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

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2010 Art Calendars

2010 Calendars: The Art Passions 2010 Calendar is up: Artpassions Calendar. We also made some an individual 2010 calendar for some of the artists as an experiment. They are listed here. I’m sorry about how long it took. I’ll try to find a different vendor next year.

Meanwhile, Sebastian made Holiday cards. So then I asked for an Arthur Rackham holiday postcard. (They’ll cost less to mail, generate less trash, and can become bookmarks when they’re done.)

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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

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There Be Dragons: Big, Dangerous and Sometimes Misunderstood

Medieval Lindorm Dragon, 15th century, from the alchemical scrolls of Sir George Ripley

Medieval Lindorm Dragon, 15th century, from the alchemical scrolls of Sir George Ripley

Of all the creatures encountered within the boundaries of Myth and Faerie, dragons are at once the most feared and the most admired. It is understandable that our relationships with them have not always been for the best since we, as well as our livestock and our maidens, have had to deal with issues ranging from prosaic matters, such as the avoidance of being eaten, to cosmic dilemmas involving the divisions between Heaven and Hell. Moreover, it does not help that certain dragons (and they are all individuals) tend to be rather large and powerful:

Leviathan - Arthur Rackham

Leviathan - Arthur Rackham

His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. One is so near to another, that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered. By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth. In his neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him. The flakes of his flesh are joined together: they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.
(Job 41: 15-23)

Debate continues to rage whether or not Leviathan was a true dragon although those on the dragon camp (and most of those are dragons) smilingly point out that no crocodile breathes fire. Indeed, one wishes to believe it since it is difficult to argue against fire-breathing beings. There is also no doubting the nature of Jörmungandr, the offspring of Loki and Thor’s dragon adversary:

Thor Slaying the Midgard Dragon - Henry Fuseli

Thor Slaying the Midgard Dragon - Henry Fuseli

…Then Thor was angered, and took upon him his divine strength, braced his feet so strongly that he plunged through the ship with both feet, and dashed his feet against the bottom; then he drew the Serpent up to the gunwale. And it may be said that no one has seen very fearful sights who might not see that: how Thor flashed fiery glances at the Serpent, and the Serpent in turn stared up toward him from below and blew venom.
(Prose Edda – Brodeur Trans.)

Thor defeats the serpent and drops it into the abyss where it grew great enough to encircle the earth. I feel it fair to point out however, that although Thor was credited with the deed, other mythologies compete for the distinction. Both Zeus and St. Michael claim similar feats. Zeus in order to defeat the Titans seized Typhon “from whose shoulders grew a hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon” and struggled with him until “…the earth melted in the glow of the blazing fire. And in the bitterness of his anger Zeus cast him into wide Tartarus.” (Hesiod, Theogony ll. 820-868)

St. Michael’s acts were similarly dramatic, though not as descriptive:

St. Michael and his angels fight Satan in the shape of a wyvern dragon. From the Liber Floridus, a Flemish manuscript from the 15th century.

St. Michael and his angels fight Satan in the shape of a wyvern dragon. From the Liber Floridus, a Flemish manuscript from the 15th century.

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
(Revelations 12: 7-9)

But let us not descend into that primordial abyss. This is not only about gods but also about those more familiar dragons we have to deal with on a more mundane basis. Fortunately for us, all of the old cosmically-sized creatures survived the wrath of gods, while the gods themselves seem to have devolved the duties onto heroes resulting in a wealth of tales about both. The most famous hero of them all was Siegfried (or Sigurd) and how he killed Fafnir:

Siegfried slays Fafnir with his father's sword - Konrad Dielitz, 1880

Siegfried slays Fafnir with his father's sword - Konrad Dieliz, 1880

Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went; but Sigurd neither trembled nor was adrad at the roaring of him. So when, as the worm crept over the pits, Sigurd thrust his sword under his left shoulder, so that it sank in up to the hilts; then up leapt Sigurd from the pit and drew the sword back again unto him, and therewith was his arm all bloody, up to the very shoulder.

Now when that mighty worm was ware that he had his death-wound, then he lashed out head and tail, so that all things soever that were before him were broken to pieces.
(The Volsungsaga, William Morris trans.)

There’s no doubting that swords are very useful things when dealing with dragons, but it must be a special sword. Siegfried’s was called Gram and could cut through an anvil. In another story, The Two Brothers, the Grimm brothers reported how another sword was used to save a maiden from a dragon.

The Two Brothers - Kay Nielsen, from Grimm's Fairy Tales: The seven-headed dragon came and breathed fire,  setting all the grass ablaze...

The Two Brothers - Kay Nielsen, from Grimm's Fairy Tales: The seven-headed dragon came and breathed fire, setting all the grass ablaze...

The huntsman said nothing more to this, but next morning took his animals, and with them ascended the dragon’s hill. A little church stood at the top of it, and on the altar three full cups were standing, with the inscription, “Whosoever empties the cups will become the strongest man on earth, and will be able to wield the sword which is buried before the threshold of the door.” The huntsman did not drink, but went out and sought for the sword in the ground, but was unable to move it from its place. Then he went in and emptied the cups, and now he was strong enough to take up the sword, and his hand could quite easily wield it…
…Said the dragon, “Many knights have left their lives here, I shall soon have made an end of thee too,” and he breathed fire out of seven jaws. The fire was to have lighted the dry grass, and the huntsman was to have been suffocated in the heat and smoke, but the animals came running up and trampled out the fire. Then the dragon rushed upon the huntsman, but he swung his sword until it sang through the air, and struck off three of his heads.
(The Two Brothers, Children’s and Household Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm)

Multi-headed dragons are apparently fairly common (as far as dragons can be considered “common”) since these have been appearing since the Chimera of Greek mythology, so it is not surprising that our unnamed huntsman hero had rather more difficulty. Unfortunately, he was killed treacherously soon after by the king, even though the princess was more than willing to marry him. However, this is quite unusual since in most cases the slayer of the dragon survives to either marry the princess, as Perseus did with Andromeda, or go on to a distinguished career as St. George proved was possible.

In fairness to dragons, their relationships with maidens were not always predatory:

"And I should look like a fountain of gold."  - illustration by Warwick Goble to The Mermaid, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

"And I should look like a fountain of gold." - illustration by Warwick Goble to The Mermaid, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

And I should look like a fountain of gold
Springing alone
With a shrill inner sound,
Over the throne
In the midst of the hall;
Till that great sea-snake under the sea
From his coiled sleeps in the central deeps
Would slowly trail himself sevenfold
Round the hall where I sate, and look in at the gate
With his large calm eyes for the love of me.
(Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Mermaid)

But while that is a mermaid rather than a human, the theme of sympathetic dragons is not uncommon. In Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon” the serpent is now a mushroom eating innocent who must convince St. George (who had been called out of retirement) to stage a mock fight to satisfy the superstitious townsfolk holding on to cliche stories about how dangerous dragons are.

The Reluctant Dragon - Maxfield Parrish

The Reluctant Dragon - Maxfield Parrish

In general though, it is best to assume dragons are dangerous, but sometimes not as dangerous as those who control them:

 Medea (Tanglewood Tales, The Minotaur)- Edmund Dulac: "Medea shook her hands over the multitude below."

Medea (Tanglewood Tales, The Minotaur)- Edmund Dulac: "Medea shook her hands over the multitude below."

“But when her witch’s poison had consumed the new wife, and the sea on either side had seen the royal palace all in flames, her wicked sword was drenched in her son’s blood; and, winning thus a mother’s vile revenge, she fled from Jason’s sword. Her Dracon team, the Dracones Titaniaci, carried her away to Palladiae.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses 7, tran. Melville)

Since Medea was a witch, we can forgive the dragons for being accomplices to her murder of Jason’s wife Glauce. It’s not always their fault that dragons are misunderstood, not minding the occasional mayhem they might cause, as we can see from Sulamith Wulfing’s depictions of dragons precariously embracing, beautiful human maidens in apparent safety, though the sexual overtones of the idea are quite obvious.

The Big Friend - Sulamith Wulfing

The Big Friend - Sulamith Wulfing

Sulamith Wulfing - The Dragon

Sulamith Wulfing - The Dragon

Overall though, if you are a young man and encounter a dragon in the woods, it would be helpful to have a magical sword with you – just in case.

John Bauer - The Dragon: "He gave the dragon a mighty blow."

John Bauer - The Dragon: "He gave the dragon a mighty blow."

Image Credits: Dragon Art Prints and Posters: Dragons, Lindorms, Wyverns

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Fairy Tales and Fashion: The Princess Wore Prada

Cinderella's Slippers, Aubrey Beardsley

Cinderella's Slippers by Aubrey Beardsley

It’s high time we took on the important matter of fashion in fairy tales. What these various princes and princessses, evil queens, stepmothers, stepsisters, huntsmen and orphaned children (not to mention transformed amphibians), wore in the course of stories is too often glossed over by historians. When we read the stories with a mind towards faerie-couture, we are disappointed in most cases, except for one – Charles Perrault. More specifically, we shall consider just how important fashion was considered in one particular story of his: Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre, or as we know it better in English: Cinderella or The Glass Slipper.

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Having served in various official duties in the government of Louis XIV, Perrault often drew inspiration from actual events and persons of the court, and he certainly would have been familiar with the ever-changing fashion trends of that brilliant court. More interestingly, the manners of Cinderella’s stepmother showed an interest in the social aspirations of the bourgeoisie. It seems to be an eternal truth that conforming to fashion made it possible for those with ambition to gain access to the high and powerful:

It happened that the king’s son gave a ball, and invited all persons of fashion to it. Our young misses were also invited, for they cut a very grand figure among those of quality.

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And as a fairy story about high fashion, Perrault treats us to descriptions of the stepsisters’ plans for the ball:

“For my part,” said the eldest, “I will wear my red velvet suit with French trimming.”

“And I,” said the youngest, “shall have my usual petticoat; but then, to make amends for that, I will put on my gold-flowered cloak, and my diamond stomacher, which is far from being the most ordinary one in the world.”

We also hear about a strategy familiar among today’s young ladies with aspirations to stylishness:

They were so excited that they hadn’t eaten a thing for almost two days. Then they broke more than a dozen laces trying to have themselves laced up tightly enough to give them a fine slender shape.

Perrault the moralist was certainly citing such a trend among the fashionable of all ages, something Cinderella herself did not have to resort to since:

However, Cinderella, notwithstanding her coarse apparel, was a hundred times more beautiful than her sisters, although they were always dressed very richly.

Cinderella by Arthur Rackham.

Cinderella by Arthur Rackham.

Luckily, unlike her sisters who had to depend on what they had already possesed in their wardrobes, our heroine had more expert assistance:

Her godmother then touched her with her wand, and, at the same instant, her clothes turned into cloth of gold and silver, all beset with jewels. This done, she gave her a pair of glass slippers, the prettiest in the whole world.

Cinderella - by Edmund Dulac

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

A bit of magic always helps when desiring to capture a prince’s attention I suppose, but Perrault, as always, was trying to make a point:

Young women, in the winning of a heart, graciousness is more important than a beautiful hairdo. It is a true gift of the fairies. Without it nothing is possible; with it, one can do anything.

To which he added:

…it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense… However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.

Present day fashion designers might think it odd being referred to as modern day fairy godmothers, but as long as we are expressing timeless truths, let’s close by quoting famous Vogue editor Diana Vreeland:

I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity.

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Image Credits:
Cinderella Art Prints
Images of Fashion from the Court of Louis XIV

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Puss in Boots: A Management Case Study

"You have but to give me a sack, and a pair of boots  such as gentlemen wear when they go shooting."  - Illustration by Warwick Goble to Puss in Boots

"You have but to give me a sack, and a pair of boots such as gentlemen wear when they go shooting." - Illustration by Warwick Goble to Puss in Boots

Let us briefly consider the career advancement strategies of Puss in Boots. In order to avoid a potential for being served as dinner for a dispossesed and impoverished master, he organizes a plot, apparently involving foot apparel.

He begins by using his natural feline abilities to catch prey to bribe the king with, which he declares as gifts from his master — a Marquis no less! Although Perault does not say so, his wearing of boots no doubt gave him the necessary credibility to gain an appointment with the royal CEO.

That bribery accomplished, he maneuvers his master (who is completely passive throughout the whole affair) into ‘losing’ his clothes to some imaginary robbers in a place likely for the king and his daughter to come by for a swim. With the king (and the cat’s) assistance, he is given new clothes and captures the fancy of the princess.

But now he must own land to justify his title. Fortunately for him (and for the sake of this being a fairy tale as well) we encounter a magical ogre with powers of transformation. Puss tricks him into turning into a mouse so that he may arrange a hostile takeover. He then manages labor relations with the ogres serfs (who seem not too bothered by their master’s passing) to obey the fake Marquis. Seeing such extensive assets, the king is so impressed by our hero’s master that he insists on a merger by marrying him to his daughter.

"Puss in Boots" Illustrated by Maxfield Parrish

"Puss in Boots" Illustrated by Maxfield Parrish

Now with a title, royal sympathy, fine clothes and land with convenient serfs and a royal wedding, our hero (the cat) is assured of a livelihood serving a great lord at court.

Why is this all so unsurprising?

Of all the stories by Perrault, this allegory is certainly his most autobiographical (not counting the murder of the magical ogre) since this is about status advancement via proper courtly manners. Being an official at the court of Louis XIV, he would have been intimately exposed to the Machiavellian intrigues of courtiers. His prescriptions for advancement initially seem an affront to our sensibilities for modern industrial productivity. Contrast this with the fake Marquis’ brothers who, with a sensible bourgois perspective, agree to share resources towards mutual gain. This latter atitude seems to lie closer to contemporary life strategies than the complicated plots Puss must device in order to advance his master’s and his own career.

But has life really changed so much since Perrault’s day? Career advancement and survival in any large organization requires an understanding of the manners surrounding such a millieu. When one looks at the predeliction among our upper management for owning the right house, the right car, the right school for one’s children, perhaps even the right footwear, all in an effort to conform to expectations of a corporate world, one can see as much management genius in Puss in Boots as in any modern management tome.

Image Credits: Warwick Goble, Maxfield Parrish

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