The Chagford Show is today, which means I will be out of the office/studio for the important business of admiring vintage tractors, vegetable displays, and sheep. This agricultural show, in its 119th year, is one of the best in the West Country (or at least we think so here in Chagford). I'll be back tomorrow with a report on it all. Now let's just hope the rain holds off....
From Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden:
"It seems to me that a materialist view of the universe is reductionist. It makes every kind of experience subservient to the laws of matter. It applies the tenets of the known to the mystery of why we are here at all. It chases away not only the old gods and spirits and half heard whispers in the night; it chases away the mystery of life and being itself. For a materialist, there can be no mystery that will not eventually be made clear in the light of reason and critical intelligence.
"Ultimately, what is in danger of being excluded from the cultural conversation is not the old gods, but the quality of imagination that gave birth to them; an imagination that sees and feels humanity to be part of a living, breathing world with an intelligence that we will never fathom; full of presences and qualities that our ancestors gave names to, but that live on as always even as their names have fallen away. William Wordsworth gives voice to this imaginative faculty in this excerpt from his poem, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey':
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things."
The beautiful bones of Tintern Abbey (pictured here) rise from the banks of the River Wye on Welsh side of the English-Welsh border. The abbey was founded in 1131 for the White Monks of the Cistercian Order, followers of the Rule of St. Benedict, whose silent and austere way of life was devoted to prayer, scholarship, agricultural labor and self-sufficiency.
"Why does the soul love silence?" asks Parker J. Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness. Palmer is a Quaker, a group for whom silence is also an important part of communal prayer. "The deepest answer I know invokes the mystery of where we came from and where we are headed. At birth, we emerged from the Great Silence into a world that constrains the soul; at death we return to the Great Silence where the soul is once again free.
"Our culture is so fearful of the silence of death," writes Parker, "that it worships noise nonstop. In the midst of all that noise, small silences can help us become more comfortable with the Great Silence toward which we are all headed. Small silences bring us 'little deaths,' which, to our surprise, turn out to be deeply fulfilling. For example, as we settle into silence, where our posturing and pushing must cease, we may experience a temporary death of the ego, of that separate sense of self we spend so much time cultivating. But this 'little death,' instead of frightening us, makes us feel more at peace and more at home.
"The Rule of St. Benedict, that ancient guide to the monastic life, includes the admonition to 'keep death before one's eyes daily.' As a young man I found this advice a bit morbid. But the older I get, the more I understand how life-giving this practice can be. As I settle into silence, I draw closer to my own soul, touching a place within me that knows no fear of dying. And the little deaths I experience in silence deepen my appreciation for life -- for the light suffusing the room as I write, for the breeze coming in through the window.
"So silence brings not only little deaths but also little births -- small awakenings to beauty, to vitality, to hope, to life. In silence we may start to intuit that birth and death have much in common. We came from the Great Silence without fear into this world of noise. Perhaps we can return without fear as well, crossing back over knowing that the Great Silence is our first and final home."
Words: The passages quoted above are from Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden (Sounds True Publishing, 2014) and A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life by Parker Palmer (Josey-Bass Publishing, 2009). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The photographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)
"Why is silence important to writers?" Lorraine Berry asked Utah-based writer Terry Tempest Williams in an interview in 2013. "Is silence something that we all, regardless of whether we’re writers or not, need access to? And how do we find that in our increasingly tuned-in, turned-on world?"
"Silence is where we locate our voice," Williams answered, "both as writers and as human beings. In silence, the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin. Silence takes us to an unknown place. It’s not necessarily a place of comfort. For me, the desert holds this space of quiet reflection; it’s erosional, like the landscape itself.
"You also ask why is it important that writers write and not embrace a life of silence. In many ways, we do embrace a lifestyle of silence, inward silence, a howling silence that brings us to our knees and desk each day. All a writer really has is time. Time to think. Time to read. Time to write.
"Time for a writer translates into solitude. In solitude, we create. In solitude, we are read. If we’re lucky, our books create community having been written out of solitude.
"It’s a lovely paradox. It’s the creative tension that I live with: I write to create community, but in order to do so, I am pulled out of community. Solitude is a writer’s communion."
Words: The passage above is from "Terry Tempest Williams: Silence is Where We Locate Our Voice" by Lorraine Berry (Talking Writing, June 17, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from The Continuous Life: Poems by Mark Strand (Knopf, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Down by the River Teign on a hot summer day.
This week, I am feeling the need for quiet, focus, and to find my creative centre again -- so I'm turning to the music of the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, for whom a love of simplicity and silence inspired the musical style he calls tintinabulli.
"On the one hand, silence is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed," the composer explains. "On the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe. And when we speak about silence, we must keep in mind that it has two different wings, so to speak. Silence can be both that which is outside of us and that which is inside a person. The silence of our soul, which isn't even affected by external distractions, is actually more crucial but more difficult to achieve."
Above, Pärt's exquisite "Spiegel im spiegel," performed by Sally Maer (cello) and Sally Whitwell (piano), accompanied by the very beautiful art of American painter Jeanie Tomanek.
Below, Pärt's "Summa," performed by The Carducci Quartet: Matthew Denton (violin), Michelle Fleming (violin), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola), and Emma Denton (cello).
Below, an English-language piece by Pärt: "My Heart's in the Highlands," performed by Danish soprano Elsa Torp and English organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, recorded for Pärt’s Triodion CD (2003). The lyrics come a Robert Burns poem written in 1789.
"Is it possible to make a living by simply watching light?" asks American writer Terry Tempest Williams. "Monet did. Vermeer did. I believe Vincent did too. They painted light in order to witness the dance between revelation and concealment, exposure and darkness. Perhaps this is what I desire most, to sit and watch the shifting shadows cross the cliff face of sandstone or simply to walk parallel with a path of liquid light called the Colorado River....This living would include becoming a caretaker of silence, a connoisseur of stillness, a listener of wind where each dialect is not only heard but understood."
For more Arvo Pärt this morning, I recommend Even if I Lose Everything, a short film on the composer by Dorian Supine. The art above is: "Wingspan" and "Wild Country" by Jeanie Tomanek. The Terry Tempest Williams quote is from her excellent essay collection Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Pantheon, 2001).
While the world of human affairs goes on its noisy, alarming way, I return again and again to the woods and hills behind my studio. To moss. To mud. To the dark, damp mulch of leaves carpeting the forest floor. To the strength of granite and the swift ways of water. To the prickly beauty of holly and gorse, and the slow, silent patience of seed and bulb. To the resurrection of bracken, grown so tall that the trails are half-hidden beneath it.
I keep leaving my desk, Tilly close at my heels, crossing from the imaginary landscapes of writing or reading to a world I can touch, and smell, and taste: to the old stone wall at the edge of the treeline, and pathways trodden by wild ponies and sheep. To streams filled with rain, bogs thick with mud, brambles that snag my skirts and scratch my shins. To discomfort. To pain. To surprise. To joy. To the things that are real.
An occupational hazard for the solitary writer is to live in the realm of the mind alone (or the shadowlands of the Internet), and not in the body, the senses, the wild rhythms of the local groundscape we each inhabit, whether rural or urban. For many of us in the fantasy field, the wild world is the very place that we seek to conjure and enter through stories and paintings -- and so we must not neglect our relationship with the elemental wild around us. In our kind of work, "magic" is not a metaphor for gaining power, control, or authority, but for our numinous connection with natural world, and our nonhuman neighhbors. It is wild work. It is soul work. And we need wild stories right now, more than ever.
"I have a sense," writes Kate Bernheimer "that a proliferation of magical stories, especially fairy tales, is correlated to a growing human awareness of separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent. The violence, suffering, and beauty are shared. Those drawn to fairy tales, perhaps, wish for a world that 'might live forever.' My work as a preservationist of fairy tales is entwined with all kinds of extinction."
"Writing," says Sylvia Linsteadt, "is my way into the heart of the world -- its wildness, its strange magic, its beauty, its terrors, its sadness, its joy. Metaphor (a favorite of mine) is an act of shape-shifting, of remembering that each thing is hitched to the next in the great cyclical transformation of energy, from sun to seed to doe to cougar and back to worm; the line between ourselves and the wild world is thin indeed. Writing (thick with metaphor) is the means through which I can praise the wild mystery of this world, and also explore its unseen realms -- the realms inside the hearts of bears and granite stones and buckeye trees; the lands just the other side of the moon and the fog, the lives of men and women long ago or just around the corner. If I were buckeye tree, then writing would be the buckeyes that fruit at the ends of my limbs come late August. In other words, writing is the thing made in me from all the waters and winds and soils and stories that come through my five senses (or six), and it feels very inevitable, like the buckeyes at the end of summer.
"Also, I have always been an avid reader," Sylvia continues; "especially as a child I devoured books that told of magical worlds and lands, lady-knights and healers, the everyday peasant life of Old Europe (especially Scotland & Ireland), talking animals, caravans of camel nomads, druids, long adventures on horseback. Such books literally shaped and changed my life. They informed the way I see the world today -- as a place much more mysterious and full of wild magics than we tend to believe, where everything is alive and everything speaks. So I write because writing is even better than reading in the sense that you really get to go to those places in your imagination, and give them to other people. The stories we tell ourselves and each other form the world in which we live."
Our task, as David Abram sees is, "is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps."
"Storytellers ought not to be too tame," Ben Okri agrees. "They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise. If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys."
Jay Griffiths adds: "What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied. It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary."
Words: The passage by Sylvia Linsteadt is from an interview by Asia Sular (Woolgathering & Wildcrafting, Sept. 2014), which I recommend reading in full. Kate Bernheimer's quote is from the Introduction to her anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin, 2010); Ben Okri's quote is from his essay collection A Way of Being Free (W&N, 1997); Jay Griffith's quote is from Wild: An Elemental Journey (Penguin, 2007). All three books are recommded. All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: My quiet hillside studio on a rainy day -- with the hound, works-in-progress, old fairy tale books, and bits of the wild slipping in from the woods.
According to one old legend, cats were the only creatures on earth who were not made by God at the time of Creation. When God covered the world with water, and Noah set his ark afloat, the ark became infested with rats eating up the stores of food. Noah prayed for a miracle, and a pair of cats sprang to life from the mouths of the lion and lioness. They set to work, and quickly dispatched all the rats -- but for the original two. As their reward, when the boat reached dry land the cats walked at the head of the great procession of Noah's animals. Which is why, the legend concludes, all cats are proud, to this very day.
In the earliest feline images found on cave walls and carved out of stone, wildcats are companions and guardians to the Great Goddess -- often flanking a mother goddess figure in the act of giving birth. Such imagery has been found in ancient sites across Europe, Africa, India and the Middle East. In China the lion, Shih, is one of the four principal animal protectors -- associated with rain, guardian of the dead and their living descendants. In the New World, evidence of wildcat cults is found across Central and South America, where the jaguar was the familiar of shamans and a powerful totemic animal. Ai apaec of the Mochica people of Peru was a much-revered feline god, pictured in the shape of a wrinkle-faced old man with long fangs and cat whiskers. A hauntingly beautiful wood carving of a kneeling figure with the head of a cat (pictured on the right) was found just off the Florida coast -- remarkably well preserved, the image dates back over three thousand years.
We find the first evidence of the wildcat's small cousin, Felis catus, in ancient Egypt -- where the beasts were so sacred that any man who killed one was condemned to death. When a house cat died, the entire family shaved its eyebrows as a sign of grief; and mummified cats (along with tiny mummified mice) have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the 1st century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus reported the fate of a hapless Roman who'd caused the death of a cat:
"The populace crowded to the house of the Roman who had committed the 'murder'; and neither the efforts of the magistrates sent by the King to protect him nor the universal fear inspired by the might of Rome could avail to save the man's life, though what he had done was admitted to be accidental. This is not an incident which I report from hearsay, but something I saw myself during my sojourn in Egypt."
Mau was the Egyptian word for cat -- both an imitation of its speech, and a mother-syllable. Bast, the Cat-mother, was a goddess whose cult began in the delta city of Bubastis and eventually covered all of Egypt with the rise of the XXII Dynasty. Unlike the fierce lion-headed Sekmet from earlier Egyptian myth, Bast embodied the benevolent aspects of cats: fertility, sexuality, love and life-giving heat. Bronzes from the period show the goddess in her feline form (seated and wearing earrings), as well as in human form with the head of a cat, kittens at her feet. The twice-annual Festivals of Bast, as described by Herodotus, were carnivals of music, dancing, wine-drinking, love-making and religious ecstasy -- dedicated to Bast in her aspect as Mistress of love and the sensual pleasures.
Numerous legends tell of human beings who transform into the shape of a cat. Although some male wizards, magicians and shamans were gifted with this power, more commonly the shapeshifter was a woman, and a witch. Cats (along with bats, owls and toads) were believed to be witches' companions who aided in spells and carried messages to the Devil. During the tragically widespread witch trials of 16th and 17th century Europe, feline "familiars" were burned, hung, and drowned alongside their mistresses. A witch, it was said, could shape-shift into cat form whenever the moon was full. Good men were advised to lay consecrated salt on their doorstep, lest witches compel them to join in their revels.
When we turn from folklore to fairy tales, shape-shifting cats are viewed as less sinister creatures. In "The White Cat," a popular French fairy tale by Madame d'Aulnoy, the three sons of a king are sent upon a series of quests. The youngest son meets a lovely white cat, the queen of an enchanted castle filled with cat-servants and courtiers. She helps the prince with his tasks, and over time he falls in love with her. In the end, she asks him to cut off her head; sadly, the young prince obeys her command. This breaks the spell, and the cat assumes her true shape as a human princess. (For a thoroughly modern rendition of the tale, I recommend Holly Black's YA novel The White Cat.)
In "Kip the Enchanted Cat," from Russia, a mother cat and her kitten are actually human beings under a fairy's curse. The kitten is raised with a human princess and eventually aids her with several magical tasks, leading to the spell's undoing and a double wedding with two suitable princes. (This tale, about women's friendships, was a particular favorite of mine as a child.)
"The Cat Bride" is a story of animal-transformation in reverse: a house cat becomes the human bride of a good and gentle man who allows the gossip of neighbors to undermine his marital contentment. (I recommend Jane Yolen's lovely retelling in her story collection Dream Weaver.)
The Russian fairy tale "Silvershod" is the story of a poor man, a child, her beloved cat Moura, and a mysterious stag who sheds jewels in the snow. The fairy tale ends oddly, for the jewels bring prosperity but the dear little cat vanishes with the stag. In a bittersweet poem inspired by the fairy tale, Ellen Steiber writes:
In the north country
a child wakes in a soft feather bed
a red-brown cat
whose nose was cold against her neck.
In the north country
a child sits in a tall, gabled house
and remembers a pale gray stag
with a silver hoof
who gave and took
what was most precious.
The best known fairy tale cat of them all, of course, is that clever, bold rascal called "Puss-in-Boots." The story as we know it now comes from the French version penned by Charles Perrault in the 17th century; in earlier versions -- such as those of Straparola and Basile in Italy -- Puss is just as wily, but hasn't yet taken to wearing his famous boots. In a Scandinavian version, "Lord Peter," our plotting Puss is female, and is really a princess under a troll's evil curse -- but in most tales, Puss is a cat, nothing more, albeit a very magical cat. (The bawdiest and best retelling, in my opinion, is Angela Carter's, in The Bloody Chamber.)
In additional to Puss-in-Boots and other memorable rogues from folklore and fairy tales, cats stalk through the pages of books beloved by children and adults alike. Who could forget the grinning Cheshire Cat met by Alice in Wonderland, or poor hungry Simpkin in Beatrix Potter's The Tailer of Gloucester?
Or Rudyard Kipling's The Cat Who Walks by Himself, padding his way through the Just So Stories? Or Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussy Cat, setting to sea in their pea-green boat?
Or T.S. Eliot's dashing Growltiger in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats? Or Mehitabel, friend to Archy the cockroach, in the poems of Don Marquis? Or the wily cats in Nicholas Stuart Gray's classic children's stories: Grimbold's Other World, The Stone Cage and Mainly in Moonlight? Or, more recently, the fabulous felines in A Circle of Cats and The Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint, illustrated by Charles Vess?
In 1817, the American author Washington Irving paid a visit to Scottish author and folklorist Sir Walter Scott. The following comes from Irving's account of that meeting, published in 1835:
"The evening passed delightfully in a quaint-looking apartment, half-study, half-drawing room. Scott read several passages from the old romance of Arthur, with a fine deep sonorous voice, and a gravity of tone that seemed to me to suit the antiquated, black-letter volume. It was a treat to hear such a work, read by such a person, and in such place; and his appearance as he sat reading, in a large armed chair, with his favorite hound Maida at his feet, and surrounded by books and relics, and border trophies, would have formed an admirable and most characteristic picture. While Scott was reading, the sage grimalkin [Scott's cat] had taken his seat in a chair by the fire, and remained with fixed eye and grave demeanor, as if listening to the reader. I observed to Scott that his cat seemed to have a black-letter taste in literature.
"'Ah,' said he, 'these cats are very mysterious kind of folk. There is always more passing in their minds than we are aware of. It comes no doubt from their being so familiar with witches and warlocks.' He went on to tell a little story about a gude man who was returning to his cottage one night, when, in a lonely out-of-the-way place, he met with a funeral coffin covered with a black velvet pall. The worthy man, astonished and half frightened at so strange a pageant, hastened home and told what he had seen to his wife and children. Scarce had he finished, when a great black cat that sat by the fire raised himself up, exclaimed, 'Then I am king of the cats!' and vanished up the chimney. The funeral seen by the gude man was one of the cat dynasty. "'Our grimalkin here,' added Scott, 'sometimes reminds me of the story, by the airs of sovereignty which he assumes; and I am apt to treat him with respect from the idea he may be a great prince incognito, and may some time or other come to the throne."
Any one of the cats padding through our lives each day may be a future King or Queen of the Cats, just waiting for the call to claim their crown. They certainly seem to think so themselves. They know they are creatures of magic.
The paintings and drawings above are by Arthur Rackham, Virginia Lee, Gwen John, Adrienne Ségur, Ruth Sanderson, Omar Rayyan, Sir John Tenniel, Beatrix Potter, Chris Dunn, Charles Vess, Lisbeth Zwerger, David Wyatt, and Iga Moore. The art is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artists and authors.
I'm out of the studio today due to health care issues, but will be back tomorrow (Thursday). In the meantime, I recommend this for your morning reading: "The Supple Deer" by the brilliant American poet Jane Hirschfield.
The illustration above, for Madame D'Aulnoy's classic fairy tale "The White Deer," is by the French book artist Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981) -- best known to English-language readers as the illustrator of The Golden Book of Fairy Tales.
“I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives."
- Barry Lopez (About This Life)
"I come from a long line of tellers: mesemondok, old Hungarian women who tell while sitting on wooden chairs with their plastic pocketbooks on their laps, their knees apart, their skirts touching the ground...and cuentistas, old Latina women who stand, robust of breast, hips wide, and cry out the story ranchera style. Both clans storytell in the plain voice of women who have lived blood and babies, bread and bones. For them, story is a medicine which strengthens and arights the individual and the community."
- Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Women Who Run With the Wolves)
"Make up a story.
"Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon's hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly -- once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul."
The great folklorist Francis James Child defined what he called the “popular ballad” as a form of ancient folk poetry, composed anonymously within the oral tradition, bearing the clear stamp of the preliterate peoples of the British Isles. Ballads, which are stories in narrative verse, are related to folktales, romances, and sagas, with which they sometimes share themes, plots, and characters (such as Robin Hood). No one knows how old the oldest are. It’s believed that they are ancient indeed -- and yet we have few historical records of them older than the sixteenth century. Little is known for certain about how the oldest ballads would have been performed -- but most likely they were recited, chanted, or sung without instrumentation. Right up to the twentieth century, ballads were traditionally sung a cappella, although today it is common to hear them accompanied by harp, guitar, fiddle, and other instruments.
Why do we have so few historical records? Because until relatively recently, they weren’t considered important enough to write down. With the rise of literacy, the songs and poems of Britian’s great oral tradition began to fall out of favor -- and ballads that had once been popular among all classes of society were now deemed primitive, pagan, the province of unlettered country folk. Because of this, few attempts were made to preserve ballads prior to the seventeenth century, and thus many were lost or were passed down through the years in fragmentary form. In the eighteenth century, ballad collection was still haphazard and sporadic, and the fruits of such labor were little regarded in academic circles. Universities did not yet consider folklore a respectable area of study, so manuscript collections remained in private hands, easily lost and forgotten.
In 1765, Bishop Thomas Percy came across one manuscript full of fine old ballads being used to light a kitchen fire. He saved them from the flames and published them in his book, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Percy’s book was a great success. It was much admired by such English Romantic writers as Coleridge, Southey, Shelley, and Keats, as well as the German Romantics Goethe, Tieck, and Novalis, and sparked much literary interest in the songs and legends of bygone days. Another fan of Percy’s book was the novelist Sir Walter Scott, who collected the ballads of his native Scotland in the early nineteenth century. Scott sat at the center of a circle of poets and antiquarians who were devotees (and romanticizers) of the ancient history of the British Isles. This group did much to popularize the old songs and tales of Scotland, England, and Ireland -- but still no British university would sponsor a proper academic collection of the country’s ballads.
That job fell to an American scholar, Francis James Child of Harvard University, who was urged to take on the subject by his frustrated British colleagues. Child hesitated, somewhat daunted by the immensity of the job at hand, and then he plunged in, devoting the rest of his life to the study of ballads. Beginning in the 1870s, Child set out to track down every extant version of every genuine popular ballad in the English and Scottish traditions. He limited himself to England and Scotland because the ballads of these countries overlapped, whereas Irish ballads were a separate tradition, requiring a depth of knowledge of Ireland’s language and history he didn’t possess. His goal was to publish the collected ballads with notes tracing their histories, relating them to songs and tales to be found in folklore the world over. The result of this remarkable labor was The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898. It’s a work that’s still widely used today, revered by scholars and musicians alike.
The life of the man behind these famous books is as interesting as the ballads he loved. Born the son of a sailmaker, Child grew up on the docks of Boston harbor -- until his aptitude for learning brought him to the attention of a distinguished Cambridge scholar. The boy was encouraged to transfer from his working-class school to Boston’s Latin School, after which he was sponsored at Harvard, where he graduated at the top of his class. Except for two years of study abroad, Child spent the rest of his life at Harvard, rising to become the first chairman of the newly created department of English. He built his substantial reputation on groundbreaking studies of Chaucer and Spenser, but he also had an abiding love for philology, ancient poetry, folklore, and fairy tales. The latter interests had been whetted during the two years Child spent in Germany, where he’d been exposed to the work of the folklore enthusiasts of the Heidelberg Circle of scholars, which included folk song collectors Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, and the remarkable Brothers Grimm. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, noted Child’s friend and colleague G. L. Kittredge, “may even, in a very real sense, be regarded as the fruit of these years in Germany. Throughout his life he kept pictures of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm on the mantel over his study fireplace.”
Child was a textual scholar rather than a field collector, and he put his massive ballad compilation together by seeking out every manuscript copy of ballad material he could lay his hands on, with the help of a small army of fellow scholars searching out songs and fragments of songs throughout the British Isles. Another reason he depended on manuscripts rather than the memories of folk musicians was that the British popular ballad, in his view, was no longer a living tradition. The ballads he sought were the ancient ones -- not the “broadside ballads” that dominated the nineteenth-century folk musician’s repertoire. Broadsheet ballads were authored song lyrics designed to fit traditional tunes, cheaply printed and sold for pennies on street corners from the sixteenth century onward. These were contemporary compositions, rather than ancient poetry from the oral tradition -- though sometimes broadside ballads mimicked the language of much older songs, and determining which was which was a problem Professor Child was both intrigued and vexed by.
To the dismay of this meticulous scholar, in the absence of clear historical records he was often forced to depend on textual clues and his own best judgment. Fortunately, that judgment was finely honed by his fluency in archaic languages, and his extraordinary knowledge of folklore traditions the world over. He chose, he explained in a letter to a friend, to err on the side of inclusiveness. Where he had lingering doubts about the authenticity of a song variant, he was apt to include it anyway, along with notes outlining his reservations. His task was greatly complicated by the fact that the ballads of Britain had been so badly recorded and preserved compared with those of other countries, such as Denmark. “The ballads should have been collected as early as 1600,” he noted sadly; “then there would have been such a nice crop; the aftermath is very weedy.” Another complication was that ballads written down and published from the eighteenth century onward had been edited, censored, or “improved” by folklore enthusiasts who were literary men, romantics rather than rigorous academics. The prime example of this was Percy’s famous Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Child and other folklorists suspected that Percy had altered the text of ballads to suit the literary tastes of his day -- particularly as Percy would not allow an examination of the ballad manuscript in his possession. Working with British scholar F. J. Furnivall, Child was instrumental in persuading Percy’s descendants to finally release this manuscript, which did ideed confirm that Percy had edited and “improved” the original ballads.
Sifting through the mountain of material he collected, sniffing out alterations and forgeries, Child amassed a group of 305 songs with their roots in the oral tradition, along with variants of each song, sometimes in dozens of alternate versions. The final volume of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was completed the year of Child’s death, but he died before writing the book’s introduction, which would have explained his method of selection and given us an overview of his work. Yet even without this, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was hailed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic and became a cornerstone of modern folklore scholarship. In addition, Child was instrumental in establishing the American Folklore Society, serving as its first president from 1888 to 1889. But sadly, Child did not live to see that movement flower in subsequent years, and he died doubting his work had relevance to a modern age. “If he’d lived just a little longer,” says Mark F. Heiman of Loomis House, which published a handsome new edition of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, “he would have seen the golden age of the ballad collector and folklorist. He would have seen how important his life’s work really was.”
Child’s work went on to inspire a whole new generation of folklorists, men and women who weren’t quite so convinced that the oral tradition was irretrievably dead and gone. One of them was Cecil Sharp, who began collecting English folk songs and dance tunes in the early years of the twentieth century. Sharp was a trained musician, and unlike Child he was also interested in preserving the music of the ballad tradition rather than viewing ballads primarily as poetry. He noted that the Child ballads were rarely part of the repertoire of the elderly singers he listened to in the countryside; they’d been replaced by broadside ballads and other more recent songs. Sharp wondered if the older ballads might have survived among the British and Scottish settlers in America, particularly among the descendants of settlers in isolated mountain regions, where “pennysheets” of modern ballads would not have been available. Between 1914 and 1918, Sharp made two extensive trips through the Appalachian Mountains, collecting over a thousand songs with the aid of his secretary, Maud Karpeles. Sharp and Karpeles discovered that many of the Child ballads were indeed still known and performed in Appalachia, although sometimes the titles and lyrics had changed somewhat in this new setting. Sharp published these ballads in his now-classic English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, which in turn inspired new folklore studies and new collection efforts throughout the United States.
Despite the keen interest of folklorists, ballads remained a specialized interest for much of the twentieth century, until the huge folk music revival of the 1960s and ’70s. In those years, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and other popular singers recorded ballads from the Child collections, and a Celtic music revival exploded across the British Isles, Brittany, and America. Folk-rock bands like Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span updated the ballads for a new generation, while singers like Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Frankie Armstrong, Jean Redpath, and June Tabor created an audience for traditional music played in more traditional ways.
Today, that revival is still going strong, with Child ballads performed by Jon Boden, Iona Fyfe, Fay Hield, Sam Lee, Malinky, Loreena McKennit, Jim Moray, Karine Polwart, Kate Rusby, and many, many others. (You'll find an online discography here). I particularly recommend Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer's Child Ballads album, and Jon Boden's Folk Song A Day site. To dig further into this subject, you'll find a lot of good material in the digital archives of the English Folk Song & Dance Society. To read about the ways the Child ballads have influenced fantasy literature and comics, go here.
I periodically turn to Child Ballads for our "Monday Tunes," not only because I love them, but because they are full of stories that have also inspired other forms of mythic art, from fantasy novels to poetry and comics. The songs I've chosen to play today are ones that haven't yet been featured on Myth & Moor, but of course there are many, many others. If you'd like further recommendations, go here for previous ballad-related posts.
Above: "Orfeo" (Child Ballad #19) performed by the Scottish folk band Malinky, based in Edinburg. The song is from their lovely new album Handsel (2019).
Below: "The Forester" (Child Ballad #110), performed by Malinky, also from the new album.
Above: "Lady Diamond" (Child Ballad #269) performed by Scottish singer and harpist Rachel Newton. The song appeared on her solo album The Shadow Side (2012).
Below: "Edward" (Child Ballad #13) performed by the Scottish folk band Old Blind Dogs, from Aberdeen. The song appeared on their seventh album, The World's Room (1999).
Above: "The Gardener" (Child Ballad #219) performed by the great English folk singer June Tabor. The song appeared on her solo album A Quiet Eye (2000).
Below: "The Cruel Mother" (Child Ballad #20) performed by Scottish singer Fiona Hunter (from Malinky). The song appeared on her first solo album Fiona Hunter (2014).
Above: The Dowie Dens of Yarrow" (Child Ballad #214) performed by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart, based in Edinburgh. The song appeared on her third solo album Fairest Floo'er (2007).
Below: "Lord Baker" (Child Ballad #53) performed by Susan McKeown, a Dublin-born singer based in New York City. The song appeared on her solo album Lowlands (200).
Art: Illustrations for Sir Orfeo (a Middle English narrative poem related to the ballad "King Orfeo") and Thorn Rose by British book artist Errol le Cain (1941-1989).