Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2020 The Red Cow – Part One

Red Cow_mosaic_abduction_europa Mosaic 200 CE, Abduction of Europa

Fortieth Floor

Melissa and I peruse the brunch menu of the Duck and Waffle. I realize I am clutching the menu in both hands, tamping down a surge of vertigo. Our table is next to the floor-to-ceiling windows on the fortieth floor of the Heron Tower overlooking London. And I really mean overlooking London. I am sure I could see all of it from here if I dared look. I allow my eyes to scan the floor, with its lovely blue and white tiles, and the strange, old wine-bottle chandeliers attached to the ceiling—but not its windows.

“I’m thinking of the Spiced Dhal,” Melissa states.

“What’s that?”

“Lentil stew with poached hen’s egg and cumin flatbread.”

Of course I’m going for the Duck and Waffle, their signature dish and namesake. I do love mustard and maple syrup.

“I’ve found a story,” Melissa says as she folds close her menu, “that I’d like to read to Thalia. One of the Evald Tang Kristensen stories Stephen Badman translated, The Red Cow.

“Ah, well,” I say, “entertain me.”

The king is under the onus placed on him by his deceased wife that he not remarry any other woman than the one who can fit into her black dress. His daughter, while sporting with her maids, tries on the black dress, which fits her perfectly. The king declares he will marry her.

On the verge of killing herself, she is approached by an old woman who gives her two pieces of advice. One, to insist that her father give her a dress made of crows’ bills or she will not marry him. Second, failing that, she go to the red cow for help.

The king, with a mass slaughter of crows, produces the desired dress. The princess runs to the red cow’s stall and tells the cow her woes. The cow instructs her to fetch the crows-bill dress, open up the stall, and climb onto her back. They quickly flee the kingdom.

Then the cow tells the princess to stand on her back and tell her what the princess sees. She sees copper-colored shimmering. The cow explains that it is the copper forest through which they must pass. If the princess picks a leaf from a tree, the cow will have to fight and defeat the bull of the forest. The princess promises not to pluck a leaf.

Our waiter arrives, and Melissa and I order. Handing the menus back to the waiter, I turn to Melissa. “She picks a leaf, of course,” I say.

“Of course. This is a fairy tale.”

The pattern repeats itself with a silver forest and a gold forest. The cow tells the princess to climb off her back, then defeats each of the increasingly larger bulls, each in their turn, the first battle taking a day, the second two days, and the third three days. The cow’s recovery from each battle is the same number of days as the battle, but the cow never complains of the princess’s broken promises.

For a fourth time the cow tells the princess to stand on her back and tell her what the princess sees; the princess sees what she thinks is a green bush. The cow corrects her and tells her it is a green hill, beyond which is the castle that is their destination. The princess must leave the red cow, go to the castle, and ask for employment in the kitchen. This the princess succeeds in doing.

On Sunday, the princess is left behind in the kitchen to prepare supper for everyone as they attend church. The princess goes to the red cow, who tells her to put on the crows-bill dress, take the copper leaf, go to church, and the cow will take her place in the kitchen. On leaving the church, before everyone else, she must take the copper leaf, throw it to the ground and recite a charm. No one will see her leave, return to the kitchen, and take on her old disguise.

The next Sunday is the same, the princess dropping the silver leaf, but not before catching the prince’s attention. On the third Sunday, the prince manages to chase after her and grab her shoe before she disappears.

“Ah,” I say, “the Cinderella motif. He uses the shoe to find her.”

“Of course,” Melissa nods. “There is a party and every woman must try on the shoe. It’s the queen who realizes that it is the kitchen maid who has not tried it on. The shoe fits and the princess produces the crows-bill dress. The prince is delighted to find out she really is a princess.

“Interestingly, the father of the princess is invited to the wedding to give away the bride.”

“And all lived happily ever after?”

“Of course.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2020 The Red Cow – Part Two

Red Cow crow Audubon

Good Meal

“Crows-bill dress,” I say as the waiter arrives with our order, giving me a sideways glance. I refrain from speaking again until he is out of earshot. “What an unusual request.”

Melissa tests her lentil stew, followed by an approving nod. “A father wanting to marry a daughter is a motif, and she demanding a hopefully unattainable wedding dress is the usual response.

“In Donkey Skin the demand is for three dresses, equal to the blue of the sky, the silver of the moon, and the brilliant gold of the sun. In all the variants, these dresses are produced by the father.”

“The tale would not go on if they weren’t, but a dress made of crows’ bills?” I consider whether to start with the duck or the waffle.

“In another variant,” Melissa says between mouthfuls, “All Fur, besides the three dresses, she asks for a mantle made from all the birds and beasts of the kingdom. In Donkey Skin the fourth request is for a donkey skin, which is used as her disguise, as with the mantle in All Fur. Another variant is Catskin. I leave it to you to imagine what happens in that story.”

“Still,” I say, “a dress made of bird beaks?”

“Well,” Melissa picks up her flatbread, “I image it would be black and shiny. The story implies it is beautiful. And, oh,” Melissa pauses, “does it relate back to her mother’s black dress?”

“Hmmm,” I consider.

“But,” Melissa continues, “that is not why I want to read this to Thalia.”

The duck is delicious. “And your reason?” I ask.

“I see it as a feminist’s story.”

“OK,” I pause, my fork halfway to my mouth. “Explain.”

“I’ll start with the obvious. The protagonist is female.”

“Granted,” I say after delivering the fork to my mouth.

“Second, all of the helpers are female. There is the old woman who gives her advice, the red cow who is her savior, and even the queen who pops into the story for a second to bring the protagonist forward.

“With the exception of the prince—the reward—all the male figures have a negative aspect. Certainly the king, although they are reconciled at the end, is a harmful character. All the bulls—male figures—need to be defeated.”

“Wait,” I say, “what about the mother?”

“Well challenged.” Melissa spears her fork into her poached egg. “She is complex and unexplained.”

“Fairy tales are good at the unexplained,” I agree.

“Her motive for the black-dress test,” Melissa waves her fork in the air, “is unclear. Did she put that onus on her husband thinking that only a woman of quality could fit into her dress? Or did she think no other woman would fit into it? Or did she know only her daughter was the one?”

“The story does not say,” I quote myself, having said that many times before.

“The mother notwithstanding, I see the story as a triumph of the feminine over the masculine.”

I’m feeling slightly neutered, but I see her point.

“By the way,’ she says, “have you been taking in this view?” pointing her fork toward the window.

“No,” I say.

Melissa looks at me blankly. “Why ever not?”

“I’ve enjoyed my brunch,” I say. “It rests contently in my tummy. I want to keep it there.”

A moment of silence follows, interrupted by Melissa’s slightly hysterical laughter.

She can be unsympathetic.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2020 The Red Cow – Part Three

Red Cow St Dymphna

Well Maybe

“There was once a king and a queen. The queen was very ill and, before she died, she told the king that he should marry again.”

“‘You’ll know the one to wed when she puts on my black dress and it fits her perfectly.’”

Melissa’s voice lilts through my study as Thalia and her button-eyed Teddy, who are settled into Melissa’s lap, listen intently.

Their comfy chair is angled toward the fire in the hearth. My comfy chair is a bit behind theirs. I can discreetly use my computer tablet without annoying them. The tablet is a generous Christmas gift from Duckworth, who wants to keep me up-to-date.

Typing in “The Red Cow,” I think I will find the fairy tale. Instead, the tablet points me to the Wikipedia article on the Red Cow—also known as the Red Heifer. It tells me the Red Cow was a special, sacrificial animal in the Hebrew tradition. And not just any red cow, but one without spot or blemish and one that has never been yoked.

The Red Cow also appears in the Christian tradition in the Epistle of Barnabas (noncanonical), where the Red Cow is equated with Jesus, both said to be sacrificed by the Jews. Yes, there is an anti-Semitic undertone to the Epistle of Barnabas.

Might the common Danish listener at the time this story was told orally, before it was collected, recognize the connection between the Red Cow and Jesus?

“’Stand on my back and tell me if you can see anything in the distance.’”

“’There’s a copper shimmer on the horizon.’”

“’That comes from a wood where the trees are made of copper.’”

Melissa does have such a wonderful contralto, storytelling voice.

Before she started reading to Thalia, I grabbed her copy of Evald Tang Kristensen’s collection and found in the notes that Evald collected the story from a Niels Pedersen, which does not bolster Melissa’s claim that this is a feminist tale.

However, in reading on, I blundered across the note for The Blue Bullock, a title I had not noticed before. In this tale appears the same traveling bovine motif, but the protagonist is a young boy, who rides  on the bullock’s back and picks apples that he should not, causing the bullock to fight the bulls of the woods. In the third and last battle the bullock is killed. Has he died for the boy’s sins?

Then there is the slaughter of the crows for their beaks. Is this an echo of the slaughter of the innocents?

The greater sin in The Red Cow is the king wanting to marry his daughter. On my tablet, I search the keywords “fathers who want to marry their daughter” and come up with a link to Saint Dymphna.

According to tradition, she lived in the seventh century, the daughter of a pagan, Irish king and his Christian wife. At the age of fourteen, she consecrates herself to Christ and takes a vow of chastity. Shortly thereafter, her mother dies, and her father, who dearly loved his wife, becomes mentally unhinged and determines to marry his daughter, who closely resembles her mother.

She flees to Belgium in the company of her father confessor, two servants, and the king’s fool. Her father pursues her, and when she refuses to return to Ireland, he cuts off her head in a rage. She was only fifteen.

I much prefer the ending of The Red Cow to the ending of Saint Dymphna, but the origin of this uncomfortable motif is pretty clear to me. Not that the Danish peasants were well-read and we must remember the church services were spoken in Latin. Nonetheless, I imagine monks, some of whom were pretty earthy, explaining the stories behind the cathedrals’ stained-glass windows to the parishioners. Stories of the saints have been ever popular.

“’Light in front and dark behind, let no one see what becomes of me.’”

“She disappeared in front of the prince who had followed her out.”

I hear Melissa winding up the tale. Shall I tell her what I have stumbled across? I think not. Those with modern ears will hear this story to suit themselves. Archaic ears, steeped in Christian lore, may have heard a different story. I will let the past and present listeners decide for themselves. What of future listeners?

“. . . and there has never been a harsh word spoken between the prince and princess from that day to this.”

Your thoughts?