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.
Filed under Animals, Horse
[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.
As with any animal in folklore a good number of folktale cats turn out to be enchanted royalty who, after assisting the protagonist with some impossible or at least improbable task, request that they be cut in half and promptly regain their human form. All very interesting to the folklorist, but in many ways interchangeable with any number of other animal helpers from frogs to foxes, so maybe not as quite as interesting to the purist cat lover.
Sitting on the line between transformed human and magical pet is one of the most famous feline tale types which I have in versions called variously The Master Cat, The Ashlad and the Cat, Cattenborg, Lord Peter, and… Puss In Boots to name just a few. It is found all across Europe from Norway to Italy. This story generally starts with the death of poor parents, leaving such meagre estate that the youngest child inherits only the family mog. The furry companion, who can talk of course, then sets about finding a potential monarchical mate for the hard up homo sapien by simply claiming they are of royal birth and stealing a magnificent castle off a troll to prove it. Some variants have the cat transform at the end but most leave puss, booted or otherwise, to a life of fluffy leisure after they have raised their primate from homeless penury to a regal state.
So we come to the true ailurophile’s* favourite tales: those that are about fabulous furry felines rather than about the humdrum hairless apes they associate with. Two things are expected from this type of yarn. First they should demonstrate a knowledge of our mousing mates that we recognise; some essential trait of character apparent in the moggies snoozing on our sofas, pawing at our pantries, and staring intently at our ceilings for no readily apparent reason. The second thing we want the narrative to do is pull back the curtain on the secret life we all suspect that cats live when no human eye is looking.
Scattered around the world, each of these tales brings the flavour of it’s home culture with it. From England comes a gem that I remember as one of a very few stories that I was told by my parents: The King Of The Cats. If you don’t know it, it features an old couple living near the village church. One day the fella comes home all of a bother “I’ve just seen the strangest thing” he tells his wife. “I was coming back through the church yard and there I saw a procession of cats with a little coffin on their shoulders”. At this point old tabby Tom who had been napping in the armchair by the fire woke up and looked intently at the old gaffer, who continued “They were all saying ‘Miauw’ at the same time”. Old Tom suddenly stood up and let out a loud “Miauw!”, “Yes, just like that” said the husband “And there was one black cat walking in front, and seeing me he stood up on his hind legs and walked towards me.” Tom stood up on his tabby hind legs and walked towards the man saying “Miauw” again. The Old lady nearly dropped the teapot. The old man’s eyes were as wide as saucers “Yes, just like that. And then it spoke”, “No it didn’t! Husband you’ve been drinking!” “Not a drop my dear. It spoke clear as you or I. Looked me right in the eye and said ‘Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead.’ I nearly feinted!“. There was a moment’s silence, but before the old dear could ask who Tom Tildrum might be or how her husband might be expected to pass the message he had been charged with on to him, Old Tabby Tom, still on his hind paws announced in perfect English “If Tim Toldrum’s dead then… I’m the King Of The Cats!” And with that he shot up the chimney and was gone, never to be seen again. A purrfect tale if ever I heard one.
* Ailurophile = Cat lover
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.
One of the side effects of researching old folk tales is one can’t help but develop an awareness of history. Whilst the history that is taught in education and sighed over in costume dramas is mostly from a fairly well to do perspective, folktales carry memories of the history experienced by the less fortunate. Stories like Hansel and Gretel remind us the nobility of the Middle Ages kept the agricultural peasantry on such barely subsistence wages, that a bad harvest or a passing pestilence could leave parents choosing which children to feed and which to abandon to their fate. Those without patronage, employment or pension were so hard pressed for food that, in difficult times, the madness of hunger actually did drive some to eat human flesh. Maybe alongside the famous Henry Tudor wife tally of “Divorced, Beheaded, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived!” We should learn the cost of medieval royalty’s lifestyle: “Starving, Abandoned, Died. Starving, Abandoned, Cannibalised.”
Uncomfortable as these reminders are, they are easy to pass by as the product of extremis, circumstances way beyond anything we are likely to encounter ourselves. However, now and then I come across a tale that can still shock me, it’s horrors not being so long ago or far away, and presented with such everyday banality that it sends shivers down my spine.
My next virtual online zoom performance is going to be about cats. A fairly safe topic one might have thought, relatively low in the jeopardy stakes with a minimal body count mostly tallied in rodents. I was not prepared for “The Lazy Cat”, a purportedly “humorous” tale from Hungary. It starts with the sentence “A lad married a rich and lazy maid and solemnly promised he would never beat her”. On the surface this may seem like a good thing but there are two warning signs in this one statement. Firstly, in folk tales of this type the opening sentence tends to be a pretty good guide to the main topic of the story: this is going to be a story about domestic violence. Secondly, the simple fact that his oath is worth mentioning means the cultural norm for the society was that husbands beat their wives. In case you are in any doubt about that, the story continues: the wife does no work around the house, spending her days in idle gossip “And still he kept his word and never raised his hand against her.” Yes, we are seriously being asked to give him points simply for not being a thug.
The husband solves the conundrum of how to discipline his unruly spouse without breaking his vow by turning to the cat. He orders the poor feline to do all the housework and have his meal ready for when he gets back under threat of a whipping. When he returns and puss has unsurprisingly failed to lift a paw he ties the cat to his wife’s back, whips the cat and the cat claws the wife. After a couple of days of this the wife starts to do the cat’s chores and all is well.
The shocking realisation that in an anecdote from not that long ago we are being invited to consider violence by proxy a clever work around; that the animal cruelty is almost casual; and the “joke” hinges on the foolish act of forsaking direct violence; shows that things have improved over the years. Our reaction to it gives us perspective. It’s a bit like reaching a hill top on a long walk. There is still a long way to go before we reach true equality between the sexes (women are still payed less than men for the same job despite legislation that says otherwise, just as one indisputable example), but just turn around, face back along the rocky path a moment and look how far we’ve come.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.
With a new year starting, a vaccine on it’s way, and the economy in tatters I predict we are once more going to be hearing a lot about “hard work”. We are going to be exhorted to get down to it, get on with it and be dedicated about it. If we are poor we will be told that it’s because we aren’t doing enough of it. Those who are wealthy will claim that it’s because they did lots of it. Realising that “Hard work” is about to become a hot topic I naturally set about searching my data base for a folktale about hard work and the riches it bestows.
There wasn’t one. I checked with a fellow storyteller. They didn’t know of one either. Oh, There are plenty of tales warning of the destitution and destruction that can befall those who do not work at all (so I would avoid that). There are also many examples of stories in which doing some hard work is used as a signal of the protagonists virtue before they receive a gift of extraordinary munificence from a supernatural benefactor… But not one that we could think of in which the protagonist achieves opulence as a direct result of working hard and getting proportional recompense for said hard work.
Without doing an exhaustive statistical breakdown, I think I can pretty safely say that the most frequent folktale method of becoming rich is to marry nobility. Through most of history this option was only available to those of noble birth in the first place and most rags-to-riches tales are in reality riches-to-rags-and-back-again tales (Notably the fall from prosperity amongst nobility is always bad luck and never the result of not doing enough hard work). Although some domestic drudgery may be involved along the road back to affluence, this brings no reward of it’s own, in fact it usually comes with a side order of humiliation and degradation.
Celtic Myth goes further and spells it out for us when Cormac Mac Art goes to the land of Faery and is shown a vision in which a man constantly feeds a fire with whole trees, each of which is burned up by the time he returns with the next. This, Cormac is told, represents those who work for others as their work is never done and they do not get to warm themselves by the fire. Those who extol the benefits of you doing some hard work are frequently the people who will enjoy those benefits whilst doing very little that could be described as either hard or work themselves. If you are going to do some hard work you had better have a very clear idea of exactly what you are being given in return, because mostly it would appear to be more hard work. As ever, these tales hold up a mirror to reality. One need only to look at Nurses, who have worked even harder for the last year than they do normally and what reward have they received?
The thing is through the majority of civilisation, social mobility has been pretty much non existent. You were going to do what your parents did as there was no system for you to learn anything else. The peasantry should know their place, or at least accept it, since it wasn’t going to change unless the Lord (either local or heavenly) willed it, no matter how hard you work. Common sense agrees with this. It is clear that there is only ever a small percentage gain to be made by increasing the amount of effort put in by one person doing a one person job.
What then does folk tale offer us as an alternative to endless striving without reward? Often being clever and applying wisdom to your work is more important than how hard it is, whilst helping each other out and coming together to make hard work easy is highly recommended.