Thursday, August 11, 2011

Heartflowers Under the Moon

Many years ago, a dragon ravaged a kingdom that bordered on the rocky desert where the creature had his lair. No warrior could withstand the terrible slashing claws or the fiery breath of the dragon, and so the old king decided to marry his eldest daughter, the princess, to the prince of a neighbouring kingdom who promised to put his army under the king’s command.

There was talk in the palace of the prince’s dragon-like temper. Everyone said that he was the best choice of a champion to defeat the raging monster, since he could understand the nature of the beast and match his fire with force.

This did not make the princess happy. A brave swordsman does not always make a pleasing companion. Indeed, those two natures might be considered completely opposite.

One night, as the princess gazed out the window of her bedchamber at the perfumed garden below and the moonlit sky above, she heard a beautiful melody being played on a homemade wooden flute. The notes seemed to float upward from the ground directly below the princess. To her ears, the song suggested the shortness of life and the intensity of the pleasures that slip through one’s fingers when one focuses on duty.

The sound of the flute seemed to mingle with the scent of the heartflowers, as they were called in the palace. In earlier times and in lowlier places, these flowers were named after the womanly parts they resembled. They thrived in the hot summers and rich soil of the kingdom, and the princess preferred them over all others.

The next morning, the princess told her attendants that someone had slipped into her private garden, which was surrounded by a high wall and a locked gate, to play her a serenade. The resulting search turned up several new miscreants to be hanged at dawn to protect the royal family from trespassers.

Yet the following night, someone played the same song in the princess’ garden. She committed it to memory.

The same thing occurred every night for a week. On the last night before the princess was to be officially betrothed, a note attached to a small stone was flung right into her hands as she stood listening at her window. She looked down, and saw only the dancing shadows cast by a rustling bush.

The note read:

“My lady, there is one who loves you more than words can say, but your lover can never reveal himself to you. This is simply a humble request. To the gods, we are like flowers that bloom for only a season, so we must make the most of the time we have. Please do not waste yours. Your devoted follower wants only to see you happy.”

There was no signature.

The princess did not want to be responsible for more hangings, so she kept the note in a locked box with some of her jewels, and never mentioned it to any.

The following day, she told her father, the king, and the prince of the neighbouring kingdom that she would not marry him because she did not find him compatible. The prince told the king outright that such a disloyal daughter deserved to be hanged at dawn with the most contemptible thieves.

The king was enraged, and had the prince removed from the palace and banished from the kingdom. The king apologized to his daughter for his lapse in judgment when he arranged for her to marry such a barbarian. He told her that from then on, he would respect her judgment. At her request, the king made a decree that no one in the kingdom could be forced unwillingly into marriage.

The princess remained unwed, and she taught the song of her unknown admirer to her ladies-in-waiting, who sang it to their suitors, and in due course to their children in the cradle. The song was beloved of many, and it became part of the folklore of the kingdom. Almost everyone believed that the princess composed it to ease her heavy heart when she was unable to marry her true love, whose name she kept secret.

Many words were written to the melody, which became best known as “Heartflowers Under the Moon.”

The dragon continued to ravage the borderland, which became desolate and uninhabited. The king no longer sought a remedy among his daughter’s suitors, and she rejected them all.

When the old king died, some said it was from grief for all those killed by the dragon, while some said it was from grief for his unborn grandchildren. Be that as it may, the princess was already known as a just lawgiver, and when she became queen, she was hailed as the mother of her people.

A great cheer went up when “Heartflowers Under the Moon” was played at the celebration after her coronation.

When the queen was over fifty years old, and was referred to behind her back as the Spinster in the Palace, three hearty young men joined forces to slay the dragon once and for all. While one distracted the beast at great risk to himself, the other two attacked him from behind, nimbly leaping beyond the reach of his fiery breath. In this way, the dragon was killed, and his head and tail were brought to the palace as tokens.

All three champions were given land and titles, and all three married young noblewomen, daughters of the queen’s courtiers.

There was no outcry when one of the queen's gardeners was found dead in his bed in the servants' quarters. He looked as though he were merely sleeping. And there was no talk in the marketplace after those who dressed the body for burial discovered female parts under the gardener's clothing. The queen told them that Old Thomas had kept his secret so well throughout life that he was entitled to keep it even in death. Some claimed to have seen the queen weeping at his private funeral, and she had his remains buried in the garden he had tended so long and faithfully. Heartflowers were planted on his grave.

The queen lived for a century and took many lovers, but to close observers, she often seemed distracted in the midst of pleasure, as though thinking of one who was not present, or as though hearing a melody unheard by any of her attendants. When wearied by the affairs of state, she liked to retreat to her garden and play a simple wooden flute as though conversing with the birds.

At the queen’s funeral, the royal musicians played an elaborately-arranged version of “Heartflowers Under the Moon,” featuring fifteen trumpets, twenty flutes, and five kettledrums. It was a stately air that was much admired, but it hardly resembled the song that was originally played for a princess eighty years before.

To this day, the song has many lyrics. In one version, the queen laments her reckless refusal to marry when she was young and fair, and her over-indulgent father’s willingness to change the law of the land simply to accommodate her. In other versions, the queen’s secret lover is killed in battle. In a bawdy, comic version, the queen yearns for the embrace of one of the strong young men who killed the dragon, although he is almost too young to be her son.

Such is the power of music, however, that the song seems likely to outlive any words which might be set to it. And it continues to move all those who hear it.


  1. A lovely fable, Jean! Where did this come from - the idea and indeed the song?


  2. Thank you, Lisabet. I was thinking about the way that music transcends words, and the history of folk music. Most of it was written by "Anonymous" - but surely every melody was composed by someone. The way that old ballads were preserved on paper(first by Sir Thomas Percy in England in the mid-1700s, then by Francis Child in the U.S. in the late 1800s) is fascinating in itself.

  3. I wonder how much heritage slips away from neglect? And sadly, how much is misunderstood, or deliberately falsified.