I hear Thalia’s shuffle coming down the hall. I’m already in the comfy chair. To my surprise she comes through the study door, her Grimm pinned under her elbow, carrying Johannes, her arms wrapped around his stomach, and his legs hanging down.
“Where’s Teddy?” I ask.
“He’s with Mom. Needs his eye sewed back on.”
“Ah,” I say, “Well Johannes, I’m pleased you are joining us tonight.”
“Don’t pander,” he grumps, and wiggles from Thalia’s arms to jump onto the back of the comfy.
Thalia grabs my belt to pull herself up onto my lap, and we perform the eyes-closed, finger-waving selection process on the table of contents of her battered copy of Grimm.
The Three Languages, I announce.
A Swiss nobleman has a worthless son in that the lad cannot learn anything. Sent off to study with a scholar, the boy returns after a year having learned the language of dogs. Angered, the father sends him off again to another scholar, resulting in the youth learning the language of birds. The third attempt at learning gains the lad the language of frogs.
Disgusted, the nobleman instructs his people to take the boy out into the woods, kill him, and return with his eyes and tongue as proof that the deed has been done. His people cannot bring themselves to kill the poor innocent, and let him escape. They return with the eyes and tongue of a deer.
The lad seeks shelter with another nobleman, but is assigned to a tower inhabited by wild dogs that daily eat a man. The youth goes without fear to the tower. The dogs not only do not eat him, but also tell him how to break the curse they are under—by taking from them the golden treasure they were magically obliged to guard.
The nobleman of this castle, delighted with the young man for breaking the curse—not to mention the chest of gold—adopts him as his son.
The lad now gets it into his head to visit Rome. On the way he falls into conversation with frogs who tell him that he is to become the next pope. The lad turns contemplative and saddened by the news.
Arriving in Rome, he finds the pope has died and the cardinals are looking for a sign from God to guide their selection in the choice of a new pope. Entering the church, two doves alight on his shoulders and the cardinals ask him to become the pope. The young man is reluctant, but the doves counsel him to accept.
He is then required to say Mass, but, despite knowing three languages, he does not know a word of Latin. However, the doves whisper the words in his ears.
I stop reading.
“And then?” Thalia asks.
“That’s it. There’s no more story.”
Thalia’s brows crease. “That’s not the ending. Tell me.”
“No, really, that’s it. It’s not my fault.” I put my palms up in the air.
Thalia, still unconvinced, reads the page for herself. She gives me a skeptical glance, as if I am still somehow at fault, takes her book with a sigh, and saunters out of the study, her nightgown swishing along the floor.
“Not my fault,” I defend myself to Johannes. He merely chortles at my discomfort.
Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2018 The Three Languages – Part Two
A Rainy Amble
I put on my mukluks and rain slicker, and take my umbrella from the stand. Thalia’s cat nimbly leaps from the armoire by the door to my shoulder.
“I’m going with you to see Augustus.”
“Why do you think I’m going to see Augustus?”
“You question my insight?”
He is right. I’m going to see Augustus. The Three Languages is a little too strange not to run it by my colleague in fairy-tale lore.
With Johannes perched on my shoulder, under my umbrella, I amble down our sidewalk toward the cobblestone street along which sits both the tobacco shop and Melissa’s Serious Books. Frankly, there aren’t as many cobblestone streets left in this city as I would like.
The bell over Augustus’s door rings as we enter. Johannes leaps from my shoulder and follows me at my heel.
“What’s this?” Augustus gestures toward Thalia’s cat. “I’ve never seen a cat following its master around like a dog.”
Johannes’s bristling tail alerts me that I need to change the subject before there is bloodshed.
“The Three Languages,” I say. “What can you tell me about that story?”
“I will exchange my knowledge for your opinion on my latest blend, Traveler’s Due.” He motions toward his smoking room.
When we sit down and tamp our pipes, Johannes curls up in my lap—he never does that—and pretends not to be listening.
“That is an odd tale,” Augustus begins. “Not part of the 1812 edition, but a later entry. It’s interesting to me that the Grimms ever included it in their canon. They were not Catholic and were averse to the Holy Roman Empire, siding with the German Nationalist Movement.
“If I remember correctly, it was suggested the tale refers to Pope Sylvester the Second.”
To my alarm, Augustus pulls out of his pocket a cell phone, taps its face, and says into it, “Pope Sylvester the Second.”
“Augustus,” I declare, “when have you adopted modern ways?”
He tries to suppress a smile. “It’s a gift from Duckworth. He wanted a phone with more bells and whistles, and gave me his old one.”
Augustus studies his screen. “I am afraid Sylvester does not appear to be our innocent lad, but a rather competent scholar, pretty much a mathematician and astronomer. I see some curious legends about him and the devil, also something about a talking bronze head, but no doves.”
Augustus searches around on his phone some more. “Pope Fabian the First looks like a better candidate. He was selected pope when a dove landed on his head. Doves, however, are a common association with popes,” Augustus concludes.
“How about dogs and frogs?”
“None,” he says, “not according to what I am seeing.”
“Reminds me,” I say, “of the agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac who stayed up all night wondering if there really was a dog.”
Augustus chuckles. “The role of the frogs in the story does bother me. They are usually associated with pagan magic.”
“As in The Three Feathers?” I suggest.
Johannes’s ears flicker, I think from interest.
“Quite,” Augustus nods. “Why are the frogs prophesizing the lad’s rising to become pope? It’s as though they are looking down from a higher perspective. And why are they being paired with the doves, as animal helpers, to bring the hero to the papal throne?
“The tale does not exactly follow the usual fairy-tale patterns but does not feel like a literary tale either. I can’t help but sense there is a lack of balance in this story, especially when it comes to a sudden halt at the end.”
Thalia is not alone.
Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2018 The Three Languages – Part Three
As I Return with an ounce of Traveler’s Due, my new favorite tobacco, Johannes grumbles in my ear.
“I went out in the rain for that? He wasn’t even close.”
Not wanting to appear to be a crazy old man talking to himself with a cat on his shoulder, I hold my comments until we are safely in my foyer.
“He did raise some questions to be answered,” I say, letting my furry traveler back onto the armoire.
I follow Johannes down the hall back to the study. “Neither you nor Augustus is peeking beneath the surface.”
“Well, then,” I say, poking up the embers on the hearth and throwing on a few more logs, “what do you see underneath the story?”
Johannes settles on my table close to the fireplace. “The lad learns the language of dogs, birds, and frogs. Each creature is a representative of the three animal kingdoms: mammals, birds, and reptiles.”
I tamp my new favorite into my pipe. “It is tempting to think about earth, air, and water.”
“No, the elements do not have language, and you are forgetting about fire,” Johannes protests.
“Not so fast.” I like this notion of mine. “The dogs are creatures of the earth, the material world. They bring to the hero the material comfort of gold.
“The frogs are creatures of the water. I am going to equate them with wisdom and learning. They tell our hero of the future.”
Johannes sighs with a hint of contempt, but I push on.
“The birds are creatures of the air. They obviously represent the spiritual aspect, giving the hero the words to the Mass. What do you think?”
Johannes shakes his head. “You’re forgetting all about the languages. Language is the instrument of learning. The dogs instruct the lad how to get the gold. The frogs instruct the lad about what is coming, and birds instruct him how to say the Mass.”
“Isn’t that a variant of my interpretation?”
He eyes me without responding.
“Alright,” I relent, “your message is we should listen to the animals?”
“You would do well.”
He may have a point.
“Still,” I say, “there remains the imbalance of which Augustus spoke. The tale does not follow the usual tropes. There is no kind act the hero performs for the animal helpers, who then return the favor. Each of the animal helpers does not have its own ‘act’ in the story. The dogs do, but the frogs and doves are part of the same scene. And that scene ends abruptly with no ‘and they lived happily ever after.’”
I know I am ranting a bit.
“And what of the hero being taken out to be killed, but his father’s henchmen let him go, substituting the eyes and tongue of a deer. In fairy tales the intended victim has always been a female, such as Snow White. Why the gender shift?”
“Notice,” Johannes responds, almost purring, “it’s the tongue and not the usual heart. Again, something to do with language.”
I had not caught that, but his comment does not answer my questions. I feel unbalanced by the tale.