While this week is centered on election furor and uncertainty, it’s been full of good things, too: research sessions into the meaning of fantasy that felt like deep-sea diving, class presentations on sacramentalism, Anthroposophy, and labyrinths, carrot cake and chamomile tea and walks in the wind-ruffled woods.
This week’s contribution to the Thresholds project is a work of beauty and mystery. In a pen and watercolor illustration, one of my classmates in the Theology and the Arts program, Karlee Lillywhite, explores the thresholds between sea/land, community/isolation, home/away…and more. I was Karlee’s partner for this project, so I gave her the following artifacts to start with:
Sound of bells
She responded with the exquisite work below. As a writer and not a visual artist or art expert, I can only gape in wonder at her fine, delicate composition, skillful use of color (especially gold!), and dreamy representation of sea and sky, land and the human face. Enjoy!
Between Homes (Agnete)
by Karlee Lillywhite 6″ x 6″ pen and watercolor work on illustration board
This illustration is a scene from the story of Agnete and the Merman, which is a popular Scandinavian folk ballad about a human woman who falls in love with a merman and lives with him underwater. She has a family with the merman and lives happily with them for many years but one day, when she hears church bells ringing from up above, she becomes nostalgic for the land and wants to visit the surface. Once in the church building, she decides not to return to her underwater life. This painting depicts Agnete coming out of the water after her years below the surface. She is feeling the wind, breathing air, and hearing sounds clearly again for the first time as all the memories of her earth life and human identity come flooding back. An English version of the Danish ballad translated by George Borrow can be read here.
A closer look at certain aspects:
Karlee is a freelance illustrator who loves to tell visual stories that encourage experiences of longing and embodiment. Her work is inspired by women from literature and history and by the decorative motifs of medieval illuminated manuscripts and the art nouveau period. As a graduate student in the University of St Andrew’s Art and Theology program, she studies the devotional possibilities of illustration. You can follow her work and learn more about her process on her instagram and website.
Yellow spots are spreading across parts of the tree canopy; two sumac leaves out of every seven blaze scarlet and orange. The turning is happening earlier than usual because it’s been so dry, and it’s breaking my heart. I’m not ready for summer to end, even with an exciting year ahead.
This week, I reread Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing (a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”) and Cybele’s Secret, its sequel. They’re enchanting tales of medieval Transylvania and Istanbul respectively. I read them as a young teenager, and they taught me about Faerie politics and rules like “don’t ever eat Faerie food.” However, they’re pretty dark in places – a few scenes in Wildwood Dancing almost gave me nightmares. I recommend them as good examples of fairy-tale retellings and historical fiction/fantasy, but they veer a little closer to horror than I usually like.
This week’s Summer of Faerie post is also an excellent example of entwining history, myth, and imagination – a tale from the green hills of Ireland. Taryn Frazier captures the musical speech and traditions of the Irish people with a prose as clear and lovely as raindrops. Enjoy!
by Taryn Frazier
Mrs. Dixon, that old stickybeak, came early in the morning to see Bridget’s new boy. I’d heard the cries last night from the mother and then the wee baby, but I had my own little ones to tend to and the washing to do at sunup.
Imagine my surprise when I heard a scream from next door. I left the clothes in the kettle and ran out to the gate. I was just in time to see Mrs. Dixon hurry away down the lane as if the devil was after her, crossing herself with every step. Well, I gave my Deirdre a sweet and told her to mind little Tom a moment, and I fairly flew over to see what was amiss.
Saints and sinners, what a sight. Bridget lay keening on the bed, her face turned away from the cradle beside her—the cradle her man had made when Molly blessed their home not two years ago.
Molly had been a pretty baby, pink and round, with curls yellow as the shavings that fell from her da’s plane as he worked wood. She sat wide-eyed in the corner now as her ma cried and her da wrung his big hands. Bridget had always worn the trousers, as the saying goes, and the man was at his wits’ end.
I shooed him out the door. “Take Molly to my house. Go on, now.” Then I looked.
The baby in the cradle was as unlike Molly as could be. Thin and small, he was. A wispy bit of black hair came to a point over his brow. His eyes were almond-shaped, slanted like a cat’s, and little ears sat low on his head. “Oh Mary, Mary,” Bridget wept, “They say he’s a changeling child.”
He looked like no human child I’d ever seen, but for all that, I felt no fear. His face was peaceful and round as the full moon. The little thing began to root and fuss for milk.
“Wait, you,” I told Bridget. She scarcely heard me for weeping. I ran away down the lane and up the hill to fetch Old Sarah. If she had a last name once, only she remembered it. Old Sarah could work small magics. With my own eyes I’d seen her call a lamb from a ewe when the farmer had given both up for dead.
All out of breath, I told Old Sarah of the changeling. She took up her rowan staff without a word. By the time we reached Bridget’s cottage, Mrs. Dixon had returned, armed with a hawthorne switch.
“Careless woman,” Mrs. Dixon was saying, shaking the switch over Bridget. “Did ye not put cold iron by the cradle? Sure, the fairies stole your baby and put that elf in its place!”
Bridget cowered on the bed. The little one writhed in the cradle, crying in earnest now. Seeing Old Sarah and myself, Mrs. Dixon darted forward and snatched him up.
“Look at this hellspawn!” She thrust the wailing bundle at me. “You know the cure as well as I, don’t you? We must whip the imp until it speaks!”
Troubled I was, but before I could speak up, there was a crack. Old Sarah’s cane had come down on the hearthstone.
“Still your foolish tongue, Tara Dixon.” She took the squalling child and bore it over to where Bridget lay.
“Hush,” she murmured to the pair of them. She put the boy to Bridget’s breast. The poor woman could hardly look at him, but he quieted and began to suckle. Bridget hiccoughed and quieted too.
Mrs. Dixon spat, “’Tis a misbegotten thing, I say.”
Old Sarah rounded on her.
“Your God may err, but my God makes no mistakes. This babe is an innocent, fairy or no. If you touch him again, may your God defend you from mine.”
Mrs. Dixon puffed and spluttered like a cornered cat, but Old Sarah picked up her cane.
“Get you gone, or I’ll not cross your threshold when lambing time comes.”
Well, Mrs. Dixon left in a trice. Bob Dixon’s flocks were his pride and joy.
I tell you, I went home and hugged my Deirdre so tight she cried out, and I put iron nails beside Tom’s cradle that night.
On the morrow I kept one ear cocked, but I heard nothing from next door save little Molly’s chatter in the yard and hammering from the shed. The day after was the same. On the third day, though, I heard Bridget singing. She’d gone mad, said I to myself.
I went by—to get a bit of flour, that’s all. There she stood with her back to me, rocking the changeling boy, kissing his little moon face. All the while she crooned the old lullaby she’d sung over her Molly. A pair of iron tongs lay before the empty cradle.
I was gone before she turned about. Yes, Bridget had gone stark mad. There was no use keeping the fairies away now, was there?
Taryn Frazier loves reading beautiful stories, and she wants to write some too. Something that would make C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Tolkien, or Lloyd Alexander smile and nod. She lives in Georgia with her husband and four kids. She likes to spend time outdoors with the family, gardening, hiking, forest schooling, and swimming.
August is hot. Humidity hangs heavy in the air and (some mornings) paints fog on the windows. The leaves have darkened from their fresh spring green and hang limp, shriveled. I’m writing this while sitting on the back porch steps, my feet on the dusty earth and brittle grass, as our golden retriever sits in the middle of a lawn chewing a stick. Crickets murmur in the woods. Just now, though, a cool wind just came running through the tree canopy with that delicious rustling sound like running water.
My Faerie research has lapsed (somewhat) as I work through summer reading for St. Andrews. On our Montana trip, however, I read Charlotte E. English’s delightful Faerie Fruit, a tale with shades of Eden, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” and C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew mixed in with small-town intrigue and told with enchanting prose. The first section was my favorite, but the whole story was a fascinating look at food and eating in Faerie (a branch of study I need to examine further), community and friendship, self-control and desire, love and choices.
This week’s Summer of Faerie post also concerns choice and desire. Loren Warnemuende, who wrote a retelling of “King Thrushbeard” earlier this summer, also contributed an excerpt from her manuscript, Exile. It’s the first book in a trilogy named Daughter of Arden which retells the Grimm Brothers’ tale of “Maid Maleen.” I’ve had the privilege of reading some of the first drafts of the series, and it’s marvelous – rich, exotic, compelling, and gripping at every turn. I hope to see them in print someday. Enjoy!
by Loren Warnemuende
“Her Royal Highness, the Princess Maleen!” Minister Gooldon boomed. Echoes reverberated through the Hall, up against the arched stone ceiling and down across the glimmering windows.
At the front of the Hall King Darrick rose, and the assembly turned toward the center where Maleen must walk. She swallowed. There were so many people watching. Three days before she had stood here alone with her father when he had given her the incomprehensible choice—marriage to Prince Jared of Dranneth, or sojourn in a tower. He said the tower was the only alternative to the marriage, and both were to keep her safe from the looming war with the barbarous Kalomenn. Maleen had begged him to consider other options—if only he would consider Prince Melanor of Pandor, the one she loved, who loved her!—but the king wouldn’t bend and now she had to announce her decision.
Maleen took a deep breath, fixed her eyes on her father, and swept toward him. Colors swirled along her sides and the path moved on and on. She felt she traversed the history woven into each of the tapestries lining the walls, back to the dawn of Arden. At last she reached the steps of the dais. King Darrick stepped down to meet her and took her hands in his.
They stood, brown eyes to brown. She did not speak, and tried not to look down, forcing her face to give no signs of her turmoil. The hush in the Hall was almost unbearable.
“And so, Maleen?”
His words were soft, but they permeated her being and flowed through the Hall. Maleen lifted her chin, but her gaze dropped.
“I choose the tower,” she said, and the weight of the stone pressed in around her. But it was the only option that would give Melanor enough time to come for her.
The king gripped her hands tightly and a chatter of voices rattled like tossed pebbles through the Hall behind her. The king’s hold loosened, and he sighed deeply. He stepped up to his throne, leading Maleen to her delicate copy of his massive seat before he sat down. He motioned to a guard who stood by the council chamber door. The guard stepped within, then emerged followed by a man and a woman. They approached the dais and bowed deeply to the princess and the king.
“Princess Maleen,” King Darrick said, “I would like you to meet Sage Granimor and Dame Marietta. Granimor, as you know, will build the tower.”
Maleen nodded in acknowledgment toward the man with the wind-grained face and bulky shoulders. The man’s frame seemed out of place in the ornate hall.
“I am honored to see to your safety, Princess,” Granimor stated, looking at her with piercing blue eyes. He carried his authority as a sage like a mantle. Maleen wondered how honored the man really felt for Granimor revealed nothing.
“And this,” Darrick continued, “is Dame Marietta, who will join you in the tower.”
Maleen jerked her head toward her father, then turned her full stare onto the woman before her. Someone to accompany her? The thought had not crossed her mind! She assumed she was in this on her own—how could her father impose such a fate on anyone else? Then she realized her father would never force someone to join her. But who would come willingly? Not, of course, Maleen reminded herself, that they would actually enter the tower, but what if…. No, the idea was unthinkable.
The woman stood quietly before her and Maleen wondered what far corner of the castle she had been found in. Her hair, dark brown except for some gray at her ears, was pulled back loosely from her tanned face. She, too, had keen blue eyes that were fixed steadily on the princess, and her mouth was firm, but not tight. A blue sash tied the waist of her brown linen gown and her back was straight.
She stepped onto the first step of the dais and took Maleen’s smooth hands into her rough ones. Her eyes were now level with Maleen’s.
“I am looking forward to serving you again,” she said smiling. Her voice was low and rich.
Maleen gaped openly at the woman now. She was sure she had never laid eyes on her, and yet this peasant had the audacity to take her sovereign’s hand. Maleen closed her mouth, smoothed her face, and drew her hands away. Marietta, unperturbed, nodded slightly and stepped back to the foot of the dais.
Maleen saw her father frown faintly before he turned to her.
“Marietta has been a faithful member of this household since before you were born,” King Darrick explained. “She has worked in the library and kitchens, but it was she who nursed you your first two years.”
“Oh.” Maleen had no other words. She knew someone must have nursed her after her mother died, but no one ever said who. She’d never thought to ask. She stared again at this quiet woman who smiled at her with peaceful assurance.
The king waved his hand at the enigmatical pair, and with another bow they retreated to the council chamber. Maleen couldn’t take her eyes from the door where they exited. The rest of the Hall no longer existed.
Her father spoke beside her. “My dear, I hope you will continue your regular activities until the tower is built. It will be some months before it is complete.”
Maleen tore her eyes from the door but focused on her hands and didn’t look toward him.
“Yes Father, of course.”
He coughed slightly, and stood. She looked up into his face, trying to put away any feeling. The sight of his sad eyes, brows crumpled, and mouth compressed was too much for her. She stood quickly so she could avoid looking into his face again.
“You may go now,” the king said, his voice low. And then, “I will try to call you in more frequently, my child.”
“I—I thank you,” Maleen stammered blankly. She turned and stepped down the dais, moving toward the distant open doors, willing herself to remain calm and poised. She must be stalwart before her people. What would they think if she broke down now? And how could she let her father see how she felt? Let him show his pain! He should be anguished over sending his only heir and daughter into a prison. Besides, she thought, there’s no need for tears or tantrums! Melanor will come and take me away, far away, from all these people who pity me. She raised her chin again and left the hall with swift, unfaltering steps.
She had expected her ladies would follow. They had said they would stand behind her, and she thought they’d want to be there, if only for the purpose of scrutinizing her initial reactions. She had looked forward to venting her frustration onto them. But no one followed, and when Maleen reached the bottom of the Hall stairs she realized she was alone save the stony sentinels of the King’s Elite. She caught her breath, forcing down an unexpected lump in her throat, then conversely welcomed the rushing wave of relief that she was alone.
Maleen strode toward Ramia’s Garden, thankful there would be no unwanted company at this time of year. She wandered the paths in silence, trying to think only of the muted colors of winter. Eventually she settled onto a stone bench hidden in the rose arbor and wrapped her arms about herself to ward off the evening chill.
No roses bloomed, but the branches entwined the trellises, providing shelter from the cool winter breezes and possible prying eyes. The sun slipped behind the castle wall, but its ambient light cast a soft glow over everything. Maleen sat, drinking in the quiet, pushing thoughts away. Her eyes wandered, settling eventually on the brown stone of the Akklesia visible over the gardens. This building, a place of worship to the Mighty One, had stood for centuries here in Ardenay. It was a symbol of hope for the people—a center. It was only a small Akklesia, structured for the worship of castle inhabitants. Every castle and large town in the country had an Akklesia, most far more grand than this. But this one was significant because it was the first. Arden’s first king and queen had built it with their own sweat and blood, forging a core for their young kingdom. It was they who lit the first Light, the eternal flame that burned on a pedestal in the Akklesia, representing the Mighty One’s constant presence.
And what was the Mighty One’s perspective on Maleen’s situation now? Wasn’t he worshipped and honored because he protected his chosen people? Maleen was from the line of Arden’s kings and queens—the blood of the firsts flowed through her. Why didn’t the One Who Saves reach down and change her situation now? Why had he even let it occur?
No voice answered her questions; she hadn’t expected one. Instead the clear tones of the Akklesia choral girls rose, singing their evening hymn of praise. The single line of notes climbed sweetly into the clean air, dragging with it the lump lodged in Maleen’s chest. It rose into her throat and then mouth, and with it came the tears she had repressed so fiercely. A final ray of the sun lanced over the castle wall catching the roof of the Akklesia, and the water in Maleen’s eyes magnified it so it seemed to ignite and consume the building, annihilating hope. Without further care for appearances, Maleen lowered her head and sobbed.
When she was in fourth grade, Loren won a story-writing contest and decided that she’d grow up to be a writer. Since then God has led her into many roles including wife to her Renaissance man, Kraig, and mom and teacher to their three kids. Loren also teaches Worldview and Bible to high schoolers in a homeschool co-op, and adults at church. Through all these roles writing has been a source of hope and a way to share the stories and big ideas that fill her mind and heart. Loren lived most of her life in Michigan, but now calls East Texas home. You can find more of her sporadic writing on her blog Willing, Wanting, Waiting…..
I first read about the “Two Sisters” or “Cruel Sister” ballad in Patricia Wrede’s Book of Enchantments; she did a retelling with her own spin on it, so my story is as much a retelling of hers as it is of the original tale. It’s actually a troubling, gruesome story, technically a cautionary tale instead of a fairy tale (according to Angelina Stanford, fairy tales have happy endings by definition), but I felt drawn to it by fascinated horror, sadness, and a desire to reshape it. You can read about the ballad itself and its many versions in this article. I used this version of the ballad sung by Peggy Seeger. I also threw in some research about Scottish Fae and superstitions.
Along with this tale, I have Scottish news. After about five years of waiting, praying, planning, scheming, saving, and doing a lot of paperwork, I’m going to St. Andrews University in Scotland to study for a Master’s degree in Theology and the Arts. The program will let me explore the curious, wondrous region between faith and human creation: how does theology relate to art, and art to theology? How do artists-who-are-Christians integrate what they believe with what they create?
Most of my applications went to literature programs, and I was torn between this degree and one that focused more on the English-major topics I love. I meditated on the decision one bright, chilly morning in April, sitting on the black, red, blue, and gold rug in our front hall and petting our golden retriever as the sun streamed in. The choice came with a surge of joy: I felt that this program would best equip me to use my gifts for the Kingdom of God, to figure out how my writing can be an act of worship.
I have dreamed of going to grad school to study further since college and through various office jobs in a green farm town, silver seaport, and tinted-glass greenhouse. In those years of waiting, I often let myself sink into social media envy (a cliche of our age, I know): envying Facebook friends and Instagram profiles for their exotic vacations, gorgeous weddings, or grad school achievements. Now that I have a life event that looks good on social media, I feel shy.
This coming year is a divine gift, splendidly undeserved. It’s also the product of some hard and unglamorous work, like long periods of loneliness, bumbling through grad school research and applications, international wire transfers, and visa paperwork. Becoming a grad student is a fairy tale written just as much with stress and effort as beauty and adventure. And I’m so, so thankful for it.
Anyway, here’s my story. Enjoy!
True to Me
Our backyard was dim with dusk. The harbor’s salty breeze mingled with the smell of scallops and haddock grilling on the patio.
My older sister Eara’s navy dress smelled faintly musty after 11 months in her closet. It fluttered around me as I rushed down the stairs to the rehearsal dinner laid out on the patio, carrying a flat package.
My oldest sister, Aileen, sat with her fiancé, Mike, a tall man with dark brown skin, broad shoulders, and gold-rimmed glasses. Aileen leaned forward to let him whisper something in her ear. A wave of her dark hair fell onto the shoulder of her green dress. Her expression relaxed into a quick smile before resuming its concentration.
Don’t forget to smile, I remember Eara telling Aileen years ago, before Aileen’s first violin recital. Your concentrating face is kind of scary.
My nervous smile is scarier, Aileen had said.
I looked up at the trees; my little cousins, the other bridesmaids, and I had had a hard scramble to string the golden fairy lights up there, but the looping pattern matched my concept sketches exactly. They completed the atmosphere I wanted: warm, bright, and safe.
You’re quite the Maid of Honor, my mom had said when we finished the lights.
Eara would have been chill about it, I said. But at least I can make things look nice.
Turning to the gift table, I put my package with the other presents: a watercolor painting I’d done of a sailboat on this very harbor, with the land in turquoise and the sail a vibrant orange.
My temples ached with exhaustion; I hadn’t slept through the night in months. Dreams of the pale sun glimmering from underwater and golden hair rippling in a current interrupted my sleep. In waking hours, I kept seeing weird images flicker across peoples’ faces and in their eyes, like shadows or prism-cast rainbows.
Jack, Mike’s younger brother, sat under the maple tree with his guitar. He was leaner than his brother. His skin was a shade lighter and had golden undertones while Mike’s were amber. I squinted: his guitar looked…white? Pale and yellowed, like the whale bones hanging in the Nantucket High School.
I collect instruments that carry stories, Jack told me when I saw him at Easter. He’d showed me his favorite, a guitar his grandfather bought in Berlin in August 1961.
Jack cleared his throat. Our gazes met, and I smiled. He lifted his head slightly in acknowledgement. “I found this guitar on the beach last week,” he said. “And this song kind of wrote itself.”
He began strumming, and in that moment, the instrument in its hand shimmered like a mirage of water – and golden eye in it winked at me. I looked around, but no one else seemed to notice.
I’ll be true to my love, if my love will be true to me, Jack sang with his amber river-voice.
While these two sisters were walking the shore, Bow, balance to me, While these two sisters were walking the shore, The oldest pushed the younger o’er, And I’ll be true to my love, if my love’ll be true to me.
Audience members looked at each other. Whispers began like a breeze rustling leaves. “Kind of creepy,” my grandmother whispered loudly.
Then, Jack lifted his hand from the instrument, stopped singing, and stared at Aileen. The guitar continued to play on its own. Another voice, my older sister Eara’s summery tones continued:
While we two sisters were walking the shore, We, Aileen and me, While we two sisters were walking the shore, Aileen pushed me into the wat’r, And I’ll be true to my love, if my love’ll be true to me.
Oh sister, oh sister, please lend me your hand, Bow, balance to me, I never, I never will lend you my hand…
Gasps; heads turned to the wedding party’s table. Aileen and Mike exchanged glances, then stood, their chair legs scraping the stone, and ran around the table to Jack. Aileen grabbed the guitar, and they disappeared into the garden.
I was the still point of a turning world. Relatives and friends turned to me, their eyes wide. Last September’s memories rushed through me: the Coast Guard report, Aileen’s days in the hospital, the empty coffin. I walked to Jack, my high heels wobbling.
“Jack,” I said quietly. “What the heck?”
He met my eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “They had to know.” Studying his dark irises, I saw swirling mist instead of the long golden shore I glimpsed in there the last time we spoke.
“You’re confused,” I said. “Ok. Stay here. Tell everyone else to stay here and finish dinner.”
“Ok,” he said. I walked into the garden.
Last July, Eara had brought some grad school friends here for the weekend. I came back from my day camp job one afternoon to find them walking back from the beach, sandy and sun-kissed. As I closed my car door, I saw Eara drop her blue towel. One of the guys picked it up and put it around her shoulders. She laughed, flicking a strand of wet blond hair out of her eyes. I saw Aileen at the back of the group, looking at them. The guy was Mike.
Thick cedars screened the garden from the house. Lights glimmered on the harbor’s dark water. Mike and Aileen were in the white gazebo.
“Ow! Bracelet,” Mike grunted.
I walked to the entrance of the gazebo to see Mike hanging onto the neck of a black horse – snap – a black goat – snap – a black rabbit with golden eyes. He managed to keep his grip around the thing’s neck, hanging on as if trying to tame a wild bull with his bare hands. As the rabbit appeared, Aileen snapped her silver bracelet around its neck. It squeaked and lay still. Panting, Mike sat down with a huff, and she sat beside him, holding it in her lap.
Aileen saw me. “Mairi,” she said.
“Ai,” I said, my old nickname for her. My lungs felt small. “Why did that thing say you killed Eara?”
Aileen looked up at me, her freckles standing out more than usual. “It’s, uh…it’s hard to explain.” She looked down at the rabbit, then back at me. “Do you really think I would do that, Mair?”
I studied her eyes: hazel, with flecks of gold. A dappled light like the sun shining through green leaves shimmered over her face – no mist, no darkness, only green and gold.
“No, you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “But what really happened?”
Aileen tilted her head, studying me. “This is a púca,” she said, gesturing at the rabbit in her hands. “It stole Eara’s voice.”
“A shape-shifter?” I said, bending over to look at the rabbit. It panted, meeting my eyes with that gleeful golden stare. “Why would it steal her voice? She’s dead.”
“No,” said Aileen. “She was taken by the Fae.”
When you jump into deep water, you create a thousand tiny bubbles that hover and pop around you. I felt that plunge and tingling sensation now.
“Eara and I were researching the Fae in grad school,” said Mike. “Faerie is drifting towards us again, close enough to visit. She took something they wanted – we don’t know what. Sea Fae took her.”
“We’ve been searching for her all year,” said Ai. “We thought she was in the Aegean, so we booked our honeymoon there. But púcas are Scottish. This is from the Unseelie Court. So she might be there.”
“You knew all year that Eara wasn’t dead, and you didn’t tell us?” I asked. “Ai, seriously?”
“I know. I’m so sorry,” said Aileen. “We weren’t sure anyone would believe us, and telling stories about the Fae attracts their attention. Mike found a safe way to tell me everything after it happened. We…pretended to be dating at first when we were hunting for her, and then we ended up actually wanting to get married. And the wedding was a good cover for quest prep.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“You were in Florida,” said Mike. “Sea serpent country. They’re vicious. All Fae can be, really. And capricious, like this púca. It must have convinced Jack it really was Eara’s bones. I need to talk to him.“
“It means we have to act now,” said Aileen. “Before the wedding. Tonight.”
“Yeah,“ I said. “You two get your marriage license and go to the Aegean. I’ll go to Scotland.”
“Mairi, no,” said Aileen. “You don’t know the Fae.”
“I’m the third daughter,” I said. “You don’t think that matters on a quest? Or the ocean dreams I’ve been having about her?”
We stared at each other. “Second sight,” Mike murmured. Aileen mmmed in agreement.
Another strange feeling came to me: I felt that there were four of us standing here instead of three, and tasted snow.
“We‘ll find her,” I said. “Before the winter solstice.”
My gaze drifted to the harbor, into the waiting dark. A cool breeze brought me a hint of music, like a summons.
One of my favorite findings in this Summer of Faerie project was an essay by George MacDonald in which he argues (in a lyrical, wandering way that doesn’t really feel like an argument) that the purpose of a fairy tale is, like music, to awaken readers instead of convincing them.
He says (speaking of the author):
… where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.
This week’s Summer of Faerie post, a haunting poem by William Stark, honors MacDonald’s vision of a work of art as an aeolian harp or firefly. Reading it rewakened my memories of the stormy, brooding Anglo-Saxon poetry of my freshman “Intro to British Literature” course; the misty, musical words of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion; to the green hills and rainy skies of England’s Lake District. Enjoy!
Threnody: The Fallen Kingdom
by William Stark
Along the twilit road I trudged, yet seeming scarce to tire, as round about the raindrops muddied field and path to mire. No gleam of sun glanced through the gloom, no fire from hearth did flame, and all about was dark and cold, yet in that moment came a spark forth from my musings grim. that set my mind afire.
A dwindling, flick’ring, dying coal that gleamed with memory’s gold, recalling all the former days, those radiant years of old, when hearth and heart were warmed and filled, when singing never ceased, when friendship fair bound man to man, by doom nor foe released, and holy honor ruled the realms, as men of yore have told.
Castles and strongholds stout they raised, untouched by storm nor siege, whence warriors errant sought afar the kingdom’s furthest reach; and seven towers watched their strands, above the harbors still, and pillared halls they made themselves, and a city on a hill. For love and honor were their lords, and loyalty their liege.
These all shine clear before my eye, from flashing, noble past: the seven guarding towers pale, the ancient strongholds fast, the city white on verdant hill, that stoops to azure sea, awash in sunset’s golden rays from pinnacle to quay. But weep, for it could not endure, could not forever last.
The vision past, the towers fall, dissolving into rain; the sun-washed city on the hill gives way to gloom and pain. Its warriors sleep beneath the hills; their loyalty is dead, And only chill and dark endure, yet still I trudge ahead To wander on until at last my city I regain.
William Stark is a rising high school senior from Georgia; an avid reader of epic, myth, and fantasy; and a writer of both poetry and prose. His poetry primarily follows formal structures such as the sonnet and blank verse and has been featured at the Foundling House website. His prose work combines elements of high fantasy and science fiction, and most recently produced the first draft of his first novel. William also maintains a website for reviews of lesser-known children’s books, which may be found at www.realmofbooks.com.
Hot, bright days that burn the grass brown and brittle; dim, humid days when the air hangs heavy; gray, stormy days of booming thunder and sweet, cool rain. Lately, I’ve been enjoying the aurora borealis of Coleridge’s theology and poetry through Malcolm Guite’s Mariner, the golden web of mythology and folklore through D.R. McElroy’s Superstitions, the thick jungles and shining palaces of India through Joseph Jacobs’s Indian Tales, the green mountains and stone castles of Wales through the Mabinogion, and the silver dreaminess of legend through Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
While not every myth or fairy tale is my favorite (for instance, some of the monsters in Superstitions were quite shocking) I love how these stories remind me of the wonders of this world – fog on mountains, green tree-reflections on water, the glowing moon – and make me yearn to look over its edge into the wonders of eternity.
This week’s Summer of Faerie story expresses that same wonder with a burning brightness like fireflies at night. Rachel A. Greco retells Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale,The Nightingale, with grace and depth, using such vivid language that I feel like I dreamed it. Enjoy!
The Nightingale’s Song
by Rachel A. Greco
Travelers braved the Briny Sea, the Peaks of Misfortune, and the Sands of Time to hear the nightingale’s song. Brighter than summer’s sun, sweeter than roses, it left the stoutest warrior’s heart quivering. But only at night did the enchanting music flood the forest.
Although the nightingale sang in the forests surrounding his palace, Emperor Ghanzou had never heard or seen the bird.
One evening, while showing dignitaries the splendors of his palace’s porcelain walls, ambassador Rolf asked the emperor, “Have you heard the nightingale’s song? It made me cry like a baby.”
“I have yet to see or hear the bird,” the emperor growled, annoyed the men weren’t complimenting his sculptures. “How do we know such a creature exists? Perhaps it’s just the temple bells or a dragon’s song.”
“Oh no, your majesty,” Rolf said. “It must be a nightingale.”
“Then bring it to me,” Emperor Ghanzou commanded.
The men stood as silent as the jade statues, for they didn’t know how to capture a nightingale or even find one.
The kitchen maid’s daughter had overheard the conversation as she scuttled by to prepare their tea. “Please, your majesty,” she bowed before him, “the nightingale is a special friend of mine. I can convince it to come and sing for you if you wish.”
The Emperor stared at the bowed head and food-smattered apron, surprised such an insignificant girl knew something the men did not. “Bring it at once.”
The maid darted away.
Emperor Ghanzou awaited the bird’s arrival after dinner and told a servant to bring a net in case the bird was as splendid as everyone said.
The emperor’s fingers tapped against his jade throne. The windows opening onto the balcony let in moonlight and the fragrance of jasmine.
A bird landed on one of the windowsills. It was a small, simple creature. How could such magnificent music come from such an insignificant source?
The bird opened its beak, and Ghanzou no longer cared. Crystalline music filled his head with sunnier days, when life was simple and sweet. When he stole kisses from a kitchen maid whom he had loved but couldn’t marry. Tears streamed down his face.
When the bird stopped, Ghanzou blinked as if coming out of a trance.
With his permission, his servant leapt toward the nightingale with his net.
The bird darted out the window.
“Get it!” Ghanzou thundered. “I must have that bird.”
The reward was set, the hunters found, and the search began.
Although the sharpest-scented dogs and sharpest-sighted men trekked through the empire, they couldn’t capture the bird. Years passed, and the nightingale continued to sing, often near the palace, but the little bird proved too clever for the emperor and his men.
Emperor Ghanzou’s rage and longing for the nightingale’s music drove him to bed with illness. As his strength drained away, his anger and greed drained with it. All he wanted was to hear the bird sing one more time before he died since he hadn’t heard its song since the night it escaped.
One evening, when his coughs kept the nurse beside his bed, she said, “The nightingale has come to sing for you, your majesty.”
He turned and saw its small figure on the windowsill, its beady eyes examining him. “So you’ve come now that I’m dying.” He sighed. “I suppose it’s what I deserve for trying to capture you. Thank you for coming.”
The bird opened its mouth and sang. It sung all through the night, and the emperor smiled for the first time in a long time.
“Your Majesty, the nightingale has turned into a girl,” the nurse’s voice hauled Ghanzou out of the pleasant memories the song had given him.
The kitchen maid’s daughter sat on the sill, dirty and simple. But the dawn cloaked her in light.
“Who are you?” He asked.
“I am a nightingale by night and Chynna, the kitchen maid’s daughter who has no father, by day.”
She stared at her feet. “You didn’t want me as your daughter, so I hoped you’d want me as your nightingale. I didn’t want to live in a cage, though.”
She glanced up. “I heard you were dying, so I came to sing for you again.”
Ghanzou knew the kitchen maid had carried his child and let her stay on. But he had put them from his mind so he could rule and produce heirs. Over the years he had forgotten the woman and child until the music had reminded him. He gazed at the young woman. His daughter. Poor and filthy, but not as insignificant as he once thought.
“Come here.” He opened his arms.
She sank into them, healing him with her song.
Rachel A. Greco
Rachel Greco is a YA fantasy author who wishes she was a dragon. Her short story, Fairy Light, won an honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition and another was published by White Cat Publications. When not writing, she can be found reading, kayaking, or dancing with elves in the forests of her South Carolina home. Visit https://www.rachelagreco.com/ for book recommendations and news about her writing world.
The summer heat has overcome most of the flowers, though the orange tiger lilies and small pink tea roses are still holding out. When I walk by the river, ocean breezes just barely disperse the steamy humidity.
This week’s Summer of Faerie post probably should have been the introduction to this blog series – a look into fairy tale scholarship from a Christian perspective. However, I didn’t have it ready when I started in late May, so it provides an academic interlude after the delightful prose and poetry other writers have contributed.
Many wise scholars have walked this path before me, exploring the relationship between Biblical truth, faith, and the space between once-upon-a-time and happily-ever-after. This essay explores a few of their thoughts and my own experiences in the perilous realm of Faerie.
Fairy Tales as Lanterns in the Night
In the Cape Cod village where I grew up, the library had previously been the schoolhouse. It was a quiet, sunny building with gleaming wooden floors, framed Sailor’s Valentines made of seashells, and glass cases of wooden ship models. They kept fairy tales, fables, folklore, myths, and legends in the corner of the Children’s wing.
I returned to that corner over and over. These books filled my mind and fueled my own stories with images: golden palaces and dark woods, beautiful princesses and wicked witches, ravenous dragons and friendly enchanted frogs.
While I loved the excitement of these stories, I found that the more-developed characters and complex plots of fairy-tale-related books like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, and Edward Eager’s Half Magic series were even better. I grew away from the flat characters and simple plots of the original fairy tales, but still shivered with delight at the mention of enchantments, wizards, castles, sea serpents, riddles, and magic swords.
Since graduating from college, I’ve begun to explore literary scholarship more, especially the work of Christian scholars. I’ve discovered an army of great thinkers who believe that fairy tales are more than escapist fancies for children, but essential to moral formation, awakening wonder, valuing goodness and justice, strengthening courage, and clinging to hope.
Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridgesaid that reading of “Faery Tales & Genii” habituated his mind “to the Vast . . . I know no other way of giving the mind a love of ‘the Great’ & ‘the Whole.’” E. Nesbit, a fantasy writer from the Victorian era, argued that a properly educated imagination is like the light in a Japanese lantern: “It transfigures everything into a glory that is only not magic to us because we know Who kindled the inner light, Who set up for us the splendid lantern of this world.”
I had plenty of voices in my life that taught me to wonder at the vast and magnificent, such as my kindergarten teacher, who taught us about the magic of monarch butterflies, lady’s slipper orchids, and stars. However, fairy tales, especially beautiful illustrations like Angela Barrett’s, helped me accept and love the treasures of the universe: fiery sunsets over mountains, the smell of pine, golden pollen and pine needles floating on water.
G.K. Chesterton argued in “The Ethics of Elfland” that “conditions” of fairy tales teach us a “The Doctrine of Conditional Joy” that parallels the truth of the Bible: “A lamp is lit, and love flies away . . . An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.” Rules like Cinderella’s midnight curfew helped tune my mind to the holy restrictions of the Bible, which did not always make logical sense, like Moses’s disobedience at the waters of Meribah.
C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist, professor, and author of the Chronicles of Narnia (and many other books) fell in love with the Form of the fairy tale for “its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections, and ‘gas.'” A fairy story that leaves me wondering and a little mystified, like the Little Mermaid’s voyage to heaven (in the original tale) reminds me that there are mysteries on earth and in heaven too great for my mortal mind to grasp.
J.R.R. Tolkienargues that a fairy tale’s happy ending is a sudden “joyous turn” or “Eucatastrophe” that gives us “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” My child self learned to expect happy endings: spring after winter, health after sickness, and especially, Heaven after the difficulties of this life (which even I, loved and sheltered as I was, knew).
Truth. Joy. Wonder. Insight. With all of these brilliant voices before me, I don’t want to just repeat their thoughts – but I do want to consider them. How did fairy tales fill my mind and shape my heart?
I think of the little girl I was: a shy, moody bookworm who spent hours devouring books, a tree-climber in the Cape Cod woods, and a swimmer in the New Hampshire lakes. I preferred my curly hair wet because it looked more like a mermaid’s then, scribbled stories in dozens of spiral-bound notebooks, and acted out scenes from books or movies with my cousins. Fairy tales and other books gave me colors and shapes for my daydreams, vocabulary and information about the world, and a deep yearning for the eternal – the yearning that C.S. Lewis calledsehnsucht.
What did fairy tales do to me? They gave me visions of beauty and mystery: vice punished and virtue rewarded; battles and quests finishing with happy endings. They reinforced the framework that I believe is the real story of this world: the Fall that causes suffering, the Eucatastrophe or “joyful turn” that Tolkien described, and the happy ending that stretches into eternity.
Fairy tales gave me a hunger for the wild, the mysterious, the unknown. The lessons I learned through the green flannel-graphs of Sunday School or the boisterous songs of Vacation Bible School taught me goodness and truth, but sometimes made me think of my faith as something that belonged in white church buildings and wooden pews. Fairy tales and fantasies shaped my desire for midnight woods and perilous seas and green mountains beyond this world – a desire that is godly (just read Isaiah or 1 Peter).
To be honest, fairy tales did have some negative effects on me. They helped plant the false ideas of feminine beauty that our culture continually deplores and yet upholds. For a long time, I believed that vice would be punished and virtue rewarded right away, instead of after some years of undeserved suffering or prosperity. They made me long to be perfectly beautiful and good without trying at all, like a fairy-tale princess. Fairy tales gave me deep joys and fascinating ideas, but they were a golden framework, not the full picture of reality.
In our nightly reading time, my parents would read a Bible story and a “fun story” like Treasure Island, Johnny Tremaine, Treasures in the Snow, and The Rats of NIMH. It was the Bible stories that gave me a full picture of reality: the green Eden we lost, the devouring dragon, the righteous King who came to die on the Cross for us, the Spirit who comes like wind, like fire, the glorious kingdom that awaits us. Scripture tells the true story that is far more wondrous and beautiful than anything we sub-creating humans could make.
Snow White is not my favorite Disney movie, partly because I don’t like polka dots. However, the last scene, when the prince and Snow White ride up on his horse and see his castle shining in the sunset, still hurts me because it makes me yearn for the Kingdom of Heaven. Fairy tales, like lanterns in the dark, helped remind me of the true Light.
My research methods for this Summer of Faerie project have been quick, messy plunges instead of the careful, methodical, deep dives of a professional scholar. However, I am finding treasures. J.R.R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alan Jacobs, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others have explored the mysteries of Faerie, including memory, imagination, wonder, and beauty. My latest pleasure was finally reading George MacDonald’s The Golden Key, which I had heard about but not read – a sparkling, mesmerizing tale with echoes of dreams, death, and eternity.
The other writers who have joined me in this quest of celebrating and adding to the Faerie canon continue to delight. Rachel Donahue returns with another poem that “strips the veil of familiarity from the world” to expose “its sleeping beauty” (stole that from Shelley). Rachel also contributed a story that reminded me of a hearthfire on a cool, misty day – atmospherically, somewhere between the Shire and the Misty Mountains. Enjoy!
King Midas Chased Me This Morning
King Midas chased me this morning.
I saw him coming in the rear view glass, his broad reach spreading o’er field and tree and man alike, gilding everything in sight until he reached my pane, besmirched with dust, and I could see no more through the aurous wash.
As I fled, I turned to spy him rising there behind a tree, and when I least expected him, his fingers reached deliberately and touched my eyes till all I saw was gold.
Summer of Invisible Dragons
by Rachel Donahue
Plowed the back pasture today. Tom Shepherd came down the lane with his flock and brought word that dragons have descended from the top of Mt. Summit. Strange news. He’s not one to believe in fairy tales. I’m afraid he may have the dropsy mind.
Successful day at market. Folks love Mae Ella’s rhubarb jam. Stopped by the inn for a brew and heard a traveler saying that Dunn Castle is under siege by invisible dragons. The other patrons laughed at his strange tale, but his story gave me a bad feeling. I told Mae Ella about it and what old Tom said the other day.
Helped Mae Ella prep her flower beds. Sowed the back pasture.
Cut hay in the meadow.
Figured out where the story of invisible dragons came from. They aren’t invisible at all—you just can’t see them. A messenger from Allendale said the eternal cloud at the top of Mt. Summit has descended upon Dunn Castle where it sits at the foot of the mountain. The castle is completely hidden from view. Said he could see flashes of fire inside the cloud all the way from Allendale.
Baled hay. Mae Ella helped.
Went to a meeting in the square this afternoon at Mae Ella’s urging. Rumor reached us this morning that the dragons have spread from Dunn Castle to Allendale. Some believe the dragons can smell crowds, so they refuse to go outside. That explains why the market was so slow. Wish I could’ve stayed home myself. There’s talk of canceling the lantern festival next week, though I don’t see the reason for such fuss. We’re a long way from Allendale.
Smithy says there’s an inventor coming to Redfield to teach all the smiths from surrounding villages how to make his contraption—a kind of metal parasol. Says it’ll protect from dragon fire. Smithy’s already asking folks to give up their swords and shields and any other scrap metal they can afford. Says once the dragons get here we won’t have much use for them anyway. Not sure that I’m ready to give up my weapons on a hunch. But I did check the roof over and patch a couple places.
Mended the fence in the south meadow.
Word came that the dragons seem to have a taste for elders and are sparing the children. Maybe they’re attracted to the smell of menthol and camphor, I don’t know. But there’s a cloud over Sweetdale now, so they’re one step closer. There’s another meeting in the square tomorrow morning—only one representative from each family. Guess it’s up to me to go.
We canceled the lantern festival. Who could have imagined. We’ve celebrated this festival on the same day for hundreds of years. But we can’t risk attracting the dragons with large crowds. Our elders are too valuable.
Planted the garden. Feels strange to be sowing with the threat of dragons. Wondering if we’ll even be here to harvest.
I took my shield and extra swords to Smithy today. Never thought I’d be protecting my family by surrendering my weapons. Nothing makes sense any more now that there are dragons. They’ve moved on to Birchwood, so it’s just a matter of time before they get here. People are celebrating the lantern festival by placing their lanterns in windows. It’s not the same, but it’s a mighty nice view from our end of town to see so many little lights aglow.
A traveling merchant in the market today was selling what he called “dragon repellent”—a stink cream guaranteed to keep them away. He made some sales, but I didn’t buy it. Mae Ella asked around and found it was something she could make herself. Now the kitchen stinks to high heaven. I sure hope she don’t expect me to smear that stuff on when I go out.
Yep, she did. I smell so bad I can hardly stand myself. But I sure do love that woman. She makes so few demands of me, if she feels better with me stinking, I reckon I’ll do it. Good thing is, I’m not the only one. There’s enough of us wearing the stink that you can’t tell who it is that smells so bad. It might or might not keep the dragons away, but it’ll sure work on everything else. Even Bo and Bess won’t come near me. Glad the planting’s all done.
Well I never. I’m so cross I can’t see straight. Heard that our neighbors over in Greenfield are pushing their elders out of town, sending them out as a kind of offering to the dragons. Said they won’t be caught stinking or using funny parasols—they have the right to go about their lives like normal. Said if the dragons want the elders they can have ‘em, that way they’ll leave the rest of the village alone. Folks tried to tell ‘em it don’t work that way, but they won’t listen. We here in Redfield been taking those elders in for safekeeping. It may put us at higher risk, but with the stink cream and the parasols and everyone staying indoors, we suspect to be OK.
Got a nasty splinter while making stakes for the tomatoes. Mae Ella got most of it, but couldn’t get the last sliver. Elder Roy made up a paste to draw it out. I wonder what other useful things he’s got stored up in that head of his.
No market this week. Working the land with my parasol contraption close by. It’s a bit unnerving, having to watch and listen so close while I work, but I got to keep the farm going.
Folks is growing restless, what with being cooped up with the stink and all. The inn’s closed, and the taverns, too, and no one’s meeting in the square. I only leave to tend to my animals, and poor Mae Ella hardly leaves at all. It’s hard to see that sweet blossom withering on the vine, but she’s determined to take good care of the three elders we got staying with us. To pass the time we all tell stories of an evening. I’ve been amazed to hear what they’ve seen in their day, but it’s nothing like the dragons. They’ve never lived anything like this.
The dragons are at Greenfield. Maker have mercy. Some from town went to see if they could help, to carry them some cream and a few extra parasols, but it was too late. The cloud had already covered the village. We could see flashes of fire out west in the early morning hours before the sun was up. It’s eerily quiet here—no birds or chitterin, no wagons or talking. Everyone’s locked up tight now, just waiting.
The dragons passed us by. I’ve never been so scared in my life. We been spread out in the house, not more than two together, and all of us under parasols as much as possible. Only sound I heard for two days was a baby crying down the street and the animals restless in the barn. No one knows when they’ll be back or exactly why they kept going, but we’re all breathing careful tonight.
Still no sign of dragons here, but no one goes outside unless they need to. Taking every precaution. Got word from Greenfield today—the whole village is in mourning, hardly a family untouched. Some dead, some suffering burns, a couple houses charred to a crisp. Someone sent word thanking us for saving their elders from such a fate. The elders are mourning, though. They’ve lost more than most.
Been at Greenfield for two days, helping to clean up the remains. Mae Ella sent me off with baskets of food and all the extra stink cream she could spare. Only seven of us made the trip from Redfield, but we didn’t walk together for fear of drawing the dragons back. It was a lonely journey. I’ve worked so hard the last two days I ache in places I’d forgotten about, but I was determined to get home to my sweet Mae Ella soon as I could.
The elders have decided to return home. Greenfielders are staying indoors now and using all the stink cream and parasols they can get, and they’re in sore need of their elders. I’m mighty proud of the folks from our village who are stepping up to help and donating what they can. A few old misers in town are more interested in being right and teaching them a lesson, but I say that that poor village has suffered their folly enough without anybody else heaping coal on the fire. The ones of us who went to help the other day saw that plain enough.
Weeded the garden. Caught a glimpse of the firstfruits.
There’s a new normal around here. We live every day with the threat of dragons (word still comes of villages hit near and far) but we’ve been fortunate. Hard not to let our guard down when the skies are so clear. But we all care about each other too much to be careless. Even the ones that was skeptical are taking up parasols now that it’s hit so close to home. Some of the ladies done gone to painting theirs, making it a new kind of fashionable thing. I got to say I don’t mind it so much. Those little spots of color—like the zinnias that popped up in Mae Ella’s flower bed—just brighten up the place and help it not to feel so dark and dreary. Eventually the dragons will come—I can feel it in my bones—but that don’t mean we can’t take care of what’s here right now. If Mae Ella’s taught me anything in all my years with her, it’s that. We got work to do.
Rachel S. Donahue holds a B.A. in English and Bible from Welch College in Nashville, TN, and has more than eleven years’ experience changing diapers. She and her husband, Mick, previously lived and worked in Spain serving people groups at risk of marginalization. They now live near Charlotte, North Carolina, where they’re both involved in the family greenhouse business while raising three sprightly boys and a sweet-as-pie little girl.Visit her website/blog at www.thedonahuedaily.com. Her book, Real Poems for Real Moms: from a Mother in the Trenches to Another, can also be found on Amazon or bookshop.org.
June is flying by in a blur of hot green days and cool blue nights (I sort of stole that phrasing from Tolkien). Pink peonies are nodding in our garden and paddle boarders and kayakers have been cruising by on the river. I wish I could bottle up all this lush, vibrant loveliness and save it for some slushy late winter afternoon.
This week’s Summer of Faerie contribution is a short story by Loren Warnemuende, who has an Jane Austen-ish or George Eliot-esque mastery of character-creation. Whether protagonists or villains, she crafts believable, flesh-and-blood people with memories and desires that feel so real.
Loren took on a significant challenge in this fairy tale retelling by tackling the tale of King Thrushbeard, a lesser-known and highly shocking tale that would not be publicly acceptable today. If you don’t know it already, I highly recommend reading the original tale before you read her retelling. Enjoy!
Carla and the Prez
by Loren Warnemuende
When Dad said I’d better get a job or start working toward a degree, I thought he was joking. I mean, I didn’t need to rush. For years, Dad made plenty in consulting, and even though he was teaching at a university now we had enough for a good life. The thing is, when we moved from suburban Michigan to the piney woods of East Texas for Dad’s teaching job, all my motivation to do something was completely squelched. Maybe it was the crazy humidity that bushed my straight hair and zapped my energy.
Despite this, after Dad’s first semester he declared I’d have to do something productive. I told him I needed more time to adjust, but when he heard about a job fair in nearby Glimmer he dragged me to it.
Now, I knew there were educated people in this part of the world, but honestly! These job reps were the epitome of Southern redneck. I told Dad they were. One barbecue restaurant rep had a gut like a lard bucket. “Dad! He lives in fat!” I whispered. Then there was the hotel rep who called me “Dahling” and “Sweetie.” I told Dad that she’d never have gotten away with that condescending terminology if she’d been up north.
Every one of them was like that, but the clincher was the last—a guy around my age. When I stepped up to his booth, he tipped his cowboy hat and I blurted out, “Hey, it’s the President!”
Dad turned beet red and this fellow asked (in a perfect Southern drawl), “Sorry, Ma’am?”
“You look like G. W. Bush!” I laughed.
The guy stared at me, his face kind of white, and dad started dragging me off.
“Bye Prez!” I laughed as we left. He was cute.
“I can’t believe your behavior,” Dad hissed. “What’s gotten into you, Carla?”
“Dad,” I sighed, “You and Mom didn’t raise me so I could work for some local yokels.”
Dad ran his hand over his forehead, and groaned. At dinner the next evening, he put his fork down and looked at me.
“Since you won’t seriously look at work or school, we’ve decided you’ll take the first job we find you.”
“No buts. In fact, I’ve arranged a job interview for you.”
I cried, but Dad was set. The next day he drove me to Glimmer and pulled up at the local Whataburger.
“Are we getting lunch?” I asked.
“Oh no, this is it,” he smiled grimly.
And he sent me into a fast food place to interview! I almost walked out when the manager greeted me. I thought the job fair folks were stereotypical Southerners, but this guy! His name, he said, was Joe Bob and he had a set of real Bubba teeth. I endured his drawl and spoke very properly back to him. I mean, he was polite and I didn’t want to be rude, but I wanted to clarify the difference between us. Finally, he stood and stuck out his hand.
“Welcome to the team, Miz Carla,” he grinned around those awful teeth. “You’ll be workin’ with Mindie.”
I started the next day, and sure enough, working at Whataburger was boring. Glimmer’s a one-stoplight town, and we were never busy. Thankfully Mindie was fun, and entertained me with all kinds of stories about the area. Her ancestors had lived near Glimmer since Texas was a Republic, and before that hailed from Ireland. Her family had a signed land deed and red hair to back her claims. Even though she was biased, Mindie liked my stories about winters and the gorgeous clear lakes in Michigan.
Glimmer wasn’t pretty, but the pasture lands around it were. I looked forward to the daily rides in and out of town because I loved to watch the sleek cows and horses browsing in the early spring fields. Mindie lived near me so she drove me home each day. Every evening we took a little farm road to my house. The first time we spotted a white pickup parked along the road by a field and this cowboy leaned against the truck, his eyes on the setting sun and a camera in hand. He heard us and turned, touched his hat, then went back to his view.
I gasped. “That was Prez!”
“Who?” Mindie asked. “Wait, you mean Rob there?”
But it was him, the job fair guy. Mindie cracked up when I explained the nickname and agreed there was a resemblance.
“So does he live around here?”
Mindie looked at me like I was crazy.
“That field he was by?” she said. “That’s just one on his family’s ranch.”
Well that floored me. I started to wonder what kind of job he’d been offering. Every evening after that I’d see Prez there by that field eyeing the sunset, and I’d wonder.
Most people who came to Whataburger were pretty nice. I had to admit there was a lot of truth about Southern charm. Even when someone obviously thought I was a nitwit they were polite. Joe Bob, bad teeth and all, was a decent manager. He complimented my work and started giving me other jobs—he said I had good organizational and communication skills.
But then one horrible day came at the beginning of May. I was at the register when this guy strode in like he owned the place. He wore ritzy sunglasses and didn’t even take them off inside. His hair was slicked back and his expensive gray sports coat was slung over his shoulder. Leaning over the counter, he pushed his glasses down his nose and glared at me.
“Bacon and cheese burger,” he said, his accent straight out of the upper Midwest. “No onions, no cheese. Mayo, ketchup—no mustard. Fries. Large. And pop—make it a large, too.”
I gaped at him. It had been so long since I’d heard the Midwest accent it took me a second to understand him. I even had to mentally translate “pop” to “soda.” And he was so rude!
The guy stood and tapped his foot. “Well? I don’t have all day!”
I mumbled an apology and tried to put his order in. He’d so rattled me that I messed up; then he got mad and started calling me all kinds of names so I messed up again. Mindie organized the meal but when we handed him the tray he went ballistic and threw the whole thing over the counter at us. The soda soaked me top to toe. Then he turned on his heel and stalked out.
Mindie helped me mop up, but I was so upset it was hard to say how much of my soaked shirt was from soda and how much was tears. Joe Bob came in while we were still cleaning. When we told him what happened he looked worried.
“That was our new boss,” he said. “I think he was testing you, Miz Carla.”
“Well, I failed!” I sobbed. “Now what am I going to do?”
Joe Bob ruminated, then his eyes lit up.
“I got a job for you gals if y’all can spare an evening. My sister is catering barbecue for a big shindig tomorrow night. If y’all can help, the cash can tide ya over if y’need to find a new job.”
Mindie shrugged and I agreed reluctantly. Dad was going to be sad I’d lost my job. And, much as I hated to admit it, I’d come to like my Whataburger gig.
It turned out Dad and Mom had a year-end thing at Dr. Hart’s, the university president, so Mindie picked me up the next evening. We drove out through pastures wreathed with Queen Anne’s Lace and golden bitterweed. We passed the field where I always saw Prez and his pickup, but he wasn’t there. Eventually Mindie turned in at a set of wrought iron gates and worked our way up a winding drive through scrubby pines and live oaks. Suddenly we rounded a bend and the house opened up before us.
“What in the world?” I gasped. “This in East Texas?”
The house looked like someone had picked up a colonial mansion and set it down in the piney woods. Its brick face rose tall and classic, the front lined with cedars, and a multicolored gravel circle fanned out before it. Fields opened up behind gridded with pretty white fences.
“Oh, I know whose house this is!” Mindie laughed, driving us around the corner to the kitchen entry. “It’s President Hart’s house. He modeled it after Mt. Vernon.”
“What?” I strained around to see the cars pulling up on the front circle to let out visitors. “My parents’ll be here and all the profs who know me. How embarrassing!”
“Buck up,” Mindie said. “It’s an honest living.”
Joe Bob met us at the kitchen door looking scrubbed and uncomfortable in a bolo tie, buttoned shirt, and fancy jeans. He waved us into the lofty, flagstoned room and introduced us to his sister who looked a lot more polished than him.
“I gotta run and take care of other details, gals,” he said. “See y’all ‘round.”
Joe Bob’s sister put us to work and soon we were up to our ears in brisket and cole slaw. The wait staff scurried in and out to collect trays and I glanced out the tall windows at the back portico and manicured lawns filling with dressed-up folks. I couldn’t help but wish I was out there with Mom and Dad.
After a bit Mindie took a quick break. When she returned she caught Joe Bob’s sister who nodded to me.
“Carla, can you take out a fresh pitcher of sweet tea? I need Mindie here.”
My heart dropped, but I nodded and grabbed the pitcher, the glass slippery with condensation. I pushed out the kitchen door onto the portico and turned, only to see Prez—that is, Rob, the sunset watcher. He stood chatting casually by President Hart. Prez looked classy in his cowboy hat, his bolo tie glinting in the late sun. I stepped behind a pillar and swallowed. What was he here for?
“Carla, isn’t it?” One of the wait staff pulled up by me. He motioned to the president’s group. “Dr. Hart’s son was asking for tea.”
“Dr. Hart’s…that’s his son?” I stared around the pillar. The president’s son looked up as I moved.
“Well, yeh—his son runs this ranch,” the waiter said, rolling his eyes.
I squeezed mine tight.
“Excuse me, Ma’am. Could I get some tea, please?”
My eyes flew open to see Prez standing there, smiling pleasantly. His smile widened.
“Wait—you’re Dr. Moore’s daughter, aren’t you? Come on out and say hey.”
He took me by the elbow before I could speak and maneuvered me into the open. I stumbled a little and my pitcher sloshed this way and that. I tried to steady it, but it slipped in my hands. Prez glanced over, then paused as if to help, but that threw me completely off balance. The whole pitcher slid out of my hands and fell at my feet sending a wave of sweet tea up my legs.
“Oh!” I cried, and then I shrieked, “Ow!”
Little fiery pinpricks lit into my sandaled feet and up my ankles. I looked down and saw ants running all over their mound and swarming up my legs. “Ow!”
I started dancing and slapping like an idiot. Prez grabbed me by the waist and lifted me off and away from the mound. His shoulders were shaking with laughter, but he pulled out a handkerchief and bent down to wipe the beasts off of me.
“Welcome to East Texas, Miss Carla,” he said.
My face must have been as red as Glimmer’s traffic light. I could see folks gawking, and my parents hurrying toward me. My soaked legs and feet burned and ached from the fire ant bites and the aroma of sweet tea saturated the air around me.
But for all that distraction, there was something in the way Prez spoke that stopped me cold. I stared down into the kind eyes lifted up to me.
“Joe Bob?” I whispered.
He grinned then and stood, his hand in the pocket of his fancy jeans. When he pulled it out, he held a set of fake teeth—Joe Bob’s teeth.
“Aren’t you ‘Rob’?” I gasped, remembering what Mindie had called him.
He tipped his hat slightly. “To my family—yep. Joseph Robert Hart at your service.”
I was so confused and mortified. My folks came up and I saw Dr. Hart nearby. They all were smiling.
Prez had the decency to look chagrined, but Dad said, “Honey, I put him up to it.”
“No, Sir,” Prez said. “I’ll take the fall. You see, Miss Carla, I was fuming when you called me Prez at the job fair. I was so sick of that nickname from school days—it didn’t help that my dad is a university president. Then your Dad contacted me and apologized, and said if you shaped up you were more than qualified for the job I had. I decided I’d test you a bit and your dad agreed, so Mindie let me play my game….”
“Mindie?” I asked blankly.
“She owns the Glimmer Whataburger,” Prez admitted. “And she’s my cousin.”
“She owns it? But what about the new boss?”
Prez coughed and pulled a pair of snazzy shades from his breast pocket. He put them on and said without a hint of a southern drawl, “You gonna to get me some pop since you spilled all that tea?”
“That was you, too?” I yelped.
“Well, you enjoyed Whataburger so much I didn’t know another way to get you out here,” Prez said, removing the sunglasses and falling back into his drawl.
I shook my head, my face still hot. I looked at Mom and Dad who kept grinning like fools, then at Dr. Hart who was trying to reign in a smile.
“Will you forgive me?” Prez—I mean Rob—said. “I shouldn’t get so touchy about who I am. I would have let up a while back, but Mindie was having fun getting to know you. You’ve shown in the past few months that there’s a lot more to you than some sassy-mouthed northerner. You’d do great in the office management job we have if you want it.”
He looked so sincere and apologetic. I sighed and looked down at the welts rising all over my feet.
“I forgive you. I’m sorry I was so rude,” I said. “If you can forgive me, I think I’d like to take that job you have…as long as I don’t have to deal with obnoxious northerners or fire ants.”
When she was in fourth grade, Loren won a story-writing contest and decided that she’d grow up to be a writer. Since then God has led her into many roles including wife to her Renaissance man, Kraig, and mom and teacher to their three kids. Loren also teaches Worldview and Bible to high schoolers in a homeschool co-op, and adults at church. Through all these roles writing has been a source of hope and a way to share the stories and big ideas that fill her mind and heart. Loren lived most of her life in Michigan, but now calls East Texas home. You can find more of her sporadic writing on her blog Willing, Wanting, Waiting…..
They read us tons of picture books in school: books about Johnny Appleseed, Jackie Robinson, Paul Bunyan, apple-picking, and a menagerie of animals. We would sit cross-legged in a circle on braided rugs, watching the teacher hold the book out so we could see the pictures.
We read fairy tales, my favorite: Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and others.
We read histories and historical fiction: books about the American Revolution and Civil War, Underground Railroad, pioneers, World Wars, and astronauts.
I read on my own, too: I still love the Hutchinson Treasury of Children’s Literature and got a copy for our library. I also bought a Treasury of Children’s Literature anthology and a Beauty and the Beast picture book by Max Eilenberg, illustrated by Angela Barrett. The magic of these illustrations overwhelmed me; I would sit for unnecessary lengths of time, studying the luminous colors and fantastic scenes. They opened a world of beauty, mystery, magic, and adventure I yearned to enter.
Illustrations from top left moving clockwise: “Snow White,” retold by Josephine Poole, illustrated by Angela Barrett; Beauty and the Beast, retold by Max Eilenberg, also illustrated by Angela Barrett; The Thorn Rose by the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Errol Le Cain.
The fairy tale illustrations I loved had one particular characteristic: as tales from the United Kingdom and Europe, they usually featured, well, white people. I remember a fair amount of gorgeous tales with Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and other Asian characters, but most of the picture book illustrations I remember that featured people of African heritage were historical or realistic fiction about dark times in American history: slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Illustrations from top left moving clockwise: “Prayer at Valley Forge” by Arnold Friberg; A Picture Book of Jackie Robinson by David A. Adler, illustrated by Robert Casilla; Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, illustrated by Renée Graef; “The Underground Railroad in Indiana.”
Illustrations shape our visual imaginations. I began to separate in my imagination the fairy-tale world of golden palaces and enchanted forests, inhabited by magical creatures and white people, from the real world of plantation fields, brick buildings, gray cities, cruelty, and injustice inhabited by white and black people.
I read lots of chapter books, too. The Dr. Dolittle books are funny, and sweet, and adventurous, but the first one has a peculiar scene: Dr. Dolittle and his animal friends have gone to Africa to help with a terrible sickness among the monkeys. While there, the crew is chased around by the local inhabitants, the Jolliginki. Prince Bumpo, the heir of this kingdom, strikes a deal with Dr. Dolittle: he will let Dr. Dolittle and his crew out of prison and get them a ship back to England if Dr. Dolittle can make him white. He describes why:
“White Man, I am an unhappy prince. Years ago I went in search of The Sleeping Beauty, whom I had read of in a book. And having traveled through the world many days, I at last found her and kissed the lady very gently to awaken her—as the book said I should. ’Tis true indeed that she awoke. But when she saw my face she cried out, ‘Oh, he’s black!’ And she ran away and wouldn’t marry me—but went to sleep again somewhere else. So I came back, full of sadness, to my father’s kingdom. Now I hear that you are a wonderful magician and have many powerful potions. So I come to you for help. If you will turn me white, so that I may go back to The Sleeping Beauty, I will give you half my kingdom and anything besides you ask.”
Dr. Dolittle agrees, and creates a mixture from his medical bag that transforms Prince Bumpo from a man with dark skin and brown eyes to a man with skin “white as snow” and eyes that are a “manly gray.” Prince Bumpo is thrilled and fulfills his end of the bargain.
Remembering and rereading this fills me with sadness – and shame. I remember that I didn’t question this scene at all when I first read it, though I knew racism was wrong. As a kid, I could not picture a black person living in the fairy-tale world of silver castles and green mountains, defeating dragons or rescuing princesses.
(Note: In the The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, Prince Bumpo returns. The mixture has worn off, and he has resumed his original appearance. He is a friend and companion in this book, though his characterization and the descriptions and dialogue surrounding him are horribly racist.)
My division between a mythical land of white people and a real world where minorities faced cruelties and injustice was, of course, wrong. Imagination and wonder are a divine gift to all humans. The Kingdom I ached for – a land of beauty, mystery, wonder, and adventure – is real, and it is the heritage of Christ-followers from every tongue, tribe, and nation:
Isaiah 2:2 (ESV): It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it . . .
Revelation 7:9-10 (ESV): After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Isaiah and Revelation remind me: Elohim, the Creator-God who made all people, is our Judge. Our genetic differences are glorious signs of His imagination and creativity. We are accountable to Him for how we treat each other.
How does this influence this Summer of Faerie project, an exploration of the meaning and magic of fairy tales? For one thing, every tongue, tribe, and nation has legends and stories of wonder and mystery; this investigation will be infinitely richer if it is global. I also found some more recently-published retellings of some of my old favorites with diverse characters. The illustrations are, frankly, adorable:
We need good, beautiful stories that are true; that shape our imaginations and open our eyes. More than that, we need God’s story: His tale of sin and the Fall, evil and injustice, hope and restoration in a Kingdom of light.
If you know of any other beautiful, culturally-diverse fairy tale picture books or fairy tale retellings, could you leave a comment with a picture or a link?