Thursday 28 October 2010

Green grow the rushes O - and oral transmission


JRR Tolkien saw the myth-making process at work in his lifetime when he got back, indirectly (via an identification query sent from the USA to Oxford University) an orally-transmitted version of his poem Errantry which had preserved the 13th century word 'sigaldry' (= enchantment).

"...bore out my views on oral tradition (at any rate in early stages): sc. that the 'hard words' are well preserved, and the more common words altered, but the metre is often disturbed." 

(Letter to Rayner Unwin, 22 June 1952).

This corresponds to the way in which the garbling process of oral transmission yet retains a fascinating core; based around the preservation of strange words or phrases.


I find this quality in many nursery rhymes - for instance in the counting song 'Green grow the rushes O' which has always cast a spell over me since childhood.


This is the final verse as I knew it:

I'll sing you twelve O
Green grow the rushes O

What are your twelve O?

Twelve for the twelve Apostles
Eleven for the 'leven who went to heaven
And ten for the ten commandments

Nine for the nine bright shiners
And eight for the April Rainers

Seven for the seven stars in the sky
And six for the six proud walkers

Five for the symbols at your door
Ands four for the Gospel makers

Three, three, the rivals

Two, two, the lily-white boys
Clothèd all in green, Yo Ho
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so


Rather than regarding this lyric as nonsense, I assumed that it meant something.

Probably it was ('just') a Christian mnemonic (although this never crossed my mind as a child - e.g. I had no idea what was meant by 'Gospel makers') , and certainly it has been brushed-up by revivalists (including re-regularising the metre - because ordinary people have tin ears when it comes to scansion, and fail to make even the simplest and most obvious changes to maintain or restore regular metre).

But after all this explaining-away, there remains an extraordinary sense of a world of mysterious numbers and symbols.


Five for the symbols at your door! Was this (I wondered) about somebody coming to the door of my house - something like carol singers, but showing a symbol?

Robert Graves guessed that this meant the pentangle, or interlaced five pointed star; this is indeed a Christian symbol in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - although any such tradition has since been lost, and the pentangle is now the premier symbol of neo-pagans.



dearieme said...

You seem to have missed the point that it's about Celtic FC. The twelve are the players you take to a match (in the days before substitutes were allowed, you took the eleven of the team, and one more in case someone fell ill, or hurt himself in the warm up.)

"Eleven for the 'leven who went to heaven" reminds you that eleven take the pitch for kick off, and that Celtic Park used to be referred to as "Paradise".

Then there's some religious fol-de-rol, then "Two, two, the lily-white boys
Clothèd all in green" reminds you that Celtic play in green and white.


Bruce Charlton said...

Ah - I get it!

Alternatively, there was this translation:

Tip - don't watch the visuals, just listen.

However, the above is not the first collected version. That which grew green was originally a bogling fork.

dearieme said...

Well boggle my prongs!

dearieme said...

Or, come to think of it, if a bogling fork is digging-related, boggle my tines.