Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2020 The Girl in the Bay Tree – Part One

No Villain

“I found it,” Thalia says triumphantly, storming into the kitchen.

“Found what, my dear?” I say, rolling out my dough.

“What you said I couldn’t find.” Thalia is gloating a bit.

“Well, if what you say is true, I’ll eat my pie.”

Thalia narrow-eyes me quizzically. “What kind of pie?”

“Pork pie.”

“You’d eat it any way.”

“True. It’s a punishment I can enjoy.”

Thalia rolls her eyes. “Dry, very dry.”

“What is it you found?” I query.

“A villain-less fairy tale,” she proclaims.

I recall a conversation with her about defining what is a fairy tale. I do remember a witch, evil stepmother, or rival being part of my definition. I clean my thumb and forefinger of flour dust onto a dish towel and pick up the edge of the book she has laid flat open on the table. Modern Greek Folk Tales, by  R. M. Dawkins.

“The Girl in the Bay Tree,” says Thalia.

A childless woman prays for a child, even if it is only as small as a bayberry.

“Oh,” I say, “those fairy-tale characters ought to know by now to be more cautious when they make a wish.”

Thalia giggles. 

The child she bears is as small as a bayberry, and one day, she loses the child by the river while washing clothes. A good time later, a prince is returning from a war and rests by that same spot on the river under a bay tree. He has his supper table and meal set before him but falls asleep before feasting. In the morning, all his food has been sampled.

Angry, he is determined to find the thief and repeats his actions of the day before but only pretends to sleep.

The bay tree opens up and out comes a most beautiful girl, who tastes a bite of everything on the table. The prince captures her by the hair and promises, if she will stay with him willingly, to marry her. To this, she agrees.

The prince promises to return for her shortly. She instructs him to let no one else kiss him or he will forget her. Upon returning to his home, the prince fends off his parents’ embraces and kisses, but that night his godfather visits and gives him a kiss while the prince slumbers.

Meanwhile, the bay tree will no longer open for the bay-tree girl and the prince does not return for her. She wanders, homeless, until she comes to the prince’s city. There she learns that the prince is wasting away due to an unknown grief.

She cuts her hair and disguises herself as a monk and presents herself as a doctor with a cure for lovesickness. When she reveals herself, by telling the prince their story, the prince’s memory returns and they marry.

After reading, Thalia looks up at me smiling.

“Hmmm,” I consider. “The bay tree wasn’t very cooperative.”

“But it is not a villain,” Thalia defends.

“True. Will you eat humble pork pie with me when it is done?”

“I think sooo,” Thalia stretches out that last word.

Part Two

Piero del Pollaiuolo, Apollo & Daphne, probably 1470-80

Daphne Maybe

“Daphne,” comments Melissa’s tinny, disembodied voice ringing through the study from my cell phone lying on the table. I do like the “speaker” feature on my cell, which just allowed me to hold my book with both hands and read The Girl in the Bay Tree to Melissa at the same time.

“Pardon?” I say.

Daphne. The bay-tree girl is Daphne.” I can hear her washing dishes as we talk.

“As in the Greek nymphs?”

“One of the naiads, actually,” Melissa puts a point on it.

“Remind me,” I say.

“Daphne was a naiad, as I said, that is, a nymph of streams and other fresh waters, a daughter of a river god. Due to a prank played by Cupid, Apollo falls hopelessly in love with Daphne, who had pledged to remain virgin.

“Rather than be raped by Apollo, she, while in flight from the amorous god, calls out to her father, the river god, to save her. As Apollo is laying his hands on her, she turns into a laurel tree. The laurel tree, by another name, is a bay tree.”

“I am enlightened,” I say. “Daphne was, as it were, inside a laurel tree, just as the bay-tree girl lived inside a bay tree.”

“Apollo,” Melissa continues, “a little to his credit, never did forget Daphne and made the laurel tree one of his emblems. Hence, the laurel wreaths used to crown emperors and Olympians.”

My thoughts return to the story. “If you are right and our bay-tree girl is a naiad, then it is appropriate that her tree grows by the river and almost proves the connection.”

“I am going to take my thoughts a step further.” I hear a hollow-sounding metal door clang. “The naiads made up a greater part of Artemis’s hunting party, she being a virgin goddess and all her naiads following suit. Oh, and Apollo was Artemis’s twin brother, making his assault on Daphne all the more insensitive.”

I hear a soft padding noise. I suspect she is folding laundry.

“In any case,” she picks up on her train of thought again, “the naiads were fond of dancing at night in the forest.”

“Where are you going with this?” I ask.

“All I mean is, if you add wings to the naiads, we have the fairies. Artemis is the fairy queen, her hunting party The Wild Hunt, and her dancing naiads are the original occupants of the fairy circle.”

“A tempting idea,” I say.

“Has Thalia’s fairy ever said anything about her parentage?”

“From what Thalia has told me, the fairy is pretty secretive about such things. We don’t even know her name.”

“Ah, well,” says Melissa, “to know her name would be to have power over her.  I am sure she does not want that.”

A random synapse in my brain fires off. “Wait, aren’t the tree spirits dryads?”

I tap on my computer tablet lying beside the phone and it comes to life. With a quick visit to Wiki, I have my not so clear answer.

“Yes, dryads are the tree nymphs, and the naiads the fresh water ones. But there are the Daphnaie, the nymphs of the laurel trees who are dryads, while Daphne, their namesake I take it, was a naiad. However, to support your idea, all the dryads spend most of their time sleeping behind the bark of their trees. They only come out to dance when the coast was clear.

“Then there are the Nereids, sea nymphs, and the Oreads, mountain nymphs, not to mention Oceanids, another type of sea nymph. Also, there are others nymphs specific to other trees. The list goes on forever.”

“Fairies all, I say.” I hear Melissa closing closet doors.

Part Three

Artemis and Apollo

Forgotten Bride

“I am pouring myself a glass of wine. Are you?” Melissa says.

“Good idea.” I wander toward the kitchen, my cell in my shirt pocket. “What about Thalia’s assertion that The Girl in the Bay Tree is a fairy tale without a villain?”

“Well,” I hear her say between sips, “certainly there is no villain as a character in this story. The tale’s challenge comes from fate and its vagaries that substitute for an antagonist.”

I find an open bottle of claret I can finish off. “Fate often plays a role in the tales.” I carry the bottle and a glass back to the study.

“Hmmm, let’s think about that,” Melissa muses. “It is fate that placed the prince under the bay tree to rest. In tales like Cinderella or Catskins, it is fate’s hand that created the conflict by the deaths of their mothers.

“On the other hand, with motifs such as the three brothers, it is the good actions and deeds of the youngest that determined the future.

“I am going to say the role of fate and the role of deeds is a fifty-fifty split.”

I’ve resettled myself in the study, the cell resting on the arm of the comfy chair. “I am not so sure. Magic is an integral part of a fairy tale, and doesn’t magic predetermine the story’s outcome at times?”

“No,” Melissa says, taking a long pause. “Magic is a device, an element. Let us call it a tool to be used or abused by the protagonist.”

“Nope, I can’t agree, at least not always,” I say. “Let’s take the kiss of forgetfulness. That was out of the control of either the prince or the girl. It was rather a tool used by fate in this case.”

“Ah, you mention the forgotten bride. Why is that such a popular motif? I don’t think there was ever a forgotten bridegroom.”

“There is the occasional bride with two husbands. I have found those, but you are right, never a forgotten bridegroom.”

Melissa contemplates. “The kiss is a device that allows for a dilemma without placing blame on the bridegroom. If he simply forgot, he wouldn’t be a candidate worth marrying. But that does not explain the forgotten-bride motif’s popularity.”

“Ultimately,” I say, “it’s romantic.”

“There. You have it,” she says. “And I concede to your argument about the role of magic. However, I will suggest a formula.”

“Which is?”

“In the fairy tale, fate plus deeds equals destiny.”

“That sounds pretty good, but you need to explain more about destiny.”

“There is probably some degree of fate that can be identified in any story and that fate propels the protagonist in one direction. However, the protagonist can alter that direction, defy or alter fate by their actions.

“I could say fate plus deeds equals outcome, but in the context of the fairy-tale genre what was fated and what actions are taken, determined by the nature of the protagonist, invariably leads to one result, which is usually, as in our tale, they get married and live happily ever after.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

“How do we clink glasses?”

“Against our cells?”

“I guess so.”

I bring my glass and cell phone together.

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