John D. Batten
Duckworth and I stroll along the banks of the Thames, following the Queen’s Walk on this mild November day. Rowing on the river might be a bit too cold; therefore we opt for a walk along the South Bank. We intend to take the full walk from Tower Bridge to Lambeth Bridge.
“Well,” says Duckworth, “What sort of disconcerting, confusing, and questionable diatribes have you been inflicting upon your granddaughter of late?”
I hear the bait, but bite for the sake of conversation. “I only read fairy tales to her.”
“Isn’t that what I said?” Duckworth grins.
We pass the lopsided, glassy ball of City Hall. “The Black Bull of Norroway, last night. I am fond of Joseph Jacob’s More English Fairy Tales. That one is Scottish, actually.”
“Almost not English,” muses Duckworth. “Tell me of this tale.”
There are three sisters and the eldest asks her mother to bake her a bannock and roast her collop because she is going off to seek her fortune.”
“Wait,” says Duckworth, “a girl going off to seek her fortune? Only sons do that.”
“Shush,” I say, “do you want to hear the story?” Duckworth rolls his eyes and I continue.
The sister goes to the old witch washerwife for advice.
The washerwife tells her to stay and watch out the back door. On the third day the sister sees a coach drawn by six horses that takes her away.
The second sister follows suit and is taken away by a coach with four horses.
The third sister gets the bannock and collop, and advice from the washerwife, but is taken away by a black bull.
“Dear me,” says Duckworth.
Beside us I see the imposing shape of the HMS Belfast anchored along the banks of the Thames.
At the bull’s instruction, she sustains herself by drawing food from his right ear and drink from his left.
“What?” says Duckworth. I glare at him and continue.
The girl and the bull travel In turn to three castles ruled over by the bull’s three human brothers. At each castle she is given a gift, one of an apple, another a pear, and last a plum, which she is not to “break” until she is in dire straits.
Then they travel to a glen, where the bull tells her to wait, not move an inch, while he goes to battle the Old One.
I ignore him.
If she moves at all, he will not be able to find her on his return. He also says that if all about her turns blue, then he has defeated the Old One. If all turns red, then he, the bull, has been conquered.
This she does until all turns blue and her foot moves in a reflex of joy for her friend’s victory, but now the bull cannot find her.
Duckworth and I approach London Bridge on our ramble.
At length she wanders until she comes to the glass mountain. She cannot get over it until she serves seven years to a blacksmith, who will then forge iron shoes for her that will grip the glass of the mountain.
She comes to the house of a washerwife.
“Hold on, the same washerwife as at the start of the story?”
“The story does not say.”
The washerwife and her daughter are trying to wash out the blood on the clothes of a gallant knight, who will marry the one to accomplish the task. Failing to remove the stains, they give the clothes to the girl for whom the work is easily done.
Of course, the washerwife claims it is her daughter who did the deed and it is she who should marry the knight.
The girl now breaks open the fruits that hold much treasure, which she uses to bribe the daughter to let her into the knight’s bedchamber. This goes on for two nights, the washerwife drugging the knight so that he does not hear the girl’s pleas. It is not until the third night, after the knight has gotten wind of what is happening, that he stays awake. The knight then has the washerwife and her daughter burnt, and marries the girl.
“Are you kidding?” Duckworth exclaims.
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Two
John D. Batten
Passing by Southwark Cathedral, we wind our way toward the Globe Theatre.
“Let me get a few things straight,” Duckworth insists. “First, three sisters go off to make their way in the world. I think that unseemly for young women at the time. I’ll let that pass, but what happened to the eldest sisters?”
“They rode off in coaches. I’m sure they did fine.”
“Why were they in the story? Isn’t every element of a story there to propel the story forward?”
“You are talking about literary fairy tales. The traditional tales are of a different order. Yet, I feel the sequence of events—the first two sisters getting a free ride as it were—marks the youngest sister as special, having to struggle for her husband, giving their union greater value.”
“OK,” says Duckworth, “what about the bull?”
“Well, females abducted by bulls may start with the Greek myth of Europa being kidnapped by Zeus in the form of a white bull, but a closer relative, I think, is East of the Sun, West of the Moon, where the youngest sister is taken away by a great white bear.”
“Hmm,” Duckworth looks thoughtful for a moment. “Is this the Beauty-and-the-Beast thing?”
“Not exactly, in my opinion. The beast is a monster, at least outwardly. The bull is a common enough animal, but one with a mission.”
“Ah, yes, his fight with the Old One. Who is he?” Duckworth asks.
“We can only guess. My guess is that the name is a euphemism for the devil, though there is nothing particularly Christian in the gloss of this story. One could suggest this is a reflection of the bull of the Mithra religion fighting with the state religion of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think the folk memory concerns itself with such politics.”
I feel a certain thrill as we pass the Shakespeare’s Globe. The Tate Modern, in contrast, comes into sight.
“Nonetheless,” I continue, “bulls have a special place in both Greek and Roman mythology, the vestige of which turns up in the Spanish bull fights. You’ve heard of the running of the bulls, haven’t you? That moment when we allow them to try and kill us?”
“Not my cup of tea, thank you, but what about this red, blue, disappearing thing? How do you explain that?”
“I don’t have a coherent explanation for that.”
“Do you have an incoherent explanation?” Duckworth knows me.
“Well, call me crazy, but I am thinking of the astronomical red shift and blue shift. Red shift occurs when an astronomer sees a star moving away. The waveband is stretching out and appears red. If the star moves toward the astronomer, then the waveband length is shorter and the light appears blue.
“Not that red and blue are opposites on the color wheel, but in this case they are opposed. Did some storyteller sense this and apply it to victory and defeat?”
Duckworth takes out his cellphone, stabs at it, and talks. “Insane asylums near me.”
“No wait, my notion gets a little worse to be honest, when it comes to the bull not being able to find the girl after she moves. That brings to mind the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat, which addresses the idea that, at the subatomic level, a particle may and/or may not exist at the same time. That is to say, there and not there. That does describe the bull’s problem after the girl moves her foot. She is there and not there when the bull tries to find her. He, unfortunately, exists in the ‘not there’ state and the story goes on to the next stage.”
We walk through the shadow of the Oxo Tower as Duckworth contemplates my words, then addresses his cell again. “Requirements for commitment.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2019 The Black Bull of Norroway – Part Three
Abundance Peter Paul Reuben
On my own walk into the Magic Forest, I make for the Glass Mountain. As I hoped, Old Rink Rank sits on a crystal ledge, barely above my head, his thin, long shanks dangling down.
“Good day to you,” I offer.
He eyes me with a hoary brow raised.
“May I ask a question or two?” I propose.
“I have no answers,” Rink Rank scowls.
“Do you recall a girl scaling your mountain with iron shoes.”
“Which one? Happened a number of times.”
“Her dear friend was the Bull of Norroway.”
“Oh, her. Think I remember. Lived happily ever after, didn’t she.” I note his devilish grin.
“I am not sure that distinguishes her. Nonetheless, as she rode on the bull’s back, she pulled food from his right ear and drink from his left. How does that work?”
“How should I know? The storytellers assigned me to this glass mountain. They didn’t make me a cowherd. How do you think it works? That’s the question.”
“Well, the image that jumps to mind is the cornucopia. Now, I know that the horn of plenty is a goat’s horn, but the baby Zeus was raised by a goat, actually a goat-goddess. In play, he broke off one of her horns, which then had the power of unending nourishment.
“In another story, Zeus, as a bull, abducts Europa. The Bull of Norroway carries off our heroine and produces food and drink from his ears, which, of course, are next to his horns.
“My logic might be thin, but I think there is a thread that runs through my reasoning. What do you think?”
Rink Rank reaches into his pocket and pulls out what looks like a cellphone and speaks. “Insane asylum near me.”
“Oh, cut that out!”
Rink Rank’s wicked grin broadens as the cellphone appears to dissolve into thin air. Yet I push on.
“There is also the washerwife. She is at the beginning as a helper and later on as the antagonist. My friend Duckworth questioned if they were the same person. I had no answer.”
“And how should I know?” Rink Rank fumes. “You’re the one reading or listening to the story. If you think they are the same washerwife then they are. I’m just a figment of your imagination, just like you’re the figment of someone else’s imagination.”
“What?” I exclaim, “I am not the figment of anyone’s imagination any more than you are.”
“Oh, you don’t think so?” There’s that devilish grim again. He is trying to distract me from my point.
“And the Bull of Norroway and the gallant knight, are they the same person?”
Rink Rank slaps his forehead. “What do you think?”
“I want to hear it from you!” I all but scream.
“I told you, I have no answers. Of course we tales don’t tell you everything. Those answers are yours to find out or make up. That’s your part, your role in the story.”
He settles his back up against the glass mountain with the air of having given his final say.
I am not sure I should believe him.