Tag Archives: Folk tale

Beardy and the Beast


When I grew my beard It was purely an accident precipitated by the breakdown of the beard trimmer with which I had previously maintained a very tidy long-stubble goatee. The unexpected effect this was that a couple of years and several inches of facial hair later I discovered I had unintentionally preempted the trend and was, for the first time in my life, fashionable. When beards are ‘in’ long hair also becomes acceptable and I have rather enjoyed not being seen as beastly.

This tour I am looking in to transformation, transfiguration and transmutation So I thought I might have a go at Beauty And The Beast. I started looking for a version of it in my library. I couldn’t remember coming across one but, it being a classic and me having spent many years avoiding those, I thought I might have just passed it by. A search through the most likely collections has so far turned up several frog princes, and a small tooth dog, a black bull, two bears, and an invisible man, but no lead male simply referred to as a beast.

All of the above are essentially the same story of a beautiful young woman pursued by an ugly and undesirable male who is really a rich and handsome prince under a curse. In most she has a pair of selfish, older sisters for contrast. However it is usually the girl’s father that does something wrong and, to save his own life, enters into a contract with a powerful and frightening entity to hand over his beloved youngest daughter. She is at first scared but slowly comes to appreciate her inhuman captor’s kindness, though still rejecting his advances. Eventually some action of hers brings her unsightly suitor near to death, she realises that she loves him and her love restores his humanity and good looks. Sometimes he is removed from her and she, left with nothing, has to search for him for several years, climb a glass mountain, collect a series of magical objects and trade them with another woman to win him back. It is known in storytelling circles as “The Search For The Lost Husband”. Which is all well and good but still not the populist, crowd pleasing, fairy tale that I was trying to track down: I simply don’t have it!

Puzzled that such a well loved romance should be absent from the works of the assorted collectors on my shelves, I resorted to the internet. There, I discovered why: the title and the particulars of the most well known form of this anti physical prejudice story, are the work of a sixteenth century French publisher called Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont, who edited down her version from the novel length original by the equally over-named Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Between the two of them, these writers have nurtured and distilled the essence of a genre sufficiently well that they have all but replaced the folk tales from which they took their inspiration.

Hmmm, so left with a literary tale on the internet instead of a folk tale in a book I rather went off the idea. But… the essential story is such a classic form of transformation that I feel it really should be represented. On the other hand, it’s a lot of story for only one change. Well, now I am on a search of my own, hopefully I won’t have to wear out my shoes or climb a glass mountain to get it. I wonder if I can find a version that fits the brief?

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Parental Advisory


People die in folk tales, especially kind, loving parents. People get hurt, tortured, imprisoned, eaten, turned into animals, boiled to death and shoved into ovens. Whole families are systematically wiped out until the youngest child, presumably paddling ankle deep through their kindred’s blood, tricks, traps and dismembers or cooks the clan’s psychopathic assailant.

People talk about violence on TV but it’s been part of our entertainment for thousands of years. As has sex.

Folktale farmers and fishermen fornicate with fairies, mate with mermaids and sleep with seal people. Princesses, peasant girls and goddesses alike are wooed, seduced, stripped naked, abducted and sexually assaulted whilst in a magical sleep. Heroes, villains, step relatives, trolls, witches and half siblings magically transform themselves into the likeness of protagonist’s lovers for a night of passion, often followed by gloating revenge and/or dubious offspring. When not disguising themselves as bulls, bears and swans to have sex with humans, mythical deities frequently have sexual relationships with their siblings, their mortal enemies and occasionally horses.

You see, despite what most modern people think, these stories were not created for children. They were told by firesides of an evening to a mixed audience who’s age range probably narrowed from both ends as the night wore on. Many were grown out of the lives of real people and poorly reported events. Everything that television, radio and even books are to us now, storytelling was to our forebears.

When I tour pubs I am unsurprisingly expecting my audience to be adult. Characters in the stories may be driven by hormonal motivations that make little sense to the pre-adolescent and other characters, a drunk and abusive giant for instance, are more believable with a touch of post watershed language. That is not to say that it becomes a tsunami of filth and gore but these are stories originally created by and told for adults. An intelligent, well behaved child of say 10 would be able to cope with most of the material but I wouldn’t recommend many of the tales for a six year old simply on length of time and level of plotting. Kids under seven have neither the attention span, the narrative facility, nor the vocabulary necessary to be anything other than mildly baffled by the experience.

Of course I also do sessions for families at festivals, fun days and the like where I select the material that is less likely to horrify and bemuse the youngsters. It is a tricky business, age appropriateness. On the face of it a tale of two abandoned kids who rob, are imprisoned by and eventually roast a cannibal might be considered parental advisory, yet few would question Hansel and Gretel’s place in the cannon of little children’s literature. Death is part of the point of the stories: things change, people die, life continues. The stories are a safe way for children to experience fear and loss and learn how to overcome them. For all their fantastical settings, folk tales hold up a mirror to life and help us cope. Each tale is a learning experience, a map for dealing with the problems that life throws at us, including sex and death. However old we are we keep needing to revise these lessons and what better way than with a story in your local pub?

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Nothing to Fear


The word Goblin is nowadays almost inseparable from the word “horde”. We imagine these short, ugly, ravening creatures of evil hanging out in great gangs in the wastelands of old forests and abandoned mines waiting to feast on the flesh of unwary travellers. Tolkien is largely responsible for the modern concept of misshapen malevolence in insect like legions. Folklore rarely sees goblins in such numbers, in fact, it rarely sees them at all and they would only appear to have been with us for about six hundred years under the name in question. So what are they and where did they come from?

The earliest appearance in British literature tells of a hillock in the midst of a dense wood where a tired knight might call out “I thirst!”

A pointy nosed and pointy eared goblin amuses himself dropping leaves from a cliff

“Leaf Goblin” A sympathetic rendition of a goblin by fantasy artist Marc Potts. More of whose excellent work can be seen at http://www.marcpotts.co.uk/

and immediately find himself in the presence of “a Goblin with a cheerful countenance, clad in a crimson robe, and bearing in his outstretched hand a large drinking-horn richly ornamented with gold and precious jewels, full of the most delicious, refreshing and unknown beverage. After the drinker had emptied the horn, the Goblin offered a silken napkin to wipe the mouth. Then, without waiting to be thanked, the strange creature vanished as suddenly as he had come.” Hardly terrifying. Typically an arrogant knight nicked the generous forest dweller’s horn and he withdrew his services.

With little to go on the folklorist generally turns to etymology to trace the origins of supernatural beings. It appears the word goblin may have been derived from the German “Kobold”. Now, the Kobold is a house spirit, famed for their domestic usefulness and their ability to remain unseen. They were sufficiently common that most houses had one who was looked after with great care, having food left out for them on a daily basis. As with any invisible helper, it was a bad idea to try to see them and one story tells of a persistent burgher throwing ashes around the room to make the kobold, King Goldemar’s footprints apparent, resulting in the householder being dismembered, roasted on a spit and eaten.

As the religious fervour of the middle ages took hold, these pagan house spirits fell out of favour and were, along with witches and the like, demonised. Stories of their helpfulness were told less often than the tales of them turning nasty on overly inquisitive humans; whilst the original message of such narratives, treat all beings with respect, was replaced with the implication that we should fear the unknown and the supernatural.

They say there is nothing to fear but fear itself and the goblin is a fine example of that truism, fear having turned the commonplace in to something fearful. The goblin as we know him now is a horror of our own making. Their willingness to assist mankind for the price of a meal, a roof over their head and a little privacy as to their appearance has been rejected, leaving thousands homeless and desperate roaming the wastes of our imagination… and they’re hungry.

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The Blacksmith’s Wife Of Yarrowfoot


Two brothers worked in apprenticeship to a blacksmith down at Yarrowfoot many, many years ago. They were hard working lads and good learners but after a while the youngest began to grow pale and thin, his previous ready wit and easy smile were gone from him along with his ability to concentrate and perform all but the simplest of tasks. He seemed distracted, tired and edgy.

One night, the elder brother sat down on the side of the younger’s bed as his brother lay there, with his eyes fixed somewhere beyond the roof.

What is wrong my brother? Speak to me, maybe I can help”

Help?” he replied “There is no help for me on this earth.”

Well there certainly will not be if you don’t tell anyone what’s wrong! Now speak, for you know I will not let the matter drop until you do.”

So the lad told his tale, “Each night is the same, after everyone is asleep the Blacksmith’s wife comes in to our room. She slides a bridal over my head and I am transformed in to a horse. She then rides me for miles out across the moors, sparing neither kicks nor whips, places me in the stables of a great hall and goes within to dance and debauch with a host of other witches and their demonic associates. When they are done she collects me from my stall, in which there is neither food nor water, and rides me back here at full gallop, with just enough time to creep in to bed before I have to get up. I have not slept for days”

He said sadly. “Then swap beds with me now” urged his brother “and tonight you shall sleep while I bear your burden.”

The youngster needed no second asking and was fast asleep in his brother’s bed in a trice. There was not long to wait before the Blacksmith’s wife crept in to the room and slid the magic bridal over the elder brother’s head. He felt the strangeness of transformation, becoming a fine, strong stallion and allowed the witch to lead him out of the house. Soon he was galloping over the moors as she kicked his sides and whipped his back. Eventually they reached a great hall high up on the moors, where she placed him in a stable before going off to her ghastly revels.

The elder brother, whilst trying to scratch an itch on his cheek by rubbing it against the wooden side of the stall, discovered a nail sticking out of a post, managed to snag the bridal on it and pull it off over his elongated head. As soon as the bridal was removed he underwent a reverse of his previous transformation and hid in the shadows of the stall. When the witch returned from her unearthly carousing he suddenly leapt out and placed the bridal over her head, turning her in to a rather startled mare. Leaping upon her back he then rode her homeward across the moors, sparing neither kick nor whip and when he reached civilisation he made her gallop up and down a ploughed field until she was all of a lather. On the way he stopped at another forge and had the smith fit a fine set of horseshoes to her front hooves before completing the journey and releasing the blacksmith’s wife to slink, exhausted, in to her bed.

The honest blacksmith rose soon after and went to work but was concerned when his wife did not also rise. She claimed illness and a doctor was called who, seeing her pale and dishevelled state, wished to take her pulse but she refused to let him see her hands. Despite his entreaties she kept them beneath the bedclothes until he grew exasperated and pulled back the sheets. To their horror they saw the horseshoes attached to her hands and the bruises on her side. The brothers told their tale and the witch was duly punished in the time honoured fashion. The younger lad was nursed back to health with butter made from the milk of cows grazed in the churchyard, a sovereign remedy for those who have been hagridden.

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Filed under Folk Tale, Halloween, Witch

Chirp-Tweet Chirrup-Cheep


What’s that you say? You want to understand the speech of the birds? There used to be a way, I don’t think you would like it though, and anyway it’s too late for you to test it now even though the right time of year is fast approaching. You see, what you need to do is lie under the gallows on midsummer’s eve. Not something you would imagine trying on the off chance I should think. This is how it generally happens:

Sometimes it’s two brothers, sometimes just two travellers that fall in together on the road.
By various means it always ends up that one has control of the food and the other has an empty stomach. The food controller asks a higher and higher price of the hungry one, taking any gold or money he has and all his belongings. Eventually Control asks Hungry for his eyes. Yes, you read that right: his eyes! Weak and desperate Hungry pays. To add insult to injury, Control abandons Hunger outside the town they have been travelling towards, leaving him blind and helpless by the gallows.

The Magpie on the Gallows
(Ok, there’s only one, it’s not a raven, there’s no one under the gallows, people are dancing and it’s not at night but it’s a free picture so what do you want?)

As he lies there with ignominious death creeping towards him on unfriendly feet, he overhears a meeting that is held once a year by three ravens (Or three crows. Or a raven a crow and a blackbird. Or a magpie and a dove. In one version a fox and a squirrel but let’s not dwell on the details for too long). The magical combination of liminality in both place and time renders the speech of the creatures intelligible as they relate a series of misfortunes that have befallen the people of the nearby town and the obscure means by which they might be delivered from them.

Typically there is sick princess to be cured, a drought to be ended and a blind mayor to be restored to sight. None of which would be much use except that the cure for the mayors blindness just happens to be the dew that falls right there on Solstice morning… and it will work for anyone! Gratefully, Hungry rubs his sightless sockets with the dew and vision returns.

Hungry bottles some of the magic moisture, drags his enfeebled body to the town and sure enough sets the Mayor aright, gaining his thanks in food, accommodation and often a job to boot. Control, however, is already in the town and, envious of Hungry’s new found status, tries to bring him down. Control’s efforts only result in Hungry using his knowledge to rise even higher through ending the people’s troubles and not only saving the princess but gaining her hand in marriage.

Now, you may be tempted to rush off trying to find somewhere that still hangs murderers or and old gibbet preserved on some rural hillside so you too can eavesdrop on some corvids, cure the blind, save a town and win a princess but hold fast: timing is everything.

Eventually Control learns of the method through which Hungry came by his amazing knowledge and, since a year has passed heads out that very night (just as you have been thinking you might do) to hear what the birds have to say. As he lies there, the ravens meet. How is it that all they discussed last year has come to pass when only they knew? Someone must have been listening! Look there he is down there! And they ply their beaks dexterously upon him, plucking out his eyes and striking out his life.

So if you do choose to seek a gallows to hear the birds beneath this summer solstice eve, be careful no one has been there before you!

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

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Filed under Folk Tale, Solstice, Talking birds

Happily Ever After


and so to the last of this trilogy on love. If you survive the fairytale challenges and avoid the legendary tragedy how do you get to ‘live happily ever after’?

Here we must turn to the folk tale where there is a vast store of anecdotes to take advice from, though they do not always agree. One of the main types warns men not to beat their wives of which my favourite is “The Peasant Doctor”.

A well to do peasant (he owns much land, three ploughs with their oxen and four horses) gets fixed up with the attractive daughter of a local knight by his well meaning neighbours.
After the wedding he suddenly begins to worry that, being a good looking lass, she will be beset by suitors while he is at work in the fields and, being of higher station than him, she will give in to their advances. To prevent this he hits on the plan of making her too miserable during the day for anyone to come calling and making up to her when he gets home. So in the morning he beats her and in the evening he begs forgiveness.
The next day, while he is at work in the fields two of the kings messengers stop at the house asking if there is a good doctor around, the young wife decides to teach her husband how a beating feels, for surely, if he only knew he would never beat her again. She tells the messengers that her husband is an excellent doctor… but will deny it unless he is given a sound thrashing!

Naturally, when the peasant protests his lack of medical expertise, the kings men are only too happy to administer the necessary encouragement and the peasant is brought before the king where he again tries to explain his true profession and is promptly persuaded by another walloping. The kings daughter has a fishbone stuck in her throat. The peasant, now forced in to finding a cure, has a large fire built, strips naked and scratches himself which is sufficiently amusing to the princess that she laughs the fishbone out. The peasant refuses payment, wishing to go home and forget the whole sorry business but the king ‘requests’ that he stay on and cure the many sick people who have come to the castle. Foolishly, the peasant protests his lack of expertise which leads to another dose of his own medicine. He then gathers all the patients in the great hall, sends the king and his men out, builds a big fire and explains that he can cure them but first he has to find the sickest amongst them, then burn that one to death and concoct a cure for the rest from the resultant ashes. Now of course no one will admit to being even the slightest bit under the weather so he sends them away and as the king questions them on the way out they each confess to having been cured.
With no more patients he is allowed to leave and accepts the kings rewards. Returning home with a new appreciation of how it feels to be beaten for no reason he is always kind and gentle with his wife and, realising that she is a smart cookie too, he takes care to listen to her thoughts. As a bonus for the whole escapade, since the king made him rich, he can pay someone else to work in the fields so he is able to stay at home and ensure no one calls on the good lady with dishonourable intentions, and they both lived happily ever after!

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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