Category Archives: January

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.

3 Comments

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Elemental, Fairytale, Folk Tale, January, stories, Storytelling