A long time ago there lived a king who was famed for his wisdom through all the land. Nothing was hidden from him, and it seemed as if news of the most secret things was brought to him through the air. But he had a strange custom; every day after dinner, when the table was cleared, and no one else was present, a trusty servant had to bring him one more dish. It was covered, however, and even the servant did not know what was in it, neither did anyone know, for the king never took off the cover to eat of it until he was quite alone.
This had gone on for a long time, when one day the servant, who took away the dish, was overcome with such curiosity that he could not help carrying the dish into his room. When he had carefully locked the door, he lifted up the cover, and saw a white snake lying on the dish. But when he saw it he could not deny himself the pleasure of tasting it, so he cut of a little bit and put it into his mouth. No sooner had it touched his tongue than he heard a strange whispering of little voices outside his window. He went and listened, and then noticed that it was the sparrows who were chattering together, and telling one another of all kinds of things which they had seen in the fields and woods. Eating the snake had given him power of understanding the language of animals.
The White Snake, The Brothers Grimm
Once there was a pretty powerful magician. He spoke to the things around him, and as long as the thing he addressed had life in it, it obeyed him. ‘Barren tree, bear fruit,’ he’d say. And no matter what had happened to the tree, no matter how ravaged its roots, the tree flourished. “Horse, grow wings,” he’d say, and the horse bowed his head as strong, finely plumed wings swept over its back.
But that wasn’t how the magician made his living. Mostly he improved women’s looks for a fee. Women came to him themselves, or were brought to him by their ambitious mothers or diffident fathers. He’d look into a woman’s eyes and say: “You are a beauty,” and she heard the words and believed them so deeply that her features fell into either lush, soft harmony, or heartbreakingly strict symmetry – whichever suited her better. He’s say it to her only once, and it lasted the rest of her lifetime, so his fees were high. But the magician could also undo natural beauty, for a greater fee than the one he charged for beautifying. He sort of hoped the high fee would discourage people, but it didn’t. It was well-known that if your wife or daughter was unruly or otherwise deserving of punishment you could bring her to this magician, who would tell her, “Scarecrow, scarecrow…” He said it in such a way that the woman who heard him believed me, and the words did their work. It was a shame, and he didn’t like to do it, but business is business.
Boy Snow Bird, Helen Oyeyemi
Two beginnings to a fairy tale. I find it incredible how the stories succeed in opening up countless, endless possibilities. Fairy tales – contrary to what you might think - are so unpredictable. They surprise and amaze me at every turn. You lift the cover of a dish, you find a white snake, you taste it, therefore you understand animals. Everything is possible. You can make horses grow wings and beautify women. Fairy tales sooth me, not for their happy endings, but for their promising beginnings.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham