Tuesday, 16 December 2014

HYPNOGORIA 06 - A Merry Christmas with World-Famous Artists

In the second of this year's Christmas specials, Mr Jim Moon mounts an assault on the north face of the drinks cabinet and explores the world of festive music. We unwrap the history of the Christmas carol, do a spot of wassailing, discover strange forgotten festive cash-in singles and indulge in all manner of off beat versions of Yuletide favourites.

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - A Merry Christmas with World-Famous Artists

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Thursday, 11 December 2014

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Babes in the Woods

Babes in the Wood is a perennially popular pantomime (bet you can't say that quickly!*) running in many theatres up and down Britain every Christmas time. And this tale of orphaned children, wicked uncles and Robin Hood is actually one of the oldest of all the traditional pantos. 

It was first performed in 1827 at the Drury Lane Theatre, London, under the title Harlequin and Cock Robin: or, The Babes in the Wood. Indeed this original title tells us just how early a pantomime this is. For the British pantomime was evolved from performances of the older Harlequinade, in turn a British development of the Continental commedia dell'arte. In the 18th century Harlequinades were performed as part of the stagings of Classical plays, usually occurring in between Acts One and Two. However in the following century, it became more popular to perform the traditional Harlequinade as part of a retelling of a traditional fairy story and the modern pantomime began to emerge.

Now while other pantomime stories come from traditional fairy tales, Babes in the Wood, while being part of the British folk traditions, has somewhat different roots. As we learned last time, the pantomime Babes in the Wood was formed from joining together the story of an old English ballad with legends about Robin Hood. The ballad story line is played out in Act One with the titular characters being rescued by Robin and his Merry Men in Act Two. However this is not the ending of the original tale - to briefly recap - a boy and girl are orphaned and fostered with an uncle. However the uncle is a wicked rogue who  hired two rogues to kill the children so he can claim their inheritance as his own. However the hired ruffians quarrel and the children are allowed to escape into a forest. However rather than being found and the wicked uncle being defeated, as the modern panto tells, in the original ballad the children starve to death and are buried by kindly robins.

Surprisingly while the first stage version of the tale, penned by Dr. Samuel Arnold and performed in 1793, added a happy ending with the children being restored to her loving parents, the first pantomime version of 1827 retained the original's grim ending for the babes. And this was because this story was already well-known, and furthermore had been extremely popular for several centuries.

Before its theatrical incarnations, the ballad of The Children in the Wood had being reprinted many times in many different chapbook editions, and versions of it had appeared in Mother Goose collections of nursery rhymes. Hence these early stage versions stayed true to the original, for the public would be expecting the tale to have a dark and tragic end. And while Robin Hood first enters the story to save the day in an 1867 pantomime, even at the close of the 19th century the original tragic ending was retained in picture book versions from children such as the one illustrated by Randolph Caldecott from 1879. 

The first known reference the ballad actually dates back to the 16th century, with a version printed by Thomas Millington of Norwich in 1595 under the somewhat unwieldy title of The Norfolk gent his will and Testament and howe he Commytted the keepinge of his Children to his own brother whoe delte most wickedly with them and howe God plagued him for it. Mercifully for librarians and humble scholars like myself, the title was soon shortened to The Children in the Wood, and indeed that is the title of the earliest complete surviving text of the ballad, a blackletter edition published in 1640. And you can read in the full text here

While later versions would end with the death of the babes and their robin-assisted burial, the original ballad goes further and proceeds to detail the fate of the wicked uncle - 

And now the heavy wrath of God
Upon their uncle fell;
Yea, fearful fiends did haunt his house,
His conscience felt an hell:
His barns were fired, his goods consumed,
His hands were barren made,
His cattle died within the field,
And nothing with him stayed.

And it goes on to describe how his sons died young, he lost his lands and riches, and seven years after his foul plot he was arrested for robbery and died a miserable death in while rotting in gaol. 

Now then the origin of the story has been much debated by folklorists. An early theory was that it originates as a piece of Tudor propaganda, essentially being a thinly disguised version of the famous accusations that Richard III murdered the princes in the tower. However while it is possibly, and indeed likely, that the tale was circulating a good deal earlier than 1595, there's no clear reason to link this ballad to Richard III. Indeed it doesn't make much sense to disguise Richard as a gentleman of Norfolk, as he had no lands or titles in that county, and furthermore the uncle's demise hardly matches the downfall of the last Plantagenet king. Given that the accusations that Richard murdered his nephews were already widely circulated by the time the ballad appeared in print, there is no reason why they would be coding the allegations in such an obtuse and cryptic manner.

The fact that it first saw publication in Norwich also suggests a different basis for the ballad. At this time ballads and tales were only printed because they were popular, and therefore we should perhaps be looking for more local origin: a well known tale told in Norfolk. And indeed a quick look at the signs for the villages of Watton and Griston seems to confirm we are on the right track - 

Indeed local lore does affirm that Norfolk is not only the source of the tale but claims it is a true story too. The sinister events unfolded in the mid 1500s while the de Grey family lived at Griston Hall. Thomas de Grey Snr. died in 1562 and left Griston Hall, its lands and a considerable inheritance to his son Thomas Jnr. who then was a mere seven years old. The boy was made a ward of Queen Elizabeth, and as was customary at in Tudor times, was arranged a marriage with another child Elizabeth Drury. However should young Thomas die, then his uncle Robert de Grey could claim the inheritance and lands. However there was no great love between Robert and the lad, and records show there had been some argument between Thomas Snr. and Robert over the will. Four years later in 1566, young Thomas was sent away to visit his step mother Temperance Carewe (his late father's second wife) and while there, or while en route, the lad died and Robert claimed the lands and monies. 

Now Robert de Grey was not well liked to begin with as he was a Catholic and his corner of Norfolk was predominately Protestant. And so soon rumours began to circulate that he was responsible for the boy's death, and that the boy had been done away with while travelling through Wayland Wood. Robert provoked further ill feeling and strengthened the credibility of the allegations by attempt to seize the dower funds (that is the assets and monies agreed to be provisioned for a bride should her husband die before her) promised to Elizabeth Drury. The Drurys did not take this lying down and the matter was taken to court with a lengthy legal battle ensuing, which ended with Robert having to return some of the seized lands and assets.

For the rest of his life, Robert was in trouble with the law: later he would be fined and imprisoned in both Norwich and London for recusancy (the failure to attend Anglican services) and is said to have died disgraced and bankrupt. Furthermore there is another link to the original ballad - Reverend Thomas Kent in his The Land of Babes in the Woods (1910) reveals there was an expedition to Portugal organised by a Thomas Cavendish of  Suffolk in 1588, which he speculates that Robert's sons had joined and did not return from. The Reverend Kent also postulates that the inclusion of the robins burying the children may well be a poetic allusion to Robert - the uncle who was robbing his nephew and covering up the evidence.

Having lost the lands and fortune, Griston Hall passed into new ownership and was extensively rebuilt in 1597. A new wing was added and local lore holds that rooms in that new extension were named "The Babes", "The Wicked Uncle" and "Robin Redbreast". Furthermore it said that there were carved mantle pieces which showed scenes from the ballad, even including the robins - sadly however they were removed around a hundred years ago and have since vanished. 

The story is certainly well embedding in the local culture, with the deeds of the ballad finding their way into the signs of the nearby villages, and Old Griston Hall was locally known for many years as 'the Wicked Uncle's House'. Furthermore in Wayland Wood, there was a huge ancient oak tree which was said to be where the babes met their tragic end. And such was the popularity of the ballad, this venerable tree apparently was a popular place to visit, something of a tourist attraction, until it was destroyed by a bolt of lightning in 1879.

But local legend goes further, for it is said that Wayland Wood is haunted. Ghostly children have been seen flitting between the ancient trees, and there have been so many reports of folk hearing spectral sounds of infants crying and sobbing that locally it is called "Wailing Wood". Indeed some have said that is how the wood gained its name. But sadly, as appealing as this is, this tract of forest is documented in the Domesday Book in 1086 as Wane-lone, and so the similarity between 'wailing' and 'Wayland' is purely coincidental. 

However all this talk of a wicked uncle, wailing in woods, and the ghosts of a boy and girl, cannot help but put me in mind of a certain tale by MR James, namely Lost Hearts (1895). This famous ghost story features all of these elements, albeit in a different shaped tale, but one we must note occurring in the neighboring county of Lincolnshire. And indeed Dr James was familiar with the Norfolk legends, for in his guidebook Suffolk and Norfolk (1930) he notes -

Watton is undistinguished except that near it the deaths of the 
Babes in the Wood is located, in Wayland or Wailing Wood

And while the stories of the ghostly babes may have influenced Lost Hearts, Jamesian scholars also speculate that the local nickname for Wayland Wood may have inspired the haunted location and title of another tale - Wailing Well written in 1927.

So then, with rich associations with robins, pantomimes, ghost stories and MR James, the tale of Babes in the Woods, despite being based on a possible case of murder most foul, could be said to contain most of the quintessential elements of the traditional British Christmas! 

* British readers - OH YES WE CAN! **

** Mr Moon -  OH NO, YOU CAN'T!***

*** Stop that the lot of you! - Ed.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

MICROGORIA 08 - Christmas Annuals

In the first of our festive shows this year, Mr Jim Moon searches the Great Library of Dreams for books given as gifts on many a Christmas Past, and uncovers the history and wonders of the British Christmas Annual!


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Friday, 5 December 2014

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAYS: Robin in the Woods

Last week we explored the folklore surrounding Britain's favourite garden bird, the humble robin redbreast. And we discovered a wealth of superstitions sharing the the common belief that of all the wild birds, the robin was not to be harmed. As A. E .Bray put it in 1838, "Very few children in this town would hurt the redbreast, as it is considered unlucky to do so; this bird being entitled to kindness... above every other". However why the robin has this folkloric reverence is something of a mystery, and one that has been much pondered for many centuries. Indeed in 1709, a somewhat angry sounding gentleman queried the readers of the British Apollo thus - 

Q. The Robin Red Breast is as malicious and Envious a Bird as any that flies... 
  I desire to know why many People should have so good an Esteem of this Bird,
as to account it a Crime to do it any  Injury

Sadly there is no recorded reply, however a few years later in 1713 the topic was raised again in the pages of the Guardian newspaper. And on May 21st the following theory was proposed - "As for Robin-redbreasts... 'Tis not improbable they owe their Security to the old Ballad of The Children in the Wood ". And that opinion was echoed by a later essayist writing in September 1735 in the Gentleman Magazine who remarked -

And thus the Robin Redbreast hath been the cause of great superstition among the common people of England ever since the silly story of The Children in the Wood. One great instance of this is their readiness to admit him in to their houses and feed him on all occasions; though certainly he is an impudent and as mischievous bird as ever that flew.

Now then, for those of you familiar with traditional British pantomimes, all of this will be ringing a Christmassy bell. And for those of you who are not, briefly allow me to explain. Pantomimes are a unique form of British theatrical entertainment performed over the Christmas season. They present versions, full of music and comedy, of well-known children's tales; traditionally fairy stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Sleepy Beauty, and over the years tales from legend and childrens' classics have become pantomime staples too, such as Aladdin, Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz .

Now one of the oldest pantomimes is Babes in the Wood, which is derived from the afore-mentioned old ballad. Like most pantomimes, Babes in the Wood is a story told in two acts. In the first we learn of two children, a boy and girl, who are orphaned and fostered with a guardian - sometimes a Wicked Uncle, sometime a baron, and sometimes even the Sheriff of Nottingham. Anyhow, this villain plots to dispose of the pair and steal their inheritance. Hence he arranges for the children to be taken into some woods by a pair of robbers and murdered. However one of the ruffians takes pity on the children, fights with his more coldblooded compatriot, and allows the children to escape into the forest.

Deep the woodland the children hide and as they fall asleep, robins fly down and cover them with leaves to keep the babes warm, and thus the curtain falls on Act One. In Act Two, the children, often with the help of a good fairy, are discovered by Robin Hood and Maid Marian, who naturally not only look after the pair. There's various retellings of traditional stories of his cunning and bravery, and of course at last Robin and his marry band triumph over the wicked folks, and the children are restored to their rightful home and fortune.

Given the traditional basis of pantomimes and coupled with the appearance of that other favourite Robin, he of the hood and his Merry Men, many have assumed Babes in the Wood to be an old English folk tale. And that is partly true, as the panto tale derived from an old ballad. However in the earlier versions of the tale, Robin Hood does not appear to find the children, or indeed appear at all. The familiar pantomime version is actually a hybrid creation, wedding the Robin Hood legends onto the tale of the Children in the Wood.  More shockingly, in the original ballad, the tale of the Babes actually ends like this  - 

Thus wandered these two prettye babes,
Till death did end their grief;
In one another’s armes they dyed,
As babes wanting relief.
No burial these prettye babes
Of any man receives,
Till Robin-redbreast painfully
Did cover them with leaves.

Yes, in the original story, there is no rescue for the children! After being turned loose by the kinder of the two ruffians, the children wander the forest, and despite finding a few berries, end up starving to death. And rather than providing a leafy blanket, the robins provide a rustic shroud.

Now robins covering the dead in this curious fashion appears to have been a prevalent belief in the early 17th century. In John Webster's celebrated play The White Devil from 1612, Cornelia says -

Call for Robin-Red-brest and the wren, 
Since ore shadie groves they hover, 
And with leaves and flowres doe covre 
The friendlesse bodies of unburied men

Before Webster, Shakespeare himself referred to the funereal habits of robins - under their old English name of the ruddock - in Cymbeline in 1611. The bard of Avon has Arviragus weeping over the supposed dead body of the disguised Imogen, saying: 

The Raddocke would 
With Charitable bill — O bill, sore shaming 
Those rich-left heirs that let their fathers lie 
Without a monument! — bring thee all this ; 
Yea, and furr'd Mosse besides, when Flowres are none. 
To winter-ground thy coarse. Say, where shall 's lay him? 

A little earlier in 1604, the poet Michael Drayton wrote in his satirical verse The Owle:

Covering with moss the dead's unclosed eye, 
The little redbreast teacheth charitie. 

Certainly this belief that robins would attend to the unburied dead does seem to chime well with the death omens that are associated with this little bird. However no earlier mention than the first publication of Children in the Wood in 1595 can be discovered. A tome from 1889 - Myths of the Robin Redbreast in Early English Poetry - mentions two other ballads that have the robins burying the dead The Soldier's Repentance and The West Country Damosel's Complaint, that have been claimed to be older than The Children in the Wood. However both were actually printed after 1595, with only their original collectors' speculating that their origins lie earlier in the 16th century.

However that being said, the Classical poet Horace does make reference to doves doing the same kind of rustic burials, and it is not usual to find these kind of folkloric beliefs being transferred between different species and the belief migrates over time to different regions. For example, much of what we have heard about it being ill luck to harm robins has in other regions and at other times been said of wrens and swallows too.

So then it is possible that this bit of folklore does date back further than its first printed reference. And it should be noted that it is commonly agreed by scholars that ballads printed in chapbooks and on broadsides would have been in public circulation long before its publication. Indeed, the fact Children in the Wood did make it into print is a measure of how well-known and popular the tale of  already was. And there is a curious and dark history to the ballad that we will investigate next time...

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

TOMEGORIA 02 - The Boy With The Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick

In this episode Odile and Jim explore the strange world of Landfall, a realm of crumbling castles, strange mutations, sinister scheming and swordplay galore! Yes, we are discussing The Boy With the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick, the first book in the Erebus Sequence.

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - TOMEGORIA 02 - The Boy With The Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick

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Friday, 28 November 2014

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Who Killed Cock Robin?

The humble Robin Redbreast, or Erithacus rubecula melophilus if you're given to outbreaks of Latin, is one of Britain favourite birds, making its home in woods and hedgerows, and is a frequent visitor to our gardens. Unlike their European cousins, British robins are rather tame, having forged a friendship with humankind many centuries ago. When a garden is being dug, a robin will often be close by, watching for any juicy slugs or worms unearthed by the spade. They soon learn which households will put food out for them, and furthermore will learn what time the food regularly gets placed on the bird table, appearing in good time for the day's offerings. Robins will even come into your house or feed from your hand with very little coaxing. 

And our long friendship with the robin is commemorated in our folklore. To begin with it was considered very unlucky to take robins' eggs or to disturb or damage a robin's nest. In many parts of Britain,  it was said that if you broke a robin's egg, something of your own would be broken soon after, and local lore in many places asserted that it would be not just a beloved item, but your arm or your leg. While in Dorset, it was believed that stealing robin eggs would cause your fingers to grow crooked. 

Not surprisingly then, it was also considered extremely unlucky to kill a robin. To begin with ill fortune would be yours, often taking the form of maladies in your livestock, such as cows giving bloody milk or litters of animals being born dead. In Hertfordshire and other counties it was said that much like breaking an egg,  killing a robin would result in a broken arm or leg. In Ireland, folk belief held that he who killed a robin would never have good luck ever again, even it was said, if they lived to be a thousand years old.

And if such misfortunes weren't enough, it was also claimed that harming a robin would mark you for life. In parts of England, it was said that if you killed a robin, the hand that did the deed would shake forevermore. Over in Ireland, it said that the offended hand would developed ugly red weals or boils, while in the county of Shropshire it was claimed that the hand that did the bloody deed would actually drop off!

And it get worse. An old English folk rhyme states -

"The blood on the breast of a robin that's caught, 
 Brings death to the snarer by whom it is caught."

In some places it was said that whatever method was used to slay poor robin would become the way you yourself would meet your demise. Therefore for example the Sparrow who slew Cock Robin with his bow and arrow in the old nursery rhyme could expect death by archery in his near future.

This belief that harming robins was bad luck was very common throughout the British Isles, and furthermore has persisted into modern times. In 1974 when the showjumper Ted Edgar was asked by a reporter why he wasn't having much success that season, Edgar wryly replied "I must have shot a robin, mustn't I".

So why is the robin so revered? Well,  it should also be noted that robins were believed to be, quite literally, ominous birds. For across the length and breadth of the British Isles, there are folk beliefs that cast robins as omens or messengers of death. In the northern counties, it was believed that if a robin came and tapped three times at your window pane, death was near for someone in the household. While in other many regions it was said that a robin entering a house foretold a death to come soon within that household.

Even the robin's warbling song could bode ill. While the redbreast's singing is usually cheery and bright, it has been noted that the song becomes more wistful and even sad sounding in the winter months. And so, in some places, to hear a robin singing mournfully was considered to be unlucky, particularly if it came sadly singing to your window or doorway. For example, in Devon it was thought that if a robin lands upon the roof of a cottage and  "utters its plaintive weet", a baby inside was to die.

Hence the folk reverence for robins could well stem from the idea that it would be most unwise indeed to harm a bird that was in touch with, or perhaps is even an agent of, the mysterious forces of fate and destiny. But it has also been suggested that that the reverence from robins is linked to other old folk beliefs, which we shall be exploring in the next few weeks.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

HYPNOGORIA 05 - Zombi Zombi Part V

In this episode of the Zombi Zombi series, Mr Jim Moon heads to 1970s Spain to explore one of the legendary Eurohorror franchises. Created by director Amando de Ossorio, The Blind Dead saga is a quartet of movies featuring blood drinkin', horse ridin', sword wavin' undead Knights Templar, who hunt by the sense of sound! We discuss in depth all four movies in the sequence Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), Return of the Evil Dead (1973), The Ghost Galleon (1974) and Night of the Seagulls (1975) 

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - Hypnogoria 05 - Zombi Zombi Part V

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