Fairy Tale Tuesday No.84 – Yellow Lily

This week’s fairy tale is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Magic Lands: folk tales of Britain and Ireland, this specific story being an Irish one – or at least that’s where the prince is from. He is a reckless young man who loves to gamble on his wit and strength. His parents find his behaviour troubling, but can do little to stop him. One day he goes out hunting and meets with a giant who wants to play cards.

Most people might find such a situation alarming. Not so this prince! He wagers two farms that he will win, and indeed he does. Very pleased with himself, he returns the next day for another match of skill. The prince wins again, this time a herd of fine cattle. His parents try to convince him to stop while he’s ahead, but he can’t resist one last game. This time, the giant suggests they wager their heads. Lulled by his previous success, the prince agrees – and of course, this time he loses. The giant graciously allows him a year and a day’s grace, at the end of which time he must come to the castle at Loch Lein.

The prince returns home in a daze. “No game is finished until the last hand has been played,” the king encourages him, but the time passes all too swiftly and in the end the prince leaves without so much as a goodbye.

It’s a long journey to the giant’s castle. By nightfall on the first day the prince has reached an unfamiliar valley where the only light comes from a small cottage. Inside, an old woman with a mouthful of fangs is sitting peaceably by the fire. She knows who the prince is at once. Of course she does, she’s an old lady in a lonely cottage, they know everything. She not only lets him sleep in her house, she washes his feet and makes him an excellent breakfast the next morning. “Tonight you’ll be staying with my sister,” she announces. “Be sure to do whatever she tells you. Otherwise your head will be in danger.” Then she gives him a ball of thread and tells him to follow where it goes.

The thread takes him to another cottage, at the base of a high hill, where a second fanged lady welcomes him indoors. She, too, gives him a ball of thread, and it leads him to a third night’s lodging with the oldest of the three sisters. “The giant of Loch Lein has a huge castle,” she tells the prince, “and it’s surrounded by seven hundred iron spikes. Every spike – every spike but one – is topped with the head of a king, or a queen, or a king’s son. The last spike is waiting, and nothing in the world can save you from it unless you take my advice.” Her plan is for him to hide by a certain lake where the giant’s three daughters come to bathe, and to steal the youngest girl’s clothes while she’s in the water. This girl, known as Yellow Lily for the flower she wears, will then makes all sorts of rash promises to get her clothes back.

I do not like this solution at all! The prince, however, whose head is at risk, makes no argument. He does as the old lady advised. Discovering her clothes to be gone, Yellow Lily’s sisters prove completely unsympathetic and go home without her. She’s so desperate that she cries aloud, “Let the man who took my clothes give them back to me. I swear I’ll save him from whatever danger he is in.”

The prince returns her clothes. She recognises him at once as the man her father plans to drown in a tank of water. Helpful as she promised to be, she warns the prince to refuse all food offered by the giant and to wait in the tank until she comes to save him. By now the prince is pretty good at following instructions and does as she bids him, though being thrown into a tank by a giant is a pretty big leap of trust. Yellow Lily is good as her word, sneaking in as soon as her father is asleep and pulling the prince out. She then gives him dry clothes, a solid meal, and a real bed.

Through the night she keeps watch, and near morning she drops the prince back into the tank. The giant is surprised at his guest’s continued survival, but not bothered – he has lots of ideas for killing royalty, and the one he has in mind for the day is all about humiliation. He shows the prince to his stables, which hold five hundred horses and have not been cleaned for seven hundred years. “When my great-grandmother was a girl,” the giant muses, “she lost a slumber-pin somewhere in that stable. And often as she looked for it, she was never able to find it.” Apparently, the possibility of cleaning her poor horses’ stable did not occur to her. The prince is to find that pin by nightfall or his head will be put on a spike.

The day does not progress well. All the prince’s efforts to clear the stable only make matters worse, until he’s practically walled in with filth. At this junction, Yellow Lily comes sauntering past to see how he’s doing. I’m guessing it’s quite satisfying for her to see her blackmailer in such straits, but she did promise to help him. Using her bare hands on the mess, within minutes she has the whole place clean. Then she points out the precise location of her great-great-grandmother’s lost pin and leaves, presumably to have a bath. The prince gets thrown back in the tank, but hey, at least he’s clean! And Yellow Lily quickly comes to fish him back out, allowing him to survive a second night of Loch Lein’s hospitality.

By morning the giant has thought up another task. The stables have not been thatched for seven hundred years; not only must the prince manage that in one day, he must do it with feathers, no two the same. The only tool he is permitted is a whistle.

The prince spends all day whistling without attracting a single bird. Eventually Yellow Lily comes by with a picnic. “You stay here,” she says, all but patting him on the head, “and I’ll thatch the stables.” Before he’s even finished eating, she’s done the job exactly to her father’s specifications. The giant is deeply suspicious, rightfully convinced that the prince is getting help from somewhere, and on the third morning comes up with the most difficult task of all. On the slopes below the castle, there is a tree nine hundred feet high, with glass for bark and only one branch right at the very top. A crow has nested there and the giant wants its egg for supper.

Knowing full well it’s an impossible ask, the prince makes the attempt anyway. When he’s failed resoundingly in several different ways, he turns around to find Yellow Lily watching. They have another picnic while she gives the matter some thought. At the end of the meal, she produces a huge carving knife and calmly instructs the prince to kill her. With steps made from her flesh, he will be able to reach the nest.

Appalled, the prince refuses. He has not taken into account the eccentric anatomy of giants, however; once he has the egg, he must arrange all her flesh on the picnic cloth and sprinkle it with spring water, and she will be restored. So the prince does as she asks, slaughtering her with the knife and hacking her body into pieces to use as steps. He fetches the egg, then returns to the ground, collecting the pieces of the giant’s daughter on the way down. One bone is mislaid and the first thing Yellow Lily says as she’s restored to life is a protest at the fact she now has only nine toes.

Unable to prove his daughter had a hand in the task, the giant has no choice but to let his prisoner go. The prince’s parents are astonished at the sight of their son on the doorstep, alive and well, and quickly consult a wise man about how they can keep him that way. He does have a history of idiocy, after all. The wise man advises they marry him off and they choose the princess of Denmark. The prince does not argue about this arrangement, but insists that the giant of Loch Lein and his daughter Yellow Lily be invited to the wedding.

On the day before the marriage the prince’s father holds a grand feast, but the giant is left unimpressed by the festivities. “I’ve never been to a gathering like this one without one man singing a song, another telling a story, and a third playing a trick,” he scoffs. Careful to appease his most dangerous guest, the king sings a song and the Danish bride’s father tells a story. That leaves the giant to play a trick. Not well handled, your Majesties. The giant gives his turn to Yellow Lily, who conjures up a series of illusions. Grains of wheat become two pigeons; the male pigeon pecks and jostles the hen, who protests in a girl’s voice. “You wouldn’t have done that to me on the day I cleaned the stables for you.” “You wouldn’t have done that to me on the day I thatched the stables for you.” “You wouldn’t have done that to me on the day you killed me and took my bones to make steps.”

Ahem. The italics are mine.

The prince has a speech of his own to make. Once, he reminds the guests, he roamed all over Ireland looking for tests of skill, and lost the key to a casket he owned. After having a new one made, he found the old. Which should he keep? The king of Denmark advises he use the old, as it must fit the lock better, and the prince resoundingly agrees. The story is a metaphor; he introduces Yellow Lily as his true bride. “Your daughter,” he tells the outraged Danish king, ” has lost little. She’s been saved from a loveless marriage. And she will be my father’s most honoured guest.” So he marries Yellow Lily instead, and the party rages on for weeks. Even the giant of Loch Lein stays for that.

This story is notable for unusual character growth and a love story that is actually convincing. Yellow Lily meets the prince in an awful, exploitative situation, but he has a good reason for blackmailing her, he doesn’t hesitate to return her clothes once her help has been pledged, and best of all, she gets some payback. There’s humour, and horror, and cunning tricks. This is a happily ever after I really believe.

Review No.152 – The Falconer

The Falconer – Elizabeth May

Gollancz, 2013

The year is 1844. In the modern age of ornithopters and locomotives, most people believe that faeries belong in children’s bedside stories, but Lady Aileana Kameron knows better. By day, she is an heiress encircled by mystery and scandal; by night, she hunts monsters. She is tracking the faery who murdered her mother, and there is no shortage of fresh targets to practice on. For centuries Scotland has been free of the most dangerous fae, but suddenly they are beginning to return. And Aileana has their full attention.

I love Aileana’s explosive attitude and the way she reconciles her frustrations and pragmatism. Even better, the narrative doesn’t punish her for that unapologetic ferocity, and her love interests don’t either! That really needs to happen more often. In fact, the romantic angle of this story is very nicely written, understated yet intense. The ending of the book is very abrupt, but promises a dramatic sequel. That is slated for release next year.

Review No.151 – The Ghost Bride

The Ghost Bride – Yangsze Choo

Hot Key Books, 2013

The daughter of a reclusive scholar sliding slowly into poverty, Li Lan is aware that her prospects of marriage are not ideal, but she is astounded when the most prominent family of her acquaintance proposes that she marry a dead man. In Malacca at the end of the 19th century the old traditions are slowly being eroded, but it is still possible to become a ghost bride. If Li Lan accepts the proposal, she can protect her father from his debts – at the cost of any hope at an ordinary life. But the choice may be an illusion. As far as her suitor is concerned, she already belongs to him…

The Ghost Bride is Choo’s first novel. The writing style is clunky, but the ideas are original and the structure of the story, while a bit slow, is effective. Nothing is simple, even if it looks that way at first. Choo has written a heroine who is both naïve and strong, a combination I haven’t seen all that often, and Malacca makes for a rich, interesting setting.

An Update from the Shadow of the Witch

The past couple of weeks have been quite full on for me, for a lot of reasons, but any month that includes seeing a 1920s animated fairy tale must be a good one.

The Gallery of Modern Art has recently been running a series of fairy tale themed films and on the 16th it screened ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed‘, an animated fantasy from 1926 that could easily be retitled ‘The Fire Witch Saves Everybody, Always’. It was written, directed and co-animated by Lotte Reiniger, a pioneer of the industry and probably qualifiable as a Cranky Lady. Based on two different stories from the Arabian Nights, it’s like watching exquisitely intricate shadow puppets, and this particular performance was accompanied by gorgeous live music. While there are instances of the racism and sexism you might expect from a creation of the period, there are pleasantly surprising twists too. I’ll say it again: Fire. Witch. Is. Awesome. The princes are there largely to be tricked by sorcery and lament about their unlucky love lives.

In other March news:

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.83 – Mannikin Spanalong

This week’s fairy tale is a German story from Maggie Pearson’s 2013 collection The House of Cats and other traditional tales from Europe. It begins with a motivated young woman who sets off to find work. After walking all day, she needs a place to stay for the night. She knocks on the door of the first house she passes and, finding it open, looks inside. The homeowner is waiting, sitting on the table.

This is only one of several strange things about him. He is extremely small, the size of a toddler, but appears as a very old man. He is also awash in an extraordinarily long beard, like a less genetically blessed version of Rapunzel, and he speaks in song. “I am the Mannikin Spanalong,” he announces to his startled visitor, “I have a beard that’s ten ells long. Girl! Come in and make my supper.” So, not really blessed with manners either, but she did want a place to stay and she doesn’t mind making a meal that she gets to share.

After they’ve eaten and she’s washed the dishes, Mannikin Spanalong demands that she put him to bed. This is a slightly weirder request, but the girl obliges, carefully arranging the mass of hair to make a kind of quilt. She sleeps on the floor beside the fire. In the morning, he wants her help to dress and comb out his beard before she goes on her way. The more she combs, however, the less hair he has – and the shorter his beard becomes, the taller Mannikin Spanalong grows. Also, younger. Eventually the beard is just drifts of hair on the floor and there’s a tall young man standing there. Hopefully his clothes changed size with him or this will be slightly awkward.

This is generally the point when the rescued party explains their curse, announces their proper title and offers marriage as a reward for services rendered. Mannikin Spanalong, or whoever he is now, does none of these things. He thanks his rescuer politely, tells her to keep the cottage and everything in it, and walks out without another word.

And the girl is perfectly happy with this arrangement. She gets a free house, no strings attached. She also gets the mass of discarded hair. Whipping up a makeshift spindle, she sets to work transforming it into yarn, and some trace of magic must still remain because however much yarn she makes, there is always hair left. That means she can’t ever sweep her floor clean – on the other hand, she has an inexhaustible resource for her very own cottage industry, and her yarn becomes a big thing at the local market. So she makes her own living, her own way, and if she ever marries the story doesn’t care.

It is very rare to find a fairy tale about a woman with a happy ending that is not a marriage. To find one that considers a woman supporting herself a happy ending is…well, I’ll put it this way, I can’t think of another one offhand. The nature of the spell makes no sense at all. I’m beginning to suspect there is a club of witches out there somewhere, egging one another on to increasingly bizarre escape clauses for their curses.

Review No.150 – The Laughing Corpse

The Laughing Corpse (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter No.2) – Laurell K. Hamilton

Orbit, 2009 (Originally published 1994)

Anita Blake’s day begins with a millionaire who wants to raise the long dead and won’t take no for an answer. Add to that a murder investigation in which the chief suspect is a rogue zombie with a taste for human flesh, and there’s still time for a last minute bridesmaid fittings! Welcome to the life of a modern vampire hunter. Anita is acquiring enemies at an alarming rate, and even the people she trusts most are not all they seem, but she doesn’t have time to panic. All she can hope is that she has enough bullets.

This series has a lot going for it – a hard-headed heroine with no time for supernatural idiocy, a world struggling to legislate for the undead – and though I’m not enjoying another example of the stalkerish behaviour apparently universal to vampires, so far Anita is entirely capable of handling it. Her story continues with Circus of the Damned.

Review No.149 – Guilty Pleasures

Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter No.1) – Laurell K. Hamilton

Headline, 2009 (Original published 1993)

When your job is raising zombies and you moonlight as a vampire hunter for the police, maintaining an ordinary life can be tricky. Anita Blake’s life reaches a new level of complication after a girls’ night out goes drastically wrong. Press ganged into the search for a murderer even the most powerful vampire in the city can’t track, she’s hurt and scared and running out of time, but she’s not the only one who should be worried. There is a reason vampires call her the Executioner. And she has a brand new shotgun to try out.

The title is a bit ridiculous, but the story is excellent. Anita is a refreshingly matter-of-fact heroine, pragmatic and tough as nails, the supporting cast of characters are all interesting, and any urban fantasy world that has vampires setting up their own church has my full attention. The series continues with The Laughing Corpse. There is also a graphic novel version of this book, published in two volumes in 2007 under the same name.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.82 – Princess Felicity

Fairy tale royals traditionally have impractical ways of choosing life partners, and the prince of this French fairy tale (taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Princes and Princesses) is no exception. When he announces his intention to find a wife, his father produces an actual catalogue of candidates. Clearly, he was prepared. The prince studies each picture carefully without being especially drawn to any of them, until he reaches the very last page. There he sees The One.

Unfortunately, that’s a page his father planned to remove. The princess’s name is Felicity and she lives in an enchanted castle that no suitor has ever breached. Possibly she does not wish to be disturbed! This possibility occurs to neither man, and the prince dashes off to be a hero. On his quest he brings with him a coach, driver and groom (a princess requires the appropriate transport, white chargers are so last year) and a loyal manservant. When their road takes them into a dark wood and they are forced to make camp, the servant stays up to keep watch.

It’s a good thing he does, because this very spot is where the winds like to meet up and swap gossip and the current hot news is about the fledgeling rescue mission. The wind from France describes the location of the princess’s castle, how to circumvent the ferocious beasts that guard it (wait until they fall asleep on the stroke of noon!) and resist its seductive handmaidens (pretend they don’t exist!). He even explains what a hypothetical rescuer should do if he ever gets to the princess. Well, that’s convenient…

The next morning the servant rouses his master, the coachman and the groom, keeping what he heard during the night to himself. They continue down the road and come to the house of an elderly man, who invites them inside to freshen up before a rescue attempt that he clearly thinks is suicidal. The prince realises that riding through the wilderness actually kind of sucks and decides to stay on at the manor house for a few days. Meanwhile, his servant quietly slips off to ‘explore the country’.

His explorations are very specific. Soon enough he sees a tower and a flapping black flag; from there, he diverts to a nearby meadow where a tall tree rises alone. Here, according to the wind of France, a ring of Virtue has been stashed. The castle can only be escaped using its power. The servant retrieves the ring and continues on to the castle.

From the position of the sun, the servant judges it to be noon, but his timing is fifteen minutes off; he enters the castle garden to find it full of ferocious beasts that are very much awake. When he scrambles up the nearest tree, they tear it down and he is forced to leap to another. Before they can rip that one down too, however, the castle bell tolls the first stroke of noon and the beasts fall into their enchanted sleep. The servant leaps down and hurries from room to room, searching for the princess. Wherever he goes, he meets with the promised maidens, who call out imploringly for him to stay. He pays them no heed, sure he’ll know the right girl when he sees her.

And he does. She’s seated alone, working on her embroidery, and is greatly taken aback by his sudden appearance. He gives absolutely no explanation, either, just grabs her hand and drags her from the castle to where he’s tied up his horse. Behind them, the bell tolls one and the maidens rush into the garden to wake the beasts. “The princess Felicity is stolen, is stolen!” The beasts take up where they left off, racing after the servant and the princess he’s just abducted/rescued. Cut off by a wide river, he raises the ring of Virtue and commands the waters part. Thus he rides safely across, and the beasts are drowned.

Which is AWFUL. They were only doing their job.

Anyway, the princess having been rescued, the only thing left for the prince to do is take her home and marry her. Or so he thinks. The servant is not so trusting and insists on building leafy shelters as camouflage when they stop to rest in the woods. Then he lies awake, listening for the voices of the whispering winds.

They are uneasy, having heard the news of Princess Felicity’s rescue. Only someone who eavesdropped on their conversation could have done it, so they search the woods for listening ears. The servant’s camouflage holds up and at length the winds settle down to talk about current events. “The princess Felicity has been freed,” says the wind from France, “but the prince will not succeed in taking her home. On the way they will meet a grape seller, and the princess, who loves grapes, will wish to eat them. But if she touches them, she dies.” Even if she escapes the deadly fruit, the princess will not be safe. Their carriage will pass a drowning man and when she goes to save him, that will be the end of her. Having discussed the matter thoroughly, the winds part ways, and the servant makes his plans.

Sure enough, there is a grape seller on the road the next day and the princess wants to buy some of the fruit. The servant gallantly offers to fetch it for her, but surreptitiously crushes the grapes and dips the remains in a puddle of stagnant water, to make them appear rotten. The princess of course orders that they be thrown away, and death is quietly averted.

Not far down the road, an altogether more ethically dubious obstacle is placed in their way. A man is adrift in the river, screaming for help, and the princess leaps from the carriage to go to his aid. Before the drowning man can seize her hand, though, the servant slashes off his arm. That looks kind of bad. The prince reacts by stabbing his loyal servant through the heart and leaving him to die on the riverbank. He then takes the princess he didn’t rescue home to his father, marries her with full ceremony, and fully expects his happy ending.

But the princess is troubled. She dreams of a voice that cries aloud, “You have slain the one who delivered you. If you had eaten of those grapes, or if you had touched the hand of the drowning man, you would have instantly fallen dead.” In the morning, she tells her husband, who begins to second guess his actions. Wow, killing your friends is a bad thing to do! Who knew?

He rides off to discuss matters with his friend the old man and makes camp in the woods, as before. This time, he is too worried to sleep, and so for the first time overhears the voices in the branches above. They are discussing the princess Felicity’s inexplicably continued existence and the death of the loyal servant. “Now the prince repents: he would restore his servant to life if he could,” the wind from France remarks. “There is a way, but the prince will never know it. Near to the river bank where the faithful servant lies is the well of the water of life. The prince has but to sprinkle some of that water on his servant’s forehead, and his servant will arise from the dead.”

The prince wastes no time. He jumps on his horse and rides back the way he came, until he comes to the river and his servant’s abandoned body. There he wails a bit about guilt and looks around for the promised well. His eye catches on a small bird creeping through the dust, its wing broken – it disappears behind a slab of stone and emerges with water trickling off its feathers, trilling cheerfully before fluttering off. Having had the clue flourished under his nose, the prince hurries to the well, gathers water in his cupped hands, and splashes it across his dead servant’s forehead.

The man wakes abruptly, exclaiming, “Ah, my master, how long I have slept!” The prince drops to his knees, guilt stricken. “Nay, from this day, your grateful brother!” he declares. They return to the palace together, where the servant is made a lord and gifted a fortune to match.

It’s interesting how far this story diverges from the usual mould. The prince is not a heroic rescuer – he’s not necessarily a bad man, but is plainly a spoiled one who doesn’t give much thought to his actions. His servant does that for him, right down to rescuing the chosen bride. He then gets killed for his trouble, and the princess witnesses it. No wonder she has nightmares! I predict an unhappy marriage on her part and PTSD on the servant’s. Hopefully they will end up running away together and finding a new tower – one that can’t be breached by a chatty air current.

Review No.148 – Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey (from Selected Works of the Brontë Sisters) – Anne Brontë

Wordsworth Editions, 2005 (Originally published 1847)

Agnes Grey is the daughter of a love story. When her father’s romantic notions fail to provide for his family, Agnes goes out into the world to find work, determined to make her family proud, but life as a governess in the mid nineteenth century is not an easy one. Bound by the rules and expectations of others, adrift in homes that can never be hers, the only person she can rely upon is herself.

Having read (and raved about) Anne Brontë’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, her only other book was high on my To Read list for 2014. Agnes Grey was her first novel and is a much simpler story, with a stronger thread of religious sentiment. The romantic element didn’t grip me – neither did the one in Wildfell Hall, for that matter – but this is much more than a story about falling in love. The social commentary is beautifully scathing, the experiences eternally relevant, and the quiet, self-supporting resilience of her heroine is given excellent context within a cast of complicated, fully fleshed out characters. It is desperately sad that Anne never got the chance to write more.

Review No.147 – The Clockwork Scarab

The Clockwork Scarab – Colleen Gleason

Chronicle Books, 2013

In the city of London, in the year 1889, the most strenuous activity deemed appropriate for a young lady’s mind is capturing the attention of a respectable suitor, but when girls start turning up dead a pair of secret investigators are recruited from the great dynasties of the day. Mina Holmes, still struggling with her own mother’s disappearance, is determined to prove herself the equal of her famous uncle. Evaline Stoker, last of a long line of vampire slayers, has never had the chance to fully exercise her abilities. Seizing an opportunity to apply their unconventional skills, they join forces to find a killer, following a trail that will lead them from the darkest corners of London to the most glittering circles of high society.

That sounded like a wonderful premise, which is part of why I was so terribly disappointed with this book. The writing is repetitive, scattered with jarringly modern and American turns of phrase, the plot is incoherent and barely any part of it is satisfactorily resolved. Even for the first book in a projected series (the sequel is slated for release in October of this year) there are an extraordinary number of loose ends. The protagonists’ abilities are thoroughly overstated, badly demonstrated and repeatedly undermined by secondary characters who keep up or outpace them easily, despite the girls being supposedly uniquely gifted. I truly wish I had something more positive to say.