Photo by Edwin Velasquez on Unsplash
Today is the conclusion of Walter de la Mare's tale, "The Lovely Myfanwy." This is where I dislike the blog format. I can understand the importance of putting the latest thing I might do first, but for stories, like today's four-part tale, it means you must go back through the past three weeks to start or review it. (No fair reading the end first!) If you read part 3, you will know why today's story opens with the photo of a donkey. Beyond that, brace yourself for robbers and the mysterious juggler able to work magic to gain Myfanwy.
Never before in all her years on earth had Myfanwy strayed beyond the Castle walls; never before had she stood lost in wonder beneath the dark emptiness of the starry skies. She breathed in the sweet fresh night air, her heart blossoming within her like an evening primrose, refusing to be afraid. For she knew well that the safety of them both—this poor quaking animal's and her own—depended now solely on her own courage and resource, and that to be afraid would almost certainly lead them only from one disaster into another.
Simply, however, because a mere ownerless ass wandering by itself in the moonlit gloom of the forest would be a spectacle less strange than that of a solitary damsel like herself, she once more drew down her father's ear to her lips and whispered into it, explaining to him that it was she who must now be veiled, and that if he would forgive her such boldness—for after all, he had frequently carried her pickaback when she was a child—she would mount upon his back and in this way they would together make better progress on their journey.
Her father dared not take offence at her words, whatever his secret feelings might be. 'So long as you hasten, my child,' he gruffed out in the hush, striving in vain to keep his tones no louder than a human whisper, 'I will forgive you all.' In a moment then there might be seen jogging along the bridle-path, now in moonlight, now in shadow, a sleek and handsome ass, a halter over its nose, making no stay to browse the dewy grass at the wayside, but apparently obeying its own whim as it wandered steadily onward.
Now it chanced that night there was a wild band of mountain robbers encamped within the forest. And when of a sudden this strange and pompous animal unwittingly turned out of a thicket into the light of their camp fire, and raised its eyes like glowing balls of emerald to gaze in horror at its flames, they lifted their voices together in an uproarious peal of laughter. And one of them at once started up from where he lay in the bracken, to seize the creature's halter and so make it his prize.
Their merriment, however, was quickly changed into dismay when the robbers saw the strange creature being guided, as was evident, by an invisible and mysterious hand. He turned this way, he turned that, with an intelligence that was clearly not his own and not natural even to his kind, and so eluded every effort made by his enemy to get a hold on his halter, his teeth and eyeballs gleaming in the firelight.
At this, awe and astonishment fell upon these outlaws. Assuredly sorcery alone could account for such ungainly and un-asslike antics and manoeuvres. Assuredly some divine being must have the beast in keeping, and to meddle with it further might only prove their own undoing.
Fortunate indeed was it that Myfanwy's right foot, which by mischance remained uncovered by the veil, happened to be on the side of the animal away from the beams of the camp fire. For certainly had these malefactors seen the precious stones blazing in its buckle, their superstitions would have melted away like morning mist, their fears have given place to cupidity, and they would speedily have made the ass their own and held its rider to an incalculable ransom.
Before, however, the moon had glided more than a soundless pace or two on her night journey, Myfanwy and her incomparable ass were safely out of sight: and the robbers had returned to their carousals. What impulse bade her turn first this way, then that, in the wandering and labyrinthine glades and tracks of the forest, she could not tell. But even though her father—not daring to raise his voice in the deep silence—ever and again stubbornly tugged upon his halter in the belief that the travellers had taken a wrong turning and were irrevocably lost, Myfanwy kept steadily on her way.
With a touch of her heel or a gentle persuasive pat of her hand on his hairy neck she did her best to reassure and to soothe him. 'Only trust in me, dear father: I am sure all will be well.'
Yet she was haunted with misgivings. So that when at last a twinkling light, sprinkling its beams between the boughs, showed in the forest, it refreshed her heart beyond words to tell. She was reaching her journey's end. It was as if that familiar voice in the secrecy of her heart had murmured, 'Hst! He draws near!'
There and then she dismounted from off her father's hairy back and once more communed with him through that long twitching ear. 'Remain here in patience a while, dear father,' she besought him, 'without straying by a hair's-breadth from where you are; for everything tells me our Stranger is not far distant now, and no human being on earth, no living creature, even, must see you in this sad and unseemly disguise. I will hasten on to assure myself that the light which I perceive beaming through the thicket yonder is his, and no other's. Meanwhile—and this veil shall go with me in case of misadventure—meanwhile do you remain quietly beneath this spreading beech-tree, nor even stir unless you are over-wearied after our long night journey and you should feel inclined to rest a while on the softer turf in the shadow there under that bush of fragrant roses, or to refresh yourself at the brook whose brawling I hear welling up from that dingle in the hollow. In that case, return here, I pray you; contain yourself in patience, and be your tongue as dumb as a stone. For though you may design to speak softly, dearest father, that long sleek throat and those great handsome teeth will not admit of it.'
And her father, as if not even the thick hairy hide he wore could endure his troubles longer, opened his mouth as if to groan aloud. But restraining himself, he only sighed, while an owl out of the quiet breathed its mellow night-call as if in response. For having passed the last hour in a profound and afflicted reverie, this poor ass had now regained in part his natural human sense and sagacity. But pitiful was the eye, however asinine the grin, which he now bestowed as if in promise on Myfanwy who, with veil held delicately in her fingers stood there, radiant as snow, beside him in the moonlight.
And whether it was because of her grief for his own condition or because of the expectancy in her face at the thought of her meeting with the Stranger, or because maybe the ass feared in his despair and dejection that he might never see her again, he could not tell; but true it was that she had never appeared in a guise so brave and gay and passionate and tender. It might indeed be a youthful divinity gently treading the green sward beside this uncouth beast in the chequered light and shadow of that unearthly moonshine.
Having thus assured herself that all would be well until her return, Myfanwy kissed her father on his flat hairy brow, and veil in hand withdrew softly in the direction of the twinkling light.
Alas, though the Baron thirsted indeed for the chill dark waters whose song rose in the air from the hollow beneath, he could not contain himself in her absence, but unmindful of his mute promise followed after his daughter at a distance as she made her way to the light, his hoofs scarce sounding in the turf. Having come near, by peering through the dense bushes that encircled the juggler's nocturnal retreat in the forest, he could see and hear all that passed.
As soon as Myfanwy had made sure that this stranger sitting by his glowing watch-fire was indeed the juggler and no man else—and one strange leap of her heart assured her of this even before her eyes could carry their message—she veiled herself once more, and so, all her loveliness made thus invisible, she drew stealthily near and a little behind him, as he crouched over the embers. Then pausing, she called gently and in a still low voice, 'I beseech you, Stranger, to take pity on one in great distress.'
The juggler lifted his dreaming face, ruddied and shadowed in the light of his fire, and peered cautiously but in happy astonishment all around him.
'I beseech you, Stranger,' cried again the voice from the unseen, 'to take pity on one in great distress.'
And at this it seemed to the juggler that now ice was running through his veins and now fire. For he knew well that this was the voice of one compared with whom all else in the world to him was nought. He knew also that she must be standing near, though made utterly invisible to him by the veil of his own enchantments.
'Draw near, traveller. Have no fear,' he cried out softly into the darkness. 'All will be well. Tell me only how I may help you.'
But Myfanwy drew not a hair's-breadth nearer. Far from it. Instead, she flitted a little across the air of the glade, and now her voice came to him from up the wind towards the south, and fainter in the distance.
'There is one with me,' she replied, 'who by an evil stratagem has been transformed into the shape of a beast, and that beast a poor patient ass. Tell me this, sorcerer—how I may restore him to his natural shape, and mine shall be an everlasting gratitude. For it is my own father of whom I speak.'
Her voice paused and faltered on the word. She longed almost beyond bearing to reveal herself to this unknown one, trusting without the least doubt or misgiving that he would serve her faithfully in all she asked of him.
'But that, gentle lady,' replied the juggler, 'is not within my power, unless he of whom you speak draws near to show himself. Nor—though the voice with which you speak to me is sweeter than the music of harp-strings twangling on the air—nor is it within my power to make promises to a bodiless sound only. For how am I to be assured that the shape who utters the words I hear is not some dangerous demon of the darkness who is bent on mocking and deluding me, and who will bring sorcery on myself?'
There was silence for a while in the glade, and then 'No, no!' cried the juggler. 'Loveliest and bravest of all that is, I need not see thy shape to know thee. Thou art most assuredly the lovely Myfanwy, and all that I am, have ever been, and ever shall be is at thy service. Tell me, then, where is this poor ass that was once thy noble father?'
And at this, and at one and the same moment, Myfanwy, withdrawing the veil from her head and shoulders, disclosed her fair self standing there in the faint rosy glow of the slumbering fire, and there broke also from the neighbouring thicket so dreadful and hideous a noise of rage and anguish—through the hoarse and unpractised throat of the eavesdropper near by—that it might be supposed the clamour was not of one but of a chorus of demons—though it was merely our poor ass complaining of his fate.
'Oh, sir,' sighed Myfanwy, 'my dear father, I fear, in his grief and anxiety has been listening to what has passed between us. See, here he comes.'
Galloping hoofs were indeed now audible as the Lord of Eggleyseg in ass's skin and shape drew near to wreak his vengeance on the young magician. But being at this moment in his stubborn rage and folly more ass than human, the glaring of the watch-fire dismayed his heavy wits, and he could do no else but paw with his forelegs, lifting his smooth nose with its gleaming teeth into the night air, snuffing his rage and defiance some twenty paces distant from the fire.
The young magician, being of a nature as courteous as he was bold, did not so much as turn his head to scan the angry shivering creature, but once more addressed Myfanwy. She stood bowed down a little, tears in her eyes; in part for grief at her father's broken promise and the humiliation he had brought upon himself, in part for joy that their troubles would soon be over and that she was now in the very company of the stranger who unwittingly had been the cause of them all.
'Have no fear,' he said, 'the magic that has changed the noble Baron your father into a creature more blest in its docility, patience, and humbleness than any other in the wide world, can as swiftly restore him to his natural shape.'
'Ah then, sir,' replied the maid, 'it is very certain that my father will wish to bear witness to your kindness with any small gift that is in our power. For, as he well knows, it was not by any design but his own that he ate of the little green apple of enchantment. I pray you, sir, moreover, to forgive me for first stealing that apple, and also the marvellous golden ball, and the silken cord from out of the air.'
The juggler turned and gazed strangely at Myfanwy. 'There is only one thing I desire in all this starry universe,' he answered. 'But I ask it not of him—for it is not of his giving. It is for your own forgiveness, lady.'
'I forgive you!' she cried. 'Alas, my poor father!'
But even as she spoke a faint smile was on her face, and her eyes wandered to the animal standing a few paces beyond the margin of the glow cast by the watch-fire, sniffing the night air the while, and twitching dismally the coarse grey mane behind his ears. For now that her father was so near his deliverance her young heart grew entirely happy again, and the future seemed as sweet with promise as wild flowers in May.
Without further word the juggler drew from out of his pouch, as if he always carried about with him a little privy store of vegetables, a fine, tapering, ripe, red carrot.
'This, lady,' said he, 'is my only wizardry. I make no bargain. My love for you will never languish, even if I never more again refresh my sleepless eyes with the vision of your presence in this solitary glade. Let your noble father the Lord of Eggleyseg draw near without distrust. There is but little difference, it might be imagined, between a wild apple and a carrot. But then, when all is said, there is little difference in the long sum between any living thing and another in this strange world. There are creatures in the world whose destiny it is in spite of their gentleness and humility and lowly duty and obedience to go upon four legs and to be in service of masters who deserve far less than they deserve, while there are men in high places of whom the reverse might truly be said. It is a mystery beyond my unravelling. But now all I ask is that you bid the ass who you tell me is hearkening at this moment to all that passes between us to nibble of this humble but useful and wholesome root. It will instantly restore him to his proper shape. Meanwhile, if you bid, I will myself be gone.'
Without further speech between them, Myfanwy accepted the magic carrot, and returned once more to the ass.
'Dear father,' she cried softly, 'here is a root that seems to be only a carrot; yet nibble of it and you will be at once restored, and will forget you were ever an—as you are. For many days to come, I fear, you will not wish to look upon the daughter that has been the unwilling cause of this night's woeful experience. There lives, as I have been told, in a little green arbour of the forest yonder, a hermit. This young magician will, I am truly certain, place me in his care a while until all griefs are forgotten between us. You will of your kindness consent, dear father, will you not?' she pleaded.
A long prodigious bray resounded dolefully in the hollows of the far-spread forest's dells and thickets. The Lord of Eggleyseg had spoken.
'Indeed, father,' smiled Myfanwy, 'I have never before heard you say "Yes" so heartily. What further speech is needed?'
Whereupon the ass, with more dispatch than gratitude, munched up the carrot, and in a few hours Owen ap Gwythock, once more restored to his former, though hardly his more appropriate shape, returned in safety to his Castle. There for many a day he mourned his woeful solitude, but learned, too, not only how true and faithful a daughter he had used so ill, but the folly of a love that is fenced about with mistrust and suspicion and is poisoned with jealousy.
And when May was come again, a prince, no longer in the disguise of a wandering juggler, drew near with his adored Myfanwy to the Lord of Eggleyseg's ancient castle. And Owen ap Gwythock, a little older but a far wiser man, greeted them with such rejoicings and entertainment, with such feastings and dancing and minstrelsy and jubilations as had never been heard of before. Indeed he would have been ass unadulterated if he had done else.
I applaud de la Mare's noting this father had learned "the folly of a love that is fenced about with mistrust and suspicion and is poisoned with jealousy." This is indeed a fairy tale able to end with the truism of "They lived happily ever after." This is clearly where the reader or listener wants the story to end.
While you may not be able to "live happily ever after", may you have happiness considerably more than not, and many wonderful stories to discover!
- 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!"
- Zalka Csenge Virag - http://multicoloreddiary.blogspot.com doesn't give the actual stories, but her recommendations, working her way through each country on a continent, give excellent ideas for finding new books and stories to love and tell.
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, for example, 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 as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it. Possibly searches maintained it. Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim 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 now only on the Wayback Machine. It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!