Friday, February 20, 2009

A Pottle o' Brains

Today I went on a story-ramble through a nice old pile of library books and - wouldn't you know - I found a hidden gem: a story that made me smile, and made me think.  Actually, it made me downright puzzled for a while.  What on earth is a "pottle"????
A pottle, you ask?  First off, if you have to ask, you obviously are neither a) from Lincolnshire, England, nor b) extremely elderly.  If you were, you'd know right away that a pottle is a unit of measurement, referring specifically to a measure of volume of about 2 quarts - about the amount which could be contained in an old-fashioned tankard of beer, such as you'd see in one of those quaint old prints of English country life.  (Take a moment to enjoy "The Sea Captain John Oxenham Enjoying a Tankard of Sack with His Fellow Sailors" by N. C. Wyeth.  For more on John Oxenham, read chapter 7 of "On the Spanish Main" by John Masefield)


Note the tankards.

Still with me?  Wondering what on earth I found so entertaining about an obscure antiquated English form of measurement?  Turns out, it is a crucial detail in a very interesting and entertaining little tale, which features, among other things, a noodlehead.  Here goes:

A young fool, tired of his own stupidity, decided one day to remedy the situation.  He went to a wise old woman, known for her herbal remedies and general cleverness, and asked her if she could give him - wait for it - a "pottle o' brains". Unfazed by this unusual request, the woman instructed him to bring her the heart of whatever he loved most, and she'd see what she could do.  Hey, how hard can it be to fix a dimwit?

   Brain          +         Pottle           = Smartypants


Filled with hope, the idiot went home to his mother, with whom he lived, and thought for a while, before deciding that there was nothing for it but to slaughter his mother's fattest hog, since he could think of nothing that he loved more than bacon.  The next day, he brought the dead hog's heart to the wise woman, and she posed him a riddle: What runs without feet? The poor young dolt thought and thought, but had no answer.  The wise woman determined by this that he hadn't brought the right heart and sent him home to try again.

The despondent dummy cried all the way home, and on his way a young woman stopped him and asked him what the trouble was.  He explained and - here's where the story really gets interesting - she offered to marry him!?!   
Now, before you go and assume that we now have TWO numbskulls to contend with, consider this: before she proposed to the dope, this smart gal asked him a) if he could cook, clean and mend her clothing, and b) whether he would mind if she was the wage-earner for their household.  Amazingly, our village idiot revealed himself to be a regular Martha Stewart in the home, and moreover, he was elated at the prospect of not having to try to make a living as the other men in his community did.  The two decided to get hitched the very next day, eager to enjoy the benefits of a non-traditional marriage arrangement.
However, when the dimwit went home to announce his engagement to his mother, she became so upset at the prospect of her son marrying a woman who did men's work and refused to keep house that she DIED.


Right there, on the spot, finis.  One can only imagine how the poor idiot wept at the sudden shocking demise of his only parent.  Thinking back on how tenderly she had cared for him, fed him, clothed him, tolerated his incurable stupidity, the fool wailed and sobbed and mourned his terrible loss.  When suddenly it occurred to him that his mother was the one he loved best in all the world - even more than bacon - and he had another shot at getting his "pottle o' brains"!
Don't worry, there is no Frankenstein scene; the idiot decided to simply bring his dead mother - heart and all - to the wise woman and attempt to get his pottle.  Whereupon she asked him another riddle: what is shiny and yellow but is not gold?  Not surprisingly, the moron had no clue, and left as empty-headed as before.

After burying his mother, the idiot married his sweetheart and the two were very happy together.  He happily cooked and cleaned, while she cheerfully went out to work and earned a very good living.
All was well, except that the fool still secretly yearned to be smart.  One evening, gazing at his wife, he realized with a start that she was the one whom he loved best.  Taking a risk, he admitted to her that he still craved brains (sorry, couldn't resist), but loved her so much that he wasn't sure how he'd ever get them, since he couldn't bear the thought of killing her to get a pottle for himself.  The wife suggested that they visit the wise woman together and see what they could do, but her moron husband doubted she could solve the wise woman's riddles, and told her the two puzzlers she'd already posed him.  His wife, to his amazement, immediately answered them.

What runs without feet?  Water!
What's shiny and yellow but not gold?  The Sun!               

Impressed by his wife's intelligence, the dork agreed to go again to the wise woman and try for his pottle.  He presented his wife - heart included - to the wise woman, who asked him a third riddle: What has no legs at first, then two, and then four?  The dummy turned to his wife hopefully, who told him the answer, which he then told to the wise woman.

A tadpole!                  

The wise woman asked him if he knew the answers to her other riddles; the idiot grinned at his wife and proudly told the answers.  The wise woman grinned at the cute couple, and informed the dummy that he now had his pottle o' brains, which were being kept safe in his wife's head, where they belonged.  The moron and his wife went home, and lived happily ever after.               

So, what's the moral(s) of this peculiar little tale?  Here are a few ideas.

1) In marriage, it doesn't matter so much who does what, simply that the important stuff gets done.

2) Being smart is nice, but love is even nicer.

3) A man who can vacuum is worth his weight in gold.

(With apologies to my very dear and VERY smart husband, who happens to be an artist with a vacuum.)


esther said...

Loved it, Dori, esp. the morals!

Love, Grammy

Diane Edgecomb - said...

Thanks Doria! What fun! I love all the wacky photos too! Thanks for putting that all together. I feel smarter already... I think....