I knew some of my favorite Celtic fairy tales came from the Isle of Man, but I didn’t know where the Isle of Man was. Apparently Ellan Vannin is a small island located in the Irish Sea between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland.
The Ben-Varrey (The Mermaid)
When a distinctive Manx literature began to emerge in around the sixteenth century AD, scholars noted its similarities to the mythology of Ireland. The legendary exploits of Finn Mac Cumhaill (“Fin McCool”) and Ossian, the great Irish heroes, were told and retold here.
“The Ben-Varrey” is a Manx version of a tale which also appears in the Western Isles of Scotland and in Ireland and Brittany. Celtic storytellers are especially fond of this story because it evokes the enchanted menace of the rocky and tempestuous Manx coastline where so many have perished.
It’s the story of a fisherman named Odo Paden who was down on his luck. One day when he’s feeling particularly desperate and hungry, Odo sees a beautiful mermaid sitting on the rocky outcrop. She offers to fill his nets with fish and ensure that all his needs are provided for if he will consent to marry her.
There’s just one condition. Among the fish he’ll find in his nets is a silver trout. She forbids him from eating it. Instead, he must take it to the fair at Port Erin and demand a golden sovereign. Then he must return and throw the coin into the sea.
On the next morning Odo finds his nets filled with fish as the woman promised. Taking the silver trout, he heads to the fair. But there a remarkable sight awaits him: a tiny band composed of a cat, a mouse, and a cockroach. The cat strikes up a tune on the fiddle and the mouse and roach begin to dance while the onlookers laugh and hoot merrily. Odo exchanges the silver trout for the musical cat. Then he returns the next day with another fish and buys the mouse; and then, on the third day, the roach.
The Ben-Varrey is filled with disappointment when she learns of Odo’s purchase. She reveals that she’s a king’s daughter who has been enchanted into the form of a mermaid until the evil Druid Drogh-Yantagh be paid a golden sovereign at the rock of drowning or be made to laugh. But Drogh-Yantagh hasn’t laughed in seven years.
The mermaid disappears beneath the ocean waves and Odo immediately strikes out for the rock of drowning with the cat, the mouse, and the roach, determined to undo the terrible enchantment.
One of the things I love about Celtic mythology, that I’ve striven to emulate in my own stories, is the way not everything is what it first appears to be. The best stories normally have some CRAZY twist at the end where disguises are thrown off and things are revealed for what they truly are.
For example, at the end of “The Ben-Varrey,” the three musical creatures are revealed to be three old fishermen who were placed under a curse when they made the Druid angry. The animism of many such stories points to the truth that there’s more to reality than what can be seen with our eyes, that we’re all intimately connected not only with other humans but with every living thing around us.
This theme of enchantment and illusion is taken to absurd lengths in “The Lossyr-ny-Keylley,” or, “The Goldfinch.” It’s the story of a king named Ascon who enjoys the singing of a goldfinch that alights on his windowsill in spring. Because he loves nothing better than to hear the bird sing, he sends his three sons (Bris, Cane, and Gil) on a quest to retrieve it and bring it back to the palace. The one who succeeds in the quest will inherit the whole kingdom.
After many random adventures the youngest and humblest of the three sons, Gil, finds himself in a land underground. A beautiful woman who happens to be standing near the entrance directs him to a stable where he chooses a horse that can carry him a seven years’ journey in one day.
As they cross the sea towards the Land of the Goldfinch, Gil sees a splendid palace of white stone. The mare explains that it is the palace of the King of this land. The King comes out and presents the young man with a challenge: before he can take the goldfinch home to his father, the two of them must play a game of hide-and-seek. If he loses, his head will be cut off.
That night as Gil is lamenting his inevitable death, the mare offers him some instructions on how to play the game. On the next morning he walks into the palace garden. Ignoring the attentions of the beautiful maidens who surround him, he approaches a tree in the middle of the garden and plucks a red apple that grows there. He cuts the apple in half and out jumps the King of the Land of the Goldfinch.
“You have beaten me today,” says the King. “But you have not won yet.”
But on the next day, per the mare’s instructions, Gil finds the King hiding in an onion; and on the third day, inside of an egg laid by a duck in a pond near the garden.
On the fourth day of their contest, the mare transforms Gil into a flea and hides him within the hairs of her tail. The King searches all day until sundown, but is unable to find him. On the fifth day she turns him into a bumblebee; on the sixth, into one of her eyelashes.
Gil and the mare escape with the goldfinch, narrowly evading capture from several large armies. He finds the woman he met at the entrance to the underworld awaiting him on his arrival. This is where all the threads of the story start coming together and all is revealed for what it truly is. Turns out, the woman, the mare, and the goldfinch are all princesses, daughters to the King of the Land of the Goldfinch.
With the assistance of the mare, now transformed into her true self, Gil outwits his older brothers (who have tried to kill him) and returns to the palace. King Ascon banishes his two eldest sons for seven years, at the end of which time they all return and reconcile. And Princess Vorgell, the goldfinch, becomes a bird each afternoon and sings for the king’s delight.
Tomorrow we’ll travel to Scotland to hear the story of “Maighdean-Mhara,” “The Sea-Maid.”