Category Archives: Folk Tale

The First Christmas Tree, A German folk tale


Once upon a time there was a Count, by the name of Otto, who lived near Strasburg. Although handsome and single he was so indifferent to the flirtations of the ladies that they called him “Stone Heart”.

One year Count Otto hosted a Christmas Eve hunt in the forests around his castle. He and his guests rode for hours through woods and wastes until, as is pretty much compulsory for a noble who goes hunting in a story, Otto found himself alone and lost. Finding a spring he stopped to wash the dust of the chase from his hands. He was surprised to find the water warm despite the time of year and plunged his arms deeper into the bubbling well head. As he did so he felt as if a smaller softer pair of hands met his own and drew from his finger his favourite gold ring. When he withdrew his hands the ring was indeed missing so he made a mental note to send some servants to fetch it out the following day.

As he lay in his bed that night he heard sounds as of the drawbridge going down and a host of people arriving. Rather shortly afterwards he also heard coming from his own Great Hall the sounds of music and merriment, rather like some throng feasting. When he threw open the doors he found that was indeed the case as colourfully clad dancers whisked past him. In the centre of the room a fir tree stood, bedecked with gold rings, diamond encrusted bracelets, bejewelled belts and ruby pommeled daggers in silver sheaths. As Otto stood staring in disbelief, the dancers parted and as the music faded away the most beautiful woman he had ever seen swayed towards him with raven hair and fine dress in plush satins and velvets. “We have come to return your Christmas visit to our fairy well” she said, “and return to you something you have lost.” She held out a small gold casket which, when opened, revealed his ring. “I am Ernestine, Queen of the fairies” she said holding out her hand. As the music began again Otto found himself taking her hand and joining the dance. As they danced the other fairies shimmered away leaving only Ernestine in his arms. Entranced he sank to one knee and asked her to marry him. Ernestine smiled and said: “As long as you never speak the word “Death” in my presence.”

The two were wed the very next day and spent many happy years together. Otto still enjoyed hosting the occasional hunt and Ernestine joined in too. One day, when everyone was in the courtyard ready to set off on for the pursuit, Ernestine was still in her chambers. Otto held up the departure. Time trickled away and Otto grew impatient. Eventually Ernestine came out through the doors. Otto was quite angry by this time, “You have kept us waiting so long,” he cried, “that you would make a good messenger to send for Death!”

There was barely time for her to utter one anguished scream and then she was gone, vanished in to thin air. Otto was frantic. He searched the castle and the forest, dived in to the fairy well and ranged up and down the banks of the stream that flowed from it, all to no avail.

Every year he brought a fir tree in to his hall and dressed it in bright shiny jewels and candles in remembrance of their first night together and the hope that its sparkling lights might bring her home.

After a while Otto’s neighbours began to put up decorated trees of their own. Slowly the custom spread until now, if the queen of the fairies should return to seek her lost love, she would find his signal shining from houses all over the globe.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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There’s No Team In I


When I think about the stories I would like to tell and the messages I would like my audience to take away with them I often find myself wishing I could find more tales where a group or community get together to face a threat, solve a problem or, even better, create something wonderful. These tales are few and far between and most that I have come across have a coda in which everyone argues about who did the best or was the most vital contributor. The results of this argument range from general embarrassment, through the loss of all they have worked for, to absolute destruction of the entire community.

It’s fairly easy to see how the “Who’s most important” coda comes in to being as both a reflection of reality and a warning about the dangers of rampant ego. Nevertheless, there are an enormous number of stories of an individual heroic teenager going on an adventure and they almost invariably end with a young and inexperienced couple getting married. These very rarely have a coda in which one of them is slowly driven mad by the other’s inability to remember where they put their car keys or their failure to do the washing up. This may, of course, be because the protagonists either started off royal or acquired unimaginable wealth during their adventures and have servants to deal with that sort of tedious day to day stuff, but I suspect the answer is deeper than that.

So why are there so few team type tales and why don’t they end happily ever after? Firstly there are the storytelling considerations. It is important for the audience to be able to identify with someone in the story. With a suitably undefined lead character everyone can see themselves as the strong, clever protagonist. With a gang the members have to be differentiated by appearance and characteristics which narrows down the number of listeners who can identify with each one. This differentiation gives the storyteller a lot more to juggle, not just remembering who is strong or fast and who is carrying which magical dodad, but also making sure they all get equal airtime. You have to keep the crowd who feel kinship with Ariel The Elven Archer as happy as the fans of Sam The Skipping Satyr.

The second reason lies in the underlying psychology of the story. When we dream we feel as if we go to strange places and meet actual people who are quite different from us. In fact all the people and places we encounter in our dreams are inside our own heads and therefore have been created by us. However much that flying unicyclist may look like your neighbour they are really a part of you. To work out what the dream means you only have to ask yourself what your neighbour, the unicycle and flying are symbols for in your own mind. Similarly, to unpick the deeper psychology of a story we first have to imagine that all the characters and events in the story, however disparate and opposed, are part of the same single psyche. Once we look at a tale from this perspective it is easy to see that we all occasionally find ourselves out of balance (persecuted by step parents), battle with our inner fears (fight monsters), free our repressed selves (rescue prince / princess) and re-unite our inner opposites (the wedding at the end): the basic elements of the classic heroic loner tale type.

Far fewer of us have our psyches split up in to a happy band of specialists. Team tales are much more likely to come from some event in the physical world. They are maps of society. To be complete they tend to show the routes to and from the central event, the good and the bad of our worldly interactions. The heroic tales are about ourselves individually, so we have a lot of them because we like thinking about ourselves. There is no coda as lost keys and dirty dishes are not concerns of the mind’s inner workings, a metaphor has no need of a car. The team tales, being about us collectively, are less likely to speak so directly to our inner psychological maps, which is a shame because I think it would be easier to build a better world if they did.

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Giants and Revenge


As I explained in December I am researching for my spring and autumn tours at the same time, themed “Giants” and “Revenge” respectively. All very straight forward… until you come across a story that sits in the part of the Venn diagram where the two circles overlap and could be used in either set. The most surprising of these is probably the most well known story of the big people going.

This tale is turned in to pantomimes on a regular basis and is a staple of children’s literature. As with any well known trope from olden times it has started coming under fire from modern ethical watchdogs. It’s easy to see why too. The problem being that the protagonist, one “Jack”, who is established early on as somewhat easily led, can appear as rather racist. After a giantess lets him in to her husband’s castle and feeds him, the ungrateful simpleton repays this kindness by stealing from the giants not once, but three times! Whilst trying to escape justice after his third larceny he brings about the death of his understandably enraged victim. It is presented as un-premeditated but I think it would still attract a charge of murder if it came to court. One would hope that even UKIP supporters would see that this is a bad way to treat people from other lands who are a bit different from us and most definitely not the model for a foreign policy.

So where, I hear you ask, does the overlap with the revenge theme come in? Well, in my usual fashion I have been hunting through my library, comparing different versions and digging out the earliest manuscripts. In the case of Jack And The Beanstalk (which in case you hadn’t realised is the story in question) this takes us back to 1807. At this time the story contained an encounter with a fairy when Jack reaches the top of the beanstalk. This fairy tells a chilling story of Jack’s kind and generous father who was tricked, robbed and murdered. The perpetrator of the deed, whilst burning down their manor, spared the infant Jack and his mother on the condition that she never tell Jack about his father. The wicked murderer come arsonist is, of course, the giant and the fairy points out quite distinctly that the giant’s wealth was taken from Jack’s father and is rightfully his.

This episode, which is conspicuous by its absence from the majority of later re-tellings of the tale, casts Jack’s behaviour in a very different light. No longer a wayward, sizeist, thug, Jack is the true avenger, reclaiming his ancestral rights and handing out the ultimate punishment to the original villain of the piece. The worrying bit is not just that the story has been reproduced so often without this justification for Jack’s criminal spree, but that doing so has done nothing to harm it’s popularity, many of us falling into despising the giant based on heresay and rooting for his downfall with no hard evidence that he has done wrong to anyone.

Fascinatingly the fairy also admits that she was influencing Jack when he exchanged his cow for a handful of beans, which explains how he goes from being laughably gullible at the beginning of the yarn to a cool master of negotiation, concealment and escape by his first encounter with the giants.

So, it always pays to do your research, even when you think you know the story, possibly especially then… and I had better get back to mine, there are giants and avengers to sort out and they keep getting mixed up!

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

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Parental Advisory


People die in folk tales, especially kind, loving parents. People get hurt, tortured, imprisoned, eaten, turned into animals, boiled to death and shoved into ovens. Whole families are systematically wiped out until the youngest child, presumably paddling ankle deep through their kindred’s blood, tricks, traps and dismembers or cooks the clan’s psychopathic assailant.

People talk about violence on TV but it’s been part of our entertainment for thousands of years. As has sex.

Folktale farmers and fishermen fornicate with fairies, mate with mermaids and sleep with seal people. Princesses, peasant girls and goddesses alike are wooed, seduced, stripped naked, abducted and sexually assaulted whilst in a magical sleep. Heroes, villains, step relatives, trolls, witches and half siblings magically transform themselves into the likeness of protagonist’s lovers for a night of passion, often followed by gloating revenge and/or dubious offspring. When not disguising themselves as bulls, bears and swans to have sex with humans, mythical deities frequently have sexual relationships with their siblings, their mortal enemies and occasionally horses.

You see, despite what most modern people think, these stories were not created for children. They were told by firesides of an evening to a mixed audience who’s age range probably narrowed from both ends as the night wore on. Many were grown out of the lives of real people and poorly reported events. Everything that television, radio and even books are to us now, storytelling was to our forebears.

When I tour pubs I am unsurprisingly expecting my audience to be adult. Characters in the stories may be driven by hormonal motivations that make little sense to the pre-adolescent and other characters, a drunk and abusive giant for instance, are more believable with a touch of post watershed language. That is not to say that it becomes a tsunami of filth and gore but these are stories originally created by and told for adults. An intelligent, well behaved child of say 10 would be able to cope with most of the material but I wouldn’t recommend many of the tales for a six year old simply on length of time and level of plotting. Kids under seven have neither the attention span, the narrative facility, nor the vocabulary necessary to be anything other than mildly baffled by the experience.

Of course I also do sessions for families at festivals, fun days and the like where I select the material that is less likely to horrify and bemuse the youngsters. It is a tricky business, age appropriateness. On the face of it a tale of two abandoned kids who rob, are imprisoned by and eventually roast a cannibal might be considered parental advisory, yet few would question Hansel and Gretel’s place in the cannon of little children’s literature. Death is part of the point of the stories: things change, people die, life continues. The stories are a safe way for children to experience fear and loss and learn how to overcome them. For all their fantastical settings, folk tales hold up a mirror to life and help us cope. Each tale is a learning experience, a map for dealing with the problems that life throws at us, including sex and death. However old we are we keep needing to revise these lessons and what better way than with a story in your local pub?

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Nothing to Fear


The word Goblin is nowadays almost inseparable from the word “horde”. We imagine these short, ugly, ravening creatures of evil hanging out in great gangs in the wastelands of old forests and abandoned mines waiting to feast on the flesh of unwary travellers. Tolkien is largely responsible for the modern concept of misshapen malevolence in insect like legions. Folklore rarely sees goblins in such numbers, in fact, it rarely sees them at all and they would only appear to have been with us for about six hundred years under the name in question. So what are they and where did they come from?

The earliest appearance in British literature tells of a hillock in the midst of a dense wood where a tired knight might call out “I thirst!”

A pointy nosed and pointy eared goblin amuses himself dropping leaves from a cliff

“Leaf Goblin” A sympathetic rendition of a goblin by fantasy artist Marc Potts. More of whose excellent work can be seen at http://www.marcpotts.co.uk/

and immediately find himself in the presence of “a Goblin with a cheerful countenance, clad in a crimson robe, and bearing in his outstretched hand a large drinking-horn richly ornamented with gold and precious jewels, full of the most delicious, refreshing and unknown beverage. After the drinker had emptied the horn, the Goblin offered a silken napkin to wipe the mouth. Then, without waiting to be thanked, the strange creature vanished as suddenly as he had come.” Hardly terrifying. Typically an arrogant knight nicked the generous forest dweller’s horn and he withdrew his services.

With little to go on the folklorist generally turns to etymology to trace the origins of supernatural beings. It appears the word goblin may have been derived from the German “Kobold”. Now, the Kobold is a house spirit, famed for their domestic usefulness and their ability to remain unseen. They were sufficiently common that most houses had one who was looked after with great care, having food left out for them on a daily basis. As with any invisible helper, it was a bad idea to try to see them and one story tells of a persistent burgher throwing ashes around the room to make the kobold, King Goldemar’s footprints apparent, resulting in the householder being dismembered, roasted on a spit and eaten.

As the religious fervour of the middle ages took hold, these pagan house spirits fell out of favour and were, along with witches and the like, demonised. Stories of their helpfulness were told less often than the tales of them turning nasty on overly inquisitive humans; whilst the original message of such narratives, treat all beings with respect, was replaced with the implication that we should fear the unknown and the supernatural.

They say there is nothing to fear but fear itself and the goblin is a fine example of that truism, fear having turned the commonplace in to something fearful. The goblin as we know him now is a horror of our own making. Their willingness to assist mankind for the price of a meal, a roof over their head and a little privacy as to their appearance has been rejected, leaving thousands homeless and desperate roaming the wastes of our imagination… and they’re hungry.

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Midwinter Tales


Obviously you can tell all sorts of yarns during the longest nights huddled around the fire, after all there’s plenty of time! As ever though there are certain types of narrative which are set around the turning of the year, you might think that it would be the time for adventure yarns, and maybe they were told in their turn, but it seems, in the days of candles and fires, the darkness brought on a touch of introspection. The old tales of midwinter seem to fall in to two distinct types which can most readily be summed up as the “Why” stories and the “Be good” stories.

The first group include explanations for the leaving and returning of heat or sunshine; why some trees keep their leaves; and why we bring trees in to our houses and decorate them.

As you know, I like old stories and the older the better. It is easy to see the myths which tell of the cause of the cold and darkness have roots going back as far as the hunter gatherers of the mesolithic or further. Even as the first foundations of language were being built by the diminutive Homo Erectus, some one must have asked “why is it so cold?” and possibly “will it ever be warm again?” and some other reached in to their mind and replied ”A long time ago…”.

The Canadian natives tell “The Long Winter” which answers both questions whilst neatly weaving in an amusing explanation for the absence of bears during the winter. In Japan there is a myth of the sun goddess Amaterasu who, after an argument with her brother, the god of storms, shuts herself in a cave leaving the world in darkness while the gods try to figure out how to get her and her light back to the world.
The tale of a small bird who cannot fly south with a broken wing and asks the trees for shelter eventually resulting in some becoming evergreen, will ring the bells of memory for many of you, as will Count Otto’s lost fairy bride in the Strasborg tale of the first christmas tree, since both of these were current in my youth.

The second group hardly needs an explanation, you will undoubtedly be subjected to at least one version of Dickens’ famous tight wad’s redemption during the festive season (though not by me!), and there are plenty more tales of rewards for the just and punishments for the wicked. The Russians know a thing or two about winter and from them comes a classic of the “be good” genre in “Frost”. Martha’s cruel stepmother decides to get rid of her by having Martha’s weak and frightened father take her deep in to the snowbound forest to be married to Frost, which is to say she intends him to leave her there to die of cold. As it grows dark poor Martha hears Frost crackling in the trees, each time a little closer…

As I mentioned, all kinds of tales can get an outing at midwinter but you can be sure some of these will appear during the MidWinter Tales evening at the London Inn, Morchard Bishop on the evening of Saturday 22nd December.

 

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The Blacksmith’s Wife Of Yarrowfoot


Two brothers worked in apprenticeship to a blacksmith down at Yarrowfoot many, many years ago. They were hard working lads and good learners but after a while the youngest began to grow pale and thin, his previous ready wit and easy smile were gone from him along with his ability to concentrate and perform all but the simplest of tasks. He seemed distracted, tired and edgy.

One night, the elder brother sat down on the side of the younger’s bed as his brother lay there, with his eyes fixed somewhere beyond the roof.

What is wrong my brother? Speak to me, maybe I can help”

Help?” he replied “There is no help for me on this earth.”

Well there certainly will not be if you don’t tell anyone what’s wrong! Now speak, for you know I will not let the matter drop until you do.”

So the lad told his tale, “Each night is the same, after everyone is asleep the Blacksmith’s wife comes in to our room. She slides a bridal over my head and I am transformed in to a horse. She then rides me for miles out across the moors, sparing neither kicks nor whips, places me in the stables of a great hall and goes within to dance and debauch with a host of other witches and their demonic associates. When they are done she collects me from my stall, in which there is neither food nor water, and rides me back here at full gallop, with just enough time to creep in to bed before I have to get up. I have not slept for days”

He said sadly. “Then swap beds with me now” urged his brother “and tonight you shall sleep while I bear your burden.”

The youngster needed no second asking and was fast asleep in his brother’s bed in a trice. There was not long to wait before the Blacksmith’s wife crept in to the room and slid the magic bridal over the elder brother’s head. He felt the strangeness of transformation, becoming a fine, strong stallion and allowed the witch to lead him out of the house. Soon he was galloping over the moors as she kicked his sides and whipped his back. Eventually they reached a great hall high up on the moors, where she placed him in a stable before going off to her ghastly revels.

The elder brother, whilst trying to scratch an itch on his cheek by rubbing it against the wooden side of the stall, discovered a nail sticking out of a post, managed to snag the bridal on it and pull it off over his elongated head. As soon as the bridal was removed he underwent a reverse of his previous transformation and hid in the shadows of the stall. When the witch returned from her unearthly carousing he suddenly leapt out and placed the bridal over her head, turning her in to a rather startled mare. Leaping upon her back he then rode her homeward across the moors, sparing neither kick nor whip and when he reached civilisation he made her gallop up and down a ploughed field until she was all of a lather. On the way he stopped at another forge and had the smith fit a fine set of horseshoes to her front hooves before completing the journey and releasing the blacksmith’s wife to slink, exhausted, in to her bed.

The honest blacksmith rose soon after and went to work but was concerned when his wife did not also rise. She claimed illness and a doctor was called who, seeing her pale and dishevelled state, wished to take her pulse but she refused to let him see her hands. Despite his entreaties she kept them beneath the bedclothes until he grew exasperated and pulled back the sheets. To their horror they saw the horseshoes attached to her hands and the bruises on her side. The brothers told their tale and the witch was duly punished in the time honoured fashion. The younger lad was nursed back to health with butter made from the milk of cows grazed in the churchyard, a sovereign remedy for those who have been hagridden.

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