‘Sir Patrick Spens’ by Anonymous

The short fictions I gnaw most often are three traditional ballads. Two of them, ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Mattie Groves’, lure with a puzzle: despite their constraints and fast pace, they convey twists, nuanced characters, and a world of cross-thatched hierarchies. It’s some sort of trick; maybe if I watch again and sit real close… ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, in contrast, is as stripped down and recurrent as the nightmare where I drive onto a highway and then realize I’m in the back seat with no one in the front. An unknown person for unknown reasons recommends an unqualified person for a dangerous job; for equally unknown reasons that person feels compelled to accept the job and fail. How like life.

Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads volumes are in the public domain, with ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ online here. I never came up with collations better than those recorded by Fairport Convention, who base their ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ on Child’s variant A, merging one variant G verse that Child footnoted as a “silly reading”. All the more appropriate for a tragic absurdity.

‘The Whole Life & Death of Long Meg of Westminster’ by Anonymous

One of England’s leading pre-novel genres was what might be called the bio-jestbook, aspects of which survive post-novel in theatrical memoirs and Twitter threads of celebrity anecdotes. Humor is a dish best served fresh and locovore, and few bio-jestbooks appeal to contemporary taste. I’d follow a character as appealing as Long Meg anywhere, though. Why quarrel with the script of ‘The Big Lebowski’ when you can simply enjoy Jeff Bridges?

The earliest facsimile I’ve found of ‘The Life and Pranks of Long Meg of Westminster’ was printed around 1635 but we’re told derives from an 1582 edition. Its prose is as overpadded as an Elizabethan codpiece and some of its jests sound suspiciously transplantable. I prefer the brisk eighteenth-century chapbook condensation, almost a synopsis, available online here.

Despite the title’s come-on, a death goes unrecorded. Long Meg abides. It’s possible, even likely, that she eventually made her way to the Bronx and bumped into young Joanna Russ, but who’s to say?

‘The Tales of Ise’ by Anonymous

There are more transcendently beautiful things without category, I think, than there are such beautiful things within one. Or perhaps I am misreading Aristotle. Anyway, one more such thing to me is about 1,100 years or so removed from clipping. : the Heian court poems in the Tales of Ise (伊勢物語, Ise monogatari). Each of the Tales is a short story… technically. But the stories are each little frames for a single classical Japanese waka poem. Confusingly, thirty of the poems in this volume also appear in another Heian period anthology, the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集).

This poem is in both—though I recommend reading it in the Penguin translation of Ise for the framing story, and also to get a feel for how different translations of this kind of poetry are. I love waka poetry from the Heian period especially, because, like many of the speculative fiction shorts above, it evokes a whole world with so very little. I am currently learning some modern Japanese, and am not particularly talented at it, but I hope to persevere to be able to stumble though some of these poems and their frame stories in the original Late Old Japanese someday.

There is incidentally a beautiful illuminated copy of Ise from the 16th century at the British Library, which is fully digitised, though of course, it is much later than the period of the poems’ composition, and the illustrations reflect the Sengoku-period of the manuscript’s manufacture rather than the Heian one of the text.

Prayer nut (physical object) by Anonymous

This is probably an odi et amo situation by now. Those of you who hate me already for my total transhistorical disregard of the formal boundaries of the short story might just want to walk away in disgust. Those of you who love it, stay.

I’m an art historian, as I’ll have to remind you in a tedious biographical note at the end of this list, and one of the things about studying visual and material culture is that everything becomes a story and then you start ask what constitutes a short one. I don’t know if tiny is to materiality as short is to fiction (I already know it can’t be that simple as I type this, forever analytically accursed creature that I am), but the rather unpoetically named prayer nuts of the late 15th-16th Century are to me, sort of short stories.

Click on the Wikipedia link to see the things then come back. Okay so, they can tell different stories, but the one I like most is in the Met is boxwood and shows both the Adoration of the Magic and the Crucifixion in about the size of a big chestnut you can grasp easily in your hand. It even has a central panel that opens like an altarpiece, with Old Testament scenes, no thicker than a Nairn’s oat cracker. It’s the life of Christ and the prefigurations of the life of Christ, and the life of the person who owned it as a cabinet object or status rosary addition, all in one tiny orb. It’s a short story. It’s a huge story. It’s amazing.

Please do not ask me about the harpsichords I left out to tell you about the Prayer Nut. I still feel very guilty.