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.

Who Loves Supernatural Horror?

IncubusCharlesWalker1870Image by Charles Walker, in public domain. See Wikimedia Commons.

I do–I love supernatural horror! Granted, it’s hard to find stellar films and T.V. shows in this horror category, but there are still some greats that stand out for me, such as the fairly recent foreign films “Let the Right One In” (I have yet to see the remake) and “The Orphanage.” As for T.V. I enjoyed “Hemlock Grove,” a Netflix original, and I have grown to like “Grimm,” although I prefer less CGI and more costume/makeup, or better yet, leave-it-to-the-imagination type effects. I think “American Horror Story” is brilliant, although I couldn’t finish watching this past season, because although I can stomach all manner of demons, monsters, aliens, etc., serial killer stories give me a serious case of psychic indigestion. So sadly, I had to give up watching. But I loved the first season, and am looking forward to the witch-themed new season about to start.

I suppose my love of supernatural horror began as a child: I loved borrowing books at the library about vampires and other spooks, and read collections of ghost and macabre stories all summer long, when I could stay up late and take pleasure in scaring myself. Later I read a lot of Stephen King–my favorites of his were Misery and Pet Cemetery. It’s been a while since I’ve read straight out horror fiction, however, so I can’t comment on what’s out there now. If anyone has suggestions, I’d appreciate hearing them.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a little tribute poem, seeing as it is October and all, and proclaim Supernatural Horror as our October theme.

I got the idea for this piece from The Writer’s Portable Mentor, by Priscilla Long which has a chapter on form that assigns an “abecedarium” in which you use the alphabet to develop a themed list. I went beyond that to compose a piece in verse that contains a list of some common but evocative elements from the supernatural horror genre. This extra constraint made the exercise harder, of course,  but  it was a lot of fun to compose, and a great brain teaser.

It would be even more fun to annotate the composition with references, e.g. the use of “hounds of hell” in the T.V. show “Supernatural,” killing by fire in the novel (and film) “Carrie,” the La Llorona story used for an episode of “Grimm.” What’s your favorite (or least favorite) possessed puppet or doll story? Recognize any of your favorite tropes, themes, motifs?

On a technical note, you’ll notice I had to go back to “A” and “B” at the end to complete the last verse, but I think it worked out well. I started with just a plain old ABC list, brainstorming elements off the top of my head, but a lot of those changed as I went along.

Here you go: 

October Ode to the Odious: An Abecedarium of Supernatural Horror

© Lisa E. Coté

Apparitions, fleeting, formless,
Barrows with a secret tomb;
Cryptic signs, perplexing warnings,
Disembodied demons loom.

Elementals raised by magic,
Fear, foreboding, hounds of hell;
Gothic castles, grisly golems,
Hands of glory light the spell.

Incubuses, sordid nightmares,
Jilted lovers’ ghosts prevail;
Killings, both by fire and water,
La Llorona’s guilty wail.

Missing memories, hapless monsters,
Necromancers raise the dead;
Ouija luring naïve seekers,
Puppets pulling strings of dread.

Queerly quiet forest clearings,
Reckless hero’s hopeless quest;
Secret sects with sacrifices,
Tortured souls who cannot rest.

Unseen forces, unctuous odors,
Vampires, voodoo, vanity
Wendigo with raging hunger
Xenophobe insanity.

Yeti stalking frozen wastelands,
Zero hour in zombie zoo;
Apocalypse foretold by seers:
Beelzebub is after you!

Reflections on Writer’s Procrastination

 maliciounata___the_time_thief_by_restlessd-d5rg0dj

Image “Maliciounata, the Time Thief” by artist Rhonda Strickland, used with permission. Please visit her here.

Writer’s Procrastination, Part One: On Putting Oneself to Sleep

Procrastination: what is this beast anyway? If it were a mythological critter, it would have the body of a tortoise, the head of a sloth. If it were a person, it would be that tiresome cousin who calls you when you have infinitely more important things to do than gab, and won’t let you off the phone. So here’s the thing then: the critter and the person are just boring, aren’t they? How do they manage to get the better of us? I think it’s because in reality procrastination is more sinister: the critter has a scorpion’s tail with which to paralyze us, and the needy cousin, a metaphor for our own internal distracter, is suffering from something like a Munchausen syndrome by proxy, slowly poisoning us, a little bit at a time, with seemingly innocuous chatter.

Recently I read a book by Marion Woodman and Robert Bly called The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine, which analyzes the Russian folktale “The Maiden King” or “The Maiden Tsar.” In the story, the hero Ivan is sabotaged by his stepmother and his tutor into falling asleep each time the princess of his dreams, his beloved, his betrothed, the maiden tsar, draws near in her ship. The weapon of choice here is a pin, swiftly, secretly and viciously thrust into the prince’s neck by the conspiratorial tutor at the behest of his jealous step-mom:

“[S]he gave him a pin and said: ‘Tomorrow, when the ships begin to sail toward you, stick this pin into Ivan’s tunic.’ The tutor promised to carry out her order. Next morning Ivan arose and went fishing. As soon as his tutor beheld the ships in the distance, he stuck the pin into Ivan’s tunic. ‘Ah, I feel so sleepy,” said the merchant’s son.” (Bly and Woodman, p. 248)

That is what procrastination feels like to me, when I have the psychological wherewithal to notice it: like a sabotaging, soporific pinprick of doom. In Your Own Worst Enemy: Understanding the Paradox of Self-Defeating Behavior, the authors state:

Although the modern fascination with self-destruction tends to invoke dramatic images of sweeping catastrophes and sinister motives, leading to the permanent devastation of careers and families, the everyday reality of self-defeat is often mundane, pathetic, and even laughable. (Berglas & Baumeister, 1993, p. 8)

Such a little thing, it seems, to put off writing (or any other soul-affirming activity) today—I’ll get to it tomorrow, and in fact, I’ll make up for not working today and do lots of writing tomorrow, and it’s better to wait because . . . but tomorrow another pinprick will come again, as it does for Ivan, and then another and just like in the fairytale, soon enough I will miss the boat for good, the ship of my self-actualizing, vital life will have sailed off without me.

What’s so sinister here is that I, like Ivan, think it is only natural that I’m sleepy. What’s wrong with taking a break, after all? Both of us think it is we who are consciously deciding to go unconscious, to turn our back on what is most important to us just for a little while, because we don’t at first recognize the sabotage or the saboteur, who’s masquerading as tutor, i.e. someone, or an element of ourselves, who presumably helps, shepherds, mentors, guides, advises, educates us in order to benefit us in some way. But as Bly states, the tutor in his/her worst aspect is the destroyer of imagination. Here he is also the destroyer of initiative and follow-through in bringing our imaginings into being.

Ken Robinson, education reformer, emphatically states that currently our education systems are designed to put children to sleep, anesthetize them, and thwart their imaginations, curtail their initiatives, and discourage their innovations. C. G. Jung agrees that “we have to be careful that the school does not destroy the natural functioning of the psyche.” (Jung, Children’s Dreams, p. 133). It need not be this way, as Robinson argues. Teachers could instead act in the best interests of their student’s imaginations, encouraging and nurturing their creative potentials and innovative ideas so they take root and flower in the world (he likes organic versus mechanistic metaphors). Likewise, the inner “tutor” could help us steer our boat towards the gleaming fleet of our deepest values, helping us be steadfast in the work it takes to express them. So what goes awry when this does not happen?

The answer in the tale is that the tutor is the first to be “put to sleep” with alcohol and false promises, by Ivan’s step-mother. So, the tale tells us it is she who dwells, entangled, at the root of the problem, whoever and whatever she is inside us. It will behoove us, then, to examine this character in Part Two. For now I invite you to notice the ways you put yourself to sleep through procrastination. More specifically, what is “the pin” for you?

The Only Writing Advice that Truly Matters: Write What You Love

In this early and hopefully theme-setting blog post I would like to champion this most useful idea, raising it several levels above the more commonly heard advice to “write what you know.”

I feel I’ve spent, and sometimes wasted, much of my limited time in this life in the “writing what you know” and/or “writing what seems easy, lucrative, or respectable” camp. Why? I’m not sure. I guess it’s like settling for the wrong, but acceptable, mate: it’s a road more travelled and supposedly more secure. But that road doesn’t lead anywhere interesting or important, and ultimately you (and I) arrive at the wrong place.

So I guess that brings me to what exactly I mean by the potentially trite word “love.” I don’t mean a surface kind of approval, like loving ice cream or silk blouses. When you truly love a piece of writing you’re working on, or have written, it is more like loving a person, and thus it has to go beyond the infatuation phase to come out right. Just as when you really love a person, the relationship isn’t always going to be easy or enjoyable—effort, struggle, disappointment, and sacrifice will invariably be involved. But you hang in there and do the work and spend the time because it’s worth it, because it feels meaningful, important, and deeply gratifying to you.

And often it is the “not knowing” or mysterious element in the work (or the person!) that makes it so worth pursuing. For me this comes in wonderfully strange dream or daydream images, a certain ineffable mood or drifting melody or rhythm that overtakes me, or an idea, usually in the form of a question, that will parade around me, gesticulating like a boisterous child until I pay attention to it.

Not that “writing what you know” and “writing what you love” are mutually exclusive approaches: particularly in non-fiction writing, people tend to research and know a lot about topics that are intensely interesting or dear to them. But even so it’s my contention that if  you have too much “knowing” when you start a writing project, any writing project, what comes out of it is going to be stale. I think the sort of love we need as writers necessitates a quality of genuine unknowing, or what researcher and writer Rosemary Anderson calls “auspicious bewilderment.” This writerly love embodies curiosity, fascination, and respect for the place from which the rich, unexpected material arises, which is not the confined quarters of the everyday conscious mind but the other, expansive realm of mind parallel to it, the one depth psychologists in their more staid language call “the unconscious” and in their more fanciful turns of phrase call “the imaginal.” Fiction and poetry writers probably draw more from that region, but all writers must rely on it to a great extent.

So let this be the season of Writing What We Love, as an end in itself, and Loving What We Write as a brave act of devotion (not narcissism). Carry on!