‘Tis the season for holiday puns, highly eccentric true loves and all the fairy tale birds you can handle. Probably more. This Fairy Tale Tuesday bumper edition takes on four Ruth Manning-Sanders retellings that feature birds of special significance, and the girls brave enough to follow where they fly. So put up your feet, or claws, or whatever, for a quadruple shot of feathery mayhem.
Story 1: The Princess and the Fire Bird
This Russian story, from A Book of Heroes and Heroines, begins with a rejoicing royal couple on the day of their only child’s christening. Instead of inviting fairies, who are notoriously touchy about these things, they’ve opted for wise men and prophets, and at first this policy seems to be working well. One by one the guests come up to greet the baby princess and foretell some aspect of her future; she will be loving and loved, she will be skilful, she will be virtuous. Then one old man picks her up and looks at her sadly. “Your majesties, you will not be able to keep this child. One day, though I cannot tell on what day, she will leave you and wander over the face of the earth.”
As dire predictions go, that’s not so awful, right? Travel does not necessarily mean personal disaster. The king and queen, however, are horrified, and react by constructing an underground palace in which to hide away their daughter. They even forbid that she learn geography. As she grows older, curious suitors come to her father’s palace and are politely turned away without ever meeting her, because the king doesn’t think any of them could be good enough to marry her. That’s not just overprotective, that’s smothering. And the princess, though she has never known anything different, is conscious of it. One day, when such a big crowd of suitors has shown up that the king is obliged to entertain them with a ball, she wakes up in her glorified bunker to the distant strains of bright music. All of her attendants have gone to take a peek at the party; she sees no reason why she shouldn’t do the same.
Emerging into the gardens is overwhelming enough. The sky seems vast, the stars innumerable. She’s not interested in the ball any more – the garden is far more interesting. Wandering through the flower beds, she comes to a glittering cage. Its occupant is an enormous bird with feathers of iridescent red and gold, fluttering wildly against the bars. “Princess Irena,” the Fire Bird calls, “let me out, let me out, let me out!” Irena, dazzled, does so. The bird hops out of the cage, settled his feathers, and instructs her to climb on his back. She is needed to free another prisoner.
One act of kindness is a rather different matter to flying off into the unknown. Irena hesitates, considering how upset her parents will be, but the Fire Bird assures her they’ll be home again in no time. “Don’t you want to see a bit of the world?” he asks slyly. The princess can’t resist the offer; she clambers onto the bird’s back and they soar across kingdoms until they come to a grand palace on the other side of the world. The Fire Bird dives through an open window into the bedroom where a prince lies sleeping. Irena is afraid they will wake him, but it turns out that’s exactly what the Fire Bird has in mind. Three years ago the prince refused to marry a witch’s daughter and was cursed to sleep until a girl who had never before seen the face of a young man consented to kiss him on the lips.
If there was a romantic vibe to any of this, the Fire Bird’s pushing that Irena deliver the kiss wrecks it. Doubtfully, she bends over the sleeping prince and kisses him. He smiles, but doesn’t wake. The Fire Bird isn’t put off. “Kiss him again,” he insists. That doesn’t work either. Talk about high maintenance; Sleeping Beauty only needed one kiss to snap out of her spell. Irena tries once more, and this time the prince not only wakes up, he throws his arms around her and calls her ‘darling’ an unnecessary number of times. It’s never a good sign when a prince calls you his bride before he asks your name.
Irena introduces herself, and explains she really has to go home. The prince isn’t pleased about that, but the Fire Bird backs her up like a good designated driver and grants them just one hour to get to know each other. Irena tells the prince about herself; the prince keeps interrupting her with kisses. When the hour is up, he promises to set out for her kingdom at once to ask for her hand in marriage.
Travel by Fire Bird is impossibly speedy; when Irena alights in her parents’ gardens, the party is still in full swing, and she manages to get back to bed without anyone realising she was gone at all. Well, until the prince catches up to make his proposal, that is. Her parents are upset but let her go with grace, an agreement made easier by the Fire Bird’s offer of two-way transportation. He becomes so indispensable to both sets of royals that he ends up making a nest on his erstwhile captor’s roof, meeting a female Fire Bird and raising a family of his own.
Story 2: The Green Bird
This tale is Sicilian, taken from A Book of Ogres and Trolls. The princess Marvizia is in possession of an uncommon rose tree – it flowers only once every year, and the taste of that one rose hip is ‘sweeter than honey…headier than wine’. So one year, when a gleaming green bird swoops by to steal the precious morsel, you might expect Marvizia to be furious. Instead, she transfers her longing to the bird. Her attempt to catch it is unsuccessful and it seems she will have to wait a whole year for another chance, but fate takes her side. For the first time ever, the rose tree produces a second flower.
Marvizia has a bird catcher set a snare, failing to take into account that this is no ordinary bird. It spots the trap straight away, cries out an alarmingly coherent remonstrance, and flies away. Marvizia is heartbroken. She wails so often about her Green Bird that her father impulsively snaps that she should go look for it. Marvizia takes him at his word. Dressing herself as a pilgrim, she sets off on a self-appointed quest to find the Green Bird.
She travels for some time without hearing any news of her quarry. At length she comes across a hermit who saw the Green Bird pass only hours before. He also presses a piece of wax on her, insisting it may come in handy some day, though he doesn’t explain how. Marvizia politely accepts it and returns to her quest.
By nightfall she has reached a city where the palace is shrouded in mourning. The queen is grieving for her lost son, and is rather vulnerable to a pretty young face right now. She takes so much to Marvizia that she not only offers a night’s extremely comfortable lodging, she takes her down to the treasury in the morning and offers her whatever jewel catches her fancy. Of course, Marvizia hits upon the one thing the queen doesn’t want to give away; a diamond ring that belonged to her son. Marvizia, possessed by another fit of unstoppable determination, pleads her case with such charm that she is loaned the ring, and continues on her way.
At length, she finds herself in barren country. The only structure in sight is a castle at the top of a steep hill, and even her determination is shaken when the door is answered by a giant, who tells her to run or the resident ogress will eat her. Marvizia’s arrival is ill-timed; the ogress appears behind her before she can flee. Delighted at the sight of dinner on the doorstep, she instructs the giant Ali to cook Marvizia on the spot, but Ali distracts her by rattling off the night’s menu and does the same thing at breakfast the next morning. He advises she apply the time-honoured witch strategy of feeding up the intended victim and making them useful in the meantime.
The ogress is sceptical. She gives Marvizia a task to prove her worth – she must clean all the ogress’s copper pots by nightfall, or be cooked in one. With that, the ogress departs, and Marvizia is left to restore a collection of copper pots, each green with mould and larger than she is. About to burst into tears, she happens to look out the window, and there is the Green Bird she came all this way to find, perched nonchalantly on a myrtle bush. At her exclamations, Ali offers to go out and ask the bird for advice.
This is not as bizarre as it sounds; actually, it is, but it works. The Green Bird suggests Marvizia throw the hermit’s wax in the fire, and when she does, a crowd of giants armed with cleaning supplies emerge from the flames to do the task for her. I could use some of that wax! Once all the pots are shining with elbow grease, the giants simply stand there, filling up the kitchen and making Marvizia feel uncomfortable. Ali goes out to get more advice from Marvizia’s bird, and returns with the directive to throw water on the fire. It goes out, and the giants disappear.
The ogress, who wanted an excuse to eat her prisoner, is very displeased to find the job performed with such dedication. She takes a petty revenge by giving Marvizia a lump of raw meat to eat, but she needn’t have made the effort; Marvizia has the sight of the Green Bird dancing and singing outside to cheer her up, and Ali sneaks down with some apples and bread. The ogress is outnumbered.
She’s also clever enough to know she’s been tricked somehow. Coming to the conclusion that Marvizia is some kind of a witch, she sets a nasty second task; the girl must go out onto the plain where the ogress’s wild bulls search, starving, for grass on the barren ground. There, Marvizia will undoubtedly meet a painful end among their frantic hooves and horns. Ordering Ali to see it done, the ogress then leaves the castle.
Ali is enspelled. He has no choice about obeying his orders, but he can interpret how they are to be followed. He goes to consult with the Green Bird again, and when he comes back, takes the queen’s diamond ring. Raising it, he orders aloud that the plain be covered in fresh grass. The plain is promptly transformed into a lush meadow and the bulls could not be less interested in their visitor. Ali also supplies Marvizia with a magicked picnic that never lessens however much she eats, and for eight days she hides out on the plain.
The ogress can’t see the magic, not even when she’s walking through it. On the eighth day, she decides to go searching for Marvizia’s bones, as they may make a nice soup. She happens to pass through a meadow on the way – one she can actually see – where a shepherdess is tending her flock. Pragmatically, she welcomes the ogress with a feast, and the ogress is unexpectedly touched. “No one ever had compassion on me until now,” she sobs. “But you have had compassion, and you shall marry my son.”
Her son, by the way, is the Green Bird. He’s neither a bird nor her son; he’s the true owner of the diamond ring, stolen away by yet another lonely, sociopathic ogre who only wants to be loved. It’s all so desperately sad!
Anyway, back to the shepherdess, who just wanted to get on with her life and is now whisked off for a marriage to which she never agreed. The ceremony consists of the ogress slapping the Green Bird, turning him back into a prince, then slapping both bride and groom and announcing, “Be you two husband and wife.” Not the most romantic wedding ever; the shepherdess got maybe two seconds to realise she was actually marrying a human being.
Ali, however, has smuggled the ring of command to the prince, because he’s awesome like that. The prince leaves a trail of gunpowder at the foot of his marriage bed and places his candle at its end while he undresses as slowly as he can. When the candle burns down to meet the gunpowder, the bedroom BLOWS UP.
The story isn’t interested in the shepherdess, which makes me unspeakably cross, but as the prince survives, presumably she does too. In fact, the prince isn’t even injured. He runs directly to where Marvizia is hiding, lets Ali catch up, then conjures a bronze tower on the plain for the three of them to hide in. The ogress is so fed up with his ingratitude that she starts gnawing at the foundations. At this, the prince raises his ring of command and orders that she be turned to gold and sunk twenty roods beneath the earth. I have no idea what roods are. Presumably, it’s a long way.
The prince isn’t done yet. His next command is for the plain to become a mighty kingdom, with a city in the middle and in the middle of that, a luxurious palace complete with servants. It all appears instantaneously. Marvizia takes the opportunity to bathe and dress in something more royal, only for the prince to send her out again to fetch his mother. Hello, your highness, you have a magic ring for that kind of thing! Perhaps it’s a gesture of respect; anyway, Marvizia returns to the shrouded palace in a brand new golden coach to tell the queen the whole story and bring her back to the prince’s pet city.
The next day, Marvizia marries him, doubtless with more ceremony than his first wedding. Afterwards, he orders fifty giants from the ring of command to go dig up the ogress and place her in a square outside the palace so that everyone can see how dead she is. Charming. As for Ali, he remains to serve the young couple.
Which irritates me no end. It was thanks to his kindness that Marvizia survived at all, so why not use those endless powers to set him free of servitude? I suspect residual racism; though this telling casts him as a hero, he’s both a giant and a black man, and for both servitude is an ugly default in Western fairy tales. On the other hand, the nature of his service is left to the reader’s interpretation. Let’s make him Prime Minister.
Story 3: The Melodious Napkin
This Greek story is taken from Damian and the Dragon and starts with the traditional leave-taking of a king; he is going on a journey, so he gather his three daughters and asks what present each wants brought back from Afar. The elder two ask for jewellery, but the youngest is unable to decide and goes to consult with her grandmother, who tells her to ask for the Melodious Napkin. The girl has no idea what that is, but asks for it anyway.
Months later, after a great deal of searching, the king acquires it and gives it to his daughter. She, in turn, takes it to her grandmother, who locks them in the princess’s room, smashes all the glass out of the window and climbs on a table to hammer a length of red velvet around the frame. To finish off whatever the hell it is she’s doing, she fills a bowl with rose-water and hangs it in the window. “When you are alone,” she instructs her granddaughter, “dip the Melodious Napkin in the rose-water and spread it out to dry. And what is to happen, will happen.”
That evening, the princess tries out the ritual for the first time. As the Napkin dries, it releases three notes of whispering music, and a golden eagle comes soaring through the window to dip its beak in the bowl. By the time it flutters to the floor, it is not a bird but a man, crowned and clothed in gold.
“You called me, and I have come,” he says to the princess. “What do you want of me?” “I don’t know,” she confesses. “It was my grandmother who told me to spread the Napkin.” They look at each other. She’s very lovely; he’s very handsome. Draw your own conclusions. He introduces himself as the King of All Birds and the Creeping Things – excellent title! – and proposes marriage. The princess is not against the idea, but insists they wait until her elder sisters are married, because that’s how things are Done.
That doesn’t mean they can’t date, though. Every day, she locks herself in her room and summons up her boyfriend with rose-water and the magical napkin. Soon she’s spending so much time with him, and so much time thinking about him, that her sisters smell a rat. The middle sister sneaks into her room, sees the open window and waiting bowl, and concludes (accurately) that the youngest princess is carrying on a secret affair. Guilting her into a picnic, the eldest sister doubles back to the palace and lines the frame of the window with shards of glass. Then she returns to the picnic, where the three princesses feast, sing songs and generally party until the sun sets.
Upon her return home, the youngest sister goes straight to her room and summons her lover, unaware of the glass concealed around the red velvet. When he comes it rips into his wings and with a scream, he flies away. Discovering what’s happened, the horrified princess runs to her grandmother for aid. Her grandmother’s solution is to dress her up as a travelling nun and send her off into the world to search for the palace of the King of All Birds and the Creeping Things. How many of those can there be?
The princess searches for as long as her legs can hold out, then drops down to rest underneath a hollow tree. From inside the hollow, she hears a nest of baby snakes calling out for their mother; looking around, she sees a wearied adult snake approaching. The little ones chorus reproaches, but their mother has bigger troubles on her mind. She has been inside the king’s palace, where he lies near to death, and she knows what that means – someone may come and kill one of her babies, for by anointing the king’s bath with their fat, he would become like a wounded snake.
Why anyone would want him to become like a wounded snake, I don’t know, but the princess thinks it sounds a good idea. She kills one of the little snakes and continues on her way with its magical fat. The same thing happens when she stops beneath a nest of pigeons, and hears them reveal the recuperative powers of pigeon fat; and again, under a nest of eagles. The princess doesn’t want to kill anything, but if it’s a choice between them and her lover, they don’t stand a chance. The women of her family are tough. They’re good at making nasty decisions.
Outside the king’s palace, she announces herself as a doctor and is permitted into the sickroom, where her lover lies covered in blood. Each night for three nights he is bathed and the princess rubs his skin with one of her ill-gotten remedies; each morning, he is visibly improved. The queen mother of All Birds and the Creeping Things – sorry, I just love that title – is thrilled by his recovery. On the third morning, he’s back to his old self and leaps out of bed to prove it. He offers the ‘nun’ any reward she likes, and she asks for three things. Firstly, that if anyone says to him, ‘Long life to the nun who healed you, and to the bloody shirt’, he is to spare their life, regardless of how much he wants vengeance. Secondly, he must give her the shirt covered in his blood from that dreadful day at the window, and thirdly, he must give her his ring.
Smart, ruthless princess, I would not want to be your enemy. You’re a strategist.
The king sees no reason not to agree to her terms, though his thoughts have indeed turned to vengeance. So she retraces her way to her father’s palace, where she takes off her disguise, dresses once again every inch a princess, clears the glass from the window and lays the Melodious Napkin out to dry. Her lover shows up with a grudge and a sword, quite prepared to kill her on the spot, but she cries out the nun’s words and he’s forced to stay his hand. Instead of working out the truth, he assumes she’s a witch. That’s when she brings out his shirt and ring, to prove he was healed by her hands. And the deaths of three baby animals, which she does not mention.
The king is appropriately humbled. The princess, having decided how things are Done is pretty stupid, now approaches her father for his blessing and is soon married to her grumpy eagle boyfriend. Her sisters apparently burst, I don’t have any explanation for that. At the end of the ceremony the king of All Birds and the Creeping Things transforms, catches up his new wife in his talons and returns to his palace to reintroduce her to his mum. A second celebration is waiting for them. In the midst of the partying, though, a snake, a pigeon and an eagle make their way through the crowd, each carrying her dead child to lay in accusation before the king.
No problem! He picks them up, pets them, and they spring back to life. So that’s all right. I think?
Story 4: The Big Bird Katchka
This last story is from Tadjakistan, via A Book of Cats and Creatures. It introduces us to Juvan and Louisa, a couple who live in a hut beside the river and earn a very basic living from the fish they catch there. One day, while Juvan is sitting with his rod catching almost nothing at all, an enormous bird called Katchka swoops down to watch. Seeing the fisherman’s bad luck, Katchka offers to bring a big fish every evening to ease the struggle. He keeps his word, too. This naturally improves the couple’s finances; they aren’t rich exactly, but Juvan can afford to stop fishing and grow a garden instead, and they buy a nice little house. It becomes habit for Katchka to stop on his nightly visit to share supper and tell his new friends stories. It’s all going so tremendously well!
Enter the king.
He is going blind, and no doctor can do a thing to help him. When medicine fails, he turns to magic. One practitioner consults an oracle and advises his majesty to bathe his eyes in the blood of the big bird Katchka. The oracle doesn’t provide directions, so the king sends out a town crier with the standard reward: half a kingdom and a princess for a wife. Juvan and Louisa’s unpleasant neighbour Geck hears of the offer and goes straight to the king to rat them out.
The king isn’t especially grateful. “What is the use of your standing there like an imbecile and telling me where the bird is to be found? Will your knowing give me back my sight?” Geck points out that when they say he’s the big bird Katchka, they’re not kidding. The king concedes this, and grants him the assistance of four hundred men. There are advantages to an unconditional monarchy, one of those being you can shout at people for no good reason and still be taken seriously. Also, you can do whatever you want with the army.
So, four hundred soldiers show up that night to hide behind Geck’s hedge, somehow assuming they won’t be noticed when all Juvan has to do is glance out a window to see them, and Katchka – who is, after all, descending from the sky – spots them immediately. Juvan is terribly worried about his friend. Katchka, on the other hand, is utterly relaxed. They enjoy their meal as usual. When the bird rises to fly away, soldiers come leaping out from behind the edge to seize his legs. That’s fine by Katchka, he flies away anyway, with them as a human chain trailing behind – until he drops them in a swamp, that is. It takes them months to get home.
In the meantime, Katchka goes to the king himself and brushes one of his feathers across the weakening eyes to heal them. That’s right, your majesty, you could have just asked nicely! As for the reward, Katchka isn’t interested in that. The king’s daughter can stay unmarried as long as she wants, and can keep the kingdom too. He just wants to keep returning to that little house and a table under the apple tree, to feast with his friends and tell stories.
Yay! Win for common sense!
Each of these stories features a bird with magical powers, capable of transforming the lives it touches. They are stories of escape and discovery, complete with relentless princesses, cunning disguises and unconventional weddings. I don’t know what kind of true love would send you these four birds, but it would make for one very interesting Christmas. This is my last Fairy Tale Tuesday for the year; normal programming will resume on the 7th of January. Until then, best wishes to you all and happy endings for 2013!