The Red Glass Lantern


This story is a special story because it did not come to me from a book, as most of my tales do, to be set free for other ears. I got it the old fashioned way, sat beside a fire at the Beautiful Days festival after my last late night set, floated on the air as a gift from another’s tongue. I feel almost guilty nailing it to the page in this way.

One day a man decided he would go in search of a land far away. Knowing that the way would be long and hard he packed only the bare essentials, which is to say he took nothing but the clothes he stood in and, since he might have to travel into the night to find places to stay, a simple, red glass lantern.

He walked for many days, sleeping where he could, trading news and stories for a bite to eat. After a time he came to the great forest. The forest was dangerous to cross because of the bandits who would take anything of value from those who sought to pass through. This was why the man had chosen to make his journey with so little and his stratagem worked. Seeing he had no purse on his belt and no possessions save a worthless red glass lantern the thieves let him pass unmolested.

Next he came to the a high mountain ridge and with his cloak pulled tight around him fought his way through wind and snow as the path wound upwards through narrow, rocky defiles; then blissfully downwards through more of the same; until at last he found himself stepping out of the rocks on to a slope terraced with rice paddies, overlooking a wide landscape filled with fields and farms. Down on the plain by the banks of the river he saw a great city.

The people marvelled at his outlandish clothes, the hue of his skin, the colour of his hair, and the stranger from the mountains was soon brought to the palace where the king spoke in a voice like thunder “Who are you that has dared to enter my kingdom? If you come in peace then you must give me a present worthy of my status. If I am not pleased then you shall forfeit your life!” Humbly, the man took to one knee saying “Your majesty, I have little but what little I have is yours, even though it be my life, please accept as the total of my worth the light that has guided me to your magnificence.” and he handed over the red glass lantern. They did not have glass in that country and the king was amazed. Never had he seen such a wonder. Delighted with the present he laid a sumptuous feast before the traveller, entertained him for days with music and dancing and heaped treasure at his feet. When the time came for him to leave the king gave him an honour guard of the fiercest warriors who carried the rich gifts in packs on their backs safely through the mountains and forest all the way to his home.

When he got home his brother was astonished and immediately piled valuables and food in to carts, gathered some friends and set off to make his fortune in the same way. As he passed through the forest the brigands fell upon his party, slew his companions, stole his goods and chased him in to the mountains. He escaped with his life, an old brass lamp and nothing more. When he was brought before the king and the king demanded a present he fell on his face weeping and begged the king to accept the brass lamp as it was all he had. They did not have brass in that country and the king was amazed “this is a wonder, never have I seen such a marvel. You must be rewarded. Unfortunately our treasure house has been emptied, nevertheless you shall have the most valuable thing in our kingdom!”
And so they gave him the most valuable thing in the kingdom.
They gave him the red glass lantern.

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Story, Writing and Literature


The relationship between oral tradition and literature is as complex and fluid as the relationship between any immortal and deific parent and child.


Writing was the offspring of Commerce, born amongst the hustle and bustle of the earliest cities, dedicated to a life of record keeping, trapped in rigid columns. Although Story was ancient she never aged, being born anew every time she she was spoken, kissed in to vital life by each pair of lips she passed. As Writing grew amongst the trappings of trade, he developed his powers of description, struggling for accuracy, detailing the specific. Story, ever seeking new experiences to incorporate in to her repertoire, was drawn to Writings descriptive skills, impressed by his unfailing memory.

Writing was barely old enough to grow a beard when they met but Story teased him with adventures, one moment wild and exotic, the next full of homely warmth. Seduced by Story’s enigmatic beauty and the worlds of wonder she laid before him, Writing broke free from the constraints of the trade ledgers and set out to woo Story. He followed her faithfully across the lands and hung on her every word. Flattered by the attention Story gave herself to him, fell breathlessly under his stylus in his bed of clay… and in the heat of their union Literature was born.

Though they often travel together, Story remains ever young and fresh while her daughter, Literature, stiffens with age. Writing, trained from birth to be pedantic, constantly complains of Story’s inconsistency. Sometimes Literature tires of her mother’s flightiness and will endeavour to trap her in her pages. Whilst Writing still loves Story he loves his daughter more and will often side with her. Together they bind Story in chapters of finely woven prose.

Sooner or later one of Story’s old lovers will find her, recognizing her grace behind the lines of greying grammar. The storyteller, who loved her as she was and loves her just as much as she is now, tickles her with their tongue and, laughing, she slips free from the chains of ink and dances once more in the air, leaping from mouth to ear as husband and daughter follow behind entranced, reminded of their love, desperate to catch her again.

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Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy


If I say “Wizard” what is the picture that comes to mind? A thin man with grey hair and beard hanging down over his long robes whose eyes twinkle with kindly mischief and deep wisdom while he gently leans on his simple staff? How about sorcerer? Although the beard and robe probably remain I expect the image you have is of a much darker, less benevolent man. I’m also fairly sure that the word “witch” will conjure visions of an ugly crone in a pointy hat whose intentions are largely evil. A wizard who practices his art to cause harm is denoted with the adjective “dark”, otherwise it is generally assumed he is a good guy. Witches on the other hand have to have “white” added before one can be sure they are on the side of good and although “wicked” is often employed for the baddies it tends to be just for emphasis.

The popularity of tales such as Hansel and Gretel is probably part of the problem. A greater familiarity with a broader range of folk tale shows that witches are just as likely as wizards to use their power for the benefit of the ordinary people, and where there is a wicked witch there is usually a wise woman who knows enough about magic to counteract their spells, which surely makes them a witch too, doesn’t it?

Now this is interesting because the term “Wizard” was originally “wise-art” and could refer to any gender. It was applied to those who had a knack for predicting events, or seeing in to the future and only later came to include workers of magic and enchantment. “Witch”, also originally an androgynous term, started its journey in the verb “wiccian”, meaning to use spells, and apparently travelled the other way, incorporating foresight, until the two words achieved parallel meaning in the late fifteen hundreds when Reginald Scot wrote that “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch,’ or ‘she is a wise woman.’ ”

So what went wrong? Whilst it would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of the medieval church and its witch hunts of the sixteen hundreds, our Saxon and Viking ancestors both held a belief in the value of physical skills in swordplay and sheer brute strength. This gave them a deeply ingrained distrust of magic users who were seen as somehow cheating, it might be acceptable to slip on a shirt one had enchanted to deflect spears but a true warrior wouldn’t be seen taking a sorcerer into battle with them; rather like the nineties attitude that “nerds” were fine when people wanted their computer fixed but generally considered a bit too weird to invite down the pub after work. The religious persecutions of the middle ages, although a hideous abuse of power to eliminate the competition, were also merely an inverted popularity contest playing on the deeply rooted prejudices of the populace.

How wizards survived the propaganda is, I believe, down to a story: the myth of a strong, skilled, honourable king who gathered a band of knights, each with great prowess of arms, and fought for fairness. Through many re-writes the story was progressively christianised which helped it keep its popularity over several centuries and avoid censure from the church. It is a story which would not work without a key character, king Arthur’s friend and adviser, the wizard Merlin, who set the template for all the great wizards who have come since.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

 

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Roots


I remember coming to Devon on holiday as a child. The journey took all day. I remember once, winding slowly up Porlock hill, passing overheated cars in every lay-by and some in between while my father worried that we might join them. I remember being amazed by the steep banks and narrow lanes and the vast openness of the fence-less moor. Even though I grew up in Hampshire’s countryside, Devon was like a magical other world. Now even a cheap car can handle the steepest hill without fear and the same journey is over in an afternoon with time for a cream tea.


As you read this I have just returned from a tour that took me across the country for 16 public gigs, three private parties, three days of schools workshops and a wedding as I made my way to Cambridgeshire, London and Kent, back to Devon for one day and a gig at the London Inn and off again to end the tour in Norfolk (so much for logistics!). All facilitated by a car and uncountable acres of tarmac.


We live in a very different world to the one I grew up in and an even more different world than the one in which the stories I tell are set. Only a tiny percentage of the characters from my repertoire would recognise a steam train and none would know what a car is. They lived in a world where rising at dawn to milk the cows was the norm, where they and almost everyone they knew worked on the land to the tune of the turning seasons. How many of us now experienced life without mechanisation, electricity, central heating or water coming into our homes at the turn of a tap?

The world of folk and fairy tale, always in some hazy undefined long ago, is moving further from us. Where once Jack could leave the familiar farm to go on his amazing adventures, now the farm itself is a place to be imagined, the plough a baffling wonder, the goat a mythical creature. Well, maybe not for the denizens of Morchard Bishop but there are an ever increasing number of people whose daily journey from double glazed house to air conditioned office only includes six paces of outdoors between front door and car door. On TV we often see stories of adoptees seeking out their original parents and people of all stripes going in search of their cultural roots. Our past is an important part of who we are, without it we feel disconnected, unsure. As more and more people live in cities and never see a cow, as a society we are becoming disconnected with our past, with the seasons and with the land.

Through successive waves of invasion and cultural change, from the Romans to the Normans and the rise of Christianity, the old gods of the land have been preserved in tales of ever diminishing fairies. As they diminish another step under the ongoing estrangement of the industrial and technological revolutions the stories also gain a new importance, keeping the world of our grandparents alive in our memories, keeping us connected to our recent agrarian past and through that to our bronze age roots in the landscape and the soil.

Devon is no longer an otherworld to me since I moved here six years ago, still something of the magic remains. I am glad of the improved automotive transport of the modern age and the wonders of the microchip but I feel very strongly the need to speak the corpus of our past, to tell the tales that are slipping away from us, to keep connected. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our stories are who we are. Come and get them.

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Of Woodland Glades and Hollow Hills


Whoever we are and however we seek peace, solace or a connection with something beyond the mundane, for the majority of us there is a place where we find something that refreshes our soul, or at least feels closer to doing so than the highways and byways of our everyday life. The spiritually developed person who sees the divine in everything will still regularly be drawn to a certain garden or hilltop. Even the Buddha, refined through many lifetimes to have no attachment to things in the physical world, chose a specific sacred fig tree under which to sit and meditate his way to enlightenment.

Some places just have something about them that resonates with us in a way that other places do not. In an animist culture the assumption would be that a being of some sort lived there, a spirit or spirits specific to that place. If the spirit was friendly and the place popular the spirit might be credited with influence beyond their personal rock, dell or circle of trees, often involving the well-being of plants and animals in the general vicinity.

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It seems to me that a good number of the fairy folk started life as spirits of place, particularly the diminutive winged types found in sylvan glades who are clearly connected to the fertility of the forest. Thus they do not posses the power of invisibility, it is their natural state. The power they posses is that of visibility, allowing themselves to be seen by those who are open to their existence.


The link between the small woodland fairies and their human sized namesakes comes about because the Tuatha De Danann and others of their ilk can also be considered as spirits of place. Connected with the hill forts, stone circles or hills they occupied while present in this world or the burial mounds they retreated in to, the large and powerful fairies are a mix of gods and ancestral spirits who attained a wide enough sphere of influence to become autonomous from their place of origin. It is easy to see how a smith of great skill in the early days of metalwork might be buried with great honour in a barrow., then, in a culture where ancestors were revered and their soul contacted and consulted, they would maintain their importance long after their physical presence had moved on.

Though connected at a theoretical level it is still strange that these two kinds of being, with very different appearances and behaviours should share a name and even be found together according to many eye witness reports. My personal opinion is that the small fairies tag along with their larger brethren in much the same way that jackdaws hang around with rooks.

If you want these denizens of the Otherworld to show themselves to you then there are obvious places to start. The good folk are fond of trees and especially thorns. Anywhere with the combination of oak, ash and thorn is likely. Of course, fairy rings indicate a favoured dancing spot and any barrow, burial mound or particularly well rounded hill should be worth a look. The best place however, may be just that place you go to yourself that has something indefinable about it that makes you happy, for the fairies who live there already know you.

If all else fails then you could look in The Tavelling Talesman’s tour dates for “Away With The Fairies” at http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml

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It’s in the bag


I gave the fairies a rest last month while I checked through my stock of stories, blew the dust off some old favourites, retired some stalwarts from the last couple of years and looked over the new recruits for my summer season’s festival sets. Over a four day festival I will get through more than sixty tales varying in length from a couple of minutes to three quarters of an hour. Also some people turn up at more than one of the festivals and I like to have enough material at hand to give them something different from the previous damp field we met in. Then there are the tales I have learnt for historical sites such as Corfe Castle, special requests for weddings, private house parties and any other themed events I am booked for. That’s quite a lot of culture to lug around, and some of those myths are pretty heavy! I could really do with some help to carry it all.

 

Some concepts are just so appealing that they get invented again and again. In “The Colour of Magic” Terry Pratchett introduced his readers to “The Luggage”, a wooden chest with legs that can not only hold everything it’s owner might possibly need but can also dispose of things they do not want, such as violent aggressors. The small container of infinite capacity is such a practical, amazing and desirable item that we just have to keep re-imagining it: The “Room Of Requirement” may not be portable but Harry Potter would be stuffed without it; Doctor Who is able to travel in his box that is bigger on the inside and Mary Poppins can pull a surprising variety of improbable items out of her carpet bag.

Even though each of these items engages a sense of wonder when we first meet them (Wouldn’t it be marvellously useful to be able to carry and store lots of stuff without having to, well, actually carry or store lots of stuff?), it will come as no surprise that it’s not a new idea at all. Various wizards and the usual plethora of Jacks have facilitated their adventures through the possession of a Magic Bag. Some magic bags are quite specific, the one that appears in the Grim brother’s “The Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn” only contains soldiers and horses, but as many as you want, and through it are won the hat, the horn and eventually the kingdom. Other bags have the power to pull things of any size in to them on command such as the one owned by a blacksmith. Annoyed by a churchman who preaches a lot but will do nothing to remove a troublesome demon, he tells the sack to swallow them both. After a long career ridding the land of wickedness, he is sent to hell since he has spent so much of his life concentrating on evil that he “has a natural affinity for it”. Since he doesn’t fancy an eternity as Beelzebub’s toast he orders the entire flaming pit in to the bag leaving St. Peter no choice but to let him in.

 

Although I have read and told a great many stories I know some better than others. The ones I have at my fingertips to pull out at a moments notice I consider to be in my “Ready Bag”. Although I check the contents over each year, when I am put on the spot by a request or discover an event has a theme no one told me about, if I reach deep in to my ready bag I can often be surprised by what is still in there. I have also found that no matter how big a story is it does fit in, and there is always room for another dragon, giant or goddess if I want to take them with me. I expect you have moments when a long unused fact or skill pops out of your head when you need it, and I’m sure you load new information in to your brain every day. Maybe we all have a magic bag after all, we just have to be careful what we put into it.

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Fairy time


Fairies as such, are fairly limited in Geographic scope, being primarily a European phenomenon. Their name and characteristics can vary significantly across this area too, but there is a type of fairy encounter which is common throughout the lands, widely different in the specifics yet exactly the same in it’s outcome, and so prolific one has to wonder if there is some truth behind this tale type.

As is often the case with close encounters of the fairy kind the person, whether young lad, maiden or wandering drunk, who features in the story is captivated by faint musical, magical sounds. Following the entrancing harmony they come upon the Good Folk dancing, singing and making merry. Often they will watch unobserved from behind a tree or rock at first but soon the music will pull them into the whirling dance. It may be that they stay for a couple of hours, nights, weeks, or even three months. At the absolute maximum it might be seven years. It would seem that this period is full of intoxicating joy and pleasantness. Nevertheless, at some point they decide to head for home. On arriving back in their village, or castle they find many things changed and unfamiliar, all the people they knew are gone and their home is occupied by strangers. On further enquiry they find that their family are long dead and there is only a faint memory of a story about someone by their name having vanished without trace more than a lifetime or two ago. As they struggle to come to grips with this news they age rapidly and crumble to dust.

Sometimes the plot may have a longer set up. King Herla goes to a far land to witness the wedding of a fairy king; Oisin is wooed by a beautiful princess from the land of youth. In each case they return to discover hundreds of years have passed. Interestingly, in both of these cases a change of epic proportions has fallen upon the land. In Herla’s case he leaves a British King and returns to a land long under Saxon rule. The Irish Oisin leaves a pagan Eire and comes back to tell the tales of Finn mac Cumhal to a fascinated Saint Patrick.

Curiously it is by no means guaranteed that a sojourn in the Otherworld will lead to a powdery demise. Pwyll Prince of Dyfed manages to count off a year and a day in Annwyvn
with exactitude before coming home the same year and a day later in his own land. Many others come and go between the lands with less loss of time than I encounter whilst eating breakfast. Certainly the fairies themselves have no problem reconciling time between our two plains, happily making and keeping appointments accurately to the hour.

So are these tales based in fact? Possibly it was common for people to leave home without warning, maybe falling in with Romanies or other nomads in a rush of excitement after accidentally joining them for a few nights revels, then losing track of time before coming home to find their family had died in their absence. It is easy to see how the tale might be elaborated and exaggerated by re-telling until it spans hundreds of years.

…and yet, the rapid onset of the time spent in the land of youth and the ensuing sudden de-hydration are less easy to see being the creation of so many different storytellers in so many assorted places. So if you are out in the forest or on the moors of a night and your ears are assailed by the most delectable melodies you have ever heard, take thought before you let your feet follow the captivating rhythm: your life may never be the same again.

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