Monday, October 31, 2011

"Sammle's Ghost" -- a Tale for Halloween

This is a retelling I composed something like thirteen or fourteen years ago, as best as I can recollect; I've not been able to find an etext version on line, yet.

Source: Briggs, Katherine. "Sammle's Ghost" British Folktales. Pantheon Books, New York. 1977. Pages 191-192.

"Sammle's Ghost"

Once, a young man named Sammle was killed in a fire which blazed until his body was nothing but ashes scattered on the wind. When everything was calm again, he woke as a spirit and rose up. The new Sammle was very disoriented, because now he could see all the other spirits and bogles the he never saw when he was alive. It was as if he were lost in a strange and crowded city, and he didn't know where to go.

Finally, another soul noticed his confusion and said to him: "You must go to the graveyard, and see the Great Worm. Tell him you're dead, and ask him to have your body eaten up, because until then, you won't be able to rest in the Earth."

So Sammle wondered about looking for the Worm, asking all the ghosts and spirits how to get there. Finally, he came to a great underground cavern, with passages leading off in all direction, like a maze, and he followed them down and down until he got close to what he was sure was the center point. The air was hot and damp, and smelled of mold, moss and sulfur. Strange, glowing, creatures clung to the walls, illuminating everything with a strange, blue-green light. Snails and slugs and other slimy things that Sammle could not name crawled over and under his feet. Fluttery things, like bats and giant moths, flew about his head.

After what seemed to be an eternity, Sammle came to the great central chamber, where the Great Worm himself lay coiled on a flat stone, as though he were king on a throne.

He raised his head as Sammle entered, and swung it from side to side, sniffing the air, for he was completely blind. "Sammle!" he called out, thrusting his giant head into the lad's face. "Sammle, you are dead and buried, is that it? Dead and food for worms?"

"I-I suppose so, Your Honor," Sammle answered, surprised that this creature knew him by name.

"Well, then, where are you?"

"I, um, I'm right here, Your Worship," he answered, not wanting to offend, but unsure of the proper form of address.

The Great Worm scoffed. "You don't think we can eat spirit, do you?" he asked. "We need your body before you can rest in the Earth. Where is your body buried?"

It's not buried, that's just it. It was burned to ashes, and scattered by the wind."

"Phew! You'll not be very tasty, then. But that's not important. Just gather your ashes and bring them back to me."

So Sammle wandered high and low, picking up every ash and bit of bone one by one, and putting them all in a sack. He then returned and gave them to the Great Worm, who crawled down inside and sniffed around."

"Sammle," the Worm said, from inside the sack, "You're not all here."

"Well, I've gathered all my ashes, of that, I'm certain."

"There's an arm missing."

"Oh, that's right," Sammle said. "It was amputated when I was young."

"If you want to rest, Sammle," the Worm said, "you must find it and bring it back here."

"Well, I've not idea where the doctor put it. But I'm willing to look." And so he journeyed over the wide world, and eventually found his arm, and brought it back to the Worm. ...Where it had been kept, and whether anyone noticed it was missing, I don't know. But Sammle couldn't worry about that, now.

The Great Worm turned it over and over, sniffing it carefully. "No...." he said, slowly, "there's still something missing. Are you sure you never lost any other part of you?" he asked.

Sammle wracked his brains. "I lost a pinky nail," he said at last, "and it never grew back."

"That must be it, then. You'll have to find it, too."

"I'm afraid that's impossible," said Sammle. "But I'm willing to try." And try he did. He searched high and low, in places only a ghost could go. But years passed, and he couldn't find it. So at last he returned to the Worm to report his failure.

"I've looked high, and I've looked low," he said, "and I'm afraid I couldn't find it even if I searched a thousand years more. Are you sure you can't make do with what you've got? A nail is such a small thing, after all."

"I am sure," the Worm said. "If you want to take rest in the Earth, the Earth must have all of you. If you're certain you can't find it . . ."

"Certain, unfortunately."

"Then you must walk for all eternity. I'm very sorry for you. But try to make the best of it -- you'll have lots of good company."

Then all the creeping things and fluttering things turned Sammle out of the Great Worm's chamber for the last time. And, unless he has found it, his is still searching for his pinky nail.

Earlier this month, when I was trying to figure out which story to retell here, in honor of Halloween, I thought first of all the stories with witches in them, where the old women are identified as witches because they walked hunched over, with a crutch, or had a shaking palsy in their hands and/or head. And then, "Sammle" floated to the surface, and I remembered the detail about his amputated arm.

I've loved this story from the time I first read it, back in my teens, especially for the way the world of ghosts and spirits is depicted as a parallel society -- dark and eerie, perhaps, but neither particularly evil nor mournful... just different (and even having its own sort of humor).

The loss of Sammle's arm is treated the same way; until he'd died in the fire, it's implied, he'd lived most of his life with one arm. And yet, that difference was so incidental to his sense of Self that he had to be reminded of it by someone else. This is also a reminder of how common amputation was, "back in the day," before doctors had such things as antibiotics to stop infection from spreading from a wounded limb to the rest of the body.

In the universe of this story, then, it can be inferred that most ghosts (like pirates) are missing body parts. And thus, as in life, the disabled are living in a separate, parallel, almost inivisable community from the world of the "Wholes" and the "Normals."

But still, that doesn't make it especially tragic or mournful. Just different. And we often do have our own sense of humor about it all.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Halfman -- navigating the barriers of mockery and hatred

Source: Halfman: a tale from Greece (Collected and translated into German by Johann Georg von Hahn in 1864 -- Translated from German by D.L. Ashliman, Copyright 2011)

Summary (of the plot points relevant to disability -- check the link above for the full story):

Just as in the Grimm Brothers' tales "Thumbthick" and "Hans-my-hedgehog," which I've posted about earlier, this story begins with an elderly person who desperately wishes for a child. This time, it is a single elderly woman who wishes for a child -- even if it is only half-a-child. And, as in those other tales, her wish is granted absolutely literally: the child she gives birth to has half a face, half a trunk, one arm and one leg. At first, she keeps him at home, whether from shame (as with Hans's parents), over-protectiveness (as with Thumbthick's) or a combination, is left for the audience to decide.

Halfman, however, is bored being stuck at home, and begs his mother to give him a mule, an ax, and a rope so that he can go out into the forest and collect firewood. At first, his mother says "no," assuming that such work would be impossible for him. But, like all sons and daughters in wonder tales, Halfman won't take no for an answer, and his persistent begging pays off. His mother lets him go.

And he does the work so well that she is happy to let him keep doing the work. And it's on one of his subsequent trips into the forest that the story really begins. For on the way, he passes below a princess's window, and she points, laughs, and mocks him loudly to the point where he becomes so embarrassed that he drops first his ax, and then his rope, which, in turn, gives the princess (and all her handmaidens) even more reason (in their minds) to laugh at him.

Halfman then has a choice to make: stay there, and figure out the best way to pick up his ax and rope (and thus expose himself to even more abuse), or get away. He chooses the latter, and hurries past the castle and into the forest. Once there, he has to figure out how to do his work without his tools. While he is pondering this, he sees a fish swim close by the shore of a lake, so he takes off his coat and throws it, like a net, over the fish and catches it.

The fish begs for its life, promising, in return, to teach Halfman a chant that will make all his wishes come true. And to prove he's telling the truth, the fish uses the chant himself to load the mule with firewood. So Halfman lets the fish go and starts back for home. But he has to pass in front of the princess's window, again. This time, she and her handmaidens laugh even harder at his success than they had at his apparent failure. And, provoked to anger, Halfman uses the magic spell to wish the princess pregnant.

This brings shame to the royal family, and when it's Halfman who's revealed to be the father, the king is so disgusted that he orders the princess, her child, and Halfman sealed into an iron cask, and thrown into the sea with just enough figs to keep the child alive a little longer than either of his parents. But in return for one fig at a time, Halfman reveals the truth of his powers, and wishes, one-by-one, for all the things they need, and all the things the princess desires, until they are living on an island in a magnificent, magical castle.

Eventually, the king discovers the castle, and after keeping her identity secret at first, the princess gets him to see the injustice he's done to her (but not Halfman, I may note), and so he welcomes her and her son back into the family. He marries her off to a nobleman, and makes Halfman his chief bodyguard. As a reward, he "gives" Halfman a beautiful slave girl to marry... And they all live happily ever after (except the slave girl, who has no say in the matter, and Halfman, who loses custody of his child, and is demoted from royal consort to bodyguard ... But who's counting, right?)


This story highlights just how great a barrier bigotry is, in the overall scheme of things. For those of us with physical or mental differences, it's the often the idea of being made a spectacle of that's far more daunting and discouraging than the idea of actually working. If we flinch and fail under scrutiny, then that's taken as proof that our differences make us defective. If we manage to succeed in our endeavors, then, that, too, is used as a reason to stick us in the spotlight, and comment on all our differences, and make us an object of entertainment for those watching us from their windows (or watching "Inspiring Human Interest Stories" on their TVs).

This is just one of several stories collected, edited, and translated by D.L. Ashliman on the motif of The Fool Whose Wishes All Came True. In all the other stories, however, the princess brides demand that the titular fool wish himself "Handsome and Clever," so they don't have to be embarrassed to be married to him (and that is like so many of the Disability Narratives around today -- where the focus of the story, supposedly about "living with disability," is actually about the able-bodied relative or 'friend,' and the embarrassment or burden they feel, being around us). In all those other stories, the fools end up accepted as heirs to the king. Only Halfman remains physically unchanged at the end of the tale. And only he is denied the right to call himself part of the family.

I'm reminded of the ending of "The Girl Without Hands," where the daughter was only publicly acknowledged as the queen after her flesh and bone hands grew back, and she no longer needed her silver prosthetics.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Just a quick note: how I've done things, how I will do things

Up until now, all the folktales I've chosen to discuss are those I've known well and long, through several translations; this has given me the confidence that my words are my own, and I'm not inadvertently plagiarizing someone else.

However, this project has led me to several stories which are new to me, and I would love to share and talk about, but only have one translation to work with (this is particularly true for stories outside the European tradition, many of which are new translations, only a few years old).

In those cases, I will only summarize the tale here, but will include a link to the online source where I found it, so the original translator and copyright holder gets the credit (and traffic) they deserve.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"They that went on Crutches" (the intersection of disability and old age)

The Winter's Tale
(Act 1, Scene 1; lines 20-45)

I think there is not in the world either malice or matter to alter it. You have an unspeakable comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came into my note.

I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to see him a man.

Would they else be content to die?

Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should desire to live.

If the king had no son, they would desire to live on crutches till he had one.


I first saw The Winter's Tale on a high school field trip to New York City, over thirty years ago; I believe it was the first Shakespeare play I'd seen performed live on stage. And I fell in love with it (it's a play structured like a fairy tale, after all, which was already one of my favorite genres of literature, even back then).

But it wasn't until I reread it, a few years ago, that I took note of the closing lines of this opening scene, and the comment about how "they that [go] on crutches" will want to keep on living, even if those around them look at their lives from the outside, and conclude they have nothing to live for.

I mentioned this to someone at the time (but I forget who that someone was). And I commented that, despite all the rest that has changed over the last four hundred years, this aspect of life for the Disabled has remained constant. People who say to themselves or others: "I couldn't bear life if I had to be wheelchair-bound!" would probably discover, should they actually need to use a wheelchair or crutches, someday, that life is still bearable, and even enjoyable, after all.

This person then reminded me not to attribute to Shakespeare's philosophy what he never intended (which is always a risk when looking back at the "Greats" of history and the arts), and said that he was probably not talking about Disability at all -- at least, not in the way in which I was thinking about it. In his day, "a crutch" was a shorthand symbol for "elderly," in much the same way as walkers (walking frames) and scooters are for us.

Fair enough. But...

The enduring cultural division between "The Elderly" and "The Disabled" as two distinct groups (even though the elderly often are disabled, and those who are disabled in youth often live to old age) reveals more about the nature of our assumptions and bigotries than it does about the actual world and people we live with. "The Elderly" do not count as "Disabled," in our minds, because we expect a loss of ability and health as a person ages. And we look on disability in youth and middle-age with horror because it is unexpected. Disability among the young is taken as a sign that something in the world has turned topsy-turvy, and therefore, we fear it more than when it shows up in old age.

The statistics bear this out. According to the United States Census from 2000, nearly twenty percent of the entire population is living with some form of disability. But that twenty percent is skewed heavily toward the elder years. For adults between eighteen and twenty-four, slightly more than four percent are disabled. That percentage increases to over forty percent for those seventy-five and older (see the link to the "Office of Minority Health and Health Disparity," below).

We tell ourselves that The Elderly and The Disabled are two distinct populations. We give lip-service to the notion that our elders deserve respect, but the disabled deserve our pity. But when people speak of their fear of old age, it's often disability that they mention -- needing crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair, losing their eyesight, growing deaf, needing help in their own home. There is nothing inherently terrible about any of those things, except for the social stigma attached to them: the fear of being resented, forgotten, excluded from society (often because the built environment where social events happen is full of barriers). These terrible fates have almost nothing to do with actually being old or being disabled, and almost everything to do with entrenched bigotry and social stigma.

As long as humans are mortal, old age and disability are inevitable. The good news is: Superstition and bigotry are not.

Links and Sources:
The Winter's Tale -- entire play (etext)
Office of Minority Health and Health Disparity -- Disability; Centers for Disease Control (U.S. Goverment branch)