Friday, 18 February 2011

Fairytale Reflections (21) Katherine Langrish

All good things come to an end at last, and here, at least for now, is the end of Fairytale Reflections, although I do hope to be able to return with some new pieces for it later in the spring.  Next week, something quite new will be happening here... and meanwhile, at the end of this post you will find a list of names of all the marvellous writers who have so given their time and thoughts so generously.  You can find and reread all their posts easily by clicking on FAIRYTALE REFLECTIONS in the tag cloud.

Now here is a coda, or ending, to Fairytale Reflections.  And there seemed no better story to write about than the very one which lent me the name for ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’.  As I used to say in a paragraph somewhere on the blog (which I removed because I figured by now you’d probably all seen it), the phrase comes from an Irish fairytale called -


It’s hardly a well known story.  I found it because of my habit of picking up shabby-looking books in second hand bookshops: a lovely old book called ‘West Irish Folk-Tales and Romances’ collected and translated by William Larminie (‘with introduction and notes, and appendix containing specimens of the Gaelic originals phonetically spelt.’)  It was published by the Camden Library in 1893.

Larminie, who was born in County Mayo in 1849 and died in 1900, was a minor Irish poet and a folklorist.  He spoke Gaelic, and translated most of the stories in the book from named oral storytellers:

‘All have been taken down in the same way – that is to say, word for word from the dictation of peasant narrators… difficult and doubtful pasts being gone over again and again.  Sometimes the narrator can explain difficulties.  Sometimes other natives of the place can help you.  But after every resource of this kind has been exhausted, a certain number of doubtful words and phrases remain, with regard to which – well, one can only do one’s best.’

He describes his narrators, who come from different districts: this is really fascinating:

“Renvyle… is situated in Connemara... Terence Davis is a labourer pure and simple. A man of about forty-five years of age, and blind in one eye. Some of his tales he got from his mother…

“Next in order, Achill Island, some twenty five miles from Renvyle by sea, more than sixty miles by land.  Two narrators from that locality are … represented in the book.  One of them, Pat. McGrale, is a man of middle age, a cottier with a small holding and besides, a Jack-of-all-trades, something of a boatman and fisherman, ‘a botch of a tailor’, to use his own words, and ready for any odd job.  He can read Irish, but had very little literature on which to exercise his accomplishment.  He knows some long poems by heart, and is possessed of various odds and ends of learning, accurate and not.  John McGinty, a man of Donegal descent and name, has also some land; but his holding is so small that he is to a great extent a labourer for others, and was engaged on relief works when I first came to know him.  He, also, is a middle aged man.  He knows many Ossianic poems by heart, which, he told me, his father taught him, verse by verse…”

It is John McGinty who told William Larminie the story of ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’. 

The first thing to be said about this story is that it’s picaresque, episodic, free-moving, fluid.  This is how it begins:

He went down to the river every day and killed a salmon for each one of them.

Who?  Who is this? Who’s ‘them’? What’s going on?  Ah, this is what the King who had Twelve Sons did, of course!  We’ve been flung into the middle of a conversation here.  John (Sean?) McGinty has already introduced the story by its title and plunged straight in.

He saw a duck on the river and twelve young birds with her; and she was beating the twelfth away from her.  He went to the old druid and asked what was the cause why the duck was beating the twelfth bird from her.

“It was this,” said the old druid, “she gave the bird to God and the Djachwi.”

Immediately, the King decides to do the same thing as the duck:

The younger children were running on first to the house, being hungry, and the eldest was coming, reading a book, after them.  The father was standing at the gate on the inside, and he threw him a purse of money and told him he must go seek his fortune, that he gave him to God and the Djachwi. 

I’ve no idea what the Djachwi is.  The story never tells, and the relevant note by Larminie at the back of the book, which might have ventured a guess, has been torn away.  In any case, the Djachwi, whatever it may be, never re-enters the story.  This is merely the kick-start to get the son away from the house and on the road to adventure.  Note that the King is conceived pretty much as any small farmer with a garden and a gate… The son soon takes service under another king: his wages ‘the beast that comes and puts his head in this bridle mine.’  He soon hears news:

“The daughter of the King of the great Wren is to be devoured tomorrow by a piast.” 

Here a footnote explains that a Piast is ‘a Gaelic monster, not exactly equivalent to either serpent or dragon.’  There’s no explanation about the Wren, though, and the lad’s informant continues with great and realistic unconcern:

“Was it in a wood or a hole in the ground you’ve been, that you didn’t hear it? Gentle and simple of the three islands are to be there tomorrow to look at the piast swallowing her – at twelve o’ clock tomorrow.”

Naturally, the lad goes riding to save her.

He called for his second best suit of clothes, and it came to him with a leap; and he shook the bridle, and the ugliest pony in the stables came to him and put her head in the bridle.  “Be up riding on me with a jump” (said the pony)… He gave his face to the way and he would overtake the wind of March that was before him, and the wind of March that was after would not overtake him.

The princess is saved, and in a Cinderella-like motif, the lad is identified as her rescuer by his boot, which she had seized as he rode past her. The pair are married: ‘They spent that night part in talking and part in storytelling’: it sounds an idyllic union: but the very next day the lad finds a pearl of gold upon the beach, and the druid (remember him?) tells him it belongs to “the daughter of a king of the eastern world, who lost it from her hair; - that there was a pearl of gold on every rib of her hair”.

The lad wants to find her.

The pony told him that she was hard to see.  “There are seven miles of hill on fire to cross before you come to where she is, and there are seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea for you to go over. I told you to have nothing to do with the apple.” 

Note that the lad’s advisor has morphed from the druid to the pony in the space of a couple of sentences.  We’re now a long way from the boy’s father, the eponymous King Who Had Twelve Sons: we’ve had two kings already and are about to meet a third, while the boy is about to collect a second princess.  He leaps the pony into the castle where she lives, catches her up and leaps out with her, and takes her home.  The pony is turned into a rock, which can turn to a pony again if struck with a ‘rod of druidism’. 

Now there are two women in the castle:

And the young queen he married did not know… till the hen-wife told her.  “Well!” said the hen-wife.  “He has no regard for you beside the other.  There is an apple of gold on every rib of hair upon her head.”  

On the hen-wife’s advice, the young queen plays cards with the lad till he loses, and she commands him to bring her ‘the black horse of the bank’. ( Could this be a water horse?  There’s no knowing).  The lad brings the pony back to life, and the pony fights the black horse and brings it home.

At this point, I don’t know about you, but I’m on the side of the young queen who was rescued from the Piast.  I’m expecting this to be her story now.  And so it is, for a while.  She and her husband continue to play cards and send each other on tit-for-tat errands.  The queen has to fetch for him ‘the three black ravens that are in the eastern world’, and succeeds, helped by friendly giants: but – feeling contrary no doubt, and who would blame her? – releases them, once her husband has seen them:

“If I promised to bring them to you, I did not promise to give them to you.”

Now, however, the young man is irritated by the henwife’s interference.  He summons her and sends her off to ‘the Gruagach of the Apple, and bring …the sword of light that is with the King of Rye’. 

Are you still with me?  Still keeping up with the storyteller John McGinty as he leaps from character to character – from King to lad, from lad to queen, from queen to hen-wife – agile as a man crossing a river on stepping stones?

The hen-wife succeeds in her task with the help of a friendly smith (and the loss of both the tips of her little fingers) and brings back the sword. 

Now then!  Surely it’s time for this story to spring back on itself and wrap everything neatly up at last!  But what do we get?  A row of asterisks:

*        *        *        *        *        *       
And a footnote:

‘The narrator’s memory failed him at this point, and he was unable to relate the further developments of this remarkable game of plot and counterplot.  Although the hen-wife was successful in the last event mentioned, it must be inferred that she was ultimately defeated.' 

All John McGinty could remember of the rest of the story was the last, disconnected and downbeat sentence:

And when the first wife saw the second wife with her own eyes, she could esteem herself no longer, and she died of a broken heart.

Here are some asterisks of my own:

*        *        *        *        *         *

Why have I spent so much time telling you about this story – when John McGinty himself couldn’t remember what happened?  What’s the good of a story (as Alice might say) with no proper ending?

To me, the good of it is that it reminds us of the process by which all fairytales have come down to us.  Though there are many good oral storytellers today, as there are many good folk and ballad singers – and I’ve tried my hand at both – we’d have to confess that the immediate origin of most of our stories and songs is from books.

I’m terribly impressed by the honesty which led William Larminie to include this story in his collection.  It starts promisingly, it’s got many intriguing developments – but in the end, we don’t know what happens.  We never will know.  John McGinty forgot. 

And perhaps, who knows? another night, a week or two later, stung by his failure to tell the story all the way through, John McGinty did remember the ending, but Larminie wasn’t there.  Or perhaps he strung on to it the ending of some other story, which could be appropriately altered to fit.  Or perhaps he made something up out of his own head. That’s the way oral storytelling works: it isn’t fixed, it isn’t canonical.  This broken telling is ‘authentic’. 

If I added an ending of my own, it wouldn’t be authentic at all. 

Or would it? 

“This story is true,” as one of the other tales in the book concludes.  “All the other ones are lies.”


Adele Geras - Hansel and Gretel
Susan Price - Silvertree and Goldentree
Mary Hoffman - The Fisherman and His Wife
Kate Forsyth - Rapunzel
Katherine Roberts - The Snow Queen
Lucy Coats - Baba Yaga
Sue Purkiss - The Wild Swans
Delia Sherman - The Snow Child
Cassandra Golds - The Little Mermaid
Megan Whalen Turner - The Provenson Book of Fairytales
John Dickinson - The Arabian Nights
Juliet Marillier - Beauty and the Beast
Celia Rees - Blodeuwedd
Gillian Philip - Tam Lin
Leslie Wilson - The Bremen Town Musicians
Jane Yolen - Fakelore and Folklore
Inbali Iserles - Rumpelstiltskin
Midori Snyder - The Monkey Girl
Ellen Renner - The Master-Maid
Katherine Langrish - The Juniper Tree and The King Who Had Twelve Sons

Picture credit: Arthur Rackham, from 'Irish Fairytales' by James Stephens


  1. These have been absolutely fascinating. This last one in particular is a marvellous example of the oral tradition.
    Thankyou so much for putting all the work in - and to all those people who participated as well.

  2. I am reminded of Coleridge's 'Xanadu' - a dreamlike story, never completed.

  3. Well, I think you SHOULD finish it! And I know you COULD finish it. Fascinating story and what a lovely series this has been. Thank you.


  4. Yes, indeed a fabulous series Kath and many thanks for it. Your story is fascinating.

  5. What a GIFT this has been! Thank you Kath!

  6. Thank you Kath. I love the pony that turns into a stone and back into a pony again at need. It's almost like my Muse (he turns to stone when he's sulking and I can get nothing out of him for a while, but he's always there when I have need of him again).

  7. Thank you, and all of your contributors, for making this such a wonderful series! It has been endlessly fascinating - and has left me with a long list of tales old and new to read, and in some cases, re-read.

    Your choice of final tale is perfect and serves as a fitting reminder of the wonderfully changeable nature of these tales. They are not etched in stone, rather they are sung on the waters of the imagination.

    As Jo said above, what a gift.

  8. Thank you so much from me too! And now I want my own copy of West Irish Folk-Tales and Romances!

  9. Yes, thank you for this series. It has certainly enriched my life for the past few weeks. I wish I could purchase the series in book form (hint, hint).

    For some reason every time I read "seven miles of steel thistles" I picture a railway track. Strange.

    The fact that Larminie couldn't finish the story yet still published it is fascinating. I think the greatest sin in the world of storytelling is the withholding of a story. If the peasants of the past hadn't bothered to tell what they knew, we would be very poor indeed.

  10. Thankyou all. And if you should find a copy, Charlotte, do me a favour - turn to the notes at the end, and see if he explains who or what is the Djachwi! And then LET ME KNOW!