Duckworth and I put our backs to the oars, propelling us smoothly up the Isis with our passengers—Thalia and her friend Jini, or BFF as she calls her—seated at the bow. Jini is a dark-haired girl, as thin as Thalia, and from what Thalia has told me, just as bookish.
As our picnic spot comes into sight, I tuck my oars and let Duckworth glide us to the river bank. He and I are soon settling back with our tobacco pipes as the girls put out the picnic they organized.
Actually, Jini will set out the picnic because Thaila has taken up my copy of Modern Greek Folktales and announces, “The Three Oranges,” and commences to reads aloud to us.
A child prince drops a golden apple from a balcony, smashing the cooking pot of an old woman below, who curses in anger that he shall marry no one but the girl bare in her shift. The queen makes quite a fuss over the strange curse, but the words were spoken and cannot be unspoken.
The prince grows to manhood, becomes king, and is hunting with two friends one day. They come to rest and refresh by a pond where grows a lemon tree. They each pluck a lemon, and later that day, after they have feasted, one of the friends takes his lemon and cuts it open.
Out jumps a lovely girl demanding water. They have no water and she dies. This happens a second time with the other friend. The young king gets some water before cutting into his lemon.
Out jumps a girl, fair as the sun, but dressed only in her shift. After giving her water, the king expresses his wish to marry her. She agrees but tells him to put her back in the lemon tree (her mother) and get her appropriate clothing.
When the queen hears the tale, she remembers the old woman’s curse, and for a week she refuses to allow her son to marry the lemon tree girl. In the meantime, an ogress comes to the lemon tree pond to fetch water, sees the reflection of the girl in the water, and thinks it is her own. The ogress decides she is far too beautiful to be doing humble chores, smashes the water pitcher, and goes home.
A second ogress sister comes for water to the same effect. The third and youngest sister does the same, but this time the girl speaks up and reveals the ogress’s foolishness. The ogress demands she come down and be devoured and to be quick about it since there is the kneading of bread to be done. The lemon tree girl tells her to go and do the kneading first, then come back and devour her. Later, the girl sends the ogress back to attend to the heating of the oven, and later still, to attend to the baking of the bread.
On the fourth return, there are no more tasks to be done. The ogress climbs into the tree to get the girl, who jumps into the pond and turns into a golden eel. At that moment, the king returns with clothing. The ogress tricks him into thinking her looks will be restored in time. Under that ruse, he marries her.
One day, the king sends a servant to fetch water from the lemon tree pond, and the golden eel slips into the pitcher. The king is delighted with this novelty, but the ogress knows what it is and insists on eating it and that every bone must be thrown into the sea. As the bones are taken away, one drops out by the garden gate. It grows into a splendid tree that, one day, tries to scratch out the ogress queen’s eyes.
The ogress has the tree cut down and taken away to be completely burnt. However, an old woman asks the workmen for the wood. When she splits open the trunk, she finds the girl and adopts her as a daughter.
The daughter proves skillful at embroidery and they sell her wares in the market. One day, the girl has the old woman buy her silk and satin, and she embroiders the story of her life into the cloth. She then asks the old woman to take it to the palace and offer it to the king to buy.
When the king sees it, he understands what is meant by it and invites the old woman and her daughter to dine with him the next day, during which the truth is revealed, the ogress sent away, and the king and the lemon tree girl are married.
Fariy Tale of the Month: August 2022 The
Three Oranges – Part Two
Jini cocks her head (rather charmingly) asking, “Why is the story called The Three Oranges when there are only lemons?”
“I don’t know,” Thalia scowls.
“Well,” I say, “I’ve run across such a thing before. In various translations of the Grimms’ The Juniper Tree, it is titled The Lemon Tree.”
I couldn’t help noticing Duckworth tapping away on his phone the moment Jini asked the question.
“According to Wiki,” he says, “sweet oranges were introduced into Europe from India in the fifteenth century. Before then there were only ‘sour oranges.’”
“Ah,” I say, “typically, fairy tales took their shape in the twelfth century. At the time this tale was probably being put together, the sour orange was the familiar fruit.”
“There certainly is enough broken crockery in this story,” Duckworth observes.
I take my paper plate and delve into the curried-chicken pasta, Jini’s contribution to the feast.
“The first to go was the cooking pot of the old woman,” Thalia muses. “The prince’s dropping of the golden apple is the start of the story.”
“Golden apple,” Jini repeats.
“Oh,” Thalia waves her hand in the air, “the Greek tales are full of golden apples. It’s their thing. I’m guessing it turned into the golden ball in Europe, which is kind of stupid. A golden ball is way too heavy to play with. Rubber is much better.
“But, as grandfather says,” she points to me, “fairy tales are not about logic.”
She is catching on.
Jini dishes herself some quinoa kale salad. “I’m horrified by the first two maidens jumping out of their lemons and dying.”
“That is disturbing,” I say, “but it makes the survival of the third that much more important.”
Jini contemplates that but does not appear happy with my excuse.
“There is that fairy-tale trope of the pattern of three,” Duckworth puts in, eyeing the Wiltshire ham. “There are the three lemon tree maidens, the three ogresses, the three times the girl tricks the ogress, and the three transformations to eel, to tree, and back to girl.”
“Yes!” I say. “The transformations are the heart of the story.”
“How’s that?” Thalia asks, nibbling a bit of Jarlsberg.
“I think the transformations from girl to eel, to tree, and back again to girl are more like reincarnations. As the lemon tree girl, she is tied to her mother, the tree itself. It appears she cannot easily leave her mother even when the ogress threatens to eat her. Only at the last moment does she leave her mother to become an eel, now confined to the water. She comes back into the king’s presence, which feels fated to happen, but the condition and time are not right. Another reincarnation is needed.
“One of the eel bones is transformed into a tree. We are not told what kind of tree, but it harkens back to her mother. Again, through the agency of the ogress, though not through her goodwill, the final reincarnation takes place. The girl is now, I believe, a real girl, able to control her fate with her art, that is to say, her talent at embroidery.”
Thalia and Jini applaud my analysis along with giggles. I accept it graciously and crunch down on the pumpernickel breadstick that I had been waving around like a baton during my exposition.
Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2022 The Three Oranges – Part Three
“I am wondering,” Duckworth says, who has given in to a goodly portion of the Wiltshire ham, “might the old woman at the start of the story be the same old woman at the end of the story?”
“No,” says Thalia. “Don’t think so.”
“Not quite the same old woman,” I suggest, “but an old woman nonetheless.”
“Meaning . . . ?” Duckworth prompts.
“Well, I see the old women, who populate many a fairy tale, as a type of character. They appear in the tale to perform a service to the story—sometimes as a helper, sometimes not—then disappear. She might give the hero a magic cloak for sharing food with her, then the story goes on without her.
“In our case, an old woman utters a strange curse that propels the rest of the story. Toward the end of the story, an old woman frees the girl from the tree’s trunk and adopts her. There is no reason to think it is the very same old woman, but it is significant that an old woman performs the task.”
“What sort of woman-types are there in the tales?” Jini questions, opening a container of strawberries.
“The heroine, certainly,” says Thalia, spearing a berry with her fork.
“Evil stepmother,” I add.
“A witch,” Duckworth offers. “Though, in our story, I think the ogress stands in for the witch.”
“Yeah, well,” Thalia knits her brow, “ogresses are kind of a Greek witch but more brutish than magical. Not quite the same.”
“Oh, the fairy godmother!” Jini says brightly.
“Then there is the witch queen,” Duckworth goes on in a measured tone.
“Wait,” Jini emanates despair, “aren’t there any ‘good mothers’ in the tales?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” I say. “But they are obliged to die at the start of the stories to make way for the evil stepmothers.”
Jini slaps her forehead.
“Not always,” Thalia says carefully. “What about the mother in the Goose Girl?”
“I’ll argue,” I say, loading my fork with a couple of berries at once, “she fills the old woman role. At the start, she tries to provide for her daughter but is unsuccessful, even disastrous, then she disappears and is of no support in her daughter’s time of need. Not unlike that of the old woman’s curse on the young prince.
“Note too,” I start to pontificate again, “there aren’t any elderly heroines. Heroines are always young.”
“And get married.” Thalia scowls a little.
“Usually.” I reach for more berries. “There are heroines like Gretel in Hansel and Gretel, but these are being paired with a brother to share in the limelight.”
Both Thalia and Jini look grumpy.
Hold on. Is that Melissa’s voice echoing in the back of my head? I think she has indoctrinated me. I’d best change the subject.
“Duckworth, you didn’t try the quinoa kale salad.”
“I’m not a salad person, more of a meat and potatoes fellow.”
Shock crosses Jini’s face. “Potato salad. I forgot to put out the potato salad!” She roots through the picnic basket.
Potato salad? I love potato salad. Do I have room in my stomach for potato salad?