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.

 

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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?

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

dovrefjell twoTheodor Severin Kittelsen

Dovrefjell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a Doverjelly?” Thalia frowns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dovrefjell three Clip Art

Of Degrees

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t I . . .”

“Yes, you did, and I thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quite. Disturbing, isn’t it?

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

Dovrefjell PloughMonday  George Walker, Costumes of Yorkshire

Feast Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not at all; I was a Wrenboy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can only shake my head, and he continues.

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

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

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

I wonder.

Your thoughts?

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

Catherine_and_Her_Destiny1H J Ford

Pink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Catherine and her destiny Wheel Tarot Tarot Card

November Tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I note Melissa had not actually asked her question.

“We?” observes Melissa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I proffer my cup to Melissa for a refill.

 

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

Catherine_and_Her_Destiny2H J Ford

Odd Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew nods in agreement as he takes another sip.

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

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

I concede Andrew’s point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa smiles.

Your thoughts?

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2017 – Part One

Binnorie one John D. Batten

Halloween Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘It, too, is mine already.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thalia shivers again and cuddles closer to me.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2017 – Part Two

binnorie threeEleanor Fortescue Brickdale

Binnorie Continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then the harp began to sing:

 

‘Yonder sits my father the king,

Binnorie, oh Binnorie.

And with him my mother the queen,

By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.

 

And yonder sits an empty chair,

Binnorie, oh Binnorie.

But it was I who once sat there,

By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.

 

There be my William, proud and free,

Binnorie, oh Binnorie.

With him my sister, who killed me,

By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.’

 

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

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

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

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

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

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2017 – Part Three

Binnorie twoJohn D Batten

Cruel Sister

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

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

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

“Sounds pleasant. What is a Binnorie?”

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

“Is it a scary river?”

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

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

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

I give Duckworth the summation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Child’s?” Duckworth questions.

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

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

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

We row a little while in silence.

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

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

“Nasty,” says Duckworth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thought?

 

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

Wren three Dugald Stewart Walker2 Dugald Stewart Walker

Afternoon Tea

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

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

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

“Of course,” Melissa comments with solemnness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wren two Jack Yeats Jack Yeats

About Wrens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa pauses for a moment.

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

Although he was little his honour was great,

Jump up me lads and give him a treat.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

And give us a penny to bury the wren.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wren one Gold Crested Wren

Encyclopedia Augustus

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

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

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

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

“Greek.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Augustus scans for a moment.

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

Augustus scans some more.

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?