Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2014 Old Woman in the Wood



I creep on tiptoe down the hall, returning from the linen closet with a fresh towel for my evening bath. Passing Thalia’s room I hear her piping voice. From its cadence I know she is reading aloud, obviously to Teddy.

If I am not mistaken, she reads The Old Woman in the Wood. I haven’t thought of that tale for a long time, and listen with my ear to the door to recall how it goes.

A poor serving girl travels with her masters into the depths of a large forest, where they are set upon by robbers. Jumping from the carriage, she saves herself while all the others are murdered. Friendless and helpless, she sits under a tree and awaits her fate.

A white dove appears with a golden key in its beak, telling her to open the lock on a certain tree. More keys and other trees provide the girl with all her needs.

The girl lives a contented and quiet life, until the bird makes a request. The girl is to go into the hut of the Woman of the Wood. The old woman will address her, but the girl is not to answer, but rather go into the next room where there is a table piled with ornate rings. She is to find a plain band and return with it.

She does as the bird instructs, and the old woman is powerless to stop her, but  the girl cannot find a plain band among all the elaborate rings on the table. Catching the old woman creeping from the room carrying a bird cage, the girl gives chase, snatching away the cage. In it is a bird with a plain band in its beak.

With the band, she returns to her forest bower where one of the trees wraps it limbs around her and transforms into a handsome prince. Other trees turn into the prince’s entourage. The prince explains the witch turned him and his men into trees, but that he could also be a dove. They all go off to his kingdom where the girl and the prince will be married.

“I like the golden keys that open the tree trunks,” I hear Thalia say. “What about you?”

A little voice answers, “I like the table of rings.”

That can’t be Teddy, can it?

On my knees, I peek through the keyhole. Framed by the aperture, there is Thalia and, in front of her, the fairy.

“Oh,” Thalia claps her hands. “When the tree hugs her, I like that too.”

The fairy turns her head, her black hair floating about, and peers directly at me, her eyebrow raised. Seeing myself through her eyes, I am embarrassed. Peeking through a keyhole upon two innocents—whatever am I doing?

In the bath, I put aside my shame, and let the story images return to me.

What of the golden keys to the locks in the trees?

Why does not speaking to the old woman deny her power over the girl?

What of the table covered with rings?

What is the significance of the birds?

I may need to visit Augustus.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2014 Old Woman in the Wood

Old Woman in the WoodArthur Rackham

Trees and Keys

Ah yes, Old Woman in the Wood,” says Augustus of my inquiry. “A personal favorite and one that has not gotten the recognition it deserves.”

The whitish smoke and rich vanilla odor of “Fairy’s Favorite” fills the air of his testing room, replete with comfy chairs, where he induces customers to try new blends. I can tell by the sparkle in his eyes I need only sit back and let him carry on.

“It is,” he says, “one of the most charming tales in the Grimm collection.”

“Charm?” I am taken back. “Her companions are all murdered in the opening scene.”

“Technically, yes. Symbolically, no.”

I rotate my hand to indicate he needs to explain this one.

“You, of course, recall Hansel and Gretel, in which the evil stepmother casts out the children who fall under the control of the evil witch. When they destroy the evil witch, they return home to find the evil stepmother has died too.

“The same symbolic connection is here in this story between the entourage that is murdered by the robbers at the start and the entourage the serving girl restores at the end.”

I am left nodding approval. “What about the trees and the golden keys?”

“Aren’t they a lovely combination?” Augustus re-tamps his pipe and lights it again.

“A striking image,” I agree.

“Trees have a mysterious appeal. Norse mythology has Yggdrasil, the world tree. Magical baobab trees turn up in African tales. Tolkien took advantage of our fascination with tree mythos when he put the Ents into his trilogy,

The Old Woman in the Wood takes place deep in a forest, a place outside of the norm. Here resides enchantment. In this story the prince can transform into a dove for a short time each day. The trees magically provide the girl all of her needs. Enchanted beings have powers of  enchantment they did not have as humans, not unlike the flounder in The Fisherman and his Wife, who was also an enchanted prince. He had the power to grant wishes.”

“I hadn’t truly noticed that,” I confess. “And the golden keys?”

“Although trees and keys are associated in this story, they are of two different orders. Trees are living entities. Keys are inanimate and instrumental. A key never transforms into a prince. It remains a key.

“The keys given to the girl unlock the trees to provide her with food, clothes, and shelter. The image of tree trunks equipped with keylocks waiting to be opened, I find appealing. More often, keys unlock a forbidden room or box, and dire events follow.”

Augustus considers for a moment. “On the other hand there is The Golden Key.”

“I haven’t heard that one.”

“It’s deep in the book, tale number 200. It’s about a boy who finds a golden key on the forest floor. He reasons that where there is a key there might be a lock. He soon discovers a little iron chest. He puts the key into the lock, and the story ends with:

…he began turning it, and now we must wait until he unlocks the casket completely and lifts the cover. That’s when we’ll learn what wonderful things he found.”

Other customers enter the shop and Augustus rises to serve them. I must bide my time to ask the other questions.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2014 Old Woman in the Wood


Bird with Ring


The veil of “Fairy’s Favorite” rises up around Augustus and me once again as we relight our pipes.

I speak first, “The dove asks the girl to bring him a ring from the hut of the woman in the wood. Quite clearly he instructs her not to speak to the witch. I sense there is something to that, which is not explained until we see the witch cannot stop her.”

“Rules of the game.”

“Rules of the game?” He is confusing me again.

“Fairy tales will often telegraph the action of their story by having a ‘helper’ explain the ‘rules of the game,’ as I like to call it, to the main character. For example, in The Twelve Dancing Princesses the old woman of the wood (of that story not ours) explains to the kind old soldier how to use the magic cloak to spy on the princesses and also warns him not to drink the wine offered by the eldest princess. The listener follows the old soldier and, with satisfaction, watches him act out the advice and succeed.

“In The Golden Bird the fox tells the young prince what he will see and what he must do at each of the castles they encounter. Unfortunately, the young prince is not good at playing by the rules and the listener sees the consequences, which are his continuing sorrows.

“It may be redundant to have the action that will happen predicted, but the interest for the listener comes in when the protagonist goes beyond what was instructed, such as the old soldier having to use his wits after following the princesses underground, or what follows when the protagonist neglects the rules, as happens between the fox and the prince.”

Another customer comes into the store, but Augustus is too intent on pursuing his point to acknowledge him.

“In our story, the girl, like the old soldier, does as she is told, but cannot find the ring. The dove’s instructions have failed her. However, she is clever enough to recognize that the witch is trying to sneak off with the prize.”

“What do you make of the bird in the cage with the ring in its beak?” I know I only have moments before the mercantile side of Augustus’s brain takes over.

“Birds are always fair game in these wonder tales. Look at some of the titles: The Raven, The Seven Ravens, The Six Swans, The Golden Bird, The Golden Goose.

“The image of the bird in the cage with the plain band in its beak is haunting, asking us to read significance into it. Is this bird the soul of the prince the witch captured and by returning the ring is the girl returning the soul to the prince?

“That explanation is tempting, but why then did the dove expect the ring to be on the table, hidden among other rings?

“Reading into these stories a clear set of symbols—logically organized, which by understanding we lift the shroud to see the secret code underlying the tale—is in itself a fairy tale.

“Trust me, these images are meant to convey only a sense, however surreal, of connections between elements in the story. To convey a sense, not to make sense of … What can I do for you, sir!”

I am sure there is more intended symbolism in not speaking to the witch, the table of rings, and the bird in the cage than Augustus is allowing. I’ll keep looking, even if it is through keyholes.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2014 Virgin Mary’s Child

Marys-child2 Heinrich Lefler and Joseph Urban

Good Heavens

This evening Wilhelm appeared in my study again. He does from time to time. Tonight he is content to ignore me, which is not unusual. His biography leads me to understand both he and his brother Jacob were diligent scholars, not easily distracted.

Wilhelm busies himself at my table, writing and occasionally staring off into the interior of the room. Thalia’s cat, Faithful Johannes, curls up at the end of the table.

Feigning to need a book from the shelves behind Wilhelm, I steal a glance over his shoulder. At the top of the manuscript he works on, I see the title Marienkind. Beside that lies the 1857 edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, open to the same story. Hasn’t he worked that one to death?

The English translation of the title is The Virgin Mary’s Child. The ever-misfortunate woodcutter is approached by the Virgin Mary, who offers to lift from him the burden of his young daughter. The girl is given over to her without a question. The child grows up in heaven with little angels as her playmates. When the child reaches the age of fourteen, Mary entrusts her with the keys to the thirteen doors of heaven. Allowed to enter twelve of the rooms, in each of which she finds an apostle, the thirteenth room she is forbidden to enter. As with all forbidden rooms in fairy tales it must be opened. She barely puts the key in the lock, when it flings open, terrifying the girl with the sight of the Holy Trinity.

Noting her fear, the Virgin Mary asks if she has entered the forbidden room. The girl denies this three times. Mary takes away her power of speech, and casts her from heaven, to be imprisoned in a forest wilderness. The girl lives in a hollow tree, surviving on roots, nuts, and berries. Piece by piece, clothing falls away, leaving her cloaked in her own hair.

After some years, a king finds this remarkable maiden, takes her from the forest prison, and marries her. On the birth of their child, the Virgin Mary reappears to the girl, now a queen, asking that she repent of her sin. When the queen refuses, Mary departs with the child. The pattern repeats itself for two more births, the queen refusing to confess. The people believe the queen has eaten her own children. Since she cannot speak in her own defense, she is condemned to be burned at the stake.

Only as the flames rise around her, does she repent. Mary appears in a blaze of glory, returns the children, loosens the queen’s tongue, and declares, “Whoever repents a sin and confesses it will be forgiven.”

As I watch Wilhelm scribbling away, I can’t help but suspect he has tampered with this tale rather than simply recordingjjn it. When there is a Christian gloss on the Grimms’ tales it can often be traced back to Wilhelm—to whom Jacob gave primary responsibility for the collection after the first edition—and is not a product of the teller of the source tale.

A self-evident example appears in the Grimms’ two versions of The Girl Without Hands. In the 1812 edition the hands are restored when the heroine wraps her arms around a certain tree. By 1857, the heroine is being attended to by an angel, during which time her hands grow back.

I need to keep in mind that the Grimms were, in their scholarship as well as in their worldview, romantics of the German Romantic Movement. The science of folklore study had only begun to develop. In addition, the Grimms were appealing to a larger audience than fellow scholars. They needed to make the stories acceptable to children, according to the standards of the time. Heavy-handed Christianity was acceptable.

I see Faithful Johannes curled up on the table, but Wilhelm has disappeared. I wonder where he goes when he isn’t here. I’ll suppose the deceased can be reclusive, and certainly they are free to make their own schedule.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2014 Virgin Mary’s Child

Marys-child5  Heinrich Lefler and Joseph Urban

Up In Smoke

My eyes rest on a canister of “Angel’s Glory,” while Augustus goes through the familiar routine of weighing out four ounces of “Elfish Gold” with a stainless steel scoop. Not taking his eyes from the scale he asks, “And what story have you been contemplating lately?”

The Virgin Mary’s Child.”

“Oh? No one bothers with that story; quite unpopular.”

“I agree, but I wonder why. While its moralizing makes me a little uncomfortable, I would think for others it is a safe story. It carries a clear message about the hazards of lying, and could be the basis for a Sunday school lesson, but I have never heard of it being used that way.”

“I share your misgivings.” Augustus empties the weighing bowl of “Elfish Gold” into a plastic baggie. “It feels contrived to me, which is an odd thing to say about a fairy tale, but this one goes beyond the norm.”

“In what ways, do you think?” I look for my wallet.

“Most striking to me is the way the forbidden-door motif is used. Within the Grimms’ collection, the motif comes up in Blue Beard and The Fitcher’s Bird. In both cases it is a despotic, evil character who sets the conditions and deals out mortal punishment when the inevitable happens. To put the Virgin Mary in that role, traditionally held by villains, strikes me as odd.”

I see Augustus lean against the counter behind him and fold his arms, as he slips into lecture mode.

“In the Grimms’ own notes they point to a variant in which the antagonist is a woman dressed in black, traveling in a black coach, and living in a black castle. Nor is this woman averse to a little violence. When the heroine peeks into the forbidden room, the woman in black slaps her on the face so hard the blood flows and the voice is lost.”

Augustus contemplates for a moment. “However, in fairness, I must say the Grimms also cited a Nordic version in which the antagonist, a wealthy woman, reveals her true identity at the end of the story as the Virgin Mary.”

“Ah!” I say raising my forefinger, “I’ll bet that is where Wilhelm drew inspiration for his version.”

“No,” says Augustus cautiously, “The notes say their version is from Hesse, but they explain nothing more.” Augustus knits his brow, “You think Wilhelm wrote this story?”

“I am sure of it.” My stance is firm.

“I am going to disagree. The tale adheres to Roman Catholic thinking. The Virgin Mary looms large in the popular Catholic consciousness to the extent of being a cult figure. Take note, there are more sightings of her than there are of Jesus. The confessional, where believers confess their sins, is as regular a part of their lives as the Holy Mass. The Virgin Mary’s Child is about the Virgin Mary and the confessing of sin.

“The Grimms were not Catholic. They were Calvinist. Given the political climate of the time, and the long-standing animosity between the Roman Catholic Church and all Protestant groups, it is not likely that Wilhelm would have been warm to reflecting Catholic norms in anything of his own creation.”

I hadn’t thought of that. “You are never kind to my pet theories, I’ll have you know.”

“Sorry. You can always ignore my criticisms if you like.”

“I’ll tell you what, sell me an ounce of ‘Angel’s Glory,’ and I will ponder what you have said while I smoke it.”

“Fair enough.”

Your thoughts.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2014 Kate Crackernuts

Kate Crackernut BattenJohn Batten

Ah, Nuts

This evening’s reading of Grimm’s The Worn-out Dancing Shoes to my granddaughter and her bear inspired me to find my copy of Joseph Jacob’s English Fairy Tales in which can be found the story, Kate Crackernuts.

While the motif of the underground dance is similar in both tales―though the gender has been switched from twelve giddy princesses to one unfortunate prince―other events in the two stories are unrelated.

Kate Crackernuts begins with a  queen and her stepdaughter, Anne, who is far “bonnier” than the queen’s own daughter, Kate. Jealous, the queen visits the henwife for advice. The henwife promises to cure Anne of her good looks, if the girl will come to her while fasting.

The first two attempts fail, for Anne, innocently, finds something to eat along the way. On the third attempt the henwife tells the hungry girl to lift the lid of a pot. When Anne does, her head falls off into the pot and out jumps a sheep’s head, which attaches itself to her neck. The queen is satisfied.

Kate is not happy; she loves her stepsister and now takes over the story. She wraps Anne’s head in linen and they leave the castle to make their way in the world. They end up at another castle, where there are two brothers, one of whom is mysteriously wasting away. Stranger still, those who attend to him at night disappear. The king offers a peck of silver to anyone who will watch over his son after sunset.

Kate takes up the challenge. At midnight the prince arises in a trance, and Kate tags along unnoticed though the greenwood. She collects nuts along the way, until they enter a fairy mound. Kate has the wit to hide herself and watch while the fairies dance the prince into exhaustion.

At dawn they return and the king enters the bedroom to find Kate sitting up cracking nuts. For a peck of gold she agrees to sit up the next night.

On the second night Kate overhears the fairies say that she could cure her stepsister with the wand that a baby fairy is holding while it toddles about. She rolls nuts to the baby, who has to put down the wand to pick up the nuts. Kate returns with the wand, and cures Anne.

Now she demands to marry the prince if she is to stay up another night. On the third trip to the fairy mound she deceives the baby fairy out of a little bird, which she has learned she can feed to the prince to break his spell. On the third morning the king finds Kate and his hale and hardy son cracking nuts.

Meantime, the prince’s brother has fallen in love with the restored Anne. The story tells us the well sister marries the sick brother, and the well brother marries the sick sister, and all live happily.

I read Joseph Jacob’s notes and references, which start with the disclaimer:

Oyez, oyez, oyez. The English Fairy Tales are now closed. Little boys and girls must not read any further.

The writing becomes much drier at this point. However, I am excited by his admission that he improved the tale from the garbled version put forward by Andrew Lang, in which both girls are named Kate.

My fairy-tale red flag pops up immediately. Is it garbled? I must talk to Mr. Jacobs.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2014 Kate Crackernuts

Kate Crakernuts MMWilliamsMorris Meredith Williams

Two Heads Are Better Than One

I did my research on Joseph Jacobs, determined not to make the same mistake I made with Hans Christian Andersen. I invoked Hans for a visit to Miss Cox’s garden only to find he didn’t speak a word of English.

I am safe this time. Joseph Jacobs hailed from Australia, born there in 1854. At eighteen he went to England, taking his degree at St. John’s College, Cambridge.

I know Jacobs through four of his books: English Fairy Tales, More English Fairy Tales, Celtic Fairy Tales, and More Celtic Fairy Tales. Primarily though, he was a Jewish scholar. He ended up moving to the United States to become the revising editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia. His interest in folklore constituted something of a hobby during the latter half of his life.

Miss Cox’s garden supplies its usual delights. The daffodils are beginning to wane but the tulips show off their vitality. Mr. Jacobs and I arrive at the same time, introducing ourselves at the gate. A pot of tea nestled in a cozy brews on the wrought-iron table in front of a bench, which we visitors find appropriate to our Anglophile nature.

After pouring the tea, I drive straight to my point.

“In Kate Crackernuts you renamed the king’s daughter ‘Anne,’ rather than leave them both named ‘Kate.’ I am not certain the original storyteller confused his characters, but, rather, had a subconscious message.”

Joseph looks at me sideways. I put up a hand to stop his objection and push on.

“I realize I am talking Freud-speak, and the rustic teller had no knowledge of Sigmund Freud. Let me argue that Freud simply created an academic, formalized language acceptable to fellow scholars, which categorized an understanding that others, especially storytellers, felt rather than described. Their explanations came out through their story images.”

Joseph sips his tea and lets me continue (to hang myself?).

“Could the two Kates be two aspects of the same person? Do we not see ourselves in two lights? We have our rational side (your Kate) and our irrational side (your Anne).”

I note caution in his nod at my statement. I am undeterred.

“In this story the king’s daughter is the victim of the irrational. What she does is not irrational, but her stepmother’s jealousy and the henwife’s sorcery combine to magically destroy her beauty. Haven’t we looked at ourselves in the mirror and, irrationally, dwelt on our physical faults, no longer seeing our whole selves?”

I can see Joseph is thinking about this.

“Kate also faces the magical, but she does not allow herself to fall prey to it. She is aware of her whole self. She knows where she is and how to move forward rationally, given the circumstances.”

Joseph brightens and adds to my argument.

“We can also assign a passive element to Anne’s irrationality and an active element to Kate’s rationality.”

I delight in his observation. He goes on.

“The story tells us nothing about how Anne feels having a sheep’s head in place of her own. That is certainly passive. It is Kate we see taking action, defying her own mother. That is certainly active. Interesting, but I am sure you are wrong.”

I try not to make the sound of a deflating balloon.

“If the teller wanted both girls to bear the same name for a purpose,” he says, “he would have made that clear. The teller never puts the name of the two Kates in the same sentence. The teller does not make a point of them sharing a name. No, I will stay with my ‘garbled’ assertion. Many times these stories were told in taverns. When this story was told and recorded there may have been drink involved. Sorry, my friend, but you make a fairy mound out of a mole hill.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2014 Kate Crackernuts

hen-wife-Waitt Henwife of Castle Grant by Richard Waitt


Oars dip into the water in a practiced rhythm, the sound of which usually is enough to lull me into contemplation, as Duckworth and I take our jaunt on the river. Today, however, I blather about what is on my mind, and Duckworth is not obliged to take me seriously. I have been plumbing the depths of Kate Crackernuts for him since we shoved off.

“The story has two distinct sections, although not like two tales arbitrarily stuck together. The second half, with Kate and the prince going to the dance underground, is a variant of The Worn-out Dancing Shoes.

“You mean The Twelve Dancing Princesses?” Duckworth brightens. “I love that story. Why hasn’t Disney done anything with it? Twelve princesses and one guy. Kind of a fairy-tale The Bachelor.

“Yes, that’s it,” I say, schooling dismissiveness out of my voice. “But the first half of my tale would make Disney uncomfortable.”

“Why so?”

“A henwife causes the beautiful sister’s head to fall into a pot and be replaced by a sheep’s head.”

“Good heavens—but what’s a henwife?”

“Well, a woman who takes care of chickens. A lowly position, right there with washerwomen and kitchen wenches. However, henwives have the attribute of being independent, knowing charms and spells and possessing magical wisdom.”

“Perhaps she knows which came first.”

I smile as we scull past children fishing on the river bank. “If anyone does, it will be her. The henwife comes into a number of English, Scottish, and Celtic tales: The Three Daughters of King O’Hara; Fair, Brown, and Trembling; Childe Roland; and Catskins, come to mind. These crones range from being wisewomen to witches. I don’t know what their role is outside the British Isles, although the Russian witch, Baba Yaga, has a house that walks around on chicken legs.”

Duckworth and I approach a part of the river with boulders and a few rapids, and we need watch ourselves before picking up the conversation once more.

“Why,” asks Duckworth, “are witches always poor?”

“A good question. Not all witches are poor. The witch queens are young, attractive, and, of course, wealthy, but the usual ancient beings live on the fringe of society in hovels, and suffer poverty, living much like a henwife would live. Old women, witches or henwives, living not quite in the fold with normal folk, were set apart and viewed with suspicion. At times the witches have hidden treasures of gold and gems, which did them no profit.”

“Are you suggesting,” Duckworth locks his oars as we take a rest, “that henwives were the role model for the image of the witch?”

“Maybe.” I had not thought of it in quite that way.

“And what about the sheep’s head?” he continues.

I sigh audibly in answer.

Duckworth muses. “I had a Norwegian cousin serve me Smalahove one time.”


“Smalahove, sheep’s head.”

“Really? How did it taste?”

“I don’t know. The smell was enough for me. I claimed vegetarianism, ate the mashed potatoes and rutabagas, and drank the Akvavit. The Akvavit made everything better.”

“Quite. Was the Smalahove boiled?”

“It is served boiled or steamed.”

“Hmmm, the henwife had the sheep’s head in a pot. I wonder… “

Your thoughts?


Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2014 Faithful Johannes

Fathful John Crane Walter Crane


I am reading Faithful Johannes to Thalia this evening in honor of her new cat of the same name. She said Johannes followed her home from kindergarten, but I think he “followed” in her arms. I saw her carrying him into the house. Thalia and Teddy are in my lap, of course; Johannes has taken to the window seat overlooking the enchanted forest.

In Faithful Johannes the king, on his deathbed, calls for his faithful servant and puts upon him the onus of counseling the unreliable prince. The king gives Faithful Johannes the castle keys with the injunction not to let the prince into one particular room. In this room is a portrait of the Princess of the Golden Roof. If the prince sees the portrait he will fall in love and no good will likely come of it.

“Oh, oh,” says Thalia. We all see it coming.

After the king dies, Johannes gives the new king a tour of the castle and all its wealth, avoiding the chamber with the portrait. Unfortunately, the new king notices and demands to see what is there. Faithful Johannes tries to dissuade him, but must relent. The king sees the portrait and falls in love as the old king predicted.

“Oh, oh,” says Thalia. Johannes on the window seat blinks. Teddy, stuffed between Thalia and me, stares button-eyed.

The king entreats Faithful Johannes to come up with a plan to win the princess. Disguised as merchants, they sail to her home and trick her into boarding the ship to see their wonderful golden wares. As she marvels at golden merchandise, they cast off, abducting her. The king reveals his identity and his love for her, and she agrees to marry him.

On the return trip Johannes listens to three ravens flying about and learns from them that the king must avoid three traps if he wishes to enjoy his life with his bride. The king must not ride the red horse waiting for him on the shore when they arrive home; he must not wear the wedding clothes laid out for him; and when his queen suddenly falls down and appears to be dead, someone must suck three drops of blood from her right breast. Further, if Johannes speaks of these things he will turn to stone.

Johannes shoots the red horse and burns the wedding clothes, giving no explanation. But it is too much for the king when Johannes sucks the blood from the queen’s breast. Johannes is condemned to death.

Before he is to be hung on the gallows, Johannes redeems himself by telling the king of the ravens’ words and promptly turns to stone. Full of remorse the king keeps the statue in the royal bedroom.

One day, after twin boys have been born to the king, the statue speaks, telling the king he can restore Johannes by rubbing the statue with the blood of the twin boys’ severed heads.

Thalia squirms in my lap as the king kills his sons to restore his faithful servant. Johannes rewards the king’s faithfulness by restoring the boys to life.

“Whew,” says Thalia.

When she and Teddy wander off to bed followed by the four-footed Johannes, I reflect on the tale. Why was the portrait in the room? Who set the three traps? What is the significance of rubbing the statue with blood?

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tales of the Month: March 2014 Faithful Johannes


The Cat

While I ponder, weak and weary, over many a quaint and the curious volume of forgotten lore, Johannes returns to the study. He jumps up onto the edge of a table and strikes the pose of the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet I have seen in statues. We regard each other for some minutes.

“You can talk, can’t you?” I inquire.

“Of course,” he responds.

“How delightful! What did you think of your namesake’s story?”

“Rather little.”


“I am indebted to Thalia for recognizing my worth and bringing me up to my proper social standing, leaving behind me the alley. But as to the name she chose to call me, I must object.”


“If I were to change Faithful Johannes into an animal he would be a dog.” He stretches out the word “dooog.” “Not someone after whom I wish to be named.”

“What is Johannes’s failing?”

“His unwarranted faithfulness; neither the old nor the new king shows any reason for him to be faithful other than their ownership of him.

“He’s a working dog too. First the old king gives him the task of minding the unruly new king. The new king burdens him with devising a plan to get the girl, which leads Johannes to saving the new king three times, ending with his temporary demise at the hands of the king.”

“But,” I object, “Johannes’ faithfulness is repaid when the king willingly sacrifices his sons to bring back the servant he wronged.”

“Perhaps. A fairly cheap price to pay. The king could always have another litter.”

Johannes licks the back of his paw and draws it across his face. I continue.

“Consider the story’s context, being told at a time when there existed a large serving class. Everyone understood the master/servant relationship and I doubt many questioned it. To tell a story where the servant bests the master might seem a little seditious.”

“Doesn’t make Faithful Johannes any less a dog. I’ll grant he did have magical powers that the kings did not.”

“Yes, I thought that unusual. Typically it is royalty who occupy the magical corner in the story.”

“And he listened to the advice of creatures.”

“Ah, the ravens. Thalia has an affinity for ravens. They come up in a number of stories in which they provide hidden secrets for the ears of those who need to hear them. I suspect the folk memory of their mystical significance goes back to shamanistic origins. What is your take on the ravens?”

“I’d eat them if I could catch them.”

“I meant their part in the story.”

“Well, besides acting like a dog, Johannes is also an eavesdropper. He overheard the ravens talking; the ravens weren’t talking to him, but rather among themselves.”

“You’re being hard on the poor man. I sensed he was a player in a struggle between unseen forces. A beneficial force led the ravens to him to warn of the traps being set by a malicious force. There is an undercurrent beneath the story’s inexplicable events.

“Take the portrait in the…”

Johannes jumps from the table, landing soft-pawed on the rug, and struts out the study door. Whether he heard the clatter of a dish, bringing to mind the possibility of food, or he felt himself finished with our conversation, I don’t know. Talking to him will be, I surmise, difficult. A raven might be a better conversationalist.

Your thoughts?

PS. My thanks and apologies to Edgar Allan Poe for the opening line.


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