Monday, 20 April 2015

The Fable of the Autoharp in the North NOTES

The Fable of the Autoharp in the North NOTES

I have been told that my Fable of the Autoharp in the North has become curiously invisible on the web.  So, I have put the text here on my blog, where a web search will find it.  The Fable was written as part of the lead-up to the Gargrave Autoharp Festival 2014.

And here are some notes...

Obsessive narratologists will recognise that the Fable of the Autoharp is a version of the very old story of the Sailor and the Oar – except that I have turned it on its head.

In the story the Sailor who is tired of the Sea – or is afraid of the Sea – puts an Oar on his shoulder, and walks inland, until he meets a passer-by who has never seen an Oar.  The passer-by says, ‘Where are you going with that threshing flail?’ Or some such. And so the Sailor knows that he is finally safe from the Sea.

In literature most people come across the story in Homer, The Odysssey, where it is not so much told as foretold - twice.

First, during Ulysses' foray into the Underworld, where the blind (and dead) poet Tiresias tells Ulysses how he can make peace with the God of the Sea, Poseidon - he must journey, with an Oar, until he reaches a people and a land with no knowledge of the Sea, and there he must erect an altar to the God of the Sea.

Second, Ulysses himself tells the story to Penelope, that he must in the future make this one last journey out of Ithaca. These foretellings make for an odd choice of tenses.

Our guide to the background is William F. Hansen, who - in two splendid articles - shows that the story of the Sailor and the Oar is one of those widely spread folktales absorbed by Homer into Homer.  Hansen shows the same story told about Saint Elias and Saint Nicholas, and turning up in the present day in anecdotes and in jokes - a pattern that will be familiar to readers of my own chapter, 'The Irish joke'.

Hansen pauses to note the oddity that many translations of Homer have the inlander mistaking the oar, not for a 'chaff-wrecker', a threshing flail or a winnowing shovel, but for a winnowing fan or a winnowing basket.  Then the story is wrecked - no one can mistake a long wooden thing for a kind of basket.

When I was working on my version, the Fable of the Autoharp, my wife and I quickly worked out what kind of thing an autoharp might be mistaken for - 'cheese-grater' is the usual insult.  The autoharp certainly has its limitations, and it would help if the thing would stay in tune.  It is a difficult instrument for musicians to get their heads round, when they meet it first.  With most musical instruments you are creating chords - with the autoharp you are unpacking chords

Hansen is very good on the notion that the 'Oar Test' works through silence. The Sailor just has to carry his thing, and walk, until others speak to him. Dialogue, Hansen wisely points out, would protract the tale 'uncomically'.  And so it is with my Fable.

All this arose from my thinking through what it was we were trying to achieve with the Gargrave Autoharp Festival - the creation of a place where the autoharp would be known and be made welcome.  Albeit with Yorkshire bluntness.

Patrick O'Sullivan


Incollection (Hansen1990Odysseus)
Hansen, W. F.
Edmunds, L. (Ed.)
Odysseus and the Oar: A Folkloric Approach
Approaches to Greek Myth, Approaches to Greek Myth, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, 241-274

See also
Article (Hansen1977Odysseus)
Hansen, W. F.
Odysseus' Last Journey
Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, JSTOR, 1977, 27-48

Incollection (OSulliv1994Irish)
O'Sullivan, P.
O'Sullivan, P. (Ed.)
The Irish joke
The Creative Migrant, Leicester University Press, 1994, 3, 57-82

Available at,_O'Sullivan,_The_Irish_joke.pdf

One printed version of the Fable can be found here...
Fable of the Autoharp in the North
with charming illustrations by Gargrave artists, Jo Ball and Alan Poxon...

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