John D. Batten
Tradition means you did it more than once. Melissa took Thalia out for Halloween again this year. I suspect the pattern is set.
Thalia’s mother is content to have Melissa stand in for her. My daughter is not attracted to, as she says, “the frivolous.” Apparently I’ve had neither effect upon nor influence over her.
Melissa dressed as a witch and Thalia as her black cat, her familiar. Johannes made no comment about this arrangement, but I am sure he is flattered by Thalia taking on his likeness. He joins us in my study upon the return of the witch and her black cat, the latter carrying a paper sack filled with candy, apples, and other treats.
“Stoke up the fire, please,” Melissa says to me as she turns out the electric lights.
“How can you read to her in such darkness?” I point to Thalia, who sits on the hearth exploring the wonders of her paper bag.
“I’m not reading; I am telling tonight.”
Johannes’s tail swishes in anticipation. I add some logs to the fireplace and settle into my comfy chair, as Thalia rises from the hearth to squeeze in between me and the padded chair arm, her bag of goodies substituting for her usual teddy bear. Melissa carries a straight-back chair to the spot Thalia just abandoned by the hearth, setting her witch’s hat on the floor beside her. Sitting erect, she begins.
“Lord William came courting the eldest daughter of the king. She was dark and beautiful and he trothed to her with his glove and ring, that he might be king after. But his eyes fell favorably upon her younger sister, who was light and lovely. And this vexed the dark sister so that her mind fell to an evil plan.
“‘Sister,’ she said, ‘let us go down to the River Binnoire and watch our father’s boats come in.’
“Hand in hand they went down to the strand. The younger stood upon a rock and looked out across the water. The elder came up behind her and grabbing the younger about the waist, threw her into the water.
“‘Sister,’ cried the younger, ‘give me your hand and I will give you half of what is mine.’
“‘It is mine already,’ the dark sister answered.
“‘Sister,’ she cried again, ‘give me your hand and I will give you all of what I would inherit.’
“‘It, too, is mine already.’
“‘Sister,’ she cried once more, ‘give me your hand and I will turn sweet William’s eyes from me.’
“‘He has always been mine.” And the dark sister turned her back on the River Binnoire.”
The fire on the hearth cracks, yet I feel Thalia shiver beside me.
“The younger sank and swam, sank and swam, as the river carried her downstream. Presently a miller’s daughter came to the riverside to get a bucket of water.
“‘Father,’ she cried, ‘stop the millwheel. Either a bonny maid or a white swan comes down the millrace.’
“Together they dragged the princess from the water and laid her upon the bank. Never had they seen anyone so lovely. Pearls and rubies were woven into her golden hair. She wore a delicate white dress bound with a golden belt. Never had they seen anyone so lovely, especially in death.”
Thalia shivers again and cuddles closer to me.
Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2017 Binnoire – Part Two
Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale
“They called to a bard, who happened to be passing near. Here was a man who traveled the length and breadth of the land, telling his stories and singing his songs in the houses of lords and ladies, kings and queens. He well knew who the princess was, but saw in her a foul death.
“‘Bury her not. Rather put her on a bier in the forest and leave her there.’
“This they did, with a heavy heart. They built her a bier and laid her upon it, prayed for her immortal soul, then left her there. The bard traveled on his way, performing in the houses of the lords and ladies, as was his wont, but he returned again in a year and a day.
“By then thieves had come and stolen the pearls and rubies from the princess’s hair as well as the golden belt. Her delicate white dress had turned to dust. All that was left were her bones and strands of her golden hair.
“He took the breast bone and carved it into a harp, as one might carve ivory, stringing it with strands of her golden hair, using her finger bones as pegs.
“Taking the princess harp with him, he traveled to her father’s castle and begged entrance so that he might be that night’s entertainment. Those within gladly received him, giving him a place of honor at the table. When the meal was over, they put their chairs around the hearth, and the bard sat in front them.”
I come out of the story haze for a moment to see Melissa sitting in front of us by the hearth, just as she described the bard.
“He sang to them,” Melissa continues, “and told them the stories of Cú Chulainn and the knights of the Red Branch, of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna warriors, of Bran and the Giant’s Causeway, and of Deirdre. He sang happy songs and sad songs, songs of love lost and battles recently won.
“As he sang, darkness crept into the corners of the room. Servants were lighting the torches when the princess harp began to play all of its own. The bard set down his harp and looked across his audience to see the dark sister’s hands clutching the arms of her chair, her knuckles white, as she recognized the lilt of her sister’s voice.
“Then the harp began to sing:
‘Yonder sits my father the king,
Binnorie, oh Binnorie.
And with him my mother the queen,
By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.
And yonder sits an empty chair,
Binnorie, oh Binnorie.
But it was I who once sat there,
By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.
There be my William, proud and free,
Binnorie, oh Binnorie.
With him my sister, who killed me,
By the bonnie banks of Binnorie.’
“The harp snapped, broke, and played no more.”
Thalia shivers again. “Cool.” Her candy bag had been all but forgotten and she digs back into it.
“That,” I say, “is from our friend Joseph Jacobs, is it not?”
“Yes, his English Fairy Tales collection. Lots of good stuff in there.”
Melissa and I fall silent, contenting ourselves by watching the fire and Thalia feasting.
Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2017 Binnoire – Part Three
John D Batten
Duckworth and I row vigorously up the Thames on this crisp, first day of November (All Saints Day).
“And how did you spend All Hallows Eve?” Duckworth cocks an eyebrow, knowing full well that Halloween is a special night for me.
“Melissa recited ‘Binnorie’ to Thalia and me around the fireplace.”
“Sounds pleasant. What is a Binnorie?”
“A river in Northumbria, supposedly, though I can’t find it on the map.”
“Is it a scary river?”
“No, no, it’s where one sister drowned the other.”
“Now you’re getting to the good stuff.” Duckworth’s eyes glint.
“Quite, it’s of a motif called ‘cruel sister,’ popular in Nordic countries it seems. I read somewhere Sweden has a hundred and twenty five variants on it.”
I give Duckworth the summation.
“Sounds a bit like Grimm’s The Singing Bones,” Duckworth reflects.
I am a little stunned. “You’re reading Grimm?”
Duckworth smiles. “Inspired by you, I am reading Grimm to my children.”
“Excellent, you won’t regret it. Yes, folklorists regularly draw a connection between the two. Originally though, Binnorie appears to have been a ballad rather than a story.”
Duckworth and I draw water and point our bow at the large wake of a big boat motoring quickly by.
“A story drawn from a ballad, you say?” Duckworth continues the conversation.
“Fairly common. Peruse Child’s ballads and you’ll find many stories.”
“Child’s?” Duckworth questions.
“Francis James Child, a nineteenth century ballad collector, produced five volumes of English and Scottish popular ballads. The ‘cruel sister’ story is in there too, in its ballad form. Actually, he lists twenty versions of it.”
“So, how does a ballad become a story?” Duckworth asks.
“Rather naturally,” I respond. “The bards told stories and sang songs. Music and storytelling have a long, shared history. That stories and songs let their images flow back and forth between them is inevitable.”
We row a little while in silence.
“We are, of course,” Duckworth picks up the conversation again, “talking about sibling rivalry.”
“Very much,” I agree. “Starting with Cain and Abel, we are attracted to this motif. Many of us have a personal relationship with it, at least in our childhood. I couldn’t help noticing when I looked at Child’s entries on the cruel sister, it was followed by the cruel-brother entries. In this case, it was the brother killing his sister before her marriage.”
“Nasty,” says Duckworth.
“Oh, and in a lot of the versions the instrument is a fiddle instead of a harp. The fiddle’s body might be a skull. In a Hungarian version the corpse of the younger sister is hidden in the fiddle, somehow.”
Duckworth glances at me sidelong. “How do you know all this?”
“Ahh,” I hesitate. “I researched it on Wiki last night after Melissa left, to become an instant expert, knowing I’d see you today and be talking about it. I’ll forget everything I just told you in a month, you know.”
“Dear me,” Duckworth muses, “ephemeral knowledge?”
“Oh, I like that slant,” I smile. “It’s not my memory that is failing; it’s the knowledge itself that fades away. Duckworth, you give me hope.”
Duckworth puts his hand on his heart. “I am pleased to be of service.”
We reach our far point and turn around to row back downstream.