Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2021 Dreams That Have No Moral – Part One

William Butler Yeats by John Yeats (father)

The Poet

“It is actually warm today,” Melissa says, “at least sitting here in the sun.”

Melissa and I sit, unmasked, in the courtyard of Café Van Gogh with Christ Church looming over us. We are determined to reinstate our Sunday-brunch tradition. Half of the cafés are still closed, but this one suits our purpose well.

The menu is limited; however, the Van Gosh veggie burger interests me. I’ve not tried a beetroot, chickpea, and pumpkin-seed burger before. Melissa contemplates the nut and butternut squash Wellington with parsley pesto.

“When we feel confident to eat indoors again, we must dine on their upper floor with the Starry Night ceiling.”

“Hmmm, if we ever do feel safe again,” I curmudge, then immediately relent. “Or am I talking foolishness?”

“Ah, what else can death be but the beginning of wisdom and power and beauty? And foolishness may be a kind of death.” 

I peer at her in a bit of alarm.

Seeing my reaction, she says, “I’ve been reading Yeats.”

Oh, that explains it. “Ah, his poetry.”

“No, his prose.”

“He wrote prose? I only know him as a poet.”

“Let me tell you one of the Celtic tales he related.”

A king, when his wife did not bear children, was advised to have her eat a specific fish served in a specific way. The cook inadvertently tasted the fish, the queen ate it, the remains were thrown into the yard, and finished off by a mare and a greyhound. Both the cook and the queen had sons, who were identical; the mare had two foals, and the greyhound two pups.

The queen eventually sent the cook’s son away, although the two boys were like brothers. The cook’s son told the prince, if the water in the garden well turned into blood and honey, then harm had come to him. He left, taking one of the mare’s foals and one of the greyhound’s pups with him.

He became a cowherd for a king, but grazed the cows on a giant’s land. The giant confronted him, they battled all day, the lad cut off the giant’s head with the giant’s own sword, and cut the head in half, which the head informed him was a good thing for the lad, otherwise the head would have reattached itself to the giant’s body.

The same thing happened two more times with giants of an increasing number of heads, the lad getting for his booty a suit of invisibility and shoes of great speed, and the cows gave more and more milk every evening. All these achievements the lad kept to himself.

Now, it happened, that every seven years a sea serpent appeared in the kingdom demanding a king’s daughter to devour. The king, however, as stated in the story, had been ‘feeding a bully underground for seven years,’ who was intended to defend the princess. The bully proved unreliable, and it was the lad, unrecognized by the princess, who defended her for three days in a row from the serpent, using the magical devices procured from the giants.

On the third day, the princess secretly got a lock of his hair and one of his shoes before he destroyed the serpent and slipped away.

The princess declared she would marry no one but he who fits the shoe and whose hair matches the lock of hair she took from her defender.”

“A male Cinderella,” I say as our food arrives. “That is unusual.”

“Quite,” she says, digging into her nut and butternut Wellington. Here the story stalls awhile until we sate our appetites.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2021 Dreams That Have No Moral – Part Two

William Butler Yeats Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn 

Poetic Visitor

After a bit, Melissa picks up the story.

Two balls were given to locate the wearer of the shoe, but the lad did not come forward until the king said something derogatory about his cowherd. He got his sword but was dissuaded from killing his soon-to-be father-in-law.

Soon after the wedding, the lad went out hunting with his horse and greyhound, following a deer until they were lost. They came across a witch, the mother of the three giants. With deceit, knowing who he was, she turned the lad, horse, and hound into green stones.

The prince, from the start of the story, saw that the water in the well had turned to blood and honey, and he went off to find his mystical/identical brother. Everyone thought he was the lad, and the prince found his way to his brother’s wife, who thought he was her husband, who had disappeared three days ago.

The next day, the prince, horse, and hound followed the same deer to the witch’s house. This time the witch was defeated, and the prince used her wand to turn the green stones back into man, horse, and hound.

However, a dispute followed when the lad found out that the prince had spent a night with his wife. The prince ended up turning his brother back into a green stone. It took a while, but a sense of guilt caught up with the prince; he restored his brother, and things went on happily after that.

Melissa looks up from her nut and butternut squash, her fork poised in the air. “I would like to meet Yeats. Can that be arranged?”

“If I am not mistaken, you just arranged it. How Miss Cox knows these things, I cannot say, but I am sure we can go directly after our brunch.”

It’s not the twinkling of an eye, but very soon Melissa is lifting the cozy off the teapot set out by Miss Cox and fills two of the three cups sitting on the small, wrought-iron table in front of the bench. Hints of spring fill the garden, the tulips primary among them. Melissa’s eyes drift toward the gate. I do a little research on my cellphone.

Yeats’ place in literary history is that of a bridge between the Romantics and the Modernists. As a youth, he admired Shelley, and as an elder, he was admired by Pound. Yeats also admired Blake, as well as Irish folklore. His achievements included the Noble Prize for Literature in 1923, and he served in the Senate of the Irish Free State.

Outside of his poems, he is best known as a founding member of the Abbey Theatre, for his role in the Irish literary revival, and as a longtime member of the Golden Dawn.

Yeats appears at the gate. He is a stately man, his hair swept back, and with inquisitive eyes.

“Mr. Yeats,” I say, “please let me introduce to you, Melissa Serious.”

He takes her outstretched hand with an almost imperceptible, formal shake and seats himself on the bench with us as Melissa pours his cup of tea.

I think Melissa senses, as I do, there is no need for pleasantries; he’d rather she got to the point.

“On reading Celtic Twilight,” Melissa begins, “I was taken by the chapter Dreams that have no moral.”

Yeats gives a quick smile as Melissa continues.

“What you relate is a fairy tale, or maybe better stated, a wonder tale. It is an admirable one in either case, but I am curious as to why you call it a dream.”

Yeats focuses, not on us, but rather on the teapot, templing his fingers before he speaks.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2021 Dreams That Have No Moral – Part Three

William Butler Yeats Photo by Pirie MacDonald

Tale’s End

“There is an alchemy to folktales and poetry,” Yeats began. “In the same way that we occupy a moment in time but cannot see all of time, we can grasp an aspect of passion without understanding the whole of it. We are lifted up by the wind of emotion, then set down again, not always gently. If we are poets, we try to transmute that passion into words. Passion, itself, is wordless. It comes from a realm beyond our ability to comprehend.

“All of poetry, prose, art, theatre, music, and dance exist in the no-man’s-land between our noisy physical reality and the silent place of passion. Unbidden, passion sweeps down upon us, at least to those sensitive to its presence, leaving us to reimage our experience of the incomprehensible.

“If the wind of emotion transports us and we are not poets or the like, and particularly if we are illiterate, then the transmutation may crystalize in the form of a folktale, drawing from one’s passion, dreams, and imagination. The kernel of the passion’s wisdom, power, and beauty lives in the folktale’s motifs, the tale itself being a mere framework on which to hang these insights.

“Is a folktale a dream? No, but both come from the same source. If a folktale can be a dream, then a dream can be a folktale.”

Melissa frowns for a moment. “You said, ‘particularly if we are illiterate’ that the transmutation takes the form of a folktale. At least in the industrialized countries, there are now fewer illiterates than there were in the nineteenth century. Does that mean there are fewer folk and fairy tales to be created?”

Yeats sighs gently. “New fairy tales since Anderson have been mostly literary, not of the folk, but more to the point, I am not certain a true fairy tale can now be created. Its time has passed with the event of the Great War. In the war’s physical no-man’s-land the notions of romanticism, along with its vocabulary, died. Artists had a different voice after the war. A new, starker vocabulary, along with harsher images, overwrote what had gone before.

“Perhaps we romantics were never in touch with the world’s reality, but then was that not the point? Was romanticism not an alternative to the mundane and the unfair? Did it not hold hope for the future?

“The new vocabulary of the artist is used to inspect and dissect the world in which it exists and not rise above it. I will point to T.S. Elliot, whose writing career started during the Great War, as a prime example.”

“By ‘Great War’ I assume you mean World War I?” I say.

Yeats eyes me with concern. “Your label implies there was a second.”

“There was,” Melissa answers. “Three times worse than the first, catching China, Japan, and North Africa along with the original Allied and Axis powers in its web, consuming 3 percent of the world’s population. We live in dread of a third.”

“Then I suppose the folk and fairy tale will rise no more. They were the product of a more hopeful time. They have not the answers to the questions now asked. That is all the more reason that we should cherish these relics that held in their time what is now becoming mystic knowledge.”

We watch the sun setting over the western end of the garden. The day is cooling, and we say our goodbyes.

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