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.
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