“Oh look.” Duckworth’s oars stop in midair. He nods toward the riverbank. It is solid with a growth of pinks.
“It reminds me of a Grimm story,” I say.
“Of course it does.” Duckworth resumes his rowing.
“No, really. It’s even called The Pink Flower.”
“There’s no escape. Go ahead. Tell me the story.”
A queen gives birth to a son to whom God grants the power of having every wish fulfilled. The castle cook steals the child, secreting him away with a wet nurse, and smears blood on the sleeping queen’s apron as if she carelessly let the child be eaten by a wild animal. Enraged, the king shuts his queen in a tower for seven years, in complete darkness with no food or drink. However, she is sustained by angels who come to her in the form of doves to bring her nourishment.
When the child is old enough to speak, the cook has him wish for a castle and lands, so that the cook can live like a lord. To entertain the lad, the cook has him wish for a beautiful maiden to look after him.
Later, afraid the young prince will one day wish to visit his father the king, the cook instructs the maiden to kill the prince in his sleep. When she reveals the plot to the prince, he wishes the villain into a poodle forced to eat hot coals until flames come from its mouth.
The prince then decides to return to his father’s kingdom to see what has become of his mother. He turns the maiden into a pink flower, puts it in his pocket, and with the poodle in tow, heads home.
He wishes for a ladder to climb the tower and calls inside to his mother, letting her know he has come to rescue her. He then presents himself as a huntsman to the king, promising him as much venison as he can want, although there has been no game in the kingdom for a long time.
The prince, still in disguise, leads the king’s huntsmen out, then wishes for deer to appear. They return with wagonloads of meat. The king is delighted and has the prince/huntsman sit by his side at the banquet. During the meal the prince wishes that someone would ask after the queen. The king does not want to speak of her, but the prince now reveals himself.
He tells the king it was the cook who stole him away, placing the blame upon the queen. The poodle is brought out to eat more hot coals before the prince wishes him back into his true state. Exposed as the kidnapper, the cook is thrown into the dungeons.
The prince then shows his father the pretty pink flower and wishes the maiden back into her form. The king calls for the release of his queen. She is brought to the banquet but refuses to eat or drink, declaring God has given her salvation, and dies happily three days later. The king has the cook drawn and quartered, but nonetheless grief overtakes the king and he soon dies.
“Good grief, is this a fairy tale or a Shakespeare tragedy I haven’t heard of?” Duckworth has stopped rowing again.
“Well, the prince and the flower girl get married in the end.”
“That hardly compensates for all the injustice.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2015 The Pink Flower – Part Two
Duckworth and I continue our rowing, but I can see by his knitted brow he is thinking about The Pink Flower.
“Hold on,” he says. “The math doesn’t work.”
“What math?” I know my story is in trouble.
“Listen, the cook steals the prince and hands him over to a wet nurse. So, let’s say the prince is two years old at most. The king shuts the queen in the tower for seven years. When the son returns, the queen is still in the tower; therefore, the seven years have not passed. I’ll give the story a little advantage and say that the seven years are almost over. The lad was two years old when abducted. Seven years have gone by. He is nine years old at best. He goes to the king and passes himself off as a huntsman? A nine-year-old huntsman?
“And further,” he says, (Oh my goodness, but he is on a roll.) “the prince wishes for a ladder to climb the tower, and then he calls to his mother. Through a door, a window? She is supposed to be in complete darkness, yet they can easily call to each other through some sort of opening. And why does the king have huntsmen when there has been no game to hunt?
“Now, about his knowing his own history that he reveals to the king: who told him about it? Certainly not the cook. The prince wished the maiden into existence after his kidnapping. How would she know about it? Who else is there?”
“Well,” I say, feeling cornered, “the story does not tell us.”
“And what about the ‘hello’ factor?”
“The ‘hello’ factor?”
“Yes, as in ‘Hello, why don’t you wish your parents to forget their history and think they are living happily ever after and don’t have to kill themselves.’ I have no respect for this character. He could have wished for world peace. What do we get? A fire-breathing poodle.”
“Duckworth, Duckworth,” I defend, “you can’t apply everyday logic to fairy tales. They are not that sturdy, nor are they meant to reflect some piece of reality as mainstream fiction might do. Fairy tales aren’t necessarily trying to make a point or pass on a moral. They are here to flex our imagination.”
We have come to our dock and Duckworth ties a rope around a mooring. “Still, there must be reasonable structure to any story.”
I unship my oars and stash them on the bottom of the boat. “Well, to start with, a fairy tale is a folktale with the element of magic.”
“Fair enough,” says Duckworth. “What are the rules?”
“What are the rules?” I ponder this as I step from the boat to the dock. I don’t quite make it. My foot slips and twists on the wet, mossy planks of the decking. In a moment I find myself in deep water. I hope there are no nixies about.
When you ask, What are the rules of fairy tales? you are in deep water.
Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2015 The Pink Flower – Part Three
I feel foolish sitting here in my study with my foot nestled on a pillow and elevated on a table to ease the swelling and throbbing of my twisted ankle. After Duckworth pulled me out of the river and got me home, I should have limped off to the doctor. But now it is late and I simply will have to wait till morning.
The throbbing is keeping me awake, so I contemplate Duckworth’s question. What are the rules for fairy tales?
Fairy tales turn on its head the literary injunction to writers to “Show, don’t tell.” Where the fairy tale tells you flatly that the king had a beautiful daughter, the writer of a literary tale might cover the same fact by saying:
“The door opened and into the great hall stepped a girl, perhaps twelve year of age, her blond hair falling about her slender shoulders.
“’Oh father,” she said to King William . . .'”
And more likely than not, in fairy tales neither character will have a name other than “the princess” or “the king.” Dialog tends to be sparse, and the point of view is usually third-person objective; that is, we don’t get inside their heads.
But that is not what Duckworth objected to in The Pink Flower. What stopped him was the nonsense. Perhaps my question should be, What are the rules for fairy-tale nonsense?
No, I’ll change that again. What are the rules for fairy-tale beyond-sense?
I see fairy-tale plot lines as a series of images, a storyboard if you will, but a sketchy storyboard. The tales give little description of the scene at hand. Is the king’s castle in a town? On a mountain? Is the cook young or old? There is no author trying to get the listener or reader to image exactly what they want them to see. In these authorless tales the listeners provide these details for themselves. The images that make up the story are created by and belong to the listener. This is where the beyond-sense comes in. The listener also creates what lies behind the images.
In The Pink Flower, I see the tower as the central image, a phallic symbol in which a female is imprisoned. This tower appears in other stories, its prisoner invariably a female, put there by a king or a witch.
The notion of the tower’s entrapment lies at the heart of this story and is reflected elsewhere in the tale. The cook kidnaps the baby prince to control his wishes. The young prince does not know any better, and is being mentally entrapped. When the cook fears the prince is about to break out of that entrapment, he tries to have him killed, a plan that backfires.
The maiden, wished into existence by the prince, is beholden to him. Her entrapment is a gentle, loving one, represented by his turning her into a flower, but an entrapment nonetheless.
But these are my insights behind my images of the story. For someone else, the tower may not resonate. Their central image may be the blood-smeared apron. For them this is a story about injustice rather than entrapment.
My wakefulness and throbbing foot have brought me to this conclusion. There may be no hard-and-fast rules governing fairy-tale images, but the images need to be of such a nature that our imaginations can seize upon them, take our cues, and rewrite them for ourselves.
The implications of a cook being turned into a fire-eating poodle, I will leave for others to ponder.