Friday, November 25, 2011

Greek Myths

For a while now, I have wanted to tell you some of the stories from Greek mythology. Anyone who knows anything about Greek mythology, however, will have no trouble understanding why it's taken me this long. The original Greek myths were not fairy tales to entertain and amuse the masses or to lull children to sleep: They were warnings! They were horror stories! They were psycho-dramas designed to explain the inexplicable, predict the unimaginable and prepare for the unthinkable. The Greeks did not love and admire their gods; they feared them. And the myths are, for the most part, pretty horrific reads. People criticized Disney for what they did to the Greek myths in their movie, Hercules, but can you blame them?!?

I have found a few of the stories that are not as horrifying and present them to you today. I should note, that I intend, at some future date, to add the legend of Perseus to this collection, but for now, here are some short (mostly) sweet little stories. And I'd like to say "you're welcome" in advance to those of you who will soon be saying "thank you for not making an 'it's all Greek to me' joke."...oh, right. Never mind!

A long time ago, reliable sources inform me that the world was paradise. The sun shone constantly, the flowers were always in bloom, the world was green and beautiful all year round. And why? Because the world was in love. A beautiful girl, the daughter of the goddess Demeter, named Persephone, who was the most delicate and pure creature to ever live. Everyone and everything loved Persephone and wanted to be around her always…even Hades, the dark, cruel lord of the underworld. The God of Death himself had fallen in love with Persephone, so he captured her and took her down to his kingdom below. Of course, the world that loved her so, feeling she was gone for good, mourned the loss of their great love. The leaves fell off the trees, the flowers wilted, the air grew cold and the earth barren. Meanwhile, in the realm of Hades, his new bride was unhappy, and Hades had no idea why. She explained that she missed the world above and wanted to return, but Hades wanted to keep Persephone all to himself. In the end, they made a deal. Persephone was permitted to return to the world but only for half the year. The other half, she must spend with Hades in the underworld. She agreed and when she returned to the surface, the world blossomed again. And that is why half the year is bright, sunny and green and the other half is cold, dark and barren, when the world mourns for its lost goddess of spring.

This is the story of King Midas, and it’s all about…well, Midas…who’s a king...Duh. King Midas was a great, powerful, wealthy king who loved one thing above all else. Was it peace? Happiness? The prosperity and well-being of his subjects? Blueberry pie? No, of course not. It was gold! He loved gold, he was obssessed with gold, he had, let's face it, a very unhealthy attachment to gold. He knew he’d never get enough gold no matter how hard he tried. One day, while walking his garden and admiring the goldenrods, he saw what appeared to be the back end of a goat, trapped in a bush. Kindly, he pulled the creature out of the bush, only to find that, while the back end was that of a goat, the front end was a little man with goat horns and a little beard which centuries later would be called a “goatee,” and not long after that would be called “a stupid looking little beard.”

“Thank you for helping me, King Midas,” said the creature.

“What are you?” asked the king.

“I am a satyr. And because you have been kind to me, I shall do something for you. What do you desire more than anything else in the w—”


“You certainly answered fast. But, no matter. You shall have your gold. But be careful, your majesty: Too much of anything is not good for you.” But the king insisted that he wanted gold, so the satyr cast a magic spell on the king. “There,” he said. “Now that should be enough gold even for you.” And right before the king’s eys, the satyr vanished.

At first, King Midas was confused. He didn’t see any gold. What had the satyr meant? He turned around to go back inside when he stumbled and, to stop himself falling, grabbed the branch of a tree. When he was again upright, he looked at the tree and saw, to his amazement, that it was now made of solid gold! As were all the leaves and fruit in the tree. He plucked an apple and held it in his hand. Definitely gold. That’s when it hit him: The golden touch! Now he knew that anything he touched would turn to gold! He started touching everything in the garden, until all his flowers and tree were made of the purest, most perfect gold the world has ever seen. He cried out his thanks to the satyr and went inside his castle to touch things in there.

Furniture, bannisters, tapestries, ashtrays, books, clothing, dishes, anything he could get his hands on, King Midas turned to gold! Soon he was the richest king on earth, living in a golden palace. It was while he was thinking of what he could turn to gold next that the dinner gong rang. Making a note to turn the gong into gold after dinner, King Midas went to the dining hall, where his servants nervously served him a sumptuous meal. The king pulled in his chair, and it turned to gold. He picked up a napkin and it turned to gold. He picked up his fork and knife and they turned to gold. He picked up a chicken drumstick…and it turned to gold. Unfortunately, Midas didn't notice this until he had already taken a bite, or tried to. "OW!" he cried. He tried a wing, but it too turned to solid gold before he could get it to his mouth. He jabbed a piece of steak with his fork and as soon as he bit into it, as soon as his teeth touched it, it turned to gold. Now, horrorstruck, Midas began to grab wildly at all the food trying to find something he could eat. But all he did was turn the entire feast into gold!

King Midas ran back out to the now golden garden and cried out for the satyr, who appeared at his side. “Good evening, King Midas,” said the satyr. “How’s the golden touch working out for you?”

“Terrible!” moaned the king. “I am richer now than the gods, but what good is that if I starve to death? Please, take away the golden touch! I beg you! Set me free of this golden curse!”

“Well, I think you’ve learned your lesson,” said the satyr, and he cast another spell on the king before disappearing forever.

King Midas looked around and saw that everything he had turned to gold was now back to the way it was. The trees, the flowers, the fruit. He even plucked an apple from the tree. It did not turn to gold. He took a big bite out of it…and it was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. And so, humbled, and having learned a valuable lesson about greed, King Midas ran back into his palace where he knew there was still a non-golden feast waiting for him.

Once upon a time, there was a great king named Orpheus. More than a king, he was a great musician. His singing and lute playing were the stuff of legend (case in point, this story you’re reading). He was the greatest singer, musician, and king the world had ever known. One day, while wandering through the woods of his domain, singing and playing, his music awoke a wood nymph, a magical creature of the forest, named Eurydice. She heard Orpheus’ singing and fell in love with him. They were married that very day. And so began a beautiful age of love and music for Orpheus, Eurydice and their people…until Eurydice was killed by a wild beast in the forest. Orpheus was distraught and thought he’d never sing another note as long as he lived. But, no! He wouldn’t give up! He knew where Eurydice was and, with great courage, he descended into the underworld to get back the soul of his beloved.

Of course, Hades refused to give her back no matter how much Orpheus begged and pleaded. So then, Orpheus turned his attention to Hades’ bride, Persephone, and appealed to her mercy and compassion. He even sang a song of his great love which moved Persephone to tears until she begged her husband to set Eurydice free. Hades agreed but, as usual, the God of Death plays by his own rules. Eurydice was brought forth and Orpheus was told that he could walk her out of the underworld this very day…but while he walked, she had to stay one step behind him at all times and would not say a word. Furthermore, if Orpheus looked back at her once, she would instantly return to the Pit and would belong to Hades forevermore. Orpheus agreed and turned to walk back to the world of the living. On the way, he couldn’t hear her footfalls and thought perhaps she wasn’t there. But he didn’t look back, for fear of losing her forever. He talked the whole way, desperately hoping for a sign. Finally, he was in sight of his goal. There was the gate that led to the surface…but, alas, he could resist no longer and looked over his shoulder. Eurydicie was gone, flown back to Hades, where she would remain forevermore. Orpheus returned to his kingdom and threw his lute on the fire. He never sang again.

Let’s be clear on something: Zeus is a jerk. An enormous jerk. Perhaps the biggest jerk of all time. He destroys things he doesn't like, seduces women in the most disturbing ways imaginable and when he has a gripe against somebody, he doesn't just punish them, he takes it out on their whole family! Case in point: Prometheus, who angered Zeus by bringing fire down from Olympus to give to mankind. Prometheus was punished in the most inhumane way possible (trust me, you don’t want to know), but that wasn’t enough for Zeus. He also wanted to punish Epimetheus, his brother. But rather than just torment him with giant birds for all eternity, as with Prometheus (see, I told you you didn’t want to know), he came up with a more sneaky plan for the brother. Epimetheus was lonely and unmarried, so Zeus had a wife made for him out of clay (an idea he picked up from some nut called Pygmalion). She was given life, the name “Pandora,” and a small box with a large, heavy lock. Zeus told Pandora that the box could never be opened, and gave the key to her new husband, Epimetheus. He assumed that Epimetheus, being a weak and stupid human, would eventually allow his curiosity would get the better of him and he’d open the box. But, as it turned out he was wrong…Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her, and she opened the box.

As soon as it was open, a stream of terrible things began to fly out of it and into the world. Hate, evil, fear, famine, pestilence, cruelty, disease, death, envy, avarice, lust, everything that makes life horrible flew out of that box like a bat out of Hades before Pandora was able to close it. She took it to her husband to beg his forgiveness for opening it when she realized it was not yet empty. She opened it again and something else flew out of the box: Hope. It thanked Pandora for setting him free and flew into the world, the world which now contained disease, evil, sin…and hope.

If You Liked My Stories, You Might Enjoy:
  • The Goddess of Spring (1934) A Disney Silly Symphony which turned the story of Persephone into sort of a melodrama operetta. An important early experiment for the studio in animating human beings convincingly, which they would shortly do on a grander scale in Snow White.
  • The Golden Touch (1935) Another Silly Symphony, this time about King Midas, though all the Greek elements have been removed. The only Silly Symphony directed by Walt Disney, and the last time he ever directed a cartoon.
  • Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Greek Myths (TV) This sort of "spin-off" of the show I've touted time and time again starred Michael Gambon as a new storyteller who tells about Icarus, Theseus and Orpheus, among other famous figures.
  • Muppet Classic Theatre (Video) In this version of the Midas story, Kermit is the king whose wife (Miss Piggy, of course) forces the Golden Touch on him, only to recant when he turns himself into gold!
  • Hercules (1997) This movie, as well as the subsequent TV show, took the good bits of Greek mythology, the basic plots of the myths, and rewrote them in a more palatable, family friendly way. In my opinion, this movie is better than the myths, if for no other reason than James Woods makes a great Hades. Contains brief references to Pandora and Orpheus. Also worth checking out, if you get the chance, is the TV series which expands the universe with characters like Icarus, Helen of Troy, Adonis and Cassandra and boasts some truly impressive guest stars.
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians (Books, movies) This popular series of books by Rick Riordan tells of a modern day teen demigod and his adventures with the Greek gods of old. The film version of the first book features Steve Coogan as Hades and Rosario Dawson as Persephone.
  • "Doctor Who" (TV) The final episode of Season Five contains several references to Pandora's Box. I mention it here partly to show the impact Greek mythology has had on popular culture, but also because my mother loves Doctor Who and she's a regular reader. So, I guess...hi Mom!
NEXT WEEK: "Clever Gretel"

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Box of Robbers

This story was written by L. Frank Baum, who we know best as the other of all 14 of the “OZ” books beginning with “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” This is one of the many original stories that appeared in his book of American Fairy Tales, proving that he is a master of fantasy in this world as well as in Oz.

Martha was alone. This, in and of itself, was fairly unusual, as Martha was one of those lucky children who had many people to look after her. Her mother and father, her Aunt Mildred, her father’s friend Glenn and her big sister. Today, however, her mother was at work, her father was shopping, Aunt Mildred wasn’t well and Glenn was out of town on business, which just left Martha’s big sister. Unfortunately, Martha’s big sister was at that age when she didn’t want to stay in the house looking after her little sister.

“Will you be all right if I leave you alone for a little while?” she asked Martha.

“I’ll be fine,” said Martha, and a moment later, Martha’s big sister was gone and Martha was alone in the house. For a while, she kept herself occupied, but soon she fell to boredom. Then she remembered an old doll’s house up in the attic which she could bring downstairs, dust off and put back into service. Once she was up in the attic, however, she found something else: A large wooden trunk that had previously belonged to her great uncle, Pablo. Pablo had brought it with him when he came to America from Italy and had made it known that it was never to be opened under any circumstances. Which was just as well, thought Martha, as there was no key to the lock. That’s when she remembered the key drawer!

A moment later she was in the kitchen emptying that drawer next to the silverware which was full almost to the brim with keys. Keys to old cars and houses long since left behind. Keys to closets from old jobs. Keys to jewelry boxes and toy chests which hadn’t existed for generations. And more than a few keys which seemed to hve no clear function. These were the keys Martha took upstairs and tried, one by one, in the old trunk.

Finally, key number 82 succeeded and turned easily in the lock. For a moment, Martha was nervous, but her curiosity got the best of her and he opened the trunk. The top flew open and to Martha’s considerable surprise, a man stepped out! A tall, thin man, in elegant, old-fashioned clothes (which looked very worn and ratty) who did not look for one second as though he’d be able to fit in that box. He stepped out and reached back into the trunk to help another man get out! This one was shorter and fatter, but just as strangely attired. Martha began to wonder if this was some kind of trick; if perhaps there was no bottom to the trunk. Just then, both of the first two men helped a third man get out. This one was older but had very broad, strong shoulders and his bizarre costume was topped with an elegant hat.

“Why did I have to be on the bottom?” said the man in the hat.

“Sorry, sire,” said the tall one.

“It just sort of happened,” said his fat companion.

“Well, no matter. We’re out now.” Finally, their eyes fell upon Martha. “And who might you be, my dear?”

“Martha,” she said, nervously but politely.

“Well, Martha,” said the man in the hat, noticing the keys strewn about the floor. “We are indebted to you for releasing us from that prison.”

“I don’t understand,” said Martha. “Who are you?”

“We are robbers!” was the answer, and the man who was now clearly the leader of the gang removed his hat and bowed very low indeed. “We are the most fearsome and terrible criminals of all time. A clever man named Pablo trapped us in this horrible box years ago. Speaking of which, what year is it, young lady?” Martha told them and all three men were completely shocked. “I did not realize we had been imprisoned that long! Still, we must not dwell on the past. We must move forward and pick up where we left off.”

“Where you left off?” said Martha. “You mean stealing?”

“Of course. That’s what we do. We’re robbers, after all.”

“You shouldn’t steal! It’s against the law!”

“Well, what else can we do? Thievery is what we’re best at.”

“You could take on some other profession. How do you feel about banking? Teaching? Are you good with animals? How fast can you type?” For fully thirty-six minutes, Martha tried to suggest a career that would appeal to these robbers. But, in the end, they had shaken their head at every idea in turn.

“Sorry, Miss Martha,” said the leader. “But there is one thing we can do and one thing we like to do. And that is to steal. So, gentlemen: To work!” While Martha watched in horror, the men started going through the attic, looking for anything they could steal. And just when they were about to descend the stairs and leave with their ill-gotten booty (or their ill-booten gotty), suddenly the doorbell rang. The robbers, having been prisoners for so long, had never heard an electric doorbell and were frightened.

“It’s just someone at the door,” said Martha and, at the robbers’ request, she went to see who it was. Now, in actual fact, it was just a delivery boy who had left a pacakge on the front step and rang the doorbell before he left. But Martha had a plan. She ran back up the stairs and said, as if in a panic, “It’s the police! They’ve got the house surrounded!”

“How many are out there?” said the terrified robbers.

“At least a hundred,” said Martha. “You had better hide!”


“Back in the trunk. They’d never think three men would fit in there. It’s the safest place.” So the robbers climbed one by one back into the trunk from whence they had so recently emerged. And when the lid was shut, Martha, quick as a flash, turned the key and locked it. Then she took all the keys and put them back in the key drawer in the kitchen, except the key to the robbers trunk. That one she kept with her at all times. Then, the following summer, when her family went on a trip to the beach, she hurled the key into the sea so that nobody could ever open the trunk ever again.

Martha’s big sister came home less than an hour after she had left to find her little sister playing happily in the front room. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she said. “I met my friends and then I started to feel guilty about leaving you alone and came home as fast as I could. I’m sorry, Martha.”

“Don’t be,” said Martha, with a knowing smile. “After all…what could’ve happened?”


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • American Fairy Tales by L. Frank Baum. Besides "The Box of Robbers" this volume contains such wonderful stories as "The Capture of Father Time," "The Girl Who Owned a Bear" and "The King of the Polar Bears." And, of course, you should definitely check out his Oz stories.

NEXT WEEK: "The Hare and the Hedgehog"

Friday, November 4, 2011

Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess

Yes, you read that right.

Anyone who loves “Rocky and Bullwinkle” knows that one of their most popular segments was “Fractured Fairy Tales,” which were basically parodies and pastiches on the stories we all know and love. Surprisingly, their off-beat, satirical, sometimes just plain stupid versions of fairy tales were a great inspiration to me in creating this blog. Sometimes, however, when they couldn’t think of a story, they would make one up. Not surprisingly, I was under the impression that this is a story they made up. Imagine my surprise when I realized it came from "The Blue Fairy Book" by Andrew Lang! Even with this knowledge, however, I will always associate it with Fractured Fairy Tales.

Once upon a time there was a lovely little kingdom ruled by a lovely little king who was very unhappy. You see, he was in love with a beautiful princess. The problem was she was under an enchantment. Every day the king would visit her and ask “How are you?”

“Enchanted,” she would say.

“Have you tried a cold compress?”

“Yes, it didn’t work.”

“What about ibuprofen?”

“No, that doesn’t help either.”

The rest of his time was usually spent pacing the floor of his castle, worrying. One day, while he was pacing a fairy appeared in front of him.

“Uh oh!” he said. “You’re not gonna turn me into a frog are you?” This king lived in perpetual fear of being turned into a frog...we all have our hangups.

“What? No, of course not. Look, you are the king who’s girlfriend is under an enchantment, right?”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“Good, then this is the right place. I’m here to tell you how to lift the enchantment.”


“Yes, I know.”

“So, how do I do it?”

“Step on her cat’s tail.”

There was a long silence before the king said, “Er…what did you say?”

“Step on her cat’s tail! Now I’ve gotta go. Three kingdoms over there’s a girl who wants to go to a ball and meet a prince. Good luck!” And with that, the fairy vanished. The king was confused, but he still went to see the princess.

“How are you?”


“Taking plenty of vitamins?”


“Lots of fluids?”


“Have you tried Pepto-Bismal?”

“That helped a little, but I’m still enchanted.”

“I see. Well, maybe it would help if I stepped on your cat’s tail.”

“What? How would that help?”

“I don’t know. Never mind. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow, honey.” But as the king turned to go, the princess’s cat walked across his path and he stepped on her tail by accident. With a  loud yowl, the cat changed before the king’s eyes into a huge ogre. “Okay, now I get turned into a frog, right?”

“No!” said the ogre. “I’m here to deliver a prophecy.”


“Yes, and here it is: The princess will marry you and give birth to a son who will have a nose like a casaba melon. And, until he says to the world, ‘I have a nose like a casaba melon,’ he’ll have a nose like a casaba melon. Understand?”

“Not really,” said the king, but it didn’t matter, because the ogre and turned back into the cat who was so freaked out by the experience that she ran straight under the bed and stayed there for a whole month. But the good news was that the princess was no longer under her enchantment. She and the king were married at once and nine months later, the queen gave birth to a beautiful baby boy…at which point the king turned into a frog and was never heard of again.

The queen, however, was very proud of her son whom she named Prince Hyacinth. And, indeed, he was a beautiful boy…except that he did have kind of a big nose…kind of a huge nose…kind of an enormous, gargantuan, unbelievable nose. The queen, of course, having been under an enchantment at the time, did not hear the prophecy so she didn’t know how the curse could be lifted. What she did know was that she didn’t want her son to grow up feeling self-conscious about his looks. So she passed a law that all citizens of her kingdom had to wear large, false noses so that the prince wouldn’t think it was unusual. This law was rigidly enforced and anyone who entered the country, even if it was just to pass through, was issued a false nose at the entrance which they returned on their way out, kind of like 3-D glasses at the movies.

The years went by and the boy grew into a fine young man with a nose like a…well, you know. And when he was twenty-one, a dance was held at the palace and all the eligible maidens from across the lands were invited to come, in the hopes that one would be Prince Hyacinth’s soul mate. Of course there were many beautiful ladies at the party, but the one Prince Hyacinth liked best was a dear little princess from a nearby kingdom…who wasn’t wearing a false nose! Somehow it had fallen off and nobody had noticed!

“Get out of here at once!” cried the queen.

“Mother, please,” said Prince Hyacinth, a name I don’t get tired of saying. “I like her.”

“Like her? But…look at her nose!”

“So she looks a little different. There’s room for all kinds of noses in the world. Big ones, small ones…” he turned to the princess and said, “I’m sorry if we upset you. Perhaps you’d let me give you a kiss to make up for it?” She agreed but with his nose he found it very difficult to kiss her.

“Why don’t you just take it off?” said the princess. You see, she assumed that it was a false one just like everyone else’s, since she didn’t know the reason for the law.

The queen was horrified, but the prince just laughed. “Okay, you tell me: How do I take off my nose?”

“Like this!” said the dear little princess and she reached over to the first party guest she could find and pulled off his nose. Prince Hyacinth was shocked. He started yanking at everyone’s nose and each one came off in his hand. Even his mother's! Now he realized that all his life he’d been the one who was different. The freak! “But you said it yourself, your majesty,” said the princess, “there’s room for all kinds of noses. Big ones, small—”

“Big? My nose isn’t just big! It’s…it’s…oh, let’s face it, dear little princes: I have a nose like a casaba melon!”

As soon as he had said these words, that very same fairy who had told Prince Hyacinth’s father to step on the cat’s tail appeared. “Wait a minute!” she said. “What’s that you just said?”

“Er…I said I had a nose like a casaba melon?”

“That’s what I thought you said. Okay, curse is lifted, spell is broken, sign here, initial here and…alakazam!”

In a flash of light and a puff of smoke, two things happened. One is that the fairy vanished to deal with a sleeping princess in another part of the world. The other is that the prince’s nose was back to a more normal size. He and the dear little princess got married and lived happily ever after without even turning into frogs!


NEXT WEEK: "The Box of Robbers"