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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Of Cats, Queens and Star Mice


Where, you might ask, did witchcraft come from? How did this magic lark get started? Well, I could answer with talk of tribal shamanism, of ancient herbalists who also practised a little psychological manipulation of simple folk… but that story is a modern construct, a theory advanced by anthropologists and authors of fantasy and, for my taste, has to ferment a little longer before it can officially be recognised as folklore. The story I am going to tell you has been around a bit longer, even if it hasn’t been around as long as it claims.

The story starts at the very beginning when the goddess Diana is the first created being. Containing all within herself she splits herself in two, producing from her own darkness the light, simultaneously her son and her brother, who’s name (don’t get carried away now) is Lucifer. Here I have to interject to point out that, although the name means “morning star” and “shining” and “lord of light” depending on your translation, this Lucifer is not the same one that you find in that famous book from the middle east. This radiant fella is from Italy. Treating the one as the other would be like assuming that a chap called Peter from Weatherfield is the same as another bloke called Peter who lives in London when one of them is in Coronation Street and the other in Eastenders. The two mythologies are unconnected.

Diana having a rest after creating the earth, trees, water, bows, arrows and cloth, but not apparently clothing.


Diana, seeing the beauty of the light wishes to reunite with her other half and chases him but Lucifer is having nothing to do with her. Diana then makes the world and all that goes in it and both she and Lucifer take mortal forms and step down on to the earth. Diana busies herself teaching magic and sorcery to her creations, also bringing fairies, goblins and other supernatural creatures in to being. Lucifer has a pet cat that sleeps on his bed which, unbeknownst to him, is actually a fairy. Diana persuades the fairy to swap likenesses with her and settles on Lucifer’s bed as his cat. In the night she re-takes her own form and seduces the bringer of light. He is not entirely happy with this when he wakes in the morning but she sings to him using her craft and, quite literally, enchants him.

For some unknown reason Diana is in disguise as a mortal and none of the witches know she is their creator. She decides to impress them by putting some earth and some mice in an ox bladder (as you do) and inflating it until it bursts at which point the earth inside becomes the heavens, the mice become stars and it rains for a few days. The witches are sufficiently impressed that they take her as their queen.

Later, after Diana passed on from the mortal world, the rich people on earth cruelly enslaved and mistreated the poor, so Diana sent the daughter of her union with Lucifer, Aradia, to teach the poor people spells, magic and poison potions to use against the rich. Aradia also taught them about Diana queen of the witches, the cat who ruled the star-mice, the heaven and the rain.

Now the story of this story is that it was told by the “stregheria” or Italian witches of Roman times and was passed down an unbroken line in secret. It was first published by an American folklorist called Charles Leland in 1899 who claims it came to him from his Italian assistant Maddelena whilst they were collecting folktales in Italy. She originally wrote it down and gave it to Leland before mysteriously vanishing… It is however entirely possible that one or other of them simply made it up so it may well be a piece of literature and not mythology at all.
I expect we will never really know where witches came from, even if they do tell us themselves!

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

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The Last Place You Want To Go


If you take a walk deep in to the forest of Russia you may find yourself at a strange dwelling. Before you stands a fence made of human bones. On the larger posts, regularly spaced along the bleached white barricade, sit skulls, their eyes flickering with a sickly flame. Within this gruesome enclosure a hut, with windows like eyes and a door like a wide open mouth, spins round and round on giant chicken legs. This is the home of The Baba Yaga, the most famous witch on the planet.

The Baba Yaga’s home by Thomas Denmark

The skinny, bony legged Baba Yaga has a long, hooked nose and iron teeth. Her method of travel is rather unusual: she uses a pestle and mortar, pushing the latter along with the former and swinging a broom behind her to sweep away the traces of her passing. As the pestle hits the ground it strikes sparks and makes a sound like thunder. Sometimes this peculiarly culinary form of transport, rather like having a car designed as a massive Moulinex, can even take flight.

Her name translates with difficulty, Yaga being such an old word that it’s meaning is lost in time. Through various related languages we come to Horror, Witch or Wicked Spirit. The first part, Baba, is easier meaning an elderly female relative. So how about Grandmother Evil?

Despite all the build up The Baba Yaga is an ambivalent character, as likely to hand out good advice and put everything right as she is to fire up the stove and chase children through the land licking her dry old lips in anticipation of a feast. She is probably best known as the antagonist to Vassilissa, who is variously The Beautiful or The Wise. Vassilissa is persecuted by her stepmother and step sisters who eventually put out the fire and send her to The Baba Yaga to get a light… and hopefully to get eaten. Although fearing for her life Vassilissa does various domestic chores for the Baba Yaga who, pleased with her work, sends her home with one of the flame-eyed skulls for a light. When Vassilissa arrives home the Baba Yaga’s gift incinerates her duplicitous step family.

Vasilisa by Ivan Bilibin (1902)

There are similarities here with the Grimm’s tale of Mutter Holle, in which the industrious step daughter goes down a well to retrieve her lost spindle. She finds herself working for Mutter Holle, or Mother Hell, a similarly scary, hook nosed, big toothed, bony old crone. The girl is made to shake the duvet until the feathers fly which makes it snow in the world above. When she decides to return home she is showered with gold. Sometimes The Baba Yaga is attended by three horsemen: one in red armour who rides by at dawn; one in white armour who rides by at midday and one in black armour who rides by at dusk. The symbolism will not escape you I am sure, placing Baba Yaga in charge of the daily cycle of the sun. These remnants of global powers in the natural realm give our woodland dwelling witch a somewhat different background.

In some tales there are three sisters, all called Baba Yaga. Now we have a final clue to her true nature. The Baba Yagas were once a triplicate nature goddess, mysterious, terrifying and deadly but also bountiful if approached without fear. Maybe the name translates better as Grandmother Death, not a witch at all but the ultimate power in the world… and one day we must all pass through the fence of fear and pay her a visit.

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