It is good to be out in the open air once more. Duckworth and I settle on a walk in Hyde Park. The weather is a little cool and breezy but with a bright sun. Our masks keep our noses warm.
“At as Halia en eating?” I think Duckworth says through his double mask. I take a moment to decipher.
What has Thalia been reading.
“Ah, well, last night she read from the Grey Fairy Book to . . . me.” I almost said “us,” but Duckworth does not know about the crowd in my house.
Duckworth and I enter Hyde Park through the Victoria Gate and head for the path along the Serpentine Lake.
“The title was What Came Of Picking Flowers, a Portuguese tale if I recall.”
There were three sisters who disappear, one by one, while picking flowers in a meadow, much to the grief of their mother, who cries for them for years until their younger sibling, a brother, grows up and asks their mother what is the matter. Upon hearing the story, he sets out to find his sisters.
He comes across three brothers quarreling over the ownership of a pair of wishing boots, a key to all locks, and a cap of invisibility. He agrees to settle their argument but makes off with the magical devices instead.
Wishing the wishing boots to take him to where his eldest sister has gone brings him to the gates of a large castle. Using the key that opens all locks, he gains entrance and finds his sister.
She is married to an enchanted husband who, while in his enchanted form, is King of the Birds. The brother uses the cap of invisibility until the time comes to reveal himself to the husband.
He then goes to find his second sister and her enchanted husband—King of the Fishes—in the same manner.
Duckworth and I pause in our stroll as one of the park’s notably aggressive squirrels darts in front of us and stands on his haunches; a regular highwayman if he had pistols. Thoughtfully, I’ve brought along some peanuts in my pocket and roll one to him. He grabs it, stuffs it in his mouth, and dashes away.
“Hat a bot a onger otter?” Duckworth asks.
“What angry otter?”
Duckworth lifts his doubled mask a second. “Younger daughter.”
“Oh, well, she is a different matter.”
He finds the youngest daughter locked in a cavern by the monster who had kidnapped her and demands she consent to marry him. For all those years she has resisted, but the monster said he is deathless and can continue asking her forever.
The brother and sister hatch out the plan that she will consent to marry the monster if he will tell her how it is that he is deathless. Thinking she can never achieve the task, he tells her. She will need to carry up an iron chest from the bottom of the sea, capture the dove inside, find the egg it lays, and then smash it on his head, for him to die.
The brother, with the help of the King of the Fishes and the King of the Birds, retrieves the egg. Lulling the monster into laying his head in her lap, the youngest daughter smashes the egg on his skull.
The spell on the two husbands is broken, the youngest sister retains all the monster’s hoarded wealth, and everyone lives happily ever after.
“Ozn’t a ungest et arry?”
“Why on earth should she get hairy?” I ask in return.
Duckworth rolls his eyes.
I don’t think that is what he asked.
Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2021
What Came of Picking Flowers – Part Two
“What I find charming about the story,” I tell Duckworth, “is that it is familiar and different at the same time.”
“Well, all the usual tropes are there, maidens in distress, enchanted husbands, magical devices stolen from quarreling dupes, the soul hidden in an egg; we’ve heard them all before.”
“And yet, there are engaging differences from the norm.
“Most original might be the three sisters getting abducted, one after the other, while picking flowers with no one the wiser as to what happened to them.
“The usual trope is that only one sister, if there are sisters at all, gets carried away on the back of a bear—usually in Norway—or on the back of a bull—shades of Europa—or traded to a monster by her father—see Beauty and the Beast. In our tale, all three sisters are carried off; most unusual. “
Duckworth nods, not trying to say anything this time.
“Also, I am not sure I have run across a younger brother going off to find his sisters. It is usually a younger sister going off to find her enchanted brothers, such as in the Six Swans or The Seven Ravens.
“I guess there was bound to be a gender-switch on that theme—as has happened with Cinderella—and here it is.”
“Hat a but a ungest getin arry?”
There he goes again about someone getting hairy.
I pretend not the hear him.
“Charming to me, too, is the hero’s call upon his magical helpers to locate the monster’s iron chest and soul egg. You can expect there to be an eagle and/or a hound that comes to the hero’s aid, but in this tale, it is a whole community of fishes and birds who help him.
“Atypical is the treatment of the soul egg. When the egg is found, the acceptable method is to simple break it, and the monster, or giant, or sorcerer falls down dead in their tracks. In our tale, the youngest must smash the egg on the monster’s head.”
“Arming m ure,” Duckworth agrees. (I think.)
“Unusual, too, is the youngest sister getting all the wealth without a husband in sight.”
Duckworth raises a finger and marks the air.
Oh, that’s what he’s been asking about.
“Yes, that is unusual and out of step with the condition of the other sisters. Fairy–tale structure, if fanciful, is generally symmetrical.
“But here, the whole marriage setup is odd. Although the story does not specify, we are left to assume the monster stole all three sisters, giving the oldest to the King of the Birds, the second to the King of the Fishes, and tried to keep the youngest for himself.
“What were the monster’s motives for supplying wives to the two kings, who were presumably under the monster’s enchantment given that the enchantment ends when the monster dies? And then, after all that villainy, why does the monster hesitate, by waiting for the youngest to consent, before marrying her?
“I might suppose the monster is actually and truly in love with the girl, in a monstrous sort of way. If that is the case, he gets poor return for his affections.”
“Femme fatale,” concludes Duckworth.
I actually understood that. Are the French good at mumbling?
Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2021 What Came of Picking Flowers – Part Three
Thalia sits in her favorite comfy chair, where we always sat when I read to her. I’m sure I can distract her from the homework she stares at.
“Thalia, dear, I’ve been thinking, last night’s story you read to us had that soul-hidden-in-an-egg thing. I am wondering where that comes from. Could you ask the oracle?”
She snaps her math book shut and pulls out her cell phone from her jeans.
“What’s the search word?”
“Hmmm,” I say, “Let’s try ‘soul egg.’”
She enters that.
“Looks like something videogamers are after. I’ll try ‘soul-egg fairy tale.’”
Immediately she frowns at her screen. “Koschei the Deathless.”
She scans. “Comes out of Russian folklore.” Silence. “What’s an archetypal?”
“Hmmm, a typical, almost original, of something.”
“Then this Koschei is one of those as a bad guy. And, yeah, his soul is in a needle, inside an egg, inside a duck that no one can catch. It says the origin of the tale is unknown, but comes out of the twelfth century.”
“Indeed? There is something about fairy tales and the twelfth century. Most of the fairy tales can be traced back to a literary source in the twelfth century. Same for Arthurian legends. The printing press comes in around 1450, so that can’t be the cause. Did you know the Chinese invented moveable type and the printing press?”
Thalia is not listening to me but going down a rabbit hole. I shouldn’t have said anything. She’ll never get back to her math book.
“Hey, did you know there is a Fairy Tale eggplant?” She doesn’t look up from her screen.
I wait, knowing she will come up with something soon.
“This looks serious,” she says. “It’s in Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough.”
“That’s it,” I say. “What does Frazer have to say?”
Thalia hands me her phone. “Long.”
I’m in Chapter 66, The External Soul in Folk Tales. Frazer, exhaustive as always, lists out variations on the theme that are from Norse, Hindoo, Cambodian, modern Greek, Transylvanian, German, Irish, Ancient Egyptian, Arabian, Tartarian, Sumatrian, and North American Indian sources. He claims the notion is common to all “primitive” people.
Reading through the examples, I find the monster in What Came of Picking Flowers is no different than his compatriots from other cultures and times. They all, through arrogance and/or love, tell the woman they have waylaid how it is they can be slain. Even the smashing of the egg somewhere on the body of the villain carries through many of the sources.
The soul-egg motif—and there is almost always an egg—tugs at my conscience. While the villain -little bit of tenderness he felt toward the woman, and the woman’s only defense was her power of deceit, not of her purity or honesty.
Thalia’s phone rings and I startle out of my research. She had retreated to her math work, but now she snaps the book closed, a second time, to talk to a friend. I am sure further attempts at the lessons are numbered.