Birthmarks and Invisible Clothes

In which I search out the folktale inspirations for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd”.


I’ve been reading M.R. James’ 1930 translation of Hans Christian Andersen, Forty-two Stories, which is a delight. I’ve realized that, while I’m familiar with Andersen’s most famous tales, I’ve mostly only read retellings of them, rather than reading them in Andersen’s own (translated) words. It makes such a difference! Andersen’s prose (as channeled through James, at least) is so beautifully clean and unadorned; more modern than I would have expected.

Many (though not all) of Andersen’s tales are direct retellings of folktales, albeit with his own unique voice and special details. Other tales borrow from traditional stories to a greater or lesser degree. In the preface to his translation, James gives a bit of information about the folk origins of several tales, based both on what Andersen himself said, and on James’ personal research.

Let’s explore “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd.”

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The Baby in the Boot


In the region near the Cleveland Hills of Yorkshire, around the twelfth century or so, there was a man named Richard Rowntree. He got it into his head to walk the the Camino de Santiago, to the tomb of St. James of Compostela, in Spain, some 900 miles away as the crow flies — and Richard Rowntree was no crow. Why he wanted to make this pilgrimage I don’t know, but off he went, leaving behind his pregnant wife.

The Way of St. James was a popular one with pilgrims — so popular that some said the Milky Way was formed from the dust raised by pilgrims’ feet. But it was also a dangerous road, beset by robbers who preyed on the pious. So Richard wisely kept company with a group of fellow pilgrims, and when they stopped for the night, they would take turns keeping watch as the others slept. And so they traveled, following the Camino Real, which led them through a deep forest.

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Witches vs. Sorcerers: What’s the Difference?

For my Mexican Monstresses series, I’ve been reading a fascinating (but quite academic) book called Bloodsucking Witchcraft (Nutini and Roberts, 1993), about a type of Mexican “vampire” in central Mexico. I put vampire in quotes, because even though this creature sucks blood, both Nutini and Roberts, as well as sources on early Mexican folk belief all the way back to the sixteenth century, refer to it (“her” mostly) as a witch (brujo/a).

A bloodsucking shapeshifter is not what I think of as a witch.

Source: Wikipedia

And the European conception of a vampire (which is by definition a revenant — that is, the dead revived) isn’t a witch. But the definition that Nutini and Roberts use, and how they distinguish witch (brujo/a) from sorcerer (hechicero/a) calls out some differences I’d never thought about. Before, I’d always considered the terms somewhat interchangeable, and I think in common usage most people do. But the distinction is interesting, and useful.

Note that in the following discussion, I’m referring to witchcraft and sorcery in the folk belief sense of anthropomorphic supernatural beings, not in reference to Wicca or other modern Neopagan religions.

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Carlos and Julio (and Monty)

The good news: it was a beautiful weekend to celebrate Non Stop Bhangra‘s ten year anniversary. The bad news: I danced so hard I think I broke my toe. This at least gave me an excuse to sit around all Sunday, finishing up Julio Cortázar’s Blow-Up and other stories.


I couldn’t help comparing him (well, this collection) to my recent bout of Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes (or what I’ve read of him, this time around) has a distinct set of preoccupations that permeate all his work. The primary one is the intrusion of the past into the present, or the revisiting of the past in the present. This often expresses itself in his work as reincarnation, ghosts, doubles, history repeating itself. Memory and history are recurrent themes as well, closely related to the first, and also rife with ghost story possibilities. Oh, and there’s sex and erotic longing. The second usually leads to the first, of course — but not always.

If Cortázar has an obsession, then it’s transmigration. Not just in the sense of reincarnation, but more generally in the sense of the transference of essence, of souls. It might be across species (“Axolotl”), across centuries (“The Night, Face Up”, “The Idol of the Cyclades”),  or between people (“The Distances”, “Secret Weapons”, “A Yellow Flower”). One also senses in many of these stories the fear of losing control (“House Taken Over”; the just-released “Headache“, translated into English for the first time by Michael Cisco). There’s a fair bit of longing in his stories, too – the unrequited kind. Perhaps it’s for the best friend’s wife, or even a blood relative (a commenter on The Weird Fiction Review‘s profile of Cortázar mentions the author’s “complicated feelings towards his own sister” — this is the first and only thing I’ve heard about it, but it is true that “House Taken Over” and “Bestiary” both have a weird vibe).

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Musings on The Bone Key

From my readings of his work, and about his life, M. R. James seems to have been a warm and gentle person, well-liked, with a joyous enthusiasm for his research, his writing, and other related interests (folklore and detective stories among them). I admire his ghost stories, his essays about ghost stories, and what I’ve read of his scholarly work, and I think that I would have liked him as a person.

I also get the impression that he was rather conservative in outlook. He didn’t seem particularly warm to the idea of women in academia. I think I would have liked him, but I’m not entirely sure that he would have approved of me.

So I find it interesting that some of James’ most prominent (and scholarly) fans are women: Rosemary Pardoe, certainly, and Jacqueline Simpson for the folkloric aspects of James’ work. And now we can add Sarah Monette.

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Friday Video: The Wailing Well

It’s the cusp of the long Memorial Day weekend here in the U.S.: the beginning of summer. For most parts of the country, it’s the beginning of cook-out and camping season, too (as Mark Twain noted, summer is the season of fog and mists here in San Francisco). A campfire horror tale seems suitable….

M. R. James wrote the “Wailing Well” for the Eton Boy Scouts in 1927. He read it to the boys around a campfire at their summer camp at Worbarrow Bay in Dorset — strongly implying that the events of the story happened nearby.

David Lilley and Stephen Gray have done a good, spooky adaptation of The Wailing Well (you may remember Stephen Gray’s The Door in the Wall, which I featured on a previous Friday video).

Length: 13 minutes, 6 seconds.

Produced and directed by David Lilley, written by David Lilley and Kevin Norcross. Visual direction by Stephen Gray.

The original story is full of black humor (I love the passage about the life-saving competition) and in-jokes — all the Masters and other adults referred to by name are real people, known to the boys who heard the story. Lilley and Gray’s version is more straight-ahead scares. The film gives more of an explanation of the creatures who haunt the well than the original story, which may or may not be an improvement, depending on your taste for unexplained horrors; I thought it was effective. It also changes the way too perfect, and in my opinion superfluous, character of Arthur Wilcox to the less perfect — and less irritating — but still “good boy” character of Arthur Goode. That was definitely an improvement.


Solomon and the Demons

… you’ll never see a man exactly six feet tall, because that was the height of the Lord Jesus.

— Manly Wade Wellman, “Call Me From the Valley” (1954)

I like non-canonical Christian folklore (meaning, folklore that’s not in the Old or New Testament). Growing up as I did, in a Catholic family, Bible stories never felt like “myth” in the same way that say, stories about the Roman or Greek or Hindu pantheons did. Bible stories felt (and still feel) more like “history” — they are the stories I grew up with, stories I’ve always known. From the inside, I don’t always appreciate the universe-explaining, myth-making capacity of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the same way I appreciate it in traditions that I didn’t grow up in. Stories and tidbits like Six-Foot Jesus, or the (very) old Irish story of Moses and the origin of Leprechauns put me back on the outside again. It’s good to be there once in a while.

I suspect that M.R. James, who by all accounts was a devout Christian, felt a little of what I feel. This is from the preface to his text Old Testament Legends (Being stories out of some of the less-known apocryphal books of the Old Testament):

Perhaps I have now said enough to show of what sort the tales are that are told in this book—some of them told for the first time in English. They are not true, but they are very old; some of them, I think, are beautiful, and all of them seem to me interesting.

The story that I retell below, of King Solomon and the demon Ephippas (with a bit of backstory), is originally from The Testament of Solomon. The text, which describes in the first person how King Solomon gained power over demons and forced them to build the temple in Jerusalem, dates back to somewhere between the first and fifth centuries CE. It is of Greek, probably Christian origin.

In addition to the translation (synopsis, really) in Old Testament Legends, Dr. James also wrote a couple of commentaries about The Testament of Solomon, available here and here. He also made use of the myth in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. That’s where I first learned of it, and I always did wonder where it came from. Now I know.

Anyway. To the story. The quotes are taken from Old Testament Legends.

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Ramblings and Random Linkages

NewImageThe Mad Tea Party, by John Tenniel
Image: Project Gutenberg

A few nights ago, I came across an essay about the 1985 movie Dreamchild, on Cabinet des Fées. It is the story of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, she of Alice in Wonderland, as an adult, coming to terms with her relationship with Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson).

According to the essay, the movie posits an awkward, somewhat childlike (and apparently chaste) Dodgson, and a Lolita-like young Alice. I get the impression, from the essay, that the film might portray Dodgson as more of the victim of Alice and her siblings, rather than the other way around. Later in life, Alice realizes this, and regrets it.

In real life, there is all kinds of controversy about Dodgson’s relationship with Alice and with her sister Lorina, as well as that little matter of all those photographs of young girls (some of them nude). It’s still a mystery why the Liddell family fell out with Dodgson in 1863. Was it because of Alice? Or Lorina? Or Mrs. Liddell (also named Lorina)?

I haven’t seen Dreamchild yet, but the review was written by Elwin Cotman, whose writing I admire. That doesn’t mean I’ll like everything he likes, of course, but the movie certainly sounds interesting enough to check out.

And then, the next day, I came across a letter by M. R. James, written to Nicholas (Nico) Llewelyn Davies. The Davies brothers (George, John, Peter, Michael, and Nicholas) were the foster sons of J. M. Barrie, and the inspirations for Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. From the comments in the introduction to the letter, and other things I’ve read, it sounds like the relationship between Barrie and the brothers was a bit stifling. Certainly, their father was not fond of Barrie when he was alive, and Barrie seems to have gotten guardianship of the boys after their mother’s death through a bit of forgery and twisting of the truth. And there are rumors of pedophilia about Barrie, as well, although Nico denies this.

Nico met M. R. James at Eton, when Nico was an student, about the time that James became Provost. James had the habit of befriending students of a certain age at the school — “not too young, not too old,” as Jack Adrian puts it. He also had a sort of Alice of his own, Jane McBryde, the daughter of James’s close friend James McBryde. James stayed very close to McBryde’s family after McBryde died; and he wrote the children’s fantasy novel, The Five Jars, for Jane. It’s a lovely book; if you like fantasy, and you haven’t read it, I suggest you give it a try. He also wrote her (and her mother, Gwen) extensive letters, filled with fancies like talking birds and snippets of folk tales. Gwen McBryde published the letters in 1956, as Letters to A Friend. I’d love to find a copy of it.

NewImageIllustration for “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” drawn by James McBryde

Unlike Dodgson and Barrie, there are no unseemly rumors about James and his friendships with young people. Gwen McBryde didn’t have any problem with James’s relationship with Jane (from other things I’ve read — sorry, I can’t remember where — if James had a romantic crush on anyone in the family, it would have been James McBryde). The majority opinion of what I’ve read (among those writings that bother to talk about it) is that James was maybe on the homosexual side of asexual. The general consensus is that it’s really nobody’s business. And that’s true, too.

The letter to Nico from James was in a response to a query from Nico, asking for suggestions for a weird fiction collection that Nico was compiling. At the time that James wrote the letter (January 1928), he had just read H.P. Lovecraft’s critical essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, and the response in the letter is framed by that reading. It’s interesting to see James’s opinion of the weird fiction of the time, and earlier. He didn’t care for Frankenstein, surprisingly (I don’t think, from comments made in other writings, that he liked Turn of the Screw, either). He did like Wilkie Collins’ A Haunted Hotel, and Mary Wilkins’ A Wind in the Rosebush. He was so-so on Ambrose Bierce, said nice things about Lafcadio Hearn and didn’t like Arthur Machen. And of course he put in a pitch for Sheridan Le Fanu.

It’s amusing to see how disdainful he is of pretentious writing (as done by critics), especially since he was an academic in a particularly dry field. I’ve read some of his professional work, in particular Old Testament Legends, his study on stories from Biblical Apocrypha, and his study of the origin of blood libel (the legend that Jews kill and eat Christian babies, and related nonsense). Speaking as someone who reads a fair bit of academic writing, Dr. James’ style is refreshingly plain and down-to-earth — not adjectives I associate with professorial writing styles.

I don’t really have a point here, except that I thought stumbling on Carroll, Barrie, and James back-to-back like that was a coincidence worth writing about. It’s interesting to see how the fondness for young people (and I use that expression without snark) influenced the writing of these three men, and how differently it unfolded in their lives.

The links to books above are mostly to Project Gutenberg (hurray for them!); Supernatural Horror in Literature is from Feedbooks, and James’ blood libel essay is from the Ghosts & Scholars website.

When the Sun is in his Weakness


Photo: Nina Zumel

Winter solstice arrives here in San Francisco tonight at 9:30 pm, local time (you can find what time it will be/was for you, here). In honor of the event, I’ve tried to find a folktale about the solstice from my collection that I could share with you. I couldn’t come up with an actual folkale — I’m sure I’m just not looking hard enough — but I did find M. R. James’s “An Evening’s Entertainment,” originally collected in A Warning to the Curious (1925).

‘When the sun’s gathering his strength,’ he said, ‘and when he’s in the height of it, and when he’s beginning to lose his hold, and when he’s in his weakness, them that haunts about that lane had best to sake heed to themselves.’

The quote refers, of course, to the equinoxes and the solstices. The story tells of two men who spend mysterious nights out near an “old figure cut out in the hill-side” — and come to a very bad end.

The old figure on the hill-side may have been inspired by the Cerne Abbas Giant, in Dorset, England. Dr. James had been working on a book about abbeys about the time he wrote “Evening’s Entertaiment”, and Cerne Abbey was one of the places that he discussed. The horror symbology in the story refers mostly to Beelzebub (“Lord of the Flies”); but the descriptions of Mr. Davis and his companion suggest that they were involved in some derivation (or maybe perversion is a better word) of Celtic sun-god worship.

It’s really more of a sketch than a full-on story, but it does illustrate nicely how Dr. James could weave his scholarly background and folkloric interests into his ghost stories. Also, he seems to have a nice appreciation for traditional oral storytelling.

Here is the full text of “An Evening’s Entertainment.” The text got a bit scrambled in places, but the story is readable.

Here are some notes and annotations for the story, courtesy of Rosemary Pardoe at Ghosts & Scholars.

And finally, more commentary on the story, also courtesy of Ghosts & Scholars. Search the page for “The Old Man on the Hill”, and “Just How Wicked was that Wicked Young Man?”. Half the fun of reading M. R. James is to find all the writers who analyze his stories for their folkloric and historical context. It’s better than detective fiction.