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Archive for June, 2012

…this was Childe The First’s request to me last night as I was getting him ready for bed. He’d been complaining that his mattress was too lumpy because of the wooden slats beneath it; I’d laughed and said he was like the Princess And The Pea. He hadn’t heard this story before, so I told him it while he sat on the edge of his bed, fingers on his chin, watching me intently as I described a towering pile of a hundred mattresses, a lonely prince, and a very sensitive princess.

Afterwards we looked through his books and found a written version of the story, complete with illustrations, but he seemed a little underwhelmed by it. He asked instead for me to tell him another story “from in your head Mummy” – as anyone who’s familiar with this blog can imagine, I was utterly thrilled by this request and more than happy to oblige him.

I have tried on many occasions to play ‘storyteller’ to my eldest son, but he has always preferred to have a tale from a book, so he can look at the pictures or follow the words with me. As much as I love reading to him (he gets at least one book a night), I often long for the freedom to tell a story in my own words, to build on the bones of a tale that lived for centuries in the minds and on the tongues of our ancestors.

When we speak of storytelling we are encompassing a vast heritage of lore, myths, epic tales, folk tales, travellers tales; tales of the creation of the world, tales of its destruction; sagas of Gods and men; all the great traditional legends from around the world. These stories are not learned by rote or read from books but retold by the tellers, making each interpretation unique. Storytelling is more than just performance or entertainment; it can also educate, heal, lead to better practice in business, inspire and change lives.”

– from The Society for Storytelling‘s website

Many of the stories in Katharine Briggs Dictionary of British Folktales are direct transcripts from recordings of the people she interviewed over the course of her work; dialect and strange grammar litter the descriptions of black dogs and devils-in-disguise. These are stories in skeletal form, the essence of a folk memory passed from parent to child to grandchild, embellished as each teller saw fit. One of my very favourite books is Kevin Crossley-Holland‘s British Folk Tales; its pages are rich with beautifully-told stories whose roots are discussed in an appendix at the back. He takes these roots and weaves them into evocative and striking prose that has stayed with me for over twenty years since my first reading; I can’t wait to share these stories with my children.

I promised Childe The First that I would tell him lots more of the stories from in my head, with a little help from Ms Briggs and Mr Crossley-Holland – and I can’t wait to get started.

Further reading:

Society for Storytelling

The Folklore Society

Kevin Crossley-Holland – official website

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Silent Sunday

 

Love All Blogs

 

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The relationship between humans and the fairy world is well-documented in British folklore, with fairy folk described as a far darker, more troublesome force than their contemporary counterparts. Our ancestors found fairies suspicious and frightening, and British mythology is rich with stories of unwary humans being tricked or punished by Fey folk. You’d be hard-pushed to recognise the benign, sparkly wish-granting creatures with which we are familiar.

Changeling children as illustrated by Alan Lee

Tales abound of babies stolen from their cradles and replaced by fairies, of women shocked to find a hideous creature lying where their newborn once slept. These fairy impostors seem to be most common in stories from Ireland and Scotland, as well as Northern Europe; known as Changelings, they were something to be feared for a great many new mothers. For anyone living in today’s knowledge-rich society, it’s difficult to imagine how people could truly believe that a baby could be stolen by fairies, but several hundred years ago illness and death – especially that of children – was a very real part of life, and supernatural explanations for such events probably brought a degree of comfort to people who had no knowledge of modern science or medicine.

Tell-tale signs that the fairies had replaced a child with one of their own kind included: incessant crying and refusing to settle; unusual facial features or curiously distorted limbs; constant feeding at the mother’s breast, without ever seeming satisfied, and the ability to speak despite only being a few days old. Changeling babies were responsible for much ill-fortune for the poor ‘host’ family – their presence would cause fresh milk to curdle, and illness to plague the household.

Human babies could be taken for many reasons; to replace an ailing or unattractive fairy child, or to gain strength from the human mother’s milk, or even for the fairy folk to feed on (a particularly grisly variant). Perhaps it was a way to punish humans, who so often treated the fairy world with suspicion and disrespect. Conversely, some version of Changeling lore suggest that the fairy folk loved human babies and thought them beautiful – they stole the prettiest, most good-natured babies to raise as their own, replacing it with a more troublesome fairy baby. In Scottish folklore the baby was offered to the Devil as part of the fairy folks’ tithe to Hell, as in the Ballad of Tam Lin.

In some cases the creature left behind was not a baby but an older member of the fairy family – perhaps cast out, or left to die amongst the humans, osctracised from his own kind. It would fall to the human recipients to nurse this little person, for what choice did they have? It would have been unthinkable to anger the fairies further by neglecting their ‘cuckoo’.

In other stories, the baby was not replaced with a living creature but with a lump of wood ‘enchanted’ to resemble a child; this enchantment would wear off after a few days, revealing the true fate of the baby. Sometimes the wood (called a ‘stock’ or ‘fetch’) would seem to sicken and die, but instead of a corpse there would lie a pile of rotting wood.

There were various methods of revealing and even returning Changelings, some of them horribly violent. If the baby’s mother suspected she was host to a fairy child, she could try to trick it into revealing itself. For example, if she pretended to cook the family meal inside a single eggshell rather than a cooking-pot, the Changeling would be so confused that it would sit up and recite a rhyme:

“Acorn before oak I knew,
and an egg before a hen,
but never before have I seen
an eggshell brew dinner for harvest men.” (1)

Having revealed itself, it would flee back to its own kind and the stolen baby would be returned.

It was also said that a Changeling could be exposed by holding the baby over a hot stove on an iron spade, or holding it under water; as shocking as it sounds, it’s likely that many babies fell victim to such abuse in times when such legends were widely believed. Though it’s impossible to imagine inflicting such cruelty on any child nowadays, the truth was that most folk knew very little about what could really have caused these strange characteristics and behaviours in their babies. Genetic conditions, chromosomal abnormalities, diseases – all could give children a strange or even frightening appearance, and for people who had never come across such things, they could only rationalise it by declaring it the work of fairies.

Even as late as the end of the nineteenth century, suspicions of fairy magic were seen as a legitimat defence against a charge of murder. The most famous case is that of Bridget Cleary, an Irish woman who was burned to death by her husband Michael after she fell ill. He and a group of fellow villagers were cleared of murder, as they claimed it was not Bridget they had killed but a Changeling who had taken her place.

Further Reading:

Changelings by Terri Windling

Wikipedia entry for Changelings

Changeling Legends from the British Isles – an excellent comprehensive resource.

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Not so much mythology as ancient practice, the tradition of lighting bonfires on Midsummer’s Eve continues even now in some parts of Britain. Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough contains a brief passage describing the various incarnations of these Midsummer Fires:

“In Wales three or nine different kinds of wood and charred faggots carefully preserved from the last midsummer were deemed necessary to build the bonfire, which was generally done on rising ground. In the Vale of Glamorgan a cart-wheel swathed in straw used to be ignited and sent rolling down the hill. If it kept alight all the way down and blazed for a long time, an abundant harvest was expected. On Midsummer Eve people in the Isle of Man were wont to light fires to the windward of every field, so that the smoke might pass over the corn; and they folded their cattle and carried blazing furze or gorse round them several times. In Ireland cattle, especially barren cattle, were driven through the midsummer fires, and the ashes were thrown on the fields to fertilise them, or live coals were carried into them to prevent blight. In Scotland the traces of midsummer fires are few; but at that season in the highlands of Perthshire cowherds used to go round their folds thrice, in the direction of the sun, with lighted torches. This they did to purify the flocks and herds and to keep them from falling sick.” 

– Frazer, The Golden Bough, Ch. 62 ‘The Fire-Festivals Of Europe’

At a time when entire villages would rely on a good harvest to feed them through the long, dark winter months, it is not surprising that folk turned to these rituals in an attempt to ensure good fortune for their crops and livestock. The lighting of the Midsummer Bonfire was a salute to the sun as it reached its highest point in the Summer sky, and an acknowledgement that the slow descent into shorter days and harder nights had begun.

The annual fire ritual is still a popular part of the Cornish Midsummer celebrations; in Penzance, as part of the Golowan Festival around the 24th of June each year, a firework display takes place. There are also various Midsummer Bonfires across the county as listed on the Federation Of Old Cornwall Societies website.

The nearest I personally have ever come to a Midsummer celebration was at the Glastonbury Festival in June 2000; we spent the Saturday night on the hill by the standing stones, and were rewarded with the incredible sight of the Tor rising from the mists below us in the early morning sun, as the bonfires burnt behind us. Hardly traditional, but I like to think it was as earnest a celebration as any that took place all those hundreds of years ago – though perhaps slightly louder…

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…just found a hardcover copy of Robert Lacey’s Great Tales From English History for the bargain price of £1!

 

Looking forward to a long afternoon of tea, reading, and letting Cbeebies babysit my children…

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‘Alison Gross’ by Vernon Hill, an illustration from Ballads Weird And Wonderful (1912)

The Victorians were HUGE fans of fairytales and mythology, as can be seen in the  illustrations of Arthur Rackham and the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, such as Millais’  The Lady Of Shalott. [EXPAND]

Francis J. Child‘s five volume work, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898) is a staggeringly huge catalogue of songs and poems collected from across the British Isles. The majority of the ballads have been traced back no further than the 16th Century, but of course there are plenty of motifs within the ballads which owe their origins to folktales from the Middle Ages, possibly earlier.

The Ballad of Alison Gross (sometimes referred to as Alison Cross) is of particular interest to me as it turns the traditional stereotype of ‘bewitched young female’ (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, anything Disney have had their paws on) on its head. The subject here is a man whom Alison Gross – ‘the ugliest witch in the North Country’ – captures and tries to seduce with promises of fine gifts and trinkets.She offers him a scarlet mantle, a shirt garnished with pearls, and a cup hewn from Welsh gold, all of which he refuses as she gently combs his hair, singing to him of offering him ‘so many good things’.

He spurns her advances, and as punishment for rebuking her, Alison turns him into a Worm. She tethers him to a tree, and there he remains until Hallowe’en, when the Fairy Queen passes him with her court and deigns to free him from his enchantment by stroking his head and reversing the witch’s spell, restoring him to human form.

I first heard the Ballad of Alison Gross in the Steeleye Span song of the same name. Although this version is rather more Anglicised than the one recorded in Childe’s anthology, it does an excellent job of bringing the song to life:

A Scottish folk band called Malinky recorded a gorgeous version which is a little more faithful to the Ballad’s Scottish roots:

(It is interesting to note that this version is called ‘Alison Cross’, a possible corruption of Child’s title but one which is referred to elsewhere occasionally.)

Further Reading: 

Transcript of the Child Ballad of Alison Gross

The Ballad as it appeared in print in its original form

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As you will no doubt be able to tell from looking at my archive, this blog is something of a newborn. I’ve certainly been treating it like one – touting it around on Facebook and Twitter, lovingly tending to it at stupid o’clock in the morning when I should be sleeping, that sort of thing. I get inordinately excited watching my hit-count grow with each post, and I LOVE positive feedback.

But there’s something that’s been bothering me a little. As much as I love my subject matter, I don’t want Mynd And Mist to remain a dry, analytical ‘resource’ of a blog – I want it to be more notebook than textbook, I need it to reflect its author. (But with less gin and swearing, ideally.)

With that in mind, it’s time to indulge myself and post something a little more personal.

What to say that I haven’t said on my About page? Hmmm…I’m not very good at sensible grownup stuff. I AM good at: funny faces, jokes about poo, cooking, and locating Lego figures’ missing heads. I am the proud parent of two small boys, look:

This is Childe The First. He likes knights, castles, and Lego (good lad). He also likes refusing to eat anything cooked in sauce (don’t ask).

This is Childe The Second. He likes breaking stuff, climbing on stuff, and jumping off stuff. He also likes all food ever, particularly if someone else is eating it.

This is where I live. Well, pretty near – we are fortunate to be surrounded by huge areas of natural beauty here in Cheshire; Peak District National Park in one direction, the Lake District in the other. We are just a couple of miles from Alderley Edge, home of Alan Garner.

There is also Mr Wilde, but he can’t have his likeness displayed anywhere on the Internet or it messes with the portrait of him in the attic.

I have won NaNoWriMo twice, in 2005 and 2006. I attempted it in 2011, but circumstances conspired against me and I only managed 34000 words. All three drafts are languishing somewhere on the hard drive of my PC, as I am far too scared to dig them out and read through them; the first two are actually 0ne long novel set on some desolate part of the North Cornish coast in the distant past. Last year’s effort was/is a reworking of the story of Tam Lin, from a contemporary perspective; I am plotting a blog post about this in the near future, if I can cobble it together from the mess that is my Bookmarks folder…

And on that note, I am going to be brave and hit ‘Publish’, and hope that this tangent doesn’t sit too awkwardly with the rest of Mynd And Mist. Thanks for reading!

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