Short Story: July

And thus they rise.

The local library had a short story contest again this year.  The theme was fairy tale- and fantasy-related:  Imagine Your Story.  As an additional prompt, the stories for the contest were supposed to contain the author (that is, me!) in some way or another.  Length was again limited to 1,000 words.  I like writing prompts and I like fantasy and fairy tales, so here is my entry for this year.  It’s just under 800 words long.  Let me know what you think.


 

July

 

There they are again, rising from the grass in the dusk. Not far, not yet. Little specks of light all along the grape arbor and in the adjacent meadow. Against the backdrop of the ever darkening forest they shine, but never for long. A glow here, a glow there. Over there another, and another just next to it, glimmering for a moment, gone again, then glimmering again a little further. So here I sit and watch, evening after evening, enchanted.

Just last night, the last rays of the sun shone through the July green and created a golden circle right there where the yard ends and the wilderness begins. That’s where they all live, I thought then. It’s their palace, that golden circle in the last spotlight of the setting July sun. And I imagined how from there, they all emanated at that moment, spreading out along the grape arbor and through the yard, unobserved, only to rise and shine as soon as the sun had set and their light would suddenly count. So here I sit and watch, evening after evening, enchanted.

***

There it is again, the day walker. Every night when we get our mounts ready for the dance, there it is, watching. I know it can be much bigger, but when I come out, it is always in that place already, short and still. But the Elders are not fooled. This is a day walker, they say, a moving giant, not of the rooted kind that grants us protection and safety, that whispers to us in its ancient voice. This one is not like that. This one moves in the day, everywhere, this one is noisy and unpredictable like all day walkers, it commands fire and water and four-footed creatures. Sometimes it catches us on our mounts and traps us behind invisible barriers. Then giant faces appear close to us on the other side of the barrier, and terrible voices boom while we shake with fear and our loyal mounts glow bravely, undaunted. Many of us have been thus trapped, but only few do not live to tell the tale, so there are many tales of the day walkers. There it is again, watching.

***

And thus they rise. A foot off the ground now, but not for long. Soon they will fly higher, bobbing and gleaming, out of reach, to the top of the lilac, to the top of the maple, way up into the darkness. Above them, the stars appear. Faint at first, then clearer. The Full Buck Moon to the south. Night is wrapping around me like a familiar blanket. Birdsong has ceased. Wish I could make them my friends, these little ones. Look, there is one flying this way.

***

Tonight, I will dare it! I don’t care what the Elders say, will not listen to their warnings and tales of serfdom and imprisonment. Tonight, I will visit the day walker!

***
Maybe it will land on my finger when I hold it out. I wonder if they think at all, the little ones, and what they think about, and if they know they are creatures that, like us, testify to a creator. It is coming closer, glowing brightly over there a moment ago, and already quite close with the next glow. I can see the little black firefly now and not just its light. Come to me, Little One, come and sit with me for a spell. Here, land on my hand. Shine for me, Little One, my heart is filled with wonder. I love your dance. Your lanterns are like stars come down from heaven.

***

I have never felt this small. Never. I do not belong here. Not at all. I hope the day walker does not see me. What a mistake I have made. The Elders are right. Night fliers and day walkers live in worlds that should not meet. Please, brave mount, take me away. What a fool I have been! From now on, I will listen to the Elders. I will stay away from the day walkers as I should. Hurry now, courageous mount, up, up and away!

***

This moment, not quite day anymore, not quite night yet, is such a wonderful and fitting time to meet, don’t you think, Little One? I still don’t know if you think at all, but I wish you would, and were enjoying this moment like I am. Here we are, on the threshold between two worlds. Can you feel it, too? It’s magic!

There it flies off again, glowing its merry good-byes. Goodbye, Little One, join the dance! Thank you for your visit! My heart flies with you, light as a feather and bright as your little lantern. I will join your dance in my dreams! Goodbye!
794 words

Poesie: Tolkien’s The Last Ship

‘I cannot come!’ they heard her cry. / ‘I was born Earth’s daughter!’

The Last Ship is a poem of the lore of the Shire, originating in the Fourth Age.  It speaks about Fíriel, a woman who was so beautiful that the Elves offered to carry her over the Straight Road to Valinor, but she, not being of elvenkind, decided not to accompany them.  It is a sad poem in a way, and then again it isn’t, for the young woman knows where she belongs, and death is a boon granted, after all.  Besides, it has my favorite bird in it!

The Last Ship

Fíriel looked out at three o’clock:
the gray night was going;
far away a golden cock
clear and shrill was crowing.
The trees were dark, and the dawn pale,
waking birds were cheeping,
a wind moved cool and frail
through dim leaves creeping.

She watched the gleam at window grow,
till the long light was shimmering
on land and leaf; on grass below
grey dew was glimmering.
Over the floor her white feet crept,
down the stair they twinkled,
through the grass they dancing stepped
all with dew besprinkled.

Her gown had jewels upon its hem,
as she ran down to the river,
and leaned upon a willow-stem,
and watched the water quiver.
A kingfisher plunged down like a stone
in a blue flash falling,
bending reeds were softly blown,
lily-leaves were sprawling.

A sudden music to her came,
as she stood there gleaming
with free hair in the morning’s flame
on her shoulders streaming.
Flutes there were, and harps were wrung,
and there was sound of singing,
like wind-voices, keen and young
and far bells ringing.

A ship with golden beak and oar
and timbers white came gliding;
swans went sailing on before,
her tall prow guiding.
Fair folk out of Elvenland
in silver-grey were rowing,
and three with crowns she saw there stand
with bright hair flowing.

With harp in hand they sang their song
to the slow oars swinging;
‘Green is the land, the leaves are long,
and the birds are singing.
Many a day with dawn of gold
this earth will lighten,
many a flower will yet unfold,
ere the cornfields whiten.

‘Then whither go ye, boatmen fair,
down the river gliding?
To twilight and to secret lair
in the great forest hiding?
To Northern isles and shores of stone
on strong swans flying,
by cold waves to dwell alone
with the white gulls crying?’

‘Nay!’ they answered. ‘Far away
on the last road faring,
leaving western havens grey,
the sea of shadow daring,
we go back to Elvenhome,
where the White Tree is growing,
and the Star shines upon the foam
on the last shore flowing.

‘To mortal fields say farewell,
Middle-earth forsaking!
In Elvenhome a clear bell
in the high tower is shaking.
Here grass fades and leaves fall,
and sun and moon whither,
and we have heard the far call
that bids us journey thither’.

The oars were stayed.  They turned aside:
‘Do you hear the call, Earth-maiden?
Fíriel! Fíriel!’ they cried.
‘Our ship is not full-laden.
One more only may we bear.
Come! For your days are speeding.
Come! Earth-maiden elven-fair,
our last call heeding.’

Fíriel looked from the river bank,
one step daring;
then deep in clay her feet sank,
and she halted, staring.
Slowly the elven-ship went by
whispering through the water:
‘I cannot come!’ they heard her cry.
‘I was born Earth’s daughter!’

No jewels white her gown bore,
as she walked back from the meadow
under roof and dark door,
under the house-shadow.
She donned her smock of russet-brown,
her long hair braided,
and to her work came stepping down.
Soon the sunlight faded.

Year still after year flows
down the Seven Rivers;
cloud passes, sunlight glows,
reed and willow quivers
as morn and eve, but never more
westward ships have waded
in mortal waters as before,
and their song has faded.

J.R.R. Tolkien

reeds

Our Dear Own John Ronald: Riddles

Alive without breath, / As cold as death, /Never thirsty, ever drinking, /All in mail, never clinking.

“Sssss” said Gollum, and became quite polite.  “Praps ye sits here and chats with it a bitsy, my preciousss.  It likes riddles, praps it does, does it?”  He was anxious to appear friendly, at any rate for the moment, and until he found out more about the sword and the hobbit, whether he was quite alone really, whether he was good to eat, and whether Gollum was really hungry.  Riddles were all he could think of.  Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago, before he lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down into the dark under the mountains.

“Very well,” said Bilbo, who was anxious to agree, until he found out more about the creature, whether he was quite alone, whether he was fierce or hungry, and whether he was a friend of the goblins.

“You ask first,” he said, because he had not had time to think of a riddle.

~ J.R.R.T:  The Hobbit: Riddles in the Dark

bilbo and gollum.jpeg

Hobbits (…) ‘have a fund of wisdom and wise sayings that men have mostly never heard or have forgotten long ago’.

Bilbo’s riddle exchange with Gollum actually falls into the latter category, of things forgotten, for the whole idea of testing by riddles, and some of the actual riddles, come from the ancient and aristocratic literature of the Northern world rediscovered in the nineteenth century by Tolkien’s professional predecessors.  (…)  Gollum’s riddles, unlike Bilbo’s tend to be ancient ones.  Thus his last riddle, delivered when he thinks ‘the time has come to ask something hard and horrible’, derives from a poem in Old English, the riddle game, or more precisely the wisdom testing exchange, between Solomon and Saturn.  In this, Saturn, who represents heathen knowledge, asks Solomon, ‘What is it that … goes on inexorably, beats at foundations, causes tears of sorrow … into its hands goes hard and soft, small and great?’  The answer given in SOLOMON AND SATURN is, not ‘Time’ as in Bilbo’s desperate and fluky reply, but ‘Old age’: ‘She fights better than a wolf, she waits longer than a stone, she proves stronger than steel, she bites iron with rust: she does the same to us’. (…)

Gollum’s fish riddle (…) is echoed by a riddle set in the Old Norse wisdom contest in THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREK THE WISE (to be edited many years later by Tolkien’s son Christopher), and has a further slight analogue in a medieval poem from Worcestershire which Tolkien admired, LAYAMON’S ‘BRUT’: in this dead warriors lying in a river in their mail are seen as strange fish.  (…)  Gollum’s riddles, cruel and gloomy, associate him firmly with the ancient world of epic and saga, heroes and sages.

But Bilbo can play the game too; though his riddles are significantly different in their sources and their nature.  Three of them (…) come from traditional nursery rhyme.  But where, one might ask, does traditional nursery rhyme come from?  Tolkien certainly had asked himself this question (…).  In 1923 he had published a long version of the familiar ‘man in the moon’ nursery-rhyme, ‘Why the Man in the Moon Came Down too Soon’ (…).  In the same year he published ‘The Cat and the Fiddle: A Nursery Rhyme Undone and its Scandalous Secret Unlocked’ (…).

It may seem surprising that anyone should find nursery-rhymes worth quite so much time and trouble, if it does not quite extend to taking them seriously.  But behind all these rewritings and reminiscences lies the philologist’s conviction that, just as the children’s fairy-tales of elves and dwarves had some long-lost connection with the time when such creatures were material for adults and poets, so modern playground riddles and rhymes were the last descendants of an old tradition.  (…)

The difference [between Bilbo and ordinary people] is that he has not quite lost his grip on old tradition.  Nor, of course, have all ‘ordinary people’.  But they have downgraded old tradition to children’s tales and children’s songs, become ashamed of it, made it into ‘folklore’.  Bilbo and hobbits are in this respect wiser.  [His] unforgotten wisdom puts Bilbo (…) on a level with a creature from the world [of heroic saga and fairy tale] into which he has ventured.

~ Tom Shippey: Author of the Century: The Hobbit: Reinventing Middle-Earth

Cultured Wednesday: von Schwind’s Rübezahl

Rübezahl is a name of ridicule, the use of which provokes his anger. Respectful names are “Lord of the Mountain(s)”, “Treasure Keeper” or among herbalists “Lord John”. In one Silesian folktale, he is called “Prince of the Gnomes”.

Researching mushrooms, I experienced a blast from the past when this painting was presented as one featuring fly agarics:

Ruebezahle woodwose
Moritz von Schwind’s 1851 painting of Rübezahl

My, that brought back childhood memories long forgotten.  After re-reading a summary of the story of how Rübezahl came by his name, I remembered that, indeed, I have known this story for many, many years, and for some unknown reason always connected the figure with The Hall of the Mountain King.  I guess this painting is what shaped my internal image of any woodwose-type of character from Rübezahl to Krampus straight to the Mountain King (whose mountain, of course, is surrounded by deep, dark forests, at least in my imagination).  Apparently, he has become something of a patron “saint” of mountain climbers, however that would have come about.

According to the Wiki, Moritz von Schwind (21 January 1804 – 8 February 1871) was an Austrian painter, born in Vienna, and his primary genius was lyrical.  He drew his inspiration from chivalry, folklore, and the songs of the people.  Schwind died in Bavaria and was buried in Munich.

Back to Rübezahl though:  He appears to have been the embodiment of opposites, neither good nor evil, and nowhere in the middle either.  He appears to have been an either-or-character.

Denn Freund Rübezahl sollt ihr wissen, ist geartet wie ein Kraftgenie, launisch, ungestüm, sonderbar; bengelhaft, roh, unbescheiden; stolz, eitel, wankelmüthig, heute der wärmste Freund, morgen fremd und kalt; zu zeiten guthmüthig, edel, und empfindsam; aber mit sich selbst in stetem Widerspruch; albern und weise, oft weich und hart in zween Augenblicken, wie ein Ey, das in siedend Wasser fällt; schalkhaft und bieder, störrisch und beugsam; nach der Stimmung, wie ihn Humor und innrer Drang beym ersten Anblick jedes Ding ergreifen läßt.

— Translation: “Because Friend Rübezahl, you should know, has the nature of a powerful genius: capricious, impetuous, peculiar, rascally, crude, immodest; haughty, vain, fickle, today your warmest friend, tomorrow alien and cold; at times mild, noble, and compassionate; but constantly at war with himself; childish and wise, often soft and hard within a blink of an eye, like an egg dropped into boiling water; roguish and respectable, stubborn and flexible, depending on which mood and inner urging seizes him at the first sight of any thing.”

Musäus, Volksmährchen der Deutschen. Zweiter Theil containing Legenden von Rübezahl, 1783

The tale that I know best about him is how he got his name.  Here is a summary:

Rübezahl abducts a princess who likes turnips (German: Rüben, singular Rübe).  The princess gets very lonely there in the mountains (maybe this is why I thought of the Hall of the Mountain King).  To keep her company, Rübezahl turns turnips into her friends and acquaintances.  As the turnips wilt after a little while, so do the persons that are created by Rübezahl’s magic.  The princess asks him to count (zählen) the turnips in the field.  While he counts, she escapes, hence the name turnip-counter, Rübenzähler, or Rübezahl, which was entered into the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica as “Number Nip”.

Here is some what the Wiki says about Rübezahl in Legend:

In legends, Rübezahl appears as a capricious giant, gnome, or mountain spirit.  With good people he is friendly, teaching them medicine and giving them presents.  If someone derides him, however, he exacts a severe revenge.  He sometimes plays the role of a trickster in folk tales.

The stories originate from pagan times.  Rübezahl is the fantastic Lord of Weather of the mountains and is similar to the Wild Hunt.  Unexpectedly or playfully, he sends lightning and thunder, fog, rain and snow from the mountain above, even while the sun is shining.  He may take the appearance of a monk in a gray frock (like Wotan in his mantel of clouds); he holds a stringed instrument in his hand (the storm harp), and walks so heavily that the earth trembles around him.

 

Cultured Wednesday: Thoughts on Brownies

Something to ponder as you go about your business today, wondering where your car keys might have ended up this time.

Although I chose two of Arthur Rackham’s brownies for illustration purposes, this post is not about Arthur Rackham, the book illustrator, but about the Brownie, his model.

house sprite
A brownie sweeping with a handmade broom by Arthur Rackham

Rackham most famously illustrated fairy tales and the fairies, brownies, hobs, Heinzelmännchen, sprites, undines and nisse in them.  If you have ever read Grimm’s “Children’s and Household Tales”, or Hans Christian Anderson’s “Fairy Tales”, or William Butler Yeats’ “Irish Folk and Fairy Tales”, or any other European collection of poems and stories, you surely know the Little People who I am talking about.

But did you know that these little household companions used to be far more than helpers for decent people and pests for lazy scullery maids?  They used to be understood and revered as the souls of our dead ancestors.  In fact, it appears as though Europeans, more precisely Proto-Indo-Europeans, first experienced the existence of something beyond their material experience when they were confronted with death.  If you look at different types of household deities, you will find that they are wide-spread in European mythology and fairy tales.

Consider:

“This religion of the dead appears to be the oldest that has existed among this race of men.  Before men had any notion of Indra or of Zeus, they adored the dead; they feared them, and addressed them prayers.  It seems that the religious sentiment commenced in this way.  It was perhaps while looking upon the dead that man first conceived the idea of the supernatural, and began to have a hope beyond what he saw.  Death was the first mystery, and it placed man on the track of other mysteries.  It raised his thoughts from the visible to the invisible, from the transitory to the eternal, from the human to the divine.”

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges: “La Cité Antique” (The Ancient City), 1864, p. 28-29

In other words, Brownies originated as domestic tutelary spirits, very similar to the Lares of ancient Roman tradition.  Jacob Grimm equated the Roman lar familiaris to the brownie and explains in his “Deutsche Mythologie”, in good linguistic manner, thus:

“Larva betrays its affinity to lar…, and the good kindly lares were often held to be manes or souls of departed ancestors.  So in our German superstition we find instances of souls becoming homesprites or kobolds, and still oftener is there a connexion between unquiet spirits and spectres.”

A tutelary is a guardian deity or spirit.  He can be a patron of a particular place, be it a geographic feature or a homestead.  He can also be a protector of a person, lineage, people, culture, or even occupation.  In late late Greek and Roman religion, one type of tutelary deity, the Genius or Juno, functioned as the personal deity of an individual from birth to death, very similar to the concept of the guardian angel in the Christian tradition.

Another form of personal tutelary spirit are the spirits of European folklore, and those are the kinds we are so familiar with, the little men and women who danced through our childhood dreams, who populated our childhood gardens, who we expected to catch in the closet or behind the curtain if only we could be quick and quiet enough.

If you look into Ancient Greek and Roman religious practices, you will find how these deities related to the ancestors.  In essence, they believed that upon death, the soul and the body of the deceased person did not separate, which is why a proper burial was so very important to the Greeks and Romans back in the day.  Homer and Virgil give plenty of examples of this.  Because the soul stayed with the bones that were buried in the crypt or catacomb, the family was responsible for providing their ancestors with a peaceful rest (hence R.I.P.) by offering food and libations to them.  This was done on little household altars, or hearths, on which live coals were kept as the sacred fire.  As long as the family was alive, so were the coals, and it was the responsibility of the head of the household to tend to them: A cold hearth meant that the family line was ended.  If a family neglected the rites and did not provide food and drink, their ancestors would have no peace in death and plague their living family members with diseases and ill fortune until the proper rights were restored, while ancestors that were well cared for were protectors of the family, tutelary spirits as described above.

Isn’t it fascinating how something that is from of old, that has been formative for our people from the very beginning, is still right here and accessible to us today?  People as formidable as C.G. Jung didn’t tire pointing out the significance of fairy tales for our psychological health because they provide a bridge to that within us which is from ancient times.

Consider this in connection with Jung’s collective unconscious:

“It is a strong proof of the antiquity of this belief, and of these practices, to find them at the same time among men on the shores of the Mediterranean and among those of the peninsula of India.  Assuredly the Greeks did not borrow this religion from the Hindus, nor the Hindus from the Greeks.  But the Greeks, the Italians, and the Hindus belonged to the same race; their ancestors, in a very distant past, lived together in Central Asia.  There this creed originated and these rites were established.  The religion of the sacred fire dates, therefore, from the distant and dim epoch when there were yet no Greeks, no Italians, no Hindus; when there were only Aryas.  When the tribes separated, they carried this worship with them, some to the banks of the Ganges, others to the shores of the Mediterranean.  Later, when these tribes had no intercourse with each other, some adored Brahma, others Zeus, and still others Janus; each group chose its own gods; but all preserved, as an ancient legacy, the first religion which they had known and practised in the common cradle of their race.”

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges: “La Cité Antique” (The Ancient City), 1864, p. 35

Something to ponder as you go about your business today, wondering where your car keys might have ended up this time.

 

Featured, you see Rackham’s illustration “O waken, waken, Burd Isbel”, from Young Beichan, Child ballad number 53; here in all its beauty:

brownie rackham2
“O waken, waken, Burd Isbel”, from Young Beichan, Child ballad number 53

 

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