"The King With the Horse's Ears"


Hello, and welcome to the February 2022 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. This edition is the second of three dispatches inspired by requests from followers of the Folklore & Fiction project, and we owe our thanks to Maria Diaz's interest in "The King with the Horse's Ears" for this month's discussion. In it, I'll be exploring the central motif in the tale via several folk narratives and discussing themes found in their plots.

"The King With the Horse's Ears" is an Irish folk narrative found in Patrick Kennedy's 1866 edition of Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts. Kennedy reproduced the tale from Owen Jourdan's telling of it and "endeavoured to retain his style of narrative; but alas! it is more than thirty years since we sat near his throne, viz., the big kitchen griddle in Tombrick."1 Earlier in Kennedy's introduction, he refers to Jourdan as "Poor Jourdan" and adds that "he was suspected of believing in the existence of fairies, and their dwelling in particular localities, such as the Rath of Cromogue."2 I mention these introductory pronouncements because I read a blending of Kennedy's voice with Jourdan's in the tale and would argue that Kennedy's somewhat patronizing opinion of Jourdan sometimes overshadows the text. Dispatch readers should also note that the tale is written in an affected Irish vernacular, resulting in alternative spellings for many words, while podcast listeners should note that I read it with less inflection than it warrants out of respect for the teller.

"The King With the Horse's Ears"

The story I'm going to tell yous is not to be met every day. I heard little Tom Kennedy, the great schoolmaster of Rossard, say that he read it in the history of Ireland, and that it happened before the people wor Christians. It is about a king that never let himself be docked only once a year. He lived in some ould city on the borders of Carlow and Kilkenny, and his name was a queer one—Lora Lonshach it was. So, as I said, he got his hair cut once a year; and tale or tidings was never after hard of the barber that done it. About seven unlucky fellows got the honour, and after that, dickens a barber would come for love or money within a hen's race of the castle. So the king made an Act of Parlement, that all the shavers through the country was to cast lots; and if any one that got the short straw daared say boo, down went his house.3

So the first lot came to the son of a poor widow woman, and the bellman proclaimed it through the town; and when the poor mother heard it she had like to fall out of her stanin'; but as that wouldn't save the poor fellow's life, she thought betther of it, and run up the street like wildfire, till she came to the palace gates. She broke through the guards (I don't think the old kings in Ireland took any trouble about mindin' the gates; for if they did, how could such crowds be always at the fastes withinside?)—She broke in, as I said, and came into the big stone hall, where the king was takin' his tay—if it's tay they used in them days.

"What brings this mad woman here?" says he, flying into a passion. "Go," says he to the butler, "and put the guards into the dungeon, for lettin' me be disturbed at my break'ast, and bid the drummer give 'em thirty lashes apiece wud the cat-o'-noine-tails. What brings you here, you unfortunate ould sinner?" says he to the poor woman, that was sitten' an her heels, and pulliluin' fit to blow the roof off o' the house.

"Oh, plase your noble majesty," says she, "don't take Thigueen from me. If you do, who'll I have to wake and bury me dacent?" "An' who is Thigueen?" says he; "an' what have I to say to him?" "Oh, an' isn't he the unfortunate disciple that's to clip your majesty to-morrow, an' sure after that I'll never see him again." "Call the butler here," says the king to the little page. "Plaze your majesty, he's gone to see the floggin'." "It doesn't plaze my majesty, I tell you, for him to take the liberty. Call the footman." "Sir, he's gone to mind the butler." "Well, then, tundher and turf! call the coachman." "Sir, he said he'd go have an eye on the other two, for fraid they'd go look at any one dhrinkin'." "Well, then, call in the guards." "Oh, sure, they're all gettin' the floggin'." "Cead millia mollaghart—Oh, tattheration to yez all; isn't this the purty way I'm circumvented! Begone, you oul' thief," says he to the poor woman, "since I can't give you the chastisement you desarve. You'll get your paustha (boy) back safe an' sound; but if ever I lay eyes on you again, I'll have you hung as high as Balffe or Gildheroy."4 "Oh, may heavens be your bed! May all the sowls that ever left you———" "Out o' my sight, you torment! My break'ast is spiled, an' I'll be all through other the whole day."

You may be sure the guards kep' an eye about 'em next day, till the king was done his break'ast; and then the poor barber came in, like a dog with a kittle under his tail. He stood, bowin', bowin', and all the blood in his body down in his brogues. So the king looked at him, an' says he, "My good fellow, you'll be at liberty to go where you please after cutting my hair; but you must first take your Bible oath ——— "Ah, that's true, they didn't know anything about the Bible; the oath he made him swear was, Dar lamh an Righ (by the king's hand), that he'd never tell anything that had ears and tongue what he'd see that day.

So he sat down on his throne, took off his green birredh, with his eyes fixed on the barber; and when the cap was off, up flew two brown horse's ears (but they were as long as if they belonged to an ass), and bid Thigue fall on with his scissors.

The poor lad never could rightly tell how he got through the job. He had like once to cut the edge of one ear; but such a roar as the king let at him, while he put down one ear and cocked up the other, almost terrified him to death. He'd give the world to be away some place where he could faint, and be done with the business, head and pluck.

When he was over the job, the page handed him five guineas—if it's guineas they had; and says the king, "Now, my lad, if I ever hear the wind o' the word of this after you, if I don't hang you, or thransport you to Bottomy Bay, I'll do worse; I'll get you married to a tay-dhrinking bawrshuch (scold) of a woman, that'll make you wish you never was born before you're three months man and wife. I will do that, by this scepthre, an' there's both wood and stick in it5 —so mind yourself."

The poor mother was there, looking over the half-door, seeing if her son 'ud ever come back to her; an' at last, bedad, there he was, comin' down the street, pullin' one leg after the other; and when he came in, he tumbled head and heels into his bed, without so much as blessing himself. Ovoch, I'm always forgetting it's a hathen story I'm telling. The poor mother begged and beseecht him to tell her what ailded him, but dickens a word he let on about it. At last, after two days and nights, the doctor came; and as sure as he did, he bid Thigue put out his tongue, and let him feel his pulse. "Docthor," says the poor fellow, "there's no use in sthrivin' to blindfold the divel in the dark: I have a saycret. If I can't tell it, I'll die; and if I do tell it, I'll not be allowed to live." "Sha gu dheine" says the doctor, "is that the way the wind blows?" When he heard that the people the secret was not to be told to were to have tongues and ears on 'em, says he to Thigue, "Go into the wood there below; make a split in the bark of one of the trees, tell your secret into the cut, and try how you'll feel after it."

The doctor was hardly out of the house when Thigue was up, and creeping off to the wood. He was afraid to stop, for fear he'd be seen, till he got into the heart of it, where two paths crossed one another. There was a nice sally tree at the spot, and so Thigue went no farther; but cut the bark in a down gash, and stooped down, and whispered into it, "Da Chluais Chapail ar Labhradh Loingseach." And the maning of them words is, "The two ears of a horse has Lora Lonshach."

Well, the poor fellow was hardly done whispering, when he felt as if a mountain was lifted off his back. He'd be out of the wood home again in three jumps, only for the wakeness of hunger that was on him, and that he never felt while the secret was troubling him. A neighbour, that was strainin' her dinner on the flags outside of her door, just as he got into the town, seein' him go by so miserable-lookin', made him come in, and never did he enjoy such a dinner of good potatoes and milk before or since.

Well, with the joy, and the five guineas, and that, himself and his mother lived like fightin' cocks for a long time; but the day twelvemonth was drawing near, when he'd have to cut the king's long hair again, and his mornings began to grow very dismal on him. But, before the day come round, there was great coming and going; for the other four kings of Ireland were invited, along with all the lords and ladies that choose to travel so far, to listen to a great match of harp-playing between Craftine, the king's harper, and any one that had the consate to play again him.

Well and good, a week before the day appointed, the harper found some cracks or worm-holes, or some meea or other in his instrument, and so he went into the wood to look for the makings of a new one. Where should bad luck send him but to the very sally that Thigue told his secret to! He cut it down, and fashioned it into the finest harp that ever you see (an' the dickens a harp ever I saw but on a halfpenny); and when he tried it, he was enchanted himself, such beautiful music as it played!

So at last the great day came, and the streets wor filled with coaches and horses, and the big hall in the palace was crammed. The king was on his high throne, and the four other kings were before him, and behind him, and at one side of him, and at the other; and the great lords and ladies were round the open place in the centre where all the harpers were sitting; and all such people as you and me surrounded the quality, till you couldn't put the blade of a knife between the walls and themselves.

So the king gave the word of command, and up got Craftine, and the music he made was so mournful that those who couldn't cover their faces put a cross look on themselves to hide their grief. This didn't please the king; so he waved his hand, and Craftine struck up a jig, and so bothered were they all, gentle and simple, that they had no room for dancing, that they shouted out for merriment, and any one that had a hat or a cap flung it up to the rafters. By and by he got afeared that they would all rush in on himself and the other harpers for dancing room, and he changed the air to "Brian Boru's March." Well, they were not so uproarious while it was playing; but the blood was galloping through their veins like mad. Every one that had room drew his sword, and waved it over his head (and such a clatter as these swords made striking one another!), and every one cried out the war-cry of his own chief or king. This wouldn't do at all for a continuance; so he changed his hand, and made such music as angels do when they are welcoming good souls to heaven. Every one shut their eyes and leaned back, and hoped that the beautiful tune would never come to an end.

But it was forced to come to an end, and the harper let his arms fall on his knees, and every one sighed and groaned for being brought back to the world again. You may depend that Craftine was praised, and gold and silver was thrown in showers to him. Then the harpers of Leinster, Munster, Connaught, and Ulster tried their hands, and, sure enough, fine music flew out from under these hands; but all did not come within miles of Craftine's. So when they stopped, says the king to his harper, "Give us one tune more to finish decently, and put all that we invited in good humour for their dinner. I'm afraid if you go on in this way the King of Greece or the Emperor of Moroco will be sending for you one of these days." "By your hand, my king," says Craftine, "I'm afeard of the same harp. It wasn't my fingers at all that struck out that music; it was the music that stirred my fingers. There's some pishrogue on the instrument, and I'm in dread it will play us some trick." "Oh, trick be hanged!" says the king; "play away." "Well," says the other, "I must obey your majesty—why shouldn't I? Here goes!"

Well, his fingers hardly touched the strings, when they felt like sand-paper that was powdered with nettle-tops, and out they roared as if thunder was breaking over the roof, and a thousand men were smashing stones. Every one was going to stop his ears, but a loud voice began to shout out from the strings that were keeping hold of Craftine's fingers, "Da Chluais Chapail ar Labhradh Loingseach!"

Well, to be sure! how the people were frightened, and how they looked at the unfortunate sinner of a king, that didn't know whether he was standing on his feet or his head, and would give half Ireland to be ten miles under ground that moment. He put up his poor hands to his head, not knowing what he was doing, and, bedad, in his fumbling he loosed the band of his birredh, and up flew the two long hairy ears. Oh, what a roar came from the crowd! Lora wasn't able to stand it; he fell in a stugue down from his throne, and in a few minutes he had the hall to himself, barring his harper and some of his old servants.

They say that when he came to himself, he was very sorry for all the poor barbers that he put out of the way, and that he pensioned their wives and mothers; and when there was no secret made of it, Thigueen made no more work about docking him than he would about you or me. Only for all the blood he got shed he'd never be made the holy show he was in the sight of people from all parts within the four seas of Ireland.

End of this Story

But for fear of being detected, we should willingly claim this as an original Celtic legend. But alas! the learned in classic mythology would soon humble our national vanity by quoting that troublesome old Midas of Asia Minor, renowned for the fatal pair of ass's ears bestowed on him by Apollo, the secret told to the reeds, the minstrel fashioning a Pandean pipe out of these reeds, and the treacherous miniature organ squeaking out, "King Midas has the ears of an ass!"6

Analysis

The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature provides our central motif this month: F511.2.2. Person with ass's (horse's) ears.7 However, Hans-Jörg Uther agrees with Kennedy that "The King With the Horse's Ears" has a classical origin and writes as much in his discussion of ATU 782: Midas and the Donkey's Ears. So let's have a look at the tale type as well:

782 Midas and the Donkey's Ears. Midas (a nameless emperor) disgusted with his riches, has retired to the forest. Without being asked he intervenes in the judgement of a musical challenge between Pan and Apollo in favor of Pan.

As punishment Apollo gives him donkey's ears [F511.2.2] (horse's, sheep's, or goat's ears). Midas hides them under a crown. His barber (cossack, his foster-brother) cannot keep the secret [N465], so he digs a hole, whispers the secret into it, and covers the hole up again. But a reed growing there (a musical instrument made from the reed) gives the secret away [D1316.5, D1610.34]. Cf. Type 775.8

Finally, since we know the classical origin of "The King With the Horse's Ears," let's look at a relevant excerpt of Ovid's "The Musical Contest of Pan and Apollo":

Midas, careful to hide his long ears, wore
a purple turban over both, which hid
his foul disgrace from laughter. But one day
a servant, who was chosen to cut his hair
with steel, when it was long, saw his disgrace.
He did not dare reveal what he had seen,
but eager, to disclose the secret, dug
a shallow hole, and in a low voice told
what kind of ears were on his master's head.
All this he whispered in the hollow earth
he dug, and then he buried all he said
by throwing back the loose earth in the hole
so everything was silent when he left.

A grove thick set with quivering reeds
began to grow there, and when it matured,
about twelve months after that servant left,
the grove betrayed its planter. For, moved by
a gentle South Wind, it repeated all
the words which he had whispered, and disclosed
from earth the secret of his master's ears.9

Our motif indicates that in the stories where it is found, a person has the ears of an ass or horse. However, Midas is a king, and he keeps royal company in many of the tales that follow his. This month's tale gives us Lora Lonshach, a king of ancient Ireland with the ears of a horse. The Welsh tale "March's Ears" gives us March ab Meirchion, a lord of Lleyn who also has the ears of a horse.10 A Serbian variation gives us an emperor named Trojan with the ears of a goat,11 and in an Indian variation titled "The Child with the Ears of an Ox," we read that "Once upon a time a son was born to a certain raja, and the child had the ears of an ox."12 Each of these rulers is ashamed of either his affliction or his son's, and this has serious consequences for those who know about it. Midas' servant is afraid to disclose the king's condition. Lora Lonshach kills every barber who cuts his hair. March's barber swears an oath on penalty of decapitation to keep his lord's secret. Trojan asks every man who shaves him if he notices something odd and kills anyone who tells the truth. Finally, the raja extracts an oath of secrecy from his son's barber, a man who suffers a swollen stomach while he keeps it.

In each case, a powerful king keeps a terrible secret at the expense of his servant. What's more, he isn't called to account for the suffering he has caused after the secret is revealed. The aftermath of Midas' revelation is not indicated in the text. Lora Lonshach feels enough remorse to pension the wives and mothers of his dead barbers, but he chooses to do this and could have chosen to do nothing at all. March threatens the piper who reveals his secret but later forgives him. Trojan fires his barber after threatening the young man's life, and the raja forgives his son's barber after swearing to punish him. There are a few noteworthy messages about power here, I think. First, those who wield great power can and often do harm those without it. Second, those who find themselves under the yoke of that power know they are helpless, and that helplessness can be a terrible thing. Third, even when an abuse of power is revealed, there is often little or no penalty for that abuse. Kings go on being kings, and the servants they've put to death go on rotting in their graves. So while the king might have horse's ears, and on the surface this might give us a reason to laugh, Thigueen's mother is frightened for his life, and Thigueen himself cannot tell anyone but the split bark of a tree what he has seen.

Animism, Folklore, & Storytelling

Longtime followers of the Folklore & Fiction project will remember last year's Animism, Folklore & Storytelling discussion of ATU 780 The Singing Bone, in which the bones of a murder victim are fashioned into a musical instrument, which later incriminates the murderer in song. That tale type is only two removed from ATU 782 Midas and the Donkey's Ears, and while they do share D1610.34. Speaking musical instrument,13 they don't share motifs related to the natural world. However, the nature-based motifs in the two tale types are similar. The Singing Bone gives us people who are transformed into trees or reincarnated as trees that grow up from their graves and divulge the circumstances of their murders, while Midas and the Donkey's Ears gives us magic speaking trees or reeds that betray secrets of many kinds.14 From an animistic perspective, the first tale type and its associated motifs show us a blended human and tree consciousness that depends upon integration of the two halves of self to deliver a message of critical importance. The second shows us a natural world with agency separate from its human interlocutors but in communication with humanity all the same and capable of making the decision to share the secrets it has learned.

Folk Narrative and Storytelling

Because "The King with the Horse's Ears" has such a powerful theme, I thought it might be useful to look at theme as an element of storytelling this month. Themes are ideas that recur in or pervade a work of art or literature in a way that binds together the plot, characters, setting, and other story components.15 In the case of our example story and its variants, this theme might be that power corrupts.

K.M Weiland agrees that a story's theme expresses and explores a universal truth, and she writes that it might take many forms:

  • It may try to prove a commonly held belief (“wars are evil”), or try to disprove an accepted belief (“wars are a necessary evil”).
  • It may tackle the deepest questions of human existence (“why are we here?”), or explore our most deeply held values (“love is the most important thing”).
  • It may offer answers, either implicitly or explicitly (“love conquers all”), or it may choose only to raise questions (“does love conquer all?”).
  • It may focus on moral dilemmas (“is it okay to protect your own life at the expense of someone else’s?”), or it may simply highlight certain patterns (“life in the inner city”).
  • It may choose to comment (“Nazi Germany was immoral”), or it may attempt only to observe (“events of the Holocaust”).
  • It may choose a Truth that is high-minded (“life has meaning”), or it may be mundane (“high school is hard”).
  • It may be optimistic (“life is wonderful”), or it may be pessimistic (“humans are selfish”).16

However, universal truths are often abstracted from the nuanced events that give rise to them. Lisa Cron makes an important point about this when she writes that:

These concepts —which writers are often encouraged to offer up as their theme—are only general categories, placeholders. By themselves, they’re a big, empty “yeah, and so, what’s your point?” Because the story, as I’m very fond of saying, is in the specifics. And the specific always comes back to your protagonist. The question isn’t what does loyalty mean in general, but what does it mean to her? What is she loyal to? Why? What does it cost her?17

With this in mind, I might expand our basic theme as follows: A powerful person has an embarrassing secret he cannot keep alone, so he inflicts misery on the people helping to keep that secret until they divulge it in a way that causes the secret to be revealed by magical means or a third party. Here we have that abstract, universal theme contextualized in the characters and plot of a story to form - you guessed it - a premise.

"The King with the Horse's Ears" gives us a king, a barber, an embarrassing secret kept under duress, and the revelation of that secret via unusual, often animistic means. Your adaptation might replace these story components with likely alternates. Your king might be a queen, a political figure, a tenured professor, or some other powerful person. Your barber might be a lady's maid, an aide, a student, or some other person in a subordinate position. Your embarrassing secret might be a physical disfigurement, a financial misstep, a lie, or something else. Finally, your revelation might come from many animistic places; a reed might be used in an instrument that sings the truth, the stones of a mountain might groan the truth as they shift, or a creek might babble the truth as it passes over the rocks. However, a good adaptation will work with the existing theme, comment upon it, or subvert it in a way that preserves the integrity of that binding principle. You'll still be writing about power that corrupts, the ways it corrupts, the people caught up in that corruption, and the unlikely ways a secret might be revealed.

 

This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents over thirty hours of research, writing, and production. If you found it helpful, I hope you'll consider supporting the Folklore & Fiction project on Patreon. That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for a look at "The Specter in Fjelkinge." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.

 

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  • 1. Patrick Kennedy, Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts (London: Macmillan and Co., 1866), 248.
  • 2. Kennedy, 247.
  • 3. Idiomatic for "being put to death." (Footnote appears in the text of the tale.)
  • 4. The biography of these unlucky heroes was to be found in the once familiar school-book—"The Adventures of the Irish Rogues and Rapparees." It has been a desideratum in our little collection these thirty years. We cannot bear the sight of the modern edition. (Footnote appears in the text of the tale.)
  • 5. The editor has not ventured to print this bizarre pleonasm without legitimate authority. (Footnote appears in the text of the tale.)
  • 6. Kennedy, 248-254.
  • 7. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Three F-H (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), Electronic Edition.
  • 8. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part 1: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011), 441.
  • 9. P. Ovidus Naso, “Metamorphoses,” Perseus Digital Library, accessed January 14, 2022, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0028%3Abook%3D11.
  • 10. W. Jenkyn Thomas, The Welsh Fairy Book (London: T. Fisher Unwin, Ltd., 1908), 93-95.
  • 11. Andrew Lang, The Violet Fairy Book (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1901), 52-54.
  • 12. Cecil Henry Bompas, Folklore of the Santal Parganas (London: David Nutt, 1909), 171.
  • 13. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), Electronic Edition.
  • 14. Thompson, Electronic Edition.
  • 15. Oxford University Press, “Theme,” Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).
  • 16. K. M. Weiland, Writing Your Story’s Theme: The Writer’s Guide to Plotting Stories That Matter (PenForASword Publishing, 2020), Chap. 1.
  • 17. Lisa Cron, Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, 1st edition. (Ten Speed Press, 2016), Chap. 6.