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Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Best Stories in the World: Love Like Salt

Lear (Ian McKellan), Cordelia (Romola Garai), Goneril (Frances Barber), Regan (Monica Dolan)


I've become obsessed with a certain little story called, by folklorists, "Love Like Salt." Tale-type 923. The core of the story is that a father asks his three daughters to tell him how much they love him. The elder two are gushing in their replies, but the youngest replies that she loves her father like salt. She is banished or disinherited, and any number of complications arise from this event.

It is how King Lear begins, though Cordelia's response

I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less


is quite different from, say, the daughter in, say, "Cap O'Rushes": I love you as fresh meat loves salt.

The usual folkloric variations apply across the various cultures that tell this sort of story, and the tale-type itself is genetically connected to type 510, which includes Cinderella. But let's not get lost in tale types again. The best version of this story is in Grimm's Household Tales (story 179--not to be confused with "The Goose Girl," tale 89) told by someone called "D'Ganshiardarin." It's too long to include in full, but here's the gist:

A young count was walking along when he sees an old woman, reputed to be a witch. She asked him to carry a heavy load for her, and he agrees. She set it down and he picks it up--but it's unbelievably heavy, though she carried it without much effort. She heckled him all the way to her house, and he completed the task. At the witch's house the count saw a spring full of geese, being tended by another old woman. Though not as old as the witch, she was uglier. The witch told the other woman to go inside, so that the count wouldn't fall in love with her. She also promised the count a treasure for his work.

The witch gave him a little emerald box and sent him on his way. The count was, by this time, lost, and he wandered for three days in the forest. At last he came to a city. Since he was a stranger he was brought before the king and queen. Such a situation demanded a gift for the royal couple, but all he had was the box. Upon presenting it, the queen looked inside. What she saw made her faint. The guards were about to drag the young man to the dungeon, but the revived queen bade them to stop.

"Bring him to me," she cried. And she told him her story. Apparently she had three daughters, the youngest of which was the most beautiful. "She was as white as snow and as pink as apple blossoms, and her hair shone like the beams of the sun." She was so perfect that she wept pearls instead of tears. But her husband had asked them to tell him how much they loved him. The elder two answered with gushing affection, but the youngest said, "I love you as I love salt." So the king sent her away, and left a trail of pearls in her wake.

The king and queen had no word of her, assuming she was dead until looking into the box and seeing one of the pearls. The count led them to the witch's hut near the spring. They arrived under a full moon, and though the witch was inside, the other woman was out by the spring. They watched her unfasten her skin and take it off to wash in the spring, revealing their beautiful young daughter, white as snow and pink as apple blossoms. The count fell in love with her at once. But before they could get to her, she put the skin on and returned to the hut.

The king, queen, and count went to the hut, and the royal couple were scolded by the witch for the king's foolish actions. "But I think you've been punished enough by your own suffering." Then out came the princess, and they were reconciled. And the old witch disappeared. It's all very well and good, but the ending is my favorite part. I'll quote it here from Ralph Manheim's translation of the Brothers Grimm:

There's still more to the story, but my grandmother who told it to me was losing her memory and she forgot the rest. All the same, I believe the beautiful princess married the count and I'm pretty sure they stayed in the palace together and lived happily as long as God wanted them to. I wouldn't swear that the snow-white geese the goose girl tended were girls (don't anybody take offense now) whom the old woman had taken to live with her, or that they got back their human forms and stayed on as maids-in-waiting for the young queen. But it seems likely. This much I do know: the old woman wasn't a witch, as people thought. She was a Wise Woman. I imagine she was present when the princess was born and that she was the one who gave her the gift of weeping pearls instead of tears. That kind of thing doesn't happen any more. If it did, the poor would get rich in no time.


Maybe it's just me, but there are few better endings to stories out there.

When I first read that story (I think it was Philip Pullman's recent translation) I was completely immersed. I got to that ending and felt like I'd come across something monumental. I soon invented an entire culture based around the idea of telling stories that end with a plea of forgetfulness, not on the part of the narrator, but on the part of the source of the story. It opens up a world of possibility and wonder. Someday, maybe I'll write all that down. 

In an interesting turn of events, the story of King Lear was taken up by modern day writer Christopher Moore, who transmogrified it into the novel Fool, out just a few years ago. I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed this book; and I'm excited for its sequel, The Serpent of Venice, which will be released on April 22.  Fool follows roughly the same plot as Lear, but it's all told from the point of view of the Fool, given the name Pocket by Moore. He changes the end of the play considerably, but all to the benefit of his story--it would be foolish for Moore to kill his own fool, whom Shakespeare does away with much sooner than I expected. Moore is a humorist, one of the best writing today.

If you're looking for a bit of scholarship on this story, read Alan Dundes' "To Love My Father All," collected in Interpreting Folklore.

Why is "Love Like Salt" one of the best stories in the world? Versatility, for one. The height of literate tragedy, the pinnacle of oral tradition, brilliant comedy. It's all possible with this story.





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