"Into the Woods" series, 55: Troll Maidens and the magic of bridges

Troll Maiden by Brian Froud

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world," writes Wendy Froud, a neighbor and good friend of mine who is something of an authority on trolls, for she and her husband Brian (whose paintings & drawings you see here) have spent many years exploring the folk- and faery-lore of Dartmoor.

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world," Wendy continues. "They are strong and intelligent, steadfast and canny. They can be extremely kind or terribly cruel -- and sometimes they can be both. Troll women are born knowing the pathways over and beneath the hills, the ways in and out of the Otherworld. They can be guides and wise women, witches and warrior women. They are the holders of dreams and keepers of hearth and home. Usually.

"Every once in a while, every once in a great while, a troll woman is born in the shape of a human or almost a human with only a small tail or small branches growing from her back to mark her The Troll Bride by Brian Froudtrollness. When humans see these lovely human-shaped troll women, they wonder at their beauty, delight in their strangeness, and sometimes fall in love with them. When trolls look at these human-shaped troll maidens, they see sorrow and a passing and a life lived flitting on the borders between the worlds. These lovely human troll women do not live long troll lives. They live to what humans may think to be an extremely old age, but for a troll it is but the blink of an eye.

"The trolls rejoice and grieve for these fleeting creatures, who are neither one thing or the other. As they delight in watching a butterfly flutter in the air or a bee dance above a flower, the trolls delight in caring for and watching over these delicate, humanlike creatures. Trolls guard them and guide them and nurture them as much as possible, knowing as they do that troll maidens will soon fade away, perhaps taken to live as human wives in the border regions of the world or perhaps to spend short lives dancing on the hills or haunting the bridges and stepping-stones of streams and rivers that flow between the two worlds.

Clapper Bridge near Stiniel

Photograph of Terri Windling by Ellen Kushner"The humanlike troll maidens are drawn to bridges and spend much time sitting or standing on a bridge if there is one close to where they dwell. Bridges are places of transition. They span a stream or a river but also the air itself. When a troll maiden sits on a bridge, she is in a place particularly suited to her own state of being -- a link between the worlds. Water rushes under a bridge, flowing away to unknown places, speeding by even faster than a troll maiden's time in the world, and when she sits still with her feet above the flowing water, she can feel still and safe, serene and eternal.

"Bridges have always been associated with trolls," Wendy adds, "such as the story of the three billy goats and the troll under the bridge -- a very bad troll indeed. But not all trolls associated with bridges are bad. Trolls, with their empathy toward stone, are naturally drawn to stone bridges, where they, for the most part, become a part of the bridge itself, supporting the structure and making it safe for those who cross it. A bridge will often have a resident troll tucked away under its arch, lending strength to the structure. Of course there are exceptions, and those are the ones who have given trolls such a bad name.

Old stone bridge near Chagford

Bridge Troll by Brian Froud"Lurkers -- there is no other word for them -- trolls who lurk, like lurking under bridges more than anywhere else. A lurking troll is usually a dimwitted troll, a greedy troll, a troll with nothing better to do. Some trolls are so enthusiastic about bridges that they make a hat in the shape of their favorite bridge and wear it to troll gatherings. These are quite warm and snug and a very popular in winter.

"Other trolls will carry large, flat stones that can be used as 'clapper bridges' -- placed across a stream or river -- wherever they are needed. The trolls tend to leave them behind when they move on, and that is why there are so many examples of clapper bridges on the moor today.

"Sometimes those trolls who are perceived as bad are merely guarding troll maidens while they linger on a bridge," Wendy concludes, "for protecting these delicate creatures is the duty of all trolls."

Troll Maiden with protectors by Brian Froud

The Truth About Bridges by Brian & Wendy Froud

There are three basic types of historic bridges on Dartmoor: stone bridges, wooden bridges (called clams) and clapper bridges (made of large granite slabs). The word "clapper" is believed to have dervived from an old Anglo Saxon word cleac, mean a stepping stone.

There are roughly two-hundred clapper bridges on the moor, of which Postbridge Clapper is one of the largest and best known. "Postbridge Clapper, in one form or another, has stood here for centuries," writes Tim Sandles. "The term ‘clapper bridge’ is a term used on Dartmoor for a bridge which has one or more flat slabs of stones which rest on stone piers and thus spans a river or stream. The Dartmoor term for the slabs are ‘posts’ which is how [the hamlet of] Postbridge acquired its name. It is possible that the bridge dates back as early as the 1300s, as by this time many of the nearby moorland farms had been established. The earliest documented record of the bridge is from a newtake lease of 1655 where it states: 'scituate lyinge and beinge between postbridge and a nutake of on Richard Leeres.'"

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Postbridge, Dartmoor

A little farther up the road is the hamlet of Two Bridges, where a medieval bridge sits just a stone's throw from the Prince Edward Bridge, built in 1931. It is commonly believed that the hamlet takes its name from these two bridges sitting so close together, but as Tim Sandles explains: "The first documented record of the place-name Two Bridges was in 1573 when it appeared in a court roll as Tobrygge. This has been taken to mean ‘at the bridge,’ as the word ‘to’ is a Devonshire term for 'at,' as in 'Where’s ee to?'"

Two Bridges, Dartmoor

Legends surround most of the bridges on the moor, which are focal points not only for the local trolls but also witch hares, whist hounds, will-o-the-wisps and piskies up to their usual mischief. At Two Bridges (above), two disembodied Hairy Hands are said to force travellers off the road: grabbing at the reins of horses in centuries past, and at car steering wheels today. Fingle Bridge near Drewsteignton (below) is also an uncanny spot, for on certain nights when the moon is full it is the site of wild Faerie revels. Humans who stumble unwittingly on these rites vanish forever.

Fingle Bridge, Drewsteignton

The bridge over the River Dart at Holne is also best avoided by night, for undines dwell in the water underneath. These creatures steal mortal men who take their fancy, and drown those who earn their displeasure. South Down Bridge near Tavistock, by contrast, is a place of good fortune, white magic, and luck. This bridge belongs to the Queen of Faerie, who fashioned it out of waterdrops from a rainbow arched over a stream. The clapper bridge at the Wallabrook (below) is haunted by the ghost of a Dartmoor tin miner -- a sad rather than frightening apparition who merely wants to go home to Chagford. He's been haunting the spot since medieval times, for he cannot cross running water.

Clapper Bridge near Scorhill

With or without a supernatural attendent, bridges themselves carry a magic of their own.

"When we stand on a bridge," says Brian Froud, "we stand neither on land nor water; we stand in a symbolic space. Faerieland is always approached in places or moments where opposites are in balance. Edges, borders, boundaries of all kinds are where we encounter the faery realm, where land and water meet, where forests begin, and in twlight when the dark meets the light."

Earth and Water by Brian Froud

The clapper bridge near Scorhill

Trolls by Brian & Wendy FroudThe text by Wendy Froud, and the art by Brian Froud, is from their delightful book Trolls (Abrams, 2012), which I highly recommend. The two quotes by Tim Staples are from the Legendary Dartmoor site. The photographs of Dartmoor bridges are mine -- except for the one of me sitting on a clapper bridge near Stiniel, taken by Ellen Kushner. That's Howard & Tilly in the last two photos, on the Wallabrook Clapper near Scorhill Stone Circle last spring.


"Into the Woods" series, 54: Following the Hare

Woodland gate in autumn

Today I have another folklore post for you in the run-up to Halloween. This time it's on the subject of "Witch Hares," a creature more common that you might think....

Moongazing by Jackie MorrisAs Carolyne Larrington observes in her new book, The Land of the Green Men: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscape of the British Isles: "We tend to associate witches with black cats that operate as their familiar spirits, but more traditionally the witch transforms herself into a hare in order to steal milk from the neighbours' cows. The witch-hare has other moneymaking sidelines, however: in one rather jolly tale from Tavistock in Devon, she gives the hare hunters a run for their money. In a letter written in 1833, a certain Mrs. Bray relates how a young boy would would earn money by starting hares for the local hare hunters -- he was always able to find one when they seemed scarce. Somehow, the hare always managed to get away. This made the huntsman suspicious, so on one occasion the hounds were teed up to to get on to their prey's trail more quickly. The hare zigged and zagged to cries from the boy of 'Granny! Quick! Run for your life!' Aha! The hare just made it into the boy's grandmother's cottage through a little hole. When the huntsmen broke in, no animal was to be seen. But the old woman was quite out of breath, and she had scratches as if she had been running through brambles."

Three hares by Jackie Morris

The woodland's edge in autumn

Why, asks Larrington, are there so many stories of witches in the shape of hares all across the British Isles?

"They were familiar animals before the industrialisation of the countryside," she notes, "and their habit of rearing up on their hind legs and their distinctive zigzag run made them easy to pick out. They are swift and clever -- which explains how they always manage to get back to the witches' houses before they Song of the Golden Hare by Jackie Morrisare caught -- and the have long been indigenous to the British landscape. Hares thus appear in a good deal of folklore across the country....I've seen hares myself near where I live in North Oxfordshire, up by the Roman road that runs along the southern side of Madmarston Hill near Swalcliffe: two big beasts on their hind legs, boxing away at one another like a couple of prizefighters, until they spotted me and the dog. Then they swerved away over the stubbly March fields, only to take up their bout again at a more distant corner. These hares were probably a male/female pair, rather than rival males duking it out: the female was trying the repel the male's advances, with limited success."

A detail from the Hare and the Moon by Jackie Morris

The woodland in autumn

Two hares by Jackie Morris

Hares are sometimes seen to gather together in what looks like a convocation, says Larrington, "eight or ten of them sitting in a circle and gazing at one another as if in silent communication. The writer Justine Picardi mentions seeing just such a phenomenon in June 2012 in the Scottish highlands:

" 'On the way here last night, a magical scene: glimpsed in a field beside the lane, a circle of hares, all gazing inward, motionless in the moment that we passed. I've heard occasional stories of these rarely witnessed gatherings -- but never seen one for myself. No camera to hand -- although if we'd stopped, I'm sure the hares would have vanished -- yet a sight impossible to forget.'

"But we know of course that these were no ordinary hares, but surely a gathering of witches in hare form."

We Are All Moongazing by Jackie Morris

If you'd like to know more about about Witch Hares and other hare legends, then in addition to Larrington's book (which devotes part of a chapter to the subject), I recommend The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans & David Thomson, a volume completely devoted to hare history and legendry. Another one to seek out is The Hare Book, edited by Jane Russ for The Hare Preservation Trust (UK), which is a delightful and informative compilation of stories and facts about hares accompanied by photographs and art -- including contributions from Jackie Morris, Virginia Lee, and Hannah Willow. (I particularly recommend Jackie's story in the book, "The Old Hare in Spring: 1502," inspired by the art of Albrecht Dürer, and the charming true-life tale of the three hares beloved by the 18th century poet William Cowper.)

You'll find more magical hares in my previous post "The Folklore of Rabbits and Hares" -- as well as some Witch Hares leaping through a post on Devon folklore: "Tales of a Half-Tamed Land." Devon is a veritable hotbed of shape-shifting hares, so be wary if you're out after dark here....

Hare drawing by Jackie Morris

The gorgeous hare art in this post is by Jackie Morris, one of the finest painters of hares (and other animals) working today. After admiring her art and stories for years, I finally had the opportunity to meet her earlier this month when her travels brought her through Devon -- and to see her gorgeous new book: The Wild Swans (which I highly recommend), and to hear about her current project: a collaboration with Robert Macfarlane. (What a combination of talents that will be!) To view more of Jackie's work, please visit her website and seek out her beautiful books...especially, in light of today's subject, Song of the Golden Hare.

Hare watcher at the woodland's edge

from Song of the Golden Hare by Jackie MorrisThe quote by Carolyne Larrington is from The Land of the Green Men (I.B.Taurus & Co., 2015). The quotes in the picture captions are from The Hare Book edited by Jane Russ (The Hare Preservation Trust/ Graffeg Books, 2014). All rights to the text and art above reserved by their respective creators. A previous post on Jackie Morris' marvelous books: "The wild sky."


"Into the Woods" series, 53: The Wild Hunt

Week Down Cross, Dartmoor, photograph by Nilfanion

The approach to Halloween is a time for telling stories of ghosts, ghouls, and the Unseelie Court (the underside of the Faerie Realm), and for paying wary respect to the Dark Gods of the land as we move into the dark months of the year.

Beardown Man, a prehistoric menhir on Dartmoor, photograph by Jon ConstantOne of the more frightening tales of Dartmoor is the legend of the Wild Hunt, which thunders across the moors by night in pursuit of any man or beast foolish enough to cross its path. 

"Stay indoors, attend your hearths," warn Ari Berk & William Spytma in an excellent article on the Hunt. "Try to keep the night at bay by the telling of your tongue. Remember your kin, honor your ancestors. For at this time the dead begin to stir, riding upon hallowed and familiar roads, galloping through villages and wastes, flying through the forests of the mind. Such raids are reminders that the past is not a dead thing, but may return, like a hunter, to follow us for a time."

The Wild Hunt, they explain, "is ancient in origin, an embodiment of the memories of war, agricultural myth, ancestral worship, and royal pastime. Its most complete and well-documented traditions lie with the peoples of Northern Europe; however, there are reflections of the Hunt anywhere in literature or folk tradition where the dead travel together over the land, or heroes rise up to rout a foreign foe, or where representatives of the sovereignty of the land are pursued and hunted. We even find versions of the Hunt in Ovid and the classical tradition. Indeed, wherever there are tales of invasions, we will likely find stories of a ghostly hunt following close on the heels of myth or history....

'Regardless of their regional names, all Hunts seem to share several common features wherever they appear: a spectral leader, a following train, announcement by a great baying of hounds, crashes of lightning, and loud hoof beats along with the Huntsman's shouts of  'Halloo!' Death and war often follow in their wake."

Tilly on Dartmoor near Belstone

The Hunt is led by a variety of figures, depending on where the tale is told: Odin, Woden, Herla, Herne the Hunter, Dewer, the Devil, Gwynn Ap Nudd (the king of the Welsh Otherworld), and even King Arthur under a curse. Whatever his guise, the Huntsman rides with hunting hounds that are just as fearsome as he: usually black as night, with eyes like glowing coals and breath of flame.

In The Folklore of Dartmoor, Ralph Whitlock reports on the Hunt that runs on the open moor near Chagford: "Sabine Baring-Gould says that in old times the Wild Hunt was known locally as the Wist Hounds. J.R.W. Coxhead has heard them called Yeth Hounds or Heath Hounds. He writes: 'The sound of the Dark Huntsman's horn and the fierce cries of the Yeth Hounds are supposed to have been heard many times in the lonely parts of the moor by belated travelers, and by resident inhabitants of the Dartmoor area. It is said that two of the favorite haunts of the spectral huntsman and his pack of demon hounds are Wistman's Wood and the Dewerstone Rock.' He adds that when, on a stormy night in 1677, Sir Richard Cabell, lord of the manor of Brook in Buckfastleigh parish, died, the Demon Hunt raged around the house all night, waiting for the soul of the wicked knight."

Stone row and circle near Down Tor, Dartmoor"These black, spectral hounds bear almost as many names as the Hunt," note Berk & Spytma. "In the North they are called Gabriel's Hounds. In Lancashire they are described as monstrous dogs with human heads who foretell of coming death or misfortune. In Devon they are known as Yeth, Heath, or Wisht hounds. These hounds issue from inside Wistman's Wood on the eve of St. John (Midsummer), a night when by tradition the careful eye can see the spirits of the dead fly from their graves. Here, among the ancient dwarf oaks and greening stones, Dewer (the Devil), kennels his hounds, and it is still said that no real dog will enter these woods at any time of the year. The Yeth hounds are also associated with the souls of unbaptized children, which they chase across the moor as their prey. But related traditions hold that the dogs are themselves the souls of the unbaptized babes, and they instead chase the Devil across the moor in repayment for his hand in their fate.

Stall moor row, southern Dartmoor, photograph by Herby Thyme

Hut circle at Grimspound, a Bronze Age settlement, Dartmoor, photograph by Herby Thyme

"In Wales the dogs are the Cwn Annwn (Hounds of the Otherworld) often white with red ears and bellies. The corrupt priest Dando had his own beasts, called the Devil's Dandy Dogs. Great black hounds were known as the Norfolk Shuck and Suffolk Shuck. The Hounds of the Hunt all bear a striking resemblance to the 'Black Shuck,' a solitary creature that has stalked East Anglia for centuries with fiery eyes as big as saucers. In England such solitary dogs are often the ghosts of deceased people, changed as punishment, and will sometimes help people if treated kindly.

"In several Norse versions of the Hunt, the Huntsman would leave a small black dog behind. The dog had to be kept and carefully tended for a year unless it could be driven away. The only known way to get frighten it away was to boil beer in eggshells, a curious ritual act seemingly related to the traditional method of getting rid of a Faerie changeling."

The Unseelie Host snatching up mortals, a drawing by Alan Lee (from ''Faeries'')

Faeries, too, have their form of Hunt: the Host, a group from the Unseelie Court, swarms through the skies on cold, moonless nights, snatching up mortals who cross their path and whisking them into the dark. If their victims live to limp back home, they report being forced to making mischief on other mortals and to raid faery cattle from the Seelie Realm. Shaken and battered, those hunted by the Host are said to age years in a single night.

Saddle Tor, Dartmoor, photograph by Herby Thme

If you'd like to learn more about the Wild Hunt -- and it would be wise to do so at this chancy time of year -- I recommend reading Berk & Spytma's fascinating article in full. You'll find it here.

"The Wild Hunt Rides Over Paris," a post by Katherine Langrish (on Seven Miles of Steel Thistles), is also a treat, as is Carolyne Larrington's new book: In the Land of the Green Men, Penelope Lively's YA novel based on the theme, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, and Jane Yolen's middle-grade novel, The Wild Hunt, illustrated by Mora Francisco.

Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor

Dewerstone RocksPictures: The drawing above is by my friend & Dartmoor neighbor Alan Lee, who knows a thing or two about Wild Hunt legends. It's from his book Faeries, a collaboration with Brian Froud. Descriptions and photographer credits for the Dartmoor photographs can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Words: The passages quoted above are from "Power, Penance, & Pursuite: On the Train of the Wild Hunt by Ari Berk & William Spytma (The Journal of Mythic Arts & Realms of Fantasy magazine, 2002) and Devon Folklore by Ralph Whitlock (BT Batsford, 1977). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


"Into the Woods" series, 52: Twilight Tales

The Mystic Wood by John William Waterhouse

Between the setting of the sun and the black of night, dusk is a potent, magical time, for in its eerie half-light (according to folklore found around the globe) one can cross the borders dividing our mundane world from supernatural realms.

On the Border Betwixt Wood & Hill

When I was a child, I longed to discover a doorway into Faerieland or a wardrobe leading to Narnia...and I actually attempted to find one, in the twilight hour of a midsummer's eve. I remember it still: sitting huddled in the shadows, escaping the chaos of a troubled home, determined to conjure a portal to a magic realm by sheer force of will. I failed, of course. But like many children hungry for a deeper connection with the spirit-filled unknown, what I couldn't find in New Jersey that night I discovered in the pages of fantasy books...and, later, in the study of folklore and a life-time of wandering the landscape of myth.

The Enchanted Forest by John Anster Fitzgerald

My younger self may have been in the wrong place, but I'd instinctively managed to chose the right time, for twilight, according to British and other folk tales, contains powerful magic.

"Anytime that is 'betwixt and between' or transitional is the faeries' favorite time," says painter and mythographer Brian Froud. "They inhabit transitional spaces: the bottom of the garden, existing in the place The White Deer by Adrienne Segurbetween man-made cultivation and wilderness. Look for them in the space between nurture and nature, they are to be found at all boarders and boundaries, or on the edges of water where it is neither land nor lake, neither path nor pond. They come when we are half-asleep. They come at moments when we least expect them; when our rational mind balances with the fluid irrational."

In myth, it is rarely easy to cross from the human world to the Otherlands, whatever those Otherlands may be: Faerie, Tir-na-nog, the Spirit World, the Underworld and the Realm of the Dead. Gods and guardians of the threshold are the border guards who will either stamp your passport or block your way -- such as Janus, the god of doorways, gateways, passages, beginnings and endings in Roman mythology; or Cardea, with whom he is often paired, the goddess of door-hinges, domestic thresholds, passageways of the body, and liminal states. According to Robert Graves' mad and brilliant book, The White Goddess, Cardea was propitiated at weddings by lighting torches of hawthorne, her sacred tree, for she had the power "to open what is shut; and shut what is open." (She was thus associated with virginity, virginity's end, and, consequently, with childbirth.)

Drinking from the Fairy Springs

Communing with the Guardian of the Spring

A wide variety of guardian figures around the world (gods, faeries, supernatural spirits) regulate passage through mystic thresholds and access to sacred groves, glens, springs and wells.  Some of them guard whole forests and mountains, while others protect individual trees, Brother and Sister by John B. Gruellehills, stones, bridges, crossings, and crossroads. Myth and folklore tells us these guardians can be appeased, tricked, outwitted, even slain -- but usually at a price which is somewhat higher than one wants to pay.

Sometimes it is the land itself preventing casual passage across mythic boundaries. In the Scottish ballad "Thomas the Rhymer," a river of human blood stands between Faerieland and the mortal world, and Thomas must pay the price of seven years servitude to make that crossing. In the German fairy tale "Brother and Sister," an enchanted stream must be crossed three times in the siblings' flight through the deep, dark woods. They are sternly warned not to stop and drink -- but the brother breaks this magical taboo and is transformed into a deer. In other tales, one princess must climb seven iron mountains to reach the land where her love is imprisoned; another must trick the winds into carrying her where her feet cannot. A magical hedge of thorns is the boundary between Sleeping Beauty's castle and the everyday world, and it cannot be penetrated until time, blood, and prophesy all stand aligned.

In the Land of the Fairies by John Anster Fitzgerald

Lingering at the Crossroads

Trickster is a rare mythic figure who crosses borders and boundaries with ease. In his various guises around the globe (Hermes, Mercury, Loki, Legba, Maui, Monkey, Anansi, Coyote, Raven, Manabozho, Br'er Rabbit, Puck, etc.) he moves back and forth between the realms carrying messages, stealing fire and cattle, making mischief on both sides of the border, dancing in the borderlands between, and (in his role of Psychopomp) leading the dead in their journey to the Underworld or the Spirit Lands.

Tricksters, Lewis Hyde points out, "are the lords of in-between. A trickster does not live near the hearth; he does not live in the halls of justice, the soldier's tent, the shaman's hut, the monastery. He passes through each of these when there is a moment of silence, and he enlivens each with mischief, but he is not their guiding spirit. He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town (the one where a little market springs up). He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. There are strangers on that road, and thieves, and in the underbrush a sly beast whose stomach has not heard about your letters of safe passage....

 Tumble of Stones

"Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns," Hyde continues, "each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of the stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker -- it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty, and to the intelligence needed to negotiate them. Hitchhikers who make it safely home have somewhere paid homage to Hermes."

The Twilight Path

The White Stag by Jane Baynes

Many fantasy novels grow from the desire to go beyond the fields we know or to find the hidden door in the hedge. Unlike Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or Le Guin's Earthsea books, set entirely in invented landscapes, the protagonists of these tales cross over a border, or through a magical portal, traveling from our world to a strange Otherland. This device was used most famously in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and his other Narnia books), but also in Andre Norton's Witchworld series, Pamela Dean's Secret Country books, Joyce Ballou Gregorian's Tredana trilogy, Charles de Lint's Moonheart, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials (although Lyra's Oxford, or Will's, aren't exactly our own), and numerous others. There are also tales in which movement across the border goes in the opposite direction, spilling magic from the Otherworld into our own, such as Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood series, Patricia McKillp's Solstice Wood, and William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderlands (1908). In his classic novel The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924), the great Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany focused on the borderland itself: the tricksy, shifting landscape squeezed between the mortal and magical realms...a device that was then irreverently updated by Bordertown, one of the earliest series in the "urban fantasy" genre, with its motorcycle-riding and rave-dancing elves, humans, and halflings in a crumbling city at the edge-lands of Faerie.

Border-crossing works of fantasy fiction

Magical Realist works on the mainstream shelves also make use of border-crossing themes. Rick Collignon's The Journal of Antonio Montoya, Pat Mora's House of Houses, Alfredo Vea Jr.'s La Maravilla, Kathleen Alcala's Spirits of the Ordinary, and Susan Power's The Grass Dancer are all extraordinary books where the membrane between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin and torn; as is Leslie Marmon Silko's wide-ranging refutation of borders, The Almanac of the Dead.  In Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water, Trickster crosses easily from the mythic to modern world; while in Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich these worlds are stitched together in the intricate patterns of Indian beadwork.

Young Woman with Deer by Katerina Plotnikova

As myth, folklore, and fairy tales remind us, the border between any two things is a traditional place of enchantment: a bridge between two banks of a river; the silvery light between night and day; the liminal moment between dreaming and waking; the motion of shape-shifting transformation; and all those interstitial realms where cultures, myths, landscapes, languages, art forms, and genres meet.

The Enchanted Stream

Betwixt and between

Stepping over the border

We cross the border every time we step from the mundane world to the lands of myth; from mainstream culture to the pages of a mythological study or a magical tale. As a folklorist and fantasist, I cannot resist an unknown road or an open gate. I'm still that child on a midsummer's eve, willing magic into existence.

Following the Animal Guide, for safe passage through the borderlandsWords: The quote by Brian Froud is from a conversation I noted down when I was editing his book Good Faeries, Bad Faeries (Simon & Schuster, 1998). The quote by Lewis Hyde is from his excellent book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, & Art (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1998). Pictures: Art credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the text and imagery above is reserved by their respective creators. Related posts: At the Death of the Year and The Madness of Art.


"Into the Woods" series, 51: Tales of a Half-Tamed Land

The Apple Tree Man by Alan Lee

"Devon, even till the present century, was a county of isolated communities," wrote Ralph Whitlock in The Folklore of Devon in 1977. "Partly this was due to its geology and topography, partly to its history. The county,  the third largest in England, has as its nucleus the huge, austere, and almost uninhabited massif of Dartmoor, around which the more fertile countryside is arranged as a frame. On the north it is fenced by The county of Devon in south-west Englandanother bleak plateau of almost equal altitude,  although Exmoor itself is two-thirds in Somerset. Another maze of steep-sided hills serves as a barrier between Devon and south Somerset and west Dorset. Nor are the intervening vales flat plains but rather a tangle of lesser hills, many of them buried in woods. It is a secretive, half-tamed countryside. "

The folklore of this county, Whitlock explains, is "a rich mixture of Celtic, Saxon, Danish and goodness knows what other elements, including quite possibly some that are pre-Celtic. The Devon moors are still the alleged haunt of pixies. We are not surprised to hear much about giants, bogeymen and witches, and the Devil has here a richer heritage than in most English counties. Customs such as the wassailing of apple-trees has lingered long on Devonshire farms, and tales of smugglers, fairs, and tin-miners abound."

Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor

"Piskies" or "pixies" are the fairy folk of Devon, though the name tends to make them sound rather daintier than they are. In most accounts, they are small but earthy creatures, usually dressed in natural elements or rags, although sometimes appearing in lordly splendor to those with Fairy Sight. Pixies, reports Whitlock, "are timid and shy, live in remote places, often in caves or holes in rocks, venturing out only at night. They are, in general, well disposed towards the human race and have been known to lend a friendly hand with farm and domestic work. Nevertheless, the creatures are not to be trifled with, for they understand magic and can make life unpleasant for anyone who offends them....

Dartmoor Pixies by Brian Froud

A swarm of fairies by Alan Lee

"Many remote and secluded places, especially on the moors, have particular associations with pixies. A colony is said to live on Pixie Rocks, in a combe near Challacombe. On Gidleigh Commons, high on Dartmoor, a large hut circle, ninety feet across, is supposedly haunted by pixies. No horse will cross it. The villagers of Chagford claim to have heard pixies on the moors on quiet nights." (And indeed, we have.)

Dartmoor ponies, photograph by Tom Morgan

Scorhill Stone Circle, Gidleigh (Creative Commons photograph)

"The queen of the fairies is said to have created South Down Bridge, near Tavistock, by crystallizing the drops of water in a rainbow over the stream. First becoming tiny pebbles, then great stones. At Chudleigh Rock, a cave, waterfall and creeper-hung glen are alleged to be the favorite haunt of pixies. King Castle, an ancient earthwork near Simonsbath, is reputed to have been built by pixies, as a defense against hostile spirits from neighboring mines.

The Fairy Who Was Kissed by the Piskies by Brian Froud

"Pixies are said to dance in a number of the stone circles on Dartmoor, including the one on Huccaby Moor. A story is told of Tom White, a young man of Postbridge, who went courting a girl at Huccaby, which involved frequent five mile walks each way over the wild moors. One summer night he saw a crowd of pixies dancing near Bellever Tor. He watched them for awhile and then tried to steal away but the pixies saw him. They formed a ring and danced around him till dawn, making him twirl like a top all the time. When eventually he was released, at sunrise, exhausted and frightened, he declared he would never risk such an experience again. He died a bachelor."

The Fairy Ring by Alan Lee

Sheraberton Stone Circle near Huccaby, photograph by Robert Gladstone

"The pixies in general, though sometimes mischievous, are simple, kindly folk," Whitlock continues, "ready to do a good turn for small rewards. And some of the pixie legends are quite lovely. We have, for example, the story of the old woman and the tulip garden. She lived in a cottage near Tavistock and took great pride in her garden, Fairy gardeners by Alan Leeespecially her tulips. Before her cottage had been built, the site was a haunt of pixies, and they continued to come and enjoy the flowers in the garden. At night they could be heard singing to their babies and caressing them. Thanks to the pixies, the tulips not only grew unusually tall and fine but as delicately fragrant as roses.

"When she died her heir destroyed the flowers and grew vegetables instead; the tulip bed was planted with parsley. The pixies were so upset that for years afterwards they saw to it that the garden grew nothing worthwhile. Instead, they transferred their attentions to the old woman's grave (which her relations had neglected), planting with lovely little flowers and neat grass lawns."

In another tale from Tavistock, "an old woman, confused and mistaking the time, got up at midnight and set out for market. Somewhere on the moors, in the small hours, she heard the cries of the Wild Hunt and saw a frightened hare, which was evidently the quarry. Being kind-hearted, she gathered up the creature and hid it in one of her panniers. Presently the devil himself appeared, in the form of a black-clothed horseman, Fairy hare by Brian Froudcloven-hoofed, horns sprouting from his head, and riding a headless horse. He asked her if she had seen the hare, but she replied, 'No.'

"After he had passed, she released the hare from the pannier. It turned into a beautiful young lady in white, who told the startled old woman that she was not an inhabitant of this world, but was suffering punishment for a crime committed during her earthly life. She said she was doomed to be constantly pursued either above or below ground by evil spirits, 'until I could get behind their tails, whilst they passed on in search of me.'

"In return for the old woman's help in fulfilling this condition, she promised her, as a reward, 'that your hens shall lay two eggs instead of one, that your cows shall yield the most plentiful store of milk all the year round, and that you shall talk twice as much as before, and your husband stand no chance at all in any matter between you to be settled by the tongue!' It is said that from then on the affairs of the old woman prospered."

Whist hounds and a mounted goose by Alan

There numerous legends of spectral black hounds (take note, Tilly); also of ghosts and haunts of various sorts, and of witches who roam the moor by night in the shape of hares:

Triple Hares by Brian Froud"J.R.W. Coxhead tells the story of Moll Stancombe, of Chagford, who, in the form of a hare, was often coursed by hounds but could never be caught. One of her former lovers, whom she had rejected, loaded a gun with silver bullets and attempted to shoot her, but the gun exploded and blew off his hand. A rival witch at length revealed that Moll could be caught by  a spayed bitch. Hare and bitch seemed evenly matched for a long time, but at last the dog managed to bite her flank as she scrambled through a hedge. The owner of the dog then went to Moll's cottage, looked through the window, and saw her putting plaster on a wound. It corresponded exactly with the spot which the dog had bitten." Coxhead reports that no further harm came to Moll, who never again appeared as a hare...at least where ex-lovers could see her.

Fairy fiddler by Alan LeeFolk musician Seth Lakeman, who lives over Tavistock way, has drawn on the legends and history of Dartmoor for some of his best work-- including "Kitty Jay," "The Bold Knight," and "The Courier" (which you'll find in this previous post), and "The White Hare," performed with Lisbee Stainton in the video below.

If you go hunting, Lakeman warns,
Or go calling out your prey,
Or if you see a fair maid
With hair an ashen grey,
Careful you don't catch her,
Or give her right of way,
For she will look upon you
Steal your soul away
...

A Dartmoor river by Alan Lee
The art above is by my Chagford neighbors (and experts on Devon folklore) Brian Froud and Alan Lee., who published the classic book Faeries together many years ago, and numerous other books individually since. Titles and credits are in the picture captions, as well as photography credits. Devon Folklore by Ralph Whitlock was published by BT Batsford, Ltd., London, 1977. All rights to the text and images in this post reserved by the authors and artists. If you'd like to read more on the folklore of Devon, there's an old article of mine on the subject on the World of Froud website.


"Into the Woods" series, 50: Old stones, old gods, and silence

Tintern Abbey, eastern columns

 From Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden:

"It seems to me that a materialist view of the universe is reductionist. It makes every kind of experience subservient to the laws of matter. It applies the tenets of the known to the mystery of why we are here at all.  It chases away not only the old gods and spirits and half heard whispers in the night; it chases away the mystery of life and being itself. For a materialist, there can be no mystery that will not eventually be made clear in the light of reason and critical intelligence.

"Ultimately, what is in danger of being excluded from the cultural conversation is not the old gods, but the quality of imagination that gave birth to them; an imagination that sees and feels humanity to be part of a living, breathing world with an intelligence that we will never fathom; full of Tintern Abbey by Chriss Gunnspresences and qualities that our ancestors gave names to, but that live on as always even as their names have fallen away. William Wordsworth gives voice to this imaginative faculty in this excerpt from his poem, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey':

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things."

 

Tintern Abbey by Marion Haworth

Tintern Abbey by Wici Rhuthun

The beautiful bones of Tintern Abbey (pictured here) rise from the banks of the River Wye on Welsh side of the English-Welsh border. The abbey was founded in 1131 for the White Monks of the Cistercian Order, followers of the Rule of St. Benedict, whose silent and austere way of life was devoted to prayer, scholarship, agricultural labor and self-sufficiency.

"Why does the soul love silence?" asks Parker J. Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness. Palmer is a Quaker, a group for whom silence is also an important part of communal prayer. "The deepest answer I know invokes the mystery of where we came from and where we are headed. At birth, we emerged from the Great Silence into a world that constrains the soul; at death we return to the Great Silence where the soul is once again free.

Inside Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

"Our culture is so fearful of the silence of death," writes Parker, "that it worships noise nonstop. In the midst of all that noise, small silences can help us become more comfortable with the Great Silence toward which we are all headed. Small silences bring us 'little deaths,' which, to our surprise, turn out to be deeply fulfilling. For example, as we settle into silence, where our posturing and pushing must cease, we may experience a temporary death of the ego, of that separate sense of self we spend so much time cultivating. But this 'little death,' instead of frightening us, makes us feel more at peace and more at home.

Tintern Abbey by Saffron Blaze2

"The Rule of St. Benedict, that ancient guide to the monastic life, includes the admonition to 'keep death before one's eyes daily.' As a young man I found this advice a bit morbid. But the older I get, the more I understand how life-giving this practice can be. As I settle into silence, I draw closer to my own soul, touching a place within me that knows no fear of dying. And the little deaths I experience in silence deepen my appreciation for life -- for the light suffusing the room as I write, for the breeze coming in through the window.

Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

"So silence brings not only little deaths but also little births -- small awakenings to beauty, to vitality, to hope, to life. In silence we may start to intuit that birth and death have much in common. We came from the Great Silence without fear into this world of noise. Perhaps we can return without fear as well, crossing back over knowing that the Great Silence is our first and final home."


"Into the Woods" series, 49: Wanderers & Wilderness

Soay, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Seal

Like Robert Macfarlane (in Monday's post), Sara Maitland is fascinated by the peregrini: the early Celtic Christian monks and mystics who set out alone in small, flimsy boats, seeking solitude, nature, and God on the most remote islands of Britain.

"On island after island," she writes in A Book of Silence, "the more isolated and far-flung the better -- on St. Kilda, on the Farnes, on the Shiants, throughout the Hebrides and the northern islands, off the coast of Ireland, around Iceland and possibly even North America -- the traces of hermits can be found. This history is confused and uncertain, but originating in Ireland in the fifth century, there was a well-developed form of Christian spirituality which valued the silent eremitical vocation extremely highly.

A ''cleit'' (stone hut) on St Kilda

"In Britain, the most famous such voluntary exile was Columba, who left Ireland in the mid sixth century and crossed the Irish Sea to become first a hermit and later a missionary and founding father based on the tiny island of Iona, which is just to the west of Mull. His community later spread across Scotland and converted north-east England as well, but he was by no means unique: over the next several centuries hermits settled alone or in tiny communities all over western Scotland and further afield too....These adventures were known in Ireland as 'green martydoms' -- to distinguish them from the 'red martyrdom' of being slain, shedding blood for the faith. To leave home and travel out beyond civilization was a martyrdom (the word means 'witness'), death of the ego, a self-giving that seems absolute."

Iona by Torsten Henning

Shetland ponies on the Isle of Foula

"We do not know very much about the spiritual theology of these early hermits," Maitland continues. "Their lives are lost in legend and story, their physical markers faded or wiped out by the wildness of the places where they dwelt."

One of these hermits was St. Cuthbert, bishop of the monastery on Lindisfarne, a center of Celtic Christianity in the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. A great lover of nature, he issued regulations to his monks for the special protection of Eider Ducks, which are called Cuddy Ducks ("Cuthbert's Ducks") to this day. He retired to live an austere and solitary life on Inner Farne Island in 676, and died there in 687.

Lindisfarne Abbey and St Marys by Russ Hamer

Cuddy Ducks

Sara Maitland explains that we know more about St. Cuthbert than most other Christian hermits because he was personally known and loved by Bede, author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. "But what interested Bede is somewhat different than what interests me," writes Maitland. "So, for example, Bede records that Cuthbert would pray all night standing up to his neck in the frigid waters of the North Sea and, indeed, when he emerged otters would come and warm him with their tongues and fur. This combination of the ferociously ascetic and the miraculous engages Bede, for what he is writing about is the ultimate form of something so obvious to him that he never says anything about what Cuthbert thought he was trying to achieve, nor about the content of those prayers.

Otter, Farne Islands

Grey seal & newborn calf, The Farne Islands, Northumberland

"It is not until rather later, from the tenth to twelfth centuries, that we begin to get accounts that attempt to explain what the island hermits were seeking, in the beguiling poetry of the Irish monks:

"Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea. That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course. That I might see its smooth strand of clear headlands, no gloomy thing; that I might hear the voice of its wondrous birds, a joyful tune. That I might hear the sound of the shallow waves against the rocks; that I might hear the cry by the graveyard, the noise of the sea. That I might see its splendid flocks of birds over the full-watered ocean; that I might see its mighty wales, greatest of wonders. That I might see its ebb and its flood-tide in their flow; that this might be my name, a secret I tell, "He who turned his back on Ireland." That contrition of heart should come upon me as I watch it; that I might bewail my many sins, difficult to declare. That I might bless the Lord who has power over all, heaven with its pure host of angels, earth, ebb, flood-tide."

Birds on the Farne Islands by Bob Jones

Puffins on The Farne Islands by Joe Cornish

Unlike Maitland and the hermit monks she admires, I am not a Christian, and I certainly don't live an isolated life, yet my morning prayers on Nattadon Hill aren't so different from those of the nature-loving peregrini:

Delightful I think it to be in the green hills of Devon, climbing through bracken and blackberries to the granite peaks above, that I might often see the sheep-dotted fields, and the grey tors of Dartmoor beyond. That I might hear the wind singing in the trees, a choir of oak, ash, rowan, and beech; and the bells of the village church; and the bleating lambs; and the hooting of owls in the woods. That I might see this hillside covered in bluebells, stitchwort, and foxgloves, no gloomy thing; and that I might hear the voice of its rooks and its robins, a joyful tune. That I might see the badgers live undisturbed; and the small red deer, shyest of wonders; and watch wild ponies graze in the tall grass as they flow between valley and moor. That I come nameless to this hill, no more, no less than others creatures here, living quietly, gently upon its slopes. That I walk these paths with respect, attentiveness, open eyes, open ears, open heart. That I might bless Mystery within all of us; and my good neighbors, human and nonhuman alike; and the air, the water, the fire, the earth, ebb and flood-tide. Mitakuye oyasin.

Meldon Hill viewed from Nattdon Hill

Wildflowers in spring, Nattadon Hill

Young Dartmoor ponyWords: The quotes by Sara Maitland are from A Book of Silence (Granta, 2009), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The last three photographs above are mine, taken here in Chagford: Meldon Hill viewed from Nattadon Hill, a pathway on lower Nattadon, and a very young Dartmoor pony on the village Commons. The photographs of islands in Scottland and north-east England (and their birds and animals) are Creative Commons images. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


"Into the Woods" series, 48: The Child Ballads (Part II)

May Colven by Arthur Rackham

In the 1970s, while musicians were rediscovering and reinventing the genre of folk music, writers were rediscovering and reinventing the genre of fantasy fiction. The audience for both of these things overlapped, and it’s not hard to understand why. Fantasy writers often work with themes that hark back to the oral tradition -- to folktales, myths, and sagas steeped in the lore of our folk heritage. A number of writers who  Erlinton Had a Fair Daughter by Arthur Rackhamcame to the fantasy field in the late '70s and throughout the '80s -- which is when fantasy solidified as a publishing genre -- were also folk musicians or singers (Ellen Kushner, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Jane Yolen, etc.); and music permeated their books. Charles de Lint’s The Little Country, for example, is set among folk musicians in Cornwall; Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks concerns folk-rock musicians in ’80s-era Minneapolis; Jane Yolen wove original ballads into Sister Light, Sister Dark and its sequels; and Ellen Kushner retold a classic ballad in her novel Thomas the Rhymer, and created an anthology of magical stories about music, The Horns of Elfland. Other writers, too, turned to folk music and ballads for inspiration, fleshing out the bare bones of song narratives to turn them into stories and novels.

One need only dip at random into the pages of Francis James Childs' The English and Scottish Popular Ballads to discover why this material would appeal to writers of magical fiction. There The Gypsy Laddie by Arthur Rackhamyou’ll find stories like “Kemp Owyne,” in which a young woman is turned into a loathsome dragon. Knight after knight comes to slay the beast. The dragon kills them all in turn, with tears of regret on her scaly cheeks. It is only when a knight puts down his sword and kisses her horrible face that the spell is broken and the dragon turns back into a beautiful maiden.

In “The Elfin Knight,” a girl hears fairy music and longs for a supernatural lover. The elf knight appears at her request, but gives her one look and tells her she’s too young. The song becomes a riddling song (similar to “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”) -- though this is a riddling match that is charged with distinctly sexual overtones.

In “Reynardine,” a mysterious man seduces a woman as she walks among the hills. The man is a shapechanger, a were-fox. We don’t know what he will do to her in the castle where he steals her away, but our last image of Reynardine is of his sharp teeth gleaming brightly in the twilight.

Clerk Coville illustrated by Arthur Rackham

In “Clark Sanders,” seven brothers stand over their sleeping sister and her lover, discussing what they should do to this knight who has stained the family honor. Six of them agree that they should leave the  couple alone, but the seventh takes out his sword and runs it through the The Duke of Gordon's Daughter by Arthur Rackhamsleeping man’s heart. When the young woman wakes, she finds her love is a bloody corpse beside her. She goes mad with grief, the song ends . . . and then the story is taken up again in another ballad, called “Sweet William’s Ghost.” The spirit of the murdered man returns to the girl’s window. She begs him to kiss her, but he will not: “My mouth it is full cold, Margaret, / It has the smell now of the ground; / And if I kiss thy comely mouth, / Thy days will not be long.”

This idea that the dead may not touch the living is echoed in “The Unquiet Grave.” A maiden sits in a cemetery for twelve months, mourning her lover. Finally the spirit appears and asks, in a rather irritated manner, “Who sits here crying and will not let me sleep?” The maiden begs it for one kiss, but she is refused by the revenant: “O lily, lily are my lips; / My breath comes earthy strong, / If you have one kiss of my clay-cold mouth, / Your time will not be long.”

Not all ballads in the British folk tradition concern magic, Faerie, or the supernatural. Other common themes are love (usually tragic), death (usually gruesome), and family troubles that make the soap operas of our own age pale by comparison: “What is that blood on your sword, my son, what is that blood, my dear-o? It’s the blood of my sister, Mother, who I have killed in the greenwood-o. . . .” (In this song, the brother is trying to avoid discovery of the fact that he’s made his sister pregnant.)

Lord Randall by Arthur Rackham

“What I like best about ballads,” says fantasist Delia Sherman, “is that they’re plots with all the motivations left out. Why did Young Randall’s stepmother want to poison him? Why choose eels? Why did Randall eat them (especially if they were green and yellow)? There’s a novel there, or at least a short story. Ballads give you classic human situations, and also some decidedly unclassic ones, exploring relationships between lovers, parents, and children, between friends, masters, and servants. Many of them deal with power and powerlessness, which is one of the central themes of fairy tales, too; but it seems to me that ballads are more pragmatic, more realistic, in their denouements. Not every villain gets his/her just deserts. I can imagine a ballad variant of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in which Beauty comes too late and sings a plaintive last verse over the Beast’s body, about how she will sew him a shroud of the linen fine and sit barefoot in the dark all her days, for the love of him she loved too late.”

The Twa Corbies by Arthur RackhamOf all of the ballads recounted by Child, “Tam Lin” has captured the imagination of more fiction writers than any other single ballad, perhaps because of its sensual theme and unusual hero: an independent, courageous, stubborn young woman, pregnant with her woodland lover’s child, determined to save him from the Fairy Queen and the unearthly Fairy Court.

Elizabeth Marie Pope’s lovely novel The Perilous Gard places Tam Lin's story in Elizabethan Scotland, while Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin turns the ballad into a remarkable coming-of-age saga unfolding on an American university campus. Alan Garner’s Red Shift -- a subtle, powerful, unforgettable reworking of the ballad’s themes -- roots the tale in Cheshire, England during three historical periods: the Roman era, the Civil War, and the present day. Patricia A. McKillip's “Tam Lin” novel, Winter Rose, is an exquisite adult fairy tale set Once Upon a Time, mixed with elements from a second Scottish fairy ballad: "Thomas the Rhymer." Diana Wynne Jones also combines the two ballads in her brilliant YA novel Fire and Hemlock, about young musicians in modern-day England -- following in the footsteps of Catherine Storr's too-little-known "Tam Lin" novel, Thursday, published in 1972, which was one of the first to bring fairy lore into the modern world. Dahlov Ipcar makes interesting use of "Tam Lin" in her short novel for children, A Dark Horn Blowing; Janet McNauthton takes "Tam Lin" and a second ballad, "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," to 12th century Scotland in An Earthly Knight; and Lucy Sussex weaves the transformational aspects of "Tam Lin" into her deeply enchanting novel Deersnake.

Liz Lochhead’s long, wry poem “Tam Lin’s Lady” (from her collection Dreaming Frankenstein) is well worth seeking out, as are these fine short story renditions: "Tam Lin" by Joan Vinge (from the anthology Imaginary Lands), "Cotillion" by Delia Sherman (from the anthology Firebirds), "Tiend" by Sonya Taaffe (from Strange Horizons magazine, October 2007), "The Lady and the Fox" by Kelly Link (from the anthology My True Love Gave to Me), and Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass by Alice Munro (from her collection Friends of My Youth). I also recommend two lovely picture book versions: Jane Yolen’s Tam Lin, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak, and Susan Cooper's Tam Lin, illustrated by Warwick Hutton.

Hynd Horn illustrated by Arthur Rackham

"Thomas the Rhymer" -- the story of a Scottish harper who kisses the Queen of Elfland and then is bound to her service for seven long years -- is another popular tale among fantasy writers and readers. In addition to the Patricia McKillip and Diana Wynne Jones books listed above, the ballad inspired Bruce Glassco’s unusual short story “True Thomas” (from the anthology Black Swan, White Raven), and is splendidly retold in Ellen Kushner’s award-winning novel Thomas the Rhymer.

"I had to do Thomas," Ellen recalls, "because, like every other writer, I knew Thomas was my story. He holds the mythic power of King Arthur in the hearts of poets: the artist who is literally seduced by his muse, comes closer to her than any human should to the source of his art, and is profoundly changed. He can never be at Erlington Had a Fair Daughter by Arthur Rackham 2home in this world again, and yet he must continue to live in it. That’s how every writer feels, I think. Many writer friends had talked about writing a Thomas story someday, kind of like an actor playing King Lear: it’s a Great Subject that probably should not be tackled in one’s youth. I still feel a little humble about it. I don’t think I’ve written the definitive Thomas; I’ve just written my Thomas, the Thomas who addressed issues that were upon me in those years. Twenty years from now, I might like to do him again."

Ellen’s Thomas the Rhymer also drew upon the Child ballads “The Trees They Do Grow High” and “The Famous Flower of Serving Men.” The latter is the story of a woman whose husband, a knight, is murdered by her own mother. The heroine dons men’s clothes and goes to court, where the king soon falls in love with her -- while the murdered knight returns as a white dove shedding blood-red tears through the forest. Delia Sherman used this ballad as the basis of her gender-bending novel Through a Brazen Mirror -- a very fine work of adult fantasy that really ought to be much better known.

“I heard Martin Carthy’s version of ‘Famous Flower,’ ” says Delia, “and it haunted me with questions. If a mother so hated her child, why not just kill her and be done? Perhaps there was more to it than simple hatred. Another question prompted by the ballad had to do with the role of cross-dressing in a medieval culture. A third question could be stated as this: In all these Earl Mar's Daughter ballads with girls dressed as boys, the man falls in love with the boy, not the girl. What would happen if he wasn’t relieved to discover his beloved’s true sex? In short, ‘Famous Flower’ gave me a beautiful, mysterious narrative framework upon which to hang all my favorite concerns: gender confusion, different kinds of love, the single-mindedness of the mad, foundlings and their origins.”

Patricia C. Wrede’s “Cruel Sisters” (from her collection Book of Enchantments) and Gregory Frost’s “The Harp That Sang” (from the anthology Swan Sister) are both memorable tales based on “Cruel Sister” (a.k.a. “Twa Sisters”), the ghostly story of a murdered girl and a harp made out of bone. “Alison Gross” by Midori Snyder (from the urban fantasy anthology Life on the Border) is based on the ballad of that title: the story of a man changed into a worm (or wyrm, a dragon) when he spurns the kisses of a witch. A number of works are inspired by “The Grey Selchie,” a poignant ballad of love, seals, and shape-shifting, including Jane Yolen’s “The Grey Selchie” (from her collection Neptune Rising), Laurie J. Marks’s “How the Ocean Loved Margie” (from The Journal of Mythic Arts,  2004), and Paul Brandon’s evocative, music-filled novel Swim the Moon. Sharyn McCrumb's Ghostriders, The Songcatcher, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, The Rosewood Casket, She Walks These Hills, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and If I Never Return Pretty Peggy-o are magical mystery novels steeped in the themes of traditional ballads from the south-eastern mountains of America, as are the "Songkiller" books  of Elizabeth Ann Scarborough: Phantom Banjo, Picking the Ballad's Bones, and Strum Again. Greer Ilene Gilman’s Moonwise is a fever-dream of a book brimming with Celtic balladry from every corner of the British Isles; Gilman has an extensive knowledge of the folk tradition and she works with it here to unique effect.  

Burd Isobel by Arthur Rackham

Artist Charles Vess has listened to and loved old ballads for more than thirty-five years. “They are great stories,” he says, “filled with exactly the things I love to draw best: magic, adventure, romance, suspense, historical settings, the lands of Faerie, and supernatural creatures that range from beautiful to hideous.”

In 1994, Charles conceived the idea of illustrating a series of comics based on traditional folk ballads. He spoke with a number of ballad-loving writers who promised him scripts for the new series, which began with a story by Charles de Lint retelling “Sovay.” The series was first published by Green Man Press, and then collected into a beautiful Tor Books edition, along with four additional tales, making thirteen ballad retellings in all -- by Neil Gaiman, Sharyn McCrumb, Midori Snyder, Lee Smith, Elaine Lee, Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint, Jeff Smith, and Emma Bull, plus two retellings by Jane Yolen, and one by Charles Vess himself. The Book of Ballads provides an excellent introduction to traditional ballads for readers not yet familiar with them, and a I highly recommend it.

The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess

The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess

In an article on Francis James Child published in Sing Out! magazine, Scott Alarik asked folk musician Martin Carthy (one of the greatest modern interpreters of Child ballads) why people should still be singing these ancient ballads today. For the same reasons they sang them long ago, Carthy answers. “Because they’re fabulous stories; because they tell you immense amounts about people and how they treat each other, trick each other, cheat and chisel and love each other. There’s an extraordinary understanding of humanity in them.”

"You do have to sometimes kick the buggers into life," Carthy continues, "find them a tune, give the lyrics a kick here and there. And they can take it; they’re fabulously resilient. I really do believe there’s nothing you can do to these songs that will hurt them—except for not singing them.”

Contemporary folk musicians have been doing a fine job of “kicking the buggers into life,” and so have writers of fantasy fiction for children and adults. I've listed a few of my favorite ballad-inspired novels, stories, and graphic works here. Now, dear readers, I throw the subject over to you: What are some of your favorites?

Arthur Rackham

In the video above, Anais Mitchell and Jeffrey Hamer perform "Tam Lin," Child Ballad No. 39,  from their album of Child Ballads (2013). The ballad illustrations above are by Arthur Rackham, from Some British Ballads (1918). The titles are in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them.

If you're interested in exploring this subject further, I recommend the following: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol. 1 - 5, by Francis James Child; The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads by Betrand Harris Bronson; Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, Ballads and Romances by John W. Hales & Frederick J. Furnivall; Medieval Lyric: Middle English Lyrics, Ballads, and Carols by John C. Hirsh; English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians by Cecil James Sharp; Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Pre-Christian and Pagan Elements in British Songs, Rhymes, and Ballads by Robin Skelton and Margaret Blackwood; Tales, Then and Now: More Folktales As Literary Fictions for Young Adults  (which includes sections on fiction derived from "Tam Lin" and "Thomas the Rhymer") & Stories from Songs: Ballads as Literary Fictions for Young Adults by Anna E. Altmann & Gail de Vos; and “Child’s Garden of Verses: The Life Work of Francis James Child” by Scott Alarik (Sing Out! Magazine, Vol. 46, #4). Two good articles available online: "Francis James Child's Ballads in the Modern Age" by Stephen D. Winick; and "Alan Garner's Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of 'Tam Lin' " by Charles Butler.


"Into the Woods" series, 47: The Child Ballads (Part I)

The Ballads and the Hound

The great folklorist Francis James Child defined what he called the “popular ballad” as a form of ancient folk poetry, composed anonymously within the oral tradition, bearing the clear stamp of the preliterate peoples of the British Isles. Ballads, which are stories in narrative verse, are related to folktales, romances, and sagas, with which they sometimes share themes, plots, and characters (such as Robin Hood). No one knows how old the oldest are. It’s believed that they are ancient indeed -- and yet we have few historical records of them older than the sixteenth century. Little is known for certain about how the oldest ballads would have been performed -- but most likely they were recited, chanted, or sung without instrumentation. Right up to the twentieth century, ballads were traditionally sung a cappella, although today it is common to hear them accompanied by harp, guitar, fiddle, and other instruments. 

Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Bertrand H Bronson, Princeton University Press


Why do we have so few historical records? Because until relatively recently, they weren’t considered important enough to write down. With the rise of literacy, the songs and poems of Britian’s great oral tradition began to fall out of favor -- and ballads that had once been popular among all classes of society were now deemed primitive, pagan, the province of unlettered country folk. Because of this, few attempts were made to preserve ballads prior to the seventeenth century, and thus many were lost or were passed down through the years in fragmentary form. In the eighteenth century, ballad collection was still haphazard and sporadic, and the fruits of such labor were little regarded in academic circles. Universities did not yet consider folklore a respectable area of study, so manuscript collections remained in private hands, easily lost and forgotten.

The Robin Hood Ballads by George Wharton Edwards

In 1765, Bishop Thomas Percy came across one manuscript full of fine old ballads being used to light a kitchen fire. He saved them from the flames and published them in his book, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Percy’s book was a great success. It was much admired by such English Romantic writers as Coleridge, Southey, Shelley, and Keats, as well as the German Romantics Goethe, Tieck, and Novalis, and sparked much literary interest in the songs and legends of bygone days. Another fan of Percy’s book was the novelist Sir Walter Scott, who collected the ballads of his native Scotland in the early nineteenth century. Scott sat at the center of a circle of poets and antiquarians who were devotees (and romanticizers) of the ancient history of the British Isles. This group did much to popularize the old songs and tales of Scotland, England, and Ireland -- but still no British university would sponsor a proper academic collection of the country’s ballads.

Francis James ChildThat job fell to an American scholar, Francis James Child of Harvard University, who was urged to take on the subject by his frustrated British colleagues. Child hesitated, somewhat daunted by the immensity of the job at hand, and then he plunged in, devoting the rest of his life to the study of ballads. Beginning in the 1870s, Child set out to track down every extant version of every genuine popular ballad in the English and Scottish traditions. He limited himself to England and Scotland because the ballads of these countries overlapped, whereas Irish ballads were a separate tradition, requiring a depth of knowledge of Ireland’s language and history he didn’t possess. His goal was to publish the collected ballads with notes tracing their histories, relating them to songs and tales to be found in folklore the world over. The result of this remarkable labor was The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898. It’s a work that’s still widely used today, revered by scholars and musicians alike.

Sir Patrick Spens by George Wharton EdwardsThe life of the man behind these famous books is as interesting as the ballads he loved. Born the son of a sailmaker, Child grew up on the docks of Boston harbor -- until his aptitude for learning brought him to the attention of a distinguished Cambridge scholar. The boy was encouraged to transfer from his working-class school to Boston’s Latin School, after which he was sponsored at Harvard, where he graduated at the top of his class. Except for two years of study abroad, Child spent the rest of his life at Harvard, rising to become the first chairman of the newly created department of English. He built his substantial reputation on groundbreaking studies of Chaucer and Spenser, but he also had an abiding love for philology, ancient poetry, folklore, and fairy tales. The latter interests had been whetted during the two years Child spent in Germany, where he’d been exposed to the work of the folklore enthusiasts of the Heidelberg Circle of scholars, which included folk song collectors Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, and the remarkable Brothers Grimm. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, noted Child’s friend and colleague G. L. Kittredge, “may even, in a very real sense, be regarded as the fruit of these years in Germany. Throughout his life he kept pictures of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm on the mantel over his study fireplace.”

The Twa Corbies by George Wharton Edwards

Child was a textual scholar rather than a field collector, and he put his massive ballad compilation together by seeking out every manuscript copy of ballad material he could lay his hands on, with the help of a small army of fellow scholars searching out songs and fragments of songs throughout the British Isles. Another reason he depended on manuscripts rather than the memories of folk Fair Margaret and Sweet William by George Wharton Edwardsmusicians was that the British popular ballad, in his view, was no longer a living tradition. The ballads he sought were the ancient ones -- not the “broadside ballads” that dominated the nineteenth-century folk musician’s repertoire. Broadsheet ballads were authored song lyrics designed to fit traditional tunes, cheaply printed and sold for pennies on street corners from the sixteenth century onward. These were contemporary compositions, rather than ancient poetry from the oral tradition -- though sometimes broadside ballads mimicked the language of much older songs, and determining which was which was a problem Professor Child was both intrigued and vexed by.

To the dismay of this meticulous scholar, in the absence of clear historical records he was often forced to depend on textual clues and his own best judgment. Fortunately, that judgment was finely honed by his fluency in archaic languages, and his extraordinary knowledge of folklore traditions the world over. He chose, he explained in a letter to a friend, to err on the side of inclusiveness. Where he had lingering doubts about the authenticity of a song variant, he was apt to Flooden Field by George Wharton Edwardsinclude it anyway, along with notes outlining his reservations. His task was greatly complicated by the fact that the ballads of Britain had been so badly recorded and preserved compared with those of other countries, such as Denmark. “The ballads should have been collected as early as 1600,” he noted sadly; “then there would have been such a nice crop; the aftermath is very weedy.” Another complication was that ballads written down and published from the eighteenth century onward had been edited, censored, or “improved” by folklore enthusiasts who were literary men, romantics rather than rigorous academics. The prime example of this was Percy’s famous Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Child and other folklorists suspected that Percy had altered the text of ballads to suit the literary tastes of his day -- particularly as Percy would not allow an examination of the ballad manuscript in his possession. Working with British scholar F. J. Furnivall, Child was instrumental in persuading Percy’s descendants to finally release this manuscript, which did ideed confirm that Percy had edited and “improved” the original ballads.

The Ballad of Fair Rosamond by George Wharton Edwards

Sifting through the mountain of material he collected, sniffing out alterations and forgeries, Child amassed a group of 305 songs with their roots in the oral tradition, along with variants of each song, sometimes in dozens of alternate versions. The final volume of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was completed the The Child Ballads, Loomis Press editionsyear of Child’s death, but he died before writing the book’s introduction, which would have explained his method of selection and given us an overview of his work. Yet even without this, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was hailed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic and became a cornerstone of modern folklore scholarship. In addition, Child was instrumental in establishing the American Folklore Society, serving as its first president from 1888 to 1889. But sadly, Child did not live to see that movement flower in subsequent years, and he died doubting his work had relevance to a modern age. “If he’d lived just a little longer,” says Mark F. Heiman of Loomis House, which published a handsome new edition of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, “he would have seen the golden age of the ballad collector and folklorist. He would have seen how important his life’s work really was.”

Cecil SharpChild’s work went on to inspire a whole new generation of folklorists, men and women who weren’t quite so convinced that the oral tradition was irretrievably dead and gone. One of them was Cecil Sharp, who began collecting English folk songs and dance tunes in the early years of the twentieth century. Sharp was a trained musician, and unlike Child he was also interested in preserving the music of the ballad tradition rather than viewing ballads primarily as poetry. He noted that the Child ballads were rarely part of the repertoire of the elderly singers he listened to in the countryside; they’d been replaced by broadside ballads and other more recent songs. Sharp wondered if the older ballads might have survived among the British and Scottish settlers in America, particularly among the descendants of settlers in isolated mountain regions, where “pennysheets” of modern ballads would not have been available. Between 1914 and 1918, Sharp made two extensive trips through the Appalachian Mountains, collecting over a thousand songs with the aid of his secretary, Maud Karpeles. Sharp and Karpeles discovered that many of the Child ballads were indeed still known and performed in Appalachia, although sometimes the titles and lyrics had changed somewhat in this new setting. Sharp published these ballads in his now-classic English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, which in turn inspired new folklore studies and new collection efforts throughout the United States.

Recordings of Child Ballads

Despite the keen interest of folklorists, ballads remained a specialized interest for much of the twentieth century, until the huge folk music revival of the 1960s and ’70s. In those years, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and other popular singers recorded ballads from the Child collections, and a Celtic music revival exploded across the British Isles, Brittany, and America. Folk-rock bands like Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span updated the ballads for a new generation, while singers like Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Frankie Armstrong, Jean Redpath, and June Tabor created an audience for traditional music played in more traditional ways.

Today, that revival is still going strong, with Child ballads performed by Jon Boden, Eliza Carthy (Martin's Carthy's daughter), Josienne Clarke, Cécile Corbel, Bella Hardy, Fay Hield, Sam Lee, Loreena McKennit, Jim Moray, Karine Polwart, Kate Rusby, Emily Smith, The Imagined Village, The Unthanks, and many, many others. (You'll find an online discography here). I particularly recommend Anaïs Mitchell  & Jefferson Hamer's terrific album dedicated to Child Ballads, and Jon Boden's Folk Song A Day site. To dig further into this subject, you'll find a lot of good material in the digital archives of the English Folk Song & Dance Society; and have a look at the wonderful
Full English project too.

I'm going to end today with Mitchell & Hamer performing "Willie's Lady," which is Child Ballad No. 6. In the second of this post, we'll look at the ways that writers of fantasy literature have made use of ballad material. (Part II is here.)

The illustrations above are by George Wharton Edwards, from A Book of Old English Ballads (1896); the titles are in the picture captions. Text for this post was taken from an article I wrote, years ago, for Fantasy Magazine, and from my Introduction to The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess. (More on the latter in Part II.)


"Into the Woods" series, 46: The Enchanted Harp

Detail from Dreamharp by Marja Lee

A tale from Scotland's Isle of Skye relates how music first came to those lands. A poor youth found a strange instrument (a triangular harp) floating in the waves. He fished it out, set it upright, and the wind began to play the strings -- an eerie, lovely sound the like of which had never been heard. The boy could not duplicate the sound, although he tried for many long days. So obsessed did he become that his widowed mother ran to a wizard (a dubh-sgoilear) to beg him to give her son the skill to play the instrument -- or else to quell his desire Thomas the Rhymer by Charles Vessfor it. The dubh-sgoilear offered her this choice: he would take away the boy's desire in exchange for the widow's body, or he'd give him the gift of music in exchange for her mortal soul. She chose the later and returned home where she found her son plucking beautiful, heavenly music from the strings of the harp. But the boy was horrified to learn the price his mother had paid for his skill. From that moment on, he began to play music so sad that the birds and the fish stopped to listen. And that, concludes the old Scottish tale, is why the music of the harp sounds poignant to this very day.

From Ireland comes another tale about the earliest harp music: Boand was the wife of the Dagda Mor, a deity of the Tuatha De Danann (the faery race of Ireland). As Boand gave birth to the Dagda's three sons, the Dagda's harper played along to ease the woman's labor. The harp groaned with the intensity of the pain as the woman's first child emerged, and so she named her eldest son Goltrai, the crying music. The music made a merry sound as Boand's second son was born, and so she named the child Gentrai, the laughing music. At last the final infant emerged to music that was soft and sweet. She called the child Suantri, the sleeping (or healing) music. These three strains of music are still found in the repertoire of Celtic musicians -- as echoed by the Scots-English ballad recounting the trials of King Orfeo (a harper in the oldest songs, a fiddler in later variants) who played three strains of music before the king of the faery underworld: the notes of joy, the notes of pain, and the enchanted faery reel.

 Art by Kinuko Y. CraftIt is interesting to note that the modern revival of interest in traditional folk music, beginning in the 1970s, paralleled the modern revival of interest in fantasy fiction (and the birth of the fantasy publishing genre in the same decade). It is not surprising that the audiences for folk music and fantasy stories overlap, for both art forms are rooted in the lore and legends of our folk heritage. Today, you'll find quite a number of fantasy novels and stories infused with folk music and traditional ballads. Bards and wandering minstrels have long been staple characters in books set in medieval or imaginary lands, and more often than not, a small, hand-held, Celtic style harp is the instrument they play. The quick-witted Morgan of Hed in Patricia McKillip's "Riddlemaster" books, for example, was one of the first (and remains one of the best) harp-toting protagonists in contemporary fantasy fiction. Patricia C. Wrede (The Harp of Imach Thysell), Morgan Llewelyn (Bard), Charles de Lint (Moonheart) and other writers from early days of the fantasy genre created memorable bardic characters, and Ellen Kushner told the quintessential harper tale in her award-winning, balllad-inspired novel, Thomas the Rhymer.

It's not difficult to see why the harp became the instrument of choice in fantasy literature, for it is one that has always been associated with magic. The earliest harps of western Europe were most often made of willow wood, a tree sacred to the Goddess, associated with the cycles of the moon, fertility, and enchantment. The strings of the harp symbolize the mystic bridge between heaven and earth; mankind stands poised in the middle, striving now toward one and now toward the other as represented by the tension of the strings (portrayed in Bosch's painting "The Garden of Delights," where a man hangs from the strings, crucified). The harp has been associated with early pagan religions, its music called "the voice of the gods," although it was later absorbed into the Christian church and the celestial choir.

''Praising Angel,'' a stained glass window designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

It was thought that the harp as we know it today originally came from Ireland, spreading across Scotland and Wales and over the Channel to Europe. But in 1992 the music historians Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird published Tree of Strings: Crann Nan Tued, a thorough, well-written history of the harp, presenting strong archaeological evidence that the earliest instruments came from Scotland. (The harp is found carved onto Picto-Scottish stones at least 200 to 300 years earlier than pictorial representations elsewhere in the world.) According to Sanger & Kinnaird, these large, floor-standing instruments (triangular in frame, probably strung  La dame à la Licorne by Armand Pointwith horsehair) passed to Wales sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries during waves of immigration from the north, while the Irish are likely to have come into contact with the harp through their religious communities established in the west of Scotland. When the Irish brought the instrument home, they altered the shape and gave it metal strings. This is the harp we know today as the Gaelic harp or clarsach.

Sanger & Kinnaird point out that it's not entirely accurate to call the harp a "folk" instrument. For many centuries the harp firmly belonged to the aristocracy; it was not an instrument to be found (like the fiddle and whistle) in a poor man's croft. Harpers were trained and educated; they were esteemed (and esteemed themselves) quite highly compared to other musicians. For common people, the opportunity to hear the music of the harp was rare indeed. In Scandinavia, harps were noble instruments by law; a commoner who dared to play the harp could find himself sentenced to death. This gave the instrument a powerful aura of otherworldliness, surrounding harp music with magical legends and supernatural associations. The ancient Volsunga Saga recounts the death of Gunnar, brother to Sigurd the Dragon-slayer. Thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes by vengeful enemies, Gunnar kept death at bay An illustration by John D. Batten for Celtic Fairy Talesby playing a mystical song upon his harp, enchanting the serpents to sleep. For an entire day and night he played, but as the dawn broke over the land his tired fingers fumbled and one snake sunk its poison into Gunnar's hand.

We find other magical harps in countless fairy tales, epic poems, and songs. In a Swedish tale, a young hunter saves his wife from the lust of an arrogant prince by invoking the aid of her wolf-relatives to build him a harp -- a magical harp with which to gain her freedom. In a poem from Iceland (also a ballad from Scotland) one sister drowns another in order to steal the drowning girl's fiance. The body eventually floats to land, where a minstrel makes a harp from the girl's breast bone, strung with her golden hair. When he plays for the murderous sister's wedding, the harp speaks with the dead girl's voice and exposes the bride's treachery. The Scottish harper Glenkindie (like the fiddler Jack Orion) could "harp the fish out of the salt sea, or water out of a stone, or milk out of a maiden's breast though baby had she none." He plays a sleeping spell in order to seduce the daughter in a great lord's hall, but his serving man, in pursuit of the same woman, harps Glenkindie to sleep in turn and steals the maiden away for himself. The sinister Elf Knight uses a similar trick to seduce the Lady Isobel -- but she is a quick-witted young woman and escapes the encounter with her maidenhead intact. Thomas the Rhymer is the most famous harper of Scottish balladry. The Queen of Faery (known to have a fancy for handsome mortal musicians) seduces Thomas and steals him away to Faerieland for seven years. When she sends him home again, it is with the gift (or the curse) of "the tongue that cannot lie." 

The Madness of Tristram by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

In Arthurian romance, Tristan disguises himself as a wandering harper when he travels from Cornwall to Ireland, seeking the cure for a poisonous wound inflicted by an Irish hero. It is there he encounters the fair Iseult and determines to win her for his Cornish king, never dreaming that he will come to love her himself, and thereby seal his doom.

In Russia, the harp was known as a gusla, the wandering harpist as a guslar. One legend tells of a Tsar who is captured while travelling in the Holy Lands. His brave Tsarita dons men's clothes, takes up her gusla, and Muse Playing the Harp by Antoine Auguste Ernest Herbertfollows his path. Playing before the infidel king, she wins her husband's freedom. The guslars of Russia are comparable to the bards to be found in Celtic lands: trained in archaic poetic modes, severe and highly formal, which were performed as sung recitations while accompanied by the harp. In the British Isles, in ancient times, the bards were held in the highest esteem. They were scholars, historians, genealogists, valued advisors to nobles and kings, and believed to possess certain magical powers; their satires could curse, even kill a man, while their poems of praise lifted fortunes. In Ireland, the fili (a hereditary position requiring at least six years of training in one of the poetic colleges) composed poetry but did not perform it; the reacaire would chant or recite with musical accompaniment from a harper. In Scotland, these three separate positions came together in the person of the bard. While not quite as highly trained as the fili, he nonetheless composed poetry himself, performed, and generally played his own harp.

Until the 15th and 16th centuries fili and bard used formal syllabic verse. When "amhran" apppeared (one of the basic meters of folk poetry), it swept across Europe and the British Isles, carried by traveling troubadours. As the strict rules of poetry became more relaxed, the role of fili began to disappear -- sped by the political events undermining the Irish and Titania's Awakening by Charles SimsHighland Scottish social structures. In the early 17th century, the Irish poetic colleges collapsed; in Scotland, the less strict bardic training survived another hundred years. After this, harpers began to take on roles that combined those of the fili and the wandering troubadours. Their status fluctuated, then fell drastically. The British Crown considered traveling harpers to be political subversives; Queen Elisabeth I turned the bards into outlaws, uttering her famous proclamation: "Hang the harpers wherever found." Cromwell joined in by enacted a vicious harp-breaking policy. By the time of the famous 1792 gathering of harpers in Belfast, the proud old profession of bard was virtually extinct; wandering harpers were generally poor men with no alternative means of support -- like the famous blind harper O'Carolan, whose music is still played by harpers today.

In the early 1800s, harp music and its attendant folklore underwent a public revival, aided by the efforts of the Dublin poet-musician Thomas Moore. Moore wrote poems to Irish folk tunes and published them with tremendous success; his popularity rivalled Byron's and Scott's during his day, and his songs are still sung. In 1810, modern mechanization allowed a new type of harp to be patented which permitted musicians to play in all musical keys. This brought the harp back into classical orchestras and unleashed a flood of new music. The harp become a popular parlor instrument -- particularly among genteel young ladies, who, it was claimed, enjoyed the excuse to flash their slim ankles to admirers.

Harp Audition by Moritz von SchwinEven in the area of classical music, the harp had an aura of magic and enchantment. The Victorians, with their strong interest in folklore, spiritualism and the Celtic Twilight, embraced the music of the harp with a fervor that is almost hard to imagine today. A wealth of Victorian "fairy music" for the harp was written, published and performed -- music which eventually fell out of fashion along with the mystical medievalism and Arthurianism of the Pre-Raphaelites, the spiritualism and florid fantasies characterizing the age. Despite its great popularity during its day, the existence of this 19th-century fairy music was nearly forgotten altogether until English harp player Elizabeth-Jane Baldry released her lovely CD, "Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain."

Elizabeth-Jane is an old friend and neighbor of mine, living in tiny, magical cottage crowded with harps, books, musical scores and art. As a harp teacher as well as a performer and composer, she is largely responsible for the fact that there are few places one can walk in our village without hearing someone, somewhere, practicing classical or Celtic harp. With her long dark hair and long skirts she might have stepped from a Pre-Raphaelite painting, and her breadth of knowledge about Victorian culture, folklore, fairies, and the history of harp music is impressive.

Elizabeth-Jane Baldry's music room, with harps

"The fairy music on Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain," she says, "is the result of a journey into the Victorian fascination with the transcendental. All the music has lain forgotten in the vast archives of the British Library, and has never before been recorded or even performed in modern times. Its composers, once famous touring virtuosi, are now long dead and forgotten. Most compelling was the discovery that so many elements of the Victorian psyche are distilled in the music: a revolt against Darwinism and the birth of the scientific age, the spectacular rise of the spiritualist movement affecting even the Royal Court, a nostalgia for our rural past as the industrial revolution Thistledown by Edward Binkleytightened its hold, and the rise of the middle classes with their demand for accessible music. Furthermore, the Victorian love affair with Scotland contributed to the popularity of the harp, Scotland's oldest national instrument. There was an interest for the first time in our folk heritage. The erotic imagery of fairies was an obvious outlet for the repressed sexuality of the time. Orgiastic paintings of naked frolics became respectable provided the participants had wings! Fairy music for the harp is the essence of Victorian idealism."

Elizabeth-Jane unearthed this cache of Victorian fairy music while doing research at the British Library in London. Amazed by both the quantity and the quality of this music, she swiftly made plans to put together a recording of selections from this work. Her CD was recorded on location in the 19th-century ballroom of Buckland Manor: an eighty-five-room country manor house, virtually empty, rising from the Devon countryside like the house in a gothic romance. "As I played," she recalls, "looking out on a hundred acres of untouched parkland on a golden autumn day, the wind gusting, empty urns filled with blown leaves, I felt goose-shivers down my spine . . . knowing this music hadn't been played in a century. The last time it had been performed, the manor's ballroom had just been built."

As she plucked the rippling notes of "Ondine," a reverie for harp by Georgio Lorenzi (inspired by Baron de la Motte Fouque's tragic story of a Galadriel's Harp by Stephen Hickmanknight and a water-spirit), Elizabeth-Jane heard a woman's scream. The recording engineers heard it too and the sound was captured upon the tape. And yet, when investigated, no source for the scream could be found in that empty place. Only later did she discover that a Victorian woman had met her death in that very room, "thrown from the balcony by a husband enraged by her extravagant spending."

The late 20th century revival of interest in harp music was, like the earlier Victorian revival, entwined with an interest in all things folkloric, fantastic and mystical. I was fortunate to be a student in Dublin in the mid-1970s, when the contemporary Celtic music renaissance was first building up its steam -- a thrilling time to see new bands like Clannad adapt the Celtic harp to a new Celtic sound, or to catch sight of The Chieftain's legendary harper Derek Bell in the smokey rooms of an old Dublin pub. The Breton harper Alan Stivell began to build a following about the same time, influencing many of the younger musicians who followed after.  Stivell's "Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique" is a CD that tops the list of recommendations for anyone interested in Celtic harp music.

Harpist by Andre Edouard MartyThere are so many fine harpists working today that it's impossible to list them all here, but any survey of the field should certainly also include Patrick Ball, Dominig Bouchaud, Robin Huw Bowen, Cécile Corbel, Paul Dooley, Loreena McKennitt, Áine Minogue, Joanna Newsom, Maire Ni Chathsaigh, Nansi Richards, Kim Robertson, Sileas (Patsy Seddon & Mary Macmaster), Savourna Stevenson, and Robin Williamson. (Despite the proponderence of women harpists today, it should be noted that in the past women harpers were rare, often dismissed and slandered as "loose-living" women. In the Dark Ages it was strictly against the law for women to harp.)

"O wake once more," Sir Walter Scott once commanded the ancient harps of Scotland. "If one heart throb higher at its sway, the wizard note has not been touch'd in vain. Then silent be no more! Enchantress, wake again!"

More than two hundred years later, the harps are awake, and still making their magic.

The Holly Tree by Marja LeeArt credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Tomorrow we'll continue "Harps & Ballads Week" here at Myth & Moor with a look at "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads" published by Francis James Child.