Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2022 Sleeping Beauty in the Wood – Part One

Walter Crane

Perrault’s Fault

“Grandfather, the falcon cannot hear the falconer!” Thalia is referring to one of my favorite poems but is waving a book in the air as she—with youthful histrionic drama that only young girls can affect—enters my study.

“Thalia, dear, what is the trouble?”

“This!” she says, holding her volume with both hands in front of my face. I read Perrault’s Fairy Tales with thirty-four full-page illustrations by Gustave Doré. It’s a large-format trade paperback that Melissa gave her for Christmas.

“Whom are you unhappy with, Perrault or Doré?”

“Perrault. I’ve only read the first story and it’s not right.”

“Well then, read me the story. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by the Frenchman.”

Thalia settles into her comfy chair—it used to be my comfy chair—clears her throat and reads.

The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.”

A king and queen, after a long wait, finally have a child, a girl. To the christening, they invite the seven fairies, for whom they make special gifts. However, at the christening, an eighth, an old fairy, who hadn’t been seen in fifty years, shows up and is insulted that there is no special gift for her.

One of the fairies, overhearing the old fairy’s grumblings, hides herself when the other fairies bestow their blessings of beauty, grace, and talents upon the child. The old fairy declares the girl will die one day after pricking her finger on a spindle.

The seventh fairy remediates the curse, saying the girl will not die, but rather fall into a hundred-year sleep to be awakened by a prince. The king, nonetheless, proclaims spinning wheels and spindles are banished from the kingdom.

All goes well for fifteen or sixteen years until the girl, exploring the rooms in the castle, comes across an old woman who does not know about the proclamation and is spinning. The curse is soon fulfilled.

The seventh fairy, who is twelve thousand leagues away, soon hears news of the disaster from a little dwarf wearing seven-league boots. She returns in her chariot of fire drawn by dragons to put everyone to sleep except for the king and queen. They kiss their daughter goodbye and leave before trees and thorns quickly grow up around the castle, preventing anyone from entering.

After a hundred years, the rule of the kingdom has passed to another family, and the prince of that family is out hunting when he hears the story of the sleeping princess. When he approaches the castle, the trees and thorns part for him. He no sooner finds the princess than she wakes up, the hundred years at that moment ending. There is much celebration in the castle, and the marriage is quickly held.

However, the prince does not reveal his secret marriage to his family for two years until his father dies and he becomes king. By then he and the princess have two children, “Dawn”, a girl, and “Day”, a boy, and he brings them to court.

Soon the new king is obliged to go to war and leave his wife and children in the care of his mother. She, unfortunately, is an ogress and decides to eat them instead of care for them. Her cook takes mercy on them and hides the princess and the children, dishing up animals in their place.

The ogress discovers the ruse. She causes a vat to be set up, filled with snakes, toads, and other hideous creatures, into which she intends to throw the princess, her children, the cook, and other accomplices. Just then the king returns, the ogress throws herself into the vat, and the innocents are spared.

Thalia closes the book with a pout pursing her lips.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2022 Sleeping Beauty in the Wood – Part Two

Gustave Doré

Dueling Devices

“My dear girl,” I say, “it’s simply a variant.”

“I know it’s a variant, but it’s so different, and why did he change it?”

“Let’s assume,” I chuckle, sensing a teachable moment, “you have made assumptions.”

“Like?” Thalia eyes me with suspicion.

“That you think either Disney or the Brothers Grimm provide the real story.”

“The Grimms, of course, although I think Disney is pretty cool.”

“And I’ll assume you have forgotten the Grimms’ version is called Briar Rose.”

“Oh.” Her eyes widen a little, “I did, but it’s the same story.”

“And I’ll assume you didn’t know the Grimms came along a hundred years after Perrault, with whom you are taking exception.”

“Oh.” She is a little stunned. Youth, including Thalia, live in the present where everything happens at once and think that history—the past—all happens at once as well.

“Then,” Thalia pauses, “it was the Grimms who changed the story.”

“Well, so did Disney, and I’ll bet Perrault did as well. I propose a race,” I say, pulling my laptop out of its drawer and plugging it in. “Let’s see which of us can find the most versions of Sleeping Beauty.”

Thalia is on her phone in a second; it’s the challenge of the dueling devices. Silence falls between us as we click and swipe away.

I head over to Wikipedia, which I consider to be the people’s encyclopedia. If nothing else, it is democratic with a small “d.” Wikipedia leads me to its entry on Perceforest, a chivalric romance, 1330 -1345, that I’d not heard of before. Apparently pre-Arthurian. However, the article does not point out to me where in this huge compendium our story is to be found.

“Oh, my!” Thalia’s voice breaks into my thoughts.

“What did you find?”

“Giam-something Basile, 1634.”

“Where are you?”

“Internet Archives.”

If it is public domain, it will be in the Internet Archives’ book collection. I find his Penatamerone.”

“Look for Sun, Moon, and Talia. Almost my namesake.”

I do. Oh, my. I didn’t intend to lead her towards something like this, and almost a namesake.

“Not politically correct,” I say.

“Rather indecent,” Thalia returns.

By simply searching the words “Perceforest Sleeping Beauty,” I come up with a link to the passage in question. I point this version out to Thalia, although it is not much of an improvement over Basile’s version. All that can be said is the prince is goaded toward his reprehensible behavior by the goddess Venus.

I head next to D. L. Ashliman’s site, University of Pittsburgh. His translation of the tale he calls Little Brier-Rose. In his notes, he infrms the reader of six other English translators of this tale, that the source was Marie Hassenpflug, and that the tale is listed as Aarne-Thompson-Uther tale type 410 – Sleeping Beauty.

I next check out Sur La Lune. On this site, Heidi Anne Heiner has annotated a number of tales, Sleeping Beauty being one of them, which I find useful. For example, Perrault made a reference to Hungary water in the tale. Heidi explains that Queen of Hungary Water is thought to be the first alcohol-based perfume, dating back to the 1300s. She also includes illustrations from many of the tales on her site.

I hear Thalia talking to her phone. “Disney, Sleeping Beauty,1959.”

This could be interesting. That was sixty-three years ago. Seems to me like yesterday.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2022 Sleeping Beauty in the Wood – Part Three

Walter Crane

More Searching

Thalia beams. “I found the Disney Wiki. It’s a fan site and the article on Sleeping Beauty is looong. I mean it goes on. A lot of production notes. I remember watching this when I was really little. They filmed live people for the animators to copy the movements. Who was Audrey Hepburn?”

“A well-known actress in my day.”

“Yeah, well, they based Aurora’s body on hers.”

“Minus the blond hair,” I say. “Audrey’s was dark. Aurora; I’d forgotten they’d given her a name.”

“Looks like they named about everyone. Princess Aurora, Prince Phillip, King Stefan, King Hubert, Queen Leah, Flora, Fauna, Merriweather, Maleficent—Oh, I like that name.”

I see Thalia going down the Disney rabbit hole. Surely she won’t run into Giambattista Basile there.

In Perceforest and in Pentamerone a number of characters had names, in Perrault’s tale only the two children, and in Grimm there is only one name given, Briar Rose, and that bestowed upon the princess halfway through the story. Then Disney comes along handing out names rather freely, much against fairy-tale norms. However, film is a different medium. I guess they felt the needs of a film audience to be different than that of a fairy-tale reader.

I remember that Margaret Hunt’s translation of Grimm included the author’s notes. I gamble on Project Gutenberg having a copy. They do, but the work is transcribed and the author notes are not included. I return to good old Internet Archive, where both volume one and volume two of the original book have been scanned in.

“According to the Grimm brothers’ notes,” I say proudly of my discovery to Thalia, “they trace the Sleeping Beauty story back to the Norse saga of Sigurd and Brünhild. The Valkyrie Brünhild, because of the sleep-thorn with which Odin has pierced her, sleeps inside a wall of flame that only Sigurd is able to penetrate.”

“Cool. A wall of flame. I guess we can’t get much further back than that. But I’m still at the other end with Walt Disney. He had two teams of writers reworking the story over a couple of years. In the end, they had the princess hiding out with three fairies, who she thought were her aunts, until she was sixteen. Also, she meets Prince Phillip, neither of them knowing their fathers have them engaged. Maleficent finds out where she is hiding, gets her to prick her finger, and then kidnaps Prince Phillip so he can’t kiss her. He escapes with the help of the fairies, battles Maleficent, who is in the form of a dragon, and finally gets to kiss Aurora.

“Wow, and I had begun to think the Grimms had changed the story too much. But Disney dropped the Perrault and Basile’s ending with the two children and lost the hundred-year’s wait. And after all that the film was a failure, but, yeah, made up for that big-time with the re-runs.”

“I wonder how much different the next iteration of Sleeping Beauty will be. Fairy tales will change to suit the times and the culture in which they find themselves you know.”

“Hmmm.”  Thalia has her contemplative look. “Maybe I’ll write the next version.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2022 The Snake Prince – Part One

H J Ford

Snake Prince

Thalia’s evening readings to Johannes, the fairy, the brownies, and myself are often the highlight of my day, especially on cold, damp, wintery days when I don’t venture outdoors.

This evening I can hear the wind blowing through the trees of the Magic Forest, which all but lulls me to sleep. Thalia’s contralto takes me down the fairy-tale path into the story of The Snake Prince as my eyes rest on the embers of the hearth.

A desperately poor old woman determines she can no longer support herself and decides to take a final bath in the river and bring back water to prepare her last meal. After bathing, she finds, curled up in her water pot, a deadly snake. She covers the pot and carries it back to her home intending to let the serpent bite and end her troubles.

Kneeling on her hearth, she overturns the pot, and out falls a necklace of engaging beauty. With this turn of fortune, she tucks the necklace into the folds of her veil and goes off to show it to her king, who offers her five hundred silvers for it. The king gives the marvelous necklace to his queen, and they lock it in her jewelry chest. When next they open the chest the necklace is gone. In its place is a baby boy. Until then childless, the couple considers the child a gift granted to them.

The king, recognizing the connection between the old woman and the child, asks her to be the child’s nurse. The old woman comes to love the child as her own and is a faithful servant to the king. However, she lets slip hints of the child’s miraculous birth and rumors spring up.

When it came time for the young prince to marry the princess for which his parents had arranged, the bride’s mother, having heard the rumors, instructs her daughter not to speak to her new husband. Eventually, she tells the bride, he will insist on knowing why.  Then she must say, “Tell me the secret of your birth.”

All comes to pass as the queen predicted, but the prince refuses to explain, saying the princess will regret it if he does.

The unhappy couple continues in this manner for months until the prince relents. At midnight, he takes the princess to the river where the old woman found the serpent. He tells her that he is a prince from a far-away country who was turned into a snake. As he utters the word “snake,” he returns to his serpent form and swims away.

The princess has her father build her a house by the river, where she waits for her husband’s return. One morning, after five years, she sees a muddy stain on her bedroom carpet. She asks the guards and servants to explain but none have answers. After the stain appears a second time, the princess cuts her finger, rubbing salt into the wound to keep her awake.

Her husband appears in his snake form, telling her that on a certain night to place four large pots of milk and sugar in the four corners of her bedroom. All the snakes in the river will rise up, but she must block the doorway and demand from the Queen of Snakes that she return her husband. This she does, and the Queen of Snakes promises he will return the next night. He returns in his human form, and they travel back to her father’s castle to much celebration. When the snake prince’s child is born, the old woman becomes his nurse.

An ember in the hearth crackles, and I come out of my story reverie.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2022 The Snake Prince – Part Two

H J Ford

Snake Queen

I notice Thalia read from Andrew Lang’s The Olive Fairy Book. “What country is that from?” I ask.

“India.” Thalia pages to the book’s preface. “Ahh, yeah, collected by Major Campbell.” She snaps the book closed, setting it on the table as the fairy flitters up from her shoulder.

“That explains the veil, bathing in the river, and arranged marriage. What drew you to the story?”

“I think . . . ” she casts her eyes about. “Yeah, the thing with the snake and the necklace, that was so out there I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think I know another story with a snake turning into jewelry or even a ring or anything like that.”

I rack my thoughts. “A living thing turning into an inanimate object would be the category. The only motif that comes to mind is that of witches turning people and animals to stone.”

“Not the same thing,” she frowns. “Then the necklace turns into a boy in a box!” She giggles at her alliteration.

“And,” I note, “the snake/necklace/boy is the one doing the transformations. It’s not coming from the outside.”

“Yeah, no witches.” Then Talia scowls. “There is the Queen of Snakes. Oh, I love that part.”

She snatches up the book again and reads.

“At midnight there was a great hissing and rustling from the direction of the river, and presently the ground appeared to be alive with horrible writhing forms of snakes, whose eyes glittered and forked tongues quivered as they moved on in the direction of the princess’s house. Foremost among them was a huge, repulsive scaly creature that led the dreadful procession. The guards were so terrified that they all ran away; but the princess stood in the doorway, as white as death, and with her hands clasped tight together for fear she should scream or faint, and fail to do her part. As they came closer and saw her in the way, all the snakes raised their horrid heads and swayed them to and fro, and looked at her with wicked beady eyes, while their breath seemed to poison the very air. Still, the princess stood firm, and, when the leading snake was within a few feet of her, she cried: ‘Oh, Queen of Snakes, Queen of Snakes, give me back my husband’ Then all the rustling, writhing crowd of snakes seemed to whisper to one another ‘Her husband her husband’ But the Queen of Snakes moved on until her head was almost in the princess’s face, and her little eyes seemed to flash fire. And still, the princess stood in the doorway and never moved, but cried again: ‘Oh, Queen of Snakes, Queen of Snakes, give me back my husband’ Then the Queen of Snakes replied: ‘Tomorrow you shall have him—tomorrow!”

Thalia set the book down again. “That is so cool.”

I’m still in analysis mode, thinking out loud. “The prince was able to turn himself back into human form through a series of transformations until he was forced to tell the truth to the princess. Then he lost his ability to control his fate and it passed—or perhaps returned—to the Queen of Snake.”

“Yeah, his saying ‘snake’ turned him into a snake. That was cool too.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2022 The Snake Prince – Part Three

H J Ford

A Consideration

I worry a bit about tales from foreign lands. How much have they suffered in translation? I am using the word “translation” loosely.

After the eclectic evening crowd wanders off to their preferred spots, I take out my laptop, hidden in a drawer, to do some research on The Snake Prince. I find Major Campbell collected tales from native tellers in Feroshepore in the province of Punjab.

That appears to be all there is to know about the origins of this tale. The Major’s full name is not available to me. Neither when the tales were collected, nor where these collected tales now reside. I will guess they are unpublished manuscripts, hopefully collecting dust in an archive and not burnt up in some unfortunate fire.

I discover someone named Andrew Campbell who collected tales in Santal, appropriately called Santal Folk Tales. Santal is in the north of India, Punjab in the east. Andrew was a Scottish missionary and not a major. Perusing the titles in Santal Folk Tales does not bring up The Snake Prince or anything close. However, I will point this collection out to Thalia, so my research is not in vain.

Looking through the titles in Joseph Jacobs’ Indian Fairy Tales does not point to a version of my tale either. Andrew Lang’s version of this story is all that I have, and he confessed that the tales he presents are bowdlerized on purpose, as they were intended for children.

Actually, there is another layer. The colored fairy books were really edited by Andrew’s wife, Leonora Blanche Lang, apparently called Nora for short. She and her team of other women writers managed the series. This is to say, there were a number of hands through which the tales could be filtered.

In the course of my readings, I have come across the term “fakelore” in reference to one culture trying to tell the folk tales of another culture. How can a collector from England appreciate the subtle meanings of a native speaker in Punjab. Following that, the story is then tailored for a specific audience.

Imagine if you will, extraterrestrials come down to earth and collect the stories of the teachings of Jesus until they come to the crucifixion and say, “That is a bit too graphic for our children,” and edit it out.

The Snake Prince, being collected in Feroshepore, might come out of Sikh or Hindu tradition, with Buddhist, Jainist, or Muslim influence not beyond possibility.

Nonetheless, the story provides images and conditions not usually seen in Western tales, such as the old woman’s veil (probably what is called a ghoonghat), her bathing in the river, the arranged marriage, and even the multitude of snakes. Despite our familiarity with the serpent in the garden of Eden, snakes seldom appear in Western European fairy tales and have only small roles to play. From Eastern Europe on, such as The Story of the Three Wonderful Beggars and The Gold-Giving Serpent, snakes are given larger roles.

My laptop dims and gives me the message “low battery.” I guess I’ll end my inquiry here.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2021 The Story of The Three Wonderful Beggars – Part One

H J Ford

Duckworth Visits

My Christmas goose I thought was particularly good and my figgy pudding excellent. The best was to have good company with which to share it. That almost got away from me this year. My daughter decided to take Thalia to visit relatives for Christmas rather than their usual February jaunt to see them. Melissa is off up north to see her people, leaving me quite alone.

Fortunately for me, if not for Duckworth, he has encountered a similar dilemma. His wife and children are celebrating Christmas with her parents, an event to which he was expressly not invited. It is not mine to pry into the “why” of it, but I am sure it has to do with the word “politics.”

Carrying our figgy pudding, glasses, and a bottle of Powers, Duckworth and I have retired to the study and have settled next to the hearth.

“I hope you don’t mind,” I say, “my persistence in a family tradition and will indulge me as I read a fairy tale aloud to you.” I know the fairy and brownies are hiding in the shadows and will enjoy a tale. Johannes has the window seat and appears to be, as always, ignoring us.

“I haven’t been read to since childhood. Actually, my parents rarely read to me,” Duckworth grins, taking a sip of whiskey. “Forge ahead. I’m game.”

I pick up Lang’s The Violet Fairy Book and turn to the bookmarker I have inserted.

The Story of the Three Wonderful Beggars,” I announce. “It’s a Serbian tale.”

Anastasia, the very young daughter of the wealthy merchant Mark the Rich, overhears three supposed beggars predict that on that snowy day in a nearby village a child is born, named Vassili, who would one day take all of Mark the Rich’s wealth. The next day Mark bargains with Vassili’s poor father for the child, promising as well to be it’s godfather.

“Good heavens, was that common back then?”

“Oh, probably not, but it serves the story,” I say, and continue.

On Mark’s way home, he throws the child over a precipice to die in the frozen waste.

“Oh, that’s cruel. Are you sure this is a children’s story?”

“It will be fine, just wait a moment.”

Other merchants, traveling to visit Mark the Rich on business, discover the babe lying on a small patch of green meadow complete with flowers between two banks of snow.

“How does that happen?”

“Well, it’s a miracle of course, although the illustrator, H.J. Ford, labels his rendition The Fairies Catch the Baby.” I show Duckworth the picture.

“But that is not what the text says?” Duckworth is dubious.

“No, but let’s continue.”

Unknowingly, they carry the babe back to Mark, who forgives their debt to him if they will give him the child. This time he seals Vassili in a barrel and throws him into the sea . . .

“Good grief!” Duckworth faceplants his palm.

. . . only to be discovered by a group of monks drying their nets by the seaside. They decide to name him (coincidentally) Vassili and raise him to be well educated. The child’s natural talents bloom.

Duckworth is now shaking his head in disbelief.

Many years later, Mark is visiting the monastery and is impressed by the youth. Inquiring, he hears the story of the barrel. Mark asks that he may bring Vassili into his service. Mark then gives Vassili a sealed letter to Mark’s wife instructing her to have Vassili killed immediately.

“Oh, this guy doesn’t give up.”

No wonder his parents didn’t read to him.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2021 The Story of The Three Wonderful Beggars – Part Two

Duckworth Interjects

On Vassili’s journey to Mark’s home, three beggar men ask him where he is going and to show them the letter. They blow upon the letter and hand it back. Now the letter reads that Vassili is to be married to Anastasia immediately. The wife and Anastasia are surprised but not at all displeased with Vassili, and the marriage takes place.

“Wait a minute,” Duckworth protests. “Don’t these three guys sound a little suspiciously like the three wise men somehow?”

“They do, I’ll agree. The wise men were also called the Magi—magicians—as well as kings. Royalty was often assumed to have magic, so the different names all make sense. This would not be the first time an idea was taken from the Bible and worked into the context of a fairy tale. And the tales have not only drawn from the Bible. There are a lot of old mythological notions that the tales appropriate, but let us get back to the story.”

Soon, Mark, not to be outdone, sends his new son-in-law on an errand to the Serpent King to collect rent due to Mark and to discover what happened to Mark’s twelve ships that disappeared three years ago.

“That doesn’t sound good.”

The true purpose of the trip was to have the Serpent King destroy Vassili.

“Yup.”

On his travels, Vassili comes across three entities that pose questions for Vassili to ask the Serpent King, who is reputed to know all things. The first is a dying oak tree that wants to know how much longer it must stand. The second is a trapped ferryman who wants to know how much longer he must row passengers. And third is a whale serving as a bridge across a narrow strait who wants to know how much longer he needs to remain so.

“Hold on again, this story has taken a turn somewhere. Vassili kind of won the day, got to marry the princess, well, she wasn’t a princess, but you know what I mean, and now he is off on an entirely different adventure.”

“That’s observant of you, Duckworth. Yes, this tale is made up of two motifs. The first half is like the story The Fish and the Ring, where the protagonist, a female of a lowly class, is destined to marry a baron’s son. Every effort the baron makes to destroy her fails. The tale ends in the marriage. Our tale does not end there.

“The second motif is most popularly thought of as The Foolish Man, by the Armenian poet Hovhannes Tumanyan, although he is drawing from traditional tales. In this form, the protagonist is traveling to the world’s end where there is someone (In The Foolish Man tale, it is God.) “who knows everything. On the way, he encounters three things/people/animals who add their questions to his question. All the questions are answered, and the challenge becomes how this knowledge is handled. In the case of The Foolish Man, not very well. In our tale, if you will let me come to the end of it, much better.”

Duckworth nods his consent.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2021 The Story of The Three Wonderful Beggars – Part Three

H J Ford

Duckworth Satisfied

Vassili comes to the serpent’s magnificent palace at the world’s end, searching through it until he finds a beautiful girl, who asks him why he has come.

“OK, let’s stop here,” Duckworth interrupts. “What’s with the word ‘beautiful?’”

“What? What do you mean?”

“‘Beautiful’ tells me nothing. It’s so generic. Does she have long, blonde hair? Flashing, green eyes? Sensual, red lips? Give me something to work with.”

“My dear Duckworth, you truly misunderstand the genre of fairy tales. These stories proudly bear all the hallmarks of bad writing. There is little description unless it is necessary for the story or as an aside, such as, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, that I may climb thy golden stair,’ which is the only reason we know she is a blonde.

“Same for character development. The tales depend upon stereotypes. Nor is there a lot of dialog. For example, there will be no two elder brothers discussing what they consider to be the mental limitations of the younger sibling. The story will tell us they call him a simpleton and is done with it. 

“Typically, there are few character names. That there are two in this story is pretty generous. The Serpent King is technically a proper name, but is really the usual identifier of a character used by fairy tales. A prince is called the prince, a princess the princess, or a woodcutter the woodcutter. Their name is their position in life.

“The fairy tale’s brevity is its value, leaving the details to the listener’s imagination. That’s your job.

“Now, before I finish the tale, I want you to take a great mouthful of figgy pudding, but don’t swallow it.”

“Why?”

“To keep your mouth occupied.”

Duckworth obliges.

Vassili tells the girl his full story. She informs him he was not sent to collect rent but rather to be destroyed by the Serpent King.

She hides Vassili, and when the Serpent King arrives to have his head scratched and to be lulled to sleep, she tells him she had a dream in which an oak, a ferryman, and a whale asked her questions for which she had no answers.

 The Serpent King, before nodding off to sleep, explains that the whale needs to disgorge the twelve ships of Mark the Rich that he has swallowed, that the ferryman need only hand the oars to his next passenger and not look back, and the oak only needs to be kicked down, which will reveal a huge treasure under its rotting roots.

When the serpent falls asleep, Vassili slips away. He tells the whale what he must do after crossing over its back. He tells the ferryman what he must do after the ferryman gives him passage. Then Vassili kicks over the oak to find the treasure. The three beggar men appear, guiding the twelve ships to Vassili, pronounce a blessing over him, then disappear. Vassili returns home in triumph.

Mark, furious, rides off to confront the Serpent King and find out why the serpent betrayed him. He gets no farther than the ferryman. Vassili is left with his loving wife and all of Mark’s wealth.

Duckworth swallows. “Satisfying.”

I look at him sidelong. “Which? The figgy pudding or the story?”

Duckworth smiles. “Both.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2021 The Crystal Ball – Part One

Fulham Palace 1902

Another Search

Fulham Palace was the home to the bishops of London for better than a thousand years. Many of these bishops left their mark on the palace causing it today to be a muddle of architectural styles. However, Melissa and I are attracted to its thirteen acres of botanical gardens, a walled garden, and palace courtyards. There should be lots of gates, gateways, and doors. We also take in the five-hundred-year-old holm oak tree simply out of reverence.

We wander through the knot garden, which runs beside the greenhouse and a fabulous brick gateway that I point out to Melissa.

“How quaint,” she says. “It would make a fine entrance into the Magic Forest, but it is not the one of my vision.”

“I thought not,” I say. “ Let’s head for the palace proper. These gardens are a little past their seasonal prime, and I am getting chilled.”

We pass through the gateway, which leads us toward the palace.

“What has Thalia been reading to you?” Melissa inquires.

“Last night it was Grimm’s The Crystal Ball.”

“I don’t know that one.”

“I hadn’t noticed it either. It’s number 197 in the canon, stuck between Old Rinkrank and Maid Maleen toward the end of the book.”

A sorceress had three sons whom she did not trust. She turned the eldest into a whale, the second eldest into an eagle, but the youngest slipped away, intent both on avoiding transformation and on rescuing an enchanted princess at the Castle of the Golden Sun, although he did not know where the castle stood.

He came across two giants arguing over a magic hat. They wanted him to settle their dispute, and he proposed a race. He moved off to put distance between himself and the giants and thoughtlessly put on the hat. Soon, he stood at the gate of the Castle of the Golden Sun.

He found the princess, but she was ashen-gray and wrinkled. She told him to look at her reflection in a mirror to see her true form, upon which he saw a most beautiful woman.

She also told him that he would be the twenty-fourth to try to save her and die in the attempt, and also the last to be allowed to try. He, nonetheless, insisted on trying.

She instructed him that he must get a crystal ball and show it to the magician to break the spell he cast upon her. To do this, he must fight with and slay a bison that will turn into a firebird. In the firebird is an egg. As its yoke is the crystal ball. If the egg falls to earth, it will set all around it on fire and destroy itself, including the crystal ball.

 The youngest brother fought and slew the bison. The firebird was chased over the ocean by the eagle—the eldest brother—but the egg dropped not into the ocean but onto a fisherman’s hut by the shoreline. A wave, created by the whale—the second eldest—put out the fire, and the youngest retrieved the crystal ball undamaged.

The magician, his power destroyed, revealed that the youth was the new king of the Castle of the Golden Sun and had the power to restore his brothers. He returns to the princess, now in her true form, and they exchange rings. 

Melissa and I have come to the palace courtyard.

No,” she says, “I have not heard this one. Interesting elements.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2021 The Crystal Ball – Part Two

Sorceress – Dorothy Lathrop

Some Reflection

“I am rather struck by the sorceress,” says Melissa, as her eyes scan the palace courtyard in search of her door.

“How so?” I ask.

“In that she does not quite fit the stereotype of a woman with magic; they are usually called a witch or a witch/queen. The term sorceress rarely applies. Her victims are often her new husband’s children—evil stepmother in other words—not her children. In the end, she gets her just punishment.

“Here it is a sorceress who doesn’t trust her own three sons and tries to do them harm. Having almost accomplished this, she disappears from the story and doesn’t come in for punishment.”

I consider her words. “I believe she is there for the story’s sake to set up the first two brothers as magical helpers, after which the story no longer needs her. Therefore, she disappears like so many fathers do in these tales after committing some initial harm.”

“Oh, I  understand that,” she says, peering at another gateway to wander through, “but if I were the storyteller—and given my modern sensibilities and education—I’d have the first brother go off to save the princess and get turned into an eagle by the magician. The second brother would follow suit and get turned into a whale, but the third brother would outsmart the magician and with the aid of his brothers, whom the magician ironically turned into magical helpers, defeat the magician. I’d have no need for a sorceress at all.”

“Dear me, you’re not going to start rewriting fairy tales are you?”

“No, no, I haven’t even finished that book on sacred wells I once started. I guess I am saying that the fairy-tale structure is not modern. It follows more of a dream structure. Things can be disjointed, loose in connections, contain unnecessary and quickly forgotten details, not explain motives; and that is all right for the genre.”

“It does hold to all the tenets of bad writing and yet remain popular,” I agree.

“Tell me more about the mirror thing,” she says unexpectedly.

“Well, if I recall Thalia’s reading, when the youth is disappointed in the princess’s appearance, she hands him a looking glass, saying human eyes can be fooled but not the image in a mirror. There is her true form.”

“Then,” she observes, “this is not Snow White’s mirror, mirror on the wall.”

“No, I think she handed him an ordinary mirror.”

Melissa stops walking. “What pops into my mind is the folklore about vampires not casting a reflection in ordinary mirrors. Both that legend and the Snow White tale have to do with mirrors but are quite different. Yet, both mirrors—magical or not—tell the truth.”

“There is the evil mirror in The Snow Queen,” I suggest.

Melissa waves a hand dismissively. “That’s Andersen, hardly of folk origins. I think we would find that mirrors in folklore have a reputation of honesty if they are a little cruel at times.

“But I am wondering if I should be looking about with a mirror to find my door. Perhaps human eyes can be fooled.”

Good grief!

“I suspect,” I say, “you might attract unwanted attention doing such a thing. But look, I understand the palace has a very pleasant café and it would be warm.”

Fairy Tales of the Month: November 2021 The Crystal Ball – Part Three

John Waterhouse

Crystal Ball

The café is in what was a drawing room of the palace, whose color scheme is gold and white. Along with chandeliers and large windows, it is a wonderfully bright room even on a cold, late-fall day.

With warmth in mind, I order the Autumn Porridge (coconut milk, cranberries, and apples, topped with cinnamon coconut flakes) and a large mug of hot chocolate. Melissa takes the Winter Root Vegetable Salad (which is what it sounds like) and tea.

As the hot chocolate warms up my brain, a remembrance comes to me. “I know of another mirror story, an Estonian tale called nothing less than The Magic Mirror, which I read a long time ago. It’s got the three-brothers motif. The king, their father, sends them off to look for a magic mirror that he’s heard of that would restore his youth if he looked into it.

The eldest two brothers are wastrels and hang out at an inn while the youngest brother enters a dark forest. He encounters three aged sisters in turn, each giving him aid, and travels on a hawk’s back to a remote island kingdom where a princess keeps the mirror.

With the hawk’s aid and advice, he steals the mirror and her golden ring. As he was returning, the older brothers steal the mirror from him in order to take credit for their father’s restoration and to get their brother banished from the kingdom.

However, with magical gifts from the three sisters, he becomes a king in his own right.  When the princess shows up, searching for her ring and mirror, they end up getting married, living happily ever after, of course, with the mirror somehow getting lost.”

My porridge arrives, and I ladle into it letting Melissa talk.

“That mirror,” she says, “like Snow White’s is a magical device. As well-known as the phrase ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall’  is, the popularity of other magical mirrors is pretty nonexistent. I’m not counting literary treatments like The Snow Queen or Through the Looking Glass. I wonder if the mirror in Snow White is favored because it talks to the queen.”

“Inanimate objects talking does catch the imagination,” I agree, as I feel warmth return to my body. “I believe the crystal ball suffers the same fate as the noncommunicative mirrors. These glass balls turn up in fewer stories than one would predict, at least in the western European tales.

“Purportedly, druids used crystal balls, but I know of no Celtic tales that refer to them. Even the ball in our Grimm story is not used as a crystal ball should be used to look into the past, present, or future. Instead, it is an element in the motif of the heart/soul of a deathless wizard/giant inside of a duck/eagle, which is inside. . . etc.”

“I rather liked the image of the crystal ball serving as the yoke of the egg.” Melissa stops, and a glaze passes over her eyes. “A crystal ball,” she muses. “Maybe that is what I need to find my door.”

Well, that does sound more reasonable than stumbling around public gardens with a mirror.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2021 The Swallowed Court – Part One

Travel Poster

Halloween Night

Our Halloween plans this year drew little from past celebrations. To start, Thalia has decided candy makes her fat. How she judges this, being that she remains as skinny as a rail, I cannot guess. Nonetheless, Halloween booty held no interest for her.

We visited Berwick Street Market on Saturday, and strolled its open-air stalls, managing to find pumpkin bread, apple cider, bonfire toffee (as close to candy as she would allow), and a large turnip to carve into a jack-o’-lantern. Thalia intended a party for the two of us, Melissa, and our house fays.

She took charge, setting out the goodies table with the carved turnip as the centerpiece. I noticed crackers and Nutella made the cut. At strategic spots, she placed saucers of milk for the brownies and Johannes, our sidhe cat.

We didn’t bother with costumes, although I notice Melissa dressed in black for the occasion. For the highlight of the evening, Thalia planned a reading. Of course.

We humans gather around the fireplace in our comfy chairs; Johannes curls up on his cushion on the window seat, pretending to ignore us; the brownies settle in dark corners; and the fairy rests on Thalia’s shoulder.

The Swallowed Court,Thalia announces the story. She holds a copy of The Welsh Fairy Book, by W. Jenkyn Thomas, in her hands.

Benlli, the Prince of Powys, after many years, grew tired of his wife. When at hunt in the Green Forest, an extraordinary woman passed by. The next two days he returned to the spot in the Green Forest and she passed by again. On the third day, he spoke to her and asked her to marry him.

She agreed under the conditions that he put his present wife by and that he allow her to leave him every seventh night, asking no questions. If he would do these things, her beauty would never fade until reeds and rushes grew in his hall.

Conveniently, the prince’s wife disappeared, and the Maid of the Green Forest took her place. The prince showered gifts on his new bride. He kept his promises and for many years was happy. But slowly, the conditions set upon him wore down his mind. He didn’t break his promises, but he became most unhappy.

A church clerk, Wylan, skilled in magic, discovered the prince’s plight. He offered to relieve the prince if the prince would give the Maid of the Green Forest to him for a wife and give the monks of White Minster a tithe for their profit. The prince had sunk into such a state of melancholy that he agreed.

On the seventh night, Wylan repaired to a place called The Giant’s Grave, known to him as an entrance into the fairy world. Sure enough, the Maid of the Green Forest entered the cave. Wylan cast a spell, forcing her, against her will, to be his wife and made the spell irrevocable, ultimately to his disadvantage.

The Maid of the Green Forest reappeared to him as an ogress wearing the jewelry the prince had given her. She was, in fact, Prince Benlli’s first wife, who, when she lost his love, turned to magic to regain it as the Maid of the Green Forest. Now, her true form was that of an ogress and the form of the Maid an illusion. Every seven days she needed to return to her true form. Because of the clash between her spell and the clerk’s spell, she would remain in her true form and the clerk must marry her.

All of their spells’ promises were kept. She said her beauty would not fade until reeds and rushes grew in the prince’s hall. It was swallowed up by water and the reeds and rushes now grew there. Wylan’s promise that the prince would be at peace was kept; however, it was the peace of death and the promised tithe turned to water.

Fariy Tale of the Month: October 2021 The Swallowed Court – Part Two

Annoymous

A Deceit

“Thalia chose an interesting story to read.” Melissa sips her wine as she and I conclude the evening over glasses after the others have retired to their chosen places.

“Not a typical Halloween story,” I say.

“Maybe not, but a good Halloween story need not have ghosts and ghouls, or monsters and vampires. They only need to be uncanny and to raise in us an uncomfortable thought.”

“And what uncomfortable thought disturbs us in this story?” I take a sip of my claret.

“That of deceit. There are three characters in this story and they are all deceitful.”

“True,” I say. “There are no heroes or heroines in this tale. Only characters who are victims of their devices.”

Melissa nods in agreement. “Let’s see, it starts with Prince Benlli’s wife, who deceives her husband, knowing he will deceive her at the first opportunity now that he is no longer attracted to her, an opportunity that she provides.”

“That sounds like entrapment.” I take another sip.

“It is, but magic always has a wrinkle to it. In order to appear beautiful, she must become ugly and return to her ugliness periodically.”

I pick up on the thread. “And this mystery is the thing that weighs on Benlli’s mind. It eventually turns his amorous state of happiness into its opposite, a reflection of what happened with his ‘first’ wife.”

Melissa swirls the liquid in her glass. “I see a character flaw in the prince. He is doomed to let his happiness turn to sadness by the nature of his selfishness. Reminds me of my ex.” Her voice trails off. I am curious about him, but I know not to pry.

“At this point,” I continue, “Wylan intrudes into a delicate situation.”

“Like a bull in a china shop,” Melissa smiles. “Sorry for the cliché, but the clashes of spells is what brought everything to ruin.”

“I did like the reeds-and-rushes thing,” I say. “Upon first hearing, the listener assumes the words are metaphorical but, instead, they are predictive.”

“There is much that is ironical.” I fill her outstretched glass as she talks. “The attraction of this tale is its irony rather than the satisfaction of a happy ending.”

“Is that particularly Welsh?” I ask.

“Might be,” she speculates.

“And about the ogress.” I throw another log into the fireplace. “I don’t recall ogresses or ogres in Welsh tales before. I thought she would become an ugly witch. Witches were certainly more common in Wales. Or she could have become a hag.”

“I noticed that too,” Melissa says, “which suggests to me that this tale is not Welsh in origin. More likely it is French or from one of the other Mediterranean countries. The Greek folk tales are fond of ogres or ogresses.”

“And how about that final irony of the water swallowing up the castle?” I prod.

“That is particularly Welsh, I think. They love drowning castles. They do it over and over again.” Melissa smiles again.

I nod in agreement and drain my glass.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2021 The Swallowed Court – Part Three

Edward Calvert

A Stone

“Oh,” says Melissa, setting down her glass and tapping her finger to her forehead. She rises, swaying a little, and steps toward the french doors that lead to my back garden. Passing through, she stops at my ginkgo tree, the base of which I have surrounded with, not mulch, but small, rounded river stones. She picks up a fairly large one.

“This will do,” she murmurs.

“You’re not going to throw it at me or something are you?” I inquire.

She giggles. “No silly, I’m going to write my name on it.”

I glance at our two bottles of wine. One is empty and the other half gone, and I am sure I have not drunk much.

“Why on earth are you writing your name on a stone?” I must know.

She giggles again, sitting down at my desk and finding a pen. “It’s in honor of my Welsh grandmother. I remember as a child, on Halloween, her having all of the family write their names on stones, then cast them into the fireplace or a bonfire if we were attending one. If the name on the stone was burnt clean off by morning, good luck would follow. If the stone disappeared that was not a good portent for the future.”

I watch her carefully spell out her name on the stone’s rough surface. Melissa Anastasia Serious.

I didn’t know her middle name.

True to her description, she gently casts the stone into the fireplace and settles back down on the recliner.

“Did your grandmother tell you about other Welsh Halloween traditions?”

“Oh yes, a very learned woman. She’s the one who told me Halloween was Samhain, the end of the Celtic autumn and the start of their winter. The Christian church consciously co-opted it by moving All Saint’s Day, which had been in May, to November first.”

Melissa stretches out her glass for a refill before continuing.

“Bonfires were always associated with Samhain. The fires kept away demons and ghosts that were about at the transition of the seasons. Masks were worn so that evil spirits could not recognize you.

“One also had to look out for a black sow without a tail in the company of a woman without a head if you didn’t want to get your soul eaten. Someone pretending to be the black sow was a good way to chase children off to bed.

“Another Welsh thing was a mash of nine ingredients, mostly root vegetables in milk, in which some sort of treat was hidden.”

Melissa’s eyes close for almost a minute, then she comes around again.

“Then there were soul cakes, the pre-candy Halloween treat. They were baked in memory of the departed and given to ‘soulers,’ who would then pray for the household and the dead. Soulers were sometimes mummers.”

“Mummers?” I say. “Are you confusing Halloween with the New Year?”

“Not I, but they did. A number of Halloween traditions—and not just in Wales—got mixed in with Christmas traditions. Well, Samhain was the start of the Celtic winter and Christmas the start of the Christian winter. The October soulers and mummers became the December Christmas carolers.”

Melissa yawns ungraciously and continues her ramblings.

“Then there is the Mari Lwyd, the skeletal horse head that shows up around Christmas. I wonder if it wasn’t, you know . . . ”

After a bit of silence, I look up from watching the flames in the fireplace. Melissa is asleep. I ease back the recliner and cover her with a blanket. I take the liberty of kissing her on the forehead.

I hope she finds her stone burnt clean in the morning.

Your thoughts.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2021 Golden Tower at the End of the World – Part One

St Dunstan’s in the East 1891

A Garden

St Dunstan in the East is a pleasant garden. Well, it is not exactly a garden, but rather the remains of a church destroyed during the war. The tower and most of the walls still stand, although there are no roofs or floors. Nature has taken much of its own back. Situated not far from the Tower of London, it is close to a tourist area, but little-known except to the locals who enjoy bringing their lunch and finding a bench. With a picnic basket in hand, we have done the same; we being me, Melissa and Thalia.

The garden is Thalia’s discovery. She found it on her pocket oracle when she put in “gardens in London,” after I told her about Melissa’s dilemma. Because the garden’s center is a building, she felt the likelihood of finding Melissa’s door there as good as any place.

We have found a bench to accommodate the three of us and a picnic basket, to indulge in our repast before searching the grounds. Thalia clears her throat and pulls a book out of her backpack.

“For the afternoon reading, I have chosen a story in honor of that church tower over there that still stands for so many years after the Blitz.”

I didn’t know there was “an afternoon reading” in order. Thalia may be starting a new thing.

“The story,” she continues in a pretentious tone, at which Melissa smiles, “is The Golden Tower at the End of the World.”

I see she is holding my copy of Folk and Fairy Tales from Demark, Volume One, by Stephen Badman.

There was a farmer who owned productive fields with the exception of one, which every Midsummer’s Eve had its grain trampled. The farmer’s two eldest sons, in turn, tried to watch over the field at Midsummer’s Eve, but were frightened away by strange noises.

When the youngest brother, Hans, tried—though thought to be a simpleton—he first shared his meal with an old woman, who gave him a pinch of tobacco to help keep him awake for the night’s ordeal.

He did not flee when a violent storm broke, rather he stayed to see three large birds descend on the field and shed their feathered robes revealing three lovely women, who danced across the field destroying the grain. They then moved a huge stone, behind which Hans hid, and entered a house filled with riches.

Hans stole the robe of the youngest woman. To get it back, she agreed to marry Hans, to which she was not averse, giving him specific instructions about the wedding that included not inviting the king’s son.  

Unfortunately, the king’s son crashed the wedding and insisted she marry him and not a peasant boy. She fled, but not before telling Hans he must now reclaim her by coming to her home at the Golden Tower at the End of the World. She gave him a gold ring as a token and three magical tablecloths.

The first tablecloth he used to create a sumptuous meal for another old woman who, in return, gave him three-league boots—for fast travel—and a magical sword, along with the advice to put on the three-league boots and visit an ogre, Lord of All Crawling Creatures, who might know where the Golden Tower could be found.

The ogre, after conferring with all the crawling creatures without success, sent Hans on to his two-headed brother, Lord of All Walking Creatures, with a letter of recommendation. The visit to the two-headed brother was no more successful, but the visit to the three-headed brother, Lord of All Flying Creatures, bore results. Late to the gathering of the flying creatures came a dragon who apologized, saying he had been busy guarding the Golden Tower at the End of the World.

The dragon, already having taken a long journey to get to the gathering, reluctantly agreed to carry Hans back over a vast ocean. It proved to be too much, and Hans used the other two tablecloths to create dry land and a castle in which to spend the night.

Hans finally made it to the Golden Tower, found shelter, and fell asleep. Upon wakening, he saw a serving girl bearing wine. He asked for a sip. The girl refused because the wine was meant for the three princesses. She then relented and gave him a sip. He slipped the youngest princess’s gold ring into the wine.

When the youngest princess discovered the ring, she called for him. They were reunited, but the trial was not over. Every Midsummer’s Eve a malicious dragon visited the tower, which is why the princesses were forced to flee in avian disguise and spend the night trampling the farmer’s field. Hans stayed for Midsummer’s Eve and slew the dragon with his magical sword.

He and the princess were married and Hans returned with his bride to his father’s farm, bought out the two brothers to their embarrassment, then purchased an even larger estate where he and the princess lived in happiness.

Thalia snaps the book shut. I come out of my trance. There are some odd points about this story.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2021 The Golden Tower at the End of the World – Part Two

From Adorno final de un Capitulo 1652

Two Dragons

I personally despair of finding Melissa’s doorway in these ruins. There are numerous Gothic archways, but so long after being burnt out, there is nothing that looks like a door.

“So,” says Thalia, “What’s a letter of recommendation?”

“Also called a letter of introduction,” Melissa answers. “It’s an old system of networking among the wealthy; especially useful for a young man. If a youth could get a family friend or prominent relative to write a letter of introduction—not addressed to anyone in particular—that recommended the youth, it was that young gentleman’s ticket into whole circles of acquaintances. The more credible the letter’s author, the better the networking potential.

“The youth could present himself to a household familiar with the letter’s author, be entertained by them, stay there a lengthy period of time, and enter into that community’s inner circle.”

“Weird,” Thalia concludes.

“What about those two dragons,” I say. “What are your thoughts, Thalia?”

“Ahhh, there are never enough dragons in fairy tales for me. I’m happy to have two of them.”

“I think,” Melissa says, inspecting another archway for her elusive door, “your grandfather is concerned that the two dragons are in no way connected to each other yet occupy the same story.”

She knows my mind so well.

“The first dragon,” Melissa raises a finger, “protects the Golden Tower. Against whom? When the malicious dragon appears, the good dragon is nowhere in sight and nowhere in sight annually, it appears, when the bad dragon visits.”

“Hmmm,” I reflect. “Hans’s breaking of the cycle of destruction, by killing the bad dragon, is central to this story. Perhaps the good dragon and bad dragon are connected in the same way as yin and yang are opposites and together at the same time.”

Melissa temples her fingers, a sign of deep thought. “Hans’s defeat of the bad dragon, he having been helped by the good dragon, does bring the story around full circle. Hans started by trying to solve the puzzle of the trampled grain and by the end of the story he exacts a solution. The dragons, as well as the princesses, were players in the problem’s resolution as consequences unfold.”

“You are right,” I muse. “This is a very circular story. Hans even returns home to claim the farm from his less worthy brothers rather than living in bliss at the Golden Tower. He ends up pretty much where he started out.”

“I never heard a fairy tale with three tablecloths,” Thalia states, not to be left out of the conversation.

“You’re right,” I say. “The tablecloth that is spread to give a feast—which comes out of Celtic mythology, by the way—is usually just one of the magical gifts. However, this tale amply represents the fairy-tale three: three brothers, three princesses, three ogres, three-league boots as well as three tablecloths.”

“There are only two old women,” Melissa says, showing that she is listening to us while her eyes scan the old church walls, “although I wonder if they are somehow the same old woman. The first gave him a small gift of tobacco because he shared his meal with her. The second gave him the three-league boots and the magical sword for sharing a bounteous feast from the tablecloth. The two, I say, reflect on each other. “

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2021 The Golden Tower at the End of the World – Part Three

Midsummer Eve, Edward Robert Hughes 1908

Midsummer’s Eve

We have made our way back to our bench, held in reserve by the picnic basket, after our thorough search of the grounds.

“I thought the story’s mention of Midsummer’s Eve of interest.” I munch on an unfinished roll of crackers.

“Isn’t that a Shakespeare play?” Thalia’s brow wrinkles.

“That’s Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Melissa corrects. “And he drew from an old tradition of celebrating midsummer, which the date is not, coming on the twenty-fourth of June, a few days after summer solstice.”

“So, how does that happen?” Thalia’s brow wrinkles even more.

“There are two things about the date. First, the ancients—let us call them—felt that the first of May was the start of summer, paying little attention to the sun’s position and more to the change in the weather. That does put the end of June in the middle of their summer.

“Second, this celebration is attached to Saint John the Baptist’s Day, or rather the Christians have attached it to the Midsummer’s Day celebration. According to the Bible, Saint John was born six months before Jesus, putting Midsummer’s Day six months before Christmas, or Christ’s Mass. Perforce, Midsummer’s Eve is the twenty-third of June.”

 Melissa roots around in the picnic basket and comes up with a bottle of Calypso Lemonade. Thalia looks for one for herself.

“We Brits,” Melissa continues, “love our bonfires and will find any excuse to light one up, Midsummer no exception. Circle dancing is in order. There is also a thing about roses. A rose picked on Midsummer’s Eve or Midsummer’s Day will stay fresh until Christmas, although I haven’t tried it.

“Or,” Melissa’s eyes twinkle, “a young girl can pluck the rose petals at midnight, scatter them on the ground saying:

Rose leaves, rose leaves,

Rose leaves I strew.

He that will love me,

Come after me now.

“The next day, which is of course Midsummer’s Day, their true love will visit them.”

“No thanks.” Thalia takes a swig of her Calypso and takes out her cellphone. “Hmmm,” she says in a minute, “seems mid-June was also a good time to brew mead. The full moon in June they called the ‘Mead Moon’ or the ‘Honey Moon.’”

She scans down.

“Jumping through the bonfire would bring good luck. I guess you’re lucky if you make it.”

She scans some more.

“If you hold a pebble in your hand, walk around the bonfire, whisper a wish, and cast the stone into the fire, the wish will be granted. I’ll buy into that one.”

More scanning.

“Oh, I like this one. Midsummer’s Eve is only second to Halloween for fairy activity. If you rub fern spores onto your eye lids at midnight, you will see the wee folk. But be careful you don’t get pixie-led, and carry some rue plant on your person for protection.

“Midsummer’s Eve is also Herb Evening, the best night for gathering magical herbs. There is a special plant—the article doesn’t tell me the name, drat—that only blooms on this night. If you pick it, you will understand the language of trees. Cool.

“If you put flowers under your pillow, you will dream of the one you will marry. Oh, ugh, that again.”

“Ah!” exclaims Melissa, who I see has gotten out her phone. “Here is what we were looking for. In the thirteenth century a monk in Gloucestershire recorded that the bonfires of Saint John’s Eve were meant to drive away the dragons that were about that night to poison springs and wells. I think that might be the source of our bad dragon, at least.”

Will the fount of wisdom of the pocket oracles never cease?

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2021 The Princes in Disguise – Part One

Woodcut 1493

A Cup

I sip my chamomile tea, sitting here, late night, in my study. I promised Melissa I would do this at the same time she does; a sort of sympathetic magic. I really want a tumbler of Powers Irish Whiskey, but a promise is a promise.

There is no fire on the hearth; it is far too warm tonight for that, but staring into the fireplace gives me comfort.

“How nice of you to join me.” Melissa’s face hovers above me.

“Where am I?” I sit up from a bed.

“In my dream.”

I look around at a palatial bedroom, replete with a canopy bed, which I occupy, tapestries hanging on the walls, and lead-glass windows.

“I take it you dream in style.”

“And why not? I deserve the best in illusions.”

“Can you dream me up a dram of Powers whiskey?”

She points to the far end of the room, where sits a familiar bottle and a tumbler on a low table.

I rise to go help myself when the table, bottle, tumbler, and the tapestry hanging above it, which had been as solid as the other three walls a moment ago, parts like a stage curtain.

Drat.

Through it, an old woman, hobbling with a cane, approaches us, making for an ornamental, carved wooden chair by my bedside. She eases herself down into it with a sigh, then regards Melissa and me with a critical eye before beginning a story.

 “Once upon a time …”

There was a king who had no heir until a gypsy woman tells him that he will have a son, but the lad, when he is ten, is destined to be carried off by an ogre. All this comes to pass. The king and queen, broken-hearted, die.

When the lad turns eighteen, he succeeds in drugging the ogre with a certain herb, takes the key, which the ogre always carried with him, and opens the door of the ogre’s tower.

Free at last, he crosses a bridge at the end of which lies a lion and a lamb. In front of the lion is a pile of grass. In front of the lamb a pile of flesh. The lad moves the grass in front of the lamb and the flesh in front of the lion. Each creature gives him a hair saying, “If ever you have need of anything, singe one of these hairs, and you will have your wish.”

The lad exchanges his royal dress for that of a poor man’s; he covers his golden hair with an animal skin, causing children to call him Scabby Head; and takes on the position of a gardener at a palace.

During an annual festival, when all of the royal household are attending, the youngest princess stays behind and, from her window, sees the gardener, but he appears to her as a prince with golden hair, on a white horse, cutting at the flowers with his sword.

The next year, during the festival, the same thing happens, and she asks him who he is. He tells her his story and how he singed the hairs of the animal helpers so that she will see him in his true form.

Shortly after, the king instructs his daughters to throw a golden apple at the person they wish to marry. The eldest two choose princes and the youngest the scabby-headed gardener. The king is angered, and the youngest princess then lives with her husband in his cottage.

Years later, the king loses his sight, which can only be restored by the Water of Life. The three sons-in-law go in search. The gardener singes a hair and gets the Water of Life and tricks his brothers-in-law into thinking they have it.

After the scabby-headed gardener restores the king’s sight, he singes one of the hairs, transforms into his princely self, and tells his story. The prince and the youngest princess return to the palace and eventually rule.

“Thank you for the story,” says Melissa, “but I am on a quest for a way into a magic forest.”

“I know, my dear. From this story, I give you the door of the ogre’s tower as your door into the forest.”

Melissa smiles at the same time that I jolt awake, back in my comfy chair in my study. In place of my teacup is a tumbler and bottle of Powers.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2021 The Prince in Disguise – Part Two

A Problem

I am surprised at Melissa’s dour face when I enter her bookshop the next morning.

“Melissa, why are you not delighted? You have your doorway into the Magic Forest.”

“I have the key to the door.” She holds it up to show me, an ornate silver one. “It was by my bedside in the morning.”

“I got a bottle of Powers in the same way,” I gloat.

“I have the key,” she reiterates. “But the dream ended abruptly. Where is the door?”

“Oh,” I say. We stare at each other, then break out in laughter at our dilemma.

“I’ll know it when I see it. There is an image of the door burnt into my brain but no clues as to where it is.”

“Listen,” I say, “there are probably hints in the story she told us as to where we can find your door.”

“A good thought. Let me brew up some tea, and we will contemplate.”

In a few minutes, we are settled on good, soft chairs sipping some Lady Grey.

“The door,” Melissa frowns, “may be disguised in some way, much as the prince is disguised.”

“What about that?” I say. “So many fairy-tale heroes and heroines feel the need to go into disguise for no apparent reason. Our hero takes on the appearance of a wretch but why?”

Melissa raises her right hand, fingers outstretched. “One,” she curls in her thumb with her other hand, “he is a prince.

“Two,” her left hand curls in her pointing finger, “he has been abducted by an ogre.

“Three,” she pulls in her middle finger, “his parents are dead and he has lost his status.

“Four,” her hand draws in her ring finger, “he frees himself and is on his life’s adventure. 

“I have my pinky finger left. What is the next point?”

“Your little finger represents the better part of the storyline. We are only up to him getting away from the ogre,” I muse.

Melissa temples her fingers and rests her chin on them. “I am thinking of Cinderella.”

“Why?” She is losing me.

“They have both fallen from their rightful situation in life to a low station.”

True.

“She is forced there by her stepmother and stepsisters, he by his own choice.”

I am warming to her notion. She continues.

“In both cases, they are seen by others in their humble state and not in their true nature.”

Melissa stares at the ceiling before speaking again.

“Having assumed and/or fallen into that lowly position, they cannot say, ‘Oh, by the way, I am really a prince (or princess). They no longer have that ability.”

She stops, squints, then speaks again.

“To appear in their true form, they need a fairy godmother or singed hairs and then for only a brief time.”

“The clock strikes twelve,” I say and pick up her thread. “But to finally emerge from their disguise, the false assumption of others, there has to be an event.”

Melissa’s eyes brighten. “With Cinderella, it is the prince fitting her with the glass slipper.”

“For our hero,” I conclude, “it is getting the Water of Life.”

Melissa raises her little finger. “Here is the point. They, for whatever magical or psychological reasons, cannot promote themselves. They need to be discovered.”

“Bravo,” I say. “Does that get us closer to finding your door?”

“No.” Melissa is crestfallen. “Let’s start over.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2021 The Prince in Disguise – Part Three

Water of Life (Grimm) Louis Rhead

An Answer

“By the way,” Melissa says, “I found a version of the story she told us in Modern Greek Folktales, by Dawkins, titled The Prince in Disguise.”

“And, by the way,” I say, “who was she who told us the story?”

Melissa smiles at me unhelpfully.

“Well then,” I continue, “might there be a clue in the singeing of the hairs?”

“That is an element original to this story, I think.” Melissa sips her tea, which I suspect has grown cold.

“In the Greek folktales,” I state, “I have come across instances of the hero dividing some sort of spoils among three creatures. In one case a lion, an eagle, and an ant. For his wise judgment, the animals grant him magical abilities.

“In this story, it is a lion and a lamb—which has Christian overtones—settled at the end of a bridge. The lad corrects the situation he sees, not making a judgment as I’ve read before. It is different.”

“And your take on the singeing of hairs?” Melissa quizzes.

“As you say, may be unique to this tale. I’ve not seen it before. And how many times can he singe these hairs? Do the hairs restore themselves? Is there a difference between singeing the lion’s hair and lamb’s hair? The story does not tell us any of this.”

“Nor,” Melissa wags a finger, “does this get me closer to my door.”

“Well then,” I say, in an attempt to humor her, “let’s move on to the golden apples the sisters throw at their husbands-to-be.”

“I see no hints there either.” Melissa shakes her head. “Though, let me say, the golden apples seem to be a particularly Greek thing.”

“Hmmm.” I probe my memory. “There are the three golden apples given to Melanion by Aphrodite to distract Atalanta during their race. Also, there  is the golden apple of the goddess of discord, Eris, which involves Aphrodite again, and leads to the Trojan War. Hera had an entire golden apple tree guarded by the dragon Ladon, from which Heracles steals some apples.”

Melissa raises any eyebrow. “You know your Greek mythology. The golden apples stray into Eastern European stories, but in Northern Europe there are golden balls and even some golden heads. I don’t recall any golden apples. There must be some. However, I don’t recall any, which is strange because in Norse mythology it is Idun’s golden apples that keep the gods and goddess youthful and healthy—an apple a day keeps the doctor away—and yet that image has not seeped into the northern fairy tales.”

“And,” I intrude, “apples are not doorways.”

“True,” Melissa sighs.

“The next notable item in our tale is the Water of Life, which to the Irish is an alternate name for their whiskey.”

Melissa smiles at me. “Be that as it may, the Water of Life is not just an Irish or Greek thing. There is even a Grimm story by the same name as well as a Spanish tale that I know of.”

“Are there any hints to your doorway embedded in them?”

“I think not.”

“Then I have only one suggestion,” I say, empting my cold cup of tea. “Our hero disguised himself as a gardener. Might your doorway be in a garden?”

Melissa’s eyes widen. “It might. In the fairy tales, a woodcutter is a woodcutter, but gardeners are usually someone special in disguise. I said, at the start of our inquiry, the doorway might be disguised. When do we start our tour of gardens?”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2021 The Three Heads of the Well – Part One

Arthur Rackham

Two Daughters

The hot July day has not intruded into the Magic Forest. High above Melissa and me,  the dense foliage keeps out the intense sunlight. Branches of tall trees arch over the pond so that only one narrow shaft of light shoots through them, illuminating its center.

As we rest on our sitting stones at the pond’s edge, Melissa shifts impatiently while I puff on my pipe, focusing my mind’s imagination on Ultima.

“I thought you were thinking of me!” her voice startles us. “Oh, and you brought a friend.”

Melissa and I rise to greet her.

“Ultima, this is Melissa Serious. Melissa, Ultima Flossbottom.”

They shake hands and we resettle ourselves on the stones.

“Ultima,” Melissa starts immediately, “I have a problem with which I hope you can help. I can only visit this forest through his study.” She points to me. “But there must be other ways in. How did you find the forest?”

“Oh, through my dragon, of course. He knew it was here, but for reasons he has not explained, he cannot or will not visit it. However, being curious, he instructed me how to find my way in to check things out for him. I think it a delightful place.”

“And how do you get in?” Melissa leans forward.

Ultima contemplates a second. “I will trade with you for that knowledge.”

“Trade for what?” Melissa knits her brow.

“An explanation of the story The Three Heads of the Well. It’s the last story in the book I borrowed from the study.” Here she smiles at me and continues. “I didn’t think much of it at the time, but the story has stuck with me.”

“Remind us,” I say. “I know I must have read it.”

A king, whose wife has died, remarries to an old, ugly, hook-nosed woman, but one who is wealthy. This woman brings to the marriage her own, ill-natured daughter, and then sets about turning the king against his own daughter through false rumors.

Soon, the young princess begs her father to allow her to leave the court and make her way in the world. He allows this, and she leaves with a meager amount of food and little else. This food she shares with an old man who gives her a magic wand with which she passes unharmed through a thorn hedge to a well where three golden heads rise to the surface, asking her to wash and comb them and lay them on the bank to dry.

This she does, and she is granted the favors that she will charm a powerful prince, her voice will exceed that of a nightingale, and she will become a queen. All this comes to pass. When her new husband finds out that she is a king’s daughter, they return to that court. The father is amazed at her fortune, and he is told the truth of what has happened. The father is overjoyed, and much feasting and merriment follow before the happy couple returns home with a true dowry.

Mad with envy, the old, ugly hook-nosed queen and her ill-natured daughter contrive to follow the heroine’s example. The ill-natured daughter leaves to find her way in the world, with better provisions than the first and yet does not share them with the old man. She barely gets through the thorn hedge in one piece, and then bops the golden heads with a bottle.

For this, she is granted leprosy, a harsh voice, and condemned to marry a cobbler. It is the cobbler she meets who has the means to cure her leprosy and voice. For this, she must marry him.

They return to the king’s court, and when the hook-nosed queen finds her daughter has married a cobbler, she hangs herself in wrath. The king, glad to be rid of his queen so easily, offers the cobbler a hundred pounds if he will quit the court, taking his lady with him, and not come back. This the cobbler does, returning to mending shoes, his wife spinning the thread.

“Now tell me,” says Ultima with frustration in her voice, “what is that all about?”

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2021 The Three Heads of the Well – Part Two

Corleck Head

Talking Heads

“Well,” I say, “the general category here is ‘talking heads.’ While this is an English fairy tale, the three golden heads is a Celtic influence, I am willing to bet. Severed heads are a popular thing in Celtic tales and myths. I remember part of a tale about the hero Cuchulainn returning from battle holding by the hair the heads of defeated enemies, nine in one hand and ten in the other.”

Ultima looks aghast.

“But,” I hasten to continue, “heads were not always trophies. A gigantic Welsh king, Bran the Blessed, as described in the Mabinogion—a collection of legends—is fighting in Ireland to reclaim his sister, Branwen, married to but rejected by an Irish king.

“As a result of the ensuing battle, just about everybody dies—these are Celtic tales after all—including Branwen. Bran is mortally wounded and instructs his few surviving companions to cut off his head and return with it to Wales, where for seven years the head continues to talk and entertain them.

“Then there is Conaire Mόr, High King of Ireland, who gets his head cut off, and afterwards takes a drink of water and recites a poem in honor of his friend who had tried to save him.”

“ I like,” says Melissa, “the singing head of Donn-Bo after the battle of Allen in the Fenian Cycle, but we should not forget the Corleck Head, which isn’t a severed head at all, but rather a head statue. What is remarkable about it is that it has three faces going around with no back of the head. Supposedly there was a similar head statue of Saint Brigid at one time. Nor should we forget Mimir.”

I object. “Mimir is Nordic, not Celtic.”

“They were neighbors with much back and forth, often violent mind you, but they influenced each other nonetheless. Mimir was a god of wisdom, associated with a well at which Odin sacrificed an eye to gain wisdom. Later, Mimir was beheaded by the Vanir during a war with Aesir. Odin preserved the head, with which he conferred when he needed Mimir’s advice and secret knowledge. I’ll suggest Mimir was the original talking head.”

“Oh, but what of the golden heads? Why gold?” Ultima puts in.

Melissa and I are a bit stopped by that.

“Well,” I conjecture, “they were not made of gold, but golden in color. They do have combable hair, apparently. The color indicates… ”

“Wealth?” Melissa suggests. “Wealth of knowledge? They are magical and did bestow boons and curses.”

I am thinking outloud. “It could be the orginal storyteller’s fancy with no more significance than that.”

Melissa has templed her fingers. “There is the Greek three golden apples. Apples are kind of head-shaped.”

“No, I am not buying it,” I declare.

“I do recall the story in Jacobs’ book,” she says. “His illustrator put crowns on the golden heads. The story does not state that they were the heads of kings, but I think there is something to that.”

“Could be,” I say.

Ultima snorts.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2021 The Three Heads of the Well – Part Three

John D Batten

The Answer

“OK,” says Ultima, picking up a stone and skipping it across the pond, “let’s move on to the stepsisters. What is that conflict all about?”

Melissa answers while watching the ripples on the water. “One of the roles of a fairy tale is to pass on cultural values, especially to young listeners. In this case, the story illustrates the result of generous actions as opposed to selfish ones.

“The good princess, though she has little, shares her food with an old man, who turns out to be a magical helper. He gives her a wand and words of advice. Despite the odd nature of the heads, she treats them with respect and kindness. Her goodness leads to her good fortune.

“The ill-natured princess, though well-provisioned, does not share with the old man, who declares ill fortune will follow. She then treats the golden heads cruelly, who curse her, leading to her downfall and that of her mother.

“The cultural message is that good deeds bring good results, and bad deeds bring bad results.”

“Good versus evil,” I contribute, “is a common theme in fairy tales, populated with evil stepmothers and stepsisters, often at a ratio of three evil stepsisters to one heroine.”

“And evil stepbrothers, I assume,” concludes Ultima.

I hesitate. “Well, no.”

“No?” Ultima folds her arms.

“No evil stepbrothers, only evil stepsisters.”

Am I getting myself into hot water?

Melissa is smiling slyly. She wants to see me wiggle out of this one.

“There are evil brothers,” I observe. “Brothers usually come in sets of three. The youngest brother is almost always the hero. The elder brothers usually gang up on him, are selfish, and, on occasion, murderous.”

“And evil stepfathers?” Ultima probes.

“Well, no, none of them either that I can recall. Sometimes fathers, with great indiscretion, will want to marry their daughter, but that is about it.”

Ultima puts her fingers to her lips. Her eyes widen.

Melissa decides to bail me out. “There are certain accepted scenarios in the fairy-tale genre, to the exclusion of others for no apparent reason.

“For example, men in the stories might be a woodcutter, soldier, merchant, prince, or king, but never a barrel maker, dentist, ditchdigger, banker, or brewmaster; it just doesn’t happen. These patterns we call ‘tropes,’ and the fairy tales will use the same tropes over and over again, not trying to change the ‘scenery,’ as it may be.”

Ultima shakes her head slowly but appears satisfied. “Well, dear, about finding your way into the Magic Forest. My dragon had me drink a hot cup of dragonsleep before going to bed and recite to myself while going to sleep:

Is it a gate?

Is it a door?

What is the way

I am looking for?

Give me a clue.

Show me a sign.

I want a path,

A way that is mine.

“I don’t know if the words are magical. I think it is just to get you in the mood. The point is, you will dream about the way in.”

Melissa takes Ultima’s hand. “Can you get me some dragonsleep? I don’t think it is in our world.”

“Oh, surely it is. It’s most common. There’s probably some growing here about.” We follow Ultima as she wanders around until she exclaims, “Ha! Here.” In triumph, she uproots a plant.

Melissa touches the small daisy-like flowers and sniffs it.

“Ah, chamomile.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2021 The Three Pennies – Part One

Old Russian Pennies

Three Cents

“My friend,” says Augustus, through the dense haze of our tobacco smoke, “let me tell you a story, for a change.”

I settle deeper into my comfy chair. “What story is that?”

Augustus draws deeply on his pipe, then exhales. “I have been delving into Aleksardr Afanas`er’s Russian Fairy Tales. These tales have a character quite different from the Grimm collection.”

“How so?”

“They tend to be blunt in message and yet fanciful in detail.”

“I think you are about to give me an example.”

“I am. The tale is called The Three Pennies.

A merchant has a worker who, at the end of a year, asks for his wages, but he takes only a penny, which he throws into a river, declaring the penny will float if he has served faithfully. The penny sinks. This happens three years running, but on the third attempt, all three pennies float on the water.

The worker takes the pennies, giving one to another merchant, asking him to buy a candle for him in the church, and light it before the icons.

“Icons?” I ask.

“Yes, holy paintings, very traditionally Russian.”

When the merchant takes out his pennies to buy candles in the church, the worker’s penny falls to the floor and bursts into flame. The surrounding worshippers light their candles from the penny’s flame.

The second penny is given to a third merchant to purchase something for the worker at the fair. The merchant purchases a cat from a little boy for the penny. The cat remains with the merchant when he sails to a foreign land overrun with rats. The cat is traded to the king of that land for three ships, which the merchant gives to the worker.

The worker sails to an island, climbs an oak tree, and hears the devil boasting to his comrades that he is about to steal the king’s daughter.  The companions threaten to beat the devil with iron rods if he fails.

The worker goes to the king’s palace and lights his penny, which prevents the devil from stealing the princess. The devil receives his fate and, as well as being beaten, is thrown into a nameless place. The worker marries the princess.

“What nameless place?” I inquire.

“Those are the stories’ words.”

“Floating pennies that burst into flames,” I muse.

“Except for the one used to buy a cat,” Augustus corrects.

“I hope the boy who sold the cat didn’t get a surprise.”

Augustus and I puff silently for a while.

I break the silence, “I’m sensing the story is code for something. There are three pennies, three merchants, and three ships. There is no mention of a crew, I assume? He sails all three ships by himself?”

“No, no crew was mentioned, none whatsoever.”

“But code for what?” I wonder. “He can’t sail three ships without a crew, so the three ships mean something all of themselves, I suspect. They are planted in the story to stand for something.”

“What about the pennies?” says Augustus. “What do they stand for? Why does a burning penny ward off the devil? What about the cat that is worth a penny in one land and three ships in another? This story, for being short, is full of metaphors, I’ll suggest.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2021 The Three Pennies – Part Two

Icon of saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa

Wild Guesses

“Was Afanas`ev the collector of these tales? Did he leave notes?” I ask.

“No, he only, personally, collected a handful of the six hundred or so tales in his work. Most of them came from other collections to which he had access. Unfortunately, he was not too concerned about when and from where the tales came. He left some notes, but I couldn’t find anything concerning The Three Pennies.”

“Too bad.” I relight my pipe.

“However, I am willing to make wild guesses.”

“Feel free. I am all ears,” I encourage.

“The story reflects what I consider the three driving forces of any individual; the mystical, the practical, and the fanciful.

“The worker’s first penny is spent on the mystical. When it burst into flame in the church, it provided the light for all of the other worshippers’ votive candles. It is a sort of communion, a notion dear to the church.

“The second penny is invested with a merchant with which he speculate. The penny is used to purchase a cat that culminates in a trade for three ships. Not a bad return, but in any case, a practical transaction.

“The third penny is used to trick the devil. The worker cheats him from taking the princess for his own and gets to marry her himself. A worker outwitting the devil and marrying a princess is pretty fanciful, I’ll suggest.”

“Have you any idea,” I ask, “how this second burning penny is used to ward off the devil?”

“None. The story is rather skeletal, which brings me to my second wild and unfounded thought that this is one of those tales collected in the twelfth century that hasn’t acquired any literary veneer to improve it.”

“I’ve noticed this twelfth-century thing about fairy tales before. Why the twelfth century?”

“Oh, one of my favorite centuries. It is part of the High Middle Ages. It was the time of the crusades—Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. They started to build the Tower of Pisa, leaning from the start, if not by design. The magnetic compass was invented. Windmills came into use. Thomas Becket was murdered at the altar in his cathedral. Towns became important centers of commerce. Troubadours became a big thing. Glass windows made the scene. Sugar was introduced into the European diet from the Middle East.

“But more to our point, literacy was on the rise. The old cathedral schools became universities and more secular in nature. That is when Oxford University started and the University of Paris among others.

“Greek, Roman, and Arabic works began to circulate, especially those of science. The time has been referred to as the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.

“In that atmosphere, some authors took notice of folk stories and legends. Then is when the earliest King Arthur stories appeared. Along with them, fairy tales were recorded.”

Augustus pauses to refill his pipe. “The downside is that by recording the fairy tales, the authors unwittingly halted their further evolution. Once recorded, these living, changing entities were fixed in print.”

I can’t help but give a sigh.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2021 The Three Pennies – Part Three

Melissa’s Request

Melissa is sitting behind the counter, reading as usual, as I enter her bookshop.

“My goodness,” she says, “here you are and it is not a Saturday.”

“I am on a bit of a mission. Do you have or can you order Afanas`ev’s Russian Fairy Tales?”

“Do you want the original, three-volume version in Russian?”

She is teasing me. She knows I cannot speak a word of another language. “English, please.”

“Actually, not all of his material has been translated, but Pantheon has a nice collection.”

I follow her as she moves from behind the counter, goes down one of the aisles, pulls a copy from its shelf but does not hand it to me. Rather she gestures to two of the cushioned reading chairs that populate her shop.

We sit down, she setting the book on the table in front of us and taking both my hands in hers.

I’m in trouble. I can never resist her.

“I need to make a request of you.” She hesitates and takes a deep breath. “I want to be able to go to the Magic Forest on my own. Is that possible? Can you arrange that?”

I am taken aback. “I don’t know. The Magic Forest simply appeared outside my exterior study door soon after my wife died. I did not call it into existence.”

She continues to hold my hands. “Might the nixie know a way?”

“We can certainly ask her or ask Old Rink Rank, but they are fey and I’ll guess a little secretive and indirect.”

“Do we have any other choice?” She releases my hands.

“Actually,” I say, as the thought comes to me, “yes, there is Ultima.”

“Who?”

“Have I not mentioned her to you? She, too, visits the Magic Forest. She may well have found her own way into the forest.”

“Where does she live?”

“Well, there is a sticking point; in another dimension.”

“What sort of dimension?”

“One where they still have dragons.”

Melissa’s eyes widen like an anime character. “How do we arrange a meeting?”

“I believe I only need to think of her, wish her there, for it to happen.”

“Can we try after I close the shop today?” She takes up my hands again.

“Of course.”

She kisses both of them. I feel myself blushing.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2021 Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh – Part One

H. J. Ford

Ultima Calls

Grabbing my pipe and lighting it, I pass through the French doors of my study and cross the lawn, heading toward the Magic Forest. The day is delightful. I think I’ll go sit by the edge of the pond.

I enter the cool shade of the forest, taking the short path to the pond.

“Ha!” exclaims Ultima Flossbottom. “I knew I could call you.”

“What?”

Ultima claps her hands in mirth. “I came here, by the pond, thought about you coming to join me, and here you are.”

Now that she says that, I don’t remember deciding to come here.

“And why have you conjured me up like a demon?”

“To return your book to you.” She hands me my copy of English Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs.

“I don’t remember lending it to you.”

“You didn’t. I stole it.”

I settle myself beside her on one of the sitting stones by the water’s edge.

“I think you’d better explain.”

“Well,” says Ultima, putting her fingertips together, “I took it into my head to explore your dragonless world a little. I followed the path you come down to this pond, which led me to the fancy glass doors of your study. You weren’t there. I went out your front door and wandered around a bit.

“My, what cramped spaces you reside and move around in. I couldn’t bring my dragon along if I tried.

“Well, as I returned through your study, I chose a book at random from the shelves. A culture’s writings tell a lot about themselves, and this book has given me great alarm for your world.”

“For example,” I prompt.

“I’ll use The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh, although my fears are raised by the patterns occurring in many of the stories.”

“Remind me of the tale,” I ask.

A king, whose wife had died, takes another wife, who turns out to be a witch. The king’s son, Childe Wynd, had long ago gone off adventuring, but his daughter, Margaret, the witch turns into a dragon.

The dragon ravages the countryside until, on the advice of a warlock, she is daily fed the milk of nine cows. The warlock also advises a message be sent to Childe Wynd.

Childe Wynd causes a boat to be built, making sure the keel is made of rowan wood. Then he and his men row for the keep at Bamborough Castle, where the witch queen holds court.

Sensing his approach, the witch queen sends out her demons to sink his ship, but he is protected by the rowan-wood keel. She then sends out her dragon, who cannot harm the ship but can push it back out to sea.

Childe Wynd feigns a retreat, but circles around and lands at another place. When he sets foot on ground, the witch queen’s power begins to fade. Childe Wynd finds the dying dragon and is about to slay it when the dragon begs, with his sister’s voice, for him to kiss it three times. This he does, and Margaret returns to her human form.

Child Wynd then turns the cowering witch into a black toad and takes over his father’s throne. The black toad, to this day, can be seen in the gardens of Bamborough Castle.

“Yes,” I say, “I recall the tale. Really charming, I think.”

Ultima stares at me, unabashedly and with alarm.

“Perhaps,” I suggest, “should we talk about this.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2021 The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh – Part Two

Bambro’ Castle, Northumberland null John Sell Cotman

On Marriage

“Let’s start,” Ultima says, “with your world’s unhealthy obsession with people marrying each other.”

“I take it then, you don’t have marriages in your world?” I probe.

“We do. We,” she says with emphasis, “are married to our dragons, pretty much from birth.”

“Goodness, you don’t have children by your dragons, do you?”

“Well of course not. Children are through liaisons. Now, some liaisons are permanent and others come and go. If I understand correctly, your marriages are like our permanent liaisons, only you are bound until one of the party dies.”

“I’ll confess, our marriage vows say, ‘. . . until death do you part.’ However, the reality is that there are many that end in divorce.”

“Divorce,” Ultima echoes. “That word is not in my world’s vocabulary.”

“A separation, parting of ways,” I explain.

“Oh! Such a thing does not happen between humans and dragons. We are ‘. . . until death do us part.” That is, I am sorry to say, hard on our dragons, they being much longer-lived than we humans. They must endure death in all of their marriages.”

Sounds to me as though humans are like pets to the dragons, I say to myself.

“But,” Ultima continues, “this notion of divorce, I did not see that reflected in your fairy tales.’

I think about that for a little. “No, you wouldn’t. The tales never deal with divorce. More often the first wife dies, and the man remarries, bringing his new wife’s daughter or daughters into his household to the subjection of his own daughter.”

“Well,” says Ultima, “in our tale, poor Margaret gets turned into a ‘worm’ as the story calls a dragon. And let me object to your world’s treatment of dragons. My goodness, calling them worms as if they are akin to squishy, slimy, earth-burrowing creatures. Turning humans into dragons as some sort of punishment? What in your world is that about?  But, I will let that pass for argument’s sake.”

I smile to myself.

“If,” she moves on, “divorce is not being represented in the fairy tales, what else is not fully represented? I want to talk about the disappearing fathers.

“In our tale, the king is out hunting and brings back a bride. His children, who are the hero and heroine of the tale, are left out in the cold, while their father simply fades out of the narrative. Can you explain that?”

“That is a fairy-tale trope,” I say. “Fathers in reality . . .”

Wait, what was that item I read that 20 percent of households are single-parent and almost all those parents are women.  Maybe fathers do fade away.  

“. . . in reality it probably had to do with many of the fathers’ occupations as sailors, soldiers, traveling merchants, and even fishermen, who were not at home for long stretches of time, while their wives were not being sailors, soldiers, merchants, or fishermen, but minding the home front. I think the men had less to do with the raising of their children. Even men who were farmers and woodcutters labored in the fields during the day while their wives were laboring at the hearth, tending to the children.

“I get the sense the fathers did not pay much attention until the children became adults, and then more interest was paid to the sons than the daughters.”

Fairy Tales of the Month: May 2021 The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh – Part Three


From Wild Fruits of the Country Side by F. Edward Hulme, 1907

About Women

“More interest was paid to the sons than the daughters,” Ultima repeats, picking up a pebble, throwing it  into the pond, and watching the ripples. “That brings me to my next concern. Your attitude toward dragons is bad enough, but your attitude toward women may be worse and ultimately harmful.

“Margaret was not consulted over the selection of the king’s new queen, nor did she act as though she expected to be consulted. The king’s selection was some witch he found while out hunting. I hardly think she could be royalty, while Margaret was of good lineage, but that did her not a bit of good.

“In all the stories I read, the heroines were largely there to be rescued or to be victims and could not make decisions for themselves. Other women, the ones who did make decisions, were the evil stepmothers and/or witches, suggesting that women were either innocent and ineffectual or conniving and evil.

“In addition, this Childe Wynd, who had gone off to seek his fortune, leaving his sister and dying mother, can waltz back into the picture and take over his father’s throne without a thank-you to anyone. He just smells of prerogative.

“What have you to say about that?” Ultima crosses her arms in front of her.

I do understand the chord this strikes in her. Still, I squirm a little on my sitting stone and stall by relighting my pipe.

“That is a reflection of the attitude toward women that was prevalent at the time the tales were developed. But by the end of the nineteenth century, women, at least in my part of the world, had gained many rights previously reserved for men; for example, the right to vote. In the present time, women are now represented in all the professions, also, previously, reserved for men.

“Oh, I won’t say we have solved all the problems. Women are still underrepresented, underpaid, and underappreciated, but I feel great progress has been made.”

Ultima looks at me quizzically. “You said the nineteenth century. What century are you in now in your world?”

“The twenty-first.”

“What? Two hundred years since you recognized the problem and you still haven’t fixed an obvious, simple discrepancy? Well, that’s what you get without the guiding paw of a dragon.”

I don’t think I’ll bring up our racial problems.

“One more thing,” she fusses, “What is this rowan tree?”

Ah! A safe topic.

“In that group of our ancestors we call the Celts, the rowan tree was sacred. Their mystics, called Druids, claimed that the first woman came from the rowan tree. This tree has lovely white blossoms in the spring that, by fall, ripen into clusters of bright red berries, each with what looks like a five-pointed star on its bottom. The star suggested the idea of protection to the Celts. The Celts also figured out a way to use the berries to make wine.

“It is also called the witch tree because it can be used as a protection against evil, although magic wands were made from it and could be used by witches.”

A half-remembered thought comes to me. “I do recall something about a green dragon protecting a sacred rowan tree.”

“Well,” Ultima says, “that’s a little better, but still, I worry for your chaotic world. It may snuff itself out of existence at any moment.”

She may be right.

Your thoughts?