Dugald Stewart Walker
Because Melissa closes her shop on Sundays, we have fallen into the habit of afternoon tea at the Vaults on the campus of Oxford, in the medieval Congregation House. The “vaults” refers to the room’s wooden, gothic arches, the rest of its decor consisting of white-plaster walls and lead-glass windows. We always order the sourdough toast and jam to go along with our tea.
“Tell me, what was Thalia’s story for last night?” Melissa asks, while we wait for our order.
“Thalia decided she wanted an animal story. Well actually, it was Teddy who wanted the animal story.”
“Of course,” Melissa comments with solemnness.
“Scanning the table of contents my eyes fell upon The Wren and the Bear, which I guessed to be totally appropriate for Teddy. Fortunately, I glanced at the last paragraph discovering the bear got the short end of the stick, as it were.”
“Is Teddy a prideful bear?” Melissa’s brow knits.
“I don’t think so, but nonetheless, I recalled the other wren story in Grimm, simply called The Wren.
“It has a charming opening that declares that in the olden days every sound had meaning. The smith’s hammer said, ‘Smite hard. Smite hard.’ And the carpenter’s rasp said, “That’s it. That’s it.’”
“That is charming. How does the story go?” Melissa glanced toward the counter at the other end of the room, annoyed, I think, that our waiter seemed to have disappeared.
“Besides tools having language, so did the birds; each species had their own, but all understood the other. . . .”
One day the birds decided they wanted a king to rule over them. All except the peewit, who flew about calling, “Where am I to live? Where am I to live?” until it found a home in a lonely swamp and never came out.
The other birds decided on a contest to see who could fly the highest, and that bird would be the king. They all started out flying upward, but quickly the smaller birds fell behind until it was only the eagle that could rise above the others. The birds below declared, “He is the king. No one can fly higher.”
“Except me!” shouted a little bird that the story tells us had no name. It clung unnoticed to the eagle’s breast feathers and not having spent any effort, it quickly flew above all the others. It rose so high it could see God seated on His throne before it descended back to earth.
“I am the king. I am the king,” the little bird announced to the others.
They would have no part of its trickery and decided their king would be the one who could go deepest into the earth. The chickens shallowed out holes in the ground. The duck went down into a gully. But the little bird squeezed down a deep mousehole, declaring, “I am the king. I am the king.”
The birds had had enough. They posted the owl to guard the mousehole and prevent the little bird from escaping until it starved to death.
That night, all the birds went home, leaving the owl to his duty. When he got sleepy he rested one eye, keeping the other on guard. After a time he rested that eye, opening the other to stand guard. This worked well far into the night until he closed one eye and forgot to open the other. With that, the little bird escaped.
From then on, the owl could not show his face during the day without the other birds scolding him and the little bird took to hiding in bushes. He became mockingly known as the king of the hedges. Still, at times, he’d announce, “I am the king. I am the king.”
Melissa looks up with pleasure in her eyes. I smell the sourdough toast before I see the waiter. She and I settle into our afternoon tea.
Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2017 The Wren – Part Two
“Are you familiar,” asks Melissa, “with the Wren Hunt?”
“The Wren Hunt? That rings a bell.” I wrestle with my aged brain as I sip my tea. “Now I remember. Yes, I heard about it from Reverend Armstrong during a visit to Miss Cox’s garden last year. It has to do with Christmas and mumming. Oh! I see what you’re getting at.”
“Quite,” reflects Melissa biting into her toast. “It is particularly Celtic, though not exclusively. Young boys, around Saint Stephen’s Day, would capture and kill a wren hiding in the hedges. Then, dressed up in outlandish costumes—more like Halloween than Christmas—they trooped from house to house, creating a cacophony with flutes and drums, carrying the poor little carcass suspended from the end of a pole carried upright, almost like a crucifix really, and declaring it to be the king. Again, like Halloween, the young boys expected treats from each household. The event culminated in the burial of the wren with a penny outside the cemetery wall.”
“The Wren,” I speculate, “is a German tale. The Wren Hunt is a Celtic tradition. Yet the connection between the two is pretty obvious.”
Melissa eye’s are unfocused in thought as she sips her tea.
“There is a song that goes along with the mumming.
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds . . .”
Melissa pauses for a moment.
“St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren.”
“That’s not much of a treat that the poor wren gets,” I say.
“The song goes on longer, but that is the part I remember.”
“You think the idea of the wren as king is of Celtic origin?” I savor another bit of toast.
“Well, the history behind the Wren Hunt is complex, but the bit of mythology that resonates with me come from the Isle of Man, if I remember correctly, about the fairy queen Tehi Tegi. She was very beautiful, so much so men followed her anywhere, hoping to marry her, forgetting about their own wives, children, livestock, and fields. She did have the nasty habit of leading them to the river and drowning them. The women pleaded with Manannán to rid them of Tehi Tegi. Manannán banished her to the far cold north, but at her pleading relented and let her return home once a year for half a day on Saint Stephen’s Day. However, if she is found she can be beat to death. She returns in as small a form as she can, that of a tiny wren, who is hard to spot hiding in the hedges.”
“How did a Christian holiday get into a Celtic myth?” My fakelore radar is up.
Melissa smiles. “I suspect these tales were often recorded by Christian monks who filled in some obvious oversights. That and the uneducated populace pulling together more than one notion floating about in their culture. Then there was the storyteller, who wanted to make a good tale with audience appeal, if at the expense of history.”
That I’ll buy. I do need to run these thoughts by Augustus.
Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2017 The Wren – Part Three
Gold Crested Wren
Tea with Melissa and a smoke in the company of Augustus make for a pleasant Sunday. Augustus fancies himself an amateur folklorist with a particular expertise in the Grimm canon. I haven’t decided if he is inordinately intelligent or has a photographic memory. In either case I am jealous of his retention of information, mine having more in common with a sieve.
The scent and fog of Shee Shadow, Augustus’s latest blend, which we both sample, fills the space between us, we ensconced in our comfy chairs.
“The Wren,” says Augustus. “I am a little concerned how to regard that tale.”
“My friend Melissa feels it is of Celtic origins.”
“Really? Not all fairy tales are of Greek origin, if many are,” I protest.
“Aristotle referred to this story, as well as Pliny, who in his Natural History writes that there is a standing argument between the eagle and the wren over the title ‘king of the birds.’ Interestingly, Pliny was talking about the gold crested wren, which has golden markings on its head, like a little crown.”
I am a little sullen. I like things to be Celtic or Nordic in origin, but the Greeks always steal the show. “What are your concerns over this tale?”
Augustus taps out his pipe. “Too much Cavendish. I think I’ll reblend it with less.”
For a moment I think he will ignore my question, but then he continues.
“The story is old, but that does not mean it comes down to us in its original form. I think someone’s messed with it.”
“What is your evidence?” He has got my interest.
Augustus hesitates. “I have no evidence. However, in the Grimms’ version there are characters that have no role in forwarding the tale, but are there, I believe, for another purpose.
“Consider the peewit saying, “Where shall I live?” not wanting to be under a king. The tree frog saying, “No! No! No! No!” afraid the peace would be disturbed. The crow calling, “Caw, Caw,” to say all would be well.”
Augustus rises and goes to his bookcase, pulling out his battered copy of Grimm, a bit more battered that Thalia’s. He quotes from its contents.
“Even the cuckoo came, and the hoopoe, his clerk, who is so called because he is always heard a few days before him.”
Augustus scans for a moment.
“The hen, which by some accident had heard nothing of the whole matter, was astonished at the great assemblage. ‘What, what, what is going to be done?’ she cackled; but the cock calmed his beloved hen, and said, ‘Only rich people,’ and told her what they had on hand.”
Augustus scans some more.
“There is a duck crying, ‘Cheating, cheating’ and a lark singing, ‘Ah, how beautiful that is! Beautiful that is! Beautiful, beautiful! Ah, how beautiful that is!’”
I’d forgotten to tell Melissa about almost all of these birds, but Augustus is right, they do not forward the story.
“And you think they are there, why?” I inquire.
“I am guessing this tale has been manipulated to be political commentary of that time, rather like a political cartoon today. Remember, in the Grimms’ day the Holy Roman Empire, with all its failings, was degenerating in the face of rising nationalism. Those birds may have represented historic characters, or governmental stereotypes identifiable to the lower-class listeners, who enjoyed the humor of poking fun at their betters.”
Not a bad idea, but he is right; there is too much Cavendish in the blend.