Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Best Stories in the World: The Man Who Had No Story

I figure that the best way to honor my Irish ancestry is by writing about Irish folklore (especially folktales) until the 17th. So the story every day will come from my respectable trove of tomes devoted to Ireland.

Let's start with Sean O'Sullivan's Folktales of Ireland. It's part of Richard Dorson's series of Folktales of the World. Dorson, who wrote the foreword, tells us that "No nation of the world has gathered in its folktales with the fullness, the loving  care, and the dazzling rewards manifest in Ireland." 1.5 million pages of them in the archives of the Irish Folklore commission (and that's 1966 pages). By the way, O'Sullivan uses the spelling Sean O Suilleabhain inside the book; the Anglicized version on the cover and title page.

Here's one of the stories in that collection:

The Man Who Had No Story

Things start simply enough, with a man named Rory a-going to town the night before a big market day. He's on his way to sell the stockings knitted by his wife. Along the way he grows weary and, upon seeing a house up the road with the glow of a fire inside, he inquires at the door. He meets and old man who, strangely enough, knows his name: "You're welcome, Rory O'Donoghue."

When the old man offers a seat, the chair pulls itself out. The man sits as well, and offers Rory dinner. There's no one else in the house, so far as Rory can see, but the man does no work. Instead, the plates and forks and knives rise up of their own accord to begin the cooking. The meat and potatoes emerge, to be sliced by the knives and plopped into the pots. Buckets bring water, and soon the feast is ready. They eat their fill together, in silence. Then the same forks and knives and plates clear themselves away.

At that point, Rory hears the approach of footsteps, but it turns out to be nothing more than a pair of slippers striding toward him to provide comfort for his weary feet. Only then does the old man speak again:

"Do you know, Rory," how I spend my nights here? I spend one-third of each night eating and drinking, one-third telling stories or singing songs, and the last third sleeping. Sing a song for me now, Rory."

"I never sang a song in my life," said Rory.

"Tell a story, then."

"I never told a story of any kind."

So the old man kicks him to the curb. On his way out, the door strikes Rory on the back.
Rory has no choice but to go onward. He soon sees the glow of a campfire, where he finds a man roasting meat on a spit. The man welcomes him warmly enough. "Would you mind, Rory, taking hold of this spit and turning the meat over the fire? But don't let any burnt patch come on it."

Rory takes the spit as the man walks into the darkness, for what reason we're not told. Once he's gone, of course the piece of meat shouts at Rory, "Don't let my whiskers burn!"

Understandably upset, Rory throws the spit and takes off running. But the spit and the meat upon it overtake him, striking him "as hard as they could" on his back. Fleeing blindly, Rory lucks upon another house and bursts inside--only to find that it's the same house he had visited earlier and been fed by the old man. This time, the old man is already in bed, and not at all upset to be barged in upon by Rory. He welcomes Rory once more, but Rory refuses his hospitality on the grounds that the beating from the not-quite-cooked meat has left him covered in blood.

The old man asks Rory what happened, and Rory tells him--presumably the first story Rory has ever uttered in his life.

"Ah, Rory," said the old man. "If you had a story like that to tell me earlier, you wouldn't have been out until now." He let's Rory sleep in the house. When Rory woke up the next morning, "he found himself on the roadside, with his bag of stockings under his head, and not a trace of a house or dwelling anywhere around him."

Conchobhar Pheadair Ui Cheilleachair [how's that for a name?] of County Cork heard that story from his mother about 1863, then told it to the collector Proinsias O Ceallaigh [!] seventy years later.

So why's the one of the best stories in the world? I'm a big fan of absurdity like this. Random sentient meat on a stick, a bag of socks as a pillow...great stuff. There's also a lot to be said for the structure--a man who has no story experiencing something that he can transform into a story. But I've got to wonder, why doesn't the old man make sure Rory has something to contribute before feeding him?

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