A Rose By Any Other Name…


In a global culture it is obvious that the name of a thing has little bearing on the nature of the thing itself: whether you call it un gant, ein handschuh or a glove it will keep your digital extremities exactly the same amount of warm. Naturally mythology and folklore, regardless of linguistic origin, are bulging with yarns which stand or fall on specific nomenclature. 

Starting at the beginning, creation myths are almost exclusively about the naming of things, sometimes to the extent that speaking names is the method by which the progenitor deity summons the elements of the universe in to being. Even in those myths where all the living things are hand made out of mud or clay, the divine sculptor doesn’t release their inventions into the wild without giving them a handy descriptive label. The implication in these naming stories is that the god given moniker describes and contains the underlying primal nature, the essential essence of the being or thing it is attached to. 

The god themself however, produces their magnum opus under a pseudonym. Often they have several. The Norse crafter of the universe, Odin, uses a series of aliases, often taunting a rival with a selection of them (the full list runs over a couple of pages of A4). Behind these sobriquets their true name remains hidden. This is because the very power to generate beings and shape reality resides in the creators own name, it is a potent cypher, a resonant sound, a word of power! Numerous creators have names so powerful they should not be spoken. In a story about the Egyptian originator god who we know as Ra, Isis tricks him in to giving her his secret name and so gains power over him. 

This theme of secret or true names holding power over their owners carries on into folklore. Fairies, witches and all sorts of supernatural beings, if asked will give names that are meaningless such as “No one”, or just a description and where they come from, as in “The Witch of Wookey” or the even vaguer “Hag Of The Woods”. 

Then of course there is the secret name story, you know, that secret name story, the one with the deal. It comes in different varieties of course, depending on where you are in the world. In Norway a troll offers to build a church in return for the priests eyes and heart, In Scotland a widow gets her sick pig cured by a fairy in return for her baby, in England an imp spins five skeins of wool each day in return for the queen herself. In each case, and indeed many others, the foolish deal maker can get out of paying the extraordinary price they have agreed to if they can guess the name of their supernatural helper, not that tricky a task if they were called John or Jane but who is going to guess “Rumplestiltskin” if they have never been told a story about him? 

Although the set up and the price may differ the end of the story is always the same: someone visits the debtor and relates a peculiar thing they saw or overheard whilst out for a walk. In every case it is, of course, the troll / imp / fairy in question and in every case they were singing a song which included their name. The visitor remembers the song exactly, and thus the hapless protagonist is armed with the one bit of information that can save them from the results of their own foolishness: their oppressor’s true name. 

It’s an odd story in many ways, often devoid of any morally good character, but it clearly shows the power and value of a name. 

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Sisters


“I know we are not supermodels but ‘Ugly’ is just unkind.” Sister 1 says.
They have asked that their names be withheld, “For the moment we’d really like to distance ourselves from the whole thing,” says Sister 2 “but we think it would be good to put our side of the story out there, you know, get it off our chests.”

I was originally sceptical when they contacted me for an interview but it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. So here I am in a quiet coffee house sharing a plate of biscuits with two ladies who are indeed not unattractive in the least and exhibit none of the signs of haughtiness or pride that are traditionally attributed to them. S1 let’s out a musical laugh while S2 rolls her eyes theatrically skywards, “Step sisters? No, She just turned up on our doorstep one day!” They both give a ‘What can you do?’ shrug and S1 continues the tale: “She was wearing the most impractical and expensive ‘peasant’ outfit you have ever seen, but back when he was alive our father had done some trade with her father so we sort of knew who she was. Mum said she could stay as long as she did her share of the cooking and cleaning.” They exchange a glance and S2 stifles a giggle. “You’ve never seen anyone so completely useless in a kitchen!” 
“Being a princess, she’d never touched a pan or lit a fire in her life!”
“We tried to show her what to do but practical tasks were not really her thing-”
“-or listening!”
“To be fair she did give it a go to start with, but puffing and blowing in the grate before you have cleared it of ash is always going to end in disaster!”
“She managed to cover herself in soot from head to foot..” 
“… and most of the house!”
“And that’s when she started calling herself Cinderella.”
So it was her joke to start with?
“Oh yes, we all had a good laugh while we were cleaning up the first time.”
The sisters exchange another look, serious for a moment but soon excitedly interrupting each other again.
“As time went on though, she didn’t get any better. We kept on stepping in to show her how something was done and finding she’d wondered off and was singing in the garden-”
“-while we did all the work! So we tried going out and leaving her to it but we really underestimated how far she would go to get someone else to do it for her.”
“She dropped a bag of millet one day and instead of sweeping it up she just opened the windows and let the birds in!”
“It took 2 hours to get the last of the birds out and a week to stop the house smelling of pigeon poop. We were still plucking feathers out of the curtains a month later.”
“We came back one day to find a sheep in the parlour with a broom tied to it’s tail while she was prancing around the pantry with one of dad’s old coats ‘tra-la-la-ing’-”
“-and there were actual squirrels swimming in the sink!”


It’s all quite shocking. I enquire about vegetable transportation to 3 royal dances.
“One ball. We managed to arrange an extra invite for her but she said she was going to stay and clear up the mess she had made that day-” S1 starts. S2 breaks in
“- then she rocked up ‘fashionably late’, making quite the entrance.”
“Pumpkin” says S1, “was the name of the taxi firm. She hired a mini cab for the night, loaded two spare outfits and ran off to change at any point that she lost the Prince’s attention.”
“Pretending she didn’t know us all evening by the way.”
“At the end of the night she made a big show of having to run out before midnight-”
“-the Prince looked a bit puzzled and tried to start a conversation with a table decoration-”
“-so she scrawled our address on the bottom of her shoe, ran back in-”
“-and threw it at him!”
The last line said together, then heads back and laughing. S1 shakes her head 
“They were so mashed”.


So the bit about trying on the slipper is all nonsense then?
“Ha ha! You’d think! But no: the next day there’s the Prince outside calling out that ‘Whosever shall this slipper fit’ etc. and we all have to go through this ridiculous palaver of trying on her 4 inch stiletto.”
“Which might have made some sense if she was a size 11 but she’s a 7-”
“-and so are we. Even mum!”
“Even Mrs. Blewfery from next door!”
Did you say ‘It fits! Marry me!’? They find the suggestion hysterical.
“Good grief no! The Prince is a total fantasist. Him and Cindy are perfectly suited.”

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The Elder Mother


Sitting down to write this months Folk Tales Corner I found myself searching for a subject, then I remembered that I had rather been handed a baton by Country File (not the BBC programme but the short seasonal wildlife column in the local magazine where Folk Tales Corner starts it’s life) with the reference to The Elder Mother in a piece about fire wood. I think they had in mind that I would trot out the story, make a comment on it, job done! As usual it turns out to be much more complicated than that. 

Western society is built fairly strongly on a medieval foundation and tends to see things in a very binary way. There is yes and no, good and bad, my way or the highway. Folklore, especially that which has been around for some time, often steps in to greyer areas, and there is little more ambiguous than the lore surrounding the Elder: She is a witch tree but her twigs will protect you from fairies; if you burn her wood it will bring death to your house but the medicines made from her can bring you back from the brink of death; an elder tree in the garden will keep you safe but having them all round the house will finish you off, though you should never cut one down or it will result in misery, misfortune and shrub related retribution.

The medicinal properties are in fact real. The list of medical preparations that can be made from her bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, pith and roots would easily fill several pages on their own and include diuretics, astringents, febrifuges, purgatives, expectorants, laxatives, pain relievers and sleep inducers. Most of the lore surrounding the Elder is probably a result, one way or another, of it being a veritable hedgerow chemical factory. The leaves for instance could be used to keep rats, mice and flies away as they do not like the smell. This is clearly where it got its status as a protector against fairies, the side benefits of being free from actual small pests getting attributed to being free from diminutive mythological beings. 

With an entire shop full of medicines being available from one tree, the Elder would have been a regular stop for any herbalists or healers. Few trees are as blatant with their fertility as the Elder. Her white blossom and red berries obscuring her green leaves in turn. It is easy to see how such a bountiful bush would be protected by warnings of the danger and loss that would follow any careless damage: sooner or later you would suffer for your sloppiness when the remedy for your malady was no longer available. The Elder Mother then, was a giver of great gifts who should be respected and, like any mother, could bring comfort or comeuppance. 

As the medieval Church defamed all knowledge that was not under it’s direct control traditional medicine became decried as witchcraft, and the Elder went from generous goddess to woodland witch, field pharmacy to tree of terror. It was an easy fit because the Elder Mother, like many pagan goddesses, already had a dark side. It is true that elder wood does not burn well, it spits, smokes and gives little flame, then smoulders in the grate. In doing so it releases many of the toxins from which it’s medicines are made. As the fire loses it’s heat it is more likely that the noxious gasses from the fuel will creep in to the room instead of exiting through the chimney, subjecting the occupants to a strong soporific which would prevent them from awakening while they breath in a cocktail of deadly vapours. If you bring death to the giver of life then you can expect to reap her revenge!

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If Truth Be Told


Sometimes I am surprised by something story related that turns up on the net, not because it is on the net but because I remember being told it at primary school and am amazed that it was considered appropriate. One such item is a famous painting and it’s attendant story: “The Truth coming out of the well” by Jean-Léon Gérôme. The painting features a rather pleasant Mediterranean courtyard corner with a vine climbing up the walls. In the foreground a young lady is stepping over a low wall wearing nothing but a shocked expression.

The story that goes with the picture is that the Truth and the Lie meet one day. The Lie says “What a lovely day”! The Truth looks around and has to agree, since the day is rather nice. The two amble around together for a while and eventually arrive at a well. The Lie tells the Truth: “The water is very nice, let’s take a bath together!” The Truth, once again suspicious, tests the water and discovers that it indeed is very nice. They undress and start bathing.

Now, I’m not sure what you think but, as a 6 year old I was dubious about the concept of random strangers meeting up and going skinny dipping in the water supply. I especially had trouble with the idea of taking a bath in a well as this would surely necessitate some level of naked climbing or levitation, on top of which they had no towels or soap with them and the whole episode seemed rather unlikely. Looking back I realise I must have been a much more literal child than the adult I grew into and clearly had issues with extended metaphor, so for anyone else who is struggling with details of this nature I should probably suggest that they are unimportant, just the dressing, let them go. It is an allegory and as such it is the interrelation of the two characters that we are supposed to be paying attention to.

Suddenly, the Lie gets out, puts on the Truth’s clothes and legs it. The Truth is unsurprisingly rather miffed and clambering out of the well runs around trying to find the Lie and reclaim her clobber. The World, seeing the Truth naked, turns its gaze away, with contempt and rage.

And this is the bit I had trouble with in terms of appropriateness. There seemed to be a double standard about the nakedness issue. If we are not supposed to look at her naked then why are you showing us a picture? Also, someone’s nicked her clothes, why is everyone being mean to her? Furthermore, I really didn’t like the ending which leaves the world a very dark and hopeless place. Is this really the world view to present to infants?


The poor Truth, so the story goes, went back to the well and hid in it, feeling ashamed of her nakedness. Since then the Lie travels the world freely, dressed as the Truth, satisfying the needs of society, because, the World, in any case, harbours no wish at all to meet the naked Truth.

See what I mean? Grim. Today though, I am a storyteller and I know things that I did not know then. I know that Truth did not stay in the well. She crept out under cover of darkness and turned up at the Storyteller’s door. There she was taken in, given food, comfort, a warm bed and gentle embraces. Now each day the Storyteller dresses her in material of metaphor, wraps her in robes of fantasy, heightens her appeal with hats of hyperbole and sends Truth out, hiding in plain sight, to whisper in to peoples hearts.

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

The Travelling Talesman

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Man’s Beast Friend


While the deeper meanings of a story remain constant the details and mechanics are often effected quite strongly by the medium. This is never more obvious than the change wrought on werewolves by the cinema. Almost everything we think we know about werewolves: their connection to the lunar cycle; their immunity to all but silver bullets; their un-controllable blood lust; the weird feud thing with vampires; that a bite will will make you one too… were all popularised by movies and are all wrong.

In pre-Victorian folklore the moon doesn’t play a part in werewolf stories at all, they have no crossover with vampires whatsoever and getting bitten by a werewolf may be painful, or even fatal, but it is not transformative. Werewolves die as easily as any other mammal and only a few of them are hell bent on destruction. In the old folktales it seems that being a werewolf is a purely physical condition. The person of evil intent will become an evil wolf whilst the good and civilised person will remain equally domesticated whilst in their furry skin.

Those who are wicked and have the ability to become a wolf are frequently repeatedly violent, not always when changed either. The renowned folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould, wrote a book called The Book of Were-Wolves” which is actually primarily about serial killers. He appears to be making the case that the werewolf trope arises out of the monsterfication of the multiple murderer. In folktales and history bad werewolves get killed of course, usually with a fairly standard sharp implement such as a spear or a knife, or dancing at the end of a rope if the law has caught up with them.

One of the things about the good werewolf is that they don’t have a big problem with being a bit doggy; running off in to the woods is just a thing they have to do now and then. There are even stories in which the ability to transform is given as a gift or reward. Any problems that they have stem from other people’s reactions. It is often getting past society’s unwarranted negativity that creates the conflict in the story. In one French tale (France has quite a high density of the afflicted), a dissolute Abbott called Gilbert falls form his horse in the forest whilst drunk, cutting himself in the process. The smell of blood attracts some wild panthers who are about to make a meal of him when he is rescued by a werewolf. The werewolf follows Gilbert back to the abbey, despite Gilbert’s repeated and ever increasing attempts to shoo it away, and later turns out to be his Bishop who lectures Gilbert on the Christian values of judging people by their actions rather than their appearance.

Unlike many other beast genres in folktale, the climax of the tale rarely involves the werewolf becoming permanently human, the condition is not one that gets cured. The more gentle and well behaved werewolf can mostly avoid the terrible terminations of their murderous cousins but is still generally the same amount of canine at the end of the story as the beginning. The wedding that is the resolution in so many fairytales is totally absent as well, the werewolf’s marital status being neither here nor there unless it is their spouses attitude to their lupine nature that causes their problems. What the good werewolf can generally look forward to as their “happily ever after” is acceptance of who they are, however big their eyes, ears and teeth are.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Real Men Get The Needle


I have just come back from a busy summer working at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth on HMS Warrior “The First Iron-clad”. I had been brought in to create a suite of stories and train the staff in the art and craft of storytelling. As part of the application I wrote a bit about emotional engagement in historical interpretation:

A needle in a museum display case is often only noted for it’s surprising size and bluntness, but for large parts of history they were an essential part of an everyday toolkit carried by half the population. They were items of value, in the middle ages an entire play, “Gammer Gurton’s Needle” was constructed around the loss of one, yet they remain unexciting to the modern observer (like you, you’re not excited yet are you?) unless we can put the needle in the hands of a person with a life and a story that illustrates the importance of the needle to them. Even this may not work if we simply give the needle to a tailor and have them make a nice frock coat for Mr. Corbett to wear to the fair.

What if Mr. Tailor has a big order in but has been taken ill, leaving his poor arthritic mother to hand sew thirty naval gunner’s shirts by the end of the month?
Even then, it may be hard to grasp the real, personal hardship of the job unless we take some time illustrate old Mrs. Tailor’s struggle: What does the cloth feel like? Does the repetitive pushing of the needle through the layered seams make her shoulders cramp? Is it hard to see by the single candle which is all she can afford to use?”

Although factually inaccurate on a couple of points (as you shall see), this set me off on a train of thought: Vikings were famously well turned out, snappy dressers with a penchant for bling. They were also away from home for quite long periods of time, engaged in heavy manual labour and the occasional tussle. How did they maintain their sartorial elegance? Who sewed up the sword cuts in their expensive silk tunics? What about other travelling men? Explorers, traders, army and navy, lumberjacks? How is it that these men didn’t come home in rags and tatters?

The answer is simple: they sat down, they took out their needles and they sewed.

On HMS Warrior in the eighteen sixties this was directly illustrated by three things. Firstly, the records show that on joining the navy each sailor was given appropriate lengths of cloth and expected to make up the two pairs of trousers, shirts, collars and so forth that comprised their uniform themselves (so much for Mr. tailor’s big order!); secondly, amongst the personal items each crew member kept in their ‘ditty box’ was their sewing kit (so significantly more than half the population were carrying needles around); and finally there is a quote from a certain Mr. Dickens, an author of some repute, who visited the great vessel in 1863 which paints a picture of quiet domesticity: “some were working hearth rugs by a quilting process or embroidering pictures… We are all familiar with the British Seaman as a daring man, and a light-hearted cheery man but here we see him as a homely man, mending his clothes or shoes”. Those plying their needles in the quote above include Royal Marine Artillery Gunners who were crewing the biggest, most powerful guns yet made. It seems the rougher and tougher the job the more likely it was that a man would have to engage with the delicate art of needlecraft. If history is anything to go by, real men sew!

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Normal, Everyday Superheroes


One thing that you notice if you study stories – all stories, in books and films as well as folk tale and myth – is that the protagonists are very rarely just ordinary people. Oh, they may be an everyday person doing everyday things but in one way or another they will always be an outsider of some sort, something makes them different in their own way. The thing that interests me is that we all respond to this positively, we all identify with their difference, their sense of being outside the norm, we all say to ourselves “Yes! That’s like me. I’m different too.” We’re not wrong either. Extensive studies have found that there is no “normal”. Not one of us is actually like everyone else, no one is absolutely average in everything they think, feel, desire or do, and if there is a person who is utterly “normal” in every way that would make them extremely weird indeed!

 

Even the protagonists who are introduced as very normal, the ones who milk cows every day, cut hay each year, watch geese, sit and weave or run errands, turn out to be special in some way. It may be that they identify a transformed human because of their un-goose like behaviour; they are able to hide amongst the cows because the cows are at ease with them or they are able to run away because of the amazing turn of speed they have developed doing deliveries. One way or another the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

There are rules, of course, for those who strike out along the paths less travelled and uncover the true value of their previously mundane skillset. The first is probably the hardest and that is to accept the adventure when it presents itself. For a society made of unique individuals who are happy to cheer on every oddball, weirdo and drifter that Hollywood presents us with, we can be very, very resistant to non-conformity when actual outsiders turn up in the office or walking along ‘our’ street. The would-be heroic type must be open to the unusual; ready to respond when a talking bird or a wise old person crosses their path, and neither pretend it hasn’t happened nor strike out in fear.

Some of the other rules are simple and made much more obvious during the story: The one who achieves the quest is the one who shares their food with the old person at the crossroads or helps the various beleaguered animals they find on their way. They are often given advice that involves perseverance, an exhortation to “keep going no matter what happens”. Less obvious, but equally important is the fact that they must heed that advice or accept the help that is offered by the animals they have helped earlier. This again is something our society struggles with. For some reason we have been trained to believe we should do everything ourselves despite the fact that, just as we all have some skills others lack, we also all find ourselves utterly incapable at some things.

So, here are the folk tale rules for those who wish to discover their everyday superpowers:
1) Be open to the unusual, in people or events.
2) Be kind and share what you have.
3) Follow advice from those with experience.
4) Keep going when it’s difficult.
5) Ask for help if you need it and accept it when it comes.

It’s worth noting that these rules remain remarkably consistent across continents, cultures, religious precedence, and time. It’s almost as if acceptance, kindness and perseverance are the essential ingredients for, not just superheroes, since we all have superpowers even if we don’t know them yet, but for being human.

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