I’ve built up quite a nice fire in the hearth and pulled my comfy chair closer to it. This is the best defense against a February night. Also, against a touch of loneliness. My daughter has taken Thalia off to visit her late husband’s relatives in Glasgow, as she always does in February. I’d thought she had the sense to skip that trip this year, but not she.
Johannes pads his way over to the window seat and settles down. At the same moment that I hear the brownies rustling in a dark corner, the fairy flutters down, perching on the top edge of the book I am reading, with a pleading look in her eyes.
“Oh!” I say, “The evening read must be falling to me tonight. Well, well.”
As I turn the pages back to the table of contents, I startle the fairy into fluttering up for a moment before alighting down again.
“Your choice,” I suggest to her.
She walks across the open book, studying the entries, then touches one of the lines with her delicate foot.
“The Black Horse it is.”
Hmmm, another horse tale.
The fairy rises into the air and allows me to turn to the story before taking up her position on the book’s top edge.
The youngest son of the king gets for his inheritance an old, white, lame horse. He is talked into trading it for a mysterious black horse, with the promise that it will carry him to any place he thinks of. What comes to the prince’s mind is the Realm Underwaves, and he is there by the next morning.
He is no sooner there than the onus of stealing the daughter of the King of the Greeks to be the bride of the prince of that realm is put upon him.
His black horse instructs the prince how to accomplish the task and carries him to Greece in short order. Upon returning with the princess to the Realm Underwaves, our hero discovers the princess will not agree to marry until she has her grandmother’s silver cup used at her family’s weddings.
With the horse’s advice, again, the prince easily steals the cup. The next requirement is the family’s silver ring. This is in no way as easy as stealing the bride or the cup.
The fairy flitters up as I turn the page.
First, they pass over a snow mountain, ice mountain, and mountain of fire. Then the horse has the prince go to a smithy to have enough iron spikes made to be stuck into every bone in the horse’s body. The black horse then dives into a particular lake, the surface of which bursts into flames until the sun rises the next morning. The horse emerges from the lake, collapsing on the shore, with one spike remaining, on the end of which is the silver ring. The prince takes care of the black horse until it recovers.
Returning to the Realm Underwaves, they find the princess now demands a new castle to be built. That, for the black horse, is the easiest of the tasks; done in one night. The princess then has no more objections.
However, when they inspect the new castle, the prince of the realm, who calls himself the Son of Success, points out that there is no well inside the castle. That is soon remedied. But then the princess points out that there is a flaw in the well’s construction. When the prince of the realm leans over the edge of the well to inspect the flaw, the princess pushes him in, declaring she will marry the one who accomplished the tasks.
After three years of happy marriage, the prince remembers the black horse. The black horse is exactly where he left him. The creature teases the prince about his lack of faithfulness, but then lets the prince know that the time has come for the prince to cut off the horse’s head. This takes some persuasion, but when the deed is done, an enchantment is broken, and the horse transforms back into the princess’s brother, and they all go off to Greece for a second wedding.
The fairy looks at me with a perplexed expression.
“Well, this is a Celtic story,” I answer.
Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2021 The Black Horse – Part Two
Finishing my morning coffee, I see the day stretching out before me, with no one in the house. As I carry my empty cup toward the kitchen, my eyes fall upon the hallway closet. Time to reorganize it.
Opening the closet door, I spot problematic item number one; a three-foot-tall, gaudy, golden, useless bowling trophy. Two and a half feet of its three-foot height is the figure of a man, rather featureless, one leg forward, one arm back, swinging a golden orb clutched with three fingers. I don’t bowl. No one in my family bowls. I only know it has dominated this hallway closet for at least two decades. Where did it come from?
But can I throw out a trophy? It was, once, someone’s momentary pride and joy. Can I dishonor that? But, I can relegate it to my third floor. Up the stairs I go, toting this thing half my size.
While lugging my load down the third-floor corridor, I see that the mysterious extra door is back again. It’s not always there. It comes and goes.
What is behind it this time?
Opening the door, I squint at the broad daylight. As my eyes adjust, I make out trees and a wide, forest path at my feet. Ridiculous of course, I’m on the third floor of my house. A black horse carrying two riders flashes past me, leaving me cringing in the doorway. I did catch a glimpse of a handsome young man and a lovely lady seated before him.
“It is whatever you imagined it was,” cackles a voice from above me. I step out into the road and turn around. My door is in a stone wall on top of which sits a dwarf with long, dangling legs.
“Rink Rank, is that you? What are you doing on my third floor?”
“Third floor? Nay. You’re in Tír fo Thuinn.”
“Then that must have been…”
“Of course it was. It’s your imagination.”
“Then I’ve laid eyes on a talking horse!” I exclaim.
“Don’t they all?” Rink Rank wrinkles his brow.
“Not unless you’re Mister Ed.”
“It’s an old sit-com, never mind.”
“Please forget I said anything. But, look, if that was the prince and the daughter of the King of Greece then this story is just starting.”
Rink Rank slaps his forehead. “You dolt. The story happens every time it is told, over and over.”
I ignore the insult. “You suggest that all horses talk?”
“If you—the collective you—wants them to, they are more than willing to oblige. Who’s your friend there?”
“Who?” Rink Rank is staring at the golden man on his little pedestal, which I still clutch. The golden ball has grown large, and the golden man is holding it on his back, bent over by the weight. I set it on the ground.
I force my mind to return to the subject of horses. “Let me inventory for a moment. There is the talking black horse, who we just saw, another talking black horse belonging to the King of the Waterfalls, then there’s the Magician’s Horse, also black. Was the Goose Girl’s Falada black? His severed head talked.”
“Ah, Falada. Poor fellow,” comments Rink Rank, not answering my question.
“Are they related in any way to the kelpies?”
“Oh, don’t think that!” Old Rink Rank is appalled. “Kelpies lure little children into the water and eat them. Kelpies are changlings too, often look like horses, but changlings nonetheless. Our talking horses are noble creatures always.”
Glancing at my bowling trophy, it now appears to be a frog swimming to a surface with a golden ball in its mouth.
Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2021 The Black Horse – Part Three
“Well, kelpies or not,” I continue, “this black horse, of our story in progress, will jump into a lake and be underwater until dawn. That suggests something of the kelpie to me. And what about the iron points and the lake bursting into flames? What is that all about?”
“What? You expect me to answer that?” Rink Rank raises an eyebrow. “It’s not me who’s imagining it.”
Of course, I didn’t expect him to answer my question.
My bowling trophy has morphed into what looks like a Greek goddess. Instead of a ball, she holds a golden apple in her hand.
“And what of the Greek princess? Why Greece?” I persist.
Surprisingly, he answers. “No place so interesting as a land far, far away.”
Greece would be a land far away for the old Celts.
Rink Rank relents a little more. “Getting back to your horses, do you know of Dapplegrim?”
“No, I don’t,” I say.
“Maybe a cousin to your black horse, though he is a dapple as his name says. Like the black and his prince, the dapple and his master are questing to fulfill the demands of a wedding. The dapple must find a horse the equal of himself for the bride to ride on at the wedding day. Among other hardships, the dapple must battle with a horse, which, in every way, is identical to himself.
To do this, he instructs his master to cover him in ox hides studded with iron spikes, and, also, cover the field of battle with tar. Dapplegrim knows that the fiery breath of the other will set the field ablaze, a blaze in which he and the other will kick and bite. But Dapplegrim’s got the protection of the studded ox hides.”
“So, the other dapple can breathe fire,” I comment. “The magician’s roan horse also breathed fire. Also, the magician was magically sustained by fire, and in the end, he and the roan drowned in a river created from a riding whip. There must be a connection among these three stories. “
I notice the trophy is now a golden bird with an apple in its mouth.
“Oh,” says Rink Rank, “and then there’s the seven foals.”
“Seven?” I say. “Now we are getting into a herd.”
“A fellow named Cinderlad leaves his place by the hearth and goes off to attempt at what his brothers failed. They returned home with flesh stripped from their backs and salt rubbed into their wounds.
“What the brothers failed at was to herd the king’s seven foals and then tell the king what the foals eat that day. The reward was to marry the princess and get half the kingdom. The punishment is what the brothers got.
“Cinderlad is good to the task of chasing after the foals and doesn’t get waylaid by an old crone like his brothers did. After they pass the crone, the youngest horse tells him to ride on his back and often asks Cinderlad what he sees up ahead.
“They come to a white birch tree, inside of which is a rusty sword. On they go, crossing a river, and get to a church. In the church, the foals turn into men, receive communion, then turn back into foals, and race home the way they came.
“Now Cinderlad can tell the king that the foals had bread and wine to eat and gets to marry the princess. During the wedding feast, Cinderlad goes to the stable and, as instructed by the youngest horse, cuts off all their heads with the rusty sword. They’re restored to their human form as the seven sons of the king.
“The end,” Rink Rank smiles.
“There are,” I can’t help but say, “a plentiful number of severed horse heads in these tales. I see, too, if there is a severed horse head, there is also a marriage to a princess.”
“Fire and/or water is in the mix, too,” Rink Rank winks.
The trophy’s golden apple is now a sun beating down on a little man wrapped in a heavy coat.
I think I will leave the trophy here in Tír fo Thuinn. It’s having much more fun than it ever did in my hallway closet.