The Secret Life of … Cinderella

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In western literature, as we all know, Cinderella is the glass-slipper girl: the wistful stepdaughter who is forced to sit in the chimney corner, who attends the prince’s ball in frilly disguise with the magical help of her fairy godmother, and is later sought out by the lovelorn prince, whose only clue to her identity is a hurriedly-discarded shoe.

Let’s be honest: that story’s not very good. Some learned commentators have striven heroically to discern meaningful depths in it. You can judge the success of their efforts for yourself. On this blog, however, we view such attempts with some scepticism, and tend to agree with the reviewer who wisely summed up a recent movie version as “a retrograde fantasy with the depth of a dressing-up box.”

Curiously, however, in the same review, the same reviewer called the same movie “a traditional tale … well told.” A flatteringly competent telling of a weak story: that sums up the reviewer’s verdict. The reviewer drew this odd conclusion seemingly because he expected little enough from traditional tales – simply as such. But we know better. We know that, when it comes to folktales, you’re best advised to steer clear of the movies, and listen to the folk.

For, if ever a folktale had a secret life, it’s the tale of Cinderella. In the hundreds of known variants of the story, scattered over the world and through time, the heroine has been many things. She has been an orphan child, secretly helped by a wise beast, or magical tree, sent by her dead mother from beyond the grave. She has been a lonely, resourceful young woman running from an incestuous abuser. Sometimes “she” has been a boy, or a brother-and-sister pairing. The only thing she always is, is abused.

The first English version of the glass-slipper Cinderella was Robert Samber’s Cinderilla: or, The Little Glass Slipper, first published in 1729. This, of course, was a translation of a French story which is the basis, not only of Samber’s Cinderilla, but of all the Cinderellas in modern western literature and mass media: Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verrepublished in 1697 by Charles Perrault, a French civil servant. But Perrault was not the first European author to launch Cinderella into print. Shortly before he wrote, Finette Cendron was published by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville (better known, even today, by her aristocratic title: Madame d’Aulnoy). The same tale cropped up in Italian in the 1630s, as La Gatta Cennerentola (“The Cat Cinderella”), tale 6 in Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (“The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones”), by the Neapolitan courtier Giambattista Basile. Prior to that, the Cinderella story appeared in French in 1558 as a tale of “a young girl nicknamed Ass Hide,” tale 129 in extended editions of Les Nouvelles Recreations et Joyeux Devis (“Novel Pastimes and Merry Tales”) by Bonaventure des Périers, a French nobleman. And in 1501, half a century before the oldest of these tales was printed, a Strasburg preacher referred to the story in enough detail for us to recognise it by the description. From this we can infer that the story was current in Europe by the later Middle Ages at least.

Modern versions of Cinderella are derived from Perrault – mostly. For print and mass-media versions never killed the story off in oral tradition. Well over a century after Perrault wrote, the brothers Grimm included at least three Cinderella-style stories which seem unrelated to Perrault’s version. These are Aschenputtel, Allerleirauh (“All-Kinds-Of-Fur”), and Einäuglein, Zweiäuglein und Dreiäuglein (“Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes and Little Three-Eyes”). Over a thousand such versions are now available for systematic reference, and many mysteries about the story and its development remain to be explored. For the story has lived long and travelled hard. It may be going too far to say that the story is known literally all over the world, but it is very widely spread across Europe and the Middle East; India, China and the Far East; the colonial Americas, and elsewhere. Similar stories crop up in the world’s indigenous cultures. Some great variants are included in Angela Carter’s two flawed but essential Virago books of Fairy Tales. Even the English – with their notoriously sparse written record of native folktales – have contributed a good handful of Cinderellas to the record. These include Catksin, known from broadsides or cheap popular texts, and from a fragmentary version published in 1890 from one Isabella Barclay’s childhood recollection of a Cornish storyteller who worked as a servant; this story was tidied up and published by Joseph Jacobs in this versionTattercoats was also published by Jacobs, and by Mrs Balfour, who included in in the later 1800s as one of her Legends of the Cars (the Cars being the North Lincolnshire marshlands where she mainly did her research). Cap O Rushes was told in Suffolk in the mid-nineteenth century. A Romany variant, Mossycoat, was told by Taimi Boswell in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, on January 9th, 1915. Scottish storytellers, meawhile, were telling the tales of Rashin Coatie and Ashpitel.

Anyone who reads all these versions of the story will quickly discern an odd fact. The glass-slipper fairy-tale is only the second half of the story. Perrault seems eager to imply that nothing of interest happens before the ball, so many modern readers and listeners assume that it doesn’t. But it does. In the lost first half (or halves) of the story, there is cunning, trickery and disguise, double-dealing, anguish, revenge, and death, and also magic, reincarnation, and/or incestuous abuse. And this lesser-known material – let us note – is the oldest part of the story, the historical core of the tale. The ball and the glass slipper are afterthoughts, or elaborations. In moving centre-stage these details have weakened the story and blunted its edge.

This happens a lot.

Early studies of the Cinderella story, such as those of W. R. S. Ralston in 1879, tended to the then-fashionable view that the story was a broken-down memory of ancient pagan myth. But the biggest and most authoritative early study was that of Marian Roalfe Cox, who published her findings to international acclaim in 1893, under the snappy title of CINDERELLA: Three hundred and forty-five variants of CINDERELLA, CATSKIN, AND CAP O’ RUSHES, ABSTRACTED AND TABULATED, WITH A DISCUSSION OF MEDIAEVAL ANALOGUES, AND NOTES. Cox’s 600-page study (now out of copyright) compared over 300 versions of the Cinderella story. Cox made a point which is now a starting-block for Cinderella studies, which is that the mass of Cinderella stories fall into a handful of overlapping but distinct basic types.

Different scholars have different ways of labelling these types, but they describe the same basic range of stories. It’s worth noting them in a little detail. Firstly, there is the basic Perrault-style Cinderella – the girl who goes to the ball several times in several outfits, and is tracked down by a lost token (No. 510A in the ATU tale-type index). Secondly, there is a story of a girl who does something similar to this, but without magic help, while running disguised from an abusive father who may be trying to rape her. This harsher and less magical tale-type is indexed as 510B in the ATU system; in the Grimms’ collection, it appears as Allerleirauh (“All-Kinds-Of-Fur”); most of the English Cinderellas listed above seem to fall into this category, although the examples linked above avoid any mention of rape. Thirdly, there are stories of an abused girl (or boy) who is helped by a magical beast and/or tree; in the ATU index, this type is numbered 511. This third type may involve the trip to the ball (or equivalent), but it need not. It appears in the Grimms’ collection as Einäuglein, Zweiäuglein und Dreiäuglein (“Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes and Little Three-Eyes”), and by Scottish storytellers it is told as Rashin Coatie. The variety of folktale forms is as infinite as creative genius can make them, and many recorded tales fall between these categories or fail to fit them precisely, but in very broad terms the categories hold good wherever the tale has been told.

If Cox sorted the tales into types or categories, the next major study tried to explain how these broad types developed. Anna Birgitta Rooth’s 1951 The Cinderella Cycle took in around seven hundred variants of the tale. Among the oldest was a story which the Greeks and Romans knew. Strabo, a Greek geographer from what is now Turkey, who lived around the time of Christ, wrote a Geography which mentions (among other things) an Egyptian story of a courtesan, Rhodopis:

… when she [Rhodopis] was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals from her maid and carried it to Memphis; and while the king was administering justice in the open air, the eagle, when it arrived above his head, flung the sandal into his lap; and the king, stirred both by the beautiful shape of the sandal and by the strangeness of the occurrence, sent men in all directions into the country in quest of the woman who wore the sandal; and when she was found in the city of Naucratis, she was brought up to Memphis, became the wife of the king.

However, the oldest known story which can reasonably be called a complete version of Cinderella is the tale of Yeh-Hsien, written around 860 AD in China. The tale of Yeh- (or Sheh-)Hsein was told by Li Shih-Yuan, and noted down at his dictation by Tuan Ch’eng Shih. Tuan, the writer describes Li the storyteller as “a cave man of Yung Chow” who knew many of the “strange stories of the south.” Tuan himself was a junior government minister; he had previously been Li’s boss.

The Yeh-Hsien story came late to the attention of western scholars, mainly because they did not expect to find Cinderellas in China, and so they didn’t look for them, although there seem to have always been plenty. Japanese folklorists were aware of the story of Yeh-Hsien as early as 1911, but western scholars took scant notice of it until 1932, when R. D. Jameson, a languages professor at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, gave a lecture on it. It was published in English by Arthur Waley in Folklore in 1947.

The heroine of Li’s story, Yeh-Hsien, is abused by her stepmother, who ends by killing her pet fish. A mysterious man tells her where the bones of the fish are buried. At his prompting, Yeh-Hsien prays to the bones, which give her fine clothes, so that she can attend a festival, but leaves a shoe behind in her haste to make home before her stepmother notices her absence. The tiny, delicate shoe is found and sold to a distant ruler, who, stricken with desire, embarks on a search for its owner. He finds and marries her and all ends happily.

With one important qualification (which we’ll come to in a bit), the story of Yeh-Hsien is a straightforward example of the basic old animal-helper type, examined by Cox and Rooth and indexed as ATU type 511. The fish is the “fairy godmother” or magical helper; in other versions of type 511, the function is fulfilled by a bull, goat, sheep or other animal. Stories of this type often seem to imply, or state, that the wise beast is an emanation of the girl’s dead mother, continuing to watch over her lonely and struggling child even in death. This link between the dead mother and the magical helper is made more explicit in an Egyptian version recorded by French scholars (in French), where the orphans – brother and sister, in this case – plead with the cow: “O Cow, be kind to us as our mother was kind to us.”

— Ô vache, sois bonne pour nous comme notre mère était bonne pour nous.
Et la vache leur donnait de bonne nourriture …

The link is made even more explicit in the Scottish Rushen Coatie:

A queen with a daughter died. On her deathbed, she told her daughter that a red calf would come to her, and she could ask it for help.

In the Russian “Wonderful Birch Tree,” in which the mother is turned into a sheep and slaughtered by the evil stepmother, and counsels her daughter before dying:

“Eat you neither the meat nor the broth that is made of me, but gather all my bones, and bury them by the edge of the field.”… She [the daughter] did not touch the soup, but she carried the bones to the edge of the field and buried them there; and there sprang up on the spot a birch tree — a very lovely birch tree.

Rooth argued that this tale of the dead mother’s magical help was the original core of the story. Her evidence was the present-day distribution of tale-types and details, to which folklorists look for clues regarding the long-term development of the story. At first, she said, there wasn’t even a marriage at the end: a dead mother sends miraculous help to her orphaned child, in the form of a wise beast and/or a magical tree … and that’s it. Even the marriage episode, which ends so many forms of the tale, was a later addition. Rooth believed that the story in this form first took shape somewhere in Asia, long before it was first recorded in writing. It then spread outwards. One tradition spread towards China and the Far East, eventually producing the story of Yeh-Hsien. Another spread in the opposite direction, through an important pivotal point of transition in the Middle East. Only after all this had happened did the earliest extant texts enter the written record. The Middle Eastern versions of the tale then spread to Europe from the south-east through the Balkans.

Rooth believed that the story’s route into Europe was complex and many-stranded. She found the old animal-helper tale spread across Europe in its unaltered form, leading to the examples we have mentioned, such as Little One Eye… and Rashin Coatie. But she also argued that the storytellers of long ago had already cut-and-stitched the animal-helper tale to another originally separate tale, which was also Eastern in provenance and was rather similar to the Rhodopis legend. This story told how a beautiful but mysterious woman is identified by means of some item which she has discarded while leaving a feast or public festival. By such means the old storytellers created a new story as a composite of two old ones, and, for the first time, Cinderella got to go to the ball – so to speak. You will already have noted that the story of Yeh-Hsien is actually an example of this composite type (I told you there was a catch about the Yeh-Hsien story as an example of the animal-helper type). However it happened, the newer composite story now spread into Europe from the Middle East, just like the older one, leading to tales such as the haunting Norwegian Kari Trestakk (“Kari Woodencoat“). If Rooth is right, the glass-slipper Cinderella would seem to derive from this form, having retained nothing of the animal-helper section, beyond the vague premise that the girl is suffering abuse at home, at the hands of her family, or step-family.

However, as we have seen, a still more radical development took place at the Middle Eastern crossing point, leading to the later, darker and more realistic complex of tales represented by the Grimms’ Allerleirauh (“All-Kinds-Of-Fur”), and by the more muted stories of overbearing fathers, linked above. These more muted forms often revolve around the famous motif of the father who demands that his daughters declare how much they love him – and then punishes the youngest daughter for answering the question honestly, by telling him (for example) that she loves him like salt. The common theme running through these stories is father-daughter love gone bad. The daughter often gets scant assistance from her dead mother either – in fact, there may be no explicitly magical or supernatural element to the story at all. The girl tends to flee her father and trust to luck, and the stories then proceed more or less in the familiar fashion through disguise and double-dealing to recognition and a (more or less) happy ending. The story of king Leir, which forms part of the Matter of Britain and inspired Shakespeare, is, of course, a story of this type, with Cordelia as the Cinderella character and Regan and Goneril making a very effective pair of ugly sisters.

Rooth’s argument therefore defines four basic versions of the story, in the west at least, besides Perrault’s glass-slipper Cinderella. Oldest is the basic animal-helper type, revolving mainly around the magic tree. Next is the composite type, in which the girl with the animal helper ends up going to the ball in disguise. Last come the more realistic tales of a loveless and/or abusive father. If Rooth is right, the earliest forms of the story involve an element of witchlike, almost shamanic magic which gradually fades from later versions. The action of the later versions is more rationalised; the characterisation is more rounded; and I personally suspect that it’s no coincidence that these versions seem to have entered Europe via the old, settled, literate, urban civilisations of the Middle East, which already had long traditions of philosophical scepticism towards old myths and primitive superstitions – traditions which are part of their legacy to the modern world.

So Cinderella is not really a story about going to a ball at all – simply as such. It’s a story about survival. It’s about living by your wits, in worlds where friends are strange and few, but love can be stronger than death. It is usually very hard to know who told any particular version of a folktale, when or where or why. Often they were told to very mixed audiences in a wide variety of settings. But if you want my guess, the essence of Cinderella – the core of emotional energy which enabled the story to endure and spread with such extraordinary prodigality – is a woman’s account of coming of age in an inhospitable, harshly patriarchal world. It recounts the threats and opportunities confronted by girls and young women: the elemental quality of mother-love; the risk of abuse in the workplace and the home; the tactical value of keeping up appearances; the search for a marriage partner. The tale recounts these things with the authoritative voice of one who has learned them all the hard way, supportively addressing a listener who hasn’t – yet. In this respect it may be noteworthy that many of the stories’ original tellers were older women – and so, of course, were the two major scholars of the tale whose work I have cited at length in this post.

Small wonder, then, if such a story has been rendered down to “retrograde fantasy” for children in the worlds of literature, learning, and lights-camera-action, to the point that many who inhabit such worlds have sincerely forgotten that Cinderella was ever anything else. Official and public arts and media are still not that glad to hear a genuinely authoritative female voice; particularly not from an under-privileged background. Such a voice is Cinderella’s, so the editors went to work on it early and thoroughly, and they are busy still today. The signs were all there in Charles Perrault’s work: Perrault passed over the more recent and realistic tales, and selected a supernatural story of a kind which his readers were probably already predisposed to regard as fairly pathetic; he then went on to render it actually pathetic by cutting-and-pasting a genteel fairy godmother over any lingering memory of actual wild enchantment, and pimped what was left with winsome stylings like pumpkin coaches and lizard footmen. We have lived with the results for three centuries, and respected interpreters of the fairy tale have solemnly claimed to find meaning in the “retrograde fantasy with the depth of a dressing-up box.” Perhaps they have. But “a traditional tale … well told”? For that, nowadays, we must dig a little deeper. If we do, we can unearth some dark, forgotten, and sometimes terrible treasures.

Postscript: The Glass Slipper

If you’ve read this far in the hope of finding out whether Cinderella’s glass slipper was really made of glass – apologies, and congratulations on your persistence. There is a popular theory that it was ermine; but in fact the answer is yes, it probably was glass after all. The ermine theory is grounded in the fact that “glass slipper” in Perrault’s French is pantoufle de verre, and verre sounds like vair (“ermine”), so possibly Perrault (or someone) misheard the word. This is quite a sensible suggestion really. After all, ermine really was used to make shoes. Glass slippers are rare in oral traditional versions of Cinderella. They occur in only six of Marian Roalfe Cox’s 345 versions. Some of these versions are not French, so the confusion could not have arisen independently in these stories, and we can be confident that the storyteller meant glass. But this may show the influence of Perrault’s version in which the mistake would already have been made. Also, fur slippers are obviously more practical than glass ones.

But in fact there is no actual evidence to support the view that Perrault mistook the word. French was his first language, after all. More to the point, marvellous glass objects – not only shoes but mountains, trees, towers and the like – are common enough in folktales to make it needless to explain away the glass slipper. Folktales aren’t sensible, and this sensible suggestion lacks purchase. Glass it is. Not very practical – but, then again, Perrault wasn’t planning on actually wearing the damn things himself … was he?

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The Secret Life of … Goldilocks and the Three Bears

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Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a nursery tale. That is to say: it is one of the relatively few examples of oral-derived narrative which really does preach to children (or at least seek to entertain them), as ‘fairy tales’ in general are commonly, but mistakenly, assumed to do. Perhaps relatedly, this story’s credentials as a genuine oral folktale have been questioned. There is reason to doubt them, in fact, but the story is an eclectic and intriguing mix of elements.

In the form in which you probably know it best, it certainly originated as a modern literary fairy tale. It was first published anonymously by the poet Robert Southey (seen here around the time he was writing it). He called it ‘The Story of the Three Bears.’ This tale appeared in The Doctor in 1837, and quickly became so popular that, in effect, it was adopted into tradition and became an authentic folktale.

It is interesting and salutary to note the changes which the story thereby underwent. Since Southey’s days, at least, the bears have always been three in number – one large, one middle-sized, and one small. They have always lived in a house furnished with appropriately-sized beds, chairs and the like; and, of course, they have tended to eat porridge. But in Southey’s original, for example, the intrusive protagonist was not a young girl at all, but an unpleasant, interfering old woman. And Southey’s bears are all male, and most tellingly, his sympathies were firmly with them, ‘for they were good Bears – a little rough or so, as the manner of Bears is, but for all that very good-natured and hospitable.’ His ‘impudent, bad old woman’ is not a heroine, or a potential victim of the bears’ vengeance; she is a nuisance.

Southey’s tale was immediately seized on for adaptation by other authors. In the years which followed, it was rewritten repeatedly for eager audiences, becoming the tale we recognise today. The first author to make the proganist a young girl was apparently Joseph Cundall, a pioneer publisher of children’s books and also notable as a pioneer photographer; he did it for his 1849 Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children.

Cundall gave the little girl silver hair and a name to match – fashionable choices for Victorian heroines – and this set the trend for half a century or so; he also seems to have been the one who turned the middle bear female. Later in the century (in 1878, according to Katharine Briggs), the bears were finally outed explicitly as the now-familiar father, mother and baby bear. The heroine’s golden hair emerged later (in 1889, according to Katharine Briggs). and the name Goldilocks followed. By now, the reader’s sympathies were now presumed to lie at least partly with the heroine. The story, in fact, had come to resemble other cautionary tales with a toehold in oral tradition, tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, in which another heedless young heroine encounters a monstrous adversary, and wises up just in time to escape the consequences of her thoughtless actions.

While it is certainly striking to reflect that dear little Goldilocks began her literary career quite recently, as a crabby, villainous old woman, much of the real interest lies in the tantalising hints about the secret life which her story lived in oral tradition before Southey got hold of it. The emphasis here is on hint: the story’s apparent absence from oral tradition once prompted the assumption that Southey simply make the whole thing up.

But this Southey probably did not do. For one thing, when he published the tale in 1837, a version of it had already been committed to writing. This was not published till years afterwards, but it is preserved in a private collection in Toronto Public Library – a well-established modern mecca of children’s literature and library storytelling. This text was written in 1831 as a present for a young relative, by Eleanor Muir. Southey himself had apparently been telling the story for years before he wrote it up, and his contemporaries tended to speak of the tale as being already fairly well-known before he introduced it to a mass readership. The Opies, meanwhile, record that Southey learnt the tale as a child from his uncle, William Tyler; we don’t know where Tyler learned the story, but we have grounds for a guess, thanks to one very interesting clue thrown up – many years after Southey published the story of the Three Bears – by the prolific Jewish-Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs, or, more rather, by his illustrator, John Batten.

Batten – an equally prolific illustrator of folktale and fairytale collections – contributed a story to Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales of 1894 (Jacobs had included Southey’s story of the Three Bears in a previous volume of English Fairy Tales). Batten’s story, ‘Scrapefoot,’ is recognisable as a version of the story of the Three Bears in which the protagonist is neither a little girl nor an old lady but – get this, right – a fox.

In Batten’s story, Scrapefoot the fox steals into a castle inhabited by three bears (of indeterminate family status). Like the bears themselves, everything in the castle is graded in order of size, as you might expect. Scrapefoot tries everything for size, breaks things, steals the bears’ milk (not porridge), and falls asleep. The bears return and the famous ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’-style investigation ensues. Scrapefoot is discovered and threatened with punishment (including hanging and drowning); finally, the bears throw him out of the window, and he escapes, older and wiser but unharmed. Clearly this is the same story as the tale of Goldilocks. But Goldilocks has no part in it, even in her original guise as an old woman.

Instead, there’s a mother-freakin’ fox.

How come?

Well, Jacobs argued that in the story of Scrapefoot he had discovered a version of the original oral story on which Southey’s tale of the Three Bears had been based. Southey, he argued, had taken a real folktale about a fox and three bears, and replaced the fox with a little old lady.

This is not as as bizarre an idea as it might sound. Folktales about a fox and some bears are exactly what we might expect to find in the storytelling traditions of modern Europe; the mid-nineteenth century is maybe a bit late to go looking for them, but not too late.

Generally, indeed, tales of beast-like beings with human characteristics (such as the power of speech) are among the most widespread and fundamental types of oral narrative in the world. From ancient times, the most popular form of such stories in European tradition was the animal-fable. Prominent among European animal-fables from the Middle Ages onwards was ‘the early Bear and Fox tale-cycle,’ as the folklorist Katharine Briggs called it. Jacobs in fact regarded the tale of the Three Bears as ‘the last survival’ of the cycle ‘in English folk tradition.’

To give Jacobs’ argument its full weight, we need to backtrack for a rather sweeping survey of human development. The oldest artworks from prehistory include half-human, half-animal figures. Such figures seem to have had an importance in early communities which is hard to overestimate. Hybrid animal-human beings appear in the mythic iconography of many of the earliest civilisations – think of all those animal-headed Egyptian gods. Down to modern times, such figures have continued to bulk large in indigenous myths and tales, with their irrepressible and unforgettable gallery of demiurges or world-creators, tricksters and culture-heroes: such as Raven, Iktomi, Kweku Anansi, Blue Jay, Grandmother Spider, /Kaggen the Mantis, and countless others. Not least, such figures feature widely in the oral learning of the American First Nations, one of the most intensively researched indigenous cultures of modern times. There is something about the idea that seems to be almost hard-wired into our consciousness; as discussed elsewhere on this blog, it seems to relate to the tendency which myths have to invest everything which they discuss with sentience, consciousness, and motivations similar to those which drive human beings. Animals, of course, are conscious beings with motives resembling those of humans, and there’s a fun illustration here of the sort of animal behaviour which might be easily observed and serve as an inspiration for storytelling.

But the animal-tale did not retain its mythic status in younger civilisations, and it has not remained quite so central to the religious thought of the western or Muslim worlds, or India, or China. Nevertheless, these younger civilisations have sustained their habit of reference to animal-human hybrid figures as icons of wisdom, or at least of common-sense, up to and including satire of human foibles and pretentions. The expression of this was in their sustained appetite for animal-fables. Aesop’s fables are the best known animal-fables in the west. Indian collections such as the Panchatantra are vastly more extensive. In Europe, from the Middle Ages onwards, animal-fables remained a common and popular literary form, adopted by such poets as Chaucer, Henryson and Lafontaine.

Scholars gather stories of such characters – as much for convenience as for any other reason – into cycles. One good example, relevant to our theme, is the great African Hare cycle, which seems to have crossed the Atlantic with its storytellers in the course of the American slave deportations, and fetched up in the southern US in adapted form as the Bre’r Rabbit cycle, and in the Caribbean in the tales of B’Booky and B’Rabby, and so forth. Directly or indirectly, these traditions may even have informed the creation of cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote, for today, of course, human-animal hybridity remains a standard characteristic in fantastic tales for children and adults, from the Chronicles of Narnia to Planet of the Apes.

The Bear and Fox cycle is part of this vast web of story. Bear and Fox tales are widely known – the famous story of how the bear lost his tail is among the more popular ones around the world today, and is a good example of the genre. There is no scope here for a full account of the cycle and its related scholarship, but tales of Reynard the Fox were a mainstay of oral and literary storytelling in medieval Europe in more or less the way that tales of King Arthur were. Relatedly, centuries later, the cycle was the subject of a massively important case-study in the history of folktale scholarship: Kaarle Krohn‘s groundbreaking 1888 doctoral thesis, Bär (Wolf) und Fuchs: Eine Nordische Tiermärchenkette (Bear (Wolf) and Fox: A Nordic Animal-Tale Chain), which made its author’s career as a professional scholar and inspired generations of folklorists to study folktales in terms of its famous (and famously demanding) comparative or historical-geographical method.

This is the wider context of the Reynard cycle of which the tale of the Three Bears may once have formed a part. And if Jacobs was right, and the story of the Three Bears ‘belongs,’ as Katharine Briggs puts it, ‘to the early Bear and Fox tale-cycle,’ then the tale of Goldilocks is not a modern literary fairy-tale or phoney folktale at all; it’s oral narrative royalty.

In some respects Goldilocks and the Three Bears does fit surprisingly well within the vast mosaic of animal-myth and -fable. Like the tale of Goldilocks, such tales admit no real distinction between the human and natural worlds: animals, humans, and indeterminate or hybrid beings live, converse and interact in community alongside one another. Their stories revolve around conflicts or rivalries within this chaotic, mixed-up world between vividly-drawn stock characters, which show a preoccupation with the basics of life, such as home, food, safety and danger, and often dwell on the consequences of immoral, tabooed or ill-advised behaviour. All these things are as true of the tale of Goldilocks as they are of the exploits of the African Hare, or the Egyptian Seth, or Luma-Luma, the unforgettable whale-man-culture-hero of the Kunwinjku people of northern Australia.

We should not forget that Joseph Jacobs may have simply been wrong to suspect that the tale of the Three Bears was ‘the last survival of the Reynard cycle in English folk tradition.’ For one thing, if Southey heard a story about a fox and some bears, why did he change the identity of the central character? There seems to be no entirely convincing answer. It has been suggested that the young Southey misunderstood his uncle’s reference to a ‘vixen,’ taking it as a slangy reference to a nosy old lady. This strikes me as contrived and unconvincing. So perhaps we have to remain agnostic. But there is something about John Batten’s story of Scrapefoot the fox. Reading it leaves me with the strong impression that Jacobs may have been right. If he was, then it follows that the three bears can claim a surprisingly wild and exalted lineage.

I grew up with Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I can still vividly remember my terrified fascination at the thought of the three great bears, wronged and vengeful in their sunny little cottage. Jacobs suggests that their lumbering, shadowy presences hint at what the doll-like figure of Goldilocks conceals: a link with dreams and understandings which have haunted the human mind for so long that the whole of history seems a mere afterthought by comparison. Do the Three Bears really have roots that stretch through the long, tangled web of medieval fables to the animal-myths of prehistory?

We’ll never really know. But the idea, as an idea, strikes me as surprisingly resonant. Resonant enough to seem persuasive. No wonder Goldilocks scarpered.

The Secret Life of … Beowulf

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Introduction

Beowulf is an epic poem from Anglo-Saxon England: at 3,182 lines, it is the longest extant Old English poem, and – in effect – the oldest major work in the canon of English literature. It is composed in the famous Old English alliterative metre, which modern translators often imitate. It was composed a few generations prior to the Norman conquest, some time roughly around 1000 AD. It tells a story which has been dated to around five centuries previous to its date of composition, around 500 AD. Its setting is not England, but the other side of the North Sea, in the southern Baltic – that is, the ancestral homeland of the poem’s original Anglo-Saxon audience; we might picture the tenth-century English audience looking back to the story of Beowulf in rather the way that modern Americans look back across the Atlantic to tales of Robin Hood.

The basic plot is well-known. A Danish king called Hrothgar (a name still current in English, in the form Roger; it means “spear of fame”) builds a magnificent feasting hall called Heorot (“The Hart”). The hall is haunted by a nocturnal, man-eating monster, Grendel (“The Grinder”). A young warrior of a neighbouring tribe hears of the opportunity for glory. His name is Beowulf, a name which sounds like it means bee-wolf, which would be a typically roundabout Anglo-Saxon way of referring to the animal which behaves like a thief (a “wolf”) towards bees, namely by stealing their honey. So Beowulf’s name means Bear, just like the modern name Björn/Bjørn (“the brown one”), and he certainly has the bearlike characteristics of immense strength and skill at wrestling and swimming. Beowulf visits Heorot in order to confront Grendel, which he does in a late-night hand-to-hand duel. Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off with his bare hands. Grendel crawls off, mortally wounded. But the nightly attacks on Heorot continue. Beowulf then has to face a second showdown with Grendel’s mother, in her lair at the bottom of a marshy lake. Beowulf leaves the Danish court and returns home triumphant, having killed both monsters.

Years pass. Beowulf becomes king of his own people, when his own king, Hygelac, and his successor, are both killed. (The real Hygelac’s death was touted, originally by N.F.S. Grundtvig, as the poem’s one corroborated historical fact, courtesy of Gregory of Tours – but this argument may convince you otherwise). Beowulf rules well for many years. Then, in old age, he has to face a third and final showdown, with a dragon which has been inadvertently woken up by a runaway slave. Beowulf and the dragon kill each other, and the poem ends with an account of the hero’s funeral.

Beowulf, in essence, then, is the story of three heroic fights with three monsters, and this is how the story is usually told by modern film-makers and graphic artists. But – if this needs saying – Beowulf was never as crude or simple a story as this summary might imply. The monsters are not simple fight-fodder, but complex and ambivalent entities, or symbols. Also, the three climatic fight-stories are embedded, like the prodigies of Greek tragedy, within intricate, realistic stories of war and dynastic politics, like three chunky pillars supporting the tracery of a vaulted ceiling, and, like the tales of Robin Hood, these parallel plots seem to be based loosely on real events. Beowulf’s own people, the Geats, are a relatively humble tribe, constantly looking over the shoulder towards their powerful rivals and feud-enemies, the neighbouring Swedes. And history bears out this sense of foreboding: the Geats did lose out eventually, and their territory is now part of Sweden. Meanwhile, Lejre, in modern Denmark, has been proposed as the location of the real Heorot (as a historic nucleus of the Danish kingdom). And this burial mound was even suggested as the grave of the real Beowulf, by the archaeologist Birger Nerman.

All this is well known and often discussed, and while I’m no expert on Beowulf, I have loved the poem for years. The combination of poetic form, subject matter, narrative power and the sheer flavour of the language is unique and indescribable. Whoever composed it was a genius and the master of an extraordinarily subtle and powerful form of narrative art. What is less often told is the fascinating story of how and why we know about Beowulf at all. We very nearly didn’t. This story of survival and rediscovery is exactly the kind of story which belongs on this blog.

And it is quite a story – although much about it remains a matter of conjecture. But, like its hero, the manuscript of Beowulf has had an adventurous life, physically speaking, involving war in the southern Baltic; fire and water; a late but triumphant emergence from obscurity; and other adventures. It got caught up in the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation. It fell into the hands of Elizabethan spymasters. It is still singed around the edges from a house-fire. It was one of the first great literary texts to be nationalised (so to speak), and it took an Act of Parliament to do it. A century later, the story it records was rescued from obscurity by a scholar who has been accused of being a fraud, whose notes, he claimed, were bombed to ashes by British warships; then, a century after that, it was rescued from highbrow condescension by the bestselling author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Despite its atavistic roots, then, Beowulf has quietly spent three centuries near the forefront of intellectual life and popular culture. The gatekeepers of highbrow art have perhaps been less enthusiastic about admitting it to their canons; but that’s hardly the sort of thing to bother us on this blog. So let’s have a closer look at the secret life of this oldest, most ambitious, and most quietly enduring and resonant of English stories.

The Mysterious Manuscript

There is only one Beowulf manuscript. It just turned up, as if out of nowhere, in the 1560s, by which point it was about five hundred years old. About these first five centuries, we can only make deductions on the basis of clues contained within the document itself, and this is hard, because the document was badly damaged in the ensuing centuries.

Beowulf is written on parchment. It is about seventy pages long, but it is part of a longer document of about a hundred pages, containing four other poems besides, of a similar date and content. As far as we know they have always been bound together in a single volume. It is not a big book physically: the pages are about 195mm x 115-130mm, roughly the same dimensions as a DVD case, or an A5 sheet of paper.  The language of the poem is a late and quite literary form of Old English, which rapidly fell out of use in élite circles following the Norman conquest. Whoever wrote it was using letter-forms which originated late in the first millennium AD and spread to England from the continent. These details are hard to fake, and conclusively suggest a date around 1000 AD. The handwriting changes halfway through (just at the point in the story when Beowulf has arrived back home from the Danish court), so the original text of Beowulf is regarded as the work of two scribes.

Where these scribes got their subject-matter from, and in what form they got it, are matters of speculation, and the speculation revolves around several stubborn riddles relating to the poem’s discernible form and subject matter.

Firstly, there is the issue of orality. The Anglo-Saxons seemingly lacked a written language entirely when they first took power in Britain, between 400 and 600 AD. By the time the Beowulf manuscript was being written, the English were a highly literate people. Beowulf is clearly oral-derived – that is, a text with some sort of root in an older oral tradition. Oral tradition and literacy – including classical literature – must all have played at least some part in the poem’s formation. There is also the question of the manuscript tradition: whether the poem we have was copied from older, lost manuscripts, and, if so, how many, and how.

Secondly, there is the issue of religion. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans in 400 AD, but they coverted to Christianity from around 600 AD, and were a Christian society from the mid-seventh century onwards. Whoever composed Beowulf was clearly a Christian poet with some Biblical knowledge, looking back to the pagan heritage of his own forebears. This is clear from the text.

Thirdly, and finally, there is the politics of the text. Beowulf heaps praise on some of its heroes, and this praise may have had contemporary political implications for the poem’s original audience – assuming this audience included powerful people who may have regarded the poem’s characters as their own illustrious forebears. Did these powerful audience-descendants exist, and, if they did, who were they? We don’t know, but there are many possible candidates. Anglo-Saxon England in its earliest form was a patchwork quilt of petty kingdoms in the control of local dynasties. The kingdom was gradually (and violently) centralised. By 1066, England was a single, unified kingdom, but a succession of English and Danish dynasts were still fighting over it.

So, in order to interpret the poem and understand its origins, one must do one’s best to place it along several sliding scales, between orality and literacy, Christianity and paganism, and so forth. In a nutshell, then, the more oral, pagan, and provincial in outlook Beowulf is, then the older it probably is – or, at least, the more conservative. Concomitantly, the more literary, Christian, and metropolitan it is, then the later its origin would seem to be. And these are matters of interpretation, so, over the years, scholars have drawn a range of conclusions. Sam Newton argued that the poem is East Anglian in its politics; J.R.R. Tolkien argued that it is Christian, but quite close to paganism in its sympathies; Francis P. Magoun thought it was old and oral, whereas Kevin Kiernan thinks it is late and literary; and so forth. It is hard for the non-specialist to follow the details of this debate, but it is very easy to sum up the state of our knowledge about the exact origins of Beowulf: nobody really knows what they are.

A Miserable State of Cremation: Beowulf in the Libraries (1)

For three centuries after the manuscript comes to light, hardly anyone knew it existed at all, apart from a few very bookish experts. Those experts gradually came to an acute awareness of the text’s significance, but they failed to protect it from some serious damage.

The hundred-page Old English manuscript which contains Beowulf was labelled the “Nowell Codex” by Kemp Malone, and the name has stuck. Codex is simply a precise technical term for what we would think of simply as a book: the document format consisting of multiple pages joined at a spine, which, in the west, mostly superseded the rolled scroll in the early Middle Ages. Nowell is the name of the book’s first known owner, Lawrence Nowell, who wrote his name on the first page where it can still be read today, spelling it Laurence Nouell, and adding a year, which is usually read as 1563.

Lawrence Nowell was a protegé of William Cecil, the leading Tudor statesman and intimate of queen Elizabeth I. Cecil was one of the queen’s senior fixers, right-hand men, spymasters, and general getter-of-things-done. Nowell was one of Cecil’s regular staffers; one of his jobs was to make pocket maps for Cecil’s daily use, and he was in the habit of drawing wistful portraits of himself with an empty purse in the corners of these maps, as a tactful reminder to his patron to pay up.

Nor is it surprising that a man like Nowell would have take an interest in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Nowell was one of the first people to compile a dictionary of Old English – a language which sounds (mostly) unintelligible to us, as it would have done to the Elizabethans. In the sixteenth century, there was an upsurge of interest in what people at the time called antiquities: the tangible evidence for what we would now call the early history, prehistory, and folklore of Britain. Scholars and enthusiasts, who called themselves antiquarians, made serious attempts to interpret old manuscripts, inscriptions, archaeological sites, vernacular cultural traditions, and other evidence of the distant past. This had to do with the sudden political imperative of proving that the roots of Christianity in Britain were independent of the Roman Church – something which a British Protestant would naturally want to believe.

But it also had to do with the sudden and related wealth of available evidence. Thirty years before Nowell acquired the Beowulf manuscript, queen Elizabeth’s father, king Henry VIII, broke up the monasteries of medieval Catholic England, as part of the same Protestant Reformation which piqued the interest of people like Nowell in Britain’s early history. The contents of the monastic libraries – a vast and priceless hoard of medieval manuscripts – came flooding onto the open market. It seems a fairly safe bet that the Beowulf manuscript fell into Nowell’s hands as part of this tidal wave of erudite Reformation plunder, and had spent its five previous centuries in one or more of the monastery libraries of medieval England.

Nowell seems to have left his volume, along with his other ancient manuscripts, to his own protegé, William Lambarde (1536 – 1601). Shortly thereafter, somehow, it turns up in the possession of another well-connected antiquarian, a younger contemporary of Lambarde’s called Robert Bruce Cotton (1571 – 1631). Cotton was another of the leading manuscript collectors of his day. He had dealings on his own account with William Cecil; with great antiquarians like John Dee and William Camden; with Thomas Bodley, the man who founded the Bodleian Library; and others. Once he had possession of the Nowell codex, it remained in the Cotton family, and was bequeathed, along with the rest of Cotton’s gigantic collection of manuscripts, to his grandson John.

The Cottons had the Nowell codex rebound with another early manuscript, which Kemp Malone called the “Southwick Codex” – since it has a footnote which seems to connect it to the library of Southwick Priory in Hampshire. It has been speculated that Cotton had the two codices bound together because they came from the same library. Bound together, they made a single volume of around two hundred pages. This larger volume still exists, and is still known as British Library Cotton Vitellius A XV (or A 15). This snappy title records the fact that, in the Cotton library, it was the fifteenth book on shelf A in the bookcase that had a bust of the Roman emperor Vitellius on it. That was how the Cottons catalogued their collection: if you didn’t know your Roman emperors (or Roman numerals), you didn’t have much chance of finding your way round the their library. Despite the impression which this may leave us with, the Cottons were actually more worried than most about widening access to learning, for when John Cotton died in 1701, he bequeathed the library to the nation, and the whole collection became Parliament’s responsibility – the Cottons’ house was practically next door to the Houses of Parliament, so it was conveniently placed for the purpose. The idea of publicly owned treasuries of art and culture was cutting-edge stuff, and it took a 1702 Act of Parliament to ratify the acceptance of the bequest. But, already, in 1702, Beowulf had been liberated, by one man’s generosity and foresight, from the hoards of the comfortably-ensconced monks, monarchs and plutocrats which infect English history. Beowulf already belonged to you and me.

On its initial receipt into public ownership, the collection was temporarily housed in Essex House, and then in Ashburnham House, Westminster, close to Westminster School. Ashburnham House was the residence of a Biblical scholar, called Bentley.

And there, on the night of 23rd October 1731, disaster struck. Ashburnham House burned down, with a large collection of publicly owned manuscripts still inside it, including the Cotton library – including Vitellius A XV, including the only copy of Beowulf then in existence.

The fire has been described as “the greatest bibliographical disaster of modern times in Britain.” Water-pumps were applied, as rescuers abandoned the printed books and rushed to save the irreplaceable manuscripts. Contemporary letters record the spectacle of Mr Bentley himself, rushing out of the house in wig and nightgown, a thick volume under his arm. All that night charred fragments of texts fell like snow. In the morning, the schoolboys from Westminster School picked them up off the pavements as souvenirs.

Between burning and soaking, many priceless volumes were destroyed (mostly those on the bookshelves with busts of the emperors from Tiberius to Otho). However, most of the manuscripts were moved to the School, where they were to be stored in fairly makeshift conditions in the boys’ dormitories for the next twenty years. The Cotton collection did not find a permanent home until 1753, when the British Museum was founded by a bequest from Hans Sloane, and the Cotton collection was moved to a new premises in Montagu House on Great Russell Street. The Library was moved to the new Museum building in 1827, where it remained until it was moved to the new St Pancras building in 1997, reflecting the fact that the British Museum and British Library had become separate institutions. If you walk west down Euston Road from Kings Cross Station, you pass within a stone’s throw of Beowulf‘s current home.

For the Beowulf-book – Cotton Vitellius A XV – was not destroyed in the 1731 fire. It was singed around the edges, and left very fragile, desiccated and brittle. This was ominous, and reading the story of the ensuing decades feels a bit like watching a time-lapse movie of the Beowulf-book crumbling to dust before one’s very eyes. In 1794, the Museum’s Keeper of Manuscripts, Joseph Planta, was ordered by Parliament to restore and catalogue the manuscripts – a job involving over eight hundred volumes, including 105 damaged books, including the Beowulf-book, which Planta seems to have had rebound in the 1790s. He worked on the project until 1802, but appears to have botched the job, and further damaged the book. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, readers and Museum staff alike had more or less unrestricted access to the manuscript, and it crumbled even further under their hands.

It is a relief to read that in 1845 a general restoration programme of the Cotton manuscripts began, under the auspices of Frederic Madden, another Keeper of Manuscripts, and the restorer Henry Gough. As part of this programme, Madden and Gough finally had the Beowulf-book inlaid – that is, mounted in an album. The album mountings consigned some letters at the edges of the crumbling pages to oblivion under layers of paper and glue, but the text was protected from further damage, and remains today in more or less the same physical condition as it was in in 1845.

Unnoticed and Untouched? Beowulf in the Libraries (2)

By this point, the text of Beowulf was receiving serious scholarly attention. The first public hint that it existed came in 1705, when the pioneering scholar Humfrey Wanley published a catalogue description of the poem, and a transcript of a few lines, in which he mistakenly described Beowulf as a Danish king – a pardonable error, based on a misreading of the poem’s opening lines. But much good came of Wanley’s mistake later in the century, for his catalogue caught the eye of Danish scholars interested in their own country’s early history. Easily the most significant of these was Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin (1752-1829), Professor of Antiquities at Copenhagen University, and Danish state archivist.

Thorkelin (who was of Icelandic extraction, and who seems to have Latinised his name from the more Icelandic Thorkelsson) received regular funding from the Danish monarchy to scour Europe for Danish antiquities, and he was abroad most of the time between 1786 and 1791. In the course of his field trips, he came to London, and, drawn by Wanley’s catalogue, he appears to have paid the Museum to make a copy Beowulf for him. This copy must have raised his eyebrows, because he returned to the Museum and made another copy himself. The Museum copy – known today as Thorkelin A, and possibly written up by a Museum employee called James Matthews – looks rather like any old written document of the time, but Thorkelin’s own transcript – known as Thorkelin B – was as close as he could get, freehand, to an exact facsimile of the original. Both are now essential reading, since they preserve bits of the original text which were destroyed in the early nineteenth century. Thorkelin’s work is so important that, ironically, some of his mistakes have misled generations of scholars.

Armed with his two transcripts, Thorkelin went home to Copenhagen, and began to prepare Beowulf for publication. He was not quite the first person to publish any text from Beowulf: that honour goes to one Sharon Turner, a pioneer historian (and – please note – a male) who translated an extract in 1805 for his History of the Anglo-Saxons, a bestseller in its day which introduced the whole swathe of Anglo-Saxon history to a reading public who hardly knew anything about it. Turner was the writer who described the poem as “untouched and unnoticed” until he worked on it. This is an exaggeration, but not much of one. Turner, incidentally, was the first person to call the poem Beowulf, which he seems to have done in 1803.

But it was Thorkelin published the first complete printed text, and the first full translation (into Latin). It took him a conspicuously long time. The story he tells is that his edition was finished by 1807; then disaster struck again. In the course of the Napoleonic Wars, despite Denmark’s neutrality, the British invaded Denmark, mainly in order to stop Napoleon from doing something similar. The British navy bombarded Copenhagen,  causing thousands of civilian deaths, and extensive damage to infrastructure. The small Danish army presented itself to be outgunned by the Duke of Wellington’s troops with the same David-versus-Goliath spirit with which they confronted the Nazis over a century later. Thorkelin claimed that his manuscript edition was lost in the bombardment, forcing him to start all over from scratch, with his two original transcripts. We only have his word for this, but it seems plausible.

Thorkelin gave Beowulf its first ever print publication, in 1815 – the year the Grimm brothers completed publication the first edition of their seminal Children’s and Household Tales. The Grimms, of course, were also pioneering scholars and linguists in their own right. But Thorkelin’s work on Beowulf was full of mistakes, and he was criticised in his own time by experts such as Grundtvig. Thorkelin has even been dismissed as a fraud. At any rate, the poem was finally available to the public, and other scholars and editors quickly began to make good the deficiencies of his work. In the following years, English scholars, including John Conybeare and a young Frederic Madden, published other versions. After that, the cat was out of the bag, and the history of Beowulf textual scholarship from the mid-nineteenth century to today is an ever more complex interweave of diplomatic editions, facsimiles, restorations and emendations. There are many more high points in this story, including Julius Zupitza’s 1882 autotype of the manuscript (available for free download as a PDF), or Friedrich Klaeber’s monumental edition of the poem, first published in 1922. But the point for us is that Beowulf was now, finally, well and truly in the public domain – at least as a text of interest to scholars.

Poetry so powerful: Beowulf in the Public Domain

I used to think that nobody at all read Beowulf for pleasure until J.R.R. Tolkien revolutionised Beowulf studies by making a killer argument for the poem’s serious artistic value in his famous lecture of 1936, later published as Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.

People say this, but I’m not convinced it was quite that simple: one can readily imagine that Beowulf would have gone down well with a later nineteenth-century audience, with tastes attuned to Wagner and early Yeats. An intelligible Beowulf was indeed already making its presence felt in art and popular culture. Translations and accessible versions of the poem had been in publication for nearly a century. Translations began to appear within a couple of years of Thorkelin’s first printed edition; the first complete translation (apart from Thorkelin’s Latin version) was Grundtvig’s Danish Bjovulfs Drape. Famous poets such as Tennyson and Longfellow attempted versions of bits of it, but the most influential complete translation was John Kemble’s of 1837. William Morris could hardly have failed to give a poem like this a try, and he did, in 1895. But intellectual fashions changed. Early twentieth century critics tended to approach the poem purely as a historical source; as a work of art or literature, it struck them as – well, as something out of the Dark Ages. Among a general readership, the poem’s profile seems always to have been low.

In 1936, there were reasons why Tolkien would want to revolutionise Beowulf studies. Many universities had a policy of making all English undergraduates study Beowulf as a way of learning Old English – whether or not it was the sort of thing they wanted to study. Generations of English students with no affinity whatsoever for heroic Anglo-Saxon legend were forced to acquire an intimate loathing of it. This might help to explain why so many expert literary critics of 1936 were quick to dismiss this tale of monsters and dragons.

Tolkien, however, insisted that it should be taken seriously. He found Beowulf “so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts … that research has discovered.” More to the point, he argued that the poem was a successful work of art precisely because of the monsters and dragons which were then so intellectually unrespectable. Tolkien argued that the monsters “are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.” Specifically, he thought they were poetic devices enabling the poet to address the problem of evil and suffering, in a sophisticated and ambivalent way which reconciled the poet’s own Christianity with his knowledge that his ancestors were pagans.

As usual, Tolkien’s contribution involved democratising the artistic works he prized, by ripping some rather snobbish-seeming blinkers off his fellow-intellectuals. In making this argument, Tolkien was, in effect, speaking up for a Beowulf which was genuinely meaningful for readers, including contemporary ones.

In time, a large general public came to agree, in their own way, that Tolkien had a point. Beowulf‘s breakout into popular culture was under way as early as the 1940s, when it appeared as a comic strip in Italy. The experts caught up eventually, and after the Second World War, highly esteemed poets such as W. H. Auden and J. L. Borges began to take Beowulf seriously, although, tellingly, the tone of Borges’ poem about Beowulf seems hesitant: it involves the poet encountering Beowulf and saying to himself, in effect, “Hang on a minute. I actually like this stuff. I’d best explain myself,” and the explanation he offers is not particularly upbeat: he comments that learning Anglo-Saxon is an appropriate undertaking for his declining faculties towards the end of life. Towards the latter end of the twentieth century, other literary heavyweights felt less need to account for their esteem for the poem at all – let alone in such apologetic, downbeat terms. This period was Beowulf‘s boom period as a story for a general and informed audience, just as the later nineteenth century had been its boom years as an academic text for specialists. The volume of Beowulf-related output spiralled exponentially from about 1990, ranging in register from the popular appeal of several fantasy-style movies, to the highbrow kitemark of Seamus Heaney’s award-winning translation of 1999 – as recited by the poet himself, here.

Today, although some of the old ambivalence still seems to cling to contemporary receptions of Beowulf, the poem’s stock is high in both scholarship and culture. The state of the art in terms of scholarship seems to be represented by Kevin Kiernan’s electronic editions of Beowulf. These are ground-breaking in several ways. Firstly, they provide high-resolution images of the whole manuscripts, using backlit photography, UV imaging and other new technologies to read letters, words and passages that have long been illegible – including those hidden under Madden’s protective mountings. Secondly, they cross-reference the text to equally high-resolution images of Thorkelin’s transcripts and other important modern versions of the text. Also, they are stuffed with user-friendly electronic dictionaries, indexes, translations and other forms of support. Finally, they make all this widely accessible in digital and online formats. Today’s students and interested readers have a level of access to the original text of which the most privileged scholars of previous generations could only have dreamed.

They also live in an intellectual and cultural climate which – on the whole – seems markedly friendlier to the study of Beowulf than it was in Tolkien’s day. Recognised expert critics and arbiters of taste are certainly less confident about dismissals of popular and vernacular culture. Representations of the magic and supernatural are also somewhat in vogue again. One critically acclaimed series of novels, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, seems to consist of a rather forced attempt to reclaim the realm of magic for the cause of secular rationalism – rather than dismiss it – and it is a telling sign of the times when Gradgrind comes knocking on the door disguised as Dumbledore. Another well-received (and much better) novel for young people, A Monster Calls, exactly mirrors Beowulf‘s strategy of narrating an encounter with a monster within and alongside a real, complex human tragedy. There is an impressive range of encyclopaedic Beowulf websites by scholars and enthusiasts – like this one and this one. Meanwhile, Nobel Prize-winning poets agonise word by word over their translations of the poem, and Robert Zemeckis produces a movie Beowulf in which the plot revolves around Grendel’s mother, drastically reconfigured as a seductive succubus, played by a seemingly butt-naked, digitally enhanced Angelina Jolie. Beowulf this certainly ain’t – or, at least, not in any sense that would be recognised by the poet – but such an eclectic range of register must constitute at least some evidence of major success, for a medieval poem preserved in a lone manuscript which languished in obscurity for half a millennium and nearly disappeared in a house fire a century before almost anyone even knew it existed.

The Secret Life of … the Housemaid’s Tale

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How many times has the Devil been to Lancashire? We’ll never know. But there are certainly quite a few stories of encounters with the Old Lad and the Lancashire lads. Lately I’ve been looking at a few.

My current favourite Lancashire devil story was told around 1825 by a Anne Bentham, a “housemaid at Bury,” to the aunt of the folklorist Charlotte Burne (1850 – 1923). Burne learned it from her aunt and published it in 1909. It was reprinted in Westwood and Simpson’s The Lore of the Land, currently my take-everywhere, desert-island book.

Westwood and Simpson don’t say when Charlotte Burne learned the story from her aunt, but it was probably in her childhood. Burne’s father was severely disabled, and as a child she was often sent to aunts. From this we can hazard a guess that the middle-aged Burne was publishing a story which she had heard about fifty years previously within the extended family, around the 1850s or 60s. If so, the aunt would have been telling her niece a story which she would herself similarly have heard as a child, about thirty years previously.

The story concerns a battle of wits between Satan and “old Mr Hodgson,” the Bury schoolmaster. Some of Hodgson’s schoolboys inadvertently raised the devil before realising they didn’t know how to send him back to Hell. Mr Hodgson noticed something was wrong when his wooden trencher – a detail which prompts Westwood and Simpson to date the story to the seventeenth century or earlier – began spinning round beneath his dinner. Presumably it was an after-school prank, and Mr Hodgson had gone home to have his tea. Since the Devil in such stories is notable for the sudden violence and brute strength of his movements, perhaps we can imagine the spinning plate as an effect of a shock-wave emanating from Satan’s sudden materialisation.

Anyway, Mr Hodgson hurried to the schoolhouse, and “set about dismissing the Devil by setting him some task he could not perform: traditionally, one had only three chances to do this.” The first task was to “count the blades of grass in the Castle Croft,” and the second was to “count the grains of sand on the School Brow.” The Devil was easily able to do both. The third task was to count “the letters in the large Bible in the Parish Church.” This the Devil could not do – presumably for spiritual reasons – and he fled back to Hell through the schoolroom floor, leaving a large crack in the hearthstone to attest the truth of the story.

Three-stage battles of wit with the devil, or other powerful mortal or immortal enemy, are widely attested in the storytelling traditions of the British Isles. Westwood and Simpson list two other examples for Lancashire alone. The challenging tasks frequently involve counting impossibly large numbers. So far, so commonplace.

Westwood and Simpson say little about the places in which this story is set – Castle Croft, School Brow, the Parish Church, and the schoolroom. Charlotte Burne, their immediate source, doesn’t say much about these places either. Neither, for all I can tell, did the aunt, or the unknown “housemaid at Bury” around 1825. However, I’d hazard a guess that the housemaid – at least – appreciated a pattern in the story’s layout, which certainly isn’t obvious in Burne’s rewritten account: it might easily have been too obvious to mention for any storyteller acquainted with the school and its environs, and too obscure for anyone else to notice. So, with Google Maps only a mouse-click away, let’s have a closer look.

Bury Grammar School dates its foundation from 1727, but has roots stretching back to the 1570s. Nowadays, it has all the Hogwartian trappings of an old public school, including houses with colours, a cadet force, a crest with a Latin motto, and a quaint name for people who went there (“Old Clavians”). Their ranks, interestingly, number the comedian Victoria Wood, alongside MPs of both parties, soldiers, business and media luminaries, and professional sportspeople – and, of course, the alleged amateur Satanists of the housemaid’s story. From the first, Bury Grammar School was attached to the Anglican Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, and was “originally housed in buildings in The Wylde (which exists today as The Blackburn Hall) behind the Parish Church.” So Blackburn Hall – or somewhere very close to it – gets my vote for the schoolroom of the housemaid’s story.

Mr Hodgson sends the Devil to count the grass ‘in the Castle Croft.’ Where, and what, is Castle Croft? Bury Castle itself did not survive the Wars of the Roses, and today its site is largely occupied by a Territorial Army centre. But it seems fairly clear that the Castle Croft was the tract of land running north from the castle along the bank of the Irwell. It was an open space beyond the western edge of the town, later sliced up by the East Lancashire Railway, and later still again by the A56 Peel Way viaduct. Today, on Google Maps, Castlecroft Road runs between an industrial estate and a patch of open parkland alongside the Irwell, about a quarter-mile north-west of the grammar school. The open ground still seems fairly grassy.

School Brow is a lane off Castlecroft Road, lying between it and the old school site. It doesn’t seem to have many grains of sand these days, but since it runs past a derelict factory into a tunnel under the A56, it may certainly have once been much sandier than it is now.

So it seems that the locations of the devil’s tasks are not arranged at random: they run in a straight(ish) line from the river at the town’s edge to the school at the town’s heart. It follows that the housemaid’s tale shows the Devil being sent from the school almost as far as the river, before making his way directly and inexorably back to the school. This certainly adds to the emotional impact and tension of the story: following the Devil’s abortive banishment to open spaces outside the town, we can now sense him getting a little bit closer with each task, like the wolf in a game of What’s the Time, Mister Wolf, before Mr Hodgson turns the tables just in time. I love the ending: the way the schoolmaster suddenly seems to get the point in the nick of time and tricks the devil; the way the trick suggests that the strongest antidote to evil lies closest to home – and is not always valued.

Also, interestingly, we’re left with a reinforced sense that the school is the home-point, the emotional centre of the story. The story does, in fact, paint quite a plausible picture of an old public school and its residents. Like today’s teenagers, the schoolboys seem prone to dabbling in the occult and getting out of their depth. The cracked hearthstone is a realistic detail and suggsts the spread of frightening rumours about hauntings around the schools as playground folklore, which certainly happens today.

I also note that the story as we have it seems to have been told by an adult to a child, who then grew up and told it to another child, who then grew up, wrote it down, and published it. So perhaps the story was not, or not only, playground folklore. Was it told to two generations of middle-class children as a typically Victorian scary bedtime story? If it was, it would have been common for the storyteller to be a family servant: domestic service was a major point of contact between the classes, and, so, a major channel of folklore from working-class culture to young middle-class ears.

Which brings us to the housemaid. Who was Anne Bentham? Did she have some connection to the school? Would that explain how she met the Burnes, an Anglican clergy family which would have found a natural habitat in schools like Bury Grammar, and who might have been flattered by a story of an Anglican schoolmaster’s victory over the devil? Who did she hear the story from? Someone else with a school connection?

The Secret Life of … Father Christmas

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The modern Father Christmas isn’t a folktale, strictly, since there are no actual stories about him and he’s always seen as being just there. So perhaps he doesn’t really belong on a folktale blog at all. On the other hand, he is a legendary figure in the sense that he’s rumoured (at least in some circles) to really exist. Also, if you go far enough back, he’s a saint about whom many stories certainly have been told. So let’s crave the indulgence due to the season and have a proper look at him.

 

As everyone knows, the secret life of Father Christmas begins with St Nicholas. There have been attempts to push his roots further back. The poet Robert Graves had him down as a mushroom-munching shaman, but the evidence, such as it is, is against this. So St Nicholas it is. Attested facts about the historical Nicholas are predictably few, but apparently he was bishop of Myra in modern Turkey in the fourth century AD. His remains – lovingly cherished during the Middle Ages, as saints’ relics tended to be – were moved from Myra to the Italian town of Bari, so among sticklers for detail in the Catholic Church he is known as St Nicholas of Bari – and in 2005 his face was reconstructed from the remains by forensic experts from Manchester University, yielding this image of the actual face of Santa Claus. His white beard is apparently accurate and his broken nose was quite likely sustained through torture in the course of the emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the early Christians. Like, wow.

The memory of the real Nicholas soon acquired a saintly aura, and he became the object of veneration around his home area within a couple of centuries of his death. He went on to become a very popular saint in medieval Europe, with a feast-day on December 6th, and an accompanying body of legend relating numerous miracles and good deeds, and attesting to his habit of secret gift-giving. He miraculously “resuscitated three little boys whom and innkeeper had murdered and salted down to make into pies,” and also “secretly threw three bags of gold through the window of a poor man’s house, as dowries for his three daughters, who would otherwise have been sold into prostitution.” Such tales were enough to establish Nicholas as the patron saint of children (among other things, including “the unjustly imprisoned, scholars, seafarers, pawnbrokers (whose symbol is his three gold balls), barrel makers, brewers, bootblacks, brides, druggists and perfumiers, among others“). Here we seem to find the deepest historical root of the Santa phenomenon, since gift-giving to children became permanently associated with his feast-day across Catholic Europe. The Dutch St Nicholas was remembered as a bishop and visualised accordingly, in a red cope; the German saint had a retinue of elf-like helpers who brought presents for good children, but also a flogging for bad ones. Such are the direct antecedents of the modern Santa, as can be gleaned from Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud’s indispensible Dictionary of English Folklore.

There were English traditions of Saint Nicholas running parallel to the German and Dutch ones, but they seem not to have fed so directly into the modern Santa, mainly because they fell foul of the Protestant reformation. In the Middle Ages, for example, the English kept St Nicholas’ Day as a day of licensed horseplay associated with young people. On December 6th, church institutions such as “cathedrals, abbeys, collegiate churches and schools” would elect a bogus “boy bishop,” sometimes known as a “St Nicholas,” who dressed up bishop-style and presided over a period of typically medieval misrule, involving processions and fundraising collections in the street, with the typical boy bishop’s bogus term of office lasting until December 28th. This custom fell into disuse in the 1550s, but it seems to have survived the Reformation in adapted form as a day of tolerated horseplay within schools: in the 1680s, John Aubrey was still recording that St Nicholas was “the patron of the School-boies” and describing his feast as a day when scholars enjoyed “the priviledge to break open their Masters Cellar-dore.”

The English meanwhile had also been in the habit of personifying Christmas at least since the late Middle Ages, predominantly indeed as a bearded old man, but at first St Nicholas and Father Christmas seem to have been quite distinct characters, just as their feast-days were separate events. In English, the earliest extant reference to “Sir Christemas” seems to be in the lyrics of a carol which was probably written by a mid-fifteenth century Devonshire priest, Richard Smart. In the carol, Sir Christmas is welcomed in person by revellers. “Captain Christmas,” the “Christmas Lord” and “Prince Christmas” appear in similar terms over the following century or so, and, like “St Nicholas,” the name was also used as a temporary title for real people appointed to preside over periods of licensed misrule during corporate revelry in various institutions. “Old Gregory Christmas” features in a Ben Jonson masque of 1616, and “Old Father Christmas” was put on trial in a 1658 pamphlet satirising the Commonwealth government. This seems to be the Father Christmas who appears as a kind of chorus or narrator in the folk theatre or mummers’ plays which flourished in their modern form (according to the record) mainly from the eighteenth century, and were performed in local contexts often at or around Christmas.

For the following two centuries or so, the English Christmas seems to have gone into something of a decline, but if so it was revived by the Victorians, who naturally revived the character of (Father/Captain/etcetera) Christmas along with it. However, it took time for consensus to emerge regarding this character’s name and attributes. Accordingly, Christmas appeared in the 1840s as “a reveller in Elizabethan costume grasping a tankard, a wild, holly-crowned giant pouring wine, or a lean figure striding along carrying a wassail bowl and a log.” In similar terms he appeared as a hearty, bearded, but youthful and green-robed Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843). Red at this point was an increasingly common but not mandatory colour for his livery, and at first he seems to have had no particular relationship to children or gift-giving specifically; he was simply a symbol of the festival and the general air of merriment which went with it. Concomitantly, if Dickens’ famous story is anything to go by, the Victorian Christmas was mainly about food, bought and shared within the family, with an almost vestigial religious observance and a general, fairly secular sense of charity and good fellowship. It consisted mainly of a visit to church and a special family meal, and the exchange of presents did not bulk large in its foreground.

However, from the 1870s, quite quickly, a child-friendly, gift-giving, German-American Santa Claus quickly re-established himself in England as the standard version of Father Christmas, and he remains so to this day. German and Dutch immigrants had carried the old Catholic legends and customs of St Nicholas to America, and in America these had been re-defined in less doctrinally specific terms to reinvent Santa as a clandestine gift-giving pixie. Washington Irving – the man who invented the mistaken idea that people before Columbus thought the world was flat – is said to have been the first to put Santa in a flying sleigh. Irving’s timing was bad from the viewpoint of the reindeer, since St Nicholas wasn’t long in America before he began to put on weight as well; a watershed moment in this process was Clement Clarke Moore’s famous 1822 poem, The Visit of Saint Nicholas (also known as The Night Before Christmas), which was illustrated by Thomas Nast in the 1860s. Here we encounter the well-known “fat man dressed in fur, driving a reindeer sleigh,” wearing a “belted jacket and furry cap.” Moore’s St Nick differs from the modern Santa in at least three further respects. Firstly, he seems to be a dwarf – hence his ability to get down chimneys, a point rather obscured in later versions of the legend which feature a full-size Santa. Secondly, Moore’s Santa smokes a pipe. Thirdly, it still isn’t entirely clear that he’s dressed in red: in fact, Santa’s trousers were often shown as blue Dutch knickerbockers until the early twentieth century, in token of his Dutch/German roots. “Santa Claus,” the form preferred by Thomas Nast, is an English rendering of Sinterklaas, the saint’s title and name in colloquial Dutch.

The American Santa Claus may have first reached England in a short story, The Christmas Stocking, by Susan Warner and published in London in 1854. It’s possible, too, that he reached England directly from Europe, like the Christmas tree; or European and American traditions may have met and overlapped with English ones. However it happened, the modern English Father Christmas had emerged by around 1880. We can now take up the tale with Notes and Queries (1849 – ), a weekly magazine that functioned, in effect, as a folklore discussion group in mid-Victorian England. In 1879, a Mr Edwin Lees (who may even be the man who founded this society – one day I’ll check) wrote to inform this magazine’s readers that he had “only lately been told” of a hitherto unrecorded custom from Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Devonshire:

On Christmas Eve, when the inmates of a house in the country retire to bed, all those desirous of a present place a stocking outside the door of their bedroom, with the expectation that some mythical being called Santiclaus will fill the stocking or place something within it before morning … From what region of the earth or air this benevolent Santiclaus takes flight I have not been able to ascertain.

The stockings, says Mr Lees, were secretly filled by “the master of the house” and more fanciful talk of “Santiclaus” was the preserve of “giggling girls.” It’s fascinating to note Mr Lees’ bewilderment at what is now literally part and parcel of Christmas celebrations: clearly it’s all utterly foreign to him, and you can almost hear him muttering: What will they think of next? The strange new custom was noted in County Durham about a decade later by a William Brockie, who surmised that Santiclaus was a folk memory of ‘Santa Cruz,’ the ‘Holy Cross’. In 1883 the chimney-diving, present-bringing Santa appeared to a French visitor to England as a matter of common knowledge.

Santiclaus was here to stay, and that completes the story of his secret life – almost. For, as rumour sometimes purports, the new Santa did in fact feature prominently in a 1931 advertising campaign for Coca-Cola, in illustrations by Haddon Sundblom. Sundblom generally is a striking figure because he almost seems to have made a career out of the capitalist misappropriation of religious imagery: he also, for example, painted the jolly old Quaker trademark for Quaker Oats, a company with no actual link to the Quaker movement whatsoever, and one of his last commissions was a faintly unsettling 1972 cover for Playboy featuring a young woman falling out of a red and white Santa cloak – which seems to sum up his legacy neatly. But Coca-Cola, and Sundblom, seem to have strengthened, rather than invented, Santa’s old association with red and white livery: it seems to be the 1931 campaign which finally established Santa’s default headgear as a “drooping tasselled red cap,” rather than (say) a brown fur cap or crown of holly.

And there, finally, we have it. In England at least, Father Christmas is a hybrid. He is partly a very old lay figure personifying the Christmas festival, and partly a recently-imported European-American folk saint with roots in medieval legend, and links to a custom of giving gifts (especially) to children. He is all overlain with a veneer of secular and commercialised popular culture – and (in my view at least) not one whit the less genuinely magical for any of that.

And the reindeer names? Dasher and Donner and the others? Most of them are mentioned in Moore’s 1822 poem, but the famous Rudolf first appears in an eponymous poem written by an adman for use by department store Santas, and set to music in 1949 after it proved popular with the children. It was a hit for Gene Autry.

The Secret Life of … Thomas Stonehouse and the Hobmen

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This is Hob Garth, a farmhouse near Glaisdale on the North York Moors.

In the later 1800s, an amateur Victorian gentleman researcher called Richard Blakeborough wrote a number of books on northern English folklore. One of these was the snappily-titled “Wit, Character, Folklore & Customs of the North Riding of Yorkshire; with a Glossary of over 4,000 Words and Idioms Now in Use.” This 1898 book contains an account which Blakeborough had from a labouring man on the Mulgrave estate (near Whitby castle) who was the grandson of the tenant of Hob Garth in 1760. The grandfather’s name was Thomas Stonehouse.

Stonehouse is interesting because he seems to have transmitted one of the few surviving first-hand accounts of a meeting with an English fairy. Fairies? On the North York Moors in the late eighteenth century? Goodness. You might almost think Stonehouse was making it all up. And he certainly had the motive. Although his grandson’s account naturally takes his side, it’s clear from Blakeborough’s account that someone had certainly done some nasty stuff to a man Stonehouse didn’t like. It speaks volumes for the world Stonehouse lived in that he encouraged people to ascribe responsibility to the pixies – as opposed (say) hoodies, terrorists, travellers, asylum seekers, blacks, dogs or Irish.

Stonehouse had beef with a neighbour by the name of Bland, who lived in nearby Great Fryup. Blakeborough doesn’t record why they fell out, but Bland went through a stage of breaking down Stonehouse’s fences and scattering his sheep. It was a winter war between neighbours in rough terrain, and under such conditions lost beasts were presumably serious business: expensive to lose and difficult and dangerous to recover. Stonehouse’s own sheep were recovered and his fences mended, but Bland’s fences were then broken in turn and his cattle scattered – all by persons unknown, as his grandson tells it. Stonehouse had taken a chill recovering his own lost sheep and was allegedly in bed at the time, and it wasn’t long – so runs the story – before the neighbours started to noise it about that Stonehouse was being helped along in his dispute by the “hobs” or “hobmen.”

Blakeborough gives two fairly equivocal pieces of evidence to corroborate his grandfather’s story. One was Stonehouse’s account of a face-to-face meeting with the hob. This account is uncorroborated – almost. But when Stonehouse recovered from his chill, he went up to feed his sheep, arranging with a neighbour to give him a lift back home on his cart, but, as the neighbour with the cart drew up, he happened, as if by chance, to overhear the apparently sane and rational Stonehouse alone by the gate, in the middle of a friendly conversation with person or persons invisible. Stonehouse was to claim that he had been accosted by the helpful hob. The hob – said Stonehouse – had told him that Bland was nothing to worry about – as the forthcoming lambing season would make that clear. Stonehouse, of course, could easily have just play-acted the whole thing as the neighbour drove up in order to feed the rumours, but his grandson’s account recalls that, when lambing season came, Stonehouse’s flock was indeed unusually prolific, and he did indeed do conspicuously better than Bland.

So how did Stonehouse describe the mysterious creature which he claimed to have been chatting with? “An old man of strange appearance,” says Blakeborough, “with very long hair, and very large feet, eyes, mouth and hands. He stooped as he walked, and was using a long holly stick.”

For the rest of Blakeborough’s account, and more in like vein, see here – “Wit, Character, Folklore and Customs,” pp.207ff.

The Secret Life of … Berenice

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Everyone knows that myths are essays in personification. They are stories which portray things as people, and describe impersonal processes as personal and purposeful activity. You want to know what the earth and the sky are? Obviously, they’re a couple of randy deities: that’s Geb and Nut to the Egyptians, Gaia and Ouranos to the Greeks, Rangi and Papa to the Maori, and so forth. So, if they’re so fond of each other, why do they hold themselves apart? Why doesn’t the sky just cuddle up to the earth, and crush us? Because the air is holding them apart. On purpose. And so forth.

Thinking of this sort is very old indeed – prehistoric, in fact – and seems to relate to hard-wired tendencies in the human brain. We are, it seems, predisposed to see the world in personal rather than mechanical terms. We always have been. Steven Mithen suggests that this may be because our social intelligence evolved before our mechanical intelligence. To illustrate this point, we can observe the behaviour of modern primates. Like us, chimps conduct very complex social relationships – they cuddle, nurture, flirt, bully, wheedle, lie, cheat and so forth – but, unlike us, they can’t handle tools more complex than a broken stick. Mithen suggests that we were originally rather similar to chimps: socially intelligent and emotionally sophisticated, but mechanically and practically stupid, and unable to re-direct our capacity for complex thought and learning from the social arena to the practical. Unlike chimps, however, we moved on. At some point in prehistory, our brains acquired the ability to transfer learning from one arena of understanding to another. We evolved complex thought patterns for the purposes of lying, cheating, stealing and bullying, and then, suddenly, the penny dropped and we worked out how to make bows, arrows, necklaces, textiles, ballistic missiles and ecological catastrophes. So our mechanical and practical intelligence is actually an adapted spillover from our complex social understanding, and for this reason – Mithen suggests – we retain an enduring tendency to see everything in personal rather than mechanical terms. Hence my habit of giving pet-names to my trusty laptop and cussing her out when she gets one of her hissy fits and refuses to do as she’s told. And hence, too, Geb, Nut, Gaia, Ouranos, Rangi, Papa, and who knows what other gods besides – maybe all of them. In consequence, some assume that the whole idea of god or gods is simply a hangover from a slight mis-wire in the human brain: a pardonable error which we’ll get over as soon as science has provided a better explanation why we tend to instinctively feel that there’s Someone or Something Out There. So it’s worth bearing in mind that contemporary philosophy of mind is quite compatible with the idea that there’s Someone or Something Out There, or, rather, that consciousness might be a general property of matter which reaches beyond the evolved vertebrate brain. We simply don’t know enough about consciousness to have a firm basis for an opinion either way – because we know absolutely nothing at all about consciousness. Since we are all, in effect, just little parcels of consciousness, it is ironic that we remain in total ignorance about what we fundamentally are. Measured in terms of progress towards an answer to this basic question, the last five thousand years of civilisation and millions of years of evolution might as well just not have happened at all. We don’t know what consciousness is, any more than fish or crabs know.

But I digress. Looking at things this way leads us to see myth-making as a prehistoric endeavour, and to assume that the whole cosmos was well and truly personified by early historical times, by persons unknown. In general terms, this is true: all the cultures we know about have well-established mythic systems and religions in place long before writing and literacy ever put in their first appearance, and we never get to know exactly who first concluded that the Great Bear was a great bear. We rarely know who the myth-makers are.

However, this is not really true of the classical star-myths on which our modern constellations are based. As classical scholar Robin Hard points out, these stories originate fairly late in classical times. Myth-makers like Eratosthenes wrote at a time when genuinely ancient myth had lost its grip on serious belief among educated Greeks and Romans. The poets and writers who made the myths did not seriously believe what they were writing, and did not intend their readers or listeners to believe it either – any more than modern writers like J.R.R. Tolkien or Terry Pratchett seriously intend their readers to believe in Elbereth or Gandalf, or Discworld. Rather like these modern writers, the late Greek myth-makers made up the stories as an imaginative or literary exercise. So if you’ve ever read Greek or Roman star-myths and found them – frankly – a little bit boring or lacking in substance, don’t blame yourself. You’ve picked up on the fact that you’re reading a literary imitation of myth, rather than the real thing.

So on reflection it’s not perhaps all that surprising to catch one of these myth-makers at it, and even more fun to spot the connection to a rather embarrassing item of lost property. I’m talking about you, Conon, astronomer-royal to Ptolemy III, king of Egypt in the long aftermath of Alexander the Great’s famous career of world conquest.

This is the little constellation of Coma Berenices, which hangs around at this point in the northern night sky.

Coma Berenices is literally “Berenice’s Hair.” Berenice was the daughter of the king of Cyrene, a city-state founded in Libya by Greek colonists which wa something of a satellite of Ptolemaic Egypt, in the days after the death of Alexander the Great, when most of the classical world seemed to be ruled by squabbling kings descended from Alexander’s old generals and their clients and henchmen. Berenice came from this background and lived in this world. Besides being born a princess of Cyrene, she was second cousin to Ptolemy III, a prince of Egypt and decendant of one of Alexander’s generals. After murdering one husband for sleeping with her mother, she married Ptolemy on his accession to the throne of Egypt in 247BC. Ptolemy immediately went off to war with Syria. Berenice dedicated a lock of her own hair as an offering for Ptolemy’s safe return. Ptolemy did return safe from the war. But the lock of hair went missing from the temple.

This was when Conon came in. He had recently discovered a small, unobtrusive new constellation between Virgo and the Great Bear, and, to make a bad thing good, he claimed that the missing lock had been instarred – transformed into the newly-discovered constellation. The idea was taken up by the Greek poet Callimachus, but his poem on the subject is mostly lost. We know the gist of it from a version by the Roman poet Catullus.

Fittingly enough – given that myth is about personification – Catullus’ poem is narrated by the lock of hair itself, in the ancient riddling style of personification, in which inanimate objects find their voices and speak for themselves: a literary device which echoes the old mythic way of looking at the world – and, maybe, too, the socially grounded intelligence which we evolved to share with chimps, and the panpsychism which some present-day philosophers flirt with, and – who knows? Whatever or Whoever may really be Out There.

But that, as you might say, is what stories and storytelling are for: to create an imaginative mystery that echoes the actual mystery of the world. And, possibly, to palliate some of its pretence and squalor.

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