LitRA, in collaboration with Culture Co, held a fiction contest a couple of weeks ago. The theme was ‘fairy tales’ and submissions focused on retelling fairy tales from the writers’ home country. The winner of the Fairy Tale contest, exclusively revealed here, was Boudica Gast. She won with her retelling “The Beatrijs”, a medieval Dutch poem, probably written by Diederic van Assenede. LitRA and Culture Co choose this story for its meticulous understanding and rewriting of “The Beatrijs”. However, when reading the story, Boudica wants you to be aware that this is her first attempt at a fiction short story and she is still looking to grow as a writer. Below you can find Boudica’s version as well as her own analysis of it.
Beatrijs (lines 810-814):
By Diederic van Assenede
Si traect an haestelike
Ende seide: ‘god van hemelrike
Ende maria, maghet fijn,
Ghebenedijt moetti sijn […’].
She dressed swiftly
and said: “God in Heaven
and Maria, maiden fair,
be both hallowed […’].
By Boudica Gast
Dusk was red and dusk was always. The vacant noon-blue day was gone once more, and the fire-red sun was setting. The horizon seemed to burn with hellfire. The heaven above it was ablaze with flames that were scarlet like blood, and hungry like a dog. She, haloed in the fiery air, witnessed it, glowering diabolically, and despaired. Each cycle ended with black night ravaging the blue sky as debauched men ravaged virgins, as they ravaged her.
For seven years she had lived night by night, after her lover had abandoned her. She worked nocturnally like a bat, only less nobly and lonelier – though her job was not a lonesome one; quite the contrary, and that was the misery of it. But one could be around persons, around lovers for that matter, all night and also all of innocent day, and still be lonely. It was only her faith that kept her true company.
Far from virtue though she was, and tainted though her life’s story may be, she was never faithless. One could lose their purity, but one could never truly lose their faith; faith could not be snatched away like any material possession or dignity; for faith, like strength, came from within. Perhaps Maria had abandoned her, perhaps fourteen years ago already when she trespassed for the first time by running away from the nunnery, but she had never abandoned Maria. Every night she prayed to that eternal virgin of whom she had once been like a corporeal image. Corporeal – of flesh, and human. Merely human.
Oh, she wondered but dared not speak it out loud in prayer, is it a sin to fall in love? Is it a sin to err? Be it not human to wander and go astray – for we are not inherently righteous and pure as those who are immortal and divine. She had made a mistake, and misfortune heaped upon misfortune as each year henceforth passed. Now she burned to know whether she could be forgiven, or whether it was too late for a second chance.
She only deigned to sin like this because she needed money and she, high-born, was too proud to beg. She sold herself to men in full knowledge that she would pay for it in hell – but what choice was she left with? Her faithless husband had deserted her, the house was sold, her savings depleted. A world ruled by men was harsh on women, and it was all too easy to exploit the destitute for one’s own pleasures. Was she really at fault, or had she been another pawn in a world that did not favour women? And now would she really burn in hell, hell that was hot and red like the sunset, or could she step out of darkness and return to the light, heaven-bright and soothing? Had she finally the strength to go forward?
Red and black dusk was for a whore what rosy and blue dawn was for a nun. Such was how much in fourteen years her life had flipped. Now as the blood-red sun descended beneath that unreachable line at the end of the earth and pulled a sheet of darkness over the world, the men would soon come swarming like an army, as lawless as they were ruthless.
But tonight all of a sudden she felt a force of faith within her, and she could not stand to lead a life as profane as this one anymore, if it meant giving up her pride and seeking charity like a peasant, and if it meant risking a penniless existence like a tramp. She felt new strength – was it the spur of God or was it the fervour of her own heart? And instead of walking towards the men and the sole stability she knew, she walked off alone into the field as the last of the sunrays went dim and then out, away from the crawling city, solitary but for the passion within, and edgeless like a penumbra. She wrapped herself in a cloak that was the shade of the blue heaven at high noon, and she was the Virgin’s image, pure as snow, pristine as marble. Men could not touch her now, shielded as she was by new and devout determination, and protected by a goddess; never would they, demons, touch her again – she would not let them.
It was enough.
She walked. To where? That did not matter, as long as she walked far away from the godless cesspit in which she had spent fourteen years of her life. It was a wonder, she thought, that God had not bombarded it like He did Gomorrah. And it was a wonder that she had not died in there; a wonder, she called it, though she knew perfectly well why she had not perished in these seven years, and why tonight she returned to the light.
Midnight was black as an abyss, empty and never-ending, a gaping mouth waiting to swallow her, to shroud her and to chain her, chain her to her shame, her trespasses and her past. The deep fields rolled and loomed, and the boundary between sky and grass in the distance was undetectable and seemed to ogle her like a predator in ambush, bloodthirsty and patient; heaven was starless, but at least the full moon shone dazzlingly like an eye.
The going was gruelling. She was not unafraid. She feared bandits and wolves and the cut-throat traps of the wild, but most of all she feared that now her faith would abandon her for good. Fourteen years of thoughtless, godless daring, and through it all she had never lost faith. Now of all times she must not give up hope. Now of all times must she be brave and persist.
And her faith did not dwindle; in fact, with every passing hour it grew and grew, like a winter-swollen river in fresh spring full of vitality, its waves raising up like a good, godly fire. She had stayed true to Maria, – it was more fidelity than her man had had –, and now Maria shone the glow of the silver moon on her path to lead her away from darkness and towards a new day. While she walked, she pondered, and she found that there was something phenomenally feminine to her faith; it was evocative of a classical and solemn sisterhood. This womanly credence burned within, and it was good, and then – it was almost heathen. Some ancient memory occupied her mind and she thought of a pagan goddess, the lady of the moon and chastity and wildness – a woman of women. She imagined those two maidens that guided her sitting side by side in cloudy heaven.
And now she knew it had not been a sin to fall in love. Her man long ago used to say that it was the work of another pagan goddess, the goddess of love, that sent her heart racing and her blood rushing. Were her irrational and passion-driven wanderings the inspiration of a goddess, or was it human nature that made her forget herself; and yet… did the answer really matter? What mattered was that she knew her missteps were forgiven, and she was granted a second chance. Maria and God, Artemis and Aphrodite, or any other goddess or god or belief, always allowed second and third and more chances. Forgiveness was in nature of the divine, as mistaking was in the nature of the mortal. On she walked.
Morning presently had broken, and it was glorious like the first. Honey-hued beams of sunlight reached out from the east, bathing her cheeks in warm luminance. Heaven was painted pink and orange and yellow with streaks of blue shooting through like life-giving veins. She stopped for a moment to inhale the air of a new day and it seeped through her body, unknotting the twists of worry that had tangled themselves in her stomach. In the new day’s splendid clarity, she flowered like a woman, flowered as surely as she knew her name was Beatrice. The sun rose into heaven, throwing its brightness over the world, and she stepped towards the maiden-blue horizon which was mantled in morning.
Themes and symbolism
An Analysis by Boudica Gast
The Christian religion, especially Maria-worship, is a main theme throughout the poem. The Beatrijs is meant as a homage to Maria, and several symbols in the text makes this clear: the blue robes that Beatrijs wears is a token of Maria and symbolizes purity (virginity), as does the colour white; number symbolism occurs frequently, with the numbers 5 (for Maria’s name), 7 (a holy number; seven years of marriage, seven years of prostitution) and 3 (for the holy trinity; the amount of visions Beatrijs has) being especially important. Prayer, asking for forgiveness, repenting and acknowledging sins, the virtue of Maria and the grace of God are all concepts that are highlighted in the poem. There are long passages in the poem in which Beatrijs prays and asks for forgiveness, for she is fully aware of how she has trespassed. The fact that Maria has in effect taken her place in the convent and covered for her all these fourteen years, demonstrates her merciful nature and confirms that Beatrijs, despite her mistakes, is forgiven.
I have tried to incorporate these religious themes in my version, but also to take a contemporary view on the story. For the religious symbolism, I focus mostly on colours: blue represents purity and virtue (the sky during the day – day being a better time than night – is always blue; Beatrice’s dress is blue; in the final sentence, the morning sky is ‘maiden-blue’), and red represents hell and sins (dusk, which brings the night and marks the start of Beatrice’s sinful nightly occupation, is red like hellfire; at the start of the story, Beatrice is haloed in red, symbolizing her sinful present state). The story goes from red, to black (representing the dark and dangerous night where she must keep faith), to blue; the colour scheme is representative of Beatrice’s awakening and journey from sin to forgiveness. You can also see the story going from dusk, to night, to dawn, or from sin, to a test of faith, to a new beginning. In all cases, the story is divided into three parts, the number three being another religious symbol as in the original poem. Other than the colour and number symbolism, I tried to incorporate the obvious importance of Maria throughout the story and several quick nods towards the Christian religion: prayer, Gomorrah, the first morning, and the exploration of what it means to sin. However, these topics are not thoroughly elaborated on, as I decided not to concentrate on the religious themes too much.
My version centers more around a modern feminist take on the tale, with an emphasis on an empowering personal development. Beatrice finds a new respect for herself and decides that she should not allow these men to ‘ravage’ at her. She walks away from her degrading present towards a new day, a new beginning. She has the inner strength (she questions whether the passion she feels inside comes from God or from herself) to move forward and better her life. Maria, a woman herself, spiritually aids her on this journey; it is clear that Maria (or God, or heathen goddesses, or even Beatrice herself), forgives Beatrice. Despite her mistakes (which, she concludes, is only human; every human goes through rough patches in their life), Beatrice is forgiven, and she can start anew.
I make references to the classical Greek goddesses Artemis and Aphrodite for a couple of reasons. First, there are mentions of the heathen classical religion in the original poem. The husband claims that their love for each other is the consequence of Venus’ (Aphrodite’s) will. Second, I aim to draw a comparison between Maria and Artemis, two virgin goddesses meant for women to worship. My character feels that her faith is ‘like a sisterhood’. This is meant to highlight the universal bond between women, no matter what religion or background you come from. Also, my character becomes more and more unsure precisely where her faith comes from: is it purely Christian, is it heathen, or is it personal strength?
The theme of inner strength is recurrent through my version. Beatrice learns she can count on herself, and that her faith, since it comes from within, will not leave her. She already knows that she has this strength (she knows perfectly well why she hasn’t died as a result from all the adversities that have been hurled her way: she is too determined to continue). She goes through personal development until she ‘flowers’ at the dawn of a new day, meaning that she has come into full bloom, and is now more herself and stronger and freer than ever.