Friday 10 August 2012


Are you sitting comfortably?  Because this is the story of how my blog got its name, as well as being the story of a story.

It’s hardly well known.  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. 

The first time I read this, I had no idea what the Djachwi might be.  The story never tells, and the relevant note by Larminie at the back of the book, which might have ventured a guess, had been torn away.  It was only with the help of Charlotte from Charlotte's Library (a truly excellent blog on children's and YA sci-fi and fantasy) and Mr James Nyhan, a colleague of my husband, that I found out.   Charlotte hunted down another copy of the book and actually sent me a photo of the relevant note - here -

- and James sent me a link to an article by a Slovenian folklorist, Monika Kropej: 'The Tenth Child In Folk Tradition' which casts further light on who or what the Djachwi is. It seems that the word stems from the Old Irish word for ten or tenth, and refers to the legend that the tenth child (or in some cases the seventh or twelfth) must roam the world as either a sacrifice to (a tithe) or as a personification of Fate or Destiny.

However that may be, the Djachwi 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.” 

And that's why this blog is called Seven Miles of Steel Thistles. This traditional set of difficulties (there's another variant from Scotland in which the hero has to cross 'seven bens and seven glens and seven mountain moors) strikes me as a pretty good metaphor for the difficulties of writing - as well as for life itself. But anyhow. 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.”

Picture credit: Arthur Rackham, frontispiece to 'Irish Fairy Tales' by James Stephens,


  1. That raggedy book of yours - and this story without a told end are treasures - and such a calming storytelling voice. Maybe he'd just had enough of the recording fellow at a certain point?

    When I've told stories with the "sets of obstacles" pattern, there's occasionally a moment that says "Keep going. Surely you can add another set of troubles and they'll still be listening?" or "Heaven help us. We've got to leave the room now? I'll leave that set out - or cut the number or whatever."

    Or perhaps they act as ministories within the greater story so that whoever has just come in to listen can have a "place" from where the story starts for them - a bit like those tv dramas where you get moments retold at the start of the next episode?

    Back to working through my own crop of steel thistles!

  2. Come on. That John McGinty was certainly more drunk than the ugliest pony when he told this story! :-)

    That abundance of kings reminds me of a remark made by Italo Calvino in his introduction to the "Italian Fables". He comments that a "king", in folk tales, is often just a baron or a lord - to the extent that, in one of the fables, a king envies the garden of the other king, his neighbour.

  3. Just to say, I like this story that leads to stories.

  4. This blog entry seems a continuation of our conversation last month when you were here and we were talking about folklore v fakelore.

    Go write the ending to the story, Kath, for it will be as real, as true as any other. Maybe more so.


  5. You may be right, Jane - and maybe I will - it'd be fun to get back to fairytales proper, once I've written what I'm writing now...