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?

 

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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?

 

 

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2017 Pied Piper of Franchville – Part One

pied_piper-greenaway Kate Greenaway

Too Many

“Rats?” Thalia squirms in my lap.

“Yes,” I say, “lots of rats.”

We are reading, The Pied Piper of Franchville, from More English Fairy Tales, by my acquaintance—via Miss Cox’s garden—Joseph Jacobs. It is the first story in that collection, and varies in interesting ways from the more familiar Hamelin version.

Franchville, or Newtown nowadays, sits on the Isle of Wight, a sleepy little town, our story says, upon the Solent shore, the waterway between the English mainland and the isle. A plague of rats settled on the town, spoiling their food, squeaking louder than the gossips, and overwhelming the cats.

A stranger, dressed in all the colors of the rainbow, appeared before the mayor’s council, suggesting he could get rid of the rats. He and the council came to the agreement of fifty pounds for wages, a sum destined never to be paid.

He walked out of the town hall, walked up Silver Street and down Gold Street, playing his pipe. From every corner of the town, out poured the rats, following the sound of his music. (I chanced to be in Newtown once, and there really is a Silver Street and a Gold Street.)

He led them to the end of Gold Street, which empties onto the shore of the Solent, and got into a small boat that drifted out on the tide, drawing the rats into the water and to their deaths.

Returning later on the tide, with not a rat left behind, he found no payment. This time when he piped his tune, he walked up Gold Street and down Silver Street, and on into the greenwood, drawing the town’s dancing children behind him, all never to be seen again.

Thalia’s eyes glow. I become fearful.

“I’m going to stuff your ears,” I say.

Thalia giggles. “Wait, isn’t that supposed to be Hamblin or something?”

“Hamelin, and right you are.” I am ready for this and reach for my Robert Browning’s version of the Hamelin story, which I have placed on my side table.

Rats!

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,

And bit the babies in the cradles,

And ate the cheeses out of the vats,

And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,

Split open the kegs of salted sprats,

Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,

And even spoiled the women’s chats,

By drowning their speaking

With shrieking and squeaking

In fifty different sharps and flats.

I read the whole piece through to Thalia. She sits in my lap agog while I speak, then remains still, holding her Teddy, her eyebrows giving away that she is thinking.

I make my guess as to what rolls around in her thoughts. The sound made around the noble cause of honesty—paying for services rendered—that this story trumpets, does not entice the ears of my granddaughter. It is a foil for another noise, that of the seductive pipe, luring youth toward an undefined ideal, a sound that the mature cannot hear. Both children and rats, Thalia and I, are pulled in by the pure.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2017 Pied Piper of Franchville – Part Two

pied-piper-post-card

Postcard 1902

A Small Device

The bell to Augustus’s store rings above my head as I quickly slip through the door to keep the February cold from intruding into the aromatic haven that is my friend’s tobacco shop.

Augustus pokes his head around the door frame to his testing room and waves me to come over. A little to my surprise young Duckworth is there, occupying one of the comfy chairs. He and the proprietor are filling the room with a dense vanilla-scented smoke. I pull out my pipe and soon add to the cloud.

“Well,” says Duckworth, “with the two of you fairy-tale enthusiasts in the room, there is no avoiding The Topic. Let’s have out with it. What’s it to be?”

The Pied Piper of Franchville,” I say.

“Franchville?” Duckworth looks quizzical. “You mean Newtown? I have a client there.”

“I hope you cited Grimm’s version for Thalia,” says Augustus. “They speak of its origin in Hamelin.”

“I fell back on Browning. I looked through Grimm, but it wasn’t there.”

“You weren’t looking in Deutshe Sagen.”

“Ah, the legends, how silly of me.” I perceive Duckworth has lost interest in our conversation and is entirely taken up with the small screen of his cell phone.

Augustus continues, “The Grimms are precise about this event. They give the year as 1284 and that one hundred and thirty children were led away by the piper. After getting rid of the rats and not getting paid, the Pied Piper left, then returned on Saint John and Saint Paul’s Day, dressed in hunter’s green, wearing a strange red hat, and abducts the children into Koppenberg Mountain.

“As I recall . . .”

“My goodness,” interrupts Duckworth, “but there’s a lot of history to it.”

I realize he is not checking his email.

“It says here,” Duckworth goes on, “the first record of the abduction was represented in a stained-glass window of a local church about 1300, showing the colorful piper and dancing children. Hmmm, goes on to say that the rats were not part of the story until 1559.”

Augustus stares at Duckworth in mild alarm.

“Why then,” I ask, “would the piper take the children if there were no rats to be gotten rid of and no payment not to be made?”

Duckworth rhythmically draws his finger up the side of his screen. “Well, there’s a section here on the emigration theory that suggests illegitimate and orphaned children were sold to recruiters from Eastern Europe, who were looking for bodies to resettle places like Transylvania, which had been depopulated by the Moguls.”

Duckworth studies his screen as Augustus and I look on.

“A little less ominous,” he continues after a bit, “there’s a professor Udolph writing about lokators—recruiters again—talking unemployed youths into colonizing part of Poland, after the battle of Bornhòved, where the Germans then held sway.”

Duckworth’s phone chirps and he taps it a few times. “Oh, I am going to be late for an appointment. Augustus, I’ll be back tomorrow to buy a few ounces of this new mix. What’s it called?”

Augustus thinks a moment. “Piper’s Melody, in honor of our conversation.”

We soon hear the bell chiming over the shop’s door as Duckworth departs.

“I am going to have to get me one of those,” my friend muses.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2017 Pied Piper of Franchville – Part Three

pied-piper-locatorFrom a manuscript depicting a lokator.

Is Not

A loud crackle of burning log coming from the hearth that warms my study, nods me out of sleep. The comforting heat, along with my glass of scotch, keeps me from focusing on The Topic, as Duckworth aptly put it.

My laptop is on its wooden stool before me. I, of course, am in my sleep-inducing comfy chair, trying to pursue two possible notions: that the Pied Piper of Hamelin is a reflection of the Children’s Crusade and/or the Black Death.

I spot Thalia’s cat curled up near the fireplace.

“Johannes,” I say to him, “what do you think about the Pied Piper and his rats?”

“How’s that?” Johannes glares with suspicion.

I reach for Robert Browning again.

Rats!

They fought the dogs and killed the cats . . .

His eyes round. “Fake news!”

I fear I have touched a nerve and turn my attention back to my laptop.

I am taken with the idea that the story of the Pied Piper can be connected with the Children’s Crusade.  That movement is described as having two origins, one started by a French shepherd boy and the other by a German shepherd boy. They intended to go to the Holy Lands and convert the Saracens peacefully to Christianity. It appears to have attracted thousands of youth, none of whom made it to the Holy Lands.

Some traditions have it that they were sold into slavery by Italian merchants who proposed to ship them to their intended destination after the sea did not part for them as predicted.

My notion seems plausible until I compare the dates. The Children’s Crusade took place in 1212 and the Hamelin event in 1284. Given the average medieval life span, the events are two or three generations apart.

I glance up to see Johannes has turned his back to me and resettled in front of the hearth.

My idea that the Pied Piper represents the Black Death is more probable. The story, as we now know it, didn’t come together until 1605, collected by the English antiquarian Richard Rowland Verstegan.

Interestingly, he gave the date of the Hamelin event as 1376, which is the year of a rat plague. This is highly suggestive that he, or the folk from whom he collected the story, had conflated the 1284 disappearance of the children of Hamelin with the later plague of rats. Could the memory of the 1351 Black Death be the catalyst for the fusion of the rats with the children?

I really think I have something until I research the bubonic plague. As I try to ignore the completely frightful pictures of the victims, I discover the association of the disease with rats was not made until the late 1890s. At the time the story of the Pied Piper came into its present form, the people still thought the plague was brought about by bad air, the wrath of God, or maledictions of the Jews.  Rats were not yet part of the Black Death story.

Two enticing notions done in by the facts.

I hear Johannes growl quietly, “Rats.”

Rats, I concur.

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

 

Fairly Tale of the Month: January 2017 The Clever Farmer’s Daughter – Part One

clever-farmers-daughrter-two

A January Evening

I stoke up the logs in the fireplace and add another as I hear Thalia padding down the hall toward my study. I have moved the comfy chair a little closer to the hearth, fending off the damp of a cold January night. I settle into the chair and watch Thalia push the study door wide open. She ambles in wearing her bathrobe over her flannel nightgown for warmth.

She tosses Teddy into my lap, climbs up—clutching my belt with her free hand, the other burdened with her dog-eared copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, wiggling her butt until she is squished between me and the stuffed arm of the chair—exchanges the book for Teddy, opening the tome in my lap to the table of contents, giving it serious consideration until pointing her finger to the title The Clever Farmer’s Daughterall this without uttering a word or sentence to which one could put a period, very much like this paragraph.

In the story, a poor widowed farmer, at his daughter’s suggestion, petitions the king for a small holding. The king grants the request, and the farmer and his daughter begin to clear the land. They find a golden mortar, and the farmer decides they will give it to the king as a thank-you gift. The daughter advises against it since they don’t have the pestle.

Her father does not listen, but, as the daughter predicted, the king is insulted at receiving half a gift and throws the farmer into the dungeon. The despondent farmer will not eat or drink, lamenting loudly, “If only I had listened to my daughter!” over and over again until he is brought back to the king to find out what his daughter had said.

When the king hears she predicted that, if given the mortar, he would want the pestle as well, he declares he will marry this clever daughter, if she can come to him neither clothed nor naked, neither on the road or off it, and not by walking, riding, or in a coach.

The daughter comes to him wrapped in a fishing net, dragged by a donkey along the side of the road, fulfilling all of the king’s conditions.

“Cool,” says Thalia, who is holding Teddy upside down for an inexplicable reason.

True to his word, the king marries her and the farmer is released from prison. The king and his new queen are quite happy until one day the king makes an unfair and unwise judgment, which his queen shames him into reversing.

Furious, the king throws her out of the castle, but not before she extracts from him the promise she can take with her a thing that is most dear to her.

The next morning the king wakes up to find that, after being drugged, he was kidnapped and taken to the farm of his queen’s father. She explains to him that he is the thing most dear to her, and so she took him.

Thalia giggles. There is no higher compliment.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2017 The Clever Farmer’s Daughter – Part Two

clever-farmers-daughrter-three Illustration dated 1877

It’s Cold

The clouds hover over us as we walk in the shelter of Tom Quad. I am sure they nearly touch the steeple of Christ Church Cathedral. My hands are gloved, but still I keep them thrust into my pockets. Duckworth and I are determined to get some exercise, pitting ourselves against the January elements.

“What,” Duckworth asks, proposing a topic for our stroll, “is the role of women in fairy tales?”

He knows my preoccupation with the subject of fairy tales and I appreciate his pandering to my desires. Silence follows as I gather my thoughts.

“The role of women in fairy tales,” I echo, “is complex.”

More silence follows.

“You’re not going to leave it at that are you?”

“I probably should, and not get myself into trouble, but, no, I’m thinking.”

“Quite.”

“I’ll start with the negatives and get them out of the way. I am referring to witches, hen wives, and evil queens.  They are less about women and more about archetypes.”

A gust of wind comes through the archway of Tom Tower as we pass by, causing us to put our heads down and push forward.

“Witches, hen wives, and evil queens are,” I continue after raising my head, “a necessary evil in the tales’ need for tension. They are the antagonists, propelling the story forward. These characters are female by definition, but are they meant to represent women? The witches, at least, are supernatural beings.”

Duckworth nods, putting his mittens to his ears. “I can still hear you,” he assures. “What about evil stepmothers?”

“The evil stepmothers, and stepdaughters, are different items.” I continue. “They are not supernatural, but rather human and harmful. The Grimms were their public relations promoters; the Grimms all but invented them. However, in the primary source tales, it was the mother who destroyed her children.”

“Really?” says Duckworth, his hands still clamped over his ears as we stroll. “Why?”

“Consider that it was a different time, a time when, it is rumored by some historians, unwanted children tended to fall down wells, or encounter other accidents. But, I think more likely, stories of mothers driven to killing their children were an earlier time’s cautionary tales, which the Grimms, later, softened, or so they felt.”

“The women aren’t doing too well.” Duckworth raises an eyebrow.

“Ah, but hold,” I declare, taking my warmed hand from my pocket and pointing to the sky, “we now come to the fairy godmothers and the old women in the wood, helpers to the protagonists. Both are, again, supernatural. The fairy godmother graciously gives gifts. The old woman in the wood usually involves food, kindly given to her by the protagonist. For this trifle, the hero or heroine is richly rewarded with a gift or two and/or important knowledge.”

“Like a cloak of invisibility or a pumpkin turned into a coach?” asks Duckworth.

“Exactly, but you see, these women are secondary—are archetypes—serving the story. The real role of woman in fairy tales comes when she is the protagonist.”

“I sense you are warning to the topic,” says Duckworth. “I wish I could say as much for my ears and toes. I’m ready for Café Loco; are you?”

I nod.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2017 The Clever Farmer’s Daughter – Part Three

clever-farmers-daughrter-four  Áke and Grima discover Aslaug, by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1862

Afternoon Tea

Duckworth and I take a table by the row of windows overlooking Saint Aldates Street, looking back at Christ Church College, with the cold weather on the other side of the glass.

Glancing at the menu, I am tempted by the mushrooms on toast, but I go for the scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. It does come with a pot of tea.

“You were saying,” Duckworth leans back in his chair.

“I was about to say, before you came up with this excellent idea, “—I gesture to the Alice in Wonderland-themed room around us—“that the fairy tales have a strong prejudice for young protagonists, be they male or female. Folktales will occasionally have an old woman as the main character; even fairy tales will have an old soldier as the hero, but fairy-tale heroines are young.”

I see Duckworth consider my point as he crunches on his teacake.

“Also,” I continue, “they are uniformly rewarded with marriage.”

“Rewarded or fated?”

“In the context of the fairy tale, it is meant as a reward, but you are right if you are suggesting their options were limited.”

“I observe,” says Duckworth with a glint in his eye, “there are two kinds of heroines in the world (fairy-tale world that is), the winsome and the wise.”

I chortle. “Along the wise-line, I read The Clever Farmer’s Daughter to Thalia last night, but now that I think of it, it is not technically a fairy tale, not having any magic in it, despite being in the Grimm canon.”

“Was the farmer clever or the daughter?”

“Oh, the latter. Actually, I peeked at the Grimms’ notes on the tale. They traced it back to the Saga of Aslaug, daughter of the legendary Germanic hero, Sigurd, and his wife, the shieldmaiden Brynhildr. Upon the deaths of Aslaug’s parents, Brynhildr’s foster father takes the young Aslaug into hiding, concealing her in the body of a harp, he pretending to be a bard. Peasants murder him for the treasure hidden in the harp and end up raising Aslaug.

“When she reaches womanhood, King Ragnar hears of this remarkable peasant girl and tests her wit by asking her to come to him neither dressed nor naked, neither fasting or eating, and neither alone or in a company.

“She arrives dressed in a fisherman’s net, holding an onion in her teeth, traveling along with her dog.”

“How delightful. Do they marry?” Duckworth asks.

“Yes, but Ragnar dies as a result of not listening to her advice.”

“So sorry to hear that. I prefer happy endings. Still, it does not sound to me like the women are doing too well in the tales, whether they show wisdom or abide by the will of others, unless marriage is the be-all and end-all of their existence.”

I consider for a moment. “The tales would have them ‘live happily ever after,’ nothing the feminist movement would promote as a role model for young girls, but my Thalia loves these stories. What does she see in these heroines? I think there is something timeless in the message, even if I can’t put my finger on it.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2016 Gabriel Rider – Part One

gabriel-rider-cats Niels Skovgaard

Christmas Cats

Today being Boxing Day, I am heading toward Augustus’s tobacco shop with, appropriately, a box under my arm. I soon hear the tinkle of his shop’s bell as I open the door. Augustus sits on his stool behind the counter; his arms are folded, but he throws them open when he sees me and my box.

“Ah, the annual shortbread!”

I proffer him the gift, which he rips into.

“These are the best,” he says. “What is your secret?”

“It has to do with getting the butter and sugar into an extreme state of fluff.” I don’t tell him it is my house-brownie who takes on the hardship of that task.

“So, what story did you tell Thalia for Christmas Eve?” he asks, while savoring his triangle of shortbread.

“It is hard to find a fairy-tale Christmas story,” I complain. “On the whole, they are not very seasonal. I got out my Badman’s Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark, and the Danes didn’t fail me. I read her Gabriel Rider.”

Augustus looks at me quizzically, motioning for me to go on. His mouth is full.

Gabriel Rider is a soldier recently released from the army, who finds himself, on Christmas Eve, asking a miller for shelter.

Kindly, the miller explains he normally would oblige, but his family is moving out to stay with a neighbor, given that the mill burns down every Christmas Eve, and has for the past twenty-three years.

Gabriel decides to get to the bottom of this mystery and offers to stay in the mill. He builds himself a good fire in the fireplace, and is soon joined by twenty-four cats led by a large gray. The cats, holding each other’s tails, dance in a circle, eyeing the flames in the fireplace.

Gabriel takes his sword and draws a line around the fireplace that the cats cannot cross, then makes the sign of the cross over the doors, allowing no escape except through a gutter hole. This hole he guards, and when the dancing is over and the cats try to leave, he gives them each a blow with his sword as they disappear into the night.

The next day he goes to the nearest village in which stands twenty-four houses. In the first house he finds a witch—whom he knows to be the gray cat—taken to her bed while her husband has gone off to church. She pleads with Gabriel not to reveal her secret, and promises both to hurt no one again, and to give him a good sum of money.

Gabriel agrees to the bargain, which he replicates in the next twenty-three houses he visits under the exact same conditions. By the end of the tale, Gabriel returns home a wealthy man.

Augustus carefully boxes up the rest of the shortbread so that he will not eat it all in one sitting.

“I’ve not heard this one, but have come across Christmas Eve visitations before. There is an old notion that the year is a circle, and by being such ought to have 360 days, just as the circle has the same number of degrees. That leaves about five days left over that shouldn’t be there.

“In northern traditions, those five days fall between Christmas and the New Year and is a period of the thinning of the veil between the worlds.”

“I thought that was Samhain.”

“Both the fall equinox and winter solstice have that reputation.”

“Somehow the greeting, ‘Have a haunted Christmas,’ doesn’t have the same ring,” I suggest.

“No,” he smiles. “That never caught on.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2016 Gabriel Rider – Part Two

gabriel-rider-white-bear  J.M. Corner 1917 Great White Bear

Gabriel Who?

“You have caused me to remember,” I say, “The Cat on the Dovrefjell, in which a man, who is taking a white bear to the King of Denmark, stops on Christmas Eve at the cottage of a commoner named Halvor. Halvor is leaving his home, warning the traveler that the trolls take over his house every Christmas Eve to feast and dance. The man and the bear stay nonetheless and when the trolls taunt the bear, it attacks, driving them from the cottage.

“The next Christmas Eve day, a troll calls from a distance to Halvor, asking if he still has that big cat. Halvor assures him that he does and the cat now has seven kittens bigger and fiercer than herself. The trolls visit no more.”

Augustus chuckles. “There are at least a half-dozen variants of that tale, but the punchline is the same and always works.”

I am struck by a thought. “Was Dickens drawing from this Christmas Eve-visitation thing for his Christmas Carol?’

“I would not doubt it.” His eyes are lingering on his box of shortbreads.

“Then there is the twenty-four thing,” I ponder aloud.

“Pardon?” Augustus glances up.

“Well, the twenty-four cats/witches, who live in a village of twenty-four houses, and were about to burn down the mill for the twenty-fourth time.”

“Oh, right you are. I haven’t a clue.” He opens the box and takes out one more triangle. “The more I think about it, the more mysteries there are in this tale.”

“Such as?”

“First off, why does he have a full name? Old soldiers are usually called ‘the old soldier.’ Some fairy-tale characters have a first name, like ‘Rapunzel.’ Some have a descriptive title, like ‘Iron John,’ but no one else has a surname and given name, Snow White and Baba Yaga notwithstanding. And look, the story is entitled Gabriel Rider. That indicates there being some significance in the name.”

I nod in recognition of his point; then he goes on.

“And we seem to have a commoner with some magical knowledge. Typically, in the fairy-tale realm, royalty, witches, old women in the wood, and wizened little men have magic. These last two might be magical helpers who give the old soldier or generous youth a cloak of invisibility or a pair of seven-league boots, but the soldier or youth do not themselves practice magic.

“Yet, here is our hero, drawing a line with his sword around the fire, which the cats cannot cross, and making the sign of the cross above the doors, knowing it will prevent the cats from escaping.”

“And what do these anomalies suggest to you about the story?” I ask.

“Did the telling of the tale have any markers of being literary?” Augustus’s eyebrows rise.

“No, none at all,” I say. “It has the authentic fairy-tale brevity; no flourishes.”

Augustus goes to his desk in the corner and types “Gabriel Rider” on the keyboard.

“What are the results?” I ask.

“Well, there seems to be a film character with that name associated with motorcycles and flaming skulls, a reference to Stephen Badman’s book, and thirty-nine matches in the Whitepages.”

“From which you conclude?” I bait him.

“I adhere to my previous statement.”

“Which one?”

“When I said, ‘I haven’t a clue.’ ”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2016 Gabriel Rider – Part Three

gabriel-rider-black-catJohn D. Batten

Sith Cat

“Johannes,” I address he-who-has-condescended-to-own-us lounging on his cushion in the window seat, “what is the connection between cats and fairy tales?”

“I assume,” Johannes sits up, “you are referring to that horrid little story you told to Thalia the other night.”

Gabriel Rider, yes, but ‘horrid’ seems a little strong of a descriptor,” I challenge.

“Maiming and blackmailing twenty-four sith cats qualifies as horrid in my eyes.”

I take note of the term he uses. “Sith cats?”

“Or ‘sidhe’ cats, if you like.”

He sees my confusion.

“Alright then,” he says, “fairy cats.”

“Ah,” I say, “tell me about these fairy cats.”

“You’re looking at one.” His tone holds a hint of contempt for me and pride for himself. “Although the name is a misnomer. Witch-cat would be more representative.”

“I’m listening,” I say.

“We sith cats are Scottish in origin and Celtic in nature. All we sith cats were once witches. A true witch has the power to turn herself into a black cat with a white chest.” He puffs out his own a little. “In that form, we can wander around the countryside unnoticed. There is one caveat. We can only turn into cats and transform back eight times. On the ninth transformation, we remain a cat.”

“You were a witch?” I marvel.

“Yes.”

“But wait a moment, Johannes; you are a male cat.”

“Did you not pick up on the word ‘transform’?”

“Ah,” I say, “if you can change one thing, you can change another.”

“Quite. And your horrid story got our coloration wrong. We are always black with a white spot; we are not grays.”

“A cat has nine lives,” I mutter to myself. “For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays. That comes out of a childhood memory. Told to me by my nanny, if I remember rightly.”

Sith cats have nine lives,” Johannes corrects.

“Then as a witch, you changed yourself into a cat for a ninth time knowingly? Why?”

“As a witch I was quite old. As a cat, I started over again, giving me a bit more longevity. Besides, a cat is a superior form.”

I let that comment pass. “Is it true that, if a black cat crosses my path, it is an ill omen?”

“Well. . . ,” Johannes is hesitating, “we may not be the best company, particularly if you happen to be a corpse.”

“A corpse?”

“There is the notion that, if a sith cats jumps over the dead before burial, it can steal the deceased’s soul.”

“Would you?”

“That’s one of the reasons for the wake, to keep us away. In Scotland they will not even light a fire in the fireplace, knowing we are attracted to fire.”

“Oh?”

“Well, we like the warmth.”

“I hope you are not planning. . . ?”

“Make sure you give me a saucer of milk on Samhain.”

“Thalia gives you a saucer every day.”

“Yes, I know; she has my protection forever.”

Now there is a comfort.

Your thoughts?

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2016 Drowning of the Bottom Hundred – Part One

belle-epoque-mermaid-emerges-from-the-sea-circa-1908Belle Epoque Mermaid Emerges From The Sea

Water, Water Everywhere

It is Saturday morning and time for the weekly outing with Thalia. Today’s destination is the Sea Life London Aquarium. Thalia’s favorite is the Sharkwalk.  Although November, the day is unusually clear and temperate. There might not be another one of these until spring.

However, along the way is Melissa’s bookshop, a must-stop-and-buy-a-book-for-Thalia sort of thing. Thalia gives Melissa a hug and heads for “her aisle.” The book Melissa sets down in order to hug Thalia is W. Jenkyn Thomas’ The Welsh Fairy Book.

“You’re re-reading that,” I say.

“Yes, it holds a story that haunts me. The Drowning of the Bottom Hundred. Have you read it?”

“I must have; you sold me the book. Refresh my memory.”

“I’ll read it to you.”

I glance about. There are other customers in the shop, but they are in their aisles like Thalia, and I suspect they will be there for some time. I settle into a chair beside Melissa.

The story starts with a set of wonderfully unpronounceable Welsh names—King Gwyddno Garanhir of Ceredigion and Prince Seithenyn, son of Seithyn Saidi—over which Melissa stumbled, but I can do no better. Part of the kingdom was an area called the Bottom Hundred, a fertile swath of land holding sixteen fortified towns, all claimed from the sea by a massive stone embankment.

Prince Seithenyn was Lord High Commissioner of the Royal Embankment, but was best known as a notorious drunk. He had relinquished his duties to his deputies, who were as irresponsible as himself, with the exception of Teithrin, son of Tathral, who dwelt at the point of Mochras, in the high ground of Ardudwy.

“Sorry,” says Melissa, referring to her consistent mangling of the Welsh names.

Into the story enters Prince Elphin, the actual hero of the tale, after the listener has suffered so many excruciating monikers. He is fishing in a pastoral setting when he hears, “Beware of the oppression of Gwenhudiw!”

Melissa glances up at me and goes on.

Gwenhudiw, the mermaid shepherdess of the ocean, wishes to reclaim the Bottom Hundred. Immediately after hearing the warning, Teithrin appears, telling Elphin of the woeful condition of the embankment and Elphin takes heed.

After inspecting the stoneworks for himself, Elphin, along with Teithrin, enters Seithenyn’s hall where feasting and drinking are in full swing. Elphin tries to have a conversation with him concerning the condition of the embankment, but Seithenyn insists the ancients who built the seawall knew what they were doing, and one should leave well enough alone. Also, he ended each of his sentences with, “Cupbearer, fill!”

Elphin and Teithrin are soon the only ones sitting erect, as everyone else has slumped to the floor. Into the room enters Seithenyn’s beautiful and sober daughter, Angharad.

Another glance from Melissa.

Elphin and Angharad converse in courtly manner until the rising wind of the gathering storm outside the castle carries the words, “Beware of the oppression of Gwenhudiw!”

One of the towers along the embankment crashes into the waters, creating a gap in the stonework. Seithenyn, in his stupor, tries to defend his realm with his sword, and is consumed by the sea.

Elphin, Teithrin, Angharad and their party flee along the remaining seawall. By morning they witness the drowning of the Bottom Hundred.

It is said, if one stands by the shore at Aberdovey one can hear the bells of Gwyddno’s  submerged churches still tolling under the sea.

“Now there are images full of pathos,” I say.

Melissa smiles sadly.

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2016 Drowning of the Bottom Hundred – Part Two

edmund-dulac-the-city-in-the-sea-1912The City in the Sea, Edmund Dulac

Sunken

“This tale is rather literary,” Melissa reflects. “W. Jenkyn Thomas drew it from Thomas Love Peacock’s Misfortunes of Elphin, Peacock being a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelly, by the way.”

One of her customers extracts himself from “his aisle” and heads for the cash register, but Melissa does not notice.

“W. Jenkyn Thomas would have us believe that the inundation of castles and cities is a theme in Welsh fairy tales.”

“Now that you mention it,” I recall, “they do sink a lot of buildings into lakes.”

“Yes, he includes four other stories of a similar bent in his collection.”

A polite cough comes from behind us, and I nod toward the counter.

“Oh.” Melissa rises to attend to business. I pick up her copy of The Welsh Fairy Book and scan the table of contents. She is right, of course. I spot Bala Lake, Helig’s Hollow, The Swallowed Court, and Syfaddon Lake.

“My favorite,” I tell Melissa upon her return, “is Bala Lake.”

“Now you’ll need to remind me which of the five stories that is.”

“The one where an oppressive prince, odious to his subjects, has a grand feast celebrating the birth of his son. During the festivities, about midnight, the harper for the occasion takes a rest and is approached by a little bird, who speaks the words, ‘Vengence, vengeance,’ into his ear, then flies toward the castle door.”

“Right,” says Melissa. “The harper follows the bird to higher ground, the bird saying, ‘Vengeance, vengeance,’ every time the harper hesitates. In the morning he discovers the palace is gone, replaced by a lake, his harp floating on the surface.”

“That’s the one,” I say.

“The Irish are quick to drown fishermen in their tales. I suppose that is an occupational hazard and that reality is reflected in their stories. The Welsh, on the other hand, drown entire castles and towns; that couldn’t have been common.”

“Hardly,” I say, picking her volume back up, paging through it again.

“In Helig’s Hollow there is a murder and deception.” I scan to the next tale. “The Swallowed Court is more complex and ironic, but revenge still underlies it.” I move on to Syfaddon Lake. “This last one is very much like Helig’s Hollow, except revenge waits a few generations, then takes the whole extended family down into the depths.

“But The Drowning of the Bottom Hundred is a little different,” Melissa argues. “It is more about the neglect of duty, and the mermaid shepherdess’s claiming land that belongs to the sea, than about punishment for a crime or misdeed. I guess I am attracted to the romance of an ominous warning, a tower crashing into the sea, the foolish drunkard dying sword in hand against the water, and a party fleeing over crumbling stonework. And yet in the end, like the other stories, a thing man-made ends up under water.”

“I think you have hit on it,” I say with certainty. ‘‘A thing man-made ends up under water. We tend to pride ourselves on our artifices. We think we can bend the rules to our favor. But forces we had not reckoned on are only a thought away and may overwhelm us.”

“I can accept that notion,” Melissa thinks aloud. “Yet, why water? Why not fire, an earthquake, a devastating wind? Why water? Perhaps we should ask an expert.”

“An expert? Such as a plumber?”

“No silly, I am thinking of our nixie.” Her eyes glint.

Our nixie?

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2016 Drowning of the Bottom Hundred – Part Three

seventeenth-century-alchemical-emblem Seventeenth century alchemical emblem

Fears

“Popcorn?” Melissa’s tone suggests I am being inappropriate in feeding popcorn to a near immortal.

“She loves the stuff,” I defend.

We make our way through the arched branches overhanging the path. Melissa had not known about the magic forest outside my study’s bay window. It had always been night when Melissa visited me.

“Is that a glass mountain over there?” Melissa points down one of the multiple paths.

“Yes, but the nixie’s pond is in that direction.” I point opposite.

We settle ourselves on the high stones surrounding the pond. We wait, but not long, for the nixie to rise to the surface.

“Hello, my human.”

“Hello, my nixie.” I throw her the first of many rounds of popcorn. She catches them deftly in her green-tinted hands, popping the kernels into her mouth with long, delicate fingers.

I glance at Melissa. I’ve heard the expression “eyes wide as saucers,” but had not known it was possible.

“My nixie,” I say, “you are—let me call you—of the water people.”

“Undine,” she corrects me.

“Undine,” I echo.

“Your philosopher Paracelsus kindly gave us elementals names. The gnomes (of the earth), which include dwarves and elves; sylphs (of the air), the fairies of all sorts; salamanders (of the fire), nasty little lizard-like things; and we undine, nixies, mermaids, and silkies.”

She catches some more popcorn, but her eyes rest on Melissa.

“We are wondering,” I say. “In the tales we tell each other, tragedy is likely to take the shape of water. If we are to be harmed by the elements in these stories, seldom are we knocked down by the wind, crushed by an earthquake, and only occasionally consumed by fire. More often men, women, children, castles, and towns are drowned. Why is water the ultimate destroyer?”

How she knows this is my companion’s question, I cannot tell, but the nixie turns to her.

“What is your name?”

There is a hesitation before the answer.

“Melissa.”

“The reason the tales identify water as the ultimate destroyer—and it is—is this. If a town is blown down, shaken down, burnt down, from its ruins it can be rebuilt. If the town is drowned, it still stands, uninhabited, becoming its own ghost. The sea will never give it up.

“But, Melissa,” the nixie continues, “do not fear the sea. The waters also give. How many men have taken wives from the sea?”

“How many husbands have been taken from the land?” Melissa returns.

“That I will allow,” the nixie confesses. “They are a slippery lot. We usually don’t get to keep them.”

“And the sea-wives always return to the sea,” says Melissa. “I perceive the sea takes more than it gives.”

The nixie sighs. “They are compelled to return to their watery homes if given the chance. Still, they love the children they bore by their human husbands. We are not, all of us, heartless.”

“That is another question. Do you hide your heart in secret places?”

“Oh, not I, and rarely other undine. That is more of a giant’s or wizard’s thing to do.  We are heartless until there is close human contact. Even then there may be a price for either or both.”

“And a soul?” Melissa is probing.

“Our perpetual worry. We are told we have none,” the nixie states flatly.

“Perhaps you have more to fear than I.” Melissa’s tone is flat as well.

“That may be, but my world remains one of the four elements, to which, in a quarter part, you are indebted for your existence, hence your fear, or is it respect, for the watery depths.”

The two regard each other.

Should I throw popcorn between them?

Your thoughts?