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The Airts Tales
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
The Rómen tale of Bryn the Bard

As a professional Celtic storyteller for over 20 years, it was only recently that I recalled my granny, source of most of the Scottish and Welsh tales in which I specialize, talking about the airts. She learned the tales and other folklore from her grandparents, who in turn had learned them from theirs...so there truly is an ancient bardic tradition in my family! I have found the airts an interesting and flexible way to organize a thematic program or section of repertoire. While I am NOT Bryn the Bard (see below), I do have well over 5,000 legends, myths, and folktales of many kinds in my repertoire.


~~~

Minas Tirith, House Ornamir, Sixth Circle

Wilmet lay still on his padded pallet. He had not known whether or not he would wake from the operation to siphon the liquid drowning his lungs,but now that he had awakened, he drew a careful breath, then another, deeper one before opening his eyes. His chest and throat were sore, but he could breathe! His grandfather was sitting beside the pallet, head bent, eyes bruised with fatigue, but he leaned forward intently.
“Wil. How do you?”

The boy tried to answer, but he was so weary, and so parched, that he could not manage his tongue very well. A faint croak was all that came out.

“The Healer and Lady Silma are pleased,” his grandfather told him. “But you must lie still and rest. Are you thirsty?”

He managed, with effort, to nod slightly.

“You’re not to raise your head, just lie flat. Can you open your mouth a little?” A big calloused finger helped him part his dry lips, and he heard water sounds before a wet rag was inserted between them. Instinctively, he sucked on it, on wonderfully cool drops of water, swallowing them. Again, and again, until his eyes closed and he slept.


How many times this was repeated, he could never remember, but finally he was able to drink from the thin stream expertly shot into his mouth from a wineskin (even though it was not ale or wine at first, but warm milk, and then spoonfuls of herbed broth), held by his grandsire or one of the other recovering Rohirrim, after being carefully instructed by Lady Silma to be sure it was neither spilled nor so hot it burned his mouth.

He had been abashed at first by the grand parlor in which they had been quartered after their expulsion from the Houses of Healing, and by the two ladies who had so welcomed them. Lady Silwen Ornamir, with her red hair and elegant gowns, had awed him into bashful silence, although he knew that she had been their rescuer from the streets. Like the rest of the men, he was aware that Lord Erragol had warmed to her; they were much of an age, after all, despite his being one of the marshals, leader of an éored , and her being an aristocratic widow of the Gondorrim High Men.

Lady Silma Clerk, widow of young Lord Ornamir and her second husband Jehan Clerk, was so gentle that he had no fear of her, notwithstanding the delicately pointed ears of her Halfelven heritage. He felt only a deep gratitude for her courage and kindness, knowing that she and the Dwarf, Master Dalfinor Redglass, had risked their lives to obtain the notes and siphoning device made by Jehan Clerk from the ruins from her semi-collapsed home down in the First Circle.


“I don’t want any! Can’t you leave me alone?”

Wilmet was ashamed the moment the words came out of his mouth, in the petulant tones of a whiny brat. He had been determined to act like a man, especially in front of the disgracefully ill-mannered Gondorian lad whose pallet had been set next to his own a few days before the operation. At least he had spoken in his own language, not that odd Westron tongue he and the others were learning, but his tone was easy to understand, and he knew it.

To his surprise, Healer Kinfinning grinned. “Ah, a sure sign that you’re really on the mend, young Wilmet,” he said cheerfully.

“Indeed,” agreed Lady Silma, smoothing his hair from his brow. “Hard for an active man to lie so still for so long.”

“I need some food!” Unable to move his head because of the rolled pillows around it, or any other part of his body—and what if he didn’t heal right? What if he could never use his muscles, never run or ride again? How could he become a man, how could he be himself? He was only fourteen, the youngest of them.

“You’ll take what you’re given!” snapped his grandfather.

“I think,” said Lady Silma, “that you can have some curded eggs, and also some food for thought. Do you know who Bryn was?”

“Bryn who?” asked the Gondorian lad.

“Why, Bryn the Bard,” she answered. “He lived—oh, long ago. In the Second Age, I think. Some say he was from Rohan, but some say he was from Gondor, and still others say he was from Dorwinion. But all the tales about him agree that he was the most gifted of bards, both as musician and storyteller, and he was the one who devised the System of Airts.”

“What’s that?” asked both boys together. Wil scowled at the ceiling. She was talking to him , not that lout!

“You never heard of the System of Airts?” She was plainly astonished.

A chorus of “No, m’lady,” came from all the Rohirrim, and several others of the household who had come in to see how he was.

“Oh. Well, the tale my granny told me was that he was invited to a great contest of storytelling at Shrel-Kain, the capitol city of Dorwinion, to determine the greatest tale-teller. It was the very first of its kind, you see, and it was very simple: each teller would tell, in order, and after the last one did so, the first one would tell again, and when the next in line couldn’t think of a different story, he dropped out, until everyone was eliminated—except for this one Man, Bryn. It went on for weeks. They told all kinds of tales—Elvish, and about Dwarves and the Onodrim, and about folk from all lands known of, and some they didn’t, and from the earliest bits of legend and myth, and epics. Tales that are from the Silmarillion , and from Númenor, and from the Far North as well as the Far South or West or East, as well as from closer lands. Some were so tragic that all wept to hear them, but some were so funny that all laughed as well. Some were meant to lull to sleep, and some to entrance, and some to stir the heart with hope—or rouse to anger. Some were about great loves or hates, or how a nation perished from indifference. Some were about little things, a rock or a game, or a new dress, or a new idea.

“Well, finally, the only one left was Bryn. And he was awarded the prize.”

“What was it?” asked Ull, Wil’s grandfather.

“The King of the Dorwinadim told him that he might ask for six boons, or he could have his weight in treasure and remain at the King’s court.

“Bryn chose to ask for the boons.”

“Well, that proves he wasn’t a Dwarf,” said Lord Erragol. “No offense, Master Dalfinor!”

“None taken,” replied the Dwarf cheerfully. “What were the boons, my lady?”

“The first was that the best of the tale-tellers be called bards, including himself, and that they would be recognized as a profession, the same as other skilled at their work.

“The second was that they also include musicians, for he was as skilled at singing and playing the harp and flute and gittern as he was at telling.

“The third was that they be given land and resources to establish a school, so that others could learn the craft well enough to raise it to art.

“The fourth was that they hold that contest every year, and it be made a festival, open to all who wished to compete, with rules to be made by both the king and the bards.”

“And the fifth?” prompted Lady Silwen.

“That they be free to tell the truth.”

“A wise and dangerous man, this Bryn,” Master Kinfinning said thoughtfully after a pause.

“But what about the last boon?” asked Rill, the Gondorian lad.

“Bryn told one more story,” she said. “He told them about how a great king in Far Harad had asked a man, famed for his wisdom, to devise a way to teach about the strategies of war and all its complexities, without shedding blood. He thought he had confounded the man, but he was wrong. After a month, the man came with a board under his arm, and a small box. ‘Here is what you have required of me, Sire,’ said the man. The board was divided into eight times eight squares, four-and sixty in all. Two men would play at a time, using carved symbols of war.”

Shatranj!” cried Lord Erragol. “What we call chess now!”

She nodded. “Aye, and the king loved it. He was fascinated by it, and after a month of playing from the breaking of his fast in the morning until he was forced by weariness to stop, wanted to reward the man. ‘What can I give you? Anything! Name it!’ he cried. Now, the man knew that the king was so besotted by it that he wasn’t attending to state affairs as he should have been, and he wanted to teach him a lesson. So he said, ‘Sire, I would like to have a grain of wheat put on the first square, and two on the second.’ The king asked, ‘And I suppose you want three on the third square?’ But the wise man shook his head. ‘Nay,’ he replied. ‘On the third square I want to have four grains, and on the fourth, eight, on the fifth sixteen, and so on, until all the squares have been filled.’ The king waved one hand to his advisors and said, ‘See to it.’ But the oldest of his advisors turned white and grabbed his arm, shaking him. ‘Sire, no!’ he cried. ‘Give him anything at all else—give him your kingdom, give him your daughter, anything but this! At the rate of increase he is asking, long before it is satisfied, there will not be enough grains of wheat in the entire kingdom to fulfill it, indeed the entire world if you had the power to remove all the oceans and snows, the deserts and mountains, and have all the land planted to wheat, and the weight of them would cause everything to fall into the sea!’”

“Really?” asked Rill skeptically.

“By Éorl’s beard!” Lord Erragol was gasping. “He was right! Figure it out for yourself.”

“I’ll go see about those eggs,” smiled Lady Silma.


Two days later, Wil and Rill were arguing over the two different amounts they had figured out, and appealed to Lady Silma. “How much was it?”

“You are both wrong. It was thirty-six quintillion, eight hundred and ninety-three quadrillion, four hundred and eighty-eight trillion, one hundred and forty-seven billion, four hundred and nineteen million, one hundred and three thousand, two hundred and twenty nine,” she said placidly. "To help you imagine the total, this much wheat would fill a container that is a third of a league deep and twenty-seven and one-third leagues long on each side.”

“But doesn’t it depend on how big the grains of wheat are?” persisted Wil.

“That’s an average, Wil,” she said patiently. “Some would be bigger, some smaller, but that would be the average. People have been arguing about this for centuries!”

“But what are the airts?” Rill asked. “You said that Bryn devised the system of airts. What’s that?”

“And what happened to the last boon? You said he chose to ask for six boons, and you told us five but then told us this last story he told,” Wil said. “Did he ask for the same thing as that man—did he have a name?”

“Sessa,” she told him. “Some folk believe that the name we call that game came from his own name. No. Bryn asked the King to give him what he thought the stories were worth, and the King replied, ‘I have not riches enough in my treasury that can equal them, for you have taught me much, and you and your bards will teach us all more through your tales and songs in the future. A great gift you have given to us and to all of Middle-Earth; any reward I can give you will be the merest trifle beside it. But I shall award each bard who wins this contest with a ring of mithril, and on it shall be engraved in the magical black script symbols of the tales: the rising sun, which is hope, and clouds for adversity, and stone for endurance, and other symbols as you specify. Anyone having such ring has high rank, and the ear of myself and my descendent kings, from now until the world ends.’ And Bryn agreed. Bu the King also asked him a question. He wanted to know how it was that Bryn could learn and remember so many stories—for Bryn had made it clear that he knew many more than had been told in that contest, and hoped to learn still more.”

“Didn’t he have them all written down?” asked Rill.

Wil snorted. Just like the Gondorrim, to scribble everything down, instead of trusting their own memories as the Rohirrim did! “She said he traveled. How could he take all those stories with him, written down?”

“Mayhap that’s why he wanted the school, so’s 'e ‘ave somewheres to put ‘em,” Rill retorted.

“You’re both right,” Lady Silma told them. “He did have a few written down, and scribes at the contest had written down each one as it was told, but most of the rest were inside his head, and his heart and his gut, for a true teller tells from all of those in the highest realm of his or her art—for there are women bards too. His last boon was that his school, and the contest, be open to speaking creatures of any Kindred, and womenfolk as well—and at that time, few were willing to be more than barely civil to Elves and Dwarves except grudgingly for trade, and few in Dorwinion permitted women to do much besides marry and bear children. But Bryn said that if they were willing to listen to tales about other Kindreds, then they should be willing to hear all their tales that they would share, and women possessed as much wisdom in their tales as men did, so should be heard. Some of his tales caused different crafts to be opened to women, in fact.”

“A Man with the rarest wit of all,” Lady Silwen remarked.

“What’s that, my lady?” asked Lord Erragol.

“Motherwit, of course!” she said, and they all laughed. “Those who see deeply to truth have that--else how would we know when our children are steering towards a reef of trouble?”

“The next rarest being common sense, I suppose,” Master Kinfinning said.

“Obviously,” Lady Silwen replied, to more laughter.

“Now, at first he did not tell the King how he organized the tales in his head, or sought to organize them written,” her daughter-in-love said, “for Bryn desired to have some craft secrets of their own.”

They all nodded; all crafts had secrets, as all brotherhoods of war did, of whatever nation.

“The key to his system was devised to be the most complex map in all of Arda, and has been adapted in simplified forms, by many other crafts over the centuries. Anyway, he assigned it as a project to his first students, and one of them, Styth Tammsson, succeeded in devising the way to organize the written stories. It took him five years.”

“How did he do it?” asked Rill as Wil asked, “What was it?”

“Every time anyone told a story—for he would send out students to ask for tales, as well as many people coming to give theirs—it was written down, so the number kept growing. What Styth did was to go through each story, and write down elements in it. For example, from the chess tale I told you, he wrote down puzzle, game, King, war, teaching, wheat. He made two copies of this list.”

“Why two?” asked both boys in unison. Wil scowled again.

“One list he tore into pieces and used to label candle-boxes—he was a boxmaker before he joined the school. On the other list he wrote Sessa’s Game beside each element, and then he tore that into strips, putting one strip into the box labeled Wheat, and one into the one labeled King, and so on. Then he went on to the next story, and did the same thing. So he kept making boxes, and putting in these motifs, as he called the elements. All anyone had to do if they needed to learn a story about wheat was to go to that box and pick out a strip of paper, and then go get that written story. People kept adding on to it.”

“Aren’t there more stories about kings than chess?” asked Osric, one of the Riders.

“Oh, yes; sometimes he had to make larger boxes, or additional ones.”

“But wouldn’t you have whole shelves, or rooms of boxes of some of the ones like Love, or Quests?” another Rider, Roden, inquired.

“Yes, indeed. But Styth foresaw this problem. He thought of having a book to list the stories by motif, but such a book would encompass many volumes, if not an entire book-hall or library, each one written in tiny script on very thin paper. And what if you needed a specific story on Love and Betrayal and a cat and a queen and magic?”

“M’lady,” said Rhylla after a pause, “you are driving these lads mad with your doling out bits and pieces of this like grain to coax a wild thing to follow you! And me, too! Please just tell us what he did!”

Well, Mistress Rhylla was Rill’s brother, and Lady Silma’a maid, so she could be cheeky at times and get away with it. But there was a murmur indicating that others wanted to know more right away too.

Lady Silma smiled and continued, “Well, this is where Bryn’s own system came in. You all know the main compass points. He had learned in his travels about a land where they did not use script of any kind. He told his students, ‘I have a repertoire (that’s a musical term meaning all the pieces he knew and could perform, in this case stories) of more than 5,000 myths, legends and stories in my head. Some I tell often. Some I tell sometimes. Some I know but don’t want to tell—‘”

“Why not?” interrupted Master Samno, the buhdelier in charge of the household.

“Oh, perhaps because he didn’t like a tale, or didn’t know all of it, or felt it was inappropriate for an audience. You wouldn’t tell a story about a trader from Harad outsmarting one from Belfalas to the Prince of Dol Amroth, would you? Or one about a child dying to a young wife expecting her first babe? Or a legend about Anar tale to a priest of Darkness?”

“No!” “Nay!”

“But sometimes he would be asked for an entire program of tales suitable, for example, for a miners’ guild-feast, or a festival celebrating eels—“

“Eels?” asked Rhylla, startled.

“Aye, there is a town near the Nindalf marsh that is famous for its pots of jellied eels, and they have a festival every year in the spring,” she explained. “At any rate, in this unlettered land, he found that their tradition-keepers had lore about each of the compass directions, which they call the airts.

"Rómen, east, stood for air, dawn, beginnings, thought, youth, spring. Forod, north, represents earth, wisdom, midnight, winter, old age, while Harad, south, represents fire, creating and doing, noon, summer and adulthood. “Dun, west, symbolizes water, sunset, and death, among other things.Each one is also assigned a color, and both positive and negative emotions. The fifth airt—”

“But there are only four main compass directions!” Ull objected.

“Those people had a fifth they named Fëa,” she told them.

“Spirit,” Lady Silwen translated.

“In their mythos and many others, the center of all. This is the realm of the Valar, of soul, of worship,” she said. “Sacred tales are under this category. Every airt is linked to Fëa, and Fëa to all of the others.”

“So the tale of Sessa’s game would be under Harad,” said Rill. “He created it, after all.”

Wil retorted, “You’re wrong! It would be under Dun, for death—and what is more certain in war than death?”

“Now you see why it is the most complex map ever invented,” she said before they could argue further. “Through Fëa, both directions and symbolisms are linked. The story can move from one to the other. Some say, by the way, that this story should be classed under Forod, because Sessa was so wise. A story, depending on when, where and how it is told, can be under more than one at a time—or more than one, all at the same time. The finest bard known for telling wisdom tales I ever heard of, Sósadmer Heili, was especially renowned for choosing exactly the best one for a given audience. This is how many tellers organize the tales they know.”

“So how did Styth Tammsson apply Bryn’s system to his own?” asked Rill.

“Each listing of a tale has a motif number appended to it,” Lady Silma explained. “It’s actually a blend of abbreviated numbers and letters, indicating which airt it can be under. Both tales and music are widely traveled; some are common to all peoples, but with different details.”

The two boys were quiet, thinking about this, all through the day meal. After it was ended, and before he drifted to sleep, Wil asked him softly, “Why do you hesitate for a minute before eating, Stonehead? If I could eat meat like a Man should, I would do it as soon as I was given it!”

“I may never be able to stand for the Standing Silence again,” Rill answered as softly. “But that does not mean I cannot honor it by thinking on my ass what I would on my feet during it.” After a pause, he added, “Would you like a bite of mine tomorrow?”

“I will wait until I am permitted it." He added awkwardly, "But that was a kind thought. My thanks.”

“We are both warriors, after all.”

“I will be one without a brotherhood, unlike you,” Wil sighed wistfully.

“Brotherhood? Do you mean the company I was in? That is like your éored, so why not?”

“No, I mean that warriors like other crafts in my land form brotherhood groups. How can I be in one, flat on my back, cared for like a babe?” Despite his best effort, he could hear the bitterness and fear in his tone.

Rill leaned over him with a grunt, since he was not supposed to twist to one side. “Can you feel my hand on yours?”

“No.”

“Can you feel it on your arm, just below your shoulder?”

“I—think so.”

“I can’t feel any touch on my legs. Like you, part of me won’t move. In that, and being warriors, we are the same. I, Rill of Minas Anor, swear by this sameness between us, and the Valar, especially Oromë, that I will be your brother and your friend, and we will help each other be warriors of the spirit within us, finding a way we can both live with honour and courage, for the rest of our lives.”

“Why would you so swear?” Wil muttered.

“Because your courage will help me be braver. You have much to teach me, Wilmet of Rohan, and I want to learn. And you can understand how I feel more than anyone else in this house.” Into the silence following this, he added, “Oh, well, think about it, why don’t you?” in a defeated tone.

“I am thinking,” Wil replied, swallowing hard. “I think that you are right, Rill of Gondor. I, Wilmet, son of Ulmer son of Ull, swear by the Valar, especially Béma, and the sameness between us, to be your brother and friend, a fellow warrior of the spirit, to live with honour and courage, so long as breath and life are in me.” He spoke first in Rohirric, then in careful Westron.

“I’ve heard that such oaths are blood ones,” Rill said. “I have the quill-trimming knife that Lady Silma gave me. Shall I make a small cut in your right palm as well as on mine, and clasp them together so our blood mingles?”

“I should do my own,” groaned Wil, frustrated.

“I am clasping your fingers around mine, so you are,” Rill assured him. “Now I am holding them together, see?”

Wil strained his eyes in their dim corner, and nodded, blinking away tears of joy as he saw their clasped hands held high. Despite the unyielding heaviness of his muscles, and his inability to feel the cut's pain or the wetness of their shared blood between their palms and fingers, he felt suddenly lighter, and in that moment knew with utter certainty that he would recover.

Rill clumsily knotted strips of cloth over both cuts, and touched his cheek. “Sleep well, brother,” he whispered.

“Valar keep your dreams, brother,” Wil whispered back, and slipped easily into his own.

~~~

1. Styth Tammsson is based on Stith Thompson, American folklorist, who translated and expanded upon the motif index created by Antti Aarne, a Finnish folklorist who used cigarboxes and published his first version in 1910; Stith's, now known as the Aarne-Thompson Motif Index,first came out in 1925.I once saw a full copy of it--over 50 large volumes, on onionskin paper, tiny font, and came with its own magnifying glass, in the Folklore Center at the Library of Congress when I was doing research there. It's one of the best known.

2. Shatranj is a Persian name for the game. In one legend, Sessa is thought to be the Asian Indian who originated the game of chess.

3. Sósadmer Heili is my ME version of Storyteller Joe Healy,a wonderful storyteller who specialzed in wisdom tales and fairytales. A former preacher and teacher, later a motivational speaker and storyteller, he was the third of five victims of a shooting rampage in the Wilkinsburg neighborhood of Pittsburgh several years ago that made international headlines. I try to include at least one of his wisdom tales in each program I do. This tale is in his memory and dedicated to all storytellers, musicians and bards.


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