Authors: Alan Garner
The oral tradition of folktale no longer exists in the English language. Now, rather than human recollection shared through community of audience and the storyteller's own belief, the source of every folktale is another book. Made written, folktale is treated as a juvenile branch of literature; but the two are different, and we should mark the differences. The word in the air is not the same word on the page.
We can say that, while folktale scarcely engages the intellect, fiction does not allow imagery to carry the weight. Both forms are valid metaphors of reality; but folktale speaks with the logic of dream; it is supple, changing in the mouth of the storyteller, always archaic, not a single creation, but a weaving of existing threads.
The folktale, when written, should still continue to be worked as it was when it was a spoken form, so that it stays relevant and vital; yet the body of British folktale is obsolete, a reductive continuity of Nineteenth Century texts, which reflect the attitudes of the period when the bulk of our traditional
remains was set in print. Since that time, the British folktale has become, properly, a subject for scholarship, and, less properly, a vehicle for the moral instruction of the young. Shorn of its inherent music, mistakenly pursued for rational meaning, folktale has lost its force within the general culture.
Among societies where oral tradition has not been abused, folktale is no dull matter that anyone may touch, but more a collection of patterns to be translated with the skill, bias and authority of the craftsman, who, in serving his craft, allows that craft to serve the people. The contrast between intuitive mediation from within and externally applied precept is nice, and crucial. British folktale, in untutored and literary hands, has become infant homily or adult science. There remains no middle ground.
“The Lad of the Gad” is an attempt to recover a middle ground. I have tried to place my literate ear in the way of a preliterate voice, so that, although the word in the air is not the same word on the page, the force may be recreated and felt. My approach has been to give the stories something of the sequential structure of a controlled fiction while retaining an impression of the original dream.
The stories are taken from the Goidelic layers of British folktale. Another writer would choose differently, and I would choose differently myself at another time. But these are the stories now, because, in a way that I understand only after having listened
to them as they were being worked, they offer compensatory images of the world that I cannot find in a more conventional prose today.
28 March, 1980
here was a king and a queen, and between them was a son called Upright John. The queen died, and the king married another.
One day John was at the hunting hill, and he got no game at all. He saw a blue falcon and let an arrow at her, but he did no more than to drive a feather from her wing. He lifted the feather, put it in his bag and went home.
When he came home, his stepmother said to him, “Where is the game today?” He took out the feather and gave it to her.
She said, “I set it as crosses and as spells, and as the decay of the year on you, and as the seven fairy fetters of going and straying, that you shall not be without a pool in your shoe, and that you shall be wet, cold and soiled, until you get for me the bird from which that feather came.”
And John said to her, “I set it as crosses and as spells, and as the decay of the year on you, and as the seven fairy fetters of going and straying, that you shall stand with one foot on the castle, and the other on the hall, and that your face shall be to the tempest
whatever wind blows, until I return.”
He went away to look for the falcon from which the feather came, and his stepmother the queen was standing with one foot on the castle and the other on the hall, her front to the face of the tempest, however long he might be away.
Upright John went, travelling the waste, but he could not see the falcon. He was by himself, and the night came blind and dark, and he crouched at the root of a briar.
A Foxy Lad appeared to him and said, “You are sad, Upright John. Bad is the night on which you have come. I myself have only a trotter and a sheep's cheek, but they must do.”
They blew a fire heap, and they roasted flesh and ate the trotter and the sheep's cheek. And the next morning the Foxy Lad said to the king's son, “The Blue Falcon is with the Giant of the Five Heads, the Five Humps and the Five Throttles, and I shall show you where he lives.
“And my advice to you,” said the Foxy Lad, “is for you to be his servant, nimble to do all that he asks of you, and each thing he entrusts to you, with exceeding care. Be very good to his birds, and he will let you feed the Blue Falcon. And when the giant is not at home, run away with her: but see that no part of her touches any one thing that is the giant's, or your matter will not go well with you.”
“I shall do all these things,” said Upright John.
He went to the giant's house. He struck at the
“Who is there?” said the giant.
“One coming to see if you need a lad,” said John.
“What can you do?” said the giant.
“I feed birds,” said john, “and swine; milk a cow, a goat or a sheep.”
“I want someone like you,” said the giant.
The giant came out and he settled wages with John, and John was nimble and took exceeding care of everything the giant had.
“My lad is so good,” said the giant, “that I begin to think he may be trusted to feed the Blue Falcon.”
So the giant gave the Blue Falcon to Upright John for him to feed her, and he took exceeding care of the falcon. And when the giant saw how well he was caring for her, he thought he would trust him altogether, so he gave the falcon to John for him to keep her, and John took exceeding care of the falcon.
The giant thought that each thing was going right, and he went from the house one day.
Then Upright John said, “It is time to go,” and he took the falcon. But when he opened the door and the falcon saw sunlight, she spread her wings to fly, and the point of one of the feathers on one of her wings touched one of the posts of the door, and the post let loose a screech.
The Giant of the Five Heads, the Five Humps and the Five Throttles came home running, and caught Upright John and took the falcon from him.
“I would not give you my Blue Falcon,” said the giant, “unless you could get for me the White Sword of Light that the Seven Big Women of Jura keep.”
And the giant sent Upright John away.
John went out again, travelling the waste, and the Foxy Lad met with him, and he said, “You are sad, Upright John. You did not, and you will not, as I told you. Bad is the night on which you have come. I have only a trotter and a sheep's cheek, but they must do.”
They blew a fire heap, and they roasted flesh and ate the trotter and the sheep's cheek. And the next morning the Foxy Lad said to the king's son, “I shall grow into a ship and take you over the sea to Jura.
“And my advice to you,” said the Foxy Lad, “is that you say to the Big Women that you will be their polishing-lad, and that you are good at brightening iron and steel, gold and silver, at burnishing and at making all things gleam. Be nimble. Do every job with exceeding care. Then, when they trust you with the White Sword of Light, run away with it: but see that the sheath touches no part that is of the inside of where the Big Women live, or your matter will not go well with you.”
“I shall do all those things,” said Upright John.
The Foxy Lad grew into a ship, and they sailed across and came to shore at the Rock of the Flea on the north side of Jura, and Upright John went to
take service with the Seven Big Women there.
He struck at the door. The Seven Big Women came out and asked him what he wanted.
“I have come to find if you need a polishing-lad,” said John.
“What can you polish?” said they.
“I brighten, make clear shining, gold and silver, or iron, or steel,” said John.
They said, “We have a use for you,” and they set wages on him.
He was nimble for six weeks, and put everything in exceeding order; and the Big Women said to each other, “This is the best lad we have ever had.” Then they said, “We can trust him with the White Sword of Light.”
They gave the White Sword of Light to Upright John, and he took exceeding care of it until one day that the Seven Big Women of Jura were not in the house, and he thought that then was the time for him to run.
He put the White Sword of Light into the sheath, and lifted it on his shoulder; but when he went out of the door, the point touched the lintel, and the lintel let loose a screech.
The Seven Big Women of Jura came home running, and caught Upright John and took the White Sword of Light from him.
“We would not give you our White Sword of Light,” said the Big Women, “unless you could get for us the Yellow Horse of the King of Irrua.”
John went out again to the shore, and the Foxy Lad met with him, and he said, “You are sad, Upright John. You did not, and you will not, as I told you. Bad is the night on which you have come. I have only a trotter and a sheep's cheek, but they must do.”
They blew a fire heap, and they roasted flesh and ate the trotter and the sheep's cheek. And the next morning the Foxy Lad said to the king's son, “I shall grow into a ship and take you over the sea to Irrua.
“And my advice to you,” said the Foxy Lad, “is that you go to the house of the king and ask to be a stabling-lad to him. Be nimble. Do every job with exceeding care, and keep the horses and the harness in exceeding order, till the king trusts the Yellow Horse to you. And when there is the chance, run away: but take care that no morsel of the horse touches anything that is on the inner side of the gate but the hooves of its feet, or your matter will not go well with you.”
“I shall do all those things,” said Upright John.
The Foxy Lad grew into a ship, and they sailed across to Irrua.
John went to the king's house. He struck at the door.
“Where are you going?” said the gatekeeper.
“To see if the king has need of a stabling-lad,” said John.
The king came out and said, “What can you do?”
“I clean and feed horses,” said John, “and I shine
“I have a use for you,” said the king, and he set wages on him, and John went to the stable, and he put each thing in exceeding order and took exceeding care of the horses, and fed them, kept their hides clean and sleek, and he was nimble with the tackle.
The king said, “This is the best stabling-lad I have ever known. I can trust the Yellow Horse to him.”
The king gave the Yellow Horse to John for him to look after, and he looked after her until she was so sleek and slippery, and so swift, that she would leave the one wind and catch the other.
Then the king went hunting one day, and Upright John thought that was the time to steal the Yellow Horse. He set her with a bridle and saddle and all that belonged to her, and when he led her out of the stable and was taking her through the gate, she gave a switch of her tail, and a hair of it touched the post of the gate, and the gate let loose a screech.
The king came home running, and caught Upright John and took the Yellow Horse from him.
“I would not give you my Yellow Horse,” said the king, “unless you could get for me the Daughter of the King of the Frang.”