The Princess Deryabar, Edmund Dulac, 1908
It is officially summer. I feel as if I missed out on spring. It is time to be in nature. I am thinking of Clapham Common.
I go to my study and dance my fingers across the book spines until, without looking, I grab a volume, put in under my arm, and head for the door.
Clapham Common is a bit of a walk, but the day is glorious and I don’t mind. Clapham is a nice mixture of grassy swards, trees, and ponds.
I find a bench in sight of the bandstand and for the first time I look at the book I grabbed. Modern Greek Folktales, R. M. Dawkins.
Good, one of my favorites.
Using Thalia’s method, I wave my finger over the table of contents and bring it down without judgment.
The Princess’s Kerchief. I’ve not read this one.
A princess spends twelve years embroidering a kerchief with gold. Finishing it, she celebrates with friends with a countryside outing. A crane snatches the kerchief and flies off. Inconsolable, she asks her father to build a bathhouse to which all can come for a free bath as long as they tell her, the bath woman, a story. In this way she hopes to hear tell of the kerchief. This she does for two years.
I look up from my book. There is a pigeon sitting on the far side of my bench, looking at me accusingly. I never thought to bring popcorn for the birds. It coos under its breath—something nasty I’m sure—and flutters off.
The tale then switches to a mad girl, one of three daughters. The mad girl is wont to wander around outside at night. As punishment, her sisters beat her, but still she wanders.
Eventually, after delivering a good beating, the sisters lock up the house in such a way as to prevent the girl from wandering. The mad girl makes her bed by the front door and peers out into the night through the keyhole.
During the night she sees a dervish with a kerchief tied around his cap, riding a horse, followed by a train of camels. The dervish plays a flute. The mad girl must follow, and breaks down the door.
The dervish travels to a palace, where he takes off his robes, revealing himself to be as beautiful as an angel. He takes no pleasure in his meal and goes to bed. Before lying down, he takes a golden kerchief from under his pillow, saying,
“Ah, little hands which worked you
To wear on breast and head.
When will God grant the spell to break
That we two may be wed.”
The next day, after another beating, the mad girl goes to the bath and after her bath tells the princess her story. The princess promises the girl half her kingdom if the mad girl will help her. That night they both sleep by the mad girl’s front door until they hear the piping and spy the dervish again through the keyhole. They follow him, seeing and hearing a repeat of the night before.
With a medicine the princess brought with her, she breaks the spell. She and the mysterious youth are married. With the same medicine, the princess cures the mad girl and gives her half the kingdom as promised.
I look up again from my book. There are five pigeons on the end of the bench staring at me. That old horror movie by Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds, comes to mind and I decide now is a good time to visit my friend Augustus.
Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2020 The Princess’s Kerchief – Part Two
Amedeo Preziosi, Watercolour, c. 1857
I sit in Augustus’s smoking room, enjoying some of his blend called Whirling Dervish, which I just purchased for this occasion. It has a good bit of Arabic Latakia tobacco which does make one’s head spin. Augustus reads The Princess’s Kerchief.
He snaps the book shut, hands it back, and looks at me quizzically through our smoky haze.
“How to go about disassembling this one?” he proffers the question for our conversation.
“First of all,” I say, “the kerchief is obviously not what I think of as a kerchief.”
“You are, perhaps, thinking of a handkerchief,” Augustus suggests. “The princess’s kerchief is more like a hijab, although the dervish’s kerchief tied around his cap must be more of a bandana.”
“The kerchief around the cap of the dervish,” I say, “is a device to connect him, from the start, to the princess’s kerchief. But, further, I will suppose kerchiefs come in all sizes.”
“Speaking of the dervish, what a strange image.” Augustus blows a smoke ring.
“How so?” I ask.
“The dervishes are Sufis, a mystical Muslim sect that avows poverty, although, historically, they were supported by endowments, and their institutions were fairly wealthy and sometimes powerful. They were somewhat monastic, although not celibate, dedicated to poetry, music, and dance to approach God. Their founder was the poet Rumi.
“Our dervish, riding a horse leading a train of camels, looks to me like a merchant. His residence being a castle is even at greater odds with the identity of a dervish.”
Augustus pauses to relight his pipe and I interject, “When the dervish gets to his castle, he takes off his dervish robe and appears as his true self. The robe appears to be a disguise.”
“No,” counters my friend, “someone pretending to be a dervish would not include a train of camels in his disguise. But look, here we are trying to get a fairy tale to make sense. We should know better.”
“The pipe he is playing?” I probe.
“That makes sense. Music is part of Sufi worship.”
“I couldn’t help thinking of the Pied Piper. The mad girl is compelled to follow him.”
“There is that,” Augustus nods.
“And,” I pick up steam, “the dervish appears to be a shapeshifter. As a crane he steals the kerchief.”
Augustus stretches out his hand for the book. He then reads, “. . . the princess showed herself and said: ‘It was you who took my kerchief?’
“And the dervish’s response is, ‘It was you whom I had been watching for so long.’
“Note, he does not actually say that he was the crane. It is implied, but not stated. The crane could have stolen the kerchief at his bidding. But greater still, why the subterfuge? Why the indirection? Why did the princess need to discover him, rather than he present himself to her?”
“Isn’t that the challenge of these tales?” I say. “They don’t tell us everything. The tales are not essays on wisdom. I think they contain wisdom, but we need to immerse our hand into the murky waters of the tales and hope that something down there does not bite us.”
“And that,” Augustus smiles at me through our tobacco cloud, “is what we are doing. I feel my fingertips being nibbled.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2020 The Princess’s Kerchief – Part Three
Peeking Through Keyhole, Peter Fendi, 1834
“Let’s move on to the mad girl.” Augustus blows another smoke ring. “I am trying to think of any other fairy tale that has such a clear shift in point of view. There are really two protagonists in this tale.”
“And why a mad girl?” I ask.
“Again, the story does not tell us, but I am happy to make inferences, if you will allow me.”
Augustus blows a large, lazy smoke ring, and then a quick, smaller one through it.
“Feel free.” I wave a hand.
“Mad people are not of the same order of mind as the rest of us. This is usually to their disadvantage, but they can perceive the world differently. In the case of our mad girl, when she looks through the keyhole she is looking into another world.”
“I believe I am following you,” I declare, “but must she not be both mad and looking through the keyhole?”
“Oh, quite,” says Augustus. “The keyhole is very important. Gazing out a door or window won’t do. If you are surreptitiously peering with one eye through an escutcheon, then you are tapping into something forbidden.
“Having espied the dervish in this way, the mad girl could then open the door and follow.”
“Let me add to that,” I say. “Having seen the dervish, heard his Pied Piper like music, she now had the power to break through the door to follow, a door that previously held her in.”
“There’s a bit of magic for you.” Augustus nods. “And note, she watches him intimately, but the dervish seems not to notice her.”
“Then,” I pick up on the thread of this idea of magic, “she knows to go straight to the bathhouse to tell her tale to the princess, the event the princess has been waiting for, and the princess promises the mad girl half the kingdom for her help.”
Augustus raises a finger. “I think the mad girl is best described as becoming the princess’s guide. Sleeping by the mad girl’s door, looking through the mad girl’s keyhole, but without the mad girl by her side, the princess would never have seen the dervish riding by. The mad girl guides the princess into the other world where the dervish was trapped.”
“Ah!” I say, “The medicine, which the princess so conveniently brought with her . . . She uses it to break the dervish’s enchantment. She uses the same medicine to cure the mad girl. By marrying the dervish and giving the mad girl half her kingdom, she brought them both back from the mystical world to the material world.”
“That all fits together for me,” answers Augustus, tapping out his pipe.
“One more item,” I say. “What about that bathhouse? Why did she have her father build her a bathhouse?”
“Well,” considers Augustus, “she needed a public place to hear stories. She is a princess. She could not be seen hanging out in local taverns. The marketplace is public and a place for story, but royalty usually abhor anything mercantile. A free public bath, supported by the royal family, filled the bill rather well.”
As I leave his shop a little later, to my great discomfort, I see all along the rooflines of the buildings across the street, the outline of pigeons. Many pigeons. I fear for my life.