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?

 

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2 Comments

  1. This reminds me of my research project for my Comparative Literature degree. I studied the usage of trees and birds in both the fairy tales of Grimm and Basile. To bring up the male/female dynamic, trees usually represented shelter for females and guides/helpers for males. Great post! x Arielle

    Reply
  2. Ah, then certainly you know “The Old Woman in the Wood.” I am a storyteller, and that is one of the stories I use for Halloween tales. It is wonderfully surreal. My notion is that the old storytellers were illiterate, and the story structures they knew came from their dreams. Ours dreams have much to do with our collective unconscious, rendering the Fairy Tale much in the same realm.

    Reply

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