Beast and Bird
There are those who live for the weekend. There are those who live for their vacations. There are those who live for the next football game. They live for that short time when they feel particularly alive.
I live for hearing Thalia padding down the hall, dragging her Teddy behind her, a dog-eared copy of Grimm clutched in her other hand. She shoulders the study door open a little wider, making her determined passage to the comfy chair. Thalia flings Teddy into my lap, grabs my belt to pull herself up, and settles between me and the padded arm of the chair.
She opens her book in my lap and goes through the ceremony of choosing a story, with much finger-waving in the air before randomly stabbing the table of contents. She judges if that is the story to be told tonight or not. We are running out of unread tales.
“Ah,” I say, “The Singing Springing Lark.”
A merchant, about to go on a long trip, asks his daughters what they want him to bring back for them. His youngest wants a singing springing lark. On the return trip, the merchant carries pearls and diamonds for his elder daughters and spots a lark near a mysterious castle.
“Hey, this is Beauty and the Beast!” Thalia pouts a little.
Before the merchant catches the bird, a lion jumps out intent on eating the merchant.
“There’s the beast.”
When the merchant pleads for his life, the lion agrees but only if the merchant will surrender what first greets him on his return. The lion even gives the merchant the bird. The merchant fears the first to greet him will be his youngest daughter, but he has no choice.
“That’s a little different.” Thalia’s brow knits.
As fate will have it, it is the youngest who greets him first. When she finds out what has happened, she insists her father keep his promise, and declares she will tame the lion and return.
Taming turns out not to be necessary. A friendly pack of lions escorts her to the castle, and that evening turns into a prince and his men. The wedding takes place immediately.
“Oh!” says Thalia.
From then on, they sleep by day and stay up all night. One day her husband tells her that her eldest sister is to be married, and asks if she would like to attend the wedding. She does and is accompanied by some of her husband’s lions.
“Cool.” Thalia grins.
When the second sister is to be married, the youngest wants her lion/husband and their child to come as well. He says he cannot lest the light of a wedding candle fall on him and turn him into a dove for seven years. She promises to protect him and has a hall built that will admit no light.
It does not work. When the marriage procession passes in front of the hall, a hairline crack in the green wood of the door allows in one ray. When the youngest opens the hall, a dove flies off leaving a trail of blood and feathers every seven steps that she must follow for seven years.
“Ohhh!” Thalia exclaims in sympathy.
Shortly before the seven years are up, she loses the trail and goes to the sun and moon for help. They do not know where the dove has gone, but give her a small casket and an egg to be use in great duress. She is helped by the four winds, who tell her the dove has returned to his lion form and battles a dragon, who is an enchanted princess. By going to the Red Sea, cutting the eleventh reed, and striking the dragon with it, she will cause the lion to defeat the dragon, breaking the spell on both creatures.
Also by the Red Sea is a griffin to carry them back home. The four winds give the youngest a nut, which she must cast into the sea on their passage home, and which will immediately sprout into a nut tree, growing a branch on which the griffin can rest.
All this she does, but the princess, when no longer under enchantment, grabs the prince and flies off on the griffin.
“Wow,” wonders Thalia.
After much wandering, the youngest rediscovers her husband just before he and the princess are to be wed. Opening the casket from the sun reveals a golden dress, which she uses to trade with the princess for an evening with her groom. However, the princess drugs her fiancé into sleep.
The next day the youngest cracks open the egg from the moon, and out comes a golden hen and twelve golden chicks. These, too, the princess want, but her trick of the night before is thwarted by a faithful servant.
Hearing his true bride’s voice, the spell is truly broken, and the prince and the youngest fly off on the griffin, allowing it to rest on the branch of the nut tree grown from the nut cast into the sea. Returning home, they are reunited with their son, grown tall and handsome, and they live happily thereafter.
“Yeah!” Thalia is pleased.
Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part Two
John B. Gruelle
Time to reflect, I think to myself as Thalia and Teddy disappear through the study door. And nothing reflects better than the Thinking Pool in the Dark Forest.
I know better than to venture into the Dark Forest at night, but—I assure myself—the pool is barely inside the forest’s edge and there is a full moon in the sky. With the comfort of a heavy coat and my pipe against the cold of the night, I amble across the threshold of the French doors, traverse the frozen lawn, and enter into the forest.
I sit by the pool, edged with stones, on a small stone stool (looking for all the world like a stone mushroom). Taking a deep draft from my pipe, I blow the smoke across the still water. It drifts and rolls a little above the surface, as an image forms on its glassy face. It is the head of a lion appearing at the far end of the pool, oddly, upside down.
I glance up. Oh no! I see the reflection is of a real lion, with cold, unblinking eyes, standing a short leap from me.
“You invoked me.” The lion settles on his haunches.
Did I? Not my best idea.
“I came to contemplate The Singing, Springing Lark,” I say.
“Then that is why I am here.”
“You are who?”
“I am the enchanted prince. I am the lost husband. You see me as a lion, but I am a fox, a flounder, a bird, even,” he dips a claw into the pool, “a tree.”
As the ripple he creates passes over the surface, I see a young woman embraced by a young man who is half human and half tree.
“The Old Woman in the Forest.” I recognize the image. “In that tale you and all your men are trees, but you can also be a dove for a few hours every day. In the lark story you and all your men are lions by day, and you become a dove for seven years, not the same thing, but strangely similar.”
The lion touches the water again. A series of images tumbles before me, one on top of the other, but I identify them. “A Sprig of Rosemary; East of the Sun, West of the Moon; The Black Bull of Norroway, The Tale of the Hoodie. All these tales,” I say, “have women looking for their lost husbands.”
The lion touches the water once more. In succession I see a woman holding a candle over a handsome youth, another woman opening a chest with a small key, yet another woman by a door from which flies a dove with a feather and drop of blood suspended in the air.
The lion glares at me with those cold eyes, expecting me to say more. I’d better think quickly before he becomes impatient with this dull human.
“Each woman,” I say slowly, “each wife, has made a mistake, broken a promise, failed a task.”
The lion nods and waits.
“Every one of them goes on a quest to reclaim her husband. All receive supernatural aid, advice, and gifts.”
The lion nods again and waits.
“The journeys are long,” I continue. “The magical help is barely enough. Each, in the end, must in some way awaken her husband to the truth, to the true nature of their experience.”
“You ignore one element,” the lion rumbles.
“And that is?” I hear a tremble in my voice. Have I failed a test?
“Theirs are all acts of atonement,” he growls. Then, shimmering, he transforms into a dove, flies off into the forest darkness leaving behind a feather slowly drifting toward the ground.
In my imagination, I am chasing after that dove, following the trail of blood and feathers. My body—wisely—is running for all its worth back to the safety of the study.
Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part Three
Robert Anning Bell
“Atonement?” I say aloud, sitting on the window seat, catching my breath. I suppose, I think to myself, but I don’t feel convinced.
All the Beauty and the Beast variants arise, I will guess, from Apuleius’s Cupid and Psyche, in which Cupid’s forbids Psyche to look upon him. She, instead, follows the advice of her sisters, who suggest he is a dangerous beast. She approaches their bed with a lamp in one hand and a dagger in the other, breaking a trust between them.
In the lark story, the youngest acts in good faith, building a hall in which to hide the prince for candlelight, but is foiled by the slightest defect in a door made of green wood; foiled by fate might be more to the point.
The circumstances in the two stories are different, yet I am struck again by an odd parallel not unlike that between the lark story and The Old Woman in the Forest. In this case Cupid is awoken when hot oil from Psyche’s lamp falls upon him, wounding him, and he flies away. In the lark story, a ray of light from a wedding candle falls upon the prince, transforming him into a dove that flies off leaving a trail of blood.
If these events were more similar, I could safely assume there was a bit of borrowing going on. Instead, they are different enough that I wonder if they didn’t grow out of the same impulse rather than the same origin.
By way of contrast, my brain considers The Sprig of Rosemary. Against all warnings, the heroine feels compelled to open the forbidden box in which lies a snakeskin. At the sight of the skin, all of the underground world vanishes, including the memory of it and of her husband, recovered only by the scent of rosemary.
This version of the lost-husband story has no lamp or candle as a symbol despite taking place in an underground castle. No dove appears in the story. The symbolic items—the rosemary, the snakeskin—are dissimilar to the other two lost-husband stories.
What the Psyche story and the rosemary story have in common is that the heroines consciously act contrary to their husbands’ wishes. In the lark tale, the youngest acts with his cooperation. Although all three stories are clearly of the lost-husband motif, additional similarities across all of them really do not exist.
How can the lion insist these are stories of atonement?
However, I am not about to go back and ask him.
Still sitting on the window seat, realizing my heart has stopped pounding, I see Wilhelm standing by the fireplace gazing into the flames. I haven’t seen Wilhelm in my study for quite some time and I marvel at his presence.
He glances halfway in my direction. He must know I am watching him. He takes a poker from the rack and scrawls in the ashes on the hearth. He returns the poker to the rack, straightens up, and looks toward me as he fades from sight.
I discover in the ashes he has drawn a series of hearts.
“Matters of the heart, of course,” I say. The lion, for all his authority, has missed the element that binds these three tales and all the others of its ilk together. It is the love these women hold for their husbands that sustains them through their quests.
Certainly it is not the theme of atonement that has made these stories among the most popular of the fairy tales, but rather it’s the story of true, pure love that attracts us.