Garden of the Hesperides, Sir Edward B. Jones
At Loose Ends
It is of considerable consolation to me to have Melissa comfort me tonight, here in my study. She knows how badly I take personal loss and her company is a healing salve to my beleaguered soul. Thalia is not with me tonight. She is on a sleepover.
“Well,” Melissa says, setting down her wineglass, “you could read to me instead.”
“Oh,” I say, “what a delightful idea.” I reach for my copy of Nursery and Household Tales.
“Hmmm,” she reacts, “Not Grimm. I’ve read those umpteen times. I want something new.” She rises to peruse my bookcases. The scent of her perfume tickles my nose as she passes by.
“I am not sure there is such a thing as a truly new fairy tale.”
She ignores my tease. “Ah, here’s a book that is one I haven’t sold to you.”
I chuckle. “It’s a present from Augustus, maybe three Christmases ago.”
“Russian Fairy Tales. Oh! By Alexander Afanasyev, the Russian Brothers Grimm. I know him from his Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs. That work’s claim to fame is being the popularization of the Snow Maiden. It’s also one of those books Russian literary students refer to but never actually read, for the good reason that it’s huge. Three cumbersome volumes as I recall.”
I weighed the Russian Fairy Tales book that Melissa put into my hands. “This is no lightweight tome either.”
“An earlier work, before he really put on the literary weight. But, in the spirit of the Russian literary students, I haven’t read this one either. What story will you choose?”
I open the book to its table of contents and hand it back to her. “Thalia does the finger stab.”
“Of course,” she says. Closing her eyes, she rotates her index finger in the air, bringing it down on the page. “The Wicked Sisters,” she announces, hands the book back to me, then curls up on the Chesterfield, her wineglass in hand.
Prince Ivan, the heartthrob of the kingdom, overhears three sisters talking about him. The eldest sister says, if Ivan marries her, she will spin for him the most marvelous shirt. The second sister says she will weave for him a coat of silver and gold. The youngest states she cannot spin nor weave, but would bear Ivan sons with suns on the foreheads, moons on the back of their heads, and stars on their sides.
Prince Ivan marries the youngest and she bears him three sons with the celestial markings. However, as each son is born, the jealous sisters substitute first a kitten, which they claim is what their sister birthed, later a puppy, and at last a boy, but without the sun, moon, and stars.
The young princess is tried in court for deceiving Prince Ivan and consigned to have her eyes gouged out, put into a tarred barrel with her child, and thrown into the sea.
Prince Ivan marries the eldest sister, the one who whisked away her younger sister’s children and put them, as the story says, in the royal garden’s green arbor.
Meanwhile, the substitute child, sealed in the barrel with the suffering princess, grows into a young man in a matter of hours.
With the invocation, “By my request, by the pike’s command, by God’s blessing,” the boy brings the princess back to shore, cures her blindness, and transports the palace and the garden, where the three brothers are hidden, to their mother.
The boy then presents the three luminescent brothers with cakes made from their mother’s milk. The brothers recognize the favor, are reunited with their mother, and treat the substitute child as their brother.
They live in the transported palace, giving rest and comfort to anyone who travels their way, including some monks who later find themselves in Prince Ivan’s company. They describe to him their previous hosts who had suns on the foreheads, moons behind, and stars on their bodies. The monks also tell of their mother, a most lovely princess.
Prince Ivan knows who they are, abandons his false wife, and rejoins his true family. All live happily thereafter except for the eldest sister, who is put in a tarred barrel and thrown out to sea.
Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2018 The Wicked Sisters – Part Two
Melissa sips from her glass, her sight drifting to the flames of the fireplace. “I feel the story is made up of symbols. I sense it addressing something spiritual.”
“What might that be?”
“I’m not sure. Let’s see if we can put it together.”
“Oh, good, a puzzle.” I settle deeper into my comfy chair.
Melissa taps the rim of her glass with a finger. “Prince Ivan is obviously the prize. The struggle in the story is for his attention.”
“Agreed. He disappears in the middle section while we follow the youngest sister. What is the significance of his overhearing the three sisters?”
“I’m seeing,” says Melissa, “the shadow of The Judgment of Paris, when a mortal judges the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite for their beauty.”
“Oh! That’s bound not to turn out well.”
“No, it doesn’t. Each goddess tries to bribe him. Paris chooses Aphrodite’s bribe, which is the mortal beauty Helen, leading to the Trojan War.”
“Unfortunate,” I say, “but I see the similarity you suggest. Does that hint at the sisters being more than mortal women?”
Melissa thinks on that a moment. “Yes. We don’t see that with the elder sisters, who offer up material gains for Prince Ivan, marvelous clothing indeed, but not items outside of mortal women’s ability to achieve. However, the youngest sister promises to birth celestial beings, well beyond human capacity.”
“Let me argue that.” I am thinking while I am talking. “Fairy tales are well known for borrowing from the Greek myths, although members of their pantheon are never allowed to show their faces. Only the Christian players occasionally have a role; God, Mother Mary, angels, and Satan all make their appearance in the tales. That is unfair, but not my point. Keeping with the tale’s rules, the youngest sister cannot be allowed to be one of the immortals.”
Melissa rotates the nearly empty wineglass in her hand. “True, nor does the story really suggest such a thing. I think we are meant to accept that the youngest sister can decide to have celestial children with no explanation or justification. She can do it if she wishes.”
“Next,” I go on, “we come to her being accused of giving birth to creatures. I have often seen this type of ruse in the tales before, Grimm’s The Six Swans for example.”
“Yes, but the culprit is usually a discontented in-law or stepmother, not a flesh-and-blood sister. Jealous sisters should be confined to bad advice.”
“It is my observation,” I purposely intone a little, “the stepmother-displacement thing at least, is a nineteenth-century invention. In earlier versions of these tales, mothers were quick to kill their children, and siblings quick to kill each other, as was, in truth, happening among the royal families at the time.”
“Fairy tales reflect the culture in which they live,” Melissa recites.
“I agree again,” I say, “Let’s go on.”
Melissa picks up the thread of my thought. “The youngest is tried in court, which gives the judgment she is to be blinded and thrown into a tarred barrel with the substitute child.”
“Well, at least it wasn’t the nail-lined barrel dragged through the streets by two white horses as is usual.”
Melissa giggles in her charming way. “There is something about barrels as torture devices that the stories really like.”
“The substitute child,” I ask. “What is he all about?”
Melissa frowns. “We edge back again to pagan concepts. In all the pantheons none of the gods or goddesses has a childhood. They are born fully adult. I recall an Irish tale collected by Jeremiah Curtain, The Shee An Gannon and the Gruagach Gaire, which starts, ‘The Shee An Gannon was born in the morning, named at noon, and went in the evening to ask his daughter of the king of Erin.’”
“Hmm,” I contemplate, “While the Greek Thalia was the daughter of Zeus, I’m certainly happy our Thalia has a childhood.”
I shiver at the thought of its absence.
Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2018 The Wicked Sisters – Part Three
The World Turned Upside Down
Refilling Melissa’s empty glass, I say, “Just like the youngest sister, we must accept the child’s magical state without question. Perhaps he is the kind hand of fate.”
Melissa is staring again into the hearth’s flames. “I see the magical child as an orphan, who craves a place in the world. He has latched onto the youngest sister, whom he calls his mother although she is not. He is bent on bringing her back to the light, as it were.”
I pick up on her notion. “They are in a barrel, in the dark. She is descending toward death while he is rising into existence, crossing paths.”
Melissa nods, “He is, step by step, resurrecting her each time he invokes an action with his command.”
“By the way, what is ‘by the pike’s command’?”
“Oh, I know that. It is from another Russian folktale, probably the best known in Russia, like The Three Little Pigs is to us. It has to do with a simpleton and a talking fish, a pike that grants wishes.
“But, to continue.” Melissa refocuses. “I wonder if her blindness has significance. There are blind gods, the Norse
Höðr, who is the one destined to kill Badr, not to mention Odin sacrificing an eye for wisdom. Oedipus blinds himself. Metope is blinded by her father as punishment. The poet Homer is blind and there are lots of blind prophets. I think much of their blindness—although not all—has to do with gaining insight.”
“I don’t see her gaining insight,” I object. “She’s more a victim of circumstance. Maybe the blindness is just a prop, supplied for the magical child to heal.”
Melissa’s skepticism shows in the twist of her lips. “Perhaps. I feel I’m missing something, but let’s go on for argument’s sake.”
“Oh,” I put in, “minor point, but I noticed the second sister disappears by the end of the story. The eldest gets punished, but not the middle sister.”
“Well,” replies Melissa, “the story doesn’t give her a role to play after the start, so she gets crowded out.”
“Quite,” I reflect. “The tales are economical. If a character does not act, they are gone. That happens a lot to fathers in these stories. And what about the thing with the magical child transporting Prince Ivan’s palace and the royal garden—where the celestial children live—to his adopted mother, without the prince apparently noticing?”
“You’re getting us diverted,” Melissa scolds.
“Sorry,” I say. “How,” I conjecture, “do we view the celestial children?”
Melissa takes a deep breath and a goodly sip of wine. “While the youngest sister is the protagonist, they are the focal point of the tale. They are a cosmic presence hidden away by the eldest sister in the arbor, where they sustain themselves, infants though they are. If they are.
“However, they take little action. Their action comes when the magical child gives them the cakes made from their mother’s milk . . . Don’t interrupt me; I know that’s loaded with symbolism. . . . and that is the only time in the story where we hear them speak. They call out for the magical child to bring their mother to them, then incorporate the child into their family as one of their brothers, ending his orphan status.”
Without apparent cause, Melissa raises her glass, then takes a long sip. “I got it.” She’s on a roll. “It is a story of coming into awareness. The magical child, certainly, was on the fast track for becoming aware. The youngest sister, in her travail, was resurrected and came into a new awareness with new eyes. The celestial children were not fully realized until they became aware of their mother.
“Note that Prince Ivan doesn’t go to rescue and return them to his home. Ivan, who has become aware that his true bride still lives along with his sons, joins them where they are, holding a new court—a new awareness.”
“Puzzle solved,” I declare.
That’s always gratifying.