Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2022 The Seven Ravens – Part One

The Smokiest

Our tobacco smoke has rendered Augustus a dim outline of a person sitting in a comfy chair. I know in his hands is Jack Zipes’ The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, through which he pages briskly.

“Well, I know the story The Seven Ravens is in here.” He turns to the table of contents. “Ahh, The Three Ravens. In the Grimms’ first version, the story is different. The Grimms did that you know,” Augustus says, looking up, then returns his eyes to the book.

“If I remember,” he continues, “in The Seven Ravens, the father curses his seven sons, who failed to return home with baptismal water for the infant daughter, turning them into ravens. In this earlier version, there are three brothers playing cards on Sunday and they are cursed by their mother for their lack of morality.”

He peruses the pages. “That appears to be the major change between the two versions. I wonder why the Grimms—probably Wilhelm—felt the need to make this alteration.”

Augustus relates the tale.

The sister of the raven brothers decides to go find and rescue them. She takes little with her other than a stool to rest upon, traveling to the end of the world. She flees from the sun and the moon, both known to eat little children. She finds the stars—each sitting on its own little stool—to be friendly.

The Evening Star gives her a chicken drumstick bone (in The Three Ravens it’s a little gammy leg) telling her she will need it to open the locked door to the Glass Mountain where her raven brothers now live.

Although she wrapped the bone in a cloth, when she gets to the doorway to the Glass Mountain the bone has vanished. Each of the two versions declare she lost the bone. Taking a knife, she cuts off her little finger, using it as the key to unlock the door.

She is greeted by a dwarf, who tells her the raven lords have not yet returned home for the day. Places are set at a table for the ravens’ meal. She eats a little from each plate and sips a little from each mug, dropping a ring that she knows the brothers will recognize into the mug of the youngest brother.

When the ravens arrive, they declare someone has eaten from their plates and drunk from their mugs. When the youngest finds the ring, the sister reveals herself, the brothers are restored to their human shape, and all return home.

“Hmmm,” I say, “that last bit sounds like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In this case, the three ravens from the first version.”

“That is tempting, but I will discredit your notion immediately.”

I hear a smile in his voice, though I can’t really see his expression through the haze.

He continues. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears is pretty much an early nineteenth century invention, credited to the poet Robert Southey. However, his version has a nasty, dirty old woman invade the cottage of three ‘bachelor’ bears of different sizes. Another version, by Eleanor Mure, improved upon the punishment of the little old woman by having her impaled upon the steeple of St Paul’s Cathedral.

A decade or so later, Joseph Cundall did his version of the tale, only he changed the old woman into a young girl named Silverhair. After that, multiple authors played with the tale until a consensus was reached.

“There are similar stories that might be older than Goldilocks, such as Scrapefoot, about a fox intruding into the home of three bears.

“I’ll suggest Goldilocks and the ravens drew upon earlier sources, not the ravens drawing on Goldilocks.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2022 The Seven Ravens – Part Two

Dense Smoke

I take a moment to tamp and relight my pipe, sending out a great plume of smoke.

“Well then, the next image to strike me is the sister, traveling to find her brothers, carrying a stool.”

“Yes,” Augustus hesitates. “That is an odd detail, but the fairy tales are filled with such things.”

“I note,” pursuing my point,” the stars are all sitting on stools.”

“True,” says Augustus. “And the significance you put upon that?”

“It does put her in the company of the stars. I am thinking back to The Twelve Brothers and the sister born with a star on her forehead.”

“Ahh, yes,” Augustus puffs harder on his pipe in concentration. “Let’s consider the through-line of stars in fairy tales. I’m not going to call the stars a motif but a reoccurring element.”

“What comes to my mind,” I say, “is the fairy-tale bride looking for her lost husband, going to the celestial bodies, who can’t answer her question, but give her useful gifts.”

“Yes, however,” Augustus puffs harder, “the celestial bodies in this tale are chancier. Only the stars are helpful.”

“The Evening Star,” I say, “gives her a bone for a key.”

“Which she loses,” Augustus finishes.

“That bothers me,” I return. “Both stories—the three and the seven ravens—are a little accusatory. She carefully wrapped it in a cloth, but still it vanishes. Might there be another force at play?”

Augustus considers a moment. “None but the story itself that requires her to make a sacrifice of some sort. The hero or heroine giving up some of their flesh is a common enough thing.

“But,” Augustus raises a finger, “back to the stars. We have characters with stars on their foreheads, stars as magical helpers, and also heroes and heroines who turn into stars. I am thinking of the Greek story The Little Boy and His Elder Sister, where the protagonists escape their fate by becoming the Star of Dawn and the Pleiad.”

Relighting my pipe again, I question, “Are the three items really related, other than having to do with stars? I want to think so, but the first is a token, the second a helper, and the third a transformation. Can they be said to reflect on each other?”

I realize Augustus is not listening to me. “Asters,” he says, leaving the room again and shortly returning with a few more volumes, the titles of which I cannot read through our dense tobacco smoke.

“In The Six Swans, the heroine must sew six shirts out of aster flowers. The word ‘aster’ in Greek means ‘star.’”

“In that case,” I speculate, “we might be able to make connections among brothers, sisters, birds and stars outside of these stories. Are there any bird constellations with mythic connections?”

“My thoughts exactly.” Augustus picks up another book. After a bit he says, “Well, here is the Raven Constellation. Actually, the Corvus Constellation. The raven was Apollo’s bird, whom he set to watch over one of his lovers. The raven watched as she fell in love with someone else and said nothing to Apollo until it was too late. Apollo’s cursing scorched the raven’s feathers forever.”

“Not,” I suggest, “the origin of our tale.”

Augustus searches on.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2022 The Seven Ravens – Part Three

Holy Smokes

“Next up in our constellation search is the Swan or Cygnus. It appears we have a selection of myths relating to this group of stars. Notable is Zeus coming to Leda in the form of a swan in order to seduce her.”

“Does not sound promising,” I say.

“Well, Leda does have two sets of twins, one set by Zeus, which is Pollux and Helen (as in Helen of Troy), and Castor and Clytemnestra by her mortal husband. Castor and Pollux become great friends, but if I recall my Iliad this dysfunctional family has more to do with murder than sibling support.”

“What are our other choices?” I realize my pipe has gone out again as Augustus scans the tome in his hands.

“Well, there are associations with Orpheus; Cycnus, son of Poseidon; and Cycnus, son of Ares. More prominent is the story of the friendship between the immortal Cycnus and the mortal Phaeton. In a race across the sky, they come too close to the sun and Phaeton perishes, falling into the river Eridanus. Cycnus asks Zeus to turn him into a swan—a mortal creature—so that he can dive into the river to retrieve his friend’s body for burial.”

“No sister retrieving her brothers?” I ask the wall of smoke. I cannot see Augustus anymore.

“No,” comes a disembodied voice from the gloom. “I recall Electra, who sacrifices to give her brother a decent burial, but that is not the same as a sister seeking her brothers. I think our search for a mythic origin has failed.”

“We haven’t addressed the Glass Mountain,” I say. “Is there a hint there?”

“Of the three stories we are considering, the ‘Six,’ the ‘Twelve,’ and the ‘Seven,’ only the last one has the Glass Mountain. In the ‘Six,’ the brothers live in a house of thieves; in the “Twelve,’ an enchanted cottage.”

I knit my brow. “These three stories have a sister searching for her brothers and end the same with the brothers being restored after becoming birds, but the details beyond that vary greatly.”

“Let us do another comparison,” Augustus instructs. “In the ‘Seven,’ the brothers turn into ravens and fly away. In the ‘Six,’ it is not until the evil queen finds them are the brothers transformed. In the ‘Twelve,’ the brothers flee their father and it is not until their sister finds them and picks the lilies are they changed.

“Further, in the ‘Seven,’ the sister sacrifices a little finger in order to get into the Glass Mountain.”

I interrupt Augustus. “I couldn’t help noting she does not climb the Glass Mountain but enters it like a house.”

“True, true,” Augustus continues. “In the ‘Six,’ she must remain silent for six years and sew six shirts of asters. In the ‘Twelve,’ she must remain silent for seven years but without the burden of sewing. Nothing like the silent treatment or the marriage to kings out hunting comes up in the ‘Seven.’ The sister simply appears and the spell is broken.”

“I must conclude,” I say, “these three stories are obviously the same story, but are so different in detail any one of them does not appear to be drawing off of one of the others. Yet we cannot find a common mythic origin.”

Augustus and I hear a commotion from the shop.

“That’s a noisy customer!” says Augustus.

I see him pass in front of me. In the archway between the testing room and the shop, Augustus bumps into a fireman clutching the end of a canvas hose with a shiny brass nozzle pointed in our direction.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2022 The Twelve Brothers – Part One

H J Ford

A Smoke

The bell over Augustus’s door to the tobacco shop rings as I enter. What an inviting sound. It has been a while since I visited to improve my stock of the good leaf.

“Ho, stranger,” Augustus acknowledges my entry.

“Good to see you again,” I say.

“Let me suppose,” he says as he reaches for a canister, “you’ll be wanting some Elfish Gold, Angel’s Glory, and a bit of Fairies’ Delight?”

“That will do nicely, along with some Black Dwarf. Have you a new blend to test?”

“I have been messing with Raven Black.”

We are soon in the testing room settling into our comfy chairs and tamping our pipes.

“And what,” Augustus says between puffs, “fairy-tale conundrum have you brought with you today?”

“I’ve been knitting my brow over The Twelve Brothers.”

“I’ve read that one, certainly, but I keep conflating it with The Six Swans. Sort it out for me.”

“It is well you should mix them up. The difference between the two is really what I’d like to talk about.”

A king has twelve sons but declares he will put them to death in preference for a daughter. The queen, when pregnant, confesses to the youngest son, Benjamin, what the king plans and shows him the twelve coffins that have been constructed.

The twelve brothers hide in the woods and wait for a signal from their mother: a white flag if it is a boy and a red for a girl. The red flag is raised and the brothers flee. They find a cottage in the forest that, unbeknownst to them, is enchanted. Here they live for ten years, Benjamin keeping house while the elder brothers go hunting.

By then, their sister, who was born with a star on her forehead, has grown into a beautiful, young lady. One day she finds her brothers’ shirts and asks her mother, the queen, about them. The story is revealed, and the princess goes off to find her brothers. They are reunited and live together happily.

One day, in the bewitched cottage’s garden, she picks twelve lilies—also called students—one for each brother. When she does, the brothers are turned into ravens that fly away, and the cottage and garden disappear. Beside her stands an old woman who scolds her for picking the lilies. To reclaim her brothers, she must now not speak nor laugh for seven years.

She climbs a tree and sits there spinning until discovered by the greyhound of a king who is out hunting. The princess, with a nod, consents to marry the king.

The king’s mother dislikes her and spreads false rumors until the king is obliged to have her burnt at the stake. The fire is lit just as the seven years expire. Twelve ravens fly in, turning into their human form as they touch the ground, and rescue her.

All live in happiness after the evil mother is put into a barrel of boiling oil and poisonous snakes.

“A barrel of boiling oil and poisonous snakes,” Augustus declares. “Really. I’d forgotten that. The Grimms outdid themselves on that bit of punishment.”

“Yes, rather,” I agree.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2022 The Twelve Brothers – Part Two

H J Ford

More Smoke

“Let’s compare the ‘Twelve’ and the ‘Six’ blow by blow,” Augustus suggests as he rises and leaves the testing room but soon returns with his well-thumbed copy of Jack Zipes’ The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

“My,” I say, “your copy looks as battered as Thalia’s.”

Augustus smiles and pages through the volume, putting in bookmarkers at the start of the two stories.

“Now then,” he starts the proceedings, “in the ‘Twelve’ the king proposes to murder his twelve sons for the sake of a daughter.”

“That sounds terribly un-German to me,” I say.

“It’s terribly un-any-culture that I know of,” Augustus responds. He pages to the back of his book to the notes. “The Grimms cite Julia and Charlotte Ramus as the source for the ‘Twelve’ and mention Basile’s The Seven Little Doves.” 

He pages some more. “For the ‘Six’ they cite their source as Henriette Dorothea Wild—whom Wilhelm married by the way—but refer back to Greco-Roman myths, because of the swans I’ll guess.

“Now, if I recall, Julia and Charlotte Ramus were daughters of a French pastor. Since their last names never changed, I am guessing they never married and held a more feminine-centric view on life. I suggest the murder plot of the boys was the sisters’ invention. The Basile tale that the Grimms referred to didn’t have that element but did have the baby girl/baby boy signal device.”

“Very well,” I say. “The beginning of the ‘Six’ has a king out hunting who is waylaid by a witch who forces him to marry her daughter. Fearing that the new queen will harm them, the king hides his six sons and daughter by his former wife. Quite a different start of the story from the ‘Twelve.’”

“Oh yes, the magical ball of string,” Augustus grins. “The children are so well hidden, even the king cannot find them without the ball of string he throws on the ground and then follows it as it unrolls to the hiding place. A reverse of Ariadne’s thread.”

“However,” I say, tamping my pipe, “the evil queen discovers the ruse and purloins the ball of string. She throws white, silk shirts with a magical spell woven into them onto the six brothers, turning them into swans.”

“She didn’t know about the daughter,” Augustus recalls.

“Correct.”

“But listen,” he says. “Shirts appear in both stories but are used for entirely different purposes. In the ‘Twelve’ the shirts are not magical, but rather used as a device for discovery. In the ‘Six’ the sister has to knit shirts made of aster flowers while remaining silent for six years to reverse the spell.”

“Hmmm,” I contemplate. “In the ‘Six’ the evil queen turns the brothers into swans. In the ‘Twelve’ it is when the sister picks the lilies that the brothers are transformed.”

“And yet,” Augustus points his pipe at me, “it is the point in both stories that the sister falls silent in order to break the spell, which,” Augustus refers back to his book, “is Aarne-Thompson tale type 451.”

“Oh,” I say, “it has its own category.”

“Yes indeed.”

“Let me backtrack for a moment.” My pipe has gone out, and I refill it while saying, “What about the star on the princess’s forehead in the ‘Twelve?’”

“That is only a confirmation that she is of royalty and is special. I’ve come across it in such stories as Princess Belle-Etoilewhich I rather like, but it is French, florid, and goes on a bit too long.”

“Ah, the French do that,” I agree.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2022 The Twelve Brothers – Part Three

 John B. Gruelle

Very Smoky

“Alright then,” Augustus collects his thoughts. “We now have both princesses up in their respective trees, one spinning and the other knitting asters, both about to be discovered by a king out hunting. The stories at this point start to run parallel.”

“Let me interject a ‘however,’” I say through our tobacco fog. “Two points jump to my mind. First, the ‘Six’ starts with a king out hunting who returns with a wife. Halfway through the story another king is out hunting and returns with a wife. Talk about parallel.

“Second, the princess in the ‘Six’ is profitably engaged knitting aster-flower shirts. The princess in the ‘Twelve’ is spinning to no particular end. What is that about?”

“First,” echoes Augustus, “the spinning must be with a drop spindle. The image of a spinning wheel up a tree is too much to bear.

“Second, I suspect this princess spinning is a vestige of the magical shirts being dropped or forgotten from the story by a teller unknown.”

“I’ll accept that as possible. So, the shirts come and go, but the years of silence remain. I find that an interesting challenge for our heroines.”

“A test of patience and will as opposed to a test of strength and courage usually reserved for heroes,” Augustus acknowledges. “The next parallel in the stories is the king’s evil, disagreeable mother, who is dead set against the silent beauty.”

I re-tamp my pipe. “It doesn’t burn well.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed.” Disappointment edges his remark.

“In both stories it is a mother,” I point out, “not the usual evil stepmother who is the villain. The ‘Twelve’ is vague about the mother’s accusations, but the ‘Six’ is detailed about the mother stealing the newborn children, smearing the heroine’s mouth with blood, and accusing her of eating her own children.”

“Rather repulsive,” Augustus picks up the thread, “The princess is condemned to be burnt at the stake, a usual punishment for witches. Dramatically, the burning and the end of the many years’ wait coincide. The brothers return in their bird form to be immediately transformed into their human shape and rescue their sister. Again, parallel.”

“Also parallel,” I conclude, “the evil mother is killed in the princess’s stead. In the ‘Six’ she takes the princess’s place at the stake. In the ‘Twelve’, well, we know what happens. Might that be the origin of ‘snake oil’?”

“Don’t be silly,” Augustus snaps. “I believe we are suggesting that these are obviously the same story. A princess goes out to find her brothers, she must endure years of silence, marries a king, is threatened by the king’s mother, is at the point of death when her efforts pay off, the brothers are restored, and the evil mother pays with her life.

“And yet the story details are very different: a star on the forehead, a magical ball of string, aster-flower shirts, swans, ravens—Oh, ravens!” Augustus slaps his brow.

“What?”

The Seven RavensWe must talk about that Grimm story as well.”

This conversation is not done.

(To be continued.)

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2022 Sleeping Beauty in the Wood – Part One

Walter Crane

Perrault’s Fault

“Grandfather, the falcon cannot hear the falconer!” Thalia is referring to one of my favorite poems but is waving a book in the air as she—with youthful histrionic drama that only young girls can affect—enters my study.

“Thalia, dear, what is the trouble?”

“This!” she says, holding her volume with both hands in front of my face. I read Perrault’s Fairy Tales with thirty-four full-page illustrations by Gustave Doré. It’s a large-format trade paperback that Melissa gave her for Christmas.

“Whom are you unhappy with, Perrault or Doré?”

“Perrault. I’ve only read the first story and it’s not right.”

“Well then, read me the story. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by the Frenchman.”

Thalia settles into her comfy chair—it used to be my comfy chair—clears her throat and reads.

The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.”

A king and queen, after a long wait, finally have a child, a girl. To the christening, they invite the seven fairies, for whom they make special gifts. However, at the christening, an eighth, an old fairy, who hadn’t been seen in fifty years, shows up and is insulted that there is no special gift for her.

One of the fairies, overhearing the old fairy’s grumblings, hides herself when the other fairies bestow their blessings of beauty, grace, and talents upon the child. The old fairy declares the girl will die one day after pricking her finger on a spindle.

The seventh fairy remediates the curse, saying the girl will not die, but rather fall into a hundred-year sleep to be awakened by a prince. The king, nonetheless, proclaims spinning wheels and spindles are banished from the kingdom.

All goes well for fifteen or sixteen years until the girl, exploring the rooms in the castle, comes across an old woman who does not know about the proclamation and is spinning. The curse is soon fulfilled.

The seventh fairy, who is twelve thousand leagues away, soon hears news of the disaster from a little dwarf wearing seven-league boots. She returns in her chariot of fire drawn by dragons to put everyone to sleep except for the king and queen. They kiss their daughter goodbye and leave before trees and thorns quickly grow up around the castle, preventing anyone from entering.

After a hundred years, the rule of the kingdom has passed to another family, and the prince of that family is out hunting when he hears the story of the sleeping princess. When he approaches the castle, the trees and thorns part for him. He no sooner finds the princess than she wakes up, the hundred years at that moment ending. There is much celebration in the castle, and the marriage is quickly held.

However, the prince does not reveal his secret marriage to his family for two years until his father dies and he becomes king. By then he and the princess have two children, “Dawn”, a girl, and “Day”, a boy, and he brings them to court.

Soon the new king is obliged to go to war and leave his wife and children in the care of his mother. She, unfortunately, is an ogress and decides to eat them instead of care for them. Her cook takes mercy on them and hides the princess and the children, dishing up animals in their place.

The ogress discovers the ruse. She causes a vat to be set up, filled with snakes, toads, and other hideous creatures, into which she intends to throw the princess, her children, the cook, and other accomplices. Just then the king returns, the ogress throws herself into the vat, and the innocents are spared.

Thalia closes the book with a pout pursing her lips.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2022 Sleeping Beauty in the Wood – Part Two

Gustave Doré

Dueling Devices

“My dear girl,” I say, “it’s simply a variant.”

“I know it’s a variant, but it’s so different, and why did he change it?”

“Let’s assume,” I chuckle, sensing a teachable moment, “you have made assumptions.”

“Like?” Thalia eyes me with suspicion.

“That you think either Disney or the Brothers Grimm provide the real story.”

“The Grimms, of course, although I think Disney is pretty cool.”

“And I’ll assume you have forgotten the Grimms’ version is called Briar Rose.”

“Oh.” Her eyes widen a little, “I did, but it’s the same story.”

“And I’ll assume you didn’t know the Grimms came along a hundred years after Perrault, with whom you are taking exception.”

“Oh.” She is a little stunned. Youth, including Thalia, live in the present where everything happens at once and think that history—the past—all happens at once as well.

“Then,” Thalia pauses, “it was the Grimms who changed the story.”

“Well, so did Disney, and I’ll bet Perrault did as well. I propose a race,” I say, pulling my laptop out of its drawer and plugging it in. “Let’s see which of us can find the most versions of Sleeping Beauty.”

Thalia is on her phone in a second; it’s the challenge of the dueling devices. Silence falls between us as we click and swipe away.

I head over to Wikipedia, which I consider to be the people’s encyclopedia. If nothing else, it is democratic with a small “d.” Wikipedia leads me to its entry on Perceforest, a chivalric romance, 1330 -1345, that I’d not heard of before. Apparently pre-Arthurian. However, the article does not point out to me where in this huge compendium our story is to be found.

“Oh, my!” Thalia’s voice breaks into my thoughts.

“What did you find?”

“Giam-something Basile, 1634.”

“Where are you?”

“Internet Archives.”

If it is public domain, it will be in the Internet Archives’ book collection. I find his Penatamerone.”

“Look for Sun, Moon, and Talia. Almost my namesake.”

I do. Oh, my. I didn’t intend to lead her towards something like this, and almost a namesake.

“Not politically correct,” I say.

“Rather indecent,” Thalia returns.

By simply searching the words “Perceforest Sleeping Beauty,” I come up with a link to the passage in question. I point this version out to Thalia, although it is not much of an improvement over Basile’s version. All that can be said is the prince is goaded toward his reprehensible behavior by the goddess Venus.

I head next to D. L. Ashliman’s site, University of Pittsburgh. His translation of the tale he calls Little Brier-Rose. In his notes, he infrms the reader of six other English translators of this tale, that the source was Marie Hassenpflug, and that the tale is listed as Aarne-Thompson-Uther tale type 410 – Sleeping Beauty.

I next check out Sur La Lune. On this site, Heidi Anne Heiner has annotated a number of tales, Sleeping Beauty being one of them, which I find useful. For example, Perrault made a reference to Hungary water in the tale. Heidi explains that Queen of Hungary Water is thought to be the first alcohol-based perfume, dating back to the 1300s. She also includes illustrations from many of the tales on her site.

I hear Thalia talking to her phone. “Disney, Sleeping Beauty,1959.”

This could be interesting. That was sixty-three years ago. Seems to me like yesterday.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2022 Sleeping Beauty in the Wood – Part Three

Walter Crane

More Searching

Thalia beams. “I found the Disney Wiki. It’s a fan site and the article on Sleeping Beauty is looong. I mean it goes on. A lot of production notes. I remember watching this when I was really little. They filmed live people for the animators to copy the movements. Who was Audrey Hepburn?”

“A well-known actress in my day.”

“Yeah, well, they based Aurora’s body on hers.”

“Minus the blond hair,” I say. “Audrey’s was dark. Aurora; I’d forgotten they’d given her a name.”

“Looks like they named about everyone. Princess Aurora, Prince Phillip, King Stefan, King Hubert, Queen Leah, Flora, Fauna, Merriweather, Maleficent—Oh, I like that name.”

I see Thalia going down the Disney rabbit hole. Surely she won’t run into Giambattista Basile there.

In Perceforest and in Pentamerone a number of characters had names, in Perrault’s tale only the two children, and in Grimm there is only one name given, Briar Rose, and that bestowed upon the princess halfway through the story. Then Disney comes along handing out names rather freely, much against fairy-tale norms. However, film is a different medium. I guess they felt the needs of a film audience to be different than that of a fairy-tale reader.

I remember that Margaret Hunt’s translation of Grimm included the author’s notes. I gamble on Project Gutenberg having a copy. They do, but the work is transcribed and the author notes are not included. I return to good old Internet Archive, where both volume one and volume two of the original book have been scanned in.

“According to the Grimm brothers’ notes,” I say proudly of my discovery to Thalia, “they trace the Sleeping Beauty story back to the Norse saga of Sigurd and Brünhild. The Valkyrie Brünhild, because of the sleep-thorn with which Odin has pierced her, sleeps inside a wall of flame that only Sigurd is able to penetrate.”

“Cool. A wall of flame. I guess we can’t get much further back than that. But I’m still at the other end with Walt Disney. He had two teams of writers reworking the story over a couple of years. In the end, they had the princess hiding out with three fairies, who she thought were her aunts, until she was sixteen. Also, she meets Prince Phillip, neither of them knowing their fathers have them engaged. Maleficent finds out where she is hiding, gets her to prick her finger, and then kidnaps Prince Phillip so he can’t kiss her. He escapes with the help of the fairies, battles Maleficent, who is in the form of a dragon, and finally gets to kiss Aurora.

“Wow, and I had begun to think the Grimms had changed the story too much. But Disney dropped the Perrault and Basile’s ending with the two children and lost the hundred-year’s wait. And after all that the film was a failure, but, yeah, made up for that big-time with the re-runs.”

“I wonder how much different the next iteration of Sleeping Beauty will be. Fairy tales will change to suit the times and the culture in which they find themselves you know.”

“Hmmm.”  Thalia has her contemplative look. “Maybe I’ll write the next version.”

Your thoughts?

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 2020 Godfather Death – Part One

John Gruelle

All Hallows

Among Thalia, Melissa, and myself, we decided to observe All Hallows Eve with our own party; in costume, of course. Melissa considered whether or not she should do her same-old, same-old costume as a witch. I suggested she pose as Lady Godiva, and she told me to behave myself.

Melissa is dressed as a witch and I as a sorcerer. Thalia has chosen to be an imp. I think the pointy rubber ears become her.

Our party table is replete with three bowls of sweets that I allowed Thalia to pick out at the grocery. One bowl is full of Lion Chocolate Bars and Lion White Bars. (Thalia could not decide which she likes better.) The second bowl is of Walkers Nonsuch Salted Caramel Toffees, and the third of Taveners’ Jelly Babies. Melissa brought brownies with white chocolate chunks, and I baked a pumpkin pie dusted with icing sugar. We have to run back and forth from the study to the refrigerator in the kitchen to make the pie à la mode. Instead of apple cider there is Cidona (the fizzy, non-alcoholic one) at Thalia’s request. For those of us who prefer a drier sort of drink, a bottle of Renegade London Syrah graces the table. A sip of the syrah sends Thalia’s face into sour mode and she returns to her apple soda.

The climax of our little party is Melissa’s reading from Grimm: Godfather Death.

A poor man, on the birth of his thirteenth child, a boy, is looking for a godfather. He refuses both God and the Devil, who offer their services, and chooses Death, because he treats the rich and the poor alike. When the boy is of age, Death teaches him how to cure people with an herb. Death also tells him, if he sees Death standing at the head of the bed, the cure will work. If Death stands at the foot of the bed, the cure will not work.

Armed with this knowledge, the godson becomes a great and wealthy physician. However, when the godson is summoned to cure the king, he sees Death at the foot of the bed. Instead of allowing Death to take the king, the physician turns the king around on his bed so that Death is standing at the king’s head.

Death allows his godson to get away with that trick once, but when the physician tries the same trick again to save the princess, who’s cure promises her marriage and the kingship to the physician, Godfather Death has had enough. He whisks his godson down into the underworld.

There, in a cave, are thousands of burning candles, one candle for every living person. Death points out the physician’s candle, a short stub with a flickering flame. The godson pleads with Death to extend his life with another candle so that he may marry the princess and become a king. Death, feigning to do so, actually snuffs out the candle, and the godson falls down dead.

Thalia, a half-eaten Lion Bar in hand, contemplates the image.

“Candles. Cool.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2020 Godfather Death – Part Two

George Cruikshank

Fatal Flames

“Candles indeed,” says Melissa, as her hand hovers over the three sweets bowls in turn, then dives in for a toffee. “It brings to my mind the Catholics’ blessed candles.”

“Or the Jewish yahrzeit candles,” I reply, considering a handful of Taveners’.

“There is a difference.” Melissa knits her brow under her witch’s hat. “The blessed candles are lit when it is thought that a person is dying. I believe the yahrzeit is a memorial candle.”

“Yes,” I say, “lit in honor of someone on the anniversary of their death.”

“If I recall correctly,” Melissa takes a sip of her wine, “in both cases, the candles should be made of beeswax; at least the Catholics are pretty insistent that it be no less than 51 percent beeswax.”

While we talk, Thalia jumps up, turns off the overhead light and table lamps, and returns to where we are sitting with a single lit candle.

“Atmosphere,” Thalia grins.

“Good thought,” agrees Melissa. “But really, I think the candles in our story are corpse-candles.”

Thalia’s eyes widen. “What are corspe-candles?”

“Supposedly,” Melissa’s eyebrows arch, “the souls of the dead may appear as flickering flames floating above their graves. Or worse, they float about the marshlands at night to lure lost travelers from the path into treacherous bogs.

“A number of the tales are about a man, usually a blacksmith, who is nasty and a trickster. He is clever enough to even trick the Devil, who has come for him, into letting him live longer. The blacksmith manages to trick the Devil more than once.

“But, eventually, the blacksmith must die. When he does, he has been too bad to go to heaven, and the Devil won’t let him into hell. The Devil’s only concession is to give the blacksmith an ember, telling him to go make his own hell.

“The blacksmith takes the ember, puts it into a carved-out turnip to serve as a lantern, and wanders around in the wilderness luring, as I said, unwary travelers to their death. The blacksmith is often named Will or Jack, and his spirit form is “will-o’-the-wisp” or “jack-o’-lantern.”

Thalia’s eyes light up in recognition. “And now it’s a pumpkin!”

“Quite right.” Melissa nods.

“There is an argument,” I say, “that the blacksmith and the Devil, and the tricking of Death or the Devil is quite an old story. By old, I mean Bronze Age.”

“How could anyone know that?” protests Melissa, taking another sip of wine.

“I heard about it over the BBC. It is a little hard to follow, but it has to do with ideas borrowed from evolutionary biology. I think it’s called the phylogenetic method.”

“Pardon?” Melissa scowls.

“Well, it studies and compares things like population histories, languages, marriage practices, political institutions, material culture, and even music. When it comes to the tales, it’s the “tree” of Indo-European languages that shows traces of the tales. Actually, the idea that the tales can be traced going back through the Indo-European languages was first suggested by the Grimm brothers.”

“The Grimm brothers notwithstanding, I’m not buying any of it.” Melissa’s eyebrows fairly dance under her hat. “Phylogenetic, my foot.”

Thalia giggles.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2020 Godfather Death – Part Three

Otto Ubbelohde

Cheating Death

The fairy flutters out of the dark, and perches on my granddaughter’s shoulder. Thalia holds her Lion Bar up to her. She sniffs it suspiciously, then glares sharply at Thalia.

“I guess not,” says our costumed imp.

Melissa can hardly take her eyes off the fairy. I don’t think Melissa has seen her since she invaded the bookstore, and Thalia had to come and retrieve her.

“While I can’t agree with your phylogenetic whoevers,” Melissa says, not averting her stare from the fairy, “the blacksmith and the Devil’s motif of cheating death is certainly a popular one in these tales.”

Melissa manages to pull her attention back to me, if only for a few seconds. “I do recall a Czechoslovakian version of Godfather Death, but in this case it is Godmother Death.”

“Oh, really,” I say.

“Yes, death is a woman, a bit nicer than Grimm’s godfather. The father of the son, for whom Death agrees to stand as godmother, is able to extend his own life by lighting a longer candle for himself. Death is not pleased, but lets him get away with it. She makes the father a physician. He plays the head-to-foot trick, and, again, gets away with it. However, this physician does not press his luck any further and lives a long life due to his trick with the candle.

“Godmother Death then causes his son, her godson, to also be a successful physician.”

All this while, Melissa and the fairy have been looking at each other. Melissa extends an index finger like a bird’s perch. The fairy takes the hint and flutters over to Melissa. It is Thalia’s turn to raise an eyebrow.

“I think she likes you.”

Melissa’s smile beams as the fairy cocks her head from side to side regarding the costumed witch.

“Returning to the thought of cheating death,” I say, not wanting to lose the thread of our conversation. “There are two things that come to me.”

I look into the candle flame to focus my thoughts. “First is that the impetus for wanting to cheat death is simply wishful thinking. Death has an unpleasant finality to it that we rather put off as long as possible. These story characters sometime succeed as we would like to do.

“Second, and conversely, I believe there is a rather abnormal amount of deaths in the fairy tales. Let us consider the count when you include mothers who die at the start, leaving the heroine an orphan; princes who were beheaded in the pursuit of the princess’s hand, even before the story starts; evil stepmothers’ punishment for their cruelty, witches’ punishment for their cruelty, and evil stepmothers who are also witches getting the same treatment; the occasional dragon and giant destroyed by the hero; and even kings who die of natural causes allowing the kingdom to pass to the hero and heroine.

“Really, I think that there are as many deaths as marriages in the tales.”

Looking up from the candle flame, I see Thalia and Melissa are both watching the fairy intently; she lounges on her new friend’s finger. They haven’t heard a word I said.

So much for costumed sorcerer’s pontifications.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part One

iron stove fordH. J. Ford

Museum Ramble

“I want the fish and chips, but not sure about the peas,” Thalia decides, holding the children’s menu of the Great Court Restaurant in her hands.

The restaurant sits atop the old Reading Room here at the British Museum and looks out over the courtyard. Above us, radiating upward and outward—and rather amazingly—is a glass awning. We almost feel as if we are at an outdoor café with a glass bubble fending off the January weather.

Melissa, Thalia, and I spent the morning rambling through a small section of the Museum’s Greek antiquities collection. We covered as much of it as we could until our eyes glazed over. Melissa became transfixed before a terracotta bust of Cupid and Psyche embracing. I pried her away with the promise of lunch.

“Wild mushroom-pearl barley risotto?” Melissa muses. I am going for the braised duck leg. It comes with a caramelized quince.

Melissa glances up from her menu. “I’m working on an article concerning Cupid and Psyche.”

“I see, hence your enchantment with the bust. What happened to your magical guidebook for tourists?”

“In progress, but I need a diversion now and again.”

“And the premise of your article?”

“That Lucius Apuleius’s story of Cupid and Psyche has had an inexplicable influence on fairy tales.”

“Such as Beauty and the Beast,” I interject.

“That is the boring example everyone uses. For my article I am using Grimms’ The Iron Stove.

“I have read that,” I say, “but not for some time. Remind me.”

Thalia’s ears prick up as Melissa launches into the tale.

A prince, through a witch’s curse, is trapped inside an iron stove sitting in a forest. A princess, lost in the forest for many days, comes across the stove, who/which offers to help her if she will marry him/it. Not pleased with the idea of marrying a stove, but desperate to escape the forest, she agrees.

The stove provides an escort out of the forest and she is to return with a knife to scrape a hole in the stove.

“What’s an escort?” Thalia frowns.

“A sort of guide.” Melissa says.

“How much staff does an iron stove sitting in the middle of a forest have?” I wonder aloud.

“The story doesn’t say,” Melissa grins.

Not wanting a marriage to the stove, the princess and her father conspire to send the miller’s daughter in her place. The miller’s daughter is not able to bore a hole in the iron stove and by dawn the stove discovers she is not the princess. Next, the princess and the king send the swineherd’s daughter with the same result. Only, this time, the stove threatens to not let one stone stand atop another in the kingdom if the princess does not come.

The princess can easily bore a hole in the iron stove and out comes a handsome prince. He wants to carry her off to his kingdom, but she asks to see her father one more time. This is granted, but she cannot speak more than three words to him. Of course she does speak more than three words, and the prince and the iron stove are carried off over glass mountains, sharp swords, and a great lake.

Searching for her lost prince, the princess comes across a cottage inhabited by toads, who host her for the evening. In the morning, the head toad gives her the needed magical devices: three needles to climb the glass mountains, a plow wheel to run over the swords, and three nuts containing fabulous dresses. With these, she travels until she comes to a great castle.

“Wait,” says Thalia. “How did she get across the lake.”

“She sailed.”

“In what?”

“The story doesn’t say.”

Thalia mugs a sad face.

The prince is there and about to marry a false bride. The princess bribes the false bride with the three dresses in order to be allowed to sleep in the prince’s room for three nights. On the first two nights the false bride drugs the prince’s wine, but by the third night the prince is on to the scheme and is able to claim his true bride.

They escape by taking the false bride’s three dresses so that she cannot get up.

“Take her dresses so she can’t get up?” My turn to frown.

“That’s how the story explains it,” Melissa replies.

They return to the toad cottage, which is now a castle filled with princes and princesses; the marriage takes place; and the bride’s father is brought to live with them.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part Two

cupid and psyche one Cupid and Psyche, Terracotta, British Museum

Psyche’s Marriage

Our meals arrive, along with Thalia’s babyccino, and silence descends upon our repast for a bit.

“What does the princess have to do with Psyche?” Thalia asks, raising her head from her fish and chips.

Melissa turns her attention from her risotto to her glass of Monastrell, answering, “In a couple of ways.”

After a sip, she says, “In the Cupid and Psyche story, her sisters, when Cupid permits them to visit, ill-advise her to discover the true nature of her mysterious husband. When she does, he must flee. In The Iron Stove, the princess is granted a visit to her family, but cannot speak more than three words. When she does speak more, her husband disappears. In both cases, the heroine must search for her lost husband because of family interference.

“Other elements from Lucius Apuleius’s story are mirrored in our tale. Psyche is aided by some of the gods and goddess, after Psyche offended the goddess Venus, Cupid’s mother. In The Iron Stove, the princess is aided by the family of toads, who supply her with magical devices.

“Both Psyche and the princess go through travail and tests before they can reclaim their husbands.”

I see Thalia begin to fidget and peer up at the glass awning. Melissa’s eyes slide toward me.

“Both stories culminate in a marriage ceremony. I must ask myself, is Cupid and Psyche’s marriage the origin of the fairy-tale obsession with marriage?”

I see Thalia wander from her seat toward the railing overlooking the courtyard. My knee jerks.

“Don’t fall over.”

“I won’t,” she calls back.

We doting grandfathers have so little authority.

“If I am right,” Melissa goes on, oblivious to our charge about to fall into oblivion, “the familiar visits, disappearing husbands, divine or magical helpers, and the culminating marriage are not the only motifs taken from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, in which the Cupid and Psyche story appears.

“The sisters of this tale, working against the heroine, appear in many fairy tales. The princess exposed, abandoned, sacrificed to a dragon—usually on a rocky crag—appears here. Being attended to and entertained by unseen servants, as well as the nightly visits by an unseen husband, come from this story. The heroine falling into a death-like sleep and being awakened by her lover is here. So are the tasks, imposed by Venus in this tale and often the stepmother in the fairy tales, which the heroine must overcome. Especially the one about Venus throwing before Psyche a mass of mixed wheat, barley, poppyseed, chickpeas, lentils, and beans, demanding that she sort them into separate heaps before morning .It is the ants that take pity on her and do the sorting. In the fairy tales, if there are three tasks, the sorting of the seeds is one of them.”

To my relief, Thalia wanders back to finish her babyccino.

As my blood pressure drops, I ask Melissa, “Marriage, you were saying something about marriage.”

Melissa smiles at me, glancing at Thalia sipping her drink. “I am trying to make the argument that a surprising number of fairy-tale motifs, including the marriage-at-the-end come from the Cupid and Psyche story.

“But here is the real surprise. Metamorphoses was written in the second century, then fell out of popularity. By the end of the Dark Ages there appears to be only one copy left.

“Along comes the Renaissance with its intellectuals keen on rediscovering ancient works, Metamorphoses among them. And, guess what, along with the Renaissance comes the printing press. Now there are many, many copies of Metamorphoses.

“Are you suggesting,” I say, “that after the Cupid and Psyche story is being read by the literate that it trickles down to the illiterate storytellers to populate their imagination?”

“Exactly.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part Three

iron stove tenniel white rabbit Sir  John Tenniel

Time Enough

After lunch and some recovery of our senses, we decide to test our senses’ limits again with a visit to the medieval collection in Room 40. While Thalia jumps from display to display, Melissa and I linger to admire the room’s most notable possession, the Royal Gold Cup.

“Is The Iron Stove,” I ask, my mind returning to our discussion, “simply another version of the Cupid and Psyche tale?”

“Certainly not. Fairy tales are a patchwork of many motifs, and not all of them are of Greek origin. But these motifs of Greek origin and their articles, such as the golden apples of so many tales, are never given a hint of attribution. I am not aware of a single Greek god or goddess appearing in a fairy tale for all that has been borrowed from their mythology. I might conjecture the old storytellers very well knew they stole from the Greeks and were hiding the crime.”

Through a doorway I spot a room full of clocks and watches. Melissa and Thalia follow me as though I were the White Rabbit late for a date. The elaborate, exposed mechanism of a device labeled the Cassiobury Park turret clock (1610), which approaches Rube Goldberg status, holds my visual attention as my thoughts again return to Melissa’s topic.

“What are the non-Cupid and Psyche motifs in The Iron Stove?”

“The toad family in the cottage, for one. I don’t know of any toads in Greek mythology. There are a few people turned into frogs among the Greeks, but no toads.”

“Frogs, toads, aren’t they the same?” I ask, still studying the wheels, levers, and cables of the clock.

“Oh, what a city-boy you are! No, toads, while in the frog family, are terrestrial creatures. Frogs live in the water. And the fairy tales treat them that way. Frogs are associated with wells and are loners by the way, while toads are on land, coming in groups, living in cottages, dwelling underground, or coming out of people’s mouths.”

I wander over to a wall display of pocket watches. I want them all. “Other non-Greek motifs?” I ask. I really want the gold pendulum watch for my own.

“The origin of the three dresses in the nuts, I assume, is European, most likely Northern Europe. The southern climes tend toward simple dress. The ancient Greeks wore very functional garments. It’s the Northern Europeans who got obsessed with elaborate costumes to show their wealth and power.”

Thalia is by my side oohing over the watches. High art—painting and sculpture—is fine, but here is functional art one can put in a pocket.

“In closing,” Melissa tries to get my attention, “a third motif, not in Greek mythology’s lexicon, is the attempt to substitute lower-born women for a princess. This is a common trick in the tales, sometimes with dire consequences for the lowborn. They don’t always just get sent home.

“Similarly, the gods and goddesses are not concerned with the true bride and the false bride. Psyche struggles to be allowed to marry Cupid over Venus’s objections, but there is no false bride for Cupid. Substitution, as an attempt to escape an obligation or reroute a marriage, may be a Western concept.”

Oh, how would that musical chamber clock look and sound in my study?

Your thoughts?

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2018 The Three Languages – Part One

Three Languages dogs

Disquiet

I hear Thalia’s shuffle coming down the hall. I’m already in the comfy chair. To my surprise she comes through the study door, her Grimm pinned under her elbow, carrying Johannes, her arms wrapped around his stomach, and his legs hanging down.

“Where’s Teddy?” I ask.

“He’s with Mom. Needs his eye sewed back on.”

“Ah,” I say, “Well Johannes, I’m pleased you are joining us tonight.”

“Don’t pander,” he grumps, and wiggles from Thalia’s arms to jump onto the back of the comfy.

Thalia grabs my belt to pull herself up onto my lap, and we perform the eyes-closed, finger-waving selection process on the table of contents of her battered copy of Grimm.

The Three Languages, I announce.

A Swiss nobleman has a worthless son in that the lad cannot learn anything. Sent off to study with a scholar, the boy returns after a year having learned the language of dogs. Angered, the father sends him off again to another scholar, resulting in the youth learning the language of birds. The third attempt at learning gains the lad the language of frogs.

Disgusted, the nobleman instructs his people to take the boy out into the woods, kill him, and return with his eyes and tongue as proof that the deed has been done. His people cannot bring themselves to kill the poor innocent, and let him escape. They return with the eyes and tongue of a deer.

The lad seeks shelter with another nobleman, but is assigned to a tower inhabited by wild dogs that daily eat a man. The youth goes without fear to the tower. The dogs not only do not eat him, but also tell him how to break the curse they are under—by taking from them the golden treasure they were magically obliged to guard.

The nobleman of this castle, delighted with the young man for breaking the curse—not to mention the chest of gold—adopts him as his son.

The lad now gets it into his head to visit Rome. On the way he falls into conversation with frogs who tell him that he is to become the next pope. The lad turns contemplative and saddened by the news.

Arriving in Rome, he finds the pope has died and the cardinals are looking for a sign from God to guide their selection in the choice of a new pope. Entering the church, two doves alight on his shoulders and the cardinals ask him to become the pope. The young man is reluctant, but the doves counsel him to accept.

He is then required to say Mass, but, despite knowing three languages, he does not know a word of Latin. However, the doves whisper the words in his ears.

I stop reading.

“And then?” Thalia asks.

“That’s it. There’s no more story.”

Thalia’s brows crease. “That’s not the ending. Tell me.”

“No, really, that’s it. It’s not my fault.” I put my palms up in the air.

Thalia, still unconvinced, reads the page for herself. She gives me a skeptical glance, as if I am still somehow at fault, takes her book with a sigh, and saunters out of the study, her nightgown swishing along the floor.

“Not my fault,” I defend myself to Johannes. He merely chortles at my discomfort.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2018 The Three Languages – Part Two

Three Languages frogs

A Rainy Amble

I put on my mukluks and rain slicker, and take my umbrella from the stand. Thalia’s cat nimbly leaps from the armoire by the door to my shoulder.

“Johannes?”

“I’m going with you to see Augustus.”

“Why do you think I’m going to see Augustus?”

“You question my insight?”

He is right. I’m going to see Augustus. The Three Languages is a little too strange not to run it by my colleague in fairy-tale lore.

With Johannes perched on my shoulder, under my umbrella, I amble down our sidewalk toward the cobblestone street along which sits both the tobacco shop and Melissa’s Serious Books. Frankly, there aren’t as many cobblestone streets left in this city as I would like.

The bell over Augustus’s door rings as we enter. Johannes leaps from my shoulder and follows me at my heel.

“What’s this?” Augustus gestures toward Thalia’s cat. “I’ve never seen a cat following its master around like a dog.”

Johannes’s bristling tail alerts me that I need to change the subject before there is bloodshed.

The Three Languages,” I say. “What can you tell me about that story?”

“I will exchange my knowledge for your opinion on my latest blend, Traveler’s Due.” He motions toward his smoking room.

When we sit down and tamp our pipes, Johannes curls up in my lap—he never does that—and pretends not to be listening.

“That is an odd tale,” Augustus begins. “Not part of the 1812 edition, but a later entry. It’s interesting to me that the Grimms ever included it in their canon. They were not Catholic and were averse to the Holy Roman Empire, siding with the German Nationalist Movement.

“If I remember correctly, it was suggested the tale refers to Pope Sylvester the Second.”

To my alarm, Augustus pulls out of his pocket a cell phone, taps its face, and says into it, “Pope Sylvester the Second.”

“Augustus,” I declare, “when have you adopted modern ways?”

He tries to suppress a smile. “It’s a gift from Duckworth. He wanted a phone with more bells and whistles, and gave me his old one.”

Augustus studies his screen. “I am afraid Sylvester does not appear to be our innocent lad, but a rather competent scholar, pretty much a mathematician and astronomer. I see some curious legends about him and the devil, also something about a talking bronze head, but no doves.”

Augustus searches around on his phone some more. “Pope Fabian the First looks like a better candidate. He was selected pope when a dove landed on his head. Doves, however, are a common association with popes,” Augustus concludes.

“How about dogs and frogs?”

“None,” he says, “not according to what I am seeing.”

“Reminds me,” I say, “of the agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac who stayed up all night wondering if there really was a dog.”

Augustus chuckles. “The role of the frogs in the story does bother me. They are usually associated with pagan magic.”

“As in The Three Feathers?” I suggest.

Johannes’s ears flicker, I think from interest.

“Quite,” Augustus nods. “Why are the frogs prophesizing the lad’s rising to become pope? It’s as though they are looking down from a higher perspective. And why are they being paired with the doves, as animal helpers, to bring the hero to the papal throne?

“The tale does not exactly follow the usual fairy-tale patterns but does not feel like a literary tale either. I can’t help but sense there is a lack of balance in this story, especially when it comes to a sudden halt at the end.”

Thalia is not alone.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2018 The Three Languages – Part Three

Three Languages dove

Unbalanced

As I Return with an ounce of Traveler’s Due, my new favorite tobacco, Johannes grumbles in my ear.

“I went out in the rain for that? He wasn’t even close.”

Not wanting to appear to be a crazy old man talking to himself with a cat on his shoulder, I hold my comments until we are safely in my foyer.

“He did raise some questions to be answered,” I say, letting my furry traveler back onto the armoire.

I follow Johannes down the hall back to the study. “Neither you nor Augustus is peeking beneath the surface.”

“Well, then,” I say, poking up the embers on the hearth and throwing on a few more logs, “what do you see underneath the story?”

Johannes settles on my table close to the fireplace. “The lad learns the language of dogs, birds, and frogs. Each creature is a representative of the three animal kingdoms: mammals, birds, and reptiles.”

I tamp my new favorite into my pipe. “It is tempting to think about earth, air, and water.”

“No, the elements do not have language, and you are forgetting about fire,” Johannes protests.

“Not so fast.” I like this notion of mine. “The dogs are creatures of the earth, the material world. They bring to the hero the material comfort of gold.

“The frogs are creatures of the water. I am going to equate them with wisdom and learning. They tell our hero of the future.”

Johannes sighs with a hint of contempt, but I push on.

“The birds are creatures of the air. They obviously represent the spiritual aspect, giving the hero the words to the Mass. What do you think?”

Johannes shakes his head. “You’re forgetting all about the languages. Language is the instrument of learning. The dogs instruct the lad how to get the gold. The frogs instruct the lad about what is coming, and birds instruct him how to say the Mass.”

“Isn’t that a variant of my interpretation?”

He eyes me without responding.

“Alright,” I relent, “your message is we should listen to the animals?”

“You would do well.”

He may have a point.

“Still,” I say, “there remains the imbalance of which Augustus spoke. The tale does not follow the usual tropes. There is no kind act the hero performs for the animal helpers, who then return the favor. Each of the animal helpers does not have its own ‘act’ in the story. The dogs do, but the frogs and doves are part of the same scene.  And that scene ends abruptly with no ‘and they lived happily ever after.’”

I know I am ranting a bit.

“And what of the hero being taken out to be killed, but his father’s henchmen let him go, substituting the eyes and tongue of a deer. In fairy tales the intended victim has always been a female, such as Snow White. Why the gender shift?”

“Notice,” Johannes responds, almost purring, “it’s the tongue and not the usual heart. Again, something to do with language.”

I had not caught that, but his comment does not answer my questions. I feel unbalanced by the tale.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2017 The Wren – Part One

Wren three Dugald Stewart Walker2 Dugald Stewart Walker

Afternoon Tea

Because Melissa closes her shop on Sundays, we have fallen into the habit of afternoon tea at the Vaults on the campus of Oxford, in the medieval Congregation House. The “vaults” refers to the room’s wooden, gothic arches, the rest of its decor consisting of white-plaster walls and lead-glass windows. We always order the sourdough toast and jam to go along with our tea.

“Tell me, what was Thalia’s story for last night?” Melissa asks, while we wait for our order.

“Thalia decided she wanted an animal story. Well actually, it was Teddy who wanted the animal story.”

“Of course,” Melissa comments with solemnness.

“Scanning the table of contents my eyes fell upon The Wren and the Bear, which I guessed to be totally appropriate for Teddy. Fortunately, I glanced at the last paragraph discovering the bear got the short end of the stick, as it were.”

“Is Teddy a prideful bear?” Melissa’s brow knits.

“I don’t think so, but nonetheless, I recalled the other wren story in Grimm, simply called The Wren.

“It has a charming opening that declares that in the olden days every sound had meaning. The smith’s hammer said, ‘Smite hard. Smite hard.’ And the carpenter’s rasp said, “That’s it. That’s it.’”

“That is charming. How does the story go?” Melissa glanced toward the counter at the other end of the room, annoyed, I think, that our waiter seemed to have disappeared.

“Besides tools having language, so did the birds; each species had their own, but all understood the other. . . .”

One day the birds decided they wanted a king to rule over them. All except the peewit, who flew about calling, “Where am I to live? Where am I to live?” until it found a home in a lonely swamp and never came out.

The other birds decided on a contest to see who could fly the highest, and that bird would be the king. They all started out flying upward, but quickly the smaller birds fell behind until it was only the eagle that could rise above the others. The birds below declared, “He is the king. No one can fly higher.”

“Except me!” shouted a little bird that the story tells us had no name. It clung unnoticed to the eagle’s breast feathers and not having spent any effort, it quickly flew above all the others. It rose so high it could see God seated on His throne before it descended back to earth.

“I am the king. I am the king,” the little bird announced to the others.

They would have no part of its trickery and decided their king would be the one who could go deepest into the earth. The chickens shallowed out holes in the ground. The duck went down into a gully. But the little bird squeezed down a deep mousehole, declaring, “I am the king. I am the king.”

The birds had had enough. They posted the owl to guard the mousehole and prevent the little bird from escaping until it starved to death.

That night, all the birds went home, leaving the owl to his duty. When he got sleepy he rested one eye, keeping the other on guard. After a time he rested that eye, opening the other to stand guard. This worked well far into the night until he closed one eye and forgot to open the other. With that, the little bird escaped.

From then on, the owl could not show his face during the day without the other birds scolding him and the little bird took to hiding in bushes. He became mockingly known as the king of the hedges. Still, at times, he’d announce, “I am the king. I am the king.”

Melissa looks up with pleasure in her eyes. I smell the sourdough toast before I see the waiter. She and I settle into our afternoon tea.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2017 The Wren – Part Two

Wren two Jack Yeats Jack Yeats

About Wrens

“Are you familiar,” asks Melissa, “with the Wren Hunt?”

“The Wren Hunt? That rings a bell.” I wrestle with my aged brain as I sip my tea. “Now I remember. Yes, I heard about it from Reverend Armstrong during a visit to Miss Cox’s garden last year. It has to do with Christmas and mumming. Oh! I see what you’re getting at.”

“Quite,” reflects Melissa biting into her toast. “It is particularly Celtic, though not exclusively. Young boys, around Saint Stephen’s Day, would capture and kill a wren hiding in the hedges. Then, dressed up in outlandish costumes—more like Halloween than Christmas—they trooped from house to house, creating a cacophony with flutes and drums, carrying the poor little carcass suspended from the end of a pole carried upright, almost like a crucifix really, and declaring it to be the king. Again, like Halloween, the young boys expected treats from each household. The event culminated in the burial of the wren with a penny outside the cemetery wall.”

The Wren,” I speculate, “is a German tale. The Wren Hunt is a Celtic tradition. Yet the connection between the two is pretty obvious.”

Melissa eye’s are unfocused in thought as she sips her tea.

“There is a song that goes along with the mumming.

“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds . . .”

Melissa pauses for a moment.

“St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,

Although he was little his honour was great,

Jump up me lads and give him a treat.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

And give us a penny to bury the wren.”

“That’s not much of a treat that the poor wren gets,” I say.

“The song goes on longer, but that is the part I remember.”

“You think the idea of the wren as king is of Celtic origin?” I savor another bit of toast.

“Well, the history behind the Wren Hunt is complex, but the bit of mythology that resonates with me come from the Isle of Man, if I remember correctly, about the fairy queen Tehi Tegi. She was very beautiful, so much so men followed her anywhere, hoping to marry her, forgetting about their own wives, children, livestock, and fields. She did have the nasty habit of leading them to the river and drowning them. The women pleaded with Manannán to rid them of Tehi Tegi. Manannán banished her to the far cold north, but at her pleading relented and let her return home once a year for half a day on Saint Stephen’s Day. However, if she is found she can be beat to death. She returns in as small a form as she can, that of a tiny wren, who is hard to spot hiding in the hedges.”

“How did a Christian holiday get into a Celtic myth?” My fakelore radar is up.

Melissa smiles. “I suspect these tales were often recorded by Christian monks who filled in some obvious oversights. That and the uneducated populace pulling together more than one notion floating about in their culture. Then there was the storyteller, who wanted to make a good tale with audience appeal, if at the expense of history.”

That I’ll buy. I do need to run these thoughts by Augustus.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2017 The Wren – Part Three

The wren one Gold Crested Wren

Encyclopedia Augustus

Tea with Melissa and a smoke in the company of Augustus make for a pleasant Sunday. Augustus fancies himself an amateur folklorist with a particular expertise in the Grimm canon. I haven’t decided if he is inordinately intelligent or has a photographic memory. In either case I am jealous of his retention of information, mine having more in common with a sieve.

The scent and fog of Shee Shadow, Augustus’s latest blend, which we both sample, fills the space between us, we ensconced in our comfy chairs.

The Wren,” says Augustus. “I am a little concerned how to regard that tale.”

“My friend Melissa feels it is of Celtic origins.”

“Greek.”

“Really? Not all fairy tales are of Greek origin, if many are,” I protest.

“Aristotle referred to this story, as well as Pliny, who in his Natural History writes that there is a standing argument between the eagle and the wren over the title ‘king of the birds.’ Interestingly, Pliny was talking about the gold crested wren, which has golden markings on its head, like a little crown.”

I am a little sullen. I like things to be Celtic or Nordic in origin, but the Greeks always steal the show. “What are your concerns over this tale?”

Augustus taps out his pipe. “Too much Cavendish. I think I’ll reblend it with less.”

For a moment I think he will ignore my question, but then he continues.

“The story is old, but that does not mean it comes down to us in its original form. I think someone’s messed with it.”

“What is your evidence?” He has got my interest.

Augustus hesitates. “I have no evidence. However, in the Grimms’ version there are characters that have no role in forwarding the tale, but are there, I believe, for another purpose.

“Consider the peewit saying, “Where shall I live?” not wanting to be under a king. The tree frog saying, “No! No! No! No!” afraid the peace would be disturbed. The crow calling, “Caw, Caw,” to say all would be well.”

Augustus rises and goes to his bookcase, pulling out his battered copy of Grimm, a bit more battered that Thalia’s. He quotes from its contents.

“Even the cuckoo came, and the hoopoe, his clerk, who is so called because he is always heard a few days before him.”

Augustus scans for a moment.

“The hen, which by some accident had heard nothing of the whole matter, was astonished at the great assemblage. ‘What, what, what is going to be done?’ she cackled; but the cock calmed his beloved hen, and said, ‘Only rich people,’ and told her what they had on hand.”

Augustus scans some more.

“There is a duck crying, ‘Cheating, cheating’ and a lark singing, ‘Ah, how beautiful that is! Beautiful that is! Beautiful, beautiful! Ah, how beautiful that is!’”

I’d forgotten to tell Melissa about almost all of these birds, but Augustus is right, they do not forward the story.

“And you think they are there, why?” I inquire.

“I am guessing this tale has been manipulated to be political commentary of that time, rather like a political cartoon today. Remember, in the Grimms’ day the Holy Roman Empire, with all its failings, was degenerating in the face of rising nationalism. Those birds may have represented historic characters, or governmental stereotypes identifiable to the lower-class listeners, who enjoyed the humor of poking fun at their betters.”

Not a bad idea, but he is right; there is too much Cavendish in the blend.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2017 The True Bride – Part One

True Bride Feathers Rebecca from flickr

Wilhelm Visits

I haven’t seen Wilhelm’s ghost in my study for some time. Why he is here now I cannot guess. He stands beside my comfy chair pointing to my copy of his work on the table.

Sensing his want, I open it to the table of contents. He motions for me to turn the page, then again, then again. He points to the entry for tale 186, The True Bride. As he does so I hear Thalia trundling down the hall.

She and Teddy enter the study, pushing open the heavy door, which grinds a little on its hinges. She waves casually to Wilhelm, who returns her acknowledgement with a reverent nod.

As Thalia crawls into my lap, I say, “I think Wilhelm wants me to read to you The True Bride.”

OK.” She hugs Teddy close to her. Wilhelm settles into the other comfy chair.

The story starts as the evil stepmother assigns difficult tasks to our heroine. The stepmother crosses the line when she demands the girl separate twelve pounds of feathers from their quills or be beaten.

In her distress, the girl cries out, “Is there no one on God’s earth who will take pity on me?” An old woman appears and bids her to sleep, assuring her the work will be done when she awakes.

The stepmother, stunned to see the task accomplished, criticizes her stepdaughter for not doing more.

Thalia’s fairy flutters into the room and alights on my sleeve.

“My, but this is a special evening,” I declare. Thalia giggles and Wilhelm remains solemn.

The stepmother, determined to justify a beating, assigns the girl the task of emptying the farm pond with a slotted spoon. Again, the old woman intercedes while the girl sleeps.

Furious, the stepmother demands the girl build her a castle in one day. For the old woman and sleeping maiden, it can be done in almost an instant.

Determined to find fault, the stepmother inspects the castle. When she enters the cellars to see if they are well stocked, the trapdoor slams down on her head, killing her.

The maiden inherits her stepmother’s castle with all of its stock, stores, and wealth. Suitors flock to her door and she chooses one.

Sitting under a linden tree, her bridegroom asks her to remain there until he gets permission from his father to marry her, promising to return in a few hours. She kisses him on the left cheek, declaring, “Remain true to me and don’t let anyone kiss you on this cheek.”

Three days later she decides she’d better go find him. She takes with her three dresses. No one can tell her what has happened to him. She hires herself out to a farmer to tend his sheep.

“Wait,” says Thalia. “Doesn’t she have a castle and gold and all that?”

“Yes,” I say cautiously. “But that does not seem to matter. Without her love, she is poor.” Wilhelm gestures with a thumb in the air in agreement.

The maiden hears that her prince is to marry another. Twice he passes by this shepherdess without recognition. Having learned there is to be three nights of entertainment before the wedding, she dons her dresses of the golden sun, silver moon, and bright stars in succession over the three nights. The prince will dance with no one else.

On the last night he asks her why he thinks he has known her before. She kisses him on the left cheek and all remembrance returns to him.

They flee from that place, returning to the magic castle, and there they wed.

“Cool,” says Thalia.

The fairy and Wilhelm sigh in contentment.

 

Fairy Tales of the Month: August 2017 The True Bride – Part Two

True bride Castle Cawdor Castle – postcard  by Bert Towle

Fairy Companion

I slip out into the night air leaving the study door open behind me. Across the lawn lies the Magic Forest. To my surprise, Thalia’s fairy follows, fluttering to alight on my shoulder.

To engage her, I comment, “Wilhelm chose a good story for us tonight. I believe Thalia quite enjoyed it.”

The fairy flutters up for a second and alights again. I take that as a nod of agreement.

“I’ve come outside,” I tell her, “to wander about and contemplate why this tale, The True Bride, is not better known.

She flies about my head two times, landing on my other shoulder. I think she wants me to say more.

“Well, it’s got all the basic, expected motifs. Let me enumerate.

“First is the ever-popular evil stepmother doling out onerous tasks to her stepdaughter, who is friendless; not even her father seems to be there to protect her.

“Thinking of that, it is typical that the fathers tend to disappear during the course of these tales. In this case, he is not referred to at all. The tale tells us there is a stepmother, which infers the maiden’s father has remarried, but the words ‘father’ or ‘husband’ do not appear in this part of the story. This tale is a fine example of the disappearing father motif. In any case, the stepmother is free to do as she wills.”

The fairy flies up and hovers in front of me. Her little bell-like voice chimes out,

“Love fathers and mothers,

and all sorts of others.

But the steps. Oh the steps.

Satanic to their depths.”

I am charmed as she settles back on my shoulder.

“Also,” I gather my thoughts again, “there are the impossible tasks posed by the stepmother that lead to the invoking of the old woman, certainly a fairy godmother.”

My companion leaps up again radiating indignation.

“Fairies, fairies, not so contrary,

be we big or small as berries.

We will help you, my mortal being,

but tag us not with godly naming.”

“Oh, sorry,” I say. Delicate and sensitive creatures are they not. It never crossed my mind, yet certainly fairies and godmothers serve different masters. The two words should not be put together. She settles again on my shoulder as I stray farther into the Magic Forest.

“I am thinking now,” I continue, “about the three tasks. The first is unusual. I am more familiar with picking lentils from the ashes, or finding millet seeds strewn across the garden. Of separating feather fluff from their quills I have not heard.

“Emptying a pool with a slotted spoon I don’t recall from other stories either, although ladling water from a spring with a sieve is similar and far more familiar.

“Building a castle in one day or one night returns us to a common trope.

“What I find entertaining is the rather grand escalation of the stepmother’s demands, from feathers to a castle, followed by the irony of the castle passing to the stepdaughter after the stepmother, as I think the story suggests, destroys herself in the pursuit of finding fault.”

Sitting on my shoulder, the fairy tones into my ear,

“To do the task,

of which you’re asked,

will show your soul

to be as gold.”

On impulse, she launches from my shoulder and disappears into the darkening forest.

 

Fairy Tales of the Month: August 2017 The True Bride – Part Three

Psyche Burne-Jones_Cupid_and_Psyche Edward Burne-Jones, Cupid and Psyche

Wandering Thoughts

My now-solitary wandering though the Magic Forest brings me to the foot of the Glass Mountain, where I sit on a crystal boulder admiring steep, translucent cliffs. I let my thoughts do the further wandering.

There is no glass mountain in The True Bride, but it does not miss many of the other common motifs. Halfway through the story we have had the evil stepmother, fairy godmother, three difficult tasks, and the final retribution, which is usually enough for a fairy tale, but with this one we enter into Act Two.

Since the story starts out with a maiden in distress, it almost has to end with her in marriage. But the marriage does not occur without a struggle. Enter the motif of the disappearing bridegroom. (The disappearing male is something of a pattern in these tales.)

Speaking of disappearing, I wonder where the fairy has gone.

The disappearing bridegroom goes back to the story of Cupid and Psyche. I suspect the fairy-tale reference comes directly out of the second-century novel by Lucius Apuleius, Metamorphoses.

Not only does the disappearing bridegroom come out of Apuleius’s work, but also the three-difficult-tasks motif, including the separation of seeds (lentils, millet seeds) so familiar to us fairy-tale geeks. Ants preformed this task for the put-upon Psyche.

In Metamorphoses Psyche has two sisters, who are jealous of her luck, and try to ruin it with bad advice. Eventually they destroy themselves trying to best their lovely, younger sister. Again, these themes are not unknown to the lovers of fairy tales. Beauty and The Beast is pretty much a simplified rewriting of Apuleius’s tale.

Where is that fairy?

The weakness of our tale may be the lack of explanation for the prince’s failure to return to his betrothed. The tale suggests he fell under a spell, but how that came about we are left to conjecture. I would have liked to have heard it.

Usually the fairy tales are quite blunt about the sequence of events that lead a character to act as they do. To have to infer the action, as our tale demands of us, is rare.

That is not to say that typically fairy tales are descriptive. They are not. The True Bride is well within its genre when it never tells us the names of the heroine, stepmother, godmother, or prince. The maiden’s father receives no attention. We never hear our heroine’s internal thoughts. We do not know what anyone looks like. OK, the story tells us the maiden is young and beautiful. How generic is that?

As readers or listeners of fairy tales, we accept these literary shortcomings as integral to the genre, but to leave the audience in the dark as to what may have happened “off stage” diminishes this story’s popularity.

Also, I can’t help but feel the coming of the suitors could have had a better story arc. The competition for her affections held the potential for drama, in this case missed.

Short of these criticisms, the kiss on the left cheek alone should override my quibbling. I simply don’t know why this is not a more popular tale.

Thalia’s fairy reappears.

“Before your heart flees from your breast,

per demons released by sunset,

let us depart with a good fart,

to let night know we are stalwart.”

I take note; fairies are earthy and crass. But she is right. I must not stay in the Magic Forest any longer. Night approaches.

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part One

seahare image color2 Anonymous

A What?

It is a joy to me when Melissa visits my study. Not only is there her companionship, but also the duty of the evening read is transferred when Thalia and Teddy crawl into her lap. Not that I mind reading to my granddaughter, but I like being read to as well. I cradle my glass of wine in my hands and settle in for a story.

Thalia, ritualistically, closes her eyes and circles her finger above the book’s table of contents, stabbing it down impulsively.

“Didn’t you read that one last night?” asks Melissa.

The finger circles again and strikes.

The Sea-Hare,says Melissa. “I’m not sure even I have read this one. ‘Once upon a time there was a king’s daughter . . .’”

And, as so often happens, she did not want to marry. Being a princess, she could set her conditions for marriage. She declared she would marry no one but the man who could hide from her and not be found.

That sounded easy enough, but at the start of the story, the heads of ninety-seven suitors found their way to the tops of pikes for the failure of their owners.

The princess had at her disposal a magical device in the form of a tower at the top of which was a rotunda with twelve windows that looked out across her realm. From the first window she could see everything more clearly than any person looking out their own window. From the second window she could see more clearly yet, and so on until from the twelfth window she could see everything above and beneath the earth.

Enter the three brothers to be her suitors. Starting with the eldest, followed by the second, the princess need only go to the first window to find the eldest hiding in a lime pit and the second in the castle basement.

The youngest requests a day of grace to reflect and three chances to hide. The princess in her confidence, grants his request. The next day, he reflects by going out hunting and, in the spirit of granting requests, refrains from shooting three creatures: a raven, a fish, and a fox.

As I sip my wine, it crosses my mind that these creatures are of the air, water, and earth.

On the first day of hiding, the young man goes to the raven, who hides him in its egg. The princess is at the eleventh window before she finds him. The raven is shot and the egg retrieved.

On the second day, the young man seeks out the fish, who swallows him and swims to the bottom of a lake. The princess is at the twelfth window before she spots the young man, sealing the fish’s fate.

On the third day he goes to the fox, who is up to the task. By dipping themselves into a spring, the fox is transformed into a merchant and the young man into a pretty little sea-hare. They go into the town market where the sea-hare attracts much attention until notice of it comes to the princess, who buys the little creature from the merchant. The fox/merchant tells the young man to creep into the princess’s braids before she goes into the tower of the twelve windows.

The twelfth window fails her and in rage she slams the window shut so violently all twelve windows shatter. At that moment she discovers the sea-hare hiding in her braids and, still angry, chases it from the room.

Soon the young man returns in his true form and they are married, the princess holding him in respect, thinking to herself, he did in fact outwit her.

“Sea-hare?” Thalia stares at Melissa.

“As far as I know,” Melissa is doubtful, “it’s a sea slug.”

“I . . . don’t . . . think . . . so,” Thalia replies with evident seriousness.

“I’ll ask Augustus,” I assure them.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part Two

Seahare image two Cartoon from the French Revolution

Lake Bunny?

I know Augustus’s tobacco shop is not of the same order as Miss Cox’s garden or the Magic Forest, but for me there is a sense of the magical in its air, or is it simply the dense, blue smoke of tobacco?

There is already a gentleman in the testing room, ensconced in one of the comfy chairs, as Augustus and I enter, an engaging fellow, slim, with a mustache greyer than the hair on his head. Augustus gestures to the pipe of Fairies’ Delight he is sampling.

“You approve?”

The gentleman nods his consent.

“Mr. Richard Martin here is another of my fairy-tale aficionados. We may speak freely.”

I introduce myself and we settle in.

“And what is the story of contention today?” Augustus reaches for the pipe tool, handing it to me.

The Sea-Hare.” I tamp down my tobacco.

Ah, Das Meerhäschen,” says Richard. “A latecomer to the Grimm canon. It turns up in the last edition.”

“What bothers me,” I say, lighting my pipe, “is the intrusion of an ink-spewing sea slug into the middle of a fairy tale.”

Richard laughs. “Nothing of the sort. Wilhelm borrowed this story from a book of Transylvanian Saxon folktales—putting a few of his own touches on it. ‘Meerhäschen’ simply appears to be the Saxon word for ‘rabbit.’ ”

“Still,” says Augustus, “there is the ‘meer’ part of the name.”

“Well, yes,” Richard relights his pipe, “meaning ‘sea’ or ‘lake,’ and ‘häschen’ is a little or young hare.”

“I agree the creature is not a sea snail.” Augustus raises his finger in pronouncement. “Jack Zipes preferred ‘little hamster’ in his translation. But, note, the creature caused something of a stir in the marketplace, enough to bring the princess’s attention to it, as the fox planned. The creature is unusual. I am thinking it is more along the lines of a composite creature, like the American jackalope.”

“The Germans have those creatures too,” says Richard, “but then the word would be ‘Wolpertinger.’ ”

This man knows his German.

“My vote,” he continues, “is for the guinea pig.”

“Isn’t that a South American critter?” I say between puffs of smoke.

“The conquistadors brought it back from Peru in the sixteenth century, which confirms Augustus’s notion the creature was unusual, a novelty the princess could not resist, showing us a softer side to this otherwise cold-blooded young woman, and perhaps dating this section of the story. The sea-hare just might mean ‘the rabbit from over the sea.’”

Augustus frowns a little. He does not like his pet theories abolished.

“My favorite part though,” Richard goes on, “is the twelve windows. What an image. I see the windows as an intimidating extension of her domineering personality, and the number twelve shows her frightening omnipotence over everything.”

“Not a common motif,” remarks Augustus. “Certainly the number twelve is common in the tales: The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Twelve Huntsmen, The Twelve Brothers, The Twelve Lazy Servants. But these stories have to do with twelve persons, not objects, almost shadowing the twelve apostles.”

Richard considers. “There is a Slavic tale of the twelve months, but even they are personified. On the whole, I think you’re right.”

“I took note,” I say, “of the hundred pikes with ninety-nine heads on them. This is lifted out of the Celtic tales. The Celts were fond of severed heads, not just as a means of killing someone—as the French were—but also as objects for display, even treasured objects, one might say.”

“I am concerned,” concludes Augustus, “that the twelve windows have no motif-history, the heads on pikes are borrowed, and we do get into the princess’s thought processes—a literary convention. Given these flags, I believe, quite honestly, this story is not a traditional fairy tale. I get the sense it has been tampered with a bit too much.”

Richard and I nod sagely.

Fairy Tales of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part Three

Seahare fairy and frog Ida R. Outwaite

Still Water

Melissa and I, poised on the rock rim above the nixie’s pond, continue to stare into the dark of the water. I call again.

“Hello, my nixie.” I rattle my bag of popcorn. Nixie bait, Melissa calls it.

The water is impossibly smooth, reflecting the moon so clearly I think it floats under the surface of the pond.

“I guess,” I whisper, “we’ll not get an answer from her about magical springs turning foxes into merchants and young men into meerhäschens.”

“That’s alright,” Melissa’s voice is soft. “It’s not the question that’s been rolling around my mind.”

“What is your question?”

“It’s, you might say, about the missing persons.”

“Come again?”

“This story, the Sea-Hare, is full of missing persons.”

“Who?”

“Well, to start, the king.”

“He’s not in the story.”
“Exactly. Yet the story starts, ‘Once upon a time there was a king’s daughter . . . .’ Throughout the story she is referred to as the princess. Logically, if her father, the king, is dead, and there are no siblings mentioned, she should be queen. But she remains a princess, inferring the father is around, but he has gone missing.”

“I take your point.” I glance at the motionless water. “Many times the stories start with a father figure who quickly disappears without explanation.”

Melissa tilts her head. “Apparently her mother is missing as well. That’s a little unusual. The girl seems parentless.

“Then,” she continues, “there are the two brothers.”

“What? They are accounted for. Their heads top off pikes ninety-eight and ninety-nine.”

“Yes and no. Their younger brother acts as if they never existed. Consider, he pursues and marries the woman who caused his brothers’ deaths, with never a suggestion of retribution. Our hero now lives in a castle on the grounds of which are ninety-nine rotting heads, two of which are his brothers, and no word of a decent burial. The Greeks would never have put up with that.”

It crosses my mind she and I are talking in hushed tones. One would think we are conspirators.

“You are trying,” I suggest, “to apply literary plot concerns to traditional tales.”

“No, no. I am not criticizing the tale’s structure. I am talking about me, the one experiencing the story. Sorry, but I have been thinking about this all day.”

“Ah,” I realize, “another slow day at the bookshop.”

Melissa gives me her sad smile. “There are days I don’t know if I am a proprietor or a hermit, but it does give me time to think, and today’s thought was: Why did I, upon first encountering this story, accept the ninety-seven heads as so much decoration, not question the king or queen’s whereabouts, and thoughtlessly kick aside the two brothers, in order to follow the hero. What is the mechanism of the fairy tale that allows me to be so unconcerned and heartless for the other characters?”

“That has bothered me as well, especially when reading the tales to Thalia. Am I subliminally passing on attitudes of insensitivity and heartlessness? I have decided I am not.

“I think of it as the fairy-tale spotlight. Like on a stage—In my imagination, a musical—there may be other characters, dancers, stage settings, not to mention the orchestra and audience. But when the spotlight hits the lead, all else falls away, and should. Fairy tales do not try to depict the world; they illuminate one thought.”

Melissa’s eyes blink slowly. I believe she is content with that. I turn my attention back to the pond.

“I’m sorry she didn’t show.”

“It’s alright. I like being here.” She peers off into the darkness. “I feel I should belong in this place. Is it sacred ground?”

“Perhaps,” I comfort. “Have some popcorn.”

Your thoughts?

PS. My thanks to Richard for his help with translating the title.