It is a joy to me when Melissa visits my study. Not only is there her companionship, but also the duty of the evening read is transferred when Thalia and Teddy crawl into her lap. Not that I mind reading to my granddaughter, but I like being read to as well. I cradle my glass of wine in my hands and settle in for a story.
Thalia, ritualistically, closes her eyes and circles her finger above the book’s table of contents, stabbing it down impulsively.
“Didn’t you read that one last night?” asks Melissa.
The finger circles again and strikes.
“The Sea-Hare,” says Melissa. “I’m not sure even I have read this one. ‘Once upon a time there was a king’s daughter . . .’”
And, as so often happens, she did not want to marry. Being a princess, she could set her conditions for marriage. She declared she would marry no one but the man who could hide from her and not be found.
That sounded easy enough, but at the start of the story, the heads of ninety-seven suitors found their way to the tops of pikes for the failure of their owners.
The princess had at her disposal a magical device in the form of a tower at the top of which was a rotunda with twelve windows that looked out across her realm. From the first window she could see everything more clearly than any person looking out their own window. From the second window she could see more clearly yet, and so on until from the twelfth window she could see everything above and beneath the earth.
Enter the three brothers to be her suitors. Starting with the eldest, followed by the second, the princess need only go to the first window to find the eldest hiding in a lime pit and the second in the castle basement.
The youngest requests a day of grace to reflect and three chances to hide. The princess in her confidence, grants his request. The next day, he reflects by going out hunting and, in the spirit of granting requests, refrains from shooting three creatures: a raven, a fish, and a fox.
As I sip my wine, it crosses my mind that these creatures are of the air, water, and earth.
On the first day of hiding, the young man goes to the raven, who hides him in its egg. The princess is at the eleventh window before she finds him. The raven is shot and the egg retrieved.
On the second day, the young man seeks out the fish, who swallows him and swims to the bottom of a lake. The princess is at the twelfth window before she spots the young man, sealing the fish’s fate.
On the third day he goes to the fox, who is up to the task. By dipping themselves into a spring, the fox is transformed into a merchant and the young man into a pretty little sea-hare. They go into the town market where the sea-hare attracts much attention until notice of it comes to the princess, who buys the little creature from the merchant. The fox/merchant tells the young man to creep into the princess’s braids before she goes into the tower of the twelve windows.
The twelfth window fails her and in rage she slams the window shut so violently all twelve windows shatter. At that moment she discovers the sea-hare hiding in her braids and, still angry, chases it from the room.
Soon the young man returns in his true form and they are married, the princess holding him in respect, thinking to herself, he did in fact outwit her.
“Sea-hare?” Thalia stares at Melissa.
“As far as I know,” Melissa is doubtful, “it’s a sea slug.”
“I . . . don’t . . . think . . . so,” Thalia replies with evident seriousness.
“I’ll ask Augustus,” I assure them.
Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part Two
Cartoon from the French Revolution
I know Augustus’s tobacco shop is not of the same order as Miss Cox’s garden or the Magic Forest, but for me there is a sense of the magical in its air, or is it simply the dense, blue smoke of tobacco?
There is already a gentleman in the testing room, ensconced in one of the comfy chairs, as Augustus and I enter, an engaging fellow, slim, with a mustache greyer than the hair on his head. Augustus gestures to the pipe of Fairies’ Delight he is sampling.
The gentleman nods his consent.
“Mr. Richard Martin here is another of my fairy-tale aficionados. We may speak freely.”
I introduce myself and we settle in.
“And what is the story of contention today?” Augustus reaches for the pipe tool, handing it to me.
“The Sea-Hare.” I tamp down my tobacco.
“Ah, Das Meerhäschen,” says Richard. “A latecomer to the Grimm canon. It turns up in the last edition.”
“What bothers me,” I say, lighting my pipe, “is the intrusion of an ink-spewing sea slug into the middle of a fairy tale.”
Richard laughs. “Nothing of the sort. Wilhelm borrowed this story from a book of Transylvanian Saxon folktales—putting a few of his own touches on it. ‘Meerhäschen’ simply appears to be the Saxon word for ‘rabbit.’ ”
“Still,” says Augustus, “there is the ‘meer’ part of the name.”
“Well, yes,” Richard relights his pipe, “meaning ‘sea’ or ‘lake,’ and ‘häschen’ is a little or young hare.”
“I agree the creature is not a sea snail.” Augustus raises his finger in pronouncement. “Jack Zipes preferred ‘little hamster’ in his translation. But, note, the creature caused something of a stir in the marketplace, enough to bring the princess’s attention to it, as the fox planned. The creature is unusual. I am thinking it is more along the lines of a composite creature, like the American jackalope.”
“The Germans have those creatures too,” says Richard, “but then the word would be ‘Wolpertinger.’ ”
This man knows his German.
“My vote,” he continues, “is for the guinea pig.”
“Isn’t that a South American critter?” I say between puffs of smoke.
“The conquistadors brought it back from Peru in the sixteenth century, which confirms Augustus’s notion the creature was unusual, a novelty the princess could not resist, showing us a softer side to this otherwise cold-blooded young woman, and perhaps dating this section of the story. The sea-hare just might mean ‘the rabbit from over the sea.’”
Augustus frowns a little. He does not like his pet theories abolished.
“My favorite part though,” Richard goes on, “is the twelve windows. What an image. I see the windows as an intimidating extension of her domineering personality, and the number twelve shows her frightening omnipotence over everything.”
“Not a common motif,” remarks Augustus. “Certainly the number twelve is common in the tales: The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Twelve Huntsmen, The Twelve Brothers, The Twelve Lazy Servants. But these stories have to do with twelve persons, not objects, almost shadowing the twelve apostles.”
Richard considers. “There is a Slavic tale of the twelve months, but even they are personified. On the whole, I think you’re right.”
“I took note,” I say, “of the hundred pikes with ninety-nine heads on them. This is lifted out of the Celtic tales. The Celts were fond of severed heads, not just as a means of killing someone—as the French were—but also as objects for display, even treasured objects, one might say.”
“I am concerned,” concludes Augustus, “that the twelve windows have no motif-history, the heads on pikes are borrowed, and we do get into the princess’s thought processes—a literary convention. Given these flags, I believe, quite honestly, this story is not a traditional fairy tale. I get the sense it has been tampered with a bit too much.”
Richard and I nod sagely.
Fairy Tales of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part Three
Ida R. Outwaite
Melissa and I, poised on the rock rim above the nixie’s pond, continue to stare into the dark of the water. I call again.
“Hello, my nixie.” I rattle my bag of popcorn. Nixie bait, Melissa calls it.
The water is impossibly smooth, reflecting the moon so clearly I think it floats under the surface of the pond.
“I guess,” I whisper, “we’ll not get an answer from her about magical springs turning foxes into merchants and young men into meerhäschens.”
“That’s alright,” Melissa’s voice is soft. “It’s not the question that’s been rolling around my mind.”
“What is your question?”
“It’s, you might say, about the missing persons.”
“This story, the Sea-Hare, is full of missing persons.”
“Well, to start, the king.”
“He’s not in the story.”
“Exactly. Yet the story starts, ‘Once upon a time there was a king’s daughter . . . .’ Throughout the story she is referred to as the princess. Logically, if her father, the king, is dead, and there are no siblings mentioned, she should be queen. But she remains a princess, inferring the father is around, but he has gone missing.”
“I take your point.” I glance at the motionless water. “Many times the stories start with a father figure who quickly disappears without explanation.”
Melissa tilts her head. “Apparently her mother is missing as well. That’s a little unusual. The girl seems parentless.
“Then,” she continues, “there are the two brothers.”
“What? They are accounted for. Their heads top off pikes ninety-eight and ninety-nine.”
“Yes and no. Their younger brother acts as if they never existed. Consider, he pursues and marries the woman who caused his brothers’ deaths, with never a suggestion of retribution. Our hero now lives in a castle on the grounds of which are ninety-nine rotting heads, two of which are his brothers, and no word of a decent burial. The Greeks would never have put up with that.”
It crosses my mind she and I are talking in hushed tones. One would think we are conspirators.
“You are trying,” I suggest, “to apply literary plot concerns to traditional tales.”
“No, no. I am not criticizing the tale’s structure. I am talking about me, the one experiencing the story. Sorry, but I have been thinking about this all day.”
“Ah,” I realize, “another slow day at the bookshop.”
Melissa gives me her sad smile. “There are days I don’t know if I am a proprietor or a hermit, but it does give me time to think, and today’s thought was: Why did I, upon first encountering this story, accept the ninety-seven heads as so much decoration, not question the king or queen’s whereabouts, and thoughtlessly kick aside the two brothers, in order to follow the hero. What is the mechanism of the fairy tale that allows me to be so unconcerned and heartless for the other characters?”
“That has bothered me as well, especially when reading the tales to Thalia. Am I subliminally passing on attitudes of insensitivity and heartlessness? I have decided I am not.
“I think of it as the fairy-tale spotlight. Like on a stage—In my imagination, a musical—there may be other characters, dancers, stage settings, not to mention the orchestra and audience. But when the spotlight hits the lead, all else falls away, and should. Fairy tales do not try to depict the world; they illuminate one thought.”
Melissa’s eyes blink slowly. I believe she is content with that. I turn my attention back to the pond.
“I’m sorry she didn’t show.”
“It’s alright. I like being here.” She peers off into the darkness. “I feel I should belong in this place. Is it sacred ground?”
“Perhaps,” I comfort. “Have some popcorn.”
PS. My thanks to Richard for his help with translating the title.
2 thoughts on “Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part One”
When I tell this story, I call it “The Little Hamster Who Came Out of the Water,” after Zipes. I’m surprised you did not discuss the ending… that’s the most difficult part to convey to a modern audience: “He never told her where he had concealed himself for the third time, and who had helped him, so she believed that he had done everything by his own skill, and she had a great respect for him, for she thought to herself, “He is able to do more than I.”
So much of Grimm is not PC or in line with our present sense of ethics. (Go read “Jew in the Thornbush”) However, In the case of this story, I see it as an act in the “war of the sexes.” The protagonist “pulls one over” on his wife, and is meant to be humorous.
I think of this as on the same level as “If a man says something in the woods and there are no women there, is he still wrong?” to view it from the other side.