Bake me a bannock and roast me a collop…..
This time we’ve a Scottish fairy tale, name checked by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien.
It features a whole lot of threes, an Epic Battle (off camera), a very valuable apple (no Steve Jobs required) and a fast and loose attitude to tying up narrative threads.
It also features a eucatastrophe… which despite how it might sound is not when things go wrong with the Eucharist, or what my friends call me when I’ve had another drunken night on the town.
Story in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)
The story in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.
If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the story, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…
The Black Bull of Norroway
Langsyne (or “Once upon a time” if you prefer the English) there was a woman with three daughters. Three ambitious daughters.
It came the time that the eldest sought a life outside of the home. So she went to her mother and said: “Mother, bake me a bannock and roast me a collop, for I’m going away to seek my fortune”.
(A bannock is a type of dense bread, sometimes with fruit in it, and a collop is a big hunk of meat – carbs and protein, perfect adventuring fare).
And off she went. But not far to begin with for she went to the old washerwoman, whose occupation belied the great wisdom she had and indeed her magic.
For a short three days she stayed with the woman, looking out of the back door to the road once a day as she was instructed. The first day, nothing. The second day, also nothing. The third day. Well because this is a fairy tale you know something different is going to happen and indeed it did. This time a resplendent coach came along the road, pulled by six magnificent horses.
“Well what are you still doing here? Get you off after it, that there is for you!” said the washerwoman. And with delight the eldest daughter ran to the coach, swung open the door, got in and was whisked away.
A couple of years pass and it’s the middle daughter’s time to yearn for adventure. And wash, rinse and repeat: With the bannock, the washerwoman, and a coach on the third day. Though this one only had four horses pulling it it still seemed like a great offer. And so off she goes.
And finally to the youngest daughter, Kari, who gets a name as she is the protagonist of this tale.
Things proceeded just as before. Right up until the point when Kari found herself looking out the door of the washer-witch’s cottage on the third day. Where her sisters had seen carriages she found herself looking at a huge black bull.
She did not run delightedly towards it. She tried to go back into the house. But the witch blocked her way.
“He’s for you – that’s your fortune” she said to Kari, in a dangerous voice.
The bull strode towards the terrified young woman until it was right up close to her and she could see its huge muscles, its eyes, crazy and wild, its sharp horns that could oh so easily sink through flesh. The animal snorted loudly and the Witch, with a surprising unnatural strength, grasped hold of Kari, lifted her up and forcefully sat her astride the bull as though it were a horse. And off the bull went, carrying Kari with it.
Kari didn’t dare dismount. At least here on its back she enjoyed some degree of safety. Even if she didn’t hurt herself falling to the ground then there she would be an easy target for the ire of the bull. So she clung on grimly for dear life.
And continued hanging on for hours, as the bull never seemed to stop. She almost grew used to it but she soon found herself growing terribly hungry. This didn’t go unnoticed: “Oh, you’re hungry” came the low rumbling voice of the Bull. “Should’ve said. Well reach into my right ear and eat what you find there. And for drink? Well that’s in my left ear, obviously. Help yourself.”
Kari was astonished at the speaking Bull but he didn’t seem to want to engage in any further dialogue options, merely repeating himself when asked, and so she gingerly followed his instructions. Presumably overcoming some substantial logistical challenges to do so. And much to her astonishment the nourishment she found tasted altogether heavenly.
On they rode, in silence, until they reached a glorious palace. “This is the palace of my eldest brother” explained the Bull. Which by this point: “yeah, why not?” thought Kari. And into the opulent palace they went. A palace that was staffed by humans by the way. Humans who took Kari off the Bull’s back, refused to give any answers to her many questions but did give her a meal and then show her to a luxurious bed where she spent the night.
After she had breakfasted the next morning Kari was led into a parlour the walls of which were decorated with such riches that they positively shined.
There was a servant in the room and when he saw Kari he produced a silver platter upon which there was but a single large, fancy looking apple. He proffered it to Kari and said to her: “You must take it now, but don’t eat it. You must only eat it when you are in the greatest danger a mortal has ever been in.“
Kari took the apple, and his bit of ominous foreshadowing out of the way the man left her. And then it was back to the Bull.
They rode another day. Much like the last but through country even further away from anywhere Kari had ever known. The Bull was taciturn so they exchanged but few words, nevertheless Kari was becoming ever more comfortable with him. As evening drew in and the shadows lengthened the pair came upon another castle.
“This is the castle of my middle brother” explained the bull. Of course.
And we’ve got another wash, rinse and repeat here, with the only changes being that everything was somehow even more resplendent than the day before and this time the fruit she must not eat until in the gravest danger was a pear.
And off the two went again.
Third day, youngest brother: castle done out to opulence levels of almost high camp, and this time it’s a plum. Kari was just getting into this routine when, in the middle of the fourth day, things changed. For they came to a dark and frightful glen. And there, for the first time, the Bull let Kari down unbidden.
“Kari, I must go now, but hopefully only for a while. And you must wait here for me. I have a battle to be fought, against the devil himself.”
“You must sit there upon that flat stone and you must not move hand nor foot until I return, or else I will never find you again. Don’t move an inch, you understand?”
Kari nodded slowly. The Bull continued: “Now presently everything around here, the trees, the grass, the rocks and the earth, will change colour. And in that way you shall know the outcome of our battle: For if it all changes to blue then I will have been victorious. But, if it becomes red he will have conquered me. And if that happens then you must run far away. Now sit, and remember, don’t move.”
As she was bidden Kari sat on the stone and the Bull left.. to fight a battle of the most epic proportions against the oldest and most powerful enemy of mankind. Kari saw none of it but sat stock still, almost too terrified to even breath. And she waited.
Finally the message arrived. She wasn’t sure at first, the change was gradual, but in time it was unmistakable, colour seeping into everything around, a dye spreading and staining the surroundings, even the very air seemed to flicker and change. And it changed to blue.
Kari breathed out and exuberance flowed through her, and as joy overcame her she involuntarily lifted one foot and crossed it over the other, so glad was she in his victory.
Soon the victorious Bull returned to the spot he had left Kari, his heart full of joy. But as desperately as he sought her he could never find her again.
She waited in that place for a long time. But in her heart she knew the awful truth, knew the cost of that unwitting movement. Fatigue and hunger crept up on her gradually, and after briefly giving way to despair she knew there was nothing to be done now. She had to go.
She left and walked onwards until eventually she came to a hill. Just a perfectly normal hill. Made entirely of glass. They hadn’t passed by that earlier in the day, she would have remembered that.
The great glass hill stretched off into the distance in both directions.
She tried to walk around the hill, but it was so vast that seemed impossible. Why she didn’t go back I’m not entirely clear but that was clearly no option for her either.
Eventually she came upon a house at the base of the glass hill. It proved to belong to a smith, who knew a way over the hill: with iron shoes. Shoes that he, being a smith, could make for her. Just one catch: she’d have to work for him. For seven years. Which seems a lot of time for one set of shoes, however special.
But Kari was out of other options. And so she agreed.
The man was as good as his word and on the last day of her seven years he presented her with her costly iron shoes. And up the mountain Kari went. Considerably older than at the start of the story.
At the top of the enormous glass mountain was a land that looked almost suspiciously normal. Stepping off the glass Kari changed back into her regular shoes, which she’d brought with her in a bag which also contained the three pieces of fruit which were, in a fairy tale way, quite ripe all these years later.
So she wandered in this new land until she stumbled across a house and found another job, which was apparently her way now.
This job was assisting a washerwoman and her daughter. With a very odd task. They had been given the blood stained robes of a Knight who had told them, for reasons that it’s best not to try to apply logic to, that whoever could wash the blood from them would get his hand in marriage.
But things weren’t going well. Despite being experts in their field the robes remained stubbornly bloody. When they’d quite given up Kari, who knew nothing particular of being a washer woman, offered to take over and… wouldn’t you know it? Blood all out. Dazzlingly white.
She was all set to marry a knight now! Finally things were going well for her.
Right up until the point said Knight arrived the next day, found his washed clothes, asked who did it and the washerwoman proudly offered up her daughter as the cleaner-extraordinaire. And just like that the daughter and the knight were engaged to be wed.
Kari was distraught, she had washed the clothes, the Knight should be hers. She was beside herself thinking about the upcoming nuptials when she finally thought of her fruit.
This, this was surely the time that she was in the most danger a mortal ever had been!
And… yeah.. it’s difficult to defend this one on really any level. I just don’t know. Not when the bull was fighting the arch-fiend of hell and not when he couldn’t return to her. Those situations would have stretched that “most danger a mortal has ever been in” criteria but either of them would have been a damn sight closer to it than getting cheated out of your victory in a peculiar dating show format. But we’re rolling with it.
She took the apple out first. Bit into it. And there was a nasty crunch and a horrible metallic feeling against her teeth. For to her astonishment the apple contained gold and jewels of the finest quality!
And here things take what I consider to be an even stranger turn, for rather than just considering that she was now made for life and going and living her own best life instead she offered the riches in the fruit to the washer-woman’s daughter, and asked her to delay her wedding by but one day in return. Not cancel it or anything. Just one day.
And oh, and to let Kari into the Knight’s room alone at night. Which makes a bit more sense.
The daughter accepted, took the gold and jewels, gave Kari access to the bedchamber and, unbeknownst to Kari she also conspired with her mother to give the knight a sleeping draught. Nothing against it in the rules.
Kari’s planned seduction therefore met with failure, but she sang to the knight instead.
And the next day.. You know how it goes now.. Exactly the same again. Bite the pear, jewels fall out, give to daughter, delay wedding, into the knight’s chamber.
Heaven knows what he thought about these wedding delays.
He’s asleep, so Kari can’t wake him. No seduction. So she sings to him instead.
Third day… last attempt! Get the plum. Riches that would embarrass the Carnegies pour forth from it. It seems increasingly odd that Kari doesn’t just keep the damn money or ask for the wedding to be delayed entirely if she’s really so smitten. But she doesn’t. And she also doesn’t change her plan at all.
Failure for her seems inevitable. But thankfully for Kari events outside of her control took over. You see the Knight had been told by a companion of his about the lovely singing coming from his room in the evening. Which was odd as he couldn’t remember anything of the sort.
He got suspicious. So that evening when the prospective mother in law brought him one of those strange tasting drinks she prepared he discreetly poured it away. And he had fallen into a more natural sleep by the time Kari was let in.
She gazed at him for what she knew would be the last time. And she sang to him:
“Seven long years I served for thee
The glassy hill I climbed for thee
Thy bloody clothes I wrang for thee
And wilt thou not waken and turn to me?”
And at that he woke.
The rest is scarcely worth mentioning. The knight and Kari were married, he executed the washerwoman and her daughter both(!), which seems proportionate for lying about who washed some clothes and not the actions of a tyrannical madman, and I hope that despite this him and Kari lived happily ever after.
But as for the devil defeating black bull. Well of him no more was ever heard.
Variants: East of the Sun and West of the Moon
In the episode I mention there are many variants of this tale, or parts of it at least.
Stories about marrying animals (perfectly normal in fairy tale land) are often described as Cupid and Psyche tales because of some similarity to that Greek legend.
Other parts of the story fall under “The Search for the Lost Husband” tale type. Which is number 425A according to the always confusing Aarne-Thomson classification system.
The most similar variation to the tale is probably the Brown Bull of Norway, an Irish tale with many of the same elements, but also with some radically different ones.
There seems to be a quiet large potential set of pieces that go to making one of these stories and different writers consciously or not chose different combinations from the grab bag.
So in all these variants lots of ideas crop up time and time again (e.g. The fruit with jewels, riding a non horse animal, drugging the knight, the washing challenge) but in a surprising number of different combinations with omissions and additions.
But of all the variants I’ve found the most famous, far more than the Black Bull of Norroway, and also my favourite is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”. It features a Polar Bear, the North Wind, a troll Princess and more.
Coming from Norway it wont be a tale ever featuring on the podcast, but it’s well worth knowing. You can read the whole story here: East of the Sun, West of the Moon along with Kay Nielson’s unique, striking and beautiful illustrations.
On Fairy Stories – Tolkein
In the podcast episode I mention J.R.R Tolkein’s lecture on faerie stories, which has become a real classic in the field. Tolkein discusses at lengths his ideas of what constitutes a “fairy story” and how this interacts with ideas of faeries as beings and faerie as another place.
In so doing he touches on a lot of stories that have been or will be covered on this podcast, including a lengthy quote from Thomas the Rhymer.
Rather than me try to sum it up in prose far less redoubtable and beautiful than Tolkein’s you can read the whole thing here: On Fairy stories – Tolkein and if you’re at all interested I strongly suggest you do.
Do not take it as gospel though as much as what is said here is hotly open for debate, and indeed in many areas knowledge is much greater than the many years ago Tolkein was writing. Even so it’s a cracking read with a lot of good in it if you like that kind of thing.
What a load of Bannocks and Collops..
For those of you still struggling to picture a bannock, well here one is in all its calorie dense, carborific glory.
Collops is a more debated term, potentially just covering meat. There is a bit of a discussion all about Collops and in particularly the old tradition of Collop Monday here: Collop Monday
Musical credits for Episode 13: The Black Bull of Norroway
Intro and outro theme from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music
Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses:
Land of snow
Before the dawn
Railroad’s whiskey co
Roads that burned our boots
A Long Story
What’s behind the door