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

Fulham Palace 1902

Another Search

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know that one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa and I have come to the palace courtyard.

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

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

Sorceress – Dorothy Lathrop

Some Reflection

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

“How so?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good grief!

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

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

John Waterhouse

Crystal Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

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

Travel Poster

Halloween Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annoymous

A Deceit

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

“Not a typical Halloween story,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that particularly Welsh?” I ask.

“Might be,” she speculates.

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

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

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

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

I nod in agreement and drain my glass.

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

Edward Calvert

A Stone

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

“This will do,” she murmurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t know her middle name.

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

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

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

Melissa stretches out her glass for a refill before continuing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa yawns ungraciously and continues her ramblings.

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

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

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

Your thoughts.

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

St Dunstan’s in the East 1891

A Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Adorno final de un Capitulo 1652

Two Dragons

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

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

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

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

“Weird,” Thalia concludes.

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

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

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

She knows my mind so well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midsummer Eve, Edward Robert Hughes 1908

Midsummer’s Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rose leaves, rose leaves,

Rose leaves I strew.

He that will love me,

Come after me now.

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

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

She scans down.

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

She scans some more.

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

More scanning.

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

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

Woodcut 1493

A Cup

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

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

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

“Where am I?” I sit up from a bed.

“In my dream.”

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

“I take it you dream in style.”

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

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

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

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

Drat.

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

 “Once upon a time …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” She is losing me.

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

True.

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

I am warming to her notion. She continues.

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

Melissa stares at the ceiling before speaking again.

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

She stops, squints, then speaks again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water of Life (Grimm) Louis Rhead

An Answer

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

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

Melissa smiles at me unhelpfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True,” Melissa sighs.

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

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

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

“I think not.”

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

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

Your thoughts?

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

Arthur Rackham

Two Daughters

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

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

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

Melissa and I rise to greet her.

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

They shake hands and we resettle ourselves on the stones.

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

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

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

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

“Trade for what?” Melissa knits her brow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corleck Head

Talking Heads

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

Ultima looks aghast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa and I are a bit stopped by that.

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

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

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

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

“No, I am not buying it,” I declare.

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

“Could be,” I say.

Ultima snorts.

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

John D Batten

The Answer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hesitate. “Well, no.”

“No?” Ultima folds her arms.

“No evil stepbrothers, only evil stepsisters.”

Am I getting myself into hot water?

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

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

“And evil stepfathers?” Ultima probes.

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

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

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

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

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

Is it a gate?

Is it a door?

What is the way

I am looking for?

Give me a clue.

Show me a sign.

I want a path,

A way that is mine.

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

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

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

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

“Ah, chamomile.”

Your thoughts?

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

Old Russian Pennies

Three Cents

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

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

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

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Icons?” I ask.

“Yes, holy paintings, very traditionally Russian.”

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

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

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

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

“What nameless place?” I inquire.

“Those are the stories’ words.”

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

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

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

Augustus and I puff silently for a while.

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

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

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

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

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

Icon of saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa

Wild Guesses

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

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

“Too bad.” I relight my pipe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t help but give a sigh.

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

Melissa’s Request

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

“Where does she live?”

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

“What sort of dimension?”

“One where they still have dragons.”

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

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

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

“Of course.”

She kisses both of them. I feel myself blushing.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2021 Dreams That Have No Moral – Part One

William Butler Yeats by John Yeats (father)

The Poet

“It is actually warm today,” Melissa says, “at least sitting here in the sun.”

Melissa and I sit, unmasked, in the courtyard of Café Van Gogh with Christ Church looming over us. We are determined to reinstate our Sunday-brunch tradition. Half of the cafés are still closed, but this one suits our purpose well.

The menu is limited; however, the Van Gosh veggie burger interests me. I’ve not tried a beetroot, chickpea, and pumpkin-seed burger before. Melissa contemplates the nut and butternut squash Wellington with parsley pesto.

“When we feel confident to eat indoors again, we must dine on their upper floor with the Starry Night ceiling.”

“Hmmm, if we ever do feel safe again,” I curmudge, then immediately relent. “Or am I talking foolishness?”

“Ah, what else can death be but the beginning of wisdom and power and beauty? And foolishness may be a kind of death.” 

I peer at her in a bit of alarm.

Seeing my reaction, she says, “I’ve been reading Yeats.”

Oh, that explains it. “Ah, his poetry.”

“No, his prose.”

“He wrote prose? I only know him as a poet.”

“Let me tell you one of the Celtic tales he related.”

A king, when his wife did not bear children, was advised to have her eat a specific fish served in a specific way. The cook inadvertently tasted the fish, the queen ate it, the remains were thrown into the yard, and finished off by a mare and a greyhound. Both the cook and the queen had sons, who were identical; the mare had two foals, and the greyhound two pups.

The queen eventually sent the cook’s son away, although the two boys were like brothers. The cook’s son told the prince, if the water in the garden well turned into blood and honey, then harm had come to him. He left, taking one of the mare’s foals and one of the greyhound’s pups with him.

He became a cowherd for a king, but grazed the cows on a giant’s land. The giant confronted him, they battled all day, the lad cut off the giant’s head with the giant’s own sword, and cut the head in half, which the head informed him was a good thing for the lad, otherwise the head would have reattached itself to the giant’s body.

The same thing happened two more times with giants of an increasing number of heads, the lad getting for his booty a suit of invisibility and shoes of great speed, and the cows gave more and more milk every evening. All these achievements the lad kept to himself.

Now, it happened, that every seven years a sea serpent appeared in the kingdom demanding a king’s daughter to devour. The king, however, as stated in the story, had been ‘feeding a bully underground for seven years,’ who was intended to defend the princess. The bully proved unreliable, and it was the lad, unrecognized by the princess, who defended her for three days in a row from the serpent, using the magical devices procured from the giants.

On the third day, the princess secretly got a lock of his hair and one of his shoes before he destroyed the serpent and slipped away.

The princess declared she would marry no one but he who fits the shoe and whose hair matches the lock of hair she took from her defender.”

“A male Cinderella,” I say as our food arrives. “That is unusual.”

“Quite,” she says, digging into her nut and butternut Wellington. Here the story stalls awhile until we sate our appetites.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2021 Dreams That Have No Moral – Part Two

William Butler Yeats Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn 

Poetic Visitor

After a bit, Melissa picks up the story.

Two balls were given to locate the wearer of the shoe, but the lad did not come forward until the king said something derogatory about his cowherd. He got his sword but was dissuaded from killing his soon-to-be father-in-law.

Soon after the wedding, the lad went out hunting with his horse and greyhound, following a deer until they were lost. They came across a witch, the mother of the three giants. With deceit, knowing who he was, she turned the lad, horse, and hound into green stones.

The prince, from the start of the story, saw that the water in the well had turned to blood and honey, and he went off to find his mystical/identical brother. Everyone thought he was the lad, and the prince found his way to his brother’s wife, who thought he was her husband, who had disappeared three days ago.

The next day, the prince, horse, and hound followed the same deer to the witch’s house. This time the witch was defeated, and the prince used her wand to turn the green stones back into man, horse, and hound.

However, a dispute followed when the lad found out that the prince had spent a night with his wife. The prince ended up turning his brother back into a green stone. It took a while, but a sense of guilt caught up with the prince; he restored his brother, and things went on happily after that.

Melissa looks up from her nut and butternut squash, her fork poised in the air. “I would like to meet Yeats. Can that be arranged?”

“If I am not mistaken, you just arranged it. How Miss Cox knows these things, I cannot say, but I am sure we can go directly after our brunch.”

It’s not the twinkling of an eye, but very soon Melissa is lifting the cozy off the teapot set out by Miss Cox and fills two of the three cups sitting on the small, wrought-iron table in front of the bench. Hints of spring fill the garden, the tulips primary among them. Melissa’s eyes drift toward the gate. I do a little research on my cellphone.

Yeats’ place in literary history is that of a bridge between the Romantics and the Modernists. As a youth, he admired Shelley, and as an elder, he was admired by Pound. Yeats also admired Blake, as well as Irish folklore. His achievements included the Noble Prize for Literature in 1923, and he served in the Senate of the Irish Free State.

Outside of his poems, he is best known as a founding member of the Abbey Theatre, for his role in the Irish literary revival, and as a longtime member of the Golden Dawn.

Yeats appears at the gate. He is a stately man, his hair swept back, and with inquisitive eyes.

“Mr. Yeats,” I say, “please let me introduce to you, Melissa Serious.”

He takes her outstretched hand with an almost imperceptible, formal shake and seats himself on the bench with us as Melissa pours his cup of tea.

I think Melissa senses, as I do, there is no need for pleasantries; he’d rather she got to the point.

“On reading Celtic Twilight,” Melissa begins, “I was taken by the chapter Dreams that have no moral.”

Yeats gives a quick smile as Melissa continues.

“What you relate is a fairy tale, or maybe better stated, a wonder tale. It is an admirable one in either case, but I am curious as to why you call it a dream.”

Yeats focuses, not on us, but rather on the teapot, templing his fingers before he speaks.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2021 Dreams That Have No Moral – Part Three

William Butler Yeats Photo by Pirie MacDonald

Tale’s End

“There is an alchemy to folktales and poetry,” Yeats began. “In the same way that we occupy a moment in time but cannot see all of time, we can grasp an aspect of passion without understanding the whole of it. We are lifted up by the wind of emotion, then set down again, not always gently. If we are poets, we try to transmute that passion into words. Passion, itself, is wordless. It comes from a realm beyond our ability to comprehend.

“All of poetry, prose, art, theatre, music, and dance exist in the no-man’s-land between our noisy physical reality and the silent place of passion. Unbidden, passion sweeps down upon us, at least to those sensitive to its presence, leaving us to reimage our experience of the incomprehensible.

“If the wind of emotion transports us and we are not poets or the like, and particularly if we are illiterate, then the transmutation may crystalize in the form of a folktale, drawing from one’s passion, dreams, and imagination. The kernel of the passion’s wisdom, power, and beauty lives in the folktale’s motifs, the tale itself being a mere framework on which to hang these insights.

“Is a folktale a dream? No, but both come from the same source. If a folktale can be a dream, then a dream can be a folktale.”

Melissa frowns for a moment. “You said, ‘particularly if we are illiterate’ that the transmutation takes the form of a folktale. At least in the industrialized countries, there are now fewer illiterates than there were in the nineteenth century. Does that mean there are fewer folk and fairy tales to be created?”

Yeats sighs gently. “New fairy tales since Anderson have been mostly literary, not of the folk, but more to the point, I am not certain a true fairy tale can now be created. Its time has passed with the event of the Great War. In the war’s physical no-man’s-land the notions of romanticism, along with its vocabulary, died. Artists had a different voice after the war. A new, starker vocabulary, along with harsher images, overwrote what had gone before.

“Perhaps we romantics were never in touch with the world’s reality, but then was that not the point? Was romanticism not an alternative to the mundane and the unfair? Did it not hold hope for the future?

“The new vocabulary of the artist is used to inspect and dissect the world in which it exists and not rise above it. I will point to T.S. Elliot, whose writing career started during the Great War, as a prime example.”

“By ‘Great War’ I assume you mean World War I?” I say.

Yeats eyes me with concern. “Your label implies there was a second.”

“There was,” Melissa answers. “Three times worse than the first, catching China, Japan, and North Africa along with the original Allied and Axis powers in its web, consuming 3 percent of the world’s population. We live in dread of a third.”

“Then I suppose the folk and fairy tale will rise no more. They were the product of a more hopeful time. They have not the answers to the questions now asked. That is all the more reason that we should cherish these relics that held in their time what is now becoming mystic knowledge.”

We watch the sun setting over the western end of the garden. The day is cooling, and we say our goodbyes.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2021 What Came of Picking Flowers – Part One

H. J. Ford

Hyde Park

It is good to be out in the open air once more. Duckworth and I settle on a walk in Hyde Park. The weather is a little cool and breezy but with a bright sun.  Our masks keep our noses warm.

“At as Halia en eating?” I think Duckworth says through his double mask. I take a moment to decipher.

What has Thalia been reading.

“Ah, well, last night she read from the Grey Fairy Book to . . . me.” I almost said “us,” but Duckworth does not know about the crowd in my house.

Duckworth and I enter Hyde Park through the Victoria Gate and head for the path along the Serpentine Lake.

“The title was What Came Of Picking Flowers, a Portuguese tale if I recall.”

There were three sisters who disappear, one by one, while picking flowers in a meadow, much to the grief of their mother, who cries for them for years until their younger sibling, a brother, grows up and asks their mother what is the matter. Upon hearing the story, he sets out to find his sisters.

He comes across three brothers quarreling over the ownership of a pair of wishing boots, a key to all locks, and a cap of invisibility.  He agrees to settle their argument but makes off with the magical devices instead.

Wishing the wishing boots to take him to where his eldest sister has gone brings him to the gates of a large castle. Using the key that opens all locks, he gains entrance and finds his sister.

She is married to an enchanted husband who, while in his enchanted form, is King of the Birds. The brother uses the cap of invisibility until the time comes to reveal himself to the husband.

He then goes to find his second sister and her enchanted husband—King of the Fishes—in the same manner.  

Duckworth and I pause in our stroll as one of the park’s notably aggressive squirrels darts in front of us and stands on his haunches; a regular highwayman if he had pistols. Thoughtfully, I’ve brought along some peanuts in my pocket and roll one to him. He grabs it, stuffs it in his mouth, and dashes away.

“Hat a bot a onger otter?” Duckworth asks.

“What angry otter?”

Duckworth lifts his doubled mask a second. “Younger daughter.”

“Oh, well, she is a different matter.”

He finds the youngest daughter locked in a cavern by the monster who had kidnapped her and demands she consent to marry him. For all those years she has resisted, but the monster said he is deathless and can continue asking her forever.

The brother and sister hatch out the plan that she will consent to marry the monster if he will tell her how it is that he is deathless. Thinking she can never achieve the task, he tells her. She will need to carry up an iron chest from the bottom of the sea, capture the dove inside, find the egg it lays, and then smash it on his head, for him to die.

The brother, with the help of the King of the Fishes and the King of the Birds, retrieves the egg. Lulling the monster into laying his head in her lap, the youngest daughter smashes the egg on his skull.

The spell on the two husbands is broken, the youngest sister retains all the monster’s hoarded wealth, and everyone lives happily ever after.

“Ozn’t a ungest et arry?”

“Why on earth should she get hairy?” I ask in return.

Duckworth rolls his eyes.

I don’t think that is what he asked.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2021
What Came of Picking Flowers – Part Two

Arthur Rackham

Charming Tale

“What I find charming about the story,” I tell Duckworth, “is that it is familiar and different at the same time.”

“Ow so?”

“Well, all the usual tropes are there, maidens in distress, enchanted husbands, magical devices stolen from quarreling dupes, the soul hidden in an egg; we’ve heard them all before.”

“Rue.”

“And yet, there are engaging differences from the norm.

“Most original might be the three sisters getting abducted, one after the other, while picking flowers with no one the wiser as to what happened to them.

“The usual trope is that only one sister, if there are sisters at all, gets carried away on the back of a bear—usually in Norway—or on the back of a bull—shades of Europa—or traded to a monster by her father—see Beauty and the Beast. In our tale, all three sisters are carried off; most unusual. “

Duckworth nods, not trying to say anything this time.

“Also, I am not sure I have run across a younger brother going off to find his sisters. It is usually a younger sister going off to find her enchanted brothers, such as in the Six Swans or The Seven Ravens.

“I guess there was bound to be a gender-switch on that theme—as has happened with Cinderella—and here it is.”

“Hat a but a ungest getin arry?”

There he goes again about someone getting hairy.

I pretend not the hear him.

“Charming to me, too, is the hero’s call upon his magical helpers to locate the monster’s iron chest and soul egg. You can expect there to be an eagle and/or a hound that comes to the hero’s aid, but in this tale, it is a whole community of fishes and birds who help him.

“Atypical is the treatment of the soul egg. When the egg is found, the acceptable method is to simple break it, and the monster, or giant, or sorcerer falls down dead in their tracks. In our tale, the youngest must smash the egg on the monster’s head.”

“Arming m ure,” Duckworth agrees. (I think.)

“Unusual, too, is the youngest sister getting all the wealth without a husband in sight.”

Duckworth raises a finger and marks the air.

Oh, that’s what he’s been asking about.

“Yes, that is unusual and out of step with the condition of the other sisters. Fairy–tale structure, if fanciful, is generally symmetrical.

“But here, the whole marriage setup is odd. Although the story does not specify, we are left to assume the monster stole all three sisters, giving the oldest to the King of the Birds, the second to the King of the Fishes, and tried to keep the youngest for himself.

“What were the monster’s motives for supplying wives to the two kings, who were presumably under the monster’s enchantment given that the enchantment ends when the monster dies? And then, after all that villainy, why does the monster hesitate, by waiting for the youngest to consent, before marrying her?

“I might suppose the monster is actually and truly in love with the girl, in a monstrous sort of way. If that is the case, he gets poor return for his affections.”

“Femme fatale,” concludes Duckworth.

I actually understood that. Are the French good at mumbling?

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2021 What Came of Picking Flowers – Part Three

Arthur Rackham

Poor Monster

Thalia sits in her favorite comfy chair, where we always sat when I read to her. I’m sure I can distract her from the homework she stares at.

“Thalia, dear, I’ve been thinking, last night’s story you read to us had that soul-hidden-in-an-egg thing. I am wondering where that comes from. Could you ask the oracle?”

She snaps her math book shut and pulls out her cell phone from her jeans.

“What’s the search word?”

“Hmmm,” I say, “Let’s try ‘soul egg.’”

She enters that.

“Looks like something videogamers are after. I’ll try ‘soul-egg fairy tale.’”

Immediately she frowns at her screen. “Koschei the Deathless.

She scans. “Comes out of Russian folklore.” Silence. “What’s an archetypal?”

“Hmmm, a typical, almost original, of something.”

“Then this Koschei is one of those as a bad guy. And, yeah, his soul is in a needle, inside an egg, inside a duck that no one can catch. It says the origin of the tale is unknown, but comes out of the twelfth century.”

“Indeed? There is something about fairy tales and the twelfth century. Most of the fairy tales can be traced back to a literary source in the twelfth century. Same for Arthurian legends. The printing press comes in around 1450, so that can’t be the cause. Did you know the Chinese invented moveable type and the printing press?”

Thalia is not listening to me but going down a rabbit hole. I shouldn’t have said anything. She’ll never get back to her math book.

“Hey, did you know there is a Fairy Tale eggplant?” She doesn’t look up from her screen.

I wait, knowing she will come up with something soon.

“This looks serious,” she says. “It’s in Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough.”

“That’s it,” I say. “What does Frazer have to say?”

Thalia hands me her phone. “Long.”

I’m in Chapter 66, The External Soul in Folk Tales. Frazer, exhaustive as always, lists out variations on the theme that are from Norse, Hindoo, Cambodian, modern Greek, Transylvanian, German, Irish, Ancient Egyptian, Arabian, Tartarian, Sumatrian, and North American Indian sources. He claims the notion is common to all “primitive” people.

Reading through the examples, I find the monster in What Came of Picking Flowers is no different than his compatriots from other cultures and times. They all, through arrogance and/or love, tell the woman they have waylaid how it is they can be slain. Even the smashing of the egg somewhere on the body of the villain carries through many of the sources.

The soul-egg motif—and there is almost always an egg—tugs at my conscience. While the villain -little bit of tenderness he felt toward the woman, and the woman’s only defense was her power of deceit, not of her purity or honesty.

Thalia’s phone rings and I startle out of my research. She had retreated to her math work, but now she snaps the book closed, a second time, to talk to a friend. I am sure further attempts at the lessons are numbered.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2021 The Black Horse – Part One

John D. Batten

Another Horse

I’ve built up quite a nice fire in the hearth and pulled my comfy chair closer to it. This is the best defense against a February night. Also, against a touch of loneliness. My daughter has taken Thalia off to visit her late husband’s relatives in Glasgow, as she always does in February.  I’d thought she had the sense to skip that trip this year, but not she.

Johannes pads his way over to the window seat and settles down. At the same moment that I hear the brownies rustling in a dark corner, the fairy flutters down, perching on the top edge of the book I am reading, with a pleading look in her eyes.

“Oh!” I say, “The evening read must be falling to me tonight. Well, well.”

As I turn the pages back to the table of contents, I startle the fairy into fluttering up for a moment before alighting down again.

“Your choice,” I suggest to her.

She walks across the open book, studying the entries, then touches one of the lines with her delicate foot.

The Black Horse it is.”

Hmmm, another horse tale.

The fairy rises into the air and allows me to turn to the story before taking up her position on the book’s top edge.

The youngest son of the king gets for his inheritance an old, white, lame horse. He is talked into trading it for a mysterious black horse, with the promise that it will carry him to any place he thinks of. What comes to the prince’s mind is the Realm Underwaves, and he is there by the next morning.

He is no sooner there than the onus of stealing the daughter of the King of the Greeks to be the bride of the prince of that realm is put upon him.

His black horse instructs the prince how to accomplish the task and carries him to Greece in short order. Upon returning with the princess to the Realm Underwaves, our hero discovers the princess will not agree to marry until she has her grandmother’s silver cup used at her family’s weddings.

With the horse’s advice, again, the prince easily steals the cup. The next requirement is the family’s silver ring. This is in no way as easy as stealing the bride or the cup.

The fairy flitters up as I turn the page.

First, they pass over a snow mountain, ice mountain, and mountain of fire. Then the horse has the prince go to a smithy to have enough iron spikes made to be stuck into every bone in the horse’s body. The black horse then dives into a particular lake, the surface of which bursts into flames until the sun rises the next morning. The horse emerges from the lake, collapsing on the shore, with one spike remaining, on the end of which is the silver ring. The prince takes care of the black horse until it recovers.

Returning to the Realm Underwaves, they find the princess now demands a new castle to be built. That, for the black horse, is the easiest of the tasks; done in one night. The princess then has no more objections.

However, when they inspect the new castle, the prince of the realm, who calls himself the Son of Success, points out that there is no well inside the castle. That is soon remedied. But then the princess points out that there is a flaw in the well’s construction. When the prince of the realm leans over the edge of the well to inspect the flaw, the princess pushes him in, declaring she will marry the one who accomplished the tasks.

After three years of happy marriage, the prince remembers the black horse. The black horse is exactly where he left him. The creature teases the prince about his lack of faithfulness, but then lets the prince know that the time has come for the prince to cut off the horse’s head. This takes some persuasion, but when the deed is done, an enchantment is broken, and the horse transforms back into the princess’s brother, and they all go off to Greece for a second wedding. 

The fairy looks at me with a perplexed expression.

“Well, this is a Celtic story,” I answer.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2021 The Black Horse – Part Two

John D Batten

More Horses

Finishing my morning coffee, I see the day stretching out before me, with no one in the house. As I carry my empty cup toward the kitchen, my eyes fall upon the hallway closet. Time to reorganize it.

Opening the closet door, I spot problematic item number one; a three-foot-tall, gaudy, golden, useless bowling trophy. Two and a half feet of its three-foot height is the figure of a man, rather featureless, one leg forward, one arm back, swinging a golden orb clutched with three fingers. I don’t bowl. No one in my family bowls. I only know it has dominated this hallway closet for at least two decades. Where did it come from?

But can I throw out a trophy? It was, once, someone’s momentary pride and joy. Can I dishonor that? But, I can relegate it to my third floor. Up the stairs I go, toting this thing half my size.

While lugging my load down the third-floor corridor, I see that the mysterious extra door is back again. It’s not always there. It comes and goes.

What is behind it this time?

Opening the door, I squint at the broad daylight. As my eyes adjust, I make out trees and a wide, forest path at my feet. Ridiculous of course, I’m on the third floor of my house. A black horse carrying two riders flashes past me, leaving me cringing in the doorway. I did catch a glimpse of a handsome young man and a lovely lady seated before him.

“Was that…?“

“It is whatever you imagined it was,” cackles a voice from above me. I step out into the road and turn around. My door is in a stone wall on top of which sits a dwarf with long, dangling legs.

“Rink Rank, is that you? What are you doing on my third floor?”

“Third floor? Nay. You’re in Tír fo Thuinn.”

“Then that must have been…”

“Of course it was. It’s your imagination.”

“Then I’ve laid eyes on a talking horse!” I exclaim.

“Don’t they all?” Rink Rank wrinkles his brow.

“Not unless you’re Mister Ed.”

“Who?”

“It’s an old sit-com, never mind.”

“A what?”

“Please forget I said anything. But, look, if that was the prince and the daughter of the King of Greece then this story is just starting.”

Rink Rank slaps his forehead. “You dolt. The story happens every time it is told, over and over.”

I ignore the insult. “You suggest that all horses talk?”

“If you—the collective you—wants them to, they are more than willing to oblige.  Who’s your friend there?”

“Who?” Rink Rank is staring at the golden man on his little pedestal, which I still clutch. The golden ball has grown large, and the golden man is holding it on his back, bent over by the weight. I set it on the ground.

I force my mind to return to the subject of horses. “Let me inventory for a moment. There is the talking black horse, who we just saw, another talking black horse belonging to the King of the Waterfalls, then there’s the Magician’s Horse, also black. Was the Goose Girl’s Falada black? His severed head talked.”

“Ah, Falada. Poor fellow,” comments Rink Rank, not answering my question.

“Are they related in any way to the kelpies?”

“Oh, don’t think that!” Old Rink Rank is appalled. “Kelpies lure little children into the water and eat them. Kelpies are changlings too, often look like horses, but changlings nonetheless. Our talking horses are noble creatures always.”

Glancing at my bowling trophy, it now appears to be a frog swimming to a surface with a golden ball in its mouth.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2021 The Black Horse – Part Three

John D. Batten

Plus Foals

“Well, kelpies or not,” I continue, “this black horse, of our story in progress, will jump into a lake and be underwater until dawn. That suggests something of the kelpie to me. And what about the iron points and the lake bursting into flames? What is that all about?”

“What? You expect me to answer that?” Rink Rank raises an eyebrow. “It’s not me who’s imagining it.”

Of course, I didn’t expect him to answer my question.

My bowling trophy has morphed into what looks like a Greek goddess. Instead of a ball, she holds a golden apple in her hand.

“And what of the Greek princess? Why Greece?” I persist.

Surprisingly, he answers. “No place so interesting as a land far, far away.”

Greece would be a land far away for the old Celts.

Rink Rank relents a little more. “Getting back to your horses, do you know of Dapplegrim?”

“No, I don’t,” I say.

“Maybe a cousin to your black horse, though he is a dapple as his name says. Like the black and his prince, the dapple and his master are questing to fulfill the demands of a wedding. The dapple must find a horse the equal of himself for the bride to ride on at the wedding day. Among other hardships, the dapple must battle with a horse, which, in every way, is identical to himself.

To do this, he instructs his master to cover him in ox hides studded with iron spikes, and, also, cover the field of battle with tar.  Dapplegrim knows that the fiery breath of the other will set the field ablaze, a blaze in which he and the other will kick and bite. But Dapplegrim’s got the protection of the studded ox hides.”

“So, the other dapple can breathe fire,” I comment. “The magician’s roan horse also breathed fire. Also, the magician was magically sustained by fire, and in the end, he and the roan drowned in a river created from a riding whip. There must be a connection among these three stories. “

I notice the trophy is now a golden bird with an apple in its mouth.

“Oh,” says Rink Rank, “and then there’s the seven foals.”

“Seven?” I say. “Now we are getting into a herd.”

“A fellow named Cinderlad leaves his place by the hearth and goes off to attempt at what his brothers failed. They returned home with flesh stripped from their backs and salt rubbed into their wounds.

“What the brothers failed at was to herd the king’s seven foals and then tell the king what the foals eat that day. The reward was to marry the princess and get half the kingdom. The punishment is what the brothers got.

“Cinderlad is good to the task of chasing after the foals and doesn’t get waylaid by an old crone like his brothers did. After they pass the crone, the youngest horse tells him to ride on his back and often asks Cinderlad what he sees up ahead.

“They come to a white birch tree, inside of which is a rusty sword. On they go, crossing a river, and get to a church. In the church, the foals turn into men, receive communion, then turn back into foals, and race home the way they came.

“Now Cinderlad can tell the king that the foals had bread and wine to eat and gets to marry the princess. During the wedding feast, Cinderlad goes to the stable and, as instructed by the youngest horse, cuts off all their heads with the rusty sword. They’re restored to their human form as the seven sons of the king.

“The end,” Rink Rank smiles.

“There are,” I can’t help but say, “a plentiful number of severed horse heads in these tales. I see, too, if there is a severed horse head, there is also a marriage to a princess.”

“Fire and/or water is in the mix, too,” Rink Rank winks.

The trophy’s golden apple is now a sun beating down on a little man wrapped in a heavy coat.

I think I will leave the trophy here in Tír fo Thuinn. It’s having much more fun than it ever did in my hallway closet.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2020 Hans’ Fortune – Part One

Public Domain Illustration

Some Fortune

We are gathering in the study for our Christmas Eve reading by Thalia. By gathering I mean, of course, the fairy, Johannes, the brownies, and myself. My cell is on speaker so that Melissa may listen in.

Thalia waits while I tend to the logs in the fireplace, the fairy perches on her shoulder, Johannes curls up on the window seat, the brownies settle into a dark corner, and Melissa is virtually propped up by some books on the study table. I settle into my comfy chair, noticing the book in Thalia’s hand, Folk and Fairy Tales of Denmark, Vol. 2. Thalia really has begun to explore the fairy-tale canon beyond Grimm.

“Tonight,” she says, “I will read to you Hans’ Fortune.”

I am a bit surprised. I know the tale and I don’t see anything Christmas-like about it.

Hans, a young man thought by others as simple, overhears a conversation about seizing one’s fortune with both hands.  He contemplates this and soon declares to his parents that he will go off to seek his fortune.

He wanders aimlessly until one day a coach, carrying the local squire, passes by him and Hans lunges with both hands outstretched but fails to grasp anything, landing upon the ground scratched and bruised.

Curious, the squire tells his driver to turn around. Hans explains that he perceived the squire, coach, driver, and horses as the type of fortune he sought and tried to seize his fortune with both hands.  In turn, somewhat inexplicably, the squire invites Hans into his employment. Besides tending to the squire’s cow herd, Hans was to accompany the squire on his trips to town and market.

During these trips, Hans proves to be talkative, and the squire learns from him many things of which he had not been aware. The squire surmises that Hans, though he appeared simple, was more clever and observant than he let on, was forthright with his opinions, and above all honest; a man to be trusted.

One day, at market, the squire proposes a little contest. He would select six horses to purchase and Hans would select another six and they would see, in the end, who made the better picks. The squire picks six fine-looking horses and Hans picks six underweight, ill-tended horses, but at a third of the price. After six months, the horses Hans had chosen—and due to tender care—are more valuable than the six the squire selected.

And so it went with every decision on the squire’s estate; Hans’ opinion was requested, followed, and turned out for the best. He rose in the squire’s esteem.

When the squire turns his thoughts toward marriage, he has in mind the two daughters of the church warden but doesn’t know which to marry. On one of his courting visits, he takes Hans with him to render an opinion. Hans feels neither would be a suitable wife for the squire, but rather the warden’s kitchen maid would be best. The squire resists the idea at first but could not get Hans’ advice out of his mind.

The squire proposes to the kitchen maid and leaves Hans to invite the guests. Hans invites the king and queen. To the squire’s surprise, the queen makes a great fuss over the bride, giving her a royal wedding gown in which to be married. The queen continues with her attention to the bride during the wedding feast until the king takes her aside. The queen confesses that, because the king had once ruled an unfaithful woman was to be punished by having one of her twin children killed, when the queen gave birth to twin daughters, she had one of them hidden away. That daughter is the kitchen maid.

The king immediately rescinds any implication of his ruling and the truth comes out, right there at the wedding feast. The newly acquired son-in-law and the newly discovered daughter are elevated to the level of duke and duchess and granted a dukedom.

Hans is given the old estate and marries one of the church warden’s daughters.

“Hans,” Thalia concludes, “had found his fortune.”

A muffled applause comes from the shadowy corner. Dimly, I can see the brownies are ecstatic about this story. Thalia smiles at them gently.

I must confess, Thalia knows her audience.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2020 Hans’ Fortune – Part Two

Arthur Rackham

About Brownies

I’d not heard the term “video chat” before Melissa suggested it, but I realized what it was when she said it. Over the phone, she talks me through downloading the software—an app, she calls it—and I wait for her to “invite” me.

After a couple of messages and buttons to click there is Melissa on my screen.

“Good Lord,” I say, “where are you? There’s a palm tree and an ocean behind you!”

“I can’t hear you. Turn on your mic.”

“I don’t have a microphone.” I can see myself on the screen as well and how confused I look.

“My dear,” says Melissa, “you are such a Luddite. Click on the icon—the little picture of a microphone with a line through it in the lower-left corner.”

“Oh, there it is. Got it. Where are you?”

“Oh, I wish,” grins Melissa. “It’s just my background. I am not that fortunate to really be there.”

“We both could use a bit of Hans’ luck.”

“Thalia read very well. I believe I heard the brownie react to her.”

“I am sure,” I say, “she read the story with them in mind.”

“There was something brownie-like about Hans.”

“How’s that?”

“He never asks for anything, is always there to do the squire’s bidding, does not promote himself, and carries the aura of prosperity for the household or, in this case, the entire estate.”

“True,” I say, “that may be why my brownies were attracted to Hans and saw themselves in his story. However, I have read that brownies can be tricksters, even turn into boggarts.”

“Only if you offend them,” Melissa frowns. “I assume you treat them well.”

“Ever since I realized my floors and counters were spotlessly clean and it wasn’t me doing it, I have given them a bowl of milk in the kitchen every evening.”

“Wait,” says Melissa, her image stuttering a bit, “shouldn’t the traditional bowl of milk be set by the hearth?”

“I put it by the hot-air duct in the corner of the kitchen. That seems to suffice.”

“A modern adaptation, I guess,” she says. “By the way, why do you have more than one brownie? They are almost always solitary beings, one per household.”

“The exception proves the rule, I will suppose. They appear to me to be a family of four, but I am not sure of the number because they are shy and reclusive. I rarely see them outside of Thalia’s study readings. I have read they can be invisible if they wish.”

“And don’t give them any clothing,” Melissa warns while her image freezes.

“Quite right. Poorly dressed though they are, new clothes are a thing with them and they see it as an offense. Sounds a little like the Grimms’ Elves and the Shoemaker.”

“I think Wilhelm was conflating elves and brownies,” Melissa smiles.

“I am sure of it. I remember hashing this out years ago when Thalia and I first read the Grimm version.”

 “But getting back to Hans,” she says, “and his brownie-like behavior; why does he appeal to us in this story?”

“Well,” I speculate, “it ends happily. That is one point in its favor, but let me suggest the tale has a purpose in having Hans (and we can apply this to brownies) serve as a role model of what a servant should be and how a servant (or brownie) should be treated.”

“Ah,” there is agreement in Melissa’s voice, “an object lesson. The squire does treat Hans well and Hans rewards him. In the end, Hans is rewarded for being an exemplary servant. But wait again, isn’t that an unrealistic goal for the serving class to be aspiring toward?”

“Melissa,” I admonish, “you are being coldly analytical, moving toward political correctness. We’re talking about fairy tales. They are all about unreasonable expectations. They are the stuff of our wildest daydreams coming at us from outside ourselves. That is their appeal.”

“Oh, of course,” Melissa smirks. “Forgive my lapse into truth and reality.”

“Forgiven.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2020 Hans’ Fortune – Part Three

Commemorative Stamp

Feudal Fortune

Melissa and I take a little break to go find wine for ourselves. When we return, she proposes a toast to the Christmas season. We hold up our glasses to the computer screen. There is not the crystalline-clear clink of glass against glass to greet our salute. I miss that, but I am getting fonder of this video thing as a substitute for life.

“Now,” says Melissa, “about this wandering-off stuff to seek one’s fortune.”

“What about it?” I respond rhetorically. “They did that all the time.”

“Yes, they did that all the time in fairy tales, but did they, in fact?”

“Why shouldn’t they have?”

“Because they were serfs.”

“Oh, you’re right, the peasants anyway.”

“This thought occurred to me one night recently and it didn’t let me go back to sleep.”

“You’re sounding like the agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac who stayed up all night wondering if there really was a Dog.”

“Behave!” Melissa scolds but tries to hide her smile behind a sip of wine. “Seriously, my impression is that these fairy tales, in the form they have come down to us, developed around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, pretty much at the height of the feudal system.”

“Remind me about that institution.”

“It really wasn’t an organized system, but rather a similar response throughout the Western world after the fall of the Roman Empire when existing rule decentralized.

“A lord gave land to a vassal in return for his military aid, along with a promise from the lord to protect the vassal. The lords and vassals made up the nobility. The second tier of society was the clergy, some of whom had land granted to them to support abbeys and monasteries. The third tier was the peasants whose obliged labor supported the first two tiers. A small percentage of them were freemen, but most lived in some form of servitude.

“I think townspeople make up another tier, but historians never describe them that way.”

“Perhaps they fall under freemen,” I suggest.

“In any case,” she continues, “most people, particularly the listeners of these tales, were tied to the manor where they lived. If the manor passed into new ownership, the peasants’ obligations passed to the new lord. If a girl wished to marry someone outside of the manor, she had to pay the lord a fee for her release. If a freeman gave up his status and pledged himself to the lord of the manor, he pledged his progeny into servitude as well. Those who tilled the soil for the lord were his chattel. They didn’t pick up and go wandering off to seek their fortunes.”

I drink half my glass while she pontificates. “But didn’t this setup fall apart by the time of the Grimms’ writing?”

“Largely but not entirely. Interestingly, an element in its demise was due to the Black Plague that swept Europe in the fourteenth century, killing a third of the population, leaving the surviving laborers with greater bargaining power.

“Contrarily, serfdom didn’t end in Russia until a decree in 1861, well after the Grimms’ publications.”

I take another sip. “You’ve got me thinking now. We really don’t hear echoes of the feudal system in the tales. I don’t recall the phrase, ‘There once was a poor serf.’ There are plenty of poor people; lots of kings, queens, princes, and princesses; many witches, henwives, and sorcerers; occasionally judges and lawyers, but no one called a serf. The closest word is ‘servant’ but that does not carry with it the connotation of thralldom.

“I think you are right. Sons wandering off, leaving their parents behind to fend for themselves really does not ring true to beings tied to the land by birth.”

“Ha! Gotcha,” Melissa smiles again.

“How so?”

“The answer is that, for young men at least, this motif was their wildest daydreams coming back at them from outside themselves.”

“Ah, escapism,” I say.

“Let’s drink to it. We could use some of that ourselves.”

Melissa’s image freezes again as we raise our glasses. I think I hear the clink this time.

Your thoughts?