What I love about a home concert is that the musicians just turn up, set up, have a quick rehearsal, and then they play. There’s no testing, no sound checks, no fussing with equipment. Everyone trusts each other to make it happen, it stays simple, and it works. The Fay Hield Trio were a perfect example of this when they turned up the other night, bringing the beautiful weather with them and creating another memorable evening for all.
This simplicity of approach is especially appropriate for folk music which comes out of an oral tradition where the musicians travelled from home to home to sing and play. The music in many cases was not written down and it has only been collected relatively recently, as people have become aware that it might be lost otherwise. For musicians, there is always the question or test of how to stay loyal or true to the tradition and how to make it their own.
Many traditional folk songs and fairy tales are built around a structure and theme of testing – often the testing of integrity, strength and constancy of character.
The folk song ‘Kemp Owen’ is an interesting example of this. Kemp Owen is a “sword’n’sorcery ballad from 19th century Aberdeenshire, with links to Icelandic sagas and the usual fairy story themes of transmogrification and wicked stepmothers ‘ genre” (Brian Peters, Sharper than the Thorn 1997). This ‘weirdest of weird ballads’ (Frankie Armstrong, The Garden of Love 2000) has a familiar structure where the young girl’s mother dies and she is destined to serve her evil stepmother when her father marries ‘the very worst woman that ever lived in Christendom’ (lyrics from Fay Hield, Looking Glass 2010).
The evil stepmother curses her stepdaughter and turns her into a worm with ‘strong’ (bad) breath and impossibly long hair twisted three times round a tree. She hides in her den and can only be found if the king’s son, Kemp Owen, comes to the crag to kiss her on three separate occasions. He must not touch her other than give her these three separate kisses. In return, she offers him first a sword, then a belt, and finally a ring – this is the order in Fay’s version although it varies in some others.
Painting by Seema Kohli, via Penelope Hill
Each of these objects offers protection of an increasingly personal nature, and it is thought each object had a special designated power to protect, although that detail has been lost over time. If Kemp Owen passes each test, then he can never be hurt and he gains possession of each item. However if he fails the test and touches the worm, each item offers guaranteed destruction.
These may be tests of the positive quality of his character – his commitment to his people and land, in his efforts to rid his land and free his people from the worm; or his wish to free the daughter from the evil spell. Equally they may be tests of his possessiveness and greed. We aren’t given this insight, but we do see that he has great strength and determination to be able to come so close repeatedly to such a repulsive creature.
On each successive occasion, as Kemp Owen stays true to the rules and passes the test, the wretched worm’s hair is twisted one less time round the tree, until after the third occasion when he gains the ring, her hair is ‘no more twisted round the tree’. Her breath is sweet, she is freed and predictably transformed into ‘the fairest woman you ever did see’.
Kemp Owen asks ‘Was it a werewolf of the wood or was it a mermaid of the sea?’ that imprisoned the daughter. She explains that it was her cruel stepmother who is then bound into unending misery as penance for her evil.
Kemp Owen differs from some folk and fairy tales, at least in this version, in that the king’s son and the beautiful freed daughter don’t get married at the end. He passes the tests through his own self-focus and determination to do the right thing for whatever reasons. She is simply set free. Who knows what happens next?
Tests often come in threes in fairy tales, and perhaps also in life. Once is not enough to be sure, twice is coincidence, three times gives confidence that it’s not just a fluke. The good characters in a fairy tale don’t often fail a test, and they are usually rewarded for their strength of character. They are often poor or cursed, yet their goodness immediately or eventually shines through as does a will to live.
“Ah! madam,” said Felicia, “a poor shepherdess who has nothing to lose does not fear robbers.”
“You are not very rich, then?” said the Queen, smiling.
“I am so poor,” answered Felicia, “that a pot of pinks and a silver ring are my only possessions in the world.”
“But you have a heart,” said the Queen. “What should you say if anybody wanted to steal that?”
“I do not know what it is like to lose one’s heart, madam,” she replied; “but I have always heard that without a heart one cannot live, and if it is broken one must die; and in spite of my poverty I should be sorry not to live.”
— from Felicia and the Pot of Pinks, collected by Andrew Lang
Before and through the tests these characters are given, they suffer; their spirit is strengthened, and they not only survive but prove themselves, and so in some fairy tales if not always in life, they are able to live, and sometimes even happily ever after. Sometimes they are transformed through testing, on other occasions they rescue and transform others through the tests, and so they sometimes but not always reap rewards. Testing is a form of alchemical transformation. It purifies the metal.
In life we are given tests too, and we don’t always pass them. Learning comes at least as much from falling short of the mark as it does from meeting it.
Without change the world would be boringly predictable, yet we know that too much change is unsettling and bewildering. We need touchstones for direction and support, however we need the right touchstones. So testing as a practice is understandable and useful. It is a necessary and reassuring activity even as it also highlights and intensifies a lack of certainty. It’s a search for what remains constant, trustworthy and reliable in the midst of change, and for what or who is a true touchstone or guide. More fundamentally, it’s also a test of the trustworthiness and reliability of oneself.
Yet how to know when you’ve tested enough, been tested enough, or passed the tests you’re given?
We give each other tests, consciously and unawares, and we don’t always understand the rules of the tests we are giving or receiving. We test each other through our behaviour, the way we treat each other, as well as what we expect of each other. The unconscious tests are in many ways the most powerful.
The people in life who stand up to the tests we and life give them, are the ones we trust most, even though we may sometimes take them for granted. And the people we care least about, as well as the ones we care most about, are sometimes the ones we test most.
Perhaps the most challenging test is how we respond to testing and being tested. It is tempting to become cross and irritated, to turn away from tests before we give ourselves a chance to find out what they might offer. Sometimes we can’t choose to avoid, as the test is imposed on us and is inescapable. It becomes a condition or feature of our experience, as when for instance someone loses their job. This is a test of resilience and the ability to maintain equanimity even in the face of seeming disaster.
Each test is an opportunity. In this situation it is useful if uncomfortable to observe the process of response the test provokes. Feelings such as resistance, disbelief, anger, frustration, desperation, fear, unhappiness, are all some of the typical initial responses.
The deeper test is whether we can detach from these emotional responses, and see them as they happen without letting them overwhelm or discolour our experience. Being detached or dispassionate in this way is perhaps an intermittent experience more than one that is effortlessly sustained. Like any practice, the more you do it and the more actively you experience it, the more its fruit becomes available to you.
Whether this means you pass the test, is anyone’s guess.