Cronnie Wisdom

Crone is "a phase in which you can be more authentic, more capable of making a difference in your family and in the greater world. Life gives you experience, and when you draw from it, that's true wisdom. By the time a woman is in her crone years, she is in an amazing position to be an influence. To change things for the better, to bring what she knows into a situation, to be able to say, 'Enough is enough.' You don't have to just go along with things, which is often a part of the middle years. You're often something of a loose cannon."
Jean Shinoda Bolen


Sunday, January 3, 2021

"The Little Match Girl": Andersen's New Year's Message

Arthur Rackham, illustrator of "Fairy Tales" (1932).

The Little Match Girl

It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets. Of course, when she had left her house she'd had slippers on, but what good had they been? They were very big slippers, way too big for her, for they belonged to her mother. The little girl had lost them running across the road, where two carriages had rattled by terribly fast. One slipper she'd not been able to find again, and a boy had run off with the other, saying he could use it very well as a cradle someday when he had children of his own. And so the little girl walked on her naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold. In an old apron, she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. No one had bought any from her all day long, and no one had given her a cent.


Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture of misery, poor little girl! The snowflakes fell on her long fair hair, which hung in pretty curls over her neck. In all the windows lights were shining, and there was a wonderful smell of roast goose, for it was New Year's eve. Yes, she thought of that!


In a corner formed by two houses, one of which projected farther out into the street than the other, she sat down and drew up her little feet under her. She was getting colder and colder but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.


Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her! If she could only take one from the box and rub it against the wall and warm her hands. She drew one out. R-r-ratch! How it sputtered and burned! It made a warm, bright flame, like a little candle, as she held her hands over it; but it gave a strange light! It really seemed to the little girl as if she were sitting before a great iron stove with shining brass knobs and a brass cover. How wonderfully the fire burned! How comfortable it was! The youngster stretched out her feet to warm them too; then the little flame went out, the stove vanished, and she had only the remains of the burnt match in her hand.


She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room. On the table a snow-white cloth was spread, and on it stood a shining dinner service. The roast goose steamed gloriously, stuffed with apples and prunes. And what was still better, the goose jumped down from the dish and waddled along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl. Then the match went out, and she could see only the thick, cold wall. She lighted another match. Then she was sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree. It was much larger and much more beautiful than the one she had seen last Christmas through the glass door at the rich merchant's home. Thousands of candles burned on the green branches, and colored pictures like those in the printshops looked down at her. The little girl reached both her hands toward them. Then the match went out. But the Christmas lights mounted higher. She saw them now as bright stars in the sky. One of them fell down, forming a long line of fire.


"Now someone is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God.


She rubbed another match against the wall. It became bright again, and in the glow the old grandmother stood clear and shining, kind and lovely.


"Grandmother!" cried the child. "Oh, take me with you! I know you will disappear when the match is burned out. You will vanish like the warm stove, the wonderful roast goose and the beautiful big Christmas tree!"


And she quickly struck the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother with her. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight. Grandmother had never been so grand and beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear-they were with God.


But in the corner, leaning against the wall, sat the little girl with red cheeks and smiling mouth, frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. The New Year's sun rose upon a little pathetic figure. The child sat there, stiff and cold, holding the matches, of which one bundle was almost burned.


"She wanted to warm herself," the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year.


Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish writer who lived from 1805-1875.  Some scholars regard him as the father of the modern fairy tale.  His parents were working-class people whose real-life struggles became the theme found in many of his stories. In fact, an anecdote from his mother’s childhood became the essence of this story. While Andersen was influenced by Danish folklore motifs, his themes were strongly Christian. 

I first learned this story as a child: not the literary, but the film version.  Either way, it packs a punch.  The story is both poignant and haunting.  It’s the tale of a young girl living in poverty and abuse. She is forced to spend her days on the street selling matches. The story mirrors an experience Andersen’s mother lived.  Andersen writes, “As a young girl, her parents chased her out to beg, and when she had no luck, she spent a whole day crying under a bridge by the river in Odense.  As a child, I could imagine all of this so clearly and I wept about it.”

In this story, the protagonist is abandoned and fearful of returning home with no money. The young girl dies of hypothermia on the street alone.  Anderson often crafts pictures of suffering. In fact, the word “little” in the title spells the character’s doom.  This is true for many stories, “Little Red Riding Hood” for example.

Many children lived in the streets in mid-nineteenth century Europe. Child labor was common. Children were expected to work for long hours in dangerous conditions. Selling matches, flowers, or newspapers was an easier option than begging outright which was illegal.

The story contrasts the "haves" and "have nots." Andersen’s sympathies were always with the downtrodden and the little match girl gives us a figure who is innocent and worthy of help. He also portrays a metaphoric contrast with his emphasis on light and darkness throughout the story. The young child peers from the darkness into windows seeing the light of family life she will never have.

Sadly, her pleas to the passersby go unheard.  The poor were condemned in Victorian time.  Rather than return home and receive a beating, the young girl found a secluded place to sit between two buildings.  As she lit each match, her greatest desires were projected on the wall – food, a Christmas tree, and her grandmother.

We can assume that her grandmother was the only one to be loving and kind to her. As Kirsten Mlmkjaer points out, Andersen’s grandmothers and other elderly women often “shift and shimmer between the human, the spectral and the divine.”  In doing so, Andersen provides an archetypal image that moves between conscious and unconscious awareness. The child continues to light the matches to keep her grandmother’s memory alive for as long as she can.  She dies with the vision that she and her grandmother are celebrating the holidays in heaven.  Deathbed visions are common and not only the stuff of fairy tales. 

In fact, many years ago, when my loved one was struggling with drug addiction, I had a similar dream.  It was night.  A young girl was sitting on a bench with her deceased grandmother.  The streetlight shone on the empty bus before them. The door opened. I knew when I woke that my loved one’s journey could be a fatal one.   

Andersen’s story is a moralistic tale about the cruelty of the world, it arouses compassion for the poor. Nevertheless, it asks little of us.  In Victorian times it was believed that God marked an individual’s fate.  In essence, being poor was God’s will.  Rosellen Brown writes “That Andersen would let his heroine die was shocking and - to some of us stories are exciting because they roil up our emotions, disturb our equilibrium even if they make us miserable – I would say satisfying.” Certainly Andersen portrays the reality of many of these children, but he did nothing to rile his readers’ emotions enough for them to take action.

It’s easy to believe we don’t live in a society with the sheer injustice found in these stories, but sadly this is not true.  The pandemic has left many people unemployed and without housing.  Black, Native and Latino children have fared the worse.  Do we turn away from those in need determining them “unworthy” or do we hold Christmas in our hearts instead?  Andersen’s story portrays the result of apathy.  Dickens calls us to action.

Andersen’s happy ending was for the child to be taken to heaven where she would no longer suffer.  Even being rescued from her plight and escaping death would not be as wonderful to him. But I disagree. I’d much prefer another ending to this story. Perhaps an old housemaid, a wise crone that is, sees the child as she presses her nose against the window. The maid brings her in, warms her toes, and feeds her empty belly.  She tells her mistress that she needs some help in the kitchen.  The little girl lives in the house and never returns to her abusive father.  I wish I could say that she lives happily ever after but that would be a true fairy tale. In this version, she simply lives “better.”

Real-life children are suffering and struggling this holiday. Sadly, the poor are still with us 175 years after the writing of these stories.  But hopefully, we’ve lost our attraction to children dying a romantic death. Perhaps we can bring them in from the cold, offer them a turkey dinner, and let them live instead.  May no child die alone and abandoned any holiday season.  Along with Scrooge, may we always hold Christmas in our hearts.

For more on this story and its comparison to Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol, listen to this month's podcast (S2, #5). "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Andersen, trans. Jean Hersholt.




Monday, December 14, 2020

Santa is Gender-Neutral!

In this month's podcast, it's all about Santa: the folklore, story, and the greater archetype. I posit the question of whether Santa can be gender-neutral. We'll explore an adapted version of the poem "A Visit from Santa Claus" written by Clement Clarke Moore.  Think about it for just a moment.  Santa as the wise crone?  Why not?


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Book Review - "The Republic of Birds" by Jessica Miller

 


This book is simply charming.  It’s as comfortable and enjoyable as a cup of cocoa on a snowy day. The story takes place in a fantasy tsarist Russia.  The tsarina is at war with the Republic of Birds, a magical race that once graced the land.  At least that is, before the firebird’s egg appeared.  The story tells of Olga’s hero’s journey, one filled with bravery and even a rescue.  It has many delightful references to Russian folklore and culture including maps and yagas, huts with chicken legs, and Russian ballet.  The characters are all well-defined.  This is especially true of the older women who instead of witches become wise (sometimes magical), and glorious crones. When the tale was finally over, this reader longed for a sequel to discover just what Olga did next!

Published by Amulet Books, 2020.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Is the Witchy Crone Born or Made?

 



It’s Halloween.  The witching time of year.  The witch is a character, an archetype, and an epitaph. Starting in the middle ages as a healer, she later became associated with the devil; and either burned at the stake or hung, when identified. Women outliers were most often accused.  Single women, widows, and other women on the margins of society were especially targeted.

Over time, the witch became a universal archetype, closely associated with the crone. Both are portrayed as old and ugly.  Both are clever and, at times, cunning.  What distinguishes them is not magic-making or flying on broomsticks, but on the crone’s desire to serve as a mentor or guide for those who are found worthy.  These are the young heroes-in-training, usually, orphans lost in a world in which they have no value.  The line between the witch and the crone is rarely clear.

Yet a question remains.  Is the witch born or made? Is she the product of trauma, a wrong that remained un-righted, a solitary weakness in character, or was her fate destined?  It’s the back story we never hear of a witch woman we never truly know.  If that story was told perhaps our view of her would change.  Perhaps we would see her in a new light, a light of understanding and compassion.  And in doing so perhaps women today could also stop judging themselves against a single measure of perfection – the archetype of the princess.  The princess is the antithesis of the witch.  She is meek, well mannered, and beautiful.  She never is “too smart,” or “too gifted.”  She knows her place and only rarely moves beyond her assigned role.   

The witch in folk tales, however, is no sissy.  Smart and skilled, she causes chaos, places curses, and sometimes eats small children for dinner. She is no one to be crossed.  Accordingly, many women today would do just about anything to avoid being called her name (or some variation thereof!).  But is the witch beyond redemption?  Is she always the evil antagonist or is there a reason for her madness?

The poem that follows is one of these backstories.  It’s the story of a woman who became a witch only after she lost her love.  Many years later, as an old, old, woman (perhaps even a crone), she crafts a spell to begin again.

Magick Spell for Lost Love

 

“Double, double toil and trouble….”

I cast this spell in the darkest night; the moon is full, owl, and wolf share my plight.

“Fire burn and caldron bubble…”

The words I speak brand my heart, I set my intention and release the dark arts,

“Fillet of a fenny snake…”

for an incantation truly meant to find lost love and heal laments.

“In the caldron boil and bake…”

No visage reflects on my mirror shard, nor fortune fated on a Tarot card.

Eye of Newt and toe of frog…”

My power lost, so freely given; in spurts and sputters, and without reason.

“Wool of bat and tongue of dog...”

“Nose too long and hair too straight,” poisoned thoughts that suffocate.

“Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting…”

Potions of hibiscus and rose hips fail against the sin of self-betrayal.

“Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing…”

The raven gives its warning cry, as I mark a pentagram in the sky.

“For a charm of powerful trouble…”

My skill grew less, my anger rose, as I recalled my troubled woes.

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble…”

No one can put me in my place, say I am less, or make me wait.

“Double, double toil and trouble…”

Send me to trial, or burn at stake, release me from this awful hate,

Fire burn and caldron bubble…”

that strips my skill and leaves me bare, forget and forgive, not ensnare.

“Cool it with a baboon’s blood…” (And let me remember how to love.)

My power comes from deep within, this magick’s in my very skin.

“Then the charm is firm and good…”

Love is stronger than the night, it gives me strength, so I take flight.

 


Friday, October 23, 2020

Book Review - "Twelve: Poems Inspired by the Grimm Fairy Tale" by Andrea Blyth

 

 

Blyth crafted her small book around the Grimm folktale of the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” (also known as “The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces”).  It’s the tale of 12 sisters who sneak off at night to dance with the fairies. Each day they return with their shoes worn out.  The King imprisons them and proclaims that any man who can uncover the mystery can marry one of his daughters. If the suitor fails, then it’s off with the head!  The sisters drug the men so they can’t be followed. But a soldier (with help from an old woman) finally solves the puzzle.  The story ends with him marrying the older sister. 

This is where Blyth’s prose poems pick up the tale. For each sister she creatively envisions her life after the bliss and intoxication of the otherworld.  She weaves stories of rage and guilt, addiction, and mayhem. Ultimately, it is the tale of women who experienced freedom only to be later confined as the property of men. (And yes, there is a feminist cast to her prose.)  I’m sure each reader will have a favorite sister with her over the top solution to living a life no longer of her own choosing.

Each story is filled with poetic ideas, and beautiful imagery. Each story answers the question of what happens after “happily ever after.” Best of all, Blyth includes “Author’s Notes” that discuss her thoughts on the folktale and how she came to her retelling.

 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Book Review - "Tales of the Night Sky: Revealing the Mythologies and Folklore behind the Constellations" by Robin Kerrod

 At the "Wise Crone Cottage" blog and podcast, I focus on stories from the oral tradition, both folktales and mythologies. It is my goal to share these stories so they won't be forgotten.  In support of this goal, I've started writing book reviews of new works on these topics. You can find them on "Goodreads" and "NetGalley."  They will also be posted here.

 Tales of the Night Sky by Robin Kerod


Tales of the Night Sky: Revealing the Mythologies and Folklore behind the Constellations by Robin Kerrod, (London: Quarto Pub., 2020), is a fun mix of science and folklore.  Filled with beautiful illustrations, this book also includes an 18” x 24” constellation wall map.  Each section discusses a specific element of cosmology – “The Universe,” “Patterns in the Sky,” “Around the Constellations,” and “Wandering Stars” (the ancient Greek term for planets).  Written for a young audience, each entry focuses on a specific constellation or planet discussing its history, science, mythology, and folklore (including astrological interpretations).  History and science from early thought (in which the sun rotates around the earth) to Copernicus is included; and ancient stories from Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology provided.  All topics are addressed in a clear and simple format often on only a single page. For example, the entry on the Constellation of Cancer includes several stories from Greek mythology in which the crab fights with Hercules during his battle with a hydra.  It also provides early folklore on the “swarm of stars,” found on the center star, Praesepe, which is called the “beehive cluster.” Some entries also provide a brief astronomy discussion. The associated illustration shows the star chart and the ancient depiction of the Cancer constellation.  A glossary is included. For both teachers and storytellers, this book contains the perfect blend of science, history, and folklore to create an entertaining and educational story or introductory lesson plan.