Category Archives: folk tale

Ancient flying machines!

I’m telling stories about ancient technology at Gloucester History Festival on Saturday, and flying machines do come into it…

People have always wanted to fly. The stories of the gods and goddesses of the world imagine our earthbound chariots and horses into the air – think of Helios’s sun chariot, or Freya’s chariot pulled by cats. Bellophron rides Pegasus, a flying horse born of Poseidon and Medusa. The Egyptian god Horus was a falcon-god. In the Ramayana, gods and demons have vimanas, chariots powered by the air.

Daedalus and Bladud

The most famous story is, of course, that of Daedalus and Icarus. The great Greek inventor, trapped on Crete with his son, devised wings made of feathers, string and wax, and flew safely to Naples, where he dedicated his wings to Apollo – something we often forget when thinking of how Icarus fell to his death. There was nothing wrong with Daedalus’s wings! You just had to use them safely, as with any dangerous tool. Inspired by this, King Bladud of Britain, who had studied in Athens in his youth, built himself a pair of wings through his studies in necromancy (did he channel the spirit of Daedalus?) and flew from the temple of Apollo in London – but like Icarus, he fell, and died.

Alexander the Great

More successful early flights include that of Alexander the Great. In the Alexander Romance, which first appears about the 3rd century AD, Alexander has a number of strange adventures: he travels down to the bottom of the ocean in a diving bell; he defeats the barbarians of the north giants Gog and Magog, and, ahem, builds a wall[i] to keep them out; his sister is turned into a mermaid. But he also flies. His flying machine is fairly basic – he goes up in a glass-bottomed chariot drawn by griffins chasing either jewels or meat held perpetually out of their grasp. Alexander goes further than Daedalus or Bladud – he travels so far into space that he can see the whole world, likened to a coiled snake, satisfying his desire to see the ends of the earth – and not learning the lesson of Scipio Aemilianus, the destroyer of Carthage, from Cicero’s On the Republic. Scipio dreams of flight, and is shown ‘how small the earth appears in view of heaven’s own immensity’, thus learning humility and showing how the mind should kept on spiritual, not earthly matters.

Icarus … again?

The satirical writer Lucien took to the skies twice in his writing. Firstly, the well-known journey to the moon in his ‘True History’, in which the protagonists are shot into the air in their ship by a water spout. Less well-known is the story of Icaromenippus, who, like Daedalus, builds wings and flies to Mount Olympus – where he discovers that Zeus is planning to king all philosophers for being useless – or at least will get round to it after the long vacation! Menippus feasts with the gods (and in true Roman fashion, is placed with the least favoured gods on the bottom table…) and sneaks a taste of ambrosia and nectar, but is deprived of his wings and set back down on the earth again by Hermes.[ii]

Eilmer, a Wiltshire aviator!

Daedalus was also the inspiration to the first non-legendary flight in Britain, that of Eilmer of Malmesbury, the story of which features in my book, Wiltshire Folk Tales. Eilmer was a monk at Malmesbury Abbey, much later than all these classical fantasies, and was known to the writer of his story, William of Malmesbury. The story is told in his Deeds of the English Kings of 1125. Eilmer only died in 1066, and so there would have monks at the abbey who would have remembered Eilmer when William first joined the monastery as a boy in the late 11th century.

As a historian, William is surprisingly well-respected – one of my favourite accounts of his is of the witch of Berkeley, a rather fantastical tale, which he preambles with the following:

At the same time something similar occurred in England, not by divine miracle, but by infernal craft; which when I shall have related, the credit of the narrative will not be shaken, though the minds of the hearers should be incredulous; for I have heard it from a man of such character, who swore he had seen it, that I should blush to disbelieve.[iii]

This is careful distancing! So why not a flying monk? William states that he was inspired by reading a book on Daedalus, and was inspired to build a pair of wings. William also says that he flew for more than a furlong – more than 200 metres – before the twin problems of the wind and his own realisation of what he was doing caused him crash. Powered flight it isn’t – but nonetheless, Eilmer flew – find out more about him and his experiences with Halley’s Comet in my Wiltshire Folk Tales.

He was the first in Britain, only following three other accounts of tower jumping, one in China in the 1st century AD, one in the 6th, and one in Spain in the 9th. The first Chinese jumper glided 100 metres – so Eilmer’s glide was twice as long.  The Chinese seem to have experimented with man-carrying kites, as well, and possibly the Japanese, too.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that flight took off, as it were, first with balloons, and the rest was history!


A cat flew in 1648. The Italian inventor Tito Livio Burattini built a model winged ‘dragon volant’ … at least he knew the passenger would always land on their feet…[iv]

When researching Heron of Alexandria, however, I discovered the earlier inventor, Archytas, from Tarentum in southern Italy. Archytas created a flying creature – a pigeon, powered by steam! See the excellent Kotsanas Museum for more:



[i] Trump might well be inspired by Alexander, a fellow narcissist. It’s not just the wall – consider Alexander’s bouffant blond locks and, er, Trump’s…


[iii] William of Malmesbury, The History of the Kings of England and the Modern History of William of Malmesbury (Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1815), p. 264



1: John Peter Gowy The Flight of Icarus, 1635-7. The Prado, Madrid.

2. Illustration from Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, French, c. 1420, BL Royal 20 B XX

3. Eilmer copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2011


New Folk Tales book featuring Three Fire Springs!

The Anthology of English Folk Tales is out today, 1 November 2016! This treasury of tales from all around England is drawn from the History Press’s county folk tales series and features tellers such as Taffy Thomas MBE, Hugh Lupton, David Phelps, the storyteller who started the History Press on this folk and ghost tale journey – and Anthony, Kevan and Kirsty from Fire Springs! We three have five tales in the book, from Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Wiltshire and Suffolk. And of course it has an all new cover illustration from folk tales illustrator extraordinaire, Katherine Soutar-Caddick! An ideal Christmas present for wide-ranging folk tale seekers?


That’s not all – all SIX Fire Springs members – Chantelle, David and Richard as well as the usual suspects above are going to be featured in a new History Press book coming out in 2017. Ballad Tales, edited by Kevan, is a book of 20 tales inspired by traditional British ballads by storytellers, writers and musicians.  Kevan’s heroically produced all the interior illustrations, but the cover design will be a departure – Stroud-based printmaker Andy Kinnear has been commissioned to produce a cover in his inimitable macabre style… Watch this space!


A Medieval Marvel: the Green Children

‘But the night is Halloween, and the fairy court do ride…’

picture1Tonight is Halloween, and it’s supposed to be the night when the fair folk rise up out of the hollow hills and ride through the lands of the living. If see them dancing and step into the ring to dance alongside them, you could be caught forever… There are many dangers for the unwary mortal stepping into the Otherworld, but less is said about those poor creatures who by chance step out of that world into ours. What if you didn’t want to come to the mortal world? What if it was an accident? Just two children strayed away from their homes, lured into a tunnel by the sound of pretty bells, only to awake in the blazing dawn to a land of strangers, fear and death.

There have been many theories about the Green Children of Woolpit. Many of them have been prosaic, striving to make sense in today’s pragmatic, secular world of something inexplicable. In 1173 there was a battle just outside Bury St Edmunds during the Revolt between Henry II and his sons Henry, Richard and Geoffrey (complicated – don’t go there! Read Sharon Penman’s The Devil’s Brood if you want to find out more). Suffolk was heavily involved in this revolt after the Earl of Leicester landed at Walton Castle and persuaded Hugh Bigod, the Earl of Norfolk, to take up his cause. It causes two stories in Suffolk Folk Tales – A Strange and Terrible Wonder and Maude Carew – and may be the spark for the Green Children.

The 12th century saw a surge of immigration into East Anglia from Flanders across the sea – welcomed in as the Jewish communities were starting the long process of victimisation and eventual banishment in the late 13th century. There was a settlement of Flemish fullers at Fornham St Martin, close to the battle site at Fornham St Genevieve – did the children flee, and get lost? Did they become sick as they wandered, and suffering from dietary deficiencies, was their skin tinged green by chlorosis? Was the Flemish they spoke unrecognisable to the villagers of Woolpit? Was the girl’s talk of St Martin’s Land a reference to their old village? So far, so good. But surely Richard de Calne would have understood Flemish and realised what had happened? This theory assumes an extremely parochial, limited existence for our medieval forebears. I don’t buy that someone living in Bardwell wouldn’t know what was going on in Fornham St Martin. I mean, it’s only about 9 miles away – you could easily walk there and back in a day!


So where does that leave us? Are they the Babes in the Wood from the Norfolk story? Poisoned by arsenic by their wicked uncle, abandoned in Thetford Forest (scary – got lost there once myself!), they wander into Woolpit. The older, stronger girl survives, but her younger brother is too weakened and dies. Maybe? This tale doesn’t appear until the printing of a broadside in 1595. The most commonly cited wood for the tale is Wayland Wood, just south of Watton, and about 30 miles from Woolpit. Not impossible, but … in the story the children die. The wicked uncle is punished, but there’s no Disney happy ending. They die. Both of them. Alone in the forest.

Putting the green children in context helps. It’s a wonder tale, one of many collated by medieval writers, and particularly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Anything goes! These mirabilia, or marvels, were, perhaps, some of the earliest folklore collecting, predating people like John Aubrey and William Camden by centuries. But their reasons for putting in these tales to their accounts were different. We can’t assume that they were simply included because credulous monks and scholars believed them – though that may have been the case in some instances! There was a conscious searching for the hidden things of the world, that one day might be revealed and understood. The recording of marvels like the Green Children thus becomes a kind of scientific experiment, recorded for posterity when we might understand it better. Or, often, there is a moral lesson within the stories – though it’s hard to pinpoint what that might be in this tale.


At this time, this kind of tales was avidly lapped up by the aristocracy. Courtly scholars such as Walter Map, Gervase of Tilbury and Gerald of Wales record many mirabilia and fantastica to thrill and chill their courtly audiences. Henry II and Henry the Young King were apparently keen on these stories. The stories included range from international folk tales to locally collected ones. Did our monkish scholars include similar tales to curry royal or aristocratic favour? But these stories give another possibility in our search for the ‘real’ green children – were they aliens? Alexander the Great saw alien spaceships at the Siege of Tyre in 329 BC, they allegedly ‘observed three soaring discs, which were described as “shining silvery shields, spitting fire around the rims,” … These “shields” were said to have annihilated a stone wall with a lightening-like beam weapon.’[i] In The King’s Mirror, a Norwegian example of these collections of tales from about 1250, an incident is recorded of ships in the sky over County Clare in the 10th century[ii]. In this case, one of the ‘aliens’ comes to earth to fix a problem with his anchor, but, unable to breathe our air, he dies. Gervase of Tilbury also records this tale, but sites it in England, and develops it further with the adventures of a Bristolian in the sky – and that story features in Anthony’s Gloucestershire Folk Tales….

But I don’t think our Green Children were aliens. For me, they seem to have come out of the hollow hills where the fair folk live. Green is a fairy colour, although the ballad Tam Lin mentioned in the first line says that the fairies were ‘grey’ – perhaps referring to the idea that they were spirits of the dead instead of another race… Is Halloween, when the fairy court do ride the first zombie apocalypse? There is another instance, recorded by Gerald of Wales, where the interaction goes the other, more usual way – a boy is approached by two little men saying, “If you will come with us, we will lead you into a country full of delights and sports”[iii] and led into another world with a sunless sky. John Aubrey also records an instance a few centuries later, in which a man accesses the world below through a round barrow; this became the basis for ‘The Fairies of Hackpen Hill’ in my Wiltshire Folk Tales. Its common knowledge that those who go into fairyland come out changed, and that many pine away. Perhaps it’s true of those who come out of the Otherworld, too, like the green boy. The green girl was a different matter, even though her story hints that the Otherworld was possibly more fun than ours as she showed ‘herself to be extremely high-spirited and unrestrained’![iv]


[i] Morphy, Rob ‘Anchors Away: Sky Ships and Storm Wizards’, 2011


[iii] Cambrensis, Geraldus The Itinerary through Wales and the Description of Wales (JM Dent & Co, London, 1908), pg. 68

[iv] Translation of Ralph of Coggeshall’s story by Dr Monika Simon, 2012


  1. The Green Children © Kirsty Hartsiotis
  2. Image from
  3. Image from