Archives for category: fairy tales
robin hood and little john disney

Robin Hood and Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood (image: copyright 1973 Walt Disney Company)

Between the publication of Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version and Maria Tartar’s The Annotated Brothers Grimm, there is some new discussion on the darker materials (sorry, couldn’t resist that one!) found in these classic tales, so I thought I’d take a look at some Child Ballads from England to hear some of the stories English kids were being told and compare them to their German counterparts and wouldn’t you know it – I found an especially violent scene from a Robin Hood story. Well, December escaped an installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest – I only wish I could say the same for Guy of Gisborne…

This installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest comes from a child ballad about Robin Hood called, “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne.” It survives as a mid 17th century manuscript (Thomas Percy Collection, British Library, Additional Manuscript 27879) but a similar plot survives from a play dated 1475.[1] Since we can’t say for certain how long this particular version of the song has been around, let’s just say the scene is 15th century…

The language looks almost like it’s deliberately trying to look old fashioned and still be clearly understood. Twinn for twain, for example – and the extra e’s on so, go, and he to make them soe, goe, and hee give it a “Jolly Ole English” look and sound. I could be wrong – anyone out there with experience in 15-17th century colloquial English can tell if this poem is trying to emulate Middle English?

In any case, let’s get on with the gore!

So, Robin Hood and Little John are hanging around drinking Thunderbird and shooting craps when, would you know it, Guy of Gisborne comes along. This tasty fellow’s looking for none other than Robin Hood, that famous outlaw the peasants and guttersnipes “phone up” whenever they need some “wealth distribution.”[2] The irony of it is Guy’s found the guy he was looking for. The boys all have a short archery competition which Guy loses terribly. To save face with these expert woodsmen, he pokes fun at his uselessness with the bow by saying things like, “Whoa, I’ll bet you’re a better shot than Robin Hood!”

This corrupt cop, Guy of Gisborne, probably thinks he can make friends with these woodsmen and have some new marksmen – or at least forest informants – on Prince John’s payroll. He’s wrong. Dead wrong.

earl of huntington defeats guy of gisbourne in jousting

Earl of Huntington (Robin Hood – played by Douglas Fairbanks) helps Guy of Gisbourne up after defeating him in a joust in Robin Hood (1922) – this courtesy is a far cry from the Robin Hood of Child Ballad 118 “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne”

So he asks Robin and Little John to tell him about themselves – you know, who they are. Robin tells Guy that they’ll tell him who they are after they learn who he is. Since Guy’s sort of on their turf, he obliges them and introduces himself first – and boy was he sorry he did, because, with a sadistic smile:

Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe,
And nicked Sir Guy in the face,
That hee was never on a woman borne
Cold tell who Sir Guye was. (verse 42)[3]

Robin chopped Guy’s face up so bad that no one – not even his own mother – would recognize him. The language downplays the violence by using the word “nicked” like it was a slight slip of the razor during a shave. The English are masters of understatement.

Poor Guy basically begs Robin to accept a ransom – any amount – in return for his release, but that’s not Robin’s style. Guy doesn’t understand why Robin wouldn’t want to become rich. In addition to not being able to understand Robin’s motive, imagine his horror while he tries to reason with his captor:

“Thou art a madman,” said the shiriffe,
“Thou sholdest have had a knights fee;
Seeing thy asking [hath] beene soe bad,
Well granted it shall be.” (verse 51)[4]

They turn their captive loose and as he’s running for his life, if only just to prove that Guy’s bow isn’t defective, Robin hands it to Little John so he won’t miss out on a little target practice with their new acquaintance:

But he cold neither soe fast goe,
Nor away soe fast runn,
But Litle John, with an arrow broade,
Did cleave his heart in twinn. (verse 58)[5]

Little John’s swift shot is so precise and powerful that it slices Guy of Gisborne’s heart in two!

I wonder how Robin Hood and Little John spent the rest of their day…

For another installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest, click here.

 

 


[1] “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne: Introduction”, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo, 1997). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/guyint.htm

[2] The Clash, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” (CBS, 1978).

[3] “Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne”, Tradtional British Ballads, ed. Bartlett Jere Whiting (New York, 1955), 98.

[4] Traditional British Ballads, 99.

[5] Traditional British Ballads, 100.

Sequitur pars quarta.

People celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today in Philadelphia (image: instagram.com)

Since today is Saint Patrick’s today, I was reminded of the Celtic Tale The Children of Lir.[1] I thought of this story because the enchantment that turned Lir’s four children into swans ended soon after Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. Thinking of this story then turned my attention (I’ll explain how later) to Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale – which, of course, reminded me that I have really neglected tolde by the weye in recent months… So, remember we left Constance in a newly Christian Northumbria? King Alla took her as his queen. It seemed like happily ever didn’t it? But it was not – at least not yet. Everyone in King Alla’s land was overjoyed that Constance was their new queen and they were having a grand old time at the wedding feast. Well, everyone, that is, except one person – King Alla’s mother Donegild:

But who was woful, if I shal nat lye,

Of this weddyng but Donegild, and namo,

The kynges mooder, ful of tirannye? (II 694-96)

Queen Grimhilde, stepmother of Snow White from Walt Disney’s Snow White (image: pentopaper.wordpress.com, copyright 1937 Walt Disney Pictures)

King Alla’s mother was not happy about her son’s marriage to Constance. This was no ordinary case of the mother who needed a little time to warm up to her new daughter-in-law. Her despiteful disapproval of their union is strikingly similar to the Sultan’s mother’s hatred of Constance earlier in the tale. In the way the Sultan’s mother knew that Constance was the reason the Sultan was giving up Islam to take her as his bride, King Alla’s mother saw Constance as a foreign threat to their way of life as well:

Hir thought a despit that he sholde take

So strange a creature unto his make (II 699-700)

She bided her time, though, waiting for the perfect moment to take her vengeance upon Constance. Time passed and a war started with the Scots. King Alla entrusted Constance in the care of the Constable and a bishop and he left to fight the Scots. Constance soon gave birth to their little prince. The infant was christened Maurice and the Constable wrote a letter to the King announcing the birth. He chose a messenger and sent him off to deliver the joyous news. The messenger first passed by the Queen mother Donegild’s house to share the exciting news with her. She suggested to the messenger that he rest for the night at her house and deliver the letter to the King the next day. The messenger, knowing there would be fine food and drink at Donegild’s house, stayed for the evening. He drunk himself silly with ale and wine and soon passed out. As he slept like a swine Donegild exchanged his letter for a forged one.

(image: montalcino-tuscany.com)

The messenger left the next morning to deliver the letter to the King. The counterfeit letter told of a horrible demon child born out of the depths of hell. It also informed the king that Constance was really an elf and that the only reason why everyone loved her in the first place is because she was an evil sorceress who had everyone under her spell. Now that everyone in the castle knows the truth about the wicked Constance, they shun her and her savage spawn.

King Alla was terribly grieved by the letter but replied requesting that everyone show Christian charity to Constance and the child. He made it clear that no action should be taken against them until his return to the castle. As he sealed the letter tears burst from his eyes. He returned to battle and those Scots really took a beating that day.

The messenger sped off for the castle but instead of delivering the letter directly to the Constable, he went first again to the Queen Mother’s court. Just where does this messenger’s allegiance lie – in his King or the drink? She again entertained him with food and wine and exchanged his letter once more for a forged one.

When the Constable received the letter he was horrified by its contents. It told him that under penalty of death by hanging he must not let Constance and the demon child stay in the castle. He was ordered to put her and the infant back in the very boat from which Constance washed ashore and push them out to tide. The Constable couldn’t believe that God could let such horrible things happen in the world to pious people, but he followed the King’s orders.

The Irish folktale The Children of Lir shares a few elements with Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale. The protagonists are loved by everyone except an evil mother figure who is bent on their destruction, these same protagonists must face dangerous waters on their own, and, finally, the events of the tale occur at the time the country is converting to Christianity. There are plenty more similarities but this post is too long already and I need to make it to market and back by sunset.

Children of Lir is set at the Hill of the White field, which today the Irish call County Armagh. There once were four kings, Bov the Red, Midir the Proud, Angus of the Bird, and Lir, father of the sea-god Manannan. They were all descendents of the goddess Dana. One day everyone in the land decided that among these great kings, one must be chosen to rule over everyone. Bov the Red was chosen. Lir was not pleased with this decision because he felt that he should be the king. Bov the Red allowed Lir to rule his own land and there was no ill will between them. One day, Lir’s wife died. Bov sent Lir his condolences and words of friendship. He also offered him the choice of his three foster daughters for a new wife. Lir accepted Bov’s offer and went to his hall to choose his new bride. The names of Bov’s foster daughters were Aev, Eva, and Alva. They were all beautiful and Lir decided upon Aev who, being the eldest, he thought would be the most wise.

Lir and Aev lived happily together and had twins, a girl named Finola and a boy named Aed. A couple of years passed and Aev once again gave birth to twins – this time to two boys, Fiachra and Conn. Each year the children visited King Bov’s Hall. Everyone at both King Bov’s Hall and King Lir’s Hall loved the four children and wherever they were, everyone was joyous.

One day, Queen Aev passed away. King Lir was devasted. King Bov heard of the tragedy and offered his foster-daughter Eva as King Lir’s new wife. King Lir accepted Eva as his new wife. Eva was initially happy in King Lir’s hall, however, after about a year she grew very jealous of the children. It seemed to her that everyone, including her own husband, loved them much more dearly than they did her. She feigned a terrible sickness and stayed in her chamber for several weeks. She thought the solitude would help, but the time spent alone obsessing over the problem only worsened her jealousy of the children of Lir. One day, she found a solution to the problem. She emerged from the her room and suggested to King Lir that she take the children to visit King Bov.

Along the way she stopped by Lake Darva. She ordered her servants to murder the four children and though this order came from the Queen they could not obey it.  Queen Eva took matters into her own hands and made to kill the children herself, but she could not bring herself to murder them either. The Queen, instead, gathered the children and brought them down to the lake. She bade them remove their clothes and bathe in the lake. As they swam in the lake she pulled a wooden wand from her robe. The wand was inscribed with runes she had carved into it while she was going mad in her room. She muttered an incantation and suddenly the four children were magically transformed into white swans.

She left the children as swans in the lake and made for King Bov’s hall. King Bov was happy to see that his daughter and glad to see she had recovered from his illness but he was surprised to see her arrive without the children. Queen Eva told King Bov that King Lir no longer trusted him and that he could never see the children again. King Bov was upset by this news and sent King Lir a letter requesting an explanation. King Lir, upon receiving the message and, learning that the children did not make it to Lough Derg to visit King Bov, he feared for their lives.

King Lir discovers the fate of his children at Lake Darva (image: wikipedia)

He immediately made his way to Lough Derg and as he passed by Lake Darva the four swans called out to him. Though they were swans, they could still be heard and understood by the people of Dana. He discovered the fate of his children. Now, I’m not going to talk of the chaff or stalk that makes tales so long as corn, but the children remained in swan form until someone from the North married someone from the South – which in itself could be another Irish fairy tale! But I can tell you this: before they changed back into their human forms, they spent three hundred years in Lake Darva, another three hundred years in the dangerous and stormy sea of Moyle, and yet another three hundred years on the Isle of Glora. Now, while they were on the Isle of Glora, Saint Patrick came and brought the Christian faith to Ireland. Well, since the Children of Lir survived as swans for three hundred years on the stormy sea of Moyle, something tells me that Constance and Maurice will not be swallowed up by the sea…

Explicit quarta pars.


[1] My telling of The Children of Lir is adapted and embellished from Barbara Leonie Picard’s version which can be found in Celtic Tales (New York: Criterion, 1964).

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