Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2020 The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples – Part One

H J Ford

A Pie

Thalia has retained her child-confidence as she moves toward young adulthood. Children usually lose this trait as they face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but not in Thalia’s case.

I say this as prelude to telling you she just announced to me that she is going to bake a pie. An apple pie.

“And I won’t need any help.” She closes the study door.

I rise to open it halfway to keep a wary ear on sounds from the kitchen, which lies a little way down the hall. Thalia has never baked a pie or boiled water from what I can recall. I know the inspiration comes from the yellow apples I got at market this morning and left setting on the kitchen counter. “Golden apples” I call them.

Apples have been a part of fairy tales for longer than fairies have, I believe. The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples springs to my mind and I reach for Andrew Lang’s The Violet Fairy Book.

In front of the emperor’s palace is a golden apple tree that blooms and bears fruit all in one night, but by morning the apples are gone. To find the thief, the emperor’s sons stand guard at night, but always fall asleep.

Only the youngest manages to wake up early enough to see nine pea-hens descending upon the golden apple tree. One of them flies down to him and transforms into a beautiful woman. Love springs between them instantly and when the pea-hens leave at dawn, she gives him two of the golden apples.

The emperor is delighted and the prince sleeps under the tree every night and visits with the pea-hen maiden. The jealous brothers employ a witch to discern what is happening and she cuts off a lock of the pea-hen maiden’s hair. She and her sisters fly up and never return to the golden apple tree.

The prince sets out to discover the home of the pea-hen maiden, who turns out to be an empress. They are reunited and marry.

One day, while exploring the empress’s palace, he enters a room that is forbidden and, through acts of kindness, inadvertently releases a dragon, who flies off with the empress. Again, the prince must venture out and find his bride. Along the way, he helps a fish, a fox, and a wolf, who give him tokens and promises of aid.

I hear a long, loud clattering of pots and pans coming from the kitchen, but nothing sounds as if it has broken.

Finding the empress again, the prince flees with her on horseback. When the dragon finds the empress missing, he confers with his talking horse, who assures the dragon they have plenty of time to catch up with the couple. The dragon takes his supper before going off to retrieve the empress.

Through her wiles, the empress finds out the only horse faster than the dragon’s is its brother, who is in the hands of a witch. The prince must earn the horse from the witch by tending to the witch’s mare and colt for three nights or lose his head.

Each night the mare turns herself and her colt into other creatures. The prince recovers the mare and colt with the aid of his animal helpers, the fish, fox, and wolf.

With the new horse, the prince and empress ride off again. This time, when the dragon’s horse catches up with the fleeing couple, their horse convinces its brother to throw off the dragon, who falls to its death upon rocks.

A loud, overwhelming “thunk” draws my attention. It is time to check on Thalia’s progress.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2020 The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples – Part Two

More Apples

The tableau that appears to me is Thalia, one hand steadying the apple on the cutting board, and her other hand raised high, brandishing a meat cleaver.

Quickly, she pulls the steadying hand away and down comes the meat cleaver, full force.

Clunk.


The apple, receiving a glancing blow, spins across the room, joining its companion in the corner.

“Ahumm,” I say emphatically.

I retrieve the errant apples, pluck the apple peeler from its hook, hold it up to Thalia, demonstrate how to peel an apple, then reach for the apple corer, press it into the flesh of the apple around the stem, slicing the apple into moon-crescent pieces. I then hand the new instrument of destruction to Thalia.

“Got it,” she says.

I retreat from the kitchen, slipping the meat cleaver out of sight under a pile of tea towels.

Back in the study, I search for and find Apples: History, Folklore, Horticulture, and Gastronomy, by Peter Wynne. I recall his two chapters on the notion that there had once been an apple goddess. He starts, of course, with the Garden of Eden, and the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life.

Interestingly, the Bible does not describe the fruit of these trees as apples. Archaeological evidence suggests the apple was unknown in the Middle East until later, according to Wynne. For Europeans, the fruit was identified as an apple from at least the start of the thirteenth century.

Going back in time, the author talks about how the apple has always been associated with women, particularly in mythology. He cites the contest between Hippomenes and Atalanta. Atalanta will marry no man but the one who can beat her in a foot race. Losers forfeit their lives—this story may be the origin of that motif. Hippomenes asks Aphrodite for help and is given three golden apples to roll in front of Atalanta to slow her down as she picks them up.

A second myth is the Judgment of Paris. At the wedding between Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilles) the goddess Discord, who was not invited, throws a golden apple amongst the guests that is inscribed, “Fair One, make this your own.” (Shades of Sleeping Beauty.)

Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena all lay claim to the golden apple. They chose Paris, Prince of Troy, to settle the dispute. All three goddesses tempt and bribe Paris for his favor. He chooses Aphrodite, who promises him the most beautiful woman in the world. Unfortunately, she is Helen, already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta. Helen runs off with Paris, triggering the Trojan War.

According to Wynne, it appears the apple is sacred to Aphrodite and also her brother, Apollo. Other male gods that Wynne associates with the apple are Dionysus, Adonis, and Hercules. With Hercules, one may recall the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. That bit of myth does remind one of the Garden of Eden.

Nonetheless, the strongest associations of the apple are with the goddesses, and the author suggests the Greek gods evolved out of Bronze Age deities, one of whom was likely an apple goddess.

I have not heard from Thalia in a while. I wander down the hall to peek into the kitchen. Thalia looks up from her cookbook.

“What’s a ‘tbl’ and a ‘tsp’?”

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2020 The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples – Part Three

H J Ford

Rather Curious

The third time I checked in on Thalia, she had moved on to the pie crust. She had the rolling pin in hand, and was rolling out the dough. I noted she had floured the top of the cutting board she was using, along with her person, the surrounding floor, and  most of the other kitchen surfaces.

I go back to the study to hide and to contemplate. On the whole, I must conclude that The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples is an unusual  and curious story in many respects.Lang’s wife translated the tale from a German collection of Serbian folktales. It is considered by folklorists to be of the Swan Maiden type of story. More accurately, it came out of Serbian epic poetry, but the storyline is drawn from a multitude of fairy-tale tropes.

The tale starts out a bit like the Grimms’ Golden Bird, except that the three brothers are the king’s gardener’s sons and it is a single golden bird stealing the apples.

After the witch sends the pea-hens fleeing, the prince sets out to find the Pea-hen Maiden. This is a strange moment in the story for a fairy-tale follower such as myself, in that the prince is drawn, without aid or travail, quickly to the capital city over which the Pen-hen Maiden is the empress. Perhaps this is done expediently to get on to the next fairy-tale trope: entering the forbidden room.

The prince knows the room is forbidden, the empress herself had warned him, but his curiosity gets the better of him. A dragon is released and carries off the empress. (I must note, dragons are fairly rare in these tales.)

What is really curious, in fairy-tale terms, is that it is the male who lets his curiosity rule him and not the female in the tale. Sprig of Rosemary jumps to my mind as an example of the usual format, but then any number of these Cupid and Psyche-inspired tales can serve as examples to which we may point.

Thalia comes into the study, her progress marked on the rug by ghostly white footprints, sits down on one of her favorite chairs instead of my comfy chair, which I occupy, and picks up a book.

“How long?” I ask.

“Thirty-five minutes, the cookbook says.”

I check my watch.

Back to my contemplation of the tale, there follows a second unusual event, in that the hero, for a second time, must find his bride. However, this time it takes months, which it should, if not years. During his travels, he comes to the aid of animals –a fish, a fox, and a wolf—who become his animal helpers. Here I can point to Child of the Sea and The Queen Bee as parallel examples.

From this point, the plot follows the usual trope of promises and tokens, and the pattern remains that the animal helpers are assigned to a hero, and not a heroine. The heroines, on these quests to find the lost husband, get their aid from celestial beings or inanimate objects. I can’t point to a single tale in which a hero asks aid of the sun, wind, or moon, even though in the Greek myths, to which so many fairy tales harken back, mortal men often plead with, even cajoled, the goddesses.

Then we come to the talking horses. Talking horses are also rare, but not unheard of. Falada in the Goose Girl is probably the most familiar. But two talking horses in the same story? I don’t recall another example.

Curiously (Again, this is a curious story.), in order to get his talking horse, the hero must tend to a mare and her colt for three nights. The theme of three is common enough, but more often than not, there are three different tasks, not the same task three times in a row. On the other hand, as expected, the animal helpers reveal the animal forms in which the mare and colt are hiding that conveniently happen to be that of fishes, foxes, and wolves.

When we get to the chase scene, there are only two attempts to escape, instead of the usual three, interrupted by the prince acquiring the horse brother of the dragon’s mount.

We also have an inconsistency with the dragon, who earlier flew off with the empress, but is now riding a horse. Also, what happened to the other eight pea-hen sisters? In total, all rather curious.

A whiff of smoke comes down the hall.

“I think your pie may be done early,” I say.

With a sharp “Oh!” Thalia dashes for the kitchen.

“Fire,” she announces.

I grab the extinguisher by the side of the hearth.

I hope she gets better at this.

Your thoughts?

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