Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2017 The Shepherd of Myddvai – Part One

Shepherd of Myddvai - John D BattenJohn D. Batten

Dark Water

After a long four-hour drive, mostly down the M4, we find ourselves a little beyond the hamlet of Blaenau in Caermarthenshire, at the car park for Lake Llyn Y Fan Fach.

Wales, of course.

This sojourn, undertaken at Melissa’s insistence with no explanation, leaves Thalia and me bemused. Still, the Welsh landscape compensates for our confusion.

We put on our walking shoes and head up the straight, steep, long, very long path to the peak of Picws Du, which overlooks the lake. I am pleased to rest as we get to the top.

The clouds are thick overhead, but not stormy. We are so high up that the red kites—the birds I mean—circle in their flight below us, as we gaze at the lake sitting at the foot of the Black Mountains.

Melissa pulls from her small backpack a copy of Joseph Jacobs’ Celtic Fairy Tales. Thalia settles beside her.

The Shepherd of Myddvai,” Melissa announces. “Up in the Black Mountains in Caermarthenshire lies the lake known as Llyn Y Fan Fach.”

A young shepherd is tending his flock when three maidens rise out of the dark water. One comes near him and he offers her some bread, which she finds too hard and leaves him. On the next day he offers softer bread, which she also refuses. On the third day he offers her bread he found floating on the lake. This she accepts and also his proposal of marriage if he can pick her out from among her sisters the next day. This he does by observing the sandals she wears.

She becomes his wife under the condition that he not strike her three times. The love-besotted shepherd could not imagine ever striking her. She brings with her, from the dark water, cows, oxen, and a bull as a dowry.

Things go well for some time, time enough for them to have three sons. But, one day, he slaps her on her shoulder with a pair of gloves to get her attention. That is the first strike.

The second strike comes when they attend a wedding, in the middle of which she breaks into lamentation. He taps her on the shoulder to tell her to stop. She says she laments for the couple’s unborn child that will live in pain and die an early death, and that he has delivered the second blow.

The child she predicted is born, suffers, then dies. While the shepherd and his wife attend the infant’s funeral, she breaks into a joyous laugh. Shocked, the shepherd, again, tries to stop her with too heavy a touch.

The wife explains that she knows the child is in heaven and free from earthly pain, but his woes are about to begin. That was the third strike.

She calls her animals to follow her. Even a black calf, slaughtered and hanging on a hook, follows her back into the dark water.

She appears one more time, years later, to bestow upon her sons the gift of healing, with which they became known as the Physicians of Myddvai.

As Thalia and I come out of the story trance, our eyes return to the lake below us where it all happened.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2017 The Shepherd of Myddvai – Part Two

Shepherd of Myddvai - Lady of the LakeAlfred Kappes

Fey Marriage

The King’s Head Inn is our reward for scaling the heights around Lake Llyn Y Fan Fach. We were told that parts of this building are of medieval construction. I enjoy the ambience of stone walls and red carpet with fireplaces here and there.

I order the ox cheek Wellington to the chagrin of Melissa and Thalia, who both order white bean and tomato bruschetta. I suspect Melissa is quietly turning Thalia into a vegetarian. In any case, I intend to have sticky toffee pudding for dessert.

As we wait for our meal, I ask Melissa, “Are not mermaids connected to the sea, not lakes?”

“Mermaids are connected to the sea. The maiden in The Shepherd of Myddvai is one of the Ladies of the Lake.”

“Like King Arthur?” Thalia’s attention—which had wandered to the other dinner guests—is drawn back to our conservation.

“Only in that they are all Welsh. Sir Thomas Malory, in his Le Morte D’Arthur, seems to describe two Ladies of the Lake, but our lady is pretty distinct from her Arthurian counterparts.”

Melissa turns to me. “Are you familiar with the Physicians of Myddvai?”

“Not until this story.”

“They appear in recorded history, a family of physicians steeped in herbal lore, starting around the thirteenth century and continuing as a family of physicians for five hundred years. Our Lady of the Lake’s three sons are the founders of that family.”

“Cool,” says Thalia.

I look around, but haven’t seen our waitress for a while.

“The three strikes are interesting,” I say.

“Yes, it is what distinguishes the fey marriages from the animal brides.”

“What?” exclaims Thalia somewhat startled, expressing what I am wondering.

“I’ve been doing my research,” says Melissa staring at her hands and not at us. “And I see a pattern. An animal bride from the sea—that is a mermaid, who is half fish, or a silkie, who appears to be a seal until she sheds her skin—is trapped into marriage when a man steals her sloughed-off scales or skin. The marriage lasts as long as it takes her to reclaim what he took from her.

“A Lady of the Lake—a fresh water fey I might add—is not part animal, does not shed something of herself to be stolen, and is always agreeable to the marriage, but with conditions that invariably end the marriage in a similar way as the animal bride’s marriage ends.

“I am certain the Ladies of the Lake are fey—fairies that is.” Melissa nods to Thalia. “Other fairy wives of mortals follow the same pattern, though the condition tends to be that they cannot be touched by iron or they will be forced to leave their husbands.

“In one such story the fairy wife and her husband are trying to catch a colt, and the husband, in frustration, throws the bridle at the horse, but strikes his wife. The bridle is made of leather straps connected by iron links.”

“There is no winning,” I say.

“Not in the case of marriages between mortals and fairies.”

“What about the nixie?” Thalia pipes up.

“She is a third category. Nixies abduct young men to be their consort and there is never a priest around.”

“Ohh, naughty.” Thalia frowns.

“Quite,” Melissa and I chorus.

Our food arrives just in time to keep our conversation from descending further into topics forbidden to young ears.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2017 The Shepherd of Myddvai – Part Three

Shepherd of Myddvai - Vermeeer Johannes Vermeer (detail)

Bread

On our long drive home—and after the sticky toffee pudding to sustain us—I ask Melissa about the bread thing.

“Yes,” Melissa perks up from her driver hypnosis as she sits behind the wheel. “Events at the start of a story tend to be forgotten by the end. I am sure the bread in this story gets overlooked.”

“It appears,” I suggest, “that the shepherd offering the maiden bread is some sort of test, and she refuses him in rhyme, a taunt, actually.”

“But then,” Melissa continues, “he finds bread floating on the maiden’s own lake, offers that to her, and she accepts.”

“Where is that coming from?” I never heard the like.

“Ecclesiastes is tempting to cite as a source, ‘Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.’”

“Meaning?” I ask.

“That’s hard to say. Ecclesiastes can be poetic and dense, but I doubt it relates to our story.”

Melissa pauses a while as we merge onto another highway. “I think the bread is more of a needed ceremony. The maiden likes the shepherd, but he isn’t getting the etiquette right. So she gives him some help on the third try.”

“That is followed by a real test,” I say.

“Yes, choosing her from among her sisters.”

“Then follows the marriage condition,” I put in. “I see three stages to the courtship: the bread offering, the test, and the condition.”

“It does really follow the pattern of threes,” says Melissa. “Three stages of courtship, three sons, and three strikes.”

“And three loaves of bread,” says Thalia, “Aren’t these stories full of bread.”

“Oh,” says Melissa, “let’s play the naming game. How many fairy tales can we name with bread in them? I’ll start. I am thinking of The Three Little Men in the Wood, where the heroine shares her bread with the gnomes.”

Thalia’s attention turns from watching the passing countryside. “The Gingerbread Man!

“Hmmm,” Melissa contemplates, “is gingerbread really bread?”

“I’m thinking,” I say, “of Hansel and Gretel. Besides the breadcrumbs it has a gingerbread house.”

“Ok, I’ll allow it. How about Mother Holle in which the heroine passes a bake oven and the loaves of bread cry out to her to take them out before they burn.”

Little Red Hen,” shouts Thalia in triumph.

“Oh, that’s a good one. ‘Who will help me bake my bread?’” Melissa nods in approval.

“Do you know God’s Food?” I ask.

Melissa grimaces. “Oh, what a horrid little tale with its bloody loaf.”

“Ugh” Thalia agrees.

“How about The Children of Famine?” I impishly suggest.

“No better,” says Melissa. “I am remembering a story called The Baker’s Daughter. An old woman comes begging to a bakery where the baker’s daughter is minding the shop, and asks for a little bit of dough. Reluctantly the daughter bakes the little bit of dough, but it turns into a large loaf. Three times the daughter puts smaller and smaller amounts of dough in the oven for the old woman and larger and larger loaves come out. The old woman loses patience when the daughter will not give her the larger loaves and turns the girl into an owl.”

Thalia is thinking. “Brave Little Tailor.”

“Good,” says Melissa. “The flies are attracted to the jam on the bread.”

I can tell this little game may last for hours, and will take us all the way home.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2017 The Green Knight – Part One

Green knight 1 Book of Hours, 1475-1500

A New Book

“Post!” Thalia declares, trundling into my study with a package from the post office. I know what it is. My internet friend, Stephen Badman has sent me a copy of his latest book. Oddly, every one of his books is called Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark. Not until one looks closely does one realize there are four volumes of it, except for the one he named Odds and Sods.

We open the packaging revealing the crisp black-and-white illustration of the book’s cover. I peruse the table of contents, my eyes immediately falling upon the title, The Green Knight. Glimmers of an Arthurian sage arise.

“Can I read you a story?”

“It’s not bedtime,” Thalia responds.

“Oh, let’s be wild and abandoned.”

Thalia giggles and crawls into my lap.

A young princess, under the onerous control of a stepmother, tells her father before he leaves on a long trip—surrendering his daughter to the queen’s wiles—that he should tell the Green Knight to come fetch her, the Green Knight being another name for Death.

The king, in his travels, becomes lost and, finding himself in the presence of the Green Knight, delivers his daughter’s message.

The Green Knight explains he is not the Green Knight his daughter was thinking of, but if she will leave her bedroom window open, he will come to visit her.

This she does after her father’s return and the Green Knight travels to her in the form of a bird, taking back his human shape when he arrives. He and the princess fall in love.

“Like,” says Thalia.

He visits her often, arousing the stepmother’s suspicion. Secretively, she props two poisoned knives in the window sill. The Green Knight gashes himself on the knives and flies off.

“Unlike.”

He loses so much blood he cannot make it home and rests at a home on a large estate. Hearing of a mysterious visitor on the estate, the princess finds her lover dying of poison.

Sitting under a tree weeping, she overhears two ravens talking, one telling the other how the princess could save the Green Knight with the fat boiled out of the snake that guards the pot of gold buried beneath the very tree under which she weeps. This she does with the help of a servant.

Recovered, the Green Knight takes a proposal of marriage to the king and queen. The king and queen agree, the king because he knew their history and the queen in order to get rid of the daughter from court.

“Like.” Thalia smiles.

However, The Green Knight lays his own trap. He tells his wife to borrow a skirt and shawl from her stepmother. When the stepmother sends servants to get the clothing back, they return from the knight’s castle with such glowing reports that the queen is moved to jealousy.

She and the king travel to visit the princess and the knight. The knight tells his wife, when offered a drink of wine by her step-mother to let a drop fall on the dog that is always at her feet. This she does and the dog dies at once.

“Unlike!”

The queen is arrested, confesses, and is killed. The remaining company lives happily ever after.

Thalia looks at me sharply.

“Sorry about the dog,” I say.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2017 The Green Knight – Part Two

Green knight 314th century manuscript, British Museum Collection

Green Man

“Well, the teller did violate one of the basic rules.” Augustus puts down my copy of Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark. I know what is coming.

“Which is?” I prompt.

“It does not matter the art form—fairy tale, science fiction, movies—you can kill off half the world’s population in your storyline, but the family dog needs to escape.”

I knew it. “Thalia had something of the same reaction, but what about this Green Knight? He does not appear to be King Arthur’s Green Knight.”

“Yes and no.” Augustus relights his pipe and settles deeper into his comfy chair. “I suspect, as do some scholars, both the English and the Danish Green Knights are related to the Green Man.”

“The Green Man,” I say. “The one with leaves growing out of his face or out of his mouth? I thought he was merely an architectural motif in churches.

“More universal than that and yet elusive. He appears in the sculptures and carvings of many cultures going back to the Mesopotamians. It’s been suggested he was a vegetation god, but no one has put a formal name to him.”

“Nor,” I suggest, “does he have fairy tales about him.”

“Not unless our Green Knights are his tales. I have read a different version of this Danish Green Knight in which he has herds of wild oxen, boars, elk, and deer. Herdsmen are dressed as huntsmen, and the castle is covered in vines. The knight, of course, dresses in green. I think I’d call him a Green Man.”

“I am uncertain.” I draw steadily on my pipe. “Why would the Green Knight be another name for Death if he is a manifestation of growth?”

Augustus contemplates before going on. “In both Danish tales they refer to the green mounds—the graves that is—in the churchyard, and if the Green Man is a vegetation god, then he would lord over birth, death, and rebirth.”

I shake my head. “The Arthurian Green Knight and my Green Knight bear little resemblance to have a common origin. My knight turns into a bird to visit his love. Arthur’s goes around challenging fellow knights to cut off his head.”

Augustus smiles. “That’s actually an interesting detail in that the Green Man motif is just of his head.”

I remain unconvinced and change the inquiry. “What about the snake guarding the pot of gold?”

“In the other version I read there is no pot of gold, rather nine baby adders under a rock. The princess cooks them into three servings of soup.”

I tap out my pipe. “The White Snake jumps to mind. A servant eats a bit of the snake to acquire the language of beast and birds.”

“Not to mention the snakeskin in A Sprig of Rosemary or the snake’s help in The Three Snake Leaves.”

“Fairy-tale snakes,” I muse. “I bet we could find a lot of them.”

“We never do find out what happened to the snake’s pot of gold, do we?”

“Afraid not.”

“I’m not sure about your version of this tale. Not only do they kill the family dog, but also lose track of an entire pot of gold. Wasteful.”

“I’m certain a leprechaun took it,” I assure him.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2017 The Green Knight

Green knight 2 Hans Sebald Beham, 1543

Snakes and Birds

“Let’s move on to fairy-tale birds,” I suggest, refilling my pipe, even though I can hardly see Augustus through the smoky haze we have created. “There are two references to birds in my tale. I am particularly struck by the two ravens, who, indirectly, tell the princess how to heal . . .”

“Huginn and Muninn,” Augustus almost shouts.

“Personal friends of your?”

Augustus laughs. “Personal favorites. These are the two birds that sit on the shoulders of Odin telling him all they have seen and heard during their daily flight across the world.

“Huginn translates as ‘thought.’ Muninn is a little more difficult, but probably translates as ‘mind’ or ‘memory.’ They are the instruments of Odin’s shamanism.”

“Tell me your thoughts about shamanism.” I stare at Augustus through the tobacco fog.

“The essence of shamanism is the trance. The purpose of the trance is to seek healing, answers, or knowledge. The shaman in his trance reaches out with his thought and mind to that realm, dimension, beyond our normal experience.”

“So, when Huginn and Muninn fly off, Odin is really sending out his thought and mind to gain knowledge, representing the trance?”

“That is how I understand it.” Augustus nods.

“It does explain the raven’s insight into how to cure the knight, and I have run across these two birds before, in a ballad at least.”

“You mean The Twa Corbies? A rather dark little song. I recall them hanging around the gallows in Two Travelerspun intended.”

I roll my eyes and relight my pipe, saying, “The Green Knight also appears as a bird to visit the princess. I recognize that motif from Earl of Mars’ Daughter.”

“Not only that,” says Augustus, “it also shows up in Aarne-Thompson-Uther’s story classification scheme as ‘The Bird Husband’ and ‘The Prince as Bird.’ I wonder if the origin is Celtic.”

“Why do you say that?”

“In The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, part of the Ulster Cycle, there is a bird lover who births the tragic hero of the tale. That is the earliest reference to this motif that I know of.”

“Nordic birds, Celtic birds, how much do our fairy tales draw from the mythologies?”

“I feel they are intertwined. I don’t imagine the mythologies sprung upon their culture’s scenes fully formed with no predecessor. My guess is they grew from simpler forms. I’ll bet my nickel the fairy tales came first.”

“One more item,” I say, “on which I want to pick your brain. The poisoned knives, where do they fit in?”

“In the other version I mentioned, it was a poisoned scissors. However, when we think of fairy-tale poisoning, it is Snow White’s apple that everyone will point to. This is a highly popular tale, putting poison front and center. In truth, there is little poisoning in the fairy tales. Potions, spells, magical devices are rampant, but not so much the common poisoning.”

There is a pause in the conversation and I decide to make an appeal for my story. “Shades of the Green Man, a Celtic love bird, shamanistic ravens, poisoned knives, and a snake with a pot of gold, what more could you want in a tale?”

“They shouldn’t have killed the dog.”

Sigh.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2017 The Lettuce Donkey – Part One

Lettuce Donkey oneH. J. Ford

Eggplant

Duckworth and I have spent this Sunday morning rowing on the Thames, but not having gotten enough of a glorious May day, we head to the Ally Pally Farmer’s Market. Duckworth, foodie that he is, has assigned himself the mission to find fairy-tale eggplant. We plan to dine together at my house (His wife and children are visiting in Bristol.) and he has a recipe to try.

In one of the stalls lining the parkway path, I spy an array of lettuce varieties. Feeling impish—it is May after all—I ask the young girl attending, “Have you any donkey lettuce?”

The poor girl looks at me blankly, but the old woman behind her guffaws, “Ha! I know that story. No, no, you’ll find no donkey lettuce here.” She and I exchange knowing smiles.

“Right,” says Duckworth, as we wander along. “You need to fill me in on the joke.”

“Oh, well, The Lettuce Donkey, Grimm of course.”

“Of course.”

A carefree huntsman encounters an ugly old hag asking for alms. Being a generous soul, he gives her what coins he can afford. Grabbing him by the arm, she gives strange advice.

She tells him he will soon see nine birds fighting over a magical wishing cloak. He is to fire his gun into their midst. They will release the cloak and one bird will fall dead. He is to swallow its heart, after which he will find a gold coin under his pillow every morning.

“Now, there’s an arrangement,” says Duckworth. “I assume it comes to pass.”

“Yes, but what sounds like a boon, comes to misfortune.”

Having a bit of wealth, he decides to travel the world. He comes upon a castle where at one of its windows stands a fair maiden and her mother, a witch.

The witch contrives, with the unwilling help of her daughter, to steal his gifts. The huntsman falls in love with the daughter, but soon finds himself abandoned on a mountaintop bereft of the bird’s heart and his magic cloak.

He manages his escape from the mountain when he overhears three giants talking about how the wind could carry him away. He travels on the wind, which sets him down inside a garden. Being hungry, he eats some lettuce and immediately transforms into a donkey. Horrified but still hungry, he eats another type of lettuce that turns him back into his human form.

Carrying a head of each type of lettuce, he returns to the witch’s castle in disguise, offering to the witch and her daughter “the most delicious lettuce under the sun.”

The witch, her daughter, and a serving girl are all turned into donkeys. These he gives to a miller with the instructions to daily beat the old donkey and the young donkey—the witch and the serving girl—but not the donkey who had been the maiden.

In a few days the miller reports that the old donkey has died and the other two are not far behind. The huntsman relents and feeds the remaining two donkeys the good lettuce. The maiden falls to her knees and begs forgiveness, offering to return the gifts. He tells her to keep the gifts for he has decided to marry her.

“He is a generous soul or a fool in love,” says Duckworth.

“Well, they do live happily ever after,” I conclude.

“There they are!” Duckworth grabs a handful of small, variegated eggplants. “You’ll find these better than any donkey lettuce.”

I am sure he is right.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2017 The Lettuce Donkey – Part Two

Lettuce Donkey twoH J Ford

Dinner

The odor of rosemary and garlic fills my kitchen as Duckworth commandeers my gas stove. I supervise him with the help of a glass of wine. Raising his spatula slightly to emphasize his question, Duckworth asks, “What is the old woman’s motivation for giving the huntsman the cloak and bird’s heart?”

“Motivation? Fairy-tale helpers aren’t motivated. They are simply in the story to be helpers.”

“Oh, come,” says Duckworth. “They are characters in the tale. Certainly they are thinking something. Do they ever turn up again at the end to get their reward?”

“No, of course not.” I take a contemplative sip of wine. “No, I’ll take that back, but it depends on the type of helper.”

“Proceed,” says Duckworth, scooping the eggplant into the pan.

“I’m thinking while I’m talking,” I say, “but I see two types. First is the sort in The Lettuce Donkey, usually an old woman or a little old man or dwarf, doling out magical gifts to worthy travelers they meet along the road.

“The second type is usually an animal helper such as the fox in The Golden Bird, or the raven in The Battle of the Birds. In these tales the animal sticks with the hero, helping him every step of the way. In the end, the animal proves to be the enchanted brother of the heroine, returned to his human form by the hero breaking the curse.”

Duckworth’s scepter/spatula rises again. “There, that’s what I mean. That’s a motivation. What motivates your magical, little old men and women?”

I need another sip of wine. “You pose a hard question. They do not come around at the end of the tale for their reward. Now that you make me think about it, I believe they are a moralistic lot.”

“How so?” The concoction he is stirring smells really good.

“In many tales of this type, the little old man or woman tests the other characters. Typically, the two older brothers or the ugly half sister fails to be generous with the helper and receives a curse for their failure. It’s the youngest brother or the pretty half sister who receives the benefit.”

“That does not explain the helper’s motivation.”

“Quite right. Let me guess that the helpers are not human and do not have the same needs. I see them as heathen in origin, serving the same purpose as angels do in Christian stories.”

“Does that make them emissaries of the old heathen gods and goddesses?”

“Sounds logical. I think Wilhelm Grimm was somewhat aware of that. In the 1812 version of The Girl with No Hands, a mysterious old man helps her regain her hands. By the 1857 version it is an angel who plays that part.”

“Ah, the Christianization of folklore.”

“Well, not unusual or inappropriate. The tales have always adopted and adapted to the culture in which they found themselves. I am a little surprised at the amount of earlier pagan notions that have persisted.”

“Be that as it may, the fairy-tale eggplants are ready.” With a flourish, he slides the meal from pan to platter.

Delicious.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2017 The Lettuce Donkey – Part Three

Lettuce Donkey threeH J Ford

Short List

Duckworth and I, sated after our repast, linger over the bottle of wine.

“I am glad you didn’t serve a salad with the meal,” I quip. “I don’t think I could have trusted it.”

Duckworth grins. “Is the magic lettuce a thing common in the tales?”

“Actually, no. I know of no other story with magical lettuce.”

“Other magical foods?” Duckworth pours himself a second glass.

“Let me think. Apples may be the most common; they even have biblical roots. The Water of Life comes up more than once, but that is not, technically, food.”

“Pomegranates?” suggests Duckworth.

“Only in mythology, not the fairy tales. Though fairy tales do draw upon mythology, the pomegranates didn’t come through.

“Rosemary,” I continue, “makes an appearance, its bush hiding an underground castle in A Sprig of Rosemary. Snake meat comes up as well in a tale, no less called The White Snake.

“Ugh.” Duckworth shivers.

“Oh, rampion in Rapunzel. How could I forget? That is close to lettuce.”

“Yes, a bitter salad green, if I recall, but isn’t it just a temptation for Rapunzel’s mother?”

I nod; he’s right. I continue, “Food will often appear via a magical tablecloth or a magical never-empty porridge pot, but again, the food is not itself magical.”

“Ah,” Duckworth brightens, “the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. Does that count?”

“Yes, I’ll buy that. There needs to be something magical to convert flour, sugar, and ginger into a building material.” I top off our glasses.

“Is wine on the magical food list?” Duckworth points to his glass.

“Not outside of the Bible. In the tales it is more often drugged than not, but not magical.”

“Pity.”

I run a list of garden produce through my thoughts. “Giant turnips have their day in a couple of stories.”

“Can’t say I am fond of turnips,” Duckworth comments. “Tomatoes?”

“Never. I think cabbages fare better in fairy-tale appearances. In fact, the title Lettuce Donkey is sometimes translated as Cabbage Donkey.

Duckworth recites:

“The time has come, the Walrus said,

To talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —

Of cabbages — and kings —“

 

He and I are getting deep into our cups.

“Oh, oh,” enthuses Duckworth, “Jack and the Beanstalk and his beans.”

“No one ate them; I am not sure we can include the beans on our list.” I think for a moment. “I will allow it if we can also include eggs and nuts.”

“What do they do?”

“They can be hiding places for all sorts of things, from dragon and giant hearts to gowns given by celestial beings.”

“I’ll agree to that. So, let’s see,” Duckworth lists, “apples, rosemary, gingerbread, turnips, snake meat (He wriggles his nose.), beans, eggs, and nuts. Doesn’t sound like a good recipe to me.”

“Oh, wait,” I say. “Pears can be added. In fact, I am thinking of The Long Nose, in which apples from a certain tree will make one’s nose grow longer, and particular pears will return it back to normal.”

“Ah, a parallel to our Lettuce Donkey, but look, I thought you said wine wasn’t magical. Ours has disappeared.” He holds up an empty bottle.

I see he is right. “Shall we open another?”

Your thoughts.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part One

seahare image color2 Anonymous

A What?

It is a joy to me when Melissa visits my study. Not only is there her companionship, but also the duty of the evening read is transferred when Thalia and Teddy crawl into her lap. Not that I mind reading to my granddaughter, but I like being read to as well. I cradle my glass of wine in my hands and settle in for a story.

Thalia, ritualistically, closes her eyes and circles her finger above the book’s table of contents, stabbing it down impulsively.

“Didn’t you read that one last night?” asks Melissa.

The finger circles again and strikes.

The Sea-Hare,says Melissa. “I’m not sure even I have read this one. ‘Once upon a time there was a king’s daughter . . .’”

And, as so often happens, she did not want to marry. Being a princess, she could set her conditions for marriage. She declared she would marry no one but the man who could hide from her and not be found.

That sounded easy enough, but at the start of the story, the heads of ninety-seven suitors found their way to the tops of pikes for the failure of their owners.

The princess had at her disposal a magical device in the form of a tower at the top of which was a rotunda with twelve windows that looked out across her realm. From the first window she could see everything more clearly than any person looking out their own window. From the second window she could see more clearly yet, and so on until from the twelfth window she could see everything above and beneath the earth.

Enter the three brothers to be her suitors. Starting with the eldest, followed by the second, the princess need only go to the first window to find the eldest hiding in a lime pit and the second in the castle basement.

The youngest requests a day of grace to reflect and three chances to hide. The princess in her confidence, grants his request. The next day, he reflects by going out hunting and, in the spirit of granting requests, refrains from shooting three creatures: a raven, a fish, and a fox.

As I sip my wine, it crosses my mind that these creatures are of the air, water, and earth.

On the first day of hiding, the young man goes to the raven, who hides him in its egg. The princess is at the eleventh window before she finds him. The raven is shot and the egg retrieved.

On the second day, the young man seeks out the fish, who swallows him and swims to the bottom of a lake. The princess is at the twelfth window before she spots the young man, sealing the fish’s fate.

On the third day he goes to the fox, who is up to the task. By dipping themselves into a spring, the fox is transformed into a merchant and the young man into a pretty little sea-hare. They go into the town market where the sea-hare attracts much attention until notice of it comes to the princess, who buys the little creature from the merchant. The fox/merchant tells the young man to creep into the princess’s braids before she goes into the tower of the twelve windows.

The twelfth window fails her and in rage she slams the window shut so violently all twelve windows shatter. At that moment she discovers the sea-hare hiding in her braids and, still angry, chases it from the room.

Soon the young man returns in his true form and they are married, the princess holding him in respect, thinking to herself, he did in fact outwit her.

“Sea-hare?” Thalia stares at Melissa.

“As far as I know,” Melissa is doubtful, “it’s a sea slug.”

“I . . . don’t . . . think . . . so,” Thalia replies with evident seriousness.

“I’ll ask Augustus,” I assure them.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part Two

Seahare image two Cartoon from the French Revolution

Lake Bunny?

I know Augustus’s tobacco shop is not of the same order as Miss Cox’s garden or the Magic Forest, but for me there is a sense of the magical in its air, or is it simply the dense, blue smoke of tobacco?

There is already a gentleman in the testing room, ensconced in one of the comfy chairs, as Augustus and I enter, an engaging fellow, slim, with a mustache greyer than the hair on his head. Augustus gestures to the pipe of Fairies’ Delight he is sampling.

“You approve?”

The gentleman nods his consent.

“Mr. Richard Martin here is another of my fairy-tale aficionados. We may speak freely.”

I introduce myself and we settle in.

“And what is the story of contention today?” Augustus reaches for the pipe tool, handing it to me.

The Sea-Hare.” I tamp down my tobacco.

Ah, Das Meerhäschen,” says Richard. “A latecomer to the Grimm canon. It turns up in the last edition.”

“What bothers me,” I say, lighting my pipe, “is the intrusion of an ink-spewing sea slug into the middle of a fairy tale.”

Richard laughs. “Nothing of the sort. Wilhelm borrowed this story from a book of Transylvanian Saxon folktales—putting a few of his own touches on it. ‘Meerhäschen’ simply appears to be the Saxon word for ‘rabbit.’ ”

“Still,” says Augustus, “there is the ‘meer’ part of the name.”

“Well, yes,” Richard relights his pipe, “meaning ‘sea’ or ‘lake,’ and ‘häschen’ is a little or young hare.”

“I agree the creature is not a sea snail.” Augustus raises his finger in pronouncement. “Jack Zipes preferred ‘little hamster’ in his translation. But, note, the creature caused something of a stir in the marketplace, enough to bring the princess’s attention to it, as the fox planned. The creature is unusual. I am thinking it is more along the lines of a composite creature, like the American jackalope.”

“The Germans have those creatures too,” says Richard, “but then the word would be ‘Wolpertinger.’ ”

This man knows his German.

“My vote,” he continues, “is for the guinea pig.”

“Isn’t that a South American critter?” I say between puffs of smoke.

“The conquistadors brought it back from Peru in the sixteenth century, which confirms Augustus’s notion the creature was unusual, a novelty the princess could not resist, showing us a softer side to this otherwise cold-blooded young woman, and perhaps dating this section of the story. The sea-hare just might mean ‘the rabbit from over the sea.’”

Augustus frowns a little. He does not like his pet theories abolished.

“My favorite part though,” Richard goes on, “is the twelve windows. What an image. I see the windows as an intimidating extension of her domineering personality, and the number twelve shows her frightening omnipotence over everything.”

“Not a common motif,” remarks Augustus. “Certainly the number twelve is common in the tales: The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Twelve Huntsmen, The Twelve Brothers, The Twelve Lazy Servants. But these stories have to do with twelve persons, not objects, almost shadowing the twelve apostles.”

Richard considers. “There is a Slavic tale of the twelve months, but even they are personified. On the whole, I think you’re right.”

“I took note,” I say, “of the hundred pikes with ninety-nine heads on them. This is lifted out of the Celtic tales. The Celts were fond of severed heads, not just as a means of killing someone—as the French were—but also as objects for display, even treasured objects, one might say.”

“I am concerned,” concludes Augustus, “that the twelve windows have no motif-history, the heads on pikes are borrowed, and we do get into the princess’s thought processes—a literary convention. Given these flags, I believe, quite honestly, this story is not a traditional fairy tale. I get the sense it has been tampered with a bit too much.”

Richard and I nod sagely.

Fairy Tales of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part Three

Seahare fairy and frog Ida R. Outwaite

Still Water

Melissa and I, poised on the rock rim above the nixie’s pond, continue to stare into the dark of the water. I call again.

“Hello, my nixie.” I rattle my bag of popcorn. Nixie bait, Melissa calls it.

The water is impossibly smooth, reflecting the moon so clearly I think it floats under the surface of the pond.

“I guess,” I whisper, “we’ll not get an answer from her about magical springs turning foxes into merchants and young men into meerhäschens.”

“That’s alright,” Melissa’s voice is soft. “It’s not the question that’s been rolling around my mind.”

“What is your question?”

“It’s, you might say, about the missing persons.”

“Come again?”

“This story, the Sea-Hare, is full of missing persons.”

“Who?”

“Well, to start, the king.”

“He’s not in the story.”
“Exactly. Yet the story starts, ‘Once upon a time there was a king’s daughter . . . .’ Throughout the story she is referred to as the princess. Logically, if her father, the king, is dead, and there are no siblings mentioned, she should be queen. But she remains a princess, inferring the father is around, but he has gone missing.”

“I take your point.” I glance at the motionless water. “Many times the stories start with a father figure who quickly disappears without explanation.”

Melissa tilts her head. “Apparently her mother is missing as well. That’s a little unusual. The girl seems parentless.

“Then,” she continues, “there are the two brothers.”

“What? They are accounted for. Their heads top off pikes ninety-eight and ninety-nine.”

“Yes and no. Their younger brother acts as if they never existed. Consider, he pursues and marries the woman who caused his brothers’ deaths, with never a suggestion of retribution. Our hero now lives in a castle on the grounds of which are ninety-nine rotting heads, two of which are his brothers, and no word of a decent burial. The Greeks would never have put up with that.”

It crosses my mind she and I are talking in hushed tones. One would think we are conspirators.

“You are trying,” I suggest, “to apply literary plot concerns to traditional tales.”

“No, no. I am not criticizing the tale’s structure. I am talking about me, the one experiencing the story. Sorry, but I have been thinking about this all day.”

“Ah,” I realize, “another slow day at the bookshop.”

Melissa gives me her sad smile. “There are days I don’t know if I am a proprietor or a hermit, but it does give me time to think, and today’s thought was: Why did I, upon first encountering this story, accept the ninety-seven heads as so much decoration, not question the king or queen’s whereabouts, and thoughtlessly kick aside the two brothers, in order to follow the hero. What is the mechanism of the fairy tale that allows me to be so unconcerned and heartless for the other characters?”

“That has bothered me as well, especially when reading the tales to Thalia. Am I subliminally passing on attitudes of insensitivity and heartlessness? I have decided I am not.

“I think of it as the fairy-tale spotlight. Like on a stage—In my imagination, a musical—there may be other characters, dancers, stage settings, not to mention the orchestra and audience. But when the spotlight hits the lead, all else falls away, and should. Fairy tales do not try to depict the world; they illuminate one thought.”

Melissa’s eyes blink slowly. I believe she is content with that. I turn my attention back to the pond.

“I’m sorry she didn’t show.”

“It’s alright. I like being here.” She peers off into the darkness. “I feel I should belong in this place. Is it sacred ground?”

“Perhaps,” I comfort. “Have some popcorn.”

Your thoughts?

PS. My thanks to Richard for his help with translating the title.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2017 The Golden Lamb of God – Part One

170px-Agnus_Dei_with_VexillumStained glass window, El Cajon, California.

Apples and All

As Melissa and I enter the garden, we see Miss Cox has thoughtfully set out two cups and a pot of tea, the latter wearing its cozy against the March chill. We approach a wrought iron table in front of a welcoming bench; Melissa takes off her gloves to pour us both a cup.

Her mission to Miss Cox’s garden today is to speak to Jens Kamp about a story he collected, The Golden Lamb of God. It is a fairly extraordinary story in its collection of story motifs. The tale manages to shoehorn in the motifs of the three brothers, three giants, three witch sisters, seven years of capture, seven-league boots, twelve swans, magical apples, magic tablecloth, hat of invisibility, transformation potion, epic journey, hidden heart, glass mountain, and a dragon. Not to mention a king, princes, and princesses.

This long tale starts with the king’s special apple tree, one that bears fruit that never rots, which, on one midsummer’s night, are stolen from the boughs. Every midsummer’s night after that the theft reoccurs.

The king requests his eldest son to stand guard, and the next year the middle brother to stand guard, but both are frightened away. The youngest brother, in his turn, digs a hole in which to hide—shades of Sigurd and his dragon—from where he watches twelve swans alight, shed their feather cloaks, turn into beautiful women, and strip the trees of their fruit. The young prince steals one of the feather cloaks, capturing the youngest girl, getting from her the truth.

She and her sisters are princesses controlled by a dragon, who killed their father and turned his castle, called The Golden Lamb of God for the seal over the castle door, into a glass mountain. It has been six years, and by the seventh year there will be no possibility of escape from the dragon’s clutches.

The prince returns the feather cloak when he realizes the girl will die if he does not.

The next day the prince sets off to find the castle called The Golden Lamb of God. He tricks three giants, who are arguing over their treasures, and steals from them their hat of invisibility, a magic tablecloth, and a pair of seven-league boots.

Using the boots, he stumbles across the underground home of an ancient witch, whose home can only be entered through the chimney. Using the magic tablecloth to produce a feast, he comes into her good graces. Besides being a witch, she is the Queen of the Animals, and calls them together to see if they know where to find the castle called The Golden Lamb of God.

The animals do not know, but still the witch helps the prince by giving him a letter of introduction to her older sister, the Queen of the Fish, and by providing a billy goat as a guide.

The same scenario plays out, underground home and all, with another letter of introduction, and a small dog as guide to the eldest sister, Queen of the Birds.

The third sister, unlike the others, lives in a common witch’s hut, and this time the prince leaves with the gift of a potion to turn himself into an ant, and an old grey falcon as a guide, who knows the way to the glass mountain.

In the form of an ant, wearing the hat of invisibility, the prince crawls through a crack in the glass mountain to find the youngest princess cooking the dragon’s meal. She tells him she is about to be married to the dragon.

The prince vows to kill the dragon, but it cannot be destroyed unless they can find its hidden heart. Through trickery and deceit, the girl gets the dragon to tell his soon-to-be-wife that it is hidden in an egg, inside a duck, down a well, inside a locked church, on an island five thousand miles away.

The prince, overhearing the dragon, is soon off on another sojourn with the help of the old grey falcon, to return with the egg, and no, the duck does not fare well in the adventure.

They accidentally encounter the dragon on return, and the falcon flies up high, dropping the egg. The dragon flies after it, but too late. As the egg shatters, the dragon dies and the glass mountain turns back into The Castle of The Golden Lamb.

A marriage, as you might guess, soon follows.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2017 The Golden Lamb of God – Part Two

Jens KampJens Kamp

Jens Kamp

Jens Kamp’s appearance disappoints Melissa and me. He is disheveled, glassy-eyed, and a bit unsteady. He plunks himself down on the bench with us, without introduction, staring about himself, but not at us. I realize Miss Cox put out two cups for tea, not three. In whatever manner Miss Cox knows these things, she knew he was not a teetotaler.

I suppose we can excuse him; he did come to a sad end. Jens was a lifelong collector of Danish folklore—from stories to riddles—yet his publications never achieved popular success. Most of his career was spent as a high-school teacher. Two years after his marriage to a carpenter’s daughter, she suffered a mental breakdown and was confined to a hospital for the rest of her life. Neither was Jens mentally stable.

Eventually sacked from his last teaching position, he lived his final years in reduced circumstances. Only much later did scholar Peik Hoppe and translator Stephen Badman bring him some due recognition.

“Sir,” Melissa gets his attention. “I have a few questions for you concerning the story you collected, The Golden Lamb of God.”

Jens blinks, brightens, and focuses on Melissa. She continues.

“The tale is made up of many parts: the disappearing apples, the gaining of magical devices, journey from witch sister to witch sister, and the hidden heart.”

“True.” Jens nods, his heavy Danish accent obvious in that one-word utterance.

“From whom did you collect this tale?” I sense a little suspicion in Melissa’s voice.

“My notes attribute to a carpenter’s wife, but this tale—tales like it—I hear all over the little isle of Bogø.”

“Did you edit them?”

Jens looks a little uncomfortable. “I,” he pauses, “took a little from each to make a whole.”

“You kept, I hope, their voice?”

“As much as I could.”

Melissa puts on her worried look—the one I have become familiar with when she takes me to task.

“I was a bit stopped,” she says, “when the witches gave the prince letters of introduction. I felt that was a mark of elitism, outside a peasant’s usual frame of reference, the peasants being the tellers of this tale.”

Jens chuckles. “Well, my hero is a prince. Why should he not have a letter of introduction?”

I sense that Melissa suspects Jens of author intrusion into the tales he collected. Those letters of introduction struck me as odd as well.

A Letter of introduction was an eighteenth and nineteenth century device, somewhere between what we now see as networking and a résumé. Among the upper classes, a young man, who might want to move into a greater social circle than the one he occupied, would ask a gentleman of the highest social status whom he could approach, to write for him a letter of introduction to a third party, whom the first party (the youth) wished to make acquaintance.

There was much etiquette surrounding this letter. For example, the third party had to be a person of social standing between the first party and the second party, and not one clearly above the status of the first two parties. Then there was the issue of whether the letter was sealed or not sealed; that is to say, was the bearer aware of the letter’s content. (There is a letter of introduction by Benjamin Franklin that is mildly insulting to the bearer.)

In any case, I never heard reference to a letter of introduction in any other fairy tale. I think Melissa’s suspicion may be well-founded.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2017 The Golden Lamb of God – Part Three

Golden Lamb of God dragon Manuscript

About Dragons

“Dragons,” says Melissa, “You know, there are surprisingly few dragons in the fairy tales, almost as rare as fairies.”

Jens points to her and laughs. “Yes, yes,” and slaps his knee.

“And,” she continues, “putting a dragon and a glass mountain together? That I never heard of before.”

Jens takes a contemplative breath. “The combinations of motifs are infinite. The motifs are the ingredients of a recipe for a meal for the ears. As some will never tire of eating the same favorite dish over and over, I will listen to the same stories till the end of time.”

Jens waves a hand in the air, invoking another thought. “There is, somewhere in the language of fairy tales, an indistinct rumbling of dissatisfaction—perhaps my own—that resolves with the ending of the tale. When the tales stops, there is that moment of quiet. It is that little moment of quiet I live for.”

I wish I knew what he is talking about.

“But, as for the dragon,” Jens refocuses on Melissa’s question. “It is true, they are rare. There may be fifty tales without a dragon for every one that does have such a creature. When they do appear, they are evil, can talk, and are a little hard to distinguish from the devil.

“But why should you be surprised at the dragon having a glass mountain? I am surprised we do not hear more of it. Both are used to isolate women. Usually, the woman sits on top of the glass mountain and the hero must try to get up to her. Other times she is trapped inside the glass mountain.

“Dragons demand princesses as sacrifices, and the poor girls are left alone, sometimes chained, to face the monster. I know of an English tale where the princess is turned into a dragon to isolate her.”

“In your case,” comments Melissa, “there are twelve women being isolated.”

“A regular harem,” I say.

Melissa pursues the point. “But why the seven years before they are totally without chance of rescue?”

Jens’ brows knit. “That I do not know. I can make a guess. Seven is the most common number in the Bible: seven years of plenty, seven years of drought; Solomon’s temple took seven years to build.

“But seven years is also the common length of an apprenticeship. The dragon sent them out to do the chores of collecting apples. The youngest cooked for him. They did live in his house like apprentices live in their masters’ houses (albeit the house stolen from their father). The princesses’ condition has the same feel as those of apprentices, who were often badly treated. But those are only my wild guesses.”

“What struck me oddly,” I say, “were the two witch sisters living underground with their entrances through the chimneys. What is that about?”

Jens’ attention fades away from us. He looks about him, rises from the bench, and wanders away without excuse.

Melissa looks after Jens Kamp disappearing out the garden gate. “I guess we’ll not find out from him.”

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2017 Pied Piper of Franchville – Part One

pied_piper-greenaway Kate Greenaway

Too Many

“Rats?” Thalia squirms in my lap.

“Yes,” I say, “lots of rats.”

We are reading, The Pied Piper of Franchville, from More English Fairy Tales, by my acquaintance—via Miss Cox’s garden—Joseph Jacobs. It is the first story in that collection, and varies in interesting ways from the more familiar Hamelin version.

Franchville, or Newtown nowadays, sits on the Isle of Wight, a sleepy little town, our story says, upon the Solent shore, the waterway between the English mainland and the isle. A plague of rats settled on the town, spoiling their food, squeaking louder than the gossips, and overwhelming the cats.

A stranger, dressed in all the colors of the rainbow, appeared before the mayor’s council, suggesting he could get rid of the rats. He and the council came to the agreement of fifty pounds for wages, a sum destined never to be paid.

He walked out of the town hall, walked up Silver Street and down Gold Street, playing his pipe. From every corner of the town, out poured the rats, following the sound of his music. (I chanced to be in Newtown once, and there really is a Silver Street and a Gold Street.)

He led them to the end of Gold Street, which empties onto the shore of the Solent, and got into a small boat that drifted out on the tide, drawing the rats into the water and to their deaths.

Returning later on the tide, with not a rat left behind, he found no payment. This time when he piped his tune, he walked up Gold Street and down Silver Street, and on into the greenwood, drawing the town’s dancing children behind him, all never to be seen again.

Thalia’s eyes glow. I become fearful.

“I’m going to stuff your ears,” I say.

Thalia giggles. “Wait, isn’t that supposed to be Hamblin or something?”

“Hamelin, and right you are.” I am ready for this and reach for my Robert Browning’s version of the Hamelin story, which I have placed on my side table.

Rats!

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,

And bit the babies in the cradles,

And ate the cheeses out of the vats,

And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,

Split open the kegs of salted sprats,

Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,

And even spoiled the women’s chats,

By drowning their speaking

With shrieking and squeaking

In fifty different sharps and flats.

I read the whole piece through to Thalia. She sits in my lap agog while I speak, then remains still, holding her Teddy, her eyebrows giving away that she is thinking.

I make my guess as to what rolls around in her thoughts. The sound made around the noble cause of honesty—paying for services rendered—that this story trumpets, does not entice the ears of my granddaughter. It is a foil for another noise, that of the seductive pipe, luring youth toward an undefined ideal, a sound that the mature cannot hear. Both children and rats, Thalia and I, are pulled in by the pure.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2017 Pied Piper of Franchville – Part Two

pied-piper-post-card

Postcard 1902

A Small Device

The bell to Augustus’s store rings above my head as I quickly slip through the door to keep the February cold from intruding into the aromatic haven that is my friend’s tobacco shop.

Augustus pokes his head around the door frame to his testing room and waves me to come over. A little to my surprise young Duckworth is there, occupying one of the comfy chairs. He and the proprietor are filling the room with a dense vanilla-scented smoke. I pull out my pipe and soon add to the cloud.

“Well,” says Duckworth, “with the two of you fairy-tale enthusiasts in the room, there is no avoiding The Topic. Let’s have out with it. What’s it to be?”

The Pied Piper of Franchville,” I say.

“Franchville?” Duckworth looks quizzical. “You mean Newtown? I have a client there.”

“I hope you cited Grimm’s version for Thalia,” says Augustus. “They speak of its origin in Hamelin.”

“I fell back on Browning. I looked through Grimm, but it wasn’t there.”

“You weren’t looking in Deutshe Sagen.”

“Ah, the legends, how silly of me.” I perceive Duckworth has lost interest in our conversation and is entirely taken up with the small screen of his cell phone.

Augustus continues, “The Grimms are precise about this event. They give the year as 1284 and that one hundred and thirty children were led away by the piper. After getting rid of the rats and not getting paid, the Pied Piper left, then returned on Saint John and Saint Paul’s Day, dressed in hunter’s green, wearing a strange red hat, and abducts the children into Koppenberg Mountain.

“As I recall . . .”

“My goodness,” interrupts Duckworth, “but there’s a lot of history to it.”

I realize he is not checking his email.

“It says here,” Duckworth goes on, “the first record of the abduction was represented in a stained-glass window of a local church about 1300, showing the colorful piper and dancing children. Hmmm, goes on to say that the rats were not part of the story until 1559.”

Augustus stares at Duckworth in mild alarm.

“Why then,” I ask, “would the piper take the children if there were no rats to be gotten rid of and no payment not to be made?”

Duckworth rhythmically draws his finger up the side of his screen. “Well, there’s a section here on the emigration theory that suggests illegitimate and orphaned children were sold to recruiters from Eastern Europe, who were looking for bodies to resettle places like Transylvania, which had been depopulated by the Moguls.”

Duckworth studies his screen as Augustus and I look on.

“A little less ominous,” he continues after a bit, “there’s a professor Udolph writing about lokators—recruiters again—talking unemployed youths into colonizing part of Poland, after the battle of Bornhòved, where the Germans then held sway.”

Duckworth’s phone chirps and he taps it a few times. “Oh, I am going to be late for an appointment. Augustus, I’ll be back tomorrow to buy a few ounces of this new mix. What’s it called?”

Augustus thinks a moment. “Piper’s Melody, in honor of our conversation.”

We soon hear the bell chiming over the shop’s door as Duckworth departs.

“I am going to have to get me one of those,” my friend muses.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2017 Pied Piper of Franchville – Part Three

pied-piper-locatorFrom a manuscript depicting a lokator.

Is Not

A loud crackle of burning log coming from the hearth that warms my study, nods me out of sleep. The comforting heat, along with my glass of scotch, keeps me from focusing on The Topic, as Duckworth aptly put it.

My laptop is on its wooden stool before me. I, of course, am in my sleep-inducing comfy chair, trying to pursue two possible notions: that the Pied Piper of Hamelin is a reflection of the Children’s Crusade and/or the Black Death.

I spot Thalia’s cat curled up near the fireplace.

“Johannes,” I say to him, “what do you think about the Pied Piper and his rats?”

“How’s that?” Johannes glares with suspicion.

I reach for Robert Browning again.

Rats!

They fought the dogs and killed the cats . . .

His eyes round. “Fake news!”

I fear I have touched a nerve and turn my attention back to my laptop.

I am taken with the idea that the story of the Pied Piper can be connected with the Children’s Crusade.  That movement is described as having two origins, one started by a French shepherd boy and the other by a German shepherd boy. They intended to go to the Holy Lands and convert the Saracens peacefully to Christianity. It appears to have attracted thousands of youth, none of whom made it to the Holy Lands.

Some traditions have it that they were sold into slavery by Italian merchants who proposed to ship them to their intended destination after the sea did not part for them as predicted.

My notion seems plausible until I compare the dates. The Children’s Crusade took place in 1212 and the Hamelin event in 1284. Given the average medieval life span, the events are two or three generations apart.

I glance up to see Johannes has turned his back to me and resettled in front of the hearth.

My idea that the Pied Piper represents the Black Death is more probable. The story, as we now know it, didn’t come together until 1605, collected by the English antiquarian Richard Rowland Verstegan.

Interestingly, he gave the date of the Hamelin event as 1376, which is the year of a rat plague. This is highly suggestive that he, or the folk from whom he collected the story, had conflated the 1284 disappearance of the children of Hamelin with the later plague of rats. Could the memory of the 1351 Black Death be the catalyst for the fusion of the rats with the children?

I really think I have something until I research the bubonic plague. As I try to ignore the completely frightful pictures of the victims, I discover the association of the disease with rats was not made until the late 1890s. At the time the story of the Pied Piper came into its present form, the people still thought the plague was brought about by bad air, the wrath of God, or maledictions of the Jews.  Rats were not yet part of the Black Death story.

Two enticing notions done in by the facts.

I hear Johannes growl quietly, “Rats.”

Rats, I concur.

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

 

Fairly Tale of the Month: January 2017 The Clever Farmer’s Daughter – Part One

clever-farmers-daughrter-two

A January Evening

I stoke up the logs in the fireplace and add another as I hear Thalia padding down the hall toward my study. I have moved the comfy chair a little closer to the hearth, fending off the damp of a cold January night. I settle into the chair and watch Thalia push the study door wide open. She ambles in wearing her bathrobe over her flannel nightgown for warmth.

She tosses Teddy into my lap, climbs up—clutching my belt with her free hand, the other burdened with her dog-eared copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, wiggling her butt until she is squished between me and the stuffed arm of the chair—exchanges the book for Teddy, opening the tome in my lap to the table of contents, giving it serious consideration until pointing her finger to the title The Clever Farmer’s Daughterall this without uttering a word or sentence to which one could put a period, very much like this paragraph.

In the story, a poor widowed farmer, at his daughter’s suggestion, petitions the king for a small holding. The king grants the request, and the farmer and his daughter begin to clear the land. They find a golden mortar, and the farmer decides they will give it to the king as a thank-you gift. The daughter advises against it since they don’t have the pestle.

Her father does not listen, but, as the daughter predicted, the king is insulted at receiving half a gift and throws the farmer into the dungeon. The despondent farmer will not eat or drink, lamenting loudly, “If only I had listened to my daughter!” over and over again until he is brought back to the king to find out what his daughter had said.

When the king hears she predicted that, if given the mortar, he would want the pestle as well, he declares he will marry this clever daughter, if she can come to him neither clothed nor naked, neither on the road or off it, and not by walking, riding, or in a coach.

The daughter comes to him wrapped in a fishing net, dragged by a donkey along the side of the road, fulfilling all of the king’s conditions.

“Cool,” says Thalia, who is holding Teddy upside down for an inexplicable reason.

True to his word, the king marries her and the farmer is released from prison. The king and his new queen are quite happy until one day the king makes an unfair and unwise judgment, which his queen shames him into reversing.

Furious, the king throws her out of the castle, but not before she extracts from him the promise she can take with her a thing that is most dear to her.

The next morning the king wakes up to find that, after being drugged, he was kidnapped and taken to the farm of his queen’s father. She explains to him that he is the thing most dear to her, and so she took him.

Thalia giggles. There is no higher compliment.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2017 The Clever Farmer’s Daughter – Part Two

clever-farmers-daughrter-three Illustration dated 1877

It’s Cold

The clouds hover over us as we walk in the shelter of Tom Quad. I am sure they nearly touch the steeple of Christ Church Cathedral. My hands are gloved, but still I keep them thrust into my pockets. Duckworth and I are determined to get some exercise, pitting ourselves against the January elements.

“What,” Duckworth asks, proposing a topic for our stroll, “is the role of women in fairy tales?”

He knows my preoccupation with the subject of fairy tales and I appreciate his pandering to my desires. Silence follows as I gather my thoughts.

“The role of women in fairy tales,” I echo, “is complex.”

More silence follows.

“You’re not going to leave it at that are you?”

“I probably should, and not get myself into trouble, but, no, I’m thinking.”

“Quite.”

“I’ll start with the negatives and get them out of the way. I am referring to witches, hen wives, and evil queens.  They are less about women and more about archetypes.”

A gust of wind comes through the archway of Tom Tower as we pass by, causing us to put our heads down and push forward.

“Witches, hen wives, and evil queens are,” I continue after raising my head, “a necessary evil in the tales’ need for tension. They are the antagonists, propelling the story forward. These characters are female by definition, but are they meant to represent women? The witches, at least, are supernatural beings.”

Duckworth nods, putting his mittens to his ears. “I can still hear you,” he assures. “What about evil stepmothers?”

“The evil stepmothers, and stepdaughters, are different items.” I continue. “They are not supernatural, but rather human and harmful. The Grimms were their public relations promoters; the Grimms all but invented them. However, in the primary source tales, it was the mother who destroyed her children.”

“Really?” says Duckworth, his hands still clamped over his ears as we stroll. “Why?”

“Consider that it was a different time, a time when, it is rumored by some historians, unwanted children tended to fall down wells, or encounter other accidents. But, I think more likely, stories of mothers driven to killing their children were an earlier time’s cautionary tales, which the Grimms, later, softened, or so they felt.”

“The women aren’t doing too well.” Duckworth raises an eyebrow.

“Ah, but hold,” I declare, taking my warmed hand from my pocket and pointing to the sky, “we now come to the fairy godmothers and the old women in the wood, helpers to the protagonists. Both are, again, supernatural. The fairy godmother graciously gives gifts. The old woman in the wood usually involves food, kindly given to her by the protagonist. For this trifle, the hero or heroine is richly rewarded with a gift or two and/or important knowledge.”

“Like a cloak of invisibility or a pumpkin turned into a coach?” asks Duckworth.

“Exactly, but you see, these women are secondary—are archetypes—serving the story. The real role of woman in fairy tales comes when she is the protagonist.”

“I sense you are warning to the topic,” says Duckworth. “I wish I could say as much for my ears and toes. I’m ready for Café Loco; are you?”

I nod.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2017 The Clever Farmer’s Daughter – Part Three

clever-farmers-daughrter-four  Áke and Grima discover Aslaug, by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1862

Afternoon Tea

Duckworth and I take a table by the row of windows overlooking Saint Aldates Street, looking back at Christ Church College, with the cold weather on the other side of the glass.

Glancing at the menu, I am tempted by the mushrooms on toast, but I go for the scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. It does come with a pot of tea.

“You were saying,” Duckworth leans back in his chair.

“I was about to say, before you came up with this excellent idea, “—I gesture to the Alice in Wonderland-themed room around us—“that the fairy tales have a strong prejudice for young protagonists, be they male or female. Folktales will occasionally have an old woman as the main character; even fairy tales will have an old soldier as the hero, but fairy-tale heroines are young.”

I see Duckworth consider my point as he crunches on his teacake.

“Also,” I continue, “they are uniformly rewarded with marriage.”

“Rewarded or fated?”

“In the context of the fairy tale, it is meant as a reward, but you are right if you are suggesting their options were limited.”

“I observe,” says Duckworth with a glint in his eye, “there are two kinds of heroines in the world (fairy-tale world that is), the winsome and the wise.”

I chortle. “Along the wise-line, I read The Clever Farmer’s Daughter to Thalia last night, but now that I think of it, it is not technically a fairy tale, not having any magic in it, despite being in the Grimm canon.”

“Was the farmer clever or the daughter?”

“Oh, the latter. Actually, I peeked at the Grimms’ notes on the tale. They traced it back to the Saga of Aslaug, daughter of the legendary Germanic hero, Sigurd, and his wife, the shieldmaiden Brynhildr. Upon the deaths of Aslaug’s parents, Brynhildr’s foster father takes the young Aslaug into hiding, concealing her in the body of a harp, he pretending to be a bard. Peasants murder him for the treasure hidden in the harp and end up raising Aslaug.

“When she reaches womanhood, King Ragnar hears of this remarkable peasant girl and tests her wit by asking her to come to him neither dressed nor naked, neither fasting or eating, and neither alone or in a company.

“She arrives dressed in a fisherman’s net, holding an onion in her teeth, traveling along with her dog.”

“How delightful. Do they marry?” Duckworth asks.

“Yes, but Ragnar dies as a result of not listening to her advice.”

“So sorry to hear that. I prefer happy endings. Still, it does not sound to me like the women are doing too well in the tales, whether they show wisdom or abide by the will of others, unless marriage is the be-all and end-all of their existence.”

I consider for a moment. “The tales would have them ‘live happily ever after,’ nothing the feminist movement would promote as a role model for young girls, but my Thalia loves these stories. What does she see in these heroines? I think there is something timeless in the message, even if I can’t put my finger on it.”

Your thoughts?

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.

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Oh?”

“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

Sunken

“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

Fears

“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.

“Melissa.”

“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

Listening

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?