Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Reading the Swiss Fairy Tale: The Phantom Rider
The phantom in this Swiss fairy tale comes from a long line of bearded villains. Following the tradition of arch-rogue, this booted rider’s sole purpose in life is to inflict harm on the local population. He is thoroughly despicable like Knight Goldbeard or Eppela Gaila (hit links to read more). Yet, he is not simply an evildoer. His wrongdoings have been preserved in folk memory and have a faint otherworldly character. But what exactly sets his misdeeds apart and what elevates them to fairy tale status?
The magic here is concealed in the minutiae of the narrative, those curious details provided toward the end of the story almost as an afterthought. The peculiar features of this knight are the spoon and comb found hidden in his beard and his enormous boots filled with dirt from the cloister garden. These attributes link him to other supernatural beings. What exactly the comb and spoon signify escapes the modern audience. But the dirt in his boots points to a Thor-like being, who is not solely preoccupied with destruction. Like Thor, the malaise many bearded knights leave behind ultimately sows the seeds of future prosperity, most readily manifest in a bounteous harvest. The story in its current form has probably come down to us as a stub. Left out are the subsequent rich harvest, good fortune or success that usually follows a protagonist's encounter with the thunder god. This might be because storytellers eventually forgot the original beliefs associated with Thor, whose legends seem to have been revived in the tales of many bearded knights. In this story the character is human but his capacity for evil gives him otherworldly aura. The reader only sees a strange man wearing tall boots with dirt in the tips and strange utensils tucked into his red beard. Reader beware: a red beard in fairy tales and saga is usually a reference to Thor or a Thor-like demigod.
Read more about bearded knights as Thor-like demi-gods in Reading Knight Bluebeard.