Tuesday 25 February 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #1: SIMON AND MARGARET


This tale was told in the 1880s by Gaelic-speaking Michael Faherty of Renvyle in Connemara, Co Galway to William Hartpole Lecky, who wrote it down verbatim; it was then translated by Irish poet William Larminie for his collection ‘West-Irish Folk Tales (1893). Larminie was a careful and responsible collector who took down most of his tales in person. He not only names his sources but gives brief descriptions of them: 'Michael Faherty,' he says, 'was when I first made his acquaintance, a lad of about seventeen. He ... lived with his uncle, who had, or has still, a small holding... and who was also a pilot and repairer of boats.' Unlike many 19th century collectors Larminie did not attempt to improve or embellish the stories he was told; he was so conscientious that his collection even includes one unfinished tale, with a note to explain that the storyteller had forgotten the ending!

In this complete tale, the heroine Margaret follows her married lover Simon to sea, only to be cast overboard like Jonah when the ship is threatened by a female sea serpent with a great dislike of the Irish... It's easy to imagine this story being told aloud: deadpan and deceptively na├»ve, with elisions, sudden surprises and touches of sly humour. We hear how the two lovers are reunited, how the level-headed Margaret saves Simon by fighting the giant of the White Doon, and how in spite of his attempt to take credit for the victory, he's forced to admit that she was the one who did it. 

Long ago there was a king’s son called Simon, and he came in a ship from the east to Eire. In the place where he came to harbour he met with a woman whose name was Margaret, and she fell in love with him. And she asked him if he would take her with him on the ship. He said he would not take her, that he had no business with her, “for I am married already,” said he.  But the day he was going to sea she followed him to the ship, and such a beautiful woman was she, that he said to himself that he would not put her out of the ship, “but before I go further I must get beef.” He returned back and got the beef. He took the woman and the beef to the ship and ordered the sailors to make everything ready that they might be sailing on the sea.

            They were not long from land when they saw a great bulk making towards them, and it seemed to them that it was more like a serpent than anything else whatever. And it was not long before the serpent cried out, “Throw me the Irish person you have on board.”

            “We have no Irish person in the ship,” said the king’s son, “for it is foreign people we are; but we have meat we took from Eire, and, if you wish, we will give you that.”

            “Give it to me,” said the serpent, “and everything else you took from Eire.”

            He threw out a quarter of the beef, and the serpent went away that day, and on the morrow morning she came again, and they threw out another quarter, and one every day till the meat was gone. And next day the serpent came again, and she cried out to the king’s son, “Throw the Irish flesh out to me.”

            “I have no more flesh,” said the prince.

            “If you have no flesh, you have an Irish person,” said the serpent, “and don’t be telling your lies to me any longer. I knew from the beginning you had an Irish person in the ship, and unless you throw her out to me, and quickly, I will eat up yourself and your men.”

            Margaret came up, and no sooner did the serpent see her than she opened her mouth, and put on an appearance as if she were going to swallow the ship.

 “I will not be guilty of the death of you all,” said Margaret; “get me a boat, and if I go far safe it is better, and if I do not, I had rather I perished than the whole of us.”

            “What shall we do to save you?” said Simon.

            “You can do nothing better than put me in the boat,” said she, “and lower me on the the sea, and leave me to the will of God.”

            As soon as she got on the sea, no sooner did the serpent see her than she desired to swallow her, but before she reached as far as her, a billow of the sea rose between them, and left herself and the boat on dry land. She saw not a house in sight she could go to. “Now,” she said, “I am as unfortunate as ever I was. This is no place for me to be!” She arose and began to walk, and after a long while she saw a house a good way from her. “I am not as unfortunate as I thought,” said she. “Perhaps I shall get lodging in that house tonight.” She went in, and there was no one in it but an old woman who was getting her supper ready. “I am asking for lodging till morning.”

            “I will give you no lodging,” said the old woman.

            “Before I go further, there is a boat there below, and it will be better for you to take it into your hands.”

            “Come in,” said the old woman, “and I will give you lodging for the night.”

            The old woman was always praying by night and day. Margaret asked her, “Why are you always saying your prayers?”

            “I and my mother were living a long while ago in the place they call the White Doon, and a giant came and killed my mother, and I had to come away for fear he would kill myself; and I am praying every night and every day that some one may come and kill the giant.”

The old woman owns a ring, which will only fit the finger of the one destined to kill the giant. Simon’s wife and his brother Stephen arrive together to kill the giant, but the ring will not fit Stephen’s finger, and the giant slays them both. At last, Simon himself arrives at the old woman’s house.

            The next morning there came a gentleman and a beautiful woman to the house, and he gave the old woman the full  of a quart of money to say paternosters for them till morning. The old woman opened a chest and took out a handsome ring and tried to place it on his finger, but it would not go on. “Perhaps it would fit you,” said she to the lady. But her finger was too big.

            When they went out, Margaret asked the old woman who were the man and woman.

            “That is the son of a king of the Eastern World, and the name that is on him is Stephen, and he and the woman are going to the White Doon to fight the giant, and I am afraid they will never come back; for the ring did not fit either of them; and it was told to the people that no one would kill the giant but he whom the ring would fit.”

            The two of them remained during the night praying for him, for fear the giant would kill him; and early in the morning they went out to see what had happened to Stephen and the lady that was with him, and they found them dead near the White Doon.

            “I knew,” said the old woman, “this is what would happen to them. It is better for us to take them with us and bury them in the churchyard.”

            About a month after, a man came into the house, and no sooner was he inside the door than Margaret recognised him.

            “How have you been ever since, Simon?”

            “I am very well,” said he; “it can’t be that you are Margaret?”

            “It is I,” said she.

            “I thought that billow that rose after you, when you got in the boat, drowned you.”

            “It only left me on dry land,” said Margaret.

           “I went to the Eastern World, and my father said to me that he sent my brother to go and fight with the giant, who was doing great damage to the people near the White Doon, and that my wife went to carry his sword.”

            “If that was your brother and your wife,” said Margaret, “the giant killed them.”

            “I will go on the spot and kill the giant, if I am able.”

            “Wait while I try the ring on your finger,” said the old woman.

            “It is too small to go on my finger,” said he.

            “It will go on mine,” said Margaret.

            “It will fit you,” said the old woman.

            Simon gave the full of a quart of money to the old woman, that she might pray for him till he came back. When he was about to go, Margaret said, “Will you let me go with you?”

            “I will not,” said Simon, “for I don’t know that the giant won’t kill myself, and I think it too much that one of us should be in his danger.”

            “I don’t care,” said Margaret.  “In the place where you die, there am I content to die.”

            “Come with me,” said he.

            When they were on their way to the White Doon, a man came before them.

“Do you see that house near the castle?” said the man.

“I see,” said Simon.

“You must go into it and keep a candle lighted till morning in it.”

“Where is the giant?” said Simon.

“He will come to fight you there,” said the man.

They went and kindled a light, and they were not long there when Margaret said to Simon, “Come, and let us see the giants.” [There are baby giants as well as the old one.]

            “I cannot,” said the king’s son, “for the light will go out if I leave the house.”

            “It will not go out,” said Margaret; “I will keep it lighted till we come back.”

            And they went together and got into the castle, to the giant’s house, and they saw no one there but an old woman cooking; and it was not long till she opened an iron chest and took out the young giants and gave them boiled blood to eat.

            “Come,” said Margaret, “and let us go to the house we left.”

            They were not long in it when the king’s son was falling asleep.  Margaret said to him, “If you fall asleep, it will not be long till the giants come and kill us.”

            “I cannot help it,” he said.  “I am falling asleep in spite of me.”

            He fell asleep, and it was not long till Margaret heard a noise approaching, and the giant cried from outside for the king’s son to come out to him.

            “Fum, far, faysogue!  I feel the smell of a lying churl of an Irishman.  You are too great for one bite and too little for two, and I don’t know whether it is better for me to send you into the Eastern World with a breath or put you under my feet in a puddle.  Which would you rather have – striking with knives in your ribs or fighting on the grey stones?”

            “Great, dirty giant,” said Margaret, “not with right or rule did I come in, but by rule and by right to cut your head off in spite of you, when my fine silken feet go up, and your big, dirty feet go down.”

            They wrestled till they brought the wells of fresh water up through the gray stones with fighting and breaking of bones, till the night was all but gone. Margaret squeezed him, and first squeeze she put him down to his knees, the second squeeze to his waist, and the third squeeze to his armpits.  

            “You are the best woman I have ever met. I will give you my court and my sword of light and the half of my estate for my life, and spare to slay me.”

            “Where shall I try your sword of light?”

            “Try it on the ugliest block in the wood.”

            “I see no block at all that is uglier than your own great block.”

She struck him at the joining of the head and the neck, and cut the head off him.

In the morning when she wakened the king’s son, “Was not that a good proof I gave of myself last night?” said he to Margaret. “That is the head outside, and we shall try to bring it home.”

He went out, and was not able to stir it from the ground.  He went in and told Margaret he could not take it with him, that there was a pound’s weight in the head.  She went out and took the head with her.

            “Come with me,” he said.

            “Where are you going?”

            “I will go the Eastern World, and come with me till you see the place.”

            When they got home, Simon took Margaret with him to his father the king.

            “What has happened to your brother and your wife?” said the king.

            “They have both been killed by giants.  And it is Margaret, this woman here who has killed them.”  

The king gave Margaret a hundred thousand welcomes, and she and Simon were married - and how they are since then, I do not know!

Find more about fairy tales and folklore in my essays "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles" available from Amazon here and here.

Picture credits:
'Leviathan' by Arthur Rackham
Illustration by Arthur Rackham to 'The Manuscript Found in a Bottle' by Edgar Allen Poe