Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part One

Black Bull of Norroway oneJohn D. Batten

Queen’s Walk

Duckworth and I stroll along the banks of the Thames, following the Queen’s Walk on this mild November day. Rowing on the river might be a bit too cold; therefore we opt for a walk along the South Bank. We intend to take the full walk from Tower Bridge to Lambeth Bridge.

“Well,” says Duckworth, “What sort of disconcerting, confusing, and questionable diatribes have you been inflicting upon your granddaughter of late?”

I hear the bait, but bite for the sake of conversation. “I only read fairy tales to her.”

“Isn’t that what I said?” Duckworth grins.

We pass the lopsided, glassy ball of City Hall. “The Black Bull of Norroway, last night. I am fond of Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales. That one is Scottish, actually.”

“Almost not English,” muses Duckworth. “Tell me of this tale.”

There are three sisters and the eldest asks her mother to bake her a bannock and roast her collop because she is going off to seek her fortune.”

“Wait,” says Duckworth, “a girl going off to seek her fortune? Only sons do that.”

“Shush,” I say, “do you want to hear the story?” Duckworth rolls his eyes and I continue.

The sister goes to the old witch washerwife for advice.

“Who?”

“Shush.”

The washerwife tells her to stay and watch out the back door. On the third day the sister sees a coach drawn by six horses that takes her away.

The second sister follows suit and is taken away by a coach with four horses.

The third sister gets the bannock and collop, and advice from the washerwife, but is taken away by a black bull.

“Dear me,” says Duckworth.

Beside us I see the imposing shape of the HMS Belfast anchored along the banks of the Thames.

At the bull’s instruction, she sustains herself by drawing food from his right ear and drink from his left.

“What?” says Duckworth. I glare at him and continue.

The girl and the bull travel In turn to three castles ruled over by the bull’s three human brothers. At each castle she is given a gift, one of an apple, another a pear, and last a plum, which she is not to “break” until she is in dire straits.

Then they travel to a glen, where the bull tells her to wait, not move an inch, while he goes to battle the Old One.

“Who?”

I ignore him.

If she moves at all, he will not be able to find her on his return. He also says that if all about her turns blue, then he has defeated the Old One. If all turns red, then he, the bull, has been conquered.

This she does until all turns blue and her foot moves in a reflex of joy for her friend’s victory, but now the bull cannot find her.

Duckworth and I approach London Bridge on our ramble.

At length she wanders until she comes to the glass mountain. She cannot get over it until she serves seven years to a blacksmith, who will then forge iron shoes for her that will grip the glass of the mountain.

She comes to the house of a washerwife.

“Hold on, the same washerwife as at the start of the story?”

“The story does not say.”

Duckworth sighs.

The washerwife and her daughter are trying to wash out the blood on the clothes of a gallant knight, who will marry the one to accomplish the task. Failing to remove the stains, they give the clothes to the girl for whom the work is easily done.

Of course, the washerwife claims it is her daughter who did the deed and it is she who should marry the knight.

The girl now breaks open the fruits that hold much treasure, which she uses to bribe the daughter to let her into the knight’s bedchamber. This goes on for two nights, the washerwife drugging the knight so that he does not hear the girl’s pleas. It is not until the third night, after the knight has gotten wind of what is happening, that he stays awake. The knight then has the washerwife and her daughter burnt, and marries the girl.

“Are you kidding?” Duckworth exclaims.

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Two

Black Bull of Norroway twoJohn D. Batten

Strolling On

Passing by Southwark Cathedral, we wind our way toward the Globe Theatre.

“Let me get a few things straight,” Duckworth insists. “First, three sisters go off to make their way in the world. I think that unseemly for young women at the time. I’ll let that pass, but what happened to the eldest sisters?”

“They rode off in coaches. I’m sure they did fine.”

“Why were they in the story? Isn’t every element of a story there to propel the story forward?”

“You are talking about literary fairy tales. The traditional tales are of a different order. Yet, I feel the sequence of events—the first two sisters getting a free ride as it were—marks the youngest sister as special, having to struggle for her husband, giving their union greater value.”

“OK,” says Duckworth, “what about the bull?”

“Well, females abducted by bulls may start with the Greek myth of Europa being kidnapped by Zeus in the form of a white bull, but a closer relative, I think, is East of the Sun, West of the Moon, where the  youngest sister is taken away by a great white bear.”

“Hmm,” Duckworth looks thoughtful for a moment. “Is this the Beauty-and-the-Beast thing?”

“Not exactly, in my opinion. The beast is a monster, at least outwardly. The bull is a common enough animal, but one with a mission.”

“Ah, yes, his fight with the Old One. Who is he?” Duckworth asks.

“We can only guess. My guess is that the name is a euphemism for the devil, though there is nothing particularly Christian in the gloss of this story. One could suggest this is a reflection of the bull of the Mithra religion fighting with the state religion of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think the folk memory concerns itself with such politics.”

I feel a certain thrill as we pass the Shakespeare’s Globe. The Tate Modern, in contrast, comes into sight.

“Nonetheless,” I continue, “bulls have a special place in both Greek and Roman mythology, the vestige of which turns up in the Spanish bull fights. You’ve heard of the running of the bulls, haven’t you? That moment when we allow them to try and kill us?”

“Not my cup of tea, thank you, but what about this red, blue, disappearing thing? How do you explain that?”

“I don’t have a coherent explanation for that.”

“Do you have an incoherent explanation?” Duckworth knows me.

“Well, call me crazy, but I am thinking of the astronomical red shift and blue shift. Red shift occurs when an astronomer sees a star moving away. The waveband is stretching out and appears red. If the star moves toward the astronomer, then the waveband length is shorter and the light appears blue.

“Not that red and blue are opposites on the color wheel, but in this case they are opposed. Did some storyteller sense this and apply it to victory and defeat?”

Duckworth takes out his cellphone, stabs at it, and talks. “Insane asylums near me.”

“No wait, my notion gets a little worse to be honest, when it comes to the bull not being able to find the girl after she moves. That brings to mind the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat, which addresses the idea that, at the subatomic level, a particle may and/or may not exist at the same time. That is to say, there and not there. That does describe the bull’s problem after the girl moves her foot. She is there and not there when the bull tries to find her. He, unfortunately, exists in the ‘not there’ state and the story goes on to the next stage.”

We walk through the shadow of the Oxo Tower as Duckworth contemplates my words, then addresses his cell again. “Requirements for commitment.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Three

Black Bull of Norroway threeAbundance   Peter Paul Reuben

Another Stroll

On my own walk into the Magic Forest, I make for the Glass Mountain. As I hoped, Old Rink Rank sits on a crystal ledge, barely above my head, his thin, long shanks dangling down.

“Good day to you,” I offer.

He eyes me with a hoary brow raised.

“May I ask a question or two?” I propose.

“I have no answers,” Rink Rank scowls.

“Do you recall a girl scaling your mountain with iron shoes.”

“Which one? Happened a number of times.”

“Her dear friend was the Bull of Norroway.”

“Oh, her. Think I remember. Lived happily ever after, didn’t she.” I note his devilish grin.

“I am not sure that distinguishes her. Nonetheless, as she rode on the bull’s back, she pulled food from his right ear and drink from his left. How does that work?”

“How should I know? The storytellers assigned me to this glass mountain. They didn’t make me a cowherd. How do you think it works? That’s the question.”

“Well, the image that jumps to mind is the cornucopia. Now, I know that the horn of plenty is a goat’s horn, but the baby Zeus was raised by a goat, actually a goat-goddess. In play, he broke off one of her horns, which then had the power of unending nourishment.

“In another story, Zeus, as a bull, abducts Europa. The Bull of Norroway carries off our heroine and produces food and drink from his ears, which, of course, are next to his horns.

“My logic might be thin, but I think there is a thread that runs through my reasoning. What do you think?”

Rink Rank reaches into his pocket and pulls out what looks like a cellphone and speaks. “Insane asylum near me.”

“Oh, cut that out!”

Rink Rank’s wicked grin broadens as the cellphone appears to dissolve into thin air. Yet I push on.

“There is also the washerwife. She is at the beginning as a helper and later on as the antagonist. My friend Duckworth questioned if they were the same person. I had no answer.”

“And how should I know?” Rink Rank fumes. “You’re the one reading or listening to the story. If you think they are the same washerwife then they are. I’m just a figment of your imagination, just like you’re the figment of someone else’s imagination.”

“What?” I exclaim, “I am not the figment of anyone’s imagination any more than you are.”

“Oh, you don’t think so?” There’s that devilish grim again. He is trying to distract me from my point.

“And the Bull of Norroway and the gallant knight, are they the same person?”

Rink Rank slaps his forehead. “What do you think?”

“I want to hear it from you!” I all but scream.

“I told you, I have no answers. Of course we tales don’t tell you everything. Those answers are yours to find out or make up. That’s your part, your role in the story.”

He settles his back up against the glass mountain with the air of having given his final say.

I am not sure I should believe him.

Your thoughts?

 

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2019 Buried Moon – Part One

Buried Moon oneJohn D. Batten

Halloween Moon

Melissa’s taking Thalia Halloweening has become a tradition. Thalia’s mother does not mind not participating. The materialistic, food-related aspects of holidays are not to her liking. In her view, the spiritual value of the “holy days” is being sublimated by corporal concerns. I say any excuse for eating food is valid.

I build up the fire in the hearth as I hear them coming down the hallway. They enter my study, Melissa donning her witches hat and cape in keeping with the spirit of Halloween, and Thalia decked out as a Christmas Tree in her purposeful attempt at confusing the seasons.

Thalia plunks down in front of the hearth, her lower branches forming a ring around her, emptying her loot bag on the floor and sifting through her booty. I can see what a haul she made: Lion Bars, Aero Bars, Drumstick Squashies, Tunnock’s Snowballs, Maltesers, Mighty Fine Honeycomb Bars, Walker’s Assorted Toffees, Refreshers, Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, and Fry’s Turkish Delights.

Melissa returns from my bookshelves with a copy of Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales and settles herself into my companion comfy chair.

The Buried Moon,” she pronounces. Thalia looks up from munching on a Drumstick Squashy.

In Carrland, along the Ancholme River, were black pools and bogs. When the Moon did not shine, out came Things, Bogles, and Crawling Horrors. The Moon, when she learned what happened while she rested, wanted to see for herself.

At month’s end, covered in a black cloak, she entered the bog.

Thalia reaches for a Turkish Delight.

Traveling through the treacherous bog, the Moon slipped, nearly falling into a black pool, and grasped at a black snag to save herself. Vines wrapped themselves around her wrists.

At that same moment, some poor man came following a will-o’-the-wisp toward his death. As the Moon struggled, her black hood fell from her head, emitting light. The man could then see where the true path lay, and with a cry of joy, headed for it, saving himself.

Thalia picked up a Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles while staring at Melissa.

Continuing her struggle, the exhausted Moon collapsed, allowing the hood to again cover her head. The Things, Bogles, and Crawling Horrors approached and abused her, arguing how to kill her until dawn broke. They placed a large coffin-shaped stone upon her to push her down into the bog, leaving a will-o’-the-wisp to guard.

Anticipating a new moon, the people put pennies in their pockets and a straw in their cap. But when the new moon did not appear, they went to the wise woman who lived in the old mill. She looked in her brewpot, mirror, and book, but had no answer. She advised them to listen and tell her what they heard.

Thalia engaged a Mighty Fine Honeycomb Bar without breaking eye contact.

The whereabouts of the Moon became the talk of all the homes, farmyards, and pubs. In one of the pubs, the man who had been lost in the bog saw the light, one might say, and told of his experience.

This the people related to the Wise Woman. She told them to put a stone in their mouths, take a hazel twig in their hands, and say not a word as they walked into the marsh looking for a coffin, a cross, and a candle.

Full of trepidation, this they did, and found the coffin-shaped stone, the black snag roughly in the shape of a cross, and the  will-o’-the-wisp as the candle. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer silently to themselves—forwards and backwards—they pushed aside the stone, and the Moon sprung back into the sky, lighting their way home.

Thalia’s eyes filled with delight as she wrapped her fingers around a Tunnock’s Snowball.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2019 The Buried Moon – Part Two

Buried Moon two 17th cent17th Century chart of the moon

Mrs. Balfour

“Where does that story come from?” I ask after has Thalia sated her sweet-tooth and wandered off to bed.

“Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales,” she smiles with deviltry while taking a sip of wine.

“I know that. Who did he get it from?”

“That’s an interesting little history. The tale, also called Dead Moon, comes from Lincolnshire, collected by Marie Clothilde Balfour—related to Robert Lewis Stevenson, by the way—when she lived there in the late 1880’s. She collected a number of tales and submitted them to Folk-Lore, the journal of the Foklore Society.

“There were a couple of problems. First, she wrote the stories out attempting to mimic the Lincolnshire dialect. That made for hard reading. Second, when her fellow folklorists did figure out the stories, they doubted the tales’ authenticity given their unusual construction. “

“True,” I say taking a sip of wine. “This story at least doesn’t have the usual feel of a fairy tale.”

“Mrs. Balfour called them Legends of Lincolnshire; actually, legends of the Carrs, basically the bogs and fenlands of the area, but they are not really legends either.”

“I am guessing,” I nod, “Joseph Jacobs respected her work.”

“Yes, but he did apologize to her for taking them out of the dialect and turning them into plain English. There are a number of her works in More English Fairy Tales. Let’s see, My Own Self, Yallery Brown, The Hedley Kow, Tattercoats, Coat O’ Clay, A Pottle O’ Brains, I know there are others.”

“You’ve done your research,” I comment with another sip of wine.

“Yes, I have. This story raised my suspicions about its authenticity as it did for others.

“Mrs. Balfour states she collected the tale from a nine-year-old crippled girl named Fanny, who heard it from her grandmother. Mrs. Balfour comments she couldn’t help feeling her informant engaged her youthful girl’s imagination to help flesh out the details.

“Also, Mrs. Balfour described her recording process as taking notes, then writing the tale down in full the next day or soon after.”

“Hmmm,” I tap my fingers together, “plenty of time for interference, even subconsciously, to enter the story, turning it more toward literary forms.”

“She was an author in her own right.” Melissa agrees, finishing her glass. “I am not going to doubt her, at least not her honesty and good intent. If, when her hand came to the pen, she could not help but bend the words she heard to her liking and understanding, I will forgive her.”

I refill Melissa’s glass and top off my own. “For argument’s sake, let us say The Buried Moon is authentic. Is it some vestige of a moon worship mythology?”

Melissa takes off her witches’ hat, not realizing she still wore it. “We cannot dismiss the notion, but where is there a parallel tale of humans freeing the moon? I believe I have come across moon goddesses being abducted by other gods, but this is different. Here there is a symbiotic relationship between the moon and the people of the fenland. It smacks of legend or mythology, but comes out of nowhere with no parentage, hence, the professional folklorists’ suspicions.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2019 The Buried Moon – Part Three

Buried Moon three poppy

Superstitious Stuff

I add another log to the fire.

“Then there is the wise woman who lives in the old mill, who advises the people to seek the moon with a stone in their mouths, a hazel twig in their hands, and to speak not a word. How do we take that apart?”

“Well,” Melissa considers, staring at her wine, “the wise woman is a common enough trope, but residing in ‘the old mill’ is more specific than usual.

“The stone in the mouth may be an aid in not speaking while they search. A large stone in the mouths of buried corpses is a protection against vampires rising from the grave, but I think in this case we are talking about pebbles.

“The hazel twig is well known for its mystic attributes. Magical wands are often made of hazel wood, but here I think they may act as dowsing rods.

“Dowsing rods? Why would they be looking for water?”

“Oh, the dowsing rod can be used to locate other things, buried treasure, and maybe buried moons.”

“And the injunction against speaking?”

“Again, I don’t know. Saying the Lord’s Prayer forwards and backwards I found interesting as well.”

I raise my glass. “And let’s not forget the people putting pennies in their pockets and straw in their caps.”

“That I can explain,” Melissa exclaims. “It’s a bit of magic tied to the moon’s waxing, getting bigger. The idea is that the pennies in your pocket will increase along with the moon, as well as the straw—your harvest.”

“I like that. And the wise woman’s brew pot, mirror, and book?” I ask.

Melissa deflates a little. “These items pop-up in fairy tales, but I’ve never heard them put together like this before. It does indicate the wise woman deals in magical arts. White magic I will assume.

“To make matters a little worse, in Joseph Jacobs’ rewriting of the tale, he left out the wise woman also telling the people to put salt, straw, and a button on their door-sill to keep the Horrors from crossing over the threshold.”

I shake my head. “This tale is full of peasant superstitions.”

“One more thing,” Melissa says, finishing the bottle off into our glasses. “In my deep-dive into this story, I discovered Maureen James’s paper on the Carrs’ legends. The work is pretty exhaustive of the whole scene in which Mrs. Balfour operated.

“One of the factors that James covered is the extensive use of opium by the Lincolnshire inhabitants. The Fens and Carrs were unhealthy places, given to ague, poverty, and rheumatism. Opium provided some cure and comfort. Mothers used opium to quiet their babies. Man would put a little into their beer. Opium, especially in the form of laudanum, was fairly cheap and available at the chemist’s shop, not to mention the poppies being grown in their gardens to make poppyhead tea.

“If they were seeing Things, Bogles, and Crawling Horrors on dark nights in the bogs, I am not surprised.”

I contemplate that thought as our fire dies down.

Your thoughts?