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Annotated Fairy Tale: The Golden Apple Tree And The Nine Peahens

A red-eyed vireo is lurking in the backyard, beating larvae to death on branches. In celebration of yard-bird number #54 (not bad for not being on a body of water!) I give you a bird-themed annotated fairy tale! This one’s from Serbia, bears strong resemblances to the Firebird story from Russia, and while much of it is standard fairy tale fare, it includes at least one interesting reversal of the usual course of events.

This one doesn’t delight me as much as the last, and the language is nowhere near as elegant, but it does have one or two moments worth visiting.

The Golden Apple Tree And The Nine Peahens

Once upon a time there lived a king who had three sons. Now, before the king’s palace grew a golden apple tree, which in one and the same night blossomed, bore fruit, and lost all its fruit, though no one could tell who took the apples.

As a gardener, let me just say that this is not how it works, and I always wondered where they’re getting these apple trees. And what’s pollinating them? There are bat-pollinated fruit trees—in fact, the ancestor of all peach trees is believed to have been bat-pollinated—but they tend to be in Asia and occasionally the American Southwest. I assume that somewhere there’s a magical mayfly that hatches on the night the apples blossom, pollinate, have an orgy, lay eggs under the bark and then die.

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A thing that would give me great respect for this tale would be if the prince deduced what to do with the mare's bridle after the first two nights, leaving himself a favor from wolves in reserve.

That was just what I was thinking.

mythological magnetic poetry kit

You may already know this but: Professional story tellers, back in the pre-print days, generally did work in the "mythological magnetic poetry kit" style. The story teller would start telling a story and keep adding on bits until the audience started getting bored or stopped paying, then wrap it up. This also allowed for stories to be tailored to local lore and to flatter rich audience members.

Then folk lore collectors came along and wrote down the stories. After a while they did figure out that folk tales were mixed and matched from basic parts.
That is why we have The Stith Thompson. Motif-index of folk-literature : a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, medieval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends.

Re: mythological magnetic poetry kit

That is facinating!

Hm. These might fall in the "projects to send past your agent when bored". There's probably a whole bunch of such fables in out-of-copyright collections in one library and another. (Or on Google books.) Find a bunch, annotate with color commentary, and put it out with a title like "Terrible Stories for Terrible Children". Probably would make a nice bridge between Dragonbreath aged audiences and Regency-Ninja aged audiences. Relatively light effort for you, no living co-authors to share credit with, perhaps additional pocket money even. And hey, unearths a few classics.

As a bonus, the critical eye you train up with such commentary will probably drive legions of unimaginative English Literature teachers further to drink, as some basic questions are raised about the complete lack of good sense involved in Macbeth and the like....

The old woman sulked and polished her heads.

I can just see her pouting and shining her heads-on-stakes like they were shoes.

So how often are wolves helpful to the protagonist in fairy tales? That part seemed singular to me.

Any time someone is kind to them earlier in the story or they come out of a magical object the person possesses. It seems to be more common for them to be helpful in Eastern Europe / West Asia than Central or Western Europe.

i wondered about the equestrian dragon THE WHOLE WAY THROUGH. It's not a mental image that goes away in a hurry, especially if it's a large dragon.

You know, I feel like you would have fun with that one Russian story where the princess hides chicken bones in her sleeves during the feast and then when she goes to dance she flings out her arms and the bones fly out of her sleeves as beautiful swans. You should annotate that one!

In the folk tales I've read it's usually weakened Koshchei the Undying who asks for water, and the water is magical. Why would someone keep a barrel of magical strength-returning water next to an imprisoned lich, I don't know.

Somehow in a story with a were-peahen as the love interest, it never occurred to me that the horse-riding dragon with his own castle to live in wasn't a were-dragon.

The prince wasn't that dumb at first. But oh boy did he fall down for not realising his servant was sending him to sleep. Not to mention he obliges the dragon, bad thing happened. Yet when the fish, fox and wolf begged for help, he didn't hesitate.

Peahen princess must have really liked him to forgo her golden apple to talk to him all night. Not to mention putting up with him staying asleep at the lake and yet married him.

Of course he opens the one door forbidden, it's what anyone would do. After all no signs saying "Danger! Dragon! Keep Out!" Or "Do not water the Dragon!"

I'm surprised the horses didn't turn out to be transformed princes too.

Other helpful threes usually have a bird in there, instead of wolf and fox.

a note on the translation :)

Hello! I'm a reader from Serbia and I've been reading your annotated fairytales for quite a while now and enjoying them very much. I was also very pleasantly surprised to see this story, an old favorite of mine. So I thought I'd comment on this one since a thing or two caught my attention.
First of all: there is an important change in this translation - not only the tone, which is much more formal, even stilted, in comparison to the rather informal original. But this:
"but the ninth alighted near him and turned instantly into a beautiful girl — so beautiful, indeed, that the whole kingdom could not produce one who could in any way compare with her.

She stayed, conversing kindly with him"

should actually read: "The ninth alighted on his bed, turned into a beautiful girl, and then they embraced and kissed till after midnight."
It's quite an alteration, I should think :)
This carries over into the scene with the old woman under the bed - she doesn't cut of a single lock of hair, she grabs and cuts the girl's entire braid, which is hanging from the bed.

Since people asked about the dragon riding - in Serbian fairy tales, there are several types of dragons, and this particular type (zmaj) is usually depicted as a were-dragon or a human with various supernatural powers, often winged.

I hope this comment will be useful, and I apologise for any mistakes in my English.

Re: a note on the translation :)

and then they embraced and kissed till after midnight.

And here I was thinking that "conversing kindly" sounded kind of like a euphemism. Guess it was.

Thanks for the info!

Have you considered that you could collect all these annotated fairy tales into a book, add a few quirky ursula illustrations and sell it? I mean people are always turning thier blogs into books these days. Wil Wheaton did it with a collection of reviews of Star Trek:TNG episodes and others have collected essays from their blog into books to be sold. Just a thought.

I love these so, so much!

I like to think that Son #3 was the only one who woke up because he's also the only one who had the sense to go to bed early. Very practical story-telling, this (right up until the dragon-inna-barrel, anyway).

Last year when I was writing a paper on the apocalypse, I learned that "leprous" when applied to horses can just mean spotted. Although the horse in the story looking like your My Leper Pony is a far more entertaining visual.

I've been collecting quotes from your journal entries (including a few from your commentators) that I find particularly amusing for a while now, and this one thus far has generated the most (thus setting a new record of 11, in case you're curious). I suppose it's because of all the very vivid imagery. How can a city inhabited by peacocks and ruled by a were-peahen princess, not to mention a talking stake and an old woman who collects severed heads, not be hilariously fascinating?

Not because there’s a dragon in the barrel—although that’s a pretty odd thing to keep in the cellar, I grant you, and the question of how she got him in the barrel in the first place is a tough one–but this is one of the very few cases I can think of in a fairy tale where doing a compassionate deed screws you over. Generally if you give water to the thirsty, you’re rewarded for it. In this case, dragon steals your wife. Hmm. Interesting moral for the young’uns.

The first drink was a laudable compassionate act.

After the barrel started busting open, though, he really ought to have held off on the other drinks until he'd found somebody and asked them what the guy was doing in the barrel and whether letting him out would be a good idea.