Tuesday 18 June 2024

‘Childe Rowland’ & ‘The Gyir Carline’: Lost Fairy Tales of 16th & 17th century England & Scotland

A talk I gave for The Folklore Podcast last November, with some additions and revisions for this post.

This gruesome photo shows a genuine example of a Hand of Glory, currently in Whitby Museum. Not long ago I was reading John Aubrey’s Brief Lives and came across a reference to one of his other works, a compendium of folklore called (for some reason) The Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, published 1686. Never having heard of it before I went to archive.org for a look and flicking through the pages, suddenly stopped at a paragraph in which Aubrey describes ‘a story that was generally believed when I was a Schooleboy (before the civill Warres) that Thieves when they broke open a house, would putt a Candle into a Dead man’s hand, and then the people in the Chamber would not awake. There is such a kind of story somewhere amongst the magical writers’ (p103).

Of course I knew the folk narrative known as ‘The Hand of Glory’. Katharine Briggs provides several versions of it in her Dictionary of British Folktales but they all date from the mid to late 19th century: the earliest from Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Mythology, 1851. She adds that ‘Aubrey has also a story of the Hand of Glory’ but she does not cite it. The thing that most struck me about Aubrey’s brief outline of a tale he’d heard as a schoolboy, is that it predates the others by well over 200 years – he was ten years old in 1635. And he was certainly right about the tale being found ‘amongst the magical writers’, since an illustration of 1565 shows a Hand of Glory all alight: it's a detail from ‘The Elder St. Jacob Visiting the Magician Hermogenes’ by Pieter van der Heyden. See below.

I suppose ‘The Hand of Glory’ is a folk tale rather than a fairy tale, although the distinction is not always easy to make, but Aubrey’s account is a reminder of the way certain stories survive like pebbles in the game of ducks and drakes – skimming above the water and dipping under it to surface again – while others simply sink, leaving a few transient ripples. And such a game of ducks and drakes is the subject of this essay as I try to revive or revisit some of the lost and almost lost fairy tales of 16th and 17th century England and Scotland.

In 1549 an anonymous tract called The Complaynt of Scotland was printed in France as a piece of pro-Scots propaganda against the Rough Wooing – the Scots name for the eight-year war Henry VIII was waging against Scotland to force agreement to the marriage of the infant Queen, Mary Stewart to his son and heir Prince Edward. So The Complaynt is a political work, but in the 16th century this involved backing up the argument with a host of stories, legends and allegories demonstrating Scotland’s intellectual and general superiority to, and independence from, England. In Chapter 6, a group of literate and thoughtful Scottish shepherds discuss philosophy, until one of them suggests they might now all relax and tell stories. There follows an exhilarating reading list, the titles of tales, romances and ballads. You may well know it, but it bears repeating. Here is an anglicised and slightly shortened version:


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 le Diable Duke of Normandy, the tale of the well 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 giants that eat live men, Wallace, the Bruce, Hippomedon, the tale of the Three-Footed Dog of Norroway, 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, Gawain and Gollogras, Lancelot du Lac, Arthur knight he rode at night with golden 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, 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 that 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! Many are Scottish of course, tales of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Young Tamlane, the bold Leslie – Classical, with Perseus and Andromeda, the Minotaur, Midas – French romances like Arthur of Little Britain and Lancelot du Lac – the English Canterbury Tales, Bevis of Southhampton, Robin Hood, Mandeville’s Travels – and Scandinavian legend or saga with the now lost story of Skail Gillenderson. But many of these tales, romances and songs have survived, such as ‘The Red Etin of the Three Heads’ which I read as a child, the Red Etin being a giant who steals King Malcolm’s daughter – and ‘The Well of the World’s End’, of which more later.   

John Leyden, who in 1801 edited and republished The Complaynt of Scotland seems sure that ‘The tale of the pure tynt’ is the story of ‘Rashie-coat’, the Scots Cinderella. He says it is ‘probably the groundwork of the Fairy tale of “the pure tint Rashie-coat”, a common nursery tale.’ I assume he’s right, though I find it a bit odd that The Complaynt omits the girl’s name from the title, since the girl's coat of rushes is her main feature. And whatever does ‘the pure tynt’ mean? I’ve tried my best to find out but I remain unsure: ‘the poor lost Rashie-coat’ may be the likeliest interpretation. Amongst all those titles you may well have noticed ‘The Tale of the Three Weird Sisters’ which I’ll discuss later, too.

But many other of the titles listed are now mysterious or unknown such as ‘The Tale How the King of Eastmoreland Married the King’s Daughter of Westmoreland’ and Three-Footed Dog of Norroway’. Leyden suggests this last could be a variant of ‘The Black Bull of Norroway’, itself a version of the Cupid and Psyche story. It's possible but I suspect Leyden took a wild guess based on the occurrence of the word ‘Norway’ in both titles; he offers no further evidence so we’ll never know. The tale of ‘Ferrand Earl of Flanders that Married the Devil’ no longer exists, but may have been similar to a story preserved in Gervase of Tilbury’s early 13th century ‘Otia Imperialia’  (‘Recreation for an Emperor’, dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor Otto VI) about a lord whose wife ‘for several years, always left the chapel before mass was concluded’. Noticing this, her husband ordered his guards to detain her, with the result that ‘unable to support the elevation of the host, she retreated through the air, carrying with her one side of the chapel’. Leyden thought ‘The tale of the giants that ate live men’ could have been a version of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ but I suspect it’s more likely to have been one of the several tales about giants in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s immensely popular 12th century History of the Kings of Britain – one of which tells how King Arthur slew the man-eating giant of Mont-Saint-Michel.

            And speaking of Arthur, one of the most haunting of these obscure titles is the one that names him. You have to try and 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’. 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 sounds very much like a version of ‘How many miles to Babylon?’ In his 1841 Popular Rhymes of Scotland, Robert Chambers describes a game in which ‘two boys, remarkable as good runners’ are picked to be the ‘king and queen of Cantelon’: they stand between two ‘doons or places of safety, at which a flock of other boys pitch themselves.’ These are considered to be knights. Then following dialogue occurs between the King and one of the ‘knights’ , which Robert Chambers rightly describes as ‘romantic and remarkable’:

Knight:            King and Queen of Cantelon

                        How many miles to Babylon?

King:               Eight and eight and other eight.

Knight:            Will I get there by candlelight?

King:               If your horse be good and your spurs be bright.

Knight:            How mony men have ye?

King:               Mair nor ye daur come and see. 

At this all the knights rush for the opposite ‘doon’ or safe place, while the King and Queen chase and try to catch them. Anyone caught is said to be ‘taned’ or taken, and is ‘out’. The game is repeated until all are out. The Knight’s query about getting there by candlelight, and the King’s response, ‘If your horse be good and your spurs be bright’ are not dissimilar to ‘The Complaynt’s’ candle-lit vision of Arthur galloping through the night, his golden spurs flashing. Was this never more than a schoolyard game, or might there once have been a story attached to it? Again we’ll never know.

Let’s leave for a while the tantalising glimpses of old tales listed in The Complaynt of Scotland, and ask why the fairy tales best known to British people today are not English or Scottish, but French and German – from the late 17th century Conte de ma mere l’oye or Mother Goose Tales of Charles Perrault, first translated into English in 1729, and the early to mid-19th century Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm, of which the first English edition was published in 1823 with illustrations by Cruikshank. It’s fair to say that during this period the English were better at translating other people’s fairy tales than we were at collecting our own. The 19th century Europe-wide impulse to record traditional tales was sparked by the Romantic movement and nascent nationalism, but I suspect Victorian English gentlemen didn’t feel they had very much to prove. This gave Perrault and the Grimms’s versions a massive head-start.

It took the Australian and Jewish Joseph Jacobs to notice this and do something about it. ‘Who says that English folk have no fairy-tales of their own?’ he asks in the introduction to his 1890 collection English Fairy Tales:

The present volume contains only a selection out of some 140 of which I have found traces in this country. It is probable than many more exist. [...] The only reason, I imagine, why such tales have not hitherto been brought to light, is the lamentable gap between the governing and recording classes and dumb working classes of this country – dumb to others but eloquent among themselves.

The Industrial Revolution and the agricultural slump of the mid 1800s, with the consequent break-up of rural communities, contributed to the disappearance of traditional tales as people migrated into cities or overseas to find work. The fairy tales told aloud by mothers and nurses were replaced by tales printed in books – and generations of middle class children grew up familiar with Rumpelstilskin and Cinderella and ignorant of Tom Tit Tot and Rashie-Coat.

            Now to return to 16th century Britain, a time when fairy tales were certainly being told (was there ever a time when they weren’t?) along with legends and ballads and the kinds of tale which Philip Sidney describes in An Apologie for Poetry as holding ‘children from play and old men from the chimney corner’. If there is little direct  evidence for them, there are many hints and inferences. For example, the old nursery rhyme of the frog who goes a-wooing dates - again - to the 1549 Complaynt of Scotland where it is listed among 'songs' as 'The frog came to the mill door' and the books of the Stationers’ Company (a guild of bookbinders, printers and publishers) licensed the publication of ‘A moste strange weddinge of the frogge and the mouse’ in 1580. Of course it's still with us: my children learned to sing ‘Frog Went A-Courting And He Did Ride’ at school in the mid 1990s.

            In 1592 the pamphleteer Thomas Nashe mentioned the tale of ‘Tom Thumb’ in Pierce Penniless as he sourly complained that ‘…every gross-brained idiot is suffered to come into print, who if he set forth a pamphlet of the praise of pudding-pricks [skewers], or write a treatise of Tom Thumb … it is bought up, thick and threefold, when better things lie dead.’ It seems literary jealousy was as rife then as now, and equally clearly the story of ‘Tom Thumb’ was well-known, yet no printed trace of it turns up until thirty years later when it was published as a chapbook in 1621.

            One 16th century fairy tale was rescued for children in the late 1800s by Joseph Jacobs. It is the English story, ‘Mr Fox’: a variant of the tale type ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ to which ‘Bluebeard’ also belongs. It tells of a young woman named Lady Mary who becomes curious, maybe even suspicious, when her fiancé the suave Mr Fox is strangely reluctant to let her visit his castle. When just prior to their wedding he announces that he must go away for a day or two, she sets off alone into the woods to find it for herself. It’s a beautiful castle: but above the gateway a strange motto is carved into the stone: ‘Be bold, be bold’. Passing through, she enters a deserted courtyard with not a soul about, and crossing the yard to the doorway of the keep, she sees the same motto, longer this time. ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold’. 

On she went till she came into the hall, and went up the broad stairs till she came to a door in the gallery, over which was written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold

Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

But Lady Mary was a brave one, she was, and she opened the door, and what do you think she saw? Why bodies and skeletons of beautiful young ladies all stained with blood. So Lady Mary thought it was high time to get out...

Hurrying downstairs, she spies Mr Fox himself arriving at the head of a band of robbers, dragging behind him a lovely young woman who has fainted. Lady Mary hides behind a cask and watches Mr Fox trying to pull a diamond ring from his victim's hand.

It was too tight … so Mr Fox drew his sword and brought it down upon the hand of the poor lady. The hand leapt into the air, and fell of all places into Lady Mary’s lap. Mr Fox looked here and there but did not think of searching behind the cask, so at last he went on dragging the young lady up the stairs into the Bloody Chamber.

Lady Mary runs home; but next day this self-possessed and steely heroine meets her fiancé at a splendid family breakfast where their marriage contract is to be signed.

‘How pale you are this morning, my dear,’ exclaimed Mr Fox.

‘Yes,’ said she, ‘I had horrible dreams last night.’

‘Dreams go by contraries,’ said Mr Fox; ‘but tell us your dream, and your sweet voice will make the time pass till the happy hour comes.’

‘I dreamed,’ said Lady Mary, ‘that I went yestermorn to your castle, and I found it in the woods, with high walls and a deep moat, and over the gateway was written: Be bold, be bold.’

‘But it is not so, nor it was not so,’ said Mr Fox.

As Lady Mary continues the tale, and the mottoes intensify their warnings, Mr Fox’s denials grow stronger: ‘It is not so and it was not so. And God forbid it should be so’ – till at last, after describing the moment when he cuts off the hand, Lady Mary springs to her feet, crying, ‘It is so and it was so. Here’s hand and ring I have to show,’ and she pulls out the hand from her dress and points it straight at Mr Fox –

And with that,  her brothers and her friends drew their swords and cut Mr Fox into a thousand pieces.

It is a great story, beautifully structured: I’ve told it aloud many times to children and they always love it. But how did Joseph Jacobs find it? Well, in Act I, Sc 1 of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, which dates to 1598, Benedick says to Claudio: ‘Like the old tale, my lord: it is not so, nor ‘twas not so; but, indeed, God forbid it should be so.’ And in an addendum to Edmond Malone’s 1790 edition of the complete works of Shakespeare (‘Malones’s Variorum Shakespeare’), a certain Mr John Blakeway contributed an explanatory note:

I believe none of the commentators have understood this; it is an allusion, as the speaker says, to an old tale, which may perhaps still be extant in some collections of such things, or which Shakspeare may have heard, as I have, related by a great aunt, in his childhood.

Blakeway relates the entire story and concludes,

Such is the old tale to which Shakspeare evidently alludes, and which has often ‘froze my young blood’ when I was a child. I will not apologize for repeating it, since it is manifest that such old wives’ tales often prove the best elucidation of this writer’s meaning.

Not only Shakespeare but Edmund Spenser too quotes from ‘Mr Fox’ in his long narrative poem ‘The Faerie Queene’. In Book 3, Canto XI, the gallant ‘warlike Maid’ Britomart (allegorically Chastity) passes the fiery portal of the house of the magician Busirane – the House of Lust – to find and rescue Busirane’s tormented victim Amoret. As she wanders through room after richly decorated room, she notices something.

Over the door thus written she did spy

Be bold: she oft and oft it over-read…

Like Lady Mary, Britomart is not dismayed, ‘But forward with bold steps into the next room went’. Just as in ‘Mr Fox’, the castle is silent and empty: ‘Strange thing it seemed’!  Eventually,

…as she looked about, she did behold

How over that same door was likewise writ

Be bold, be bold, and everywhere Be bold,

That much she mazed, and could not construe it

By any riddling skill or common wit.

At last she spied at that room’s upper end,

Another iron door, on which was writ,

Be not too bold

The first three books of ‘The Faerie Queene’ were published in 1596, and this is the earliest known reference to the ‘old tale’ of ‘Mr Fox’ – which must have been well known at the time. It predates Charles Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’ by at least a century. But if John Blakemore hadn’t decided to explain Benedick’s lines in Much Ado About Nothing, it would have disappeared. His is the only source for this wonderful English fairy tale – but there is something very interesting in the church of St Mary, of Painswick in Gloucestershire. The words ‘Be bold, be bold’ have been cut into one of the pillars:










In modern spelling: ‘THOU WHO MADE THIS RICHARD FORT BE BOLD BE BOLD BUT NOT TOO BOLD...’ Someone named Richard Fort is addressing God who ‘made’ him and adding – an appeal? a prayer? a command? a warning? – to God or perhaps to himself, to ‘be bold, be bold, but not too bold.’ Local tradition says it was carved by one of a group of Parliamentarian soldiers besieged in the church during the English Civil War, and that the words are a quotation from The Faerie Queene. According to Brian Hoggard, a learned friend with an interest in such things, the carved letters appear to be 17th century or earlier, though the intricate ‘A’s are more in the style of the 16th century. (He adds that ‘dating graffitti is a fraught area’.) I can’t help wondering if Richard Fort, besieged in the church, found two things come together in his head – the adjuration to ‘be bold’, and the enclosed stone trap of the church with the enemy about to burst in. He may have been an educated man who had read ‘The Faerie Queene’ and remembered the armed figure of Chastity, Britomart, waiting for her enemy, afraid to lay her weapons aside – 

for fear

Of secret danger, nor let sleep oppress

Her heavy eyes with nature’s burden dear,

But drew herself aside in sikernesse [assurety]

And her wellpointed weapons did about her dress. 

Or maybe he simply remembered the story of ‘Mr Fox’ told to him in childhood by his mother or nurse and saw its relevance, and began cutting those words to distract himself. The lettering trails off with the words ‘AND WHE’ – but is unfinished. The historical account of the siege says the Royalists soldiers outside set fire to the church door and threw in ‘granadoes’ –  grenades. I hope he survived.

            The combination of Shakespeare’s plays, fairy tales and war brings me to ‘The Tale of the Three Weird Sisters’ listed in the 1549 Complaynt of Scotland. In 1801 the editor John Leyland assumed this tale was a lost ‘romance’, by which he would have meant a supernatural tale, as it self-evidently is. He equates the Weird Sisters with the Parcae or Fates, and references a lengthy versified history of Britain, The Continuance of Albion’s England written by William Warner and published in 1606. In Book 15, Banquo’s son Fleance tells his sweetheart, the daughter of King Gruffyth of Wales, the story of ‘The three Faeries, or Weird Elves’. I looked this up.

            I pray thee, Fleance, tell, quoth she, what I have heard in part,

            The story of the Fairies that foretold thy Fathers fate.

Fleance explains how Macbeth and Banquo were strolling together, when:

            Three Fairies in a private walk to them appeared, who

            Saluted Macbeth King and gave him other titles too,

            To whom my father, laughing, said they dealt unequal dole

            Behighting nought thereof to him but to his Friend the whole.

            When of the Weird-Elfes one of them, replying, said that he

            Should not be king, but of his strain a many Kings should be.

For us, long used to Macbeth’s three witches, it feels strange to see them described as fairies – weird-elves, seers, considerably more stately than Shakespeare’s crones, as we see in this woodcut from Holinshed who simply calls them ‘three women’. 

The earliest account of their meeting with Banquo and Macbeth comes in Andrew of Wyntoun’s Oryginale Cronikle of Scotland, 1420. In Book 6, Chapter 118 (this too is very long!) Macbeth experiences a prophetic dream rather than a physical encounter. He dreams he was sitting near the King at a hunting lodge and:

            ... saw thre women by gangand [going by]

            And they thre women than thocht he

            Thre werd sisteris like to be.

            The first he herd say gangand by

            ‘Lo, yonder the thayne of Cromarty!’

            The tother sister said agayne:

            ‘Off Murray yonder I see the thayne,’

            The thrid said, ‘Yonder I see the king.’

            All this herd he in his dremying.

Karen Bek-Pederson to whose paper Macbeth and ‘The Weird Sisters’ – On Fates and Witches I owe this quotation, remarks: ‘This is clearly a portrayal of fate, albeit fate experienced in a dream. Interestingly, the “weird sisters” are given no introduction at all, so the reader must be expected to know who they are.’ Given this, ‘The Tale of the Three Weird Sisters’ in The Complaynt of Scotland’ is almost certainly the story of their encounter with Macbeth,not some unknown ‘romance’ or fairy tale as I had at first fancied. Scottish accounts of the ‘three weird sisters’ consistently characterise them as the Fates or messengers of fate, while English versions like Holinshed’s explain them as Elves or Fairies. It seems to have been Shakespeare himself who transformed them into cauldron-stirring, sieve-sailing witches with cat and toad familiars – perhaps because the subject of witchcraft was one of King James the 1st and 6th’s hobby-horses.

            A reference to another almost-lost fairy tale appears in Act 3, Sc. 4 of Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605), when Edgar, disguised as a Bedlam beggar, mentions the fairy story or ballad of ‘Childe Rowland’ –

  Child Rowland to the dark tower came,

            His word was still, “Fie, foh and fum,

            I smell the blood of a British man.”

Once again this must have been a fairy tale easily recognisable in the 16th and 17th centuries. We are lucky that it has survived in a single, imperfectly remembered version recorded by the Scottish Robert Jamieson in his 1814 book Illustrations of Northern Antiquities. It had been told to him in boyhood by a journeyman tailor whom he remembered reciting it ‘in a sort of formal, drowsy, mannered, monotonous recitative, mixing prose and verse, in the manner of the Icelandic sagas and as is still the manner … among the Lowlanders in the north of Scotland, and among the Highlanders and Irish.’ It’s an elaborate, haunting tale, in which Childe Rowland goes to rescue his sister Burd Ellen from an Elf-King who lives in a hall under a green hill. Just like a giant, the Elf-king bounds out, crying:

                        ‘With fee, fi, fo and fum!

                        I smell the blood of a Christian man!

                        Be he dead, be he living, wi’ my brand

                        I’ll clash his harns [brains] frae his harn-pan!’

‘Fee Fi Fo Fum?’ Well now! Thomas Nashe preserves perhaps the earliest version of this ‘giant’s chant’ in his 1596 pamphlet Have With You to Saffron Waldenin which he gleefully accuses his enemy the writer and schoolman Gabriel Harvey of being a time-wasting pedant, ‘who will find matter enough to dilate a whole day of the first invention of Fy, fah and fum, I smell the blood of an English-man.’ (And as this is pretty much exactly what I’m doing right now, I hope you don’t mind my wasting your time in this way.)

A similar rhyme is preserved in ‘The Red Etin’, another tale cited in The Complaynt of Scotland. While sniffing out the hero who’s hiding in his castle, the Etin chants:

                        ‘Snouk but and snouk ben,

                        I find the smell of an earthly man;

                        Be he living or be he dead

                        His heart this night shal kitchen my bread.’

This is from an early 19th century version of the tale, but ‘The Red Etin’ is at least as old as Sir Robert Lyndsay’s 1528 poem The Dreme, in which Lyndsay reminds the 16 year-old King James V of Scotland of stories he told him as a child – which include:

                        The propheceis of Rymour, Beid and Marlyng,

                        And of mony uther pleasand storye

                        Of the Reid Etin, and the Gyir Carlyng…

The prophecies of [Thomas the] Rhymer, Bede and Merlin,

And of many other pleasing stories,

Of the Red Etin, and ...

Who or what is the Gyir Carlyng? ‘Gyir’ is derived from an Old Norse word meaning giant, troll, or ogress; ‘carline’ means ‘old woman’. In 1808 Robert Jamieson explained her to be ‘the Scottish Hecate or mother-witch’ – while RH Cromek in his 1810 Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song says, ‘the Gyre Carline ... is reckoned the mother of glamour [magic] and near-kin to Satan himself. She is believed to preside over the Hallowmass Rade, and mothers frequently frighten their children by threatening to give them to [her]. She is described as wearing a long grey mantle and carrying a wand, which ... could convert water into rocks and sea into dry land.’ And he relates how an inlet of the sea was transformed by the angry Carline into a bog, after its waves had swept away many of her steeds.

This may have been the story Lyndsay told the young James V, but more likely that was an anonymous comic poem, probably 15th century in origin, in which this ogress-queen is courted by a neighbour called Blasour. When she rejects him, Blasour employs an army of moles to undermine her tower, upon which she whacks him with a cudgel. He bleeds ‘a quart of milk pottage inwart’ which makes her laugh so hard she farts out the hill known as North Berwick Law. Then the faery king assails her with his elves and ‘all the dogs from Dunbar to Dunblane’, but she changes into a sow and goes ‘gruntling o’er the Greek sea’. It’s easy to imagine young King James laughing over this story – and equally easy to imagine such a story with its physical sense of humour, dropping out of sight in ‘polite’ centuries. Indeed, this may well be the reason why one sixteenth century fairy tale which is still extant, has sunk from sight.

This is ‘The Friar and the Boy’, an undated chapbook printed by Wynkyn de Worde (who died circa 1534). It’s written in verse: ‘A Mery Geste of the Frere and the Boye’ and it goes like this:

Once there was a boy called little Jack, whose stepmother disliked him. She sent him out to tend cattle and gave him poor food to eat. One day Jack shared his food with a poor old man, who in return gave the boy three wishes –  a bow that would always hit the mark, a pipe that would make everyone who heard it dance, and finally that whenever his stepmother looked spitefully at him, she should ‘a rap let go’. (Fart.) That evening the cattle followed the sound of Jack’s pipe home, and his father gave him a capon’s wing for supper, at which his stepmother scowled – and ‘let go a blast’. When everyone laughed she scowled even more and the same thing happened, so next day she asked a Friar to come and beat the boy. Jack shot down a bird for the Friar with his magic bow; the bird fell into some brambles and as the Friar went to fetch it, Jack piped up and made him dance until he was covered in scratches. His stepmother complained to Jack’s father, who asked Jack to demonstrate his pipe-playing. The moment he began, father, stepmother and all the neighbours rushed from their homes and danced in the street till they were exhausted. Jack was summoned before a Archdeacon’s court, where he made the prisoners and officials and even judges dance like madmen – and at last the Archdeacon promised Jack forgiveness if he ceased to play.

With its wicked stepmother and useless father, the boy’s gift of food to the old man, the granting of three wishes and the magical objects like the pipe and bow – this is clearly a fairy tale. It’s reminiscent of the Grimms’ tale ‘The Golden Goose’, in which a simple lad shares his food with ‘a little old grey man’ who gives him a goose with gold feathers: if anyone covetously touches the bird, they stick to it and to one another, so that a whole series of people must run after the lad wherever he goes. There's no farting in ‘The Golden Goose’... but ‘The Friar and the Boy’ was popular enough to appear in several 16th century chapbooks. W. C. Hazlitt (grandson of the essayist) suggested the story had been ‘transplanted into our nursery literature under a slightly different form’ as ‘Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son’, a relevant stanza of which is:

Tom with his pipe did play with such skill

That those who heard him could never keep still;

Whenever they heard, they began for to dance,

Even pigs on their hind legs would after him prance.

To take stock: so far we’ve clocked up ‘Tom Thumb’, ‘The Well of the World’s End’, ‘Rashie-coat’, ‘Mr Fox’, ‘The Three Weird Sisters’ as representations of Fate, ‘Childe Roland’, ‘The Red Etin’, ‘The Gyir Carline’ and ‘The Friar and His Boy’. And there are more, much more. 

The Old Wives Tale, by Shakespeare’s contemporary the poet George Peele, is a one-act play of magic and adventure published in 1595 a year before the author’s death: the title-page declares it to have been performed by ‘the Queene’s Majesties’ Players’. It’s charming, and fascinating because it contains so many fairy tale motifs and references. It opens like this:

Three servants lost in a dark wood take shelter in a blacksmith’s cottage. There’s only one bed and the blacksmith needs his sleep, so his old wife Madge suggests that one of the three young fellows should share it with him, while the other two sit up with her. To pass the time, she agrees to tell ‘an old wife’s winter tale’, an offer met with enthusiasm. ‘A tale of an hour long were as good as an hour’s sleep,’ exclaims one, and the other, ‘Look you, gammer, of the giant and the king’s daughter…’ They want to hear a fairy tale, and in a rambling, forgetful manner, the old woman begins telling one.

‘Once upon a time there was a king, or a lord, or a duke that had a fair daughter, the fairest that ever was, as white as snow and as red as blood; and once upon a time, his daughter was stolen away […]

            There was a conjuror, and this conjuror could do anything, and he turned himself into a great dragon, and carried the king’s daughter away in his mouth to a castle that he made of stone, and there he kept her I know not how long, till at last all the king’s men went out so long that her two brothers went to seek her. Oh, I forgot! He [the conjuror] turned a proper young man to a bear in the night and an old man by day, and he made his lady run mad… God’s me bones! Who comes here?’

She breaks off in surprise: the kidnapped lady’s two brothers have suddenly appeared on stage to seek their lost sister. Seeing the Old Man (aka the enchanted youth Erestus) picking ‘hips and haws and sticks and straws’ at a wayside cross, they give him alms; he in return gives them mysterious advice from ‘the White Bear of England’s Wood’ – which itself sounds like the title of another lost fairy tale, similar perhaps to the Norwegian story ‘White Bear King Valemon’ in which the Bear is of course an enchanted king. We hear no more of it, but Madge’s story has come to life and the play unfolds before her startled eyes.

The villain is Sacrapant the Conjuror. Previously he was besotted with Venelia, betrothed to young Erestus. After turning Erestus into an Old Man by day and a White Bear by night, Sacrapant enspelled Venelia to run mute and distracted through the woods. More recently he has abducted Delia, daughter of the king of Thessaly, and caused her to forget her true identity – so when she encounters her brothers, she won’t know them. Sacrapant is old, but by his art is able to look like a ‘fair young man’; his power is stored in a little glass vial with a flame in it, which he keeps buried. Besides her brothers, Delia’s lover the Wandering Knight Eumenides is also searching for her.

‘The Old Wives Tale’ is stuffed with fairy tale references which George Peele clearly expected everyone in the audience to recognise; and we still do. ‘As white as snow and as red as blood’, says old Madge. Peele may or may not have known a version of ‘Snow White’, but ‘white as snow, red as blood, black as a ravens wing’ is a common fairy tale description. And that’s only the beginning. About a third of the way through the play, Sacrapant asks Delia what she would like to eat and drink, and she playfully demands ‘the best meat from the king of England’s table and the best wine in all France, brought in by the veriest knave in all Spain.’ He responds:

            ‘Well, sit thee down.

Spread, table, spread; meat, drink and bread.

Ever may I have what I ever crave.’

These words demonstrate that Sacrapant possesses a Magic Table which supplies food and drink, the well-known fairy tale motif (Aarne Thompson Index D1472.1.7).

In the Grimms tale ‘The Wishing Table, the Gold-Ass and the Cudgel in the Sack’ (KHM 36), a youth is given a little wooden table. It doesn’t look much, but he only has to say, ‘Little table, spread yourself’ and it covers itself at once with ‘a clean little cloth, a plate, knife and fork, dishes with boiled and roasted meats … and a great glass of red wine that shone so as to make his heart glad.’ Sacrapant uses the same form of words: ‘Spread, table, spread.’

So stories about Wishing Tables were being told in England during the 16th century. Clearly, Peele expects his audience to recognise this one as a standard magical prop that needs no explanation. Staging the magic would of course be difficult, so the get-out is Delia’s demand that the food be served by ‘the veriest knave in all Spain’ and the magic duly conjures up a Spanish Friar (Spanish! Friar! Hiss! Boo!) to bring the food to the table.

In a sub-plot that runs through the play, a poor man called Lampriscus has two daughters, the beautiful but shrewish Zantippa, and Celanta, ugly but kind. This is a deliberate reversal of the tale type The Kind and Unkind Girls (AT tale type 480): usually the beautiful sister is kind; the unkind one, ugly. Lampriscus sends the two to find their fortunes by drawing water from the Well of Life. When Zantippa brings her pitcher to the well, a Head rises from the water chanting or singing,

‘Gently dip, but not too deep,

For fear you make the golden beard to weep.

Fair maiden, white and red,

Comb me smooth and stroke my head

And thou shalt have some cockle-bread.’

Pretty Zantippa takes offence at this request and smashes her pitcher over the Head. Maybe she simply objects to combing and smoothing the Head, but the editor of the Mermaid edition of the play, Charles Whitworth, believed that cockle-bread ‘may have been’ made with seeds of the weed corn-cockle, thought to be an aphrodisiac. John Aubrey recordes a ‘wanton sport’ called ‘moulding of cockle-bread’ which involved young maids climbing on to a table with skirts and knees raised and then ‘wabbl[ing] to and fro with their Buttocks as if they were kneading of dough with their Ayrses.’ It’s a great glimpse of 17th century kitchen-life; you can hear the shrieks of laughter – but I doubt if corn-cockle would ever have been deliberately introduced into bread, as it seems to have had a bad taste. John Gerard in The Herball or Generalle Historie of Plantes (1597) writes: ‘the spoil unto bread, as well as colour, taste and unholesomnes, is better known than desired’.

Whatever the implication of the song, Zantippa is angered and departs without any water. Then ugly but kind Celanto arrives. She obligingly strokes and combs the Head, which sinks into the well to rise again with gold for her to comb into her lap, singing:

            ‘Fair maiden, white and red,

            Stroke me smooth and comb my head,

            And every hair a sheaf shall be,

            And every sheaf a golden tree.’ 

This same motif occurs in the ‘Tale of the Well at the World’s End’ listed in The Complaynt of Scotland: a young girl is sent by her cruel stepmother to fetch water from the eponymous well. After crossing ‘a moor of hecklepins’ – sharp pins packed together and used for teasing out wool – she finds the well too deep to reach with her bottle, but sees ‘three scaud men’s heads’ looking up at her. ‘Scaud’ means scalded or burned and may mean the heads are bald or blackened. These heads say together,

‘Wash me, wash me, my bonnie May

And dry me wi’ yer clean linen apron.’

When the girl does this they fill her bottle with water and give her three gifts: to be ten times bonnier than before, for jewels to fall from her mouth every time she speaks, and to be able to comb gold and silver out of her hair. Of course her lazy stepsister fares badly.

Returning to the play’s main story-line, you remember how the conjuror Sacrapant hides his magical power in a buried, light-filled vial? This resembles the many fairy tales around the world in which a giant, ogre or magician keeps his heart, soul, or power separately hidden: a motif known as The Ogre’s Heart in the Egg (AT tale type 302). The Russian story ‘Koshchei the Deathless’ figures a monstrous magician who carries off not only a king’s daughter, but also the mother of the hero Prince Ivan. Ivan’s mother wheedles from Koshchei the secret of his hidden death. ‘There stands an oak,’ he tells her, ‘and under the oak is a casket, and in the casket is a hare, and in the hare is a duck, and in the duck is an egg, and in the egg is my death.’ Of course in the end, Prince Ivan succeeds in finding and smashing the egg, and Koshchei the Deathless dies. Sacrapant boasts of his vial:

‘With this enchantment do I anything,

And till this fade, my skill shall still endure,

And never none shall break this little glass.

But she that’s neither wife, widow nor maid.

Then cheer thyself; this is thy destiny

Never to die but by a dead man’s hand.’

There are two points here. First, Sacrapant’s confidence that no one can break the glass is based on his belief that there is no such thing as a woman who is neither wife, widow or maid. This apparently reassuring prophecy is like that of the witches who tell Macbeth to ‘Laugh to scorn/The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth’. Though true their words are deceptive, as Macbeth finds while fighting Macduff.

Macbeth:         I bear a charmèd life, which must not yield

                        To one of woman born.

Macduff:                                             Despair thy charm,

                        And let the angel whom thou still has served

                        Tell thee Macduff was from his mother’s womb

                        Untimely ripped.        

Like Macbeth, Sacrapant fails to read the small print. A 16th century betrothal was a binding contract, after which sexual intercourse might legitimately take place prior to the expected wedding. (Mariana in Measure for Measure is betrothed to Lord Angelo who abandons her after intercourse, which is much to his discredit.) Betrothed to Erestus, no longer a maid but as yet unmarried, Venelia will be able to break Sacrapant’s glass. Second, Sacrapant’s confidence in his invulnerability is bolstered by the belief that he is destined ‘never to die, but at a dead man’s hand’, an apparent impossibility. The example best known today must surely be the Lord of the Nazgûl’s certainty that ‘no living man’ can slay him. Cue Eowyn...

            And cue the Grateful Dead Man, a tale type in which the hero pays for the burial of a dead pauper and shortly after acquires a faithful companion who assists him in his quest. (AT tale type E341) The best known version is Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Travelling Companion’: in this illustration the invisible Companion uses swans wings to pursue the wicked princess to the hall of her troll lover and learn the answers to the riddles she has set his master.

Delia’s lover Eumenides is told by the Old Man: ‘Bestow thy alms, give more than all/Till dead men’s bones come at thy call.’  The puzzled Eumenides sleeps on this and is woken by an altercation between a Churchwarden and Sexton who are refusing to bury a the body of a poor man, Jack, who left no money for the funeral. Eumenides pays for the burial and is soon after overtaken by a young lad who offers to serve him. ‘Are you not the man, sir – deny it if you can, sir – that gave all the money you had to the burying of a poor man, and but one three-ha’pence left in your purse? Content you, sir, I’ll serve you – that is flat.’ He too is called Jack, so common a name that Eumenides does not associate him with the dead man. After all why should he? Arranging a fee of half of whatever his master wins, Jack assists and protects Eumenides. Invisible, he steals away Sacrapant’s magical sword and wreath, and probably runs him through with the sword, too – there is no stage direction – as the conjuror cries,

‘My blood is pierced, my breath fleeting away

And now my timeless date is come to end’.

Slain by the dead man, Sacrapant dies and goes to hell, but his magic is still contained in the vial. Jack summons Venelia to break the glass, the wicked enchantments are undone and Delia and Eumenides are reunited. But by the terms of Jack’s agreement with Eumenides, he was to share 50 percent of all that Eumenides gained. Testing his master’s faith, he asks Eumenides to cut Delia in half. (You can get away with this in fairy tales, they’re all about action not characterisation.) Eumenides reluctantly agrees, and Delia exclaims ‘Farewell, world!’ but then –

Jack:                ‘Stay, master! It is sufficient that I have tried your constancy. Do you now remember since you paid for the burying of a poor fellow?’

Eumenides:     Ay, very well, Jack.

Jack:                Then, master, thank that good deed for this good turn. And so, God be with you all.

                        Jack leaps down in the ground.

Down through the trapdoor in the stage, no doubt. Something about this play makes me wonder when ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ was first told. The first we know of it is a chapbook, ‘The History of Jack and the Giants’ printed in Newcastle in 1711 in two parts, of which only the second still exists. But according to the Opies in Classic Fairy Tales, the title-page set out a full account of Jack’s deeds:

Victorious conquests over the North Country Giants, destroying the inchanted Castle kept by Galligantus, dispers’d the fiery Griffins, put the Conjuror to flight, and released not only many Knights and Ladies, but likewise a Duke’s Daughter to whom he was honourably married.

My italics: there we have elements of The Old Wives Tale: the bold lad Jack, a conjuror, and the rescue of a duke’s daughter. The world-wide web of story is vast; who knows?

One theory about The Old Wives Tale is that it was written for a company of child actors, which would explain why it’s so short. You can imagine the intelligentsia permitting themselves to enjoy the charming sight of children acting out a rustic fairy tale – and given Thomas Nashe’s contempt for ‘Tom Thumb’ and ‘Fee fi foh fum’, perhaps they needed the excuse. The play is not naïve: there’s more than a hint of tongue-in-cheek fun about it, but it’s kindly fun. There’s no derision. Perhaps it is more a masque than a play, and Milton borrowed this story of brothers seeking a sister imprisoned by a magician for his masque ‘Comus’ which was presented at Ludlow Castle on Michaelmas night, 1634. But Milton subdued the folksy elements, giving the role of the Dead Man to the ethereal Attendant Spirit, and replacing the watery Heads in the Well with Sabrina, goddess of the River Severn sitting ‘under the glassy, cool, translucent wave’. How different she is from the friendly, ugly Heads! Milton further dignified his work with many classical references – his magician Comus is the son of Circe.

The Old Wives Tale is not ashamed of its humble fairy and folk-tale sources: it uses them with genuine delight. I will stick my neck out and suggest that no educated people would treat common fairy tales quite like this again for the next two hundred years, or think them worth writing down. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was published in 1596, only a year after The Old Wives Tale, and though it too delights in the tropes of romances and fairy tales – and as we’ve seen, even quotes from them – it makes them respectable by using them as allegories: the Red-Cross Knight slaying the Dragon represents Holiness conquering Sin.

About eighty years later John Bunyan does the same thing in The Pilgrim’s Progress. The chapter in which Christian fights and vanquishes Apollyon reads just like a fairy tale, brilliantly combining the stuff of salvation with the now unfashionable yet still exciting romance. The humble old wives’ tales were still popular at street-level in chapbooks and ballads, but could not be taken seriously without this extra dimension. Even after the revival of interest triggered by the Grimm brothers in the first decades of the 19th century, it took the English a long time to turn their attention to their native tales, of which many must have been lost. The Scots did rather better. However as I hope I’ve shown, clear traces of many once-loved fairy tales are still visible in 16th and 17th century literature


Picture credits:

Hand of Glory, Whitby Museum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand_of_Glory

Hand of Glory, detail from 'The Elder Saint Jacob visiting the Magician Hermogenes' by Pieter van der Heyden: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand_of_Glory

'The Complaynt of Scotland' https://archive.org/details/complayntofscotl00leyd/page/n7/mode/2up

Cap o' Rushes (the English version of Rashie-coat) by John D Batten:


The Frog's Wooing by Walter Crane:


Lady Mary hurls the hand at Mr Fox by John D Batten, from Joseph Jacobs' 'English Fairy Tales'

Britomart enters the House of Busyrane by Walter Crane, Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene'

Three Heads in the Well by HJ Ford, illustration to 'The Bushy Bride' in 'The Red Fairy Book'

Koschei the Deathless by Zvorykin, 


The Travelling Companion  by Gordon Browne https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/90212798762272314/

Christian fights Apollyon - 18th century print

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