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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Filed under Faeries, Fairies, Fairytale, stories, Storytelling

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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Filed under Animals, Fairytale, Folk Tale, Quest, Storytelling, Summer, Talking Animals, Transformation

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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Thrice Upon A Time


So as we reach the third month, March, what better time to talk about one of the golden rules of folk tale and storytelling: if it happens more than once then it happens three times. Oh yes, the third time’s the charm!
Three siblings set out to seek their fortune. The first two are really only there to show how difficult, dangerous or disgusting the task at hand may be, through trying and failing they elevate the third adventurer by contrast. It may be that they meet a giant each and you can be sure that, if the second outsized thug is more fearsome than the first by dint of having an extra head, then an even bigger giant with the full compliment of three heads will be along shortly.

Once you start to look there is no turning back the tide of trios, triplications and trinities: our protagonist befriends three magic helpers; is given three gifts; meets three consecutively older and uglier peasants; goes to three dances; answers three riddles; turns around three times; gets three chances; meets three crones on the heath… and here we find ourselves looping in to the sphere of mythology where the triple aspects of an ancient mother goddess, creator, sustainer, destroyer are reflected in the three Greek fates, the Norse Norns and Shakespeare’s witches. It’s not just goddesses that hang around in threes: The Norse God Odin is first encountered creating the nine worlds (3×3!) with his brothers Vili and Ve alongside him before, for the sake of brevity we assume, Vili and Ve vanish without trace and their deeds are referred to Odin alone. A similar thing happens with the Celtic God Lugh who is born one of triplets before they too are collapsed in to the singular name. Even in a nominally monotheistic religion we find a triple aspect of masculine deity in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Is it because three is the number of the divine then, that it is so popular? Well, it is also the basis of our physical world since we live in three dimensions, we all know the stability of a tripod, everything is either solid, liquid or gas. Even the business world will “tell you three times” while politicians talk about “Education, education, education.” and estate agents recite “Location, location, location”. It seems that, even in the most mundane of environments, if it happens more than once then it happens three times.

Maybe it’s because three gives us a beginning, a middle and an end, though it may be hard to know where the beginning is. In the case of the year it obviously begins on January 1st… Unless you’re Chinese when it gets going in February… or, if you have had a slow opening to 2011 and would like to start all over again then your third chance comes from following the Roman, Persian or astrological example, all three of which celebrate the new year in March.

It would appear that three is the natural number, the number of completeness, it just is the right number. So there you have a golden rule of folk tale, and like so much in these old traditions it is a microcosm of the world around us: if it happens more than once then it happens three times!

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

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

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