Man’s Beast Friend


While the deeper meanings of a story remain constant the details and mechanics are often effected quite strongly by the medium. This is never more obvious than the change wrought on werewolves by the cinema. Almost everything we think we know about werewolves: their connection to the lunar cycle; their immunity to all but silver bullets; their un-controllable blood lust; the weird feud thing with vampires; that a bite will will make you one too… were all popularised by movies and are all wrong.

In pre-Victorian folklore the moon doesn’t play a part in werewolf stories at all, they have no crossover with vampires whatsoever and getting bitten by a werewolf may be painful, or even fatal, but it is not transformative. Werewolves die as easily as any other mammal and only a few of them are hell bent on destruction. In the old folktales it seems that being a werewolf is a purely physical condition. The person of evil intent will become an evil wolf whilst the good and civilised person will remain equally domesticated whilst in their furry skin.

Those who are wicked and have the ability to become a wolf are frequently repeatedly violent, not always when changed either. The renowned folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould, wrote a book called The Book of Were-Wolves” which is actually primarily about serial killers. He appears to be making the case that the werewolf trope arises out of the monsterfication of the multiple murderer. In folktales and history bad werewolves get killed of course, usually with a fairly standard sharp implement such as a spear or a knife, or dancing at the end of a rope if the law has caught up with them.

One of the things about the good werewolf is that they don’t have a big problem with being a bit doggy; running off in to the woods is just a thing they have to do now and then. There are even stories in which the ability to transform is given as a gift or reward. Any problems that they have stem from other people’s reactions. It is often getting past society’s unwarranted negativity that creates the conflict in the story. In one French tale (France has quite a high density of the afflicted), a dissolute Abbott called Gilbert falls form his horse in the forest whilst drunk, cutting himself in the process. The smell of blood attracts some wild panthers who are about to make a meal of him when he is rescued by a werewolf. The werewolf follows Gilbert back to the abbey, despite Gilbert’s repeated and ever increasing attempts to shoo it away, and later turns out to be his Bishop who lectures Gilbert on the Christian values of judging people by their actions rather than their appearance.

Unlike many other beast genres in folktale, the climax of the tale rarely involves the werewolf becoming permanently human, the condition is not one that gets cured. The more gentle and well behaved werewolf can mostly avoid the terrible terminations of their murderous cousins but is still generally the same amount of canine at the end of the story as the beginning. The wedding that is the resolution in so many fairytales is totally absent as well, the werewolf’s marital status being neither here nor there unless it is their spouses attitude to their lupine nature that causes their problems. What the good werewolf can generally look forward to as their “happily ever after” is acceptance of who they are, however big their eyes, ears and teeth are.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Real Men Get The Needle


I have just come back from a busy summer working at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth on HMS Warrior “The First Iron-clad”. I had been brought in to create a suite of stories and train the staff in the art and craft of storytelling. As part of the application I wrote a bit about emotional engagement in historical interpretation:

A needle in a museum display case is often only noted for it’s surprising size and bluntness, but for large parts of history they were an essential part of an everyday toolkit carried by half the population. They were items of value, in the middle ages an entire play, “Gammer Gurton’s Needle” was constructed around the loss of one, yet they remain unexciting to the modern observer (like you, you’re not excited yet are you?) unless we can put the needle in the hands of a person with a life and a story that illustrates the importance of the needle to them. Even this may not work if we simply give the needle to a tailor and have them make a nice frock coat for Mr. Corbett to wear to the fair.

What if Mr. Tailor has a big order in but has been taken ill, leaving his poor arthritic mother to hand sew thirty naval gunner’s shirts by the end of the month?
Even then, it may be hard to grasp the real, personal hardship of the job unless we take some time illustrate old Mrs. Tailor’s struggle: What does the cloth feel like? Does the repetitive pushing of the needle through the layered seams make her shoulders cramp? Is it hard to see by the single candle which is all she can afford to use?”

Although factually inaccurate on a couple of points (as you shall see), this set me off on a train of thought: Vikings were famously well turned out, snappy dressers with a penchant for bling. They were also away from home for quite long periods of time, engaged in heavy manual labour and the occasional tussle. How did they maintain their sartorial elegance? Who sewed up the sword cuts in their expensive silk tunics? What about other travelling men? Explorers, traders, army and navy, lumberjacks? How is it that these men didn’t come home in rags and tatters?

The answer is simple: they sat down, they took out their needles and they sewed.

On HMS Warrior in the eighteen sixties this was directly illustrated by three things. Firstly, the records show that on joining the navy each sailor was given appropriate lengths of cloth and expected to make up the two pairs of trousers, shirts, collars and so forth that comprised their uniform themselves (so much for Mr. tailor’s big order!); secondly, amongst the personal items each crew member kept in their ‘ditty box’ was their sewing kit (so significantly more than half the population were carrying needles around); and finally there is a quote from a certain Mr. Dickens, an author of some repute, who visited the great vessel in 1863 which paints a picture of quiet domesticity: “some were working hearth rugs by a quilting process or embroidering pictures… We are all familiar with the British Seaman as a daring man, and a light-hearted cheery man but here we see him as a homely man, mending his clothes or shoes”. Those plying their needles in the quote above include Royal Marine Artillery Gunners who were crewing the biggest, most powerful guns yet made. It seems the rougher and tougher the job the more likely it was that a man would have to engage with the delicate art of needlecraft. If history is anything to go by, real men sew!

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Normal, Everyday Superheroes


One thing that you notice if you study stories – all stories, in books and films as well as folk tale and myth – is that the protagonists are very rarely just ordinary people. Oh, they may be an everyday person doing everyday things but in one way or another they will always be an outsider of some sort, something makes them different in their own way. The thing that interests me is that we all respond to this positively, we all identify with their difference, their sense of being outside the norm, we all say to ourselves “Yes! That’s like me. I’m different too.” We’re not wrong either. Extensive studies have found that there is no “normal”. Not one of us is actually like everyone else, no one is absolutely average in everything they think, feel, desire or do, and if there is a person who is utterly “normal” in every way that would make them extremely weird indeed!

 

Even the protagonists who are introduced as very normal, the ones who milk cows every day, cut hay each year, watch geese, sit and weave or run errands, turn out to be special in some way. It may be that they identify a transformed human because of their un-goose like behaviour; they are able to hide amongst the cows because the cows are at ease with them or they are able to run away because of the amazing turn of speed they have developed doing deliveries. One way or another the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

There are rules, of course, for those who strike out along the paths less travelled and uncover the true value of their previously mundane skillset. The first is probably the hardest and that is to accept the adventure when it presents itself. For a society made of unique individuals who are happy to cheer on every oddball, weirdo and drifter that Hollywood presents us with, we can be very, very resistant to non-conformity when actual outsiders turn up in the office or walking along ‘our’ street. The would-be heroic type must be open to the unusual; ready to respond when a talking bird or a wise old person crosses their path, and neither pretend it hasn’t happened nor strike out in fear.

Some of the other rules are simple and made much more obvious during the story: The one who achieves the quest is the one who shares their food with the old person at the crossroads or helps the various beleaguered animals they find on their way. They are often given advice that involves perseverance, an exhortation to “keep going no matter what happens”. Less obvious, but equally important is the fact that they must heed that advice or accept the help that is offered by the animals they have helped earlier. This again is something our society struggles with. For some reason we have been trained to believe we should do everything ourselves despite the fact that, just as we all have some skills others lack, we also all find ourselves utterly incapable at some things.

So, here are the folk tale rules for those who wish to discover their everyday superpowers:
1) Be open to the unusual, in people or events.
2) Be kind and share what you have.
3) Follow advice from those with experience.
4) Keep going when it’s difficult.
5) Ask for help if you need it and accept it when it comes.

It’s worth noting that these rules remain remarkably consistent across continents, cultures, religious precedence, and time. It’s almost as if acceptance, kindness and perseverance are the essential ingredients for, not just superheroes, since we all have superpowers even if we don’t know them yet, but for being human.

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Waking The Dead


I am wrenched from an uneasy sleep by the sound of screaming. A piercing metallic shriek indicating a train is trying to drag its inflexible wheels around an over-optimistically tight curve. It is 7.26 and the heat is already rising in the city below, invading my cheap hotel room on the eleventh floor. The window opens but not enough to make the air move, only let in the inexorable heat. While walking the streets the night before in search of food, dripping sweat in the endless swelter, I was aware of the difference of this place to other cities, even other ports I am more familiar with. I lived in Southampton for a while which seems barely aware it is a port at all. Here, all roads lead to the docks as if there is no other place you might want to go. I’ve spent time in Cardiff, a different country but mostly the same language. Here, every group of people passing by speaks another tongue I do not recognise.

In the mall, filled with chain stores and franchises that are recognisable across half the globe I heard some men greet each other in German. I smiled as I was suddenly reminded of Hamburg where I played many gigs and once recorded an album. The squealing trains also remind me of Germany, but this time of the Old East where the screech of trams often echoed through the cobbled streets regardless of the hour. The clear blue sky, merciless sun and long, hot evenings are more in keeping with southern Italy though. This is not weather for a ginger from Devon. I’m a long way from home and I feel it.

As the grinding wheels and the railway tracks sing their tortured song once more I pull back the single sheet under which I had attempted to slumber, cross to the window and push it shut. I stop and look out on this unfamiliar city that will be my home for the next four days and much of the next two months. Assorted clock and church towers rise up out of the purposeful victorian-colonial brick architecture, amongst assured modern skyscrapers fashioned from white curves and blue tinted glass. As they take turns to chime the half hour my eye is caught by movement. On the water, about a mile away, the Isle of Wight ferry is chugging off towards Ryde.

Yes, I’m in Portsmouth. I’m now officially “Consultant Storyteller to the National Museum of the Royal Navy”, employed to research and create a suite of stories for HMS Warrior, do some performances then train the staff in the telling of them.

 

HMS Warrior was “the first Ironclad”. In 1861, with her metal hull, a steam powered propellor and fearsome complement of massive cannons, she was the most powerful, cutting edge, modern, heavily armoured vessel on the sea. This is serious history! My job this week is to read everything written about the Warrior and read everything ever written by anyone who served on or was involved in building her, and read everything written about anyone who ever served on or was involved in building her… In four days.


The sun beats down on this strange city. Soon I must make my way through the parched grass of Victoria Park and follow the roads to the only place they go, down to the dockyards where the long dead crew of a once great vessel are waiting for me to find them and bring them back to life. I momentarily see my reflection in the hotel window. I’m smiling: It’s time to go to work.

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The Spectre That Says “No!”


I don’t know what it’s like for other storytellers but I find stories develop a character of their own and are very much like people. Some are steady and dependable, stories that will always look after you, a safe place to go when everything is a bit fraught.

Others are consistently surprising, like the friend who invites you to see a movie with them, meets you at the bus stop, leads you through some back streets saying it’s a short cut and the next thing you know you’re in a converted sock factory watching a semi burlesque steampunk revue with a 7% Belgian beer in your hand and the only nod to cinema is some grainy black and white 8mm film projected behind the hurdy-gurdy orchestra. It’s great fun, but you really need to be sure you are well rested and in good condition before you dial their number and ask them what they are up to on Tuesday.

The ‘big story’ from the Foxed tour is one of the latter sort, a long and rambling adventure with plenty of opportunity to go off course. It’s my own fault. I’d found three versions of the story, all quite different but with enough commonality to be obviously variants of the same essential tale. I couldn’t make up my mind which one to do… so I decided to make a new version with the best bits from all three in! This gave the performance regular chances to slip from one version to another by accident and once you’ve left the path and headed off in to the woods it is very easy for a character in the story to haul you off somewhere else as well. The Golden Damsel, who is dragged in to the quest about two thirds of the way through, very much as an eventual trophy wife for the simpleton protagonist, turned out to have some strong opinions on the way princesses are treated in folk tales and instead of being silently carted off by the hero who wakes her with a kiss, decided she was going to have her own adventure and pretty much took over. Not to be outdone the Seven Big Women of Denmark gave themselves a radical makeover about half way through the tour and have been getting bolshier ever since. I think I can safely say that no two performances have been the same. Purists would be very upset.

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For all it’s freewheeling anarchy and modern updating, a good story will carry it’s deeper layers, it’s accrued psychological elements, with it. In a repeating motif the simpleton protagonist has to get past a series of numerically significant guards; a score, then a dozen, a half dozen and three. These guards are all asleep but have their eyes open staring at him. He has to ignore their glares and walk past them. It is simultaneously comic, chilling and puzzling. What are these silent, staring sentinels for? What do they mean?

When the Idiot Hero is trying to steal the Golden Damsel he not only has to pass the 20, 12, 6, and 3 sets of unsettling guards but he is finally faced with a Spectre that says “No! No! No!” He walks through it for it is only made of smoke. With this moment of tension and dissipation an interpretation of the sleeping guards offers itself: Could it be that the guards stand for a disapproving society, glaring at the simpleton as he transgresses the acceptable boundaries? A barrier to the faint hearted, but no real threat to those who are firm of purpose? Certainly, the deeply ineffectual spectre would indicate something along those lines.

I wonder if the story has done it’s work, burrowed in to people’s minds and given them the courage to walk past the staring eyes of the guards and have their own adventures, going off to find converted sock factories for themselves, dressing up for fun and learning the hurdy-gurdy, regardless of what other people think? I do hope so.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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The Karmic Paws of the Furry Fraudster


Fox stories are quite different from the majority of folk tales I have researched before. The focus is on the interaction between the fox and the world of wild animals. This is a world populated by blunt, clicéd characters in animal guise. It mirrors the hierarchical society of humans with despotic lion kings and greedy, wolfish lords. A surprisingly small number of fox related yarns involve chickens or other domesticated animals and, apart from our agricultural activities, very little separates humanity from the animal kingdom, not even language, with bears, snakes, wolves, crows and foxes all perfectly capable of making themselves understood through speech just as if all mammals and birds shared a common mode of communication.

The famed low cunning of old Tod is matched by an equal level of openness and naivety. Whilst tales of trickery seem to gravitate to the little red dog like sleaze to conservative MPs they are almost as often the trickee as they the tricker: As one fox is making off with a rooster he has captured the farmer calls for the return of his bird. The cockerel says “You should tell him I’m not his any more I’m yours!”, Fox takes the advice, opens his mouth to taunt the farmer whereupon the plucky fowl flies to safety. In “The Kings Son Goes Bearhunting” a fox helps out a farmer who has accidentally promised his horse to a bear. After fooling the bear out of both the horse and his life Fox goes with the farmer to collect his agreed reward of 3 chickens. The farmer makes the fox wait while he brings out the chickens in a bag, “If I open the bag they will fly away, you’ll have to climb in and get them” he says. Fox climbs in to what is in fact an empty bag and the farmer beats him against a rock!

For all their cons and swindles the foxes of folklore are almost permanently hungry, each successful hustle being followed by a loss to another furry grifter or a straight up bully. Undeterred they move on to the next mark. As with other tricksters such as the middle east’s Muller Nasrudin, Africas Anansis the spider god and the Native American’s Coyote, Fox’s powers are as often used to help a fellow being as to steal from them. The trickster’s interest appears to be as much in the application of intelligence, in the process of problem solving by deception, as in the product of the ploy. These other tricksters are also as likely to be the target of chicanery as the perpetrator and as such are collectively known as the The Divine Fool, a worldwide mythological archetype who acts as a mirror through which humanity can examine our relationship to curiosity and cleverness, kindness and cruelty, selfishness and stupidity.

None of the worldwide foolish scam artists can be described as exactly principled in their character, even the fox tales that make it into Aesop, with his classic wrap up of “…and the moral of that story is…” come out more as pragmatic advice for career politicians than ethical guidance for the young. Why then do we tell these peans to the unscrupulous? Why perpetuate these apparent encouragements to artifice? As ever context is everything. In the bushmen societies of Africa, one of the last remnants of the gathering and hunting lifestyle humanity evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, the societal norms lean much more towards sharing and supporting than ours do. In these societies the trickster’s self centred antics are tantamount to horror stories. They are a warning that if you behave like that to those around you then they will behave like that to you. Fox’s perpetual state of hunger is not just a storyteller’s device to provide incentive for the set up, but the inevitable consequence of acting in the interests of the individual over those of the tribe. Simultaneously, those who are duped are being punished for not sharing, with the trickster acting as karmic retribution.

There is no doubt: the Fox is much more than just fluffy thief.

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To Catch a Fox by the Tale


Usually I know before I head out in the Autumn what the theme for the spring tour will be but, after several years of touring two shows a year, I found myself a little short of inspiration for the early 2018 run.
“I have no idea!” I had to confess to those who asked what was coming up.
“You could do thieves / fools / kings / rabbits / constellations etc.” they proposed with that particular glee that we all experience in those moments when we can see an opportunity to get something we want whilst believing that we are being helpful.

The range of suggestions was very broad, almost everyone had a unique concept. Only one theme came up more than once, but that one theme was mentioned many times.
Well, “Give the people what they want” is not an entertainment industry adage for nothing, so I’m hunting down tales of foxes. Yes, by popular request, Reynard and his cousins will be the subject of my spring tour: Foxed.

The autumn tour is always easier to settle on because it links into the Halloween season. I’m not sure what the prompt was but I found myself thinking that werewolves could probably stand a more thorough examination than I have previously given them and, although I have told a couple of canine hybrid tales before, it was a few years ago and they are good enough to be given a brush off and a second outing this October.

What’s curious is that it was only after I had made these two decisions that I realised the subjects chosen both refer to creatures of the same genus, and even curiouser, it was only after that I discovered 2018 is the Chinese year of the dog. Spooky huh?

I say ‘same genus’ but there really is a gulf between them. Werewolf stories are all about the curse of changing in to a terrifying beast and the werewolf is always a human who, for one reason or another, becomes a wolf. Fox stories are all about cunning and tricks, not always played by the fox but sometimes played on them. Even when we come to the Kitsune of Japan, who are shapeshifters, werefoxes, they are still very different. The Werefox is always a fox who can use their magical powers to become human.

Usually I have a couple of stories lined up that were the reason I chose a particular theme, I know the core of the show before I start the research. During the reading and searching my preconceptions often change significantly and I frequently end up not using the stories that started me off down that particular path in the first place. Nevertheless they give me the sense of a good foundation which is easy to build on. With Foxed I have had to start from sniff*, and am now wandering the fields and forests of folklore following every glimpse of orangey fur from Aesop to Yollen (couldn’t find a collector who starts with a Z). I can’t say it’s cruelty free as some of the animals come out quite badly from the tricks that get played on them, but if I have to take up fox hunting I’m much happier doing it riding a sofa with a pile of books than I would be on a horse. When I’ve caught a few I’ll pick the best ones and tell you all about them.

The Travelling Talesman will be performing “Foxed” at the following venues:
http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml

* Which is four steps earlier than starting from scratch. The full sequence is: Sniff, listen, look, lick (the air) and only then do you risk scratch.

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