“The Season Of Revenge”

I’ve never attempted it myself. Apparently it’s sweet and best served cold. I’ve considered it but always given it up for something more positive somewhere in the early planning stages. A good revenge requires dedication and resources. Most of us have had our seething resentment over some callous hurt melt away over a pint with some friends who are interested more in suggestions filled with humorous irony than serious strategy. The assumption is that we are not psychopaths; that we need a moan and a laugh and then we can accept the vagaries of life, trust in some sort of cosmic balance, and move on.

You do need to be at least a bit psychopathic to carry a revenge through because there can be no half measures, you either need completely unbreakable anonymity and a cast iron alibi or you need to go all out for absolute obliteration of your oppressor. Even with acts of petty revenge the result of discovery is almost certainly going to lead to an escalating needle match. Remember, they were happy to hurt you before you did them harm, if they have even the slightest suspicion it was you then they will come after you. They are not the law and require no proof. Nor will “reasonable doubt” get you off the hook. No, they need to be certain beyond gravity that you were somewhere else doing something else entirely, preferably for their benefit. With witnesses and receipts.
Yet nobody else can know that you did it either or they are a permanent threat, a leak waiting to happen, a cold shudder of fear keeping you awake at night.

It must just be easier to destroy the tyrant who wronged you surely? Except that anything less than total annihilation is simply asking for trouble. Not just total annihilation of your persecutor but everyone connected to them who might consider themselves hurt by your actions or honour bound to bring their own retribution to your door. Every living relative is a potential for reprisal. You would have to do away with the lot, right down to the smallest leaf on the longest branch of the family tree if you wanted the assurance that you have not just started a blood feud. The same is true for every friend, colleague, employee and business associate they have too. Most of us just aren’t focused enough to carry off the necessary degree of despicable thoroughness and thankfully we know it.

The Season Of Revenge tour poster

The Season Of Revenge tour poster

You may be wondering what horrible wickedness has been done to me or mine that I am thinking about such things. Fortunately nothing of the sort has happened. I simply had a couple of delightfully gruesome tales in mind for this years hallowe’en period and my autumn tour. When I started thinking about the themes that they had in common I realised they were both stories of retribution and gathered a few more gems that deal with the same topic. From now to mid November I shall be learning and performing these gleefully grim and messy yarns as “The Season Of Revenge”. The big question is: what is it about revenge stories that appeals to us?

As far as I can tell it is that we want to believe in justice as an absolute. We want to believe in a universal law of fairness. We want those who hurt us to know our suffering, preferably by suffering it themselves with a little interest added on. We want bad things to happen to bad people. Stories about revenge make us feel that, somewhere at least, evil actions are met with an equal and opposite reaction. In the stories we see the world as we desire it to be, where crime does not pay and the wicked get what is coming to them. Through the actions of the characters we live out our own reprisals in safety (and without having to notch up an unfeasible body count). They act as a catharsis for us, one that leaves us satisfied that justice has been done and the cosmos is working as it should.

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

If you want to learn how to get your own back in style with a selection of backstabing folk tales from around the world the details of The Talesman’s “The Season OF Revenge” Tour are on the giglist at http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml

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Dom Hugh Dies Again

I’ve told you about my storyteller’s “ready bag” before. It got quite a work out this week at Wickham Festival. On Sunday night at about 12.30 I was rummaging around in the bottom for something I could do easily but I hadn’t done the year before. You see, I’d set myself the task of giving my regular visitors fresh tales, or at least no repeats from 2014, for the whole four days of the festival. Come my last set and with no throat left after shouting over a succession of overloud bands on the nearby second stage during Saturday afternoon, I was very much after something that would leap from my lips with gay abandon and not take too much shaping or remembering. So, shoulder deep in my ready bag, fishing around amongst the fairy dust and crumbled fragments of legends, I finally laid my hand on a dead medieval monk. Always good for a laugh! Although he had been down there for some time, I resurrected him (briefly) and set him to work.

Dom Hugh of Leicester is a comic tale from the middle ages in which the eponymous monk makes unwelcome advances to Mrs. Weaver until she decides the only way to get him to leave her alone is to agree to satisfy his desires. After she has made the arrangements she informs her husband who is quite shocked until she mentions that the plan is for Mr. weaver to hide in the chest at the end of the bed, leap out and scare Dom Hugh so much that he never comes back. All goes to plan until the husband improvises and wallops Dom Hugh with a club. Dom Hugh falls to the ground stone cold dead.

To avoid blame they drag the ecclesiastical corpse to the monastery and prop him up against the wall. When Dom Hugh doesn’t turn up for prayers a search is made and when he won’t answer the bishop’s questions about his absence the Bishop whacks him with his crozier and down he goes: stone cold dead. Again. The guilty bishop tries to lay the blame off on the weaver using the same trick and after killing Dom Hugh for the third time the weaver loads him in to a sack with the intention of dumping him in the river. Meanwhile a couple of thieves who have stolen a side of bacon from the mill are making off under cover of darkness with their booty also in a sack. When they see Mr. Weaver they drop the pork and run. Naturally Mr. Weaver swaps his ex-mendicant for the savoury sack-full and heads back home. The robbers return and lug the lifeless cenobite to their house and hang up their prize. When they open it for some breakfast there is Dom Hugh, stone cold dead.

Not wishing to get hung themselves they decide to return the stiff to the mill from which they think they brought it. Thus the Miller finds himself repeating the horror of discovering a very dead monk instead of rashers. Mrs. Miller comes up with a plan to tie Dom Hugh on to a stallion and send him after the bishop when he goes on his rounds in the morning riding on a mare. The stallion, who is usually kept in a field on his own, is very excited by the possibility of meeting the bishop’s mare and gallops down the lane towards her. The bishop is terrified to see the man he thought he had killed charging towards him, the thoughtful Millers having given him a saucepan helmet and a broom for a lance, so he sets his men at arms on the hapless cadaver who drag him to the ground and beat him until he is stone cold dead. Since this time everyone knows how Dom Hugh died they finally bury him, and it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble if that was what the Weavers had done in the first place!

You’d be forgiven for thinking this tale type is particular to the middle ages but it crops up, a bit like Dom Hugh himself, all over the world and across many centuries under titles like “Old Dry Fry” and “The Thrice Killed Corpse”. Stretched out over 20 minutes, with a bit of joining in, it is thankfully as amorally amusing to tent full of festival goers in modern day Wickham as it was to the Yorkists of Tudor times. I think I’d better dig that monk up and stick him back in the bag.

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

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Welcome to the Anglo-German-Arabic Diner

Storytellers are hungry beasts. We devour stories, munch through anthologies of myths, chomp down whole libraries of legends, given the chance we would ingest a forest of folk tales and still come back for more. When the local fable supply runs low we, like any voracious hunter, will look further afield, maybe go for an Indian or a Chinese. It’s always nice when a new eatery opens round the corner but by the very nature of folktale and myth they are all rather on the old side, it’s part of why they work, so new dishes are few and far between let alone a whole new restaurant.

I expect you can Imagine the feeding frenzy that has been caused by two recently unearthed collections of tales that have just opened up on the high street. “Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange” is the first ever English translation of a Medieval Arabic collection. Those who have dined at the table of Scheherazade and licked clean the plates of The Thousand And One Nights will find this new mezze a richly detailed and exotic delight. Slightly closer to home, 500 German folk tales collected by a chap called Franz Xavier Von Schonwerth 200 years ago were discovered in a cupboard last year. A selection of 70 were rendered in to the Queen’s English under the title “The Turnip Princess”. I can hear the Grimms fans salivating from here.

Despite the long history of story trade between these cultures and modern insistence that there are a limited number of plots to start with, the two books stand in stark contrast to each other.The Arabian tales are finely crafted works with fully developed characters, long intricate plots and stories nested in stories. They were written for telling rather than silent reading though: the Arabic storytelling culture was one in which the professional tellers would gather a crowd in the marketplace and impress them with the mystical technology of literature. They added emotion, action and topical or humorous asides to their performance as they saw fit but it was the book that held the magic of the story. The adventures contained in “Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange” show their development through being written down, each tale a full dish of succulent plotting drenched in a sauce of lavish descriptions that leaves you sated but desirous of more.

Von Schonwerth collected folk tales from ordinary workaday folk who could neither read nor write. Whilst the Grimms and HC Anderson tidied up and rationalised their anthologies, Von Schonwerth’s rustic smorgesbord is true to the originals. Here the constant communal editing of oral transmission has kept each story stripped back to it’s essentials. The detail is minimal. The language is plain. The action is fast. The tales are short. Sometimes they read as if the story has been told by a child as the action hops past all but the most exciting bits, cutting from exposition to denouement in the swing of a previously unmentioned enchanted sword. This is story dining at the farm shop cafe. It’s good healthy fare but you may only get some carrots, bread and an onion. Without butter. There’s no fat on any of these platters. Nevertheless, when all the right ingredients come together the raw, organic nature of these tales is a delight for the senses that you can feel energising you like a well selected salad or a perfectly picked ploughman’s.

Like any chef, while I am stuffing my face I will be wondering how to cook up a version to serve to my own customers. Probably giving the eastern delicacies a simpler “Von Schonwerth’s country kitchen” approach whilst adding a touch of the sophisticated seasoning from che “Tales of the Marvellous” to the German fare will suit me best. Either way I shall be raiding the menus from both with great glee!

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

Both books are published by Penguin Classics.

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, Franz Xavier Von Schonwerth, ISBN: 9780143107422 http://www.penguinclassics.co.uk/books/the-turnip-princess/9780143107422/

Tales Of The Marvelous and News Of The Strange, ISBN: 9780141395036 http://www.penguinclassics.co.uk/books/tales-of-the-marvellous-and-news-of-the-strange/9780141395036/



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Didn’t We Tell You That?

We all have little things that trigger our anger and frustration causing outbursts that leave the person who has unwittingly pushed our pedant button shocked and baffled. One of my current triggers is people saying “well that’s just a story” or similar. Everything is a story! Some stories are factual and others less so but if you are being told it by another person, either through speech or the written word, it is a story. Now some may contain facts and some may not. Even as late as the 14th century there was no difference in meaning between the words “story” and “history”, both come from the same French word meaning the relating of events from the past, yet we accept one as true and the other as dubious. The stories I deal in are, as I hope I have illustrated over the years, full of truths and histories are equally full of distortions and sometimes even outright lies.

For some time I have used the death of Robin Hood as my example of a forgotten truth buried in a story and considered an exaggeration. The story goes that on his death bed Robin Hood shot an arrow saying “bury me where this arrow falls”. The distance between Kirklees Priory, where the outlaw spent his final hours, and the site known as Robin Hood’s Grave has for many years been considered too far for even an Olympic archer to shoot and the whole episode written off as “just a story”. However, the excavation of the Mary Rose brought to light long bows with a draw weight well in excess of current sporting maximums. It was soon agreed that a professional archer of the middle ages who had been shooting since their youth, armed with a bow of such power would have been able to make the shot. Story 1 – Common sense 0.

Recently I have found a new tale to tell of forgotten truth hidden in a story. In the middle of Australia there is a valley that has palm trees growing in it. Now, palm trees’ seeds are quite large and only travel any distance from the parent tree if they fall in to water. So palm trees in nature are either found next to each other or next to water. The valley in Australia is neither. The nearest palm trees are two thousand miles away and the sea is slightly further. Since their presence was a bit of a conundrum a scientist looked in to it. After getting a genetic profile of the valley’s palms he checked it against other Australian palms until he found their nearest relatives and with some archaeology and other clever work he was able to put together the story of the palm trees that shouldn’t be there: The seeds were carried from the north coast of Australia, 2,000 miles away, by people and planted in the valley 30,000 years ago. It was a quite a big thing and a bit of fuss was made in the Australian media. When the Aboriginal Australians heard about this they were rather surprised that such a fuss was being made. They said “Didn’t we tell you that story? I’m sure we must have done. The one about the gods who carried the seeds to the middle of the country and planted the palms in the valley? We must have told you… We’ve been telling that story for 30,000 years!”

That’s Robin Hood out of a job then. I now have a scientifically proven fact preserved in a folk tale for 30,000 years, which makes me wonder what else might turn out to be true and how long it may have been hiding. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether turning the seed carriers in to gods is an acceptable exaggeration over 30,000 years or whether the scientist needs to adjust his version in light of the new evidence… unless you think it’s “just a story”.

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


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Giant’s Daughters, Cobblers and Erratic Rocks

Last month I talked about giants who were “proto gods” and giants who were Lords and Barons, “sociopolitical” giants if you like. This month I have two more giant types for you. These I have come to consider as the “psychological” and the “geological” giants.

Despite being famously antisocial giants do seem to enjoy games and a common feature of the stories is a series of tests or challenges. Those who attempt the tests and fail get eaten but those who succeed can win the giant’s daughter. Giants may be outsized, gross and dim but their daughters are almost exclusively smart supermodels of human compatible height equipped with magical skills. This is handy for the would be hero who finds they cannot clean the giant’s stable, thatch their barn with multicoloured feathers, or any of the other tasks set for him. He is saved from becoming breakfast by the giant’s daughter: she sends him to sleep and when he wakes the work is done! Passing the tests is rarely the end of the story and the lovers have to escape… at which point the tale morphs in to “motif D672 The Obstacle Flight”. As the fortunate pair gallop away on a horse with ears full of food, chucking towels and combs behind them (which turn into rivers and woods), we realise why the girl has none of her father’s attributes: it is not a giant story at all, it’s a ‘uniting with the inner spirit’ story. The giant could just as easily be, and often is, a wizard, a fairy or even a plain old king. These then are the “psychological” giants whose size is only there to add weight to the obstacle they form between the protagonist and their inner self.

The Geological giants are an untidy lot. They are forever dropping things all over the countryside. Their quoits, chairs, building materials and even bodies litter the landscape. Probably the most famous is the belligerent, Welsh, big bloke who decided to flood Shrewsbury by damming up the river Severn with a spadeful of clay. He had been walking around for some time carrying his murderous load when, somewhere near Wellington, he asked directions from a cobbler with a big sack of worn out shoes he was taking home to mend. “Why do you want to go to Shrewsbury?” asked the shoemaker and was duly shocked by the giant’s explanation. With the quick wit common to his trade the cobbler answered “Oooh, it’s a long way to Shrewsbury, further than you’ll get today or tomorrow, or probably the day after that.” and to emphasise his point he tipped out the sack of wrecked and useless footwear saying “I’ve just come from Shrewsbury and I’ve worn out all these shoes on the way!” “What?” roared the giant, “My arms are aching already, I’m not walking all that way!” so he tipped the earth off his spade and headed back to Wales. The large heap of earth is still there, visible across the Shropshire Plain, and forms the hill now known as The Wrekin.

Responsible for glacial erratics, gorges, hills, the odd island and every lump of granite in Cornwall, the geological giant is easily identified and their genesis is explained by their story. Although in some ways the simplest of the giants, they have some common ground with the elementals. The powers that they metaphorically represent are slowly working away all around us. Rain and wind steadily excavate metamorphic upthrusts, rivers carve away at hillsides and massive glaciers drop their cargoes of displaced stones wherever their journey ends. The stories may be set “Once upon a time” but the giants are very much still with us.

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

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Size Matters

We all know that ‘giant’ means ‘big’ and unless otherwise stated, ‘a giant’ means a human like, bipedal person who just happens to be really big. You would think that the giant is a fairly simple creature compared to say, fairies or witches, however it doesn’t take much close examination before this happy misunderstanding starts to unravel. In the majority of creation myths I have come across giants were there first, so humans are in fact giant like bipedal persons who just happen to be really small!

It’s not just humans who turn up late to the party; the Greek, Roman, Norse and Celtic gods are all preceded by their giant counterparts. In all these cases the gods interbreed with or directly descend from the giants before fighting with and eventually supplanting them. It is often during, or as a result of, these struggles that some of the giants take up elemental functions as the bringers of winter, earthquakes or drought. It seems that when new gods establish themselves the old gods get demoted to giant status and have to carry the can for anything that goes wrong. It’s not entirely unlike politics.

Giants who were once gods (or were nearly gods but didn’t have the PR), “proto gods” if you like, often retain magical abilities and sufficient knowledge that gods who come after will consult with them in times of doubt. The Norse god Odin goes in disguise to see the giant Vafthrudnir and the two trade questions. Vafthrudnir, who was born before the world was formed, makes their contest “more interesting” by suggesting they stake their heads on the outcome. Odin agrees and after he has learnt all he wants he tricks the venerable Jotun by asking a question to which only Odin could know the answer.

When humans do turn up we very rarely have to deal with the elemental giants, they like to keep that in the family as it were. The typical giant that we encounter will be male. Some are friendly, the Cornish giants of Towednack and Carn Galva offered protection to the humans in their area, usually from other giants. Although they can be tricked many of them are sly and not to be underestimated. It is not at all uncommon for giants to have committed murder and amongst the murderers a goodly proportion are inclined to eat those they have killed. Giant homes tend to the extremes being caves or castles but either way they are heaped with treasure. This is often stolen from the local populace along with livestock and sometimes maidens or wives.

The question is: who are these earthly giants? Are they sad left overs from another race of nearly gods, unemployed elementals as it were? Are they pick and mix monsters, there to add some jeopardy to a psychological adventure? Are they perhaps just big people?

After 1066 the Norman Barons, having taken the land by force, built castles from which they oppressed the Saxon peoples and taxed them for the privilege. The “noble lords” considered the ordinary people to be their property and maintained their hold on the country with extreme violence and persecution. Being military men with the diet that wealth affords, they probably were on average taller (and fatter) than those who toiled in the fields to provide for their voracious appetites, especially when sat on their war horses. It is easy to see how they might be viewed as monsters. Stories in which a plucky lad tricked, robbed and even killed the big bully in the castle would be very popular amongst the downtrodden peasants. Sadly, the stories were just that and any actual uprisings or attacks on the upper crust were punished with death. These “sociopolitical” giants stayed in their castles and, like the gods before them, considered themselves entitled to their privileges won through violence as they morphed in to the British upper class. We might not like it but size really does matter.


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Send In The Lifeboats

One of the facilities provided to us by our brains is the ability to recognise patterns. Obviously I don’t just mean when we are watching midsummer murders with Bob from down the road and he suddenly points at the screen and says “My aunt Betty’s got those curtains!”. No, our pattern recognition includes everything we sense. It gives us a shorthand for managing our interaction with the world based on our experiences rather than having to process everything as a new thing all the time.

It is such a big part of our operating system that our pattern recognisers can get a bit carried away, joyfully offering us faces and animals when we are simply looking at clouds or burn marks on toast. Entertaining and free flowing conversations are the result of our internal librarians coming up with stories that have a similarity to the one that has just been told… and so are the stultifyingly dull ones. The tricky bit for most of us being when the librarians come back from a trip to the hippocampus looking apologetic with only a single, dusty, hand written post-it note, leaving us the option of blurting out what’s scribbled on it in the hope that it will trigger a response from someone else, or standing there silently looking like a rabbit in the headlights while the conversation dies, gasping, at our feet.

I see this ’empty shelf syndrome’ happen quite often after a Talesman performance when the conversation has come round to the fascinating similarities between stories from different parts of the world and someone suddenly discovers the only thing indexed in their frontal cortex that fits with the pattern is the old adage that, when it’s all boiled down, there are only seven stories. Now you’d think that I would be able to launch in to a discourse from there but I’m afraid that shelf in my head was just as much in need of a J cloth and a squirt of Pledge as anyone else’s. Thankfully our pattern recognition includes stalling dialogue and everyone sends out the communication lifeboats of witty interjection and wholesale embarrassment is avoided. Personally I hadn’t explored the root of this widely distributed myth of the reduced lexicon until today. I suspect that since I make my living from finding fresh tales to serve up every few months the mere suggestion that there might be a limited supply sends my subconscious in to denial.

The fabulously named Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch would appear to be the original author of the “seven plots” concept in the early half of the twentieth century. Fortunately for me his list takes the form of man versus seven adversaries including himself:

  1. man against man
  2. man against nature
  3. man against himself
  4. man against God
  5. man against society
  6. man caught in the middle
  7. man and woman

This clearly falls down on the basis of sexism and also fails to consider that humans might co-operate or do anything other than fight with stuff. Other cataloguers have come up with lists from 4 to 36 plots long, mostly confining themselves to literature or theatre. The most widely known today being Christopher Booker, who has also pegged his socks on the line at the number seven after taking 35 years to write his book. I suppose it will be only polite to give it a read sometime but at 25 quid a throw it won’t be anytime soon. Meanwhile the net has already nicked his list and shared it around. It begins with 1. The Quest and 2. Voyage and Return which, I don’t know about you, just sound rather similar to me. The best of the short lists in my opinion runs to eight thus:

  1. Cinderella: fulfilment after hardship
  2. Achilles: the Fatal Flaw
  3. Faust: or the debt that must be paid
  4. Tristan: the Eternal Triangle
  5. Circe: or the Spider and the Fly
  6. Romeo and Juliet: Boy meets Girl and whatever follows
  7. Orpheus: the Gift that’s Taken Away
  8. The Indomitable Hero: they keep on going whatever the odds

(It is sadly un-attributed in all the versions I found this time round, if anyone knows the original author please let us know).

However, as with all the other lists it misses out the “how it got it’s name” stories. These are not my favourite tales as they rarely have a proper plot. The general form being “Once upon a time a giant tripped over and where his knee dented the ground a pond formed. It is still called Giant’s Knee Pond”. It’s not much of a story but any list that doesn’t cover it is not a complete list of all the stories there are… and if they missed this widely used folk tale what else have they missed?

In the world of folk tales, academics identify stories by the Aarne-Thompson tale type index, a combined work that gives a number to each element of the stories, such as “Transformation to horse (ass etc.) by putting on bridle”, which will be familiar to those of you who came to see “The Dark Arts” tour and is Tale Type D535 in case you were interested. The Aarne-Thompson list Includes several different “How it got it’s name” variations and the index gets to 2500 without counting the decimals. That should see me right for work for some time so I expect I’ll stick with them… and next time I see the pattern of the conversation swinging round to the number of stories in the world I’ll have something on the shelf for my librarians to fetch.

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

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