Tag Archives: folktale

The First Christmas Tree, A German folk tale


Once upon a time there was a Count, by the name of Otto, who lived near Strasburg. Although handsome and single he was so indifferent to the flirtations of the ladies that they called him “Stone Heart”.

One year Count Otto hosted a Christmas Eve hunt in the forests around his castle. He and his guests rode for hours through woods and wastes until, as is pretty much compulsory for a noble who goes hunting in a story, Otto found himself alone and lost. Finding a spring he stopped to wash the dust of the chase from his hands. He was surprised to find the water warm despite the time of year and plunged his arms deeper into the bubbling well head. As he did so he felt as if a smaller softer pair of hands met his own and drew from his finger his favourite gold ring. When he withdrew his hands the ring was indeed missing so he made a mental note to send some servants to fetch it out the following day.

As he lay in his bed that night he heard sounds as of the drawbridge going down and a host of people arriving. Rather shortly afterwards he also heard coming from his own Great Hall the sounds of music and merriment, rather like some throng feasting. When he threw open the doors he found that was indeed the case as colourfully clad dancers whisked past him. In the centre of the room a fir tree stood, bedecked with gold rings, diamond encrusted bracelets, bejewelled belts and ruby pommeled daggers in silver sheaths. As Otto stood staring in disbelief, the dancers parted and as the music faded away the most beautiful woman he had ever seen swayed towards him with raven hair and fine dress in plush satins and velvets. “We have come to return your Christmas visit to our fairy well” she said, “and return to you something you have lost.” She held out a small gold casket which, when opened, revealed his ring. “I am Ernestine, Queen of the fairies” she said holding out her hand. As the music began again Otto found himself taking her hand and joining the dance. As they danced the other fairies shimmered away leaving only Ernestine in his arms. Entranced he sank to one knee and asked her to marry him. Ernestine smiled and said: “As long as you never speak the word “Death” in my presence.”

The two were wed the very next day and spent many happy years together. Otto still enjoyed hosting the occasional hunt and Ernestine joined in too. One day, when everyone was in the courtyard ready to set off on for the pursuit, Ernestine was still in her chambers. Otto held up the departure. Time trickled away and Otto grew impatient. Eventually Ernestine came out through the doors. Otto was quite angry by this time, “You have kept us waiting so long,” he cried, “that you would make a good messenger to send for Death!”

There was barely time for her to utter one anguished scream and then she was gone, vanished in to thin air. Otto was frantic. He searched the castle and the forest, dived in to the fairy well and ranged up and down the banks of the stream that flowed from it, all to no avail.

Every year he brought a fir tree in to his hall and dressed it in bright shiny jewels and candles in remembrance of their first night together and the hope that its sparkling lights might bring her home.

After a while Otto’s neighbours began to put up decorated trees of their own. Slowly the custom spread until now, if the queen of the fairies should return to seek her lost love, she would find his signal shining from houses all over the globe.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Pond Life


Although the Beauty And The Beast variations may appear simple on the surface, it is clear that this yarn would never have captured the imagination so widely if there wasn’t more to it. The transformation of the beastly suitor into a handsome Prince at the climax of the tale is most readily interpreted as simply a change of perception on the part of the Princess and, through her, everyone else. He doesn’t actually change physically, it is just that no-one sees him as repellant anymore.

Of course it would be impossible to examine this tale type without referencing the problems of gender politics which so often beset fairy tales. For instance, the Beast has a lot of information about Beauty’s family which could only have been gained by stalking, he and Beauty’s father enter in to a deal which would be condemned by a modern court as trafficking and, after months or even years of captive grooming, Beauty eventually develops a love for her captor which would make a text book example of Stockholm Syndrome. Less of a romance and more of a horror story!

However, in the type of psychological analysis in which all the characters are representative of elements of a single psyche, the marriage and transfiguration can also be seen as the internal unification between the ego and a shadow part of the mind, a trait or aspect of personality that has been rejected but is finally accepted and incorporated into the self. And we’re back to a happy, though slightly deeper, ending. Phew!

The amphibian versions are often the most succinct with the action condensed into a couple of days: A princess drops the golden ball she is playing with into a pond and a frog offers to retrieve it if she will take him back to her pad for an evening at her side and a night in her bed. The princess agrees and gets her ball back but reneges on the deal and runs home. The next day, during tea, the frog turns up (usually talking in rhyming couplets for no really good reason), and the princess’ parents insist that she has to go through with the deal she made. She reluctantly shares her food with the slimy pond dweller and has to sit with him on her lap then take him to her room at the end of the evening. She leaves him in a corner but he climbs into bed with her. Annoyed at his sliminess and not keen to sleep in a wet patch, she throws him against the wall. This breaks the spell, releasing the enchanted prince from his green exterior, upon which they get married. It’s classic folktale.

The Frog Prince appears to keep the message of the story simple: “don’t judge a frog by its colour”, but in doing so it seems it misses out on the rich, psychological layer cake of interpretative fun that can be had with the longer versions. In order to move the story along the princess has no sisters, her parents are an authoritative presence but little more, the frog’s back-story is a line at best and the action and motivation are kept firmly in the binary relationship between she and he. As a result of this, the coercion that the disfigured man uses to get access to the woman has to be exerted directly on the princess, rather than on her father as it is in Beauty. So the girl becomes the deal breaker, making her the antagonist and turning the frog in to a sympathetic character pretty much throughout and often leaving me wondering why he wants to marry the rather selfish girl after he is restored. Unless prince froggy is just as much an internal shadow as the Beast and the Black Bull and the only way anyone gets any peace is when the soul is unified in the inevitable psychological marriage. Do you see why I am fascinated with this stuff? Even the pond life is deep!

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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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Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy


If I say “Wizard” what is the picture that comes to mind? A thin man with grey hair and beard hanging down over his long robes whose eyes twinkle with kindly mischief and deep wisdom while he gently leans on his simple staff? How about sorcerer? Although the beard and robe probably remain I expect the image you have is of a much darker, less benevolent man. I’m also fairly sure that the word “witch” will conjure visions of an ugly crone in a pointy hat whose intentions are largely evil. A wizard who practices his art to cause harm is denoted with the adjective “dark”, otherwise it is generally assumed he is a good guy. Witches on the other hand have to have “white” added before one can be sure they are on the side of good and although “wicked” is often employed for the baddies it tends to be just for emphasis.

The popularity of tales such as Hansel and Gretel is probably part of the problem. A greater familiarity with a broader range of folk tale shows that witches are just as likely as wizards to use their power for the benefit of the ordinary people, and where there is a wicked witch there is usually a wise woman who knows enough about magic to counteract their spells, which surely makes them a witch too, doesn’t it?

Now this is interesting because the term “Wizard” was originally “wise-art” and could refer to any gender. It was applied to those who had a knack for predicting events, or seeing in to the future and only later came to include workers of magic and enchantment. “Witch”, also originally an androgynous term, started its journey in the verb “wiccian”, meaning to use spells, and apparently travelled the other way, incorporating foresight, until the two words achieved parallel meaning in the late fifteen hundreds when Reginald Scot wrote that “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch,’ or ‘she is a wise woman.’ ”

So what went wrong? Whilst it would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of the medieval church and its witch hunts of the sixteen hundreds, our Saxon and Viking ancestors both held a belief in the value of physical skills in swordplay and sheer brute strength. This gave them a deeply ingrained distrust of magic users who were seen as somehow cheating, it might be acceptable to slip on a shirt one had enchanted to deflect spears but a true warrior wouldn’t be seen taking a sorcerer into battle with them; rather like the nineties attitude that “nerds” were fine when people wanted their computer fixed but generally considered a bit too weird to invite down the pub after work. The religious persecutions of the middle ages, although a hideous abuse of power to eliminate the competition, were also merely an inverted popularity contest playing on the deeply rooted prejudices of the populace.

How wizards survived the propaganda is, I believe, down to a story: the myth of a strong, skilled, honourable king who gathered a band of knights, each with great prowess of arms, and fought for fairness. Through many re-writes the story was progressively christianised which helped it keep its popularity over several centuries and avoid censure from the church. It is a story which would not work without a key character, king Arthur’s friend and adviser, the wizard Merlin, who set the template for all the great wizards who have come since.

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

 

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