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?

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2021 The Three Heads of the Well – Part One

Arthur Rackham

Two Daughters

The hot July day has not intruded into the Magic Forest. High above Melissa and me,  the dense foliage keeps out the intense sunlight. Branches of tall trees arch over the pond so that only one narrow shaft of light shoots through them, illuminating its center.

As we rest on our sitting stones at the pond’s edge, Melissa shifts impatiently while I puff on my pipe, focusing my mind’s imagination on Ultima.

“I thought you were thinking of me!” her voice startles us. “Oh, and you brought a friend.”

Melissa and I rise to greet her.

“Ultima, this is Melissa Serious. Melissa, Ultima Flossbottom.”

They shake hands and we resettle ourselves on the stones.

“Ultima,” Melissa starts immediately, “I have a problem with which I hope you can help. I can only visit this forest through his study.” She points to me. “But there must be other ways in. How did you find the forest?”

“Oh, through my dragon, of course. He knew it was here, but for reasons he has not explained, he cannot or will not visit it. However, being curious, he instructed me how to find my way in to check things out for him. I think it a delightful place.”

“And how do you get in?” Melissa leans forward.

Ultima contemplates a second. “I will trade with you for that knowledge.”

“Trade for what?” Melissa knits her brow.

“An explanation of the story The Three Heads of the Well. It’s the last story in the book I borrowed from the study.” Here she smiles at me and continues. “I didn’t think much of it at the time, but the story has stuck with me.”

“Remind us,” I say. “I know I must have read it.”

A king, whose wife has died, remarries to an old, ugly, hook-nosed woman, but one who is wealthy. This woman brings to the marriage her own, ill-natured daughter, and then sets about turning the king against his own daughter through false rumors.

Soon, the young princess begs her father to allow her to leave the court and make her way in the world. He allows this, and she leaves with a meager amount of food and little else. This food she shares with an old man who gives her a magic wand with which she passes unharmed through a thorn hedge to a well where three golden heads rise to the surface, asking her to wash and comb them and lay them on the bank to dry.

This she does, and she is granted the favors that she will charm a powerful prince, her voice will exceed that of a nightingale, and she will become a queen. All this comes to pass. When her new husband finds out that she is a king’s daughter, they return to that court. The father is amazed at her fortune, and he is told the truth of what has happened. The father is overjoyed, and much feasting and merriment follow before the happy couple returns home with a true dowry.

Mad with envy, the old, ugly hook-nosed queen and her ill-natured daughter contrive to follow the heroine’s example. The ill-natured daughter leaves to find her way in the world, with better provisions than the first and yet does not share them with the old man. She barely gets through the thorn hedge in one piece, and then bops the golden heads with a bottle.

For this, she is granted leprosy, a harsh voice, and condemned to marry a cobbler. It is the cobbler she meets who has the means to cure her leprosy and voice. For this, she must marry him.

They return to the king’s court, and when the hook-nosed queen finds her daughter has married a cobbler, she hangs herself in wrath. The king, glad to be rid of his queen so easily, offers the cobbler a hundred pounds if he will quit the court, taking his lady with him, and not come back. This the cobbler does, returning to mending shoes, his wife spinning the thread.

“Now tell me,” says Ultima with frustration in her voice, “what is that all about?”

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2021 The Three Heads of the Well – Part Two

Corleck Head

Talking Heads

“Well,” I say, “the general category here is ‘talking heads.’ While this is an English fairy tale, the three golden heads is a Celtic influence, I am willing to bet. Severed heads are a popular thing in Celtic tales and myths. I remember part of a tale about the hero Cuchulainn returning from battle holding by the hair the heads of defeated enemies, nine in one hand and ten in the other.”

Ultima looks aghast.

“But,” I hasten to continue, “heads were not always trophies. A gigantic Welsh king, Bran the Blessed, as described in the Mabinogion—a collection of legends—is fighting in Ireland to reclaim his sister, Branwen, married to but rejected by an Irish king.

“As a result of the ensuing battle, just about everybody dies—these are Celtic tales after all—including Branwen. Bran is mortally wounded and instructs his few surviving companions to cut off his head and return with it to Wales, where for seven years the head continues to talk and entertain them.

“Then there is Conaire Mόr, High King of Ireland, who gets his head cut off, and afterwards takes a drink of water and recites a poem in honor of his friend who had tried to save him.”

“ I like,” says Melissa, “the singing head of Donn-Bo after the battle of Allen in the Fenian Cycle, but we should not forget the Corleck Head, which isn’t a severed head at all, but rather a head statue. What is remarkable about it is that it has three faces going around with no back of the head. Supposedly there was a similar head statue of Saint Brigid at one time. Nor should we forget Mimir.”

I object. “Mimir is Nordic, not Celtic.”

“They were neighbors with much back and forth, often violent mind you, but they influenced each other nonetheless. Mimir was a god of wisdom, associated with a well at which Odin sacrificed an eye to gain wisdom. Later, Mimir was beheaded by the Vanir during a war with Aesir. Odin preserved the head, with which he conferred when he needed Mimir’s advice and secret knowledge. I’ll suggest Mimir was the original talking head.”

“Oh, but what of the golden heads? Why gold?” Ultima puts in.

Melissa and I are a bit stopped by that.

“Well,” I conjecture, “they were not made of gold, but golden in color. They do have combable hair, apparently. The color indicates… ”

“Wealth?” Melissa suggests. “Wealth of knowledge? They are magical and did bestow boons and curses.”

I am thinking outloud. “It could be the orginal storyteller’s fancy with no more significance than that.”

Melissa has templed her fingers. “There is the Greek three golden apples. Apples are kind of head-shaped.”

“No, I am not buying it,” I declare.

“I do recall the story in Jacobs’ book,” she says. “His illustrator put crowns on the golden heads. The story does not state that they were the heads of kings, but I think there is something to that.”

“Could be,” I say.

Ultima snorts.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2021 The Three Heads of the Well – Part Three

John D Batten

The Answer

“OK,” says Ultima, picking up a stone and skipping it across the pond, “let’s move on to the stepsisters. What is that conflict all about?”

Melissa answers while watching the ripples on the water. “One of the roles of a fairy tale is to pass on cultural values, especially to young listeners. In this case, the story illustrates the result of generous actions as opposed to selfish ones.

“The good princess, though she has little, shares her food with an old man, who turns out to be a magical helper. He gives her a wand and words of advice. Despite the odd nature of the heads, she treats them with respect and kindness. Her goodness leads to her good fortune.

“The ill-natured princess, though well-provisioned, does not share with the old man, who declares ill fortune will follow. She then treats the golden heads cruelly, who curse her, leading to her downfall and that of her mother.

“The cultural message is that good deeds bring good results, and bad deeds bring bad results.”

“Good versus evil,” I contribute, “is a common theme in fairy tales, populated with evil stepmothers and stepsisters, often at a ratio of three evil stepsisters to one heroine.”

“And evil stepbrothers, I assume,” concludes Ultima.

I hesitate. “Well, no.”

“No?” Ultima folds her arms.

“No evil stepbrothers, only evil stepsisters.”

Am I getting myself into hot water?

Melissa is smiling slyly. She wants to see me wiggle out of this one.

“There are evil brothers,” I observe. “Brothers usually come in sets of three. The youngest brother is almost always the hero. The elder brothers usually gang up on him, are selfish, and, on occasion, murderous.”

“And evil stepfathers?” Ultima probes.

“Well, no, none of them either that I can recall. Sometimes fathers, with great indiscretion, will want to marry their daughter, but that is about it.”

Ultima puts her fingers to her lips. Her eyes widen.

Melissa decides to bail me out. “There are certain accepted scenarios in the fairy-tale genre, to the exclusion of others for no apparent reason.

“For example, men in the stories might be a woodcutter, soldier, merchant, prince, or king, but never a barrel maker, dentist, ditchdigger, banker, or brewmaster; it just doesn’t happen. These patterns we call ‘tropes,’ and the fairy tales will use the same tropes over and over again, not trying to change the ‘scenery,’ as it may be.”

Ultima shakes her head slowly but appears satisfied. “Well, dear, about finding your way into the Magic Forest. My dragon had me drink a hot cup of dragonsleep before going to bed and recite to myself while going to sleep:

Is it a gate?

Is it a door?

What is the way

I am looking for?

Give me a clue.

Show me a sign.

I want a path,

A way that is mine.

“I don’t know if the words are magical. I think it is just to get you in the mood. The point is, you will dream about the way in.”

Melissa takes Ultima’s hand. “Can you get me some dragonsleep? I don’t think it is in our world.”

“Oh, surely it is. It’s most common. There’s probably some growing here about.” We follow Ultima as she wanders around until she exclaims, “Ha! Here.” In triumph, she uproots a plant.

Melissa touches the small daisy-like flowers and sniffs it.

“Ah, chamomile.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2020 The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples – Part One

H J Ford

A Pie

Thalia has retained her child-confidence as she moves toward young adulthood. Children usually lose this trait as they face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but not in Thalia’s case.

I say this as prelude to telling you she just announced to me that she is going to bake a pie. An apple pie.

“And I won’t need any help.” She closes the study door.

I rise to open it halfway to keep a wary ear on sounds from the kitchen, which lies a little way down the hall. Thalia has never baked a pie or boiled water from what I can recall. I know the inspiration comes from the yellow apples I got at market this morning and left setting on the kitchen counter. “Golden apples” I call them.

Apples have been a part of fairy tales for longer than fairies have, I believe. The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples springs to my mind and I reach for Andrew Lang’s The Violet Fairy Book.

In front of the emperor’s palace is a golden apple tree that blooms and bears fruit all in one night, but by morning the apples are gone. To find the thief, the emperor’s sons stand guard at night, but always fall asleep.

Only the youngest manages to wake up early enough to see nine pea-hens descending upon the golden apple tree. One of them flies down to him and transforms into a beautiful woman. Love springs between them instantly and when the pea-hens leave at dawn, she gives him two of the golden apples.

The emperor is delighted and the prince sleeps under the tree every night and visits with the pea-hen maiden. The jealous brothers employ a witch to discern what is happening and she cuts off a lock of the pea-hen maiden’s hair. She and her sisters fly up and never return to the golden apple tree.

The prince sets out to discover the home of the pea-hen maiden, who turns out to be an empress. They are reunited and marry.

One day, while exploring the empress’s palace, he enters a room that is forbidden and, through acts of kindness, inadvertently releases a dragon, who flies off with the empress. Again, the prince must venture out and find his bride. Along the way, he helps a fish, a fox, and a wolf, who give him tokens and promises of aid.

I hear a long, loud clattering of pots and pans coming from the kitchen, but nothing sounds as if it has broken.

Finding the empress again, the prince flees with her on horseback. When the dragon finds the empress missing, he confers with his talking horse, who assures the dragon they have plenty of time to catch up with the couple. The dragon takes his supper before going off to retrieve the empress.

Through her wiles, the empress finds out the only horse faster than the dragon’s is its brother, who is in the hands of a witch. The prince must earn the horse from the witch by tending to the witch’s mare and colt for three nights or lose his head.

Each night the mare turns herself and her colt into other creatures. The prince recovers the mare and colt with the aid of his animal helpers, the fish, fox, and wolf.

With the new horse, the prince and empress ride off again. This time, when the dragon’s horse catches up with the fleeing couple, their horse convinces its brother to throw off the dragon, who falls to its death upon rocks.

A loud, overwhelming “thunk” draws my attention. It is time to check on Thalia’s progress.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2020 The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples – Part Two

More Apples

The tableau that appears to me is Thalia, one hand steadying the apple on the cutting board, and her other hand raised high, brandishing a meat cleaver.

Quickly, she pulls the steadying hand away and down comes the meat cleaver, full force.

Clunk.


The apple, receiving a glancing blow, spins across the room, joining its companion in the corner.

“Ahumm,” I say emphatically.

I retrieve the errant apples, pluck the apple peeler from its hook, hold it up to Thalia, demonstrate how to peel an apple, then reach for the apple corer, press it into the flesh of the apple around the stem, slicing the apple into moon-crescent pieces. I then hand the new instrument of destruction to Thalia.

“Got it,” she says.

I retreat from the kitchen, slipping the meat cleaver out of sight under a pile of tea towels.

Back in the study, I search for and find Apples: History, Folklore, Horticulture, and Gastronomy, by Peter Wynne. I recall his two chapters on the notion that there had once been an apple goddess. He starts, of course, with the Garden of Eden, and the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life.

Interestingly, the Bible does not describe the fruit of these trees as apples. Archaeological evidence suggests the apple was unknown in the Middle East until later, according to Wynne. For Europeans, the fruit was identified as an apple from at least the start of the thirteenth century.

Going back in time, the author talks about how the apple has always been associated with women, particularly in mythology. He cites the contest between Hippomenes and Atalanta. Atalanta will marry no man but the one who can beat her in a foot race. Losers forfeit their lives—this story may be the origin of that motif. Hippomenes asks Aphrodite for help and is given three golden apples to roll in front of Atalanta to slow her down as she picks them up.

A second myth is the Judgment of Paris. At the wedding between Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilles) the goddess Discord, who was not invited, throws a golden apple amongst the guests that is inscribed, “Fair One, make this your own.” (Shades of Sleeping Beauty.)

Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena all lay claim to the golden apple. They chose Paris, Prince of Troy, to settle the dispute. All three goddesses tempt and bribe Paris for his favor. He chooses Aphrodite, who promises him the most beautiful woman in the world. Unfortunately, she is Helen, already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta. Helen runs off with Paris, triggering the Trojan War.

According to Wynne, it appears the apple is sacred to Aphrodite and also her brother, Apollo. Other male gods that Wynne associates with the apple are Dionysus, Adonis, and Hercules. With Hercules, one may recall the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. That bit of myth does remind one of the Garden of Eden.

Nonetheless, the strongest associations of the apple are with the goddesses, and the author suggests the Greek gods evolved out of Bronze Age deities, one of whom was likely an apple goddess.

I have not heard from Thalia in a while. I wander down the hall to peek into the kitchen. Thalia looks up from her cookbook.

“What’s a ‘tbl’ and a ‘tsp’?”

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2020 The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples – Part Three

H J Ford

Rather Curious

The third time I checked in on Thalia, she had moved on to the pie crust. She had the rolling pin in hand, and was rolling out the dough. I noted she had floured the top of the cutting board she was using, along with her person, the surrounding floor, and  most of the other kitchen surfaces.

I go back to the study to hide and to contemplate. On the whole, I must conclude that The Nine Pea-hens and the Golden Apples is an unusual  and curious story in many respects.Lang’s wife translated the tale from a German collection of Serbian folktales. It is considered by folklorists to be of the Swan Maiden type of story. More accurately, it came out of Serbian epic poetry, but the storyline is drawn from a multitude of fairy-tale tropes.

The tale starts out a bit like the Grimms’ Golden Bird, except that the three brothers are the king’s gardener’s sons and it is a single golden bird stealing the apples.

After the witch sends the pea-hens fleeing, the prince sets out to find the Pea-hen Maiden. This is a strange moment in the story for a fairy-tale follower such as myself, in that the prince is drawn, without aid or travail, quickly to the capital city over which the Pen-hen Maiden is the empress. Perhaps this is done expediently to get on to the next fairy-tale trope: entering the forbidden room.

The prince knows the room is forbidden, the empress herself had warned him, but his curiosity gets the better of him. A dragon is released and carries off the empress. (I must note, dragons are fairly rare in these tales.)

What is really curious, in fairy-tale terms, is that it is the male who lets his curiosity rule him and not the female in the tale. Sprig of Rosemary jumps to my mind as an example of the usual format, but then any number of these Cupid and Psyche-inspired tales can serve as examples to which we may point.

Thalia comes into the study, her progress marked on the rug by ghostly white footprints, sits down on one of her favorite chairs instead of my comfy chair, which I occupy, and picks up a book.

“How long?” I ask.

“Thirty-five minutes, the cookbook says.”

I check my watch.

Back to my contemplation of the tale, there follows a second unusual event, in that the hero, for a second time, must find his bride. However, this time it takes months, which it should, if not years. During his travels, he comes to the aid of animals –a fish, a fox, and a wolf—who become his animal helpers. Here I can point to Child of the Sea and The Queen Bee as parallel examples.

From this point, the plot follows the usual trope of promises and tokens, and the pattern remains that the animal helpers are assigned to a hero, and not a heroine. The heroines, on these quests to find the lost husband, get their aid from celestial beings or inanimate objects. I can’t point to a single tale in which a hero asks aid of the sun, wind, or moon, even though in the Greek myths, to which so many fairy tales harken back, mortal men often plead with, even cajoled, the goddesses.

Then we come to the talking horses. Talking horses are also rare, but not unheard of. Falada in the Goose Girl is probably the most familiar. But two talking horses in the same story? I don’t recall another example.

Curiously (Again, this is a curious story.), in order to get his talking horse, the hero must tend to a mare and her colt for three nights. The theme of three is common enough, but more often than not, there are three different tasks, not the same task three times in a row. On the other hand, as expected, the animal helpers reveal the animal forms in which the mare and colt are hiding that conveniently happen to be that of fishes, foxes, and wolves.

When we get to the chase scene, there are only two attempts to escape, instead of the usual three, interrupted by the prince acquiring the horse brother of the dragon’s mount.

We also have an inconsistency with the dragon, who earlier flew off with the empress, but is now riding a horse. Also, what happened to the other eight pea-hen sisters? In total, all rather curious.

A whiff of smoke comes down the hall.

“I think your pie may be done early,” I say.

With a sharp “Oh!” Thalia dashes for the kitchen.

“Fire,” she announces.

I grab the extinguisher by the side of the hearth.

I hope she gets better at this.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2020 The Lambton Worm – Part One

Lambton_Worm c e Brock C E Brock

Slow Worm

Melissa, armed with a wicker basket; Thalia, turning over every stone along the path; and I, with my walking stick, wind our way up a path through Oxleas Wood. We are intent on our goal of picnicking at Severndroog Castle. It is not a real castle, rather a monument to Sir William James, built by his wife. Architecturally, it is called a folly, but it’s got a gate, rooms, and a parapet, nonetheless, and quite a view of London.

“I found one,” Thalia calls out.

“Found one what?” I ask.

She proffers her hand in which she holds a reptile.

“Thalia, put that down; it’s a snake.” I feel myself repelled.

Thalia tsk-tsks at me. “Oh, Grandfather, it’s not a snake. It’s a slow worm.”

“Worm? As in a dragon?” I am worried.

Melissa laughs lightly at my discomfort.

“No, Grandfather, as in a lizard.”

“I’m sure it’s a snake.”

“No. See.” Thalia thrusts its head so close to my face I fear it will sink its fangs into my nose. “Watch its eyes. They blink. Snakes don’t have eyelids. Only lizards blink.”

We come to the castle’s terrace where we settle down for our picnic. Melissa reaches into her basket, pulls out three books, then hands the basket to me.

“I didn’t know which story to read to us,” Melissa checks the book spines for the titles, “so I just grabbed books, but now I know I did bring the right book.” She holds up More English Fairy Tales.

Thalia grins at the prospect of a story while she sits on a wooden bench playing with her snake. She has gotten too old for me to read to her, but Melissa, for some reason, gets away with it. I lay out the picnic goodies while Melissa commences with the story, The Lambton Worm.

The young, wild son of the Lord of Lambton, not given to going to church, spent his Sundays fishing. He caught little on these Sundays, causing him to swear loudly, probably taking the Lord’s name in vain.

One Sunday he caught an unnatural creature, with nine holes along the sides of its head and a worm-like body.

An old man appeared by his side, declaring the catch an ill omen, but that the lad must keep it. Instead, the youth cast it down a well. It became known as the Well of the Worm when, after some little time, the creature emerged from it a full-grown dragon that proceeded to devastate the countryside.

It spent its days curled around a rock in the middle of the River Wear, and at night sucked the cows of their milk and ate the lambs. It crushed to death anyone who attacked it.

Meanwhile, the youth had repented of his ways, took up the cross, and went off to fight in the Holy Crusade.

As the worm’s evening ventures brought it closer and closer to Lambton Hall, every day the lord had the milk of nine cows poured into a trough. The dragon contented itself with this and was kept at bay for the most part, if not always.

Seven years later, the lord’s son returned to find farms and fields abandoned because of the worm. His father suggested the youth confer with the Wise Woman of Brugeford. From her, he confirmed that the worm was his fault and that only he could destroy it. The youth needed armor spiked with spear tips that would pierce the dragon when it tried to crush him. In addition, after the battle he must kill the first living creature that greeted him.

The youth arranged, with the signal of his hunting horn, that his hound should be the first to greet him. The battle took place and the youth killed the worm. At the signal, the forgetful father rushed forth ahead of the hound being released.

Still, the youth killed the hound instead of his father, but to no avail. For nine generations the men of Lambton Hall would not die in their beds.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2020 The Lambton Worn – Part Two

Lambton John G by Thomas Phillips John George Lambton by Thomas Phillips

Radical Jack

Thalia’s little snake slithers from the fingers of one hand to the fingers of her other.

“Careful it doesn’t bite you,” I say.

“Slow worms don’t bite people,” she answers. “Slugs and things like that, but not people.”

I am dubious.

I turn to Melissa. “There are rather few dragons in fairy tales, almost as scarce as fairies. They don’t come near to the number of witches found there.”

“True,” says Melissa, “and we can hardly call this story a fairy tale. It is really a legend.”

“How so?”

“Fairy tales usually occur somewhere lost in time and place. This tale comes from county Durham and nowhere else.”

“How do you know that?”

“I ran across this story two years ago and made a small study of it.”

“Of course you did,” I say. “Tell me what you know.”

“The tale is fairly medieval in origin, but the serpent was the “Sockburn Worm” attached to the prominent Conyers family in Durham.

“However, over time, the fortunes of the Conyers diminished and their estate sold off around the start of the Industrial Age. Another old family in the area was on the rise. Owners of the Lambton estate profited from the coal trade.”

I venture to poke a finger at Thalia’s snake. She looks at me warily. “Don’t frighten it. It might drop off its tail if you do.”

“That,” I declare, “sounds like an old wives’ tale.”

“No,” says Melissa, “they will do that if frightened,” and returns to the Lambton history. “In 1812, John George Lambton became a member of Parliament. When his father-in-law, Earl Grey, became prime minister, John became the first Earl of Durham.”

“Wait,” I say, “Earl Grey as in Earl Grey tea?”

“The very same,” Melissa smiles. “Both Earl Grey and the Earl of Durham were reformers, supporters of the rights of the people. John Lambton earned the nickname, ‘Radical Jack’ for his efforts.”

“And those radical ideas were?” I ask.

“Oh, things like the secret ballot and universal suffrage.”

“Norms today,” I say.

“Radical then,” she replies. “The people loved him. Somehow, the romantic story of the ‘Sockburn Worm’ of the declining Conyers family got transferred to the favored Lambton family in the minds of the common people, the progenitors of this tale.”

“No one noticed the sleight of hand?”

“I’ll say no. Nor will I accuse the people of trickery. I think the transfer of the legend was subconscious. In any case, the term ‘fact-checking’ had not come into the lexicon.

“Historically, the curse of the lords not dying in their beds rather fits. The first generation, Robert Lambton, drowned. The second generation, Sir William, died in battle, as did the third generation, also a William. There is a gap in the family history, until Henry Lambton dies in his carriage crossing the bridge at Lambton in 1761, presumably ending the curse shortly before Radical Jack came on the scene. But even he died at the age of 48.

“If the shoe fits, wear it,” I say.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2020 The Lambton Worn – Part Three

Lambton_Castle_Durham_Morris_edited Illustrator unknown

Saint George

“Remind me to introduce you to Ultima Flossbottom,” I say. “She knows more about dragons than the rest of our world put together.”

Melissa smiles at me with mild interest. “I am sure with a name like that she is notable.”

Thalia giggles.

We are well into our open-air feast. The cold, corn quiche Melissa made is particularly splendid.

“The milk of nine cows in the trough has an echo for me,” I muse.

“Yes, it comes up in The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh, collected in Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales, one of his other books.”

“Yes, right,” I say. “A similar tale?”

“Only in that there is a milk-filled trough, a worm, a body of water, and a hero involved. Outside of that they are very different stories.”

“Thalia,” I say, “stop stuffing yourself with crisps for a moment and hand over the merlot, two glasses, and a corkscrew from the wicker, please.”

Thalia obliges. I would have gotten them myself, but I saw her put her serpent into the basket for safekeeping while she ate.

“Then,” I continue, “there is Saint George and the dragon.”

“Well,” says Melissa, accepting the glass I offer, “here we get into the damsel-and-dragon pairing, which constitutes the majority of the dragon stories. That motif can be traced back to Perseus saving Andromeda from the sea serpent, Cetus, although the through-line between the two is not direct.

“Stories of George, Demetrius and Theodore, all soldier-saints, were circulated in Europe by the returning knights of the First Crusade. However, it was Saint Theodore to whom the dragon slaying was attributed. Saint George and Saint Theodore were sometimes depicted as riding together.

“Saint George’s reputation as the dragon slayer was solidified with the popular work The Golden Legend, a collection of saintly stories that appeared about 1260. In it a princess, dressed as a bride, is to be fed to a marauding dragon. She is saved by Saint George.”

“Dressed as a bride?” I say.

“Yes, isn’t that interesting, a very subtle sexual inference. Theodore never had the benefit of a damsel.”

“Transferring of the dragon slaying from Theodore to George does not sound much different than the transference from the Conyers to the Lambtons.”

Melissa nods, sipping her wine, and I continue.

“It occurs to me, we could categorize our dragon stories.”

“What categories do you propose?” Melissa samples a brownie that I baked and brought.

“Well, the Lambton Worm is of the wanton, destructive kind to be placated and eventually killed.”

“Let’s call him the Beowulf Dragon. That’s the earliest example of that kind I can think of,” Melissa suggests.

“Then there is the dragon possessing a maiden to be rescued.”

“The Perseus Dragon,” Melissa declares, raising a finger, “and the third category should be the Jason Dragon, the dragon protecting the Golden Fleece or some other treasure horde.”

“There weren’t any helpful dragons, were there?” I ask.

“Not in the fairy-tale genre that I know of,” Melissa concludes.

Glancing at Thalia, I see her take her pet from the basket to play with again.

“I think you should put the poor little thing back under its rock. And whatever you do, don’t throw it down a well.”

Thalia rolls her eyes. “Yes, Grandfather.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2020 The Princess’s Kerchief – Part One

Kerchief Princess The Princess Deryabar, Edmund Dulac, 1908

The Bench

It is officially summer. I feel as if I missed out on spring. It is time to be in nature. I am thinking of Clapham Common.

I go to my study and dance my fingers across the book spines until, without looking, I grab a volume, put in under my arm, and head for the door.

Clapham Common is a bit of a walk, but the day is glorious and I don’t mind. Clapham is a nice mixture of grassy swards, trees, and ponds.

I find a bench in sight of the bandstand and for the first time I look at the book I grabbed. Modern Greek Folktales, R. M. Dawkins.

Good, one of my favorites.

Using Thalia’s method, I wave my finger over the table of contents and bring it down without judgment.

The Princess’s Kerchief. I’ve not read this one.

A princess spends twelve years embroidering a kerchief with gold. Finishing it, she celebrates with friends with a countryside outing. A crane snatches the kerchief and flies off. Inconsolable, she asks her father to build a bathhouse to which all can come for a free bath as long as they tell her, the bath woman, a story. In this way she hopes to hear tell of the kerchief. This she does for two years.

I look up from my book. There is a pigeon sitting on the far side of my bench, looking at me accusingly. I never thought to bring popcorn for the birds. It coos under its breath—something nasty I’m sure—and flutters off.

The tale then switches to a mad girl, one of three daughters. The mad girl is wont to wander around outside at night. As punishment, her sisters beat her, but still she wanders.

Eventually, after delivering a good beating, the sisters lock up the house in such a way as to prevent the girl from wandering. The mad girl makes her bed by the front door and peers out into the night through the keyhole.

During the night she sees a dervish with a kerchief tied around his cap, riding a horse, followed by a train of camels. The dervish plays a flute. The mad girl must follow, and breaks down the door.

The dervish travels to a palace, where he takes off his robes, revealing himself to be as beautiful as an angel. He takes no pleasure in his meal and goes to bed. Before lying down, he takes a golden kerchief from under his pillow, saying,

“Ah, little hands which worked you

To wear on breast and head.

When will God grant the spell to break

That we two may be wed.”

 

The next day, after another beating, the mad girl goes to the bath and after her bath tells the princess her story. The princess promises the girl half her kingdom if the mad girl will help her. That night they both sleep by the mad girl’s front door until they hear the piping and spy the dervish again through the keyhole. They follow him, seeing and hearing a repeat of the night before.

With a medicine the princess brought with her, she breaks the spell. She and the mysterious youth are married. With the same medicine, the princess cures the mad girl and gives her half the kingdom as promised.

I look up again from my book. There are five pigeons on the end of the bench staring at me. That old horror movie by Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds, comes to mind and I decide now is a good time to visit my friend Augustus.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2020 The Princess’s Kerchief – Part Two

kerchief whirling-dervishes Amedeo Preziosi, Watercolour, c. 1857

That Kerchief

I sit in Augustus’s smoking room, enjoying some of his blend called Whirling Dervish, which I just purchased for this occasion. It has a good bit of Arabic Latakia tobacco which does make one’s head spin. Augustus reads The Princess’s Kerchief.

He snaps the book shut, hands it back, and looks at me quizzically through our smoky haze.

“How to go about disassembling this one?” he proffers the question for our conversation.

“First of all,” I say, “the kerchief is obviously not what I think of as a kerchief.”

“You are, perhaps, thinking of a handkerchief,” Augustus suggests. “The princess’s kerchief is more like a hijab, although the dervish’s kerchief tied around his cap must be more of a bandana.”

“The kerchief around the cap of the dervish,” I say, “is a device to connect him, from the start, to the princess’s kerchief. But, further, I will suppose kerchiefs come in all sizes.”

“Speaking of the dervish, what a strange image.” Augustus blows a smoke ring.

“How so?” I ask.

“The dervishes are Sufis, a mystical Muslim sect that avows poverty, although, historically, they were supported by endowments, and their institutions were fairly wealthy and sometimes powerful. They were somewhat monastic, although not celibate, dedicated to poetry, music, and dance to approach God. Their founder was the poet Rumi.

“Our dervish, riding a horse leading a train of camels, looks to me like a merchant. His residence being a castle is even at greater odds with the identity of a dervish.”

Augustus pauses to relight his pipe and I interject, “When the dervish gets to his castle, he takes off his dervish robe and appears as his true self. The robe appears to be a disguise.”

“No,” counters my friend, “someone pretending to be a dervish would not include a train of camels in his disguise. But look, here we are trying to get a fairy tale to make sense. We should know better.”

“The pipe he is playing?” I probe.

“That makes sense. Music is part of Sufi worship.”

“I couldn’t help thinking of the Pied Piper. The mad girl is compelled to follow him.”

“There is that,” Augustus nods.

“And,” I pick up steam, “the dervish appears to be a shapeshifter. As a crane he steals the kerchief.”

“Does he?”

“Doesn’t he?”

Augustus stretches out his hand for the book. He then reads, “. . . the princess showed herself and said: ‘It was you who took my kerchief?’

“And the dervish’s response is, ‘It was you whom I had been watching for so long.’

“Note, he does not actually say that he was the crane. It is implied, but not stated. The crane could have stolen the kerchief at his bidding. But greater still, why the subterfuge? Why the indirection? Why did the princess need to discover him, rather than he present himself to her?”

“Isn’t that the challenge of these tales?” I say. “They don’t tell us everything. The tales are not essays on wisdom. I think they contain wisdom, but we need to immerse our hand into the murky waters of the tales and hope that something down there does not bite us.”

“And that,” Augustus smiles at me through our tobacco cloud, “is what we are doing. I feel my fingertips being nibbled.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2020 The Princess’s Kerchief – Part Three

Kerchief keyhole Peeking Through Keyhole, Peter Fendi, 1834

Mad Girl

“Let’s move on to the mad girl.” Augustus blows another smoke ring. “I am trying to think of any other fairy tale that has such a clear shift in point of view. There are really two protagonists in this tale.”

“And why a mad girl?” I ask.

“Again, the story does not tell us, but I am happy to make inferences, if you will allow me.”

Augustus blows a large, lazy smoke ring, and then a quick, smaller one through it.

“Feel free.” I wave a hand.

“Mad people are not of the same order of mind as the rest of us. This is usually to their disadvantage, but they can perceive the world differently.  In the case of our mad girl, when she looks through the keyhole she is looking into another world.”

“I believe I am following you,” I declare, “but must she not be both mad and looking through the keyhole?”

“Oh, quite,” says Augustus. “The keyhole is very important. Gazing out a door or window won’t do. If you are surreptitiously peering with one eye through an escutcheon, then you are tapping into something forbidden.

“Having espied the dervish in this way, the mad girl could then open the door and follow.”

“Let me add to that,” I say. “Having seen the dervish, heard his Pied Piper like music, she now had the power to break through the door to follow, a door that previously held her in.”

“There’s a bit of magic for you.” Augustus nods. “And note, she watches him intimately, but the dervish seems not to notice her.”

“Then,” I pick up on the thread of this idea of magic, “she knows to go straight to the bathhouse to tell her tale to the princess, the event the princess has been waiting for, and the princess promises the mad girl half the kingdom for her help.”

Augustus raises a finger. “I think the mad girl is best described as becoming the princess’s guide. Sleeping by the mad girl’s door, looking through the mad girl’s keyhole, but without the mad girl by her side, the princess would never have seen the dervish riding by. The mad girl guides the princess into the other world where the dervish was trapped.”

“Ah!” I say, “The medicine, which the princess so conveniently brought with her . . .  She uses it to break the dervish’s enchantment. She uses the same medicine to cure the mad girl. By marrying the dervish and giving the mad girl half her kingdom, she brought them both back from the mystical world to the material world.”

“That all fits together for me,” answers Augustus, tapping out his pipe.

“One more item,” I say. “What about that bathhouse? Why did she have her father build her a bathhouse?”

“Well,” considers Augustus, “she needed a public place to hear stories. She is a princess. She could not be seen hanging out in local taverns. The marketplace is public and a place for story, but royalty usually abhor anything mercantile.  A free public bath, supported by the royal family, filled the bill rather well.”

I agree.

As I leave his shop a little later, to my great discomfort, I see all along the rooflines of the buildings across the street, the outline of pigeons. Many pigeons. I fear for my life.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2020 The Curse of Pantannas – Part One

Fairy Ring Dulac Edmund Dulac

New Tradition

Tradition is not cut in stone. Thalia has taken over my comfy chair in the study as she reads aloud. I am relegated to a lesser chair, but make myself useful by tending the fire in the hearth as she reads to the company.

And I do mean company. Prime among them is the fairy perched on her shoulder, but also in attendance are Johannes curled up on the window seat, myself seated in the lesser chair, and even the brownie lurking in a dark corner with two more brownies peeking from behind him.

I didn’t know there was more than one brownie in the household.

The fairy chooses the story, flying down from her shoulder perch, alighting on the table of contents of the book on Thalia’s lap. She puts her tiny foot on a title.

“That one.” Her little voice has the tinkle of breaking glass.

The Curse of Pantannas,” Thalia announces.

The owner of the farm of Pantannas, near Glamorgan, annoyed by the fairies dancing in his field by night, took the advice of a witch and plowed the fairy ring using an iron ploughshare.

Soon, a little man with a small sword confronted the farmer, saying, “Vengeance cometh.”

Nothing more happened for months, until harvest time. One evening, the farmer and his family heard a noise that shook the house and a voice repeated, “Vengeance cometh.” In the morning they saw the crops were turned to ashes.

The little man reappeared and said, “It but beginneth.”

Fearing his destruction, the farmer pleaded with the little man and promised to leave the fairy ring alone. The little man declared the king of the fairies had pronounced revenge on the farmer and it could not be taken back, but allowed he would intercede for the farmer if he could.

As a result, the curse was deferred and would not fall on the farmer, or his son, or his son’s son, but rather on a future generation. The farmer, content with that, later died in peaceful old age.

A hundred years later, young Madoc, heir to Pantannas, celebrated his betrothal to Teleri, daughter of the local squire, at Christmastide by inviting all her kin to a feast. During the course of the evening, three times the gathering heard declarations that “vengeance comes,” and was visited by a hag who spoke of a waiting doom.

Late that evening, Madoc escorted Teleri to her home, but then did not return to Pantannas. Madoc’s parents conferred with a hermit, who suggested that even if Madoc were still alive, he would not return in their lifetime.

However, Teleri never gave up hope. Every day she climbed to a summit overlooking the landscape and watched for a sign of her returning lover. This she did year after year until her hair turned silver, and her eyes dimmed. It was said she died before her time.

Eventually, all who had known Madoc died as well.

Madoc, however, while returning home after seeing Teleri to her home, heard marvelous music coming from a cave. He entered it, following the sound, trying to discover its source. For some time he went deeper and deeper into the cave until the music stopped.

Retracing his steps, he returned to Pantannas to find an old man sitting by the fire, who treated him as an intruder, demanding his name. The old man only knew the name “Madoc” from an old tale of a man who mysteriously disappeared.

Realizing his fate, Madoc sat down and wept. The old man, showing sympathy, put a hand on his shoulder and Madoc turned to dust.

Thalia solemnly closes the book and the fairy flutters her wings in pleasure, reminding me that fairies are nasty little creatures.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2020 The Curse of Pantannas – Part Two

Fairy Ring Oberon Rackham Arthur Rackham

My Thoughts

The company wanders off—Thalia to bed where she will sit up and read till midnight, the fairy settling in Thalia’s bedroom as well, and the brownies creeping back into the kitchen—leaving Johannes and me in the study. I pour a glass of sherry from the decanter on the library table and reclaim my comfy chair, turning it toward the hearth, pulling my patchwork quilt about my legs.

The story Thalia read came from The Welsh Fairy Book, by W. Jenkyn Thomas. When I contemplate a tale, I usually break it down by motifs. This one makes me think it is made up of bits and pieces.

With a long sip of sherry, I start by thinking about the farmer plowing up the fairy ring with the iron ploughshare, iron a talisman against anything fey. Fairies can hardly be mentioned without the fairy ring being part of the conversation. It is the circle on the ground where the fairies have danced, a pattern left behind, usually manifested by mushrooms growing in a perfect circle. Nonbelievers dismiss the rings as a natural phenomenon, but one cannot look upon that ring of mushrooms without a certain amount of wonder.

When the story speaks of the king of the fairies, who might that be other than Oberon? We first meet Oberon in a Merovingian legend (the Franks, fifth to sixth century). He winds his way into other French stories; and Shakespeare embroiders his play with both Oberon and his queen Titania. Although we never see the king of the fairies in our story, he is the backing for everything that happens.

I put another log on the fire and sip a bit more sherry before returning to my contemplations.

The unfortunate Madoc holds the celebration of his betrothal at Christmastide. That may appear insignificant but is another piece of the pattern that makes up this tale. The Danes, historically, made great inroads into our isle; just witness the area of England once called the Danelaw. There is a tradition in all those Nordic countries that during the period from the start of Christmastide until New Year’s Day there is a thinning of the veil between the worlds. Numerous, uncanny tales take place just before the year’s end.

I reach for my pipe and tamp in tobacco from my canister labeled Fairies’ Delight.

The matter of time passing quickly while in the company of fairies goes back at least to the Fenian Cycle of Celtic legend when Oisín takes a fairy wife. After three years in fairyland—Tir na nÓg—he visits his family to find them gone three hundred years. When he is accidentally dismounted from his horse, as his wife warned, he is turned into an ancient being and no longer able to return to Tir na nÓg, not unlike the misfortunate Madoc turning into dust; another piece of the fabric of our story.

Forlorn love is certainly a rarity in fairy tales. At least the German fairy tales do not end until the heroine is safely married. In our tale, Teleri pines away in the best romantic fashion.

This Welsh tale does not strike me as a variant of a similar tale, but rather a composite of notions, characters, traditions, and styles, sewn together like a patchwork quilt.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2020 The Curse of Pantannas – Part Three

Fairy Ring Oisin Codex Manesse

It’s Unfair

“Johannes,” I say, “did Thalia’s fairy tale tonight strike you as a little unfair?”

“Unfair,” echoes Johannes. “How so?”

“Well obviously, the punishment for the committed offense was deferred, because of the farmer’s sincere regret,  and put upon an innocent heir.”

“I suppose,” Johannes yawns. “But the king of the fairies declared vengeance and there is no taking such a thing back.”

“And why not take it back?” I argue.

“Because a fairy’s sworn word is law. Neither can they utter a lie, by the way. Fairies make up for not lying with misdirection and deceit, but their word is sacred, immutable, and takes on a life of its own.

“Think of it as similar to gossip and rumor in the mortal world. Once spoken and out of a person’s mouth, the words cannot be put back in the mouth, and substitute for truth whether they contain any or not.”

“I will grant that, but, back to my point,” I complain, relighting my pipe, “wasn’t the punishment clearly unfair?”

Johannes’s fur ruffles, which I take as a shrug.

“Vengeance had been declared and needed to be exacted, if not on the original perpetrator, the farmer,  then on someone, his heir.”

“Why do you refuse to see my point about the unwarranted unfairness of it all?”

“Shouldn’t it be expected?” Johannes returns. “Certainly it is common enough. For example, take you humans’ concern for the environment.”

“What does the environment have to do with Madoc’s misfortune?”

“The stories are very similar. Humans are using up the earth’s resources—plowing up the fairy rings as it were—and anticipating that the future generation will pay for their neglect, possibly—like Madoc—with their very existence. Perhaps the story is a warning to you humans rather than meant to be pleasing and entertaining.”

Johannes can be so disturbingly moral.

I will ignore his slight on our existential conundrum, and focus on his implication that we expect a fairy tale to please and entertain us. The Grimms were aware of happy endings and wanted to please their bourgeois audience and young readers. After the success of the Grimms’ work, it became the benchmark for other popular collections.

I won’t saddle the Grimms with the accusation of inventing happy endings in fairy tales. It is simply human nature to be attracted to both humorous and pleasing tales. We will take heed of a few cautionary tales, but our love of entertaining tales abounds.

I guess my issue is with our expectations. We have come to expect fairy tales to end happily ever after. Those three words seem to evoke the essence of these tales for us.  When the fairy tale does not end in marriage but rather in tragedy, we feel disappointed, even cheated. We crave an acceptable resolution. Losing one’s bride and being turned into dust is not an acceptable resolution in our minds.

“Besides,” Johannes speaks again after a long pause, “it’s Welsh.”

Well, that does account for an unhappy ending, doesn’t it?

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2020 The Gnome – Part One

Gnome Arthur RackhamArthur Rackham

Not Again

I come into the study with a bit of water in a glass to save my aspidistra, and see Thalia’s copy of Grimm lying open on the study table. The title at the top catches my eye. The Gnome.

I don’t think I’ve read that one.

The king has protected his favorite apple tree with the curse that anyone who picks and eats one of these apples will be sent a hundred fathoms underground. His three daughters, thinking the curse does not apply to them, pick and eat one of the apples, and disappear.

The king declares any man who can reclaim his daughters may marry one of them.

Among the many searchers are three huntsmen, who happen upon an empty castle with hot food waiting for them on the table.

The next day, using the castle as their base, the two youngest huntsmen venture out to find the princesses while the eldest stays to keep an eye on the castle. At noon, a gnome comes in asking for some bread. The huntsman cuts him a piece, but the gnome drops it and asks him to pick it up. When the huntsman does, the gnome grabs him by the hair and gives the huntsman a good thrashing.

Rotating duties the next day, the second huntsman gets the same treatment, but the two of them do not tell the youngest huntsman what to expect.

The youngest does not fall for the trick and gives the gnome a good thrashing, stopping only when the gnome promises to tell him how to save the princesses. The gnome shows him a deep well without water, at the bottom of which are the three princesses under the control of multi-headed dragons.

Before the gnome disappears, he tells the youth not to trust his companions.

The young huntsman tells his brothers what he has learned—the story revealing for the first time that they are siblings.

Wait, it’s that motif again, the one that keeps haunting me. I’ll bet Melissa is reading this too.

The elder two are not willing to be lowered in a basket at the end of a long rope into the well, and it is the youngest who descends with a bell and a knife.

At the bottom are three rooms, the first door of which he carefully opens. In the room is a princess delousing a nine-headed, sleeping dragon. The huntsman cuts off the heads, and the princess showers him with kisses and gives him a golden necklace.

The youth saves the other princesses from their dragons, one of seven heads and the other of four heads,  and is showered with more kisses.

Returning to the basket, he puts the first princess into it, rings the bell, and his brothers haul her up. When the princesses are safe, the youth remembers the gnome’s warning and puts a large stone in the basket. The brothers begin to haul it up, but then let it go crashing down to the floor.

Betrayed but alive, the youth is trapped in the well. At length, he discovers a flute hanging on the wall. For every note he plays on the flute, a gnome appears. When the room is filled with gnomes, they ask him what he wants of them. He tells them he wishes to be upon the earth’s surface. Each gnome grabs a strand of the huntsman’s hair and fly him up to the surface.

He goes to the king’s castle where one of the marriages between an elder brother and a princess is about to take place. The elder brothers had made the princesses promise not to tell the truth. When the younger brother appears, the princesses faint and the king throws him into prison. The princesses want their father to release him but will not tell the king why. The king instructs his daughters to tell the truth to the iron stove and he listens to the stovepipe to learn what really happened.

The two elder brothers are hanged and the younger brother marries the youngest princess.

The tale ends with a bit of traditional foolishness as the narrator claims, “When the wedding took place, I was wearing a pair of glass shoes and stumbled over a stone. The stone said, ‘clink’ and my slipper broke in two.”

“Oh,” says Thalia at the study door, “there’s my book. What’s it doing in here?”

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2020 The Gnome – Part Two

Gnome dragon

Yes Again

“Melissa,” I type into my email to her, “did you just read The Gnome? It lay open on my study table and no one knows how it got there. And guess what. . . ?”

I wait a minute and she answers, “When I came downstairs this morning, it lay open on my counter. I don’t know how it got there either.

“At least we know how the three princesses got to the bottom of the well. This is an example of the unintended wish-fulfillment, which starts so many fairy tales.”

I adjust the font size to read her response more easily and type, “That is followed by the obligatory promise of marriage to a princess as reward for the rescue, but after that, things turn a little odd.

“The three huntsmen, whom we find out much later are brothers, stumble onto the empty castle with food on the table. The empty castle is a common-enough motif, but it plays no role in the story.”

I hit send, thinking I haven’t completed my thought. Melissa completes it. “The golden necklace given to the younger huntsman, another common motif, also plays no part in the story.

“What I enjoyed was having the youngest-brother-being-the-gentlest-and-kindest-motif getting turned on its head when the gnome asks for bread.”

“The eldest brothers were not exactly saintly either,” I respond. “Also, I find it inexplicable that the Gnome did the youngest the courtesy of warning him about his companions. And what about those dragons?”

“9,7,4,” the numbers appear on my screen. “More oddness. The seven-headed beast could be a hydra, but in this context, I don’t think so. Usually, when meeting multiheaded dragons—or multiheaded giants—the number of heads increases, raising the tension in the tale. Here, again, it is the opposite. Besides the diminishing tension of fewer and fewer heads, the task of dispatching the dragons with only a hunting knife felt far too easy.”

“They were asleep,” I defend the tale.

“Still,” is her one-word reply.

“And the flute hanging on the wall?” I type.

“My favorite part. For every note a gnome. Arthur Rackham did a wonderful illustration of that. Then being carried away by your hair! What fun.”

“I took note,” I tap eagerly on the keyboard, “of the reappearance of the iron stove, after the princesses had promised to tell no one the truth, but can tell it to an iron stove. Stolen right out of The Goose Girl.”

“Maybe,” Melissa returns. “The Grimms in their notes mention some variants, but none mention the stove.”

“You read their notes already?” I query.

“You don’t think I haven’t done my research, do you?”

“Of course not,” I cover. “Tell me more.”

“The variants are similar, the hero and his companions are knights or princes. The helpers are sometimes elves brought forth by the flute instead of gnomes. The many elves form a staircase for the hero to climb up. One of the punishments for the unfaithful companions is to be sewn into a bag of snakes. But none mention an iron stove.

“I have the unfounded suspicion that Wilhelm stole the stove from The Goose Girl for his own purposes.”

“Or,” I consider, “The Goose Girl stole from The Gnome. Which came first?”

“Or was it one teller stealing from another and the Grimms simply recorded it?”

“We are devolving into nonsense,” I try to conclude.

“There was a man upon the stairs,” she quotes.

“A little man who wasn’t there,” I type.

“He wasn’t there again today,”

“Oh, gee I wish he’d go away,” I end.

Fairy Tales of the Month: March 2020 The Gnome – Part Three

Gnome Siegfried_8  Woodcut from Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid

And Again

Time for a walk in the forest. The sun is high in the sky, noon I’ll guess. I am in the bad habit of waiting until close to sunset when the Magic Forest is not safe. I congratulate myself for getting here in a timely fashion. I approach the pond surrounded by sitting-stones and hear someone call to me. “Oh, there you are.”

“Ultima,” I say. “How good to see you again.” I sit on a stone near her.

“How are you and your dragon?” she asks politely.

“Well, I am fine but . . .”

“I knew you’d be coming,” she rushes on. “I sensed it the moment I woke up this morning.”

“How extraordinary,” I say. “I do have a question for you. I am reading a fairy tale in which the hero must defeat a nine-headed dragon, followed by the seven-headed dragon, and at end, a four-headed dragon.”

Ultima looks at me with a bit of alarm, but I continue. “Is there some significance in the number of heads?”

“My,” she says, “what a violent tale. I’m not aware of any significance in the multiple heads of dragons. This is, of course, the stuff of fairy tales. I don’t think there has ever been a dragon with more than one head.”

“Well,” I answer, “I wouldn’t know. Where I come from there are no dragons.”

“No dragons!” Ultima is truly shocked. “Where do you come from?”

“London.”

“So do I.” Ultima is staring at me. “Not the same London, I expect.”

“Not the same London, I am sure,” I answer.

Ultima stares at me a bit longer. “How ever do you get along? Don’t you have war, famine, pestilence?”

“Well . . .” I hesitate, “yes.”

“I should think so! Without dragons, of course you do. And how do you get around without dragons?”

“We have various mechanical devices to transport us,” I reply.

“Mechanical devices? Aren’t they dangerous?”

“Well, yes.”

Ultima rolls her eyes. “Why don’t you have dragons?”

“There never were any dragons.”

“I’m sure there were. You just referred to a fairy tale with multiheaded dragons. The inspiration for them must have come from somewhere. What is your oldest story about dragons.”

I rack my brain. “We have images of dragons from all our cultures going back to the dawn of civilization, but the oldest story I can think of with a dragon is Beowulf.”

“Yes,” Ultima delights, “when Beowulf faces the Dragon of Earnanæs and makes the Eternal Pact with him.”

“No, in our version, they kill each other.”

“Ah, well, there you have it. In your world Beowulf and the dragon do not agree to cease fighting with each other and among themselves—with the dragons enforcing the pact—and Beowulf does not go out on the grand adventure to find his dragon a mate, from which all dragons now living are descended. Because of the pact, peace and cooperation rule my world.”

“You are ruled over by dragons?” I ask.

“No, not ruled over. We are in a symbiotic relationship.” Ultima leans in and whispers, “Really, they are just big babies and love to be pampered.”

Your thoughts?

 

 

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

Red Cow_mosaic_abduction_europa Mosaic 200 CE, Abduction of Europa

Fortieth Floor

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

“Ah, well,” I say, “entertain me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course. This is a fairy tale.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And all lived happily ever after?”

“Of course.”

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

Red Cow crow Audubon

Good Meal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmmm,” I consider.

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

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

“I see it as a feminist’s story.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I say.

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

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

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

She can be unsympathetic.

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

Red Cow St Dymphna

Well Maybe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa does have such a wonderful contralto, storytelling voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part One

Water of Life Louis Rhead king Louis Rhead

Christmas Pudding

Onto my kitchen table I gather currants, sultanas, raisins, orange peels, breadcrumbs and shredded suet. Thalia peeks in at the door, dressed in her nightgown.

“There you are,” she scolds. “I looked for you in the study.”

“Goodness,” I say, “what time is it?”

Thalia scowls. “Bedtime!”

“Oh, I am so sorry, but I must get this done. It needs to set overnight.”

“What is it?” The scowl turns to a frown.

The Christmas pudding.”

“Oh!” sparkle returns to her eyes. “You bake. I’ll read.”

She plops herself on a chair at the table, props Teddy up against the flour canister, and opens up her battered copy of Grimm in her lap.

“Delightful,” I say and reach for the demerara sugar. “What will I hear?”

She considers the table of contents for a minute. “Ah! The Water of Life.”

The three sons of a king, in distress over the impending death of their father, are approached by an old man, who tells them of the Water of Life, which can cure their father. The eldest convinces the king to let him go search for the Water of Life, hoping that will make him his father’s favorite.

However, on his travels he is rude to and dismissive of a dwarf who inquired where the prince was going. With the dwarf’s curse, the prince gets no farther. The second brother takes the identical path with the same result.

I blanch the almonds with boiling water and let them soak to remove the skins.

The third brother talks respectfully to the dwarf and tells him of his search for the Water of Life. The dwarf gives him specific instructions, an iron wand, and two loaves of bread.

The iron wand the prince uses to knock on the gate of an enchanted castle three times. When the doors spring open, he feeds the loaves of bread to the two guardian lions, which let him pass unmolested. Before coming to the fountain of the Water of Life, he enters a magnificent hall with statue-like enchanted princes sitting around. He takes the rings off their fingers, and picks up another loaf of bread and a sword from the floor.

“Where did I put the breadcrumbs,” I mumble. Thalia glances up, but for only a second.

In the next room is a beautiful woman, who treats him as her savior and instructs him to return in a year when they will be married and he will become the new king of the enchanted castle. Unfortunately, in the next room is a bed upon which he lies down and falls asleep.

He is aroused when a bell chimes a quarter to twelve. The dwarf told him he needed to get the water and escape before midnight. He dashes to the fountain, gets the water, and rushes for the gate as the clock strikes twelve. The gate closes so suddenly it clips off a bit of his heel.

I sift the flour, salt, and spices together.

On his return trip, he gets his two brothers released, and saves three kingdoms from starvation and war (the loaf of bread being an unending source of food, and the sword being unconquerable). While traveling on a ship, the two elder brothers switch the Water of Life with sea water. When the younger brother gives it to his father, the elder brothers accuse him of trying to poison their father, and they give the king the Water of Life.

Believing his elder sons, the king arranges for a huntsman to kill his youngest. The huntsman warns the prince, they exchange clothes, and the younger brother escapes.

I add the beaten eggs, lemon juice, and half a pint of stout to the flour mixture.

Soon after, three wagonloads of gold are sent to the father of the youngest son in thanks for saving their kingdoms. The king sees that his youngest son is not evil as the elder sons proposed, finds out from the huntsman that he is not dead, and pardons the prince.

“My, this is a long story,” I say.

“Shush, we’re coming to my favorite part.”

Meanwhile, the princess of the enchanted castle has a golden road built for the castle’s entrance and tells her guards not to allow any man into the castle who does not ride down its center. The eldest son, a little before a year had passed, schemed to present himself as the princess’s suitor, thinking his younger brother was dead, and comes to the golden road. Deciding it’s a shame to mar gold by walking upon it, he treads to the side of the road and is not allowed to enter. The second brother has the same thoughts and fails.

The youngest brother appears after the full year is over, thinking of his true love, and doesn’t even notice the golden road. The marriage takes place and the princess tells him of his pardon. He and his father are reconciled, and the elder brothers flee, never to be seen again.

Thalia snaps the book closed. “And that’s the end of that story.” She collars Teddy, a bit whiter with flour dust, and swishes her way to the door, the hem of her nightgown picking up bits of kitchen debris.

“Thank you!” I call after her. I begin the long process of stirring.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part Two

Water of Life Rackham Arthur Rackham

A Walk

My mother always used a simple crockery bowl for the Christmas pudding. I know others use a fancy mould but a bowl does well for me. It only needs a lip around the rim to keep the string from slipping off.

I am covering the bowl and its pudding contents with the pleated parchment and foil wrap when Duckworth enters the kitchen.

“You’re cooking,” he states. “I thought we were to walk this morning.”

“Baking,” I correct. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you knock.”

“Thalia let me in. She’s a little lady, I tell you.”

I smile. “This won’t take long. When I am done, it needs to simmer for eight hours.”

I finish the string handle, lift it into the pot of boiling water, cover, and turn down the heat.

“There. Let’s go,” I say.

As we stroll down my street, Duckworth asks, “And what did you read to Thalia last night?”

“I was busy with the figgy pudding. She read to me!”

“Delightful.”

“That’s what I said. She read The Water of Life.” As usual, I give him the summary.

“Well, well, well, plenty of ‘threes’ in this one,” Duckworth observes. “You know, I think it would be better if each of the three brothers represented something.”

“How’s that?”

“Well,” Duckworth speculates, “what if the elder brother represented ‘greed,’ the second brother ‘sloth,’ and the youngest ‘honesty?’ Why does the fairy tale make the elder brothers mirror images of each other?”

I waver. “It’s traditional.”

Duckworth gives me a sideways glance.

“OK,” I concede, “that is not an answer.” I reflect a bit. “The fairy tale, despite its love of three, only deals with good and evil; not good, could be better, and evil.  The fairy tale condenses the elder brothers into evil-heartedness and the younger brother is all about good-heartedness.”

We turn the corner at the far end of my street and enter a park. Even though the trees are bare, it is delightful.

“Now,” Duckworth picks up the thread of our conversation, “you mentioned that the dwarf gave our protagonist an iron wand.” He waves an illustrative hand in the air. “You’ve taught me that iron is a talisman against evil; good enough. Then there are the two loaves of bread to sate the lions. Although lions are carnivores, I will let that pass. But in one of the halls of the enchanted castle, he takes the rings off of the fingers of the enchanted—obviously sleeping—princes. What of that? Have you forgotten to tell me part of the story?”
“No, the fairy tale has forgotten to tell us the consequence of his taking the rings. He also, in the same chamber, picks up a sword and another magical loaf of bread. The sword and bread he uses to help others. In that spirit, I don’t think he stole the rings. He took the rings for a greater purpose. Did he release the princes from their enchantment by taking away their status? Did he accumulate power he would need later? Did this represent something earlier listeners understood and did not need to be explained?”

Duckworth nodded and we say together, “The fairy tale does not say.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part Three

Water of Life Philip Grot Philipp Grot Johann

To Travel

We pass by some of the deer that inhabit this park.

“Let me continue to nitpick,” says Duckworth.

“You always do,” I say.

“Does that annoy you?”
“I look forward to it.”

“Good.” Duckworth applies himself to his argument. “When the three brothers start off, each of them encounter the dwarf. On the return trip the youngest brother again meets the dwarf, presumably at the same spot, and collects his wayward brothers, but now there is a sea voyage between them and home that was not there before. How do we account for that?”

“Oh, you are such a stickler for detail. As you know, the fairy tale has no respect for logic and order. The sea voyage is not needed on the adventure out to the enchanted castle. It is needed on the return trip to give the elder brothers a chance to betray our hero.”

“What? They could betray him anywhere.” I hear the protest in his voice.

“True, but there is no better place to ‘change the rules’ than at sea. When you are on land, you are in a country filled with roads, villages, and towns, some with their own jurisdiction. At sea, there is a skill involved in knowing where you are; there are no road signs. The water itself does not stay in one spot; it’s a current. When you stand on firm ground the law of the land applies. At sea, the law washes away.”

“We even have different names for the same thing whether it’s on land or at sea. On land, when men rise up against their masters, they call it a revolt. At sea, they call it a mutiny.”

We pass by the park’s fountain as Duckworth remarks, “You bring to my mind Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, two remarkably different stories, one on land and one at sea, both by the same poet. He must have sensed what you are talking about.”

“I think of Jonah and the whale. Jonah’s shipmates made up their own rules and judgments,” I say.

“But here, what about the golden road thing?” Duckworth changes the subject.

“Yes, what about that! That makes the story for Thalia and me. As in all fairy tales, it has its familiar motifs, the three brothers, the sympathetic huntsman, the magical devices, and magical helper. And while the golden road is a test—and tests are familiar motifs too—I don’t know of another golden road in these tales. As for being a test, it is not one of strength or cleverness, but of temperament. The elder brothers notice the gold (earthly wealth); the younger thinks only of the princess (spiritual reward). For Thalia and me, the golden road makes this story special.”

We find a park bench and settle ourselves down.

“I have one more critique,” Duckworth says while pulling a small paper bag of bread cubes from his coat pocket for the gathering pigeons. “Why did the princess need to build a golden road to determine who was the true suitor? Would she not recognize him?”

“Good point,” I say. “The fairy tales are mysteriously ‘face blind.’ There are even tales where the ugly sister tries to supplant the pretty sister and no one quite notices. There is often a sign, stigmata, or act that needs to happen for the true hero or heroine to be recognized.”

We watch the pigeons greedily chasing after bread pieces.

“By the way,” Duckworth squints at me, “aren’t you starting the Christmas pudding a little early?”

“Oh no, not at all. It improves by setting a few days.”

“And then?”

“And then I steam it up again for two more hours.”

“And then?”

“And then I invert it onto a plate. It should fall right out of the bowl.”

“And then?”

“And then I pour on the brandy and light it. There is no more beautiful a flame.”

“And then?”

“And then I lather on the hard sauce and serve, of course.”

“Good. I was just checking that you are doing it right. Will you save me a piece?”

“I will make a point of it.”

Your thoughts.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part One

Black Bull of Norroway oneJohn D. Batten

Queen’s Walk

Duckworth and I stroll along the banks of the Thames, following the Queen’s Walk on this mild November day. Rowing on the river might be a bit too cold; therefore we opt for a walk along the South Bank. We intend to take the full walk from Tower Bridge to Lambeth Bridge.

“Well,” says Duckworth, “What sort of disconcerting, confusing, and questionable diatribes have you been inflicting upon your granddaughter of late?”

I hear the bait, but bite for the sake of conversation. “I only read fairy tales to her.”

“Isn’t that what I said?” Duckworth grins.

We pass the lopsided, glassy ball of City Hall. “The Black Bull of Norroway, last night. I am fond of Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales. That one is Scottish, actually.”

“Almost not English,” muses Duckworth. “Tell me of this tale.”

There are three sisters and the eldest asks her mother to bake her a bannock and roast her collop because she is going off to seek her fortune.”

“Wait,” says Duckworth, “a girl going off to seek her fortune? Only sons do that.”

“Shush,” I say, “do you want to hear the story?” Duckworth rolls his eyes and I continue.

The sister goes to the old witch washerwife for advice.

“Who?”

“Shush.”

The washerwife tells her to stay and watch out the back door. On the third day the sister sees a coach drawn by six horses that takes her away.

The second sister follows suit and is taken away by a coach with four horses.

The third sister gets the bannock and collop, and advice from the washerwife, but is taken away by a black bull.

“Dear me,” says Duckworth.

Beside us I see the imposing shape of the HMS Belfast anchored along the banks of the Thames.

At the bull’s instruction, she sustains herself by drawing food from his right ear and drink from his left.

“What?” says Duckworth. I glare at him and continue.

The girl and the bull travel In turn to three castles ruled over by the bull’s three human brothers. At each castle she is given a gift, one of an apple, another a pear, and last a plum, which she is not to “break” until she is in dire straits.

Then they travel to a glen, where the bull tells her to wait, not move an inch, while he goes to battle the Old One.

“Who?”

I ignore him.

If she moves at all, he will not be able to find her on his return. He also says that if all about her turns blue, then he has defeated the Old One. If all turns red, then he, the bull, has been conquered.

This she does until all turns blue and her foot moves in a reflex of joy for her friend’s victory, but now the bull cannot find her.

Duckworth and I approach London Bridge on our ramble.

At length she wanders until she comes to the glass mountain. She cannot get over it until she serves seven years to a blacksmith, who will then forge iron shoes for her that will grip the glass of the mountain.

She comes to the house of a washerwife.

“Hold on, the same washerwife as at the start of the story?”

“The story does not say.”

Duckworth sighs.

The washerwife and her daughter are trying to wash out the blood on the clothes of a gallant knight, who will marry the one to accomplish the task. Failing to remove the stains, they give the clothes to the girl for whom the work is easily done.

Of course, the washerwife claims it is her daughter who did the deed and it is she who should marry the knight.

The girl now breaks open the fruits that hold much treasure, which she uses to bribe the daughter to let her into the knight’s bedchamber. This goes on for two nights, the washerwife drugging the knight so that he does not hear the girl’s pleas. It is not until the third night, after the knight has gotten wind of what is happening, that he stays awake. The knight then has the washerwife and her daughter burnt, and marries the girl.

“Are you kidding?” Duckworth exclaims.

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Two

Black Bull of Norroway twoJohn D. Batten

Strolling On

Passing by Southwark Cathedral, we wind our way toward the Globe Theatre.

“Let me get a few things straight,” Duckworth insists. “First, three sisters go off to make their way in the world. I think that unseemly for young women at the time. I’ll let that pass, but what happened to the eldest sisters?”

“They rode off in coaches. I’m sure they did fine.”

“Why were they in the story? Isn’t every element of a story there to propel the story forward?”

“You are talking about literary fairy tales. The traditional tales are of a different order. Yet, I feel the sequence of events—the first two sisters getting a free ride as it were—marks the youngest sister as special, having to struggle for her husband, giving their union greater value.”

“OK,” says Duckworth, “what about the bull?”

“Well, females abducted by bulls may start with the Greek myth of Europa being kidnapped by Zeus in the form of a white bull, but a closer relative, I think, is East of the Sun, West of the Moon, where the  youngest sister is taken away by a great white bear.”

“Hmm,” Duckworth looks thoughtful for a moment. “Is this the Beauty-and-the-Beast thing?”

“Not exactly, in my opinion. The beast is a monster, at least outwardly. The bull is a common enough animal, but one with a mission.”

“Ah, yes, his fight with the Old One. Who is he?” Duckworth asks.

“We can only guess. My guess is that the name is a euphemism for the devil, though there is nothing particularly Christian in the gloss of this story. One could suggest this is a reflection of the bull of the Mithra religion fighting with the state religion of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think the folk memory concerns itself with such politics.”

I feel a certain thrill as we pass the Shakespeare’s Globe. The Tate Modern, in contrast, comes into sight.

“Nonetheless,” I continue, “bulls have a special place in both Greek and Roman mythology, the vestige of which turns up in the Spanish bull fights. You’ve heard of the running of the bulls, haven’t you? That moment when we allow them to try and kill us?”

“Not my cup of tea, thank you, but what about this red, blue, disappearing thing? How do you explain that?”

“I don’t have a coherent explanation for that.”

“Do you have an incoherent explanation?” Duckworth knows me.

“Well, call me crazy, but I am thinking of the astronomical red shift and blue shift. Red shift occurs when an astronomer sees a star moving away. The waveband is stretching out and appears red. If the star moves toward the astronomer, then the waveband length is shorter and the light appears blue.

“Not that red and blue are opposites on the color wheel, but in this case they are opposed. Did some storyteller sense this and apply it to victory and defeat?”

Duckworth takes out his cellphone, stabs at it, and talks. “Insane asylums near me.”

“No wait, my notion gets a little worse to be honest, when it comes to the bull not being able to find the girl after she moves. That brings to mind the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat, which addresses the idea that, at the subatomic level, a particle may and/or may not exist at the same time. That is to say, there and not there. That does describe the bull’s problem after the girl moves her foot. She is there and not there when the bull tries to find her. He, unfortunately, exists in the ‘not there’ state and the story goes on to the next stage.”

We walk through the shadow of the Oxo Tower as Duckworth contemplates my words, then addresses his cell again. “Requirements for commitment.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Three

Black Bull of Norroway threeAbundance   Peter Paul Reuben

Another Stroll

On my own walk into the Magic Forest, I make for the Glass Mountain. As I hoped, Old Rink Rank sits on a crystal ledge, barely above my head, his thin, long shanks dangling down.

“Good day to you,” I offer.

He eyes me with a hoary brow raised.

“May I ask a question or two?” I propose.

“I have no answers,” Rink Rank scowls.

“Do you recall a girl scaling your mountain with iron shoes.”

“Which one? Happened a number of times.”

“Her dear friend was the Bull of Norroway.”

“Oh, her. Think I remember. Lived happily ever after, didn’t she.” I note his devilish grin.

“I am not sure that distinguishes her. Nonetheless, as she rode on the bull’s back, she pulled food from his right ear and drink from his left. How does that work?”

“How should I know? The storytellers assigned me to this glass mountain. They didn’t make me a cowherd. How do you think it works? That’s the question.”

“Well, the image that jumps to mind is the cornucopia. Now, I know that the horn of plenty is a goat’s horn, but the baby Zeus was raised by a goat, actually a goat-goddess. In play, he broke off one of her horns, which then had the power of unending nourishment.

“In another story, Zeus, as a bull, abducts Europa. The Bull of Norroway carries off our heroine and produces food and drink from his ears, which, of course, are next to his horns.

“My logic might be thin, but I think there is a thread that runs through my reasoning. What do you think?”

Rink Rank reaches into his pocket and pulls out what looks like a cellphone and speaks. “Insane asylum near me.”

“Oh, cut that out!”

Rink Rank’s wicked grin broadens as the cellphone appears to dissolve into thin air. Yet I push on.

“There is also the washerwife. She is at the beginning as a helper and later on as the antagonist. My friend Duckworth questioned if they were the same person. I had no answer.”

“And how should I know?” Rink Rank fumes. “You’re the one reading or listening to the story. If you think they are the same washerwife then they are. I’m just a figment of your imagination, just like you’re the figment of someone else’s imagination.”

“What?” I exclaim, “I am not the figment of anyone’s imagination any more than you are.”

“Oh, you don’t think so?” There’s that devilish grim again. He is trying to distract me from my point.

“And the Bull of Norroway and the gallant knight, are they the same person?”

Rink Rank slaps his forehead. “What do you think?”

“I want to hear it from you!” I all but scream.

“I told you, I have no answers. Of course we tales don’t tell you everything. Those answers are yours to find out or make up. That’s your part, your role in the story.”

He settles his back up against the glass mountain with the air of having given his final say.

I am not sure I should believe him.

Your thoughts?