Ah, the joy of another birthday. This one is a significant milestone. It comes with thoughts on mortality, “time is running out”, the brain says, “there is plenty more time” the heart says, “maybe do more exercise” the body says. ( I wont tell you what my family says). Ageing changes you. It does, but in a good way. I find myself doing things like leaving the oven open once I’ve finished cooking to heat your house “a wee bit more”, I now search for pubs with nice lighting and comfy seats to spend my evenings in, I have a new-found joy of warm socks, I sprinkle a lot more seeds on my food and care even more deeply about litter. The list is longer, but, you get the idea. Change comes with beautiful reflections and acceptance is a wonderful thing. To help reflect on these ideas I turn to my friends and families wicked sense of humour but also to folk tales. They always have a lesson or two that helps me deal with some of my slight anxieties and helps put things in perspective.
One of the best stories I’ve read has been “Youth Without Age and Life Without Death”. A lovely evocative title. A romanian folk tale in origin about one man’s ( I would say a selfish man of unique genius but you should make your own mind up) search for eternal life and the trials and tribulations he faces trying to find it. I love it. It has some of my favourite folklore motifs in it – the woodpecker, the helpful companion, the beautiful fairies, Hares that are his final come-uppence and mystical lands. Each has its own significance and message for us if we use our imagination to dive under their symbolism. We all know in our heart of hearts that time is inevitable. No matter what we do, we cant escape it. I think this tale talks to me of our history, we can live “for ever” by doing great works for our communities, or memorable art, stories (or in times past heroic deeds) that would have you honoured through life and after life. In the folk magic way, to be remembered is to live forever. Not physically but elsewhere…anyway lets get on with the story. The images have been taken form Laura Pannack’s exhibition of the same name “Youth Without old age and life without death” you can view it and her amazing photography here.
The tale …
(I have taken this tale form the translation by Dan Timotin as i currently cant find a better one).
Once upon a time, when pears grew in fir trees and flowers ate bees; when bears would cross their tails in fights, wolves would hug lambs and swore to be pals, while the flea would put a ninety-nine pound horseshoe and jump to the skies to catch stories; and the fly would write them on a wall, to make fun of us all.
Once upon a time there were a great king and queen, both young and beautiful. And wishing to have children, they did all that had to be done to this effect; they went to philosophers and magicians, who would look in the stars to see whether they would expect children – but to no avail. Eventually, hearing that in some nearby village there lived an old sage, the king asked for him; but the sage answered that whoever wished to see him must come to him. So the king and queen got up and moved, and taking with them some big nobles, soldiers, and servants, went to the old man’s home. Seeing them from a distance, the sage came to meet them, and said:
– Welcome to my place; but what did you come to learn, great king? For your wish will bring you great sadness.
– I did not come to ask you this, said the king, but whether you have some medicine to give us, in order to get children.
– I do have, answered the old man; but a single child is all you shall get. A charming prince will he grow up, and loving, but you will not enjoy his presence.
The king and the queen took the medicine and got back to the palace full of joy, and just a few days later the queen felt pregnant. All the kingdom and all the court and all the servants were full of happiness.
But before the time for delivery, the baby started to cry and cry, and no magician could appease him. The king promised him all goods of the world, but nothing seemed to make him stop his cries.
– Shut up, my dear, said the king, I will give you this or that kingdom; shut up, son, I will give you as wife this or that other king’s daughter, and lots of other things. Finally, seeing that there is no way to stop his cries, he said: shut up, my beloved, I will give you Youth without Old and Life without Death.
The kid shut up and was born. And the servants blew their trumpets and hit their drums, and great celebrations were all over the kingdom for a whole week.
As he grew older, more clever and more daring became the boy. They put him in schools and brought to him philosophers; and all that other kids learned in one year, he would learn it in one week; so the king was mad with joy. All kingdom boasted that in due time they would have a young king wise and full of gifts, like the ancient Solomon. But after a while, with no clear reason, he became sad and often fell deep into his thoughts. And then, one day, just at his fifteenth birthday, when the king was celebrating at his table with all nobles and servants, and eating and drinking was all over the place, the Charming Prince got up and said:
– Father, it is time to give me what you promised at my birth.
Hearing this, the king got sad and answered:
– My son, where from could I give you such an unheard thing? If I promised it then, it was only to appease you.
– Father, if you cannot give it to me, then I have to wander throughout the world until I will find the promise for which I was born.
Then all nobles and the king fell to their knees, imploring him not to leave the kingdom; for, said the nobles:
– Your father is now an old man; we will raise you to the throne, and we will bring you the most beautiful queen on earth as your wife.
But there was no way to change his decision, for he was steadfast as a rock in his words; then his father, seeing that there is nothing to be done, allowed him to go and prepare for his travel: food and whatever else.
So the Charming Prince went to the royal stables, where the best stallions of all kingdom were gathered, to choose one for his journey; but as he grabbed each of them by its queue, quickly would he knock it down; and so all horses fell to the ground. Only, just when he was leaving, he looked once more through the stables, and saw another horse hidden in a corner, bony, dirty, and full of sores and scars. And when he put his hand on his queue, the horse turned his head and said:
– What is your desire, master? Thank God for helping me feel again the hand of a young man.
And, keeping his legs steady, he remained straight as a candle. Then the Charming Prince told him about his plans and the horse said:
– To achieve your wish, you have to ask from your father the sword, the spear, the bow, the arrow bag, and the clothes he had when he was a young man; and, as for myself, you should take good care of me during six weeks and feed me only barley boiled in milk.
When the king was asked these things, he ordered the court intendant to open all coffers with clothes, so that his son could choose whatever he liked. After rummaging through them three days and nights, the Charming Prince finally found at the bottom of a trunk the clothes and arms that his father had in his youth—but full of rust. He got rid of the rust with his own hands; it took him six weeks, but he made the arms shine as a mirror. He took care also of the horse, as instructed. A lot of work, but he did it thoroughly up to the end.
When the horse learnt from the Charming Prince that the arms and clothes are cleaned and prepared, he got up and shook himself, and all sores and scars fell down; he remained as he had been born, fat and strong and four-winged. And seeing him, the Charming Prince said:
– We are leaving in three days.
– Bless you, master, I am ready even today, if you order, answered the horse.
The third morning all the court and the kingdom were full of sorrow. The Charming Prince, valliantly dressed, sword in his hand, riding his chosen horse, said good bye to the king and the queen, to the upper and lower nobles, to the soldiers and to the servants. With their eyes in tears, they were imploring him to give up such a dangerous journey, that might cost him his life. But, spurring his horse, he passed through the gate as the wind; and after him went the chariots with food, money, and two hundred soldiers arranged by the king to accompany him.
As soon as he was out of his father’s kingdom and already into wilderness, the Charming Prince gave all his belongings to the soldiers, said good bye, and sent them back, keeping for himself only the food that he could carry on his horse. And going eastbound, he rode and rode and rode three days and nights, until he found himself in the middle of a wide field, where lots of human bones were scattered.
While he was getting some rest, the horse said:
– Master, you should know that we are on the domain of a Witched Woodpecker, who is so cruel that she kills all trespassers. She was a woman like all women, but did not listen to her parents and molested them, so they cursed her to be changed into a woodpecker. Now she is with her children, but tomorrow, in this forest, we will meet her coming to slaughter you. She is terribly huge; do not be scared, and prepare the bow to pierce her with an arrow, and have the sword and spear handy for any need.
They got to rest, but kept guard in turn.
Next day, being ready to pass through the forest, the Charming Prince saddled his horse, strengthened the strap more than usually, and got going; when suddenly he heard a terrible knock. Then the horse told him:
– Be ready, master, for here comes the Witched Woodpecker.
And as she came, all trees fell to the ground, so fast she went. But the horse flew as the wind above her, and the Charming Prince pierced her leg with the arrow. And just when he was ready to hit her with the second arrow, she said:
– Spare me, Charming Prince, I will not hurt you!
And, seeing that he does not believe her, she wrote it in her blood.
– Bless your horse, Charming Prince; for if he was not here, I would have eaten you roasted; now you have eaten me. You should know that no mortal dared to cross my borders and arrive here; the few that did it made it only up to the field where you saw all those bones.
They went to her place, where the Woodpecker offered food to the Charming Prince and took good care of him, as is suitable towards travelers. While they were feasting at the table and she was screaming with pain, he took out her leg that he was keeping in his bag, put it back, and instantly was she cured.
The Woodpecker was so happy that she kept the feast going three days in a row, and asked the Charming Prince to choose one of her daughters to marry; they were as beautiful as fairies. But he refused, and told her his plans honestly; then she said:
– With the horse you have and with your boldness, I think you will make it.
After three days, they went away. The Charming Prince rode and rode and rode, a long way, and then an even longer one; but after he passed the Woodpecker’s borders, he found himself in a beautiful field, where the grass was flowery on one side, and all burnt on the other side. Then he asked the horse:
– Why is the grass burnt?
And the horse answered:
– We are now on the domain of a Dragon, who is the Woodpecker’s sister. They are so wicked that they cannot live together, and the curse of their parents has reached them, and turned them into beasts, as you see; their enmity is terrible, they keep trying grabbing land one from the other. When the Dragon is angry, she throws out fire and tar; she must have had a quarrel with her sister, and in order to chase her from her land she burnt the grass. She is worse than her sister and has three heads. Let us take a rest, master, and be ready for tomorrow morning.
Next morning they got ready as before, and took off. Suddenly they heard a horrible scream and noise, never to be heard until then!
– Be ready, master, here comes the awesome Dragon.
The Dragon, with one jaw in heaven and the other in earth, throwing out flames, was approaching fast as the wind; but the horse flew up as an arrow above her and a little beside. The Charming Prince threw an arrow and took off one of her heads; when he was going to take the second one, the Dragon implored him in tears to forgive her, and promised that she will not hurt him; and, to make her believed, wrote it in her blood. The Dragon fed the Charming Prince even more that the Woodpecker; while he also gave her back the missing head, which stuck instantly; and after three days they departed.
Passing the borders of the Dragon, they rode and rode and rode again, until they got to a flowery field, all full of Spring; each flower was beautiful in its way, and they had a sweet dizzying smell; a soft wind could hardly be felt. They stopped here to rest, and the horse said:
– Until now we managed well, master; there is still a hard point to pass. A great danger is in front of us, and if God helps us to escape it, we are really strong. Not far from here is the palace in which one finds Youth without Age and Life without Death. This building is surrounded by a thick and high forest, where all the wildest beasts on earth are gathered. Night and day they guard without interruption, and they are innumerable; there is no way to fight them, and it’s impossible to get through the forest; but we will try, if possible, to jump over it.
They rested for two days, and got prepared again; then the horse, keeping his breath, said:
– Master, strengthen the strap as much as you can, and, while you ride me, stay fast in the spurs and hold my mane tight; and keep your legs at my armpit, so that you do not hinder me in my flight.
He got up, did what he was told, and in an instant was close to the forest.
– Master, said the horse, now is the time that the beasts of the forests are all gathered in the yard to be fed. Let us pass.
– Let us pass, said the Charming Prince, and God take care of us.
They went up and saw the palace shining so brightly, that you could rather gaze at the sun than at its walls. They passed over the forest, and just when they were ready to land at the gate of the palace, hardly had he touched the top of a tree, when suddenly all the forest began to tremble. The screams of the beasts would freeze the hair on your head. They hastened to get down, and were not the lady of the palace there feeding her little ones (as she would call the beasts in the forest), they would have met their end.
She saved them, being happy to see them coming; since she had never seen a human soul until then. She stopped the beasts and sent them to their places. The lady was a tall, slim fairy, much nice and beautiful. As he saw her, the Charming Prince remained dumbfounded. But she, looking graciously at him, said:
– Welcome, Charming Prince! What are you searching around here?
– We are searching, he said, Youth without Age and Life without Death.
– If that is what you search, here it is.
He got then off his horse and entered the palace. There he found two other young women; they were the elder sisters. He started to thank the fairy for rescuing them; while the ladies were so happy that they prepared a pleasant dinner, served only in golden bowls. The horse was let free to graze wherever he wanted; then they were introduced to the beasts of the forest, so that they may walk leisurely through the forest from now on.
The women asked him to remain and live with them, saying that they were bored with their lonely lives; and he did not wait for another offer, but accepted it with gratitude, since this was what he had been searching all the time.
Slowly, slowly, they got accustomed to one another; he told his story and all his adventures until reaching them, and not before long he united himself with the younger sister. When this happened, the mistresses of the house allowed him to go through all the surroundings, wherever he wanted; but there was this one valley that they told him better not to go, since much would it harm him; and they said that it was called the Weeping Valley.
He stayed there a long while, not noticing the passage of time, since he remained still as young as at his arrival. He went through the forest without any trouble. He relished the golden palaces, lived peacefully and quietly with his wife and sisters in law, enjoyed the beauty of flowers and the sweetness of the clean air, and was a happy man. Often did he go hunting; but one day, he followed Hare, sent one arrow, then two, and still did not hit it. Led by his anger he ran after it, and finally hit it with the third arrow; but the poor man, in his confusion, did not notice that running after the hare he had entered the Weeping Valley.
Taking the hare, he was heading home; while, suddenly, he felt a deep longing for his father and mother. He dared not tell it to the fairies; but they instantly knew, seeing his sorrow and unrest.
– Unfortunate man, you entered the Weeping Valley! they said, scared.
– Yes, my dear, I did this folly unwillingly; and now I am all consumed by longing for my parents. But neither can I bear to leave you; since so many days I have been with you and no sorrow have I to complain. So I will go once to see my parents, and then return back, not to leave this place ever again.
– Do not leave us, our love; your parents are dead hundreds of years ago, and even you, if you go, we fear that you will not return. Stay with us, for otherwise we feel that you will be lost.
All the imploration of the three women and of the horse could not soften his longing for his parents; it was drying him out. Finally, the horse said:
– If you do not want to listen to me, master, anything that will happen will be your fault only. Let me tell you a word, and, if you accept the deal, I will bring you back.
– I accept, he said, tell it.
– When we will arrive at the palace of your father, I will leave you there and return, even if you want to stay for only one hour.
– So be it, he said.
They prepared to leave, embraced the women, and after saying good bye he left, while they were sobbing and weeping. They arrived at the domain of the Dragonne; there they found cities; woods had become fields. He asked one man or another about the Dragonne and her dwelling; but they only answered that their grandparents might have heard from their ancestors such nonsense.
– How’s that? said the Charming Prince, not long ago did I pass through here; and he told them his story.
They laughed at him, as one laughs at a dreamer or a fool; so he went angrily away, not noticing that his hair and beard had become white.
He arrived at the Woodpecker’s domain, put the same questions and received the same answers. He could not understand: how might things have so changed in a few days? And, angry again, he left the place, with his white beard covering his chest, feeling his legs trembling; and arrived at his father’s kingdom.
Here again, other people, other cities, and the old ones were unrecognizable. Finally did he arrive at the palace were he had been born. As he was dismounting, the horse kissed his hand and said:
– Good bye then, since I am returning to where I come from. If you want to join me, get back now to the saddle and let us go.
– Good bye to you too; I hope to return there soon.
The horse left fast as an arrow.
Seeing the palace crumbled and full of weeds, he was sighing and trying to remember how gorgeously lighted were these palaces and how he had spent his childhood here. He turned around a few times, walking through every room, every corner that reminded him of past times: the stable in which he had found the horse; he went then in the basement, whose door was covered by fallen debris.
Looking left and right, with his white beard reaching his knees, hardly lifting his eyelids with his hands, and barely walking, he only found a decomposed coffer. It seemed that there was nothing in it, but when he lifted the lid, he heard a frail voice:
– Welcome then; had you arrived a little later, I would also have perished.
And Death, dry and wriggled at the bottom of the coffer, gave him a slap; he fell dead, and instantly became dust.
If you’d like to see a break down of some of these motifs within this story check out this paper