I am on the third floor of my house. I think of it as my attic, but really it is made up of a number of rooms connected by a hallway. I am preparing for one of my special meals with Duckworth, which we do when his wife is off at a conference and their children are with grandmum.
He recently mentioned his love of espresso and I am looking for the espresso machine my wife and I received as a wedding present all those many years ago, God rest her soul. I know exactly which room it is in.
I am lugging the dusty thing down the hall and passing one of the many doors, when it crosses my mind that I don’t know what is stored in that room. I open the door, taking a moment to refresh my memory as to what I have stored there.
The room is large, much larger than it should be for my house. An old woman is napping in a chair at the far corner. Except for her chair, there are no other furnishings in the room but for a portrait on the wall above her head.
“What’s this?” I ask, still hugging the expresso machine to my chest.
She startles awake. “The Fair One of the World,” she says, pointing to the portrait.
I approach and am surprised to see the portrait is of a young woman, remarkably like Melissa.
“I assume there is a story here,” I say.
The old woman cackles before saying, “The Quest for the Fair One of the World.”
In this story the king tells his three sons that after his death they must not enter the fortieth room of the castle. Forty days after his death the eldest son does exactly that.
“In the room is the portrait of the Fair One of the World,” says my crone. “Very much like this portrait.”
The eldest son falls in love. Outside the room, by the margin of the sea, is a golden boat moored by a golden cable. The boat carries the prince to—in the crone’s words—a certain city.
There he hears The Fair One of the World is the king’s daughter, whom the king has hidden away. Many princes have come to find her and lost their heads in the process.
Undaunted, the eldest prince goes to the king, asking for her hand. He is given forty days to find her. The prince’s quest ends with the predictable result.
The second brother repeats his elder brother’s mistakes flawlessly.
The third, and youngest brother, shows a bit more wisdom. He, too, enters the fortieth room, falls in love with the portrait, and embarks on the golden ship. However, he keeps in mind that his brothers have followed this path before and have not returned. He takes with him much gold.
Arriving at the certain city and finding out what his brothers found out, he goes to a witch for guidance. She tells him to take his gold to a goldsmith with instructions to fashion it into a hollow camel, much like a Trojan horse, in which he can hide and play music. The witch then takes the camel around the city, entertaining its citizens, until the camel comes to the attention of the king, who invites the witch to the castle. The imprisoned Fair One of the World also wishes to hear the musical camel, a request the king grants. When alone with the princess, the prince reveals his secret, and they conspire to outwit her father.
The youth then goes to the king and is given the forty days to find the princess. On the fortieth day the prince, already knowing where she is, finds the princess in the fortieth room hidden under the king’s throne.
“Either you are the son of a witch,” intones my crone imitating a kingly voice, “or The Fair One of the World has guided you.”
The prince, according to the princess’s instructions, denies it. That disclaimer is repeated two more times as the prince must pick her out, in an enchanted form, among forty ducks—she wiggles her tail as a sign—and among forty identical girls—she moves her eyes.
The king is obliged to surrender his daughter in marriage and the happy couple returns to the prince’s kingdom.
“I, too, was there and saw them living in fair prosperity and may we here live even better.” She cackles again quietly and nods back off to sleep.
Still clutching my espresso machine, I am a little embarrassed having intruded upon her rest and I slip back out of the room closing the door gently behind me.
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2018 Quest for the Fair One of the World – Part Two
Pizza and Wine
“Say that again?” Duckworth sips his espresso.
“Pizza Quattro Stagioni, or pizza of the four seasons. I personally prefer ‘autumn,’ which is the mushroom’s quarter of the pizza. The other three quarters are ‘winter,’ which is prosciutto cotto—cured ham—and black olives; for ‘spring’ it is topped with artichokes; concluding with ‘summer,’ heavy on the tomato and basil.”
“Delicious. And with what wine are you pairing it? Chianti?”
I hadn’t thought of that. “Well, I got some Malbec.”
“I heard a story yesterday,” I say, while topping the pizza dough, laboriously made, with the seasonal ingredients.
“I am shocked,” Duckworth grins.
“No you’re not.” I relate the story as best as I remember it.
“Where is it from?”
I was hoping he would not ask. “I don’t know.” My saying, Oh, from an old woman in a room I didn’t know I had, was not going to work.
While I slip the pizza into the oven, Duckworth pulls out his brain-in-your-hand and taps away on it.
“Appears to be a story in a collection called Modern Greek Folktales, by R. M. Dawkins.”
“Greek,” I echo. “Well, the Greeks were a seafaring people. That accounts for the golden ship.”
I pour some Malbec for both of us and set out a cheese board of Asiago between us. I know Duckworth’s love of strong flavors.
“Well,” Duckworth says, sipping his wine, “‘The crossing of the threshold’, in the terms of The Hero’s Journey, starts with the first brother entering the forbidden room, quite literally crossing a threshold.”
“The forbidden room,” I say, “is a common-enough motif. What I find unusual here is that behind the door is not something ominous. In Blue Beard it is the blood and corpses of previous victims. In our tale it is a charming (in the true sense of the word) picture, leading to greater adventure.”
“Or death,” puts in Duckworth.
“Well, that too. But what strikes me is the portrait of The Fair One of the World. I think of a portrait like a photograph, capturing a person in a moment of time; but not this portrait. Is it a message in a bottle? Put out, perhaps, by the princess herself to lure in a rescuer?”
“Isn’t that heartless of her? The first two brothers die in their pursuit,” Duckworth frowns.
“Well, yes,” I partially concede. “But in fairy tales, if there are three brothers, the first two are expendable. That simply isn’t the princess’s fault.”
Duckworth nods in agreement and reaches for more cheese.
Chewing, he considers aloud, “Let’s take it from the father of the three brothers’ point of view. He knows the fortieth room with the portrait is there. He obviously knows its potential danger to his sons and tries to forewarn them. Why does he not simply destroy the portrait? What binds him to maintaining the forbidden room?”
I reach for a bit of Asiago myself. “I believe I have scolded you about this before. You are trying to apply logic to fairy tales.
“Marie-Louise Van Franz. . . “
“Ok, got it.”
“She said, ‘Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes.’
Or, as I like to say, fairy tales are awaking dreams. In any case, the two kings are connected. They are, in a dreamlike manner, one in the same character.
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2018 Quest for the Fair One of the World – Part Three
Figs and Grapes
After pulling the pizza from the oven, slicing it into twelve pieces, and refreshing our glasses, Duckworth and I settle around the table in the kitchen for a feast.
Duckworth devours his first slice of “winter” before saying, “The two kings are the same person, you say?”
“Yes and no. They reflect each other. Just as in Hansel and Gretel, both the evil stepmother and the witch are reflections of each other. The evil stepmother sends the children off to their deaths. The witch would eat them. When Gretel destroys the witch, she returns home to find the stepmother has died.
“In our case, the first king would keep his sons from the fortieth and forbidden room where the princess’s portrait hangs. Meanwhile, the second king has hidden his daughter in the secret fortieth room. Do you see the reflection?”
“Yes, interesting.” Duckworth launches into the remainder of “winter” and I sample “summer.”
“Returning to your previous comment, what is the significance of the portrait?” Duckworth asks.
“That turns out to be a common motif everywhere else outside of Western Europe. I inquired about that with my fairy-tale nerdy companions online.”
“What hashtag is that?”
“You know, Twitter.”
“Twitter! Oh no, I am not on Twitter.” What an appalling idea.
“No. I am on Storytell, a list-serve.”
Duckworth guffaws. “Really! I didn’t know they still existed.”
“And a very nice list-serve it is.” I move into defensiveness. “My list-serve friends, in particular Dana Sherry, Yoel Perez, and Fran Stallings, all assure me portraits of women propel protagonist and antagonist alike into action in tales from Persia to Japan.”
“But not in Europe,” Duckworth observes, taking a deep sip of his Malbec. “What about this obsession with forty?”
“It is the same sort of thing as the portrait, a common motif outside of Europe.”
“It’s biblical, isn’t it?” Duckworth reaches for a bit of “autumn.”
“Yes, very much. Noah’s forty days and nights of rain, Moses’s forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. You can find a hundred more. Yet, that number does not resonate in the West.”
Duckworth’s gaze rises to the ceiling, away from the pizza and wine, but then returns. “The West, that is the Catholics and the Protestants, are concerned with the Trinity—the number three. If we look to the Middle East—by which I mean primarily the Jews and Muslims—they are warmer to other numbers, like forty.”
Duckworth may have something there. I snag the last piece of “autumn.”
Taking a slice of “spring,” Duckworth continues. “Little wonder that we here in the West have trouble communicating, cooperating, writing treaties with non-Western nations. We are not even thinking in the same numbers, not thinking in the same patterns. Perhaps we don’t dream the same. And the differences are subtle, not glaring, but just enough difference to throw us off.”
This is why I invite Duckworth to dinner. Food for thought.
I set out our dessert when we polish off the pizza. A bowl of figs and grapes, mixed. My own invention, created on impulse. But I now find it oddly reflective of our conversation’s conclusion. Not unlike two different cultures, my dessert elements have similarities and differences. Both are fruits and are sweet, but one is dry and chewy, and the other is soft and wet. Similar and different. Just like Western and non-Western fairy tales.
The next morning, as I return the espresso machine to its shelf, the door to the forbidden room is no longer there. I am not concerned. I suspect it will be there again when I need it or when it calls to me.