Monday, June 11, 2012

FRACTURED FAIRY TALES - Melusine, Anniversaires & Une Femme d'un Certain Age

Fountain head Chateau de La Rochefoucauld

It all began with the "The White Queen", a Phillippa Gregory historical novel.  One of those kind I swear to myself I won't get caught up in & then end up page turning till my eyeballs start smoking.  Even two pairs of glasses are insufficient if the light is low.  After the lengthy crawl I took through Tudor mania a few months ago, this book focuses on the Yorks and the Lancasters, "The War of the Roses", and Elizabeth Woodville, a young widow, whose mother's Burgundy family were descendents of the Water Goddess: "Melusina".  Lizzy (a raving beauty, aren't they all?!) seduces and marries the charismatic warrior King Edward IV and drops more babies than puppies to keep her husband's line and the Plantagenet rule in place.  It's a gripping story with loads of blood curdling battles, Tower scenes, & enough intrigue to satisfy Dungeons, Dragons and Sherlock Holmes hounds, plus the added elements of witchcraft & wishcraft. And kudos to Gregory for just being able to keep track of approximately 800 major and minor characters.  It doesn't matter how many of these historical fiction or non-fiction books I read, I'll never get the Kings and Queens straight in my head.  It's not fair to name each one of them Charles, Edward, Henry or William--throw in the french Henris and you are lost in a thicket of royal loos. Which by the way you can purchase on line, the perfect wedding souvenir for someone feeling a bit flush:
Kate & William loo seats

I'm so impressed with the Amazon book reviewers who write mini-novels synopsizing (new scrabble word) 500 pages of someone else's book!  I use them as Cliff notes for the books I've read, enjoyed and promptly forgotten. 

But one thread Gregory wove through "The White Queen" that stayed with me was the tale of Melusina, based on a 14th c. French folk tale.  She was born half fairy, but mostly appears in human form.  Due to one of those pesky curses, once a week she turns into a half-serpent, half-woman, a secret she keeps from her mortal husband.  A little trickier than hiding those Gucci bags or alligator boots.  One version of the fairy tale has it that when Melusine's husband Raimondin catches her out, she transforms into a full dragon and flies out of his life, but they are then reunited by the epiphany of Raimondin that love transcends our physical form.

But the Melusina Gregory writes about is more like the archetypal mermaids or Selkies, a water goddess: half woman, half fish who is found in hidden springs,waterfalls & grottos. Melusina will let a man love her if he leaves her to bathe alone so she can keep her tail under wraps & she will love him in return, but if he "peeks" (as men always do) she'll sweep him into the depths with her big fishy tail and turn his faithless blood to water!  In any version or any language, the tragedy is that a man will always promise more than he can do to a woman he cannot understand. Ta!

A pre-teen memory that popped into my head, was skinny dipping with my girlfriends in some hidden pools in northern Wisconsin and being caught out by some boys sneaking up through the woods-- but we just turned them to stone and that was the end of it. 

There is a wonderful composer, Jobe,  who has created a tone color palette to go with Melusine's tale. His score has cellos, pipe organs, violins & orchestral harps. When Melusine is in half-serpent mode she will sing metal and glass arias--songs where the primary accompaniment to the voice is metal percussion--tubular bells and gongs--in combination with glass bells. These exotic instruments. along with the pitched glass bells that Jobe designed, create a supernatural, haunting sound for his opera, "The Legend of the Fairy Melusine".  At the climax of the opera Melusine transforms into a dragon and the score features another instrument created by Jobe:  a 10 ft. long Bosch Hurdy Gurdy based on an image from Hieronymous Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights".  If you don't believe me, check it out at

On to the Anniversaire, which I had last week, and as birthdays come and go, I was hoping to let this one slide right past third base. I am now as they say in France:  "une femme d'une certain age".  The english phrase: "a woman of a certain age" was cited in 1714 by an anonymous essayist in Connoisseur magazine who said:  "I cannot help wishing that some middle term was invented between miss and Mrs. to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony." This is two centuries pre-Ms.  In 1817 Bryon wrote:  "She was not old, nor young, nor at the years/Which certain people call a certain age/Which yet the most uncertain age appears."  Five years later he got grumpier and added the phrase:  "A lady of a 'certain age,' which means "Certainly aged." Charles Dickens took it even further in "Barnaby Rudge":  "A very old house, perhaps as old as it claimed to be, and perhaps older, which will sometimes happen with houses of an uncertain, as with ladies of a certain, age."  Bah humbug!

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Then there's the Oxford English Dictionary which defines that sense of certain as "which it is not polite or necessary further to define." I'm glad I live in France where there is a long history of women of "fortyish" and thereabouts who are able to initiate boys and young men into the beauties of sexual encounters.  In french the phrase has erotically or sexually charged overtones and as Dr. Lillian Rubin wrote in her book:  "Women of a Certain Age:  The Midlife Search for Self," it comes from a society where sexuality is freer and more understood as an important part of human life."  So there--you English snicker pants! Anyway as we all know, 50 is the new 40 and 60 is the new 35.

I always do a tarot birthday spread for myself and this year was no different except for the addition of finding a historical spot to add some confusion to the reading. ("Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment"--Rumi).  I chose Chateau de la Rochefoucauld, in of all places: La Rochefoucauld. 

Painting on stone wall Chateau de La Rochefoucauld

I've been drawn back there a number of times to ogle the innocent looking fountain in the center of the parc with its extraordinary sculpted heads on the underside, which you can't see till you lie beneath it on the grass.  I haven't been able to find out who they were, though mighty Gods I am sure, tortured souls representing the human condition in its gravest form.

This time I paid the freight to tour this Renaissance jewel of the Charente, the bibliotheque with over 18,000 priceless books, the salons, the chapel, Marguerite of Angouleme's boudoir decorated with 17th c. painted panels, beaucoup family portraits and even meeting some family members.  You can't swing a dead cat without hitting one of the Rochefoucauld's. They've been living in or near the chateau since 1019. They were "Roches" (rocks) till the 13th c. when they became Rochefoucaulds.  From the family gallery I picked my favorite, the 17th c. essayist, Francois de la Rochefoucauld, known for his maxims and memoirs. His view of human conduct has been summed up by the words, "everything is reducible to the motive of self interest". 

Francois VI - Duc de Rochefoucauld

Vraiment, I think it is his eyebrows that most attracted me, a hereditary family trait I surmise from looking at all his cousins.  He wrote a sketch of himself as a preface to his Maximes:  "I am of medium stature:  I am well proportioned and my gestures are easy.  My coloring is dark but harmonious.  My forehead is high and rather broad; my eyes black, small and deep set; my eyebrows are dark and bushy, but well shaped.  I am at a loss what to say of my nose, for it is neither hooked nor aquiline, heavy, nor yet, to my knowledge, sharp; all that I can say of it is that it is large rather than small and that it is a trifle too long." 

So even our predecessors seem to have been symmetrically disposed.  I was toying with the idea of taking Francois' photo to "Symface" on line so I could see how he might look if he were perfectly symmetrical and we lopped off some of that nose, but I want to remember him this way, bushy eyebrows and all.  

La Grotte de Melusine

"I.  Don't trace out your profile--       
      forget your side view--
      all that is outer stuff.

II.  Look for your other half
      who always walks next to you
      and tends to be who you aren't"
                       Antonio Machado

It was getting late, storm clouds gathering, and the Chateau was closing so I scampered onto the next level of marble stairs leading down, down, down into a dark, drippy cave...coming face to face with an apparition:  Melusine/Melusina, half-fish (with two tails?!) and half barbie doll.  Droll and spooky at the same time.  What was she doing in what looks like an old wine barrel or hot tub?   I was not clever, I was bewildered.  I pulled a card....

                                                                             to be continued
The door in my heart
opened on its hinges, 
and once more the gallery
of my history was revealed.
Once more the little plaza
with flowering acacias,
once more the clear fountain
telling its tale of love. 
                    Antonio Machado

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