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

Hadleigh_castle_engraving 1832 Engraving 1832

Hadleigh Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hadleigh_castle_engraving_1783_trimmed Engraving 1783

Melissa’s Basket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose she is right.

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

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

Concerning Status

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

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Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2018 The Prince in a Swoon – Part One

Prince in a swoon noose

A Little Lonely

I woke up in my house this morning, alone. Thalia and her mother are taking a few days of vacation down on Brighton Beach. I’ve stayed behind to make sure Johannes is fed. He lies on the window seat, ignoring his dish. Nor do I see the fairy about. She is probably hiding in Thalia’s suitcase in Brighton.

To make matters worse, Melissa is visiting a sister and Duckworth is off on a business trip.

I ran some errands today, half of them unnecessary, then thought of making an elaborate meal for supper as a way of entertaining myself, but cooking for one is difficult in a way. I made a meal of Nutella and crackers, then poured myself a large brandy.

I stand in front of one of my bookcases, brandy in hand, wondering what I am looking for. I run my finger across the spines of my books, pausing on one I have not read, More Greek Folktales, by R. M. Dawkins, one of the books Melissa insisted I buy.

I tip the book from the shelf, sit on my comfy chair, open it to the table of contents, and, Thalia-style, whirl my finger in the air and bring it down on the page.

The Prince in a Swoon, page 25.

A young girl, Polly, encounters a bird every morning on her way to school, who says to her, “Sew your seams or sew them not, a man who’s dead shall be your lot.”

One Sunday, Polly goes off with friends to gather herbs. The gaggle of girls spot a palace they did not expect to see. When they try to push open the door, only Polly can open it, and the door shuts firmly behind her.

She finds three men lying dead, and in the next room three more. In the third room, on a bed, lies a dead prince. However, in his hand is a paper with a plea that someone mourn for him for forty days.

This she does for thirty-nine days without sleep. On the next day, a gypsy woman appears and offers to spell the poor girl and

let her sleep a little. Innocently, Polly falls for the ruse.

When the prince returns from death, along with the other occupants of the palace, he finds the gypsy mourning for him and determines to marry her. The gypsy assigns Polly to tend to the geese.

One day the prince is obliged to travel and offers to bring back something each of his servants desires. Over the gypsy queen’s objections, the goose girl asks for a stone of patience, a knife of slaughter, and a rope of hanging. Failing that, may the sea beneath him turn to stone.

Failing to purchase these three strange items, the sea under his returning ship turns to stone. The merchant who then sells him the three items, tells the prince to watch what Polly does with them.

This he does and sees Polly try to hang herself with the rope of hanging, but the stone counsels patience. She explains to the stone how the gypsy cheated her. Then she attempts to stab herself with the knife of slaughter. The stone again says, “Patience, patience.” Polly’s explanation is repeated. This time the prince prevents her from harming herself, declaring she is the true bride.

He then asks his false gypsy bride what is to be done with someone who separates a man from his wife. She suggests that “he” be cut up into little pieces and each piece nailed to every door in the city. She is, of course, pronouncing her own fate.

The happy marriage follows.

“What a mixture of known motifs and strange elements.” I declare to the air, causing Johannes to stir. “I hope Augustus is not on vacation. I need to talk to someone about this one.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2018 The Prince in a Swoon – Part Two

Prince in Swoon poniard

Other Clouds

It is a rainy afternoon, but I am happily seated in Augustus’s windowless “testing room,” he and I luxuriating in the tobacco cloud we are creating, forgetting for a moment the rain clouds outside.

We have been here long enough for me to relate to him the essentials of The Prince in a Swoon. Augustus puffs on his pipe, contemplating the tale before he speaks.

“The Greek folktales have their own colour,” he states.

“That they do.” I agree.

“First off,” Augustus refills his pipe, “she goes to school. No maiden in Grimm ‘goes to school.’”

“Could be a fairly modern intrusion into the tale,” I suggest.

“Then one Sunday, she goes out collecting herbs with her friends.”

“Hmmm,” I consider. “That’s not a Grimm thing either.”

“I really like,” says Augustus, “that only she can open the door, then it immediately traps her inside, not that she has any thought of escape.

“The three dead men,” Augustus rolls on, “are not sleeping, but are deceased. Although the story title uses the word ‘swoon,’ the tale has the prince mourned for forty days, suggesting death is involved.”

“Is death that far from sleeping that we should make a distinction?” I question.

“Yes,” says Augustus, offering no clarification.

“Nor,” I continue, picking up the dropped thread, “do we learn why the prince and his palace were embraced by death, and then released by the forty days of mourning.”

“And,” Augustus raises a finger, “here we come to the number forty, which puts this tale in that part of the world.”

“What part of the world?” I ask.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the Forty Fortunes.” Augustus regards his pipe while his mind wanders. “Greek philosophy, through the Romans, gave us our Western culture, but the Greeks, themselves, feel closer to the Middle East than to Europe.”

“Ah,” I say, refilling my pipe with an Augustus blend he calls Old Rinkrank, “but when she is tricked by the gypsy, she ends up as a gooses girl, which is very Grimm.”

“You’re right,” Augustus nods. ‘There are two goose-girl stories in the Grimm canon, giving this tale a smacking of European influence. Our story, if not all of the Greek folktales, lies between two cultures, that of the East and that of the West.

“But what follows in the tale interests me the most.” Augustus pauses to refill his pipe, then launches back to his point. “When the prince offers to bring gifts to his servants, Polly asks for a rope of hanging, a knife of slaughter, and a stone of patience.”

“Hmmm,” I contemplate, “When Beauty, in Beauty and the Beast, asks for a rose from her father’s travels, there is innocence in the request. In Polly’s request there is forethought or foreshadowing?”

“I like foreshadowing,” says Augustus. “Our tale moves from the usual situation and response—the door closes behind her and she explores the palace—she finds the prince and his note, then mourns for him—and moves into the mystical, unaccountably asking for two instruments of death and one of hope.”

Augustus blows a few smoke rings before continuing. “I can’t help but feel she is performing a morality play for her prince. She has her cast of characters, the rope, the knife, and the stone, the stone having its lines to speak.

“She performs her complaint twice, once for her prince to hear, and a second time for him to understand; these princes can be a little dense.

“In the end, I see a morality play in which she well could have killed herself, a performance art to the ultimate.”

I do need to consider this observation.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2018  The Prince in a Swoon – Part Three

Prince in a swoon flint.jpg

Guess Who
Before sunset there came respite from the rain that has been falling all day. I have taken advantage of this pause to ramble through the Magic Forest. I have half a mind to visit the nixie, but I haven’t brought any popcorn. Instead, I wander to the foot of the Glass Mountain.

There, on a crystal ledge, not ten feet above my head, is a wizened, elvish figure of a man, glaring at me. He is seated on the ledge, his knees sticking out from under him, almost looking like the tips of wings. A more crooked nose, I’ve never seen.

“Is that you, Old Rinkrank?” I marvel.

“Who else would it be?

You evoked my name.

I cannot be free

Till you make your claim.”

“Evoked your name? I did nothing . . . “ I look at my pipe. I am smoking the blend that I have been puffing on all day, which Augustus playfully named Old Rinkrank. “Oh, I see.”

“‘Oh, I see,’ says he.

Of brains he needs some.

How dense can he be?

What is your question!”

This last he shouts at me.

“Let’s not get huffy,” I say. “I do have a question. In the fairy tale The Prince in a Swoon, the heroine, Polly, asks for a rope of hanging, a knife of slaughter, and a stone of patience. My friend Augustus suggests she is performing a mystery play. What might you know of this matter?”

“Ah, Polly, Polly,

Like Mother Masrot,

Not one for folly.

Listen, and take stock!

 

It might be a play

If life’s but a stage,

But actors don’t stay

If not paid a wage.

 

The stone of patience

Needs your focus.

Though of transience,

Also impetus.

 

To the hanging rope

And knife of slaughter,

She abandons hope,

Her death an offer.

 

Peek through the keyhole

To hear Polly moan.

She pours out her soul

To a thoughtful stone.

 

The stone cannot judge,

But only advise.

Maybe give a nudge

To thoughts that are wise.

 

The prince in hiding,

Witnesses her grief.

Silence abiding,

Quiet as a thief.

 

The words that he heard

Reveal the true bride

And how she suffered

When the gypsy lied.

 

The stone, oh the stone,

It kept her alive.

Made her story known

And let Polly thrive.”

“That,” I say, “reminds me of Grimms’ Goose Girl, when she pours out her sorrows to an iron stove, with the old king listening at the stovepipe.

“Both of them,” I observe, “confess to an inanimate object, although the stone of patience is a magical helper. Tell me more about the stone of patience.”

“Am I your World Book?

Don’t give yourself airs.

Here, I’m off the hook.

Tend your own affairs.”

Old Rinkrank engulfs himself in a cloud of foul-smelling black smoke and is gone.

“Ornery,” I say to myself, tapping out my pipe. “But I may evoke him from time to time.”

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

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

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

A Spinning Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Friend of hers,” Johannes explains.

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

“What do I owe you?” the girl asked.

“Nothing,” was the reply.

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

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

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

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

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

 

“We who live in dreary den

Are both rank and foul to see,

Hidden frae the glorious sun

That teems the fair earth’s canopie:

Ever must our evenings lone

Be spent on the colludie stone.

 

Cheerless in the evening grey

When Causleen hath died away,

But ever bright and ever fair

Are they who breathe this evening air;

And lean upon the self-bored stone

Unseen by all but me alone.”

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

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

 

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

Habitrot Woodcut_Woman_Spinning_Detail Woodcut

A Conversation

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

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

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

“Madam?” he corrects.

I am Melissa Serious.”

“I am sure you are,” he quips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frigga Spinning the Clouds, by John Charles Dollman

Wishful Thinking

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

“That they are,” says Sir George.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts.

 

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

quest espresso machine

Espresso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quest pizza-quarto-stagioni

Pizza and Wine

“Say that again?” Duckworth sips his espresso.

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

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

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

“Perfect.”

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

“I am shocked,” Duckworth grins.

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

“Where is it from?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or death,” puts in Duckworth.

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

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

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

Duckworth nods in agreement and reaches for more cheese.

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

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

“Marie-Louise Van Franz. . . “

“Who?”

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

“Ok, got it.”

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

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

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

Quest grapes and figs painting

Figs and Grapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What hashtag is that?”

“Hashtag?”

“You know, Twitter.”

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

“Facebook?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: 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 Binnoire – 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 Binnoire – 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 Binnoire – 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?

 

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

True Bride Feathers Rebecca from flickr

Wilhelm Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cool,” says Thalia.

The fairy and Wilhelm sigh in contentment.

 

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

True bride Castle Cawdor Castle – postcard  by Bert Towle

Fairy Companion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love fathers and mothers,

and all sorts of others.

But the steps. Oh the steps.

Satanic to their depths.”

I am charmed as she settles back on my shoulder.

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

My companion leaps up again radiating indignation.

“Fairies, fairies, not so contrary,

be we big or small as berries.

We will help you, my mortal being,

but tag us not with godly naming.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To do the task,

of which you’re asked,

will show your soul

to be as gold.”

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

 

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

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

Wandering Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is that fairy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thalia’s fairy reappears.

“Before your heart flees from your breast,

per demons released by sunset,

let us depart with a good fart,

to let night know we are stalwart.”

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

Your thoughts?