Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2020 The Red Cow – Part One

Red Cow_mosaic_abduction_europa Mosaic 200 CE, Abduction of Europa

Fortieth Floor

Melissa and I peruse the brunch menu of the Duck and Waffle. I realize I am clutching the menu in both hands, tamping down a surge of vertigo. Our table is next to the floor-to-ceiling windows on the fortieth floor of the Heron Tower overlooking London. And I really mean overlooking London. I am sure I could see all of it from here if I dared look. I allow my eyes to scan the floor, with its lovely blue and white tiles, and the strange, old wine-bottle chandeliers attached to the ceiling—but not its windows.

“I’m thinking of the Spiced Dhal,” Melissa states.

“What’s that?”

“Lentil stew with poached hen’s egg and cumin flatbread.”

Of course I’m going for the Duck and Waffle, their signature dish and namesake. I do love mustard and maple syrup.

“I’ve found a story,” Melissa says as she folds close her menu, “that I’d like to read to Thalia. One of the Evald Tang Kristensen stories Stephen Badman translated, The Red Cow.

“Ah, well,” I say, “entertain me.”

The king is under the onus placed on him by his deceased wife that he not remarry any other woman than the one who can fit into her black dress. His daughter, while sporting with her maids, tries on the black dress, which fits her perfectly. The king declares he will marry her.

On the verge of killing herself, she is approached by an old woman who gives her two pieces of advice. One, to insist that her father give her a dress made of crows’ bills or she will not marry him. Second, failing that, she go to the red cow for help.

The king, with a mass slaughter of crows, produces the desired dress. The princess runs to the red cow’s stall and tells the cow her woes. The cow instructs her to fetch the crows-bill dress, open up the stall, and climb onto her back. They quickly flee the kingdom.

Then the cow tells the princess to stand on her back and tell her what the princess sees. She sees copper-colored shimmering. The cow explains that it is the copper forest through which they must pass. If the princess picks a leaf from a tree, the cow will have to fight and defeat the bull of the forest. The princess promises not to pluck a leaf.

Our waiter arrives, and Melissa and I order. Handing the menus back to the waiter, I turn to Melissa. “She picks a leaf, of course,” I say.

“Of course. This is a fairy tale.”

The pattern repeats itself with a silver forest and a gold forest. The cow tells the princess to climb off her back, then defeats each of the increasingly larger bulls, each in their turn, the first battle taking a day, the second two days, and the third three days. The cow’s recovery from each battle is the same number of days as the battle, but the cow never complains of the princess’s broken promises.

For a fourth time the cow tells the princess to stand on her back and tell her what the princess sees; the princess sees what she thinks is a green bush. The cow corrects her and tells her it is a green hill, beyond which is the castle that is their destination. The princess must leave the red cow, go to the castle, and ask for employment in the kitchen. This the princess succeeds in doing.

On Sunday, the princess is left behind in the kitchen to prepare supper for everyone as they attend church. The princess goes to the red cow, who tells her to put on the crows-bill dress, take the copper leaf, go to church, and the cow will take her place in the kitchen. On leaving the church, before everyone else, she must take the copper leaf, throw it to the ground and recite a charm. No one will see her leave, return to the kitchen, and take on her old disguise.

The next Sunday is the same, the princess dropping the silver leaf, but not before catching the prince’s attention. On the third Sunday, the prince manages to chase after her and grab her shoe before she disappears.

“Ah,” I say, “the Cinderella motif. He uses the shoe to find her.”

“Of course,” Melissa nods. “There is a party and every woman must try on the shoe. It’s the queen who realizes that it is the kitchen maid who has not tried it on. The shoe fits and the princess produces the crows-bill dress. The prince is delighted to find out she really is a princess.

“Interestingly, the father of the princess is invited to the wedding to give away the bride.”

“And all lived happily ever after?”

“Of course.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2020 The Red Cow – Part Two

Red Cow crow Audubon

Good Meal

“Crows-bill dress,” I say as the waiter arrives with our order, giving me a sideways glance. I refrain from speaking again until he is out of earshot. “What an unusual request.”

Melissa tests her lentil stew, followed by an approving nod. “A father wanting to marry a daughter is a motif, and she demanding a hopefully unattainable wedding dress is the usual response.

“In Donkey Skin the demand is for three dresses, equal to the blue of the sky, the silver of the moon, and the brilliant gold of the sun. In all the variants, these dresses are produced by the father.”

“The tale would not go on if they weren’t, but a dress made of crows’ bills?” I consider whether to start with the duck or the waffle.

“In another variant,” Melissa says between mouthfuls, “All Fur, besides the three dresses, she asks for a mantle made from all the birds and beasts of the kingdom. In Donkey Skin the fourth request is for a donkey skin, which is used as her disguise, as with the mantle in All Fur. Another variant is Catskin. I leave it to you to imagine what happens in that story.”

“Still,” I say, “a dress made of bird beaks?”

“Well,” Melissa picks up her flatbread, “I image it would be black and shiny. The story implies it is beautiful. And, oh,” Melissa pauses, “does it relate back to her mother’s black dress?”

“Hmmm,” I consider.

“But,” Melissa continues, “that is not why I want to read this to Thalia.”

The duck is delicious. “And your reason?” I ask.

“I see it as a feminist’s story.”

“OK,” I pause, my fork halfway to my mouth. “Explain.”

“I’ll start with the obvious. The protagonist is female.”

“Granted,” I say after delivering the fork to my mouth.

“Second, all of the helpers are female. There is the old woman who gives her advice, the red cow who is her savior, and even the queen who pops into the story for a second to bring the protagonist forward.

“With the exception of the prince—the reward—all the male figures have a negative aspect. Certainly the king, although they are reconciled at the end, is a harmful character. All the bulls—male figures—need to be defeated.”

“Wait,” I say, “what about the mother?”

“Well challenged.” Melissa spears her fork into her poached egg. “She is complex and unexplained.”

“Fairy tales are good at the unexplained,” I agree.

“Her motive for the black-dress test,” Melissa waves her fork in the air, “is unclear. Did she put that onus on her husband thinking that only a woman of quality could fit into her dress? Or did she think no other woman would fit into it? Or did she know only her daughter was the one?”

“The story does not say,” I quote myself, having said that many times before.

“The mother notwithstanding, I see the story as a triumph of the feminine over the masculine.”

I’m feeling slightly neutered, but I see her point.

“By the way,’ she says, “have you been taking in this view?” pointing her fork toward the window.

“No,” I say.

Melissa looks at me blankly. “Why ever not?”

“I’ve enjoyed my brunch,” I say. “It rests contently in my tummy. I want to keep it there.”

A moment of silence follows, interrupted by Melissa’s slightly hysterical laughter.

She can be unsympathetic.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2020 The Red Cow – Part Three

Red Cow St Dymphna

Well Maybe

“There was once a king and a queen. The queen was very ill and, before she died, she told the king that he should marry again.”

“‘You’ll know the one to wed when she puts on my black dress and it fits her perfectly.’”

Melissa’s voice lilts through my study as Thalia and her button-eyed Teddy, who are settled into Melissa’s lap, listen intently.

Their comfy chair is angled toward the fire in the hearth. My comfy chair is a bit behind theirs. I can discreetly use my computer tablet without annoying them. The tablet is a generous Christmas gift from Duckworth, who wants to keep me up-to-date.

Typing in “The Red Cow,” I think I will find the fairy tale. Instead, the tablet points me to the Wikipedia article on the Red Cow—also known as the Red Heifer. It tells me the Red Cow was a special, sacrificial animal in the Hebrew tradition. And not just any red cow, but one without spot or blemish and one that has never been yoked.

The Red Cow also appears in the Christian tradition in the Epistle of Barnabas (noncanonical), where the Red Cow is equated with Jesus, both said to be sacrificed by the Jews. Yes, there is an anti-Semitic undertone to the Epistle of Barnabas.

Might the common Danish listener at the time this story was told orally, before it was collected, recognize the connection between the Red Cow and Jesus?

“’Stand on my back and tell me if you can see anything in the distance.’”

“’There’s a copper shimmer on the horizon.’”

“’That comes from a wood where the trees are made of copper.’”

Melissa does have such a wonderful contralto, storytelling voice.

Before she started reading to Thalia, I grabbed her copy of Evald Tang Kristensen’s collection and found in the notes that Evald collected the story from a Niels Pedersen, which does not bolster Melissa’s claim that this is a feminist tale.

However, in reading on, I blundered across the note for The Blue Bullock, a title I had not noticed before. In this tale appears the same traveling bovine motif, but the protagonist is a young boy, who rides  on the bullock’s back and picks apples that he should not, causing the bullock to fight the bulls of the woods. In the third and last battle the bullock is killed. Has he died for the boy’s sins?

Then there is the slaughter of the crows for their beaks. Is this an echo of the slaughter of the innocents?

The greater sin in The Red Cow is the king wanting to marry his daughter. On my tablet, I search the keywords “fathers who want to marry their daughter” and come up with a link to Saint Dymphna.

According to tradition, she lived in the seventh century, the daughter of a pagan, Irish king and his Christian wife. At the age of fourteen, she consecrates herself to Christ and takes a vow of chastity. Shortly thereafter, her mother dies, and her father, who dearly loved his wife, becomes mentally unhinged and determines to marry his daughter, who closely resembles her mother.

She flees to Belgium in the company of her father confessor, two servants, and the king’s fool. Her father pursues her, and when she refuses to return to Ireland, he cuts off her head in a rage. She was only fifteen.

I much prefer the ending of The Red Cow to the ending of Saint Dymphna, but the origin of this uncomfortable motif is pretty clear to me. Not that the Danish peasants were well-read and we must remember the church services were spoken in Latin. Nonetheless, I imagine monks, some of whom were pretty earthy, explaining the stories behind the cathedrals’ stained-glass windows to the parishioners. Stories of the saints have been ever popular.

“’Light in front and dark behind, let no one see what becomes of me.’”

“She disappeared in front of the prince who had followed her out.”

I hear Melissa winding up the tale. Shall I tell her what I have stumbled across? I think not. Those with modern ears will hear this story to suit themselves. Archaic ears, steeped in Christian lore, may have heard a different story. I will let the past and present listeners decide for themselves. What of future listeners?

“. . . and there has never been a harsh word spoken between the prince and princess from that day to this.”

Your thoughts?


Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part One

Water of Life Louis Rhead king Louis Rhead

Christmas Pudding

Onto my kitchen table I gather currants, sultanas, raisins, orange peels, breadcrumbs and shredded suet. Thalia peeks in at the door, dressed in her nightgown.

“There you are,” she scolds. “I looked for you in the study.”

“Goodness,” I say, “what time is it?”

Thalia scowls. “Bedtime!”

“Oh, I am so sorry, but I must get this done. It needs to set overnight.”

“What is it?” The scowl turns to a frown.

The Christmas pudding.”

“Oh!” sparkle returns to her eyes. “You bake. I’ll read.”

She plops herself on a chair at the table, props Teddy up against the flour canister, and opens up her battered copy of Grimm in her lap.

“Delightful,” I say and reach for the demerara sugar. “What will I hear?”

She considers the table of contents for a minute. “Ah! The Water of Life.”

The three sons of a king, in distress over the impending death of their father, are approached by an old man, who tells them of the Water of Life, which can cure their father. The eldest convinces the king to let him go search for the Water of Life, hoping that will make him his father’s favorite.

However, on his travels he is rude to and dismissive of a dwarf who inquired where the prince was going. With the dwarf’s curse, the prince gets no farther. The second brother takes the identical path with the same result.

I blanch the almonds with boiling water and let them soak to remove the skins.

The third brother talks respectfully to the dwarf and tells him of his search for the Water of Life. The dwarf gives him specific instructions, an iron wand, and two loaves of bread.

The iron wand the prince uses to knock on the gate of an enchanted castle three times. When the doors spring open, he feeds the loaves of bread to the two guardian lions, which let him pass unmolested. Before coming to the fountain of the Water of Life, he enters a magnificent hall with statue-like enchanted princes sitting around. He takes the rings off their fingers, and picks up another loaf of bread and a sword from the floor.

“Where did I put the breadcrumbs,” I mumble. Thalia glances up, but for only a second.

In the next room is a beautiful woman, who treats him as her savior and instructs him to return in a year when they will be married and he will become the new king of the enchanted castle. Unfortunately, in the next room is a bed upon which he lies down and falls asleep.

He is aroused when a bell chimes a quarter to twelve. The dwarf told him he needed to get the water and escape before midnight. He dashes to the fountain, gets the water, and rushes for the gate as the clock strikes twelve. The gate closes so suddenly it clips off a bit of his heel.

I sift the flour, salt, and spices together.

On his return trip, he gets his two brothers released, and saves three kingdoms from starvation and war (the loaf of bread being an unending source of food, and the sword being unconquerable). While traveling on a ship, the two elder brothers switch the Water of Life with sea water. When the younger brother gives it to his father, the elder brothers accuse him of trying to poison their father, and they give the king the Water of Life.

Believing his elder sons, the king arranges for a huntsman to kill his youngest. The huntsman warns the prince, they exchange clothes, and the younger brother escapes.

I add the beaten eggs, lemon juice, and half a pint of stout to the flour mixture.

Soon after, three wagonloads of gold are sent to the father of the youngest son in thanks for saving their kingdoms. The king sees that his youngest son is not evil as the elder sons proposed, finds out from the huntsman that he is not dead, and pardons the prince.

“My, this is a long story,” I say.

“Shush, we’re coming to my favorite part.”

Meanwhile, the princess of the enchanted castle has a golden road built for the castle’s entrance and tells her guards not to allow any man into the castle who does not ride down its center. The eldest son, a little before a year had passed, schemed to present himself as the princess’s suitor, thinking his younger brother was dead, and comes to the golden road. Deciding it’s a shame to mar gold by walking upon it, he treads to the side of the road and is not allowed to enter. The second brother has the same thoughts and fails.

The youngest brother appears after the full year is over, thinking of his true love, and doesn’t even notice the golden road. The marriage takes place and the princess tells him of his pardon. He and his father are reconciled, and the elder brothers flee, never to be seen again.

Thalia snaps the book closed. “And that’s the end of that story.” She collars Teddy, a bit whiter with flour dust, and swishes her way to the door, the hem of her nightgown picking up bits of kitchen debris.

“Thank you!” I call after her. I begin the long process of stirring.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part Two

Water of Life Rackham Arthur Rackham

A Walk

My mother always used a simple crockery bowl for the Christmas pudding. I know others use a fancy mould but a bowl does well for me. It only needs a lip around the rim to keep the string from slipping off.

I am covering the bowl and its pudding contents with the pleated parchment and foil wrap when Duckworth enters the kitchen.

“You’re cooking,” he states. “I thought we were to walk this morning.”

“Baking,” I correct. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you knock.”

“Thalia let me in. She’s a little lady, I tell you.”

I smile. “This won’t take long. When I am done, it needs to simmer for eight hours.”

I finish the string handle, lift it into the pot of boiling water, cover, and turn down the heat.

“There. Let’s go,” I say.

As we stroll down my street, Duckworth asks, “And what did you read to Thalia last night?”

“I was busy with the figgy pudding. She read to me!”


“That’s what I said. She read The Water of Life.” As usual, I give him the summary.

“Well, well, well, plenty of ‘threes’ in this one,” Duckworth observes. “You know, I think it would be better if each of the three brothers represented something.”

“How’s that?”

“Well,” Duckworth speculates, “what if the elder brother represented ‘greed,’ the second brother ‘sloth,’ and the youngest ‘honesty?’ Why does the fairy tale make the elder brothers mirror images of each other?”

I waver. “It’s traditional.”

Duckworth gives me a sideways glance.

“OK,” I concede, “that is not an answer.” I reflect a bit. “The fairy tale, despite its love of three, only deals with good and evil; not good, could be better, and evil.  The fairy tale condenses the elder brothers into evil-heartedness and the younger brother is all about good-heartedness.”

We turn the corner at the far end of my street and enter a park. Even though the trees are bare, it is delightful.

“Now,” Duckworth picks up the thread of our conversation, “you mentioned that the dwarf gave our protagonist an iron wand.” He waves an illustrative hand in the air. “You’ve taught me that iron is a talisman against evil; good enough. Then there are the two loaves of bread to sate the lions. Although lions are carnivores, I will let that pass. But in one of the halls of the enchanted castle, he takes the rings off of the fingers of the enchanted—obviously sleeping—princes. What of that? Have you forgotten to tell me part of the story?”
“No, the fairy tale has forgotten to tell us the consequence of his taking the rings. He also, in the same chamber, picks up a sword and another magical loaf of bread. The sword and bread he uses to help others. In that spirit, I don’t think he stole the rings. He took the rings for a greater purpose. Did he release the princes from their enchantment by taking away their status? Did he accumulate power he would need later? Did this represent something earlier listeners understood and did not need to be explained?”

Duckworth nodded and we say together, “The fairy tale does not say.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part Three

Water of Life Philip Grot Philipp Grot Johann

To Travel

We pass by some of the deer that inhabit this park.

“Let me continue to nitpick,” says Duckworth.

“You always do,” I say.

“Does that annoy you?”
“I look forward to it.”

“Good.” Duckworth applies himself to his argument. “When the three brothers start off, each of them encounter the dwarf. On the return trip the youngest brother again meets the dwarf, presumably at the same spot, and collects his wayward brothers, but now there is a sea voyage between them and home that was not there before. How do we account for that?”

“Oh, you are such a stickler for detail. As you know, the fairy tale has no respect for logic and order. The sea voyage is not needed on the adventure out to the enchanted castle. It is needed on the return trip to give the elder brothers a chance to betray our hero.”

“What? They could betray him anywhere.” I hear the protest in his voice.

“True, but there is no better place to ‘change the rules’ than at sea. When you are on land, you are in a country filled with roads, villages, and towns, some with their own jurisdiction. At sea, there is a skill involved in knowing where you are; there are no road signs. The water itself does not stay in one spot; it’s a current. When you stand on firm ground the law of the land applies. At sea, the law washes away.”

“We even have different names for the same thing whether it’s on land or at sea. On land, when men rise up against their masters, they call it a revolt. At sea, they call it a mutiny.”

We pass by the park’s fountain as Duckworth remarks, “You bring to my mind Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, two remarkably different stories, one on land and one at sea, both by the same poet. He must have sensed what you are talking about.”

“I think of Jonah and the whale. Jonah’s shipmates made up their own rules and judgments,” I say.

“But here, what about the golden road thing?” Duckworth changes the subject.

“Yes, what about that! That makes the story for Thalia and me. As in all fairy tales, it has its familiar motifs, the three brothers, the sympathetic huntsman, the magical devices, and magical helper. And while the golden road is a test—and tests are familiar motifs too—I don’t know of another golden road in these tales. As for being a test, it is not one of strength or cleverness, but of temperament. The elder brothers notice the gold (earthly wealth); the younger thinks only of the princess (spiritual reward). For Thalia and me, the golden road makes this story special.”

We find a park bench and settle ourselves down.

“I have one more critique,” Duckworth says while pulling a small paper bag of bread cubes from his coat pocket for the gathering pigeons. “Why did the princess need to build a golden road to determine who was the true suitor? Would she not recognize him?”

“Good point,” I say. “The fairy tales are mysteriously ‘face blind.’ There are even tales where the ugly sister tries to supplant the pretty sister and no one quite notices. There is often a sign, stigmata, or act that needs to happen for the true hero or heroine to be recognized.”

We watch the pigeons greedily chasing after bread pieces.

“By the way,” Duckworth squints at me, “aren’t you starting the Christmas pudding a little early?”

“Oh no, not at all. It improves by setting a few days.”

“And then?”

“And then I steam it up again for two more hours.”

“And then?”

“And then I invert it onto a plate. It should fall right out of the bowl.”

“And then?”

“And then I pour on the brandy and light it. There is no more beautiful a flame.”

“And then?”

“And then I lather on the hard sauce and serve, of course.”

“Good. I was just checking that you are doing it right. Will you save me a piece?”

“I will make a point of it.”

Your thoughts.


Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part One

Black Bull of Norroway oneJohn D. Batten

Queen’s Walk

Duckworth and I stroll along the banks of the Thames, following the Queen’s Walk on this mild November day. Rowing on the river might be a bit too cold; therefore we opt for a walk along the South Bank. We intend to take the full walk from Tower Bridge to Lambeth Bridge.

“Well,” says Duckworth, “What sort of disconcerting, confusing, and questionable diatribes have you been inflicting upon your granddaughter of late?”

I hear the bait, but bite for the sake of conversation. “I only read fairy tales to her.”

“Isn’t that what I said?” Duckworth grins.

We pass the lopsided, glassy ball of City Hall. “The Black Bull of Norroway, last night. I am fond of Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales. That one is Scottish, actually.”

“Almost not English,” muses Duckworth. “Tell me of this tale.”

There are three sisters and the eldest asks her mother to bake her a bannock and roast her collop because she is going off to seek her fortune.”

“Wait,” says Duckworth, “a girl going off to seek her fortune? Only sons do that.”

“Shush,” I say, “do you want to hear the story?” Duckworth rolls his eyes and I continue.

The sister goes to the old witch washerwife for advice.



The washerwife tells her to stay and watch out the back door. On the third day the sister sees a coach drawn by six horses that takes her away.

The second sister follows suit and is taken away by a coach with four horses.

The third sister gets the bannock and collop, and advice from the washerwife, but is taken away by a black bull.

“Dear me,” says Duckworth.

Beside us I see the imposing shape of the HMS Belfast anchored along the banks of the Thames.

At the bull’s instruction, she sustains herself by drawing food from his right ear and drink from his left.

“What?” says Duckworth. I glare at him and continue.

The girl and the bull travel In turn to three castles ruled over by the bull’s three human brothers. At each castle she is given a gift, one of an apple, another a pear, and last a plum, which she is not to “break” until she is in dire straits.

Then they travel to a glen, where the bull tells her to wait, not move an inch, while he goes to battle the Old One.


I ignore him.

If she moves at all, he will not be able to find her on his return. He also says that if all about her turns blue, then he has defeated the Old One. If all turns red, then he, the bull, has been conquered.

This she does until all turns blue and her foot moves in a reflex of joy for her friend’s victory, but now the bull cannot find her.

Duckworth and I approach London Bridge on our ramble.

At length she wanders until she comes to the glass mountain. She cannot get over it until she serves seven years to a blacksmith, who will then forge iron shoes for her that will grip the glass of the mountain.

She comes to the house of a washerwife.

“Hold on, the same washerwife as at the start of the story?”

“The story does not say.”

Duckworth sighs.

The washerwife and her daughter are trying to wash out the blood on the clothes of a gallant knight, who will marry the one to accomplish the task. Failing to remove the stains, they give the clothes to the girl for whom the work is easily done.

Of course, the washerwife claims it is her daughter who did the deed and it is she who should marry the knight.

The girl now breaks open the fruits that hold much treasure, which she uses to bribe the daughter to let her into the knight’s bedchamber. This goes on for two nights, the washerwife drugging the knight so that he does not hear the girl’s pleas. It is not until the third night, after the knight has gotten wind of what is happening, that he stays awake. The knight then has the washerwife and her daughter burnt, and marries the girl.

“Are you kidding?” Duckworth exclaims.

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Two

Black Bull of Norroway twoJohn D. Batten

Strolling On

Passing by Southwark Cathedral, we wind our way toward the Globe Theatre.

“Let me get a few things straight,” Duckworth insists. “First, three sisters go off to make their way in the world. I think that unseemly for young women at the time. I’ll let that pass, but what happened to the eldest sisters?”

“They rode off in coaches. I’m sure they did fine.”

“Why were they in the story? Isn’t every element of a story there to propel the story forward?”

“You are talking about literary fairy tales. The traditional tales are of a different order. Yet, I feel the sequence of events—the first two sisters getting a free ride as it were—marks the youngest sister as special, having to struggle for her husband, giving their union greater value.”

“OK,” says Duckworth, “what about the bull?”

“Well, females abducted by bulls may start with the Greek myth of Europa being kidnapped by Zeus in the form of a white bull, but a closer relative, I think, is East of the Sun, West of the Moon, where the  youngest sister is taken away by a great white bear.”

“Hmm,” Duckworth looks thoughtful for a moment. “Is this the Beauty-and-the-Beast thing?”

“Not exactly, in my opinion. The beast is a monster, at least outwardly. The bull is a common enough animal, but one with a mission.”

“Ah, yes, his fight with the Old One. Who is he?” Duckworth asks.

“We can only guess. My guess is that the name is a euphemism for the devil, though there is nothing particularly Christian in the gloss of this story. One could suggest this is a reflection of the bull of the Mithra religion fighting with the state religion of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think the folk memory concerns itself with such politics.”

I feel a certain thrill as we pass the Shakespeare’s Globe. The Tate Modern, in contrast, comes into sight.

“Nonetheless,” I continue, “bulls have a special place in both Greek and Roman mythology, the vestige of which turns up in the Spanish bull fights. You’ve heard of the running of the bulls, haven’t you? That moment when we allow them to try and kill us?”

“Not my cup of tea, thank you, but what about this red, blue, disappearing thing? How do you explain that?”

“I don’t have a coherent explanation for that.”

“Do you have an incoherent explanation?” Duckworth knows me.

“Well, call me crazy, but I am thinking of the astronomical red shift and blue shift. Red shift occurs when an astronomer sees a star moving away. The waveband is stretching out and appears red. If the star moves toward the astronomer, then the waveband length is shorter and the light appears blue.

“Not that red and blue are opposites on the color wheel, but in this case they are opposed. Did some storyteller sense this and apply it to victory and defeat?”

Duckworth takes out his cellphone, stabs at it, and talks. “Insane asylums near me.”

“No wait, my notion gets a little worse to be honest, when it comes to the bull not being able to find the girl after she moves. That brings to mind the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat, which addresses the idea that, at the subatomic level, a particle may and/or may not exist at the same time. That is to say, there and not there. That does describe the bull’s problem after the girl moves her foot. She is there and not there when the bull tries to find her. He, unfortunately, exists in the ‘not there’ state and the story goes on to the next stage.”

We walk through the shadow of the Oxo Tower as Duckworth contemplates my words, then addresses his cell again. “Requirements for commitment.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Three

Black Bull of Norroway threeAbundance   Peter Paul Reuben

Another Stroll

On my own walk into the Magic Forest, I make for the Glass Mountain. As I hoped, Old Rink Rank sits on a crystal ledge, barely above my head, his thin, long shanks dangling down.

“Good day to you,” I offer.

He eyes me with a hoary brow raised.

“May I ask a question or two?” I propose.

“I have no answers,” Rink Rank scowls.

“Do you recall a girl scaling your mountain with iron shoes.”

“Which one? Happened a number of times.”

“Her dear friend was the Bull of Norroway.”

“Oh, her. Think I remember. Lived happily ever after, didn’t she.” I note his devilish grin.

“I am not sure that distinguishes her. Nonetheless, as she rode on the bull’s back, she pulled food from his right ear and drink from his left. How does that work?”

“How should I know? The storytellers assigned me to this glass mountain. They didn’t make me a cowherd. How do you think it works? That’s the question.”

“Well, the image that jumps to mind is the cornucopia. Now, I know that the horn of plenty is a goat’s horn, but the baby Zeus was raised by a goat, actually a goat-goddess. In play, he broke off one of her horns, which then had the power of unending nourishment.

“In another story, Zeus, as a bull, abducts Europa. The Bull of Norroway carries off our heroine and produces food and drink from his ears, which, of course, are next to his horns.

“My logic might be thin, but I think there is a thread that runs through my reasoning. What do you think?”

Rink Rank reaches into his pocket and pulls out what looks like a cellphone and speaks. “Insane asylum near me.”

“Oh, cut that out!”

Rink Rank’s wicked grin broadens as the cellphone appears to dissolve into thin air. Yet I push on.

“There is also the washerwife. She is at the beginning as a helper and later on as the antagonist. My friend Duckworth questioned if they were the same person. I had no answer.”

“And how should I know?” Rink Rank fumes. “You’re the one reading or listening to the story. If you think they are the same washerwife then they are. I’m just a figment of your imagination, just like you’re the figment of someone else’s imagination.”

“What?” I exclaim, “I am not the figment of anyone’s imagination any more than you are.”

“Oh, you don’t think so?” There’s that devilish grim again. He is trying to distract me from my point.

“And the Bull of Norroway and the gallant knight, are they the same person?”

Rink Rank slaps his forehead. “What do you think?”

“I want to hear it from you!” I all but scream.

“I told you, I have no answers. Of course we tales don’t tell you everything. Those answers are yours to find out or make up. That’s your part, your role in the story.”

He settles his back up against the glass mountain with the air of having given his final say.

I am not sure I should believe him.

Your thoughts?



Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2019 Buried Moon – Part One

Buried Moon oneJohn D. Batten

Halloween Moon

Melissa’s taking Thalia Halloweening has become a tradition. Thalia’s mother does not mind not participating. The materialistic, food-related aspects of holidays are not to her liking. In her view, the spiritual value of the “holy days” is being sublimated by corporal concerns. I say any excuse for eating food is valid.

I build up the fire in the hearth as I hear them coming down the hallway. They enter my study, Melissa donning her witches hat and cape in keeping with the spirit of Halloween, and Thalia decked out as a Christmas Tree in her purposeful attempt at confusing the seasons.

Thalia plunks down in front of the hearth, her lower branches forming a ring around her, emptying her loot bag on the floor and sifting through her booty. I can see what a haul she made: Lion Bars, Aero Bars, Drumstick Squashies, Tunnock’s Snowballs, Maltesers, Mighty Fine Honeycomb Bars, Walker’s Assorted Toffees, Refreshers, Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, and Fry’s Turkish Delights.

Melissa returns from my bookshelves with a copy of Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales and settles herself into my companion comfy chair.

The Buried Moon,” she pronounces. Thalia looks up from munching on a Drumstick Squashy.

In Carrland, along the Ancholme River, were black pools and bogs. When the Moon did not shine, out came Things, Bogles, and Crawling Horrors. The Moon, when she learned what happened while she rested, wanted to see for herself.

At month’s end, covered in a black cloak, she entered the bog.

Thalia reaches for a Turkish Delight.

Traveling through the treacherous bog, the Moon slipped, nearly falling into a black pool, and grasped at a black snag to save herself. Vines wrapped themselves around her wrists.

At that same moment, some poor man came following a will-o’-the-wisp toward his death. As the Moon struggled, her black hood fell from her head, emitting light. The man could then see where the true path lay, and with a cry of joy, headed for it, saving himself.

Thalia picked up a Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles while staring at Melissa.

Continuing her struggle, the exhausted Moon collapsed, allowing the hood to again cover her head. The Things, Bogles, and Crawling Horrors approached and abused her, arguing how to kill her until dawn broke. They placed a large coffin-shaped stone upon her to push her down into the bog, leaving a will-o’-the-wisp to guard.

Anticipating a new moon, the people put pennies in their pockets and a straw in their cap. But when the new moon did not appear, they went to the wise woman who lived in the old mill. She looked in her brewpot, mirror, and book, but had no answer. She advised them to listen and tell her what they heard.

Thalia engaged a Mighty Fine Honeycomb Bar without breaking eye contact.

The whereabouts of the Moon became the talk of all the homes, farmyards, and pubs. In one of the pubs, the man who had been lost in the bog saw the light, one might say, and told of his experience.

This the people related to the Wise Woman. She told them to put a stone in their mouths, take a hazel twig in their hands, and say not a word as they walked into the marsh looking for a coffin, a cross, and a candle.

Full of trepidation, this they did, and found the coffin-shaped stone, the black snag roughly in the shape of a cross, and the  will-o’-the-wisp as the candle. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer silently to themselves—forwards and backwards—they pushed aside the stone, and the Moon sprung back into the sky, lighting their way home.

Thalia’s eyes filled with delight as she wrapped her fingers around a Tunnock’s Snowball.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2019 The Buried Moon – Part Two

Buried Moon two 17th cent17th Century chart of the moon

Mrs. Balfour

“Where does that story come from?” I ask after has Thalia sated her sweet-tooth and wandered off to bed.

“Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales,” she smiles with deviltry while taking a sip of wine.

“I know that. Who did he get it from?”

“That’s an interesting little history. The tale, also called Dead Moon, comes from Lincolnshire, collected by Marie Clothilde Balfour—related to Robert Lewis Stevenson, by the way—when she lived there in the late 1880’s. She collected a number of tales and submitted them to Folk-Lore, the journal of the Foklore Society.

“There were a couple of problems. First, she wrote the stories out attempting to mimic the Lincolnshire dialect. That made for hard reading. Second, when her fellow folklorists did figure out the stories, they doubted the tales’ authenticity given their unusual construction. “

“True,” I say taking a sip of wine. “This story at least doesn’t have the usual feel of a fairy tale.”

“Mrs. Balfour called them Legends of Lincolnshire; actually, legends of the Carrs, basically the bogs and fenlands of the area, but they are not really legends either.”

“I am guessing,” I nod, “Joseph Jacobs respected her work.”

“Yes, but he did apologize to her for taking them out of the dialect and turning them into plain English. There are a number of her works in More English Fairy Tales. Let’s see, My Own Self, Yallery Brown, The Hedley Kow, Tattercoats, Coat O’ Clay, A Pottle O’ Brains, I know there are others.”

“You’ve done your research,” I comment with another sip of wine.

“Yes, I have. This story raised my suspicions about its authenticity as it did for others.

“Mrs. Balfour states she collected the tale from a nine-year-old crippled girl named Fanny, who heard it from her grandmother. Mrs. Balfour comments she couldn’t help feeling her informant engaged her youthful girl’s imagination to help flesh out the details.

“Also, Mrs. Balfour described her recording process as taking notes, then writing the tale down in full the next day or soon after.”

“Hmmm,” I tap my fingers together, “plenty of time for interference, even subconsciously, to enter the story, turning it more toward literary forms.”

“She was an author in her own right.” Melissa agrees, finishing her glass. “I am not going to doubt her, at least not her honesty and good intent. If, when her hand came to the pen, she could not help but bend the words she heard to her liking and understanding, I will forgive her.”

I refill Melissa’s glass and top off my own. “For argument’s sake, let us say The Buried Moon is authentic. Is it some vestige of a moon worship mythology?”

Melissa takes off her witches’ hat, not realizing she still wore it. “We cannot dismiss the notion, but where is there a parallel tale of humans freeing the moon? I believe I have come across moon goddesses being abducted by other gods, but this is different. Here there is a symbiotic relationship between the moon and the people of the fenland. It smacks of legend or mythology, but comes out of nowhere with no parentage, hence, the professional folklorists’ suspicions.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2019 The Buried Moon – Part Three

Buried Moon three poppy

Superstitious Stuff

I add another log to the fire.

“Then there is the wise woman who lives in the old mill, who advises the people to seek the moon with a stone in their mouths, a hazel twig in their hands, and to speak not a word. How do we take that apart?”

“Well,” Melissa considers, staring at her wine, “the wise woman is a common enough trope, but residing in ‘the old mill’ is more specific than usual.

“The stone in the mouth may be an aid in not speaking while they search. A large stone in the mouths of buried corpses is a protection against vampires rising from the grave, but I think in this case we are talking about pebbles.

“The hazel twig is well known for its mystic attributes. Magical wands are often made of hazel wood, but here I think they may act as dowsing rods.

“Dowsing rods? Why would they be looking for water?”

“Oh, the dowsing rod can be used to locate other things, buried treasure, and maybe buried moons.”

“And the injunction against speaking?”

“Again, I don’t know. Saying the Lord’s Prayer forwards and backwards I found interesting as well.”

I raise my glass. “And let’s not forget the people putting pennies in their pockets and straw in their caps.”

“That I can explain,” Melissa exclaims. “It’s a bit of magic tied to the moon’s waxing, getting bigger. The idea is that the pennies in your pocket will increase along with the moon, as well as the straw—your harvest.”

“I like that. And the wise woman’s brew pot, mirror, and book?” I ask.

Melissa deflates a little. “These items pop-up in fairy tales, but I’ve never heard them put together like this before. It does indicate the wise woman deals in magical arts. White magic I will assume.

“To make matters a little worse, in Joseph Jacobs’ rewriting of the tale, he left out the wise woman also telling the people to put salt, straw, and a button on their door-sill to keep the Horrors from crossing over the threshold.”

I shake my head. “This tale is full of peasant superstitions.”

“One more thing,” Melissa says, finishing the bottle off into our glasses. “In my deep-dive into this story, I discovered Maureen James’s paper on the Carrs’ legends. The work is pretty exhaustive of the whole scene in which Mrs. Balfour operated.

“One of the factors that James covered is the extensive use of opium by the Lincolnshire inhabitants. The Fens and Carrs were unhealthy places, given to ague, poverty, and rheumatism. Opium provided some cure and comfort. Mothers used opium to quiet their babies. Man would put a little into their beer. Opium, especially in the form of laudanum, was fairly cheap and available at the chemist’s shop, not to mention the poppies being grown in their gardens to make poppyhead tea.

“If they were seeing Things, Bogles, and Crawling Horrors on dark nights in the bogs, I am not surprised.”

I contemplate that thought as our fire dies down.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2019 Hans My Hedgehog – Part One

Hans my Heddehog OldDesignShop.jpgFrom “The Teachers’ and Pupils” Cyclopaedia

Strange Child

Thalia’s finger spirals in the air, landing on the table of contents in her beloved, battered copy of Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Teddy, securely scrunched between me and the padded arm of the comfy chair where Thalia has stuffed him, observes our antics.

Thalia’s finger partly obscures the title, Hans My Hedgehog.

A well-to-do farmer had only one failure in his life. He and his wife had no children. One day he cried out, “I will have a child, even if it’s a hedgehog.”

This is the sort of wish/curse one should never make. His wife gave birth to a male being, human below the waist, but a hedgehog above. He was christened Hans My Hedgehog and lived on a pile of straw behind the stove.

After a number of years, Hans asked for bagpipes and for a blacksmith to shoe his rooster, and then his unhappy father would not see him again (which turns out not to be true). Hans also took some pigs to be raised in the forest.

Every day Hans perched in a tree, on his rooster, playing his bagpipes as he tended his pigs, which multiplied.

One day, a king, lost in the forest, heard the bagpipes and sent a servant to inquire. The servant reported that there was a hedgehog, in a tree, mounted on a rooster, playing his bagpipes while tending his pigs.

Thalia giggles at this image.

The king’s concern was to be no longer lost and asked Hans for the way out of the forest. Hans agreed to guide the king, if the king would give him that which first greets the king upon his return. The king agreed, but with no intent to keep his promise.

After guiding the king, Hans returned to tending his pigs.

A second king found himself lost in the forest and also heard the bagpipes. The scenario repeated itself with the difference that this king was sincere in his agreement.

Who greeted these kings upon their return were, of course, their only daughters.

When the pigs overpopulated the forest, Hans returned to his village, offering them up to anyone who wanted them. To his father, who orchestrated this giveaway, Hans asked to have his rooster re-shod and promised to never return (which, again, is not true).

Thalia “hmms” a question mark into the air.

Hans ventured toward the kingdom of the first lost king. Neither the king nor his daughter wanted to adhere to the agreement and did whatever they could to stop his arrival. Nonetheless, being magical, Hans forced them to comply.

Possessing the king’s daughter, he injured her with his quills, rejected her, and sent her back to her father in disgrace.

With the honest king, the trajectory was quite different. Hans was welcomed into the kingdom. This daughter, keeping her father’s promise, agreed to marry the hedgehog.

On the wedding night, Hans slipped out of his hedgehog skin and instructed that it be burnt immediately. The princess found she had married a handsome man.

Thalia applauds.

Sometime later, after Hans became the king, he revisited his father, who said he no longer had a son. Hans revealed himself and the father returned with him to his kingdom.

Giving me a peck on the cheek, Thalia extracts Teddy and wanders off to bed, dragging the poor bear behind her.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2019 Hans My Hedgehog – Part Two

Hans My Hedgehog FordHenry J Ford

Familiar Fairy

As Thalia and Teddy pass through my study door, I see Thalia’s fairy perched on the carving of a raven atop its wooden lintel. Her black hair floating mist-like around the delicate features of her face.

“Strange story,” I say to her.

She nods.

I am surprised she does not flutter away and ignore me. I seize the opportunity.

“As I see it,” I pronounce, “there is a moral to this tale. After all, Wilhelm had a hand in it.

“In Freudian terms, Hans achieves the role of superego, the judge of us mere mortals as it were, but first he must spend his time in the wilderness.

“He lives in the forest, mounted on a rooster in a tree, watching his pigs. I’ll assume the varmints that would threaten his pigs are musically sensitive and the bagpipes keep them away.

“During this time in the wilderness, he encounters two kings, the first the embodiment of self-serving evil, and the second the embodiment of inclusive goodness. In neither case does Hans, after fulfilling his part of the agreement, follow them to their kingdom to claim that which first greets them, which is, of course, the daughters, but returns to his home in the wilderness to complete that stage of his life.

“When it is time, when his pigs become too numerous, he divests himself of these worldly possessions, and enters the phase of being the superego.”

The fairy is squinting at me with narrowed eyes, but I push on.

“Now, as judge, he approaches the two kings, probably knowing what will come to pass. The first, of course, is punished for his deceit, and the second rewarded for his honesty.

“The more I think about this, the more Hans My Hedgehog parallels Jesus’s time in the wilderness, where he renounces evil and returns to preach salvation. Do you agree? Is this what the tales is about?”

Frowning, the fairy shakes her head in dissent.

“I should have guessed so,” I exhale.

I contemplate.

“If the tale is not a Christian allegory, then it must be about Hans himself.”

The fairy raises a painfully-thin finger in encouragement.

“Hans,” I go on, talking and thinking at the same time, “is half-human and half-beast.”

The fairy rolls her hand, telling me to go on.

“Half-human and half-beast,” I echo myself, “or half-humane and half-bestial. We are of two natures.”

The fairy nods.

“When Hans sees that the first king and his daughter disrespect him, they evoke in him his bestial nature. They all descend into a cycle of mutual harm. Hans, through his magic, takes the princess by force, pierces her with his quills—his bestial nature—and sends her home permanently harmed. Hans is not better for it but for a sense of revenge.

“When Hans comes to the honest king and his daughter, he is accepted and honored for having led the king out of the forest. They evoke his humane side, allowing him to shed his bestial nature. He sheds his skin and calls for it destruction. The princess, unknowingly, has saved Hans from “himself”—his bestial side—bringing forth the good side of Hans, which, we would like to believe, is inside all of us, buried beneath our own bestial natures.”

The fairy applauds, then flutters away.

That was fun.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2019 Hans My Hedgehog – Part Three

Hans my hedgehog Antti_Aarne Antti Aarne

ATU 441

The heavy smell of tobacco greets my senses in concert with the cheerful alarm of the bell above Augustus’s shop door. Busy with customers, Augustus motions me with a slight gesture of his finger toward the testing room. I happily comply.

Waiting for me is this week’s tobacco-blend attempt, which he tries out on select customers. I am halfway through a bowl when he enters the room, picking up his own pipe.

“I’m thinking it might be called Rooster Red,’” he says.

“It is red in color,” I affirm.

“That’s the Tennessee Red Leaf in the blend.”

“It leans toward being a cigarette,” I observe.

Augustus sniffs a pinch of it between his fingers. “Maybe too much Virginia.”

“It’s coincidental you came up with Rooster Red for a name. I am contemplating a fairy tale with a rooster in it.”

Little Red Rooster and the Turkish Sultan?” He raises an eyebrow.

“No, Hans My Hedgehog.”

“I should have known you would not stray far from the Grimm canon.”

“Wait, I have,” I protest.

Hans My Hedgehog is considered to be one of the ‘rise tales,’” Augustus goes on after settling into his comfy chair.

“Rise tale?”

“That’s the name given by folklorist Ruth Bottigheimer to the notion of a peasant rising to become a king.”

“Oh, of course, a notion as old as the fairy tale itself.”

“Well,” Augustus hesitates as he draws on his pipe, “not according to Bottigheimer. She suggests Giovanni Straparola in his literary work of fairy tales in the mid-sixteenth century, invented the rise tale, and from there it entered into the tool bag of the common storytellers.”

“What? I am shocked. I thought that bit of wishful thinking, wild and impossible as it is, would spring naturally from the folk.”

“There are numerous folklorists who agree with you and are intellectually outraged that Bottigheimer proposed it. She triggered a controversy that has lasted more than two decades and promises to linger longer.”

“Hmmm,” I ponder, “folklore studies is more than a century old. One would think matters would be settled by now.”

Augustus guffaws and chokes on smoke. “Hardly,” he says upon recovery. “The center of this controversy is whether the folk can create their own motifs, or are they dependent upon literary storytellers for their source material? Do storytellers borrow from writers or do writers borrow from storytellers?  I suspect the answer is ‘yes.’”

“By the way,” he says, “to raise the status of your story, The Types of International Folk Tales classification ATU (that’s authors/scholars Aarne, Thompson, and Uther) 441 bears the moniker ‘Hans My Hedgehog.’

“ATU 441 represents all the variants. Although Grimms’ version is the most famous, there are others. Some have two kings, some have three. Some have a wealthy merchant instead of a king. In some there are three daughters.

“Always, one of the daughters marries the hedgehog, returning him to his human form; sometimes with a kiss, sometimes by whipping him, or simply by cutting off his head.”

“I find it interesting,” I say, “that kissing, whipping, and decapitation are all viable alternatives for transformation. If I were a Hans, I know which one I would choose.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part One

flesh to eat foot2 CC BY

Good Heavens

There are moments of contentment in my life. Thalia slipping from my lap after I read to her—the battered copy of Grimm under one arm and Teddy dangling from the other—is one of those moments. She pads her way to the study door, dragging Teddy behind her, he picking up dust. She turns at the door, gives me a little wave, and disappears down the hall. With a happy sigh, I reach for my glass of port.

There, beside it, is my copy of Modern Greek Folk Tales.

How did that get there?

I know it was not there when I first set my glass down. A quarter of the way through the pages is a bookmark, signaling to me that is where I left off reading the book.

Was that two months ago? Two years ago? Has the book gotten impatient for me to finish it?

I pick it up and open it to the bookmark.

Human Flesh to Eat

An old man, weary from collecting wood, cries out “Oh and alas and woe is me,” which happens to be the name of a little, demonic, man, who serves the Lord of the World Beneath.

Having been evoked, and seeing that the old man did not know what to do, the demon quickly turns the tables and makes a demand of the old man that he bring to him his eldest daughter.

The little man takes the daughter to the world beneath and offers to her a wormy human foot to eat, explaining that if she can eat it, she will marry the Lord of the World Beneath. If not, she will be sent home.

She throws it away when the little man is not looking. When he calls out, “Oh my foot, my little foot, where are you?” the foot answers from the dung heap, and the eldest is sent home.

The identical thing happens to the second sister except that she if offered a wormy hand to eat.

The third and youngest daughter is offered stinking intestines, but she asks for spices to flavor it, suggesting to the little man she intends to eat it. Instead, when he is not looking, she belts it about her waist. When he calls out for the intestines, it answers, “To my lady’s belly.”

Moving on to the next stage of the story, every night the little man drugs her coffee and she never sees her husband. Her sisters get their father to evoke the demon again so that they can visit.

The story describes the sisters as wicked and possessing the knowledge that the little man drugged her coffee and that the Lord of the World Beneath has a key in his navel. When the youngest remains awake and turns the key in her sleeping husband’s navel, she can see the world.

Unfortunately, she cries out to an old woman when she sees that the river is about to snatch away the woolen yarn she is washing. This awakens her husband, who says, “You bitch, turn back the key. You are killing me.”

He sends her away, but not before instructing the little man to cut two hairs from her head, suspend them in a flask of water, and watch them day and night.

The girl goes off and exchanges clothes with a shepherd so that she can pass herself off as a boy. (I am not sure what that says about the shepherd.)

He/she is employed by a king and becomes a favorite. Unfortunately, the queen is attracted to the “lad” and tries to seduce him/her. He/she spurns the queen, who seeks revenge by declaring the “lad” tried to rape her. The king consigns him/her to be hanged.

The two hairs from her head sink to the bottom of the flask and the little man alerts his lord, who rides off to the hanging. He rips open her shirt, revealing her feminine breasts, stating, “If you like I will slit it lower yet.”

The king demurs. The Lord of the World Beneath reclaims his wife and the queen is hanged in her stead.

Good heavens! I think to myself.


Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part Two


Flesh to eat key

The Navel

It is late. It is dark. Yet I am drawn to the Magic Forest. I know better than to go there at night, but night in the Magic Forest is my addiction. It is where unlikely thoughts surface and stare at me, unblinking. These are thoughts I would not consider in my study, but come to me as the moon shines down on this uneasy visitor.

With my usual trepidation, I pass through the French doors, across my lawn, and into the forest’s edge. I will sit by the pond, which is not deep into the woods. A ring of rocks surrounds the pond, affording any number of seats.

As I settle onto a rock, a voice lilts from across the pond. “Who are you? What are you doing at my pond?”

Perched on a stone, on the other side, is a woman, about my age.

“Allow me,” I say, “to ask a similar question. What are you doing in my Magic Forest?”

“Your Magic Forest?” she intones. “This is my magical forest and I am Ultima Flossbottom.” Pride edges her voice.

I consider our dilemma for a few moments. “May I suggest the Magic Forest belongs to neither of us, but rather we belong to it?”

Her demeanor softens. “You may well be right.” She stands and picks her way around the pond to sit on the stone beside me.

I ask her, “Why are you here tonight? I’ll guess you know as well as I, we are not safe here.”

She gives a quick smile of acknowledgement. “I came here to contemplate a story.”

I know the answer before I ask. “Human Flesh to Eat?”

She nods, eyebrows raised.

“I too,” I say. “Where do we start to unpack this tale?”

She sighs. “First, I will ignore the sexist, anti-feminist leanings of the tale, painful though that is to me. That attitude was a given at the time this tale was told. To object and stop there is to miss what the tale tries to say.”

“Still,” I consider, “we should note that although she is clearly a victim of male hegemony, she remains the protagonist of the tale.”

“Agreed,” says Ultima, “I want to leapfrog to the key in the navel. What the hell is that about?”

I stare into the water of the pond. “The key in his navel must define the Lord of the World Beneath. He holds the key to the world, to existence?”

“Yet,” returns Ultima, “when he awakes, he says an unkind word to his wife, demands she turn the key, and accuses her of trying to kill him. The key in his navel is more of a curse to him than an attribute.”

I grasp for straws. “In the Jewish and Christian tradition, Jerusalem is thought to be the navel of the universe, that is to say, the center.”

Ultima, grasping for her own straws, says, “In the Greek tradition there is the stone Omphalos at the temple of Delphi. Its name translated as ‘navel.’ Before coming here I googled ‘navel mythology,’ ‘belly button mythology,’ ‘key in the navel,’ and a few other variations. I came up with nearly nothing. Did you know, historically, there were many more injunctions against women showing their belly buttons than men showing theirs?”

“I am not surprised, but might that be because ours are hairy and not as attractive?”

She snorts and lets my little joke pass.

“I think,” she says, “we have sunk to defining what this image is not.”

I tap my finger on my knee. “I am ready to concede we are looking at an image that operates at the dream level, eluding words to express it.”


Fairy Tale  of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part Three

Flesh to eat Edward Burne-Jones Edward Burne-Jones

Only Inexplicable

“The key in the navel,” Ultima muses, “is not the only inexplicable item. The more I consider the tale, the more I see that it all goes by us unexplained.”

“I don’t think,” I counter, “an unexplained element in a fairy tale is unusual.”

“Yes, but, this tale makes a career out of being unexplained and inexplicable. Let’s start with the test of eating human flesh. What is that all about?”

“I presume it has something to do with the World Beneath really being the world of the dead.”

“We presume,” she says. “It is not explained. And why does the little man call out, ‘My foot, my little foot . . . .’ Is it his foot he wants the girl to eat, or simply a foot from his favorite body-parts collection?”

I chuckle.

“”Let me rant on,” Ultima says. “Why is the younger sister willing to marry the unseen lord? The flesh trial is not a good harbinger of things to come. What if human flesh is the cuisine of the World Beneath? The World Beneath may not be the best neighborhood.

“Then there are the sisters, described in the story as wicked, although they do nothing wicked, but who know more than they ought to about the drugged coffee and the lord’s navel.

“Speaking of the navel, why does turning the key threaten his life?  What is a key for, but to be turned?

“Then he sends her away, but not before having two hairs cut from her head, floated in water, and having the little man stand guard over them day and night, setting up for her return. Why send her away when he really wants her back again?”

I am thinking she ought to be running out of breath, but that is not the case. On she goes.

“Next, she exchanges clothes to disguise herself as a boy. Why doesn’t she go home like her sisters did?”

“She is, perhaps,” I observe, “denying her feminine side.”

“Yes, I agree, but why? What is her motivation?”

“I see your point. By the way, our story really does follow the Cupid and Psyche pattern, although it turns that pattern on its head until it is hardly recognizable. However, this section, when the king’s wife tries to seduce our protagonist, rings of the biblical Joseph’s story.”

Ultima nods. “Biblical stories would be in the storyteller’s tool kit, but listen; I am not done with my rant.”

We already have a laundry list of the unexplained. She is tenacious.

“When,” Ultima drives on, “she is falsely accused and faces her death, it takes her husband to come and rescue her by exposing her femininity. Why couldn’t she have done that herself? What was so important about her secret that she’d rather die than expose it? Unexplained and inexplicable.”

I think she’s done.

“What I hear you saying,” I suggest, “is that the unexplained and inexplicable is uniform throughout the story. That implies the storyteller intended those things. My turn to ask the question ‘why’. Was it perhaps an ancient form of the horror story?”

“Ahh!” Ultima says, but before she can answer, an unnatural sound rips the air. It is made up of an agonized lion’s roar and the slow, creaking surrender of a falling tree, all moved to a higher register. It vibrates through my body.

“Oh,” sighs Ultima, “my dragon calls. I must attend him.” She turns to me, placing her hand on mine. “I hope we meet again, but for now . . . . Well, you know how impatient they are.”

Her dragon!

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part One

Selkies Arthur Rackham Arthur Rackham

Good Meal

I uncork and pour a glass of white wine to go with the Chicken Marbella I serve to a distracted Melissa.

“Do you mind,” I ask, “if I be a tad romantic and light a candle?”

Melissa comes out of her self-absorption and smiles. “Please do.”

“Now,” I say, when things are settled and we pick up our forks, “what is this story that has so disturbed you?”

Melissa takes a bite before she says, “I stayed up too late last night reading Irish Tales of the Fairy and the Ghost Worlds by Jeremiah Curtin, and I came upon Tom Moore and the Seal Woman.”

Tom Moore, a goodly fellow, lived with his parents until they died and he found himself in need of a wife.

One day, while working along the seaside, he spotted a remarkable woman sleeping on a rock. He called to the woman, waking and warning her against the coming tide. She only laughed at him. He kept an eye on her and when the tide looked threatening, he tried to rescue her. She only slipped off into the sea.

After a sleepless night, obsessed by her beauty, he returned to the shore and there she sat upon her rock. Boldly, he snatched her hood. She demanded it back, but he refused, saying, “God sent you to me.”

That very day, after she made breakfast, Tom had them married. She was as good a wife as anyone could want, bearing him five children, three sons and two daughters.

One day Tom was in the loft of the cottage, throwing down bags and bunches of things, looking for some bolts he needed for a repair, forgetting that among the debris was the hood he took from his wife. She saw and snatched it back. From the sea came the bellowing of a seal. She knew it was her brother calling to her.

At the same time some of the village fishermen had killed three seals. Tom’s wife threw herself upon the bodies, crying murder. For her sake the bodies were buried, but during the night some of the fishermen tried to dig them back up, only to find the carcasses had disappeared.

The next day, while Tom was away working, she cleaned the house, washed her children, and kissed them, then put on her hood, returning to the sea.

For generations after that the progeny of her children all had the same peculiar webbing between their fingers and toes, although it diminished over time.

“That’s a delightful story,” I say. “However, we both know there are a hundred variations on it. The mermaid wife, abducted by a mortal, who bears his children, then escapes back to the sea, is pretty universal. What is it about this story that strikes you differently?”

“One,” Melissa takes another bite of the Marbella, “she’s not a mermaid. She‘s a seal. Two, it’s Jeremiah Curtin’s introduction to the tale that caught me.

“He talks about the MacCodrum clan, known as ‘The Race of the Seals,’ who once made their home in the Hebrides, and claimed to be descended from a seal woman. They all had the webbing of the fingers and toes. “

“OK,” I say, “and . . . ?”

Melissa holds up her hand, spreading out her fingers. Low, between them is a very fine webbing of skin I have never noticed before.

“My great, great, grandmother was a MacCodrum, but I didn’t know about the webbing until I read Curtin’s book. I need to talk again with your nixie.”


Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part Two

Selkie Arthur Rackham 2Arthur Rackham

Of Water

I dragged out the popcorn maker even before we finished our meal.

Earlier this morning I woke up feeling unsettled. I put it to Thalia and her mother being away to Brighton for summer vacation, but by noon I knew it was Melissa projecting her anxiety. I hustled down to the bookshop to find it actually busy for once.

Melissa’s eyes widened when she saw me. “I was going to call . . .”

“You did call. I see you have customers. Supper at my place?”

“Yes. Thank you. I close the shop at six.”

I proceeded to market to buy chicken, dates, capers, kale, and some wine.

But now, we pour the popcorn into a bag and head for the Magic Forest. I feel a bit in a rush. We need to finish our business before sunset. After dusk in the Magic Forest? Well, I’ve made that mistake.

I believe the nixie always knows when I am coming. Melissa and I peer over the rim of the high bank that surrounds the nixie pond, where she already floats below us, her pale-greenish body part of the rippling water.

“Melissa,” her reedy voice intones, “you come with my smiling, human friend for a reason, but with a face that is dour.”

“I bring questions and popcorn,” says Melissa, as she starts to throw the nixie a stream of kernels as is our tradition. Deftly, the creature catches each one in her mouth.

“Who are the seal people?” Melissa asks.

“Peoples,” corrects the nixie between catches. “They are, some of them, fallen angels like myself. Others are of the elven race taken to the ocean. Still more are mariners drowned at sea, or condemned souls.

“In Scotland they are called the selkies. In Ireland, the merrow. I think all seals have a bit of human or fallen angel in them. One can tell by the eyes.”

“By the eyes,” Melissa echoes, then says, “What is the seal peoples’ nature?”

“They are changelings.” The nixie’s eyes narrow. “Not as stable as the rest of the fay. They have a foot in both the mundane and the fairy worlds. They cannot, for their very existence, decide which world they prefer.

“Though spending most of their time in the sea, still the land calls to them. At certain times of the moon, or of the year, or even cycles of the years—depending on the tribe—they must shed their seal skins, take their human form, and dance upon the earth.

“Then is their most vulnerable time, especially for the seal women. Mortal men, who wander around more than mortal women, chance upon the seal peoples’ dance. If one of these gadabouts grabs a seal woman’s skin, she belongs to him.

“That is not to say there are not liaisons between mortal women and seal men, but that comes about in a different fashion. The seal men, I will say, tend to be terribly handsome.”

For a while, Melissa and the nixie play the game of throwing and catching popcorn before Melissa asks, “Am I descended from the seal people?”

She holds up her hand with outstretched fingers. “I have the webbing and am related to the MacC . . .”

To my horror, the nixie nimbly skitters up the steep bank toward Melissa until they sit nose to nose. The nixie places her greenish hand under Melissa’s chin, with a searching stare into her eyes.

“Yes,” the nixie replies, then slips back down the bank into the pond, but not before nicking the bag of popcorn. She floats on her back, the bag on her stomach as she gorges herself, giggling.

Melissa has the look of someone struck by lightning.


Fairy Tale  of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part Three

selkie T W Wood TW Wood

Little Wonder

“It’s little wonder that I entered your fairy world so easily.”

Melissa takes the glass of white wine I pour for her. We didn’t have time to finish the bottle during supper.

“The veil is thin,” I say. “Anyone can pass through it. I did. But you, you actually have credentials.”

Melissa laughs. “I am not sure ‘credentials’ is the right word. ‘Blood’ may be closer.”

We sit in my study, the bay windows open to invite in the evening breeze. The last vestige of sunlight fades over the distant outline of the Magic Forest.

“You know,” I say, “you can’t imagine my terror when the nixie actually touched you. I thought the steep bank to be a barrier between our world and hers. I should have known, being in the Magic Forest, we were in her world with no safe space.

Melissa waves that off. “Her touch did not frighten me. Her eyes, looking into the house of my soul, still haunt me. All my secrets and deeply-held fears that I thought lay at the center of my being were cobwebs in the rooms she passed through looking for my unnatural origins.”

“The nixie said she thought every seal had a bit of human or fallen angel in them. Do we, humans, all have a bit of the fay in us?”

“I am going to say ‘no.’” Melissa looks at her empty wine glass. “I am sure there are those humans of ‘pure blood’ that have never been tainted by the fairy world. But they lack imagination. Their sight does not go beyond the corporeal world, to the realm where toads talk and money means nothing.”

I pour us more wine. “I propose a toast to us mutts, and thumb our noses at pure bloods.”

We clink our glasses.

“What of,” I ask, “you, me, and many others, being between two worlds, the worlds of the mundane and the fairy?”

“That is manifest in our dreams. We, humans, all dream. We have to. What we dream reflects who we are. I dream of the sea. Now I know why. I am doomed to be as unstable as the shifting sands.”

“Cannot,” I ask, “our dreams that draw us into the fairy world serve to find our path forward?”

“It is not that simple.” Melissa empties her glass. “In our dreams, the fairy world only gives us evasive hints, which is more than they are required to do. They are being generous to us mortals. It is ours to reason out the hints they give us.

“But then,” Melissa regards her, again, empty glass, “do the fairies know what is best for us, or even care? Do I give them too much credit? Should I allow the fay to be my guide?”

“You sound,” I say, “like the changeling our nixie described, not content to stay in the sea and must dance on the land.”

“Or,” says Melissa, “have danced upon the land too long and crave the sea. The fairy tales mirror our desires. They tell us that peasants can rise to royalty. A simpleton is smarter than his elder brothers. For every young girl there is a prince seeking her.”

Melissa’s eyes drift off toward the ceiling. “But beyond that, the fairy tales whisper secrets into our ears during dreaming, which are hard to remember upon waking. Fairy tales come from a dimension a little beyond our understanding.”

I pour the last of the wine into our glasses.

“Oh, by the way,” she says, “the Chicken Marbella was excellent.”

I am so glad she noticed.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2019 The Fairy Harp – Part One

Fairy harp sirr_harp_wilde_fig159Sirr Harp, Robert Wilde

A Harp

Thalia insisted on bringing Melissa to Megan’s By the Green, a good restaurant, but Thalia had a not-so-good reason in mind.

A good reason, I can cite, is to celebrate Melissa’s birthday.

A good reason, in Thalia’s mind, is that they serve pizza.

A good reason, this being an up-scale restaurant, is that they serve an up-scale pizza.

The up-scale pizza we order, labeled The Veggie One, contains sweet potatoes, rocola, feta, pine nuts, mozzarella and tomato, all on a sourdough crust. We go over the top with toppings, adding mushrooms and red onion.

The not-so-good reason we sit in Megan’s By the Green—and both Melissa and I know this—is Thalia’s desire to see the ceiling.

I am being a little hard on Thalia. The ceiling is a reason to come here. It appears to be alive with dark vines and branches, laden with white roses and interspersed with small fairy lights. Thalia basks in the gentle glow that permeates the room. I am but in mind of Sleeping Beauty’s rose briar-protected castle.

“While we wait for the extraordinary pizza,” Melissa says, pointing to the ceiling, “I have memorized a story for us, in recognition of the fairy lights.”

Delight creases Thalia’s face and I settle back to enjoy.

“It’s called The Fairy Harp.” Melissa pauses a second to collect her thoughts.

Melissa tells us of a company of fairies in the habit of going around from cottage to cottage to judge the welcome given to them. Bad luck followed the cottagers who were not gracious, but good luck followed those who gave the strangers a warm welcome.

Old Morgan ap Rhys sat one night in his chimney-corner all alone, as his wife was out, entertaining himself with his tobacco pipe and some ale, and by singing. His singing was only notable in that a bard had offended Morgan by describing that voice as similar to the yelping of a blind dog that has lost its way.

Thalia giggles at that.

Morgan had reached a crescendo in his song when there came a knocking at the door. Delighted with the prospect of someone to listen to him, he shouted for the visitor to come in.

In came three fairies, disguised as travel-stained weary men asking for a little bit of food, to test Morgan’s treatment of strangers. Morgan points them to his table on which is bread and cheese, entreating them to help themselves and take more for the road. Just as generous, he sings to them for their entertainment.

“What did the fairies think of his singing?” Thalia grins.

“The story does not tell us,” Melissa says. “But if his manners and singing were rough, the fairies appreciated his good intent.”

The fairies, on departing, offered to grant him one wish. Morgan, although he thinks it a joke, declared he’d like a harp that plays merry tunes no matter how he plucks the strings. The fairies disappear and there is the harp.

Morgan is playing the harp when his wife and some friends come home and immediately begin to dance about. It seems anyone who hears the harp is compelled to dance. The news of Morgan’s fairy harp soon spreads about and many come to listen to his music and to dance.

One day, the very bard who had so insulted Morgan came to hear the fairy harp. Morgan reaped his revenge by playing his harp faster and faster until the dancing bard broke both his legs.

“By the next morning,” Melissa ends the tale, “the fairy harp disappeared, never to be seen again.”

Thalia applauds, and on cue our pizza appears.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2019 The Fairy Harp – Part Two

Fairy harp the-wedding-of-kloris-and-roosje-ken-welsh Welsh Wedding

The Pizza

The pizza, for all its odd ingredients, tastes quite good. Thalia revels in her culinary experience, justifying all the scheming to talk us into coming here.

“What attracted you to that story?” I ask Melissa. “I suspect it is from The Welsh Fairy Book, by Thomas.”

“Wow, this is so good,” Melissa addresses the pizza rather than my question.

I munch and wait.

“The fairy harp lies at the center of my attraction to this tale. But, really, it’s not about the harp.”

Her comment stalls here for a bit. I let her indulge in our meal and do not pry.

Eventually she says, “Our relationship with the fair folk is complicated.”

“The fair folk,” I take note. “That term includes more than the fairies, leprechauns, and such.”

“The shee,” nods Melissa, “all those beings from the Tuatha De Danaan to Thalia’s fairy. They populate our dreams, our fears, and our uncertainties at the same time they live in the fairy mounds and sometimes our bedrooms.” Here she points to Thalia. “They are the ‘other’ to whom we will never quite reconcile.”

“You make that sound uncomfortable,” I venture.

“And so it should be. Although the stuff of our dreams, they keep us from falling asleep and never awakening.”

“I don’t follow you,” I say.

“I mean ‘falling asleep’ metaphorically. If the fairies were not here, if they did not troop through the terrain of our subconscious, or on the winds of a stormy night, our species would become complacent, thinking there is nothing to challenge our superiority, and we would slip into unawareness.

This pizza is really good. Its flavor is growing on me.

“The fairy harp represents .  .  . ?” I prod.

Melissa takes another bit and hesitates before answering. Thalia, I know, is not listening to us at all as she reaches for another slice.

“The harp was a gift and a challenge. Because of Morgan’s generosity, the fairies gave him a harp that played of its own, but played such music that no one could refrain from dancing. Morgan had the power to delight and entertain. He seemed content with this until the bard with the sharp tongue appeared again. Morgan used the power of his harp to harm a fellow musician. After that, the harp is gone.

“Morgan’s challenge?” Melissa takes another bit. “To recognize there are rules and understand the rules without being told. Morgan’s failure is our failure. So many times, over and over, no one has told us the rules and we have not asked.”

“The unspoken rules,” I say to myself, looking at Thalia who sits back on her chair, her hand on her stomach.

“This is what I mean by ‘falling asleep.’” Melissa continues. “We accept our gifts but neglect to seek out the rules. Too often we use our gifts for wrong purposes and may lose them, when we should be using those very gifts to explore the rules.”

“Wait,” I say, “you describe what sounds to me like the creative process. Is all my creativity inspired by the fairies giving me challenges?”

“I like that,” Melissa muses. “Maybe, maybe.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2019 The Fairy Harp – Part Three

Fairy harp Fairies at Market

Wait Again

Melissa and I linger in my study over our glasses of malbec. Thalia, soporific from the consumption of too much pizza, slumbers on my lap. I am happy she heard a story earlier this evening. She faded long before I could tell her one.

“Wait, again,” I say, returning to my thoughts of our conversation at Megan’s, “not all the human/fairy encounters involve challenges.”

“Well,” says Melissa, “I can think of The Field of Boliauns where the protagonist gets tricked by a leprechaun, and The Fairy Ointment where the poor midwife loses not only her fairy sight but also the use of her right eye. Then there is Brewery of Eggshells with the stealing of a mother’s baby. These pose a different kind of challenge, but I say a challenge nonetheless.”

“True,” I concede, “but I am thinking of another story from The Welsh Fairy Book, only a few pages from your tale, The Green Isles of the Ocean. I forget where the story takes place, but it is in Wales, of course, and by the sea.

“The market in that town was frequented by the fairies. They would appear before a market vendor, never dicker over price, knowing the price without asking, and, in fact, never saying a word. No one really saw them coming or going. The merchants wondered where they came from, where they lived; at least those merchants with whom the fairies chose to deal. The fairies’ particular favorite was a fellow called Gruffydd, who did much business with them.

“Well, one day Gruffydd stood in the local churchyard. From there he could see islands out to sea he had never seen before. He realized these must be the Green Isles of the Ocean, spoken of by the bards as the home of the fairies. He went down to the shore intending to row across to the islands, but from there he could not see them. Returning to the churchyard, there they were.

“Being a clever man, he dug up a bit of the churchyard sod and by keeping his foot upon it he could navigate himself to the islands. When he arrived, the fairies greeted him warmly and gave him a tour of the islands’ wonders. They loaded him with presents, but made him surrender the sod from the churchyard. He continued to visit them through a secret tunnel they showed him and he remained great friends with the fairies for the rest of his life.”

Melissa sips from her glass, focusing her thoughts. “Not actually a story,” she concludes.

“No, it’s not. More of an anecdote, really, but, as I say, no challenge involved.”

“True, though I think it’s an exception; but your tale brings to my mind an entirely different thought.”

“And that thought is?” I prompt when she fails to go on.

“The fairy tales’ Christian/pagan struggle for the minds of its listeners. Take note: the merchant stood in a churchyard. Being on sacred Christian ground, the glamour that the fairies cast over their isles didn’t affect his eyes, and that piece of sod he surrendered to keep their friendship.

“That, if subtle, shows the power of Christianity over the charms of the fair folk.”

Thalia rustles in my lap to get more comfortable.

“Now that you bring up the Christian/pagan thing,” I say, “when you told us The Fairy Harp, in which the three fairies came to Morgan’s door, the image of the three angles coming to visit Abraham flashed through my thoughts. They too were testing. I wonder if that biblical story lent that image to this tale.”

“Likely,” Melissa looks into the bottom of her wine glass, “and yet, may not the shee be among the fallen angels, bent, as the lord’s angels, upon testing us?”

With that notion in mind, I will carry Thalia off to bed.

Your thoughts?




Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2019 The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality – Part One

Immortality Queen and Prince HJ Ford

Not Sure

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . .

Thalia enters my study carrying Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book for her evening read.

“What’s this? Where’s Grimm?”

“Teddy wanted something different.” Thalia stuffs the bear between us.

She opens the book to its table of contents. With eyes closed, she waves her finger in the air.

At least the story-selection method has not changed.

Her delicate index finger lands on The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality.

A young prince, unhappy with the knowledge he must someday die, sets out to find the Land of Immortality. In his travels he comes across an eagle pulling on the upper branches of a huge tree. The eagle flies down and transforms into a king, who explains that he is condemned to uproot the tree and neither he nor any of his family can die until he does.

The king invites the prince to dine with him and the king’s beautiful daughter orders a meal to be laid out for them. During the feast the prince tells of his quest. The king suggests the prince marry his daughter and live with them. It will take the eagle six hundred years to uproot the tree, time enough for them all. The princess pleads with the prince to stay, but six hundred years is not an eternity.

At parting, the princess gives him a small box. Inside is her picture. When he looks at it he will be borne along over land or through the air. In this way he travels to many places.

One evening the box carries him to the top of a high mountain where a bald-headed laborer fills a basket with dirt and hauls it away. He explains to the prince he is condemned to carry away the mountain basket by basket, and he and his kin cannot die until he does.

Plucking a leaf from a tree, he transforms into a bald-headed king and invites the prince to dinner. This king’s daughter also wants to marry the prince, but her father’s task of eight hundred years is not enough.

At parting, she gives him a golden ring that will instantly take him wherever he wishes to go. He wishes himself to the end of the world.

He finds himself in a city. He does not understand the language spoken there, even though he speaks twenty-seven languages. Fortunately, he spots a man dressed in the style of his own country and learns the city is the capital of the Blue Kingdom, whose king has died and now ruled by his daughter.

He finds the young queen wrapped in a veil of shiny, silver mist. She knows his language, having learned it as a child. She too wishes to marry him, and shows him a room, the floor made up entirely of needles. Neither she nor her family can die until she wears out all the needles sewing; a thousand years.

This too is not enough. She gives him a rod that can become anything he wishes it to be.

Leaving the city, he comes to a broad river that cannot be crossed, being at the the end of the world and surrounding it. There he sees a city floating in the air. He wishes the rod to be a great ladder. However, a many-headed dragon keeps him from entering until the queen of the city allows it. She is the Queen of the Immortals and this is the Land of Immortality.

For a thousand years he lives with her happily until one night he dreams of his parents and wishes to visit them. His queen informs him they have been dead for eight hundred years, but gives him two flasks, one of silver and one of gold. The silver flask he fills with water from a small well in the room, which will bring death to anyone. From another well in the room he fills the gold flask, which will bring life to anyone.

Traveling home, he brings back to life the misty-veiled queen, the bald-headed king, and the eagle king. However, he finds his home covered by a sulfurous lake burning with a blue flame. There he is greeted by death, who has been looking for him for a thousand years. The prince’s three friends rush to his aid and hold back death as the prince slips on the gold ring.

But death is hard to hold and catches up with the prince when he has one foot in the Land of Immortality, but the other still in the mortal world. The Queen of the Immortals allows death to enter her city and bargains with him. She puts her foot under the prince’s foot and flings him up into the air and out of sight. If he comes down in the city, he is hers. If he falls outside the city walls, he is death’s.

The prince comes down at the edge of the city wall but the queen catches him. She then has death thrown out.

Thalia stares into the hearth. I can all but hear the wheels turning in her head.

“Not sure,” she says.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2019 The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality – Part Two

Immortality bald King HJ Ford

Some Fun

“I’m not sure,” says Duckworth, unknowingly agreeing with Thalia after I relate the tale to him.

We row together on the Isis on a glorious, spring day—or is it “the” glorious spring day given our British weather.

“Isn’t our hero a bit of a jerk?” asks Duckworth. “A mortal asking for immortality, simply because he wants it, is presumptuous.”

“Well, yes,” I agree, “but he does achieve it.”

“Only at the largess of the Queen of the Immortals. He does not really do anything to earn immortality.”

“He persists,” I defend.

“You say this story comes from one of Andrew Lang’s books.”

“Yes, but I think his wife translated it out of Ungarishcen Völksmärchen, a collection of Hungarian folktales.”

Duckworth parks his oars and we let ourselves drift on the current.

“Let me get the sequence straight,” he muses, “and ask all the inconvenient questions.”

I brace myself for the logical onslaught, against which fairy tales never do well.

Duckworth taps his finger on his chin. “Let’s take the first two kings, who have a similar pattern. They are condemned to perform near-impossible tasks. Both are transformed, although the second king’s transformation is not as profound as the first king’s, who changes from an eagle into a man, while the second changes from a bald-headed laborer into a bald-headed king.

“In either case, neither they, nor their kindred, can die until the task is completed. To whom among their kindred does this apply? Are second cousins twice removed included?”

“I doubt that,” I say. “The tale is only concerned with the kings’ daughters.”

“And do they age?” Duckworth goes on. “The tasks are to take hundreds of years. Will the kings and their daughters look hundreds of years old?”

“The tale does not say,” I try to answer. “The tales do not tell us what is not important for us to know; very economical.”

Duckworth rattles on. “I do see shades of King Sisyphus rolling his rock up a hill. That is his punishment for his misdeeds. Our two kings say they are condemned to perform their tasks. What was their crime? And what judge assigned the punishment?”

“I sense it was more of an onus put upon them rather than a punishment.”

Our boat drifts aground with a gentle lurch, but Duckworth does not notice. “And what sort of punishment is getting to live longer?”

I sigh.

But then,” Duckworth raises a finger, “the prince gets to the end of the world and the pattern shifts. No more transforming kings. The king is dead. The onerous task belongs to his daughter.

“Technically, the task could not have been assigned to the daughter until after the death of her father, since kindred cannot die while the task is in progress. And what did she do that she gets needled to death over a thousand years?”

I roll my eyes as Duckworth rolls on.

“Well, eventually, with the help of magical gifts—I have no trouble with magical gifts in fairy tales—given to him by the three women, whom he has abandoned—I have trouble with that—he gets to be an immortal.

“What does the cad do? He forgets about everyone else, including his parents, for eight hundred years. His parents’ home is now under a burning, sulfurous lake. Talk about neglect! For being the hero of our tale, he has some inexcusable personality flaws.”

Smiling, I say, “We’d better push off and get ourselves back upstream before we wander too far off course.”

“Oh, alright,” he returns the smile, “but you never really answered my questions.”

Duckworth has had his fun with me and he knows it.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2019 The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality – Part Three

Immortality dragons HJ Ford

I’m Sure

“I’m sure Duckworth meant to get the better of you. His objections spring from his legalistic mind.” Augustus slips his copy of The Crimson Fairy Book back onto the shelf. Augustus houses his fairy-tale collection here in his “testing” room, causing all his book spines to become smoke-stained until the titles can be barely read. But he knows where each of them resides in his bookcase.

I stuff my pipe with his newest blend, Lazarus’s Choice.

Augustus stands by the bookcase, contemplating. “Duckworth was astute, though, to notice the possible King Sisyphus connection.”

“Connection,” I echo. “I think that is a bit of a stretch to connect the two.”

“Maybe not,” he says. “Consider, King Sisyphus is being punished for his many crimes, but chief among them, as far as the gods are concerned, is his hubris to think himself cleverer than they. After offending Zeus one too many times, Zeus sends Hades to collect him with the chains of death. Sisyphus, pretending to be fascinated by the device of the chains, asks Hades to demonstrate them. Hades shows him how they work and is himself captured and shoved into Sisyphus’s closet.

“With Hades out of the way, no one can die. Eventually, Ares manages to release Hades, and Sisyphus is taken to the underworld, where he talks Persephone into letting him return to the upper world to set things right when Sisyphus’s wife does not properly bury him—at his instructions. He gets another reprieve from death.”

“Are you suggesting,” I say through the smoke I am making, “that the story is all about cheating death?”

“In short, yes.” Augustus settles back into his comfy chair. “Every character in the story is eluding death in one way or another with the exception of the hero’s parents, who are put under a lake of sulfur to keep them from being reanimated.

“The Sisyphean tasks have given the eagle/king six hundred extra years, the laborer/king eight hundred years, and the queen of the Blue Kingdom a thousand years. When the prince attempts to visit his parents, in his travels he brings back to life the two kings and the queen, who in turn aid him in avoiding his own death. Note too, he has the water of death with him but does not use it.

“The final insult to death comes when the Queen of the Immortals catches the prince just before he falls outside her walls and into the arms of death.”

“”I’m not sure,” I hear myself say, “about a direct connection to the Sisyphus story, although that is tempting, but I believe you are right about this being a cheating-death story.”

“Please also note,” Augustus pauses to relight his pipe, “that the story moves from treating the prince as the subject of the tale to being the object of the tale; the prize to be won at the end. He is hardly a character when the queen boots him up in the air like a soccer ball; rather comical, really. He could have been a coin toss.”

“Might the story be a parody of something more philosophical?” I suggest.

“Not out of the question,” Augustus nods his head. “Some of the images are oddly specific. A man chipping away at a mountain we’ve seen before. An eagle trying to uproot a tree I have not seen before, but it does not strike me as odd in fairy-tale terms. A magical golden ring we can probably buy used at any fairy antique shop.

“But I am stopped when we come to a small box with a picture in it that causes one to travel through the air. Then there is the room, the floor of which is made up of needles. The rod that transforms into anything may be unique as well. Might they be specifically pointing to something, the nature of which we are ignorant?”

“And where do we put the Blue Kingdom?” I add.

“Oh, at the end of the world, obviously.” Augustus smiles. “But, yes, why ‘blue?’ I have the strong feeling we are missing pieces of the puzzle.”

I’ll puff on that awhile. Lazarus’s Choice might be my new favorite.

Your thoughts?


Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2019 The Dancing Water, The Singing Apple, And The Speaking Bird – Part One

DancingWater batten oneJohn D. Batten

Another Book

I have always thought of the cobblestone street—along with the old-fashioned storefront window and its bold black letters spelling “Serious Books,” and the smaller lettering denoting “Melissa Serious, Proprietor,”—as being perfectly picturesque.

Thalia and I pay the store a visit as part of our Saturday ramble.

“Ah,” says Melissa as we enter the shop. “The very customer I am looking for. I have your next purchase.”

Of course she does.

“And what might that be?”

“What titles do you think of when I say the name of your old friend Joseph Jacobs?”

“Well, English Fairy Tales, More English Fairy Tales, Celtic Fairy Tales, and More Celtic Fairy Tales.”

She hands me the book she holds.

European Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs.

“Really? I somehow missed this one.”

“Published shortly after his death, I believe, it is mostly variants of stories the Grimms collected, although there is one that really stands out for me. The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird.”

“Read!” pipes up Thalia.

Melissa glances around her store, otherwise empty of customers, and settles down on the reading sofa with Thalia at her side.

Once a king, with the peculiar habit of listening at people’s doors to hear what they thought of him, put his ear to the door of three sisters as they sat spinning. The first said, if she could marry the king’s butler, she would give the whole court a drink of water from a glass and have some left over.

The second said, if she could marry the king’s keeper of the wardrobe, she would clothe all the attendants from one piece of cloth and have some left over.

The youngest of the sisters said, if she could marry the king, she would bear him a son with the sun on his forehead and a daughter with the moon on hers.

The next day the king invites them to the castle to prove their claims, which the first two sisters miraculously do and get their husbands. The king marries the youngest under the condition she must bear the promised children or die.

The first two sisters become jealous of their younger sister. When the king goes off to war, and the promised children are born soon after, the sisters bribe the nurse to substitute two puppies. The nurse takes the children out to the wilderness to die and the king sends a message that his queen is to be placed in a treadmill to work until she dies.

Three fairies discover the babes and give them a deer to nurse and raise them, a purse that never empties of money, and a ring that will turn dark if one of them is in trouble.

When grown, the children are told by the fairies and the deer to move into the castle next to the king’s. The two sisters see the boy and girl with the sun and moon on their foreheads and know they are in trouble. They send the nurse to visit the girl to tell her that, if her brother truly loves her, he will get her the Dancing Water.

The lad goes in search of the Dancing Water and comes across a hermit who sends him for instruction to a brother hermit, who refers him to a third hermit. This hermit tell the lad where the castle is in which he can find the Dancing Water and how to enter the castle.

The castle is guarded by four giants, but the lad must not try to get past them if their eyes are closed, but rather when their eyes are open. Beyond them is a door he must not enter if the door is open, but wait until it is closed. Then there will be four lions, and again, their eyes must be open if he is to pass by.

When the lad returns with the Dancing Water (that jumps from bowl to bowl), the sisters send the nurse again to tell the girl of the Singing Apple. The quest for the Singing Apple is identical to that of the Dancing Water. The nurse then tells the girl that all she needs now is the Speaking Bird.

The hermits warn the lad not to talk to the bird, but take one of its feathers, dip it in a nearby jar of water and anoint the statues in the garden. Unfortunately, the bird tells the lad the treadmill will soon claim his mother’s life. To this he exclaims in surprise to the bird and he turns into a stone statue.

His sister sees the ring, given to them by the fairies, turn dark. She disguises herself as a page and sets out to find her brother. She, too, encounters the hermits, who instruct her. She succeeds in reclaiming her brother and anointing the other statues, who return to their human form of princes and barons. Even the lions and giants are released, the hermits return to being the three fairies, and the magic castle dissolves.

The king finally returns from his war to see the boy and girl and begins to suspect they are his children. The bird invites the king to visit them and on a return visit to the king’s castle, the bird tells the king the full story.

The nurse is thrown out the window to her death and the sisters dropped into boiling oil. The king begs forgiveness from his wife and brings her back to the castle. The bird flies off and all live happily ever after.

“Wow,” says Thalia.

“I’ll buy it,” I say.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2019 The Dancing Water, The Singing Apple, And The Speaking Bird – Part Two

dancing-water-two.png John d. Batten

Ramble On

“And where does your Saturday ramble take you today?” Melissa asks, as she rings up my book.

“I am afraid it is still a toss-up; either Battersea Park’s Children’s Zoo or St. Jame’s Park to see the feeding of the pelicans.”

“Oh, bother,” sighs Melissa. You are my only customers all morning and now it’s past noon. If you go to St. Jame’s, I’ll close up shop and go with you.”

“Deal!” says Thalia.

“I will be delighted,” I say.

We head for the eastern end of the lake near Downing Street. Pelicans are gathering like groupies in anticipation of the attendant and his fish.

“What do you make of the eavesdropping king?” Melissa smiles at me.

“I hope that is not one of his better qualities.” I return her smile. “The king does serve as the inciting event, then disappears from the story until he reappears for the conclusion. The body of the story occurs between his appearances.”

Melissa nods in agreement then frowns. “Do the three spinning sisters bring to your mind the Fates?”

“Not for very long. Their destinies move quickly out of their own hands. However, the first two sisters do have the abilities to stretch water and cloth, and the younger to predict a somewhat miraculous birth.”

“Yes, the children,” says Melissa. “The motif of the king going off to war before his wife gives birth and the substitution of the puppies. I have come across it a number of times, as odd as it is. It’s the sun and moon stigmata that I don’t recall seeing before.”

Somewhere in my memory I think I have.

Thalia giggles as the attendant flings fish at the pelicans, which scramble to capture and gobble them down in their bag-like beaks.

“And fairies!” she chimes in. I didn’t think she was listening to us.

“True,” says Melissa, “it is something of a rarity to have fairies in a fairy tale.”

“Their role,” I analyze, “is as magical helpers, be they in fairy form or as hermits.”

“Then we have the quests for the Dancing Water, Singing Apple, and Speaking Bird, part of the repetitive  three,” Melissa observes.

“The three sisters, three fairies, three hermits, three gifts, and their quests,” I enumerate.

“Dancing, singing, and speaking are all communitive,” Melissa reflects, “giving the three gifts a theme of their own.”

When the fish-feeding ends, we wander along the lake toward Buckingham Palace. To Thalia’s delight, one of the pelicans decides to join us, pacing beside me, trying to nibble the end of my umbrella that I carry “just in case.”

“The speaking bird has a special role,” I say.

“Yes,” Melissa fills in, “at first it is a threat. It tricks the lad into speaking, turning him into a statue, just what the two sisters hoped for.”

“But then,” I pick up the thought, “when the girl succeeds in breaking the spell—a spell we didn’t know existed until she broke it—the bird becomes a magical helper.”

“And,” Melissa concludes, “after it tells the king the whole story, it flies away.”

I poke at the pelican to ward it off, but that only encourages him to attack the umbrella even more, eliciting more giggles from Thalia.

Melissa frowns again. “Is our disassembling the tale, helping us to understand it?”

“A little,” I say, “although, disassembling doesn’t sound constructive.”

“Perhaps,” Melissa suggests with a twinkle in her eye, “a visit with Mr. Joseph Jacobs may be in order.”

Ah, today is turning into quite a ramble.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2019 The Dancing Water, The Singing Apple, And The Speaking Bird – Part Three

Dancing Water John D Batten three John D. Batten

More Books

When our pelican became distracted by a brighter-colored umbrella, we quicken our pace and got away. Now we make for the blind alley at the end of which—for us—stands the gate to Miss Cox’s garden.

To our surprise, Mr. Jacobs is already sitting on the bench sampling the scones that Miss Cox has so kindly provided for our afternoon tea.

“We meet again!” he calls out with a smile. Melissa pours some tea for us, while Thalia grabs two scones, slathering one with clotted cream and jam, then dashing off to the pond to feed the other scone to the swans.

“I,” Melissa says, getting to the point after we settle down with our cups of tea, “have questions about the Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird.”

“I think it is the longest title in the book,” Joseph chuckles. “I drew my version from Thomas Crane’s translation of an Italian work, originally a Sicilian fairy tale.

“However, like most fairy tales, it is well-traveled. The earliest written version is by Straparola around 1550. His work records a number of fairy tales for the first time. Our tale he called Ancilotto, King of Provino.

“The tale also appears in the Arabian Nights, the 756th night to be exact, and in the Brothers Grimm.”

“In Grimm?” I exclaim, “Where?”

“They called it The Three Little Birds. The story had changed by the time the Grimms found it. The three sisters are herding cows. The queen’s three children are born one at a time; two boys and a girl. Each time the evil sisters replace it with a dog or a cat. The eldest boy has a star on his forehead.”

That’s where I remember the forehead stigmata from. I read that story eons ago and it’s one of the few I have not read to Thalia.

I look down toward the pond. Thalia and the swans are getting along famously.

“In the Grimm version,” Joseph continues, “the Dancing Water, Singing Apple, and Speaking Bird have morphed. The Singing Apple is gone, the Dancing Water no longer dances and is used to restore their mother to health. The bird is in a cage, but nonetheless sings the story of the children to the king.

“Gone too are the giants, lions, and statues, but a magic wand and a black dog that turns into a prince for the girl to marry, are added; a bit of a muddle in my opinion.”

“I am curious about the sun and moon on the children’s foreheads,” Melissa says, taking a sip of tea.

“Ah, well. . .” Joseph shifts uncomfortably. “That’s my doing.”

Melissa glances at him sharply.

“Let me say,” he defends himself, “we editors are storytellers too. In Crane’s translation, which I followed closely except for this detail, the queen has triplets, two boys with apples in their hands, and a girl with a star on her forehead.

“In my view, the apples in hand served no purpose in the rest of the story, and one brother did nothing but be the second one to get turned into a statue. I dropped the useless brother, and drew from the research I had done for my Indian Fairy Tales, that is fairy tales from India, where the sun and moon markings are a known story element.”

“I thought it a little foreign.” Melissa’s curiosity is satisfied.

Indian Fairy Tales? Did I miss that one too?

I see Melissa writing a note to herself. I know what my next purchase will be.

Your thoughts.