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

quest espresso machine

Espresso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quest pizza-quarto-stagioni

Pizza and Wine

“Say that again?” Duckworth sips his espresso.

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

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

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

“Perfect.”

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

“I am shocked,” Duckworth grins.

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

“Where is it from?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or death,” puts in Duckworth.

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

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

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

Duckworth nods in agreement and reaches for more cheese.

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

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

“Marie-Louise Van Franz. . . “

“Who?”

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

“Ok, got it.”

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

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

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

Quest grapes and figs painting

Figs and Grapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What hashtag is that?”

“Hashtag?”

“You know, Twitter.”

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

“Facebook?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

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

Little Gold Bird one clipClipart

Cozy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That does not help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were in this story?”

“Stories like it.”

I forgot the fairy’s longevity and must concede.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A River

“A nosebleed! How uncouth,” says Duckworth.

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

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

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

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

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

Duckworth is baiting me.

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

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

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

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

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

“What would the curse be?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The river Styx?” I suggest.

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

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

“Agreed,” smiles Duckworth.

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

Little Gold Bird four Crane Walter Crane, Faerie Queen 1894

Resurrections

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

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

“Delighted.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

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

dovrefjell twoTheodor Severin Kittelsen

Dovrefjell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a Doverjelly?” Thalia frowns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dovrefjell three Clip Art

Of Degrees

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t I . . .”

“Yes, you did, and I thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quite. Disturbing, isn’t it?

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

Dovrefjell PloughMonday  George Walker, Costumes of Yorkshire

Feast Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not at all; I was a Wrenboy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can only shake my head, and he continues.

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

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

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

I wonder.

Your thoughts?

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

Catherine_and_Her_Destiny1H J Ford

Pink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Catherine and her destiny Wheel Tarot Tarot Card

November Tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I note Melissa had not actually asked her question.

“We?” observes Melissa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I proffer my cup to Melissa for a refill.

 

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

Catherine_and_Her_Destiny2H J Ford

Odd Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew nods in agreement as he takes another sip.

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

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

I concede Andrew’s point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa smiles.

Your thoughts?

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2017 – Part One

Binnorie one John D. Batten

Halloween Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘It, too, is mine already.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thalia shivers again and cuddles closer to me.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2017 – Part Two

binnorie threeEleanor Fortescue Brickdale

Binnorie Continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then the harp began to sing:

 

‘Yonder sits my father the king,

Binnorie, oh Binnorie.

And with him my mother the queen,

By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.

 

And yonder sits an empty chair,

Binnorie, oh Binnorie.

But it was I who once sat there,

By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.

 

There be my William, proud and free,

Binnorie, oh Binnorie.

With him my sister, who killed me,

By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.’

 

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

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

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

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

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

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2017 – Part Three

Binnorie twoJohn D Batten

Cruel Sister

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

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

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

“Sounds pleasant. What is a Binnorie?”

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

“Is it a scary river?”

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

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

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

I give Duckworth the summation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Child’s?” Duckworth questions.

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

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

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

We row a little while in silence.

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

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

“Nasty,” says Duckworth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thought?

 

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

Wren three Dugald Stewart Walker2 Dugald Stewart Walker

Afternoon Tea

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

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

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

“Of course,” Melissa comments with solemnness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wren two Jack Yeats Jack Yeats

About Wrens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa pauses for a moment.

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

Although he was little his honour was great,

Jump up me lads and give him a treat.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

And give us a penny to bury the wren.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wren one Gold Crested Wren

Encyclopedia Augustus

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

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

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

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

“Greek.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Augustus scans for a moment.

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

Augustus scans some more.

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

 

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

True Bride Feathers Rebecca from flickr

Wilhelm Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cool,” says Thalia.

The fairy and Wilhelm sigh in contentment.

 

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

True bride Castle Cawdor Castle – postcard  by Bert Towle

Fairy Companion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love fathers and mothers,

and all sorts of others.

But the steps. Oh the steps.

Satanic to their depths.”

I am charmed as she settles back on my shoulder.

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

My companion leaps up again radiating indignation.

“Fairies, fairies, not so contrary,

be we big or small as berries.

We will help you, my mortal being,

but tag us not with godly naming.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To do the task,

of which you’re asked,

will show your soul

to be as gold.”

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

 

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

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

Wandering Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is that fairy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thalia’s fairy reappears.

“Before your heart flees from your breast,

per demons released by sunset,

let us depart with a good fart,

to let night know we are stalwart.”

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

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2017 The Shepherd of Myddvai – Part One

Shepherd of Myddvai - John D BattenJohn D. Batten

Dark Water

After a long four-hour drive, mostly down the M4, we find ourselves a little beyond the hamlet of Blaenau in Caermarthenshire, at the car park for Lake Llyn Y Fan Fach.

Wales, of course.

This sojourn, undertaken at Melissa’s insistence with no explanation, leaves Thalia and me bemused. Still, the Welsh landscape compensates for our confusion.

We put on our walking shoes and head up the straight, steep, long, very long path to the peak of Picws Du, which overlooks the lake. I am pleased to rest as we get to the top.

The clouds are thick overhead, but not stormy. We are so high up that the red kites—the birds I mean—circle in their flight below us, as we gaze at the lake sitting at the foot of the Black Mountains.

Melissa pulls from her small backpack a copy of Joseph Jacobs’ Celtic Fairy Tales. Thalia settles beside her.

The Shepherd of Myddvai,” Melissa announces. “Up in the Black Mountains in Caermarthenshire lies the lake known as Llyn Y Fan Fach.”

A young shepherd is tending his flock when three maidens rise out of the dark water. One comes near him and he offers her some bread, which she finds too hard and leaves him. On the next day he offers softer bread, which she also refuses. On the third day he offers her bread he found floating on the lake. This she accepts and also his proposal of marriage if he can pick her out from among her sisters the next day. This he does by observing the sandals she wears.

She becomes his wife under the condition that he not strike her three times. The love-besotted shepherd could not imagine ever striking her. She brings with her, from the dark water, cows, oxen, and a bull as a dowry.

Things go well for some time, time enough for them to have three sons. But, one day, he slaps her on her shoulder with a pair of gloves to get her attention. That is the first strike.

The second strike comes when they attend a wedding, in the middle of which she breaks into lamentation. He taps her on the shoulder to tell her to stop. She says she laments for the couple’s unborn child that will live in pain and die an early death, and that he has delivered the second blow.

The child she predicted is born, suffers, then dies. While the shepherd and his wife attend the infant’s funeral, she breaks into a joyous laugh. Shocked, the shepherd, again, tries to stop her with too heavy a touch.

The wife explains that she knows the child is in heaven and free from earthly pain, but his woes are about to begin. That was the third strike.

She calls her animals to follow her. Even a black calf, slaughtered and hanging on a hook, follows her back into the dark water.

She appears one more time, years later, to bestow upon her sons the gift of healing, with which they became known as the Physicians of Myddvai.

As Thalia and I come out of the story trance, our eyes return to the lake below us where it all happened.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2017 The Shepherd of Myddvai – Part Two

Shepherd of Myddvai - Lady of the LakeAlfred Kappes

Fey Marriage

The King’s Head Inn is our reward for scaling the heights around Lake Llyn Y Fan Fach. We were told that parts of this building are of medieval construction. I enjoy the ambience of stone walls and red carpet with fireplaces here and there.

I order the ox cheek Wellington to the chagrin of Melissa and Thalia, who both order white bean and tomato bruschetta. I suspect Melissa is quietly turning Thalia into a vegetarian. In any case, I intend to have sticky toffee pudding for dessert.

As we wait for our meal, I ask Melissa, “Are not mermaids connected to the sea, not lakes?”

“Mermaids are connected to the sea. The maiden in The Shepherd of Myddvai is one of the Ladies of the Lake.”

“Like King Arthur?” Thalia’s attention—which had wandered to the other dinner guests—is drawn back to our conservation.

“Only in that they are all Welsh. Sir Thomas Malory, in his Le Morte D’Arthur, seems to describe two Ladies of the Lake, but our lady is pretty distinct from her Arthurian counterparts.”

Melissa turns to me. “Are you familiar with the Physicians of Myddvai?”

“Not until this story.”

“They appear in recorded history, a family of physicians steeped in herbal lore, starting around the thirteenth century and continuing as a family of physicians for five hundred years. Our Lady of the Lake’s three sons are the founders of that family.”

“Cool,” says Thalia.

I look around, but haven’t seen our waitress for a while.

“The three strikes are interesting,” I say.

“Yes, it is what distinguishes the fey marriages from the animal brides.”

“What?” exclaims Thalia somewhat startled, expressing what I am wondering.

“I’ve been doing my research,” says Melissa staring at her hands and not at us. “And I see a pattern. An animal bride from the sea—that is a mermaid, who is half fish, or a silkie, who appears to be a seal until she sheds her skin—is trapped into marriage when a man steals her sloughed-off scales or skin. The marriage lasts as long as it takes her to reclaim what he took from her.

“A Lady of the Lake—a fresh water fey I might add—is not part animal, does not shed something of herself to be stolen, and is always agreeable to the marriage, but with conditions that invariably end the marriage in a similar way as the animal bride’s marriage ends.

“I am certain the Ladies of the Lake are fey—fairies that is.” Melissa nods to Thalia. “Other fairy wives of mortals follow the same pattern, though the condition tends to be that they cannot be touched by iron or they will be forced to leave their husbands.

“In one such story the fairy wife and her husband are trying to catch a colt, and the husband, in frustration, throws the bridle at the horse, but strikes his wife. The bridle is made of leather straps connected by iron links.”

“There is no winning,” I say.

“Not in the case of marriages between mortals and fairies.”

“What about the nixie?” Thalia pipes up.

“She is a third category. Nixies abduct young men to be their consort and there is never a priest around.”

“Ohh, naughty.” Thalia frowns.

“Quite,” Melissa and I chorus.

Our food arrives just in time to keep our conversation from descending further into topics forbidden to young ears.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2017 The Shepherd of Myddvai – Part Three

Shepherd of Myddvai - Vermeeer Johannes Vermeer (detail)

Bread

On our long drive home—and after the sticky toffee pudding to sustain us—I ask Melissa about the bread thing.

“Yes,” Melissa perks up from her driver hypnosis as she sits behind the wheel. “Events at the start of a story tend to be forgotten by the end. I am sure the bread in this story gets overlooked.”

“It appears,” I suggest, “that the shepherd offering the maiden bread is some sort of test, and she refuses him in rhyme, a taunt, actually.”

“But then,” Melissa continues, “he finds bread floating on the maiden’s own lake, offers that to her, and she accepts.”

“Where is that coming from?” I never heard the like.

“Ecclesiastes is tempting to cite as a source, ‘Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.’”

“Meaning?” I ask.

“That’s hard to say. Ecclesiastes can be poetic and dense, but I doubt it relates to our story.”

Melissa pauses a while as we merge onto another highway. “I think the bread is more of a needed ceremony. The maiden likes the shepherd, but he isn’t getting the etiquette right. So she gives him some help on the third try.”

“That is followed by a real test,” I say.

“Yes, choosing her from among her sisters.”

“Then follows the marriage condition,” I put in. “I see three stages to the courtship: the bread offering, the test, and the condition.”

“It does really follow the pattern of threes,” says Melissa. “Three stages of courtship, three sons, and three strikes.”

“And three loaves of bread,” says Thalia, “Aren’t these stories full of bread.”

“Oh,” says Melissa, “let’s play the naming game. How many fairy tales can we name with bread in them? I’ll start. I am thinking of The Three Little Men in the Wood, where the heroine shares her bread with the gnomes.”

Thalia’s attention turns from watching the passing countryside. “The Gingerbread Man!

“Hmmm,” Melissa contemplates, “is gingerbread really bread?”

“I’m thinking,” I say, “of Hansel and Gretel. Besides the breadcrumbs it has a gingerbread house.”

“Ok, I’ll allow it. How about Mother Holle in which the heroine passes a bake oven and the loaves of bread cry out to her to take them out before they burn.”

Little Red Hen,” shouts Thalia in triumph.

“Oh, that’s a good one. ‘Who will help me bake my bread?’” Melissa nods in approval.

“Do you know God’s Food?” I ask.

Melissa grimaces. “Oh, what a horrid little tale with its bloody loaf.”

“Ugh” Thalia agrees.

“How about The Children of Famine?” I impishly suggest.

“No better,” says Melissa. “I am remembering a story called The Baker’s Daughter. An old woman comes begging to a bakery where the baker’s daughter is minding the shop, and asks for a little bit of dough. Reluctantly the daughter bakes the little bit of dough, but it turns into a large loaf. Three times the daughter puts smaller and smaller amounts of dough in the oven for the old woman and larger and larger loaves come out. The old woman loses patience when the daughter will not give her the larger loaves and turns the girl into an owl.”

Thalia is thinking. “Brave Little Tailor.”

“Good,” says Melissa. “The flies are attracted to the jam on the bread.”

I can tell this little game may last for hours, and will take us all the way home.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2017 The Green Knight – Part One

Green knight 1 Book of Hours, 1475-1500

A New Book

“Post!” Thalia declares, trundling into my study with a package from the post office. I know what it is. My internet friend, Stephen Badman has sent me a copy of his latest book. Oddly, every one of his books is called Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark. Not until one looks closely does one realize there are four volumes of it, except for the one he named Odds and Sods.

We open the packaging revealing the crisp black-and-white illustration of the book’s cover. I peruse the table of contents, my eyes immediately falling upon the title, The Green Knight. Glimmers of an Arthurian sage arise.

“Can I read you a story?”

“It’s not bedtime,” Thalia responds.

“Oh, let’s be wild and abandoned.”

Thalia giggles and crawls into my lap.

A young princess, under the onerous control of a stepmother, tells her father before he leaves on a long trip—surrendering his daughter to the queen’s wiles—that he should tell the Green Knight to come fetch her, the Green Knight being another name for Death.

The king, in his travels, becomes lost and, finding himself in the presence of the Green Knight, delivers his daughter’s message.

The Green Knight explains he is not the Green Knight his daughter was thinking of, but if she will leave her bedroom window open, he will come to visit her.

This she does after her father’s return and the Green Knight travels to her in the form of a bird, taking back his human shape when he arrives. He and the princess fall in love.

“Like,” says Thalia.

He visits her often, arousing the stepmother’s suspicion. Secretively, she props two poisoned knives in the window sill. The Green Knight gashes himself on the knives and flies off.

“Unlike.”

He loses so much blood he cannot make it home and rests at a home on a large estate. Hearing of a mysterious visitor on the estate, the princess finds her lover dying of poison.

Sitting under a tree weeping, she overhears two ravens talking, one telling the other how the princess could save the Green Knight with the fat boiled out of the snake that guards the pot of gold buried beneath the very tree under which she weeps. This she does with the help of a servant.

Recovered, the Green Knight takes a proposal of marriage to the king and queen. The king and queen agree, the king because he knew their history and the queen in order to get rid of the daughter from court.

“Like.” Thalia smiles.

However, The Green Knight lays his own trap. He tells his wife to borrow a skirt and shawl from her stepmother. When the stepmother sends servants to get the clothing back, they return from the knight’s castle with such glowing reports that the queen is moved to jealousy.

She and the king travel to visit the princess and the knight. The knight tells his wife, when offered a drink of wine by her step-mother to let a drop fall on the dog that is always at her feet. This she does and the dog dies at once.

“Unlike!”

The queen is arrested, confesses, and is killed. The remaining company lives happily ever after.

Thalia looks at me sharply.

“Sorry about the dog,” I say.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2017 The Green Knight – Part Two

Green knight 314th century manuscript, British Museum Collection

Green Man

“Well, the teller did violate one of the basic rules.” Augustus puts down my copy of Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark. I know what is coming.

“Which is?” I prompt.

“It does not matter the art form—fairy tale, science fiction, movies—you can kill off half the world’s population in your storyline, but the family dog needs to escape.”

I knew it. “Thalia had something of the same reaction, but what about this Green Knight? He does not appear to be King Arthur’s Green Knight.”

“Yes and no.” Augustus relights his pipe and settles deeper into his comfy chair. “I suspect, as do some scholars, both the English and the Danish Green Knights are related to the Green Man.”

“The Green Man,” I say. “The one with leaves growing out of his face or out of his mouth? I thought he was merely an architectural motif in churches.

“More universal than that and yet elusive. He appears in the sculptures and carvings of many cultures going back to the Mesopotamians. It’s been suggested he was a vegetation god, but no one has put a formal name to him.”

“Nor,” I suggest, “does he have fairy tales about him.”

“Not unless our Green Knights are his tales. I have read a different version of this Danish Green Knight in which he has herds of wild oxen, boars, elk, and deer. Herdsmen are dressed as huntsmen, and the castle is covered in vines. The knight, of course, dresses in green. I think I’d call him a Green Man.”

“I am uncertain.” I draw steadily on my pipe. “Why would the Green Knight be another name for Death if he is a manifestation of growth?”

Augustus contemplates before going on. “In both Danish tales they refer to the green mounds—the graves that is—in the churchyard, and if the Green Man is a vegetation god, then he would lord over birth, death, and rebirth.”

I shake my head. “The Arthurian Green Knight and my Green Knight bear little resemblance to have a common origin. My knight turns into a bird to visit his love. Arthur’s goes around challenging fellow knights to cut off his head.”

Augustus smiles. “That’s actually an interesting detail in that the Green Man motif is just of his head.”

I remain unconvinced and change the inquiry. “What about the snake guarding the pot of gold?”

“In the other version I read there is no pot of gold, rather nine baby adders under a rock. The princess cooks them into three servings of soup.”

I tap out my pipe. “The White Snake jumps to mind. A servant eats a bit of the snake to acquire the language of beast and birds.”

“Not to mention the snakeskin in A Sprig of Rosemary or the snake’s help in The Three Snake Leaves.”

“Fairy-tale snakes,” I muse. “I bet we could find a lot of them.”

“We never do find out what happened to the snake’s pot of gold, do we?”

“Afraid not.”

“I’m not sure about your version of this tale. Not only do they kill the family dog, but also lose track of an entire pot of gold. Wasteful.”

“I’m certain a leprechaun took it,” I assure him.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2017 The Green Knight

Green knight 2 Hans Sebald Beham, 1543

Snakes and Birds

“Let’s move on to fairy-tale birds,” I suggest, refilling my pipe, even though I can hardly see Augustus through the smoky haze we have created. “There are two references to birds in my tale. I am particularly struck by the two ravens, who, indirectly, tell the princess how to heal . . .”

“Huginn and Muninn,” Augustus almost shouts.

“Personal friends of your?”

Augustus laughs. “Personal favorites. These are the two birds that sit on the shoulders of Odin telling him all they have seen and heard during their daily flight across the world.

“Huginn translates as ‘thought.’ Muninn is a little more difficult, but probably translates as ‘mind’ or ‘memory.’ They are the instruments of Odin’s shamanism.”

“Tell me your thoughts about shamanism.” I stare at Augustus through the tobacco fog.

“The essence of shamanism is the trance. The purpose of the trance is to seek healing, answers, or knowledge. The shaman in his trance reaches out with his thought and mind to that realm, dimension, beyond our normal experience.”

“So, when Huginn and Muninn fly off, Odin is really sending out his thought and mind to gain knowledge, representing the trance?”

“That is how I understand it.” Augustus nods.

“It does explain the raven’s insight into how to cure the knight, and I have run across these two birds before, in a ballad at least.”

“You mean The Twa Corbies? A rather dark little song. I recall them hanging around the gallows in Two Travelerspun intended.”

I roll my eyes and relight my pipe, saying, “The Green Knight also appears as a bird to visit the princess. I recognize that motif from Earl of Mars’ Daughter.”

“Not only that,” says Augustus, “it also shows up in Aarne-Thompson-Uther’s story classification scheme as ‘The Bird Husband’ and ‘The Prince as Bird.’ I wonder if the origin is Celtic.”

“Why do you say that?”

“In The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, part of the Ulster Cycle, there is a bird lover who births the tragic hero of the tale. That is the earliest reference to this motif that I know of.”

“Nordic birds, Celtic birds, how much do our fairy tales draw from the mythologies?”

“I feel they are intertwined. I don’t imagine the mythologies sprung upon their culture’s scenes fully formed with no predecessor. My guess is they grew from simpler forms. I’ll bet my nickel the fairy tales came first.”

“One more item,” I say, “on which I want to pick your brain. The poisoned knives, where do they fit in?”

“In the other version I mentioned, it was a poisoned scissors. However, when we think of fairy-tale poisoning, it is Snow White’s apple that everyone will point to. This is a highly popular tale, putting poison front and center. In truth, there is little poisoning in the fairy tales. Potions, spells, magical devices are rampant, but not so much the common poisoning.”

There is a pause in the conversation and I decide to make an appeal for my story. “Shades of the Green Man, a Celtic love bird, shamanistic ravens, poisoned knives, and a snake with a pot of gold, what more could you want in a tale?”

“They shouldn’t have killed the dog.”

Sigh.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2017 The Golden Lamb of God – Part One

170px-Agnus_Dei_with_VexillumStained glass window, El Cajon, California.

Apples and All

As Melissa and I enter the garden, we see Miss Cox has thoughtfully set out two cups and a pot of tea, the latter wearing its cozy against the March chill. We approach a wrought iron table in front of a welcoming bench; Melissa takes off her gloves to pour us both a cup.

Her mission to Miss Cox’s garden today is to speak to Jens Kamp about a story he collected, The Golden Lamb of God. It is a fairly extraordinary story in its collection of story motifs. The tale manages to shoehorn in the motifs of the three brothers, three giants, three witch sisters, seven years of capture, seven-league boots, twelve swans, magical apples, magic tablecloth, hat of invisibility, transformation potion, epic journey, hidden heart, glass mountain, and a dragon. Not to mention a king, princes, and princesses.

This long tale starts with the king’s special apple tree, one that bears fruit that never rots, which, on one midsummer’s night, are stolen from the boughs. Every midsummer’s night after that the theft reoccurs.

The king requests his eldest son to stand guard, and the next year the middle brother to stand guard, but both are frightened away. The youngest brother, in his turn, digs a hole in which to hide—shades of Sigurd and his dragon—from where he watches twelve swans alight, shed their feather cloaks, turn into beautiful women, and strip the trees of their fruit. The young prince steals one of the feather cloaks, capturing the youngest girl, getting from her the truth.

She and her sisters are princesses controlled by a dragon, who killed their father and turned his castle, called The Golden Lamb of God for the seal over the castle door, into a glass mountain. It has been six years, and by the seventh year there will be no possibility of escape from the dragon’s clutches.

The prince returns the feather cloak when he realizes the girl will die if he does not.

The next day the prince sets off to find the castle called The Golden Lamb of God. He tricks three giants, who are arguing over their treasures, and steals from them their hat of invisibility, a magic tablecloth, and a pair of seven-league boots.

Using the boots, he stumbles across the underground home of an ancient witch, whose home can only be entered through the chimney. Using the magic tablecloth to produce a feast, he comes into her good graces. Besides being a witch, she is the Queen of the Animals, and calls them together to see if they know where to find the castle called The Golden Lamb of God.

The animals do not know, but still the witch helps the prince by giving him a letter of introduction to her older sister, the Queen of the Fish, and by providing a billy goat as a guide.

The same scenario plays out, underground home and all, with another letter of introduction, and a small dog as guide to the eldest sister, Queen of the Birds.

The third sister, unlike the others, lives in a common witch’s hut, and this time the prince leaves with the gift of a potion to turn himself into an ant, and an old grey falcon as a guide, who knows the way to the glass mountain.

In the form of an ant, wearing the hat of invisibility, the prince crawls through a crack in the glass mountain to find the youngest princess cooking the dragon’s meal. She tells him she is about to be married to the dragon.

The prince vows to kill the dragon, but it cannot be destroyed unless they can find its hidden heart. Through trickery and deceit, the girl gets the dragon to tell his soon-to-be-wife that it is hidden in an egg, inside a duck, down a well, inside a locked church, on an island five thousand miles away.

The prince, overhearing the dragon, is soon off on another sojourn with the help of the old grey falcon, to return with the egg, and no, the duck does not fare well in the adventure.

They accidentally encounter the dragon on return, and the falcon flies up high, dropping the egg. The dragon flies after it, but too late. As the egg shatters, the dragon dies and the glass mountain turns back into The Castle of The Golden Lamb.

A marriage, as you might guess, soon follows.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2017 The Golden Lamb of God – Part Two

Jens KampJens Kamp

Jens Kamp

Jens Kamp’s appearance disappoints Melissa and me. He is disheveled, glassy-eyed, and a bit unsteady. He plunks himself down on the bench with us, without introduction, staring about himself, but not at us. I realize Miss Cox put out two cups for tea, not three. In whatever manner Miss Cox knows these things, she knew he was not a teetotaler.

I suppose we can excuse him; he did come to a sad end. Jens was a lifelong collector of Danish folklore—from stories to riddles—yet his publications never achieved popular success. Most of his career was spent as a high-school teacher. Two years after his marriage to a carpenter’s daughter, she suffered a mental breakdown and was confined to a hospital for the rest of her life. Neither was Jens mentally stable.

Eventually sacked from his last teaching position, he lived his final years in reduced circumstances. Only much later did scholar Peik Hoppe and translator Stephen Badman bring him some due recognition.

“Sir,” Melissa gets his attention. “I have a few questions for you concerning the story you collected, The Golden Lamb of God.”

Jens blinks, brightens, and focuses on Melissa. She continues.

“The tale is made up of many parts: the disappearing apples, the gaining of magical devices, journey from witch sister to witch sister, and the hidden heart.”

“True.” Jens nods, his heavy Danish accent obvious in that one-word utterance.

“From whom did you collect this tale?” I sense a little suspicion in Melissa’s voice.

“My notes attribute to a carpenter’s wife, but this tale—tales like it—I hear all over the little isle of Bogø.”

“Did you edit them?”

Jens looks a little uncomfortable. “I,” he pauses, “took a little from each to make a whole.”

“You kept, I hope, their voice?”

“As much as I could.”

Melissa puts on her worried look—the one I have become familiar with when she takes me to task.

“I was a bit stopped,” she says, “when the witches gave the prince letters of introduction. I felt that was a mark of elitism, outside a peasant’s usual frame of reference, the peasants being the tellers of this tale.”

Jens chuckles. “Well, my hero is a prince. Why should he not have a letter of introduction?”

I sense that Melissa suspects Jens of author intrusion into the tales he collected. Those letters of introduction struck me as odd as well.

A Letter of introduction was an eighteenth and nineteenth century device, somewhere between what we now see as networking and a résumé. Among the upper classes, a young man, who might want to move into a greater social circle than the one he occupied, would ask a gentleman of the highest social status whom he could approach, to write for him a letter of introduction to a third party, whom the first party (the youth) wished to make acquaintance.

There was much etiquette surrounding this letter. For example, the third party had to be a person of social standing between the first party and the second party, and not one clearly above the status of the first two parties. Then there was the issue of whether the letter was sealed or not sealed; that is to say, was the bearer aware of the letter’s content. (There is a letter of introduction by Benjamin Franklin that is mildly insulting to the bearer.)

In any case, I never heard reference to a letter of introduction in any other fairy tale. I think Melissa’s suspicion may be well-founded.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2017 The Golden Lamb of God – Part Three

Golden Lamb of God dragon Manuscript

About Dragons

“Dragons,” says Melissa, “You know, there are surprisingly few dragons in the fairy tales, almost as rare as fairies.”

Jens points to her and laughs. “Yes, yes,” and slaps his knee.

“And,” she continues, “putting a dragon and a glass mountain together? That I never heard of before.”

Jens takes a contemplative breath. “The combinations of motifs are infinite. The motifs are the ingredients of a recipe for a meal for the ears. As some will never tire of eating the same favorite dish over and over, I will listen to the same stories till the end of time.”

Jens waves a hand in the air, invoking another thought. “There is, somewhere in the language of fairy tales, an indistinct rumbling of dissatisfaction—perhaps my own—that resolves with the ending of the tale. When the tales stops, there is that moment of quiet. It is that little moment of quiet I live for.”

I wish I knew what he is talking about.

“But, as for the dragon,” Jens refocuses on Melissa’s question. “It is true, they are rare. There may be fifty tales without a dragon for every one that does have such a creature. When they do appear, they are evil, can talk, and are a little hard to distinguish from the devil.

“But why should you be surprised at the dragon having a glass mountain? I am surprised we do not hear more of it. Both are used to isolate women. Usually, the woman sits on top of the glass mountain and the hero must try to get up to her. Other times she is trapped inside the glass mountain.

“Dragons demand princesses as sacrifices, and the poor girls are left alone, sometimes chained, to face the monster. I know of an English tale where the princess is turned into a dragon to isolate her.”

“In your case,” comments Melissa, “there are twelve women being isolated.”

“A regular harem,” I say.

Melissa pursues the point. “But why the seven years before they are totally without chance of rescue?”

Jens’ brows knit. “That I do not know. I can make a guess. Seven is the most common number in the Bible: seven years of plenty, seven years of drought; Solomon’s temple took seven years to build.

“But seven years is also the common length of an apprenticeship. The dragon sent them out to do the chores of collecting apples. The youngest cooked for him. They did live in his house like apprentices live in their masters’ houses (albeit the house stolen from their father). The princesses’ condition has the same feel as those of apprentices, who were often badly treated. But those are only my wild guesses.”

“What struck me oddly,” I say, “were the two witch sisters living underground with their entrances through the chimneys. What is that about?”

Jens’ attention fades away from us. He looks about him, rises from the bench, and wanders away without excuse.

Melissa looks after Jens Kamp disappearing out the garden gate. “I guess we’ll not find out from him.”

Your thoughts?