and Winter has come. Living in the south of Spain, I am lucky enough to see snow caps on the Sierra Nevada (some 100 miles away as the Short-Toed Eagle flies) from my house, if the visibility is good. The lack of heat haze in the winter months helps this. However, it's hard to feel "Christmassy" sometimes. December makes me think of fairy tales and pantomimes. I miss going to the theatre to watch bad jokes and shout 'boo' at the baddy on stage. Yes, I prefer a pantomime without soap-stars or the ex-politician who's got herself voted off early from 'I'm Not Famous Any More, Humiliate Me' to appear as Snow White's step-mum at the Civic Theatre, Darlington - however these interpolative appearances are nothing new. Augustus Morris, owner of the Drury Lane Theatre, used to hire variety acts to make guest appearances in his pantomimes in the late 1800's. I like the ones based on fairy tales best. I like fairy tales. The Grimmer the better. I don't much like the Disney-fication of these grue and guignol tales.
Well, with that in mind, I present an old favourite... please bear with the relatively 'dry' beginning, it is quite deliberate.
Once Upon A Time
Once upon a time. A universal phrase, found in every language known to man. Erase una vez, Es war einmal. Perhaps even the dolphins have a few clicks and some chirps that mean this. What does it really mean though?
'On one specific occasion on the upper surface of an indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole there were three bears' just isn't going to cut the mustard somehow...
The point is, like many phrases, we all know what 'once upon a time' means as an idea. So we don't need to deconstruct it, maybe we should write 'onceuponatime'
I reckon we could just write 'Somewhen'.
Well then: somewhen, somewhere, somehow, someone is born. In circumstances of some disadvantage; perhaps they have a wicked stepmother - or father, come to that. Perhaps they are the youngest of three, seven or twelve. There will have been something about them, something out of the ordinary. Our story's hero cannot be any Jesus, Dave or Benny. Let's call him Ernest, it's important that his name means something, almost.
Naturally, some biblically arbitrary misfortune will befall his family; famine, plague, war or just a horseman riding by. In any case, there will be some conflict to resolve. A challenge or enemy to overcome: a Philistine giant, or one who lives up a beanstalk. It doesn't matter which.
Somewhen, Ernest survives the flooding of Holmgard, a small village on the edge of the kingdom of.... let's say, Aliquot, because it's got to be called something. It's nearly always a small village, isn't it? That's why American fairy tales never work. You can't be Jack the Giant Killer from Chicago, can you? And no-one, not even the hay-seediest of rubes would admit to coming from Holmgard in up-state New Jersey. (Aliquot isn't much like 'Noo Joisey' State, but it's about the same size.) Anyway, Holmgard is on the edge of Aliquot because the story has to involve a journey, as any fan of TV talent shows will know.
So Ernest has survived the flood by accident, having lain in a coffin rather than polishing the brass on the handles, thereby proving himself a ne'er-do-well. If this were a modern American fairy story - or movie - we would call Ernest a nerd, naturally
Please myth, we need a wise old man! A wizard with a beard, perhaps. Or some woodcutter with a nice line in homespun gnomic phrases.
Ernest has started on his journey with some hard cheese and a bun in a 'kerchief tied to a stick. Suddenly Ernest meets a man in a pointy hat!
'Good morrow, Peterkin!' he says.
Ernest looks serious,
'That's not my name, and what's a morrow, good or otherwise?'
'Bollocks!' says the man. 'Wrong fairy tale, I expect.'
Ernest walks on by whistling a tune. The man sticks out a foot, tripping the boy in a light, fantastic manner.
'Hey, Old Man!' is Ernest's entirely predictable reaction.
'Sage, please. And you are?'
'I'm Ernest,' says Ernest.
'I'll bet you are,' replies Sage.
Sage prods a shoe like a pointy slipper into Ernest's ribs,
'What's the plan, young man?'
'Plan? What plan? I'm off to seek my fortune, find some hidden treasure that kind of
thing, Old Man.'
The pointy slipper must be more robust than it looks, for a swift kick produces a yelp as the old man reiterates,
'It's Sage, that's my name.'
This elicits a grunt from Ernest, proving that young adolescent males, even those of somewhen, are often less than articulate.
The young man, or little-more-than-a-boy, as is common in such imaginings, looks from his now broken stick to the bearded man.
'What?' says he.
'What about my stick?' says Ernest.
'Isn't it a magic stick?' comes the reply.
'Where would I get a magic stick?'
'Man, you stink at this, you really do,' says Sage.
'Are you going to magic it better?'
Ernest doesn't quite wither under the look Sage gives him, but he ought to.
'No, no I'm not. There'll be Thyme for that later.'
Ernest doesn't laugh, since he can't see the joke as he's not reading this, you are.
Sage pulls out a knife of some size and cuts something suitable from a nearby tree of a species with suitable mystical associations depending on your culture and folklore. Ernest accepts the stick with a smile and raps sharply three times with it on the ground. Nothing happens apart from the smile disappearing. Sage sighs and says,
'Use stick with 'kerchief.'
Ernest doesn't laugh at this either because no-one in Aliquot has played The Black Cauldron.
Suddenly there's a puff of smoke!
Sage remains steadfastly visible however and walks out of frame.
Stick used with 'kerchief, Ernest feels refreshingly more experienced and goes deep into the forest.
Of course, Ernest gets lost and encounters an ogre, a troll or some low-level government official, depending on which kind of boogie-man keeps you and yours awake at night. This is usually where some riddle has to be solved, but - to be honest - riddles are a bit like jokes, once you've heard them once they're never the same. So we'll allow that by hook or by crook, Ernest has guessed the answer to some fiendishly clever riddle posed by an ogre, a troll or a Diversity Implementation Officer. (If you really must have a riddle, my favourite is “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”)
Oh, and there's got to be a princess. Maybe a Jewish Princess, who is arrogant looking and don't know shit about cooking. Okay, maybe not Jewish, but the second two most likely count. Certainly, she's got to be someone who'd never look twice at the the seventh son of a seventh bum from some no account place in up-country Aliquot. Puh-lease! Our Princess is called Princess Roil, on account of she gives most of the servants in the Golden Palace a rough ride. Okay, maybe she's not just arrogant looking. The Golden Palace of course is in Aliquot's capital, which doesn't have a name, since this is a fairy story and we need to be able to tell it in the Harz Mountains, at a caravanserai just outside Nineveh or on a small planet quite near to Betelgeuse, relatively speaking. You've got to be vague about some stuff, so people can project their own myths onto the framework.
King Sigmund loves His Little Princess and decides that no-one is good enough for his sweet little maid-in-the-shade. So he locks her up in a tower and decides on some impossible tasks which inevitably will number three. Fairy stories like threes, from goats gruff to little pigs, that's just the way it is. This digressionary part continues whilst the all-seeing eye, your kindly, omniscient and in no way obtrusive narrator, (Jacob, Wilhelm or Hans, whichever you prefer) relates the complexity of the tasks and two noted failures at them by Princes or Dukes or - as a last resort - some Count or other.
'Good Morrow, Count Integer!', says the King, and it's fair to say that they do speak funny in the capital of Aliquot.
'Like Hi, your Highness! Unhuh-huh-huh.' Count Integer's first name is Beavis. It might have been worse, I suppose.
'Are you come to meet the challenge and win the hand of the Princess Roil?'
(See, they do talk funny!)
'Just the hand, Highness? Unhuh-huh-huh,' is the callow Count's reply.
Surprisingly, King Sigmund doesn't have him killed on the spot. Perhaps because the King's Men are practising doo-wop singing in the barber shop at the palace gates. Whatever, the three tasks will surely be the end of this buffoon, Sigmund reckons.
'Count Integer, art thou sure thou wouldst accept the challenge?'
The Count shrugs and mumbles something that might be 'like, okay.'
You have to imagine the tarantara, as the King and the Count and the courtiers do, since it's the Herald's day off and he's off polishing his horn at The Hollow Concept over a mead, or a porter or an old-fashioned ale. Anyway, King Sigmund, announces in a most kingly fashion.
'You must demonstrate the meaning of Π!'
'Like Pecan, Pumpkin....'
King Sigmund pulls a lever like the old handbrake on a classic car. Count Integer disappears into the hole in the marble floor that has appeared in front of the throne. Count Integer is unhurt as his fall is broken by the bodies of numerous Princes, Dukes and such. He is not the only Count to have ended up in the dungeon either.
'Call me Monte,' says a straggle-haired, wispy bearded fright to Count Integer.
Monte gives him both eyes rolling in different direction and screams,
'Did he ask you about Π ?'
'Like Pot Pie? Pizza Pie?'
Monte siezes the thigh bone of a former Prince of Hohenzollern and smashes Count Integer's brain-pan in. Monte's been locked up for fourteen years and all of a sudden he's in a completely different story, one in which he's sure no-one has heard of Edmund Dantes. So we don't blame him for despatching the irritating Count Integer, but where does this leave our digression? There are another two tasks to hear about yet.
Luckily for you, and perhaps for me, two Princes tie Monte up with his own ragged trousers.
It transpires that Prince A, (I've forgotten their names, Ok? Can you remember the name of the wizard-y type guy at the beginning, huh?) failed task two after demonstrating with the aid of a blackboard and a quite flamboyant amount of chalk, that although he could not explain Π , he certainly understood a lot more about it than dear old Sigmund.
Prince B is Prince A's younger brother. Prince B saw Prince A's pyrotechnic Π performance and his failure at the second hurdle.
Two Princes have sat and talked for hours; debating the second task, this does not prevent them from returning to the subject now.
'Say B, run it by me again, what was the question?'
'What do women want?'
'I just can't keep hold of the question, y'know. I think it must be retrograde
amnesia, brought on by post traumatic stress syndrome.' Prince A gives a little
sniff as he says this.
'You're just embarrassed about the answer that got you down here!'
Prince B feels like the older brother since they've been stuck in the dungeon, really.
'What'd I say?'
'I still can't believe you said it at all, bro!'
'Freedom from oppression and a line of credit at a nail salon.'
Prince A faints with embarrassment, leaving Prince B to wonder what a nail salon is, and what was wrong with his own answer, 'A Chivalrous Caveman', which still seems perfectly good to him.
Meanwhile, (ok we'll let that one go, but lexically it means in the intermediate TIME. Man, that word is complicated!) back in the dark, dread-ly and deciduous forest, Ernest has passed gingerbread houses, granny-bonnetted wolves, some palace overgrown with thorns where a distinctly un-beautiful snoring is coming from the windows - with only bits of bread on the forest floor to eat since the 'kerchief's contents were finished. Ernest is pretty fed-up and to cheer himself up, he decides that he's on a quest rather than seeking his fortune and this straightens his spine somewhat. He hits his head on a low branch and passes out.
Ernest wakes up with a mild concussion to see a familiar-looking figure sitting on the bole of a nearby tree. Naturally, this is also a tree with mystic associations appropriate to your culture or planetary origin. Our hero squints dizzily at the man looking at him. Beard? N-oooo. Pointy hat? Definitely not, a round crown and an up-turned brim, you might know it as a bowler or a derby. To Ernest, it's just a funny-looking hat, but maybe it's the fashion outside of Holmgard. Come to think of it, the guy on the tree-trunk looks funny too, like he might be a bit simple. He takes off his hat and does a weird plucking thing with his shock of upright hair. Then he puts the hat back on again. Ernest isn't entirely stupid, so he phrases his question so the man doesn't take him for a half-wit,
'You're not Sage, are you?'
'Nope, I cer-tain-ly am not, O-' but his mouth snaps shut and he looks quite sad.
Ernest, being sensible and quite a serious-minded chap, says,
'Is something the matter?'
A brief light of sentience shines in the eyes under the brim of the bowler hat,
'Everything is matter, or anti-matter, I read that somewhere.'
'Are you nuts?' Ernest says.
'Nope, guess again!' the man replies and he gives the angelic smile of the idiot as he does so.
“This is stupid!'
(And Ernest can't even read ahead to find out how true this is!)
The man in the bowler hat says,
'If anyone cries at my funeral, I'll never speak to them again!'
Ernest shrugs, picks up his non-magic stick and continues following the pieces of bread through the forest. He moves pretty fast and doesn't hear the man shouting,
'It's Laurel, my name is Laurel!'
But it doesn't matter, anyone who can't hear the difference between Time and Thyme wouldnt have understood anyway.
Suddenly, the trail of bread runs out. A rather fat goose stands in Ernest's way. He is smoking a large Cuban. Cigar that is, just in case you thought this story too preposterous to be true.
'If I will have all the bread that guys like you have stolen from me, I have all the bread to start a chain of kosher delicatessen across the whole of Canada with enough to open in some of upstate New York. But I wish to say that I never take it personal, although it helps with my digestion and any oviparous endeavours that I am in the habit of undertaking. More than somewhat, I might add.'
Ernest, is less taken aback by the talking goose than the smell of the reeking stogie, which has doubtless engendered the gravelly, pungent delivery of the goose's words. More than somewhat, you might say. So Ernest says,
'Yeah, well, like sorry, y'know.' And he drags the point of a felt boot through the dirt, although he doesn't quite know why.
(Hey! Clearly, I've made him do it to make him seem gauche. I'm showing not telling. Jeez! You think Perrault puts up with this?)
'Sorry, you might be. I will not deny that you oughta be, fellah. But I got a deal for ya.
I wish to say that I will be grateful if you will help me in my latest oviparous delivery. You can keep what comes out, so long as you lay off any bread that you might find at any future time.'
The goose holds out a wing expectantly, and Ernest shakes it.
After a struggle, Ernest is left with a heavy golden egg in the palm of his hand and a considerable amount of goose-shit about his person.
'I took you for a rube, son. I wish to say that I have not often been in error, but this time I am, more than somewhat. No country boy would make such a phedinkus of getting an egg from a goose's ass, or I ain't Goldie the Goose.'
Goldie the Goose goes on her way giving several derisory honks.
Golden egg in pocket, Ernest continues blundering blindly through the forest, there being no bread to follow. At some point he stumbles into a clearing, because all these trees are getting monotonous, even for me. And I like trees, on the whole. There's a man in a pointy hat, with a beard and the pointy-toed shoes and though it might not be Sage, it's his brother, or they are both members of the same Lodge, or maybe they're Shriners.
Ernest halloos the man with a hearty 'Good Morrow!' and is greeted with a drawled,
'How veddy, veddy twee! Good day, Ernest!'
Not being able to think of anything else to say, Ernest, in a display of quite un-adolescent
good judgement, says nothing.
'Aren't you going to ask?'
'How I know your name?'
'I don't care,' Ernest is quite tired by now. If he knew about The Black Cauldron he'd be clicking on 'rest' right about this time.
'I'm Thyme,' the bearded man says with a sigh.
'No, Thyme.' He says.
(Ernest looks puzzled, as, no doubt, do you. Thyme is not Time, but Time has no meaning for a wizard, nor place: no more for him than it does for that damned cat in the box. (Or not in the box, if you prefer). A good wizard can be in several wheres and several whens at once, Therefore, I put the case that he can hear the difference between the two homophones. Now that's magic.)
'No matter,' says Thyme. 'Now I'm going to teach you all about Π.'
'Pie, oh good! I'm sick of goddamn' bread.'
Thyme sighs and there's a puff of smoke and a huge round pie appears on the ground in front of the two of them. Ernest makes a grab for the whole shebang and gets a cuff around the ear for his trouble.
'It's not for eating, you stupid boy!'
Ernest ear is smarting so he sits on the ground and mumbles like a schoolkid who's just frightened enough of the teacher to keep his curses under his breath.
Thyme takes a piece of string out of a somewhere where a pocket should be in his robe covered with mathematical symbols and rare Latin swear-words.
'Now listen boy...' he says and gives a terrible maths lesson starting with 2Πr and finishing up with irrationality and trascendence. Ernest is asleep.
'It's enough to make you a pessimistic incompatiblist', and he adds a word from his robe just for relish, though I can't swear he didn't just read it off his left elbow.
Our hero experiences a moment of Deja Ow, as Thyme's pointy-toed slipper-like footwear tickles his ribs sufficiently to wake him and get him to his feet.
'And the second question will be... what do women want?' Thyme says.
'Second question?' Ernest asks.
'I've just told you how to answer the first one.'
'All that Pie-stuff?'
Thyme puts the end of his long beard in his mouth and chews it for a while.
Ernest feels a little ashamed and says ' Ok, the pie-stuff and what women want. Right,
what's the answer to that one?'
'Who knows,' says Thyme.
Ernest just says 'Ok, I'll get that myself, how hard can that be? And the third question?'
Which proves that the rule of three is pretty much a universal truth as regards fairy tales, since if even a dullard from Holmgard knows it, it must be universally known. Even near Betelgeuse. Ernest's face falls as Thyme says.
'You'll know the answer when you hear the question.'
There's a flash and a bang and Thyme fails to pull off a vanishing trick, too.
He says something like 'landica', which is a very rude word indeed.
'Oh and change that stick, there's one over there,' and he's erased like Mickey Mouse from a pornographic acetate as Walt comes to check on the artists.
Some time later, (a leap year, one light year, one jovian year, what does it matter?) Ernest, bum fluff on chin, magic stick in hand, rolls up to the gates of the Palace of the King of Aliquot.
Aliquot has pretty much run out of Princes and Dukes from the surrounding kingdoms, duchies and principalities. In fact, only the occasional Count turns up for the challenge. Still, there's always some Count around to cock things up, isn't there? So, King Sigmund has pretty much declared the Princess Roil Challenge an open competition. This is why a burly gate guardian asks Ernest if he's there for the challenge to win a Princess.
'Why not?' says Ernest, using two of the most dangerous words in any of many worlds.
Standing front and centre before the throne, Ernest is gripping tight to his magic stick. King Siggi's hand is hovering over the hand-brake lever and the first question has yet to be asked. Siggi is bored with the whole thing now, and reckons he might give the Princess Roil away to the first mope to make him laugh. Besides, Roil is thirty eight now, and a little fat from being locked in a tower. Her temperament's never been great and... well, let's just say the planets are aligned, if our boy can pull it off.
Siggi yawns and says 'Explain Π?'
Ernest says 'I need a Pie and a piece of string!'
The maths lesson is much worse than Thyme's: the pie breaks and Ernest ends up in knots.
Siggi is trying not to laugh.
Having extricated himself from the string, Ernest stands upright, waiting patiently for whatever's going to happen next. Still, like the Caliph, King Sigmund is waiting to hear what comes next, and a tear squeezes out of his left eye and trails slowly down a weathered cheek.
The king's hand draws away from the lever.
'What's your name, son?' The King says. He's been told, but he's forgotten in the twelve minutes that have passed since.
'I'm Ernest,' he says.
There's a pause while the King's laughter passes to coughing, choking and then back again. Once sufficiently recovered, he says,
'Of course, you are. The second question is, What do women want?'
The boy says the first thing that comes into his head, which, of course, is
The King is helped by the Chamberlain of the Royal Privy to clean himself up, while Ernest waits patiently.
The audience room is now full, since very few people get to question three and it's been a week since anyone turned up for the challenge. Since the broadsheets were sold showing a recent drawing of Princess Roil, in fact. There's an expectant hush.
The King stands on the dais in front of the throne, holds out a declaiming arm like he's seen in the woodcuts in the history books,
'What is Time?'
Ernest scratches his head, stares at the magic stick in his hand,
'What? You mean who! He's a wizard!'
And it is the right answer, or the King has had enough, for the outcome is the same. It is merely the wild coincidence of fairy-tales that the Court Magician named Thyme went to live in the Forest several years ago, and who can argue with coincidence? Of course, Ernest and the Princess Roil are married with great pomp and circumstance, and if they dine on partridge to the end of their days, what does it matter? And if they do not live happily ever after, King Sigmund surely will.
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