Wednesday, 23 June 2021

The Silver Apples of the Moon, the Golden Apples of the Sun

This was our apple tree last September, so laden with fruit that branches actually cracked and broke off under the weight, as though taking Keats’ lines from Ode to Autumn far too literally –

To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core… 

The lawn was almost ankle deep in windfalls.

What is it about apples? Why are they so evocative? Why was the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – not actually named in the Bible – assumed to be an apple? Why did the Firebird, in Russian folklore, steal golden apples from the garden of the Czar? Why did golden apples of immortality grow in the Garden of the Hesperides, why was the Norse goddess Idun the keeper of golden apples which preserved the youth of the gods? Why was the Apple of Discord – with its inscription To the Fairest – an apple, and why were three golden apples so irresistible to Atalanta that she paused to pick them up and lost her race? (Mind you, that dress she's wearing wouldn't help.) 

The apple as the fruit of immortality, or perhaps equally of death, appears as a symbol in Celtic mythology too. Heralds from the Land of Youth might bear a silver apple branch, with silver blossom and golden fruit whose tinkling music lulled the hearers to sleep – perhaps to everlasting sleep. Arthur, after his final battle, went to the island of Avalon, the island of apples, to be healed of his mortal wound. Then of course there’s the apple given by the wicked Queen to Snow-White, one bite of which sends the little princess into a death-like sleep.    

Apples are tokens of love and promises of eternity. In Yeat’s ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, the lovelorn Aengus seeks forever the beautiful girl from the hazel wood.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands
I find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

But such an eternity is probably also the land beyond death. 

Where do apples even come from, why are they so ubiquitous? Why, even today, are so many varieties available even in supermarkets, usually the home of homogeneity? I went into our local Sainsburys the other day and counted eleven different named varieties of apple all on sale at once: Empire, Royal Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Russets, Granny Smiths, Pink Ladies, Jazz, Braeburns and Bramleys. By contrast, there were only four named varieties of pears, and everything else was generic – bananas, strawberries, oranges, etc. 

Apples are related to roses, I’m delighted to tell you.  According to a rather lovely book called ‘Apples: the story of the fruit of temptation’, by Frank Browning (Penguin 1998):

‘In the beginning there were roses.  Small flowers of five white petals opened on low, thorny stems, scattered across the earth in the pastures of the dinosaurs, about eighty million years ago. …These bitter-fruited bushes, among the first flowering plants on earth, emerged as the vast Rosaceae family and from them came most of the fruits human beings eat today: apples, pears, plums, quinces, even peaches, cherries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.

‘The apple [paleobotanists believe]… was the unlikely child of an extra-conjugal affair between a primitive plum from the rose family and a wayward flower with white and yellow blossoms of the Spirea family, called meadowsweet.’ 

Isn’t that wonderful? Apples as we know them today developed in Europe and Asia. The Pharoahs grew them. The Greeks and Romans grew them. And they keep. You can store apples overwinter, eat them months after you’ve picked them: fresh fruit in hard cold weather when there’s nothing growing outside. So perhaps you would think of them as life-giving, immortal fruit. They smell fragrant. They feel good too: hard-fleshed, smooth, a cool weight in the hand.  

The medieval lyric 'Adam lay y-bounden' provocatively celebrates the Fall of Man when Adam ate the forbidden fruit:

And all was for an appil
An appil that he toke
As clerkes finden
Written in her boke.

It ends on the mischievously subversive thought that if Adam had not eaten the apple, Our Lady would never have become the Heavenly Queen:

Blessed be the time
That appil take was!
Therefore we maun singen:
Deo gratias.

Here is a poem by John Drinkwater (surely the most poetically-named poet ever!) which captures some of those mystical coincidences of apples, eternity, sleep, moonlight, magic and death. 


At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no sound at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams
And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon, and deep is the silence, deep
On moon-washed apples of wonder.

Picture credits:

Apple tree: Author's garden
Atalanta racing Hippomenes: Willen van Herp, c1650
Silver Apples: Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh
Adam and Eve: Lucas Cranach, 1537
Apple Tree: Arthur Rackham


Friday, 18 June 2021

A Fine Song of Love


The past is another country. and it can take a great deal of research and imaginative effort to recreate its multilayered richness of sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes. Visiting the  Chiltern Open Air Museum a few years ago I found myself shouting to be heard over the almost unbearable thunder of iron-rimmed cartwheels rolling over cobbles. I’d had no idea carts made so much noise – and that was a single, large, four-wheeled wagon pulled by a single horse. Imagine the din around the warehouses of London Docks in the 1880s! 

Music goes beyond natural sound, though. Music is a cultural construct full of meaning; it reflects, interprets, and to a large extent creates the manners and desires of its own time. It's natural to refer to music as we construct history. Swingtime, jazz, rock and roll, punk, reggae, hip-hop – all tell something about the decades in which they flourish. Impossible to imagine the sixties without the Beatles or the Kinks. The same must be true for the deeper past. I once thrilled to a British Museum reconstruction of a Roman trumpet call, and what about the prehistoric bone flutes that were played in caves like Lascaux? (And why were they played, and for whose attention? The earth spirits?)

My children’s novel Dark Angels (HarperCollins) is set on the Welsh borders in the 1190s, and features a flawed heroic figure, Lord Hugo de La Motte Rouge, Norman warlord and ex-crusader who believes his dead wife may – just may – not be dead after all, even though seven years have passed since he buried her. She may have been spirited away by the elf-folk and taken into the tunnels under the hill. In which case, there might be a chance he could rescue her.

There are a quite a few 12th century legends on this mysterious subject, the idea of lost lovers re-encountered in some fairy land of the dead. Walter Map, a courtier at the court of Henry II, tells the story of a Breton knight who rescued his dead-and-buried wife when, months later, he saw her whirling in a fairy dance. And the 13th century retelling of the Orpheus myth, Sir Orfeo, probably ultimately dates from this time, translated from a Breton lai into Middle English.

So there I was with the idea that my knight Lord Hugo would be a sort of Orpheus figure. Therefore he needed to be musical. Now the Breton lais are lengthy stories in verse; they were performed by minstrels who probably chanted them with a musical prelude and interludes. And of course the 12th and 13th centuries were also the time of the troubadours of southern France, whose songs were primarily songs of fin’ amour – of romantic love in high society.

Garden of Pleasure, Harley 4425, 15th C. 
It’s been suggested that the notion, even the emotion of romantic love was created by the troubadours: a product of the hot-house needs of often very young noblemen and noblewomen living in close proximity in small castles, with nothing much to do spending time together every day, yet with sex strictly off-limits, marriage being a formal affair of property and alliances arranged by their elders. So this new music arose, a music of youth, full of expressions of forbidden desire: subversive, exciting, dangerous and fashionable.

Many troubadours were high-born men and women, whose songs would usually be performed for them by a joglar or jongleur, a professional singer. Still, it seemed to me quite possible that my own Lord Hugo might on occasion be prevailed upon to sing his own songs – especially if he thought that doing so might help win back his wife from the dead land.   

So now I needed to listen to troubadour songs. Here's an anonymous 13th century song performed by Arnaud Lachambre; it's known by its first line: 'Voulez vous que je vous chante?' I made a free translation of it to get myself in the mood for writing songs for Lord Hugo.

Volez vous que je vous chante             Would you like me to sing to you
Un son d’amours avenant?                 A fine song of love?                          
Vilain nel fist mie,                                By no peasant was it made,               
Ainz le fist un chevalier                       But a gentle knight who lay
Sous l’ombre d’un olivier                     With his sweetheart in his arms
Entre les bras s’amie.                          In an olive tree’s shade.

Chemisete avoit de lin                         She wore a linen chemise,
Et blanc peliçon hermin                       A pelisse of white ermine –
Et bliaut de soie                                   Of silk was her dress,
Chauces ot de jaglolai                         Her stockings were of iris leaves
Et solers de flours de mai                    And slippers of mayflowers
Estroitement chauçade                         Her feet to caress.

Ceinturete avoit de feuille                   Her girdle was of leaves
Que verdist quant li tens meuille,       Which grow green when it rains,
D’or est boutonade                             Her buttons of gold so fine,
L’aumosniere estoit d’amour              Her purse was a gift of love
Li pendant furent de flours                  And it hung from flowery chains
Par amours fu donade.                       As it were a lovers’ shrine.

Et chevauchoit une mule                     And she rode on a mule,
D’argent ert la ferruere                       The saddle was of gold,
La sele ert dorade;                              All silver were its shoes;
Sus la croupe par derriers                  To provide her with shade, 
Avoit plante trois rosiers                     On the crupper behind her
Pour faire li ombrage.                         Three rose-bushes grew.

Si s’en va aval la pree                         As she passed through the fields
Chevaliers l’ont encontree                  She met gentle knights
Beau l’on saluade:                              Who demanded courteously:
“Belle, dont estes vous nee?”             “Fair one, where were you born?”
“De France sui la louee,                     “From France am I come.
De plus haut parage.”                         And of high family.”

“Li rossignol est mon pere                 “The nightingale is my father
Qui chant sor la ramee                       Who sings from the branches
El plus haut boscage.                          Of the forest’s highest tree.
La seraine est mon mere                     The mermaid is my mother
Qui chante en la mer sale                   Who sings her sweet notes
Li plus haut rivage.”                           By the banks of the salt sea.”

“Belle, bon fussiez vous nee!              “Fair one, well were you born!          
Bien estes emparentee                         Well fathered, well mothered
Et de haut parage.                               And of high family.
Pleüst á Dieu nostre pere                    Now would God only grant
Que vous ne fussiez donee                   That you might be given
A femme esposade.”                            In marriage to me!”

Could a song be more sensual, the object of desire more dangerous? The lady in this chanson is a headily-erotic blend of wildwood flowers, songs and the fairy world, and that purse which hangs from her girdle on flowery chains ‘like a lover’s shrine’ is certainly a metaphor Freud would have recognised. No wonder the young knights acknowledge her ‘high degree’ and long for her hand in marriage. It’s enough to turn their parents’ hair grey.  

Lady out riding, 16th C, by Gerard Horenbout  
Troubadour songs often use images such as the coming of the green leaves in spring, and the song of the nightingale, to express the pain and delight and longing of love. Here’s Guillem de Peiteus, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine, comparing love to a hawthorn bough:

As for our love, you must know how
Love goes – it’s like the hawthorn bough
That on the living tree stands, shaking
All night beneath the freezing rain
Till next day, when the warm sun, waking,
Spreads through green leaves and boughs again.

(Tr. W. D. Snodgrass.)

In the end I wrote this for Hugo to sing of his love:

When all the spring is bursting and blossoming,
And the hedge is white with blossom like a breaking wave,
That’s when my heart is bursting with love-longing
For the girl who pierced it, for that sweet wound she gave,

And I hear the nightingale singing in the forest –
Singing for love in the forest: “Come to me, I am alone…
Better to suffer love’s pain for a single kiss
Than live for a hundred years with a heart of stone.”

It’s Hugo’s love and pain that drives the plot of Dark Angels and I needed the plangent, beautiful music of the 13th century to get it right.


Monday, 7 June 2021



Aged nine and passionate about Narnia, I wrote a set of my own stories about that magical country, and that far-off labour of love resulted in the publication this year of my book 'Spare Oom'. (So great is the power of childhood reading to reverberate down the years!) Now my friend and fellow author Elizabeth Kay has sent me a poem she wrote about her own experience of reading the Chronicles of Narnia when she was a child of ten. It’s so lovely I’ve asked her to let me share it with you, so this is her introduction.


For me, aged ten, the Chronicles of Narnia produced one of those lightbulb moments. I can remember sitting up in bed and thinking, ‘hang on – died and came back to life three days later? Where have I heard that before?’ It was my discovery of subtext, and the moment I made the connection, decoding the rest of the books became an obsession.

            Vera Rich, poetry translator extraordinaire who died ten years ago, knew all sorts of people and told me that Tolkien had tackled Lewis as to why everyone in Narnia spoke English. The Magician’s Nephew was written retrospectively to explain this, as well as being a convenient parallel for Genesis.

            My French teacher at school, a Dr Moore, lived with her elderly father who had been an Oxford don and a friend of all the Inklings. How I wish I’d asked a few more questions! But those books left such a lasting impression that when I wrote my own fantasy, The Divide, I wanted to recapture some of that feeling of exploring anther world peopled with all the mythical beings of my childhood. It also led to my poem The Threshold, which was, incidentally, published by Vera Rich in her magazine Manifold.




When I was ten I found a door.

I turned the key; there was a catch,

Once opened, there were many more.


I’d always wanted to explore -

To cure that itch I couldn’t scratch.

When I was ten I found a door.


I heard a paper lion roar;

I watched a magic molehill hatch -

Once opened, there were many more.


I learnt about an ancient law,

And how the empress met her match;

When I was ten I found a door.


I thought about it, and I saw

The worlds that I could now unlatch;

Once opened, there were many more.


I put the book down on the floor

(I’d only read the briefest snatch)

When I was ten I found a door,

Once opened, there were many more.


 © Elizabeth Kay: Manifold Magazine, Spring 1998 




Picture credits:

Lucy enters the wardrobe: Pauline Baynes illustration to the deluxe edition of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (HarperCollins 1998) 

The wardrobe: Pauline Baynes illustration, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Geoffrey Bles, 1950

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Dwarfs, Pixies and the “Little Dark People”

In ‘A Book of Folk-Lore’ (1913) the Devon folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould recounts three instances in which he and members of his family ‘saw’ pixies or dwarfs. Here is what he says:

In the year 1838, when I was a small boy of four years old, we were driving to Montpellier [France] on a hot summer’s day, over the long straight road that traverses a pebble and rubble strewn plain on which grows nothing save a few aromatic herbs.

I was sitting on the box with my father, when to my great surprise I saw legions of dwarfs about two feet high running along beside the horses – some sat laughing on the pole, some were scrambling up the harness to get on the backs of the horses. I remarked to my father what I saw, when he abruptly stopped the carriage and put me inside beside my mother, where, the conveyance being closed, I was out of the sun. The effect was that little by little the host of imps diminished in number till they disappeared altogether. 

When my wife was a girl of fifteen, she was walking down a lane in Yorkshire between green hedges, when she saw seated in one of the privet hedges a little green man, who looked at her with his beady black eyes. He was about a foot or eighteen inches high.  She was so frightened that she ran home. She cannot recall exactly in what month this took place, but knows it was a summer’s day.

One day a son of mine, a lad of about twelve, was sent into the garden to pick pea-pods for the cook to shell for dinner.  Presently he rushed into the house as white as chalk to say that while he was engaged upon the task imposed upon him he saw standing between the rows of peas a little man wearing a red cap, a green jacket, and brown knee-breeches, whose face was old and wan and who had a gray beard and eyes as black and hard as sloes.  He stared so intently at the boy that the latter took to his heels.  I know exactly when this occurred, as I entered it in my diary, and I know when I saw the imps by looking in my father’s diary, and though he did not enter the circumstance, I recall the vision today as distinctly as when I was a child. 

In spite of the vivid and detailed nature of these visions Baring-Gould didn’t believe he or his family had seen anything ‘real’. He continues stoutly:

Now, in all three cases, these apparitions were due to the effect of a hot sun on the head. But such an explanation is not sufficient. Why did all three see small beings of a very similar character?  With ... temporary hallucination the pictures presented to the eye are never originally conceived, they are reproductions of representations either seen previously or conceived from descriptions given by others. In my case and that of my wife, we saw imps, because our nurses had told us of them… In the case of my son, he had read Grimms’ Tales and seen the illustrations to them. 

Rational indeed – though still quite puzzling that sun-stroke or heat-stroke should in each case have brought on visions of dwarfs or pixies.  But perhaps it ran in the family. However that may be, Baring-Gould acknowledges that this explanation only pushes the problem further into the past – ‘Where did our nurses, whence did Grimm [sic] obtain their tales of kobolds, gnomes, dwarfs, pixies, brownies etc? … To go to the root of the matter, in what did the prevailing belief in the existence of these small people originate?’  And he answers thus: 

I suspect that there did exist a small people, not so small as these imps are represented, but comparatively small beside the Aryans who lived in all those countries in which the tradition of their existence lingers on. 

The grim events of the 20th century have taught us to beware of that word ‘Aryan’, liberally scattered in the introduction to many a 19th century collection. Sir George Dasent, introducing ‘Popular Tales from the Norse’ (his translation of Asbjornsen and Moe’s 'Norske Folkeeventyr’) includes a section on ‘the Aryan race’ which according to contemporary anthropological wisdom had spread across Europe ‘in days of immemorial antiquity’.  In 1905, citing the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley as his authority, Charles Squire in ‘Celtic Myths and Legends’ writes confidently of ‘certain proof of two distinct human stocks in the British Isles at the time of the Roman conquest’. He describes them: the early people who built Britain’s long barrows were ‘Iberian’ or ‘Mediterranean’ in origin: ‘a short, swarthy, dark-haired’ aboriginal race; but ‘the second of these two races was the exact opposite of the first. It was the tall, fair, light-haired, blue- or gray-eyed people called, popularly, the “Celts”, who belonged in speech to the “Aryan” family … It was in a higher stage of culture than the “Iberians”.’ In the illustration below from a history of the world published in 1897, we see how the heroic Celts were imagined, along with an account of the 'Aryan migration'. And they were supposed to have displaced a different race of indigenous people, driving them almost literally underground.

'The Celtic Vanguard' from 'Ridpath's History of the World', 1897

This notion of ‘two races, two cultures’ has been discredited. Archaologists and geneticists now agree that Europe has been a melting-pot of racial groups from at least the early Neolithic. European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were neither replaced nor suddenly shunted out; instead, over several thousand years, they assimilated both the culture and the genes of a gradually diffusing population of Neolithic farmers. It wasn’t until the Bronze Age (says Professor Barry Cunliffe in ‘Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC – AD1000’) that sea-faring and trading populations on the on the coasts of Europe, Britain and Ireland, developed the Celtic tongue as ‘an Atlantic façade lingua franca’. Isn't that wonderful? The Celts didn’t ‘come from’ anywhere: they were in place already. The Celtic languages evolved because coastal peoples travelled and traded and intermarried and talked to one another. Britain wasn't isolated, it was always an integral part of Europe.

So the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was wrong. There was never a distinctly different race of ‘little dark people’ living on the edges of a conquering population of tall, fair, confident ‘Aryans’. Nothing to give rise to a belief in a ‘hidden folk’ of pixies, dwarfs or elves. 

You can see why he liked the idea. It seemed to answer a lot of questions, besides lending to folk-lore a kind of scientific gloss: anthropological ‘truths’ preserved in tales. Many a writer has been honestly misled by it. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s tremendous novel ‘Sword at Sunset’, the Romano-British and nominally Christian hero Artos, fighting off the Saxon invasions in the 3rd century AD, takes as his allies ‘the little Dark People of the Hills’, who live half-underground in turf-covered bothies, use poisoned arrows and worship the Earth Mother. Their clan leader, the Old Woman, calls Artos ‘Sun Lord’ and tells him:

‘We are small and weak, and our numbers grow fewer with the years, but we are scattered very wide, wherever there are hills or lonely places. We can send news and messages racing from one end of a land to the other between moon-rise and moonset; we can creep and hide and spy and bring back word; we are the hunters who can tell you when the game has passed by, by a bent grass-blade or one hair clinging to a bramble-spray. We are the viper that stings in the dark –’

And in the same author's if-anything-even-more-magnificent ‘The Mark of the Horse Lord’, the half-Roman half-British ex-gladiator Phaedrus, masquerading as Midir, Lord of the Dalriads (actually a 4th century AD Scots-Irish Gaelic kingdom), lays down his iron weapons to call upon an Old Man of the Dark People who lives like a badger in ‘a tumble of stones and turf laced together with brambles’ with ‘a dark opening in its side’:

[Phaedrus] had heard before of places such as this, where one left something that needed mending, together with a gift, and came back later to find the gift gone and the broken thing mended; it was one of those things no one talked of very much, the places where the life of the Sun People touched the life of the Old Ones, the People of the Hills. Like the bowls of milk that the women put out sometimes at night, in exchange for some small job to be done – like the knot of rowan hung over a doorway for protection against the ancient Earth Magic – like the stealing of a Sun Child from time to time.’  

This Old Man is ‘slight-boned … with grey hair brushed back from his narrow brow, and eyes that seemed at first glance like jet beads…’  Sutcliff was writing in the mid-1960s when the ‘two races’ hypothesis was still widely credited: she writes with great imaginative sympathy. I grew up with these stories and it was easy to be swept along by the idea: these Little Dark People, Painted People, remnants of the past clinging to the verge of cultures which had displaced them, were the historical origin of the fairies. I felt sorry for them. Even in Sutcliff’s sympathetic treatment, these imagined, marginalised archaic people are nearly powerless.  Their magic – feared though it is – doesn’t really work on the more civilized Sun People. They are spies, not warriors: they creep through the heather with poisoned arrows, killing by stealth.  In fact they’re natives, with all the baggage that implies in colonial and post-colonial Britain. They may help the heroes, but they can’t be the heroes.  Their time is past.

Writing in 1913 Baring-Gould doesn’t even allow them the skills to erect dolmens:

They were not, I take it, the Dolmen builders – these are supposed to have been giants because of the gigantic character of their structures. They were a people who did not build at all. They lived in caves, or if in the open, in huts made by bending branches over and covering them with sods of turf. Consequently in folk-lore they are always represented as either emerging from caverns or from under mounds. 

This is to lend to folk-lore an authority far beyond its deserts. 

Most of the nineteenth century collectors of the fairy tales and folk-lore which we all love so much were driven by nationalist impulses and racial pride. Each sought, as the Grimms did, the pure voice of their own ‘folk’. As the century progressed what they in fact uncovered was the inextricably interrelated nature of European folk- and fairy- lore. Despite the near-impossibility of claiming a particular version of any story as ‘original’, some went on to claim an ultimate ‘Aryan’ heritage for such tales, going so far as to assert that the Aryan master-race originated in Scandinavia – since, clearly, the Nordic peoples were the tallest, blondest and bluest-eyed of the lot. Most of these gentlemen intended only to generate pride in what they saw as their heritage. They did not recognise it as racism - the term had not yet been coined - but racism it was. As folklorists, as lovers of fairy tales, we need to be responsible for the ways we interpret the stories we tell. 

While I was researching Mi’kmaq and Algonkin folk-lore for my book 'Troll Blood', I came across a salutary reminder of how untrustworthy some 19th century commentators can be when discussing origins: in a compilation called ‘The Algonquin Legends of New England’ (1884) I found the anthropologist Charles G. Leland with a bee in his bonnet about what he claimed had to be a Norse influence on Mi’kmaq stories. Having decided that the Mi’kmaq tales were in effect too ‘noble’ to have been the product of Native American minds, he made the wildly unsupported assertion that the Norsemen must have told stories from the Eddas to the indigenous peoples of what is now Newfoundland and New Brunswick: that the Mi’kmaq culture-hero Kluskap (‘Glooscap’, in his account) ‘is the Norse god intensified … by far the grandest and most Aryan-like character ever evolved from a savage mind’. I almost dropped the book and was forced to regard it ever after as compromised and unreliable. If there was any contact at all between Norsemen and the Native American population in the 10th to 13th centuries (the likely duration of occasional forays from treeless Greenland for much-needed North American timber), the Greenlanders’ Saga suggests that it was violent and short. But that’s not the point. The point is the mindset which says ‘this is too good to have been created by [insert racial group]’. 

The dwarf Eitri making the hammer Mjölnir.

Returning to the origin of pixies, elves and dwarfs – if they’re not a folk-memory of some once co-existing shy and inferior race, what are they?  As Baring-Gould says, the notion must have come from somewhere.  Well, Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe are dotted with burial mounds and barrows. The Irish story of the love of Midir for Étain states plainly that Midir is a king of the ‘elf-mounds’, the underworld, and the tale is full of instances of death and rebirth. As I argue more closely in an essay called ‘The Lost Kings of Fairyland’ in my recent book, fairies have long been associated with the dead. In a fascinating essay ‘The Craftsman in the Mound’ (Folk-Lore 88, 1977) Lotte Motz discusses the figure of the dwarf as a smith and craftman dwelling in hills, mounds and mountains, who may be heard hammering away in underground smithies. Pointing to the many instances of ‘legends of dead rulers who reside, sometimes in a magic sleep and often with their retinue, within a mountain’, she continues:

A relation to the dead appears to belong also to the dwarfs of the Icelandic documents; so the dwarf Alviss [‘All-Knowing] is asked by Thor if he had been staying with the dead, and a poem in a saga tells of a doughty sword which had been fashioned by ‘dead dwarfs’. I would… assert that the mountain dwelling of the smith holds, rather than temporary wealth, eternal treasures in its aspect as the mountain of the dead. 

As if to emphasise his deathly character, like a ghost fleeing to its grave at cock-crow, the dwarf Alviss (the story is from the Poetic Edda) cannot endure daylight but turns to stone at sunrise. 

‘The day has caught thee, dwarf!’ cries triumphant Thor, who like Gandalf in ‘The Hobbit’ has kept him talking… 

It's always been thought dangerous to see fairies. Like the Furies in Greek mythology, if you talked about them at all, you used flattering circumlocutions – the Good People, the Seely Court, the People of Peace. They came from the hollow hills, the land of death, and it was wise to be frightened of them.  Maybe the visions, the ‘legions of dwarfs’, the little green men or pixies which Baring-Gould and his wife and child separately saw signified something more sinister than folk-memories.

After all, sunstroke can kill you.

Picture credits: 

Pixies - John D Batten - Wikimedia Commons
Nisse eating barley porridge - Wikimedia Commons
The dwarves Brokkr and Eitri making the hammer Mjölnir - Arthur Rackham - Wikimedia Commons
Alvissmal - Alviss answers Thor - Wikimedia Commons 
The Celtic Vanguard - Wikimedia Commons  
Dolmen, Jersey, 1859 - Wikimedia Commons
Puck - by Fuseli - Wikimedia Commons


Thursday, 13 May 2021

On schoolyard rhymes and natural storytelling


In Thomas Gray's beautiful  'Elegy Written in a County Churchyard', he muses over the unknown, uncelebrated talent of the humble country people who lie buried there:

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
         The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
         Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

We tend not to think of ordinary people as particularly eloquent or colourful in their speech. But they often are. Robert Burns was untaught, and John Clare, and many 'mute inglorious Miltons' may, as Gray suggests, have gone to their quiet graves without being appreciated by more than the handful of folk amongst whom they lived.
From such ordinary yet extraordinary folk sprang the great poet Anonymous, without whom we would have no Iliad or Odyssey, no Border ballads, no Thomas the Rhymer or Tam Lin… no fairy tales, no myths, no legends no Bible all of which were made up and told aloud by Anon long before they got trapped and written down in big, thick books. Without Anon we’d have no proverbs, no skipping rhymes, no riddles, no jokes. We humans are just naturally good at lively, colourful, poetic speech. We really and truly do not have to be taught how to read and write, still less do we need to be taught the rules of reading and writing in order to express ourselves.

I was reminded of this by a section in a rather lovely book called ‘Folklore on The American Land’ by Duncan Emrich (Little, Brown & Company, 1972). Here are some extracts.

An exuberant skipping rhyme from a school in Washington:

Salome was a dancer
She danced before the king
And every time she danced
She wiggled everything.
‘Stop,’ said the king,
‘You can’t do that in here.’
‘Baloney,’ said Salome,
And kicked the chandelier.

And another:

Grandma Moses sick in bed
Called the doctor and the doctor said
‘Grandma Moses, you ain’t sick,
All you need is a licorice stick.’

I gotta pain in my side, Oh Ah!
I gotta pain in my stomach, Oh Ah!
I gotta pain in my head,
Coz the baby said,
Roll-a-roll-a-peep! Roll-a-roll-a-peep!
Bump-te-wa-wa, bump-te-wa-wa,

Downtown baby on a roller coaster
Sweet, sweet baby on a roller coaster
Shimmy shimmy coco pop
Shimmy shimmy POP!
Shimmy shimmy coco pop
Shimmy shimmy POP!

Children make these things up! Children! 
Because children naturally love the sounds of words and the rhythms they can make with them. A book is an alien thing to many children an intimidating, unpleasurable thing. Reading can be a difficult struggle that gets them nowhere slowly and makes them feel like failures. Yet they can all tell stories. On a school visit several years ago now, I said to the children, "I've never been into a school that didn't have a ghost story. When I was at school, there was a disused railway station just along the road, and there were tales of a severed hand that crawled around the platform in the broken glass. Nobody ever saw it, of course, but the story was there. All schools have ghosts."

Hands went up. "We have Bloody Mary in the toilets!" two girls remarked. Now Bloody Mary, in this context, is a supernatural being half feared, half delighted in: she lives in mirrors, and if you stare too long into them, she scratches your eyes out. 'There was a ghost at my mum's school,' a boy told me, 'the ghost of a cleaner who got locked in.'
"There you are!" I was saying. "You tell these stories though nobody knows who made them, because they're fun to hear. And every now and then some of them do get put into books, BUT and this is the important thing they don't COME from books. They come from the real world and from real people."

These kids were a great, lively bunch, in a school that didn't get many author visits, and they enjoyed my talk partly because I did a lot of interactive stuff: riddles, some drama; and told stories from the viking sagas and medieval chronicles. You cannot just waltz into a classroom and start talking to twelve year-olds about elves (even though the book I was there to talk about, 'Dark Angels' is all about elves) because twelve year-olds think of elves as little green-stockinged things with red hats dancing around Christmas trees and making toys. And why would they want to hear about that?

So I'd begin by talking about UFO's, and about people who think they've been abducted by aliens and operated on, and even had their brains removed (like Spock in the old StarTrek episode) - and then I'd tell them a genuinely creepy story from a
13th century chronicle about a young squire, who is abducted by elves and has his brain removed. And I'd try to show them how people have been telling the same kinds of stories for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, and how some of these stories can end up becoming woven into the books I and others write.

Anybody can make a story; anybody can tell one. It's a tragedy for children to feel disempowered and divorced from the process of storytelling, because it's one of the things we were all born to do. Trammelling the writing of especially primary school children by marking them on how many adjectival clauses or adverbs or 'wow words' they've used, is a sin. Forget about the wretched fronted adverbials! Stories are meant to be fun! Why should we value the tales children tell one another when they're collected by adults and printed in the Journal of the Folklore Society, yet dismiss them in the playground? I want our children to know that the stories they tell one another are just as real as the ones that get written down in books. And if they know that, perhaps they'll lose their fear of reading and writing them.
Returning to Duncan Emlich's book briefly, here from the Ozarks from the French ‘Aux Arks’, Arks being the shortened form for Arkansas are a number of wonderfully colourful phrases and turns of speech, all of them coined by ordinary folks: 

Of a man who had been stung by yellowjackets: “He was actin’ like a windmill gone to the bad.”  (That's comedy!)

In Boone County, Arkansas, a barefoot young farmer to his sweetheart: “The days when I don’t git to see you are plumb squandered away and lost, like beads off’n a string.”  (That's a love poem.)

A fat little man with a square head and no neck worth mentioning: “He looks like a young jug with a cork in it.” (Worthy of Dickens!)

In Baxter County, Arkansas, a fellow professed dislike for the Robinson family: “Hell is so full of Robinsons that you can see their feet stickin’ out of the winders.”  (Wonderful comic hyperbole, and makes his point.)

And perhaps my favourite: on a very hot day an old woman says: “Ain’t it awful? I feel like hell ain’t a mile away and the fences all down.”

Miltons: the lot of them. Uncelebrated, maybe! But definitely not mute.