OT: The Day Bill Skipped Breakfast

on October 21, 2011 in Other Tales


(An excerpt from the foreword to A Modern Treasury of Gnomish Folktales)

Among the oldest body of Bill Springstep tales are those stories that are concerned with what we might call the dawning days of the world. We see Bill interacting with the first elf and the first dwarf, witness him changing the landscape from some primordial form into the world we recognize today.

It is actually unlikely that these stories in particular were the original tales of Bill Springstep, for the simple reason that they would have needed to be composed after the fact. The first gnomish people who told stories about Bill Springstep would have been more likely to tell stories about the problems that confronted them in their own lives, possibly inspired by a real individual who was contemporary to them. It would only have been later, after the figure of Springstep had been established and then faded into myth that he would have been inserted backwards into speculative stories about the origins of the world and its inhabitants.

The same process also extends forwards in time. As the canon of gnomish lore extended, additional stories were attributed to Bill Springstep even if the stories originated or were set long after the period of any of his traditional stories.

The modern human study of lore places no value judgment on the veracity of these sorts of stories as truth is not their function, but the modern reader who has grown up on a diet consisting mostly of fiction created as a single more or less coherent body with internal consistency and a continuous timeline (“continuity”) may feel drawn to the challenge of making sense of how the stories fit together.

Be assured, to try to construct a literal timeline of the hero’s life based on the canonical tales would be quite impossible even if we make generous assumptions about his lifespan or ability to return to the land of the living, because from the outset it requires us to accept that he was at least thirty-three years of age when the world was new and had ten generations of ancestors preceding him.

Gnomish scholars regard such contradictions as trivial at best.  Some gnomish loremasters who have been reached for comment regard the tales of Bill Springstep as “literally true, but not actually true”. The venerable gnomish sage T. John Ronald is said to have opined that each individual story is completely true, but the body of stories as a whole is not.For them, the Springstep tales fall into the category known as “Is-So” stories… as in, “It doesn’t matter what objection you throw up, I tell you it is so.”

Trying to reconcile the various stories into a single coherent narrative becomes all the harder when one widens one’s gaze to consider as well those stories which might be considered variations on a theme.

In New Port Chartres, for instance, the shortfolk tell the story of Guy Roublard.

“It isn’t always night in New Port Chartres,” the story of Guy begins. “Only when it matters. La Belle Dame Nuit, she doesn’t come out for the little stuff. She leaves that to her brother, the overstuffed peacock Lord Toujours. It is always night when Guy Roublard rolls into town, though.”

In this tale of Guy Roublard, students of the Springstep canon will recognize elements of the tale of Bill and the Night, where the familiar figure inadvertently (or possibly not) seduces a woman who lives in the moon, causing it to always show the same face to the world as it searches for him (among other fanciful elements, this story supposes a spherical moon circling around the world at some fixed distance)… but the story of Guy and the Belle Dame is more than merely a local retelling of the older story.

The story draws on elements of local history and mythology, and the diminutive Guy is outwardly cannier and cagier than the cheerful and somewhat avuncular Bill. He has sharper edges to his soul.

Other similar “Bill Figures” crop up in the most unlikely places. There may have been such a gnome as Bill Springstep at some point in the past, but whether he existed or not it is true that he lived, he died, and in between he did many things, some of which haven’t happened yet.

Real or not, alive or not, Bill goes anywhere that gnomes may go… and gnomes, for all their famed distaste for adventure, may turn up anywhere.


The Day Bill Skipped Breakfast

Not so long ago on the other side of a river, a small shire of folk lived in a rolling green expanse around which a human city had grown. The city had once been a single farm, built on the shire’s border in the spirit of cooperation and with the blessings of those who lived there. From time to time the family of farmers had wandered over to the shire to share in some celebration or other, or to borrow some simple necessity.

The shirefolk had no shortage of celebrations or anything else that was needful, and had never much minded sharing. If the farmers were not quite scrupulous in returning their generosity, still it pleased the shirefolk to know that they themselves were the better neighbors in the arrangement.

But the one thing that humans know how to do better than anyone else is to grow, and the farm grew into a village, which then grew into a town, and in the fullness of time that town had become a towering city full of giants who did not remember their debts to their neighbors.

When the day came that the city had all but run out of room to grow outwards, it began to look inwards to that expanse of green at its center that over eleven dozen souls called home. The giants sent a delegation of sorts to speak to the reeve of the shire, who was called George. This was the sort of delegation that was armed with long pointy spears and heavy clubs, and after the shirefolk issued their customary retort to that delegation, the giants sent in another one that was armed with documents instead. This one was led by the mayor of the giants, himself a descendant of the original farming family.

“You see here, Shire-Reeve,” he said. “Eleven decades ago, your ancestor took his breakfast at my ancestor’s table. He ate a whole roasted hen all by himself, saying ‘I’m sure I’ll replay the favor sometime.’ I have a receipt and other documents that record this.”

“I need no proof, it sounds likely enough,” George replied. “What of it? Your ancestors ate at our tables often enough, not that we minded the company.”

“The debt is outstanding, and I am here to collect it,” the mayor said.

“Surely it was repaid many times over!”

“Produce the receipts that prove it, then,” the giant mayor said.

“We don’t keep records of our kindnesses,” George said. “But if all this fuss is over a chicken, you may have a dozen of our finest with my compliments. One extra for every eleven years the ‘debt’ has been in arrears, and another just because I like the looks of your honorable worship’s face.”

“That doesn’t begin to cover the interest.”

“It exceeds the extent of my interest in the matter,” George said, “so you may take it or leave it.”

“If not for the guzzling gluttony of your ancestor, that chicken would have produced eggs for my ancestor’s table,” the mayor said. “The surplus of those eggs would have been income. The hen could have been bred, producing still more food and money. That money could have been invested in any of a number of advantageous ways, including but not limited to the purchase of more chickens. My ancestors might not have needed to come begging at your doors for scraps.”

“They would have been welcome all the same,” George said.

“I have here in my hand affidavits from mathematicians, economists, grocers, and cooks totaling the amount of money our community could have earned or saved from the produce of that one chicken, if your ancestor hadn’t eaten it,” the mayor said. “Now, as we are both the lawful rulers of our municipalities, Reeve Springstep, you must meet my charges before a lawful tribunal or else your lands are forefeit to me.”

“Well then, Your Honor, my representative shall see you in court,” George said, for he saw the shape of things. He was only a little worried… his last name was Springstep, after all, and he had a cousin named Bill who he knew would sort the matter out.

“You have one week to prepare your case,” the mayor said.

When the mayor and his men had left, George sought out his cousin and put the matter to him.

“Do you think you can see this thing through?” the reeve asked him.

“Cousin, it is as good as done,” Bill said. “You may depend on me.”

This worried George, for Bill was wily and he was knowledgeable and he was in most ways decent, but the one thing that he wasn’t was dependable. Bill had what the impolite might call an adventurish streak in him, and it got the best of him at the worst of times. For the rest of the week, George had the shire watch post guards around Bill to see that nothing distracted him. He gave no signs of interest in anything shiny or dangerous, but to George’s growing dismay, he made no preparations for trying the case, either.

On the night before the appointed day, George went to him.

“Have you done no research?” he asked.

“None.”

“Do you have any legal stratagem in mind?”

“None in particular.”

“Have you studied the rules of the tribunal?”

“Do you think there’s anything of use in them?”

“Bill Springstep, are you taking this matter seriously in the slightest?”

“Seriously?” Bill answered. “Cousin, I am skipping breakfast for it.”

Relieved and slightly shocked, George left his cousin, certain that things were well in hand.

The next morning, though, the guards could find no trace of Bill in his room, nor anywhere else in the shire. With nothing else to do but trust in his cousin, George set out for the courtroom in the city of giants. All the important citizens of both communities were there, and both expected to see some great sport before the matter was settled.

The tribune (who, it must be mentioned, was also the mayor) saw that the appointed hour was approaching and there was no sign of Bill.

“If the hour arrives and you can present no case, you lose by default,” the mayor reminded George.

“We are allowed eleven minutes’ grace,” George replied, having familiarized himself with the rules that Bill had scorned.

“But no more than that,” the mayor said.

The hour arrived, and then passed. Minute after minute ticked by until at last it was ten minutes past the hour. The mayor reached for his mace of authority when all at once the door was flung open, and there was Bill surrounded by a gaggle of his younger cousins, nieces, and nephews.

“Good morning!” he declared. “I do beg Your Worship’s indulgence, but I was so worried about this I couldn’t eat.”

“That is hardly our problem,” the mayor said.

“Quite right, quite right,” Bill said. “My nephew cooked up a big pot of beans for me, and I couldn’t muster the slightest appetite. I have to admit that your records are quite clear and I can offer no defense against them…”

“Cousin!” George said warningly, to no effect.

“…and the whole thing has affected my appetite to the point that I simply gave up. So, in order to waste nothing… and possibly offer a settlement… I had my young relations here help me plant the beans throughout the shire grounds, with the idea that the profit from such a bumper crop as may be produced from such a quantity of beans might be found acceptable by your august self to serve in lieu of our debt.”

“That is your proposed settlement?” the mayor said. “It is unacceptable.”

“Your honor, do not make the mistake of underestimating a gnome’s breakfast,” Bill said. “It was quite a large pot of beans.”

“Gerald take the beans!” the mayor said.

“Perhaps your learned mathematicians could help you calculate the worth of the crop, before you reject them out of hand?”

“You simpleton,” the mayor said, chortling as only the very large and very arrogant can chortle. “I need consult no mathematician. It does not matter how many blasted beans you planted if they were already cooked when you put them into the ground. There can be no crop produced from them, and they are therefore worth nothing.”

“I see,” Bill said. “This is your final judgment on the matter?”

“It is,” the mayor said. “What kind of fool do you think I am, that you expected me to accept the future produce of cooked beans as payment?”

“Why, your honor, I took you for the kind of fool who tries to collect on the future eggs of a chicken already plucked and cooked,” Bill said. “Was I mistaken?”

At that, the crowd watching the drama erupted into gales of laughter, gnomes and giants alike. It was the end of the mayor’s attempts to annex the green, as well as his career in politics in that city. The gnomes of the green had seen which way the wind was blowing, though, and they began the process of vacating their premises on their own initiative, and in their own time. Bill Springstep made sure that they were well compensated in one way or another for the loss of their traditional home, as well as the material aid they had given the ungrateful giants whose memories were shorter than they were.

And yet so powerful was the memory of the former mayor’s humiliation that no one in that city ever again tried to claim the green expanse of hills, trees, and grass which to this day stands untouched in the middle of it.

They say that every now and again, though, a beanstalk does sprout up from that ground. The mayor was quite right about the general principles of agriculture, but Bill does nothing by half-measures.


Some notes on idioms:

  • “The other side of a river” serves the same function in a gnomish tale as “a far-off land” serves in a human one. That is, it is not meant to convey a precise distance or location so much as establish that the story concerns a locale with which the listener is unfamiliar.
  • Gnomes often use the term “giant” for any person taller than a dwarf they regard as unpleasant.
  • “Skipping breakfast for it” might be taken to mean “deadly serious about it.”
  • The habit of counting by elevens is a gnomish practice being projected by the tellers of the story onto the humans. In particular, it is unlikely that any human tribunal ever had a practice of eleven minutes’ grace.
  • Gnomes often refer to time as “ticking”. This is believed to possibly refer to the sound drops of water make when they drip off a stalactite.
  • ”Gerald” is how gnomish storytellers often render human oaths invoking the Dark Herald.

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30 Responses to “OT: The Day Bill Skipped Breakfast”

  1. Kevin Brown says:

    I kind of wondered how the mayor expected a cooked chicken to have lain eggs.

    Current score: 1
    • Jennifer says:

      Yes, me too. I suppose you could still make a similar argument if you wanted to keep being a dick though:

      Your ancestor ate that chicken, so in order for my ancestor to eat the next day, he needed to pluck and roast an additional chicken. THAT chicken could have laid eggs, producing more chickens, producing more eggs, etc…

      Current score: 0
      • Stonefoot says:

        If that had been the original claim, this defense would not have worked, but making that claim after the original had failed would be like saying “I didn’t do it! I wasn’t even there! And besides, it was an accident!”

        The mayor would look like the guy who “shot himself in the foot, reloaded, and shot himself in the other foot”.

        (That phrase probably should be attributed to John Melcher Jr. – a guy I worked with quite a while ago.)

        Current score: 0
    • Nicola says:

      Well, if he hadn’t come to visit, he might not have killed and cooked the chicken….Maybe.

      Current score: 0
      • Riocaz says:

        As it takes time to roast a chicken one can assume he either turned up hours before or it was already cooked/cooking when he arrived.

        Easily clarified by changing the meal to a cold roasted chicken. Which indicates the chicken was cooked well before the meal and most likely the night before..

        Current score: 0
  2. wg says:

    “…The venerable gnomish sage T. John Ronald is said to have opined…”

    Nice touch, AE. 🙂

    Current score: 0
    • ASeriesOfWords says:

      I don’t get the reference. 🙁

      Current score: 0
      • Krey says:

        J.R.R. Tolkein was John Ronald Reuel Tolkein.
        Appropriate since the MU-niverse gnomes seem to be hobbit based.

        Current score: 0
  3. Electra says:

    “We are allowed elven minutes’ grace,”

    Do you mean “eleven”?

    Current score: 0
  4. Erm says:

    “We are allowed elven minutes’ grace,”

    Is this a typo or an idiom?

    Current score: 0
    • N'ville says:

      Or even a Freudian slip, even though the Elves were not involved in the story. 🙂

      Current score: 0
      • Erm says:

        Yes, I meant perhaps “elven minutes” is like what we call the “academic quarter”, if elves made a habit of being fashionably late.

        Current score: 0
  5. Zathras IX says:

    It doesn’t matter
    What objection you throw up
    I’ll serve you seconds

    Current score: 1
  6. anon y mouse says:

    “but the body of stories as a whole is not.For them,” – space(s) between ‘not.’ and ‘For’.

    Current score: 0
    • Lunaroki says:

      Typo Report

      saying ‘I’m sure I’ll replay the favor sometime.’

      Unless he Tivo’d it I expect it was meant to say “repay the favor”.

      Current score: 0
  7. Krey says:

    “Gnomes often refer to time as “ticking”. This is believed to possibly refer to the sound drops of water make when they drip off a stalactite.”

    Suggests a mechanical clock, somehow related to the otherworldly origins we’ve seen hinted at (and dismissed by scholars) repeatedly?

    Current score: 1
    • Erm says:

      An ordinary magical clock might tick as well, if it were to be used as a metronome or something…

      Current score: 1
      • Brenda says:

        We have seen a mechanical clock in the MUniverse, although Mackenzie didn’t know what it was. That was when she went to get snacks from Hazel’s room, the first time they were all playing Stone Soldiers.

        Honey or Hazel (I forget which, but probably Hazel) also mentioned a piano one time, and were unable to explain it to the others.

        It seems burrow gnomes have a little more science – but where does the line appear between basic simple machines and Science that Magic objects to?

        Current score: 2
        • Rey d'Tutto says:

          Generally folks who look into defining rules of nature, and then, testing them… if they look too close, nature bites a non-insignificant appendage or worse…

          Current score: 0
  8. readaholic says:

    Ooh, I love gnomish tales!! Is the park a reference to New York City’s Central Park?

    Current score: 0
    • Helen Rees says:

      Depends – is Central Park notorious for beans? – oh, wait.

      Central Perk.

      Current score: 0
    • JS says:

      Probably not, Central Park was the result of the winning plans put forth in a competition arranged by the city.

      Current score: 0
  9. readstospouse says:

    “It seems burrow gnomes have a little more science – but where does the line appear between basic simple machines and Science that Magic objects to?”

    When they try to be smartasses with it. Since gnomish mechanics clearly take as much or more effort, time, cost, care etc as a simple timekeeping spell, they are inoffensive to the powers mu reality is subject to… that or the powers simple don’t notice/keep forgetting about them.

    Current score: 1
  10. Heather says:

    This was amazing–I laughed out several times. <3 Bill almost more than Two.

    One of the best was also a typo– Some gnomish loremasters who have been reached for comment regard the tales of Bill Springstep as “literally true, but not actually true”.

    (Period should go inside the quote.)

    I'm going to quote that so often though. I feel that way about a lot of life. 😀

    I also adored: "He gave no signs of interest in anything shiny or dangerous." 😀

    Current score: 0
    • Stonefoot says:

      “(Period should go inside the quote.)”
      That’s a “rule” for American usage. English usage is “put the period inside the quote if it’s part of the quote, otherwise not” – in other words, put it where it belongs. Following the American rule leads repeatedly to quotations which are factually untrue (don’t represent correctly the original that was quoted).

      So, since this is ‘published’ in the U.S., you are correct. However, the rule that has been violated is… um… let’s just say “ludicrous”.

      Current score: 0
      • JS says:

        Hmm…my American grammar lessons taught me to “put the period inside the quote if it’s part of the quote, otherwise not”, so I also follow this rule. So perhaps it’s not as facile as a US/UK split.

        Current score: 0
        • nobody really says:

          the two styles are often referred to as “American quoting” and “logical” (occasionally “British”) quoting, respectively. that may be misleading, though.

          as best i understand it, “American quoting” arose out of typeset print media, where it was considered more aesthetically pleasing at some point in time (using what font? i don’t know). “logical quoting” seems to have been more popular in Britain, and is currently very popular amongst comp sci geeks like myself, because it appeals to people who are detail oriented bordering on the obsessive.

          both have been mentioned in enough “authoritative” sources to be considered correct, although i myself prefer logical quoting as being more correct. use whichever feels better.

          Current score: 0
          • Old comment, but for the record: it’s got nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with laziness in typesetting. When a period or comma was on the end of a line of text, it had a greater than average chance of being jarred out of place when the press was slammed down, so they invented a new rule that allowed them to slightly decrease the chance that this would happen.

            Somehow, someone decided that this constitutes “grammar”. They are very clearly mistaken.

            Current score: 2
  11. That Dave Guy says:

    Heh. Clever Bill.

    Current score: 0
  12. Khazidhea says:

    “as a whole is not.[space]For them”
    ‘I’m sure I’ll replay[/repay] the favor sometime.’

    Current score: 0