Fairy Tale Flowers by Kelly Jarvis
Editor's Note: Fairy tales and flowers - the perfect way to celebrate spring - is today's enchanting essay by EC's very own, Kelly Jarvis. Enjoy!
In the early spring months of my New England childhood, when snow still spilled from the sky to embrace an awakening earth, my grandmother and I circled our backyard searching for the first signs of flowers. She told me the story of the crocus, bruised purple from its daring ascent through the frosty ground, and the tale of the fragrant hyacinths, collapsing under the weight of their own riotous beauty. She taught me the names of all the flowers, and I delighted in her words as much as I delighted in the blossoms. As the weeks unfolded, forsythia, azalea, magnolia, and hydrangea rose as if at her call, sprinkling the still barren landscape with spots of color. Wild bunches of Queen Anne’s lace, silver swords, bluebells, and fairy slippers ignited my imagination and made me feel like we were walking through a storybook, gathering magical bouquets to usher in the season of new life.
Now, as I wander through volumes of fairy tales, my memories of my grandmother help me notice the flowers that scatter themselves across the page. The Brothers Grimm have several tales that feature flowers. In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf distracts the girl from her journey by pointing out a field of beautiful flowers, and in Jorinda and Joringel, a blood-red flower disenchants everything it touches, turning hundreds of nightingales back into girls and stripping an old witch of her evil powers. In the lesser known A Riddling Tale, three women are transformed into flowers and in The Pink, a Prince who is gifted the power of wishing turns a maiden into a bloom to transport her through the forest. Snow White’s sister, Rose Red, is named after a red rose tree that grows just outside their lonely cottage, and the Grimms’ Sleeping Beauty is called Briar Rose after the climbing hedge of thorns and petals that will knit themselves together to protect her enchanted sleep. The Brothers Grimm have even leant their name to a variety of Fairy Tale Roses that grow in clusters of orange blossoms.
No fairy tale rose is more famous than the one featured in Beauty and the Beast. In Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont’s version, it is Beauty’s request for a rose which prompts her father to pluck a flower from the Beast’s garden, setting the plot into motion. Walt Disney uses the rose as an icon for its treatment of the tale. An old beggar woman offers the flower as payment for shelter in a castle. When the Prince of the castle rudely turns the poor woman away, he is transformed into a hideous beast who must find true love before the last petal of the enchanted rose falls. Oscar Wilde explores the red color of this most romantic flower in his heartbreaking fairy tale The Nightingale and the Rose. When a student complains that his professor’s daughter will not dance with him unless he gifts her a rare red rose, a nightingale offers her sweetest song to stain the white petals scarlet. Upon learning that “only a Nightingale’s heart’s-blood can crimson the heart of a rose”, she concludes that love is greater than life, and allows the rose-thorn to pierce her heart. Wilde wrote during the late Victorian Era when the language of flowers was used to convey complex messages about love and affection, but even contemporary floriography recognizes the red rose as a symbol of passionate love and the dark crimson rose as a symbol of grief.
Hans Christian Anderson fills the gardens of his fairy tales with roses as well. In Little Ida’s Flowers, a little girl dreams about flowers attending a ball, seeing “two roses who wore gold crowns” and in The World’s Fairest Rose, the title flower is the only thing that can save the life of a dying queen. The air is filled with the scent of roses at the triumphant conclusion of The Wild Swans, but this story turns on another flowering plant known as the stinging nettle. Only after Elisa gathers nettles from a graveyard and blisters her hands by sewing the leaves into shirts for her swan brothers can she transform them back into human form.
It is a tulip with red and yellow petals which gives birth to Anderson’s Thumbelina, a child so small she sleeps in a polished walnut shell with a “mattress made from the blue petals of violets and a rose petal coverlet”, and flower imagery can even be found in Anderson’s winter masterpiece The Snow Queen. Kai and Gerda play among the rosebushes growing on the rooftops of their houses, and when Gerda journeys north to rescue Kai, she enters the garden of an old woman where “every flower you could imagine from every season stood there in full bloom.” The beauty is so intoxicating that Gerda forgets her quest for some time, and it is only when a painted rose stirs her memory that she asks the tiger lily, morning glory, daisy, hyacinth, buttercup, and narcissus to share information that will help her find her lost friend, but the flowers are “standing in the sunlight dreaming up their own fairy tales and fables” and offer her only cryptic messages about love.
Inspired by far-away fairy tales and long-ago garden walks, I like to think about the stories that flowers tell when they unfurl their leaves against the warm, damp air of the season. Trapped in darkness and nourished by melting snows, their roots must know of sorrow and grief. Yet, each year they send their tender shoots struggling to the surface to paint the chalky gray landscape with brilliant colors. As the forsythia, azalea, magnolia, and hydrangea bloom, I can still hear my grandmother’s voice whispering their names on the breeze, calling my attention to their beauty with her enchanted incantations. Each year, I gather her ghostly words like petals and tie the bouquets of her old stories together with silky ribbons of memory to celebrate the precious return of spring’s fairy tale magic.
Kelly Jarvis teaches classes in literature, writing, and fairy tale at Central Connecticut State University, The University of Connecticut, and Tunxis Community College. She lives, happily ever after, with her husband and three sons in a house filled with fairy tale books. She is also Enchanted Conversation’s special project’s writer.