A Penny to Bury the Wren

I’ve always been fascinated and impressed by the way authors such as Susan Cooper or Lloyd Alexander borrow copiously from mythology and folklore, especially from the British Isles, and weave such fantastic stories from those bits and half-explained pieces, which become an entirely new set of myths.

One scene that I’ve returned to a number of times is the “Hunting of the Wren” from The Dark is Rising.  In that scene, Cooper describes a procession of boys with musical instruments and a branch-covered bier, upon which lies a wren which turns out also to be the Lady.  The Lady, in Cooper’s mythology as of that point in the series, is a benevolent, powerful but not invincible force for the Light, extremely aged even among the Old Ones, whose presence is feared and detested by the forces of the Dark.  The Hunting of the Wren scene occurs not long after she has exhausted her strength fighting against the Dark, and symbolizes her imminent return.  I’ve always wanted to know where that piece of lore originates.

Imagine my joy this week, then, while listening to the Clancy Brothers’ Christmas in my car, when I heard them singing “The Wren Song.”  There’s no reference to Cooper’s Lady, but there’s a lot about ‘the king of all birds’ and St. Stephen’s day, and soliciting pennies to bury the wren.  (Which sounds like ‘ran’ in this case, and I’m going to hope that’s the reason that I’ve never made the connection before now.)   It turns out there’s a pageant which happens mostly in Ireland with the “Wren Boys” on St. Stephen’s day, which is the day after Christmas.  (There are a couple of decent references in my delicious tags, under ‘research’ or ‘travel, I believe.)  I have decided I love this idea, particularly the pagan references to ‘the king of all birds,’ and will add it to my pile of references and ideas for the Fairy Tale Project.

Merry Christmas, All!

The Wren Song (2)

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great
Jump up, me lads, and give hima treat.

cho: Up with the kettle and down with the pan
     And give us a penny to bury the wren.

As I was gone to Killenaule
I met a wren upon a wall,
Up with me wattle and knocked him down
And brought him into Carrick town.

Droolin, droolin, where's your nest?
'Tis in the bush that I love best
In the tree, the holly tree
Where all the boys do follow me.

We followed the wren three miles or more
Three miles or more, three miles or more,
Followed the wren three miles or more
At six o'clock in the morning.

We have a little box under me hand (arm),
Under me hand, under me hand,
We have a little box under me hand,
A penny a tuppence will do it no harm.

Missus Clancy's a very good woman
A very good woman, a very good woman
Missus Clancy's a very good woman
She gave us a penny to bury the wren.

From The Irish Songbook, Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem

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