Monthly Archives: December 2020

You Did Not Do This On Your Own.

[another casualty of bad filing and too much other stuff to do, this one was written in August 2019 in the back of my van and I only discovered I hadn’t posted it when I went to find the link for someone]

I am in Dorset as I write, taking a break between storytelling sessions at Purbeck Valley Folk Festival. It nearly didn’t happen. During the set up fifty mile an hour winds destroyed two marquees and prevented the erection of a third until Saturday. Torrential rain on Friday also made life difficult, but the show must go on!

A couple of years ago one of my regular visitors to the storytelling asked if I knew a tale called Tritill, Litill And The Birds. I didn’t but I said I would see if I could find it. I enlisted some help and managed to track it down, lost it, found it again, learnt it, and this afternoon I told it for a packed tent, much to the delight of the original requester.

It is a Hungarian folktale which follows a fairly standard pattern. A princess has gone missing and the king will give her hand in marriage to whoever brings her back. The oldest of three brothers goes out to search, meets two beggars but doesn’t share his food with them, wont feed the birds, finds an ogresses cave, fails to do the chore she sets him and is killed. Ditto brother two. Youngest brother gives the beggars and birds food and is rewarded with offers of magical help. In the Ogresses cave he is able to do all the three tasks he is set with the aid of the two beggars, Tritill, Litill and all the birds. Although the Ogress threatens to kill the youngest brother if he fails at the tasks she is also generous and offers him the choice of three things from her cave if he completes the third task. Tritill and Litill advise him to ask for the chest from the end of the bed and, more enigmatically, the thing that is on the bed and the thing that is under the side of the cave. These turn out to be a chest full of treasure, the missing princess and a boat that can sail on land as well as it does on the sea. He loads the first two in to the last one and is soon off to a life of royally wedded happily ever after.*

A couple of things struck me about the story. One was that the Ogress bore certain similarities to witchy antagonists in some other stories who turn out to be echoes of ancient earth goddesses, punishing the bad and rewarding the good. The other was an intriguing element common to a wide variety of folktales in which the protagonist is set tasks: On finding the task completed the antagonist, be they ogress, giant, witch or other monster, will pass a comment about the protagonist having had help, or having not done it on their own. From a modern perspective we tend to view this as if the Ogress is a teacher at secondary school where we were all expected to do our own work. However, it is clear that they know help was had, but they never do as your teacher would have done and dock marks, disqualify or, since they are not teachers but folklore characters, kill the quester.

This seems strangely out of character as they have generally been shown to be decidedly pedantic and disinclined to tolerate failure or deviation from the challenge as set. If doing it alone is important why do they let it slide when they know help has been given? If they are not going to act on the ‘cheating’ why mention it?

The answer can be found through an examination of the rest of the story. Two brothers gave their lives to demonstrate that the tasks are simply impossible when attempted alone. The youngest brother has only got as far as he has through giving and accepting help. The Ogress, a vestigial mother nature – the original teacher, mentions that youngest brother has had help after every task because this is the true point of the story: he does not do it on his own. Everything that he achieves is through co-operative action.

So as I prepare to go out for this evening’s late night performance, the set list for which is entirely made up of requests from the audience, at a festival that is only possible because of the volunteers who applied teamwork to overcome the elements, I will remind myself that the smiles and applause of the audience are for all of us and none of us did it alone.

Here’s to living happily ever after… Until the next adventure!

* The whole story:


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