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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Horcruxes in Fairy Tales

JK Rowlings invented the word (horcrux first made an appearance in the 5th book - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) but the concept is ancient; hiding in plain sight in folklore and fairy tales. In fact, there is a horcrux in Swan Lake...

A screen grab from The Swan Princess, which is based on Swan Lake

After The Black Swan, it seems natural to take a closer look at Swan Lake. The ballet by Tchaikovsky, is said to be based on Russian folktales, although the names of the major characters are German or French. The story begins with Prince Siegfried celebrating his coming of age by going on a hunt with his companions. He came across an enchantingly beautiful lake where swans are a swimming...

The prince asks his companions to leave him alone and as night falls he witnesses the swans transform into young maidens. The prince falls in love with the most beautiful of them all, Odette, the Swan Queen. Odette tells him, her story: she and all the other maidens are under the thrall of a sorcerer named Von Rothbart. They are cursed to spend the day in the form of swans, only changing into maidens after nightfall. Siegfried and Odette dance the night away until sunrise... The sorcerer appears on the scene and summons Odette to him. Odette is compelled to obey and changes into a swan as do all the other maidens... Odette manages to tell Siegfried that the only way to break the spell is to declare his love for her...

Odette and Prince Derek are reunited.
The Swan Princess has a happy ending, unlike Swan Lake

At his coming-of-age ball, Siegfried sees Von Rothbart with someone who is the spitting image of Odette - she is of course the Black Swan, Odile. They dance and Siegfried declares his love for her. But he sees the real Odette running away, realises that he made a terrible mistake and pursues her. But it is too late for him to break the curse. Odette forgives him but she can no longer live as a slave of Von Rothbart and decides to take her own life. In some versions of the story, she is killed accidentally. Her death not only frees her from the spell but destroys Von Rothbart. His death in turn breaks the spell on all the other maidens.

Why does Odette's death kill Von Rothbart? If you've read the Harry Potter books you will probably realise that Odette must be a horcrux for Von Rothbart, just as Harry Potter was for Lord Voldemort. Is Voldemort based on Von Rothbart? Hmm... never mind. Why would Von Rothbart chose a fragile vessel such as Odette as a horcrux? It must have been accidental but he knew that she carried his soul, otherwise he would not have been so maniacally possessive of the poor girl.

The seven horcruxes of Lord Voldemort: Tom Riddle's diary, Marvolo Gaunt's ring,
Salazar Sytherin's locket, Helga Hufflepuff's Cup, Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem,
Harry Potter and Nagini. 
In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort created six horcruxes intentionally and one unintentionally i.e. Harry Potter. It's possible that he did not know that Harry Potter carried a fragment of his soul. The transfer happened when Voldemort attacked baby Harry Potter with the Avada Kedavre curse. According to author JK Rowlings, this is an ancient spell in Aramaic meaning 'let the thing be destroyed.' But the curse was deflected and struck Voldemort himself. Perhaps his splintered soul decided to take refuge in the nearest living person i.e. Harry Potter in order to survive...

The Avada Kedavre curse can be used to create and also destroy a horcrux. The most important horcrux was of course Nagini, who incidentally was a shape-shifting naga, not just a serpent.

Moving on to Swan Lake again.

So which Russian folktale is Swan Lake based on? The experts may not agree but I think its the Frog Princess. Not the Disney version but the original Russian folktale, Tsarevna Lyagushka.

In this story, Princess Vassilisa enjoys a perfectly beautiful Spring day but she makes a comment which tempts fate. A powerful wind appears out of nowhere and she is swept away into a strange garden where she is confronted by a sorcerer called Kaschey the Deathless. Kaschey offers her all the wealth in the world and asks for her hand in marriage but Vassilisa laughs at him and calls him old and ugly. Kaschey summons his enchanted mirror and forces Vassilisa to look into it and she turns into an ugly frog. The only way to break the spell is for a someone to fall in love with her. Vassilisa is condemned to live in the swamp...

Prince Ivan's arrow lands in the swamp and the frog princess finds it. To keep his promise to his father, Prince Ivan must marry the frog. Even after the marriage, he never sees Vassilisa in human form. This could be a residual effect of the spell cast by Kaschey, because he falls asleep the moment Vassilisa transforms into a woman at nightfall.

Vassilisa is captured by Kaschey, but the fearless princess is not impressed
either by him or his garden, where everything is made of gold.
Image is from an old  and very fabulous Russian animated TV series.
But the interesting part is that Kaschey, like Von Rothbart and Voldemort, is deathless. Fortunately for the prince, Vassilisa is not a horcrux, which is probably why she was allowed to live alone in a swamp in the first place. When he finally sees Vassilisa as a woman at a ball, he falls in love with her but makes the mistake of burning her frog skin... Vassilisa is swept away by Kaschey again.

Vassilisa has magic of her own - she is collecting fireflies
to weave a carpet made from a moon beam. Moving image from giphy.gif 
Unlike Von Rothbart, Kaschey is diabolically clever. In the story, Ivan is told that Kaschey's life is 'at the point of a needle which is inside an egg, which is inside a duck, which is inside a hare which is inside a stone box located on top of an ancient oak tree." The only way to kill Kaschey is to break the tip of this needle... Fascinating!

Are there more fairy tales with horcruxes?  The most obvious one is Snow White. Is it the poisoned apple or the raven or perhaps even Snow White herself ? No, it's the magic mirror of course. But whose horcrux? Why the Evil Queen's of course.

Copyright belongs to Disney.
Did the queen know that the mirror contained a fragment of her soul? Most probably not, otherwise she would never have destroyed it and herself in the process. It was created unintentionally, probably when she spent so much time looking into, and talking to the mirror. The demon in the mirror may have stolen part of her soul. Such a potent magical artefact should not be trifled with and the queen may have fallen under its spell without realising it.

The fearsome all-knowing mirror which is always compelled to tell the truth.

Reverting again to Harry Potter, the Mirror of  Erised was supposed to have the ability to cast a spell on unsuspecting people who gazed too long into it... After all, there is an ancient superstition that looking too long into a mirror will result in your soul being trapped in the mirror... as in the case of the urban legend of Bloody Mary in the United States.

The concept of a horcrux definitely originated from the East. In fact, almost all the 'deathless' villains have horcruxes - the secret of their invincibility. There are a few references in the 1001 Nights/Arabian Nights. In Folktales from India, by  AK Ramanujan, there is a story from Kashmir called The Ogress Queen. A shapeshifting rakshashi took the form of a beautiful woman and married a king. The rakshashi successfully managed to get rid of the king's seven other wives by framing them as blood thirsty rakshashis (the king must not have been very bright as he was married to his seven wives far longer than he was to the real rakshashi...) Their fate was grim - they were cast into a salt mine. Anyway, the son of the youngest wife survived and tried to kill the rakshashi but to no avail. Finally he found out that her soul was hidden in a bird (a starling) which is kept in a cage hidden deep in the forest...

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