Preiddeu Annwn: Get in Loser, We’re Fighting the Otherworld

So, how are we all feeling about March? Are you enjoying the experience being part of a global historical event? No, me neither. Thus far 2020 in Australia has been a rollercoaster of drought, bushfires, floods and Coronavirus. Frankly I think we should all get our money back or have 2020 traded in for a year in better condition. It’s been hard to keep up my motivation with the current project, but who else is going to bring you opinions about esoteric Arthuriana in this time of crisis?

Preiddeu Annwn: The Spoils of Annwn is a poem from the fourteenth century Welsh text Llyfr Taliesin. I am using Sarah Higley’s translation from the University of Rochester’s Camelot Project and given the obscurity of the poem’s phrasing, I am also leaning on her analysis of what it is all about. I understand there is another, incomplete translation by Robert Graves in The White Goddess, so you may have encountered this poem before in one incarnation or another.

To clarify: Annwn is the Welsh Otherworld, ruled by Gwyn ap Nudd in Arthurian tradition. The poem also references Pwyll and Pryderi, who are father and son, kings of Dyfed. Pwyll makes a cameo in ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’, where he is a member of Arthur’s court. He is as terrible a husband as I imagine Culhwch probably was but is also a close ally to Arawn, the other king of the Otherworld in Welsh mythology. Pryderi is Pwyll’s son. He is killed by the vicious scheming of the magician Gwydion, who is responsible for a lot of things that are wrong with the world, such as that one time he created a woman out of flowers because his beloved nephew needed a bespoke wife and was shocked and appalled when the woman in question showed a mind of her own.

There are a lot of men in mythology that we could all do without, honestly.

Preiddeu Annwn begins by praising the Lord (pretty safe to assume this is the Christian God) whose sovereignty extends across the world. We then take a sharp detour to the Mound Fortress, prison of Gweir ‘throughout the account of Pwyll and Pryderi’. Gweir is described as singing bitterly ‘before the spoils of Annwfyn’ – presumably a reference to great treasures. The poem then continues ‘Three fullnesses of Prydwen/ we went into it/ Except seven/ none rose up/ from the Fortress of the Mound’. It sounds like this is referring to a raid or battle, one that cost many lives.

The poem then diverges into a little self-congratulatory wonder at its own brilliance. “I was honoured in praise./ Song was heard/ in the Four-Peaked Fortress…My poetry/ from the cauldron/ it was uttered./ From the breath of nine maidens/ it was kindled,” the poet declares. The cauldron, though, is a fairly potent symbol in Welsh mythology, and the poem is quick to tie literary allusion to mythology. ‘The cauldron of the chief of Annwfyn,’ we are told, ‘what is its fashion?/ A dark ridge around its border and pearls./ It does not boil the food of a coward,/ it has not been destined.’ Does that sound familiar? It should. Arthur stole a cauldron with the same properties in ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’, only it belonged to Diwrnach Wyddel in that story. We are told that the ‘sword of Lleawch’ has been lifted against it (meaning, I assume, that it was seized by Lleawch) and that it was left in the keeping of Lleminawe. And we are told, once again, that only seven returned from ‘the Fortress of Mead-Drunkenness’. It would seem that this battle went quite differently from the one in ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’.

I am honoured in praise,’ the poem continues, ‘song is heard/ in the Fortress of Four-Peaks,/ isle of the strong door…Three fullness of Prydwen/ we went on the sea./ Except seven none rose up/ from the Fortress of Hardness.’ For all these different names, it sounds like the same fortress, maybe on a remote island. There is a history of Otherworldly islands in Celtic mythology.

From here the poet starts taking things more personally:‘I merit not the Lord’s/ little men of letters./ Beyond the Glass Fortress they did not see/ the valor of Arthur,’ and the poem continues to say that six thousand men stood upon the wall. But only seven rose up ‘from the Fortress of Guts’. Well, that’s explicit.

Little men’ are referenced again. The footnotes to the translation clarifies this as a reference, and quite obviously an attack upon, a group of monks. The footnotes also theorise that the poem isn’t really about Arthur at all, instead being an intricate metaphor about poetic composition. Given the number of verses dedicated to other people’s perceived failings, this seems a reasonable stance – the final verses don’t reference Arthur at all, descending into a somewhat vitriolic tirade against monks who ‘pack together like young wolves’ and who ‘do not know when midnight and dawn divide’.

Over and over again, though, the poem circles back around to Arthur’s men and the seven who survived out of six thousand. There is something rather dreadful about that repetition, that consistent reminder of a battle so vicious that only seven warriors made it out alive. As with so many Arthurian legends, the power of it is in the obscurity, something great and terrible half-seen as if through a mist.

Arthur brought a battle against the Otherworld, and it seems he won, but – again, as with so many of the legends – only just. That lucky streak will run out on him one of these days.

Take care everyone, wherever you are in the world, as we head into the unknown of April. Come chat if you want to. We live in very strange times, but that’s no reason to face this alone.


How Culhwch Won Olwen: The Family Reunion King Arthur Never Asked For

How Culhwch Won Olwen’ is from the Mabinogion, a collection of early Welsh prose stories originally collected in the 12th and 13th centuries and later translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 19th century. This story is one of the earliest Arthurian legends and presents quite a different court from what is familiar. Also, it introduces us to King Arthur’s big embarrassing family.

Cilydd, son of Celyddon Wledig, and his wife Goleuddydd are expecting their first child when Goleuddydd experiences that well-known medical phenomenon, pregnancy-induced madness, and takes off into the wilderness. She gives birth in a pig-run, causing her son to be named Culhwch, which literally means ‘pig-run’ (or at least, it does in a specific interpretation). The child is given to foster parents and Goleuddydd, knowing herself to be dying, instructs her husband not to marry again until a two-headed briar grows on her grave. Which sounds very mystical, only her next step is to commission her chaplain to keep her grave cleared so that no briar will grow there at all.

Seven years later, the chaplain slips up and Cilydd gets the all-clear to marry again, which just leaves the task of finding an appropriate bride. Cilydd’s councillors have a woman in mind already. Unfortunately she’s married to King Doged, but that’s only a problem until they kill him, and bingo, Cilydd has a new queen! The lady promptly finds an old woman to dish the dirt on her new husband. “Hag, for God’s sake will you answer my question?” she demands with understandable force. “Where are the children of the man who violently abducted me?” In other words, is she going to get an heir out of this rotten deal? The old woman at first toes the official line and tells her that Cilydd has no child, but when she sees the queen’s sharp displeasure, admits that Cilydd has a son.

The new queen wants Cilydd’s boy to marry her own daughter, which is a logical way to cement her own political position even if it is a tad incestuous from a modern perspective, but Culhwch protests that he is not yet old enough to marry and his stepmother retaliates by declaring he won’t marry at all until he earns the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr. There seems to be some magical emphasis on that statement, because that’s it, Culhwch is in love with a girl he’s never met.

Cilydd is unconcerned about his son’s newfound obsession.“Arthur is your cousin,” he tells Culhwch. “Go to Arthur to have your hair trimmed, and ask him for that as your gift.” This refers to a tradition by which Arthur will cut Culhwch’s hair as recognition of their familial connection and if he is accepted in this way, Culhwch will be able to ask Arthur for a gift of some kind. Thus, kitted out as the prince he is, Culhwch leaves for Arthur’s court.

The gatekeeper flatly refuses to allow him inside. There is a banquet taking place and no one save for princes and craftsmen offering their services will be seeing the king tonight. The gatekeeper offers Culhwch comfortable lodgings elsewhere, promising ‘a woman to sleep with you and songs to entertain you’, but Culhwch basically threatens to scream the place down if he doesn’t get to see Arthur himself. “And all the women in this court that are pregnant shall miscarry,” Culhwch continues vindictively, “and those that are not, their wombs shall become heavy within them so that they shall never be with child from this day forth.” That’s super specific and super uncomfortable!  

The gatekeeper, Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr, goes to talk to Arthur. What he actually says is, “I never in my life saw a man as handsome as the one who is at the entrance to the gate this very moment”, which gets Arthur’s attention. “We are noblemen as long as others seek us out,” Arthur says. “The greater the gifts we bestow, the greater will be our nobility and our fame and our honour.” This sentence is striking to me personally because it is a summary of what I perceive Arthur to be; an idealised monarch with open hands and open doors. When Culhwch rides through Arthur’s gate asking for a gift, Arthur agrees to give it, though prudently he first lists his exceptions: he will not be giving away his ship, his mantle, his sword Caledfwlch, his spear Rhongomyniad, his shield Wynebgwrthucher, Carnwennan his dagger or Gwenhwyfar his wife. I realise this is a list of treasured possessions and thus misogynistic as hell, but I do like Gwenhwyfar being listed among all those weapons. Fortunately Culhwch does not want any of these things. He asks for Arthur to cut his hair and when the king brings a comb and shears to perform this ritual, he recognise Culhwch as being of his family.  

There follows a whacking great paragraph listing what appears to be every significant member of Arthur’s court. I shall not be repeating it, but in the middle of all that reference is made to a knight named Gormant son of Rica, Arthur’s brother on his mother’s side, the son of the chief elder of Cornwall – which, if you try to make it work with Malory’s account of Igraine and Uther’s marriage, fits in startlingly well. Arthur’s mother is also credited with a number of brothers – Llygadrudd Emys,  Gwrfoddw Hen, Gwair Gwrhyd Enwir and Gwair Gwyn Baladr – and Gwenhwyfar is given a sister, Gwenhwyfach. None of whom are at all relevant to this story! But discovering this sort of the detail is for me the whole point of slogging through dozens of knights and their entire genealogical history, and sharing is caring.

Arthur responds to Culhwch’s explanation by saying he’s never heard of this girl Olwen but whatever, he’ll send messengers to take a look. After a year of searching, they return empty-handed and Culhwch threatens to leave, taking Arthur’s honour with him. Got to say, he’s coming across as the touchy sort. At this point a knight named Cai intervenes. He has many magical abilities – the ability to hold his breath underwater for nine days and nine nights, to go without sleep for the same length of time, to inflict wounds that no one can heal, to stand as tall as a tree when he chooses and to give off such heat that whatever he holds will stay dry in a downpour. He also comes as a matched set with Bedwyr, who is noted as the handsomest man in the realm apart from Arthur himself and Drych son of Cibddar. Bedwyr is one-handed but still one of the most formidable warriors in the court. With these as the first volunteers for the quest to find Olwen, Arthur quickly recruits Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd, who knows all languages, and Gwalchmai son of Gwyar, who has never returned from a journey without the thing he went to find, and Menw son of Teirgwaedd, who can cast spells to conceal them from dangerous eyes.

The warriors set off together to seek the elusive Olwen. What they find is an enormous fort and a gloomy shepherd seated on a hill nearby. The knights approach him to discover who lives in the fort and are told it belongs to Ysbaddaden Bencawr. The shepherd is his brother and unhappy about that. Culhwch slips him a golden ring, which does not fit, so the shepherd hides it in his glove and takes it home to his wife. He tells her he took the ring off a corpse. “Alas, husband,” she answers, “since the sea does not tolerate a dead man’s jewel, show me that corpse.” The shepherd admits who really gave him the ring and the woman recognises Culhwch’s name at once. He is her nephew. As Culhwch and Arthur are cousins, both grandsons of Anlawdd Wledig, that makes this woman Arthur’s aunt too. The shepherd’s wife is glad of Culhwch’s coming but regrets the quest that brings him to the fortress, as no one has sought Olwen’s hand and lived.

The shepherd’s wife poses her own threat. When she goes to embrace the knights, Cai pushes a stake of wood between them and her powerful grip destroys it. “Had you squeezed me like that,” Cai remarks, “it would be useless for any one else ever to make love to me. That was an evil love.” More evidence of a dysfunctional household is seen within the shepherd’s house, when the lady of the house opens a chest and a curly-haired boy climbs out. The shepherd’s wife has given birth to twenty-three sons and Ysbaddaden Bencawr has killed all the others. Cai declares that if she gives the boy to his care, he will live or they will die together. The woman tells the entire party to turn back before it is too late; the knights refuse.

As it turns out, the shepherd’s wife knows Olwen very well. Ysbaddaden Bencawr’s daughter comes to wash her hair in this house every Saturday. When asked if she will summon Olwen, the shepherd’s wife is dubious. “God knows I won’t destroy my friend,” she warns. “I won’t deceive one who trusts me. But if you give your word that you will do her no harm, I will send for her.”

Olwen is a golden-haired beauty dressed in red silk and weighed down with jewels. Culhwch recognises her instantly and asks for her to come away with him. Given the abruptness of this proposal, it’s something of a relief that she says no. She has given her father her word that she will not take a husband without his approval, as he will live only until she marries. That is what you might call a screwed-up situation! Why can no one get married in a normal way around here!

The knights follow Olwen back into the fortress, slaughtering the keepers of nine gates until they reach the great hall of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, where they petition for Olwen’s hand. He tells them to return the next day for his decision and as soon as the knights go to leave, throws a poisoned spear after them. Bedwyr catches it and flings it straight back, getting Ysbaddaden Bencawr through the kneecap. So that’s a great start to negotiations, and it only gets better from there! The knights return the next day with flat terms: either Ysbaddaden Bencawr allows them to have Olwen or they’ll kill him and take her anyway. Olwen’s father excuses himself from making a decision once again, saying he must consult with elders of the family, and seizes the opportunity to throw another spear. This time Menw throws it back and it stabs Ysbaddaden Bencawr through the chest. On the third day, he is warned not to try this trick again, and when he does it is Culhwch who flings the spear back, piercing his father-in-law-to-be through the eye. Ysbaddaden Bencawr lives, though in great pain and foul temper.

On the fourth day he tells Culhwch what he must do to win Olwen as his bride. A large thicket stands within sight of the fortress; the knights are to burn it down and from the ashes grow a wedding feast, all in a single day. The only ploughman who may till the land is Amaethon, who will not come willingly; and only Gofannon may set the plough, and only the two oxen of Gwlwlydd Winau may pull the plough. Ysbaddaden Bencawr continues on and on, listing task after task, until he has a list of forty terms and conditions, each more impossible than the next.

Culhwch is undaunted. “Arthur, my lord and kinsman, will get me all those things,” he tells Ysbaddaden Bencawr. “And I will get your daughter, and you shall lose your life.” This quest is well and truly underway now.

Before long the party of knights come to the largest fort in the world, home to Wrnach Gawr, who has never heard of hospitality. Only craftsmen bringing their craft may enter and live. Cai claims to be the best furbisher of swords, which I gather means he’s saying that he is really epic at polishing. Fortunately this is a skill in demand, and Wrnach Gawr is so pleased with Cai’s work that he permits the entrance of Bedwyr and the shepherd’s son that they adopted. Everyone else sort of sneaks in behind them, like Bedwyr is so pretty that they won’t be noticed, which to be fair appears to be what happens. Then Cai finishes with the sword, lops off the giant’s head, and that’s one task down, thirty nine to go.

They return to Arthur’s court, where the king himself joins them to seek a man named Eidoel, in order to get at his kinsman Mabon son of Modron. Look, it’s a whole thing, Culhwch and co. basically have to get one over every intimidating individual Ysbaddaden Bencawr could think of. Freeing Eidoel from his prisoner is more or less effortless, all Arthur needs to do is ask and the man’s gaoler decides to tag along too. His part done, Arthur goes home and the rest of them go to find Mabon. They ask directions from the Oldest Animals, including the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhedynfre, the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the Eagle of Gwernabwy and the Salmon of Llyn Lliw. It is the Salmon who carries Cai and Gwrhyr to a house of stone where Mabon is imprisoned, and who break him out while Arthur’s men attack as a diversion. So that’s another task done.

Next they seek Rhymi and her two pups. Arthur sails off in his ship Prydwen and God chimes in with a kingly favour by changing the three of them ‘back into their own shape’, that presumably being humans. Gwythyr wins the loyalty of an ant-hill. Cai and Bedwyr follow the smoke of a campfire and find the great warrior Dillus Farfog, whose beard they pluck out to make into a leash. Look, bear with me, there are a lot of tasks to get through and they all make about as much sense as each other. Cai and Bedwyr bring the leash to Arthur, who sings a sarcastic little song about it, and Cai resents this so much that he stomps right out of the story.

Arthur continues to power through his cousin’s problems, such as resolving a violent love triangle by sending the lady Creiddylad back to her father’s house and pitting her suitors against one another in an eternal duel where she doesn’t have to get involved at all. In fact Arthur is making friends and influencing people all over the place, accompanied by his horse Llamrei and his dog Cafall. There is altogether too much genealogy and axe-murdering going on for me to keep track of, so let’s move on to the bit where Menw seeks out the treasures of the boar Twrch Trwyth. The boar has been on a rampage, so Menw takes the form of a bird to spy out its lair. When Menw lunges to get hold of the treasures all he gets is a poisoned bristle.

While he’s failing at that, Arthur is having setbacks of his own. He is trying to gain possession of the cauldron of Diwrnach Wyddel, which will boil the meat of a coward slowly and the meat of a courageous person with great speed – a cool thing to have around if you like cookware that makes moral judgements for you – but Diwrnach Wyddel does not feel like handing it over, even when the king of Ireland leans on him on Arthur’s behalf. So Arthur shows up in force, eats at Diwrnach’s table and his people kill their host without hesitation. Though there is resistance from the Irish, Arthur wins the day and sails away with the cauldron, which proves (to quote Terry Pratchett) that you can be excused just about anything if you are a hero.

Arthur then turns his attention to Twrch Trwyth. Hunting hounds are set on his trail, to no success. It is not only the great boar they are up against, it is his ‘seven little pigs’ as well, at least one of whom used to be a king who ended up so deep in the red with God that he was turned into a pig. And it seems really likely that more of the pigs have a similar backstory because when one of Arthur’s men shifts shapes to negotiate with them, the response he receives is “By Him who shaped us in this image, we will not do and will not say anything to help Arthur. God has done us enough harm by shaping us in this image, without you too coming to fight against us”. That’s fair enough.

In fact Arthur has riled up the Sinner Pigs so much that they head for Wales to wreak as much havoc as possible. Many of Arthur’s men fall in battle with Twrch Trwyth, including two of his uncles and his own son Gwydre, and most likely many more innocent bystanders across the devastated countryside. But gradually Arthur and his warriors pick off the ‘piglets’. They seize hold of the boar and take two of the treasures from him – it takes the price of more lives, but eventually they take the third treasure, making a complete set of razor, shears and comb. After that Twrch Trwyth is driven off the coast of Cornwall into the sea, and no one knows what becomes of him after that.

That leaves a final task: to obtain the blood of the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch, which sounds like a tasteless knock-off of Wicked. The witch in question lives in the north, minding her own business in a cave. The brothers Cacamwri and Hygwydd are sent inside and the witch immediately seizes Hygwydd by the hair, dragging him to the ground. Cacamwri catches hold of her hair and pulls her off. That only makes her angrier. She beats the pair of them and sends them ‘shrieking and shouting’ out of her cave. Which is what happens when you invade a witch’s personal space! Arthur wants to go fight the witch himself but his men think it is inappropriate, so it’s not until another two warriors fail to take her down that Arthur attacks. He flings his knife, Carnwennan, from the entrance of the cave and strikes what appears to be a mortal blow. They most certainly get their blood.

Every task has been completed. Culhwch sets off for the fortress of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, with Gorau son of Custennin at his side and a grim retinue behind them, eager less for a wedding than to bring death on the instigator of their quest. They shave Ysbaddaden Bencawr, as he himself tasked them to do, carving off his ears and the skin of his jaw along with his beard. “Have you been shaved, man?” Culhwch demands. “And is your daughter now mine?” “Yours,” comes his father-in-law’s response. “And you need not thank me for that, but thank Arthur, the man who arranged it for you. If I’d had my way you never would have got her. And it is high time to take away my life.” Gorau hacks off his head without further ceremony and impales it in public view. Culhwch takes Olwen to bed that night as his wife, and Arthur’s men disband to return to their own lands, and I personally am having fond fantasies about the modern marvel of divorce lawyers.

So, what do we take away from this version of Arthur and his court? They are warriors, to begin with – not shining beacons of courtesy dedicated to defending the weak, but men with a brutal brand of honour and a loyalty to one another that is terrifying in its mythic proportions. I have deep concerns for Olwen, who could not be more objectified and powerless within the narrative, whose father is tortured and killed by her vindictive new husband and his allies. It does not bode well for her marriage into the future. And yet there are powerful women in this story, marginalised as they are. The shepherd’s wife, with her crushing grip and uncompromising determination. The witch, who defeats four of Arthur’s warriors before he takes her down himself. Even Culhwch’s mother, brief though her role in the story may be, reaches beyond the grave to stamp her will on the world. I feel like she would have got along with her husband’s new wife better than she got on with the man himself.

What truly struck me, re-reading this story, is when the quest ends and Culhwch, far from running to win his ‘love’, is out for vengeance against Ysbaddaden Bencawr. It is a deeply disturbing scene. Ysbaddaden Bencawr did not have to die because his daughter married. He died because that was what Culhwch wanted, and if there is one thing this story established from start to finish, it is that Culhwch got what he wanted, no matter the cost to anyone else.

That’s myth for you. It’s not over until someone gets dismembered.

Source: The Mabinogion – translated by Sioned Davies (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Merlin and Vortigern: Or, Why Merlin is the Way He Is

Welcome to Year of the Quest! Throughout 2020 I will be exploring some of the key legends in the Arthurian tradition, starting this month with Merlin’s origin story – at least, one of them. His mother was a mortal woman, named Aldan in Welsh tradition, and his father was an incubus. To quote Bulfinch’s Mythology, incubi are ‘a class of beings not absolutely wicked, but far from good, who inhabit the regions of the air’ because that’s where we’re at in terms of moral high-handedness. Listen, I can name a dozen Arthurian characters who are a hundred percent human and absolutely the worst. (Spoilers: Uther, right up there on the list). Anyway, Merlin’s mother had him baptised with all possible speed, but he grew up with a range of unusual abilities courtesy of his supernatural father.

Meanwhile, there is Vortigern. According to The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, his original name in Welsh is Gwrtheyrn and he was a British king in the fifth century. When the Saxons invaded, the Welsh blamed Vortigern, which is sort of understandable if he really did trade Kent for a Saxon wife. But we are not here to join the argument on which bits of Arthurian legend are based on history and which bits are not, we’re for drama and judgement.

So, this is the situation: for the purposes of this legend, Vortigern is an anxious usurper living in fear that the rightful heirs, brothers Uther and Pendragon, will come storming back and reclaim the kingdom. To prevent this, he is trying to build a fortress in the Welsh mountains. Emphasis on ‘trying’. It is not going well. Three times his workmen have built it up, and three times it has fallen down, and instead of taking that as a sign to build his fortress somewhere else, Vortigern goes to his astrologers for a solution to the problem. They advise him to find a child born without a mortal father and bathe the foundation stones in that child’s blood. I am sure the architect was absolutely thrilled with this insight into structural stability.

Vortigern sends out messengers to find a child that fits the bill and they return with little Merlin, who stands in front of the king and tells him he is absurd. Does he even know why the fortress keeps collapsing? Does anyone know? Vortigern’s advisors admit they do not. Merlin tells them that the site of the fortress is really the den of two dragons and when they fight, the walls above collapse. Vortigern has his workmen dig deep beneath the foundations and Merlin is proven entirely correct: two dragons rise from a pool of water, one white and one red, already lunging at one another. The onlookers wisely flee, all except for little Merlin, who gleefully claps his hands and cheers at the violence. The red dragon falls dead; the white dragon vanishes into the mountain.

Merlin declares that the dragons are living metaphors for the return of Uther and Pendragon, who soon bring an army to Vortigern’s doorstep. They burn down the fortress with him inside it. Pendragon is crowned king and takes Merlin as his advisor, a position that he retains when Pendragon dies and Uther succeeds him. A talent inherited from his incubus father allows Merlin to transform his physical appearance, which is both entertaining and very useful to the monarchs he has chosen to serve. In time, when Uther desires the beautiful Igraine, Merlin will use his power to disguise the king as her husband Gorlois even as Gorlois himself lies dead. This leads to the birth of Arthur and the rise of Camelot.

With an adviser like Merlin standing at Arthur’s elbow, is it any wonder everything went to hell?

There are of course multiple versions of this story, with variation on the details, but I like the imagery in this one. Young Merlin surrounded by men who would kill him for the sake of a castle but without hesitation taking charge; and later, this child standing on the edge of a pit, clapping his hands while two enormous dragons fight to the death. It is a fittingly grisly and powerful beginning to one of the greatest sagas ever told.

Sources: Bulfinch’s Mythology – Thomas Bulfinch (Gramercy Books, 2003), The New Arthurian Encyclopedia – ed. Norris J. Lacy (Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996)

Year of the Quest

Going on the assumption that 2020 is in fact a real year and not the horrible collective hallucination that January is so far making it out to be, this is the plan: Year of the Quest.

I spent last year talking, writing and thinking witches, and I loved it. One of the joys of Year of the Witch was exploring the diversity of the fairy tales and finding their unexpected similarities. About halfway through the year I started thinking about what else I would like to explore in that level of depth and what sprang to mind was Arthurian legends. I started getting really interested in Arthuriana a few years ago when I was researching for the project Ladies of Legend – that was when I read Le Morte d’Arthur for the first time and went from irritated tolerance to sobbing over the final chapter. (Spoilers: Uther vanishing from the narrative helped A LOT.) I have read a lot of Arthurian retellings over the years, but I wanted to explore more of the original legends.

Arthurian legends are an intimidating subject for research. Names vary wildly, familial relationships are blurry. Characters who might be married in one version are siblings in another. Key stories that inform a modern perspective on the legends come from all over the UK and France, and from a wide range of time periods. That’s not even getting into the arguments about how much of Arthurian tradition is fictional and how much might be based on historical fact.

Year of the Quest is an exploration of twelve Arthurian legends, some widely known and some less familiar. Each month I’ll be taking on a new story and talking about how they fit together in the vast, bewildering and beautiful tapestry that makes up the story of King Arthur and his court. I’m beginning at the end of the month with the story of Merlin and Vortigern, or as I like to call it, Why Merlin is the Way He Is.

In other news: I have joined Patreon! Subscribers will receive early access to all Year of the Quest posts as well as Patreon-exclusive essays, short fiction and poetry. If you have enjoyed my various projects over the past eight years, Patreon is the place to look for more of my work! I am very new to the medium and a bit nervous about figuring it out, but it’s exciting to be giving myself the challenge as a creator.

Grab a sword, people, it’s time to go questing.

Wickedness and Wisdom: A Year of Witches

Trigger warning: discussion of domestic abuse

Witch is a word with serious baggage. It is the cackling caricature beside a gingerbread house in a children’s picture book. It’s a tradition of the fantasy genre, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It is a perennial Halloween costume, complete with broomstick and pointy hat. It is an insult that gets thrown at female politicians and a dangerous accusation once levelled against peasants and queens alike. It’s a word that could get you killed in many times and many places. Witch brings with it the ducking stool and the stake. Witch is storybook and power fantasy and belief and crime and slur.

Witches are an integral part of the fairy tale world. My earliest associations with fairy tales are tied to the imagery of witches and it has had a pull on me ever since. When I started this blog seven years ago – a very folkloric number – my first big project was Fairy Tale Tuesdays, which explored fairy tales from around the world. It was a wonderful way to rediscover my favourites and an excellent excuse to read more that were new to me. The Year of the Witch allowed me to return to that format. I started this project with two rules: I could not review any story that I had written about during Fairy Tale Tuesdays, which knocked out a lot of low-hanging fruit, and I could only write about stories that featured at least one character specifically labelled a witch by the narrative.

The latter point is worth thinking about. There are plenty of stories which feature women who use magic. Fairies, sorceresses, enchantresses, ogresses – there are also heroines with no explanation for their magical tendencies, such as the princess from ‘The Goose Girl’ who can call up a convenient breeze when she needs one or the titular powerhouse from ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’ who I am convinced can do anything she pleases from sheer force of will. All of these types of characters are different from a witch. Their stories are weighted in different places. They don’t curse the same way, or hold the same grudges.

No one dies quite like a witch.

I: The Witch as Victim

A witch is a villain you can kill off and walk away whistling.

In the well-known German fairy tale ‘Snow White’, the murderous stepmother is both witch and queen. At the end of the story, she is forced to dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes – which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a very gruesome way to go, but unfortunately it is pretty much par for the course. In ‘Sweetheart Roland’, another Grimm brothers’ story, the witch is tricked into a hedge of thorns and, like the unfortunate queen, is compelled to dance to death. In ‘The Witch in the Stone Boat’, the king has the witch stoned then torn apart; in ‘The White Bride and the Black Bride’, another king condemns a witch mother and daughter to execution in a barrel full of nails. Two of the witches from ‘Johnny and the Witch-Maidens’ are thrown into a river and drowned. The witch from ‘Katchen the Cat’ dies much the same way, while the witch from ‘Foundling’ is held underwater by a homicidal shapeshifting child. ‘The Chinese Princess’ burns its witch to death in an oven, as does ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and the witch in ‘Old Witch Boneyleg’ comes very close to the same end. Even Baba Yaga, who is on the whole fairly indestructible, meets a fiery death in ‘Baba Yaga’.

So what is the point of this litany of misery? Fairy tale justice is notoriously hardline and its executions tend to be memorable. The villain of ‘The Goose Girl’ also dies by barrel of nails, with no accusation of witchcraft at her door. What’s more, the witches named above are nearly all killed by those who would have been their victims or by those they have deceived – they arguably bring their deaths upon themselves.

And yet. There is such an unapologetic brutality to the deaths of these women that it reminds you, inevitably, while these stories were being told by the fire, ‘witches’ were being tied to the stake. Purely from a narrative perspective, there is a warping effect. Can you build a happy ending like a castle of legend, on foundations of blood and bone? Can you still call Snow White the heroine of the story when she stood by watching her stepmother burn? Is the Goose Girl really the victim after her nemesis is condemned to that barrel?

There is an interesting contrast in the story of ‘Martin and the Lions’. The witch is a sadistic piece of work; she abducts an entire royal court as vengeance for an insult and even then is not satisfied, trying to hire a thug to help brutalise her captives. The hero of the story, Martin, is pushed into confronting the witch in order to save everyone else. So far, fairly unremarkable in terms of fairy tale stakes. What makes Martin stand out from the crowd is his conscience. He does not want to kill the witch; he does it because he can see no other option. He looks at the witch and he sees an old woman, whose death matters. It feels strange to give cookies to a character for acknowledging the personhood of the woman he’s about to kill, but it’s a striking enough deviation from the norm to be worth noting.

II: The Witch as Politician

There is often a twisted domesticity to the lives of witches in fairy tales: a little cottage in the wood, travel by broomstick or a mortar and pestle. The axe in the woodpile. The oven. But on the other side of the equation, there are the witches who take their powers and aim high.

A popular career path is to seduce a royal. In ‘The White Bride and the Black Bride’, the witch’s daughter literally pushes her stepsister out of a moving carriage in order to get a shot at the throne; in ‘The Witch and the Swan-Maiden’ and ‘The Witch in the Stone Boat’, the witches manoeuvre the respective queens out of the way – one via a long game of court intrigue, the other with straight-up identity theft. The witch from ‘The Queen and her Children’ steals away the royal heirs then uses the king and his council as accomplices to rid herself of the queen, so that her daughter can take her place.

Marriage is one way for a witch to access kingdom-scale power; abduction is another. In ‘Katchen and the Cat’, the witch locks up the king’s children and weighs up their value in ransom money against how good they’d taste in a stewpot. The witch from ‘The White Dove’ not only keeps a princess enchanted as a dove, she corners two princes into bargaining away their unborn baby brother to be her servant.

Most intriguing of the political witches, from my perspective, is the witch from ‘King Fox’. A princess disappears and her father offers half a kingdom in exchange for her return. This is usually when a plucky youngest son steps in, but instead a witch presents herself, offering to bring back the princess – whose disappearance, please note, has nothing to do with her – if the king will give her the role of his most trusted advisor. It is a scrupulously fair arrangement. And if it has nothing to with the princess’s own wishes, well, the youngest sons would hardly have stopped to consult her either. The only reason that the witch becomes a villain in this story is because she is a witch, a clever and resourceful woman who very nearly gets what she was promised. Who knows what she would have done with it? Perhaps she would have drained the kingdom’s resources to serve her own interests. Perhaps she would have been the instigator of change, forcing the court to see the world from a new perspective.

But she is a witch, and thus a villain, and is torn to pieces by animals instead.

III: The Witch as Abuser

Let’s return to the theme of domesticity in fairy tales. Witches take on familial roles – mother, stepmother, the courtesy title of ‘grandmother’ – and become predators within the home. Motivated by ambition, jealousy, hunger or a combination thereof, they plot the captivity or death of children in their care and deceive husbands who vanish conveniently from the narrative, taking no accountability for their own oversights or absences until the very end, when they may take on the role of second-tier hero by driving the witch from the family home. In ‘The Witch’, the stepmother is abusing her husband’s children for some time before sending them off to be eaten in the woods, and there is no in-narrative reaction from him until the twins come running home after a very narrow escape from death. In ‘Vasilissa’, the titular heroine turns to a doll for help instead of her own father. In the case of Snow White, there is an entire royal court that should have noted her absence, if not the attempted assassination. Once the witch in the equation is removed from the family unit, of course, it’s a short smooth ride to the happy ending…in theory.

There is a certain amount of overlap here with the political witches, who are likewise removed one way or another to make way for a true queen. Interestingly, the wronged queens from ‘The Witch and the Swan-Maiden’, ‘The Witch in the Stone Boat’ and ‘The Queen and her Children’ are all maternal figures, as if to increase the contrast between themselves and the witches who seek to supplant them.

There are also the murky depths of witch mother-daughter relationships to be considered. ‘The Queen and her Children’ and ‘The White Bride and the Black Bride’ both feature a witch trying to take her stepdaughter off the throne and put her own daughter there instead. Though the stepmother in ‘Cinderella’ does not resort to magical means, there is a similar blunt force ambition at work that allows little room for sentiment. On the other side of the spectrum is the witch’s daughter from ‘The Riddle’, who actively sabotages her mother’s plans, and Vasilissa from ‘Baba Yaga’, who rebels in order to rescue her new friend. Then there’s Benvenuto from ‘Prunella’, the witch’s son who takes every opportunity to rescue the heroine of the story from his mother’s malice. Somewhere in the middle, I think, is the witch’s daughter from ‘Jankyn and the Witch’, who vanishes from her husband’s house without so much as a goodbye but rescues him from the murderous machinations of her family.

Dysfunctional as these family dynamics may be, they have nothing on the witch princesses I want to talk about next.

IV: The Witch as Devourer

A witch is always hungry.

This is a consistent trend throughout the fairy tales in this project. Feminine hunger seems to attract a peculiar revulsion in shared storytelling consciousness and the witch archetype would hardly be complete without all the trappings of a savage feast. ‘Hansel and Gretel’ features the infamous gingerbread house; ‘Snow White’ has its poisoned apple. The image of the oven shows up time and time again: in ‘The Old Witch’, ‘The Chinese Princess’, ‘Old Witch Boneyleg’. Cannibalism is a staple trope in witch fairy tales. From ‘Uletka’ to ‘Katchen the Cat’, Baba Yaga to ‘Moti-kata and the Water Witch’, there is a tendency for witches to literally eat their problems.

In some stories the hunger goes deeper than that. ‘The Red King and the Witch’ begins with a baby who takes on monstrous form to sate an unnatural hunger; ‘The Witch and the Sister of the Sun’ is about a princess who literally devours her kingdom and shows no sign of stopping, even at the end of the story.

There are connections to be made here with the fairy tale ogre, who is also linked to monstrous appetite, but there is also, I think, something different about the framing of a witch’s hunger in the narrative. An ogre’s role is that of monster, no questions asked. But suppose you are in the woods and you lose your way, and there is a little cottage warm with the glow of its oven, and a woman on the threshold who beckons you inside to share a meal. It takes the traditionally feminine responsibility of homemaker and housekeeper and turns it into something treacherous.

Grandmama, what big teeth you have.

There are, I think, two main aspects to a witch’s role as villain. The first is domesticity gone wrong – the abandoned or mistreated child in a home that becomes a death trap. The second aspect is about consumption: a creature that can never be satisfied, leaving a wasteland in its wake. Fairy tale witches represent an intimate and terrifying abuse, a betrayed trust; they also represent a deep-rooted resentment of social expectations and an ambitious, impassioned hunger for everything that the narrative does not want to give them. A witch knows that the crown is never going to be handed to her. Whatever she wants, she will have to fight for with tooth and claw.

V: The Witch as Mentor

The witch is the villain. Everyone knows that. Except, you know, for the times when she’s not.

In ‘The Whirlwind’s Castle’, the witch stages an intervention to ensure that the right prince succeeds in his quest and makes it home in safety. In ‘The Giant on the Mount’, the witch’s role is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief, rewarding the hero of the story for his kindness with the gift of a magic ring (inverse to the witch in ‘Katchen the Cat’, who uses her ring of power to manipulate and abuse). My personal favourite story in this vein is ‘The King’s Beard’, in which three gloomy witches more or less adopt a young girl after she makes them laugh and come to the rescue when her marriage goes perilously awry.

Most intriguing of all is the unpredictable Baba Yaga, who alternates between cannibalistic antagonism and grudging mentorship depending on the story. In ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’, she positions herself firmly on Team Ivan (though this is a rare case when her support does not indicate the clear victor). She takes on a similar role in ‘The Three Ivans’. After sending the three young men to face what she believes to be their death, she relents and warns them of danger on the road ahead. In ‘Vanooshka’, the stakes are more personal. The hero is searching for his wife, who as it turns out is Baba Yaga’s great-niece and is in the clutches of Baba Yaga’s arch-nemesis Queen Glafyra. Vanooshka continues on his quest with Baba Yaga’s advice to guide him.

A witch ought never to be frightened in the darkest forest, Granny Weatherwax had once told her, because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.” – Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

Witch is bigger than fairy tales these days. Witch means Hermione Granger and Serafina Pekkala, Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany Aching, Elphaba, Jadis. Call a girl a witch and she might wear it on a T-shirt. Stories change; the witches changed with them, and are changing still.

So after a year of writing and talking and thinking about witches, what does that word mean to me? When I was a child, it was witches I loved best. I loved the picture book illustrations of a gingerbread cottage, dressed up in black skirts and a pointed hat. What could be better than a morally ambiguous woman raising hell with a cat at her side and a chicken-legged house to come home to? As an adult I own a mortar and pestle more because of the associations with Baba Yaga than because they are useful to me and as a storyteller, I find myself returning to witches time and again. Witch means villain and hero and concerned third party who is probably sipping on herbal tea and judging royalty on Twitter while she waits for yet another youngest son to roll on through her forest. It means a character who might do anything, be anything at all. Beautiful girl out to steal your eyes for her weird serial killer collection? Check. Exasperated grandmother figures helping to sort out your relationship? Check. Raucous coven off to dance with the devil and screw over royalty? Check. The woman of the woods, who can help or harm as she chooses, who can transform herself a hundred times over? Oh, yes.

Witch means you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And I love it still.

Year of the Witch: Katchen the Cat

This German story is the last witch of the year and, fittingly, it comes from a Ruth Manning-Sanders anthology called A Book of Cats and Creatures. It wastes no time in getting to the point; the opening line declares ‘Well, now, here’s a terrible old witch for you – and my word, a hideous one too!’, as if there’s anything wrong with green spectacles and having shark-like teeth. This witch is a storm-raiser, bringing down rain or hail depending on her mood, and she wears a ruby ring that can turn her invisible. It also allows her to enchant whosoever she pleases to do her will. The witch has made much use of her ring, to transform people into animals that she can sell and to force-feed prisoners until they are fat enough for the pot. So she is certainly hideous in personality.

One day, as she is out and about masquerading as a kindly old lady, she stumbles across the very best haul of her life. The king’s young children, a boy and a girl, have slipped away from their minders and lost themselves in the woods. The witch quickly ingratiates herself with the frightened children, promising to lead them home. Instead she takes them to a little house made of birch branches, her home, where she immediately strips them of all valuables, including their expensive clothes, and locks them up in the dark with nothing but sacks to wear.

As for what she means to do with them, well, the witch can’t quite decide whether she’s in it for reward money or a royal dinner – but she’s leaning more towards dinner. The princess is sobbing her heart out, the prince is hammering at the door of their prison and trying to threaten the witch with his father’s rage, but she has neither sympathy nor fear and all the children can do is huddle together while they wait for whatever she does next.

There is, however, someone else living in the cottage. During her travels the witch encountered a young flower-seller called Katchen and, showing a really mean sense of humour, turned the girl into a tabby cat, who now serves her as a familiar. The witch believes Katchen to be entirely under her control. That, however, is never a safe assumption to make where cats or children are concerned, and Katchen has secretly been learning magic. Now, with two captives in the house and a chance to save them, Katchen decides it is time to act.

She rises very early and blows out a breath across her bed. “Bed, bed, I conjure thee,” she commands, “take my voice and speak for me.” Then she carefully picks her way down the stairs, giving the same order to each step in turn. “Hearth, should the witch enquire,” she tells the fireplace, “say that Katchen lights the fire.” Last she comes to the locked room where the children are imprisoned, and she demands the door open itself.

When the witch wakes, she screams at Katchen to get up and light the fire. The bed calls down a soothing answer, but the witch is not the type to be soothed; she is soon screaming at Katchen again to find out what she’s doing. She gradually realises that though she can hear Katchen’s voice, she can hear no other sounds of activity in the kitchen and leaps up to find out what’s going on. It is immediately apparent that Katchen has taken the royal children and fled into the woods.

So the witch mentally adds her familiar to the cooking pot and heads after the runaways. She is very quick, quick enough to start catching up despite their headstart. Katchen desperately calls out to the stag leading a passing herd of deer, begging that two of his hinds carry the children to safety. The stag goes one better and brings over a third hind to carry Katchen herself. These three gallop away while the rest of the herd fade into the woodland and the stag lies in wait for the witch. As soon as she comes into sight, he charges, lifting her onto his antlers.

In her struggles to get free, the witch’s ring slides off her finger and onto an antler. The deer feels its power as a massive increase in his already impressive strength; he powers towards the king’s castle, unstoppable, while the witch flails in vain. The stag sees a lake in the castle grounds and plunges straight into it. He soon emerges on the other side, but the witch sinks to the bottom of the lake, and so does her ring.

The death of the witch breaks her spells. By the time Katchen arrives at the palace, she’s a human girl again. The king adopts her on the spot and throws out a decree banning the hunting of deer in the royal forest. And so Katchen the witch’s servant becomes Katchen the princess, safe and adored in the arms of her new family.

I have been going on and on about rights for witches’ servants throughout this project so it seems fitting to end on the story of a rebellious familiar who ends up living her dreams. The witch in this fairy tale is a genuinely nasty piece of work, a cannibalistic opportunist who exploits anyone and everyone she meets. While her powers do have a very Tolkien flavour – right down to the manner of her death, I’d watch out for that ring in years to come – she is also a decent strategist, though her plans have a counterbalance in witchy hedonism. She’s a good villain, and Katchen – who is a better strategist, playacting subservience while she squirrels away spells – is a delightful heroine. If it down to picking a side between the witch and the cat, no prizes for guessing whose side I’m on.

Thank you to everyone who has read along and commented through the year! I will be posting a wrap-up next Friday, looking back on a year of witches, and this project would not have been nearly as fun without you.

Year of the Witch: The Bird of Truth

This Spanish fairy tale comes from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales from Around the World and begins with a poor fisherman who is out casting his nets one day when he finds a cradle made of crystal and two babies smiling adorably inside. He takes them home, where his wife points out that they are already struggling to feed eight children. But somehow they make things stretch a bit further, and both the fisherman and his wife are genuinely fond of the twins they have adopted. Unfortunately their older sons do not feel the same way. As they grow up, the twins take to escaping down to the river, where they can play in peace and feed the birds. The children spend so much time with the birds, in fact, that they learn to speak their language, which is quite a skill.

One day the eldest of the fisherman’s sons lashes out at the twins, claiming that they have no real father or mother but are instead the river’s children. “Like the toads and the frogs,” he sneers. That, as far as the twins are concerned, is the last straw. They slip out of the house early the next morning and start following the river, ready to seek their fortunes. After a long time walking they come to a hut and approach hopefully, but it is all closed up. The only thing to do is make the best of it and rest on the bench outside.

As the children slump together there, they overhear the chatter of two swallows in the eaves. It’s a little passive-aggressive at first; one swallow has recently returned to claim her parents’ nest after years living in the city and is trying to talk to a rather sullen old acquaintance. They soon bond over bad-mouthing the other birds in the neighbourhood. Then the city swallow settles in to share a juicy bit of gossip from her part of the world. The king, she informs her audience, fell in love with a tailor’s daughter and married her against the wishes of his court, but the nobility plotted against them. When the king went away to war and the queen gave birth to twins, the children were stolen away and the queen was called mad, shut away in a tower in the mountains. “At night the chamberlain came down and put them in a cradle of crystal,” the swallow continues, “which he carried to the river.” The listening children look at one another in shock and joy. Who can the swallow be talking about but themselves?

And when the children are grown up,” cry the listening birds, clearly invested by this point, “they can return to their father and set their mother free.” The swallow points out that this will be no easy task. “They will have to prove that they are the king’s children,” she says, “and also that their mother never went mad at all.” But she has heard of a creature called the Bird of Truth who is immortal and can expose any wickedness. She lives in a castle guarded by an insomniac giant, and the location of this castle is the great secret of a witch who, since she can’t kill her, has hidden her away where nobody can hear her speak. The only other living creature who can find the bird is an owl, whose only word in the human language is ‘cross’. Not the world’s best guide.

When the swallow wraps up her story and flies away, the children leap up to chase after her. They come to the king’s city and manage to charm their way into a night’s lodging. The children decide to repay their hostess with lots of little domestic tasks and she likes them so much that she asks them to live with her. The brother is happy to find a place where his sister can stay in comfort, but he’s been bitten by the quest bug and sets off to find the witch.

He’s not all that successful at first. After wandering for three days with no sign of the witch’s tower, he throws himself miserably under the tree. Looking up, he spots a dove and tries his luck with bird language. “Tell me, I pray you, where is the castle of Come-and-never-go?” he asks. The dove tells him to follow the wind, which is sound advice, because the boy soon finds himself in a bare rocky landscape and among the rocks he finds the witch’s tower.

The boy, who is apparently fearless and caution-free, knocks boldly at the door. A woman described as hideous answers the door, accompanied by a throng of creepy-crawlies like courtiers to her queen. “Who are you who dare to knock at my door and wake me?” she demands, squinting from behind her candle, and that is fair, I would probably be threatening under those circumstances as well. The boy explains that he needs to find the castle of Come-and-never-go. The witch tries to invite him in for the night but he does not accept so she instead offers him a jar. He is to fill it with many-coloured water from Come-and-never-go – if he fails, she will turn him into a lizard. So that’s where the entourage came from, then.

The witch summons a dog to act as the boy’s guide. She instructs the animal, ominously, to ‘take care that you warn my friend of his arrival’. Two hours later the dog is leading the boy towards a big black castle. Unsure whether the giant is really sleeping or not, the boy hesitates and happens to overhear a cry of ‘cross, cross’ from the branches of a nearby olive tree. The boy realises that it is the owl the swallow spoke of and eagerly implores it for help. The owl, probably relieved to meet a quester who actually speaks its language for once, is happy to oblige.

It advises the boy to fill the jar from a spring within the castle courtyard instead of the fountain of many-coloured water. Then he must enter an aviary full of beautiful murderous birds and ignore their many loud claims to be the Bird of Truth. The real thing is a small white bird hidden away in a corner. One more thing – the boy is on the clock, because the giant has literally just fallen asleep.

The boy bolts. He fills the jar at top speed then hurries to the aviary. It is a riot of voices – ravens, magpies, peacocks – the birds of Bad Faith, each screaming that it is the Bird of Truth. In the corner, tramelled by crows, the boy finds the small white bird he was sent for and he escapes with it. He runs all the way back to the witch’s tower and gives her the water. “Become a parrot!” she commands, throwing the water over him. But it’s not the right water, and instead just makes him…a spectacularly handsome human. The crowd of lizards and insects scurry to the drips of water and when it touches them, their humanity is restored. Seeing how completely her plan has backfired, the witch leaps on a broom and takes off.

The boy returns to his sister, but somehow – very possibly from the witch herself – word has spread that the Bird of Truth is on the loose and the plotting courtiers are desperate to prevent it reaching the king. Birds of prey are sent to hunt her, cages are built to trap her. They even claim that the white plumage is a facade over black feathers, presumably to indicate that this is the wrong bird? It’s also very possibly racism. But all these plans backfire as spectacularly as the witch’s, because by trying to convince the king that he will not be seeing the real Bird of Truth, he becomes very curious indeed and sends out a proclamation that it should be brought to him.

The children come to the palace, where the courtiers block their way, insisting that the king is sleeping and must not be woken. The question is settled by the Bird of Truth herself, who flies through the king’s open window and tells him what his courtiers are doing. The king sends one of his own people to fetch the children and once they arrive, the Bird of Truth explains exactly what was done to the royal family by the very people who have surrounded the king for years. Devastated, he embraces his children and leaves immediately for the mountains to free his wife. Her skin is bleached white by years of living in darkness but the sight of her husband and children brings the colour back to her and they return home together to bring justice down upon the royal court. The traitors are beheaded, their property seized.. The fisherman and his wife are rewarded for their kindness and, the story concludes that they ‘were loved and cherished to the end of their lives’. So the twins ended up with two sets of parents who wanted them, and a would-be adoptive mother, as well as several not-so-great older brothers – and as fairy tale families go, that’s not too bad.

There is an allegory in this fairy tale that strikes rather close to the bone. The Bird of Truth being a small, persecuted creature, caged and abused, in parallel to the imprisoned and abandoned queen; the traitorous courtiers doing all they can to discredit both the bird and the children, just as the Birds of Bad Faith tried over and over to murder the Bird of Truth. There is a streak of shocking cruelty running through this fairy tale, but it is also fiercely hopeful. The truth is not just out there – it is immortal, and it will get loose in the end whatever you do.

This is the penultimate fairy tale in the Year of the Witch! Next week will be the last story in the project, and the week after that (November 22nd) will be a wrap-up post looking back over the year.