Friday 30 March 2012

"Jorinda and Joringel" - a new Fairytale Reflection

I was reminded by Celia Rees’s post on Blodeuedd, the girl who was changed into an owl, of this haunting fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm, which I first read many, many years ago. It’s stayed with me ever since. It isn’t well known – perhaps because although it’s strong on emotional intensity, it’s short on plot. But first, here’s the story.

It tells of a castle in the middle of a dark and thick forest, inhabited by a single old woman who turns herself into the shape of a cat or screech-owl by day, assuming her own form only at night. She lures wild birds and beast to her, and kills and eats them.

If anyone came within one hundred paces of the castle he was obliged to stand still and could not stir from the spot until she bade him be free. But whenever an innocent maiden came within this circle, she changed her into a bird and shut her up in a wickerwork cage, and carried the cage into a room in the castle. She had about seven thousand cages of rare birds in the castle.”

A young maiden called Jorinda is betrothed to a youth called Joringel, and in order to be alone together, the pair of them take a walk into the forest. Joringel warns Jorinda to take care: they must not stray too near the castle.

It was a beautiful evening. The sun shone brightly between the trunks of the trees into the dark green of the forest, and the turtledoves sang mournfully upon the beech trees,

but for some reason the young lovers – for whom everything should be wonderful - are sorrowful.

Jorinda wept now and then: she sat down in the sunshine and was sorrowful. Joringel was sorrowful too; they were as sad as though they were about to die. Then they looked around them, and were quite at a loss, for they did not know which way they should go home. The sun was still half above the mountain and half under.

Joringel looked through the bushes, and saw the old walls of the castle close at hand.
He was horror-stricken and full of deadly fear. Jorinda was singing:

“My little bird with the necklace red
Sings sorrow, sorrow, sorrow.
“He sings that the little dove must soon be dead.
Sings sorrow, sor- jug, jug, jug.”

For the sun has set, Jorinda has been changed into a nightingale, and “A screech owl with glowing eyes flew three times about her and three times cried ‘to-whoo, to-whoo, to-whoo!’”

Frozen to the spot and unable to speak or move, Joringel sees the owl fly into a thicket and immediately afterwards a crooked old woman ‘with large red eyes’ emerges, catches the nightingale and takes it away. She returns later and releases Joringel with the strange words, ‘If the moon shines on the cage, Zachiel, let him loose,’ but she refuses to release Jorinda, saying Joringel will never see her again.

Joringel does finally manage to release Jorinda with the aid of a magical blood-red flower containing a dew-drop as big as a pearl, with which he touches the doors of the castle and the cage itself and sets Jorinda and all the other maidens free; the sexual imagery is clear enough, and the happy ending is satisfactory if perfunctory; what is really memorable is the sorrowful beauty of the forest, the sadness of the lovers, the imagery of the birds, and the strange song Jorinda sings.

What’s it all about? Not always a useful question. A fairytale should be read like a poem, or attended to in the same kind of way as we attend to music, allowing it to work directly on the emotions. For me, this tale strikes strange chords from the heartstrings. I might hazard a guess that the lovers are sad because they know they’ll grow old and die, that evening is here and the day nearly over, because their young love may not last and the sun is already half beneath the mountain. Perhaps they’re afraid of mortality, the grave, symbolised by the grim stone walls of the castle whose shadow immobilises them, and the old owl-woman whose voice is a lament.

Years ago in my early twenties I was walking through London with a girl friend. We were laughing and chattering, and a middle-aged woman passing by – she may have been elderly, but I think she was only middle-aged – leaned over and said in a low voice but with extraordinary venom, “One day you’ll be like me.” As a memento mori, it was quite something, and my friend shuddered, but we agreed later that we never would be like her. We would never, ever be that bitter.

Nevertheless, everyone recognises the fear and dread associated with thoughts of old age and death, and the loss of youth and beauty; and happy are those of us who can throw it off with no more than a brief shiver. For me this fairytale takes those dark emotions and transmutes them into something beautiful.

Picture credit: Arthur Rackham, Jorinda and Joringel

Monday 26 March 2012

Iris Schamberger's Fairytale Jewellery

As many of my friends already know, for my 25th wedding anniversary last week my husband bought me this really wonderful ring, a joyously-created fairytale castle with turrets and pinnacles and a green dragon, made by artist and silversmith Iris Schamberger, whose work is so delightful I feel sure you'd like to know more about her.  I fell in love with her gorgeous jewellery last year on discovering her website, but it seemed right to wait  for a special occasion before buying something.

I was seriously tempted by this beautiful Swan King...

and by this waterlily with a goldfish hiding under the leaves...

but in the end, it was her little castles that I truly fell for. Like this one:

You can see lots more of them at Iris's lovely website,  Fairytale Jewellery - but first I've asked Iris to answer a few questions.  Here they are!

Iris, how long have you been making fairytale jewellery?

I have been making fairytale jewellery for 22 years.

And what inspired you to choose fairytales as a theme for your work?

My first ring with a small castle on it, I made for myself to remember happy holidays in Southern France, where I saw such a castle on the top of a hill. I loved to tell fairytales and to read out fantasy stories to my son and my little daughter, so that stories became more and more a theme to my work.

What is your favourite fairytale, and why?

One of my favourite fairytales is "Frog Prince". Perhaps it is because the princess dares to throw the insistent frog against the wall and not to give him a kiss as he expects it. As the princess shows her honest feelings, her rage, she makes the frog turn to a prince.

(That's such a different new take on the Frog Prince!  I'd always felt sorry for the frog, but you're right, he's really a prince after all, and why should she have to marry him - or take him to her bed - just for returning her ball?  So when she shows her real feelings, she's drawing a line that sets their relationship on a truthful footing.)

Your jewellery is so detailed and beautiful - how much work goes into making a fairytale ring?

Making a fairytale ring is a lot of work. I often spend many hours by building it out of wax, but I love this job. With a heated needle I am modelling the little figures and putting them together. The dragon´s eyes or other details are so small, I often have to wear magnifying glasses.

When the ring out of wax is perfect, it is sent to a foundry for casting. Afterwards I have to do the finish: to solder little golden balls on the top of the towers or to mount some rubies or sapphires. At the end, the ring is provided with a multilayered fired varnish.

Magical rings often turn up in fairytales!  If you could give your rings a magical power, what power would you choose?

I would choose the power of love of life and I hope it is truly there in my work!

I am quite sure it is...

Finally, here's a video of Iris at work.

Friday 23 March 2012


The 'Owl Service' plate design, which can be flowers or owls

Myth and legend are very important to me. They inhabit a special, deep place in my mind and often appear in my work in unexpected ways. The surface matter might seem unconnected but the myths contain abiding and archetypal truths about human relationships and the human condition that have nothing to do with trivial considerations, such as time and place. While I was writing "This Is Not Forgiveness", I was drawn to the story of Blodeuedd . My story would be a contemporary fiction, but this ancient story of two men who set out to create a woman from flowers, and two other young men who seek to possess her, seemed to contain the essence of my tale. While I was writing the book, I was drawn to the legend again and again.  

‘She wants to be flowers and you make her owls...’ (The Owl Service, Alan Garner)

Blodeuedd is a story from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion. I first came across it when I was eleven or twelve years old and reading my way through the Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales section of the school library. There, I discovered Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion, that great collection of Welsh stories. I was familiar with Greek myths and legends, stories of the Norse gods, but these tales were new to me and they were our stories, stories from the British Isles. There were familiar characters, I recognised King Arthur, but this was not the Arthur I knew. There was a strangeness here and a power. Many of the stories did not make sense on first reading; there was a denseness about them, a feeling that the tales contained many stories, concentrated and packed together. This did not detract from my enjoyment. It merely added to the mystery. Here were kings, queens, magicians and shape shifters, golden ships, magic cauldrons, giants and dragons but behind them it was possible to sense something far more ancient, darker: more dangerous and more powerful.

I have continued to be fascinated by the Mabinogion, by its elusiveness and by its hints at other meanings, the remnants of a much more ancient storytelling tradition reaching back into an otherwise unknowable pre-history. The Mabinogion has proved a rich source of raw material for many of our greatest fantasy writers: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper and, of course, Alan Garner who used the story of Blodeuedd as the basis for his novel The Owl Service.

'Blodeuedd' by Alan Lee, 1984
Then they took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from these they conjured up the fairest and the most beautiful maiden that anyone had ever seen. And they baptised her in the way they had at that time, and named her Blodeuedd.

(The Mabinogion trans. Sioned Davies)

She is made from the sweet smelling flowers of summer, gold for beauty, white for purity. ‘They’ are Math, a powerful magician, and his nephew, Gwdyion, shape shifter and story teller. They are making a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, miraculous child and now strapping young man. The boy’s mother, the great queen Aranrhod, will not own him and Math and Gwdyion resort to trickery to get her to grant him the trappings that will mark him as noble: a name, arms, a wife. They have already tricked her into naming and arming him but she has got wise to their wiles and places a bane upon the boy: ‘He will never have a wife from the race that is on this earth.’ Undeterred, Math and Gwydion make him a woman out of flowers but they cannot control her. They cannot make her love Lleu, or prevent her from falling in love with another: Gronw Pebr, lord of Penllyn, who is staying in her house. When Lleu is called away, she betrays him with his guest. Even though Lleu is protected and can only be killed in the most bizarre and unlikely set of circumstances, she manages to overcome protections to enable Gronw to kill him with a spear. Lleu is, of course, no ordinary mortal, so at the moment of his death he changes into an eagle. Gwydion finds him and restores his true self. Then Gwydion goes after Blodeuedd. In punishment for what she has done, he turns her into an owl.

‘I will not kill you. I will do worse. Namely, I release you in the form of a bird … you will never dare show your face in daylight for fear of all the birds … You shall not lose your name, however, but will always be called Blodeuwedd. Blodeuwedd is owl in today’s language and for that reason the birds hate the owl and the owl is called Blodeuwedd ’

Gronw Pebr, the adulterous guest, does not escape punishment. He is made to stand on the same spot where Lleu he was standing when he was killed. He is allowed to put a stone between himself and his attacker, but Lleu’s spear goes through the stone and kills him. So ends the story of Blodeuedd, and so ends the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion.

I like magicians who make mistakes. Their mistake is to think that they can make a woman out of flowers, or anything else, and expect to control her, or crucially expect her to obey human rules. It is all bound to go hideously wrong. On the other hand, you cannot get away with breaking the universal, ancient and binding obligations of a wife to her husband, or a guest to his host. Those who do so will inevitably be punished.

The mistakes, the misplaced love, the infidelity, the punishment, all make the story very human. One of the most intriguing aspects to the story is its association with an identifiable place: Nantlleu – the valley of Lleu. The Nantlle(u) Valley is located along the Llyfni river to the east of Pen-y-groes and Tal-y-sarn in North Wales. Even more intriguingly, a stone pierced with a hole was found in a local river in 1934. This gives the story an unusual and powerful validity, a sense that these things really happened in this place, something not lost on Alan Garner, when he set his modern re-telling in this actual valley. Behind these characters, however, stand greater, more shadowy figures, hinted at by the powers, abilities, and often names associated with them. Lleu, for example, is set apart by the bane upon him, his special protection, his great strength and above all his name which associates him with Lugh, the Celtic god, who is, in turn, identified with Mercury.

Owl by Arthur Rackham (illustration to 'Jorinda and Jorindel')

Then there is the enigma of Blodeuedd herself. Math and Gwdyion don’t destroy her. How can they? She is their creation. They make her into an owl. Somehow, in doing this, they exchange the grounded passivity of flowers for something far more potent. They give her wings and a whole new set of associations. She still has beauty. In my mind, she becomes a barn owl, one of our most beautiful native birds. In becoming an owl she takes on other meanings: fierce hunter, ghost-like harbinger of death, but also potent and universal signifier of knowledge and wisdom. These different aspects echo the dual and triple aspects of many goddesses. Blodeuedd uses her wings to fly back through time and across space, to perch on the shoulder of the Greek goddess Athene, and stand next to the great Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, who is often shown with the feet of a bird - and flanked by owls.

'This Is Not Forgiveness' by Celia Rees is published by Bloomsbury, £6.99

Wednesday 21 March 2012

"Damaged people do damage" : an interview with Celia Rees

So here's Celia Rees herself to talk about her latest YA thriller 'This Is Not Forgiveness'.  Having heard her read aloud from the first page or two of this book while it was still a work in progress, I knew it was going to be a real page-turner, and so it has proved - but as always from Celia's hands, a thriller that gives us much to think about.  On to the questions! 
"This Is Not Forgiveness" is a firecracker of a thriller, but it’s also a love story - a vicious triangle of a love-story. And I can’t help noticing that the story you chose to talk about for ‘Fairytale Reflections’, the Welsh legend of Blodeuedd, the maiden made of flowers, is also the story of the disastrous love of two men for one woman. Is there any connection?

The starting point for the novel was François Truffaut’s, Jules et Jim. In the film two young men, who are close friends, fall in love with the same woman, played by Jeanne Moreau. She is a wild, free spirit and completely unconventional. Both of them try to shape and control her, but she keeps breaking any hold either of them have on her. This folie a trois has unavoidable and tragic consequences. The story is set before and after the First World War but I started thinking, ‘You could update this. Make it now.’ Whenever I have an idea like that, I begin to collect things – songs, poems, pictures, other writing and references. I came to Blodeuedd and the Mabinogion through The Owl Service, Alan Garner’s re-working of the legend. As soon as I made the connection, it seemed some kind of validation. Blodeuedd is one of my favourite stories from the Mabinogion. There are two sets of men involved with one woman. Math and Gwydion who create her from flowers and Lleu and Gronw who are rivals for her love. My story is not a straight re-telling at all, but the myth has resonance within my story and this means that the roots are deep. That there is something archetypal, universal about it.

Two of the three main characters are predators. At the very beginning of the book, the heroine Caro sits in a bar despising everyone and ‘picking out victims’, an occupation ultimately echoed by Rob, a soldier and sniper invalided out of Afghanistan. Only Jamie, Rob’s younger brother, seems innocent. Yet you don’t demonise any of them. How deliberate was that?

I always saw Jamie as being a bit of an innocent, bearing witness. He has been described as naïve, as if to be so is a bad thing, but he is naïve in the way of most teenagers in that he has yet to venture out of the tight circle of his own concerns. Caro sees him as the Tarot Fool. The Fool is an innocent in search of experience. He is full of wonder, visions, questions and excitement but he doesn’t know where he is going and is often depicted as standing on the edge of a precipice. Caro can see this, but she is blind to her own self delusion or to exactly what is going on with Rob.
I did not want to demonise either her or Rob.
I don’t want the reader to be able to judge them or dismiss their actions. That would be too easy. There are reasons for the way they behave. Damaged people do damage. I like making the reader re-evaluate their judgements about character, re-assess.

Caro is fascinated by glamorous, articulate female terrorists like Ulrike Meinhof. She continually pushes the limits, sees how far she can go. Would you say that she and Rob are attracted to violence because it makes them feel alive?

My first motive for giving Caro an interest in radical politics was to make her different from other girls. When I first pitched the idea, it was met with some scepticism, in a ‘radical politics, isn’t that a bit ‘60s?’ kind of way. Then came the Stop the Cuts Demos in London and the associated street violence and suddenly it was OK. It struck me that Caro would be a girl who would want to take it a little bit further. She is also clever and would do her research. She would arrive at the Red Army Faktion and Baader-Meinhof in a couple of clicks of the mouse. Once there, she would fall in love with them. Brilliant, beautiful, as glamorous as rock stars but doomed and destined to die for their cause. They have exercised a fascination for artists like Gerhard Richter and film makers: Uli Edel’s Baader-Meihof Complex and Andres Veiel’s recent If Not Us, Who? They exercise their lethal magic on Caro, too.

TINF is pretty strong stuff! Was there any passage that you found particularly difficult to write?

I found the end hard to write. I always knew how it would end, but when I came to writing it, I found it difficult to do.

I'm not surprised!  It's a wonderful book.  Thankyou, Celia!

This Is Not Forgiveness, Bloomsbury, £6.99 

Monday 19 March 2012

"This Is Not Forgiveness" by Celia Rees

A warm welcome to Celia Rees, back on 'Steel Thistles' as part of the tour for her new book 'This Is Not Forgiveness' (Bloomsbury).  Celia is not only a friend but a writer whose work I greatly admire - not least for the way she's always setting herself new challenges.  Her last book, which I reviewed here, was a rethinking of Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'.  This one is completely up-to-date.  Twenty-first century Britain, warts and all.

I went to the funerals. They held them one after another. I don’t think they meant them to be that way, but the crematorium was busy that day. Yours was second. Not much like the first. No orations, no weeping schoolmates clutching single blossoms to put on the coffin…No inky hand-printed notes on the flowers: R.I.P., C U in Heaven, Gone but not forgotten. No flowers at all. Hardly anyone there either. Only the bare minimum for decency. Police and immediate family. Some of your mates, but not many. Just Bryn and a few others, wearing uniform…

This is not forgiveness. Don’t think that.

Over the course of one hot summer, three young people’s lives come together and trigger a chain reaction of dangerous events. There’s Jamie, ready to fall in love, looking for his first sexual experience. There’s Jamie’s older brother Rob, a soldier invalided out of Afghanistan, macho, secretive, cynical and used to violence. And there’s beautiful, complex, sexually magnetic Caro, who enjoys a spice of danger, who flirts with extremism, and who sleeps around – the kind of girl other girls dislike.

Jamie can hardly believe it when Caro begins sleeping with him. He tries hard to keep up – she’s capricious, always springing surprises. But Caro is keeping more than one secret from him, and gradually Jamie begins to realise that his brother Rob knows Caro better than he’d guessed. Much better. And Caro and Rob are planning something which will end more terribly than even Caro ever imagined…

"This Is Not Forgiveness" is of course a fast-moving thriller – that goes without saying – but what I really loved about the book was the way Celia Rees writes about young people on the verge of growing up – some of them already damaged - desperate for experience, full of hope and full of cynicism. Jamie, getting ready to go out for the evening – ‘Having a shower and a shave, getting my hair right, picking out clothes’ – all of course in the hope that he’s going to meet Her:

The day is tipping towards evening, the blue sky darkening, the streetlights coming on. It’s warm. There are kids out playing on the front lawns, and the barbecues are on the go again. We walk quickly. I wave away the half bottle of vodka Cal takes from his pocket. I need to keep sharp. I don’t want to get wasted in case I run into Caro.

I love that picture of the boys’ sense of separateness from the world around them – their distance from the children they so recently were, the parental barbecues they would so recently have attended. Nothing to do with them now! Now they’re young wolves, alone as only teenagers can be alone together. And of course, Jamie's evening runs its inevitable course from hope (anything is possible), through partial success (getting into a cool bar but only because the bouncer knows his brother), to isolation (not knowing anyone,not even having the nerve to talk to Caro when he sees her), aggression (when his brother picks a quarrel first with him and then with a stranger), and the final irony of getting together with Caro only because she needs help getting his drunken brother home over ‘pavements slippery with vomit, the road glittery with glass, gutters strewn with kebab boxes spilling strips of discarded salad.’ This is telling it how it is.

But there’s also a tenderness to Celia Rees’s writing. She never forgets how young her characters are, how vulnerable, how much they’re testing themselves, trying to find out who they really are, and what might make life worth living. When Caro takes Jamie up a hill to see the full moon, her voice is authentically young, I think – talking solemn bullshit as if no one has ever done it before:

“I love it up here. … I love high places.” She comes back to me and sits opposite, arms clasped around her bare legs. “This place is special, do you know that? I come here as often as I can. Different times of day. Sometimes in the very early morning. I come to catch the sun rising, or in the evening to see it set. I’ve been taking photographs, trying to capture the moment of transition, night to day, day to night. I like margins. It’s different depending on the time of day, time of year. It can be weird, spooky here, especially in fog or mist, or when the clouds come down. You see things…”

If she were older it would sound pretentious: young as she is, it’s completely natural. It makes me like her. (And of course the boy is impressed…)

Do read the book – it’s not only wonderful, it’s also explosively exciting.   On Wednesday I’ll be asking Celia some questions about ‘This Is Not Forgiveness’ – and on Friday she’ll be talking about a fairytale which reflects one of the fundamental motifs of the book – the destructive trio of lovers.

"This Is Not Forgiveness" is published by Bloomsbury, £6.99

Friday 16 March 2012

Our Craft or Sullen Art


In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Dylan Thomas

I used to memorise poems.  I got drunk on words: I muttered them under my breath while waiting for buses; I repeated them at night – poem after poem - to send myself sliding away on a raft of poetry down a river of dreams. Actually I still do.

Dylan Thomas’s poems ask to be chanted aloud.  They fill the mouth and roll off the tongue like thunder:

“Altarwise by owl-light in the halfway house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies.”

Whatever does it mean? I have no idea.  I simply know it sounds good.  Better than good.  Grand - restorative - like wonderful spells. And when I first came across this poem, back in the 1970's, to be fair, there was a fashion for obscure poetry; almost every glam-rock album could do the mysteriously evocative stuff. Look at early Genesis!  I wasn't that bothered about the meaning: I was listening to the music. Even then I think I did prefer those poems I could also make sense of – the luminous ‘Fern Hill’ or ‘Poem in October’: but meaning was – for me, then – secondary to music.

Nowadays, though I still love the music, I look for meaning too. And behold, it's there, and now I understand it a little bit better.

"My craft, or sullen art.” How honest that adjective is: ‘sullen’: because writing can be so hard, so difficult – so damned uncooperative! You try and you try, and it’s not good enough, still not good enough, but you keep trying. You keep on trying because what you’re really aiming for, what you want the most – and he’s right, he’s so right – is not money, not ‘ambition or bread’, not fame: ‘the strut and trade of charms/On the ivory stages’. No.

We don't write for the critics. We don't write (how could we dare - though maybe Thomas dared?) with an eye on posterity and the hope of joining the ranks of ‘the towering dead with their nightingales and psalms’. We don’t write for fame. We don’t write because we dream of getting rich, and most of us certainly don't. We write for the love of the craft - and we're grateful to anyone who reads us from the crowds of all those heedless, living and breathing human beings getting on with life. We write for 'the common wages of the secret heart.'

Monday 12 March 2012

On the Vernacular Voice

Rural Minnesota 1937: lumberjacks in a saloon
There’ve been a number of books written on what you might call the Huck Finn or Riddley Walker principle: written, that is, in the first person voice of an uneducated but lively narrator. You can think of plenty, I’m sure - but Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy springs to mind, as does Moira Young’s 'The Blood Red Road' and Caroline Lawrence's 'The Case of the Deadly Desperadoes' - and I’m wrestling with one myself which should see the light of day in a year or so.

It’s not an easy thing to do, so it’s good to look outside fiction at the real thing from time to time.

In a book called ‘Folklore on the American Land’ by Duncan Emrich (which I blogged about a couple of years ago in a post called 'Knee Deep in August'), Chapter Four is given over to what he calls ‘A Manuscript of the Folk Language’ written by ‘a gentleman by the name of Samuel M Van Swearengen’ whom he met while researching folk songs -

- in the Windsor Hotel on Denver’s Larimer Street. The Windsor, as anyone who lived in Denver at the time knows, was the most elegant hostelry on skid row. To it flocked old prospectors…cowboys who remembered the days of the long trails north from texas, one time gamblers who spoke of dust and thousands, and old age pensioners who qualified for the munificent largesse of the state of Colorado. Sam Van Swearengen was one of those last. …He had been born in Chariton County, Missouri, in 1869, and was seventy-two years old in the Denver of 1941.

Emrich and Sam got friendly.  “He was lonely, and my wife and I gradually became his ‘children’ - he so addressed us in letters” - and after a while Sam diffidently handed Emrich a manuscript he’d been typing out about his own life. Here is the beginning exactly as typed:

In Writing This Book I Have Carictorized It In The Best Manner Posible For Me To Remenber As I Am A Man of 66. Years Of Age And Did Never Keep No Dairie Of The Dayley Happenings As I Should Of Did But Nevver Thinking Of Writing This Book, I Just Have To Go Back In Memory As Fare As Posible And Give The Facts As Best I Can Remember I Was Born In Chariton County Misouri on January 19Th 1899. And Whas About 18 Mounths Old When My Mother Died She Died Leaving My Self And My Little Baby Brother Ho Whas About Two Mounths Old At Her Death, And My Father Not Beeing Very Well Fixed With The Necesary Things Of Life My Grand Parrents Taken Me And My Brother To Raise And Everything Went Good Tell About Four Years Later My Grand Mother Died Leaving US To The Murcy And Care Of Aunts And Uncle As For Whitch Had No Experience In Raising Of Children And Some Of Them Whas Only Children Them Selves

Emrich says,

I forgot about folk songs and encouraged Van Swearengen to go ahead and beat out some more of his life on his old turret-revolving Oliver typewriter, a relic salvaged from earlier, dining car days on the railroad. Even with the problem of capitals, to which he clung, and an aged hunt-and-peck system, the work progressed more rapidly for him than if he had attempted writing in a slow, longhand scrawl. Writing with pen and paper was labor. His schooling had been small.

(I can attest to this from my experience with Jean, see my post on 'The Power of Story'.)

Texas schoolboys, 1943

In all, Sam’s manuscript ran to 272 single spaced pages, and covered his whole life from birth and boyhood on.  Emrich continues:

He covers his life on the farm in Missouri, his brief schooling, his boyhood pleasures trapping and duck-hunting, and the hardships of his early days. He reviews his various jobs as a young man: making barrel hoops, work on the railroad, a job at the Armour plant in Kansas City, his ‘corear' as butcher and grocer, work as a dining car steward. He tackles his marital problems with candor: “How The Holy Roolers Stole My Wife.” … And he closes the manuscript with some fine, wild haymakes directed at hypocritical church people and the government of Colorado…

Here are some extracts, punctuated by Emrich and with capitals reduced.

The Wild Irish Minister at the Country School House.

Well I remember, in pioneer days in old Mo, when thire whas a church in about every hundred squire miles, and in them days the school houses whas used extencivley for religious services. And the people all knew automaticly the church days for certain ministers, and thay would all hitch up thayer ox teaims and some times start before day light on Sundays to church…

Adobe church, New Mexico, with graves

[There was] a minister widely known as the Wild Irishman. His name reaily wear Charley Davis but he whas known greater by his alias name as the Wild Irishman. And in them days I guess he whas thought to be the top minister, for it seemed that everybody that whas church inclined whould try to hear him, and would pour in for miles around.

However, the Wild Irishman liked his tipple, especially Sam’s grandfather’s moonshine whisky.

And, of corse, this old Irish minister whas a full fledged Irishman...and if you know the Irish, you know what thay railly do like.  And it has occurred to me that if thay will not pertake of the forbidden fruit, that he is not a full fledged Irishman. And I never will forget a old German man that used to go to hear the Wild Irishman preach. And at this special time the old German happened to be thire, and sed when the Wild Irishman got started, ‘he schust could show you Jesus Christ and the angels chust flooting in the air.’ And thire was the throne of God as plain as if it whas. And he showed them all the conveniences that a man had what was a church member, and shoed them all the different departments that thire was in haven. He showed the departments whire the people whas kept that had never sinned, and whire the people was held that had sined just a little, and whire the people was kept that had bin sinners tell thay foundout that that wear going to die. And that preacher told them that thay whas punished according to his deeds, and told them that the less a man sined, the less he whas punished. And he then, in return, showed them hell and showed them what a terrible place hell wear. And he [the old German] said, “Vell, I shust could see hell and de devell shust as plain as if I wear reaily in hell.” And I will admit my self he could show you a picture of things tell thire would be sompthing funny about it. But he nevver could nor he never would undertake this untell he whas just three sheets in the wind.

And that, my fellow writers, is what we're aiming at, though in my opinion Mr Samuel M Van Swearengen has us beat, hands down.  His narrative voice is not naïve, even if it may sound that way at first. We should beware if we suppose that. It’s a rich voice, a voice of wisdom and humour, the voice of a man who knows exactly who he is and exactly what he thinks, and has a wealth of experience to draw on that most of us will never match.

All photos from Duncan Emrich's book 'Folklore on the American Land'

Saturday 10 March 2012

Folklore Snippets - The Grav-so or Ghoul


From "Scandinavian Folklore" ed William Craigie

This monster is properly a treasure-watcher, and lies and broods over heaps of gold.  For the most part it has its dwelling in mounds, where a light is seen burning at by night, and it is known then that the treasure lies there.  If anyone digs for it, he may always be certain of meeting a ghoul, and that is hard to deal with.  Its back is as sharp as a knife, and it is seldom that anyone escapes from it alive.  As soon as anyone begins to dig in the mound, it comes out and says, “What are you doing there?”  The treasure hunter must answer, “I want to get a little money, and it’s that I am digging for, if you won’t be angry.”  With this the ghoul must content itself, and they make a bargain.  “If you are finished,” it says, “when I come for the third time, then all you find is yours, but if you are not finished by then, I shall spring upon you and destroy you.”

If the man has courage to make this compact, he must lose no time, for if the ghoul comes for the third time before he has finished, it runs between his legs and splits him in two with its sharp back. Old Peter Smith in Taaderup, who is now dead, had the reputation for having got his wealth in this fashion: he and another young fellow were desirous of digging for treasure, and went one night to a mound where they knew that there was a ghoul.  When they began to dig, it came up and asked what they wanted, and then fixed a certain time within which they were to be finished.  They worked now with all their might, and finally got hold of a big chest which they dragged out as fast as they could, but before they had got quite clear of the mound - Peter Smith still had one of his legs in the hole - the ghoul came for the third time and managed to rub itself against Peter’s legs.  Although it only touched him slightly, he had got enough for all his life, for however wealthy he was, his legs were always so feeble he could neither stand nor walk.  
Picture credit:
Troll or ghoul by  Ernst Koie (1872 - 1960)