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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There’s No Team In I


When I think about the stories I would like to tell and the messages I would like my audience to take away with them I often find myself wishing I could find more tales where a group or community get together to face a threat, solve a problem or, even better, create something wonderful. These tales are few and far between and most that I have come across have a coda in which everyone argues about who did the best or was the most vital contributor. The results of this argument range from general embarrassment, through the loss of all they have worked for, to absolute destruction of the entire community.

It’s fairly easy to see how the “Who’s most important” coda comes in to being as both a reflection of reality and a warning about the dangers of rampant ego. Nevertheless, there are an enormous number of stories of an individual heroic teenager going on an adventure and they almost invariably end with a young and inexperienced couple getting married. These very rarely have a coda in which one of them is slowly driven mad by the other’s inability to remember where they put their car keys or their failure to do the washing up. This may, of course, be because the protagonists either started off royal or acquired unimaginable wealth during their adventures and have servants to deal with that sort of tedious day to day stuff, but I suspect the answer is deeper than that.

So why are there so few team type tales and why don’t they end happily ever after? Firstly there are the storytelling considerations. It is important for the audience to be able to identify with someone in the story. With a suitably undefined lead character everyone can see themselves as the strong, clever protagonist. With a gang the members have to be differentiated by appearance and characteristics which narrows down the number of listeners who can identify with each one. This differentiation gives the storyteller a lot more to juggle, not just remembering who is strong or fast and who is carrying which magical dodad, but also making sure they all get equal airtime. You have to keep the crowd who feel kinship with Ariel The Elven Archer as happy as the fans of Sam The Skipping Satyr.

The second reason lies in the underlying psychology of the story. When we dream we feel as if we go to strange places and meet actual people who are quite different from us. In fact all the people and places we encounter in our dreams are inside our own heads and therefore have been created by us. However much that flying unicyclist may look like your neighbour they are really a part of you. To work out what the dream means you only have to ask yourself what your neighbour, the unicycle and flying are symbols for in your own mind. Similarly, to unpick the deeper psychology of a story we first have to imagine that all the characters and events in the story, however disparate and opposed, are part of the same single psyche. Once we look at a tale from this perspective it is easy to see that we all occasionally find ourselves out of balance (persecuted by step parents), battle with our inner fears (fight monsters), free our repressed selves (rescue prince / princess) and re-unite our inner opposites (the wedding at the end): the basic elements of the classic heroic loner tale type.

Far fewer of us have our psyches split up in to a happy band of specialists. Team tales are much more likely to come from some event in the physical world. They are maps of society. To be complete they tend to show the routes to and from the central event, the good and the bad of our worldly interactions. The heroic tales are about ourselves individually, so we have a lot of them because we like thinking about ourselves. There is no coda as lost keys and dirty dishes are not concerns of the mind’s inner workings, a metaphor has no need of a car. The team tales, being about us collectively, are less likely to speak so directly to our inner psychological maps, which is a shame because I think it would be easier to build a better world if they did.

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Giants and Revenge


As I explained in December I am researching for my spring and autumn tours at the same time, themed “Giants” and “Revenge” respectively. All very straight forward… until you come across a story that sits in the part of the Venn diagram where the two circles overlap and could be used in either set. The most surprising of these is probably the most well known story of the big people going.

This tale is turned in to pantomimes on a regular basis and is a staple of children’s literature. As with any well known trope from olden times it has started coming under fire from modern ethical watchdogs. It’s easy to see why too. The problem being that the protagonist, one “Jack”, who is established early on as somewhat easily led, can appear as rather racist. After a giantess lets him in to her husband’s castle and feeds him, the ungrateful simpleton repays this kindness by stealing from the giants not once, but three times! Whilst trying to escape justice after his third larceny he brings about the death of his understandably enraged victim. It is presented as un-premeditated but I think it would still attract a charge of murder if it came to court. One would hope that even UKIP supporters would see that this is a bad way to treat people from other lands who are a bit different from us and most definitely not the model for a foreign policy.

So where, I hear you ask, does the overlap with the revenge theme come in? Well, in my usual fashion I have been hunting through my library, comparing different versions and digging out the earliest manuscripts. In the case of Jack And The Beanstalk (which in case you hadn’t realised is the story in question) this takes us back to 1807. At this time the story contained an encounter with a fairy when Jack reaches the top of the beanstalk. This fairy tells a chilling story of Jack’s kind and generous father who was tricked, robbed and murdered. The perpetrator of the deed, whilst burning down their manor, spared the infant Jack and his mother on the condition that she never tell Jack about his father. The wicked murderer come arsonist is, of course, the giant and the fairy points out quite distinctly that the giant’s wealth was taken from Jack’s father and is rightfully his.

This episode, which is conspicuous by its absence from the majority of later re-tellings of the tale, casts Jack’s behaviour in a very different light. No longer a wayward, sizeist, thug, Jack is the true avenger, reclaiming his ancestral rights and handing out the ultimate punishment to the original villain of the piece. The worrying bit is not just that the story has been reproduced so often without this justification for Jack’s criminal spree, but that doing so has done nothing to harm it’s popularity, many of us falling into despising the giant based on heresay and rooting for his downfall with no hard evidence that he has done wrong to anyone.

Fascinatingly the fairy also admits that she was influencing Jack when he exchanged his cow for a handful of beans, which explains how he goes from being laughably gullible at the beginning of the yarn to a cool master of negotiation, concealment and escape by his first encounter with the giants.

So, it always pays to do your research, even when you think you know the story, possibly especially then… and I had better get back to mine, there are giants and avengers to sort out and they keep getting mixed up!

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

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Back To The Beginning Again


Along with many other storytellers I am particularly drawn to mythologies, the sets of stories featuring the deities that shaped the world. The similarities and differences between our most fundamental perceptions of the universe we live in are fascinating.

Africa is a big continent. It’s bigger than Europe, India the United States and China put together. Across this vast area of deserts, mountains, jungles, plains, deltas and downlands (any of which make England look like Rutland), a great variety of peoples and cultures have developed, dwindled, fought, traded and flourished. Earlier this year I was given “A treasury of African Folklore” by Harold Courtlander, despite being over 600 pages and the size of a brick this tome barely offers a peek through a gap in the door to the treasure house of tales that the various African nations tell, but what a peek it is! Although only on page 193 I am already onto my third creation. This one comes from the Yoruba people of Western Nigeria.

A long time ago earth did not exist. There was sky above and water below. Oloron was the chief “orisha” (spirit, or god. As with the Japanese “Kami” it would appear to be a word that covers both without directly translating as either). Other orisha included Oloron’s children, Eshu, the god of unpredictability; Orunmila, the spirit of divination and the unrelated Obatala, King of the White Cloth (The Yoruban pantheon is conspicuously male, in stark contrast to their neighbours, the Fon people, who’s deities are predominantly couples and androgynes). All these orisha lived in the sky and paid no attention to the only female orisha, Olokun, who ruled over the waters and marshes below… until Obatala looked down and decided it would be a good idea to make some land for things to live on.

Obatala makes the earth

First he checked with Oloron who agreed it was a fine plan (notably, nobody bothers to consult Olokun which leads to trouble further down the line), then he called on Orunmila who divined what he would need. After a long process of gathering all the gold in heaven from a variety of unspecified orishas the goldsmith eventually makes a chain and Obatala climbs down, pours a snail shell full of sand into the sea, drops a hen on it who spreads it around in an uneven fashion thus creating hills and the like, plants a palm nut and settles down with a black cat. It’s all a bit dark so Obatala requests some light and Oloron, the sky god, makes the sun.

Eventually Obatala starts to feel lonely and begins to make people out of clay. The work is tiring and Obatala decides to take a break for some refreshment. He taps the palm trees for their sap, ferments it and quenches his thirst. Now that the world is a little softer Obatala returns to his labour but with drunken fingers he makes a number of misshapen figures, some with short arms, some with too few fingers, some bent or humped and because of his befuddled state he does not notice his mistakes. When they are all done he calls upon Oloron again to breathe life in to them and so the human race came to be. When Obatala sobered up and saw his handiwork he was filled with sorrow. He promised never to touch palm wine again and to take especial care of all those who are lame, formed imperfectly, blind or with no pigment in their skin.

It fascinates me how each different culture finds some specific question to answer, like why men and women are different or why death is irreversible, frequently leaving the generation of essential features like the sun with a brief, almost casual, passing reference. I am also struck repeatedly by the acceptance of imperfect gods and how their imperfections explain the world we experience, often far better than if they were all powerful and all knowing.

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

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Thinking Big


Well, it’s that time again, when we take stock of the year that has passed and prepare for the year ahead. My annual autumn tour of dark and scary stories has come to it’s end (thank you to all who came along). Both the “Dark Arts” tour and my spring outing “Away With The Fairies” were longer tours than in previous years and the number of people packing the venues has increased, even to the point of people sitting on the floor because there were no chairs left. On the down side I lost one of my favourite summer gigs as the National Trust at Corfe had to tighten their belt and reduce their budget for performers, hopefully I’ll be able to return to it’s picturesque ruins next year.

The thing I have been working on this year and intend to bring to fruition in 2015 is getting a full year ahead of myself. This is so I can match the lead in times for Arts Centres to broaden my scope socially and geographically. The effect at the moment is of course that I am doing twice as much work for little perceptible result. I feel very much like Alice when the Red Queen makes her run very fast but they don’t move at all and the Queen says “You have to run much faster than this if you actually want to get somewhere!”

So I am now doing research for both the spring tour and the next autumn tour which will be “Giants” and “Revenge!” respectively. I started off with a trawl through the many small pamphlets and booklets I have of folklore by county. Cornwall and Yorkshire both seem to have been thoroughly overrun by giants. Over the border in Somerset there have been a few, Shropshire had it’s share, Hampshire – a couple, even Norfolk boasts the tale of the outsize Thomas Hickathrift. Wiltshire, though short on stories, is dotted with the graves of the excessively large (mostly on the tops of hills and bearing a strong similarity to Neolithic chambered tombs or long barrows).

Our own county of Devon should, one might think, provide an ideal landscape for people of vast stature to stomp about. I can imagine the piled granite of the tors giving rise to any number of yarns about monsters of stone. Nevertheless, after a first look we appear to be rather short of titans in the Devonshire folklore. I suppose I could have a go at Geoffrey Of Monmouth’s tale of Brutus, the hero after whom Britain is allegedly named, landing at Totnes. Here Brutus and his companions, who have sailed from Italy via assorted points in the Mediterranean, Spain and France, first encounter the native occupants of the Isle. These are giants. Despite the obvious superiority of the indigenous population Brutus and pals are victorious slaying all the giants save for one named Gogmagog, who is saved for a show fight with Brutus’ friend and second in command, Corineus. After receiving a couple of cracked ribs Corineus loses his temper, picks up Gogmagog, runs to the sea and throws him over the cliff to meet a messy doom on the jagged rocks beneath.

I have never felt any great affinity for this episode of Geoffrey’s fantastical history though, and I’m not sure it can be considered local folklore. It does however contribute to a theory I have about the origin of some giant stories… but if you want to know what that is you’ll have to come to the show! Right, better go and find some more giants; if Jack can do it so can I!

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Parental Advisory


People die in folk tales, especially kind, loving parents. People get hurt, tortured, imprisoned, eaten, turned into animals, boiled to death and shoved into ovens. Whole families are systematically wiped out until the youngest child, presumably paddling ankle deep through their kindred’s blood, tricks, traps and dismembers or cooks the clan’s psychopathic assailant.

People talk about violence on TV but it’s been part of our entertainment for thousands of years. As has sex.

Folktale farmers and fishermen fornicate with fairies, mate with mermaids and sleep with seal people. Princesses, peasant girls and goddesses alike are wooed, seduced, stripped naked, abducted and sexually assaulted whilst in a magical sleep. Heroes, villains, step relatives, trolls, witches and half siblings magically transform themselves into the likeness of protagonist’s lovers for a night of passion, often followed by gloating revenge and/or dubious offspring. When not disguising themselves as bulls, bears and swans to have sex with humans, mythical deities frequently have sexual relationships with their siblings, their mortal enemies and occasionally horses.

You see, despite what most modern people think, these stories were not created for children. They were told by firesides of an evening to a mixed audience who’s age range probably narrowed from both ends as the night wore on. Many were grown out of the lives of real people and poorly reported events. Everything that television, radio and even books are to us now, storytelling was to our forebears.

When I tour pubs I am unsurprisingly expecting my audience to be adult. Characters in the stories may be driven by hormonal motivations that make little sense to the pre-adolescent and other characters, a drunk and abusive giant for instance, are more believable with a touch of post watershed language. That is not to say that it becomes a tsunami of filth and gore but these are stories originally created by and told for adults. An intelligent, well behaved child of say 10 would be able to cope with most of the material but I wouldn’t recommend many of the tales for a six year old simply on length of time and level of plotting. Kids under seven have neither the attention span, the narrative facility, nor the vocabulary necessary to be anything other than mildly baffled by the experience.

Of course I also do sessions for families at festivals, fun days and the like where I select the material that is less likely to horrify and bemuse the youngsters. It is a tricky business, age appropriateness. On the face of it a tale of two abandoned kids who rob, are imprisoned by and eventually roast a cannibal might be considered parental advisory, yet few would question Hansel and Gretel’s place in the cannon of little children’s literature. Death is part of the point of the stories: things change, people die, life continues. The stories are a safe way for children to experience fear and loss and learn how to overcome them. For all their fantastical settings, folk tales hold up a mirror to life and help us cope. Each tale is a learning experience, a map for dealing with the problems that life throws at us, including sex and death. However old we are we keep needing to revise these lessons and what better way than with a story in your local pub?

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