Thursday 8 December 2016

He rode at night with gilten spur and candle light...

Following on from my last post about lists of fairies and bogeymen, I can't resist sharing a marvellous passage in a book published in 1549 called The Complaynt of Scotland. The main aim of the anonymous author was to challenge Henry VIII of England’s attempts to marry the young Mary Queen of Scots to his son Edward and thus unite the two countries (in other words, annexe Scotland). So The Complaynt is a political work, but in the sixteenth century this means backing up your points with a great many stories, legends and allegories which demonstrate Scotland’s superiority to, and independence from, England.  In one chapter, a number of literate and thoughtful Scottish shepherds have been discussing philosophy, and one of them suggests they might all now relax and tell stories.  There follows an exhilarating list which deserves to be better known: here’s a version in modern spelling:

Some were in prose and some in were in verse: some were stories and some were short tales. These were the names of them as after follows: the Tales of Canterbury, Robert the Devil Duke of Normandy, the tale of the wolf of the world’s end, Ferrand earl of Flanders that married the devil, the tale of the Red Ettin with the three heads, the tale how Perseus saved Andromeda from the cruel monster, the prophecy of Merlin, the tale of the giant that ate men alive, ‘On foot by forth as I could found’, Wallace, the Bruce, Hippomedon, the tale of the Three-Footed Dog of Norway, the tale how Hercules slew the serpent Hydra that had seven heads, the tale how the King of Eastmoreland married the king’s daughter of Westmoreland, Skail Gillenderson the king’s son of Skellye, the tale of the Four Sons of Aymon, the tale of the Bridge of the Mantribil, the tale of Sir Ywain, Arthur’s knight, Ralf Collier, the Siege of Milan, Gawain and Gollogras, Lancelot du Lac, Arthur knight he rode at night with gilten spur and candlelight, the tale of Floremond of Albany that slew the dragon by the sea, the tale of Sir Walter the bold Leslie, the tale of the Pure Tint, Clariades and Maliades, Arthur of Little Britanny, Robin Hood and Little John, the Marvels of Mandeville, the tale of the Young Tamlane and of the bold Braband, the reign of the Roi Robert, Sir Egeir and Sir Grim, Bevis of Southhampton, the Golden Targe, the Palace of Honour, the tale how Acteon was transformed into a hart and then slain by his own dogs, the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, the tale of the amours of Leander and Hero, the tale how Jupiter transformed his dear love into a cow, the tale how that Jason won the Golden Fleece, Orpheus King of Portingal, the tale of the golden apple, the tale of the Three Weird Sisters, the tale how Daedalus made the Labyrinth to keep the monster Minotaur, the tale how King Midas got two asses lugs [ears] on his head because of his avarice.

How diverse these stories are! Scottish of course, with Wallace, the Bruce, Young Tamlane, the bold Leslie – classical, with Perseus and Andromeda, the Minotaur, Midas – French, with Arthur of Little Britain and Lancelot du lac – English: the Canterbury Tales, Bevis of Southhampton, Robin Hood,  Mandeville’s Travels – and probably also Scandinavian, with the now unknown story of Skail Gillenderson.  Many more are also now unknown. ‘The Three-Footed Dog of Norway’ for example, just might be a version of ‘The Black Bull of Norroway’, but we’ll never know. And ‘The Wolf at the World’s End’ sounds a little bit like ‘The Well at the World’s End’ – but then a well is very different from a wolf.  John Leyden, who edited the Complaynt of Scotland in 1801, suggests the tale ‘of the Pure Tint’ may be ‘Rashycoat’, the Scots Cinderella – though he doesn’t say why. (Did he perhaps know a version in which the maiden’s fine complexion was a key to her identity?)  ‘The tale of the Three Weird Sisters' is also unknown - though perhaps Shakespeare knew it! It may have been a story about the Fates or perhaps the Norns.  For me the most haunting line is the one about Arthur. You really need to say it in the Scottish way to get the real lilt and the internal rhymes: ‘Arthour knycht he rade on nycht/With gyltin spur and candil lycht’.  John Leyden says of it:

This romance, of which these lines seem to have formed the introduction, is unknown, but I have often heard them repeated in a nursery tale, of which I only recollect the following ridiculous verses:
‘Chick my naggie, chick my naggie!
How mony miles to Aberdeagie?
Tis eight and eight, and other eight,
We’ll no win there wi candle light.’

It’s a great pity this is all Leyden could remember of the tale, but it sounds very similar to the English nursery rhyme:
How many miles to Babylon?
Three-score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again:
If your heels be nimble and light,
You may get there by candlelight.’

So perhaps the story wasn’t so much a story as a lullaby? And aren’t lullabies often mysterious and a little sad? At any rate, this I love this candle-lit vision of Arthur flashing through the night with his golden spurs, possibly at the head of a ghostly troop like Herla or Herne.  ‘Fire and fleet and candlelight…’

Picture credits

The Wild Hunt by Johann Wilhelm Cordes, Wikimedia Commons
Wild Hunt (engraving) Wikimedia Commons


  1. I'm remided of a German folksong where a girl lights three candles so her lover can find the way over the lake to her, but an evil woman, in some versions a "dishonest" (fake?) nun extigushes them, so he drowns.

    I'm not sure if there's a connection, but the songs you listed the task also seems to be o reach a certain dstination before the candles burn down in order to arrive there safely. Might be worth looking into how common that motif is.

  2. Thankyou so much, Julia - I'd never heard of this song before (hardly surprising perhaps as my German is rudimentary). I shall be on the lookout for candles in folk tales and ballads from now on. And yes, the Hero and Leander parallel is striking!