Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2022 The Golden-Headed Fish – Part One

H. J. Ford

Cold Starters

“Ohh! I must try satsivi; that sounds good.” Thalia scans the menu.

“Either that or the karmir bibar for me,” Melissa comments.

I am drooling over the thought of Armenian basturma and we’re only at the cold starters.

We are seated at a round booth in Erebuni Restaurant near Lancaster Gate, celebrating the start of summer. What an Armenian restaurant has to do with the start of summer I cannot answer, but this is the place Thalia chose. I do admire her willingness to explore. I think of it as the “blue and purple” restaurant because of the lighting scheme reflecting off of the teardrop chandeliers.

As we wait for the cold starters to arrive, Melissa asks me, with a raised eyebrow that suggests she knows the answer, “Do you know any Armenian fairy tales?”

“You know, by a very odd chance, I do.” I’d spent the evening before searching for one. “It’s called The Golden-Headed Fish.”

There was once a king of Egypt who, because of an illness, went blind. The physician of a foreign king happened to be traveling through the kingdom. He declared that a golden-headed fish swam in the sea and from its blood he could make a cure. However, he had to return to his own king and could tarry only a hundred days.

The king’s only son set off with a fleet of fishing boats to find the creature. After a hundred days, the prince, knowing it was too late, that the physician would have left before he could return to harbor, nonetheless fished one more day. On that day they caught the fish.

The prince held the fish in his arms like a baby, considering what to do. Seeing the piteous eyes of the fish, he released it back into the sea.

When the king heard what his son had done, he demanded the youth’s head. The queen smuggled her son out of the castle, dressed as a commoner, to a ship bound for an island she knew of. Before departing, she gave her son the strange advice not to hire a servant who wanted to be paid monthly.

The prince, pleased with the island his mother chose, settled down, and hired a servant, an Arab, who wished only to be paid what the prince thought he was worth and when he liked.

There were two sides to the island, the far side ravaged by a monster that nightly came out of the sea. The Arab went to the governor of the island and asked what would be given his master if he could kill the monster. The governor offered his daughter and what wealth the master wanted. The Arab talked the governor into giving his daughter half his wealth and they signed the deed.   

The Arab killed the monster, where the governor’s army had failed, then talked his reluctant master into taking the credit. The prince wished not to be married, but rather asked for a ship with which he could explore the world.

After some time, they came to a great kingdom. Again, the Arab arranged to marry off his master, this time to the daughter of the king. And, again, the prince trusted in his servant, even though the prince would be the princess’s two-hundredth husband. The others had all died on the wedding night.

Both Melissa and Thalia glanced up from their appetizers with worried looks.

After the wedding ceremony, the couple retired to their chamber for a private meal, as was the custom, with only the Arab to serve them. After the meal, the prince rose and walked to the balcony from where he saw workmen in the garden below digging his grave. From the princess’s mouth sprung a black snake that darted across the floor toward the prince. The Arab, alert for such a thing, killed the serpent with his saber. From that point on, the marriage proceeded happily.

One day a messenger arrived, bearing news that the King of Egypt had died and the prince was called to take the throne. Soon after, the Arab came to the new king saying the time had come for him to leave. The new king expressed his great regret, reminding the Arab of the time he saved his life. The Arab replied that his master had saved his life, he being the golden-headed fish.

“Cool,” says Thalia, finishing her spiced chicken. So engrossed in telling the tale, I’d ignored my beef strips, an oversight I set about to remedy. Fortunately, they are served cold.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2022 The Golden-Headed Fish – Part Two

Ikonographische Encyklopaedie der Wissenschaften und Kuenste
(Brockhaus, Leipzig) in 1844.

Main Dishes

Round two of our meal arrives. Thalia chose the ker u sus, (which translates into “eat and be quiet,” which I am sure she will not), a beef and potato sort of thing. Melissa, vegetarian that she is, chose the vegetarian dolma. I thought about the charcoal wild boar, but as it was being pricy, I settled for ischkan, trout cooked Armenian style, appropriate to the tale I told.

“I’ve heard this story before, sort of.” Melissa taps her finger to her forehead. “Kurdish, I believe, but it is the son of a fisherman who releases a marvelous fish that speaks to him. For this, his father banishes him. His mother gives him the advice to befriend the stranger who shares equally, and he befriends the stranger that does.

“They come to a kingdom where the king’s daughter is mute. Anyone who can cure her can claim her. The failure, of course, is death. The adventurers take up the challenge and spend three nights with the princess, the companion telling her stories that end with a question. By the third night, compelled to answer them, she speaks.

“She is awarded to both the fisherman’s son and the companion. The companion suggests they divide their wealth between them including the princess. The companion moves to cut the princess in half when snakes pour from her mouth.

“Having purified the princess, the companion explains that he is the fish the fisherman’s son released, and he returns to the sea.”

“Hmmm,” Thalia narrows her eyes. “I might like this version better. You get stories within a story and still get serpents coming out of her mouth.”

“I hear shades of A Thousand and One Nights,” I put in.

“Rather,” agrees Melissa. “I’ve also heard of a Roma version of this tale, but it’s an unburied corpse instead of a fish that kicks off the story. I think Aarne and friends classify this set of tales as “The Monster Bride.’”

“Ohh, this gets better and better,” Thalia grins.

“Although I like this story—or I would not have told it—” I say, “I am a little uncomfortable about how the tale treats women. Princesses in this set of tales both are the prize and embody evil.”

Melissa smiles. “Usually, I’d be the one to make that argument, but I am not sure a negative attitude toward women is being projected. The princesses are the prize, that part I will not dispute, but they are victims of some curse or possession from which the companion releases them.

“In your tale the king acts irrationally while the queen saves her son and sends him off with good advice. She is not a bad role model.”

I nod in agreement. “Still, the most striking image is the black snake coming from her mouth and slithering across the floor toward the prince, who is watching his grave being dug.”

Thalia claps a mock applause.

“Snakes from the princesses’ mouths is the unifying element in this set of monster bride stories. I have not seen it in other tales. It has not become a trope like the princess being the prize, or losing his head if the hero/protagonist fails the task.”

“Why are they always cutting off heads?” Thalia watches the waiter as he comes to remove our dishes.

Melissa and I are silent as he performs his duties.

Why are they always cutting off heads?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2022 Golden-Headed Fish – Part Three

Unidentified oil painting

The Dessert

Baklava,” I reply when the waiter asks if there will be anything else.

“And Armenian coffee for me,” says Melissa, and continues, “Why do they keep cutting off heads? It is such a common fairy-tale trope that I have never questioned it. What in the real world is comparable?”

“Well,” I say, “there are ‘winner-take-all’ contests.”

“Not the same as ‘win or die,” Thalia corrects me.

“Well then,” I suggest, “how about mercenary soldiers? In the old days they shared in the booty of war or died.”

“I don’t want to think of our fairy-tale heroes as mercenaries,” Melissa returns as her coffee arrives.

“Often the heroes,” I say, “as in these tales, are adventurers out to find their fortune. How different are they from soldiers of fortune?”

“No, no,” Melissa shakes her head then takes a sip of coffee. “Thalia, I believe the cutting-off-heads is a device used by the old tellers to quickly create tension, to increase the stakes, to give something for the hero to lose.”

“Ahh,” says Thalia, “there’s no saying, ‘Oh well, I tried,’ and walking away.”

“Exactly.”

I note my agreement got dismissed.

Thalia suddenly giggles. “And what about the governor’s daughter getting half his money?”

“That was odd.” Melissa frowns. “The Arab did her a favor, but I don’t think he intended to. I am guessing the Arab’s idea was rather than settle for a fixed amount, his master would have control over half the governor’s wealth by marrying the daughter. From the governor’s point of view, the money would stay in the family; a win/win proposition.”

I laugh. “The story does not say, but mentally, I see the Arab slapping his forehead when his master asks for a ship instead of the daughter. The Arab has to start all over again to find a wife for his master.”

“Tobit!” Melissa sets her cup down with a clatter.

“What?” I say.

“A thought tickled my brain the whole time you told the tale. This story is in the Book of Tobit. Let me remember—it’s in the apocrypha.

“Tobit is blind. He sends his son, Tobias, off to a faraway place to collect a debt. Tobias travels with a companion who is actually the archangel Raphael in disguise. They catch a fish and Raphael explains to Tobias its magical properties.

“Tobias uses the fish to drive out a demon from the woman Sarah, which has been killing her suitors on their wedding night. Tobias marries Sarah and they return to Tobit. Tobias, again with the fish, cures Tobit’s blindness. Raphael reveals his true identity before leaving their company.”

“Yeah,” Thalia’s voice holds hesitation. “The same but not the same.”

“To my mind,” I say, “it lacks the element of gratefulness on the part of the companion.  I imagine the angel preaches to them before leaving.”

“Oh, yes.”

“The angel Raphael is not the fish. The fish is used for the miracles, although I’ll grant fish are used in Christianity as a symbol of Christ, but I believe this is an Old Testament story.”

“Yes, which makes it a Jewish tale,” Melissa nods.

“Wow, I feel the weeds growing up around me.” Thalia giggles again.

Melissa and I ignore her.

“The question is,” Melissa states, “did the old storytellers take a biblical story and manipulate it to serve their message of gratefulness, or did biblical writers take a secular tale and manipulate it serve their higher purpose?”

The baklava arrives, and the question goes unanswered as we delve into the honeyed pastry. If you have never tried baklava, you must.

Your thoughts?

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