Sercon Jottings

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(Posted to Neil Gaiman's topic in GEnie Science Fiction Round Table, November 1996)

In the Wake of a Wake    

I started browsing through Andrew Lang's Yellow Fairy Book the other day, and found a story that reminded me of a more contemporary myth.

In the Yellow Fairy Book there is a story called "The Dragon of the North."

It seems that the terrible Dragon who came out of the North can be overcome only by one who possesses King Solomon's signet-ring (upon which a secret writing is engraved). A handsome young man with a good heart and plenty of courage sets out to search for the ring. Setting out for the East, he meets a magician who teaches him the language of the birds. As he wanders through the forest, he hears two birds talking:

"I know that wandering fool under the tree there, who has come so far without finding what he seeks. He is trying to find King Solomon's lost ring."

The other bird answers:

"He will have to seek help from the Witch Maiden, who will doubtless be able to put him on the right track. If she has not got the ring herself, she knows well enough who has it."

The Witch Maiden has no settled dwelling, but in three nights, she's due to come to the forest spring to wash her face in the light of the full-moon. So the handsome youth follows the birds to the spring and starts a stakeout. The Witch Maiden gets there and sings her song:

"Full-faced moon with light unshaded
Let my beauty ne'er be faded.
Never let my cheek grow pale!
While the moon is waning nightly,
May the maiden bloom more brightly,
May her freshness never fail!"

As she dries her face with her long golden hair, the maiden notices the lad hiding under a tree. She decides not to punish him, but invites him to spend the night with her. The lad hesitates, but the birds tell him it's ok to go where she calls -- "but take care to give no blood, or you will sell your soul."

The youth goes with her to a house built out of gold and silver and spends the night. The next morning the maiden asks if he wishes to stay with her forever, offering to show him magic:

"Here is my greatest treasure, whose like is not to be found in the whole world. It is a precious gold ring. When you marry me, I will give you this ring as a marriage gift, but in order that our love may last forever, you must give me for the ring three drops of blood from the little finger of your left hand."

Remembering that his soul is at stake, the youth casually asks the Witch Maiden what it is that's so remarkable about the ring.

She replies:

"No mortal is able to entirely understand the power of this ring, because no one thoroughly understands the secret signs engraved upon it. But even with my half-knowledge I can work great wonders.

If I put the ring upon the little finger of my left hand, then I can fly like a bird through the air wherever I wish to go.

If I put it on the third finger of my left hand I am invisible....

If I put the ring upon the middle finger of my left hand then neither fire nor water nor any sharp weapon can hurt me. If I put it on the forefinger of my left hand then I can with its help produce whatever I wish. I can in a single moment build houses or anything I desire.

Finally, as long as I wear the ring on the thumb of my left hand, that hand is so strong that it can break down rocks and walls. Besides these, the ring has other secret signs which, as I said, no one can understand."

When the youth hears all this, he's determined to gain possession of the ring, although he doesn't really believe in all of its wonderful gifts. He decides to stay with the maiden for a few days and think over her invitation to stay with her permanently.

The next time the subject of the ring comes up, the youth asks the Witch Maiden to loan it to him so that he can see if it will do the wonderful things she promised. She laughs and gives him the ring, whereupon he puts it on the little finger of his left hand and soars into the air like a bird.

The youth, in the shape of a bird, flies to the home of the Eastern Magician -- who deciphers the secret writing on the ring and tells the youth what he must do to slay the Dragon of the North.

The youth enlists the help of the King. He constructs a horse made of iron and a spear two fathoms long. With the ring on his thumb for strength, he carries the horse to where the Dragon lurks. Then, he switches the ring to his third finger to invisibly sneak up and thrust the spear into the dragon's jaws. Switching the ring back to his left thumb, the youth picks up a rock and batters the dragon to death. The King is overjoyed. He offers the hand of his daughter in marriage. They have a magnificent wedding, and all party on for awhile. But everyone forgets, in the joy of the celebration, that they should really have buried the Dragon's monstrous body.

The dragon's body begins to stink and poison the air -- causing a pestilence that destroys many hundreds of people. The lad, now the King's son-in-law, resolves to seek help, once again, from the Eastern Magician. He puts the ring on his little finger and, again, takes to the air.

But there is a proverb that says recipients of ill-gotten gains never prosper.

The Witch Maiden has never rested. Day and night, she seeks the whereabouts of the ring. By magic, she discovers that the Prince has again become a bird -- now en route to the Eastern Magician. The Witch Maiden changes herself into an eagle and watches the air for this special bird. She spots him and identifies him by the ring, which hangs round his neck by a ribbon. The Witch Maiden pounces, seizes the new "Prince" in her talons, and tears the ring from his neck -- flying down to the Earth with her prey.

The two birds now revert to human form and the Witch Maiden confronts the Prince:

"I favored you with my love and you repaid me with treachery and theft," she cries. "You stole my most precious jewel from me, and now you expect to live happily as the King's son-in-law?"

The Prince begs for forgiveness:

"I know too well how deeply I have wronged you, and most heartily do I repent it."

But the Witch Maiden doesn't go for the apology:

"Your prayers and your repentance come too late, and if I were to spare you everyone would think me a fool. You have doubly wronged me; first you scorned my love, and then you stole my ring, and you must bear the punishment."

The Witch maiden puts the ring on her left thumb, picks the young man up with one hand and stashes him in a deep cave -- where she chains his hands and feet. She promises him that he'll stay there until the day he dies:

"Here you shall remain chained up until you die. I will bring you every day enough food to prevent you dying of hunger, but you need never hope for freedom anymore."

Eventually the old King and his daughter become apprehensive (and the dragon stench isn't getting any better, either). They send out a call throughout all the kingdoms. Eventually a celebrated magician from Finland informs the royal pair that the Prince has been imprisoned in the East by a powerful supernatural being. The King passes the information on to the Old Magician of the East who (with the aid of his birds), finds the Prince and springs him from the cave.

"He undid the chains by the help of magic, and took care of the Prince until he recovered and became strong enough to travel. When he reached home he found that the old King had died that morning, so that he was now raised to the throne."

(Presumably somewhere along the line, somebody did something about the dragon pollution, but the story never mentions it.)

...."And now after his long suffering came prosperity, which lasted to the end of his life; but he never got back the magic ring, nor has it ever been seen again by mortal eyes."

And then the story concludes:

Now, if you had been the Prince, would you not rather have stayed with the pretty Witch Maiden?"

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