Tag Archives: rags to riches

A Bit Of Graft


With a new year starting, a vaccine on it’s way, and the economy in tatters I predict we are once more going to be hearing a lot about “hard work”. We are going to be exhorted to get down to it, get on with it and be dedicated about it. If we are poor we will be told that it’s because we aren’t doing enough of it. Those who are wealthy will claim that it’s because they did lots of it. Realising that “Hard work” is about to become a hot topic I naturally set about searching my data base for a folktale about hard work and the riches it bestows.

There wasn’t one. I checked with a fellow storyteller. They didn’t know of one either. Oh, There are plenty of tales warning of the destitution and destruction that can befall those who do not work at all (so I would avoid that). There are also many examples of stories in which doing some hard work is used as a signal of the protagonists virtue before they receive a gift of extraordinary munificence from a supernatural benefactor… But not one that we could think of in which the protagonist achieves opulence as a direct result of working hard and getting proportional recompense for said hard work.

Without doing an exhaustive statistical breakdown, I think I can pretty safely say that the most frequent folktale method of becoming rich is to marry nobility. Through most of history this option was only available to those of noble birth in the first place and most rags-to-riches tales are in reality riches-to-rags-and-back-again tales (Notably the fall from prosperity amongst nobility is always bad luck and never the result of not doing enough hard work). Although some domestic drudgery may be involved along the road back to affluence, this brings no reward of it’s own, in fact it usually comes with a side order of humiliation and degradation.

Celtic Myth goes further and spells it out for us when Cormac Mac Art goes to the land of Faery and is shown a vision in which a man constantly feeds a fire with whole trees, each of which is burned up by the time he returns with the next. This, Cormac is told, represents those who work for others as their work is never done and they do not get to warm themselves by the fire. Those who extol the benefits of you doing some hard work are frequently the people who will enjoy those benefits whilst doing very little that could be described as either hard or work themselves. If you are going to do some hard work you had better have a very clear idea of exactly what you are being given in return, because mostly it would appear to be more hard work. As ever, these tales hold up a mirror to reality. One need only to look at Nurses, who have worked even harder for the last year than they do normally and what reward have they received?

The thing is through the majority of civilisation, social mobility has been pretty much non existent. You were going to do what your parents did as there was no system for you to learn anything else. The peasantry should know their place, or at least accept it, since it wasn’t going to change unless the Lord (either local or heavenly) willed it, no matter how hard you work. Common sense agrees with this. It is clear that there is only ever a small percentage gain to be made by increasing the amount of effort put in by one person doing a one person job.

What then does folk tale offer us as an alternative to endless striving without reward? Often being clever and applying wisdom to your work is more important than how hard it is, whilst helping each other out and coming together to make hard work easy is highly recommended.

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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