Tag Archives: Golden Apple

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

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

Golden Apples at Midsummer


In contrast to May day, June’s significant date, the summer solstice, has surprisingly few references in traditional folk tales and mythology considering it’s modern popularity. However, the seaways are clear; the roads less muddy; the crops have all been planted and harvest is a couple of months away: now is the time to set out on impossible missions in search of improbable objects!

The spur to action is often a sickness that has fallen upon a loved one and only the Water of Life (from the Fountain of Youth at the end of the world, guarded by an ogre/ giant/ multi-headed dragon) or a Golden Apple will cure them. Not much to ask. You might think that the apple is a better bet but the quest for the Golden Apple invariably leads our hero to far flung lands and, of course, in to myriad dangers facing exotic beasts.

It’s unsurprising that, with all these brave youths off scrumping, there is another set of tales which start with a king whose wondrous tree of life-giving fruit is raided every summer. The cure for this trouble tends to be the procurement of an equally wondrous, brightly plumaged bird which a posse of princes is dispatched to acquire.

Now, folktales are as much about learning as entertainment, so if you find yourself  in a foreign land hunting for a mythical avian or metallic fruit, here are some tips:
1. Horses, foxes, wolves (in fact, any kind of canine) and the maid at the first castle you are imprisoned in, should all be treated with respect as they usually turn out to be endowed with astonishing magical powers. Without their help you are likely to be eaten, put to death or left wandering and lost in the first impenetrable forest you come to.
2. If your elder brothers are on the same quest, watch out: They will nick anything valuable you have obtained and leave you stuck in a swamp as soon as look at you. (But don’t worry, after your supernatural assistant has sorted it all out you can really tick them off by forgiving them at the end of the story).

In the Norse myth “The Theft of Idun’s Apples”, the giant Thiazi, with help from Loki, steals Idun and her Golden apples of immortality from Asgard (home of the Norse Gods).  With these life giving treasures gone the Gods start to grow old, staggering and stammering beneath the hot summer sun until Loki, as he so often does, makes good again. This time it is achieved by borrowing Freya’s falcon skin to fly out and retrieve Idun. Thiazi pursues Loki in the form of an eagle, gets his wings singed, crash lands in Asgard and, in an almost Pythonesque scene, is set upon by the geriatric Gods before Idun hands out her apples thus returning the Gods to their youthful vigour.

But why all this fuss over apples? Wouldn’t golden ones be a bit difficult to chew? Well, some scholars believe that the unidentified illness suffered by the princess/ king/ Gods is actually scurvy, the cure for which is vitamin C. Come the summer, the fruit from the previous year had been used up, hence the need to travel to warmer lands. Historically ‘apple’ was a general term for any fruit: a Golden Apple is an orange!

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

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Filed under June, Quest, stories, Summer