Monthly Archives: January 2012

Old Beginnings


Do you know the song “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies”? Sure you do! It’s the one in which the lord comes home to find his wife has traded all the luxuries he offers for a nomadic life in the wild and gone off with the travelling folk. What few people know is that there is a song that goes before the famous one. “The Gypsy Bride” tells how the girl was abducted from her people by the nobleman and married against her wishes. So in the later, more well-known song she was not running away: she was going back home.

A Golden AppleDiscoveries like this can change one’s whole perception of a story. I have recently come across a string of variations on a story called “The Princess On The Glass Mountain”, the meat of which is that a princess sits on top of a glass mountain with a golden apple and the chap who can get the apple also gets to marry the princess. Suitors from all over embarrass and exhaust themselves for three days whilst the hero of our tale, using the help of a series of magical horses and increasingly flashy armour, gets a little further up each day until he wins the fruit and the girl.

How he gets his magical help is the business of the first half of the story and varies wildly but fortunately that does not concern us here. What I find of most interest is that whilst the winning of a royal spouse elevates the adventurer from rags to riches, in some versions the hero starts off as a prince who loses his position and wealth, giving the story a more circular riches-to-rags-to-riches-again form. This apparently disposable preface is common in other tale types too. Cinderella, in her assorted permutations, is sometimes a princess brought low and other times a poor girl brought even lower.

So is there a reason for this fundamental switch? Surely everyone loves a poor-child-done-good yarn so why change it? Or if the silk-to-sacking-and-back tale is the original why did it get truncated?
Unlike many other changes in stories this one has a very distinct and practical purpose which has nothing to do with the workings of the story and everything to do with the audience. Back in the medieval world, the ruling classes were very particular about purity of blood and would have had a storyteller thrown out (or worse) for suggesting that a princess (or prince) might marry a common stable boy (or serving girl), no matter how handsome (or pretty) they might be. These feudal aristocrats would happily seduce their underlings but never marry them. So a noble birth was essential for any character the teller was hoping to give a royal wedding to at the end of the tale. Conversely, the poor had no such concerns and would light up with hope, as we do now, at the thought of one of our number being able to break out of poverty or ordinariness in to the celebrity high life of sovereignty. Thus these tales developed a convertible form for easy portability as the storytellers of old hiked from rural settings to royal courts and back, de-rigging and re-attaching the front ends of the stories to suit the audience.

The modern audience has seen The Raggle Taggle Gypsies gain in popularity. In our post “Lady Chatterley” age, where romantic fiction introduced previously content wives to the idea of substituting a rugged and exciting all terrain model for him indoors, the introductory Gypsy bride was quietly dropped to fit this fantasy. The full story though, with explanatory preface in place, is transformed from destructive rebellion into wholesome restoration.  So if you are planning any new beginnings this January remember what you might be looking for is an old beginning.

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

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Filed under Folk Tale, January, New beginnings, rags to riches, stories, Storytelling