July 6, 2012

The White Marriage, By William Saunders

Editor's note: What a marvel William Saunders has created with this story. Fragments of magic, slivers of drama, shards of history, are all mingled together in a reverie called, "The White Marriage."  EC is delighted to present the story as a guest post, as it seemed the best category in which to place it. Enjoy!

Once upon time there was a beautiful princess, and she married a handsome prince, who took her far away across the sea to rule with him over the city of Prague.

And Prague in November resembled an enormous wedding cake, as the Princess, who was now a Queen looked out of her castle window.  After a night of snow, the roofs and the spires of the city shone and sparkled as if they were gorgeous curlicues teased out of sugar by a clever pastry chef. Only if she leaned very far out of the window could she find any sign of the dark earth at all.

Down below among the cottages pressed against the wall of the castle the snow had not settled due to the steady tread of the alchemists going back and forth to fetch coal. Day and night they tended their fires in pursuit of the secret of immortality.

Jessie Dunlop

As things fell out this November, the Queen was alone in the Castle because the Prince, who was now a King, was away making war on his enemies at the White Mountain.  For company she had her three companions from home, Mary, Mary and Mary, and the four of them gossiped and giggled together in their native tongue as they wandered the enormous rooms, but there was no real life to be had with all the men away. The Queen also had her English players with her and that afternoon they were to perform a masque for the ladies. 

Not every man had gone to the war. Down below in the city there was a young soldier who had decided to seek his fortune by other means. He had rented a small room, with a stove to sit by as he thought and thought about how to decide what is real and what is only a dream.

The English players are the mechanics of dreams. Together they raise the scaffold in the Castle throne room with easy practice - the platform on which they will become kings and even queens, although they are all men and boys.  Mary Carmichael will not leave them alone. She hangs around the doorway as the crashes of the scaffold work echo up in the rafters of the Throne room, with no thought of her dignity.

She is fascinated by Rufus, the lead boy of the company who takes the main feminine roles. She loves to finger his tinsel dress and stroke his down chin and ask him "How can you play a woman when you've never known one?"

Rufus blushes but answers, "I play maids."

"Oh! Oh!" shrieks Mary Carmichael "That's put me in my place, for I could only play a maid from memory." Her laughter skirls through the great chamber high above the laughter of the men. Rufus blushes deeper, and Mary pinches his cheek and says "He blushes like a maid." But the Queen has heard the laughter and has sent Mary Seaton to take Mary Carmichael away from the players.

So the Queen and all three of her ladies walk together in the long gallery before dinner, their breath hanging before them in thin white clouds. They talk of Grace, the snow, Anabaptists and Mary Seaton's small dog, Duncan, who runs ahead of them and snuffles at the fringes of the tapestries. None of them mentions the war.
Dinner without the men is a jolly affair. Among only themselves and waited on by women, the ladies can forget their manners and be free with their appetites. Mary Carmichael is always greedy, and Mary Heaton enjoys her food when she gets the chance, although she is as thin as a needle. There is no fish, with so many men away, but even in November there are peaches and plums grown magically under the low winter sun in a room with glass walls on the roof of the castle.

When at last dinner is cleared away the light has begun to fade. Much of the throne room is already lost in shadow as the Queen leads the Marys in to see the Masque. The stage is lit with sconces, and up in the gallery the musicians have lit their candles. One could fancy that the pin pricks of candlelight are the stars in the sky. And such fancies are what make the Queen uneasy about Theatre. Surely to make a mockery of Nature is to mock its Creator? And the better the mockery the greater the spiritual danger, for a perfect imitation of form will draw Spirit into it, like the brazen head built by Cornelius Agrippa which spoke and prophesied. And in this poor light the Imagination will spring to the aid of the Intellect to make the stage, and only the stage real, and what are the dangers of the perfect illusion?

Rufus is the perfect illusion now, as he steps onto the empty platform of the stage. Who could doubt that he is what he claims to be, the Lady Moon in the Garden of the Night? He moves with delicacy and modesty. His feet glide beneath him, his arms float before him has he uses his hands to emphasize his unhappy situation, and his horse hair tresses fly around him with each toss of his head.

The Lady Moon has nightingales and owls for company and it is the sweetest scented flowers which exhale their perfumes during the hours of darkness. Yet all is not well with her. She loves the Lord Sun, loves him and fears him, for she is afraid that in his great light she will disappear. She would take that risk but her cruel father Saturn keeps her away from her lover.

The Queen hears Mary Heaton draw her handkerchief from her sleeve ready to weep for Lady Moon. The Queen is moved too. She knows what is to be the daughter and lover of powerful men. She is gripped rather more than she would like.

Here comes Mercury, a lithe and nimble lad, resplendent in yellow robes. His dances and songs are so gay that even Lady Moon forgets her troubles and laughs.  Mercury brings hope as well as laughter, for he knows a way to bring Lady Moon together with her love, but it will require her to change completely. Lady Moon asks herself if she dare trust Mercury, the Guardian of the Dead, the Master of Shadows and decides she has no choice. They depart in different directions.

Here comes Lord Sun in golden armor. All the ladies gasp. His heralds are the roosters, his knights are the eagles. He is all seeing and master of all that he can see. Poor Lady Moon, for surely such a magnificent being must be complete in himself? He who has everything must want nothing. Lady Moon's cause must be hopeless.

Yet, strangely, Lord Sun is susceptible to flattery. Mercury skips on and sings his praises and his Lordship is very pleased. Sly Mercury then sings a song of longing and love from afar. Lord Sun is moved and asks where Mercury learned it. Mercury says that he heard it from a lady in a secluded garden, a garden where the Lord Sun can never go.

Lord Sun is devastated, he wants more than anything to enter the garden and court the lady. Mercury promises that he can arrange just that but it will involve great sacrifice on Lord Sun's part. Without hesitation the Lord Sun says he will agree to anything that Mercury asks of him.

Lord Sun departs and Mercury reveals to his select audience that his game is deeper than either Lord Sun and Lady Moon can guess. Their marriage will be the accomplishment of the Great Work. He summons his two servants Castor and Pollux to send word to Lord Sun and Lady Moon to meet him in the Garden of the Hesperides, the garden in the West, where Day and Night meet.

Castor and Pollux are not the most competent of servants but after a few misadventures together which set the Queen and her ladies laughing, they go their separate ways to perform their errands.

Mercury appears again and announces he is in the Garden of the Hesperides the orchard whose golden fruit bring wisdom and immortality to any who dare to eat of them. Lord Sun and Lady Moon appear form opposite sides of the stage. After they have sung in celebration, Mercury instructs them to strip to their shifts. Then the atmosphere darkens. Lady Moon announces that her cruel Father Saturn is about to arrive and stop the wedding.

In fact it is another person altogether who stops the ceremony. A young knight runs into the throne room and falls on his knees before the Queen. The mud and the blood on his clothes speak of his valor and yet he weeps like a child. Through his tears he tells the Queen that the King has been defeated at the White Mountain and she and her ladies must flee Prague that very night.

Lights are called for everywhere and all the servants are stirred up to pack whatever can be carried off. Mary Heaton begins to weep and the Queen tells her if she has tears to shed she should not waste them on herself but cry for the women of Prague who have nowhere to flee to and must await the mercy of the enemy army.

Down below in the city the young soldier wakes up beside his stove, and in the moments between sleep and waking he realizes he is dreaming his life and in those same moments he realizes that if he is dreaming himself, there must be a self to do the dreaming. And in the years that were to follow, the young man wrote his thoughts about this in a book, and many wise men have come to believe that the young soldier was right.

Jessie Dunlop

And beside the Castle the Alchemists went back forth to fetch coal as they always did. Day and night they tend their fires in search of the secret of immortality: living, in effect, as if they had already found it. 

Bio: William Saunders is a London based poet, journalist and author. His collection of short stories is called Leah And Her Twelve Brothers.

Bio: Jessie Dunlop is an archaeologist who lives in Vancouver. These are her first published illustrations.

Leah And Her Twelve Brothers

EC readers are invited to download "The White Marriage" as a free .pdf here:

or via this page where it is listed as Prague.

July 5, 2012

Rumpelstiltskin, By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Editor's note: Poor old Rumpelstiltskin. In my book, he was more sinned against than sinning. He always just seemed like a lonely guy who wanted a child -- and really, how great would the greedy king and thoughtless miller's daughter be as parents? And the miller? A dolt. Everyone knows that you do not, do not, try to gain the attention of the greedy and powerful -- unless you are attempting a palace coup.

The miller was not up to anything like a palace takeover, but in any case, the brag about his daughter's alleged ability to spin straw into gold sets the whole story of "Rumpelstiltskin" motion. 

The king, even for a figure of power in a fairy tale, is notably greedy and cruel. Not only does he want all the gold he can get (which, admittedly, is a pretty common failing), but he threatens her with death if she fails to produce. The miller, meanwhile, is not seen to throw himself at the feet of the kind, begging for mercy for his daughter.

The miller's daughter is pretty vacant, in this version of the tale, and this version is a standard text. All she can do is cry. Then, she ultimately promises away one of the things the king would most want from her: His future child. Granted, she is scared, but surely, a man who would kill a woman who couldn't spin straw into gold would also kill her if she gave away his child -- but he'd probably torture her first. Perhaps she needed to think harder.

Rumpel is the only decent person in the story. He even gives the "heroine" a chance to keep her baby by guessing his name. And she cheats.

But you know that, because you already know the story. The Brothers Grimm version below is from 1922. 

What do you think of my surly take on this story? I say, "Team Rumpel!"

Charles Robinson

There was once a poor Miller who had a beautiful daughter, and one day, having to go to speak with the King, he said, in order to make himself appear of consequence, that he had a daughter who could spin straw into gold. The King was very fond of gold, and thought to himself, "That is an art which would please me very well"; and so he said to the Miller, "If your daughter is so very clever, bring her to the castle in the morning, and I will put her to the proof."

As soon as she arrived the King led her into a chamber which was full of straw; and, giving her a wheel and a reel, he said, "Now set yourself to work, and if you have not spun this straw into gold by an early hour to-morrow, you must die." With these words he shut the room door, and left the maiden alone.

There she sat for a long time, thinking how to save her life; for she understood nothing of the art whereby straw might be spun into gold; and her perplexity increased more and more, till at last she began to weep.

All at once the door opened, and in stepped a little Man, who said, "Good evening, fair maiden; why do you weep so sore?"

"Ah," she replied, "I must spin this straw into gold, and I am sure I do not know how."

Anne Anderson

 The little Man asked, "What will you give me if I spin it for you?"

"My necklace," said the maiden.

The Dwarf took it, placed himself in front of the wheel, and whirr, whirr, whirr, three times round, and the bobbin was full. Then he set up another, and whir, whir, whir, thrice round again, and a second bobbin was full; and so he went all night long, until all the straw was spun, and the bobbins were full of gold. At sunrise the King came, very much astonished to see the gold; the sight of which gladdened him, but did not make his heart less covetous. He caused the maiden to be led into another room, still larger, full of straw; and then he bade her spin it into gold during the night if she valued her life. The maiden was again quite at a loss what to do; but while she cried the door opened suddenly, as before, and the Dwarf appeared and asked her what she would give him in return for his assistance. "The ring off my finger," she replied. The little Man took the ring and began to spin at once, and by morning all the straw was changed to glistening gold. The King was rejoiced above measure at the sight of this, but still he was not satisfied, but, leading the maiden into another still larger room, full of straw as the others, he said, "This you must spin during the night; but if you accomplish it you shall be my bride." "For," thought he to himself, "a richer wife thou canst not have in all the world."

Charles Folkard

When the maiden was left alone, the Dwarf again appeared and asked, for the third time, "What will you give me to do this for you?"

"I have nothing left that I can give you," replied the maiden.

"Then promise me your first-born child if you become Queen," said he.

John Gruelle
The Miller's daughter thought, "Who can tell if that will ever happen?" and, ignorant how else to help herself out of her trouble, she promised the Dwarf what he desired; and he immediately set about and finished the spinning. When morning came, and the King found all he had wished for done, he celebrated his wedding, and the Miller's fair daughter became Queen.

The gay times she had at the King's Court caused her to forget that she had made a very foolish promise.
About a year after the marriage, when she had ceased to think about the little Dwarf, she brought a fine child into the world; and, suddenly, soon after its birth, the very man appeared and demanded what she had promised. The frightened Queen offered him all the riches of the kingdom if he would leave her her child; but the Dwarf answered, "No; something human is dearer to me than all the wealth of the world."

The Queen began to weep and groan so much that the Dwarf pitied her, and said, "I will leave you three days to consider; if you in that time discover my name you shall keep your child."

AH Watson

All night long the Queen racked her brains for all the names she could think of, and sent a messenger through the country to collect far and wide any new names. The following morning came the Dwarf, and she began with "Caspar," "Melchior," "Balthassar," and all the odd names she knew; but at each the little Man exclaimed, "That is not my name." The second day the Queen inquired of all her people for uncommon and curious names, and called the Dwarf "Ribs-of-Beef," "Sheep-shank," "Whalebone," but at each he said, "This is not my name." The third day the messenger came back and said, "I have not found a single name; but as I came to a high mountain near the edge of a forest, where foxes and hares say good night to each other, I saw there a little house, and before the door a fire was burning, and round this fire a very curious little Man was dancing on one leg, and shouting:

Warwick Goble
"'To-day I stew, and then I'll bake,
To-morrow I shall the Queen's child take;
Ah! how famous it is that nobody knows
That my name is Rumpelstiltskin.'"

When the Queen heard this she was very glad, for now she knew the name; and soon after came the Dwarf, and asked, "Now, my lady Queen, what is my name?"

First she said, "Are you called Conrade?" "No."

"Are you called Hal?" "No."

"Are you called Rumpelstiltskin?"

"A witch has told you! a witch has told you!" shrieked the little Man, and stamped his right foot so hard in the ground with rage that he could not draw it out again. Then he took hold of his left leg with both his hands, and pulled away so hard that his right came off in the struggle, and he hopped away howling terribly. And from that day to this the Queen has heard no more of her troublesome visitor.

Kay Nielsen