Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part One

Singing Springing Arthur_Rackham_The_Lady_and_the_Lion Arthur Rackham

Beast and Bird

There are those who live for the weekend. There are those who live for their vacations. There are those who live for the next football game. They live for that short time when they feel particularly alive.

I live for hearing Thalia padding down the hall, dragging her Teddy behind her, a dog-eared copy of Grimm clutched in her other hand. She shoulders the study door open a little wider, making her determined passage to the comfy chair. Thalia flings Teddy into my lap, grabs my belt to pull herself up, and settles between me and the padded arm of the chair.

She opens her book in my lap and goes through the ceremony of choosing a story, with much finger-waving in the air before randomly stabbing the table of contents. She judges if that is the story to be told tonight or not. We are running out of unread tales.

“Ah,” I say, “The Singing Springing Lark.

A merchant, about to go on a long trip, asks his daughters what they want him to bring back for them. His youngest wants a singing springing lark. On the return trip, the merchant carries pearls and diamonds for his elder daughters and spots a lark near a mysterious castle.

“Hey, this is Beauty and the Beast!” Thalia pouts a little.

Before the merchant catches the bird, a lion jumps out intent on eating the merchant.

“There’s the beast.”

When the merchant pleads for his life, the lion agrees but only if the merchant will surrender what first greets him on his return. The lion even gives the merchant the bird. The merchant fears the first to greet him will be his youngest daughter, but he has no choice.

“That’s a little different.” Thalia’s brow knits.

As fate will have it, it is the youngest who greets him first. When she finds out what has happened, she insists her father keep his promise, and declares she will tame the lion and return.

Taming turns out not to be necessary. A friendly pack of lions escorts her to the castle, and that evening turns into a prince and his men. The wedding takes place immediately.

“Oh!” says Thalia.

From then on, they sleep by day and stay up all night. One day her husband tells her that her eldest sister is to be married, and asks if she would like to attend the wedding. She does and is accompanied by some of her husband’s lions.

“Cool.” Thalia grins.

When the second sister is to be married, the youngest wants her lion/husband and their child to come as well. He says he cannot lest the light of a wedding candle fall on him and turn him into a dove for seven years. She promises to protect him and has a hall built that will admit no light.

It does not work. When the marriage procession passes in front of the hall, a hairline crack in the green wood of the door allows in one ray. When the youngest opens the hall, a dove flies off leaving a trail of blood and feathers every seven steps that she must follow for seven years.

“Ohhh!” Thalia exclaims in sympathy.

Shortly before the seven years are up, she loses the trail and goes to the sun and moon for help. They do not know where the dove has gone, but give her a small casket and an egg to be use in great duress. She is helped by the four winds, who tell her the dove has returned to his lion form and battles a dragon, who is an enchanted princess. By going to the Red Sea, cutting the eleventh reed, and striking the dragon with it, she will cause the lion to defeat the dragon, breaking the spell on both creatures.

Also by the Red Sea is a griffin to carry them back home. The four winds give the youngest a nut, which she must cast into the sea on their passage home, and which will immediately sprout into a nut tree, growing a branch on which the griffin can rest.

All this she does, but the princess, when no longer under enchantment, grabs the prince and flies off on the griffin.

“Wow,” wonders Thalia.

After much wandering, the youngest rediscovers her husband just before he and the princess are to be wed. Opening the casket from the sun reveals a golden dress, which she uses to trade with the princess for an evening with her groom. However, the princess drugs her fiancé into sleep.

The next day the youngest cracks open the egg from the moon, and out comes a golden hen and twelve golden chicks. These, too, the princess want, but her trick of the night before is thwarted by a faithful servant.

Hearing his true bride’s voice, the spell is truly broken, and the prince and the youngest fly off on the griffin, allowing it to rest on the branch of the nut tree grown from the nut cast into the sea. Returning home, they are reunited with their son, grown tall and handsome, and they live happily thereafter.

“Yeah!” Thalia is pleased.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part Two

Singing springing-johnb-gruelle John B. Gruelle

A Reflection

Time to reflect, I think to myself as Thalia and Teddy disappear through the study door. And nothing reflects better than the Thinking Pool in the Dark Forest.

I know better than to venture into the Dark Forest at night, but—I assure myself—the pool is barely inside the forest’s edge and there is a full moon in the sky. With the comfort of a heavy coat and my pipe against the cold of the night, I amble across the threshold of the French doors, traverse the frozen lawn, and enter into the forest.

I sit by the pool, edged with stones, on a small stone stool (looking for all the world like a stone mushroom). Taking a deep draft from my pipe, I blow the smoke across the still water. It drifts and rolls a little above the surface, as an image forms on its glassy face. It is the head of a lion appearing at the far end of the pool, oddly, upside down.

I glance up. Oh no! I see the reflection is of a real lion, with cold, unblinking eyes, standing a short leap from me.

“You invoked me.” The lion settles on his haunches.

Did I? Not my best idea.

“I came to contemplate The Singing, Springing Lark,” I say.

“Then that is why I am here.”

“You are who?”

“I am the enchanted prince. I am the lost husband. You see me as a lion, but I am a fox, a flounder, a bird, even,” he dips a claw into the pool, “a tree.”

As the ripple he creates passes over the surface, I see a young woman embraced by a young man who is half human and half tree.

The Old Woman in the Forest.” I recognize the image. “In that tale you and all your men are trees, but you can also be a dove for a few hours every day. In the lark story you and all your men are lions by day, and you become a dove for seven years, not the same thing, but strangely similar.”

The lion touches the water again. A series of images tumbles before me, one on top of the other, but I identify them. “A Sprig of Rosemary; East of the Sun, West of the Moon; The Black Bull of Norroway, The Tale of the Hoodie. All these tales,” I say, “have women looking for their lost husbands.”

The lion touches the water once more. In succession I see a woman holding a candle over a handsome youth, another woman opening a chest with a small key, yet another woman by a door from which flies a dove with a feather and drop of blood suspended in the air.

The lion glares at me with those cold eyes, expecting me to say more. I’d better think quickly before he becomes impatient with this dull human.

“Each woman,” I say slowly, “each wife, has made a mistake, broken a promise, failed a task.”

The lion nods and waits.

“Every one of them goes on a quest to reclaim her husband. All receive supernatural aid, advice, and gifts.”

The lion nods again and waits.

“The journeys are long,” I continue. “The magical help is barely enough. Each, in the end, must in some way awaken her husband to the truth, to the true nature of their experience.”

“You ignore one element,” the lion rumbles.

“And that is?” I hear a tremble in my voice. Have I failed a test?

“Theirs are all acts of atonement,” he growls. Then, shimmering, he transforms into a dove, flies off into the forest darkness leaving behind a feather slowly drifting toward the ground.

In my imagination, I am chasing after that dove, following the trail of blood and feathers. My body—wisely—is running for all its worth back to the safety of the study.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part Three

Singing springing_(Edwardes,_Bell) Robert Anning Bell

More Reflection

“Atonement?” I say aloud, sitting on the window seat, catching my breath. I suppose, I think to myself, but I don’t feel convinced.

All the Beauty and the Beast variants arise, I will guess, from Apuleius’s Cupid and Psyche, in which Cupid’s forbids Psyche to look upon him. She, instead, follows the advice of her sisters, who suggest he is a dangerous beast. She approaches their bed with a lamp in one hand and a dagger in the other, breaking a trust between them.

In the lark story, the youngest acts in good faith, building a hall in which to hide the prince for candlelight, but is foiled by the slightest defect in a door made of green wood; foiled by fate might be more to the point.

The circumstances in the two stories are different, yet I am struck again by an odd parallel not unlike that between the lark story and The Old Woman in the Forest. In this case Cupid is awoken when hot oil from Psyche’s lamp falls upon him, wounding him, and he flies away. In the lark story, a ray of light from a wedding candle falls upon the prince, transforming him into a dove that flies off leaving a trail of blood.

If these events were more similar, I could safely assume there was a bit of borrowing going on. Instead, they are different enough that I wonder if they didn’t grow out of the same impulse rather than the same origin.

By way of contrast, my brain considers The Sprig of Rosemary. Against all warnings, the heroine feels compelled to open the forbidden box in which lies a snakeskin. At the sight of the skin, all of the underground world vanishes, including the memory of it and of her husband, recovered only by the scent of rosemary.

This version of the lost-husband story has no lamp or candle as a symbol despite taking place in an underground castle. No dove appears in the story. The symbolic items—the rosemary, the snakeskin—are dissimilar to the other two lost-husband stories.

What the Psyche story and the rosemary story have in common is that the heroines consciously act contrary to their husbands’ wishes. In the lark tale, the youngest acts with his cooperation. Although all three stories are clearly of the lost-husband motif, additional similarities across all of them really do not exist.

How can the lion insist these are stories of atonement?

However, I am not about to go back and ask him.

Still sitting on the window seat, realizing my heart has stopped pounding, I see Wilhelm standing by the fireplace gazing into the flames. I haven’t seen Wilhelm in my study for quite some time and I marvel at his presence.

He glances halfway in my direction. He must know I am watching him. He takes a poker from the rack and scrawls in the ashes on the hearth. He returns the poker to the rack, straightens up, and looks toward me as he fades from sight.

I discover in the ashes he has drawn a series of hearts.

“Matters of the heart, of course,” I say. The lion, for all his authority, has missed the element that binds these three tales and all the others of its ilk together. It is the love these women hold for their husbands that sustains them through their quests.

Certainly it is not the theme of atonement that has made these stories among the most popular of the fairy tales, but rather it’s the story of true, pure love that attracts us.

Your thoughts.

 

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Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part One

Enchanted Deer FordH J Ford

Lonely Supper

I had a lonely supper eaten in silence, built a fire in the hearth in a vain attempt to cheer myself, and now, with a glass of whiskey, watch an overcast February day fade away through my bay windows. Thalia and her mother are off visiting relatives in Glasgow.

My gloom is interrupted by Thalia’s black-haired fairy. She flutters close to my nose, giving me a most demanding frown. Fairies are a little like cats in nature. If they are unhappy about a thing, it’s your fault.

“What? Have I done something wrong?”

She buzzes over to my bookcase, hovering in front of a lilac-colored binding.

“Ah, Andrew Lang’s Lilac Fairy Book. I see.”

I take it down and shuffle to my comfy chair. I have come to suspect the fairy regularly listens to the stories I read to Thalia, perhaps hiding in Thalia’s pocket or in a dark corner of the study. But now, with Thalia gone, the fairy has to reveal herself and demand a story. She would have you know that fairy tales are not written about fairies, rather they are written for fairies.

I open the book to its table of contents. She alights on the page a moment, putting her foot on The Enchanted Deer, then flutters up to settle on my shoulder.

A young man, Ian, trades his mother’s cart horse for a gun, a dog, and a falcon. His widowed mother, her fisherman-husband having drowned at sea, beats her son for the trade. He leaves home to become a hunter.

A farmer asks Ian to kill a deer that has been raiding his fields, but when the youth aims his gun at the deer it turns into a beautiful woman. He follows her, in her deer form, to a cottage thatched with heather. The deer lies down on the roof of heather, calling out, “Go in, fisher’s son, and eat and drink while you may.”

This he does until the twenty-four thieves who live there come home and kill him.

Oh, I think to myself, should that not be the end of the story?

Of course not. Such things are of no inconvenience to the fairy tale.

In the morning the deer comes and shakes her earwax onto the body and the youth is restored.

See, I told you.

The process repeats itself, Ian being killed over and over again. Additionally, the captain of the thieves orders the deaths of his men who fail to kill the youth. This numbers game continues until there are no more thieves.

Next, the deer conducts the youth to a witch’s cottage to stay, and tells him to meet her in the nearby church the next midday. The witch implants a “spike of hurt” into the doorway of the church, which brushes against Ian when he enters, causing him to fall into a deep sleep. The witch’s dark son watches over him.

When Ian awakes, the dark son tells him of the visit of a princess and how she tried to wake him, but does not tell him of the witch’s subterfuge. Three times this happens. The dark son tells the youth that on the third night she declared she will never see him again, but does not tell Ian that she has written  her name, “The daughter of the king of the town under the waves,” on his side, nor of the beautifully-wrought box she put in his pocket.

Ian sets off to find her and comes across an old woman who knows who he is and of his quest. She sends him off to her sister, giving him magical shoes to make the distant journey. This happens the mandatory three times, the third sister having a son who is the keeper of the birds.

The keeper of the birds has the youth, still keeping his gun, climb into a sack made of cowhide, but the dog and falcon are left behind. The sack is carried off by an eagle who deposits him on an island where there is nothing to eat.

At this point Ian finds the box, while searching his pockets for food. Three small birds fly out of the opened box to grant him wishes. He wishes to be in the kingdom under the waves. Once there, he takes employment with a weaver. The weaver tells him of a horse race, the winner of which can claim the princess.

With the aid of the three birds in the box, he has the fastest horse, fine clothing, and glass shoes. He wins the race, but does not claim the bride. The race is run three times and he wins all, but still does not claim the princess.

The king then searches for the victor of the races. During the search they find Ian, but as he is dirty and ragged they do not recognize him, and it is decided he is worthy of death. While he is standing on the gallows, the princess spots the words she wrote on his side and claims him as her true husband.

The fairy, now contented, flitters off, her happy laughter sounding like softly-shattering glass.

I, in my discontent, re-read the story.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part Two

Enchanted Deer Ford2H J Ford

Surreptitious Listener

Another sly listener to the tales is Johannes. He often lingers in the study while I read to Thalia. Tonight, as I read to the fairy, he came in, curled up on the seat beneath the bay window, staring through the glass into the darkness.

“Johannes,” I call to him. “What do you think of Andrew Lang’s telling of this tale? I sense some interference on his part; the tale doesn’t quite hold together for me. Does he concede to some social norms of his day that cloud the tale?”

“Nora’s telling of the tale,” he replies.

“Pardon?”

“Lenora Blanche Lang, his wife, translated and edited the tales. The Color Books were her creation.”

“And how,” I asked, “do you know that?”

“I sat in Nora’s lap as she worked on them.”

“You were the Lang’s cat?” My surprise is sincere.

Johannes bristles. “I belong to no one. Nora was my lady, as Thalia is now my lady.”

Oops. I forgot. Johannes is a sith cat. “Accept my humble apology, but did Nora Lang change this tale to suit her audience?”

“Not much.” Johannes’s tail fur settles down. “Note her source at the end of the story.”

Sure enough, Popular Tales of the West Highlands.

“I have that.” It is one of the books Melissa talked me into purchasing. I never before broke its spine. It took me awhile to find the tale, now named The Widow’s son. 

I sit and read.

“Good grief,” I state when I finish.

Johannes gives me his best Cheshire grin.

The book’s author, J. F. Campbell, collected the story orally from two Scotsmen, Donald MacCraw and John MacPhie, their versions deviating substantially.

Campbell tries to make a coherent story out of the two versions without much success. Nora Lang tried to make some sense out of Campbell’s version, but, I feel, failed as well.

In MacCraw’s version, when the princess visits Ian in the church, on the first day, she is dressed in white, coming in a chariot drawn by four white horses. On the second day the color scheme is grey, and on the third, black. Why did Campbell and Lang both omit that harmless detail?

As Campbell wrote his version, when it came to the races for the princess’s hand in marriage, the first contest was a horse race, the second a dog race, and the third a falcon race. Ian, however, does not enter the original dog or falcon into the races, but rather ones given to him by the three birds in the box, which Campbell describes as a snuffbox.

MacCraw’s version skips the three old sisters, and goes directly to an old man herding a cow. Ian buys the cow, puts himself into the cow hide and has himself thrown into the sea. Eagles pick him up and carry him to their nest where Ian kills their fledglings, after which they carry him off to the kingdom under the sea.

“Why would they do that?” I ask Johannes. His Cheshire grin widens.

The discrepancies among the versions accorded to Nora Lang, John MacPhie, and Donald MacCraw’s go even further; MacCraw said Ian got the box, not from the princess, but from his grandfather, and the “he” within the box granted the wishes. After Ian is recognized by the princess, with the aid of the box, Ian creates a castle for them. A rival steals the snuffbox and carries the princess and the castle off to the realm of the rats.

Ian is helped by an old man, who gives him a magical boat and a cat. The cat, who I can’t help but suspect is Johannes, catches a rat, and on pain of death, convinces it to steal back the snuff box. Order is restored, and the proper marriage between Ian and the princess takes place.

What goes to my heart and stirs it with a sense of longing, is Campbell’s description of his conversation with MacCraw on a long walk in North Uist. MacCraw told him, during their ramble, that he heard the story from an old woman, and how he and other “bairns” would walk miles to her cabin, even in the snow, with offerings of tobacco, procured from elders, to bribe her to tell them the tales.

MacCraw confessed to having forgotten much of the story, particularly the “measured prose phrases” that garnished the tale.

What came to MacCraw’s ears, but not from his mouth, that we shall never hear?

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part Three

Enchanted Deer Ford3H J Ford

Unclaimed Bride

“Johannes,” I say, “there is much about this story that is curious. For one, there is the ‘mirror reflection’ of Ian and his mother, the witch and her dark son, and the third sister and her son, the keeper of the birds—so very fatherless. The actual fathers of these sons do not appear in the story. I wonder if a father has ever been the hero of a fairy tale.

“Then there is our hero, Ian, uniformly addressed as the fisher’s son. In fact, in Campbell’s version, one of the old women calls him son of the great fisher of Ireland. Would that not be the Fisher King of the Arthurian tales? Would that not put a different cast to the story?

“Also, there is the peculiar request of Ian to the three birds. When he needs to take part in the horse race, he asks, of course, for the fastest horse, fine clothing, and then for glass shoes. Glass shoes have no practicality in a horse race. Is this an allusion to Cinderella?

“Let us not even try to consider the healing properties of deer earwax.

“What bothered me the most, while reading this tale, is the motif I have encountered before, but here it is again. In this motif, the hero arises to defend, or vie for, the princess. It is always a princess in contention. The encounter or conflict will happen three times. At the start of each event, the hero prepares himself with the help of magic. At the end of each event the hero retires and assumes a humble position, not taking advantage of his victory.

“He has every right,” I blather on, “to claim the princess, and that is his goal, but he, inexplicable, does not claim her. Another event needs to occur before he will come forward, be drawn out, or be discovered.

“Why,” I ask, “is the hero working against himself?”

“Because,” answers Johannes smugly, “He must.”

“Why?” I plead.

“Ah, that is harder to answer,” Johannes admits. “The journey in the story is travail. The resolution cannot be easy and quick.  But more importantly, the hero in the story is not just a character, the hero is the listener. The tale is guiding the listener to a conclusion.”

“And what is that conclusion?” I ask.

“The conclusion is a bit ephemeral.” Johannes scratched his ear with a hind leg. “There is no sound logic in the answer; rather the answer is an intuitive one.

“Before the hero defends or vies for the princess, there is a history. The hero, at least, has fallen in love with the princess. Often in this motif, as with this tale, they have touched each other before.

“To win a race, kill a seven-headed dragon, or whatever, and then claim the princess, would be a cheap trick, a convenience. Our hero cannot purchase his bride. In this motif, she must claim him, or he must come forward and reveal himself, to save her from a further deception by a dishonest rival.

“The listener, as hero, be they male or female, want the full satisfaction of true love, and not the result of a good bargain. While a worthy fairy tale ends well, the path to that good end must never feel certain.”

“The listener as hero?” I muse. “That the listener identifies themselves with the tale is the usual course.”

“To a degree,” corrects Johannes. “Some motifs invite you to be an observer. Other motifs demand you participate. How and when that happens is the ephemeral part. If we knew how a fairy tale would affect us—all of literature for that matter—we would stop reading and listening. We, who are intelligent, crave the unexpected and the inexplicable.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part One

iron stove fordH. J. Ford

Museum Ramble

“I want the fish and chips, but not sure about the peas,” Thalia decides, holding the children’s menu of the Great Court Restaurant in her hands.

The restaurant sits atop the old Reading Room here at the British Museum and looks out over the courtyard. Above us, radiating upward and outward—and rather amazingly—is a glass awning. We almost feel as if we are at an outdoor café with a glass bubble fending off the January weather.

Melissa, Thalia, and I spent the morning rambling through a small section of the Museum’s Greek antiquities collection. We covered as much of it as we could until our eyes glazed over. Melissa became transfixed before a terracotta bust of Cupid and Psyche embracing. I pried her away with the promise of lunch.

“Wild mushroom-pearl barley risotto?” Melissa muses. I am going for the braised duck leg. It comes with a caramelized quince.

Melissa glances up from her menu. “I’m working on an article concerning Cupid and Psyche.”

“I see, hence your enchantment with the bust. What happened to your magical guidebook for tourists?”

“In progress, but I need a diversion now and again.”

“And the premise of your article?”

“That Lucius Apuleius’s story of Cupid and Psyche has had an inexplicable influence on fairy tales.”

“Such as Beauty and the Beast,” I interject.

“That is the boring example everyone uses. For my article I am using Grimms’ The Iron Stove.

“I have read that,” I say, “but not for some time. Remind me.”

Thalia’s ears prick up as Melissa launches into the tale.

A prince, through a witch’s curse, is trapped inside an iron stove sitting in a forest. A princess, lost in the forest for many days, comes across the stove, who/which offers to help her if she will marry him/it. Not pleased with the idea of marrying a stove, but desperate to escape the forest, she agrees.

The stove provides an escort out of the forest and she is to return with a knife to scrape a hole in the stove.

“What’s an escort?” Thalia frowns.

“A sort of guide.” Melissa says.

“How much staff does an iron stove sitting in the middle of a forest have?” I wonder aloud.

“The story doesn’t say,” Melissa grins.

Not wanting a marriage to the stove, the princess and her father conspire to send the miller’s daughter in her place. The miller’s daughter is not able to bore a hole in the iron stove and by dawn the stove discovers she is not the princess. Next, the princess and the king send the swineherd’s daughter with the same result. Only, this time, the stove threatens to not let one stone stand atop another in the kingdom if the princess does not come.

The princess can easily bore a hole in the iron stove and out comes a handsome prince. He wants to carry her off to his kingdom, but she asks to see her father one more time. This is granted, but she cannot speak more than three words to him. Of course she does speak more than three words, and the prince and the iron stove are carried off over glass mountains, sharp swords, and a great lake.

Searching for her lost prince, the princess comes across a cottage inhabited by toads, who host her for the evening. In the morning, the head toad gives her the needed magical devices: three needles to climb the glass mountains, a plow wheel to run over the swords, and three nuts containing fabulous dresses. With these, she travels until she comes to a great castle.

“Wait,” says Thalia. “How did she get across the lake.”

“She sailed.”

“In what?”

“The story doesn’t say.”

Thalia mugs a sad face.

The prince is there and about to marry a false bride. The princess bribes the false bride with the three dresses in order to be allowed to sleep in the prince’s room for three nights. On the first two nights the false bride drugs the prince’s wine, but by the third night the prince is on to the scheme and is able to claim his true bride.

They escape by taking the false bride’s three dresses so that she cannot get up.

“Take her dresses so she can’t get up?” My turn to frown.

“That’s how the story explains it,” Melissa replies.

They return to the toad cottage, which is now a castle filled with princes and princesses; the marriage takes place; and the bride’s father is brought to live with them.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part Two

cupid and psyche one Cupid and Psyche, Terracotta, British Museum

Psyche’s Marriage

Our meals arrive, along with Thalia’s babyccino, and silence descends upon our repast for a bit.

“What does the princess have to do with Psyche?” Thalia asks, raising her head from her fish and chips.

Melissa turns her attention from her risotto to her glass of Monastrell, answering, “In a couple of ways.”

After a sip, she says, “In the Cupid and Psyche story, her sisters, when Cupid permits them to visit, ill-advise her to discover the true nature of her mysterious husband. When she does, he must flee. In The Iron Stove, the princess is granted a visit to her family, but cannot speak more than three words. When she does speak more, her husband disappears. In both cases, the heroine must search for her lost husband because of family interference.

“Other elements from Lucius Apuleius’s story are mirrored in our tale. Psyche is aided by some of the gods and goddess, after Psyche offended the goddess Venus, Cupid’s mother. In The Iron Stove, the princess is aided by the family of toads, who supply her with magical devices.

“Both Psyche and the princess go through travail and tests before they can reclaim their husbands.”

I see Thalia begin to fidget and peer up at the glass awning. Melissa’s eyes slide toward me.

“Both stories culminate in a marriage ceremony. I must ask myself, is Cupid and Psyche’s marriage the origin of the fairy-tale obsession with marriage?”

I see Thalia wander from her seat toward the railing overlooking the courtyard. My knee jerks.

“Don’t fall over.”

“I won’t,” she calls back.

We doting grandfathers have so little authority.

“If I am right,” Melissa goes on, oblivious to our charge about to fall into oblivion, “the familiar visits, disappearing husbands, divine or magical helpers, and the culminating marriage are not the only motifs taken from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, in which the Cupid and Psyche story appears.

“The sisters of this tale, working against the heroine, appear in many fairy tales. The princess exposed, abandoned, sacrificed to a dragon—usually on a rocky crag—appears here. Being attended to and entertained by unseen servants, as well as the nightly visits by an unseen husband, come from this story. The heroine falling into a death-like sleep and being awakened by her lover is here. So are the tasks, imposed by Venus in this tale and often the stepmother in the fairy tales, which the heroine must overcome. Especially the one about Venus throwing before Psyche a mass of mixed wheat, barley, poppyseed, chickpeas, lentils, and beans, demanding that she sort them into separate heaps before morning .It is the ants that take pity on her and do the sorting. In the fairy tales, if there are three tasks, the sorting of the seeds is one of them.”

To my relief, Thalia wanders back to finish her babyccino.

As my blood pressure drops, I ask Melissa, “Marriage, you were saying something about marriage.”

Melissa smiles at me, glancing at Thalia sipping her drink. “I am trying to make the argument that a surprising number of fairy-tale motifs, including the marriage-at-the-end come from the Cupid and Psyche story.

“But here is the real surprise. Metamorphoses was written in the second century, then fell out of popularity. By the end of the Dark Ages there appears to be only one copy left.

“Along comes the Renaissance with its intellectuals keen on rediscovering ancient works, Metamorphoses among them. And, guess what, along with the Renaissance comes the printing press. Now there are many, many copies of Metamorphoses.

“Are you suggesting,” I say, “that after the Cupid and Psyche story is being read by the literate that it trickles down to the illiterate storytellers to populate their imagination?”

“Exactly.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part Three

iron stove tenniel white rabbit Sir  John Tenniel

Time Enough

After lunch and some recovery of our senses, we decide to test our senses’ limits again with a visit to the medieval collection in Room 40. While Thalia jumps from display to display, Melissa and I linger to admire the room’s most notable possession, the Royal Gold Cup.

“Is The Iron Stove,” I ask, my mind returning to our discussion, “simply another version of the Cupid and Psyche tale?”

“Certainly not. Fairy tales are a patchwork of many motifs, and not all of them are of Greek origin. But these motifs of Greek origin and their articles, such as the golden apples of so many tales, are never given a hint of attribution. I am not aware of a single Greek god or goddess appearing in a fairy tale for all that has been borrowed from their mythology. I might conjecture the old storytellers very well knew they stole from the Greeks and were hiding the crime.”

Through a doorway I spot a room full of clocks and watches. Melissa and Thalia follow me as though I were the White Rabbit late for a date. The elaborate, exposed mechanism of a device labeled the Cassiobury Park turret clock (1610), which approaches Rube Goldberg status, holds my visual attention as my thoughts again return to Melissa’s topic.

“What are the non-Cupid and Psyche motifs in The Iron Stove?”

“The toad family in the cottage, for one. I don’t know of any toads in Greek mythology. There are a few people turned into frogs among the Greeks, but no toads.”

“Frogs, toads, aren’t they the same?” I ask, still studying the wheels, levers, and cables of the clock.

“Oh, what a city-boy you are! No, toads, while in the frog family, are terrestrial creatures. Frogs live in the water. And the fairy tales treat them that way. Frogs are associated with wells and are loners by the way, while toads are on land, coming in groups, living in cottages, dwelling underground, or coming out of people’s mouths.”

I wander over to a wall display of pocket watches. I want them all. “Other non-Greek motifs?” I ask. I really want the gold pendulum watch for my own.

“The origin of the three dresses in the nuts, I assume, is European, most likely Northern Europe. The southern climes tend toward simple dress. The ancient Greeks wore very functional garments. It’s the Northern Europeans who got obsessed with elaborate costumes to show their wealth and power.”

Thalia is by my side oohing over the watches. High art—painting and sculpture—is fine, but here is functional art one can put in a pocket.

“In closing,” Melissa tries to get my attention, “a third motif, not in Greek mythology’s lexicon, is the attempt to substitute lower-born women for a princess. This is a common trick in the tales, sometimes with dire consequences for the lowborn. They don’t always just get sent home.

“Similarly, the gods and goddesses are not concerned with the true bride and the false bride. Psyche struggles to be allowed to marry Cupid over Venus’s objections, but there is no false bride for Cupid. Substitution, as an attempt to escape an obligation or reroute a marriage, may be a Western concept.”

Oh, how would that musical chamber clock look and sound in my study?

Your thoughts?

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2018 Salt – Part One

Salt Ivan Bilibin Ivan Bilibin

At Sea

It is the evening of Christmas Day, actually past midnight, making it Boxing Day. Aromas from the kitchen tell me my house brownie has put the shortbread cookies in the oven, cookies that I will take around to friends and family in the morning.

Earlier, Thalia came into my study for her bedtime story. She made me re-read The Night Before Christmas, which we had read the night before on Christmas Eve, followed by the Grimm story of her choice. She then trundled off to bed dragging Teddy behind her.

I tap out my pipe, determined to get myself to bed also, when the fairy flies into the study. Followed by Johannes the cat, and, to my surprise, the brownie. I rarely see the brownie. He stays in the shadow of the study, but still, he is here. Johannes jumps to the window seat as the fairy flutters to my bookcase, pointing her delicate finger at Russian Fairy Tales by Aleksandt Afanas’ev, turning her demanding glare at me.

I place the volume on the table, propping it up against other books, and open it to the table of contents. The fairy points to a tale called Salt. I turn the pages to the story. The fairy settles in front of the page and I take to my comfy chair.

The fairy’s voice is small, but not piping, rather a pleasant contralto. The brownie creeps closer to hear. Johannes stares out the window, but I know he is listening.

There was a merchant who had three sons. The eldest two helped their father with his business, while the youngest, named Ivan, conducted his business at alehouses and inns.

Graciously, the father gave to each of his eldest sons a ship with valuable merchandise for them to sail off to foreign lands to try their hand at selling and trading.

When Ivan heard this, he asked for the same benefit. Distrusting this son, the merchant gave him a ship with only beams, boards, and planks as cargo. Nonetheless the youngest son set out. He caught up with his brothers for a short time, but in a storm he was separated from them, and ended up at an unknown island. With a little exploring he found a salt mine. The beams, boards, and planks were thrown into the sea and the ship filled with salt.

Thalia’s fairy flutters up, pulls the page over and settles back down to continue.

“After some time,” the fairy reads, “a long time or a short time, and after they had sailed some distance, a great distance or a short one, the ship approached a large and wealthy city.”

Ivan went to the king to ask permission to trade and sell. The king inquired of Ivan’s wares and the youth presented his salt. Never having seen salt, the king thought it sand. Realizing that these people ate their meals without salt, Ivan hung around the kitchen, sneaking salt into the food being prepared.

Amazed at the meal presented to him that evening, the king called for the cooks. They had no explanation but that Ivan was hanging about the kitchen. Ivan “confessed” his trick and the king bought Ivan’s shipment at a good price.

The princess of the kingdom asked leave of her father to visit this Russian merchant’s ship, which brought such a wonder. When she was on board, Ivan’s crew weighed anchor. Finding herself abducted, the princess was of course upset, but the handsome Ivan soothed her and she relented.

Ivan’s brothers caught up with him, seized his money, abducted the abducted princess, and threw Ivan overboard. However, fortune did not abandon Ivan, and he found and hung onto one of the very boards he had cast into the sea. It carried him to another unknown island where a giant lived. The giant, knowing that the princess was about to be married to Ivan’s eldest brother, offered to carry Ivan home, provided he tell no one about the giant.

Ivan walked into the wedding meal before the service, the princess threw her arms around his neck, and declared him the true husband.

At the wedding feast after Ivan and the princess’s marriage, as Ivan and the guests got drunk and started boasting, he told of the giant. The giant appeared and threatened Ivan, who declared it was not he who told of the giant, but his drunkenness. The giant did not know about drunkenness. Ivan called for a hundred-gallon barrel of beer and a hundred-gallon barrel of wine. The giant, unfortunately, was a mean drunk, and did a good bit of damage before falling asleep for three days.

Upon awakening, the giant stated, “Well Ivan, son of the merchant, now I know what drunkenness is. Henceforth you may boast about me all you like.”

As the story ends, I look about me and this little assembly of fey folk. I am happy they include me in their company.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2018 Salt – Part Two

Salt 1900 Ivan Ivan Bilibin

Those Russians

“A fairy tale that ends in drunkenness?” Duckworth expresses shock.

“Well, it is Russian,” I say, after relating the tale to him, but not saying a fairy told it to me. Duckworth already nibbles on the shortbread I brought to his home office.

“Let me get this straight,” he says. “A young wastrel talks his less-than-confident father into giving him a ship. He lucks upon a deposit of salt, which he sells to a king, introducing hypertension to an otherwise healthy people. Then he has the effrontery to kidnap the king’s daughter and charm her into submission?”

I listen to Duckworth’s rant while admiring the bobbleheads on his desk of Queen Elizabeth and the royal couple of William and Kate.

“Then,” he continues, “members of his dysfunctional family steal his money, take the kidnapped princess, and toss him into the drink.

“Happenchance saves him and a giant, for no good reason, offers him a free ride home. He crashes the wedding, steals the bride, who opts for her initial kidnapper as opposed to her secondary kidnapper who also practices fratricide, a choice that is certainly the lesser of two evils.

“This then is followed by the protagonist not keeping his promise to the giant. He deals with the crisis by getting the giant really, really drunk. A hundred gallons of beer and a hundred gallons of wine? My word!

“When the giant comes around, I am sure with a giant hangover, his moral basis appears to have shifted and he lets the wastrel get away with his broken promise.

“Is there supposed to be a moral in this?”

“No,” I say. “I told you, it’s Russian.”

Duckworth shakes his head and nibbles on another cookie.

“At every turn,” he complains, “the protagonist takes advantage of his situation. He talks his father into giving him a ship, chances upon the salt mine, finds a kingdom without salt, kidnaps a princess, manages to survive his brothers’ aggression, reclaims his bride, and tricks the giant. He never helps anyone else; it’s all about him. Say, what happened to the brothers when their crime was revealed?”

“Their father threw them out of the house.”

“They got off easy as well, for attempted murder. No, I find no quality in this ‘hero’ to which I can relate or use as a guidepost. Nor is there any other aspect in this story that is redeeming. Are the other Russian tales like this?”

“Well, of the few I have read, I saw a pattern of their being more for the entertainment of the tavern crowd than as cautionary tales for the young.”

“Then it is no surprise they are not as popular as the Grimm tales. At least in Grimm, evil is destroyed—if a bit too violently—rather than being rewarded, as in this case.”

“I’m not sure I see Ivan as evil,” I defend. “I’ll agree to him being self-centered, but aren’t most of us? In that we can identify with Ivan.”

“Self-centered,” Duckworth echoes. “Well, you have a point. I, for example, don’t intend to share these shortbreads with anyone else. No, wait. That may simply be pure greed.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2018 Salt – Part Three

Salt Tapisserie_bato1  Bayeux Tapestry

Vikings All

“A fairy tale that ends in drunkenness? How delightful.” Augustus lights his pipe.

“Duckworth took a dimmer view of the story,” I say.

“Well, he’s young and moral, not a bad place to start from, but we should get jaded and flexible as we get along in age.”

We sit in his testing room, I sampling the ounce of his newest blend, Winter’s Eve, which he has given me, as he guards his box of shortbreads.

“But let me argue,” Augustus continues, “that Ivan may have ventured to unknown islands, but the Russians have nothing on us, here on our own little British islands, when it comes to the realm of absurdities.”

I recognize a strained segue. “You have something in mind?”

“Have you heard of Up Helly Aa?”

“Only in passing.”

“Up Helly Aa,” he goes on, “is a recently-invented tradition, created in an attempt to replace ‘tar barreling.’ ”

“Stop,” I say. “Explain tar barreling for me first.”

“It’s a practice with an uneven history. In the Shetland Islands, during Yuletide—more or less the twelve days of Christmas—young drunken men would drag a flaming barrel of tar on a sledge through towns and villages, and—as the source I read obliquely stated—caused mischief.

”In the late nineteenth century, the fun was outlawed in the Shetlands, but remains in practice elsewhere, notably in Ottery St Mary near Devon, at the other end of the UK. In this iteration it is associated with Guy Fawkes Day in November, and it occurred to the good people of Ottery St Mary to carry the flaming tar barrels around on their heads. This ancient tradition has been jeopardized by the rising need for public liability insurance, yet it persists.”

“I see,” I say, tapping out my pipe and refilling it. What is the flavoring in this tobacco? “And Up Helly Aa?”

“It is part of the Shetlands’ identity, the largest gathering being in the port town of Lerwick. After wisely abolishing tar barreling, the responsible Shetlanders knew they would need to find a replacement and substituted a torchlight parade. That was around 1876.

For a little more than two decades that was fine until someone got the grand idea to add a Viking element to the celebration. Now, on the last Tuesday of January, everyone in Lerwick becomes a Viking, which is not a stretch because most of them are of Viking blood. The entire year previous is spent in preparation. There are many ‘squads’ involved—think ‘clubs’—who each year decide on a theme, design costumes, and create mumming skits to perform.”

“Wait,” I say. “That sounds very much like the American’s Philadelphia Mummer’s Parade.

“Yes, rather, but with some differences. There is a Grand Jarl elected, who officiates. His followers are called guizers. The event goes on all day, starting with communal breakfasts, visits by the squads to all kinds of local institutions to perform their skits, then gathering at sunset in a torchlight parade, during which they drag through Lerwick a complete replica of a Viking longboat constructed for the occasion by local shipwrights. It is taken to the edge of town, surrounded by the torch-bearing guizers—up to a thousand of them—who throw their torches into the longboat, and sing the traditional Up Helly Aa song while the longboat bursts into flame.”

“Must be an impressive sight,” I muse. “But why do you bring this up in reference to Russian folktales?”

“Oh,” Augustus replies, puffing on his pipe, “after the ceremony everyone goes off to official or unofficial parties, or bars and taverns, and gets really, really drunk.”

“Of course, why did I not see that coming? Oh, wait. Peppermint, you’ve flavored the tobacco with peppermint!”

Augustus smiles.

Will absurdities never end?

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part One

UndAdv Nornorna_vid_UrdarbrunnenNorms at the Well of Fate, L. B. Hansen 1893

Another Wedding

It’s three in the morning. My eyes pop open and I am wide awake. This never happens to me, but I feel I am not going back to sleep. I wrap my dressing gown around me and stumble down to my study. I am awake, but my muscles and their coordination are still asleep. Perhaps, if I read a bit, I will fall back into slumber.

Staring straight ahead, I run a finger along the spines of my books on the shelves. On impulse I choose a volume.

Modern Greek Folktales, by R. M. Dawkins. I am a little startled. I came up with this volume’s companion, More Greek Folktales, the last time I did this little game of random selection. I open the volume to its table of contents and, using the Thalia method, my finger falls on The Underworld Adventure. I head for my comfy chair. Let’s see what we got.

Three brothers hear of a well at the bottom of which are three beautiful women. The brothers decide to bring up the women, the youngest brother to marry the youngest woman, the middle to marry the middle, and the eldest the eldest.

The eldest brother is lowered into the well. The women are brought up, but as the eldest and most beautiful is to be taken up, she predicts his brothers will abandon him and vie for her. She gives him two nuts containing miraculous dresses and instructs him that two sheep will soon pass by, one white and the other black. If he can grab the white sheep, it will carry him to the upper world, the black to the underworld.

He fails to catch the white, and the black then carries him to the underworld, dropping him onto the top of a tree. He rescues baby birds about to be attacked by a snake. Their monstrous bird mother, when she returns, offers to carry him back to the upper world, but he must supply her with forty sheep to eat and forty skins of water to drink during the flight.

This he does, but the supply is not quite enough and he cuts flesh from his own body to feed her, which she restores after they land.

Entering the nearest town, he takes a job with a merchant in need of an assistant. After some time the merchant is given an order to produce two dresses, one of the sun and moon, the other of the earth and flowers, but neither with stitchery or needle work—these dresses demanded by the eldest woman before she will marry the middle brother.

The eldest brother offers to get these dresses for the merchant, if he will give him wine, sweets, and raisins. Of these the assistant indulges, then opens the two nuts given to him. When the merchant gives the dresses to the bride, she knows her true husband has returned to the upper world.

During the feast before the wedding of the eldest woman and the middle brother, which the assistant and his master attend, the merchant rises and states, with words coming from God, “If I take a vine branch and set it here on the table and it grows leaves and sets fruit and gives grapes for all of us to eat, then, oh then, we may give the bride to another husband.”

Thinking it a joke, the challenge is accepted. The merchant blesses the vine branch and it immediately blossoms, maturing into grapes, enough for all.

“The bride is to be taken in marriage by the young man whom I have with me,” says the merchant,  “and I myself will set on their heads the crowns of marriage.”

And so the proper husband is restored to the bride . . .  I awake in my comfy chair, bathing in the morning light flooding my study.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part Two

undadv Phoenix-Fabelwesen Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822)

A Coincidence

Half a block down the street I see Melissa’s bookshop. Of course I am heading there. Ever since waking up with Modern Greek Folktales fallen into my lap, I have felt to be in a trance.

Still bleary-eyed, I enter her store. My focus returns with an almost audible snap when I spy Modern Greek Folktales sitting on her counter. I put my finger on the volume and stare at Melissa.

She looks at me, at the book, and back to me. “Are you accusing me of something?”

“No . . .  Yes . . . in a way. Why is this book here?”

“Because I am reading it.” Offense creeps into her voice.

“Were you reading it at three o’clock this morning and did you read The Underground Adventure?”

Her rising umbrage evaporates. “It called to you too? I woke and in my mind was the image of the book sitting in my ‘Stately Old Books’ section. I didn’t remember having that book on my shelves, but when I came down and looked, there it was.”

“I need a good, stout cup of tea.”

“We may need something stronger.”

“It’s early. Tea will do.”

We soon sit with teacups of steaming black tea. “Why now? Why this story?” Melissa asks.

“Let us ask what the story is about,” I suggest. “Maybe there is a clue in that.”

Melissa takes a long sip of tea. “It’s about marriage.”

“So many fairy tales are,” I say.

“It’s about the ‘true husband,’ ” Melissa adds, “rather than the ‘true bride.’”

“The ‘true husband’ is not as common,” I agree.

“Three women at the bottom of a well,” she muses.

“Great start for a fairy tale.”

Melissa ignores me. “The women are magical and yet cannot act for themselves.”

“A reflection of the attitude toward women at the time?” I suggest.

“Agreed,” she says, then goes on. “Only two magical dresses in nuts. The usual number is three. Another unusual point is that the protagonists are the eldest brother and eldest woman, and not the youngest of the two sets.”

“I assume the women are sisters.”

“The story does not say that,” Melissa warns.

“Then there are the sheep,” I say.

“Yes, the sheep. The sheep show up two times: the black and white sheep and the forty sheep as food.”

“That does suggest this story springs from a pastoral culture.”

“That is another assumption,” Melissa replies, “but I will allow it. What of the monstrous bird?”

“The phoenix popped into my head, but I have no valid reason to think that.”

Melissa sips her tea and I realize I have drained mine.

“Cutting off his flesh to feed the bird.” She frowns. “That is remarkable.”

I pour myself some more tea from the pot kept warm by its cozy. “We enter into the theme of sacrifice?”

“I am not sure how to categorize that. He does get his flesh back, softening the importance of the act in story terms.”

“And,” I state, “when he gets back to the upper world, he does not go home and claim his bride, but takes a position with a merchant.”

“The story gets odder and more unusual the more we think about it,” Melissa resolves.

“Are we any closer to answering our original question? What is the story about?”

“No,” says Melissa.

We brood over our cups of tea.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part Three

uNDaDV Charles Thomas Bale 1881 Charles Thomas Bale 1881

More Reflection

“The story,” Melissa says carefully, constructing her argument, “is in three acts. Act One: The brothers go to the well and the eldest brother is abandoned there. Act Two: The eldest brother travels to the underworld and returns. Act Three: The eldest reclaims his bride with the help of the merchant.”

“In those acts,” I contribute, “I see these larger themes. In Act One I see the theme of the traitorous brothers. We can trace this one back to the biblical Joseph, his brothers throwing him into a pit, then selling him into slavery.

“In Act Two, well, is that not the hero’s journey? A bit truncated, but still the basic elements are there: the bird as magical helper, the near defeat when all is lost before he cuts off his own flesh.

“In Act Three, I cannot help thinking about Ulysses returning home to Ithaca to find a house full of suitors for his wife, and into which he enters in disguise.”

“Oh, I like that,” says Melissa, “especially that last bit. But now I am thinking about the two eldest not only being the protagonists, but how the younger brothers and younger women hardly appear in the story. We are told they are there. However, we never hear from them. The baby chicks have far more to say and do. No, the story is about the two eldest and their travail. Everything else is peripheral.”

“Except,” I say, “the merchant, specifically in the wedding scene. When God starts to speak through him, the story belongs to the merchant and we hear from no one else, not even the two eldest.”

“Yes,” agrees Melissa, with a bit of surprise in her voice. “Which is again unusual when you consider the story starts with the brothers going to and descending into a well. That’s pure pagan imagery.”

I look at my empty second cup of tea that I don’t remember drinking. “I am feeling suspicious that our God was tacked onto the end of this tale at a later date, much like Grimms’ Girl without Hands.  In the 1812 version, the story is quite pagan, but by the last edition Wilhelm has added an angel into the conclusion.”

“We,” smiles Melissa, “have now fallen into talking about older tales becoming victims of newer mores and we drift from our original purpose.”

“Again,” I return the smile.

“What is the story about,” Melissa restates, “and why did it call to us?”

“Right,’ I say, “let’s stick with it being about the two eldest struggling to marry and we’ll leave God out of it. “

“No, we should not,” Melissa say. (I think she is changing course.) “I observed when we started this conversation that the magical women could not act for themselves. For all of the eldest woman’s insight, she is powerless.

“The eldest brother’s courage is tested, he battles the snake and cuts flesh from his body. But by the end of the tale, he has given over his authority to the merchant, who is being instructed by God. Both she and he have ended up in the hands of fate.”

Why the word ‘fate’ triggers my memory I do not know.

“This is my anniversary,” I say.

“Of?” Melissa’s eyes widen.

“My marriage.”

Melissa exhales, “Mine as well. The tale called to us because it is about marriage after all, just as I first stated.”

We are quiet for some time.

“May I ask?” Melissa looks at me. “When did she die?”

My heart contracts. “Many years ago. In childbirth,” is all I can answer. Melissa does not press me.

“And you?” I ask.

“I think,” she sighs, “I ended up marrying the middle brother. Not the one who was meant for me.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tales of the Month: October 2018 Blue Beard – Part One

Bluebeard Gustave Dore Gustave Dore

Halloween Treats

Halloween is about tradition. Of course traditions have to start somewhere, and in our new tradition, Melissa—dressed as a witch, hiding as best she can her red hair—takes Thalia around the neighborhood. Much booty, dropped into a paper bag, is to be gotten this way.

I suggested to Thalia she costume herself as a fairy or an ogress, but to my disappointment she chose to be a princess.

The culmination of the evening occurs in my study. I build a fire in the hearth and turn out the lights. Thalia feasts on her take as Melissa reads us an uncanny tale.

“It will be a Grimm story,” Melissa announces and Thalia applauds. “One of the omitted tales,” Melissa continues. “Blue Beard.”

“Omitted?” asks Thalia.

“It was in the 1812 edition, but dropped from the last edition. Perhaps Wilhelm thought it too violent.”

Thalia grins broadly in anticipation. Melissa, still dressed in her witch’s costume and squinting in the low light, begins.

A man, who has three sons and a daughter, is approached by a king who wishes to marry the girl. The honor is too great for the father to refuse, despite the king’s unsettling blue beard.

The daughter consents to the marriage with trepidation and asks her brothers to come to her aid if needed. They promise to come at her call.

All goes well in her new home. All her desires are fulfilled. She would have been happy except, in the presence of her husband, the blue beard makes her uneasy.

Before leaving on a long trip, Blue Beard gives her the key to the castle, including a small golden key she must not use on pain of death.

Thalia sits in Melissa’s lap, wide-eyed, munching caramel corn.

Having the keys, the girl explores all the rooms of the castle, filled with treasures, until only the one opened by the golden key remains.

Curiosity, be it creative or destructive, causes her to open the last door.

In that room hangs the decimated bodies of Blue Beard’s previous wives. Blood courses across the floor. The golden key falls from the lock onto the floor and into the blood.

Horrified, she tries to wipe the blood from the key, but as she cleans one side the blood appears on the other.

Thalia stops munching and peers off into space.

Blue Beard returns and soon asks for the keys. She has removed the golden key from the ring. He notices and demands her death. She pleads to say her final prayers and this he grants. She goes upstairs and calls out to her brothers, who, mysteriously despite the distance, can hear her.

Blue Beard, annoyed by the delay, threatens to come upstairs and drag her away, which he does, but not in time to prevent the brothers from coming to the rescue. They hang his body in the room with his former wives, the treasures of the castle now belonging to his surviving wife.

“Wow,” Thalia admires, then inspects her bag for more treats.

I throw a few more logs on the fire. “Another wonderfully odd tale from the Grimms.”

“And appropriate for the times,” says Melissa.

“How so?”

“I am thinking of the #MeToo movement.”

“Really,” I say. “I am not seeing the connection.”

“Thalia is falling asleep.” Melissa looks fondly at her charge. “I’d better put her to bed.”

Thalia’s eyes are closed; her hand is in her goody bag, but not moving.

“We need to talk on this,” I say. “I’ll go find a bottle of wine.”

“Red,” she says.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2018 Blue Beard – Part Two

Bluebeard-Beauge-Bertall Beauge Bertall

Poe Anyone?

Melissa takes off her witch’s hat, her red hair falling from underneath it, settles into one of my comfy chairs, and sips her glass of wine. “Before I start grinding my axe,” she begins, “what do you see in the story?”

I sense a pit opening up before me in which to fall. ”Well, we have seen the woman with the key opening a door or a box many times in these tale—and myths for that matter. The consequences are uniformly bad. The woman’s weakness is always curiosity and the breaking of a promise not to peek. Let me agree right away neither of these infractions deserves a death penalty.”

Melissa ignores my attempt at cover. “Is curiosity a weakness in men?”

I hear the first passing swoosh of the pendulum blade. “Ah,” I say, thinking hard as I open my mouth. “In the tales, curiosity is reserved for women. Men will go adventuring to find answers, but that is not called curiosity. I see your point.”

Melissa nods. “Logically—and I know better than to apply logic to fairy tales, but bear with me for argument’s sake—logically, if Blue Beard did not want the heroine to enter the forbidden room, he would not have given her the key.”

I hear the pendulum on its returning pass. I stare at my wine glass. I haven’t drunk any. Melissa’s is already half empty.

“Where is the #MeToo in Blue Beard?” I ask. “It was told long, long before social media existed.”

Melissa laughs a little. “This social media debate is the present-day iteration about the concept behind The Fall.”

“As in Adam and Eve?”

“As in Eve,” she replies. “The Fall is blamed on Eve. Adam gets off as being only a witless accomplice.”

I hear the pendulum again; a little closer this time.

Melissa takes a long sip of wine. “Eve eats an apple from the Tree of Knowledge and becomes the equal of God. That act God cannot tolerate and he expels her from the Garden along with her sidekick, Adam, condemning her to eventual death.

“The girl in Blue Beard uses the golden key and obtains knowledge about her husband. This is enlightenment, which he cannot tolerate and condemns her to death.

“In both cases, God and Blue Beard allow access to the forbidden knowledge. In both cases they tempt their adversary, who, in both cases are guileless, innocently trapped into the machinations of the male figures.”

Hey rats, gnaw on those leather straps that bind me. I haven’t much time.

“You might,” I suggest, “get struck by lightning for comparing God to Blue Beard.”

Melissa narrows her eyes. “It’s been said God created man in his own image and man returned the compliment. I take it the masculine aspect of our culture needs the feminine to be subjugated or she will rival and become equal to the male persona, be it a god’s or a king’s.”

Swoosh.

Subjugate,” I echo. “If I understand you that is the operative word.”

Melissa raises a finger and takes another sip. “Thank you for understanding me. This is an argument my former husband could not consider.”

The pendulum blade disappears in mid-arc. I am a little embarrassed I had not seen this connection before. I did not suppose that the #MeToo movement addresses a problem as ancient as our creation story.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2018 Blue Beard – Part Three

Bluebeard Walter Crane Walter Crane

King Conomor

I pour Melissa some more wine and finally take a sip of my own.

“In defense of men,” I say, “it is her brothers who come to the rescue.”

“Granted, but now we enter into family relationships, different from other social bonds. Men will treat their mothers and sisters differently than any other women. The brothers’ rescue of their sister does not water down my observation of the overriding social divide between the masculine and the feminine.”

I feel compelled to change the topic to another aspect of the story.

“Why a blue beard?” I offer up for discussion.

“Indeed,” says Melissa. “Does it have anything to do with blue blood?”

“That’s a stretch.”

“Maybe not. In the late medieval period blue became one of the colors of royalty; the court of Louis IX to be specific. Blue Beard was described as a king.”

I take another sip of wine. “I was thinking, the blue beard served at a sort of stigmata, simply marking him as different from everyone else. Even above the law, you might say. However, I don’t think I have run into any other blue beards.”

Melissa stares into the fire’s flames as she speaks. “When I decided to read this story to Thalia I did some research. I didn’t find any blue beards in the story’s variants, not even Mr. Fox, its best-known relative.

“I did find a Welsh legend of the medieval king Conomor, a historic figure. A story is woven around this actual king that he killed his first three wives before marrying the fourth, Tryphine. She finds the secret room where relics of the former wives are kept. She prays for their souls and their ghosts appear to warn her that Conomor will kill her when she becomes pregnant because of the prophecy he will be killed by his son.

“When she does become pregnant, she flees but is caught and beheaded by Conomor. Saint Gildas restores Tryphine to life and returns with her to Conomor. His castle collapses around him and he is killed.”

“Did Conomor have a blue beard?” I ask.

“Not that the legend tells us.”

“Perhaps the beard is Charles Perrault’s invention; the Grimms’ stole that story from him, you know. But,” I enjoin, “let’s change the color of our conversation. What about the golden key?”

“Yes!” exclaims Melissa. “What an image. Blood wiped from one side of the key appears on the other. I’ll guess that is another Perrault addition. Do you recall Grimms’ The Fitcher’s Bird, where the heroine is obliged to carry around an egg that gets stained with blood in the forbidden chamber?”

The Fitcher’s Bird, of course. “I know it well. It is as close a relative as Mr. Fox.”

“Let me propose,” Melissa straightens herself in the comfy chair, “that The Fitcher’s Bird is much closer to the origins of this motif than Perrault’s version.”

“Go on.” I am delighted. I think I know where this is going.

“Charles Perrault was a skilled writer, writing for a court audience, not for scholars. Whatever tale he drew his version from I feel safe guessing he edited out what he didn’t like and added his own spin.

“The Grimms, while they were not shy of making changes in the tales, were scholars in search of the German folk-voice and allowed the folk messiness of The Fitcher’s Bird to remain in the story.

“The egg almost has to be a pagan holdover. For me, that suggests The Fitcher’s Bird predates Perrault’s Blue Beard, even though the latter was published a decade before the former.”

Raising my glass, I say, “Well argued.”

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part One

Sweetheart Roland oneArthur Rackham

It’s Saturday

Saturday and I have a special relationship. Saturday is when I take Thalia to Serious Books to purchase her reading for the week. If no other time, this is when I get to visit with Melissa Serious. That Thalia’s room is filling up with books worries her mother, who claims books accumulate dust, invoking the threat of allergies. I will hear none of it.

Augustus has a bell above his door in the tobacco shop to announce customers. Melissa has no such thing. One can slip in and out without notice, as Melissa usually has her nose buried in a book and may not see you.

Thalia, of course, declares her arrival and rushes to Melissa for a hug. Melissa is a little startled, so deep into what she is reading.

After the hug, I knit my brow at Melissa in question as to what absorbs her attention. Thalia is running off to her section of the bookstore, but does a 180-degree turn when Melissa says, “I am angered by this fairy tale.”

“Which tale?” asks Thalia.

I sense Melissa’s embarrassment at drawing Thalia into her personal conflict with a tale, but Melissa does not falter.

Sweetheart Roland,” she says, opening her book again and reading to us.

The evil and ugly daughter of a witch covets the apron of her kind and lovely stepsister. The witch decides to kill her stepdaughter while she sleeps. However, the good daughter overhears their plan and arranges things so that the witch, in the dark of night, murders her own daughter.

The girl runs off to her sweetheart Roland, saying they must flee. Roland suggests she steal the witch’s wand. This the girl does, also taking the head of her stepsister, letting three drops of blood fall; one at the foot of the bed, one in the hallway, and one in the kitchen.

In the morning, the witch calls to her daughter to give her the apron and the drop of blood in the hallway answers. Seeing no one there, the witch calls again and the drop of blood in the kitchen answers. On the third call, the blood in the bedroom answers and the witch finds her beheaded daughter. Putting on her seven-league boots, she takes off after the girl.

Seeing her coming, the girl uses the wand to turn Roland into a lake and herself into a duck. For all the bread crumbs the witch casts onto the water, the duck is not lured in and at night the witch returns home.

The couple resumes their human form and they travel all night. In the morning the girl turns herself into a flower inside a briar patch and Roland into a fiddler.

When the witch appears again she recognizes the flower in the briar patch as the girl and asks the fiddler if she may pick it. He agrees, but as soon as the witch climbs into the briars, he plays a tune on his fiddle, forcing the witch to dance about, getting lashed by the thorns until she bleeds to death.

Roland returns to his father to prepare for a wedding and the girls waits for Roland in the form of a red stone. Roland does not return, being ensnared by another woman.

The girl changes herself into a flower and is picked by a shepherd and put into a chest. To the shepherd’s surprise, some mysterious being is now cleaning his house and preparing his meals. A wisewoman tells him to rise very early and throw a white cloth over anything that moves. This he does when he sees the flower coming out of the chest, and it turns back into the girl. The shepherd wants to marry her, but she only agrees to keep house for him.

Soon she hears Roland is to be married. Heartbroken, she does not want to go to the wedding, but the other girls come and take her away with them to sing songs to the bridal couple. When Roland hears her, his memory returns. He declares she is the true bride and he will have no other.

“Humph, I don’t like Roland,” Thalia grouses.

“Nor do I,” agrees Melissa.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part Two

Sweetheart Roland two Illustration 1909

The Sweetheart

“That’s Grimm, isn’t it?” I whisper after Thalia is far enough away, safely ensconced in “her” aisle.

“And a little too typical for my taste,” replied Melissa.

I take a seat in one of her overstuffed chairs.

“It sounds like a perfectly good tale to me,” I say, and see her expression shift, telegraphing that I am going to regret my words.

“Perfectly good tale?” she shrills a bit. “I should say not. I am happy Thalia sensed its failings as I have.”

“What failings?” I protest.

“Wilhelm Grimm’s view of women.” She takes a seat across from mine.

Half my mind knows better than to argue a politically incorrect point, but the other half pushes on.

“What?” I demand.

“Wilhelm makes two assumptions about women. First, women are keen on seeing each other as rivals, to the point of murder. There is no sense of ‘brotherhood’ among them. Second, men are naturally superior with no need to defend that position.”

Ouch. This is going to be hard. She’s thought this out.

“Give me a ‘for example,’” I challenge.

“All of Sweetheart Roland,” Melissa returns.

“I really don’t think Wilhelm set out to be offensive to women,” I say.

“And that is my point. He made assumptions. He didn’t think about his depiction of his female protagonists. He represents women as being their own worst enemies. It is the girl’s own stepmother and stepsister who plot against her for the possession of an apron. Note, the stepfather is nowhere mentioned and therefore blameless whether he is alive or dead.”

“He’s really kind of nonexistent in this tale,” I comment.

“True. Wilhelm shows a women’s world full of female backstabbers. Let’s visit Cinderella, Snow White, the Three Forest Gnomes, The Goose Girl, even Hansel and Gretel; mothers, witches, servants, and siblings try to destroy the heroines. What sort of role model are they for Thalia?”

I shift uneasily in my chair. She’s got me close to home on that one.

“Wait, there are evil men in the Grimm tales. What about Bluebeard?”

“For every evil male, Wilhelm tells tales of ten evil females.”

I haven’t counted them up, but that is probably true.

“However,” Mellissa continues, “when Wilhelm does have an evil male, the culprit is usually waylaying some poor female. And here I will give Wilhelm credit; the heroine will best the antagonist and come out on top.”

“I am glad you give Wilhelm a little credit. He haunts my study sometimes, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know, but I am not surprised. I should not be there when he does.”

I smile. “What of your objection to Roland?”

Melissa takes a deep breath. “I have sworn not to utter my former husband’s name and I will not. But his image rises before me as I read Sweetheart Roland.”

I am not even going to try to win this argument. I have stepped on Melissa’s toes.

Melissa launches into her point, “I did my research. I read to you the final 1857 version. In the 1812 version the girl has already taken the wand and dripped the drops of blood before she goes to Roland. Apparently, on rewrite, Wilhelm sensed Roland’s uselessness and gave him a role in their escape by suggesting she steal the wand. Making him even more distasteful in my eyes, Wilhelm presents Roland as self-seeking, though I think he did not intend too.

“Then, after the girl destroys the witch, he goes and gets stolen by another woman. Wilhelm uses the word ‘ensnared’ that does not suggest magic, for which we could have forgiven him. Rather, Roland seems to have given into his immediate sensual desires; the girl, after all, is a red stone at this point and forgettable. Wilhelm does not identify this as a fault of character.”

I think she is being a little hard on Roland, but I will keep my mouth shut.

Thalia appears with her stack of books, ready to check out. I notice the title Wind in the Willows in her pile. She may not be a fan of Roland, but she is a fan of good literature.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part Three

Sweetheart Roland threeWalter Crane

Disembodied Voices

“Three drops of blood,” Augustus repeats the subject of my inquiry through a cloud of tobacco smoke thickening the air between our comfy chairs. “To which story do you refer? The Goose Girl? Snow White?”

Sweetheart Roland,” I say.

“Oh, but you do like the obscure ones.”

Augustus pauses to collect his thoughts. “The three drops of blood have a long lineage, going back to at least the Arthurian legends with no one less than Percival seeing three drops of blood in the snow that remind him of his sweetheart’s countenance; her pale skin and rosy cheeks. This image probably predates Percival

“In the fairy tales the most prominent colors are white, red, and black. There is a formula here. If the colors are white and red only that is an indication of the demonic. The hounds of hell are white dogs with red ears.

“It is not until the color black comes into the story, usually in the form of a crow, that the image relates to mortals. More than once in the tales, a queen sees a crow that has downed its prey in the snow, it’s victim’s blood spilling onto the ground, and the queen wishes for a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as dark as the crow.”

“What,” I ask, “do the three drops of blood represent in Sweetheart Roland?”

“Let me start with what they don’t represent. I have read a number of academic papers that argue the three drops of blood symbolize a young woman’s start of menstruation, loss of maidenhood, and birth of a child, which is appealing in intellectual terms, but that argument does not consider the tale’s audience.

“The tale’s audience was the peasantry. They routinely slaughtered animals for their meals. Blood was as common to the peasant as water, not the mysterious province of women.

“I will allow in the cities there were butchers, who began to separate their customers from the blood of what they ate, but the culture at that time was still largely rural and that is where the tales were being told. Blood was a common talisman, like garlic and iron, to be used against evil.”

I know our concentration on our topic is deep. I can hardly see Augustus through the dense smoke we are creating. We think and we puff.

“What interests me,” Augustus goes on, “is inanimate objects talking.”

“As in the three drops of blood in Sweetheart Roland,” I say.

“Exactly. The most famous, of course, is the magic mirror in Snow White, which also contains the three-drops-of-blood motif, but there they have no voice.”

“What jumps to my mind,” I say, “is The Horned Women.”

“Good example,” Augustus agrees. “The barred door, the cakes made with the children’s blood, and the half-sewn cloak all speak audibly to the twelve witches.”

“I will rephrase my original question. What is the role of these talking things?”

“Limited,” Augustus smiles. “Take the magic mirror. It, very appropriately, appeals to or upsets the evil queen’s vanity. In The Horned Women, the door, cakes, and cloak only confess why they cannot aid the witches. In Sweetheart Roland, the three drops of blood are planted to delay the witch, if not for very long, but when one is fleeing every second may count.

“Talking objects are not all-knowing. They have one, small, defined purpose in their particular story. Seldom do they give advice. The exception that comes to me is the spirit of the spring in The Horned Women, who instructs the woman of the house in how to proceed. But even then, it is a spirit and not the spring itself that is the helper.”

“Disembodied voices,” I contemplate. “This is the stuff of the dream-world.”

“Fairy tales are our waking dreams,” Augustus says with finality.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2018 How Idle Lars Won Himself A Princess – Part One

Hadleigh_castle_engraving 1832 Engraving 1832

Hadleigh Castle

Thalia, Melissa, and I are on a ramble. It started when I

confessed to not having seen the sea this year, instead having stayed home to feed Johannes when Thalia and her mother went to Brighton.

“Oh my dear,” Melissa had exclaimed. “One should always take at least a moment to spy the ocean annually. The sea is the heartbeat and rhythm of life.”

At her insistence, we three are now in Hadleigh Country Park, overlooking the Thames Estuary, rather close to the ocean.

Boldly, we spread our picnic blanket at the foot of one of the ruined towers of Hadleigh Castle and take in its spectacular view of the Thames flowing to the sea.

Our outing is all contained in a bulky rattan basket Melissa has lugged to the tower’s base. Pulling back the cane pins, she opens the lid and pulls out a book. I recognize it. Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark, Stories Collected by Jens Kamp. It’s a translation by my friend Stephen Badman.

“Here is our first feast,” Melissa declares, opening the book to its bookmark. “How Idle Lars Won Himself a Princess.”

Thalia and I settle back to listen to Melissa’s contralto voice.

Idle Lars had an exceptional talent for laziness. When Lars was an infant, wherever one put him that is where he would be whenever you next saw him. He would not entertain the notion of crawling away to explore.

One day, through much effort and many threats, Lars’ mother got him to fetch water from the communal well. He took with him an old pot with its legs broken off and every little while he turned it upside down to rest upon it.

The princess, sitting at her castle window, noted his slow progress and called out to him, cautioning him that his legless pot might outrun him, and would he need a boy to push him from behind on his return trip. That annoyed Lars, but he made no answer.

At the well, his pot scooped up a tiny frog that pleaded with Lars to pour him back into the well.

“No,” said Lars, “I cannot be bothered to tip you out. I’d have to fill the pot again.”

The frog promised to grant him a wish. Lars, if lazy, was no fool. He cast his broad-brimmed hat upon the ground and wished for as many wishes as his hat covered blades of grass.

His next wish, with which he thought to spite the princess, was that his pot should sprout legs. It did, and started walking home. The princess was delighted at the spectacle, but called down to Lars that he still needed a boy to push him along to keep up with the pot.

Lars grumbled, “I wish you had a boy yourself.”

It was a thoughtless thing for Lars to say, but nine months later she did have a boy. She proclaimed her innocence, but to no avail.

When the boy could walk, the king called all the men in the kingdom together—including Lars, who, in the meantime, had not bothered to make another wish. The king gave the boy a golden apple saying, “Whoever you give this apple to, will be recognized as your father.”

Although Lars stood in the back of the crowd, the child sought him out and gave him the apple. Infuriated, the king had Lars and his daughter cast out to sea on a boat to meet their doom.

Here Melissa dramatically gestures toward the Thames flowing placidly below us.

Lars lay on the deck, seasick, while the princess wept and complained until Lars exclaimed, “What do you want me to say, other than I wish we were back on dry land?”

Instantly they were. The princess put two and two together, and realized things were not as bad as she had thought. She took charge of the wishing and had Lars wish himself to be a normal human being and not a self-centered, stupid, lazy oaf. That was transformative. She then went on to have him wish for royal creature comforts such as a castle, some servants, an army, and a decent wardrobe for both of them.

The next morning the king awoke and looked out his window to see an island and a castle that had not been there before. He goes to the island to be greeted by an honor guard, at the end of which is his daughter and a transformed Lars. Befuddled, but pleased, he says, “What will be will be.”

That declaration is followed by a happy, three-day-long marriage feast.

Thalia and I are content with the story, but I wonder what else is in Melissa’s wicker basket.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2018 How Idle Lars Won Himself a Princess – Part Two

Hadleigh_castle_engraving_1783_trimmed Engraving 1783

Melissa’s Basket

Next from Melissa’s basket appears a bottle of claret, two wine glasses, a small jug of sarsaparilla, and a sturdy cup. Thalia’s eyes glimmer at the soda as Melissa pours it into the cup, sending its strong, sweet smell lofting in the air, along with Thalia’s giggle of delight.

“The protagonist in your tale is Lars,” I say, “but it’s a woman’s story isn’t it?” I take the glass of claret she offers me.

“That element of the princess taking charge does attract me to the story, I will confess. This one in particular has its charm. The Danes have a generally positive view on women. It seems,” she observes, “different countries hold their women to different standards, as least as they are reflected in the fairy tales.”

“The local tales,” I say, “are probably a rather good barometer of a country. What are your perceptions?”

“The Germans, I’ll say, are the hardest on their women, if we accept the Grimms as representative.” She swirls the dark, red wine in her glass. “In the Grimms’ canon there is the story King Thrushbeard and among the Irish tales The Queen of Tinkers. It’s the same story, but in the Grimms’ version the princess must be humbled. In the Irish tale she must be strong.

“Did you know the Germans never had a regent queen? The English had Queen Elizabeth, who absolutely defined her era. The Russians can boast of Catherine the Great. Germany, when it comes to speaking of it famous queens, we hear crickets chirping.”

Melissa pauses to bring out a cheese board, a block of Stilton, water biscuits and a small jar of blueberry jam from her epicurean basket. The jam, in particular, attracted Thalia’s attention.

Dipping a slice of cheese into the jam, I question, “Why do so many of the female protagonists in these tales end up getting married in the course of the story?”

Melissa sips her wine, contemplating. “At the time these fairy tales took the shape in which we now find them, there was not a lot of social mobility, and virtually none for women. Their marriage would determine their status. So, I’ll suppose young women’s future marriage was very much on their minds.

“On the other hand,” she continues, “in the fairy tales, the heroines never start out to find husbands. Husbands happen to them, such as in How Idle Lars Won Himself a Princess.

Melissa opens her basket again and produces a covered bowl of mixed nuts. The lid removed, I spot a fat macadamia nut and pick it out as I say, “You have prompted a thought in me. You said, at the time, there was little social mobility. I infer from that there was little status change as well. But frequently the tales, as in our tale’s case, are about change in status; the oafish Lars becomes a king. It seems to me that goes beyond wishful thinking into the impossible.”

“But that’s the fun of it!” Thalia joins in, “Dreaming the impossible.”

I suppose she is right.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2018 How Idle Lars Won Himself a Princess – Part Three

EngraHadleigh-Castle-by-an-unknown-artist-1735 Engraving 1735

Concerning Status

From the magic basket comes Melissa’s Curried Chicken and Pasta Salad, one of her no-fail crowd pleasers. I am delighted but I watch Thalia eye the offering suspiciously. She tastes it. Her brows knit, then she takes a second bite. I am proud of her. A child willing to venture beyond macaroni cheese as a culinary delight shows promise.

While staring up at the ruined tower of Hadleigh Castle, its ancient stonework sheltering us from the sun, Melissa comments, “I do notice a gender pattern in the tales concerning status. In the course of the tales young women fall from their status to a lower status, then struggle to return to that position or, in some cases, a higher one.

“In our story the princess is cast out to sea with Idle Lars to meet their fate. She turns it around to restore her position and bring Lars around to decency.”

I nod in agreement, my mouth full of pasta salad, so Melissa continues. “Men may start out as farm hands and rise to become kings. Lars is a selfish, idle oaf and wins himself a princess. There is no fall from grace with the men.”

“I like this!” Thalia declares, holding her fork.

Fall from grace,” I echo. “What does that say about how we perceive the roles of men and women in society?”

“Exactly my point,” says Melissa, taking a moment to nod to Thalia. “Women are at a disadvantage. They fight to maintain what they have. Men get to venture forward. Women who are on the road were forced out or are fleeing. Men are on the road to seek their fortunes.”

We watch a container ship, in silent effort, slowly, laboriously work its way up the Thames Estuary headed for the Port of London.

“In our story,” I return to the subject, “what about the disappearing child? When his mother and supposed father are cast out to sea, does he go with them?” I let a little false shock enter my voice.

Melissa, smiling, claps her hands once at my humor. “You have addressed the economy of characters so common to the fairy tale. Of course we don’t know what happens to the child. He has played his role and since he no longer forwards the story, he disappears. Though a prince he may be, he no longer shows his face.

“Also in our story, he is not the first to meet that fate. Lars’ parents are given no better. Lars’ father is mentioned at the start, so we know Lars had a recognized father. (Lars’ parentage of his son is not so clear.) Lars has a conversation with his mother, who sends him to the communal well, but after that she is no longer part of the story. Even when Lars is transformed into a decent human being and becomes king, there is no mention of him inviting his parents to live with him and his wife in the castle. Some tales will extend that courtesy, but they are usually French.”

“Fathers,” I say, finishing off my salad, “suffer the most from what you call the economy of characters. The notable exception is in Hansel and Gretel, where the children returning to their father at the end of the tale is their return to their former status. He needs to be there. Usually, as in the Beauty and the Beast variants, the father creates the dilemma, but then fades from the story as the jealous sisters take over.”

Melissa nods in agreement as, for dessert, she presents from her basket a peach cobbler. All conversation ceases.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2018 The Prince in a Swoon – Part One

Prince in a swoon noose

A Little Lonely

I woke up in my house this morning, alone. Thalia and her mother are taking a few days of vacation down on Brighton Beach. I’ve stayed behind to make sure Johannes is fed. He lies on the window seat, ignoring his dish. Nor do I see the fairy about. She is probably hiding in Thalia’s suitcase in Brighton.

To make matters worse, Melissa is visiting a sister and Duckworth is off on a business trip.

I ran some errands today, half of them unnecessary, then thought of making an elaborate meal for supper as a way of entertaining myself, but cooking for one is difficult in a way. I made a meal of Nutella and crackers, then poured myself a large brandy.

I stand in front of one of my bookcases, brandy in hand, wondering what I am looking for. I run my finger across the spines of my books, pausing on one I have not read, More Greek Folktales, by R. M. Dawkins, one of the books Melissa insisted I buy.

I tip the book from the shelf, sit on my comfy chair, open it to the table of contents, and, Thalia-style, whirl my finger in the air and bring it down on the page.

The Prince in a Swoon, page 25.

A young girl, Polly, encounters a bird every morning on her way to school, who says to her, “Sew your seams or sew them not, a man who’s dead shall be your lot.”

One Sunday, Polly goes off with friends to gather herbs. The gaggle of girls spot a palace they did not expect to see. When they try to push open the door, only Polly can open it, and the door shuts firmly behind her.

She finds three men lying dead, and in the next room three more. In the third room, on a bed, lies a dead prince. However, in his hand is a paper with a plea that someone mourn for him for forty days.

This she does for thirty-nine days without sleep. On the next day, a gypsy woman appears and offers to spell the poor girl and

let her sleep a little. Innocently, Polly falls for the ruse.

When the prince returns from death, along with the other occupants of the palace, he finds the gypsy mourning for him and determines to marry her. The gypsy assigns Polly to tend to the geese.

One day the prince is obliged to travel and offers to bring back something each of his servants desires. Over the gypsy queen’s objections, the goose girl asks for a stone of patience, a knife of slaughter, and a rope of hanging. Failing that, may the sea beneath him turn to stone.

Failing to purchase these three strange items, the sea under his returning ship turns to stone. The merchant who then sells him the three items, tells the prince to watch what Polly does with them.

This he does and sees Polly try to hang herself with the rope of hanging, but the stone counsels patience. She explains to the stone how the gypsy cheated her. Then she attempts to stab herself with the knife of slaughter. The stone again says, “Patience, patience.” Polly’s explanation is repeated. This time the prince prevents her from harming herself, declaring she is the true bride.

He then asks his false gypsy bride what is to be done with someone who separates a man from his wife. She suggests that “he” be cut up into little pieces and each piece nailed to every door in the city. She is, of course, pronouncing her own fate.

The happy marriage follows.

“What a mixture of known motifs and strange elements.” I declare to the air, causing Johannes to stir. “I hope Augustus is not on vacation. I need to talk to someone about this one.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2018 The Prince in a Swoon – Part Two

Prince in Swoon poniard

Other Clouds

It is a rainy afternoon, but I am happily seated in Augustus’s windowless “testing room,” he and I luxuriating in the tobacco cloud we are creating, forgetting for a moment the rain clouds outside.

We have been here long enough for me to relate to him the essentials of The Prince in a Swoon. Augustus puffs on his pipe, contemplating the tale before he speaks.

“The Greek folktales have their own colour,” he states.

“That they do.” I agree.

“First off,” Augustus refills his pipe, “she goes to school. No maiden in Grimm ‘goes to school.’”

“Could be a fairly modern intrusion into the tale,” I suggest.

“Then one Sunday, she goes out collecting herbs with her friends.”

“Hmmm,” I consider. “That’s not a Grimm thing either.”

“I really like,” says Augustus, “that only she can open the door, then it immediately traps her inside, not that she has any thought of escape.

“The three dead men,” Augustus rolls on, “are not sleeping, but are deceased. Although the story title uses the word ‘swoon,’ the tale has the prince mourned for forty days, suggesting death is involved.”

“Is death that far from sleeping that we should make a distinction?” I question.

“Yes,” says Augustus, offering no clarification.

“Nor,” I continue, picking up the dropped thread, “do we learn why the prince and his palace were embraced by death, and then released by the forty days of mourning.”

“And,” Augustus raises a finger, “here we come to the number forty, which puts this tale in that part of the world.”

“What part of the world?” I ask.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the Forty Fortunes.” Augustus regards his pipe while his mind wanders. “Greek philosophy, through the Romans, gave us our Western culture, but the Greeks, themselves, feel closer to the Middle East than to Europe.”

“Ah,” I say, refilling my pipe with an Augustus blend he calls Old Rinkrank, “but when she is tricked by the gypsy, she ends up as a gooses girl, which is very Grimm.”

“You’re right,” Augustus nods. ‘There are two goose-girl stories in the Grimm canon, giving this tale a smacking of European influence. Our story, if not all of the Greek folktales, lies between two cultures, that of the East and that of the West.

“But what follows in the tale interests me the most.” Augustus pauses to refill his pipe, then launches back to his point. “When the prince offers to bring gifts to his servants, Polly asks for a rope of hanging, a knife of slaughter, and a stone of patience.”

“Hmmm,” I contemplate, “When Beauty, in Beauty and the Beast, asks for a rose from her father’s travels, there is innocence in the request. In Polly’s request there is forethought or foreshadowing?”

“I like foreshadowing,” says Augustus. “Our tale moves from the usual situation and response—the door closes behind her and she explores the palace—she finds the prince and his note, then mourns for him—and moves into the mystical, unaccountably asking for two instruments of death and one of hope.”

Augustus blows a few smoke rings before continuing. “I can’t help but feel she is performing a morality play for her prince. She has her cast of characters, the rope, the knife, and the stone, the stone having its lines to speak.

“She performs her complaint twice, once for her prince to hear, and a second time for him to understand; these princes can be a little dense.

“In the end, I see a morality play in which she well could have killed herself, a performance art to the ultimate.”

I do need to consider this observation.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2018  The Prince in a Swoon – Part Three

Prince in a swoon flint.jpg

Guess Who
Before sunset there came respite from the rain that has been falling all day. I have taken advantage of this pause to ramble through the Magic Forest. I have half a mind to visit the nixie, but I haven’t brought any popcorn. Instead, I wander to the foot of the Glass Mountain.

There, on a crystal ledge, not ten feet above my head, is a wizened, elvish figure of a man, glaring at me. He is seated on the ledge, his knees sticking out from under him, almost looking like the tips of wings. A more crooked nose, I’ve never seen.

“Is that you, Old Rinkrank?” I marvel.

“Who else would it be?

You evoked my name.

I cannot be free

Till you make your claim.”

“Evoked your name? I did nothing . . . “ I look at my pipe. I am smoking the blend that I have been puffing on all day, which Augustus playfully named Old Rinkrank. “Oh, I see.”

“‘Oh, I see,’ says he.

Of brains he needs some.

How dense can he be?

What is your question!”

This last he shouts at me.

“Let’s not get huffy,” I say. “I do have a question. In the fairy tale The Prince in a Swoon, the heroine, Polly, asks for a rope of hanging, a knife of slaughter, and a stone of patience. My friend Augustus suggests she is performing a mystery play. What might you know of this matter?”

“Ah, Polly, Polly,

Like Mother Masrot,

Not one for folly.

Listen, and take stock!

 

It might be a play

If life’s but a stage,

But actors don’t stay

If not paid a wage.

 

The stone of patience

Needs your focus.

Though of transience,

Also impetus.

 

To the hanging rope

And knife of slaughter,

She abandons hope,

Her death an offer.

 

Peek through the keyhole

To hear Polly moan.

She pours out her soul

To a thoughtful stone.

 

The stone cannot judge,

But only advise.

Maybe give a nudge

To thoughts that are wise.

 

The prince in hiding,

Witnesses her grief.

Silence abiding,

Quiet as a thief.

 

The words that he heard

Reveal the true bride

And how she suffered

When the gypsy lied.

 

The stone, oh the stone,

It kept her alive.

Made her story known

And let Polly thrive.”

“That,” I say, “reminds me of Grimms’ Goose Girl, when she pours out her sorrows to an iron stove, with the old king listening at the stovepipe.

“Both of them,” I observe, “confess to an inanimate object, although the stone of patience is a magical helper. Tell me more about the stone of patience.”

“Am I your World Book?

Don’t give yourself airs.

Here, I’m off the hook.

Tend your own affairs.”

Old Rinkrank engulfs himself in a cloud of foul-smelling black smoke and is gone.

“Ornery,” I say to myself, tapping out my pipe. “But I may evoke him from time to time.”

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2018 Habitrot – Part One

Habitrot Douglas-Scottish_FFT(1901)-p109-Habitrot-illustr-J_TorranceJames Torrance

A Spinning Tale

The Victorians had what they called “Red Letter Days.” Today is one of those. Well, perhaps this is a Red Letter Evening. Melissa is here in my study, reading to Thalia sitting on her lap, giving mine a rest. We are joined by Johannes and the fairy, a greater company than our study readings has ever had.

“In the old days,” Melissa reads, “when spinning was the constant employment of women, the spinning wheel had its presiding genius or fairy. Her Border name was Habitrot…”

Melissa reads from Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, collected by Sir George Douglas.

A Selkirkshire woman had an only daughter, one not given to the distaff or wheel, but was wont to wandering through meadows and lanes. The mother challenged her to spin seven lints of flax within three days. After two days of trying and crying herself to sleep at night, she wandered off into the meadows, where she met an old woman with misshapen lips, sitting on a self-bored stone, drawing out thread. The girl engaged her in friendly conversation, and the ancient woman offered to do the girl’s spinning. Joyfully, the girl gave her the task and asked for her name. The old woman did not answer that and disappeared.

Confused, the girl lingered near the self-bored stone and fell asleep. At evening she awakened to hear voices rising from the stone. Putting her ear to the stone, she learned the old woman’s name was Habitrot.

At the mention of Habitrot, our fairy flutters into the air in a corkscrew motion of ecstasy.

“Friend of hers,” Johannes explains.

Looking through the hole in the stone, the girl saw Habitrot and her spinsters, all with deformed lips, spinning yarn for her. She also learned, when Habitrot addressed Scantlie Mab, who handled the reel, that they were about to deliver the yarn. Delighted, the girl started toward home, but was overtaken by Habitrot before she got there.

“What do I owe you?” the girl asked.

“Nothing,” was the reply.

“Ah!” puts in Johannes, “A typical brownie.”

The girl returned home, and having eaten nothing all day, fried up and ate the seven black puddings her mother had made. In the morning, her mother found the seven black puddings gone, but the seven lints of flax made into fine yarn.

Conflicted with the loss and the gain, she went out of the house crying, “My daughter has spun seven, seven, seven. My daughter has eaten seven, seven, seven. And all before daylight!”

A lord, who happened to be passing by, asked the woman about her gibberish. The woman took him into her house to show him the yarn and introduced him to her blushing daughter.

Guess what. He fell in love with the pretty and industrious peasant girl—with a good appetite—and proposed marriage. The girl worried that the lord would be disappointed in the industrious part of his perception of her. Again, Habitrot came to her aid, telling the young bride to have her husband peer through the self-bored stone. When he did, he saw Habitrot dancing over and around her spinning wheel singing:

 

“We who live in dreary den

Are both rank and foul to see,

Hidden frae the glorious sun

That teems the fair earth’s canopie:

Ever must our evenings lone

Be spent on the colludie stone.

 

Cheerless in the evening grey

When Causleen hath died away,

But ever bright and ever fair

Are they who breathe this evening air;

And lean upon the self-bored stone

Unseen by all but me alone.”

Scantlie Mab asked Habitrot about that last line and Habitrot brought the royal couple down into her underworld though a door in a tree. The lord, realizing the hardship that spinning would put upon his wife, protested that she should ever face the wheel again. All flax, thereafter, was given to Habitrot to spin.

Thalia applauds and Melissa applauds with her. Our fairy, returning to ecstasy, circles again in the air.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2018 Habitrot – Part Two

Habitrot Woodcut_Woman_Spinning_Detail Woodcut

A Conversation

We sit in Miss Cox’s garden waiting for Sir George Douglas, at Melissa’s request. Miss Cox has set out a proper tea on the wrought-iron table in front of our wrought-iron bench.

Sir George, a pleasant-looking man with a mustache and goatee, appears at the gate, giving us a casual salute from afar. I would think the dead would be disoriented, being summoned back by the living from the grave. But in Miss Cox’s garden they never are. I will have to assume the dead have many requests for interviews and ours is just one more.

“Sir?” he addresses me. I point to Melissa.

“Madam?” he corrects.

I am Melissa Serious.”

“I am sure you are,” he quips.

“And I have some questions for you.” Melissa smiles with a bit of glimmer in her eye. Sir George is obviously a man with a sense of humor, which is worth a dozen men without.

“Tell me about Habitrot,” Melissa asks as she does the honor of pouring us cups of tea.

“Habitrot, yes. Some claim she is the goddess of spinning, but I can’t but feel this is too high a status. No, she is of the brownie ilk; always working, yet never accepting payment. The typical brownie will take nothing for its services beyond very humble offerings, such as a bowl of milk, a crust of bread, left without fanfare in a corner of the room. Nor do brownies like their names known, another sign that Habitrot is of their kind since she does not tell the girl her name when asked.”

“And Scantlie Mab?” Melissa takes a sip of tea.

“I have not come across her outside of this story,” Sir George reflects.

“Speaking of names,” says Melissa, setting down her cup, “Rumpelstiltskin comes to mind.”

“As does Tom Tit Tot,” Sir George adds. “Both are reluctant to reveal their names, just like Habitrot, but in their cases for sinister reasons.”

Melissa nods. “I can’t help but observe that if the magical helper is male, they are manipulative. If they are female, they are beneficial; it’s Habitrot’s benevolence that attracts me to the tale.”

“In that respect,” Sir George takes a sip of his tea, “our tale is similar to the Grimms’ The Three Spinning Fairies, the differences being that the fairies take small gifts and favors as payment—making them fairies, not brownies, in my mind—their names are not an issue in this story, and the tale goes for a laugh at the end.”

“Yes,” agrees Melissa, “but Habitrot has more than a joke. I feel it is a message about the tyranny of the spinning wheel over women. It’s a bit of a feminist statement before there was feminism.”

“Likely,” agrees Sir George. “These tales were often told by women for women to lighten their burden while they did repetitive, onerous tasks.”

“Another question, “Melissa’s eyes squint, “what on earth is a self-bored stone? How does a stone bore itself?”

Sir George raises an index finger in the air. “A valid question. They are, as you may guess, magical. More likely than not, they are glassy in appearance, can be of various sizes, the hole occurring naturally—perhaps from dripping water—or formed on purpose from the hardened saliva of dragons, which is my preferred explanation.”

Sir George winks, then continues. “They protect their owner from eye diseases, are a defense against evil charms, prevent nightmares, aid in the recovery from snake bites, and—for some reason—cure whooping cough.

“More importantly, looking through the hole allows one to see into the fairy world or see through fairy disguises. In the case of Habitrot, it is a window into her underground world and her spinster minions.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2018 Habitrot – Part Three

Habitrot frigga-spinning-the-clouds-by-john-charles-dollman-1909

Frigga Spinning the Clouds, by John Charles Dollman

Wishful Thinking

“Spinsters?” I say, “Are not spinsters unmarried women, that is women beyond the age of marriage?”

“That they are,” says Sir George.

“Is there an inference that if a woman isn’t married and has no children, then all that is left to her is spinning?” I venture.

“Or,” says Melissa, “without a husband, spinning is her only income.”

“In either case,” returns Sir George, “‘spinsters’ is a mildly derogatory term.”

“Why,” I declare, “do we look down on those who do the menial labor that the rest of us depend upon?”

Sir George looks a little embarrassed at my comment, and Melissa sits properly erect. “That is,” she says, “the history of women.”

Sir George sighs. “I wish it were not so. Women’s opportunities to do work, other than household drudgeries, during the time these fairy tales were evolving, was limited. I have my suspicions that these tales were more than being told by women for women, but were created by women out of wishful thinking.”

“Wishful thinking,” echoes Melissa. “I will put it more strongly: as a wish to escape and rise above their circumstances.

“If the tale centers on a heroine, she is trying to escape from something. In Habitrot, the girl is escaping the duties of spinning. Often the stakes are higher. In Cinderella, she is escaping the domination of her stepmother and stepsisters. In Snow White, she is fleeing the attempt to murder her. In Rapunzel, she is escaping her prison tower. Then there is The King Who Wished To Marry His Daughter, another Scottish tale that needs no further explanation.”

“Wait,” I say, “are they not, in your examples, fleeing toward marriage? Cannot marriage be another form of subjugation?”

“Of course,” she says, picking up her cup of tea, “but it was the only logical way for a woman to rise in status. The groom is rarely a wealth merchant, or a well-to-do farmer, but rather one of royalty, bringing the heroine into nobility or back to a station from which she had fallen.”

“Notice too,” says Sir George, finishing his tea, “the tales tend to depict a woman’s world. If there is a father in the story, he tends to disappear very quickly or play a minimal role. The conflicts are usually with the other female relatives or a witch, who is a stand-in for the evil stepmother.”

“On the flip side,” I speculate, “if the protagonist is a male, he is not escaping, but rather willingly entering into an adventure. In the Queen Bee for example, three brothers go off to seek their fortunes. They encounter an enchanted castle and free it from a curse. The young women in this story are the prizes for the young men’s deed. Again, it all ends in marriage to the protagonist’s advantage. In this case it is male wishful thinking.”

“Returning to the menial tasks,” concludes Sir George, “or any kind of labor for that matter, men could be farmers, merchants, tailors, shoemakers, lawyers, judges, soldiers, and more. Women were limited to being cooks, scullery maids, midwives, henwives, or housewives, and they would all know how to spin.”

At this point I realize I haven’t taken a sip of my tea and it is now cold. I wonder if I can get someone to warm it up for me.

Your thoughts.