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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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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