Monthly Archives: June 2015

Didn’t We Tell You That?

We all have little things that trigger our anger and frustration causing outbursts that leave the person who has unwittingly pushed our pedant button shocked and baffled. One of my current triggers is people saying “well that’s just a story” or similar. Everything is a story! Some stories are factual and others less so but if you are being told it by another person, either through speech or the written word, it is a story. Now some may contain facts and some may not. Even as late as the 14th century there was no difference in meaning between the words “story” and “history”, both come from the same French word meaning the relating of events from the past, yet we accept one as true and the other as dubious. The stories I deal in are, as I hope I have illustrated over the years, full of truths and histories are equally full of distortions and sometimes even outright lies.

For some time I have used the death of Robin Hood as my example of a forgotten truth buried in a story and considered an exaggeration. The story goes that on his death bed Robin Hood shot an arrow saying “bury me where this arrow falls”. The distance between Kirklees Priory, where the outlaw spent his final hours, and the site known as Robin Hood’s Grave has for many years been considered too far for even an Olympic archer to shoot and the whole episode written off as “just a story”. However, the excavation of the Mary Rose brought to light long bows with a draw weight well in excess of current sporting maximums. It was soon agreed that a professional archer of the middle ages who had been shooting since their youth, armed with a bow of such power would have been able to make the shot. Story 1 – Common sense 0.

Recently I have found a new tale to tell of forgotten truth hidden in a story. In the middle of Australia there is a valley that has palm trees growing in it. Now, palm trees’ seeds are quite large and only travel any distance from the parent tree if they fall in to water. So palm trees in nature are either found next to each other or next to water. The valley in Australia is neither. The nearest palm trees are two thousand miles away and the sea is slightly further. Since their presence was a bit of a conundrum a scientist looked in to it. After getting a genetic profile of the valley’s palms he checked it against other Australian palms until he found their nearest relatives and with some archaeology and other clever work he was able to put together the story of the palm trees that shouldn’t be there: The seeds were carried from the north coast of Australia, 2,000 miles away, by people and planted in the valley 30,000 years ago. It was a quite a big thing and a bit of fuss was made in the Australian media. When the Aboriginal Australians heard about this they were rather surprised that such a fuss was being made. They said “Didn’t we tell you that story? I’m sure we must have done. The one about the gods who carried the seeds to the middle of the country and planted the palms in the valley? We must have told you… We’ve been telling that story for 30,000 years!”

That’s Robin Hood out of a job then. I now have a scientifically proven fact preserved in a folk tale for 30,000 years, which makes me wonder what else might turn out to be true and how long it may have been hiding. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether turning the seed carriers in to gods is an acceptable exaggeration over 30,000 years or whether the scientist needs to adjust his version in light of the new evidence… unless you think it’s “just a story”.

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



Filed under true stories

Giant’s Daughters, Cobblers and Erratic Rocks

Last month I talked about giants who were “proto gods” and giants who were Lords and Barons, “sociopolitical” giants if you like. This month I have two more giant types for you. These I have come to consider as the “psychological” and the “geological” giants.

Despite being famously antisocial giants do seem to enjoy games and a common feature of the stories is a series of tests or challenges. Those who attempt the tests and fail get eaten but those who succeed can win the giant’s daughter. Giants may be outsized, gross and dim but their daughters are almost exclusively smart supermodels of human compatible height equipped with magical skills. This is handy for the would be hero who finds they cannot clean the giant’s stable, thatch their barn with multicoloured feathers, or any of the other tasks set for him. He is saved from becoming breakfast by the giant’s daughter: she sends him to sleep and when he wakes the work is done! Passing the tests is rarely the end of the story and the lovers have to escape… at which point the tale morphs in to “motif D672 The Obstacle Flight”. As the fortunate pair gallop away on a horse with ears full of food, chucking towels and combs behind them (which turn into rivers and woods), we realise why the girl has none of her father’s attributes: it is not a giant story at all, it’s a ‘uniting with the inner spirit’ story. The giant could just as easily be, and often is, a wizard, a fairy or even a plain old king. These then are the “psychological” giants whose size is only there to add weight to the obstacle they form between the protagonist and their inner self.

The Geological giants are an untidy lot. They are forever dropping things all over the countryside. Their quoits, chairs, building materials and even bodies litter the landscape. Probably the most famous is the belligerent, Welsh, big bloke who decided to flood Shrewsbury by damming up the river Severn with a spadeful of clay. He had been walking around for some time carrying his murderous load when, somewhere near Wellington, he asked directions from a cobbler with a big sack of worn out shoes he was taking home to mend. “Why do you want to go to Shrewsbury?” asked the shoemaker and was duly shocked by the giant’s explanation. With the quick wit common to his trade the cobbler answered “Oooh, it’s a long way to Shrewsbury, further than you’ll get today or tomorrow, or probably the day after that.” and to emphasise his point he tipped out the sack of wrecked and useless footwear saying “I’ve just come from Shrewsbury and I’ve worn out all these shoes on the way!” “What?” roared the giant, “My arms are aching already, I’m not walking all that way!” so he tipped the earth off his spade and headed back to Wales. The large heap of earth is still there, visible across the Shropshire Plain, and forms the hill now known as The Wrekin.

Responsible for glacial erratics, gorges, hills, the odd island and every lump of granite in Cornwall, the geological giant is easily identified and their genesis is explained by their story. Although in some ways the simplest of the giants, they have some common ground with the elementals. The powers that they metaphorically represent are slowly working away all around us. Rain and wind steadily excavate metamorphic upthrusts, rivers carve away at hillsides and massive glaciers drop their cargoes of displaced stones wherever their journey ends. The stories may be set “Once upon a time” but the giants are very much still with us.

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

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Filed under Giants