consciousness? I think that might date this version for us.”
I take a pipe cleaner from Augustus’ supply on his side table and pull the stem from my bowl. “She also likes the money whip.”
“That is new for me too. Usually gold coins drop from mouths, are found under pillows in the morning, or come out of an endless bag of riches.”
“I keep thinking of The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs.” I reassemble my pipe.
“Well of course you do; it follows the same pattern of the grandmother helping the protagonist find out the questions.”
I relight my tobacco. “So what is with the Devil’s grandmother? He is a fallen angel, an immortal. He should not have a family linage.”
“There is a tendency for folklore to demote deities and heroes to folksy figures. Fionn mac Cumhaill, of the Irish tales, is an example. He was the leader of the Fianna warriors, and king of Tara. The latter-day tales about him—now called MacCool—cast him as a dumb giant dependent on the good advices of his wife.”
Augustus blows a few playful smoke rings, then continues.
“In the case of the Devil, the fallen-angel aspect is not frequently taught from the pulpit, and largely ignored by the folk. They did not discuss how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. The Devil to them had always been the Devil and nothing more. Jesus had a mother; why couldn’t the Devil have a grandmother?”
“What catches me,” I say, “is that we don’t hear of the Devil’s wife, mother, father, sisters, or brothers, only the grandmother.”
Augustus smiles. “Old women have a special status in these tales. There are two old women in the tales. One is a helper (as in our story), and the other is a witch. They are never the protagonist. Never is a story about a witch or a wise woman of the wood. These women always serve the story, for good or for ill, but never is the story about them.”
“And the Devil as a dragon?”
Augustus shifts uneasily in his comfy chair. “Having just said the folk didn’t connect with the fallen-angel thing, the Devil does appear as a great red dragon in the Book of Revelation in a battle where he is cast down to earth. That is perhaps the source for this image. I’ll suppose the storyteller picked and chose from the Bible what he liked and left the rest, but then, don’t we all.”