Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . .
Thalia enters my study carrying Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book for her evening read.
“What’s this? Where’s Grimm?”
“Teddy wanted something different.” Thalia stuffs the bear between us.
She opens the book to its table of contents. With eyes closed, she waves her finger in the air.
At least the story-selection method has not changed.
Her delicate index finger lands on The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality.
A young prince, unhappy with the knowledge he must someday die, sets out to find the Land of Immortality. In his travels he comes across an eagle pulling on the upper branches of a huge tree. The eagle flies down and transforms into a king, who explains that he is condemned to uproot the tree and neither he nor any of his family can die until he does.
The king invites the prince to dine with him and the king’s beautiful daughter orders a meal to be laid out for them. During the feast the prince tells of his quest. The king suggests the prince marry his daughter and live with them. It will take the eagle six hundred years to uproot the tree, time enough for them all. The princess pleads with the prince to stay, but six hundred years is not an eternity.
At parting, the princess gives him a small box. Inside is her picture. When he looks at it he will be borne along over land or through the air. In this way he travels to many places.
One evening the box carries him to the top of a high mountain where a bald-headed laborer fills a basket with dirt and hauls it away. He explains to the prince he is condemned to carry away the mountain basket by basket, and he and his kin cannot die until he does.
Plucking a leaf from a tree, he transforms into a bald-headed king and invites the prince to dinner. This king’s daughter also wants to marry the prince, but her father’s task of eight hundred years is not enough.
At parting, she gives him a golden ring that will instantly take him wherever he wishes to go. He wishes himself to the end of the world.
He finds himself in a city. He does not understand the language spoken there, even though he speaks twenty-seven languages. Fortunately, he spots a man dressed in the style of his own country and learns the city is the capital of the Blue Kingdom, whose king has died and now ruled by his daughter.
He finds the young queen wrapped in a veil of shiny, silver mist. She knows his language, having learned it as a child. She too wishes to marry him, and shows him a room, the floor made up entirely of needles. Neither she nor her family can die until she wears out all the needles sewing; a thousand years.
This too is not enough. She gives him a rod that can become anything he wishes it to be.
Leaving the city, he comes to a broad river that cannot be crossed, being at the the end of the world and surrounding it. There he sees a city floating in the air. He wishes the rod to be a great ladder. However, a many-headed dragon keeps him from entering until the queen of the city allows it. She is the Queen of the Immortals and this is the Land of Immortality.
For a thousand years he lives with her happily until one night he dreams of his parents and wishes to visit them. His queen informs him they have been dead for eight hundred years, but gives him two flasks, one of silver and one of gold. The silver flask he fills with water from a small well in the room, which will bring death to anyone. From another well in the room he fills the gold flask, which will bring life to anyone.
Traveling home, he brings back to life the misty-veiled queen, the bald-headed king, and the eagle king. However, he finds his home covered by a sulfurous lake burning with a blue flame. There he is greeted by death, who has been looking for him for a thousand years. The prince’s three friends rush to his aid and hold back death as the prince slips on the gold ring.
But death is hard to hold and catches up with the prince when he has one foot in the Land of Immortality, but the other still in the mortal world. The Queen of the Immortals allows death to enter her city and bargains with him. She puts her foot under the prince’s foot and flings him up into the air and out of sight. If he comes down in the city, he is hers. If he falls outside the city walls, he is death’s.
The prince comes down at the edge of the city wall but the queen catches him. She then has death thrown out.
Thalia stares into the hearth. I can all but hear the wheels turning in her head.
“Not sure,” she says.
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2019 The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality – Part Two
“I’m not sure,” says Duckworth, unknowingly agreeing with Thalia after I relate the tale to him.
We row together on the Isis on a glorious, spring day—or is it “the” glorious spring day given our British weather.
“Isn’t our hero a bit of a jerk?” asks Duckworth. “A mortal asking for immortality, simply because he wants it, is presumptuous.”
“Well, yes,” I agree, “but he does achieve it.”
“Only at the largess of the Queen of the Immortals. He does not really do anything to earn immortality.”
“He persists,” I defend.
“You say this story comes from one of Andrew Lang’s books.”
“Yes, but I think his wife translated it out of Ungarishcen Völksmärchen, a collection of Hungarian folktales.”
Duckworth parks his oars and we let ourselves drift on the current.
“Let me get the sequence straight,” he muses, “and ask all the inconvenient questions.”
I brace myself for the logical onslaught, against which fairy tales never do well.
Duckworth taps his finger on his chin. “Let’s take the first two kings, who have a similar pattern. They are condemned to perform near-impossible tasks. Both are transformed, although the second king’s transformation is not as profound as the first king’s, who changes from an eagle into a man, while the second changes from a bald-headed laborer into a bald-headed king.
“In either case, neither they, nor their kindred, can die until the task is completed. To whom among their kindred does this apply? Are second cousins twice removed included?”
“I doubt that,” I say. “The tale is only concerned with the kings’ daughters.”
“And do they age?” Duckworth goes on. “The tasks are to take hundreds of years. Will the kings and their daughters look hundreds of years old?”
“The tale does not say,” I try to answer. “The tales do not tell us what is not important for us to know; very economical.”
Duckworth rattles on. “I do see shades of King Sisyphus rolling his rock up a hill. That is his punishment for his misdeeds. Our two kings say they are condemned to perform their tasks. What was their crime? And what judge assigned the punishment?”
“I sense it was more of an onus put upon them rather than a punishment.”
Our boat drifts aground with a gentle lurch, but Duckworth does not notice. “And what sort of punishment is getting to live longer?”
But then,” Duckworth raises a finger, “the prince gets to the end of the world and the pattern shifts. No more transforming kings. The king is dead. The onerous task belongs to his daughter.
“Technically, the task could not have been assigned to the daughter until after the death of her father, since kindred cannot die while the task is in progress. And what did she do that she gets needled to death over a thousand years?”
I roll my eyes as Duckworth rolls on.
“Well, eventually, with the help of magical gifts—I have no trouble with magical gifts in fairy tales—given to him by the three women, whom he has abandoned—I have trouble with that—he gets to be an immortal.
“What does the cad do? He forgets about everyone else, including his parents, for eight hundred years. His parents’ home is now under a burning, sulfurous lake. Talk about neglect! For being the hero of our tale, he has some inexcusable personality flaws.”
Smiling, I say, “We’d better push off and get ourselves back upstream before we wander too far off course.”
“Oh, alright,” he returns the smile, “but you never really answered my questions.”
Duckworth has had his fun with me and he knows it.
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2019 The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality – Part Three
“I’m sure Duckworth meant to get the better of you. His objections spring from his legalistic mind.” Augustus slips his copy of The Crimson Fairy Book back onto the shelf. Augustus houses his fairy-tale collection here in his “testing” room, causing all his book spines to become smoke-stained until the titles can be barely read. But he knows where each of them resides in his bookcase.
I stuff my pipe with his newest blend, Lazarus’s Choice.
Augustus stands by the bookcase, contemplating. “Duckworth was astute, though, to notice the possible King Sisyphus connection.”
“Connection,” I echo. “I think that is a bit of a stretch to connect the two.”
“Maybe not,” he says. “Consider, King Sisyphus is being punished for his many crimes, but chief among them, as far as the gods are concerned, is his hubris to think himself cleverer than they. After offending Zeus one too many times, Zeus sends Hades to collect him with the chains of death. Sisyphus, pretending to be fascinated by the device of the chains, asks Hades to demonstrate them. Hades shows him how they work and is himself captured and shoved into Sisyphus’s closet.
“With Hades out of the way, no one can die. Eventually, Ares manages to release Hades, and Sisyphus is taken to the underworld, where he talks Persephone into letting him return to the upper world to set things right when Sisyphus’s wife does not properly bury him—at his instructions. He gets another reprieve from death.”
“Are you suggesting,” I say through the smoke I am making, “that the story is all about cheating death?”
“In short, yes.” Augustus settles back into his comfy chair. “Every character in the story is eluding death in one way or another with the exception of the hero’s parents, who are put under a lake of sulfur to keep them from being reanimated.
“The Sisyphean tasks have given the eagle/king six hundred extra years, the laborer/king eight hundred years, and the queen of the Blue Kingdom a thousand years. When the prince attempts to visit his parents, in his travels he brings back to life the two kings and the queen, who in turn aid him in avoiding his own death. Note too, he has the water of death with him but does not use it.
“The final insult to death comes when the Queen of the Immortals catches the prince just before he falls outside her walls and into the arms of death.”
“”I’m not sure,” I hear myself say, “about a direct connection to the Sisyphus story, although that is tempting, but I believe you are right about this being a cheating-death story.”
“Please also note,” Augustus pauses to relight his pipe, “that the story moves from treating the prince as the subject of the tale to being the object of the tale; the prize to be won at the end. He is hardly a character when the queen boots him up in the air like a soccer ball; rather comical, really. He could have been a coin toss.”
“Might the story be a parody of something more philosophical?” I suggest.
“Not out of the question,” Augustus nods his head. “Some of the images are oddly specific. A man chipping away at a mountain we’ve seen before. An eagle trying to uproot a tree I have not seen before, but it does not strike me as odd in fairy-tale terms. A magical golden ring we can probably buy used at any fairy antique shop.
“But I am stopped when we come to a small box with a picture in it that causes one to travel through the air. Then there is the room, the floor of which is made up of needles. The rod that transforms into anything may be unique as well. Might they be specifically pointing to something, the nature of which we are ignorant?”
“And where do we put the Blue Kingdom?” I add.
“Oh, at the end of the world, obviously.” Augustus smiles. “But, yes, why ‘blue?’ I have the strong feeling we are missing pieces of the puzzle.”
I’ll puff on that awhile. Lazarus’s Choice might be my new favorite.