Whether you want to use a slightly more modernized version of "The Story-teller at Fault" or the original, it's useful (and fun!) to find a story where the storyteller has no idea what to say.
Yes, I know it happens so rarely.
Today's Public Domain version is from Joseph Jacobs' Celtic Fairy Tales
but you can also find it somewhat revised in a retelling in Naomi Baltuck
's book about "Stories and Storytellers", Apples from Heaven: Multicultural Folk Tales about Stories and Storytellers
published by Linnet Books.
Literary stories and also stories from the times covered by Public Domain often benefit from re-telling. To give you a taste of how Naomi Baltuck changed it, I suggest you compare it with her version since today's article is indeed about having your own way of telling. I'm comfortable you will find her version respects Jacobs, who himself was collecting stories from the oral tradition. That tradition is part of the folk process and deserves to remain living, breathing, personally interpreted. After all, that's what live storytelling is all about!
My own copy wouldn't be as well reproduced, nor would Jacobs' book hold up to my scanning it. This faithful version, complete with the original illustrations by John D. Batten, is online, along with other stories from Celtic Fairy Tales
can be found at places like Sacred-texts.com
and the Baldwin Project
so it's better to use their work here. Both sites also give Jacobs' "Notes and References" section. Frankly that section is quite dry, but does show the tale has roots that go way back.
At the end of today's story I want to give ideas for you to create your own
version of this old Celtic tale.
The Story-Teller at Fault
the time when the Tuatha De Dannan held the sovereignty of Ireland,
there reigned in Leinster a king, who was remarkably fond of hearing
stories. Like the other princes and chieftains of the island, he had a
favourite story-teller, who held a large estate from his Majesty, on
condition of telling him a new story every night of his life, before he
went to sleep. Many indeed were the stories he knew, so that he had
already reached a good old age without failing even for a single night
in his task; and such was the skill he displayed that whatever cares of
state or other annoyances might prey upon the monarch's mind, his
story-teller was sure to send him to sleep.
One morning the story-teller arose early, and as his custom was,
strolled out into his garden turning over in his mind incidents which he
might weave into a story for the king at night. But this morning he
found himself quite at fault; after pacing his whole demesne, he
returned to his house without being able to think of anything new or
strange. He found no difficulty in "there was once a king
who had three sons" or "one day the king of all Ireland," but further
than that he could not get. At length he went in to breakfast, and
found his wife much perplexed at his delay.
"Why don't you come to breakfast, my dear?" said she.
"I have no mind to eat anything," replied the story teller; "long as I
have been in the service of the king of Leinster, I never sat down to
breakfast without having a new story ready for the evening, but this
morning my mind is quite shut up, and I don't know what to do. I might
as well lie down and die at once. I'll be disgraced for ever this
evening, when the king calls for his story-teller."
Just at this moment the lady looked out of the window.
"Do you see that black thing at the end of the field?" said she.
"I do," replied her husband.
They drew nigh, and saw a miserable looking old man lying on the ground with a wooden leg placed beside him.
"Who are you, my good man?" asked the story-teller. Oh, then, 'tis
little matter who I am. I'm a poor, old, lame, decrepit, miserable
creature, sitting down here to rest awhile."
"An' what are you doing with that box and dice I see in your hand?"
"I am waiting here to see if any one will play a game with me," replied the beggar man.
"Play with you! Why what has a poor old man like you to play for?"
"I have one hundred pieces of gold in this leathern purse," replied the old man.
"You may as well play with him," said the story-teller's
wife; "and perhaps you'll have something to tell the king in the evening."
A smooth stone was placed between them, and upon it they cast their throws.
It was but a little while and the story-teller lost every penny of his money.
"Much good may it do you, friend," said he. "What better hap could I look for, fool that I am!"
"Will you play again?" asked the old man.
"Don't be talking, man: you have all my money."
"Haven't you chariot and horses and hounds?"
what of them!"
"I'll stake all the money I have against thine."
"Nonsense, man! Do you think for all the money in Ireland, I'd run the risk of seeing my lady tramp home on foot?"
"Maybe you'd win," said the bocough.
"Maybe I wouldn't," said the story-teller.
"Play with him, husband," said his wife. "I don't mind walking, if you do, love."
"I never refused you before," said the story-teller, "and I won't do so now.
Down he sat again, and in one throw lost houses, hounds, and chariot.
"Will you play again?" asked the beggar.
"Are you making game of me, man; what else have I to stake?"
"I'll stake all my winnings against your wife,' said the old man.
The story-teller turned away in silence, but his wife stopped him.
"Accept his offer," said she. "This is the third time, and who knows what luck you may have? You'll surely win now."
They played again, and the story-teller lost. No sooner had he done
so, than to his sorrow and surprise, his wife went and sat down near the
ugly old beggar.
"Is that the way you're leaving me?" said the story-teller.
"Sure I was won," said she. "You would not cheat the poor man, would you?"
"Have you any more to stake?" asked the old man.
"You know very well I have not," replied the storyteller.
"I'll stake the whole now, wife and all, against your own self," said the old man.
Again they played, and again the story-teller lost.
"Well! here I am, and what do you want with me?"
"I'll soon let you know," said the old man, and he took from his pocket a long cord and a wand.
"Now," said he to the story-teller, "what kind of animal would you
rather be, a deer, a fox, or a hare? You have your choice now, but you
may not have it later."
To make a long story short, the story-teller made his choice of a
hare; the old man threw the cord round him, struck him with the wand,
and lo! a long-eared, frisking hare was skipping and jumping on the
But it wasn't for long; who but his wife called the hounds, and set
them on him. The hare fled, the dogs followed. Round the field ran a
high wall, so that run as he might, he couldn't get out, and mightily
diverted were beggar and lady to see him twist and double.
In vain did he take refuge with his wife, she kicked him back again
to the hounds, until at length the beggar stopped the hounds, and with a
stroke of the wand, panting and breathless, the story-teller stood
before them again.
"And how did you like the sport?" said the beggar.
"It might be sport to others," replied the story-teller looking at
his wife, "for my part I could well put up with the loss of it."
"Would it be asking too much," he went on to the beggar, "to know who
you are at all, or where you come from, or why you take a pleasure in
plaguing a poor old man like me?"
"Oh!" replied the stranger, " I'm an odd kind of good-for-little
fellow, one day poor, another day rich, but if you wish to know more
about me or my habits, come with me and perhaps I may show you more than
you would make out if you went alone."
"I'm not my own master to go or stay," said the story-teller, with a sigh.
The stranger put one hand into his wallet and drew out of it before
their eyes a well looking middle-aged man, to whom he spoke as follows:
"By all you heard and saw since I put you into my wallet, take charge
of this lady and of the carriage and horses, and have them ready for me
whenever I want them."
Scarcely had he said these words when all vanished, and the
story-teller found himself at the Foxes' Ford, near the castle of Red
Hugh O'Donnell. He could see all but none could see him.
O'Donnell was in his hall, and heaviness of flesh and weariness of spirit were upon him.
"Go out," said he to his doorkeeper, " and see who or what may be coming."
The doorkeeper went, and what he saw was a lank, grey beggarman; half his sword bared behind his haunch, his two
shoes full of cold road-a-wayish water sousing about him, the tips of
his two ears out through his old hat, his two shoulders out through his
scant tattered cloak, and in his hand a green wand of holly.
"Save you, O Donnell," said the lank grey beggarman.
"And you likewise," said O'Donnell. "Whence come you, and what is your craft?"
"I come from the outmost stream of earth,
From the glens where the white swans glide,
A night in Islay, a night in Man,
A night on the cold hillside."
"It's the great traveller you are," said O'Donnell. "Maybe you've learnt something on the road."
"I am a juggler," said the lank grey beggarman, "and for five pieces of silver you shall see a trick of mine."
"You shall have them," said O'Donnell; and the lank grey beggarman took three small straws and placed them in his hand.
"The middle one," said he, "I'll blow away; the other two I'll leave."
"Thou canst not do it," said one and all.
But the lank grey beggarman put a finger on either outside straw and, whiff, away he blew the middle one.
"’Tis a good trick," said O'Donnell; and he paid him his five pieces of silver.
"For half the money," said one of the chief's lads, "I'll do the same trick.
"Take him at his word, O'Donnell."
The lad put the three straws on his hand, and a finger on either
outside straw and he blew; and what happened but that the fist was blown
away with the straw.
"Thou art sore, and thou wilt be sorer," said O'Donnell.
"Six more pieces, O'Donnell, and I'll do another trick for thee," said the lank grey beggarman.
"Six shalt thou have."
"Seest thou my two ears! One I'll move but not t'other."
"’Tis easy to see them, they're big enough, but thou canst never move one ear and not the two together."
The lank grey beggarman put his hand to his ear, and he gave it a pull.
O'Donnell laughed and paid him the six pieces.
"Call that a trick," said the fistless lad, " any one can do that,"
and so saying, he put up his hand, pulled his ear, and what happened was
that he pulled away ear and head.
"Sore thou art, and sorer thou'lt be," said O'Donnell. "Well,
O'Donnell," said the lank grey beggarman, strange are the tricks I've
shown thee, but I'll show thee a stranger one yet for the same money."
"Thou hast my word for it," said O'Donnell.
With that the lank grey beggarman took a bag from under his armpit,
and from out the bag a ball of silk, and he unwound the ball and he
flung it slantwise up into the clear blue heavens, and it became a
ladder; then he took a hare and placed it upon the thread, and up it
ran; again he took out a red-eared hound, and it swiftly ran up after
"Now," said the lank grey beggarman; "has any one a mind to run after the dog and on the course?"
"I will," said a lad of O'Donnell's.
"Up with you then," said the juggler; "but I warn you if you let my hare be killed I'll cut off your head when you come down."
The lad ran up the thread and all three soon disappeared. After
looking up for a long time, the lank grey beggarman said: "I'm afraid
the hound is eating the hare, and that our friend has fallen asleep."
Saying this he began to wind the thread, and down came the lad fast
asleep; and down came the red-eared hound and in his mouth the last
morsel of the hare.
He struck the lad a stroke with the edge of his sword, and so cast
his head off. As for the hound, if he used it no worse, he used it no
"It's little I'm pleased, and sore I'm angered," said O'Donnell, "that a hound and a lad should be killed at my court."
"Five pieces of silver twice over for each of them," said the juggler, "and their heads shall be on them as before."
Thou shalt get that," said O'Donnell.
Five pieces, and again five were paid him, and lo! the lad had his
head and the hound his. And though they lived to the uttermost end of
time, the hound would never touch a hare again, and the lad took good
care to keep his eyes open.
Scarcely had the lank grey beggarman done this when he vanished from
out their sight, and no one present could say if he had flown through
the air or if the earth had swallowed him up.
He moved as wave tumbling o'er wave
As whirlwind following whirlwind,
As a furious wintry blast,
So swiftly, sprucely, cheerily,
And no stop made
Until he came
To the court of Leinster's King,
He gave a cheery light leap
O'er top of turret,
Of court and city
Of Leinster's King.
Heavy was the flesh and weary the spirit of Leinster's
king. 'Twas the hour he was wont to hear a story, but send he might
right and left, not a jot of tidings about the story-teller could he
"Go to the door," said he to his doorkeeper, "and see if a soul is in sight who may tell me something about my story-teller."
The doorkeeper went, and what he saw was a lank grey beggarman, half
his sword bared behind his haunch, his two old shoes full of cold
road-a-wayish water sousing about him, the tips of his two ears out
through his old hat, his two shoulders out through his scant tattered
cloak, and in his hand a three-stringed harp.
"What canst thou do?" said the doorkeeper.
"I can play," said the lank grey beggarman.
"Never fear," added he to the story-teller, "thou shalt see all, and not a man shall see thee."
When the king heard a harper was outside, he bade him in.
"It is I that have the best harpers in the five-fifths of Ireland,"
said he, and he signed them to play. They did so, and if they played,
the lank grey beggarman listened.
Heardst thou ever the like?" said the king.
"Did you ever, O king, hear a cat purring over a bowl of broth, or
the buzzing of beetles in the twilight, or a shrill tongued old woman
scolding your head off?"
"That I have often," said the king.
"More melodious to me," said the lank grey beggarman, "were the worst of these sounds than the sweetest harping of thy harpers."
When the harpers heard this, they drew their swords and rushed at
him, but instead of striking him, their blows fell on each other, and
soon not a man but was cracking his neighbour's skull and getting his
own cracked in turn.
When the king saw this, he thought it hard the harpers weren't
content with murdering their music, but must needs murder each other.
"Hang the fellow who began it all," said he; "and if I can't have a story, let me have peace."
Up came the guards, seized the lank grey beggarman, marched him to
the gallows and hanged him high and dry. Back they marched to the hall,
and who should they see but the lank grey beggarman seated on a bench
with his mouth to a flagon of ale.
Never welcome you in," cried the captain of the guard, "didn't we hang you this minute, and what brings you here?"
"Is it me myself, you mean?
"Who else?" said the captain.
"May your hand turn into a pig's foot with you when you think of tying the rope; why should you speak of hanging me?"
Back they scurried to the gallows, and there hung the king's favourite brother.
Back they hurried to the king who had fallen fast asleep.
"Please your Majesty," said the captain, "we hanged that strolling vagabond, but here he is back again as well as ever."
"Hang him again," said the king, and off he went to sleep once more.
They did as they were told, but what happened was that
they found the king's chief harper hanging where the lank grey beggarman should have been.
The captain of the guard was sorely puzzled.
"Are you wishful to hang me a third time?" said the lank grey beggarman.
"Go where you will;" said the captain, "and as fast as you please if
you'll only go far enough. It's trouble enough you've given us already."
"Now you're reasonable," said the beggarman; "and since you've given
up trying to hang a stranger because he finds fault with your music, I
don't mind telling you that if you go back to the gallows you'll find
your friends sitting on the sward none the worse for what has happened."
As he said these words he vanished; and the story-teller found
himself on the spot where they first met, and where his wife still was
with the carriage and horses.
"Now," said the lank grey beggarman, "I'll torment you no longer.
There's your carriage and your horses, and your money and your wife; do
what you please with them."
"For my carriage and my horses and my hounds," said the story-teller, "I thank you; but my wife and my money you may keep."
"No," said the other. "I want neither, and as for your wife, don't think ill of her for what she did, she couldn't help it."
Not help it! Not help kicking me into the mouth of my own hounds! Not help casting me off for the sake of a beggarly old ——-"
"I'm not as beggarly or as old as ye think. I am Angus of the Bruff; many a good turn you've done me with the
King of Leinster. This morning my magic told me the difficulty you
were in, and I made up my mind to get you out of it. As for your wife
there, the power that changed your body changed her mind. Forget and
forgive as man and wife should do, and now you have a story for the King
of Leinster when he calls for one;" and with that he disappeared.
It's true enough he now had a story fit for a king. From first to
last he told all that had befallen him; so long and loud laughed the
king that he couldn't go to sleep at all. And he told the story-teller
never to trouble for fresh stories, but every night as long as he lived
he listened again and he laughed afresh at the tale of the lank grey
A few times earlier I've posted stories from Joseph Jacobs. Very little is available about him personally. This repeats my earlier information on him: While he was Australian, Jacobs is best
known for his collections of English and Celtic folklore and I've
earlier posted a little of his Aesop fables. Here's the Wikipedia
overview of him, but it doesn't begin to tell why his versions are still valued...they are flat out well told.
I mentioned earlier giving ideas for you to create your own
version of this old Celtic tale. As I worked my way through the story these came to me, but surely they are just a launching point and you may have other ideas to try.
- Have you ever felt like "The Story-teller at Fault" with no idea what you could possibly say?
- Storytellers today often post a request for help on a topic. The international email list hosted by the National Storytelling Network, Storytell, and even more international, Professional Storyteller, give internet ways to network. P.S, is less active and more likely to lead to private discussion, but either are an option not available before the internet.
- Does your version want to include or eliminate the storyteller using that option?
- Would family or friends be part of your efforts to have a story? Remember the wife's reactions and response to the storyteller's efforts.
- Where might you be while trying to come up with a story?
- What kind of character (possibly a "Daemon in the box" of your computer?) would conduct you on your journey to a story?
- Would it be done using a game? If so, how is it played?
- What losses would you have? This all reminds me of my favorite type of bet -- a mental bet, which of course means you lose your mind! One might say that happened here.
- Will you be transformed to an animal or . . . ?
- What problems does that create? Remember stories are all about having a problem to solve.
- The mysterious visitor also might take you invisibly on a journey where you witness someone else sucked in gradually by the visitor's tricks. Something about this invisible witnessing reminds me of the three visits Scrooge makes in Christmas Carol.
- That being "sucked in gradually" could occur earlier with the storyteller, condensing the story.
- The essence of this version is witnessing incidents that could never occur. It could be a dream, hallucination, or you could do a more realistic version.
Jacobs' Notes and References mention a possibility of this story going back to 1362, but he thinks it's even older. By now you may even have recognized this story has its own tale type (always a great resource for creating a story or finding an existing story). It's sometimes called "The Boy (or Man) Who Had No Story" and is given as Irish tale type 2412B because of Venerable Bede's account in the late 7th or early 8th century about the poet Caedmon, but both Scottish and Irish versions have traveled around the isles for probably far longer. If you prefer the modern Aarne-Thompson motif, it's M231.1Bd. If talk of motifs and tale types confuse you, don't worry, just know it's been kicking around long enough to survive your playing with it . . .but lets you (and your own audience) know its roots go way back.
Here's my closing for days when I have a story in Keeping the Public in Public Domain.
This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in
Public Domain." The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our
cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were
compensated. I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent
on works of the 20th century. My own library of folklore includes
so many books within the Public Domain I decided to share stories from
them. I hope you enjoy discovering new
At the same time, my own involvement in storytelling regularly
creates projects requiring
research as part of my
sharing stories with an audience. Whenever that research needs to be
shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that
week. This is a return to my regular posting of a
research project here. (Don't worry, this isn't dry research, my
research is always geared towards future storytelling to an audience.)
Response has convinced me that "Keeping the
Public in Public Domain" should continue along with
my other postings as often as I can manage it.
Other Public Domain story resources I recommend -
- There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for
folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection. I have long recommended it and continue to do so. He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or
expression you like by pressing one key. http://folkmasa.org/motiv/motif.htm
- You may have noticed I'm no longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest
database, although his offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for
those of us seeking specific types of stories. There's another site, FairyTalez
claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales, folktales, and
fables" and they are "fully optimized for phones, tablets, and PCs",
free and presented without ads.
Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
- The email list for storytellers, Storytell, discussed Online Story Sources and came up with these additional suggestions:
- David K. Brown - http://people.ucalgary.ca/~dkbrown/stories.html
- Karen Chace - http://karenchace.blogspot.com/search?q=public+domain
- Richard Martin - http://www.tellatale.eu/tales_page.html
- Spirit of Trees - http://spiritoftrees.org/featured-folktales
- Story-Lovers - http://www.story-lovers.com/
- Tim Sheppard - http://www.timsheppard.co.uk/story/storylinks.html
This reminds me, you're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine
to find some of these old links. Tim's site is so huge, probably
updating it would be a full-time job. In the case of Story-Lovers, it's
great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online after she could no
longer maintain it. For an example of using the "Wayback Machine", list
Joe is on both Time Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer
maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his
Library (something you want to see!) is gone, but you can still see
it. I put in his site's address, then chose 2006 since it was a later
year and clicked until I reached the Library at
You can see why I recommend these to you. Have fun discovering even more stories!