The Secret Life of … Cinderella

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Abused and neglected by her own family, a girl stumbles across a magical (or resourceful) way to scrub up incognito and go out partying. Her secret identity is then revealed to a lover by a discarded accessory, and she ends by marrying him, and so getting the better of her erstwhile tormentors. Many of us are only too familiar with this story, but hardly any of us appreciate how long it has lived and how hard it has travelled. Much about it remains mysterious even to the experts.

So it’s best to begin with what you know. If you know Cinderella as the story about the ugly sisters and the fairy godmother (and the glass slipper, the pumpkin-coach, the footmen and coachmen magicked from lizards and rats, and so forth), then the story you’re thinking of is Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verrepublished in 1697 by a French civil servant with a literary and artistic bent: the famous Charles Perrault, who, in an act of seeming whimsy, passed off the story as the work of his own teenage son Pierre. This story was first translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729, under the title of Cinderilla: or, The Little Glass Slipper.

At least one Cinderella-like story had appeared in print not long before – Finette Cendron by the aristocratic Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville – better known to fairy-tale fans as Madame d’Aulnoy. By the time Perrault and d’Aulnoy were writing, the tale had already migrated from oral tradition into print, at least twice, for, of course, it was not an original literary fairytale but an adaptation of an existing oral folktale. It features in Italian in the 1630s, as La Gatta Cennerentola (“The Cat Cinderella”), tale 6 in Giambattista Basile‘s Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (“The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones”). Basile was a Neapolitan courtier – that is, an all-purpose fixer, soldier, administrator, hanger-on, social climber and jack-of-all-trades to various Italian princes. He wrote in his spare time, and his work, now known as the Pentamerone, was probably based on the work of now-unknown storytellers around his native Naples. But Basile was not the first to publish a Cinderella story either. The same basic story had already 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”), written by another French nobleman and jobbing courtier with literary pretentions, by the name of Bonaventure des Périers. A Strasburg sermon of 1501 refers to the story in enough detail for us to recognise it, but it’s hard to trace an ink-trail before the early 1500s; so before then, in the west at least, the tale was largely, if not entirely, a matter of oral tradition. It belonged to the legions of oral storytellers whose works and authorship were never recorded, for it is one of the sad ironies of folktale study that the privileged editors and collectors nearly always steal the limelight from the real, but less privileged, storytellers.

Relatively few people now read writers like d’Aulnoy or des Périers, and it is Perrault’s truncated (and frankly rather camp) rendition of the tale that has defined the fairy-tale Cinderella of modern western entertainment. How long and how widely had the tale been circulating among the storytellers before that? Undocumented oral tradition leaves very little trace of its passing, and such questions are never easy to answer.

But let’s try.

Before we get started, it’s worth noting in passing that Perrault’s hugely influential Cendrillon did not, apparently, kill off all the oral traditions of Cinderella in the years following its publication. Instead, oral and literate traditions seemed to run in parallel, and to influence each other. The brothers Grimm, for example, include at least three Cinderella-style stories which seemed to exist at least partly independently of Perrault, well over a century after he wrote. These are AschenputtelAllerleirauh (“All-Kinds-Of-Fur”), and Einäuglein, Zweiäuglein und Dreiäuglein (“Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes and Little Three-Eyes”). These three stories, as we shall see, are useful points of reference when trying to disentangle the story’s development.

Similarly, even the English – not the world’s most renowned or prolific folktale-talling people – have a good handful of native versions which seem to be similarly independent of Perrault’s Cendrillon. 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 working as a servant; it was also tidied up and published by Joseph Jacobs in this versionTattercoats was also published by Jacobs, and by Mrs Balfour, who presented 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. (The Boswell family were prolific experts in traditional music and storytelling and a lot of the extant record of stories and tunes derive from them.) The Scots – who generally do rather better than the English at folktales and storytelling in general – have Rashin Coatie and Ashpitel. We need labour the point no further, anyway: the story continued to develop in oral tradition after Perrault, and, noting this, we can turn to the story’s earlier history, before Perrault wrote.

Folklorists like Jacqueline Simpson and Katharine Briggs have said, or implied, that the Cinderella story is universal. Cinderella stories, and other stories closely resembling them, have certainly been extraordinarily widespread for centuries. Other scholars feel it’s going beyond the evidence to say that Cinderella is found literally everywhere, for the evidence for its development, while certainly plentiful, is also unwieldy, ambiguous, and incomplete; the tale has not been exhaustively researched in Africa (for example). Also, it is surprisingly difficult to define exactly what a “Cinderella story” is in this respect. It’s tempting to slap the label on any story with an abused and/or disfigured heroine, or one who leads a double life, or has a magical helper. If we do, then the Cinderella story does start to look like it crops up literally everywhere, for these are very widespread narrative motifs. But in that case stories like Snow White (for example) start to look as if they are Cinderella stories, and the whole discussion becomes impossibly vague. To keep things clear, folklorists have tended to define Cinderella and related stories with reference to specific details in a specific order – the persecuted heroine, the magic help, the meeting with the prince, the proof of identity, the marriage, and so forth.

When the major scholar of Cinderella, Anna Birgitta Rooth, was working in the 1950s, Cinderella traditions – in this narrower and more specific range of senses – seemed to stretch along a broad belt from Europe to China, encompassing the Middle East and India: the entire zone of the settled Old World civilisations. Cinderella stories may or may not be found everywhere beyond this vast territory, but they are certainly spread right across it. From it, they have spread to the regions colonised by western states in modern times, where they may or may not have run into pre-existing Cinderella-like stories and blended with them.

Cinderella stories seem to have been this widespread for a very long time. One early and telling clue comes from the work of Strabo, the Greek geographer who came from what is now Turkey and lived around the time of Christ. His huge Geography mentions (among many other things) an Egyptian story of a courtesan, Rhodopis:

… when she 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.

Other classical authors mention Rhodopis, but the oldest known story which can reasonably be called a complete version of Cinderella is the much later tale of Yeh-Hsien, written around 860 AD in China – when (to put this in perspective), unknown to anyone in China, the future king Alfred the Great was a teenager, thousands of miles away in Anglo-Saxon England.

The tale of Yeh- (or Sheh-)Hsein was told by Li Shih-Yuan, and noted down at his dictation by Tuan Ch’eng Shih. Li was clearly a storyteller with some considerable breadth of repertoire. Tuan describes him as “a cave man of Yung Chow” who knew many of the “strange stories of the south.” Tuan was a keen amateur scholar and a  junior government minister from Shantung, and he had 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 Yeh-Hsien. After that her story was generally accepted in the west as part of the Cinderella mosaic. The story was published by Arthur Waley in Folklore in 1947.

The heroine of Li’s story, Yeh-Hsien, is abused by her widowed father’s second wife, who ends by killing her pet fish. A mysterious man tells her where the bones of the fish are buried. At his prompting she prays to the bones, which grant her wishes. In this way she obtains fine clothes and attends 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.

To western ears, the most striking detail of this story – as a Cinderella story specifically – is the nature of the magical helper: not a fairy godmother, but a dead fish. We’ll come to that in a minute. But there are one or two other equally odd details in the story of Yeh-Hsien which don’t seem to add up. For some unstated reason, she sleeps in the yard, with her arms around a tree. One might conclude from all this that cave-dwelling storytellers like Li Shih-Yuan just couldn’t dredge up a coherent plot (or that Tuan Ch’eng Shih couldn’t transcribe one). But the reality – it has been suggested – is probably both more complex and more positive than this, as becomes apparent when we compare Li’s story with other versions of Cinderella, recorded from oral storytellers down the ages. For instead of Perrault’s fairy godmother, these other versions similarly contain what seem to be more complete and coherent accounts of the details of the magical animal helper and the mysterious tree – details which are garbled almost to the point of incoherence in Tuan’s record of Li’s story.

This suggests – to reiterate a bit – that Li’s story was already old when he was telling it, for the story’s seemingly rather ramshackle condition might suggest great age. Other details in the global distribution of the story’s varying details seem to bear this impression out. As these other versions suggest, or state, the girl’s favourite tree, and her wonder-working pet animal (with its magical bones), are not merely bits of fairy-tale glamour. They have a specific and very poignant point. The magical helpers are successive reincarnations of the girl’s dead mother. The story is about the grief and sense of abandonment felt by an orphaned child.

The point is muffled in Perrault, but it comes through very sharply in the Grimms’ Einäuglein, Zweiäuglein und Dreiäuglein (“Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes and Little Three-Eyes”). There is a hint of the same idea in Aschenputtel.

Taken together, then, Cinderella stories of this kind make up one of two basic strands of the western Cinderella: the story of an abused orphan, helped from beyond the grave by her dead mother. A favourite version of mine is given by the Victorian folktale-writer Andrew Lang and cited from Karelia – the Arctic area around the border between Russia and Finland.

However, another, rather separate strand of the western Cinderella tradition is represented by the Grimms’ Allerleirauh and the English (or Cornish) Catskin. In these stories there is no help from beyond the grave – in fact, no magical help at all. Following her mother’s death, the girl’s troubles derive, not from her stepmother, but from her widowed father. The problem here is that he is possessed by the sickening desire to marry his own daughter. (You can imagine the uncomfortable, foot-shuffling silence that would have fallen on the literary salons of pre-revolutionary France if Charles Perrault had left that detail in.) In Allerleirauh, the girl – evidently unable to simply refuse her royal father outright – demands a series of ever more impossible wedding-dresses: gowns of the sun, moon and stars, and, in the end, a cloak made of the fur of all kinds of animals. The relentless king provides them all. In desperation the girl then packs up the marvellous wedding-dresses and escapes, wrapped in the cloak of all kinds of fur. Reduced in this way to a nameless and beastlike state, she takes a humble job in the palace kitchen of a neighbouring kingdom. In order to go to the feast, she furtively breaks out her secret stash of wedding-dresses, and always leaves the feast early to make sure she is found at work, still wrapped in her cloak. The story proceeds more or less in the familiar fashion through disguise and double-dealing to recognition and the happy ending.

A more muted variation on this theme, represented by the English Cap O Rushes, has the father testing the limits of his daughter’s love in rather less psychotic terms, by simply asking her how much she loves him. He then finds fault with her answer (in Cap O Rushes, she tells him she loves him like salt) and banishes her, and the girl’s adventures begin. This, of course, is the story which forms the basis of Shakespeare’s King Lear, derived from the same body of British legend which spawned the tales of King Arthur, with Cordelia as the Cinderella character and Regan and Goneril making a very effective pair of ugly sisters.

The major study of the story, The Cinderella Cycle, was published in 1951, and written by the Swedish folkorist Anna Birgitta Rooth. It allows us to imagine something of what might have happened to the story in the centuries before and after Li’s story of Yeh-Hsien. Rooth based her conclusions – as folklorists of her vintage tended to do – on the enormously far-reaching and painstakingly detailed study of the story in hundreds of versions collected from oral tradition, mostly during the nineteenth century and after. She concluded that the oldest form of the story was the animal-helper type – the one represented in western tradition by tales such as the Grimms’ Little One-Eye. By the time Li Shih-Yuan was telling the tale in China the mid-800s AD, Rooth argued, the Cinderella story in this ancient form was already old enough to have split into more than one distinct regional tradition as it radiated outwards from an unknown nucleus of origin. Rooth does not (I believe) speculate as to the tale’s ultimate point of origin, as implied by this account, but, interestingly, a glance at the map of the world might suggest India. In any case, by the Middle Ages, one tradition (Li’s version, in effect) was still active across the Far East. Another, some distance away in the Middle East, had already produced some very old stories. By the later Middle Ages this branch of the tradition had spread into Europe in two distinct movements, one carrying the story into Southern Europe, and another into Eastern and Northern Europe, reaching Iceland around the thirteenth century.

And from this twin western strand derive tales of the Allerleirauh/Catskin type (driven by incest) and the Cap O Rushes/King Lear type (driven by the father’s question) – and this is the immediate root of the modern Cinderella. Hints of an animal helper often remain in these later strands of the western tradition, but they generally seem less central to the action. Finally, in effect, Charles Perrault took one of these later stories, cut the first half out entirely (along with any disturbing hint of incest and/or necromancy), dropped in a nice friendly fairy godmother to paper over the resulting cracks, and pimped the remainder with equally homely stylings like pumpkin coaches and lizard footmen. By such means, today’s default Cinderella was born. And, whether or not Anna Birgitta Rooth was exactly right in her reconstruction of the story’s development, it’s clear enough that the modern Cinderella cuts an offputtingly insipid figure when set alongside her less famous older sisters.

Scholars admit that, overall, their study of Cinderella folktales has been uneven. The story has undergone strange periods of neglect, punctuated by some extraordinary and groundbreaking studies. Early studies 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. Most recorded folktales derive from oral traditions of modern times. There is no evidence to connect any of them directly to ancient myth, beyond a general similariity of content. But there is some plausibility in the idea that they are expressions of the mythic imagination – that, in their own diminished way, they scratch some of the same mental itches as great creation myths.

But the biggest and most authoritative early study of the story was made by 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) crunched a huge range of separate versions of the Cinderella story; she was the first to conclude that there were at least three basic forms of the story – in effect, the Cinderella type, the Catskin/Allerleirauh type, and the Cap O Rushes type (as I have described them above in parallel with the magic animal/plant versions). Around 1970, the eminent American folklorist Archer Taylor was lamenting the fact that Cox’s work had failed to inspire further research; it was followed by a generation of silence. Then the silence was broken in spectacular fashion when R. D. Jameson introduced the story of Yeh-Hsien to western scholars, and then, in 1951, came Anna Birgitta Rooth’s The Cinderella Cycle, which took in around seven hundred versions of the story. Rooth’s huge study (which, sadly, I have found hard to track down) remains pretty essential reading, but it is not the last word on the story; over a thousand versions are now available for systematic reference by scholars, and many mysteries about the story and its development remain to be explored. For if ever a folktale (or a folktale heroine) had a secret life, it’s Cinderella.

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.

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.

A Dream of the Cross


One for Good Friday. A (free) translation I made some years ago (and am still tinkering with) of the anonymous Old English poem. Known today from a tenth-century manuscript, it appears to date from around the seventh century, from the fact that phrases from it are seemingly quoted in the runic inscriptions on the magnificent Ruthwell Cross.

Old English poetry, and writing in general, often gave a first-person voice to a range of inanimate objects, in a way which suggests (to me at least) a vestige of an old mythic way of looking at the world, in a way which saw pretty much everything in the cosmos as sentient, or at least endowed with personhood in some form (cf. this previous post on myth). The inscription on the famous Alfred jewel reads “Alfred had me made,” and the Exeter Book famously preserves a hundred or so riddles, derived ultimately from classical Latin models, in which various non-human phenomena speak in the first person to tantalise the reader/listener with cryptic and defamiliarised accounts of their own nature. The Exeter Book riddles are fully achieved poems, and not mere guessing games; in some of them, the answer is obvious, and the implied requirement to guess it seems beside the point. The idea of narrating the central Christian myth of the Atonement through the imagined eyes of the central sacrificial weapon itself – and then giving the cross a voice of compassionate piety – is a stroke of genius which builds on a long legacy of learning and a complex poetic tradition.

By these means, the Dream of the Cross (often termed “The Dream of the Rood,” which means the same thing, bearing in mind that the poem has no title at all in the manuscript) testifies to a potent but ambivalent fascination with the figure of Christ, which scholars such as Tolkien have long discerned in Old English literature. On the one hand, the English poets were Christians. They believed in the Atonement and they knew that Jesus could hardly have achieved it by fighting back against his enemies or striving for worldly glory. They knew that he was meek, mild, humble, a lover and forgiver of his enemies, and so forth. Like good medieval Christians, they praised the many saints who took their emulation of Christ’s example to commensurately self-destructive extremes. On the other hand, they inherited a culture and tradition which had celebrated warlike virtues time out of mind, according to which fighting back against one’s enemies and striving for worldly glory were highly commendable. Old English religious literature is the record of various attempts to wrestle with the resulting contradiction, which, seemingly, was never finally resolved. Anglo-Saxon monks persisted in the bad habit of listening to heroic poetry and storytelling, and were famously rebuked by their superiors for doing so. Even the accounts of military campaigns in the early days of English Christianity, and the use of Christian symbols on weapons and armour, all suggest that the Christian God was worshipped at least partly because he was seen as an effective war-god – a view which the Christian Old Testament, and the contemporary expectation of a Last Judgment, would, of course, have corroborated. The fact that the paradox endured in Anglo-Saxon culture inspired some truly breathtaking art and poetry – as John Keats might have predicted it would.

In the Dream of the Cross, it has been suggested, the paradox leads the poet to tell the mythic story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and the legend of the loss and rediscovery of the Cross by St Helena, in the genre conventions developed for praise-poetry about the legendary feats of warrior heroes, pointedly adapted to flag up the paradox of a hero who emerges triumphant in his very refusal to fight. Behind the pious Christian sentiments, and underneath the rich and sonorous verse, and vivid imagery and storytelling (which of themselves are enough to justify the study of the poem) one can discern a living mind, veritably boggling. Whose mind it was that boggled, we will never know. But perhaps that doesn’t really matter. The Dream of the Cross records a vision of awe before ineffable reality which is compelling in its conviction and cosmic in its scope.

I was working on this translation for many years before I read the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, and learned the complete legend of the Cross and its rediscovery – a vast and fascinating story in its own right, and a centrepiece of British legend, although referenced only in passing here.


Now I bring news of the brightest dream

that ever I met in the midst of night

when the wit of the world lies wound up in sleep.

I thought I saw the cross of Christ

raised high in splendour, wreathed round with light.

The beam, as I saw, was bright as a beacon,

gilded with gold: its jewelled foundation

was rooted in earth, with a five-fold jewel

clustered close at its core; so might the king

of heaven have seemed, on earth. That was no mere

gibbet, truly, for angels in hosts adored it,

and every mortal and well-made thing, this

marvel beyond measure; and I – mired as I was in my sins,

wounded and wicked at heart – I saw the same bright beam

so glad and joyful with glistening gold,

so worked and adorned and worthily woven,

the wood of God with glorious jewels inlaid –

but there upon it, for all its beauty,

were marks of old evil: before my sight

its side sweated blood. And I sorrowed.

Afraid for this fair thing, I saw its light, its fire

turning, adorned with garlands, drenched with blood by turns

and soaked with dripping streams, by turns clustered with gems.

So I stood for a long time, and I

watched the turning cross with anguished care

until time loosed the tree’s tongue

and, solid wood as it was, it began to speak:

“Long years ago – yet still I remember –

ground axe hewed me by greenwood side,

razed me at root; rough hands seized me.

Foes mocked me, forced me to hang their thieves,

hauled me off on their shoulders, shored me up high on a hill;

foes enough to fasten me there! Then the son of the Father

hurried to meet me with heart full and free.

And then indeed for fear I never dared

shudder or bend, though the whole world

shook before me. I could have easily

felled them all. But I stood fast.

He gathered himself up – that was God almighty,

stern, strong-minded: he walked out to the gallows,

proud before all people, to pay their lives’ ransom.

I trembled as he touched me. I dared not bow down

or fall to the ground. I was forced to stand fast.

Then I was raised, the cross, and I raised up the king,

the lord of the heights; and I dared not falter,

though black nails drove through me, and death hung on me,

and wide, hateful wounds which I could not even avenge.

They mocked my lord then, and me – soaked as I was in blood

that ran from his side, as his soul went out of him.

High on the hill I heard harsh speech,

hateful utterances; I shared the lord of hosts’

suffering and sorrow. The black of night

covered the body of God in shadow,

his bright shining body: the darkness came

with its wan weather; all the world wept

for the fallen king. Christ was crucified.

Good people came from far off, in haste

to that high lord – I knew it all

with the weight of grief, and I bowed down low to their hands,

humbled, but full. They took the lord

and carried him away, and the proud people left me

there to stand, still blood-drenched, torn with iron.

Wearily they laid him down, and kept watch at his head,

looked down on the lord as he lay there at rest,

worn out with his work. They made him a tomb;

carved it before me, a crypt of bright stone;

there they laid him in glory, and lifted their voices,

sang out their sorrow at sunset, set their foot to the road

outward, left none to keep him company.

We trees – we kept to our places. But we wept then,

wept our own tears, and our cries, too, went up,

our own mast and mould of grief at the slow cooling

of the shining flesh. And then we were all cut down,

hacked down to earth. That was a hard thing to bear.

We were buried deep. Then, later, the lord’s people

found me; his followers unearthed me,

then decked me out with gold and silver –

and now you have heard, my dearest of friends,

the way I have weathered the work of the wicked,

suffered its sorrows: and now, now is the time

to announce my honour, both near and far

among all mortal and well-made things,

to light their prayers. Since upon me, long ago,

the son of God suffered a little while,

I am raised to heaven, with glory and healing

for all who find it in them to fear me.

Before, I was thought the worst of all deaths,

most vile to look on, before I unlocked

the right road of life to the whole of the world.

But now the king of glory has crowned me

great in the green wood, heaven’s great keeper,

just as he made Mary his mother

worthiest among all womankind

before all men, almighty God!

And now I urge you, dearest of friends:

tell out the truth as I tell it you now!

Speak in plain speech of the one tree

that bore all the grief of almighty God,

for all the world and its measureless sins,

the evil things old Adam awoke.

Death was buried here. God has broken his grave

in his greatness of strength, for sinners’ rescue

and, risen to heaven now, he cannot help

but search you all out, all over the earth

on the day of judgment – the lord of dread,

almighty God, all his angels with him –

and to repay, as ruler of all,

each one of you, as here before

you have all earned in the loan of your lives;

none shall go free, unfettered by fear

of the right answer God will then give;

in sight of all nations, he will speak well with those

who suffered for him the bitter

taste of the death which he suffered on me.

All shall be afraid, and none will know

how to approach the all-wielding Christ –

but none need ever fear that hour of ordeal

if they bear my weight as the brightest beam in their breast;

through me, through the cross, to the kingdom each soul shall come

who has wandered the wide ways of earth

with trust and hope in the healer on high.”

I bowed to the cross in gladness of mind

and fullness of heart, alone as I was,

none other beside me. My longing awoke

for the journey before me, just as it has

times since beyond number: and now my hope

is only to reach that tree in its splendour

alone, more often than any other

to honour its worth. My will is fast

and firm to that goal: my shield and protection

is set in the cross: and no firm friend

have I in the world but those who have already gone

out beyond the world’s joys to the king of glory,

found home in heaven with the high father,

haven of wonder. So too, with longing

each day I wait for the saviour’s cross

which here in the world I met with once,

to bear me out from the loan of my life

and bring me back to the fullness of joy,

the vastness of heaven, the lord’s host

arrayed in harmony, rapture incalculable,

living with him forever and ever,

established in splendour among the saints,

knowing all good things. God be my friend –

God who here on earth once suffered such grief

as God on the gallows for all the godless!

For he forgave us, he gave us life

and heavenly home. Hope was replenished,

drunk up with delight by the dead of Hell,

when his son returned, steadfast, exulting,

mighty, most powerful, lord of multitudes,

leading lost souls to the house of God,

the ruler of all, the rapture of angels

and all the saints who stand in the heavens

fixed in splendour, since first their saviour,

God almighty, came back to his home.

No Secret … I’ve Got a Book Out!

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Readers may be interested to learn I’ve got a book out … hence (among other reasons) the silence on this blog lately. The Legend of Vortigern is published in the Ancient Legends Retold series by the History Press, and is due out on 8th April. It’s the story of a relatively little-known figure in the Arthurian cycle, perhaps best thought of as a disreputable associate of King Arthur’s unimpressive uncle.

The evidence for a real Vortigern is somewhat better than the evidence for an Arthur – not that that’s saying much. Like Arthur, Vortigern is a British ruler, featuring in legends relating to the mysterious fifth century. His life is defined by generational wars among his own people, the Celtic British, and against the encroaching English. He came to bulk quite large in the Matter of Britain, the medieval legend-cycle which numbers Lear, Cymbeline and Arthur among its dozens of kings. But if Arthur embodies a sense that Britain was hardy enough to flourish even in adversity, Vortigern’s voice is an older, more anguished one, closer to the raw shock of Britain’s seeming abandoment to her enemies, by the ebbing power of Rome. If his age really was a Dark Age, then, unlike Arthur, Vortigern speaks to us bluntly, from the heart of its darkness. Small wonder if he has been ignored; and if not ignored, then usually blamed. Obscure as he remains, Vortigern has never gone away. People may not know his story nowadays, but they have often heard his name. He maintains a presence in Welsh tradition, giving his name to ruins and landscape features (Nant Gwrtheyrn), besides a whole medieval district (Guorthigirniaun) in Powys, of whose royal house he is reckoned an ancestor.

My account of Vortigern’s legend is based on the best-known medieval version: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain. In most respects Geoffrey was a very long way from the real fifth century. But re-reading his account, and returning to it repeatedly for guidance, leaves me convinced that Geoffrey was not a bad historian, as some have thought him, but a storyteller: or, at least, a diligent student of storytelling traditions which had harboured this tale since its inception, which Professor Ifor Williams places among the cyfarwyddiaid, the professional storytellers of medieval Wales.

You can find out more (and pre-order a copy) here.


The Secret Life of … Beowulf

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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?

Herne the Hunter: A Story for the Solstice

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The legend of the ghost of Herne the Hunter has been associated with Windsor at least since Shakespeare’s time. It was used by him for local colouring in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The earliest extant account of the whole legend seems to be the one in William Harrison Ainsworth’s Windsor Castle (1842). Some contemporary neopagans, apparently following Margaret Murray’s God of the Witches (1931), identify Herne as an aspect of Cernunnos. This is my own treatment of the story: on this blog I usually write about stories, rather than tell them, but I’ve made an exception here in honour of the season. I’ve based it fairly closely on Shonaleigh‘s version, but I also consulted Ainsworth.

Herne was a boy in King Richard’s days, when Windsor was a great forest: a young man from the kitchens, apprenticed to the huntsmen, consumed with the desire to excel. In time the king noticed the young man, and began to praise him for his skill. But he was reserved and awkward, difficult to take a liking to, and the other huntsmen did not warm to him.

One winter’s day, when the whole court was out at the chase, the boy faced down a great stag, just as it threatened to trample the king. He stood in the path of the charging beast, and the stag gored the boy even as he killed it. But the king was unhurt. As the remarkable young man lay beside the dead stag, the king swore aloud that if he lived, young though he was, he would be appointed head huntsman. The other huntsmen stood watching. Then, out of the forest, there came a stranger, darker than the shadows of the forest behind him in the winter sunlight. Before the astonished court, the dark stranger cut the antlers from the dead stag’s head, and bound them by the hide on the head of the maimed boy, and announced that, in order to be healed, the boy had to wear the antlers day and night until they rotted, and the day they fell away from him altogether, his strength would be regained in full.

The bewildered king told the huntsmen to leave the boy in the dark stranger’s care. Carrying the boy between them, they followed the stranger into the depths of the forest.

The king went home.

When the huntsmen returned, they would say only that the boy was lodging with the dark stranger, and would be back soon enough.

Sure enough, after three months, he emerged from the forest, and at once rejoined the king’s service. He said had worn the antlers until they rotted away, and the dark stranger had proved as good as his word. His wound was healed, and he had no lingering sickness, and at first he seemed quite his old self.

But when the boy returned to the hunt, it very soon became clear that his luck had abandoned him. He was useless as a huntsman now. He would fumble over the simplest of tasks, and as time passed it became clear that he would never kill quarry again.

At last, with great sorrow, the king summoned the boy and told him that he must return to the kitchens. He would never fulfil his lonely desire for excellence in his chosen craft. Leaving the king’s presence, the boy went straight to the great oak in Windsor Park, threw a rope over its broadest bough, and hanged himself. That might have been the melancholy end of it.

But after the burial, the morning after the full moon, all Windsor Park was found to be mysteriously desolate. Unseen hands had torn the lawns up in the night, cut and slashed the branches, and scorched the woodland while the court slept. The forest was still charred and smouldering, and a pall of smoke hung heavy in the air. Overnight, the forest had become a desert. The troubled king summoned his huntsmen to account.

Sir, said the head huntsman, judge us as you see fit. We spoiled the forest, I and my fellow-huntsmen. Months ago, when the boy Herne killed the deer under the great oak, and first wore its horns on his head, we carried him to the dark stranger’s house. By the time we came there, the stranger had already seen how much we hated the boy – hated him because of his skill, and the favour it won him in your eyes. Then the dark stranger told us that he had only promised to save his life. He could easily send him back a living fool, he said, to trouble us no longer. And he would do it, if in return we agreed to gather again under the great oak, the first full moon after the boy’s death. We said we would, and came home. When the boy came back, he had indeed become a fool, and soon afterwards he died at his own hands, and so we saw that the dark stranger was as good as his word. And so we were as good as ours. We went to the great oak last night. The stranger was waiting there for us. He stood aside. In the shadows behind him, under the oak, we saw the boy Herne, just as he had been in life, with the living antlers on his brow. The dark stranger told us that, since we had not been content to follow Herne before by the king’s command, we would follow him now by the terms of our own bargain. Some power greater than our own wills overmastered us then, and all that night we followed Herne as our lord and head huntsman, and we ravaged the forest as we went. Herne led us, and I have never seen such mastery of the hunter’s craft. His skill was perfect, and he laughed to see us breaking the forest as we rode through it.

We woke this morning in our own beds, and came at once to your summons.

The head huntsman fell silent. The king considered.

I see, he answered. Your service to Herne is now over, seemingly, and your bargain with the dark stranger is fulfilled. But you still have to pay your debt to me.

With those words he hanged them all from the same great oak, because they had plotted against his loyal servant, and spoiled his property, and so made traitors of themselves.

Then he took new huntsmen into his service, and they began the work of mending the forest.

For King Richard, that was the end of the matter. But still you can still see them all, if you go at night to the great oak in Windsor Park: even now, when the forest is all but cleared, and the great oak is long since felled, and the line of kings has failed, and the very winters are warm, you can see the shadow of the horned hunter, his retinue riding behind him, with terror in their faces and death in their hands. And anyone foolish enough to look among those faces will see Herne’s old tormentors and fellow-huntsmen in the ranks of the retinue, in among all the timely and untimely dead of the world, running and riding, searching restlessly until the world’s ending. And at the head of them all, still to be seen, rides their lord, Herne the Hunter, perfect at last in the mastery of his craft.

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