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The Banishing of Winter

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The following story appeared in Lord Portishead’s A Child’s History of the Raven King (Longman, 1807), although most scholars now agree that the story is fictitious. A version of the story called “The Banysshment of Winter” appeared in Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (J. Dodsley, 1765), and this was likely the source for Lord Portishead’s retelling. Several different versions of the ballad were subsequently collected by Francis James Child in the middle of the nineteenth century, including one that was published as a pamphlet alongside “A Gest of Catherine of Winchester” in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Both “The Banysshment of Winter” and “A Gest of Catherine of Winchester” deal heavily with the unique bravery and tenacity of female magicians. In both stories, winter is portrayed as the season in which the autonomy of the human lands is called into question in the face of threats from Faerie.

 

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On the evening of Hallowmas in the year 1202, while all the village of Sefton in Lancashire was huddled in the Church of St Helen venerating the Catholic saints, a tall, thin man on a bright blue horse came riding down a fairy road into England. He was a striking man in rich clothes made up entirely of cloth the color of frost on a cold winter morning. His hair was the color of starlight as it fell on a field of fresh snow. He laughed as his horse followed the road into Sefton, and his laugh was the sound of the creaking of a frozen lake. Behind him swirled all the frost, ice, sleet, snow, and wicked coldness that Winter, this man’s particular friend, could possibly muster.

The people of Sefton were disturbed in their prayers by the sudden howling of the wind and the darkness that fell across the windows of St Helen’s Church as thick snowclouds blotted out the sun. The villagers rushed outside to find the thin man on the blue horse outside the churchyard while thick snow covered their houses and fields.

“Who are you?” asked the villagers.

“I am Jack le Froid,” the thin man replied. The man raised his arms and a coronet of ice appeared on his head. “I am the ruler of this land now!”

The villagers shook with cold and fear. “What do you want? Why are you doing this?”

The thin man laughed. “I want to bring eternal Winter here!”

With that, he turned and rode on, with Winter following gleefully in his path. No doubt he was on his way to bring frozen misery to another village.

The good people of Sefton went into their homes and tried to keep warm. By the next morning, they found that the snow was piled up to their roofs and they had no way to reach each other except by digging tunnels from doorway to doorway. The people of Sefton didn’t know it, but the same thing was happening in villages all over Lancashire as the thin man named Jack rode on across the countryside.

“What should we do?” the people of Sefton asked each other as they gathered in the church to discuss their plight.

“We must get a message to Newcastle,” said one. “To warn the King. Perhaps he can send help.”

“How will we reach him in time?” asked another. “It’s weeks away by even the fastest horse. We should just wait here and hope for the best.”

“Anyone who tries to make the journey will freeze,” said a third. “Listen to the wailing of Winter’s winds.”

“The snow is so deep no horse or man could walk in it,” said a fourth.

While the grown men and women of Sefton argued about what they should do, one of the children decided that she would go. She wrapped herself warmly and climbed to the top of the church. The snow was so deep it she couldn’t see the roofs of the village any more, but the little girl found that she could easily walk on the snow without sinking.

She hurried on the road to Newcastle, but Winter saw what she was about and did not take kindly to someone trying to warn the King in the North and sent snow and sleet to slow her down. The trees of England, buried in the snow and frightened of the long cold promised by Jack, summoned all their strength and reached up and out to shelter the little girl. The hillsides saw the trees act and laid down so the little girl could pass over them more quickly. The streams and rivers ceased flowing so she could walk over them. The skies called out to all the King’s ravens to lift her up and carry her through the dark clouds.

The ravens carried her to the heart of the King’s court and dropped her at the feet of the King’s throne. Winter’s frozen tendrils reached out and followed her, frosting the King’s hall with glittering ice.

“Oh my King,” the girl cried. “A wicked man is crossing your land with Winter at his heels and saying that the land is his now and will be frozen forever!”

The Raven King said nothing, but stood and reached out his hand. There was a swirl of warm winds in the hall and the ice disappeared. Outside there was the sound of a heavy summer rain and the sun came out. All across the King’s lands, the snows melted and the people took of their heavy cloaks as Summer’s warm breezes chased Winter out of Northern England. It would be four long summer-years before the King forgave Winter for its part in Jack’s uprising.

Jack le Froid on his blue horse saw Winter disappear over the far horizon and rode as fast as he could out of England, but he was not fast enough to escape the angry pecking of a thousand coal-black ravens. They followed him back into Faerie and chased him all the way into his dark brugh, and it was many long years before he dared venture into England again.

For her bravery, the Raven King gave the little girl a magic ring that would bring her to Newcastle as swiftly as a raven could fly. He then took her hand and led her through a great door, which opened into a long hallway full of windows that each looked on a different place. At the end they stepped out into St Helen’s Church, to the amazement of the people of Sefton. They gathered up the little girl in their arms and gave her great honor.

In later years, the girl visited the King in Newcastle often until one day she never returned to Sefton. It is said she travelled into Faerie looking for Jack le Froid, but never found him. Instead she became a great magician as she travelled among the great lords of Faerie and passed, finally, into realms unknown.