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Monday, 6 December 2010

Walter Benjamin: The Storyteller / The Ballad of Thomas Rymer


File:Ängsälvor - Nils Blommér 1850.jpg

Meadow Elves: Nils Blommer, 1850 (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)

The Storyteller

There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis. And the more natural the process by which the storyteller forgoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story’s claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely is it integrated into his own experience – the greater will be his inclination to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later. This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a state of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places—the activities that are intimately associated with boredom—are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is becoming unraveled at all its ends after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship.

Walter Benjamin: The Storyteller (excerpt), from Orient und Okzident, 1936, translated by Harry Zohn in Illuminations, 1968


Thomas Rymer and the Queen of Elphame: Kate Greenaway (1846-1901)

Thomas Rymer

True Thomas lay oer yond grassy bank,
And he beheld a ladie gay,
A ladie that was brisk and bold,
Come riding oer the fernie brae.

Her skirt was of the grass-green silk,
Her mantel of the velvet fine,
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty silver bells and nine.

True Thomas he took off his hat,
And bowed him low down till his knee:
‘All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For your peer on earth I never did see.’

‘O no, O no, True Thomas,’ she says,
‘That name does not belong to me;
I am but the queen of fair Elfland,
And I’m come here for to visit thee.

‘But ye maun go wi me now, Thomas,
True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
For ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro weel or wae as may chance to be.’

She turned about her milk-white steed,
And took True Thomas up behind,
And aye wheneer her bridle rang,
The steed flew swifter than the wind.

For forty days and forty nights
He wade thro red blude to the knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon,
But heard the roaring of the sea.

O they rade on, and further on,
Until they came to a garden green:
‘Light down, light down, ye ladie free,
Some of that fruit let me pull to thee.’

‘O no, O no, True Thomas,’ she says,
‘That fruit maun not be touched by thee,
For a’ the plagues that are in hell
Light on the fruit of this countrie.

‘But I have a loaf here in my lap,
Likewise a bottle of claret wine,
And now ere we go farther on,
We’ll rest a while, and ye may dine.’

When he had eaten and drunk his fill,
‘Lay down your head upon my knee,’
The lady sayd, ere we climb yon hill,
And I will show you fairlies three.

‘O see not ye yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.

‘And see not ye that braid braid road,
That lies across yon lillie leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.

‘And see not ye that bonny road,
Which winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where you and I this night maun gae.

‘But Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue,
Whatever you may hear or see,
For gin ae word you should chance to speak,
You will neer get back to your ain countrie.’

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth,
And a pair of shoes of velvet green,
And till seven years were past and gone
True Thomas on earth was never seen.

Thomas Rymer: Scots ballad, original dating from c. 13th century (version #37A from Child's English and Scottish Ballads, ed. Francis James Child, 1882-1898)


Kargaly: surface of the Late Bronze Age settlement Gorny: photo by Chernykh Evgenij, 1994


TC said...

And for another twist on this ancient tale...

Anonymous said...

These are both magical to read and retire with (that's my exciting life judged by this early hour) tonight. A real Christmas season (based on the landscape in Philly and Manhattan today, 'tis already the season, whatever your mood might be) a gift for which I thank you. I know Caroline will love this and I will show Jane also. On the train today, I read a story called No-Man's-Land, which I haven't finished yet by John Buchan (it's in a volume called Supernatural Buchan), which is set in the Highlands and is full of speech similar to the Rymer. I love this.

TC said...


From John Buchan to the Border Ballads to Thomas Rymer there is surely a supernatural Tartan trace.

(Loch Lomond, Balnain and other Scottish sites were considered in the image search here, but the stale breath of predictability grew near...)

To retire at 17:28 would seem an objective worth aiming for.

(For me that would be an early wake-up call, currently.)