Danger! Danger! Bards at the Crossroads

Several of my own fantasy novels (Blackbird Rising, Halcyon, A Gyrfalcon for a King, The Call of the Shrike) are tales of bards with magical powers. Fantasy literature is full of bards! The most famous bard in recent fantasy has to be Kvothe, in Patrick Rothfuss’s wonderful The Name of the Wind. Strangely, although Kvothe is a bard with magic powers, those powers don’t really extend to his music. He exercises those in different ways. Kvothe’s amazing musical talent is akin to the famous joke about musicians and Carnegie Hall. Man asking for directions: How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Musician: Practice! There are several bards in the novels of the great Canadian fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay.

But bards–minstrels, skalds, troubadours, whatever you may call those wandering musicians that populate fantasy and folklore–are persons of magic and superstition. The magic associated with bards comes in two forms.

First, a bard’s music is a useful but dangerous thing. In ancient Ireland, bards were employed as “rat-rhymers,” an early medieval form of pest control. The idea was, the bard played music that exerted power over the rats, and then the bard could do what he liked with the dazzled creatues, such as march them out of town where they couldn’t eat the townspeople’s grain. If you want the scholarly background of it all, look it up here: Fred Norris Robinson, “Satirists and Enchanters in Early Irish Literature,” Studies in the History of Religons Presented to Cawford Howell Toy, ed. D. G. Lyon and G. F. Moore (New York, 1912), pp. 95-130. That’s hard to find, especially if you don’t have an academic library. You can find the article reprinted in Satire: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Ronald Paulson (New Jersey, 1971). THAT may be hard to find, too, but it’s probably easier than the original.

Very obscure, huh? EXCEPT everyone knows the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The story originates in an old German medieval folktale about a disgruntled bard, cheated of his fee, who marched all the children of the town off to perdition, instead of the rats. The main character is a piper–a musician who plays a pipe, such as a bagpipe or some kind of wind instrument–and he is “pied”–that is, he dresses in multicolored clothing, like the typical idea of the court jester.

The great illustrator Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) painted this mural depicting the Pied Piper for the bar of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel. Source: Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.

So the music and songs of bards act as magic spells. They have their uses (pest control! well. . .okay. . .and entertainment), but they are also very dangerous.

Music has always been seen as something otherworldly or standing between worlds, connecting the spirit world with the ordinary world, so musicians have always been looked on with a kind of awe and reverence–but sometimes with fear.

In line with that thinking, sometimes the ordinary folk wonder about the source of a bard’s uncanny power. Folklore from around the world emphasizes this–everything from the Greek myth of Orpheus getting the power of his music directly from the god Apollo to much more sinister stuff. (Although, actually, the Orpheus tale is pretty sinister.)

How sinister? A lot of folk tales emphasize that a bard’s musical talent may be associated with crossroads. Why crossroads? Crossroads themselves were sources of magic in the ancient world. The place where roads crossed each other was a place many ancient cultures believed the ordinary world touched the sacred, or the spiritual, or (shiver) the Underworld. Think about the Greek tale of Oedipus. Where does his tragedy begin? At a crossroads. In ancient Rome, religious societies maintained each crossroads in the city, making sure they placated the gods in charge of each crossroads so the city would stay safe. In medieval Europe, suicides were frequently buried at crossroads instead of in the consecrated ground of regular churchyard cemeteries. In these societies, suicide was considered an unholy act, so the suicide was buried at a place where roads cross, in hopes of confusing the soul and preventing demons from making use of it.

And a bard or minstrel or any kind of musician frequently gets power from an encounter at a crossroads.

What kind of encounter? In the American folklore of the South, an encounter with the devil! Here’s a great blog post that explains the whole thing. The fabled bluesman Tommy Johnson, for example, supposedly made a pact with the devil in exchange for his musical talent (not Robert Johnson, as popularly supposed, although he has a famous song about a crossroads). The musician who makes a pact with the devil can also be found in European and African folklore.

Brrr. Bards are scary folk!

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