George MacDonald’s “The Light Princess”


I thought that “The Light Princess” was quite a realistic fairy tale.

I know that’s an odd thing to say about a story of wicked-witch aunts, floating princesses, and a White Snake of Darkness, but it’s true. George MacDonald wrote odd and charming fairy tales, admired by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Edith Nesbit; like most great children’s storytellers, he really wrote for adults as much as for children. I suspect that there might be more in “The Light Princess” for the grown-ups than for the little ones.

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Jack London’s Apocalypse: The Scarlet Plague


Civilization ended this past summer.

The old man manifested an accustomed chagrin as he brought the coin back again close to his own eyes.

“2012,” he shrilled, and then fell to cackling grotesquely. “That was the year Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates. It must have been one of the last coins minted, for the Scarlet Death came in 2013. Lord! Lord!—think of it! Sixty years ago, and I am the only person alive to-day that lived in those times….”

In Jack London’s post-apocalyptic novella, The Scarlet Plague (1912), humankind is almost completely wiped out by a virulent, ebola-like disease in the summer of 2013. James Howard Smith, an English literature professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is the last man alive who still remembers that summer. The story is told in flashback, to Smith’s grandsons.

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Mangita and Larina: A Filipino Fairy Tale

This is a story from the 1904 collection Philippine Folklore Stories, by John Maurice Miller. It features two sisters, one dark, the other blonde, which makes me think that the story postdates the start of the Spanish colonial period. Certainly, the idea of a beautiful, good sister, and an evil, proud sister is a familiar motif in Western fairy tales (shades of Cinderella, anyone?).

This story caught my eye because it reminds me of when I was a little girl, with my coloring books. At some point, I had one of those big boxes of Crayolas, the 64-count size; this was back in the days when Flesh was still a crayon color. Or not — Wikipedia tells me that Flesh was renamed Peach in 1962, which was certainly before my time — but I remember that there was a crayon that was supposed to be flesh-colored, except it wasn’t the color of my flesh… .

NewImageThe original version of the Crayola 64-count box.
Image: Kurt Baty, Wikipedia

Coloring books (at least mine) usually tell a story, with heroes and heroines, good guys and bad guys. I would always color my favorite characters — the good guys, the princesses and their princes — with black hair and brown skin (Tan was the crayon I used, as I remember). The characters I liked the least, I colored with yellow hair and Flesh-colored skin (well, okay, maybe Peach). If I really disliked them, I used Apricot. And the characters I was neutral on had brown hair (different shades, if I was feeling nit-picky), or even red. Goldenrod-colored skin.

I know — it’s terrible. But in my defense, I was only four. I would be much more flexible about my crayon usage now.

Anyway, here’s the story, verbatim from Miller’s collection. I’m not sure, but I think the vegetation that he refers to might be kangkong, or swamp cabbage. It’s a tasty vegetable, if you can find it.


Mangita and Larina

This is a tale told in the lake district of Luzon. At times of rain or in winter the waters of the Laguna de Bai rise and detach from the banks a peculiar vegetation that resembles lettuce. These plants, which float for months down the Pasig River, gave rise, no doubt, to the story.

Many years ago there lived on the banks of the Laguna de Bai a poor fisherman whose wife had died, leaving him two beautiful daughters named Mangita and Larina.

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Solomon and the Demons

… you’ll never see a man exactly six feet tall, because that was the height of the Lord Jesus.

— Manly Wade Wellman, “Call Me From the Valley” (1954)

I like non-canonical Christian folklore (meaning, folklore that’s not in the Old or New Testament). Growing up as I did, in a Catholic family, Bible stories never felt like “myth” in the same way that say, stories about the Roman or Greek or Hindu pantheons did. Bible stories felt (and still feel) more like “history” — they are the stories I grew up with, stories I’ve always known. From the inside, I don’t always appreciate the universe-explaining, myth-making capacity of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the same way I appreciate it in traditions that I didn’t grow up in. Stories and tidbits like Six-Foot Jesus, or the (very) old Irish story of Moses and the origin of Leprechauns put me back on the outside again. It’s good to be there once in a while.

I suspect that M.R. James, who by all accounts was a devout Christian, felt a little of what I feel. This is from the preface to his text Old Testament Legends (Being stories out of some of the less-known apocryphal books of the Old Testament):

Perhaps I have now said enough to show of what sort the tales are that are told in this book—some of them told for the first time in English. They are not true, but they are very old; some of them, I think, are beautiful, and all of them seem to me interesting.

The story that I retell below, of King Solomon and the demon Ephippas (with a bit of backstory), is originally from The Testament of Solomon. The text, which describes in the first person how King Solomon gained power over demons and forced them to build the temple in Jerusalem, dates back to somewhere between the first and fifth centuries CE. It is of Greek, probably Christian origin.

In addition to the translation (synopsis, really) in Old Testament Legends, Dr. James also wrote a couple of commentaries about The Testament of Solomon, available here and here. He also made use of the myth in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. That’s where I first learned of it, and I always did wonder where it came from. Now I know.

Anyway. To the story. The quotes are taken from Old Testament Legends.

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Reading The Rector of Veilbye: the First Modern Crime Novel

The Rector of Veilbye, by Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher, is considered the first modern work of crime fiction. Published in 1829, it predates Poe’s mystery short stories by a little over a decade, and Sherlock Holmes by almost fifty years. The story is based on an actual Danish murder case from 1629. It’s well-enough loved in Denmark to have been made into a movie there three times; the second version was Denmark’s first sound film.

Jpg 1Poster for the 1922 silent film version, known in English as The Hand of Fate
Image: Danish Film Institute

Unlike Sherlock Holmes stories or The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Rector of Veilbye isn’t a whodunit or puzzle-style murder mystery. It’s much more like a modern psychological crime story, albeit with a twist at the end. The story is told first as the journal entries of Erik Sørensen, the district judge of Veilbye, and then as the journal entries of the pastor of Aalso, the parish next to Veilbye. Sørensen is engaged to the daughter of Soren Quist, the rector of Veilbye, which puts Sørensen in a very awkward position when the temperamental Quist is accused of murdering one his servants in a fit of rage.

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The Wearing of the Green (or not)

March is here: St. Patrick’s Day is the 17th, when everyone (here in the States, at least) can pretend to be a little bit Irish… .

In honor of the occasion, here are some fun Ireland folklore facts to share with your friends over that pint of Guinness.

NewImageSt. Patrick and Shamrock. St. Benin’s Church, Kilbennan, County Galway, Ireland
Image: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikipedia

St. Patrick is as Irish as the Potato.

That is to say: by adoption only. Potatoes are a New World vegetable, originating in South America and not introduced into Ireland until the late 1500s or early 1600s (some say by Sir Walter Raleigh). By the 1700s they had become a staple food in the country. Likewise, the man known today as St. Patrick was not born in Ireland, but in Britain. The Catholic Encyclopedia says he was born at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, Scotland, in 387. says he was born in England to “a Roman family of high social standing” in 385. Either way, according to his own writings, he was kidnapped by slavers and taken to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning home. He eventually entered the priesthood and was sent back to Ireland as a missionary, where he preached and converted much of the country to Christianity. By the seventh century, he was thought of as the patron saint of Ireland.

There’s a theory that some of the legends associated with St. Patrick were originally associated with another cleric, Palladius, who was the first Christian bishop to Ireland, in 431 (a year before Patrick arrived). Palladius wasn’t Irish, either; he was Gaul (French).

Incidentally, there’s a famous folktale that links St. Patrick to the shamrock: supposedly, Patrick was preaching to the locals, and meeting with hostility and incredulity. To make his point, the saint plucked a clover from the earth and said to them

‘Is it not as feasible for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as for these three leaves thus to grow upon a single stalk?’ Then the Irish were immediately convinced of their error, and were solemnly baptized by St. Patrick.

As simple as that. The quote is from Edward Jones, “Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards” 1794, as quoted by Nathaniel Colgan in “The Shamrock in Literature,” 1896. The folktale can’t actually be dated any earlier than the early 18th century; it’s not in Patrick’s writings, nor in any early Lives of the Saints.

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The Weird Tales of David H. Keller

Today — another physician cum weird tales author: neuropsychiatrist David H. Keller. Dr. Keller is kind of the opposite of my last physician-writer, Silas Weir Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell was fairly well-known as a doctor in his lifetime (and is still known for some of his medical contributions today), but is no longer so well known as an author. Dr. Keller, on the other hand, is primarily known today for his science fiction and fantasy, although he apparently did make some early contributions to the treatment of shell-shock (or PTSD, as we would call it today) during World War I. The only evidence I could find of his medical career is a list of articles he wrote for something called the Charles Atlas Sexual Education Series, here.

Believe it or not, Dr. Keller actually became a writer because he couldn’t support himself as a doctor! That seems so strange, given the relative income levels of doctors and writers these days. Dr. Keller spent many years as Assistant Superintendent of the Louisiana State Mental Hospital at Pineville, before losing the position, primarily for political reasons (the Hospital’s Superintendent had been a open supporter of one of Governor Huey Long’s opponents in the election of 1928). That same year, Dr. Keller submitted his first story — he had been writing as a hobby for years — to Amazing Stories. Editor Hugo Gernsback gave him a contract for twelve more stories, at sixty dollars each. Just in time, too.

Dr. Keller cycled through several more medical positions — Western State Hospital in Tennessee, Jacksonville State Hospital in Illinois, and a brief stint in private practice, before finally landing a stable position at the Pennhurst State School for mental defectives in Pennsylvania. Throughout this period, his writing supported his family, and he wrote a LOT, for just about every pulp magazine in the Gernsback portfolio. Naturally, getting paid was more important to him than art during this period, and it shows in the up-and-down quality of even the few stories of his that I’ve found online.

The Library of America recently posted his short story, The Jelly-Fish, from 1929. It includes the most bitter view of the teacher-student relationship I’ve ever read — and I’ve been to graduate school.

We, chosen scientists, university graduates, hailed him as our master and hated him for admitting his mastery.

We hoped some evil might befall him, and yet we admitted that the success of the expedition depended upon his continued leadership. It was vitally necessary for our future: we were struggling young men with all life ahead of us, and if we failed in our first effort there would be no other opportunities for fame granted us.

[…] The only thing in which we were agreed was ambition, our sole united emotion was hatred of the professor.

Makes you wonder what his medical school experience was like.

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White-as-Ice-Drops and the Five-and-Two Little Men

In honor of the bicentennial year of Kinder und Hausmärchen, by the Brothers Grimm, here’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, retold using only the thousand most common English words, at least according to the Up-Goer Five Text Editor. It’s harder than you would think.

My narrative is based on D.L. Ashliman’s translation of the 1812 version of Snow White, abbreviated because it was getting really long. Note that in this version, the queen is Snow White’s biological mother, and despite what Disney would have us believe, the prince didn’t wake Snow White up with a kiss.

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A Winter Tale from Weir Mitchell

We aren’t yet done with the Twelve Days of Christmas, so I think another winter tale is a fair offering!

Today I give you The Autobiography of a Quack, by the author and neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell. The story first appeared anonymously in The Atlantic Monthly in 1867. It’s got just a hint of Christmas spice, and a touch of a Christmas ghost — maybe. I suspect the ghostly touch was more a response to literary fashion of the time, rather than any strong interest in the supernatural on Dr. Mitchell’s part.

NewImageIllustration by Frederick C. Gordon for A Doctor of the Old School by Ian MacLaren, 1895
Project Gutenberg

Dr. Mitchell is known today for his early work describing phantom limb syndrome: the sensation that an amputated or missing limb is still present. It’s often painful. He also was the first to describe causalgia, another injury-related pain syndrome associated with nerve damage.

During his lifetime, Dr. Mitchell was also well known for promoting the rest cure to treat “nervous diseases.” Neurasthenia, characterized by fatigue, anxiety, depression, headaches, and pain, was a diagnosis primarily given to women at the time — though supposedly William James’ nickname for the condition was “Americanitis” — ha! One of Dr. Mitchell’s patients was the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Apparently, her rest cure didn’t go so well: it was from that experience that she wrote her famous feminist weird tale, The Yellow Wallpaper.

Anyway. “The Autobiography of a Quack” is primarily Mitchell’s attack on what he considered to be the medical frauds of his day: homeopathy, patent medicine, and what at the time was called “eclectic medicine.” Eclectic medicine was an American version of herbalism, supposedly based on the traditional medical practices of Native American peoples. Mitchell also gets in some jabs at spiritualism and at the practice of wealthy people offering “bounties,” or paying poor people to serve in their place during the Civil War. The protagonist, Elias Sanderaft, is quite the scoundrel, and gets himself into all kind of sketchy deals. It’s a fairly amusing read.

The Project Gutenberg link above also features another short story, The Case of George Dedlow. Dr. Mitchell eventually published scholarly writings on causalgia and phantom limbs, but “The Case of George Dedlow” was his first attempt at describing these conditions, in a fictional milieu. The story is based on Dr. Mitchell’s experiences treating injured soldiers during the Civil War. He never intended to publish it, though he did lend the manuscript to a friend. That friend gave it to another friend, who sent it to The Atlantic. The first Dr. Mitchell heard of it was when the magazine sent him a check!

The Atlantic published the piece anonymously in 1866. It seems that the article was not clearly marked as fiction, so many readers believed that the events were true. Given that the story has a fairly silly spiritualist ending, I don’t imagine this pleased Dr. Mitchell too much. The Atlantic recently featured the story as part of their commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Enjoy, and best wishes for the coming New Year!

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All

NewImageIllustration by R. Caldecott for The Sketch Book of Washington Irving, 1886
Project Gutenberg

In the town of —— (no matter where) there circulated two local newspapers (no matter when). Now the Flying Post was long established and respectable—alias bigoted and Tory; the Examiner was spirited and intelligent—alias new-fangled and democratic. Every week these newspapers contained articles abusing each other; as cross and peppery as articles could be, and evidently the production of irritated minds, although they seemed to have one stereotyped commencement,—”Though the article appearing in last week’s Post (or Examiner) is below contempt, yet we have been induced,” &c., &c., and every Saturday the Radical shopkeepers shook hands together, and agreed that the Post was done for, by the slashing, clever Examiner; while the more dignified Tories began by regretting that Johnson should think that low paper, only read by a few of the vulgar, worth wasting his wit upon; however the Examiner was at its last gasp.

Sound familiar? That’s from the story “Christmas Storms and Sunshine,” from Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1865 short story collection The Grey Woman and Other Tales. People haven’t changed.

This isn’t a ghost story, so I didn’t add it to yesterday’s post. It is, however, very Christmas. Perhaps its happy ending is a bit naive, or a bit old-fashioned. But that’s very Christmas, too — or at least, it ought to be, in my opinion.

Anyway. For those who celebrate Christmas, I wish you a Very Merry Christmas. For those who don’t, I wish you a Very Beautiful Day.