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.

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