It is a brilliant moon that shines down on the Magic Forest below me. The night air supports me as I push against it with the wiry strength of my wings. Summoned, I cannot resist the call.
Wait a moment. Why am I a bird? What’s going on? Aren’t I in my study sipping Proper Twelve whiskey?
Below is the pond with Melissa sitting on a stone along its bank. I land on the branch of a tree above her. She is looking hard at the path from my house into the forest.
“Hello, you called?”
Startling, she looks up into my tree. “What are you doing up there? Yes, I called, but . . . Oh dear,” she laughs, “this is my fault.”
“Well,” she stammers a bit, “I’ve begun to frequently visit the Magic Forest when I want to contemplate. This time I wanted your reflections, so I called for you. I know Ultima has done that at least once, but I felt the calling should be, at least, a little poetic. I called out three times, ‘Come, my friend, wise as an owl. Come, my friend, and bear me no scowl.’ And here you are.”
“Well and good,” I say. “But you could have called me on the cell.”
“Not as romantic,” she pouts.
“Fine.” My talons resettle themselves on the branch. “What is the issue?”
“A story, of course.” She smiles. “What else do I concern myself about?”
I blink my eyes and let her continue.
“The story is from Andrew Lang’s Brown Fairy Book. As you know, the fairy books were his wife’s production. The story that caught my attention was The Enchanted Head.”
A poor, old woman and her two daughters earned their living by making veils that the old woman sold in the marketplace. To get to market, the old woman crossed a bridge, but one day a severed head lay on it. To the old woman’s horror, it spoke to her, asking to be taken to her home. The old woman fled, but the head rolled after her, following her into the house.
The head managed to ingratiate itself with the mother and daughters after sending the old woman out at midnight, back to the bridge, instructing her to call out, “Ahmet” three times, then asking Ahmet for the “green purse.” When she called out, a gigantic Negro appeared and fulfilled the request.
“I don’t think ‘Negro’ is the proper term these days,” I say.
“That is the word used by the story and wait, things get worse. I’ll explain in a minute.” Melissa returns to the narrative.
There was enough money in the purse for them to not only get food but also to rebuild their house, wear fine clothes, and not have to make veils. When the money ran out, the head sent the old woman back to the bridge to call out to a different servant and ask for the “red purse.” During the course of the story, the head has her call out to other servants, each one a Negro larger than the one before.
All goes well until one day the head requested the old woman to go to the sultan and ask for the princess’s hand in marriage to him. The old woman, although appalled, was convinced to carry out his wish. The old woman told the sultan that the suitor was very powerful. The sultan, mistakenly thinking the suitor was her son, proposed to test the suitor three times. The first task was to remove the mountain in front of the palace, replacing it with a formal garden, all within forty days.
On the thirty-ninth day, the head sent the old woman to the bridge with the request to remove the mountain and create a garden. It was accomplished in one night, which was a good thing because the sultan had planned to hang the old woman for trying to play a trick on him.
The next two tasks were to create a magnificent palace in forty days, and then staff the palace with forty beautiful, identical servants within the next forty days. On each of the thirty-ninth days, the old woman went back to the bridge.
However, the sultan was outraged when he discovered that his new son-in-law would be a severed head. Nonetheless, the princess agreed to the marriage, she finding it, after all, a handsome head.
After the marriage, the head appeared to her as a handsome man. He explained about the curse put upon him by a wicked fairy. Unfortunately, the curse was not broken, as one might expect. To her, he would appear as a man, but to everyone else, he would remain a severed head.
With that, the princess was content.
“What?” I say, ruffling my feathers. “That is an unusual ending.”
“Well,” Melissa smiles, “I rather liked the ending, until I discovered I’d been betrayed.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2023 The Enchanted Head – Part Two
Hey, I really can turn my head all the way around.
“Are you listening to me?”
“Oh, sorry,” I say. “In what way were you betrayed?”
“Well, like you, I noticed the story ended on an unusual note. The origin of the story appeared to be Middle Eastern. The story source is Traditions Populaires de Toutes les Nations. The French I learned in college held me in good stead along with an internet word translator.”
“And what did you discover?” I am interested, but my body can’t help preening its feathers.
“I discovered Mrs. Lang told only half the story!”
“Only half?” I stop preening.
“Not only that, but where she left off, the story goes on to say that the enchanted head told her she must not tell anyone of this or the garden, palace, servants, and he himself would disappear. She would never see him again until she wore out three pairs of iron shoes and three iron walking sticks looking for him, and then he would appear as if dead until she filled a barrel with her tears.
“She, of course, promised to tell no one of their secret. However, the queen mother came to her daughter often to console her, only to find the daughter quite happy. The mystery of this intrigued the queen, and she would not relent until she discovered the reason. When finally she did, a pretty, golden canary flew out the window and the princess’s husband was gone.
“After a few days of crying, the princess, remembering his words, resolved to search for her husband. Three pairs of iron shoes and three iron walking sticks later, she found herself in front of a palace, which she entered to find her husband lying lifeless on a couch. Beside the couch stood a barrel.
“Again, remembering his words and seeing him, by all appearances, dead, she cried her tears into the barrel. By morning, the barrel was almost full. Filled with hope, she stopped crying.
“At that moment, a gypsy woman entered the room, asked what was the matter, offered to help—having pains of her own to cry over—and sent the princess off to rest. When the princess awoke, the gypsy had absconded with her husband. As she tore out her hair in lamentation, a Negro appeared, giving her three magical nuts to be opened when needed and a horse on which to ride to the capital city, where her husband would now be king.
“The gypsy, now queen, ordered the guard not to let her pass into the palace. The princess rented a room nearby and opened the first nut—a walnut—out of which came a hen with her chicks, all with brilliant plumage, and singing beautifully. These she put into a golden cage and hung it from her window where the queen could see it. The queen desired them and agreed to let the princess spend the night with the king, but not before she drugged his wine. The poor princess could not wake him up, and her entreaties went unheeded.
“The second nut—a hazelnut—produced a vast plain with rivers, streams, woods, and fields. This too she hung from her window.”
“Come again?” I say, blinking rapidly.
“That’s exactly what the story says. The same agreement occurs with the same result, only this time a faithful servant observed what happened and informed the king. When the third nut—a chestnut—was opened, out came a sea with its shores, islands, and all of its fish to be hung from the window. The king only pretended to drink the wine and was awake when the princess appeared.
“All was revealed and the false queen punished by being tried to the tail of a wild horse that dragged her over sharp rocks until she was torn to pieces.”
“Ouch.” My feather fluff out in empathy. “But, she did deserve it,” I resolve.
Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2023 The Enchanted Head – Part Three
I flap my wings, then focus my thoughts. “This is—I am sure you recognize—the Psyche and Cupid motif. At least the part that Mrs. Lang edited out.”
“Yes,” agrees Melissa. “There are many of those in the fairy-tale genre. I have to wonder if Mrs. Lang was simply tired of that trope and refused to face it one more time.”
“Perhaps,” I say, “but by doing so she obscured a marvelous version. Usually, the three gifts are items of clothing desired by the false bride. In this case, the walnut, with its multicolored, singing hen and chicks is striking enough. But then we are presented with the hazelnut containing a plain with rivers and streams, followed by the chestnut bringing forth a sea with islands and fish, all of them hung from the princess’s window. Well, it does stretch the imagination, in a good way.”
I begin preening as Melissa answers. “In that motif, the husbands appear in many forms, as beasts, bears, and even invisible beings, but I had not heard of any as a severed head. What do you make of that?”
“The severed heads do have their place. I am thinking of The Three Heads of the Well, not to mention the Celtic talking heads like Brân the Blessed and the Nordic Mímir. This story is Middle Eastern. I can’t speak to that, still, I’ll guess there is a similar tradition. I’ll suggest severed heads can appear wherever they want to.”
“Fair enough,” she agrees before going on. “While Mrs. Lang edited out the last half of the story, there are a number of things she did not include in the first half.”
I answer with a ruffling of feathers.
“First,” she enumerates, “the old woman and her daughters lived near the Bosphorus. Second, the market was in Constantinople. And three, the bridge she had to cross was called, in the story, “the bridge of the Golden Horn, which has to be the famed Galata Bridge.
“There is a conundrum. The story was told in February 1834, by Madame Martmerik Ge. The Galata Bridge had not been built by then. It had been talked about for a few centuries. I will have to assume a fairy built the bridge before the Ottomans could get around to it.”
“That was a lot of detail and color to have left out,” I observe. “Speaking of color, what was the ‘Negro’ thing all about?”
“Ah, the Langs, although highly educated and artistic, were still a product of their age. I believe the phrase ‘ethnic slur’ was not in their vocabulary or their understanding. Let me read to you parts of Andrew’s preface to the Brown Fairy Book.”
She produces a copy of the work from her canvas carry bag and reads.
“The stories in this Fairy Book come from all quarters of the world. For example, the adventures of ‘Ball-Carrier and the Bad One’ are told by Red Indian grandmothers to Red Indian children who never go to school, nor see pen and ink. ‘The Bunyip’ is known to even more uneducated little ones, running about with no clothes at all in the bush, in Australia.”
Melissa pauses and scans down the page. “Then there are tales like ‘The Fox and the Lapp’ from the very north of Europe. . . . The Lapps are a people not fond of soap and water, and very much given to art magic. . . . Other tales are told in various parts of Europe, and in many languages; but all people, black, white, brown, red, and yellow, are like each other when they tell stories. . . whether they go to school and wear clothes, or, on the other hand, wear skins of beasts, or even nothing at all, and live on grubs and lizards and hawks and crows and serpents, like the little Australian blacks.”
She closes the book.
“Good heavens,” I say, “I’d peck his eyes out if I could.”