Tuesday 25 May 2021

Dwarfs, Pixies and the “Little Dark People”

In ‘A Book of Folk-Lore’ (1913) the Devon folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould recounts three instances in which he and members of his family ‘saw’ pixies or dwarfs. Here is what he says:

In the year 1838, when I was a small boy of four years old, we were driving to Montpellier [France] on a hot summer’s day, over the long straight road that traverses a pebble and rubble strewn plain on which grows nothing save a few aromatic herbs.

I was sitting on the box with my father, when to my great surprise I saw legions of dwarfs about two feet high running along beside the horses – some sat laughing on the pole, some were scrambling up the harness to get on the backs of the horses. I remarked to my father what I saw, when he abruptly stopped the carriage and put me inside beside my mother, where, the conveyance being closed, I was out of the sun. The effect was that little by little the host of imps diminished in number till they disappeared altogether. 

When my wife was a girl of fifteen, she was walking down a lane in Yorkshire between green hedges, when she saw seated in one of the privet hedges a little green man, who looked at her with his beady black eyes. He was about a foot or eighteen inches high.  She was so frightened that she ran home. She cannot recall exactly in what month this took place, but knows it was a summer’s day.

One day a son of mine, a lad of about twelve, was sent into the garden to pick pea-pods for the cook to shell for dinner.  Presently he rushed into the house as white as chalk to say that while he was engaged upon the task imposed upon him he saw standing between the rows of peas a little man wearing a red cap, a green jacket, and brown knee-breeches, whose face was old and wan and who had a gray beard and eyes as black and hard as sloes.  He stared so intently at the boy that the latter took to his heels.  I know exactly when this occurred, as I entered it in my diary, and I know when I saw the imps by looking in my father’s diary, and though he did not enter the circumstance, I recall the vision today as distinctly as when I was a child. 

In spite of the vivid and detailed nature of these visions Baring-Gould didn’t believe he or his family had seen anything ‘real’. He continues stoutly:

Now, in all three cases, these apparitions were due to the effect of a hot sun on the head. But such an explanation is not sufficient. Why did all three see small beings of a very similar character?  With ... temporary hallucination the pictures presented to the eye are never originally conceived, they are reproductions of representations either seen previously or conceived from descriptions given by others. In my case and that of my wife, we saw imps, because our nurses had told us of them… In the case of my son, he had read Grimms’ Tales and seen the illustrations to them. 

Rational indeed – though still quite puzzling that sun-stroke or heat-stroke should in each case have brought on visions of dwarfs or pixies.  But perhaps it ran in the family. However that may be, Baring-Gould acknowledges that this explanation only pushes the problem further into the past – ‘Where did our nurses, whence did Grimm [sic] obtain their tales of kobolds, gnomes, dwarfs, pixies, brownies etc? … To go to the root of the matter, in what did the prevailing belief in the existence of these small people originate?’  And he answers thus: 

I suspect that there did exist a small people, not so small as these imps are represented, but comparatively small beside the Aryans who lived in all those countries in which the tradition of their existence lingers on. 

The grim events of the 20th century have taught us to beware of that word ‘Aryan’, liberally scattered in the introduction to many a 19th century collection. Sir George Dasent, introducing ‘Popular Tales from the Norse’ (his translation of Asbjornsen and Moe’s 'Norske Folkeeventyr’) includes a section on ‘the Aryan race’ which according to contemporary anthropological wisdom had spread across Europe ‘in days of immemorial antiquity’.  In 1905, citing the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley as his authority, Charles Squire in ‘Celtic Myths and Legends’ writes confidently of ‘certain proof of two distinct human stocks in the British Isles at the time of the Roman conquest’. He describes them: the early people who built Britain’s long barrows were ‘Iberian’ or ‘Mediterranean’ in origin: ‘a short, swarthy, dark-haired’ aboriginal race; but ‘the second of these two races was the exact opposite of the first. It was the tall, fair, light-haired, blue- or gray-eyed people called, popularly, the “Celts”, who belonged in speech to the “Aryan” family … It was in a higher stage of culture than the “Iberians”.’ In the illustration below from a history of the world published in 1897, we see how the heroic Celts were imagined, along with an account of the 'Aryan migration'. And they were supposed to have displaced a different race of indigenous people, driving them almost literally underground.

'The Celtic Vanguard' from 'Ridpath's History of the World', 1897

This notion of ‘two races, two cultures’ has been discredited. Archaologists and geneticists now agree that Europe has been a melting-pot of racial groups from at least the early Neolithic. European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were neither replaced nor suddenly shunted out; instead, over several thousand years, they assimilated both the culture and the genes of a gradually diffusing population of Neolithic farmers. It wasn’t until the Bronze Age (says Professor Barry Cunliffe in ‘Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC – AD1000’) that sea-faring and trading populations on the on the coasts of Europe, Britain and Ireland, developed the Celtic tongue as ‘an Atlantic façade lingua franca’. Isn't that wonderful? The Celts didn’t ‘come from’ anywhere: they were in place already. The Celtic languages evolved because coastal peoples travelled and traded and intermarried and talked to one another. Britain wasn't isolated, it was always an integral part of Europe.

So the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was wrong. There was never a distinctly different race of ‘little dark people’ living on the edges of a conquering population of tall, fair, confident ‘Aryans’. Nothing to give rise to a belief in a ‘hidden folk’ of pixies, dwarfs or elves. 

You can see why he liked the idea. It seemed to answer a lot of questions, besides lending to folk-lore a kind of scientific gloss: anthropological ‘truths’ preserved in tales. Many a writer has been honestly misled by it. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s tremendous novel ‘Sword at Sunset’, the Romano-British and nominally Christian hero Artos, fighting off the Saxon invasions in the 3rd century AD, takes as his allies ‘the little Dark People of the Hills’, who live half-underground in turf-covered bothies, use poisoned arrows and worship the Earth Mother. Their clan leader, the Old Woman, calls Artos ‘Sun Lord’ and tells him:

‘We are small and weak, and our numbers grow fewer with the years, but we are scattered very wide, wherever there are hills or lonely places. We can send news and messages racing from one end of a land to the other between moon-rise and moonset; we can creep and hide and spy and bring back word; we are the hunters who can tell you when the game has passed by, by a bent grass-blade or one hair clinging to a bramble-spray. We are the viper that stings in the dark –’

And in the same author's if-anything-even-more-magnificent ‘The Mark of the Horse Lord’, the half-Roman half-British ex-gladiator Phaedrus, masquerading as Midir, Lord of the Dalriads (actually a 4th century AD Scots-Irish Gaelic kingdom), lays down his iron weapons to call upon an Old Man of the Dark People who lives like a badger in ‘a tumble of stones and turf laced together with brambles’ with ‘a dark opening in its side’:

[Phaedrus] had heard before of places such as this, where one left something that needed mending, together with a gift, and came back later to find the gift gone and the broken thing mended; it was one of those things no one talked of very much, the places where the life of the Sun People touched the life of the Old Ones, the People of the Hills. Like the bowls of milk that the women put out sometimes at night, in exchange for some small job to be done – like the knot of rowan hung over a doorway for protection against the ancient Earth Magic – like the stealing of a Sun Child from time to time.’  

This Old Man is ‘slight-boned … with grey hair brushed back from his narrow brow, and eyes that seemed at first glance like jet beads…’  Sutcliff was writing in the mid-1960s when the ‘two races’ hypothesis was still widely credited: she writes with great imaginative sympathy. I grew up with these stories and it was easy to be swept along by the idea: these Little Dark People, Painted People, remnants of the past clinging to the verge of cultures which had displaced them, were the historical origin of the fairies. I felt sorry for them. Even in Sutcliff’s sympathetic treatment, these imagined, marginalised archaic people are nearly powerless.  Their magic – feared though it is – doesn’t really work on the more civilized Sun People. They are spies, not warriors: they creep through the heather with poisoned arrows, killing by stealth.  In fact they’re natives, with all the baggage that implies in colonial and post-colonial Britain. They may help the heroes, but they can’t be the heroes.  Their time is past.

Writing in 1913 Baring-Gould doesn’t even allow them the skills to erect dolmens:

They were not, I take it, the Dolmen builders – these are supposed to have been giants because of the gigantic character of their structures. They were a people who did not build at all. They lived in caves, or if in the open, in huts made by bending branches over and covering them with sods of turf. Consequently in folk-lore they are always represented as either emerging from caverns or from under mounds. 

This is to lend to folk-lore an authority far beyond its deserts. 

Most of the nineteenth century collectors of the fairy tales and folk-lore which we all love so much were driven by nationalist impulses and racial pride. Each sought, as the Grimms did, the pure voice of their own ‘folk’. As the century progressed what they in fact uncovered was the inextricably interrelated nature of European folk- and fairy- lore. Despite the near-impossibility of claiming a particular version of any story as ‘original’, some went on to claim an ultimate ‘Aryan’ heritage for such tales, going so far as to assert that the Aryan master-race originated in Scandinavia – since, clearly, the Nordic peoples were the tallest, blondest and bluest-eyed of the lot. Most of these gentlemen intended only to generate pride in what they saw as their heritage. They did not recognise it as racism - the term had not yet been coined - but racism it was. As folklorists, as lovers of fairy tales, we need to be responsible for the ways we interpret the stories we tell. 

While I was researching Mi’kmaq and Algonkin folk-lore for my book 'Troll Blood', I came across a salutary reminder of how untrustworthy some 19th century commentators can be when discussing origins: in a compilation called ‘The Algonquin Legends of New England’ (1884) I found the anthropologist Charles G. Leland with a bee in his bonnet about what he claimed had to be a Norse influence on Mi’kmaq stories. Having decided that the Mi’kmaq tales were in effect too ‘noble’ to have been the product of Native American minds, he made the wildly unsupported assertion that the Norsemen must have told stories from the Eddas to the indigenous peoples of what is now Newfoundland and New Brunswick: that the Mi’kmaq culture-hero Kluskap (‘Glooscap’, in his account) ‘is the Norse god intensified … by far the grandest and most Aryan-like character ever evolved from a savage mind’. I almost dropped the book and was forced to regard it ever after as compromised and unreliable. If there was any contact at all between Norsemen and the Native American population in the 10th to 13th centuries (the likely duration of occasional forays from treeless Greenland for much-needed North American timber), the Greenlanders’ Saga suggests that it was violent and short. But that’s not the point. The point is the mindset which says ‘this is too good to have been created by [insert racial group]’. 

The dwarf Eitri making the hammer Mjölnir.

Returning to the origin of pixies, elves and dwarfs – if they’re not a folk-memory of some once co-existing shy and inferior race, what are they?  As Baring-Gould says, the notion must have come from somewhere.  Well, Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe are dotted with burial mounds and barrows. The Irish story of the love of Midir for Étain states plainly that Midir is a king of the ‘elf-mounds’, the underworld, and the tale is full of instances of death and rebirth. As I point out in ‘The Lost Kings of Fairyland’ in my book of essays 'Seven Miles of Steel Thistles', fairies have long been associated with the dead. Lotte Motz, in ‘The Craftsman in the Mound’ (Folk-Lore 88, 1977), discusses the figure of the dwarf as a smith and craftman dwelling in hills, mounds and mountains, who is heard hammering away in underground smithies. Pointing to the many instances of ‘legends of dead rulers who reside, sometimes in a magic sleep and often with their retinue, within a mountain’, she continues:

A relation to the dead appears to belong also to the dwarfs of the Icelandic documents; so the dwarf Alviss [‘All-Knowing] is asked by Thor if he had been staying with the dead, and a poem in a saga tells of a doughty sword which had been fashioned by ‘dead dwarfs’. I would… assert that the mountain dwelling of the smith holds, rather than temporary wealth, eternal treasures in its aspect as the mountain of the dead. 

As if to emphasise his deathly character, like a ghost fleeing to its grave at cock-crow, the dwarf Alviss (the story is from the Poetic Edda) cannot endure daylight but turns to stone at sunrise. 

‘The day has caught thee, dwarf!’ cries triumphant Thor, who like Gandalf in ‘The Hobbit’ has kept him talking… 

It's always been thought dangerous to see fairies. Like the Furies in Greek mythology, if you talked about them at all, you used flattering circumlocutions – the Good People, the Seely Court, the People of Peace. They came from the hollow hills, the land of death, and it was wise to be frightened of them.  Maybe the visions, the ‘legions of dwarfs’, the little green men or pixies which Baring-Gould and his wife and child separately saw signified something more sinister than folk-memories...  After all, sunstroke can kill you.

Picture credits: 

Pixies - John D Batten - Wikimedia Commons
Nisse eating barley porridge - Wikimedia Commons
The dwarves Brokkr and Eitri making the hammer Mjölnir - Arthur Rackham - Wikimedia Commons
Alvissmal - Alviss answers Thor - Wikimedia Commons 
The Celtic Vanguard - Wikimedia Commons  
Dolmen, Jersey, 1859 - Wikimedia Commons
Puck - by Fuseli - Wikimedia Commons


Thursday 13 May 2021

On schoolyard rhymes and natural storytelling


In Thomas Gray's beautiful  'Elegy Written in a County Churchyard', he muses over the unknown, uncelebrated talent of the humble country people who lie buried there:

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
         The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
         Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

We tend not to think of ordinary people as particularly eloquent or colourful in their speech. But they often are. Robert Burns was untaught, and John Clare, and many 'mute inglorious Miltons' may, as Gray suggests, have gone to their quiet graves without being appreciated by more than the handful of folk amongst whom they lived.
From such ordinary yet extraordinary folk sprang the great poet Anonymous, without whom we would have no Iliad or Odyssey, no Border ballads, no Thomas the Rhymer or Tam Lin… no fairy tales, no myths, no legends no Bible all of which were made up and told aloud by Anon long before they got trapped and written down in big, thick books. Without Anon we’d have no proverbs, no skipping rhymes, no riddles, no jokes. We humans are just naturally good at lively, colourful, poetic speech. We really and truly do not have to be taught how to read and write, still less do we need to be taught the rules of reading and writing in order to express ourselves.

I was reminded of this by a section in a rather lovely book called ‘Folklore on The American Land’ by Duncan Emrich (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.

And another:

Grandma Moses sick in bed
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,
Roll-a-roll-a-peep! Roll-a-roll-a-peep!
Bump-te-wa-wa, bump-te-wa-wa,

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! 
Because children naturally love the sounds of words and the rhythms they can make with them. A book is an alien thing to many children an intimidating, unpleasurable thing. Reading can be a difficult struggle that gets them nowhere slowly and makes them feel like failures. Yet they can all tell stories. On a school visit several years ago now, I said to the children, "I've never been into a school that didn't have a ghost story. When I was at school, there was a disused railway station just along the road, and there were tales of a severed hand that crawled around the platform in the broken glass. Nobody ever saw it, of course, but the story was there. All schools have ghosts."

Hands went up. "We have Bloody Mary in the toilets!" two girls remarked. Now Bloody Mary, in this context, is a supernatural being half feared, half delighted in: she lives in mirrors, and if you stare too long into them, she scratches your eyes out. 'There was a ghost at my mum's school,' a boy told me, 'the ghost of a cleaner who got locked in.'
"There you are!" I was saying. "You tell these stories though nobody knows who made them, because they're fun to hear. And every now and then some of them do get put into books, BUT and this is the important thing they don't COME from books. They come from the real world and from real people."

These kids were a great, lively bunch, in a school that didn't get many author visits, and they enjoyed my talk partly because I did a lot of interactive stuff: riddles, some drama; and told stories from the viking sagas and medieval chronicles. You cannot just waltz into a classroom and start talking to twelve year-olds about elves (even though the book I was there to talk about, 'Dark Angels' is all about elves) because twelve year-olds think of elves as little green-stockinged things with red hats dancing around Christmas trees and making toys. And why would they want to hear about that?

So I'd begin by talking about UFO's, and about people who think they've been abducted by aliens and operated on, and even had their brains removed (like Spock in the old StarTrek episode) - and then I'd tell them a genuinely creepy story from a
13th century chronicle about a young squire, who is abducted by elves and has his brain removed. And I'd try to show them how people have been telling the same kinds of stories for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, and how some of these stories can end up becoming woven into the books I and others write.

Anybody can make a story; anybody can tell one. It's a tragedy for children to feel disempowered and divorced from the process of storytelling, because it's one of the things we were all born to do. Trammelling the writing of especially primary school children by marking them on how many adjectival clauses or adverbs or 'wow words' they've used, is a sin. Forget about the wretched fronted adverbials! Stories are meant to be fun! Why should we value the tales children tell one another when they're collected by adults and printed in the Journal of the Folklore Society, yet dismiss them in the playground? I want our children to know that the stories they tell one another are just as real as the ones that get written down in books. And if they know that, perhaps they'll lose their fear of reading and writing them.
Returning to Duncan Emlich's book briefly, here from the Ozarks from the French ‘Aux Arks’, Arks being the shortened form for Arkansas are a number of wonderfully colourful phrases and turns of speech, all of them coined by ordinary folks: 

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.”

Miltons: the lot of them. Uncelebrated, maybe! But definitely not mute.

Sunday 2 May 2021

May Morning in Oxford

This post first appeared on The History Girls blog in 2015, all of six years ago! Judging by the apple blossom, the spring weather must have been warmer that year: today the blossom's only half out. And owing to lockdown, I doubt there were any crowds gathering below Magdalen Tower  on May Day morning to hear the choirboys singing madrigals. But this is a happy memory; and maybe, next year...

So on the First of May we got up in the grey twilight at 4.45am and drove into Oxford to listen to the choirboys singing the May in from the top of Magdalen Tower.

The sky was crimson, every moment changing and brightening towards amber and gold. We found a parking place somewhere near the station and hurried up through the town, which was strangely awake for such a time in the morning. Scattered pedestrians striding purposefully. Cyclists creaking by on ancient bicycles. Groups of worse-for-wear students who’d been up all night, noisy, laughing, hugging one another, stumbling along. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young… All of us heading the same way and for the same reason. Kebab and burger vans on Queen Street were doing a great trade. The air was chill, the buildings still shadowed. Towery city and branchy between towers, cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded… On the High, a homeless man sat in a college doorway and watched the crowd passing downhill towards Magdalen College and its bell tower.

No one is quite sure, it seems, how old this ceremony is, but it’s been going on for many hundreds of years. Every year at 6am on May Day, the choir of Magdalen College climbs to the top of Magdalen Tower to sing from the roof to celebrate the spring – first the Hymnus Eucharisticus and then English country songs and madrigals. 

As the crowd around the base of the tower became thicker, we came to a halt among a happy bunch of May morning sightseers – many in May costumes, crowned with real flowers and greenery. Tipping our heads back, we could just see the white robes of the choir moving between the finials of the tower top, and imagine the scene up there as Holman Hunt depicted it in his painting ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’. (Did they really scatter a carpet of flowers for the boys to tread upon?)

It must be the most popular of Oxford’s colourful college traditions. Some are stranger than others. All Souls (full name: The College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed) for example, owns to a custom as weird as anything out of Gormenghast: the Hunting of the Mallard. Once a century, the respectable Fellows of this wealthiest of colleges partake of a feast followed by a crazy ritual in which, led by a ‘Lord Mallard’ carried in a chair, they parade through the college with flaming torches in pursuit of a man carrying a wooden duck tied to a pole. This is to commemorate a huge mallard which, startled by workmen digging a drain, supposedly flew out of the foundations when the college was being built in 1437.  Whilst parading, the participants sing the Mallard Song, which dates from about 1660.

The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon
Let other hungry Mortalls gape on
And on their bones with Stomacks fall hard,
But let All Souls’ Men have the Mallard.

Hough the bloud of King Edward.
By the bloud of King Edward
It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

I have sometimes wondered if Mervyn Peake knew of this ceremony – and if so, whether it inspired any of Gormenghast’s strange rituals, such as the ceremony to Honour the Poet? Barquentine, Master of Rituals, outlines the requirements to Steerpike. Have the cloisters been painted the correct shade of darkest red? Has the Poet completed his poem? Has he been told about the magpie?

‘I told him that he must rise to his feet and declaim within twelve seconds of the magpie’s release from the wire cage. That while declaiming his left hand must be clasping the beaker of moat-water in which the Countess has previously placed the blue pebble from Gormenghast river.’
            ‘That is so, boy.  And that he shall be wearing the Poet’s Gown, that his feet shall be bare, did you tell him that?’
            ‘I did,’ said Steerpike.
            ‘And the yellow benches for the Professors, were they found?’

All Souls’ Mallard ceremony was last held in 2001 and so will not be held again until 2101, but the song (which has six verses) is apparently still sung twice a year. I don’t know if the Fellows have re-included the fifth verse which was ‘expunged on grounds of decency’ in 1821 – but most 21st century sensibilities will find it enjoyably ridiculous rather than obscene. Anyhow, no one prepared to canter through college after a duck on a pole has any right to complain.

Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,
Hee was swapping all from wing to thigh,
His swapping tool of generation
Oute swapped all the winged Nation.

Hough the bloud of King Edward.
By the bloud of King Edward
It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

Hunting the Mallard is a ceremony exclusively for the lofty Fellows of All Souls College, but the Magdalen College ceremony is for everyone, town and gown. As we watched, the corner of the tower slowly glowed in the sunrise. The clock chimed six. The crowd, five thousand strong by now, hushed. The chimes faded and the choir at the tower top began to sing. Their voices were amplified – and for a moment, braced as I’d been to listen for the high, clear, distant notes, I was disappointed. Then I realised that it was the only practical solution, given the numbers waiting below. And it was still lovely.  

After the Latin hymn, a prayer was read thanking God for the light of morning, remembering St Mary Magdalene and the women who were witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus at the break of day, and praising God’s creation Mother Earth with all her spring flowers. As a happy combination of Christianity and nature worship, it seemed faultlessly medieval. Then the choir sang Thomas Morley's songs ‘Now is the Month of Maying’ and 'My Bonnie Lass She Smileth' – and it was over, the sun was up, and it was time to wander back through the city with the rest of the teeming multitude and find somewhere to eat breakfast. Our attention was caught by someone waving aloft a hand-written placard declaring the existence of  ‘Free Bacon Sandwiches at the Wesley Memorial Church on New Inn Hall Street’ – but that seemed too far away from the action. 

The thump of a big drum lured us into Radcliffe Square where we found a colourful band playing oddly dirge-like marches on the cobbles around the Radcliffe camera. Then we looped back to the High for an expensive but delicious breakfast of scrambled egg and smoked salmon, bacon rolls and coffee. And one Bucks Fizz, which we shared between us. It was still only 7am.  

Merry May!