Category Archives: Animals

Pony Tales


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.

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Filed under Animals, Horse

The Fox and The Crow


There is a tree that stands by the edge of the wood where tame fields meet wild trees. It has a dead branch sticking out straight at just the right height for Crow to sit.

Fox was hungry. Fox was always hungry. He had been through the fields and round the barns but found nothing. He headed back towards the woods. There he saw Crow sitting on her branch… and Crow had a chunk of cheese in her beak.

Fox stopped under the branch and looked up
“Ah! Crow how wonderful to see you!”
Crow cocked her head on one side.
He continued, smooth as the finest silk,
“I was hoping I would run in to you, since we last met I have only had one thing on my mind”
Crow looked down at him with one eye and then the other.
“It is your delightful voice that I wish to hear. Please sing for me Crow, bring joy to all the wood with your melodious song!”

Crow had never been praised like this and it made her ruffle her feathers.

“Oh, please do not be bashful Crow. Sing for us and make the field bright with your mellifluous tones, bless us with the balm of your beak.”

Overcome by Fox’s flattery, crow could hold back her overture no longer.

She opened her beak and let out… a rasping “CAW!”

The cheese fell from her beak. Down it fell and Fox snatched it out of the air.

“Oh Crow that was delightful, thank you. I knew something wonderful would happen if you opened your beak.”

He said and, licking his lips, Fox went on his way.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under Folk Tale, Fox stories, Talking Animals

Take Care Out There


Transformation is often used as a punishment. The White Cat, in the French folktale of the same name, is originally a princess who has been given to the fairies by her mother as payment for some enchanted fruit (well that’s the currency you buy your enchanted fruit with isn’t it?). Everything ticks along nicely until the princess tries to escape whereupon the fairies turn her in to a white cat, making all her subjects feline too. Her restoration depends on a prince falling in love with her for her personality, which she keeps along with her ability to speak. Naturally, even though she now lives in a secluded palace hidden in a dense forest, the youngest of three king’s sons turns up on a quest. The White Cat has also been given some magic abilities and is able to help the prince out by providing the small dog he has been sent to get. It’s not enough of course and he is soon back for some cloth so fine it can pass through the eye of a needle. The third time he turns up she helps him out by once more becoming her beautiful human self so they can get married. Not much of a punishment really.

Prince Dung Beetle does less well. We meet him in his insect form when a poor girl who is running to the doctors to get medicine for her ailing mother slips and nearly crushes him. Since she sprains her ankle avoiding this rather sudden end to the story he helps her out saying “climb on my back” (notice he retains his speech as well) then flying her to the doctors and back home with the necessary medicaments. The mother is instantly cured and suggests the girl should feed her “little horse” but he is nowhere to be seen. Moments later the restored prince turns up and explains that he had been turned in to a dung beetle to do penance for being cruel to helpless creatures in his youth and had spent many years suffering, only to be freed if someone was kind to him. Since the girl had affected his cure he naturally offered to marry her and make her family wealthy as well. So that turned out all right too.

They don’t all end happily ever after. When an old woman in rags came in to the bakery asking for just a little bit of bread the bakers daughter at first refused to give her any. After some additional pleading from the beggar woman the baker said “Tear off a bit of dough and make her a roll.” The daughter tore off a tiny little piece and left it to prove with the rest. When she came back she found the dough had risen enough to be a whole loaf. She ignored the good fortune that luck had bestowed on the old lady and tore off an even smaller bit than before then put it back down for a second proving. Once more the tiny piece of dough gained the size of a full loaf so she tore off an even smaller bit and put it in to bake. Those of you who know your folk tales will not be surprised to hear that when they took the bread out of the oven there was no small roll but only full sized loaves. Still the baker’s daughter tore off a chunk from the end of one and handed it to the old woman saying “I don’t know what’s going on here but that’s all you are getting”. The old woman began to change, growing taller and more beautiful, and revealed herself to be a fairy. “You had many chances to be kind with no loss to yourself” she said, “but you chose to be mean. Now I curse you to live in darkness and feast on vermin!” and with that she waved her wand. The baker’s daughter began to shrink, feathers sprouted from her skin, her eyes grew wide and a mournful hooting escaped the beak that grew where her lips had been. She spread her new wings and flew away to the woods. There she lives still, only coming out at night to hunt for rats and mice. So always be kind, even to the lowliest creature they may be a prince or a fairy, after all the owl was a baker’s daughter.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under Talking Animals, Transformation

Chirp-Tweet Chirrup-Cheep


What’s that you say? You want to understand the speech of the birds? There used to be a way, I don’t think you would like it though, and anyway it’s too late for you to test it now even though the right time of year is fast approaching. You see, what you need to do is lie under the gallows on midsummer’s eve. Not something you would imagine trying on the off chance I should think. This is how it generally happens:

Sometimes it’s two brothers, sometimes just two travellers that fall in together on the road.
By various means it always ends up that one has control of the food and the other has an empty stomach. The food controller asks a higher and higher price of the hungry one, taking any gold or money he has and all his belongings. Eventually Control asks Hungry for his eyes. Yes, you read that right: his eyes! Weak and desperate Hungry pays. To add insult to injury, Control abandons Hunger outside the town they have been travelling towards, leaving him blind and helpless by the gallows.

The Magpie on the Gallows
(Ok, there’s only one, it’s not a raven, there’s no one under the gallows, people are dancing and it’s not at night but it’s a free picture so what do you want?)

As he lies there with ignominious death creeping towards him on unfriendly feet, he overhears a meeting that is held once a year by three ravens (Or three crows. Or a raven a crow and a blackbird. Or a magpie and a dove. In one version a fox and a squirrel but let’s not dwell on the details for too long). The magical combination of liminality in both place and time renders the speech of the creatures intelligible as they relate a series of misfortunes that have befallen the people of the nearby town and the obscure means by which they might be delivered from them.

Typically there is sick princess to be cured, a drought to be ended and a blind mayor to be restored to sight. None of which would be much use except that the cure for the mayors blindness just happens to be the dew that falls right there on Solstice morning… and it will work for anyone! Gratefully, Hungry rubs his sightless sockets with the dew and vision returns.

Hungry bottles some of the magic moisture, drags his enfeebled body to the town and sure enough sets the Mayor aright, gaining his thanks in food, accommodation and often a job to boot. Control, however, is already in the town and, envious of Hungry’s new found status, tries to bring him down. Control’s efforts only result in Hungry using his knowledge to rise even higher through ending the people’s troubles and not only saving the princess but gaining her hand in marriage.

Now, you may be tempted to rush off trying to find somewhere that still hangs murderers or and old gibbet preserved on some rural hillside so you too can eavesdrop on some corvids, cure the blind, save a town and win a princess but hold fast: timing is everything.

Eventually Control learns of the method through which Hungry came by his amazing knowledge and, since a year has passed heads out that very night (just as you have been thinking you might do) to hear what the birds have to say. As he lies there, the ravens meet. How is it that all they discussed last year has come to pass when only they knew? Someone must have been listening! Look there he is down there! And they ply their beaks dexterously upon him, plucking out his eyes and striking out his life.

So if you do choose to seek a gallows to hear the birds beneath this summer solstice eve, be careful no one has been there before you!

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

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Filed under Folk Tale, Solstice, Talking birds

You have to kiss a lot of frogs…


Well, actually, no. You don’t. There really is no point at all in going round randomly kissing amphibians in the hope that they will become lovestruck royalty, and even less in killing them. All else aside, they have to be able to talk or the chances of them being a magical creature are slim, and even then just because our cat appeared to call me a “wingnut” the other day doesn’t make her magical. We want whole clear sentences from them, ideally ones offering assistance with a tricky situation or high speed transportation.

It’s not just frogs either, all sorts of animals can come along and start chatting away; the White Cat from the story of the same name is a sophisticated conversationalist with her own castle; the fox of The Golden Apple (well it is midsummer, they were bound to come up) from Norway is witty and erudite. One thing most of them will never do is tell you that they may be royalty, gorgeous or highly eligible and the answer to your prayers in some other way. Often it is a condition of the curse which gave them animal form that the actions they ask of you be unbiased by their previous political clout or social and financial status.

Don’t worry, statistically they are fairly unlikely to ask for a snog or even a peck on the cheek in a traditional folk tale. It is far more common for these loquacious animals to help you along with your quest and save your skin on numerous occasions, often when you are only at risk because you ignored their initial good advice. They will repeatedly prove a loyal bosom buddy to you, before politely and kindly requesting that you cut off their head. Not what one normally expects from a good friend.

So if you’ve been given a list of impossible tasks to do and the local wildlife has come over all verbose:

1) DON’T assume it’s all down to the ale or that you’re going mad and ignore them hoping they’ll go away

2) DO exactly what they say, and I mean exactly, follow those instructions carefully, you will only make more work for yourself in the long run if you don’t.

3) DON’T get smart and think you know better than they do or tweak the details because it was only a pond dweller who advised you. They’re animals that can talk so they probably do know what they’re talking about, have they not proved that on your quest?

4) DO for just a moment put aside any emotional attachment you might have to keeping them with you, if they have asked you to ritualistically decapitate them it is probably the only way to release them from their cursed state into their human form so they can make all your dreams come true (not just the weird ones involving talking animals)

5) DON’T however, get ahead of yourself and start slaughtering garrulous critters unless they specifically request you to do so (over-enthusiastic slaying has already rendered them endangered, we see very few of them around these days)

6) DO be aware that not all chatty beasts are marriageable material: some turn out to be your dead parents come back to look after you or they might just be honest to goodness, straight up, every day, perfectly normal talking animals. But that’s a story for another Folk Tales Corner.

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

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Filed under Animals, Fairytale, Folk Tale, Quest, Storytelling, Summer, Talking Animals, Transformation