St Dunstan in the East is a pleasant garden. Well, it is not exactly a garden, but rather the remains of a church destroyed during the war. The tower and most of the walls still stand, although there are no roofs or floors. Nature has taken much of its own back. Situated not far from the Tower of London, it is close to a tourist area, but little-known except to the locals who enjoy bringing their lunch and finding a bench. With a picnic basket in hand, we have done the same; we being me, Melissa and Thalia.
The garden is Thalia’s discovery. She found it on her pocket oracle when she put in “gardens in London,” after I told her about Melissa’s dilemma. Because the garden’s center is a building, she felt the likelihood of finding Melissa’s door there as good as any place.
We have found a bench to accommodate the three of us and a picnic basket, to indulge in our repast before searching the grounds. Thalia clears her throat and pulls a book out of her backpack.
“For the afternoon reading, I have chosen a story in honor of that church tower over there that still stands for so many years after the Blitz.”
I didn’t know there was “an afternoon reading” in order. Thalia may be starting a new thing.
“The story,” she continues in a pretentious tone, at which Melissa smiles, “is The Golden Tower at the End of the World.”
I see she is holding my copy of Folk and Fairy Tales from Demark, Volume One, by Stephen Badman.
There was a farmer who owned productive fields with the exception of one, which every Midsummer’s Eve had its grain trampled. The farmer’s two eldest sons, in turn, tried to watch over the field at Midsummer’s Eve, but were frightened away by strange noises.
When the youngest brother, Hans, tried—though thought to be a simpleton—he first shared his meal with an old woman, who gave him a pinch of tobacco to help keep him awake for the night’s ordeal.
He did not flee when a violent storm broke, rather he stayed to see three large birds descend on the field and shed their feathered robes revealing three lovely women, who danced across the field destroying the grain. They then moved a huge stone, behind which Hans hid, and entered a house filled with riches.
Hans stole the robe of the youngest woman. To get it back, she agreed to marry Hans, to which she was not averse, giving him specific instructions about the wedding that included not inviting the king’s son.
Unfortunately, the king’s son crashed the wedding and insisted she marry him and not a peasant boy. She fled, but not before telling Hans he must now reclaim her by coming to her home at the Golden Tower at the End of the World. She gave him a gold ring as a token and three magical tablecloths.
The first tablecloth he used to create a sumptuous meal for another old woman who, in return, gave him three-league boots—for fast travel—and a magical sword, along with the advice to put on the three-league boots and visit an ogre, Lord of All Crawling Creatures, who might know where the Golden Tower could be found.
The ogre, after conferring with all the crawling creatures without success, sent Hans on to his two-headed brother, Lord of All Walking Creatures, with a letter of recommendation. The visit to the two-headed brother was no more successful, but the visit to the three-headed brother, Lord of All Flying Creatures, bore results. Late to the gathering of the flying creatures came a dragon who apologized, saying he had been busy guarding the Golden Tower at the End of the World.
The dragon, already having taken a long journey to get to the gathering, reluctantly agreed to carry Hans back over a vast ocean. It proved to be too much, and Hans used the other two tablecloths to create dry land and a castle in which to spend the night.
Hans finally made it to the Golden Tower, found shelter, and fell asleep. Upon wakening, he saw a serving girl bearing wine. He asked for a sip. The girl refused because the wine was meant for the three princesses. She then relented and gave him a sip. He slipped the youngest princess’s gold ring into the wine.
When the youngest princess discovered the ring, she called for him. They were reunited, but the trial was not over. Every Midsummer’s Eve a malicious dragon visited the tower, which is why the princesses were forced to flee in avian disguise and spend the night trampling the farmer’s field. Hans stayed for Midsummer’s Eve and slew the dragon with his magical sword.
He and the princess were married and Hans returned with his bride to his father’s farm, bought out the two brothers to their embarrassment, then purchased an even larger estate where he and the princess lived in happiness.
Thalia snaps the book shut. I come out of my trance. There are some odd points about this story.
Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2021 The Golden Tower at the End of the World – Part Two
I personally despair of finding Melissa’s doorway in these ruins. There are numerous Gothic archways, but so long after being burnt out, there is nothing that looks like a door.
“So,” says Thalia, “What’s a letter of recommendation?”
“Also called a letter of introduction,” Melissa answers. “It’s an old system of networking among the wealthy; especially useful for a young man. If a youth could get a family friend or prominent relative to write a letter of introduction—not addressed to anyone in particular—that recommended the youth, it was that young gentleman’s ticket into whole circles of acquaintances. The more credible the letter’s author, the better the networking potential.
“The youth could present himself to a household familiar with the letter’s author, be entertained by them, stay there a lengthy period of time, and enter into that community’s inner circle.”
“Weird,” Thalia concludes.
“What about those two dragons,” I say. “What are your thoughts, Thalia?”
“Ahhh, there are never enough dragons in fairy tales for me. I’m happy to have two of them.”
“I think,” Melissa says, inspecting another archway for her elusive door, “your grandfather is concerned that the two dragons are in no way connected to each other yet occupy the same story.”
She knows my mind so well.
“The first dragon,” Melissa raises a finger, “protects the Golden Tower. Against whom? When the malicious dragon appears, the good dragon is nowhere in sight and nowhere in sight annually, it appears, when the bad dragon visits.”
“Hmmm,” I reflect. “Hans’s breaking of the cycle of destruction, by killing the bad dragon, is central to this story. Perhaps the good dragon and bad dragon are connected in the same way as yin and yang are opposites and together at the same time.”
Melissa temples her fingers, a sign of deep thought. “Hans’s defeat of the bad dragon, he having been helped by the good dragon, does bring the story around full circle. Hans started by trying to solve the puzzle of the trampled grain and by the end of the story he exacts a solution. The dragons, as well as the princesses, were players in the problem’s resolution as consequences unfold.”
“You are right,” I muse. “This is a very circular story. Hans even returns home to claim the farm from his less worthy brothers rather than living in bliss at the Golden Tower. He ends up pretty much where he started out.”
“I never heard a fairy tale with three tablecloths,” Thalia states, not to be left out of the conversation.
“You’re right,” I say. “The tablecloth that is spread to give a feast—which comes out of Celtic mythology, by the way—is usually just one of the magical gifts. However, this tale amply represents the fairy-tale three: three brothers, three princesses, three ogres, three-league boots as well as three tablecloths.”
“There are only two old women,” Melissa says, showing that she is listening to us while her eyes scan the old church walls, “although I wonder if they are somehow the same old woman. The first gave him a small gift of tobacco because he shared his meal with her. The second gave him the three-league boots and the magical sword for sharing a bounteous feast from the tablecloth. The two, I say, reflect on each other. “
Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2021 The Golden Tower at the End of the World – Part Three
We have made our way back to our bench, held in reserve by the picnic basket, after our thorough search of the grounds.
“I thought the story’s mention of Midsummer’s Eve of interest.” I munch on an unfinished roll of crackers.
“Isn’t that a Shakespeare play?” Thalia’s brow wrinkles.
“That’s Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Melissa corrects. “And he drew from an old tradition of celebrating midsummer, which the date is not, coming on the twenty-fourth of June, a few days after summer solstice.”
“So, how does that happen?” Thalia’s brow wrinkles even more.
“There are two things about the date. First, the ancients—let us call them—felt that the first of May was the start of summer, paying little attention to the sun’s position and more to the change in the weather. That does put the end of June in the middle of their summer.
“Second, this celebration is attached to Saint John the Baptist’s Day, or rather the Christians have attached it to the Midsummer’s Day celebration. According to the Bible, Saint John was born six months before Jesus, putting Midsummer’s Day six months before Christmas, or Christ’s Mass. Perforce, Midsummer’s Eve is the twenty-third of June.”
Melissa roots around in the picnic basket and comes up with a bottle of Calypso Lemonade. Thalia looks for one for herself.
“We Brits,” Melissa continues, “love our bonfires and will find any excuse to light one up, Midsummer no exception. Circle dancing is in order. There is also a thing about roses. A rose picked on Midsummer’s Eve or Midsummer’s Day will stay fresh until Christmas, although I haven’t tried it.
“Or,” Melissa’s eyes twinkle, “a young girl can pluck the rose petals at midnight, scatter them on the ground saying:
Rose leaves, rose leaves,
Rose leaves I strew.
He that will love me,
Come after me now.
“The next day, which is of course Midsummer’s Day, their true love will visit them.”
“No thanks.” Thalia takes a swig of her Calypso and takes out her cellphone. “Hmmm,” she says in a minute, “seems mid-June was also a good time to brew mead. The full moon in June they called the ‘Mead Moon’ or the ‘Honey Moon.’”
She scans down.
“Jumping through the bonfire would bring good luck. I guess you’re lucky if you make it.”
She scans some more.
“If you hold a pebble in your hand, walk around the bonfire, whisper a wish, and cast the stone into the fire, the wish will be granted. I’ll buy into that one.”
“Oh, I like this one. Midsummer’s Eve is only second to Halloween for fairy activity. If you rub fern spores onto your eye lids at midnight, you will see the wee folk. But be careful you don’t get pixie-led, and carry some rue plant on your person for protection.
“Midsummer’s Eve is also Herb Evening, the best night for gathering magical herbs. There is a special plant—the article doesn’t tell me the name, drat—that only blooms on this night. If you pick it, you will understand the language of trees. Cool.
“If you put flowers under your pillow, you will dream of the one you will marry. Oh, ugh, that again.”
“Ah!” exclaims Melissa, who I see has gotten out her phone. “Here is what we were looking for. In the thirteenth century a monk in Gloucestershire recorded that the bonfires of Saint John’s Eve were meant to drive away the dragons that were about that night to poison springs and wells. I think that might be the source of our bad dragon, at least.”
Will the fount of wisdom of the pocket oracles never cease?