Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2021 The Crystal Ball – Part One

Fulham Palace 1902

Another Search

Fulham Palace was the home to the bishops of London for better than a thousand years. Many of these bishops left their mark on the palace causing it today to be a muddle of architectural styles. However, Melissa and I are attracted to its thirteen acres of botanical gardens, a walled garden, and palace courtyards. There should be lots of gates, gateways, and doors. We also take in the five-hundred-year-old holm oak tree simply out of reverence.

We wander through the knot garden, which runs beside the greenhouse and a fabulous brick gateway that I point out to Melissa.

“How quaint,” she says. “It would make a fine entrance into the Magic Forest, but it is not the one of my vision.”

“I thought not,” I say. “ Let’s head for the palace proper. These gardens are a little past their seasonal prime, and I am getting chilled.”

We pass through the gateway, which leads us toward the palace.

“What has Thalia been reading to you?” Melissa inquires.

“Last night it was Grimm’s The Crystal Ball.”

“I don’t know that one.”

“I hadn’t noticed it either. It’s number 197 in the canon, stuck between Old Rinkrank and Maid Maleen toward the end of the book.”

A sorceress had three sons whom she did not trust. She turned the eldest into a whale, the second eldest into an eagle, but the youngest slipped away, intent both on avoiding transformation and on rescuing an enchanted princess at the Castle of the Golden Sun, although he did not know where the castle stood.

He came across two giants arguing over a magic hat. They wanted him to settle their dispute, and he proposed a race. He moved off to put distance between himself and the giants and thoughtlessly put on the hat. Soon, he stood at the gate of the Castle of the Golden Sun.

He found the princess, but she was ashen-gray and wrinkled. She told him to look at her reflection in a mirror to see her true form, upon which he saw a most beautiful woman.

She also told him that he would be the twenty-fourth to try to save her and die in the attempt, and also the last to be allowed to try. He, nonetheless, insisted on trying.

She instructed him that he must get a crystal ball and show it to the magician to break the spell he cast upon her. To do this, he must fight with and slay a bison that will turn into a firebird. In the firebird is an egg. As its yoke is the crystal ball. If the egg falls to earth, it will set all around it on fire and destroy itself, including the crystal ball.

 The youngest brother fought and slew the bison. The firebird was chased over the ocean by the eagle—the eldest brother—but the egg dropped not into the ocean but onto a fisherman’s hut by the shoreline. A wave, created by the whale—the second eldest—put out the fire, and the youngest retrieved the crystal ball undamaged.

The magician, his power destroyed, revealed that the youth was the new king of the Castle of the Golden Sun and had the power to restore his brothers. He returns to the princess, now in her true form, and they exchange rings. 

Melissa and I have come to the palace courtyard.

No,” she says, “I have not heard this one. Interesting elements.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2021 The Crystal Ball – Part Two

Sorceress – Dorothy Lathrop

Some Reflection

“I am rather struck by the sorceress,” says Melissa, as her eyes scan the palace courtyard in search of her door.

“How so?” I ask.

“In that she does not quite fit the stereotype of a woman with magic; they are usually called a witch or a witch/queen. The term sorceress rarely applies. Her victims are often her new husband’s children—evil stepmother in other words—not her children. In the end, she gets her just punishment.

“Here it is a sorceress who doesn’t trust her own three sons and tries to do them harm. Having almost accomplished this, she disappears from the story and doesn’t come in for punishment.”

I consider her words. “I believe she is there for the story’s sake to set up the first two brothers as magical helpers, after which the story no longer needs her. Therefore, she disappears like so many fathers do in these tales after committing some initial harm.”

“Oh, I  understand that,” she says, peering at another gateway to wander through, “but if I were the storyteller—and given my modern sensibilities and education—I’d have the first brother go off to save the princess and get turned into an eagle by the magician. The second brother would follow suit and get turned into a whale, but the third brother would outsmart the magician and with the aid of his brothers, whom the magician ironically turned into magical helpers, defeat the magician. I’d have no need for a sorceress at all.”

“Dear me, you’re not going to start rewriting fairy tales are you?”

“No, no, I haven’t even finished that book on sacred wells I once started. I guess I am saying that the fairy-tale structure is not modern. It follows more of a dream structure. Things can be disjointed, loose in connections, contain unnecessary and quickly forgotten details, not explain motives; and that is all right for the genre.”

“It does hold to all the tenets of bad writing and yet remain popular,” I agree.

“Tell me more about the mirror thing,” she says unexpectedly.

“Well, if I recall Thalia’s reading, when the youth is disappointed in the princess’s appearance, she hands him a looking glass, saying human eyes can be fooled but not the image in a mirror. There is her true form.”

“Then,” she observes, “this is not Snow White’s mirror, mirror on the wall.”

“No, I think she handed him an ordinary mirror.”

Melissa stops walking. “What pops into my mind is the folklore about vampires not casting a reflection in ordinary mirrors. Both that legend and the Snow White tale have to do with mirrors but are quite different. Yet, both mirrors—magical or not—tell the truth.”

“There is the evil mirror in The Snow Queen,” I suggest.

Melissa waves a hand dismissively. “That’s Andersen, hardly of folk origins. I think we would find that mirrors in folklore have a reputation of honesty if they are a little cruel at times.

“But I am wondering if I should be looking about with a mirror to find my door. Perhaps human eyes can be fooled.”

Good grief!

“I suspect,” I say, “you might attract unwanted attention doing such a thing. But look, I understand the palace has a very pleasant café and it would be warm.”

Fairy Tales of the Month: November 2021 The Crystal Ball – Part Three

John Waterhouse

Crystal Ball

The café is in what was a drawing room of the palace, whose color scheme is gold and white. Along with chandeliers and large windows, it is a wonderfully bright room even on a cold, late-fall day.

With warmth in mind, I order the Autumn Porridge (coconut milk, cranberries, and apples, topped with cinnamon coconut flakes) and a large mug of hot chocolate. Melissa takes the Winter Root Vegetable Salad (which is what it sounds like) and tea.

As the hot chocolate warms up my brain, a remembrance comes to me. “I know of another mirror story, an Estonian tale called nothing less than The Magic Mirror, which I read a long time ago. It’s got the three-brothers motif. The king, their father, sends them off to look for a magic mirror that he’s heard of that would restore his youth if he looked into it.

The eldest two brothers are wastrels and hang out at an inn while the youngest brother enters a dark forest. He encounters three aged sisters in turn, each giving him aid, and travels on a hawk’s back to a remote island kingdom where a princess keeps the mirror.

With the hawk’s aid and advice, he steals the mirror and her golden ring. As he was returning, the older brothers steal the mirror from him in order to take credit for their father’s restoration and to get their brother banished from the kingdom.

However, with magical gifts from the three sisters, he becomes a king in his own right.  When the princess shows up, searching for her ring and mirror, they end up getting married, living happily ever after, of course, with the mirror somehow getting lost.”

My porridge arrives, and I ladle into it letting Melissa talk.

“That mirror,” she says, “like Snow White’s is a magical device. As well-known as the phrase ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall’  is, the popularity of other magical mirrors is pretty nonexistent. I’m not counting literary treatments like The Snow Queen or Through the Looking Glass. I wonder if the mirror in Snow White is favored because it talks to the queen.”

“Inanimate objects talking does catch the imagination,” I agree, as I feel warmth return to my body. “I believe the crystal ball suffers the same fate as the noncommunicative mirrors. These glass balls turn up in fewer stories than one would predict, at least in the western European tales.

“Purportedly, druids used crystal balls, but I know of no Celtic tales that refer to them. Even the ball in our Grimm story is not used as a crystal ball should be used to look into the past, present, or future. Instead, it is an element in the motif of the heart/soul of a deathless wizard/giant inside of a duck/eagle, which is inside. . . etc.”

“I rather liked the image of the crystal ball serving as the yoke of the egg.” Melissa stops, and a glaze passes over her eyes. “A crystal ball,” she muses. “Maybe that is what I need to find my door.”

Well, that does sound more reasonable than stumbling around public gardens with a mirror.

Your thoughts?