Tag Archives: Fairytale

Send In The Lifeboats


One of the facilities provided to us by our brains is the ability to recognise patterns. Obviously I don’t just mean when we are watching midsummer murders with Bob from down the road and he suddenly points at the screen and says “My aunt Betty’s got those curtains!”. No, our pattern recognition includes everything we sense. It gives us a shorthand for managing our interaction with the world based on our experiences rather than having to process everything as a new thing all the time.

It is such a big part of our operating system that our pattern recognisers can get a bit carried away, joyfully offering us faces and animals when we are simply looking at clouds or burn marks on toast. Entertaining and free flowing conversations are the result of our internal librarians coming up with stories that have a similarity to the one that has just been told… and so are the stultifyingly dull ones. The tricky bit for most of us being when the librarians come back from a trip to the hippocampus looking apologetic with only a single, dusty, hand written post-it note, leaving us the option of blurting out what’s scribbled on it in the hope that it will trigger a response from someone else, or standing there silently looking like a rabbit in the headlights while the conversation dies, gasping, at our feet.

I see this ’empty shelf syndrome’ happen quite often after a Talesman performance when the conversation has come round to the fascinating similarities between stories from different parts of the world and someone suddenly discovers the only thing indexed in their frontal cortex that fits with the pattern is the old adage that, when it’s all boiled down, there are only seven stories. Now you’d think that I would be able to launch in to a discourse from there but I’m afraid that shelf in my head was just as much in need of a J cloth and a squirt of Pledge as anyone else’s. Thankfully our pattern recognition includes stalling dialogue and everyone sends out the communication lifeboats of witty interjection and wholesale embarrassment is avoided. Personally I hadn’t explored the root of this widely distributed myth of the reduced lexicon until today. I suspect that since I make my living from finding fresh tales to serve up every few months the mere suggestion that there might be a limited supply sends my subconscious in to denial.

The fabulously named Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch would appear to be the original author of the “seven plots” concept in the early half of the twentieth century. Fortunately for me his list takes the form of man versus seven adversaries including himself:

  1. man against man
  2. man against nature
  3. man against himself
  4. man against God
  5. man against society
  6. man caught in the middle
  7. man and woman

This clearly falls down on the basis of sexism and also fails to consider that humans might co-operate or do anything other than fight with stuff. Other cataloguers have come up with lists from 4 to 36 plots long, mostly confining themselves to literature or theatre. The most widely known today being Christopher Booker, who has also pegged his socks on the line at the number seven after taking 35 years to write his book. I suppose it will be only polite to give it a read sometime but at 25 quid a throw it won’t be anytime soon. Meanwhile the net has already nicked his list and shared it around. It begins with 1. The Quest and 2. Voyage and Return which, I don’t know about you, just sound rather similar to me. The best of the short lists in my opinion runs to eight thus:

  1. Cinderella: fulfilment after hardship
  2. Achilles: the Fatal Flaw
  3. Faust: or the debt that must be paid
  4. Tristan: the Eternal Triangle
  5. Circe: or the Spider and the Fly
  6. Romeo and Juliet: Boy meets Girl and whatever follows
  7. Orpheus: the Gift that’s Taken Away
  8. The Indomitable Hero: they keep on going whatever the odds

(It is sadly un-attributed in all the versions I found this time round, if anyone knows the original author please let us know).

However, as with all the other lists it misses out the “how it got it’s name” stories. These are not my favourite tales as they rarely have a proper plot. The general form being “Once upon a time a giant tripped over and where his knee dented the ground a pond formed. It is still called Giant’s Knee Pond”. It’s not much of a story but any list that doesn’t cover it is not a complete list of all the stories there are… and if they missed this widely used folk tale what else have they missed?

In the world of folk tales, academics identify stories by the Aarne-Thompson tale type index, a combined work that gives a number to each element of the stories, such as “Transformation to horse (ass etc.) by putting on bridle”, which will be familiar to those of you who came to see “The Dark Arts” tour and is Tale Type D535 in case you were interested. The Aarne-Thompson list Includes several different “How it got it’s name” variations and the index gets to 2500 without counting the decimals. That should see me right for work for some time so I expect I’ll stick with them… and next time I see the pattern of the conversation swinging round to the number of stories in the world I’ll have something on the shelf for my librarians to fetch.

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

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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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Fairy time


Fairies as such, are fairly limited in Geographic scope, being primarily a European phenomenon. Their name and characteristics can vary significantly across this area too, but there is a type of fairy encounter which is common throughout the lands, widely different in the specifics yet exactly the same in it’s outcome, and so prolific one has to wonder if there is some truth behind this tale type.

As is often the case with close encounters of the fairy kind the person, whether young lad, maiden or wandering drunk, who features in the story is captivated by faint musical, magical sounds. Following the entrancing harmony they come upon the Good Folk dancing, singing and making merry. Often they will watch unobserved from behind a tree or rock at first but soon the music will pull them into the whirling dance. It may be that they stay for a couple of hours, nights, weeks, or even three months. At the absolute maximum it might be seven years. It would seem that this period is full of intoxicating joy and pleasantness. Nevertheless, at some point they decide to head for home. On arriving back in their village, or castle they find many things changed and unfamiliar, all the people they knew are gone and their home is occupied by strangers. On further enquiry they find that their family are long dead and there is only a faint memory of a story about someone by their name having vanished without trace more than a lifetime or two ago. As they struggle to come to grips with this news they age rapidly and crumble to dust.

Sometimes the plot may have a longer set up. King Herla goes to a far land to witness the wedding of a fairy king; Oisin is wooed by a beautiful princess from the land of youth. In each case they return to discover hundreds of years have passed. Interestingly, in both of these cases a change of epic proportions has fallen upon the land. In Herla’s case he leaves a British King and returns to a land long under Saxon rule. The Irish Oisin leaves a pagan Eire and comes back to tell the tales of Finn mac Cumhal to a fascinated Saint Patrick.

Curiously it is by no means guaranteed that a sojourn in the Otherworld will lead to a powdery demise. Pwyll Prince of Dyfed manages to count off a year and a day in Annwyvn
with exactitude before coming home the same year and a day later in his own land. Many others come and go between the lands with less loss of time than I encounter whilst eating breakfast. Certainly the fairies themselves have no problem reconciling time between our two plains, happily making and keeping appointments accurately to the hour.

So are these tales based in fact? Possibly it was common for people to leave home without warning, maybe falling in with Romanies or other nomads in a rush of excitement after accidentally joining them for a few nights revels, then losing track of time before coming home to find their family had died in their absence. It is easy to see how the tale might be elaborated and exaggerated by re-telling until it spans hundreds of years.

…and yet, the rapid onset of the time spent in the land of youth and the ensuing sudden de-hydration are less easy to see being the creation of so many different storytellers in so many assorted places. So if you are out in the forest or on the moors of a night and your ears are assailed by the most delectable melodies you have ever heard, take thought before you let your feet follow the captivating rhythm: your life may never be the same again.

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Away With The Fairies


NOT A FAIRY.
“Changeling” by Robin Stevenson
More by him at https://www.pinterest.com/pin/142496775681932380/

I don’t use the term “fairytale” very often. It is odd that somehow the title “fairytale” has become a blanket term for any story involving magic. For me it is only a fairytale if it actually has a fairy in it. So how do we identify a fairy? Oh, Now we have entered a realm of confusion! I have several books purporting to be specifically about fairies (or faeries, we can’t even reach consensus on the spelling). These contain descriptions and tales of the wee folk by the various names of Spriggans, Pixies, Piskies, Sidhe (pronounced “shee”), Good Folk (I could go on but we’ve barely scratched the surface and haven’t even left the British Isles), but also feature Trow, Trolls, Koboldoi, Gnomes, Brownies, Nixen, Knockers and a host of other supernatural beings. It’s a bit like buying a textbook on humans and finding chapters on marmosets and grizzlies.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Irish Book Of Invasions tells us that at one time the land of Éire was in possession of the tall, fair skinned Tuatha De Danann. Long lived and wielding powerful magic the Tuatha De held truth and fairness in high esteem and many stories are told of their time. Then the Milesians, whose descendants are the current Irish, turned up, fought the Tuatha De for the land, won, and banished the Tuatha De Danann in to the ancient burial mounds that litter the country where they still live as the Sidhe or faery host.

Since their banishment the Fair Folk have interacted with humans in a variety of ways. Women and men from each race have fallen in love with, seduced or abducted and married someone from the other; items have been stolen by each from each and favours, trades and deals have been done leading to both lasting happiness and deep sorrow.

One of the oddest things about The Ever Living Ones is that they appear to be shrinking. The Tuatha De were considered tall against humans. A few hundred years ago elves were generally perceived as around three or four feet tall. The modern apprehension of the size of a fairy is probably between ten and twenty centimetres. What they have lost in stature they have made up in utility, having apparently grown wings along the way. However, just incase you thought you were getting a handle on them, some can switch from small to large if they wish.

Probably the most consistent thing about fairies is that they are attractive to human senses: they are beautiful to gaze upon, their music and voices are sweet to the ear and the smell of their food ravishing to the nostrils. Whether short or tall, a glimpse of the Good Folk fills the mortal observer with wonder, delight and curiosity, but beware, they are very choosy about the humans they will share their wonders with and many who have blundered excitedly in to the revels of the Fae have suffered for it afterwards.

Now it seems your humble Talesman has fallen under their spell, for my spring tour will be “Away With The Fairies” and I shall be reading everything I can about them over the next three months, so no doubt you will hear a little more about them too.

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Fairy Tale Romance


Fairy Tales are as full of good advice and examples of how to live a worthy life as any other type of story, but there is one subject on which they are almost completely useless: Love. Oh they’re are full of people falling in love but more often than not they are both good looking, it rarely takes anything longer than an instant and it is almost always mutual.

A beautiful woman rides on a knights horse leaning over to kiss him

La Belle Dame sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee

It’s hardly surprising people desire this fantastical meeting, it’s so simple! Meet, fall in love and live happily ever after certainly beats meet; date sporadically; introduce each other to each others disapproving parents/friends; move in together against parents/friends advice; fall out over work commitments; agree to separate and argue about the CD collection.

So what should you do if you are looking for that fairytale romance?
Although there may be other options the basic checklist for young men who are seeking the perfect girl in the old fashioned way is as follows:
1/ Be a 7th son or at least youngest of three
2/ Be poor
3/ Have a magical weapon
4/ Have a wicked step parent
5/ Be friends with a talking animal (see FTC June 2011)

If you satisfy 3 or more of the above requirements then finding a well connected damsel in distress and hacking up the cause of her oppression will usually get you past the awkward introductory stage of the relationship and frequently overcomes any reservations her parents may have had. Though if they aren’t around to see it it’s probably wise to keep some proof of your heroism as it is common for cowardly but power hungry political types to make a false claim that they did the deed.

For young women there is a similar but slightly different checklist:
1/ Be a princess
2/ Be pretty
3/ Be kind and smile through all hardship
4/ Have a wicked step parent
5/ Be friends with a talking animal

Don’t be put off if you are not a princess (though it often helps with the parental approval side of things); for ladies it is generally acceptable if you can only tick off one item on the list and number 3, the one item that is in your control, is by far the most important. Unfortunately you will need the wicked step parent or the cowardly politician to place you in the way of mortal peril in order to be saved by the lad who you will instantly fall in love with. You will also have to accept that, statistically, his name will be Jack.

Having achieved the goal of boy meeting girl, do the fairytales have any further advice for your romance? Well, there may be useful information on how to rescue your intended from fairies, trolls or witches and the like but once the excitement is over and the wedding guests have all gone back to their own kingdoms the business of living happily ever after is usually assumed to be a simple process and one on which the fairytales are generally silent. To find out about loving happily ever after we will have to look in a different class of tale and another FTC…

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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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Good Elf and Prosperity


Folk Tales Corner started life as a column in the Morchard Messenger in May last year. I normally re-edit the content slightly for the online version, which is not bound by the constraints of print or locality, but this one is so specific it would have needed a complete re-write (I wouldn’t mind doing a re-write for you, good people, but I need the time to work on my forthcoming CD’s cover design) so I hope my net readers can enjoy it just as well now I’ve pointed that out.

Well, fair Morchardians, it’s been a year (and a day, obviously) since I first set finger to keyboard for Folk Tales Corner. I must confess, I wasn’t at all sure how it was going to turn out, or if anyone would even read it, but several of you have been very complimentary and encouraging, So I thank you all for your indulgence.

Previously my thoughts on folk tales were used to ranging widely across the plains of possibility or galloping unchecked into a conversation, over the last year I have had to corral them in to a coherent commentary and a limited word count. It is a very different experience to telling stories. I know where the story starts and ends and I can use as many or as few words as I like; an adventure in Folk Tales Corner has neither of these advantages and I sometimes go to bed the day before the deadline hoping that, like the shoemaker, I will come down in the morning and elves will have done the job for me.

I’m sure you all know this story: the German cobbler struggles to get by until one morning he wakes to find the last of his leather, which he had cut out the day before, has magically become completed shoes and very fine ones at that. Their high quality and early completion facilitates the purchase of enough leather for two pairs which he duly cuts out and leaves overnight, only to find four completed shoes in the morning. This continues, rejuvenating his business, so he and his kindly wife sneak down in the night to find out how they are being helped and observe a couple of naked elves happily sewing away. Mrs. Shoemaker makes some miniature fancy clothes, leaves them out instead of the leather one night and creeps down to see the elves delighting in their new splendour before they promptly leave, never to return.

Although it all turns out well for the Grimm Brother’s footwear specialist, his curiosity having been stayed until the business was back on it’s feet, this tale type often features the magical helpers leaving their well meaning benefactors in the lurch and stands oddly against the corpus of fairy material that calls for respect and fair dealings. It would appear to be a warning not to overpay your servants lest they get ideas above their station and toddle off. I wonder, as ever, how far back this story goes, if it recalls a specific movement of people, migrant workers or refugees who arrived poorly dressed and consequently unable to get proper employment, being marked out as outsiders. Prepared to work hard just for food and a roof, with skills that belied their primitive appearance, they slaved on until a gift or purchase of local style clothes allowed them to present themselves as ‘normal’ and compete on an even basis.
I was very pleased to see the essence of the unseen workers given a thorough re-examination by J.K. Rowling through the character of Dobbie the house elf, and I defy anyone not to be uplifted when Harry Potter, in a clever subversion of the clothes giving motif, tricks Dobbie’s evil master in to setting him free.

Well, the word count is nearing it’s permissible maximum so I will take the risk of thanking my own magical helper and partner, Jo Coffey (who many of you know as the belly dance teacher) without whose help and encouragement Folk Tales Corner would never have started. Hopefully she will let me buy her clothes occasionally without feeling the need to leave and will still be here to help me write FTC for another year.

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