Musings on “The Song of the Morrow” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Gustave_Courbet_-_Autumn_Sea_-_Google_Art_ProjectPainting “Autumn Sea” by Gustave Courbet, in the public domain. See Wikimedia Commons

Here’s another inspiration entry that comes out of The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. It was originally published in a collection of Stevenson’s called Fables, in 1902, and since it is in the public domain, and a quick read, I’ve reprinted it below for your convenience.

I could find precious little about this story online (there’s no Wikipedia page for it, nor for the collection). I did discover that a U.K. director called Digby Rumsey has turned the “fable” into a short film, but all I could find was this short clip online. I’d love to watch the whole thing.

As for the tale in question, it’s hard to even describe what happens plot-wise in the story, as it’s more abstract strangeness and inscrutable dream logic than sensible plot moves. What I can tell you: There’s an inexplicably solitary princess living in a forlorn seaside castle, a smiting crone, a lamenting nurse, a dubious piper, and a hauntingly odd refrain about having “no care for the morrow, and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men” that implants itself in the princess, leading to her doom–you’ll see. I find the story delightfully creepy in a pleasingly subtle way, and thus deemed it appropriate for our “supernatural horror” October theme. It’s short, so I hope you take the time to read it, and comment.

There are a few sources out there that allude to the influence of Stevenson’s Fables, and this particular story, on Jorge Luis Borges: an interesting connection. And I did find a reference to “The Song of the Morrow” in Alexander Japp’s (2009) book Robert Louis Stevenson, where he asserts the “feeling for symbol,” and “Celtic strain” of this and other tales in the collection. The effect, he says is “as though moonshine, disguising and transfiguring, was laid over all real things, and the secret of the world and life was in its glamour.” (p. 86) Poetically stated, and accurate, I would say.

Indeed, there are lots of symbolic elements, repetition, and a queer symmetry in the tale that works well with the theme of time as an all-powerful usurper and paradoxically, a potential liberator. See what you think . . .

THE SONG OF THE MORROW

The King of Duntrine had a daughter when he was old, and she was the
fairest King’s daughter between two seas; her hair was like spun gold,
and her eyes like pools in a river; and the King gave her a castle upon
the sea beach, with a terrace, and a court of the hewn stone, and four
towers at the four corners. Here she dwelt and grew up, and had no care
for the morrow, and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple
men.

It befell that she walked one day by the beach of the sea when it was
autumn, and the wind blew from the place of rains; and upon the one hand
of her the sea beat, and upon the other the dead leaves ran. This was
the loneliest beach between two seas, and strange things had been done
there in the ancient ages. Now the King’s daughter was aware of a crone
that sat upon the beach. The sea-foam ran to her feet, and the dead
leaves swarmed about her back, and the rags blew about her face in the
blowing of the wind.

“Now,” said the King’s daughter, and she named a holy name, “this is the
most unhappy old crone between two seas.”

“Daughter of a King,” said the crone, “you dwell in a stone house, and
your hair is like the gold: but what is your profit? Life is not long,
nor lives strong; and you live after the way of simple men, and have no
thought for the morrow and no power upon the hour.”

“Thought for the morrow, that I have,” said the King’s daughter; “but
power upon the hour, that have I not.” And she mused with herself.

Then the crone smote her lean hands one within the other, and laughed
like a sea-gull. “Home!” cried she. “O daughter of a King, home to your
stone house; for the longing is come upon you now, nor can you live any
more after the manner of simple men. Home, and toil and suffer, till the
gift come that will make you bare, and till the man come that will bring
you care.”

The King’s daughter made no more ado, but she turned about and went home
to her house in silence. And when she was come into her chamber she
called for her nurse.

“Nurse,” said the King’s daughter, “thought is come upon me for the
morrow, so that I can live no more after the manner of simple men. Tell
me what I must do that I may have power upon the hour.”

Then the nurse moaned like a snow wind. “Alas!” said she, “that this
thing should be; but the thought is gone into your marrow, nor is there
any cure against the thought. Be it so, then, even as you will; though
power is less than weakness, power shall you have; and though the
thought is colder than winter, yet shall you think it to an end.”

So the King’s daughter sat in her vaulted chamber in the masoned house,
and she thought upon the thought. Nine years she sat; and the sea beat
upon the terrace, and the gulls cried about the turrets, and wind
crooned in the chimneys of the house. Nine years she came not abroad,
nor tasted the clean air, neither saw God’s sky. Nine years she sat and
looked neither to the right nor to the left, nor heard speech of any
one, but thought upon the thought of the morrow. And her nurse fed her
in silence, and she took of the food with her left hand, and ate it
without grace.

Now when the nine years were out, it fell dusk in the autumn, and there
came a sound in the wind like a sound of piping. At that the nurse
lifted up her finger in the vaulted house.

“I hear a sound in the wind,” said she, “that is like the sound of
piping.”

“It is but a little sound,” said the King’s daughter, “but yet it is
sound enough for me.”

So they went down in the dusk to the doors of the house, and along the
beach of the sea. And the waves beat upon the one hand, and upon the
other the dead leaves ran; and the clouds raced in the sky, and the
gulls flew widdershins. And when they came to that part of the beach
where strange things had been done in the ancient ages, lo! there was
the crone, and she was dancing widdershins.

“What makes you dance widdershins, old crone?” said the King’s daughter;
“here upon the bleak beach, between the waves and the dead leaves?”

“I hear a sound in the wind that is like a sound of piping,” quoth she.
“And it is for that that I dance widdershins. For the gift comes that
will make you bare, and the man comes that must bring you care. But for
me the morrow is come that I have thought upon, and the hour of my
power.”

“How comes it, crone,” said the King’s daughter, “that you waver like a
rag, and pale like a dead leaf before my eyes?”

“Because the morrow has come that I have thought upon, and the hour of
my power,” said the crone; and she fell on the beach, and, lo! she was
but stalks of the sea tangle, and dust of the sea sand, and the
sand-lice hopped upon the place of her.

“This is the strangest thing that befell between two seas,” said the
King’s daughter of Duntrine.

But the nurse broke out and moaned like an autumn gale. “I am weary of
the wind,” quoth she; and she bewailed her day.

The King’s daughter was aware of a man upon the beach; he went hooded so
that none might perceive his face, and a pipe was underneath his arm.
The sound of his pipe was like singing wasps, and like the wind that
sings in windlestraw; and it took hold upon men’s ears like the crying
of gulls.

“Are you the comer?” quoth the King’s daughter of Duntrine.

“I am the comer,” said he, “and these are the pipes that a man may hear,
and I have power upon the hour, and this is the song of the morrow.” And
he piped the song of the morrow, and it was as long as years; and the
nurse wept out aloud at the hearing of it.

“This is true,” said the King’s daughter, “that you pipe the song of the
morrow; but that ye have power upon the hour, how may I know that? Show
me a marvel here upon the beach, between the waves and the dead leaves.”

And the man said, “Upon whom?”

“Here is my nurse,” quoth the King’s daughter. “She is weary of the
wind. Show me a good marvel upon her.”

And, lo! the nurse fell upon the beach as it were two handfuls of dead
leaves, and the wind whirled them widdershins, and the sand-lice hopped
between.

“It is true,” said the King’s daughter of Duntrine; “you are the comer,
and you have power upon the hour. Come with me to my stone house.”

So they went by the sea margin, and the man piped the song of the
morrow, and the leaves followed behind them as they went. Then they sat
down together; and the sea beat on the terrace, and the gulls cried
about the towers, and the wind crooned in the chimneys of the house.
Nine years they sat, and every year when it fell autumn, the man said,
“This is the hour, and I have power in it”; and the daughter of the King
said, “Nay, but pipe me the song of the morrow.” And he piped it, and it
was long like years.

Now when the nine years were gone, the King’s daughter of Duntrine got
her to her feet, like one that remembers; and she looked about her in
the masoned house; and all her servants were gone; only the man that
piped sat upon the terrace with the hood upon his face; and as he piped
the leaves ran about the terrace and the sea beat along the wall. Then
she cried to him with a great voice, “This is the hour, and let me see
the power in it.” And with that the wind blew off the hood from the
man’s face, and, lo! there was no man there, only the clothes and the
hood and the pipes tumbled one upon another in a corner of the terrace,
and the dead leaves ran over them.

And the King’s daughter of Duntrine got her to that part of the beach
where strange things had been done in the ancient ages; and there she
sat her down. The sea-foam ran to her feet, and the dead leaves swarmed
about her back, and the veil blew about her face in the blowing of the
wind. And when she lifted up her eyes, there was the daughter of a King
come walking on the beach. Her hair was like the spun gold, and her eyes
like pools in a river, and she had no thought for the morrow and no
power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men.

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part Three: The Promise of Redemption

800px-Mikalojus_Konstantinas_Ciurlionis_-_FAIRY_TALE_(CASTLE_FAIRY_TALE)_-_1909

Image by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, in the public domain (see Wikimedia Commons)

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (J.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”)

Ultimately, many traditional fairy tales, if not offering straightforward “happy endings” do frequently embody in their outcomes the themes of restoration, transformation, and redemption, and while perhaps complex themes for children to absorb, they are, psychically and spiritually speaking, indispensable ones that foreshadow the individuation struggles to come. Marie-Louise von Franz says that “[i]n fairy tales redemption refers specifically to a condition where someone has been cursed or bewitched and through certain happenings or events in the story is redeemed.” (Psychological Meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairy Tales, p. 7) Why does this matter? Because all of us are bound to become doomed, cursed or “bewitched”—in other words, held back, distorted and tormented by something in our own psyches. Fairy tales dramatize this in a spare, elegant, but powerful way, and generally provide certain formulas for overcoming this predicament, and achieving redemption.

In the process of getting to that outcome, it seems to me that the message (not moral!) is usually that: 1. Things will not be easy or fair; 2. Being brave and bold, even a little foolhardy, is necessary to overcome this; 3. At the same time one should be humble, compassionate, observant, attentive and trusting (this is normally how to gain favor with the helper or “donor” character); 4. Things will not resolve right away, and one normally must fail multiple times (usually at least twice) in one’s goal. I think these messages can be taken as guidance for both outer and inner life, and are useful for both children and adults.

Not all fairy or wonder tales are of this caliber, though. Some promote values of obedience, conformity and punish intrepid characters for their initiative and curiosity. These are the sorts of tales (along with the overly “cleaned up” cutesy fairy tales that swamp us today) that I find more objectionable from a psychological point of view. I believe they may pose a different but significant sort of danger to children, because they undermine values of individuality, initiative, ingenuity, and choice. I tend to agree with Guillermo Del Toro when he says, “I don’t like fairy tales that have a moral teaching at the end; I like them with a more subversive teaching.” (Read more here.)

I will, for one, indubitably be reading fairy tales to my children, and to myself, and will probably continue to write them as well.

Let me leave you with Neil Gaiman’s Instructions, which does a better job than I have in expressing what is essential and life-affirming about fairy tales, for children and adults both:

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part Two: The Wonders of the Fairy Tale Helper or Donor

Image

“Dreaming of Snow White,” by Franz Schrotzberg, in the Public Domain

Tolkien states in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories” (read it here) that fairy tales are not more suited to children than adults, particularly, and that ”

in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant. It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.”

I think he’s right. Personally speaking, I don’t remember being read fairy tales as a child—I rather came across them on my own, and then sought them out myself throughout grade school. I would say that from about age 8 through 12 years old I was somewhat obsessed with them, reading the Grimm’s tales and the whole gamut of Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books, as well as books about Greek, Roman and Norse mythology.

Short film versions of “The Happy Prince,” and “The Little Mermaid” (original story!) were shown on Canadian television every year around Christmas when I was a girl, and they held great sway over me: it’s impossible to articulate what a profound effect they exerted on my young soul. Had they been sanitized—e.g., the little mermaid is never faced with her dilemma of either killing the prince or being obliterated herself; the swallow in the Happy Prince makes it to Egypt and all is well in the Prince’s city—these stories would have meant nothing to me. (Even as a child I was not big on the moralizing about good and naughty children at the end of Anderson’s tale, although I did love the idea of “the daughters of the air”—they just should have been left as mysterious beings.)

Here’s the rub: children face difficulties, and heartaches, however we strive to protect them, and must make sense of a world teeming with loss, suffering, unfairness, immense challenges, and yes, also tragedy, cruelty and death. And it’s important to acknowledge that the reality of dark forces is both external and internal (the original “Star Wars” series captures this idea very well): some of the great minds of psychology have emphasized the intrapsychic nature of such stories, the fact that they symbolize universal aspects of the psyche and the particular internal dynamics within individuals:

Children feel anger and hostility, violent emotion and feelings of helplessness and fairy-stories enable them to realize that they are not alone, that others have such feelings and living involves a struggle between good and bad, fortune and misfortune. Fairy tales appeal to both sides of reality and help children deal with their own deep inner conflicts. Often dreams have a fairy tale quality about them and you can help children work through nightmares by making this connection. (Dream Time with Children: Learning to Dream, Dreaming to Learn by Brenda Mallon, p. 70)

I find fairy tales gratifying because they are for the most part balanced, incorporating dark, evil, or ignorant characters or elements as well as those who are eminently good-hearted, wise and brave. Usually, although not always, the latter types of characters prevail. More often than not they do so with the aid of some sort of magical helper, e.g. the little doll in “Vasalisa the Brave,” the grey wolf in the Russian story “The Firebird,” the spirit of a dead thief in the Norse tale “The Companion,” the kind and mysterious old woman in the German tale “The True Bride.”

I’ll write more about this element of fairy tales in a subsequent post. For now I will say that this element was probably one of the most important to me, psychologically, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. How comforting to have help from a magical “other” at your service, in your time of great need? (This is probably a variety of the “religious impulse” of the psyche at work.) When you are older, more academically-minded perhaps, you can understand these others as “just” or “only” aspects of yourself. But at the time that you read them, imagine them, or dream them, they are potently real, autonomous, mysterious, and a little spooky: anything but “just” or “only.” And I’m guessing that for young children this potency is not yet diluted, lucky for them. (Not because they can’t distinguish reality from make-believe, but because for them make-believe has not yet been dismissed as unimportant.) This helper or donor element of fairy tales is anything but “bad” for children, in the sense of polluting their young minds; it is rather a source of awe and a beacon of hope and trust in the midst of an inherently dangerous world, both inside the metaphorical world of the tale, and in the outside world of literal realities.

Stay tuned for Part Three of “Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children”. . .