Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2021 The Three Heads of the Well – Part One

Arthur Rackham

Two Daughters

The hot July day has not intruded into the Magic Forest. High above Melissa and me,  the dense foliage keeps out the intense sunlight. Branches of tall trees arch over the pond so that only one narrow shaft of light shoots through them, illuminating its center.

As we rest on our sitting stones at the pond’s edge, Melissa shifts impatiently while I puff on my pipe, focusing my mind’s imagination on Ultima.

“I thought you were thinking of me!” her voice startles us. “Oh, and you brought a friend.”

Melissa and I rise to greet her.

“Ultima, this is Melissa Serious. Melissa, Ultima Flossbottom.”

They shake hands and we resettle ourselves on the stones.

“Ultima,” Melissa starts immediately, “I have a problem with which I hope you can help. I can only visit this forest through his study.” She points to me. “But there must be other ways in. How did you find the forest?”

“Oh, through my dragon, of course. He knew it was here, but for reasons he has not explained, he cannot or will not visit it. However, being curious, he instructed me how to find my way in to check things out for him. I think it a delightful place.”

“And how do you get in?” Melissa leans forward.

Ultima contemplates a second. “I will trade with you for that knowledge.”

“Trade for what?” Melissa knits her brow.

“An explanation of the story The Three Heads of the Well. It’s the last story in the book I borrowed from the study.” Here she smiles at me and continues. “I didn’t think much of it at the time, but the story has stuck with me.”

“Remind us,” I say. “I know I must have read it.”

A king, whose wife has died, remarries to an old, ugly, hook-nosed woman, but one who is wealthy. This woman brings to the marriage her own, ill-natured daughter, and then sets about turning the king against his own daughter through false rumors.

Soon, the young princess begs her father to allow her to leave the court and make her way in the world. He allows this, and she leaves with a meager amount of food and little else. This food she shares with an old man who gives her a magic wand with which she passes unharmed through a thorn hedge to a well where three golden heads rise to the surface, asking her to wash and comb them and lay them on the bank to dry.

This she does, and she is granted the favors that she will charm a powerful prince, her voice will exceed that of a nightingale, and she will become a queen. All this comes to pass. When her new husband finds out that she is a king’s daughter, they return to that court. The father is amazed at her fortune, and he is told the truth of what has happened. The father is overjoyed, and much feasting and merriment follow before the happy couple returns home with a true dowry.

Mad with envy, the old, ugly hook-nosed queen and her ill-natured daughter contrive to follow the heroine’s example. The ill-natured daughter leaves to find her way in the world, with better provisions than the first and yet does not share them with the old man. She barely gets through the thorn hedge in one piece, and then bops the golden heads with a bottle.

For this, she is granted leprosy, a harsh voice, and condemned to marry a cobbler. It is the cobbler she meets who has the means to cure her leprosy and voice. For this, she must marry him.

They return to the king’s court, and when the hook-nosed queen finds her daughter has married a cobbler, she hangs herself in wrath. The king, glad to be rid of his queen so easily, offers the cobbler a hundred pounds if he will quit the court, taking his lady with him, and not come back. This the cobbler does, returning to mending shoes, his wife spinning the thread.

“Now tell me,” says Ultima with frustration in her voice, “what is that all about?”

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2021 The Three Heads of the Well – Part Two

Corleck Head

Talking Heads

“Well,” I say, “the general category here is ‘talking heads.’ While this is an English fairy tale, the three golden heads is a Celtic influence, I am willing to bet. Severed heads are a popular thing in Celtic tales and myths. I remember part of a tale about the hero Cuchulainn returning from battle holding by the hair the heads of defeated enemies, nine in one hand and ten in the other.”

Ultima looks aghast.

“But,” I hasten to continue, “heads were not always trophies. A gigantic Welsh king, Bran the Blessed, as described in the Mabinogion—a collection of legends—is fighting in Ireland to reclaim his sister, Branwen, married to but rejected by an Irish king.

“As a result of the ensuing battle, just about everybody dies—these are Celtic tales after all—including Branwen. Bran is mortally wounded and instructs his few surviving companions to cut off his head and return with it to Wales, where for seven years the head continues to talk and entertain them.

“Then there is Conaire Mόr, High King of Ireland, who gets his head cut off, and afterwards takes a drink of water and recites a poem in honor of his friend who had tried to save him.”

“ I like,” says Melissa, “the singing head of Donn-Bo after the battle of Allen in the Fenian Cycle, but we should not forget the Corleck Head, which isn’t a severed head at all, but rather a head statue. What is remarkable about it is that it has three faces going around with no back of the head. Supposedly there was a similar head statue of Saint Brigid at one time. Nor should we forget Mimir.”

I object. “Mimir is Nordic, not Celtic.”

“They were neighbors with much back and forth, often violent mind you, but they influenced each other nonetheless. Mimir was a god of wisdom, associated with a well at which Odin sacrificed an eye to gain wisdom. Later, Mimir was beheaded by the Vanir during a war with Aesir. Odin preserved the head, with which he conferred when he needed Mimir’s advice and secret knowledge. I’ll suggest Mimir was the original talking head.”

“Oh, but what of the golden heads? Why gold?” Ultima puts in.

Melissa and I are a bit stopped by that.

“Well,” I conjecture, “they were not made of gold, but golden in color. They do have combable hair, apparently. The color indicates… ”

“Wealth?” Melissa suggests. “Wealth of knowledge? They are magical and did bestow boons and curses.”

I am thinking outloud. “It could be the orginal storyteller’s fancy with no more significance than that.”

Melissa has templed her fingers. “There is the Greek three golden apples. Apples are kind of head-shaped.”

“No, I am not buying it,” I declare.

“I do recall the story in Jacobs’ book,” she says. “His illustrator put crowns on the golden heads. The story does not state that they were the heads of kings, but I think there is something to that.”

“Could be,” I say.

Ultima snorts.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2021 The Three Heads of the Well – Part Three

John D Batten

The Answer

“OK,” says Ultima, picking up a stone and skipping it across the pond, “let’s move on to the stepsisters. What is that conflict all about?”

Melissa answers while watching the ripples on the water. “One of the roles of a fairy tale is to pass on cultural values, especially to young listeners. In this case, the story illustrates the result of generous actions as opposed to selfish ones.

“The good princess, though she has little, shares her food with an old man, who turns out to be a magical helper. He gives her a wand and words of advice. Despite the odd nature of the heads, she treats them with respect and kindness. Her goodness leads to her good fortune.

“The ill-natured princess, though well-provisioned, does not share with the old man, who declares ill fortune will follow. She then treats the golden heads cruelly, who curse her, leading to her downfall and that of her mother.

“The cultural message is that good deeds bring good results, and bad deeds bring bad results.”

“Good versus evil,” I contribute, “is a common theme in fairy tales, populated with evil stepmothers and stepsisters, often at a ratio of three evil stepsisters to one heroine.”

“And evil stepbrothers, I assume,” concludes Ultima.

I hesitate. “Well, no.”

“No?” Ultima folds her arms.

“No evil stepbrothers, only evil stepsisters.”

Am I getting myself into hot water?

Melissa is smiling slyly. She wants to see me wiggle out of this one.

“There are evil brothers,” I observe. “Brothers usually come in sets of three. The youngest brother is almost always the hero. The elder brothers usually gang up on him, are selfish, and, on occasion, murderous.”

“And evil stepfathers?” Ultima probes.

“Well, no, none of them either that I can recall. Sometimes fathers, with great indiscretion, will want to marry their daughter, but that is about it.”

Ultima puts her fingers to her lips. Her eyes widen.

Melissa decides to bail me out. “There are certain accepted scenarios in the fairy-tale genre, to the exclusion of others for no apparent reason.

“For example, men in the stories might be a woodcutter, soldier, merchant, prince, or king, but never a barrel maker, dentist, ditchdigger, banker, or brewmaster; it just doesn’t happen. These patterns we call ‘tropes,’ and the fairy tales will use the same tropes over and over again, not trying to change the ‘scenery,’ as it may be.”

Ultima shakes her head slowly but appears satisfied. “Well, dear, about finding your way into the Magic Forest. My dragon had me drink a hot cup of dragonsleep before going to bed and recite to myself while going to sleep:

Is it a gate?

Is it a door?

What is the way

I am looking for?

Give me a clue.

Show me a sign.

I want a path,

A way that is mine.

“I don’t know if the words are magical. I think it is just to get you in the mood. The point is, you will dream about the way in.”

Melissa takes Ultima’s hand. “Can you get me some dragonsleep? I don’t think it is in our world.”

“Oh, surely it is. It’s most common. There’s probably some growing here about.” We follow Ultima as she wanders around until she exclaims, “Ha! Here.” In triumph, she uproots a plant.

Melissa touches the small daisy-like flowers and sniffs it.

“Ah, chamomile.”

Your thoughts?