Fairy tales are usually not, in my experience, awfully romantic. When people say something is a fairy tale ending, they mean the traditional sum up of ‘happily ever after’, but let’s be honest here – how many marriages in these stories look like they have any chance of working out? How much narrative time is devoted to the central couple even talking to each other? So when a fairy tale manages to convince me this is genuinely love, it’s an accomplishment. Before anyone gets their hopes up, I should warn you that the title of this week’s is a tad misleading – ‘The Gay Goss-Hawk’ is a fairy tale about forbidden love, but the lovers aren’t literally gay. Though I suppose the bird might be. Who knows?
Anyway. The story begins when an English lady and a Scottish lord meet at the court of the English king. She is lonely and unhappy because her father has recently got himself married to a woman who hates her, and her seven brothers can’t be bothered defending her. The lord is gay in the sense that he’s happy (this book was published in 1965) and he’s so kind and good-natured that falling for him is effortless. As pledges of their love, he gives her his gold ring and she gives him her blue ribbon tied in a lover’s knot. The only thing left to do is ask her family for their approval. Her father has proved himself incapable of protecting her from the malice of his own wife, but given the chance to make amends, you’d think he’d agree, right?
You’d be WRONG. He and her brothers all got together a while ago to plan out her life and the next step is to marry her off to an ancient English lord who’s stupid rich and can give them the political influence they crave. Plus, her boyfriend is Scottish! That’s the historical equivalent of the bad boy in the black leather jacket! The girl is taken from court so she can’t even see him any more, and with her gone, he sees no point in remaining, so returns to his castle in the north.
While he broods there on lost love, there is only one thing that brings him pleasure – a goss-hawk with a pretty voice and a quick mind that soon becomes his most constant companion. It also gives him an idea. He writes a letter to his love and sends it to her by goss-hawk express, with the love knot draped around his neck to prove to her who sent it.
The bird is so clever that when it arrives at the lady’s home in England it hides the letter under its wing so the wrong person won’t notice it. Then, when the lady and her handmaidens leave home to attend church, it bursts into song so that she’ll look up. She’s the only one who could know what the blue ribbon means. Urging her handmaidens to go on ahead, she quickly runs back to the goss-hawk’s tree, and the letter is dropped into her hand. What her Scottish lord has written just about breaks her heart, and it brings out her inner steel. Her family want to stop her marrying her true love? Let them just try.
That is essentially what she says when she sends the goss-hawk back with a letter of her own. Then she retreats to her room. Her handmaidens return from church some time later, worried by her absence, and find her lying on her bed so ill she says she’ll die. Her father is brought promptly to her side and is petitioned for one last favour. “Do not ask for your Scottish laird,” is his immediate response. “Anything else I will promise to you, whatever it may be. But rather than see you wedded to yon proud Scottish laird I’d see you lying dead!” Thereby proving that he and her stepmother are a perfectly matched couple of appalling parents.
For his daughter, however, this reaction is not unexpected. Her last request is that her brothers carry her to Scotland to be buried – that Mass be sung over her body at the first church they come to, that the bells be tolled at the second, and that they lay her out in the churchyard of St. Mary’s. Her father agrees that it will be done. Late that night, while everyone else is sleeping, the lady creeps from her bed and mixes up the strongest sleeping draught she can. Once it is drunk, she returns to bed and waits.
Come morning she is found so limp and still that everyone believes her to be dead. Everyone, that is, apart from her stepmother, who pricks the corpse with a pin and drips boiling wax on her bare skin just to be sure. The lady remains lifeless. Her maidens cover her in white, her brothers build a bier to carry her coffin, and the promised procession begins. In the churchyard of St. Mary’s, though, where her brothers were told to lay down her body and keep watch over her through the night, a hundred spearmen appear out of the dark and the Scottish lord steps forward to take her hand. At that touch, she springs brightly to life. “Go home!” she tells her brothers, “for you’ve fetched me where I want to be!”
Her brothers are outraged by her scheming ways and the mistaken grief she has put her family through, but her inner steel holds strong. “Take my love to my father,” she tells them, “though he said he’d rather I were lying dead than married to my Scottish laird. But I send no love to my cruel stepmother for the sharp silver pin she stuck me with and the hot, boiling wax she burned me with, for to her I wish nothing but woe!” And she rides off with her lover to finally marry, the goss-hawk flying at their side.
It takes a true lady to deliver such a stinging ‘screw you!’ to the people who failed her. It’s interesting to see a father’s failure actually addressed for once, instead of being piled entirely onto the nearest stepmother. ‘The Gay Goss-Hawk’ is taken from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s collection Thistle and Thyme, which is full of young women figuring out how to get past stupid obstacles, but the sheer cunning of this Romeo and Juliet inversion is very hard to beat.