Category Archives: fairytale

Fairy Folk and Family History

A couple of local gents are drinking a pint in a pub near Cushendall, County Antrim, one evening when a redhead comes through the door. “Ah, there’s that Liz Weir who believes in fairies,” one says.

Weir, an Irish storyteller with an international reputation, stops. “And you don’t?”

He smiles and shakes his head.

“So now, tell me, will you be cutting down that fairy tree on your place any time soon?” She means an old Hawthorne growing inconveniently in the middle of one of his fields.

He turns back to his pint.

“Why not, may I ask?”

He shifts in his seat. “Bad luck.”

Weir likes to tell that story because she’s not bashful about leaving the fairy folk alone. She won’t walk on Tiveragh, a well-known fairy hill, day or night, and, because we happen to be chatting on an April afternoon, she reminds me that May Eve (April 30) is coming. I should avoid all dairy that day because it will sour. She also advises that I plant primrose around my newly remodeled house to keep the fairies away and never throw water out the door for fear of drenching one of the little folk and making him/her angry. Before building, I’m to place a brick at each corner of the new structure. If next morning, the bricks are still in place, I can build. If one is knocked out of place, I’d be advised to build somewhere else.

Every one of my grandmothers gave me similar advice. Sophia, the no-nonsense founder of the family ranch, left drops of water in teacups to keep the fairy folk happy. She thought it made good sense. Since nobody has enough good luck, why risk bad? Likewise Weir is one of the most sensible people I know, computer savvy, widely traveled, a former librarian, who simply chooses to acknowledge what most of us try to ignore—the fact that things are not always what they seem. She’s not alone. Witness how casually we talk about Karma, practice Feng Shui, and bury St. Joseph statues upside down in the backyard.

When the poet W.B. Yeats traveled through the Irish countryside in the late 1800s, looking for stories of the fairy folk, he titled his resulting book, The Celtic Twight. When Eddie Lenihan traveled the same areas in the late 1900s also looking for old stories, he found a tradition as lively as ever. His book, Meeting the Other Crowd, begins by wondering if another book on Irish fairies is really necessary and never expresses any concern that the fairies will go away any time soon. Of course, his fairies aren’t fey. They are described as dangerous, a source of taboos, and otherworldly enchantments, that sound closer to alien abductions than Disney films. He prefers not to mess with the fairy folk and, evidently, you don’t want to mess with Lenihan. He got an Irish highway routed around a fairy tree.

Like Lenihan, Weir doesn’t worry that the fairy folk will disappear. They have the gall to exist even when we don’t believe in them. Instead she worries that folklore worldwide will be dumbed down by mass media. Among other things, I suspect she means—pan flutes. Last time I was in Sedona, Arizona, every tourist shop had flute music playing the in background. Same music in similar shops all over Dingle Penninsula in Ireland. Here’s the point, if you decide to look for your family stories, expect the trolls, fairies, and talking animals to tag along. The fairy folk are everywhere. We disguise them as children’s stories, laugh them off as nonsense, but, like the old gents in the Cushendall pub, we know better.

Keep in mind that encounters with the magical world does not mean going for easy solutions. A wave of the magic wand can conjure as much trouble as help. The charm of these stories is that they often focus on the youngest child or the smallest animal. Clever wins the day. Evil is not defeated. It’s tripped up, tricked, outwitted, making it something less feared than fooled.

Likewise, don’t let that simplicity fool you. The fact that you find these stories mixed in with the family stories regardless of family origin or cultural traditions suggests something psychologically deep. Stories old enough to have mingled with the fairy folk require a different attitude. Slow down, take a deep breath, open your imagination, and close your eyes. Remember, nobody asked you to go looking for old stories. You went anyway. Dug around, and, when the dead rise to be kissed, don’t back away. You can’t claim you didn’t know how deep the roots went. This is old memory, soul talk, the awakening of inner rhythms. This is the long ago and far away land of repeated dreams, songs that linger, footsteps we don’t expect but recognize.  I have a friend who introduced me to Trouble Trolls. When they knock, you don’t hide behind the door, you open wide, invite them in and dance with them. They’ll never be your friends but they might like the music and they could have gifts wrapped in their gnarled fists. Every story is wet like that with symbol—folklore even more so.

Even so, Mark A. Finlayson, doing research on artificial intelligence at MIT, believes that stories allow us to communicate complex ideas on a low bandwidth, which is why they work so well for children. Also why we never out grow them. Consider the complexity of modern parents who pay for two eggs and hire two surrogates to gestate two children at the same time so they will be like twins, but not really. How do you explain that to the children? According to NY Times Magazine (1/2/2011) you call them “twiblings” and invent a fairytale: Once, there was a couple who wanted to have babies. They tried and tried, but no babies arrive, and they were very sad. But then a Fairy Goddonor brought them some magical eggs . . ..

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Filed under fairytale, Family history, Fantasy, Old Storytelling Traditions, The Little Folk

Once Upon A Time . . .

Don’t be fooled. The little folk of fairytale and fable are the keepers of the wisdom. What’s more, they’re not stuffy about it. Worldwide, no matter the tradition, folk tales challenge the norm, encourage creative problem-solving, even question who you are in order for you to grow into someone else.

We need these stories. Proof is in the fact that if our families don’t provide, we will look elsewhere for them. I have a Native American friend who lives near Taos Pueblo in New Mexico who will not tell a story of the Corn Mother unless her listener also shares a story from his or her tradition. She worries that there are not enough storytellers. She believes that when we forget our stories, we forget everything.

Ireland, of course, is known for its storytellers, as this little video advertises . . .

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Filed under Animal Stories, children's stories, fairytale, Fantasy, Old Storytelling Traditions, Storytelling, Uncategorized

Story Quote #10 (Joseph Campbell, Give Me A Break!!)

Jcflogo“All of the great mythologies and much of the mythic story-telling of the world are from the male point of view. When I was writing The Hero with a Thousand Faces and wanted to bring female heroes in, I had to go to the fairy tales. These were told by women to children, you know, and you get a different perspective. It was the men who got involved in spinning most of the great myths. The women were too busy; they had too damn much to do to sit around thinking about stories.” —Joseph Campbell

This is also the excuse that is often given for why there are few great women painters or composers before the 20th Century. We were too busy fixing dinner!

Fairy tales? I assume Mr. Campbell never thought to ask his mother, aunts, grandmother, etc. about his own family stories. Most families have a foundation myth, a story about how they came to be where they are, and those stories are largely preserved /retold by women.

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Story Quote #9

Beast to Blonde Book“The story itself becomes the weapon of the weaponless. The struggles of women, for example, are not resolved by combat, on the whole (one or two Amazon heroines excepted) . . . when they need to undo error or redeem wrongdoing or defend the innocent, they raise their voices, if only in a conspiratorial whisper–hence the suspicion of women’s talk that haunts the whole history of the old wives’ tale.”

–Marina Warner From the Beast to the Blonde on Fairy Tales and Their Tellers

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Filed under fairytale, stories, Story Quote, Uncategorized, Why Stories?

Little Folk–Hobgoblin

hobgoblinIf you meet a hobgoblin and he asks for a coin, find one. Dig deep if you have to. Otherwise, he’ll turn the forest around and you’ll lose your way. When I read that old eastern European tradition, I thought, THAT explains it. Aren’t we all lost in one sense or another? Maybe, we aren’t paying the hobgoblin.

Too many of us underestimate the Little Folk. Or think we outgrow them. Generations past didn’t make that mistake. My German grandmother literally believed in kitchen elves. They were blamed for spilled and spoiled food. She believed it was good, common sense to keep them placated. Even today, an Irish friend knows every fairy tree in her part of County Cork and never messes with them. She doesn’t need the trouble. Is that superstitious or wise?

Stories explain things we can’t explain easily. Got a problem (hobgoblin)? Find a coin, pay the price, deal with it. Otherwise you risk letting things get more tangled, less clear, even more difficult. We all know that, but stories allow us to frame the idea with humor. “Paid the hobgoblin?” might be a way to gently remind ourselves to get on with things. It also acknowledges that we all have hobgoblins, all of them ugly.

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Aesop’s Fiddling Grasshopper–Yeah!!

How we tell our stories makes all the difference. For example, my grandma Melba had an original spin on Aesop’s famous fable of the ants and the grasshopper.

grasshopperAccording to Aesop, (620-560 B.C. Greek slave and famed storyteller) the ants were busy, as ants usually are, putting food away for the coming cold. The grasshopper preferred to sun himself and fiddle. Of course, when the seasons changed, the grasshopper found himself hungry and without food. He had to beg from the ants. Aesop’s moral is a warning about what happens when you fiddle the summer away.

My grandma Melba ended that same story with a question: “And who do you think kept those ants from dying of boredom all winter long, if not that fiddling grasshopper?”

She was right, of course. 

Same story.

Different truth.

Better yet, telling the story her way allowed her grandchildren to have fun and toil at art without apology–as well as the so-called serious stuff. 

Do you have a different take on an old story? Share it in the comment section.

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Filed under Animal Stories, fairytale, Funny story, stories, The Little Folk, Uncategorized

Yes, We Have No Cinderella Story!

ShoeIn fairytale terms, my Grandma Melba’s life was a Cinderella story. She was the youngest child in a large family—the baby born after most of the other children were grown. Unfortunately, her childhood home was not a happy place. After thirty years of marriage, Melba’s mother couldn’t take the physical abuse any more. One night, she grabbed the baby—my Grandma Melba—and fled.

With money she had inherited from her father, she bought a little house and opened a business in the back rooms, working as a seamstress. Melba grew up, playing amid the yard goods, building castles out of thimbles. She enjoyed helping her mother sew and watching “the fine ladies” who came for their fittings. After they left, she amused her mother by pretending to walk and stand and sit “properly”—the way the fine ladies did. Melba described those years as some of the happiest in her life. Unfortunately, they were few. When she was nine years old, her mother died, and her father didn’t want “the brat back.”

On the afternoon of her mother’s funeral, the family discussed “what to do with her.” She overheard the whole conversation. Times were hard. Nobody wanted another kid. Finally her older sister, already married and with kids of her own, agreed “to take her in” on one condition. She was to get the inheritance that had been left to Melba—the house and money that had finally freed Melba’s mother.

ShoeMelba felt like a servant in her sister’s house. She remembered hard work, second best, and never having a dime to call her own. Then, one day, her prince, my grandfather, arrived, literally riding a white horse. He was the youngest son of ranchers who were known for their fine white horses. 

This is often where we finish telling this story, but there’s more.

To understand my Grandma Melba, you need to know how she felt as a child, and then you need to multiply those feelings by the fact that she never felt accepted by her husband’s family. Never mind that her grandfather had earned fame and fortune on the frontier (it was his money that finally freed her mother) and that one of her brothers was a US Senator. To the her husband’s family, she was forever the skinny girl who used to live in the little house across the street from the sugar factory. She went from one “unwanted” situation to another, and because she was never accepted, she could never stop being the orphan child, the little girl playing amidst the yard goods “looking up” at the fine ladies who came for their fittings. Consequently when she dressed up, it was always dress-up. Pretend. Acting like she belonged.

ShoeNo wonder she got good at it.

The day I bought my first pair of high heels. My mother told me that I had to take them back. I was too young. The proof was in how I wobbled when I walked in them. Grandma Melba watched me trying to negotiate my first, long-legged strut and then proceeded to tell me exactly how to carry it off. To this day, I don’t put on a pair of heels without also assuming several inches of attitude.

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Filed under fairytale, Family Stories, Story Motif, Uncategorized