The Story Teller at Fault, by Joseph Jacobs
At the time when the Tuatha De Dannan held the sovereignty of Ireland,
there reigned in Leinster a king, who was remarkably fond of hearing
stories. Like the other princes and chieftains of the island, he had a
favourite story-teller, who held a large estate from his Majesty, on
condition of telling him a new story every night of his life, before he
went to sleep. Many indeed were the stories he knew, so that he had
already reached a good old age without failing even for a single night
in his task; and such was the skill he displayed that whatever cares of
state or other annoyances might prey upon the monarch's mind, his
story-teller was sure to send him to sleep.
One morning the story-teller arose early, and as his custom was,
strolled out into his garden turning over in his mind incidents which
he might weave into a story for the king at night. But this morning he
found himself quite at fault; after pacing his whole demesne, he
returned to his house without being able to think of anything new or
strange. He found no difficulty in "there was once a king who had three
sons" or "one day the king of all Ireland," but further than that he
could not get. At length he went in to breakfast, and found his wife
much perplexed at his delay.
"Why don't you come to breakfast, my dear?" said she.
"I have no mind to eat anything," replied the story-teller; "long as I
have been in the service of the king of Leinster, I never sat down to
breakfast without having a new story ready for the evening, but this
morning my mind is quite shut up, and I don't know what to do. I might
as well lie down and die at once. I'll be disgraced for ever this
evening, when the king calls for his story-teller."
Just at this moment the lady looked out of the window.
"Do you see that black thing at the end of the field?" said she.
"I do," replied her husband.
They drew nigh, and saw a miserable looking old man lying on the ground
with a wooden leg placed beside him.
"Who are you, my good man?" asked the story-teller.
"Oh, then, 'tis little matter who I am. I'm a poor, old, lame,
decrepit, miserable creature, sitting down here to rest awhile."
"An' what are you doing with that box and dice I see in your hand?"
"I am waiting here to see if any one will play a game with me," replied
the beggar man.
"Play with you! Why what has a poor old man like you to play for?"
"I have one hundred pieces of gold in this leathern purse," replied the
"You may as well play with him," said the story-teller's wife; "and
perhaps you'll have something to tell the king in the evening."
A smooth stone was placed between them, and upon it they cast their
It was but a little while and the story-teller lost every penny of his
"Much good may it do you, friend," said he. "What better hap could I
look for, fool that I am!"
"Will you play again?" asked the old man.
"Don't be talking, man: you have all my money."
"Haven't you chariot and horses and hounds?"
"Well, what of them!"
"I'll stake all the money I have against thine."
"Nonsense, man! Do you think for all the money in Ireland, I'd run the
risk of seeing my lady tramp home on foot?"
"Maybe you'd win," said the bocough.
"Maybe I wouldn't," said the story-teller.
"Play with him, husband," said his wife. "I don't mind walking, if you
"I never refused you before," said the story-teller, "and I won't do so
Down he sat again, and in one throw lost houses, hounds, and chariot.
"Will you play again?" asked the beggar.
"Are you making game of me, man; what else have I to stake?"
"I'll stake all my winnings against your wife," said the old man.
The story-teller turned away in silence, but his wife stopped him.
"Accept his offer," said she. "This is the third time, and who knows
what luck you may have? You'll surely win now."
They played again, and the story-teller lost. No sooner had he done so,
than to his sorrow and surprise, his wife went and sat down near the
ugly old beggar.
"Is that the way you're leaving me?" said the story-teller.
"Sure I was won," said she. "You would not cheat the poor man, would
"Have you any more to stake?" asked the old man.
"You know very well I have not," replied the story-teller.
"I'll stake the whole now, wife and all, against your own self," said
the old man.
Again they played, and again the story-teller lost.
"Well! here I am, and what do you want with me?"
"I'll soon let you know," said the old man, and he took from his pocket
a long cord and a wand.
"Now," said he to the story-teller, "what kind of animal would you
rather be, a deer, a fox, or a hare? You have your choice now, but you
may not have it later."
To make a long story short, the story-teller made his choice of a hare;
the old man threw the cord round him, struck him with the wand, and lo!
a long-eared, frisking hare was skipping and jumping on the green.
But it wasn't for long; who but his wife called the hounds, and set
them on him. The hare fled, the dogs followed. Round the field ran a
high wall, so that run as he might, he couldn't get out, and mightily
diverted were beggar and lady to see him twist and double.
In vain did he take refuge with his wife, she kicked him back again to
the hounds, until at length the beggar stopped the hounds, and with a
stroke of the wand, panting and breathless, the story-teller stood
before them again.
"And how did you like the sport?" said the beggar.
"It might be sport to others," replied the story-teller looking at his
wife, "for my part I could well put up with the loss of it."
"Would it be asking too much," he went on to the beggar, "to know who
you are at all, or where you come from, or why you take a pleasure in
plaguing a poor old man like me?"
"Oh!" replied the stranger, "I'm an odd kind of good-for-little fellow,
one day poor, another day rich, but if you wish to know more about me
or my habits, come with me and perhaps I may show you more than you
would make out if you went alone."
"I'm not my own master to go or stay," said the story-teller, with a
The stranger put one hand into his wallet and drew out of it before
their eyes a well-looking middle-aged man, to whom he spoke as follows:
"By all you heard and saw since I put you into my wallet, take charge
of this lady and of the carriage and horses, and have them ready for me
whenever I want them."
Scarcely had he said these words when all vanished, and the
story-teller found himself at the Foxes' Ford, near the castle of Red
Hugh O'Donnell. He could see all but none could see him.
O'Donnell was in his hall, and heaviness of flesh and weariness of
spirit were upon him.
"Go out," said he to his doorkeeper, "and see who or what may be
The doorkeeper went, and what he saw was a lank, grey beggarman; half
his sword bared behind his haunch, his two shoes full of cold
road-a-wayish water sousing about him, the tips of his two ears out
through his old hat, his two shoulders out through his scant tattered
cloak, and in his hand a green wand of holly.
"Save you, O'Donnell," said the lank grey beggarman.
"And you likewise," said O'Donnell. "Whence come you, and what is your
"I come from the outmost stream of earth,
From the glens where the white swans glide,
A night in Islay, a night in Man,
A night on the cold hillside."
"It's the great traveller you are," said O'Donnell.
"Maybe you've learnt something on the road."
"I am a juggler," said the lank grey beggarman, "and for five pieces of
silver you shall see a trick of mine."
"You shall have them," said O'Donnell; and the lank grey beggarman took
three small straws and placed them in his hand.
"The middle one," said he, "I'll blow away; the other two I'll leave."
"Thou canst not do it," said one and all.
But the lank grey beggarman put a finger on either outside straw and,
whiff, away he blew the middle one.
"'Tis a good trick," said O'Donnell; and he paid him his five pieces of
"For half the money," said one of the chief's lads, "I'll do the same
"Take him at his word, O'Donnell."
The lad put the three straws on his hand, and a finger on either
outside straw and he blew; and what happened but that the fist was
blown away with the straw.
"Thou art sore, and thou wilt be sorer," said O'Donnell.
"Six more pieces, O'Donnell, and I'll do another trick for thee," said
the lank grey beggarman.
"Six shalt thou have."
"Seest thou my two ears! One I'll move but not t'other."
"'Tis easy to see them, they're big enough, but thou canst never move
one ear and not the two together."
The lank grey beggarman put his hand to his ear, and he gave it a pull.
O'Donnell laughed and paid him the six pieces.
"Call that a trick," said the fistless lad, "any one can do that," and
so saying, he put up his hand, pulled his ear, and what happened was
that he pulled away ear and head.
"Sore thou art; and sorer thou'lt be," said O'Donnell.
"Well, O'Donnell," said the lank grey beggarman, "strange are the
tricks I've shown thee, but I'll show thee a stranger one yet for the
"Thou hast my word for it," said O'Donnell.
With that the lank grey beggarman took a bag from under his armpit, and
from out the bag a ball of silk, and he unwound the ball and he flung
it slantwise up into the clear blue heavens, and it became a ladder;
then he took a hare and placed it upon the thread, and up it ran; again
he took out a red-eared hound, and it swiftly ran up after the hare.
"Now," said the lank grey beggarman; "has any one a mind to run after
the dog and on the course?"
"I will," said a lad of O'Donnell's.
"Up with you then," said the juggler; "but I warn you if you let my
hare be killed I'll cut off your head when you come down."
The lad ran up the thread and all three soon disappeared. After looking
up for a long time, the lank grey beggarman said: "I'm afraid the hound
is eating the hare, and that our friend has fallen asleep."
Saying this he began to wind the thread, and down came the lad fast
asleep; and down came the red-eared hound and in his mouth the last
morsel of the hare.
He struck the lad a stroke with the edge of his sword, and so cast his
head off. As for the hound, if he used it no worse, he used it no
"It's little I'm pleased, and sore I'm angered," said O'Donnell, "that
a hound and a lad should be killed at my court."
"Five pieces of silver twice over for each of them," said the juggler,
"and their heads shall be on them as before."
"Thou shalt get that," said O'Donnell.
Five pieces, and again five were paid him, and lo! the lad had his head
and the hound his. And though they lived to the uttermost end of time,
the hound would never touch a hare again, and the lad took good care to
keep his eyes open.
Scarcely had the lank grey beggarman done this when he vanished from
out their sight, and no one present could say if he had flown through
the air or if the earth had swallowed him up.
He moved as wave tumbling o'er wave
As whirlwind following whirlwind,
As a furious wintry blast,
So swiftly, sprucely, cheerily,
And no stop made
Until he came
To the court of Leinster's King,
He gave a cheery light leap
O'er top of turret,
Of court and city
Of Leinster's King.
Heavy was the flesh and weary the spirit of Leinster's king. 'Twas the
hour he was wont to hear a story, but send he might right and left, not
a jot of tidings about the story-teller could he get.
"Go to the door," said he to his doorkeeper, "and see if a soul is in
sight who may tell me something about my story-teller."
The doorkeeper went, and what he saw was a lank grey beggarman, half
his sword bared behind his haunch, his two old shoes full of cold
road-a-wayish water sousing about him, the tips of his two ears out
through his old hat, his two shoulders out through his scant tattered
cloak, and in his hand a three-stringed harp.
"What canst thou do?" said the doorkeeper.
"I can play," said the lank grey beggarman.
"Never fear," added he to the story-teller, "thou shalt see all, and
not a man shall see thee."
When the king heard a harper was outside, he bade him in.
"It is I that have the best harpers in the five-fifths of Ireland,"
said he, and he signed them to play. They did so, and if they played,
the lank grey beggarman listened.
"Heardst thou ever the like?" said the king.
"Did you ever, O king, hear a cat purring over a bowl of broth, or the
buzzing of beetles in the twilight, or a shrill tongued old woman
scolding your head off?"
"That I have often," said the king.
"More melodious to me," said the lank grey beggarman, "were the worst
of these sounds than the sweetest harping of thy harpers."
When the harpers heard this, they drew their swords and rushed at him,
but instead of striking him, their blows fell on each other, and soon
not a man but was cracking his neighbour's skull and getting his own
cracked in turn.
When the king saw this, he thought it hard the harpers weren't content
with murdering their music, but must needs murder each other.
"Hang the fellow who began it all," said he; "and if I can't have a
story, let me have peace."
Up came the guards, seized the lank grey beggarman, marched him to the
gallows and hanged him high and dry. Back they marched to the hall, and
who should they see but the lank grey beggarman seated on a bench with
his mouth to a flagon of ale.
"Never welcome you in," cried the captain of the guard, "didn't we hang
you this minute, and what brings you here?"
"Is it me myself, you mean?"
"Who else?" said the captain.
"May your hand turn into a pig's foot with you when you think of tying
the rope; why should you speak of hanging me?"
Back they scurried to the gallows, and there hung the king's favourite
Back they hurried to the king who had fallen fast asleep.
"Please your Majesty," said the captain, "we hanged that strolling
vagabond, but here he is back again as well as ever."
"Hang him again," said the king, and off he went to sleep once more.
They did as they were told, but what happened was that they found the
king's chief harper hanging where the lank grey beggarman should have
The captain of the guard was sorely puzzled.
"Are you wishful to hang me a third time?" said the lank grey beggarman.
"Go where you will," said the captain, "and as fast as you please if
you'll only go far enough. It's trouble enough you've given us already."
"Now you're reasonable," said the beggarman; "and since you've given up
trying to hang a stranger because he finds fault with your music, I
don't mind telling you that if you go back to the gallows you'll find
your friends sitting on the sward none the worse for what has happened."
As he said these words he vanished; and the story-teller found himself
on the spot where they first met, and where his wife still was with the
carriage and horses.
"Now," said the lank grey beggarman, "I'll torment you no longer.
There's your carriage and your horses, and your money and your wife; do
what you please with them."
"For my carriage and my houses and my hounds," said the story-teller,
"I thank you; but my wife and my money you may keep."
"No," said the other. "I want neither, and as for your wife, don't
think ill of her for what she did, she couldn't help it."
"Not help it! Not help kicking me into the mouth of my own hounds! Not
help casting me off for the sake of a beggarly old—"
"I'm not as beggarly or as old as ye think. I am Angus of the Bruff;
many a good turn you've done me with the King of Leinster. This morning
my magic told me the difficulty you were in, and I made up my mind to
get you out of it. As for your wife there, the power that changed your
body changed her mind. Forget and forgive as man and wife should do,
and now you have a story for the King of Leinster when he calls for
one;" and with that he disappeared.
It's true enough he now had a story fit for a king. From first to last
he told all that had befallen him; so long and loud laughed the king
that he couldn't go to sleep at all. And he told the story-teller never
to trouble for fresh stories, but every night as long as he lived he
listened again and he laughed afresh at the tale of the lank grey
THE STORY-TELLER AT FAULT.
Source.—Griffin's Tales from a Jury-Room, combined with Campbell,
No. xvii. c, "The Slim Swarthy Champion."
Parallels.—Campbell gives another variant, l.c. i. 318. Dr. Hyde
has an Irish version of Campbell's tale written down in 1762, from
which he gives the incident of the air-ladder (which I have had to
euphemise in my version) in his Beside the Fireside, p. 191, and
other passages in his Preface. The most remarkable parallel to this
incident, however, is afforded by the feats of Indian jugglers reported
briefly by Marco Polo, and illustrated with his usual wealth of
learning by the late Sir Henry Yule, in his edition, vol. i. p. 308
seq. The accompanying illustration (reduced from Yule) will tell its
own tale: it is taken from the Dutch account of the travels of an
English sailor, E. Melton, Zeldzaame Reizen, 1702, p. 468. It tells
the tale in five acts, all included in one sketch. Another instance
quoted by Yule is still more parallel, so to speak. The twenty-third
trick performed by some conjurors before the Emperor Jahangueir
(Memoirs, p. 102) is thus described: "They produced a chain of 50
cubits in length, and in my presence threw one end of it towards the
sky, where it remained as if fastened to something in the air. A dog
was then brought forward, and being placed at the lower end of the
chain, immediately ran up, and, reaching the other end, immediately
disappeared in the air. In the same manner a hog, a panther, a lion,
and a tiger were successively sent up the chain." It has been suggested
that the conjurors hypnotise the spectators, and make them believe they
see these things. This is practically the suggestion of a wise
Mohammedan, who is quoted by Yule as saying, "Wallah! 'tis my opinion
there has been neither going up nor coming down; 'tis all hocus-pocus,"
hocus-pocus being presumably the Mohammedan term for hypnotism.
Remarks.—Dr. Hyde (l.c. Pref. xxix.) thinks our tale cannot be
older than 1362, because of a reference to one O'Connor Sligo which
occurs in all its variants; it is, however, omitted in our somewhat
abridged version. Mr Nutt (ap. Campbell, The Fians, Introd. xix.)
thinks that this does not prevent a still earlier version having
existed. I should have thought that the existence of so distinctly
Eastern a trick in the tale, and the fact that it is a framework story
(another Eastern characteristic), would imply that it is a rather late
importation, with local allusions superadded (cf. notes on "Conal
Yellowclaw," No v.)
The passages in verse from pp 137, 139, and the description of the
Beggarman, pp. 136, 140, are instances of a curious characteristic of
Gaelic folk-tales called "runs." Collections of conventional epithets
are used over and over again to describe the same incident, the
beaching of a boat, sea-faring, travelling and the like, and are
inserted in different tales. These "runs" are often similar in both the
Irish and the Scotch form of the same tale or of the same incident. The
volumes of Waifs and Strays contain numerous examples of these
"runs," which have been indexed in each volume. These "runs" are
another confirmation of my view that the original form of the folk-tale
was that of the Cante-fable (see note on "Connla" and on "Childe
Rowland" in English Fairy Tales).