by Lily Hyde
It's more than a year now I’ve been on the road. I’ve spent most of my adult
life in other countries than the one I was born in. I’ve been reading
and writing fairy tales for as long as I can remember.
Sometimes I blame fairytales for my longing to travel and encounter
unknown people and places. Many fairytales involve journeys: across
mountains of glass, forests of thorns, the seven miles of steel thistles
of this blog’s title. And of course the tales themselves travel;
versions of ‘Cupid and Psyche’ appearing in Scandinavia, Japan…
Even more stories involve a meeting between the ordinary and the
unknown; indeed, isn’t that where their name comes from – fairy or
faerie, that other realm that is so like our own but so utterly
different. Some of my most-loved fairytales, the ones that have worked
their way into my life and writing, are about encountering the new and
strange, and falling hopelessly in love with it.
I don’t know where I first read or heard ‘The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach’.
It seems I’ve always known the story. But I came across it again on a
neglected bookshelf in Kiev, in a book of folk tales from the British
Isles bizarrely published – transcribed regional accents and all – in
the Soviet Union.
I seized on this book like a piece of home. I was sharing my life with a
man from a different country, a stranger in his strange land. Sometimes
I felt like I was living in a fairytale. I felt like the lady of Llyn y
In this Welsh tale, a shepherd by the lake in the Black Mountains sees a
beautiful woman appear on the water, and falls in love. He woos her
with his lunch, bread his mother baked, and finally wins her on the
third try with bread that is neither over- nor under-cooked. The lady –
fairy or goddess or just a stranger from a strange land, we are never
told – agrees to live with the man until he strike her ‘Tri ergyd
diachos’ – three causeless blows.
What happens next is a paradigm of a marriage.
The first time, they are late for a christening and the lady says she
will fetch the horse to ride there if her husband brings her gloves. But
when he comes back with the gloves she hasn’t brought the horse, and he
The second time, the shepherd strikes her at a wedding after she starts
weeping loudly “because these people are entering into trouble”.
The third time she begins to laugh uncontrollably at a funeral, because,
she says, death puts people out of their pain. And he strikes her.
‘She then went out of the house saying, “The last blow has been struck,
our marriage contract is broken and at an end. Farewell!”’
For me this story is about the encounter with the unknown, its
fascination and its incommensurability. Maybe the lady knows the
marriage will end in unhappiness – usually in fairytales when someone is
told not to do something or else, you know they’re going to do it. But
she marries the shepherd anyway. Maybe she is as charmed by his
difference as he is enchanted by hers; the story doesn’t tell.
Yet the lady’s differences from her husband are not really between fairy
and mortal. They’re the yawning gaps in understanding between two
The first time is a classic scene of family frayed tempers. The annoyed
husband strikes her gently enough (it’s always emphasised that his blows
are gentle) because she broke a promise and lied to him, however
frivolously; suddenly she is not what she seems.
The second time, he must be baffled and embarrassed by her strange
behaviour at the wedding – and maybe wondering what she is trying to say
about their marriage.
The third time, at a funeral, he is surely shocked by the apparent
heartlessness and bad manners of this person he can’t understand.
How can you ever causelessly strike the one you love? But the moment
comes, the gap opening at your feet as you realise this person you love
and think you know is a stranger; a liar, a laugher at funerals and a
weeper at weddings, someone you simply do not know. You teeter on the
brink of the pit; that’s when you lash out.
There is a lovely, wise, updated Joan Aiken version of the Welsh story,
called ‘The People in the Castle’. The anti-social village doctor falls
in love with the lady’s silence and mystery, and is disappointed when
after moving in with him she turns out to be a sociable, movie-loving
chatterbox. It’s as if he’s married a swan, only to find out she is just
a girl in a feather dress.
That brings me to those stories in which people marry beings who are
literally not what they seem: the white bear who is actually a prince;
the frog who is Vassilisa the wise and clever under a spell – stories
that retell ‘Cupid and Psyche’.
Very often it’s glimpsing this truth sooner than they should, through
curiosity, impatience or embarrassment (everyone thinks I’m married to a
frog/a bear/something I can’t even see – the humiliation!), that parts
couples and sends the heroines or heroes off on their travels across
glass mountains and forest of thorns to bring their beloved, in his or
her true form, back home.
Those are the optimistic stories.
The pessimistic version is that harsh lesson in not knowing and
curiosity, ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’, in which the wife discovers her husband
is hiding the dead bodies of his previous wives. A more mixed (and
gender-reversed) Russian version tells of Queen Marya Morieva and her
husband Ivan, who however much he loves her can’t resist opening the
forbidden cellar door. Out comes Koschei Deathless to chop Ivan into
pieces (“Let him chop!” says Ivan recklessly, “for if I can’t live with
you, Marya Morieva, I would rather not live at all.”)
“If you had only waited and not peeked,” reproach these secretive lovers
who are not what they seem. “If you had only listened to me and not
opened the door.” A trust has been broken, and hardship and separation
In many stories, the love, courage and ingenuity of the heroes or
heroines ensures reunion, and a traditional Happy Ever After. Through
these journeys to find their lovers (or more rarely siblings or
parents), people discover themselves; no longer passive partners being
married off or carried off, but actively seeking happiness.
Other stories suggest that the whole of another person is, in the end,
impossible to grasp. And if we can’t accept the ultimate unknowability
of the one we love, then we are destined to live forever apart. Like the
Gaelic seal bride, who always finds her seal skin however the husband
hides it, and goes back to her unknowable life in the sea. Like the
Japanese Sea King’s daughter in the tale ‘The Sea King and The Tide
Jewels’, who leaves forever when her husband discovers her true, truly
other form is that of a dragon.
Joan Aiken takes pity on her Welsh doctor, and has the mysterious lady
return to him one night. The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach never comes back.
She does show herself to her sons though and teaches them medicine, thus
rooting the tale in historical reality since these sons established a
line of famous Welsh physicians that continued till the 18th century.
I won’t tell you the end of my own story with a beloved from a different
land. But it’s only in writing this reflection that I’ve realised one
of my novels, a sequel to Riding Icarus, tells just this kind of
The heroine, Masha, runs away from her mother, who is traumatised from
an unwilling journey into the realities of trafficking, and sets off on
her own journey across Siberia to Kamchatka and her absent father. There
Masha meets a rat who is really a boy; she discovers her father is not
what he seems – or what she wants him to be. In the end she realises the
purpose of her journey wasn’t what she thought at all; really it is the
true form of her mother she was trying to find and to rescue all the
time. Her mother as a complicated, vulnerable person in her own right;
someone Masha has to get to know just as in turn her mother has to get
to know her, while both accepting there are things they will never truly
understand about each other.
My editors thought the ending of this book wasn’t Happy Ever After enough for its intended young adult audience.
But where is the real fairytale, the happy magic, in a story like ‘The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach?’
Maybe in this: we can never truly know, but despite and because and anyway, how much we can love…
LILY HYDE has travelled through Russia, the Ukraine and the Crimea, China and Tibet:, and we first met online when she sent me an irresistable email:
I have to tell you this – I’m in Tagong, which is a tiny town high in
the grasslands on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, full of monasteries
and prayer flags and yaks and swaggering cowboys holding hands, wearing
Stetsons, and with silver and coral rings in their black plaits… and in
the hostel where I’m staying I found a copy of ‘Troll Fell’!
I thought you’d like to know how far your words have travelled (further away from the sea than the Vikings ever got?)
Lily’s first book, ‘Riding Icarus’, is the enchanting story of Masha, who lives with her grandmother in an abandoned trolley-bus (called Icarus), ‘on
the very edge of Kiev, by the Dnieper River. With no overhead electric
wires to fix onto, the two long springy rods attached to the roof waved
in the air like antennae, forever searching for a new source of power
on which to drive away.’
Masha’s father went away to Kamchatka four years ago, and then Igor, her mother’s ‘friend’, appears:
Igor, who told Masha to call him uncle even though he wasn’t, and who
had found Mama a job abroad where she could earn lots of money. So
Mama had gone to Turkey, leaving Masha with Granny.
The story, while rooted firmly in modern Kiev, develops into a tale of
magical midsummer wishes and your heart’s desire, dancing Cossacks,
mystical tigers, the power of love and friendship, and an exceedingly
nasty and all-too-believable villain. Lily writes with a sure but
delicate touch, and the serious theme of people-trafficking is clearly
hinted at without ever becoming too heavy for younger readers. Lily's second novel for children is 'Dream Land'.
Lily blogs at This Trolleybus is Going East.
Llyn y Fan Fach by SNappa2006, Wikimedia Commons
Lyyn y fan Fach in winter by Dara Jasumani, Wikimedia Commons
Friday, 30 November 2012
Friday, 23 November 2012
by Candy Gourlay
Are there such things as fairy tales in the Philippines where I grew up? If a fairy tale requires a fairy, then no - we don't have wand-wielding, tutu-wearing creatures in our woods (I would say rain forests, except most of those have been chopped down).
What's in a fairy tale? Magic, certainly. An evil power perhaps - wicked stepsisters, witches, magic foul versus heroine fair. A resolution that involves come-uppance? Happily ever afters?
I thought the best way to reflect on this subject was to do my own re-telling of a Filipino sort of fairy tale ... so here is my video re-telling of The Legend of the Pineapple, an old Filipino story.
I made the video with the help of my young neighbours, Christiane and Jacob (Jacob very kindly agreed to be the voice of a little girl as long as I used his drawing of a jet plane - watch out for it!):
The Legend of the Pineapple from Candy Gourlay on Vimeo.
I grew up listening to stories like these told by my parents usually during the frequent evening power cuts that plagued my childhood in Manila. We would light candles and katol (an incense-like mosquito repellent) and sit around the dining table telling stories until the power cuts were over.
The stories were always about everyday things - the turtle, that mountain we always drove past, that plant with leaves that folded when touched ... but unlike the happily ever afters of Western fairy tales, the endings always had a sadness to them.
A man turned arrogant and overbearing by his rapid success, turns into the shamefully slow turtle. (The Legend of the Turtle)
|Maria Makiling (Photo: Life Expressions blog)|
|Makahiya plant (Sensitive Plant)|
Yes, there is magic but there is a helplessness in the face of greater, unstoppable powers in these stories. And inevitably it's not good magic, but bad.
The Philippines is a country always on alert for disaster - year after year, typhoons sweep in without fail, floods ruin crops, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes ... living with constant catastrophe has invested the culture with a diffidence - bahala na ("Let it be" or "God wills it") is a common expression. Catholicism (we are the only Catholic country in Asia) exacerbates this fatalism.
The odd thing is when I was a child, I don't think I regarded these magical stories as fairy tales. With disaster so much a part of the fabric of life, they just seemed too real to be fairy stories.
I found my old school primer the other day from when I was seven years old.
|The Cathedral Reader series, with Ann, David, little Timmy and their fluffy pets who lived on clean roads with white picket fences|
|Six year old me.|
The world of reading, for me, was about somewhere else. In those books, nowhere looked like home, and nobody looked like me - not even in one of my favourite picture books, The Five Chinese Brothers!
It was all fantasy. Everything I read was a fairy tale.
It was only when I came to live here in Europe that I discovered there really were castles and hundred acre woods and foxes and kings and twisty-turny cobbled alleys and Black Forests. It takes a big leap for me to think that those fairy tales I read as a child were based on real places and possibly real people.
Huh. So those storytellers of long ago were writing about themselves.
And perhaps their readers were thinking: these stories are too close to the bone to be fairy tales.
CANDY GOURLAY was a young journalist writing for the opposition during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. After the revolution that toppled Marcos, she moved to London with her English husband and, as she says, 'attended to dictators of the nappy-clad variety before trying my hand at children's fiction.'
Her debut novel, 'Tall Story', published in 2010, is the story of two children. Andi lives in London, and she has two big wishes. One, she is desperate to play on the basketball team of her new school. She may be small, but she's good and she knows it. But guess what? They only take boys. Her other big wish is that her sixteen year old half-brother, Bernardo Hipolito, could come and live with them - if only the Foreign Office would grant him a visa. And finally, after years of waiting, this wish comes true. As Bernardo's plane arrives from the Philippines, Andi hopes he'll turn out to be tall and just as mad as she is about basketball. And Bernardo turns out to be tall, all right. But he's not just tall ... he's a GIANT.
Woven into the narrative are many of the folktales and fairytales of the Philippines. Bernardo is named after a Philippino folklore hero, the giant Bernardo Carpio, big enough to plough fields with his comb and carve mountains with his fingers. Superstition and fear rule the village in the person of Mad Nena, the village witch and her daughter Gabriela. A case of rabies is treated with charms, and young Bernardo is allowed to grow taller and taller without ever being taken to a doctor...
Tall Story was shortlisted for eleven children’s book prizes including the Waterstone’s, the Branford Boase and the Blue Peter prize. It won the Crystal Kite Children’s Book Prize for Europe. Candy's second book, book, 'Shine', will be published in 2013.
Friday, 16 November 2012
by Pauline Fisk
My whole life has been spent trying to bring together ‘real life’ and the world of fantasy, in particular by finding new and interesting ways of expressing a sense of the magical in my writing. Ever since I was five years old, hunting down fairies in the back alley behind my parents’ house, a sense of more to life than meets the eye has been part of who I am. When I was a child, life was one big fairy tale. That was how I felt. But how to get into that fairy tale? How to make that fairy tale my life, and make it real and be a part of it?
It was through stories that I found the way. I couldn’t write when I was five years old, but I could make up stories and that was what I did, standing at the garden fence, telling them out loud to the big children in the house next door, lined up on their side of the fence asking, ‘What happened next?’ But those stories, made up off the top of my head, were ephemeral. They were fly-by-nights, whereas words on paper had a strange new durability which I discovered when I learnt to write. Describing Winnie the Pooh hunting honey made me part of the story. Adventuring with the Famous Five turned them into a Famous Six. I made those things my own, and I made them real - and simply by writing about them.
This is something I’ve been doing ever since. When, at the end of ‘Mad Dog Moonlight’, I wrote about a river flowing through the stars, I put myself onto that river and sailed away. When Abren in ‘Sabrina Fludde’ turned to water and flowed down a mountain, I flowed too. And when hoof-prints beat upon the hill behind my house, I knew that Wild Edric, himself - that glorious superhero of Shropshire legend - was passing in the night. By writing him into ‘Midnight Blue’, I wasn’t just making him up. The act of writing brought him to life.
Tolkien defines fairy tales as stories about the adventures of humankind in Faerie, and here amongst the hills, valleys, woods and towns of my home county, Shropshire, Faerie’s all around me. It’s where I live. It’s a fabled place. And I’m twice blessed, because it also exists inside my head.
The power of imagination is the land called Faerie. ‘We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce horror. We may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine, or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold. In such ‘fantasy’ as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins, Man becomes a sub-creator.’
Tolkien again, who wrote fairy tales for adults to read as a natural branch of literature rather than playing at ‘being children’, or pretending to enjoy them for the sake of the kids. ‘When we can take green from grass, blue from leaves and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power,’ he wrote. And what else compares to having that power?
As a child I was captivated by Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales. As a teenager I discovered Alan Garner’s ‘Weirdstone of Brisingamen’. Starting out in life as a writer myself, I fell head-first into Tolkien, and took some extracting. Finally I found my own voice and my own way into Faerie. This was a long process, which is what the word ‘finally’ is all about. For many years I thought that if I sounded like the writers I admired, Emily Bronte, Dylan Thomas, JRR Tolkien, Graham Greene – whoever the favourite of the moment might be – then I’d be a ‘proper’ writer but, if I sounded like myself, nobody would ever read me. A book of terrible short stories was published at the age of twenty-three [long since out of print, thank God], its lofty style definitely not mine. It wasn’t until years later, embarking upon ‘Midnight Blue’ that I developed the confidence as a writer to be myself.
I’m indebted to that decision. ‘Midnight Blue’ would never have been written without it. But it also would never have been written without Charlotte Burne, the first woman president of the Folklore Society, whose ‘Shropshire Folk-Lore: A Sheaf of Gleanings’ introduced me to Wild Edric, whose mysterious presence haunts ‘Midnight Blue’.
According to legend, whenever England is in danger, Wild Edric and his knights rise up from their sleep of centuries beneath a rugged range of Shropshire hills called the Stiperstones, and ride out in warning of impending doom. Charlotte Burne recorded conversations with people who claimed he’d been heard and seen before both the Battle of Waterloo and the First World War.
The history behind the story, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, tells of a local lord who, having refused to submit to the Norman Conquest by raising a rebellion which was decisively defeated, betrayed his people by joining forces with the Conqueror. For this dastardly about-face, ‘Wild Edric’, as he became known, was doomed to sleep beneath the Stiperstones with his knights, only ever finding the release of death when England returned to her rightful people. He sleeps still, and some legends have added the comfort of a fairy wife, the Lady Godda, though others have him meeting and losing her before his days of betrayal and doom.
Wild Edric’s is a great story and, both as legend and history, he’s alive and well in Shropshire. After writing him into ‘Midnight Blue’, I attended a history society meeting where local Stiperstones people claimed to have heard him riding by, and one person even claimed direct descent. And he’s alive and well in my life too. I've talked about him at a weekend I’m running on myths and legends and how to use them in creative writing. I've even led a walk up to the Devil’s Chair, where he and his knights are supposed to burst out of the ground.
It’s years now since I wrote ‘Midnight Blue’, but Wild Edric has stayed with me ever since. My books have included other characters I first came across in Charlotte Burne. including the highwayman Humphrey Kynaston, and the goddess of the River Severn, brought to life in ‘Sabrina Fludde’. But nowhere have I found a sadder doom than Edric’s, lying beneath cold rocks, unable to die - unable even to be at peace.
The romance of Edric is Arthurian. He too is meant to sleep until his country is set free. And the legend of Alderley, which Alan Garner drew on in his book, ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’, calls forth sleeping knights as well. They’re a universal emblem – and yet they’re a personal emblem too, especially if you’re a writer.
Every writer’s like a sleeping knight beneath a hill, brought to life when he or she has a story to tell, rising in the dark to gallop forth with a laugh, or tears or a chill breeze to broadcast to the waiting world. When I’m writing, I feel alive. When I’m not, I feel asleep. It’s as powerful as that. Maybe the idea of writers as the white-knight guardians of a watching world sounds a bit fanciful to you. But I’d say not. I’d say what we do matters more than anyone could ever say, and that the idea of an Edric who performs the role of guardian is only there because people want it, just as they want writing, and stories and people like me.
So I can’t help but identify with Wild Edric. He and I are two sides of the same coin. He’s an age-old legend, trying to break free, and I’m a fresh-faced pilgrim at the gate of Faerie, trying to get in.
PAULINE FISK'S first book, ‘Midnight Blue’ won the Smarties Book Prize in 1990. It's the story of a girl called Bonnie who has just found a home with her very young mother, in an inner city block of flats. Just as it looks as if they can be happy together and build their relationship, her controlling and malevolent grandmother moves in: and Bonnie runs away, finding refuge in a mid-city oasis, a walled garden where a mysterious man called Michael is building a hot air balloon with the help of a strange shadowy boy. Michael’s aim is to fly to the land beyond the sky:
Beyond the sky. Not ‘in outer space’ or ‘in another galaxy’, but beyond the sky… as though it were possible to peel away the edge of the blue and pass straight through.
‘Sabrina Fludde’(2001), opens with a body floating down the River Severn, the body of a lost, almost drowned girl whose memory is lost too, who plucks the strange name Abren out of the air for herself... In fact, the book is full of lost characters with strange names. In the end, Abren has to return to her own source (and that of the river) on the mountain Plynlimon, where a cold and sinister family claim her as their own. Alone and in terrible danger, she makes her escape down to the sea. And 'Mad Dog Moonlight' (2009) is another tale of a child seeking his true self and a place to belong. Pauline's latest book is 'Into the Trees', in which a boy comes to Belize looking for his father and falls in with a group of gap year volunteers. Living in the trees will change them all.
Pauline's books are beautifully written, interweaving strands of the real world with airy fibres so fine, they are barely even fantasy – more like mysticism, or elemental forces. She writes about vast emotional themes of love, anger, insecurity, and the need to belong to people and a place. They leave a lasting imprint on the mind.
The Wild Hunt Illustration by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine,Wikimedia Commons
Herne the Hunter Illustration by George Cruikshank, scan by Steven J Plunkett, Wikimedia Commons
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
The Fisher and the Merman
From Scandinavian Folklore, ed William Craigie, 1896
From Scandinavian Folklore, ed William Craigie, 1896
Here’s a nice story about inter-species co-operation and the gratitude that follows a good deed. One good turn deserves another…
One cold winter day a fisherman had gone out to sea. It began to grow stormy when he was about to return and he had trouble enough to clear himself. He then saw, near his boat, an old man with a long gray beard, riding on a wave. The fisherman knew well that it was the merman he saw before him, and he knew also what it meant. “Uh, then, how cold it is!” said the merman as he sat and shivered, for he had lost one of his hose. The fisherman pulled off one of his, and threw it out to him. The merman disappeared with it, and the fisherman came safe to land. Some time after this, the fisherman was again out at sea, far from land. All at once the merman stuck his head over the gunwale, and shouted out to the man in the boat,
“Hear, you man that gave the hose,
Take your boat and make for shore,
It thunders under Norway.”
The fisherman made all the haste he could to get to land, and there came a storm the like of which has never been known, in which many were drowned at sea.
|''Sævarmaður'' (merman) by Anker Eli Petersen: 1998, 55x60cm, Føroya Læraraskúli (Teacher's highschool of the Faroe Island) Wikimedia Commons|
Sunday, 11 November 2012
This Saturday, the 10th of November, there was a protest outside the prestigious gold-leaf-covered gate of All Souls College, Oxford. As an Oxford-based author, I went along to show some solidarity, although the protesters had been there for hours by the time I managed to arrive (delayed by guests and then by an accident that held up traffic on the Botley Road).
The people who stood there on the pavement from eleven o'clock till three were the concerned friends of Kensal Rise Library, in Brent, young and old, mums and dad and kids in pushchairs, who had come on a coach all the way up to Oxford, to ask All Souls College - one of the wealthiest colleges of the University of Oxford - not to sell Kensal Rise Library to a developer, Platinum Revolver Ltd, who wants to turn it into flats.
In case you don't already know the story, Kensal Rise Library was built by public subscription, and was opened in 1900 by Mark Twain on land belonging to All Souls. You can find out more about it here, and read a description by Maggie Gee of what it used to be like, here. Unfortunately that was before Brent Council summarily removed all the books and shut it down in October last year
The question now is whether All Souls, to whom building and land has now reverted, will act responsibly, and in the spirit of the original foundation - and restore the building to the community?
You can help by signing the petition , and joining the facebook group Save Kensal Rise Library.
You'll see in the top right hand corner of this picture, a reference to All Souls' famous "Codrington Library". It would be easy to argue that All Souls ought to be just as proud or even prouder of Kensal Rise, which might not be as old as the Codrington Library, but at least wasn't founded by a man who made his fortune from the Jamaica plantations. (Christopher Codrington (1668–1710). But why should either library be endangered?
The latest news - after a highly successful and visible day out - comes from library campaigner Jodi Gramigni. She says, "All Souls were invited to join us, and although they weren't available on the day, a meeting to discuss their plans for Kensal Rise library is scheduled in a week's time."
Let's hope the news will be good news.
HAVE A SOUL, ALL SOULS!
All photos copyright Simone Gramigni
Friday, 9 November 2012
I'm taking the weekend off from Steel Thistles, as today you will find me talking about trolls to my friend Lucy Coats, over at Scribble City Central, her wonderful blog devoted to all things mythic. She's currently compiling a fascinating alphabet of mythical creatures, with help from many great fantasy writers: and we've reached the T's. Click on Scribble City, and I'll see you there!
Picture credit: The Changeling, by John Bauer, 1913
Picture credit: The Changeling, by John Bauer, 1913
Friday, 2 November 2012
|Sara Allgood as Maurya, photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1938|
Riders to the Sea by J M Synge, 1904
Unless they’re Irish peasants of the early 20th century, in which case we’ve been conditioned by John Synge and WB Yeats to expect them to speak in floods of natural wild Celtic poetry – we tend not to think of ordinary people – the-man-in-the-street – as likely to use particularly eloquent or colourful speech. And yet, why not? Robert Burns was untaught, and so was John Clare, and many a mute inglorious Milton may, as Gray suggests, have gone to his quiet grave without being known by more than the handful of folk amongst whom he or she lived. (In passing, there are so many Miltons among the villages near us here in Oxfordshire: Great Milton, Little Milton, Milton Park, etc., that one day I swear I'm going to create a couple of twinned villages called Mute Milton and Inglorious Milton, rather as Joan Aiken wrote about a village called Loose Chippings.)
But from such ordinary/extraordinary folk sprang the great poet Anon., without whom we would have no Border ballads, no Thomas the Rhymer or Tam Lin… no fairytales, no myths, no legends, no Bible, all of which were made up and told aloud by Mr and Mrs Anon long before they were written down and published in big, thick books. It's unimaginable. We’d have no proverbs, no skipping rhymes, no riddles, no jokes. People are just naturals at using colourful speech: you really and truly do not have to learn to read or write in order to appreciate beauty and express yourself.
I was reminded of all this by a section in a rather lovely book called ‘Folklore on The American Land’ by Duncan Emrich, pub. 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.
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,
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! And from the Ozarks (from the French ‘Aux Arks’ – Arks: shortened form for Arkansas), Emrich provides any number of proverbial phrases and ways of speech.
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.”
All of us are poets...
Jump rope: Wikimedia Commons Author Iksnigo
Jump rope: Wikimedia Commons Author Iksnigo