I am reading Faithful Johannes to Thalia this evening in honor of her new cat of the same name. She said Johannes followed her home from kindergarten, but I think he “followed” in her arms. I saw her carrying him into the house. Thalia and Teddy are in my lap, of course; Johannes has taken to the window seat overlooking the enchanted forest.
In Faithful Johannes the king, on his deathbed, calls for his faithful servant and puts upon him the onus of counseling the unreliable prince. The king gives Faithful Johannes the castle keys with the injunction not to let the prince into one particular room. In this room is a portrait of the Princess of the Golden Roof. If the prince sees the portrait he will fall in love and no good will likely come of it.
“Oh, oh,” says Thalia. We all see it coming.
After the king dies, Johannes gives the new king a tour of the castle and all its wealth, avoiding the chamber with the portrait. Unfortunately, the new king notices and demands to see what is there. Faithful Johannes tries to dissuade him, but must relent. The king sees the portrait and falls in love as the old king predicted.
“Oh, oh,” says Thalia. Johannes on the window seat blinks. Teddy, stuffed between Thalia and me, stares button-eyed.
The king entreats Faithful Johannes to come up with a plan to win the princess. Disguised as merchants, they sail to her home and trick her into boarding the ship to see their wonderful golden wares. As she marvels at golden merchandise, they cast off, abducting her. The king reveals his identity and his love for her, and she agrees to marry him.
On the return trip Johannes listens to three ravens flying about and learns from them that the king must avoid three traps if he wishes to enjoy his life with his bride. The king must not ride the red horse waiting for him on the shore when they arrive home; he must not wear the wedding clothes laid out for him; and when his queen suddenly falls down and appears to be dead, someone must suck three drops of blood from her right breast. Further, if Johannes speaks of these things he will turn to stone.
Johannes shoots the red horse and burns the wedding clothes, giving no explanation. But it is too much for the king when Johannes sucks the blood from the queen’s breast. Johannes is condemned to death.
Before he is to be hung on the gallows, Johannes redeems himself by telling the king of the ravens’ words and promptly turns to stone. Full of remorse the king keeps the statue in the royal bedroom.
One day, after twin boys have been born to the king, the statue speaks, telling the king he can restore Johannes by rubbing the statue with the blood of the twin boys’ severed heads.
Thalia squirms in my lap as the king kills his sons to restore his faithful servant. Johannes rewards the king’s faithfulness by restoring the boys to life.
“Whew,” says Thalia.
When she and Teddy wander off to bed followed by the four-footed Johannes, I reflect on the tale. Why was the portrait in the room? Who set the three traps? What is the significance of rubbing the statue with blood?
Fairy Tales of the Month: March 2014 Faithful Johannes – Part Two
While I ponder, weak and weary, over many a quaint and the curious volume of forgotten lore, Johannes returns to the study. He jumps up onto the edge of a table and strikes the pose of the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet I have seen in statues. We regard each other for some minutes.
“You can talk, can’t you?” I inquire.
“Of course,” he responds.
“How delightful! What did you think of your namesake’s story?”
“I am indebted to Thalia for recognizing my worth and bringing me up to my proper social standing, leaving behind me the alley. But as to the name she chose to call me, I must object.”
“If I were to change Faithful Johannes into an animal he would be a dog.” He stretches out the word “dooog.” “Not someone after whom I wish to be named.”
“What is Johannes’s failing?”
“His unwarranted faithfulness; neither the old nor the new king shows any reason for him to be faithful other than their ownership of him.
“He’s a working dog too. First the old king gives him the task of minding the unruly new king. The new king burdens him with devising a plan to get the girl, which leads Johannes to saving the new king three times, ending with his temporary demise at the hands of the king.”
“But,” I object, “Johannes’ faithfulness is repaid when the king willingly sacrifices his sons to bring back the servant he wronged.”
“Perhaps. A fairly cheap price to pay. The king could always have another litter.”
Johannes licks the back of his paw and draws it across his face. I continue.
“Consider the story’s context, being told at a time when there existed a large serving class. Everyone understood the master/servant relationship and I doubt many questioned it. To tell a story where the servant bests the master might seem a little seditious.”
“Doesn’t make Faithful Johannes any less a dog. I’ll grant he did have magical powers that the kings did not.”
“Yes, I thought that unusual. Typically it is royalty who occupy the magical corner in the story.”
“And he listened to the advice of creatures.”
“Ah, the ravens. Thalia has an affinity for ravens. They come up in a number of stories in which they provide hidden secrets for the ears of those who need to hear them. I suspect the folk memory of their mystical significance goes back to shamanistic origins. What is your take on the ravens?”
“I’d eat them if I could catch them.”
“I meant their part in the story.”
“Well, besides acting like a dog, Johannes is also an eavesdropper. He overheard the ravens talking; the ravens weren’t talking to him, but rather among themselves.”
“You’re being hard on the poor man. I sensed he was a player in a struggle between unseen forces. A beneficial force led the ravens to him to warn of the traps being set by a malicious force. There is an undercurrent beneath the story’s inexplicable events.
“Take the portrait in the…”
Johannes jumps from the table, landing soft-pawed on the rug, and struts out the study door. Whether he heard the clatter of a dish, bringing to mind the possibility of food, or he felt himself finished with our conversation, I don’t know. Talking to him will be, I surmise, difficult. A raven might be a better conversationalist.
Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2014 Faithful Johannes – Part Three
I amble today in the enchanted forest, my mind wandering further than my legs carry me, though never far from Faithful Johannes. Three questions float about like the smoke from my pipe.
First: Why was the portrait in the room? Why did the old king give over a chamber to house a portrait of a princess he knew might waylay his son? These are obvious, logical questions, not answered in the story, nor should they be answered. They are the wrong questions.
The trick word is “logical.” Fairy tale logic is not the real-world logic of Aristotle, but its own poetic logic. Poetic logic makes the same surreal connections as dreams do until we wake up and the sense of it vanishes.
My questions are better served if I start with the forbidden room, which appears in many stories. The contents of the room take two forms. In one form the room holds a horror beyond endurance, often rotting, severed body parts. Good fare for Halloween.
In the other form we find a portrait, a book, or another item of interest¸ in itself not distressing, but having a profound effect on someone in the story. In our case, finding the portrait in the forbidden room is the inciting incident. The portrait points to the king’s destiny.
The story assumes the girl in the portrait is alive, well, and still looks like her picture. Real-world logic would question the age of this art work. This is not necessary with poetic logic.
I cross the stepping stones of the rivulet that flows quietly through the forest.
My second question: Who set the three traps for the king? Again, the story does not expect us to ask what fiend sent the red horse, laid out the wedding clothes, or caused the queen to collapse.
I want to surmise unseen forces afoot, beneficial and malignant beings using the people in Johannes’s world like pieces on a chessboard. We have kings and a queen, and Johannes could be a pawn. But the story does not beg an explanation.
That Johannes overhears the ravens and just happens to understand animal speech is far too convenient until we put the event in the context of poetic logic.
I sit on a fallen log; tap out, and refill my pipe. Question three: What is the significance of rubbing the statue with blood? The motif appears in a variant cited by the Grimms in their notes to Children’s and Household Tales, beside the version they collected from Dorothea Viehmann. (One must be cautious with the Grimms; they were not above inventing things for the sake of a good story, but this is not one of them.)
I want to think this a remembrance of a violent pagan ritual from far back in the dense mist of time. With a little research I found the mist not so thick. We need go no further back than 1087.
That is the year the pagan temple at Uppsala in Sweden was destroyed. Until then it housed the statues of Thor, Odin, and Freyr, to whom both animal and human sacrifices were made. Specifically, every nine years there were nine days of sacrificing of nine males of nine species. Horses and dogs were among the species and so were men. The bodies hung from the branches of trees near the temple. That sort of thing is not easily forgotten and bound to come up in folklore.
The enchanted forest always brings to me notions that do not come to me in my study. There’s magic for you.