It’s three in the morning. Sleep, on gossamer wings, flitters above but will not alight on me. Folk and Fairy Tales of Denmark lies in my lap. I cannot read more.
My eyes fall on a little wooden box cluttering one of my bookshelves. It’s been there long before my wife died. Before my daughter was born? I don’t remember where it came from.
Picking it up, I remember again that I don’t have a key. I shake it. I hear nothing. But is it really empty?
Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment.
My finding out what is in the box will alter what is in the box. There may be something in the box, but if I break it open, nothing will be there, and I will have destroyed the box. I need to get it out of my hands and out of sight before I let the cat out of the bag, to mix a metaphor. Well, it is three in the morning.
I am up the stairs and on the third-floor landing, when I hear, “Ohhh, you have the box.”
I should have known—actually, I do know—not to go to my third floor at night, but I am on a mission. A wizened old man sits on the windowsill at the end of the hall.
“Let me tell you the long story of that box.”
I approach the old man and offer him the item in question. Its brass fittings glow when he takes it into his hands and begins the tale.
A poor farmer, in exchange for his three infant daughters when they turn three years of age, is given a magic box by an old man. This magician explains that the farmer only needs to rap his knuckles on the box for it to give him whatever he wishes. When the farmer does so, a giant appears before him and grants the farmer’s wish for wealth.
He and his family live in great style for three years until the old man collects the three sisters. The mother and father soon die of grief, leaving behind their son, Hans the Daft. Through his inattention and the dishonesty of others, his inheritance is dissipated. He leaves with only an old barley-twist walking stick and a sheepskin coat, but in the pocket of the coat rests the box.
Discovering this boon and the giant/genie, he wishes for a violin, the music of which would make people dance for joy. In this way, Hans always found food, shelter, and good company.
One day, in his travels, he comes to a kingdom where lives a princess of such beauty that Hans falls in love. He takes the position of a shepherd, so that he might chance to gaze upon her every day.
However, as he herds the sheep, he plays his violin, and the sheep dance. The princess, highly amused by this entertainment, promises to marry Hans if he makes the sheep dance for her, a promise she never intended to keep.
The king, finding out her misbehavior, forces her to keep her promise, then banishes the couple from his castle. Hans simply has the giant build another castle, but this does not satisfy the princess. Hans consoles himself by going out hunting every day. During his absence, the princess entertains a young gentleman and they plot against Hans.
The princess pretends to warm up to Hans, to his delight. She wheedles out of him the secret of the box, which he gives into her keeping.
When Hans returns from his hunt the next day, the princess and her lover have purloined the box and transported the castle to be hung by four golden chains over the middle of the Red Sea, leaving Hans to wander aimlessly and homeless.
After many months, Hans blunders into the presence of one of his lost sisters, who takes him to the cave of her bear-husband, an enchanted prince. Hans hears the story that the old man, who had given his father the box, intended to keep the sisters as his wives, but they were discovered by three prince brothers and rescued. In revenge, the old magician cursed the brothers with the animal forms of a bear, an eagle, and a fish.
The brothers give Hans tokens and aid. He recovers his castle and the box and destroys the princess and her lover. Hans returns to his old ways of a daily hunt and for three years forgets about his sisters and his brothers-in-law.
Upon rediscovering the tokens given to him, he calls up the giant to take him to the Waters of Life, where sits the queen/mother of the princes in the form of a hag with a white cat in her lap—the queen’s daughter. By placing the tokens in the hag’s lap, he breaks the curse and all are restored to their human form.
Hans gets to marry the queen’s daughter, and in a last act of grace—and at the giant’s request—he releases the genie from his curse and existence by throwing the box into the flames.
The old man hands the box back to me, and the glow of the brass fittings fades.
Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2022 The Magic Box – Part Two
“But wait,” I say, “how can this be the box if it was burnt up?”
“It is burnt up every time the story is told,” is the reply. “Over and over again. Yes, that very box you hold was destroyed just now when I told you the story.”
I try to wrap my head around that thought, when a voice says, “That’s fine and all, but what is your moral?”
I look down to see Johannes padding up to us. I know he likes to prowl at night, but I didn’t know he followed me up the stairs. A little to my surprise, the fairy rides on the tip of his tail. She flutters up to the box, settling there, setting the brass fittings aglow again.
“Moral?” protests the magician. “I am not a moral being.”
Johannes scoffs, “Although you are of fairy-tale material, you are mortal, unlike the fairy and me. All mortals are intertwined with their morals. While we immortals are immoral, mortals have morals. Only the letter ‘T’ separates one from the other. I ask you again, what is the moral of your story?”
“I don’t know that I have one.” The old man crosses his arms on his chest.
“Well then, let’s find it,” Johannes instructs. “The farmer exchanges wealth for his own flesh and blood. After a short stint of luxury, this exchange proves fatal. Certainly there is a moral here, but the story is far from over.”
The old man nods in agreement, and Johannes continues.
“The moral will revolve around Hans the Daft. He is not a person of promising character. Through his indifference, all is lost to him but for a walking stick, a coat, and the box.
“On the other paw,” Johannes gestures, “his wealth came at the cost of his sisters. Should he feel much attachment to it?”
Again, the old man nods and continues to listen.
“When he finds the box, rather than following his father’s lead, he wishes for something much more modest if a little magical—the violin. In that satisfying little world of music and dance that he created for himself, he may have stayed if he had not fallen into the morass of love at first sight.
“Here, Hans’s daftness reasserted itself. As foolishly as his father wished for wealth, he wished for the princess to be his bride. Like his father, he gets his wish but to no benefit. Even worse than his father, he is cuckolded and goes through an emotional death.”
The old man’s eyebrows rise, as so do mine, as we see Johannes’s direction.
“Hans is reborn when he stumbles upon one of his lost sisters, and a family relationship is reestablished. Not to Hans’s credit, he participates in revenge, causing the death of the princess and her lover, then descends into three years of forgetfulness.
“To his credit, emerging from his doldrums, perhaps necessary for him to incorporate all of his experiences, he acts immediately to end the curse upon his family and release the giant from his bondage.”
“Thank you,’ says the magician. “You have put Hans into a different light than I would have ever allowed myself to think.”
“And now,” says Johannes, “the moral.”
The old man thinks. “Be careful what you wish for?”
“I think we can move beyond the ‘trite but true.’ Let me suggest something more along the lines of, ‘The struggle toward knowing one’s self might be worth the effort.’”
Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2022 The Magic Box – Part Three
Now the fairy pipes up. I love the sound of her voice; it’s that of tinkling bells.
“Oh wise and evil one, how came you by a genie in a box; should not his prison be a lamp?”
The magician sniffs. “Not at all. A genie’s spirit can be captured in almost anything. However, most common are rings and brass vessels. King Solomon, the first to control the jinn—as some call them—used brass vessels with his seal over its mouth. Whatever the item,” the old man gestures to the box, “it’s Solomon’s Seal that retains the spirit.”
I see on the box’s lid glowing brass filigree embedded in the wood in the shape of a pentagram.
“When God created beings with language, he chose first to create the heavenly host, some of whom, after the war in heaven, became the fallen angels. Next came us who he formed out of earth. Last—and not recorded in the Bible, strangely—were the jinn whom he created from fire, a smokeless flame to be specific.
“While the jinn were granted much magical power and long life, they are not as substantial as man, being made of fire and not earth. Therefore, they are more easily imprisoned. It does not take a jail to hold them.
“As for the origin of my genie trapped in a box, I cannot tell you. I come from a great line of magicians and inherited the box. I suspect one of my ancestors had the cleverness to trap a genie. However, my father warned me to never use the power of the box. Whatever the genie would grant would lead to misfortune.
“Oh, I was tempted. Certainly, I would not fall for the tricks of the genie. Instead, I traded it for something else that I wanted, taking the temptation out of my hands and passing it to another’s.
“I see now, the genie played no tricks, rather we were all in the hands of fate that dealt out to us the grace or punishment it felt we deserved by whatever inscrutable scale of justice it held.”
“Answer also,” rings the fairy’s voice, “how chose you the form of your revenge on the princes?”
“I was angry, yet I saw the sisters’ affections were never to be mine. Although I had raised them from the age of three, with a firm hand, I had not counted on the rebelliousness of youth.
“Nonetheless, punishment was in order. I could not bring myself to harm the sisters. Instead, I chose to turn the princes into beasts, one of the earth, one of the air, and one of the water. There are no beasts of fire, except, perhaps, the salamander, but I am doubtful of those claims. Only the jinn are of that nature.
“Nor could my magic be complete. The princes returned to their human form every day for a few hours and there needed to be a way to break the spell. For every magical curse there must be a benefit, that is, a way out of the spell. We magicians can only push the natural order of things so far before it does a pendulum swing back again.
“Ah, speaking of the pendulum swing.” The magician holds up his hand, which becomes transparent as he fades. “The story calls me back again into itself. I enjoyed our conversation. I don’t get out very often.”
With no more to be said, Johannes turns and pads back down the hallway with the fairy again riding on the tip of his tail. They leave me standing alone with the box still in my hands.
Should . . . should I tap on it?