Tag Archives: History

Pony Tales


Usually when I write on a certain folktale theme it is the theme of an upcoming show. Over the past years that has meant a touring show that might get twenty performances after a five month build up. I would already have an idea of around half the stories in the set in month one. During the ongoing research, filtering and learning stage I had time to notice underlying similarities, sub themes and concepts within the assorted yarns I was considering, cogitate on their meaning or relevance and pour my musings on to the page for Folk Tales Corner, often solidifying and condensing what had been quite loose, unfocused ponderings in the process. The well ordered and logical progression of thoughts which reveals itself in this fashion often then becomes the basis for an introduction to a story or the links in a sequence of shorter tales.

Now I am knocking new shows together in a couple of weeks, each one getting a single performance in front of a webcam and a screen full of small heads bobbing unnervingly about at the bottom of their oblong boxes. By the time I notice something I want to talk about it’s the night before the gig. By the time I have sat down to write about a thing I noticed the show has gone, along with some very short and random introductions.

Hence this months FTC is about horses, the show I did last Saturday. It’s not going to be as useful to me or you as it might have been… but there was something I spotted during the all too brief research that I really want to chew over. I’ve mentioned “the story” before, the one in a theme that you keep coming across? With horses it is this one: Three poor brothers are set to catch who ever has been stealing hay from the meadow, the eldest two fall asleep, the foolish youngest finds that it is a beautiful white mare, jumps on her back and is treated to the ride of their life but by hanging on they eventually cause the magnificent beast to accept them. Sometimes the horse then becomes their companion but more often she gifts the lad two amazingly valuable colts and one small and odd pony. Selling the prize colts to the king gets the young lad a job as the horses only behave for him. Jealous courtiers try to get rid of the kings new favourite by claiming he is a boaster and get the king to set him a series of impossible tasks under restrictive time constraints and threat of death. With the aid of the small odd horse who is naturally magic, can talk and sometimes fly, the young lad achieves the tasks. Often these involve the procurement of another famously amazing, but wild, mare and her herd, and nearly always end with the long distance abduction of a beautiful princess, who may or may not be the Moon or the Dawn. The denouement, in which the magic horse not only saves the lad from a hideous death, but contrives to make him even more handsome than he was while the old king commits accidental self-regicide in a cauldron of boiling milk, is a classic folk tale climax*, following which the Princess marries the lad and they take over the kingdom. Phew.

This tale and it’s variants can be found anywhere there are horses but the majority, and the more fully developed versions, cover a swathe that runs up the east of Europe from Turkey through Hungary and into Russia. This includes the ancient Greek myth of Pegasus, the famously winged horse captured by Belerephon, though without the poached monarch.

The thought that has been tickling me is: does this story, that comes to us from the edges of the horse lands, contain memories of the first horse taming? Did the very first fool to successfully break a horse become a celebrated hero but also a target for gossips and manipulators? Did they find that their new steed enabled them to capture or kill beasts too fearsome to overcome on foot, to do the previously impossible? Did it seem, even as it does to modern writers, that the horse at full speed barely touched the ground, clearing hedges and ditches like a bird, such that tales of flying horses are simply poetic exaggeration of previously unexperienced speed? Did their unique skill allow them to become a ruler? And, most importantly, does that mean we can date the genesis of this story to six and a half thousand years ago?

* If I haven’t persuaded you to read some folk tales over the last 11 years that sentence alone should do it.

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

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Look How Far We’ve Come


One of the side effects of researching old folk tales is one can’t help but develop an awareness of history. Whilst the history that is taught in education and sighed over in costume dramas is mostly from a fairly well to do perspective, folktales carry memories of the history experienced by the less fortunate. Stories like Hansel and Gretel remind us the nobility of the Middle Ages kept the agricultural peasantry on such barely subsistence wages, that a bad harvest or a passing pestilence could leave parents choosing which children to feed and which to abandon to their fate. Those without patronage, employment or pension were so hard pressed for food that, in difficult times, the madness of hunger actually did drive some to eat human flesh. Maybe alongside the famous Henry Tudor wife tally of “Divorced, Beheaded, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived!” We should learn the cost of medieval royalty’s lifestyle: “Starving, Abandoned, Died. Starving, Abandoned, Cannibalised.”

Uncomfortable as these reminders are, they are easy to pass by as the product of extremis, circumstances way beyond anything we are likely to encounter ourselves. However, now and then I come across a tale that can still shock me, it’s horrors not being so long ago or far away, and presented with such everyday banality that it sends shivers down my spine.

My next virtual online zoom performance is going to be about cats. A fairly safe topic one might have thought, relatively low in the jeopardy stakes with a minimal body count mostly tallied in rodents. I was not prepared for “The Lazy Cat”, a purportedly “humorous” tale from Hungary. It starts with the sentence “A lad married a rich and lazy maid and solemnly promised he would never beat her”. On the surface this may seem like a good thing but there are two warning signs in this one statement. Firstly, in folk tales of this type the opening sentence tends to be a pretty good guide to the main topic of the story: this is going to be a story about domestic violence. Secondly, the simple fact that his oath is worth mentioning means the cultural norm for the society was that husbands beat their wives. In case you are in any doubt about that, the story continues: the wife does no work around the house, spending her days in idle gossip “And still he kept his word and never raised his hand against her.” Yes, we are seriously being asked to give him points simply for not being a thug.

The husband solves the conundrum of how to discipline his unruly spouse without breaking his vow by turning to the cat. He orders the poor feline to do all the housework and have his meal ready for when he gets back under threat of a whipping. When he returns and puss has unsurprisingly failed to lift a paw he ties the cat to his wife’s back, whips the cat and the cat claws the wife. After a couple of days of this the wife starts to do the cat’s chores and all is well.

The shocking realisation that in an anecdote from not that long ago we are being invited to consider violence by proxy a clever work around; that the animal cruelty is almost casual; and the “joke” hinges on the foolish act of forsaking direct violence; shows that things have improved over the years. Our reaction to it gives us perspective. It’s a bit like reaching a hill top on a long walk. There is still a long way to go before we reach true equality between the sexes (women are still payed less than men for the same job despite legislation that says otherwise, just as one indisputable example), but just turn around, face back along the rocky path a moment and look how far we’ve come.

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

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For England and St. George!


I’ve been telling the tale of St. George for nearly twenty years now, it’s a rollicking tale! I always give George a nice big dragon to fight (and like any storyteller, it keeps getting bigger) partly because that is half the story and partly because, well, George makes such a meal of it. Despite the full complement of helpful horse and magic sword it takes him three goes, a shattered lance, melted armour and a lot of hiding in an orange tree to finish off the scaly adversary. Still, persevering in the face of overwhelming odds is the English way and the English way is what St George is all about isn’t it?

Dragon Hill in the Vale of White Horse bears witness to this most English of battles where the spilt dragon’s blood has rendered a patch of ground barren to this day. Except that a search through the archives for a more detailed re-counting of the legend fairly quickly shows this to be a recent transplant, with the medieval version set amongst the sands of Egypt. Here he saves the duskily beautiful Princess Sabia from a crispy death as reptilian appeasement and we hope, briefly, for an ending in interracial marriage and harmony. Unfortunately, George is subject to some political intrigue and religious persecution at the hands of Kings Ptolemy of Egypt, Almidor of Morocco and an unnamed King of Persia. Unjustly imprisoned for seven years he fights off two lions, escapes, kills a giant and a wizard, is reunited with Sabia and takes her back to England for a right royal wedding. Eventually George returns with a huge army to take his revenge on all three of his oppressors, conquering all of north Africa and the middle east in the process, whereupon the people proclaim him king and convert, on mass, to Christianity.

So the action may not take place in England but at least the hero is the noble son of the Lord of Coventry… unless one reads the story of Sir Bevois (Pronounced Bevis) of (South) Hampton. Apart from a few variations in the preamble and the order of events, the two tales are almost identical. A little further digging reveals that both versions came back from the middle east in the mouths of crusaders: not folk tales at all but a stirring call to action, carefully casting the Muslims as the bad guys, and it was during the creation of this propaganda that George received a birth certificate and passport for a country he never, in reality, set foot in.

Shovelling even deeper reveals that the original Saint George was a soldier in the Roman army who, after speaking out against the emperor’s persecution of the Christians, was martyred (killed very unpleasantly) for his beliefs. For those who are familiar with mummer’s plays in which St George fights with a Turkish Knight, there is a final twist in that George’s birthplace, Cappadocia, was in Turkey making him a Turkish Knight himself.

With the current moves to reinvigorate him with his own Bank Holiday, we can but wonder what a man who died turning the other cheek might think of the revisions that have been made to his biography for political reasons. What would the soldier who was killed for standing up to an unjust government think of the plans to take away the peoples ancient May Day celebrations?
We will never know, but what I do know is that I shall probably still be telling of his fictitious fight with a dragon in some form or another, for another twenty years or more because, after all is said and done, it is a cracking story!

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

The Travelling Talesman http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under April, Dragon, Folk Tale, history, Quest, Spring, stories, Storytelling