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.
“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
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.”
“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
Philipp Grot Johann
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 I steam it up again for two more hours.”
“And then I invert it onto a plate. It should fall right out of the bowl.”
“And then I pour on the brandy and light it. There is no more beautiful a flame.”
“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.”