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To Hell and Back: The Role of the Quest in Fairytales

May 28, 2021

In most fairtytales worth their salt, the ones that really capture our imaginations in a lasting, generations-long manner, a lover – often a prince or princess – must go on a quest. He or she has to perform a series of trials in order to prove worthy, not only of true love, but of a kingdom they are poised to inherit – whether that be a literal kingdom, an actual realm in a fictious country, or a place in God’s kingdom. The Brother’s Grimm tended to focus on the the former, while Hans Christian Andersen had a far more spiritual approach.

Both interpretations are dramatic, exciting, and virtually irresistible.

Let’s take “Sleeping Beauty,” which actually combines the earthly and the spiritual. At nearly a thousand years old, the tale had already gone through several incarnations before the Brother’s Grimm took it on, and ultimately, Disney, made it a world-wide phenomenon.

The earliest versions of the story are like an unhinged hodge-podge of Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” the ultimate 80s crazy ex-girlfriend movie, “Fatal Attraction,” and “Silence of the Lambs.” It involves everything from our enchanted, sleeping princess getting impregnated by her prince while she’s asleep (and yes, they still live happily ever after), a cruel mother-in-law intent on murdering the sleepyheaded lass, so that she can keep her son for herself, and a harrowing subplot to the original, “enchanted sleep” portion of the tale.

This part takes place after Sleeping Beauty has been awakened by and married to the prince. In it, a woman from the prince’s past insinuates herself into palace life and tries to murder the prince and princess’s children by having a cook kill and serve them for dinner. Much like the huntsman in Snow White, the cook balks at performing such a horrible deed, and tricks the woman by hiding the children, offering up wild game instead. Because killing the progeny of her ex and his new wife wasn’t enough to satisfy her bloodlust, the nasty old girlfriend then orders the cook to murder and serve up the princess. But the prince finally discovers her duplicity, and kills her in the same manner in which she’d planned to slay his wife. The whole palace then feasts on the evil woman.

In all incarnations of the story, the prince is subjected to a series of ordeals he must navigate in order to save the princess and himself. In all incarnations, there is a prophecy of doom and enchantment as told by a fairy. One that warns of the young princess’s “death” by a prick of her finger. It’s a fate that her family desperately tries to avoid, but their efforts are in vain. In the end it is up to the prince who falls in love with the sleeping beauty to rescue her from the curse.

In only the original, medieval account of the story is the young woman’s actual soul at stake if she is not awakened from her slumber. Although that danger isn’t explicit in the 19th and 20th century adaptations of “Sleeping Beauty,” I do think it lingers…implied, but unspoken. After all, the princess is cursed to sleep forever. She’ll neither age, nor die, nor really live unless she is awakened by love. And her soul, by inference, will remain trapped with her.

“Romakaji” Part 8

By Yours Truly

Cressida led Lionel through the cool darkeness of the forest, until they came upon an enormous, dying tree hollowed out at its base. Tiny, red lights reminiscent of summer’s fireflies dotted the yawning, black center of the opening. As Lionel and Cressida entered the tree, it became obvious that the bitty lights were not from an insect. Nor were they a play of light. They were the eyes of a thousand demons keeping watch over those who entered and exited this portal to hell.

Lionel’s hands did not shake, nor his flesh pimple at the sight. Though he was unsettled by what he was seeing, he was also curious, and continued to follow the woman who had commandeered his dream.

Once fully inside the tree, he found himself in a passageway lighted by an eerie glow that reminded him of ghostly bones tinged with a cold, blue undertone. A lowlit incandescence that that seemed to shout of loneliness and anguish. He flesh did pimple then.

“Do not look at them,” Cressida whispered. “They are the captured souls of fools who made bargains with demons.”

Lionel did look, at once fascinated and repulsed by the way the souls twisted and curled like smoke. Watching them was grotesque, almost painful – like he imagined it would be to observe a conscious, unanesthetized man having his leg amputated.

The passageway proceeded to a large chamber, and as they came close to its entrance, Cressida stopped.

“I can’t go any further,” she said. “You can, but there is no guarantee you’ll ever come out.”

“If that’s the case, why would you have me go?” Lionel asked.

But Cressida didn’t answer. She only faded until there was nothing left of her but a bare outline. Then she disappeared altogether.

Lionel looked inside the chamber and saw a strange boy sitting on a throne of red gems – ones that looked sticky and juicy like berries. Next to that throne was a smaller one made of blue and green gems – the green ones murky like the pond next to his cottage. The one he’d rescued Romakaji from. Although the woman he loved was nowhere to be seen, his heart began to drum in fear that she could’ve been taken from their bed, like he had been.

“Come in,” the boy on the throne hissed, his voice very much that of a man.

Lionel stepped over the threshold of the chamber and walked to the red throne. The boy-man was even stranger up close, with taut, dark skin and an obscene daintiness to his physique. Lionel glanced over at the empty throne of watery hued gems.

“What a thrill it is to have a dreamwalker come visit me. You must have very powerful friends.”

“Not at all,” Lionel said. “I don’t even know the woman who took me here.”

“Then you don’t know why you came?”

Lionel did not answer.

“Let me tell you,” the boy-man rasped. “In two days time, there will be a lunar eclipse, at which time you will be presented with a series of choices.”

Lionel crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes, watching the boy-man very intently.

“The first choice is to do nothing but what you planned – to watch the eclipse with your lover, Romakaji of the pond. But if that is what you choose, your Romakaji will be forced to come live here with me, as my wife, and become Countess Furfur: the keeper of lost souls.”

Lionel thought briefly of the souls he had seen in the passage to this chamber and his blood ran colder. He shook the memory away.

“And my other choices?”

“Those are a bit more complicated…or not…depending on how you look at things.”

Count Furfur licked his lips, seeming to thrill to this conversation. “Your second choice is to kill Romakaji’s friend, the nature witch Sybil Ravencroft, by draining her blood and drinking it. This will give you the power to keep your Romakaji from me, and will also make her your wife for all of eternity.”

He then reached into his cloak and retrieved a small, gold-handled dagger as sharp as a razor’s edge and as pointed as a talon. “You must use this for your task, otherwise the transference of power will be incomplete, and you’ll be left with dark magic, but without a bride.”

“And my last choice?”

The Count almost giggled. “To take the same dagger and kill yourself. Thrust it into your heart. It’s very sharp, as you can see, and won’t take much effort.” Count Furfur demonstrated by holding the dagger in the place where his own heart would be, if he had one.

“Why would I kill myself?” Lionel asked.

“Because it will free your Romakaji from the bonds of her curse and her obligation to me, and it will allow you to die and be reborn. Once you are old enough, you can search for Romakaji, and the two of you can be reunited.” The Count’s eyes nearly rolled all the way back in his head. “I just love happy endings,” he whispered.

“I see,” Lionel said.

Count Furfur leaned forward on his throne and offered the dagger to Lionel. As he did so Lionel noticed a gold chain around his neck and followed it down to a charm that dangled over the Count’s breastplate. It was the same charm Romakaji wore.

“Thank you,” Lionel said, taking the dagger. “You’ve given me a great deal to think about.”

Photo by Ruan Carlos on Unsplash

“Are you alright?” Romakaji asked him.

Lionel inhaled deeply and sat up in bed. His wavy, dark hair was all this way and that, like he’d had a rough night’s sleep. His neck and his brow were wet from perspiration.

“Just a strange dream,” he said. Lionel took Romakaji’s face in his hands and kissed her, stroking the high bone of her cheek.

“My dreams have been peculiar, too,” Romakaji told him.

“My mother used to say that the fuller the belly, the better the dreams.”

Romakaji smiled and smoothed Lionel’s hair. “In that case, I’ll go fix us a big breakfast. Sybil brought us some fresh eggs and more of those unseasonal mushrooms she keeps finding.”

Romakaji brushed his nose with her’s and got up from bed, wrapping herself in his soft, warm robe.

Lionel swung his legs around and put his feet to the floor. He watched Romakaji walk from their room towards the stairs, her grace filling his heart. When he was sure she was in the kitchen, and could hear her lighting the stove top and rummaging for the proper copper pan, he reached into the pocket of his pajama bottom.

Slowly, he retrieved the dagger Count Furfur gave him. He laid it flat on his palm, getting a much better look at it in the light of day, and away from the royal, funereal hues of the Count’s chamber. The gold handle was carved with devotional words writ in many different languages. Lionel recognized the words for love and passion in the three languages he spoke fluently. He also recognized the word for troth.

“Lionel!” He heard Romakaji call from downstairs. “Breakfast is nearly ready.”

“Yes,” he called back. “And so am I.”

Image by albgal from Pixabay

Please have a listen to this week’s Cold podcast. We talk about the writing life in all of its complicated glory. Not only how we writers evolve and develope the daily habits that allow us to finish massive pieces of work, like a novel (or, ahem, a fairytale), but the emotional journey of mining our personal experiences for our creative efforts. How very differently we deploy our imaginations when writing fiction versus non-fiction, and the mine fields we need to navigate as we expose not only our own hearts, but potentially the hearts of those we love. Folks, it is daunting, and it is beautiful.

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