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: April 2021 Dreams That Have No Moral – Part One

William Butler Yeats by John Yeats (father)

The Poet

“It is actually warm today,” Melissa says, “at least sitting here in the sun.”

Melissa and I sit, unmasked, in the courtyard of Café Van Gogh with Christ Church looming over us. We are determined to reinstate our Sunday-brunch tradition. Half of the cafés are still closed, but this one suits our purpose well.

The menu is limited; however, the Van Gosh veggie burger interests me. I’ve not tried a beetroot, chickpea, and pumpkin-seed burger before. Melissa contemplates the nut and butternut squash Wellington with parsley pesto.

“When we feel confident to eat indoors again, we must dine on their upper floor with the Starry Night ceiling.”

“Hmmm, if we ever do feel safe again,” I curmudge, then immediately relent. “Or am I talking foolishness?”

“Ah, what else can death be but the beginning of wisdom and power and beauty? And foolishness may be a kind of death.” 

I peer at her in a bit of alarm.

Seeing my reaction, she says, “I’ve been reading Yeats.”

Oh, that explains it. “Ah, his poetry.”

“No, his prose.”

“He wrote prose? I only know him as a poet.”

“Let me tell you one of the Celtic tales he related.”

A king, when his wife did not bear children, was advised to have her eat a specific fish served in a specific way. The cook inadvertently tasted the fish, the queen ate it, the remains were thrown into the yard, and finished off by a mare and a greyhound. Both the cook and the queen had sons, who were identical; the mare had two foals, and the greyhound two pups.

The queen eventually sent the cook’s son away, although the two boys were like brothers. The cook’s son told the prince, if the water in the garden well turned into blood and honey, then harm had come to him. He left, taking one of the mare’s foals and one of the greyhound’s pups with him.

He became a cowherd for a king, but grazed the cows on a giant’s land. The giant confronted him, they battled all day, the lad cut off the giant’s head with the giant’s own sword, and cut the head in half, which the head informed him was a good thing for the lad, otherwise the head would have reattached itself to the giant’s body.

The same thing happened two more times with giants of an increasing number of heads, the lad getting for his booty a suit of invisibility and shoes of great speed, and the cows gave more and more milk every evening. All these achievements the lad kept to himself.

Now, it happened, that every seven years a sea serpent appeared in the kingdom demanding a king’s daughter to devour. The king, however, as stated in the story, had been ‘feeding a bully underground for seven years,’ who was intended to defend the princess. The bully proved unreliable, and it was the lad, unrecognized by the princess, who defended her for three days in a row from the serpent, using the magical devices procured from the giants.

On the third day, the princess secretly got a lock of his hair and one of his shoes before he destroyed the serpent and slipped away.

The princess declared she would marry no one but he who fits the shoe and whose hair matches the lock of hair she took from her defender.”

“A male Cinderella,” I say as our food arrives. “That is unusual.”

“Quite,” she says, digging into her nut and butternut Wellington. Here the story stalls awhile until we sate our appetites.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2021 Dreams That Have No Moral – Part Two

William Butler Yeats Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn 

Poetic Visitor

After a bit, Melissa picks up the story.

Two balls were given to locate the wearer of the shoe, but the lad did not come forward until the king said something derogatory about his cowherd. He got his sword but was dissuaded from killing his soon-to-be father-in-law.

Soon after the wedding, the lad went out hunting with his horse and greyhound, following a deer until they were lost. They came across a witch, the mother of the three giants. With deceit, knowing who he was, she turned the lad, horse, and hound into green stones.

The prince, from the start of the story, saw that the water in the well had turned to blood and honey, and he went off to find his mystical/identical brother. Everyone thought he was the lad, and the prince found his way to his brother’s wife, who thought he was her husband, who had disappeared three days ago.

The next day, the prince, horse, and hound followed the same deer to the witch’s house. This time the witch was defeated, and the prince used her wand to turn the green stones back into man, horse, and hound.

However, a dispute followed when the lad found out that the prince had spent a night with his wife. The prince ended up turning his brother back into a green stone. It took a while, but a sense of guilt caught up with the prince; he restored his brother, and things went on happily after that.

Melissa looks up from her nut and butternut squash, her fork poised in the air. “I would like to meet Yeats. Can that be arranged?”

“If I am not mistaken, you just arranged it. How Miss Cox knows these things, I cannot say, but I am sure we can go directly after our brunch.”

It’s not the twinkling of an eye, but very soon Melissa is lifting the cozy off the teapot set out by Miss Cox and fills two of the three cups sitting on the small, wrought-iron table in front of the bench. Hints of spring fill the garden, the tulips primary among them. Melissa’s eyes drift toward the gate. I do a little research on my cellphone.

Yeats’ place in literary history is that of a bridge between the Romantics and the Modernists. As a youth, he admired Shelley, and as an elder, he was admired by Pound. Yeats also admired Blake, as well as Irish folklore. His achievements included the Noble Prize for Literature in 1923, and he served in the Senate of the Irish Free State.

Outside of his poems, he is best known as a founding member of the Abbey Theatre, for his role in the Irish literary revival, and as a longtime member of the Golden Dawn.

Yeats appears at the gate. He is a stately man, his hair swept back, and with inquisitive eyes.

“Mr. Yeats,” I say, “please let me introduce to you, Melissa Serious.”

He takes her outstretched hand with an almost imperceptible, formal shake and seats himself on the bench with us as Melissa pours his cup of tea.

I think Melissa senses, as I do, there is no need for pleasantries; he’d rather she got to the point.

“On reading Celtic Twilight,” Melissa begins, “I was taken by the chapter Dreams that have no moral.”

Yeats gives a quick smile as Melissa continues.

“What you relate is a fairy tale, or maybe better stated, a wonder tale. It is an admirable one in either case, but I am curious as to why you call it a dream.”

Yeats focuses, not on us, but rather on the teapot, templing his fingers before he speaks.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2021 Dreams That Have No Moral – Part Three

William Butler Yeats Photo by Pirie MacDonald

Tale’s End

“There is an alchemy to folktales and poetry,” Yeats began. “In the same way that we occupy a moment in time but cannot see all of time, we can grasp an aspect of passion without understanding the whole of it. We are lifted up by the wind of emotion, then set down again, not always gently. If we are poets, we try to transmute that passion into words. Passion, itself, is wordless. It comes from a realm beyond our ability to comprehend.

“All of poetry, prose, art, theatre, music, and dance exist in the no-man’s-land between our noisy physical reality and the silent place of passion. Unbidden, passion sweeps down upon us, at least to those sensitive to its presence, leaving us to reimage our experience of the incomprehensible.

“If the wind of emotion transports us and we are not poets or the like, and particularly if we are illiterate, then the transmutation may crystalize in the form of a folktale, drawing from one’s passion, dreams, and imagination. The kernel of the passion’s wisdom, power, and beauty lives in the folktale’s motifs, the tale itself being a mere framework on which to hang these insights.

“Is a folktale a dream? No, but both come from the same source. If a folktale can be a dream, then a dream can be a folktale.”

Melissa frowns for a moment. “You said, ‘particularly if we are illiterate’ that the transmutation takes the form of a folktale. At least in the industrialized countries, there are now fewer illiterates than there were in the nineteenth century. Does that mean there are fewer folk and fairy tales to be created?”

Yeats sighs gently. “New fairy tales since Anderson have been mostly literary, not of the folk, but more to the point, I am not certain a true fairy tale can now be created. Its time has passed with the event of the Great War. In the war’s physical no-man’s-land the notions of romanticism, along with its vocabulary, died. Artists had a different voice after the war. A new, starker vocabulary, along with harsher images, overwrote what had gone before.

“Perhaps we romantics were never in touch with the world’s reality, but then was that not the point? Was romanticism not an alternative to the mundane and the unfair? Did it not hold hope for the future?

“The new vocabulary of the artist is used to inspect and dissect the world in which it exists and not rise above it. I will point to T.S. Elliot, whose writing career started during the Great War, as a prime example.”

“By ‘Great War’ I assume you mean World War I?” I say.

Yeats eyes me with concern. “Your label implies there was a second.”

“There was,” Melissa answers. “Three times worse than the first, catching China, Japan, and North Africa along with the original Allied and Axis powers in its web, consuming 3 percent of the world’s population. We live in dread of a third.”

“Then I suppose the folk and fairy tale will rise no more. They were the product of a more hopeful time. They have not the answers to the questions now asked. That is all the more reason that we should cherish these relics that held in their time what is now becoming mystic knowledge.”

We watch the sun setting over the western end of the garden. The day is cooling, and we say our goodbyes.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2021 What Came of Picking Flowers – Part One

H. J. Ford

Hyde Park

It is good to be out in the open air once more. Duckworth and I settle on a walk in Hyde Park. The weather is a little cool and breezy but with a bright sun.  Our masks keep our noses warm.

“At as Halia en eating?” I think Duckworth says through his double mask. I take a moment to decipher.

What has Thalia been reading.

“Ah, well, last night she read from the Grey Fairy Book to . . . me.” I almost said “us,” but Duckworth does not know about the crowd in my house.

Duckworth and I enter Hyde Park through the Victoria Gate and head for the path along the Serpentine Lake.

“The title was What Came Of Picking Flowers, a Portuguese tale if I recall.”

There were three sisters who disappear, one by one, while picking flowers in a meadow, much to the grief of their mother, who cries for them for years until their younger sibling, a brother, grows up and asks their mother what is the matter. Upon hearing the story, he sets out to find his sisters.

He comes across three brothers quarreling over the ownership of a pair of wishing boots, a key to all locks, and a cap of invisibility.  He agrees to settle their argument but makes off with the magical devices instead.

Wishing the wishing boots to take him to where his eldest sister has gone brings him to the gates of a large castle. Using the key that opens all locks, he gains entrance and finds his sister.

She is married to an enchanted husband who, while in his enchanted form, is King of the Birds. The brother uses the cap of invisibility until the time comes to reveal himself to the husband.

He then goes to find his second sister and her enchanted husband—King of the Fishes—in the same manner.  

Duckworth and I pause in our stroll as one of the park’s notably aggressive squirrels darts in front of us and stands on his haunches; a regular highwayman if he had pistols. Thoughtfully, I’ve brought along some peanuts in my pocket and roll one to him. He grabs it, stuffs it in his mouth, and dashes away.

“Hat a bot a onger otter?” Duckworth asks.

“What angry otter?”

Duckworth lifts his doubled mask a second. “Younger daughter.”

“Oh, well, she is a different matter.”

He finds the youngest daughter locked in a cavern by the monster who had kidnapped her and demands she consent to marry him. For all those years she has resisted, but the monster said he is deathless and can continue asking her forever.

The brother and sister hatch out the plan that she will consent to marry the monster if he will tell her how it is that he is deathless. Thinking she can never achieve the task, he tells her. She will need to carry up an iron chest from the bottom of the sea, capture the dove inside, find the egg it lays, and then smash it on his head, for him to die.

The brother, with the help of the King of the Fishes and the King of the Birds, retrieves the egg. Lulling the monster into laying his head in her lap, the youngest daughter smashes the egg on his skull.

The spell on the two husbands is broken, the youngest sister retains all the monster’s hoarded wealth, and everyone lives happily ever after.

“Ozn’t a ungest et arry?”

“Why on earth should she get hairy?” I ask in return.

Duckworth rolls his eyes.

I don’t think that is what he asked.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2021
What Came of Picking Flowers – Part Two

Arthur Rackham

Charming Tale

“What I find charming about the story,” I tell Duckworth, “is that it is familiar and different at the same time.”

“Ow so?”

“Well, all the usual tropes are there, maidens in distress, enchanted husbands, magical devices stolen from quarreling dupes, the soul hidden in an egg; we’ve heard them all before.”

“Rue.”

“And yet, there are engaging differences from the norm.

“Most original might be the three sisters getting abducted, one after the other, while picking flowers with no one the wiser as to what happened to them.

“The usual trope is that only one sister, if there are sisters at all, gets carried away on the back of a bear—usually in Norway—or on the back of a bull—shades of Europa—or traded to a monster by her father—see Beauty and the Beast. In our tale, all three sisters are carried off; most unusual. “

Duckworth nods, not trying to say anything this time.

“Also, I am not sure I have run across a younger brother going off to find his sisters. It is usually a younger sister going off to find her enchanted brothers, such as in the Six Swans or The Seven Ravens.

“I guess there was bound to be a gender-switch on that theme—as has happened with Cinderella—and here it is.”

“Hat a but a ungest getin arry?”

There he goes again about someone getting hairy.

I pretend not the hear him.

“Charming to me, too, is the hero’s call upon his magical helpers to locate the monster’s iron chest and soul egg. You can expect there to be an eagle and/or a hound that comes to the hero’s aid, but in this tale, it is a whole community of fishes and birds who help him.

“Atypical is the treatment of the soul egg. When the egg is found, the acceptable method is to simple break it, and the monster, or giant, or sorcerer falls down dead in their tracks. In our tale, the youngest must smash the egg on the monster’s head.”

“Arming m ure,” Duckworth agrees. (I think.)

“Unusual, too, is the youngest sister getting all the wealth without a husband in sight.”

Duckworth raises a finger and marks the air.

Oh, that’s what he’s been asking about.

“Yes, that is unusual and out of step with the condition of the other sisters. Fairy–tale structure, if fanciful, is generally symmetrical.

“But here, the whole marriage setup is odd. Although the story does not specify, we are left to assume the monster stole all three sisters, giving the oldest to the King of the Birds, the second to the King of the Fishes, and tried to keep the youngest for himself.

“What were the monster’s motives for supplying wives to the two kings, who were presumably under the monster’s enchantment given that the enchantment ends when the monster dies? And then, after all that villainy, why does the monster hesitate, by waiting for the youngest to consent, before marrying her?

“I might suppose the monster is actually and truly in love with the girl, in a monstrous sort of way. If that is the case, he gets poor return for his affections.”

“Femme fatale,” concludes Duckworth.

I actually understood that. Are the French good at mumbling?

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2021 What Came of Picking Flowers – Part Three

Arthur Rackham

Poor Monster

Thalia sits in her favorite comfy chair, where we always sat when I read to her. I’m sure I can distract her from the homework she stares at.

“Thalia, dear, I’ve been thinking, last night’s story you read to us had that soul-hidden-in-an-egg thing. I am wondering where that comes from. Could you ask the oracle?”

She snaps her math book shut and pulls out her cell phone from her jeans.

“What’s the search word?”

“Hmmm,” I say, “Let’s try ‘soul egg.’”

She enters that.

“Looks like something videogamers are after. I’ll try ‘soul-egg fairy tale.’”

Immediately she frowns at her screen. “Koschei the Deathless.

She scans. “Comes out of Russian folklore.” Silence. “What’s an archetypal?”

“Hmmm, a typical, almost original, of something.”

“Then this Koschei is one of those as a bad guy. And, yeah, his soul is in a needle, inside an egg, inside a duck that no one can catch. It says the origin of the tale is unknown, but comes out of the twelfth century.”

“Indeed? There is something about fairy tales and the twelfth century. Most of the fairy tales can be traced back to a literary source in the twelfth century. Same for Arthurian legends. The printing press comes in around 1450, so that can’t be the cause. Did you know the Chinese invented moveable type and the printing press?”

Thalia is not listening to me but going down a rabbit hole. I shouldn’t have said anything. She’ll never get back to her math book.

“Hey, did you know there is a Fairy Tale eggplant?” She doesn’t look up from her screen.

I wait, knowing she will come up with something soon.

“This looks serious,” she says. “It’s in Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough.”

“That’s it,” I say. “What does Frazer have to say?”

Thalia hands me her phone. “Long.”

I’m in Chapter 66, The External Soul in Folk Tales. Frazer, exhaustive as always, lists out variations on the theme that are from Norse, Hindoo, Cambodian, modern Greek, Transylvanian, German, Irish, Ancient Egyptian, Arabian, Tartarian, Sumatrian, and North American Indian sources. He claims the notion is common to all “primitive” people.

Reading through the examples, I find the monster in What Came of Picking Flowers is no different than his compatriots from other cultures and times. They all, through arrogance and/or love, tell the woman they have waylaid how it is they can be slain. Even the smashing of the egg somewhere on the body of the villain carries through many of the sources.

The soul-egg motif—and there is almost always an egg—tugs at my conscience. While the villain -little bit of tenderness he felt toward the woman, and the woman’s only defense was her power of deceit, not of her purity or honesty.

Thalia’s phone rings and I startle out of my research. She had retreated to her math work, but now she snaps the book closed, a second time, to talk to a friend. I am sure further attempts at the lessons are numbered.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2021 The Black Horse – Part One

John D. Batten

Another Horse

I’ve built up quite a nice fire in the hearth and pulled my comfy chair closer to it. This is the best defense against a February night. Also, against a touch of loneliness. My daughter has taken Thalia off to visit her late husband’s relatives in Glasgow, as she always does in February.  I’d thought she had the sense to skip that trip this year, but not she.

Johannes pads his way over to the window seat and settles down. At the same moment that I hear the brownies rustling in a dark corner, the fairy flutters down, perching on the top edge of the book I am reading, with a pleading look in her eyes.

“Oh!” I say, “The evening read must be falling to me tonight. Well, well.”

As I turn the pages back to the table of contents, I startle the fairy into fluttering up for a moment before alighting down again.

“Your choice,” I suggest to her.

She walks across the open book, studying the entries, then touches one of the lines with her delicate foot.

The Black Horse it is.”

Hmmm, another horse tale.

The fairy rises into the air and allows me to turn to the story before taking up her position on the book’s top edge.

The youngest son of the king gets for his inheritance an old, white, lame horse. He is talked into trading it for a mysterious black horse, with the promise that it will carry him to any place he thinks of. What comes to the prince’s mind is the Realm Underwaves, and he is there by the next morning.

He is no sooner there than the onus of stealing the daughter of the King of the Greeks to be the bride of the prince of that realm is put upon him.

His black horse instructs the prince how to accomplish the task and carries him to Greece in short order. Upon returning with the princess to the Realm Underwaves, our hero discovers the princess will not agree to marry until she has her grandmother’s silver cup used at her family’s weddings.

With the horse’s advice, again, the prince easily steals the cup. The next requirement is the family’s silver ring. This is in no way as easy as stealing the bride or the cup.

The fairy flitters up as I turn the page.

First, they pass over a snow mountain, ice mountain, and mountain of fire. Then the horse has the prince go to a smithy to have enough iron spikes made to be stuck into every bone in the horse’s body. The black horse then dives into a particular lake, the surface of which bursts into flames until the sun rises the next morning. The horse emerges from the lake, collapsing on the shore, with one spike remaining, on the end of which is the silver ring. The prince takes care of the black horse until it recovers.

Returning to the Realm Underwaves, they find the princess now demands a new castle to be built. That, for the black horse, is the easiest of the tasks; done in one night. The princess then has no more objections.

However, when they inspect the new castle, the prince of the realm, who calls himself the Son of Success, points out that there is no well inside the castle. That is soon remedied. But then the princess points out that there is a flaw in the well’s construction. When the prince of the realm leans over the edge of the well to inspect the flaw, the princess pushes him in, declaring she will marry the one who accomplished the tasks.

After three years of happy marriage, the prince remembers the black horse. The black horse is exactly where he left him. The creature teases the prince about his lack of faithfulness, but then lets the prince know that the time has come for the prince to cut off the horse’s head. This takes some persuasion, but when the deed is done, an enchantment is broken, and the horse transforms back into the princess’s brother, and they all go off to Greece for a second wedding. 

The fairy looks at me with a perplexed expression.

“Well, this is a Celtic story,” I answer.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2021 The Black Horse – Part Two

John D Batten

More Horses

Finishing my morning coffee, I see the day stretching out before me, with no one in the house. As I carry my empty cup toward the kitchen, my eyes fall upon the hallway closet. Time to reorganize it.

Opening the closet door, I spot problematic item number one; a three-foot-tall, gaudy, golden, useless bowling trophy. Two and a half feet of its three-foot height is the figure of a man, rather featureless, one leg forward, one arm back, swinging a golden orb clutched with three fingers. I don’t bowl. No one in my family bowls. I only know it has dominated this hallway closet for at least two decades. Where did it come from?

But can I throw out a trophy? It was, once, someone’s momentary pride and joy. Can I dishonor that? But, I can relegate it to my third floor. Up the stairs I go, toting this thing half my size.

While lugging my load down the third-floor corridor, I see that the mysterious extra door is back again. It’s not always there. It comes and goes.

What is behind it this time?

Opening the door, I squint at the broad daylight. As my eyes adjust, I make out trees and a wide, forest path at my feet. Ridiculous of course, I’m on the third floor of my house. A black horse carrying two riders flashes past me, leaving me cringing in the doorway. I did catch a glimpse of a handsome young man and a lovely lady seated before him.

“Was that…?“

“It is whatever you imagined it was,” cackles a voice from above me. I step out into the road and turn around. My door is in a stone wall on top of which sits a dwarf with long, dangling legs.

“Rink Rank, is that you? What are you doing on my third floor?”

“Third floor? Nay. You’re in Tír fo Thuinn.”

“Then that must have been…”

“Of course it was. It’s your imagination.”

“Then I’ve laid eyes on a talking horse!” I exclaim.

“Don’t they all?” Rink Rank wrinkles his brow.

“Not unless you’re Mister Ed.”

“Who?”

“It’s an old sit-com, never mind.”

“A what?”

“Please forget I said anything. But, look, if that was the prince and the daughter of the King of Greece then this story is just starting.”

Rink Rank slaps his forehead. “You dolt. The story happens every time it is told, over and over.”

I ignore the insult. “You suggest that all horses talk?”

“If you—the collective you—wants them to, they are more than willing to oblige.  Who’s your friend there?”

“Who?” Rink Rank is staring at the golden man on his little pedestal, which I still clutch. The golden ball has grown large, and the golden man is holding it on his back, bent over by the weight. I set it on the ground.

I force my mind to return to the subject of horses. “Let me inventory for a moment. There is the talking black horse, who we just saw, another talking black horse belonging to the King of the Waterfalls, then there’s the Magician’s Horse, also black. Was the Goose Girl’s Falada black? His severed head talked.”

“Ah, Falada. Poor fellow,” comments Rink Rank, not answering my question.

“Are they related in any way to the kelpies?”

“Oh, don’t think that!” Old Rink Rank is appalled. “Kelpies lure little children into the water and eat them. Kelpies are changlings too, often look like horses, but changlings nonetheless. Our talking horses are noble creatures always.”

Glancing at my bowling trophy, it now appears to be a frog swimming to a surface with a golden ball in its mouth.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2021 The Black Horse – Part Three

John D. Batten

Plus Foals

“Well, kelpies or not,” I continue, “this black horse, of our story in progress, will jump into a lake and be underwater until dawn. That suggests something of the kelpie to me. And what about the iron points and the lake bursting into flames? What is that all about?”

“What? You expect me to answer that?” Rink Rank raises an eyebrow. “It’s not me who’s imagining it.”

Of course, I didn’t expect him to answer my question.

My bowling trophy has morphed into what looks like a Greek goddess. Instead of a ball, she holds a golden apple in her hand.

“And what of the Greek princess? Why Greece?” I persist.

Surprisingly, he answers. “No place so interesting as a land far, far away.”

Greece would be a land far away for the old Celts.

Rink Rank relents a little more. “Getting back to your horses, do you know of Dapplegrim?”

“No, I don’t,” I say.

“Maybe a cousin to your black horse, though he is a dapple as his name says. Like the black and his prince, the dapple and his master are questing to fulfill the demands of a wedding. The dapple must find a horse the equal of himself for the bride to ride on at the wedding day. Among other hardships, the dapple must battle with a horse, which, in every way, is identical to himself.

To do this, he instructs his master to cover him in ox hides studded with iron spikes, and, also, cover the field of battle with tar.  Dapplegrim knows that the fiery breath of the other will set the field ablaze, a blaze in which he and the other will kick and bite. But Dapplegrim’s got the protection of the studded ox hides.”

“So, the other dapple can breathe fire,” I comment. “The magician’s roan horse also breathed fire. Also, the magician was magically sustained by fire, and in the end, he and the roan drowned in a river created from a riding whip. There must be a connection among these three stories. “

I notice the trophy is now a golden bird with an apple in its mouth.

“Oh,” says Rink Rank, “and then there’s the seven foals.”

“Seven?” I say. “Now we are getting into a herd.”

“A fellow named Cinderlad leaves his place by the hearth and goes off to attempt at what his brothers failed. They returned home with flesh stripped from their backs and salt rubbed into their wounds.

“What the brothers failed at was to herd the king’s seven foals and then tell the king what the foals eat that day. The reward was to marry the princess and get half the kingdom. The punishment is what the brothers got.

“Cinderlad is good to the task of chasing after the foals and doesn’t get waylaid by an old crone like his brothers did. After they pass the crone, the youngest horse tells him to ride on his back and often asks Cinderlad what he sees up ahead.

“They come to a white birch tree, inside of which is a rusty sword. On they go, crossing a river, and get to a church. In the church, the foals turn into men, receive communion, then turn back into foals, and race home the way they came.

“Now Cinderlad can tell the king that the foals had bread and wine to eat and gets to marry the princess. During the wedding feast, Cinderlad goes to the stable and, as instructed by the youngest horse, cuts off all their heads with the rusty sword. They’re restored to their human form as the seven sons of the king.

“The end,” Rink Rank smiles.

“There are,” I can’t help but say, “a plentiful number of severed horse heads in these tales. I see, too, if there is a severed horse head, there is also a marriage to a princess.”

“Fire and/or water is in the mix, too,” Rink Rank winks.

The trophy’s golden apple is now a sun beating down on a little man wrapped in a heavy coat.

I think I will leave the trophy here in Tír fo Thuinn. It’s having much more fun than it ever did in my hallway closet.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2020 Hans’ Fortune – Part One

Public Domain Illustration

Some Fortune

We are gathering in the study for our Christmas Eve reading by Thalia. By gathering I mean, of course, the fairy, Johannes, the brownies, and myself. My cell is on speaker so that Melissa may listen in.

Thalia waits while I tend to the logs in the fireplace, the fairy perches on her shoulder, Johannes curls up on the window seat, the brownies settle into a dark corner, and Melissa is virtually propped up by some books on the study table. I settle into my comfy chair, noticing the book in Thalia’s hand, Folk and Fairy Tales of Denmark, Vol. 2. Thalia really has begun to explore the fairy-tale canon beyond Grimm.

“Tonight,” she says, “I will read to you Hans’ Fortune.”

I am a bit surprised. I know the tale and I don’t see anything Christmas-like about it.

Hans, a young man thought by others as simple, overhears a conversation about seizing one’s fortune with both hands.  He contemplates this and soon declares to his parents that he will go off to seek his fortune.

He wanders aimlessly until one day a coach, carrying the local squire, passes by him and Hans lunges with both hands outstretched but fails to grasp anything, landing upon the ground scratched and bruised.

Curious, the squire tells his driver to turn around. Hans explains that he perceived the squire, coach, driver, and horses as the type of fortune he sought and tried to seize his fortune with both hands.  In turn, somewhat inexplicably, the squire invites Hans into his employment. Besides tending to the squire’s cow herd, Hans was to accompany the squire on his trips to town and market.

During these trips, Hans proves to be talkative, and the squire learns from him many things of which he had not been aware. The squire surmises that Hans, though he appeared simple, was more clever and observant than he let on, was forthright with his opinions, and above all honest; a man to be trusted.

One day, at market, the squire proposes a little contest. He would select six horses to purchase and Hans would select another six and they would see, in the end, who made the better picks. The squire picks six fine-looking horses and Hans picks six underweight, ill-tended horses, but at a third of the price. After six months, the horses Hans had chosen—and due to tender care—are more valuable than the six the squire selected.

And so it went with every decision on the squire’s estate; Hans’ opinion was requested, followed, and turned out for the best. He rose in the squire’s esteem.

When the squire turns his thoughts toward marriage, he has in mind the two daughters of the church warden but doesn’t know which to marry. On one of his courting visits, he takes Hans with him to render an opinion. Hans feels neither would be a suitable wife for the squire, but rather the warden’s kitchen maid would be best. The squire resists the idea at first but could not get Hans’ advice out of his mind.

The squire proposes to the kitchen maid and leaves Hans to invite the guests. Hans invites the king and queen. To the squire’s surprise, the queen makes a great fuss over the bride, giving her a royal wedding gown in which to be married. The queen continues with her attention to the bride during the wedding feast until the king takes her aside. The queen confesses that, because the king had once ruled an unfaithful woman was to be punished by having one of her twin children killed, when the queen gave birth to twin daughters, she had one of them hidden away. That daughter is the kitchen maid.

The king immediately rescinds any implication of his ruling and the truth comes out, right there at the wedding feast. The newly acquired son-in-law and the newly discovered daughter are elevated to the level of duke and duchess and granted a dukedom.

Hans is given the old estate and marries one of the church warden’s daughters.

“Hans,” Thalia concludes, “had found his fortune.”

A muffled applause comes from the shadowy corner. Dimly, I can see the brownies are ecstatic about this story. Thalia smiles at them gently.

I must confess, Thalia knows her audience.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2020 Hans’ Fortune – Part Two

Arthur Rackham

About Brownies

I’d not heard the term “video chat” before Melissa suggested it, but I realized what it was when she said it. Over the phone, she talks me through downloading the software—an app, she calls it—and I wait for her to “invite” me.

After a couple of messages and buttons to click there is Melissa on my screen.

“Good Lord,” I say, “where are you? There’s a palm tree and an ocean behind you!”

“I can’t hear you. Turn on your mic.”

“I don’t have a microphone.” I can see myself on the screen as well and how confused I look.

“My dear,” says Melissa, “you are such a Luddite. Click on the icon—the little picture of a microphone with a line through it in the lower-left corner.”

“Oh, there it is. Got it. Where are you?”

“Oh, I wish,” grins Melissa. “It’s just my background. I am not that fortunate to really be there.”

“We both could use a bit of Hans’ luck.”

“Thalia read very well. I believe I heard the brownie react to her.”

“I am sure,” I say, “she read the story with them in mind.”

“There was something brownie-like about Hans.”

“How’s that?”

“He never asks for anything, is always there to do the squire’s bidding, does not promote himself, and carries the aura of prosperity for the household or, in this case, the entire estate.”

“True,” I say, “that may be why my brownies were attracted to Hans and saw themselves in his story. However, I have read that brownies can be tricksters, even turn into boggarts.”

“Only if you offend them,” Melissa frowns. “I assume you treat them well.”

“Ever since I realized my floors and counters were spotlessly clean and it wasn’t me doing it, I have given them a bowl of milk in the kitchen every evening.”

“Wait,” says Melissa, her image stuttering a bit, “shouldn’t the traditional bowl of milk be set by the hearth?”

“I put it by the hot-air duct in the corner of the kitchen. That seems to suffice.”

“A modern adaptation, I guess,” she says. “By the way, why do you have more than one brownie? They are almost always solitary beings, one per household.”

“The exception proves the rule, I will suppose. They appear to me to be a family of four, but I am not sure of the number because they are shy and reclusive. I rarely see them outside of Thalia’s study readings. I have read they can be invisible if they wish.”

“And don’t give them any clothing,” Melissa warns while her image freezes.

“Quite right. Poorly dressed though they are, new clothes are a thing with them and they see it as an offense. Sounds a little like the Grimms’ Elves and the Shoemaker.”

“I think Wilhelm was conflating elves and brownies,” Melissa smiles.

“I am sure of it. I remember hashing this out years ago when Thalia and I first read the Grimm version.”

 “But getting back to Hans,” she says, “and his brownie-like behavior; why does he appeal to us in this story?”

“Well,” I speculate, “it ends happily. That is one point in its favor, but let me suggest the tale has a purpose in having Hans (and we can apply this to brownies) serve as a role model of what a servant should be and how a servant (or brownie) should be treated.”

“Ah,” there is agreement in Melissa’s voice, “an object lesson. The squire does treat Hans well and Hans rewards him. In the end, Hans is rewarded for being an exemplary servant. But wait again, isn’t that an unrealistic goal for the serving class to be aspiring toward?”

“Melissa,” I admonish, “you are being coldly analytical, moving toward political correctness. We’re talking about fairy tales. They are all about unreasonable expectations. They are the stuff of our wildest daydreams coming at us from outside ourselves. That is their appeal.”

“Oh, of course,” Melissa smirks. “Forgive my lapse into truth and reality.”

“Forgiven.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2020 Hans’ Fortune – Part Three

Commemorative Stamp

Feudal Fortune

Melissa and I take a little break to go find wine for ourselves. When we return, she proposes a toast to the Christmas season. We hold up our glasses to the computer screen. There is not the crystalline-clear clink of glass against glass to greet our salute. I miss that, but I am getting fonder of this video thing as a substitute for life.

“Now,” says Melissa, “about this wandering-off stuff to seek one’s fortune.”

“What about it?” I respond rhetorically. “They did that all the time.”

“Yes, they did that all the time in fairy tales, but did they, in fact?”

“Why shouldn’t they have?”

“Because they were serfs.”

“Oh, you’re right, the peasants anyway.”

“This thought occurred to me one night recently and it didn’t let me go back to sleep.”

“You’re sounding like the agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac who stayed up all night wondering if there really was a Dog.”

“Behave!” Melissa scolds but tries to hide her smile behind a sip of wine. “Seriously, my impression is that these fairy tales, in the form they have come down to us, developed around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, pretty much at the height of the feudal system.”

“Remind me about that institution.”

“It really wasn’t an organized system, but rather a similar response throughout the Western world after the fall of the Roman Empire when existing rule decentralized.

“A lord gave land to a vassal in return for his military aid, along with a promise from the lord to protect the vassal. The lords and vassals made up the nobility. The second tier of society was the clergy, some of whom had land granted to them to support abbeys and monasteries. The third tier was the peasants whose obliged labor supported the first two tiers. A small percentage of them were freemen, but most lived in some form of servitude.

“I think townspeople make up another tier, but historians never describe them that way.”

“Perhaps they fall under freemen,” I suggest.

“In any case,” she continues, “most people, particularly the listeners of these tales, were tied to the manor where they lived. If the manor passed into new ownership, the peasants’ obligations passed to the new lord. If a girl wished to marry someone outside of the manor, she had to pay the lord a fee for her release. If a freeman gave up his status and pledged himself to the lord of the manor, he pledged his progeny into servitude as well. Those who tilled the soil for the lord were his chattel. They didn’t pick up and go wandering off to seek their fortunes.”

I drink half my glass while she pontificates. “But didn’t this setup fall apart by the time of the Grimms’ writing?”

“Largely but not entirely. Interestingly, an element in its demise was due to the Black Plague that swept Europe in the fourteenth century, killing a third of the population, leaving the surviving laborers with greater bargaining power.

“Contrarily, serfdom didn’t end in Russia until a decree in 1861, well after the Grimms’ publications.”

I take another sip. “You’ve got me thinking now. We really don’t hear echoes of the feudal system in the tales. I don’t recall the phrase, ‘There once was a poor serf.’ There are plenty of poor people; lots of kings, queens, princes, and princesses; many witches, henwives, and sorcerers; occasionally judges and lawyers, but no one called a serf. The closest word is ‘servant’ but that does not carry with it the connotation of thralldom.

“I think you are right. Sons wandering off, leaving their parents behind to fend for themselves really does not ring true to beings tied to the land by birth.”

“Ha! Gotcha,” Melissa smiles again.

“How so?”

“The answer is that, for young men at least, this motif was their wildest daydreams coming back at them from outside themselves.”

“Ah, escapism,” I say.

“Let’s drink to it. We could use some of that ourselves.”

Melissa’s image freezes again as we raise our glasses. I think I hear the clink this time.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2020 The Girl in the Bay Tree – Part One

No Villain

“I found it,” Thalia says triumphantly, storming into the kitchen.

“Found what, my dear?” I say, rolling out my dough.

“What you said I couldn’t find.” Thalia is gloating a bit.

“Well, if what you say is true, I’ll eat my pie.”

Thalia narrow-eyes me quizzically. “What kind of pie?”

“Pork pie.”

“You’d eat it any way.”

“True. It’s a punishment I can enjoy.”

Thalia rolls her eyes. “Dry, very dry.”

“What is it you found?” I query.

“A villain-less fairy tale,” she proclaims.

I recall a conversation with her about defining what is a fairy tale. I do remember a witch, evil stepmother, or rival being part of my definition. I clean my thumb and forefinger of flour dust onto a dish towel and pick up the edge of the book she has laid flat open on the table. Modern Greek Folk Tales, by  R. M. Dawkins.

“The Girl in the Bay Tree,” says Thalia.

A childless woman prays for a child, even if it is only as small as a bayberry.

“Oh,” I say, “those fairy-tale characters ought to know by now to be more cautious when they make a wish.”

Thalia giggles. 

The child she bears is as small as a bayberry, and one day, she loses the child by the river while washing clothes. A good time later, a prince is returning from a war and rests by that same spot on the river under a bay tree. He has his supper table and meal set before him but falls asleep before feasting. In the morning, all his food has been sampled.

Angry, he is determined to find the thief and repeats his actions of the day before but only pretends to sleep.

The bay tree opens up and out comes a most beautiful girl, who tastes a bite of everything on the table. The prince captures her by the hair and promises, if she will stay with him willingly, to marry her. To this, she agrees.

The prince promises to return for her shortly. She instructs him to let no one else kiss him or he will forget her. Upon returning to his home, the prince fends off his parents’ embraces and kisses, but that night his godfather visits and gives him a kiss while the prince slumbers.

Meanwhile, the bay tree will no longer open for the bay-tree girl and the prince does not return for her. She wanders, homeless, until she comes to the prince’s city. There she learns that the prince is wasting away due to an unknown grief.

She cuts her hair and disguises herself as a monk and presents herself as a doctor with a cure for lovesickness. When she reveals herself, by telling the prince their story, the prince’s memory returns and they marry.

After reading, Thalia looks up at me smiling.

“Hmmm,” I consider. “The bay tree wasn’t very cooperative.”

“But it is not a villain,” Thalia defends.

“True. Will you eat humble pork pie with me when it is done?”

“I think sooo,” Thalia stretches out that last word.

Part Two

Piero del Pollaiuolo, Apollo & Daphne, probably 1470-80

Daphne Maybe

“Daphne,” comments Melissa’s tinny, disembodied voice ringing through the study from my cell phone lying on the table. I do like the “speaker” feature on my cell, which just allowed me to hold my book with both hands and read The Girl in the Bay Tree to Melissa at the same time.

“Pardon?” I say.

Daphne. The bay-tree girl is Daphne.” I can hear her washing dishes as we talk.

“As in the Greek nymphs?”

“One of the naiads, actually,” Melissa puts a point on it.

“Remind me,” I say.

“Daphne was a naiad, as I said, that is, a nymph of streams and other fresh waters, a daughter of a river god. Due to a prank played by Cupid, Apollo falls hopelessly in love with Daphne, who had pledged to remain virgin.

“Rather than be raped by Apollo, she, while in flight from the amorous god, calls out to her father, the river god, to save her. As Apollo is laying his hands on her, she turns into a laurel tree. The laurel tree, by another name, is a bay tree.”

“I am enlightened,” I say. “Daphne was, as it were, inside a laurel tree, just as the bay-tree girl lived inside a bay tree.”

“Apollo,” Melissa continues, “a little to his credit, never did forget Daphne and made the laurel tree one of his emblems. Hence, the laurel wreaths used to crown emperors and Olympians.”

My thoughts return to the story. “If you are right and our bay-tree girl is a naiad, then it is appropriate that her tree grows by the river and almost proves the connection.”

“I am going to take my thoughts a step further.” I hear a hollow-sounding metal door clang. “The naiads made up a greater part of Artemis’s hunting party, she being a virgin goddess and all her naiads following suit. Oh, and Apollo was Artemis’s twin brother, making his assault on Daphne all the more insensitive.”

I hear a soft padding noise. I suspect she is folding laundry.

“In any case,” she picks up on her train of thought again, “the naiads were fond of dancing at night in the forest.”

“Where are you going with this?” I ask.

“All I mean is, if you add wings to the naiads, we have the fairies. Artemis is the fairy queen, her hunting party The Wild Hunt, and her dancing naiads are the original occupants of the fairy circle.”

“A tempting idea,” I say.

“Has Thalia’s fairy ever said anything about her parentage?”

“From what Thalia has told me, the fairy is pretty secretive about such things. We don’t even know her name.”

“Ah, well,” says Melissa, “to know her name would be to have power over her.  I am sure she does not want that.”

A random synapse in my brain fires off. “Wait, aren’t the tree spirits dryads?”

I tap on my computer tablet lying beside the phone and it comes to life. With a quick visit to Wiki, I have my not so clear answer.

“Yes, dryads are the tree nymphs, and the naiads the fresh water ones. But there are the Daphnaie, the nymphs of the laurel trees who are dryads, while Daphne, their namesake I take it, was a naiad. However, to support your idea, all the dryads spend most of their time sleeping behind the bark of their trees. They only come out to dance when the coast was clear.

“Then there are the Nereids, sea nymphs, and the Oreads, mountain nymphs, not to mention Oceanids, another type of sea nymph. Also, there are others nymphs specific to other trees. The list goes on forever.”

“Fairies all, I say.” I hear Melissa closing closet doors.

Part Three

Artemis and Apollo

Forgotten Bride

“I am pouring myself a glass of wine. Are you?” Melissa says.

“Good idea.” I wander toward the kitchen, my cell in my shirt pocket. “What about Thalia’s assertion that The Girl in the Bay Tree is a fairy tale without a villain?”

“Well,” I hear her say between sips, “certainly there is no villain as a character in this story. The tale’s challenge comes from fate and its vagaries that substitute for an antagonist.”

I find an open bottle of claret I can finish off. “Fate often plays a role in the tales.” I carry the bottle and a glass back to the study.

“Hmmm, let’s think about that,” Melissa muses. “It is fate that placed the prince under the bay tree to rest. In tales like Cinderella or Catskins, it is fate’s hand that created the conflict by the deaths of their mothers.

“On the other hand, with motifs such as the three brothers, it is the good actions and deeds of the youngest that determined the future.

“I am going to say the role of fate and the role of deeds is a fifty-fifty split.”

I’ve resettled myself in the study, the cell resting on the arm of the comfy chair. “I am not so sure. Magic is an integral part of a fairy tale, and doesn’t magic predetermine the story’s outcome at times?”

“No,” Melissa says, taking a long pause. “Magic is a device, an element. Let us call it a tool to be used or abused by the protagonist.”

“Nope, I can’t agree, at least not always,” I say. “Let’s take the kiss of forgetfulness. That was out of the control of either the prince or the girl. It was rather a tool used by fate in this case.”

“Ah, you mention the forgotten bride. Why is that such a popular motif? I don’t think there was ever a forgotten bridegroom.”

“There is the occasional bride with two husbands. I have found those, but you are right, never a forgotten bridegroom.”

Melissa contemplates. “The kiss is a device that allows for a dilemma without placing blame on the bridegroom. If he simply forgot, he wouldn’t be a candidate worth marrying. But that does not explain the forgotten-bride motif’s popularity.”

“Ultimately,” I say, “it’s romantic.”

“There. You have it,” she says. “And I concede to your argument about the role of magic. However, I will suggest a formula.”

“Which is?”

“In the fairy tale, fate plus deeds equals destiny.”

“That sounds pretty good, but you need to explain more about destiny.”

“There is probably some degree of fate that can be identified in any story and that fate propels the protagonist in one direction. However, the protagonist can alter that direction, defy or alter fate by their actions.

“I could say fate plus deeds equals outcome, but in the context of the fairy-tale genre what was fated and what actions are taken, determined by the nature of the protagonist, invariably leads to one result, which is usually, as in our tale, they get married and live happily ever after.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

“How do we clink glasses?”

“Against our cells?”

“I guess so.”

I bring my glass and cell phone together.

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: May 2020 The Swan Maidens – Part One

Swan Maiden Valkyries_with_swan_skins  Jenny Nyström (1854-1946)

Two Swans

Miss Cox’s garden makes for me a wonderful refuge when I want to distance myself from my fellow humans. Usually there is someone to meet here in the garden, but no appointments today. I merely want to stretch my legs far from any crowds.

I amble from the gate, passing my usual sitting bench by the sundial and walk down toward the pond. I delight to see two swans stately gliding on the pond’s surface.  I take a seat on the bench beside the pond to admire them.

On the bench is a book with a marker peering from its folios.

Has Miss Cox laid this in my path?

I pick it up.

Ah, Europa’s Fairy Tales by my old friend Joseph Jacobs.

I open the book to its marker.

The Swan Maidens.

I look suspiciously at the swans; planting this book on the bench might be their doing.  My glance turns to the text.

A hunter comes across seven swan maidens, their feathery swan skins lying on the bank of the lake. He takes the skin of the youngest sister and, at dawn, the other sisters fly off, abandoning the seventh to her fate. Because the hunter will not return her swan skin, she is obliged to marry him.

They have two children together and are happy. One day the young daughter, while playing hide-and-seek with her brother, discovers the hidden swan skin and shows it to her mother. The swan maiden flies off, leaving the message for her husband that, if he wishes to seek her, she has returned to her home East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.

The hunter travels far and wide, asking everyone if they know where is the land East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon. Along the way he helps an old man, who turns out to be the King of the Beasts. With his aid, and the aid of his brothers, the King of the Birds and the King of the Fishes; and the directions given by a dolphin, the hunter finds his way to the Wild Forest at the foot of the Crystal Mountain at the top of which is the land of East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.

At the edge of the Wild Forest two men are arguing over the ownership of a hat of invisibility and shoes of travel to anywhere and propose the hunter settle their dispute. The hunter suggests they run a contest, and while they are away he dons the hat, puts on the shoes, and wishes himself to the top of the Crystal Mountain.

There he reclaims his bride from the King of East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon by identifying his bride from among her identical sisters by the needle pricks on her fingertips from sewing clothing for their children.

They are reunited and live happily again together.

I look up from the book.

Where are those swans?

I didn’t hear them fly away.

I set the book down on the bench.

Where do I go from here?

The swan maidens are creatures of the air and water.

Women and water.

Ah, I must visit my nixie.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2020 The Swan Maidens – Part Two

Swan Maiden John batten 2 John Batten

Nixie’s Pool

Melissa and I enter the Magic Forest, I with the necessary bag of popcorn.

“How did you know I intended to visit the nixie?” I ask.

Melissa does not answer right away. She was at my door when I returned from the garden. The light of dusk shows me the path toward the nixie’s pool.

“I knew it as clearly as if you had invited me to come. I never gave it a second thought until now.”

We come to the high bank of the pool, the height of which affords us a safe distance from the nixie. We sit on rocks and wait for her to appear.

“Hello, my human, and hello, Melissa.” Her pale green face, surrounded by a halo of floating hair, appears on the rippled surface of the pool. Melissa nods, a bit reverentially.

“My nixie,” I say, ceremoniously tossing her the first kernels of popcorn. “I have some curiosity about the swan maidens.”

She lunges up from the water to catch the kernels in her mouth, then makes a disgusted ticking noise at my question. “Changelings; not my choice of company among my fellow fays.”

“Oh,” Melissa murmurs, “prejudice in the fairy ranks.”

“If one wants to be of the fay,” the nixie scowls, “then one should stay a fay.” She looks hard at Melissa and not at me, who asked the question.

“But who are they?” I persist.

“From what my sister nixies tell me, the first was Swanhilde, born of a marriage between a mortal woman and a fairy king. She and her six sisters could assume the form of swans. She married the renowned smith, Wayland, son of the King of the Finns, after he rescued her from death when she was struck by a spear. Swanhilde put aside her wings and took off her ring of power for him.

“Unfortunately for them, a rival king, Niõhad, kidnapped Swanhilde, stole her ring, and destroyed Wayland’s home. When Wayland searched for his bride, Niõhad captured and hamstrung him, forcing Wayland to forge magical weapons for him.

“Wayland had his revenge when he lured the king’s sons to him with promises of gifts, killed them, and forged their skulls into goblets, their eyes into jewels, and a brooch from their teeth. After sending these gifts to the king, the king’s daughter appeared with Swanhilde’s ring to be mended. Wayland raped her, then he and Swanhilde flew off with wings he had forged, but not before stopping off at court to brag about the destruction he had wrought upon the king.”
“Not a pleasant crowd,” I observe, throwing the nixie more popcorn, which she gobbles down. “What more can you tell me about Wayland?”

“He was trained by Mimir the Smith, then by dwarves, whom he was forced to murder at the end of his apprenticeship. Certainly, he forged the sword Mimung, but it is said he forged the magical swords Excalibur and Gram, as well as the chainmail worn by Beowulf, but I believe that to be hearsay.”

“I suspect these alternative facts might have come out of the medieval romances,” Melissa smiles. “Those romances produced as many variants as our fairy tales.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2020 The Swan Maidens – Part Three

Swan Maiden John Batten John Batten

Marriage Victims

Melissa turns her attention to the nixie.

“My question is, What are the swan maidens?”

“Being changelings,” the nixie pronounces, “and occasionally taking on human form, they leave themselves open to compromise. They are, by their own fault, victims of mortal men.”

“Victims?” I echo.

“Victims, of course,” Melissa responds. “They don’t become wives of their own choosing. Their swan skins are held captive and the women denied their true nature.”

“Do they not come to love their husbands?” I question.

Melissa pauses before speaking. “They commit to their fate. Yes, they are depicted as at least accepting their husbands and more likely loving their children, but the moment their swan skins reappear, they immediately seize their liberation. “

Melissa turns to the nixie. “The story of Wayland that I know is that he and his two brothers snatched the swan skins of three Valkyrie maidens, forcing them to be their brides. The women stayed amiably with their husbands for nine years until, inexplicably, they flew off, never to be seen again. In Wayland’s case, his wife left him her ring, coveted by King Niõhad, leading to the history you described. But Swanhilde and her sisters had freed themselves from human concerns before King Niõhad made his moves.”

“But in Jacob’s version,” I consider, “at least the husband searches out and reclaims his wife. Is that not a better, happier ending?”

“For men and the institution of marriage,” Melissa shoots back. “Joseph Jacobs, for all that I appreciate about him, was a Victorian man. During his day, the women’s rights movement, the enfranchisement of women, underlay—along with other issues—the tide of change between the centuries. Women, more frequently, divorced their husbands, seeking independence.

“Jacob’s choosing to construct his version of The Swan Maidens to reflect the patriarchal attitude of the time comes as no surprise to me. However, the majority of the swan-maiden tales end in the victims reclaiming their swan form and disappearing forever, ending their marriages.”

“Marriage; what is the value of this thing you call marriage? For you mortals it seems to be the be-all-and-end-all. I see that it is to be embraced or rejected, but not ignored.” The nixie looks at us, her eyes narrowed. “Why is it so central to your thoughts? Marriage is such a passing thing; it lasts at best until the death of one of you, and from the stories I hear, causes more pain than joy.” The nixie glances at Melissa.

“We,” I protest, “consider marriage a sacred thing.”

“Oh,” replies the nixie, “would you marry me? Bring me into the sacred circle?” Her green eyes sparkle at me.

My heart palpitates at the lustful, exotic notion. My trembling hand tosses more popcorn, giving me a moment to collect myself.

“No, no,” I say, “I am too old for that.” I regain my composure. “Besides, you would drag me beneath the water’s surface to my demise.”

“Oh,” whines the nixie, smirking at me, “maybe not!”

Melissa rolls her eyes at the nixie mocking me. The nixie giggles. Her giggle has the overtone of a cackle, emanating from a loveless interior.

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?