Let us continue the conceit that the works of Lord Dunsany are the reminiscences of a retired redcap. This time, we have a queen, a quest for her hand, a hero, his servant, and a monster.
What could better suit our purpose? My comments are in blue. Apologies for formatting errors: I need to change my work processes to stop this happening again.
Sylvia, Queen of the Woods, in her woodland palace, held court, and made a mockery of her suitors. She would sing to them, she said, she would give them banquets, she would tell them tales of legendary days, her jugglers should caper before them, her armies salute them, her fools crack jests with them and make whimsical quips, only she could not love them.
Her name literally means “of the woods”. She seems superficially to be a dryad, however regal, but her nature, as the poem unfolds, makes her more of an ice queen. Perhaps the Queen of the Winter Forest?
Her palace in the woods has an unnatural number of retainers. It may be in a regio, or Arcadia.
This was not the way, they said, to treat princes in their splendour and mysterious troubadours concealing kingly names; it was not in accordance with fable; myth had no precedent for it. She should have thrown her glove, they said, into some lion’s den, she should have asked for a score of venomous heads of the serpents of Licantara, or demanded the death of any notable dragon, or sent them all upon some deadly quest, but that she could not love them—! It was unheard of—it had no parallel in the annals of romance.
And then she said that if they must needs have a quest she would offer her hand to him who first should move her to tears: and the quest should be called, for reference in histories or song, the Quest of the Queen’s Tears, and he that achieved them she would wed, be he only a petty duke of lands unknown to romance.
Where do new myths come from? I’d note that by the time PCs hear this, it may not be new.
Throwing the glove and asking them to retrieve it is a classic combat encounter, which you could build a story around, as is the quest for the heads of the snakes of Licantara. It’s a made up name, but it contains “cantar” which is Latin for a type of poem,, from which we get the English “chant” and thence “enchant”. The heads of the magical serpents are a bit more puzzling for magi, when they note that the symbol of the Order is three magical serpents. They may trace to Thessalian witchcraft.
Dunsany runs out of steam here…but the quest potential for the hand of a queen is obvious.
And many were moved to anger, for they hoped for some bloody quest; but the old lords chamberlain said, as they muttered among themselves in a far, dark end of the chamber, that the quest was hard and wise, for that if she could ever weep she might also love. They had known her all her childhood; she had never sighed. Many men had she seen, suitors and courtiers, and had never turned her head after one went by. Her beauty was as still sunsets of bitter evenings when all the world is frore, a wonder and a chill. She was as a sun-stricken mountain uplifted alone, all beautiful with ice, a desolate and lonely radiance late at evening far up beyond the comfortable world, not quite to be companioned by the stars, the doom of the mountaineer.
I know how modern this sounds, but maybe she’s just not into guys. She might be an ace. She might be gay. She’s technichally a tree: maybe she’s really into other trees, or the Sun?
It’s kind of amazing how far you can get, in designing stories based on European folklore, with one set of ice queen statistics. Then again, her powers may not be based on that sort of thing. She may just have a heart of wood.
If she could weep, they said, she could love, they said.
And she smiled pleasantly on those ardent princes, and troubadours concealing kingly names.
Then one by one they told, each suitor prince the story of his love, with outstretched hands and kneeling on the knee; and very sorry and pitiful were the tales, so that often up in the galleries some maid of the palace wept. And very graciously she nodded her head like a listless magnolia in the deeps of the night moving idly to all the breezes its glorious bloom.
For a faerie, this great outpouring of pain and love is a feast.
She;s compared to a magnolia here. This flower is unknown in Mythic Europe. This name first develops in the Eighteenth Century, and they are native to South-East Asia and North America.
They are a strangely fitting flower. Some magnolias appear very early in the spring, before other plants put forth leaves so they are the flower of the end of winter. Also, in the real world, the magnolia evolved before the bee. It was pollinated by beetles, and so it is a really solid flower, resistant to damage.
And when the princes had told their desperate loves and had departed away with no other spoil than of their own tears only, even then there came the unknown troubadours and told their tales in song, concealing their gracious names.
And there was one, Ackronnion, clothed with rags, on which was the dust of roads, and underneath the rags was war-scarred armour whereon were the dints of blows; and when he stroked his harp and sang his song, in the gallery above maidens wept, and even old lords chamberlain whimpered among themselves and thereafter laughed through their tears and said: “It is easy to make old people weep and to bring idle tears from lazy girls; but he will not set a-weeping the Queen of the Woods.”
And graciously she nodded, and he was the last. And disconsolate went away those dukes and princes, and troubadours in disguise. Yet Ackronnion pondered as he went away.
King he was of Afarmah, Lool and Haf, over-lord of Zeroora and hilly Chang, and duke of the dukedoms of Molong and Mlash, none of them unfamiliar with romance or unknown or overlooked in the making of myth. He pondered as he went in his thin disguise.
Ackronnion’s name seems to have the -ion suffix, which means the first part of the name is a verb. -ion comes, through various paths from Greek, so I’d suggest his name is a corruption of “Akronion”, Akros means “summit” or headland” meaning “the state of having travelled to the furthest point” This fits the character’s later actions. I suppose this is either a sign of nominative determinism or his actual name has been lost and replaced with a description of his role. He is, metaphorically, the mountaineer.
Is he a faerie prince, so that the names of his kingdoms make no sense or have they, like another kingdom in Dunsany’s work, been taken into Faerie? Is this the price of the courtship?
Now by those that do not remember their childhood, having other things to do, be it understood that underneath fairyland, which is, as all men know, at the edge of the world, there dwelleth the Gladsome Beast. A synonym he for joy.
It is known how the lark in its zenith, children at play out-of-doors, good witches and jolly old parents have all been compared—how aptly!—with this very same Gladsome Beast. Only one “crab” he has (if I may use slang for a moment to make myself perfectly clear), only one drawback, and that is that in the gladness of his heart he spoils the cabbages of the Old Man Who Looks After Fairyland,—and of course he eats men.
I love that last line, and in Mythic Europe, it’s so true. There are lots of faeries that eat people, in one way or another, but destroying the cabbages of the Old Man Who Looks After Fairyland? That’s just the Gladsome Beast.
I’d like to flag him as an example of Nozick’s Utility Monster, an idea we will come back to in a future episode.
I’ve snuck the Master of Games into Mythic Europe, mentioned passingly in a single sentence. He’s what I think Tytalus became. I am. however, charmed by the idea that he’s now an annoyed old guy in a hut on the edge of Faerie and Magic, trying to grow a decent cabbage.
It must further be understood that whoever may obtain the tears of the Gladsome Beast in a bowl, and become drunken upon them, may move all persons to shed tears of joy so long as he remains inspired by the potion to sing or to make music.
Now Ackronnion pondered in this wise: that if he could obtain the tears of the Gladsome Beast by means of his art, withholding him from violence by the spell of music, and if a friend should slay the Gladsome Beast before his weeping ceased—for an end must come to weeping even with men—that so he might get safe away with the tears, and drink them before the Queen of the Woods and move her to tears of joy. He sought out therefore a humble knightly man who cared not for the beauty of Sylvia, Queen of the Woods, but had found a woodland maiden of his own once long ago in summer. And the man’s name was Arrath, a subject of Ackronnion, a knight-at-arms of the spear-guard: and together they set out through the fields of fable until they came to Fairyland, a kingdom sunning itself (as all men know) for leagues along the edges of the world. And by a strange old pathway they came to the land they sought, through a wind blowing up the pathway sheer from space with a kind of metallic taste from the roving stars. Even so they came to the windy house of thatch where dwells the Old Man Who Looks After Fairyland sitting by parlour windows that look away from the world. He made them welcome in his star-ward parlour, telling them tales of Space, and when they named to him their perilous quest he said it would be a charity to kill the Gladsome Beast; for he was clearly one of those that liked not its happy ways. And then he took them out through his back door, for the front door had no pathway nor even a step—from it the old man used to empty his slops sheer on to the Southern Cross—and so they came to the garden wherein his cabbages were, and those flowers that only blow in Fairyland, turning their faces always towards the comet, and he pointed them out the way to the place he called Underneath, where the Gladsome Beast had his lair. Then they manoeuvred. Ackronnion was to go by the way of the steps with his harp and an agate bowl, while Arrath went round by a crag on the other side. Then the Old Man Who Looks After Fairyland went back to his windy house, muttering angrily as he passed his cabbages, for he did not love the ways of the Gladsome Beast; and the two friends parted on their separate ways.
Dunsany has a lot of luck, or he’s deliberately put some deep cuts of mythology in here.
Cabbages, for the Greeks, were created from the tears of King Lycurgus of Thrace. He forced Dionysus from his kingdom and tried to destroy his vines. In revenge the god made the king think his son was a mature ivy plant, sacred to Dionsys, and Lycurgis trimmed his son’s extremities off, so that he died. Then he gets fed to meat-eating horses, or panthers, depending on who you listen to.
Cabbages don’t grow well with vines, and if you eat them, they correct the humours for drunkeness. That’s a long way to get to a piece of agricultural wisdom, but the cabbage was the potato of the medieval world.
Speaking of cabbages, the headed cabbage doesn’t seem to reach Britain until the 14th Century. The word “cabbage” is from a Norman word meaning “head”. The general class of crops we now call brassicas they called “coles” and they did have loose leaf coles. The Scottish pronunciation, kale, is still used for one type.
The earliest cabbage variety doesn’t compete well with other plants, but it is salt-resistant, so it dwells best on cliffs. Is it purely co-incidence that the man is growing them at the very edge of the world?
Sometimes I wonder if Dunsany is doing deep cuts like this all the time and I’m missing them, or if he’s just been lucky.
Nothing perceived them but that ominous crow glutted overlong already upon the flesh of man.
The wind blew bleak from the stars.
As Faerie mediates between the mundane and the Magical, this may be vim. The breath of stars, the wind from Space, may be magic in its pure form.
How terrible if the world tree is a cabbage…and yet it is called a brassica because its flower is like a cross. Might the cabbages be a metaphor for the ascendance of Heaven, and if they go to seed might they crack the join between Faerie and Magic? Is this how Tytalus is planning his escape?
Who built the steps from the lair to the edge, and for what use? Does someone sail the sea of stars? Do they seek the beast, to feed it, or worship it, or harvest its tears? How do they respond to its death?
At first there was dangerous climbing, and then Ackronnion gained the smooth, broad steps that led from the edge to the lair, and at that moment heard at the top of the steps the continuous chuckles of the Gladsome Beast.
He feared then that its mirth might be insuperable, not to be saddened by the most grievous song; nevertheless he did not turn back then, but softly climbed the stairs and, placing the agate bowl upon a step, struck up the chaunt called Dolorous. It told of desolate, regretted things befallen happy cities long since in the prime of the world. It told of how the gods and beasts and men had long ago loved beautiful companions, and long ago in vain. It told of the golden host of happy hopes, but not of their achieving. It told how Love scorned Death, but told of Death’s laughter. The contented chuckles of the Gladsome Beast suddenly ceased in his lair. He rose and shook himself. He was still unhappy. Ackronnion still sang on the chaunt called Dolorous. The Gladsome Beast came mournfully up to him. Ackronnion ceased not for the sake of his panic, but still sang on. He sang of the malignity of time. Two tears welled large in the eyes of the Gladsome Beast. Ackronnion moved the agate bowl to a suitable spot with his foot. He sang of autumn and of passing away. Then the beast wept as the frore hills weep in the thaw, and the tears splashed big into the agate bowl. Ackronnion desperately chaunted on; he told of the glad unnoticed things men see and do not see again, of sunlight beheld unheeded on faces now withered away. The bowl was full. Ackronnion was desperate: the Beast was so close. Once he thought that its mouth was watering!—but it was only the tears that had run on the lips of the Beast. He felt as a morsel! The Beast was ceasing to weep! He sang of worlds that had disappointed the gods. And all of a sudden, crash! and the staunch spear of Arrath went home behind the shoulder, and the tears and the joyful ways of the Gladsome Beast were ended and over for ever.
Dolorous means “painful” in period, but means “causing grief” by ours.
Agate bowls really exist and were popular in the Renaissance, although perhaps not of the size found in the Syme illustration to the end of this section, Agate takes its name from the River Achates in Sicily, where they were found in exportable quantities.
Agates are said to cure insomnia and nightmares, which seems a useful link.
And carefully they carried the bowl of tears away, leaving the body of the Gladsome Beast as a change of diet for the ominous crow; and going by the windy house of thatch they said farewell to the Old Man Who Looks After Fairyland, who when he heard of the deed rubbed his hands together and mumbled again and again, “And a very good thing, too. My cabbages! My cabbages!”
Where is the beast getting enough people from that the crow gets a meal?
Does it emerge from faerie and kill in the real world?
And not long after Ackronnion sang again in the sylvan palace of the Queen of the Woods, having first drunk all the tears in his agate bowl. And it was a gala night, and all the court were there and ambassadors from the lands of legend and myth, and even some from Terra Cognita.
Legends are meant to be vaugely historical. Myths are instructive, but not real. Terra Cognita is the known world, where the rest of you are from.
I’m from Terra Incognita Australis.
And Ackronnion sang as he never sang before, and will not sing again. O, but dolorous, dolorous, are all the ways of man, few and fierce are his days, and the end trouble, and vain, vain his endeavour: and woman—who shall tell of it?—her doom is written with man’s by listless, careless gods with their faces to other spheres.
If someone sings this song in the real world, does it attract demons? Acedia demons for example? It is known, from a previous episode, that they are in leauge, in some sense, with the Snow Queen. Is this a new tactic of hers?
Somewhat thus he began, and then inspiration seized him, and all the trouble in the beauty of his song may not be set down by me: there was much of gladness in it, and all mingled with grief: it was like the way of man: it was like our destiny.
Sobs arose at his song, sighs came back along echoes: seneschals, soldiers, sobbed, and a clear cry made the maidens; like rain the tears came down from gallery to gallery.
A literal rain of tears might break a curse. It also reminds me of a jazz classic about crying a river.
All round the Queen of the Woods was a storm of sobbing and sorrow.
But no, she would not weep.