Friday, 13 January 2012

'Silvertree and Goldentree' and the worldwide web of fairytales

by Susan Price

Little Red Riding Hood by Walter Crane
As a child, I heard the usual fairy-stories – a 'Cinderella' derived from Perrault, 'Billy Goats Gruff', 'Little Red Riding Hood', and so on. I loved them. I loved their repetitions and rhythms– 'Oh, Grandmama, what big ears you have!”, and “Who's trit-trotting across MY bridge? - ' I loved their vivid, beautiful images – the little girl in the scarlet, hooded cloak walking through the dark forest, the glass slipper, the sky-high beanstalk... But I had no idea of their history, or their cultural resonance. I imagined that the version of the story that was read to me WAS the story, that there was no other way of telling it.

At the age of 10, the Greek Myths happened to me, and I was totally smitten. For a whole year I lived, in my imagination, in the Greek Myths, with flying horses and hydras, with awesome and unpredictable gods, dragons and golden apples. The next year, when I moved to Secondary School, I discovered the Norse Myths – and they, for me, blew the Greek Myths away. They felt like coming home: but a home that was no less fascinating, with ice giants, fire giants – in fact, ice and fire all the way through.

The Frost Giants Seize Freja by Arthur Rackham

After that, I read every collection of Myths and Legends I could find; and when I ran out of Myths, I read collections of fairy-stories and folktales: the Grimm Brothers, and Jacob's English Fairy Stories, and Asbjornsen and Moe's Norwegian Stories – and Russian, Irish, Scottish, French, Italian, Polish stories – I couldn't get enough of them. And, without knowing it, I was learning an enormous amount about story-telling – 'Billy Goats Gruff', for instance, is a master-class in narrative and suspense.

The more I read, the more something became obvious: – the stories weren't as individual, as distinct from each other – or from Myth – as I'd thought. The Scots story of Kate Crackernuts was strangely like Cinderella, though set in a more work-a-day world. Another Scots story, 'The Finger-lock' was Cinderella with a boy as the central character instead of a girl. No Fairy-Godmother – no pumpkin coach or glass slipper, but the essentials of the story remained. (There are, I later learned, over three hundred variations on the story usually known as 'Cinderella'.)

East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon by H J Ford

This Norwegian story, 'East of the Sun, West of the Moon' was the myth of Psyche and Cupid in northern dress. The English stories, 'Tom-Tit-Tot,' and 'Stormy Weather' were variations of 'Rumpelstiltskin'. In 'Whuppity-Stoorie' the Rumpelstiltskin figure is female, and kindly – she saves the heroine from a life of drudgery in the end.

Tom Tit Tot by John Batten

Echoes were everywhere. In the Irish Legend of Deirdre, the heroine sees a calf killed in winter. Its red blood falls into the white snow, and a raven comes to eat it. Deirdre wishes for a husband, “with skin as white as this snow, lips and cheeks as red as this blood, and hair as black as the raven.” In 'Snow White,' collected hundreds of years later, the queen sits stitching her embroidery in its ebony frame beside a snowy window-ledge. She pricks her finger, and blood falls on the snow. She wishes for a child, “with skin as white as this snow, hair as black as this ebony, and lips and cheeks as red as this blood.”

In the story, 'The Soldier At Heaven's Gate,' a soldier slips into Heaven before his time, and climbs up into God's chair, from where he sees the whole world, and everything that's happening, just as God does. The soldier is overwhelmed by the world's sorrow, cruelty and pain: and the end of the story is tragic. I was reminded of how the god Frey, in Norse Myth, climbs into Odin's chair, and sees all of the nine worlds spread before him. He looks into Jotunheim, sees a beautiful giantess, and falls deeply in love... The consequences are also tragic, but on a more mythic scale, since this leads, in part, to the defeat of the gods at End of the World.

TheThree Heads in the Well by Arthur Rackham

The 'Three Heads In The Well' is another fairy-tale with mythic echoes. The well is under a great tree, and from the well's depths float up three wise heads, which speak to the heroine. In Norse Myth, there is a well between the roots of the great World Tree, and by the side of the well is the head of Mimir, which has wise words for those who question it. And Celtic Myth is full of magical, talking severed heads.

Nor are these connections limited to folk-lore and myth. The Danish legend of Amleth is Shakespeare's Hamlet; and King Lear is, in part, a Cinderella story.

I was puzzled by all these echoes and correspondences, in stories which were supposed to be widely separated geographically, and dated from a time before broadcasting and widespread literacy could send a story round the world in days, if not hours. That led me to reading books about folk-lore, rather than books of folk-lore. I learned that, of course, I wasn't the first to notice that fairy-stories seem to be made up of interchangeable, interlocking pieces, which can be taken apart and put back together in different patterns. The pieces have been given the name of 'motifs', and have been catalogued – 'The Forbidden Door', 'The Helpful Animal', 'The Cruel Stepmother', and so on. I was also fascinated to discover that the psychoanalyst, Jung, considered some of these motifs to be archetypes: an integral part of our psychology. The trackless forest, the wolves and 'the white bear of England's wood'; the depths of the well, the sorcerer – these appear in our dreams and shape our thinking. The ogres and dragons and man-eating witches of fairy-tales have a reality: small children know there is a monster lurking in the dark, waiting to eat them. Outside the cave, there was. One of the 'uses of fairy-tales' is in helping children to sleep. Telling them, 'Monsters don't exist,' won't help – they know it isn't true. Giving them a dragon-slayer is far more effective. These days, 'Dr Who' works a treat.

Three Heads in the Well by John Batten

However that may be, I have found fairy-stories endlessly compelling throughout my life. Indeed, I think I find them more compelling, now I'm in my fifties, than I did when I was five. Then they were a good yarn. Now I find that, like the dark well at the foot of the World Tree, they hold fathoms deep of a not always kindly wisdom.

I can't pinpoint exactly when I started to notice these strangely haunting echoes and connections between tales, but I know that one of the stories I read around that time was the Irish SILVERTREE AND GOLDENTREE, which I have retold here. I leave it to the reader to guess which better known fairy-story it echoes, but I will mention this: in Irish myth, a salmon lives in a pool in the Boyne, and eats the hazelnuts which fall into the water. Hazels were magical trees, and the magical nuts made the salmon wise. The young Fionn Mac Cumhaill was ordered by his master to catch the salmon, cook it and serve it to him.

Finn McCool eats the Salmon of Knowledge - by Kate Leiper

As Fionn cooked it, he burned his thumb, stuck it in his mouth, and so tasted the salmon's flesh first, and gained all its wisdom, including the ability to understand birds and animals – just as Siegfried, in Norse legend, cooked the dragon's heart for his master, burned his thumb, stuck it in his mouth, and understood what the birds in the tree overhead were saying...

Susan Price has been interested in myths and folklore since she was nine; and has been a professional writer since she was sixteen – and much of her writing is based on, or informed by, folklore, such as her ‘Ghost World’ series set in ‘a far-distant, Northern Czardom, where half the year is summer and light, and half the year is winter dark’ (‘The Ghost Drum’ won the 1987 Carnegie Medal) – or the two ‘Sterkarm’ books, in which an unscrupulous corporation develops a 'Time Tube' and penetrates the world of the border reivers of the 16th century.  'The Sterkarm Handshake’ won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize’ in 1998. She writes wonderful posts about history, fantasy and her own writing at 'A Nennius Blog'.

Picture credit
Finn McCool image used by kind permission of Kate Leiper 


  1. Marvelous post, Susan! I wasn't as well steeped in fairy lore as you were, but as a child I read widely enough that I too became curious about those echoes. I remember how exciting it was to see the resemblances, and to play with the different ways one could re-tell a story. Compelling stuff at any age.

    Thanks so much for hosting, Katherine.

  2. Hi Amy! Ever tried taking two or three motifs at random and combining them into a tale? Can be interesting!

    1. I haven't, but what a neat idea! I'll have to give that a try.

  3. I wish I had your reading list Susan! I have loved folk lore and myth ever since I was a child too and have read many wonderful variations over the years but now can't find many of the books I once read and can't remember what the were! Stories endlessly inspire my art, particularly the Celtic versions. Thanks for the inspiring post, much enjoyed!

  4. Thank you for very useful information.