An Eerie Tale
I hear Thalia padding down the hall, having returned from her trick or treating. Thalia’s mother took her around the neighborhood, plus Augustus’s tobacco shop and Melissa’s bookstore. Maternal suggestions of dressing up as a witch or a ghost went unheeded. Thalia chose to disguise herself as a phone booth, which involved a cardboard box, poster paint, and a small brass bell. In these days of cellphones, where she got that bit of antique knowledge I have no idea.
Grimm fails me on Halloween. There are stories in the collection with witches, but they don’t quite evoke the spirit of this unhallowed day. The old English fairy tales do better.
Thalia is in her jammies and crawls onto my lap with Teddy in hand; I reach for English Fairy Tales, by my friend Joseph Jacobs, and turn to Childe Rowland.
Three sons of the king play at ball, kicking it over the church roof. Their sister, Burd Ellen, chases after it and never returns. A warlock explains that she passed
‘widdershins’ around the church, has fallen into the hands of the King of Elfland, and now resides in the Dark Tower.
One by one the elder brothers go off in search of their sister until only the youngest, Childe Rowland, is left. The queen is reluctant to let him go, but finally concedes and gives him his father’s sword with an enchantment upon it. The warlock instructs him not to eat or drink while in Elfland, and to cut off the head of anyone to whom he speaks until he gets to the Dark Tower.
After some travel and a few heads, including one of a henwife, (“Aww,” says Thalia.) Childe Rowland comes to the Dark Tower, which is actually a tall, terraced, green hill. He gains entrance following the instructions of the henwife by riding widdershins around the green hill three times calling out “Open door! Open door! Let me come in.” On the third pass, a door appears in the side of the hill.
He walks down a long narrow passage, which leads to a large chamber, rather cathedral-like in appearance, lit by the curious device of a large, translucent, hollow pearl, inside of which spins a blue gem emitting a bright glow.
There he finds his sister, Burd Ellen. She grieves at his coming, declaring her husband, the Elf King, will overthrow him as he did their two brothers.
Childe Rowland, suddenly hungry, asks for food and drink. Burd Ellen, under a spell and unable to warn him, brings him bowls of bread and milk. Before he can eat anything, he recalls the warlock’s words, throws the bowls to the floor, and calls for the Elf King to face him.
Through the same door that Childe Rowland entered, a tall, armored elf appears and they do battle, Rowland eventually defeating him. The king calls for mercy and Rowland grants it if Burd Ellen is freed, their brothers restored, and all allowed to leave Elfland.
The Elf King takes a vial of red liquid and moves off to a small room adjoining the main chamber. There on stone tables lay the brothers’ bodies. The elf touches their ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and fingertips with the liquid, restoring them. He pronounces a spell over Burd Ellen and she is released.
The happy siblings return home and Burd Ellen never passes widdershins around the church again.
“Cool.” Thalia’s eyes glow. Then she frowns. “What about the henwife?”
“This is Elfland; she’ll be back in the morning.”