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.