I am a true baby boomer. I grew up with the sound of the best popular music ever, as the background to my teenage life. Heavy-rock, prog-rock, glam-rock, blues – oh, and of course – folk. And the folk soundtrack that overshadows all, still heard in my imagination, is that of Simon and Garfunkel plaintively singing Scarborough Fair.
Perhaps it’s even more memorable, because the track was used in the iconic film of the decade, The Graduate. It reinforced that very sixties sense of alienation and disconnection. It’s difficult to forget a moody young Dustin Hoffman, sulking in his room and refusing to join the great American Dream, to the sound of S and G. I can hear the song myself so clearly, as I write this.
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
It’s too easy to miss the bare-bones of the song itself. The music is written in what’s called Dorian mode – a typical haunting, late-medieval scale. But the lyrics are what really interest me. They tell a story where a would-be lover gives the girl who loves him impossible tasks to complete – and then you’ll be a true love of mine.
The maiden, realising the futility of the challenges he’s given her, in turn gives him equally impossible tasks to complete. It’s ultimately a song of unrequited love.
The riddles start
So, he tells her to make him a cambric shirt, without no seam, nor needlework.
And to wash it in yonder dry well, where no water sprung, nor a drop of rain fell
He asks her to find him an acre of land, between the salt water and the sea strand
Then, to reap it with a sickle of leather, and gather it all in a bunch of heather.
The tasks continue, each more impossible than the last. There is no hope in this relationship. The song is old, dating back to late medieval times at least. But what’s really interesting is that it’s just one variation of a very old idea you find in British folk songs – riddles, impossible things, impossible challenges.
The Elfin Knight
You can hear the same refrain in the Scottish folk song of the Elfin Knight, from the 1600s. The knight sets the maiden a set of impossible tasks, almost identical to those in Scarborough fair:
“For thou must shape a sark to me,
Without any cut or heme,” quoth he.
The Cutty Sark
A sark is the Scottish word for shirt, as depicted in the name of the famous tea clipper “The Cutty Sark”. The ship is named after the Scottish folk tale, celebrated in verse by Robert Burns.
In this, Tam O’Shanter, wandering home on his horse, drunk from the inn, comes across a coven of witches dancing. One of them looks very comely in a cutty sark – a very short nightshirt. He tipsily shouts out his appreciation, the witches turn on him and chase him all the way home. The ship at Greenwich has a figurehead of a very comely young witch, in her revealing cutty sark….
Back to our Elfin Knight and his maiden. She gives as good as she gets, and in turn sets him the same tasks you hear mentioned in Scarborough Fair.
Now sin ye’ve asked some things o’ me,
It ‘s right I ask as mony o’ thee.
When ye’ve dune, and finish’d your wark,
Ye’ll come to me, luve, and get your sark.
We never find out how things were resolved between the two. Perhaps, as in Scarborough Fair, it’s really a tale of unrequited love. Or perhaps they kissed and made up, and all was well…..
Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship
It’s a similar story in this other very early Scottish folk song from the 1600s, although the outcome is definitely happier. Captain Wedderburn courts the laird of Rosslyn’s daughter, who sets him seemingly impossible riddles to solve, before she’ll marry him.
She tells him:
I must have to my supper
A chicken without a bone,
And I must have to my supper
A cherry without stone,
And I must have to my supper
A bird without a gall,
Before I lie in your bed
At either stock or wall.
The good Captain answers these riddles successfully. A chicken without a bone is an egg. A cherry without a stone is a bough of cherry blossom. And, unlike most other birds, a dove has no gall bladder. But she is not done with him yet, and sets him a further six questions to solve:
O what is greener than the grass,
What’s higher than the trees,
O what is worse than a woman’s wish,
What’s deeper than the seas,
What bird crows first, what tree buds first,
What first on them does fall,
Before I lie in your bed
At either stock or wall.
Death is greener than the grass,
Heaven’s higher than the trees,
The devil’s worse than woman’s wish,
Hell’s deeper than the seas,
The cock crows first, the cedar buds first,
Dew first on them does fall,
And we’ll both lie in one bed,
And you’ll lie next to the wall.
Between the Stock and the Wall
So they wed, but even before the wedding, a power struggle has started. When entire families shared a single bed, the superior position was to lie next to the stock, or bedrail. It was the easiest position from which to get out of bed – and presumably make a dash for the chamberpot. Whereas, if you had the position next to the wall, you had to clamber over anyone else in the way. He is very firm about it – she’ll be next to the wall. I love this part of the folk song, it makes those faint figures from many hundred years back seem so human.
Beyond the songs
Once you start looking, you find impossible riddles and challenges everywhere. Not just in the songs, but in folk tales, fables and mythology.
In the fairy tales for example, there is the story of Rumpelstiltskin: the young girl must spin a roomful of hay into gold overnight, or be killed – a seemingly impossible task. She does this, with the help of Rumpelstiltskin, and becomes queen. She must then give up her first baby to the malevolent imp, unless she can fulfil the impossible task of guessing his name. Fortunately – by cheating – she does.
In mythology, there are of course the twelve labours of Hercules – all apparently impossible to complete, from cleaning out the Augean stables, to capturing the Cretan bull. Jason, of Argonaut fame, had to singly fight the army of supernatural warriors that arose from the sowing of dragons teeth. And poor Sisyphus was condemned to push a rock to the top of a hill, which promptly tumbled down again to the bottom, for all eternity.
“She blew my nose and then she blew my mind” !
There are so many examples where the impossible becomes true, because the capricious Fates use puns and trickery, in their quest to give we poor humans a hard time.
Shakespeare of course loved a good pun. The three witches promise Macbeth that he will become king of Scotland, and that none of woman born can harm him. Macbeth thinks he is invincible – until he is slain by Macduff, who was from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d – in other words, born by Caesarian section. That’s really playing dirty, isn’t it?
Macbeth should have seen this coming, because the witches had also told him that he would remain king and never be defeated, until Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane. A seemingly impossible thing to happen, agreed? Until Macduff’s soldiers cut branches from the wood to camouflage themselves, as they tramp towards Dunsinane. Poor Macbeth sees an army of trees marching in his direction. It’s a low blow by the Fates, like cheating at cards.
In the land of Mordor
These devices were of course copied four hundred years later by JRRT in LOTR, as aficionados on the gaming websites say. Or, in human-speak, as written by JRR Tolkein in Lord of the Rings. There are many seemingly impossible prophecies throughout the books, but the one which is most shamelessly lifted from The Bard is where the Witch King of Angmar laughs at the warrior Dernhelm, who tries to attack him – Hinder me? Thou fool! No living man may hinder me!. The Witch King quotes the prophecy that no living man can kill him. Of course, Dernhelm is actually the maiden Eowyn, in disguise. She – and Meriadoc, who is actually a hobbit and not a man either – promptly kill him, and fulfil the seemingly impossible prophecy.
“It’s a universal truth, well recognised……”
So, you can see the underlying theme emerging. Impossibilities, riddles and challenges can seem daunting, but can be overcome, by trickery, subterfuge and cunning. Carl Jung, the great pioneer psychologist, considered the stories of the hero and the challenges “he” meets and overcomes, as examples of an overarching universal human myth. (And it was always a “he”; Jung might have been wise and insightful, but he was definitely of his time). Jung’s “Man and his Symbols” is a cracking good read, and describes the myths common to all cultures, and how they shape our dreams. Here’s a picture of my own, well-thumbed copy.
A bit of fun to finish. Let’s look at adynata. What are they, you may well ask? Adynata are figures of speech that are so over-the-top or ridiculous that they cannot possibly be true. So, they are used to illustrate an event that will probably never happen. Arguably the most famous adynaton in English is – I’ll do x when pigs fly. Everyone knows what it means, even if no-one is sure where the phrase originated. There are others in English – when hell freezes over, and its derivative, it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.
But you get them in all other languages too. In Italian, it’s donkeys that will never be seen flying, rather than pigs. In Malay, it’s when the crows fly upside down. In French, when hens grow teeth. And one for the Canadian readers of this blog: when the Leafs win the Cup.
Crawfish up the mountain
And there’s also a remarkable similarity of phrases in all languages, where an impossible future date is chosen to depict when an event is going to happen. Which will of course be never, or pretty well never. So, in English, we say until the twelfth of never, or once in a blue moon. In German: when Christmas and Easter coincide. In French: on Saint Ginglin’s day – but Saint Ginglin has never existed. In Italian, the 31st of February, or in the week with three Thursdays.
And I finish with what I have to confess is my favourite idiom: the pretty impenetrable Russian: when the crawfish whistles on the mountain. What’s going on there?
Hiding in plain sight.
Once you start looking, you realise that those old stories of impossible challenges, overcome by stealth and cunning and riddles and puns are still with us. Look at any gaming website, as I did, when researching this post, and you’ll find all the challenge tropes, lifted directly from fables, Norse mythology and the Greek myths, by way of Lord of the Rings.
And as for our language, you’ll find these turns of phrases everywhere. Not just in speech, but in song too.
Until the twelfth of never,
That’s when I’ll stop loving you.
Johnny Mathis, 1957.