Norms at the Well of Fate, L. B. Hansen 1893
It’s three in the morning. My eyes pop open and I am wide awake. This never happens to me, but I feel I am not going back to sleep. I wrap my dressing gown around me and stumble down to my study. I am awake, but my muscles and their coordination are still asleep. Perhaps, if I read a bit, I will fall back into slumber.
Staring straight ahead, I run a finger along the spines of my books on the shelves. On impulse I choose a volume.
Modern Greek Folktales, by R. M. Dawkins. I am a little startled. I came up with this volume’s companion, More Greek Folktales, the last time I did this little game of random selection. I open the volume to its table of contents and, using the Thalia method, my finger falls on The Underworld Adventure. I head for my comfy chair. Let’s see what we got.
Three brothers hear of a well at the bottom of which are three beautiful women. The brothers decide to bring up the women, the youngest brother to marry the youngest woman, the middle to marry the middle, and the eldest the eldest.
The eldest brother is lowered into the well. The women are brought up, but as the eldest and most beautiful is to be taken up, she predicts his brothers will abandon him and vie for her. She gives him two nuts containing miraculous dresses and instructs him that two sheep will soon pass by, one white and the other black. If he can grab the white sheep, it will carry him to the upper world, the black to the underworld.
He fails to catch the white, and the black then carries him to the underworld, dropping him onto the top of a tree. He rescues baby birds about to be attacked by a snake. Their monstrous bird mother, when she returns, offers to carry him back to the upper world, but he must supply her with forty sheep to eat and forty skins of water to drink during the flight.
This he does, but the supply is not quite enough and he cuts flesh from his own body to feed her, which she restores after they land.
Entering the nearest town, he takes a job with a merchant in need of an assistant. After some time the merchant is given an order to produce two dresses, one of the sun and moon, the other of the earth and flowers, but neither with stitchery or needle work—these dresses demanded by the eldest woman before she will marry the middle brother.
The eldest brother offers to get these dresses for the merchant, if he will give him wine, sweets, and raisins. Of these the assistant indulges, then opens the two nuts given to him. When the merchant gives the dresses to the bride, she knows her true husband has returned to the upper world.
During the feast before the wedding of the eldest woman and the middle brother, which the assistant and his master attend, the merchant rises and states, with words coming from God, “If I take a vine branch and set it here on the table and it grows leaves and sets fruit and gives grapes for all of us to eat, then, oh then, we may give the bride to another husband.”
Thinking it a joke, the challenge is accepted. The merchant blesses the vine branch and it immediately blossoms, maturing into grapes, enough for all.
“The bride is to be taken in marriage by the young man whom I have with me,” says the merchant, “and I myself will set on their heads the crowns of marriage.”
And so the proper husband is restored to the bride . . . I awake in my comfy chair, bathing in the morning light flooding my study.
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part Two
Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822)
Half a block down the street I see Melissa’s bookshop. Of course I am heading there. Ever since waking up with Modern Greek Folktales fallen into my lap, I have felt to be in a trance.
Still bleary-eyed, I enter her store. My focus returns with an almost audible snap when I spy Modern Greek Folktales sitting on her counter. I put my finger on the volume and stare at Melissa.
She looks at me, at the book, and back to me. “Are you accusing me of something?”
“No . . . Yes . . . in a way. Why is this book here?”
“Because I am reading it.” Offense creeps into her voice.
“Were you reading it at three o’clock this morning and did you read The Underground Adventure?”
Her rising umbrage evaporates. “It called to you too? I woke and in my mind was the image of the book sitting in my ‘Stately Old Books’ section. I didn’t remember having that book on my shelves, but when I came down and looked, there it was.”
“I need a good, stout cup of tea.”
“We may need something stronger.”
“It’s early. Tea will do.”
We soon sit with teacups of steaming black tea. “Why now? Why this story?” Melissa asks.
“Let us ask what the story is about,” I suggest. “Maybe there is a clue in that.”
Melissa takes a long sip of tea. “It’s about marriage.”
“So many fairy tales are,” I say.
“It’s about the ‘true husband,’ ” Melissa adds, “rather than the ‘true bride.’”
“The ‘true husband’ is not as common,” I agree.
“Three women at the bottom of a well,” she muses.
“Great start for a fairy tale.”
Melissa ignores me. “The women are magical and yet cannot act for themselves.”
“A reflection of the attitude toward women at the time?” I suggest.
“Agreed,” she says, then goes on. “Only two magical dresses in nuts. The usual number is three. Another unusual point is that the protagonists are the eldest brother and eldest woman, and not the youngest of the two sets.”
“I assume the women are sisters.”
“The story does not say that,” Melissa warns.
“Then there are the sheep,” I say.
“Yes, the sheep. The sheep show up two times: the black and white sheep and the forty sheep as food.”
“That does suggest this story springs from a pastoral culture.”
“That is another assumption,” Melissa replies, “but I will allow it. What of the monstrous bird?”
“The phoenix popped into my head, but I have no valid reason to think that.”
Melissa sips her tea and I realize I have drained mine.
“Cutting off his flesh to feed the bird.” She frowns. “That is remarkable.”
I pour myself some more tea from the pot kept warm by its cozy. “We enter into the theme of sacrifice?”
“I am not sure how to categorize that. He does get his flesh back, softening the importance of the act in story terms.”
“And,” I state, “when he gets back to the upper world, he does not go home and claim his bride, but takes a position with a merchant.”
“The story gets odder and more unusual the more we think about it,” Melissa resolves.
“Are we any closer to answering our original question? What is the story about?”
“No,” says Melissa.
We brood over our cups of tea.
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part Three
Charles Thomas Bale 1881
“The story,” Melissa says carefully, constructing her argument, “is in three acts. Act One: The brothers go to the well and the eldest brother is abandoned there. Act Two: The eldest brother travels to the underworld and returns. Act Three: The eldest reclaims his bride with the help of the merchant.”
“In those acts,” I contribute, “I see these larger themes. In Act One I see the theme of the traitorous brothers. We can trace this one back to the biblical Joseph, his brothers throwing him into a pit, then selling him into slavery.
“In Act Two, well, is that not the hero’s journey? A bit truncated, but still the basic elements are there: the bird as magical helper, the near defeat when all is lost before he cuts off his own flesh.
“In Act Three, I cannot help thinking about Ulysses returning home to Ithaca to find a house full of suitors for his wife, and into which he enters in disguise.”
“Oh, I like that,” says Melissa, “especially that last bit. But now I am thinking about the two eldest not only being the protagonists, but how the younger brothers and younger women hardly appear in the story. We are told they are there. However, we never hear from them. The baby chicks have far more to say and do. No, the story is about the two eldest and their travail. Everything else is peripheral.”
“Except,” I say, “the merchant, specifically in the wedding scene. When God starts to speak through him, the story belongs to the merchant and we hear from no one else, not even the two eldest.”
“Yes,” agrees Melissa, with a bit of surprise in her voice. “Which is again unusual when you consider the story starts with the brothers going to and descending into a well. That’s pure pagan imagery.”
I look at my empty second cup of tea that I don’t remember drinking. “I am feeling suspicious that our God was tacked onto the end of this tale at a later date, much like Grimms’ Girl without Hands. In the 1812 version, the story is quite pagan, but by the last edition Wilhelm has added an angel into the conclusion.”
“We,” smiles Melissa, “have now fallen into talking about older tales becoming victims of newer mores and we drift from our original purpose.”
“Again,” I return the smile.
“What is the story about,” Melissa restates, “and why did it call to us?”
“Right,’ I say, “let’s stick with it being about the two eldest struggling to marry and we’ll leave God out of it. “
“No, we should not,” Melissa say. (I think she is changing course.) “I observed when we started this conversation that the magical women could not act for themselves. For all of the eldest woman’s insight, she is powerless.
“The eldest brother’s courage is tested, he battles the snake and cuts flesh from his body. But by the end of the tale, he has given over his authority to the merchant, who is being instructed by God. Both she and he have ended up in the hands of fate.”
Why the word ‘fate’ triggers my memory I do not know.
“This is my anniversary,” I say.
“Of?” Melissa’s eyes widen.
Melissa exhales, “Mine as well. The tale called to us because it is about marriage after all, just as I first stated.”
We are quiet for some time.
“May I ask?” Melissa looks at me. “When did she die?”
My heart contracts. “Many years ago. In childbirth,” is all I can answer. Melissa does not press me.
“And you?” I ask.
“I think,” she sighs, “I ended up marrying the middle brother. Not the one who was meant for me.”