A Thought for Hunting Season - 15 October 2008

I remember hearing a song many years ago which I, in my juvenile innocence, assumed to concern two of the thickest people on the face of the earth. The essential plot was that a rather trigger happy young man by the name of Johnny, or perhaps Jimmy, was out looking for things to shoot at near dusk. Apparently he did not realise that as light levels decrease the human eye has difficulty discerning certain shapes and colours. It so happened that his girlfriend, Molly, or Polly, was also to be found in the woods that night and she still wrapped in her white apron, for some bizarre reason. Now white does stand out in the dark and our Johnny, thinking that something five feet plus tall, appearing to weigh roughly eight stone and that was abroad in the woods at twilight might be a swan, squeezed off a couple of rounds with grim and deadly accuracy, and dropped Molly like a bad habit.

The title of the song as I first heard it was Molly Vaughan and, never having seen it written, I had always assumed that Vaughan was a family name. Furthermore, having arrived at the conclusion that the song was an example of Darwinism in action I thought nothing more of it for the next twenty years. Certainly I became aware that there were other versions of this song from England, America, Canada and Australia, variously under the titles, Molly Vaughn, Polly Vaughan, Polly Bawn etc. but, again, I never paid them much heed. Then one day about a year ago I was looking at the back of an Alison Kraus album and actually saw the name printed as Molly Bawn (Bán).

Now this changed everything. I had been dimly aware that the song might have Irish connections but seeing it printed so blatantly with the Irish spelling ‘Bán’ withdrew any doubt. Bán, in Gaelic, means white and, thus, is an epithet not a surname as I had originally assumed. Since Molly and indeed Polly are feminine names a following adjective should, in Gaelic, be lenited making it Bhán which would be pronounced in manner almost identical to an Anglo-American pronunciation of Vaughan. This, at any rate would explain the B/V multiplicity of titles. More than that, though, the content of the song now makes perfect sense as a metaphor. Bán, or white, is, at least in most European cultures, a colour of purity and innocence and Swans, notably in Gaelic mythology, are considered to be noble and pure birds (cf. the legend of The Fate of the Children of Lîr).

For comparison and contrast, there is a very popular French and Quebecoise folk-song which uses virtually identical imagery to convey its message. It has various different refrains depending on version but the relevant verses are the same:

Derière chez nous y’a’t un étang
Trois beaux canards s’y vont baignant
Le fils du Roi s’en va chassant
Avec son beau fusil d’argent
Visa le noir tua le blanc

Behind our house there was a pond
Where on three ducks went swimming
The King’s son went hunting
With his beautiful silver rifle
He took aim at the black one but killed the white

There is yet more to this song and it gets even more blatantly sexual – even reproductive by the end, as it were – but in these five verses we have the same imagery if not exactly the same story as that of Molly Bhán save that in the French we use ducks rather than swans.

The shooting and killing of the white duck or swan – and we can well imagine what the black duck stands for – is symbolic of the taking of the young woman’s virginity. So really darling Molly was not killed in the stop–breathing–and–fall–over sense, but the innocence of her childhood was and no matter how consenting she and Johnny may have been loosing one’s virginity is often psychologically violent and is most certainly a rite of passage. Our Jimmy, or Johnny or whatever, like the French King’s son was not firing bullets, from his ’beautiful silver rifle’, but rather rounds of something else and in the end, I suppose there was a reason why the two of them were out in the woods together around dusk. They would certainly not be the first young couple to do such things and they were, obviously, not the last.

Here are some versions of the songs:

Polly Vaughan

Now come all ye hunters who follow the gun
Beware of your shooting at the setting of the sun
For Polly’s own true love he shot in the dark
But oh and alas Polly Vaughan was his mark.

For she’d her apron wrapped about her and he took her for a swan
Oh and alas it was she Polly Vaughan

He ran up beside her and saw that it was she
Cried, “Polly oh Polly have I killed thee”
He lifted up her head and saw that she was dead
And a fountain of tears for his true love he shed.

In the middle of the night Polly Vaughan did appear
Cried, “Jimmy oh Jimmy you must have no fear;
Just tell them you were hunting when your trial day has come
And you won’t be convicted for what you have done. ”

In the middle of the trial Polly Vaughan did appear
Crying, “Uncle oh Uncle Jimmy Randall must go clear”
The lawyers and the judges stood around in a row
In the middle Polly Vaughan like some fountain of snow

For she’d her apron wrapped about her and they took her for a swan
Oh and alas it was she Polly Vaughan
Oh and alas it was she Polly Vaughan

V’là le bon vent

Derière chez nous y’a’t un étang (bis.)
Trois beaux canards s’y vont baignant

Refrain: V’là le bon vent, le joli joli vent
V’là le bon vent, ma mie m’appele
V’là le bon vent, le joli joli vent
V’là le bon vent ma mie m’attend

Trois beaux canards s’y vont baignant(bis.)
Le fils du Roi s’en va chassant

Le fils du Roi...etc.
Avec son beau fusil d’argent
Visa le noir tua le blanc
O fils du Roi tu es méchant
D'avoir tué mon canard blanc
Par dessous l'aile il perd son sang
Et de ces yeux des diamants
Et de son bec l'or et l'argent
Et tous ces plumes s'en vont au vent
Nous nous ferrons un lit de camp
Nous coucherons tous deux dedans
Et nous aurons des p’tits enfants

Behind our house there was a pond
Where on three ducks went swimming
The King’s son went hunting
With his beautiful silver rifle
He took aim at the black one but killed the white
O son of the king you are a bad person
For having kiled my white duck
It bleeds from under its wing
And from its eyes fall diamands
And from its beak, gold and silver
And all its feathers scattered on the wind
And we will make ourselves a camp bed
We will lie in it together
And we will have children

Molly Bawn

Come all ye brave heroes who handle a gun
Beware of night ramblin’ by the setting of the sun.

And be aware of an accident that happened of late
To young Molly Bawn and sad was her fate.

She was going to her uncle’s when a shower came on
She went ’neath a green bush the shower to shun.

With her apron ’around her he took her for a swan
It’s a sob and a sigh it was Oh! Oh! Molly Bawn.

He quickly ran to her and saw that she was dead
And it’s many’s a salt tear on her bosom he shed

He went home to his father with his gun in his hand
Crying father, dear father, I have shot Molly Bawn.

I have shot that young colleen I have taken the life
Of the one I intended to take for my wife.

Oh Johnny, young Johnny, do not run away
Don’t you leave your own country till your trial day.

Don’t you leave your own country till your trial comes on
For you’ll never be convicted for the loss of a swan.

The night before Molly’s funeral her ghost it did appear
Saying mother, dear mother, young Johnny he’s clear.

I was going to my uncle when a shower came on
But tell him he’s forgiven by his own Molly Bawn.

The girls in this country they are all very glad
Since the pride of Glen Allen, Molly Bawn is now dead.

The girls in this country stand them all in a row
Molly Bawn would shine above them like a mountain of snow.

From the singing of Norman Kennedy

Fowl Jimmy?

So come all you bold sportsmen
That carry a gun
For I will have you go home
By the light of the sun
For young Jimmy was a-fowling,
Was a-fowling alone
When he shot his own truelove
In the room of a swan.

So then first he went to her,
And found it was she
He was shaking and tremb-e-ling,
His eyes scarce could see
So now you are dead, love,
And your sorrows are o’er
Fare thee well, my dear Polly,
I shall see you no more.

Then home went young Jimmy
With his dog and his gun
Saying: Uncle, dear Uncle,
Have you heard what I’ve done?
Cur-sed be this old gunsmith
That made me this gun
For I’ve shot my own true-love
In the form of a swan.

Then out came bold Uncle
With his locks hanging grey
Saying, Jimmy, dear Jimmy,
Don’t you run away
Don’t you leave your own count-e-rie
Till the trial comes on
For you ne’er shall be hanged
For the crime you have done.

Now the trial came on and
Pretty Polly appeared
Saying, Uncle, dear Uncle,
Let Jimmy go clear
For my apron was wrapped round me
When he took me for a swan
And his poor heart lay bleeding
For Polly his own.


Golden Balls - 20 September 2008

Those of you who are old enough to remember books and literature might remember the seemingly innocuous fairy tale of the princess and the golden ball. Fear ye not should that not be the case for I will remind you. One version of it was set down by the Brothers Grimm who have now been made more famous than ever by the Hollywood fæcal production machine. Some years ago I came across a very interesting analysis of this particular tale by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949; Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ) and I would like to share a few elements thereof as well as add a few of my own reflections.

Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away there was a king whose youngest daughter was exceptionally beautiful. She would often go to play in a wood near her father’s palace with her favourite toy, which was a golden ball. In the centre of this wood was an old lime tree at whose base was a very deep pool of water.

On one particular day whilst playing at the water’s edge the princess dropped her golden ball, which promptly rolled into the pool and, being several times more dense than water, sank like a rock. The princess was distraught and began to cry. Hearing her sobs, which were becoming apoplectic, the frog who inhabited the pool and who was undoubtedly perplexed by the passage of a golden ball through his living room, came up to investigate the situation.

Being gifted with the powers of both rapid analytical thinking and speech, the frog quickly assessed the situation and offered to retrieve the ball if the princess would take him back to the palace with her, let him sit by her at her table, eat from her plate and sleep in her bed with her. Thinking of nothing but getting her ball back the princess made such a promise and before she could pause for further reflection the frog dove to the depths of the pool, returned with the ball held securely by his little mandible and spat it out at the princesses feet.

Overjoyed by the return of her beloved toy the princess grabbed it gleefully, wiped it off on her gown and ran off back to the palace forgetting or disregarding (it is never clear which) her bargain with the frog. The frog after some moments remonstration and a few legal threats realised that his unique vocal abilities were of no use when dealing with a child of such character and set off at his own pace following the princess.

That evening whilst the king and his family were enjoying a most wholesome repast there came a knock at the door. The king sent one of his men servants to gain intelligences as to the nature of disturbance and was duly informed of the presence of the talking frog. Intrigued, the king asked that the loquacious amphibian be shown in and when such came to pass the frog explained his case to the princess’s father. Being a just father as well as a wise monarch, the king ordered his daughter to keep her part of the bargain and disgusted though she was she was obliged to obey.

To cut a long story short, after a rather tense meal and a great deal of reluctance to go to bed the princess awoke the next morning to find that were a frog had lain only just the night before now lay a very handsome prince also in early to mid teens.

Now, whatever you opinion on the transmogrification of a verbally empowered anuran to homo-sapiens form may be this tale is full of imagery which is worth some consideration. Hidden somewhere, in some form practically all mythologies have some sort of tree that marks the centre of that world; what Campbell refers to as the world navel. Often, though not always there is a body of water associated with this tree but there is invariably some sort of repulsive or dangerous, otherworldly guardian of the tree. The most obvious example of this is the tree of life of the Norse mythology amongst whose roots is twined the formidable Mitgard Serpent. Usually the tree’s guardian is a serpent, dragon or some sort of reptile but in our child’s version of this tale the guardian has been reduced to a cold and slimy but relatively benign frog. It is perhaps worth noting that this guardian beast is almost always a liminal, trickster type of character who, as in the case of the frog can operate in the watery world alien to the princess but also use the rules and logic of the human world to achieve his goals.

According to both Jung and Campbell the water at the base of the tree represents the unconscious part of the mind and in some cases sexuality. The princess loses her golden ball, perhaps a symbol of childhood frivolousness into the depths of this aqua incognita and can only be reunited therewith by making a bargain with the guardian of the tree/spring. She tries to escape and return to the world of familiarity and innocence but her unfulfilled promise catches up with her. By the intervention of her Father, the King, God, the rules of justice, what have you, she is forced to confront and be reconciled with the new status quo. Thus, as Campbell points out, we have a relatively obvious metaphor for a child’s transition into adolescence; the loss of innocence of infancy and the acceptance of the responsibilities of adulthood.

Let it be noted here that those of us who are at all familiar with the Judeo-Christian teachings have come across this exact same story in slightly modified form. Let me jar your memory by quoting you a few passages from the King James Version of Genesis:

Genesis.2.8-17 And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Genesis.3.1-10 Now the serpent was more subtile than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

Genesis.3.23-24 ...therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man: and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

So once again we have a garden or a wood at the centre of which is found a very particular tree and that guarded or inhabited by a repugnant kind of creature. Here we have an antagonistic trickster serpent who makes a deal, of sorts, with the protagonists. Knowledge is gained, innocence is lost and the protagonists are forced by the deus ex machina to renounce one state of being and to enter another.

There are a few minor differences between the Judeo-Christian production and the central European one. To start with there are two protagonists in the former as opposed to the solo performance in the latter. This may reflect some contemporary philosophy concerning dualism in human nature but whether we have two that are “one flesh” or just the one we are looking at the same transition from the innocence of infancy to the responsibilities of adulthood and coming into sexual maturity. Though their roles may not be made manifest in exactly the same way one cannot help but notice a similarity between the golden ball, returned to the princess by the frog, and the apple offered to Eve by the serpent. In either case it is a valuable object and mechanism by which the trickster offers the protagonist(s) a choice. Seeming differences not withstanding, both tales are furnished with exactly the same imagery for ease of recognition.

Judeo-Christian creation myth or European fairy tale, we are all, at some point or points in our lives the princess with the golden ball or Adam and Eve and if we are not then there is something very wrong with us. More than this, though, we are once again confronted by the fact that biblical accounts are just one of many means by which universal truths have been communicated from generation to generation. Every culture does it and so there is, therefore, no reason to take the bible as being unique, definitive or, in and of itself, universal.