Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2016 Gabriel Rider – Part One

gabriel-rider-cats Niels Skovgaard

Christmas Cats

Today being Boxing Day, I am heading toward Augustus’s tobacco shop with, appropriately, a box under my arm. I soon hear the tinkle of his shop’s bell as I open the door. Augustus sits on his stool behind the counter; his arms are folded, but he throws them open when he sees me and my box.

“Ah, the annual shortbread!”

I proffer him the gift, which he rips into.

“These are the best,” he says. “What is your secret?”

“It has to do with getting the butter and sugar into an extreme state of fluff.” I don’t tell him it is my house-brownie who takes on the hardship of that task.

“So, what story did you tell Thalia for Christmas Eve?” he asks, while savoring his triangle of shortbread.

“It is hard to find a fairy-tale Christmas story,” I complain. “On the whole, they are not very seasonal. I got out my Badman’s Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark, and the Danes didn’t fail me. I read her Gabriel Rider.”

Augustus looks at me quizzically, motioning for me to go on. His mouth is full.

Gabriel Rider is a soldier recently released from the army, who finds himself, on Christmas Eve, asking a miller for shelter.

Kindly, the miller explains he normally would oblige, but his family is moving out to stay with a neighbor, given that the mill burns down every Christmas Eve, and has for the past twenty-three years.

Gabriel decides to get to the bottom of this mystery and offers to stay in the mill. He builds himself a good fire in the fireplace, and is soon joined by twenty-four cats led by a large gray. The cats, holding each other’s tails, dance in a circle, eyeing the flames in the fireplace.

Gabriel takes his sword and draws a line around the fireplace that the cats cannot cross, then makes the sign of the cross over the doors, allowing no escape except through a gutter hole. This hole he guards, and when the dancing is over and the cats try to leave, he gives them each a blow with his sword as they disappear into the night.

The next day he goes to the nearest village in which stands twenty-four houses. In the first house he finds a witch—whom he knows to be the gray cat—taken to her bed while her husband has gone off to church. She pleads with Gabriel not to reveal her secret, and promises both to hurt no one again, and to give him a good sum of money.

Gabriel agrees to the bargain, which he replicates in the next twenty-three houses he visits under the exact same conditions. By the end of the tale, Gabriel returns home a wealthy man.

Augustus carefully boxes up the rest of the shortbread so that he will not eat it all in one sitting.

“I’ve not heard this one, but have come across Christmas Eve visitations before. There is an old notion that the year is a circle, and by being such ought to have 360 days, just as the circle has the same number of degrees. That leaves about five days left over that shouldn’t be there.

“In northern traditions, those five days fall between Christmas and the New Year and is a period of the thinning of the veil between the worlds.”

“I thought that was Samhain.”

“Both the fall equinox and winter solstice have that reputation.”

“Somehow the greeting, ‘Have a haunted Christmas,’ doesn’t have the same ring,” I suggest.

“No,” he smiles. “That never caught on.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2016 Gabriel Rider – Part Two

gabriel-rider-white-bear  J.M. Corner 1917 Great White Bear

Gabriel Who?

“You have caused me to remember,” I say, “The Cat on the Dovrefjell, in which a man, who is taking a white bear to the King of Denmark, stops on Christmas Eve at the cottage of a commoner named Halvor. Halvor is leaving his home, warning the traveler that the trolls take over his house every Christmas Eve to feast and dance. The man and the bear stay nonetheless and when the trolls taunt the bear, it attacks, driving them from the cottage.

“The next Christmas Eve day, a troll calls from a distance to Halvor, asking if he still has that big cat. Halvor assures him that he does and the cat now has seven kittens bigger and fiercer than herself. The trolls visit no more.”

Augustus chuckles. “There are at least a half-dozen variants of that tale, but the punchline is the same and always works.”

I am struck by a thought. “Was Dickens drawing from this Christmas Eve-visitation thing for his Christmas Carol?’

“I would not doubt it.” His eyes are lingering on his box of shortbreads.

“Then there is the twenty-four thing,” I ponder aloud.

“Pardon?” Augustus glances up.

“Well, the twenty-four cats/witches, who live in a village of twenty-four houses, and were about to burn down the mill for the twenty-fourth time.”

“Oh, right you are. I haven’t a clue.” He opens the box and takes out one more triangle. “The more I think about it, the more mysteries there are in this tale.”

“Such as?”

“First off, why does he have a full name? Old soldiers are usually called ‘the old soldier.’ Some fairy-tale characters have a first name, like ‘Rapunzel.’ Some have a descriptive title, like ‘Iron John,’ but no one else has a surname and given name, Snow White and Baba Yaga notwithstanding. And look, the story is entitled Gabriel Rider. That indicates there being some significance in the name.”

I nod in recognition of his point; then he goes on.

“And we seem to have a commoner with some magical knowledge. Typically, in the fairy-tale realm, royalty, witches, old women in the wood, and wizened little men have magic. These last two might be magical helpers who give the old soldier or generous youth a cloak of invisibility or a pair of seven-league boots, but the soldier or youth do not themselves practice magic.

“Yet, here is our hero, drawing a line with his sword around the fire, which the cats cannot cross, and making the sign of the cross above the doors, knowing it will prevent the cats from escaping.”

“And what do these anomalies suggest to you about the story?” I ask.

“Did the telling of the tale have any markers of being literary?” Augustus’s eyebrows rise.

“No, none at all,” I say. “It has the authentic fairy-tale brevity; no flourishes.”

Augustus goes to his desk in the corner and types “Gabriel Rider” on the keyboard.

“What are the results?” I ask.

“Well, there seems to be a film character with that name associated with motorcycles and flaming skulls, a reference to Stephen Badman’s book, and thirty-nine matches in the Whitepages.”

“From which you conclude?” I bait him.

“I adhere to my previous statement.”

“Which one?”

“When I said, ‘I haven’t a clue.’ ”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2016 Gabriel Rider – Part Three

gabriel-rider-black-catJohn D. Batten

Sith Cat

“Johannes,” I address he-who-has-condescended-to-own-us lounging on his cushion in the window seat, “what is the connection between cats and fairy tales?”

“I assume,” Johannes sits up, “you are referring to that horrid little story you told to Thalia the other night.”

Gabriel Rider, yes, but ‘horrid’ seems a little strong of a descriptor,” I challenge.

“Maiming and blackmailing twenty-four sith cats qualifies as horrid in my eyes.”

I take note of the term he uses. “Sith cats?”

“Or ‘sidhe’ cats, if you like.”

He sees my confusion.

“Alright then,” he says, “fairy cats.”

“Ah,” I say, “tell me about these fairy cats.”

“You’re looking at one.” His tone holds a hint of contempt for me and pride for himself. “Although the name is a misnomer. Witch-cat would be more representative.”

“I’m listening,” I say.

“We sith cats are Scottish in origin and Celtic in nature. All we sith cats were once witches. A true witch has the power to turn herself into a black cat with a white chest.” He puffs out his own a little. “In that form, we can wander around the countryside unnoticed. There is one caveat. We can only turn into cats and transform back eight times. On the ninth transformation, we remain a cat.”

“You were a witch?” I marvel.


“But wait a moment, Johannes; you are a male cat.”

“Did you not pick up on the word ‘transform’?”

“Ah,” I say, “if you can change one thing, you can change another.”

“Quite. And your horrid story got our coloration wrong. We are always black with a white spot; we are not grays.”

“A cat has nine lives,” I mutter to myself. “For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays. That comes out of a childhood memory. Told to me by my nanny, if I remember rightly.”

Sith cats have nine lives,” Johannes corrects.

“Then as a witch, you changed yourself into a cat for a ninth time knowingly? Why?”

“As a witch I was quite old. As a cat, I started over again, giving me a bit more longevity. Besides, a cat is a superior form.”

I let that comment pass. “Is it true that, if a black cat crosses my path, it is an ill omen?”

“Well. . . ,” Johannes is hesitating, “we may not be the best company, particularly if you happen to be a corpse.”

“A corpse?”

“There is the notion that, if a sith cats jumps over the dead before burial, it can steal the deceased’s soul.”

“Would you?”

“That’s one of the reasons for the wake, to keep us away. In Scotland they will not even light a fire in the fireplace, knowing we are attracted to fire.”


“Well, we like the warmth.”

“I hope you are not planning. . . ?”

“Make sure you give me a saucer of milk on Samhain.”

“Thalia gives you a saucer every day.”

“Yes, I know; she has my protection forever.”

Now there is a comfort.

Your thoughts?


Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2016 Drowning of the Bottom Hundred – Part One

belle-epoque-mermaid-emerges-from-the-sea-circa-1908Belle Epoque Mermaid Emerges From The Sea

Water, Water Everywhere

It is Saturday morning and time for the weekly outing with Thalia. Today’s destination is the Sea Life London Aquarium. Thalia’s favorite is the Sharkwalk.  Although November, the day is unusually clear and temperate. There might not be another one of these until spring.

However, along the way is Melissa’s bookshop, a must-stop-and-buy-a-book-for-Thalia sort of thing. Thalia gives Melissa a hug and heads for “her aisle.” The book Melissa sets down in order to hug Thalia is W. Jenkyn Thomas’ The Welsh Fairy Book.

“You’re re-reading that,” I say.

“Yes, it holds a story that haunts me. The Drowning of the Bottom Hundred. Have you read it?”

“I must have; you sold me the book. Refresh my memory.”

“I’ll read it to you.”

I glance about. There are other customers in the shop, but they are in their aisles like Thalia, and I suspect they will be there for some time. I settle into a chair beside Melissa.

The story starts with a set of wonderfully unpronounceable Welsh names—King Gwyddno Garanhir of Ceredigion and Prince Seithenyn, son of Seithyn Saidi—over which Melissa stumbled, but I can do no better. Part of the kingdom was an area called the Bottom Hundred, a fertile swath of land holding sixteen fortified towns, all claimed from the sea by a massive stone embankment.

Prince Seithenyn was Lord High Commissioner of the Royal Embankment, but was best known as a notorious drunk. He had relinquished his duties to his deputies, who were as irresponsible as himself, with the exception of Teithrin, son of Tathral, who dwelt at the point of Mochras, in the high ground of Ardudwy.

“Sorry,” says Melissa, referring to her consistent mangling of the Welsh names.

Into the story enters Prince Elphin, the actual hero of the tale, after the listener has suffered so many excruciating monikers. He is fishing in a pastoral setting when he hears, “Beware of the oppression of Gwenhudiw!”

Melissa glances up at me and goes on.

Gwenhudiw, the mermaid shepherdess of the ocean, wishes to reclaim the Bottom Hundred. Immediately after hearing the warning, Teithrin appears, telling Elphin of the woeful condition of the embankment and Elphin takes heed.

After inspecting the stoneworks for himself, Elphin, along with Teithrin, enters Seithenyn’s hall where feasting and drinking are in full swing. Elphin tries to have a conversation with him concerning the condition of the embankment, but Seithenyn insists the ancients who built the seawall knew what they were doing, and one should leave well enough alone. Also, he ended each of his sentences with, “Cupbearer, fill!”

Elphin and Teithrin are soon the only ones sitting erect, as everyone else has slumped to the floor. Into the room enters Seithenyn’s beautiful and sober daughter, Angharad.

Another glance from Melissa.

Elphin and Angharad converse in courtly manner until the rising wind of the gathering storm outside the castle carries the words, “Beware of the oppression of Gwenhudiw!”

One of the towers along the embankment crashes into the waters, creating a gap in the stonework. Seithenyn, in his stupor, tries to defend his realm with his sword, and is consumed by the sea.

Elphin, Teithrin, Angharad and their party flee along the remaining seawall. By morning they witness the drowning of the Bottom Hundred.

It is said, if one stands by the shore at Aberdovey one can hear the bells of Gwyddno’s  submerged churches still tolling under the sea.

“Now there are images full of pathos,” I say.

Melissa smiles sadly.

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2016 Drowning of the Bottom Hundred – Part Two

edmund-dulac-the-city-in-the-sea-1912The City in the Sea, Edmund Dulac


“This tale is rather literary,” Melissa reflects. “W. Jenkyn Thomas drew it from Thomas Love Peacock’s Misfortunes of Elphin, Peacock being a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelly, by the way.”

One of her customers extracts himself from “his aisle” and heads for the cash register, but Melissa does not notice.

“W. Jenkyn Thomas would have us believe that the inundation of castles and cities is a theme in Welsh fairy tales.”

“Now that you mention it,” I recall, “they do sink a lot of buildings into lakes.”

“Yes, he includes four other stories of a similar bent in his collection.”

A polite cough comes from behind us, and I nod toward the counter.

“Oh.” Melissa rises to attend to business. I pick up her copy of The Welsh Fairy Book and scan the table of contents. She is right, of course. I spot Bala Lake, Helig’s Hollow, The Swallowed Court, and Syfaddon Lake.

“My favorite,” I tell Melissa upon her return, “is Bala Lake.”

“Now you’ll need to remind me which of the five stories that is.”

“The one where an oppressive prince, odious to his subjects, has a grand feast celebrating the birth of his son. During the festivities, about midnight, the harper for the occasion takes a rest and is approached by a little bird, who speaks the words, ‘Vengence, vengeance,’ into his ear, then flies toward the castle door.”

“Right,” says Melissa. “The harper follows the bird to higher ground, the bird saying, ‘Vengeance, vengeance,’ every time the harper hesitates. In the morning he discovers the palace is gone, replaced by a lake, his harp floating on the surface.”

“That’s the one,” I say.

“The Irish are quick to drown fishermen in their tales. I suppose that is an occupational hazard and that reality is reflected in their stories. The Welsh, on the other hand, drown entire castles and towns; that couldn’t have been common.”

“Hardly,” I say, picking her volume back up, paging through it again.

“In Helig’s Hollow there is a murder and deception.” I scan to the next tale. “The Swallowed Court is more complex and ironic, but revenge still underlies it.” I move on to Syfaddon Lake. “This last one is very much like Helig’s Hollow, except revenge waits a few generations, then takes the whole extended family down into the depths.

“But The Drowning of the Bottom Hundred is a little different,” Melissa argues. “It is more about the neglect of duty, and the mermaid shepherdess’s claiming land that belongs to the sea, than about punishment for a crime or misdeed. I guess I am attracted to the romance of an ominous warning, a tower crashing into the sea, the foolish drunkard dying sword in hand against the water, and a party fleeing over crumbling stonework. And yet in the end, like the other stories, a thing man-made ends up under water.”

“I think you have hit on it,” I say with certainty. ‘‘A thing man-made ends up under water. We tend to pride ourselves on our artifices. We think we can bend the rules to our favor. But forces we had not reckoned on are only a thought away and may overwhelm us.”

“I can accept that notion,” Melissa thinks aloud. “Yet, why water? Why not fire, an earthquake, a devastating wind? Why water? Perhaps we should ask an expert.”

“An expert? Such as a plumber?”

“No silly, I am thinking of our nixie.” Her eyes glint.

Our nixie?

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2016 Drowning of the Bottom Hundred – Part Three

seventeenth-century-alchemical-emblem Seventeenth century alchemical emblem


“Popcorn?” Melissa’s tone suggests I am being inappropriate in feeding popcorn to a near immortal.

“She loves the stuff,” I defend.

We make our way through the arched branches overhanging the path. Melissa had not known about the magic forest outside my study’s bay window. It had always been night when Melissa visited me.

“Is that a glass mountain over there?” Melissa points down one of the multiple paths.

“Yes, but the nixie’s pond is in that direction.” I point opposite.

We settle ourselves on the high stones surrounding the pond. We wait, but not long, for the nixie to rise to the surface.

“Hello, my human.”

“Hello, my nixie.” I throw her the first of many rounds of popcorn. She catches them deftly in her green-tinted hands, popping the kernels into her mouth with long, delicate fingers.

I glance at Melissa. I’ve heard the expression “eyes wide as saucers,” but had not known it was possible.

“My nixie,” I say, “you are—let me call you—of the water people.”

“Undine,” she corrects me.

“Undine,” I echo.

“Your philosopher Paracelsus kindly gave us elementals names. The gnomes (of the earth), which include dwarves and elves; sylphs (of the air), the fairies of all sorts; salamanders (of the fire), nasty little lizard-like things; and we undine, nixies, mermaids, and silkies.”

She catches some more popcorn, but her eyes rest on Melissa.

“We are wondering,” I say. “In the tales we tell each other, tragedy is likely to take the shape of water. If we are to be harmed by the elements in these stories, seldom are we knocked down by the wind, crushed by an earthquake, and only occasionally consumed by fire. More often men, women, children, castles, and towns are drowned. Why is water the ultimate destroyer?”

How she knows this is my companion’s question, I cannot tell, but the nixie turns to her.

“What is your name?”

There is a hesitation before the answer.


“The reason the tales identify water as the ultimate destroyer—and it is—is this. If a town is blown down, shaken down, burnt down, from its ruins it can be rebuilt. If the town is drowned, it still stands, uninhabited, becoming its own ghost. The sea will never give it up.

“But, Melissa,” the nixie continues, “do not fear the sea. The waters also give. How many men have taken wives from the sea?”

“How many husbands have been taken from the land?” Melissa returns.

“That I will allow,” the nixie confesses. “They are a slippery lot. We usually don’t get to keep them.”

“And the sea-wives always return to the sea,” says Melissa. “I perceive the sea takes more than it gives.”

The nixie sighs. “They are compelled to return to their watery homes if given the chance. Still, they love the children they bore by their human husbands. We are not, all of us, heartless.”

“That is another question. Do you hide your heart in secret places?”

“Oh, not I, and rarely other undine. That is more of a giant’s or wizard’s thing to do.  We are heartless until there is close human contact. Even then there may be a price for either or both.”

“And a soul?” Melissa is probing.

“Our perpetual worry. We are told we have none,” the nixie states flatly.

“Perhaps you have more to fear than I.” Melissa’s tone is flat as well.

“That may be, but my world remains one of the four elements, to which, in a quarter part, you are indebted for your existence, hence your fear, or is it respect, for the watery depths.”

The two regard each other.

Should I throw popcorn between them?

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2016 King Wyvern – Part One

wyvern 14th century Welsh manuscript

The Wyvern

I am having a red-letter day. Besides a pleasant sojourn to Augustus’s tobacco shop, where we sat for the afternoon testing new blends, tonight is Trick-or-Treat night. Because I think it would be undignified for me to “dress up,” I am left behind every year, Thalia’s mother taking up the task of following her around the neighborhood, herself dressed as a witch.

But this year Melissa has offered to accompany Thalia—actually orchestrating the evening—influencing her to dress as a wyvern, a sort of dragon with bird claws, wings, and serpent tail. Thalia bought into that idea immediately, and Melissa’s theatrical friends aided in the costume design. Our Halloweens are becoming a production.

Upon their return, Melissa plans to read to Thalia—thematically—King Wyvern. I know the tale. I gave the book in which it appears to Melissa for her birthday: More Tales from Denmark, compiled and translated by Stephen Badman.

In this tale, a king and his queen wake up after their wedding night to find, scrawled across the foot of their bed, the words, “You shall never have children together.”

The distraught queen meets an old woman in the wood, who tells her to turn a clay cup upside down in her garden, and in the morning there will be a white and a red rose bud under it. If she eats the white rose, she will have a daughter. If she eats the red rose, she will have a son. Against the old woman’s warning, the queen eats both roses and gives birth to a wyvern.

The creature soon demands they find him a wife, saying, “If you don’t find a bride for me, young or old, big or small, rich or poor, then I’ll tear you and the castle apart.” They do find him a princess, but after the wedding and wedding feast, when the couple retires to their bedchamber, the wyvern tears the princess apart, and soon demands another wife, who meets the same fate.

On the third demand for a wife, the king goes to his shepherd and forces him to give up his daughter.

Before the wedding, this girl, too, meets the old woman in the wood, who instructs her as to what she must do to survive.

On her wedding night, the girl puts on ten shifts. When she and the wyvern are alone, the creature says, “Beautiful maiden, take off a shift.”  She replies, “King Wyvern, slough a skin.” This they do nine times. The girl still has on one shift, but the wyvern has sloughed all his skin. She then whips him with birch rods dipped in vinegar until he is a bloody pulp. Then she washes his remains in milk, swaddles him in her nine shifts, and falls asleep with him on the bed. By morning she is in the arms of a handsome prince.

I stuff my pipe with one of Augustus’s new blends we tried out today, “Dragon’s Breath,” and wait for the girls’ return. The blend has a fair bit of Latakia in it, but I think I will advise him against that name.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2016 King Wyvern – Part Two

wessex_flag Wessex flag


I have of course surrendered the comfy chair to Melissa, Thalia, and Teddy, contenting myself with the window seat. Thalia, with some reluctance, took off her wyvern costume, and donned her jammies. Melissa, although she has removed her bonnet, and her crook now leans against the fireplace, still wears the remnants of her shepherdess outfit. Both Thalia and I are rapt listeners as Melissa’s reads the tale.

I did a little research while waiting for the trick-or-treaters to return. Apparently, there are those who do not consider the wyvern to be a dragon at all, the distinguishing characteristic being that dragons have four legs and the wyvern only two, although all other features they share in common.

The wyvern shows up in a lot of heraldic designs, usually as a decorative element. However, for the old Kingdom of Wessex, the wyvern served at their emblem. There is a possible connection between the Wessex emblem and King Wyvern.

During the ninth century, Danish Vikings invaded Wessex on a recurring basis. Alfred the Great succeeded in keeping them from overrunning Wessex, but by the early eleventh century the Danish-born King Cnut became King of Denmark, England, and Norway. In 1066 William of Normandy put an end to Danish interference.

Wessex shared much tradition with Wales, where the wyvern is to this day a popular symbol, although the Welsh national emblem is clearly a dragon.

What I haven’t discerned is whether the wyverns traveled down from the north to inhabit southern England, or if one of them traveled north to inhabit this story.

Melissa reads aloud while Thalia absently dips her hand into her rather big paper bag of goodies, unwrapping and popping another candy into her mouth.

“One day she was out walking, lost in dark thoughts, when she met an old woman who was wearing a red skirt and a blue jacket. ‘What troubles you my queen?’ asked the old woman.”

Fairy tales rarely state what someone is wearing unless it has some importance. The old woman’s garb is no exception. The red skirt and blue jacket is the trademark of the wise woman of the wood in Danish lore. The Danish storyteller need not explain who she is, it is simply understood. This is parallel to another figure in the Danish stories, the Red Knight, the stock villain, the Snidely Whiplash of the Danes, who usually gets killed at the end of each story—in other words, multiple times.

Melissa reads, “ ‘I think I can help you,’ said the woman. ‘When the sun goes down this evening, take a clay cup, turn it upside down and plant it in the northwest corner of the garden. In the morning when the sun rises, go back into the garden and pick it up. There will be two roses under the cup: a red rose and a white rose. If you eat the red rose, you’ll give birth to a boy; if you eat the white rose, you’ll have a girl.’ ”

“Ahhh!” Thalia likes that bit.

I do too. For me that is the abiding image of the tale. I have not come across the motif of eating roses before. Certainly roses have come up in other fairy tales. I must think on this.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2016 King Wyvern – Part Three

choosing_the_red_and_white_roses 1908 by Henry Payne Temple Garden

A Rose is a Rose

“About those roses,” I say to Melissa after Thalia has kissed us each goodnight, and gone off to bed dragging Teddy behind her with one hand, and dragging her paper bag of goodies with the other.

“Yes, that caught me too; it equates roses with fertility. I don’t recall that in any other story. Grimm’s Snow White and Rose Red, jumps to my mind, but the title simply refers to the girls’ names. The story dealt more with a bear and a highly ungrateful dwarf, nothing to do with roses.”

Beauty and the Beast comes to my mind,” I say. “The merchant picks a rose for his daughter, Beauty, and the story is off and running.”

“Still not similar to the fertility motif in our tale.” Melissa gazes upward in thought.

“What about the War of the Roses?” I know I am grasping at word associations.

“Well . . . ,”contemplates Melissa, “there is first of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays.

“In which?” I inquire.

“In which there is a dramatic scene when nobles symbolically pick either a white rose or a red rose to show their support for the House of York or the House of Lancaster.”

“You are suggesting some literary-to-folklore flow.”

“Certainly it happens,” Melissa returns. “Yet, there is another story, closer in theme to ours. Call it synchronicity, but I read about it today. A Sir John Manderville related a Jewish folktale, he writing in the fourteenth century. It is about a maiden, Zillah, falsely accused by a villain, Hamuel. She is to be burned at the stake, but the spirit of justice prevails, and Hamuel ends up dying by fire. From the ashes of the fire intended to kill Zillah, white roses spring up. From the ashes of the fire that kills Hamuel, red roses grow.”

“Linking red roses with males, and white roses with females, as in our story.” I observe.

“That link could be ancient. I’ll bet the story of Zillah and Hamuel was old when Manderville recorded it.”

“What about yellow roses?” I am baiting her.

“Usually associated with infidelity. Let’s not go there.”

“Agreed,” I say. “Was not Aphrodite involved with the rose?”

“Yes, white roses sprung up along the shoreline as she was birthed from the sea. Her blood turned the rose red when its thorns scratched her as she ran to save her love, Adonis, when he was gored by a wild boar—a rescue attempt that proved unsuccessful.”

“Jolly.” I pick up my copy of Grimm, peruse the titles, and read them aloud to Melissa as the word “rose” appears.

Brier Rose.”

That’s a Sleeping Beauty variant.”

“Snow White and Rose Red.”

“We covered that.”

“The Rose.”

“I don’t know that one.”

“And The White Rose, which I know to be a Beauty and the Beast variant.”

“So, what is The Rose?” Melissa frowns gently.

“It appears to be one of the religious tales for children, near the end of the book. Rather short,” I say, and read it to her aloud.

“Once there was a poor woman who had two children. The youngest one had to go into the forest every day to fetch wood. Once when he had gone a very long way to find wood, a child who was very little but very strong came to him and helped him gather the wood and carried it up to his house, but then in the wink of an eye he disappeared. The child told his mother about this, but she did not believe him. Finally the child brought a rose and said that the beautiful child had given it to him and that when the rose was in full blossom he would come again. The mother placed the rose into water. One morning the child did not get up; the mother went to his bed and found him lying there dead. On that same morning the rose came into full blossom.”

“How dreadful.”

I must agree. Roses, for all their beauty and aroma, play a diabolical role in the fairy tales.

Your thoughts?


Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2016 The Sea Maiden – Part One

sea-maiden-mermaid-in-the-pool-with-goldfish-franz-hein-1904  Mermaid in the Pool with Goldfish, Franz Hein

Perfect Day

A perfect day is rowing on that piece of the Thames which flows through Oxford, while listening to a story.

As a gentle September sun shines down on us, Melissa and Thalia sit in the bow of the boat, Melissa reading from her book as Thalia leans against her shoulder, silently reading along.

Melissa endeavors to broaden Thalia’s horizons beyond the Brothers Grimm and treats her to a story from Joseph Jacobs’ Celtic Fairy Tales.

“There was once a poor old fisherman, and one year he was not getting much fish,” Melissa begins. It is from the tale The Sea Maiden.

The fisherman bargains with the Sea Maiden, promising his unborn son, when that son reaches the age of twenty, in exchange for continuous good fishing.

At this point, the story tells us nothing about this son, other than he is twenty when he finds out his father has promised him to the Sea Maiden. The father reneges on his promise, and at his son’s request, asks the smithy to make a sword. The son tests and shatters the first two. Not until the third sword is the weapon to his liking. With the sword and his father’s black horse, he ventures out into the world.

Beside the road is a black dog, an otter, and a falcon, arguing over the carcass of a sheep. After the young man divides the spoils for them, they each pledge their help to him when needed.

The lad becomes a king’s cowherd, and grazes the cows on the lands of two giants. Both giants and their mother, in succession, attack the cowherd. The lad defeats them all with the help of the black dog, acquiring these villains’ wealth and possessions, but tells no one of it.

On his return to the castle, he hears that the princess is to be sacrificed to the three-headed monster of the loch. Her salvation may be a great general who wishes to marry her and is willing to defend her against the beast.

The next morning, the general and the princess go to the loch, but when the monster appears, the general loses courage and hides. The youth, in full armor, on his black horse with the black dog, shows up to battle the creature, cutting off one of its heads. He ties a knot through the head, and gives the head to the princess. She gives him a piece of her jewelry and he departs. As the princess drags the head back to the castle, the general steps up, forcing her to say it was he who cut off the monster’s head. Events occur in the same way for three days until the beast runs out of heads.

At the wedding between the princess and general, she declares she will marry the man who can undo the knots drawn through the severed heads. Only the young herdsman can undo the knots and he has the token jewelry.

After the herdsman and the princess are married, the Sea Maiden emerges from the loch and pulls away the young man. On the advice of a soothsayer, the princess plays her harp by the shore, attracting the Sea Maiden. The princess refuses to play more until she can see her husband.

The Sea Maiden raises him above the water, and he calls for the falcon, which carries him off. However, the Sea Maiden now grabs the princess. The same soothsayer as before tells the youth how to find the heart of the Sea Maiden, which is in an egg, inside a trout, inside a hooded crow, inside a white-footed hind. The black dog runs down the hind, the falcon catches the hooded crow, and the otter takes care of the trout, which gives up the egg.

The Sea Maiden rises up and pleads for her life. The youth demands the return of his wife. When she is in his arms, he brings his foot down on the egg.

“My goodness,” I say, “that’s a long story,” and realize I’ve rowed past our picnic spot.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2016 The Sea Maiden – Part Two

sea-maiden-john-d-batten-1892John D. Batten

A Picnic

After a bit of backtracking, we lay out our picnic from Melissa’s rattan basket under an ancient oak. She first produces a bottle of merlot. We allow Thalia a sip from her glass. She screws up her face and looks at us adults with dubious wonder. I don’t feel that way about the glass Melissa has poured for me.

“As I said before,” I say, after my first sip, “that was a long tale.”

Melissa nods. “I think the old shanachies were good at taking stories they heard and folding them into one.”

Thalia taste tests the cranberry Stilton Melissa is cutting. “I like the part about the heart in the egg,” she says.

“Yes, a compelling motif,” Melissa agrees.

“How many motifs from other stories are crammed into this one?” My sights are on a bit of hard salami that sits beside the Stilton.

“Well,” Melissa muses, “the tale starts with a fisherman trading his son for good fishing, that is to say for wealth. I first ran across that theme in Child of the Sea, in Modern Greek Folktales, by Dawkins, I believe. Did that travel from Greece to Ireland or from Ireland to Greece?”

“Maybe from somewhere else to both,” I put in. “Then we have the sword thing, his shattering of the blades before finding a good sword.”

“Well,” says Melissa, “that is right out of Sigurd.”

“Sigurd?” asks Thalia, tendering cinnamon-laced slices of apple.

“A Norse legend. I must read some of that to you one of these days.” Melissa smiles.

“Next,” Thalia pronounces, “came the dog, otter, and falcon, like in the White Snake with the fish, ants, and ravens. I like ravens.”

“The animal helpers,” says Melissa as she pulls from the endless rattan basket a curry pasta salad, evoking in me a Pavlovian response.

“What is our fascination with animal helpers?” I say, helping myself to the salad. “They are everywhere in the fairy tales.”

“It breaks a real-world barrier.” Melissa’s eyes move skyward as she formulates her thought. “Isn’t that the stuff of fairy tales? To move us beyond the mundane?”

“Next came the giants.” Thalia is buttering a piece of Marco Polo bread.

“That,” I say, “has its parallel in another Irish story, Jeremy Curtin’s Shee an Gannon and the Gruagach Gaire.”

“Oh, yes,” Melissa laughs, “that’s the tale with the defecating rabbit.”

“The what rabbit?” Thalia asks.

“Let’s move on to the next motif,” I suggest, “which is the classic princess in distress.”

I see Melissa go into her “yes, but” mode. “Yes, but, you brought up Shee an Gannon and the Gruagach Gaire in which the princess is not in danger, but, as in the Sea Maiden, the hero decapitates a number of giants, and (in this case) takes their tongues, leaving the heads for the interloper to claim. Then, at the wedding between the interloper and the princess, the hero appears, knocking off the head of his rival, even before making his claim on the princess.”

“Reeeeed me that story!” Thalia squeals.

Melissa looks embarrassed for a moment. “Maybe next time,” she deflects, as she reaches into the basket for some cold shrimp and cocktail sauce. She glances worriedly at me. “Am I being a bad influence?”

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2016 The Sea Maiden  – Part Three

sea-maiden-koshchey-the-deathless-by-ivan-bilibin-1901Koshchey the Deathless by Ivan Bilibin

A Slip

Having sated myself on the repast Melissa provided in glorious fashion, I settle back to digest a bit, lighting my pipe, Melissa and Thalia still nibbling on the brownies.

“Where were we?” says Melissa. “Ah, yes, we are up to the Sea Maiden reappearing to claim the youth.” Thalia wanders over to the river edge to poke at the minnows with a stick. “Don’t get snatched away by a mermaid,” Melissa calls to her.

“I won’t.”

“I am thinking again of The Child of the Sea,” continues Melissa. “Almost the exact thing happens. In that story the hero is carried down to the sea to have his wounds washed after battle and is reclaimed by the Queen of the Sea. His wife then tempts her with a golden ball to show the husband above the surface of the water, who then turns himself into an eagle. But that is pretty much where the story ends.”

Beneath my recollection of that story is a thought struggling to surface. “Now I remember! In Folk and Fairy Tales of Demark there is a version of this called something like Kidnapped by a Mermaid and a Dragon.

I draw on my pipe and that somehow helps my memory. “It starts out the same way with a fisherman trading his son to a mermaid. Trying to escape his fate, the youth comes across the animal helpers and divides a carcass for them, only this time there are four helpers: a lion, a dog, a falcon, and a beetle.”

“A beetle? Interesting,” nods Melissa. “In The Child of the Sea it was an ant.”

I pick up the thread of my thought, “The animals give him the gift to turn into those creatures.

“Yup, same thing in my tale,” says Melissa.

“Then there is a king who has three daughters, from whom the hero must choose the right one in order to save his life and marry her.”

“Nope, that part is different, although I know the motif from elsewhere.”

“The two lovers already know each other, “I continue, “from when he visited her in the form of a falcon, much like in The Earl of Mars Daughter.

“Nope, again.”

“Then the hero is kidnapped by the mermaid.”

“Yup,” laughs Melissa.

“When the princess saves the youth from the mermaid, she in turn is kidnapped by a dragon.”

“Nope.” Melissa sighs. “Does the hero defeat the dragon by finding his hidden heart?”

“Nope,” I say. “He turns himself into a lion to do battle.”

“These motifs are like a deck of cards being shuffled and dealt out. Every hand is a different story,” Melissa observes.

“I think I have lost count of the number of motifs in The Sea Maiden.” I relight my pipe.

“Well, we still have not said much about the hidden heart.”

As Melissa says this, Thalia rejoins us.

As I puff on my pipe, I recall something else. (I wonder if tobacco is a memory jog.) “I ran into that theme recently, and not for the first time, in a reference to Koschei The Deathless, the Slavic villain, whose soul is in a needle, which is in an egg, in a duck, in a hare, locked up in an iron chest, buried under a green oak tree on the island of Buyan, wherever that is.”

“The subtle suggestion,” Melissa concludes, “is that only evil people try to live forever by separating their soul or their heart from their bodies.”

“Does your nixie do that?” Thalia asks me.

“Oh, I hope not.” I say absent-mindedly.

Melissa is staring at me. “YOUR nixie?”

“Well, she’s not mine.” I say a bit too quickly, “No one owns a nixie.”


Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2016 The Twelve Huntsmen Part One

Twelve Huntsmen lion H J Ford

True Bride

Thalia’s approach to the study tonight involves a lot more clatter than usual. She emerges through the pocket doors of the study toting her wagon behind her, its cargo being Teddy and a doll’s rocking chair, atop of which perches the fairy, her spider web-fine, black hair floating behind her.

Thalia draws her burden up beside my comfy chair. “I promised to read to the fairy—properly.” She sets the doll chair in front of me and settles Teddy into it. The fairy flutters into Teddy’s lap and sits cross-legged, as Thalia climbs into mine.

“Hmmm,” she studies the contents page of her Grimm. “This one,” and she commences reading. Thalia has chosen The Twelve Huntsmen.

A young prince, finding the woman he loves—appropriately a princess—has betrothed himself to her, but he is then called home, as his father is dying. Before leaving, he gives to her a ring.

Thalia stumbles over “betrothed,” but she gets it. I am proud.

The king, on his deathbed, extracts the promise from his son to marry another princess. The prince, out of respect for his father, puts the woman he loves aside.

She nearly dies of grief, but then asks her father to find eleven women who look much like herself, then they all dress like huntsmen, and offer their services to the faithless king.

The young king, not recognizing her in the disguise, takes them into his service, and becomes quite fond of them. However, the king has an extraordinary lion, who tells him the huntsmen are women, and devises a test to prove it.

The lion has peas spread on the floor of the antechamber, knowing men will crush the peas beneath their boots, while women will not. The princess hears of this test and schools her ladies to walk like men.

“Antechamber” slows Thalia down, but she gets that one too.

Next the lion has spinning wheels brought into the antechamber, which he thought would attract the attention of the women. Again, the princess tells her ladies not to look at the wheels, thus avoiding detection.

One day, word arrives that the king’s new bride will soon arrive. Upon this news, the real bride swoons. Alarmed, the king runs to help his favorite huntsman. When he takes off the huntsman’s glove, he sees the ring he gave to her.

Here Thalia adds a little drama to her voice as she reads the king’s declaration, “You are mine, and I am yours. No one in the world can ever change that.”

The king reaffirms his love for her, sends word to the second bride to return to her father, and marries his true love, exclaiming, “Whoever finds his old key does not need a new one.”

When Thalia is done reading, she crawls from my lap, puts Teddy and the doll chair back on the wagon, and with the fairy now sitting on the crown of Thalia’s head, the circus trundles out of the study, leaving me to contemplate the small shifts in history that make up our lives.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2016 The Twelve Huntsmen Part Two

Twelve Huntsmen hunt Paolo Uccello Paolo Uccello 1490

A Blend

“Twelve Huntsmen?” I ask.

“Yes, my newest blend.” Augustus opens the canister to give me a sample. The familiar odors of his shop float about in the air.

“How coincidental; this is the story Thalia read last night.”

“Thalia read to you?”

“Yes, to Teddy and the . . . ah, myself.”

“My, she’s a big girl.”

“Odd little story, really.” I stuff my pipe with the sampling.

“Why so?”

“Well, it’s got a lot of the usual tropes, the forsaken bride to start.”

Aarne-Thompson’s The Forgotten Fiancée is its category,” Augustus chimes in.

“Exactly, but in this story the prince does not forget his bride due to a magical spell cast upon him, rather he puts her aside at his father’s request. The prince in this story is not blameless. The tale becomes about which promise he will keep, breaking the other.”

“Good point,” returns Augustus. “Notice that it is the man who forgets or forsakes the bride and not the other way around.”

“Are weak-willed suitors a given?”

“Perhaps. We need to consider that the Grimms were part of the German Romantic Movement, and wanted to appeal to bourgeois readers.

“The prince in our story could well have been perceived by the Grimms’ audience as a romantic hero, ultimately choosing his first love (passion) over his second bride (social convention). In our more egalitarian times, we see the prince as a flawed character, damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t, having made conflicting promises. ‘Well, he should have known better, shouldn’t he have?’ we say.”

“Dear me,” I protest, “I hate to think we are no longer romantic.”

“Ah, my dear friend, you are delusional. We are in a much more self-serving time than that of Jacob and Wilhelm’s. They reached for an ideal, we for a reasonable alternative.”

“No, no, Augustus, I will stick to my romantic notions, despite what evidence you can produce.”

“More power to you, but what of the princess’s deception, hiding in disguise among eleven other copies of herself?”

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses comes to mind.” My pipe has gone out, but I do not light it again.

“Yes,” contemplates Augustus, “but only because of the number twelve; there is little similarity. I am thinking of The Quest for the Fair One of the World, from Modern Greek Folktales, by Dawkins, where the prince has to pick out the princess hidden among forty other look-a-likes. It’s not a common motif, but I know I have run across its ilk before.”

“Putting it that way,” I decide, “I’ll compare it to The Lute Player, where the queen puts on the clothing of a minstrel to rescue her husband.”

“Hmmm,” Augustus thinks aloud, “the fairy tales love disguises, don’t they? I am now thinking of All Furs and Cap O’ Rushes, but isn’t it usually women who don disguises? Men will hide and deceive, but not put on other clothing. This idea takes my fancy.”

“Talking of fancy,” I stare at my pipe, “I haven’t taken one to this tobacco blend. It is rather awful.”

“Yes, I know. I had a dozen bag-ends of finings left over and threw them all together and gave them a fancy name. Well, sometimes a disguise works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

“Well said,” I say.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2016 The Twelve Huntsmen Part Three

Twelve Huntsmen Book or Hours

An Occupation

Despite the muggy August weather, Duckworth and I ply the oars, wending our way up the Thames.

“By the by,” I say, “If Augustus tries to fob off his Twelve Huntsmen blend on you, don’t fall for it.”

“Thanks for the warning, but you are too late. I bought an ounce of it out of curiosity. That’s the name of a story, isn’t it?”

I give him the summary, knowing he will never read the tales, making me his educator in these matters.

“Well,” says Duckworth when I am done, “let’s talk business, which is my forte.”

“Business is your forte, but what do you mean?”

“What are the economics of fairy tales?”


“I am thinking specifically of employment options.”

I shake my head in dismay, but then decide to explore this thought in his terms.

“All right. In The Twelve Huntsmen, the princess approaches the king to ask to be in his service.”

“Right,” says Duckworth, “imagine that happening today. Twelve huntsmen come to your door asking to be in your service?”

“I get your drift,” I say. “The fairy tales harken back to an earlier employment system. Going into service—being a servant—meant you were part of someone else’s household, giving up certain liberties, some of one’s independence, at a time when independence might be synonymous with starvation.”

“I was thinking about this the other day.” Duckworth pulls methodically at his oar. “When was the last time a house was built with servant quarters? I know there are still some live-in nannies, but I suspect that is about it.”

“True,” I concur. “There are still maids, cooks, and gardeners, but they all go home at night.”

“I return to my original question,” Duckworth looks directly at me. “What are the fairy tale employment options?”

“Well, for women there is being a princess, queen or a witch, even a witch-queen. There is the possibility of being a scullery maid for princesses in hiding. Young girls will often keep house for witches and evil stepmothers. Ugly daughters get to be lazy, but that’s not an occupation. There is the occasional henwife. However, none of them are nurses, teachers, seamstresses, or prostitutes. I suppose I shouldn’t be putting them all in the same sentence. ”

“Don’t think so,” says Duckworth. I continue rowing, and blathering,

“For the men, outside of kings, princes, and sorcerers, the millers are popular; so are farmers, fishermen, woodsmen, gardeners, soldiers, sailors, and tailors (but not weavers). There is at least one famous shoemaker, but no other leather workers such as saddlers or tanners. There are ironsmiths and goldsmiths, but no swordsmiths or tinsmiths. I don’t think carpenters or bricklayers appear, nor coach-makers or barrel-makers. Butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers only appear in nursery rhymes. The pope makes an entrance now and again, but not his cardinals or priests that I can recall. Judges and lawyers appear, but only as fall guys. Bankers, never.”

“That’s a rambling list,” says Duckworth.

“Well, the folktales do have a broader range of careers available,” I advertise, “but not the fairy tales.”

“Is there any order to be made from your list?”

I think for a moment.


Your thoughts?








Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2016 Arthur in the Cave – Part One

King Arthur Tapestry (c. 1385)

A Reading

I attend Melissa’s first “Open Reading” at her bookstore. I thought it a nice idea. Participants are given ten minutes to read a favorite passage. I invited Augustus and Duckworth, who obligingly show up. Melissa, Thalia, and I, along with two old women make up our paltry crowd.

Melissa asks me to start us off. I read Arthur in the Cave from The Welsh Fairy Book, by W. Jenkyn Thomas.

A Welshman, having sold his cattle in London at a good price, tarries about the shops on London Bridge—a thing that was before the Great Fire—when a strange man approaches him asking, “Where did you cut your hazel staff?” the staff being any drover’s necessary possession.

The Welshman is reluctant to talk to the stranger, but the man persists, revealing there is wealth to be gained in the prospect. They travel to Craig y Dinas in Wales, to the spot where the drover cut his staff. They dig until they come to a large flat stone. Prying it up, they expose a stairway descending into depths below. The drover follows the man, whom he has decided is a sorcerer.

At the bottom, beyond a door, they come across a bell.

“Do not touch that bell,” says the sorcerer, “or it will be all over with us both.”

Beyond the bell lay King Arthur’s court, asleep. A thousand knights in armor, ready for combat. Around a table, slumbering, sit the nobles of the court and King Arthur himself, Excalibur at his side.

“Are they asleep?” the Welshman asks, a man not beyond stating the obvious.

“Yes, each and all of them,” answers the sorcerer, “but if you touch yonder bell, they will all awake.”

The sorcerer’s intent is to steal some of the wealth lying around the cave, which they do, but the drover desires to see the court beyond their sleep state and rings the bell.

The court stirs, but King Arthur realizes their time has not yet come.

“My warriors,” says King Arthur, “the day has not come when the black eagle and the golden eagle shall go to war. It is only a seeker after gold who has rung the bell. Sleep on, my warriors, the morn of Wales has not yet dawned.”

The two thieves escape with their wealth and their lives, but the Welshman can never again find the spot where he cut his staff, try though he does.

My friends nod, knowingly. The two old ladies are perplexed by my choice of something not literary. I take it they are easily scandalized.

My companions’ readings are literary, even Augustus’s. I don’t really listen. The two old ladies read from their favorite romance authors. Thalia reads The Singing Bones, which the old ladies accept coming from a child. I am proud of Thalia, holding her own in such company.

As our literary disaster is breaking up, Melissa whispers to me, “Can we meet with Mr. Thomas at our bench?”

I note the plural “our” and am pleased.

“I think so,” I say.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2016 Arthur in the Cave – Part Two

W Jenkyn ThomasW. Jenkyn Thomas, National Library of Wales

I notice Miss Cox’s tiger lilies are in full bloom, while those in my yard are putting forth their last efforts. Melissa sits, rather at attention, on the bench, her eyes directed toward the garden gate. I know she is still reckoning with her amazement at speaking with past authors.  Meeting Jenkyn

Mr. Thomas is prompt in arrival, his movements businesslike, with the air of a man intent on taking care of whatever question is at hand.

“Sir,” he addresses me. I, with a nod, defer to Melissa.

“Madam, whom have I the honor of addressing?”

“Melissa Serious, and I have perhaps a peculiar question concerning your inclusion of an Arthurian tale in a Welsh fairy-tale collection. I have always thought of Arthur as an English hero.”

“Oh, the book.” Jenkyn’s businesslike manner melts with a laugh. “I assumed you were a member of the School Committee Association come to raise me from my rest over some procedural issue. They were relentless.

“Arthur, you say. I included him because we Welshmen consider him one of us.”

Melissa’s smile encourages him to go on.

“I took my cue from the Mabinogion. There are a number of Arthurian tales in the Mabinogion, which is that revered collection of Welsh legends. Note too, if Arthur is buried at Glastonbury, it is only across Bristol Bay from Wales.

“The Breton, Welsh, and Celtic histories and cultures are intertwined.  Arthur, Pryderi, Rhiannon, and Branwen (not forgetting the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus) inhabit the pages of the Mabinogion.”

Jenkyn’s eyes take on a devilish glint. “Did you know pigs come from hell?”

“Pardon?” Melissa raises an eyebrow.

Jenkyn smiles. “According to the Mabinogion, King Arawn of Annwn, the underworld, gave to Pryderi, king of Dyfed, a new beast not known to them before. Unfortunately, it caused a war with the kingdom of Gwynedd when their king, Gwydyon, stole some of the swine.”

“Royal pig rustlers?” Melissa looks dubious.

“Something of a sport. The Celts were fond of stealing cattle from each other as well, and fighting to the death over it. Nor were they beyond stealing each other’s wives. A fun, if violent, bunch.”

“Is Arthur in the Cave also part of the Mabinogion?”

“No, not at all. I drew all the stories in The Welsh Fairy Book from dusty, scholarly tomes in which they were buried. I was only a few years into being headmaster at Hackney Downs when I noticed books of fairy tales were popular among the students. We were replacing them in our library with some frequency. But these books were, perforce, tales from other nations, Wales not having a handy collection of its own. I fixed that.”

Spotting the lemonade and glasses that Miss Cox has set out, I pour for the three of us. Handing Jenkyn his glass, I ask my own question.

“Our tale has Arthur and his court asleep in Wales at Craig y Dinas—The Rock of the Fortress—instead of Glastonbury?”

“Yes, it’s a limestone promontory near Neath, quite scenic, around which are a number of caves, one of them called Arthur’s Cave. Somewhere in its depth, Arthur and his thousand knights are sleeping, to be awakened when Britain needs to be saved.  An appropriate place for the king to stay, although I think there are a half dozen sites around the United Kingdom making the same claim.”

Jenkyn raises his glass in a salute and takes a sip.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2016 Arthur in the Cave – Part three

King Arthur death John Garrick John Garrick

Arthur’s Return

“Why would the Welsh want to have the British saved?” asks Melissa.

“It depends on one’s definition of Britain. The medieval Welsh felt Britain could be saved if the English and Normans were driven out,” says Jenkyns.

“Ahh, I see,” Melissa starts on her lemonade.

“Arthur was in that odd position of being claimed by the Celtic people, as well as the English and Norman royalty. Even the French Plantagenets made a bid for him.

“The belief in ‘Arthur’s Return,’” Jenkyn continues, “is not simply a Welsh thing. It is shared by Cornishmen, Bretons, and Scots, anyone with Celtic roots.”

“I take it then,” Melissa says between sips, “Arthur may be buried at Glastonbury, asleep at Craig y Dinas, or recovering on the Isle of Avalon.”

“Oh, it is worse than that. Besides the numerous British claims of a resting place, the Sicilians make a claim for Mount Etna. Avalon has been placed in the Mediterranean, somewhere near India, and even in the Otherworld.”

Jenkyn drains his glass and goes on.

“But Arthur does not own the ‘Sleeping Hero’ status. There are stories about our own Welsh king, Bran the Blessed, also slumbering beneath the earth, as well as Ireland’s Fin McCool, the renowned Finnian king. There are lots of other kings, including Frederick Barbarossa and Charlemagne; a good contingent of Roman emperors; and one or two saints, all slumbering and waiting.

“The first record of these sleeping heroes is an unnamed British deity mentioned in passing by Plutarch.”

“Plutarch? That puts the idea of the ‘Sleeping Hero’ into the first century,” Melissa notes.

“Yes,” says Jenkyn, “yet the folk tradition is not done with Arthur. It also has him not resting at all. In some parts of England he leads the “Wild Hunt.”

“The Wild Hunt?” I say. “I thought that the realm of the fairy folk.”

“Not exclusively. For example, in South Cadbury—not that far from Glastonbury—on stormy winter nights, the howling of the wind becomes the baying of Arthur’s hounds, or the sound of bugles, and only the glint of the horses’ silver shoes can be seen. They call it “Arthur’s Hunting Causeway.”

“Buried, resting, and riding,” Melissa muses.

“Oh, and still, tradition is not done with Arthur. It has transformed him into a bird.”

“Dear me,” I say.

“Sometimes Arthur is a crow, forever flying about, or sometimes a raven, in particular a Cornish Chough. Then, again, I have read reference to him as a puffin, and another time as a butterfly—that last not being a bird, of course.”

“There’s no end to it.” I shake my head.

Melissa slowly lifts a finger in the air. “Now that you have explained it, I think what I like about Arthur in the Cave is not the story so much as the lingering sense of hope for the Welsh that they have a hero who will be there when he is truly needed.”

“And that, my dear, is why the tale is in the book.”

Your thoughts?

PS. Miss Cox’s lemonade is especially good. You should try some.





Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2016 The Singing Bone – Part One

singing bone milestone


How many mental milestones do we pass in a lifetime? I am sure most of them go by unnoticed, like those tenth-of-a-mile markers on American turnpikes. Yet some milestones are remarkable. I am passing one of them now.

Melissa is sitting in my comfy chair with Thalia and Teddy on her lap, reading Grimm. Thalia has abandoned me before—oh the vagaries of youth—but I don’t mind in the least. I am a child at heart and love to be read to as well.

Thalia has tasked Melissa with reading The Singing Bone, not a comfortable story, really.

A wild boar has taken upon itself to devastate a kingdom, killing peasants and livestock. The king offers up in marriage his only daughter to whoever can rid his realm of this menace.

Two sons of a poor man come forward, the elder approaching the challenge out of pride, and the younger out of concern for others. They plan to enter the forest of the wild boar at either end, trapping the boar between them.

The younger comes upon a dwarf who gives him a spear, which the youth plunges into the heart of the beast.

Carrying the beast on his back, he passes through the forest to find his brother loitering at a tavern. On their way to the castle, the jealous elder brother murders his younger brother, burying him under a bridge, taking the boar carcass as proof of his valor, and to claim the bride.

Years later a shepherd finds a bleached, white bone under that bridge that he carves into a flute that only plays the sad tune of the younger brother’s fate. Amazed, the shepherd presents this miraculous instrument to the king, who immediately understands its meaning.

The rest of the bones of the youth are dug up and properly buried, while the elder brother is tied in a sack and drowned.

“I wish she had chosen Cinderella,” Melissa says after Thalia has given both of us a kiss and dragged Teddy out the study door. “What a bleak story.”

“I sense a bit of Cain and Abel in this tale.” I pour two small glasses of wine.

Melissa puts her chin in her hand. “I am going to say ‘no’ to that. I know the female version of this tale.”

I hand her a glass and let her continue.

Binnorie, a Scottish tale.” Melissa takes a sip, thinking. “Ah, English Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs.” She looks at me slyly. “You’ve met him.”

“That I have.” And I remember the story she is talking about.

“But,” she continues, “I think it comes from a ballad.”

I stand and go to my bookshelves to peruse Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads and come up with The Twa Sisters, in which Child dedicates over twenty pages to notes and variations on the ballad.

“The common traits,” I muse after a quick scan of Child’s notes, “is the sibling murders, improper burials, and the bones becoming musical instruments to reveal the crime.”

“The notable difference is the wild boar in The Singing Bone,” Melissa ponders and pulls out her smart phone from her purse. “Wild boars in fairy tales,” she intones to the device. I sense a delightful evening of research and conversation coming on.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2016 The Singing Bone – Part Two

Singing bone boar

Smarty Phones

Huddling together, peering into the glow of Melissa’s cell phone, we don’t come up with many other fairy tales with wild boars in them besides The Singing Bone. The tale Old Sultan has a boar, but it is of a comical order. There is a boar in The Mitten, but it is just one of a series of animals of increasing size that squeeze into the mitten.

Melissa taps the microphone icon and tries again.

“Wild boars and mythology.”

No shortage of good links with that inquiry.

The first image we see is of the Norse god Frey with his solar boar, Gullinborsti, pulling his chariot. His sister Freya also rides a boar. We see that pigs make a number of appearances in The Odyssey. These are fairly honorable positions for swine, but we soon run across Robert Graves’s assessment that in myth, pigs are the beasts of death.

In the Welsh Mabinogion, pigs come from the kingdom of Annwyn, the underworld. There are a number of male deities who are killed by boars, Attis and Adonis being two of them. Pigs are involved with the myth of Persephone in that they obliterate the tracks of Persephone and fall into Hades with her.

“This looks interesting.” Melissa points to the hyperlink phrase “Calydonian boar.”

In this myth, King Oeneus makes offerings to the gods for a plentiful harvest, forgetting about the goddess Diana. In revenge, she loosens a boar upon King Oeneus’s land that destroys crops and flocks, and sends the people scurrying inside the city walls.

Oeneus’s son, Meleager, gathers about him his brother, uncle, and numerous Greek heroes to hunt the boar. Meleager is virtually immortal given that one of the Fates decreed that he live only until a certain log burning in the fire is consumed, a log which his mother, Althaea, removes from the flames and hides away.

The hunt does not go well. All the heroes miss their mark, except for the Amazon Atalanta, who is able to wound the beast. Then Meleager’s second spear pierces the boar’s heart.

He gives the skin and head of the boar to Atalanta, with whom he has fallen in love, angering his brother and uncle, who take the prize away from her. Enraged, Meleager slays his brother and uncle, among others.

Althaea, grief stricken, avenges their deaths by throwing the log—ordained, if you will, by the Fates—into the fire.

“That rather sounds like our story.” I am, again, surprised by the parallels between myth and fairy tales.

Melissa ticks off the similarities. “A wild boar ravaging the countryside, a love interest—the princess and Atalanta, and both brothers die—with the Greeks having more collateral damage. No singing bone, though.”

We search a little further and come up with the Celtic Diarmait and the Boar of Benn Gulbain. Diarmait and the boar are actually foster brothers, the boar being under an enchantment, and the two are fated to kill each other.

The story culminates when Diarmait and Finn McCool, who have come to a tentative peace after Diarmait stole Finn’s bride, find themselves hunting down a boar that has killed fifty of Finn’s men. The boar is, of course, the foster brother.

“Same elements,” Melissa muses. “Two brothers killing each other with a boar involved, and some sort of love interest in there somewhere.”

“But no singing bone. Where does that come from?” I take her smart phone from her hand.

I’m going to try this.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2016 The Singing Bone – Part Three

Singing bone bone flute Hohle Fels Flute

Bone Flute

Our search for a source of the bone flute element proves not to be as productive as that for the wild boar.

“There, that guy will help.” Melissa reaches over and taps “D. L. Ashliman.” Of course. I have used his site often. He offers up the text of numerous variants.

There is a French Louisiana version, called The Singing Bones (plural), which pulls from The Singing Bone and The Juniper Tree, with the culprit wife feeding her husband some of their numerous children. He eventually hears their bones calling to him.

An Italian version, The Griffin—in which a king sends out his two sons to compete in attaining a griffin’s feather to cure the king’s illness—is similar to a source from Lower Hesse listed in Grimms’ notes.

Both Ashliman’s list and the Grimms’ notes cite the Swiss version The Dead Girl’s Bone.

In this tale the rivalry is between a brother and sister in search of a certain flower, the brother doing the murdering.

Also cited by both Ashliman and the Grimms is Binnorie. While there is no bone flute in this tale, there is a harp made of bones; this is, after all, a tale of Celtic origin.

“Most of these,” notes Melissa, pouring us each another glass, “have shepherds in them. I am remembering something about the god Pan.”

“The god Pan,” I say to her phone. This still feels strange to me.

The Wikipedia listing pops up first.

Back to Greek mythology again. We learn that Pan falls in love with the Nymph Syrinx, daughter of Ladon the river god. Fleeing the amorous Pan, Syrinx calls to Zeus to save her and she turns into reeds. Enraged, Pan shatters the reeds, but is then struck with remorse and kisses the broken pieces. As he does so, he discovers that his breath can create music from them, and so he ties a number of them together to make his flute, which he keeps with him always.

On a sidebar I see Pan is, among other things, the patron of shepherds.

“Those are reed flutes,” Melissa observes. “What about the bone flute?”

I give her back her phone and pick up my wine glass.

“Bone fl…” she starts.

“Bohn, here you go,” the not-so-smart phone chimes back.

Melissa sighs and tries again, speaking a little more quickly.

It turns out there is a rather scholarly controversy over as to which among several contenders is the oldest bone flute.

The first is the Divje Babe flute, discovered in Slovenia in 1995. It is a cave bear femur, perhaps 45,000 years old. It appears that the holes were man-made, though some scientists argue that  an animal gnawed on the bone creating the holes.

Another, an undisputed musical instrument, is the Hohle Fels Flute discovered in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany’s Swabian Alb in 2008, made from a vulture’s wing bone, dating from approximately 35,000 years ago. However, several years before, two flutes made of mute swan bone and one made of woolly mammoth ivory were found in the nearby Geisenklösterle cave. The claim is they are 42,000 to 43,000 years old.

“I’ll take it there were lots of bone flutes lying around,” says Melissa. “The wild boar may come out of mythology, but the flute, like the spinning wheel in these tales, probably comes out of the material culture of the time.”

I agree with Melissa.

Your thoughts?




Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2016 Prince Swan – Part One

Prince Swan one

Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum

I’ve become aware that I live for this time of the evening, these moments when I sit in my study awaiting the padding of footsteps down the hall. I know Thalia will grow up, shed Teddy, shed me, and shed the magic that surrounds the both of us. Will I be able to live again in the mundane world?

My study door creaks open. Thalia is in her favorite nightdress, the hem of which touches the floor, picking up its gray dust and grime. Teddy, dragging behind her, does his duty by cleaning a swath of the floor.

As they settle in beside me on the comfy chair, Thalia declares, “Read me  . . . ,”  she considers, “ . . . the last story,” handing me her tattered copy of Grimm. I turn to the end, noting it is story number 250, and read.

“Little Hen found a little key in the dung heap, and Little Rooster found a little chest. They opened the chest and found a small, red short fur. If the little fur had been longer, then this tale would have been longer, too.

“Well, that’s it, time for bed.”

“Nooooooo! Read me the second last.”

I of course relent.

The second last story in these latter-day full collections of the Grimm stories is the overlooked Prince Swan. A maiden is approached by an enchanted prince in the form of a swan, who declares he will marry her if she will unravel the ball of yarn to which he is attached as he flies off to his kingdom.

This she does for an entire day, but just before the last of the yarn is untangled, it catches on a thorn bush and is broken.

Looking for food and shelter, the maiden comes to a house where an old woman answers the door. The old woman helps the girl, but warns that her husband is a cannibal. The husband returns home, smells the girl, and catches herl. The old woman talks him into saving the girl for breakfast. Before dawn the old woman, who identifies herself as “Sun”, gives the maiden a golden spinning wheel and sends her on her way.

The girl encounters two other old women with cannibal husbands, from whom she gets a golden spindle from the one named “Moon,” and a golden reel from “Star.” Star also tells the maiden that the spell over the prince has been broken by the girl’s efforts despite the mishap. However, he is now a king, has married a princess, and is living atop the Glass Mountain guarded by a lion and a dragon. Star gives the maiden bread and bacon to feed and placate the beasts.

Thalia giggles about the bread and bacon.

At the castle gate, the maiden uses her golden spinning wheel, attracting the attention of the queen. The maiden trades the wheel for a night in the chamber next to the king. There she sings the song of her travail, but the queen has drugged the king to sleep.

The girl trades the other devices for more nights in the chamber, and is able to fool the queen on the third try. The king hears the song, and puts aside his queen to marry the true bride.

“That’s sorta like Sprig of Rosemary.” Thalia knits her brow.

“And a little like Jack and the Beanstalk, ‘Fe, fie, fo, fum. I smell the blood of an Englishman.’”

“Yeah,” Thalia’s eyes light up. “Weird.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2016 Prince Swan – Part Two

Prince Swan Elisabeth Sonrel Elizabeth Sonrel

Some Questions

I have questions. Fairy-tale questions. Questions with deep roots in my psyche. Yet I have not the words to express them. Images imbued with distress flicker through my head, but nothing more concrete.  When I find myself popping popcorn, I then know what I intend.

Clutching a bag filled with still warm, fluffy kernels, I enter the Magic Forest at dusk, never a good idea. I know the way to the nixie’s pond despite the gloom.

“Hello, my human.” The nixie emerges from the water to sit upon her rock.

“Hello, my nixie.” I toss her a popped kernel that she catches with her webbed hands, then savors.

“Have you read the story of Prince Swan?” I ask.

“Your books do not do well under the water. Tell me the story.”

Even the immortals like to hear a good story.

When I finish she responds, “Of course I know the story. It is an old tale of human carnal love.”

“Carnal,” I say, while methodically throwing her popcorn. I think it keeps her at bay, and from dragging me beneath the water’s surface. Popcorn does not do any better under water than books.

“Carnal,” I repeat. “That is a base way of describing what we call ‘true love.’ ”

“Ah, true love, there is a mystery for us immortals. We know pleasure, but you mortals take more from knowing each other than we do.”

I toss her another kernel and she continues.

“Your maiden meets her prince, but not in his human form. Yet, her heart goes out to him at once, unconditionally. Explain that to me. Why does she travel to the sun, moon, and stars to reclaim a thing she never had? What did she think her chances were?”

“Her chances were always good,” I say. “She was connected to the prince through the symbolism of the yarn. The longer it traveled outward, the more connected they became.”

“But when the yarn broke, did not that all go away?” The nixie frowns as she nimbly catches another kernel.

“No,” I say. “It is only the inciting incident for the hero’s journey, or in this case, the heroine’s journey.”

“Yes,” her green eyes flicker. “You mortals are always searching. I don’t sense you are finding. Do the tales give you restless beings an illusion of closure? That is to say, somebody has found?”

She may have something there.

“We do like happy endings, but it is the search that is important. We take clues from the hero or heroine’s search and apply them to our own search, however imaginary that might be.”

“But why make the journey? If you want love so badly, why not love the next enchanted prince who blunders by?”

I keep the popcorn coming as I consider.

“We,” I finally answer, “like to think there is only one person we are meant to love, and when we find that person, we need to follow them down whatever path they travel.”

“And what happens when you get to the end of that path?”

“I don’t know. The path never ends, if we ever get to travel it.”

The nixie’s green eyes narrow. “How often do your people get to meet this one and only love?”

“That varies. Some of us never, others frequently.”

The nixie sighs. “You mortals are hopeless.”

“Oh no,” I say. “We are full of hope. Endless hope.”

“Perhaps that is what the fairy tale is about,” I say to myself.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2016 Prince Swan – Part Three

Prince Swan Frank Cadogan Cowper Frank Cadogan Cowper

Another Thought

My bag of popcorn is half empty, but I know I have not asked the question for which I have no words. The nixie’s eyes penetrate mine. She knows another question lies within me.

I almost hear a bubble burst in my thoughts and words flow from my mouth. “Where can I find the soul of a fairy tale?”

Is that the right question?

The nixie frowns. “You speak in Christian terms. Rephrase your question.”

I think I may have offended her. There is much that is Christian in the tales, but it is a gloss put upon them by Christian writers. At their heart the tales are pagan in nature.

“Where,” I start again, after a few more tosses of kernels, “is the spirit of the fairy tale to be found?”

“Ah, there is such a place. I can take you there.”

I sense the danger in that. “Tell me of it, instead.”

She smiles wickedly, but tempts me no further. “You do not need me as a guide. You have probably been there, but it is hard to remember such visits. Many a storyteller visits the spirit, if only for a fleeting moment while their bodies remain in a tavern, a workroom, by a family hearth, or near a fire in a Bronze Age hovel. Most commonly, you mortals visit from a place we immortals cannot tread—your dreams.”

“Motifs,” I blurt. “If the tales came from one place, then so do the motifs, those pieces of a tale that come up again in story after story, as in my Prince Swan: the women with cannibal husbands, those very women being the sun, moon, and stars, and the frequently-appearing spinning wheel.”

The nixie nods in confirmation. Another bubble bursts in my thoughts. “If there is but one spirit, is there but one true story, one complete fairy tale?”

“There was.” The nixie holds up her webbed hand for more popcorn. For my life, I’d forgotten to throw her some during my reverie.

“In the beginning,” she says between bits, “there was only one fairy tale. I knew it then. It took a mortal’s lifetime to tell it.

“Now it has come apart, flake by flake, falling to your plane of knowing in perfect little symmetries, leaving behind its spirit. I do not know where all the flakes have fallen, although when I see them, I recognize them.”

“Can the story be pieced back together and made whole again?”

‘Why would you want that? The weight of the whole story might crush you. Take what little wisdom it gives you when it melts on your tongue and be content.”

“No.” I hold back the popcorn on purpose. “I want to know the whole of it, hold it in my hands, as it were.”

“First try catching a snowfall in your hands. How many flakes would you miss? How many would melt in your hands?”

My popcorn bag is nearly empty. I throw her the last of the kernels.

“Well then, my nixie, take pity on a poor mortal who wants to know the ultimate story, but apparently cannot.”

“Pity is not one of my abilities. You need do that for yourself.”

I should have known and I shall.

Your thoughts?



Fairy Tales of the Month: April 2016 Puss in Boots – Part One

Puss in Boots CraneWalter Crane

Special Cats

I am undone, abandoned in a harsh world. Although a friendly fire burns on my hearth, there is no companion with whom to share its warmth, nor share a story. Thalia is on a sleepover.

Johannes curls up on the back of the sofa, his tail wrapping around his black body.

“Would you like a story?” I ask.

His yellow eyes focus on me. “The title?”

I consider for a moment. “Puss in Boots.”

“Puss?” Johannes’ whiskers twitch in annoyance.

“Or, The Master Cat.” I go for the same story’s alternate title.

“Why would I listen to such a thing?”

“Because the cat is the hero?” I offer, reaching for Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book.

Johannes does not get up and leave the room. I take that as permission to continue.

The Master Cat or Puss in Boots starts with the miller’s three sons getting their inheritance, the youngest receiving a cat as his due. The youth considers eating his cat and making warmers of its fur, but the cat suggests a more novel idea, that of the master acquiring for his cat a pair of boots and a bag.

Thus arrayed, the cat bags a rabbit and resplendently dressed—illustrators have given him a cavalier hat as well, though the story says nothing about it—presents the food gift to the king saying it is from the Marquis of Carabas. The gift-giving goes on for months until one day the king and his daughter are out for a drive in their carriage. Following the cat’s instructions, the young man undresses and submerges himself in a pond. The cat cries out that his master, the Marquis of Carabas, has been set upon by thieves and is now in fear of drowning.

The king, having received so many gifts from the Marquis, is happy to rescue and clothe the poor fellow. The cat runs ahead of the king’s carriage, instructing all he meets—along with threats—to declare these are the lands of the Marquis of Carabas.

The cat goes to the ogre’s castle—the real owner of the lands—to admire the ogre’s shape-shifting abilities. The ogre, suffering as ogres do with an inverse relationship between their powers and their intelligence, allows himself to be talked into turning himself into a mouse, with predictable results.

The marquis assumes ownership of the castle, and the king, impressed with his wealth, proposes that the young man marry his daughter, the idea of which the young man and the king’s daughter are way beyond him, having fallen in love the moment they laid eyes upon each other. The marriage is made and so is the cat, now only chasing mice for sport at his leisure.

“A French cat, isn’t he? “Johannes’ eyes are half-closed in superior mode.

“Yes, the story is by Charles Perrault, written sometime in the late sixteen hundreds.”

“I can tell he wasn’t a proper English cat, not nearly condescending enough toward his provider. In fact, he is the provider.”

“Actually, the original source is Italian. Both Giovanni Straparola and Giambattista Basile had versions of it.”

“Mediterranean cats aren’t much better than the French, subservient with skinny tails, all of them.”

Why do I feel like slapping him?

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2016 Puss in Boots – Part Two

Puss in Boots oneIllustration 1843, from édition L. Curmer


Duckworth and I pull at the oars. It is delightful to be on the river again on a glorious spring day.

“Tell me, what tale have you foisted upon poor Thalia recently?” Duckworth says that simply to make conversation, knowing my passion for the tales.

“Thalia escaped. Off to a sleepover. I told to the cat.”

“Animal abuse, dear me,” Duckworth smirks.

“No, not at all. I told an appropriate story to engage his interest—Puss in Boots.”

Duckworth missed a beat with his oar. “Really? You’ve finally landed on a story I know well.”

“Oh, are you a fan of Charles Perrault?”


“Perrault, the author of Puss in Boots.

“Oh, is that who wrote it? I thought these tales were authorless—traditional.”

“Well, yes and no. Some versions are definitely literary.”

“I see. Well, I use this story as an example in one of my seminars.”

“Seminar?” My turn to miss a beat.

“Yes, on branding and marketing.”

“Branding?” I stop rowing.

“That cat’s a genius marketer. Listen, to start, the cat is threatened to be eaten up by the competition. What does he do to survive? He comes up with a brand—the boots. Totally iconic. Throw in a cool hat and he is a made man.”

“He’s not a man.” Duckworth ignores my protest.

“Now, having his identifiable brand, he needs to create a demand for his product. What does he do? He catches rabbits and partridges, etc. and gives them to the king. Freebies. Giveaways. No better way to attract attention to your product than to introduce it by handing it out, usually a downsized version.”

“Product?” I echo.

“Now, having his brand and having a demand strategy in place, he takes the next step in getting the customer to buy into the product. By creating a situation, a position if you will, the cat gets the king to take the young man into his carriage, into his sphere of awareness, his marketplace.”

I know I am gaping.

“The cat runs ahead of the carriage, creating a stir among the peasants to do his bidding. Strong-arm tactics, creating a buzz. Yes, he uses threats, which could lead to a legal battle, but why not? Publicity is publicity. Everyone now knows you are a player; whether you win or lose the case, your name, your brand, is out there.”

I feel like crying.

“Immediately,” Duckworth continues, on a roll, “the cat minimizes the competition—the ogre—and assumes his prerogative.”

I wipe a tear.

“The cat doesn’t even have to make the sales pitch. The consumer, the king, suggests the purchase—the marriage. It’s brilliant!”

“Wait.” I try to recover. “Wasn’t Puss ‘n Boots a failed cat food company?”

“Yes, I know.” Duckworth waves his hands in the air. “They messed up on the logo. They had their cat in boots all right, but turned the bag into a swag, making him look like a bum. Had they put a natty hat on him, they might still be in business.”

With no warning, we lurch forward. Since neither of us have been paying attention, we’ve run aground.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2016 Puss in Boots – Part Three

Puss in Boots gpjHood2George Percy Jacomb-Hood

A Stroll

I skirt the edge of the Magic Forest as I amble along on my evening stroll, which I am squeezing in between a rain squall and the sunset. Notions about Puss in Boots float around  in my thoughts while my pipe smoke encircles me for a moment before drifting off into the arch of tree limbs.

Puss in Boots is a literary tale, with a known author, but even if I didn’t know his name, the story is absent the usual markers of a traditional fairy tale. The one traditional marker it does have is the trickster/animal helper, and yet I can qualify that.

The pedigree of the fairy-tale trickster goes back to the trickster gods, such as Loki of the Nordic pantheon, who could transform himself into animal shape. I doubt there is a culture that does not have a trickster figure lurking somewhere in its lore.

Just as popular are animal helpers. In the fairy tales these creatures abound, but I have noticed the majority of them fall into two categories. First, the hero or heroine is often helped by an enchanted being in animal form, who at the end of the tale regains human shape. A famous example is The Frog King, and there is also The Golden Bird.

The second category of animal helpers is from stories like The Queen Bee and The White Snake. In these tales the helpers come in sets of three and in groups. Taking The Queen Bee as example, the hero is helped by a colony of ants, a flock of ducks, and a swarm of bees in exchange for his kindness to them.

Now, there are stories like The Six Swans in which the brothers are turned into swans and their sister must restore them, but these are not animal helpers. Also, there are animals in fairy tales that are simply animals, but these tend to talk among themselves and not interact with humans to any great degree. I am thinking of The Bremen Town Musicians or The Companionship of the Cat and the Mouse (You can imagine where that latter ends without reading it.) Here the animals are the main characters in the story and not in a trickster or helper role.

None of the markers I am thinking of quite fit our puss wearing boots. The cat is not an enchanted prince. He is not part of a colony, flock, or swarm. He does not talk to any other animals—his peers.

I pause in my stroll for a bit, and sit on a stump, studying my wet wellies. My boots are plain, not like what I imagine the cat wears. I assume the cat was not wearing rubber rain boots. As Johannes pointed out, this is a French cat. How the young master afforded fancy boots, not to mention the size issue, is of no concern to the story. What strikes me is I have not encountered an animal in a fairy tale that is dressed in any fashion. Illustrators might put clothing on them, but not the story.

Not so with Puss in Boots, which one can tell by the very title. Clearly a marker for a literary tale, the invention of a bold, individual author, not the result of repetitive, conservative, passing down of a community story. As a group, we humans will anthropomorphize the animals only so far. Giving them a hat might be too much.

The sun is setting and I dare not be close to the Magic Forest at night.  I will let my thoughts on Puss in Boots slip below the horizon as well.

Your thoughts?




Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2016 Tam Lin – Part One

Tam Lin NeilsenKay Nielsen

A Ballad

Melissa and I sit, wrapped in our coats, in Miss Cox’s garden. We are not waiting for anyone. Melissa asked to come here to see the approaching spring. The crocuses have come up and faded, but both the daffodils and the tulips are pushing up from the earth. Miss Cox has set out a pot of jasmine tea, protected by a cozy.

My friend sips from a steaming cup while I say, “I am thinking of reading Tam Lin to Thalia. It’s an old Scottish ballad actually, about the heroine, Janet, rescuing her lover from the fairy queen.”

Melissa swirls around the tea in her cup. “I know it well. I wouldn’t read it to her.”

“Hmmm,” I say, “Too much sexual content?”

“Oh, no, not that.” Melissa sets down her cup. “There is lots of implied sex in the fairy tales. Every king and queen has either a beautiful daughter or three sons. The tales do not state, on a regular basis, that these children come from under cabbage leaves. I don’t think children are discomforted by fairy-tale characters themselves having children.”

“But,” I consider, “The ballad of Tam Lin deals directly with a pregnancy. That is a bit more graphic.”

I take a sip of my jasmine tea as Melissa takes up her cup again, saying, “It’s the language and the longing that will stop Thalia from understanding the story.”

“Language? It has been awhile since I read this story, but I don’t recall any bad language.”

“Not bad language,” Melissa smiles, “Difficult language.” Melissa composes herself then recites:

 Janet has kilted her green kirtle

A little aboon her knee,

And she has broded her yellow hair

A little aboon her bree,

And she’s awa to Carterhaugh

As fast as she can hie.

Of course she has memorized it. “I see what you mean,” I say. “I suppose I could find an updated version.” My own suggestion makes me uncomfortable. “But then we begin to lose the sound of it, don’t we?”

Melissa nods. “That would be like updating Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, turning,

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote


When in April the sweet showers fall

That pierce March’s drought to the root and all.”

“What about the longing part? You are saying Thalia does not understand longing?”

“Hopefully, she hasn’t experienced it at her tender age. Certainly she loves you and loves her teddy. Certainly children have emotions, but the longing of love comes about somewhat later. If Thalia has not experienced longing’s fear of emptiness, she may well not understand why our heroine, Janet, does what she does.”

I hear caution in my voice as I say, “If Thalia cannot identify with Janet on the level of shared experience, can she not empathize with her on a romantic level? I am guessing Thalia has absorbed an uncurious sense of German Romanticism via her reading Grimm.”

Melissa sips the last, cold dregs of her jasmine tea. “I am not sure we can equate romanticism with the darkness of an old Scottish ballad. In Tam Lin there is something of the uncanny that goes beyond the naturalism of the romantics.”

My tea has grown cold as well.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2016 Tam Lin – Part Two

Tam Lin batten John Batten

Which One

When I think of Augustus, I see him in the context of a cloud of tobacco smoke. If I met him on the quad, in the fresh air, I’m not sure I’d recognize him. We sit together in his testing room, happily fouling the air around us.

Tam Lin you say,” puffs Augustus. “You are referring, of course, to Francis Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.”

“Of course,” I say, feeling a little snobbish that I know the reference.

“Which one of the nine versions that he presents will you pick?”

“Oh, are there that many? I think . . .  I forgot that.”

Augustus rises and returns with volume I in his hand. “Let’s see, ballad #39. Yes, usually people use version A or B—the more modest versions. I have a slight preference for version B; the fairy queen wants to turn Tam Lin’s eyes to wood, and his heart to stone. Version A only has the first threat.”

“Oh, that’s pleasant,” I say, blowing a smoke ring.

“Now, a number of the other versions are much more explicit about the rape of Janet.”

“Version A or B remain attractive to me for my purpose,” I say, but Augustus continues.

“”Version I is a little coy about the rape:

He’s taen her by the milk-white hand,

Among the leaves sae green,

And what they did I cannot say,

The green leaves were between.”

“That’s not going to help me,” I repeat.

“Version G is interesting.” He’s on a roll. “Besides being changed to Lady Margaret, after Tam Lin rapes her, she is left to wander through a sunless, moonless realm for seven days.”

“Interesting,” I agree, “but no—not for Thalia.”

“Oh, right, Thalia. Then I vote for version B. All the versions have the Wild Ride on Halloween night; Janet (or Margaret) always pulls Tam Lin from the white steed as they pass by, and, in rapid succession, the fairy queen turns Tam Lin into a snake, or black dog, even a silken thread, and usually a red-hot iron, a series of these in any case, trying to get her to let him go. In all the versions the fairy queen fails, leaving behind only her empty threats.”

“But, Augustus, should I be telling her this ballad at all?”

Smoke appears to clear between Augustus and me. “Well,” he muses, “should age make a difference?”

“Isn’t this story a bit over her head? I know it was my notion to tell it to her, but it’s begun to makes me uncomfortable the more I think about it.”

“Yes, it makes you uncomfortable and if you tell her the story in that state she will pick up on your mood and be uncomfortable too. I believe you need to come to terms with the tale.”

“But, if I bowdlerize the story until I am comfortable, I will have changed the story, perhaps gutted it.”

“No, no, you can’t do that. I am saying, ‘stiff upper lip,’ present the story for what it is, and let it stand on its own.”

Why is this so difficult?

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2016 Tam Lin – Part Three

Wild hunt Aasgaardreien_peter_nicolai_arbo_mindre Peter Nicolai Arbo

Wild Hunt

Perhaps my troubles over this old ballad I take too closely to heart, but being a person of a retiring nature, I have nothing more with which to plague myself. I take shelter in my study in front of my fireplace, still feeling a little chilled by Melissa and my visit to the garden, and despite the warmth of Augustus’s company earlier this evening.

Upon my first reading of Tam Lin, The Wild Hunt grabbed me—the very term coined by Jacob Grimm in his study of mythology and legends, Deutsche Mythologie. He considered the Wild Hunt to be a remnant of Germanic pagan tradition and that the god Woden (and on occasion his wife) led in its forefront.

Over time and place, the cast of this furious ride in the night changed. King Arthur took his turn in the lead, along with other historical kings, and biblical figures such as Cain, Gabriel, and, not the least, the Devil had their moments. The purpose of their chase was not always clear; it could precede catastrophe, with willing and unwilling souls getting swept up into the procession.

When the Wild Ride appears in Scotland, the participants are diminished –fairies rather than a god or goddess. However, unique to Scotland is the story of one of the riders being pulled from the saddle and rescued from hell by a lover. Francis Child knew of no other example than Tam Lin.

Staring into the flames, I recall my introduction to Tam Lin. As a student—a library science major—my professor for reference studies gave me and my fellow students a list of possible library patron questions, plus a list of likely reference sources that we could use to answer the questions.  Put more simply, he assigned us a treasure hunt.

One of the possible sources on the list was Francis Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. I forget the actual question that led me to this work, but I do remember being in the university’s new library, under florescent lights, breathing sanitized air, sitting in one of the Naugahyde-covered chairs around a low table, and being plummeted down a thousand years into a world of earthy smells and course textures. I crouched beside Janet at Miles Cross waiting to hear the jingling of the bridle bells as the Wild Hunt approached. The tale thrust me into a world of magic where I have dwelt ever since.

Thalia’s fairy flitters into the study and settles close to the hearth. She would never be one of the fairies of the Wild Hunt; those would be the larger fairies. Fairies are as variable in shape and appearance as claims of honesty among politicians.  Our house fairy would fit into the company of Trooping Fairies, those that dance in fairy rings, luring mortals to dance with them for an evening, only to find on morrow that a hundred years has passed.

Nonetheless, our fairy serves as warning to me that Thalia is on her way to the study for a story. It will not be this story. Tam Lin will come to Thalia, as he came to Janet, when it is time, and not with my interference.

Your thoughts?