At the time when the Tuatha De Dannan (a supernatural race of people in Irish mythology) held the sovereignty of Ireland, there reigned in Leinster a king who was remarkably fond of hearing stories. Like the other princes and chieftains of the island, he had a favorite storyteller, who held a large estate from his Majesty, on condition of telling him a new story every night of his life, before he went to sleep. Many indeed were the stories he knew, so that he had already reached a good old age without failing even for a single night in his task; and such was the skill he displayed that whatever cares of state or other annoyances might prey upon the monarch's mind, his storyteller was sure to send him to sleep.
One morning the storyteller arose early, and as his custom was, strolled out into his garden turning over in his mind incidents which he might weave into a story for the king at night. But this morning he found himself quite at fault; after pacing his whole demesne, he returned to his house without being able to think of anything new or strange. He found no difficulty in "there was once a king who had three sons" or "one day the king of all Ireland," but further than that he could not get. At length he went in to breakfast, and found his wife much perplexed at his delay.
"Why don't you come to breakfast, my dear?" said she.
"I have no mind to eat anything," replied the storyteller; "long as I have been in the service of the king of Leinster, I never sat down to breakfast without having a new story ready for the evening, but this morning my mind is quite shut up, and I don't know what to do. I might as well lie down and die at once. I'll be disgraced forever this evening, when the king calls for his storyteller."
Just at this moment the lady looked out of the window.
"Do you see that black thing at the end of the field?" said she.
"I do," replied her husband.
They drew nigh and saw a miserable looking old man lying on the ground with a wooden leg placed beside him.
"Who are you, my good man?" asked the storyteller. “Oh, then, 'tis little matter who I am. I'm a poor, old, lame, decrepit, miserable creature, sitting down here to rest awhile."
"An' what are you doing with that box and dice I see in your hand?"
"I am waiting here to see if anyone will play a game with me," replied the beggar man.
"Play with you! Why, what has a poor old man like you to play for?"
"I have one hundred pieces of gold in this leathern purse," replied the old man.
"You may as well play with him," said the storyteller’s wife; "and perhaps you'll have something to tell the king in the evening."
A smooth stone was placed between them, and upon it, they cast their throws. It was but a little while and the storyteller lost every penny of his money.
"Much good may it do you, friend," said he. "What better hap could I look for, fool that I am!"
"Will you play again?" asked the old man.
"Don't be talking, man: you have all my money."
"Haven't you chariot and horses and hounds?"
"Well, what of them!"
"I'll stake all the money I have against thine."
"Nonsense, man! Do you think for all the money in Ireland, I'd run the risk of seeing my lady tramp home on foot?"
"Maybe you'd win," said the bocough[i].
"Maybe I wouldn't," said the storyteller.
"Play with him, husband," said his wife. "I don't mind walking, if you do, love."
"I never refused you before," said the storyteller, "and I won't do so now.
Down he sat again, and in one throw lost houses, hounds, and chariot.
"Will you play again?" asked the beggar.
"Are you making game of me, man; what else have I to stake?"
"I'll stake all my winnings against your wife,' said the old man.
The storyteller turned away in silence, but his wife stopped him.
"Accept his offer," said she. "This is the third time, and who knows what luck you may have? You'll surely win now."
They played again, and the storyteller lost. No sooner had he done so, than to his sorrow and surprise, his wife went and sat down near the ugly old beggar.
"Is that the way you're leaving me?" said the storyteller.
"Sure, I was won," said she. "You would not cheat the poor man, would you?"
"Have you any more to stake?" asked the old man.
"You know very well I have not," replied the storyteller.
"I'll stake the whole now, wife and all, against your own self," said the old man.
Again, they played, and again the storyteller lost.
"Well! here I am, and what do you want with me?"
"I'll soon let you know," said the old man, and he took from his pocket a long cord and a wand.
"Now," said he to the storyteller, "what kind of animal would you rather be, a deer, a fox, or a hare? You have your choice now, but you may not have it later."
To make a long story short, the storyteller made his choice of a hare; the old man threw the cord round him, struck him with the wand, and lo! a long-eared, frisking hare was skipping and jumping on the green.
But it wasn't for long, who but his wife called the hounds, and set them on him. The hare fled; the dogs followed. Round the field ran a high wall, so that run as he might, he couldn't get out, and mightily diverted were beggar and lady to see him twist and double.
In vain did he take refuge with his wife, she kicked him back again to the hounds, until at length the beggar stopped the hounds, and with a stroke of the wand, panting and breathless, the storyteller stood before them again.
"And how did you like the sport?" said the beggar.
"It might be sport to others," replied the storyteller looking at his wife, "for my part I could well put up with the loss of it."
"Would it be asking too much," he went on to the beggar, "to know who you are at all, or where you come from, or why you take a pleasure in plaguing a poor old man like me?"
"Oh!" replied the stranger, " I'm an odd kind of good-for-little fellow, one day poor, another day rich, but if you wish to know more about me or my habits, come with me and perhaps I may show you more than you would make out if you went alone."
"I'm not my own master to go or stay," said the storyteller, with a sigh.
The stranger put one hand into his wallet and drew out of it before their eyes a well looking middle-aged man, to whom he spoke as follows:
"By all you heard and saw since I put you into my wallet, take charge of this lady and of the carriage and horses, and have them ready for me whenever I want them."
Scarcely had he said these words when all vanished, and the storyteller found himself at the Foxes' Ford, near the castle of Red Hugh O'Donnell. He could see all but none could see him. O'Donnell was in his hall, and heaviness of flesh and weariness of spirit were upon him.
"Go out," said he to his doorkeeper, " and see who or what may be coming."
The doorkeeper went, and what he saw was a lank, grey beggarman; half his sword bared behind his haunch, his two shoes full of cold road-a-wayish water sousing about him, the tips of his two ears out through his old hat, his two shoulders out through his scant tattered cloak, and in his hand a green wand of holly.
"Save you, O Donnell," said the lank grey beggarman.
"And you likewise," said O'Donnell. "Whence come you, and what is your craft?"
"I come from
the outmost stream of earth,
From the glens where the white swans glide,
A night in Islay, a night in Man,
A night on the cold hillside."
"It's the great traveler you are," said O'Donnell. "Maybe you've learnt something on the road."
"I am a juggler," said the lank grey beggarman, "and for five pieces of silver you shall see a trick of mine."
"You shall have them," said O'Donnell; and the lank grey beggarman took three small straws and placed them in his hand.
"The middle one," said he, "I'll blow away; the other two I'll leave."
"Thou canst not do it," said one and all.
But the lank grey beggarman put a finger on either outside straw and, whiff, away he blew the middle one.
"’Tis a good trick," said O'Donnell; and he paid him his five pieces of silver.
"For half the money," said one of the chief's lads, "I'll do the same trick.
"Take him at his word, O'Donnell."
The lad put the three straws on his hand, and a finger on either outside straw and he blew; and what happened but that the fist was blown away with the straw.
"Thou art sore, and thou wilt be sorer," said O'Donnell.
"Six more pieces, O'Donnell, and I'll do another trick for thee," said the lank grey beggarman.
"Six shalt thou have."
"Seest thou my two ears! One I'll move but not t'other."
"’Tis easy to see them, they're big enough, but thou canst never move one ear and not the two together."
The lank grey beggarman put his hand to his ear, and he gave it a pull.
O'Donnell laughed and paid him the six pieces.
"Call that a trick," said the fist-less lad, "Anyone can do that," and so saying, he put up his hand, pulled his ear, and what happened was that he pulled away ear and head.
"Sore thou art, and sorer thou'lt be," said O'Donnell. "Well, O'Donnell," said the lank grey beggarman, strange are the tricks I've shown thee, but I'll show thee a stranger one yet for the same money."
"Thou hast my word for it," said O'Donnell.
With that the lank grey beggarman took a bag from under his armpit, and from out the bag a ball of silk, and he unwound the ball and he flung it slantwise up into the clear blue heavens, and it became a ladder; then he took a hare and placed it upon the thread, and up it ran; again he took out a red-eared hound[ii], and it swiftly ran up after the hare.
"Now," said the lank grey beggarman; "has any one a mind to run after the dog and on the course?"
"I will," said a lad of O'Donnell's.
"Up with you then," said the juggler; "but I warn you if you let my hare be killed, I'll cut off your head when you come down."
The lad ran up the thread and all three soon disappeared. After looking up for a long time, the lank grey beggarman said: "I'm afraid the hound is eating the hare, and that our friend has fallen asleep."
Saying this he began to wind the thread, and down came the lad fast asleep; and down came the red-eared hound and in his mouth the last morsel of the hare.
He struck the lad a stroke with the edge of his sword, and so cast his head off. As for the hound, if he used it no worse, he used it no better.
"It's little I'm pleased, and sore I'm angered," said O'Donnell, "that a hound and a lad should be killed at my court."
"Five pieces of silver twice over for each of them," said the juggler, "and their heads shall be on them as before."
Thou shalt get that," said O'Donnell.
Five pieces, and again five were paid him, and lo! the lad had his head and the hound his. And though they lived to the uttermost end of time, the hound would never touch a hare again, and the lad took good care to keep his eyes open.
Scarcely had the lank grey beggarman done this when he vanished from out their sight, and no one present could say if he had flown through the air or if the earth had swallowed him up.
He moved as wave
tumbling o'er wave
As whirlwind following whirlwind,
As a furious wintry blast,
So swiftly, sprucely, cheerily,
And no stop made
Until he came
To the court of Leinster's King,
He gave a cheery light leap
O'er top of turret,
Of court and city
Of Leinster's King.
Heavy was the flesh and weary the spirit of Leinster's king. 'Twas the hour he was wont to hear a story, but send he might right and left, not a jot of tidings about the storyteller could he get.
"Go to the door," said he to his doorkeeper, "and see if a soul is in sight who may tell me something about my storyteller."
The doorkeeper went, and what he saw was a lank grey beggarman, half his sword bared behind his haunch, his two old shoes full of cold road-a-wayish water sousing about him, the tips of his two ears out through his old hat, his two shoulders out through his scant tattered cloak, and in his hand a three-stringed harp.
"What canst thou do?" said the doorkeeper.
"I can play," said the lank grey beggarman.
"Never fear," added he to the storyteller, "thou shalt see all, and not a man shall see thee."
When the king heard a harper was outside, he bade him in.
"It is I that have the best harpers in the five-fifths of Ireland," said he, and he signed them to play. They did so, and if they played, the lank grey beggarman listened.
Heardst thou ever the like?" said the king.
"Did you ever, O king, hear a cat purring over a bowl of broth, or the buzzing of beetles in the twilight, or a shrill tongued old woman scolding your head off?"
"That I have often," said the king.
"More melodious to me," said the lank grey beggarman, "were the worst of these sounds than the sweetest harping of thy harpers."
When the harpers heard this, they drew their swords and rushed at him, but instead of striking him, their blows fell on each other, and soon not a man but was cracking his neighbor’s skull and getting his own cracked in turn.
When the king saw this, he thought it hard the harpers weren't content with murdering their music but must needs murder each other.
"Hang the fellow who began it all," said he; "and if I can't have a story, let me have peace."
Up came the guards, seized the lank grey beggarman, marched him to the gallows and hanged him high and dry. Back they marched to the hall, and who should they see but the lank grey beggarman seated on a bench with his mouth to a flagon of ale.
Never welcome you in," cried the captain of the guard, "didn't we hang you this minute, and what brings you here?"
"Is it me myself, you mean?
"Who else?" said the captain.
"May your hand turn into a pig's foot with you when you think of tying the rope; why should you speak of hanging me?"
Back they scurried to the gallows, and there hung the king's favorite brother. Back they hurried to the king who had fallen fast asleep.
"Please your Majesty," said the captain, "we hanged that strolling vagabond, but here he is back again as well as ever."
"Hang him again," said the king, and off he went to sleep once more.
They did as they were told, but what happened was that they found the king's chief harper hanging where the lank grey beggarman should have been. The captain of the guard was sorely puzzled.
"Are you wishful to hang me a third time?" said the lank grey beggarman.
"Go where you will;" said the captain, "and as fast as you please if you'll only go far enough. It's trouble enough you've given us already."
"Now you're reasonable," said the beggarman; "and since you've given up trying to hang a stranger because he finds fault with your music, I don't mind telling you that if you go back to the gallows, you'll find your friends sitting on the sward none the worse for what has happened."
As he said these words he vanished; and the storyteller found himself on the spot where they first met, and where his wife still was with the carriage and horses.
"Now," said the lank grey beggarman, "I'll torment you no longer. There's your carriage and your horses, and your money and your wife; do what you please with them."
"For my carriage and my horses and my hounds," said the storyteller, "I thank you; but my wife and my money you may keep."
"No," said the other. "I want neither, and as for your wife, don't think ill of her for what she did, she couldn't help it."
Not help it! Not help kicking me into the mouth of my own hounds! Not help casting me off for the sake of a beggarly old ——-"
"I'm not as beggarly or as old as ye think. I am Angus of the Bruff; many a good turn you've done me with the King of Leinster. This morning my magic told me the difficulty you were in, and I made up my mind to get you out of it. As for your wife there, the power that changed your body changed her mind. Forget and forgive as man and wife should do, and now you have a story for the King of Leinster when he calls for one;" and with that he disappeared.
It's true enough he now had a story fit for a king. From first to last he told all that had befallen him; so long and loud laughed the king that he couldn't go to sleep at all. And he told the storyteller never to trouble for fresh stories, but every night as long as he lived he listened again and he laughed afresh at the tale of the lank grey beggarman.
Celtic Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs, , at sacred-texts.com.
As a storyteller, I love this tale. First, there is a king who loves hearing stories so much that he rewards his favorite teller with a lovely estate (one could only wish!). In return, the storyteller must tell the king a new story every night. In doing so, the king can sleep peacefully, no matter what trials have occurred during the day. Imagine for just a minute how the telling of a story, could eliminate any worries that interrupt our sleep. I imagine a story that catches you from the start but over time grows more complex and slow moving. Perhaps the story is filled with such delightful imagery that you just want to close your eyes to envision it. And once done, you are fast asleep.
But trouble comes because eventually the teller runs out of tales. The storyteller promises the king a new story every night until his death. This could go on for many years, so I can see why this is the king’s favorite teller. Actually, I’m not sure if I could come up with that many new stories. So, I challenged myself to the task. What type of stories would I tell? Mythos, certainly, that is the remarkable stories from mythology, religion, and sacred texts. For me, that would be stories from Greek mythology - Demeter and Persephone, the Fates, Medusa. It would be stories from the world’s wisdom traditions: stories of how Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha, and the Hindu tale of the birth of the world. (Spoiler alert, the world opens from a lotus flower growing from the belly of Vishnu!) It would also include stories from the Bible - Samson, Naomi, Daniel, or the parables Jesus told himself.
Then, I’d move on to sharing folktales with the king. These would be the stories of my ancestors – Celtic tales and stories from the Brothers Grimm. Most of them, you might imagine, are about a wise crone. Some of them are fairy tales filled with magical elements, beings, and the otherworld. These are the stories that make my heart sing. There are 50 stories, more or less. especially if I dig down to the stories I was told as a child.
But as a storyteller, I’m always thinking of the telling. Which ones are “good” stories to tell? Which ones will fit the time, place, and the audience? Which ones impart the meaning that is needed today? Then there are the stories I know that are not mine to tell. They are the stories of other cultures and peoples. They are also stories that are “medicine” told by shamans and elders skilled in healing. Still, they are beyond my knowledge and skill to tell.
Certainly, there are other stories. Stories of our culture and stories of our country. Stories that make us feel uncomfortable and stories that make us feel proud. Some are legends and some are historical. All these stories deserve remembering – the legends of Johnny Appleseed and John Henry, or of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree and Benjamin Franklin flying a kite. It’s the stories that show triumph after adversity that are most important to remember. I envision the Wright Brothers, Helen Keller, and Rosa Parks. Stories of the underground railroad, yes, and of suffragettes on hunger strikes, Japanese internment camps, and Rosie the Riveter. In telling these stories we remember who we are and who we can be. In doing so, there is less chance we will forget Lady Liberty when she welcomes new immigrants to our shores. Broken stories, fragmented stories, stories still being made sense of and excavated from history. Stories we were never taught in school and are needing rediscovery.
That leaves the stories each of us keep within our hearts and memories - times when we learned and grew. I tell only a few of those to audiences - stories about my dad and growing up during the cold war. To be honest, I feel more comfortable telling traditional tales than stories about me. Yet, these stories are important too – to my children and sometimes to history when we live through notable events. Often these memories do not rise to stories and remain as anecdotes. Sometimes they are simple characterizations of the crones in my life. These are the memories of my grandmother that I’d like to pass on.
This is the one that comes to mind today. Alice was my material grandmother. She grew up poor in rural North Carolina. Her husband was off logging while she was left with six children. Alice worked the fields. She grew produce, cared for chickens and cows, cooked, cleaned, cut hair and made clothes for the family. She became "MawMaw" when my sister was born. This woman, who had a 6th grade education, ended each day by reading the Bible. She made beautiful clothes and hats. Her pound cakes were legendary and sold for the most at church raffles. She loved to watch Gorgeous George “wraslin.” Her entertainment was to pick up the party line and listen to her neighbor’s conversations! She went to church for as long as she could, always with perfectly coifed hair, costume jewelry, hat, and gloves. Oh, yes! And she always voted!
She had six grandchildren. My cousins and I always migrated to her house and her laissez-faire style of child raising. I was not her favorite but that was always fine with me. It’s much better to be feral that fussed over. When she was feeling kind, she would take out her false teeth and we’d all laugh together at the sight. When she was irritated, she would threaten to smack us “chaps” with her fly swatter. She had a mean streak that sometimes focused on my mother and father. Mostly, she was quirky, nosy, and upsetting. I remember that she once wanted me to explain birth control to her. I refused! She was supported by her children yet lived in great fear of being sent to the “poor house.” She painted one oil painting of an oak tree that I now have hanging in my den.
That is not a story, I know. It’s more of a portrait tied up with summers in the south: stars, lightening bugs, humidity, the sound of trains on the track, and the smell of an old, old house that was all hers. It was a house she wanted to take with her. There isn’t much meaning there for anyone but me, the memory of a poor, uneducated woman living off the land. It’s the kind of story not worthy of telling even though this teller wishes she could impart a bit of a time and a place that exists no more. It’s a story she is glad to have lived.
So how many stories is that? If I totaled them up it is certainly less than what’s needed to fill the lifetime of the king. The storyteller in our story required a wild and perilous journey to jump start his muse. But is this what I need? Is there ever a chance that I might be story-less, that any of us are truly story-less? Do we really need a story prompt: "there was once a king who had three sons" or "one day the king of all Ireland" did this or that? Nah, all I need is to close my eyes and share what is written upon my heart. That’s all you need to do too. I’m pretty sure at least one of those tales would put even a king to sleep.
"I come from the outmost stream of earth,
From the glens where the white swans glide,
A night in Islay, a night in Man,
A night on the cold hillside."
A good story, well told, is certainly worth hearing again and again.
[i] Bocough or Buckaugh is the name given to a singular class of Irish mendicants, whose character bears some resemblance to that of the Gaberlunzie man of Scotland.
[ii] The red-eared hound is a creature in the otherworld (a magical, liminal place in Celtic mythology).