steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Twice-told tales

When I was an undergraduate I used to enjoy poring over the Motif-Index of Folk Literature in the basement of Royal Holloway College library, trying to understand how different stories had echoed each other over and over throughout the world, for reasons that remained, at best, translucent. I was awed that someone had tried to systematize the whole thing, of course - though even then the choice of system felt a little brittle and arbitrary. Later, I would have the same feeling about John Wilkins' taxonomy of the whole of reality in his Real and Philosophical Character.

At the same time, I wasn't entirely sure what the Motif-Index it was for. Was reading it like trying to trace a family tree, a way of following the spread of stories through time - the narrative equivalent of historical philology? That was how Jacob Grimm had approached it, unsurprisingly maybe. If so, we might expect the narrative equivalent of Grimm's Law to operate, with stories modifying in predictable ways over time. And perhaps, just as we can make a stab at reconstructing Indo-European and other dead languages by applying such laws to languages that we do know, we might be able to reconstruct asterisk stories: stories that are no longer told, but once were. (This is very much in the spirit of what Tom Shippey sees Tolkien as having been about, I think, in creating his English mythology.) At the same time, that felt like a pipe-dream, rather like trying to back-predict the weather on a particular day in 2000BC on the basis of current data plus a knowledge of meteorology. The branching factor is too high, as they used to say in AI class.

Besides, perhaps that wasn't the best use of the Motif Index after all. Maybe it was more like looking through a book on chemistry, to see how a limited number of elements could be combined to make very different materials? From a writerly point of view, of course, it might be seen as list of ingredients, with plenty of recipe ideas thrown in.

If I'd known the words then, I'd have seen these two alternatives as diachronic and synchronic approaches, but back in the early '80s all attempts to get my fairly-traditional lecturers to explain about Saussure and structuralism were met with panicked brandishings of crosses and garlic.

I hadn't thought about the Motif-Index much recently, but watching a school production of the Arabian Nights the other evening I was really struck by the similarity between part of the 'The Envious Sisters' and part of the story of Pywll of Annwn, in the first branch of the Mabinogion.


And before the end of a year a son was born unto him. And in Narberth was he born; and on the night that he was born, women were brought to watch the mother and the boy. And the women slept, as did also Rhiannon, the mother of the boy. And the number of the women that were brought into the chamber was six. And they watched for a good portion of the night, and before midnight every one of them fell asleep, and towards break of day they awoke; and when they awoke, they looked where they had put the boy, and behold he was not there. "Oh," said one of the women, "the boy is lost!" "Yes," said another, "and it will be small vengeance if we are burnt or put to death because of the child." Said one of the women, "Is there any counsel for us in the world in this matter?" "There is," answered another, "I offer you good counsel." "What is that?" asked they. "There is here a stag-hound bitch, and she has a litter of whelps. Let us kill some of the cubs, and rub the blood on the face and hands of Rhiannon, and lay the bones before her, and assert that she herself hath devoured her son, and she alone will not be able to gainsay us six." And according to this counsel it was settled. And towards morning Rhiannon awoke, and she said, "Women, where is my son?" "Lady," said they, "ask us not concerning thy son, we have nought but the blows and the bruises we got by struggling with thee, and of a truth we never saw any woman so violent as thou, for it was of no avail to contend with thee. Hast thou not thyself devoured thy son? Claim him not therefore of us." "For pity's sake," said Rhiannon; "the Lord God knows all things. Charge me not falsely. If you tell me this from fear, I assert before Heaven that I will defend you." "Truly," said they, "we would not bring evil on ourselves for anyone in the world." "For pity's sake," said Rhiannon, "you will receive no evil by telling the truth." But for all her words, whether fair or harsh, she received but the same answer from the women.

So Rhiannon sent for the teachers and the wise men, and as she preferred doing penance to contending with the women, she took upon her a penance. And the penance that was imposed upon her was, that she should remain in that palace of Narberth until the end of seven years, and that she should sit, every day near unto a horse-block that was without the gate. And that she should relate the story to all who should come there, whom she might suppose not to know it already; and that she should offer the guests and strangers, if they would permit her, to carry them upon her back into the palace. Bat it rarely happened that any would permit. And thus did she spend part of the year.

Now at that time Teirnyon Twryv Vliant was Lord of Gwent Is Coed, and he was the best man in the world. And unto his house there belonged a mare, than which neither mare nor horse in the kingdom was more beautiful. And on the night of every first of May she foaled, and no one ever knew what became of the colt. And one night Teirnyon talked with his wife: "Wife," said he, "it is very simple of us that our mare should foal every year, and that we should have none of her colts." "What can be done in the matter?" said she. "This is the night of the first of May," said he. "The vengeance of Heaven be upon me, if I learn not what it is that takes away the colts." So he caused the mare to be brought into a house, and he armed himself, and began to watch that night. And in the beginning of the night, the mare foaled a large and beautiful colt. And it was standing up in the place. And Teirnyon rose up and looked at the size of the colt, and as he did so he heard a great tumult, and after the tumult behold a claw came through the window into the house, and it seized the colt by the mane. Then Tiernyon drew his sword, and struck off the arm at the elbow, so that portion of the arm together with the colt was in the house with him. And then did he hear a tumult and wailing, both at once. And he opened the door, and rushed out in the direction of the noise, and he could not see the cause of the tumult because of the darkness of the night, but he rushed after it and followed it. Then he remembered that he had left the door open, and he returned. And at the door behold there was an infant boy in swaddling-clothes, wrapped around in a mantle of satin. And he took up the boy, and behold he was very strong for the age that he was of.

Then he shut the door, and went into the chamber where his wife was. "Lady," said he, "art thou sleeping?" "No, lord," said she, "I was asleep, but as thou camest in I did awake." "Behold, here is a boy for thee if thou wilt," said he, "since thou hast never had one." "My lord," said she, "what adventure is this?" "It was thus," said Teirnyon; and he told her how it all befell. "Verily, lord," said she, "what sort of garments are there upon the boy?" "A mantle of satin," said he. "He is then a boy of gentle lineage," she replied. "My lord," she said, "if thou wilt, I shall have great diversion and mirth. I will call my women unto me, and tell them that I have been pregnant." "I will readily grant thee to do this," he answered. And thus did they, and they caused the boy to be baptized, and the ceremony was performed there; and the name which they gave unto him, was Gwri Wallt Euryn, because what hair was upon his head was as yellow as gold.

'Envious Sisters'

The emperor named the queen's two sisters to be her midwives; and from that time they went frequently to the palace, overjoyed at the opportunity they should have of executing the detestable wickedness they had meditated against the queen.

When the queen's time was up she was safely delivered of a young prince, as bright as the day; but neither his innocence nor beauty could move the cruel hearts of the merciless sisters. They wrapped him up carelessly in his cloths, and put him into a basket, which they abandoned to the stream of a small canal, that ran under the queen's apartment, and declared that she was delivered of a little dead dog, which they produced. This disagreeable intelligence was announced to the emperor, who became so angry at the circumstance, that he was likely to have occasioned the queen's death, if his grand vizier had not represented to him, that he could not, without injustice, make her answerable for the caprices of nature.

In the mean time, the basket in which the little prince was exposed was carried by the stream beyond a wall, which bounded the prospect of the queen's apartment, and from thence floated with the current down the gardens. By chance the intendant of the emperor's gardens, one of the principal and most considerable officers of the kingdom, was walking in the garden by the side of this canal, and perceiving a basket floating, called to a gardener, who was not far off, to bring it to shore, that he might see what it contained. The gardener, with a rake which he had in his hand, drew the basket to the side of the canal, took it up, and gave it to him.

The intendant of the gardens was extremely surprised to see in the basket a child, which, though he knew it could be but just born, had very fine features. This officer had been married several years, but though he had always been desirous of having children, Heaven had never blessed him with any. This accident interrupted his walk: he made the gardener follow him with the child; and when he came to his own house, which was situated at the entrance into the gardens of the palace, went into his wife's apartment. "Wife," said he, "as we have no children of our own, God has sent us one. I recommend him to you; provide him a nurse, and take as much care of him as if he were our own son; for, from this moment, I acknowledge him as such." The intendant's wife received the child with great joy, and took particular pleasure in the care of him. The intendant himself would not inquire too narrowly whence the child came. He saw plainly it came not far off the queen's apartment; but it was not his business to examine too closely into what had passed, nor to create disturbances in a place where peace was so necessary.

[two more labours follow, in which a cat and a plank of wood are substituted in a similar way]

The emperor of Persia considered with himself, and reflecting that it was unjust to condemn the queen to death for what had happened, said, "Let her live then; I will spare her life; but it shall be on this condition, that she shall desire to die more than once every day. Let a wooden shed be built for her at the gate of the principal mosque, with iron bars to the windows, and let her be put into it, in the coarsest habit; and every Mussulmaun that shall go into the mosque to prayers shall spit in her face. If any one fail, I will have him exposed to the same punishment; and that I maybe punctually obeyed, I charge you, vizier, to appoint persons to see this done."

It's fun to notice such things, of course, but I'm still as nonplussed as any undergraduate about what to say once I've noticed it. Coincidence? Influence? The universal grammar of story at work? It's actually rather irritating not to feel confident in saying what it all means, or even that it means anything at all. You pick up a shiny pebble - or is it a fossil? - from the beach and admire it, and then what is there to do but toss it back amongst the rest?
Tags: maunderings
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