Friday 25 January 2013

Folklore snippets: The Childhood of Jesus

Jesus makes birds of clay: by Vitrearum, from his excellent blog Medieval Church Art - from a fifteenth century wallpainting at Shorthampton in Oxfordshire

Old stories of the childhood of Jesus certainly count as folklore: current in medieval times, they have found their way into old songs and carols and even on to the walls of churches. Charming as these tales are with their vibrant images of children’s play, of tell-tales and rivalry, they may also have a shocking impact. They show childhood’s ruthlessness as well as its innocence. 

They are to be found in the Apocryphal Gospels of Thomas, and the Gospel of the Pseudo Matthew: the translation is by MR James (Oxford University Press 1924). James comments:

The few Greek manuscripts are all late.  The earliest authorities are a much-abbreviated Syriac version of which the manuscript is of the sixth century; and a Latin palimpsest at Vienna of the fifth or sixth century.  The Latin version… is found in more manuscripts than the Greek; none of them, I think, is earlier than the thirteenth century.”

From the Greek Text B:

1 On a certain day when there had fallen a shower of rain he went forth of the house where his mother was and played upon the ground where the waters were running: and he made pools, and the waters flowed down, and the pools were filled with water. Then saith he: I will that ye become clean and wholesome. And straightway they did so.

2 But a certain son of Annas the scribe passed by bearing a branch of willow, and he overthrew the pools with the branch, and the waters were poured out. And Jesus turned about and said unto him: O ungodly and disobedient one, what have the pools done to thee that thou hast emptied them? Thou shalt… be withered up even as the branch which thou hast in hand. 

3 And he went on, and after a little he fell and gave up the ghost. And when the young children that played with him saw it, they marvelled and departed and told the father of him that he was dead. And he ran and found the child dead, and went and accused Joseph.

1 Now Jesus made of that clay twelve sparrows: and it was the Sabbath day.  And a child ran and told Joseph, saying: Behold, thy child playeth about the brook, and hath made sparrows of the clay, which is not lawful.

2 And he when he heard it went and said to the child: Wherefore doest thou so and profaneth the Sabbath?  But Jesus answered him not, but looked upon the sparrows and said: Go ye, take your flight, and remember me in your life.  And at the word they took flight and went up into the air.  And when Joseph saw it he was astonished.

The last part of the story was taken up (and embellished) by Hilaire Belloc who wrote this very sweet poem, published 1910:

When Jesus Christ was four years old
The angels brought Him toys of gold,
Which no man ever had bought or sold.

And yet with these He would not play,
He made Him small fowl out of clay
And blessed them till they flew away:
Tu creasti Domini

Jesus Christ, thou child so wise,
Bless mine hands and fill mine eyes,
And bring my soul to Paradise.

However, closer to the apocryphal gospels is the old ballad ‘The Bitter Withy’, collected by Vaughan Williams in Shropshire and Herefordshire in 1908/9.  It is based on tales from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and also from a 13th century poem on the childhood of Jesus known as the Vita Rhythmica.  In the ballad, Jesus asks his mother if he may go and play ball:

So up the hill and down the hill
Our sweet young Saviour ran
Until he met three rich young lords
All playing in the sun.

“Good morn, good morn, good morn,” said they,
“Good morning then,” cried he,
“And which of you three rich young lords
Will play at ball with me?”

But the rich young lords despise him:

“We are all lords’ and ladies’ sons
Born in a bower and hall,
And you are nothing but a poor maid’s child
Born in an ox’s stall.”

Alas, you don’t meddle with divinity.

“Well though you’re lords’ and ladies’ sons
All born in your bower and hall,
I’ll prove to you at your latter end
I’m an angel above you all.”

So he built him a bridge from the beams of the sun
And over the water ran he,
The rich young lords chased after him
And drowned they were all three.

So up the hill and down the hill
Three rich young mothers ran
Saying, “Mary mild, fetch home your child,
For ours he’s drowned each one.”

Then Mary mild, she took her child
And laid him across her knee,
And with a handful of withy twigs
She gave him slashes three.

“Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy,
You’ve caus├Ęd me to smart,
And the withy shall be the very first tree
To perish at the heart.”

Far from being sorry for what he’s done, the little Christ Child curses the withy itself – the willow wands with which his mother has whipped him. There’s a wry, very conscious humour in this ballad.  It’s been made up and sung by people who were used to being the underdogs, who could only console themselves that, ultimately, God was on the side of the poor and the humble, not the lords and ladies.  They knew they would never find equality this side of heaven, however: so the ballad is a joke – a knowing, tender, deliberate joke – about children, and the way they play and quarrel, and the topsy-turvy chaos that is caused when the innocent but all-powerful Christ Child lashes out against those who jeer at him… and how even HE has to be taught a lesson when he goes too far. 

Here's Maddy Prior singing 'The Bitter Withy' at Cecil Sharp House, 23rd October 2008

Friday 18 January 2013

Addlers and Menters

The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke - Richard Dadd

Like the tale of the 'Elf Dancers of Cae Caled' which I posted up a few weeks ago, some folk tales sound so detailed and oddly convincing, you feel they must be true – whatever ‘truth’ may mean.  And then again, you start to wonder.  Here are two fairy stories from Thomas Keightley’s Fairy Mythology (1828) which have set me thinking carefully about the way they may have been collected.

This is the first tale, with Keightley’s original asterisk and footnote:

Addlers and Menters

An old lady in Yorkshire related as follows:– My eldest daughter Betsey was about four years old; I remember it was on a fine summer’s afternoon, or rather evening, I was seated in this chair which I now occupy.  The child had been in the garden, she came into that entry or passage from the kitchen (on the right side of the entry was the old parlour-door, on the left the door of the common sitting-room; the mother of the child was in a line with both doors); the child, instead of turning towards the sitting room made a pause at the parlour-door, which was open.  She stood several minutes quite still; at last I saw her draw her hand quickly towards her body; she set up a loud shriek and ran, or rather flew, to me crying out “Oh! Mammy, green man will hab me! green man will hab me!” 

It was a long time before I could pacify her; I then asked her why she was so frightened.  “O Mammy,” said she, “all t’parlour is full of addlers and menters.” Elves and fairies (spectres?) I suppose she meant. She said they were dancing, and a little man in a green coat with a gold-laced cocked hat on his head, offered to take her hand as if he would have her as his partner in the dance. 

The mother, upon hearing this, went and looked into the old parlour, but the fairy vision had melted into thin air.

“Such,” adds the narrator, “is the account I heard of this vision of fairies. The person is still alive who witnessed or supposed she saw it, and though a well-informed person, still positively asserts the relations to be strictly true.” *

*And true no doubt it is: ie: the impression made on her imagination was as strong as if the objects had been actually before her. The narrator is the same person who told the preceding boggart story.

It’s frustrating that Keightley did not often name his contributors. In ‘Addlers and Menters’ we initially assume the narrator to be the old lady mentioned in the first sentence.  However, a different voice creeps in to comment upon the layout of the house – this is the person she is telling the story to, who in the absence of any clue to the contrary, we suppose to be Keightley himself.  Only in the last paragraph do we realise that the person to whom this story was told is not Keightley after all, but an unnamed contributor.  We are therefore getting the story at third hand: and it’s not at all clear from Keightley’s own footnote whether the ‘person still alive who witnessed it’ is the old lady, or her daughter, little Betsey, now grown up.

The detail of the first two paragraphs – the well visualised domestic interior, the little girl coming in from the garden, the pause by the open parlour door, the child’s sharply observed gesture of ‘drawing her hand quickly towards her body’, and her terrified shriek – all suggest a genuine experience of some sort, if only a frightening waking dream or hallucination, which has later been ‘finished off’ with a conventional literary ending.  Addlers and menters?  Whether dialect words or childish gabble, they somehow carry conviction. But the civilized little man with green coat and gold-laced cocked hat who invites the child to dance – does not.  He is hardly convincing as the source of such childish terror.

I find it fascinating to compare the style of this tale with the Boggart story which Keightley’s footnote declares to have been narrated by the same person – whether the old lady herself, the daughter, or Keightley’s unnamed contributor.  Here is the boggart story:

The Boggart

In the house of an honest farmer in Yorkshire, named George Gilbertson, a Boggart had taken up his abode. He here caused a great deal of annoyance, especially by tormenting the children in various ways.  Sometimes their bread and butter would be snatched away, or their porringers of bread and milk be capsized by an invisible hand; for the Boggart never let himself be seen; at other times, the curtains of their beds would be shaken backwards and forwards, or a heavy weight would press on and nearly suffocate them.  The parents had often, on hearing their cries, to rush to their aid. There was a kind of closet, formed by a wooden partition, on the kitchen stairs, and a large knot having been driven out of the deal boards of which it was made, there remained a hole. Into this one day the farmer’s youngest boy stuck the shoe-horn with which he was amusing himself, when immediately it was thrown out again, and struck the boy on the head.  The agent was of course the Boggart, and it soon became their sport (which they called laking with Boggart) to put the shoe-horn into the hole and have it shot back at them.

The Boggart at length proved such a torment that the farmer and his wife resolved to quit the house and let him have it all to himself.  This was put into execution, and the farmer and his family were following the last loads of furniture, when a neighbour named John Marshall came up – “Well, Georgey,” said he, “and soa you’re leaving t’ould hoose at last?” – “Heigh, Johnny my lad, I’m forced tull it. For that damned Boggart torments us soa, we can neither rest neet nor day for’t, and soa you see, we’re forced to flitt.”  He scarce had uttered the words when a voice from a deep upright churn cried out, “Aye, aye, Georgey, we’re flitting ye see.” – “Od damn thee,” cried the poor farmer, “if I’d known thou’d been there, I wouldn’t ha’ stirred a peg. Nay nay, it’s no use, Mally,” turning to his wife, “we may as weel turn back again to t’ould hoose as be tormented in another that’s not so convenient.”

So here’s another story which seems split in two. Or even three.  Most people will recognise the second paragraph as a well known popular folktale, complete in itself, Aarne-Thompson Type ML.7020. Motif: F.482.3.1.1 [Farmer is so bothered by brownie that he decides he must move, etc]. Here, it seems to have been tacked on to the first part, which itself appears to have been cobbled together from two other narratives, one about a poltergeist or unquiet spirit which terrorises some young children; the other involving some boys who, far from being afraid of their boggart, actually play a game with him: ‘laking with Boggart’ – in which he fires objects like the shoe-horn out of the hole into which they push them.  ‘Laking with boggart’, which means ‘playing with the boggart’ is convincing Yorkshire usage (they still say ‘laiking about’ in Yorkshire, and drop the definite article.)  Most of the domestic detail, the closet on the kitchen stairs, and the knot-hole, and the boys with the shoe-horn, comes from this part of the story.

Apart from the dialogue, the story is told in a rather flat ‘literary’ style – ‘In the abode of an honest farmer’, ‘this was put into execution’, etc, but the second paragraph is not entirely convincing in its attempt at a colloquial dialect. For one thing, the farmers address one another with the formal ‘you’. Instead of John Marshall’s ‘Soa you’re leaving at last’, I’d expect the informal ‘Soa th’art leaving at last’.  Even if John Marshall is actually addressing George and his family – plural – George’s response is ‘and soa you see, we’re forced to flitt’- instead of the more likely ‘and soa tha sees, we’re forced to flitt’. Apart from the phrase ‘laking with boggart’, none of this story conveys the impression of someone scribbling down what he has actually heard.  Whereas the little girl’s words in ‘Addlers and Menters’ sound as if they’ve been written down verbatim, the dialogue in the second paragraph of The Boggart’ seems much more like what someone thinks is the way a Yorkshire farmer talks.

So what’s been going on?  In my opinion, someone has decided to turn a series of anecdotes – odd in themselves, but short and inconclusive – into stories, ‘improving’ them by linking them together into a narrative.  And who was that someone?  It could be Keightley himself, of course, but personally I suspect his unnamed contributor, the person who listened to the old Yorkshire lady.  It’s perfectly possible the old lady told him all the ingredients of these stories, as separate tales – I’m sure she supplied the names of George Gilbertson and John Marshall, and the anecdote of the shoe-horn.  But I don’t believe they were originally linked.  And I think that the addlers and menters, the poltergeist, and the shoe-horn game are much more convincing – and far more unsettling – when left on their own.

Picture credit: Richard Dadd: The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke (Tate Britain) Wikimedia Commons

Friday 11 January 2013

White Ladies

In my book ‘Dark Angels’ (US title ‘The Shadow Hunt’) the castle of La Motte Rouge, which shelters below the hill called Devil’s Edge, is haunted by a mournful White Lady who wanders the courtyard on dark and misty nights, wringing her hands and moaning softly.  She’s creepy but harmless, she's  forgotten her own name; she may be the diminished pagan spirit of the spring which feeds the castle’s cistern, and is regarded by the various inhabitants with attitudes ranging from fear to  pity. In this passage the saintly old priest Howell intercepts her as she peers in at the door of the castle’s chapel:

Billows of mist floated across the yard, and the pale lady was still moaning and wringing her hands at the chapel door. 

“Hush now, hush!” the old man called in a soothing voice.  The lady turned to him like a frightened child.

“I can’t remember.  I can't remember my name…”

“Dear, dear. …But that’s all right, because you see, we have a name for you.  Dame Blanche, our White Lady, our sweet Ladi Wen.”  He dropped into musical Welsh, and the lady listened very attentively.  When he had finished she bowed her head and walked smoothly away. The mist followed her.  Her feet moved a fraction above the ground, and when she reached the dark corner of the building, Wolf wasn’t sure if she went around it, or just vanished. 

You can catch a glimpse of her here.

White Ladies are a bit different from other ghosts. In an article called The White Lady of Britain and Ireland, by Jane C Beck (Folklore, Vol 81, 1970), Beck argues that “the modern day ghost known as the White Lady … is …a creature with a heritage reaching back to the darkest recesses of time.  Although her most usual form today is that of a gliding spectre, some of the acts she performs recall her earlier condition as a deity.”

Ghost stories often come complete with ‘explanations’ for the apparition - explanations which usually feel contrived.  Frequently they involve some sort of crime: the ghost is unable to rest because it is either the victim or the perpetrator.  White ladies are often described as murdered brides or sweethearts, or else girls who have drowned themselves for love. They are frequently associated with water. A story from Yorkshire, reported in 1823, tells how a lovely maiden robed in white is to be seen on Hallowe’en at the spot where the rivers Hodge and Dove meet, standing with her golden hair streaming and her arm around the neck of a white doe. From Somerset, Ruth Tongue describes an apparition called the White Lady of Wellow,

… who haunts St Julian’s Well, now in a cottage garden.  She played the part of a banshee to the Lords of Hungerford, but she seems to have been a well spirit rather than a ghost.  The Lake Lady of Orchardleigh is another white lady who is rather a fairy than a ghost.  But the most fairy-like of the three is the White Rider of Corfe, who…gallops along the road on a white horse, turns clean aside by a field gate and into the middle of a meadow, where she vanishes.  I was told about her by some old-age pensioners in the Blackdown Hills in 1946.  One of them said. “She shone like a dewdrop,” and another of them, “T’was like liddle bells all a-chime.”

In Wales there are apparently two types of white ladies, the Dynes Mewn Gwyn or lady in white, and the ladi wen: the first is a true ghost; the second is an apparition which haunts the place where someone has died a violent death. Not all White Ladies are harmless.  Jane Beck tells of one which appeared at Ogmore Castle near Bridgend, Glamorgan, where she was believed to guard a treasure under the tower floor.  One man was brave enough to speak to her; she gave permission to take half the treasure and showed him where it lay, but when he was so greedy as to return for the rest:

The White Lady then set upon him, and to his dismay, he found she had claws instead of fingers, and with these she nearly tore him to pieces.

Jacob Grimm, in his Teutonic Mythology, talks of the White Lady as someone who

… appears in many houses when a member of the family is about to die, and …is thought to be the ancestress of the race.  She is sometimes seen at night tending and nursing the children… She wears a white robe, or is clad half in white, half in black; her feet are concealed buy yellow or green shoes.  In her hand she usually carries a bunch of keys or a golden spinning wheel.

I’m strongly reminded of Princess Irene’s great-great (ever-so-many-greats) grandmother in George MacDonald’s ‘The Princess and the Goblin’, a beautiful woman with long white hair who can seem both old and young, who inhabits the top floor of the castle tower, and sits spinning her magical moony wheel.  When Irene climbs the tower steps and taps at the door:

“Come in, Irene,” said the sweet voice.

The princess opened the door and entered.  There was the moonlight streaming in at the window, and in the middle of the moonlight sat the old lady in her black dress with the white lace, and her silvery hair mingling with the moonlight, so that you could not have told which was which.

And is the Lady of the Lake, in the Morte D’Arthur, a White Lady?  She is seen by Arthur and Merlin ‘going upon the lake,’ and although it is not actually her arm ‘clothed in white samite’, which brandishes the sword Excalibur above the water, she does tell Arthur that the sword belongs to her. Whose is the arm, then?  We never find out.

In John Masefield’s wonderful wintry book “The Box of Delights’, there’s a passage which well combines the ambiguous mystery and dread of the White Lady.  Kay Harker is out on the Roman Road on a night ‘as black as a pocket’ and sees something white moving towards him:

He remembered, that Cook had said, there was a White Lady who “walked” out Duke’s Brook way.  This thing that was coming was a White Lady… but supposing it was a White Wolf, standing on its hind legs and ready to pounce.  It looked like a wolf; its teeth were gleaming. Then the moon shone out again; he saw that it was a White Lady who held her hand in a peculiar way, so that he could see a large ring, with a glittering ‘longways cross’ on it.

“Come Kay,” she said, “you must not stay here; the Wolves are running: listen.”

Significantly the White Lady (who in this case is wholly benevolent) is still believed by Cook to haunt a water course: Duke’s Brook.  Masefield’s fiction is full of folklore, in which he clearly took great delight: his White Lady runs true to type.

Before the Romans came to Britain, the British appear to have worshipped the deities – many or mainly female – of rivers, streams, springs and pools. Most of their names, like that of my White Lady, must have been forgotten, but we still know Sabrina of the River Severn, and Sulis, who gave her name to Aquae Sulis, the hot springs at Bath. To the waters of these springs, pools and rivers, the British made offerings – just as we still throw coins into fountains – and many is the bronze or iron age sword which has been recovered from river beds and marshlands.  How many Bediveres have thrown precious weapons to the Lady of the Lake?  And what did they hope to receive in return? Health?  Wealth? Victory? 

I like White Ladies – beautiful, eerie creatures draped in moonlight, trailing clouds of grief and longing for those far-away ages when they still had the power to bless and to curse.

Picture credits:

The Woman in White by Frederick Walker, image courtesy of The Victorian Web
Irene's Grandmother, by Arthur Hughes; illustration from The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald
Sulis Minerva in the Museum of Bath by Akalvin at Wikimedia Commons. Original uploader was Akalvin at de.wikipedia

Monday 7 January 2013

Folklore snippets: The Elf Dancers of Cae Caled

 From “Welsh Folk-Lore” by Elias Owen, 1887

This is taken from an account of a childhood event experienced near Lanelwyd House, Bodfari, Denbigh, by one Dr Egbert or Edward Williams and written, according to Elias Owen, in 1757.  I think it's remarkable both for the immediacy of the account (he writes as if it had happened yesterday) and for the terror felt by all the children as soon as they witness the mysterious dancers. Notable also is the fact that the elf or dwarf cannot pass the boundary of the stile.

On a fine summer day (about midsummer) between the hours of 12 at noon and one, my eldest sister and myself, our next neighbours' children Barbara and Ann Evans, both older than myself, were in a field called Cae Caled near their house, all innocently engaged at play by a hedge under a tree, and not far from the stile next to that hedge, when one of us observed on the middle of the field a company of – what shall I call them? – Beings, neither men, women, nor children, dancing with great briskness. They were in full view less than a hundred yards from us, consisting of about seven or eight couples; we could not well reckon them [count them], owing to the briskness of their motions and the consternation with which we were struck at a sight so unusual.  They were all clothed in red, a dress not unlike a military uniform, without hats, but their heads tied with handkerchiefs of a reddish colour, sprigged or spotted with yellow, all uniform in this as in habit, all tied behind with the corners hanging down their backs, and white handkerchiefs in  their hands held loose by the corners.  They appeared of a size somewhat less than our own, but more like dwarfs than children.

On the first discovery we began, with no small dread, to question one another as to what they could be, as there were no soldiers in the country, not was it the time for May dancers, and as they differed much from all the human beings we had ever seen.  Thus alarmed we dropped our play, left our station, and made for the stile.  Still keeping our eyes upon them we observed one of their company starting from the rest and making towards us at a running pace. I being the youngest was the last at the stile,  and, though struck with an inexpressible panic, saw the grim elf just at my heels, having a full and clear, though terrific view of him, with his ancient, swarthy and grim complexion. I screamed out exceedingly; my sister also and our companions set up a roar, and the former dragged me with violence over the stile on which, from the moment I was disengaged from it, this warlike Lilliputian leaned and stretched himself after me, but came not over.

With palpitating hearts and loud cries we ran towards the house, alarmed the family and told them our trouble. The men instantly left their dinner, with whom still trembling we went to the place, and made the most solicitous and diligent enquiry in all the neighbourhood, both at that time and after, but never found the least vestige of any circumstance that could contribute to a solution of this remarkable phenomenon…

Picture Credits:

Wikimedia Commons:
Fairies dancing in a ring: Woodcut from an old English chapbook.  17th century? 
Fauns, devils, elves (?) dancing: Woodcut by Olaus Magnus, "Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus", 1555