Monday, November 19, 2018

Land of legends (Following folktales around the world 92. - Northern Ireland)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!


Armagh Folk Tales
Frances Quinn
The History Press, 2014.

Because I do this challenge by political and not cultural borders, I get to read two books of Irish folktales. Yay! This first one is by storyteller Frances Quinn, whom I heard personally tell some of these stories last year, on location (a treat!). The book collects fifty stories from County Armagh, including some very famous classic Irish legends that have connections to Ulster. All of them are researched and retold by an excellent storyteller, and make an exciting read. The book has no notes or bibliography, but it does preface every story with sources and origin. Chapters are themed by story types, from legends through anecdotes to local lore.

Highlights


Many famous Irish legends have connections to Armagh. Emain Macha (Navan Fort), legendary home of the Ulster kings and heroes falls inside the boundaries of the country, so technically any story of the Ulster cycle could fit within this book. Many of them did, starting with the Twins of Macha, a woman who was forced to run a race with the king's horses while heavily pregnant, won, gave birth to twins, and then cursed the men of Ulster to have birthing pains whenever they were attacked (best curse in legend and lore). Another Macha, Macha Mongrúad was also a fierce woman, winning herself a kingdom and keeping it against all odds.
Talking about Ulster heroes, of course there are several legends in the book that feature Cú Chulainn (including the one about how he won his name). Similarly famous are the Children of Lir (who spend 900 years changed into swans), and Deirdre of the Sorrows, probably the most famous tragic love story in Ireland. To my delight, there was even a Fianna story, the Hunt on Slieve Gullion - last year, when we visited Armagh with the FEST conference, I got to climb the mountain and see the setting of that story for myself. Another member of the Fianna, Oisín, also made an appearance, helping Saint Patrick fight off a raging bull and find a place to build the cathedral of Armagh.
I have always liked the story of Fergus Mac Leide, which is the earliest known mention of leprechauns. This book's version had a different opening than the one I was familiar with, but it did end the same way: With the king in his water-walking shoes encountering a monster under a lake... I also got to read about the mermaid Liban (who became St. Murigen later on), and Black Pig Dyke, which was created when a bad teacher was cursed into a wild boar by a parent, and tore up the countryside. The most disturbing legend, however, was that of the Hungry grass, which grows on the graves of people who died in the Famine, and makes unsuspecting people starve to death.

Connections

I encountered yet another story that I knew from a local Hungarian version by my grandpa (the tale of bringing candles to the church to count sins). I have also read variants of "Lived once buried twice" from several countries - the tale of the wife who is woken up in the grave when a robber tries to cut her ring finger off. This book had two different versions of it, one of them from 1705.
There were, of course, sleeping knights (here associated with Black Pig Dyke and the end of the world), and many, many fairy legends - stolen women, nighttime dances, fair midwives, and changelings. My favorite text, however, was from a folklorist who overheard local people talking about him, and wrote the conversation down - the two fellows concluded in the end that the strange collector must be a fae himself.

Where to next?
Republic of Ireland!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Fairies, heroes, wizards (Following folktales around the world 91. - Scotland)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!


The Penguin Book of Scottish Folktales
Neil Philip
Penguin Books, 1995.

Yet another folklore classic, with notes, sources, tale types, and a world of information. It represents various aspects of Scottish oral tradition; the 112 tales are grouped into chapters by region (Highlands and Lowlands), as well as story types (historical stories, anecdotes, fairy legends, etc.). The long introduction talks about tale type indexes, the features of oral storytelling, Scottish tradition, and even the roles of male and female tellers. Each story comes with sources, type numbers, and the teller's name. Many texts were written out phonetically, which made it harder for me to follow, and often I had to read them out loud to understand the words, but it was worth it. I found quite a few great stories in this book.

Highlights


Kate Crackernuts
Some of my favorite Scottish folktales are featured in the book - for example Kate Crackernuts, with a heroine who saves a prince and also helps her stepsister (in a sort of reverse "dancing princesses" story); or Mally Whuppie, who repeatedly outwits a giant to save herself and her sisters. The latter also had a Highland variant, called Maol a Chliobain.
I really liked Maraiche Mairneal, the Weatherwise Mariner, who was not even the protagonist in his own story; the hero was a prince who had a snake twisted around his body, and in order to find the women who could help him get rid of it, he had to enlist the help of an old, blind mariner. All was well in the end. The story of The widow's son and the king's daughter took an unexpected turn when the hero, in order to defeat a fire-breathing dragon, got a camel, filled it up with water, and made it spew water at the flames of the dragon. Similarly unexpected was the story of The man in the boat, a version of "the man who had no story", in which said man was spirited away by a boat, turned into a woman, married, had children, and then got back on the same night - and now he had quite the story to tell. Teenagers love this story.
I was delighted to find quite a few Fianna legends in the book. Finn in the land of Big Men was familiar; I even have a version of it in my own book. Finn and the Grey Dog is also an old favorite of mine; I knew it from Rosemary Sutcliff's collection, but it was great to find the folk text as well. There was a variant of the Hostel of the Quicken Trees (here the Yellow Field), where the Fianna warriors get stuck to their chairs in an enchanted house, and the younger generation has to rescue them. And of course there was a story about Oisín (Ossian), after the Fianna.

Michael Scott's tomb
There were some fascinating historical legends as well. One was about the last of the Picts, and how father and son took the secret of the heather ale with them to the grave. I encountered Sir James Ramsay of Bamff, a legendary doctor with magical abilities, and Michael Scott, one of the most famous wizards in European lore (both were features in my book on superpowers).
Among the fairy legends, I really liked Black Lad MacCrimmon and the Banshee, where the fairy asked the piper lad if he wanted success without talent, or talent without success. He chose the latter.

Connections


A Fekete Bika képregény- változata (Image Comics)
There were quite a few classic tale types in the book, such as Mother killed me, father ate me; Cinderella; Beauty and the Beast (here the Black Bull of Norroway); Magic Flights (Green Sleeves); Frog Bride; The hunchback and the fairies; Clever Maiden; Water of Life (here with a friendly bear); Firebird (here with a friendly fox); and even Raven brothers (here with shirts made from bog cotton). There was a Scottish Frog Prince who had to be beheaded with an axe, rather than kissed. Rumpelstiltskin here was a woman named Whoppity Stoorie, and Frau Holle's tale was called The well at the end of the world (one of my storyteller friends recently released a CD with the Appalachian version of this).
I was reminded of other European wizards by Donald Duibheal Mackay who had not shadow, and other European tales by the Humble-bee that flew from the mouth of a sleeping person, and had dream-like adventures.
There were familiar Münchhausen tales among the anecdotes, such as the servant who ate one leg of the goose (known from the Decameron, and also my own grandfather), or the Mare's egg.
Of course I found sleeping knights, waiting for their king to appear; and there was also a Polyphemus story, but instead of blinded cyclops here it featured a blinded fairy (Tam M'Kechan).
The fairy legends were full of familiar motifs: Dance in the fairy hill, fairy midwife, changelings, wife kidnapped by fairies (who then had to choose between two husbands), and mortal traveling with fairies (Hurrah for Kintail!). There was also a selkie and an evil mermaid.
As for tricksters, we had George Buchanan, the king's clever fool.

Where to next?
Northern Ireland!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Arthur, Merlin, and the Fair Family (Following folktales around the world 90. - Wales)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

The Welsh Fairy Book
W. Jenkyn Thomas
F. A. Stokes, 1908.

This old volume contains a treasure trove of eighty-four Welsh fairy tales. They were collected by a teacher who wanted to make sure that his Welsh students could read stories from their own culture. The language of the tales is eloquent and entertaining, and many tale types repeat based on different places where they are said to have taken place. They are connected to the Welsh landscape - lakes, mountains, towns. Many of the names are difficult for the non-Welsh reader, but Thomas provides a handy pronounciation guide at the beginning of the book. I was delighted to discover that the original volume had been illustrated by Willy Pogány, an artist of Hungarian descent.

Highlights

The drowning of the Bottom Hundred is an eerie legend about a kingdom protected by levees and devoured by a flood after the people whose job it was to keep everything in good shape neglected their duties. It is a very exciting, elaborate story with appealing characters such as a brave princess and a clever minstrel. Floods happened fairly often in these stories; another captivating yet dark legend was that of the Swallowed Court, where a king swapped his elderly wife for a fair young maiden, just to find out too late that the maiden was his old wife who had made a dark deal to regain her youth.
The curse of Pantannas was a story of truma passed down through the generations. A farmer plowed a fairy ring, but when the Fair Folk threatened him hi begged for the punishment to be passed down to his descendants instead. Generations later his descendant Madoc was stolen away on his wedding day, and only appeared again decades later, when all his loved ones were dead. Another tale, titled The ancients of the world, spanned a similarly long time: An ancient eagle wanted to marry someone who matched him in age, so he visited the other ancient creatures of the world until he found an Owl who was older than all of them.
Most of the book is taken up by various fairy legends. One of the most interesting was Elidyr's sojourn to Fairyland, from which we find out that fairies eat saffron milk, never lie, and their language is related to ancient Greek. Next to the fairies we also encounter the Pwca, a mischievous and dangerous trickster creature, and also some witches, in some cases a whole town of them (Goronwy Tudor and the witches of Llanddona).
The book also features some of the most famous Welsh legends, such as the origin of the Red Dragon as a symbol of Wales (along with Merlin's origin story), the tale of Gelert the faithful hound, and the Mantle of Beards, in which King Arthur kills Rhitta Gawr, who collects beards from defeated kings. I was also familiar with the story of Hu Gadarn, who, with the help of a maiden, saves his people from the water monster called Afanc.


Connections

If there is a country that can claim to be them home of the most Sleeping Knights, Wales is probably it. The knights of King Arthur are said to be asleep under various mountains, waiting to be called back to help their people. Of course the fairy legends followed familiar types: There were several fairy midwives with ointment in their eyes (e.g. Lowri Dafydd), changelings that had to be tricked (e.g. the Changeling of Llanfabon), and people who got lost in Fairyland and only returned years later. Even the Open, Sesame tale type featured fairies instead of thieves, whose secret world opened with a Fairy Password.
Some other familiar tale types were also featured in the book, such as Rumpelstiltskin (here the name was Sili go Dwt), or Cricket the false seer (here named Black Robin). Among the classic Welsh tales there was the King with horse's ears (just like the Greek King Midas), and also a surprise appearance from the White Woman whom I have not seen since South America. But the story that made me the happiest was that of Why the robin's breast is red, which echoes one of my favorite American folktales, about birds bringing water to Hell to ease the suffering.

Where to next?
Scotland!