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The Legend of the Northland – Phoebe Cary

Once Saint Peter stopped by an old lady’s cottage because he was feeling hungry and weak after the day’s fasting. The lady was baking cakes on the hearth. When Saint Peter asked her for one of cakes, she tried to make a tiny cake for him. But as it was baking, she found it too large to be given away.

She tried baking two more times but even the smallest of cakes seemed too large to her. Such greedy behaviour of the lady annoyed the hungry Saint. He cursed her saying that she was far too selfish to be a human, to have food, shelter and fire to keep her warm. Thus, she was transformed into a woodpecker. All her clothes except her scarlet cap were gone as she went up the chimney and flew out of the top. Every country schoolboy is said to have seen her in the forest, boring into the wood for food till date.

  1. What is a legend? Why is this poem called a legend?
    A legend is an old traditional and popular story that is considered to be historical but its authenticity is not attested. This poem is a legend because it is a “curious” and conventional story narrated to the children of the Northland. Besides that, the story’s authenticity cannot be verified owing to the supernatural element present at the end of tale.
  2. Who is Saint Peter?
    Saint Peter was one of the twelve disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ. Probably because he was Jesus’s first disciple, Peter became the first head of the Church. All the Popes of the Church as considered to be the descendants of Peter.
Stanza 1

Away, away in the Northland,
Where the hours of the day are few,
And the nights are so long in Winter,
They cannot sleep them through;
Where they harness the swift reindeer
To the sledges when it snows;
And the children look like bears’ cubs,
In their funny, furry clothes,
They tell them a curious story —
I don’t believe ’tis true;
And yet you may learn a lesson,
If I tell the tale to you.

Meaning
  • Away, away – Far away
  • Northland – One of the countries close to the North Pole.
  • Where the hours of the day are few – Where days are shorter and nights longer
  • They cannot sleep them through – Nights so long that one cannot sleep for such a long time
  • Where they harness the swift reindeer to the sledges when it snows –
  • And the children look like bears’ cubs in their funny, furry clothes
  • They – Elders
Questions
  1. How is Northland described in the poem?
    Northland is described as a land somewhere in the north of the earth. It is a cold country where people move on sledges drawn by reindeers. People wear heavy fur clothes.
  2. Why can’t people of Northland sleep throughout their winter nights?
    The people of Northland cannot sleep during winter nights because nights during winter are very long.
  3. How do children of Northland appear in winters? Why?
    The children of Northland appeared in winter like bear-cubs. They appear so due to the heavy padding of fur coats that they wear during the Winter.
  4. Why does the poet tell the tale although he doesn’t believe it?
    The poet doesn’t believe if the story is true yet he tells the story for teaching his readers a lesson on greed.
Stanza 2

Once, when the good Saint Peter
Lived in the world below,
And walked about it, preaching,
Just as he did, you know,
He came to the door of a cottage,
In travelling round the earth,
Where a little woman was making cakes,
And baking them on the hearth;
And being faint with fasting,
For the day was almost done,
He asked her, from her store of cakes,
To give him a single one.

Meaning
  • Good Saint Peter –
  • In the world below – On the earth
  • Walked about – Wandered
  • Preaching – Speaking to the people about Jesus Christ
  • Cottage – A little house
  • Hearth – Fireplace
  • Faint with fasting – Tired due to fasting
  • The day was almost done – It was getting dark
Questions & Answers
  1. What do you know about Saint Peter?
    Saint Peter was a saint who traveled around the world, preaching. It is also understood that the poem is written after Saint Peter’s death. (Saint Peter was the prime disciple/follower of Jesus Christ. Christian Church honors Saint Peter as the first head of the Church. Peter was crucified upside down in Rome for preaching Jesus as the son of God)
  2. When did Saint Peter happen to come to the old woman’s cottage?
    Saint Peter happened to come to the old woman’s cottage during his long journeys to preach. He was tired and hungry and it was already night.
  3. Why did Saint Peter ask the woman for a single cake?
    Saint Peter asked the lady for a single cake because he was hungry and she was baking cakes when he reached her home.
Stanza 3

The woman is too unwilling to feed St. Peter
So she made a very little cake,
But as it baking lay,
She looked at it, and thought it seemed
Too large to give away.
Therefore she kneaded another,
And still a smaller one;
But it looked, when she turned it over,
As large as the first had done.

Meaning
  • As it baking lay – As the cake lay on the hearth
  • Too large to give away
  • Kneaded another – Made another cake
Questions
  1. Why did the woman make a very little cake?
    The woman made a very little cake to give Saint Peter because she was very miserly.
  2. Why didn’t the woman give away the cake?
    The woman didn’t give away the cake because she was selfish and was not willing to give cake.
  3. How did the woman make the second cake? Why?
    The woman decided to make the second cake more smaller because she was miserly.
Stanza 4

No Cake for the Hungry Peter?
Then she took a tiny scrap of dough,
And rolled and rolled it flat;
And baked it thin as a wafer —
But she couldn’t part with that.
For she said, “My cakes that seem too small
When I eat of them myself
Are yet too large to give away.”
So she put them on the shelf.

Meaning
  • Part With – Give away; Donate
Questions & Answers
  1. Why did the old woman make a second cake?
    The old woman made a second cake seeing that the first that she had made for Saint Peter got baked larger in size. Being a greedy and miserly woman, she didn’t want to part with a big cake for a stranger.
  2. How did the old woman make the third cake?
    The old woman was very careful while kneading the third cake. She didn’t want that cake grow larger while baking. For that she took a tiny scrap of dough, she rolled the dough as flat and slender as a wafer.
  3. Why did the old woman refuse to part with the third cake as well?
    Although the old woman had been extremely careful while kneading the third cake, that too was baked large. She refused to give that cake to Saint Peter because she was miserly and greedy.
Stanza 5

Then good Saint Peter grew angry,
For he was hungry and faint;
And surely such a woman
Was enough to provoke a saint.

And he said, “You are far too selfish
To dwell in a human form,
To have both food and shelter,
And fire to keep you warm.

Now, you shall build as the birds do,
And shall get your scanty food
By boring, and boring, and boring,
All day in the hard, dry wood.”

Meaning
  • Faint – Tired
  • Such a woman – Such an unfeeling woman
  • Provoke – Make someone angry
  • Provoke a saint – It is hard to provoke a saint
  • Selfish – Greedy about oneself
  • Dwell in a human form – Live in a human body
  • Scanty food – Not enough food
  • By boring – digging a hole with its beak
Questions & Answers
  1. What angered St. Peter?
    Such a miserly behaviour of the women angered Saint Peter as he was hungry and the woman was not giving him the cake.
  2. Why did St. Peter curse the woman?
    Saint Peter cursed the woman for her greedy and miserly behaviour. He cursed her seeing how unfit she was to live as a human being. No human being should be as stingy and unfeeling as she was.
  3. What was St. Peter’s curse upon the woman?
    Saint Peter cursed the woman very badly. He said that she would better be a woodpecker than a human being blessed with a decent life, clothes, warmth and a house. She should be boring into the dry woods in search of her food all day.
Stanza 6

Then up she went through the chimney,
Never speaking a word,
And out of the top flew a woodpecker,
For she was changed to a bird.

She had a scarlet cap on her head,
And that was left the same;
But all the rest of her clothes were burned
Black as a coal in the flame.

And every country schoolboy
Has seen her in the wood,
Where she lives in the trees till this very day,
Boring and boring for food.

Meaning
  • Chimney – The tower that rises from
  • Never speaking a word – Silently
  • Woodpecker
  • For – Because
  • Scarlet cap
  • And that was left the same
  • Coal
Questions & Answers
  1. Then up she went through the chimney,
  2. Never speaking a word,
  3. And out of the top flew a woodpecker,
  4. For she was changed to a bird.
  5. She had a scarlet cap on her head,
  6. And that was left the same;
  7. But all the rest of her clothes were burned
  8. Black as a coal in the flame.
  9. And every country schoolboy
  10. Has seen her in the wood,
  11. Where she lives in the trees till this very day,
  12. Boring and boring for food.

What do you think?

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