H J Ford
I had a lonely supper eaten in silence, built a fire in the hearth in a vain attempt to cheer myself, and now, with a glass of whiskey, watch an overcast February day fade away through my bay windows. Thalia and her mother are off visiting relatives in Glasgow.
My gloom is interrupted by Thalia’s black-haired fairy. She flutters close to my nose, giving me a most demanding frown. Fairies are a little like cats in nature. If they are unhappy about a thing, it’s your fault.
“What? Have I done something wrong?”
She buzzes over to my bookcase, hovering in front of a lilac-colored binding.
“Ah, Andrew Lang’s Lilac Fairy Book. I see.”
I take it down and shuffle to my comfy chair. I have come to suspect the fairy regularly listens to the stories I read to Thalia, perhaps hiding in Thalia’s pocket or in a dark corner of the study. But now, with Thalia gone, the fairy has to reveal herself and demand a story. She would have you know that fairy tales are not written about fairies, rather they are written for fairies.
I open the book to its table of contents. She alights on the page a moment, putting her foot on The Enchanted Deer, then flutters up to settle on my shoulder.
A young man, Ian, trades his mother’s cart horse for a gun, a dog, and a falcon. His widowed mother, her fisherman-husband having drowned at sea, beats her son for the trade. He leaves home to become a hunter.
A farmer asks Ian to kill a deer that has been raiding his fields, but when the youth aims his gun at the deer it turns into a beautiful woman. He follows her, in her deer form, to a cottage thatched with heather. The deer lies down on the roof of heather, calling out, “Go in, fisher’s son, and eat and drink while you may.”
This he does until the twenty-four thieves who live there come home and kill him.
Oh, I think to myself, should that not be the end of the story?
Of course not. Such things are of no inconvenience to the fairy tale.
In the morning the deer comes and shakes her earwax onto the body and the youth is restored.
See, I told you.
The process repeats itself, Ian being killed over and over again. Additionally, the captain of the thieves orders the deaths of his men who fail to kill the youth. This numbers game continues until there are no more thieves.
Next, the deer conducts the youth to a witch’s cottage to stay, and tells him to meet her in the nearby church the next midday. The witch implants a “spike of hurt” into the doorway of the church, which brushes against Ian when he enters, causing him to fall into a deep sleep. The witch’s dark son watches over him.
When Ian awakes, the dark son tells him of the visit of a princess and how she tried to wake him, but does not tell him of the witch’s subterfuge. Three times this happens. The dark son tells the youth that on the third night she declared she will never see him again, but does not tell Ian that she has written her name, “The daughter of the king of the town under the waves,” on his side, nor of the beautifully-wrought box she put in his pocket.
Ian sets off to find her and comes across an old woman who knows who he is and of his quest. She sends him off to her sister, giving him magical shoes to make the distant journey. This happens the mandatory three times, the third sister having a son who is the keeper of the birds.
The keeper of the birds has the youth, still keeping his gun, climb into a sack made of cowhide, but the dog and falcon are left behind. The sack is carried off by an eagle who deposits him on an island where there is nothing to eat.
At this point Ian finds the box, while searching his pockets for food. Three small birds fly out of the opened box to grant him wishes. He wishes to be in the kingdom under the waves. Once there, he takes employment with a weaver. The weaver tells him of a horse race, the winner of which can claim the princess.
With the aid of the three birds in the box, he has the fastest horse, fine clothing, and glass shoes. He wins the race, but does not claim the bride. The race is run three times and he wins all, but still does not claim the princess.
The king then searches for the victor of the races. During the search they find Ian, but as he is dirty and ragged they do not recognize him, and it is decided he is worthy of death. While he is standing on the gallows, the princess spots the words she wrote on his side and claims him as her true husband.
The fairy, now contented, flitters off, her happy laughter sounding like softly-shattering glass.
I, in my discontent, re-read the story.
Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part Two
H J Ford
Another sly listener to the tales is Johannes. He often lingers in the study while I read to Thalia. Tonight, as I read to the fairy, he came in, curled up on the seat beneath the bay window, staring through the glass into the darkness.
“Johannes,” I call to him. “What do you think of Andrew Lang’s telling of this tale? I sense some interference on his part; the tale doesn’t quite hold together for me. Does he concede to some social norms of his day that cloud the tale?”
“Nora’s telling of the tale,” he replies.
“Lenora Blanche Lang, his wife, translated and edited the tales. The Color Books were her creation.”
“And how,” I asked, “do you know that?”
“I sat in Nora’s lap as she worked on them.”
“You were the Lang’s cat?” My surprise is sincere.
Johannes bristles. “I belong to no one. Nora was my lady, as Thalia is now my lady.”
Oops. I forgot. Johannes is a sith cat. “Accept my humble apology, but did Nora Lang change this tale to suit her audience?”
“Not much.” Johannes’s tail fur settles down. “Note her source at the end of the story.”
Sure enough, Popular Tales of the West Highlands.
“I have that.” It is one of the books Melissa talked me into purchasing. I never before broke its spine. It took me awhile to find the tale, now named The Widow’s son.
I sit and read.
“Good grief,” I state when I finish.
Johannes gives me his best Cheshire grin.
The book’s author, J. F. Campbell, collected the story orally from two Scotsmen, Donald MacCraw and John MacPhie, their versions deviating substantially.
Campbell tries to make a coherent story out of the two versions without much success. Nora Lang tried to make some sense out of Campbell’s version, but, I feel, failed as well.
In MacCraw’s version, when the princess visits Ian in the church, on the first day, she is dressed in white, coming in a chariot drawn by four white horses. On the second day the color scheme is grey, and on the third, black. Why did Campbell and Lang both omit that harmless detail?
As Campbell wrote his version, when it came to the races for the princess’s hand in marriage, the first contest was a horse race, the second a dog race, and the third a falcon race. Ian, however, does not enter the original dog or falcon into the races, but rather ones given to him by the three birds in the box, which Campbell describes as a snuffbox.
MacCraw’s version skips the three old sisters, and goes directly to an old man herding a cow. Ian buys the cow, puts himself into the cow hide and has himself thrown into the sea. Eagles pick him up and carry him to their nest where Ian kills their fledglings, after which they carry him off to the kingdom under the sea.
“Why would they do that?” I ask Johannes. His Cheshire grin widens.
The discrepancies among the versions accorded to Nora Lang, John MacPhie, and Donald MacCraw’s go even further; MacCraw said Ian got the box, not from the princess, but from his grandfather, and the “he” within the box granted the wishes. After Ian is recognized by the princess, with the aid of the box, Ian creates a castle for them. A rival steals the snuffbox and carries the princess and the castle off to the realm of the rats.
Ian is helped by an old man, who gives him a magical boat and a cat. The cat, who I can’t help but suspect is Johannes, catches a rat, and on pain of death, convinces it to steal back the snuff box. Order is restored, and the proper marriage between Ian and the princess takes place.
What goes to my heart and stirs it with a sense of longing, is Campbell’s description of his conversation with MacCraw on a long walk in North Uist. MacCraw told him, during their ramble, that he heard the story from an old woman, and how he and other “bairns” would walk miles to her cabin, even in the snow, with offerings of tobacco, procured from elders, to bribe her to tell them the tales.
MacCraw confessed to having forgotten much of the story, particularly the “measured prose phrases” that garnished the tale.
What came to MacCraw’s ears, but not from his mouth, that we shall never hear?
Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part Three
H J Ford
“Johannes,” I say, “there is much about this story that is curious. For one, there is the ‘mirror reflection’ of Ian and his mother, the witch and her dark son, and the third sister and her son, the keeper of the birds—so very fatherless. The actual fathers of these sons do not appear in the story. I wonder if a father has ever been the hero of a fairy tale.
“Then there is our hero, Ian, uniformly addressed as the fisher’s son. In fact, in Campbell’s version, one of the old women calls him son of the great fisher of Ireland. Would that not be the Fisher King of the Arthurian tales? Would that not put a different cast to the story?
“Also, there is the peculiar request of Ian to the three birds. When he needs to take part in the horse race, he asks, of course, for the fastest horse, fine clothing, and then for glass shoes. Glass shoes have no practicality in a horse race. Is this an allusion to Cinderella?
“Let us not even try to consider the healing properties of deer earwax.
“What bothered me the most, while reading this tale, is the motif I have encountered before, but here it is again. In this motif, the hero arises to defend, or vie for, the princess. It is always a princess in contention. The encounter or conflict will happen three times. At the start of each event, the hero prepares himself with the help of magic. At the end of each event the hero retires and assumes a humble position, not taking advantage of his victory.
“He has every right,” I blather on, “to claim the princess, and that is his goal, but he, inexplicable, does not claim her. Another event needs to occur before he will come forward, be drawn out, or be discovered.
“Why,” I ask, “is the hero working against himself?”
“Because,” answers Johannes smugly, “He must.”
“Why?” I plead.
“Ah, that is harder to answer,” Johannes admits. “The journey in the story is travail. The resolution cannot be easy and quick. But more importantly, the hero in the story is not just a character, the hero is the listener. The tale is guiding the listener to a conclusion.”
“And what is that conclusion?” I ask.
“The conclusion is a bit ephemeral.” Johannes scratched his ear with a hind leg. “There is no sound logic in the answer; rather the answer is an intuitive one.
“Before the hero defends or vies for the princess, there is a history. The hero, at least, has fallen in love with the princess. Often in this motif, as with this tale, they have touched each other before.
“To win a race, kill a seven-headed dragon, or whatever, and then claim the princess, would be a cheap trick, a convenience. Our hero cannot purchase his bride. In this motif, she must claim him, or he must come forward and reveal himself, to save her from a further deception by a dishonest rival.
“The listener, as hero, be they male or female, want the full satisfaction of true love, and not the result of a good bargain. While a worthy fairy tale ends well, the path to that good end must never feel certain.”
“The listener as hero?” I muse. “That the listener identifies themselves with the tale is the usual course.”
“To a degree,” corrects Johannes. “Some motifs invite you to be an observer. Other motifs demand you participate. How and when that happens is the ephemeral part. If we knew how a fairy tale would affect us—all of literature for that matter—we would stop reading and listening. We, who are intelligent, crave the unexpected and the inexplicable.”