“My friend,” says Augustus, through the dense haze of our tobacco smoke, “let me tell you a story, for a change.”
I settle deeper into my comfy chair. “What story is that?”
Augustus draws deeply on his pipe, then exhales. “I have been delving into Aleksardr Afanas`er’s Russian Fairy Tales. These tales have a character quite different from the Grimm collection.”
“They tend to be blunt in message and yet fanciful in detail.”
“I think you are about to give me an example.”
“I am. The tale is called The Three Pennies.
A merchant has a worker who, at the end of a year, asks for his wages, but he takes only a penny, which he throws into a river, declaring the penny will float if he has served faithfully. The penny sinks. This happens three years running, but on the third attempt, all three pennies float on the water.
The worker takes the pennies, giving one to another merchant, asking him to buy a candle for him in the church, and light it before the icons.
“Icons?” I ask.
“Yes, holy paintings, very traditionally Russian.”
When the merchant takes out his pennies to buy candles in the church, the worker’s penny falls to the floor and bursts into flame. The surrounding worshippers light their candles from the penny’s flame.
The second penny is given to a third merchant to purchase something for the worker at the fair. The merchant purchases a cat from a little boy for the penny. The cat remains with the merchant when he sails to a foreign land overrun with rats. The cat is traded to the king of that land for three ships, which the merchant gives to the worker.
The worker sails to an island, climbs an oak tree, and hears the devil boasting to his comrades that he is about to steal the king’s daughter. The companions threaten to beat the devil with iron rods if he fails.
The worker goes to the king’s palace and lights his penny, which prevents the devil from stealing the princess. The devil receives his fate and, as well as being beaten, is thrown into a nameless place. The worker marries the princess.
“What nameless place?” I inquire.
“Those are the stories’ words.”
“Floating pennies that burst into flames,” I muse.
“Except for the one used to buy a cat,” Augustus corrects.
“I hope the boy who sold the cat didn’t get a surprise.”
Augustus and I puff silently for a while.
I break the silence, “I’m sensing the story is code for something. There are three pennies, three merchants, and three ships. There is no mention of a crew, I assume? He sails all three ships by himself?”
“No, no crew was mentioned, none whatsoever.”
“But code for what?” I wonder. “He can’t sail three ships without a crew, so the three ships mean something all of themselves, I suspect. They are planted in the story to stand for something.”
“What about the pennies?” says Augustus. “What do they stand for? Why does a burning penny ward off the devil? What about the cat that is worth a penny in one land and three ships in another? This story, for being short, is full of metaphors, I’ll suggest.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2021 The Three Pennies – Part Two
“Was Afanas`ev the collector of these tales? Did he leave notes?” I ask.
“No, he only, personally, collected a handful of the six hundred or so tales in his work. Most of them came from other collections to which he had access. Unfortunately, he was not too concerned about when and from where the tales came. He left some notes, but I couldn’t find anything concerning The Three Pennies.”
“Too bad.” I relight my pipe.
“However, I am willing to make wild guesses.”
“Feel free. I am all ears,” I encourage.
“The story reflects what I consider the three driving forces of any individual; the mystical, the practical, and the fanciful.
“The worker’s first penny is spent on the mystical. When it burst into flame in the church, it provided the light for all of the other worshippers’ votive candles. It is a sort of communion, a notion dear to the church.
“The second penny is invested with a merchant with which he speculate. The penny is used to purchase a cat that culminates in a trade for three ships. Not a bad return, but in any case, a practical transaction.
“The third penny is used to trick the devil. The worker cheats him from taking the princess for his own and gets to marry her himself. A worker outwitting the devil and marrying a princess is pretty fanciful, I’ll suggest.”
“Have you any idea,” I ask, “how this second burning penny is used to ward off the devil?”
“None. The story is rather skeletal, which brings me to my second wild and unfounded thought that this is one of those tales collected in the twelfth century that hasn’t acquired any literary veneer to improve it.”
“I’ve noticed this twelfth-century thing about fairy tales before. Why the twelfth century?”
“Oh, one of my favorite centuries. It is part of the High Middle Ages. It was the time of the crusades—Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. They started to build the Tower of Pisa, leaning from the start, if not by design. The magnetic compass was invented. Windmills came into use. Thomas Becket was murdered at the altar in his cathedral. Towns became important centers of commerce. Troubadours became a big thing. Glass windows made the scene. Sugar was introduced into the European diet from the Middle East.
“But more to our point, literacy was on the rise. The old cathedral schools became universities and more secular in nature. That is when Oxford University started and the University of Paris among others.
“Greek, Roman, and Arabic works began to circulate, especially those of science. The time has been referred to as the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.
“In that atmosphere, some authors took notice of folk stories and legends. Then is when the earliest King Arthur stories appeared. Along with them, fairy tales were recorded.”
Augustus pauses to refill his pipe. “The downside is that by recording the fairy tales, the authors unwittingly halted their further evolution. Once recorded, these living, changing entities were fixed in print.”
I can’t help but give a sigh.
Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2021 The Three Pennies – Part Three
Melissa is sitting behind the counter, reading as usual, as I enter her bookshop.
“My goodness,” she says, “here you are and it is not a Saturday.”
“I am on a bit of a mission. Do you have or can you order Afanas`ev’s Russian Fairy Tales?”
“Do you want the original, three-volume version in Russian?”
She is teasing me. She knows I cannot speak a word of another language. “English, please.”
“Actually, not all of his material has been translated, but Pantheon has a nice collection.”
I follow her as she moves from behind the counter, goes down one of the aisles, pulls a copy from its shelf but does not hand it to me. Rather she gestures to two of the cushioned reading chairs that populate her shop.
We sit down, she setting the book on the table in front of us and taking both my hands in hers.
I’m in trouble. I can never resist her.
“I need to make a request of you.” She hesitates and takes a deep breath. “I want to be able to go to the Magic Forest on my own. Is that possible? Can you arrange that?”
I am taken aback. “I don’t know. The Magic Forest simply appeared outside my exterior study door soon after my wife died. I did not call it into existence.”
She continues to hold my hands. “Might the nixie know a way?”
“We can certainly ask her or ask Old Rink Rank, but they are fey and I’ll guess a little secretive and indirect.”
“Do we have any other choice?” She releases my hands.
“Actually,” I say, as the thought comes to me, “yes, there is Ultima.”
“Have I not mentioned her to you? She, too, visits the Magic Forest. She may well have found her own way into the forest.”
“Where does she live?”
“Well, there is a sticking point; in another dimension.”
“What sort of dimension?”
“One where they still have dragons.”
Melissa’s eyes widen like an anime character. “How do we arrange a meeting?”
“I believe I only need to think of her, wish her there, for it to happen.”
“Can we try after I close the shop today?” She takes up my hands again.
She kisses both of them. I feel myself blushing.