battle of the birds

Here’s where it all began — turf war between a wren and a mouse over a stalk of wheat. And oh, the story that unfolds! (Thank you wikisource and sacred-texts for the image. I couldn’t find an artist’s name.)

Flossie Squashblossom was just about to launch into her riveting story about an incident that happened to a fairy tale king and queen “after ever-after,” when the Mailmouse announced himself.

“Kindly restrain that cat before you open the door!”

Sagacia restrained an agitated Murzik while Simplia grabbed her coin purse and went to the door.

“How much?” she asked.

“One florin. Just drop it right here in the bag.”

She fished around in her purse and said, “Okay. Here’s three semolians and a couple of sous. That equals one florin.”

“Won’t do,” said the Mailmouse. “It’s gotta be a florin.”

“That’s ridiculous. Three semolians and two sous equal one florin.”

“Lady, I didn’t make up the rules. If you want to release the letter from my mailbag, you gotta drop a florin into the side pocket here. I’m powerless to fish it out of the bag until you do. Believe me, I would if I could, because I want nothing more than to be on my way before that cat wriggles out of your friend’s embrace.”

Flossie jumped up triumphantly and said, “Look what I found between the sofa cushions. One florin.”

She dropped the coin into the side pocket of the mailbag, and as if by magic…well, actually, it was magic: The Mailmouse reached into the bag, extracted the tiniest corner of what looked like the world’s tiniest letter and before you could blink, it was a No. 10 envelope addressed to Vasilisa the Wise, in care of The Simpletons, and bearing insufficient postage.

Sagacia looked longingly at the letter; Simplia looked longingly toward Flossie Squashblossom; Flossie said, “Read the letter, for heaven’s sake. It might have some bearing on my story.”

Dear Vasilisa —
A recent after-dinner conversation turned to the topic of spells in wonder tales, why they are cast, by whom, on whom, and the ways they are broken. One of my friends drew a distinction between spells and contracts. As I understood what he was saying, a spell is magic cast onto or into something or someone who has no say in the matter; it effects a supernatural change on their natural state, and it is lifted only when certain conditions are met. In contrast, a contract is a mutual agreement, whereby magic is effected and certain conditions must be met or there will be consequences. I vacillate between totally grasping what he means and blinking bewilderment. One minute it makes sense. The next minute I’m all like, “Hunh?”
Can you or your Magical Friends discuss this amongst yourselves and get back to me with some clarification?  Are there any common spell breakers you can think of. I mean, besides “love’s first kiss.”
Many thanks —
Bewildered in Bozeman
P.S. — I’ve always assumed that being under a spell is a bad thing. Do people sometimes benefit from being cast under a spell?

As soon as Sagacia had refolded the letter, Flossie said, “There! Exactly! My rip snorter story addresses exactly those concerns. Sit down. I’ll tell you about it.”

The Simpletons complied, and Flossie launched in.

It’s an ancient story, and it appears all over the world. The version I’m most familiar with is titled “The Battle of the Birds.” In the first part of the story, the animals of earth and the animals of the air have a humdinger of a war, which began over a disputed grain of wheat, and if that’s not a powerful metaphor, I’ve never encountered one. Anyway,there’s a prince who decides he wants to see this war, so he sets forth, but by the time he gets to the battleground, all the survivors have gotten bored and gone home — except for a snake and an eagle, who are fighting to the death. When things look especially grim for the eagle, the prince chops the snake in half. The eagle thanks him, invites him to ride between his wings, and in the course of their travels, the prince inadvertently does something to release the eagle back into his true form, that of a handsome young man. The handsome young man rewards the prince with a satchel that’s tied with a leather thong. “Open it only when you come to the place where you want to live out the rest of your days,” says the handsome young man. And they part company.

So of course, you know the prince’s curiosity gets the better of him. He takes a forbidden peek at what’s inside this mystery package, and as soon as he does — shoop! — out bursts an entire estate: orchards, gardens, fields, forests, castle, the works. It’s perfect! Except for the three most important considerations in real estate: Location, location, location. Rats! thinks the prince. This would be a perfect set up if I were within sight of my father’s castle. But out here in the sticks… Yuck!

Just then, along comes a truculent giant, who is quick to point out that the prince has just violated every zoning code in his — the giant’s — realm. “This land is my land,” he says. “Go get your own land.” “I would if I could,” says the prince. “But there’s no way I can stuff this estate back into my messenger bag.” “I can accomplish that feat,” says the giant, “in exchange for your firstborn son. On his seventh birthday, I want full custody.” The prince is young and stupid and has never even thought about marriage, much less parenthood, so he says, “Sure. Whatever.” Shoop! The estate collapses like a zip file and fits back into the satchel.

The prince finally reaches the border of his father’s kingdom; he chooses a lovely site, opens the satchel, and shoop! again. It’s all there, and more. Now the castle is inhabited. The prince is met at the door by a regal, gracious, smiling woman who says, “Say the word, and I’ll be your wife.” The prince is smitten. They are married. Nine months later they have a little prince of their own. A few years after ever-after, they become king and queen. The former prince, now king, “forgets” to tell his wife about his encounter with the giant.

Seven years later, during the little prince’s birthday party the land is shaken — foom! foom! foom! — and here comes the giant to collect the kid. The queen’s eyes go wide, but much as she wants to ream her husband out, she doesn’t even bother giving him a withering glare, because she knows that at this point it won’t make anything better. She uses her energies to devise a plan.

Well, the plan doesn’t work. The kid has to go live with the giant. But he does eventually make it home in time for a reunion with his parents (who, at this point in the story are two years shy of their twentieth anniversary) and a “happily ever after” of his own. And the giant does get his just deserts.

“See,” said Flossie, “This first part of the story — actually, it’s not even at the halfway point  — is, to my way of thinking, a perfect example of what Bewildered in Bozeman is driving at.

“Yes,” said Sagacia. “Spells and contracts. I think the eagle at the very beginning was under a spell, because he didn’t benefit from the magic; in fact, being an eagle almost got him killed.”

Simplia said, “What about the satchel? Was it under a spell? I mean, besides the real estate, there was a human being who ‘unfolded’ from that confinement. I wonder what her circumstances were before she got turned into a zip file.”

“The agreement between the prince and the giant,” said Flossie. “I guess it does constitute a contract, but one made under duress.”

Sagacia stood up and transferred Bewildered in Bozeman’s letter from her apron pocket to her pocketbook.

“Time to consult our Magical Friends,” she said. “I want to hear more examples of spells and contracts and what breaks spells and why they’re cast and who benefits or is punished by them and why.”

“And I want a cup of tea,” said Simplia and Flossie in unison.

What goes up the chimney?)