Our Halloween plans this year drew little from past celebrations. To start, Thalia has decided candy makes her fat. How she judges this, being that she remains as skinny as a rail, I cannot guess. Nonetheless, Halloween booty held no interest for her.
We visited Berwick Street Market on Saturday, and strolled its open-air stalls, managing to find pumpkin bread, apple cider, bonfire toffee (as close to candy as she would allow), and a large turnip to carve into a jack-o’-lantern. Thalia intended a party for the two of us, Melissa, and our house fays.
She took charge, setting out the goodies table with the carved turnip as the centerpiece. I noticed crackers and Nutella made the cut. At strategic spots, she placed saucers of milk for the brownies and Johannes, our sidhe cat.
We didn’t bother with costumes, although I notice Melissa dressed in black for the occasion. For the highlight of the evening, Thalia planned a reading. Of course.
We humans gather around the fireplace in our comfy chairs; Johannes curls up on his cushion on the window seat, pretending to ignore us; the brownies settle in dark corners; and the fairy rests on Thalia’s shoulder.
“The Swallowed Court,” Thalia announces the story. She holds a copy of The Welsh Fairy Book, by W. Jenkyn Thomas, in her hands.
Benlli, the Prince of Powys, after many years, grew tired of his wife. When at hunt in the Green Forest, an extraordinary woman passed by. The next two days he returned to the spot in the Green Forest and she passed by again. On the third day, he spoke to her and asked her to marry him.
She agreed under the conditions that he put his present wife by and that he allow her to leave him every seventh night, asking no questions. If he would do these things, her beauty would never fade until reeds and rushes grew in his hall.
Conveniently, the prince’s wife disappeared, and the Maid of the Green Forest took her place. The prince showered gifts on his new bride. He kept his promises and for many years was happy. But slowly, the conditions set upon him wore down his mind. He didn’t break his promises, but he became most unhappy.
A church clerk, Wylan, skilled in magic, discovered the prince’s plight. He offered to relieve the prince if the prince would give the Maid of the Green Forest to him for a wife and give the monks of White Minster a tithe for their profit. The prince had sunk into such a state of melancholy that he agreed.
On the seventh night, Wylan repaired to a place called The Giant’s Grave, known to him as an entrance into the fairy world. Sure enough, the Maid of the Green Forest entered the cave. Wylan cast a spell, forcing her, against her will, to be his wife and made the spell irrevocable, ultimately to his disadvantage.
The Maid of the Green Forest reappeared to him as an ogress wearing the jewelry the prince had given her. She was, in fact, Prince Benlli’s first wife, who, when she lost his love, turned to magic to regain it as the Maid of the Green Forest. Now, her true form was that of an ogress and the form of the Maid an illusion. Every seven days she needed to return to her true form. Because of the clash between her spell and the clerk’s spell, she would remain in her true form and the clerk must marry her.
All of their spells’ promises were kept. She said her beauty would not fade until reeds and rushes grew in the prince’s hall. It was swallowed up by water and the reeds and rushes now grew there. Wylan’s promise that the prince would be at peace was kept; however, it was the peace of death and the promised tithe turned to water.
Fariy Tale of the Month: October 2021 The Swallowed Court – Part Two
“Thalia chose an interesting story to read.” Melissa sips her wine as she and I conclude the evening over glasses after the others have retired to their chosen places.
“Not a typical Halloween story,” I say.
“Maybe not, but a good Halloween story need not have ghosts and ghouls, or monsters and vampires. They only need to be uncanny and to raise in us an uncomfortable thought.”
“And what uncomfortable thought disturbs us in this story?” I take a sip of my claret.
“That of deceit. There are three characters in this story and they are all deceitful.”
“True,” I say. “There are no heroes or heroines in this tale. Only characters who are victims of their devices.”
Melissa nods in agreement. “Let’s see, it starts with Prince Benlli’s wife, who deceives her husband, knowing he will deceive her at the first opportunity now that he is no longer attracted to her, an opportunity that she provides.”
“That sounds like entrapment.” I take another sip.
“It is, but magic always has a wrinkle to it. In order to appear beautiful, she must become ugly and return to her ugliness periodically.”
I pick up on the thread. “And this mystery is the thing that weighs on Benlli’s mind. It eventually turns his amorous state of happiness into its opposite, a reflection of what happened with his ‘first’ wife.”
Melissa swirls the liquid in her glass. “I see a character flaw in the prince. He is doomed to let his happiness turn to sadness by the nature of his selfishness. Reminds me of my ex.” Her voice trails off. I am curious about him, but I know not to pry.
“At this point,” I continue, “Wylan intrudes into a delicate situation.”
“Like a bull in a china shop,” Melissa smiles. “Sorry for the cliché, but the clashes of spells is what brought everything to ruin.”
“I did like the reeds-and-rushes thing,” I say. “Upon first hearing, the listener assumes the words are metaphorical but, instead, they are predictive.”
“There is much that is ironical.” I fill her outstretched glass as she talks. “The attraction of this tale is its irony rather than the satisfaction of a happy ending.”
“Is that particularly Welsh?” I ask.
“Might be,” she speculates.
“And about the ogress.” I throw another log into the fireplace. “I don’t recall ogresses or ogres in Welsh tales before. I thought she would become an ugly witch. Witches were certainly more common in Wales. Or she could have become a hag.”
“I noticed that too,” Melissa says, “which suggests to me that this tale is not Welsh in origin. More likely it is French or from one of the other Mediterranean countries. The Greek folk tales are fond of ogres or ogresses.”
“And how about that final irony of the water swallowing up the castle?” I prod.
“That is particularly Welsh, I think. They love drowning castles. They do it over and over again.” Melissa smiles again.
I nod in agreement and drain my glass.
Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2021 The Swallowed Court – Part Three
“Oh,” says Melissa, setting down her glass and tapping her finger to her forehead. She rises, swaying a little, and steps toward the french doors that lead to my back garden. Passing through, she stops at my ginkgo tree, the base of which I have surrounded with, not mulch, but small, rounded river stones. She picks up a fairly large one.
“This will do,” she murmurs.
“You’re not going to throw it at me or something are you?” I inquire.
She giggles. “No silly, I’m going to write my name on it.”
I glance at our two bottles of wine. One is empty and the other half gone, and I am sure I have not drunk much.
“Why on earth are you writing your name on a stone?” I must know.
She giggles again, sitting down at my desk and finding a pen. “It’s in honor of my Welsh grandmother. I remember as a child, on Halloween, her having all of the family write their names on stones, then cast them into the fireplace or a bonfire if we were attending one. If the name on the stone was burnt clean off by morning, good luck would follow. If the stone disappeared that was not a good portent for the future.”
I watch her carefully spell out her name on the stone’s rough surface. Melissa Anastasia Serious.
I didn’t know her middle name.
True to her description, she gently casts the stone into the fireplace and settles back down on the recliner.
“Did your grandmother tell you about other Welsh Halloween traditions?”
“Oh yes, a very learned woman. She’s the one who told me Halloween was Samhain, the end of the Celtic autumn and the start of their winter. The Christian church consciously co-opted it by moving All Saint’s Day, which had been in May, to November first.”
Melissa stretches out her glass for a refill before continuing.
“Bonfires were always associated with Samhain. The fires kept away demons and ghosts that were about at the transition of the seasons. Masks were worn so that evil spirits could not recognize you.
“One also had to look out for a black sow without a tail in the company of a woman without a head if you didn’t want to get your soul eaten. Someone pretending to be the black sow was a good way to chase children off to bed.
“Another Welsh thing was a mash of nine ingredients, mostly root vegetables in milk, in which some sort of treat was hidden.”
Melissa’s eyes close for almost a minute, then she comes around again.
“Then there were soul cakes, the pre-candy Halloween treat. They were baked in memory of the departed and given to ‘soulers,’ who would then pray for the household and the dead. Soulers were sometimes mummers.”
“Mummers?” I say. “Are you confusing Halloween with the New Year?”
“Not I, but they did. A number of Halloween traditions—and not just in Wales—got mixed in with Christmas traditions. Well, Samhain was the start of the Celtic winter and Christmas the start of the Christian winter. The October soulers and mummers became the December Christmas carolers.”
Melissa yawns ungraciously and continues her ramblings.
“Then there is the Mari Lwyd, the skeletal horse head that shows up around Christmas. I wonder if it wasn’t, you know . . . ”
After a bit of silence, I look up from watching the flames in the fireplace. Melissa is asleep. I ease back the recliner and cover her with a blanket. I take the liberty of kissing her on the forehead.
I hope she finds her stone burnt clean in the morning.