Saturday, February 27, 2016
An Irish Fairy Tale
My favorite fairy tale comes from The Celtic Twilight, by W. B. Yeats, a book I read many years ago for a college course on "Folklore in Literature." In a chapter titled, “Dreams That Have No Moral,” Yeats relates the following story, “just as it was told” by an old man in an Irish workhouse. He describes it as “one of those old rambling moralless tales, which are the delight of the poor and the hard driven, wherever life is left in its natural simplicity.”
If you are looking for leprechauns, you won't find them in this story. What you will find is a crazy quilt of familiar fairy tale themes, imbued with distinctively Irish whimsy. It's not the sort of story that Disney would ever do, but I would love to see what Tim Burton might make of it.
There was a king one time who was very much put out because he had no son, and he went at last to consult his chief adviser. And the chief adviser said, 'It's easy enough managed if you do as I tell you. Let you send some one,' says he, 'to such a place to catch a fish. And when the fish is brought in, give it to the queen, your wife, to eat.'
So the king sent as he was told, and the fish was caught and brought in, and he gave it to the cook, and bade her put it before the fire, but to be careful with it, and not to let any blob or blister rise on it. But it is impossible to cook a fish before the fire without the skin of it rising in some place or other, and so there came a blob on the skin, and the cook put her finger on it to smooth it down, and then she put her finger into her mouth to cool it, and so she got a taste of the fish. And then it was sent up to the queen, and she ate it, and what was left of it was thrown out into the yard, and there was a mare in the yard and a greyhound, and they ate the bits that were thrown out.
And before a year was out, the queen had a young son, and the cook had a young son, and the mare had two foals, and the greyhound had two pups.
And the two young sons were sent out for a while to some place to be cared, and when they came back they were so much like one another no person could know which was the queen's son and which was the cook's. And the queen was vexed at that, and she went to the chief adviser and said, 'Tell me some way that I can know which is my own son, for I don't like to be giving the same eating and drinking to the cook's son as to my own.' 'It is easy to know that,' said the chief adviser, 'if you will do as I tell you. Go you outside, and stand at the door they will be coming in by, and when they see you, your own son will bow his head, but the cook's son will only laugh.'
So she did that, and when her own son bowed his head, her servants put a mark on him that she would know him again. And when they were all sitting at their dinner after that, she said to Jack, that was the cook's son, 'It is time for you to go away out of this, for you are not my son.' And her own son, that we will call Bill, said, 'Do not send him away, are we not brothers?' But Jack said, 'I would have been long ago out of this house if I knew it was not my own father and mother owned it.' And for all Bill could say to him, he would not stop. But before he went, they were by the well that was in the garden, and he said to Bill, 'If harm ever happens to me, that water on the top of the well will be blood, and the water below will be honey.'
Then he took one of the pups, and one of the two horses, that was foaled after the mare eating the fish, and the wind that was after him could not catch him, and he caught the wind that was before him. And he went on till he came to a weaver's house, and he asked him for a lodging, and he gave it to him. And then he went on till he came to a king's house, and he sent in at the door to ask, 'Did he want a servant?' 'All I want,' said the king, 'is a boy that will drive out the cows to the field every morning, and bring them in at night to be milked.' 'I will do that for you,' said Jack; so the king engaged him.
In the morning Jack was sent out with the four-and-twenty cows, and the place he was told to drive them to had not a blade of grass in it for them, but was full of stones. So Jack looked about for some place where there would be better grass, and after a while he saw a field with good green grass in it, and it belonging to a giant. So he knocked down a bit of the wall and drove them in, and he went up himself into an apple-tree and began to eat the apples. Then the giant came into the field. 'Fee-faw-fum,' says he, 'I smell the blood of an Irishman. I see you where you are, up in the tree,' he said; 'you are too big for one mouthful, and too small for two mouthfuls, and I don't know what I'll do with you if I don't grind you up and make snuff for my nose.' 'As you are strong, be merciful,' says Jack up in the tree. 'Come down out of that, you little dwarf,' said the giant, 'or I'll tear you and the tree asunder.' So Jack came down. 'Would you sooner be driving red-hot knives into one another's hearts,' said the giant, 'or would you sooner be fighting one another on red-hot flags?' 'Fighting on red-hot flags is what I'm used to at home,' said Jack, 'and your dirty feet will be sinking in them and my feet will be rising.' So then they began the fight. The ground that was hard they made soft, and the ground that was soft they made hard, and they made spring wells come up through the green flags. They were like that all through the day, no one getting the upper hand of the other, and at last a little bird came and sat on the bush and said to Jack, 'If you don't make an end of him by sunset, he'll make an end of you.' Then Jack put out his strength, and he brought the giant down on his knees. 'Give me my life,' says the giant, 'and I'll give you the three best gifts.' 'What are those?' said Jack. 'A sword that nothing can stand against, and a suit that when you put it on, you will see everybody, and nobody will see you, and a pair of shoes that will make you ran faster than the wind blows.' 'Where are they to be found?' said Jack. 'In that red door you see there in the hill.' So Jack went and got them out. 'Where will I try the sword?' says he. 'Try it on that ugly black stump of a tree,' says the giant. 'I see nothing blacker or uglier than your own head,' says Jack. And with that he made one stroke, and cut off the giant's head that it went into the air, and he caught it on the sword as it was coming down, and made two halves of it. 'It is well for you I did not join the body again,' said the head, 'or you would have never been able to strike it off again.' 'I did not give you the chance of that,' said Jack. And he brought away the great suit with him.
So he brought the cows home at evening, and every one wondered at all the milk they gave that night. And when the king was sitting at dinner with the princess, his daughter, and the rest, he said, 'I think I only hear two roars from beyond to-night in place of three.'
The next morning Jack went out again with the cows, and he saw another field full of grass, and he knocked down the wall and let the cows in. All happened the same as the day before, but the giant that came this time had two heads, and they fought together, and the little bird came and spoke to Jack as before. And when Jack had brought the giant down, he said, 'Give me my life, and I'll give you the best thing I have.' 'What is that?' says Jack. 'It's a suit that you can put on, and you will see every one but no one can see you.' 'Where is it?' said Jack. 'It's inside that little red door at the side of the hill.' So Jack went and brought out the suit. And then he cut off the giant's two heads, and caught them coming down and made four halves of them. And they said it was well for him he had not given them time to join the body.
That night when the cows came home they gave so much milk that all the vessels that could be found were filled up.
The next morning Jack went out again, and all happened as before, and the giant this time had four heads, and Jack made eight halves of them. And the giant had told him to go to a little blue door in the side of the hill, and there he got a pair of shoes that when you put them on would go faster than the wind.
That night the cows gave so much milk that there were not vessels enough to hold it, and it was given to tenants and to poor people passing the road, and the rest was thrown out at the windows. I was passing that way myself, and I got a drink of it.
That night the king said to Jack, 'Why is it the cows are giving so much milk these days? Are you bringing them to any other grass?' 'I am not,' said Jack, 'but I have a good stick, and whenever they would stop still or lie down, I give them blows of it, that they jump and leap over walls and stones and ditches; that's the way to make cows give plenty of milk.'
And that night at the dinner, the king said, 'I hear no roars at all.'
The next morning, the king and the princess were watching at the window to see what would Jack do when he got to the field. And Jack knew they were there, and he got a stick, and began to batter the cows, that they went leaping and jumping over stones, and walls, and ditches. 'There is no lie in what Jack said,' said the king then.
Now there was a great serpent at that time used to come every seven years, and he had to get a king’s daughter to eat, unless she would have some good man to fight for her. And it was the princess at the place Jack was had to be given to it that time, and the king had been feeding a bully underground for seven years, and you may believe he got the best of everything, to be ready to fight it.
And when the time came, the princess went out, and the bully with her down to the shore, and when they got there what did he do, but to tie the princess to a tree, the way the serpent would be able to swallow her easy with no delay, and he himself went and hid up in an ivy-tree. And Jack knew what was going on, for the princess had told him about it, and had asked would he help her, but he said he would not. But he came out now, and he put on the suit he had taken from the first giant, and he came by the place the princess was, but she didn't know him. 'Is that right for a princess to be tied to a tree?' said Jack. 'It is not, indeed,' said she, and she told him what had happened, and how the serpent was coming to take her. 'If you will let me sleep for awhile with my head in your lap,' said Jack, 'you could wake me when it is coming.' So he did that, and she awakened him when she saw the serpent coming, and Jack got up and fought with it, and drove it back into the sea. And then he cut the rope that fastened her, and he went away. The bully came down then out of the tree, and he brought the princess to where the king was, and he said, 'I got a friend of mine to come and fight the serpent to-day, where I was a little timorous after being so long shut up underground, but I'll do the fighting myself to-morrow.'
The next day they went out again, and the same thing happened, the bully tied up the princess where the serpent could come at her fair and easy, and went up himself to hide in the ivy-tree. Then Jack put on the suit he had taken from the second giant, and he walked out, and the princess did not know him, but she told him all that had happened yesterday, and how some young gentleman she did not know had come and saved her. So Jack asked might he lie down and take a sleep with his head in her lap, the way she could awake him. And all happened the same way as the day before. And the bully gave her up to the king, and said he had brought another of his friends to fight for her that day.
The next day she was brought down to the shore as before, and a great many people gathered to see the serpent that was coming to bring the king's daughter away. And Jack brought out the suit of clothes he had brought away from the third giant, and she did not know him, and they talked as before. But when he was asleep this time, she thought she would make sure of being able to find him again, and she took out her scissors and cut off a piece of his hair, and made a little packet of it and put it away. And she did another thing, she took off one of the shoes that was on his feet.
And when she saw the serpent coming she woke him, and he said, 'This time I will put the serpent in a way that he will eat no more king's daughters.' So he took out the sword he had got from the giant, and he put it in at the back of the serpent's neck, the way blood and water came spouting out that went for fifty miles inland, and made an end of him. And then he made off, and no one saw what way he went, and the bully brought the princess to the king, and claimed to have saved her, and it is he who was made much of, and was the right-hand man after that.
But when the feast was made ready for the wedding, the princess took out the bit of hair she had, and she said she would marry no one but the man whose hair would match that, and she showed the shoe and said that she would marry no one whose foot would not fit that shoe as well. And the bully tried to put on the shoe, but so much as his toe would not go into it, and as to his hair, it didn't match at all to the bit of hair she had cut from the man that saved her.
So then the king gave a great ball, to bring all the chief men of the country together to try would the shoe fit any of them. And they were all going to carpenters and joiners getting bits of their feet cut off to try could they wear the shoe, but it was no use, not one of them could get it on.
Then the king went to his chief adviser and asked what could he do. And the chief adviser bade him to give another ball, and this time he said, 'Give it to poor as well as rich.'
So the ball was given, and many came flocking to it, but the shoe would not fit any one of them. And the chief adviser said, 'Is every one here that belongs to the house?' 'They are all here,' said the king, 'except the boy that minds the cows, and I would not like him to be coming up here.'
Jack was below in the yard at the time, and he heard what the king said, and he was very angry, and he went and got his sword and came running up the stairs to strike off the king's head, but the man that kept the gate met him on the stairs before he could get to the king, and quieted him down, and when he got to the top of the stairs and the princess saw him, she gave a cry and ran into his arms. And they tried the shoe and it fitted him, and his hair matched to the piece that had been cut off. So then they were married, and a great feast was given for three days and three nights.
And at the end of that time, one morning there came a deer outside the window, with bells on it, and they ringing. And it called out, 'Here is the hunt, where is the huntsman and the hound?' So when Jack heard that he got up and took his horse and his hound and went hunting the deer. When it was in the hollow he was on the hill, and when it was on the hill he was in the hollow, and that went on all through the day, and when night fell it went into a wood. And Jack went into the wood after it, and all he could see was a mud-wall cabin, and he went in, and there he saw an old woman, about two hundred years old, and she sitting over the fire. 'Did you see a deer pass this way?' says Jack. 'I did not,' says she, 'but it's too late now for you to be following a deer, let you stop the night here.' 'What will I do with my horse and my hound?' said Jack. 'Here are two ribs of hair,' says she, 'and let you tie them up with them.' So Jack went out and tied up the horse and the hound, and when he came in again the old woman said, 'You killed my three sons, and I'm going to kill you now,' and she put on a pair of boxing-gloves, each one of them nine stone weight, and the nails in them fifteen inches long. Then they began to fight, and Jack was getting the worst of it. 'Help, hound!' he cried out, then 'Squeeze hair,' cried out the old woman, and the rib of hair that was about the hound's neck squeezed him to death. 'Help, horse!' Jack called out, then, 'Squeeze hair,' called out the old woman, and the rib of hair that was about the horse's neck began to tighten and squeeze him to death. Then the old woman made an end of Jack and threw him outside the door.
To go back now to Bill. He was out in the garden one day, and he took a look at the well, and what did he see but the water at the top was blood, and what was underneath was honey. So he went into the house again, and he said to his mother, 'I will never eat a second meal at the same table, or sleep a second night in the same bed, till I know what is happening to Jack.'
So he took the other horse and hound then, and set off, over the hills where cock never crows and horn never sounds, and the devil never blows his bugle. And at last he came to the weaver's house, and when he went in, the weaver says, 'You are welcome, and I can give you better treatment than I did the last time you came in to me,' for she thought it was Jack who was there, they were so much like one another. 'That is good,' said Bill to himself, 'my brother has been here.' And he gave the weaver the full of a basin of gold in the morning before he left.
Then he went on till he came to the king's house, and when he was at the door the princess came running down the stairs, and said, 'Welcome to you back again.' And all the people said, 'It is a wonder you have gone hunting three days after your marriage, and to stop so long away.' So he stopped that night with the princess, and she thought it was her own husband all the time.
And in the morning the deer came, and bells ringing on her, under the windows, and called out, 'The hunt is here, where are the huntsmen and the hounds?' Then Bill got up and got his horse and his hound, and followed her over hills and hollows till they came to the wood, and there he saw nothing but the mud-wall cabin and the old woman sitting by the fire, and she bade him stop the night there, and gave him two ribs of hair to tie his horse and his hound with. But Bill was wittier than Jack was, and before he went out, he threw the ribs of hair into the fire secretly. When he came in the old woman said, 'Your brother killed my three sons, and I killed him, and I'll kill you along with him.' And she put her gloves on, and they began the fight, and then Bill called out, 'Help, horse.' 'Squeeze hair,' called the old woman; 'I can't squeeze, I'm in the fire,' said the hair. And the horse came in and gave her a blow of his hoof. 'Help, hound,' said Bill then. 'Squeeze, hair,' said the old woman; 'I can't, I'm in the fire,' said the second hair. Then the hound put his teeth in her, and Bill brought her down, and she cried for mercy. 'Give me my life,' she said, 'and I'll tell you where you'll get your brother again, and his hound and horse.' 'Where's that?' said Bill. 'Do you see that rod over the fire?' said she; 'take it down and go outside the door where you'll see three green stones, and strike them with the rod, for they are your brother, and his horse and hound, and they'll come to life again.' 'I will, but I'll make a green stone of you first,' said Bill, and he cut off her head with his sword.
Then he went out and struck the stones, and sure enough there were Jack, and his horse and hound, alive and well. And they began striking other stones around, and men came from them, that had been turned to stones, hundreds and thousands of them.
Then they set out for home, but on the way they had some dispute or some argument together, for Jack was not well pleased to hear he had spent the night with his wife, and Bill got angry, and he struck Jack with the rod, and turned him to a green stone. And he went home, but the princess saw he had something on his mind, and he said then, 'I have killed my brother.' And he went back then and brought him to life, and they lived happy ever after, and they had children by the basketful, and threw them out by the shovelful. I was passing one time myself, and they called me in and gave me a cup of tea.