I've been reading a lot of Irish and Scots fairy tales or wonder tales lately and have been struck, as often before, by the sheer beauty of expression in many of them. I cannot read the original Gaelic of course, but various Victorian translators seem to have done a marvellous job of indicating the poetry. For example, here are some extracts from ‘The Young King of Easaidh Ruadh’ in J.F. Campbell’s orally collected ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’. It was narrated in Gaelic circa 1820 on Islay by ‘an old man of the name of Angus McQueen to James Wilson, a blind fiddler on Islay' – who recited it to Hector MacLean, the schoolmaster on Islay, who wrote it down in Gaelic and sent it to Campbell in 1859. The tale tells how the young king decides to play a game (gambling) against the local Gruagach (‘the hairy one’), the stake being ‘the cropped rough-skinned maid that is behind the door’. He wins, and marries the maid, the Gruagach’s own daughter who in fact is very beautiful. Next day he visits the Gruagach again and his wife advises him to play for ‘the dun shaggy filly with the stick saddle’. Again he wins, and the dun filly is his. Of course the third time he plays, the Gruagach wins and sets out the penalty.
‘The stake of my play is,’ said he, ‘that I lay it as crosses and as spells on thee, and as the defect of the year, that the cropped rough-skinned creature, more uncouth and unworthy than thyself, should take thy head, and thy neck, and thy life’s look off, if thou dost not get for me the Glaive of Light of the king of the oak windows.’
This is unfortunate. His own wife must kill him if he cannot bring back the Glaive (sword) of Light! No wonder, then –
The king went home, heavily, poorly, gloomily. The young queen came meeting him and she said, ‘Mohrooai! my pity! there is nothing with thee tonight.’ Her face and her splendour gave some pleasure to the king when he looked on her brow, but when he sat on a chair to draw her towards him, his heart was so heavy that the chair broke under him.
I love ‘heavily, poorly, gloomily’ – and the chair breaking under him because of the heaviness of his heart. Only in a fairy tale could you get away with that. But the queen tells him to take heart. After all, he has ‘the best wife in Erin and the second-best horse in Erin’ and if he follows her advice and the filly’s advice, all will turn out well!
She set in order the dun shaggy filly, on which was the stick saddle, and though he saw it as wood, it was full of sparklings of gold and silver. He got on it; the queen kissed him and she wished him the victory of the battlefields. ‘Take thou the advice of thine own she-comrade the filly, and she will tell thee what thou shouldst do.’ He set out on his journey, and it was not dreary to be on the dun steed.
She would catch the swift March wind that would be before her, and the swift March wind would not catch her. They came at the mouth of dusk and lateness, to the court and castle of the king of the oak windows.
‘The mouth of dusk’... all that last paragraph is pure poetry, yet made up of formulae that with variations turn up again and again in these fairy tales. (You’ll find ‘the wind of March’ in an Irish tale, below.) These repeated formulae or set pieces are an important part of oral storytelling, going back at least as far as Homer. ‘Dawn with her rosy fingers’, ‘thoughtful Telemachos’, ‘gray-eyed Athena’ – as Richmond Lattimore comments in the introduction to his verse translation of the Odyssey:
In both epics, women are deep-girdled, iron is gray, ships are hollow, words are winged and go through the barrier of the teeth, the sea is wine-coloured, barren and salt, bronze is sharp and pitiless. [...] The poet repeats brief formulae and even sizeable sequences. Adaptation may be necessary. Amphimonos goes down, Odyssey xxii: ‘He fell, thunderously, and took the earth full on his forehead.’ We cannot quite have the standard Iliad line: ‘He fell, thunderously, and his armour clattered upon him’: Amphimonos has no armour.
Memorable for their cadences and evocative power, such ready-made phrases take the strain of description, painting familiar but vivid pictures for those listening. (And to to return for a moment to ‘The Young King of Easaidh Ruadh’: the swift filly tells the young king how to steal the sword of light. She helps him escape and advises him how to slash off the head of the king of the oak windows – catching the head neatly in her mouth as they gallop side by side. On the young king’s return his wife tells him that since the king of the oak windows was the Gruagach’s brother, he had better kill him too, or be killed himself. This he successfully does, but that’s not the end of the story; next thing his wife is stolen by a giant and the king sets out to find her with the help of ‘the slim dog of the greenwood’...)
In another very long tale, ‘The Battle of the Birds’, told by ‘John Mackenzie, fisherman, near Inverarie’ the king’s son of Tethertown arrives late to view the annual battle of the birds. The raven has won, but is being attacked by a snake which the king’s son swiftly dispatches with a blow of his sword. To reward him, the raven takes him up on his back and flies ‘over seven Bens and seven Glens and seven Mountain Moors’ to the house of the raven’s sister where he receives ‘meat of each meat, drink of each drink, warm water to his feet and a soft bed for his limbs’. A similar journey is repeated on the next day; on the third, the king’s son is given the gift of a bundle to carry to the place he would wish to dwell. (Inside the bundle is a castle: much more follows.) However, the ‘seven bens and seven glens and seven mountain moors’ over which the raven flies is a stock phrase echoed by the Irish tale ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’ (in ‘West Irish Folk-Tales and Romances’ collected and translated by William Larminie, 1893). In this tale a boy rides a pony over ‘seven miles on hill on fire and seven miles of steel thistles and seven miles of sea’, while a shorter variant of those steel thistles appears in ‘The Wal at the Warld’s End’, a story from Fife printed in Robert Chambers’ ‘Popular Rhymes of Scotland’. A lassie’s stepmother sends her to fill a bottle of water from the well at the world’s end: she gets there on the back of a pony who gallops over a ‘muir of hecklepins’ – that is, a moor of sharp steel pins of the type used for combing flax or wool.
Another ‘West Irish Folk-Tale’ is ‘The Story of Bioultach’, narrated to Larminie in the 1880s by Terence Davies of Renvyle, Co. Galway. It contains what Larminie terms ‘a sea run’: the description of a voyage. Bioultach (the name means Yellow-Hair) is searching for his lost brother Maunus. After slaying a giant who has spirited away the three suitors of a king’s daughter – Maunus being the last – Bioultach sets out for the mysterious ‘bake-house in the east’ where Maunus is imprisoned. Since Bioultach has saved the king’s daughter, the king fits him out with a ship and two champions, and eight hundred men.
When Bioultach went on board the ship they raised their great sails, speckled, spotted, red-white, to the top of the mast, and he left not a rope unsevered, nor a helm without [here, Larminie says, ‘there were several words in the Gaelic I am unable to translate’] in the place where there were seals, whales, creeping things, little beasts of the sea with red mouth, rising on the sole and palm of the oar, making fairy music and melody for themselves, till the sea arose in strong waves, hushed with wondrous voices, with greatness and beauty was the ship sailing, till to haven she came and harbour on the coast of the Land of Brightness.
Similarly worded ‘sea-runs’ occur in other tales from the same collection. In ‘King Mananaun’, narrated by Patrick McGrale of Achill Island, a king’s daughter called Pampogue is fought over by two princes, Londu and Kaytuch. The one she loves, Kaytuch, is killed by Londu, but she refuses to marry the victorious prince. Instead she takes Kaytuch and ‘put him in a box, and the herbs of the hill about him’, and –
She went then and fitted out a ship great and gallant, till she raised the great sails, speckled, spotted, as long, as high as the top of the mast; and she left not a rope without breaking, an oar without tearing, with the crawling, creeping creatures, the little beasts, the great beasts of the deep sea coming up on the handle and blade of the oar, till she let two-thirds (of the sail) go, and one third held in, till the eels were whistling, the froth down and the sand above; till she overtook the red wind of March that was before her, and the red wind of March that was after did not overtake her; and she was sailing nine months before she came to land.
As she approached this island she witnesses two men carrying a dead man: he is alive in the morning but dead again by evening, ‘and so it was like that for three days’. Then one of the men rows out in a currach to ask rudely if she wants a husband. (‘She told him to be off, or she would sink him’.) The second approaches in the same rude manner, but the third is courteous and explains that they are three sons of a king, ‘and when he died there came Fawgawns and Blue-men on us,’ so they are now stranded on this island and their enemies attack them each day and kill one of them, whom they then bring back to life with ‘healing water’. Pampogue replies,
‘With me is a champion, the best that ever struck blow with sword; and I promise you his help for a day if you bring him to life.’
The man went in and brought the healing water and rubbed the wound; and Kaytuch arose alive again; and he rubbed his eyes with his hands and said, ‘Great was the sleep that was on me’; and she laughed and told him everything from the time the young king cut his head off. ‘I took you on board ship, and we were sailing for nine months before we came here; and I promised your help for a day to this man if he would bring you to life; but you will not go far for a month until you grow strong.
So he and she spent the night together – a third in talking, a third in storytelling, and a third in soft rest and deep slumber, till the whiteness of the day came upon the morrow.
‘Till the whiteness of the day came upon the morrow.’ And I love the matter-of-fact way Kaytuch comes back to life as after a long sleep, and Pampogue’s laugh as she welcomes him.
The third of the stories is ‘The Champion of the Red Belt’, told by Patrick Minahan of Malinmore, Glencolumkille, Co. Donegal; it is the tale of two young children who are put out to the sea in a barrel, along with two swords. One boy wears a black belt, the other a red belt; they are washed up on the shores of Greece and adopted by the king, who assumes (correctly) they are of royal blood. The boys believe they are the sons of this king but, eventually learning that they are not, they set out to discover their true parentage. Promising to come back and marry the girl he has supposed to be his sister, the Champion of the Red Belt and his brother come to the shores of the sea.
He threw his hat out. He made a ship of the hat, a mast of his stick, a flag of his shirt. He hoisted the sails speckled, spotted, to the top of the straight mast. He turned the prow to sea, the stern to shore, and he left not a rope without breaking, nor a cable without rending, till he was listening to the blowing of the seals and the roaring of the great beasts, to the screams of the seagulls; till the little red-mouthed fishes were rising on the sole and palm of the oars; till they steered the vessel in under court and castle of the King of the Underwaveland.
‘Not a rope without breaking, nor a cable without rending’: all three of these ‘sea-run’ passages employ a language of extravagant violence and damage to convey the topsy-turvy urgency of these journeys – ‘the froth down and the sand above’, and all three celebrate the diversity and plenty of the sea, filled with the life and activities of seals, whales, gulls, ‘great beasts’, and the little ‘red-mouthed’ fishes that rise and jump among the oar-strokes. Although these ships are supposedly large, even magical ones, with tall sails and masts, it is a fisherman’s currach close to the surface of the sea that is really being evoked each time, and the fisherman’s everyday familiarity with the sea’s creatures...
‘The sole and palm of the oars’. What better phrase could there be for the way the oar-blades dip and twist as you row?