It’s finally May and spring is in full bloom! Renaissance and medieval faires across the country have opened their doors. The light is soft and beautiful. The evenings are deliciously warm. Pour yourself a cocktail and curl up on your patio for a few floral tales of yore, beautifully written by staff writer VC Audley.
Spring is one of my favourite things about England. I didn’t grow up here, so I haven’t lost the enchantment with it. The first, still-cold days when snowdrops begin to poke their heads up and daffodils brighten paths with their sunshine yellows bring such needed joy to the late-winter drudge. My favourites are the bluebells, famed in folklore for heralding the arrival of the fairies. There is undeniable magic in a bluebell wood, sunlight filtering through blooming trees and falling on a thick carpet of purple flowers — but if you hear the bluebells ringing, beware, for you might never leave.
The magic of flowers is well-represented in fairy tales and folklore. One well-traveled story follows a kind girl and a wicked girl, each of them rewarded in kind for their actions. There are versions of this tale from France, Scotland, Scandinavia, and Japan, but my favourite is an Italian one from Giambattista Basile’s 17th century collection, Il Pentamerone, called “The Two Cakes.”
There once were two sisters named Luceta and Troccola. Marziella was the daughter of Luceta, and she was as kind as she was beautiful, but her cousin, Troccola’s daughter Puccia, showed her wickedness plain on her face.
One day, Luceta sent Marziella to the well to fetch some water. The girl asked her mother for a cake to eat with the fresh water at the well and set out on her errand. Once she had brought up enough water for her mother and for her own snack, she was just about to take a bite of her cake when an old woman approached.
“Give me a piece of your cake,” the woman said, “and may Heaven send you good fortune!”
“Take it all,” replied Marziella. “I am only sorry it isn’t a sweeter cake, for I would equally give it to you with all my heart.”
The old woman then blessed Marziella, saying, “May roses and jessamines fall from your lips, may pearls and garnets fall from your hair when you brush it, and when your foot touches the ground, may lilies and violets there spring up.”
Marziella returned home with the pitcher of water for her mother and thought nothing more of the old woman until the next morning, when she combed her hair and countless pearls and garnets fell into her lap. With joy, Luceta went into town to sell them and Marziella danced a ring of blooming lilies and violets around their house.
While Luceta was away, Troccola came to visit. Marziella told her aunt the story of her good fortune, and Troccola, thinking she could win similar fortunes for her own daughter, went home with a plan. She gave Puccia a cake and sent her to the well, where the old woman again appeared and asked for a bite.
Puccia, however, responded, “Have I nothing to do but give you cake? Am I such a fool as to give away what is mine?”
The old woman parted with a curse: “May you foam at the mouth when you breathe, may toads fall from your lips, and when your foot touches the ground, may ferns and thistles there spring up.”
Puccia returned home to her eager mother who asked what had happened at the well. When she opened her mouth to tell her, out fell a toad.
Meanwhile, Marziella’s brother, Ciommo, was at court bragging of his sister’s beauty to the king. He wrote their mother to send Marziella to court, but Luceta had unfortunately fallen ill, and asked her sister, Troccola, to accompany her daughter. Sensing an opportunity, Troccola agreed and departed with both Marziella and Puccia. While they were in a boat on the journey, Troccola pushed Marziella over the side.
Ciommo was tricked into presenting Puccia at court, where she foamed and spat toads. The king, wincing in disgust at the stinking plants that followed her footsteps, drove Puccia and Troccola away, and sent Ciommo to tend to the geese as punishment.
While Ciommo’s back was turned, Marziella rose from the sea, trailing a golden chain from her ankle, and fed the geese with rosewater and sweetmeats. That night, the geese sat under the king’s bedroom window and sang of the beautiful girl who fed them. The king asked Ciommo about it the next day, but he had no explanation. When Ciommo went out again, the king secretly followed him and watched. He soon saw Marziella and asked Ciommo who that was. Ciommo recognised his sister and happily embraced her. She told him and the king what happened with Troccola, and how she had come to be taken prisoner by a sea witch who saved her from drowning. The king cut the golden chain with a file and freed Marziella. She, her brother, and their mother thereafter lived richly and well, surrounded by magic fields of lilies and violets.
Sometimes flowers are associated with spirits, such as in the Japanese tale, “The Princess Peony.” The beautiful Princess Aya loved to walk in the gardens with her maids, and above all, she loved the peony beds. The delicate flowers were her favourites, and she loved to sit among them and gaze at the reflection of the full moon in the nearby pond.
When she came of age, she was betrothed to the second son of the Lord of Ako — a respectable match, but she did not know the man, and was quietly anxious about her upcoming wedding. One evening, walking in her beloved peony beds, she slipped and nearly fell into the pond. Tragedy was narrowly avoided when a handsome young samurai wearing a robe covered in peonies appeared as if out of nowhere and caught Princess Aya. She and her maids were astonished; it was very fortunate, of course, but how had a man come into the gardens?
In the following days, Aya became so ill, she was unable to leave her bed. She grew weaker and sicker, seeming to fade away. Her puzzled father consulted her maids, who told him of the samurai in the gardens. Fearing that she was wasting away due to love for this samurai, her father ordered his men to wait in the gardens to capture the trespasser. The princess was taken to listen to music in the gardens that night, hoping to restore her spirits. Indeed, the mysterious samurai appeared again, but just as he did, one of her father’s men leapt up and wrapped his arms around the samurai, holding him tight.
The man felt a strange sensation of steam on his face and closed his eyes, but still he held the samurai fast, unwilling to fail his lord. When the music stopped, he cried out that everyone should come see the captured samurai, but when they reached him, all they saw was the man’s arms wrapped around a single peony.
“Of course,” said Aya’s father. “The spirit of the peony took the form of a samurai to protect you. Take this great compliment, and pay the peony respect.”
Princess Aya took the flower back to her room and put it in a vase next to her bed. She tended the peony, and instead of fading, it — and she — seemed to grow stronger every day. Finally the peony was in strong and perfect bloom, and Aya regained her full health and radiant beauty.
After the celebration of Aya’s wedding, she kept her strength and vigour, but the peony was found in its vase, withered away. Its work now finished, the peony spirit departed, but in its memory, Aya became known amongst the villagers as Princess Peony.
Not all stories of flower spirits are so sweet. Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Rose Elf,” is one such fairy tale. The titular elf lived inside a beautiful rose in a garden; he slept there at night, but during the day he explored, travelling the highways of leaf veins and dancing with butterflies.
One night, he lost track of time and did not return before his rose’s petals closed for the night. While he wondered what to do, for he would surely freeze if he had to stay outside all night, he heard two lovers in his garden lamenting that one of them was to leave on a long journey. The lady’s brother objected to their love and was sending her intended away on business. Before her beloved left, she gave him a red rose to keep with him and remind him of her. The elf hid himself away in this rose, listening to the pounding of the man’s heart tucked away inside his coat.
On his way home, the man took the rose from his pocket and pressed it to his lips, thinking of his love. As he kissed the beautiful flower, distracted with thoughts of his beloved, the lady’s brother met him on the way and stabbed him to death. The brother cut off the man’s head and began to dig a grave beneath a linden tree in the forest. Sneaking out of the rose, the elf hid himself in a leaf on the brother’s shoulder as he buried the man.
The elf rode in the leaf all the way to the home of the lady and her brother, and as the lady slept, the elf tiptoed up to her ear and whispered what had happened to her love. To prove the truth of his story, he told her she would find the withered leaf next to her when she awoke. She did indeed find the leaf, and wept bitterly, but hid her tears from her brother.
The next night, she secretly went to the forest and dug up the body. She took his head and a sprig of jasmine that had begun to grow from his grave. At home, she buried the head in a flowerpot and planted the jasmine above it. Every day, she stood by the flowerpot, watering the jasmine with her salt tears.
Now, the rose elf had moved into a rose outside her window and saw her cry every day. One night, when the jasmine was in full bloom, he again tiptoed up to her ear and told her a wonderful story of rose elves, of the beautiful scent of their flowers and the love they shared. She drifted away into her sweet dream and died peacefully in her sleep, finally able to be reunited with her true love.
Climbing up to the flowerpot, the rose elf next whispered the story to the blooming jasmine flowers. The elves inside their blossoms immediately understood, for they were, after all, growing out of the evidence. Armed with poisonous spears, the jasmine elves crept out of their flowers and killed the lady’s brother in vengeance for his misdeeds.
Both the beauty and the danger of flowers are present in fairy tales all over the world. Spring lifts our hearts with colourful bursts of life that invite our appreciation and enjoyment — but always remember to watch your step. You never know what’s hidden in those lovely petals.
Victoria Audley is a writer and folklorist with degrees in philosophy and museum education. She has performed at the Texas Renaissance Festival as a Highland dancer and as the White Swan. When she isn’t writing ghost stories and fairytales, she can be found baking, reading, and attempting to convince the neighbourhood cats to let her pet them. She currently lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, with her husband and twenty-one fake crows.
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