H J Ford
I’ve gone a little lavish on Thalia’s Christmas gift. I ordered all twelve volumes of Andrew Lang’s “coloured” fairy books. I see them stacked on Melissa’s desk behind the counter as I pass through the doorway of Serious Books.
Melissa is deep in the store, shelving books, but waves to me and points at her desk. I grab the top volume, The Pink Fairy Book, and open it to the middle.
Catherine and Her Destiny takes my attention. I wander toward Melissa reading it aloud for her pleasure as she works.
“Long ago there lived a rich merchant. . .”
The story tells of his having three chairs, one of gold, one of silver, and one of diamonds. But these were not as valuable to him as his daughter, Catherine.
One day she sat in her room when her personal destiny, in the form of a beautiful woman carrying a small wheel, marched in asking, “Do you want a happy youth or a happy old age?” Catherine chose old age.
Soon her father finds out his wealth is ruined and dies of grief, leaving Catherine friendless and penniless. She goes to work as a servant and does well until her personal destiny shows up to cause some havoc, which Catherine must flee.
This went on for seven years, after which her destiny stopped visiting her. By then, Catherine worked for a noble lady. One of Catherine’s duties was to daily walk to the top of a mountain carrying loaves of bread, then call out for her lady’s personal destiny to come for the offering.
Eventually, Catherine finds out from her lady’s personal destiny that her own Destiny is buried under seven coverlets. Catherine is taken to visit her Destiny, who gives her a ball of silk, then hides back under the covers.
“That is odd,” says Melissa. “Although there are mornings I’d like to do the same.”
Of what use the ball of silk might be, Catherine does not know until word went out from the king that his tailors needed silk thread of a specific color to finish garments for his wedding. Catherine, dressed in her finest, goes to court with the ball of thread. The king agrees it is worth its weight in gold. But when they put it on the scale not all the king’s gold is sufficient to balance the scale. Not until the king puts his crown on the scale does it balance.
Melissa, at this point, stops her shelving and listens intently.
When asked where she got the miraculous ball of silk, Catherine answers, “From my mistress,” meaning her Destiny. The king declares he will cut off her head if she does not tell the truth, and Catherine tells him the whole story.
An old wisewoman declares that by the sign of the scales, Catherine will die a queen. The king confirms this by sending his bride back to her own country and marries Catherine.
“Now there’s a tale with mixed messages.” Melissa frowns. “At the start she is totally dependent on her father, and his failure leads her to servitude. However, she perseveres and is rescued by marriage to the king, but that is because of her apparent, intrinsic worth.”
“I think you are right,” I say, “but I have no insight.”
Melissa takes the book from my hand and reads the title page. “Andrew Lang.” Melissa has a glint in her eye. “Perhaps we should talk to him.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2017 Catherine and Her Destiny – Part Two
Miss Cox has set out a pot of English Breakfast complete with tea cozy and three cups. For a late November day the sun is pleasantly warm, but then good weather tends to prevail in this special garden.
Melissa wordlessly prefaces the conversation by pouring out the tea for Andrew and me. Andrew Lang had the reputation of being a prominent Scottish journalist, novelist, poet, critic, and folklorist. To a degree, he dabbled in anthropology. A handsome man, white-haired with an imposing dark mustache, he sits erect on the park bench with us, now sipping his cup of tea.
“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.” Melissa turns to Andrew.
“I could not refuse an inquiry from Miss Cox. We are longtime acquaintances. I even wrote the introduction to her book.”
I know he is referring to Marian Roalfe Cox’s morphological study, Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap O Rushes, Abstracted and Tabulated with a Discussion of Medieval Analogues and Notes. Lang’s introduction to the book is one of the oddest I have ever read. He belittles her work, then goes off on a tangent about an argument with a fellow folklorist. I am surprised Miss Cox allowed him in the garden.
“My question,” Melissa says, “concerns the story Catherine and Her Destiny.”
“Ah, yes, from the Pink Fairy Book. I can’t help but find it ironic that after writing articles, poems, novels, and criticisms, I am remembered for the one thing I didn’t write, but rather edited.
“But to answer your question, we drew from Sicilianische Märchen by Laura Gonzenbach as our source for that story along with a few other stories we included in the Pink Fairy Book.”
I note Melissa had not actually asked her question.
“We?” observes Melissa.
“My wife and I. Leonora really has as much to do with the “coloured” fairy books as I. It was she who translated these Sicilian folktales out of the German into English.”
“From Sicilian to German to English,” Melissa echoes. Her concern over this winding path is expressed in her eyes.
Andrew picks up on her worry. “I assure you, my wife is a talented translator and Miss Gonzenbach is known to have faithfully recorded just what she heard.”
“How did she come to collect these stories?” I interject before taking another warm sip of tea.
“She grew up in Sicily. Her father held the post of Swiss Consul, as well as being a merchant. She was well educated, spoke German, French, Italian, and Sicilian. Apparently a talented storyteller herself, others encouraged her to collect the Sicilian tales. At that time, in that tradition, all the storytellers were women, which gave a decidedly different spin to these fairy tales compared to the Grimm canon.”
“Ah,” Melissa raises a forefinger, “that was my ultimate question. I thought I heard a feminist undertone.”
Andrew raises his cup of tea. “Oh, quite. Most of the tales Miss Gonzenbach collected had that quality. She unfortunately died young, at thirty-five, cutting off many productive years, I am sure. Then in 1908 an earthquake in Messina destroyed all her notes. We are left with what got published and no more. Still that does constitute two volumes.”
I proffer my cup to Melissa for a refill.
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2017 Catherine and Her Destiny – Part Three
H J Ford
“My questions about this story,” Andrew continues, “are these: What is the significance of the three chairs at the start of the story? Where does the concept of a ‘personal’ destiny come from? And what do the seven coverlets indicate?”
Melissa pours herself another cup. “Perhaps the teller used the chairs to compare with Catherine, who was the greater treasure to her father.”
“Perhaps,” agrees Andrew. “But the teller could have been more generic about it, say something like, ‘Nothing in his store of treasure could compare with Catherine.’ The chairs are very specific, and I think emblematic, like the small wheel Catherine’s Destiny carried.”
“Which we know,” puts in Melissa, “is the symbol/logo of the Roman goddess Fortuna.”
“Exactly,” returns Andrew. “The wheel appears in the story once to tell us who she is and need not appear again.”
“You suggest,” contemplates Melissa, “the chairs are a symbol that should tell us something about the merchant if we understood the image.”
Andrew nods in agreement as he takes another sip.
“The chairs,” I remark, “could simply be a motif with which we are not familiar. They are not unlike the motif of the three castles, one of gold, one of silver, and one of diamond or crystal, or copper, or bronze, as the case may be.”
Andrew laughs. “Yes, the first two castles are always gold and silver, but the third can’t make up its mind. But no, if the chairs were a motif, they should be better integrated into the storyline. No one ever does sit on them.”
I concede Andrew’s point.
“Personal destinies.” Melissa takes the lead on this question. “We need to remember this story came from illiterate Sicilian women. They may have recognized Destiny by her wheel, knew her function, but not her Roman name, and then conflated her with the traditional fairy godmothers who were personal helpers.”
“A plausible idea.” Andrew sets down his tea cup and Melissa refills it. “We can fall into the trap of pitting the folktale against modern literary expectations, such as logic, while the original tellers were completely free and unaware of such a convention, and should not be held to our standard.”
“The seven coverlets?” I ask. That item caught my attention too.
Andrew sighs, “I have hardly a clue. It does not strike me as potentially emblematic, like the chairs might be and as the wheel of fortune certainly is. If it is a motif, a story element, we should see it in other stories. None come to mind.”
“Seven is a significant number in fairy tales,” I say.
“Yes, of course. Seven Swans, Seven Ravens, Seven Swabians.”
“Traveling in seven-league boots,” I add.
“And Maid Maleen,” says Melissa, “shut in a tower for seven years.”
“Seven years used as a passage of time has proven a favorite,” says Andrew. “Whether there is a connection between the seven years during which Catherine’s Destiny harasses her and the seven coverlets I cannot say. But I note one other tidbit; Catherine’s lady’s Destiny says to Catherine, ‘Know you not your Destiny lies buried under seven coverlets, and can hear nothing?’
“Catherine never calls out to her Destiny. Why does the other Destiny note that Catherine’s can hear nothing? It feels to me like a section lifted from another story that does not quite fit into our story, coverlets and all.”
“One more item,” says Melissa. “The ball of silk?”
“Balls of thread appear in everything from mythologies to fairy tales, usually leading somewhere or back again when unrolled. This one is different, being used to show a woman’s worth balanced against the realm’s gold and the king’s crown.”