Our tobacco smoke has rendered Augustus a dim outline of a person sitting in a comfy chair. I know in his hands is Jack Zipes’ The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, through which he pages briskly.
“Well, I know the story The Seven Ravens is in here.” He turns to the table of contents. “Ahh, The Three Ravens. In the Grimms’ first version, the story is different. The Grimms did that you know,” Augustus says, looking up, then returns his eyes to the book.
“If I remember,” he continues, “in The Seven Ravens, the father curses his seven sons, who failed to return home with baptismal water for the infant daughter, turning them into ravens. In this earlier version, there are three brothers playing cards on Sunday and they are cursed by their mother for their lack of morality.”
He peruses the pages. “That appears to be the major change between the two versions. I wonder why the Grimms—probably Wilhelm—felt the need to make this alteration.”
Augustus relates the tale.
The sister of the raven brothers decides to go find and rescue them. She takes little with her other than a stool to rest upon, traveling to the end of the world. She flees from the sun and the moon, both known to eat little children. She finds the stars—each sitting on its own little stool—to be friendly.
The Evening Star gives her a chicken drumstick bone (in The Three Ravens it’s a little gammy leg) telling her she will need it to open the locked door to the Glass Mountain where her raven brothers now live.
Although she wrapped the bone in a cloth, when she gets to the doorway to the Glass Mountain the bone has vanished. Each of the two versions declare she lost the bone. Taking a knife, she cuts off her little finger, using it as the key to unlock the door.
She is greeted by a dwarf, who tells her the raven lords have not yet returned home for the day. Places are set at a table for the ravens’ meal. She eats a little from each plate and sips a little from each mug, dropping a ring that she knows the brothers will recognize into the mug of the youngest brother.
When the ravens arrive, they declare someone has eaten from their plates and drunk from their mugs. When the youngest finds the ring, the sister reveals herself, the brothers are restored to their human shape, and all return home.
“Hmmm,” I say, “that last bit sounds like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In this case, the three ravens from the first version.”
“That is tempting, but I will discredit your notion immediately.”
I hear a smile in his voice, though I can’t really see his expression through the haze.
He continues. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears is pretty much an early nineteenth century invention, credited to the poet Robert Southey. However, his version has a nasty, dirty old woman invade the cottage of three ‘bachelor’ bears of different sizes. Another version, by Eleanor Mure, improved upon the punishment of the little old woman by having her impaled upon the steeple of St Paul’s Cathedral.
A decade or so later, Joseph Cundall did his version of the tale, only he changed the old woman into a young girl named Silverhair. After that, multiple authors played with the tale until a consensus was reached.
“There are similar stories that might be older than Goldilocks, such as Scrapefoot, about a fox intruding into the home of three bears.
“I’ll suggest Goldilocks and the ravens drew upon earlier sources, not the ravens drawing on Goldilocks.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2022 The Seven Ravens – Part Two
I take a moment to tamp and relight my pipe, sending out a great plume of smoke.
“Well then, the next image to strike me is the sister, traveling to find her brothers, carrying a stool.”
“Yes,” Augustus hesitates. “That is an odd detail, but the fairy tales are filled with such things.”
“I note,” pursuing my point,” the stars are all sitting on stools.”
“True,” says Augustus. “And the significance you put upon that?”
“It does put her in the company of the stars. I am thinking back to The Twelve Brothers and the sister born with a star on her forehead.”
“Ahh, yes,” Augustus puffs harder on his pipe in concentration. “Let’s consider the through-line of stars in fairy tales. I’m not going to call the stars a motif but a reoccurring element.”
“What comes to my mind,” I say, “is the fairy-tale bride looking for her lost husband, going to the celestial bodies, who can’t answer her question, but give her useful gifts.”
“Yes, however,” Augustus puffs harder, “the celestial bodies in this tale are chancier. Only the stars are helpful.”
“The Evening Star,” I say, “gives her a bone for a key.”
“Which she loses,” Augustus finishes.
“That bothers me,” I return. “Both stories—the three and the seven ravens—are a little accusatory. She carefully wrapped it in a cloth, but still it vanishes. Might there be another force at play?”
Augustus considers a moment. “None but the story itself that requires her to make a sacrifice of some sort. The hero or heroine giving up some of their flesh is a common enough thing.
“But,” Augustus raises a finger, “back to the stars. We have characters with stars on their foreheads, stars as magical helpers, and also heroes and heroines who turn into stars. I am thinking of the Greek story The Little Boy and His Elder Sister, where the protagonists escape their fate by becoming the Star of Dawn and the Pleiad.”
Relighting my pipe again, I question, “Are the three items really related, other than having to do with stars? I want to think so, but the first is a token, the second a helper, and the third a transformation. Can they be said to reflect on each other?”
I realize Augustus is not listening to me. “Asters,” he says, leaving the room again and shortly returning with a few more volumes, the titles of which I cannot read through our dense tobacco smoke.
“In The Six Swans, the heroine must sew six shirts out of aster flowers. The word ‘aster’ in Greek means ‘star.’”
“In that case,” I speculate, “we might be able to make connections among brothers, sisters, birds and stars outside of these stories. Are there any bird constellations with mythic connections?”
“My thoughts exactly.” Augustus picks up another book. After a bit he says, “Well, here is the Raven Constellation. Actually, the Corvus Constellation. The raven was Apollo’s bird, whom he set to watch over one of his lovers. The raven watched as she fell in love with someone else and said nothing to Apollo until it was too late. Apollo’s cursing scorched the raven’s feathers forever.”
“Not,” I suggest, “the origin of our tale.”
Augustus searches on.
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2022 The Seven Ravens – Part Three
“Next up in our constellation search is the Swan or Cygnus. It appears we have a selection of myths relating to this group of stars. Notable is Zeus coming to Leda in the form of a swan in order to seduce her.”
“Does not sound promising,” I say.
“Well, Leda does have two sets of twins, one set by Zeus, which is Pollux and Helen (as in Helen of Troy), and Castor and Clytemnestra by her mortal husband. Castor and Pollux become great friends, but if I recall my Iliad this dysfunctional family has more to do with murder than sibling support.”
“What are our other choices?” I realize my pipe has gone out again as Augustus scans the tome in his hands.
“Well, there are associations with Orpheus; Cycnus, son of Poseidon; and Cycnus, son of Ares. More prominent is the story of the friendship between the immortal Cycnus and the mortal Phaeton. In a race across the sky, they come too close to the sun and Phaeton perishes, falling into the river Eridanus. Cycnus asks Zeus to turn him into a swan—a mortal creature—so that he can dive into the river to retrieve his friend’s body for burial.”
“No sister retrieving her brothers?” I ask the wall of smoke. I cannot see Augustus anymore.
“No,” comes a disembodied voice from the gloom. “I recall Electra, who sacrifices to give her brother a decent burial, but that is not the same as a sister seeking her brothers. I think our search for a mythic origin has failed.”
“We haven’t addressed the Glass Mountain,” I say. “Is there a hint there?”
“Of the three stories we are considering, the ‘Six,’ the ‘Twelve,’ and the ‘Seven,’ only the last one has the Glass Mountain. In the ‘Six,’ the brothers live in a house of thieves; in the “Twelve,’ an enchanted cottage.”
I knit my brow. “These three stories have a sister searching for her brothers and end the same with the brothers being restored after becoming birds, but the details beyond that vary greatly.”
“Let us do another comparison,” Augustus instructs. “In the ‘Seven,’ the brothers turn into ravens and fly away. In the ‘Six,’ it is not until the evil queen finds them are the brothers transformed. In the ‘Twelve,’ the brothers flee their father and it is not until their sister finds them and picks the lilies are they changed.
“Further, in the ‘Seven,’ the sister sacrifices a little finger in order to get into the Glass Mountain.”
I interrupt Augustus. “I couldn’t help noting she does not climb the Glass Mountain but enters it like a house.”
“True, true,” Augustus continues. “In the ‘Six,’ she must remain silent for six years and sew six shirts of asters. In the ‘Twelve,’ she must remain silent for seven years but without the burden of sewing. Nothing like the silent treatment or the marriage to kings out hunting comes up in the ‘Seven.’ The sister simply appears and the spell is broken.”
“I must conclude,” I say, “these three stories are obviously the same story, but are so different in detail any one of them does not appear to be drawing off of one of the others. Yet we cannot find a common mythic origin.”
Augustus and I hear a commotion from the shop.
“That’s a noisy customer!” says Augustus.
I see him pass in front of me. In the archway between the testing room and the shop, Augustus bumps into a fireman clutching the end of a canvas hose with a shiny brass nozzle pointed in our direction.