Of Little Consequence
Thalia had me read The Queen Bee three times before she would climb from my lap and amble off to bed, clutching her battered book and dragging her teddy bear.
In The Queen Bee the two eldest sons of a king have wandered off, ending up as wastrels. Their younger, simpleton brother goes out, finds them, and they travel on together. The youngest brother forbids the two eldest from harming ants, ducks, and bees for their pleasure.
They come to a castle, the stable for which houses stone horses in its stalls. They explore the castle, finding it empty except for a mute gray dwarf. The dwarf shows them hospitality for the evening and, in the morning, presents to the eldest brother three tablets that describe three tasks to be performed. The eldest takes up the challenge, the first task of which is to find a thousand pearls scattered in the forest. He fails and is turned into stone. The second brother suffers the same fate.
The third brother is helped by the creatures he spared. The ants gather the pearls, the ducks retrieve a key from the bottom of a lake, and a queen bee picks out the youngest sister from three sleeping princesses.
The spell is broken; the castle and its inhabitants return to life. Of course the youngest brother marries the youngest princess, they become king and queen, and the eldest two brothers are married off to the eldest two princesses.
“Again,” Thalia had said, upon returning to my study from her bedroom.
“I’ve read it three times.”
“I’m worried about the horses.”
“Oh! That part. I think I forgot to read that.” I reopened the book. “And when all the castle people returned to being themselves, including the stable boy, the horses nickered loudly for their grain. They hadn’t been fed in a long, long time.”
Satisfied, Thalia took back her book and, once again, toddled off with her teddy in tow.
Really, what about those stone horses?
It is one of the few descriptive details that the Grimms included in The Queen Bee, and certainly the most striking. What popped into my mind were the horses of the Wild Hunt in Tamlin:
O first let pass the black, lady,
And syne let pass the brown,
But quickly run to the milk-white steed,
Pu ye his rider down.
But certainly the horses of the Wild Hunt are not the stone horses.
Then there are the white horses with red ears seen by Childe Roland when he entered the fairy world and was obliged to cut off the head of the horse herder. These are not the stone horses either.
That the stone horses have a history, I have little doubt. Perhaps some teller, somewhere, at some time, could have made them up out of his or her imagination, but I am going to guess not.
My sense is that the old tellers were not out to surprise their listeners with something unusual and novel, but rather to present their audience with something familiar in new clothes. Often we find pieces of myth reflected in a fairy tale (A Sprig of Rosemary/Cupid and Psyche). Or a common spinning wheel becomes a device of magic (Sleeping Beauty).
One of the common crimes committed by modern-day storytellers and others who render these old tales for present consumption is to edit out elements no longer understood. How many twenty-first century children know about the duck in Hansel and Gretel, much less the cat and the pigeon on the roof?
I cannot say I know the significance of the stone horses, but when I tell that tale, or read it to Thalia, I leave in these immobile equine. Am I better off for facing my ignorance and passing it along, than to suppress those elements that cause us to wonder and question?
Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2012 The Queen Bee – Part Two
Perchance to Dream
The realm of the fairy tale and that place we go to when we dream may well be the same terrain. Those lands both share the feature of being surreal, always holding forth something inexplicable and unexplained to be treated as common fare within the illusion. The motif of the three sleeping princesses in The Queen Bee is one of those unexplained givens that populate the fairy tale.
In the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales we can find other sleeping princesses in the stories of Little Briar Rose, Snow White, and The Glass Coffin. The notion of the sleeping princess appears to be a borrowing from Germanic mythology. The Grimms boldly state in their notes that Briar Rose is the sleeping Brunhild of the Vőlsunga saga. There are various stories about the love between Brunhild and Sigurd, but common to them is Brunhild’s sleep within a ring of fire. Brunhild, one of the Valkyrie, offended Odin, who turned her into a mortal woman to be claimed by any man who could breach the magical flames. Only Sigurd had the strength and bravery to do so. Here was far too great an image to be left in the land of mythology. Storytellers quickly carried it off to the fairy-tale realm. (Content warning: this saga of love is mythological and therefore the romance ends badly, unlike fairy tales that, more than usually, end happily ever after, one of the defining differences between myths and fairy tales, as noted by Bruno Bettelheim.)
If I consider dreams and fairy tales as sharing the same ground, then how shall I view the three sleeping princesses, Briar Rose, or Snow White as they sleep within a dream?
The sleepers within the dream fall into a similar pattern. They are usually princesses for whom betrothal to a prince awaits them upon awakening. This sleep is not the property of commoners, although, in the case of the Grimms’ Little Briar Rose, everyone in the castle falls asleep, from the king to the kitchen boy; their sleep is conditional upon the princess’s sleep. In The Queen Bee it is implied that outside of the princesses all others are turned to stone, except their father, who is the gray dwarf. The Grimms’ Glass Coffin has a variation on the pattern in that the maiden is a daughter of a wealthy count, and the hero a tailor who rises in station with this marriage.
The sleeping-princess theme was popular with the Grimm brothers, but Giambattista Basile’sSun, Moon, and Talia and Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, are both examples of sleeping princesses that predate the Grimms’ works.
Despite slight differences in the common theme, the tales feature the same progression from sleep, to awakening, then to marriage.
The subliminal fascination of the above stories is the magical nature of the repose of girls transforming into women. In what realms did they wander while we saw them as unsurpassed beauties in a death-like slumber?
Fairy Tales of the Month: October 2012 The Queen Bee – Part Three
There is an October rose in Miss Cox’s garden, one solitary bloom that has not given up on summer although the calendar marches toward winter. Today it was visited by one lone bee. A worker bee of course, but it turned my mind again to The Queen Bee.
I have found the queen bee in a second Grimm tale, The Two Travelers, and in another German tale, Rosemaiden (found in The Seven Swabians and Other German Folktales.) In these tales she did heavy duty, making a castle of flowers in one story and a miniature castle of bee’s wax in the other, in each case fulfilling a young hero’s task. In The Queen Bee she needed only pick out the youngest of the identical three sisters. In all cases she was most helpful, taking her place among “The Grateful Animals,” which is Aarne-Thompson tale type 554.
These creatures are among the supernatural helpers so prolific in fairy tales. The grateful animals typically appear in sets of three who repay the hero for a kindness shown to them. In our fairy tale of the month they are ants, ducks, and bees, perhaps representing earth (ants), water (ducks), and air (bees). In The Two Travelers the supernatural helpers are a foal, a stork, a duck, and the queen bee (one more helper than the usual pattern allows).
Interestingly, in Rosemaiden the queen bee helps the hero at the beginning of the story entirely out of kindness. Later a raven, a fox, and a fish help the hero, as promised for having saved them in their moment of need.
Often there is only one helpful animal, as in Puss in Boots, where a young man’s inheritance from his father is a cat. The cat speaks to the lad, asking for a pair of boots and a bag, and goes about turning virtually nothing into great wealth for his master. The detail I find most interesting in Puss in Boots is the pair of boots that gives the cat almost human status, allowing him to be presentable to a king.
Another example of a sole animal helper is The Golden Bird. In this tale a fox inexhaustibly aids a foolish young man to win a princess. For his reward he asks the young man to slay him. Reluctantly the youth does, transforming the fox back into his human form, he having been a victim of enchantment. Along this line I could also cite The Frog King, in which the helpful but also annoying frog is actually an enchanted king.
All of these types of helpful and/or grateful animals are largely a European thing. Many other cultures are far less inclined toward talking animals. An animal talking to other animals is fine, but an animal talking to humans can be uncomfortable for non-Europeans. This kind of communication elevates them to human status, much like putting boots on a cat. Talking animals that are actually enchanted humans might be more acceptable, but, generally, talking animals are viewed as unnatural and offensive. At one time Alice in Wonderland was banned in China, largely because Alice conferred with dodos, mice, and mockturtles.
Curious to some other cultures is our willingness to elevate creatures to human status when we are as likely to eat, hunt, swat, or step upon them. What does that say about us?
The lone bee that flew about the October rose has come to settle on the sleeve of my coat. I wait for it to say something profound.