Category Archives: Fairytales/Folklore

The Old Witch

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“I hate living like this!” Disgusted, Jaspa tossed the can of tomatoes to the floor, spilling the contents.

“Starve then,” Jaspa’s mother said, trying to salvage the tomatoes.

“Can’t afford to be picky,” her father said, digging into a can of beans.

“Why can’t we settle somewhere? I miss having hot meals.”

“And become Scavenger bait? No thank you, I’m attached to my skin,” her father said.

“The light and smoke of a fire draws attention.”

“I want chocolate and a decent bed.” Jaspa pouted, crossing her arms over her chest.

Her parents exchanged exasperated glances.

“The Old Witch would know how to conjure chocolate and I bet she has a bed soft enough to ease her bones,” Jaspa said.

Worried glances passed between her parents.

“She’s all safe in her apartment building. No one dares to bother her,” Jaspa said.

“For good reason,” her father said.

“Her magic is the dark sort,” her mother said.

“I’m going to see her,” Jaspa said, standing.

“No you are not!” Her mother stood, putting her hands on her hips and staining her grimy shirt with tomato juice.

“She’ll take me as an apprentice,” Jaspa said.

“She’ll bake you into a pie,” her father said.

Jaspa snatched her backpack from the concrete and slipped her arms through the straps. She grinned at her parents, sure of her quest.

“If you leave you are no child of ours,” her mother said.

“I thought our common sense would have been inherited,” her father said, shaking his head.

“Fine,” Jaspa said, chin lifting as her eyes stung. “When I am an all powerful witch and you two are dying of starvation I’m not going to help you.”

“It’s been nice knowing you,” her father said. “I wish it was for longer.”

“Wait and see,” Jaspa said and stormed out of their hiding place behind the dumpsters.

Gritting her teeth, she was determined not to turn back as she reached the mouth of the darkened alley. Sunset colored the sky in fiery shades, causing the ruined city to become a silhouette of black spires. Fear snaked through Jaspa, her steps tentative. She had never been on her own. Inhaling, Jaspa bolstered her courage and strode onto the debris littered street.

She stuck to the sidewalk, staying close to the safety of the buildings. Her body was tense, waiting for the slightest sign of one of the bands of Scavengers that plagued the ruins. They’d kill her in a heartbeat, scouring her belongings for anything useful and leave her corpse to rot with the detritus abandoned by humanity. Jaspa’s gaze flickered constantly, trying to probe the shadows of alleys and doorways for movement.

The distant sounds of gunshots sent her skittering into an unlocked corner store. She ducked below the window display, her heart hammering against her ribs. Voices echoed, the words mangled as they resounded through the streets. Jaspa raised herself and peered out, her pulse roaring in her ears.

A band of people spilled into the crosswalk, semi-automatics slung across their backs and pistols in their hands. Jaspa slid down, her breath coming in gasps.  She stared at the shadowy interior, praying they would move along without investigating the store. More shots caused her jump, the loud reports too close for comfort. She slithered across the floor, her pack jiggling on her back.

Once in the safety of the shadows, Jaspa crouched and began weaving through the aisles. There had to be a back door, and those words looped in her head. It was a mantra to keep her focused, to keep the panic at bay. She almost cried out in relief, spying the exit sign over a blue metal door set into the wall. Rushing to it, she pushed, finding it unlocked.

Jaspa stumbled into the alley. Turning, she raced to the end of the alley and bolted across the street, not stopping until she reached the Old Witch’s abode.

Stars pinned the twilit sky, and the late spring breeze cooled Jaspa’s cheeks as she bounded up the steps and opened the door.

Candlelight illuminated the cavernous lobby with a soft golden glow. Closing the door stirred the air, causing shadows to leap and dance upon the wall. Jaspa shivered, her stomach knotting. Gathering her courage, Jaspa stalked to the stairwell and began her ascent.

                                                                                           

The Old Witch’s suite reeked of smoke and something sickly-sweet. Jaspa trembled, her muscles rubbery. Glass French doors separated the living room from the bedroom and as Jaspa approached, the hair on the nape of her neck rose. Through the rippled glass, she spied a creature of fire and bones. Hands shaking, she turned the doorknobs and entered the room. She had come too far to turn back.

Before her sat an old woman, skin papery and time worn. A gentle smile played upon the witch’s lips while kind blue eyes regarded Jaspa with surprise.

“Hello, dear.”

Jaspa inched closer, shivering with fear and cold. The paltry fire in the hearth flickered as a draft toyed with it.

“Goodness, child, why are you quaking so?”

“I have seen…things on my way here,” Jaspa said, her voice wavering. “A man covered in black dust.”

“Only the charcoal man,” the Old Witch said, gesturing at the fire.

“And a man clothed in gray fur,” Jaspa said. She drew closer to the crone, relief chasing away the terror.

“That is the huntsman. He’s kind enough to supply me with meat.”

“Then there was a man covered in blood,” Jaspa said, quivering at the remembrance.

“My butcher,” the witch said.

“I spotted a fiery creature sitting here before I came in.”

“You’ve seen my true form, dear.” The Old Witch grinned. With a flourish of her hand, the witch transformed Jaspa into a block of wood and tossed it onto the fire.

As the flames cavorted, hungrily feasting upon the wood, the Old Witch chuckled.

“Finally, I will be warm.”

 

NOTE: This story is for a flash fiction challenge found on Chuck Wendig’s blog, terribleminds. It is a retelling of Grimm’s fairytale “The Old Witch” set in a dystopian world.  

 

 

 

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Bad Luck, Black Cats and Broken Mirrors

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Friday the 13th

It’s Friday the 13th. And I think that as long as you aren’t gallivanting near an abandoned summer camp located on Crystal Lake, you’ll be safe. Seriously, though, this day has gotten a bad reputation for being unlucky. And I’d like to take a little time to explore the reason why and also to discuss superstitions.

Friday the 13th hasn’t always been unlucky. There wasn’t evidence of the day’s significance until the 19th century when the first mention of it’s portends were written down in a biography of Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini. It is mentioned that Gioachino considered Friday an unlucky day and it was Friday the 13th of November that he passed away.

Origins

Twelve seems to be the perfect number and in numerology, it is considered the number of “divine organizational arrangement” or “chronological completeness”. Our year is broken down in 12 months, our day is counted in 24 which is divided into halves, the clock has 12 numbers on its face, and  there are 12 signs of the zodiac. Throughout history there were important groups of 12: Apostles of Jesus, tribes of Israel, Olympian gods, and successors of Muhammad (in the Shia Islam). 13 is a prime number, an odd number and considered to be the number that messes up all the good mojo of 12. One superstition, coming either from Norse mythology or the Last Supper, states that if thirteen people are seated at a table having dinner, one is going to die.

I think most people would agree that Friday is the day of the week to look forward to, the last day of the workweek so it might be a little surprising to learn (it was for me) that Friday has been thought to be unlucky since the 14th century, and considered the worst day to begin new ventures or journeys. However, Fridays are holy days in several religions.

Friday the 13th Facts and Trivia

Phobia

Are you afraid of Friday the 13th? You wouldn’t be alone. It’s estimated that somewhere between 17 and 21 million people have a fear of this day. The fear of Friday the 13th is called friggatriskadaidekaphobia or paraskevidekatriaphobia. The first is taken from the Norse goddess Frigga, who gave Friday its name, and combined with the phobia of the number 13 (triskadaidekaphobia) and the second is a combination paraskevi (Greek for Friday), dekatreis (13) and phobia (fear).

Friday the 13th is actually one of the safest days of the year for the people of the Netherlands, according to the Dutch Centre of Insurance Statistics, there have been fewer reports of accidents and fires on that day because people are extra careful, and vigilant.

Black Cats

We often hear that it’s bad luck to cross paths with black cats.

How could I not want to cross this kitty’s path? She’s too cute.

But in Great Britain and Japan, black cats are considered lucky and in Scotland the sudden appearance of a black cat is an omen of prosperity. Cait Sith (a faery of Celtic mythology) is said to often take the guise of a black cat.

However, with the fear of magic and witchcraft, black cats began to be associated with the unholy acts and dark arts of witches and evil. They were a witch’s choice of companions and familiars, acting as spies since they could transform into human shape. So the black cat got a bad reputation for being omens of misfortune and death. During the Middle Ages, the fear and superstition caused the massacre of black cats which lowered the feline population and in turn allowed the rat population to surge, spreading the Black Plague. The superstitions were transported here to the US by the Pilgrims, they believed that the creature was a combination of demon and sorcery and were associated with the Devil.  Anyone who owned a black cat was severely punished or put to death.

But the black cat received a mixed view from sailors. If there was a need for a ship’s cat, the black cat was the first to be considered for they brought good luck. And often a fisherman’s wife would keep a black cat, believing that the creature would somehow keep their husbands safe. 18th century pirates thought that if a black cat walked toward someone it would bring bad luck but if the cat walked away, it was a sign of good luck. Also if a black cat walked aboard a ship and walked off, it was an omen of doom. The ship would sink.

Interestingly, it is considered bad luck in Germany if a bad cat crosses your path from right to left but if the creature goes from the left to the right it is an indicator of good luck coming. Also, for most gamblers black cats are portends of ill fortune. If one crosses a gambler’s path, it is considered bad luck to go to the casino.

Black cats, or any animal black in color, have lower adoption rates than those of any other color.

Ladders

And it’s bad luck to walk under a ladder.

A ladder opens up and creates a triangle, two sides and the ground. Even when leaning against a wall, it still creates a triangle. The belief of crossing under a ladder actually comes from early Christian teachings. Anything with three points represents the Holy Trinity and therefore anyone who walks through those three points are unbelievers and are in league with the Devil, making that person a witch. Over time, this reason was forgotten (at least by everyone that I know) but the fear and the superstition remained.

Broken Mirrors

This was probably due to the belief that a person’s reflection was actually their soul. Anything that messed with the reflection was bad because it could damage the soul or trap it in a Looking Glass world. But it was the Romans that gave the curse a duration, believing that life renewed itself every seven years, thus shedding the bad luck with the rejuvenation.

However, the belief morphed. Mirrors were costly items, and had to be handled with care. The warning that a breaking a mirror would cause seven years of bad luck ensured that accidents caused by careless handling would not happen.

There are remedies to counteract the curse. If a person was misfortunate enough to break a mirror they could take the pieces and bury them in the moonlight, throw them into running water, pulverize them until they could never reflect anything ever again, or you could simply leave them be for seven hours and then pick them up immediately afterward. Then again, you could light seven white candles and then blow them all out in a single breath at the stroke of midnight. If you feel adventurous, you could touch a piece of the broken mirror on a tombstone. The easiest ways to break the seven year curse are to throw salt over your shoulder (an often used remedy of evil and bad luck, make a sign of the cross with a five dollar bill, or  spin three times in a counter-clockwise direction (this is thought to confuse the evil spirits enough to break the curse since it is bad luck to spin around in a counter-clockwise direction). And yet more remedies suggest burning the edges of the pieces and burying them a year later, shortening the length of the curse.

The Thirteenth Floor

There are buildings that omit the number 13, or that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve never been in a building that has anything higher than a fourth of fifth floor. As I mentioned before, the number 13 is supposed to bad juju and it is for that reason that the 13th floor is often renamed. It becomes 12a/12b, 14a/14b, simply 14, M (the 13th letter of the Latin alphabet) or in some cases given a name like the Radisson in Winnepeg which has named its 13th floor the Pool floor. Sometimes that floor is left uninhabited, used for some purpose such as maintenance. However the empty floor has spawned speculation, especially in government buildings where it is thought the 13th floor is home to top-secret material or used for secret meetings.

It’s interesting that some buildings also omit 13 from room numbers.

Some of you may know the Stephen King short story “1408” which was made into a movie starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. If you haven’t it is about a hotel room (and that is all I am going to say about that since it’s a favorite of mine and I recommend it seeing it or reading the story if you haven’t and you like Mr. King’s work). The numbers 1 4 0 8 add up to 13.

 

The Elements of Fairytales – Part Two

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Part Two – Heroes and Heroines: The Good, The Clever, and the Stupid

Fairytales abound with protagonists that manage to out smart their adversaries, remain pure of heart despite hardships and torture, and some are even considered stupid, but always win in the end.

The Clever

When I think of clever fairytale characters, my mind is drawn to Catskin. It is a tale that I fell in love with from the first and has many versions, although the differences are often subtle and they all end the same. I have read two versions, “Catskin” and “The Princess in Disguise”, and have seen another version in Jim Henson’s Storyteller where it is called “Sapsorrow” (I highly recommend folktale and fairytale buffs to watch this at least once if they remember that it was a television series and overlook the special effects. The stories are worth it, I think and I, personally, love it.).

In all three versions, the king has lost his wife, and has at least one daughter.

  1. A king has made a promise to his dying wife that he will only remarry if he is able to find a woman who is an equal to her beauty and possesses shining golden hair. Of course, in the version it should come to no surprise that the only woman that fits that description in the king’s daughter. And therefor, he decides to marry her.
  2. The king, heartbroken by his wife’s death during childbirth and the fact that she had not given him a son, departs his castle, leaving the child behind. It isn’t until the king returns 16 years later that he spies the girl in the garden and remembers he has a child. Feeling some sort of paternal obligation, he has her betrothed to a long time friend, but he is very old and she is very young.
  3.  The king promised his wife that he would not remarry unless the woman could fit her ring. The queen dies. Years later, the king’s three daughters find the ring. Two of them pick it up and play with while the third tries to get them to stop. When they are caught by the king, one of the sisters gives it to the youngest, preparing to blame her and the girl accidently slip it on her finger. It’s fairly easy to guess what happens next.

In them all, the princess requests a series of almost impossible gowns in order to buy her time. The first is usually cloth of gold so finely made that it fit into a nutshell of some kind. The second is most often made of silver to rival moonlight and it also must be skillfully made like the first. The third gown differs depending on story. It is either as sparkly as the stars (as in both “The Princess in Disguise” and “Sapsorrow”) or made of a feather from every bird in the world, so fine that it can be nestled in an eggshell. The last gown is either asked for or made by the princess herself. It is a gown of fur and it is the gown the princess wears when she escapes her fate, taking her percious gifts with her. She then becomes known as Catskin, Roughskin, or Straggle Tag and finds employment in the kitchens of a castle.

From there, the stories remain pretty much the same. In time, a ball/feast is given and our princess discards her guise of humble, hairy scullery maid and dons one of her gowns. She attends the ball. She shine magnificently in her gown of gold, easily winning the heart of the king but her duty calls and she eventually returns to her disguise. Another ball is called for and this time it is the silver gown she wears. She dances away the hours, claiming all the king’s attention and sparing none for the others. Again, she slips away becoming Catskin or Roughskin or Straggle Tag the maid. But third time is always the charm, and this time resplendent in her gown of stars or the gown of feathers, she is caught by the king as she changes back into her alter ego. Of course they marry, it wouldn’t be a fairytale if they didn’t and yes, they lived happily ever after.

Now, there are many clever characters featured in this collection. Hansel and Gretel, The Little Farmer, and Clever Else, just to name a few. I recommend reading “Clever Else”, “The Little Farmer” and “Fitcher’s Bird”, they are all are interesting tales.

The Good

Cinderella comes to mind immediately. The young woman suffered for years, reduced to being a maid, for her cruel, selfish and vain step-family. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are also endowed with kindness, loveliness, and altruism. They are the epitome of virtue. However, while reading through the collection, I met the Handless Maiden. She, I think, outshines her sister fairytale heroines and could have applied for sainthood.

“The Maiden Without Hands”

The Handless Maiden was the unwitting gift bestowed on a wizard by her father. Her father, a poor miller, walked into the forest near their home one day in search of wood when he happens across an old man. The Old Man/Wizard inquires as to why the Miller is bothering to cut down wood and kindly offers to give the Miller wealth beyond his imagining. But, the Old Man requires something in exchange for the riches and asks for the object that stands behind the mill. The Miller, thinking that it is his beloved apple tree, agrees. It seems a small price to pay for financial security.

“In three years time I will come and claim what belongs to me,” the Old Man said.

Returning home, the Miller is greeted by his wife who is excitedly bemused. She has been finding treasure in every nook and cranny of their home. Precious stones tumble from an opened drawer and coins fall in a golden rain from cupboards. The Miller explains the deal made with the Old Man and his wife tells him he is wrong, that their only child was behind the mill, sweeping it clear.

Their daughter was innocent, beautiful and modest, obedient to her parents. When three years had passed, she prepared to meet the man who would be her captor. She washed herself until she was pure as snow. Afterwards, she made a circle of chalk and stood inside it. This is how she greeted the Old Man when he appeared.

The Old Man, shedding his disguise and revealing his true nature as a wizard, arrived (most likely chuckling to himself and rubbing his hands together, pleased at his cleverness) and sauntered out to the where the maiden stood. He could not, dared not, enter her protective circle and enraged, he ordered the Miller to deny her water to wash with. The Wizard could not enthrall her while she was in current state of cleanliness.  The Miller, frightened, did as he was told.

The daughter wept all through the night, her tears washing her hands clean.

Dawn comes and with it the Wizard returns. He discovers that somehow the maiden’s hands were as pure as the day before. Flying into a rage, he demanded the Miller chop off the girl’s hands.

“How can I take my daughter’s hands?” The Miller asked.

“If you do not,” the Wizard threatened, “I shall be forced to claim you in her stead.”

Frightened, the Miller obeys and when he reached his daughter, he related the conversation he had with the Wizard. To which the daughter replied:

“But, dear father, I am your child and you may do with me as you wish.”

A table was moved to her circle and her hands laid upon it. The blade rained down, severing her hands from her wrists. Thinking he had finally won, the Wizard vowed to return  the next morning to claim his prize. But the Handless Maiden cried all through the night, washing the stubs in her tears.

By the next morning when the Wizard appears, she is clean and pure. Enraged, the Wizard must give her up, powerless. He left. The maiden’s father is relieved at the outcome, and tells her that she is more precious than any jewel to him.  She declared her wish to leave home.

“I am yet unsafe here and I would go out in the world, to find the comfort and sympathy of people,” she said.

“I fear that people of that nature are too few in the world.”

The Handless Maiden binds her stumps and departs the next morning. Traveling all day, she grows hungry and tired. As night approached she came to a beautiful garden, filled with fruit trees but it was surrounded by a deep, wide moat. She prayed, and unknown to her, a fairy guardian appeared behind her. The fairy moved the water, creating a channel of dry land for the maiden to walk through.

The maiden rushed across and at the nearest tree, she ate a pear that hung on the lowest branch, using only her mouth. Sated, she found a bush, curled up and fell asleep. But the gardener had seen this, and he had stood, terrified, unable to speak.

When the King visits his garden the next morning, he counted all the fruit on the trees and noticed that one was absent. He questioned the gardener who told him a tale of ghosts and angels. The King planned for them to hide in the garden and find out the truth. As midnight arrived, the maiden appeared and drifted to the pear tree, preparing to eat again. A beautiful woman stayed behind the maiden, gowned in white.

The King nudged the priest, and the holy man went forth to face the specter.

“Be you of this earth or heaven, child? A spirit or human?”

“I am no shade, only a poor girl forsaken by all but God,” the maiden said.

“If you let me be your friend, I will never forsake you,” the King said.

The maiden was taken into the King’s castle and over the next months, he fell in love with her and they were married. He had made for a pair of silver hands. But war came, threatening the peaceful kingdom and the King had to depart. He left his pregnant bride in the care of his mother who was good and kind.

Not long after his departure, the new Queen gave birth to a son and a message was sent to declare the new to the King. The messenger halted midday, thirsty and tired, by a quiet little stream. He drank deep of the cool, refreshing water and napped under the shade of a tree. And who should appear, but the Wizard. He switched the message with one of his own creation, a perfect match to the old mother’s hand.

“The Queen has given birth but the child is a changeling.” Were the words the King found in the message when it was delivered. Fearing after his wife, he penned one back. “Give the Queen every attention and care until I am able to return.”

Again the Wizard switched messages. The one that arrived to the Queen Mother read: “Kill both the Queen and the child.” She was terrified, unable to believe that her son would order such a thing. She wrote him. The reply (again written by the Wizard, and I imagine him chortling while penning his wicked words) came, this time it read: “Never mind killing them. Cut out the tongue of the changeling and put out the mother’s eyes.”

Well, the Dowager couldn’t follow the order. She went to the young Queen and begged her to leave, explaining what the King wanted done. The old mother strapped her grandson onto the young Queen’s back and the pair departed, the Dowager helpless to aid them further watched them leave.

And the Queen walked, once more leaving a life behind to venture into an unknown future. She trekked until she reached a vast, dense forest and following the road through, she halted at crossroad. Not knowing what path to take, the Queen knelt down and prayed. When she rose to her feet, she noticed that there was a cottage not far from where she stood. It was a cheery looking place with windows aglow and sign above the door. The sign said: “All who dwell here is safe.”

A woman robed in white emerged from the cottage.

“Welcome my Queen,” the mysterious woman greeted and she led the Queen inside, helping her remove the infant from her back and settling him down to sleep.

“How did you know I was a queen?”

“I am fairy guardian sent to watch over you and your son,” the woman said.

And so it was there that the Queen and her son lived for many years, content. The Queen was so good and pious that her hands grew back and she packed away the silver pair her husband had given her.

Not long after the Queen and her son had disappeared from the castle, the King returned home and asked to see his family.

“You horrible man, how can you ask me how your wife and son are when you ordered such terrible things done to them?” The Queen Mother wept. Confused, the King asked for an explanation and the letters were produced for him to read. He cried bitterly, broken by the fate of his love. So deeply was his sorrow that his mother took pity on him and divulged the truth, telling him that they still lived, she had sent them away.

“Then I will scour the earth, to the end of the world if need be, to I find them. I will not eat or drink until we are together.”  And the King left, starting his quest.

He is true to his words. He neither eats or drinks, searching the land for his family. It takes him seven years (he suspects that his wife had died, starved to death) before he comes upon the cottage in the forest where he is taken in by a lovely maiden. Led into the home by the hand, the fairy said to him, “My lord King is most welcome, but I must ask why are you here?”

“For seven years, it seems much longer, I have searched for my beloved and our child. Can you help me?” The fairy set him down and gave him food and drink, imploring him to replenish himself. Weary, he obeyed. And growing sleepy, he is led to a bed nearby. The fairy covered his slumbering face with a cloth and  leaves the room to inform the Queen of the visitor.

The Queen goes reluctantly, remembering the cruel letters and demands of her husband. Her son, she named Pain-Bringer, is by her side. The cloth fell from the King’s face and the Queen tells her son to cover the face of his father.

“But mother, how can I cover the face of my father for I thought my father is God. Didn’t you teach me to pray to ‘Our Father, which art in heaven’. This man is not my father,” Pain-Bringer said, his voice rousing the King from his slumber.

“Who are you?” The King asked the pair.

“I am your wife and this is our son,” the Queen said.

“You’re face and voice are familiar to me, that is true but my wife had silver hands.” And the fairy entered the room as those words were spoken, her hands holding the hands of silver.

The King then knew that the Queen was indeed his lost wife and he rejoiced, embracing her and their son. They all celebrated and the truth of the letters were discussed. The next morning the trio departed, returning home where a second wedding feast was held where they made merry, happily putting the past and hardships behind them.

The Stupid

The Old Witch

Once there was a young girl. She was stubborn and willful, disobedient and therefore, she was never happy. Having heard tales of the Old Witch that lived not far away, the girl decided she wanted to visit the crone and she told her parents so.

“Tales have been told of the Witch’s powers, the marvelous things she can do and I want to see them.”

“It’s foolish to go. The Witch is a godless woman, and the deeds accomplished by her are often wicked. You leave here to find her and you are no longer a child of ours.”

But the girl departs, ignoring her parents. By the time she finds herself in the Witch’s company, the girl is pale and quivering.

“Why are you so frightened, child?” the Witch asked.

“The people I have seen as I entered your house has caused me to shake so,” the girl said.

“What people?”

“A man, black as night, was on your step.”

“Ah, that was the collier,” the Witch said.

“And then I encountered a gray man.”

“That would be the sportsman,” the Old Witch said.

“The next man was covered in blood!” The girl shivered.

“He is the butcher,” the Witch said.

“And then, when I peered into your window, I spied a creature with a head of fire. I was most terrified!”

“You saw me, my dear, in my true form,” the Witch said. “And I have long awaited you, for you shall give me light.” The Witch changed the girl into a block of wood and tossed her upon the fire. As the fire thundered to life, the Witch sat down near the hearth and warmed herself.

“Oh how nice, for once it burns so brightly.”

Recommendations: There is one tale where the hero is named Stupid Hans, but I didn’t think his tale was fitting to go under “The Stupid”. He is anything but stupid, gullible, maybe and honest but not stupid. His story can be found in the tale called “The Griffin” and is well worth the read.

The Elements of Fairytales – Part One

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I have been re-reading fairytales lately. A project idea had me running to my bookshelf to grab my copy of Grimm’s Fairytales which I had started reading a couple of years ago but I never finished. I was reading through, trying to refresh myself on the concept of what makes up a fairytale, and found that many had similar elements.  I discovered a rich world filled with the fantastic, often interlaced with moral undertones, although some do slap you upside the head with “goodness”, and an insight to an era of certain cultural beliefs and behaviors. I will try to explore five areas that I think gives a pretty good overview of fairytale elements, each with at least one story as an example.

Part One – The Mundane Made Magical 

A glass that if held up if front of a sick person allows the welder to see Death, a cooking pot that never empties but must be turned on and off with just the right words, and violin that compels those who hear its music to dance. These stories are filled with mundane items that possess magic.  I’d like to discuss, however, the tale “The Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn” which contains four magical items.

It starts out in the usual way. Three brothers go out into the world to seek their fortune. They venture into a forest and stumble across a hill made of silver. Content with this, the First Brother fills his pockets with silver and returns home. The Second and Third brothers both believe that they can do better than measly silver and continue with their quest. Exploring another forest, they find a hill made of gold. Although, the Second Brother debates between taking the gold and searching for more riches, he eventually decides that the gold before him is better than dreams of things not yet found. He fills his pockets and goes home. The Third Brother smirks at the hill of gold and trudges onward, knowing he will find better prizes than his brothers.

The Third Brother reaches a vast, dense forest and ventures inside it, walking for days without food and water. After three days of this, he climbs a tree to survey the land and what he finds is discouraging to his parched throat and growling belly. An infinite sea of green, and the forest does not seem to end. Sighing, the Third Brother climbs back down and said, “I wish that I had some food and drink.” When he alights from the tree, there laid out before him is a tablecloth covered with dishes of food. He eagerly fell upon the feast, devouring the food and sating his hunger. He folds up the tablecloth and puts it in his pocket, firmly believing it to be imbued with magical properties. He continues on his quest until he comes across a charcoal-burner who is preparing his own meager supper of fire baked potato without butter or salt.

The two men greet each other and the charcoal-burner offers to share his repast with the Third Brother to which the Third Brother replies, “No thank you but you shall be invited to dine with me.” He stretches out the tablecloth, expresses his desire to eat and the food appears. Delighted, the charcoal-burner eagerly accepts the invitation and they enjoy their meal. After filling their bellies, the charcoal-burner offers a trade.

“I have a knapsack that if struck once with the hand brings forth a corporal and six armed men. They will do the biding of whoever summons them,” the charcoal-burner said. The Third Brother agrees, takes the knapsack and heads off into the trees. He doesn’t go far before he tries out his new acquisition. He strikes the knapsack and the soldiers appear. The Third Brother then orders them to go back and retrieve his tablecloth. Once they return, tablecloth in hand, the Third Brother dismisses them and continues ahead.

Still traversing the forest, the Third Brother shortly encounters another charcoal-burner and the dinner is repeated. This charcoal-burner offers the Third Brother a hat that when worn and tugged forward on the head will produce a fearsome rain of cannonballs, a dozen for each pull of the brim, for the miraculous tablecloth. Intrigued with the hat, the Third Brother agrees and the items are exchanged. He leaves the charcoal-burner and  journeys onward for a while before stopping and striking the knapsack. Again he sends his men after the tablecloth and when they return, successful, the Third Brother resumes his trek once more.

Soon, the Third Brother meets another charcoal-burner and invites the man to dine with him. The charcoal-burner offers the Third Brother a horn, explaining that once blown, the horn had the power to destroy walls and even whole fortresses. He asked the Third Brother if he’d consider a trade to which the Third Brother readily agrees. After the items are exchanged, the Third Brother departs. He, again, send his men to retrieve the tablecloth and having the tablecloth back in his possession, the Third Brother decides he can now go home.

His brothers had transformed their modest hovel into a palatial mansion with their wealth and since the Third Brother wore a shabby coat and the battered old hat,  and had the ratty knapsack on his back, he was unrecognizable to his brothers who laughed at him, “Our brother would be returning far more richer than we did, you can’t be him.” The Third Brother is then denied entrance and removed from their doorstep.

Enraged, the Third Brother strikes the knapsack over and over again until he has summoned a 150 men, all armed and all willing do follow his orders.

“Attack, all of you but two!” The Third Brother demanded, and then pointed to two men nearest him. “You two, fetch hazel switches to beat my brothers with until they remember me.”

A king and his company were riding by and halted their procession, wondering what the reason was behind the battle. The interruption further fans the Third Brother’s fury and he summons more men, amassing a great army and orders them to attack the king. Overwhelmed, the king meets with the Third Brother and a deal is struck. The king’s daughter in marriage and the Third Brother would cease his onslaught.

The princess, disliking her husband from the start, begins to plot his downfall and notices that he is never without his knapsack. She transforms herself into the embodiment of a charming and loving wife until she is able to, one day, coax him into showing her the bag’s secret. She waits until the right moment and steals the knapsack. The princess strikes the knapsack and sends forth an army of men to seize him and bring him to before her father. The Third Brother would have met his end at this point, no doubt, but he still retained the hat and he used it. The Third Brother tugged on the brim of the hat once he was able to get his hands free and cannon fire rained down, destroying whatever it struck. He did not halt until the princess came to him begging that he stop, promising to behave better.

The Third Brother accepted the princess back, having made peace with her and for a time, the princess it the perfect wife. She was kind and loving and the Third Brother grew to trust her, confiding in her the powers of the hat. She waited until he slept and stole the hat, having him driven out of their home and into the streets but she did not know of the horn’s properties. The Third Brother brought the horn to his lips and blew a great breath into it, toppling the walls and the castle until it was only rubble and had buried the princess and the king. If he hadn’t halted when he did, he would have destroyed the homes and buildings of the village, leaving nothing standing. The Third Brother then made himself king of the whole country and no one wanted to contest his decision, having witnessed what he was capable of.

Even though the Third Brother became king, is he really better off than his brothers? I can’t help but think that maybe he should have just taken the gold and gone home. He would have saved himself a whole lot of trouble and heartache.

Note: I did not find the Third Brother a very sympathetic character and indeed, there are some “heroes” that are hard to like (as can be found in “The Jew Among Thorns” and “King Thrushbeard”).  They crop up here and there, but I am not discussing virtues in this part, only magical items and their use. There are many more stories that feature a magical item in the telling. The ones eluded to in the beginning of this part were: “The Wonderful Glass”, “Sweet Porridge”, and “The Jew Among Thorns”.