A Tale of Dracula’s Justice

Or was it a test?

Carriage with masked figure from BL Harley 5256, f. 22 | Loys Papon Public Domain from The British Library Creative Commons Europeana collection

Carriage with masked figure from BL Harley 5256, f. 22 | Loys Papon. Public Domain from The British Library; Creative Commons Europeana collection

A merchant was travelling in Wallachia and he stopped overnight in the capital, Tirgoviste. He was reluctant to leave his carriage and wares unattended in a foreign city overnight, but the Prince of Wallachia, also known as Vlad III whom some call the Impaler and others call Dracula, Son of the Dragon, insisted that he share and trust his own princely hospitality.  So the merchant, dreading greatly, left his carriage unattended in the street in front of the palace overnight. The next morning the merchant hurried to his carriage and found his inventory unmolested, but he had been robbed of 160 gold coins. He reported the theft to the Prince.

The princely Son of the Dragon assured the merchant to have no concerns, and vowed that the thief would be found and the gold returned. He ordered his soldiers to search the city, and he threatened to destroy the entire city if this affront to his honor was not remedied.

Overnight the thief was found and the pouch of gold was returned to the merchant’s carriage. The next morning the merchant counted it: once, twice, thrice.  Each time he counted 161 coins in his bag.  He returned to the palace. “Sire,” he told Dracula, “My money has been found, but there is one coin extra.”

Dracula chuckled, and ordered his guards to bring in the thief.  “Go in peace,” he told the merchant, “And you may keep the extra coin for your honesty. For if you had not admitted to the extra coin, I was ready to impale you alongside this thief.”

"Dormition of the Theotokos" Church in the Old Royal Court at Targoviste, constructed 1585. Photo by Razvan Orendovici. Thru Flickr Creative Commons. https://www.flickr.com/photos/razvanorendovici/12474682075/

I couldn’t find a picture of the palace, so here is a church in Tirgoviste. Dormition of the Theotokos Church in the Old Royal Court at Tirgoviste, constructed 1585. Photo by Razvan Orendovici. Thru Flickr Creative Commons. https://www.flickr.com/photos/razvanorendovici/12474682075/

A tale from Russian and Romanian sources. Russian source from MS 11/1088 in the Kirillov-Belozersky Monastery Collection at the Saltykov-Schredin Public Library in St. Petersburg; translated by Raymond T. McNally and published in McNally & Florescu In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires (1972, revised 1994). Adapted by Cynthia June Long.

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Some Kind of Fairy Tale [Book Review]

“It was Christmas Day of that year and Dell Martin hovered at the double-glazed PVC window of his tidy home, conducting a survey of the bruised clouds and concluding that it might just snow; and if it did snow then someone would have to pay out.”

Not the first line, but it should be, of Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

Art by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Photo by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Twenty years ago, a daughter/sister/girlfriend went missing. No traces. Presumed dead or some other tragic end. If she was all right, she would have called. Even if she’d run away, she would have written. For twenty years her loved ones have been stifled by the inpenetrable grief of not-knowing.

Then Tara Martin reappears on Christmas, young and slight, looking not a day older, unable to account for her whereabouts. She makes up a story about traveling but eventually discloses her truth: she had spent time—in her mind only six months—with the fairies.

Doctors are brought in; dental records are checked. She meets with the local psychiatrist who explores amnesia, traumatic memory loss, and confabulation. Tara’s tales of the fairies’ sexual exploits are presumed to be projections of her own repressed self. But questions remain: Is the girl who she claims to be? Why hasn’t she aged?

This novel presents a deft handling of the faerie mythos. Set in “the deepest heart of England,” it is a welcome addition to modern Fairy Tale lore. Author Graham Joyce has a familiar knowledge of faerie story tropes and carries his premise to its logical conclusion: what would happen if someone today were taken to and returned from Faerie?

The clash of modernity with traditional folklore is accentuated by Graham’s frequent epigraphic references to the Bridget Cleary case. In 1895 near Tipperary, Ireland, twenty-six year old Bridget Cleary was burned and murdered by her husband and family who believed she was a changeling, a fairy imposter, a fairy in disguise. Ten of Bridget Cleary’s relatives and neighbors were tried for murder. To Graham, the Bridget Cleary case illustrates the ascendance of law and rationality over superstition.

Now, in his novel written and set over one hundred years later, he explores a parallel question: how would modern society respond if the folklore proved true?

A true gem for the faerie and fairy tale enthusiast.

Joyce, Graham. Some Kind of Fairy Tale. London: Orion Publishing, 2012.

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

 

Merry Christmas to all my readers.

Here There Be Giants

The picture above in the masthead is from the grounds at the Giant’s Causeway, taken during my 2003 visit. The photo is the same image I use as the background of my business card. I was in a bookstore recently and needed to provide the clerk my email address, so I pulled out my business card because it’s an easier way to avoid misspellings than verbally giving my address with the cumbersome “F as in foxtrot . . .”

She revealed that she had studied abroad in Scotland, and I asked her if she knew the myth of the Giant’s Causeway.

Finn MacCoul's Highway

Photo (cropped); Original by Paddy Patterson via Flickr Creative Commons

Sixty million years ago, in what is now County Antrim, Northern Ireland, basalt lava flowed and cooled. Today, over 40,000 mostly-hexagonal columns form this unique landscape. A large boot-shaped boulder is said to be a giant’s boot, perhaps the boot of Fionn MacCumhail (Finn MacCoul) which he lost while forming the underwater highway to Scotland to visit and taunt his Scottish rival. These basalt columns continue underneath the Irish Sea and re-emerge along the coast of Scotland at the Isle of Staffa.

Giant Boot

“Giant Boot” Photo by Valdiney Pimenta via Flickr Creative Commons

The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its ‘exceptional natural beauty,’ its superlative rock formations and unique fauna, and its contribution to the history and study of geology. Photographs don’t do it justice. If you haven’t seen the Giant’s Causeway, plan your trip now.

Susanna Drury; 1740 gouache; 1768 engraving Public Domain via the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, and Technology

Susanna Drury; 1740 gouache; 1768 engraving
Public Domain via the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, and Technology

A brief informative video—with awesome images—from the Causeway Coast & Glens Heritage Trust.

For more information, visit the Giant’s Causeway & Causeway Coast World Heritage Site.

An animated version of the legend produced by the Giant’s Causeway National Trust.

John the Baptist’s Sunburn-Soothing, Fairy-Dispelling Plant

St. John’s Wort is named for John the Baptist: the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist occurs on June 24, and it is now, in mid/late June that Hypericum perforatum is in full bloom.

stjohnwort

The Nativity of John the Baptist is noted on this date because, according to the Annunciation of the Angel to the Virgin Mary which is celebrated on March 25, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth “has herself conceived a a son . . . [and she] . . . is now in her sixth month.” Nine months being the standard pregnancy term, voila St. John’s Birthday is set three months later in June. (Or six months before Christ’s birth at Christmas, if you prefer).

St. John’s Day is also associated with the summer solstice, which has recently passed on June 21. From now until the winter solstice on December 21 (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere), the days get shorter; there is a little less sunlight each day. So too, when John’s disciples asked him if he was jealous of Christ’s ascendancy, John famously replied, “He must increase and I must decrease.” The sunlight of John the Baptist is decreasing as we prepare for the coming of light into the world with the Nativity of Christ which follows a few days after the winter solstice.

St. John’s Day is a public holiday in Quebec, Canada (St. Jean-Baptiste Day). The Eve of St. John the Baptist was often celebrated throughout Europe with bonfires. Wikipedia has three whole pages devoted to this midsummer celebration—one for the evening festival with customs across the globe, another for the daytime revelries, and a third for the Canadian legal holiday. It was an ideal day for picking herbs . . . including St. John’s Wort.

st jhn wort2

St. John’s Wort is a hardy perennial native to Europe and Western Asia, now naturalized in North America, known for clusters of five-petalled scented yellow flowers. The flowers, mixed with alum, make a yellow dye for wool, or when mixed with alcohol, yield a violet-red silk dye.

St. John’s Wort may not be a miracle herb, but it is close. Ancient Greek herbalists and medieval apothecaries used it to dress wounds and salve sword cuts. Like arnica, in lotion or infusion form, it eases bruises and sprains, especially those accompanied by swelling, and may also be used to treat varicose veins. Like aloe, a macerated oil of St. John’s Wort soothes sunburn.

Its most famous use is as an herbal anti-anxiety or anti-depressant. Once only available in natural food and herb stores, now most chain drug stores carry capsules of St. John’s Wort in their vitamins and supplements aisle. Any readers suffering from depression should of course first consult their physician and seek professional medical advice. From my own experience, St. John’s Wort helps elevate the mood if somewhat downcast, but is ineffective in addressing more serious psychological malaise.  St. John’s Wort often causes hyper-sensitivity to the sun, so wear sunscreen if taking it.

Folklore concerning St. John’s Wart is numerous. Pre-Christian pagans used it to cleanse rooms and drive away evil spirits. Anna Kruger, in her book An Illustrated Guide to Herbs: Their Medicine and Magic calls it “an herbal exorcist.”  After the coming of Christianity to Europe, the plant was believed to bleed on the anniversary of the Beheading of John the Baptist, commonly observed on August 29. Although its flowers are yellow, when crushed, they appear to ‘bleed’ red.

Natives to the Isle of Wight believed stepping on the plant at dusk would result in a terrifying overnight ride on the back of a fairy horse. Alternately, noted fairy folklorist Katherine Briggs cites St. John’s Wort as an herb, like the four-leafed clover, which can dispel the glamours of fairies as well as spells of evil spirits.

Someday I’ll grow this versatile plant in my own backyard herb garden. But I wonder, will it disperse the fairies from my yard? Or merely enable me to see them better?

 

References

St. John and the Annunciation: Luke 1:36

“He must increase; I must decrease”: John 3:30.

General info and folkloric references: Kruger, Anna. An Illustrated Guide to Herbs: Their Medicine and Magic.  U.S./Great Britain: Dragon’s World. 1993.  (This book is based in part on Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, 1931, Penguin 1980).

Medicinal reference: Bremmes, Lesley. The Complete Book of Herbs: A Practical Guide to Growing and Using Herbs. N.Y. Viking Penguin, Dorling Kindersley, 1988. (Out of print. Sorry).

Invaluable fairy-folklore resource: Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. N.Y.: Pantheon, 1976.

 

Extra: Gardening with St. John’s wort: advice from Fine Gardening Magazine.

Note: This information is presented for entertainment purposes only.

Please consult your doctor for all medical conditions.  

Photo credits: Upper: Joshua Mayer through Flickr/Creative Commons

Middle: B. Vasily through Flickr/Creative Comons

MY FIRST FICTION PUBLICATION: “TRUE THOMAS”

Christian Symbolism in Thomas the Rhymer

Thomas the Rhymer was a bard whose supernatural tale was recorded most famously in Professor Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Sir Walter Scott also noted this legend in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. I have quite a liking for this human character on the cusp of faerie, as you may recall from my June 8, 2012 entry and my poems published in Eggplant’s Miscellanea.

Why do some of these legends resonate more deeply than others?

Christian symbolism runs deep in many of the traditional ballads Child collected. The famous “Cherry Tree Carol,” popular at Christmas, features a cherry tree with limbs bending low for a pregnant, craving Virgin Mary and a skeptical suitor Joseph. His anthology also includes popular ballads of Judas and St. Stephen, legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and tales of commoners, lords, and kings. My favorites are his supernatural ballads featuring witches and fairies. But even the supernatural tales are infused with folk Christianity.

In his ballad “Thomas the Rhymer,” True Thomas met a woman so radiant he mistakes her for the “Queen of Heaven”—the Virgin Mary—but no, she is the Faerie Queen. On their way to Faerie, they travel for forty days and forty nights through moonless, sunless skies. They encounter a garden with a distinctive tree but as Thomas reaches for the apple, the Queen cautions against the “very fruit o’ hell.” Instead, she offers him bread and wine.

The forty days are reminiscent of Christ’s prayer and temptation in the wilderness. In saving Thomas from repeating the sin of Adam, the Queen suggests a female counterpoint to Eve who, instead of sharing the forbidden, helps him refrain. Perhaps even the moonless, sunless skies reference the apocalyptic vision of Matthew. The Faerie Queen offering communion? I don’t even want to touch that one.

Eventually, Thomas and the Queen come to a fork in the road which branches three ways. In a tale borrowing one of Christ’s parables, the narrow road of thorns is the path of righteousness which few follow. The “bonny road” is a wide, easy path—the road to hell— “tho’ some call it the road to heaven.” A third path, which they travel, is not mentioned in the gospels and unique to fairie lore. It is the road to Faerieland.

After seven years and a plot against his life, the Faerie Queen sends Thomas back to his earthly realm. He returns to humanity, but not empty-handed. She has given an unexpected gift: unwanted honesty through an inability to lie. Thereafter he is known as True Thomas. At the end of his life, he returns to Faerie—although it is said he is waiting until Scotland needs him again.

In my fiction adaptation of the tale recently published in Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination, I have researched the historical setting of the Thomas the Rhymer tale. He is a folkloric figure like King Arthur who is based in history but has become larger than life. In its day, Thomas’ tongue which cannot lie indicated a prophetic inspiration rather than our modern interpretation of an ethical commitment to truth. Stories of his prophetic honesty were seized by Scottish nationalists in their fight for independence.

Folklorists group tales by related themes, and Thomas the Rhymer’s sojourn in Faerie marks him as a “Hero under the Mountain.” He embodies the “Cultural Hero Expected to Return” archtype, who like King Arthur, will return in the time of his country’s greatest need. Like Jesus Christ, he is coming again.

I do not know if, as commonly supposed, an older tale was Christianized by popular sensibilities, or how much transcendent truth is native to “Thomas” from the start. I’m not sure I care. I’ll leave that to the professional folklorists.

Orthodox priest Fr. Alexander Schmemann has said, “A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds everywhere Christ, and rejoices in Him.”

Resources

Read Ash Silverlock’s thorough description of the history and progression of the Thomas the Rhymer mythos, including contemporary literary allusions here.

Listen to British folk band Steeleye Span’s version.  Available on their compilation album, Spanning the Years, available for purchase through Amazon.

Read Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border through Project Gutenberg here.

Purchase the issue of Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination to read my historical fiction adaptation here.

Folklore of Plants

I’m constantly on the lookout for a definitive guide to the folklore of plants, especially Celtic or fairy plants. Mostly I’ve found bits and pieces here and there: Lady Wilde, or some in Katharine Briggs’ Encyclopedia of Fairies. Celtic Folklore Cooking, by Joanna Asala, features folklore interspersed with her recipes compatible with a modern kitchen (and American measurements). As an added feature, her recipes are indexed according to the corresponding Christian and Traditional holidays.

 But I’ve yet to a find an encompassing all-in-one sourcebook.

 In the meantime, my latest find is Trees for Life, a charity devoted to restoring the Caledonian Forest in the Scottish Highlands.   Check out their Mythology and Folklore of the Caledonian Forest webpage at www.treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythfolk/index.html  Not just trees—other plants and animals of Caledonia are also featured.

 

Drop me a line if you have a resource to recommend.

 

Books mentioned:

Asala, Joanna. Celtic Folklore Cooking. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2001.

Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies : Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. NY: Pantheon, 1976.

 Lady Wilde. Irish Cures, Mystic Charms, & Superstitions. (The version I have is selections reprinted in Irish Inspirations: Toasts, Wit & Blessings. Sterling Publications, 2009).