Some of My Stories
Here is a collection of some of my favourite traditional tales, retold in my own words, plus some of my original stories. From time to time, more of my stories will appear on this webpage. So, please make this one of your favourite sites and visit me often.
Lady Sybil lived in an ancient tower, on the high, wide moor, hard by the promontory of Eagle’s Crag. Lady Sybil possessed charm and grace, beauty and wit. She had many suitors, not least of whom was Lord William of Hapton.
Although Lord William showed her unfailing love and devotion, Lady Sybil had no eyes for him. Her love was for the wild moor. Her greatest pleasure was to pace the hills by day, and, on such a night as this, when the moon was full and high, to stand upon Eagle’s Crag, gazing upon her.
During her lonely moorland walks, Lady Sybil felt more and more drawn to becoming a wise woman in the lore of the land. She studied herbs and potions and tried them upon herself. On such a night as this, whenever the moon was full and high, she lay in the bracken by Eagle’s Crag and gazed upon her, until her senses reeled and she became entranced. In her trance, she became rabbit and stoat. She became hare and harrier. She became lark and hawk, pigeon, partridge and plover. She became gorse and heather, couch grass and fern, tormentil and wild thyme. But, her greatest joy, on such a night as this, was to become a milk white doe, a pale streak racing across the high, wide moor, or standing upon Eagle’s Crag, framed against the moon and calling to her. So she learnt the secret lore and language of the earth.
Lord William kept watch on her from a distance, with grief and longing in his heart and growing anxiety in his guts, fearing she was losing her wits, and worse, through her practice of witchcraft she might lose her life at the end of a rope. As he kept watch, not daring to interfere, there grew in his anxious mind the idea of rescuing her from herself.
Lord William consulted an aged hag who lived in those parts. She was a healer and a wise woman, but she was also feared as a witch by superstitious folk. “Set a witch to catch a witch,” was Lord William’s thought. He met the hag in her herb garden, harvesting fumitory and thyme. Her face was as ancient, craggy and full of character as the harsh high moorland landscape in mid-winter. Her huge knuckles stood out from her gnarled hands. Her left leg trailed slightly as she walked around her herb garden.
When Lord William had told the hag of his fears for Lady Sybil, she invited him into her cottage, which was neat, warm and comfortable. A potion was bubbling on the open range, filling the cottage with delicate aromas of sage and sandalwood. Around the shelves were the hag’s herbs of healing, many with animal names; cat’s ears and mouse ear; cowslip and oxlip; chickweed, cuckoo pint and bird’s foot trefoil; hogweed and sowthistle; toadflax and wormwood; harebell, henbit and hawkbit; foxgloves and bats in the belfry.
Lord William haggled with the hag for hours, urging her to persuade Lady Sybil to desist from her dangerous pursuit of wisdom. The lord’s cogent arguments the hag deftly deflected, for they disregarded the passion in the lady’s heart. The threats to the lady’s life the hag treated with disdain, for they discounted the lady’s will and calling. The lord’s desperate offers of wealth the hag rejected with contempt, for they were a slur upon her own integrity and calling.
The hag let the lord exhaust himself of all his arguments, threats and bribes. Then she told him what he must do, “On such a night as this, when the moon is full and high, take to the moor with your best hounds. You will start a milk white doe from cover. Pursue her, but do not kill or harm her. When you have caught her, bind her loosely about her neck with a silken cord and lead her gently to your manor. Then sleep, and leave the rest to me.”
On such a night as this, when the moon was full and high, Lord William took his hounds to the moor and loosed them. The hounds snuffled in the bracken and gorse until they started from cover a milk white doe, which sped away from them, a pale streak racing across the high, wide moor, leaving the hounds far behind. All save one, which the lord failed to recognise, a craggy old bitch with a game hind leg, which kept with the milk white doe pace for pace.
With bursting lungs and aching legs, Lord William caught up with the milk white doe as she stood by Eagle’s Crag, framed against the moon and calling to her. The craggy old bitch held the doe’s hind leg gently between her jaws. He threw a silken cord about the doe’s neck and led her to his home of Hapton Tower. He felt she was too fair a creature to leave in a stable, so he locked her in a stately tower room hung with fine tapestries. Then he went to his couch.
Barely had Lord William sunk into an exhausted sleep after his exertions on the moor, when he was abruptly cast from couch and slumber as a great storm blew up, battering against his home, and Hapton Tower began to rock on its foundations. Worthy ancestors fell from walls, fine porcelain toppled and smashed on the tiles, pots and pans crashed onto the kitchen floors, dressers burst open scattering family silver, chained hounds howled with fear and anguish in their kennels.
Struggling out of a tangle of sheets, Lord William made for the tower room where he had left the milk white doe. Often he was flung against the walls, as the building rocked and tilted, or thrown down to grovel among the shards and silver, tearing his legs and hands. Bruised and bleeding he reached the tower room. As he unlocked the door, the shaking and quaking of his home subsided as suddenly as it had begun. The door swung slowly open. Instead of the milk white doe, there was Lady Sybil, naked and at ease, quietly combing her pale tresses.
Soon after, Lady Sybil and Lord Hapton were wed. They had many children. Each day Lady Sybil walked the high, wide moor collecting herbs, often with animal names. Her family never ailed but she had a potion or poultice to soothe and heal them. And on such a night as this, whenever the moon was full and high, her soul would soar out onto the high, wide moor, where she would lie in the bracken by Eagle’s Crag and gaze upon the moon. Entranced, she became the creatures of the moor. Best of all, she became the milk white doe, standing at Eagle’s Crag, framed against the moon and calling to her.
So, whenever the moon is full and high, if you have the eyes for it, you can see her still, a pale streak racing across the high, wide moor, or standing upon Eagle’s Crag, framed against the moon and calling to her. And at her heels, you can see her constant companion, a craggy old bitch with a game hind leg.
This is my retelling of a Lancashire folk tale, which I found in Folk Tales of Lancashire by Frederick Grice, published by Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1953.
A rite of passage story; to get fire, Vasilisa must journey through the woods to the dreaded Baba Yaga.
In a Tzardom far away, a young mother lay dying. Beside her bed there knelt her husband and her daughter Vasilisa. Vasilisa was wearing a black smock and a white blouse embroidered by her mother in all the colours of the rainbow and all the colours in between.
The mother leant towards Vasilisa. She took a wooden doll from under her sheets. It wore a black smock and a white blouse embroidered in all the colours of the rainbow and all the colours in between. The mother handed the doll to Vasilisa.
“This is my parting gift to you, my dear daughter, given to me by my own mother,” she said in a faint voice, “My blessing! Whenever you are in trouble, the doll will help you. Feed her when she hungers and give her water when she thirsts. Keep her with you always. But, do not tell a soul about her.” Vasilisa put the doll deep into the pocket of her smock.
With that, the mother breathed her last breath. Her soul flew from her like a white bird, soared out of the window, and was gone.
Vasilisa grieved for her mother for many lonely nights. Her father grieved also, but like land lying fallow for a spell, new shoots began to spring up. He married a handsome widow with two lovely daughters. He saw only that these three were well mannered, elegant and refined. But if you were to gaze at them, then close your eyes, on the back of your eyelids you would see the image of rats.
Vasilisa’s step-mother and step-sisters plagued and bullied her. They made her fetch and chop wood, rake out and make the fire in the stove, wash the clothes, sweep the yard, cook the food and wait upon them. They hoped Vasilisa would grow thin and rough skinned from her toil, for they were jealous of her beauty and hated her for her gentle nature. All the while they spent their time in idleness, preening and pampering themselves.
Vasilisa did all she was made to do without complaining, even though she was often hungry and tired. She was always helpful and kind towards her step-mother and step-sisters. And all the time Vasilisa grew more lovely, with full breasts and rounded hips and a face as bright as a ripe apple, whilst her step-sisters were narrow chested and their lovely faced were marred by spite. This only made them hate Vasilisa all the more and they plotted to be rid of her.
“I know,” said the step-mother one day, “We shall let the fire in the lanterns go out. Then we shall send Vasilisa to Baba Yaga to beg for fire. Baba Yaga will surely kill her and eat her.” And they squealed with delight like rats in offal.
When Vasilisa came home from gathering wood in the forest she found the house in darkness. “Step-mother,” she said, “We have no fire to light the house and cook the food. What shall we do?”
“You know the forest from gathering wood. You must go and fetch fire. You must beg for fire from Baba Yaga. Go!”
With that, the step-mother gave Vasilisa a stale loaf and a flask of water and turned her out into the dark forest to seek fire from Baba Yaga.
Vasilisa felt very frightened. In the distance, wolves howled and bears growled and even the dry sticks snapping beneath her feet made her tremble with shock. She was alone at night in the deep, dark forest and did not know the way to go to find Baba Yaga. Then she remembered the wooden doll which her mother had given to her, her mother’s blessing. She put her hand into the deep pocket of her smock and there she was. She took out the doll and gave her some water and dry bread. She told the doll of her plight and asked for her help. As Vasilisa made her way through the dark forest, the doll guided her path.
Vasilisa walked all night, guided by her doll. Suddenly, a man dressed in white on a white horse came trotting by. Not long after it was dawn. A short time later, a man dressed in red on a red horse came cantering by. Soon after the sun rose. Vasilisa walked for many hours. Then, a man dressed in black on a black horse came galloping by. Swiftly, it was night.
Vasilisa journeyed many days and nights, and many times the horsemen in white and red and black came trotting and cantering and galloping by. One day Vasilisa came to a compound in the heart of the forest. Its fence was made of dead men’s bones. The latches on the gate were bony fingers. On every stake a human skull gazed out into the forest. Vasilisa wondered if this were Baba Yaga’s dwelling. The doll told her it was. At that moment, the horseman dressed in black on his black horse galloped by. Black horse and rider leapt the fence and were lost to sight, for swiftly it was night. A moment later and all the skulls blazed with an inner fire, lighting the compound like day.
Trembling with fear and clutching her doll deep in the pocket of her smock, Vasilisa lifted the bony latch and entered the compound. There she saw Baba Yaga’s hut. It stood on huge, yellow, scaly chicken legs. Sometimes it strolled about the compound. Sometimes it whirled around like a dervish. But always its doorway faced the deepest, darkest part of the forest.
There came a sound like wind roaring through the forest. The great trees shook and creaked and their branches cracked and Baba Yaga descended into the compound in her chariot, a massive mortar which she propelled with a great pestle. As she rode through the forest and across the sky she swept the tracks behind her with a besom made of dead men’s hair.
Baba Yaga was a fearsome sight. Her long black hair was wild, all knotted and greasy. Her face was a mass of warts, her eyes a piercing black. Her long nose hooked downwards like a scimitar and her chin hooked upwards towards it like an old crescent moon. All the time, at the end of her narrow nostrils, there lingered a bubble of snot. Over the centuries a stalagmite of snot had formed upon the end of her chin and a stalactite of snot upon the end of her nose, so that the two now almost met.
Baba Yaga’s nose twitched, “I smell Russian bones. Show yourself!” Vasilisa stepped forward.
“Have you come of your own free will, girl, or have you been sent?” croaked Baba Yaga. Her voice trembling, Vasilisa replied, “Largely of my own free will and twice as much because my step-mother and step-sisters sent me. I come to beg for fire.”
Baba Yaga sneered, “Yes, I know all about you and your step-mother and step-sisters. What makes you think I shall give you fire?”
Clutching her doll, deep in her smock’s pocket, Vasilisa replied, “Because I ask it, Babushka.”
“You answer wisely,” said Baba Yaga with a hiss, “Otherwise, I should have killed you and gobbled you up.” Baba Yaga gave a crooked grin. Vasilisa saw her iron teeth, each one filed sharp as a dagger.
“If I am to give you fire, you must work to pay for it,” said Baba Yaga, “Fetch and chop my wood, rake out and make my fire in the stove, wash my clothes, sweep my yard, cook my food and wait upon me. If you do everything I ask, I will give you fire. Otherwise …” As Baba Yaga’s lips curled in her crooked grin, her burnished teeth flashed in the light from the skulls and for a moment her eyes too burned with fire, “I shall kill you and gobble you up.”
“Now,” said Baba Yaga, “Fetch me what is cooking on the stove.” It was a hot, thick, dark stew, enough for a dozen full-grown working men. But with a mighty slurping and slopping she supped the lot, leaving only a small cupful for Vasilisa. Then Baba Yaga leapt into her mortar, grasped her pestle and took off into the night sky. And the strange thing was, wherever she appeared in the sky she was always framed against the moon, with her hooked nose and crooked chin, her wild, greasy hair streaming behind her.
She returned in the morning and gave Vasilisa her instructions, “Gather my wood, make my fire, wash my clothes, sweep my yard, cook my food and wait upon me. And one more thing. Take the wheat from my storehouse and separate the good grain from the mildewed grain. If all this work is not done by morning,” said Baba Yaga with a steely grimace, “I will kill you and gobble you up.” Then she went into her hut to sleep and later to eat.
When she had finished all the other tasks, Vasilisa began to separate the good grain from the mildewed grain, but the work was very slow and hardly anything had been done before night fell and the skulls burst into flame and Baba Yaga took to the skies.
Vasilisa took out her doll, gave her a little of Baba Yaga’s stew, and asked her, “How shall I ever finish this on time, before Baba Yaga kills me and gobbles me up?”
“Sleep now,” whispered the doll, “Morning is wiser than evening.” Vasilisa slept. After the white horseman had trotted by and the dawning forest began to stir, the doll gathered together all the birds of the forest and set them to work sifting the corn. When Vasilisa awoke, to her joy and relief there were two piles of wheat in the compound, one good grain and the other mildewed.
At that moment, Baba Yaga returned with a woosh. When she saw the separate piles of good and mildewed grain, she was secretly pleased, but she hissed, “You have done well.” Then she cried, “My loyal servants and bosom friends, come and grind my wheat.” Three pairs of hands appeared in the air and ground the good grains so quickly that the forest air blew white with chaff. When the flour was stored the hands disappeared.
Then Baba Yaga gave Vasilisa her instructions, “Gather my wood, make my fire, wash my clothes, sweep my yard, cook my food and wait upon me. And one more thing. The poppy seeds in this pot have earth mixed in with them. Wash them one by one. If all this work is not done by the morning,” said Baba Yaga, “I will kill you and gobble you up.” Then she went into her hut to sleep and later to eat.
When she had finished all the other tasks, Vasilisa began to wash the poppy seeds, but the work was very slow and almost nothing had been done before Baba Yaga took to the skies.
Vasilisa took out her doll, gave her a little stew, and asked her, “How shall I ever finish this on time, before Baba Yaga kills me and gobbles me up?”
“Sleep now,” whispered the doll, “Morning is wiser than evening.” Vasilisa slept. After the white horseman had trotted by and the dawning forest began to stir, the doll gathered together all the mice in the forest and set them to work washing the poppy seeds. When Vasilisa awoke, to her joy and relief there was a pot of clean poppy seeds.
At that moment, Baba Yaga landed in the compound. When she saw the pot of clean poppy seeds, she was secretly pleased, but she hissed, “You have done well.” Then she cried, “My loyal servants and bosom friends, come and press my oil.” Three pairs of hands appeared in the air and pressed the oil out into jars so quickly the forest was filled with its fragrance. When the work was done the hands disappeared.
Baba Yaga went into her hut and slept. Later, when she sat down to eat, Vasilisa stood nearby with a thoughtful look. “Well, child,” asked Baba Yaga, “What do you have to say?”
“I should like to ask you some questions,” replied Vasilisa.
“Ask your questions,” said Baba Yaga, “But remember, not every question leads to good. If you know too much you will grow old too soon.”
“Thank you, Babushka. Who is the rider in white riding a white horse?”
“Ah! He is my dawning day, my bright dawn.”
“And, who is the rider in red riding a red horse?”
“Ah! He is my rising sun, my red sun.”
“And who is the rider in black riding a black horse?”
“Ah! He is my dark, black night.”
Vasilisa thought to ask about the three pairs of hands, but she saw the hungry look in Baba Yaga’s eyes and stayed silent.
“Well, child,” crooned Baba Yaga, “Surely you have more questions?”
“No, Babushka. As you said, not every question leads to good. If I know too much I shall grow old too soon.”
“You answer wisely,” hissed Baba Yaga, “More wisely than your years. How so? And how are you able to finish all your tasks?”
“By the blessing of my mother,” replied Vasilisa.
“Blessing!” screamed Baba Yaga. She grew to a towering height. Her massive body shook with rage. Her eyes burnt like the bellowing of hot coals. “Blessing!” she bellowed, “We need no blessings here. They hurt my bones.”
With that, she took from the fence a skull with eyes of fire, shoved it on a stick and thrust it into Vasilisa’s hand. “Here’s the fire you were sent for. Now, be gone!”
Vasilisa took the flaming skull, ran from the compound and fled into the forest. The skull lit her path, yet she feared this strange lantern. As she ran, the man dressed in white on a white horse came trotting by, and the glowing eyes began to flicker and fade with the dawn. A short time later, the man dressed in red on a red horse came cantering by, and the glowing eyes were extinguished with the rising sun. All day she ran, until the man dressed in black on a black horse came galloping by, and with the coming of night the skull’s flame rekindled. The skull’s glowing eyes, lighting her way, now reassured her.
With the dawn, Vasilisa continued her journey through the forest. The step-mother and step-sisters thought Baba Yaga had killed her and gobbled her up. They saw the eerie light and watched it bobbing through the forest. When they saw Vasilisa they rushed out to meet her. “We have not been able to have light all the time you have been away,” they moaned, “However hard we have tried.”
And so, Vasilisa returned home triumphant. She had survived. Her dangerous journey was completed. She had come home with fire. But the skull held the step-mother and step-sisters in its steady gaze and bored into them. They could not escape its white heat. The three were burnt to ashes.
Ride with the young archer to edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flame from behind the blue sea, and share his time of trial.
Bringing the firebird’s feather.
The forest was utterly still. There was no birdsong in the canopy. No rustling of small mammals in the undergrowth. Just the gentle thump of the great horse’s hooves caressing the forest floor. The horse of power, untold hands high, unbroken, unshod, without saddle or bridle, the young archer on his back riding with his consent.
On the ground before them, something glinting in a shaft of sunlight, a feather from the firebird’s burning breast. The firebird had past this way, filling the forest with awe and fear.
The young archer slipped down from the horses back, bent to pick up the feather, “This will be a gift to the Tzar, he will reward me handsomely and take me into his service. No Tzar has a feather from the firebird’s breast.”
The horse of power spoke, “Leave the feather where it lies, else you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear.” But the young archer, in his eager ambition, took no heed.
They cantered through the forest to the palace, and leaving the horse of power in the courtyard the young archer rushed excitedly into the presence of the Tzar, knelt before him and laid the firebird’s feather at his feet.
The Tzar’s heart filled with pride to possess what no other Tzar possessed, but his mouth curled with greed and malice, “A feather is not a fit gift for a great Tzar. If you can bring a firebird’s feather you can bring the firebird, and I will reward you with silver and gold. Else by my sword your head will no longer sit between your shoulders. Bring me the bird.”
The young archer ran into the courtyard weeping with disappointment and dread, told the horse of power what the Tzar had demanded. The horse pawed the ground, shook its great head, and the words hung in the air between them, you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear. “Do not fear,” said the horse, “the trial is not now, the trial is to come. Now you have a journey to make.”
Bringing the firebird
Guided by the horse of power, the young archer begged the Tzar for 1000 bushels of maize, and journeying to the great field at the heart of the kingdom had the maize scattered at midnight upon the ground. Then he shinned up the mighty oak at the centre of the field, hid himself among its branches and waited for the dawn.
As the red sun rose from out the eastern lands, a great wind blew up, tearing at the forest canopy, the seas at the edge of the world piling themselves up into mountains of spray and dashing themselves against the distant shores. The firebird flew from out the sun, fiery wings outstretched and breast of gold burning bright. It alighted on the field, folded its wings and greedily began to eat the maize.
The horse of power sauntered around the field, pretending to graze but drawing closer and closer to the firebird, until with a sudden lunge he trapped the firebird’s fiery wing beneath his might hoof. Shinning down from the oak tree the young archer threw a wide net over the firebird, binding it tight. With the firebird over his shoulder, he staggered bent-backed to the palace to receive his reward, leaving behind him a trail of golden feathers. Entering the presence of the Tzar he flung the firebird at his feet. It filled the Tzar’s heart with cruel rapture; since the beginning of time no Tzar had had a firebird cast casually before him like a duck caught in a snare.
The Tzar turned to the young archer, his mouth curling with greed and desire, “What is a bird after all? If you can get the bird you can get my bride, whom I have awaited for so long, Princess Vasilisa. Bring her, from the edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flame from behind the blue sea, and I will reward you with silver and gold. Else by my sword your head will no longer sit between your shoulders. Bring me my bride.”
The young archer ran into the courtyard weeping with chagrin and dread, told the horse of power what the Tzar had demanded. The horse pawed the ground, shook its great head, and the words hung in the air between them, you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear. “Do not fear,” said the horse, “the trial is not now, the trial is to come. Now you have a journey to make.”
Bringing Princess Vasilisa
Guided by the horse of power, the young archer begged the Tzar for a silver tent with a golden canopy, fine carpets, rich wines and tasty delicacies, and with these they journeyed. Through the deep forests. Across the great steppes. Over the high mountains. To the edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flame from behind the blue sea.
Whilst the horse of power wandered on the beach, its great hooves sinking into the sand, the young archer raised the silver tent with its golden canopy beside the shore, laid out the fine carpets, wines and delicacies, and began to regale himself of the tasty dishes.
Princess Vasilisa sat lightly in her silver boat, lightly dipping her golden oars in the blue sea, moving the silver boat lightly through the dancing waves, closer and closer to the edge of the world, where she saw the silver tent with its golden canopy and the young archer. Her silver boat crunched against the golden sand and stepping ashore Princess Vasilisa approached the silver tent and seated herself on a fine carpet beneath the golden canopy. The young archer bowed low and invited her to partake of the rich wines and tasty delicacies. They ate with delight and toasted each other in the rich wine from golden goblets, until the Princess’ eyelids began to close, the golden goblet fell from her fingers and she lay back on the carpet in a deep sleep. To the young archer she was the image of loveliness. Quickly he rolled her in the carpet, laid her gently over the horse’s back and set off back to the palace. Over the high mountains. Across the great steppes. Through the deep forests.
Entering the presence of the Tzar, the young archer unrolled the carpet to reveal the sleeping princess. “Sound the trumpets,” called the Tzar, “Ring the bells. For we are to wed.” The ringing of bells woke Vasilisa, “Where is my blue sea? Where is my silver boat and my golden oars?” “The blue sea is far away. For your silver boat I give you a golden throne. The trumpets sound for our wedding. The bells are ringing for our joy.”
The princess turned away from the Tzar with his cruel eyes and curled lips and turned to the young archer with love in her heart for one fit to ride the horse of power. Then she spoke to the Tzar, “I will not marry without my wedding gown. At the edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flame from behind the blue sea, my wedding gown lies in a golden casket beneath a great stone in the middle of the blue sea.”
The Tzar turned to the young archer, his mouth curling with desire and frustration, “How could you bring my bride without her wedding gown? Bring her gown from the edge of the world, else by my sword your head will no longer sit between your shoulders. Bring me the frock.”
The young archer ran into the courtyard weeping with anguished love, told the horse of power what the Tzar had demanded. The horse pawed the ground, shook its great head, and the words hung in the air between them, you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear. “Do not fear,” said the horse, “the trial is not now, the trial is to come. Now you have a journey to make.”
Bringing the wedding gown
The young archer and the horse of power journeyed through the deep forests. Across the great steppes. Over the high mountains. To the edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flame from behind the blue sea.
The young archer looked sadly at the blue sea. But the horse of power searched the shore until he found a great lobster crawling sideways across the golden sand. When the lobster came close, the horse slowly lifted a foreleg and brought the hoof down gently but firmly on the lobster’s tail. The lobster struggled in vain against the heavy hoof then screamed, “I am the Tzar of all the lobsters. Release me and we shall do whatever you ask.” The horse released the lobster and said what he must do.
The Tzar of all the lobsters stood at the edge of the world and called out. The blue sea seemed to boil with white foam and from its depths crawled thousands of lobsters bearing the golden casket, taken from beneath the great stone in the middle of the blue sea. Taking the casket, the young archer thanked the Tzar of all the lobsters and leaping onto the horse’s back they began their journey back to the palace. Over the high mountains. Across the great steppes. Through the deep forests.
Later, the princess appeared in her wedding gown, lovelier than daylight, more beautiful than the stars of heaven. The Tzar looked at her with hard, hungry eyes and held his hand out to her, but she would not take it, “I will not marry until the one who brought me here has done penance in boiling water.”
His lips curling with ingratitude and malice, the Tzar commanded his servants, “Make a great fire, set upon it the largest cauldron of water, and when it boils take this creature and cast him into the boiling water to do penance for bringing my bride from the edge of the world.”
The young archer’s heart was all despair, to lose his life at the behest of the woman he had so shortly come to love. “Great Tzar,” he said “suffer me before I die to bid farewell to my horse.” At a sign from the princess, the Tzar assented, “But make it quick, for our nuptials await.”
The young archer ran into the courtyard weeping in an agony of betrayal and fear, told the horse of power what Princess Vasilisa had demanded and the Tzar had ordered and would have made his farewell. But the horse pawed the ground, shook its great head, and the words hung in the air between them, you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear. “The trial is now, the trial is come. Now you have a final journey to make.”
The horse was secretly encouraged by what Princess Vasilisa had done. All the same, he guided the young archer how he might face the trial, face death.
The great cauldron was coming up to the boil. Princess Vasilisa remained impassive. The Tzar was torn between his relish to see the young archer’s suffering and his desire for the princess. The young archer, standing firmly in the grip of two servants, was full of dread resolution.
The princess stepped towards the cauldron. She moved her hand over the bubbling and seething water. Her lips briefly moved. A fleeting, enigmatic smile flickered across her features, “The water boils. All is ready.”
As the drums rolled, the young archer wrenched himself away from his captors. He ran boldly forward and flung himself into the boiling foam. He swirled around and around, twice sinking below the surface and rising again. He sank for the third and last time. The Tzar’s lips curled with malicious pleasure. The princess’ face shone with enigmatic glee. And the young archer leapt from the cauldron and stood before them in the full flower of mature manhood.
The Tzar stared at the apparition risen before him, his lips curling with envy and spite. He thought of his own grey hairs, his bent back, gnarled face and toothless gums, “If the waters can work this miracle for a mere archer then what can they work for a mighty Tzar?” He stumbled forward and climbed into the cauldron to a terrible death. The servants boiled the flesh from his bones for pig meal and cast the bones to his dogs.
The young man became the new Tzar. The princess became Tzarina. Each loving the other, they ruled wisely and well until the time for the Tzar to journey to the next world and for Vasilisa to follow her next call.
This is my telling of a Russian traditional story.
The Autumn Equinox is for some the festival of Mabon ap Modron. Here is the story.
Festival of Mabon ap Modron.
This story is to celebrate the festival of Autumn Equinox. Some call it the festival of Mabon ap Modron, though others say this is merely a twentieth century fancy. Either way, on this night, the metaphor will serve us well enough.
The metaphor is this, the Autumn Equinox, the festival of Mabon ap Modron, is a celebration of balance, when night is equal to day. So, I invite you to give praise to the goddess for the gift of balance: the day with the night, light with dark, man with woman, masculine with feminine, height with depth, joy with sorrow, sweet with sour, summer with winter, spring with autumn, youth with age. Balance with imbalance.
Yes, with balance there is also imbalance, for this is a time of transition, as light, from this time forward, is stolen away into the dark.
Mabon ap Modron simply means the son of the mother. Yet, Mabon is at one level child and, at a higher level, solar deity, son and sun. Modron is at one level mother and, at a higher level, triple goddess – maiden, mother and crone – in her mother aspect. The birth of the son at this festival time is the transition of the goddess from maiden to mother, from fertility to fecundity, from sowing to gathered harvest, from young shoots to mellow fruitfulness.
The story of Mabon ap Modron
This is the story of Mabon ap Modron. When her Mabon is born, he is the light of his Modron’s life. She sleeps with him at her breast, betwixt herself and the wall. When he is but three nights old he is stolen away, and in the morning he is gone. The light of Modron’s life is stolen away into the dark. Only when the dark turns again to light is Mabon discovered and brought forth from the womb of the earth.
THE RESTORATION OF MABON AP MODRON
The search begins
This is how the story continues. To win the hand of Olwen, daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden, Culhwch has to fulfil impossible tasks, for which it seems he needs the help of Mabon. Yet, noone knows where Mabon is gone or whether he is alive or dead. Culhwch must search for him. His chief guide is his cousin Arthur. His friend Gwrhyr also travels with him, Gwrhyr who understands the tongues of animals and birds. Also in the party are his friends Kei and Bedwyr.
Ouzel of Kilgrwri
First they seek out the ancient and wise Ouzel of Kilgrwri. He has a crescent moon gleaming bright upon his breast. Yet, the feathers on his wings are fringed white with age. He keeps his wits sharp. And he keeps his beak sharp
by sharpening it upon an iron anvil, an anvil which, over long years, he has reduced to the size of a nut.
Gwrhyr calls to the Ouzel of Kilgrwri in his own tongue, “Kilgrooree, Kilgrooree, O wise one, know you anything of Mabon ap Modron, who when three nights old was stolen away from betwixt his mother and the wall?”
Alas, in all his long years the wise Ouzel of Kilgrwri had heard nothing of Mabon ap Modron. With his tick tock voice he replies to Gwrhyr, “Ki Ki Ki Kilgrooree, Kilgrooree, I will guide you, this way and that way, to a creature even older and wiser than I, the Stag of Rhendevre.”
Stag of Rhendevre
They find the Stag of Rhendevre in an ancient forest. He is of massive size, eight feet to the shoulder. His giant antlers branch to no less than thirty two points. His red coat is shaggy with age. He is even older than the very forest in which he roams.
The Stag of Rhendevre gazes down on them with imperious disdain for their temerity in entering his domain. Gwrhyr comes forward with trembling steps and addresses the Stag of Rhendevre in his own tongue, “Rrrrrrhendevre, Rrrrrrhendevre, O wise one, know you anything of Mabon ap Modron, who when three nights old was stolen away from betwixt his mother and the wall?”
Alas, in all his long years the wise Stag of Rhendevre had heard nothing of Mabon ap Modron. With his deep, throaty voice the Stag of Rhendevre replies to Gwrhyr, “Rrrrrrhendevre, Rrrrrrhendevre, I will guide you, this way and that way, to a creature even older and wiser than I, the Owl of Cwn Cawlwyd.”
Owl of Cwn Cawlwyd
They find the Owl of Cwn Cawlwyd in a deep valley, riven by precipices of towering rock, between craggy hills. He is older than the hills, older than the rocks. He watches them from his perch on a rocky outcrop. He stares at them, unblinking, impassive, through shrewd yellow eyes beneath black crested brows.
The little party climbs the rocks towards his perch. Gwrhyr stumbles forward, calling to Cwn Cawlwyd in his own tongue, “C-hoon c-hoo, c-hoon c-hoo, cooon Cawlooed, O wise one, know you anything of Mabon ap Modron, who when three nights old was stolen away from betwixt his mother and the wall?”
Alas, in all his long years the wise Owl of Cwn Cawlwyd had heard nothing of Mabon ap Modron. With lots of twoo-twooing and hooting the Owl of Cwn Cawlwyd replies to Gwrhyr, “C-hoon c-hoo, c-hoon c-hoo, cooon Cawlooed, I will guide you, this way and that way, to a creature even older and wiser than I, the Eagle of Gwernabwy.
Eagle of Gwernabwy
They find the Eagle of Gwernabwy in his rocky eyrie above sheer cliffs. His brooding presence dominates this region of sparse woodland and moors of matted gorse and heather, stretching down to misty cliffs above a wild sea. He is of such immense size he can satiate his vast appetite on deer from the land and seals from the sea.
Once, there was a tall pillar of rock which stretched from the shore as high as the stars. The Eagle of Gwernabwy has sharpened his claws upon this rock for so many aeons of time it is now no bigger than the stretch of a man’s hand.
All day, Gwrhyr climbs the perilous cliffs to reach an overhang below the giant bird’s eyrie. The Eagle of Gwernabwy watches and waits, his eager talons straining with barely contained lust to tear into the young man’s living flesh and the crooked beak to r
ip out his heart.
With a trembling voice, Gwrhyr calls to the great bird high above him in his own tongue, “Gwaarn-abooee, Gwaarn-abooee, O wise one, know you anything of Mabon ap Modron, who when three nights old was stolen away from betwixt his mother and the wall?”
Alas, in all his long years the wise Eagle of Gwernabwy had heard nothing of Mabon ap Modron. With a surprisingly high pitched cry for such a massive bird, and almost a gentle cooing tone, the Eagle of Gwernabwy replies to Gwrhyr, “Gwaarn-abooee, Gwaarn-abooee, I will guide you, this way and that way, to a creature even older and wiser than I, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw.”
Salmon of Llyn Llyw
They find the Salmon of Llyn Llyw in the estuary of Afon Hafren. From the tip of his nose to the end of his tail
is a full twelve feet and he is all of 200 lbs, the greatest fish ever to swim these waters. And a vessel of such accumulated wisdom that even there, on the shore, the small band could not forbear to kneel in awe and wonder.
Wading deep into the estuary, Gwrhyr spoke to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw in his own tongue, “Ll-Ll-Ll-Llyn Ll-Ll-Ll-Llyw, Ll-Ll-Ll-Llyn Ll-Ll-Ll-Llyw, O wisest one, know you anything of Mabon ap Modron, who when three nights old was stolen away from betwixt his mother and the wall?”
The Salmon of Llyn Llyw replies to Gwrhyr. His voice is like gentle waves lapping the shore. It would lift their hearts, save that his message is so grim, “Ll-Ll-Ll-Llyn Ll-Ll-Ll-Llyw, Ll-Ll-Ll-Llyn Ll-Ll-Ll-Llyw, I know of the greatest evil there has ever been throughout all my ages of existence. The one you seek lies in the deepest dungeon of Gloucester Keep and in deeper despair.”
The suffering of Mabon ap Modron
Then, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw guides Culhwch, Arthur, Gwrhyr, Kei and Bedwyr up the Afon Hafren all the way to Gloucester Keep. From outside the ramparts they hear heartrending moans and wails, “Was ever a man so harshly imprisoned? Was ever a man so cruelly ill-used as I.”
For, there lay Mabon ap Modron in close confine, cruelly chained and manacled, deep, deep underground, in a narrow cell devoid of light, crying in his agony, “Was ever man so harshly imprisoned? Was ever man so cruelly ill-used as I?”
Those guarding him could not be bribed. Not with silver, nor gold, nor any worldly wealth could Culhwch secure the release of Mabon ap Modron from close confine. The jailors are implacable, for they are not of this world.
The battle to rescue Mabon ap Modron
Arthur now knows, Mabon ap Modron can not be released without doing battle with sword and axe against the forces of the dark. He summons to his side all the warriors of Britain to storm the citadel of Gloucester Keep. And he sends sappers to undermine the walls.
The sappers build deep pits beneath the walls. They fill them with straw and brushwood and set the whole alight, so the intense heat cracks the great stones. Meanwhile, Arthur’s warriors attack the walls with battering rams and the battlements with a hail of arrow.
As Arthur’s forces break through the walls, Kei bravely leaps through the gap, fighting his way with sword and axe down to the deepest, darkest dungeon.
Kei frees Mabon ap Modron from his chains with a mighty blow from his axe. The man is so weak from his long imprisonment, Kei carries the prisoner to freedom on his back.
The end of the story, restoration of Mabon ap Modron
And so we reach the end of the story. Mabon ap Modron is able to help Culhwch to win the hand of Olwen, and Mabon is restored to Modron, once again to be the light of her life.
© David England, 2009
A gutsy spiritual story about grace and soul.
Friar Corentin lived in a small clearing at the heart of a mighty Breton forest. The trees bowed their branches low to form his hermitage, and the abundance of the forest provided for his needs. There was a spring in the clearing which never dried up, trickling out into a hollow rock to form a clear and rippling pool.
Friar Corentin devoted himself to prayer and fasting, as his cloistered abbot had instructed him, in his searching for the unseen god of wind and air and breath. And he allowed himself to enjoy the simple fare of the forest and the cool water of the spring pool.
One spring he began his long lenten fast, as his cloistered abbot had instructed him, to subdue the flesh and to still its earthy desires. He found each day more tiresome than the last. The austere part of him struggled up the stony path of the spirit whilst desire for nourishment filled his aching body and soul.
On the seventh day of his fast, Friar Corentin rose just before dawn and went to the spring pool as usual to drink the cool water and to wash the sleep from his eyes. To the delight of his aching senses, he saw swimming in the pool a golden fish. The gold seemed to flood out of the fish from somewhere within and to fill the dawning forest with its light. And as the eyes of the fish rested upon Corentin, they rested him.
The fish delighted Corentin, and he spent the day meditating upon it. He measured its length and breadth with his eyes. He counted the very scales of its body. He observed the subtle colours of its flesh. He perceived the rhythmic breathing of its gills. He celebrated the undulations of its movement through the rippling water. Delight.
As the days went by, the delighted part of him was captivated more and more by the golden fish, whilst the austere part became more and more demanding that he return to the full, penitential rigour of his fast. As this struggle advanced, there grew in Corentin a desire for the golden fish. In his imagination he tickled its soft underparts in the way he had caught trout as a novice. He imagined grasping the fish and feeling it slithering in his fingers, its flesh oily and smooth and firm, the strange golden light radiating into his hands.
The austere part was strident, desperate, insisting that the golden fish had been put into the spring pool by the god of fear and wrath for his temptation, to test him and to heighten his sense of mortification, if only he could overcome. In the depth of his struggle he prayed and prayed, “Oh thou god of fire and tempest, keep me from temptation and preserve and protect the golden fish from my desires.” Torment.
At noon on the fourteenth day of his fast, Corentin stood by the spring pool utterly wearied by the struggle and strangely detached and still. As the eyes of the golden fish rested upon him, he reached into the water, lifted out the fish, and placed it in a pot; a pot which, in his detached way, he just happened to have warmed over the glowing embers of the fire he just happened to have made that morning.
As the golden fish sizzled in the hot olive oil, he threw in onions and shallots and courgettes and sliced roots and rosemary and thyme and mushrooms and lots and lots of garlic. What savour filled his nostrils as the golden light irradiated the cooking pot? He remembered a bottle of fine Chateauneuf his cloistered abbot had given him in a rare moment of generosity. He opened it and began the finest breakfast he had ever known. The pot’s bounty was unconfined, overflowing, and he ate and drank and enjoyed until he was perfectly satisfied.
Afterwards, he began to reflect on what he had done, the enormity of it. The golden fish had looked at him, and he had calmly and thoughtlessly grabbed it and eat it. What was worse, he had eat it with great relish and enjoyment and had felt satisfaction and contentment. He was mortified. Ashamed. The austere part possessed him, calling him vile and weak and wicked and accursed for such a deed. And a tiny, tiny part of him said to itself, “God, but it was good.”
At the end of the day, forlorn and downtrodden by the austere part, Corentin slowly gathered up the head and tail and bones of the golden fish. He walked to the spring pool and threw them into it. Then, because he felt so weary and beaten, he lay down and slept.
The following morning, Friar Corentin rose just before dawn and went to the spring pool as usual to drink the cool water and to wash the sleep from his eyes. To his amazement and delight, there swimming in the pool was the golden fish. In that moment, he knew that the fish had been put there by the god of sowing and gathering, not for his temptation – or, not only for his temptation – but for his delectation and joy. Like the sheltering and abundant forest and the spring pool, the fish had been put there for his nourishment and for the comfort of his flesh.
He was a different person. Each day for the remainder of the lenten fast he observed his spiritual practice with a light heart and ate the fish with an easy conscience.
On the last day of the fast, there came a great racket and tumult in the forest, the baying of hounds, the whinny of horses, the crashing of branches, the howling of the hunted deer and the coarse bellowing of men. There broke into Saint Corentin’s quiet clearing King Gradlon and fifty of his bold retainers, their horses steaming in the cool morning air. They had lost the quarry. She had escaped, sure-footed, into the dense undergrowth.
King Gradlon was tired and hungry. He was angry and frustrated he had lost the prize of his manhood in the chase. Seeing Corentin, Gradlon turned his anger upon him, “Thou, miserable little friar, give us all something to eat or I’ll have thee flayed alive and carry thee home on a pole.”
Gradlon’s retainers watched with surprise and listened with awe as Saint Corentin walked slowly towards the king, still astride his mount, looked him straight in the eye, and said,
“King Gradlon, thou art a mighty lord, but this is the land of one mightier than thou, the god of wood and stone. Here thou art his guest and mine. Welcome. I have olive oil and onions and shallots and courgettes and sliced roots and rosemary and thyme and mushrooms and lots and lots of garlic. I have the dregs of a fine Chateauneuf. And I have one golden fish. With these I will serve thee a feast like thou hast never known. And before this day is out, thou, mighty king, shalt willingly bend the knee to the god of deer and hound.”
The retainers sat silent on their steeds. No breath stirred. Save that the air fizzed and crackled between the two men as they confronted each other. Gradlon was a man without fear. He would wrestle with bears. He would fight a wolf-pack if they were his quarry. As he absorbed Corentin’s words, his hand moved to his blooded sword. But he sensed a supernal strength in this slight saint, whose eyes rested upon him still, a strength like he had never met, that made him shift uneasily in his saddle and stay his hand. All the same,
“I shall make a bargain with thee,” he said, with a great laugh to hide his unease, “A few weeds and one fish do not sound much of a feast to me. But, if thou canst feed me and all of my men until we are satisfied, I shall not flay thee alive and carry thee home on a pole.”
The tension eased. King Gradlon and his men dismounted and stood around easily, making laughter. Corentin poured olive oil into his pot and set it to warm over the glowing embers. He gathered and prepared onions and shallots and courgettes and sliced roots and rosemary and thyme and mushrooms and lots and lots of garlic. He decanted the dregs of wine. Finally, he tenderly took the golden fish and put it in the hot oil with all the other ingredients.
When the meal was ready, the king and all his retainers sat down to the greatest feast they had ever known. Their palates were enlivened by the most delicate flavours. The pot’s bounty was as ever unconfined. The jug of wine was always overflowing. And they ate and drank and enjoyed until they were all perfectly satisfied.
In his amazement at such a feast, King Gradlon turned to Corentin, saying how sorry he was to have struck such a bargain and asking what he might offer in recompense.
“There is one thing thou canst do,” Saint Corentin said, “Take the head and tail and bones of the golden fish and cast them into the spring pool.”
The king did as he was bid, and before his eyes the head and tail and bones came all together and the golden flesh reformed. And as the eyes of the fish rested upon Gradlon, the king willingly bent his knee to the lively god, and all his retainers with him. And Corentin took the cool water of the spring pool and a little olive oil and anointed the brow of King Gradlon and all of his men in the name of the self-giving and self-renewing god.
© David England, 2003
Based on a Breton story, Saint Corentin and the Fish, from Saints and Changelings, Agnes Ashton, 1975, published by Blackie.
A very different rendering of the popular campfire story, ‘The Woman Who Had Two’.
Once there was a woman who lived with her mother. She was as beautiful as her mother was poor. The woman was tall and voluptuous. She had the fine looks of a noble Egyptian. Her nose was exquisite. Her hair was a dark amber, full and flowing. Her eyes were at once dark and bright. And she had such a soft, dark down on her as would drive a man to distraction.
Her only possession of any worth was a sandalwood box which had been in her family for generations. It was intricately carved, with a fine network of tiny holes worked into the lid.
Now, the king of that country was tall and strong, and one day he decided it was time he took a wife to be his queen, to be his life companion and to assist him with the affairs of state. Thinking himself a lusty fellow, he decided he would only marry with a woman who had two. So, he put out a proclamation throughout the land that he wished to marry and would receive applications to be queen from any woman who had two.
Thousands of young women, and some not so young, besieged the palace, eager to be queen. Each one was directed to the office of the Grand Vizier, whose job it was to study their applications and to scrutinise their credentials. The Grand Vizier was diligent in his work. He was willing to apply himself for long hours each day. He enjoyed his work. But he found no applicant with the necessary qualifications to be queen.
The woman’s mother, like many mothers throughout the land, urged her daughter to attend the palace and try her luck, but the woman said,
“No! I will wait.”
And the more the poor woman urged her daughter to attend the palace the more she refused,
“No! I will wait.”
The flow of applicants dwindled from thousands to hundreds to dozens to just a trickle each day, until the day when there was no applicant at all. The king was disappointed and frustrated. On the following day, the woman put on her finest raiment, drew a veil over her face, took the sandalwood box, and made her way to the palace, where she was directed to the office of the Grand Vizier.
“No!” she said, “I’m not going to present myself to some Grand Voyeur. I will only deal directly with the king.”
Well, as the sole remaining applicant they could hardly refuse, and so she was brought before the king.
“You have the necessary qualifications?” asked the king.
“I do,” she replied.
“So, show me,” he said.
“Certainly not,” she replied, “What sort of women do you think I am. Not until you have married with me.”
“Well,” said the king, “at least remove your veil and let me see your face.”
So, she removed her veil and he gazed in delight upon her fine looks, as of a noble Egyptian, her exquisite nose, her hair a dark amber, full and flowing, her eyes at once dark and bright. And the soft, dark down of her drove him to distraction. So, the Grand Vizier was called as witness and they made their vows, to be true to one another and to make the journey of love together, until their time shall pass away.
Then they were escorted to the bedchamber prepared for a queen, should she be found. When they were alone, the king kissed her gently and said,
“Now, show me.”
And so, she unveiled herself to him. She had such a voluptuous beauty on her as was renowned for centuries, and even a thousand years later the singers of the Song of Songs, the Sacred Marriage, recalled her as the model for their bride,
“Behold, thou art fair, my love, behold thou art surpassing fair.
Thy nose is as the Tower of Lebanon that looketh toward Damascus,
And the smell of thy nose is like apples.
Thy breasts are like twin fawns feasting upon lilies.
Thy stature is like unto a palm tree,
And thy breasts to clusters of grapes.
Thy belly is like to an heap of wheat set about with lilies.
Verily, the joy of thee is as a pure translucent pearl in a setting of dark amber.
Yea, the joy of thee is as a song bird, so feathery and soft and warm and pulsing with life beneath the bridegroom’s hand.”
“But,” said the king huffily, “you only have one. You promised me two, but you have only one.”
She laughed, deep and sultry,
“I don’t wear them both at once. We can only use one at a time. I keep the spare in this little sandalwood box.”
And she showed him the sandalwood box, so intricately carved with its network of tiny holes worked into the lid.
By now the royal sceptre was risen keen as a sickle at harvest. This was no time to quibble over contracts. And so, they entered into one another and loved one another in every imaginable way and every unimaginable way and the months passed in joy.
Now, the queen had a fine bedchamber, with a great window looking to the south, and each day she put out crumbs and tiny sweetmeats for the birds, so that they came to know and trust her and became her friends.
One day the king came to her, as she always knew he would, to tell her he must make a long journey to a distant land. And he asked, rather shyly for a great king, as he was to be away for some time, if he might take the spare.
“Why, of course, my love,” said the queen, “that way I can journey with you. I will bring it to you as you depart.”
And so, when the birds came to visit her window sill, she took a young wren gently in her hands, carefully placed it in the sandalwood box, so intricately carved with its network of tiny holes worked into the lid, along with water and sweetmeats.
She brought the sandalwood box with its precious contents to the king. “Take good care of it,” she said to him, “for it would be a tragedy if our only spare were to be lost.”
After journeying for several days, the king came to an arbour of cherry trees all in blossom, where a bank of soft grass, warm in the sun, sloped down to a gentle stream arched by sweet willow. He removed his clothing, lay down on the warm grass, and took, into his hand, the sandalwood box.
As he slipped his hand inside the box and felt what was within, so feathery and soft and warm and pulsing with life beneath his hand, the royal sceptre rose keen as a sickle at harvest. He opened the box, and joyful for its release the young wren flew up and away and was gone. The king was mortified that in his passion he had lost the only spare beyond hope of retrieval. After that his journey was long and bitter.
In the absence of the king, the queen ruled the land with patience, good sense and sharp attention. Except, her ministers noticed, from time to time she would muse a space and a secret smile would flit across her lips, as she conducted the affairs of state.
The day came when the watchmen called that the king was in sight. The queen retired to her bedchamber, where the king joined her immediately upon his arrival.
“A terrible thing has happened,” he blurted out, “I have lost the spare.”
He fell to his knees, his head drooping in despair.
“Well, my love,” she said, as she took him by the hand and raised him up, “that is indeed a terrible thing, but we shall just have to make the best use we can of the one which remains.”
And so, they entered into one another afresh. They stroked and caressed one another with fragrant oils. They shared their feelings and felt for one another. They told each other stories and poems and sang songs. And they argued and fought and struggled together. They reflected together in simple contemplation, quietness and peace. They loved one another in every imaginable way and every unimaginable way, and laughed and laughed together, for there is no laughter so glorious as the laughter of the bedchamber.
And slowly, and in due time, as his manhood grew, the king came to realise how his wife the queen had had two all along, how she still had two, of the body and of the soul. And so, they ruled the land with majesty and power, and lived and journeyed one with the other, in that mysterious conjoining of difference which is the very soul of conjugal love. Until their time shall pass away.
This is my very different rendering of the popular campfire story, ‘The Woman Who Had Two.’
© David England, 2003
My retelling of Grimms’ horror story, a dark and powerful tale of a hated child
Thousands of years ago there lived a good and beautiful woman, the wife of a rich man. They longed for a child. In the garden of their home there stood a cypress, the juniper tree. One day in deep mid-winter the woman stood beneath the juniper tree pealing an apple, and her heart was sad. The knife cut her finger, and a few drops of blood fell on the snow. She gazed at it and said, “I wish I had a child as white as snow and as red as blood.” As she spoke these words, she felt moved within her and said to herself, “Something will come of this.”
She watched the seasons change, beneath the Juniper tree, the coming of buds and fragrant blossoms and the young fruit and then the rich heavy fruit, as the life grew inside her. But when she saw the fruit hanging heavy on the tree a change came over her. She grabbed the fruit greedily and crammed it into her mouth. She sickened. Her child was born, and the sight of him was a moment of exquisite joy, for he was as white as snow and as red as blood as she had wished. Then she died.
The father wept a while then took another wife who gave birth to a daughter. The mother loved her daughter deeply and wanted to endow her with many gifts, but her husband’s son she hated. She pinched him. She slapped him. And when he reached out for her, she shooed him away and made him stand in shame in the kitchen corner.
One day the daughter came in and said, “Mother, give me an apple.” The mother opened a solid oak chest with a heavy iron lid where the apples were kept, took one out and gave it to her. “And one for my brother too.” At this the mother was vexed. She snatched the apple from her daughter’s hand and put it back in the chest, saying, “Then you can wait until your brother gets home.”
Some time later the boy came in, and the mother said sweetly, “My son, come and help yourself to a nice, juicy apple from the chest”, and lifted the lid. The boy moved over to the chest warily. He looked from the smile on her lips to the juicy apples to the look of hate in her eyes. “Yes, I would like an apple, but how grisly you look.” He leant into the chest to reach an apple and – thwack – she brought down the lid and knocked his block off. His head rolled down among the apples.
“How can I shift the blame?” she thought. Then she sat him in a chair by the door, balanced the head on the neck and tied it on with a white kerchief, and put an apple in his hand. Later the daughter came to her mother and said, “My brother is sitting by the door with an apple, but when I asked him for the apple he wouldn’t reply.” “Well,” said the mother, “go and ask him again, and if he still doesn’t reply, slap him across the face.” She went to her brother and asked for the apple, and when he didn’t reply she slapped him across the face as her mother had told her. To her horror and dismay, the head bounced off and landed at her feet, the little eyes looking up at her.
Screaming and crying she rushed to her mother, who was stirring a pot over the kitchen fire, “O mother, O mother, I’ve knocked his block off.” “What a dreadful and wicked thing to do,” said the mother. “But it’ll be our secret. We’ll cook him up into a stew.”
When the father came home, the mother said his son had gone to visit his mother’s great uncle and he’d be gone for weeks. Then she served him the stew, while the daughter wept and wept and wept. “Mm,” said the father, “I’ve never tasted such a delicious stew. Give me more, more, I’m going to eat it all up.”
He gnawed the bones and threw them on the floor, and while the daughter wept and wept she gathered them all up in her silk kerchief. Then still weeping bitterly she took them and laid them at the foot of the juniper tree. Suddenly the roots of the tree shook and the branches parted and smoke and steam and flames billowed out, and there came forth the most beautiful bird with a glorious lilting song. It flew high into the air and was gone. And the kerchief and the bones were gone.
One day the bird alighted on the roof of the goldsmith’s house and sang his glorious song :
My mother killed me,
My father ate me,
My sister gathered my bones in a silken kerchief
And laid them beneath the juniper tree.
What a fine bird am I.
The goldsmith heard the song as he sat in his workshop making a golden chain, and was entranced. Stepping over the threshold he called to the bird, “What a wonderful singer, what a glorious song, give it to me again.” “Only if you will give me the golden chain you are holding.” “Willingly, willingly,” said the goldsmith. The bird flew down and took the golden chain in his claw, and hovering before the goldsmith, he sang his song again.
Then the bird flew to the shoemaker’s house, alighted on the roof and sang his glorious song.
My mother killed me,
My father ate me,
My sister gathered my bones in a silken kerchief
And laid them beneath the juniper tree.
What a fine bird am I.
The shoemaker heard the song as he sat in his workshop making a pair of fine shoes, and was captivated. He ran out of doors and called to the bird, “What a wonderful singer, what a glorious song, give it to me again.” And he called his wife and daughters and sons and grandmothers and grandfathers and uncles and aunts and apprentices and hired men to hear as well. “Only if you will give me the pair of fine shoes you are holding.” “Willingly, willingly,” said the shoemaker. The bird flew down and took the shoes in his other claw, and flying up to the roof he sang his song again to an admiring audience.
My mother killed me,
My father ate me,
My sister gathered my bones in a silken kerchief
And laid them beneath the juniper tree.
What a fine bird am I.
Then the bird flew to the mill, where the miller and twenty men were heaving a millstone. He settled in a nearby lime tree and sang his song. The miller and all his men were enchanted and beseeched the bird to sing the song again. “Only when you have placed the millstone around my neck” he said. With a heave ho and a heave ho and a heave ho the miller and his twenty men hoisted up the millstone and put it around the bird’s neck. The bird flew back into the tree and sang his glorious song again.
My mother killed me,
My father ate me,
My sister gathered my bones in a silken kerchief
And laid them beneath the juniper tree.
What a fine bird am I.
And so he lived his life as a bird, with the golden chain in one claw, the fine shoes in the other and the millstone around his neck, being admired by all as a fine bird with a glorious song. One day he returned to the house where he was born. His father and mother and sister were sitting at the table. He alighted on the juniper tree and began to sing his song.
“I suddenly feel so happy,” said the father, “so light-hearted.” “I don’t,” said the mother with rising panic, “There is thunder in my ears, my eyes burn and flash like lightening.” The sister just wept and wept.
My mother killed me,
“I’m so happy, the sun shines so bright, I feel I’m to be reunited with one I once loved.” “I don’t. My teeth are chattering with cold. There is fire in my veins.” She tore open her bodice. The sister soaked the lap of her apron with her tears.
My father ate me,
“There’s a beautiful bird out there, with a glorious song, and the air is warm and smells of cinnamon. I’m going out to see the bird close to.” “Don’t go, don’t go, the whole house is quaking and going up in flames.” And the sister went on weeping.
My sister gathered my bones in a silken kerchief
As the father stepped outside, the bird dropped the gold chain around his neck, a perfect fit. Going inside, he said, “See what a fine bird he is and he gave me this golden chain.” But his wife had thrown herself flat on her back with her legs in the air and was screaming and panting in terror, “If only I were a thousand feet under the ground and couldn’t hear this song. I feel like the world is coming to an end.”
And laid them beneath the juniper tree.
The sister leapt up, “I shall go out too and see if the bird has something for me.” The bird threw down the fine shoes. They landed near her feet. She stepped into them and they were a perfect fit and made her dance back into the house with joy in her heart.
The woman grabbed the table and dragged herself to her feet, her cloths ripped and her hair standing on end like tongues of flame. She staggered out of the house.
What a fine bird am I.
The bird dropped the millstone, and – thwack – it knocked her block off and squashed it flat. The ground shuddered and split open and steam and smoke and flames shot out. When they heard the noise the father and sister rushed out of the door and as the smoke cleared, where the millstone had fallen, beneath the juniper tree, there stood the boy, restored to his true likeness. He took his sister and his father by the hand, and they were all very happy and returned to the house.
This is my telling of a Grimms’ fairy tale.
© David England, 2003
One of my original stories, it defies description, so just read it. Please.
“Once upon a time the land rejoiced as a princess was born.” This is how I like to begin my story. I think of myself as a princess. I really do. Not that I have a princessish name, Princess Veronica, but I can still feel like a princess, can’t I? Well, I am as tall as a princess. I have short auburn hair, more of a page boy than a princess, but anyway. I think I am as beautiful as a princess. I have a straight nose and grave grey eyes (I like that). I think I have quite high cheek bones, and my cheeks are flat underneath them, nearly hollow. I have a stern little mouth, anyway I think of it as stern, regal somehow.
Near to the palace where we live (It is in Paradise Street, the middle of three, and our Dad calls it a double-semi) there is a park, quite a large one, with an enchanted lake at the very centre. I love to walk alone in my park on windy days. In the Autumn. It is my kingdom, my land.
I have a funny feeling inside me that goes up and down with the wind in the trees. I love to stand by the lake, perfectly still, and feel the wind going up and down in me, and feel the cold creeping up my legs and around my body, so that it makes me shiver. I can catch the shiver, and hold it there. It feels like forever. It makes my heart swell. I cannot describe it any more. It has no words.
Now that I think about it some more, Princess Veronica is not a bad name. After all, I am a fairy tale princess. Fairy tale princesses do not have normal names like Elizabeth or Mary, they have interesting names. We are interesting people (Hum, Hum!). We are very wise and old. We live for centuries. But we stay very beautiful, with our grave grey eyes that see so much.
Well, that is enough about me now. This story is about when I was born and how my land rejoiced. It must be a funny thing being born. I remember when my little brother Adam was born. I imagined him swimming about in our Mum’s womb, now the dog paddle, now the butterfly crawl. I felt how lovely it was immersed in that warm pool. Not a thought. Not a care. Just that lovely womb feeling.
When he was born it was a different matter. He screamed. Did he scream! I felt how angry he was at being woken up. He still thrashed about with his arms and legs, but his warm pool had turned suddenly chilly. And I felt how frightened he was of the monstrous, lumpy shapes that now swam around him and bumped into him. The first thought he ever had was of his loss, the first conscious feeling a stabbing pain. I understood somehow, and watched over him.
His second conscious feeling was hunger. Wailing, overwhelming hunger, as the link with our Mum was cut. He could not tell the first loss from the second, they merged into one everlasting wail. Now he wails, and works for his nourishment, and plays hunt the nipple, for warmth and comfort and to keep himself alive. I know he does this, but not he. All he knows is what he must do to rid himself of those awful feelings, push them away. But they come back, they always come back, and he goes on driving them away.
With him it is just on with his armour and off to fight the foe. All those dragons that he sees! I watch and wait for him to come home like the patient princess that I am, but he does not see me. What boy does see his big sister?
Well, there are not many dragons in Paradise Street, so our Adam made them up in his head. They were real enough to the other kids, though. He made his dragons fly and breath fire. The kids were terrified, but they always came back for more.
He had this idea in his head that dragons had great wealth and power that they had somehow stolen from him. And he must win it back. This is how his Great Quest came about. Our Mum said, “Don’t scuff your new shoes.” and our Dad said “Don’t be in late.” and off he strode with Spring in his step.
He quailed when he met his first dragon. It was an evil, scaly, Scottish creature, with bitter breath, by the name of McGowan. The fight was short, Adam’s bright young blade against McGowan’s caustic gall. The fight was inconclusive, but Adam and McGowan inflicted wounds on each other that were long in healing. Years later Adam met McGowan again, diminished and spent, and showed him some kindness and curbed his sense of triumph. I felt close to him then.
There were many dragons. There was Victor the Mandible, with teeth as sharp as razors, who lorded over Adam for a while. And Hemlock Will, whose potions were deadlier than any blade. Adam had to join forces with Hemlock to defeat Victor, by giving him a sleeping draught and pulling his teeth. That was a great victory, and very sweet to Adam. But I did not feel close to him then.
Adam was not alone in his Great Quest. There were always other ignorant folk eager to heed his tales of adventure and join battle alongside him. He always had his way with words.
As Adam fought battle after battle, he drew strength from his adversaries. His armour became tougher and stronger, his helm more emblazoned, his sword more keen. Yet, within these defences he was ever that same little man that both quailed at McGowan and showed him kindness.
Adam’s fiercest and final dragon foe was the Lessening Leech, who takes the form of an emaciated vulture, surrounded and protected by the Eighteen Circles of Enchantment. These give him beauty of form and raiment, the voice of seeming reason and wisdom, the protective arm of concern and comfort, and an air of innocent goodwill. Only those who fall victim to his spell, and are drawn into the Circles of Enchantment, discover the horror within and his voracious appetites, who can draw blood from empty veins yet never add one ounce of flesh to his dread bones.
Adam and his companions befriended the Lessening Leech, ill prepared as they were for his beguilements. For years he travelled along their road, or met with them along the way, and made trade with them. Always courteous, he learnt their secret ways. Until one hard day they passed within the Circles of Enchantment, and he revealed his face, fell and foul.
With courage failed and bowels loosed they met him on the field of valour, with all his might host. Adam, soon divided from his friends, was pulled down and torn in pieces. They sucked him dry, boiled off his flesh for soup, ground up his bones for meal, and cast his vitals to the dogs.
But I kept his spirit from them, and he came at last, in the Autumn, to the shores of the enchanted lake at the very centre of my park. He cast his worn blade into the lake. He removed his emblazoned helm. He threw his heavy armour to the ground. He let fall mail and mantle. He stood by the lake alone, at the end of his quest, his life drawn as thin as our postman’s whistle.
Then he raised his head, drew a breath, smelt the air, and stood perfectly still. A strange feeling grew inside him that seemed to go up and down with the wind in the trees. He felt the cold creeping up his legs and around his body, so that it made him shiver. He caught the shiver, and held it. It felt like forever. It made his heart swell, and with all his new heart he made a wish beyond words.
I am a fair and fay princess. I granted the wish I had awaited for so long. I am the wish. In this consummation I am born, and all my land rejoices. So this is not, as Adam thought, the end of his journey. It is, as he now feels, just the beginning.
Try explaining that to our Mum and Dad.
This is one of my original stories.
© David England, 2003
A beastly oriental tale.
This story takes place thousands of years ago, long before Siddhartha Gautam seated himself beneath the bodhi tree and Buddhism came to the land. A time when the people of the land practised the ancient religion of earth and sky; and even today, in remote hamlets, the people still practice that same religion, setting a white stone in the earth at the centre of each paddy field. “In honour of the goddess,” I was told, “and to ensure the fertility of the crop.”
In that land there lived a warrior, a servant of the sun god. The warrior – like warriors of every age and land – liked nothing better than to go on great quests, righting wrongs. He would go out from his village armed with a great bow and with two keen edged scimitars at his belt. The scimitars were so sharp, his favourite party trick was to take a woman’s hair and split it longways with a scimitar’s edge.
One day, the warrior buckled his twin scimitars to his belt, slung his great bow on his back and set off on his quest. After many adventures, he made his way up a deep, wide gorge. The people who lived in this valley had terraced the hillsides. Their tiny fields reached high up the steep hills, wherever there was a patch of earth which could be terraced and cultivated.
Below him, as he walked, the warrior could see a river meandering through the stony floor of the gorge. Its waters were a pale green, the colour of jade. He came to a place where a great bow in the river had hollowed out a deep and silent pool. Beyond the pool was a high, conical mountain, its sides terraced almost to its crown. Below the pool, a long bridge hung in a high catenary above the river, giving access to the other side. The wooden slats of the bridge were whitened in the sunlight. The high, bright noonday sun reflected in the pale jade of the pool.
It was a rich and tranquil scene. Except, the warrior noticed, the terracing of the conical mountain was broken and the little fields uncultivated. A wisp of smoke drifted up from the mountain’s crown. And a scaly dragon blocked his way across the bridge.
The dragon’s foot clawed the wooden parapet of the bridge. Its forked tail lashed the parapet on the other side. Between, the coils of its body curled across the slats of the bridge. Smoke and flame drifted lazily from the dragon’s nostrils as it eyed the warrior menacingly.
Undeterred, the warrior drew his twin scimitars and closed upon the dragon. Not that they would have been of any avail against such an adversary, with its fiery breath and armoured hide. Steadily, he climbed the rough scales of the dragon’s body as if they were steps, knowing, at any moment, the dragon might turn its monstrous head and with a single fiery breath burn his life to a cinder. Then, he was over the dragon’s horny back and stepping down the other side. Gingerly, and with long strides, he stepped over the coils of the dragon’s body as it lay across the bridge, knowing, at any moment, the dragon might tighten its coils and squeeze the last breath from his body.
Then, he was past the dragon, walking over the slats of the bridge to the other side, with measured tread, not looking back. He heard a quavering voice behind him, “Warrior,” and more loudly, “Warrior!” Turning, the dragon was gone, and in its place an old man, his back bent and his face lined with grief. Upon his whitened head there was a dragon crown.
“I am the dragon king of the river lake,” said the old man. “Long have I lain across the bridge in the form of a dragon, waiting for a warrior with courage enough to overcome its fearsome nature as you did. I can take the fiery form of a dragon but I do not possess its power. I need you, warrior, to right the wrong which is being done to me and my family. I need you to slay my enemy, who comes nightly to the river lake and carries off one of my sons, my daughters, my grandsons or my granddaughters.”
“I am bound by my oath to the sun god,” replied the warrior, “to take up the cause of one who is ill-used by another and to right wrongs. But who is your enemy?” “My enemy is a centipede,” said the dragon king.
“A centipede!” I hear you cry. “A centipede!” echoed the warrior. “But this is no ordinary centipede,” explained the dragon king, “This is a centipede who has grown fat on the bodies and souls of my sons and my daughters, my grandsons and my granddaughters. Soon, none will remain and I too will perish.”
The warrior agreed to undertake the quest, and the dragon king led him into his domain beneath the waters of the river lake. As the waters closed around him, the warrior was astonished that his clothes remained dry and not only was he able to breathe, but the air had a sweeter and livelier quality than the cold, dry air of the gorge. They entered the dragon king’s palace of white marble, with its tall turrets and balconies rising to just below the surface of the river lake, commanding a clear and secret view of the conical mountain.
The dragon king honoured his guest with a fine feast served by goldfish and red carp and silvery trout; crispy lakeweed, freshwater anemones in sweet and sour, lemon rice and crystallised lotus flowers in stem ginger. They drank bowl after bowl of the spicy tea which grew on the lower terraces of the conical mountain in better times.
Around midnight they heard the call of the watch fish from the high turrets, “Centipede! Centipede!” They rushed to the highest balcony of the marble palace, where the warrior saw the conical mountain transformed into a monstrous helter skelter as the centipede spiralled down its sides from the dark lair at the summit, its hundred feet shaking the conical mountain with their incessant tramp, tramp, tramp. And its eyes were vast furnaces of churning liquid heat, burning and flashing. The centipede had grown huge on the lives and the flesh of the dragon king’s kin, its over-gorged maw dribbling the slaver of appetite.
The centipede came closer and closer, its head covering the short patch of ground between the conical mountain and the river lake, while its body still spiralled around the mountain, tramp, tramp, tramp. The warrior took his great bow, but reaching into his quiver he found to his dismay that only three arrows remained. He slotted the first arrow into the bow, drew back with a mighty strength, and taking careful aim he let fly. The arrow found its mark, striking the centipede right between the eyes, but bounced off the hard flesh harmlessly. The warrior slotted the second arrow, drawing back with even greater strength. He let fly, and again the arrow found its mark and again it bounced off harmlessly.
Now, the centipede’s terrible head had reached the river lake. It towered over the warrior. He felt the burning caldrons of its eyes as they seared his flesh. He saw the pale, merciless serrations of its teeth. He saw the insatiable, cavernous blackness of its maw. The foul stench of its slimy slaver dribbling from its mouth in torrents made the warrior retch and gag. Then, he remembered. Human spittle is toxic to centipedes.
He drew his last arrow from the quiver, spat upon the arrow head, “Thwutt!” With slow, immaculate care the warrior slotted the arrow into the bow and shot with all his remaining force.
The arrow found its mark. It burnt steaming into the horny flesh of the centipede’s forehead, like acid on human flesh, as the force of the arrow penetrated deep, deep into the centipede’s brain. A hundred feet drummed upon the ground. A hundred segments clashed together like cymbals. The eyes boiled and burnt and flamed like twin volcanoes. Then, their light faded. Silence came.
A full moon rose, its pale orb shining on the long bridge and the broken terraces of the conical mountain and reflecting in the dark, quiet waters of the river lake.
The rest of the night was spent in feasting and rejoicing. In the morning, the dragon king offered the warrior two gifts in thanks for slaying his enemy. The first gift, a bronze bell with a deep, clear tone, the warrior mounted at the centre of his village. To this very day, the tolling of the bell offers perpetual prayers to the warrior’s master, the sun god. The second gift was a simple bag of rice. But no ordinary bag of rice, for however much the warrior took from it, to feed himself and his family, the bag was always full to overflowing.
And so, the warrior became famous throughout the land and was known to all as ‘My Lord, Bag of Rice.’
© David England, 2003
Based on the story, My Lord Bag of Rice, from The Japanese Fairy Book, rendered into English by Yei Theodora Osaki, 1903, published by Constable and Company Limited.
This is a cracking good seasonal story. It is such a long story in the original, I have written my version to be told in 30 minutes.
It was Winter Solstice at Camelot. King Arthur and Queen Guinevere led the revels. The great hall rang with the laughter of fair, feisty women sporting tall pointed hats and gowns of surpassing décolleté, and lusty knights, all quaffing hot spiced ale and mulled wine. The festive board groaned beneath a sumptuous fare of roast wild boar, whole swans, game pie, sucking pigs, a surfeit of lampreys, whole baked salmon, sweetmeats, gooseberry tarts, flagons of custard …
As was his custom, King Arthur forbad the feasting to commence save first some fine test of skill or wondrous tale of derring-do. As he looked around for such as these, there came a wonder – crashing through the door with a mighty bellow, a warrior of giant size on a massive charger, clutching a gargantuan axe in a mailed fist and bearing a holly branch in his other hand. He galloped into the hall, the horse’s hooves clattering on the paving stones, scattering sparks.
But the greatest wonder was, the knight was green. Green were his crown of curly locks, his face, his hood and cloak, his tunic and hose, his boots and spurs. Likewise, his horse was green from forelock to fetlocks, from mane to tail, saddle, bit and bridle.
Drawing his horse to a standstill, the Green Knight bellowed, “Who is master here? I would speak with him.” The king replied, “Sir knight, welcome, I bid you dismount and share our feast and say your business here.”
The Green Knight spoke again, “I cannot tarry. As this holly bough bears witness, I come in peace, simply for seasonal sport.” Gazing around, he went on, “I wonder which of these puny knights, these beardless boys, is willing to trade me blow for blow, wielding my axe? Let him leap forth and grasp it, and smite me where I stand. And here’s the bargain, this day twelvemonth hence I get to return the blow. Who’ll take my challenge?”
Incensed and red of face, the king leapt up, stretching out his hand for the axe, but Sir Gawain reached it first, “Nay, sire, grant me this chance to prove my valour. I accept the challenge.”
The Green Knight knelt, lifted his green locks over the crown of his head, and stretched out his neck, as Sir Gawain hefted high the mighty axe then whipped it down, severing bone and sinew in a single strike, sparking and splitting the stone. The green head rolled away, leaving a trail of green blood. There was utter shock and silence in the hall.
Then, slowly, the bloody corpse raised itself to its feet and walked stiffly to where its head lay, its green eyes open and bright. He lifted the head by its green locks, its eyes swivelling round to leer at Guinevere. The Green Knight mounted his great charger, holding the head aloft, and the green lips began to move, “I am the Knight of the Green Chapel in the Northern waste. This day twelvemonth, Gawain, be there. I shall return the blow.” Spurring his charger, with a clatter of hooves, the Green Knight was gone.
With the approach of next Winter Solstice, Sir Gawain mounted his horse and left Camelot for the Northern waste to search out the Green Chapel. He was drenched by winter rain and sleet. He stumbled into deep snow-drifts. He slept night after night on the frozen ground. Finally, he came to a moated castle, its painted pinnacles glistening in the early morning light.
The lord of the castle welcomed him like a brother. The lord was red-haired, red-bearded, tall and tough as a tree with trunk to match, with a massive appetite for stories and laughter. He led Sir Gawain to a chamber hung with rich tapestries. There was a bed of soft down with quilted coverlets curtained in silk brocade.
At dinner, Sir Gawain met the lady of the castle. As their eyes met ‘twas like for him a peal of festive bells.
Red was her robe, and cluster of clear pearls.
Gleamed in her head-dress; breast and throat were bare,
Whiter than snow which lies on winter hills,
Her eyes a twinkle, her manner debonair,
And never had he seen a face so fair.
By her side was an ancient crone swathed in musty veils and dark raiment, whom Sir Gawain barely noticed in the light of the lady’s face. After dinner they retired to the hall where the lord entertained Sir Gawain with stories and revelry, carolling and carousing, laughter and leaping dance.
Sir Gawain told of his dire quest to meet the Green Knight just three days hence. “Why, the Green Chapel is barely two miles distance. Here you can rest and nourish yourself. For three days whilst you rest I shall go a-hunting. My wife shall keep you company at home. So, let us make a bargain. All I win in the chase is yours. Whatever you win is mine.” They raised their mugs of ale to swear their oath.
The lord arose at cock crow and took the field. Meanwhile, Sir Gawain lazed in his bed of down, beneath the coverlets, with silk curtains drawn. There was a soft click as the door quietly opened. Soft footfalls crossed the floor. The lady slid the curtain aside, laughter quivering on her lips, “Why, sire, I find the sentry sleeping at his post. Perchance, I shall bind him to his bed.” So saying, she sat on the bed and leant towards him.
“Madam, I am your prisoner. I pray you, release me. Let me rise and dress.” She shook her head, “Perhaps I shall let you rise. But dress? By no means, not whilst I have the bravest knight in the land at my behest, with my liege lord far away in the field. I offer you my lips, my love, my treasure. Why, I see the sentry has risen and stands at his post.”
“Madam, madam, for honour’s sake, alas, I must refuse. You have chosen a better lord. Yet, I will pledge to serve you as your liegeman.”
And so, with wooing glances, subtle taunts and amorous advances, she toyed with him. Whilst he parried each foray with courtly grace and deftly turned her gibes to harmless jest, until the morning passed most pleasantly away. “Surely,” she said at last, “after so long a sojourn, the gentle knight might crave at least a kiss before we part.” “Madam, ‘tis my courtly duty to obey.” She clasped him in her arms, kissed him, and withdrew.
That evening in the hall, the lord heaped up his winnings for the day, wild boar, their blood running over the flagstones, “All for you, sire, this was our bargain.” Sir Gawain clasped him by the shoulder, “My winnings, lord, a fair exchange, one kiss.” “Why,” said the lord, “what delight. How came you by this?” “Ah!” replied Sir Gawain, “That was no part of our bargain. I will not say.” So, jesting, they went in to dine.
Next day the lord arose at cock crow and took the field. Meanwhile, Sir Gawain lazed in his bed of down, beneath the coverlets, with silk curtains drawn. And there the lady tiptoed to him, withdrew the curtains, breathed his name.
So, they entered into courtly dalliance as before, the amorous word, the wooing glance, parrying fond forays with courtly grace. Until, “My liege lord is far away in the chase. This moment he scents a deer, its soft nose warm and moist, hidden in a bush. Why should those who lie abed be denied such thrilling sport.”
“Madam, madam, I would fain cast away my honour and virtue to enter such a chase. Yet, I will not, I will not for all that.” “Why, sire, have you forgot even what I taught you but yester-morn of courtliness and kissing?” And with that, she stole two kisses and was gone.
That evening, the lord displayed his winnings, a soft-nosed deer, a red gash in its side. “For you, sire, as we agreed.” Sir Gawain clasped him by the neck, “My winnings, lord, two kisses.” “Why,” said the lord, “two kisses. Such increase in your trade. How came you by such fortune?” “Ah!” replied Sir Gawain, “I will not say.” So, laughing, they went in to dine.
Next day the lord arose at cock crow and took the field. Meanwhile, Sir Gawain lazed in his bed of down, beneath the coverlets, with silk curtains drawn. The lady came with purpose fell, threw back the blinds and curtains, let the winter sun stream in.
She stood before him, her finest red wrap trailing to the ground, her arms akimbo, diamonds at her throat and clustered in her hair, her back and bosom bare. “For shame, for shame, that here you lie and snore when the morning beams so bright, and with our time so short for courtly love? Arise, arise!”
She bounced onto the bed, her wrap slipping from her shoulders, and stooping low one kiss she gave him. One kiss, and all the bliss of blossom time was his. Hard the lady pressed her loving charms. “My liege lord is far away in the field. This moment he is facing a she-wolf, whose lascivious, slavering jaws yearn to embrace his living flesh. Why should those who lie abed be denied such perilous sport.”
Sir Gawain cried in anguish, “Heaven forefend I should deceive my noble host, and yet, I love thee with all my heart and soul.” The lady kissed him deeply, thrice, then drawing back unfurled from round her narrow waist a silken girdle, green, enriched with stones of jade and emerald and green pearls. “T’is a talisman of magic worth, so potent it will shield you from any blade. Wear it beneath your mantle when you meet the Green Knight. But promise, lest I be chastised, breath no word to my lord.”
That evening in the hall, Sir Gawain spoke, “This night let me be first to pay.” Grasping the lord by the neck he delivered three kisses. “Three kisses!” laughed the lord, “Rich merchandise, a bounty I shall treasure. And the price you paid?” “That’s no part of our bargain. My payment’s made.”
“Then here is mine,” said the lord. He displayed his winnings for the day, “A ferocious she-wolf, cut down like a dog, a poor return for a gift of priceless worth, three precious kisses.” Of the green girdle, Sir Gawain spoke no word. “It is enough,” he said, and, embarrassed, turned away.
A reluctant dawn broke on a Winter Solstice joyless, bitter and bleak. Sir Gawain bid farewell to his host and rode slowly towards the Green Chapel, in a narrow sheer-sided valley, sunless and dank, with rank grasses and scrubby trees, where no birds sang. The green bejewelled girdle was bound about his waist in hope it might shield him from hurt.
As he approached the Green Chapel and dismounted, he heard the whirring of the grindstone and the whining of the Green Knight’s axe being sharpened to a fine edge. Then the Green Knight appeared, hefting his axe, his great bulk blotting out what little light there was in the sunless valley. “Twelvemonth past you lopped off my head. Now, I shall return the kindness,” said the Green Knight. “I am not afraid,” replied Sir Gawain. “Then ready yourself to receive the blow.”
Sir Gawain knelt and stretched out his neck. As he heard the whistle of the falling axe, he flinched. At the last moment, the giant stopped the axe in mid-air, hovering over Gawain’s neck. “You are not Gawain, the courageous knight who fears no foe, if you flinch at the whistle of the blade. At Camelot, I never shied away.” “Alas,” replied Sir Gawain, “my head when it falls will never be restored to my shoulders. I shall not flinch again. Strike!”
The Green Knight whirled the axe around his head for speed then with a roar he brought it down, side-slipping at the last moment and plunging the blade into the earth. “Now you have found your nerve, I shall strike all the harder,” he said. “I’m weary of your bullying,” replied Sir Gawain, “Let’s have no more delay.” “Then take your pay.”
The giant spat on his hands and again hefted the great axe, raised it high and brought it down with all his power and strength. No power on earth could save Sir Gawain now. The axe hurtled towards his bared neck, so guided by the Green Knight it gave Sir Gawain’s neck the smallest graze, three drops of his bright blood staining the snow.
Unbelieving, Sir Gawain leapt to his feet, snatched up his sword and stood at guard, “You’ve had your blow. You shall have no other. I have kept the covenant we made at Camelot. Now, I’m ready to pit my strength and skill at arms against yours. ”
The Green Knight leant on his axe, “I’ll strike no more. You have been true to the covenant we made. I shall explain. The first and second strikes were deliberate feints, for you honoured your pledges given to the lord, one kiss, two kisses, from the lady of the castle.
In return for the she-wolf you gave three kisses more, yet you paid the lord falsely, for you held back the green girdle, and for this I grazed your skin. Yet, I forgive you, for you are a true knight; you failed the final test not out of desire for riches or pleasures of the flesh but simply for loving your life. Moreover, I too have held something back – the lady is my wife.”
“Your wife!” cried Sir Gawain, mortified with shame and disgrace, “Alas, I have betrayed the laws of chivalry and my honour as a knight.” “Not so,” laughed the Green Knight, “my wife was keen to learn the lore and language of courtly love through practice with one well versed in those arts. Moreover, I have been under an enchantment by the old hag to whom you paid so little heed, none other than Morgan le Faye, who sought to bring dishonour upon Camelot’s finest and most honourable knight. So, now your honour is intact and the spell is broke.”
Returning to Camelot, Sir Gawain truthfully told his tale, showing the scar the axe had made, and displaying the green girdle. Yet, he was racked with grief, chagrin and shame for the tarnish on his name, though others made fun of him, parading their own green girdles.
But, Sir Gawain’s heart still dwelt with the lady,
Red was her robe, and cluster of clear pearls
Gleamed in her head-dress; breast and throat were bare,
Whiter than snow which lies on winter hills,
Her eyes a twinkle, her manner debonair,
And never had he seen a face so fair.
In bitter shame and loss and grief Sir Gawain hung his head, and would ne’er be comforted.
© David England, 2009
 I acknowledge the author of that beautiful poetic version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from which I have quoted, but whose name I have failed to discover.
 I acknowledge Annette Armstrong, whose free translation ‘Gawain & The Green Knight’ (October 2003) provided invaluable source material and some phraseology.
© David England, 2010