Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2019 Hans My Hedgehog – Part One

Hans my Heddehog OldDesignShop.jpgFrom “The Teachers’ and Pupils” Cyclopaedia

Strange Child

Thalia’s finger spirals in the air, landing on the table of contents in her beloved, battered copy of Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Teddy, securely scrunched between me and the padded arm of the comfy chair where Thalia has stuffed him, observes our antics.

Thalia’s finger partly obscures the title, Hans My Hedgehog.

A well-to-do farmer had only one failure in his life. He and his wife had no children. One day he cried out, “I will have a child, even if it’s a hedgehog.”

This is the sort of wish/curse one should never make. His wife gave birth to a male being, human below the waist, but a hedgehog above. He was christened Hans My Hedgehog and lived on a pile of straw behind the stove.

After a number of years, Hans asked for bagpipes and for a blacksmith to shoe his rooster, and then his unhappy father would not see him again (which turns out not to be true). Hans also took some pigs to be raised in the forest.

Every day Hans perched in a tree, on his rooster, playing his bagpipes as he tended his pigs, which multiplied.

One day, a king, lost in the forest, heard the bagpipes and sent a servant to inquire. The servant reported that there was a hedgehog, in a tree, mounted on a rooster, playing his bagpipes while tending his pigs.

Thalia giggles at this image.

The king’s concern was to be no longer lost and asked Hans for the way out of the forest. Hans agreed to guide the king, if the king would give him that which first greets the king upon his return. The king agreed, but with no intent to keep his promise.

After guiding the king, Hans returned to tending his pigs.

A second king found himself lost in the forest and also heard the bagpipes. The scenario repeated itself with the difference that this king was sincere in his agreement.

Who greeted these kings upon their return were, of course, their only daughters.

When the pigs overpopulated the forest, Hans returned to his village, offering them up to anyone who wanted them. To his father, who orchestrated this giveaway, Hans asked to have his rooster re-shod and promised to never return (which, again, is not true).

Thalia “hmms” a question mark into the air.

Hans ventured toward the kingdom of the first lost king. Neither the king nor his daughter wanted to adhere to the agreement and did whatever they could to stop his arrival. Nonetheless, being magical, Hans forced them to comply.

Possessing the king’s daughter, he injured her with his quills, rejected her, and sent her back to her father in disgrace.

With the honest king, the trajectory was quite different. Hans was welcomed into the kingdom. This daughter, keeping her father’s promise, agreed to marry the hedgehog.

On the wedding night, Hans slipped out of his hedgehog skin and instructed that it be burnt immediately. The princess found she had married a handsome man.

Thalia applauds.

Sometime later, after Hans became the king, he revisited his father, who said he no longer had a son. Hans revealed himself and the father returned with him to his kingdom.

Giving me a peck on the cheek, Thalia extracts Teddy and wanders off to bed, dragging the poor bear behind her.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2019 Hans My Hedgehog – Part Two

Hans My Hedgehog FordHenry J Ford

Familiar Fairy

As Thalia and Teddy pass through my study door, I see Thalia’s fairy perched on the carving of a raven atop its wooden lintel. Her black hair floating mist-like around the delicate features of her face.

“Strange story,” I say to her.

She nods.

I am surprised she does not flutter away and ignore me. I seize the opportunity.

“As I see it,” I pronounce, “there is a moral to this tale. After all, Wilhelm had a hand in it.

“In Freudian terms, Hans achieves the role of superego, the judge of us mere mortals as it were, but first he must spend his time in the wilderness.

“He lives in the forest, mounted on a rooster in a tree, watching his pigs. I’ll assume the varmints that would threaten his pigs are musically sensitive and the bagpipes keep them away.

“During this time in the wilderness, he encounters two kings, the first the embodiment of self-serving evil, and the second the embodiment of inclusive goodness. In neither case does Hans, after fulfilling his part of the agreement, follow them to their kingdom to claim that which first greets them, which is, of course, the daughters, but returns to his home in the wilderness to complete that stage of his life.

“When it is time, when his pigs become too numerous, he divests himself of these worldly possessions, and enters the phase of being the superego.”

The fairy is squinting at me with narrowed eyes, but I push on.

“Now, as judge, he approaches the two kings, probably knowing what will come to pass. The first, of course, is punished for his deceit, and the second rewarded for his honesty.

“The more I think about this, the more Hans My Hedgehog parallels Jesus’s time in the wilderness, where he renounces evil and returns to preach salvation. Do you agree? Is this what the tales is about?”

Frowning, the fairy shakes her head in dissent.

“I should have guessed so,” I exhale.

I contemplate.

“If the tale is not a Christian allegory, then it must be about Hans himself.”

The fairy raises a painfully-thin finger in encouragement.

“Hans,” I go on, talking and thinking at the same time, “is half-human and half-beast.”

The fairy rolls her hand, telling me to go on.

“Half-human and half-beast,” I echo myself, “or half-humane and half-bestial. We are of two natures.”

The fairy nods.

“When Hans sees that the first king and his daughter disrespect him, they evoke in him his bestial nature. They all descend into a cycle of mutual harm. Hans, through his magic, takes the princess by force, pierces her with his quills—his bestial nature—and sends her home permanently harmed. Hans is not better for it but for a sense of revenge.

“When Hans comes to the honest king and his daughter, he is accepted and honored for having led the king out of the forest. They evoke his humane side, allowing him to shed his bestial nature. He sheds his skin and calls for it destruction. The princess, unknowingly, has saved Hans from “himself”—his bestial side—bringing forth the good side of Hans, which, we would like to believe, is inside all of us, buried beneath our own bestial natures.”

The fairy applauds, then flutters away.

That was fun.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2019 Hans My Hedgehog – Part Three

Hans my hedgehog Antti_Aarne Antti Aarne

ATU 441

The heavy smell of tobacco greets my senses in concert with the cheerful alarm of the bell above Augustus’s shop door. Busy with customers, Augustus motions me with a slight gesture of his finger toward the testing room. I happily comply.

Waiting for me is this week’s tobacco-blend attempt, which he tries out on select customers. I am halfway through a bowl when he enters the room, picking up his own pipe.

“I’m thinking it might be called Rooster Red,’” he says.

“It is red in color,” I affirm.

“That’s the Tennessee Red Leaf in the blend.”

“It leans toward being a cigarette,” I observe.

Augustus sniffs a pinch of it between his fingers. “Maybe too much Virginia.”

“It’s coincidental you came up with Rooster Red for a name. I am contemplating a fairy tale with a rooster in it.”

Little Red Rooster and the Turkish Sultan?” He raises an eyebrow.

“No, Hans My Hedgehog.”

“I should have known you would not stray far from the Grimm canon.”

“Wait, I have,” I protest.

Hans My Hedgehog is considered to be one of the ‘rise tales,’” Augustus goes on after settling into his comfy chair.

“Rise tale?”

“That’s the name given by folklorist Ruth Bottigheimer to the notion of a peasant rising to become a king.”

“Oh, of course, a notion as old as the fairy tale itself.”

“Well,” Augustus hesitates as he draws on his pipe, “not according to Bottigheimer. She suggests Giovanni Straparola in his literary work of fairy tales in the mid-sixteenth century, invented the rise tale, and from there it entered into the tool bag of the common storytellers.”

“What? I am shocked. I thought that bit of wishful thinking, wild and impossible as it is, would spring naturally from the folk.”

“There are numerous folklorists who agree with you and are intellectually outraged that Bottigheimer proposed it. She triggered a controversy that has lasted more than two decades and promises to linger longer.”

“Hmmm,” I ponder, “folklore studies is more than a century old. One would think matters would be settled by now.”

Augustus guffaws and chokes on smoke. “Hardly,” he says upon recovery. “The center of this controversy is whether the folk can create their own motifs, or are they dependent upon literary storytellers for their source material? Do storytellers borrow from writers or do writers borrow from storytellers?  I suspect the answer is ‘yes.’”

“By the way,” he says, “to raise the status of your story, The Types of International Folk Tales classification ATU (that’s authors/scholars Aarne, Thompson, and Uther) 441 bears the moniker ‘Hans My Hedgehog.’

“ATU 441 represents all the variants. Although Grimms’ version is the most famous, there are others. Some have two kings, some have three. Some have a wealthy merchant instead of a king. In some there are three daughters.

“Always, one of the daughters marries the hedgehog, returning him to his human form; sometimes with a kiss, sometimes by whipping him, or simply by cutting off his head.”

“I find it interesting,” I say, “that kissing, whipping, and decapitation are all viable alternatives for transformation. If I were a Hans, I know which one I would choose.”

Your thoughts?

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Fairy Tales of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part One

flesh to eat foot2 CC BY

Good Heavens

There are moments of contentment in my life. Thalia slipping from my lap after I read to her—the battered copy of Grimm under one arm and Teddy dangling from the other—is one of those moments. She pads her way to the study door, dragging Teddy behind her, he picking up dust. She turns at the door, gives me a little wave, and disappears down the hall. With a happy sigh, I reach for my glass of port.

There, beside it, is my copy of Modern Greek Folk Tales.

How did that get there?

I know it was not there when I first set my glass down. A quarter of the way through the pages is a bookmark, signaling to me that is where I left off reading the book.

Was that two months ago? Two years ago? Has the book gotten impatient for me to finish it?

I pick it up and open it to the bookmark.

Human Flesh to Eat

An old man, weary from collecting wood, cries out “Oh and alas and woe is me,” which happens to be the name of a little, demonic, man, who serves the Lord of the World Beneath.

Having been evoked, and seeing that the old man did not know what to do, the demon quickly turns the tables and makes a demand of the old man that he bring to him his eldest daughter.

The little man takes the daughter to the world beneath and offers to her a wormy human foot to eat, explaining that if she can eat it, she will marry the Lord of the World Beneath. If not, she will be sent home.

She throws it away when the little man is not looking. When he calls out, “Oh my foot, my little foot, where are you?” the foot answers from the dung heap, and the eldest is sent home.

The identical thing happens to the second sister except that she if offered a wormy hand to eat.

The third and youngest daughter is offered stinking intestines, but she asks for spices to flavor it, suggesting to the little man she intends to eat it. Instead, when he is not looking, she belts it about her waist. When he calls out for the intestines, it answers, “To my lady’s belly.”

Moving on to the next stage of the story, every night the little man drugs her coffee and she never sees her husband. Her sisters get their father to evoke the demon again so that they can visit.

The story describes the sisters as wicked and possessing the knowledge that the little man drugged her coffee and that the Lord of the World Beneath has a key in his navel. When the youngest remains awake and turns the key in her sleeping husband’s navel, she can see the world.

Unfortunately, she cries out to an old woman when she sees that the river is about to snatch away the woolen yarn she is washing. This awakens her husband, who says, “You bitch, turn back the key. You are killing me.”

He sends her away, but not before instructing the little man to cut two hairs from her head, suspend them in a flask of water, and watch them day and night.

The girl goes off and exchanges clothes with a shepherd so that she can pass herself off as a boy. (I am not sure what that says about the shepherd.)

He/she is employed by a king and becomes a favorite. Unfortunately, the queen is attracted to the “lad” and tries to seduce him/her. He/she spurns the queen, who seeks revenge by declaring the “lad” tried to rape her. The king consigns him/her to be hanged.

The two hairs from her head sink to the bottom of the flask and the little man alerts his lord, who rides off to the hanging. He rips open her shirt, revealing her feminine breasts, stating, “If you like I will slit it lower yet.”

The king demurs. The Lord of the World Beneath reclaims his wife and the queen is hanged in her stead.

Good heavens! I think to myself.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part Two

 

Flesh to eat key

The Navel

It is late. It is dark. Yet I am drawn to the Magic Forest. I know better than to go there at night, but night in the Magic Forest is my addiction. It is where unlikely thoughts surface and stare at me, unblinking. These are thoughts I would not consider in my study, but come to me as the moon shines down on this uneasy visitor.

With my usual trepidation, I pass through the French doors, across my lawn, and into the forest’s edge. I will sit by the pond, which is not deep into the woods. A ring of rocks surrounds the pond, affording any number of seats.

As I settle onto a rock, a voice lilts from across the pond. “Who are you? What are you doing at my pond?”

Perched on a stone, on the other side, is a woman, about my age.

“Allow me,” I say, “to ask a similar question. What are you doing in my Magic Forest?”

“Your Magic Forest?” she intones. “This is my magical forest and I am Ultima Flossbottom.” Pride edges her voice.

I consider our dilemma for a few moments. “May I suggest the Magic Forest belongs to neither of us, but rather we belong to it?”

Her demeanor softens. “You may well be right.” She stands and picks her way around the pond to sit on the stone beside me.

I ask her, “Why are you here tonight? I’ll guess you know as well as I, we are not safe here.”

She gives a quick smile of acknowledgement. “I came here to contemplate a story.”

I know the answer before I ask. “Human Flesh to Eat?”

She nods, eyebrows raised.

“I too,” I say. “Where do we start to unpack this tale?”

She sighs. “First, I will ignore the sexist, anti-feminist leanings of the tale, painful though that is to me. That attitude was a given at the time this tale was told. To object and stop there is to miss what the tale tries to say.”

“Still,” I consider, “we should note that although she is clearly a victim of male hegemony, she remains the protagonist of the tale.”

“Agreed,” says Ultima, “I want to leapfrog to the key in the navel. What the hell is that about?”

I stare into the water of the pond. “The key in his navel must define the Lord of the World Beneath. He holds the key to the world, to existence?”

“Yet,” returns Ultima, “when he awakes, he says an unkind word to his wife, demands she turn the key, and accuses her of trying to kill him. The key in his navel is more of a curse to him than an attribute.”

I grasp for straws. “In the Jewish and Christian tradition, Jerusalem is thought to be the navel of the universe, that is to say, the center.”

Ultima, grasping for her own straws, says, “In the Greek tradition there is the stone Omphalos at the temple of Delphi. Its name translated as ‘navel.’ Before coming here I googled ‘navel mythology,’ ‘belly button mythology,’ ‘key in the navel,’ and a few other variations. I came up with nearly nothing. Did you know, historically, there were many more injunctions against women showing their belly buttons than men showing theirs?”

“I am not surprised, but might that be because ours are hairy and not as attractive?”

She snorts and lets my little joke pass.

“I think,” she says, “we have sunk to defining what this image is not.”

I tap my finger on my knee. “I am ready to concede we are looking at an image that operates at the dream level, eluding words to express it.”

 

Fairy Tale  of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part Three

Flesh to eat Edward Burne-Jones Edward Burne-Jones

Only Inexplicable

“The key in the navel,” Ultima muses, “is not the only inexplicable item. The more I consider the tale, the more I see that it all goes by us unexplained.”

“I don’t think,” I counter, “an unexplained element in a fairy tale is unusual.”

“Yes, but, this tale makes a career out of being unexplained and inexplicable. Let’s start with the test of eating human flesh. What is that all about?”

“I presume it has something to do with the World Beneath really being the world of the dead.”

“We presume,” she says. “It is not explained. And why does the little man call out, ‘My foot, my little foot . . . .’ Is it his foot he wants the girl to eat, or simply a foot from his favorite body-parts collection?”

I chuckle.

“”Let me rant on,” Ultima says. “Why is the younger sister willing to marry the unseen lord? The flesh trial is not a good harbinger of things to come. What if human flesh is the cuisine of the World Beneath? The World Beneath may not be the best neighborhood.

“Then there are the sisters, described in the story as wicked, although they do nothing wicked, but who know more than they ought to about the drugged coffee and the lord’s navel.

“Speaking of the navel, why does turning the key threaten his life?  What is a key for, but to be turned?

“Then he sends her away, but not before having two hairs cut from her head, floated in water, and having the little man stand guard over them day and night, setting up for her return. Why send her away when he really wants her back again?”

I am thinking she ought to be running out of breath, but that is not the case. On she goes.

“Next, she exchanges clothes to disguise herself as a boy. Why doesn’t she go home like her sisters did?”

“She is, perhaps,” I observe, “denying her feminine side.”

“Yes, I agree, but why? What is her motivation?”

“I see your point. By the way, our story really does follow the Cupid and Psyche pattern, although it turns that pattern on its head until it is hardly recognizable. However, this section, when the king’s wife tries to seduce our protagonist, rings of the biblical Joseph’s story.”

Ultima nods. “Biblical stories would be in the storyteller’s tool kit, but listen; I am not done with my rant.”

We already have a laundry list of the unexplained. She is tenacious.

“When,” Ultima drives on, “she is falsely accused and faces her death, it takes her husband to come and rescue her by exposing her femininity. Why couldn’t she have done that herself? What was so important about her secret that she’d rather die than expose it? Unexplained and inexplicable.”

I think she’s done.

“What I hear you saying,” I suggest, “is that the unexplained and inexplicable is uniform throughout the story. That implies the storyteller intended those things. My turn to ask the question ‘why’. Was it perhaps an ancient form of the horror story?”

“Ahh!” Ultima says, but before she can answer, an unnatural sound rips the air. It is made up of an agonized lion’s roar and the slow, creaking surrender of a falling tree, all moved to a higher register. It vibrates through my body.

“Oh,” sighs Ultima, “my dragon calls. I must attend him.” She turns to me, placing her hand on mine. “I hope we meet again, but for now . . . . Well, you know how impatient they are.”

Her dragon!

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part One

Selkies Arthur Rackham Arthur Rackham

Good Meal

I uncork and pour a glass of white wine to go with the Chicken Marbella I serve to a distracted Melissa.

“Do you mind,” I ask, “if I be a tad romantic and light a candle?”

Melissa comes out of her self-absorption and smiles. “Please do.”

“Now,” I say, when things are settled and we pick up our forks, “what is this story that has so disturbed you?”

Melissa takes a bite before she says, “I stayed up too late last night reading Irish Tales of the Fairy and the Ghost Worlds by Jeremiah Curtin, and I came upon Tom Moore and the Seal Woman.”

Tom Moore, a goodly fellow, lived with his parents until they died and he found himself in need of a wife.

One day, while working along the seaside, he spotted a remarkable woman sleeping on a rock. He called to the woman, waking and warning her against the coming tide. She only laughed at him. He kept an eye on her and when the tide looked threatening, he tried to rescue her. She only slipped off into the sea.

After a sleepless night, obsessed by her beauty, he returned to the shore and there she sat upon her rock. Boldly, he snatched her hood. She demanded it back, but he refused, saying, “God sent you to me.”

That very day, after she made breakfast, Tom had them married. She was as good a wife as anyone could want, bearing him five children, three sons and two daughters.

One day Tom was in the loft of the cottage, throwing down bags and bunches of things, looking for some bolts he needed for a repair, forgetting that among the debris was the hood he took from his wife. She saw and snatched it back. From the sea came the bellowing of a seal. She knew it was her brother calling to her.

At the same time some of the village fishermen had killed three seals. Tom’s wife threw herself upon the bodies, crying murder. For her sake the bodies were buried, but during the night some of the fishermen tried to dig them back up, only to find the carcasses had disappeared.

The next day, while Tom was away working, she cleaned the house, washed her children, and kissed them, then put on her hood, returning to the sea.

For generations after that the progeny of her children all had the same peculiar webbing between their fingers and toes, although it diminished over time.

“That’s a delightful story,” I say. “However, we both know there are a hundred variations on it. The mermaid wife, abducted by a mortal, who bears his children, then escapes back to the sea, is pretty universal. What is it about this story that strikes you differently?”

“One,” Melissa takes another bite of the Marbella, “she’s not a mermaid. She‘s a seal. Two, it’s Jeremiah Curtin’s introduction to the tale that caught me.

“He talks about the MacCodrum clan, known as ‘The Race of the Seals,’ who once made their home in the Hebrides, and claimed to be descended from a seal woman. They all had the webbing of the fingers and toes. “

“OK,” I say, “and . . . ?”

Melissa holds up her hand, spreading out her fingers. Low, between them is a very fine webbing of skin I have never noticed before.

“My great, great, grandmother was a MacCodrum, but I didn’t know about the webbing until I read Curtin’s book. I need to talk again with your nixie.”

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part Two

Selkie Arthur Rackham 2Arthur Rackham

Of Water

I dragged out the popcorn maker even before we finished our meal.

Earlier this morning I woke up feeling unsettled. I put it to Thalia and her mother being away to Brighton for summer vacation, but by noon I knew it was Melissa projecting her anxiety. I hustled down to the bookshop to find it actually busy for once.

Melissa’s eyes widened when she saw me. “I was going to call . . .”

“You did call. I see you have customers. Supper at my place?”

“Yes. Thank you. I close the shop at six.”

I proceeded to market to buy chicken, dates, capers, kale, and some wine.

But now, we pour the popcorn into a bag and head for the Magic Forest. I feel a bit in a rush. We need to finish our business before sunset. After dusk in the Magic Forest? Well, I’ve made that mistake.

I believe the nixie always knows when I am coming. Melissa and I peer over the rim of the high bank that surrounds the nixie pond, where she already floats below us, her pale-greenish body part of the rippling water.

“Melissa,” her reedy voice intones, “you come with my smiling, human friend for a reason, but with a face that is dour.”

“I bring questions and popcorn,” says Melissa, as she starts to throw the nixie a stream of kernels as is our tradition. Deftly, the creature catches each one in her mouth.

“Who are the seal people?” Melissa asks.

“Peoples,” corrects the nixie between catches. “They are, some of them, fallen angels like myself. Others are of the elven race taken to the ocean. Still more are mariners drowned at sea, or condemned souls.

“In Scotland they are called the selkies. In Ireland, the merrow. I think all seals have a bit of human or fallen angel in them. One can tell by the eyes.”

“By the eyes,” Melissa echoes, then says, “What is the seal peoples’ nature?”

“They are changelings.” The nixie’s eyes narrow. “Not as stable as the rest of the fay. They have a foot in both the mundane and the fairy worlds. They cannot, for their very existence, decide which world they prefer.

“Though spending most of their time in the sea, still the land calls to them. At certain times of the moon, or of the year, or even cycles of the years—depending on the tribe—they must shed their seal skins, take their human form, and dance upon the earth.

“Then is their most vulnerable time, especially for the seal women. Mortal men, who wander around more than mortal women, chance upon the seal peoples’ dance. If one of these gadabouts grabs a seal woman’s skin, she belongs to him.

“That is not to say there are not liaisons between mortal women and seal men, but that comes about in a different fashion. The seal men, I will say, tend to be terribly handsome.”

For a while, Melissa and the nixie play the game of throwing and catching popcorn before Melissa asks, “Am I descended from the seal people?”

She holds up her hand with outstretched fingers. “I have the webbing and am related to the MacC . . .”

To my horror, the nixie nimbly skitters up the steep bank toward Melissa until they sit nose to nose. The nixie places her greenish hand under Melissa’s chin, with a searching stare into her eyes.

“Yes,” the nixie replies, then slips back down the bank into the pond, but not before nicking the bag of popcorn. She floats on her back, the bag on her stomach as she gorges herself, giggling.

Melissa has the look of someone struck by lightning.

 

Fairy Tale  of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part Three

selkie T W Wood TW Wood

Little Wonder

“It’s little wonder that I entered your fairy world so easily.”

Melissa takes the glass of white wine I pour for her. We didn’t have time to finish the bottle during supper.

“The veil is thin,” I say. “Anyone can pass through it. I did. But you, you actually have credentials.”

Melissa laughs. “I am not sure ‘credentials’ is the right word. ‘Blood’ may be closer.”

We sit in my study, the bay windows open to invite in the evening breeze. The last vestige of sunlight fades over the distant outline of the Magic Forest.

“You know,” I say, “you can’t imagine my terror when the nixie actually touched you. I thought the steep bank to be a barrier between our world and hers. I should have known, being in the Magic Forest, we were in her world with no safe space.

Melissa waves that off. “Her touch did not frighten me. Her eyes, looking into the house of my soul, still haunt me. All my secrets and deeply-held fears that I thought lay at the center of my being were cobwebs in the rooms she passed through looking for my unnatural origins.”

“The nixie said she thought every seal had a bit of human or fallen angel in them. Do we, humans, all have a bit of the fay in us?”

“I am going to say ‘no.’” Melissa looks at her empty wine glass. “I am sure there are those humans of ‘pure blood’ that have never been tainted by the fairy world. But they lack imagination. Their sight does not go beyond the corporeal world, to the realm where toads talk and money means nothing.”

I pour us more wine. “I propose a toast to us mutts, and thumb our noses at pure bloods.”

We clink our glasses.

“What of,” I ask, “you, me, and many others, being between two worlds, the worlds of the mundane and the fairy?”

“That is manifest in our dreams. We, humans, all dream. We have to. What we dream reflects who we are. I dream of the sea. Now I know why. I am doomed to be as unstable as the shifting sands.”

“Cannot,” I ask, “our dreams that draw us into the fairy world serve to find our path forward?”

“It is not that simple.” Melissa empties her glass. “In our dreams, the fairy world only gives us evasive hints, which is more than they are required to do. They are being generous to us mortals. It is ours to reason out the hints they give us.

“But then,” Melissa regards her, again, empty glass, “do the fairies know what is best for us, or even care? Do I give them too much credit? Should I allow the fay to be my guide?”

“You sound,” I say, “like the changeling our nixie described, not content to stay in the sea and must dance on the land.”

“Or,” says Melissa, “have danced upon the land too long and crave the sea. The fairy tales mirror our desires. They tell us that peasants can rise to royalty. A simpleton is smarter than his elder brothers. For every young girl there is a prince seeking her.”

Melissa’s eyes drift off toward the ceiling. “But beyond that, the fairy tales whisper secrets into our ears during dreaming, which are hard to remember upon waking. Fairy tales come from a dimension a little beyond our understanding.”

I pour the last of the wine into our glasses.

“Oh, by the way,” she says, “the Chicken Marbella was excellent.”

I am so glad she noticed.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2019 The Fairy Harp – Part One

Fairy harp sirr_harp_wilde_fig159Sirr Harp, Robert Wilde

A Harp

Thalia insisted on bringing Melissa to Megan’s By the Green, a good restaurant, but Thalia had a not-so-good reason in mind.

A good reason, I can cite, is to celebrate Melissa’s birthday.

A good reason, in Thalia’s mind, is that they serve pizza.

A good reason, this being an up-scale restaurant, is that they serve an up-scale pizza.

The up-scale pizza we order, labeled The Veggie One, contains sweet potatoes, rocola, feta, pine nuts, mozzarella and tomato, all on a sourdough crust. We go over the top with toppings, adding mushrooms and red onion.

The not-so-good reason we sit in Megan’s By the Green—and both Melissa and I know this—is Thalia’s desire to see the ceiling.

I am being a little hard on Thalia. The ceiling is a reason to come here. It appears to be alive with dark vines and branches, laden with white roses and interspersed with small fairy lights. Thalia basks in the gentle glow that permeates the room. I am but in mind of Sleeping Beauty’s rose briar-protected castle.

“While we wait for the extraordinary pizza,” Melissa says, pointing to the ceiling, “I have memorized a story for us, in recognition of the fairy lights.”

Delight creases Thalia’s face and I settle back to enjoy.

“It’s called The Fairy Harp.” Melissa pauses a second to collect her thoughts.

Melissa tells us of a company of fairies in the habit of going around from cottage to cottage to judge the welcome given to them. Bad luck followed the cottagers who were not gracious, but good luck followed those who gave the strangers a warm welcome.

Old Morgan ap Rhys sat one night in his chimney-corner all alone, as his wife was out, entertaining himself with his tobacco pipe and some ale, and by singing. His singing was only notable in that a bard had offended Morgan by describing that voice as similar to the yelping of a blind dog that has lost its way.

Thalia giggles at that.

Morgan had reached a crescendo in his song when there came a knocking at the door. Delighted with the prospect of someone to listen to him, he shouted for the visitor to come in.

In came three fairies, disguised as travel-stained weary men asking for a little bit of food, to test Morgan’s treatment of strangers. Morgan points them to his table on which is bread and cheese, entreating them to help themselves and take more for the road. Just as generous, he sings to them for their entertainment.

“What did the fairies think of his singing?” Thalia grins.

“The story does not tell us,” Melissa says. “But if his manners and singing were rough, the fairies appreciated his good intent.”

The fairies, on departing, offered to grant him one wish. Morgan, although he thinks it a joke, declared he’d like a harp that plays merry tunes no matter how he plucks the strings. The fairies disappear and there is the harp.

Morgan is playing the harp when his wife and some friends come home and immediately begin to dance about. It seems anyone who hears the harp is compelled to dance. The news of Morgan’s fairy harp soon spreads about and many come to listen to his music and to dance.

One day, the very bard who had so insulted Morgan came to hear the fairy harp. Morgan reaped his revenge by playing his harp faster and faster until the dancing bard broke both his legs.

“By the next morning,” Melissa ends the tale, “the fairy harp disappeared, never to be seen again.”

Thalia applauds, and on cue our pizza appears.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2019 The Fairy Harp – Part Two

Fairy harp the-wedding-of-kloris-and-roosje-ken-welsh Welsh Wedding

The Pizza

The pizza, for all its odd ingredients, tastes quite good. Thalia revels in her culinary experience, justifying all the scheming to talk us into coming here.

“What attracted you to that story?” I ask Melissa. “I suspect it is from The Welsh Fairy Book, by Thomas.”

“Wow, this is so good,” Melissa addresses the pizza rather than my question.

I munch and wait.

“The fairy harp lies at the center of my attraction to this tale. But, really, it’s not about the harp.”

Her comment stalls here for a bit. I let her indulge in our meal and do not pry.

Eventually she says, “Our relationship with the fair folk is complicated.”

“The fair folk,” I take note. “That term includes more than the fairies, leprechauns, and such.”

“The shee,” nods Melissa, “all those beings from the Tuatha De Danaan to Thalia’s fairy. They populate our dreams, our fears, and our uncertainties at the same time they live in the fairy mounds and sometimes our bedrooms.” Here she points to Thalia. “They are the ‘other’ to whom we will never quite reconcile.”

“You make that sound uncomfortable,” I venture.

“And so it should be. Although the stuff of our dreams, they keep us from falling asleep and never awakening.”

“I don’t follow you,” I say.

“I mean ‘falling asleep’ metaphorically. If the fairies were not here, if they did not troop through the terrain of our subconscious, or on the winds of a stormy night, our species would become complacent, thinking there is nothing to challenge our superiority, and we would slip into unawareness.

This pizza is really good. Its flavor is growing on me.

“The fairy harp represents .  .  . ?” I prod.

Melissa takes another bit and hesitates before answering. Thalia, I know, is not listening to us at all as she reaches for another slice.

“The harp was a gift and a challenge. Because of Morgan’s generosity, the fairies gave him a harp that played of its own, but played such music that no one could refrain from dancing. Morgan had the power to delight and entertain. He seemed content with this until the bard with the sharp tongue appeared again. Morgan used the power of his harp to harm a fellow musician. After that, the harp is gone.

“Morgan’s challenge?” Melissa takes another bit. “To recognize there are rules and understand the rules without being told. Morgan’s failure is our failure. So many times, over and over, no one has told us the rules and we have not asked.”

“The unspoken rules,” I say to myself, looking at Thalia who sits back on her chair, her hand on her stomach.

“This is what I mean by ‘falling asleep.’” Melissa continues. “We accept our gifts but neglect to seek out the rules. Too often we use our gifts for wrong purposes and may lose them, when we should be using those very gifts to explore the rules.”

“Wait,” I say, “you describe what sounds to me like the creative process. Is all my creativity inspired by the fairies giving me challenges?”

“I like that,” Melissa muses. “Maybe, maybe.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2019 The Fairy Harp – Part Three

Fairy harp Fairies at Market

Wait Again

Melissa and I linger in my study over our glasses of malbec. Thalia, soporific from the consumption of too much pizza, slumbers on my lap. I am happy she heard a story earlier this evening. She faded long before I could tell her one.

“Wait, again,” I say, returning to my thoughts of our conversation at Megan’s, “not all the human/fairy encounters involve challenges.”

“Well,” says Melissa, “I can think of The Field of Boliauns where the protagonist gets tricked by a leprechaun, and The Fairy Ointment where the poor midwife loses not only her fairy sight but also the use of her right eye. Then there is Brewery of Eggshells with the stealing of a mother’s baby. These pose a different kind of challenge, but I say a challenge nonetheless.”

“True,” I concede, “but I am thinking of another story from The Welsh Fairy Book, only a few pages from your tale, The Green Isles of the Ocean. I forget where the story takes place, but it is in Wales, of course, and by the sea.

“The market in that town was frequented by the fairies. They would appear before a market vendor, never dicker over price, knowing the price without asking, and, in fact, never saying a word. No one really saw them coming or going. The merchants wondered where they came from, where they lived; at least those merchants with whom the fairies chose to deal. The fairies’ particular favorite was a fellow called Gruffydd, who did much business with them.

“Well, one day Gruffydd stood in the local churchyard. From there he could see islands out to sea he had never seen before. He realized these must be the Green Isles of the Ocean, spoken of by the bards as the home of the fairies. He went down to the shore intending to row across to the islands, but from there he could not see them. Returning to the churchyard, there they were.

“Being a clever man, he dug up a bit of the churchyard sod and by keeping his foot upon it he could navigate himself to the islands. When he arrived, the fairies greeted him warmly and gave him a tour of the islands’ wonders. They loaded him with presents, but made him surrender the sod from the churchyard. He continued to visit them through a secret tunnel they showed him and he remained great friends with the fairies for the rest of his life.”

Melissa sips from her glass, focusing her thoughts. “Not actually a story,” she concludes.

“No, it’s not. More of an anecdote, really, but, as I say, no challenge involved.”

“True, though I think it’s an exception; but your tale brings to my mind an entirely different thought.”

“And that thought is?” I prompt when she fails to go on.

“The fairy tales’ Christian/pagan struggle for the minds of its listeners. Take note: the merchant stood in a churchyard. Being on sacred Christian ground, the glamour that the fairies cast over their isles didn’t affect his eyes, and that piece of sod he surrendered to keep their friendship.

“That, if subtle, shows the power of Christianity over the charms of the fair folk.”

Thalia rustles in my lap to get more comfortable.

“Now that you bring up the Christian/pagan thing,” I say, “when you told us The Fairy Harp, in which the three fairies came to Morgan’s door, the image of the three angles coming to visit Abraham flashed through my thoughts. They too were testing. I wonder if that biblical story lent that image to this tale.”

“Likely,” Melissa looks into the bottom of her wine glass, “and yet, may not the shee be among the fallen angels, bent, as the lord’s angels, upon testing us?”

With that notion in mind, I will carry Thalia off to bed.

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2019 The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality – Part One

Immortality Queen and Prince HJ Ford

Not Sure

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . .

Thalia enters my study carrying Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book for her evening read.

“What’s this? Where’s Grimm?”

“Teddy wanted something different.” Thalia stuffs the bear between us.

She opens the book to its table of contents. With eyes closed, she waves her finger in the air.

At least the story-selection method has not changed.

Her delicate index finger lands on The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality.

A young prince, unhappy with the knowledge he must someday die, sets out to find the Land of Immortality. In his travels he comes across an eagle pulling on the upper branches of a huge tree. The eagle flies down and transforms into a king, who explains that he is condemned to uproot the tree and neither he nor any of his family can die until he does.

The king invites the prince to dine with him and the king’s beautiful daughter orders a meal to be laid out for them. During the feast the prince tells of his quest. The king suggests the prince marry his daughter and live with them. It will take the eagle six hundred years to uproot the tree, time enough for them all. The princess pleads with the prince to stay, but six hundred years is not an eternity.

At parting, the princess gives him a small box. Inside is her picture. When he looks at it he will be borne along over land or through the air. In this way he travels to many places.

One evening the box carries him to the top of a high mountain where a bald-headed laborer fills a basket with dirt and hauls it away. He explains to the prince he is condemned to carry away the mountain basket by basket, and he and his kin cannot die until he does.

Plucking a leaf from a tree, he transforms into a bald-headed king and invites the prince to dinner. This king’s daughter also wants to marry the prince, but her father’s task of eight hundred years is not enough.

At parting, she gives him a golden ring that will instantly take him wherever he wishes to go. He wishes himself to the end of the world.

He finds himself in a city. He does not understand the language spoken there, even though he speaks twenty-seven languages. Fortunately, he spots a man dressed in the style of his own country and learns the city is the capital of the Blue Kingdom, whose king has died and now ruled by his daughter.

He finds the young queen wrapped in a veil of shiny, silver mist. She knows his language, having learned it as a child. She too wishes to marry him, and shows him a room, the floor made up entirely of needles. Neither she nor her family can die until she wears out all the needles sewing; a thousand years.

This too is not enough. She gives him a rod that can become anything he wishes it to be.

Leaving the city, he comes to a broad river that cannot be crossed, being at the the end of the world and surrounding it. There he sees a city floating in the air. He wishes the rod to be a great ladder. However, a many-headed dragon keeps him from entering until the queen of the city allows it. She is the Queen of the Immortals and this is the Land of Immortality.

For a thousand years he lives with her happily until one night he dreams of his parents and wishes to visit them. His queen informs him they have been dead for eight hundred years, but gives him two flasks, one of silver and one of gold. The silver flask he fills with water from a small well in the room, which will bring death to anyone. From another well in the room he fills the gold flask, which will bring life to anyone.

Traveling home, he brings back to life the misty-veiled queen, the bald-headed king, and the eagle king. However, he finds his home covered by a sulfurous lake burning with a blue flame. There he is greeted by death, who has been looking for him for a thousand years. The prince’s three friends rush to his aid and hold back death as the prince slips on the gold ring.

But death is hard to hold and catches up with the prince when he has one foot in the Land of Immortality, but the other still in the mortal world. The Queen of the Immortals allows death to enter her city and bargains with him. She puts her foot under the prince’s foot and flings him up into the air and out of sight. If he comes down in the city, he is hers. If he falls outside the city walls, he is death’s.

The prince comes down at the edge of the city wall but the queen catches him. She then has death thrown out.

Thalia stares into the hearth. I can all but hear the wheels turning in her head.

“Not sure,” she says.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2019 The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality – Part Two

Immortality bald King HJ Ford

Some Fun

“I’m not sure,” says Duckworth, unknowingly agreeing with Thalia after I relate the tale to him.

We row together on the Isis on a glorious, spring day—or is it “the” glorious spring day given our British weather.

“Isn’t our hero a bit of a jerk?” asks Duckworth. “A mortal asking for immortality, simply because he wants it, is presumptuous.”

“Well, yes,” I agree, “but he does achieve it.”

“Only at the largess of the Queen of the Immortals. He does not really do anything to earn immortality.”

“He persists,” I defend.

“You say this story comes from one of Andrew Lang’s books.”

“Yes, but I think his wife translated it out of Ungarishcen Völksmärchen, a collection of Hungarian folktales.”

Duckworth parks his oars and we let ourselves drift on the current.

“Let me get the sequence straight,” he muses, “and ask all the inconvenient questions.”

I brace myself for the logical onslaught, against which fairy tales never do well.

Duckworth taps his finger on his chin. “Let’s take the first two kings, who have a similar pattern. They are condemned to perform near-impossible tasks. Both are transformed, although the second king’s transformation is not as profound as the first king’s, who changes from an eagle into a man, while the second changes from a bald-headed laborer into a bald-headed king.

“In either case, neither they, nor their kindred, can die until the task is completed. To whom among their kindred does this apply? Are second cousins twice removed included?”

“I doubt that,” I say. “The tale is only concerned with the kings’ daughters.”

“And do they age?” Duckworth goes on. “The tasks are to take hundreds of years. Will the kings and their daughters look hundreds of years old?”

“The tale does not say,” I try to answer. “The tales do not tell us what is not important for us to know; very economical.”

Duckworth rattles on. “I do see shades of King Sisyphus rolling his rock up a hill. That is his punishment for his misdeeds. Our two kings say they are condemned to perform their tasks. What was their crime? And what judge assigned the punishment?”

“I sense it was more of an onus put upon them rather than a punishment.”

Our boat drifts aground with a gentle lurch, but Duckworth does not notice. “And what sort of punishment is getting to live longer?”

I sigh.

But then,” Duckworth raises a finger, “the prince gets to the end of the world and the pattern shifts. No more transforming kings. The king is dead. The onerous task belongs to his daughter.

“Technically, the task could not have been assigned to the daughter until after the death of her father, since kindred cannot die while the task is in progress. And what did she do that she gets needled to death over a thousand years?”

I roll my eyes as Duckworth rolls on.

“Well, eventually, with the help of magical gifts—I have no trouble with magical gifts in fairy tales—given to him by the three women, whom he has abandoned—I have trouble with that—he gets to be an immortal.

“What does the cad do? He forgets about everyone else, including his parents, for eight hundred years. His parents’ home is now under a burning, sulfurous lake. Talk about neglect! For being the hero of our tale, he has some inexcusable personality flaws.”

Smiling, I say, “We’d better push off and get ourselves back upstream before we wander too far off course.”

“Oh, alright,” he returns the smile, “but you never really answered my questions.”

Duckworth has had his fun with me and he knows it.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2019 The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality – Part Three

Immortality dragons HJ Ford

I’m Sure

“I’m sure Duckworth meant to get the better of you. His objections spring from his legalistic mind.” Augustus slips his copy of The Crimson Fairy Book back onto the shelf. Augustus houses his fairy-tale collection here in his “testing” room, causing all his book spines to become smoke-stained until the titles can be barely read. But he knows where each of them resides in his bookcase.

I stuff my pipe with his newest blend, Lazarus’s Choice.

Augustus stands by the bookcase, contemplating. “Duckworth was astute, though, to notice the possible King Sisyphus connection.”

“Connection,” I echo. “I think that is a bit of a stretch to connect the two.”

“Maybe not,” he says. “Consider, King Sisyphus is being punished for his many crimes, but chief among them, as far as the gods are concerned, is his hubris to think himself cleverer than they. After offending Zeus one too many times, Zeus sends Hades to collect him with the chains of death. Sisyphus, pretending to be fascinated by the device of the chains, asks Hades to demonstrate them. Hades shows him how they work and is himself captured and shoved into Sisyphus’s closet.

“With Hades out of the way, no one can die. Eventually, Ares manages to release Hades, and Sisyphus is taken to the underworld, where he talks Persephone into letting him return to the upper world to set things right when Sisyphus’s wife does not properly bury him—at his instructions. He gets another reprieve from death.”

“Are you suggesting,” I say through the smoke I am making, “that the story is all about cheating death?”

“In short, yes.” Augustus settles back into his comfy chair. “Every character in the story is eluding death in one way or another with the exception of the hero’s parents, who are put under a lake of sulfur to keep them from being reanimated.

“The Sisyphean tasks have given the eagle/king six hundred extra years, the laborer/king eight hundred years, and the queen of the Blue Kingdom a thousand years. When the prince attempts to visit his parents, in his travels he brings back to life the two kings and the queen, who in turn aid him in avoiding his own death. Note too, he has the water of death with him but does not use it.

“The final insult to death comes when the Queen of the Immortals catches the prince just before he falls outside her walls and into the arms of death.”

“”I’m not sure,” I hear myself say, “about a direct connection to the Sisyphus story, although that is tempting, but I believe you are right about this being a cheating-death story.”

“Please also note,” Augustus pauses to relight his pipe, “that the story moves from treating the prince as the subject of the tale to being the object of the tale; the prize to be won at the end. He is hardly a character when the queen boots him up in the air like a soccer ball; rather comical, really. He could have been a coin toss.”

“Might the story be a parody of something more philosophical?” I suggest.

“Not out of the question,” Augustus nods his head. “Some of the images are oddly specific. A man chipping away at a mountain we’ve seen before. An eagle trying to uproot a tree I have not seen before, but it does not strike me as odd in fairy-tale terms. A magical golden ring we can probably buy used at any fairy antique shop.

“But I am stopped when we come to a small box with a picture in it that causes one to travel through the air. Then there is the room, the floor of which is made up of needles. The rod that transforms into anything may be unique as well. Might they be specifically pointing to something, the nature of which we are ignorant?”

“And where do we put the Blue Kingdom?” I add.

“Oh, at the end of the world, obviously.” Augustus smiles. “But, yes, why ‘blue?’ I have the strong feeling we are missing pieces of the puzzle.”

I’ll puff on that awhile. Lazarus’s Choice might be my new favorite.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2019 The Dancing Water, The Singing Apple, And The Speaking Bird – Part One

DancingWater batten oneJohn D. Batten

Another Book

I have always thought of the cobblestone street—along with the old-fashioned storefront window and its bold black letters spelling “Serious Books,” and the smaller lettering denoting “Melissa Serious, Proprietor,”—as being perfectly picturesque.

Thalia and I pay the store a visit as part of our Saturday ramble.

“Ah,” says Melissa as we enter the shop. “The very customer I am looking for. I have your next purchase.”

Of course she does.

“And what might that be?”

“What titles do you think of when I say the name of your old friend Joseph Jacobs?”

“Well, English Fairy Tales, More English Fairy Tales, Celtic Fairy Tales, and More Celtic Fairy Tales.”

She hands me the book she holds.

European Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs.

“Really? I somehow missed this one.”

“Published shortly after his death, I believe, it is mostly variants of stories the Grimms collected, although there is one that really stands out for me. The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird.”

“Read!” pipes up Thalia.

Melissa glances around her store, otherwise empty of customers, and settles down on the reading sofa with Thalia at her side.

Once a king, with the peculiar habit of listening at people’s doors to hear what they thought of him, put his ear to the door of three sisters as they sat spinning. The first said, if she could marry the king’s butler, she would give the whole court a drink of water from a glass and have some left over.

The second said, if she could marry the king’s keeper of the wardrobe, she would clothe all the attendants from one piece of cloth and have some left over.

The youngest of the sisters said, if she could marry the king, she would bear him a son with the sun on his forehead and a daughter with the moon on hers.

The next day the king invites them to the castle to prove their claims, which the first two sisters miraculously do and get their husbands. The king marries the youngest under the condition she must bear the promised children or die.

The first two sisters become jealous of their younger sister. When the king goes off to war, and the promised children are born soon after, the sisters bribe the nurse to substitute two puppies. The nurse takes the children out to the wilderness to die and the king sends a message that his queen is to be placed in a treadmill to work until she dies.

Three fairies discover the babes and give them a deer to nurse and raise them, a purse that never empties of money, and a ring that will turn dark if one of them is in trouble.

When grown, the children are told by the fairies and the deer to move into the castle next to the king’s. The two sisters see the boy and girl with the sun and moon on their foreheads and know they are in trouble. They send the nurse to visit the girl to tell her that, if her brother truly loves her, he will get her the Dancing Water.

The lad goes in search of the Dancing Water and comes across a hermit who sends him for instruction to a brother hermit, who refers him to a third hermit. This hermit tell the lad where the castle is in which he can find the Dancing Water and how to enter the castle.

The castle is guarded by four giants, but the lad must not try to get past them if their eyes are closed, but rather when their eyes are open. Beyond them is a door he must not enter if the door is open, but wait until it is closed. Then there will be four lions, and again, their eyes must be open if he is to pass by.

When the lad returns with the Dancing Water (that jumps from bowl to bowl), the sisters send the nurse again to tell the girl of the Singing Apple. The quest for the Singing Apple is identical to that of the Dancing Water. The nurse then tells the girl that all she needs now is the Speaking Bird.

The hermits warn the lad not to talk to the bird, but take one of its feathers, dip it in a nearby jar of water and anoint the statues in the garden. Unfortunately, the bird tells the lad the treadmill will soon claim his mother’s life. To this he exclaims in surprise to the bird and he turns into a stone statue.

His sister sees the ring, given to them by the fairies, turn dark. She disguises herself as a page and sets out to find her brother. She, too, encounters the hermits, who instruct her. She succeeds in reclaiming her brother and anointing the other statues, who return to their human form of princes and barons. Even the lions and giants are released, the hermits return to being the three fairies, and the magic castle dissolves.

The king finally returns from his war to see the boy and girl and begins to suspect they are his children. The bird invites the king to visit them and on a return visit to the king’s castle, the bird tells the king the full story.

The nurse is thrown out the window to her death and the sisters dropped into boiling oil. The king begs forgiveness from his wife and brings her back to the castle. The bird flies off and all live happily ever after.

“Wow,” says Thalia.

“I’ll buy it,” I say.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2019 The Dancing Water, The Singing Apple, And The Speaking Bird – Part Two

dancing-water-two.png John d. Batten

Ramble On

“And where does your Saturday ramble take you today?” Melissa asks, as she rings up my book.

“I am afraid it is still a toss-up; either Battersea Park’s Children’s Zoo or St. Jame’s Park to see the feeding of the pelicans.”

“Oh, bother,” sighs Melissa. You are my only customers all morning and now it’s past noon. If you go to St. Jame’s, I’ll close up shop and go with you.”

“Deal!” says Thalia.

“I will be delighted,” I say.

We head for the eastern end of the lake near Downing Street. Pelicans are gathering like groupies in anticipation of the attendant and his fish.

“What do you make of the eavesdropping king?” Melissa smiles at me.

“I hope that is not one of his better qualities.” I return her smile. “The king does serve as the inciting event, then disappears from the story until he reappears for the conclusion. The body of the story occurs between his appearances.”

Melissa nods in agreement then frowns. “Do the three spinning sisters bring to your mind the Fates?”

“Not for very long. Their destinies move quickly out of their own hands. However, the first two sisters do have the abilities to stretch water and cloth, and the younger to predict a somewhat miraculous birth.”

“Yes, the children,” says Melissa. “The motif of the king going off to war before his wife gives birth and the substitution of the puppies. I have come across it a number of times, as odd as it is. It’s the sun and moon stigmata that I don’t recall seeing before.”

Somewhere in my memory I think I have.

Thalia giggles as the attendant flings fish at the pelicans, which scramble to capture and gobble them down in their bag-like beaks.

“And fairies!” she chimes in. I didn’t think she was listening to us.

“True,” says Melissa, “it is something of a rarity to have fairies in a fairy tale.”

“Their role,” I analyze, “is as magical helpers, be they in fairy form or as hermits.”

“Then we have the quests for the Dancing Water, Singing Apple, and Speaking Bird, part of the repetitive  three,” Melissa observes.

“The three sisters, three fairies, three hermits, three gifts, and their quests,” I enumerate.

“Dancing, singing, and speaking are all communitive,” Melissa reflects, “giving the three gifts a theme of their own.”

When the fish-feeding ends, we wander along the lake toward Buckingham Palace. To Thalia’s delight, one of the pelicans decides to join us, pacing beside me, trying to nibble the end of my umbrella that I carry “just in case.”

“The speaking bird has a special role,” I say.

“Yes,” Melissa fills in, “at first it is a threat. It tricks the lad into speaking, turning him into a statue, just what the two sisters hoped for.”

“But then,” I pick up the thought, “when the girl succeeds in breaking the spell—a spell we didn’t know existed until she broke it—the bird becomes a magical helper.”

“And,” Melissa concludes, “after it tells the king the whole story, it flies away.”

I poke at the pelican to ward it off, but that only encourages him to attack the umbrella even more, eliciting more giggles from Thalia.

Melissa frowns again. “Is our disassembling the tale, helping us to understand it?”

“A little,” I say, “although, disassembling doesn’t sound constructive.”

“Perhaps,” Melissa suggests with a twinkle in her eye, “a visit with Mr. Joseph Jacobs may be in order.”

Ah, today is turning into quite a ramble.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2019 The Dancing Water, The Singing Apple, And The Speaking Bird – Part Three

Dancing Water John D Batten three John D. Batten

More Books

When our pelican became distracted by a brighter-colored umbrella, we quicken our pace and got away. Now we make for the blind alley at the end of which—for us—stands the gate to Miss Cox’s garden.

To our surprise, Mr. Jacobs is already sitting on the bench sampling the scones that Miss Cox has so kindly provided for our afternoon tea.

“We meet again!” he calls out with a smile. Melissa pours some tea for us, while Thalia grabs two scones, slathering one with clotted cream and jam, then dashing off to the pond to feed the other scone to the swans.

“I,” Melissa says, getting to the point after we settle down with our cups of tea, “have questions about the Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird.”

“I think it is the longest title in the book,” Joseph chuckles. “I drew my version from Thomas Crane’s translation of an Italian work, originally a Sicilian fairy tale.

“However, like most fairy tales, it is well-traveled. The earliest written version is by Straparola around 1550. His work records a number of fairy tales for the first time. Our tale he called Ancilotto, King of Provino.

“The tale also appears in the Arabian Nights, the 756th night to be exact, and in the Brothers Grimm.”

“In Grimm?” I exclaim, “Where?”

“They called it The Three Little Birds. The story had changed by the time the Grimms found it. The three sisters are herding cows. The queen’s three children are born one at a time; two boys and a girl. Each time the evil sisters replace it with a dog or a cat. The eldest boy has a star on his forehead.”

That’s where I remember the forehead stigmata from. I read that story eons ago and it’s one of the few I have not read to Thalia.

I look down toward the pond. Thalia and the swans are getting along famously.

“In the Grimm version,” Joseph continues, “the Dancing Water, Singing Apple, and Speaking Bird have morphed. The Singing Apple is gone, the Dancing Water no longer dances and is used to restore their mother to health. The bird is in a cage, but nonetheless sings the story of the children to the king.

“Gone too are the giants, lions, and statues, but a magic wand and a black dog that turns into a prince for the girl to marry, are added; a bit of a muddle in my opinion.”

“I am curious about the sun and moon on the children’s foreheads,” Melissa says, taking a sip of tea.

“Ah, well. . .” Joseph shifts uncomfortably. “That’s my doing.”

Melissa glances at him sharply.

“Let me say,” he defends himself, “we editors are storytellers too. In Crane’s translation, which I followed closely except for this detail, the queen has triplets, two boys with apples in their hands, and a girl with a star on her forehead.

“In my view, the apples in hand served no purpose in the rest of the story, and one brother did nothing but be the second one to get turned into a statue. I dropped the useless brother, and drew from the research I had done for my Indian Fairy Tales, that is fairy tales from India, where the sun and moon markings are a known story element.”

“I thought it a little foreign.” Melissa’s curiosity is satisfied.

Indian Fairy Tales? Did I miss that one too?

I see Melissa writing a note to herself. I know what my next purchase will be.

Your thoughts.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part One

Singing Springing Arthur_Rackham_The_Lady_and_the_Lion Arthur Rackham

Beast and Bird

There are those who live for the weekend. There are those who live for their vacations. There are those who live for the next football game. They live for that short time when they feel particularly alive.

I live for hearing Thalia padding down the hall, dragging her Teddy behind her, a dog-eared copy of Grimm clutched in her other hand. She shoulders the study door open a little wider, making her determined passage to the comfy chair. Thalia flings Teddy into my lap, grabs my belt to pull herself up, and settles between me and the padded arm of the chair.

She opens her book in my lap and goes through the ceremony of choosing a story, with much finger-waving in the air before randomly stabbing the table of contents. She judges if that is the story to be told tonight or not. We are running out of unread tales.

“Ah,” I say, “The Singing Springing Lark.

A merchant, about to go on a long trip, asks his daughters what they want him to bring back for them. His youngest wants a singing springing lark. On the return trip, the merchant carries pearls and diamonds for his elder daughters and spots a lark near a mysterious castle.

“Hey, this is Beauty and the Beast!” Thalia pouts a little.

Before the merchant catches the bird, a lion jumps out intent on eating the merchant.

“There’s the beast.”

When the merchant pleads for his life, the lion agrees but only if the merchant will surrender what first greets him on his return. The lion even gives the merchant the bird. The merchant fears the first to greet him will be his youngest daughter, but he has no choice.

“That’s a little different.” Thalia’s brow knits.

As fate will have it, it is the youngest who greets him first. When she finds out what has happened, she insists her father keep his promise, and declares she will tame the lion and return.

Taming turns out not to be necessary. A friendly pack of lions escorts her to the castle, and that evening turns into a prince and his men. The wedding takes place immediately.

“Oh!” says Thalia.

From then on, they sleep by day and stay up all night. One day her husband tells her that her eldest sister is to be married, and asks if she would like to attend the wedding. She does and is accompanied by some of her husband’s lions.

“Cool.” Thalia grins.

When the second sister is to be married, the youngest wants her lion/husband and their child to come as well. He says he cannot lest the light of a wedding candle fall on him and turn him into a dove for seven years. She promises to protect him and has a hall built that will admit no light.

It does not work. When the marriage procession passes in front of the hall, a hairline crack in the green wood of the door allows in one ray. When the youngest opens the hall, a dove flies off leaving a trail of blood and feathers every seven steps that she must follow for seven years.

“Ohhh!” Thalia exclaims in sympathy.

Shortly before the seven years are up, she loses the trail and goes to the sun and moon for help. They do not know where the dove has gone, but give her a small casket and an egg to be use in great duress. She is helped by the four winds, who tell her the dove has returned to his lion form and battles a dragon, who is an enchanted princess. By going to the Red Sea, cutting the eleventh reed, and striking the dragon with it, she will cause the lion to defeat the dragon, breaking the spell on both creatures.

Also by the Red Sea is a griffin to carry them back home. The four winds give the youngest a nut, which she must cast into the sea on their passage home, and which will immediately sprout into a nut tree, growing a branch on which the griffin can rest.

All this she does, but the princess, when no longer under enchantment, grabs the prince and flies off on the griffin.

“Wow,” wonders Thalia.

After much wandering, the youngest rediscovers her husband just before he and the princess are to be wed. Opening the casket from the sun reveals a golden dress, which she uses to trade with the princess for an evening with her groom. However, the princess drugs her fiancé into sleep.

The next day the youngest cracks open the egg from the moon, and out comes a golden hen and twelve golden chicks. These, too, the princess want, but her trick of the night before is thwarted by a faithful servant.

Hearing his true bride’s voice, the spell is truly broken, and the prince and the youngest fly off on the griffin, allowing it to rest on the branch of the nut tree grown from the nut cast into the sea. Returning home, they are reunited with their son, grown tall and handsome, and they live happily thereafter.

“Yeah!” Thalia is pleased.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part Two

Singing springing-johnb-gruelle John B. Gruelle

A Reflection

Time to reflect, I think to myself as Thalia and Teddy disappear through the study door. And nothing reflects better than the Thinking Pool in the Dark Forest.

I know better than to venture into the Dark Forest at night, but—I assure myself—the pool is barely inside the forest’s edge and there is a full moon in the sky. With the comfort of a heavy coat and my pipe against the cold of the night, I amble across the threshold of the French doors, traverse the frozen lawn, and enter into the forest.

I sit by the pool, edged with stones, on a small stone stool (looking for all the world like a stone mushroom). Taking a deep draft from my pipe, I blow the smoke across the still water. It drifts and rolls a little above the surface, as an image forms on its glassy face. It is the head of a lion appearing at the far end of the pool, oddly, upside down.

I glance up. Oh no! I see the reflection is of a real lion, with cold, unblinking eyes, standing a short leap from me.

“You invoked me.” The lion settles on his haunches.

Did I? Not my best idea.

“I came to contemplate The Singing, Springing Lark,” I say.

“Then that is why I am here.”

“You are who?”

“I am the enchanted prince. I am the lost husband. You see me as a lion, but I am a fox, a flounder, a bird, even,” he dips a claw into the pool, “a tree.”

As the ripple he creates passes over the surface, I see a young woman embraced by a young man who is half human and half tree.

The Old Woman in the Forest.” I recognize the image. “In that tale you and all your men are trees, but you can also be a dove for a few hours every day. In the lark story you and all your men are lions by day, and you become a dove for seven years, not the same thing, but strangely similar.”

The lion touches the water again. A series of images tumbles before me, one on top of the other, but I identify them. “A Sprig of Rosemary; East of the Sun, West of the Moon; The Black Bull of Norroway, The Tale of the Hoodie. All these tales,” I say, “have women looking for their lost husbands.”

The lion touches the water once more. In succession I see a woman holding a candle over a handsome youth, another woman opening a chest with a small key, yet another woman by a door from which flies a dove with a feather and drop of blood suspended in the air.

The lion glares at me with those cold eyes, expecting me to say more. I’d better think quickly before he becomes impatient with this dull human.

“Each woman,” I say slowly, “each wife, has made a mistake, broken a promise, failed a task.”

The lion nods and waits.

“Every one of them goes on a quest to reclaim her husband. All receive supernatural aid, advice, and gifts.”

The lion nods again and waits.

“The journeys are long,” I continue. “The magical help is barely enough. Each, in the end, must in some way awaken her husband to the truth, to the true nature of their experience.”

“You ignore one element,” the lion rumbles.

“And that is?” I hear a tremble in my voice. Have I failed a test?

“Theirs are all acts of atonement,” he growls. Then, shimmering, he transforms into a dove, flies off into the forest darkness leaving behind a feather slowly drifting toward the ground.

In my imagination, I am chasing after that dove, following the trail of blood and feathers. My body—wisely—is running for all its worth back to the safety of the study.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part Three

Singing springing_(Edwardes,_Bell) Robert Anning Bell

More Reflection

“Atonement?” I say aloud, sitting on the window seat, catching my breath. I suppose, I think to myself, but I don’t feel convinced.

All the Beauty and the Beast variants arise, I will guess, from Apuleius’s Cupid and Psyche, in which Cupid’s forbids Psyche to look upon him. She, instead, follows the advice of her sisters, who suggest he is a dangerous beast. She approaches their bed with a lamp in one hand and a dagger in the other, breaking a trust between them.

In the lark story, the youngest acts in good faith, building a hall in which to hide the prince for candlelight, but is foiled by the slightest defect in a door made of green wood; foiled by fate might be more to the point.

The circumstances in the two stories are different, yet I am struck again by an odd parallel not unlike that between the lark story and The Old Woman in the Forest. In this case Cupid is awoken when hot oil from Psyche’s lamp falls upon him, wounding him, and he flies away. In the lark story, a ray of light from a wedding candle falls upon the prince, transforming him into a dove that flies off leaving a trail of blood.

If these events were more similar, I could safely assume there was a bit of borrowing going on. Instead, they are different enough that I wonder if they didn’t grow out of the same impulse rather than the same origin.

By way of contrast, my brain considers The Sprig of Rosemary. Against all warnings, the heroine feels compelled to open the forbidden box in which lies a snakeskin. At the sight of the skin, all of the underground world vanishes, including the memory of it and of her husband, recovered only by the scent of rosemary.

This version of the lost-husband story has no lamp or candle as a symbol despite taking place in an underground castle. No dove appears in the story. The symbolic items—the rosemary, the snakeskin—are dissimilar to the other two lost-husband stories.

What the Psyche story and the rosemary story have in common is that the heroines consciously act contrary to their husbands’ wishes. In the lark tale, the youngest acts with his cooperation. Although all three stories are clearly of the lost-husband motif, additional similarities across all of them really do not exist.

How can the lion insist these are stories of atonement?

However, I am not about to go back and ask him.

Still sitting on the window seat, realizing my heart has stopped pounding, I see Wilhelm standing by the fireplace gazing into the flames. I haven’t seen Wilhelm in my study for quite some time and I marvel at his presence.

He glances halfway in my direction. He must know I am watching him. He takes a poker from the rack and scrawls in the ashes on the hearth. He returns the poker to the rack, straightens up, and looks toward me as he fades from sight.

I discover in the ashes he has drawn a series of hearts.

“Matters of the heart, of course,” I say. The lion, for all his authority, has missed the element that binds these three tales and all the others of its ilk together. It is the love these women hold for their husbands that sustains them through their quests.

Certainly it is not the theme of atonement that has made these stories among the most popular of the fairy tales, but rather it’s the story of true, pure love that attracts us.

Your thoughts.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part One

Enchanted Deer FordH J Ford

Lonely Supper

I had a lonely supper eaten in silence, built a fire in the hearth in a vain attempt to cheer myself, and now, with a glass of whiskey, watch an overcast February day fade away through my bay windows. Thalia and her mother are off visiting relatives in Glasgow.

My gloom is interrupted by Thalia’s black-haired fairy. She flutters close to my nose, giving me a most demanding frown. Fairies are a little like cats in nature. If they are unhappy about a thing, it’s your fault.

“What? Have I done something wrong?”

She buzzes over to my bookcase, hovering in front of a lilac-colored binding.

“Ah, Andrew Lang’s Lilac Fairy Book. I see.”

I take it down and shuffle to my comfy chair. I have come to suspect the fairy regularly listens to the stories I read to Thalia, perhaps hiding in Thalia’s pocket or in a dark corner of the study. But now, with Thalia gone, the fairy has to reveal herself and demand a story. She would have you know that fairy tales are not written about fairies, rather they are written for fairies.

I open the book to its table of contents. She alights on the page a moment, putting her foot on The Enchanted Deer, then flutters up to settle on my shoulder.

A young man, Ian, trades his mother’s cart horse for a gun, a dog, and a falcon. His widowed mother, her fisherman-husband having drowned at sea, beats her son for the trade. He leaves home to become a hunter.

A farmer asks Ian to kill a deer that has been raiding his fields, but when the youth aims his gun at the deer it turns into a beautiful woman. He follows her, in her deer form, to a cottage thatched with heather. The deer lies down on the roof of heather, calling out, “Go in, fisher’s son, and eat and drink while you may.”

This he does until the twenty-four thieves who live there come home and kill him.

Oh, I think to myself, should that not be the end of the story?

Of course not. Such things are of no inconvenience to the fairy tale.

In the morning the deer comes and shakes her earwax onto the body and the youth is restored.

See, I told you.

The process repeats itself, Ian being killed over and over again. Additionally, the captain of the thieves orders the deaths of his men who fail to kill the youth. This numbers game continues until there are no more thieves.

Next, the deer conducts the youth to a witch’s cottage to stay, and tells him to meet her in the nearby church the next midday. The witch implants a “spike of hurt” into the doorway of the church, which brushes against Ian when he enters, causing him to fall into a deep sleep. The witch’s dark son watches over him.

When Ian awakes, the dark son tells him of the visit of a princess and how she tried to wake him, but does not tell him of the witch’s subterfuge. Three times this happens. The dark son tells the youth that on the third night she declared she will never see him again, but does not tell Ian that she has written  her name, “The daughter of the king of the town under the waves,” on his side, nor of the beautifully-wrought box she put in his pocket.

Ian sets off to find her and comes across an old woman who knows who he is and of his quest. She sends him off to her sister, giving him magical shoes to make the distant journey. This happens the mandatory three times, the third sister having a son who is the keeper of the birds.

The keeper of the birds has the youth, still keeping his gun, climb into a sack made of cowhide, but the dog and falcon are left behind. The sack is carried off by an eagle who deposits him on an island where there is nothing to eat.

At this point Ian finds the box, while searching his pockets for food. Three small birds fly out of the opened box to grant him wishes. He wishes to be in the kingdom under the waves. Once there, he takes employment with a weaver. The weaver tells him of a horse race, the winner of which can claim the princess.

With the aid of the three birds in the box, he has the fastest horse, fine clothing, and glass shoes. He wins the race, but does not claim the bride. The race is run three times and he wins all, but still does not claim the princess.

The king then searches for the victor of the races. During the search they find Ian, but as he is dirty and ragged they do not recognize him, and it is decided he is worthy of death. While he is standing on the gallows, the princess spots the words she wrote on his side and claims him as her true husband.

The fairy, now contented, flitters off, her happy laughter sounding like softly-shattering glass.

I, in my discontent, re-read the story.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part Two

Enchanted Deer Ford2H J Ford

Surreptitious Listener

Another sly listener to the tales is Johannes. He often lingers in the study while I read to Thalia. Tonight, as I read to the fairy, he came in, curled up on the seat beneath the bay window, staring through the glass into the darkness.

“Johannes,” I call to him. “What do you think of Andrew Lang’s telling of this tale? I sense some interference on his part; the tale doesn’t quite hold together for me. Does he concede to some social norms of his day that cloud the tale?”

“Nora’s telling of the tale,” he replies.

“Pardon?”

“Lenora Blanche Lang, his wife, translated and edited the tales. The Color Books were her creation.”

“And how,” I asked, “do you know that?”

“I sat in Nora’s lap as she worked on them.”

“You were the Lang’s cat?” My surprise is sincere.

Johannes bristles. “I belong to no one. Nora was my lady, as Thalia is now my lady.”

Oops. I forgot. Johannes is a sith cat. “Accept my humble apology, but did Nora Lang change this tale to suit her audience?”

“Not much.” Johannes’s tail fur settles down. “Note her source at the end of the story.”

Sure enough, Popular Tales of the West Highlands.

“I have that.” It is one of the books Melissa talked me into purchasing. I never before broke its spine. It took me awhile to find the tale, now named The Widow’s son. 

I sit and read.

“Good grief,” I state when I finish.

Johannes gives me his best Cheshire grin.

The book’s author, J. F. Campbell, collected the story orally from two Scotsmen, Donald MacCraw and John MacPhie, their versions deviating substantially.

Campbell tries to make a coherent story out of the two versions without much success. Nora Lang tried to make some sense out of Campbell’s version, but, I feel, failed as well.

In MacCraw’s version, when the princess visits Ian in the church, on the first day, she is dressed in white, coming in a chariot drawn by four white horses. On the second day the color scheme is grey, and on the third, black. Why did Campbell and Lang both omit that harmless detail?

As Campbell wrote his version, when it came to the races for the princess’s hand in marriage, the first contest was a horse race, the second a dog race, and the third a falcon race. Ian, however, does not enter the original dog or falcon into the races, but rather ones given to him by the three birds in the box, which Campbell describes as a snuffbox.

MacCraw’s version skips the three old sisters, and goes directly to an old man herding a cow. Ian buys the cow, puts himself into the cow hide and has himself thrown into the sea. Eagles pick him up and carry him to their nest where Ian kills their fledglings, after which they carry him off to the kingdom under the sea.

“Why would they do that?” I ask Johannes. His Cheshire grin widens.

The discrepancies among the versions accorded to Nora Lang, John MacPhie, and Donald MacCraw’s go even further; MacCraw said Ian got the box, not from the princess, but from his grandfather, and the “he” within the box granted the wishes. After Ian is recognized by the princess, with the aid of the box, Ian creates a castle for them. A rival steals the snuffbox and carries the princess and the castle off to the realm of the rats.

Ian is helped by an old man, who gives him a magical boat and a cat. The cat, who I can’t help but suspect is Johannes, catches a rat, and on pain of death, convinces it to steal back the snuff box. Order is restored, and the proper marriage between Ian and the princess takes place.

What goes to my heart and stirs it with a sense of longing, is Campbell’s description of his conversation with MacCraw on a long walk in North Uist. MacCraw told him, during their ramble, that he heard the story from an old woman, and how he and other “bairns” would walk miles to her cabin, even in the snow, with offerings of tobacco, procured from elders, to bribe her to tell them the tales.

MacCraw confessed to having forgotten much of the story, particularly the “measured prose phrases” that garnished the tale.

What came to MacCraw’s ears, but not from his mouth, that we shall never hear?

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part Three

Enchanted Deer Ford3H J Ford

Unclaimed Bride

“Johannes,” I say, “there is much about this story that is curious. For one, there is the ‘mirror reflection’ of Ian and his mother, the witch and her dark son, and the third sister and her son, the keeper of the birds—so very fatherless. The actual fathers of these sons do not appear in the story. I wonder if a father has ever been the hero of a fairy tale.

“Then there is our hero, Ian, uniformly addressed as the fisher’s son. In fact, in Campbell’s version, one of the old women calls him son of the great fisher of Ireland. Would that not be the Fisher King of the Arthurian tales? Would that not put a different cast to the story?

“Also, there is the peculiar request of Ian to the three birds. When he needs to take part in the horse race, he asks, of course, for the fastest horse, fine clothing, and then for glass shoes. Glass shoes have no practicality in a horse race. Is this an allusion to Cinderella?

“Let us not even try to consider the healing properties of deer earwax.

“What bothered me the most, while reading this tale, is the motif I have encountered before, but here it is again. In this motif, the hero arises to defend, or vie for, the princess. It is always a princess in contention. The encounter or conflict will happen three times. At the start of each event, the hero prepares himself with the help of magic. At the end of each event the hero retires and assumes a humble position, not taking advantage of his victory.

“He has every right,” I blather on, “to claim the princess, and that is his goal, but he, inexplicable, does not claim her. Another event needs to occur before he will come forward, be drawn out, or be discovered.

“Why,” I ask, “is the hero working against himself?”

“Because,” answers Johannes smugly, “He must.”

“Why?” I plead.

“Ah, that is harder to answer,” Johannes admits. “The journey in the story is travail. The resolution cannot be easy and quick.  But more importantly, the hero in the story is not just a character, the hero is the listener. The tale is guiding the listener to a conclusion.”

“And what is that conclusion?” I ask.

“The conclusion is a bit ephemeral.” Johannes scratched his ear with a hind leg. “There is no sound logic in the answer; rather the answer is an intuitive one.

“Before the hero defends or vies for the princess, there is a history. The hero, at least, has fallen in love with the princess. Often in this motif, as with this tale, they have touched each other before.

“To win a race, kill a seven-headed dragon, or whatever, and then claim the princess, would be a cheap trick, a convenience. Our hero cannot purchase his bride. In this motif, she must claim him, or he must come forward and reveal himself, to save her from a further deception by a dishonest rival.

“The listener, as hero, be they male or female, want the full satisfaction of true love, and not the result of a good bargain. While a worthy fairy tale ends well, the path to that good end must never feel certain.”

“The listener as hero?” I muse. “That the listener identifies themselves with the tale is the usual course.”

“To a degree,” corrects Johannes. “Some motifs invite you to be an observer. Other motifs demand you participate. How and when that happens is the ephemeral part. If we knew how a fairy tale would affect us—all of literature for that matter—we would stop reading and listening. We, who are intelligent, crave the unexpected and the inexplicable.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part One

iron stove fordH. J. Ford

Museum Ramble

“I want the fish and chips, but not sure about the peas,” Thalia decides, holding the children’s menu of the Great Court Restaurant in her hands.

The restaurant sits atop the old Reading Room here at the British Museum and looks out over the courtyard. Above us, radiating upward and outward—and rather amazingly—is a glass awning. We almost feel as if we are at an outdoor café with a glass bubble fending off the January weather.

Melissa, Thalia, and I spent the morning rambling through a small section of the Museum’s Greek antiquities collection. We covered as much of it as we could until our eyes glazed over. Melissa became transfixed before a terracotta bust of Cupid and Psyche embracing. I pried her away with the promise of lunch.

“Wild mushroom-pearl barley risotto?” Melissa muses. I am going for the braised duck leg. It comes with a caramelized quince.

Melissa glances up from her menu. “I’m working on an article concerning Cupid and Psyche.”

“I see, hence your enchantment with the bust. What happened to your magical guidebook for tourists?”

“In progress, but I need a diversion now and again.”

“And the premise of your article?”

“That Lucius Apuleius’s story of Cupid and Psyche has had an inexplicable influence on fairy tales.”

“Such as Beauty and the Beast,” I interject.

“That is the boring example everyone uses. For my article I am using Grimms’ The Iron Stove.

“I have read that,” I say, “but not for some time. Remind me.”

Thalia’s ears prick up as Melissa launches into the tale.

A prince, through a witch’s curse, is trapped inside an iron stove sitting in a forest. A princess, lost in the forest for many days, comes across the stove, who/which offers to help her if she will marry him/it. Not pleased with the idea of marrying a stove, but desperate to escape the forest, she agrees.

The stove provides an escort out of the forest and she is to return with a knife to scrape a hole in the stove.

“What’s an escort?” Thalia frowns.

“A sort of guide.” Melissa says.

“How much staff does an iron stove sitting in the middle of a forest have?” I wonder aloud.

“The story doesn’t say,” Melissa grins.

Not wanting a marriage to the stove, the princess and her father conspire to send the miller’s daughter in her place. The miller’s daughter is not able to bore a hole in the iron stove and by dawn the stove discovers she is not the princess. Next, the princess and the king send the swineherd’s daughter with the same result. Only, this time, the stove threatens to not let one stone stand atop another in the kingdom if the princess does not come.

The princess can easily bore a hole in the iron stove and out comes a handsome prince. He wants to carry her off to his kingdom, but she asks to see her father one more time. This is granted, but she cannot speak more than three words to him. Of course she does speak more than three words, and the prince and the iron stove are carried off over glass mountains, sharp swords, and a great lake.

Searching for her lost prince, the princess comes across a cottage inhabited by toads, who host her for the evening. In the morning, the head toad gives her the needed magical devices: three needles to climb the glass mountains, a plow wheel to run over the swords, and three nuts containing fabulous dresses. With these, she travels until she comes to a great castle.

“Wait,” says Thalia. “How did she get across the lake.”

“She sailed.”

“In what?”

“The story doesn’t say.”

Thalia mugs a sad face.

The prince is there and about to marry a false bride. The princess bribes the false bride with the three dresses in order to be allowed to sleep in the prince’s room for three nights. On the first two nights the false bride drugs the prince’s wine, but by the third night the prince is on to the scheme and is able to claim his true bride.

They escape by taking the false bride’s three dresses so that she cannot get up.

“Take her dresses so she can’t get up?” My turn to frown.

“That’s how the story explains it,” Melissa replies.

They return to the toad cottage, which is now a castle filled with princes and princesses; the marriage takes place; and the bride’s father is brought to live with them.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part Two

cupid and psyche one Cupid and Psyche, Terracotta, British Museum

Psyche’s Marriage

Our meals arrive, along with Thalia’s babyccino, and silence descends upon our repast for a bit.

“What does the princess have to do with Psyche?” Thalia asks, raising her head from her fish and chips.

Melissa turns her attention from her risotto to her glass of Monastrell, answering, “In a couple of ways.”

After a sip, she says, “In the Cupid and Psyche story, her sisters, when Cupid permits them to visit, ill-advise her to discover the true nature of her mysterious husband. When she does, he must flee. In The Iron Stove, the princess is granted a visit to her family, but cannot speak more than three words. When she does speak more, her husband disappears. In both cases, the heroine must search for her lost husband because of family interference.

“Other elements from Lucius Apuleius’s story are mirrored in our tale. Psyche is aided by some of the gods and goddess, after Psyche offended the goddess Venus, Cupid’s mother. In The Iron Stove, the princess is aided by the family of toads, who supply her with magical devices.

“Both Psyche and the princess go through travail and tests before they can reclaim their husbands.”

I see Thalia begin to fidget and peer up at the glass awning. Melissa’s eyes slide toward me.

“Both stories culminate in a marriage ceremony. I must ask myself, is Cupid and Psyche’s marriage the origin of the fairy-tale obsession with marriage?”

I see Thalia wander from her seat toward the railing overlooking the courtyard. My knee jerks.

“Don’t fall over.”

“I won’t,” she calls back.

We doting grandfathers have so little authority.

“If I am right,” Melissa goes on, oblivious to our charge about to fall into oblivion, “the familiar visits, disappearing husbands, divine or magical helpers, and the culminating marriage are not the only motifs taken from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, in which the Cupid and Psyche story appears.

“The sisters of this tale, working against the heroine, appear in many fairy tales. The princess exposed, abandoned, sacrificed to a dragon—usually on a rocky crag—appears here. Being attended to and entertained by unseen servants, as well as the nightly visits by an unseen husband, come from this story. The heroine falling into a death-like sleep and being awakened by her lover is here. So are the tasks, imposed by Venus in this tale and often the stepmother in the fairy tales, which the heroine must overcome. Especially the one about Venus throwing before Psyche a mass of mixed wheat, barley, poppyseed, chickpeas, lentils, and beans, demanding that she sort them into separate heaps before morning .It is the ants that take pity on her and do the sorting. In the fairy tales, if there are three tasks, the sorting of the seeds is one of them.”

To my relief, Thalia wanders back to finish her babyccino.

As my blood pressure drops, I ask Melissa, “Marriage, you were saying something about marriage.”

Melissa smiles at me, glancing at Thalia sipping her drink. “I am trying to make the argument that a surprising number of fairy-tale motifs, including the marriage-at-the-end come from the Cupid and Psyche story.

“But here is the real surprise. Metamorphoses was written in the second century, then fell out of popularity. By the end of the Dark Ages there appears to be only one copy left.

“Along comes the Renaissance with its intellectuals keen on rediscovering ancient works, Metamorphoses among them. And, guess what, along with the Renaissance comes the printing press. Now there are many, many copies of Metamorphoses.

“Are you suggesting,” I say, “that after the Cupid and Psyche story is being read by the literate that it trickles down to the illiterate storytellers to populate their imagination?”

“Exactly.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part Three

iron stove tenniel white rabbit Sir  John Tenniel

Time Enough

After lunch and some recovery of our senses, we decide to test our senses’ limits again with a visit to the medieval collection in Room 40. While Thalia jumps from display to display, Melissa and I linger to admire the room’s most notable possession, the Royal Gold Cup.

“Is The Iron Stove,” I ask, my mind returning to our discussion, “simply another version of the Cupid and Psyche tale?”

“Certainly not. Fairy tales are a patchwork of many motifs, and not all of them are of Greek origin. But these motifs of Greek origin and their articles, such as the golden apples of so many tales, are never given a hint of attribution. I am not aware of a single Greek god or goddess appearing in a fairy tale for all that has been borrowed from their mythology. I might conjecture the old storytellers very well knew they stole from the Greeks and were hiding the crime.”

Through a doorway I spot a room full of clocks and watches. Melissa and Thalia follow me as though I were the White Rabbit late for a date. The elaborate, exposed mechanism of a device labeled the Cassiobury Park turret clock (1610), which approaches Rube Goldberg status, holds my visual attention as my thoughts again return to Melissa’s topic.

“What are the non-Cupid and Psyche motifs in The Iron Stove?”

“The toad family in the cottage, for one. I don’t know of any toads in Greek mythology. There are a few people turned into frogs among the Greeks, but no toads.”

“Frogs, toads, aren’t they the same?” I ask, still studying the wheels, levers, and cables of the clock.

“Oh, what a city-boy you are! No, toads, while in the frog family, are terrestrial creatures. Frogs live in the water. And the fairy tales treat them that way. Frogs are associated with wells and are loners by the way, while toads are on land, coming in groups, living in cottages, dwelling underground, or coming out of people’s mouths.”

I wander over to a wall display of pocket watches. I want them all. “Other non-Greek motifs?” I ask. I really want the gold pendulum watch for my own.

“The origin of the three dresses in the nuts, I assume, is European, most likely Northern Europe. The southern climes tend toward simple dress. The ancient Greeks wore very functional garments. It’s the Northern Europeans who got obsessed with elaborate costumes to show their wealth and power.”

Thalia is by my side oohing over the watches. High art—painting and sculpture—is fine, but here is functional art one can put in a pocket.

“In closing,” Melissa tries to get my attention, “a third motif, not in Greek mythology’s lexicon, is the attempt to substitute lower-born women for a princess. This is a common trick in the tales, sometimes with dire consequences for the lowborn. They don’t always just get sent home.

“Similarly, the gods and goddesses are not concerned with the true bride and the false bride. Psyche struggles to be allowed to marry Cupid over Venus’s objections, but there is no false bride for Cupid. Substitution, as an attempt to escape an obligation or reroute a marriage, may be a Western concept.”

Oh, how would that musical chamber clock look and sound in my study?

Your thoughts?

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2018 Salt – Part One

Salt Ivan Bilibin Ivan Bilibin

At Sea

It is the evening of Christmas Day, actually past midnight, making it Boxing Day. Aromas from the kitchen tell me my house brownie has put the shortbread cookies in the oven, cookies that I will take around to friends and family in the morning.

Earlier, Thalia came into my study for her bedtime story. She made me re-read The Night Before Christmas, which we had read the night before on Christmas Eve, followed by the Grimm story of her choice. She then trundled off to bed dragging Teddy behind her.

I tap out my pipe, determined to get myself to bed also, when the fairy flies into the study. Followed by Johannes the cat, and, to my surprise, the brownie. I rarely see the brownie. He stays in the shadow of the study, but still, he is here. Johannes jumps to the window seat as the fairy flutters to my bookcase, pointing her delicate finger at Russian Fairy Tales by Aleksandt Afanas’ev, turning her demanding glare at me.

I place the volume on the table, propping it up against other books, and open it to the table of contents. The fairy points to a tale called Salt. I turn the pages to the story. The fairy settles in front of the page and I take to my comfy chair.

The fairy’s voice is small, but not piping, rather a pleasant contralto. The brownie creeps closer to hear. Johannes stares out the window, but I know he is listening.

There was a merchant who had three sons. The eldest two helped their father with his business, while the youngest, named Ivan, conducted his business at alehouses and inns.

Graciously, the father gave to each of his eldest sons a ship with valuable merchandise for them to sail off to foreign lands to try their hand at selling and trading.

When Ivan heard this, he asked for the same benefit. Distrusting this son, the merchant gave him a ship with only beams, boards, and planks as cargo. Nonetheless the youngest son set out. He caught up with his brothers for a short time, but in a storm he was separated from them, and ended up at an unknown island. With a little exploring he found a salt mine. The beams, boards, and planks were thrown into the sea and the ship filled with salt.

Thalia’s fairy flutters up, pulls the page over and settles back down to continue.

“After some time,” the fairy reads, “a long time or a short time, and after they had sailed some distance, a great distance or a short one, the ship approached a large and wealthy city.”

Ivan went to the king to ask permission to trade and sell. The king inquired of Ivan’s wares and the youth presented his salt. Never having seen salt, the king thought it sand. Realizing that these people ate their meals without salt, Ivan hung around the kitchen, sneaking salt into the food being prepared.

Amazed at the meal presented to him that evening, the king called for the cooks. They had no explanation but that Ivan was hanging about the kitchen. Ivan “confessed” his trick and the king bought Ivan’s shipment at a good price.

The princess of the kingdom asked leave of her father to visit this Russian merchant’s ship, which brought such a wonder. When she was on board, Ivan’s crew weighed anchor. Finding herself abducted, the princess was of course upset, but the handsome Ivan soothed her and she relented.

Ivan’s brothers caught up with him, seized his money, abducted the abducted princess, and threw Ivan overboard. However, fortune did not abandon Ivan, and he found and hung onto one of the very boards he had cast into the sea. It carried him to another unknown island where a giant lived. The giant, knowing that the princess was about to be married to Ivan’s eldest brother, offered to carry Ivan home, provided he tell no one about the giant.

Ivan walked into the wedding meal before the service, the princess threw her arms around his neck, and declared him the true husband.

At the wedding feast after Ivan and the princess’s marriage, as Ivan and the guests got drunk and started boasting, he told of the giant. The giant appeared and threatened Ivan, who declared it was not he who told of the giant, but his drunkenness. The giant did not know about drunkenness. Ivan called for a hundred-gallon barrel of beer and a hundred-gallon barrel of wine. The giant, unfortunately, was a mean drunk, and did a good bit of damage before falling asleep for three days.

Upon awakening, the giant stated, “Well Ivan, son of the merchant, now I know what drunkenness is. Henceforth you may boast about me all you like.”

As the story ends, I look about me and this little assembly of fey folk. I am happy they include me in their company.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2018 Salt – Part Two

Salt 1900 Ivan Ivan Bilibin

Those Russians

“A fairy tale that ends in drunkenness?” Duckworth expresses shock.

“Well, it is Russian,” I say, after relating the tale to him, but not saying a fairy told it to me. Duckworth already nibbles on the shortbread I brought to his home office.

“Let me get this straight,” he says. “A young wastrel talks his less-than-confident father into giving him a ship. He lucks upon a deposit of salt, which he sells to a king, introducing hypertension to an otherwise healthy people. Then he has the effrontery to kidnap the king’s daughter and charm her into submission?”

I listen to Duckworth’s rant while admiring the bobbleheads on his desk of Queen Elizabeth and the royal couple of William and Kate.

“Then,” he continues, “members of his dysfunctional family steal his money, take the kidnapped princess, and toss him into the drink.

“Happenchance saves him and a giant, for no good reason, offers him a free ride home. He crashes the wedding, steals the bride, who opts for her initial kidnapper as opposed to her secondary kidnapper who also practices fratricide, a choice that is certainly the lesser of two evils.

“This then is followed by the protagonist not keeping his promise to the giant. He deals with the crisis by getting the giant really, really drunk. A hundred gallons of beer and a hundred gallons of wine? My word!

“When the giant comes around, I am sure with a giant hangover, his moral basis appears to have shifted and he lets the wastrel get away with his broken promise.

“Is there supposed to be a moral in this?”

“No,” I say. “I told you, it’s Russian.”

Duckworth shakes his head and nibbles on another cookie.

“At every turn,” he complains, “the protagonist takes advantage of his situation. He talks his father into giving him a ship, chances upon the salt mine, finds a kingdom without salt, kidnaps a princess, manages to survive his brothers’ aggression, reclaims his bride, and tricks the giant. He never helps anyone else; it’s all about him. Say, what happened to the brothers when their crime was revealed?”

“Their father threw them out of the house.”

“They got off easy as well, for attempted murder. No, I find no quality in this ‘hero’ to which I can relate or use as a guidepost. Nor is there any other aspect in this story that is redeeming. Are the other Russian tales like this?”

“Well, of the few I have read, I saw a pattern of their being more for the entertainment of the tavern crowd than as cautionary tales for the young.”

“Then it is no surprise they are not as popular as the Grimm tales. At least in Grimm, evil is destroyed—if a bit too violently—rather than being rewarded, as in this case.”

“I’m not sure I see Ivan as evil,” I defend. “I’ll agree to him being self-centered, but aren’t most of us? In that we can identify with Ivan.”

“Self-centered,” Duckworth echoes. “Well, you have a point. I, for example, don’t intend to share these shortbreads with anyone else. No, wait. That may simply be pure greed.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2018 Salt – Part Three

Salt Tapisserie_bato1  Bayeux Tapestry

Vikings All

“A fairy tale that ends in drunkenness? How delightful.” Augustus lights his pipe.

“Duckworth took a dimmer view of the story,” I say.

“Well, he’s young and moral, not a bad place to start from, but we should get jaded and flexible as we get along in age.”

We sit in his testing room, I sampling the ounce of his newest blend, Winter’s Eve, which he has given me, as he guards his box of shortbreads.

“But let me argue,” Augustus continues, “that Ivan may have ventured to unknown islands, but the Russians have nothing on us, here on our own little British islands, when it comes to the realm of absurdities.”

I recognize a strained segue. “You have something in mind?”

“Have you heard of Up Helly Aa?”

“Only in passing.”

“Up Helly Aa,” he goes on, “is a recently-invented tradition, created in an attempt to replace ‘tar barreling.’ ”

“Stop,” I say. “Explain tar barreling for me first.”

“It’s a practice with an uneven history. In the Shetland Islands, during Yuletide—more or less the twelve days of Christmas—young drunken men would drag a flaming barrel of tar on a sledge through towns and villages, and—as the source I read obliquely stated—caused mischief.

”In the late nineteenth century, the fun was outlawed in the Shetlands, but remains in practice elsewhere, notably in Ottery St Mary near Devon, at the other end of the UK. In this iteration it is associated with Guy Fawkes Day in November, and it occurred to the good people of Ottery St Mary to carry the flaming tar barrels around on their heads. This ancient tradition has been jeopardized by the rising need for public liability insurance, yet it persists.”

“I see,” I say, tapping out my pipe and refilling it. What is the flavoring in this tobacco? “And Up Helly Aa?”

“It is part of the Shetlands’ identity, the largest gathering being in the port town of Lerwick. After wisely abolishing tar barreling, the responsible Shetlanders knew they would need to find a replacement and substituted a torchlight parade. That was around 1876.

For a little more than two decades that was fine until someone got the grand idea to add a Viking element to the celebration. Now, on the last Tuesday of January, everyone in Lerwick becomes a Viking, which is not a stretch because most of them are of Viking blood. The entire year previous is spent in preparation. There are many ‘squads’ involved—think ‘clubs’—who each year decide on a theme, design costumes, and create mumming skits to perform.”

“Wait,” I say. “That sounds very much like the American’s Philadelphia Mummer’s Parade.

“Yes, rather, but with some differences. There is a Grand Jarl elected, who officiates. His followers are called guizers. The event goes on all day, starting with communal breakfasts, visits by the squads to all kinds of local institutions to perform their skits, then gathering at sunset in a torchlight parade, during which they drag through Lerwick a complete replica of a Viking longboat constructed for the occasion by local shipwrights. It is taken to the edge of town, surrounded by the torch-bearing guizers—up to a thousand of them—who throw their torches into the longboat, and sing the traditional Up Helly Aa song while the longboat bursts into flame.”

“Must be an impressive sight,” I muse. “But why do you bring this up in reference to Russian folktales?”

“Oh,” Augustus replies, puffing on his pipe, “after the ceremony everyone goes off to official or unofficial parties, or bars and taverns, and gets really, really drunk.”

“Of course, why did I not see that coming? Oh, wait. Peppermint, you’ve flavored the tobacco with peppermint!”

Augustus smiles.

Will absurdities never end?

Your thoughts?