It is the evening of Christmas Day, actually past midnight, making it Boxing Day. Aromas from the kitchen tell me my house brownie has put the shortbread cookies in the oven, cookies that I will take around to friends and family in the morning.
Earlier, Thalia came into my study for her bedtime story. She made me re-read The Night Before Christmas, which we had read the night before on Christmas Eve, followed by the Grimm story of her choice. She then trundled off to bed dragging Teddy behind her.
I tap out my pipe, determined to get myself to bed also, when the fairy flies into the study. Followed by Johannes the cat, and, to my surprise, the brownie. I rarely see the brownie. He stays in the shadow of the study, but still, he is here. Johannes jumps to the window seat as the fairy flutters to my bookcase, pointing her delicate finger at Russian Fairy Tales by Aleksandt Afanas’ev, turning her demanding glare at me.
I place the volume on the table, propping it up against other books, and open it to the table of contents. The fairy points to a tale called Salt. I turn the pages to the story. The fairy settles in front of the page and I take to my comfy chair.
The fairy’s voice is small, but not piping, rather a pleasant contralto. The brownie creeps closer to hear. Johannes stares out the window, but I know he is listening.
There was a merchant who had three sons. The eldest two helped their father with his business, while the youngest, named Ivan, conducted his business at alehouses and inns.
Graciously, the father gave to each of his eldest sons a ship with valuable merchandise for them to sail off to foreign lands to try their hand at selling and trading.
When Ivan heard this, he asked for the same benefit. Distrusting this son, the merchant gave him a ship with only beams, boards, and planks as cargo. Nonetheless the youngest son set out. He caught up with his brothers for a short time, but in a storm he was separated from them, and ended up at an unknown island. With a little exploring he found a salt mine. The beams, boards, and planks were thrown into the sea and the ship filled with salt.
Thalia’s fairy flutters up, pulls the page over and settles back down to continue.
“After some time,” the fairy reads, “a long time or a short time, and after they had sailed some distance, a great distance or a short one, the ship approached a large and wealthy city.”
Ivan went to the king to ask permission to trade and sell. The king inquired of Ivan’s wares and the youth presented his salt. Never having seen salt, the king thought it sand. Realizing that these people ate their meals without salt, Ivan hung around the kitchen, sneaking salt into the food being prepared.
Amazed at the meal presented to him that evening, the king called for the cooks. They had no explanation but that Ivan was hanging about the kitchen. Ivan “confessed” his trick and the king bought Ivan’s shipment at a good price.
The princess of the kingdom asked leave of her father to visit this Russian merchant’s ship, which brought such a wonder. When she was on board, Ivan’s crew weighed anchor. Finding herself abducted, the princess was of course upset, but the handsome Ivan soothed her and she relented.
Ivan’s brothers caught up with him, seized his money, abducted the abducted princess, and threw Ivan overboard. However, fortune did not abandon Ivan, and he found and hung onto one of the very boards he had cast into the sea. It carried him to another unknown island where a giant lived. The giant, knowing that the princess was about to be married to Ivan’s eldest brother, offered to carry Ivan home, provided he tell no one about the giant.
Ivan walked into the wedding meal before the service, the princess threw her arms around his neck, and declared him the true husband.
At the wedding feast after Ivan and the princess’s marriage, as Ivan and the guests got drunk and started boasting, he told of the giant. The giant appeared and threatened Ivan, who declared it was not he who told of the giant, but his drunkenness. The giant did not know about drunkenness. Ivan called for a hundred-gallon barrel of beer and a hundred-gallon barrel of wine. The giant, unfortunately, was a mean drunk, and did a good bit of damage before falling asleep for three days.
Upon awakening, the giant stated, “Well Ivan, son of the merchant, now I know what drunkenness is. Henceforth you may boast about me all you like.”
As the story ends, I look about me and this little assembly of fey folk. I am happy they include me in their company.
Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2018 Salt – Part Two
“A fairy tale that ends in drunkenness?” Duckworth expresses shock.
“Well, it is Russian,” I say, after relating the tale to him, but not saying a fairy told it to me. Duckworth already nibbles on the shortbread I brought to his home office.
“Let me get this straight,” he says. “A young wastrel talks his less-than-confident father into giving him a ship. He lucks upon a deposit of salt, which he sells to a king, introducing hypertension to an otherwise healthy people. Then he has the effrontery to kidnap the king’s daughter and charm her into submission?”
I listen to Duckworth’s rant while admiring the bobbleheads on his desk of Queen Elizabeth and the royal couple of William and Kate.
“Then,” he continues, “members of his dysfunctional family steal his money, take the kidnapped princess, and toss him into the drink.
“Happenchance saves him and a giant, for no good reason, offers him a free ride home. He crashes the wedding, steals the bride, who opts for her initial kidnapper as opposed to her secondary kidnapper who also practices fratricide, a choice that is certainly the lesser of two evils.
“This then is followed by the protagonist not keeping his promise to the giant. He deals with the crisis by getting the giant really, really drunk. A hundred gallons of beer and a hundred gallons of wine? My word!
“When the giant comes around, I am sure with a giant hangover, his moral basis appears to have shifted and he lets the wastrel get away with his broken promise.
“Is there supposed to be a moral in this?”
“No,” I say. “I told you, it’s Russian.”
Duckworth shakes his head and nibbles on another cookie.
“At every turn,” he complains, “the protagonist takes advantage of his situation. He talks his father into giving him a ship, chances upon the salt mine, finds a kingdom without salt, kidnaps a princess, manages to survive his brothers’ aggression, reclaims his bride, and tricks the giant. He never helps anyone else; it’s all about him. Say, what happened to the brothers when their crime was revealed?”
“Their father threw them out of the house.”
“They got off easy as well, for attempted murder. No, I find no quality in this ‘hero’ to which I can relate or use as a guidepost. Nor is there any other aspect in this story that is redeeming. Are the other Russian tales like this?”
“Well, of the few I have read, I saw a pattern of their being more for the entertainment of the tavern crowd than as cautionary tales for the young.”
“Then it is no surprise they are not as popular as the Grimm tales. At least in Grimm, evil is destroyed—if a bit too violently—rather than being rewarded, as in this case.”
“I’m not sure I see Ivan as evil,” I defend. “I’ll agree to him being self-centered, but aren’t most of us? In that we can identify with Ivan.”
“Self-centered,” Duckworth echoes. “Well, you have a point. I, for example, don’t intend to share these shortbreads with anyone else. No, wait. That may simply be pure greed.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2018 Salt – Part Three
“A fairy tale that ends in drunkenness? How delightful.” Augustus lights his pipe.
“Duckworth took a dimmer view of the story,” I say.
“Well, he’s young and moral, not a bad place to start from, but we should get jaded and flexible as we get along in age.”
We sit in his testing room, I sampling the ounce of his newest blend, Winter’s Eve, which he has given me, as he guards his box of shortbreads.
“But let me argue,” Augustus continues, “that Ivan may have ventured to unknown islands, but the Russians have nothing on us, here on our own little British islands, when it comes to the realm of absurdities.”
I recognize a strained segue. “You have something in mind?”
“Have you heard of Up Helly Aa?”
“Only in passing.”
“Up Helly Aa,” he goes on, “is a recently-invented tradition, created in an attempt to replace ‘tar barreling.’ ”
“Stop,” I say. “Explain tar barreling for me first.”
“It’s a practice with an uneven history. In the Shetland Islands, during Yuletide—more or less the twelve days of Christmas—young drunken men would drag a flaming barrel of tar on a sledge through towns and villages, and—as the source I read obliquely stated—caused mischief.
”In the late nineteenth century, the fun was outlawed in the Shetlands, but remains in practice elsewhere, notably in Ottery St Mary near Devon, at the other end of the UK. In this iteration it is associated with Guy Fawkes Day in November, and it occurred to the good people of Ottery St Mary to carry the flaming tar barrels around on their heads. This ancient tradition has been jeopardized by the rising need for public liability insurance, yet it persists.”
“I see,” I say, tapping out my pipe and refilling it. What is the flavoring in this tobacco? “And Up Helly Aa?”
“It is part of the Shetlands’ identity, the largest gathering being in the port town of Lerwick. After wisely abolishing tar barreling, the responsible Shetlanders knew they would need to find a replacement and substituted a torchlight parade. That was around 1876.
For a little more than two decades that was fine until someone got the grand idea to add a Viking element to the celebration. Now, on the last Tuesday of January, everyone in Lerwick becomes a Viking, which is not a stretch because most of them are of Viking blood. The entire year previous is spent in preparation. There are many ‘squads’ involved—think ‘clubs’—who each year decide on a theme, design costumes, and create mumming skits to perform.”
“Wait,” I say. “That sounds very much like the American’s Philadelphia Mummer’s Parade.”
“Yes, rather, but with some differences. There is a Grand Jarl elected, who officiates. His followers are called guizers. The event goes on all day, starting with communal breakfasts, visits by the squads to all kinds of local institutions to perform their skits, then gathering at sunset in a torchlight parade, during which they drag through Lerwick a complete replica of a Viking longboat constructed for the occasion by local shipwrights. It is taken to the edge of town, surrounded by the torch-bearing guizers—up to a thousand of them—who throw their torches into the longboat, and sing the traditional Up Helly Aa song while the longboat bursts into flame.”
“Must be an impressive sight,” I muse. “But why do you bring this up in reference to Russian folktales?”
“Oh,” Augustus replies, puffing on his pipe, “after the ceremony everyone goes off to official or unofficial parties, or bars and taverns, and gets really, really drunk.”
“Of course, why did I not see that coming? Oh, wait. Peppermint, you’ve flavored the tobacco with peppermint!”
Will absurdities never end?