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H. J. Ford, illustrator

Simplia’s phone quacked, so she knew it was Sagacia sending the text. While Sagacia checked for letters across the street at the post office, Simplia was enjoying the Fairy Tale Lobby’s day-old hamantaschen, trying not to drop crumbs on her iPad. She got up, dusted the crumbs that had fallen on her shirt onto the floor, and got in line at the coffee bar.

Maybe there’ll be a new question for Vasilisa today, she thought. It is the third of the month, after all.

She reached the barista just as her friend came through the door. Empty-handed.

“Nothing today,” Sagacia announced. “At least not at the post office.”

“Well, there’s still the chimney to check,” Simplia reasoned. “And I suppose we could rifle the pages of the dictionary. That sometimes produces a letter. Here’s your coffee. Decaf soy latte. It’s listed on the menu board as a ‘Why Bother?'”

They sat down together, sipping and chewing in silence, until Simplia’s iPad croaked to announce the arrival of new email.

“This is weird,” she said. “It’s addressed to Vasilisa the Wise, but here it is in my inbox. How’d that happen?”

“Never mind,” said Sagacia. “Just move over so I can read it, too.”

Dear Vasilisa the Wise —

This week in a fairy tale class I’m auditing, we had a little discussion about motifs, and one recurring motif in particular caught my fancy: the intercepted letter and its forged substitute. Our class explored two very different stories that hinge on this device — “The Handless Maiden” and “The Devil with Three Golden Hairs.” 

In the first story, the Devil intercepts letters from the king’s mother and exchanges them with his own forged messages — lies meant to destroy a virtuous queen. In the second story, letters written by a king intent on murdering an innocent young man are intercepted by a band of robbers, who are moved to compassion for the unwitting victim. In an effort to foil the king’s nefarious plot, the robbers forge a message countermanding the king’s instructions. In the first story, the Devil is eventually defeated, in spite of his efforts; in the second, the evil king is defeated, in large part because outlaws acted outside the law.

Two things strike me as noteworthy here: 1.) Tampering with the mail, in and of itself, is not such a big deal in fairy tales as it is in the United States Postal Service. If their  motives for doing it are pure, even a band of thieves is justified. 2.) Fairy tales started out as oral literature for pre-literate people. This arcane business of letter writing — “talking” to people who weren’t there by means of scratches on paper (or sheepskin, if you will) — was truly Magic. And one must be wary when dealing with Magic.

I am really curious to know if this motif — stolen and forged letters — is confined to European stories or if it occurs in other cultures. Since I’m not actually enrolled in any classes, I don’t have library privileges. I can’t just pull up the Aarne-Thompson motif index. Can you direct me to some free sources for searching out questions such as this? Or better yet, since I’m lazy, can you just tell me straight out all the stories you know from all the cultures you’re familiar with that include the element of “magical writing”?

Dilettante in Delhi 

Sagacia said, “You know, I can’t help seeing some correlation between what those thieves did and the time somebody hacked my email and sent spam to everyone of my contacts.”

“Except the thieves weren’t being malicious,” said Simplia. “But if that story about the girl with no hands happened today, the Devil could very easily be a cyber bully.”

Sagacia agreed. “Yep. Sending ideas into people’s heads by means of little scritches and scratches is still pretty magical, isn’t it.”

“Sure is,” said Simplia. “Approach with caution.”