Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2022 Fair, Brown, and Trembling – Part One

John Batten

A Trade

Melissa and I wait patiently by the pond in the Magic Forest. I am feeling sorry for Melissa and her hopeless search for her own gateway into this place. She has spent much time roaming through public spaces looking for the entrance she saw in her dream. Ultima advised us before, and we hope she can again.

“Ah,” says Melissa pleasantly, “there she is.”

Ultima comes down the path waving her hand vigorously. “Hello, hello, so good to see you. I felt the summons.” She takes her seat next to us on one of the stones that surround the pond.

“I can see, my dear,” she says, “a question burning your eyes out.”

“Yes, there is,” Melissa confesses.

“What will you trade for an answer?”

Melissa and I have become familiar with this tradition of her world. Nothing is freely given, always traded to keep things in balance.

Melissa is prepared. “A story.”

Ultima clasps her hands in delight, leaning forward to listen.

“Since it is still March,” Melissa begins, “and we are not far past Saint Patrick’s Day, I will tell an Irish story. Do you have Saint Patrick in your world?”

“Oh yes, Saint Patrick of the Snakes.”

“Snakes?” Melissa echoes.

“Oh yes, Saint Patrick and his dragon were great friends to the serpents.”

“Riiiight,” Melissa replies with hesitance. “Handled a little differently at our end, but never mind.  The story is Fair, Brown, and Trembling.

King Aedh Cúrucha had three daughters, Fair, Brown, and Trembling. Trembling was the youngest and prettiest. Her elder sisters consigned her to all the housework and would not let her go to church, lest she bemarried before them.

A prince appeared to be in love with Fair. However, one Sunday, when Fair and Brown were at church, the old henwife came to Trembling and through her magic—a cloak of darkness—Trembling goes to church magnificently dressed, including a honey-bird sitting on her right shoulder, a honey-finger on her left, and mounted on a fine mare with a songbird between its ears. However, she cannot go into the church but must remain in the churchyard and ride away the moment mass is ended. She is, nonetheless, noticed by all.

This happens three times. Once she is dressed in white, then black, and then red. She and her horse are resplendent in elaborate fittings. But no one knows who the mysterious lady is, not even her sisters. Yet, she wins the hearts of every male, including the prince.

On her third visit to the church, the prince grabs her shoe before she flees. The shoe makes the rounds to find its owner until it comes to Trembling, whom her sisters tried to lock away in a closet.

She marries the prince, but not before he has to battle with other princes to keep his claim on her, and they have a son. Fair comes to care for Trembling but, instead, throws her sister into the sea and tries to pretend she is Trembling, they looking similar.

The prince is suspicious and places a sword between them in bed, declaring if she is Trembling, the sword will be warm by morning, if not it will be cold. Cold it is.

Meanwhile, Trembling has been swallowed by a whale who regurgitates her the next day on the shore, where the lad who herds the prince’s cattle finds her. She explains she is under a spell of the whale and that the prince must come within the next three days and shoot the whale with a silver bullet to break the spell.

The lad goes to tell the prince but is served a drink of forgetfulness by Fair. However, the next night the lad is successful, and the prince kills the whale in time to save Trembling from the spell.

The lad is rewarded by being educated and married to their first daughter. Fair is punished by being put into a barrel and cast out to sea. This cruel punishment is tempered by having ample provisions in the barrel to last her for seven years. How there is room in the barrel for her is not explained.

Trembling and the prince live happily ever after, having fourteen children in all.

“Good heavens,” exclaims Ultima. “We must talk about this.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2022 Fair, Brown, and Trembling – Part Two

John Batten

Odd Names

“Let’s start with the title.” Ultima scratches her head. “What sort of names are those?”

“First, I must tell you,” Melissa raises a finger, “the collector of this tale was Jeremiah Curtin, an American born of Irish parents, which gave him his interest in these tales. He had a varied career as an ethnographer, folklorist, and translator, fluent in a number of languages but not Gaelic. Nonetheless, he felt strongly that the Irish tales would be closest to their origins in that language. Therefore, he used translators. This is the filter through which the details of our story come to us.”

“I’ll guess you’re right,” Ultima frowns. “But, still, those aren’t proper names. The names really sound like the description of something. 

“The first half is a lot like Cinderella, and in that case the story is called Cinderella after the heroine. Why isn’t this story called Trembling?Brown is hardly in the story. What is her name doing in the title? No, no, I say it’s a description of something.”

“Well, then,” Melissa takes up the point, “what is fair to look upon, is the color brown, and trembles?”

We look at each other in silence.

“A riddle for another day perhaps,” Ultima goes on. “What on earth is a honey-bird and a honey-finger?”

Melissa sighs. “I am guessing that since these are given to Trembling by the henwife, who puts a songbird between the mare’s ears, they are both birds and not things made of honey. Or was the implication in Gaelic quite something different? Curtin gives us no indication despite being an ethnographer.”

“Now,” Ultima squints as she asks this, “tell me again what Trembling wore on the third Sunday.”

“Well, it was the ultimate. She asked the henwife for a dress of rose red from the waist down and snow white from the waist up, with a cape of green; a hat with red, white, and green feathers; and shoes with red toes, white middle, and back and heels of green. The henwife also clips a few hairs from Trembling’s head, turning all her hair into tumbling golden locks.”

“OK, forget the hair. Blondes get too much credit in these tales, but the colors of her dress almost sound like the Irish tricolor, except it should be green, white, and orange. Tell me again about the horse.”

“The horse is white with blue and gold diamond shapes all over its body.”

“Now, doesn’t that sound like a heraldic pattern? There is some sort of inside joke going on in this story. I just feel it.”

“I like that notion,” I say. “It would explain a lot.”

“Blue and gold is a popular heraldic combination.” Melissa temples her fingers. “Diamond patterns are also common. This is an interesting thought.”

“There is also a lot of white, red, and black,” I suggest. “The colors of the alchemist.”

“I won’t buy that,’ Melissa considers. “The tale is clouded by too many other colors for that to be a theme. There is a green cape, blue diamonds, gold and silver bridles and saddles.

“What I find also perplexing in this perplexing story is the cloak of darkness that the henwife uses to create the gowns, mares, and accoutrements. I question the naming of things in this story like Ultima does. Why is it not a “wishing cloak?” Why a cloak of darkness, giving the henwife, who plays the role of a fairy godmother, a more ominous feel?”

Ominous indeed. This tale is more complex than it first appears.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2022 Fair, Brown, and Trembling – Part Three

The Henwife

“About that henwife,” Ultima’s frown continues, “with that cloak she could have set herself up as a sorceress. What’s going on there?”

“In my observations,” Melissa collects her thoughts, “there are four types of women with magical powers in the tales. I’ll start with the ‘old woman in the wood.’ This is a woman with wisdom, insight, prophesy, and magic devices, which she freely hands out to deserving heroes and heroines. Closely related, and I put them in the same category, is the spaewife, who is a member of the community, a force for good, and a healer with knowledge of magic.

“Next follows our henwife. As the name suggests, her primary job is attending to fowl. That is thought to be a position particularly low in social status, but one that carries, for no obvious reason, knowledge of magic, which she practices as she sees fit. Like the spaewife, she is a member of the community.

“The witch is defined as the embodiment of evil. She appears, like the henwife, to be poor, although she may horde wealth she does not use—as a dragon does—and, more importantly, is a recluse. She has no husband, although occasionally she has a daughter, who generally helps or warns the hero or heroine against her mother.

“What they have in common is being old women. There simply isn’t a young, attractive witch with whom a prince may fall in love. That is true until we come to the fourth type of woman with magical powers, which is the evil queen, who is allowed to be beautiful, at least in appearance. She may also be described as a sorceress. In the tales, sorceresses are always of noble blood, which is why a henwife could never parlay her way into being above her station.

“In the spirit of full disclosure, the tales consider that all royalty are familiar with magic. Even the downtrodden princess in The Goose Girl could raise a wind to blow off the cap of her companion so that he had to go chase after it and leave her to braid up her hair without his pestering.

“However, it was only the evil queen who used her powers maliciously.

“That they are all poor, with the notable exception of royalty, had, I feel, to do with the medieval culture’s low estimate of women. They were, after all, the daughters of Eve. The ills of man come to rest on their conscience; they are not able to make good, high moral decisions. Poor in spirit, poor in condition.”

“Nonsense!” objects Ultima.

“”Well, of course, but that was their world.” I hear a sigh in Melissa’s tone.

“And the royal balls? What happened to the royal balls in this story? There ought to be some dancing.”

Melissa smiles broadly. “That’s a French thing. Among the Celts it is the fairies that do the dancing. The Celts feasted and went to church. The poor did not get to feast that much, but everyone, from high to low, went to church. That was the one level playing field in the culture. To the church, they were all sinners in the eyes of God. Among the parishioners, it was the time to check in on every member of the community, supplying gossip for the rest of the week.”

Ultima clasps her hands.

Now,” says Melissa, “my question to you. Where, or how, can I find my door?”

Ultima looks at Melissa blankly.

“I’ve looked,” Melissa continues, “everywhere I imagine it might be. I know what it should appear to be, but I have not found it.”

“Oh, my dear,” Ultima puts a hand to her lips, “you can’t find your door. It’s your door. Put it wherever you want it to be.”

I’ve known Melissa for a good long time, but I’d never seen her do a face-plant before.

Your thoughts?

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