Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2018 The Three Languages – Part One

Three Languages dogs

Disquiet

I hear Thalia’s shuffle coming down the hall. I’m already in the comfy chair. To my surprise she comes through the study door, her Grimm pinned under her elbow, carrying Johannes, her arms wrapped around his stomach, and his legs hanging down.

“Where’s Teddy?” I ask.

“He’s with Mom. Needs his eye sewed back on.”

“Ah,” I say, “Well Johannes, I’m pleased you are joining us tonight.”

“Don’t pander,” he grumps, and wiggles from Thalia’s arms to jump onto the back of the comfy.

Thalia grabs my belt to pull herself up onto my lap, and we perform the eyes-closed, finger-waving selection process on the table of contents of her battered copy of Grimm.

The Three Languages, I announce.

A Swiss nobleman has a worthless son in that the lad cannot learn anything. Sent off to study with a scholar, the boy returns after a year having learned the language of dogs. Angered, the father sends him off again to another scholar, resulting in the youth learning the language of birds. The third attempt at learning gains the lad the language of frogs.

Disgusted, the nobleman instructs his people to take the boy out into the woods, kill him, and return with his eyes and tongue as proof that the deed has been done. His people cannot bring themselves to kill the poor innocent, and let him escape. They return with the eyes and tongue of a deer.

The lad seeks shelter with another nobleman, but is assigned to a tower inhabited by wild dogs that daily eat a man. The youth goes without fear to the tower. The dogs not only do not eat him, but also tell him how to break the curse they are under—by taking from them the golden treasure they were magically obliged to guard.

The nobleman of this castle, delighted with the young man for breaking the curse—not to mention the chest of gold—adopts him as his son.

The lad now gets it into his head to visit Rome. On the way he falls into conversation with frogs who tell him that he is to become the next pope. The lad turns contemplative and saddened by the news.

Arriving in Rome, he finds the pope has died and the cardinals are looking for a sign from God to guide their selection in the choice of a new pope. Entering the church, two doves alight on his shoulders and the cardinals ask him to become the pope. The young man is reluctant, but the doves counsel him to accept.

He is then required to say Mass, but, despite knowing three languages, he does not know a word of Latin. However, the doves whisper the words in his ears.

I stop reading.

“And then?” Thalia asks.

“That’s it. There’s no more story.”

Thalia’s brows crease. “That’s not the ending. Tell me.”

“No, really, that’s it. It’s not my fault.” I put my palms up in the air.

Thalia, still unconvinced, reads the page for herself. She gives me a skeptical glance, as if I am still somehow at fault, takes her book with a sigh, and saunters out of the study, her nightgown swishing along the floor.

“Not my fault,” I defend myself to Johannes. He merely chortles at my discomfort.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2018 The Three Languages – Part Two

Three Languages frogs

A Rainy Amble

I put on my mukluks and rain slicker, and take my umbrella from the stand. Thalia’s cat nimbly leaps from the armoire by the door to my shoulder.

“Johannes?”

“I’m going with you to see Augustus.”

“Why do you think I’m going to see Augustus?”

“You question my insight?”

He is right. I’m going to see Augustus. The Three Languages is a little too strange not to run it by my colleague in fairy-tale lore.

With Johannes perched on my shoulder, under my umbrella, I amble down our sidewalk toward the cobblestone street along which sits both the tobacco shop and Melissa’s Serious Books. Frankly, there aren’t as many cobblestone streets left in this city as I would like.

The bell over Augustus’s door rings as we enter. Johannes leaps from my shoulder and follows me at my heel.

“What’s this?” Augustus gestures toward Thalia’s cat. “I’ve never seen a cat following its master around like a dog.”

Johannes’s bristling tail alerts me that I need to change the subject before there is bloodshed.

The Three Languages,” I say. “What can you tell me about that story?”

“I will exchange my knowledge for your opinion on my latest blend, Traveler’s Due.” He motions toward his smoking room.

When we sit down and tamp our pipes, Johannes curls up in my lap—he never does that—and pretends not to be listening.

“That is an odd tale,” Augustus begins. “Not part of the 1812 edition, but a later entry. It’s interesting to me that the Grimms ever included it in their canon. They were not Catholic and were averse to the Holy Roman Empire, siding with the German Nationalist Movement.

“If I remember correctly, it was suggested the tale refers to Pope Sylvester the Second.”

To my alarm, Augustus pulls out of his pocket a cell phone, taps its face, and says into it, “Pope Sylvester the Second.”

“Augustus,” I declare, “when have you adopted modern ways?”

He tries to suppress a smile. “It’s a gift from Duckworth. He wanted a phone with more bells and whistles, and gave me his old one.”

Augustus studies his screen. “I am afraid Sylvester does not appear to be our innocent lad, but a rather competent scholar, pretty much a mathematician and astronomer. I see some curious legends about him and the devil, also something about a talking bronze head, but no doves.”

Augustus searches around on his phone some more. “Pope Fabian the First looks like a better candidate. He was selected pope when a dove landed on his head. Doves, however, are a common association with popes,” Augustus concludes.

“How about dogs and frogs?”

“None,” he says, “not according to what I am seeing.”

“Reminds me,” I say, “of the agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac who stayed up all night wondering if there really was a dog.”

Augustus chuckles. “The role of the frogs in the story does bother me. They are usually associated with pagan magic.”

“As in The Three Feathers?” I suggest.

Johannes’s ears flicker, I think from interest.

“Quite,” Augustus nods. “Why are the frogs prophesizing the lad’s rising to become pope? It’s as though they are looking down from a higher perspective. And why are they being paired with the doves, as animal helpers, to bring the hero to the papal throne?

“The tale does not exactly follow the usual fairy-tale patterns but does not feel like a literary tale either. I can’t help but sense there is a lack of balance in this story, especially when it comes to a sudden halt at the end.”

Thalia is not alone.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2018 The Three Languages – Part Three

Three Languages dove

Unbalanced

As I Return with an ounce of Traveler’s Due, my new favorite tobacco, Johannes grumbles in my ear.

“I went out in the rain for that? He wasn’t even close.”

Not wanting to appear to be a crazy old man talking to himself with a cat on his shoulder, I hold my comments until we are safely in my foyer.

“He did raise some questions to be answered,” I say, letting my furry traveler back onto the armoire.

I follow Johannes down the hall back to the study. “Neither you nor Augustus is peeking beneath the surface.”

“Well, then,” I say, poking up the embers on the hearth and throwing on a few more logs, “what do you see underneath the story?”

Johannes settles on my table close to the fireplace. “The lad learns the language of dogs, birds, and frogs. Each creature is a representative of the three animal kingdoms: mammals, birds, and reptiles.”

I tamp my new favorite into my pipe. “It is tempting to think about earth, air, and water.”

“No, the elements do not have language, and you are forgetting about fire,” Johannes protests.

“Not so fast.” I like this notion of mine. “The dogs are creatures of the earth, the material world. They bring to the hero the material comfort of gold.

“The frogs are creatures of the water. I am going to equate them with wisdom and learning. They tell our hero of the future.”

Johannes sighs with a hint of contempt, but I push on.

“The birds are creatures of the air. They obviously represent the spiritual aspect, giving the hero the words to the Mass. What do you think?”

Johannes shakes his head. “You’re forgetting all about the languages. Language is the instrument of learning. The dogs instruct the lad how to get the gold. The frogs instruct the lad about what is coming, and birds instruct him how to say the Mass.”

“Isn’t that a variant of my interpretation?”

He eyes me without responding.

“Alright,” I relent, “your message is we should listen to the animals?”

“You would do well.”

He may have a point.

“Still,” I say, “there remains the imbalance of which Augustus spoke. The tale does not follow the usual tropes. There is no kind act the hero performs for the animal helpers, who then return the favor. Each of the animal helpers does not have its own ‘act’ in the story. The dogs do, but the frogs and doves are part of the same scene.  And that scene ends abruptly with no ‘and they lived happily ever after.’”

I know I am ranting a bit.

“And what of the hero being taken out to be killed, but his father’s henchmen let him go, substituting the eyes and tongue of a deer. In fairy tales the intended victim has always been a female, such as Snow White. Why the gender shift?”

“Notice,” Johannes responds, almost purring, “it’s the tongue and not the usual heart. Again, something to do with language.”

I had not caught that, but his comment does not answer my questions. I feel unbalanced by the tale.

Your thoughts?

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Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2018 The Wicked Sisters – Part One

Wicked Sisters 1 Garden of the Hesperides,  Sir Edward B. Jones

At Loose Ends

It is of considerable consolation to me to have Melissa comfort me tonight, here in my study. She knows how badly I take personal loss and her company is a healing salve to my beleaguered soul. Thalia is not with me tonight. She is on a sleepover.

“Well,” Melissa says, setting down her wineglass, “you could read to me instead.”

“Oh,” I say, “what a delightful idea.” I reach for my copy of Nursery and Household Tales.

“Hmmm,” she reacts, “Not Grimm. I’ve read those umpteen times. I want something new.” She rises to peruse my bookcases. The scent of her perfume tickles my nose as she passes by.

“I am not sure there is such a thing as a truly new fairy tale.”

She ignores my tease. “Ah, here’s a book that is one I haven’t sold to you.”

I chuckle. “It’s a present from Augustus, maybe three Christmases ago.”

Russian Fairy Tales. Oh! By Alexander Afanasyev, the Russian Brothers Grimm. I know him from his Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs. That work’s claim to fame is being the popularization of the Snow Maiden. It’s also one of those books Russian literary students refer to but never actually read, for the good reason that it’s huge. Three cumbersome volumes as I recall.”

I weighed the Russian Fairy Tales book that Melissa put into my hands. “This is no lightweight tome either.”

“An earlier work, before he really put on the literary weight. But, in the spirit of the Russian literary students, I haven’t read this one either. What story will you choose?”

I open the book to its table of contents and hand it back to her. “Thalia does the finger stab.”

“Of course,” she says. Closing her eyes, she rotates her index finger in the air, bringing it down on the page. “The Wicked Sisters,” she announces, hands the book back to me, then curls up on the Chesterfield, her wineglass in hand.

Prince Ivan, the heartthrob of the kingdom, overhears three sisters talking about him. The eldest sister says, if Ivan marries her, she will spin for him the most marvelous shirt. The second sister says she will weave for him a coat of silver and gold. The youngest states she cannot spin nor weave, but would bear Ivan sons with suns on the foreheads, moons on the back of their heads, and stars on their sides.

Prince Ivan marries the youngest and she bears him three sons with the celestial markings. However, as each son is born, the jealous sisters substitute first a kitten, which they claim is what their sister birthed, later a puppy, and at last a boy, but without the sun, moon, and stars.

The young princess is tried in court for deceiving Prince Ivan and consigned to have her eyes gouged out, put into a tarred barrel with her child, and thrown into the sea.

Prince Ivan marries the eldest sister, the one who whisked away her younger sister’s children and put them, as the story says, in the royal garden’s green arbor.

Meanwhile, the substitute child, sealed in the barrel with the suffering princess, grows into a young man in a matter of hours.

With the invocation, “By my request, by the pike’s command, by God’s blessing,” the boy brings the princess back to shore, cures her blindness, and transports the palace and the garden, where the three brothers are hidden, to their mother.

The boy then presents the three luminescent brothers with cakes made from their mother’s milk. The brothers recognize the favor, are reunited with their mother, and treat the substitute child as their brother.

They live in the transported palace, giving rest and comfort to anyone who travels their way, including some monks who later find themselves in Prince Ivan’s company. They describe to him their previous hosts who had suns on the foreheads, moons behind, and stars on their bodies. The monks also tell of their mother, a most lovely princess.

Prince Ivan knows who they are, abandons his false wife, and rejoins his true family. All live happily thereafter except for the eldest sister, who is put in a tarred barrel and thrown out to sea.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2018 The Wicked Sisters – Part Two

AF_18Alexander Afanasyev

A Puzzle

Melissa sips from her glass, her sight drifting to the flames of the fireplace. “I feel the story is made up of symbols. I sense it addressing something spiritual.”

“What might that be?”

“I’m not sure. Let’s see if we can put it together.”

“Oh, good, a puzzle.” I settle deeper into my comfy chair.

Melissa taps the rim of her glass with a finger. “Prince Ivan is obviously the prize. The struggle in the story is for his attention.”

“Agreed. He disappears in the middle section while we follow the youngest sister. What is the significance of his overhearing the three sisters?”

“I’m seeing,” says Melissa, “the shadow of The Judgment of Paris, when a mortal judges the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite for their beauty.”

“Oh! That’s bound not to turn out well.”

“No, it doesn’t. Each goddess tries to bribe him. Paris chooses Aphrodite’s bribe, which is the mortal beauty Helen, leading to the Trojan War.”

“Unfortunate,” I say, “but I see the similarity you suggest. Does that hint at the sisters being more than mortal women?”

Melissa thinks on that a moment. “Yes. We don’t see that with the elder sisters, who offer up material gains for Prince Ivan, marvelous clothing indeed, but not items outside of mortal women’s ability to achieve. However, the youngest sister promises to birth celestial beings, well beyond human capacity.”

“Let me argue that.” I am thinking while I am talking. “Fairy tales are well known for borrowing from the Greek myths, although members of their pantheon are never allowed to show their faces. Only the Christian players occasionally have a role; God, Mother Mary, angels, and Satan all make their appearance in the tales. That is unfair, but not my point. Keeping with the tale’s rules, the youngest sister cannot be allowed to be one of the immortals.”

Melissa rotates the nearly empty wineglass in her hand. “True, nor does the story really suggest such a thing. I think we are meant to accept that the youngest sister can decide to have celestial children with no explanation or justification. She can do it if she wishes.”

“Next,” I go on, “we come to her being accused of giving birth to creatures. I have often seen this type of ruse in the tales before, Grimm’s The Six Swans for example.”

“Yes, but the culprit is usually a discontented in-law or stepmother, not a flesh-and-blood sister. Jealous sisters should be confined to bad advice.”

“It is my observation,” I purposely intone a little, “the stepmother-displacement thing at least, is a nineteenth-century invention. In earlier versions of these tales, mothers were quick to kill their children, and siblings quick to kill each other, as was, in truth, happening among the royal families at the time.”

“Fairy tales reflect the culture in which they live,” Melissa recites.

“I agree again,” I say, “Let’s go on.”

Melissa picks up the thread of my thought. “The youngest is tried in court, which gives the judgment she is to be blinded and thrown into a tarred barrel with the substitute child.”

“Well, at least it wasn’t the nail-lined barrel dragged through the streets by two white horses as is usual.”

Melissa giggles in her charming way. “There is something about barrels as torture devices that the stories really like.”

“The substitute child,” I ask. “What is he all about?”

Melissa frowns. “We edge back again to pagan concepts. In all the pantheons none of the gods or goddesses has a childhood. They are born fully adult. I recall an Irish tale collected by Jeremiah Curtain, The Shee An Gannon and the Gruagach Gaire, which starts, ‘The Shee An Gannon was born in the morning, named at noon, and went in the evening to ask his daughter of the king of Erin.’”

“Hmm,” I contemplate, “While the Greek Thalia was the daughter of Zeus, I’m certainly happy our Thalia has a childhood.”

I shiver at the thought of its absence.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2018 The Wicked Sisters – Part Three

Wicked Sister 3 sun moonThe World Turned Upside Down

The Solution

Refilling Melissa’s empty glass, I say, “Just like the youngest sister, we must accept the child’s magical state without question. Perhaps he is the kind hand of fate.”

Melissa is staring again into the hearth’s flames. “I see the magical child as an orphan, who craves a place in the world. He has latched onto the youngest sister, whom he calls his mother although she is not. He is bent on bringing her back to the light, as it were.”

I pick up on her notion. “They are in a barrel, in the dark. She is descending toward death while he is rising into existence, crossing paths.”

Melissa nods, “He is, step by step, resurrecting her each time he invokes an action with his command.”

“By the way, what is ‘by the pike’s command’?”

“Oh, I know that. It is from another Russian folktale, probably the best known in Russia, like The Three Little Pigs is to us. It has to do with a simpleton and a talking fish, a pike that grants wishes.

“But, to continue.” Melissa refocuses. “I wonder if her blindness has significance. There are blind gods, the Norse

Höðr, who is the one destined to kill Badr, not to mention Odin sacrificing an eye for wisdom. Oedipus blinds himself. Metope is blinded by her father as punishment. The poet Homer is blind and there are lots of blind prophets. I think much of their blindness—although not all—has to do with gaining insight.”

“I don’t see her gaining insight,” I object. “She’s more a victim of circumstance. Maybe the blindness is just a prop, supplied for the magical child to heal.”

Melissa’s skepticism shows in the twist of her lips. “Perhaps. I feel I’m missing something, but let’s go on for argument’s sake.”

“Oh,” I put in, “minor point, but I noticed the second sister disappears by the end of the story. The eldest gets punished, but not the middle sister.”

“Well,” replies Melissa, “the story doesn’t give her a role to play after the start, so she gets crowded out.”

“Quite,” I reflect. “The tales are economical. If a character does not act, they are gone. That happens a lot to fathers in these stories. And what about the thing with the magical child transporting Prince Ivan’s palace and the royal garden—where the celestial children live—to his adopted mother, without the prince apparently noticing?”

“You’re getting us diverted,” Melissa scolds.

“Sorry,” I say. “How,” I conjecture, “do we view the celestial children?”

Melissa takes a deep breath and a goodly sip of wine. “While the youngest sister is the protagonist, they are the focal point of the tale. They are a cosmic presence hidden away by the eldest sister in the arbor, where they sustain themselves, infants though they are. If they are.

“However, they take little action. Their action comes when the magical child gives them the cakes made from their mother’s milk . . . Don’t interrupt me; I know that’s loaded with symbolism. . . . and that is the only time in the story where we hear them speak. They call out for the magical child to bring their mother to them, then incorporate the child into their family as one of their brothers, ending his orphan status.”

Without apparent cause, Melissa raises her glass, then takes a long sip. “I got it.” She’s on a roll. “It is a story of coming into awareness. The magical child, certainly, was on the fast track for becoming aware. The youngest sister, in her travail, was resurrected and came into a new awareness with new eyes. The celestial children were not fully realized until they became aware of their mother.

“Note that Prince Ivan doesn’t go to rescue and return them to his home. Ivan, who has become aware that his true bride still lives along with his sons, joins them where they are, holding a new court—a new awareness.”

“Puzzle solved,” I declare.

That’s always gratifying.

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2018 The Little Gold Bird – Part One

Little Gold Bird one clipClipart

Cozy

I realize not everyone in the world can be as cozy as I am right now. That should make me at least empathetic, but I am too cozy at the moment to feel others’ discomfort.

I speak, of course, of my comfy chair by the warming fireplace within view of my bay window through which I see the silhouette of the magic forest under a cold, full moon.  To complete this theme: a cup of Lapsang Souchong tea and a book, The Magic Pisspot.

This being Sunday, Melissa and I had tea at the Vaults. Over scones with clotted cream, didn’t she sell me this book. She knew I’d want it. The storyteller is Per Gustavsson, associated with Land of Legends Museum, translated into English by Richard Martin, the fellow I met in Augustus’s tobacco shop back in April. I am charmed by the Kjell Sundberg’s illustrations—colorful and a bit out of focus, lending them a surreal, magical appeal.

The story that has caught my attention is The Little Gold Bird.

A queen sees a drop of her own blood on the snow caused by her nosebleed. She wishes for a child with lips that red and skin that white.

The wish is granted with the birth of a daughter, but one proud and spiteful. She grows up and marries a king. One of the king’s courtiers declares she is as beautiful as the sun. That anything should be her equal angers the young queen.

She challenges the sun, asking who is more beautiful. The sun replies they are equal in beauty, but that the queen will have a daughter who will be more beautiful than either of them.

That does not help.

When the daughter is born, the young queen sends her away from court, so that the queen’s reputation would remain intact. The sun continues to be a nagging reminder.

When the daughter is fifteen, the king insists she be brought back to court. The queen plots with a lady-in-waiting to throw the girl down a well.

A well, however, can lead to another world, as this one does. There the girl finds a messy lodge with twelve unmade beds. Simply to make herself useful, she tidies the place up and makes the beds.

The lodge belongs to twelve creatures, made up of different animal parts, of whom the girl is initially terrified. However, they turn out to be enchanted princes waiting for a little bird with gold feathers to sing to them, breaking the enchantment. Meanwhile, they are delighted to have someone to clean up after them.

“Chauvinists!” a little voice pipes. Thalia’s fairy reads over my shoulder.

“Now my dear, it was a different time,” I say.

“I know,” she replies, “I was there. They were chauvinists.”

“You were in this story?”

“Stories like it.”

I forgot the fairy’s longevity and must concede.

The sun still declares the daughter as the most beautiful, and the lady-in-waiting is sent back to the well, where she hears the girl singing in the other world. Calling down the well, the lady-in-waiting promises to return to rescue her and throws down a piece of sugar candy, a “gift” from the queen.

Unsuspecting, the girl eats the candy, which gets stuck in her throat, and she falls into a deathlike swoon. The ugly princes cannot bring themselves to bury her. Placing her in a silver coffin, they float her off onto a river.

A king finds the coffin, and through an accident the sugar candy dislodges from the girl’s throat and she returns to the living. They are soon married.

When the new bride is with child, the queen appears disguised as a midwife. When the child is born, the queen sticks her daughter with a golden needle, turning her into a bird with golden feathers, and assumes the guise of her daughter.

The bird flies off to break the enchantment of the twelve princes, then returns to the king. Still deceived by the queen, he follows her instructions to kill and cook the bird, then serve it to her.

Before killing the bird, he sees the golden needle and pulls it out, returning his true bride to her human form. The queen, her treachery exposed, falls dead.

“And so it should be,” declares the fairy and flitters off.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2018 The Little Gold Bird – Part Two

L0076362 Illustration of Beelzebub, MS 1766  Illustration of Beelzebub, MS 1766

A River

“A nosebleed! How uncouth,” says Duckworth.

“Well, maybe a bit. I think of it as being unaffected by literary norms,” is my rebuttal.

“No, it’s uncouth. There’s no excuse.”

Duckworth and I step lively on our way through Sydenham Hill Wood. The lively stepping is partly for exercise and partly to keep warm.

“You must agree,” I argue, “it is an interesting tale, nonetheless.”

“I thought it was seven dwarves, not twelve ugly princes.”

Duckworth is baiting me.

“Variants, my dear boy, variants. I think every storyteller needs to put their own spin on a story. If these ancient, itinerant tellers lacked for possessions, they did not lack for imagination.”

Duckworth smiles. “Actually, the tale is not only long, but has a sense of epic proportions.”

“I agree,” I say, “but let me hear your observations.”

“For one thing,” Duckworth begins, “the story touches on four generations: the queen with her nosebleed, her prideful daughter, the more beautiful daughter, and then her son, who gets perilously close to being motherless.

“I get the sense of a curse being passed down through the generations as in the Greek tragedies.”

“What would the curse be?” I ask.

Duckworth thinks a while. “The first queen makes a wish of the corporeal world, literally of the flesh, without thought for spiritual concerns. I won’t say that was sinful of her, but perhaps an ill-considered wish.”

I feel ill at ease at Duckworth’s turn toward dark thoughts, as we pass through the dense growth of this remnant of the disappearing Great North Wood.

Duckworth continues his reflections. “The second queen, through the fault of her mother’s wish, embodies moral bankruptcy. Entirely obsessed by her physical beauty, she can brook no rivals, not even the sun, much less her own mortal daughter.”

“The sun,” I interject, “takes the place of the mirror as it appeared in Snow White.”

“I wonder,’ says Duckworth, “if the mirror isn’t an invention of a French storyteller’s imagination?”

“Hmmm,” I say, “the French are more reflective than stellar.”

Duckworth raises his eyebrows at my poor pun. “Be that as it may, we don’t get to understand the truly beautiful daughter until she is cast down the well and enters a different realm.

In the world at the bottom of the well, outer beauty plays a lesser role. The twelve ugly beasts? Really princes inside. Are they overcome by her radiant beauty? No, rather they see her inner qualities.”

We turn down one of the many paths that loop through the wood, to begin our return to the starting point.

“But then,” I speculate, “she is rediscovered by the upper world when she sings near the well.”

“And,” Duckworth builds on my lead, “the upper world, once again, tries to destroy her.”

“At which point,” I continue, “the princes put her in a coffin.”

“But do not bury her,” Duckworth chimes in. “They float her on a river.”

“The river Styx?” I suggest.

“I don’t think so. The Styx divides the world of the living from the world of the dead. This river flows between the lower realm and the upper realm, defying gravity, by the way, since it must flow uphill given that the girl got to the lower realm by falling down a well, putting her altitude below that of the upper realm.”

“I won’t worry about the physics of it if you won’t,” I say.

“Agreed,” smiles Duckworth.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2018 The Little Gold bird – Part Three

Little Gold Bird four Crane Walter Crane, Faerie Queen 1894

Resurrections

After a fitness walk, which burned off a few calories, Duckworth and I justify stopping at the Cutty Sark Tavern for a bite. We grab a table by the row of windows overlooking the Thames. I already know I want the Scotch eggs.

Duckworth peruses the menu. “Pork pie, I think. Will you split a side of roasted marrow with me?”

“Delighted.”

“Where were we?” he asks, glancing around for a waiter. “I think we left the girl drifting up a river.”

“Yes, and by the way, in a silver coffin with a golden key.”

“Nice, and to be found by a king, very much like the prince finding Snow White’s coffin.”

“Similar,’ I reply, “except in this story it is the king’s mother, investigating the mysterious coffin, who unintentionally dislodges the sugar candy from the girl’s throat by sitting her up, then letting her fall back down again.”

“Really, that’s equal to the nosebleed in crudeness.”

“Surely not as romantic as Snow White being kissed by the prince, although I did find a variant in which the prince attempts to carry off Snow white’s coffin, but his men drop it and she rolls out, jolting the piece of poison apple from its place.”

“Odd,” muses Duckworth, “but the significance for me, in both cases, is that the heroine has died and is resurrected. In The Little Gold Bird, the heroine travels from the lower world to the upper world before she comes back to the living.”

I take his point. “In a way, she dies a second time when her mother turns her into a bird with the golden needle, in that she is no longer in her human form.”

“In that magical state,” Duckworth picks up the thread of his thought, “she goes to the twelve princes to break their curse, but then returns to the king?”

“Ah, I am remiss in not giving you all the details of her return. She doesn’t go straight to the king, but flies to his gardener, and asks how the king and the infant prince are doing. The gardener says that they do well, but why does she not ask after the queen. The bird replies, ‘May God punish her.’

“The gardener tells the king of this and the next day the king hides himself nearby when the bird visits again. On the third day the king disguises himself as the gardener and captures the bird.

“However, at this point the bird falls silent. The queen recognizes the bird and demands that it be served to her. The king, as he is about to hand the bird over to the cook, discovers the golden needle and pulls it out, restoring his true bride.

“They substitute another bird with the golden needle in its neck, then serve it to the queen, who eats it without remorse.”

“I’m beginning to lose my appetite.” Still Duckworth’s eyes dart about trying to spot a waiter.

“The story concludes,” I finish up, “with the king asking the queen how a mother who eats her daughter should be punished. Thinking, illogically, that the question does not apply to her, says, ‘By drowning.’ But instead, when the girl comes into the room, the queen falls down dead.”

“Drowning,” Duckworth considers. “Given the girl is thrown down a well and floated on a river, the queen’s suggestion of drowning in water makes an interesting choice. Ah, but see, here comes our waiter. But wait,” Duckworth glances at me sidelong, “the twelve princes do come to live in the castle, don’t they?”

“Of course they do, and happily ever after.”

“Good, then all’s well with the world.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2017 The Cat on the Dovrefjell – Part One

dovrefjell twoTheodor Severin Kittelsen

Dovrefjell

The Christmas Eve story for Thalia is, of course, special; a thing for which I prepare. We always start with The Night Before Christmas, then move on to the main feature.

Thalia pads her way into the study wearing her feet-pajamas tonight, the ones with a reindeer pattern running around her legs. She has fastened an elf-cap to Teddy’s pate with bobby pins, some of which have let go leaving the cap dangling off the side of his head as she drags him along behind.

We make much fuss settling ourselves into the comfy chair, what with proper elf-cap readjustment and a reproof.

“Oh, Teddy, you’re such a mess,” Thalia scolds. “OK, now we’re ready.”

“’Twas the night before Christmas . . .” I begin and conclude, predictably, with “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

“Wait, isn’t it ‘Merry Christmas?’” Thalia inspects the book and sees I am correct.

“Our monarchs,” I explain, “especially our queens, have always

thought ‘happy’ sounds more sober than ‘merry.’”

“OK, so what’s tonight’s story?” I love the twinkle in her eye.

The Cat on the Dovrefjell,” I announce, seeing Johannes’ ears flicker.

“What’s a Doverjelly?” Thalia frowns.

“The name of a mountain in Norway, I believe.”

Augustus mentioned this tale to me last Christmas, actually Boxing Day, and I’ve kept it in mind.

A traveler with his large, white bear comes knocking on the door of a cottage on the Dovrefjell at Christmas Eve asking for a little shelter. The man of the house warns him they are about to leave because the trolls, who come every Christmas Eve, demand a feast of them, which they provide, but he and his family dare not stay.

As I read to Thalia, I notice Johannes has taken a cautious interest in the tale, and sits atop the comfy chair’s back.

The traveler begs to stay, proposing the bear can sleep under the stove and he himself will sleep in the storeroom. The family sets out the feast and leaves the traveler and bear to their fate with the trolls.

Soon the trolls appear. Big trolls, little trolls. Trolls with tails and trolls without tails. While they settle down to eat, a young troll spots the white bear sleeping beneath the stove. He spears a sausage on a fork and thrusts it into the bear’s nose, shrieking, “Kitty, you want a sausage?” Angered, the bear drives the trolls out of the house.

A year later, on Christmas Eve day, the cottager is called to from afar by a troll, who inquires if they still have that big white cat. He replies they do; it is at home sleeping under the stove and has had seven kittens that are bigger and fiercer than she. The troll exclaims they will never visit him again there on the Dovrefjell.

Thalia giggles and Johannes grins. I get a kiss on the cheek from Thalia. She lowers herself to the floor hanging onto my belt with one hand, clutching Teddy with the other, and trundles back out of the study.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2017 The Cat on the Dovrefjell – Part Two

dovrefjell three Clip Art

Of Degrees

The smoke from my pipe, filled with Augustus’s latest blend, Magi’s Gold, blocks my view of him attending to a customer outside the testing room. He told me the blend is made from all golden tobaccos. I am not quite sure what he means by that, but it is delightfully light in flavor.

Between me and my host’s chair is the open canister of shortbread, which I annually bake and deliver to Augustus on Boxing Day.

“Let me see,” says Augustus, appearing through the tobacco fog, and taking another piece of shortbread before he settles into his chair. “Last year you told Thalia the story Gabriel Rider on Christmas Eve. How did you top that this year?”

“With another Christmas haunting story. The Cat on the Dovrefjell.”

“Didn’t I . . .”

“Yes, you did, and I thank you.”

“I’m delighted. Such a clever story.” Augustus stuffs his pipe with Magi’s Gold. “There are a surprising number of Christmas haunting stories, the most literary being Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.”

“Where did that tradition come from?” I query.

“Oh, very ancient.” Augustus lights his pipe. “I think it was the Babylonians who decided that there should be 360 degrees in a circle. The ancients also thought of the year as a circle and, therefore, there ought to be 360 days in a year. Well, they knew jolly well there were 365 days, so they corrected by ‘throwing away’ those last five days in frivolity. This became the basis for the Roman Saturnalia festival, a bit more like April Fool’s than Christmas, but it occurred near winter solstice and did involve some gift-giving.”

“Well, that sounds like a bit of fun,” I say, “but how do we get from there to the Christmas hauntings?”

“I’ll conjecture here,” replies Augustus, “that when the notion of the extra five got to the northern lands, it took on a darker interpretation and the days of the year that should not have been there became a time of the thinning of the veil between the worlds.

“The Celts were certain that other worlds existed outside of their own, where dwelt the fairies, and where even time moved at a different pace.”

“Ah, and where trolls come from on Christmas Eve to visit on the Dovrefjell.” I exclaim!

“As well as Dickens’ Christmas spirits,” nods Augustus.

“By the way,” I changing the subject, “how was your Christmas?”

“Ask how is my Christmas; it just started. The wife and I have decided to celebrate all twelve days of Christmas by giving each other small gifts every day.”

“How charming,” I say tamping my pipe again, “but don’t tell Thalia about this; she’ll attach to it immediately. Was this inspired by the song?”

“Not at all; that song was inspired by the actual twelve days of Christmas, now hardly referred to except by that song.”

“And the twelve days are?” I relight my pipe.

“From Christmas Day until Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, when the Magi visited the Christ Child. Those days are also, collectively, known as Twelvetide or Christmastide, but as I said, now pretty much ignored.”

“Wait a moment. Are you telling me that we, as a culture, are passing up the opportunity to have twelve consecutive days of celebration?”

“Quite. Disturbing, isn’t it?

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2017 The Cat on the Dovrefjell – Part Three

Dovrefjell PloughMonday  George Walker, Costumes of Yorkshire

Feast Days

Augustus reaches for another shortbread before continuing. “Not all the twelve days were meant for wanton celebration, and different traditions assigned various events and saints to each day. For example, the Eastern Orthodox has the Magi visit on Christmas Day, and the Catholics have them on Epiphany.”

“The usual denominational disagreements, I’m sure.” I’ll bet he has made a small study of this subject.

“Yes, but on one date or another of the twelve we will find Saint Stephen’s Day, Day of the Holy Innocents, Saint Sylvester’s (New Year’s Eve), Feast of the Circumcision, Feast of the Holy Family, Baptism of Jesus, Feast of Saint John, Feast of Saint Basil . . .”

“Is today’s Boxing Day one of them?” I intentionally cut him off.

“Not according to the church. Today is Saint Stephen’s Day, as well as Wren Day, by the way.”

“Oh, the Wren Hunt, another long-ago, forgotten tradition.”

“Not at all; I was a Wrenboy.”

“Really? You hunted a wren, then trooped from house to house begging for treats?”

“Well, it was a bit more than that. The older boys hunted the wren, then all we lads, dressed as strangely as we could, and playing on musical instruments without any talent for it, visited each neighbor. We declared the wren, hanging from a branch, to be the king, and, yes, begged for treats.”

Augustus puts the lid on the shortbread canister to control himself. “One Wren Day our mother dressed up my brother and me so incredibly that when we bumped into each other in the kitchen we both screamed. She loved that; never let either of us forget about it.”

“I doubt that sort of thing was church-sanctioned,” I chuckle.

“Well, Twelfth Night wasn’t sanctioned, but certainly part of the twelve days; Epiphany Eve. It took the place of our New Year’s Eve. Whoever got the token baked in a cake was crowned King of Disorder. Much drinking ensued along with games involving egg-tossing and plucking raisins from burning brandy.”

“Heavens!” I say. “Is this Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night?”

“Exactly. That play ran for a number of Christmas seasons in London in his day.

“However, my favorite days, although associated with the twelve, actually came a little after. First is the Feast of the Ass on January 14th, commemorating the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. A young girl and a baby are put on the back of a highly decorated ass, and led through the streets to the church. During the sermon the ass stands by the altar, and the congregation, for their responses, bray like donkeys. This practice hung on for a few centuries, but by the time of the Renaissance no one could keep a straight face.”

I can only shake my head, and he continues.

“Second is Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany. It’s not unlike the Wren Day. Ploughmen, one dressed as an old woman and another dressed in furs and a tail, along with their comrades, went from house to house, dragging a plough with them. At each home they put on a performance, something of a Punch and Judy show, along with a bizarre dance. The home’s occupants were expected to provide libation. Failing that, the mummers would dig the point of the plough into the ground and leave behind a furrow from door to road.”

“Remarkable,” I say, tapping out my pipe. “By the way, what happened to the wren, afterward?”

“Buried with a coin outside the cemetery wall. I imagine, after centuries, there is a wealth beneath the earth, if hobbyist with their metal detectors haven’t found it all.”

I wonder.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2017 Catherine and Her Destiny – Part One

Catherine_and_Her_Destiny1H J Ford

Pink

I’ve gone a little lavish on Thalia’s Christmas gift. I ordered all twelve volumes of Andrew Lang’s “coloured” fairy books. I see them stacked on Melissa’s desk behind the counter as I pass through the doorway of Serious Books.

Melissa is deep in the store, shelving books, but waves to me and points at her desk. I grab the top volume, The Pink Fairy Book, and open it to the middle.

Catherine and Her Destiny takes my attention. I wander toward Melissa reading it aloud for her pleasure as she works.

“Long ago there lived a rich merchant. . .”

The story tells of his having three chairs, one of gold, one of silver, and one of diamonds. But these were not as valuable to him as his daughter, Catherine.

One day she sat in her room when her personal destiny, in the form of a beautiful woman carrying a small wheel, marched in asking, “Do you want a happy youth or a happy old age?” Catherine chose old age.

Soon her father finds out his wealth is ruined and dies of grief, leaving Catherine friendless and penniless. She goes to work as a servant and does well until her personal destiny shows up to cause some havoc, which Catherine must flee.

This went on for seven years, after which her destiny stopped visiting her. By then, Catherine worked for a noble lady. One of Catherine’s duties was to daily walk to the top of a mountain carrying loaves of bread, then call out for her lady’s personal destiny to come for the offering.

Eventually, Catherine finds out from her lady’s personal destiny that her own Destiny is buried under seven coverlets. Catherine is taken to visit her Destiny, who gives her a ball of silk, then hides back under the covers.

“That is odd,” says Melissa. “Although there are mornings I’d like to do the same.”

Of what use the ball of silk might be, Catherine does not know until word went out from the king that his tailors needed silk thread of a specific color to finish garments for his wedding. Catherine, dressed in her finest, goes to court with the ball of thread. The king agrees it is worth its weight in gold. But when they put it on the scale not all the king’s gold is sufficient to balance the scale. Not until the king puts his crown on the scale does it balance.

Melissa, at this point, stops her shelving and listens intently.

When asked where she got the miraculous ball of silk, Catherine answers, “From my mistress,” meaning her Destiny. The king declares he will cut off her head if she does not tell the truth, and Catherine tells him the whole story.

An old wisewoman declares that by the sign of the scales, Catherine will die a queen. The king confirms this by sending his bride back to her own country and marries Catherine.

“Now there’s a tale with mixed messages.” Melissa frowns. “At the start she is totally dependent on her father, and his failure leads her to servitude. However, she perseveres and is rescued by marriage to the king, but that is because of her apparent, intrinsic worth.”

“I think you are right,” I say, “but I have no insight.”

Melissa takes the book from my hand and reads the title page. “Andrew Lang.” Melissa has a glint in her eye. “Perhaps we should talk to him.”

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2017 Catherine and Her Destiny – Part Two

Catherine and her destiny Wheel Tarot Tarot Card

November Tea

Miss Cox has set out a pot of English Breakfast complete with tea cozy and three cups. For a late November day the sun is pleasantly warm, but then good weather tends to prevail in this special garden.

Melissa wordlessly prefaces the conversation by pouring out the tea for Andrew and me. Andrew Lang had the reputation of being a prominent Scottish journalist, novelist, poet, critic, and folklorist. To a degree, he dabbled in anthropology. A handsome man, white-haired with an imposing dark mustache, he sits erect on the park bench with us, now sipping his cup of tea.

“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.” Melissa turns to Andrew.

“I could not refuse an inquiry from Miss Cox. We are longtime acquaintances. I even wrote the introduction to her book.”

I know he is referring to Marian Roalfe Cox’s morphological study, Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap O Rushes, Abstracted and Tabulated with a Discussion of Medieval Analogues and Notes. Lang’s introduction to the book is one of the oddest I have ever read. He belittles her work, then goes off on a tangent about an argument with a fellow folklorist. I am surprised Miss Cox allowed him in the garden.

“My question,” Melissa says, “concerns the story Catherine and Her Destiny.”

“Ah, yes, from the Pink Fairy Book. I can’t help but find it ironic that after writing articles, poems, novels, and criticisms, I am remembered for the one thing I didn’t write, but rather edited.

“But to answer your question, we drew from Sicilianische Märchen by Laura Gonzenbach as our source for that story along with a few other stories we included in the Pink Fairy Book.”

I note Melissa had not actually asked her question.

“We?” observes Melissa.

“My wife and I. Leonora really has as much to do with the “coloured” fairy books as I. It was she who translated these Sicilian folktales out of the German into English.”

“From Sicilian to German to English,” Melissa echoes. Her concern over this winding path is expressed in her eyes.

Andrew picks up on her worry. “I assure you, my wife is a talented translator and Miss Gonzenbach is known to have faithfully recorded just what she heard.”

“How did she come to collect these stories?” I interject before taking another warm sip of tea.

“She grew up in Sicily. Her father held the post of Swiss Consul, as well as being a merchant. She was well educated, spoke German, French, Italian, and Sicilian. Apparently a talented storyteller herself, others encouraged her to collect the Sicilian tales. At that time, in that tradition, all the storytellers were women, which gave a decidedly different spin to these fairy tales compared to the Grimm canon.”

“Ah,” Melissa raises a forefinger, “that was my ultimate question. I thought I heard a feminist undertone.”

Andrew raises his cup of tea. “Oh, quite. Most of the tales Miss Gonzenbach collected had that quality. She unfortunately died young, at thirty-five, cutting off many productive years, I am sure. Then in 1908 an earthquake in Messina destroyed all her notes. We are left with what got published and no more. Still that does constitute two volumes.”

I proffer my cup to Melissa for a refill.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2017 Catherine and Her Destiny – Part Three

Catherine_and_Her_Destiny2H J Ford

Odd Questions

“My questions about this story,” Andrew continues, “are these: What is the significance of the three chairs at the start of the story? Where does the concept of a ‘personal’ destiny come from? And what do the seven coverlets indicate?”

Melissa pours herself another cup. “Perhaps the teller used the chairs to compare with Catherine, who was the greater treasure to her father.”

“Perhaps,” agrees Andrew. “But the teller could have been more generic about it, say something like, ‘Nothing in his store of treasure could compare with Catherine.’ The chairs are very specific, and I think emblematic, like the small wheel Catherine’s Destiny carried.”

“Which we know,” puts in Melissa, “is the symbol/logo of the Roman goddess Fortuna.”

“Exactly,” returns Andrew. “The wheel appears in the story once to tell us who she is and need not appear again.”

“You suggest,” contemplates Melissa, “the chairs are a symbol that should tell us something about the merchant if we understood the image.”

Andrew nods in agreement as he takes another sip.

“The chairs,” I remark, “could simply be a motif with which we are not familiar. They are not unlike the motif of the three castles, one of gold, one of silver, and one of diamond or crystal, or copper, or bronze, as the case may be.”

Andrew laughs. “Yes, the first two castles are always gold and silver, but the third can’t make up its mind. But no, if the chairs were a motif, they should be better integrated into the storyline. No one ever does sit on them.”

I concede Andrew’s point.

“Personal destinies.” Melissa takes the lead on this question. “We need to remember this story came from illiterate Sicilian women. They may have recognized Destiny by her wheel, knew her function, but not her Roman name, and then conflated her with the traditional fairy godmothers who were personal helpers.”

“A plausible idea.” Andrew sets down his tea cup and Melissa refills it. “We can fall into the trap of pitting the folktale against modern literary expectations, such as logic, while the original tellers were completely free and unaware of such a convention, and should not be held to our standard.”

“The seven coverlets?” I ask. That item caught my attention too.

Andrew sighs, “I have hardly a clue. It does not strike me as potentially emblematic, like the chairs might be and as the wheel of fortune certainly is. If it is a motif, a story element, we should see it in other stories. None come to mind.”

“Seven is a significant number in fairy tales,” I say.

“Yes, of course. Seven Swans, Seven Ravens, Seven Swabians.”

“Traveling in seven-league boots,” I add.

“And Maid Maleen,” says Melissa, “shut in a tower for seven years.”

“Seven years used as a passage of time has proven a favorite,” says Andrew. “Whether there is a connection between the seven years during which Catherine’s Destiny harasses her and the seven coverlets I cannot say. But I note one other tidbit; Catherine’s lady’s Destiny says to Catherine, ‘Know you not your Destiny lies buried under seven coverlets, and can hear nothing?’

“Catherine never calls out to her Destiny. Why does the other Destiny note that Catherine’s can hear nothing? It feels to me like a section lifted from another story that does not quite fit into our story, coverlets and all.”

“One more item,” says Melissa. “The ball of silk?”

“Balls of thread appear in everything from mythologies to fairy tales, usually leading somewhere or back again when unrolled. This one is different, being used to show a woman’s worth balanced against the realm’s gold and the king’s crown.”

Melissa smiles.

Your thoughts?

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2017 – Part One

Binnorie one John D. Batten

Halloween Tradition

Tradition means you did it more than once. Melissa took Thalia out for Halloween again this year. I suspect the pattern is set.

Thalia’s mother is content to have Melissa stand in for her. My daughter is not attracted to, as she says, “the frivolous.” Apparently I’ve had neither effect upon nor influence over her.

Melissa dressed as a witch and Thalia as her black cat, her familiar. Johannes made no comment about this arrangement, but I am sure he is flattered by Thalia taking on his likeness. He joins us in my study upon the return of the witch and her black cat, the latter carrying a paper sack filled with candy, apples, and other treats.

“Stoke up the fire, please,” Melissa says to me as she turns out the electric lights.

“How can you read to her in such darkness?” I point to Thalia, who sits on the hearth exploring the wonders of her paper bag.

“I’m not reading; I am telling tonight.”

Johannes’s tail swishes in anticipation. I add some logs to the fireplace and settle into my comfy chair, as Thalia rises from the hearth to squeeze in between me and the padded chair arm, her bag of goodies substituting for her usual teddy bear. Melissa carries a straight-back chair to the spot Thalia just abandoned by the hearth, setting her witch’s hat on the floor beside her. Sitting erect, she begins.

“Lord William came courting the eldest daughter of the king. She was dark and beautiful and he trothed to her with his glove and ring, that he might be king after. But his eyes fell favorably upon her younger sister, who was light and lovely. And this vexed the dark sister so that her mind fell to an evil plan.

“‘Sister,’ she said, ‘let us go down to the River Binnoire and watch our father’s boats come in.’

“Hand in hand they went down to the strand. The younger stood upon a rock and looked out across the water. The elder came up behind her and grabbing the younger about the waist, threw her into the water.

“‘Sister,’ cried the  younger, ‘give me your hand and I will give you half of what is mine.’

“‘It is mine already,’ the dark sister answered.

“‘Sister,’ she cried again, ‘give me your hand and I will give you all of what I would inherit.’

“‘It, too, is mine already.’

“‘Sister,’ she cried once more, ‘give me your hand and I will turn sweet William’s eyes from me.’

“‘He has always been mine.” And the dark sister turned her back on the River Binnoire.”

The fire on the hearth cracks, yet I feel Thalia shiver beside me.

“The younger sank and swam, sank and swam, as the river carried her downstream. Presently a miller’s daughter came to the riverside to get a bucket of water.

“‘Father,’ she cried, ‘stop the millwheel. Either a bonny maid or a white swan comes down the millrace.’

“Together they dragged the princess from the water and laid her upon the bank. Never had they seen anyone so lovely. Pearls and rubies were woven into her golden hair. She wore a delicate white dress bound with a golden belt. Never had they seen anyone so lovely, especially in death.”

Thalia shivers again and cuddles closer to me.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2017 – Part Two

binnorie threeEleanor Fortescue Brickdale

Binnorie Continued

“They called to a bard, who happened to be passing near. Here was a man who traveled the length and breadth of the land, telling his stories and singing his songs in the houses of lords and ladies, kings and queens. He well knew who the princess was, but saw in her a foul death.

“‘Bury her not. Rather put her on a bier in the forest and leave her there.’

“This they did, with a heavy heart. They built her a bier and laid her upon it, prayed for her immortal soul, then left her there. The bard traveled on his way, performing in the houses of the lords and ladies, as was his wont, but he returned again in a year and a day.

“By then thieves had come and stolen the pearls and rubies from the princess’s hair as well as the golden belt. Her delicate white dress had turned to dust. All that was left were her bones and strands of her golden hair.

“He took the breast bone and carved it into a harp, as one might carve ivory, stringing it with strands of her golden hair, using her finger bones as pegs.

“Taking the princess harp with him, he traveled to her father’s castle and begged entrance so that he might be that night’s entertainment. Those within gladly received him, giving him a place of honor at the table. When the meal was over, they put their chairs around the hearth, and the bard sat in front them.”

I come out of the story haze for a moment to see Melissa sitting in front of us by the hearth, just as she described the bard.

“He sang to them,” Melissa continues, “and told them the stories of Cú Chulainn and the knights of the Red Branch, of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna warriors, of Bran and the Giant’s Causeway, and of Deirdre. He sang happy songs and sad songs, songs of love lost and battles recently won.

“As he sang, darkness crept into the corners of the room. Servants were lighting the torches when the princess harp began to play all of its own. The bard set down his harp and looked across his audience to see the dark sister’s hands clutching the arms of her chair, her knuckles white, as she recognized the lilt of her sister’s voice.

“Then the harp began to sing:

 

‘Yonder sits my father the king,

Binnorie, oh Binnorie.

And with him my mother the queen,

By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.

 

And yonder sits an empty chair,

Binnorie, oh Binnorie.

But it was I who once sat there,

By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.

 

There be my William, proud and free,

Binnorie, oh Binnorie.

With him my sister, who killed me,

By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.’

 

“The harp snapped, broke, and played no more.”

Thalia shivers again. “Cool.” Her candy bag had been all but forgotten and she digs back into it.

“That,” I say, “is from our friend Joseph Jacobs, is it not?”

“Yes, his English Fairy Tales collection. Lots of good stuff in there.”

Melissa and I fall silent, contenting ourselves by watching the fire and Thalia feasting.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2017 – Part Three

Binnorie twoJohn D Batten

Cruel Sister

Duckworth and I row vigorously up the Thames on this crisp, first day of November (All Saints Day).

“And how did you spend All Hallows Eve?” Duckworth cocks an eyebrow, knowing full well that Halloween is a special night for me.

“Melissa recited ‘Binnorie’ to Thalia and me around the fireplace.”

“Sounds pleasant. What is a Binnorie?”

“A river in Northumbria, supposedly, though I can’t find it on the map.”

“Is it a scary river?”

“No, no, it’s where one sister drowned the other.”

“Now you’re getting to the good stuff.” Duckworth’s eyes glint.

“Quite, it’s of a motif called ‘cruel sister,’ popular in Nordic countries it seems. I read somewhere Sweden has a hundred and twenty five variants on it.”

I give Duckworth the summation.

“Sounds a bit like Grimm’s The Singing Bones,” Duckworth reflects.

I am a little stunned. “You’re reading Grimm?”

Duckworth smiles. “Inspired by you, I am reading Grimm to my children.”

“Excellent, you won’t regret it. Yes, folklorists regularly draw a connection between the two. Originally though, Binnorie appears to have been a ballad rather than a story.”

Duckworth and I draw water and point our bow at the large wake of a big boat motoring quickly by.

“A story drawn from a ballad, you say?” Duckworth continues the conversation.

“Fairly common. Peruse Child’s ballads and you’ll find many stories.”

“Child’s?” Duckworth questions.

“Francis James Child, a nineteenth century ballad collector, produced five volumes of English and Scottish popular ballads. The ‘cruel sister’ story is in there too, in its ballad form. Actually, he lists twenty versions of it.”

“So, how does a ballad become a story?” Duckworth asks.

“Rather naturally,” I respond. “The bards told stories and sang songs. Music and storytelling have a long, shared history. That stories and songs let their images flow back and forth between them is inevitable.”

We row a little while in silence.

“We are, of course,” Duckworth picks up the conversation again, “talking about sibling rivalry.”

“Very much,” I agree. “Starting with Cain and Abel, we are attracted to this motif. Many of us have a personal relationship with it, at least in our childhood. I couldn’t help noticing when I looked at Child’s entries on the cruel sister, it was followed by the cruel-brother entries. In this case, it was the brother killing his sister before her marriage.”

“Nasty,” says Duckworth.

“Oh, and in a lot of the versions the instrument is a fiddle instead of a harp. The fiddle’s body might be a skull. In a Hungarian version the corpse of the younger sister is hidden in the fiddle, somehow.”

Duckworth glances at me sidelong. “How do you know all this?”

“Ahh,” I hesitate. “I researched it on Wiki last night after Melissa left, to become an instant expert, knowing I’d see you today and be talking about it. I’ll forget everything I just told you in a month, you know.”

“Dear me,” Duckworth muses, “ephemeral knowledge?”

“Oh, I like that slant,” I smile. “It’s not my memory that is failing; it’s the knowledge itself that fades away. Duckworth, you give me hope.”

Duckworth puts his hand on his heart. “I am pleased to be of service.”

We reach our far point and turn around to row back downstream.

Your thought?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2017 The Wren – Part One

Wren three Dugald Stewart Walker2 Dugald Stewart Walker

Afternoon Tea

Because Melissa closes her shop on Sundays, we have fallen into the habit of afternoon tea at the Vaults on the campus of Oxford, in the medieval Congregation House. The “vaults” refers to the room’s wooden, gothic arches, the rest of its decor consisting of white-plaster walls and lead-glass windows. We always order the sourdough toast and jam to go along with our tea.

“Tell me, what was Thalia’s story for last night?” Melissa asks, while we wait for our order.

“Thalia decided she wanted an animal story. Well actually, it was Teddy who wanted the animal story.”

“Of course,” Melissa comments with solemnness.

“Scanning the table of contents my eyes fell upon The Wren and the Bear, which I guessed to be totally appropriate for Teddy. Fortunately, I glanced at the last paragraph discovering the bear got the short end of the stick, as it were.”

“Is Teddy a prideful bear?” Melissa’s brow knits.

“I don’t think so, but nonetheless, I recalled the other wren story in Grimm, simply called The Wren.

“It has a charming opening that declares that in the olden days every sound had meaning. The smith’s hammer said, ‘Smite hard. Smite hard.’ And the carpenter’s rasp said, “That’s it. That’s it.’”

“That is charming. How does the story go?” Melissa glanced toward the counter at the other end of the room, annoyed, I think, that our waiter seemed to have disappeared.

“Besides tools having language, so did the birds; each species had their own, but all understood the other. . . .”

One day the birds decided they wanted a king to rule over them. All except the peewit, who flew about calling, “Where am I to live? Where am I to live?” until it found a home in a lonely swamp and never came out.

The other birds decided on a contest to see who could fly the highest, and that bird would be the king. They all started out flying upward, but quickly the smaller birds fell behind until it was only the eagle that could rise above the others. The birds below declared, “He is the king. No one can fly higher.”

“Except me!” shouted a little bird that the story tells us had no name. It clung unnoticed to the eagle’s breast feathers and not having spent any effort, it quickly flew above all the others. It rose so high it could see God seated on His throne before it descended back to earth.

“I am the king. I am the king,” the little bird announced to the others.

They would have no part of its trickery and decided their king would be the one who could go deepest into the earth. The chickens shallowed out holes in the ground. The duck went down into a gully. But the little bird squeezed down a deep mousehole, declaring, “I am the king. I am the king.”

The birds had had enough. They posted the owl to guard the mousehole and prevent the little bird from escaping until it starved to death.

That night, all the birds went home, leaving the owl to his duty. When he got sleepy he rested one eye, keeping the other on guard. After a time he rested that eye, opening the other to stand guard. This worked well far into the night until he closed one eye and forgot to open the other. With that, the little bird escaped.

From then on, the owl could not show his face during the day without the other birds scolding him and the little bird took to hiding in bushes. He became mockingly known as the king of the hedges. Still, at times, he’d announce, “I am the king. I am the king.”

Melissa looks up with pleasure in her eyes. I smell the sourdough toast before I see the waiter. She and I settle into our afternoon tea.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2017 The Wren – Part Two

Wren two Jack Yeats Jack Yeats

About Wrens

“Are you familiar,” asks Melissa, “with the Wren Hunt?”

“The Wren Hunt? That rings a bell.” I wrestle with my aged brain as I sip my tea. “Now I remember. Yes, I heard about it from Reverend Armstrong during a visit to Miss Cox’s garden last year. It has to do with Christmas and mumming. Oh! I see what you’re getting at.”

“Quite,” reflects Melissa biting into her toast. “It is particularly Celtic, though not exclusively. Young boys, around Saint Stephen’s Day, would capture and kill a wren hiding in the hedges. Then, dressed up in outlandish costumes—more like Halloween than Christmas—they trooped from house to house, creating a cacophony with flutes and drums, carrying the poor little carcass suspended from the end of a pole carried upright, almost like a crucifix really, and declaring it to be the king. Again, like Halloween, the young boys expected treats from each household. The event culminated in the burial of the wren with a penny outside the cemetery wall.”

The Wren,” I speculate, “is a German tale. The Wren Hunt is a Celtic tradition. Yet the connection between the two is pretty obvious.”

Melissa eye’s are unfocused in thought as she sips her tea.

“There is a song that goes along with the mumming.

“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds . . .”

Melissa pauses for a moment.

“St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,

Although he was little his honour was great,

Jump up me lads and give him a treat.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

And give us a penny to bury the wren.”

“That’s not much of a treat that the poor wren gets,” I say.

“The song goes on longer, but that is the part I remember.”

“You think the idea of the wren as king is of Celtic origin?” I savor another bit of toast.

“Well, the history behind the Wren Hunt is complex, but the bit of mythology that resonates with me come from the Isle of Man, if I remember correctly, about the fairy queen Tehi Tegi. She was very beautiful, so much so men followed her anywhere, hoping to marry her, forgetting about their own wives, children, livestock, and fields. She did have the nasty habit of leading them to the river and drowning them. The women pleaded with Manannán to rid them of Tehi Tegi. Manannán banished her to the far cold north, but at her pleading relented and let her return home once a year for half a day on Saint Stephen’s Day. However, if she is found she can be beat to death. She returns in as small a form as she can, that of a tiny wren, who is hard to spot hiding in the hedges.”

“How did a Christian holiday get into a Celtic myth?” My fakelore radar is up.

Melissa smiles. “I suspect these tales were often recorded by Christian monks who filled in some obvious oversights. That and the uneducated populace pulling together more than one notion floating about in their culture. Then there was the storyteller, who wanted to make a good tale with audience appeal, if at the expense of history.”

That I’ll buy. I do need to run these thoughts by Augustus.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2017 The Wren – Part Three

The wren one Gold Crested Wren

Encyclopedia Augustus

Tea with Melissa and a smoke in the company of Augustus make for a pleasant Sunday. Augustus fancies himself an amateur folklorist with a particular expertise in the Grimm canon. I haven’t decided if he is inordinately intelligent or has a photographic memory. In either case I am jealous of his retention of information, mine having more in common with a sieve.

The scent and fog of Shee Shadow, Augustus’s latest blend, which we both sample, fills the space between us, we ensconced in our comfy chairs.

The Wren,” says Augustus. “I am a little concerned how to regard that tale.”

“My friend Melissa feels it is of Celtic origins.”

“Greek.”

“Really? Not all fairy tales are of Greek origin, if many are,” I protest.

“Aristotle referred to this story, as well as Pliny, who in his Natural History writes that there is a standing argument between the eagle and the wren over the title ‘king of the birds.’ Interestingly, Pliny was talking about the gold crested wren, which has golden markings on its head, like a little crown.”

I am a little sullen. I like things to be Celtic or Nordic in origin, but the Greeks always steal the show. “What are your concerns over this tale?”

Augustus taps out his pipe. “Too much Cavendish. I think I’ll reblend it with less.”

For a moment I think he will ignore my question, but then he continues.

“The story is old, but that does not mean it comes down to us in its original form. I think someone’s messed with it.”

“What is your evidence?” He has got my interest.

Augustus hesitates. “I have no evidence. However, in the Grimms’ version there are characters that have no role in forwarding the tale, but are there, I believe, for another purpose.

“Consider the peewit saying, “Where shall I live?” not wanting to be under a king. The tree frog saying, “No! No! No! No!” afraid the peace would be disturbed. The crow calling, “Caw, Caw,” to say all would be well.”

Augustus rises and goes to his bookcase, pulling out his battered copy of Grimm, a bit more battered that Thalia’s. He quotes from its contents.

“Even the cuckoo came, and the hoopoe, his clerk, who is so called because he is always heard a few days before him.”

Augustus scans for a moment.

“The hen, which by some accident had heard nothing of the whole matter, was astonished at the great assemblage. ‘What, what, what is going to be done?’ she cackled; but the cock calmed his beloved hen, and said, ‘Only rich people,’ and told her what they had on hand.”

Augustus scans some more.

“There is a duck crying, ‘Cheating, cheating’ and a lark singing, ‘Ah, how beautiful that is! Beautiful that is! Beautiful, beautiful! Ah, how beautiful that is!’”

I’d forgotten to tell Melissa about almost all of these birds, but Augustus is right, they do not forward the story.

“And you think they are there, why?” I inquire.

“I am guessing this tale has been manipulated to be political commentary of that time, rather like a political cartoon today. Remember, in the Grimms’ day the Holy Roman Empire, with all its failings, was degenerating in the face of rising nationalism. Those birds may have represented historic characters, or governmental stereotypes identifiable to the lower-class listeners, who enjoyed the humor of poking fun at their betters.”

Not a bad idea, but he is right; there is too much Cavendish in the blend.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2017 The True Bride – Part One

True Bride Feathers Rebecca from flickr

Wilhelm Visits

I haven’t seen Wilhelm’s ghost in my study for some time. Why he is here now I cannot guess. He stands beside my comfy chair pointing to my copy of his work on the table.

Sensing his want, I open it to the table of contents. He motions for me to turn the page, then again, then again. He points to the entry for tale 186, The True Bride. As he does so I hear Thalia trundling down the hall.

She and Teddy enter the study, pushing open the heavy door, which grinds a little on its hinges. She waves casually to Wilhelm, who returns her acknowledgement with a reverent nod.

As Thalia crawls into my lap, I say, “I think Wilhelm wants me to read to you The True Bride.”

OK.” She hugs Teddy close to her. Wilhelm settles into the other comfy chair.

The story starts as the evil stepmother assigns difficult tasks to our heroine. The stepmother crosses the line when she demands the girl separate twelve pounds of feathers from their quills or be beaten.

In her distress, the girl cries out, “Is there no one on God’s earth who will take pity on me?” An old woman appears and bids her to sleep, assuring her the work will be done when she awakes.

The stepmother, stunned to see the task accomplished, criticizes her stepdaughter for not doing more.

Thalia’s fairy flutters into the room and alights on my sleeve.

“My, but this is a special evening,” I declare. Thalia giggles and Wilhelm remains solemn.

The stepmother, determined to justify a beating, assigns the girl the task of emptying the farm pond with a slotted spoon. Again, the old woman intercedes while the girl sleeps.

Furious, the stepmother demands the girl build her a castle in one day. For the old woman and sleeping maiden, it can be done in almost an instant.

Determined to find fault, the stepmother inspects the castle. When she enters the cellars to see if they are well stocked, the trapdoor slams down on her head, killing her.

The maiden inherits her stepmother’s castle with all of its stock, stores, and wealth. Suitors flock to her door and she chooses one.

Sitting under a linden tree, her bridegroom asks her to remain there until he gets permission from his father to marry her, promising to return in a few hours. She kisses him on the left cheek, declaring, “Remain true to me and don’t let anyone kiss you on this cheek.”

Three days later she decides she’d better go find him. She takes with her three dresses. No one can tell her what has happened to him. She hires herself out to a farmer to tend his sheep.

“Wait,” says Thalia. “Doesn’t she have a castle and gold and all that?”

“Yes,” I say cautiously. “But that does not seem to matter. Without her love, she is poor.” Wilhelm gestures with a thumb in the air in agreement.

The maiden hears that her prince is to marry another. Twice he passes by this shepherdess without recognition. Having learned there is to be three nights of entertainment before the wedding, she dons her dresses of the golden sun, silver moon, and bright stars in succession over the three nights. The prince will dance with no one else.

On the last night he asks her why he thinks he has known her before. She kisses him on the left cheek and all remembrance returns to him.

They flee from that place, returning to the magic castle, and there they wed.

“Cool,” says Thalia.

The fairy and Wilhelm sigh in contentment.

 

Fairy Tales of the Month: August 2017 The True Bride – Part Two

True bride Castle Cawdor Castle – postcard  by Bert Towle

Fairy Companion

I slip out into the night air leaving the study door open behind me. Across the lawn lies the Magic Forest. To my surprise, Thalia’s fairy follows, fluttering to alight on my shoulder.

To engage her, I comment, “Wilhelm chose a good story for us tonight. I believe Thalia quite enjoyed it.”

The fairy flutters up for a second and alights again. I take that as a nod of agreement.

“I’ve come outside,” I tell her, “to wander about and contemplate why this tale, The True Bride, is not better known.

She flies about my head two times, landing on my other shoulder. I think she wants me to say more.

“Well, it’s got all the basic, expected motifs. Let me enumerate.

“First is the ever-popular evil stepmother doling out onerous tasks to her stepdaughter, who is friendless; not even her father seems to be there to protect her.

“Thinking of that, it is typical that the fathers tend to disappear during the course of these tales. In this case, he is not referred to at all. The tale tells us there is a stepmother, which infers the maiden’s father has remarried, but the words ‘father’ or ‘husband’ do not appear in this part of the story. This tale is a fine example of the disappearing father motif. In any case, the stepmother is free to do as she wills.”

The fairy flies up and hovers in front of me. Her little bell-like voice chimes out,

“Love fathers and mothers,

and all sorts of others.

But the steps. Oh the steps.

Satanic to their depths.”

I am charmed as she settles back on my shoulder.

“Also,” I gather my thoughts again, “there are the impossible tasks posed by the stepmother that lead to the invoking of the old woman, certainly a fairy godmother.”

My companion leaps up again radiating indignation.

“Fairies, fairies, not so contrary,

be we big or small as berries.

We will help you, my mortal being,

but tag us not with godly naming.”

“Oh, sorry,” I say. Delicate and sensitive creatures are they not. It never crossed my mind, yet certainly fairies and godmothers serve different masters. The two words should not be put together. She settles again on my shoulder as I stray farther into the Magic Forest.

“I am thinking now,” I continue, “about the three tasks. The first is unusual. I am more familiar with picking lentils from the ashes, or finding millet seeds strewn across the garden. Of separating feather fluff from their quills I have not heard.

“Emptying a pool with a slotted spoon I don’t recall from other stories either, although ladling water from a spring with a sieve is similar and far more familiar.

“Building a castle in one day or one night returns us to a common trope.

“What I find entertaining is the rather grand escalation of the stepmother’s demands, from feathers to a castle, followed by the irony of the castle passing to the stepdaughter after the stepmother, as I think the story suggests, destroys herself in the pursuit of finding fault.”

Sitting on my shoulder, the fairy tones into my ear,

“To do the task,

of which you’re asked,

will show your soul

to be as gold.”

On impulse, she launches from my shoulder and disappears into the darkening forest.

 

Fairy Tales of the Month: August 2017 The True Bride – Part Three

Psyche Burne-Jones_Cupid_and_Psyche Edward Burne-Jones, Cupid and Psyche

Wandering Thoughts

My now-solitary wandering though the Magic Forest brings me to the foot of the Glass Mountain, where I sit on a crystal boulder admiring steep, translucent cliffs. I let my thoughts do the further wandering.

There is no glass mountain in The True Bride, but it does not miss many of the other common motifs. Halfway through the story we have had the evil stepmother, fairy godmother, three difficult tasks, and the final retribution, which is usually enough for a fairy tale, but with this one we enter into Act Two.

Since the story starts out with a maiden in distress, it almost has to end with her in marriage. But the marriage does not occur without a struggle. Enter the motif of the disappearing bridegroom. (The disappearing male is something of a pattern in these tales.)

Speaking of disappearing, I wonder where the fairy has gone.

The disappearing bridegroom goes back to the story of Cupid and Psyche. I suspect the fairy-tale reference comes directly out of the second-century novel by Lucius Apuleius, Metamorphoses.

Not only does the disappearing bridegroom come out of Apuleius’s work, but also the three-difficult-tasks motif, including the separation of seeds (lentils, millet seeds) so familiar to us fairy-tale geeks. Ants preformed this task for the put-upon Psyche.

In Metamorphoses Psyche has two sisters, who are jealous of her luck, and try to ruin it with bad advice. Eventually they destroy themselves trying to best their lovely, younger sister. Again, these themes are not unknown to the lovers of fairy tales. Beauty and The Beast is pretty much a simplified rewriting of Apuleius’s tale.

Where is that fairy?

The weakness of our tale may be the lack of explanation for the prince’s failure to return to his betrothed. The tale suggests he fell under a spell, but how that came about we are left to conjecture. I would have liked to have heard it.

Usually the fairy tales are quite blunt about the sequence of events that lead a character to act as they do. To have to infer the action, as our tale demands of us, is rare.

That is not to say that typically fairy tales are descriptive. They are not. The True Bride is well within its genre when it never tells us the names of the heroine, stepmother, godmother, or prince. The maiden’s father receives no attention. We never hear our heroine’s internal thoughts. We do not know what anyone looks like. OK, the story tells us the maiden is young and beautiful. How generic is that?

As readers or listeners of fairy tales, we accept these literary shortcomings as integral to the genre, but to leave the audience in the dark as to what may have happened “off stage” diminishes this story’s popularity.

Also, I can’t help but feel the coming of the suitors could have had a better story arc. The competition for her affections held the potential for drama, in this case missed.

Short of these criticisms, the kiss on the left cheek alone should override my quibbling. I simply don’t know why this is not a more popular tale.

Thalia’s fairy reappears.

“Before your heart flees from your breast,

per demons released by sunset,

let us depart with a good fart,

to let night know we are stalwart.”

I take note; fairies are earthy and crass. But she is right. I must not stay in the Magic Forest any longer. Night approaches.

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

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?