Thursday, February 2, 2017
A long time ago there were two deadbeats. These men were fond of playing dominoes and singing an odd little tune: "It's my delight, on a shiny night." They got their daily food by poaching rabbits. They did so by taking a ferret and sending it into a rabbit hole while they held a bag over the exit.
One night as they were out a-poaching, the bag was a bit more feisty than usual. As they sang their way through the woods back to their fire pit, the moon came out from behind a cloud. They grew silent, staring at the celestial orb, and suddenly there came a cry from somewhere in the woods: "Dick, wheer art ta?"
To their surprise, something in the bag replied: "In a sack, on a back, Riding up Hoghton Brow."
The man holding the bag dropped it, and the two ran off to hide the rest of the night--hungry and quaking with fear--in a tavern. They told their story to any and all who would give them the time of day, and word spread. From that day onward, the kids in the area became known to follow the deadbeats around town, whispering whenever an opportune moment presented itself, "Dick, wheer art ta?"
I came across this story in James Bowker's Goblin Tales of Lancashire, part of a series called The Illustrated Library of Fairy Tales of All Nations. It's hard to pin down a publication date for for this book, since there's no lawyer page at the front. The copy I got (when the IU Folklore department was selling off its library) is inscribed to somebody called "O Elton" in 1894. It's falling apart. Maybe it's "G Elton." Or "C Elton." It's hard to tell. People must have made letters differently in the nineteenth century.
The author included some comparative notes. For this story, called "The Captured Fairies," Bowker provides some information about the wild hunt, a Teutonic legend in which Odin or some elves or both crash through the world in pursuit of something or other. Apparently the hounds involved in the wild hunt can speak, and when a peasant caught one by accident, much the same thing happened. So there's that.
Because the tale comes from Lancashire, it's got that weird dialect writing. Some stories in the collection are unreadable because of that. Still, lots of good stuff there. It seems to be derived from oral tradition, but Bowker's heavily literized them; for example, here's how he describes their capture of the fairy: "They did not wait long in anxious expectation of an exodus before there was a frantic rush, and after hastily grasping the sacks tightly round the necks, and tempting their missionary from the hole, they crept through the hedgerow, and at a sharp pace started for home." Nothing wrong with that, of course,
So why is this one of the best stories in the world? I think I like it because it's such a silly little thing that actually echoes something profoundly terrifying. The Wild Hunt stems, probably, from terrific storms, during which people could hear howling and whatnot. There was a pretty good issue of Marvel's Thor comic that included a wild hunt, not with Odin. It's that element of disjunction, of the way the story has evolved that makes it great. It's sort of the opposite of the tale of Aurvandil/Earendil in that way.