The Lore of Bards, Part I

Hwæt!

Benjamin West, The Bard, 1778. Photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported). Purchased 1974 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01900

Sure, you know about bardic lore, or as they call it nowadays, bardic knowledge. Everyone knows that bards, especially lore bards, steep themselves in the lore of any region they happen to be spending a good deal of time in, or sometimes even when just passing through. Many will also be steeped in the lore of places they’ve never been and people they’ve never seen, if they’re the book-loving kind.

But bards also have their own lore, to go with their colourful history. The lore of bards is a tangled web to be sure, but it includes useful bits of knowledge, myths and legends from all over the world, and of course, a plethora of songs and tales every bard should know. For the most part this lore is not written down but rather passed on from bard to bard by word of mouth, as in the old days, for the bard’s deepest roots are in an oral tradition.

Bards are the world’s memory, and a lore bard is a walking library. But ask any bard about the greatest bards in the history of their homeland and you’ll never get them to shut up. Even the least lore-inclined bards will know at least half of these famed adventuring artists, performers, scribes, historians, ambassadors, and sages by name.

Some bards believe the world was brought into being by a song, though not all agree upon the identity of the singer. Many say it was the god Ogma, who they also say invented writing. Others say it was Thoth, who they also say invented writing. A few maintain that these two are one and the same. Still others name lesser deities or even animals, usually birds, a popular one being the lark.

But long before the invention of writing, and certainly for some time afterward, bards were tasked with the preservation of tradition, history, and of course, entertainment. Their treasury was as rich as their capacity to remember such things, and as varied as their ability to extemporise.

Once there was a bard they say spent a lifetime collecting all the variations of all the world’s songs, poems, and tales. When old age impaired her memory, she invented both shorthand and musical notation in order to continue her work.

Most tales of bards from long ago are not set in any particular time or place. This makes them consistently relatable. Some of the characters don’t even have names that are still remembered, so it’s a common thing for their tales to be ascribed to any legendary name, sometimes even those not commonly associated with bards. Most of these works are credited to the legendary primordial bard known as Anon.

Perhaps the best thing about the lore of bards is that it’s forever changing, despite staying essentially the same. In fact, any time any piece of lore changes hands–or mouths, as the case may well be–there’s a good chance it will change, even if only somewhat. Every artist has something to say.

Some are not always careful what they say, however, and this can often get them into trouble. There are many rollicking tales surrounding famous fools and clowns and court jesters, the most popular ones being those satirical rogues who can tell the truth in a humorous fashion and get away with it. Some of these tales they only appear in briefly, for comic relief. But the most popular ones are the ones they star in.

There are a few bards, usually nobles, who look down on this sort of entertainment. Indeed many of these tales are rather vulgar, and there seems to be a competition between certain bards to make them still bawdier. But they’re a favourite of the common crowd.

Of course, not all bards enjoy a crowd, but when two or more bards get together it’s almost always a party. Unless, of course, they happen to be enemies. Alas, there are evil bards… but I digress. The meeting and greeting of fellow bards, whether they know each other or not, is so important to the bardic tradition that there are official events dedicated to this purpose. Most people just call them music festivals… or fairs, depending on the region.

Inns and taverns, of course, are also great places for bards to meet up. Some might form a band after having performed together for a night. They might even go on tour together. Travel is an important part of the bard business, as are welcoming hearths along the road where ale is served and locals and travellers alike gather to exchange news and pleasantries and… other things.

It is not unusual for bards at such gatherings to challenge one another to a performative duel, known colloquially as battling. These are usually fun for all, but every now and then things can get ugly. Such scuffles are rarely fatal, but have on many occasions sparked a full-on barroom brawl, or even a ballroom blitz.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Remembering the Bard

Portrait of Robert Burns, 1787

When most people encounter the epithet “the Bard” in text or speech, they automatically assume it refers to William Shakespeare, who is known as the Bard of Avon. But there is another who has acquired that particular sobriquet, and deservedly so. I’m of course talking about Robert Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire, and the national poet of Scotland.

Perhaps most well known for having written the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne”, that nostalgic ditty only half understood by so many and yet sung the world over on New Year’s Eve, Rabbie, as he is often affectionately called, was born in 1759 near Ayr on the 25th of January, the son of a tenant farmer. Later hailed as a folk hero and collector of Scottish folk songs as well as Scotland’s national poet, the Bard “is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, and after his death he became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism” [Wikipedia].

You may know him by a few other of his poems which have been set to music, such as A Red, Red Rose, Ae Fond Kiss, and my personal favourite, The Banks O’ Doon, which gave us the song “Ye Banks and Braes”. But if you don’t, don’t worry. I put together a YouTube playlist for Burns Night you can grab a wee listen of. Just note that I also added a number of songs that he didn’t write the lyrics to, as part of an overall celebration of Scottish culture, music, and history.

And what is Burns Night ye might well ask? Well, ’tis first and foremost a celebration of Rabbie’s life and legacy amidst a feast known as a Burns supper, replete with Scottish food and music, a toast with fine Scotch whisky, and of course, readings of the Bard’s poetry and singing of his songs. Central to the supper is almost always the haggis, Scotland’s national dish, a savoury meat pudding which Burns eulogized most eloquently in his famed poem Address to a Haggis:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my airm.
Haggis on a platter – By Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18155691

Yet the Burns supper is not merely a celebration of the Bard’s birthday, confined to that one night only. It can be enjoyed anytime, and regardless of whether or not one is Scottish. One need only have an appreciation for the works of the Bard and/or Scottish music, poetry, food, and culture in general, just as the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” that ends the feast isn’t only for the year’s end, as reminiscing about days gone by is a perennial thing not necessarily tied to any season or date on a calendar.

If you’d like to learn more about Robert Burns, his works, and the traditions of Burns Night and its celebratory supper, below you will find a few good links, as well as a fascinating documentary video of a modern facial reconstruction of the Bard as he might have actually looked in life.