There are times when I must face my mortality in the context of life-threatening situations, when I need to weigh the value of my wants against the possibility of harm contingent upon that pursuit. But, really, I’m out of tobacco.
I don my mask and head out for the street. I haven’t ventured outside for weeks, maybe a month or two. The mask does keep my nose warm against the damp January weather. I thrill a little to hear the brass bell on its spring above Augustus’s tobacco shop; a thing from before our present plight. I am surprised to see Augustus startle awake from his chair behind the counter.
“Napping on the job, Augustus? Well, I guess that’s a perk of being the owner.”
“It’s the result of not many customers.” He slips on his mask.
“Surely people are buying as much tobacco as ever.”
“Perhaps, but more of it online.”
Online. I never thought of that. I buy groceries online. Am I a dolt for not thinking of it, or am I being faithful to Augustus? Hmmm—the latter; sounds nobler.
I buy many ounces of my favorites, then Augustus says, “You must try my newest, Plague’s End. A bit of Latakia with flavored leaves to hide its strength.” He points to his smoking room. Off we go.
I notice, as we light up, the two comfy chairs have been pushed more than six feet apart.
“And what have you been reading?” Augustus queries, settling into his chair.
“Late last night I ran across a tale that has stuck in my brain. It’s a piece from Lang’s The Lilac Fairy Book, called The King of the Waterfalls.
The young king of Easaidh Ruadh, seeking a challenge, plays three games with a wicked gruagach after being given advice on what to choose if he wins. The story does not tell us, but certainly the game is Fidchell.
In the first two games, the king wins and claims an ugly wench and a shaggy, brown horse, which are in fact a beautiful woman and an incredibly fast horse. In the third game, the king loses and is obliged to get for the gruagach the Sword of Light from the house of the King of the Oak Windows.
The beautiful woman, soon the king’s wife, instructs him to take the brown horse on the quest and listen to its advice. By following her and the horse’s directions, he steals the Sword of Light, but not before the sword gives them away with an alarm.
Fleeing, the brown horse instructs the king to wield the sword to behead the King of the Oak Windows, who is pursuing them on a black horse, which is the brown horse’s brother. Then the king must jump onto the back of the black horse while the brown horse carries off the head of the King of the Oak Windows. The story does not tell us what happens to the severed head.
The king’s wife now informs him he must kill the gruagach. The grugach intended that the king should be killed in his quest for the sword by the King of the Oak Windows, who was the gruagach’s brother. The gruagach is not easy to kill, but she tells him how to do so with the Sword of Light.
Returning home, after killing the gruagach, the king finds a giant has carried off his wife and the two horses. Over the days that the king chases after his wife, on foot, he befriends and is promised aid from a yellow dog, a hoary hawk, and a brown otter.
The king finds his wife and the horses but discovers the giant cannot be killed in combat because his soul is not in his body. The king’s wife, through her wiles, gets the giant to reveal his soul’s hiding place under a cavern’s threshold, under a stone, inside a sheep, inside a duck, inside an egg.
When they unearth the sheep, it gets away, and the king calls upon the yellow dog to bring it back. The duck flies off and is retrieved by the hawk. When the egg slips away into a stream, the otter saves the day. As the giant’s shadow falls upon them, the woman crushes the egg in her hands.
“Those Celts can weave a tale,” says the smoke-encircled Augustus.
Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2021 The King of the Waterfalls – Part Two
“I am a bit perplexed by the title,” I muse. “I don’t see a waterfall anywhere in the story.”
“Oh, I assume it is Mrs. Lang’s translation of ‘Easaidh Ruadh,’” Augustus says, “she being largely responsible for the colored, fairy-book series, not her husband, Andrew. The story was chosen from J.F. Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, in which Campbell called the tale The Young King of Easaidh Ruadh.”
“Then you know of the story,” I state.
“Yes, it is the first story in Campbell’s four volumes of Scottish tales. It was written down by an Islay schoolmaster, who heard it from a blind fiddler, who heard it from an Angus MacQueen around 1820.”
“My, my, a known pedigree.”
“Yes but I wonder how much got changed in each telling. Mrs. Lang’s version is not word for word the same as Campbell’s. She took pains to simplify the tale to make it accessible to her readers.”
“To what end?” I know he has a point to make.
“To clarify for some and obscure for others.” He raises a finger for me to wait and rises, leaving me to smoke in contentment for a few minutes. He returns with two books. I recognize a copy of Lang’s book identical to mine, and I assume the other is Campbell’s West Highland.
“Mrs. Lang wrote:
Stealthily the young man crept along the passage, pausing now and then to make sure that no man was following him, and entered the king’s chamber. A strange, white line of light told him where the sword was, and crossing the room on tiptoe, he seized the knob, and drew it slowly out of the sheath. The king could hardly breathe with excitement lest it should make some noise, and bring all the people in the castle running to see what was the matter. But the sword slid swiftly and silently along the case till only the point was left touching it. Then a low sound was heard, as of the edge of a knife touching a silver plate, and the king was so startled that he nearly dropped the knob.”
“I remember that,” I say.
“Mr. Campbell wrote—and this is the brown horse speaking at first:
The king is now at his dinner, and the sword of light is in his own chamber. There is a knob on its end, and when thou catchest the sword, draw it softly out of the window ‘case.’
“And I note the word ‘case’ is in quotes,” Augustus emphasizes, and continues reading the passage.
He came to the window where the sword was. He caught the sword and it came with him softly till it was at its point, and then it gave a sort of a ‘sgread.’”
“Well, that is quite different!”
“Is it not.” Augustus agrees, closing the volume.
“Window ‘case’? I think this is a use of the word ‘window’ much different than we are accustomed to. But then the word ‘windows’ means something different to the current youth than it did when I was their age. In any case, in this context, it sounds more like a scabbard.”
“And may have something to do with our hero’s opponent’s name, King of the Oak Windows.”
“Ah!” I say. “I pictured a castle with oak-framed windows and perhaps oak shutters. I may have been misled by Mrs. Lang’s ‘improvements.’”
“Another odd item, Mrs. Lang wrote of a yellow dog. Campbell says nothing about its color and gave it the name ‘Cu Seang,’ meaning slim or slight dog. Why that change? It is this sort of thing that makes me question any version of any story I read. By the process of writing them down, the tales go through an inevitable filter.”
“I see that pieces of the stories are being lost in the mists of time; seen through a glass darkly,” I despair. Mildly.
Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2021 The King of the Waterfalls – Part Three
“Changing our focus a little,” I say, tamping my pipe, “this story has an element I’ve seen in the tales before, which is what I think of as the ‘foreshadowing women,’ usually the hero’s wife or the woman who will become his wife.”
“I think I know where you’re going, but explain,” Augustus nods.
“In our tale, it is the king’s new wife who warns him not to play the third game with the gruagach. We, the readers/listeners, know immediately, when the king does not listen to her, that he is going to lose the game.”
Augustus grins. “That the man does not listen to his wife might be a universal theme, not just a thing of fairy tales, but we will not go there.”
“Agreed,” I concur. “I don’t like to confess to such things either, but my point is, she, with her warning, foreshadows what is about to happen.”
“Not unlike Ossian’s fairy wife,” says Augustus, “warning him to remain on his horse and not touch the ground of Ireland on his visit home, only to have us learn that the horse’s girth breaks, tumbling Ossian to the earth never to return to Tir na nÓg.”
“I’m thinking also of the three-women-at-the-bottom-of-the-well motif. Among almost all the variants, it is the youngest sister, who will be the hero’s wife by the end and who warns him of his brothers’ deceit. The older brothers’ attempt to kill him follows forthwith.”
Augustus blows a few smoke rings as he contemplates my supposition. “Fairy-tale heroes get a lot of advice. They get advice from parents, wise old women, wise old men, mysterious dwarves, and dark elves, as well as enchanted animals. But you are right; warnings come largely from wives and love interests. I did not recognize that pattern before.”
Augustus’s comment puts me onto another tack. “Advice. Advice is another element, not unlike warnings. Where do we go with that?”
Augustus puffs steadily on his pipe for a while. “There is only good advice in the fairy tales.”
“How’s that?” I ask.
“Look at our story. The king’s wife gives him good advice, always, not that he follows it every time, but nothing she says leads him astray.”
I search my memory. “I have an even better example for your argument, The Golden Bird. In that tale, our hero gets deeper and deeper into trouble when he does not take the fox’s advice. Not until he begins to listen to the fox, does his fortune reverse, and he comes out of trouble, step by step, on the same path on which he descended, but now all to his profit. The fox was never wrong.”
“Sitting here in our smoke-filled room,” Augustus jokes, “I can’t think of a single instance of bad advice given to a hero, or heroine for that matter.”
“Heroines not heeding advice?” I puff thoughtfully.
“I don’t think it happens as often, but there is Snow White and the evil stepmother disguised as a harmless old woman. Snow White does not follow the dwarves’ instructions about strangers.”
“True, but to return to our heroes, does that not leave them without coming up with any good ideas on their own?”
“Unless the story is about them being clever,” Augustus says, gently tapping out his pipe, “and if they are not in some way dealing with a riddle, the heroes’ persona may be brave, strong, and fearless, but concedes to the distaff side the possession of wit. For the stories’ purpose, it is their traditional, fatal flaw. What do you think of Plague’s End?”
“I’ll buy two ounces.”