Hello, and welcome to the July 2022 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. First, my thanks to PJ Lynch, whose illustration of Oisín as an old man graces my social media cards this month, for permitting me to utilize his work. You'll find him online at www.pjlynchgallery.com. After May's discussion of fairy magic, I thought it would be interesting to discuss fairy time, specifically the supernatural lapse of time found in folktales about human travel to the fairy otherworld. There is a powerful sense of the implacable in these tales; our heroes might visit the otherworld for any number of reasons, but time still passes in our world, and death often waits for them to return. With this in mind, it's also worth discussing how these heroes navigate the internal conflicts associated with time and death to see if there is any wisdom for storytellers who want to write characters like them. I'll begin with a tale of the Fianna titled "Usheen's Return to Ireland," recorded by Lady Gregory and collected by renowned folklore scholar Henry Glassie in a book titled Irish Folktales.
"Usheen's Return to Ireland"
Lady Gregory 1926
Usheen was the last of the Fianna and the greatest of them. It's he was brought away to Tir-Nan-Oge, that place where you'd stop for a thousand years and be as young as the first day you went.
Out hunting they were, and there was a deer came before them very often, and they would follow it with the hounds, and it would always make for the sea, and there was a rock a little way out in the water, and it would leap on to that, and they wouldn't follow it.
So one day they were going to hunt, they put Usheen out on the rock first, the way he could catch a hold of the deer and be there before it. So they found it and followed it, and when it jumped on to the rock Usheen got a hold of it. But it went down into the sea and brought him with it to some enchanted place underground that was called Tir-Nan-Oge, and there he stopped a very long time, but he thought it was only a few days he was in it.
It is in that direction, to the west he was brought, and it was to the Clare coast he came back. And in that place you wouldn't feel the time passing, and he saw the beauty of heaven and kept his youth there a thousand years.
It is a fine place, and everything that is good is in it. And if anyone is sent there with a message he will want to stop in it, and twenty years of it will seem to him like one half-hour. But as to where Tir-Nan-Oge is, it is in every place, all about us.
Well, when he thought had had been a twelvemonth there, he began to wish to see the strong men again, his brothers; and he asked whoever was in authority in that place to give him a horse and to let him go.
And they told him his brothers were all dead, but he wouldn't believe it.
So they gave him a horse, but they bade him not to get off it or to touch the ground while he would be away; and they put him back in his own country.
And when he went back to his old place, there was nothing left of the houses but broken walls, and they covered with moss; and all his friends and brothers were dead, with the length of time that had passed.
And where his own home used to be he saw the stone trough standing that used to be full of water, and where they used to be putting their hands in and washing themselves.
And when he saw it he had such a wish and such a feeling for it that he forgot what he was told and got off the horse.
And in a minute it was as if all the years came on him, and he was lying there on the ground, a very old man and all his strength gone.1
"Usheen's Return to Ireland" is listed in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther plot index under ATU 470B,2 but we're focused on motifs this year, so let's move on to those. F116 Journey to the Land of the Immortals is the only motif listed under ATU 470B,3 but we already know that F377 Supernatural lapse of time in fairyland is also found in the tale.4 Longtime followers of the Folklore & Fiction project will recall that I've mentioned the limitations of these reference materials before, and this is one of them. Sometimes motifs are missing from plot index entries where they clearly belong.
In any case, F377 lies at the heart of our discussion, and I'm going to approach it from a few different perspectives. First, let's look at a Japanese folktale that shares a number of similarities with our example. In The Mythology of All Races Volume VIII, Masaharu Anesaki gives us the tale of Urashima Tarō, the Son of Beach-Island, who:
...was abroad upon the sea in his boat when he saw a young lady coming toward him. She wished to take him to her home, and he soon followed her to a distant realm in the deep water, where stood a splendid palace. The lady was the daughter of the king, and Urashima married her. After three years of happy married life had passed, Urashima was seized by the desire to see his parents at home. His wife was too tender to resist him and, on parting, gave him a casket which would bring him back to the the Dragon Palace, on the sole condition that he should never open it. Urashima came back to his native place but found it totally changed. To his dismay he learnt that several hundred years had passed since he had gone away and that his mysterious disappearance had been handed down as a tradition among the villagers. In great distress of mind, hoping to find some solace in the casket given him by his wife as the pledge of returning to the Dragon Kingdom, he opened the lid. He was astonished to see wisps of white smoke rise from the casket and drift away toward the sea. No sooner was the casket emptied than his whole body was shaken by a chill; presently his hair grew white and he became an old man, hundreds of years old. Urashima died on the spot and he is enshrined there on the coast of Tango.5
In Usheen's and Urashima's cases, a short period of time passes in the otherworld, while a longer period of time passes in our world. We know this because when they return home, their families are dead, their homes are in disrepair, and they age rapidly after severing ties with otherworldly magic. However, there are other tales in which the passage of time appears to be long in the otherworld but shorter in our world, like this one provided to us by nineteenth century folklore scholar Edwin Sidney Hartland:
Two celebrated fiddlers of Strathspey were inveigled by a venerable old man, who ought to have known better, into a little hill near Inverness, where they supplied the music for a brilliant assembly which lasted in fact for a hundred years, though to them it seemed but a few hours. They emerged into daylight again on a Sunday, and when they had learned the real state of affairs, and recovered from their astonishment at the miracle which had been wrought in them, they went, as was meet, to church. They sat listening for a while to the ringing of the bells, but when the clergyman began to read the gospel, at the first word he uttered they both fell into dust.6
In this case, the two fiddlers play for a hundred years in the otherworld, "though to them it seemed but a few hours." They return to our world shortly after they depart, but they still aren't spared the ravages of time. A clergyman's voice reading the gospel in church acts as a countermagic that breaks the spell of the otherworld and causes them to fall "into dust."
There are specific spans of time related the otherworld as well. Those who have gone to be with the fairies are often absent for a year and a day:
At Pwllheli, Professor Rhys was told of two youths who went out to fetch cattle and came at dusk upon a party of fairies dancing. One was drawn into the circle; and the other was suspected of murdering him, until, at a wizard's suggestion, he went again to the same spot at the end of a year and a day. There he found his friend dancing, and managed to get him out, reduced to a mere skeleton.7
Tam Lane tells Margaret the fairies must pay a tithe to hell every seven years:
And never would I tire, Margaret,
In fairyland to dwell,
But aye at every seven years,
They pay the teind to hell,
And I fear 'twill be myself.8
King Arthur is said to have gone into "another place" where he will sleep until England needs him again:
Some men yet say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but went by the will of our Lord Jesus Christ into another place; and men say that he shall come again and win the holy cross. I will not say that it shall be so; but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life. But many men say that there is written on his tomb this verse: - His jacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus.9
While these spans of time don't point to supernatural variances between the otherworld and our world, they do point to the supernatural significance of "a year and a day," "seven years," and the more nebulous "until needed" in folk narratives of this type, and these are only a few among many similar time frames.
Finally, contemporary folklore scholar Barbara Rieti adds to these discourses on change, time, and death in her book Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland, writing that fairy traditions "...frequently serve as a vehicle for discussion of the past and for reflection on how times have changed. Their perceived recession makes them an evocative symbol of the past, and convey an image of a time in which the way of life and worldview were more amenable to fairy tradition than today."10 So while Rieti doesn't point to a supernatural lapse of time between the otherworld and our world, she does write that the world of the fairies belongs to a time gone by, while the world of humanity is full of modern roads, lights, and crowds. This is reflected in the ways her research participants tell Newfoundland fairy stories, as part of a dying tradition.
Folk Narrative and Storytelling
My grandmother once told me she never thought of herself as old, and a friend once said he used to think death was something that happened to other people. Like my grandmother and friend, we sometimes avoid the implacable constants of time and death, either by not thinking about them or by not thinking they apply to us. For storytellers, strategies like avoidance are important sources of internal conflict for characters facing these implacable constants. Our folktale heroes are no exception in this regard, so I thought it might be useful to tease the strategies they employ out of the tales we've examined.
They go to a place of perfection where time and death cannot harm them.
Usheen goes to Tir-Nan-Oge, a place where he remains young for a variable period the tale identifies as a very long time, a thousand years, and a twelvemonth. Urashima spends three years in the Dragon Kingdom while several hundred years pass in our world. The Strathspey fiddlers supply music for a brilliant company during a night that seems like a hundred years. The Welsh youth is drawn into a circle of fairy dancers for a year and a day. Tam Lane tells Margaret he would never tire of living in fairyland if circumstances were different for him. King Arthur goes by the will of God into another place, there to await a call to return and claim the holy cross.
Each of these heroes finds sanctuary in a land where time and death cannot harm him, and I think there's a resonance with the Christian afterlife here, where my grandmother hoped to go when she passed away. Her faith promised something more constant than the passage of time, more powerful than death, and it was the way she resolved her own internal struggle against the inevitable. As storytellers, we can use this strategy to write internal conflicts against the implacable by giving our characters a belief in something greater.
They demand an opportunity to see what they left behind.
Usheen misses his brothers and wants to see them again even though his otherworldly hosts tell him they're long dead. Urashima misses his parents and wants to go home. I would argue that both heroes become nostalgic for the life they left behind much as many of us do when we remember our own pasts, and this nostalgia can be used in character construction as a strategy for dealing with the passage of time.
They have a pressing need to return home.
The celebrated fiddlers of Strathspey emerge from the otherworld of their own accord because the party has ended. The Welsh dancer's friend pulls him out of the fairy circle for his own well-being. Tam Lane asks Margaret to help spare him from a hellish fate. In these tales, the heroes come home because our world the right place for them to be. Their subsequent fates are individual, but they all take a realistic view of their circumstances or have that view imposed upon them. Our characters might do the same, choosing to employ a solid dose of realism to resolve their internal conflicts about time and death.
They forget or ignore the warnings given them.
Usheen rides an otherworldly horse back into our world with the admonition that he should not dismount or touch the ground while he is here but in a moment of strong emotion forgets what he has been told. The instant he gets off the horse, he falls to the ground an old man. "In great distress of mind," Urashima opens the lid of the casket given to him in the Dragon Kingdom, releasing his wife's protective magic, and dies on the spot. Both men suffer extremes of emotion upon finding their families dead and their homes changed, and because of this, they forget or ignore the otherworldly warnings given them. As a result, they succumb to the ravages of time and death. In the same way, our characters might hasten their own misfortune by responding with heightened emotion to an implacable threat.
Of course, these are not the only strategies you might employ. But avoidance, belief in something greater, nostalgia, realism, and heightened emotion are all present in the tales we've read together this month, and they're all available to you for writing believable characters struggling with existential inner conflicts.
This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents over twenty 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 an exploration of the Israeli folktale titled, "The Span of a Man's Life."
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- 1. Henry H. Glassie, Irish Folktales (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 256-257.
- 2. 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), 277.
- 3. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Three F-H (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), 20.
- 4. Thompson, 76.
- 5. John Calvin Ferguson and Masaharu Anesaki, The Mythology of All Races Volume VIII (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1964), 264-265.
- 6. Edwin Sidney Hartland, The Science of Fairy Tales: An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology (London: Walter Scott, 1891), 180-181.
- 7. Hartland, 163.
- 8. Bertrand Harris Bronson, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Volume I, Annotated Edition. (Loomis House Press, 2009), 330.
- 9. Sir Thomas Malory, Lillian O. Stevens, and Edward Frank Allen, King Arthur Stories from Malory (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1908), 179.
- 10. Barbara Rieti, Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland (St. John’s: Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1991), 181.