Rhyme And Reason


In the world of early writing, there are many stories that it is believed were only written down after they had already spent years in existence as orally transmitted pieces, passed from generation to generation through special keepers of the lore. All of these are in some form of verse, that is they have a regular rhythm, a specific meter and, where we know enough about the language, we usually find elements of rhyme, alliteration and the other markers of poetry. It is assumed by those who write about such material that the verse form was adopted for oral transmission because it was “easier to learn” and this theory they happily put forward with such regularity that it has become an unchallenged “truth”.

On my current tour I am performing an excerpt from the “Kalevala”, a massive saga from Finland which is all in trochaic tetrameter, a 4 footed meter with eight syllables per line, four of which are stressed. If that all sounds a bit complicated then you only have to think of Dr. Seuss: “I do not like green eggs and ham / I do not like them Sam I am” which is also in trochaic tetrameter. Doesn’t sound half as intellectual and posh now does it? Although I am working from a translation, the translator chose to render the English version in the original meter. It is a fine piece of poetry and the excerpt I am performing, “The Brewing Of Beer” is about fifteen minutes long. As with much narrative verse (poems that tell a story rather than just bang on about how beautiful something is), there are parts that repeat and many parts that almost repeat but are just slightly different. There are also lines, and whole sections (the Kalevala doesn’t actually have “verses” as such, just “Runes” which are like chapters) in which the conflicting requirements of story and meter fill the resulting lines with tongue twisters and grammatical gymnastics. I can assure you that it is in no way easy to learn. If you want to hear some of it recited then come to the one of the gigs on the Nectar Of The Gods tour ( http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml ).

This is not the first large chunk of verse I have tackled and the learning part is hell every time. With a prose story I can get the basic gist, make sure I have the names correct and be fairly confident of making a decent fist of improvising my way through a telling of it after about three reads through, six if it is especially long and convoluted. With verse I have to read it time and time again, pick it apart, read and repeat each line until I can do it without looking. Move on to the next line and do the same. Go back and do both lines together until I have got it right, then do the same procedure all over again with the next line. It takes days. I record it and play it to myself while I do the washing up and before I go to sleep. I have to practice reciting it every day whilst on tour, running it through in the car between gigs, making sure it has not slipped and will roll cleanly from my brain to my tongue when required. After performing it I can feel that my brain has been working, my head feels exhausted much the same way as my legs used to feel after a cross country run. Every single word has to be exact or it breaks the poetry. Those writers have no idea!

If it’s not easier to learn, what is the purpose of the verse? The recitation of the verses was often a group activity, the skald or bard memorised the piece in its entirety and lead the recitation, the listeners familiar with the work and free to join in. Like singing along with a pop song that has been on heavy rotation, you find you know some of the words but you couldn’t keep going for more than a line or two if the song was taken away, hence the specialist leading. However, any change would provoke outrage: “You’re doing it wrong!” They may not know how it is supposed to go but they know it is not like that! Should the bard pass on prematurely the verses can be reconstructed from the partial memories of the people, the meter and rhyme narrowing down the possibilities for any one lost word.


Communal knowledge coupled with the exactitude of verse protects the tribe or nations history from being altered. A verse, once learnt, must remain the same and that is how oral transmission keeps the lore, the truths of the tribe, for hundreds and even thousands of years. Those early writings of ancient stories were not in verse to make it easier to learn, repetition works just as well whether it rhymes or not, but to make it harder to change.

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As it was Foretold


It would appear that to many people “folk stories” and “superstition” are one and the same thing. This I could understand if the stories were packed with evil forebodings and dark portents but this is far from the case. In folktales it is considerably more common for the protagonist to crash through the action without any suggestion of what is coming. If they do get given a prediction it is more often than not a clear and accurate description of the obstacles that lie ahead, usually along with detailed instructions on how to overcome them.

In Sleeping Beauty the wicked fairy lays a curse on the young princess of death by a finger pricked on a spindle. The good fairy commutes the sentence to 100 years sleep ending with a royal snog. This is exactly what happens. In The King Of England’s Three Sons each son in turn is given the low down on how to break in to a castle: they must cross the black moat on the back of a swan, sneak past the guards and find the golden apples they are seeking in a secret garden. The only supernatural bit being the warning not to look back whilst escaping or the apples will be lost. You will be un-surprised to hear that everything turns out to be just as they are told and we even get the middle prince losing his hard won treasure by looking back. The youngest (of course) observes the instructions fully and carries off the precious fruit. It seems the oral tradition is rather literal when it comes to auguries. No ill-defined Delphic declarations for Jack and his ilk: just follow the tutorial and live happily ever after! Maybe it is the nature of stories shaped in the mouth that they tend towards the optimistic.

So how did this confusion between superstition and folktale come about? Where are all the yarns with mysterious prognostications? What you are thinking of there is literature. Shakespeare’s work is full of creaky crones prophesying unlikely and un-specific doom and destruction, the shadow of which then hangs over the action until they are proved one hundred percent correct. In Julius Caesar he dooms his eponymous lead to die on the famous “Ides of March” and the would-be god duly obliges (with the help of his friends). Despite the apparent improbability of Hamlet’s destiny, he too is carried off in accordance with his heathland Hags’ pronouncements. The Ancient Greek penchant for oracular predetermination is mostly down to the writings of Homer; the various sooths said for King Arthur are updated by each medieval author in turn. Writers just can’t seem to resist an obscure augury as a device for supplying a witty twist whilst trotting inexorably towards predicted tragedy.

The interesting thing is that as a society we publicly, and nowadays officially, consider the foretelling of the future to be nonsense. The pervading wisdom is that no one can know what is going to happen and anyone who claims to is a charlatan. Nevertheless, all our stories of predictions, whether born from a quill or evolved via voices, treat divination as real, accurate and inescapable. If I was a psychologist I would be worried about us, we seem to have something of a personality disorder.

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Sweet Dreams


I sat down last week to write this months FTC and… nothing. There wasn’t a thought in my head that could be coaxed in to even a single interesting sentence, let alone an article. I remembered a celtic tale about a storyteller who ran out of stories. He was under obligation to tell stories to the king every night for five years and the king was, of course, threatening to cut off his head if not appropriately entertained. Finding himself one story short he wandered in the garden trying to remember some tale as yet unused and finally fell asleep on a bench. Although lacking in coherence, the resultant stress induced nightmare provided his yarn for the night and saved his life. I wondered briefly if I might scoff some hefty cheese before bedtime and get away with a similar ruse.

Fortunately, as I was reading one of my Christmas presents last night, a beautifully put together book of Turkish folk tales, I found a story which rather surprised me. It featured a man whose dream led him to great riches. Nothing surprising there as dreams in folktales are frequently premonitions that, if heeded, bring rewards or at least prevent catastrophe. The surprising thing was just how closely it followed the plot of a well known English folktale. Well, of course there is nothing really surprising about finding a different version of the same story in both Europe and the Middle East. So what was it that I did find surprising? I’d better tell you the story.

The English version features a poor pedlar who lived in the village of Swaffham in Norfolk.

One night he had a dream in which he was told to go to London Bridge and there he would meet someone who would lead him to great fortune. Off he trotted eking out his few remaining coins through the long walk and three days of hanging around on London Bridge getting steadily more despondent. On the last afternoon before he would be forced to return home, a shopkeeper from one of the shops on the bridge came out and said “I’ve been watching you wandering about for three days getting sadder and more sad. What, pray tell are you doing here?” The pedlar told him of his dream and the shopkeeper patted him on the shoulder saying “Ahh! Dreams! You shouldn’t listen to them. Why, I had a dream myself the other day that there’s a chest of gold coins buried under the roots of a tree in the garden of a pedlar who lives in Swaffham, but you don’t see me dropping everything to go and starve digging a pointless muddy hole in Bloomin’ Norfolk! Go home and get on with your life.” The pedlar thanked the shopkeeper for his kind advice, returned to Swaffham and found the treasure in his garden just as the man had said. He rebuilt the church, to the joy of all his neighbours, and lived happily ever after.

This story, called “The Pedlar Of Swaffham”, has never been attributed to any other place in the UK. The pedlar even has a name, John Chapman, and is immortalised on a massive sign in the town. Obviously, with such strong material evidence behind it the English version is the original and the Turkish version was borrowed in an exchange during the crusades. Except that the Turkish protagonist also has a name, Murat Usta, and the Anatalyian mosque that he paid to have built is named Muratpasa after him.

So there I am, thoroughly surprised that two near identical tales should both have left behind such indisputable physical results in such specific geographic locations. Are the double-prophetic-dream stories just a cover up for wealth gained in a less scrupulous fashion or should we be paying more attention to our nocturnal adventures?
Here’s wishing you all sweet dreams.

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Cheers!


I’ve got a 40 pint bucket of a yeasty sugar mix bubbling gently in my office. If all goes well it will transform over the next month in to 40 pints of cheap but very drinkable beer. The best thing about it is that I can honestly say that it is part of my research for work. A new year brings a new tour, “The Nectar Of The Gods”, in which I shall be looking at the place taken in mythology by the fermentation of alcoholic beverages.

My old favourites the Norse Gods have a couple of adventures on the subject. In one, the truce between the Aesir, the gods of Asgard, and the Vanir, the ‘shining ones from beyond’ is sealed by all of these divine beings spitting in to a cauldron. Odin makes Kvasir, a man of great wisdom, from the resultant holy goo and sends him off in to the world to do good. Two dwarves kill him, mix honey with his blood and brew a sublime mead that can bestow a magical ability to speak with great skill and weave words together in rhythm and rhyme.
The giant Suttung steals the three cauldrons, putting them under guard of his daughter Gunlod in a cave deep under a mountain. Odin then embarks on a long and arduous journey to retrieve the Mead Of Poetry for the gods. In another Norse tale there is no ale for a feast and no cauldron big enough to brew it so Thor is despatched to the land of the giants to fetch an appropriate brewing vat.

The theme of not having the necessary equipment seems common in the North. The Finnish epic “The Kalevala” contains a section in which the wedding beer will not start its fermentation. It appears they know about barley, hops and water but not yeast. A magic virgin despatches a squirrel, a marten and a bee on quests to bring back pine cones, bear spittle, and honey respectively. Even when they finally get the bubbles to rise the beer itself refuses to have a beneficial effect unless someone sings about how marvellous it is.

In the cuniform tablets of the ancient Sumerians we find a hymn to the goddess of beer, Ninkasi, which also contains the full recipe and instructions. Similarly, in the epic of Gilgamesh, when the wild man Enkidu comes to Uruk it is not the eating of bread that civilises him but the drinking of beer. No story that I have come across recounts the amazing discovery of leavening bread with yeast. Despite all the associations we, as modern people, have with grain goddesses, there are relatively few deities of bread and apparently no existing recipes from the earliest writings. It is also an interesting point that the instigators of agriculture were not growing wheat but barley. It is not surprising then, that some archaeologists and historians are of the opinion that the driving force behind the spread of agriculture was not food supply but the discovery of the delights of beer! Certainly the mythological record accords far more importance to beer than bread.

The journey into the origins of the myths about beer has lead me to the possibility that the amber nectar may be behind the greatest shift in human society we have yet experienced: the move from nomadic hunting and gathering to a settled agrarian society with cities and all that they bring. With my foaming bucket of barley and hops I am following in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors (except for the pinecones and bear spit), and I look forward to a very civilised March before I head off on tour in April, May and June.

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To Sleep, Perchance To Dream


I’m quite visual as storytellers go. I stand up to do my tellings and move about quite a bit using hand gestures and even elements of mime to emphasise or elucidate a point. Photographers are always annoyed because all they get are a series of vaguely orange blurs. Nevertheless I have always had the occasional member of the audience who likes to listen without the aid of their eyes. These rare individuals will sit back, often stretching out their legs, hands folded over midriff, eyes closed, chin on chest, and let their imaginations provide the pictures. Whilst appearing to be asleep they are in fact the person in the room who is most deeply involved in the story.

Our ability to translate the words we hear in to pictures projected on some figmental screen in the virtual cinema of our occipital lobes is the very root of imagination. It is quite literally where dreams are made. Nowadays we are rather inclined to underuse this phenomenal effect, opting instead for a continuous feed of external images through magazines, televisions, computers and smart phones. I think this is a shame as our inner cinematographers, set designers and artists are all quite exceptional at their jobs if given a chance.

As part of a workshop I ran for Poole museum service recently I used the following exercise. Having previously handed out some stories for the participants to read through a few times I asked them to sit in a comfortable position, relax and close their eyes. I then asked them to bring to mind a picture that they had in their head from the story. I went to each one in turn and asked them, with eyes sill closed, to tell the rest of us what they saw in their mental picture. After a general description I asked them to zoom in on one part or item in their scene and relate this detail. The results were wonderful. The closer they went, the more they saw. Textures and colours sprang to life as they turned their attention to them. “A gateway” became “An arch of carefully chiseled, yellow stone with the iron spikes of a raised portcullis sticking through a slot in the roof and the names of the guards scratched in to the wall”. Try it for yourself sometime, you don’t have to speak the words, just have a good look in to a picture you have in your head and see how high resolution it is.

Of course, now and again, the person at my performance with their eyes closed is just very tired. Sometimes so tired they actually are asleep. It doesn’t happen often but when it does this is fine too. For many people storytelling is associated with bedtime. The whole point of storytelling is to transport the listener to another plane of existence, to move them beyond the mundane world to a limnal place on the borders of the land of dreams, once in a while you are bound to lose one over the edge. How often do we give ourselves the chance to drift gently over Lake Slumber into the Land Of Nod with our minds eye being fed a stream of fantastic images via our ears? In fact I quite like it if the occasional audient nods off, it lets me know I have been taking the rest of them in the right direction. Storytelling is the one art form in which your audience falling asleep is not an insult, indeed, If I have relaxed them to the point of sleep then I think that qualifies as a job well done. The sleeper is like someone who has taken the coach trip in to the forest but wandered off from the guided tour to have their own adventure, a scout in the borderlands of consciousness. If we are lucky they may come back with a new story to tell.

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

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“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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