H. J. Ford
“I want the fish and chips, but not sure about the peas,” Thalia decides, holding the children’s menu of the Great Court Restaurant in her hands.
The restaurant sits atop the old Reading Room here at the British Museum and looks out over the courtyard. Above us, radiating upward and outward—and rather amazingly—is a glass awning. We almost feel as if we are at an outdoor café with a glass bubble fending off the January weather.
Melissa, Thalia, and I spent the morning rambling through a small section of the Museum’s Greek antiquities collection. We covered as much of it as we could until our eyes glazed over. Melissa became transfixed before a terracotta bust of Cupid and Psyche embracing. I pried her away with the promise of lunch.
“Wild mushroom-pearl barley risotto?” Melissa muses. I am going for the braised duck leg. It comes with a caramelized quince.
Melissa glances up from her menu. “I’m working on an article concerning Cupid and Psyche.”
“I see, hence your enchantment with the bust. What happened to your magical guidebook for tourists?”
“In progress, but I need a diversion now and again.”
“And the premise of your article?”
“That Lucius Apuleius’s story of Cupid and Psyche has had an inexplicable influence on fairy tales.”
“Such as Beauty and the Beast,” I interject.
“That is the boring example everyone uses. For my article I am using Grimms’ The Iron Stove.”
“I have read that,” I say, “but not for some time. Remind me.”
Thalia’s ears prick up as Melissa launches into the tale.
A prince, through a witch’s curse, is trapped inside an iron stove sitting in a forest. A princess, lost in the forest for many days, comes across the stove, who/which offers to help her if she will marry him/it. Not pleased with the idea of marrying a stove, but desperate to escape the forest, she agrees.
The stove provides an escort out of the forest and she is to return with a knife to scrape a hole in the stove.
“What’s an escort?” Thalia frowns.
“A sort of guide.” Melissa says.
“How much staff does an iron stove sitting in the middle of a forest have?” I wonder aloud.
“The story doesn’t say,” Melissa grins.
Not wanting a marriage to the stove, the princess and her father conspire to send the miller’s daughter in her place. The miller’s daughter is not able to bore a hole in the iron stove and by dawn the stove discovers she is not the princess. Next, the princess and the king send the swineherd’s daughter with the same result. Only, this time, the stove threatens to not let one stone stand atop another in the kingdom if the princess does not come.
The princess can easily bore a hole in the iron stove and out comes a handsome prince. He wants to carry her off to his kingdom, but she asks to see her father one more time. This is granted, but she cannot speak more than three words to him. Of course she does speak more than three words, and the prince and the iron stove are carried off over glass mountains, sharp swords, and a great lake.
Searching for her lost prince, the princess comes across a cottage inhabited by toads, who host her for the evening. In the morning, the head toad gives her the needed magical devices: three needles to climb the glass mountains, a plow wheel to run over the swords, and three nuts containing fabulous dresses. With these, she travels until she comes to a great castle.
“Wait,” says Thalia. “How did she get across the lake.”
“The story doesn’t say.”
Thalia mugs a sad face.
The prince is there and about to marry a false bride. The princess bribes the false bride with the three dresses in order to be allowed to sleep in the prince’s room for three nights. On the first two nights the false bride drugs the prince’s wine, but by the third night the prince is on to the scheme and is able to claim his true bride.
They escape by taking the false bride’s three dresses so that she cannot get up.
“Take her dresses so she can’t get up?” My turn to frown.
“That’s how the story explains it,” Melissa replies.
They return to the toad cottage, which is now a castle filled with princes and princesses; the marriage takes place; and the bride’s father is brought to live with them.
Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part Two
Cupid and Psyche, Terracotta, British Museum
Our meals arrive, along with Thalia’s babyccino, and silence descends upon our repast for a bit.
“What does the princess have to do with Psyche?” Thalia asks, raising her head from her fish and chips.
Melissa turns her attention from her risotto to her glass of Monastrell, answering, “In a couple of ways.”
After a sip, she says, “In the Cupid and Psyche story, her sisters, when Cupid permits them to visit, ill-advise her to discover the true nature of her mysterious husband. When she does, he must flee. In The Iron Stove, the princess is granted a visit to her family, but cannot speak more than three words. When she does speak more, her husband disappears. In both cases, the heroine must search for her lost husband because of family interference.
“Other elements from Lucius Apuleius’s story are mirrored in our tale. Psyche is aided by some of the gods and goddess, after Psyche offended the goddess Venus, Cupid’s mother. In The Iron Stove, the princess is aided by the family of toads, who supply her with magical devices.
“Both Psyche and the princess go through travail and tests before they can reclaim their husbands.”
I see Thalia begin to fidget and peer up at the glass awning. Melissa’s eyes slide toward me.
“Both stories culminate in a marriage ceremony. I must ask myself, is Cupid and Psyche’s marriage the origin of the fairy-tale obsession with marriage?”
I see Thalia wander from her seat toward the railing overlooking the courtyard. My knee jerks.
“Don’t fall over.”
“I won’t,” she calls back.
We doting grandfathers have so little authority.
“If I am right,” Melissa goes on, oblivious to our charge about to fall into oblivion, “the familiar visits, disappearing husbands, divine or magical helpers, and the culminating marriage are not the only motifs taken from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, in which the Cupid and Psyche story appears.
“The sisters of this tale, working against the heroine, appear in many fairy tales. The princess exposed, abandoned, sacrificed to a dragon—usually on a rocky crag—appears here. Being attended to and entertained by unseen servants, as well as the nightly visits by an unseen husband, come from this story. The heroine falling into a death-like sleep and being awakened by her lover is here. So are the tasks, imposed by Venus in this tale and often the stepmother in the fairy tales, which the heroine must overcome. Especially the one about Venus throwing before Psyche a mass of mixed wheat, barley, poppyseed, chickpeas, lentils, and beans, demanding that she sort them into separate heaps before morning .It is the ants that take pity on her and do the sorting. In the fairy tales, if there are three tasks, the sorting of the seeds is one of them.”
To my relief, Thalia wanders back to finish her babyccino.
As my blood pressure drops, I ask Melissa, “Marriage, you were saying something about marriage.”
Melissa smiles at me, glancing at Thalia sipping her drink. “I am trying to make the argument that a surprising number of fairy-tale motifs, including the marriage-at-the-end come from the Cupid and Psyche story.
“But here is the real surprise. Metamorphoses was written in the second century, then fell out of popularity. By the end of the Dark Ages there appears to be only one copy left.
“Along comes the Renaissance with its intellectuals keen on rediscovering ancient works, Metamorphoses among them. And, guess what, along with the Renaissance comes the printing press. Now there are many, many copies of Metamorphoses.
“Are you suggesting,” I say, “that after the Cupid and Psyche story is being read by the literate that it trickles down to the illiterate storytellers to populate their imagination?”
Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part Three
Sir John Tenniel
After lunch and some recovery of our senses, we decide to test our senses’ limits again with a visit to the medieval collection in Room 40. While Thalia jumps from display to display, Melissa and I linger to admire the room’s most notable possession, the Royal Gold Cup.
“Is The Iron Stove,” I ask, my mind returning to our discussion, “simply another version of the Cupid and Psyche tale?”
“Certainly not. Fairy tales are a patchwork of many motifs, and not all of them are of Greek origin. But these motifs of Greek origin and their articles, such as the golden apples of so many tales, are never given a hint of attribution. I am not aware of a single Greek god or goddess appearing in a fairy tale for all that has been borrowed from their mythology. I might conjecture the old storytellers very well knew they stole from the Greeks and were hiding the crime.”
Through a doorway I spot a room full of clocks and watches. Melissa and Thalia follow me as though I were the White Rabbit late for a date. The elaborate, exposed mechanism of a device labeled the Cassiobury Park turret clock (1610), which approaches Rube Goldberg status, holds my visual attention as my thoughts again return to Melissa’s topic.
“What are the non-Cupid and Psyche motifs in The Iron Stove?”
“The toad family in the cottage, for one. I don’t know of any toads in Greek mythology. There are a few people turned into frogs among the Greeks, but no toads.”
“Frogs, toads, aren’t they the same?” I ask, still studying the wheels, levers, and cables of the clock.
“Oh, what a city-boy you are! No, toads, while in the frog family, are terrestrial creatures. Frogs live in the water. And the fairy tales treat them that way. Frogs are associated with wells and are loners by the way, while toads are on land, coming in groups, living in cottages, dwelling underground, or coming out of people’s mouths.”
I wander over to a wall display of pocket watches. I want them all. “Other non-Greek motifs?” I ask. I really want the gold pendulum watch for my own.
“The origin of the three dresses in the nuts, I assume, is European, most likely Northern Europe. The southern climes tend toward simple dress. The ancient Greeks wore very functional garments. It’s the Northern Europeans who got obsessed with elaborate costumes to show their wealth and power.”
Thalia is by my side oohing over the watches. High art—painting and sculpture—is fine, but here is functional art one can put in a pocket.
“In closing,” Melissa tries to get my attention, “a third motif, not in Greek mythology’s lexicon, is the attempt to substitute lower-born women for a princess. This is a common trick in the tales, sometimes with dire consequences for the lowborn. They don’t always just get sent home.
“Similarly, the gods and goddesses are not concerned with the true bride and the false bride. Psyche struggles to be allowed to marry Cupid over Venus’s objections, but there is no false bride for Cupid. Substitution, as an attempt to escape an obligation or reroute a marriage, may be a Western concept.”
Oh, how would that musical chamber clock look and sound in my study?
4 thoughts on “Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part One”
Thanks, as always. Now I must go back to re-read the tale which I had forgotten.
I am glad it inspired.
The toad thing is bothering me, too. Wasn’t the toad considered an inherently “evil” animal in Medieval Europe? Also, did the Greek myths really distinguish between frogs and toads? I know they were sometimes referred to interchangeably, even though they’re not the same animal.
This feels like one of the ones the Grimms preserved from fragments, or from the telling of someone who only remembered most of the story.
The Grimms left an extensive note on this tale about the variants they came across, but do not mention the toad-thing. The Three Feathers also has the family of toads in it, being helpful figures to the protagonist. Both toads and frog are enchanted creatures in the Grimm tales, but I have not come across them as being evil. Certainly in Christian writings they take on an evil aspect, a failure of the amphibian’s public relations department.