Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2015 The Jew in the Thornbush -Part One

Jew in bush.jpgJohn B. Gruelle

A Thorny Tale

This is my favorite part of the day, when Thalia crawls into my lap with Teddy in tow and we nestle into the comfy chair. Thalia’s small finger circles in the air and lands on a line of the table of contents in her copy of Grimm.

“That one.”

I grimace. “How about this one?” I stab at another line. She jerks her head around and fixes me with a stare of suspicion.  “Well,” I defend, “it’s not a nice story.”

“How do you know?”

“I read it.”

“Read it to me.”

I sigh and give into child logic. “The Jew in the Thornbush.”

A servant, after three years of faithful service, is paid a mere three farthings by his miserly employer. The servant, content with that small amount, nonetheless gives it all to a beggar. The beggar, who is more than he seems, grants the servant  three wishes: a fowling gun that never misses; a fiddle, to the music of which all must dance; and the boon that others must do as he wishes.

The servant soon comes across a Jew admiring a bird’s song and wishing aloud that he could have that bird. In a rather sudden turn of his good nature, the servant shoots the bird and obliges the Jew to crawl into the thornbush into which the bird has fallen. The servant then plays his fiddle, causing the Jew to dance inside the brambles. In pain, the Jew pleads with the servant to stop playing and offers him all the money he has, a substantial bag of gold.

Thalia wriggles in my lap, pulling Teddy closer to her, toying with his floppy ear, the one not as well sewn on as the other.

When freed, the Jew curses the fellow and runs off to a judge with his complaint. The servant is found, arrested, and condemned to death for highway robbery.

At the hanging, the servant requests to play his fiddle one last time. Against the Jew’s warning, and because everyone must do as the fellow wishes anyway, the judge allows it. Soon the Jew, the judge, the hangman, and everyone gathered to watch the hanging are dancing to the tune of the fiddle.

At the point of exhaustion, the judge cries out and pledges to release the servant from his sentence if he will only stop fiddling. The Jew then, unaccountably, confesses that he stole the money, but that the servant came into its possession honestly, and for this confession he is hung in the servant’s stead.

Thalia looks at me accusingly. “Teddy doesn’t like that story.”

“Well, I don’t either and I did warn you,” I say.

“Humph.”  Thalia slips off my lap. Teddy, being dragged behind her, looks at me with the same accusing eyes.

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2015 The Jew in the Thornbush – Part Two

Jew hatTraditional Jewish Hat

Not So Bad?

Duckworth and I stand under an archway at Christ Church, one which barely affords us shelter from the rain that has cut short our walk around the quad.

Duckworth stuffs his hands deeper into his overcoat pockets. “While we’re trapped here—careless, umbrellaless chums that we are—tell me how you have been entertaining Thalia of late.”

“Hmmm. Jew in the Thornbush last night.”

Duckworth looks at me askance. “You know I don’t spend time reading fairy tales, but that one sounds a bit dodgy. I’ll assume it has its redeeming qualities.”

“No, none whatsoever. It’s as bad as it sounds.”

“Then why did you choose to read it to her?”

“She asked me to.”

“My good fellow, I know she has you wrapped around her little finger, but you are the adult. You ought to be protecting her from such things.”

I am not sure how to answer. “Should I protect her, or would I be pretending anti-Semitism doesn’t exist?”

“We’re talking about a child.” Duckworth raises an eyebrow.

“Yes, we are,” I say. “Perhaps that’s the point.” I notice my shoes and pant cuffs are getting wet. “Perhaps informing them is what fairy tales do best for children.”

Duckworth’s skeptical smile begs me to wade in deeper.

“Thalia,” I muse, “told me she didn’t like the story. Actually, she said her teddy bear didn’t like the story. That is displacement, which is what I think I am talking about. I introduced her to an anti-Sematic thought—before that adjective has entered her vocabulary—in a safe, nonthreatening-to-her fashion. She does not have to take action, or make a judgment. The act of judgment she passed off to her teddy bear.  And yet, in a small but significant way I have prepared her for facing anti-Semitism when it comes around again in a more direct manner.”

“Displacement,” Duckworth considers. “Then Thalia is not dealing with the issue directly, but flitting around the edges? That appears to me rather unproductive.”

“Think of it as dipping her toe in the water instead of throwing her in over her head.”

“Sorry, I’m not buying it.” Duckworth stares at the sky as the rain comes down harder. “Your approach is terribly indirect. Besides, children will face prejudice soon enough without us foisting it upon them at an early age.”

“Well, perhaps it’s a moot point.” I press against the wall behind me, trying to stay dry. “Anti-Semitism isn’t the issue it used to be, say, a hundred years ago. Jews are much more accepted in our—let me call it—cosmopolitan times. I don’t think Thalia will observe nearly the level of prejudice that once existed.”

“That’s arguable. And what about the Muslims?” says Duckworth.

“What do they have to do with The Jew in the Thornbush?   Oh, I know in the Muslim world there is plenty of . . .”

“No, I mean here, in your cosmopolitan times, Thalia may well have her mind poisoned against them. In our context, the Muslims are simply the new Jews. And for how many decades will that go on?”

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2015 The Jew in the Thornbush – Part Three

Jew too

Not So Good

A drizzle still falls outside my study’s bay window. It is misty enough that I can barely see the first line of trees at the edge of the Magic Forest. Johannes dozes on the window sill. I will not disturb him with my questions. I can image what less than generous things he might say.

I decide to explore how The Jew in the Thornbush reflects the time and culture from which it came: the late seventeenth century, among the uneducated peasants of the Holy Roman Empire.

To help educate myself, I have balanced the laptop on my knees. With one hand I tap “Jewish History German 17th Century” into the search box, holding my pipe filled with Elfish Gold in the other.

I find that religious differences between the Christians and the Jews weren’t enough (Martin Luther had truly terrible things to say.) there were other causes for the peasants to harbor resentment.

Starting in the Middle Ages, Jews were confined to ghettoes, and barred from many occupations and trades, allowed to fill only those positions considered socially inferior. Both money lending and tax collecting fell into that category. Money lending, in particular, Christians saw as a sin, a necessary sin at times, but a sin nonetheless. Not surprisingly, the Jews, whether they practiced those services or not, acquired the reputation for being stingy, greedy, and corrupt.

At some times and places the restrictions on the Jews were so great, they turned to crime to survive. The reputation of “thief” the peasants quickly added to their Jewish list of sins.

I close the lid of my computer as I settle back to consider how this applies to The Jew in the Thornbush.

In this tale, the Jew appears as the butt of the joke, a comic character, not to be taken seriously. Even his hanging is portrayed as entertaining. The purpose of the tale is to have an underling, with whom a peasant might well identify, get the better of those outside his class. This brings to my mind The Blue Light, in which a soldier gets the better of the king, his daughter, the judges and their assistants (Judges, too, come in for a fair amount of abuse in the Grimm tales.) The Jew in the Thornbush is not meant to be an anti-Semitic tale. It is casually anti-Semitic, using the Jew as a device for humor.

Violence in the Grimm tales is certainly not unusual, but usually has a purpose. The tales were structured so that violence becomes an obstacle for the hero or heroine to overcome during the tale, and serves as punishment for evil at the end of the tale. That the Jew is hung in the last act of the story is meant to signal to the reader that evil has been destroyed.

As my pipe goes out, I must sadly conclude that my precious fairy tales, for all the good they do when reflecting on personal concerns—such as feelings of abandonment, fear of the unknown, finding a life partner— fail when they touch on issues of social justice. They bear no more insight for us than could be provided by a medieval peasant, for whom the tales were meant to entertain.

Your thoughts?

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Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2015 Childe Rowland – Part One

Childe Rowland BE Batten John Batten

An Eerie Tale

I hear Thalia padding down the hall, having returned from her trick or treating. Thalia’s mother took her around the neighborhood, plus Augustus’s tobacco shop and Melissa’s bookstore. Maternal suggestions of dressing up as a witch or a ghost went unheeded. Thalia chose to disguise herself as a phone booth, which involved a cardboard box, poster paint, and a small brass bell. In these days of cellphones, where she got that bit of antique knowledge I have no idea.

Grimm fails me on Halloween. There are stories in the collection with witches, but they don’t quite evoke the spirit of this unhallowed day. The old English fairy tales do better.

Thalia is in her jammies and crawls onto my lap with Teddy in hand; I reach for English Fairy Tales, by my friend Joseph Jacobs, and turn to Childe Rowland.

Three sons of the king play at ball, kicking it over the church roof. Their sister, Burd Ellen, chases after it and never returns. A warlock explains that she passed

‘widdershins’ around the church, has fallen into the hands of the King of Elfland, and now resides in the Dark Tower.

One by one the elder brothers go off in search of their sister until only the youngest, Childe Rowland, is left. The queen is reluctant to let him go, but finally concedes and gives him his father’s sword with an enchantment upon it. The warlock instructs him not to eat or drink while in Elfland, and to cut off the head of anyone to whom he speaks until he gets to the Dark Tower.

After some travel and a few heads, including one of a henwife, (“Aww,” says Thalia.) Childe Rowland comes to the Dark Tower, which is actually a tall, terraced, green hill. He gains entrance following the instructions of the henwife by riding widdershins around the green hill three times calling out “Open door! Open door! Let me come in.” On the third pass, a door appears in the side of the hill.

He walks down a long narrow passage, which leads to a large chamber, rather cathedral-like in appearance, lit by the curious device of a large, translucent, hollow pearl, inside of which spins a blue gem emitting a bright glow.

There he finds his sister, Burd Ellen. She grieves at his coming, declaring her husband, the Elf King, will overthrow him as he did their two brothers.

Childe Rowland, suddenly hungry, asks for food and drink. Burd Ellen, under a spell and unable to warn him, brings him bowls of bread and milk. Before he can eat anything, he recalls the warlock’s words, throws the bowls to the floor, and calls for the Elf King to face him.

Through the same door that Childe Rowland entered, a tall, armored elf appears and they do battle, Rowland eventually defeating him. The king calls for mercy and Rowland grants it if Burd Ellen is freed, their brothers restored, and all allowed to leave Elfland.

The Elf King takes a vial of red liquid and moves off to a small room adjoining the main chamber. There on stone tables lay the brothers’ bodies. The elf touches their ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and fingertips with the liquid, restoring them. He pronounces a spell over Burd Ellen and she is released.

The happy siblings return home and Burd Ellen never passes widdershins around the church again.

“Cool.” Thalia’s eyes glow. Then she frowns. “What about the henwife?”

“This is Elfland; she’ll be back in the morning.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2015 Childe Rowland

Childe Rowland  BattenJohn Batten

Back Again

It is a delight to hear the bell over Augustus’s door. I haven’t been in his shop since doing in my foot, and I smoked the last bit of tobacco finings last night.

“There you are,” says Augustus. “I feared you gave up the pipe.”

“Hardly, but I need to restock; two ounces each of Elfish Gold, Old Rinkrank, and Cobbler’s Delight. Hmmm, and one of Raven Black.”

“I’ve changed the mixture of Raven Black. We ought to sit and test it out.”

“Quite so.”

His suggestion is as much an excuse to sit and talk as it is a courtesy, and I am glad to oblige.

“I saw a walking phone booth last night. I hope you called her up and told her a good Halloween story.”

We settle into our comfy chairs.

Childe Rowland.”

“Good choice. You read Jacobs’ notes on it?”

He has caught me off guard. “No, I haven’t quite got around to it.”

“Well, let me summarize. Apparently Jacobs was taken with this tale. His notes are a bit longer than the tale itself. He goes on for seven or eight pages, with illustrations. No other tale gets as much attention, a page or two, often a mere paragraph.

“His main point deals with the similarity between the Dark Tower—the terraced green hill—and the passage tombs they’d begun excavating about that time in the nineteenth century.”

“Passage tombs,” I echo.

“Yes, structures built of large stone slabs, not unlike Stonehenge although not so massive. They covered the structure with ground, forming an artificial hill. A long, narrow passageway formed the entrance leading to a chamber, off of which might be smaller chambers.”

“Ahh, I see. Childe Rowland enters the hill, goes down a long passage to the room where he finds Burd Ellen and fights with the Elf King. His brothers lie in a small chamber off of the main chamber on stone tables as if—oh my—as if dead.”

Augustus nods in assent. The smoke of Raven Black floats between us.

“But wait,” I caution. “Aren’t these things terribly old?”

“Neolithic,” replies Augustus. “Let’s say four or five thousand years old.”

“That’s a long way to whisper down the alley. Did the people telling this tale know of these things?”

“The artificial hills of the passage tombs, other similar tombs, and sacred sites were the fairy mounds to the locals. The speculation in Jacobs’ time was that the mounds were built by, or at least used by, the Picts, a smaller race of men defeated and pushed out by the Aryan race. Jacobs also notes the similarity between the word ‘Picts’ and the Scottish word for fairy, ‘Pechs.’

“The fairies supposedly lived in the mounds, but whether anyone knew what lay inside, under the ground, I cannot say.”

“Tempting us,” I suggest, “to use terms like ‘racial memory’ to explain it.”

“Tempting, yes.”

“And what about this ‘widdershins?’”

“Jacobs talks about that too, as analogous to the German ‘wider Schein,’ against the appearance of the sun, or counterclockwise. Perhaps it means in the opposite direction or against sense.

“I ran across a tale one time of a lad who danced nine times widdershins around a fairy ring of toadstools to prove it nonsense that he would fall under the power of the fairy people. As I recall, it didn’t end well.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2015 Childe Rowland

Childe Rowland  T Moran 59Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Thomas Moranin

Not on Top

I sit on the trunk of a fallen tree that lies across the path through the Magic Forest. This is as far as my recovering ankle will allow me to traverse uneven ground, yet it is far enough to see the sun setting behind the Glass Mountain. I won’t stay long. I can feel the temperature dropping.

I let my thoughts flutter through Childe Rowland and they settle on the hero walking through the underground passageway. I have a preference for tales that let me follow the heroes and heroines beneath the earth’s surface. As I sit on my log I mentally list some of those favorites.

  • Katie Crackernut. In this tale a fairy mound appears similar to Childe Rowland’s green hill.
  • Worn Out Dancing Shoes. A hidden staircase in the princess’s bedroom leads to an enchanted underworld.
  • Sprig of Rosemary. Our heroine pulls up a rosemary bush, unearthing a stairway to a subterranean castle.
  • Old Rinkrank. I am sitting here looking at the Glass Mountain, which swallowed up the princess who became Old Mother Masrot.
  • The Three Feathers. The simpleton brother moves aside a stone to reveal another descending staircase, this one to a colony of toads.
  • The Three Snake Leaves. We find our hero confined to a tomb with his dead wife.

I can list more examples as easily as Alice fell down the rabbit hole, but what are their meanings?

In my mind’s eye I see Freud sit down beside me on my log, with Bettelheim standing behind him. In my understanding of Freud, he might argue that the hero or heroine descends into the realm of the unconscious.

But if I follow my hero or heroine to that realm, I’d expect Rowland, Katie, and the simpleton to face their fears, uncertainties, and frustrations; reaching into the dark corners with trepidation. Instead, I see my protagonists encounter wonderment, gain knowledge, and win the prize.

Jung sits down on the other side of me. I anticipate his argument that the hero or heroine enters the realm of the collective unconscious, an entirely difference place from Freud’s unconscious. Here can be found the accumulated visions of our human race. I use the word “visions,” thinking it the right term to describe what the collective unconscious contains.

  • In Childe Rowland we see the long, dim passageway.
  • In Katie Crackernut we see the baby fairy waddling around, playing with magical devices.
  • In The Worn Out Dancing Shoes we see the forest of silver, gold, and diamond trees.
  • In The Sprig of Rosemary we see the snake skin in the forbidden box.

I need not go on.

The collective unconscious does not speak to me in words. I perceive that words make up language, but are themselves not things. They are symbols. The visions of the collective unconscious are also symbols and make up another language, one we cannot hear. I am not sure—although I call them visions—that we can really see them, but rather feel them.

I blink and my log companions are gone. Gone with them is my confidence that my line of thought has any substance. I sigh, shiver, and start for home.

Your thoughts?