Category Archives: Winter

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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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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Old Beginnings


Do you know the song “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies”? Sure you do! It’s the one in which the lord comes home to find his wife has traded all the luxuries he offers for a nomadic life in the wild and gone off with the travelling folk. What few people know is that there is a song that goes before the famous one. “The Gypsy Bride” tells how the girl was abducted from her people by the nobleman and married against her wishes. So in the later, more well-known song she was not running away: she was going back home.

A Golden AppleDiscoveries like this can change one’s whole perception of a story. I have recently come across a string of variations on a story called “The Princess On The Glass Mountain”, the meat of which is that a princess sits on top of a glass mountain with a golden apple and the chap who can get the apple also gets to marry the princess. Suitors from all over embarrass and exhaust themselves for three days whilst the hero of our tale, using the help of a series of magical horses and increasingly flashy armour, gets a little further up each day until he wins the fruit and the girl.

How he gets his magical help is the business of the first half of the story and varies wildly but fortunately that does not concern us here. What I find of most interest is that whilst the winning of a royal spouse elevates the adventurer from rags to riches, in some versions the hero starts off as a prince who loses his position and wealth, giving the story a more circular riches-to-rags-to-riches-again form. This apparently disposable preface is common in other tale types too. Cinderella, in her assorted permutations, is sometimes a princess brought low and other times a poor girl brought even lower.

So is there a reason for this fundamental switch? Surely everyone loves a poor-child-done-good yarn so why change it? Or if the silk-to-sacking-and-back tale is the original why did it get truncated?
Unlike many other changes in stories this one has a very distinct and practical purpose which has nothing to do with the workings of the story and everything to do with the audience. Back in the medieval world, the ruling classes were very particular about purity of blood and would have had a storyteller thrown out (or worse) for suggesting that a princess (or prince) might marry a common stable boy (or serving girl), no matter how handsome (or pretty) they might be. These feudal aristocrats would happily seduce their underlings but never marry them. So a noble birth was essential for any character the teller was hoping to give a royal wedding to at the end of the tale. Conversely, the poor had no such concerns and would light up with hope, as we do now, at the thought of one of our number being able to break out of poverty or ordinariness in to the celebrity high life of sovereignty. Thus these tales developed a convertible form for easy portability as the storytellers of old hiked from rural settings to royal courts and back, de-rigging and re-attaching the front ends of the stories to suit the audience.

The modern audience has seen The Raggle Taggle Gypsies gain in popularity. In our post “Lady Chatterley” age, where romantic fiction introduced previously content wives to the idea of substituting a rugged and exciting all terrain model for him indoors, the introductory Gypsy bride was quietly dropped to fit this fantasy. The full story though, with explanatory preface in place, is transformed from destructive rebellion into wholesome restoration.  So if you are planning any new beginnings this January remember what you might be looking for is an old beginning.

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

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Filed under Folk Tale, January, New beginnings, rags to riches, stories, Storytelling

Seasonal Tradition


Tradition is a tricky beast. Call something “traditional” and it instantly acquires the authority of an age old practice.  The general impression one gets is that anything “traditional” has been going on long enough that it’s origins are lost in the mists of time. However, I once heard that for something to be considered tradition it only has to pass through three generations, whilst the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines tradition as “a custom handed down” saying nothing about how many hands are required to qualify.

I mention this because Christmas, probably the highest concentration of traditional activity in the modern year, has only held it’s current form for a very short period of time.  Your traditional roast turkey, for instance, is only just scraping through on the most generous interpretation of the COD’s definition. Unless you are American, your grandparents are far more likely to have considered a goose as the traditional bird.  You would only need to go back another generation or two to find people being shocked at the idea of standing a tree up in the corner then covering it in pretty stuff; and Ivy was never brought in to the home as it was generally considered to be infested with fairies, and you wouldn’t want them loose in the house!

So what sort of tales are “traditionally” associated with Yuletide? For those of us brought up with Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and Roger Moore sprinkling cheese all over our afternoon present giving, it may come as a surprise that the tale types most common to this time of year are dark tales of desperation and struggles through unbearable loss.  The Victorians, who gave us much of what we think of as a traditional Christmas, typically whiled away the festive evenings telling ghost stories. Dicken’s Christmas Carol neatly combines these concepts to forge a classic that straddles the transition from what was to what is.  Going further back in time, Scandinavians used to tell stories of Odin who, as one of the precursors to St Nicholas, led the wild hunt in a mad career across the Yuletide skies on his eight legged horse, not only giving out gifts to those who were good but punishments to those who were bad, an element we seem to have totally lost today (Just like bankers getting bonuses whatever happens).

Whilst we are in historical Scandinavia, let us pause for a moment in Norway at a place called Dogre. It is on a fell near the mountains and the tradition was to provide hospitality to all-comers during the mid winter feasting.  One year, on the eve of the feast, a traveller arrived at a house asking for lodgings for him and his bear.  The owner explained that he was welcome to stay but he and his family were just leaving as, being so close to the mountains the house was annually overrun by coarse, ill-mannered trolls.  The stranger said he was too tired to go any further and would take his chance with the trolls, then installed himself and his bear by the fire.

A cute polar bear with a present

The trolls duly arrived in all their grotesque ugliness and made themselves at home, toasting sausages in the flames.  One of them approached the bear saying “Kitty want a sausage?” and shoved the hot charred item on to the unsuspecting beasts nose.  Naturally the bear lost its temper at the provocation and chased the trolls from the house.

The next year, as the family were preparing to forsake their home once again a troll poked it’s head round the door and said “Have you still got that cat?” thinking quickly the Owner responded “Yes and she’s had seven kittens who are all growing with remarkable speed!”
They were never troubled with trolls again.

Merry Christmas to you all!

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Filed under Christmas, December, Folk Tale, stories, Storytelling, Tradition, Winter

An Underworld Journey


It is no surprise to me that amongst the earliest writings yet found we find a version of one of the most widely spread and evocative stories known to man. In marks made with a stick on clay tablets by the inhabitants of the first cities, in the land of Sumer (where Iraq is today) roughly five thousand years agois the earliest known Underworld Journey. In this Sumerian myth Inanna, the goddess of fertility, sex and war, travels to the the land of the dead from which no one can return.

I dare say many of you will be familiar with the Greek tale of Persephone who is abducted by the god of the Greek underworld, Hades. She is eventually rescued by her mother, Demeter (the goddess of the harvest) but has to return to Hades for a number of months each year due to the incautious ingestion of several pomegranate seeds.

Whilst there are similarities between Inanna and Persephone, both tales involving a subterranean excursion and both having an ending that explains the annual cycle of growth and decay, the differences are more interesting. Inanna is no hapless victim. This goddess once declared war on the mountains because they did not bow down to her; and won! She goes to the underworld, ruled by her sister Ereskigal, by choice: “From the great heaven Inanna set her mind on the great below.” What is more, she knows it is a dangerous mission and briefs her trusted minister, Ninsubur on the extensive and painful mourning ritual (involving the laceration of eyelids, nose, ears and buttocks) she must perform to restore Inanna should she fail to return. Inanna descends through the seven gates of the underworld and at each gate has one of her symbols of earthly power taken from her. Thus naked and stripped of everything, she stands before her sister but still has enough power to take Ereskigal’s throne for herself. Here we come to one of the chief points of this tale, “The Anuna, the seven judges, rendered their decision against her. They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.”

The Underworld has laws that hold sway even over the most powerful of divine beings.

Ninsubur, follows her instructions to the letter and Inanna is restored to life, not through force or magic but through sympathy, for it is only by sympathy that those who have entered the darkest depths can be reached. Although alive again, the laws of the Anuna, the underworld judges, still hold her and she is only permitted to return to the light if she finds someone to take her place. Inanna does not let the Anuna take anyone who has mourned her absence but eventually finds her husband, Dumuzid showing no signs of remorse and gives him in to the demons hands. Dumuzid’s sister begs them to take her instead so it is decreed that they will share the job with each spending half the year below. In typically contrary fashion Inanna mourns for the six months Dumuzid is away thus giving us the seasons.

Many scholars would have it that this is just a vegetative myth, that it is a ‘primitive’ explanation for the cycle of winter and summer, but I think that is merely a side effect of the main event; the bit that resonates for us is the descent, the search for… something in the darkness. It is the sense of loss or depression, of something hidden beyond our grasp, that drives us in to the doorway to the underworld. For Inanna and many other travellers in the great below, there is no material gain, only the experience which brings with it some intangible wisdom, a knowing that only those who have walked beyond deaths door and been to the home of darkness may have. When it comes to the Underworld it really is the Journey that matters.

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

Details for October tour dates where you can see the Talesman perform “Inanna In The Underworld” amongst other Underworld Journeys are:

Saturday 22nd London Inn, Polson Hill, Morchard Bishop, Crediton, Devon, EX17 6PQ 7.30pm, £5

Thursday 27th South Hill Park Arts Centre, Ringmead, Bracknell Berkshire, RG12 7PA 7.30, £10 £8 concessions.

Friday 28th The Hyde Tavern, 57 Hyde Street, Winchester, Hampshire, SO23 7DY, 7.30 £5.

Sunday 30th The Elm Tree Public House, 16a Orchard Street, Cambridge, CB1 1JT, 8.00, Free

Monday 31st The Hobgoblin, 2 Broad Street, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 2BH, 8.00

More details available via the Talesmn’s Facebook page, scroll down for the relevant gig and click on the event link. http://www.facebook.com/#!/TheTravellingTalesman

Unsuitable for under 12s

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Filed under Abduction, Autumn, Folk Tale, October, Otherworld, stories, Storytelling, Underworld, Winter

Elemental My Dear Reader


And so the time comes when we stumble, glass in hand, Past Janus with his two faces, one looking back and one to the future, as he stoically holds open the door of another new year. He is not alone, far from it, the elemental personifications of winter are hard at work all around us.

The North Wind fills his vast cheeks and blasts icy breath down from his cave upon all who venture abroad. Jack Frost passes by, leaving a trail of sparkling splendour across fields and windows. Frost giants out of Jotunheim stalk the land and Skadi the huntress slides over the snow on her swift skis.

 

On a snow covered mountain far to the east, poor Marouckla Trudges through the Packed powder. Her step sister and step mother have sent her out to fetch violets, an impossible task at this time of year, yet if she returns without them they will kill her. Up she climbs through the biting air until a fire comes in sight at the very highest peak, set around with a circle of twelve stones on each of which sits a strange man. Three are old with white hair, three in their prime, three strong and vigorous youths and the last three just children. Maroukla politely asks if she can warm herself by the fire. On the highest stone sits January, chief of the brothers of the months, he asks Maroukla what brings her there and is troubled by her reply, then, standing up he hands his wand to the youngest saying “March, you take the high seat”. Young March waves the wand over the fire and as the flames rise so the snow melts away around them, green grass and primroses spring from the earth and violets flower by the side of the wood.

The next day Maroukla is sent to find strawberries and the day after that apples. June and September each take their turn, their time out of time, but September, older and wiser than his brothers, will only allow Maroukla to take two apples. When she returns through the frozen whiteness her step mother and sister demand to know why she did not bring more of the crisp, fresh fruit. Maroukla tells them she would have but some shepherds drove her away. The two wicked creatures set off to sate their greed, determined to let no mere sheep herders deter them.

I barely need to mention that they warm themselves by the Month Brothers fire without asking; that they answer January’s gentle inquiry of “What brings you here?” with a rude rebuff and, as they stomp off to seek the now non existent apples, January waves his wand, the fire burns low, the skies fill with flurries of thick flakes and they meet the fate they had wished on Maroukla.

 

It is interesting how we, insulated and isolated inside our centrally heated homes, see Winter’s moods as Implacable and unfeeling, whilst our ancestors, who surely knew the season more intimately through their outdoor lives and wooden walls, viewed the elemental powers in a far more human light. The North Wind, Jack Frost and even January himself are just doing their job, taking their turn to help the great wheel go round, just as Jack-In-The-Green is preparing to send his forward scouts, the snowdrop commandoes in their camouflaged white caps, to push through the covering of crystallised water when February takes the high seat.

 

In the stately dance of the seasons one thing, inevitably, leads to another. On January the first, as the joys of an evening in the company of Bacchus give way to a morning with the gnomes of hangover hammering on the inside of their skull, this will undoubtedly become clear to many people.

 

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

 

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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He’s Behind You!


So it’s Mid-winter, it’s cold, it’s dark and everything is slower. There’s not so much work to do in the fields and all you want to do is sit inside by a warm fire and be entertained by stories. It’s how it’s been for years, and with a few changes it’s still how it is now. Maybe not so many people book a storyteller to come and entertain their guests at the fire side (wonderful as it is), but we maintain folk-tales at midwinter with the very British tradition of the pantomime.

 

The vast majority of favourite panto plots are traditional folk tales, and it has traditions all of it’s own: the man in a dress, with his slapstick routine at the start of the second half; the girl as a boy (winning the hand of the girl as a girl by the end of the tale) and villains who always enter and leave stage left. Characters even slip in to the role of narrator and address the audience directly, telling us what other characters have been up to, echoing panto’s storytelling roots. Above all pantomime is folk tales told in a big, bright, shiny way, to keep the darkness of winter at bay. Oh yes it is!

 

A popular midwinter’s tale type across northern Europe was the Search for the Vanished Husband, which is the feminine equivalent of the summer hero’s quest for golden apples. A typical example is the Scottish/borders tale The Black Bull of Norraway. It uses the classic rule of three repeatedly, starting with there being three princesses, the first two seek their fortunes and and are carried away in fine coaches to good marriages, despite their widowed mothers lack of wealth, whilst the youngest princess is fated instead to be carried away on the back of the wild and fearsome Black Bull of Norraway. After travelling for three days, each ending with a gift from their host of the night that she is mysteriously told to “keep until she is in direst need”, their journey reaches “a dark and ugsome glen” where the princess is told to remain absolutely still whilst the bull (who she has grown quite fond of) goes off to fight with a demon and regain his human form. She fails to keep her single instruction and they are lost to each other in the darkness. After searching for many months her way is blocked by a glass mountain and she spends seven years in service to a blacksmith earning the iron boots she needs to scale this representative of winter and ice.

All variants culminate in a bizarre sequence involving a blood stained shirt that belongs to her lost lover, now betrothed to a tricksome washerwoman’s daughter. Bribery with the gifts garnered earlier gets her three tearful nights spent singing in his chamber, for the first two he is drugged by the washerwoman but on the third they are finally re-united.

 

I can’t help but hear the echo of some long forgotten solstice ritual in the princess’ three night vigil, singing the sleeping sun’s return. The teaching themes here are of gathering and putting away good things in times of plenty to use in times of need; of using wisdom as well as strength; and the classic example of accepting an unavoidable fate and working to make it a positive thing. Bursting with symbolism these tales take us in to darkness, both physical and metaphorical, filled with trouble, loss and trickery, but through courage and dedication we come to the restoration of light.

 

So if this winter you find yourself going out to the pantomime, between the cries of “behind you” and “oh yes it is!” see if you can spot any of these themes in your own mid-winter traditional folk tale performance.

 

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Now the above was written for the local mag with a tight word count so I had to leave out the alternative tale from the same group, Prince Hat Under The Ground, that I was going to compare with the Black Bull.

 

This is a Swedish version of the tale, here the princess finds herself given to the eponymous Prince who lives (you’ll never guess) underground and can only come to her under the cover of darkness as she must not see his face.

She is comfortable and well looked after while he is kind and gentle. Three years pass each year bringing a child and an opportunity to visit home where, after two failed attempts, her step mother persuades her to take a candle in to the bedroom and sneak a peak at her sleeping hubby who turns out to be as handsome as he is rich and kind. All perfect you may think but she has now broken her vow and their wonderful, snug underground house becomes a dank cave filled with snakes and frogs. She must next follow him as she wanders the land. They visit his three sisters and she is instructed to drop a child off with each whilst he stays out of sight but she again fails to keep to this and allows the third sister out to see him whereupon he is whisked away by a whirlwind.

She then seeks the aid of a series of three troll witches who live up an icy mountain, to whom she is very polite and as a result receives a gold spinning wheel, a gold bobbin and a purse which always has money in it. Thus armed she makes her way to the castle of the troll queen who has enchanted Prince Hat and intends to marry him where she concludes the action by bargaining with her magical gifts for three nights singing to her lover who is once again drugged for two but gets a tip off on the third and the pair are reunited.

Together they trick the troll witch in to looking in to a huge cauldron of boiling water and thus able to throw her in, freeing themselves and regaining the treasures and, eventually, their children and families.

 

It would be easy, from a twenty first century perspective, to be dismissive of this tale as simply an injunction for wives to obey their husbands but please, stay your anger. Notice instead that the princess is not punished for her lack of obedience, the husband shows no anger. The separation that follows is a consequence of the curse or spell under which Prince Hat or the Black Bull labour. If I were to apply a modern interpretation I would look to the work of psychologist Carl Jung and try to understand this tale in the light of the relationship between the persona and the animus or soul.

Having grown up without a father the masculine principal is hidden from the princess and she is seeking to unite with her inner self but cannot do so until she knows herself better and is less easily swayed by the whims of others. The quest, in all it’s parts, is essential to her inner development and leaves her richer, having gained the symbols of womanhood and conquered her dark side, in the form of the witch who seeks to dishonestly posses and control the masculine power instead of working with it.

 

Now you may be confused by the two meanings offered. Is it a tale of careful storage and use of resources to see us through the privations of winter or is it a deep psychological tract? Why can it not be both? It may also have been a teaching tale for young girls who might find themselves married to suit their parents rather than their hearts, a story to encourage them to be good wives, fruitful, diligent and obedient; and to give them hope.

 

It is one of the great things about folk tales that they often work on many levels, sometimes accruing details at a simplistic, material level that obscure the roots which delve in to the past; if you can follow these roots though, they may lead you to rich seams of powerful meaning.

 

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under Abduction, December, Fairytale, Folk Tale, Quest, stories, Storytelling, Winter