Thursday 27 July 2023

The Pilot’s Ghost Story

St Ives Harbour Fish Market: courtesy of

Another tale from Robert Hunt’s ‘Popular Romances of the West of England, or The Drolls, Superstitions and Traditions of Old Cornwall’ (third edition, 1896) was told orally to Charles Taylor Stephens, a poet and ‘sometime rural postman from St Ives to Zennor’. Hunt employed Stephens to collect stories from remote villages on the assumption that people would more readily tell tales to the friendly postman than to a stranger. 

C. Taylor Stephens' book of poems

This particular story was told to Stephens by a pilot whose job it was to meet ships and guide them into port. In this tale he guides the sloop Sally from St Ives to Hayle, approximately five miles up the coast.

Robert Hunt often altered stories ‘from the vernacular – in which they were for the most part related – into modern language’, but says of this one, ‘I prefer giving this story in the words in which it was communicated. For its singular character, it is a ghost story well worth preserving.’ 

Here it is, in what is (mostly) the pilot's own words.


Just seventeen years since*, I went down on the wharf from my house one night [between] about twelve and one in the morning, to see whether there was any ‘hobble,’* and found a sloop, the Sally of St Ives (the Sally was wrecked at St Ives one Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1862) in the bay, bound for Hayle.

When I got by the White Hart public-house, I saw a man leaning against a post on the wharf – I spoke to him, wished him good morning, and asked him what o’ clock it was, but to no purpose. I was not to be easily frightened, for I didn’t believe in ghosts, and finding I got no answer to my repeated inquiries, I approached close to him and said, ‘Thee’rt a queer sort of fellow, not to speak; I’d speak to the devil, if he were to speak to me. Who art a at all? thee’st needn’t think to frighten me: that thee wasn’t do, if thou wert twice so ugly; who art a at all?’

He turned his great ugly face on me, glared abroad his great eyes, opened his mouth, and it was a mouth sure ’nuff. Then I saw pieces of sea-weed and bits of sticks in his whiskers; the flesh of his face and hands were parboiled, just like a woman’s hands after a good day’s washing. Well, I did not like his looks a bit, and sheered off; but he followed close by my side, and I could hear the water squashing in his shoes every step he took.

Well, I stopped a bit, and thought I would be civil to him, and spoke to him again, but no answer. I then thought I would go to seek for another of our crew, and knock him up to get the vessel, and had got about fifty or sixty yards, when I turned to see if he was following me, but saw him where I left him.

Fearing he would come after me, I ran for my life the few steps that I had to go. But when I got to the door, to my horror there stood the man in the door, grinning horribly. I shook like an aspen leaf; my hat lifted from my head; the sweat boiled out of me. What to do I didn’t know, and in the house there was such a row, as if everybody was breaking up everything. After a bit I went in, for the door was on the latch [ie: not locked] – and called the captain of the boat, and got light, but everything was all right, not had he heard any noise.

We went out aboard of the Sally and I put her into Hayle but I felt ill enough to be in bed. I left the vessel to come home as soon as I could, but it took me four hours to walk two miles, and I had to lie down in the road, and was taken home to St Ives in a cart; as far as the Terrace* from there I was carried home by my brothers and put to bed. Three days afterwards all my hair fell out as if I had had my head shaved. The roots, and about half an inch from the roots, being quite white. I was ill six months, and doctor’s bill was £4, 17s. 6d. for attendance and medicine. So you see I have reason to believe in the existence of spirits as well as Mr Wesley* had. My hair grew again, and twelve months after I had as good a head of dark-brown hair as ever.



* ‘Just seventeen years since’:  Stephens, to whom it was told, died in 1865, so the events of the story must have occurred by 1848 or earlier.

* ‘hobble’ – dialect word a Cornish glossary says is the share each person received when the vessel was brought in - or perhaps when the catch was sold. The sense here seems to be ‘a share of any work to do’?

* ‘The Terrace’ is a street in St Ives with views over the bay.                  

* The preacher John Wesley believed in the existence of ghosts and other spirits.

Tuesday 18 July 2023

Jorinda and Joringel: Owls and Flowers


There’s a story in The Mabinogion about a girl who is changed into an owl. The magicians Gwydion and Math ap Mathonwy create her out of flowers for Lleu Llaw Gyffes whose mother has cursed him never to have a human wife. They take ‘the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they conjured the fairest and most beautiful maiden that anyone had ever seen. And they baptised her in the way that they did at that time, and named her Blodeuedd.’ 

Deed done, curse circumvented: Blodeuedd is presented to Lleu. Nobody has asked her what she wants, however, and one day when Lleu is away she meets the handsome young man Gronw Pebr. The two fall in love and plot to murder Lleu so that they can be together. At the moment of his death however, Lleu is transformed into an eagle. Math restores him to his human shape, and Gwydion pursues Blodeuedd and transforms her into an owl:

‘[Y]ou will never dare show your face in daylight for fear of all the birds. And all the birds will be hostile towards you. … You shall not lose your name, however, but shall always be called Blodeuwedd.’ Blodeuwedd is ‘owl’ in today’s language. And for that reason the birds hate the owl: and the owl is still called Blodeuwedd.[1]

Commenting on the tale, Sioned Davies explains that the name ‘changes from Blodeuedd (‘flowers’) to Blodeuwedd (‘flower-face’) to reflect the image of the bird.’[2] The white face of the barn owl does in fact look like two huge white daisies crushed together.

Blodeuedd is a girl made from flowers and turned into an owl. In the Grimms’ fairy tale Jorinda and Joringel[3] a girl is turned into a bird by an owl-woman – and released by the touch of a flower. Here’s what happens: In the middle of a dark forest an ancient castle is inhabited by an old woman who turns into a cat or a night-owl by day, assuming her own form only when evening comes. She lures wild birds and beasts to her, and kills and eats them. Further:

If anyone came within one hundred paces of the castle he was obliged to stand still and could not stir from the spot until she bade him be free. But whenever an innocent maiden came within this circle, she changed her into a bird and shut her up in a wickerwork cage, and carried the cage into a room in the castle. She had about seven thousand cages of rare birds in the castle.

A betrothed young couple, Jorinda and Joringel, walk into the forest in order to be alone together. Though Joringel warns his sweetheart that they must take care not to stray close to the castle, everything should be wonderful in this glowing sunset wood – ‘It was a beautiful evening. The sun shone brightly between the trunks of the trees into the dark green of the forest, and the turtledoves sang mournfully upon the beech trees.’ But for some reason the young lovers feel sorrowful – ‘as sad as though they were about to die.’  In this strange mood,

[T]hey looked around them, and were quite at a loss, for they did not know which way they should go home. The sun was still half above the mountain and half under.

Joringel looked through the bushes, and saw the old walls of the castle close at hand. He was horror-stricken and filled with deadly fear. Jorinda was singing:

“My little bird with the necklace red
Sings sorrow, sorrow, sorrow.
He sings that the little dove must soon be dead.
Sings sorrow, sor–  jug, jug, jug.”

The sun has set, Jorinda has been changed into a nightingale, and ‘a screech owl with glowing eyes flew three times round about her, and three times cried ‘to-whoo, to-whoo, to-whoo!’’ Unable to speak or move, Joringel sees the owl fly into a thicket and emerge as a crooked old woman ‘with large red eyes’ who catches the nightingale and takes it away.

Later that evening the enchantress returns later and releases Joringel with the cryptic words, ‘Greet you, Zachiel. If the moon shines on the cage, Zachiel, let him loose at once.’ (Zachiel is probably the angel Zakiel mentioned along with Michael, Gabriel and other angels in a spell for ‘binding the tongue’ in the Syriac ‘Book of Protection’, a compendium of charms and incantations dating in manuscript form from the early 1800s though probably much older.) The old woman refuses to release Jorinda and tells Joringel he will never see his sweetheart again. Joringel goes sadly away, but while working as a shepherd in a nearby village he dreams of a blood-red flower containing a dew-drop as big as a pearl, with which he can open the doors of the castle and the cage. After a nine-day search he finds the flower, returns to the castle and sets Jorinda and all the other maidens free.  

The Grimm brothers took this tale almost verbatim from the deeply Romantic semi-fictional autobiography of Johann Heinrich Jung, 'The Life of Heinrich Stilling', published in 1777.  Writing throughout in the third person, Jung tells how one day, out in the forest gathering firewood, the eleven-year-old Heinrich asks his Aunt Marie for a story. ‘“Tell me, aunt, once more,” said Heinrich, “the tale of Joringel and Jorinde.”’ His aunt is happy to oblige and when she has finished, Heinrich sits ‘as if petrified – his eyes fixed and his mouth half-open. “Aunt!” said he, at length, “it is enough to make one afraid in the night!” “Yes,” said she, “I do not tell these tales at night, otherwise I should be afraid myself.”’[4] 

It’s lovely to have this account of the story actually being told, and to see its effect on child and storyteller. It is placed in this context however, because of what happens next. Having ventured deeper into the woods, Heinrich’s grandfather comes back to tell how he saw a bright light between the trees, “just as when the sun rises in the morning.” Led by the light, he has seen a vision of the brilliant castles and gardens of heaven, and meets his daughter Dora, Heinrich’s dead mother, who tells him he will soon join her in “our eternal habitation.” Thus, the dark forest, failing sunset, ancient castle and evil enchantress of the fairy tale are deliberately contrasted with the brilliant sunrise, shining castles and angelic beings of heaven.

This then is a literary version of a traditional tale, and since the rest of the autobiography is full of poetical and mystical references to doves, nightingales, morning and evening sun, rings, dewdrops and death, I would guess that the moody music of the opening few paragraphs – the sorrowful lovers, setting sun and mourning doves – is Johann Heinrich Jung’s own. Does this make the story less authentic? I don’t see it that way. Tellers of traditional tales have always enriched, altered and embellished them as they see fit, and a story written down will always be different from the same tale told aloud.

What does the story mean? Why are the lovers so sad? Is it because they know they’ll grow old and die, because evening is here and the day nearly over, because their young love may not last and the sun is already half beneath the mountain?  Are they afraid of mortality, the grave – symbolised by the grim stone walls of the castle whose shadow immobilises them, and the old owl-woman whose voice is a lament?

Or is the owl-woman associated with Athena of classical mythology, goddess of wisdom, whose emblem was the owl? Discussing the tale with me, the author Susan Price thought this might be so, writing:

My impression is a little different. For one, the old woman is associated with the owl, which associates her with Athena. She's also a huntress, who seems to prize and cage (or guard) unmarried girls, which associates her with Artemis. Both these goddesses had their darker, Death sides.

            The youngsters are lost in a wood - wode[5] within this wood. The forest has long been associated with the dangers and traps of life, some of them sexual – but mostly, I think, to do with 'losing one's way' or losing one's self. There's also a tradition of the girl about to be married mourning her single life: her happy life at home with her parents. She's about to launch into adult life, with all its responsibility and cares.

The owl-woman snatches her away from all this and fastens her securely in a cage – but doesn't otherwise mistreat her. The old woman also frees the young man without harming him and tells him that if he does the right thing, he can free the girl.
I think the old woman is a kind of marriage counsellor![6]

This is a thought-provoking comment and a good example of the ways in which fairy tales can be differently interpreted. 

Flowers and owls… owls and flowers… a blood-red flower with a pearl-sized drop of dew at its heart.[7] To modern eyes the sexual imagery is clear: betrothed young maidens cannot remain maidens for ever. But what is the owl doing in this tale? What does it symbolise? Wisdom, or death? The ‘wise owl’ entered northern European folklore rather late, via classical education. To ordinary folk it was primarily known as a bird of death. In The Mabinogion the owl is a hated outcast, a bird of ill omen rather than of wisdom, and this is supported by Chaucer’s ‘The oule ek, that of deth the bode bringeth’ [‘the owl too, that brings tidings of death’], Shakespeare’s ‘Whilst the scritch-owle, scritching loud, Puts the wretch that lies in woe, In remembrance of a shrowd’, and Gilbert White’s ‘From this screaming probably arose the common people’s imaginary species of screech-owl, which they superstitiously think attends the windows of dying persons’. Even John Ruskin felt uneasy about owls: ‘Whatever wise people may say of them, I at least have found the owl’s cry always prophetic of mischief to me.’[8] Moreover, in a variant of the tale noted by the brothers Grimm, it is a crow the old woman turns herself into – another bird associated with death.

In Alan Garner’s 1967 novel The Owl Service, which is based on the story of Blodeuedd, the destructive force of the ancient legend is stored in a set of patterned dinner plates hidden in the attic of an old Welsh house. The stylised pattern can be perceived two different ways, as owls or as flowers, and the plates act as a kind of battery or repository of power, with owls as the negative and flowers as the positive poles. In terms of Garner’s book, this alternating current means not only that the emotional pattern of the legend keeps repeating down the centuries, but that his teenage characters switch between positive and negative constructions of the self.

In Jorinda and Joringel, the constrictive power of age is represented by an owl, the liberating power of youth by a flower. Years ago in my early twenties I was walking through London with a friend. We were laughing and chattering, and a middle-aged woman passing by leaned over and said to us in a low voice but with extraordinary venom, ‘One day you’ll be like me.’ As a memento mori it was quite something and we both shivered, but we agreed later that we never would be like her. We would never, ever be that bitter.

That brush with mortality has stayed with me, however, and I have to recognise at least the existence of those dark emotions – envy of youth, anger at old age, fear of death: ‘When [the old woman] saw Joringel coming she was angry, very angry, and scolded, and spat poison and gall at him, but she could not come within two paces of him.’ In the end the old woman is powerless against the vigour and sexual potency of youth. Fairy tales are emotional amplifiers. We look into them as if into old, dimly-silvered mirrors, and see ourselves and the world around us oddly changed. Analysing a fairy tale can be a deeply interesting intellectual exercise, but that is not what the tale itself is for. It exists like music, to work directly on our feelings. Jorinda and Joringel is short and there’s hardly any plot, but it is intense. It takes the dark emotions and transmutes them, leaving us to remember the beauty of the forest, the sadness of the lovers and the strange little song Jorinda sings.

Like age looking wistfully back on a time of flowers.



This essay with many others is published in my book ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales’, available in print or as an e-book from Amazon. (Click this link.) 



[1] Blodeuwedd does not appear to be a word for ‘owl’ in modern Welsh, however.

[2] The Mabinogion, tr. Sioned Davies, 244

[3] ‘Jorinda and Joringel’, KHM 69, Grimm’s Fairy Tales

[4] The Autobiography of Heinrich Stilling, tr. S Jackson, 22

[5] ‘Wode within this wood’: Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2 Sc 1. Wode: adj: ‘mad’, OE. wōd

[6] Susan Price, personal communication.

[7] In The Autobiography of Heinrich Stilling the flower holds not a dew-drop but a real pearl.

[8] Opie, Iona and Tatem, Moira, A Dictionary of Superstitions, 295


Picture credit: 

'She turned herself into a cat or a screech-owl': Jorinda and Joringel, by Arthur Rackham/

Thursday 13 July 2023

The Unhappy Love Affair Of Giant Bolster



This is a tale told in Robert Hunt’s ‘Popular Romances of the West of England, or The Drolls, Superstitions and Traditions of Old Cornwall’. First published in 1865 it went into three editions and was illustrated by George Cruikshank, of whom more below. The third edition begins with a selection of tales about some of the many Cornish giants. This particular one was called Bolster. Like most giants he was a disreputable character, but unlike most giants he fell madly in love with the local St Agnes. He was in fact a sort of giant stalker, but I’m not sure which of the pair I disapprove of most – him, or her.

Bolster must have been a giant of enormous size, since it is stated that he could stand with one foot on St Agnes’ Beacon and the other on Carn Brea; these hills being distant, as the bird flies, six miles. In proof of this, there still exists in the valley running upwards from Chapel Porth, a stone in which may be seen the impression of the giant’s fingers. On one occasion, while enjoying his usual stride from the Beacon to Carn Brea, Bolster felt thirsty and stooped to drink out of the well at Chapel Porth, resting while he did so on the above-mentioned stone.

We hear but little of the wives of our giants, but Bolster had a wife, who was made to labour hard by her tyrannical husband. On the top of St Agnes’ Beacon there yet exist the evidences of the useless labours to which this unfortunate giantess was doomed, in grouped masses of small stones gathered from an estate at the bottom of this hill [which] whenever Bolster was angry with his wife, he compelled her to [...] carry in her apron to the top...

Be this as it may, the giant Bolster fell deeply in love with St Agnes, who is reputed to have been singularly beautiful and a pattern of virtue. The giant allowed the lady no repose. He followed her incessantly, proclaiming his love and filling the air with the tempests of his sighs and groans. St Agnes lectured Bolster in vain on the impropriety of his conduct, he being already a married man. This availed not [and] the persecuted lady, finding there was no release for her while this monster existed, resolved to be rid of him at any cost, and eventually succeeded by the following stratagem.

Agnes appeared at last to be persuaded of the intensity of the giant’s love, but she told him she required one small proof more. There exists at Chapel Porth a hole in the cliff at the end of the valley. If Bolster would fill this hole with his blood, the lady would no longer look coldly on him.

The huge bestrider-of-hills thought it was an easy thing which was asked of him: he could fill many such holes and be none the weaker for loss of blood. Stretching his great arm across the hole, he plunged a knife into a vein, and a torrent of gore rushed forth. Roaring and seething, the blood fell to the bottom, and the giant expected to see the hole filled in a matter of moments. Yet it required much more blood than Bolster had supposed: still, in a short time it must be filled, so he bled on. Hour after hour the blood flowed from the vein, and the hole was not filled. Eventually the giant fainted from exhaustion. The strength of life within his mighty frame enabled him to rally, but he had no power to lift himself from the ground and was unable to staunch the wound he had made. So it was, that after many throes, the giant Bolster died!

In proposing this task, the cunning saint was well aware that the hole opened at the bottom into the sea, and as rapidly as the blood flowed into the hole it was washed away. Thus, the lady got rid of her lover, Mrs Bolster was released, and the district freed from its tyrant. The hole at Chapel Porth still retains the evidence of this tradition, in the red stain which marks the track down which flowed the giant’s blood.

A footnote to this story takes us to an amusing letter written by the artist George Cruikshank to the book’s publisher Mr Hotten. Cross swords with an artist at your peril:


                                                                        263 Hampstead Rd, N.W., April 18th, 1865

Dear Mr. Hotten, – I have received your note, in which you express a doubt as to whether some portion of the public will understand my representation of the giant “Bolster”.

            To all such persons, I would beg them to reflect, that if a giant could stride six miles across a country, he must be twelve miles in height, according to the proportions of the human figure. In order to get a sight of the head of such a giant, the spectator must be distant a mile or two from the figure. This would, by adding half the “stride” and above eleven miles perpendicular, place the spectator about fifteen miles distant from the giant’s head, which head, in proportion to other parts of the body, would be about three-quarters of a mile measuring from the chin to the crown of the head. Now, let anyone calculate, according to the laws of perspective, what size such a head would be at such a distance. To give a little insight into the matter of perspective, let anyone imagine they are looking down a street, fifteen miles long, of large houses, and then calculate what size the last house would be at the farther end of the street; and it must therefore be recollected that every part of such a huge body must lessen in the same way – body and limbs – smaller by degrees, if not beautifully less.

            I selected this subject from my friend Robert Hunt’s work as one of the numerous proofs, which are shown in both the volumes, of the horrible dark ignorance of the Early Ages – a large amount of which ignorance and darkness, I am sorry to find, still remains.

            I hope that these few lines will explain satisfactorily why Giant “Bolster” has been thus displayed by, – Yours truly, George Cruikshank.

PS. – The first time that I put a very large figure in perspective was about forty years back, in illustrating that part of “Paradise Lost” where Milton describes Satan as

                        “Prone on the flood, extended long and large,

                          Lay floating many a rood.”

This I never published, but possibly I may do so one of these days.