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PhD Candidate, University of Colorado, Boulder

Dragons Everywhere! Part 1: The Dragons of Wales


Medieval Dragon

At their most typical, dragons tend towards multi-limbed varieties; the most typical variation being four legs and pair of wings. Others tend towards a pair of wings with one or no pairs of legs (wyverns) or no legs or wings (worms). Whatever their configuration, two things are certain about dragons: (1) they are reptilian and (2) they are magical.


Legends of Dragons – Red Dragon of Wales

So whatever lizard, snake, crocodile, or basilisk you encounter in the course of your day, be assured that unless you observe them doing magical things they are unlikely to be true dragons. For example, Drac’o Volans, the flying “dragon” of Southeast Asia, was mistakenly designated as a “dragon” despite its lack of  magical properties…  that we know of. (The flying dragon to the left, is however, the flying dragon of Wales, so chosen because William Morris was of Welch descent).  So too the draconist must take care in handing out the designation “draco” as new varieties of flying reptiles are encountered.


Winged Dragon of Southeast Asia

At any rate,  many draconids with configurations other than as described above also exist. Moreover, it is important for draconian scholars to understand that the definition allows for non-flying varieties. Here I introduce some from an authoritative bestiary of dragon types with their accompanying legends. It’s important to note that unless a dragon bears its own myth and legend, it’s unlikely we have ever heard about them. While that is also true for many things, it’s also poignantly true for dragons.

The Red Dragon of Wales

William Morris Tile: Red Dragon of Wales from the Coat of Arms o

The Red Dragon of Wales

Two of the most famous dragons are described in Geoffrey de Monmouth’s history; and since this story includes the great magician Merlyn, the story is obviously true.

When the warlord Vortigern usurped the throne of Roman Britannia, he promptly caused the building of a great tower. Despite having hired the greatest of Roman architects, no matter what structure was built it would be torn down by the next day. Having heard of a young magician who seemed to understand architecture (the reader will recall that  Merlyn would later build Camelot), Vortigem consulted with the magician on how to solve this dilemma.

The young Merlyn explained that all attempts to build a tower would fail as long as two dragons were fighting under the ground. As the builders dug deeper into the earth, to their amazement they discovered that Merlyn was right, a red dragon and a white dragon were fighting in a subterranean pool underneath the location. Now liberated from their watery tomb, the two dragon continue their fight until the red dragon defeated the white dragon.  Merlyn explained that the red dragon represented forces that would overthrow Vortigern. As it turns out, Uther Pendragon, the legitimate heir to the Emperor Constans in Britain and Arthur’s father, raised a dragon banner and overthrew the tyrant. Ever since then the Red Dragon has been the standard of Wales and its most readily recognizable symbol, especially since it appears on the Welsh flag and on license places.


The standard rendering of the Red Dragon of Wales. Cymru is what the Welsh call their country.

Strangely enough, there are no more dragons in Wales. Here is the story about the last one. This is a story about a “worm,” as wingless, legless dragons are typically called. But let the reader be warned, as the Lambton family learned, that they are magical nevertheless.

The Lambton Worm


The Lambton Worm

John Lambton was a rebellious fellow who skipped church one Sunday to go fishing. While enjoying this break from devotion, he fished out a small dragon no larger than his thumb (some say it was much bigger). An old man passing by saw this and told the recalcitrant John that he had caught the Devil. John believed him and threw the creature down a well. In order to make up for his rebelliousness, John then left for the Crusades, forgetting all about the dragon.

Lambton Worm

Cigarette card from the Churchman Legends of Britain series, early 20th century

As the years passed, the dragon grew larger and poisoned the well, because that is what worms magically do when left in water.  The villagers noticed that livestock were missing and in the process of looking for the missing livestock, discovered the traks of the dragon all over a nearby hill.  Alas, John’s family became destitute as the dragon ravaged the Lambton estate.

Many years passed.  John returned from the Crusades and was distraught to learn of the troubles at home. Upon consulting a witch, he learned that  he was the one responsible for the Worm and therefore it must be he who would kill it.  But the witch also warned him that because of the dragon’s magic, John must also kill the first living thing he encounters after killing the dragon or else the Lambton family would be forever cursed! So John told his family that upon killing the dragon, he would sound his horn three times, after which they must release a hound for John to kill and ward off the dragon’s curse.

John fought the dragon near a river and cleverly chopped it into pieces so that it could not heal itself (this is also part of the worm’s magic) and in so doing, he vanquished the dragon. However, on sounding his horn three times, his family members were so happy that the dragon was vanquished that they forget to free the hound. Instead they all ran out to John to congratulate him on their newfound freedom. The first person John saw was his father, who of course John could not bear to kill. This is why all the Lambton’s seemed to die either tragically or in battle from then on.

Welsh Wyverns (Gwiber)



Although some scholars claim that Wyverns aren’t dragons, people who have experienced them know better. This was especially true for the people of Emlyn, a town in Wales. On a fine summer’s day, and for no apparent reason, a two legged dragon, that is to say a wyvern, landed the town’s tower breathing smoke and fire and making threatening glances at the townsfolk.  After some minutes of this, the wyvern promptly went to sleep. This was, as you might imagine, very disturbing for the townspeople.  The mayor called a meeting to decide what to do as the wyvern slept. One soldier devised a plan to lure the gwiber (which is Welsh for wyvern) off the tower in order to kill it. He floated a large red cloak down the river and asked the townsfolk to wake the wyvern up. Most of the townsfolk were not soldiers and their courage failed them.  They refused to wake the wyvern.  So the soldier climbed the tower and stabbed the gwiber in the belly and then ran away to safety!

On waking, the gwiber saw the cloak floating down the river and rushed off to attack it and tore the cloak to shreds. Alas! the gwiber had been so wounded by the stab in the belly that she lost so much blood and then died. The gwiber turned over on its back and floated down the river,  its venomous blood turn the river red, killing all the fish in the river. Despite the loss of the fish, the townspeople were overjoyed at the death of the dragon and celebrated. No one knows what became of the soldier who ran away after stabbing the dragon, but no dragon has ever been seen in Wales again.

For more on Dragons and Wales

Where most of the images here come from

Another great resource for Dragon images.

A brief history of Wales

“Here be Dragons!”, a novel about Wales in the 13th Century

Where to get a Welsh Flag


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Shakespeare’s Fairies as Dreams

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare - 1781

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare - 1781

We see them only at the edge of sight, in dreams, so it’s no wonder that we are often confused by them. But the Bard did a turn with dreams of various sorts, and in his sight was keener than most others. See how he did his research:

Henry Fuseli - Fairy Mab - c1815-20

Henry Fuseli - Fairy Mab - c1815-20

“O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;”
— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s Speech

But Mab, she seems to have been plucked out of that nowhere we visit each night (which is her realm). But it was good enough for at least one other poet with a gothic tale.

Turner - Queen Mab's Cave

J. M. W. Turner, Queen Mab's Cave, 1846

Behold the chariot of the Fairy Queen!
Celestial coursers paw the unyielding air;
Their filmy pennons at her word they furl
And stop obedient to the reins of light;
These the Queen of Spells drew in;
She spread a charm around the spot,
And, leaning graceful from the ethereal car,
Long did she gaze, and silently,
Upon the slumbering maid.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem; With Notes

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1906

Perhaps even the Bard was confused for there is another with that title named Titania. Or perhaps Faerie is broad enough for multiple monarchs. At any rate, more celebrated than Mab, and older than any modern literature, is Oberon’s consort, whose dreams are made from fairies’ lullabies:

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakening - 1785-90

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakening - 1785-90

Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
— William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

But it’s well she were asleep, for in other forms that goddess is also the huntress we dare not bother as she bathes:

Hendrick van Balen -- Diana and Actaeon

Hendrick van Balen -- Diana and Actaeon

While Titania is bathing there, in her accustomed place, Cadmus’s grandson, free of his share of the labour, strays with aimless steps through the strange wood, and enters the sacred grove. So the fates would have it. As soon as he reaches the cave mouth dampened by the fountain, the naked nymphs, seeing a man’s face, beat at their breasts and filling the whole wood with their sudden outcry, crowd round Diana to hide her with their bodies. But the goddess stood head and shoulders above all the others. Diana’s face, seen there, while she herself was naked, was the colour of clouds stained by the opposing shafts of sun, or Aurora’s brightness.
— Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3

The Meeting of Oberon and Titania, by Arthur Rackham (1905)

Since Theseus is also referenced later in tale, it seems Ovid and Shakespeare had the same dream (or perhaps Shakespeare read rather widely, but that’s between us). At any rate, sweet dreams.

Image Links: Arthur Rackham at ArtsyCraftsy, Henry Fuselli at Art History Archive, Hendrick van Balen at Hellenica

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Damsels In Distress: Launcelot and Guenevere

Guinevere A'Maying by John Collier

Guinevere A'Maying by John Collier

Bulfinch returned; now he was wearing medieval jousting armor instead of his banker’s wools. He explained to me the story of how Sir Launcelot remained the queen’s lover, his forswearing after his failed quest for the Sangreal notwithstanding.

Guinevere (or La Belle Iseult) by William Morris:

Guinevere (or La Belle Iseult) by William Morris:

He intimated that there had been a plot instigated against him by the rumors of Mordred and his half-brother Sir Agrivaine, to entrap Launcelot while he was with the queen.

Their last hour, Florence Harrison

It was their last hour - Emma Florence Harrison, illustration to Guinevere by Tennyson

Launcelot escaped but the queen was caught and put to trial and then sentenced to burn for her crime. He then told of how Guenever was rescued. Placing one leg upon a stone he declaimed:

Then when Sir Launcelot had thus done, and slain and put to flight all that would withstand him, then he rode straight unto Dame Guenever, and made a kirtle and a gown to be cast upon her; and then he made her to be set behind him, and prayed her to be of good cheer. Wit you well the queen was glad that she was escaped from the death. And then she thanked God and Sir Launcelot; and so he rode his way with the queen, as the French book saith, unto Joyous Gard, and there he kept her as a noble knight should do; and many great lords and some kings sent Sir Launcelot many good knights, and many noble knights drew unto Sir Launcelot.

Lancelot in the Queen's Chamber by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lancelot in the Queen's Chamber by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This was not, of course, the end of the story. But that was all Bulfinch had for me that day. I spun around three times to find myself back in my own time. So putting on my running shoes with dove wings, I began to write this report.

Image Credits: Victorian and Preraphaelite Art, Emma Florence Harrison

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Damsels in Distress: How to Slay a Monster

Being part II of our series on….

Damsels in Distress: The Myth of Perseus and Andromeda

Rapunzel Singing in the Tower by Frank Cadogan Cowper

Rapunzel Singing in the Tower by Frank Cadogan Cowper

And by “agreed,” I meant he walked around a tree, returning immediately wearing a pair of steampunk running shoes with pigeon wings glued on them. Staring at me in confused bemusement, he tossed what appeared to be a stone carving of Godzilla, which landed with a “thunk” at my feet. The creature stared at me as if I were Tokyo.

“Perseus, continuing his flight, arrived at the country of the Etheopians” Bulfinch began, apparently from the middle of the story. He went on to relate how Perseus, looking down while returning from his battle with the Gorgon Medusa, saw far below the small and frail figure of Andromeda chained to a rock.

Perseus and Andromeda

The Rock of Doom by Edward Burne-Jones

Flying down, he asked her why she had been chained there. Out of modesty, she said nothing to the hero at first, but for fear that he would judge her wrongly, she related the tale of how her mother Queen Cassiopeia had, in her pride, boastfully compared her beauty to that of the Sea-Nymphs. In their anger, the nymphs sent a great serpent to ravage the coast of her country. To free themselves from terror, King Cepheus was directed by the Oracle to chain Andromeda, his virgin daughter, to the rock in sacrifice to that monster.

Perseus Slays Medusa by Aubrey Beardsley

Perseus Slays Medusa by Aubrey Beardsley

Just as she was finishing her story, the serpent raised its head out of the water and with great haste moved near to claim his prize. As luck would have it, Perseus was no stranger to great deeds, having defeated the Gorgon Medusa by beheading her. The hero sprang into the air with Mercury’s winged sandals, and landing on the monster’s back plunged his sword again and again into its neck. The monster retreated into the depths of the sea, then broke through the surface and appeared to soar in the air. Springing off the monster’s back, but with his wings now wet he had to wait for it upon a rock. Perseus nimbly evaded its attacks. Weakened by the failure of its repeated attacks, the monster lay still, floating on the waves, its breathing labored. As it passed, Perseus delivered a final death stroke, thus liberating the Etheopeans from the menace they had so long endured. Gratefully, the king and queen granted Perseus’ request to marry Andromeda.

“What about the Sea-nymphs?” I asked Bulfinch, “Weren’t they still angry?”

“Don’t know” he said wandering back into the forest.

Chapel of the Lists by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Chapel of the Lists by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I suppose I should have left then, as there seemed little point to any of this, but something told me I was dressed in Victorian attire for a reason. I fumbled for my pocket watch just in case this strange place had any appointments to get to–perhaps a tea party–a Jane Austen scenario–even a Gothic novel. As it turned out, it was a medieval one.

To be continued….

Image credits:  Victorian and Preraphaelite Art, Aubrey Beardsley

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Damsels in Distress: Psyche and Cupid

Being Part One of our series on:

Damsels in Distress

Chivalry by Frank Dicksee

"Chivalry" by Frank Dicksee

Having wandered into the forest, I had sufficiently lost sight of my origins to encounter a strange man who did not seem to be of this place or time.  After saluting me with one raised hand, he then grabbed me by the lapel of my tweed frock coat and began to recite the tale of Cupid and Psyche from memory:  “Psyche teneris et herbosis locis in ipso toro roscidi…”None of which was of much use to me as my Latin is limited to a few inaccurate aphorisms from Cicero, half-remembered catechisms, and assorted classical history references (veni, vidi, vici, etc). Sensing my difficulty, Bulfinch (for that was the man’s name) then switched to his native New England dialect and began the tale of Psyche, a lady who as we all know, had the misfortune of vexing Venus.

Psyche and Cupid

Cupid and Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones

Cupid Delivering Psyche by Eward Burne-Jones

The aforementioned Psyche had been gifted with a great misfortune–possessing great beauty, a beauty so great that no poet knew of any language on this world with words to describe it satisfactorily.

Psyche became so renowned for her beauty that the temples of the Goddess of Beauty herself were soon neglected; and this evoked the ire of that goddess. So Venus asked her son Cupid to place a curse on Psyche by pouring water from her bitter fountains of Love on her mortal lips.

Cupid was, as usual, invisible as he leaned over Psyche in obedience to his mother’s instructions. But as he did so, she suddenly woke and opened her eyes,  appearing to look directly into his.  This so startled Cupid that he accidentally pricked himself with one of his own arrows; and so it was that the son of the goddess fell in love with the most beautiful of mortal maidens.  In his love, he spared her the full bitterness of Venus’ punishment by pouring sweet water from his mother’s other fountain on her golden locks.

Alas, the bitter water had had its effect.  Despite her beauty, Psyche remained unmarried.  No man in the kingdom dared  posses this most beautiful of women.  At Cupid’s request, Apollo sent an oracle to Psyche’s father, instructing him to prepare his daughter for marriage.

Her father, the King, asked the Oracle about the fate of his daughter.  The Oracle revealed that their most beautiful daughter was destined to marry a monster.   The king was to send Psyche to a desolate mountain, where an ugly monster would meet her and take her for his wife.  The king and his queen were distraught and thought to shield their daughter from this fate, but were fearful of angering the gods.  Broken-hearted, Psyche’s father obeyed.

But Psyche very bravely understood that she had somehow incurred the wrath of the goddess.  Standing bravely alone on a rock,  she awaited her fate when a warm and gentle wind began to stir.  Cupid had sent  Zephyr, the West Wind, to bring his beloved out of her country and into his palace. There he bestowed upon her everything a princess could desire, except one thing: She must never look upon him.  Each night she slept with her new husband, not knowing who he was or what he looked like.

Psyche’s  life would get somewhat more complicated after that, including a trip to Hell wherein she places a bit of Proserpine’s beauty into a box.  She had opened the box to borrow some of this beauty only to find it empty and fell into a deep sleep, for the only contents of the box were, in fact, Sleep.

Psyche Opening the Golden Box by John William Waterhouse

"Psyche Opening the Golden Box" by John William Waterhouse

Indeed, this particular damsel needed some additional saving after her initial one. I said as much to Bulfinch, who agreed.  So he made up for this imperfection by telling me another story.

(to be continued)

* Apuleius, Metamorphoses, Book V (1)

Image Credits: Victorian and Pre-raphaelite Art Prints

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Fairies Prefer to Fly

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Fallen Leaf, Arthur Rackham.

"There is almost nothing that has such a keen sense of fun as a fallen leaf" from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Fallen Leaf, Arthur Rackham.

We were reviewing the various Arthur Rackham resources in our library (we like to call it that despite its disorganized state) in search of a particular image. The various fairies looked up over the pages to see if they could help. This being winter (and there had been snow), we were surprised that there were still leaves that could be blown.

Exquisite Fairy Dancing by Arthur Rackham

"Exquisite Fairy Dancing " from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Arthur Rackham.

But fairies are nothing if not resourceful and prefer flight to other means of transportation even when they are feeling “dancey.”

A Fairy, Arthur Rackham

A Fairy, Arthur Rackham

At any rate, all the music, dancing and urging towards flight forced us to find the best means of keeping them from causing mayhem or tying up the cats! So we thought that postcards would be a good means of getting the fairies involved in better things than this usual mischief.

Puck and a Fairy (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

If you need fairies to help you send messages to fellow mortals via postcards, you will find them here.

Image sources: Arthur Rackham

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Art Passions Christmas Tree Attracts Stories

It was the first freezing day of the season as temperatures dropped below the point where one could still debate on whether or not to wear gloves outdoors. It was a Noble Fir that caught our eye, shaken and bundled and tied, that made its way back home. The cats took an immediate fancy to it (of course) but it had to stand in water overnight to acclimate before we dared decide which of various years’ decorations were worthy of it.

The morning found several stories waiting to be told.

The three kings

The three kings

The three kings showed up with stern expressions and a Gothic manner, rather unusual for oriental gentlemen. The gifts seemed to have turned military as a testament to these troubled days. One can’t help but smile at their sincerity.

Mother Goose flying in with jester and military escort

Mother Goose flying in with staff jester and military escort

Not to be outdone, Mother Goose enlisted her own martial escort and promptly took charge of her sector of the tree. The presence of her jester is certain to provide some interesting diversions during the anticipated arboreal diplomatic squabbles.

The mouse prince and his party

The mouse prince and his party

The Mouse Prince and his party appeared with alacrity! They went about poking the other denizens of the tree until some folks objected strenuously enough to find them their own corner. The cats are certainly watching this crew to make certain there will be no further trouble.

The Dormice, Hunting Fox and Skiing Bear

The Dormice made sure no one would bother them by bringing their friends Hunting Fox and Skiing Bear. Trouble tried to point out the inherent irony in a fox wearing fox hunting attire but the others shooshed him.

Cloisonnee birdhouses

Cloisonné Birdhouses

None of the other proceedings bothered the cats more than the potential for birds to entertain them. The Cloisonné Birdhouses would seem to indicate particularly tiny birds, and we had never up to now seen birds flying indoors, but these are minor matters.

Dancer in Tulle

Dancer in Tulle

Finally (and as usual), grownups came to spoil the fun. The cats voluntarily went to various scratching posts in a valiant effort or feigned disinterest, but we know better.

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Arabian Nights: Curious Coincidences and Obscenities

The Sultan and Scheherazade, Arabian Nights - Kay Nielsen

The Sultan and Scheherazade, Arabian Nights - Kay Nielsen

Of Fairy Tales and Folklore

We should not be surprised that the transliterator of Cinderella and Snow White, and the transliterator of Aladin and Ali Baba, were friends. Working for the same boss in separate cultural offices, Charles Perrault and Antoine Galland carved out different facets of a literary niche that has endured across centuries, not unlike the stories they retold. Both profoundly influenced later authors.

In 1695, at the age of 67, Charles Perrault lost his job as Secretary to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres. With plenty of time on his hands, he embarked on a project to bring the stories he had heard since childhood into printed form, and published his Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals in the same year.

Arabian Nights : Fisherman and the Genie, Maxfield Parrish

Arabian Nights : Fisherman and the Genie, Maxfield Parrish

When Scheherazade Met Sinbad

The Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres where Perrault had worked was under the administrative control of Loius XIV’s finance minster, Jean Baptise Colbert. During that period, another of Colbert’s employees, Antoine Galland, was occupied with preparations for a compendium of Middle Eastern Literature, the Bibliothèque Oriental. In this library was a manuscript of a cycle of stories that Galland translated and published with the name The Tale of Sinbad the Sailor. Partly due to the popularity of his friend’s work on fairy tales, Sinbad became immediately popular as well. Perrault himself then encouraged him to complete a more ambitious project, a translation of a manuscript that Galland had collected in Instanbul called “Alf Laylah wa Laylah” or The Thousand and One Nights.

Curiously, of all the most popular stories in that collection, only the framing tale of Scheherazade was part of that manuscript. The Sinbad tales came from a separate source, but those stories that came to be called in English “Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” were drawn directly from oral tradition: A Maronite Christian from Allepo in Syria visited Galland in Paris and narrated those stories to him from memory.

Aladdin and the Genie of the Ring - Virginia Frances Sterrett

Aladdin and the Genie of the Ring - Virginia Frances Sterrett

The Arabian Nights in England

Of the two contemporary authors, Gallard had traveled more extensively than Perrault, though less so than another well-traveled translator of the Thousand and One Nights, Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton’s biography is a tale on its own; Burton began his travels as an officer in the army of the British East India Company, spending time in Afghanistan and India and becoming familiar with the local cultures. He then took leave to work for the Royal Geographic Society, disguising himself as an Arab and going on a pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the few non-Muslims who ever managed to do so. Returning to India to rejoin his regiment, he joined instead the political department of the India Company and was again engaged by the Geographic Society to explore the coasts of Arabia and East Africa. He eventually explored inland as far as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria while seeking the true source of the Nile River. His notes became important sources of information for later central African expeditions.

Upon his return to England in 1861 (at the age of 40), Burton entered the British Foreign Service for whom he served as ambassador in various locations in India and the Middle East. Even while doing that, he also made time to co-found the Anthropological Society of London. He was eventually granted a knighthood by Queen Victoria in 1886.

Layla - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Layla - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Racy Racism in Victorian England

It was during this latter period of his life that Burton turned to the translation of Oriental classics, most notably the first English translation of the Kama Sutra and the unexpurgated version of our topic, The Thousand Nights and One Night. Burton’s unashamedly sexual version was shocking to his Victorian contemporaries:

They walked under the very lattice and advanced a little way into the garden till they came to a jetting fountain middlemost a great basin of water; then they stripped off their clothes and behold, ten of them were women, concubines of the King, and the other ten were white slaves. Then they all paired off, each with each: but the Queen, who was left alone, presently cried out in a loud voice, “Here to me, O my lord Saeed!” and then sprang with a drop leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly; then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her.

Asenath - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Asenath - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

This version did not receive the acclaim in Victorian England that Burton might have wished. Criticized as pornography by some critics while admired by others, it was never as popular as Galland’s original translation. But it did represent the most complete version of the stories in English up to that point, and captured to the fullest extent the exotic Orientalism that he encountered in his travels.

Despite later retellings and translations, it’s interesting to see the durability of the original Arabian Nights concept of Galland’s translation. The intertwining of the frame tale and stories within stories matches the mood of exotic orientalism that the tales provide us. These are not all fairy tales. Many of the stories are simple romances while the Sinbad voyages are too epic in scope to simply be called a fairy tale, but they all maintain the same sense of the exotic.  But underneath the exoticism is a realization of the truest spirit of the folktale; that popular stories can be adapted to any generation of readers with the right storyteller.

Image credits: Arabian Nights

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Hans Christian Andersen: Taking the Fairy out of Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales in Search of a Soul

"Dashed overboard and fell,  her body dissolving into foam..."  - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac

"Dashed overboard and fell, her body dissolving into foam..." - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac

I’ve been neglecting Hans Christian Andersen and I feel guilty about this. It’s partly because of all the noted fairy story tellers, he wrote mostly original work (rather than transcribing folk tales) and because of this, many of his stories labeled as “fairy tales” simply aren’t—at least from the perspective of popular assumptions about them. The popular term “fairy tale ending” presupposes a happy ending such as “lived happily ever after” and many authors and transcribers seem to assume that this is what both adult and child readers want. Andersen does provide this sort of ending, but his stories are more complex and the resolution not dependent on any of the magic that fairy stories depend on. The sense of magic we associate with fairy tales is not produced by transformations or spells, but often through the reader’s assumption of anthropomorphic qualities – and Andersen was a master of this process – thus allowing the reader to supply his own magic. His stories are not always from some distant past but rather draw from the edges of our imagination in the recent and present. Of all the fairy tale authors, he is among the most ironic. And he is nowhere more ironic than in his tragic tales of unrequited love.

He must have died if the little mermaid  had not come to his rescue  - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen

He must have died if the little mermaid had not come to his rescue - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac

One story in this mode is The Little Mermaid. What is striking about it is not the sense of wonder that magic imbues, but the sense of irony at the exchanges she must make to achieve her end. There is a mythic quality to the story of the sea princess more in accord with Greek tragedy than is comfortable for many modern fairy tales; and in The Little Mermaid, this sense of tragic irony is unrelenting.

The prince asked who she was and how she came there;  She looked at him tenderly and with a sad expressions  in her dark blue eyes, but could not speak  - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac

The prince asked who she was and how she came there; She looked at him tenderly and with a sad expressions in her dark blue eyes, but could not speak - The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac

The Little Mermaid begins as a coming of age story: The mermaid princess discovers the world above the waters and sees the prince who becomes her obsessive desire. In this (I suspect with intentional literary irony), we see a reversal of the siren’s role as temptress (Odysseus plugged the ears of his crew and had himself tied to a mast) as she rescues the Prince from drowning. Tragically, she discovers that her current nature makes her unsuitable to love a prince—as a mermaid, she has no soul. To satisfy her dreams she must become human, and by achieving the love of the human prince, gain an immortal soul and attain Christian Salvation (a common Andersen theme).

The Little Mermaid seeks the aid of a sea witch crone who gives her a potion to change her fish tail into legs. Again, mythic irony appears in the price paid in the form of continuous pain at each step the little mermaid takes, and in the loss of her voice – a tragic sense of loss for a siren for whom song defines identity. She retains the mermaid grace and beauty that so attracts the prince to love her as a sister, but not enough to distract him from his own obsession to find the girl who saved his life. There is a double irony now at play since her sacrifice allows her to be near the object of her desire but renders her unable to completely close the distance between them. At the same, the Prince is unable to see her for who she really is – his rescuer whom he seeks in love. But there is yet more mythic irony to follow.

Little Mermaid, illustrated by Sulamith Wulfing.

Little Mermaid, illustrated by Sulamith Wulfing.

The prince is betrothed to another princess as a result of family politics; when he finally sees his beautiful bride-to-be, he imagines her to be his rescuer and succumbs, almost as by enchantment, into a love for her. The little mermaid now has come to a classical dilemma. She has neither union with the prince nor can she she return to being a mermaid. She is doomed to spend the rest of her life in pain and will die without an immortal soul. Andersen does not let it be; he supplies a twist wherein the mermaid’s sisters, having cut off their beautiful hair in a sacrificial exchange for a knife their sister can use to kill the prince and end the sea witch’s spell. In the end, Christian morality wins and the mermaid, who cannot bring herself to murder the man she loves, kills herself by jumping into the sea and merging, as mermaids do, into the foam of the sea.

"They sacrificed their hair to save her" Hans Christian Andersen : Little Mermaid's Sisters, Anne Anderson

"They sacrificed their hair to save her" Hans Christian Andersen : Little Mermaid's Sisters, Anne Anderson

Andersen originally let the story end there, but his editors would not allow such a tragic ending in a children’s story. Anderson introduces air spirits; by becoming an air spirit, the little mermaid can serve as a guide for the proper behavior of children – and, if done well, earn a chance for an immortal soul. (I don’t know about you, but I prefer the irony of the tragic ending).

Mermaid (Transfiguration) by Sulamith Wulfing

Mermaid (Transfiguration) by Sulamith Wulfing

Another story of unrequited love, just as ironic but even sadder as a result, is The Brave Tin Soldier. Andersen makes us ascribe human qualities to an innocent object with no ability to act on its own. We meet a toy who is incomplete; there was not enough tin left to make a second leg, and because of his incompleteness seeks redemption in love for another toy that he imagines is also one legged – she is a paper dancer who lives in a paper castle that our protagonist has only glimpsed; thus he cannot see that she actually has two legs but one is raised out of sight in a dance gesture.

He cannot posses her, but he resolutely desires her as he embarks on an accidental quest into the world (he is knocked off the window), whereupon he meets real world adventures in a sewer (including immigration and tax extortion from a rat) until he is eventually swallowed by a fish. With yet another ironic twist, the fish is caught by the family who owned him as a toy, and he is returned to the nursery now within the reach of his beloved. But they are still only toys – unable to act and at the mercy of greater forces. One child, for no particular reason, tosses him into the fireplace and he begins to melt. Nature intervenes when the wind blows the paper dancer also into the fire, and they are finally joined in one place by mutual destruction, he as a lump in the form of a heart, she in the one part of her that would not burn, a rose.

"The draught of air caught the dancer,  and she flew like a sylph just into the stove to the tin soldier", from The Flying Trunk, Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by Kay Nielsen

"The draught of air caught the dancer, and she flew like a sylph just into the stove to the tin soldier", from The Flying Trunk, Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by Kay Nielsen

One might look at these stories as a yearning for childhood sentimentality, but Andersen makes it clear that The Little Mermaid is a tragic myth and The Brave Tin Soldier is a classical allegory. He understood better than his editors our need for tragic irony to experience the genuine feeling of loss the storyteller attempts to convey. Irony heightens our compassion for and identity with the hero’s tragic dilemma, and through irony the loss is brought into sharp focus. We are more likely to see this quality in classical tragedy than in a book of children’s fairy tales.

And that is why I find Andersen so rewarding, and why he is so much more difficult a “fairy tale” writer to study than some others.

Image Credits:

Edmund Dulac, Sulamith Wulfing, Anne Anderson, Kay Nielsen


Filed under Anne Anderson, edmund dulac, Fairy Scholarship, Hans Christian Andersen, Kay Nielsen, sulamith wulfing

Unicorn Art: The Unicorn Tapestries (Hunt of the Unicorn)

The Power of the Unicorn

Why hunt the Unicorn, you might ask? Such an unlikely creature: a symbol of purity and beauty across the ages. For this, and because the unicorn’s spiraling horn cures ailments, negates poison, and purifies water, we desire him.

When the unicorn appears, it is because the Reign has been good and has brought Peace; and for that peace to prosper it must be fecund and pass on that Peace. So lords now gather in their finest, best and latest to hunt him down: variously colorful hosiery; superbly crafted doublets with golden buttons; cocky feathers on cocky hats; and everywhere a festive air as they don practical shoes for the forest—the Hunt begins.

The Start of the Hunt

The Start of the Hunt

The Start of the Hunt

Baying and excited hounds are tightly held on leash, as they catch ahead a whiff of the exotic East—cloves, cumin and coriander—that signals the presence of the beast. But Unicornus is the swiftest of all creatures on legs so they fail to glean him, until one who has gone ahead signals—they stumble onto a strange scene—beside an unlikely fountain that feeds a stream; various other creatures: pheasants, deer and lions; have gathered there in peace, waiting, for it must be made pure before any may safely drink from it.

The Unicorn at the Fountain

The Unicorn at the Fountain

The Unicorn at the Fountain

The hunters also wait, then finally, a rustling from the foliage reveals a coat the color of purest and freshest snow, and dainty cloven hooves enter the clearing. The long white horn, poised atop a slight and gentle head, twists towards Heaven. A milk-white mane flows down an ivory neck as the beast lowers his head, until that horn touches the water, which turns suddenly as innocent as a soul at Baptism.

The Unicorn Leaps the Stream

The Unicorn Leaps the Stream

The Unicorn Leaps the Stream

The Hunters feel the moment ripe, hounds bark and are let loose, and all rush-in with spears and nets to capture him. Not for nothing is the Unicorn famously elusive, nimbly and swiftly leaping over the stream; each stabbing spear evaded, each net capturing only empty air. The Unicorn smiles knowingly at their clumsy efforts, until finally, and with a ferocity that belies his gentle appearance, his horn pierces and kills a hound in his path, as he escapes bounding into the safety of the forest.

The Unicorn Defends Itself

The Unicorn Defends Itself

The Unicorn Defends Itself

Disappointed, the lords gather together to concoct a plan, for the only way to capture the Unicorn is by guile—Innocence may only be captured by Innocence. Three maidens, all ladies of the court, are told they may be touched by something as rare and beautiful as themselves within the corruption of that court. Clapping their hands with delight at the thought of touching such a noble creature, the maidens don their finest gowns, and make their hair elaborate. And so they sit together laughing within the Rose garden, full of the red blossoms of charity and compassion mingled with the white blossoms of purity.

The Unicorn in the Garden

The Unicorn is Captured by the Maiden

The Unicorn is Captured by the Maiden

Magically, the unicorn has felt their presence there. They beam in delight at his approach, and the one in a dress the color of Love reaches out her hand—the beast comes forward and licks the sweat from it—and that horn, still stained with the blood of the hound, strokes her breast She gently strokes his mane and neck as he shivers in pleasure, and collapses onto her lap.

The Death of the Unicorn

The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle

The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle

The rough lords and the rough hounds may have him now that he is docile. Spears now meet their mark as hounds hold fast his neck. The blood of innocence flows swiftly and the ground stained dark with it. The Unicorn dies quickly without knowing what has killed him—but knowing that purity had held him fast too long.

The Captive Unicorn

The Captive Unicorn

The Captive Unicorn

For three days and nights the unicorn lay dead. On the third day, he rose again, no longer a free denizen of the forest, his magical powers now captive in a garden within a fence, tethered to a pomegranate tree. The wound on his flank refuses to heal, (some say it is but juice dripping from the fruit, but we know better). And yet, this is for the best, because now the Reign may prosper and be fecund.

Image credits:
Unicorn Tapestries on Tile at William Morris Tile

The Unicorn Tapestries are currently at the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum in New York

Also see Unicorn art


Filed under mythical beasts