Old Jem Tales – Child Roland

Back in the days when a man could wander free on the roads there lived a man called Old Jem. He’d always seemed ancient, with his beard slowly turning from brown to snowy, shaggy white and his hair hanging long over his shoulders.

His clothes were older than he was, and even in summer he wore a long coat that trailed almost to the ground. Its buttons were long gone, and in winter he held it together with a belt made from rope.

He’d been coming through Leeds even before Richard Nottingham was a boy, finding a place on Briggate to set down his pack, put out his hat and tell his stories for a penny or two. People would crowd around to listen, carried off by his voice and the magic of his words.

Jem would often stay with Richard and Mary Nottingham at the house on Marsh Lane, grateful for a bowl of stew and a place by the hearth to roll out his blanket for the night. He’d entertain Rose and Emily with his tales of kings and princesses and times when magic was still strong in the land.

This is one of the stories he used to tell.

You know, there were a time – aye, long before you or me or anyone as is alive now – where there were magic all over England. Grand as that might sound, it weren’t always good, even if it somehow stirred some mighty deeds.

I’m minded to think of a lad called Roland. He was an earl’s song, the youngest of four children, with two other brothers and a sister called Ellen. One day they was out playing in the churchyard and the oldest brother kicked the ball over the church roof. Now Ellen, she was a lass full of energy and playful and she ran off to fetch it. The boys waited but she didn’t return, and when they went looking, there weren’t hide nor hair of her.

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The oldest brother, he went to the wise man in the village who said that Ellen must have been taken by the King of Elfland because she hadn’t gone widdershins round the church – that is, t’opposite way to’t sun. He told the young man what to do to bring her back, and off her went.

And he didn’t come back, neither, and nor did the second son when he tried.

That left Roland. His man didn’t want to let him so, but she knew he needed to do this. So she gave him his father’s sword that never struck in vain and cast a spell to give the blade victory.

Then Roland went to the wise man.

‘I’ll tell thee what I told thy brothers,’ he said. ‘There are twa things, one you do and one you don’t. After you reach Elfland, whoever speaks to you, you must take your sword and cut off their heads. And the thing you must never do is eat or drink anything in Elfland. Now.’

Roland walked and walked and finally he reached a strange meadow where horses grazed. Elfland horses, he could tell it by the way their eyes glowed red as fire.

‘Where will I find the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower?’ Roland asked.

‘I don’t know,’ one of the horses answered. ‘But go down the road until you find the cow-herder.’ He might be able to tell you.’

Roland lifted his sword and took off the horse’s head in a single blow , then carried on along the road.

He found the cow-herder and said,

‘Where will I find the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower?’

‘I don’t know,’ the cow herder responded. ‘But go down this road until you see the hen wife. She might be able to say.’

Roland struck off the cow-herder’s head and walked on until the saw the hen-wife with her fowl.

‘Where do I find the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower?’ He asked.

‘Look for a round, green hill that’s terraced from top to bottom,’ the woman answered. ‘But tha’s got to walk widdershins round the hill and say three times: Open door, open door, and let me come in.’

Well Roland looked at her, and for a moment he didn’t want to chop off her head as he’d been so helpful. But he knew what was needful, so with a single swift blow he did the deed and walked on until he came to hill. He walked three tines around it, the opposite way to the sun, and said the words she’d given him. And happened, but a great door opened in the hillside and Roland went in.

Inside it were like twilight as the gloom seemed to seep through the earth. The were corridors and rooms, arches made of gleaming feldspar. The fittings gleamed like gold and Roland followed the ways until he came to a great hall, where Ellen sat on a settle with a black velvet cushion, pulling a silver comb through her long fair hair.

‘Roland,’ she said. ‘I’m full happy to see you. But you’ve made your journey in vain. Both our brothers tried but they fell to the King’s enchantments and you’ll do the same.’

He told her what he’d done, and how he was footsore and weary and hungry, and asked her for summat to eat and sup.

Ellen was under her own spell. She was forbidden to warn him of the dangers. All she could do was bring him bread and wine and look sadly as he raised it to his lips. But before he could taste a morsel, he remembered the wise man’s advice and threw it to the floor.

And then he heard a shuddering of the tower and the door to the hall was thrown wide as the King of Elfland entered. Roland rushed at him with the sword that never struck in vain, and the pair fought for an hour or more. Then, with a blow, Roland forced the King to his knees, and demanded he released his sister and his brothers in exchange for mercy. With a bowed head, the king agreed. He took a small vial from a chest and poured drops of a liquid red as blood on the eyes of the enchanted brothers who’d been placed to sleep in a room. They awoke, claiming their souls had left their bodies but had now returned. Then the king whispered some words over Ellen, and suddenly the bright, happy girl returned.

Troland granted the kind his mercy. With Ellen and his brothers he left the dark tower and returned to their home, never to go back to Elfland – and never to run widdershins round the church, neither.

Old Jem’s Tales – The Hand of Glory

Back in the days when a man could wander free on the roads there lived a man called Old Jem. He’d always seemed ancient, with his beard slowly turning from brown to snowy, shaggy white and his hair hanging long over his shoulders.

His clothes were older than he was, and even in summer he wore a long coat that trailed almost to the ground. Its buttons were long gone, and in winter he held it together with a belt made from rope.

He’d been coming through Leeds even before Richard Nottingham was a boy, finding a place on Briggate to set down his pack, put out his hat and tell his stories for a penny or two. People would crowd around to listen, carried off by his voice and the magic of his words.

Jem would often stay with Richard and Mary Nottingham at the house on Marsh Lane, grateful for a bowl of stew and a place by the hearth to roll out his blanket for the night. He’d entertain Rose and Emily with his tales of kings and princesses and times when magic was still strong in the land.

This is one of the stories he used to tell.

 

I don’t know how long ago this happened, but it was afore your time. I heard the tale when I were a young ‘un, and the old lad who told it me swore as it were true.

There were an inn up on the moor past Pickering, on the road to Whitby, and one night a traveller arrived in woman’s clothes, all by hersen and asking to stay until morning. But she needed to leave early, and begged for a little food to be left out to eat before she went on her way.

Now the old couple as kept the inn agreed, but it seemed powerful strange to them, so they told the serving lass to spend the night down by the fire with the woman. The serving lass lay on the settle, but before she closed her eyes she saw that the woman was wearing a man’s shoes and hose under the dress, and suddenly she thought as she’d better pay attention.

She pretended to sleep and watched. The traveller drew out a candle from the pocket of the dress, and then a dead man’s hand. He place the candle in the hand and lit it with a taper from the fire, passing it in front of the lass’ face and saying,

‘Let them as is asleep be asleep, and them as is awake be awake.’

Then he put the hand and the candle on the table, unbolted the door and walked down to the road, where he started to whistle for his thieving companions.

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The serving lass, well, she jumped up, ran out of the door behind the man dressed as a woman and pushed him down before she ran back inside and bolted the door again. Upstairs, she tried to wake the innkeeper and his missus. But they slept on, under the spell, and nowt she could do would rouse them.

The lass took a bowl of milk they’d been saving for morning and threw it over the candle so the flame went out. After that she could wake the innkeeper, and when she told him, he charged his blunderbuss and went to the window, asking what the men outside what they wanted.

They said that if the innkeeper would just throw them the dead man’s hand, they’d leave. Instead he raised his weapon and fired. That was the last they heard of them. But next morning, when they went out, they could see blood on the road, going for nigh on a quarter mile…

 

Old Jem’s stories were told and re-told by others over the years. They must have travelled around England during the centuries, because some were collected and eventually printed in The Penguin Book of English Folktales, although by then Old Jem was long forgotten.

A Leeds Storytime

It’s been a long time since I wrote a #leedsstorytime on Twitter. Taking a folk tale and re-telling it, maybe embellishing it a little. Because if the stories from the tradition aren’t told, they wither.

There was a place called Jenny White’s Hole in Leeds. It was a set of stairs between two houses on the Calls, leading directly down into the River Aire. No one seems to know about Jenny herself. This is my take on how it got its name.

Jenny White was a pretty Leeds lass, courted by all the lads. She worked as a mill hand and took her fun in the evenings. It was a time of factories and smoke, the bitter taste of soot in the air. But Jenny was young, she loved life. People danced to fiddlers and sang the songs they’d known all their lives. It was a hard life, but there was sun in it, too.
The lads threw their caps at Jenny. They all wanted her. But she only had eyes for Joshua, a handsome lad with cruel eyes. He paid her no mind, though. He could have any girl he desired, and his father was a mill foreman, with power and prestige. But his friends told him to court her. She was a right bobby dazzler, she’d make a good wife. So he looked. She was pretty.
More than that, she was willing. Where lads usually did her bidding, she was willing to make all the time she had for him. Joshua, though, saw her weakness. She loved him with all her heart, but he treated her cruelly. He wouldn’t turn up when he promised, just leave her standing for hours, lonely and heartbroken. Even when they were together, he’d hardly give her attention. Unless they were alone. In those moments she felt happy.
So she was overjoyed when Joshua suggested they wed. He might not be perfect, but he’d be hers forever. Yet she quickly learned that married life with Joshua was worse than courting him. Much worse.
He’d stay out in the beershops until all hours, coming home drunk and taking out his anger on her. After a year of this, Jenny White understood the gap between the hope of her heart and her life. He wasn’t going to change, for her or for anyone. She had nothing and no one; her parents had died.
With each day the feelings grew worse. And there was no way out, no escape. To a friend she bemoaned “the marriage vows as false as dicer’s oaths.” One night Joshua didn’t come home at all. Part of her hoped he might have died, to free her. But someone told her he’d left the inn with a young, pretty girl.
Despondent, Jenny began to walk. Her route took her along the Calls, a street of low, dark houses, poor and dismal. Between two houses stood a set of steps, leading down into the chilly, damp blackness. Jenny followed them. And as she placed one foot in front of another, her spirit began to lighten, as if she might fly away. Down she went, as the water of the river lapped around her feet. Down until it reached her knees.
Someone saw her disappear down the stairs and ran, looking to stop her. But when he looked, there was no Jenny in the water. She’d moved out of sight and out of this world. No body was ever found, although people searched.
Some said she’d drowned. Others believed she’d drifted until she found a place where lovers spoke truly. Where hearts were safe and words were bonds. Perhaps she’d slipped through to somewhere she could smile and laugh again. But it seemed as if she gone through a hole in the world. Which is why that spot became known as Jenny White’s Hole.