Something is happening here…

Readers of a certain age will recognize the title of this post as part of the chorus of one of Bob Dylan’s iconic songs of the ’60’s, “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

And something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones ?

What brought the song to mind was another simple phrase which seemed to sum up our own time in a similar pithy way.  Strangely enough, it came from a piece on called “Why the best thing you can do is fail,” by Eddie Obeng, founder of a virtual business school  Here is the passage that caught my attention:

“What’s happened in business is that the rules of the real 21st century aren’t clear to us, so instead we spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.”

We can substitute many other words for “business” and find the phrase rings equally true.  Try it.  “What’s happened in [publishing, school safety, government, warfare, economics, international relations] is that the rules of the real 21st century aren’t clear to us, so instead we spend our time responding to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.”

Both the Dylan lyrics and Obeng’s observation put into simple words what we’ve known for some time but could not express so clearly.

One of my favorite words, liminal, stands for times like these, times of uncertainty and change in the life of an individual or a culture.  Webster’s Dictionary defines liminal as: “1 of or at the limen or threshold 2 at a boundary or transitional point between two conditions, stages in a process, ways of life, etc.”

I started a post in December concerning what fairytales have to say about living in liminal times.  Fairytales always happen in times of transition or crisis times.  Your father will die if you don’t find the water of life.  Your stepmother wants to kill you, or you find your new husband is a serial killer.  The king will cut off your head if you fail to capture  the firebird.

Can this be relevant to the 21st century?  I’m convinced that it can.

Right now I’m reveling in one of my Christmas presents, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, a fine new collection published to celebrate the bicentennial of Grimm’s fairytales.

Reading so many stories at the same time raises a number of questions.  What does it take for a character to survive their otherworld challenges?  Sometimes you have to obey a witch, and at other times you need to push her into the oven.  Sometimes not knowing is an asset and sometimes a fatal flaw.  You should listen to animals by the side of the road unless they are wolves and you’re wearing red.

I don’t expect to come up with definite answers, but I do expect to turn up some interesting questions.  This is my immediate plan; after that, I’ll do as I’ve always done on this blog, make things up as I go along.

I very much hope you’ll stay tuned.  And now, I’ll leave you with my wish for a joyous and prosperous 2013, and with a very old clip of Bob Dylan doing “Ballad of a Thin Man” in 1966 in Copenhagen…

The Yule Lads: Icelandic Christmas folklore.

The Yule Lads

In most Christian countries, Christmas was slower to catch on than other major church holidays.  The clergy may have been wary of pagan solstice celebrations which happened at the same time of year and included serious revelry.  Some early Christmas festivities mimicked the custom.  They were banned in 17th century England, and American Puritans outlawed them too.

According to Brian Pilkington, author of The Yule Lads, Iceland was ahead of the curve. A 16th century law stated that “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.”

Icelandic winters are long and dark, with fewer than five hours of daylight at this time of the year.  Imagination tends to fill the darkness with what we fear, and Pilkington’s book describes “the lads” that kept Icelandic children awake at night.  The gentlemen pictured on the cover are not our shopping mall Santas!

The matriarch of the clan was the ogress, Gryla, who loved to eat stewed children.  It couldn’t be just any kid though.  It had to be one who was “naughty, lazy, or rude.”  In one 13th century account, Gryla had 15 tails, and tied to each was a sack full of naughty children.  It was not “the most wonderful time of the year” if you were young!  The Icelandic word for icicle is “grylukerti” which means “Gryla’s candle.”

Gryla. CC-by-SA-2.5

Gryla had three husbands and 80 children, though legend now boils it down to 13 sons who visit the homes of children on successive nights from Dec. 12 – 25.  Time and the law have taken the edge off the Yule Lads, for a 1746 decree said “The foolish custom, which has been practiced here and there about the country, of scaring children with Yuletide lads or ghosts, shall be abolished.”  By the 19th century, the Lads had morphed from cannibals into rascals and petty thieves, who even began to leave gifts for good children who left their shoes on a window ledge.

The first to arrive was Stekkjarstaur, the “Sheep Worrier.”  He would visit the the sheep cot and try to suck milk from the ewes.  That doesn’t work in December and led author, Brian Pilkington to suggest that Sheep Worrier’s IQ is “somewhat less than three digits.”  These days  he heads for the fridge to get his milk.  If a child has been good, Stekkjarstaur leaves a sugary sweet.  Bad children get a potato.

Next comes Giljagaur, aka, “Gully Gawk” who travels through gullies and ravines, also in search of milk, but he looks for cow barns and inattentive milkmaids.  “Stubby” arrives the third night, as short as his name suggests.  He likes to raid the kitchen, as do the brothers that follow, “Spoon Licker,” “Pot Licker,” and “Bowl Licker.”  In their present forms all they do is mischief, but food thieves were no joke in earlier times.  For northern farming families, the time between Christmas and the spring thaw in April or May could be times of famine if food or fodder for livestock ran short.

The next lad to show up is Hurdaskellir, or “Door Slammer,” one of only two of Gryla’s sons who isn’t out to fill his belly.  Imagine loud bangs in the dead of night and you know how he gets his jollies.

And as if the sons of Gryla were not bad enough, children also had to contend with Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, a huge feral creature who hunts children on Christmas Eve instead of mice. Like the lads, the cat discriminates in choosing his victims, eating only those who have not received a new item of clothing for Christmas. Pilkington says that “Until fairly recently in Iceland, all clothing came directly from sheep. The wool had to be washed, combed, and spun before it was painstakingly crafted into a garment. It was a long, arduous process.”  Fear of the Cat induced lazy children to do their part!

This is a fun book and a fine counterbalance to the usual TV holiday movies.  You can picture families gathered around the fire as the wind howls outside, thinking as we do when hearing a good ghost story, “This can’t be true…can it?”  Something within the listeners then and within us now loves to be scared, to confront monsters and vanquish them in imagination.  On that score, Gryla & Sons and the Yule Cat satisfy!

A click on the book cover at the top of this post will take you a site where you can order The Yule Lads.

Tales of the Elves: Icelandic Folktales for Children

Tales of the Elves cover

One day God decided to visit Adam and Eve.  They welcomed him and introduced  their children – all except the ones Eve had not finished bathing.  After all, you want your kids to be clean when the Supreme Being drops in.  God was aware of this and said, “What is hidden from me shall be hidden from men.”  Those children became the elves who live in the hills and mounds of Iceland.  They can see us but we can’t see them unless they wish it.

I know this because I read a magical book, Tales of the Elves, based on the Icelandic folktales of Jon Arnason, adapted by Anna Kristin Asbjornsdottir and illustrated by Florence Helga Thibault.  I found the book on our visit to Iceland, which I wrote about in the fall.

Interest in elves isn’t limited to children in Iceland.  One day, as we toured the countryside, our driver pointed to a spot in a wide valley where the highway curved around a pair of volcanic rocks.  The stones were only 8′ – 10′ tall, nothing modern earth movers couldn’t remove.  That was the intention of the highway crew.  The problem was, the bulldozers broke down or stalled every time they  approached the twin rocks.  Every time.  Locals explained that the stones marked the entrance to an underground elven settlement.  The equipment worked perfectly after the construction crew decided to route the highway around the stones.

If this reminds you of Irish fairies, there’s good reason.  Genetic testing has proven that many Icelanders, especially the women, came from Ireland, specifically, the viking settlements there.  The stories themselves teach us similar lessons in coexisting with “the hidden ones.”

“Midwife to the elves” shows how the elven folk can give the gift of the sight and take it away again.  “Elf Wind” demonstrates the courage and cunning required to set things right if you do something foolish, like cut the grass on an elven mound.  “Payment for Milk” is about the boons the elves can grant if you treat them with kindness and goodwill.

I’d been looking forward to writing this review since I found Tales of the Elves, but unfortunately I couldn’t find any venue where interested readers can find the book.  Not on Amazon US or UK.  Not on or ebay.  I couldn’t find ordering information on the publisher’s website.  I posted a request for information on the illustrator’s Facebook page, and I’ll pass along anything I discover.  Meanwhile, here is the information – if you love folklore and fine illustration of fantasy themes, it’s worth keeping an eye open for this book.

Anna Kristin Asbjornsdottir (adaptation), Florence Helga Thibault (illustration), Victoria Cribb (trans), Tales of the Elves, Bjartur publishing, Reykjavik, 2012

ISBN:  978-9979-788-80-5

Please post any information you may discover.

More on the Brothers Grimm bicentennial

Earlier this month, I posted a piece on the 200th anniversary of first edition of the Brothers Grimm’s collection of German fairytales:

Yesterday the Sacramento Bee printed an article on this treasure trove of folklore and some of the worldwide activities the bicentennial has inspired (“The Grimm brothers from many angles,” by Jan Ferris Heenan,

Of particular interest is the publication of a new collection, The Annotated Brothers Grimm by Harvard professor, Maria Tatar. At $35, it’s not cheap, but since I don’t do Playstation and Christmas is coming up…

In the 45 years after 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published six more editions which were eventually translated into more than 160 languages. In the Bee article, Jan Heenan explains that the Grimm brother’s motivation was partly political – Napoleon had conquered the German states and the Grimms sought to preserve something “authentically German.” They also understood the irreversible changes taking place because of industrialization. Farms, towns, and forests, the birthplace of traditional tales for millennia, were emptying out as economic change drove people into cities and factories.

“These stories were the television and pornography of an earlier age,” said author John Updike, and the summaries of earlier versions of the tales makes this clear. Rapunzel got pregnant, the stepmother wanted to eat Snow White’s liver and lungs, and in some versions, Red Riding Hood disrobes for the wolf. Not the stuff of Disney, but according to Maria Tartar, the originals offer something more important for adults:

“These are stories that show you no matter how bad it is…if you use your wit and have courage, you can get back home again. Even if we know in the real world that you don’t always survive, these are the stories that tell you…you do have a chance.”

Tartar’s book is the new number one on my wish list.

Njal’s Saga, part 2

Map of Iceland, 1761. Public domain.

A man named Hrut had a stepbrother named Hoskuld.  One day Hoskuld held a feast and Hrut was there.  Hoskuld called to his daughter, Hallgerd, who was playing on the floor with other girls.  Hallgerd “was tall and beautiful, with hair as fine as silk and so abundant that it came down to her waist.”

Hoskuld asked Hrut what he thought of his daughter.  Hrut didn’t answer at first so Hoskuld asked again.  Hrut finally said,  “The girl is quite beautiful, and many will pay for that, but what I don’t know is how the eyes of a thief have come into our family.”

For a long time after that, the brothers did not speak to each other.  Hoskuld sent his daughter to a man named Thjostolf to foster her.  “It was said that he did nothing to improve Hallgerd’s character.”


As we meet Hallgerd at the opening of the saga, and several important themes begin to unfold.

  • Character is fixed and largely immutable.  Our culture is built on the notion of repentance and change – “I once was lost but now I’m found,” but this is absent from the nordic pagan worldview.  Hallgerd will start a bloody feud with another woman’s family in the first part of the story.  Even when her intentions are good, chaos follows in her wake.  She will have three husbands; each will think he can handle her, and each will die a violent death.
  • Another important theme is the equality of women.  In no other medieval tradition have I seen women with foster fathers.


Hallgerd’s uncle Hrut became engaged to a woman named Unn, but before the wedding, like many young Icelandic men, he travelled to Norway to seek fame and fortune.  He won an honored place in the king’s court and captured a fair amount of booty after defeating a group of vikings in a sea battle.  Most importantly for the story, the king’s mother, Gunnhild invited him to her bed.  This was an offer he couldn’t refuse (though he didn’t seem to want to), for not only did Gunnhild have the ear of the king, but she was skilled in magic.

When it was time for Hrut to leave, Gunnhild asked if he had a girl back home.  Hrut said he did not.  Gunnhild put her arms around him, kissed him, and said, “I cast this spell:  you will not have sexual pleasure with the woman you plan to marry in Iceland, though you’ll be able to have your will with other women.  Neither of us comes out of this well, because you did not tell me the truth.”

Hrut married Unn, but because of the curse, he could not please her sexually.  After conferring with her father, Unn divorced Hrut, but he kept her dowry,  creating a seed of conflict that reverberates through the story.


More important themes appear:

  • Consistently in this saga, characters act in ways contrary to common sense and their own best interest.  Hrut knows Gunnhild is a prophetic sorceress.  Why would he deny having a girl back home, when there’s no indication that she even cares before he lies?  Perhaps the author appreciates how confused we can get at critical moments.  Perhaps everyone who has ever had a “What was I thinking” moment can identify with Hrut.
  • Related to this is the place of magic in the saga – it exists, but on the periphery, and when it appears, it’s a two-edged sword at best and harmful most of the time.
  • Once again we see the equality of women.  Both men and women can divorce their spouse by simply declaring themselves divorced in front of witnesses.
  • Romance and sexuality are not central to the saga, except as inciting incidents, but when they occur, they are dealt with in a frank and earthy manner.  When Unn’s father sees his daughter moping after her marriage, he persuades her to speak.  Unn says, “When he comes close to me, his penis is so large that he can’t have any satisfaction from me, and yet we’ve both tried every possible way to enjoy each other, but nothing works.”  The audience would not have been shocked, though it’s easy to imagine snickers and winks as the mead was drunk in the hall.


About the time Hrut returned from Norway, Hoskuld arranged a marriage for his daughter, Hallgerd.  In those days, women were charged with running the household and ensuring there was food for the family and retainers through the long winters.  Hallgerd was “bountiful and high-spirited,” and when her husband, Thorvald, berated her for running short of food, Hallgerd insulted him.  He struck her and stalked out of the house.  When Hallgerd’s foster-father, Thjostolf, saw her bleeding, he set off after Thorvald, and killed him.

Hallgerd was married a second time, to a man named Glum.  Though she loved him, a day came when “they had a strong exchange of words” and Glum struck her.  Once more, though she begged him not to, her foster-father killed her husband.

At this point, we meet the first of two principle characters in the story.  Gunnar of Hlidarendi fit the ideal of the nordic warrior.  He was “big and strong and an excellent fighter.  He could swing a sword and throw a spear with either hand…and he was so swift with a sword that there seemed to be three in the air at once.  He shot with a bow better than anyone else, and…he could jump higher than his own height, in full fighting gear…He swam like a seal and there was no sport in which there was any point in competing with him.”

After describing his martial skills, the narrator adds that he was a hunk and “very well off for property.”  As we get to know Gunnar, we find that his character matches his resume.  He’s a generous, open hearted man, honorable to a fault, and a warrior who doesn’t like to fight.  He’s related to Unn, however, and when he recovers her dowry by force, he begins to make enemies, including Unn’s second husband, another of the “bad seed” characters that populate the saga and guarantee that Gunnar will have to fight.

Gunnar at the Ranga River, where he and his two brothers defeat 30 men. 1898 illustration. Public domain.

Gunnar’s close friend, Njal supplies the wisdom Gunnar sometimes lacks. Njal (pronounced knee-AHL) was “well off for property and handsome to look at…so well versed in the law that he had no equal, and he was wise and prophetic, sound of advice and well-intentioned, and whatever course he counselled turned out well. He was modest and noble-spirited, able to see far into the future and remember far into the past, and he solved the problems of whoever turned to him.”

The strange thing about Njal was his inability to grow a beard.  Though he fathered three sons and three daughters, his enemies used this anomaly to suggest there was something lacking in his manhood.  It seems to me that legendary seers, from Tiresias to Merlin to Black Elk are always lacking in some of the cultural norms of manhood.  In particular, Njal never fights though he counsels those who do.  He and Gunnar make up for what the other lacks.  Both prospered, in large part, because Gunnar followed Njal’s advice – up until the day he met Hallgerd.

Gunnar and Hallgerd at the Althing, (the National Assembly). 1898 illustration. Public domain.

The day they met, Gunnar and Hallgerd “talked for a long time.”  Then Gunnar sought out her father to ask for her hand in marriage.  Njal told Gunnar,”Every kind of evil will come from her when she moves east.”  This time Gunnar didn’t listen to his prophetic friend.

To Be Continued

Two hundred years of The Brothers Grimm

Statue of The Brother’s Grimm, Hanau Germany, by Syrius Eberle, 1895-96. CC-by-SA-3.0

In honor of the bicentennial of Children’s Household Tales (1812) by the Brothers Grimm, the University of Florida presents Grimmfest this month and next.  The university is home to the Baldwin Collection of Historical Children’s Literature, which features 2500 digitized children’s texts and a virtual exhibition of 19th century children’s book covers.

The Grimmfest page,, has links to other fairytale resources, including related contemporary books and movies.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1865 cover. Public domain.

“Traditional fairy tales have their roots in our oldest stories, in myths and legends, in those primal tales that were formed when human beings first began to speak…However we may wish to define fairy tales, they remain an inescapable part of our psyches and our cultures.  They are why we celebrate the underdog, and secretly acknowledge “The Ugly Duckling” as our own autobiography.  Through their flights of fantasy, fairy tales set us free to seek our happiness, to follow our bliss — if only for the few minutes we are enfolded in a particular tale.”

This is a marvelous resource for anyone wishing to delve into the roots of the stories we love.

The Legacy of Joseph Campbell on

Twenty-five years ago, Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell filmed a groundbreaking series that opened the world of myth, story, and folklore to a large audience.   The Power of Myth series was completed in 1987, shortly before Campbell died at the age of 83.  It aired the following year on PBS, and you still sometimes find it replayed during pledge drives.  The companion DVD set and book are still in print.

To commemorate this anniversary, Moyers has loaded podcasts of the first two sessions – “The Hero’s Adventure,” and “The Message of Myth” on his website.

If you’ve never seen this series – or even if you have – grab some popcorn and fire it up on your largest monitor.  This wonderful introduction to key stories from around the world was filmed at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.  Lucas was a serious student of Campbell, who structured the first Starwars trilogy around the hero myth.

Almost anything I have to say about myth and folklore is influenced by Campbell.  In these final interviews, he distills a lifetime of study into a clear but powerful series of tales and observations that forever changes one’s view of the great stories of humankind.

Swan Maidens and Fairy Lovers, Part 2

It’s good to know that glasses can help us drink.  The problem is, we don’t know the purpose of thirst. – Antonio Machado

I hope I didn’t create the impression that I have any solid answers to the questions The Bride of Llyn y Fan Fach raises. Just “hints followed by guesses,” to quote T.S. Eliot.

In stories of this type, from all over the world, beautiful Otherworld women enter the lives of mortal men and then leave.  It’s not too great a stretch to imagine they represent the beauty, the love and fulfillment, the joy and intensity we long for in the world, but usually find to be fleeting.  The occasion for the lake woman’s departure is a tap on the shoulder that counts as a “blow.”  In a literal sense, this is absurd.  I take it to mean that the radiance of the Otherworld is like a spectacular sunset:  it illuminates our world but does not endure.  If it hadn’t been a tap, it would have been something else.  Perhaps as T.S. Eliot said, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, it’s giving up the idea that they last – a Zen master.

Traditional fairytales are not linked to specific dates and places, but this one is.  This indicates a modern sensibility shaping the story pattern, and it seems especially clear in the lake woman’s belief that the world is a veil of tears.  The usual fairytale heroine does not cry at weddings, where people are “entering trouble,” nor does she laugh at funerals where people are “leaving their troubles.”  Her legacy is the gift of healing to help alleviate suffering.

In the lake woman’s view, this world is not our home, but while we are here, compassion is the highest virtue.  This sentiment could have come from Celtic Christianity.  It is also very eastern and reminds me of the theory that the Celts are linked, by diffusion, with the Aryan warriors of India.  Either way, this is a very different world from the Cinderella tales or stories like The Water of Life which suggest you can find your prince or princess and live a happy life together.

And you know the sun’s setting fast, And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts. – Iris DeMent

At the opening of this story, we learn that the young man’s father “died in the wars.”  The dates vary in different texts. One says the end of the 12th century, and others, the 13th century.  The latter date would coincide with the conquest of Wales by Edward Longshanks, the villain in Braveheart.  Edward invited all the bards in Wales to a council and had them killed, understanding that a nation without stories ceases to be a nation.  What Longshanks didn’t understand was that Celtic stories survive wherever there is a pub, a hearth fire, or a quiet country lane, yet I think the sadness of a conquered people infuses the story.

We know there is another world.  The question is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open? – Woody Allen

Twenty years ago, Mary and I travelled with a small group of storytellers on a tour called, “The Quest for Arthur’s Britain.”  Our guides were a remarkable couple, Robert Bella Wilhelm and his wife, Kelly, who have devoted their lives to storytelling and the sacred.  I’m happy to say they are still at it.  You can check out their website for details on storytelling trips to the Orkney Islands in May, to Iceland in September, and to Hawaii in Jan., 2013:

On Glastonbury Tor, Sept., 1991

We spent the last days of this journey at an Elizabethan manor house in the Black Mountain foothills, not too far from Llyn y Fan Fach.  It was one of a very few times in my life that I heard no traffic sound at night and saw no lights of a city.  When the moon was down, it was pitch black.  You could see the shapes of trees against the stars, but little else.

One night I strolled to the end of the yew walk.  The lights from the manor were hidden.  No light, no wind, no sound.  That alone was uncanny, but there was something more.  My Jungian training, which had taught me to understand spirits and fairies as archetypes of the psyche, vanished in a visceral rush of ice down the spine.  Part of me wanted to know what lay beyond, out in the open fields, but I couldn’t bring myself to take another step.  The hair on my neck stood up until I got back to the manor.

Do I believe in other worlds?  I did that night, and I think I do still.  I’m glad I knew the old stories and their lesson:  as human beings, this world is our home, for good or ill.  The peril is very great – too great – for those who venture too close to any other.