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

Wren three Dugald Stewart Walker2 Dugald Stewart Walker

Afternoon Tea

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

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

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

“Of course,” Melissa comments with solemnness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wren two Jack Yeats Jack Yeats

About Wrens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa pauses for a moment.

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

Although he was little his honour was great,

Jump up me lads and give him a treat.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

And give us a penny to bury the wren.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wren one Gold Crested Wren

Encyclopedia Augustus

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

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

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

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

“Greek.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Augustus scans for a moment.

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

Augustus scans some more.

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

 

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

True Bride Feathers Rebecca from flickr

Wilhelm Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cool,” says Thalia.

The fairy and Wilhelm sigh in contentment.

 

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

True bride Castle Cawdor Castle – postcard  by Bert Towle

Fairy Companion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love fathers and mothers,

and all sorts of others.

But the steps. Oh the steps.

Satanic to their depths.”

I am charmed as she settles back on my shoulder.

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

My companion leaps up again radiating indignation.

“Fairies, fairies, not so contrary,

be we big or small as berries.

We will help you, my mortal being,

but tag us not with godly naming.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To do the task,

of which you’re asked,

will show your soul

to be as gold.”

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

 

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

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

Wandering Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is that fairy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thalia’s fairy reappears.

“Before your heart flees from your breast,

per demons released by sunset,

let us depart with a good fart,

to let night know we are stalwart.”

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

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part One

seahare image color2 Anonymous

A What?

It is a joy to me when Melissa visits my study. Not only is there her companionship, but also the duty of the evening read is transferred when Thalia and Teddy crawl into her lap. Not that I mind reading to my granddaughter, but I like being read to as well. I cradle my glass of wine in my hands and settle in for a story.

Thalia, ritualistically, closes her eyes and circles her finger above the book’s table of contents, stabbing it down impulsively.

“Didn’t you read that one last night?” asks Melissa.

The finger circles again and strikes.

The Sea-Hare,says Melissa. “I’m not sure even I have read this one. ‘Once upon a time there was a king’s daughter . . .’”

And, as so often happens, she did not want to marry. Being a princess, she could set her conditions for marriage. She declared she would marry no one but the man who could hide from her and not be found.

That sounded easy enough, but at the start of the story, the heads of ninety-seven suitors found their way to the tops of pikes for the failure of their owners.

The princess had at her disposal a magical device in the form of a tower at the top of which was a rotunda with twelve windows that looked out across her realm. From the first window she could see everything more clearly than any person looking out their own window. From the second window she could see more clearly yet, and so on until from the twelfth window she could see everything above and beneath the earth.

Enter the three brothers to be her suitors. Starting with the eldest, followed by the second, the princess need only go to the first window to find the eldest hiding in a lime pit and the second in the castle basement.

The youngest requests a day of grace to reflect and three chances to hide. The princess in her confidence, grants his request. The next day, he reflects by going out hunting and, in the spirit of granting requests, refrains from shooting three creatures: a raven, a fish, and a fox.

As I sip my wine, it crosses my mind that these creatures are of the air, water, and earth.

On the first day of hiding, the young man goes to the raven, who hides him in its egg. The princess is at the eleventh window before she finds him. The raven is shot and the egg retrieved.

On the second day, the young man seeks out the fish, who swallows him and swims to the bottom of a lake. The princess is at the twelfth window before she spots the young man, sealing the fish’s fate.

On the third day he goes to the fox, who is up to the task. By dipping themselves into a spring, the fox is transformed into a merchant and the young man into a pretty little sea-hare. They go into the town market where the sea-hare attracts much attention until notice of it comes to the princess, who buys the little creature from the merchant. The fox/merchant tells the young man to creep into the princess’s braids before she goes into the tower of the twelve windows.

The twelfth window fails her and in rage she slams the window shut so violently all twelve windows shatter. At that moment she discovers the sea-hare hiding in her braids and, still angry, chases it from the room.

Soon the young man returns in his true form and they are married, the princess holding him in respect, thinking to herself, he did in fact outwit her.

“Sea-hare?” Thalia stares at Melissa.

“As far as I know,” Melissa is doubtful, “it’s a sea slug.”

“I . . . don’t . . . think . . . so,” Thalia replies with evident seriousness.

“I’ll ask Augustus,” I assure them.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part Two

Seahare image two Cartoon from the French Revolution

Lake Bunny?

I know Augustus’s tobacco shop is not of the same order as Miss Cox’s garden or the Magic Forest, but for me there is a sense of the magical in its air, or is it simply the dense, blue smoke of tobacco?

There is already a gentleman in the testing room, ensconced in one of the comfy chairs, as Augustus and I enter, an engaging fellow, slim, with a mustache greyer than the hair on his head. Augustus gestures to the pipe of Fairies’ Delight he is sampling.

“You approve?”

The gentleman nods his consent.

“Mr. Richard Martin here is another of my fairy-tale aficionados. We may speak freely.”

I introduce myself and we settle in.

“And what is the story of contention today?” Augustus reaches for the pipe tool, handing it to me.

The Sea-Hare.” I tamp down my tobacco.

Ah, Das Meerhäschen,” says Richard. “A latecomer to the Grimm canon. It turns up in the last edition.”

“What bothers me,” I say, lighting my pipe, “is the intrusion of an ink-spewing sea slug into the middle of a fairy tale.”

Richard laughs. “Nothing of the sort. Wilhelm borrowed this story from a book of Transylvanian Saxon folktales—putting a few of his own touches on it. ‘Meerhäschen’ simply appears to be the Saxon word for ‘rabbit.’ ”

“Still,” says Augustus, “there is the ‘meer’ part of the name.”

“Well, yes,” Richard relights his pipe, “meaning ‘sea’ or ‘lake,’ and ‘häschen’ is a little or young hare.”

“I agree the creature is not a sea snail.” Augustus raises his finger in pronouncement. “Jack Zipes preferred ‘little hamster’ in his translation. But, note, the creature caused something of a stir in the marketplace, enough to bring the princess’s attention to it, as the fox planned. The creature is unusual. I am thinking it is more along the lines of a composite creature, like the American jackalope.”

“The Germans have those creatures too,” says Richard, “but then the word would be ‘Wolpertinger.’ ”

This man knows his German.

“My vote,” he continues, “is for the guinea pig.”

“Isn’t that a South American critter?” I say between puffs of smoke.

“The conquistadors brought it back from Peru in the sixteenth century, which confirms Augustus’s notion the creature was unusual, a novelty the princess could not resist, showing us a softer side to this otherwise cold-blooded young woman, and perhaps dating this section of the story. The sea-hare just might mean ‘the rabbit from over the sea.’”

Augustus frowns a little. He does not like his pet theories abolished.

“My favorite part though,” Richard goes on, “is the twelve windows. What an image. I see the windows as an intimidating extension of her domineering personality, and the number twelve shows her frightening omnipotence over everything.”

“Not a common motif,” remarks Augustus. “Certainly the number twelve is common in the tales: The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Twelve Huntsmen, The Twelve Brothers, The Twelve Lazy Servants. But these stories have to do with twelve persons, not objects, almost shadowing the twelve apostles.”

Richard considers. “There is a Slavic tale of the twelve months, but even they are personified. On the whole, I think you’re right.”

“I took note,” I say, “of the hundred pikes with ninety-nine heads on them. This is lifted out of the Celtic tales. The Celts were fond of severed heads, not just as a means of killing someone—as the French were—but also as objects for display, even treasured objects, one might say.”

“I am concerned,” concludes Augustus, “that the twelve windows have no motif-history, the heads on pikes are borrowed, and we do get into the princess’s thought processes—a literary convention. Given these flags, I believe, quite honestly, this story is not a traditional fairy tale. I get the sense it has been tampered with a bit too much.”

Richard and I nod sagely.

Fairy Tales of the Month: April 2017 The Sea-Hare – Part Three

Seahare fairy and frog Ida R. Outwaite

Still Water

Melissa and I, poised on the rock rim above the nixie’s pond, continue to stare into the dark of the water. I call again.

“Hello, my nixie.” I rattle my bag of popcorn. Nixie bait, Melissa calls it.

The water is impossibly smooth, reflecting the moon so clearly I think it floats under the surface of the pond.

“I guess,” I whisper, “we’ll not get an answer from her about magical springs turning foxes into merchants and young men into meerhäschens.”

“That’s alright,” Melissa’s voice is soft. “It’s not the question that’s been rolling around my mind.”

“What is your question?”

“It’s, you might say, about the missing persons.”

“Come again?”

“This story, the Sea-Hare, is full of missing persons.”

“Who?”

“Well, to start, the king.”

“He’s not in the story.”
“Exactly. Yet the story starts, ‘Once upon a time there was a king’s daughter . . . .’ Throughout the story she is referred to as the princess. Logically, if her father, the king, is dead, and there are no siblings mentioned, she should be queen. But she remains a princess, inferring the father is around, but he has gone missing.”

“I take your point.” I glance at the motionless water. “Many times the stories start with a father figure who quickly disappears without explanation.”

Melissa tilts her head. “Apparently her mother is missing as well. That’s a little unusual. The girl seems parentless.

“Then,” she continues, “there are the two brothers.”

“What? They are accounted for. Their heads top off pikes ninety-eight and ninety-nine.”

“Yes and no. Their younger brother acts as if they never existed. Consider, he pursues and marries the woman who caused his brothers’ deaths, with never a suggestion of retribution. Our hero now lives in a castle on the grounds of which are ninety-nine rotting heads, two of which are his brothers, and no word of a decent burial. The Greeks would never have put up with that.”

It crosses my mind she and I are talking in hushed tones. One would think we are conspirators.

“You are trying,” I suggest, “to apply literary plot concerns to traditional tales.”

“No, no. I am not criticizing the tale’s structure. I am talking about me, the one experiencing the story. Sorry, but I have been thinking about this all day.”

“Ah,” I realize, “another slow day at the bookshop.”

Melissa gives me her sad smile. “There are days I don’t know if I am a proprietor or a hermit, but it does give me time to think, and today’s thought was: Why did I, upon first encountering this story, accept the ninety-seven heads as so much decoration, not question the king or queen’s whereabouts, and thoughtlessly kick aside the two brothers, in order to follow the hero. What is the mechanism of the fairy tale that allows me to be so unconcerned and heartless for the other characters?”

“That has bothered me as well, especially when reading the tales to Thalia. Am I subliminally passing on attitudes of insensitivity and heartlessness? I have decided I am not.

“I think of it as the fairy-tale spotlight. Like on a stage—In my imagination, a musical—there may be other characters, dancers, stage settings, not to mention the orchestra and audience. But when the spotlight hits the lead, all else falls away, and should. Fairy tales do not try to depict the world; they illuminate one thought.”

Melissa’s eyes blink slowly. I believe she is content with that. I turn my attention back to the pond.

“I’m sorry she didn’t show.”

“It’s alright. I like being here.” She peers off into the darkness. “I feel I should belong in this place. Is it sacred ground?”

“Perhaps,” I comfort. “Have some popcorn.”

Your thoughts?

PS. My thanks to Richard for his help with translating the title.

 

Fairly Tale of the Month: January 2017 The Clever Farmer’s Daughter – Part One

clever-farmers-daughrter-two

A January Evening

I stoke up the logs in the fireplace and add another as I hear Thalia padding down the hall toward my study. I have moved the comfy chair a little closer to the hearth, fending off the damp of a cold January night. I settle into the chair and watch Thalia push the study door wide open. She ambles in wearing her bathrobe over her flannel nightgown for warmth.

She tosses Teddy into my lap, climbs up—clutching my belt with her free hand, the other burdened with her dog-eared copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, wiggling her butt until she is squished between me and the stuffed arm of the chair—exchanges the book for Teddy, opening the tome in my lap to the table of contents, giving it serious consideration until pointing her finger to the title The Clever Farmer’s Daughterall this without uttering a word or sentence to which one could put a period, very much like this paragraph.

In the story, a poor widowed farmer, at his daughter’s suggestion, petitions the king for a small holding. The king grants the request, and the farmer and his daughter begin to clear the land. They find a golden mortar, and the farmer decides they will give it to the king as a thank-you gift. The daughter advises against it since they don’t have the pestle.

Her father does not listen, but, as the daughter predicted, the king is insulted at receiving half a gift and throws the farmer into the dungeon. The despondent farmer will not eat or drink, lamenting loudly, “If only I had listened to my daughter!” over and over again until he is brought back to the king to find out what his daughter had said.

When the king hears she predicted that, if given the mortar, he would want the pestle as well, he declares he will marry this clever daughter, if she can come to him neither clothed nor naked, neither on the road or off it, and not by walking, riding, or in a coach.

The daughter comes to him wrapped in a fishing net, dragged by a donkey along the side of the road, fulfilling all of the king’s conditions.

“Cool,” says Thalia, who is holding Teddy upside down for an inexplicable reason.

True to his word, the king marries her and the farmer is released from prison. The king and his new queen are quite happy until one day the king makes an unfair and unwise judgment, which his queen shames him into reversing.

Furious, the king throws her out of the castle, but not before she extracts from him the promise she can take with her a thing that is most dear to her.

The next morning the king wakes up to find that, after being drugged, he was kidnapped and taken to the farm of his queen’s father. She explains to him that he is the thing most dear to her, and so she took him.

Thalia giggles. There is no higher compliment.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2017 The Clever Farmer’s Daughter – Part Two

clever-farmers-daughrter-three Illustration dated 1877

It’s Cold

The clouds hover over us as we walk in the shelter of Tom Quad. I am sure they nearly touch the steeple of Christ Church Cathedral. My hands are gloved, but still I keep them thrust into my pockets. Duckworth and I are determined to get some exercise, pitting ourselves against the January elements.

“What,” Duckworth asks, proposing a topic for our stroll, “is the role of women in fairy tales?”

He knows my preoccupation with the subject of fairy tales and I appreciate his pandering to my desires. Silence follows as I gather my thoughts.

“The role of women in fairy tales,” I echo, “is complex.”

More silence follows.

“You’re not going to leave it at that are you?”

“I probably should, and not get myself into trouble, but, no, I’m thinking.”

“Quite.”

“I’ll start with the negatives and get them out of the way. I am referring to witches, hen wives, and evil queens.  They are less about women and more about archetypes.”

A gust of wind comes through the archway of Tom Tower as we pass by, causing us to put our heads down and push forward.

“Witches, hen wives, and evil queens are,” I continue after raising my head, “a necessary evil in the tales’ need for tension. They are the antagonists, propelling the story forward. These characters are female by definition, but are they meant to represent women? The witches, at least, are supernatural beings.”

Duckworth nods, putting his mittens to his ears. “I can still hear you,” he assures. “What about evil stepmothers?”

“The evil stepmothers, and stepdaughters, are different items.” I continue. “They are not supernatural, but rather human and harmful. The Grimms were their public relations promoters; the Grimms all but invented them. However, in the primary source tales, it was the mother who destroyed her children.”

“Really?” says Duckworth, his hands still clamped over his ears as we stroll. “Why?”

“Consider that it was a different time, a time when, it is rumored by some historians, unwanted children tended to fall down wells, or encounter other accidents. But, I think more likely, stories of mothers driven to killing their children were an earlier time’s cautionary tales, which the Grimms, later, softened, or so they felt.”

“The women aren’t doing too well.” Duckworth raises an eyebrow.

“Ah, but hold,” I declare, taking my warmed hand from my pocket and pointing to the sky, “we now come to the fairy godmothers and the old women in the wood, helpers to the protagonists. Both are, again, supernatural. The fairy godmother graciously gives gifts. The old woman in the wood usually involves food, kindly given to her by the protagonist. For this trifle, the hero or heroine is richly rewarded with a gift or two and/or important knowledge.”

“Like a cloak of invisibility or a pumpkin turned into a coach?” asks Duckworth.

“Exactly, but you see, these women are secondary—are archetypes—serving the story. The real role of woman in fairy tales comes when she is the protagonist.”

“I sense you are warning to the topic,” says Duckworth. “I wish I could say as much for my ears and toes. I’m ready for Café Loco; are you?”

I nod.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2017 The Clever Farmer’s Daughter – Part Three

clever-farmers-daughrter-four  Áke and Grima discover Aslaug, by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1862

Afternoon Tea

Duckworth and I take a table by the row of windows overlooking Saint Aldates Street, looking back at Christ Church College, with the cold weather on the other side of the glass.

Glancing at the menu, I am tempted by the mushrooms on toast, but I go for the scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. It does come with a pot of tea.

“You were saying,” Duckworth leans back in his chair.

“I was about to say, before you came up with this excellent idea, “—I gesture to the Alice in Wonderland-themed room around us—“that the fairy tales have a strong prejudice for young protagonists, be they male or female. Folktales will occasionally have an old woman as the main character; even fairy tales will have an old soldier as the hero, but fairy-tale heroines are young.”

I see Duckworth consider my point as he crunches on his teacake.

“Also,” I continue, “they are uniformly rewarded with marriage.”

“Rewarded or fated?”

“In the context of the fairy tale, it is meant as a reward, but you are right if you are suggesting their options were limited.”

“I observe,” says Duckworth with a glint in his eye, “there are two kinds of heroines in the world (fairy-tale world that is), the winsome and the wise.”

I chortle. “Along the wise-line, I read The Clever Farmer’s Daughter to Thalia last night, but now that I think of it, it is not technically a fairy tale, not having any magic in it, despite being in the Grimm canon.”

“Was the farmer clever or the daughter?”

“Oh, the latter. Actually, I peeked at the Grimms’ notes on the tale. They traced it back to the Saga of Aslaug, daughter of the legendary Germanic hero, Sigurd, and his wife, the shieldmaiden Brynhildr. Upon the deaths of Aslaug’s parents, Brynhildr’s foster father takes the young Aslaug into hiding, concealing her in the body of a harp, he pretending to be a bard. Peasants murder him for the treasure hidden in the harp and end up raising Aslaug.

“When she reaches womanhood, King Ragnar hears of this remarkable peasant girl and tests her wit by asking her to come to him neither dressed nor naked, neither fasting or eating, and neither alone or in a company.

“She arrives dressed in a fisherman’s net, holding an onion in her teeth, traveling along with her dog.”

“How delightful. Do they marry?” Duckworth asks.

“Yes, but Ragnar dies as a result of not listening to her advice.”

“So sorry to hear that. I prefer happy endings. Still, it does not sound to me like the women are doing too well in the tales, whether they show wisdom or abide by the will of others, unless marriage is the be-all and end-all of their existence.”

I consider for a moment. “The tales would have them ‘live happily ever after,’ nothing the feminist movement would promote as a role model for young girls, but my Thalia loves these stories. What does she see in these heroines? I think there is something timeless in the message, even if I can’t put my finger on it.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2016 King Wyvern – Part One

wyvern 14th century Welsh manuscript

The Wyvern

I am having a red-letter day. Besides a pleasant sojourn to Augustus’s tobacco shop, where we sat for the afternoon testing new blends, tonight is Trick-or-Treat night. Because I think it would be undignified for me to “dress up,” I am left behind every year, Thalia’s mother taking up the task of following her around the neighborhood, herself dressed as a witch.

But this year Melissa has offered to accompany Thalia—actually orchestrating the evening—influencing her to dress as a wyvern, a sort of dragon with bird claws, wings, and serpent tail. Thalia bought into that idea immediately, and Melissa’s theatrical friends aided in the costume design. Our Halloweens are becoming a production.

Upon their return, Melissa plans to read to Thalia—thematically—King Wyvern. I know the tale. I gave the book in which it appears to Melissa for her birthday: More Tales from Denmark, compiled and translated by Stephen Badman.

In this tale, a king and his queen wake up after their wedding night to find, scrawled across the foot of their bed, the words, “You shall never have children together.”

The distraught queen meets an old woman in the wood, who tells her to turn a clay cup upside down in her garden, and in the morning there will be a white and a red rose bud under it. If she eats the white rose, she will have a daughter. If she eats the red rose, she will have a son. Against the old woman’s warning, the queen eats both roses and gives birth to a wyvern.

The creature soon demands they find him a wife, saying, “If you don’t find a bride for me, young or old, big or small, rich or poor, then I’ll tear you and the castle apart.” They do find him a princess, but after the wedding and wedding feast, when the couple retires to their bedchamber, the wyvern tears the princess apart, and soon demands another wife, who meets the same fate.

On the third demand for a wife, the king goes to his shepherd and forces him to give up his daughter.

Before the wedding, this girl, too, meets the old woman in the wood, who instructs her as to what she must do to survive.

On her wedding night, the girl puts on ten shifts. When she and the wyvern are alone, the creature says, “Beautiful maiden, take off a shift.”  She replies, “King Wyvern, slough a skin.” This they do nine times. The girl still has on one shift, but the wyvern has sloughed all his skin. She then whips him with birch rods dipped in vinegar until he is a bloody pulp. Then she washes his remains in milk, swaddles him in her nine shifts, and falls asleep with him on the bed. By morning she is in the arms of a handsome prince.

I stuff my pipe with one of Augustus’s new blends we tried out today, “Dragon’s Breath,” and wait for the girls’ return. The blend has a fair bit of Latakia in it, but I think I will advise him against that name.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2016 King Wyvern – Part Two

wessex_flag Wessex flag

Listening

I have of course surrendered the comfy chair to Melissa, Thalia, and Teddy, contenting myself with the window seat. Thalia, with some reluctance, took off her wyvern costume, and donned her jammies. Melissa, although she has removed her bonnet, and her crook now leans against the fireplace, still wears the remnants of her shepherdess outfit. Both Thalia and I are rapt listeners as Melissa’s reads the tale.

I did a little research while waiting for the trick-or-treaters to return. Apparently, there are those who do not consider the wyvern to be a dragon at all, the distinguishing characteristic being that dragons have four legs and the wyvern only two, although all other features they share in common.

The wyvern shows up in a lot of heraldic designs, usually as a decorative element. However, for the old Kingdom of Wessex, the wyvern served at their emblem. There is a possible connection between the Wessex emblem and King Wyvern.

During the ninth century, Danish Vikings invaded Wessex on a recurring basis. Alfred the Great succeeded in keeping them from overrunning Wessex, but by the early eleventh century the Danish-born King Cnut became King of Denmark, England, and Norway. In 1066 William of Normandy put an end to Danish interference.

Wessex shared much tradition with Wales, where the wyvern is to this day a popular symbol, although the Welsh national emblem is clearly a dragon.

What I haven’t discerned is whether the wyverns traveled down from the north to inhabit southern England, or if one of them traveled north to inhabit this story.

Melissa reads aloud while Thalia absently dips her hand into her rather big paper bag of goodies, unwrapping and popping another candy into her mouth.

“One day she was out walking, lost in dark thoughts, when she met an old woman who was wearing a red skirt and a blue jacket. ‘What troubles you my queen?’ asked the old woman.”

Fairy tales rarely state what someone is wearing unless it has some importance. The old woman’s garb is no exception. The red skirt and blue jacket is the trademark of the wise woman of the wood in Danish lore. The Danish storyteller need not explain who she is, it is simply understood. This is parallel to another figure in the Danish stories, the Red Knight, the stock villain, the Snidely Whiplash of the Danes, who usually gets killed at the end of each story—in other words, multiple times.

Melissa reads, “ ‘I think I can help you,’ said the woman. ‘When the sun goes down this evening, take a clay cup, turn it upside down and plant it in the northwest corner of the garden. In the morning when the sun rises, go back into the garden and pick it up. There will be two roses under the cup: a red rose and a white rose. If you eat the red rose, you’ll give birth to a boy; if you eat the white rose, you’ll have a girl.’ ”

“Ahhh!” Thalia likes that bit.

I do too. For me that is the abiding image of the tale. I have not come across the motif of eating roses before. Certainly roses have come up in other fairy tales. I must think on this.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2016 King Wyvern – Part Three

choosing_the_red_and_white_roses 1908 by Henry Payne Temple Garden

A Rose is a Rose

“About those roses,” I say to Melissa after Thalia has kissed us each goodnight, and gone off to bed dragging Teddy behind her with one hand, and dragging her paper bag of goodies with the other.

“Yes, that caught me too; it equates roses with fertility. I don’t recall that in any other story. Grimm’s Snow White and Rose Red, jumps to my mind, but the title simply refers to the girls’ names. The story dealt more with a bear and a highly ungrateful dwarf, nothing to do with roses.”

Beauty and the Beast comes to my mind,” I say. “The merchant picks a rose for his daughter, Beauty, and the story is off and running.”

“Still not similar to the fertility motif in our tale.” Melissa gazes upward in thought.

“What about the War of the Roses?” I know I am grasping at word associations.

“Well . . . ,”contemplates Melissa, “there is first of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays.

“In which?” I inquire.

“In which there is a dramatic scene when nobles symbolically pick either a white rose or a red rose to show their support for the House of York or the House of Lancaster.”

“You are suggesting some literary-to-folklore flow.”

“Certainly it happens,” Melissa returns. “Yet, there is another story, closer in theme to ours. Call it synchronicity, but I read about it today. A Sir John Manderville related a Jewish folktale, he writing in the fourteenth century. It is about a maiden, Zillah, falsely accused by a villain, Hamuel. She is to be burned at the stake, but the spirit of justice prevails, and Hamuel ends up dying by fire. From the ashes of the fire intended to kill Zillah, white roses spring up. From the ashes of the fire that kills Hamuel, red roses grow.”

“Linking red roses with males, and white roses with females, as in our story.” I observe.

“That link could be ancient. I’ll bet the story of Zillah and Hamuel was old when Manderville recorded it.”

“What about yellow roses?” I am baiting her.

“Usually associated with infidelity. Let’s not go there.”

“Agreed,” I say. “Was not Aphrodite involved with the rose?”

“Yes, white roses sprung up along the shoreline as she was birthed from the sea. Her blood turned the rose red when its thorns scratched her as she ran to save her love, Adonis, when he was gored by a wild boar—a rescue attempt that proved unsuccessful.”

“Jolly.” I pick up my copy of Grimm, peruse the titles, and read them aloud to Melissa as the word “rose” appears.

Brier Rose.”

That’s a Sleeping Beauty variant.”

“Snow White and Rose Red.”

“We covered that.”

“The Rose.”

“I don’t know that one.”

“And The White Rose, which I know to be a Beauty and the Beast variant.”

“So, what is The Rose?” Melissa frowns gently.

“It appears to be one of the religious tales for children, near the end of the book. Rather short,” I say, and read it to her aloud.

“Once there was a poor woman who had two children. The youngest one had to go into the forest every day to fetch wood. Once when he had gone a very long way to find wood, a child who was very little but very strong came to him and helped him gather the wood and carried it up to his house, but then in the wink of an eye he disappeared. The child told his mother about this, but she did not believe him. Finally the child brought a rose and said that the beautiful child had given it to him and that when the rose was in full blossom he would come again. The mother placed the rose into water. One morning the child did not get up; the mother went to his bed and found him lying there dead. On that same morning the rose came into full blossom.”

“How dreadful.”

I must agree. Roses, for all their beauty and aroma, play a diabolical role in the fairy tales.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2016 The Twelve Huntsmen Part One

Twelve Huntsmen lion H J Ford

True Bride

Thalia’s approach to the study tonight involves a lot more clatter than usual. She emerges through the pocket doors of the study toting her wagon behind her, its cargo being Teddy and a doll’s rocking chair, atop of which perches the fairy, her spider web-fine, black hair floating behind her.

Thalia draws her burden up beside my comfy chair. “I promised to read to the fairy—properly.” She sets the doll chair in front of me and settles Teddy into it. The fairy flutters into Teddy’s lap and sits cross-legged, as Thalia climbs into mine.

“Hmmm,” she studies the contents page of her Grimm. “This one,” and she commences reading. Thalia has chosen The Twelve Huntsmen.

A young prince, finding the woman he loves—appropriately a princess—has betrothed himself to her, but he is then called home, as his father is dying. Before leaving, he gives to her a ring.

Thalia stumbles over “betrothed,” but she gets it. I am proud.

The king, on his deathbed, extracts the promise from his son to marry another princess. The prince, out of respect for his father, puts the woman he loves aside.

She nearly dies of grief, but then asks her father to find eleven women who look much like herself, then they all dress like huntsmen, and offer their services to the faithless king.

The young king, not recognizing her in the disguise, takes them into his service, and becomes quite fond of them. However, the king has an extraordinary lion, who tells him the huntsmen are women, and devises a test to prove it.

The lion has peas spread on the floor of the antechamber, knowing men will crush the peas beneath their boots, while women will not. The princess hears of this test and schools her ladies to walk like men.

“Antechamber” slows Thalia down, but she gets that one too.

Next the lion has spinning wheels brought into the antechamber, which he thought would attract the attention of the women. Again, the princess tells her ladies not to look at the wheels, thus avoiding detection.

One day, word arrives that the king’s new bride will soon arrive. Upon this news, the real bride swoons. Alarmed, the king runs to help his favorite huntsman. When he takes off the huntsman’s glove, he sees the ring he gave to her.

Here Thalia adds a little drama to her voice as she reads the king’s declaration, “You are mine, and I am yours. No one in the world can ever change that.”

The king reaffirms his love for her, sends word to the second bride to return to her father, and marries his true love, exclaiming, “Whoever finds his old key does not need a new one.”

When Thalia is done reading, she crawls from my lap, puts Teddy and the doll chair back on the wagon, and with the fairy now sitting on the crown of Thalia’s head, the circus trundles out of the study, leaving me to contemplate the small shifts in history that make up our lives.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2016 The Twelve Huntsmen Part Two

Twelve Huntsmen hunt Paolo Uccello Paolo Uccello 1490

A Blend

“Twelve Huntsmen?” I ask.

“Yes, my newest blend.” Augustus opens the canister to give me a sample. The familiar odors of his shop float about in the air.

“How coincidental; this is the story Thalia read last night.”

“Thalia read to you?”

“Yes, to Teddy and the . . . ah, myself.”

“My, she’s a big girl.”

“Odd little story, really.” I stuff my pipe with the sampling.

“Why so?”

“Well, it’s got a lot of the usual tropes, the forsaken bride to start.”

Aarne-Thompson’s The Forgotten Fiancée is its category,” Augustus chimes in.

“Exactly, but in this story the prince does not forget his bride due to a magical spell cast upon him, rather he puts her aside at his father’s request. The prince in this story is not blameless. The tale becomes about which promise he will keep, breaking the other.”

“Good point,” returns Augustus. “Notice that it is the man who forgets or forsakes the bride and not the other way around.”

“Are weak-willed suitors a given?”

“Perhaps. We need to consider that the Grimms were part of the German Romantic Movement, and wanted to appeal to bourgeois readers.

“The prince in our story could well have been perceived by the Grimms’ audience as a romantic hero, ultimately choosing his first love (passion) over his second bride (social convention). In our more egalitarian times, we see the prince as a flawed character, damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t, having made conflicting promises. ‘Well, he should have known better, shouldn’t he have?’ we say.”

“Dear me,” I protest, “I hate to think we are no longer romantic.”

“Ah, my dear friend, you are delusional. We are in a much more self-serving time than that of Jacob and Wilhelm’s. They reached for an ideal, we for a reasonable alternative.”

“No, no, Augustus, I will stick to my romantic notions, despite what evidence you can produce.”

“More power to you, but what of the princess’s deception, hiding in disguise among eleven other copies of herself?”

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses comes to mind.” My pipe has gone out, but I do not light it again.

“Yes,” contemplates Augustus, “but only because of the number twelve; there is little similarity. I am thinking of The Quest for the Fair One of the World, from Modern Greek Folktales, by Dawkins, where the prince has to pick out the princess hidden among forty other look-a-likes. It’s not a common motif, but I know I have run across its ilk before.”

“Putting it that way,” I decide, “I’ll compare it to The Lute Player, where the queen puts on the clothing of a minstrel to rescue her husband.”

“Hmmm,” Augustus thinks aloud, “the fairy tales love disguises, don’t they? I am now thinking of All Furs and Cap O’ Rushes, but isn’t it usually women who don disguises? Men will hide and deceive, but not put on other clothing. This idea takes my fancy.”

“Talking of fancy,” I stare at my pipe, “I haven’t taken one to this tobacco blend. It is rather awful.”

“Yes, I know. I had a dozen bag-ends of finings left over and threw them all together and gave them a fancy name. Well, sometimes a disguise works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

“Well said,” I say.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2016 The Twelve Huntsmen Part Three

Twelve Huntsmen Book or Hours

An Occupation

Despite the muggy August weather, Duckworth and I ply the oars, wending our way up the Thames.

“By the by,” I say, “If Augustus tries to fob off his Twelve Huntsmen blend on you, don’t fall for it.”

“Thanks for the warning, but you are too late. I bought an ounce of it out of curiosity. That’s the name of a story, isn’t it?”

I give him the summary, knowing he will never read the tales, making me his educator in these matters.

“Well,” says Duckworth when I am done, “let’s talk business, which is my forte.”

“Business is your forte, but what do you mean?”

“What are the economics of fairy tales?”

“Economics?”

“I am thinking specifically of employment options.”

I shake my head in dismay, but then decide to explore this thought in his terms.

“All right. In The Twelve Huntsmen, the princess approaches the king to ask to be in his service.”

“Right,” says Duckworth, “imagine that happening today. Twelve huntsmen come to your door asking to be in your service?”

“I get your drift,” I say. “The fairy tales harken back to an earlier employment system. Going into service—being a servant—meant you were part of someone else’s household, giving up certain liberties, some of one’s independence, at a time when independence might be synonymous with starvation.”

“I was thinking about this the other day.” Duckworth pulls methodically at his oar. “When was the last time a house was built with servant quarters? I know there are still some live-in nannies, but I suspect that is about it.”

“True,” I concur. “There are still maids, cooks, and gardeners, but they all go home at night.”

“I return to my original question,” Duckworth looks directly at me. “What are the fairy tale employment options?”

“Well, for women there is being a princess, queen or a witch, even a witch-queen. There is the possibility of being a scullery maid for princesses in hiding. Young girls will often keep house for witches and evil stepmothers. Ugly daughters get to be lazy, but that’s not an occupation. There is the occasional henwife. However, none of them are nurses, teachers, seamstresses, or prostitutes. I suppose I shouldn’t be putting them all in the same sentence. ”

“Don’t think so,” says Duckworth. I continue rowing, and blathering,

“For the men, outside of kings, princes, and sorcerers, the millers are popular; so are farmers, fishermen, woodsmen, gardeners, soldiers, sailors, and tailors (but not weavers). There is at least one famous shoemaker, but no other leather workers such as saddlers or tanners. There are ironsmiths and goldsmiths, but no swordsmiths or tinsmiths. I don’t think carpenters or bricklayers appear, nor coach-makers or barrel-makers. Butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers only appear in nursery rhymes. The pope makes an entrance now and again, but not his cardinals or priests that I can recall. Judges and lawyers appear, but only as fall guys. Bankers, never.”

“That’s a rambling list,” says Duckworth.

“Well, the folktales do have a broader range of careers available,” I advertise, “but not the fairy tales.”

“Is there any order to be made from your list?”

I think for a moment.

“No.”

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2016 The Singing Bone – Part One

singing bone milestone

Milestones

How many mental milestones do we pass in a lifetime? I am sure most of them go by unnoticed, like those tenth-of-a-mile markers on American turnpikes. Yet some milestones are remarkable. I am passing one of them now.

Melissa is sitting in my comfy chair with Thalia and Teddy on her lap, reading Grimm. Thalia has abandoned me before—oh the vagaries of youth—but I don’t mind in the least. I am a child at heart and love to be read to as well.

Thalia has tasked Melissa with reading The Singing Bone, not a comfortable story, really.

A wild boar has taken upon itself to devastate a kingdom, killing peasants and livestock. The king offers up in marriage his only daughter to whoever can rid his realm of this menace.

Two sons of a poor man come forward, the elder approaching the challenge out of pride, and the younger out of concern for others. They plan to enter the forest of the wild boar at either end, trapping the boar between them.

The younger comes upon a dwarf who gives him a spear, which the youth plunges into the heart of the beast.

Carrying the beast on his back, he passes through the forest to find his brother loitering at a tavern. On their way to the castle, the jealous elder brother murders his younger brother, burying him under a bridge, taking the boar carcass as proof of his valor, and to claim the bride.

Years later a shepherd finds a bleached, white bone under that bridge that he carves into a flute that only plays the sad tune of the younger brother’s fate. Amazed, the shepherd presents this miraculous instrument to the king, who immediately understands its meaning.

The rest of the bones of the youth are dug up and properly buried, while the elder brother is tied in a sack and drowned.

“I wish she had chosen Cinderella,” Melissa says after Thalia has given both of us a kiss and dragged Teddy out the study door. “What a bleak story.”

“I sense a bit of Cain and Abel in this tale.” I pour two small glasses of wine.

Melissa puts her chin in her hand. “I am going to say ‘no’ to that. I know the female version of this tale.”

I hand her a glass and let her continue.

Binnorie, a Scottish tale.” Melissa takes a sip, thinking. “Ah, English Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs.” She looks at me slyly. “You’ve met him.”

“That I have.” And I remember the story she is talking about.

“But,” she continues, “I think it comes from a ballad.”

I stand and go to my bookshelves to peruse Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads and come up with The Twa Sisters, in which Child dedicates over twenty pages to notes and variations on the ballad.

“The common traits,” I muse after a quick scan of Child’s notes, “is the sibling murders, improper burials, and the bones becoming musical instruments to reveal the crime.”

“The notable difference is the wild boar in The Singing Bone,” Melissa ponders and pulls out her smart phone from her purse. “Wild boars in fairy tales,” she intones to the device. I sense a delightful evening of research and conversation coming on.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2016 The Singing Bone – Part Two

Singing bone boar

Smarty Phones

Huddling together, peering into the glow of Melissa’s cell phone, we don’t come up with many other fairy tales with wild boars in them besides The Singing Bone. The tale Old Sultan has a boar, but it is of a comical order. There is a boar in The Mitten, but it is just one of a series of animals of increasing size that squeeze into the mitten.

Melissa taps the microphone icon and tries again.

“Wild boars and mythology.”

No shortage of good links with that inquiry.

The first image we see is of the Norse god Frey with his solar boar, Gullinborsti, pulling his chariot. His sister Freya also rides a boar. We see that pigs make a number of appearances in The Odyssey. These are fairly honorable positions for swine, but we soon run across Robert Graves’s assessment that in myth, pigs are the beasts of death.

In the Welsh Mabinogion, pigs come from the kingdom of Annwyn, the underworld. There are a number of male deities who are killed by boars, Attis and Adonis being two of them. Pigs are involved with the myth of Persephone in that they obliterate the tracks of Persephone and fall into Hades with her.

“This looks interesting.” Melissa points to the hyperlink phrase “Calydonian boar.”

In this myth, King Oeneus makes offerings to the gods for a plentiful harvest, forgetting about the goddess Diana. In revenge, she loosens a boar upon King Oeneus’s land that destroys crops and flocks, and sends the people scurrying inside the city walls.

Oeneus’s son, Meleager, gathers about him his brother, uncle, and numerous Greek heroes to hunt the boar. Meleager is virtually immortal given that one of the Fates decreed that he live only until a certain log burning in the fire is consumed, a log which his mother, Althaea, removes from the flames and hides away.

The hunt does not go well. All the heroes miss their mark, except for the Amazon Atalanta, who is able to wound the beast. Then Meleager’s second spear pierces the boar’s heart.

He gives the skin and head of the boar to Atalanta, with whom he has fallen in love, angering his brother and uncle, who take the prize away from her. Enraged, Meleager slays his brother and uncle, among others.

Althaea, grief stricken, avenges their deaths by throwing the log—ordained, if you will, by the Fates—into the fire.

“That rather sounds like our story.” I am, again, surprised by the parallels between myth and fairy tales.

Melissa ticks off the similarities. “A wild boar ravaging the countryside, a love interest—the princess and Atalanta, and both brothers die—with the Greeks having more collateral damage. No singing bone, though.”

We search a little further and come up with the Celtic Diarmait and the Boar of Benn Gulbain. Diarmait and the boar are actually foster brothers, the boar being under an enchantment, and the two are fated to kill each other.

The story culminates when Diarmait and Finn McCool, who have come to a tentative peace after Diarmait stole Finn’s bride, find themselves hunting down a boar that has killed fifty of Finn’s men. The boar is, of course, the foster brother.

“Same elements,” Melissa muses. “Two brothers killing each other with a boar involved, and some sort of love interest in there somewhere.”

“But no singing bone. Where does that come from?” I take her smart phone from her hand.

I’m going to try this.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2016 The Singing Bone – Part Three

Singing bone bone flute Hohle Fels Flute

Bone Flute

Our search for a source of the bone flute element proves not to be as productive as that for the wild boar.

“There, that guy will help.” Melissa reaches over and taps “D. L. Ashliman.” Of course. I have used his site often. He offers up the text of numerous variants.

There is a French Louisiana version, called The Singing Bones (plural), which pulls from The Singing Bone and The Juniper Tree, with the culprit wife feeding her husband some of their numerous children. He eventually hears their bones calling to him.

An Italian version, The Griffin—in which a king sends out his two sons to compete in attaining a griffin’s feather to cure the king’s illness—is similar to a source from Lower Hesse listed in Grimms’ notes.

Both Ashliman’s list and the Grimms’ notes cite the Swiss version The Dead Girl’s Bone.

In this tale the rivalry is between a brother and sister in search of a certain flower, the brother doing the murdering.

Also cited by both Ashliman and the Grimms is Binnorie. While there is no bone flute in this tale, there is a harp made of bones; this is, after all, a tale of Celtic origin.

“Most of these,” notes Melissa, pouring us each another glass, “have shepherds in them. I am remembering something about the god Pan.”

“The god Pan,” I say to her phone. This still feels strange to me.

The Wikipedia listing pops up first.

Back to Greek mythology again. We learn that Pan falls in love with the Nymph Syrinx, daughter of Ladon the river god. Fleeing the amorous Pan, Syrinx calls to Zeus to save her and she turns into reeds. Enraged, Pan shatters the reeds, but is then struck with remorse and kisses the broken pieces. As he does so, he discovers that his breath can create music from them, and so he ties a number of them together to make his flute, which he keeps with him always.

On a sidebar I see Pan is, among other things, the patron of shepherds.

“Those are reed flutes,” Melissa observes. “What about the bone flute?”

I give her back her phone and pick up my wine glass.

“Bone fl…” she starts.

“Bohn, here you go,” the not-so-smart phone chimes back.

Melissa sighs and tries again, speaking a little more quickly.

It turns out there is a rather scholarly controversy over as to which among several contenders is the oldest bone flute.

The first is the Divje Babe flute, discovered in Slovenia in 1995. It is a cave bear femur, perhaps 45,000 years old. It appears that the holes were man-made, though some scientists argue that  an animal gnawed on the bone creating the holes.

Another, an undisputed musical instrument, is the Hohle Fels Flute discovered in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany’s Swabian Alb in 2008, made from a vulture’s wing bone, dating from approximately 35,000 years ago. However, several years before, two flutes made of mute swan bone and one made of woolly mammoth ivory were found in the nearby Geisenklösterle cave. The claim is they are 42,000 to 43,000 years old.

“I’ll take it there were lots of bone flutes lying around,” says Melissa. “The wild boar may come out of mythology, but the flute, like the spinning wheel in these tales, probably comes out of the material culture of the time.”

I agree with Melissa.

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2016 Prince Swan – Part One

Prince Swan one

Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum

I’ve become aware that I live for this time of the evening, these moments when I sit in my study awaiting the padding of footsteps down the hall. I know Thalia will grow up, shed Teddy, shed me, and shed the magic that surrounds the both of us. Will I be able to live again in the mundane world?

My study door creaks open. Thalia is in her favorite nightdress, the hem of which touches the floor, picking up its gray dust and grime. Teddy, dragging behind her, does his duty by cleaning a swath of the floor.

As they settle in beside me on the comfy chair, Thalia declares, “Read me  . . . ,”  she considers, “ . . . the last story,” handing me her tattered copy of Grimm. I turn to the end, noting it is story number 250, and read.

“Little Hen found a little key in the dung heap, and Little Rooster found a little chest. They opened the chest and found a small, red short fur. If the little fur had been longer, then this tale would have been longer, too.

“Well, that’s it, time for bed.”

“Nooooooo! Read me the second last.”

I of course relent.

The second last story in these latter-day full collections of the Grimm stories is the overlooked Prince Swan. A maiden is approached by an enchanted prince in the form of a swan, who declares he will marry her if she will unravel the ball of yarn to which he is attached as he flies off to his kingdom.

This she does for an entire day, but just before the last of the yarn is untangled, it catches on a thorn bush and is broken.

Looking for food and shelter, the maiden comes to a house where an old woman answers the door. The old woman helps the girl, but warns that her husband is a cannibal. The husband returns home, smells the girl, and catches herl. The old woman talks him into saving the girl for breakfast. Before dawn the old woman, who identifies herself as “Sun”, gives the maiden a golden spinning wheel and sends her on her way.

The girl encounters two other old women with cannibal husbands, from whom she gets a golden spindle from the one named “Moon,” and a golden reel from “Star.” Star also tells the maiden that the spell over the prince has been broken by the girl’s efforts despite the mishap. However, he is now a king, has married a princess, and is living atop the Glass Mountain guarded by a lion and a dragon. Star gives the maiden bread and bacon to feed and placate the beasts.

Thalia giggles about the bread and bacon.

At the castle gate, the maiden uses her golden spinning wheel, attracting the attention of the queen. The maiden trades the wheel for a night in the chamber next to the king. There she sings the song of her travail, but the queen has drugged the king to sleep.

The girl trades the other devices for more nights in the chamber, and is able to fool the queen on the third try. The king hears the song, and puts aside his queen to marry the true bride.

“That’s sorta like Sprig of Rosemary.” Thalia knits her brow.

“And a little like Jack and the Beanstalk, ‘Fe, fie, fo, fum. I smell the blood of an Englishman.’”

“Yeah,” Thalia’s eyes light up. “Weird.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2016 Prince Swan – Part Two

Prince Swan Elisabeth Sonrel Elizabeth Sonrel

Some Questions

I have questions. Fairy-tale questions. Questions with deep roots in my psyche. Yet I have not the words to express them. Images imbued with distress flicker through my head, but nothing more concrete.  When I find myself popping popcorn, I then know what I intend.

Clutching a bag filled with still warm, fluffy kernels, I enter the Magic Forest at dusk, never a good idea. I know the way to the nixie’s pond despite the gloom.

“Hello, my human.” The nixie emerges from the water to sit upon her rock.

“Hello, my nixie.” I toss her a popped kernel that she catches with her webbed hands, then savors.

“Have you read the story of Prince Swan?” I ask.

“Your books do not do well under the water. Tell me the story.”

Even the immortals like to hear a good story.

When I finish she responds, “Of course I know the story. It is an old tale of human carnal love.”

“Carnal,” I say, while methodically throwing her popcorn. I think it keeps her at bay, and from dragging me beneath the water’s surface. Popcorn does not do any better under water than books.

“Carnal,” I repeat. “That is a base way of describing what we call ‘true love.’ ”

“Ah, true love, there is a mystery for us immortals. We know pleasure, but you mortals take more from knowing each other than we do.”

I toss her another kernel and she continues.

“Your maiden meets her prince, but not in his human form. Yet, her heart goes out to him at once, unconditionally. Explain that to me. Why does she travel to the sun, moon, and stars to reclaim a thing she never had? What did she think her chances were?”

“Her chances were always good,” I say. “She was connected to the prince through the symbolism of the yarn. The longer it traveled outward, the more connected they became.”

“But when the yarn broke, did not that all go away?” The nixie frowns as she nimbly catches another kernel.

“No,” I say. “It is only the inciting incident for the hero’s journey, or in this case, the heroine’s journey.”

“Yes,” her green eyes flicker. “You mortals are always searching. I don’t sense you are finding. Do the tales give you restless beings an illusion of closure? That is to say, somebody has found?”

She may have something there.

“We do like happy endings, but it is the search that is important. We take clues from the hero or heroine’s search and apply them to our own search, however imaginary that might be.”

“But why make the journey? If you want love so badly, why not love the next enchanted prince who blunders by?”

I keep the popcorn coming as I consider.

“We,” I finally answer, “like to think there is only one person we are meant to love, and when we find that person, we need to follow them down whatever path they travel.”

“And what happens when you get to the end of that path?”

“I don’t know. The path never ends, if we ever get to travel it.”

The nixie’s green eyes narrow. “How often do your people get to meet this one and only love?”

“That varies. Some of us never, others frequently.”

The nixie sighs. “You mortals are hopeless.”

“Oh no,” I say. “We are full of hope. Endless hope.”

“Perhaps that is what the fairy tale is about,” I say to myself.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2016 Prince Swan – Part Three

Prince Swan Frank Cadogan Cowper Frank Cadogan Cowper

Another Thought

My bag of popcorn is half empty, but I know I have not asked the question for which I have no words. The nixie’s eyes penetrate mine. She knows another question lies within me.

I almost hear a bubble burst in my thoughts and words flow from my mouth. “Where can I find the soul of a fairy tale?”

Is that the right question?

The nixie frowns. “You speak in Christian terms. Rephrase your question.”

I think I may have offended her. There is much that is Christian in the tales, but it is a gloss put upon them by Christian writers. At their heart the tales are pagan in nature.

“Where,” I start again, after a few more tosses of kernels, “is the spirit of the fairy tale to be found?”

“Ah, there is such a place. I can take you there.”

I sense the danger in that. “Tell me of it, instead.”

She smiles wickedly, but tempts me no further. “You do not need me as a guide. You have probably been there, but it is hard to remember such visits. Many a storyteller visits the spirit, if only for a fleeting moment while their bodies remain in a tavern, a workroom, by a family hearth, or near a fire in a Bronze Age hovel. Most commonly, you mortals visit from a place we immortals cannot tread—your dreams.”

“Motifs,” I blurt. “If the tales came from one place, then so do the motifs, those pieces of a tale that come up again in story after story, as in my Prince Swan: the women with cannibal husbands, those very women being the sun, moon, and stars, and the frequently-appearing spinning wheel.”

The nixie nods in confirmation. Another bubble bursts in my thoughts. “If there is but one spirit, is there but one true story, one complete fairy tale?”

“There was.” The nixie holds up her webbed hand for more popcorn. For my life, I’d forgotten to throw her some during my reverie.

“In the beginning,” she says between bits, “there was only one fairy tale. I knew it then. It took a mortal’s lifetime to tell it.

“Now it has come apart, flake by flake, falling to your plane of knowing in perfect little symmetries, leaving behind its spirit. I do not know where all the flakes have fallen, although when I see them, I recognize them.”

“Can the story be pieced back together and made whole again?”

‘Why would you want that? The weight of the whole story might crush you. Take what little wisdom it gives you when it melts on your tongue and be content.”

“No.” I hold back the popcorn on purpose. “I want to know the whole of it, hold it in my hands, as it were.”

“First try catching a snowfall in your hands. How many flakes would you miss? How many would melt in your hands?”

My popcorn bag is nearly empty. I throw her the last of the kernels.

“Well then, my nixie, take pity on a poor mortal who wants to know the ultimate story, but apparently cannot.”

“Pity is not one of my abilities. You need do that for yourself.”

I should have known and I shall.

Your thoughts?

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2016 Iron Hans – Part One

Iron John GrimmFrom a Grimms’ edition

A Wild Man

Thalia’s index finger circles in the air above the table of contents as she stares at the ceiling, then stabs down on a title. “That one!”

“We read that last night,” I say.

The finger rises again and descends. “That one!”

Iron Hans it is. Can you stay awake? This is a rather long one.”

“Of course I can,” she pouts.

“Can Teddy stay awake?” I look at her stuffed bear.

“I’m not sure about him.” Thalia’s brow wrinkles.

Iron Hans is something of a three-act play. In the first act a huntsman, sent into the forest, disappears. Three more huntsmen are sent to find him but do not return. A third party meets the same fate. The culprit is a rusty-looking, hairy man who lives at the bottom of a pond. The king has him captured and put in a cage.

One day (the start of act two) the young prince lets his golden ball roll into the hairy man’s cage, and the creature will not return it until the lad opens the cage. After some reluctance, the prince does and is carried off by the hairy man.

The hairy man, who calls himself Iron Hans, sets the lad the task of guarding a well, not allowing anything to touch the water. Unfortunately the lad’s finger, injured while opening the cage, throbs, and he dips it into the water to soothe it. The finger turns to gold. By the end of the third day the lad has a whole head of golden hair. Iron Hans sends him away to learn poverty, but with the promise to help the lad if he is in need and calls for him.

The third act begins with the young man finding employment at a castle. He hides his golden hair under a cap (How he hides his golden finger the tale does not tell us.) and gets into a bit of trouble for not taking off his cap to the king. Because he is likeable, our hero still ends up as the assistant to the king’s gardener.

The princess spots him in the garden with his golden hair uncovered, and has him bring her wildflowers. She snatches off his cap and he tries to flee, but she forces gold coins into his hands. These he gives to the gardener’s children.

War breaks out, and the lad desires to be part of it. He calls to Iron Hans, who gives him a horse, armor, and an army of iron knights to follow him into battle. It is the lad who turns the tide of battle, but he disappears after his victory.

The king declares a three-day festival, during which the princess will throw out a golden apple to the knights each day. The king rightly assumes the mysterious knight will not turn down the challenge, but each day, dressed in different armor, the lad catches the apple and escapes. On the last day, the king’s men manage to pursue and wound him.

The princess talks to the head gardener about his assistant and learns the young man has shown three golden apples to the children. The youth is brought before the king and the princess once again snatches off his cap revealing his golden hair. The hero confesses all his good deeds and when asked what he will take as a reward, asks for and is granted the princess’s hand in marriage.

At the wedding, Iron Hans reappears restored to his true form as a king.

Thalia breathes gently and rhythmically in my arms. I put her stuffed bear in her lap and lift her up to carry her down the hall. I can’t help but notice Teddy’s button eyes are still wide open.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2016 Iron Hans – Part Two

Iron John 15th centFrom 15th Century manuscript

A Bit of Smoke

There are only a handful of places I’d rather be than Augustus’ tobacco shop. I am flattered to be a special customer, one who shares his interest in fairy tales and who can offer a valued opinion on his tobacco blends. I lounge in one of his overstuffed chairs in his backroom while he attends to a customer. In my bowl is Wilhelm’s Delight, though I don’t think either of the Grimms smoked.

“What can you tell me about Iron Hans?” I ask when Augustus passes through the heavy curtain.

“Good story, very complete. The Grimm tales can be a little sketchy at times, you know. I’ve noticed the more popular stories are the longer ones, such as Iron Hans. Disney would do well to look at it, and the tale does have it proponents.  Robert Bly wrote his book on men by using this story as its central metaphor, although he called it Iron John. The psychotherapistJim Moyers has things to say about the tale along the same lines.

“And what do you think of the blend?” One of Augustus’ eyebrows rises.

“Too much Cavendish, but I like the light touch of Perique.”

“More Burley?”

“That might help.”

Iron Hans,” Augustus continues on my topic, “was in the Grimms’ 1815 edition, but they called it The Wild Man, which is a somewhat different story than the last edition’s version.”

“Oh?” Again I haven’t done my research.

“Well, the wild man does not live at the bottom of a pond and they catch him by getting him drunk. The lad’s ball is not golden, nor does the golden well appear, so there is no golden hair, nor a golden finger. The wild man put the young prince in dirty clothes and takes him straight to the emperor’s court to be the gardener’s helper. However, the wild man does help with the gardening.

“The princess falls in love with the handsome youth and has him bring her flowers on three occasions. On the first visit she gives him a roast chicken filled with gold. On the second visit it is a roasted duck filled with gold, and on the third a gold-filled goose, all of which the lad gives to the gardener, saying he has no need of it. The princess, thinking her lover still has the gold, marries him in secret and finds she is destitute.

“War breaks out and there are three battles into which the youth leads an army given to him by the wild man, thereby winning the war. In the third battle the youth is wounded, then returns to being the gardener’s helper, but allows himself to be identified by the wound as the battle’s hero. The emperor gives him the entire kingdom, and the wild man, released from a spell and returned to his kingship, has the young man and his wife come live with him.”

“Hmmm,” I contemplate, “I am not sure which version I like better. Of course, there will be other versions as well.”

“Many I would think—over time. Have you heard about the study published in The Royal Society about dating the fairy tales?”

“Well, yes, it is all over the press, even the Daily Mail covered it. You’re suggesting this story is very old?”

“Jim Moyer, whom I just mentioned and with whom I agree, suggests it goes back to The epic of Gilgamesh.”

Now that’s old.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2016 Iron Hans – Part Three

iron hans Wild man, bestiaryWild Man from a bestiary.

Two Men

The comforts of my study await as I return from Augustus’ shop. I sink into my comfy chair, gazing out my bay window overlooking the Magic Forest. There is no better place for rambling contemplation, especially if there is a fire on the hearth crackling in the background. I stuff my pipe with Wilhelm’s Delight (now with a bit more Burley in it) after reading the articles Augustus pointed out to me.

Jim Moyers suggests in his From Wild Man to King that there is a connection between The Epic of Gilgamesh and Iron Hans that spans thousands of years. He is coming from a Jungian/Collective Consciousness standpoint, as opposed to Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani’s phylogenic archeology. The signs all point in the same direction; I am intrigued me.

I see the connection in the openings of each story. In both tales the wild man is discovered by a hunter, and the hunter takes action to capture the being. In the case of The Epic of Gilgamesh the wild man, Enkidu, is drawn away from his forest home by the temptations of a temple prostitute brought to him by the hunter. After he lies with the prostitute, Enkidu’s animal companions run away from him, and he finds he cannot run after them, as if he were bound. In Grimms’ The Wild Man, the hunter seduces the wild man with drink; a bottle of beer, a bottle of wine, and a bottle of brandy. When the wild man falls into a stupor the hunter ties him up.  In both stories, when the hunter has played his role he disappears from the action. We are not even told if he gets a reward for his labors.

The later version, Iron Hans, favored by the Grimms, does not appear to be a Wilhelm rewrite—although he was not above such a thing—but is drawn from a different source, one with far more Celtic influences. In this latter telling, Iron Hans is found at the bottom of a pond. The Irish, Scots, and Welsh have many creatures emerging from and submerging into ponds, lakes, and seas, from mermaids and nixies, to silkies and cattle. The Welsh are fond of plunging whole towns and castles tragically to the bottom of lakes.

The theme of iron and gold in Iron Hans cannot so easily be given attribution or understood. Iron comes up in the very title. Hans is described at rusty-colored. Another variant describes him as having iron skin. Toward the end of the story he provides the lad with iron knights.

In counterpoint, the lad’s gold ball rolls into the hairy man’s cage. The careless youth ends up with a golden finger and golden hair. In both versions, the princess pushes gold coins on him; in The Wild Man it is roasted fowl filled with gold. Hans = iron. The lad = gold. Why? I cannot concoct an answer.

I glance up and see the ghost of Wilhelm standing by my fire, peering into the flames. This tale, both versions, must have had special significance for Wilhelm. He and his brother, Jacob, were devoted to each other, all throughout their family’s travails. Wilhelm and Jacob had a comradery not unlike Gilgamesh and Enkidu, not unlike Iron Hans and the young prince. To what degree is this their story, a men’s story?

Your thoughts?

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

Jew in bush.jpgJohn B. Gruelle

A Thorny Tale

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

“That one.”

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

“How do you know?”

“I read it.”

“Read it to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jew hatTraditional Jewish Hat

Not So Bad?

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

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

“Hmmm. Jew in the Thornbush last night.”

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

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

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

“She asked me to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Jew too

Not So Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?