The Stolen Evergreens


I was just going to tell you a story again this month but I’ve run in to a snag. First I began to think that I had already written up this tale for you at some previous time and spent ages hunting through my archives to check. A useful activity since it showed me just how badly organised the archive was and spawned a fairly extensive re-organisation of my hard drive and updating of the catalogue. I did not find the story while I was at it.

Despite the total absence of evidence and only two missing articles that might be it, I remained unconvinced that I haven’t already told you this tale, it’s the one where a bird has damaged it’s wing and can’t fly south for the winter so seeks shelter amongst the trees. You know the one, the Birch, the oak and The Willow are all a bit offish and haughty, refusing to give the poor creature sanctuary but the Spruce and Pine offer shelter while the Juniper provides berries. The denouement coming in a conversation between the North Wind and the Frost King: the cold northern air asks if it can take all the leaves in the forest and the benevolent Frost King says “Yes, but do not touch the leaves of the Spruce Pine and Juniper for they were kind to the little bird.” and instant karma is delivered to the wood.

Having decided that I am not going to tell you that story, I went in search of a variant on the same theme. This is where things became really surprising. My extensive library of world folktale and myth has not one mention of why evergreen trees keep their leaves. The internet turned up a verbatim version of the folk tale outlined above but with one key difference: It was attributed to an author! One Florence Holbrook of Chicago to be exact. Horror of horrors! Could it actually be (gasps) Literature?

A further hunt for an original folkloric source revealed an even more terrible truth. A very slight variation appeared, the bird being specified as a sparrow, the oak and maple playing the part of the arrogant arboreals rejecting the avian, only the Pine giving charitable succour to the otherwise doomed feathery refugee, and “The Creator” handing out the appropriate punishment and reward at the end. This tight, economical version is credited as Cherokee and contains the bones that Holbrook appropriated for her construction back in 1904. How can I say this with such assurance? Since it is out of copyright, the full text of Holbrook’s Book of Nature Myths in which “Why The Evergreen Trees Keep Their Leaves” appears is available online if you search far enough, and in the preface she clearly states “The subject-matter is of permanent value, culled from the folk-lore of the primitive races; the vocabulary… is increased gradually, and the new words and phrases will add to the child’s power of expression. The naive explanations of the phenomena of nature given by the primitive races appeal to the child’s wonder about the same phenomena, and he is pleased and interested.”

So we have a tale, originally unique to the Cherokee people, taken for the education of the invading Europeans and over time stripped of it’s provenance to the extent that it is possible to find it and assume, by the way it is presented as an otherwise unspecified folk tale, that it is native to this continent. At this point the cultural appropriation is complete. I am not sure now if I shall ever tell this very fine story again, not wishing to profit from the proceeds of theft, but if I do I shall take care to credit the Cherokee nation for it’s genesis without insulting them as primitive, an odd accusation considering they have, in this myth, addressed a question apparently unasked across the rest of the world.

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The First Christmas Tree


The noise from his great hall roused Count Otto from his slumber. He was on his bed rather than in it, lying where he fell, exhausted from the day’s exertions. He had gone out riding with friends but, as is pretty much standard with nobility in folktales, he had become separated from his retinue and wandered lost in the woods until he had a strange experience. Stopping to refresh himself at a spring where the waters burst from a rocky cliff and fell in to a clear pool, he felt soft, delicate hands touch his in the water and the ruby ring he was wearing slipped from his finger. It was Christmas Eve so he made plans to come back on Boxing day with servants to drain the pool and retrieve his jewellery.

The spring, known as The Fairy Well, was a long way from his castle and by the time he got home he was beyond eating. Pulled from blessed oblivion by the sound of a merry throng at… he cast around for some clue of what the time might be and, almost as if on cue, the bells for midnight rang in the tower far above. He was saved from rage at being denied sleep by the hope that his thoughtlessly loud guests might have food. On opening the doors however all thoughts of, well everything, left his mind. It was neither his friends nor his servants carousing. Filling his hall was a host of Faeries, or was it Elves? Possibly Nixies, he shook his head, whatever, they were dressed in fabulous clothes of many bright colours, dancing to the sweetest of music. In the middle of the hall stood a fir tree which held amongst it’s branches all kinds of bejewelled bracelets, silver necklaces, golden handled daggers and diamond encrusted trinkets, sparkling in the light of the candles that stood between them.

As he took all this in, the dance ended, the couples bowed to each other and parted allowing an even more entrancing beauty to walk towards the baffled count, as he stood blinking at the splendour before him. Dressed in satin and velvet of rose and cream, a circlet of silver and sapphires holding her lustrous hair back from a face of exquisite, and lightly amused, attractiveness.
“I am Ernestine, queen of the fair folk” said the vision of loveliness in a voice of silk and well aged whisky, “I have come to return your visit… and something else”. Smiling, she reached in to her cleavage and drew out something that glistened in the light, her eyes staying firmly on his, she held out the ring that had vanished in the water.

Otto and Ernestine danced through the night. He was a handsome fellow, rich and well mannered, a big hit with the ladies of the noble courts, yet he had resisted subtle and blatant advances alike, until now. When the last waltz ended and the fairies, whom he had barely noticed for hours, began to pack up and drift off in to the mists of dawn, he threw himself down on one knee and begged her to marry him. She looked through him with half closed eyes for a moment, laid a hand on his hair and said “On the condition that you never speak the word ‘Death’ in my company.”

Their happiness together began on Boxing Day and lasted many years. One Christmas Eve though, as the Count and his guests prepared to go for their traditional ride in the forest, Ernestine tarried in her chamber. Otto paced the courtyard, the horses nibbled the lawn and the servants handed out a third round of spiced sherry. When the Fairy Queen eventually came down Otto blurted out “At last!”, then trying to make a joke, “You would make a good messenger to send for Death!” She stared at him horrified, the scream on her lips cut short as she disappeared before the startled onlooker’s eyes.

Frantic searches of the castle, Fairy Well and forest brought no joy, neither did their more conscientious repeats over the following weeks. Heartbroken and mirthless, Otto lived on, his threadbare hope driving him to erect a tree filled with light and treasure by the window of his hall every Christmas. As time passed the locals began to copy their Lord. The custom spread through Straβbourg… and eventually the world.

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The Invisible Horse


I went to a marvellous event the other day. A “Pop Up Curiosity Shop” run by Exeter, Bristol, and Bath Universities. Various research projects were reporting on their progress despite being only part way through. I learned about the human spine, ecclesiastical graffiti, worms in space, and a whole bunch of other very interesting stuff. The thing with research is that when the starry eyed explorers set off to find whatever it is they have set their scientific sights on, there is always a distinct possibility that they will find something else entirely.

Stories of bold knights and their gallant chargers, talking or otherwise, abound. I’ve told a few. The archetype of the knight couldn’t exist without his equine support. Artists paint palfreys gently cropping the turf whilst their armour clad master rests beneath a tree and writers pour out prose praising the noble beasts as they make the ground shake, thundering towards each other in the lists or hurtling at an enemy on the battlefield.

Yes, the Warhorse, tall as a house*, armoured like his rider, forming the formidable ranks of the Heavy Cavalry, the decisive military tool of so many battles. Each hoof the size of a dinner plate. The undisputed lynchpin of pre-musket strategy. Get enough noble knights on their massive chargers and the war was yours.

Only…

The stated purpose of one of the groups at the event was to find the true nature of the middle ages’ most famous animal, but they seem to have discovered that it is, in fact, as much of a mythical beast as it’s single horned cousin.

No bones of super sized stallions exist. No outsize shoes litter the battlefields. Contemporary artwork places Norman cavalry on creatures nearer to ponies. The saddles are all fairly slim, and no surviving armour was made for anything bigger than a fairly average horse. The weaponry of the knights does not include the extended blades and handles that would have been necessary to do any damage from such a great height.

Possibly the most famous phrase in archaeology (after “It was probably ritual”) is “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. In this case though, they not only found no evidence for the heavy horses of popular imagination, but significant evidence for much smaller, lighter, more manoeuvrable, mounts.

Authors of historical battle fiction who claim to have done their research are going to be upset. Likewise numerous historians and historical re-enactors. Personally I am quite pleased. It’s not everyday that you get given a new fantastical, story book creature that everybody already knows. The Warhorse is now entering the stables next to the Winged Horse, the Unicorn and the Kelpie, where they can all enjoy a nice chat together.
Thank you scientific research, I accept your gift with glee!

* A single story medieval house.

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Sink or Swim?


If you heard of a story that saved thousands of lives, could have saved thousands more, and might yet save tens of thousands if enough people heard it, would you want to know that story? It will be no surprise to you that I, having learned that such a legend exists am desperate to know the details.

There are some fascinatingly unusual and distinct tribes of people on the Andaman islands of Indonesia. The Onge, for instance, who limit outside influence to maintain their gathering and hunting lifestyle free from modern diseases, are a genetically distinct tribe who do not share the genes of Neolithic Iranian farmers or steppe pastoralists that much of the rest of the world have.

The nautically semi nomadic Moken spend a great deal of time collecting seafood, and thus have evolved advanced free diving capabilities, including improved underwater vision and an ability to slow their heartbeat so that they use less oxygen, doubling their time underwater.

Along with a handful of other officially “Particularly Vulnerable” nations, each of these groups has a very small population, dancing along the very edge of extinction. There were only 96 Onge alive in 2004 when a sub-aquatic earthquake sent a tsunami through the region on, what was to us, Boxing Day morning. Over 220,000 lives were lost. Anthropologists feared that entire races could have been relegated to history by the sudden inundation. On further investigation however, it turned out that every single one of the Onge, Moken and so forth survived, having headed inland and uphill as soon as they felt the tremors. How did they know what to do when so many other people from “modern” industrial cultures simply walked out on to the freshly exposed sea bed as the ocean gathered itself to strike? Of course, it was because amongst their folklore are tales in which a great shaking of the ground was followed by a massive and destructive wall of water surging in from the ocean.

This remarkable example of a life saving story demonstrates two things. Obviously the incredible value of story, but also the vast gulf of the understanding of that value between the Andaman culture and ours. Even the parents of people whose lives were saved by the tale had not been born the last time a tsunami swept their shores, yet generations later they were still telling the story, with sufficient vigour and frequency to recognise and follow the essential information contained therein as soon as it became reality.

Witness in contrast, the response of those who brought back the new story of how a story saved nations. Did they collect this life saving tale? Did they beg the Onge to speak the wonder that kept them from obliteration? Have they pleaded with the Moken to disseminate this priceless myth to the countries who lost so many loved ones? Can I find it online? No. All we have is a couple of news reports of how quaint it is that it happened. No one seems to have got as far as recording this proven, life preserving narrative for the benefit of the wider world.

I despair, I really do.

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The Silent Invention


Throughout history technological advances have produced stories about how they were made, who they were made by, or the changes they brought. Some are more common than others: nearly all civilisations have a tale about how mankind got fire from the gods, which is, in almost all cases, that we stole it. The thief, be they a generous god or a daring human, usually pays a price for their crime, experiencing a sentence of eternal torment. It seems the gods were very possessive about fire.

Brewing alcoholic drinks splits along gender lines: male protagonists steal the magical vessel that brews the divine draught, while women and goddesses invent fermentation themselves. Irrigation is invariably passed to early agricultural societies by their solar deities, who have become surprisingly generous since the flame filching incident. The rotary quern, commemorated worldwide in a tale that explains the salt in sea water, is nearly always initially obtained by trade with a demon… before being stolen… usually several times. Metallurgy is more varied and can be gifted by angels, gods, dwarves, or simply innate in the personality of a great king. Medicine tends to come to families through an ancestor from the fairy realm.

These are the more widely dispersed tales of great leaps forward. Various other inventions have been mythologised in single tales from specific places, tea for instance. As I have been quietly noticing these ancient echoes from the inventors workshops of the past, I have been rather struck by one particular area that remains totally silent. Not one single story I have come across details the inspired creation, deific giving, or daring heist, of the first wheel.

Surely the momentous construction of the very first, utterly unique, rolling conveyance – be it wagon, carriage, chariot or wheelbarrow – surely that device, that could carry something without it being on your back, head or arms, would leave some kind of track, some kind of rumble in the tales of the civilisation it first trundled in? However, not one god, goddess, angel or devil is credited with revealing vehicular transport in a high velocity vision; no hero or demigod is chained to a rock in never ending punishment for half inching wheel number one; none of the celebrated artificers have an episode in their saga where they solve a benefactors problems by axing up an axle. How is it possible that we have worldwide myths about the taming of fire, which we’ve been using for around one and a half million years, but not even a whisper concerning the invention of the wheel less than seven thousand years ago? Unless we are just not listening for the right sound.

What if the sound we should be listening for is rigging? Hear me out. The world that first saw wheeled locomotion had no name for the machine bowling past them. Nevertheless they had been skulling, rowing and, more recently, sailing for thousands of years. A plank built wooden construction, with sides and cargo may very well have been called a ship, even if it was rolling down the street. Now, ‘the ship that goes on land’ does exist in folktales, sometimes hunted out in a great quest, sometimes picked up almost accidentally alongside other magical items whilst searching for something or someone else. This land boat is highly desirable, very valuable, and most often traded off to a king for a barrel of jewels and the hand of a princess. Now, if it were already possible to truck produce around in carts who would be interested in a ship out of water? But if that “ship” was sailing on land using the first and only bogie, then that would be worth talking about for years, maybe even six thousand of them.

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Flippin’ ‘eck!


This may surprise you but there is a quite large and active storytellers community. I say community, we see very little of each other as it is rare to have more than one storyteller for an event, but we do communicate through the odd festival and, of course, online groups. Apart from asking each other for stories whenever we get a short notice booking on a topic we know nothing about, we obviously talk about how to keep the presentation of our corpus of ancient material vaguely relevant in the modern world.

“Should we present the tales unchanged to preserve the tradition?” Is met with a unanimous “No!”. After all they are preserved in their original form in countless books, libraries and archives. Changing the stories for the audience in front of you is the tradition! Mostly we agree that the wedding between protagonist and opposite sex royalty at the end of a tale can be freely dispensed with in favour of lifelong friendship and a business start up with the pot of gold as capital. This switch goes down really well with kids, especially with girls when the protagonist is female. And so we come to one of the topics that the community is slightly less unanimous about: gender flipping. This is a process by which Jack becomes Jade and the storyteller has to remember to say she and her instead of he and him through the whole story, taking extra care during the exciting bits. Why would one do this? Well, the main reason most of us give it a go at some point is that there are far more stories about boys and men than there are about girls and women. Hmmm.

Early on in my storytelling career I made an effort to source a balanced repertoire from tales in their original gender. As time has gone on I have found myself picking a theme for the halloween tour, only to find the corpus is largely devoid of women: Lycanthropy is a pretty much exclusively male curse; demon stories feature the male of the species. With an adult only audience it is possible to address this simply by pointing out that the imbalance is there, and is a product of the societies that produced the tales. With family audiences it is a different thing, children need representation.

I first gender flipped a tale quite late on a Sunday afternoon of a four day festival. The story I had decided to tell was a simple, upbeat trickster yarn featuring a boy and a boggart. The audience was, by chance, entirely girls and their mothers. Rather than hunt through my brain for a story with a female protagonist, I just re-cast the lead part with a girl. After that I occasionally gender flipped the main character where I felt it would work.

Then, I was given a Christmas present: a book of classic fairy tales that had been gender flipped by a computer algorithm. No editing has been done, the stories are in exactly the same words and sentences as when written down by Hans Anderson or the Brothers Grimm, except with absolutely every she turned to he and vice versa, right down to fairy godfathers and lizard footwomen. “Handsome And The Beast” maintains it’s narrative with nary a ruffle in it’s fur. “Cinder, or The Little Glass Slipper” trots along as implausibly as it ever did, even the ugly brothers tightening their corsets just embedding it more deeply in the fashion of the 18th century and the eponymous footwear being exactly as ludicrous on a male foot as a female one.

Back in the storytelling tent this summer I flipped a couple of my other regular stories just to see how they went down. “The shade Of The Cypress” pits a poor pedlar against a rich and arrogant merchant. The only other character is a magistrate. In the original all three are male and no one bats an eyelid. In the gender flipped version, the two business women visit the magistrate twice. The first time I used only the title of the office and left the sex of the magistrate unspecified, waiting until the climax of the story to slip in a gendered pronoun as the magistrate delivers the verdict. The effect on the female members of the audience when I said “she” was worth it. There was a palpable ripple of excitement, widened smiles, daughters and mothers turning to each other, sharing joy in the judgement between two women not being made by a man.

So I am now firmly in favour of gender flipping. Every little surprise, every time some part of ones brain goes “hang on” highlights a preconception, a bias, a conditioning in our perceptions of what men and women are or can be. It is frankly illuminating. Try it.

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Epic


I have dug out my Oxford Book Of Narrative Verse again. I do this every once in a while when I remember that I intend to learn and perform “The Keeping of The Bridge” by Lord Macaulay one day. It’s quite a task since it goes on for 11 and a half pages featuring 410 lines. It’s a stirring piece of writing! The alternating lines of tetrameter (8 syllables) and trimeter (6) are flexed and altered to great effect causing it to surge here and lean back there but always return to it’s energetic forward motion. The action, in which three soldiers, led by bold Horatius, hold an attacking army of thousands back while the bridge behind them is destroyed to stop Lars Porsena and the Etruscans* from sacking Rome, is thrilling stuff. It’s long. It is classic. It is heroic. You might even call it “Epic”, you would be wrong, but I think most people would let you get away with it.

This morning the postie delivered me a copy of the Mahabharata**. Now the Mahabharata is epic. 640 pages of epic, weighing in at half a kilogram in paperback! Originally composed in Sanskrit and forming a foundational text for the Hindu religion, it is the oldest and longest poem ever written with over 200,000 lines of verse and some chunks of prose as well. Size however is not the governing factor.

To be epic, a poem must have specific content and form. It must range across a swathe of time as well as paper, it must include gods. Aristotle maintains the poet must request the blessing of a Muse or other handy demi-deity of artistic inspiration before the action kicks off. Spiritual grovelling out of the way, the tale should begin in the middle and must have flashbacks.

For all his bravery, Horatius’s bridge defending fails on all three of these counts: The events all happen, not just in one day, but within a few hours; the temples of the gods are mentioned but the gods themselves are MIA and take no part in the proceedings; and the action, as if to make the King of Hearts proud, begins at the beginning and goes on till it comes to the end; then stops.

India has it’s own set of conditions for an epic to meet including descriptions of cities, seas, mountains, moonrise and sunrise, and a list of life events to include such as drinking bouts, love-making, a wedding, the birth of a child, a battle, the victory of a hero, and curiously, merrymaking in gardens and bathing parties. Despite Aristotle not having been born at the time the Mahabharata was completed, it still manages to meet all of his requirements as well as the local ones, making it not only longer than the Greek classics but more epic than the people who invented the word.

By this point you may have realised that “epic” is generally as misapplied as when someone calls their mate a legend for coming back from the bar with the drink they asked for… but I have another level to ad to your discombobulation. The origin of the term is the Greek “epos” which means “a word”, though also “a story”. This in turn is believed to derive from the Proto Indo/European root “wekw” meaning “to speak”. Such a simple beginning for a word, whose journey over time to its current meaning, could almost be described as itself: Epic.

* Not an eighties New Romantic pop group.
** I had actually ordered it, the Royal Mail don’t just randomly send me mythological source books from around the world.

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Just Doin’ Their Job


Every now and then someone will have their curiosity awakened by a supporting character in a story or suite of stories. For some reason their perception of the bit part in question has connected with a chain of thought, resonated with their emotional state, or highlighted the particular point they have reached on some internal journey of psychological discovery. “Can you tell me more about the wig maker?” they might say, or, as happened recently, “Can you fill in some details about the personality of Valkyries?”.

I’m sad to say that the answer is far too frequently a simple “No.” Outside of a bit of historical info relating to their occupation there is usually nothing more to tell. With a question about personality, like the one above it is especially hard. It’s not great being responsible for ending that excitement, for bringing that journey to an unsatisfying end, so in lieu of a more edifying response we storytellers often set them a task: “Find your way to the source material” we encourage enigmatically. We have, of course, read the source material and the answer will still be “No”, but at least we won’t have had to be the one to say it!

You may be a writer inspired to re-work a classic trope or a seeker on a spiritual quest, it matters not. If you are looking for the deeper personality or motivations of the supporting cast in myth and folktale I fear you will be disappointed. You are looking for embroidered silk but you are standing in a smithy. Everything is functional. Occasionally a personality trait may be instrumental to the plot in which case it will be stated in advance, e.g: an evil sorcerer; a greedy merchant; a pious maiden. If it isn’t necessary then it isn’t there.


Let’s take the Valkyrie example above. In Norse myth, as with much myth and folktale, characters are defined by their functions and personality is revealed by their actions. We can say very little about the personality of valkyries because they don’t get to do very much: serve drinks in Valhalla, collect dead warriors, hang around having cool names (Axe time, Raging), that’s about it. Think of them like backing dancers for M.C. Odin: They make him look good, help set the scene, and fill out the stage but you know nothing about who they are under the leather and steel, that is not what they are there for.

Three valkyries turn up in the story of Wayland the smith. They card flax by the lake, are chatted up by Wayland and his brothers, bunk off work to live with them for 8 years before putting on their swan skins and flying away. The closest thing to a revelation of character in this is that neither Alvis, Hladgud nor Hervor mention to their “husbands” that they are leaving. Remember that they are immortal psychopomps, heavily armed personifications of death, in their universe eight years is just a chat by the coffee machine and then it’s back to the celestial call-centre to continue recruiting dead warriors for the final battle. There is nothing unkind in their leaving, it’s just time to go back to work.

What’s more they have two bosses. It’s not only the All-Father they have to work for, they are doing a job for the storyteller too. Their departure may not reveal their own character but it does shine a light on elements of Wayland’s. He says “If Hervor wants me she knows where to find me.” He is a blacksmith and stays at his forge where every day he makes a gold arm ring for his absent wife. His brothers, who are hunters, go off to seek their loved ones leaving Wayland alone in Wolfdale, as he needs to be for the story to progress. The supporting cast, having fulfilled their function, are gone.

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

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Pony Tales


Usually when I write on a certain folktale theme it is the theme of an upcoming show. Over the past years that has meant a touring show that might get twenty performances after a five month build up. I would already have an idea of around half the stories in the set in month one. During the ongoing research, filtering and learning stage I had time to notice underlying similarities, sub themes and concepts within the assorted yarns I was considering, cogitate on their meaning or relevance and pour my musings on to the page for Folk Tales Corner, often solidifying and condensing what had been quite loose, unfocused ponderings in the process. The well ordered and logical progression of thoughts which reveals itself in this fashion often then becomes the basis for an introduction to a story or the links in a sequence of shorter tales.

Now I am knocking new shows together in a couple of weeks, each one getting a single performance in front of a webcam and a screen full of small heads bobbing unnervingly about at the bottom of their oblong boxes. By the time I notice something I want to talk about it’s the night before the gig. By the time I have sat down to write about a thing I noticed the show has gone, along with some very short and random introductions.

Hence this months FTC is about horses, the show I did last Saturday. It’s not going to be as useful to me or you as it might have been… but there was something I spotted during the all too brief research that I really want to chew over. I’ve mentioned “the story” before, the one in a theme that you keep coming across? With horses it is this one: Three poor brothers are set to catch who ever has been stealing hay from the meadow, the eldest two fall asleep, the foolish youngest finds that it is a beautiful white mare, jumps on her back and is treated to the ride of their life but by hanging on they eventually cause the magnificent beast to accept them. Sometimes the horse then becomes their companion but more often she gifts the lad two amazingly valuable colts and one small and odd pony. Selling the prize colts to the king gets the young lad a job as the horses only behave for him. Jealous courtiers try to get rid of the kings new favourite by claiming he is a boaster and get the king to set him a series of impossible tasks under restrictive time constraints and threat of death. With the aid of the small odd horse who is naturally magic, can talk and sometimes fly, the young lad achieves the tasks. Often these involve the procurement of another famously amazing, but wild, mare and her herd, and nearly always end with the long distance abduction of a beautiful princess, who may or may not be the Moon or the Dawn. The denouement, in which the magic horse not only saves the lad from a hideous death, but contrives to make him even more handsome than he was while the old king commits accidental self-regicide in a cauldron of boiling milk, is a classic folk tale climax*, following which the Princess marries the lad and they take over the kingdom. Phew.

This tale and it’s variants can be found anywhere there are horses but the majority, and the more fully developed versions, cover a swathe that runs up the east of Europe from Turkey through Hungary and into Russia. This includes the ancient Greek myth of Pegasus, the famously winged horse captured by Belerephon, though without the poached monarch.

The thought that has been tickling me is: does this story, that comes to us from the edges of the horse lands, contain memories of the first horse taming? Did the very first fool to successfully break a horse become a celebrated hero but also a target for gossips and manipulators? Did they find that their new steed enabled them to capture or kill beasts too fearsome to overcome on foot, to do the previously impossible? Did it seem, even as it does to modern writers, that the horse at full speed barely touched the ground, clearing hedges and ditches like a bird, such that tales of flying horses are simply poetic exaggeration of previously unexperienced speed? Did their unique skill allow them to become a ruler? And, most importantly, does that mean we can date the genesis of this story to six and a half thousand years ago?

* If I haven’t persuaded you to read some folk tales over the last 11 years that sentence alone should do it.

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

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Happy 127!


[Nearly all the posts in this blog have a previous life as articles in my local magazine. This one is more specific about it than most]

I’m not a big one for anniversaries, New Year’s Day and the various other constructs of passing time. Technically I am supposed to be clued in to such things, but my personal temperament is rather more inclined to living in the moment and I frequently don’t notice the oncoming bus of calendrical commemoration until it’s too late to do anything other than leap out the way and watch it rush by with it’s party of passengers.

This is my 127th Folk Tales Corner. An extremely arbitrary number, whose only real value is it clearly indicates that some time last year we passed the point which theoretically marked a decade of you reading my assorted ramblings, and I just want to thank you for doing so.

It has been an interesting journey. The first couple of articles were produced by me chatting through thoughts about folktales while Jo typed notes. I re-worked the results to give it my own voice and handed it back for a last sub edit before sending it off to Keith [Editor]. Bit by bit I took over the whole writing process but without that initial speaking-and-notes approach I would probably still be staring at that first blank screen. You see, I have dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia is often described as a problem with ‘fine motor control’. When people with dysgraphia write with a pen our hands suffer a kind of mini dyspraxia, resulting in sharp and jagged letters with random height, width, spacing and base line. We also tend to mix lower case and capitals, struggle with spelling, punctuate randomly and squeeze words up because we haven’t left enough space. Our handwriting looks like a spider has crawled through an ink well and tried to breakdance on the page. It’s one of the branches of neurodiversity alongside dyslexia, autism and ADHD.

I have written here before about my struggles with procrastination, this is how a fair amount of it started. At school I was given a hard time over my hand writing by both pupils and teachers so I developed a fear of anyone seeing my writing. Starting to write, for any reason, became difficult. I would stare at a blank sheet of paper unable to begin. Unwilling to desecrate it’s purity, to pollute it’s virgin whiteness with the snaggle-toothed goblin hordes of my malformed griffonage.

Working on a computer gets around most of the mechanical problems of dysgraphia. Having a deadline, an audience and a hard copy (proof read and corrected by the excellent Messenger staff) every month has been a very persuasive stimulus to get over myself and type. The experience of pulling the threads of my thoughts out and trapping them in (hopefully) coherent paragraphs, has been transformative for both my understanding of the material and my craft, oh, and myself. The freedom that you have all permitted me to examine folklore from a variety of angles, explore my understanding of performance and digress in to creative writing has been a privilege. Re-discovering a joy in composing with the written word that was bullied out of me in my early teens has been a gift.

So thank you Morchard Bishop [and you internet reader]. Thank you for your kind words and encouragement over the last decade and a bit. Thank you taking the time to engage with the various peculiar worlds I wander you in and out of. Thank you for your patience with my stylistic experimentations. I hope you have enjoyed it and will continue to do so. Happy 127th!

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

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