Friday, March 30, 2012

another grimms fairytale ...faithful johannes

This story puzzled me a lot as a child. It seriously messed with my sense of what loyalty was or should be. As far as I could see, Johannes was a sucker.
Before you begin reading, word count warning. This is a long 'un and there's only one image to rest your eyes when they weary of print. I did my best to trim and amalgamate. This is an Alice version, not a literal translation. Note, too, that although Johannes is invariably called faithful Johannes, I just call him Johannes. One less word to type.

Here goes:
Once upon a time there was an old king who became ill and called for his faithful servant, Johannes. Johannes was his favourite servant who had been trusty and loyal all his life. The king said: "Johannes, my end is near. I have no worries except for my son, who is still young and cannot yet make sound decisions. If you don't promise to teach him all that he needs to know and become a foster father to him, then I will not be able to close my eyes and die in peace."
--why does the king phrase it as a threat? He could simply have asked. Most people (in stories at least) obey deathbed requests.
--and isn't it odd that the king expects a servant to tell his son all that he needs to know? Ie how to govern a land, balance a budget, wear a crown, all those fancy court dances? Sure, it's possible Johannes is an overqualified servant. I know umpteen people with university degrees working at menial jobs. Except that we don't get any other hints in the story that Johannes is exceptional for any quality but his supposed loyalty.

Johannes answered: "I will not forsake your son. I will serve him with loyalty, even if I have to pay with my  life."
--his life? Why go to that extent? Even as a child, I thought Johannes none too bright. Though I suppose this adds suspense since the reader now expects that Johannes' life is up for grabs.

The old king answered: "After my death you will show my son the whole castle, all the rooms, chambers, and vaults, all the treasures that lie therein. Only don't let him enter the last chamber in the long hallway. In there hangs the painting of the princess of the golden roof. If he sees it, he will fall in love so deeply that he'll drop to the ground unconscious. Because of her, he will risk great danger. Shield him from that."
--so that's what's at stake: Johannes has pledged his life and the young king has a femme fatale in his future

Johannes gave the old king his hand. The king lay his head on the pillow and died.
Once the old king was buried, Johannes told the young king what he'd promised his father on his deathbed. "I will be true to you as I was true to him, even if it costs my life."
When the mourning period was over, Johannes led the young king through the castle to show him the splendid chambers and wealth that were his inheritance. The only room he didn't enter was the one with the dangerous painting. The painting was hung in such a way that if you opened the door, you immediately saw it. The rendering was so vivid that you believed the portrait was alive, and there could be nothing more charming and beautiful in the whole world.
--if the painting was so dangerous, why didn't Johannes' (or the old king) have it shipped to China? Or at the very least covered with the nearest tablecloth.

The young king noticed that Johannes kept passing the door of this one chamber, and finally he asked: "Why don't you open this door?"
"There is something inside which will terrify you."
"I've seen the whole castle. I want to see what's in here too!" The young king tried to force the door.
Johannes tried to hold him back. "Before your father's death, I promised him that you will never see what's in here. For both you and me, that would be disaster."
The young king insisted. "If I can't get into this room, that will be my doom. I will have no rest day and night, unless I see what's in there. I will not leave this spot until you open the door."
Johannes saw that he couldn't stop the king, and sighing, with a heavy heart, he found the key on the great ring.
--so Johannes isn't smart. He isn't even all that faithful. One headstrong scene and he produces the key.

When Johannes opened the door, he dashed across the room to try to hide the portraitoer, but what good was that?
--I love these interjections. As if the narrator weren't responsible for the story, simply reporting it.

The king stood on tiptoe to look over Johannes' shoulder. When he saw the portrait of the magnificent young woman, gleaming with gold and precious stones, he fainted and fell to the ground. Johannes hoisted him up and carried him to his bed. Full of sorrow he thought: Bad fortune is upon us. Oh God, what will happen now?
--this, too, aggravated me as a child. Characters do something they know is dumb and then lament as if they were victims.

Johannes gave the king wine to revive him. The first words the king spoke were: "Who is the beautiful young woman in that painting?"
"She's the princess of the golden roof."
"I love her! Were all the leaves on the trees tongues, they couldn't cry out loudly enough how much I love her. I dedicate my life to finding her. You are my most faithful Johannes. You must stand by me."
The servant reflected long on how to accomplish this. It would be difficult to approach the princess. Finally he told the king: "Everything around her--tables, chairs, dishes, cups, bowls--are of gold. In your treasury, you have five tons of gold. Let your goldsmiths work all kinds of fanciful shapes--birds, wildlife, wonderful animals--which will please her. We will bring them to her and try our luck."
--here's the proof that Johannes isn't to be trusted to advise a king. He's telling him to dump out his treasury to impress a young woman. And what then, will he increase sales tax, introduce user fees in hospitals, increase tuition for students in order to make up for what he's giving away?

The king fetched all his goldsmiths to work day and night until all manner of marvellous objects had been fashioned. Once the ship was loaded, Johannes dressed in merchant clothes and bade the king to do likewise. They travelled across the sea until they came to the land where the princess of the golden roof lived.
--if, like me, you try to locate fiction in the world, you might wonder if this golden roof refers to Innsbruck's famous goldenes Dachl. But it's impossible to arrive in Innsbruck on a ship bearing five tons of gold. A canoe maybe, not a ship.

Johannes told the king to wait for him. "Perhaps," he said, "I can bring the princess here. Prepare all the gold objects and ornaments. Decorate the ship." Himself, he collected several gold pieces in his apron and made his way to the castle. When he arrived in the castle courtyard, he saw a beautiful girl by a well, drawing water with two gold buckets. When she turned around and saw the stranger, she asked who he was. He said: "I'm a merchant." He showed her inside the pocket of his apron.
--I'm guessing this is like a hardware apron?

She cried out: "What pretty things! I have to show these to the princess. She loves gold! For sure she'll buy them from you."
She took him by the hand and brought him to the princess who was very pleased with all he showed her. "These are so delightfully fashioned. I will buy them all."
Johannes said: "I am only the servant of a rich merchant. What I have with me is nothing compared to what  he has on his ship where he keeps the most expensive and artful of his golden wares."
The princess wanted everything brought to her, but he said that it would take many days. His master had more wares on his ship than she had room in her castle.
She was now so curious and excited that she said: "Bring me to the ship then. I will go myself to see your master's treasures."
Happy with the success of his ploy, Johannes led her to the ship. When the king saw that her beauty was even greater than in the painting, he thought that his heart would burst. She climbed onto the ship and the king led her to look at the gold pieces, but Johannes stayed back and directed the helmsman to weigh anchor. "Open the sails so the ship flies like a bird in the air."
Inside the ship, the king showed the princess each golden dish, each bowl, each goblet, the birds and wildlife and fanciful animals. Many hours passed as she looked at everything. In her delight she never noticed that the ship was underway.
--is there a moral here about shop-till-you-drop?

After she had looked at everything and thanked the merchant, she wanted to go home again, but on the deck she discovered that they were far from land and the ship was in full sail. "Oh! I have been betrayed and kidnapped by a merchant! I would sooner die!"
The king snatched her hand and said: "I am no merchant. I am a king and no more low-born that you are. I tricked you, yes, because of my overwhelming love for you. When I first saw your portrait, I fell to the ground unconscious."
When the princess heard this, she felt comforted and her heart warmed to him. She agreed to become his wife.
--The princess felt comforted? She would sooner die if her kidnapper was a merchant, but it's okay if he's a king? There's lots to say about the assumptions here, but let's let them pass because there's not much point arguing with a story published 200 yrs ago.

As it happened, while the ship was on the open sea, Johannes overheard three ravens flying by. One said: "Look, this one thinks he's taking the princess of the golden roof home." "Yeah," said the second. "He doesn't have her yet." The third said: "Sure he's got her. Look, she's sitting next to him on the ship." The first began again: "So what? As soon as the ship touches land, a fox-red horse will gallop up. He'll try to mount and it will leap up into the sky with him and he'll never see his princess again." The second raven asked: "Is there no rescue?" "You bet. If someone else shoots the horse dead on sight, the king will be saved. But who knows that? And if anyone knows and tells the king, he'll turn to stone from the toes to his knees."
The second raven scoffed. "I can tell you better. Even if someone kills the fox-red horse, the king still won't get his bride. When they'll arrive at the castle, he'll find a magnificent wedding shirt that will look  woven from gold and silver, but it's made of sulphur and pitch. If he puts it on, it will burn him unto the marrow of his bones." The third raven asked: "Is there no rescue?" "Oh yeah," said the second. "If someone wearing gloves grabs the shirt and throws it in fire so it burns, then the young king will be saved. But what's the point? If anyone explains to him why, half their body will turn to stone from their knees to their heart."
The third raven said: "Even so, even if someone burns the shirt, the king still won't have his bride. After the wedding, when he'll try to dance with her, she'll suddenly grow pale and fall to the ground as if she were dead. And if  someone doesn't lift her up and suck three drops of blood from her right breast and spit them out again, she'll die. But again, no can tell the king. If someone does, his whole body will turn to stone from the top of his head to his toes."

Their conversation over, the ravens flew off. Johannes had understood everything and from that moment on became still and sad. If he concealed what he'd heard from his master, his master would lose the princess. And if he told the king, then he would turn to stone. Finally he decided: "My master I will save, if it means that I have to sacrifice myself."
When they reached the shore, everything happened as the ravens had foretold. A magnificent fox-red steed sprang toward them. "Oh boy," said the king. "There's a horse I'm taking home to my castle." But as he was about to mount, Johannes pushed him aside and shot the horse.
The other servants, who didn't like Johannes, cried out: "What a shame! To kill such a gorgeous animal that the king wanted!"
But the king said: "Be quiet and leave him alone. He's my faithful Johannes. Who knows what he meant by this."
When they arrived at the castle, the king found the magnificent wedding shirt and wanted to pick it up, but Johannes pushed him aside, grabbed it with gloves, and flung it in the fire where it burned.
Again the other servants murmured among themselves: "Look, he's burned the king's wedding shirt."
The young king said: "Who knows what he meant by that? Leave him alone. He's my loyal Johannes."
During the wedding, as the dancing began, Johannes watched the bride's face. All of a sudden she grew pale and fell, as if dead, to the ground. He sprang to her side, carried her to her chamber, laid her down, and kneeled to suck three drops of blood from her right breast. He spit them out. Immediately she began to breathe again but the king, who had been watching, angrily cried out: "Throw him in prison!"
The next morning Johannes was sentenced and led to the gallows. As he stood on the scaffold, he said: "Everyone who dies should, before he dies, have the right to speak. Will I be allowed that right?"
"Yes," said the king. "Speak."
"I have been unjustly sentenced. I have always been true to you!" And so he explained how he'd overheard the ravens at sea, and how, in order to save his master, he'd had no choice but to act as he had.
The king cried: "Oh, my most faithful Johannes! Pardon! Pardon! Bring him down from there."
But as Johannes spoke the last word, he fell lifeless, turned to stone.
The king and the queen felt great sorrow. "How badly," said the king, "have I repaid such great loyalty!" They had the stone statue brought into the bedroom next to their bed. Whenever the king looked at it, he wept and said: "If only I could bring you to life again, my most faithful Johannes!"
--next to their bed?

Time passed and the queen gave birth to twins, two sons. One day, when she'd gone to church and the two children sat with their father and were playing, the king looked at the stone statue and sighed. "If only I could bring you to life again, my most loyal Johannes!"
The statue began to speak: "You can bring me to life again if you give up what's most dear to you."
The king cried: "Everything that I own in this world would I give in exchange!"
The stone continued: "If you, with your own hand, chop off the heads of your two children and wipe their blood on me, I will live again."
The king heard with terror that he would have to kill his own children. But then he thought of Johannes' great loyalty, and how he'd given his life for him, and he drew his sword and cut off his children's heads. As he wiped their blood on the statue, life returned to the stone, and Johannes stood hale and healthy before him.
He said to the king: "Your fidelity will not go unrewarded." He set the heads of the children on their bodies, rubbed blood over their wounds, and instantly they sprang to life and began playing again as if nothing had happened.
The king was happy, and when he saw the queen coming, he hid Johannes and the two children in a large wardrobe. As she walked into the room, he asked, "Did you pray in church?"
"Yes. But I couldn't stop thinking about Johannes who was so unlucky because of us."
He said: "Dear wife, we can bring him to life again, but we would have to sacrifice both our sons."
The queen grew pale and felt terror in her heart, but she said: "We owe it to him for his great loyalty."
He was very glad that she thought as he had, strode across to the wardrobe and hauled out the children and Johannes. "God be praised, Johannes is free and we have both our sons as well." And he told her how everything had happened.
And so they lived blissfully together until their end.

--ultimately, loyalty gets rewarded, but everyone took so many chances. Smarter decisions could have been made. Why didn't Johannes, apparently so faithful, keep his promise to the old king and simply not open the door to that room? The king fathers two boys but acts like an impetuous kid. How old is he anyhow? If he had to stand on his tiptoes to look past Johannes' shoulder to see the painting? And the princess of the golden roof... She takes the award for shallow motivation.

Monday, March 26, 2012

a niggardly racist

The other day I wondered if calling someone niggardly would be perceived as racist.
The word means small-minded, petty, begrudging--qualities in no way specific to culture or skin colour. But was it possible that at some point in history people who were called Negroes were thought to be small-minded, petty, and begrudging? Ergo the adjective niggardly?
The words are spelled differently enough that I wouldn't think so, but English is such a crazy language that one never knows. Look at the words cough and though. They look the same but aren't pronounced the same. Or through and threw. They don't look the same but they rhyme. (Those are the standard examples I use when someone tells me French is a difficult language to learn whereas English is easy. I point out that French has many rules whereas English is a medley of exceptions. Personally, I think it's easier to learn rules and proceed from there than to have to question myriad individual instances.)
I took my question about niggardly to my all-time favourite source, a dictionary with etymological references. The first recorded appearance of niggard comes with Chaucer (ca 1380) who wrote: "A ful gret fool is he is wis / That bothe riche and nygard is." The word's origin is uncertain, but might come from the Old Norse hnoggr which means miserly.
The word Negro does not appear until the mid 16th century. It was borrowed from the Spanish and Portuguese who got it from the Latin niger which means black.
Niggard predates Negro. The words have different roots and meanings. Yet internet discussions warn against using niggardly since your listener or reader might think it's a slur.
By the by, I agree with Chaucer. I am not rich but will happily share my pennies with you.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

stripes of hot and cold / weather as sense memory

It's still only March, the first day of spring etc, but in Montreal I've worn boots and my long down coat at the end of March, so this past of week of sunny days and high temperatures feels unusual. I go for a walk with the sun beaming hot and sky beaming blue. I can sit on the deck. Wear shorts and flip flops. I know it means that the Arctic is melting, but it's hard not to enjoy the warmth and air after having been stuffed in undershirts, collars, and sleeves for months.
Since it's still only March, stray puffs of breeze tickle like they've slid off snow. The nights are cool. The mornings take a while to warm up. There's a tough, dirt-speckled edge of snow in my alley that hasn't melted yet--what's left of the waist-high blockade this guy bulldozes (illegally) away from his back gate all winter. Stone walls that don't get any sun smell dank and wet as if it were winter. Then I step out of the shadow and get blinded by the sun.
When I feel the stripes of cold and heat, the fresh mornings and hot afternoons, my body remembers the times we've travelled to warm climates during the winter. Spain, Tunisia, Mexico, Morocco. We walked across sun-bright cobblestone squares and sat at outdoor cafés in January, February, or March, luxuriating in the hot press of the sun on skin. There was always an odd tendril of breeze--down a mountain or across the water--to remind us of ice and snow. As the sun began to sink, I had to pull on the sweater hanging off the back of the chair. Return to the hotel to change from sandals to shoes.
This week I'm in Montreal, walking along Wellington in Verdun, where the sun is so hot and white that I can't tell what's inside the plate glass windows of the stores. I pass an alley that's in shadow and feel the tunnel-breath of winter. My skin remembers the Jour et Nuit where we had fresh-pressed orange juice in Agadir; sitting in the park among the plane trees in Barcelona; shopping for fruit at the market in Roma.
I'm enjoying the weather while it lasts and the memories it prompts.

Friday, March 16, 2012

email vs snail mail

Email is great. You need to set a date, ask a question, opine on some esoteric subject--and your friends grab their agendas, answer, agree, or disagree.
Communication happens fast and at your schedule. (Big plus for myself who doesn't like to be interrupted.) If you want to share some detail immediately and it's 5 a.m. where your friend lives, go ahead, type an email. Your friend will read it at her convenience and you can read her reply at your convenience.

Snail mail isn't as fast or hot off the tongue, but it can be more quirky, personal, and fun. Yesterday I got a letter from a friend on this lovely stationary decorated with bits of curved ribbon.

She bought it at a church fair years ago where it caught her eye because it reminded her of stationary sold in Budapest.
I've received snail mail on handmade, organic, coloured, scratchy, and velvety paper. Postcards and cards count too. They don't have to be artsy. Kitsch has its own aesthetic. Pages come adorned with drawings, pasted wine labels, bits of tissue paper collage, coffee circles.
R and I used to live in cities several hours apart. We wrote letters. Now we share a house.
Here's a letter from my friend in Copenhagen: a poem 106 lines / 56 cm / 22" long. I've kept it in the scroll shape it was sent. It's called "Through the Looking Glasses, Markly" because his name is Mark and mine is...

Snail mail means that the person thought of you for that bit longer that it took to find material to write on, an envelope, a stamp.
Remember stamps?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


It's grey and the forecast is drizzle and fog. It might not seem a likely day for deciding to put away the turtlenecks I've been wearing since my surgery, but the weather is getting warmer and pretty soon I'm going to have to bare a bit of scar. Perhaps a day when a loosely flung scarf won't look like overkill is the best time to start.
I appreciate that friends keep telling me scars are cool and awesome. But they've all got nice cleavages, so their well-meaning prompts feel like someone in an upper-income bracket telling me my hand-me-down sweater with a patch on the sleeve looks sorta funky. Ie nothing they would ever wear.
I feel like a moth trembling in my chrysalis.
And oh, 10:45 a.m. and I've just noticed that big flakes of snow are dropping so maybe today's not the day after all.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

spring in montreal / sidewalk maintenance

The sky's blue. The snow's melting. There are sandwich boards on the sidewalks warning pedestrians of chutes de glace in French and ice falls in English. In this city, people often like to assume they're bilingual without actually checking how the other language works. What the sign means is that, with little warning, a great load of snow and ice can slide off the steep roofs in the older neighbourhoods in Montreal. Watch out.
Another sign of spring coming is that the street crews are salting the sidewalks--the way they often didn't during the winter when they were covered with treacherous bumpy ice. I can only assume that someone in city administration has decided that another dump of snow is so unlikely that they can finally use the salt and gravel they've been hoarding all winter.
This happens every spring. You don't believe me? Here's a picture of the sidewalk outside our house taken today when the temperature rose to 12C (53F) and the ice was melting all on its own.

What can I say? Up until Friday, I was skittering across the sidewalk on ice. Now the ice has melted and we've got salt.
Another more hopeful sign of spring are the crocus leaves spearing up through the mulch along the backyard fence.

Monday, March 5, 2012

writer uses fringe twister

You're not likely to need a fringe twister unless you have loose fringes.That's not likely to happen unless you weave and don't finish your hems on the loom. (Although, as a writer, I should be able to imagine a few scenarios that result in fringes.)
The nice way to finish a hem on a woven piece is with a hem stitch. It requires a certain amount of left-right  coordination which I find difficult because I'm directionally challenged. I don't have that immediate gut sense of right and left. I'll bet Alice in Wonderland, with all her adventures through the looking glass, didn't either.
When people tell me I should visualize an L for left, how do I explain that in my mind I can see the map of Canada with Newfoundland on either side. Years ago I failed a driver's test for turning in the wrong direction. The next time I took the test I pasted an R and an L on the window. I've made a conscious effort to remember that cars are supposed to stay on this side of the road, but don't ask me quickly which side that is. And rationally, of course I know that Newfoundland is closer to Quebec than to Alberta, and that Alberta is in the west and Newfoundland is in the east. I'm not a dolt. Just don't ask me to point in the direction.
So... hems and fringes. I've been weaving for a few years and can usually recover the particular sequence of jabs with the needle that make a hem stitch, but it always takes a few messy attempts to get me there. I've got a diagram, but it doesn't help. I need to do a manual task manually before my hands understand.
When I heard about this neat little tool called a fringe twister, I thought I'd found the solution.

It's easy to use, but I'm not sure I like the look. Woven cloth--even ordinary 4-ply cotton--has a certain elegance. The twisted fringe looks poor country cousin.