Were Rats to Blame?

Rat “From April 18 onwards, quantities of dead or dying rats were found in storehouses and public buildings (…) The situation worsened in the following days. There were more and more dead vermin in the streets and the scavengers had bigger cartloads every morning. On the fourth day the rats began to come out and die in batches. From basements, cellars and sewers they emerged in long wavering files into the light of day, swayed helplessly, then did a sort of little dance and fell dead at the feet of the horrified onlookers. People out at night would often feel underfoot the squelchy roundness of a still warm body. It was as if the earth on which our houses stood was being purged of their secreted humours….”

An extract from Boccacio’s account of the Black Death in Florence in 1348 which serves as a preface to his Decameron ?  No. The passage is taken from the opening of Camus’s famous novel La Peste in Stuart Gilbert’s translation (with two or three words altered so as not to give the game away). In Camus’ novel the plague which attacks Oran in Algeria (where Camus was born) commences as an epizootic (animal epidemic) amongst the rat population of the town. This is how one would expect an outbreak of bubonic plague to begin since the usual carrier of the bacillus, the flea Xenopsylla cheopis, is a parasite on rodents  and normally only transfers to humans when there are no available (living) rodents.

So why didn’t Boccacio and other fourteenth century chroniclers of the ‘Great Mortality’ of 1348-50 mention a preliminary wave of very heavy rat mortality preceding human cases? There are no convincing answers to this question. Most writers state, or rather assume without stating, that the inhabitants of fourteenth century Europe were so thoroughly unscientific, filthy and unobservant that they either failed to notice, or deemed unworthy of mention, the enormous quantities of dead rats that must have accompanied bubonic plague as it swept through Europe at breakneck speed, taking less than three years to get from Sicily to upper Norway and visiting most rural areas, even very remote ones,  on its way. As for being ‘unscientific’, well, I personally do not expect fourteenth century man to have a knowledge of microbiology centuries before the construction of a decent microscope ¾ it was only in 1894 that the French doctor, Yersin, identified the plague bacillus during the so-called Plague of Canton. Whatever the ‘Great Pestilence’ was — the term ‘Black Death’ is of much later date — it was almost certainly a bacterial or viral disease and, equally certainly, there was very little that medieval doctors and Public Health authorities could have done other than what they did do, which was to  recommend flight to those who had somewhere else to go such as Boccacio’s wealthy Florentines, to clean up the streets and to enforce strict quarantine on incoming vessels in ports. Although there was a certain amount of talk about ‘God’s judgment on man’, and naturally some attempts to blame minority groups such as Jews, medieval Health authorities and doctors did make an attempt to understand the phenomenon in a ‘scientific’ manner and the theories proposed were by no means idiotic. It was, for example, suggested that the origin of the pestilence was probably ‘vapours’ emitted by rotting corpses and this same theory was proposed by Creighton in the latter nineteenth century.

It is essential to continually bear in mind that medieval man was not an animal lover : the cultural and religious climate of medieval Europe was utterly different from that of, say, India where devout Hindus stubbornly resisted the attempts of authorities to exterminate the rats that shared their habitations as late as the  early twentieth century. As to medieval men and women being indifferent to dirt and filth, this assumption needs some qualification, at any rate as regards the towns which one would expect to be the most promising foyers of infection. To judge by the frequency and venom of ecclesiastical tirades, bath-houses during the later Middle Ages were only too well-attended, though it was perhaps more the nudity of these unisex establishments that attracted men rather than the opportunity to get a good wash. Public latrines existed in large towns — there were at least thirteen on London Bridge — and municipal authorities were extremely concerned about the dangers that, notably, butchers’ offal represented. Boccacio himself, who lived through the Black Death, speaks of “the cleansing of the city [of Florence] by officials appointed for this purpose, the refusal of entry to sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health  (Decameron, p. 5 Everyman Edition). But, though Boccacio does mention a pig dying in the street, nowhere is there any mention of rats.

There is, moreover, one very good reason why medieval man would have been more, not less, attentive to rat mortality than people living today, for he would have envisaged a wave of dying rats as a portent. Folklore and folk wisdom in China, India and many parts of Africa have traditionally associated mortality of rodents with human epidemics. There is a Chinese poem quoted by the plague specialist Wu Lien-Teh  containing the lines

“A few days after the death of rats
Men pass away like falling walls.”

likewise an Indian saying, “When the rats begin to fall it is time for people to leave their houses”.

In the country, although peasants may well have become resigned to the permanent presence of unwanted guests under their roofs, they can scarcely have felt much affection for them. I myself  have inhabited a traditional  one room ‘long house’ in a remote area of France, and was extremely annoyed by the racket that rodents living in the eaves made each night. But no medieval poet or chronicler writer mentions rats. During a visitation as severe as that of 1348, dying rats would have been falling down into the living quarters and dwelling-places everywhere must have stank of putrefying rat corpses.

For we are speaking of a very substantial rat presence across the whole of Europe. Shrewsbury, an out-and-out bubonic plague believer, estimated that around 69 rats per square mile were needed to sustain an epizootic of the scale of the Black Death — the term incidentally was not used until two centuries later — and this works out, given the population density of the time, at the incredible figure, as Shrewsbury himself admits, of over a 100 rats per two-room peasant cottage in many rural areas of Great Britain !  It is only too typical of otherwise reputable historians that, instead of questioning the hypothesis (that the Black Death was bubonic plague), Shrewsbury dismisses the medieval evidence as unfounded rumour and categorically affirms that the pestilence could not have visited large areas of Great Britain.

But are rats indispensable for an epidemic, or pandemic (world-wide epidemic), of the disease we now, rather irritatingly, call plague?  The answer is that rodents, not necessarily rats, are absolutely indispensable for an initial outbreak of bubonic plague and it seems most unlikely that there were any other rodent candidates available in fourteenth century Europe. There exist permanent reservoirs of plague amongst squirrels in North America, but they cause little harm since individual squirrels very rarely interact intimately enough with humans to infect them. And in Asia there are enormous foci of plague amongst burrowing rodents such as marmots, which, again, considering the numbers involved, cause very little damage.

Bubonic plague is not properly speaking a disease of humans, nor even of rodents, but of fleas. It is caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis, named after the scientist who identified it at the end of the nineteenth century, which, in certain conditions, gets established in the stomach of certain fleas, especially Xenopsylla cheopis. The bacteria multiply, filling the stomach entirely and, because of this, the flea cannot take in nourishment and, in desperation, feeds all the more frantically, or tries to. In the process it regurgitates some of the blood it cannot ingest, and also defecates, depositing bacteria in the faeces (see Illustration I). The bacteria infect the host, the host infects other fleas and so on.

It is not in the interests of a parasite to kill off too many of its potential hosts, fortunately for us or pandemics would be more frequent than they actually are, and in general a status quo results as in the bacillus-flea-rodent tripartite biological system. Only about 12% of the fleas get blocked, and we can assume that only a small percentage of rodents such as marmots die, since marmots were, and still are, extremely numerous. Epizootics flare up, of course, from time to time, on occasion spreading to other rodents and thus to man who gets involved quite co-incidentally. Since the black rat, Rattus rattus, the only rat present in Medieval Europe, is an almost exclusively domestic animal who, typically, lives in houses, warehouses or ships, i.e. in close proximity to man, Rattus rattus is a good deal more dangerous than the rest of the rodents put together from our point of view. Xenopsylla cheopis will normally only transfer to a human being when there are no available living rats — it leaves the corpse as soon as the body temperature cools. And the bacteria can only enter the human body by flea-bite or, just conceivably, very close physical contact such as wound-to-wound, so, contrary to what most people believe, bubonic plague is not a contagious disease. The human flea, Pulex irritans, is a much less efficient transmitter of plague since it rarely becomes blocked even when feeding on infected humans : there is widespread (though not quite total) agreement that it can be ruled out as an insect vector for plague except in the case of septicaemic plague, a complication of bubonic plague that remains very rare.

We know a considerable amount about bubonic plague today because the last big outbreak, the so-called Plague of Canton, occurred when there were plenty of trained doctors and Health Officials available and the secret of bacterial infection was at long last known. Officials from the Plague Research Commission chronicled the relentless spread of bubonic plague through India in great detail, though they were incapable of doing much more than taking preventative measures prior to the discovery of antibiotics.

The most striking feature of the Plague of Canton was its extremely slow rate of dissemination despite the availability of modern methods of transport. It is thought that the pandemic originated in the Yunnan during the eighteen-fifties, but it was only in 1894 that it reached Canton and Hong Kong. It reached Calcutta in 1895, presumably by sea, and a year later found ideal conditions in the teeming, insanitary city of Bombay (Mumbai). Something of the Camus scenario of rats coming out to die on the streets was in fact observed, though not usually quite so dramatically. Plague maintained itself at these locations spreading outwards throughout much of India for some thirty years and, in Bombay itself, its progress was often no more than two or three miles a year!  Compare this with the lightning sweep of the 1348-50 Black Death which covered the ground from Messina in Sicily to Northern Norway in less than three years!

George Christakos and fellow authors (Interdisciplinary Public Health Reasoning and Epidemic Modelling: The Case of the Black Death, 2005, Springer), using advanced modelling techniques estimates that “plague advanced at an accelerated pace that peaked in October of 1348, when it infected a quarter of a million km2 in one month” (p. 230). To get an idea of what this area represents, I have roughly marked it out on a map of France (see Illustration II), though I hasten to add that the actual territory allegedly covered was not restricted to France and was a much more elongated shape.

The assumption that the Black Death so-called was caused by rats is of relatively recent date, since it only goes back to the late nineteenth century,  when Yersinia pestis was discovered and Koch, amongst others, immediately identified the bacillus as the cause of the 1348 pestilence. Practically all history books today, when discussing the issue, speak of three main onslaughts of bubonic plague in Europe, the Plague of Justinian, the medieval Black Death and the Plague of Canton. It is somewhat alarming to see how quickly an assumption becomes unassailable dogma, for that is what the rat theory has become. The principal; stumbling blocks to the identification of the Black Death with plague are, then :

1. Bubonic plague requires a rodent epizootic to get going, while contemporary witnesses nowhere mention rats in connection with the pestilence;

2. A very large native rodent population is required, and references to rats throughout the entire medieval period are few and far between, to say the least;

3.  The rate of spread was phenomenal and the mortality enormous — between a quarter and a third of the entire population of Europe.

On (2) further evidence that there can hardly have been a substantial rat population in the mid fourteenth century in Britain comes from the design of dovecotes. Everyone is agreed that the more familiar Brown Rat, Rattus norvegicus, only arrived in Britain in the early eighteenth century rapidly spreading inland from ports. According to Dr Twigg, who cites McCann, The Dovecotes of Suffolk (Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History 1998 p. 21 -2), dovecotes were re-designed at around this period because of rats which climbed inside and ate both doves and eggs. Staddle stones, large toadstool-like constructions of stone on which barns, and even small houses, were laid, and which are very common in the area where I live (Dorset) appear to date from this period also. Now, in Tudor and late medieval times, one would expect there to have been more, not less, dovecotes as, apart from their value for food in monasteries and such establishments, the droppings were collected, mixed with earth and boiled to produce saltpetre, the main ingredient in gunpowder. Rattus rattus is actually a better climber than the Brown Rat so, had there been a substantial rural rat population in the preceding centuries, one would have expected to find mentions of it as a pest. Also, since  grain losses from manorial granaries were a recurring bone of contention, one would have expected bailiffs to have attributed them to rats, which, as far as we know, they never did.

Incidentally, for what it is worth, the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin does not go back to the mid fourteenth-century (though conceivably based on earlier sources) and the first versions do not specifically mention rats as carriers of disease. Defoe, in Journal of the Plague Year, a partly fictionalized account of the seventeenth century Plague of London, does mention rats though he nowhere suggests that they were responsible for the epidemic. Black rats may well have become something of a nuisance in cities by Stuart or Commonwealth times, but the problem remains that the Black Rat is a strictly sedentary animal that has rarely been found even more than a mile or two from its, usually urban, birth-place.

Some readers are perhaps already getting impatient because I have not, as yet, mentioned pneumonic plague. Pneumonic plague is simply bubonic plague which affects the lungs : it is, however, a very different kettle of fish in many ways. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, it was almost invariably lethal and can be spread person to person rather like influenza through droplets released into the air, by sneezing for example. This ties in quite nicely with the common medieval belief, not so long ago dismissed by historians as rank superstition, that you could ‘catch the pestilence’ simply by being in the same room as an afflicted person. Medieval doctors were themselves so worried about the possibility of contagion that they often refused to visit their patients !

However, the pneumonic plague hypothesis does not quite do what many people think it does. We know a lot about pneumonic plague, because of the 1910/11 and 1920 Plagues of Manchuria, voluminously recorded by a practising physician on the spot, Lien-Teh. In the first place, if the Black Death actually was plague, it cannot have been entirely, or even mainly, the pneumonic variety. For all medieval observers mention buboes (swellings) especially at the groin or armpit as being the principal symptom. In the case of pneumonic plague, there is not enough time for the buboes to form — in fact, paradoxical though it may sound, pneumonic plague is too deadly to make it a good candidate for a pandemic. For an epidemic to develop, we need an abundance of healthy carriers, or at any rate persons who appear healthy — precisely why AIDS is such a danger, likewise influenza, the cause of the last major pandemic in the West, that of 1918 which killed far more people than World War I. In the case of septicaemic plague the afflicted person dies within six hours, which makes it a very unlikely candidate for even a local epidemic. But pneumonic plague does not rate much better : it has been officially estimated that an afflicted person dies within an average of 1.8 days.

Why, then, the substantial mortality in Manchuria? The Manchurian outbreak had the benefit of extremely favourable conditions (from the bacillus’s point of view) which are most unlikely to repeat themselves  : migrant workers in the trapping industry travelled about in winter on heated trains and by night slept on platforms in crowded steam-heated hostels. Moreover, the authorities were taken by surprise in 1910 with the result that the 1920 outbreak was a good deal less serious though practically the only methods available were the ‘medieval’ ones of isolation and quarantine. And the Manchurian outbreaks, though severe, do not even remotely compare with the Black Death. Not everyone in 1349 could have avoided all contact with other human beings, since they had to procure food, but, as we know from Boccacio, people certainly kept as far away from each other as they possibly could with the honourable exception of the clergy called in to hear bedside confessions — they paid for their zeal by heavier mortality than amongst other professions especially in Germany. So the same difficulties for the rapid transmission of pneumonic plague by person to person contact would have applied in the fourteenth century, only more so given the absence of railways and steamships.

The second point to be stressed is that pneumonic plague does not get rid of the need for rats. Infected rodents in serious numbers are still required to start the epidemic, and we simply have no evidence to suppose that there were enough rats around in 1348 — except the circular ‘reasoning’,  “No rats, no plague”.  In the Manchurian case, it was marmots who started the epidemic : the first human victims handled them directly on a day to day basis and, it has been observed, were largely inexperienced migrant workers unaware of the dangers involved. Whether an outbreak of pneumonic plague can persist without an accompanying epizootic amongst rodents, is still a matter of learned debate, or rather controversy, but it seems more probable to me that an outbreak restricted to humans would burn itself out fairly quickly. Note that, if we accept de Mussis’ account (which almost everyone does with some reservations), the Black Death entered Europe via a Genoese galley hailing from the Crimea. The trip, even under very favourable conditions, would have taken a good six weeks, and this is ample time for an outbreak of any known form of plague to have either burned itself out, or, at the very least, to have killed off enough of the crew to make the harbour authorities at Messina most suspicious, which apparently they were not.

Frankly, the case for the identification of the Black Death with plague as we know it, just doesn’t stack up. As an amateur with no vested interests either way, when I first did some research into the Black Death for an article back in the eighties, it was not a matter of whether I did, but whether I could, in all honesty believe the two were one and the same. I decided I couldn’t, especially after reading Dr Twigg’s epoch making book, The Black Death (Batsford, 1984), also the very interesting Ph. D thesis of Palmer into the history of plague in Venice (though this does not cover the 1348 period). Since then, the small band of bubonic plague sceptics has been swelled by various other figures, notably Scott and Duncan (Return of the Black Death, Wiley 2004), Professor Cohn (Epidemiology of the Black Death and Successive Waves of Plague), Lerner (Fleas : Some Scratchy Issues Concerning the Black Death, Journal of the Historical Society June 2008) and, most recently of all, Gummer (The Scourging Angels, 2009) to mention only the main authors known to me.

The best that can be said for the bubonic plague hypothesis — and that is all it is — is that the description of the surgeon Guy de Chauliac and one or two other contemporaries of the symptoms of the disease does sound rather like bubonic plague. The buboes are not specific to plague but there is no doubt that they are distinctive. Bubonic plague can also give rise to small, black pustules, which fits the description of ‘God’s tokens’ as they were often called. However, these are much less distinctive than the buboes and it is worth noting that these marks, the “ring, a ring of roses’ of the (18th century) nursery rhyme, seem, over the years, to have become a more typical symptom than the buboes, assuming that subsequent outbreaks of ‘pestilence’ had the same cause, which they may well not have done. There is, annoyingly, just enough plausibility to the bubonic plague theory to keep it alive. Though far from being as lethal as the Black Death, or even, globally, smallpox and malaria, no one is going  to deny that plague is a serious disease since it caused over 12.5 million deaths in India during the twentieth century (over a period of forty-three years though, not two and a half).

What of DNA testing ? The jury is still out on this issue. A French team led by Michel Drancourt and Didier Raoult tested three skeletons from a grave pit in Montpellier for bubonic plague and reported positive results. However, various geneticists and archaeologists such as Mike Prentice, Alan Cooper, Carsen Pusch and others have disputed these claims, some attributing them to laboratory contamination. No one has, since then, managed to repeat these positive results and we await a more extensive and thorough investigation which, according to some unconfirmed reports, is currently underway.

The trouble with disbelieving that the Black Death was plague is that it is a negative option : its advocates find themselves pushed into making risky guesses about what the Black Death really was, and this has proved to be a dangerous game. Dr.  Twigg came up with anthrax as a possible alternative. This suggestion does have the advantage that it solves the problem of rapid dissemination since anthrax spores can be spread about by the wind, and are extremely resistant to extremes of temperature (which fits what we know of the Black Death). One might seriously doubt that, given medieval population density levels, any disease could have covered such a vast area so swiftly other than by dispersion in air currents. For what it is worth — and in my eyes is worth something — contemporary (medieval) observers thought that the pestilence was spread both by direct contact and by ‘vapours’, perhaps emanating from decaying corpses. This suggestion was by no means idiotic : the ‘miasmic’ theory of disease was still going strong in the late nineteenth century amongst the scientific establishment.

In other respects, however, Dr Twigg’s mention of anthrax proved to be an unfortunate suggestion since anthrax, in its present form at any rate, is not very contagious as we know from the post 9/11 scare. To invoke a ‘stronger strain of anthrax’ is a dangerous ploy, since it invites the plague lobby to counter by claiming that the bubonic plague bacillus of 1348 was a ‘stronger strain’ than what we are used to today. Dr Twigg’s suggestion, though it is contained only in the ten last pages of his book, simply gave his opponents a good excuse to dismiss, or simply not to read, the remaining densely argued two hundred odd pages.

Scott and Duncan have since then come up with haemorrhagic fever or ebola, a deadly viral disease. Much of their work is outside the remit of this article, since it deals with successive waves of ‘pestilence’ in Europe, not just, or principally, the 1348-50 outbreak, but deserves mention nonetheless. Using modern statistical methods, they have worked out an “average time from infection to death” for plague cases over a period of centuries and have come up with the figure of 37 days. This fits quite well with the ebola hypothesis but, more strikingly, with the Venetian institution of 40 days quarantine for incoming vessels, a period which soon came to be accepted throughout the whole of Italy. There were, subsequent to 1348, only 11 outbreaks of ‘pestilence’ in 300 years in Italy, which compares very favourably indeed with France and other countries. This quarantine was a considerable annoyance to merchants and may even have contributed to the commercial decline of Venice, so the Venetian Health authorities must, at least in their own eyes, have had serious reasons for instituting it. Of course, on the bubonic plague hypothesis, any quarantine is entirely pointless.

One  reason why the rat theory of the Black Death is still up and going, is that we do not, as humans, much like rats, viewing them as ugly and dirty creatures. If a similar pandemic had been initiated by squirrels, as just conceivably it might have been, one wonders whether the bubonic plague hypothesis would have remained established dogma for over a hundred years with very few daring to question it. Even if it were eventually proved to be utterly misguided, people for a long time to come will unthinkingly associate rats with the Black Death much as we automatically associate Nero with the burning of Rome or Louis XIV with the Man in the Iron Mask  — indeed I sometimes find it hard to get rid of the association myself despite having been in the non-bubonic camp for at least twenty-five years already. As a matter of fact, rats have probably been a good deal more serviceable to mankind than squirrels, who we find cute, since, apart from the rather unpleasant IQ maze experiments, rats have long been used to detect unexploded mines because of their excellent sense of smell.

There must, anyway, have been plenty of diseases which have disappeared without a trace, since diseases, being merely forms of life that we, as humans, do not view favourably, are subject to evolutionary pressures like everything else. One such is “the sweats”, a very serious disease prevalent at the time of the Reformation and which no one has subsequently successfully identified.  So it may well be that we shall never know with certainty the micro-organism responsible for what someone called, with not too much exaggeration, “the most nearly successful attempt to wipe out the human species” — a worthy adversary indeed !

Sebastian Hayes

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The Mountain Lion

The mountain lion, or cougar, is unlike any of the other big cats : there is something intangible and mysterious about him or her, as Robert Redford, who founded a refuge for this endangered species, rightly stated. It is this quality that I have tried to express in the following  poem

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within  your endless wanderings over crags and hills,

What thoughts, what idle dreams, pass  through your fertile  mind?

Neither at rest nor restless, a strange purpose fills

Your studied, stealthy gait, with never a glance behind;

 

Remote and self-contained, you represent the will,

But not the will to power, only the will to be;

Stalker and seeker, you will haunt the mountains still

When man has gone, his cities covered by the sea.

 

This earth you is not your real home : alone of all

The beasts that pace the wildness and traverse the snow,

You feel the unheard, unseen world and can recall

The distant source of life which in ourselves we know;

 

Throughout my life I’ve known you, now and at the end

You are my spirit guide and helper, trusted friend.

                                                                               Sebastian Hayes

The Unfinished World

 

 

 

The Unfinished World (Extract from the Unfinished SF novel, “The Web of Aoullnnia”)

 

(…)  During my stay on Azerynn, I had the occasion to render a small service to a fam whom I judged to be Majentian when I saw her dismantling the blades of her craft. One of the circular  tigh-pins had fallen and rolled away : I successfully spotted it on the ground. The fam nodded in gratitude but said nothing though she must certainly have spoken Andirax. Her brown eyes rapidly searched me as we stood confronting each other, and I received a peculiar sensation at the base of my spine. Small even for a Northern Majentian, and, as far as I could judge, with scarcely developed breasts, the fam had short, light brown hair and regular features, neither good nor bad. For some reason this casual encounter made a sharp impression on me and I vainly  looked out for the opportunity to get close to her during the communal ceremonies. However, she paid no attention to me, if anything making a point of avoiding me in the halls.

            It was now the penultimate day of my visit and I no longer expected to see the object of my fixation. To my surprise, however, when I passed the  extreme right hangar I found her standing in front of it trying unsuccessfully to raise the door. She beckoned me over, not looking at me directly. I was able to see that a ball-bearing had slipped out of place and I soon managed to open the sliding door. The Majentian rushed into the hangar showing signs of extreme distress and I heard her uttering terms of endearment as if she were addressing a domestic pet. I eventually realised that she was speaking to her scobter. I saw her stroking the wings as, with infinite precaution, she  wheeled out the machine, apparently taking no further notice of me. But once the craft was outside in the bright sunshine, the strange fam  casually indicated the passenger seat. Taken aback, I took my  place in the machine without really thinking what I was doing. The scene had an air of partial reality about it, akin to certain dreams.

            In moments we were in the air. The fam was occupied with the controls and took no more notice of me.

            ‘Where are we going?’ I asked a little later.

            ‘Rhewenia,’ she replied without turning her head.

 

            Rhewenia, or the Unfinished World, was the last creation of the Sarlang. Towards the end of their reality-span the Sarlang lost interest in the physical world altogether and spent the greater part of their time exploring the Manifest Non-Occurrent. This is a sort of half-world, made up in part of dreams and wishes, but for all that possessing a certain density. By projection, the Sarlang succeeded in extending the inhabitable part of this enormous domain  — it already exceeded the entire physical universe many times over — and eventually they created a new continent which became known as Rhewenia  because it was never completed (‘rhewenin’ means ‘unfinished’ in Katylin). After the dissolution of the Sarlang Rhewenia remained unvisited by humans for a long time but it was eventually  discovered by several persons simultaneously, probably under the influence of Extasense. Since then it has become a favourite landing-ground of people who visit  the Manifest Non-Occurrent, usually aided by drugs, and, for this reason, acquired a dubious reputation, so much so that the Magnatte, the current dominants, closed it off (or so we have been told) and extremely few people manage to visited it these days. In Majentia, however, which is a semi-autonomous part of Sarwhirlia, the population is  not subject to our customs and regulations.

            I had no particular desire to travel to Rhewenia but it seemed too late to do anything and I tried to relax as much as I could while my pilot busied herself with the craft. To enter Rhewenia one has, reputedly, to cut through a ‘seam’ in a particular kind of cloud : this is not at all an easy task even for a skilled pilot but seemingly we managed it for a little later we burst into the turquoise coloured sky of the Unfinished World which I recognized from Far-View programmes. We drifted along without incident until my companion brought the craft down onto a vast beach. It was entirely empty and behind us there were occasional bushes and scrub, otherwise there were endless dunes whipped about by the wind into extravagant shapes but otherwise not so different from certain coastlines on Sarwhirlia. We alighted from the craft after she indicated that I should divest myself of all my garments. The ‘sand’ was more like crumpled plyne and if one took it into one’s hands it dematerialised at once though it was substantial enough to the soles of my feet — I had taken off my footwear on entering the craft.

            My strange companion seemed to be waiting for something for she kept gazing intensely at the horizon. All I could see was lines of breakers coming in fast  though none of them actually reached the shore for the water at the beach’s edge remained completely still. After a while my companion became extremely animated and pointed to something. At first I could not make out anything at all but eventually I saw a sort white capsule only just visible against the water. It was not much larger than a diving-bell and had room for at most three or four persons inside it. If one looked more closely, one could make out a network of white ‘veins’ on the inside. While we stood  watching, the bubble came closer and closer to the shore until it was a few paces in front of us.

            ‘Enter at once,’ my companion shouted in my ear, ‘the bubble will not remain here for long.’

            For some reason there was a tremendous roaring in my ears which made it very difficult to hear what was going on, not a disagreeable sound in itself, something like what you sometimes hear from a conch shell.           

            ‘What are you waiting for?’ shouted the fam as the bubble began to recede. I had the feeling that whatever I did now would have vast and irretrievable consequences. I had not actually heard her last words : it was as if a block of emotional intensity had exploded inside my brain eventually transforming itself into a message.

            But I must have done something for all at once we were inside the capsule which closed around us like an eggshell. A viscous yellowish fluid trickled all over my skin; the touch was strange but not in itself disagreeable. I could no longer see or hear anything : all I knew was that I was being connected up to the being alongside me in a very definite way. It was not at all an emotional experience, more like the assembling of a mechanical device. I  was also reminded of diagrams of chemical bonds between substances in textbooks. It occurred to me that I was d*** but the thought was not at all frightening, rather the reverse. Confused memories of my past life rushed on me, of straylkha contests  had participated in,  various fam I had exchanged with at Lunkod or other sites. Then I was in an enclosure with other mamling : high above us was a vast blue dome. At the end  I was lying at the feet of a giantess straddling us like a tower.

            ‘Now, now, now!’ came a neural scream which I sensed in the abdominal region. A vast flood of  life-experience surged through me like liquid in a tube being passed to another container. At the same time into my awareness came unintelligible sensations, some exquisite, some hilarious, others frightening and repulsive. But before I could begin to make any sense of them I was overwhelmed by other and quite different sensations : it was as if the commotion had raised a layer of sediment from the lower depths of a pond. Life-forms long since extinct reached out to me like the tendrils of climbing plants. Inside me were vast plains covered with grasses as high as trees, swamps heaving with enormous worms their skin livid with yellow scales. Then I sank further back still, into a mucous submarine environment inhabited only by jellies and monstrous weeds. In the end even such sensations slipped away as I passed beyond the limits of bio-form altogether, though still seemingly connected to my companion. We were before life, before history. Nothing of all that had yet been actualized : the Manifest Occurrent consisted exclusively of minerals and inorganic substancs. The capsule itself was ceaselessly being plunged into a sort of froth which was all around us, at every instant it was shattered to a thousand pieces, only to emerge entire again and again. Strangely enough, I could see this happening as if I were looking in from the outside : I could even make out my own features and those of my companion. Where I was, there were no stable forms at all, not even inanimate ones, only flashings emerging and receding, surface scintillations which from time to time exploded into magnificent patterns only to be dispelled as soon as they formed. This was the sea of half-form, from which the Manifest Occurrent itself comes. I and my companion were ourselves no more than slightly more persistent oscillations on this radiant field, there was scarcely any difference between ourselves and what was all around us. I felt myself continuous with the whole of physical existence, or rather with the ground from which all these evanescent patterns emerged. Finally, there was nothing except these patterns quietening down and dispersing on the surface of something that was totally invisible and intangible. Nor was there need for more : the existence of this entity was entirely adequate as it was and beautiful beyond anything that words or sounds can portrary.

            All at once  I found myself on the sand once more : I could see the bubble moving away rapidly along with a medley of other shapes. An immense sadness swept through me : I was apart and alone. My companion stood alongside me, seemingly in an equivalent state : we were two beached fishes, gills opening and closing. The sparse vegetation and sand gradually materialized, even the scobter in which we had come. My companion took out two brown skolthhan from the craft and in silence threw one to me. We dressed in silence. The return flight was without incident, the transition to the Manifest Occurrent smoother than when we had arrived. On the Island everything was as it was before. I helped my companion wheel the scobter back into its hangar.

            “My name is Rhowdhia”, said my companion. “We will not meet again”. And during the rest of my brief stay I did not catch sight of my companion anywhere. Even I wondered whether the voyage had taken place.       

 

Transcriber’s Note : 

 

This piece is part of The Web of Aoullnnia, a collection of transmissions from the future sent back by a certain Yilkin I. Isellyion, an inhabitant of Sarwhirlia (the Earth) some 260 years from now. The incident recounted seems to have occurred while Yilkin was visiting  the sacred island of Azerynn (where he was subsequently interned).

       Other transmissions can be downloaded from this site, see the button on the left of the homepage marked  “The Web of Aoullnnia”.            

Original Sin and Utopia

Original Sin and Utopia

 it is to be regretted that the doctrine of Original Sin has become hopelessly associated with quite nasty — because self-seeking and sadistic — views denigrating women, homosexuality, all sensual pleasure and ultimately the entire physical world. The doctrine has been highjacked by egotists who use it to convince themselves that they are superior to certain social groups to which, by accidents of birth or orientation, they themselves do not belong. Regrettable above all because the dogma of Orginal Sin is not at all an abstruse intellectual doctrine invented by dry as dust theologians : quite the contrary, it is based on a deep-rooted conviction which very many thinking and feeling individuals have had throughout varied periods of history, though admittedly especially during the decline of great civilizations.

            Doubtless, a lot of people, even the majority, were not ‘happy’ during the Victorian era, or the early Roman Empire, or the Athens of Pericles, but the disadvantaged seem generally to have believed in the particular ideal held out to them at the time, i.e. seem to have believed that the ‘lucky few’ really must have been happy and that such a definition of happiness was the only one possible. This is essentially Aristotle’s position, and Aristotle, apart from being one of the world’s great thinkers, was a sensible and, in a certain sense, a very ‘ordinary’ man. In a period of social decline, such as our era, despite or because of the frantic hype, there is the undeniable feeling that the ‘happy few’ = multi-millionnaires + celebrities’ are not in fact even happy —  they are simply able to put up a better pretence than the rest of us.

            The doctrine of Original Sin is based on the feeling, or rather ineradicable  conviction, that there is ‘something wrong with this world’, and this ‘wrongness’ goes far deeper than such matters as economic inequality, corruption in high places and so forth. Someone who has, deep within him or herself, this feeling is at best sceptical about the possibility of radical change for the better in the world : the Golden Age, Paradise, the City of God, the era of ‘true Communism’, will, so he or she feels, never, strictly never, come about in this world. Why not? In contemporary language, because selfishness is too deeply implanted in our biological make-up. The inhabitants of the second and third centuries in the West would have put it otherwise : they, whether Christian or pagan, would have said that this world was an inferior place and that the true reality lay beyond the physical and human. Who is there who has not thought this from time to time?  In certain periods, such as the declining Roman Empire and our own era, such sentiments become dominant, or, at any rate, inescapable. There is the instinctive feeling that no human efforts will suffice to eradicate this wrong, and that the time has come to look elsewhere. The attraction of drugs is that drugs, especially Ecstasy, offer immediate (but unfortunately very temporary) access to a world that practically everyone would love to inhabit, a world of universal love and friendship, a world where (in Marx’s terms) “each individual would be recompensed according to his or her  needs and deserts”.   

            Theology, Judaeo-Christian theology at any rate, equates this descent into real time and space with a definite occurrence, the Fall as it is (very appropriately) called in Genesis. The trouble is that, once something has happened, it cannot be, as it were, ‘un-happened’. There are only two (non-tragic) options left : either we conclude that this ‘fall’ will give rise to a greater good, and this is the viewpoint of mainstream Christian theology, the ‘greater good’ being the felix culpa  of God’s incarnation as Christ and Christ’s eventual return (‘parousia’) when worldly  history will be wrapped up for good and the Millennium will commence. But extremely few people countenance this view today, whereas the  Early Christians were entirely convinced that this happy event was imminent — so imminent that there was no point in bothering about social and economic improvements in the society of the time.

            Contemporary ‘thinkers’ try to convince us, as they try to convince themselves, that “all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well” — I have even read a leading article in the  New Scientist of all places arguing that the present world can easily absorb the unprecedented world population expansion without getting into serious trouble — indeed this has become the politically correct line, not because there is much, or even any, evidence to support it, but simply because the alternatives are just too awful to contemplate.

            It seems to me far more sensible, even rational, to take the opposite line, namely that there is something inherently not only flawed but actually wrong about life as it is in the universe as it is — which is precisely the Gnostic position. We are told (by scientists) that it is impossible that  the universe can be radically changed for the better, since it is governed by ‘natural laws’ which have been set for all time and which cannot, so we are assured, be disobeyed,  nor can we, who are simply special cases of natural  laws, change ourselves  for the better. According to the most celebrated opponent of theological thinking, Richard Dawkins, ‘natural law’ means selfishness, and not only that, ought to mean selfishness. Since selfishness is certainly not a good thing (pace Ayn Rand) , there is no hope for us, worse still, there should be no hope for us — for this would be unscientific. I was myself told this at an exposé I gave on Rimbaud and his central concern with ‘changing the world’ : a member of the audience remarked that “People who want to change the world for the better always end up by making  things worse” — an extremely convenient doctrine for people who have decided to do nothing, certainly nothing that puts them at a material or psychological disadvantage .          

          All this may seem very far away from the subject of this article/post, Original Sin, but it is not. Ultimately, either one accepts the world as it is, or one does not. Most societies in the past have, in their practice (laws, economy, social hierarchy) accepted the world as it is, but nonetheless with a certain reluctance — because the advocates of the status accompli were sensible enough to realize that what they were advocating was manifestly unsatisfactory, profoundly so. Traditional thinkers resolved their moral scruples by holding out the distant possibility of a quite different, and far superior, order of things which they were obliged to situate either in another plane of reality altogether, or in a distant, and, for the immediate, completely unrealisable future. The Neo-Platonists, Early Christians, Gnostics and other thinkers of the declining Roman Empire opted for the first possibility, while the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century had no choice but to opt for the second  — and we would have to include within their ranks the early Marx, even in a sense the later one.

            During the nineteenth century, an epoch of extravagant hopes and delusions bolstered by undeniable scientific and technological triumphs, there were many people who thought that, just as knowledge of the material world via Newton’s Laws and discoveries such as electricity had undoubtedly changed the physical landscape, discovery of some ‘secret formula’ about human beings would pave the way for a future Golden Age. Arthur Rimbaud, in one of the poems of Illuminations, speaks of wandering frantically about the countryside, in the company of another searcher whom we usually identify as Verlaine, searching for  “le lieu et la formule” — the place and the formula [for changing the world]. And, although I did not know this until this very day when I read it in the Introduction to Anthony Briggs’ translation of War and Peace, the body of one of the most earthbound and ‘realistic’ of nineteenth century novelists, Tolstoy, 

 

“[is] interred at the top of  small ravine at Yasnaya, where as a small boy he [Leo Tolstoy]  had searched for a little green stick on which was supposedly inscribed a secret formula guaranteeing permanent happiness and brotherly love.”

                                 (Introduction  War and Peace  Penguin p. xvii)

 

             

            What is this secret formula and do we need it any more?

             

The Island of Gulls

On the weekend of 11/12 July I gave a performance of my story “The Island of Gulls” at the Tollard Royal Dare2 Festival and shall be repeating this at 11 a.m. Sunday 20 July at the Ancient Technology Centre, Cranborne, Dorset (atc@dorsetcc.gov.uk). This story is part of the collection “The Foundling and Other Stories”, available online from the site http://www.Brimstonepress.co.uk .

The Island of Gulls

there was once a woman married to a king but he died before she had born him any children. The cousin of the dead king seized the throne and commanded her to spend the rest of her days in a house by a lonely seashore. Each night, when she saw the gulls flying back to their island out to sea, she said to her companions how much better was the life of a gull than her own.

One day, as she was sitting alone on the beach, a large gull alighted in front of her. ‘If you leave your window open this night,’ he said to her, ‘I will come and take you away from here.’ But the woman was afraid and bolted her window.

The next day the same gull came again and settled down in front of her. ‘I will come again for you this night, but if you close your window you will not see me again for a whole year.’ But the woman was afraid and bolted her window.

The next day no gull came to settle in front of her, and Lorella, for that was her name, regretted bitterly what she had done. That night she dressed herself in her finest clothes, decked her bedroom with lilies, and lay down to sleep with the window wide open. But no one came, not that night, nor the next, nor any night for a whole year.

In the end she lost count of the days, but still she dressed herself each night in her finest clothes, combed her hair and surrounded her bed with lilies, and lay down to sleep with the window wide open. One night she was awakened by a tall, fair-haired man dressed in a cloak of white feathers. ‘I am the King of the Gulls,’ he said and she looked up at him with wonder.

‘By night I have the shape of a man like all my people, but by day I am a gull. As you have waited faithfully for a whole year, this night I will take you away from here if that is what you wish. But you must know that once gone from here, you will never see dry land again, except the bare rock where I and my people live.’ ‘It is no matter,’ said Lorella, ‘for I long to be away from this world where everyone I care for is now dead.’

So the Gull King told her to lie on his cape of feathers, and when she awoke she heard the billows roaring and the cries of thousands of birds roosting, and all around her was the ocean, without sight of land. Then the Gull King alighted on the island and led her into a great cavern where there were many people, both men and women, all dressed in white and surpassingly beautiful. And the Gull King showed her to his people, and told them that she was to be their Queen.

At first Lorella was pleased with her new life, for there was feasting and dancing every night and singers and jugglers and story-tellers and all manner of entertainments. But each day the gull-people assumed their bird forms and flew away towards land. ‘I have gained nothing by coming here,’ Lorella complained to her husband, ‘but have only exchanged one prison for another.’ ‘But you yourself chose to come here,’ said the Gull-King, ‘and for all my power I cannot give you the ability to change your form within your present life. And we ourselves must not stay here during the day on pain of death.’

A year later Lorella gave birth to a girl-child, but took no pleasure in it because it was born half a gull and half a human being. ‘This is a child of sorrow’, she said to her husband, ‘and ill luck will follow it all its life. I shall call it Amouetta which in your language means halfling, since it neither belongs wholly to your world nor to mine. And everyone will look upon it as a monster.’ ‘Not so,’ replied the Gull King gently, ‘for although I cannot give this child the power to change her form, I have an ointment here which will turn her into a gull completely or into a human being. It shall be as you wish.’ ‘Oh, change her into a human being,’ cried Lorella, ‘for then at least she will be able to keep me company during the day.’ ‘It shall be as you wish,’ said the Gull King.

And he sent Amouetta to sleep and rubbed her body with the ointment so that she turned into a human baby. But when he reached the feet there was no ointment left so that, although lovely to look at in face and body, Amouetta had the webbed feet of a gull, and instead of toes she had claws. ‘What have you done?’ cried Lorella in despair. ‘The child is more of a monster than ever, and no one will look at her feet without horror.’ ‘What has been done is done,’ said the Gull King sadly, ‘and now there can be no further changing.’

Lorella was nevertheless pleased to have the company of her daughter, and taught her to read and sew and sing, and all things that a human being needs to learn. And she found that Amouetta was a quick pupil and a pleasant companion, but each time she caught sight of her feet Lorella became exceedingly vexed. She made Amouetta wrap up her gull’s feet in bandages during the day, though Amouetta could never understand the reason.

The time came when Amouetta had grown to be a young woman, and Lorella said to her husband that it was no life for Amouetta on the Island of Gulls, and that she must go to dry land and mix with her own kind and marry like everyone else. But the Gull King said that no good would come of this and that one of his own people would marry her. ‘But I do not want my daughter to live as I do, a prisoner on the Island of Gulls, never seeing my husband except by night,’ said Lorella.

And from that day on Lorella secretly began collecting up feathers left on the island by the gulls and with them she fashioned two boats, one for herself and one for her daughter. When the boats were ready she gave Amouetta a sleeping-potion that would make her forget all her life up to that moment, laid her down in one of the boats, and stitched her clothes onto the feathers while she was sound asleep. Then she herself lay down in the second boat, attached herself as well as she could, and cut the moorings of the two boats. The waves took the boat with Amouetta asleep in it far from the island, and a current carried it safely towards land. But the other boat was dashed against the rocks, and Lorella was drowned.

The boat of feathers bore the sleeping Amouetta to a little bay, where a poor fisherman lived with his wife. When he saw the boat of feathers he called to his wife to come and see the strange thing that the sea had cast up on the beach. And when the fisherman’s wife saw a beautiful young girl lying there fast asleep in the boat of feathers she said at once to her husband that since they had prayed for many years to have a child, this girl must have been sent to them by God in answer to their prayers. So the fisherman and his wife carefully undid the stitches and carried the sleeping girl into the house.

For seven days Amouetta lay without moving and each day the fisherman’s wife washed her and changed her bedclothes, and spoke to her as if she were talking to her own child. In her sleep Amouetta murmured strange words half in their language and half in one the fisherman’s wife did not understand. But she grasped that the girl’s name was Amouetta. One night she showed Amouetta’s feet to her husband but he said it was no matter. And during all this time, when he was out at sea, the fisherman noticed a great gull flying over his boat, and every time he followed it he was led to waters that were exceedingly abundant in fish.

On the eighth day Amouetta awoke and looked around her with astonishment. And the fisherman and his wife saw that she had no memory of her previous life and so they pretended that she was their real daughter who had been lost at sea and nearly drowned. And Amouetta was happy in the little cove, and used to run up and down the sea-shore and swim in the sea and wave from the beach when her adoptive father returned to land in his boat. ‘But why do you not have feet like mine?’ she asked her new mother one day, catching sight of her washing herself. The fisherman’s wife did not know what to answer. Then Amouetta understood that she was different from other people, and whenever people came to the little cove to buy fish she made haste to conceal her feet with bandages. But when no one was there she ran about as before, as she saw that her parents did not take any heed of her gull’s feet. She learned from her father how to mend nets, and became very skilful at this work. She liked to stretch out torn nets between two pines that overhung the beach, and while she mended them she often sang strange songs to herself in a language the fisherman did not know and whose meaning she said she did not know herself, having heard them in dreams. But the fisherman and his wife marvelled at the beautiful voice she had. In this way seven years passed in happiness.

The King who had seized the throne and exiled Lorella had a son, Peter, who was still unmarried. Although a brave warrior and a fine horseman, his great interest in life was music and he always said that if he married his wife would have to be a skilled musician and singer. One day Peter announced that he was going to give a great feast to which he invited all the girls in the kingdom who considered themselves good singers, and he promised to marry the girl who was esteemed the best, no matter what her origins.

It so happened that when the feast was in progress the fisherman was in the capital with Amouetta, having taken her there for the first time to show her the marvels of the city. And since Amouetta was herself fond of music they both attended the singing contest.

For three days the King’s minstrel played many well-known melodies on his

harp, and young women sang to them. But although several had good voices, the judges were not satisfied, saying that no girl had distinguished herself above the others. Then Peter commanded the minstrel to play an air of his own devising to which the singers must put their own words. But the minstrel played an air that was so strange that no girl dared to sing to it. Then Peter dismissed the contestants and told them to prepare a song during the night and return the following day.

During the course of the day Amouetta and her father came across the King’s minstrel in the gardens alongside the palace and out of curiosity Amouetta asked him where he had learned that air, since it sounded strangely familiar to her. But the minstrel said he doubted very much that she had ever heard it, for the melody had come to him in a dream, and he had never played it in public before. He had no idea what country it came from nor what the words were, but he added that he always called it, he knew not why, ‘The Lament of the Gull King for his Lost Daughter’.

While Amouetta was in conversation with the minstrel, Peter, the King’s son, came upon them unawares and overheard something of what they were saying. He was at once struck by the beauty of the young girl, and asked her if she came from a foreign land and that was why she recognized the song. Amouetta blushed and tried to move away, but Peter, smiling, blocked her path and repeated his question.

In the end Amouetta admitted that the song seemed familiar. ‘And yet,’ she added, ‘I too must have heard it in a dream for until yesterday I never left the little cove where I live with my father and mother.’ ‘But since you recognize the melody’ said Peter, ‘if you hear it again, you will perhaps be able to recall the words also,’ and he ordered the minstrel to go and fetch his harp at once.

At first when the minstrel began to play Amouetta kept her mouth firmly shut, but suddenly without thinking she began to sing in a quiet voice, using words belonging to an unknown tongue but which fitted the melody exactly. When she had come to the end Peter complimented her on her voice and said he hoped to see her the next day at the contest.

When, the following day, Peter commanded the minstrel to play the strange air, still no one dared to sing to it for they all said that the music was unlike anything they had ever heard before and must come from a distant land. This displeased Peter greatly, and he told them that they were not true singers if they could not sing to a new melody. And he added, looking straight at the fisherman and Amouetta, that there was in this very hall an untrained singer who could do better than any of them. And he commanded Amouetta to come forward. Everyone noted the extreme beauty of the young girl, also her poor clothes and awkward manners.

At first, when the minstrel once again played the air, Amouetta stood there foolishly with her mouth firmly closed, and many people in the audience frowned, thinking that the unknown girl no more knew how to sing to this air than the others. At this moment there was a sharp repeated sound from high above and everyone looked up in surprise. On the ledge outside the great window of the hall was a large gull that was tapping at the glass with its beak. Several people in the audience laughed, saying that this must be a new singer come to take part in the contest. But Peter, becoming suddenly angry, called for silence and once the gull had flown away, he asked the minstrel to play for the last time.

And then everyone was astonished because the unknown girl in the poor dress began to sing in words that were unknown to anyone present, and yet their meaning was clear to all, as if they were in a universal language that everyone could understand. And when Amouetta had finished singing, no one moved for a long time in the immense hall, and many in the company were weeping, so strange and sad was the song. And the judges announced at once that the unknown girl in the poor dress alone deserved the prize and Peter said in front of everyone that he would make her his wife as he had promised.

But even as he spoke, Amouetta and her father stole out of the hall and were lost in the crowd, and that very night they returned to their home in the little cove by the seashore for Amouetta was sure within herself that no good would come of this marriage and her father was of the same opinion.

When Peter discovered that Amouetta had disappeared he had the city searched, but his agents found no trace of her anywhere. And from that time onwards he lost interest in music and gave himself up to more manly pursuits which pleased his mother. But all the high-born women his mother found for him he refused, saying that since he could not have the woman of his choice, he would have no other.


One day when Amouetta was gathering kindling in a pinewood overlooking the cove, she saw a large log-hut in a clearing where there had never been anything before. A peasant happened to be passed by with a donkey but, in answer to her question, he said he did not know who was living there. ‘But,’ he added, ‘for sure it must be some great lord to judge by the respect shown to him, and the rumour is that he is mortally ill of a battle wound and has chosen to spend his last days in this pinewood overlooking the sea.’

Amouetta felt pity for the wounded man, stole up to the door of the hut which was slightly ajar and since there was no one in sight, pushed it open. A man lay stretched out on the bed beneath the window and, to judge by his appearance, he did indeed seem to be on the point of death. Amouetta sat down on a chair beside the bed, and began to sing in a soft voice a song in the strange language like the one she had sung in the capital.

As she sang, the man awoke and turned to face her. At once she stopped her singing and for a long time neither of them said a word. Then Peter reached out and seized Amouetta by the wrist, and said that providence had brought them together again and that he would never be cured of his wound unless she agreed to marry him.

‘If I agree,’ said Amouetta at length, ‘it will be on one condition that will appear strange to you. You must never ask me to reveal my feet to you and even when we are man and wife I shall keep them wrapped up in bandages.’ Peter smiled at this, saying that this was a very easy request to grant, thinking to himself that Amouetta had some trifling defect which she, like other girls, greatly exaggerated. ‘Very well,’ replied Amouetta, ‘but I warn you that if ever you break your promise, everything will be finished between us.’

After this Peter quickly recovered from his wound and married Amouetta despite the disapproval of his mother. And soon afterwards the old king died leaving Peter to be ruler of the country. And Peter regained his old love of music and made the court a place of music and dancing though his wife never sang or danced in public.

Peter had a small castle built on the site of the log-hut and he and his wife went there every year so that she could visit the fisherman and his wife who still lived in the cove. While staying at the castle during the summer Amouetta liked to rise very early in the morning and go to the little cove to bathe, just as in the days when she lived with the fisherman and his wife. One day, when Peter accompanied his wife to the beach later in the morning, he remarked to her that, to judge by the traces in the sand, there must, apart from her, have been a large bird that came down from the castle to swim in the cove like her. At this Amouetta went very pale and for several days after that she stopped swimming.

But one morning it was so hot that Amouetta could not resist going down to the beach and Peter, seeing his wife pass, was overcome with curiosity and followed her, keeping well out of sight. Amouetta had already taken off her garments and the bandages from one foot when she heard the warning cry of a gull and, looking up, saw her husband hiding behind a pine tree, staring straight at her.

‘So you have broken your vow!’ she cried angrily. And she tore the bandages off the other foot as well and stood there with both feet uncovered for him to see. Peter begged his wife’s pardon and protested that his love for her was as great as ever, but in his heart of hearts he was horrified to think that the Queen of the whole country was such a monster.

From that moment on the character of the King changed and he became given to sudden fits of anger and violence, and took an especial dislike to seabirds, shooting at them with a crossbow from the window of the little castle and laughing loudly every time a bolt brought one of them down covered in blood. One day during the following summer when he and Amouetta were once more at the little castle overlooking the bay, Peter drank even more heavily than usual. In the middle of the afternoon he tore a great battle-axe down from one of the walls and the servants scattered in terror. He went straight to his wife’s bedchamber where she was resting, shouting out that he was going to cut off those ugly feet of hers.

Amouetta leapt out of the window and ran down to the little beach. But Peter followed her, whirling his battle-axe above his head, and in her flight Amouetta tripped over one of the nets stretched out between two trees and lay there helplessly entangled in it. Peter shouted out once again that he would cut off her ugly feet and, gripping his battle-axe with both hands, he held it high above his head but in doing so he uncovered his breast, and a great gull came swooping down out of the sky to pierce him in the heart with its yellow beak, so that he fell to the ground covered in blood.

Amouetta was taken from the beach in a faint but the secret of her gull’s feet was now known. And when Peter died of his wound, his mother had Amouetta charged with being a witch, and she was condemned to spend the rest of her days in a little room at the top of a high tower in the little castle overlooking the beach. But she never caught sight of the fisherman and his wife as they had both died broken-hearted by what had happened.

Amouetta spent her days standing at the window and staring mournfully out to sea and on very clear days she could see as far as a great rock to which thousands of gulls returned each night. And each time she saw the gulls flying back to their island home at nightfall, she said to herself how much better was the life of a gull than her own. One day, as she was standing there gazing out to sea, a gull alighted on the window ledge in front of her. ‘I am the King of the Gulls,’ it said, ‘and if you leave your window open tonight,’ it said, ‘I will come and take you away from here.’ That night she left her window wide open and was awakened by a tall, fair-haired man dressed in a cloak of white feathers. ‘I am the King of the Gulls,’ he said and she looked up at him with wonder.

‘By night I have the shape of a man like all of my people, but by day I am a gull. I will take you away from here if that is what you wish. But you must know that once gone from here, you will never see dry land again, except the bare rock where I and my people live.’ ‘It is no matter,’ said Amouetta, ‘for I long to be away from this land where everyone I care for is now dead.’

Then the Gull King told her to lie on his cape of feathers, and when she awoke she heard the billows roaring and the cries of thousands of birds roosting, and all around her was the ocean, without sight of land. Then the Gull King alighted on the island and led her into a great cavern where there were many people, both men and women, all dressed in white and surpassingly beautiful.

As soon as the company saw her a minstrel struck up a melody on his harp that sounded much like the strange air to which Amouetta had sung so many years ago except that now the air no longer sounded sad but exceedingly gay and light-hearted. When Amouetta asked the name of the song, she was told that in her language it would be known as ‘The Homecoming of the Gull King’s daughter’. And at once she began to sing putting words to the melody, but this time she understood the meaning as well, and as she sang all her previous life on the Island of Gulls came back to her, and she realized that the Gull King was her very own father. And from that point on she became like the others a human being completely at night and a gull completely by day.

Sophia, the Goose-Girl

The following story was told by its author Sebastian Hayes on December 30th 2006 in the ‘yurt’ at Jonathan Clunies-Ross’s extraordinary landscaped domain, ‘Willow’, near Gillingham, Dorset. It was followed by a performance of the Traditional Mummers’ Play given by the Child Okeford Mummers, and then by food and drink and general socialising. Many thanks to all concerned, to Jonathan for giving us the use of ‘Willow’, to the Mummers who arrived in full regalia and last but not least the audience who had to wade torch in hand through mud and pools of water to reach the locale. Despite the weather the ‘yurt’ (made of wood but in the style of a Mongolian yurt) was filled to bursting and the atmospherics added to the ambiance.

Sebastian Hayes aims to give a performance or host a celebration of some kind at ‘Willow’ around each solstice and equinox, as he did this year. On Saturday March 24th 2007 there will be an open air performance of Stephen, the Lead King, probably starting around 5 p.m., and a Midsummer Celebration on Saturday 23rd June starting around 7.30 p.m. Details will be posted nearer the dates both on this site and on the Brimstonepress.co.uk website, section Events. All performances/celebrations are free followed by food and drink brought by those attending.

It should be stressed that Sebastian Hayes’ stories are not rehashes of Grimm but wholly original tales though they employ traditional motifs and techniques. The folk tale or saga is essentially an oral rather than a written genre but some of these tales have been collected together in The Foundling and other Stories which is available via the Brimstonepress website, or directly from the author.
Sophia, the Goose-Girl

There was once a king who collected strange fish and other water creatures, and gave fishermen a good reward whenever they brought him anything unusual. One night, when two fishermen hauled in their nets from a lake, they saw by the light of the moon a strange creature lying amongst the fish.

It had very thick bony arms, the body of a toad, but the face of an old man with long dripping hair. They took it at once to the King, who gave them a great deal of money for it, and he put it in a big pond at the bottom of the palace gardens where it was chained by the right wrist to an iron ring projecting from a rock within the pond.

Now the King had only one child, a daughter called Sophia, and she was a very lovely child and the apple of his eye. Almost every day she spent some time sitting by the pond at the bottom of the palace gardens, singing to herself, playing with her long hair and admiring her own reflection in the water, and very often the monster would be half-hidden in the bulrushes, looking up at her with big mournful eyes. And every time she caught sight of him she would sing out loud to herself:

So beautiful am I

The daughter of a king,

Even the monsters of the deep

Come forth to hear me sing.

One day, when Sophia was sitting as usual by the side of the pond, an enormous black dog who had escaped from his kennel came up behind her and was about to jump on her and tear her to pieces. ‘Beware! Beware of the dog!’ cried the water monster, and with one of his long thick bony arms he seized Sophia by the waist and placed her out of reach in the branches of a willow tree. The hound ran round the tree, barking and leaping up and trying to seize Sophia until twelve palace attendants armed with nets and spears managed to overcome it and chain it up once more. Then Sophia knew that the monster could speak and had saved her life.

The very next day, Sophia returned to the pond and when she caught sight of the monster she thanked it and asked it what she could do in return. ‘There is a spring,’ said the monster, ‘high up between the Two Teeth which for a long time was dried up but is now overflowing with water. I require a jugful of this water collected by yourself by the light of the moon.’ And before she could say anything in reply the water monster dived down into the pond and was seen no more.

The Two Teeth were a pair of jagged mountains many miles away, and since Sophia had no desire to go there, she returned the next day with a jugful of water from the palace well. The monster tasted it, and said at once that it had not come from the spring as he had asked. So Sophia went away and ordered two serving girls to bring her a jugful of this water. The girls were not at all eager to go to this spot by night, since it was of ill repute, but they had no choice but to obey because Sophia was the King’s daughter.

The following day Sophia handed the monster the jugful of water and once he had tasted it he said that it was indeed from the spring he had mentioned. ‘But,’ he added, ‘you did not get it yourself and the water only has miraculous properties if it is collected by the light of the moon by the daughter of a king.’ ‘In that case, you’ll have to stay as you are,’ said Sophia, and walked away. For some days she tried to forget about the monster and stopped going down to the pond, but she could never avoid the thought that it had saved her life.

At the next night of full moon Sophia stole out of the palace and, full of fear, walked to the Two Teeth. She found the spring which was flowing abundantly just as the monster had said and she brought back a jugful of water, taking care not to spill it on the way back. This time the monster tasted the water and then emptied it down at one gulp. At once he took on the form of a beautiful young boy with long flowing blonde hair, much to Sophia’s astonishment, and as his arm was now thinner he managed to slip it through the iron ring.

‘I must not stay here any longer,’ said the boy. ‘For I can easily be discovered — and besides, I can only keep this form for a little while. I shall go back to live in the lakes where I was born, but I shall not forget what you have done for me. If ever you are in need of assistance and you see a plant like that one’— and he pointed to a plant somewhat like a water lily with three white flowers on it — ‘take one of the leaves in your fingers and say out loud, ‘I am Sophia who once helped the lake-man Damiron to freedom’. Then one of us will emerge from the bottom of the lake to help you.’

The blonde boy ran off down the path, climbed a tree overhanging the wall that enclosed the gardens, and was soon lost to sight in the dense woods beyond.

The King soon found out that the water monster had escaped, and he was very angry with his attendants for allowing this to happen. He took a solemn oath that whoever was responsible, whether he be of high or lowly birth, would be bound hand and foot and left to die in the forest. Suspicion fell on a foreign girl recently arrived in the palace, and one morning the whole court was ordered to assemble in the palace courtyard to see her bound hand and foot and taken away to her death. ‘This will teach you all to be more careful in future with my possessions,’ said the King.

But when Sophia saw what was happening, she took pity on the girl and came forward to declare in front of the whole court that the girl was innocent and that it was she who had helped the monster to escape.

Now although Sophia was the King’s only daughter, he was afraid to go back on his word since he had taken a solemn oath in public that he would punish the person responsible whoever it was, and he felt that if he did nothing his authority would become of no worth. And so with a heavy heart, he ordered his servants to take Sophia and bind her hand and foot and leave her in the forest to perish. All this was done as he commanded, and at this time Sophia was just thirteen years old.

The sun was a great orange ball peering through the trees at Sophia, when she was abandoned that evening by the shores of a lake in the middle of the forest. ‘Alas!’ she cried aloud. ‘Beautiful though I am and the only daughter of a king, yet I have been left to die here in the forest.’ And Sophia wept and wept, but that night the wild beasts did not touch her, and the first rays of the morning sun found her in the same condition as before.

As Sophia looked across the shining expanse of water, she suddenly caught sight of the plant from the pond somewhat like a water lily with flowers opening to the sunlight floating to and fro. She crawled to the water’s edge and, as well as she could with her hands and feet tied, she got onto a log, pushed herself off and, using a branch as a paddle, she came as close as she could to the water lily. Sitting on the log, she reached over and gripped the green surface of the enormous leaf of the plant with her two hands and called out, ‘I am Sophia and it was I who helped the lake-man Damiron to escape.’

Soon afterwards a tall lake-man emerged from the water, and he carried Sophia to the shore in his arms and untied her. ‘I cannot help you more at the moment’ he said. ‘But if ever again you are in need and you see this plant with three white flowers on it opening to the sunlight, call out, and one of us will come to your aid.’ Then the lake-man swam out from the shore and dived down into the depths of the lake.

Sophia wandered about by the shores of the lake until she was half dead with hunger. At night she tied herself up in the branches of a tree to sleep, for fear of wild beasts, and by day she grubbed about on the forest floor looking for edible roots and acorns. ‘Alas! Alas!’ she cried, ‘I am a king’s daughter and was once as beautiful as a lily, and now I crawl across the ground like a wild animal and my hair is full of earth and my nails have become as long as the claws of a cat.’

But then one evening Sophia saw a light coming from a cave beneath a big rock, and went towards it. ‘Surely they will pity me, whoever they are,’ she said to herself, and she stepped at once into the cave. In front of her were seven robbers roasting a sheep over a wood fire and drinking wine out of leather bottles. ‘Have pity on me,’ she said, ‘for although I am a king’s daughter, I was left to die by the side of the lake in the forest.’

One of the robbers seized her at once by the wrist and examined her. ‘A king’s daughter you certainly are not,’ he said taking in her filthy and dishevelled appearance. ‘But we can perhaps get something for you at a fair,’ he added. So the robbers chained Sophia up like a dog at the back of the cave, and there she stayed alone all the day while the robbers were out waylaying travellers, but at night they fed her well enough, putting the food down on a plate and the water in a bowl on the floor so she had to lap it up like an animal since her hands were tied. ‘Alas! Alas!’, she cried to herself. ‘I am a king’s daughter and was once as beautiful as the day, yet now I am chained up like a dog at the back of a cave, and am to be sold at a fair. And who knows what sort of master I shall have?’

But when the robbers took Sophia to the fair at first no one wanted to buy her, as she did not look strong enough to make a good servant girl, and her appearance was so wild and dishevelled that many prospective buyers turned away with disgust. But in the end a farmer bought her because he had twelve geese that attacked everyone who worked on the farm, and he could never get any girl to stay with him.

So Sophia was lodged in a shed behind the pigsty, and each day she cleaned the yard, and fed the pigs, and drew water from the well. And all the while the twelve geese followed her about and pecked at her legs until they were red and bleeding, so that she did not get a moment’s peace. ‘Alas! Alas!’, she cried to herself, ‘I was born a king’s daughter but now I would gladly exchange my life for that of one of these geese.’

One day Sophia was sent out to bring back the cows from the meadow, but she lost her way and ended up by the shore of a big lake that she had never seen before. Even here the geese followed her, and their cackling accompanied every step she took. So she waded out into the water to escape for a moment from the geese, and all of a sudden she saw not far away floating on the water the plant from the pond at the bottom of the palace gardens.

She swam out to the plant and touched one of the leaves with her hand, calling out, ‘I am Sophia who and I once helped one of your people to escape. If you hear me, pity me and come to my aid.’ Soon afterwards a tall lake-man emerged from the water and looked at Sophia in astonishment. Then he turned to the geese who were setting up a great cackling on the shore, and whistled to them in a strange way and within moments they were quiet.

‘Your geese are bewitched young men and maidens,’ said the lake-man. ‘And in their foolishness they peck at your legs to show their affection for you. But I have told them to stop doing this.’ Then Sophia turned round and she saw that the geese were as motionless as if they had been made of stone. ‘How can they be released from the spell?’ asked Sophia. ‘They may be released,’ said the lake-man, ‘only when the girl who tends them is married to the son of the King of the Glass Mountain, and each of these twelve is seated as a guest at the wedding-feast.’ ‘If that is so’ said Sophia, ‘I shall never rest until what you say comes about.’

From that moment onwards the geese stopped tormenting Sophia and followed her about as meek as lambs, and she slept with them all around her on the straw. But a few days later the farmer ordered her to cut the heads off two of them the next morning and prepare them for the kitchen. Sophia said that she would do as he said, but that night she stole off with the twelve geese following her, and by morning she was very far away.

Sophia walked on and on not knowing where she was going. She sold the eggs of the geese to get money to live and no one dared approach her because she was protected by the geese night and day and she became known far and wide as the mad goose-girl of Bohemia. And each night she lay down with the geese around her and took them in her arms, and said to them each night before she went off to sleep, ‘Do not fear! If only I can find the Glass Mountain, you will be released.’

Sophia was now fully grown, and had become tall and strong and would have been considered handsome except that her blonde hair was full of straw and earth, and her eyes had a wild look, and the geese were always about her feet. And wherever she went she always asked if anyone had heard of the Glass Mountain, but everyone said they had never heard of such a place. But then one morning she came across an old shepherd who had in his youth travelled a great deal and he said that he knew it, but that it was very far away. ‘No matter,’ said Sophia. ‘Even if the Glass Mountain is as far as China I and my beloved geese will walk to it.’ And the shepherd gave her instructions on how to reach the Glass Mountain, and he made her repeat them until he was sure she knew them all off by heart.

So Sophia and the geese set out cheerfully and when they came to mountains she and the geese climbed them, and when there were rivers she swam across them with the geese around her. And in the end, just as the shepherd had said, she came to the foot of a high mountain on which there was not so much as a blade of grass and the sides of the mountain were as smooth as ice. And at the top, very far away, she could make out the walls and turrets of a castle. Then she knew that she was at the end of her travels and that night, before she lay down to sleep, she said to the geese, ‘Do not fear, for we are now at the very foot of the Glass Mountain, and very soon you will all of you be released.’

Then Sophia made a hut out of logs at the foot of the Glass Mountain and lived there with the geese, but she could not so much as take two steps up its sides without falling back because the sides were so smooth and slippery. Day after day Sophia kept watch but never once did she see anything come or go, and the far away castle remained silent and still and even the birds of the forest avoided flying over it.

But one day, at noon, as she watched from her hut, Sophia saw the gates of the castle suddenly open and a great troop of horsemen rode out, all of them in full armour, riding jet-black horses and bearing lances with purple pennants flying. And in the midst of them was a beautiful unarmed youth on a snow-white horse, dressed in a white cloak and with long flowing blonde hair. They rode at full gallop down the side of the Glass Mountain, and at midnight the same troop returned, the men-at-arms holding flaming torches before them. And so it was for many days following.

Yet still, whenever Sophia tried to climb the sides of the Glass Mountain, she fell back after only one or two steps. Then one day the geese began once more to grow excited and started to peck at her legs again. She frowned and told them to stop but realised that they wanted to attract her attention and lead her somewhere. She followed them until she came to a lake hidden in the forest, and in the middle of the lake there was the same large plant like a water-lily with three white flowers wide open.

As soon as Sophia touched the plant and called for aid, a lake-man emerged in answer to her summons. ‘The horses from the castle have special hooves,’ he said to Sophia, ‘and none but they can climb the sides of the Glass Mountain. You must capture one of these horses as the troop passes by. But the lord of the castle is a powerful wizard and until you overcome him, your quest will be fruitless. However, he is mortally afraid of the leaves and flowers of this plant so you should always have something of it about you.’ Then he dived back down into the water. Before she left Sophia took away a portion of the lake-plant and put it in a jar of water where it took root at once.

The next day at noon Sophia and the geese stood by the side of the path, and as the band galloped past with lances upheld and pennants flying, the geese attacked the legs of the last of the horses. It reared up in fright and, seizing the man-at-arms by the waist, Sophia threw him violently to the ground while holding fast to the bridle of the horse with her other hand. The troop galloped on regardless and the knight lay still on the ground as if dead.

When Sophia unlaced his helmet, she found that inside there was nothing but straw. So she tied the horse to a tree and put on the knight’s armour, mounted the horse, closed the visor and rode straight up the side of the Glass Mountain holding before her the knight’s lance. And when she reached the top, the gates of the castle swung open before her, and she galloped into the courtyard without meeting anyone opposing her.
The great courtyard of the castle was empty and still, except for an old man dressed like a servant. He asked what she wanted, staring in fear at her helmet for there attached to its crest there was one of the white flowers of the lake plant. Sophia said in a loud voice that she had come to ask for the hand of the son of the King of the Glass Mountain, in the name of the lady she served.

‘The Prince is not here at present,’ said the old man. ‘But I will tell the King what you have said.’ Then he disappeared up a crumbling flight of steps, and returned in a little while to say that the King agreed to the request, and that the lady was to come in ten days’ time to solemnise the wedding.

‘I have one further request to make,’ said Sophia. ‘The lady whom I serve will bring with her twelve wedding guests, and they must sit at the right hand and the left hand of the bridal pair.’ The old man disappeared once more, and came back to say that the King agreed to the second request. Then Sophia turned her horse and galloped out of the castle and down the side of the Glass Mountain.

On the appointed day Sophia rode up the side of the Glass Mountain holding her lance and hanging from the saddle of the horse were twelve baskets, one for each of the geese. At the castle gates Sophia was met by a band of maidens, who took her away to prepare her for the wedding. They washed her and combed her long hair and clothed her in her wedding dress. And all the while Sophia made sure she had one of the flowers of the lake plant in her hand and when she was ready she had it stitched onto the front of her dress. In the chapel the priest and bridegroom awaited her. And the bridegroom was the beautiful youth with the long fair hair that she had seen with the troop, but he could only nod in assent to the priest, for he was dumb.

Then the bridal pair went to the hall prepared for the wedding feast, and Sophia led in the twelve geese and lifted each one onto a chair, six to the right of the places set for the bridal pair, and six to the left. And as soon as they were all in place and the bridal pair was seated, the twelve geese instantly became young men and maidens. And, turning to the King at the far end of the table who was none other than the the old man in disguise, they said that he had bewitched them many years ago because they knew his secret which was that he had killed the true King. And they said that the blonde youth was not his son, but the son of the true King, and thus the rightful present King.

At this the King tried to flee, but the twelve young men and maidens caught him and threw him off the battlements, and he was killed at once. Then the bridegroom, too, was released from his spell and was able to speak once more, and he embraced warmly the twelve young men and maidens who had once been his attendants. And when Sophia looked out over the sides of the Glass Mountain, she saw that it was covered in grass and shrubs. And there she lived in happiness with the new King, and the twelve young men and maidens watched over them both to see that no harm would ever again befall them.