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Monday, March 21, 2011

The Avenging Angels, a Fairy Tale from the Gesta Romanorum


Hermann Hesse Selects Fairy Tales from the Gesta Romanorum: 

Of Satan’s Wickedness and How God’s Judgment Often Remains Hidden

In ancient times a hermit, who piously served God day and night, lived in his cave. Now it happened that a shepherd was tending his flock next to this hermit’s cell. One day while the shepherd was overcome by sleep, a robber came and drove off his sheep. When the owner of the sheep returned, he asked the shepherd where his sheep had gone. The shepherd admitted he had indeed lost the animals, but he wasn’t quite sure how it had happened. When the owner heard this, he fell into a rage and killed the shepherd. When the hermit saw this, he said to himself: “See, dear God, how the owner has accused and killed an innocent man?  Because you allow things like this to happen, I will return to the world and live like other men.”

After having these thoughts, he left his hermitage and went out into the world. But God did not want to ruin him, so He sent an angel in human shape to be his companion. When the angel met the hermit on the road, he said to him “My dear man, where are you going?” The hermit replied :”I am going to the city that lies before me.” The angel said to him: “I will be your companion on the journey, for I am an angel of God and have come to you so that we can walk together on this path." Together they made their way to the city.

But when they entered it, they asked a knight to provide shelter in the name of God. The knight received them cordially and humbly gave them food and drink, all the finest he had to offer. This knight had an only child, whom he loved dearly and the boy lay in his cradle. At night after they had eaten the evening meal, the sleeping chamber was opened and proper beds were prepared for the angel and the hermit. At midnight the angel got up and strangled the child in his crib. When the hermit saw this, he thought to himself: “This is not an angel of God. This brave soldier has satisfied our every need and has stilled our thirst. He had nothing except his innocent little son. And he killed this small babe.” But the hermit did not dare say anything.

In the morning, they both rose early and made their way to another city, where they were honorably received in the house of a burgher.  This burgher had a golden cup, which he valued and of which he was very proud. At midnight the angel got up and stole the cup. When the hermit saw this, he thought: “I believe this is an evil angel; that burgher only did good things for us, and in return he stole his cup.” But the hermit said nothing, because he was frightened of the angel.

Early in the morning they got up and went their way, until they came to a river, over which a bridge was spanned. When they stepped upon the bridge, they met a poor man. The angel spoke to him: “My dear fellow show me the way to the city,” The poor man turned around and pointed in the same direction. But when he had turned around the angel grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him off the bridge, so that the poor man soon vanished beneath the waves. When the hermit saw this, he said to himself: “Now I know this is the devil, not a good angel of God.”  What evil had the poor man done, and still the angel killed him! He now mulled over how he could be rid of him. But because he was frightened, he said nothing. When they arrived in the city in the evening hour, they entered the house of a rich man and asked him for a night’s lodgings in the name of God. But the rich man refused. The angel then spoke to the man:

“In the name of God, let us sleep below the roof of your house, so that wolves or other wild animals do not eat us!” But the man replied: “See, here is the stall where my pigs reside. If you desire it, you can sleep with them. But leave me; I shall not give you another place to sleep.” The angel replied: “Because we cannot find anything better, we shall sleep with the pigs;” and so it happened.

Early in the morning when they got up, the angel called to the innkeeper and said: “My dear man, here I give you a cup,” and with these words he gave the man the cup he had stolen before. When the hermit saw this he said to himself: “Now I know with certainty that he is the devil. It was a good man who received us humbly and from whom he stole that cup. Now he has given it to that rogue, who didn’t even give us a room for sleeping.” And so he said to the angel: “I don’t want to consort with you any more. I commend you to God.”
The angel replied: “Listen to me and then you may go on your way. When you lived in your hermitage, you witnessed how the owner of the sheep slew his shepherd. Certainly the shepherd did not deserve death, because another man had performed the crime. He should not have died. But God allowed him to be killed and through this punishment he avoided eternal death. He had committed a sin before, for which he never did penance. The robber, who escaped with all the sheep, will suffer eternal agony and the owner of the sheep, who killed the shepherd, shall repent for what he has done unwittingly, by richly donating alms and performing acts of kindness. Afterward, I strangled the son of the knight who had given us good lodgings. But you should know that before the child was born, this knight was the best alms-giver and performed many deeds of charity. But since the child’s birth, he has become frugal and stingy. He collects and hoards everything to make the boy rich. This child is the cause of his ruin and that is why I killed the babe. The man has become what he was before, namely a good Christian. Then I stole the cup from the man who received us so humbly. But you should know that before his cup was finished, no man walked the earth, who was more sober. But since he has been in possession of the cup, he is so happy to own it, that he drinks the entire day from it and is inebriated two or three times a day. That is why I stole his cup and now he is as sober as before. Then I pushed the poor man into the water. Know that the poor man was a good Christian. But if he had continued only a short way, he would have committed the mortal sin of murder. Now he is saved and sits near God’s throne in heaven. Finally, I gave the cup to the man, who denied us hospitality. You should know that nothing happens on earth without a reason. He only offered us accommodations with his pigs, and that is why I gave him the cup, and when he dies, he will sit in hell. In the future bridle your mouth and do not complain to God, because He knows everything.”
When the hermit heard these words, he fell down at the feet of the angel and begged for forgiveness. He then returned to his hermitage and became a good Christian.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hermann Hesse Picks Fairy Tales: the Memento of Mortality

(Click on picture to enlarge.)
In the next few weeks, the FairyTaleChannel will highlight several fairy tales and legends of the GESTA ROMANORUM or The Acts of the Romans

The following text is based on Hermann Hesse’s preface to these fairy tales, originally published by Insel Verlag.  Here is what Hesse has to say about these tales:

The Gesta Romanorum are a collection of stories, legends and anecdotes that were popular in the late Middle Ages. It is assumed that priests or clergy added the strong moral overtones to these tales, which were esteemed both as entertainment and edification by medieval readers. As the title suggests, all of these stories were originally taken from Roman history and saga, and over time a number of legends of the saints were added.

The author-or compiler - of this strange but influential book is unknown. It is rare to have such an important work of ancient literature, which has been so intensively studied, but about which surprisingly little is known. Here is not the place to offer conjecture but rather to describe in few words what we actually know about the Gesta Romanorum.

The oldest handwritten copy of the Latin text Gesta Romanorum was published in England in the year 1342. From that time until the beginning of the 16th century numerous copies, usually in Latin, were in circulation. There were also several English and German translations or reformulations of the text. Often these reformulations contained new material whereas the translations into other languages were strict reproductions of the original Latin. Thus it is assumed that the Gesta were written in England or Germany some time after 1300. Nothing is known about the author, and only a few scholarly, unconvincing theories have been offered. All that we know for certain is that this book of moral anecdotes enjoyed enormous popularity especially in Germany, where it was copied many times over, reworked and reprinted. With the arrival of the Reformation, it gradually disappeared but a portion of its popular material was transferred into early versions of  German folktales. Starting in the mid-16th century if not earlier, the tales of the Gesta began to slip into obscurity.

[The version printed by Insel-Verlag/Germany*  and selected by Hermann Hesse was translated by Johan Georg Theodor Graesse and originally published in 1842. Hesse compared this 19th century translation to a German version from the 15th century, and found it was not a simple matter to take an archaic text and create a new and vibrant translation. He adds that the version presented by Graesse seemed extremely readable, true to the original and not without appeal.

(* and the basis of the English translations provided here.)]



Fairy Tale of the Memento of Mortality

A long time ago a certain prince took enormous pleasure in the hunt. But it happened that when he rode out one day, he met a merchant, quite by accident, on the same road. When the merchant caught sight of the prince and saw how handsome and pleasant it was to gaze upon him, his fine and expensive garments, he said to himself:
“Dear God, you must love this man dearly; look, how beautiful he is, lively and wonderful to watch! And see how everyone in his company is dressed so decently.” As soon as he thought these thoughts, he spoke to one of the servants of the prince: “Tell me, dear man. Who is your master?” The servant replied: “He is master of many lands and indeed mighty because of his riches in gold, silver and servants.”
The merchant now spoke: “God must hold this man very dearly in his heart, because he is the most handsome and most wise man of all. I have never before laid eyes on such a man!” When the servant heard this, he secretly told every word the merchant had uttered to his master. When the prince now returned toward evening time to his home, he invited the merchant to overnight with him. The man did not think it proper to object, instead, he made his way with the prince toward his kingdom.
When he had entered the castle, the merchant viewed so many chambers beautifully adorned with gold and so many riches that he soon became spell-bound. When the hour of dinner approached, the prince called the merchant to table and offered the seat next to his wife. When the merchant saw this beautiful and dear lady, it unsettled him. He admitted to himself: “O my God, this prince has everything that his heart desires: a beautiful wife and daughter, sons and servants, and more than too many.” As he was mulling it over, food was brought to him and the queen. But look, the most delicious delicacies were served on a skull and placed before the lady. And the assembled were attended to in the great hall and many silver platters were carried by the servants.
When the merchant now saw the skull placed before him, he said to himself: “Woe is me. I fear I shall pay with my life here.”
The lady calmed him as well she could. When night came they led him to a well-appointed chamber, where he found a bed made, around which curtains had been hung. In one corner of the room was a large candalabra. When he lay down in bed, the servants closed the doors and the merchant was alone in the room and gazed upon the corner of the room, where a little light twinkled. There he saw two dead men, hanging by their arms. When he saw them, he was gripped by an unbearable fear, so that he could not sleep. In the morning he got up early and said: “Woe is me! I fear I shall also hang next to the others this day.” When the prince rose, he called the merchant to him and said: “My dear man, how do you like it here?” The merchant replied: “I like everything except being served at table with food presented on a skull platter. I was seized by such incredible revulsion and loathing, I could not eat. And when I lay down in bed, I saw two youth hanging in the corner of the chamber, and was seized by such overwhelming fear, that I could not sleep. That is why, for God’s sake, you must please let me travel on!”
The prince replied: “My dear man, you saw my too beautiful wife and a skull before her. The reason is as follows: The man whose head was placed before you, was once a noble duke, who seduced my wife. When I found them together, I took my sword and chopped off his head. Now, as sign of her shame, I place his head before her every day so that she keeps the sin she has committed in her memory. Thereupon, the son of the murdered man killed two youth related to me, who are now hanging in the chamber. I visit their corpses every day so that I remember to take revenge. When I reflect on the faithlessness of my wife and the death of those youth, I can have no more happiness. My dear man, go in peace and do not judge the life of a man by outward appearances before you know the complete truth of his circumstances.” The merchant took leave from him and went on his way to transact his business.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Killing the Wild Man and Burying Demon Winter in Fairy Tales



In my last two blog posts I have tried to describe the connection between the folk customs of Shrovetide or Carnival and European fairy tales and saga.

Some of the very earliest historical references to dancing concern Shrovetide processions, where the dancers are described as wearing clothing “torn to bits”.   (See Remnants of Ancient Dance Found in Fairy Tales).

It is possible that this phrase was not pejorative in its original usage, but only a simple observation: the dancers wore torn clothing. Their garments might have become ripped as a result of their wild gesticulations or they may have purposely put on tattered clothing to give themselves a wild appearance, especially if the performers were taking on the role of wild man or wild woman (See Dark Nights of the Fairy Tale: the Wild Man and Wild Woman).  In European tales and saga the phrase “torn to bits” has survived, and is primarily used in conjunction with all manner of fairy tale dancers. In the versions of the tales we now have, the dancing has become something quite unnatural. (See The Farmers of Kolbeck Dance on Christmas Eve).

There are other references to ancient carnival traditions in fairy tales, but when taken out of their cultural context, they are difficult to recognize.  The wild man and wild woman, who first appeared at the end of November or beginning of December as wintry demons, are now ritually killed during the carnival celebration. This rite coincides with the first inklings of spring. But the first signs of springtime are usually observed on different days each year with broad regional variations. That is probably why the carnival tradition of killing the wild man could happen any time between February and April in the different areas of Europe. The first budding of a certain tree or the arrival of a migratory bird might have been the original trigger of the celebration.  In the 18th century in parts of Italy, France and Austria, a death certificate was even issued. Descriptions of these demonic beings abound in Grimm’s Saga,, but other references are also of interest. According to Grimm, these creatures are primarily characterized by their keen sense of smell enabling the wild man to sense the approach of human flesh.  These forest beings often cry “I smell the blood of man approaching!” or “The scent of human flesh is in the air!” We find this supernatural sense of smell  in fairy tales as disparate as the German Hansel and Gretel (the witch, Grimm), the English Jack in the Beanstalk (the giant) and the French Petit Poucet (the ogre, Perrault).

Another popular carnival character is the harlequin.  Said to be a black-faced emissary of the devil, and a frequent character in French passion plays, the harlequin was said to chase damned souls through the forest.  The harlequin is usually an athletic dancer and scholars have tied him to Woton (or Odin), also known as the Wild Huntsman. He is a popular character in many Grimm’s sagas, one example being The Wee Mossy Wife (Grimm’s Saga No. 47). There is also a harlequin-like Woton character in The Pied Piper of Hamelin (Grimm’s Saga 245) June 29, 2008, who wears the traditional parti-colored coat. The Pied Piper's Wotoness has been explored on this website in Reading the Pied Piper.

Further Links of Interest:
Killing the Straw Bear or Wild Man:

Killing Winter in Romania:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Carnival Celebrations in Fairy Tale Land: Death by Dancing or the Ship of Fools


(Click on picture to enlarge).

Carnival Celebrations in Fairy Tale Land: Death by Dancing or the Ship of Fools

In 1483 German chronicles of the city of Eger mention a “procession of plows” and “a ship of fools” that were part of the carnival celebrations that year.  But this was not the first time a “ship of fools” was mentioned rolling across the landscape.  In 1474 such a ship was reported to be part of the Shrove Tuesday traditions of a guild of cloth makers.  Further research by Jakob Grimm tied this “ship of fools” to the overland procession of a ship, first described by Monk Rudolf in his Chronicles of St. Trond in 1133. The priest frowned on this custom because he considered it a vestige of a pagan rite tied to the arrival of spring.  The custom involved a ship being placed on wheels and pulled through a number of villages in the Lower Rhine Valley, where the local population greeted the parade with music, loud cries and dancing. The fact that only cloth makers accompanied the ship and were the only ones allowed to touch it reflects how early such old cult traditions were transferred to handworker guilds. Monk Rudolf not only complained about the noise the villagers made when the ship passed by, but also about the groups of women, stripped bare or wearing only a shirt, mingling and dancing with the fools accompanying the ship. After dancing for some time, the monk witnessed things he felt were better forgotten in silence and anguish. These “ship of fools” parades were originally based on spring fertility rites and magic, even when the festivities later became more of a “game” celebrated by the guilds. These customs were ultimately incorporated in Sebastian Brant’s medieval text “Ship of Fools” (1494) which depicted  the ship as bringer of luck. This belief was popular from the 15th – 17th centuries and became part of the lively New Year’s celebrations of villagers, who saw the Christ Child as a bringer of gifts travelling on a ship of fortune. In 1530 such ship parades were prohibited during the carnival celebrations because they were associated with actions that were much too crude in the minds of missionary priests. Along with the abolishment of the Nuremburg Bearded Mask Runs and their enactments of “hell”, the ship of fools custom also ended abruptly (1539). Oddly this tradition was most popular in regions that did not lie close to any body of water.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Remnants of Ancient Dance Found in Fairy Tales


 Grotesque Masked Dancing during Carnival, "Morisken Type" or Morris Dancing,
characterized by finger snapping, black hoods, white shirts and bells attached to the legs.

Dancing as Cultural History: Remnants of Ancient Dance Found in Folk Tradition and Fairy Tales

Dancing, running and leaping are all part of carnival traditions in Europe. These wild pre-Lenten dances are sometimes referred to as “running” (German: “Laufen”) in the broadest sense of the term, for all types of movement are meant: running, hopping, jumping, racing, stamping/stomping and finally dancing. These dance moves are also called the “Shrove Tuesday Run”, the “Carnival Mask Run” or in some areas in Germany one even speaks of the “Perchta Run”.  Whoever has seen the wild racing, dancing and leaping as part of the carnival celebration in the Black Forest area of Germany (Elzacher Schuddig) can easily believe he has witnessed a remnant of one of the earliest forms of dance. Masked dancing and running are also found in many other places in Germany, the Swiss Alps and the Austrian mountain regions. In many parts of Swabia, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday is referred to as the “Gumpige” day (Jumping Day). In Allgaeu, Bavaria it is referred to as “Running Thursday” or “Raging Thursday”. It is also called “Fool’s Whit Thursday”. “Perchta Runners” in Austria also purportedly like to say “Wild Berta herself runs with us!” The oldest literary reference to such cult dancing was provided in the Indiculus Superstitionum et paganiarum from the 7th century. Here the pagan custom of running across fields in clothing “torn to bits” is condemned.  The idea of being possessed by a dancing frenzy that tears clothing and shoes to bits is found in many a fairy tale (Sweetheart Roland, The Shoes that were Danced to Bits).  In Sweetheart Roland dancing destroys more than shoes and clothing; the dancer herself is torn to bits by her uncontrolled movements.
The original beliefs associated with this wild dancing have survived to this day; namely, that the fertility of the fields could literally be “stomped” out of the earth. Forcefully stamping on the ground purportedly promoted plant growth. It was believed that flax, hemp and grain would grow faster and taller the higher the runners leaped and the more numerous their numbers.  It was commonly accepted that only wild persons danced, but those who converted to Christianity abandoned the practice.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dancing Mania or Fairy Tale of the Shoes that were Danced To Bits


 (Tomi Ungerer, The Joy of Dancing)

Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 133 The Shoes that were Danced to Bits

There once lived a king who had twelve daughters, each one more lovely than the next. They all slept together in one chamber, where their beds stood side-by-side. In the evening, when they lay there, the king locked and bolted the door.  But in the morning when he unlatched it, he saw that his daughters’ shoes had been danced to bits. And what is worse, no one was able to wheedle the truth out of the girls about how it happened. The king issued a proclamation. Whoever discovered where they danced at night would be granted the hand of one of his daughters in marriage.  And after his death that suitor would become the king. But if after three days and nights, the young man did not succeed, his life would end. It wasn’t long before a king’s son offered to take up the wager. He was well-received and at night was led to a room next to the sleeping chamber of the daughters. His bed was placed there and he was told to keep watch and find out where they went and danced. So that they could not sneak away without his knowledge, the door between the chambers was kept open. But the eyes of the king’s son soon fell shut like heavy lead and he fell into a deep slumber. In the morning when he awoke, all twelve had been out dancing and their shoes, standing beside each of their beds, had holes in the soles. The second and third nights were the same and so the young fellow paid with his head and there was no mercy.  After this many other gallants came forward to take up the wager. But they all paid for their daring with their lives.
Now it happened that a poor wounded soldier, who could no longer serve, found himself on the path to the kingdom. He encountered an old woman, who asked him where he wanted to go. “I don’t quite know, myself,” he replied and sighed deeply. “I would like to find out where the king’s daughters dance their shoes to bits, and afterward become king.” “That is not so difficult, the old woman said, “you must not drink the wine that is brought to you at night and must act as if you were fast asleep,” the old woman said. She then gave him a little coat and said “When you wear this coat you will be invisible and can creep after the twelve daughters.”
When the soldier had received the good advice, he was encouraged and took heart. He went before the king and declared himself a suitor. He was welcomed like the others and given princely garments to wear. At night when it was time for bed, he was led into the ante-chamber and when he wanted to go to bed, the oldest daughter came and brought him a cup of wine. He had a sponge fastened below his chin and let the wine gush into it and did not drink a single drop. Then he lay down and after a while, he began to snore as if he were fast asleep. The twelve king’s daughters heard him, laughed and the oldest said “He should have spared his own life.” After this they all got up, opened the cupboards, trunks and boxes and took out beautiful dresses. They brushed their hair before the mirror, jumped around and looked forward to the dance. Now the youngest said “I don’t know why you are so happy. I feel something strange. I am sure we shall experience misfortune.” “You are a silly snow-goose,” the oldest said, “one who always is fearful. Have you forgotten how many king’s sons have already been here? I didn’t even need to give the soldier a sleeping potion, the rascal won’t wake up.” When they were all ready, they looked in on the soldier, but he closed his eyes and did not move. They now thought they were quite safe. The oldest went to her bed, knocked on it and it immediately sank into the earth. They climbed through the opening, one after another, the oldest daughter in the lead.
The soldier had seen it all, did not hesitate but put on his little coat and climbed after the youngest daughter. In the middle of the stairs he stepped on her dress. She became startled and cried out “What is this? Who is holding me back by my dress?” “Don’t be so silly,” the oldest daughter replied, “You caught your dress on a hook.” They all descended and when they reached the bottom they stood in a wonderful arbor. All of the leaves were silver and they shimmered and sparkled. The soldier thought to himself: “You should take a sign with you,” and he broke off a branch. A loud crash was heard coming from the trees. The youngest cried out again “Something is not right. Did you hear the noise?” But the oldest daughter replied “Those are shots of joy, because we will soon redeem our prince.” They now came to an arbor, where all the leaves were gold. And finally to a third arbor, where the leaves were clear diamonds.  Each time the soldier broke off a branch, each time there was a loud sound so that the youngest daughter became terrified. But the oldest daughter insisted each time the noise was only a shot of joy. They continued on their way and came to an enormous body of water. There stood twelve little ships and in each ship sat a beautiful prince. They had been waiting for the twelve daughters and each prince now took one in his boat. The soldier sat in the boat with the youngest daughter.  The prince said “I don’t know why the ship is so much heavier and I have to row with all my strength if I want to move the boat.”
“How should that be,” the youngest daughter asked. On the opposite shore stood a brilliant castle, from which cheerful music could be heard with drums and trumpet call. They rowed across, entered and each prince danced with his dear one. The soldier was invisible and danced along, and when someone held up a cup with wine, he drank it until it was empty before the princess could hold it to her lips. The youngest daughter became terrified, but the oldest daughter urged her to be silent. They danced until three in the morning, when all their shoes were danced to bits and they had to stop. The princes took them back across the water and the soldier now took position in the lead boat, next to the oldest daughter. On shore they took leave from their princes and promised to come again the next night. When they arrived at the stairs the soldier ran up ahead and lay down in his bed. The twelve slowly climbed the stairs in exhaustion, but the soldier snored so loud that everyone could hear him. They thought to themselves “We are safe with him.” They took off their pretty clothes, put them away and placed the shoes danced to bits next to their beds. Then they all lay down. The next morning the soldier didn’t want to say anything, but returned to see the strange events the second and third nights. Everything was like before and they danced each time until their shoes were danced to bits. The third time, the soldier took a cup with him as sign. When the hour came and he was to answer, he took the three branches and the cup and went before the king. The twelve daughters stood behind the door and listened, what he would say? When the king asked the question “Where have my twelve daughters danced their shoes to bits during the night?” He replied “They were with twelve princes in a subterranean castle.” And he described what had happened. The king had his daughters called and asked them whether the soldier spoke the truth. They saw they had been found out and did not lie. Everyone admitted it. The king asked the soldier, which wife he wanted. He replied “I am no longer very young, so give me the oldest daughter.” They were married on the same day and he was promised the kingdom after the king’s death. But the princes were enchanted for the exact number of nights they had danced with the twelve princesses.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Alchemy of Love in Lohengrin



The Alchemy of Love 

 “An opera about an archetypal myth presented as a medieval fairy tale,” so describes William Berger the opera Lohengrin in his book Wagner without Fear.  I would prefer to say that both the opera and the German saga are most like a medieval romance. The story does not really fulfill the criteria of a fairy tale, as defined by Grimm, and that is why it is included in the German Saga collection (and not in the Grimm fairy tale collection).
Lohengrin is a hero knight with all the attributes found in medieval romance: his birth and origin are shrouded in mystery, his identity unknown, his actions have a redemptive quality, supernatural elements are employed to heighten plot development, and so on.  Unlike German fairy tales, this story has a psychological dimension that leaps to the fore. These characters are imbued with real emotion and inner life. And yet there is still a certain amount of fairy tale quirkiness. When Lohengrin must depart from his true love, Elsam, he presents her with a gift. It is a little finger, the very same that his mother had given him. No other explanation is provided and the reader is certainly not expecting a little finger as parting memento. Fairy tale meaning is often found in the minutiae. So how is the reader to understand this? In keeping with the religious undertones of the story, I can only imagine that the gift was a relic, or, within a pagan context, it might have been an amulet-bone or charm imparting protection to the owner. 

Jakob Grimm surmises that there were probably many early Frankish, Friesen and Saxon tales circulating in Germany about the swan knight. The details are mostly the same: a strange slumbering hero arrives in a boat pulled by a swan. This often occurs in a moment when the country (or  later, a maiden) is in dire distress. This otherworldly hero is divine, functioning both as a god and as a god-given-gift to mankind. In his role as warrior, he acts as the military leader of a nation. In his role as god, there are certain mysteries and taboos surrounding his earthly intercessions that mortals can’t fully appreciate.  In the earliest versions his real value for the community lay in his martial skills. But it was probably in the Middle Ages when the story mutated into a love story,  examining the nature of love, how one falls in love, its transitory qualities and its destruction by doubt and despair.  

In the opening scene of the saga, the fog separates and a knight emerges. The person he encounters is laden with anguish and overcome with Angst. In this story vulnerability or an altered state are prerequisites for experiencing true love. But once recognized, love has the miraculous power of transformation. Revelation comes like a bolt from the blue but is fleeting.  While the intensity of love is short-lived, its  memory can either sustain or destroy. In Lohengrin , the characters are profoundly altered by their encounter with the hero/god.

The Opera is now playing in Chicago at the Lyric Opera. Go see it if you can!
Also a very good read, especially if you have avoided opera up to now: Wagner without Fear by William Berger, Vintage Books/Random House

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Valentine's Day Fairy Tale




Happy Valentine’s Day! In keeping with the theme of love and courtship, this week FairyTaleChannel is highlighting the romance of the Swan Knight Lohengrin. There are endless ways to interpret this story, but pictures are often worth a thousand words.  Click on the link below to hear the Prelude to Lohengrin, conducted by Otto Klemperer and view many beautiful Pre-Raphaelite illustrations with the same theme. It sets a wistful but romantic tone for Valentine’s Day, which I hope you enjoy!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Grimm's Saga No. 542: Lohengrin at Brabant


 Image from the Bodleian Library, French ca. 1487

Grimm’s Saga No. 542: Lohengrin at Brabant

The Duke of Brabant and Limburg died without leaving any heir except for his young daughter Els or Elsam. On his death bed he commended the girl to one of his courtiers, Friedrich von TelramundFriedrich, who was otherwise a valorous man and had slain a dragon at Stockholm, Sweden, became overly-boisterous and wooed the young duchess under false pretenses. He declared that she had promised herself to him in marriage. Because she honorably denied this, Friedrich complained to the German Kaiser Henry the Fowler, who spoke the verdict: she would have to engage a hero to defend her honor in mortal combat. When no one could be found, the duchesses fervently called on God to save her.  Far away where the grail was kept at Mount Salvatsch, the toll of bells was heard signaling that someone was in dire need. The grail immediately commanded that the son of Parsifal, Lohengrin, would be sent out. When he was just about to place his foot in the stirrup, a swan came floating on the river pulling a ship behind. Lohengrin had barely set his eyes upon it when he called out: ”Bring my steed to manger brimming with clover. I will go out with this bird and follow wherever he leads me.” In complete trust of God, he did not take along any sustenance on the ship. After five days of traveling over the sea, the swan dipped its bill into the water and caught a small fish. He ate half and gave the other half to Lohengrin.

While this was transpiring, Elsam called her dukes and courtiers to a council in Antwerp. On the very day of the meeting, a swan could be seen swimming up the Schelde River pulling a little ship. In it lay Lohengrin, who lay prostrate sleeping on his shield. The swan soon landed on the strand and the young duke was received in joy. The people carried helmet, shield and sword from the ship and then the swan turned around immediately and swam away. Lohengrin now listened to the injustice the young duchess had been forced to bear. He undertook the mission gladly and would become Elsam’s defender. When Elsam heard all this, she called all her relatives and subjects, who readied themselves in large numbers. Even King Gotthart, her grandfather on her mother’s side, came from England through Gundemar, called by the Abbot of Clarbrunn. The procession made its way until meeting and congregating in Mainz. Kaiser Heinrich who was residing in Frankfurt, arrived in Mainz, and in this city his throne was erected, where Lohengrin and Friedrich were to wage battle.  The Grail Hero was triumphant; Friedrich relented and confessed he had lied to the duchess. He was executed by hammer and axe. Elsam now became Lohengrin’s prize and they loved each other dearly. But he secretly stipulated that her mouth should avoid all questions about his origin; otherwise he would leave her in that very moment. 

For a time the married couple lived in undisturbed bliss and Lohengrin ruled the country wisely and mightily. He also served the Kaiser on his crusades against the Huns and heathens. But it happened that while engaging in spear throwing with the Duke of Kleve, the spear pierced the Duke’s arm and shattered it. The Duchess of Kleve now complained jealously to her ladies in waiting “Lohengrin may be bold, and he appears to have adopted the Christian faith; but it’s a shame that his fame is small; because no one knows which land he swam up from!” These words penetrated the heart of the Duchess of Brabant, she blushed and then became pale. At night in bed when her husband held her in his arms, she cried. He said “Dear, what ails you?” She replied “The Kleve Duchess has forced me to these sighs of despair.” But Lohengrin was silent and did not inquire further. The second night she cried once more; he noticed and quieted her again. Only on the third night, Elsam could no longer hold her tongue and said: “My liege, do not scorn me! I would like to know your origin, from whom you were born; my heart says you are of noble birth.” As dawn was breaking, Lohengrin declared openly from where he came. Parsifal was his father and God had sent him from the Grail. He had his two children brought before him, kissed them and commanded that they guard well his horn and sword. To his wife he left the little finger that his mother had once given him. Now his friend the swan hastened toward him pulling the ship. The young duke boarded and sailed against the current and returned to the grail. Elsam sank to the floor unconscious. Her teeth were clenched so tightly they had to be opened with a wedge and water poured inside. The Kaiser and his kingdom accepted the orphan children. One was named Johan and the other Lohengrin. But the widow cried and complained her lifelong about her dear husband, who never returned.

TRANSLATION FairyTaleChannel.org

Friday, February 11, 2011

Becoming What You Are, an Egyptian Fairy Tale



The current events in Egypt make it seem only natural to turn to a fairy tale from that region of the world. Here is one from ancient Egypt, The Doomed Prince; it is a story that has fascinated listeners for over 3,000 years and influenced authors both ancient and modern. The theme is Becoming What You Are, a concern that has preoccupied many a fairy tale character  and one that is no less intriguing today.
Read the brief introduction below and then the full text of the Doomed Prince by clicking on the links.

In the fairy tale The Doomed Prince we meet a prince whose fate it is to die at a young age. As he grows, he longs to become independent but those closest to him are seized by a fearful sort of love, one that understandably desires to preserve his life as long as possible. But the prince is fascinated with the world and embraces life by acquiring a dog as faithful companion and then embarking on adventures. Finally he rebukes his father’s protectiveness and in complete acceptance of his doom he asserts “Because I am destined to have a sad fate, I should be allowed to act according to my own wishes. God will in the end do what He desires.” And so we watch him pass through the various stages of his life, his body grows older but he never really reaches full maturity. In the narrative he is usually referred to as a youth and his wife is always a girl.

It is perhaps not astonishing that such a doomed person would seek a rapid ascent in life and winning a flying competition is an apt metaphor for this yearning. The image of a throng of flying children being led by a boy who will never grow up is particularly poignant and a theme we find again in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. This story also shares the motif of the crocodile, representing an ever-present and looming fate that casts long shadows. Whether or not Barrie was inspired in any way by this fairy tale when he wrote Peter Pan is unknown (to me). Based on the dates the source text became known to the public (Papyrus Harris 500) it is entirely possible.


At the end of the tale we see the prince bravely meeting his destiny. From the sad circumstances of his existence, he has created a meaningful life. He has acquired certain virtues including courage and loyalty, he has forged loving relationships, he lives life without fear and has the freedom to make choices. He has followed the maxim of the Greek poet Pindar who wrote “Become what you are” (and love your fate). Embrace what is unique to you and live life to its fullest.



Translation Copyright FairyTaleChannel.org
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Thursday, February 10, 2011

For Valentine's Day: Love and Marriage Celebrated in Fairy Tales (and Movies)


 A Fairy Tale Courtship

Reading the Fairy Tale Sweetheart Roland
True Love Enkindled 

Even the title of the fairy tale, Sweetheart Roland, suggests a romantic love story. But the themes of courtship and marriage are often grim and violent events in fairy tales and this story does not disappoint. Before Roland the Sweetheart is even introduced, a mother mistakenly chops off the head of her only child and we see a girl lying in a pool of blood, all because of apron-envy.  This story suggests that on the road to marital bliss, one must always remember the primary obstacles to happiness; in the opening scenes of this tale, jealousy is the hurdle.  Survival (let alone happiness) depends on overcoming this destructive, obsessive, and deadly force.  But the primary theme of this story, I think, is not human survival, but the survival and endurance of love. This tale describes the vicissitudes and trials encountered when pledging one’s self to a sweetheart. 

Besides encountering surprising amounts of blood and gore in the opening sentences, one of the first oddities in the narrative is that the precise hands of the stepmother are described when she chops off the head of her daughter. She holds the axe in her right hand while groping with her left. This level of detail in oral narrative is striking. Why not just say she held the axe in her hands, or she simply chopped? This type of right hand versus left hand distinction is also encountered in Rapunzel, when the powerful sorceress cuts off the girl’s hair. Rapunzel is a similar story describing the hazards of negotiating a successful marriage, but at its heart this story focuses on the violation of marriage taboos. It would be interesting to track down this right-hand versus left-hand motif in other stories to determine if it really alludes to some obscure marriage rite or only pops up when a taboo is broken (or when it pops up at all).

But back to Sweetheart Roland. Most of the courtship or wooing in this tale takes place when the two protagonists are on the run.  They undergo a process of transformation, assuming forms that are interdependent yet mutually advantageous for surviving the wrath of a treacherous world (here: an evil stepmother).  In both instances Roland functions as the protector, in his guise as the sea and in his role as the fiddle player. The maiden is the quick-thinker, nimbly designing and adapting the forms of escape.  Marriage requires a versatile skill set, including adaptability, quick thinking, persistence and constancy. This last virtue is poignantly alluded to when the maid assumes the shape of a granite field stone, waiting patiently for her lover to return. Love is a rocky road, as this fairy tale underscores. Even abandonment must be endured with good cheer and patience. Forget the seventies adage “love means never having to say sorry”. In this fairy tale “love means always loving”. It weathers hardship like a stone, it prevails over disappointments. It survives, somehow.  

Contrast these ideas about love and partnership with modern notions, for example, the relationship at the center of the hit movie “No Strings Attached”.  It’s hard to imagine that the heroine in the movie has found the type of love that would keep on loving, over vast amounts of time or even geological time as alluded to in the fairy tale . For a a very funny review of the movie read the New Yorker article by David Denby http://www.newyorker.com/arts/reviews/film/no_strings_attached_reitman
But go see the movie and then remember Sweetheart Roland.
Which story do you prefer?


To read the fairy tale Sweetheart Roland:
http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2011/02/sweetheart-roland.html


Film versions of endless love:

No Strings Attached

Love Story 

Modern Versions of Courtship, Love and Marriage

FairyTaleChannel.com

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sweetheart Roland


 The Mysterious Power of Music 


Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 56:   Sweetheart Roland

There once lived a woman who was really a witch and she had two daughters. One was ugly and bad and the woman loved this daughter because it was her real daughter. The other girl was beautiful and good. This one she hated because she has her stepdaughter. At the time, the stepdaughter had a beautiful apron, which the other girl sorely wanted. She became envious and said to her mother that she desired it above all else and had to have the apron. “Quiet, my child,” replied the old woman, “you shall indeed have it. Your stepsister deserved to die a long time ago. Tonight, when she sleeps, I will come and chop off her head. Make sure that you lie on the far side of the bed and push her to the front.” Now it would have been over for the poor girl if she hadn’t been standing in the corner and heard everything. When it came time for bed, the first daughter had to get into bed first; but when she had fallen asleep the stepsister pushed the girl forward and took the place near the wall. At night the old woman came creeping into the room holding an axe in her right hand. With her left hand she felt the bed to see if anyone was lying in front. Then she seized the axe with both hands, and struck and chopped her own child’s head off.

When the woman had gone, the girl got up and went to her sweetheart, who was named Roland, and knocked on his door. When he came out she said to him “Listen, Sweetheart Roland. We must flee quickly. My stepmother wanted to strike me dead, but she killed her own child instead. When dawn breaks and she sees what she has down, all will be lost.”
“But I advise you to first take her magic wand away, otherwise we will not be able to save ourselves when she pursues us.” The girl fetched the magic wand and then took the severed head and scattered little droplets of blood, one on the earth in front of the bed, one in the kitchen and one on the stairs. Then she hastened away with her dear one.
In the morning when the old witch got up, she called to her daughter and wanted to give her the apron. But the girl did not come. Then she called out “Where are you?” “Here on the stairs, I am sweeping,” replied one of the blood droplets. The old woman went out and did not see anyone on the stairs and called out again “Where are you?” “Here in the kitchen, I am warming myself,” called the second droplet of blood. She went into the kitchen but did not find anyone. Then she called out again “Where are you?” “Oh, here in bed, I am sleeping,” the third blood droplet cried. She went into the chamber and to the bed. What did she see? Her own child lay there swimming in blood, the one whose head she had chopped off.
The witch fell into a frenzied rage and leaped to the window. She could peer out far into the world where she saw her stepdaughter with her Sweetheart Roland hastening away.  “That won’t help you,” she called after them. “Even if you are far away from me, you shall not escape.” The witch put on her magic mile boots, in which she could travel an hour’s distance in one step. It did not take long before she had caught up to them both. When the girl saw the old woman rushing toward her, she took the magic wand and transformed Dear Roland into a sea and she herself into a duck, which swam in the middle of the sea. The witch stood on shore and threw bread crumbs and tried as she would to lure the duck ashore. But the duck would not be lured and the old woman had to return home in the evening defeated.
The girl and her Sweetheart Roland then took on their human forms and hastened away . They fled the entire night until dawn broke. Then the girl changed into a beautiful flower in the middle of a thorn hedge but her Sweetheart Roland she changed into a fiddle player. It wasn’t long until the witch caught up to them and said to the fiddle player “Dear fiddler, may I break off this beautiful flower?” “Oh yes,” he replied “I will play while you do it.” In her haste the witch now crept through the hedgerow and wanted to break the flower because she knew who the flower really was. The fiddler began to play and whether she wanted to or not, the woman began dancing, she had to dance because it was a magic dance. The faster he played, the more violent the old woman was forced to jump. The thorns tore at her clothing and pierced her skin until bloodied and wounded, she fell to the ground dead.
Now the two were redeemed. Roland spoke “I will go to my father and prepare our wedding.” “I will stay here and wait for you,” the girl replied. “So that no one recognizes me, I shall turn myself into a red field stone.” Now Roland went out and the girl stood in the middle of the field as red stone and waited for her sweetheart. But when Roland returned home, he fell into the trap of another and he soon forgot the girl. The poor girl stood a long time, but when he did not return, she became sad and turned herself into a flower and thought that soon someone would come and trample her.
But it happened that a shepherd was watching his flock in the field and saw the flower. Because it was so beautiful, he broke off the stem, took it home and placed it in a box. From that time on wonderful things happened in the shepherd’s house. When he got up in the morning, all the work was already done; the rooms were swept, tables and benches cleaned, fire and stove were warm and water already carried. At noon when he returned home, the table was set and a good meal was presented. He could not understand how it happened because he never saw anyone in his house and no one could have hidden in such a small cabin. The good care was of course welcomed but finally he became unsettled by it. He went to a wise woman to seek council. The wise woman said “Magic must be behind it; tomorrow morning early, hold a watch and see if anything stirs in the chamber. When you see anything move, regardless of what it is, throw a white cloth over it, the magic will be over.” The shepherd did what she said and the next morning when day broke, he saw how the box opened and a flower emerged. Quickly he jumped toward it and threw a white cloth over it. The magic was now undone and a beautiful girl stood before him. She admitted that she had been the flower and had kept his household for him. She told him about her fate and because he liked her he asked whether she wanted to marry him. But she replied “No,” because she wanted her Sweetheart Roland, even though he had abandoned her. But she promised not to leave and would continue to keep house for him.
Now the time came that Roland’s wedding was to be held. According to ancient custom it was announced that all the young maids should gather at his house and sing to honor the wedding couple. When the faithful girl heard it, she was very sad and thought her heart would break in two. She didn’t want to go but the others came and took her with them. When the other girls turn came to sing, she stepped back, until only she was left. She could do nothing but had to sing. When she began her song and it reached Roland’s ears, he jumped up and cried “That voice I know. That is the rightful bride. I do not desire any other.” Everything that he had forgotten suddenly returned and filled his heart with joy. Now the true maid celebrated the wedding with her Dearest Roland. Her suffering was over and her joy now began.


To read more about the poignant tale of true love:

http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2011/02/for-valentines-day-love-and-marriage.html

And to read more fairy tales:

Translation FairyTaleChannel.com


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fairy Tale Resolutions for the New Year!


Overcoming Inner Demons


Fairy Tale Resolutions for the New Year!


January is the month of fresh starts and working on New Year’s resolutions. The January postings on this website feature fables by Aesop and Lafontaine in addition to a fairy tale by Grimm. They offer a springboard for reflection and self-improvement. These stories highlight human faults of various kinds, including perceived physical and spiritual defects. While reflecting a strong moral impulse, they are not too heavy-handed or moralizing. Change is practical, even ethical, they seem to say. Have you acted upon your own New Year’s resolutions this month? These tales might help:

A New Year’s Resolution based on this tale is easy to formulate but it might be more difficult to put into practice: To have more compassion toward others, and to develop a stronger feeling of responsibility for community and environment.

Possible New Year’s Resolution: To avoid self-defeating behavior in all its sinister forms, especially no more chewing on iron files!

It’s easy to agree with the sentiments of this fable: A small act of kindness is often received with enormous gratitude. However, we often perceive ourselves as the mouse in this tale, but our actions are more like the bumbling lion.
New Year’s Resolution: Don’t be a bumbling lion. Be kind to mice.

Lafontaine might actually have been making fun of noblemen at court with spindly legs, who thought a good calf was a reflection of virility.  New Year’s Resolution: Be good humored and don’t take yourself too seriously. The expression on the stag’s face speaks volumes. (Click on picture to enlarge.)