Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part One

UndAdv Nornorna_vid_UrdarbrunnenNorms at the Well of Fate, L. B. Hansen 1893

Another Wedding

It’s three in the morning. My eyes pop open and I am wide awake. This never happens to me, but I feel I am not going back to sleep. I wrap my dressing gown around me and stumble down to my study. I am awake, but my muscles and their coordination are still asleep. Perhaps, if I read a bit, I will fall back into slumber.

Staring straight ahead, I run a finger along the spines of my books on the shelves. On impulse I choose a volume.

Modern Greek Folktales, by R. M. Dawkins. I am a little startled. I came up with this volume’s companion, More Greek Folktales, the last time I did this little game of random selection. I open the volume to its table of contents and, using the Thalia method, my finger falls on The Underworld Adventure. I head for my comfy chair. Let’s see what we got.

Three brothers hear of a well at the bottom of which are three beautiful women. The brothers decide to bring up the women, the youngest brother to marry the youngest woman, the middle to marry the middle, and the eldest the eldest.

The eldest brother is lowered into the well. The women are brought up, but as the eldest and most beautiful is to be taken up, she predicts his brothers will abandon him and vie for her. She gives him two nuts containing miraculous dresses and instructs him that two sheep will soon pass by, one white and the other black. If he can grab the white sheep, it will carry him to the upper world, the black to the underworld.

He fails to catch the white, and the black then carries him to the underworld, dropping him onto the top of a tree. He rescues baby birds about to be attacked by a snake. Their monstrous bird mother, when she returns, offers to carry him back to the upper world, but he must supply her with forty sheep to eat and forty skins of water to drink during the flight.

This he does, but the supply is not quite enough and he cuts flesh from his own body to feed her, which she restores after they land.

Entering the nearest town, he takes a job with a merchant in need of an assistant. After some time the merchant is given an order to produce two dresses, one of the sun and moon, the other of the earth and flowers, but neither with stitchery or needle work—these dresses demanded by the eldest woman before she will marry the middle brother.

The eldest brother offers to get these dresses for the merchant, if he will give him wine, sweets, and raisins. Of these the assistant indulges, then opens the two nuts given to him. When the merchant gives the dresses to the bride, she knows her true husband has returned to the upper world.

During the feast before the wedding of the eldest woman and the middle brother, which the assistant and his master attend, the merchant rises and states, with words coming from God, “If I take a vine branch and set it here on the table and it grows leaves and sets fruit and gives grapes for all of us to eat, then, oh then, we may give the bride to another husband.”

Thinking it a joke, the challenge is accepted. The merchant blesses the vine branch and it immediately blossoms, maturing into grapes, enough for all.

“The bride is to be taken in marriage by the young man whom I have with me,” says the merchant,  “and I myself will set on their heads the crowns of marriage.”

And so the proper husband is restored to the bride . . .  I awake in my comfy chair, bathing in the morning light flooding my study.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part Two

undadv Phoenix-Fabelwesen Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822)

A Coincidence

Half a block down the street I see Melissa’s bookshop. Of course I am heading there. Ever since waking up with Modern Greek Folktales fallen into my lap, I have felt to be in a trance.

Still bleary-eyed, I enter her store. My focus returns with an almost audible snap when I spy Modern Greek Folktales sitting on her counter. I put my finger on the volume and stare at Melissa.

She looks at me, at the book, and back to me. “Are you accusing me of something?”

“No . . .  Yes . . . in a way. Why is this book here?”

“Because I am reading it.” Offense creeps into her voice.

“Were you reading it at three o’clock this morning and did you read The Underground Adventure?”

Her rising umbrage evaporates. “It called to you too? I woke and in my mind was the image of the book sitting in my ‘Stately Old Books’ section. I didn’t remember having that book on my shelves, but when I came down and looked, there it was.”

“I need a good, stout cup of tea.”

“We may need something stronger.”

“It’s early. Tea will do.”

We soon sit with teacups of steaming black tea. “Why now? Why this story?” Melissa asks.

“Let us ask what the story is about,” I suggest. “Maybe there is a clue in that.”

Melissa takes a long sip of tea. “It’s about marriage.”

“So many fairy tales are,” I say.

“It’s about the ‘true husband,’ ” Melissa adds, “rather than the ‘true bride.’”

“The ‘true husband’ is not as common,” I agree.

“Three women at the bottom of a well,” she muses.

“Great start for a fairy tale.”

Melissa ignores me. “The women are magical and yet cannot act for themselves.”

“A reflection of the attitude toward women at the time?” I suggest.

“Agreed,” she says, then goes on. “Only two magical dresses in nuts. The usual number is three. Another unusual point is that the protagonists are the eldest brother and eldest woman, and not the youngest of the two sets.”

“I assume the women are sisters.”

“The story does not say that,” Melissa warns.

“Then there are the sheep,” I say.

“Yes, the sheep. The sheep show up two times: the black and white sheep and the forty sheep as food.”

“That does suggest this story springs from a pastoral culture.”

“That is another assumption,” Melissa replies, “but I will allow it. What of the monstrous bird?”

“The phoenix popped into my head, but I have no valid reason to think that.”

Melissa sips her tea and I realize I have drained mine.

“Cutting off his flesh to feed the bird.” She frowns. “That is remarkable.”

I pour myself some more tea from the pot kept warm by its cozy. “We enter into the theme of sacrifice?”

“I am not sure how to categorize that. He does get his flesh back, softening the importance of the act in story terms.”

“And,” I state, “when he gets back to the upper world, he does not go home and claim his bride, but takes a position with a merchant.”

“The story gets odder and more unusual the more we think about it,” Melissa resolves.

“Are we any closer to answering our original question? What is the story about?”

“No,” says Melissa.

We brood over our cups of tea.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part Three

uNDaDV Charles Thomas Bale 1881 Charles Thomas Bale 1881

More Reflection

“The story,” Melissa says carefully, constructing her argument, “is in three acts. Act One: The brothers go to the well and the eldest brother is abandoned there. Act Two: The eldest brother travels to the underworld and returns. Act Three: The eldest reclaims his bride with the help of the merchant.”

“In those acts,” I contribute, “I see these larger themes. In Act One I see the theme of the traitorous brothers. We can trace this one back to the biblical Joseph, his brothers throwing him into a pit, then selling him into slavery.

“In Act Two, well, is that not the hero’s journey? A bit truncated, but still the basic elements are there: the bird as magical helper, the near defeat when all is lost before he cuts off his own flesh.

“In Act Three, I cannot help thinking about Ulysses returning home to Ithaca to find a house full of suitors for his wife, and into which he enters in disguise.”

“Oh, I like that,” says Melissa, “especially that last bit. But now I am thinking about the two eldest not only being the protagonists, but how the younger brothers and younger women hardly appear in the story. We are told they are there. However, we never hear from them. The baby chicks have far more to say and do. No, the story is about the two eldest and their travail. Everything else is peripheral.”

“Except,” I say, “the merchant, specifically in the wedding scene. When God starts to speak through him, the story belongs to the merchant and we hear from no one else, not even the two eldest.”

“Yes,” agrees Melissa, with a bit of surprise in her voice. “Which is again unusual when you consider the story starts with the brothers going to and descending into a well. That’s pure pagan imagery.”

I look at my empty second cup of tea that I don’t remember drinking. “I am feeling suspicious that our God was tacked onto the end of this tale at a later date, much like Grimms’ Girl without Hands.  In the 1812 version, the story is quite pagan, but by the last edition Wilhelm has added an angel into the conclusion.”

“We,” smiles Melissa, “have now fallen into talking about older tales becoming victims of newer mores and we drift from our original purpose.”

“Again,” I return the smile.

“What is the story about,” Melissa restates, “and why did it call to us?”

“Right,’ I say, “let’s stick with it being about the two eldest struggling to marry and we’ll leave God out of it. “

“No, we should not,” Melissa say. (I think she is changing course.) “I observed when we started this conversation that the magical women could not act for themselves. For all of the eldest woman’s insight, she is powerless.

“The eldest brother’s courage is tested, he battles the snake and cuts flesh from his body. But by the end of the tale, he has given over his authority to the merchant, who is being instructed by God. Both she and he have ended up in the hands of fate.”

Why the word ‘fate’ triggers my memory I do not know.

“This is my anniversary,” I say.

“Of?” Melissa’s eyes widen.

“My marriage.”

Melissa exhales, “Mine as well. The tale called to us because it is about marriage after all, just as I first stated.”

We are quiet for some time.

“May I ask?” Melissa looks at me. “When did she die?”

My heart contracts. “Many years ago. In childbirth,” is all I can answer. Melissa does not press me.

“And you?” I ask.

“I think,” she sighs, “I ended up marrying the middle brother. Not the one who was meant for me.”

Your thoughts?

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Fairy Tales of the Month: October 2018 Blue Beard – Part One

Bluebeard Gustave Dore Gustave Dore

Halloween Treats

Halloween is about tradition. Of course traditions have to start somewhere, and in our new tradition, Melissa—dressed as a witch, hiding as best she can her red hair—takes Thalia around the neighborhood. Much booty, dropped into a paper bag, is to be gotten this way.

I suggested to Thalia she costume herself as a fairy or an ogress, but to my disappointment she chose to be a princess.

The culmination of the evening occurs in my study. I build a fire in the hearth and turn out the lights. Thalia feasts on her take as Melissa reads us an uncanny tale.

“It will be a Grimm story,” Melissa announces and Thalia applauds. “One of the omitted tales,” Melissa continues. “Blue Beard.”

“Omitted?” asks Thalia.

“It was in the 1812 edition, but dropped from the last edition. Perhaps Wilhelm thought it too violent.”

Thalia grins broadly in anticipation. Melissa, still dressed in her witch’s costume and squinting in the low light, begins.

A man, who has three sons and a daughter, is approached by a king who wishes to marry the girl. The honor is too great for the father to refuse, despite the king’s unsettling blue beard.

The daughter consents to the marriage with trepidation and asks her brothers to come to her aid if needed. They promise to come at her call.

All goes well in her new home. All her desires are fulfilled. She would have been happy except, in the presence of her husband, the blue beard makes her uneasy.

Before leaving on a long trip, Blue Beard gives her the key to the castle, including a small golden key she must not use on pain of death.

Thalia sits in Melissa’s lap, wide-eyed, munching caramel corn.

Having the keys, the girl explores all the rooms of the castle, filled with treasures, until only the one opened by the golden key remains.

Curiosity, be it creative or destructive, causes her to open the last door.

In that room hangs the decimated bodies of Blue Beard’s previous wives. Blood courses across the floor. The golden key falls from the lock onto the floor and into the blood.

Horrified, she tries to wipe the blood from the key, but as she cleans one side the blood appears on the other.

Thalia stops munching and peers off into space.

Blue Beard returns and soon asks for the keys. She has removed the golden key from the ring. He notices and demands her death. She pleads to say her final prayers and this he grants. She goes upstairs and calls out to her brothers, who, mysteriously despite the distance, can hear her.

Blue Beard, annoyed by the delay, threatens to come upstairs and drag her away, which he does, but not in time to prevent the brothers from coming to the rescue. They hang his body in the room with his former wives, the treasures of the castle now belonging to his surviving wife.

“Wow,” Thalia admires, then inspects her bag for more treats.

I throw a few more logs on the fire. “Another wonderfully odd tale from the Grimms.”

“And appropriate for the times,” says Melissa.

“How so?”

“I am thinking of the #MeToo movement.”

“Really,” I say. “I am not seeing the connection.”

“Thalia is falling asleep.” Melissa looks fondly at her charge. “I’d better put her to bed.”

Thalia’s eyes are closed; her hand is in her goody bag, but not moving.

“We need to talk on this,” I say. “I’ll go find a bottle of wine.”

“Red,” she says.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2018 Blue Beard – Part Two

Bluebeard-Beauge-Bertall Beauge Bertall

Poe Anyone?

Melissa takes off her witch’s hat, her red hair falling from underneath it, settles into one of my comfy chairs, and sips her glass of wine. “Before I start grinding my axe,” she begins, “what do you see in the story?”

I sense a pit opening up before me in which to fall. ”Well, we have seen the woman with the key opening a door or a box many times in these tale—and myths for that matter. The consequences are uniformly bad. The woman’s weakness is always curiosity and the breaking of a promise not to peek. Let me agree right away neither of these infractions deserves a death penalty.”

Melissa ignores my attempt at cover. “Is curiosity a weakness in men?”

I hear the first passing swoosh of the pendulum blade. “Ah,” I say, thinking hard as I open my mouth. “In the tales, curiosity is reserved for women. Men will go adventuring to find answers, but that is not called curiosity. I see your point.”

Melissa nods. “Logically—and I know better than to apply logic to fairy tales, but bear with me for argument’s sake—logically, if Blue Beard did not want the heroine to enter the forbidden room, he would not have given her the key.”

I hear the pendulum on its returning pass. I stare at my wine glass. I haven’t drunk any. Melissa’s is already half empty.

“Where is the #MeToo in Blue Beard?” I ask. “It was told long, long before social media existed.”

Melissa laughs a little. “This social media debate is the present-day iteration about the concept behind The Fall.”

“As in Adam and Eve?”

“As in Eve,” she replies. “The Fall is blamed on Eve. Adam gets off as being only a witless accomplice.”

I hear the pendulum again; a little closer this time.

Melissa takes a long sip of wine. “Eve eats an apple from the Tree of Knowledge and becomes the equal of God. That act God cannot tolerate and he expels her from the Garden along with her sidekick, Adam, condemning her to eventual death.

“The girl in Blue Beard uses the golden key and obtains knowledge about her husband. This is enlightenment, which he cannot tolerate and condemns her to death.

“In both cases, God and Blue Beard allow access to the forbidden knowledge. In both cases they tempt their adversary, who, in both cases are guileless, innocently trapped into the machinations of the male figures.”

Hey rats, gnaw on those leather straps that bind me. I haven’t much time.

“You might,” I suggest, “get struck by lightning for comparing God to Blue Beard.”

Melissa narrows her eyes. “It’s been said God created man in his own image and man returned the compliment. I take it the masculine aspect of our culture needs the feminine to be subjugated or she will rival and become equal to the male persona, be it a god’s or a king’s.”

Swoosh.

Subjugate,” I echo. “If I understand you that is the operative word.”

Melissa raises a finger and takes another sip. “Thank you for understanding me. This is an argument my former husband could not consider.”

The pendulum blade disappears in mid-arc. I am a little embarrassed I had not seen this connection before. I did not suppose that the #MeToo movement addresses a problem as ancient as our creation story.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2018 Blue Beard – Part Three

Bluebeard Walter Crane Walter Crane

King Conomor

I pour Melissa some more wine and finally take a sip of my own.

“In defense of men,” I say, “it is her brothers who come to the rescue.”

“Granted, but now we enter into family relationships, different from other social bonds. Men will treat their mothers and sisters differently than any other women. The brothers’ rescue of their sister does not water down my observation of the overriding social divide between the masculine and the feminine.”

I feel compelled to change the topic to another aspect of the story.

“Why a blue beard?” I offer up for discussion.

“Indeed,” says Melissa. “Does it have anything to do with blue blood?”

“That’s a stretch.”

“Maybe not. In the late medieval period blue became one of the colors of royalty; the court of Louis IX to be specific. Blue Beard was described as a king.”

I take another sip of wine. “I was thinking, the blue beard served at a sort of stigmata, simply marking him as different from everyone else. Even above the law, you might say. However, I don’t think I have run into any other blue beards.”

Melissa stares into the fire’s flames as she speaks. “When I decided to read this story to Thalia I did some research. I didn’t find any blue beards in the story’s variants, not even Mr. Fox, its best-known relative.

“I did find a Welsh legend of the medieval king Conomor, a historic figure. A story is woven around this actual king that he killed his first three wives before marrying the fourth, Tryphine. She finds the secret room where relics of the former wives are kept. She prays for their souls and their ghosts appear to warn her that Conomor will kill her when she becomes pregnant because of the prophecy he will be killed by his son.

“When she does become pregnant, she flees but is caught and beheaded by Conomor. Saint Gildas restores Tryphine to life and returns with her to Conomor. His castle collapses around him and he is killed.”

“Did Conomor have a blue beard?” I ask.

“Not that the legend tells us.”

“Perhaps the beard is Charles Perrault’s invention; the Grimms’ stole that story from him, you know. But,” I enjoin, “let’s change the color of our conversation. What about the golden key?”

“Yes!” exclaims Melissa. “What an image. Blood wiped from one side of the key appears on the other. I’ll guess that is another Perrault addition. Do you recall Grimms’ The Fitcher’s Bird, where the heroine is obliged to carry around an egg that gets stained with blood in the forbidden chamber?”

The Fitcher’s Bird, of course. “I know it well. It is as close a relative as Mr. Fox.”

“Let me propose,” Melissa straightens herself in the comfy chair, “that The Fitcher’s Bird is much closer to the origins of this motif than Perrault’s version.”

“Go on.” I am delighted. I think I know where this is going.

“Charles Perrault was a skilled writer, writing for a court audience, not for scholars. Whatever tale he drew his version from I feel safe guessing he edited out what he didn’t like and added his own spin.

“The Grimms, while they were not shy of making changes in the tales, were scholars in search of the German folk-voice and allowed the folk messiness of The Fitcher’s Bird to remain in the story.

“The egg almost has to be a pagan holdover. For me, that suggests The Fitcher’s Bird predates Perrault’s Blue Beard, even though the latter was published a decade before the former.”

Raising my glass, I say, “Well argued.”

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part One

Sweetheart Roland oneArthur Rackham

It’s Saturday

Saturday and I have a special relationship. Saturday is when I take Thalia to Serious Books to purchase her reading for the week. If no other time, this is when I get to visit with Melissa Serious. That Thalia’s room is filling up with books worries her mother, who claims books accumulate dust, invoking the threat of allergies. I will hear none of it.

Augustus has a bell above his door in the tobacco shop to announce customers. Melissa has no such thing. One can slip in and out without notice, as Melissa usually has her nose buried in a book and may not see you.

Thalia, of course, declares her arrival and rushes to Melissa for a hug. Melissa is a little startled, so deep into what she is reading.

After the hug, I knit my brow at Melissa in question as to what absorbs her attention. Thalia is running off to her section of the bookstore, but does a 180-degree turn when Melissa says, “I am angered by this fairy tale.”

“Which tale?” asks Thalia.

I sense Melissa’s embarrassment at drawing Thalia into her personal conflict with a tale, but Melissa does not falter.

Sweetheart Roland,” she says, opening her book again and reading to us.

The evil and ugly daughter of a witch covets the apron of her kind and lovely stepsister. The witch decides to kill her stepdaughter while she sleeps. However, the good daughter overhears their plan and arranges things so that the witch, in the dark of night, murders her own daughter.

The girl runs off to her sweetheart Roland, saying they must flee. Roland suggests she steal the witch’s wand. This the girl does, also taking the head of her stepsister, letting three drops of blood fall; one at the foot of the bed, one in the hallway, and one in the kitchen.

In the morning, the witch calls to her daughter to give her the apron and the drop of blood in the hallway answers. Seeing no one there, the witch calls again and the drop of blood in the kitchen answers. On the third call, the blood in the bedroom answers and the witch finds her beheaded daughter. Putting on her seven-league boots, she takes off after the girl.

Seeing her coming, the girl uses the wand to turn Roland into a lake and herself into a duck. For all the bread crumbs the witch casts onto the water, the duck is not lured in and at night the witch returns home.

The couple resumes their human form and they travel all night. In the morning the girl turns herself into a flower inside a briar patch and Roland into a fiddler.

When the witch appears again she recognizes the flower in the briar patch as the girl and asks the fiddler if she may pick it. He agrees, but as soon as the witch climbs into the briars, he plays a tune on his fiddle, forcing the witch to dance about, getting lashed by the thorns until she bleeds to death.

Roland returns to his father to prepare for a wedding and the girls waits for Roland in the form of a red stone. Roland does not return, being ensnared by another woman.

The girl changes herself into a flower and is picked by a shepherd and put into a chest. To the shepherd’s surprise, some mysterious being is now cleaning his house and preparing his meals. A wisewoman tells him to rise very early and throw a white cloth over anything that moves. This he does when he sees the flower coming out of the chest, and it turns back into the girl. The shepherd wants to marry her, but she only agrees to keep house for him.

Soon she hears Roland is to be married. Heartbroken, she does not want to go to the wedding, but the other girls come and take her away with them to sing songs to the bridal couple. When Roland hears her, his memory returns. He declares she is the true bride and he will have no other.

“Humph, I don’t like Roland,” Thalia grouses.

“Nor do I,” agrees Melissa.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part Two

Sweetheart Roland two Illustration 1909

The Sweetheart

“That’s Grimm, isn’t it?” I whisper after Thalia is far enough away, safely ensconced in “her” aisle.

“And a little too typical for my taste,” replied Melissa.

I take a seat in one of her overstuffed chairs.

“It sounds like a perfectly good tale to me,” I say, and see her expression shift, telegraphing that I am going to regret my words.

“Perfectly good tale?” she shrills a bit. “I should say not. I am happy Thalia sensed its failings as I have.”

“What failings?” I protest.

“Wilhelm Grimm’s view of women.” She takes a seat across from mine.

Half my mind knows better than to argue a politically incorrect point, but the other half pushes on.

“What?” I demand.

“Wilhelm makes two assumptions about women. First, women are keen on seeing each other as rivals, to the point of murder. There is no sense of ‘brotherhood’ among them. Second, men are naturally superior with no need to defend that position.”

Ouch. This is going to be hard. She’s thought this out.

“Give me a ‘for example,’” I challenge.

“All of Sweetheart Roland,” Melissa returns.

“I really don’t think Wilhelm set out to be offensive to women,” I say.

“And that is my point. He made assumptions. He didn’t think about his depiction of his female protagonists. He represents women as being their own worst enemies. It is the girl’s own stepmother and stepsister who plot against her for the possession of an apron. Note, the stepfather is nowhere mentioned and therefore blameless whether he is alive or dead.”

“He’s really kind of nonexistent in this tale,” I comment.

“True. Wilhelm shows a women’s world full of female backstabbers. Let’s visit Cinderella, Snow White, the Three Forest Gnomes, The Goose Girl, even Hansel and Gretel; mothers, witches, servants, and siblings try to destroy the heroines. What sort of role model are they for Thalia?”

I shift uneasily in my chair. She’s got me close to home on that one.

“Wait, there are evil men in the Grimm tales. What about Bluebeard?”

“For every evil male, Wilhelm tells tales of ten evil females.”

I haven’t counted them up, but that is probably true.

“However,” Mellissa continues, “when Wilhelm does have an evil male, the culprit is usually waylaying some poor female. And here I will give Wilhelm credit; the heroine will best the antagonist and come out on top.”

“I am glad you give Wilhelm a little credit. He haunts my study sometimes, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know, but I am not surprised. I should not be there when he does.”

I smile. “What of your objection to Roland?”

Melissa takes a deep breath. “I have sworn not to utter my former husband’s name and I will not. But his image rises before me as I read Sweetheart Roland.”

I am not even going to try to win this argument. I have stepped on Melissa’s toes.

Melissa launches into her point, “I did my research. I read to you the final 1857 version. In the 1812 version the girl has already taken the wand and dripped the drops of blood before she goes to Roland. Apparently, on rewrite, Wilhelm sensed Roland’s uselessness and gave him a role in their escape by suggesting she steal the wand. Making him even more distasteful in my eyes, Wilhelm presents Roland as self-seeking, though I think he did not intend too.

“Then, after the girl destroys the witch, he goes and gets stolen by another woman. Wilhelm uses the word ‘ensnared’ that does not suggest magic, for which we could have forgiven him. Rather, Roland seems to have given into his immediate sensual desires; the girl, after all, is a red stone at this point and forgettable. Wilhelm does not identify this as a fault of character.”

I think she is being a little hard on Roland, but I will keep my mouth shut.

Thalia appears with her stack of books, ready to check out. I notice the title Wind in the Willows in her pile. She may not be a fan of Roland, but she is a fan of good literature.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part Three

Sweetheart Roland threeWalter Crane

Disembodied Voices

“Three drops of blood,” Augustus repeats the subject of my inquiry through a cloud of tobacco smoke thickening the air between our comfy chairs. “To which story do you refer? The Goose Girl? Snow White?”

Sweetheart Roland,” I say.

“Oh, but you do like the obscure ones.”

Augustus pauses to collect his thoughts. “The three drops of blood have a long lineage, going back to at least the Arthurian legends with no one less than Percival seeing three drops of blood in the snow that remind him of his sweetheart’s countenance; her pale skin and rosy cheeks. This image probably predates Percival

“In the fairy tales the most prominent colors are white, red, and black. There is a formula here. If the colors are white and red only that is an indication of the demonic. The hounds of hell are white dogs with red ears.

“It is not until the color black comes into the story, usually in the form of a crow, that the image relates to mortals. More than once in the tales, a queen sees a crow that has downed its prey in the snow, it’s victim’s blood spilling onto the ground, and the queen wishes for a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as dark as the crow.”

“What,” I ask, “do the three drops of blood represent in Sweetheart Roland?”

“Let me start with what they don’t represent. I have read a number of academic papers that argue the three drops of blood symbolize a young woman’s start of menstruation, loss of maidenhood, and birth of a child, which is appealing in intellectual terms, but that argument does not consider the tale’s audience.

“The tale’s audience was the peasantry. They routinely slaughtered animals for their meals. Blood was as common to the peasant as water, not the mysterious province of women.

“I will allow in the cities there were butchers, who began to separate their customers from the blood of what they ate, but the culture at that time was still largely rural and that is where the tales were being told. Blood was a common talisman, like garlic and iron, to be used against evil.”

I know our concentration on our topic is deep. I can hardly see Augustus through the dense smoke we are creating. We think and we puff.

“What interests me,” Augustus goes on, “is inanimate objects talking.”

“As in the three drops of blood in Sweetheart Roland,” I say.

“Exactly. The most famous, of course, is the magic mirror in Snow White, which also contains the three-drops-of-blood motif, but there they have no voice.”

“What jumps to my mind,” I say, “is The Horned Women.”

“Good example,” Augustus agrees. “The barred door, the cakes made with the children’s blood, and the half-sewn cloak all speak audibly to the twelve witches.”

“I will rephrase my original question. What is the role of these talking things?”

“Limited,” Augustus smiles. “Take the magic mirror. It, very appropriately, appeals to or upsets the evil queen’s vanity. In The Horned Women, the door, cakes, and cloak only confess why they cannot aid the witches. In Sweetheart Roland, the three drops of blood are planted to delay the witch, if not for very long, but when one is fleeing every second may count.

“Talking objects are not all-knowing. They have one, small, defined purpose in their particular story. Seldom do they give advice. The exception that comes to me is the spirit of the spring in The Horned Women, who instructs the woman of the house in how to proceed. But even then, it is a spirit and not the spring itself that is the helper.”

“Disembodied voices,” I contemplate. “This is the stuff of the dream-world.”

“Fairy tales are our waking dreams,” Augustus says with finality.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2018 How Idle Lars Won Himself A Princess – Part One

Hadleigh_castle_engraving 1832 Engraving 1832

Hadleigh Castle

Thalia, Melissa, and I are on a ramble. It started when I

confessed to not having seen the sea this year, instead having stayed home to feed Johannes when Thalia and her mother went to Brighton.

“Oh my dear,” Melissa had exclaimed. “One should always take at least a moment to spy the ocean annually. The sea is the heartbeat and rhythm of life.”

At her insistence, we three are now in Hadleigh Country Park, overlooking the Thames Estuary, rather close to the ocean.

Boldly, we spread our picnic blanket at the foot of one of the ruined towers of Hadleigh Castle and take in its spectacular view of the Thames flowing to the sea.

Our outing is all contained in a bulky rattan basket Melissa has lugged to the tower’s base. Pulling back the cane pins, she opens the lid and pulls out a book. I recognize it. Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark, Stories Collected by Jens Kamp. It’s a translation by my friend Stephen Badman.

“Here is our first feast,” Melissa declares, opening the book to its bookmark. “How Idle Lars Won Himself a Princess.”

Thalia and I settle back to listen to Melissa’s contralto voice.

Idle Lars had an exceptional talent for laziness. When Lars was an infant, wherever one put him that is where he would be whenever you next saw him. He would not entertain the notion of crawling away to explore.

One day, through much effort and many threats, Lars’ mother got him to fetch water from the communal well. He took with him an old pot with its legs broken off and every little while he turned it upside down to rest upon it.

The princess, sitting at her castle window, noted his slow progress and called out to him, cautioning him that his legless pot might outrun him, and would he need a boy to push him from behind on his return trip. That annoyed Lars, but he made no answer.

At the well, his pot scooped up a tiny frog that pleaded with Lars to pour him back into the well.

“No,” said Lars, “I cannot be bothered to tip you out. I’d have to fill the pot again.”

The frog promised to grant him a wish. Lars, if lazy, was no fool. He cast his broad-brimmed hat upon the ground and wished for as many wishes as his hat covered blades of grass.

His next wish, with which he thought to spite the princess, was that his pot should sprout legs. It did, and started walking home. The princess was delighted at the spectacle, but called down to Lars that he still needed a boy to push him along to keep up with the pot.

Lars grumbled, “I wish you had a boy yourself.”

It was a thoughtless thing for Lars to say, but nine months later she did have a boy. She proclaimed her innocence, but to no avail.

When the boy could walk, the king called all the men in the kingdom together—including Lars, who, in the meantime, had not bothered to make another wish. The king gave the boy a golden apple saying, “Whoever you give this apple to, will be recognized as your father.”

Although Lars stood in the back of the crowd, the child sought him out and gave him the apple. Infuriated, the king had Lars and his daughter cast out to sea on a boat to meet their doom.

Here Melissa dramatically gestures toward the Thames flowing placidly below us.

Lars lay on the deck, seasick, while the princess wept and complained until Lars exclaimed, “What do you want me to say, other than I wish we were back on dry land?”

Instantly they were. The princess put two and two together, and realized things were not as bad as she had thought. She took charge of the wishing and had Lars wish himself to be a normal human being and not a self-centered, stupid, lazy oaf. That was transformative. She then went on to have him wish for royal creature comforts such as a castle, some servants, an army, and a decent wardrobe for both of them.

The next morning the king awoke and looked out his window to see an island and a castle that had not been there before. He goes to the island to be greeted by an honor guard, at the end of which is his daughter and a transformed Lars. Befuddled, but pleased, he says, “What will be will be.”

That declaration is followed by a happy, three-day-long marriage feast.

Thalia and I are content with the story, but I wonder what else is in Melissa’s wicker basket.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2018 How Idle Lars Won Himself a Princess – Part Two

Hadleigh_castle_engraving_1783_trimmed Engraving 1783

Melissa’s Basket

Next from Melissa’s basket appears a bottle of claret, two wine glasses, a small jug of sarsaparilla, and a sturdy cup. Thalia’s eyes glimmer at the soda as Melissa pours it into the cup, sending its strong, sweet smell lofting in the air, along with Thalia’s giggle of delight.

“The protagonist in your tale is Lars,” I say, “but it’s a woman’s story isn’t it?” I take the glass of claret she offers me.

“That element of the princess taking charge does attract me to the story, I will confess. This one in particular has its charm. The Danes have a generally positive view on women. It seems,” she observes, “different countries hold their women to different standards, as least as they are reflected in the fairy tales.”

“The local tales,” I say, “are probably a rather good barometer of a country. What are your perceptions?”

“The Germans, I’ll say, are the hardest on their women, if we accept the Grimms as representative.” She swirls the dark, red wine in her glass. “In the Grimms’ canon there is the story King Thrushbeard and among the Irish tales The Queen of Tinkers. It’s the same story, but in the Grimms’ version the princess must be humbled. In the Irish tale she must be strong.

“Did you know the Germans never had a regent queen? The English had Queen Elizabeth, who absolutely defined her era. The Russians can boast of Catherine the Great. Germany, when it comes to speaking of it famous queens, we hear crickets chirping.”

Melissa pauses to bring out a cheese board, a block of Stilton, water biscuits and a small jar of blueberry jam from her epicurean basket. The jam, in particular, attracted Thalia’s attention.

Dipping a slice of cheese into the jam, I question, “Why do so many of the female protagonists in these tales end up getting married in the course of the story?”

Melissa sips her wine, contemplating. “At the time these fairy tales took the shape in which we now find them, there was not a lot of social mobility, and virtually none for women. Their marriage would determine their status. So, I’ll suppose young women’s future marriage was very much on their minds.

“On the other hand,” she continues, “in the fairy tales, the heroines never start out to find husbands. Husbands happen to them, such as in How Idle Lars Won Himself a Princess.

Melissa opens her basket again and produces a covered bowl of mixed nuts. The lid removed, I spot a fat macadamia nut and pick it out as I say, “You have prompted a thought in me. You said, at the time, there was little social mobility. I infer from that there was little status change as well. But frequently the tales, as in our tale’s case, are about change in status; the oafish Lars becomes a king. It seems to me that goes beyond wishful thinking into the impossible.”

“But that’s the fun of it!” Thalia joins in, “Dreaming the impossible.”

I suppose she is right.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2018 How Idle Lars Won Himself a Princess – Part Three

EngraHadleigh-Castle-by-an-unknown-artist-1735 Engraving 1735

Concerning Status

From the magic basket comes Melissa’s Curried Chicken and Pasta Salad, one of her no-fail crowd pleasers. I am delighted but I watch Thalia eye the offering suspiciously. She tastes it. Her brows knit, then she takes a second bite. I am proud of her. A child willing to venture beyond macaroni cheese as a culinary delight shows promise.

While staring up at the ruined tower of Hadleigh Castle, its ancient stonework sheltering us from the sun, Melissa comments, “I do notice a gender pattern in the tales concerning status. In the course of the tales young women fall from their status to a lower status, then struggle to return to that position or, in some cases, a higher one.

“In our story the princess is cast out to sea with Idle Lars to meet their fate. She turns it around to restore her position and bring Lars around to decency.”

I nod in agreement, my mouth full of pasta salad, so Melissa continues. “Men may start out as farm hands and rise to become kings. Lars is a selfish, idle oaf and wins himself a princess. There is no fall from grace with the men.”

“I like this!” Thalia declares, holding her fork.

Fall from grace,” I echo. “What does that say about how we perceive the roles of men and women in society?”

“Exactly my point,” says Melissa, taking a moment to nod to Thalia. “Women are at a disadvantage. They fight to maintain what they have. Men get to venture forward. Women who are on the road were forced out or are fleeing. Men are on the road to seek their fortunes.”

We watch a container ship, in silent effort, slowly, laboriously work its way up the Thames Estuary headed for the Port of London.

“In our story,” I return to the subject, “what about the disappearing child? When his mother and supposed father are cast out to sea, does he go with them?” I let a little false shock enter my voice.

Melissa, smiling, claps her hands once at my humor. “You have addressed the economy of characters so common to the fairy tale. Of course we don’t know what happens to the child. He has played his role and since he no longer forwards the story, he disappears. Though a prince he may be, he no longer shows his face.

“Also in our story, he is not the first to meet that fate. Lars’ parents are given no better. Lars’ father is mentioned at the start, so we know Lars had a recognized father. (Lars’ parentage of his son is not so clear.) Lars has a conversation with his mother, who sends him to the communal well, but after that she is no longer part of the story. Even when Lars is transformed into a decent human being and becomes king, there is no mention of him inviting his parents to live with him and his wife in the castle. Some tales will extend that courtesy, but they are usually French.”

“Fathers,” I say, finishing off my salad, “suffer the most from what you call the economy of characters. The notable exception is in Hansel and Gretel, where the children returning to their father at the end of the tale is their return to their former status. He needs to be there. Usually, as in the Beauty and the Beast variants, the father creates the dilemma, but then fades from the story as the jealous sisters take over.”

Melissa nods in agreement as, for dessert, she presents from her basket a peach cobbler. All conversation ceases.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2018 Habitrot – Part One

Habitrot Douglas-Scottish_FFT(1901)-p109-Habitrot-illustr-J_TorranceJames Torrance

A Spinning Tale

The Victorians had what they called “Red Letter Days.” Today is one of those. Well, perhaps this is a Red Letter Evening. Melissa is here in my study, reading to Thalia sitting on her lap, giving mine a rest. We are joined by Johannes and the fairy, a greater company than our study readings has ever had.

“In the old days,” Melissa reads, “when spinning was the constant employment of women, the spinning wheel had its presiding genius or fairy. Her Border name was Habitrot…”

Melissa reads from Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, collected by Sir George Douglas.

A Selkirkshire woman had an only daughter, one not given to the distaff or wheel, but was wont to wandering through meadows and lanes. The mother challenged her to spin seven lints of flax within three days. After two days of trying and crying herself to sleep at night, she wandered off into the meadows, where she met an old woman with misshapen lips, sitting on a self-bored stone, drawing out thread. The girl engaged her in friendly conversation, and the ancient woman offered to do the girl’s spinning. Joyfully, the girl gave her the task and asked for her name. The old woman did not answer that and disappeared.

Confused, the girl lingered near the self-bored stone and fell asleep. At evening she awakened to hear voices rising from the stone. Putting her ear to the stone, she learned the old woman’s name was Habitrot.

At the mention of Habitrot, our fairy flutters into the air in a corkscrew motion of ecstasy.

“Friend of hers,” Johannes explains.

Looking through the hole in the stone, the girl saw Habitrot and her spinsters, all with deformed lips, spinning yarn for her. She also learned, when Habitrot addressed Scantlie Mab, who handled the reel, that they were about to deliver the yarn. Delighted, the girl started toward home, but was overtaken by Habitrot before she got there.

“What do I owe you?” the girl asked.

“Nothing,” was the reply.

“Ah!” puts in Johannes, “A typical brownie.”

The girl returned home, and having eaten nothing all day, fried up and ate the seven black puddings her mother had made. In the morning, her mother found the seven black puddings gone, but the seven lints of flax made into fine yarn.

Conflicted with the loss and the gain, she went out of the house crying, “My daughter has spun seven, seven, seven. My daughter has eaten seven, seven, seven. And all before daylight!”

A lord, who happened to be passing by, asked the woman about her gibberish. The woman took him into her house to show him the yarn and introduced him to her blushing daughter.

Guess what. He fell in love with the pretty and industrious peasant girl—with a good appetite—and proposed marriage. The girl worried that the lord would be disappointed in the industrious part of his perception of her. Again, Habitrot came to her aid, telling the young bride to have her husband peer through the self-bored stone. When he did, he saw Habitrot dancing over and around her spinning wheel singing:

 

“We who live in dreary den

Are both rank and foul to see,

Hidden frae the glorious sun

That teems the fair earth’s canopie:

Ever must our evenings lone

Be spent on the colludie stone.

 

Cheerless in the evening grey

When Causleen hath died away,

But ever bright and ever fair

Are they who breathe this evening air;

And lean upon the self-bored stone

Unseen by all but me alone.”

Scantlie Mab asked Habitrot about that last line and Habitrot brought the royal couple down into her underworld though a door in a tree. The lord, realizing the hardship that spinning would put upon his wife, protested that she should ever face the wheel again. All flax, thereafter, was given to Habitrot to spin.

Thalia applauds and Melissa applauds with her. Our fairy, returning to ecstasy, circles again in the air.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2018 Habitrot – Part Two

Habitrot Woodcut_Woman_Spinning_Detail Woodcut

A Conversation

We sit in Miss Cox’s garden waiting for Sir George Douglas, at Melissa’s request. Miss Cox has set out a proper tea on the wrought-iron table in front of our wrought-iron bench.

Sir George, a pleasant-looking man with a mustache and goatee, appears at the gate, giving us a casual salute from afar. I would think the dead would be disoriented, being summoned back by the living from the grave. But in Miss Cox’s garden they never are. I will have to assume the dead have many requests for interviews and ours is just one more.

“Sir?” he addresses me. I point to Melissa.

“Madam?” he corrects.

I am Melissa Serious.”

“I am sure you are,” he quips.

“And I have some questions for you.” Melissa smiles with a bit of glimmer in her eye. Sir George is obviously a man with a sense of humor, which is worth a dozen men without.

“Tell me about Habitrot,” Melissa asks as she does the honor of pouring us cups of tea.

“Habitrot, yes. Some claim she is the goddess of spinning, but I can’t but feel this is too high a status. No, she is of the brownie ilk; always working, yet never accepting payment. The typical brownie will take nothing for its services beyond very humble offerings, such as a bowl of milk, a crust of bread, left without fanfare in a corner of the room. Nor do brownies like their names known, another sign that Habitrot is of their kind since she does not tell the girl her name when asked.”

“And Scantlie Mab?” Melissa takes a sip of tea.

“I have not come across her outside of this story,” Sir George reflects.

“Speaking of names,” says Melissa, setting down her cup, “Rumpelstiltskin comes to mind.”

“As does Tom Tit Tot,” Sir George adds. “Both are reluctant to reveal their names, just like Habitrot, but in their cases for sinister reasons.”

Melissa nods. “I can’t help but observe that if the magical helper is male, they are manipulative. If they are female, they are beneficial; it’s Habitrot’s benevolence that attracts me to the tale.”

“In that respect,” Sir George takes a sip of his tea, “our tale is similar to the Grimms’ The Three Spinning Fairies, the differences being that the fairies take small gifts and favors as payment—making them fairies, not brownies, in my mind—their names are not an issue in this story, and the tale goes for a laugh at the end.”

“Yes,” agrees Melissa, “but Habitrot has more than a joke. I feel it is a message about the tyranny of the spinning wheel over women. It’s a bit of a feminist statement before there was feminism.”

“Likely,” agrees Sir George. “These tales were often told by women for women to lighten their burden while they did repetitive, onerous tasks.”

“Another question, “Melissa’s eyes squint, “what on earth is a self-bored stone? How does a stone bore itself?”

Sir George raises an index finger in the air. “A valid question. They are, as you may guess, magical. More likely than not, they are glassy in appearance, can be of various sizes, the hole occurring naturally—perhaps from dripping water—or formed on purpose from the hardened saliva of dragons, which is my preferred explanation.”

Sir George winks, then continues. “They protect their owner from eye diseases, are a defense against evil charms, prevent nightmares, aid in the recovery from snake bites, and—for some reason—cure whooping cough.

“More importantly, looking through the hole allows one to see into the fairy world or see through fairy disguises. In the case of Habitrot, it is a window into her underground world and her spinster minions.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2018 Habitrot – Part Three

Habitrot frigga-spinning-the-clouds-by-john-charles-dollman-1909

Frigga Spinning the Clouds, by John Charles Dollman

Wishful Thinking

“Spinsters?” I say, “Are not spinsters unmarried women, that is women beyond the age of marriage?”

“That they are,” says Sir George.

“Is there an inference that if a woman isn’t married and has no children, then all that is left to her is spinning?” I venture.

“Or,” says Melissa, “without a husband, spinning is her only income.”

“In either case,” returns Sir George, “‘spinsters’ is a mildly derogatory term.”

“Why,” I declare, “do we look down on those who do the menial labor that the rest of us depend upon?”

Sir George looks a little embarrassed at my comment, and Melissa sits properly erect. “That is,” she says, “the history of women.”

Sir George sighs. “I wish it were not so. Women’s opportunities to do work, other than household drudgeries, during the time these fairy tales were evolving, was limited. I have my suspicions that these tales were more than being told by women for women, but were created by women out of wishful thinking.”

“Wishful thinking,” echoes Melissa. “I will put it more strongly: as a wish to escape and rise above their circumstances.

“If the tale centers on a heroine, she is trying to escape from something. In Habitrot, the girl is escaping the duties of spinning. Often the stakes are higher. In Cinderella, she is escaping the domination of her stepmother and stepsisters. In Snow White, she is fleeing the attempt to murder her. In Rapunzel, she is escaping her prison tower. Then there is The King Who Wished To Marry His Daughter, another Scottish tale that needs no further explanation.”

“Wait,” I say, “are they not, in your examples, fleeing toward marriage? Cannot marriage be another form of subjugation?”

“Of course,” she says, picking up her cup of tea, “but it was the only logical way for a woman to rise in status. The groom is rarely a wealth merchant, or a well-to-do farmer, but rather one of royalty, bringing the heroine into nobility or back to a station from which she had fallen.”

“Notice too,” says Sir George, finishing his tea, “the tales tend to depict a woman’s world. If there is a father in the story, he tends to disappear very quickly or play a minimal role. The conflicts are usually with the other female relatives or a witch, who is a stand-in for the evil stepmother.”

“On the flip side,” I speculate, “if the protagonist is a male, he is not escaping, but rather willingly entering into an adventure. In the Queen Bee for example, three brothers go off to seek their fortunes. They encounter an enchanted castle and free it from a curse. The young women in this story are the prizes for the young men’s deed. Again, it all ends in marriage to the protagonist’s advantage. In this case it is male wishful thinking.”

“Returning to the menial tasks,” concludes Sir George, “or any kind of labor for that matter, men could be farmers, merchants, tailors, shoemakers, lawyers, judges, soldiers, and more. Women were limited to being cooks, scullery maids, midwives, henwives, or housewives, and they would all know how to spin.”

At this point I realize I haven’t taken a sip of my tea and it is now cold. I wonder if I can get someone to warm it up for me.

Your thoughts.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2018 Quest for the Fair One of the World – Part One

quest espresso machine

Espresso

I am on the third floor of my house. I think of it as my attic, but really it is made up of a number of rooms connected by a hallway. I am preparing for one of my special meals with Duckworth, which we do when his wife is off at a conference and their children are with grandmum.

He recently mentioned his love of espresso and I am looking for the espresso machine my wife and I received as a wedding present all those many years ago, God rest her soul. I know exactly which room it is in.

I am lugging the dusty thing down the hall and passing one of the many doors, when it crosses my mind that I don’t know what is stored in that room. I open the door, taking a moment to refresh my memory ads to what I have stored there.

The room is large, much larger than it should be for my house. An old woman is napping in a chair at the far corner. Except for her chair, there are no other furnishings in the room but for a portrait on the wall above her head.

“What’s this?” I ask, still hugging the expresso machine to my chest.

She startles awake. “The Fair One of the World,” she says, pointing to the portrait.

I approach and am surprised to see the portrait is of a young woman, remarkably like Melissa.

“I assume there is a story here,” I say.

The old woman cackles before saying, “The Quest for the Fair One of the World.”

In this story the king tells his three sons that after his death they must not enter the fortieth room of the castle. Forty days after his death the eldest son does exactly that.

“In the room is the portrait of the Fair One of the World,” says my crone. “Very much like this portrait.”

The eldest son falls in love. Outside the room, by the margin of the sea, is a golden boat moored by a golden cable. The boat carries the prince to—in the crone’s words—a certain city.

There he hears The Fair One of the World is the king’s daughter, whom the king has hidden away. Many princes have come to find her and lost their heads in the process.

Undaunted, the eldest prince goes to the king, asking for her hand. He is given forty days to find her. The prince’s quest ends with the predictable result.

The second brother repeats his elder brother’s mistakes flawlessly.

The third, and youngest brother, shows a bit more wisdom. He, too, enters the fortieth room, falls in love with the portrait, and embarks on the golden ship. However, he keeps in mind that his brothers have followed this path before and have not returned. He takes with him much gold.

Arriving at the certain city and finding out what his brothers found out, he goes to a witch for guidance. She tells him to take his gold to a goldsmith with instructions to fashion it into a hollow camel, much like a Trojan horse, in which he can hide and play music. The witch then takes the camel around the city, entertaining its citizens, until the camel comes to the attention of the king, who invites the witch to the castle. The imprisoned Fair One of the World also wishes to hear the musical camel, a request the king grants. When alone with the princess, the prince reveals his secret, and they conspire to outwit her father.

The youth then goes to the king and is given the forty days to find the princess. On the fortieth day the prince, already knowing where she is, finds the princess in the fortieth room hidden under the king’s throne.

“Either you are the son of a witch,” intones my crone imitating a kingly voice, “or The Fair One of the World has guided you.”

The prince, according to the princess’s instructions, denies it. That disclaimer is repeated two more times as the prince must pick her out, in an enchanted form, among forty ducks—she wiggles her tail as a sign—and among forty identical girls—she moves her eyes.

The king is obliged to surrender his daughter in marriage and the happy couple returns to the prince’s kingdom.

“I, too, was there and saw them living in fair prosperity and may we here live even better.” She cackles again quietly and nods back off to sleep.

Still clutching my espresso machine, I am a little embarrassed having intruded upon her rest and I slip back out of the room closing the door gently behind me.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2018 Quest for the Fair One of the World – Part Two

Quest pizza-quarto-stagioni

Pizza and Wine

“Say that again?” Duckworth sips his espresso.

“Pizza Quattro Stagioni, or pizza of the four seasons. I personally prefer ‘autumn,’ which is the mushroom’s quarter of the pizza. The other three quarters are ‘winter,’ which is prosciutto cotto—cured ham—and black olives; for ‘spring’ it is topped with artichokes; concluding with ‘summer,’ heavy on the tomato and basil.”

“Delicious. And with what wine are you pairing it? Chianti?”

I hadn’t thought of that. “Well, I got some Malbec.”

“Perfect.”

“I heard a story yesterday,” I say, while topping the pizza dough, laboriously made, with the seasonal ingredients.

“I am shocked,” Duckworth grins.

“No you’re not.” I relate the story as best as I remember it.

“Where is it from?”

I was hoping he would not ask. “I don’t know.” My saying, Oh, from an old woman in a room I didn’t know I had, was not going to work.

While I slip the pizza into the oven, Duckworth pulls out his brain-in-your-hand and taps away on it.

“Appears to be a story in a collection called Modern Greek Folktales, by R. M. Dawkins.”

“Greek,” I echo. “Well, the Greeks were a seafaring people. That accounts for the golden ship.”

I pour some Malbec for both of us and set out a cheese board of Asiago between us. I know Duckworth’s love of strong flavors.

“Well,” Duckworth says, sipping his wine, “‘The crossing of the threshold’, in the terms of The Hero’s Journey, starts with the first brother entering the forbidden room, quite literally crossing a threshold.”

“The forbidden room,” I say, “is a common-enough motif. What I find unusual here is that behind the door is not something ominous. In Blue Beard it is the blood and corpses of previous victims. In our tale it is a charming (in the true sense of the word) picture, leading to greater adventure.”

“Or death,” puts in Duckworth.

“Well, that too. But what strikes me is the portrait of The Fair One of the World. I think of a portrait like a photograph, capturing a person in a moment of time; but not this portrait. Is it a message in a bottle? Put out, perhaps, by the princess herself to lure in a rescuer?”

“Isn’t that heartless of her? The first two brothers die in their pursuit,” Duckworth frowns.

“Well, yes,” I partially concede. “But in fairy tales, if there are three brothers, the first two are expendable. That simply isn’t the princess’s fault.”

Duckworth nods in agreement and reaches for more cheese.

Chewing, he considers aloud, “Let’s take it from the father of the three brothers’ point of view. He knows the fortieth room with the portrait is there. He obviously knows its potential danger to his sons and tries to forewarn them. Why does he not simply destroy the portrait?  What binds him to maintaining the forbidden room?”

I reach for a bit of Asiago myself. “I believe I have scolded you about this before. You are trying to apply logic to fairy tales.

“Marie-Louise Van Franz. . . “

“Who?”

“Marie-Louise Van Franz, a student of Jung, who wrote The Interpretation of Fairy Tales.”

“Ok, got it.”

“She said, ‘Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes.’

Or, as I like to say, fairy tales are awaking dreams. In any case, the two kings are connected. They are, in a dreamlike manner, one in the same character.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2018 Quest for the Fair One of the World – Part Three

Quest grapes and figs painting

Figs and Grapes

After pulling the pizza from the oven, slicing it into twelve pieces, and refreshing our glasses, Duckworth and I settle around the table in the kitchen for a feast.

Duckworth devours his first slice of “winter” before saying, “The two kings are the same person, you say?”

“Yes and no. They reflect each other. Just as in Hansel and Gretel, both the evil stepmother and the witch are reflections of each other. The evil stepmother sends the children off to their deaths. The witch would eat them. When Gretel destroys the witch, she returns home to find the stepmother has died.

“In our case, the first king would keep his sons from the fortieth and forbidden room where the princess’s portrait hangs. Meanwhile, the second king has hidden his daughter in the secret fortieth room. Do you see the reflection?”

“Yes, interesting.” Duckworth launches into the remainder of “winter” and I sample “summer.”

“Returning to your previous comment, what is the significance of the portrait?” Duckworth asks.

“That turns out to be a common motif everywhere else outside of Western Europe. I inquired about that with my fairy-tale nerdy companions online.”

“What hashtag is that?”

“Hashtag?”

“You know, Twitter.”

“Twitter! Oh no, I am not on Twitter.” What an appalling idea.

“Facebook?”

“No. I am on Storytell, a list-serve.”

Duckworth guffaws. “Really! I didn’t know they still existed.”

“And a very nice list-serve it is.” I move into defensiveness. “My list-serve friends, in particular Dana Sherry, Yoel Perez, and Fran Stallings, all assure me portraits of women propel protagonist and antagonist alike into action in tales from Persia to Japan.”

“But not in Europe,” Duckworth observes, taking a deep sip of his Malbec. “What about this obsession with forty?”

“It is the same sort of thing as the portrait, a common motif outside of Europe.”

“It’s biblical, isn’t it?” Duckworth reaches for a bit of “autumn.”

“Yes, very much. Noah’s forty days and nights of rain, Moses’s forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. You can find a hundred more. Yet, that number does not resonate in the West.”

Duckworth’s gaze rises to the ceiling, away from the pizza and wine, but then returns. “The West, that is the Catholics and the Protestants, are concerned with the Trinity—the number three. If we look to the Middle East—by which I mean primarily the Jews and Muslims—they are warmer to other numbers, like forty.”

Duckworth may have something there. I snag the last piece of “autumn.”

Taking a slice of “spring,” Duckworth continues. “Little wonder that we here in the West have trouble communicating, cooperating, writing treaties with non-Western nations. We are not even thinking in the same numbers, not thinking in the same patterns. Perhaps we don’t dream the same. And the differences are subtle, not glaring, but just enough difference to throw us off.”

This is why I invite Duckworth to dinner. Food for thought.

I set out our dessert when we polish off the pizza. A bowl of figs and grapes, mixed. My own invention, created on impulse. But I now find it oddly reflective of our conversation’s conclusion. Not unlike two different cultures, my dessert elements have similarities and differences. Both are fruits and are sweet, but one is dry and chewy, and the other is soft and wet. Similar and different. Just like Western and non-Western fairy tales.

The next morning, as I return the espresso machine to its shelf, the door to the forbidden room is no longer there. I am not concerned. I suspect it will be there again when I need it or when it calls to me.

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2018 The Power of Saint Telga’s Well – Part One

Healing wells four dupathFrom Hope’s Legendary Lore

Healing Wells

For our traditional Sunday brunch, Melissa and I have decided on the Queen’s Lane Coffee House instead of the Vaults, so as not to be too much like sticks in the mud.

The coffee house deserves our attention, serving the public since 1654. It claims to be the oldest coffee house in all of Europe.

Melissa and I have seated ourselves right next to the long bank of small-pane windows looking out on High Street, lending the narrow room much light. The décor is simple and cheerful.

From of the menu, I order the Full English Breakfast. Melissa chooses the Niçoise Salad.

“I’ve started a new project,” Melissa announces. “A magical guide book for UK tourists.”

“That sounds like fun,” I remark. “Where does one start on such a thing?”

“Well, I want to feature the unusual, not the known tourist haunts. I decided to start with healing wells.”

“Really? How is that going?”

Melissa’s enthusiasm fades a little. “Most of them are gone, or at best not accessible to the public. Oh, there are still hundreds, but there had once been thousands. For my purposes, healing wells and springs that tourists can visit are down to a handful. With a few exceptions, I’ll confess, there is not a whole lot to see.”

“With that in mind, what attracts you to them?” I say as our food arrives.

“Their stories of course. For example, in my research I came across a Welsh tale, The Power of Saint Tegla’s Well.”

A farmer and his wife had an only son, but one given to unexplained fits. At the time he turned twelve there followed signs his parents took as predicting his imminent death.

It started with one apple tree blooming before its time. The old cock began crowing at midnight, and the wife dreamt of a wedding, which prognosticates a funeral. One night a bird flapped its wings against their window. They knew it must be the featherless Corpse Bird, meaning death will soon visit the home.

The culminating event came when the farmer was returning home one night and saw Cyhiraeth, the black-toothed, skin-and-bones Hag of the Mist, splashing her long, withered hands in the river, moaning, “My son. My son,” before she vanished.

This is followed by the poor man seeing the Corpse Candle floating before him as he travels. The candle is small and red flamed. Were the flame white, it would indicate his wife might die. The flame being red might indicate that he himself who would die. But the Corpse Candle being small meant his son’s death was coming.

I lose my appetite for the sausage I am digging into. Melissa is unaffected, sampling her salad.

The next day, the farmer goes to a wise man for advice. The wise man tells the farmer what his son must do.

The boy goes to Saint Tegla’s Well in Denbighshire after sunset. He walks around the well three times, uttering the Lord’s Prayer, and carrying a cock in a basket. Then he walks around the nearby church three times in the same manner.

Entering the church, he crawls under the altar and sleeps there until daybreak, a Bible for his pillow and the altar cloth as his blanket. Placing six pence on the altar and leaving the bird in the church, he goes home. The bird dies in a few days taking the youth’s illness with it, leaving the lad to live to a ripe old age.

My appetite returns and I eye the eggs.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2018 The Power of  Saint Tegla’s Well – Part Two

Healing wells twoFrom Hope’s Legendary Lore

A Clootie

“Down near Penzance in Cornwall is Saint Madron’s Well,” Melissa continues her monologue. “It’s a clootie well, one which I must visit. I know that’s a bit of a drive, but it is one of the better-known wells.”

“Clootie well?” I ask.

“Clootie is Scottish for cloth.”

“So?” I say, attacking my beans with a fork.

Melissa grins. “At a clootie well a strip of cloth is dipped into the water and used to wash the diseased area of a person who is ill. Then the cloth is tied to a nearby tree limb, preferably one of a white thorn or an ash. As the cloth rots and disintegrates, the disease dissipates.”

“Ah,” I say, “sympathetic magic.”

“Quite. And then there are the pin wells, where a bent pin needs to be sacrificed into the well.”

“Hmmm,” I muse, reaching for a rasher of bacon, “an iron talisman?”

“Maybe, but the pin wells had a darker side. A piece of paper with someone’s name on it could be pierced with a pin and thrown into the well achieving the opposite effect of healing.”

“That’s a little nasty,” I say.

“There is always a dark side.” Melissa stares off into the distance.

“Do the supplicants ever get around to drinking the water?” I ask while finishing off the toast.

“Oh, yes. Both drinking and bathing. Often these wells and springs have high mineral content, which does not hurt. The Chalice Well at Glastonbury—very pretty, set in a garden—has so much ferrous oxide it’s also called the Red Spring.

“Drinking the water of a healing well had its own particular ritual. The cup usually needed to be made from the skull of a decapitated head. In the case of Saint Teilo’s well, it is the saint’s skull from which one needs to drink for the water’s healing to be effective.”

My appetite slips a little. Melissa finishes her salad.

“Besides healing, the wells were for fortune telling too,” Melissa continues, sitting back on her chair. “Some of the wells were attended by old women with an oracular bent. The future could also be divined out by drinking the water and sleeping at the well to receive a revealing dream.

“Celtic mythology speaks of the Well of Wisdom in the courtyard of Manannan mac Lir, king of the fairies, around which grow hazelnut trees that feed the Salmon of Wisdom. We can be sure the healing wells are a reflection of that well.

“Oh, there is an Arthurian connection too. In one of the medieval texts, The Damsels of the Well, in a place called Logres, brought food and drink to all travelers until an evil king raped one of them and stole her golden cup. The damsels never appeared again, the well dried up, and the place became The Wasteland, not to recover until the Holy Grail was found.”

A thought strikes me. “Do these wells have anything to do with wishing wells?”

“Pretty much one and the same. A few of these places have been excavated by archaeologists who uncovered coins, jewelry, and trinkets; sacrifices to the spirits of the spring.”

“‘Spirits of the spring’ sounds very romantic if a little pagan,” I say, sipping my coffee.

“Oh, the church fixed that by rebranding a spring or a well with a saint’s name and building a church beside it,” Melissa chuckles.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2018 The Power of Saint Tegla’s Well – Part Three

Healing wells six doninicksFrom Hope’s Legendary Lore

A Visit

As we step out onto Queen’s Lane, Melissa stops and takes my hand in both of hers.

“Will you take me to visit the nixie?”

“The nixie? You should be afraid of the nixie.”

“Are you afraid of the nixie?”

“Yes.”

“And still you visit her.”

She has me there. And she knows I cannot deny her anything.

“We’ll have to make some popcorn,” I say.

On our return walk, my thoughts stray back to The Power of Saint Tegla’s Well.

“I’m not familiar with Saint Tegla. I assume it is not made up?”

“Not at all. Saint Tegla’s Church is in Wales. She was a disciple of Saint Paul. Assigning her name to the church and well, I am sure, was arbitrary, but significant in that it was a female saint chosen. The Celtic spirits of the wells were female.

“Saint Tegla’s Well had the speciality of healing epilepsy. I did some extra research on this one and found some things not mentioned in the story. Besides the supplicant bathing in the well—in this case a sunken stone trough—a pin was stuck into a chicken. In the case of girls and women a hen was used, cockerels for boys and men, and the pin thrown into the well. There was also something about putting the bird’s beak into the patient’s mouth.”

“That’s rather disturbing,” I say.

“Oh, but it doesn’t come up to the level of violence associated with Saint Winifred’s Well, also in Denbighshire.”

“Oh dear me, tell me about that.”

“Saint Winifred was the niece of Saint Beuno, both seventh-century Welsh saints. As a member of a royal Welsh family, she was pursued by Prince Caradog. She refused his advances, wanting to be a nun. The prince then tried to take her by force. She escaped him, but in his rage at her rejection he caught up with her and cut off her head.

“It rolled down the hillside, and where it came to rest, up rose a spring. Prince Caradog, in short order, fell down dead and the earth swallowed him up. Winifred’s uncle rejoined the head to the body and with prayers restored her to life.”

“Well,” I reflect, “if a bit gory, it is a satisfying story.”

“And,” Melissa adds, “the well, known as Holywell, is now sheltered in Winifred’s Shrine, a structure worth seeing. It has been a pilgrimage site for thirteen centuries.”

“Admirable,” I say.

We soon arrive at my place and make some popcorn for the nixie. Thalia joins us briefly to consume a good bit of it before going off to her Brownie’s meeting.

Popcorn in bag, we head to the study and out the French doors toward the Magic Forest. When we get to the forest’s edge, Melissa stops again, and takes my hand once more.

“I want to visit the nixie alone.”

“Alone?” Dread flitters around the edges of that word.

“When last we visited the nixie’s pond, I spotted a spring along the path. I intend to bathe in it before I visit the nixie. That means I must be naked.”

For what disease? goes through my mind. My mouth says, “Won’t you need a towel?”

She laughs gently. “No, I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll build up the fire in the hearth. You’ll be chilled till you come back.”

“I’ll appreciate that.” She kisses me on the forehead, takes the popcorn, and turns. I watch the Magic Forest envelop her with its darkness.

Your thoughts.

 

 

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

Three Languages dogs

Disquiet

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

“Where’s Teddy?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

The Three Languages, I announce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stop reading.

“And then?” Thalia asks.

“That’s it. There’s no more story.”

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

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

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

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

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

Three Languages frogs

A Rainy Amble

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

“Johannes?”

“I’m going with you to see Augustus.”

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

“You question my insight?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about dogs and frogs?”

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

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

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

“As in The Three Feathers?” I suggest.

Johannes’s ears flicker, I think from interest.

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

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

Thalia is not alone.

 

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

Three Languages dove

Unbalanced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He eyes me without responding.

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

“You would do well.”

He may have a point.

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

I know I am ranting a bit.

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

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

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

At Loose Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AF_18Alexander Afanasyev

A Puzzle

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

“What might that be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shiver at the thought of its absence.

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

Wicked Sister 3 sun moonThe World Turned Upside Down

The Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Puzzle solved,” I declare.

That’s always gratifying.

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

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

Little Gold Bird one clipClipart

Cozy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That does not help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were in this story?”

“Stories like it.”

I forgot the fairy’s longevity and must concede.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A River

“A nosebleed! How uncouth,” says Duckworth.

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

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

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

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

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

Duckworth is baiting me.

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

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

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

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

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

“What would the curse be?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The river Styx?” I suggest.

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

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

“Agreed,” smiles Duckworth.

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

Little Gold Bird four Crane Walter Crane, Faerie Queen 1894

Resurrections

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

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

“Delighted.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?