I woke yesterday morning and found all the trees silvered and gleaming with ice against a luminous grey sky. It struck me like a glimpse into the realm of Faërie.
I gazed and marveled and pondered. I think there’s something true about my waking instinct. Where I live, ice storms are unusual. And where I was born and raised, it was a foreign term; I’m not sure I ever encountered one growing up.
To see every tree and bush, every limb and twig limned with translucent silver is magical. It is strange, and beautiful, and rather perilous. And there lies its kinship with the Faërie realm, which can be all those things.
As the morning warmed, pearls of ice dropped from the trees. Then sprays of pearls showered down, and finally the trees shed melting ice in their own rain.
Now our neighborhood is returned to its more earthly form.
I’m left to ponder. The sense that lingers with me is this: what if Faërie is an alternate world, and in rare, near-miraculous moments, what we glimpse is not a view into that world, but rather where that world emerges and merges with our own.
May you enjoy a sojourn into Faërie with a good tale today.
Two days ago, February 26th, was National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. I am a long-time lover of fairy tales, and I’ve blogged in honor of this daytwice before. Over the years, I’ve collected a good shelf’s worth of fairy tales,* and I’ve been reading a lot of them lately. One of my favorites is World Tales, in which Idries Shah has collected tales that have been told in many different cultures around the world, with striking parallels. Did you know there are over 300 known variations of Cinderella? I think my favorite is the one in this book, “The Algonquin Cinderella.” As in the well-known tale, the heroine, marred by cinders, suffers from the cruelty of two sisters. But the result of her goodness is much greater than simply marrying a charming prince. Because she can perceive wonders, she becomes the bride of the beautiful and powerful Invisible One.
Reading in my own fairy tale collections over the years, I’ve often felt a shiver of recognition while reading a tale, an echo that this tale reverberates in some other land, some other time. One is the story of “Catherine and Her Fate.” Catherine is given a fateful choice by her Destiny in bothWorld Tales and The Pink Fairy Book(edited by Andrew Lang): she can be happy in her youth or in her old age, but she must choose which.
The shiver of recognition became a thrill of pleasure when I realized some of my favorite stories have been told in many places over many centuries. One is “Mastermaid,” which I found both in World Tales and Tatterhood (edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps). A good-hearted but rather bumbling young prince is saved from his dangerous naïveté by Maj the Mastermaid. When he forgets her wise advice, they both have trials to go through.
Another tale I love goes by many names and the heroine has many faces: “Clever Manka” inTatterhood, “The Maiden Wiser than a Tsar” in World Tales, and “The Innkeeper’s Wise Daughter” in Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters (edited by Kathleen Ragan). The young woman’s wit and wisdom not only saves her father (sometimes his very life), but restores harmony, love and respect to her marriage.
I was excited to stumble upon a much-loved tale twice in my recent reading. It is known as “The Tsaritsa Harpist” in Fearless Girls, and “The Lute Player” in both Tatterhood and The Violet Fairy Book(edited by Andrew Lang). A brave lady seeks to ransom her beloved husband by becoming a wandering minstrel. I feel I have also encountered this as an ancient ballad. This tale echoed in my mind for so long, it turned into a song which came out in a novel I’ve written, where it takes on the yearning for homecoming after long journeys.
These are excellent collections of fairy tales and I deeply enjoyed reading them. But for some stories I have wanted to write a different ending. Like the kind Fisherman who saves the life of a magical, wish-granting flounder, and whose wife demands ever more grandiose and outrageous things. When the wife orders her long-suffering husband to tell the flounder she wants to be Ruler of the Universe, I dearly want the fisherman to say, “No, Wife – I’m done. You tell him if you dare!” In my mind, when the wife gets her comeuppance (very merciful in the old story, I think), the fisherman returns to the humble life he loves, blessed with abundant catches.
And then there is “Kari Woodengown.” Of all the fairy tales I’ve read and heard, I’ve only encountered this one in Tales from the Red Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang.
Kari endures some of the troubles of Cinderella, with absent or dead parents and unkind stepmother and stepsister. But Kari befriends a great blue bull, and they face and overcome hardships together as they flee her cruel stepfamily. I have a faint memory-impression that I was charmed by this story when I read it decades ago as a kid. No doubt that was partly because of the wise and powerful talking bull. But this time I was not charmed. When I reached the end, I was so indignant, it spurred me to actually write my own retelling. But that’s a tale for another day.
Speaking of retelling…folk tales are closely intertwined with fairy tales, sometimes only lacking outright magic. For a fine retelling of the Stone Soup folktale, have a look at VT Dorchester’s “Horseshoe Nail Stew” in Frontier Tales. I may be a bit biased, but I think there may be some quiet magic worked in the hearts of some of the story’s people by the end.
*In case it’s not always evident, all books pictured are my own well-worn copies. My copy of Tatterhood is lacking its dust cover so I’m showing the title page.
What do you call a unicorn with wings? The Oxford English Dictionary blog once posed that question. As a word nerd with a passion for mythical beasts, that fired my interest! The blog, sadly, was taken down, but it gave several possible answers. Since that venerable and wide-reaching source gave no one definitive answer, I have to conclude there isn’t one.
A search of the web similarly brings up lots of possibilities, including pegacorn, unipeg, unisus and other portmanteau combinations of unicorn and pegasus. I have to say to my eye and ear these seem rather inelegant and clunky, conjuring up images of flying pigs and peg-legged unicorns. Cerapter is a clever alternative, from the ancient Greek keras for horn and pteros for wing.* To me it has a sort of dinosaurian flavor, though.
He traces Alicorn back to 14th century Italian and later Arabic; he uses the term to mean the horn of a unicorn,** a most precious, almost sacred object. It was the sovereign antidote to all poison, and it could heal the sick, even of the dreaded Plague.
In the dark corner of a museum, I once had the privilege of seeing an Alicorn. Well, at least its mortal cousin.
This is the skull of a narwhal, found in a whaling museum. I’d never seen one before, though I’d read about them. It gave me a shiver of pleased recognition to lay eyes on it.
Alicorn is a word of both elegance and substance to my mind. But since it already refers to something other than a winged unicorn (or horned pegasus), I’d suggest a slight variation. My proposal: alacorn, from the Latin āla for wing and cornū for horn. (Like cerapter, only without connotations of velociraptors and pterodactyls.)
Now for a somewhat related question: what do you call a sea-going unicorn?
It is called a Hippicorn, and since that name was given by its creator, there can be no more fitting title. Hippicorn is a doubly hybrid word, a portmanteau of hippocampus (from Greek roots) and unicorn (from Latin). More on that later.
Some might wonder what a hippocampus is.*** I’m so glad you asked! (Pretend you did, even if you didn’t.)
A hippocampus is a mythic seahorse, the equine equivalent of a mermaid. Sometimes it has a dolphin-like tail, sometimes a fishy one. Here’s a fine one found on Cape Cod. It seems to have a fondness for jewelry and scarves.
The name is from ancient Greek, hippos for horse, kampos for sea monster. It is, I think, a close cousin to the campchurch, which is another kind of sea-going unicorn, but rather different from Sarah Minkiewicz’s wild hippicorn. It has no tail, but webbed hind feet. Here it is where I first encountered it in one of my favorite childhood books.
Here the marine cousins are together:
And here is another close relative, found in the same whaling museum as the alicorn, carved out of whale ivory.
Because I am a word nerd, I wondered where the “church” in campchurch came from. Webster’s Unabridged dictionary was, alas, no help. Even the massive Oxford English Dictionary was silent on the matter. Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon of Ancient Greek vouched for the antiquity of hippocampus, but had no trace of campchurch.
An online search brings up a lot of opportunities for worship while camping, but very little about sea-unicorns. I found one woodcut image of a campchurch from 1575 – walking flat-footed on dry land!
Could the “church” of campchurch have come from the modern meaning of house of worship? It seemed unlikely, but Webster’s and the OED do agree that “church” is derived from the ancient Greek kyriakon, and ultimately kyrios, lord and kyros, supreme power. Could campchurch mean something like the lord of sea monsters? I’m left to wonder…But Sarah’s hippicorn is certainly a lordly beast!
I also wonder what else might one call a horned hippocampus or marine unicorn? What about mericorn? (I think I kind of like that).
The truth is, if I should ever be so fortunate as to see any of these mythical beasts, I’m certain I’d be unable to call them anything at all, being struck dumb with awe and wonder!
If you, too, like mythical beasts – one of these creatures lurks in the pages of Running Wild Anthology of Stories V. 3! I won’t tell you which one, but the title gives a clue. Why not go explore? You’ll find several supernatural creatures hiding among those excellent stories.
Check back in a couple of weeks for another interview with one of my anthology colleagues!
Yesterday was National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. This holiday is new to me, but it’s already dear to my heart. Fairy tales are something I have an abiding love for. Like many, (I hope), I have treasured memories of being read fairy tales, in my case by my mom. I never grew out of my love for them.
For most of their previous history, fairy tales were not intended primarily for children, nor should they be now, as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” The essay appears in the collection of his work Tales from the Perilous Realm and is brilliantly discussed by Maria Popova in Brainpickings
Tolkien says “ … only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them [fairy stories]; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant. It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.”*
My taste for fairy tales has certainly only increased with age.
What is a fairy tale? This is how Tolkien defines it: “A “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic — but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.”*
While volunteering in my local library, I recently discovered a marvelous book. In the most literal meaning – it is a book of marvels: PROUD KNIGHT, FAIRY LADY The Twelve Lays of Marie de France.
Marie de France was a mysterious woman of whom very little is known. (I learned of her first from this book.) She was the first known woman poet of France, was versed in several languages, and wrote in Anglo-Norman. She artfully crafted the lays (or ballads) sung by Breton minstrels into written poetry (translated by Naomi Lewis into English prose). Marie wrote in the late 1100s, but often said that the tales came from long ago. That in itself is to me a marvel – how ancient these stories must be! What’s more, she frequently writes that the stories were not merely legends, but true. “This tale comes from a very old Breton lay,” Marie says; “these are the true facts, I understand, and you must believe them, for strange things happened long ago.”**
Though I stumbled upon this book in the children’s section, none of these are child-oriented stories; they deal with adult or ageless themes and occurrences.
These are tales of courtly love and chivalry, and magic often imbues them. A white doe curses the hunter who wounded her to suffer a wound that nothing can cure, until a woman suffers for love of him, and he for her. A mysterious and richly furnished ship sails itself, carrying its occupant to an unknown land, and then, when he is in need, back home. A werewolf, noble as both man and wolf, takes rightful vengeance on the wife who betrayed him. A hawk turns into a noble knight to bring love to a captive woman. Lovers appear from unknown realms at the wish of their beloveds. A lady of magic and power saves a knight from disgrace and banishment merely by her presence.
Some of the most marvelous reversals in these lays are worked not by magic but by love, compassion, and forgiveness. A husband finds that his wife has deceived him and spirited away a child he never knew he had; he responds not with anger, but with joy to find he has a second daughter. A wife discovers that her husband is grief-stricken over the death of his lover; through compassion and quick wit she revives the girl with a magic flower.
Marie’s voice carries through these tales with warmth and humor. It is as if she speaks across the centuries to any reader fortunate enough, as I was, to stumble upon this book of marvels.
Readers, do you have a taste for fairy tales? Do you have favorites?
* (Tolkien quotes extracted from Brainpickings as I do not yet have my own copy of this book. An error I must soon correct!)
** (from Naomi Lewis’ translation in PROUD KNIGHT, FAIR LADY)