Of Woodland Glades and Hollow Hills


Whoever we are and however we seek peace, solace or a connection with something beyond the mundane, for the majority of us there is a place where we find something that refreshes our soul, or at least feels closer to doing so than the highways and byways of our everyday life. The spiritually developed person who sees the divine in everything will still regularly be drawn to a certain garden or hilltop. Even the Buddha, refined through many lifetimes to have no attachment to things in the physical world, chose a specific sacred fig tree under which to sit and meditate his way to enlightenment.

Some places just have something about them that resonates with us in a way that other places do not. In an animist culture the assumption would be that a being of some sort lived there, a spirit or spirits specific to that place. If the spirit was friendly and the place popular the spirit might be credited with influence beyond their personal rock, dell or circle of trees, often involving the well-being of plants and animals in the general vicinity.

littlefairycu

It seems to me that a good number of the fairy folk started life as spirits of place, particularly the diminutive winged types found in sylvan glades who are clearly connected to the fertility of the forest. Thus they do not posses the power of invisibility, it is their natural state. The power they posses is that of visibility, allowing themselves to be seen by those who are open to their existence.


The link between the small woodland fairies and their human sized namesakes comes about because the Tuatha De Danann and others of their ilk can also be considered as spirits of place. Connected with the hill forts, stone circles or hills they occupied while present in this world or the burial mounds they retreated in to, the large and powerful fairies are a mix of gods and ancestral spirits who attained a wide enough sphere of influence to become autonomous from their place of origin. It is easy to see how a smith of great skill in the early days of metalwork might be buried with great honour in a barrow., then, in a culture where ancestors were revered and their soul contacted and consulted, they would maintain their importance long after their physical presence had moved on.

Though connected at a theoretical level it is still strange that these two kinds of being, with very different appearances and behaviours should share a name and even be found together according to many eye witness reports. My personal opinion is that the small fairies tag along with their larger brethren in much the same way that jackdaws hang around with rooks.

If you want these denizens of the Otherworld to show themselves to you then there are obvious places to start. The good folk are fond of trees and especially thorns. Anywhere with the combination of oak, ash and thorn is likely. Of course, fairy rings indicate a favoured dancing spot and any barrow, burial mound or particularly well rounded hill should be worth a look. The best place however, may be just that place you go to yourself that has something indefinable about it that makes you happy, for the fairies who live there already know you.

If all else fails then you could look in The Tavelling Talesman’s tour dates for “Away With The Fairies” at http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml

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It’s in the bag


I gave the fairies a rest last month while I checked through my stock of stories, blew the dust off some old favourites, retired some stalwarts from the last couple of years and looked over the new recruits for my summer season’s festival sets. Over a four day festival I will get through more than sixty tales varying in length from a couple of minutes to three quarters of an hour. Also some people turn up at more than one of the festivals and I like to have enough material at hand to give them something different from the previous damp field we met in. Then there are the tales I have learnt for historical sites such as Corfe Castle, special requests for weddings, private house parties and any other themed events I am booked for. That’s quite a lot of culture to lug around, and some of those myths are pretty heavy! I could really do with some help to carry it all.

 

Some concepts are just so appealing that they get invented again and again. In “The Colour of Magic” Terry Pratchett introduced his readers to “The Luggage”, a wooden chest with legs that can not only hold everything it’s owner might possibly need but can also dispose of things they do not want, such as violent aggressors. The small container of infinite capacity is such a practical, amazing and desirable item that we just have to keep re-imagining it: The “Room Of Requirement” may not be portable but Harry Potter would be stuffed without it; Doctor Who is able to travel in his box that is bigger on the inside and Mary Poppins can pull a surprising variety of improbable items out of her carpet bag.

Even though each of these items engages a sense of wonder when we first meet them (Wouldn’t it be marvellously useful to be able to carry and store lots of stuff without having to, well, actually carry or store lots of stuff?), it will come as no surprise that it’s not a new idea at all. Various wizards and the usual plethora of Jacks have facilitated their adventures through the possession of a Magic Bag. Some magic bags are quite specific, the one that appears in the Grim brother’s “The Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn” only contains soldiers and horses, but as many as you want, and through it are won the hat, the horn and eventually the kingdom. Other bags have the power to pull things of any size in to them on command such as the one owned by a blacksmith. Annoyed by a churchman who preaches a lot but will do nothing to remove a troublesome demon, he tells the sack to swallow them both. After a long career ridding the land of wickedness, he is sent to hell since he has spent so much of his life concentrating on evil that he “has a natural affinity for it”. Since he doesn’t fancy an eternity as Beelzebub’s toast he orders the entire flaming pit in to the bag leaving St. Peter no choice but to let him in.

 

Although I have read and told a great many stories I know some better than others. The ones I have at my fingertips to pull out at a moments notice I consider to be in my “Ready Bag”. Although I check the contents over each year, when I am put on the spot by a request or discover an event has a theme no one told me about, if I reach deep in to my ready bag I can often be surprised by what is still in there. I have also found that no matter how big a story is it does fit in, and there is always room for another dragon, giant or goddess if I want to take them with me. I expect you have moments when a long unused fact or skill pops out of your head when you need it, and I’m sure you load new information in to your brain every day. Maybe we all have a magic bag after all, we just have to be careful what we put into it.

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Fairy time


Fairies as such, are fairly limited in Geographic scope, being primarily a European phenomenon. Their name and characteristics can vary significantly across this area too, but there is a type of fairy encounter which is common throughout the lands, widely different in the specifics yet exactly the same in it’s outcome, and so prolific one has to wonder if there is some truth behind this tale type.

As is often the case with close encounters of the fairy kind the person, whether young lad, maiden or wandering drunk, who features in the story is captivated by faint musical, magical sounds. Following the entrancing harmony they come upon the Good Folk dancing, singing and making merry. Often they will watch unobserved from behind a tree or rock at first but soon the music will pull them into the whirling dance. It may be that they stay for a couple of hours, nights, weeks, or even three months. At the absolute maximum it might be seven years. It would seem that this period is full of intoxicating joy and pleasantness. Nevertheless, at some point they decide to head for home. On arriving back in their village, or castle they find many things changed and unfamiliar, all the people they knew are gone and their home is occupied by strangers. On further enquiry they find that their family are long dead and there is only a faint memory of a story about someone by their name having vanished without trace more than a lifetime or two ago. As they struggle to come to grips with this news they age rapidly and crumble to dust.

Sometimes the plot may have a longer set up. King Herla goes to a far land to witness the wedding of a fairy king; Oisin is wooed by a beautiful princess from the land of youth. In each case they return to discover hundreds of years have passed. Interestingly, in both of these cases a change of epic proportions has fallen upon the land. In Herla’s case he leaves a British King and returns to a land long under Saxon rule. The Irish Oisin leaves a pagan Eire and comes back to tell the tales of Finn mac Cumhal to a fascinated Saint Patrick.

Curiously it is by no means guaranteed that a sojourn in the Otherworld will lead to a powdery demise. Pwyll Prince of Dyfed manages to count off a year and a day in Annwyvn
with exactitude before coming home the same year and a day later in his own land. Many others come and go between the lands with less loss of time than I encounter whilst eating breakfast. Certainly the fairies themselves have no problem reconciling time between our two plains, happily making and keeping appointments accurately to the hour.

So are these tales based in fact? Possibly it was common for people to leave home without warning, maybe falling in with Romanies or other nomads in a rush of excitement after accidentally joining them for a few nights revels, then losing track of time before coming home to find their family had died in their absence. It is easy to see how the tale might be elaborated and exaggerated by re-telling until it spans hundreds of years.

…and yet, the rapid onset of the time spent in the land of youth and the ensuing sudden de-hydration are less easy to see being the creation of so many different storytellers in so many assorted places. So if you are out in the forest or on the moors of a night and your ears are assailed by the most delectable melodies you have ever heard, take thought before you let your feet follow the captivating rhythm: your life may never be the same again.

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Away With The Fairies


NOT A FAIRY.
“Changeling” by Robin Stevenson
More by him at https://www.pinterest.com/pin/142496775681932380/

I don’t use the term “fairytale” very often. It is odd that somehow the title “fairytale” has become a blanket term for any story involving magic. For me it is only a fairytale if it actually has a fairy in it. So how do we identify a fairy? Oh, Now we have entered a realm of confusion! I have several books purporting to be specifically about fairies (or faeries, we can’t even reach consensus on the spelling). These contain descriptions and tales of the wee folk by the various names of Spriggans, Pixies, Piskies, Sidhe (pronounced “shee”), Good Folk (I could go on but we’ve barely scratched the surface and haven’t even left the British Isles), but also feature Trow, Trolls, Koboldoi, Gnomes, Brownies, Nixen, Knockers and a host of other supernatural beings. It’s a bit like buying a textbook on humans and finding chapters on marmosets and grizzlies.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Irish Book Of Invasions tells us that at one time the land of Éire was in possession of the tall, fair skinned Tuatha De Danann. Long lived and wielding powerful magic the Tuatha De held truth and fairness in high esteem and many stories are told of their time. Then the Milesians, whose descendants are the current Irish, turned up, fought the Tuatha De for the land, won, and banished the Tuatha De Danann in to the ancient burial mounds that litter the country where they still live as the Sidhe or faery host.

Since their banishment the Fair Folk have interacted with humans in a variety of ways. Women and men from each race have fallen in love with, seduced or abducted and married someone from the other; items have been stolen by each from each and favours, trades and deals have been done leading to both lasting happiness and deep sorrow.

One of the oddest things about The Ever Living Ones is that they appear to be shrinking. The Tuatha De were considered tall against humans. A few hundred years ago elves were generally perceived as around three or four feet tall. The modern apprehension of the size of a fairy is probably between ten and twenty centimetres. What they have lost in stature they have made up in utility, having apparently grown wings along the way. However, just incase you thought you were getting a handle on them, some can switch from small to large if they wish.

Probably the most consistent thing about fairies is that they are attractive to human senses: they are beautiful to gaze upon, their music and voices are sweet to the ear and the smell of their food ravishing to the nostrils. Whether short or tall, a glimpse of the Good Folk fills the mortal observer with wonder, delight and curiosity, but beware, they are very choosy about the humans they will share their wonders with and many who have blundered excitedly in to the revels of the Fae have suffered for it afterwards.

Now it seems your humble Talesman has fallen under their spell, for my spring tour will be “Away With The Fairies” and I shall be reading everything I can about them over the next three months, so no doubt you will hear a little more about them too.

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What Big Teeth You Have.


When the moon is full take care, for that is the time that someone afflicted by a curse may undergo the terrible transformation, their feet and hands grow long and hair sprouts all over their body as they writhe in agony. Finally their face pushes forwards in to a slavering, canine snout and, head back, they let out a spine chilling howl. Now, in this monstrous form, they search for a lonely victim to rend, tear and devour. Only a silver bullet can stop them.

This werewolf, however, is a Victorian literary concoction. The werewolf of folktale is a very different beast. The full moon plays no part. Transformations being brought on by the donning of a wolf skin, the application of an ointment, or simply because the mood takes them. How are we to cope? At least with the lunar induced metamorphosis we know when to get the special ammunition on standby. Fortunately as well as being less predictable the folk wolfman is less invulnerable and can be killed by most normal methods for dispatching mammals.

The Daughter Of Ulkolak has a werewolf for a father. He is a woodcutter and one day starts eliminating his nine daughters because the are too expensive. When the youngest (and prettiest) is brought to the edge of the pit in which her sisters lie dead she asks Ulkolak to turn away while she undresses for her impending immolation. When his back is turned she pushes him in the pit and runs away. The werewolf is soon in pursuit so she throws her handkerchief behind her which he stops to rend into pieces. As she flees amongst the trees with the paws of death hot on her trail, she slings bonnet, gown, apron, petticoat and shift behind her, each buying her valuable moments. The now naked girl comes to a hay field and hides in a rick where the wolf fails to find her and she is eventually rescued.

“You want me to do what?”

In a little Red Riding Hood variant the werewolf, having slaughtered granny and disguised himself in her bed, bids the girl take off her clothes one by one, throw them in the fire and climb in to bed with him. At the end of the the classic “Oh, granny what big eyes you have” sequence, when they reach “All the better to eat you with” she cleverly escapes and is chased naked through the forest.

In these two tales we see a number of common threads: the separation from older feminine family members, the sequential destruction of clothing and a naked woodland flight to safety. The origin of this story lies, not in the transmutation of man in to wolf, but in the rebirth of girl in to woman. The story has been told for generations by mothers to daughters to prepare them for the inevitable changes of life, a classic warning of what is to come. The werewolf is either a symbol of the predatory male or a metaphor for the newly awakened sexual urges of adolescence. The youthful maiden ventures out of the home environment leaving the support and advice of her family. Her childish self is stripped away from her bit by bit and she has to face the frightening world of sexuality.

Our attitudes to the wolf are changing. In more recent re-workings of the werewolf trope, such as Being Human, they are regaining control. Maybe the warnings of this tale help us all towards taking responsibility for our animal side. 

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…and Things that go Munch in the Night


It’s that time again, as darkness falls upon the land and the dead rise from their crypts to walk amongst us, reaching out with cold, unfriendly fingers to suck life from the living… though I hope my previous wafflings on this subject have shown that the dead are exactly that and can do us little harm beyond spilling our cocoa in mild surprise at their re-appearance. It was a noticeable feature of several of the stories that I came across in my research for last year’s “The Raven and other Underworld Journeys” that the doors to the land of the dead are firmly shut and once you get down there you are not coming back. If the conditions are right you might be able to get a phone call through though.

Originally the late October feast, Samhain (pronounced Sawain) in the celtic language of the Britons back before the Romans came here, was a time to relax and enjoy the fruits of the years labours; the storehouses were full from the harvest and the year’s work was done. At the death of the year and the thinning of the veil between past present and future, it was also a time to give thanks to and commune with the ancestors, an opportunity to seek advice from late Uncle Jack or Grandmother Jane. With the coming of Christianity the tradition of talking to deceased relatives went from normal to dark and terrible. Since then our low mortality rates and hurried funerary practices have distanced us from death to such an extent that we no longer have the psychological means to deal with it, our collective terror of death being so great that we have demonised the dead themselves. The result of this is a vast mountain of zombie flicks in which the touch of the dead can transform even our nearest and dearest in to ravenous fiends hungry for our brains, at least one of the gang of plucky survivors having to pull the trigger in the face of their best friend or closest relative.

Our fear of re-animated corpses and ghosts is all in our minds, a projection of our fear of death and could be easily laid to rest by accepting deaths inevitability and celebrating the lives of those that have passed on before us. Needless to say I will be leaving the waking dead for the movies to deal with. If you want something to be scared of, and it would appear that many of you do, then I would choose the living.

For the spooky season this year I shall be concentrating on beings far more likely to creep in to your bedroom under cover of darkness and fasten their fangs in your goose-bump covered flesh than zombies or ghosts. My Halloween tour takes me from Evolution in Exeter on the 18th October, across the country to London and back with eleven gigs on the way ending on November the 9th at the Skittle alley of my local pub, the London Inn in Morchard Bishop. My entourage for this spine chilling venture will be “Goblins, Ghouls And Long Legged Beasties”… all of them very much alive!

 

Goblins, Ghouls and Long Legged Beasties tour poster

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Get Lucky


I’m packing the tent in to the car again, along with my blackboard, drums, hat stand and four foot Dane Axe; it’s funny the things that you gather as part of your job. Storytellers of yore are always assumed to have wandered on foot with nothing more than a bit of bread and cheese from their last friendly host. I’m beginning to think this unlikely and suspect donkeys of yore found ready employment lugging bard’s harps, tents, sleeping bags and assorted tat of the trade around the country. I’ve only been home for a couple of days and barely caught up on my sleep after Wickham Festival where I finished each day with the popular “Late Night Child Free Story Chill” after the main stage closed down. This left me closing up the Storytelling tent at gone midnight and only just getting to the bar in time for a post work pint before it closed… but on a festival site there is always someone who has just come off shift, stall holders, stage crew, caterers; professional nomads all, we happily chat in to the wee small hours to the constant thrum of the generators… and wake at 7 as the sun turns our tents in to ovens.

 

Often, when I tell people that storytelling is my full time job they will respond with “Aren’t you lucky! What a great job to have.” and they’re right, it is a great job.

 

There is a story that inhabits the entertainment industry. It gets dragged out every couple of years by film producers to support their latest offering. Sometimes there is a prequel about how they auditioned thousands of hopefuls or were let down by a big name at the last minute, but the meat of the story is always that the director walked in to a supermarket and discovered their new star working behind the counter. “Like a latter day Cinderella” the press releases say; “A modern tale of rags to riches”. It’s a great story but it is just that, a heart warming yarn that fills you with hope… and makes the audience warm to the character played by the lucky store hand. The missing part of this story is that the actor – and they are already an actor, the job at the supermarket is only a fill in while they are “resting” – has been sending their CV to the director in question for months, they may even have been in for an audition. Sure, the meeting in the supermarket happens… but the groundwork has been laid, in both publicity and skills.

 

Now I’m not saying that luck doesn’t come in to it, there are definitely lucky breaks, but if you are already on the road the chances of a lift are far higher than if you are sat on your back porch. All the professional nomads who live at festivals through the summer have put in the hours and developed their skills. Whatever it is that fills your dreams, you can set off towards it, and if there is no lucky break then you get an excellent journey!

 

My big break is still waiting to show itself but I am doing all I can to make sure I can take it if it comes. One more step on the way is that I have been nominated in the British Awards for Storytelling Excellence this year, http://www.storyawards.org.uk/ please check out the competition and vote even if it’s not for me, we can all do with a leg up after all. I may not make the shortlist but there is always next year.

 

So, who knows? Maybe I’ll get spotted by a producer and turn up as the next Doctor Who, it would still be a rags to riches, meteoric rise to fame, but in the meantime I’ve got a pretty good job, I’ve worked hard for it but I’m lucky to be The Travelling Talesman.

 

*** This months FTC is dedicated to all the litter pickers, stewards, caterers, security teams, lampies, noise boys and girls, marquee erectors, toilet cleaners, shower operatives, stage managers and everyone who works stupid hours behind the scenes to make festivals run. Thank you all.

 

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