Thursday, June 25, 2015

Folklore Thursday: A mosaic of stories

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One of my favorite things to do as a storyteller? Looking up several versions of the same tale, and building my own from them. It is kind of like a make-your-own ice cream thing.

One of the stories I am working with recently is most commonly known as The Black Thief and the Knight of the Glen. It belongs to Aarne-Thompson folktale type 953 ("Old robber tells three stories"), and I have managed to find about a dozen different versions of it, most of them from Scotland and Ireland. Interestingly enough the story also shows up in the Grimm Fairy Tales, but it was edited out after the 6th edition (it was No. 191 until then).

The story in a nutshell: Three young men and an old thief are caught trying to steal a king's horse. They are about to be burned alive for their crime. In order to save the lads, the old thief tells the king that he has been in a worse situation before. The king promises that if it's true, one of the lads can go free. The old thief tells outrageous stories about his close brushes with death; each story gets more hair-raising and exciting, and after each, one of the lads is let go. After the last story, which involves saving a baby from a giant, the king realizes that the child the old thief saved was no other than himself, and lets everyone go free with gifts and good wishes.

There are many things to love about this story, and it is a lot of fun to tell. In order to show some of my build-a-story process, here are some details:

1. The protagonist is known as the Black Thief, Red Conall, Conal Yellowclaw, or the Byzantine Brigand in different sources. In my version, I call him Red Conall, the Byzantine Brigand, because his red hair is an important plot point in the story, and "Byzantine Brigand" just sounds too awesome not to include.

2. In some versions the three lads are Conall's own sons whom he tries to keep away from becoming robbers themselves (Conall himself reformed in his old age). In other versions they are three princes sent on a quest by an evil queen. While both versions carry a lot of emotional weight and possibilities, I tell the second one, because an old, wandering former master-thief taking three exiled princes under his wings is just too interesting to pass up. He definitely becomes a father figure that is willing to sacrifice his own life to save the lads.

3. The three stories told by Conall are varied across the board. One of them is often a version of the "Blinding the Cyclops" episode from the Odyssey. I left that one in since it is exciting, and also intriguing that it shows up in an Irish folktale. I especially like that according to Conall, he and his companions went into the Cyclops' cave because they wanted to rob it. Conall talks about his former exploits of thieving and robbery with pride, even if they went horribly wrong in the end. He used to be the best of the best, after all.

4. You can never quite tell how much of Conall's stories are true, and how much he is making up on the spot. The last story usually includes a physical sign - he saves the baby's life by cutting off a little finger, and that's how the king knows it was himself, since he is missing a finger too. I like to imagine that Conall just looked at the king, saw the missing finger, and took a chance on it. It is never said in the story when I tell it, but kind of implied, that Conall is just pulling a Scheherazade, making up tales on the fly in desperation to save the princes' lives. You have to be an awesome storyteller to get away with that three times in a row.
(Scheherazade at least always had a day to think ahead...)

Anyhow, fun story, many possibilities. I really enjoyed assembling my favorite version.

Here is a short list of some of my sources:

Johannes Bolte & Georg Polívka: Anmerkungen zu den Kinder- u. Hausmärchen der Brüder
Grimm, 1913. (Der Rauber und seine Söhne)
Italo Calvino: Italian folktales, 1992. (Three Tales by Three Sons of Three Merchants)
J.F. Campbell: Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol. 1, 1890. (Conall Cra Bhuidhe)
J.L. Campbell: Stories from South Uist, 1961. (The Byzantine Brigand)
Wilson M. Hudson: Tire Shrinker to Dragster, 1968. (An Gadaí Dubh: The Black Thief)
Joseph Jacobs: Celtic Fairy Tales, 1892. (Conal Yellowclaw)
Andrew Lang: The Red Fairy Book, 1890. (The Black Thief and the Knight of the Glen)

William Thackeray: The Irish Sketch Book, 1843. (The Black Thief of Sloan)


  1. I enjoyed reading this, Csenge, and marvel at your talent for telling these old & complicated tales. I'm working on expanding Princess Szelike from your book, adding a little Hungarian (Mi a szakma? was the easiest to pronounce translation of What's your trade? that I found) I appreciate having you as a resource! :)

    1. "Mi a foglalkozásod?" means "What's your trade?" You could also say "Mihez értesz?" which means "What can you do / What are you skilled at?"

  2. Sounds like a really fun story. I do like the idea of it being the father trying to save his sons. It has more emotional weight. :)

  3. That sounds like incredibly fun research--finding all the similarities of a story and sculpting your own. Story gold mines. :)

  4. Sounds like a fantastic story. I do like the idea of this man having such wit and courage to conjure up three probably untrue stories and save the life of people, putting his own to risk. That's really selfless and generous.

    I don't think I've ever heard this tory, though I'm quite familiar with Irish lore. I'll seek it out :-)

  5. If you can't use umlauts with your websitee, it would be better to transcribe ä as ae, ö s oe and ü as ue, since simply using a,o and u will result in a word that is pronounced differently and can sometimes lead to the word changing meaning, while ae, oe and ue, while uncommon are accepted and generally understood ways to transcribe umlauts