Finding My Way Back

The Black Bull of NorrowayThe Black Bull of Norroway was my first ‘grown-up’ fairy tale. (Click here to read it.) I found it referenced in an essay, entitled “On Fairy Stories” by J.R.R. Tolkien. I was so taken by his clear rapture about the power of a true fairy tale that I just had to find it for myself. For me it was an epiphany.  I’ve always loved my childhood tales, but I was unsure that I could either go back to them again and still find them fresh and alive or that I could ever be ‘captured’ by a new one. The Black Bull of Norroway was the gatekeeper that led me back into the realm, as Tolkien would say, of Faerie.

Because I was primed by Tolkien’s view and entranced by his language, I reentered the world of fairy tales with some degree of seriousness. I could see that these were no longer just childish fancies, the stuff of sweet sentimental memories that gave me Escape or Recovery or even Consolation (Tolkien’s words) when I was young. Instead I came to see them as deep explorations of the world and the creatures that inhabit it. These tales contained mysteries and secrets about how the hidden elements of life work. I still feel the same sense of magic, that I did when I was eight, I just have more respect and even awe about what it might really mean.

That’s a lot of weight for one little tale to carry, but The Black Bull did it for me. From that story on, I’ve been very interested in deciphering just how ‘cooperating’ with magic works. I’ve also been cautious about its use – I more deeply appreciate why Tolkien chose to characterize Faerie as the Perilous Realm. Fairy Tales, for me, are both grander and smaller than we think. But it takes a slight turn of the head or a sideways glance to see them for what they are. William Butler Yeats once talked about people who have escaped from ‘mere daylight existence.’ They were the only ones who could see beyond the ordinary world as it pressed itself upon us with duties, requirements and responsibilities. The very kinds of pressures that turn children into adults and make non-believers of us all.

The Black Bull is a study in magic and in grace. It begins with three sisters on the cusp of their lives. Each one goes to the washerwoman who tells them to look out the back door and see what’s in store for them. Each of them agree to this arrangement, sees what’s coming and hears the old woman’s pronouncement, “Yon’s for you.” The youngest, of course, expects what her two older sisters get – richly appointed carriages – but instead finds the road filled with the fierce and fearsome Black Bull. She doesn’t want to take the fate that’s given to her, but magic, once summoned, can’t be sloughed off so easily. Despite her tears and pleadings she’s put on the back of the bull and her story begins.

Magic is a tricky word. We tend to use it without considering just what it might mean. Often we use it dismissively, as something that only children ‘believe.’ As time has gone on, many things that were once considered magical are now seen as scientific ‘fact.’ As we study the world around us we can uncover processes that explain more and more. We don’t really understand them completely, but we no longer can deny their reality. Think of how long it took scientists to accept the mind-body connection. We use the term placebo, but we don’t really know how it works. What we do know is that it exists. In that sense, magic is everything we can’t “see.” What we can’t see, we tend to deny.

The young girl softens as the first part of her journey continues. She’s brought to three grand castles, each more beautiful than the one before. She’s presented with gifts to be used when she is in greatest need. She begins to sense that the Bull is not what she first thought and she develops feelings for him. At the end of this part, he asks her to wait for him as he battles The Old One. He tells her she will know if he is successful based on the color that appears in the glen. He also tells her that she must not move.

Ah, fairy tale injunctions! They seem silly and easily accomplished but they always trip our characters up. They inject an important element into the fairy tale process – temptation. The initial belief in magic that the young girl brings to the washerwoman’s house is tested by her great fear and reluctance to accept her lot. But she does get on the Bull, and her adventure continues. Then she is put in a situation, in the glen, to do something that seems so simple and yet can’t be done by her. She fails and loses her Bull. It seems a small failure, one that doesn’t deserve such a harsh outcome. But entering into a magical process, entering the Perilous Realm, is not to be taken lightly. The gift of magic is too valuable to be wasted on those who can neither fully believe in it or rise to the task that it presents. Too many fairy tale characters learn the hard way that entering into this great realm is no guarantee of success or even survival.

Our young girl is too young for the magical possibilities presented to her. She is afraid of the Bull, but entranced by the wealth of his brothers. She ‘has’ feelings for him, but, quite literally, can’t contain her own excitement. She is not ready for this relationship, and what comes next is her very necessary ‘seasoning.’ She takes the first step when she ‘decides’ to find her Bull, no matter what. Her commitment is what will carry her closer to her goal.

What comes next is hardly childish. The character has to find a way without resources or help. She has to persevere in the face of hardship and despair. She has to literally give up years of her life (seven) and that only gets her over the next obstacle (the glass mountain). She still has to face the wily mother and daughter combo who discover her secret and use their skills to extort her precious fruits and steal her man away.

The prince is drugged each night and the young girl keens over his unconscious body. By the third night all is lost. She has given up all her magic by bargaining away the jewels. She sits next to him but has no means to ‘reach’ him and he will be wed the following day – lost to her forever. The magic that began this story has run it’s course. What happens next is completely out of her hands, beyond her efforts entirely.

In large ways and small, we have seen this type of impasse. Life gives us plenty of examples. Faced with two opposing forces it appears that no solution is possible. And yet, something does happen, and life moves forward. Often we can’t even pinpoint the moment of change. But a third force redirects the energy and something else comes about. It’s not done by us, and certainly not by the young girl in this story. She is completely spent and is on one polar end of these competing forces. What does happen is Grace. Something that appears. We have no claim on it, we can’t ‘depend’ on it. It can’t be repeated. It is ‘otherworldly’ in it’s arrival and results. But it does exist and it comes in many forms. In our young girl’s story it shows up as gossip. The prince’s courtiers are idly talking about the strange wailing they’ve heard in the prince’s chambers. They are talking among themselves, there is no effort to even alert the prince. He overhears their words and becomes curious enough to take action. He has no idea that the sounds are from his beloved. He has no sense that he has been fooled by the old woman and her daughter. It’s only his curiosity that compels him to pour out the drugged wine which leads him to his own fate.

… and the damsel began, as before, singing:

‘Seven long years I served for thee,
The glassy hill I clomb for thee,
Thy bloody clothes I wrang for thee;
And wilt thou not waken and turn to me?’

 He heard, and turned to her.