Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part One

Black Bull of Norroway oneJohn D. Batten

Queen’s Walk

Duckworth and I stroll along the banks of the Thames, following the Queen’s Walk on this mild November day. Rowing on the river might be a bit too cold; therefore we opt for a walk along the South Bank. We intend to take the full walk from Tower Bridge to Lambeth Bridge.

“Well,” says Duckworth, “What sort of disconcerting, confusing, and questionable diatribes have you been inflicting upon your granddaughter of late?”

I hear the bait, but bite for the sake of conversation. “I only read fairy tales to her.”

“Isn’t that what I said?” Duckworth grins.

We pass the lopsided, glassy ball of City Hall. “The Black Bull of Norroway, last night. I am fond of Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales. That one is Scottish, actually.”

“Almost not English,” muses Duckworth. “Tell me of this tale.”

There are three sisters and the eldest asks her mother to bake her a bannock and roast her collop because she is going off to seek her fortune.”

“Wait,” says Duckworth, “a girl going off to seek her fortune? Only sons do that.”

“Shush,” I say, “do you want to hear the story?” Duckworth rolls his eyes and I continue.

The sister goes to the old witch washerwife for advice.

“Who?”

“Shush.”

The washerwife tells her to stay and watch out the back door. On the third day the sister sees a coach drawn by six horses that takes her away.

The second sister follows suit and is taken away by a coach with four horses.

The third sister gets the bannock and collop, and advice from the washerwife, but is taken away by a black bull.

“Dear me,” says Duckworth.

Beside us I see the imposing shape of the HMS Belfast anchored along the banks of the Thames.

At the bull’s instruction, she sustains herself by drawing food from his right ear and drink from his left.

“What?” says Duckworth. I glare at him and continue.

The girl and the bull travel In turn to three castles ruled over by the bull’s three human brothers. At each castle she is given a gift, one of an apple, another a pear, and last a plum, which she is not to “break” until she is in dire straits.

Then they travel to a glen, where the bull tells her to wait, not move an inch, while he goes to battle the Old One.

“Who?”

I ignore him.

If she moves at all, he will not be able to find her on his return. He also says that if all about her turns blue, then he has defeated the Old One. If all turns red, then he, the bull, has been conquered.

This she does until all turns blue and her foot moves in a reflex of joy for her friend’s victory, but now the bull cannot find her.

Duckworth and I approach London Bridge on our ramble.

At length she wanders until she comes to the glass mountain. She cannot get over it until she serves seven years to a blacksmith, who will then forge iron shoes for her that will grip the glass of the mountain.

She comes to the house of a washerwife.

“Hold on, the same washerwife as at the start of the story?”

“The story does not say.”

Duckworth sighs.

The washerwife and her daughter are trying to wash out the blood on the clothes of a gallant knight, who will marry the one to accomplish the task. Failing to remove the stains, they give the clothes to the girl for whom the work is easily done.

Of course, the washerwife claims it is her daughter who did the deed and it is she who should marry the knight.

The girl now breaks open the fruits that hold much treasure, which she uses to bribe the daughter to let her into the knight’s bedchamber. This goes on for two nights, the washerwife drugging the knight so that he does not hear the girl’s pleas. It is not until the third night, after the knight has gotten wind of what is happening, that he stays awake. The knight then has the washerwife and her daughter burnt, and marries the girl.

“Are you kidding?” Duckworth exclaims.

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Two

Black Bull of Norroway twoJohn D. Batten

Strolling On

Passing by Southwark Cathedral, we wind our way toward the Globe Theatre.

“Let me get a few things straight,” Duckworth insists. “First, three sisters go off to make their way in the world. I think that unseemly for young women at the time. I’ll let that pass, but what happened to the eldest sisters?”

“They rode off in coaches. I’m sure they did fine.”

“Why were they in the story? Isn’t every element of a story there to propel the story forward?”

“You are talking about literary fairy tales. The traditional tales are of a different order. Yet, I feel the sequence of events—the first two sisters getting a free ride as it were—marks the youngest sister as special, having to struggle for her husband, giving their union greater value.”

“OK,” says Duckworth, “what about the bull?”

“Well, females abducted by bulls may start with the Greek myth of Europa being kidnapped by Zeus in the form of a white bull, but a closer relative, I think, is East of the Sun, West of the Moon, where the  youngest sister is taken away by a great white bear.”

“Hmm,” Duckworth looks thoughtful for a moment. “Is this the Beauty-and-the-Beast thing?”

“Not exactly, in my opinion. The beast is a monster, at least outwardly. The bull is a common enough animal, but one with a mission.”

“Ah, yes, his fight with the Old One. Who is he?” Duckworth asks.

“We can only guess. My guess is that the name is a euphemism for the devil, though there is nothing particularly Christian in the gloss of this story. One could suggest this is a reflection of the bull of the Mithra religion fighting with the state religion of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think the folk memory concerns itself with such politics.”

I feel a certain thrill as we pass the Shakespeare’s Globe. The Tate Modern, in contrast, comes into sight.

“Nonetheless,” I continue, “bulls have a special place in both Greek and Roman mythology, the vestige of which turns up in the Spanish bull fights. You’ve heard of the running of the bulls, haven’t you? That moment when we allow them to try and kill us?”

“Not my cup of tea, thank you, but what about this red, blue, disappearing thing? How do you explain that?”

“I don’t have a coherent explanation for that.”

“Do you have an incoherent explanation?” Duckworth knows me.

“Well, call me crazy, but I am thinking of the astronomical red shift and blue shift. Red shift occurs when an astronomer sees a star moving away. The waveband is stretching out and appears red. If the star moves toward the astronomer, then the waveband length is shorter and the light appears blue.

“Not that red and blue are opposites on the color wheel, but in this case they are opposed. Did some storyteller sense this and apply it to victory and defeat?”

Duckworth takes out his cellphone, stabs at it, and talks. “Insane asylums near me.”

“No wait, my notion gets a little worse to be honest, when it comes to the bull not being able to find the girl after she moves. That brings to mind the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat, which addresses the idea that, at the subatomic level, a particle may and/or may not exist at the same time. That is to say, there and not there. That does describe the bull’s problem after the girl moves her foot. She is there and not there when the bull tries to find her. He, unfortunately, exists in the ‘not there’ state and the story goes on to the next stage.”

We walk through the shadow of the Oxo Tower as Duckworth contemplates my words, then addresses his cell again. “Requirements for commitment.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Three

Black Bull of Norroway threeAbundance   Peter Paul Reuben

Another Stroll

On my own walk into the Magic Forest, I make for the Glass Mountain. As I hoped, Old Rink Rank sits on a crystal ledge, barely above my head, his thin, long shanks dangling down.

“Good day to you,” I offer.

He eyes me with a hoary brow raised.

“May I ask a question or two?” I propose.

“I have no answers,” Rink Rank scowls.

“Do you recall a girl scaling your mountain with iron shoes.”

“Which one? Happened a number of times.”

“Her dear friend was the Bull of Norroway.”

“Oh, her. Think I remember. Lived happily ever after, didn’t she.” I note his devilish grin.

“I am not sure that distinguishes her. Nonetheless, as she rode on the bull’s back, she pulled food from his right ear and drink from his left. How does that work?”

“How should I know? The storytellers assigned me to this glass mountain. They didn’t make me a cowherd. How do you think it works? That’s the question.”

“Well, the image that jumps to mind is the cornucopia. Now, I know that the horn of plenty is a goat’s horn, but the baby Zeus was raised by a goat, actually a goat-goddess. In play, he broke off one of her horns, which then had the power of unending nourishment.

“In another story, Zeus, as a bull, abducts Europa. The Bull of Norroway carries off our heroine and produces food and drink from his ears, which, of course, are next to his horns.

“My logic might be thin, but I think there is a thread that runs through my reasoning. What do you think?”

Rink Rank reaches into his pocket and pulls out what looks like a cellphone and speaks. “Insane asylum near me.”

“Oh, cut that out!”

Rink Rank’s wicked grin broadens as the cellphone appears to dissolve into thin air. Yet I push on.

“There is also the washerwife. She is at the beginning as a helper and later on as the antagonist. My friend Duckworth questioned if they were the same person. I had no answer.”

“And how should I know?” Rink Rank fumes. “You’re the one reading or listening to the story. If you think they are the same washerwife then they are. I’m just a figment of your imagination, just like you’re the figment of someone else’s imagination.”

“What?” I exclaim, “I am not the figment of anyone’s imagination any more than you are.”

“Oh, you don’t think so?” There’s that devilish grim again. He is trying to distract me from my point.

“And the Bull of Norroway and the gallant knight, are they the same person?”

Rink Rank slaps his forehead. “What do you think?”

“I want to hear it from you!” I all but scream.

“I told you, I have no answers. Of course we tales don’t tell you everything. Those answers are yours to find out or make up. That’s your part, your role in the story.”

He settles his back up against the glass mountain with the air of having given his final say.

I am not sure I should believe him.

Your thoughts?

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2019 Buried Moon – Part One

Buried Moon oneJohn D. Batten

Halloween Moon

Melissa’s taking Thalia Halloweening has become a tradition. Thalia’s mother does not mind not participating. The materialistic, food-related aspects of holidays are not to her liking. In her view, the spiritual value of the “holy days” is being sublimated by corporal concerns. I say any excuse for eating food is valid.

I build up the fire in the hearth as I hear them coming down the hallway. They enter my study, Melissa donning her witches hat and cape in keeping with the spirit of Halloween, and Thalia decked out as a Christmas Tree in her purposeful attempt at confusing the seasons.

Thalia plunks down in front of the hearth, her lower branches forming a ring around her, emptying her loot bag on the floor and sifting through her booty. I can see what a haul she made: Lion Bars, Aero Bars, Drumstick Squashies, Tunnock’s Snowballs, Maltesers, Mighty Fine Honeycomb Bars, Walker’s Assorted Toffees, Refreshers, Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, and Fry’s Turkish Delights.

Melissa returns from my bookshelves with a copy of Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales and settles herself into my companion comfy chair.

The Buried Moon,” she pronounces. Thalia looks up from munching on a Drumstick Squashy.

In Carrland, along the Ancholme River, were black pools and bogs. When the Moon did not shine, out came Things, Bogles, and Crawling Horrors. The Moon, when she learned what happened while she rested, wanted to see for herself.

At month’s end, covered in a black cloak, she entered the bog.

Thalia reaches for a Turkish Delight.

Traveling through the treacherous bog, the Moon slipped, nearly falling into a black pool, and grasped at a black snag to save herself. Vines wrapped themselves around her wrists.

At that same moment, some poor man came following a will-o’-the-wisp toward his death. As the Moon struggled, her black hood fell from her head, emitting light. The man could then see where the true path lay, and with a cry of joy, headed for it, saving himself.

Thalia picked up a Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles while staring at Melissa.

Continuing her struggle, the exhausted Moon collapsed, allowing the hood to again cover her head. The Things, Bogles, and Crawling Horrors approached and abused her, arguing how to kill her until dawn broke. They placed a large coffin-shaped stone upon her to push her down into the bog, leaving a will-o’-the-wisp to guard.

Anticipating a new moon, the people put pennies in their pockets and a straw in their cap. But when the new moon did not appear, they went to the wise woman who lived in the old mill. She looked in her brewpot, mirror, and book, but had no answer. She advised them to listen and tell her what they heard.

Thalia engaged a Mighty Fine Honeycomb Bar without breaking eye contact.

The whereabouts of the Moon became the talk of all the homes, farmyards, and pubs. In one of the pubs, the man who had been lost in the bog saw the light, one might say, and told of his experience.

This the people related to the Wise Woman. She told them to put a stone in their mouths, take a hazel twig in their hands, and say not a word as they walked into the marsh looking for a coffin, a cross, and a candle.

Full of trepidation, this they did, and found the coffin-shaped stone, the black snag roughly in the shape of a cross, and the  will-o’-the-wisp as the candle. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer silently to themselves—forwards and backwards—they pushed aside the stone, and the Moon sprung back into the sky, lighting their way home.

Thalia’s eyes filled with delight as she wrapped her fingers around a Tunnock’s Snowball.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2019 The Buried Moon – Part Two

Buried Moon two 17th cent17th Century chart of the moon

Mrs. Balfour

“Where does that story come from?” I ask after has Thalia sated her sweet-tooth and wandered off to bed.

“Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales,” she smiles with deviltry while taking a sip of wine.

“I know that. Who did he get it from?”

“That’s an interesting little history. The tale, also called Dead Moon, comes from Lincolnshire, collected by Marie Clothilde Balfour—related to Robert Lewis Stevenson, by the way—when she lived there in the late 1880’s. She collected a number of tales and submitted them to Folk-Lore, the journal of the Foklore Society.

“There were a couple of problems. First, she wrote the stories out attempting to mimic the Lincolnshire dialect. That made for hard reading. Second, when her fellow folklorists did figure out the stories, they doubted the tales’ authenticity given their unusual construction. “

“True,” I say taking a sip of wine. “This story at least doesn’t have the usual feel of a fairy tale.”

“Mrs. Balfour called them Legends of Lincolnshire; actually, legends of the Carrs, basically the bogs and fenlands of the area, but they are not really legends either.”

“I am guessing,” I nod, “Joseph Jacobs respected her work.”

“Yes, but he did apologize to her for taking them out of the dialect and turning them into plain English. There are a number of her works in More English Fairy Tales. Let’s see, My Own Self, Yallery Brown, The Hedley Kow, Tattercoats, Coat O’ Clay, A Pottle O’ Brains, I know there are others.”

“You’ve done your research,” I comment with another sip of wine.

“Yes, I have. This story raised my suspicions about its authenticity as it did for others.

“Mrs. Balfour states she collected the tale from a nine-year-old crippled girl named Fanny, who heard it from her grandmother. Mrs. Balfour comments she couldn’t help feeling her informant engaged her youthful girl’s imagination to help flesh out the details.

“Also, Mrs. Balfour described her recording process as taking notes, then writing the tale down in full the next day or soon after.”

“Hmmm,” I tap my fingers together, “plenty of time for interference, even subconsciously, to enter the story, turning it more toward literary forms.”

“She was an author in her own right.” Melissa agrees, finishing her glass. “I am not going to doubt her, at least not her honesty and good intent. If, when her hand came to the pen, she could not help but bend the words she heard to her liking and understanding, I will forgive her.”

I refill Melissa’s glass and top off my own. “For argument’s sake, let us say The Buried Moon is authentic. Is it some vestige of a moon worship mythology?”

Melissa takes off her witches’ hat, not realizing she still wore it. “We cannot dismiss the notion, but where is there a parallel tale of humans freeing the moon? I believe I have come across moon goddesses being abducted by other gods, but this is different. Here there is a symbiotic relationship between the moon and the people of the fenland. It smacks of legend or mythology, but comes out of nowhere with no parentage, hence, the professional folklorists’ suspicions.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2019 The Buried Moon – Part Three

Buried Moon three poppy

Superstitious Stuff

I add another log to the fire.

“Then there is the wise woman who lives in the old mill, who advises the people to seek the moon with a stone in their mouths, a hazel twig in their hands, and to speak not a word. How do we take that apart?”

“Well,” Melissa considers, staring at her wine, “the wise woman is a common enough trope, but residing in ‘the old mill’ is more specific than usual.

“The stone in the mouth may be an aid in not speaking while they search. A large stone in the mouths of buried corpses is a protection against vampires rising from the grave, but I think in this case we are talking about pebbles.

“The hazel twig is well known for its mystic attributes. Magical wands are often made of hazel wood, but here I think they may act as dowsing rods.

“Dowsing rods? Why would they be looking for water?”

“Oh, the dowsing rod can be used to locate other things, buried treasure, and maybe buried moons.”

“And the injunction against speaking?”

“Again, I don’t know. Saying the Lord’s Prayer forwards and backwards I found interesting as well.”

I raise my glass. “And let’s not forget the people putting pennies in their pockets and straw in their caps.”

“That I can explain,” Melissa exclaims. “It’s a bit of magic tied to the moon’s waxing, getting bigger. The idea is that the pennies in your pocket will increase along with the moon, as well as the straw—your harvest.”

“I like that. And the wise woman’s brew pot, mirror, and book?” I ask.

Melissa deflates a little. “These items pop-up in fairy tales, but I’ve never heard them put together like this before. It does indicate the wise woman deals in magical arts. White magic I will assume.

“To make matters a little worse, in Joseph Jacobs’ rewriting of the tale, he left out the wise woman also telling the people to put salt, straw, and a button on their door-sill to keep the Horrors from crossing over the threshold.”

I shake my head. “This tale is full of peasant superstitions.”

“One more thing,” Melissa says, finishing the bottle off into our glasses. “In my deep-dive into this story, I discovered Maureen James’s paper on the Carrs’ legends. The work is pretty exhaustive of the whole scene in which Mrs. Balfour operated.

“One of the factors that James covered is the extensive use of opium by the Lincolnshire inhabitants. The Fens and Carrs were unhealthy places, given to ague, poverty, and rheumatism. Opium provided some cure and comfort. Mothers used opium to quiet their babies. Man would put a little into their beer. Opium, especially in the form of laudanum, was fairly cheap and available at the chemist’s shop, not to mention the poppies being grown in their gardens to make poppyhead tea.

“If they were seeing Things, Bogles, and Crawling Horrors on dark nights in the bogs, I am not surprised.”

I contemplate that thought as our fire dies down.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2019 Hans My Hedgehog – Part One

Hans my Heddehog OldDesignShop.jpgFrom “The Teachers’ and Pupils” Cyclopaedia

Strange Child

Thalia’s finger spirals in the air, landing on the table of contents in her beloved, battered copy of Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Teddy, securely scrunched between me and the padded arm of the comfy chair where Thalia has stuffed him, observes our antics.

Thalia’s finger partly obscures the title, Hans My Hedgehog.

A well-to-do farmer had only one failure in his life. He and his wife had no children. One day he cried out, “I will have a child, even if it’s a hedgehog.”

This is the sort of wish/curse one should never make. His wife gave birth to a male being, human below the waist, but a hedgehog above. He was christened Hans My Hedgehog and lived on a pile of straw behind the stove.

After a number of years, Hans asked for bagpipes and for a blacksmith to shoe his rooster, and then his unhappy father would not see him again (which turns out not to be true). Hans also took some pigs to be raised in the forest.

Every day Hans perched in a tree, on his rooster, playing his bagpipes as he tended his pigs, which multiplied.

One day, a king, lost in the forest, heard the bagpipes and sent a servant to inquire. The servant reported that there was a hedgehog, in a tree, mounted on a rooster, playing his bagpipes while tending his pigs.

Thalia giggles at this image.

The king’s concern was to be no longer lost and asked Hans for the way out of the forest. Hans agreed to guide the king, if the king would give him that which first greets the king upon his return. The king agreed, but with no intent to keep his promise.

After guiding the king, Hans returned to tending his pigs.

A second king found himself lost in the forest and also heard the bagpipes. The scenario repeated itself with the difference that this king was sincere in his agreement.

Who greeted these kings upon their return were, of course, their only daughters.

When the pigs overpopulated the forest, Hans returned to his village, offering them up to anyone who wanted them. To his father, who orchestrated this giveaway, Hans asked to have his rooster re-shod and promised to never return (which, again, is not true).

Thalia “hmms” a question mark into the air.

Hans ventured toward the kingdom of the first lost king. Neither the king nor his daughter wanted to adhere to the agreement and did whatever they could to stop his arrival. Nonetheless, being magical, Hans forced them to comply.

Possessing the king’s daughter, he injured her with his quills, rejected her, and sent her back to her father in disgrace.

With the honest king, the trajectory was quite different. Hans was welcomed into the kingdom. This daughter, keeping her father’s promise, agreed to marry the hedgehog.

On the wedding night, Hans slipped out of his hedgehog skin and instructed that it be burnt immediately. The princess found she had married a handsome man.

Thalia applauds.

Sometime later, after Hans became the king, he revisited his father, who said he no longer had a son. Hans revealed himself and the father returned with him to his kingdom.

Giving me a peck on the cheek, Thalia extracts Teddy and wanders off to bed, dragging the poor bear behind her.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2019 Hans My Hedgehog – Part Two

Hans My Hedgehog FordHenry J Ford

Familiar Fairy

As Thalia and Teddy pass through my study door, I see Thalia’s fairy perched on the carving of a raven atop its wooden lintel. Her black hair floating mist-like around the delicate features of her face.

“Strange story,” I say to her.

She nods.

I am surprised she does not flutter away and ignore me. I seize the opportunity.

“As I see it,” I pronounce, “there is a moral to this tale. After all, Wilhelm had a hand in it.

“In Freudian terms, Hans achieves the role of superego, the judge of us mere mortals as it were, but first he must spend his time in the wilderness.

“He lives in the forest, mounted on a rooster in a tree, watching his pigs. I’ll assume the varmints that would threaten his pigs are musically sensitive and the bagpipes keep them away.

“During this time in the wilderness, he encounters two kings, the first the embodiment of self-serving evil, and the second the embodiment of inclusive goodness. In neither case does Hans, after fulfilling his part of the agreement, follow them to their kingdom to claim that which first greets them, which is, of course, the daughters, but returns to his home in the wilderness to complete that stage of his life.

“When it is time, when his pigs become too numerous, he divests himself of these worldly possessions, and enters the phase of being the superego.”

The fairy is squinting at me with narrowed eyes, but I push on.

“Now, as judge, he approaches the two kings, probably knowing what will come to pass. The first, of course, is punished for his deceit, and the second rewarded for his honesty.

“The more I think about this, the more Hans My Hedgehog parallels Jesus’s time in the wilderness, where he renounces evil and returns to preach salvation. Do you agree? Is this what the tales is about?”

Frowning, the fairy shakes her head in dissent.

“I should have guessed so,” I exhale.

I contemplate.

“If the tale is not a Christian allegory, then it must be about Hans himself.”

The fairy raises a painfully-thin finger in encouragement.

“Hans,” I go on, talking and thinking at the same time, “is half-human and half-beast.”

The fairy rolls her hand, telling me to go on.

“Half-human and half-beast,” I echo myself, “or half-humane and half-bestial. We are of two natures.”

The fairy nods.

“When Hans sees that the first king and his daughter disrespect him, they evoke in him his bestial nature. They all descend into a cycle of mutual harm. Hans, through his magic, takes the princess by force, pierces her with his quills—his bestial nature—and sends her home permanently harmed. Hans is not better for it but for a sense of revenge.

“When Hans comes to the honest king and his daughter, he is accepted and honored for having led the king out of the forest. They evoke his humane side, allowing him to shed his bestial nature. He sheds his skin and calls for it destruction. The princess, unknowingly, has saved Hans from “himself”—his bestial side—bringing forth the good side of Hans, which, we would like to believe, is inside all of us, buried beneath our own bestial natures.”

The fairy applauds, then flutters away.

That was fun.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2019 Hans My Hedgehog – Part Three

Hans my hedgehog Antti_Aarne Antti Aarne

ATU 441

The heavy smell of tobacco greets my senses in concert with the cheerful alarm of the bell above Augustus’s shop door. Busy with customers, Augustus motions me with a slight gesture of his finger toward the testing room. I happily comply.

Waiting for me is this week’s tobacco-blend attempt, which he tries out on select customers. I am halfway through a bowl when he enters the room, picking up his own pipe.

“I’m thinking it might be called Rooster Red,’” he says.

“It is red in color,” I affirm.

“That’s the Tennessee Red Leaf in the blend.”

“It leans toward being a cigarette,” I observe.

Augustus sniffs a pinch of it between his fingers. “Maybe too much Virginia.”

“It’s coincidental you came up with Rooster Red for a name. I am contemplating a fairy tale with a rooster in it.”

Little Red Rooster and the Turkish Sultan?” He raises an eyebrow.

“No, Hans My Hedgehog.”

“I should have known you would not stray far from the Grimm canon.”

“Wait, I have,” I protest.

Hans My Hedgehog is considered to be one of the ‘rise tales,’” Augustus goes on after settling into his comfy chair.

“Rise tale?”

“That’s the name given by folklorist Ruth Bottigheimer to the notion of a peasant rising to become a king.”

“Oh, of course, a notion as old as the fairy tale itself.”

“Well,” Augustus hesitates as he draws on his pipe, “not according to Bottigheimer. She suggests Giovanni Straparola in his literary work of fairy tales in the mid-sixteenth century, invented the rise tale, and from there it entered into the tool bag of the common storytellers.”

“What? I am shocked. I thought that bit of wishful thinking, wild and impossible as it is, would spring naturally from the folk.”

“There are numerous folklorists who agree with you and are intellectually outraged that Bottigheimer proposed it. She triggered a controversy that has lasted more than two decades and promises to linger longer.”

“Hmmm,” I ponder, “folklore studies is more than a century old. One would think matters would be settled by now.”

Augustus guffaws and chokes on smoke. “Hardly,” he says upon recovery. “The center of this controversy is whether the folk can create their own motifs, or are they dependent upon literary storytellers for their source material? Do storytellers borrow from writers or do writers borrow from storytellers?  I suspect the answer is ‘yes.’”

“By the way,” he says, “to raise the status of your story, The Types of International Folk Tales classification ATU (that’s authors/scholars Aarne, Thompson, and Uther) 441 bears the moniker ‘Hans My Hedgehog.’

“ATU 441 represents all the variants. Although Grimms’ version is the most famous, there are others. Some have two kings, some have three. Some have a wealthy merchant instead of a king. In some there are three daughters.

“Always, one of the daughters marries the hedgehog, returning him to his human form; sometimes with a kiss, sometimes by whipping him, or simply by cutting off his head.”

“I find it interesting,” I say, “that kissing, whipping, and decapitation are all viable alternatives for transformation. If I were a Hans, I know which one I would choose.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tales of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part One

flesh to eat foot2 CC BY

Good Heavens

There are moments of contentment in my life. Thalia slipping from my lap after I read to her—the battered copy of Grimm under one arm and Teddy dangling from the other—is one of those moments. She pads her way to the study door, dragging Teddy behind her, he picking up dust. She turns at the door, gives me a little wave, and disappears down the hall. With a happy sigh, I reach for my glass of port.

There, beside it, is my copy of Modern Greek Folk Tales.

How did that get there?

I know it was not there when I first set my glass down. A quarter of the way through the pages is a bookmark, signaling to me that is where I left off reading the book.

Was that two months ago? Two years ago? Has the book gotten impatient for me to finish it?

I pick it up and open it to the bookmark.

Human Flesh to Eat

An old man, weary from collecting wood, cries out “Oh and alas and woe is me,” which happens to be the name of a little, demonic, man, who serves the Lord of the World Beneath.

Having been evoked, and seeing that the old man did not know what to do, the demon quickly turns the tables and makes a demand of the old man that he bring to him his eldest daughter.

The little man takes the daughter to the world beneath and offers to her a wormy human foot to eat, explaining that if she can eat it, she will marry the Lord of the World Beneath. If not, she will be sent home.

She throws it away when the little man is not looking. When he calls out, “Oh my foot, my little foot, where are you?” the foot answers from the dung heap, and the eldest is sent home.

The identical thing happens to the second sister except that she if offered a wormy hand to eat.

The third and youngest daughter is offered stinking intestines, but she asks for spices to flavor it, suggesting to the little man she intends to eat it. Instead, when he is not looking, she belts it about her waist. When he calls out for the intestines, it answers, “To my lady’s belly.”

Moving on to the next stage of the story, every night the little man drugs her coffee and she never sees her husband. Her sisters get their father to evoke the demon again so that they can visit.

The story describes the sisters as wicked and possessing the knowledge that the little man drugged her coffee and that the Lord of the World Beneath has a key in his navel. When the youngest remains awake and turns the key in her sleeping husband’s navel, she can see the world.

Unfortunately, she cries out to an old woman when she sees that the river is about to snatch away the woolen yarn she is washing. This awakens her husband, who says, “You bitch, turn back the key. You are killing me.”

He sends her away, but not before instructing the little man to cut two hairs from her head, suspend them in a flask of water, and watch them day and night.

The girl goes off and exchanges clothes with a shepherd so that she can pass herself off as a boy. (I am not sure what that says about the shepherd.)

He/she is employed by a king and becomes a favorite. Unfortunately, the queen is attracted to the “lad” and tries to seduce him/her. He/she spurns the queen, who seeks revenge by declaring the “lad” tried to rape her. The king consigns him/her to be hanged.

The two hairs from her head sink to the bottom of the flask and the little man alerts his lord, who rides off to the hanging. He rips open her shirt, revealing her feminine breasts, stating, “If you like I will slit it lower yet.”

The king demurs. The Lord of the World Beneath reclaims his wife and the queen is hanged in her stead.

Good heavens! I think to myself.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part Two

 

Flesh to eat key

The Navel

It is late. It is dark. Yet I am drawn to the Magic Forest. I know better than to go there at night, but night in the Magic Forest is my addiction. It is where unlikely thoughts surface and stare at me, unblinking. These are thoughts I would not consider in my study, but come to me as the moon shines down on this uneasy visitor.

With my usual trepidation, I pass through the French doors, across my lawn, and into the forest’s edge. I will sit by the pond, which is not deep into the woods. A ring of rocks surrounds the pond, affording any number of seats.

As I settle onto a rock, a voice lilts from across the pond. “Who are you? What are you doing at my pond?”

Perched on a stone, on the other side, is a woman, about my age.

“Allow me,” I say, “to ask a similar question. What are you doing in my Magic Forest?”

“Your Magic Forest?” she intones. “This is my magical forest and I am Ultima Flossbottom.” Pride edges her voice.

I consider our dilemma for a few moments. “May I suggest the Magic Forest belongs to neither of us, but rather we belong to it?”

Her demeanor softens. “You may well be right.” She stands and picks her way around the pond to sit on the stone beside me.

I ask her, “Why are you here tonight? I’ll guess you know as well as I, we are not safe here.”

She gives a quick smile of acknowledgement. “I came here to contemplate a story.”

I know the answer before I ask. “Human Flesh to Eat?”

She nods, eyebrows raised.

“I too,” I say. “Where do we start to unpack this tale?”

She sighs. “First, I will ignore the sexist, anti-feminist leanings of the tale, painful though that is to me. That attitude was a given at the time this tale was told. To object and stop there is to miss what the tale tries to say.”

“Still,” I consider, “we should note that although she is clearly a victim of male hegemony, she remains the protagonist of the tale.”

“Agreed,” says Ultima, “I want to leapfrog to the key in the navel. What the hell is that about?”

I stare into the water of the pond. “The key in his navel must define the Lord of the World Beneath. He holds the key to the world, to existence?”

“Yet,” returns Ultima, “when he awakes, he says an unkind word to his wife, demands she turn the key, and accuses her of trying to kill him. The key in his navel is more of a curse to him than an attribute.”

I grasp for straws. “In the Jewish and Christian tradition, Jerusalem is thought to be the navel of the universe, that is to say, the center.”

Ultima, grasping for her own straws, says, “In the Greek tradition there is the stone Omphalos at the temple of Delphi. Its name translated as ‘navel.’ Before coming here I googled ‘navel mythology,’ ‘belly button mythology,’ ‘key in the navel,’ and a few other variations. I came up with nearly nothing. Did you know, historically, there were many more injunctions against women showing their belly buttons than men showing theirs?”

“I am not surprised, but might that be because ours are hairy and not as attractive?”

She snorts and lets my little joke pass.

“I think,” she says, “we have sunk to defining what this image is not.”

I tap my finger on my knee. “I am ready to concede we are looking at an image that operates at the dream level, eluding words to express it.”

 

Fairy Tale  of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part Three

Flesh to eat Edward Burne-Jones Edward Burne-Jones

Only Inexplicable

“The key in the navel,” Ultima muses, “is not the only inexplicable item. The more I consider the tale, the more I see that it all goes by us unexplained.”

“I don’t think,” I counter, “an unexplained element in a fairy tale is unusual.”

“Yes, but, this tale makes a career out of being unexplained and inexplicable. Let’s start with the test of eating human flesh. What is that all about?”

“I presume it has something to do with the World Beneath really being the world of the dead.”

“We presume,” she says. “It is not explained. And why does the little man call out, ‘My foot, my little foot . . . .’ Is it his foot he wants the girl to eat, or simply a foot from his favorite body-parts collection?”

I chuckle.

“”Let me rant on,” Ultima says. “Why is the younger sister willing to marry the unseen lord? The flesh trial is not a good harbinger of things to come. What if human flesh is the cuisine of the World Beneath? The World Beneath may not be the best neighborhood.

“Then there are the sisters, described in the story as wicked, although they do nothing wicked, but who know more than they ought to about the drugged coffee and the lord’s navel.

“Speaking of the navel, why does turning the key threaten his life?  What is a key for, but to be turned?

“Then he sends her away, but not before having two hairs cut from her head, floated in water, and having the little man stand guard over them day and night, setting up for her return. Why send her away when he really wants her back again?”

I am thinking she ought to be running out of breath, but that is not the case. On she goes.

“Next, she exchanges clothes to disguise herself as a boy. Why doesn’t she go home like her sisters did?”

“She is, perhaps,” I observe, “denying her feminine side.”

“Yes, I agree, but why? What is her motivation?”

“I see your point. By the way, our story really does follow the Cupid and Psyche pattern, although it turns that pattern on its head until it is hardly recognizable. However, this section, when the king’s wife tries to seduce our protagonist, rings of the biblical Joseph’s story.”

Ultima nods. “Biblical stories would be in the storyteller’s tool kit, but listen; I am not done with my rant.”

We already have a laundry list of the unexplained. She is tenacious.

“When,” Ultima drives on, “she is falsely accused and faces her death, it takes her husband to come and rescue her by exposing her femininity. Why couldn’t she have done that herself? What was so important about her secret that she’d rather die than expose it? Unexplained and inexplicable.”

I think she’s done.

“What I hear you saying,” I suggest, “is that the unexplained and inexplicable is uniform throughout the story. That implies the storyteller intended those things. My turn to ask the question ‘why’. Was it perhaps an ancient form of the horror story?”

“Ahh!” Ultima says, but before she can answer, an unnatural sound rips the air. It is made up of an agonized lion’s roar and the slow, creaking surrender of a falling tree, all moved to a higher register. It vibrates through my body.

“Oh,” sighs Ultima, “my dragon calls. I must attend him.” She turns to me, placing her hand on mine. “I hope we meet again, but for now . . . . Well, you know how impatient they are.”

Her dragon!

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part One

Selkies Arthur Rackham Arthur Rackham

Good Meal

I uncork and pour a glass of white wine to go with the Chicken Marbella I serve to a distracted Melissa.

“Do you mind,” I ask, “if I be a tad romantic and light a candle?”

Melissa comes out of her self-absorption and smiles. “Please do.”

“Now,” I say, when things are settled and we pick up our forks, “what is this story that has so disturbed you?”

Melissa takes a bite before she says, “I stayed up too late last night reading Irish Tales of the Fairy and the Ghost Worlds by Jeremiah Curtin, and I came upon Tom Moore and the Seal Woman.”

Tom Moore, a goodly fellow, lived with his parents until they died and he found himself in need of a wife.

One day, while working along the seaside, he spotted a remarkable woman sleeping on a rock. He called to the woman, waking and warning her against the coming tide. She only laughed at him. He kept an eye on her and when the tide looked threatening, he tried to rescue her. She only slipped off into the sea.

After a sleepless night, obsessed by her beauty, he returned to the shore and there she sat upon her rock. Boldly, he snatched her hood. She demanded it back, but he refused, saying, “God sent you to me.”

That very day, after she made breakfast, Tom had them married. She was as good a wife as anyone could want, bearing him five children, three sons and two daughters.

One day Tom was in the loft of the cottage, throwing down bags and bunches of things, looking for some bolts he needed for a repair, forgetting that among the debris was the hood he took from his wife. She saw and snatched it back. From the sea came the bellowing of a seal. She knew it was her brother calling to her.

At the same time some of the village fishermen had killed three seals. Tom’s wife threw herself upon the bodies, crying murder. For her sake the bodies were buried, but during the night some of the fishermen tried to dig them back up, only to find the carcasses had disappeared.

The next day, while Tom was away working, she cleaned the house, washed her children, and kissed them, then put on her hood, returning to the sea.

For generations after that the progeny of her children all had the same peculiar webbing between their fingers and toes, although it diminished over time.

“That’s a delightful story,” I say. “However, we both know there are a hundred variations on it. The mermaid wife, abducted by a mortal, who bears his children, then escapes back to the sea, is pretty universal. What is it about this story that strikes you differently?”

“One,” Melissa takes another bite of the Marbella, “she’s not a mermaid. She‘s a seal. Two, it’s Jeremiah Curtin’s introduction to the tale that caught me.

“He talks about the MacCodrum clan, known as ‘The Race of the Seals,’ who once made their home in the Hebrides, and claimed to be descended from a seal woman. They all had the webbing of the fingers and toes. “

“OK,” I say, “and . . . ?”

Melissa holds up her hand, spreading out her fingers. Low, between them is a very fine webbing of skin I have never noticed before.

“My great, great, grandmother was a MacCodrum, but I didn’t know about the webbing until I read Curtin’s book. I need to talk again with your nixie.”

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part Two

Selkie Arthur Rackham 2Arthur Rackham

Of Water

I dragged out the popcorn maker even before we finished our meal.

Earlier this morning I woke up feeling unsettled. I put it to Thalia and her mother being away to Brighton for summer vacation, but by noon I knew it was Melissa projecting her anxiety. I hustled down to the bookshop to find it actually busy for once.

Melissa’s eyes widened when she saw me. “I was going to call . . .”

“You did call. I see you have customers. Supper at my place?”

“Yes. Thank you. I close the shop at six.”

I proceeded to market to buy chicken, dates, capers, kale, and some wine.

But now, we pour the popcorn into a bag and head for the Magic Forest. I feel a bit in a rush. We need to finish our business before sunset. After dusk in the Magic Forest? Well, I’ve made that mistake.

I believe the nixie always knows when I am coming. Melissa and I peer over the rim of the high bank that surrounds the nixie pond, where she already floats below us, her pale-greenish body part of the rippling water.

“Melissa,” her reedy voice intones, “you come with my smiling, human friend for a reason, but with a face that is dour.”

“I bring questions and popcorn,” says Melissa, as she starts to throw the nixie a stream of kernels as is our tradition. Deftly, the creature catches each one in her mouth.

“Who are the seal people?” Melissa asks.

“Peoples,” corrects the nixie between catches. “They are, some of them, fallen angels like myself. Others are of the elven race taken to the ocean. Still more are mariners drowned at sea, or condemned souls.

“In Scotland they are called the selkies. In Ireland, the merrow. I think all seals have a bit of human or fallen angel in them. One can tell by the eyes.”

“By the eyes,” Melissa echoes, then says, “What is the seal peoples’ nature?”

“They are changelings.” The nixie’s eyes narrow. “Not as stable as the rest of the fay. They have a foot in both the mundane and the fairy worlds. They cannot, for their very existence, decide which world they prefer.

“Though spending most of their time in the sea, still the land calls to them. At certain times of the moon, or of the year, or even cycles of the years—depending on the tribe—they must shed their seal skins, take their human form, and dance upon the earth.

“Then is their most vulnerable time, especially for the seal women. Mortal men, who wander around more than mortal women, chance upon the seal peoples’ dance. If one of these gadabouts grabs a seal woman’s skin, she belongs to him.

“That is not to say there are not liaisons between mortal women and seal men, but that comes about in a different fashion. The seal men, I will say, tend to be terribly handsome.”

For a while, Melissa and the nixie play the game of throwing and catching popcorn before Melissa asks, “Am I descended from the seal people?”

She holds up her hand with outstretched fingers. “I have the webbing and am related to the MacC . . .”

To my horror, the nixie nimbly skitters up the steep bank toward Melissa until they sit nose to nose. The nixie places her greenish hand under Melissa’s chin, with a searching stare into her eyes.

“Yes,” the nixie replies, then slips back down the bank into the pond, but not before nicking the bag of popcorn. She floats on her back, the bag on her stomach as she gorges herself, giggling.

Melissa has the look of someone struck by lightning.

 

Fairy Tale  of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part Three

selkie T W Wood TW Wood

Little Wonder

“It’s little wonder that I entered your fairy world so easily.”

Melissa takes the glass of white wine I pour for her. We didn’t have time to finish the bottle during supper.

“The veil is thin,” I say. “Anyone can pass through it. I did. But you, you actually have credentials.”

Melissa laughs. “I am not sure ‘credentials’ is the right word. ‘Blood’ may be closer.”

We sit in my study, the bay windows open to invite in the evening breeze. The last vestige of sunlight fades over the distant outline of the Magic Forest.

“You know,” I say, “you can’t imagine my terror when the nixie actually touched you. I thought the steep bank to be a barrier between our world and hers. I should have known, being in the Magic Forest, we were in her world with no safe space.

Melissa waves that off. “Her touch did not frighten me. Her eyes, looking into the house of my soul, still haunt me. All my secrets and deeply-held fears that I thought lay at the center of my being were cobwebs in the rooms she passed through looking for my unnatural origins.”

“The nixie said she thought every seal had a bit of human or fallen angel in them. Do we, humans, all have a bit of the fay in us?”

“I am going to say ‘no.’” Melissa looks at her empty wine glass. “I am sure there are those humans of ‘pure blood’ that have never been tainted by the fairy world. But they lack imagination. Their sight does not go beyond the corporeal world, to the realm where toads talk and money means nothing.”

I pour us more wine. “I propose a toast to us mutts, and thumb our noses at pure bloods.”

We clink our glasses.

“What of,” I ask, “you, me, and many others, being between two worlds, the worlds of the mundane and the fairy?”

“That is manifest in our dreams. We, humans, all dream. We have to. What we dream reflects who we are. I dream of the sea. Now I know why. I am doomed to be as unstable as the shifting sands.”

“Cannot,” I ask, “our dreams that draw us into the fairy world serve to find our path forward?”

“It is not that simple.” Melissa empties her glass. “In our dreams, the fairy world only gives us evasive hints, which is more than they are required to do. They are being generous to us mortals. It is ours to reason out the hints they give us.

“But then,” Melissa regards her, again, empty glass, “do the fairies know what is best for us, or even care? Do I give them too much credit? Should I allow the fay to be my guide?”

“You sound,” I say, “like the changeling our nixie described, not content to stay in the sea and must dance on the land.”

“Or,” says Melissa, “have danced upon the land too long and crave the sea. The fairy tales mirror our desires. They tell us that peasants can rise to royalty. A simpleton is smarter than his elder brothers. For every young girl there is a prince seeking her.”

Melissa’s eyes drift off toward the ceiling. “But beyond that, the fairy tales whisper secrets into our ears during dreaming, which are hard to remember upon waking. Fairy tales come from a dimension a little beyond our understanding.”

I pour the last of the wine into our glasses.

“Oh, by the way,” she says, “the Chicken Marbella was excellent.”

I am so glad she noticed.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part One

Singing Springing Arthur_Rackham_The_Lady_and_the_Lion Arthur Rackham

Beast and Bird

There are those who live for the weekend. There are those who live for their vacations. There are those who live for the next football game. They live for that short time when they feel particularly alive.

I live for hearing Thalia padding down the hall, dragging her Teddy behind her, a dog-eared copy of Grimm clutched in her other hand. She shoulders the study door open a little wider, making her determined passage to the comfy chair. Thalia flings Teddy into my lap, grabs my belt to pull herself up, and settles between me and the padded arm of the chair.

She opens her book in my lap and goes through the ceremony of choosing a story, with much finger-waving in the air before randomly stabbing the table of contents. She judges if that is the story to be told tonight or not. We are running out of unread tales.

“Ah,” I say, “The Singing Springing Lark.

A merchant, about to go on a long trip, asks his daughters what they want him to bring back for them. His youngest wants a singing springing lark. On the return trip, the merchant carries pearls and diamonds for his elder daughters and spots a lark near a mysterious castle.

“Hey, this is Beauty and the Beast!” Thalia pouts a little.

Before the merchant catches the bird, a lion jumps out intent on eating the merchant.

“There’s the beast.”

When the merchant pleads for his life, the lion agrees but only if the merchant will surrender what first greets him on his return. The lion even gives the merchant the bird. The merchant fears the first to greet him will be his youngest daughter, but he has no choice.

“That’s a little different.” Thalia’s brow knits.

As fate will have it, it is the youngest who greets him first. When she finds out what has happened, she insists her father keep his promise, and declares she will tame the lion and return.

Taming turns out not to be necessary. A friendly pack of lions escorts her to the castle, and that evening turns into a prince and his men. The wedding takes place immediately.

“Oh!” says Thalia.

From then on, they sleep by day and stay up all night. One day her husband tells her that her eldest sister is to be married, and asks if she would like to attend the wedding. She does and is accompanied by some of her husband’s lions.

“Cool.” Thalia grins.

When the second sister is to be married, the youngest wants her lion/husband and their child to come as well. He says he cannot lest the light of a wedding candle fall on him and turn him into a dove for seven years. She promises to protect him and has a hall built that will admit no light.

It does not work. When the marriage procession passes in front of the hall, a hairline crack in the green wood of the door allows in one ray. When the youngest opens the hall, a dove flies off leaving a trail of blood and feathers every seven steps that she must follow for seven years.

“Ohhh!” Thalia exclaims in sympathy.

Shortly before the seven years are up, she loses the trail and goes to the sun and moon for help. They do not know where the dove has gone, but give her a small casket and an egg to be use in great duress. She is helped by the four winds, who tell her the dove has returned to his lion form and battles a dragon, who is an enchanted princess. By going to the Red Sea, cutting the eleventh reed, and striking the dragon with it, she will cause the lion to defeat the dragon, breaking the spell on both creatures.

Also by the Red Sea is a griffin to carry them back home. The four winds give the youngest a nut, which she must cast into the sea on their passage home, and which will immediately sprout into a nut tree, growing a branch on which the griffin can rest.

All this she does, but the princess, when no longer under enchantment, grabs the prince and flies off on the griffin.

“Wow,” wonders Thalia.

After much wandering, the youngest rediscovers her husband just before he and the princess are to be wed. Opening the casket from the sun reveals a golden dress, which she uses to trade with the princess for an evening with her groom. However, the princess drugs her fiancé into sleep.

The next day the youngest cracks open the egg from the moon, and out comes a golden hen and twelve golden chicks. These, too, the princess want, but her trick of the night before is thwarted by a faithful servant.

Hearing his true bride’s voice, the spell is truly broken, and the prince and the youngest fly off on the griffin, allowing it to rest on the branch of the nut tree grown from the nut cast into the sea. Returning home, they are reunited with their son, grown tall and handsome, and they live happily thereafter.

“Yeah!” Thalia is pleased.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part Two

Singing springing-johnb-gruelle John B. Gruelle

A Reflection

Time to reflect, I think to myself as Thalia and Teddy disappear through the study door. And nothing reflects better than the Thinking Pool in the Dark Forest.

I know better than to venture into the Dark Forest at night, but—I assure myself—the pool is barely inside the forest’s edge and there is a full moon in the sky. With the comfort of a heavy coat and my pipe against the cold of the night, I amble across the threshold of the French doors, traverse the frozen lawn, and enter into the forest.

I sit by the pool, edged with stones, on a small stone stool (looking for all the world like a stone mushroom). Taking a deep draft from my pipe, I blow the smoke across the still water. It drifts and rolls a little above the surface, as an image forms on its glassy face. It is the head of a lion appearing at the far end of the pool, oddly, upside down.

I glance up. Oh no! I see the reflection is of a real lion, with cold, unblinking eyes, standing a short leap from me.

“You invoked me.” The lion settles on his haunches.

Did I? Not my best idea.

“I came to contemplate The Singing, Springing Lark,” I say.

“Then that is why I am here.”

“You are who?”

“I am the enchanted prince. I am the lost husband. You see me as a lion, but I am a fox, a flounder, a bird, even,” he dips a claw into the pool, “a tree.”

As the ripple he creates passes over the surface, I see a young woman embraced by a young man who is half human and half tree.

The Old Woman in the Forest.” I recognize the image. “In that tale you and all your men are trees, but you can also be a dove for a few hours every day. In the lark story you and all your men are lions by day, and you become a dove for seven years, not the same thing, but strangely similar.”

The lion touches the water again. A series of images tumbles before me, one on top of the other, but I identify them. “A Sprig of Rosemary; East of the Sun, West of the Moon; The Black Bull of Norroway, The Tale of the Hoodie. All these tales,” I say, “have women looking for their lost husbands.”

The lion touches the water once more. In succession I see a woman holding a candle over a handsome youth, another woman opening a chest with a small key, yet another woman by a door from which flies a dove with a feather and drop of blood suspended in the air.

The lion glares at me with those cold eyes, expecting me to say more. I’d better think quickly before he becomes impatient with this dull human.

“Each woman,” I say slowly, “each wife, has made a mistake, broken a promise, failed a task.”

The lion nods and waits.

“Every one of them goes on a quest to reclaim her husband. All receive supernatural aid, advice, and gifts.”

The lion nods again and waits.

“The journeys are long,” I continue. “The magical help is barely enough. Each, in the end, must in some way awaken her husband to the truth, to the true nature of their experience.”

“You ignore one element,” the lion rumbles.

“And that is?” I hear a tremble in my voice. Have I failed a test?

“Theirs are all acts of atonement,” he growls. Then, shimmering, he transforms into a dove, flies off into the forest darkness leaving behind a feather slowly drifting toward the ground.

In my imagination, I am chasing after that dove, following the trail of blood and feathers. My body—wisely—is running for all its worth back to the safety of the study.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part Three

Singing springing_(Edwardes,_Bell) Robert Anning Bell

More Reflection

“Atonement?” I say aloud, sitting on the window seat, catching my breath. I suppose, I think to myself, but I don’t feel convinced.

All the Beauty and the Beast variants arise, I will guess, from Apuleius’s Cupid and Psyche, in which Cupid’s forbids Psyche to look upon him. She, instead, follows the advice of her sisters, who suggest he is a dangerous beast. She approaches their bed with a lamp in one hand and a dagger in the other, breaking a trust between them.

In the lark story, the youngest acts in good faith, building a hall in which to hide the prince for candlelight, but is foiled by the slightest defect in a door made of green wood; foiled by fate might be more to the point.

The circumstances in the two stories are different, yet I am struck again by an odd parallel not unlike that between the lark story and The Old Woman in the Forest. In this case Cupid is awoken when hot oil from Psyche’s lamp falls upon him, wounding him, and he flies away. In the lark story, a ray of light from a wedding candle falls upon the prince, transforming him into a dove that flies off leaving a trail of blood.

If these events were more similar, I could safely assume there was a bit of borrowing going on. Instead, they are different enough that I wonder if they didn’t grow out of the same impulse rather than the same origin.

By way of contrast, my brain considers The Sprig of Rosemary. Against all warnings, the heroine feels compelled to open the forbidden box in which lies a snakeskin. At the sight of the skin, all of the underground world vanishes, including the memory of it and of her husband, recovered only by the scent of rosemary.

This version of the lost-husband story has no lamp or candle as a symbol despite taking place in an underground castle. No dove appears in the story. The symbolic items—the rosemary, the snakeskin—are dissimilar to the other two lost-husband stories.

What the Psyche story and the rosemary story have in common is that the heroines consciously act contrary to their husbands’ wishes. In the lark tale, the youngest acts with his cooperation. Although all three stories are clearly of the lost-husband motif, additional similarities across all of them really do not exist.

How can the lion insist these are stories of atonement?

However, I am not about to go back and ask him.

Still sitting on the window seat, realizing my heart has stopped pounding, I see Wilhelm standing by the fireplace gazing into the flames. I haven’t seen Wilhelm in my study for quite some time and I marvel at his presence.

He glances halfway in my direction. He must know I am watching him. He takes a poker from the rack and scrawls in the ashes on the hearth. He returns the poker to the rack, straightens up, and looks toward me as he fades from sight.

I discover in the ashes he has drawn a series of hearts.

“Matters of the heart, of course,” I say. The lion, for all his authority, has missed the element that binds these three tales and all the others of its ilk together. It is the love these women hold for their husbands that sustains them through their quests.

Certainly it is not the theme of atonement that has made these stories among the most popular of the fairy tales, but rather it’s the story of true, pure love that attracts us.

Your thoughts.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part One

Enchanted Deer FordH J Ford

Lonely Supper

I had a lonely supper eaten in silence, built a fire in the hearth in a vain attempt to cheer myself, and now, with a glass of whiskey, watch an overcast February day fade away through my bay windows. Thalia and her mother are off visiting relatives in Glasgow.

My gloom is interrupted by Thalia’s black-haired fairy. She flutters close to my nose, giving me a most demanding frown. Fairies are a little like cats in nature. If they are unhappy about a thing, it’s your fault.

“What? Have I done something wrong?”

She buzzes over to my bookcase, hovering in front of a lilac-colored binding.

“Ah, Andrew Lang’s Lilac Fairy Book. I see.”

I take it down and shuffle to my comfy chair. I have come to suspect the fairy regularly listens to the stories I read to Thalia, perhaps hiding in Thalia’s pocket or in a dark corner of the study. But now, with Thalia gone, the fairy has to reveal herself and demand a story. She would have you know that fairy tales are not written about fairies, rather they are written for fairies.

I open the book to its table of contents. She alights on the page a moment, putting her foot on The Enchanted Deer, then flutters up to settle on my shoulder.

A young man, Ian, trades his mother’s cart horse for a gun, a dog, and a falcon. His widowed mother, her fisherman-husband having drowned at sea, beats her son for the trade. He leaves home to become a hunter.

A farmer asks Ian to kill a deer that has been raiding his fields, but when the youth aims his gun at the deer it turns into a beautiful woman. He follows her, in her deer form, to a cottage thatched with heather. The deer lies down on the roof of heather, calling out, “Go in, fisher’s son, and eat and drink while you may.”

This he does until the twenty-four thieves who live there come home and kill him.

Oh, I think to myself, should that not be the end of the story?

Of course not. Such things are of no inconvenience to the fairy tale.

In the morning the deer comes and shakes her earwax onto the body and the youth is restored.

See, I told you.

The process repeats itself, Ian being killed over and over again. Additionally, the captain of the thieves orders the deaths of his men who fail to kill the youth. This numbers game continues until there are no more thieves.

Next, the deer conducts the youth to a witch’s cottage to stay, and tells him to meet her in the nearby church the next midday. The witch implants a “spike of hurt” into the doorway of the church, which brushes against Ian when he enters, causing him to fall into a deep sleep. The witch’s dark son watches over him.

When Ian awakes, the dark son tells him of the visit of a princess and how she tried to wake him, but does not tell him of the witch’s subterfuge. Three times this happens. The dark son tells the youth that on the third night she declared she will never see him again, but does not tell Ian that she has written  her name, “The daughter of the king of the town under the waves,” on his side, nor of the beautifully-wrought box she put in his pocket.

Ian sets off to find her and comes across an old woman who knows who he is and of his quest. She sends him off to her sister, giving him magical shoes to make the distant journey. This happens the mandatory three times, the third sister having a son who is the keeper of the birds.

The keeper of the birds has the youth, still keeping his gun, climb into a sack made of cowhide, but the dog and falcon are left behind. The sack is carried off by an eagle who deposits him on an island where there is nothing to eat.

At this point Ian finds the box, while searching his pockets for food. Three small birds fly out of the opened box to grant him wishes. He wishes to be in the kingdom under the waves. Once there, he takes employment with a weaver. The weaver tells him of a horse race, the winner of which can claim the princess.

With the aid of the three birds in the box, he has the fastest horse, fine clothing, and glass shoes. He wins the race, but does not claim the bride. The race is run three times and he wins all, but still does not claim the princess.

The king then searches for the victor of the races. During the search they find Ian, but as he is dirty and ragged they do not recognize him, and it is decided he is worthy of death. While he is standing on the gallows, the princess spots the words she wrote on his side and claims him as her true husband.

The fairy, now contented, flitters off, her happy laughter sounding like softly-shattering glass.

I, in my discontent, re-read the story.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part Two

Enchanted Deer Ford2H J Ford

Surreptitious Listener

Another sly listener to the tales is Johannes. He often lingers in the study while I read to Thalia. Tonight, as I read to the fairy, he came in, curled up on the seat beneath the bay window, staring through the glass into the darkness.

“Johannes,” I call to him. “What do you think of Andrew Lang’s telling of this tale? I sense some interference on his part; the tale doesn’t quite hold together for me. Does he concede to some social norms of his day that cloud the tale?”

“Nora’s telling of the tale,” he replies.

“Pardon?”

“Lenora Blanche Lang, his wife, translated and edited the tales. The Color Books were her creation.”

“And how,” I asked, “do you know that?”

“I sat in Nora’s lap as she worked on them.”

“You were the Lang’s cat?” My surprise is sincere.

Johannes bristles. “I belong to no one. Nora was my lady, as Thalia is now my lady.”

Oops. I forgot. Johannes is a sith cat. “Accept my humble apology, but did Nora Lang change this tale to suit her audience?”

“Not much.” Johannes’s tail fur settles down. “Note her source at the end of the story.”

Sure enough, Popular Tales of the West Highlands.

“I have that.” It is one of the books Melissa talked me into purchasing. I never before broke its spine. It took me awhile to find the tale, now named The Widow’s son. 

I sit and read.

“Good grief,” I state when I finish.

Johannes gives me his best Cheshire grin.

The book’s author, J. F. Campbell, collected the story orally from two Scotsmen, Donald MacCraw and John MacPhie, their versions deviating substantially.

Campbell tries to make a coherent story out of the two versions without much success. Nora Lang tried to make some sense out of Campbell’s version, but, I feel, failed as well.

In MacCraw’s version, when the princess visits Ian in the church, on the first day, she is dressed in white, coming in a chariot drawn by four white horses. On the second day the color scheme is grey, and on the third, black. Why did Campbell and Lang both omit that harmless detail?

As Campbell wrote his version, when it came to the races for the princess’s hand in marriage, the first contest was a horse race, the second a dog race, and the third a falcon race. Ian, however, does not enter the original dog or falcon into the races, but rather ones given to him by the three birds in the box, which Campbell describes as a snuffbox.

MacCraw’s version skips the three old sisters, and goes directly to an old man herding a cow. Ian buys the cow, puts himself into the cow hide and has himself thrown into the sea. Eagles pick him up and carry him to their nest where Ian kills their fledglings, after which they carry him off to the kingdom under the sea.

“Why would they do that?” I ask Johannes. His Cheshire grin widens.

The discrepancies among the versions accorded to Nora Lang, John MacPhie, and Donald MacCraw’s go even further; MacCraw said Ian got the box, not from the princess, but from his grandfather, and the “he” within the box granted the wishes. After Ian is recognized by the princess, with the aid of the box, Ian creates a castle for them. A rival steals the snuffbox and carries the princess and the castle off to the realm of the rats.

Ian is helped by an old man, who gives him a magical boat and a cat. The cat, who I can’t help but suspect is Johannes, catches a rat, and on pain of death, convinces it to steal back the snuff box. Order is restored, and the proper marriage between Ian and the princess takes place.

What goes to my heart and stirs it with a sense of longing, is Campbell’s description of his conversation with MacCraw on a long walk in North Uist. MacCraw told him, during their ramble, that he heard the story from an old woman, and how he and other “bairns” would walk miles to her cabin, even in the snow, with offerings of tobacco, procured from elders, to bribe her to tell them the tales.

MacCraw confessed to having forgotten much of the story, particularly the “measured prose phrases” that garnished the tale.

What came to MacCraw’s ears, but not from his mouth, that we shall never hear?

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part Three

Enchanted Deer Ford3H J Ford

Unclaimed Bride

“Johannes,” I say, “there is much about this story that is curious. For one, there is the ‘mirror reflection’ of Ian and his mother, the witch and her dark son, and the third sister and her son, the keeper of the birds—so very fatherless. The actual fathers of these sons do not appear in the story. I wonder if a father has ever been the hero of a fairy tale.

“Then there is our hero, Ian, uniformly addressed as the fisher’s son. In fact, in Campbell’s version, one of the old women calls him son of the great fisher of Ireland. Would that not be the Fisher King of the Arthurian tales? Would that not put a different cast to the story?

“Also, there is the peculiar request of Ian to the three birds. When he needs to take part in the horse race, he asks, of course, for the fastest horse, fine clothing, and then for glass shoes. Glass shoes have no practicality in a horse race. Is this an allusion to Cinderella?

“Let us not even try to consider the healing properties of deer earwax.

“What bothered me the most, while reading this tale, is the motif I have encountered before, but here it is again. In this motif, the hero arises to defend, or vie for, the princess. It is always a princess in contention. The encounter or conflict will happen three times. At the start of each event, the hero prepares himself with the help of magic. At the end of each event the hero retires and assumes a humble position, not taking advantage of his victory.

“He has every right,” I blather on, “to claim the princess, and that is his goal, but he, inexplicable, does not claim her. Another event needs to occur before he will come forward, be drawn out, or be discovered.

“Why,” I ask, “is the hero working against himself?”

“Because,” answers Johannes smugly, “He must.”

“Why?” I plead.

“Ah, that is harder to answer,” Johannes admits. “The journey in the story is travail. The resolution cannot be easy and quick.  But more importantly, the hero in the story is not just a character, the hero is the listener. The tale is guiding the listener to a conclusion.”

“And what is that conclusion?” I ask.

“The conclusion is a bit ephemeral.” Johannes scratched his ear with a hind leg. “There is no sound logic in the answer; rather the answer is an intuitive one.

“Before the hero defends or vies for the princess, there is a history. The hero, at least, has fallen in love with the princess. Often in this motif, as with this tale, they have touched each other before.

“To win a race, kill a seven-headed dragon, or whatever, and then claim the princess, would be a cheap trick, a convenience. Our hero cannot purchase his bride. In this motif, she must claim him, or he must come forward and reveal himself, to save her from a further deception by a dishonest rival.

“The listener, as hero, be they male or female, want the full satisfaction of true love, and not the result of a good bargain. While a worthy fairy tale ends well, the path to that good end must never feel certain.”

“The listener as hero?” I muse. “That the listener identifies themselves with the tale is the usual course.”

“To a degree,” corrects Johannes. “Some motifs invite you to be an observer. Other motifs demand you participate. How and when that happens is the ephemeral part. If we knew how a fairy tale would affect us—all of literature for that matter—we would stop reading and listening. We, who are intelligent, crave the unexpected and the inexplicable.”

Your thoughts?

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

Hadleigh_castle_engraving 1832 Engraving 1832

Hadleigh Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hadleigh_castle_engraving_1783_trimmed Engraving 1783

Melissa’s Basket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose she is right.

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

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

Concerning Status

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: 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.