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

Salt Ivan Bilibin Ivan Bilibin

At Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salt 1900 Ivan Ivan Bilibin

Those Russians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duckworth shakes his head and nibbles on another cookie.

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

“Their father threw them out of the house.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salt Tapisserie_bato1  Bayeux Tapestry

Vikings All

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you heard of Up Helly Aa?”

“Only in passing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Augustus smiles.

Will absurdities never end?

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2012 Vasilisa the Beautiful – Part One

bilibinbabawhite Ivan Bilibin

Edge of the Forest

The forest before me is dark, darker than the twilight surrounding me. Really, it is too cold to be out here, but I have on my heavy fur coat and there is the warmth of the pipe I am smoking.

Vasilisa the Beautiful entered this forest, not of her own will, but not without good advice.

Although the daughter of a well-to-do merchant, she became the victim of a stepmother with two preferred daughters. A small wooden doll, given to Vasilisa by her mother, as she lay on her deathbed, protects the girl from harm. Vasilisa, heeding her mother’s instructions, feeds the doll food and drink, reciting, “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little, and drink a little, and listen to my grief.” The doll’s eyes shine; it comes to life, eats, drinks, then gives Vasilisa advice and aid.

The stepmother’s cruelty finds its greatest expression when Vasilisa is sent to the home of the witch Baba Yaga for light when their own home falls into darkness. On her way to Baba Yaga’s  hut, she sees a man all in white on a white horse and a man all in red on a red horse. Standing before Baba Yaga’s home, she sees a man all in black on a black horse. Baba Yaga comes on a great wind, riding a mortar propelled by rowing the pestle.

Baba Yaga takes Vasilisa within the fence of human bones lined with skulls, to her hut, which moves around on chicken legs. Baba Yaga gives the girl impossible tasks to perform the next day—or be eaten for supper. With the aid of the wooden doll, the tasks are accomplished for two days.

The witch then encourages the girl to ask questions. Vasilisa asks about the three riders. Baba Yaga replies they are her servants, the day, the sun, and the night, but had Vasilisa asked about things inside of the hut she would have eaten her.

Baba Yaga then asked a question of her own. How was it that the girl could complete the tasks given her? Afraid to tell the witch about the wooden doll, she replies, “The blessing of my dead mother helps me.”

Not being fond of blessed children, Baba Yaga kicks the girl out, throwing a skull with flaming eyes after her as payment for her work. Carrying the skull at the end of a stick to light her way, she returns home. Upon entering the house the skull’s eyes burn brighter, incinerating the step-relatives.

The story does not end here. Vasilisa moves in with a kindly old woman, and takes to weaving flax into linen with such craft that the fine linen eventually attracts the attention of the tsar, who, upon meeting Vasilisa the Beautiful, marries her.

Vasilisa entered the forest and returned with power and wisdom she did not have before. Baba Yaga’s home is not merely the hut of a witch. Its boney fence, the profusion of skulls, and its resident’s desire to eat children, all speak of a realm of the dead. Yet, from there Baba Yaga flies forth daily with her mortar and pestle, along with the white rider and the red rider. In the evening she returns with the black rider, suggesting there are cosmic forces at work.

To such places we vicariously follow our heroes and heroines. We crept along with the old soldier as he stole behind the twelve dancing princesses into the underworld with groves of silver, gold, and diamond trees. Likewise, we traveled with the rosemary maiden when she sought out the sun, moon, and wind to help her reclaim her husband.  Did we not trail after the youngest daughter as she rode on the back of the white bear slouching its way toward a great mountain?

I stand at the edge of the forest as the last of the day’s light fades, and startle the night with my match as I relight my pipe, then turn my back to the wood and my eyes toward home. I will not enter the forest. I might not return. I suspect only children have the courage, born of naivety and lack of cynicism, to enter.


Fairy Tales of the Month: December 2012 Vasilisa the Beautiful – Part Two

bilibinbabayaga Ivan Bilibin

Visit With a Friend

When I got to Miss Cox’s garden, my friend Alexander Afanasyev, all bundled up in a coat, scarf, and cap, sat on the wrought iron bench waiting for me. Over time I have come to realize that all of the 19th century folklorists are comfortable in Miss Cox’s garden, despite the weather. They will always agree to meet me here.

I feel sorry for Alexander. He died at age 45 (1871). Tuberculosis, he told me. I knew things had gone badly for him toward the end. He kept himself alive by selling off his library. Tsarist Russia was never kind to commoners, especially those with socialist leanings.  Alex fell afoul of its authoritarian censors more than once.

His claim to fame remains his eight volumes of Russian folktales, plus other volumes, one meant for children and another not meant for children that was published anonymously in Switzerland.

“Alex,” I said. “What can you tell me of Baba Yaga?”

“Ah, she is either the witch of all witches or not a witch at all. The ‘Baba’ part of her name means ‘grandmother’ or ‘old woman.’ The ’Yaga’ part, I believe, is connected with the Sanskrit word for ‘snake.’ Another good translation might be the word ‘horror.’ Besides being unusually ugly, she is known for eating children.”

“She appears in a number of stories, not just Vasilisa the Beautiful. Common to these stories is her flying in a steel mortar, navigating with the pestle, and covering her tracks with a broom. A fence of human bones surrounds Baba Yaga’s hut, with skulls on top of the pickets. At night the eye sockets glow, giving off an eerie light. In some stories there is room on the fence for one more skull. The gate has a lock made of jaw bones that opens and closes with a spell.

“The hut stands on chicken legs, the door turned away from visitors. One needs to get it to turn around by saying, ‘Little house, little house, Stand the way thy mother placed thee, Turn thy back to the forest and thy face to me!’ Inside the hut are disembodied hands that do the witch’s bidding. Baba Yaga always eats a supper large enough for a crowd, then falls asleep stretched out over her stove.”

I am listening to Alex, but also distracted by a firebird strutting around the garden like a peacock. It has come over to us and is pecking at Alex’s shoe.

“I did,” he continues, “collect one version in which there are three Baba Yaga sisters, all named Baba Yaga. What do you make of that?” Alex lifts an eyebrow.

I consider for a moment. “Brings to my mind the White Goddess, whom Robert Graves called the threefold muse.”

“Very good,” Alex nods at me.  “I concur. The pantheon of nature gods and goddesses are numerous with triads. As I said, Baba Yaga may not be a witch at all, but rather a reflection of an earlier mother goddess or goddesses.”

I return his nod, and reply to his point. “The day, sun, and night are at her service.”


The firebird startles and flaps away, losing a tail feather in its flight. I pick it up to admire it; an exquisite feather. I think I’ll give it to Thalia.

Fairy Tales of the Month: December 2012 Vasilisa the Beautiful – Part Three

bilibinbabalightIvan Bilibin

In Exchange

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, lays out the hero’s journey, the various stages the hero or heroine is likely to enter upon. In one stage the protagonist crosses the threshold into adventure after being called to do so. Or the protagonist may refuse the call initially, and later will labor through an ordeal to achieve the reward. Not every story will have every stage Campbell writes about. However, few fairy-tales do not have the meeting with the mentor. In Vladimir Propp’s list of fairy tale character roles the mentor is the magical helper and/or donor (of magical devices).

This mentor/donor/helper appears in many forms. In Snow White the seven dwarves fill this role, in Cinderella the fairy godmother,or in The Golden Bird the fox. The old woman in the wood helps the old soldier in The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The heroine in Sprig of Rosemary is helped by entities no less than the sun, moon, and wind.

In our story, Vasilisa the Beautiful, the helper is a wooden doll given to the heroine by her mother. Vasilisa gives the doll food and drink in exchange for advice and help.  The story makes it clear; Vasilisa would not survive without the doll.

Stepping back and taking a look at all of these magical helpers, putting aside that they are an expected part of the fairy-tale genre, let us ask, Why are they there? If we say they function to help the protagonist, then we need ask, Why do our heroes and heroines need help? As story structure goes, are not the magical helpers a cheat, a convenient answer to the way out of trouble? Why do we, the readers/listeners, want there to be magical helpers?

Perhaps the magical helpers are there because they carry a message that bears repeating. In our story, when Vasilisa faces her first hardship, the story does not say, “But Vasilisa had a magic wooden doll to give her advice.” Vasilisa was not born with the wooden doll in her pocket; she acquired it from her mother. The doll served as an extension of the mother’s wish to protect her daughter.

Further, there is an exchange. For the doll’s advice and aid, Vasilisa gives the doll food and drink. Food and drink in exchange for magical help is ever so prominent in these tales. When the heroine in The Three Forest Gnomes shares her meager crust of bread, she finds the strawberries she is seeking and departs with three other boons.

In The White Snake the hero receives help from magical creatures in exchange for having helped them. The old woman in the wood did not walk up to the soldier and tap him on the shoulder, saying, “Here, take this cloak of invisibility; you’re going to need it.” An exchange takes place between them before that happens.

We—living in a society—do not exist in a vacuum. We are constantly in a state of exchange with each other. Sometimes we exchange coins for an apple. Sometimes we exchange greetings over the phone. We might exchange a kiss, but we are always in a state of exchange.

The best exchanges are those that occur when we are helping each other. There is the message that bears repeating. That is the message we need to remember and, perhaps in those helpful moments, there is some magic.

Your Thoughts?

PS. Let me make a personal note. For me, the wooden doll is the creepiest magical helper. Dwarves, fairies, animals, old women—fine. A wooden doll that comes to life, eats, drinks, talks, works, then returns to its dormant state? Sounds like voodoo to me.