Summertime: Wicked Kings and the Fly-by-night

In the airport at midnight my kids were the kind of tired that kids get when it is hours past bedtime and they are in a bright, crowded, noisy place after sitting still for hours. So, naturally, they started to act like drunken football hooligans after a major loss incurred partly or wholly due to a bad ref call. They are still small enough that I can scoop them up, one under each arm; I carried them, kicking and hooting, to a filthy spot on the floor against a wall, apart from the crowds, where I sat them down and read them Rumpelstiltskin while That Guy waited for our baggage to appear.

What is the deal with Rumpelstiltskin? At first, the King is the obvious villain, followed maybe by the idiot miller who spread the tale that his daughter could spin straw into gold in the first place. The King shuts her up in a room filled with straw and says he’s going to kill her if she doesn’t spin it into gold, even though, the story says, he doesn’t actually believe it’s possible. I guess he just thinks it would be fun to kill her? Rumpelstiltskin appears, and with his magical abilities, he spins the straw to gold and saves her life.

So it seems that Rumpelstiltskin is on the side of good, at least compared with the King. The third go-round, the King tells the girl that if she can’t spin all the straw into gold, he’ll kill her, and if she can, he’ll marry her. Talk about being stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. But then, after Rumpelstiltskin helps her a third time (exacting the promise of her first-born child, which, OK: yuck) we fast-forward a year or two and she is happily married to the King. There is no mention of the fact that he is a greedy, vicious sociopath. She’s Queen now, she has a baby: all is well. So the King stops being the villain – in fact, he disappears from the story altogether – and Rumpelstilskin, reappearing to claim what he was promised, becomes the villain.

It is implied that he wants to cook and eat the baby – an unsavory practice, to be sure, but a deal is a deal, after all. He does offer the Queen a way out, though: if she can guess his name, he’ll let her be. When she is able to name him, he flies into a terrible rage, and in the version that we read in the airport at midnight (my little hooligans utterly subdued by the horror of the story) he stamps his foot so hard that it gets stuck in the floor and then he tears himself in half trying to get his leg out. Nice, right?

I can’t think of many other fairytales where one feels that the villain has been hard done by, or in which a girl ends up uncomplainingly marrying a man who’d threatened to kill her and it gets treated as a happy ending. It’s a weird one, all right, about as amoral and bizarre as fairytales get. However, I do recommend it if you are dealing with a double-meltdown at the airport at midnight. That Guy came over with the suitcases, took one look at the saucer-eyed silence of our recently rampaging children, and asked, “What’s wrong?” “Rumpelstiltskin,” I replied grimly. “Ah,” said he. And J, appalled, whispered: “I want to read it again.” 

***

In a hotel room outside Toronto, after a white-knuckled hour of driving through a blinding downpour, cars inching along the highway through the rush of white water, I read the boys a story from a collection of fairytales by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame). We all adore his stories. They are clever and whimsical and have the peculiar power of original fairytales. There is hardly a stinker in the bunch.

That night, we read a story about an unpopular, frivolous King who neglects and ignores his hungry, homeless, rightfully angry subjects, and a Dragon who arrives in the Kingdom and settles on a rooftop. The King decides to boost his popularity and asks the Most Famous Dragon-Slayer In The Land to kill the dragon. The dragon slayer goes and checks the dragon out and says, Nah, forget it, this dragon is old and harmless, he’s on his way to the East to die, leave him alone.

The King won’t have it. He fetches the Second Most Famous Dragon-Slayer, who points out that the smoke and blood from a slain dragon will poison the land and blot out the sun and that nothing will grow for a hundred years afterwards and really, truly, it’s better just to let this old dragon be.

The King is furious. He fetches the Third Most Famous Dragon-Slayer, and The Third Most Famous Dragon-Slayer goes and kills the dragon. There is a long and brutal dragon-slaying scene, and indeed the land and the air are poisoned by the blood and smoke flowing from the dead dragon. But although the country is now even more destitute, the people praise the King, who becomes a very popular ruler, and the Third Most Famous Dragon-Slayer In The Land becomes the Most Famous.

The boys were understandably shaken and confused by this ending, which is not exactly subtle. They wanted to talk about it, but it was late and we were all tired and the room was cold and I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the howling air-conditioner, so I probably did a very poor job of fielding questions about Injustice and Scapegoating before I declared it bedtime. Feeling too apathetic to even call the front desk about the air-conditioner, we just piled under blankets together. When I closed my eyes, I saw the road awash in rain, blurred headlights all around us, and had to concentrate to unclench my jaw.

“Stupid King,” muttered K, squashing his toy kitty in an angry hug. “I would chop off his head.” My son, the righteous usurper.

 ***

And when we came home after five weeks away the apartment looked dingier and dirtier than before. Our jet-lagged children pulled out all the toys they hadn’t played with all summer while we unpacked in hazy slow-motion, and suddenly it was midnight again. I lured them bedward to read my favorite of Terry Jones’s fairytales: The Fly-by-night.

In this one, a girl hears a tapping at her window, and when she looks out there is a fuzzy little black-as-soot creature on a flying cat, asking if she would like to go flying. Of course she wants to go flying! Who would say no? So off she goes, on a dizzying, terrifying flight, too high and too far, farther and farther from home. She starts to panic, because how will she get back? The Fly-by-night doesn’t care about that. She begs to be let off, and so they leave her in a forest somewhere, all alone. All the half-seen creatures in the woods scoff and mock, tut-tutting to each other, saying how foolish she was to go off with a Fly-by-night, but the moon takes pity and guides her home again. Much relieved, she snuggles back into her familiar bed:

“She fell asleep thinking how silly she’d been to go off with the Fly-by-night. But, you know, somewhere, deep down inside her, she half-hoped she’d hear another tap on her window one day, and find another Fly-by-night offering her a ride on its flying cat.

But she never did.”

J wants to know, Why didn’t the Fly-by-night ever come back? I say, She was lucky it came even once. He asks, Was she lucky? I don’t know, I say, I think so. Would you go with a Fly-by-night if it knocked at your window? And J says yes and K says no and then they ask me, would I go, if the Fly-by-night came? I tell them, only if we could all go together. Because that’s how it is, now.

***

I’m thinking of these stories as summer draws to a close because they are all true, and maybe that is the point of fairytales, or part of the point anyway. The King might be a monster, and maybe the miller’s daughter married him because she felt she had no choice, but in practice isn’t it still a sick triumph to be made Queen? Isn’t it still lucky? The King is Power and Privilege, he is The Way Things Are, and in the end you might find it easier to choose another villain – the imp who threatens what you love, and on whose back you built your kingdom.

We all know that other King and his Third Most Famous Dragon-Slayer, and we all know about the good men who don’t end up being part of the story because the story is about Killing A Dragon, and we all know that dragon too. That one is easy. It’s transparent and a bit trite, honestly, but the land is poisoned anyway and we are brought up to be afraid of dragons, not kings.

And what about the Fly-by-night, tapping at your window? The world looks different from above, and flying is scarier than you thought it would be. You aren’t really in control, but that’s the glory of it too. I remember those nights: what it felt like taking off, the fear and the exhilaration, and what it felt like to be lost, regretting my foolishness. But there are so many ways to be a fool – trust me, I know all about that. Life can keep on just being the same if you let it. That’s a kind of luck, of course, but there are so many ways to be lucky – I know all about that, too. If a little creature on a flying cat taps at your window and asks you if you want to fly, well, you’d be a fool to say yes, but wouldn’t you be an even greater fool to say no?

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