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


  1. I, of course, wondered if the child really meant adders (snakes) or menters was "tormenters". It is essentially a family anecdote about an imaginative child. We have all told them about children at play with invisible friends. My son Adam at that age was convinced there were small plaguey creatures/imps in the long, windowless upstairs hall and invented a series of spells and hand signals to ward them. He's 44 now, and we joke about it but at the time it was very real to him.

    The boggart story, while turned into a very lit'ry creation (and you have done a marvelous job of breaking down the dialect mistakes) really sounds like an old jest tale. At least to me. I expected a ta-tum! beat on the drum at the last line!

    More, more.


  2. I love that! The story of your son's imps! Wonderful. Yes, I'm sure this little girl had one of those vivid childhood hallucinations. Maybe the 'little green gentleman' description was due to adult prompting - "Was it a fairy? what was he wearing?" and she elaborated? And yes, absolutely, the end of the boggart story is definitely a 'boom-boom' moment. William Mayne used it in his wonderful book 'Earthfasts'.

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  4. That's an interesting analysis and has prompted me to revist my copy of The Fairy Mythology.

    Jane's speculation regarding the rational origins of the tales may well carry much weight.

    As an oral storyteller for many, many years now and having made the aquaintance of many traditional tellers, I know that there is not half as much 'respect for tradition' in the telling of tales by the fireside as there is in their literary or academic analysis. A storyteller sees herself as sharing life with the story, belongoing with it, inhabiting it. There is a sense of co-ownership, a literal familiarity and it is always a work in progress. A story thus told, whatever the source, can and will be shamelessly adapted, interpreted, added to and revised on the spur of the moment - in response to inspiration, environment and above all the audience. Very often, a storyteller sees her obligation not to the story per se, but to its very telling in that moment to those lively souls who attend and participate in the telling.

    A story told is a life lived and there's no telling which way it will go. Or rather, it's only in the telling that you discover which way it will go.

    Of course, there are plenty of storytellers nowadays who will not veer one word or syllable from the version they have recieved (rather amusingly from sources such as Keightley who clearly was, perhaps unwittingly, merely recording snapshots in the evolution of many tales - and as we can see from your post,Katherine, the tales can prove quite promiscuous with one another!) These same storytellers, while there is much to commend in what they do, are hardly 'keeping the tradition alive' but rather encasing it in a glass box, fixed and immutable and making of it no more than a museum piece.

    I think the true heritage of the storytelling tradition is clearly in the hands of the few continuing, genuine oral storytellers and modern writers such as Jane and yourself, Katherine. The tradition is all there, intact and alive; simply, and properly reclothed in the words of the moment for the audience truly listening.

  5. Austin--you might not be aware of it, But Kath and I are both oral tellers as well. We have both performed before audiences and I for one love what you say about inhabiting a story. That habitation is, of course, changed by a direct audience (orality) as opposed to the indirect audience (literary) though I could argue forcefuly that in the literary tale the true audience is first and foremost the writer herself.

    Sir Francis James Child named the three tellers this way: The blind beggar, the nursery maid, and the clerk.


  6. Hi Jane,

    I am not at all surprised to read that you are both oral storytellers (but I am delighted!)and that must certainly, in part, account for the narrative power of your respective works.

    I like Sir James's threefold definition of the different storytellers. For my own part I've always been a blind beggar although of late I've been turning up at the office as the clerk, too.

    Both would be equally welcome at my table. However, while I wouldn't turn her away, it would be with greater caution and a sideways glance that I would share my meat with the nursery maid - that is if I have understood her aright as moralistically censorious.

    Your final comment, Jane, may have clarified something that has long puzzled me. As a novice writer, I frequently hear two pieces of advice that always seemed to contradict one another. Namely,'know who your audience is and write for them' and 'write first and foremost for yourself.' Now, it occurs to me that perhaps those apparently contradictory mottoes are in fact two aspects of the same truth!

  7. So here we are, three story-tellers together. Austin, I love your long and thoughtful comment,and I agree utterly that while the tale moulds the teller, the teller moulds the tale for the listeners, do it's a three-way thing. I also love the idea that Keightley's old lady may have been telling her auditor the sort of story she felt he wanted from her - combining what Jane rightly considers a family story with something more literary and poetical, in order to form a more coherent narrative. I'm often struck by the difference between 'true' ghost stories (usually very brief and inconclusive) with the literary ghost story which has to have a satisfying narrative structure.

    'Write for yourself' is something I can claim always to have done; yet I don't think I found my voice as a writer until I'd spent several years telling stories aloud to children. I want to say more about this - but it'll have to wait for another day.

  8. Thank both for a fascinating and enlightening conversation.

    Katherine, I for one look forward to that other day in which you say more about writing for yourself and telling stories aloud...

  9. Wonderful post, Katherine; and thanks to you and Jane and Austin for the discussion that followed. "Fascinating and enlightening" indeed!

  10. A great post! I think what one needs to remember when approaching folklore is that maybe it's not meant to be literal truth, but occupies a different part of the human psyche. All the same, it is naturally fascinating to reflect on why such visions occur to people. In my own family, when we lived in a house in Kendal, there was a little old lady who 'haunted' it, who looked exactly like my grandmother, bent, with grey bun. Once she came into the dining room and went through to the kitchen. My mother and brother, who were there, saw this, and my mother went into the kitchen, to find it empty. My brother is quite sceptical but he insists till now that he actually saw it. So maybe people can cast a visual shell of themselves when they are still alive. As for the suffocating, that is well-attested in witch stories and witch accusations. I know quite a few people who have experienced that when under stress, and have experienced it myself. In one case, the person concerned was convinced it was a woman she had a very contentious lawsuit against, who was attacking her, so there was the witch belief again, in the middle of the twentieth century.

  11. My late husband used to say, "Just because I made it up doesn't mean it isn't true!"

    This works for me in life as well as in story.

    Thanks for the fascinating conversation, all.


  12. Good heavens, Leslie - that is quite astounding. As Jane says, thankyou all!