Mythical Monday: Dwarves, Dragons and Danes by Mae Clair

I finally had a chance to catch up with the second part of The Hobbit last night, The Desolation of Smaug. I’ve been a fan of Tolkien ever since my tenth grade English teacher gave me his copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. That’s when my love of fantasy really took off. Tolkien’s books are loaded with all things mythical and marvelous—elves, dwarves, enchanted forests and lakes, wizards, and walking trees—just to name a few.  After watching The Desolation of Smaug, I thought it was an appropriate time to shine a spotlight on dwarves. Admittedly, Thorin and Kili might have had something to do with that. 😀

Not all dwarves were heroic warriors. Some were simple folk, concerned with agriculture and common tasks like smithing, baking and spinning. The Danes tell a folktale about a human farmer who leased a homestead that had seen numerous ill-fated owners before him. None had any luck tilling the land or raising a profit from livestock. Drought had struck the crops repeatedly, and disease thinned every herd. This farmer—a man, with a wife and two young children—hoped for better luck.

Summer rural scene with old wooden abandoned barn in green mountain meadowOn the night he arrived—a fine balmy summer evening—he addressed the farm with what he hoped was a respectful greeting. “Good evening, farm.”

“Good evening,” a voice immediately returned. Sounding much like the croak of a toad, the voice came from the direction of the cowshed.

The farmer peered through the twilight, searching for the source, but saw no one about. Unsure if he had imagined the reply, he shrugged and added, “Well, whoever you are, come to the cottage at Christmas and show yourself.”

The next day he set to work, patching walls and re-thatching the roof, for the farm had fallen into a horrible state of disrepair. He stabled his herd in the cowshed, but not long afterward, one of his best cows mysterious went dry. In the back of his mind, he feared the curse of the farm would plague him as well.

Still, when Christmas Eve arrived there was a fat goose for the family feast, and plenty of ale. In the middle of dinner, as the family enjoyed their holiday fare, the door suddenly burst open with a gust of cold air.

A small gnarled man dressed in gray stood on the threshold. He surveyed them for a moment, taking in the shocked faces of the children, then called out a Christmas greeting. The farmer instantly recognized the croaking-toad voice he had heard the evening of his arrival, and invited his strange visitor inside. He offered the dwarf a plate of goose, and a mug of ale.

“You must come to the cowshed on New Year’s Eve so I may return the favor in kind,” the dwarf informed his anxious host after he had feasted.

The farmer was wary, but feared insulting a supernatural being. When New Year’s Eve arrived, he went to the cowshed as promised. The dwarf pointed out a hole in the earth ringed with loose soil, then vanished into the dark passageway. Growing ever more fearful, and not seeing how he could ever fit through such a small opening, the farmer nonetheless stuck his foot into the hole. He immediately dropped into a low chamber composed of clay walls and gnarled roots. Furnished with oil lamps and a table, the small space was cozy and inviting. The dwarf bade the farmer to sit, then gave him a steaming bowl of porridge. Before the farmer could take a bite, a fat drop of foul-smelling brown moisture plopped onto the table from the ceiling.

“You see why I curse the land now?” the dwarf asked. “The first owner built his cowshed directly over my home, and ever since the muddy floor has oozed through my ceiling and ruined my food. I bear no malice to mortals, but have blighted crops and cursed cattle as a result of my spoiled porridge. ‘Twould be better if we lived in peace. Move the shed at first thaw, so that we both may prosper.”

Beautiful old farmstead surrounded by lush greeneryThe farmer did as the dwarf requested, moving the cowshed as soon as the weather permitted. In return, his crops flourished and his dry cow gave an abundance of milk. Not only did he prosper, but his harvests where plentiful and his herds enjoyed good health and long days. The dwarf’s animosity became rich blessings instead, allowing the farmer and his family to thrive on the farmstead where all others had failed.

It’s interesting that there aren’t that many tales about dwarfs out there. I think some tales where imps are involved (like Rumplestiltskin) could also be interpreted with dwarves. Can you think of any fairy tales or myths that include dwarves? Do you have a favorite?

And the most important question—what do you think of Thorin and Kili? 😀

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: Mesmerized by Mermaids

I’ve been holding off addressing nautical folklore and sea myths on my Mythical Monday posts, saving them for closer to the release of my contemporary romance/mystery TWELFTH SUN. I’m still on schedule for August having just wrapped my second round of content edits, but the pull of the sea is hard to resist 🙂

TWELFTH SUN is the name of a 19th Century schooner I invented. An artifact from the ship becomes the focal point of a treasure hunt in which my novel’s hero and heroine find themselves competing. Ship lore has always fascinated me, so it was fun to sprinkle a few tidbits and superstitions throughout the book. No mythical creatures, however, so I thought I’d share some of those my blog, starting with the mermaid.

bigstock-Mermaid-13710524We’ve all heard the speculation that ancient mariners mistook the manatee for a mermaid, a belief that has always left me scratching my head. Don’t get me wrong – – I love manatees. They’re graceful in the water and gentle, but a man would have to be seriously lonely or swilling too much rum to mistake a 1200 lb. aquatic mammal for a sea nymph. Can you imagine the disappointment when reality set in?

But let’s assume mermaids did exist. Disney put a lovely HEA spin on the story of the Little Mermaid. As a child, I remember the fairytale ending differently and was saddened the mermaid and her prince couldn’t be together. In the original rendition, mermaids lack a soul, becoming sea foam when they die unlike humans who live for eternity.

One day the Little Mermaid spies a ship in the distance and immediately falls in love with a handsome prince she sees onboard. A storm arrives and he is tossed into the sea, unconscious, at the mercy of the waves. The Little Mermaid saves him and takes him ashore, staying beside him until she sees a human girl approaching.  She slips into the sea before the prince awakes. When he does recover, he finds the human girl at his side and mistakenly believes she has rescued him.

Days pass, but the Little Mermaid is unable to forget her prince. Desperate to be with him, she visits a sea witch who gives her a potion in exchange for her beautiful voice. The potion gives her legs but every step she takes is agony, as if she is walking on swords. The witch tells her she will gain a soul if the prince loves her and marries her. Through true love’s kiss she will become a human but, should he marry another, she will turn into sea foam at dawn of the next day.

In love with her prince, the Little Mermaid drinks the potion. She finds him at his palace,Lavender Mermaid but now mute, is unable to tell him she loves him or that she saved him from the sea. He is kind and attentive, but his heart belongs to the girl he believes rescued him. Eventually, he marries her and the Little Mermaid’s heart is broken.

That night, her sisters bring her a knife from the witch. She has one final chance to save herself– kill the prince before dawn, and she can return to the sea as a mermaid. Unable to do it, the Little Mermaid throws herself into the sea at daybreak, expecting to become foam. Instead, she is welcomed by the Daughters of the Air and told she will be granted a soul after 300 years of helping others.

Yeah.

Alrighty then.

I’m sure a lesson lurks in there somewhere, but I much prefer the Disney ending with the Little Mermaid marrying her prince. Even as a kid, I was all about an HEA. I’m all for classics, but sometimes you have to wonder about the guys who were writing them.

That aside, not all mermaids were interested in romantic love, especially with a human. They had strong devoted meremen of their own. In certain legends mermaids behaved much like the sirens of Greek mythology who lured sailors to their doom with enchanted signing.  In some tales they rescued men from storm-tossed seas, while in others they spirited them to their underwater kingdom, drowning them in the process. As with most mythical creatures, there is a touch of beguiling enchantment and a darker side to the mermaid legend.

Which do you prefer?

Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: The Snow Maiden

It’s December, and in a good portion of the U.S., that generally means cold temperatures, icy roads and the chance of snow. Usually.

This year is different. Could be because the Mayan calendar predicts the world is going to end in under two weeks or because the polar ice caps are melting at record rates. Whatever the cause, the weather has been curiously mild. I live in the northeast where we’ve had temperatures climb into the 60s during the day. Lovely, but not fitting with our normal attire of heavy coats, boots and gloves (just for the record, I love heeled boots with long skirts so I’m suffering a mini fashion crisis here). We’ve seen one snowfall, pretty while it lasted, but not enough to amount to anything.

As much as I love warm weather (and wouldn’t mind living somewhere tropical year round), I’ve always held a fascination for stories set in cold climates. A few of my all-time favorite novels have earned that distinction because the author employed a winter backdrop. Snow settings can be beautiful and magical, but also claustrophobic. THE RINGED CASTLE by Dorothy Dunnett (book 5 of the Lymond Chronicles) is an amazing read set in 16th Century Russia that conjures all three of those feelings.

presentRussian folklore is also where I found the legend of The Snow Maiden, a short poignant fairy tale.  There are several variations but all agree on the basics – – a woodcutter and his wife, lonely and childless, decide to amuse themselves one day by fashioning a snegurochka, a maiden from snow. Taken with their creation, they fervently wish her to be a daughter they can love and cherish. Their desire is so strong it weaves an enchantment that brings the snow maiden to life. She appears in a robe and cap of pale ivory that is embellished by pearls and trimmed in white fur. Overjoyed, they take her into their home as their own child.

All is well until the first sign of spring when the snow maiden tells them she must head north to lands where winter still reigns. Upset at the thought of losing her, the woodcutter barricades the door as his wife wraps the girl in her arms to prevent her from fleeing. As she holds her, the snow maiden slowly melts into nothingness. Overcome by grief, the couple mourns throughout the year. The next winter their daughter returns and their sadness becomes joy. The snow maiden promises to stay the season and return each year after that.

In another version of the tale, the snow maiden falls in love with a young man fromIn the Forest the village. One day they wander into a birch wood where the last vestiges of winter are fading and green shoots struggle to push up from the ground. The snow maiden turns her face to the sun and with its touch dwindles into an icy mist that is whisked away by the wind. And so winter must always yield to light and life as winter yields to spring.

I love these old fairy tales. What about you? Are there any special ones that come to mind? Any favorites from childhood that still resonate with you the way snow and winter resonate with magic? Tell me about them. I’d love to hear your thoughts!