Fairy Tales of the Month: July 2022 The Magic Box – Part One

That Box

It’s three in the morning. Sleep, on gossamer wings, flitters above but will not alight on me. Folk and Fairy Tales of Denmark lies in my lap. I cannot read more.

My eyes fall on a little wooden box cluttering one of my bookshelves. It’s been there long before my wife died. Before my daughter was born? I don’t remember where it came from.

Picking it up, I remember again that I don’t have a key. I shake it. I hear nothing. But is it really empty?

Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment.

My finding out what is in the box will alter what is in the box. There may be something in the box, but if I break it open, nothing will be there, and I will have destroyed the box. I need to get it out of my hands and out of sight before I let the cat out of the bag, to mix a metaphor. Well, it is three in the morning.

I am up the stairs and on the third-floor landing, when I hear, “Ohhh, you have the box.”

I should have known—actually, I do know—not to go to my third floor at night, but I am on a mission. A wizened old man sits on the windowsill at the end of the hall.

“Let me tell you the long story of that box.”

I approach the old man and offer him the item in question. Its brass fittings glow when he takes it into his hands and begins the tale.

A poor farmer, in exchange for his three infant daughters when they turn three years of age, is given a magic box by an old man. This magician explains that the farmer only needs to rap his knuckles on the box for it to give him whatever he wishes. When the farmer does so, a giant appears before him and grants the farmer’s wish for wealth.

He and his family live in great style for three years until the old man collects the three sisters. The mother and father soon die of grief, leaving behind their son, Hans the Daft. Through his inattention and the dishonesty of others, his inheritance is dissipated. He leaves with only an old barley-twist walking stick and a sheepskin coat, but in the pocket of the coat rests the box.

Discovering this boon and the giant/genie, he wishes for a violin, the music of which would make people dance for joy. In this way, Hans always found food, shelter, and good company.

One day, in his travels, he comes to a kingdom where lives a princess of such beauty that Hans falls in love. He takes the position of a shepherd, so that he might chance to gaze upon her every day.

However, as he herds the sheep, he plays his violin, and the sheep dance.  The princess, highly amused by this entertainment, promises to marry Hans if he makes the sheep dance for her, a promise she never intended to keep.

The king, finding out her misbehavior, forces her to keep her promise, then banishes the couple from his castle. Hans simply has the giant build another castle, but this does not satisfy the princess. Hans consoles himself by going out hunting every day. During his absence, the princess entertains a young gentleman and they plot against Hans.

The princess pretends to warm up to Hans, to his delight. She wheedles out of him the secret of the box, which he gives into her keeping.

When Hans returns from his hunt the next day, the princess and her lover have purloined the box and transported the castle to be hung by four golden chains over the middle of the Red Sea, leaving Hans to wander aimlessly and homeless.

After many months, Hans blunders into the presence of one of his lost sisters, who takes him to the cave of her bear-husband, an enchanted prince. Hans hears the story that the old man, who had given his father the box, intended to keep the sisters as his wives, but they were discovered by three prince brothers and rescued. In revenge, the old magician cursed the brothers with the animal forms of a bear, an eagle, and a fish.

The brothers give Hans tokens and aid. He recovers his castle and the box and destroys the princess and her lover. Hans returns to his old ways of a daily hunt and for three years forgets about his sisters and his brothers-in-law.

Upon rediscovering the tokens given to him, he calls up the giant to take him to the Waters of Life, where sits the queen/mother of the princes in the form of a hag with a white cat in her lap—the queen’s daughter. By placing the tokens in the hag’s lap, he breaks the curse and all are restored to their human form.

Hans gets to marry the queen’s daughter, and in a last act of grace—and at the giant’s request—he releases the genie from his curse and existence by throwing the box into the flames.

The old man hands the box back to me, and the glow of the brass fittings fades.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2022 The Magic Box – Part Two

But Wait

“But wait,” I say, “how can this be the box if it was burnt up?”

“It is burnt up every time the story is told,” is the reply. “Over and over again. Yes, that very box you hold was destroyed just now when I told you the story.”

I try to wrap my head around that thought, when a voice says, “That’s fine and all, but what is your moral?”

I look down to see Johannes padding up to us. I know he likes to prowl at night, but I didn’t know he followed me up the stairs. A little to my surprise, the fairy rides on the tip of his tail. She flutters up to the box, settling there, setting the brass fittings aglow again.

“Moral?” protests the magician. “I am not a moral being.”

Johannes scoffs, “Although you are of fairy-tale material, you are mortal, unlike the fairy and me. All mortals are intertwined with their morals. While we immortals are immoral, mortals have morals. Only the letter ‘T’ separates one from the other. I ask you again, what is the moral of your story?”

“I don’t know that I have one.” The old man crosses his arms on his chest.

“Well then, let’s find it,” Johannes instructs. “The farmer exchanges wealth for his own flesh and blood. After a short stint of luxury, this exchange proves fatal. Certainly there is a moral here, but the story is far from over.”

The old man nods in agreement, and Johannes continues.

“The moral will revolve around Hans the Daft. He is not a person of promising character. Through his indifference, all is lost to him but for a walking stick, a coat, and the box.

“On the other paw,” Johannes gestures, “his wealth came at the cost of his sisters. Should he feel much attachment to it?”

Again, the old man nods and continues to listen.

“When he finds the box, rather than following his father’s lead, he wishes for something much more modest if a little magical—the violin. In that satisfying little world of music and dance that he created for himself, he may have stayed if he had not fallen into the morass of love at first sight.

“Here, Hans’s daftness reasserted itself. As foolishly as his father wished for wealth, he wished for the princess to be his bride. Like his father, he gets his wish but to no benefit. Even worse than his father, he is cuckolded and goes through an emotional death.”

The old man’s eyebrows rise, as so do mine, as we see Johannes’s direction.

“Hans is reborn when he stumbles upon one of his lost sisters, and a family relationship is reestablished. Not to Hans’s credit, he participates in revenge, causing the death of the princess and her lover, then descends into three years of forgetfulness.

“To his credit, emerging from his doldrums, perhaps necessary for him to incorporate all of his experiences, he acts immediately to end the curse upon his family and release the giant from his bondage.”

“Thank you,’ says the magician. “You have put Hans into a different light than I would have ever allowed myself to think.”

“And now,” says Johannes, “the moral.”

The old man thinks. “Be careful what you wish for?”

“I think we can move beyond the ‘trite but true.’ Let me suggest something more along the lines of, ‘The struggle toward knowing one’s self might be worth the effort.’”

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2022 The Magic Box – Part Three

Magical Talk

Now the fairy pipes up. I love the sound of her voice; it’s that of tinkling bells.

“Oh wise and evil one, how came you by a genie in a box; should not his prison be a lamp?”

The magician sniffs. “Not at all. A genie’s spirit can be captured in almost anything. However, most common are rings and brass vessels. King Solomon, the first to control the jinn—as some call them—used brass vessels with his seal over its mouth. Whatever the item,” the old man gestures to the box, “it’s Solomon’s Seal that retains the spirit.”

I see on the box’s lid glowing brass filigree embedded in the wood in the shape of a pentagram.

“When God created beings with language, he chose first to create the heavenly host, some of whom, after the war in heaven, became the fallen angels. Next came us who he formed out of earth. Last—and not recorded in the Bible, strangely—were the jinn whom he created from fire, a smokeless flame to be specific.

“While the jinn were granted much magical power and long life, they are not as substantial as man, being made of fire and not earth. Therefore, they are more easily imprisoned. It does not take a jail to hold them.

“As for the origin of my genie trapped in a box, I cannot tell you. I come from a great line of magicians and inherited the box. I suspect one of my ancestors had the cleverness to trap a genie. However, my father warned me to never use the power of the box. Whatever the genie would grant would lead to misfortune.

“Oh, I was tempted. Certainly, I would not fall for the tricks of the genie. Instead, I traded it for something else that I wanted, taking the temptation out of my hands and passing it to another’s.

“I see now, the genie played no tricks, rather we were all in the hands of fate that dealt out to us the grace or punishment it felt we deserved by whatever inscrutable scale of justice it held.”

“Answer also,” rings the fairy’s voice, “how chose you the form of your revenge on the princes?”

“I was angry, yet I saw the sisters’ affections were never to be mine. Although I had raised them from the age of three, with a firm hand, I had not counted on the rebelliousness of youth.

“Nonetheless, punishment was in order. I could not bring myself to harm the sisters. Instead, I chose to turn the princes into beasts, one of the earth, one of the air, and one of the water. There are no beasts of fire, except, perhaps, the salamander, but I am doubtful of those claims. Only the jinn are of that nature.

“Nor could my magic be complete. The princes returned to their human form every day for a few hours and there needed to be a way to break the spell. For every magical curse there must be a benefit, that is, a way out of the spell. We magicians can only push the natural order of things so far before it does a pendulum swing back again.

“Ah, speaking of the pendulum swing.” The magician holds up his hand, which becomes transparent as he fades. “The story calls me back again into itself. I enjoyed our conversation. I don’t get out very often.”

With no more to be said, Johannes turns and pads back down the hallway with the fairy again riding on the tip of his tail. They leave me standing alone with the box still in my hands.

Should . . . should I tap on it?

Your thoughts?

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: March 2022 Fair, Brown, and Trembling – Part One

John Batten

A Trade

Melissa and I wait patiently by the pond in the Magic Forest. I am feeling sorry for Melissa and her hopeless search for her own gateway into this place. She has spent much time roaming through public spaces looking for the entrance she saw in her dream. Ultima advised us before, and we hope she can again.

“Ah,” says Melissa pleasantly, “there she is.”

Ultima comes down the path waving her hand vigorously. “Hello, hello, so good to see you. I felt the summons.” She takes her seat next to us on one of the stones that surround the pond.

“I can see, my dear,” she says, “a question burning your eyes out.”

“Yes, there is,” Melissa confesses.

“What will you trade for an answer?”

Melissa and I have become familiar with this tradition of her world. Nothing is freely given, always traded to keep things in balance.

Melissa is prepared. “A story.”

Ultima clasps her hands in delight, leaning forward to listen.

“Since it is still March,” Melissa begins, “and we are not far past Saint Patrick’s Day, I will tell an Irish story. Do you have Saint Patrick in your world?”

“Oh yes, Saint Patrick of the Snakes.”

“Snakes?” Melissa echoes.

“Oh yes, Saint Patrick and his dragon were great friends to the serpents.”

“Riiiight,” Melissa replies with hesitance. “Handled a little differently at our end, but never mind.  The story is Fair, Brown, and Trembling.

King Aedh Cúrucha had three daughters, Fair, Brown, and Trembling. Trembling was the youngest and prettiest. Her elder sisters consigned her to all the housework and would not let her go to church, lest she bemarried before them.

A prince appeared to be in love with Fair. However, one Sunday, when Fair and Brown were at church, the old henwife came to Trembling and through her magic—a cloak of darkness—Trembling goes to church magnificently dressed, including a honey-bird sitting on her right shoulder, a honey-finger on her left, and mounted on a fine mare with a songbird between its ears. However, she cannot go into the church but must remain in the churchyard and ride away the moment mass is ended. She is, nonetheless, noticed by all.

This happens three times. Once she is dressed in white, then black, and then red. She and her horse are resplendent in elaborate fittings. But no one knows who the mysterious lady is, not even her sisters. Yet, she wins the hearts of every male, including the prince.

On her third visit to the church, the prince grabs her shoe before she flees. The shoe makes the rounds to find its owner until it comes to Trembling, whom her sisters tried to lock away in a closet.

She marries the prince, but not before he has to battle with other princes to keep his claim on her, and they have a son. Fair comes to care for Trembling but, instead, throws her sister into the sea and tries to pretend she is Trembling, they looking similar.

The prince is suspicious and places a sword between them in bed, declaring if she is Trembling, the sword will be warm by morning, if not it will be cold. Cold it is.

Meanwhile, Trembling has been swallowed by a whale who regurgitates her the next day on the shore, where the lad who herds the prince’s cattle finds her. She explains she is under a spell of the whale and that the prince must come within the next three days and shoot the whale with a silver bullet to break the spell.

The lad goes to tell the prince but is served a drink of forgetfulness by Fair. However, the next night the lad is successful, and the prince kills the whale in time to save Trembling from the spell.

The lad is rewarded by being educated and married to their first daughter. Fair is punished by being put into a barrel and cast out to sea. This cruel punishment is tempered by having ample provisions in the barrel to last her for seven years. How there is room in the barrel for her is not explained.

Trembling and the prince live happily ever after, having fourteen children in all.

“Good heavens,” exclaims Ultima. “We must talk about this.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2022 Fair, Brown, and Trembling – Part Two

John Batten

Odd Names

“Let’s start with the title.” Ultima scratches her head. “What sort of names are those?”

“First, I must tell you,” Melissa raises a finger, “the collector of this tale was Jeremiah Curtin, an American born of Irish parents, which gave him his interest in these tales. He had a varied career as an ethnographer, folklorist, and translator, fluent in a number of languages but not Gaelic. Nonetheless, he felt strongly that the Irish tales would be closest to their origins in that language. Therefore, he used translators. This is the filter through which the details of our story come to us.”

“I’ll guess you’re right,” Ultima frowns. “But, still, those aren’t proper names. The names really sound like the description of something. 

“The first half is a lot like Cinderella, and in that case the story is called Cinderella after the heroine. Why isn’t this story called Trembling?Brown is hardly in the story. What is her name doing in the title? No, no, I say it’s a description of something.”

“Well, then,” Melissa takes up the point, “what is fair to look upon, is the color brown, and trembles?”

We look at each other in silence.

“A riddle for another day perhaps,” Ultima goes on. “What on earth is a honey-bird and a honey-finger?”

Melissa sighs. “I am guessing that since these are given to Trembling by the henwife, who puts a songbird between the mare’s ears, they are both birds and not things made of honey. Or was the implication in Gaelic quite something different? Curtin gives us no indication despite being an ethnographer.”

“Now,” Ultima squints as she asks this, “tell me again what Trembling wore on the third Sunday.”

“Well, it was the ultimate. She asked the henwife for a dress of rose red from the waist down and snow white from the waist up, with a cape of green; a hat with red, white, and green feathers; and shoes with red toes, white middle, and back and heels of green. The henwife also clips a few hairs from Trembling’s head, turning all her hair into tumbling golden locks.”

“OK, forget the hair. Blondes get too much credit in these tales, but the colors of her dress almost sound like the Irish tricolor, except it should be green, white, and orange. Tell me again about the horse.”

“The horse is white with blue and gold diamond shapes all over its body.”

“Now, doesn’t that sound like a heraldic pattern? There is some sort of inside joke going on in this story. I just feel it.”

“I like that notion,” I say. “It would explain a lot.”

“Blue and gold is a popular heraldic combination.” Melissa temples her fingers. “Diamond patterns are also common. This is an interesting thought.”

“There is also a lot of white, red, and black,” I suggest. “The colors of the alchemist.”

“I won’t buy that,’ Melissa considers. “The tale is clouded by too many other colors for that to be a theme. There is a green cape, blue diamonds, gold and silver bridles and saddles.

“What I find also perplexing in this perplexing story is the cloak of darkness that the henwife uses to create the gowns, mares, and accoutrements. I question the naming of things in this story like Ultima does. Why is it not a “wishing cloak?” Why a cloak of darkness, giving the henwife, who plays the role of a fairy godmother, a more ominous feel?”

Ominous indeed. This tale is more complex than it first appears.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2022 Fair, Brown, and Trembling – Part Three

The Henwife

“About that henwife,” Ultima’s frown continues, “with that cloak she could have set herself up as a sorceress. What’s going on there?”

“In my observations,” Melissa collects her thoughts, “there are four types of women with magical powers in the tales. I’ll start with the ‘old woman in the wood.’ This is a woman with wisdom, insight, prophesy, and magic devices, which she freely hands out to deserving heroes and heroines. Closely related, and I put them in the same category, is the spaewife, who is a member of the community, a force for good, and a healer with knowledge of magic.

“Next follows our henwife. As the name suggests, her primary job is attending to fowl. That is thought to be a position particularly low in social status, but one that carries, for no obvious reason, knowledge of magic, which she practices as she sees fit. Like the spaewife, she is a member of the community.

“The witch is defined as the embodiment of evil. She appears, like the henwife, to be poor, although she may horde wealth she does not use—as a dragon does—and, more importantly, is a recluse. She has no husband, although occasionally she has a daughter, who generally helps or warns the hero or heroine against her mother.

“What they have in common is being old women. There simply isn’t a young, attractive witch with whom a prince may fall in love. That is true until we come to the fourth type of woman with magical powers, which is the evil queen, who is allowed to be beautiful, at least in appearance. She may also be described as a sorceress. In the tales, sorceresses are always of noble blood, which is why a henwife could never parlay her way into being above her station.

“In the spirit of full disclosure, the tales consider that all royalty are familiar with magic. Even the downtrodden princess in The Goose Girl could raise a wind to blow off the cap of her companion so that he had to go chase after it and leave her to braid up her hair without his pestering.

“However, it was only the evil queen who used her powers maliciously.

“That they are all poor, with the notable exception of royalty, had, I feel, to do with the medieval culture’s low estimate of women. They were, after all, the daughters of Eve. The ills of man come to rest on their conscience; they are not able to make good, high moral decisions. Poor in spirit, poor in condition.”

“Nonsense!” objects Ultima.

“”Well, of course, but that was their world.” I hear a sigh in Melissa’s tone.

“And the royal balls? What happened to the royal balls in this story? There ought to be some dancing.”

Melissa smiles broadly. “That’s a French thing. Among the Celts it is the fairies that do the dancing. The Celts feasted and went to church. The poor did not get to feast that much, but everyone, from high to low, went to church. That was the one level playing field in the culture. To the church, they were all sinners in the eyes of God. Among the parishioners, it was the time to check in on every member of the community, supplying gossip for the rest of the week.”

Ultima clasps her hands.

Now,” says Melissa, “my question to you. Where, or how, can I find my door?”

Ultima looks at Melissa blankly.

“I’ve looked,” Melissa continues, “everywhere I imagine it might be. I know what it should appear to be, but I have not found it.”

“Oh, my dear,” Ultima puts a hand to her lips, “you can’t find your door. It’s your door. Put it wherever you want it to be.”

I’ve known Melissa for a good long time, but I’d never seen her do a face-plant before.

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: January 2022 The Snake Prince – Part One

H J Ford

Snake Prince

Thalia’s evening readings to Johannes, the fairy, the brownies, and myself are often the highlight of my day, especially on cold, damp, wintery days when I don’t venture outdoors.

This evening I can hear the wind blowing through the trees of the Magic Forest, which all but lulls me to sleep. Thalia’s contralto takes me down the fairy-tale path into the story of The Snake Prince as my eyes rest on the embers of the hearth.

A desperately poor old woman determines she can no longer support herself and decides to take a final bath in the river and bring back water to prepare her last meal. After bathing, she finds, curled up in her water pot, a deadly snake. She covers the pot and carries it back to her home intending to let the serpent bite and end her troubles.

Kneeling on her hearth, she overturns the pot, and out falls a necklace of engaging beauty. With this turn of fortune, she tucks the necklace into the folds of her veil and goes off to show it to her king, who offers her five hundred silvers for it. The king gives the marvelous necklace to his queen, and they lock it in her jewelry chest. When next they open the chest the necklace is gone. In its place is a baby boy. Until then childless, the couple considers the child a gift granted to them.

The king, recognizing the connection between the old woman and the child, asks her to be the child’s nurse. The old woman comes to love the child as her own and is a faithful servant to the king. However, she lets slip hints of the child’s miraculous birth and rumors spring up.

When it came time for the young prince to marry the princess for which his parents had arranged, the bride’s mother, having heard the rumors, instructs her daughter not to speak to her new husband. Eventually, she tells the bride, he will insist on knowing why.  Then she must say, “Tell me the secret of your birth.”

All comes to pass as the queen predicted, but the prince refuses to explain, saying the princess will regret it if he does.

The unhappy couple continues in this manner for months until the prince relents. At midnight, he takes the princess to the river where the old woman found the serpent. He tells her that he is a prince from a far-away country who was turned into a snake. As he utters the word “snake,” he returns to his serpent form and swims away.

The princess has her father build her a house by the river, where she waits for her husband’s return. One morning, after five years, she sees a muddy stain on her bedroom carpet. She asks the guards and servants to explain but none have answers. After the stain appears a second time, the princess cuts her finger, rubbing salt into the wound to keep her awake.

Her husband appears in his snake form, telling her that on a certain night to place four large pots of milk and sugar in the four corners of her bedroom. All the snakes in the river will rise up, but she must block the doorway and demand from the Queen of Snakes that she return her husband. This she does, and the Queen of Snakes promises he will return the next night. He returns in his human form, and they travel back to her father’s castle to much celebration. When the snake prince’s child is born, the old woman becomes his nurse.

An ember in the hearth crackles, and I come out of my story reverie.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2022 The Snake Prince – Part Two

H J Ford

Snake Queen

I notice Thalia read from Andrew Lang’s The Olive Fairy Book. “What country is that from?” I ask.

“India.” Thalia pages to the book’s preface. “Ahh, yeah, collected by Major Campbell.” She snaps the book closed, setting it on the table as the fairy flitters up from her shoulder.

“That explains the veil, bathing in the river, and arranged marriage. What drew you to the story?”

“I think . . . ” she casts her eyes about. “Yeah, the thing with the snake and the necklace, that was so out there I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think I know another story with a snake turning into jewelry or even a ring or anything like that.”

I rack my thoughts. “A living thing turning into an inanimate object would be the category. The only motif that comes to mind is that of witches turning people and animals to stone.”

“Not the same thing,” she frowns. “Then the necklace turns into a boy in a box!” She giggles at her alliteration.

“And,” I note, “the snake/necklace/boy is the one doing the transformations. It’s not coming from the outside.”

“Yeah, no witches.” Then Talia scowls. “There is the Queen of Snakes. Oh, I love that part.”

She snatches up the book again and reads.

“At midnight there was a great hissing and rustling from the direction of the river, and presently the ground appeared to be alive with horrible writhing forms of snakes, whose eyes glittered and forked tongues quivered as they moved on in the direction of the princess’s house. Foremost among them was a huge, repulsive scaly creature that led the dreadful procession. The guards were so terrified that they all ran away; but the princess stood in the doorway, as white as death, and with her hands clasped tight together for fear she should scream or faint, and fail to do her part. As they came closer and saw her in the way, all the snakes raised their horrid heads and swayed them to and fro, and looked at her with wicked beady eyes, while their breath seemed to poison the very air. Still, the princess stood firm, and, when the leading snake was within a few feet of her, she cried: ‘Oh, Queen of Snakes, Queen of Snakes, give me back my husband’ Then all the rustling, writhing crowd of snakes seemed to whisper to one another ‘Her husband her husband’ But the Queen of Snakes moved on until her head was almost in the princess’s face, and her little eyes seemed to flash fire. And still, the princess stood in the doorway and never moved, but cried again: ‘Oh, Queen of Snakes, Queen of Snakes, give me back my husband’ Then the Queen of Snakes replied: ‘Tomorrow you shall have him—tomorrow!”

Thalia set the book down again. “That is so cool.”

I’m still in analysis mode, thinking out loud. “The prince was able to turn himself back into human form through a series of transformations until he was forced to tell the truth to the princess. Then he lost his ability to control his fate and it passed—or perhaps returned—to the Queen of Snake.”

“Yeah, his saying ‘snake’ turned him into a snake. That was cool too.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2022 The Snake Prince – Part Three

H J Ford

A Consideration

I worry a bit about tales from foreign lands. How much have they suffered in translation? I am using the word “translation” loosely.

After the eclectic evening crowd wanders off to their preferred spots, I take out my laptop, hidden in a drawer, to do some research on The Snake Prince. I find Major Campbell collected tales from native tellers in Feroshepore in the province of Punjab.

That appears to be all there is to know about the origins of this tale. The Major’s full name is not available to me. Neither when the tales were collected, nor where these collected tales now reside. I will guess they are unpublished manuscripts, hopefully collecting dust in an archive and not burnt up in some unfortunate fire.

I discover someone named Andrew Campbell who collected tales in Santal, appropriately called Santal Folk Tales. Santal is in the north of India, Punjab in the east. Andrew was a Scottish missionary and not a major. Perusing the titles in Santal Folk Tales does not bring up The Snake Prince or anything close. However, I will point this collection out to Thalia, so my research is not in vain.

Looking through the titles in Joseph Jacobs’ Indian Fairy Tales does not point to a version of my tale either. Andrew Lang’s version of this story is all that I have, and he confessed that the tales he presents are bowdlerized on purpose, as they were intended for children.

Actually, there is another layer. The colored fairy books were really edited by Andrew’s wife, Leonora Blanche Lang, apparently called Nora for short. She and her team of other women writers managed the series. This is to say, there were a number of hands through which the tales could be filtered.

In the course of my readings, I have come across the term “fakelore” in reference to one culture trying to tell the folk tales of another culture. How can a collector from England appreciate the subtle meanings of a native speaker in Punjab. Following that, the story is then tailored for a specific audience.

Imagine if you will, extraterrestrials come down to earth and collect the stories of the teachings of Jesus until they come to the crucifixion and say, “That is a bit too graphic for our children,” and edit it out.

The Snake Prince, being collected in Feroshepore, might come out of Sikh or Hindu tradition, with Buddhist, Jainist, or Muslim influence not beyond possibility.

Nonetheless, the story provides images and conditions not usually seen in Western tales, such as the old woman’s veil (probably what is called a ghoonghat), her bathing in the river, the arranged marriage, and even the multitude of snakes. Despite our familiarity with the serpent in the garden of Eden, snakes seldom appear in Western European fairy tales and have only small roles to play. From Eastern Europe on, such as The Story of the Three Wonderful Beggars and The Gold-Giving Serpent, snakes are given larger roles.

My laptop dims and gives me the message “low battery.” I guess I’ll end my inquiry here.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2021 The Story of The Three Wonderful Beggars – Part One

H J Ford

Duckworth Visits

My Christmas goose I thought was particularly good and my figgy pudding excellent. The best was to have good company with which to share it. That almost got away from me this year. My daughter decided to take Thalia to visit relatives for Christmas rather than their usual February jaunt to see them. Melissa is off up north to see her people, leaving me quite alone.

Fortunately for me, if not for Duckworth, he has encountered a similar dilemma. His wife and children are celebrating Christmas with her parents, an event to which he was expressly not invited. It is not mine to pry into the “why” of it, but I am sure it has to do with the word “politics.”

Carrying our figgy pudding, glasses, and a bottle of Powers, Duckworth and I have retired to the study and have settled next to the hearth.

“I hope you don’t mind,” I say, “my persistence in a family tradition and will indulge me as I read a fairy tale aloud to you.” I know the fairy and brownies are hiding in the shadows and will enjoy a tale. Johannes has the window seat and appears to be, as always, ignoring us.

“I haven’t been read to since childhood. Actually, my parents rarely read to me,” Duckworth grins, taking a sip of whiskey. “Forge ahead. I’m game.”

I pick up Lang’s The Violet Fairy Book and turn to the bookmarker I have inserted.

The Story of the Three Wonderful Beggars,” I announce. “It’s a Serbian tale.”

Anastasia, the very young daughter of the wealthy merchant Mark the Rich, overhears three supposed beggars predict that on that snowy day in a nearby village a child is born, named Vassili, who would one day take all of Mark the Rich’s wealth. The next day Mark bargains with Vassili’s poor father for the child, promising as well to be it’s godfather.

“Good heavens, was that common back then?”

“Oh, probably not, but it serves the story,” I say, and continue.

On Mark’s way home, he throws the child over a precipice to die in the frozen waste.

“Oh, that’s cruel. Are you sure this is a children’s story?”

“It will be fine, just wait a moment.”

Other merchants, traveling to visit Mark the Rich on business, discover the babe lying on a small patch of green meadow complete with flowers between two banks of snow.

“How does that happen?”

“Well, it’s a miracle of course, although the illustrator, H.J. Ford, labels his rendition The Fairies Catch the Baby.” I show Duckworth the picture.

“But that is not what the text says?” Duckworth is dubious.

“No, but let’s continue.”

Unknowingly, they carry the babe back to Mark, who forgives their debt to him if they will give him the child. This time he seals Vassili in a barrel and throws him into the sea . . .

“Good grief!” Duckworth faceplants his palm.

. . . only to be discovered by a group of monks drying their nets by the seaside. They decide to name him (coincidentally) Vassili and raise him to be well educated. The child’s natural talents bloom.

Duckworth is now shaking his head in disbelief.

Many years later, Mark is visiting the monastery and is impressed by the youth. Inquiring, he hears the story of the barrel. Mark asks that he may bring Vassili into his service. Mark then gives Vassili a sealed letter to Mark’s wife instructing her to have Vassili killed immediately.

“Oh, this guy doesn’t give up.”

No wonder his parents didn’t read to him.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2021 The Story of The Three Wonderful Beggars – Part Two

Duckworth Interjects

On Vassili’s journey to Mark’s home, three beggar men ask him where he is going and to show them the letter. They blow upon the letter and hand it back. Now the letter reads that Vassili is to be married to Anastasia immediately. The wife and Anastasia are surprised but not at all displeased with Vassili, and the marriage takes place.

“Wait a minute,” Duckworth protests. “Don’t these three guys sound a little suspiciously like the three wise men somehow?”

“They do, I’ll agree. The wise men were also called the Magi—magicians—as well as kings. Royalty was often assumed to have magic, so the different names all make sense. This would not be the first time an idea was taken from the Bible and worked into the context of a fairy tale. And the tales have not only drawn from the Bible. There are a lot of old mythological notions that the tales appropriate, but let us get back to the story.”

Soon, Mark, not to be outdone, sends his new son-in-law on an errand to the Serpent King to collect rent due to Mark and to discover what happened to Mark’s twelve ships that disappeared three years ago.

“That doesn’t sound good.”

The true purpose of the trip was to have the Serpent King destroy Vassili.

“Yup.”

On his travels, Vassili comes across three entities that pose questions for Vassili to ask the Serpent King, who is reputed to know all things. The first is a dying oak tree that wants to know how much longer it must stand. The second is a trapped ferryman who wants to know how much longer he must row passengers. And third is a whale serving as a bridge across a narrow strait who wants to know how much longer he needs to remain so.

“Hold on again, this story has taken a turn somewhere. Vassili kind of won the day, got to marry the princess, well, she wasn’t a princess, but you know what I mean, and now he is off on an entirely different adventure.”

“That’s observant of you, Duckworth. Yes, this tale is made up of two motifs. The first half is like the story The Fish and the Ring, where the protagonist, a female of a lowly class, is destined to marry a baron’s son. Every effort the baron makes to destroy her fails. The tale ends in the marriage. Our tale does not end there.

“The second motif is most popularly thought of as The Foolish Man, by the Armenian poet Hovhannes Tumanyan, although he is drawing from traditional tales. In this form, the protagonist is traveling to the world’s end where there is someone (In The Foolish Man tale, it is God.) “who knows everything. On the way, he encounters three things/people/animals who add their questions to his question. All the questions are answered, and the challenge becomes how this knowledge is handled. In the case of The Foolish Man, not very well. In our tale, if you will let me come to the end of it, much better.”

Duckworth nods his consent.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2021 The Story of The Three Wonderful Beggars – Part Three

H J Ford

Duckworth Satisfied

Vassili comes to the serpent’s magnificent palace at the world’s end, searching through it until he finds a beautiful girl, who asks him why he has come.

“OK, let’s stop here,” Duckworth interrupts. “What’s with the word ‘beautiful?’”

“What? What do you mean?”

“‘Beautiful’ tells me nothing. It’s so generic. Does she have long, blonde hair? Flashing, green eyes? Sensual, red lips? Give me something to work with.”

“My dear Duckworth, you truly misunderstand the genre of fairy tales. These stories proudly bear all the hallmarks of bad writing. There is little description unless it is necessary for the story or as an aside, such as, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, that I may climb thy golden stair,’ which is the only reason we know she is a blonde.

“Same for character development. The tales depend upon stereotypes. Nor is there a lot of dialog. For example, there will be no two elder brothers discussing what they consider to be the mental limitations of the younger sibling. The story will tell us they call him a simpleton and is done with it. 

“Typically, there are few character names. That there are two in this story is pretty generous. The Serpent King is technically a proper name, but is really the usual identifier of a character used by fairy tales. A prince is called the prince, a princess the princess, or a woodcutter the woodcutter. Their name is their position in life.

“The fairy tale’s brevity is its value, leaving the details to the listener’s imagination. That’s your job.

“Now, before I finish the tale, I want you to take a great mouthful of figgy pudding, but don’t swallow it.”

“Why?”

“To keep your mouth occupied.”

Duckworth obliges.

Vassili tells the girl his full story. She informs him he was not sent to collect rent but rather to be destroyed by the Serpent King.

She hides Vassili, and when the Serpent King arrives to have his head scratched and to be lulled to sleep, she tells him she had a dream in which an oak, a ferryman, and a whale asked her questions for which she had no answers.

 The Serpent King, before nodding off to sleep, explains that the whale needs to disgorge the twelve ships of Mark the Rich that he has swallowed, that the ferryman need only hand the oars to his next passenger and not look back, and the oak only needs to be kicked down, which will reveal a huge treasure under its rotting roots.

When the serpent falls asleep, Vassili slips away. He tells the whale what he must do after crossing over its back. He tells the ferryman what he must do after the ferryman gives him passage. Then Vassili kicks over the oak to find the treasure. The three beggar men appear, guiding the twelve ships to Vassili, pronounce a blessing over him, then disappear. Vassili returns home in triumph.

Mark, furious, rides off to confront the Serpent King and find out why the serpent betrayed him. He gets no farther than the ferryman. Vassili is left with his loving wife and all of Mark’s wealth.

Duckworth swallows. “Satisfying.”

I look at him sidelong. “Which? The figgy pudding or the story?”

Duckworth smiles. “Both.”

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: September 2021 Golden Tower at the End of the World – Part One

St Dunstan’s in the East 1891

A Garden

St Dunstan in the East is a pleasant garden. Well, it is not exactly a garden, but rather the remains of a church destroyed during the war. The tower and most of the walls still stand, although there are no roofs or floors. Nature has taken much of its own back. Situated not far from the Tower of London, it is close to a tourist area, but little-known except to the locals who enjoy bringing their lunch and finding a bench. With a picnic basket in hand, we have done the same; we being me, Melissa and Thalia.

The garden is Thalia’s discovery. She found it on her pocket oracle when she put in “gardens in London,” after I told her about Melissa’s dilemma. Because the garden’s center is a building, she felt the likelihood of finding Melissa’s door there as good as any place.

We have found a bench to accommodate the three of us and a picnic basket, to indulge in our repast before searching the grounds. Thalia clears her throat and pulls a book out of her backpack.

“For the afternoon reading, I have chosen a story in honor of that church tower over there that still stands for so many years after the Blitz.”

I didn’t know there was “an afternoon reading” in order. Thalia may be starting a new thing.

“The story,” she continues in a pretentious tone, at which Melissa smiles, “is The Golden Tower at the End of the World.”

I see she is holding my copy of Folk and Fairy Tales from Demark, Volume One, by Stephen Badman.

There was a farmer who owned productive fields with the exception of one, which every Midsummer’s Eve had its grain trampled. The farmer’s two eldest sons, in turn, tried to watch over the field at Midsummer’s Eve, but were frightened away by strange noises.

When the youngest brother, Hans, tried—though thought to be a simpleton—he first shared his meal with an old woman, who gave him a pinch of tobacco to help keep him awake for the night’s ordeal.

He did not flee when a violent storm broke, rather he stayed to see three large birds descend on the field and shed their feathered robes revealing three lovely women, who danced across the field destroying the grain. They then moved a huge stone, behind which Hans hid, and entered a house filled with riches.

Hans stole the robe of the youngest woman. To get it back, she agreed to marry Hans, to which she was not averse, giving him specific instructions about the wedding that included not inviting the king’s son.  

Unfortunately, the king’s son crashed the wedding and insisted she marry him and not a peasant boy. She fled, but not before telling Hans he must now reclaim her by coming to her home at the Golden Tower at the End of the World. She gave him a gold ring as a token and three magical tablecloths.

The first tablecloth he used to create a sumptuous meal for another old woman who, in return, gave him three-league boots—for fast travel—and a magical sword, along with the advice to put on the three-league boots and visit an ogre, Lord of All Crawling Creatures, who might know where the Golden Tower could be found.

The ogre, after conferring with all the crawling creatures without success, sent Hans on to his two-headed brother, Lord of All Walking Creatures, with a letter of recommendation. The visit to the two-headed brother was no more successful, but the visit to the three-headed brother, Lord of All Flying Creatures, bore results. Late to the gathering of the flying creatures came a dragon who apologized, saying he had been busy guarding the Golden Tower at the End of the World.

The dragon, already having taken a long journey to get to the gathering, reluctantly agreed to carry Hans back over a vast ocean. It proved to be too much, and Hans used the other two tablecloths to create dry land and a castle in which to spend the night.

Hans finally made it to the Golden Tower, found shelter, and fell asleep. Upon wakening, he saw a serving girl bearing wine. He asked for a sip. The girl refused because the wine was meant for the three princesses. She then relented and gave him a sip. He slipped the youngest princess’s gold ring into the wine.

When the youngest princess discovered the ring, she called for him. They were reunited, but the trial was not over. Every Midsummer’s Eve a malicious dragon visited the tower, which is why the princesses were forced to flee in avian disguise and spend the night trampling the farmer’s field. Hans stayed for Midsummer’s Eve and slew the dragon with his magical sword.

He and the princess were married and Hans returned with his bride to his father’s farm, bought out the two brothers to their embarrassment, then purchased an even larger estate where he and the princess lived in happiness.

Thalia snaps the book shut. I come out of my trance. There are some odd points about this story.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2021 The Golden Tower at the End of the World – Part Two

From Adorno final de un Capitulo 1652

Two Dragons

I personally despair of finding Melissa’s doorway in these ruins. There are numerous Gothic archways, but so long after being burnt out, there is nothing that looks like a door.

“So,” says Thalia, “What’s a letter of recommendation?”

“Also called a letter of introduction,” Melissa answers. “It’s an old system of networking among the wealthy; especially useful for a young man. If a youth could get a family friend or prominent relative to write a letter of introduction—not addressed to anyone in particular—that recommended the youth, it was that young gentleman’s ticket into whole circles of acquaintances. The more credible the letter’s author, the better the networking potential.

“The youth could present himself to a household familiar with the letter’s author, be entertained by them, stay there a lengthy period of time, and enter into that community’s inner circle.”

“Weird,” Thalia concludes.

“What about those two dragons,” I say. “What are your thoughts, Thalia?”

“Ahhh, there are never enough dragons in fairy tales for me. I’m happy to have two of them.”

“I think,” Melissa says, inspecting another archway for her elusive door, “your grandfather is concerned that the two dragons are in no way connected to each other yet occupy the same story.”

She knows my mind so well.

“The first dragon,” Melissa raises a finger, “protects the Golden Tower. Against whom? When the malicious dragon appears, the good dragon is nowhere in sight and nowhere in sight annually, it appears, when the bad dragon visits.”

“Hmmm,” I reflect. “Hans’s breaking of the cycle of destruction, by killing the bad dragon, is central to this story. Perhaps the good dragon and bad dragon are connected in the same way as yin and yang are opposites and together at the same time.”

Melissa temples her fingers, a sign of deep thought. “Hans’s defeat of the bad dragon, he having been helped by the good dragon, does bring the story around full circle. Hans started by trying to solve the puzzle of the trampled grain and by the end of the story he exacts a solution. The dragons, as well as the princesses, were players in the problem’s resolution as consequences unfold.”

“You are right,” I muse. “This is a very circular story. Hans even returns home to claim the farm from his less worthy brothers rather than living in bliss at the Golden Tower. He ends up pretty much where he started out.”

“I never heard a fairy tale with three tablecloths,” Thalia states, not to be left out of the conversation.

“You’re right,” I say. “The tablecloth that is spread to give a feast—which comes out of Celtic mythology, by the way—is usually just one of the magical gifts. However, this tale amply represents the fairy-tale three: three brothers, three princesses, three ogres, three-league boots as well as three tablecloths.”

“There are only two old women,” Melissa says, showing that she is listening to us while her eyes scan the old church walls, “although I wonder if they are somehow the same old woman. The first gave him a small gift of tobacco because he shared his meal with her. The second gave him the three-league boots and the magical sword for sharing a bounteous feast from the tablecloth. The two, I say, reflect on each other. “

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2021 The Golden Tower at the End of the World – Part Three

Midsummer Eve, Edward Robert Hughes 1908

Midsummer’s Eve

We have made our way back to our bench, held in reserve by the picnic basket, after our thorough search of the grounds.

“I thought the story’s mention of Midsummer’s Eve of interest.” I munch on an unfinished roll of crackers.

“Isn’t that a Shakespeare play?” Thalia’s brow wrinkles.

“That’s Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Melissa corrects. “And he drew from an old tradition of celebrating midsummer, which the date is not, coming on the twenty-fourth of June, a few days after summer solstice.”

“So, how does that happen?” Thalia’s brow wrinkles even more.

“There are two things about the date. First, the ancients—let us call them—felt that the first of May was the start of summer, paying little attention to the sun’s position and more to the change in the weather. That does put the end of June in the middle of their summer.

“Second, this celebration is attached to Saint John the Baptist’s Day, or rather the Christians have attached it to the Midsummer’s Day celebration. According to the Bible, Saint John was born six months before Jesus, putting Midsummer’s Day six months before Christmas, or Christ’s Mass. Perforce, Midsummer’s Eve is the twenty-third of June.”

 Melissa roots around in the picnic basket and comes up with a bottle of Calypso Lemonade. Thalia looks for one for herself.

“We Brits,” Melissa continues, “love our bonfires and will find any excuse to light one up, Midsummer no exception. Circle dancing is in order. There is also a thing about roses. A rose picked on Midsummer’s Eve or Midsummer’s Day will stay fresh until Christmas, although I haven’t tried it.

“Or,” Melissa’s eyes twinkle, “a young girl can pluck the rose petals at midnight, scatter them on the ground saying:

Rose leaves, rose leaves,

Rose leaves I strew.

He that will love me,

Come after me now.

“The next day, which is of course Midsummer’s Day, their true love will visit them.”

“No thanks.” Thalia takes a swig of her Calypso and takes out her cellphone. “Hmmm,” she says in a minute, “seems mid-June was also a good time to brew mead. The full moon in June they called the ‘Mead Moon’ or the ‘Honey Moon.’”

She scans down.

“Jumping through the bonfire would bring good luck. I guess you’re lucky if you make it.”

She scans some more.

“If you hold a pebble in your hand, walk around the bonfire, whisper a wish, and cast the stone into the fire, the wish will be granted. I’ll buy into that one.”

More scanning.

“Oh, I like this one. Midsummer’s Eve is only second to Halloween for fairy activity. If you rub fern spores onto your eye lids at midnight, you will see the wee folk. But be careful you don’t get pixie-led, and carry some rue plant on your person for protection.

“Midsummer’s Eve is also Herb Evening, the best night for gathering magical herbs. There is a special plant—the article doesn’t tell me the name, drat—that only blooms on this night. If you pick it, you will understand the language of trees. Cool.

“If you put flowers under your pillow, you will dream of the one you will marry. Oh, ugh, that again.”

“Ah!” exclaims Melissa, who I see has gotten out her phone. “Here is what we were looking for. In the thirteenth century a monk in Gloucestershire recorded that the bonfires of Saint John’s Eve were meant to drive away the dragons that were about that night to poison springs and wells. I think that might be the source of our bad dragon, at least.”

Will the fount of wisdom of the pocket oracles never cease?

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2021 The Princes in Disguise – Part One

Woodcut 1493

A Cup

I sip my chamomile tea, sitting here, late night, in my study. I promised Melissa I would do this at the same time she does; a sort of sympathetic magic. I really want a tumbler of Powers Irish Whiskey, but a promise is a promise.

There is no fire on the hearth; it is far too warm tonight for that, but staring into the fireplace gives me comfort.

“How nice of you to join me.” Melissa’s face hovers above me.

“Where am I?” I sit up from a bed.

“In my dream.”

I look around at a palatial bedroom, replete with a canopy bed, which I occupy, tapestries hanging on the walls, and lead-glass windows.

“I take it you dream in style.”

“And why not? I deserve the best in illusions.”

“Can you dream me up a dram of Powers whiskey?”

She points to the far end of the room, where sits a familiar bottle and a tumbler on a low table.

I rise to go help myself when the table, bottle, tumbler, and the tapestry hanging above it, which had been as solid as the other three walls a moment ago, parts like a stage curtain.

Drat.

Through it, an old woman, hobbling with a cane, approaches us, making for an ornamental, carved wooden chair by my bedside. She eases herself down into it with a sigh, then regards Melissa and me with a critical eye before beginning a story.

 “Once upon a time …”

There was a king who had no heir until a gypsy woman tells him that he will have a son, but the lad, when he is ten, is destined to be carried off by an ogre. All this comes to pass. The king and queen, broken-hearted, die.

When the lad turns eighteen, he succeeds in drugging the ogre with a certain herb, takes the key, which the ogre always carried with him, and opens the door of the ogre’s tower.

Free at last, he crosses a bridge at the end of which lies a lion and a lamb. In front of the lion is a pile of grass. In front of the lamb a pile of flesh. The lad moves the grass in front of the lamb and the flesh in front of the lion. Each creature gives him a hair saying, “If ever you have need of anything, singe one of these hairs, and you will have your wish.”

The lad exchanges his royal dress for that of a poor man’s; he covers his golden hair with an animal skin, causing children to call him Scabby Head; and takes on the position of a gardener at a palace.

During an annual festival, when all of the royal household are attending, the youngest princess stays behind and, from her window, sees the gardener, but he appears to her as a prince with golden hair, on a white horse, cutting at the flowers with his sword.

The next year, during the festival, the same thing happens, and she asks him who he is. He tells her his story and how he singed the hairs of the animal helpers so that she will see him in his true form.

Shortly after, the king instructs his daughters to throw a golden apple at the person they wish to marry. The eldest two choose princes and the youngest the scabby-headed gardener. The king is angered, and the youngest princess then lives with her husband in his cottage.

Years later, the king loses his sight, which can only be restored by the Water of Life. The three sons-in-law go in search. The gardener singes a hair and gets the Water of Life and tricks his brothers-in-law into thinking they have it.

After the scabby-headed gardener restores the king’s sight, he singes one of the hairs, transforms into his princely self, and tells his story. The prince and the youngest princess return to the palace and eventually rule.

“Thank you for the story,” says Melissa, “but I am on a quest for a way into a magic forest.”

“I know, my dear. From this story, I give you the door of the ogre’s tower as your door into the forest.”

Melissa smiles at the same time that I jolt awake, back in my comfy chair in my study. In place of my teacup is a tumbler and bottle of Powers.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2021 The Prince in Disguise – Part Two

A Problem

I am surprised at Melissa’s dour face when I enter her bookshop the next morning.

“Melissa, why are you not delighted? You have your doorway into the Magic Forest.”

“I have the key to the door.” She holds it up to show me, an ornate silver one. “It was by my bedside in the morning.”

“I got a bottle of Powers in the same way,” I gloat.

“I have the key,” she reiterates. “But the dream ended abruptly. Where is the door?”

“Oh,” I say. We stare at each other, then break out in laughter at our dilemma.

“I’ll know it when I see it. There is an image of the door burnt into my brain but no clues as to where it is.”

“Listen,” I say, “there are probably hints in the story she told us as to where we can find your door.”

“A good thought. Let me brew up some tea, and we will contemplate.”

In a few minutes, we are settled on good, soft chairs sipping some Lady Grey.

“The door,” Melissa frowns, “may be disguised in some way, much as the prince is disguised.”

“What about that?” I say. “So many fairy-tale heroes and heroines feel the need to go into disguise for no apparent reason. Our hero takes on the appearance of a wretch but why?”

Melissa raises her right hand, fingers outstretched. “One,” she curls in her thumb with her other hand, “he is a prince.

“Two,” her left hand curls in her pointing finger, “he has been abducted by an ogre.

“Three,” she pulls in her middle finger, “his parents are dead and he has lost his status.

“Four,” her hand draws in her ring finger, “he frees himself and is on his life’s adventure. 

“I have my pinky finger left. What is the next point?”

“Your little finger represents the better part of the storyline. We are only up to him getting away from the ogre,” I muse.

Melissa temples her fingers and rests her chin on them. “I am thinking of Cinderella.”

“Why?” She is losing me.

“They have both fallen from their rightful situation in life to a low station.”

True.

“She is forced there by her stepmother and stepsisters, he by his own choice.”

I am warming to her notion. She continues.

“In both cases, they are seen by others in their humble state and not in their true nature.”

Melissa stares at the ceiling before speaking again.

“Having assumed and/or fallen into that lowly position, they cannot say, ‘Oh, by the way, I am really a prince (or princess). They no longer have that ability.”

She stops, squints, then speaks again.

“To appear in their true form, they need a fairy godmother or singed hairs and then for only a brief time.”

“The clock strikes twelve,” I say and pick up her thread. “But to finally emerge from their disguise, the false assumption of others, there has to be an event.”

Melissa’s eyes brighten. “With Cinderella, it is the prince fitting her with the glass slipper.”

“For our hero,” I conclude, “it is getting the Water of Life.”

Melissa raises her little finger. “Here is the point. They, for whatever magical or psychological reasons, cannot promote themselves. They need to be discovered.”

“Bravo,” I say. “Does that get us closer to finding your door?”

“No.” Melissa is crestfallen. “Let’s start over.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2021 The Prince in Disguise – Part Three

Water of Life (Grimm) Louis Rhead

An Answer

“By the way,” Melissa says, “I found a version of the story she told us in Modern Greek Folktales, by Dawkins, titled The Prince in Disguise.”

“And, by the way,” I say, “who was she who told us the story?”

Melissa smiles at me unhelpfully.

“Well then,” I continue, “might there be a clue in the singeing of the hairs?”

“That is an element original to this story, I think.” Melissa sips her tea, which I suspect has grown cold.

“In the Greek folktales,” I state, “I have come across instances of the hero dividing some sort of spoils among three creatures. In one case a lion, an eagle, and an ant. For his wise judgment, the animals grant him magical abilities.

“In this story, it is a lion and a lamb—which has Christian overtones—settled at the end of a bridge. The lad corrects the situation he sees, not making a judgment as I’ve read before. It is different.”

“And your take on the singeing of hairs?” Melissa quizzes.

“As you say, may be unique to this tale. I’ve not seen it before. And how many times can he singe these hairs? Do the hairs restore themselves? Is there a difference between singeing the lion’s hair and lamb’s hair? The story does not tell us any of this.”

“Nor,” Melissa wags a finger, “does this get me closer to my door.”

“Well then,” I say, in an attempt to humor her, “let’s move on to the golden apples the sisters throw at their husbands-to-be.”

“I see no hints there either.” Melissa shakes her head. “Though, let me say, the golden apples seem to be a particularly Greek thing.”

“Hmmm.” I probe my memory. “There are the three golden apples given to Melanion by Aphrodite to distract Atalanta during their race. Also, there  is the golden apple of the goddess of discord, Eris, which involves Aphrodite again, and leads to the Trojan War. Hera had an entire golden apple tree guarded by the dragon Ladon, from which Heracles steals some apples.”

Melissa raises any eyebrow. “You know your Greek mythology. The golden apples stray into Eastern European stories, but in Northern Europe there are golden balls and even some golden heads. I don’t recall any golden apples. There must be some. However, I don’t recall any, which is strange because in Norse mythology it is Idun’s golden apples that keep the gods and goddess youthful and healthy—an apple a day keeps the doctor away—and yet that image has not seeped into the northern fairy tales.”

“And,” I intrude, “apples are not doorways.”

“True,” Melissa sighs.

“The next notable item in our tale is the Water of Life, which to the Irish is an alternate name for their whiskey.”

Melissa smiles at me. “Be that as it may, the Water of Life is not just an Irish or Greek thing. There is even a Grimm story by the same name as well as a Spanish tale that I know of.”

“Are there any hints to your doorway embedded in them?”

“I think not.”

“Then I have only one suggestion,” I say, empting my cold cup of tea. “Our hero disguised himself as a gardener. Might your doorway be in a garden?”

Melissa’s eyes widen. “It might. In the fairy tales, a woodcutter is a woodcutter, but gardeners are usually someone special in disguise. I said, at the start of our inquiry, the doorway might be disguised. When do we start our tour of gardens?”

Your thoughts?