Just Doin’ Their Job


Every now and then someone will have their curiosity awakened by a supporting character in a story or suite of stories. For some reason their perception of the bit part in question has connected with a chain of thought, resonated with their emotional state, or highlighted the particular point they have reached on some internal journey of psychological discovery. “Can you tell me more about the wig maker?” they might say, or, as happened recently, “Can you fill in some details about the personality of Valkyries?”.

I’m sad to say that the answer is far too frequently a simple “No.” Outside of a bit of historical info relating to their occupation there is usually nothing more to tell. With a question about personality, like the one above it is especially hard. It’s not great being responsible for ending that excitement, for bringing that journey to an unsatisfying end, so in lieu of a more edifying response we storytellers often set them a task: “Find your way to the source material” we encourage enigmatically. We have, of course, read the source material and the answer will still be “No”, but at least we won’t have had to be the one to say it!

You may be a writer inspired to re-work a classic trope or a seeker on a spiritual quest, it matters not. If you are looking for the deeper personality or motivations of the supporting cast in myth and folktale I fear you will be disappointed. You are looking for embroidered silk but you are standing in a smithy. Everything is functional. Occasionally a personality trait may be instrumental to the plot in which case it will be stated in advance, e.g: an evil sorcerer; a greedy merchant; a pious maiden. If it isn’t necessary then it isn’t there.


Let’s take the Valkyrie example above. In Norse myth, as with much myth and folktale, characters are defined by their functions and personality is revealed by their actions. We can say very little about the personality of valkyries because they don’t get to do very much: serve drinks in Valhalla, collect dead warriors, hang around having cool names (Axe time, Raging), that’s about it. Think of them like backing dancers for M.C. Odin: They make him look good, help set the scene, and fill out the stage but you know nothing about who they are under the leather and steel, that is not what they are there for.

Three valkyries turn up in the story of Wayland the smith. They card flax by the lake, are chatted up by Wayland and his brothers, bunk off work to live with them for 8 years before putting on their swan skins and flying away. The closest thing to a revelation of character in this is that neither Alvis, Hladgud nor Hervor mention to their “husbands” that they are leaving. Remember that they are immortal psychopomps, heavily armed personifications of death, in their universe eight years is just a chat by the coffee machine and then it’s back to the celestial call-centre to continue recruiting dead warriors for the final battle. There is nothing unkind in their leaving, it’s just time to go back to work.

What’s more they have two bosses. It’s not only the All-Father they have to work for, they are doing a job for the storyteller too. Their departure may not reveal their own character but it does shine a light on elements of Wayland’s. He says “If Hervor wants me she knows where to find me.” He is a blacksmith and stays at his forge where every day he makes a gold arm ring for his absent wife. His brothers, who are hunters, go off to seek their loved ones leaving Wayland alone in Wolfdale, as he needs to be for the story to progress. The supporting cast, having fulfilled their function, are gone.

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

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Pony Tales


Usually when I write on a certain folktale theme it is the theme of an upcoming show. Over the past years that has meant a touring show that might get twenty performances after a five month build up. I would already have an idea of around half the stories in the set in month one. During the ongoing research, filtering and learning stage I had time to notice underlying similarities, sub themes and concepts within the assorted yarns I was considering, cogitate on their meaning or relevance and pour my musings on to the page for Folk Tales Corner, often solidifying and condensing what had been quite loose, unfocused ponderings in the process. The well ordered and logical progression of thoughts which reveals itself in this fashion often then becomes the basis for an introduction to a story or the links in a sequence of shorter tales.

Now I am knocking new shows together in a couple of weeks, each one getting a single performance in front of a webcam and a screen full of small heads bobbing unnervingly about at the bottom of their oblong boxes. By the time I notice something I want to talk about it’s the night before the gig. By the time I have sat down to write about a thing I noticed the show has gone, along with some very short and random introductions.

Hence this months FTC is about horses, the show I did last Saturday. It’s not going to be as useful to me or you as it might have been… but there was something I spotted during the all too brief research that I really want to chew over. I’ve mentioned “the story” before, the one in a theme that you keep coming across? With horses it is this one: Three poor brothers are set to catch who ever has been stealing hay from the meadow, the eldest two fall asleep, the foolish youngest finds that it is a beautiful white mare, jumps on her back and is treated to the ride of their life but by hanging on they eventually cause the magnificent beast to accept them. Sometimes the horse then becomes their companion but more often she gifts the lad two amazingly valuable colts and one small and odd pony. Selling the prize colts to the king gets the young lad a job as the horses only behave for him. Jealous courtiers try to get rid of the kings new favourite by claiming he is a boaster and get the king to set him a series of impossible tasks under restrictive time constraints and threat of death. With the aid of the small odd horse who is naturally magic, can talk and sometimes fly, the young lad achieves the tasks. Often these involve the procurement of another famously amazing, but wild, mare and her herd, and nearly always end with the long distance abduction of a beautiful princess, who may or may not be the Moon or the Dawn. The denouement, in which the magic horse not only saves the lad from a hideous death, but contrives to make him even more handsome than he was while the old king commits accidental self-regicide in a cauldron of boiling milk, is a classic folk tale climax*, following which the Princess marries the lad and they take over the kingdom. Phew.

This tale and it’s variants can be found anywhere there are horses but the majority, and the more fully developed versions, cover a swathe that runs up the east of Europe from Turkey through Hungary and into Russia. This includes the ancient Greek myth of Pegasus, the famously winged horse captured by Belerephon, though without the poached monarch.

The thought that has been tickling me is: does this story, that comes to us from the edges of the horse lands, contain memories of the first horse taming? Did the very first fool to successfully break a horse become a celebrated hero but also a target for gossips and manipulators? Did they find that their new steed enabled them to capture or kill beasts too fearsome to overcome on foot, to do the previously impossible? Did it seem, even as it does to modern writers, that the horse at full speed barely touched the ground, clearing hedges and ditches like a bird, such that tales of flying horses are simply poetic exaggeration of previously unexperienced speed? Did their unique skill allow them to become a ruler? And, most importantly, does that mean we can date the genesis of this story to six and a half thousand years ago?

* If I haven’t persuaded you to read some folk tales over the last 11 years that sentence alone should do it.

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

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Happy 127!


[Nearly all the posts in this blog have a previous life as articles in my local magazine. This one is more specific about it than most]

I’m not a big one for anniversaries, New Year’s Day and the various other constructs of passing time. Technically I am supposed to be clued in to such things, but my personal temperament is rather more inclined to living in the moment and I frequently don’t notice the oncoming bus of calendrical commemoration until it’s too late to do anything other than leap out the way and watch it rush by with it’s party of passengers.

This is my 127th Folk Tales Corner. An extremely arbitrary number, whose only real value is it clearly indicates that some time last year we passed the point which theoretically marked a decade of you reading my assorted ramblings, and I just want to thank you for doing so.

It has been an interesting journey. The first couple of articles were produced by me chatting through thoughts about folktales while Jo typed notes. I re-worked the results to give it my own voice and handed it back for a last sub edit before sending it off to Keith [Editor]. Bit by bit I took over the whole writing process but without that initial speaking-and-notes approach I would probably still be staring at that first blank screen. You see, I have dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia is often described as a problem with ‘fine motor control’. When people with dysgraphia write with a pen our hands suffer a kind of mini dyspraxia, resulting in sharp and jagged letters with random height, width, spacing and base line. We also tend to mix lower case and capitals, struggle with spelling, punctuate randomly and squeeze words up because we haven’t left enough space. Our handwriting looks like a spider has crawled through an ink well and tried to breakdance on the page. It’s one of the branches of neurodiversity alongside dyslexia, autism and ADHD.

I have written here before about my struggles with procrastination, this is how a fair amount of it started. At school I was given a hard time over my hand writing by both pupils and teachers so I developed a fear of anyone seeing my writing. Starting to write, for any reason, became difficult. I would stare at a blank sheet of paper unable to begin. Unwilling to desecrate it’s purity, to pollute it’s virgin whiteness with the snaggle-toothed goblin hordes of my malformed griffonage.

Working on a computer gets around most of the mechanical problems of dysgraphia. Having a deadline, an audience and a hard copy (proof read and corrected by the excellent Messenger staff) every month has been a very persuasive stimulus to get over myself and type. The experience of pulling the threads of my thoughts out and trapping them in (hopefully) coherent paragraphs, has been transformative for both my understanding of the material and my craft, oh, and myself. The freedom that you have all permitted me to examine folklore from a variety of angles, explore my understanding of performance and digress in to creative writing has been a privilege. Re-discovering a joy in composing with the written word that was bullied out of me in my early teens has been a gift.

So thank you Morchard Bishop [and you internet reader]. Thank you for your kind words and encouragement over the last decade and a bit. Thank you taking the time to engage with the various peculiar worlds I wander you in and out of. Thank you for your patience with my stylistic experimentations. I hope you have enjoyed it and will continue to do so. Happy 127th!

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

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A Purrfect Tale


As with any animal in folklore a good number of folktale cats turn out to be enchanted royalty who, after assisting the protagonist with some impossible or at least improbable task, request that they be cut in half and promptly regain their human form. All very interesting to the folklorist, but in many ways interchangeable with any number of other animal helpers from frogs to foxes, so maybe not as quite as interesting to the purist cat lover.

Sitting on the line between transformed human and magical pet is one of the most famous feline tale types which I have in versions called variously The Master Cat, The Ashlad and the Cat, Cattenborg, Lord Peter, and… Puss In Boots to name just a few. It is found all across Europe from Norway to Italy. This story generally starts with the death of poor parents, leaving such meagre estate that the youngest child inherits only the family mog. The furry companion, who can talk of course, then sets about finding a potential monarchical mate for the hard up homo sapien by simply claiming they are of royal birth and stealing a magnificent castle off a troll to prove it. Some variants have the cat transform at the end but most leave puss, booted or otherwise, to a life of fluffy leisure after they have raised their primate from homeless penury to a regal state.

So we come to the true ailurophile’s* favourite tales: those that are about fabulous furry felines rather than about the humdrum hairless apes they associate with. Two things are expected from this type of yarn. First they should demonstrate a knowledge of our mousing mates that we recognise; some essential trait of character apparent in the moggies snoozing on our sofas, pawing at our pantries, and staring intently at our ceilings for no readily apparent reason. The second thing we want the narrative to do is pull back the curtain on the secret life we all suspect that cats live when no human eye is looking.

Scattered around the world, each of these tales brings the flavour of it’s home culture with it. From England comes a gem that I remember as one of a very few stories that I was told by my parents: The King Of The Cats. If you don’t know it, it features an old couple living near the village church. One day the fella comes home all of a bother “I’ve just seen the strangest thing” he tells his wife. “I was coming back through the church yard and there I saw a procession of cats with a little coffin on their shoulders”. At this point old tabby Tom who had been napping in the armchair by the fire woke up and looked intently at the old gaffer, who continued “They were all saying ‘Miauw’ at the same time”. Old Tom suddenly stood up and let out a loud “Miauw!”, “Yes, just like that” said the husband “And there was one black cat walking in front, and seeing me he stood up on his hind legs and walked towards me.” Tom stood up on his tabby hind legs and walked towards the man saying “Miauw” again. The Old lady nearly dropped the teapot. The old man’s eyes were as wide as saucers “Yes, just like that. And then it spoke”, “No it didn’t! Husband you’ve been drinking!” “Not a drop my dear. It spoke clear as you or I. Looked me right in the eye and said ‘Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead.’ I nearly feinted!“. There was a moment’s silence, but before the old dear could ask who Tom Tildrum might be or how her husband might be expected to pass the message he had been charged with on to him, Old Tabby Tom, still on his hind paws announced in perfect English “If Tim Toldrum’s dead then… I’m the King Of The Cats!” And with that he shot up the chimney and was gone, never to be seen again. A purrfect tale if ever I heard one.

* Ailurophile = Cat lover

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

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Look How Far We’ve Come


One of the side effects of researching old folk tales is one can’t help but develop an awareness of history. Whilst the history that is taught in education and sighed over in costume dramas is mostly from a fairly well to do perspective, folktales carry memories of the history experienced by the less fortunate. Stories like Hansel and Gretel remind us the nobility of the Middle Ages kept the agricultural peasantry on such barely subsistence wages, that a bad harvest or a passing pestilence could leave parents choosing which children to feed and which to abandon to their fate. Those without patronage, employment or pension were so hard pressed for food that, in difficult times, the madness of hunger actually did drive some to eat human flesh. Maybe alongside the famous Henry Tudor wife tally of “Divorced, Beheaded, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived!” We should learn the cost of medieval royalty’s lifestyle: “Starving, Abandoned, Died. Starving, Abandoned, Cannibalised.”

Uncomfortable as these reminders are, they are easy to pass by as the product of extremis, circumstances way beyond anything we are likely to encounter ourselves. However, now and then I come across a tale that can still shock me, it’s horrors not being so long ago or far away, and presented with such everyday banality that it sends shivers down my spine.

My next virtual online zoom performance is going to be about cats. A fairly safe topic one might have thought, relatively low in the jeopardy stakes with a minimal body count mostly tallied in rodents. I was not prepared for “The Lazy Cat”, a purportedly “humorous” tale from Hungary. It starts with the sentence “A lad married a rich and lazy maid and solemnly promised he would never beat her”. On the surface this may seem like a good thing but there are two warning signs in this one statement. Firstly, in folk tales of this type the opening sentence tends to be a pretty good guide to the main topic of the story: this is going to be a story about domestic violence. Secondly, the simple fact that his oath is worth mentioning means the cultural norm for the society was that husbands beat their wives. In case you are in any doubt about that, the story continues: the wife does no work around the house, spending her days in idle gossip “And still he kept his word and never raised his hand against her.” Yes, we are seriously being asked to give him points simply for not being a thug.

The husband solves the conundrum of how to discipline his unruly spouse without breaking his vow by turning to the cat. He orders the poor feline to do all the housework and have his meal ready for when he gets back under threat of a whipping. When he returns and puss has unsurprisingly failed to lift a paw he ties the cat to his wife’s back, whips the cat and the cat claws the wife. After a couple of days of this the wife starts to do the cat’s chores and all is well.

The shocking realisation that in an anecdote from not that long ago we are being invited to consider violence by proxy a clever work around; that the animal cruelty is almost casual; and the “joke” hinges on the foolish act of forsaking direct violence; shows that things have improved over the years. Our reaction to it gives us perspective. It’s a bit like reaching a hill top on a long walk. There is still a long way to go before we reach true equality between the sexes (women are still payed less than men for the same job despite legislation that says otherwise, just as one indisputable example), but just turn around, face back along the rocky path a moment and look how far we’ve come.

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

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A Bit Of Graft


With a new year starting, a vaccine on it’s way, and the economy in tatters I predict we are once more going to be hearing a lot about “hard work”. We are going to be exhorted to get down to it, get on with it and be dedicated about it. If we are poor we will be told that it’s because we aren’t doing enough of it. Those who are wealthy will claim that it’s because they did lots of it. Realising that “Hard work” is about to become a hot topic I naturally set about searching my data base for a folktale about hard work and the riches it bestows.

There wasn’t one. I checked with a fellow storyteller. They didn’t know of one either. Oh, There are plenty of tales warning of the destitution and destruction that can befall those who do not work at all (so I would avoid that). There are also many examples of stories in which doing some hard work is used as a signal of the protagonists virtue before they receive a gift of extraordinary munificence from a supernatural benefactor… But not one that we could think of in which the protagonist achieves opulence as a direct result of working hard and getting proportional recompense for said hard work.

Without doing an exhaustive statistical breakdown, I think I can pretty safely say that the most frequent folktale method of becoming rich is to marry nobility. Through most of history this option was only available to those of noble birth in the first place and most rags-to-riches tales are in reality riches-to-rags-and-back-again tales (Notably the fall from prosperity amongst nobility is always bad luck and never the result of not doing enough hard work). Although some domestic drudgery may be involved along the road back to affluence, this brings no reward of it’s own, in fact it usually comes with a side order of humiliation and degradation.

Celtic Myth goes further and spells it out for us when Cormac Mac Art goes to the land of Faery and is shown a vision in which a man constantly feeds a fire with whole trees, each of which is burned up by the time he returns with the next. This, Cormac is told, represents those who work for others as their work is never done and they do not get to warm themselves by the fire. Those who extol the benefits of you doing some hard work are frequently the people who will enjoy those benefits whilst doing very little that could be described as either hard or work themselves. If you are going to do some hard work you had better have a very clear idea of exactly what you are being given in return, because mostly it would appear to be more hard work. As ever, these tales hold up a mirror to reality. One need only to look at Nurses, who have worked even harder for the last year than they do normally and what reward have they received?

The thing is through the majority of civilisation, social mobility has been pretty much non existent. You were going to do what your parents did as there was no system for you to learn anything else. The peasantry should know their place, or at least accept it, since it wasn’t going to change unless the Lord (either local or heavenly) willed it, no matter how hard you work. Common sense agrees with this. It is clear that there is only ever a small percentage gain to be made by increasing the amount of effort put in by one person doing a one person job.

What then does folk tale offer us as an alternative to endless striving without reward? Often being clever and applying wisdom to your work is more important than how hard it is, whilst helping each other out and coming together to make hard work easy is highly recommended.

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You Did Not Do This On Your Own.


[another casualty of bad filing and too much other stuff to do, this one was written in August 2019 in the back of my van and I only discovered I hadn’t posted it when I went to find the link for someone]

I am in Dorset as I write, taking a break between storytelling sessions at Purbeck Valley Folk Festival. It nearly didn’t happen. During the set up fifty mile an hour winds destroyed two marquees and prevented the erection of a third until Saturday. Torrential rain on Friday also made life difficult, but the show must go on!

A couple of years ago one of my regular visitors to the storytelling asked if I knew a tale called Tritill, Litill And The Birds. I didn’t but I said I would see if I could find it. I enlisted some help and managed to track it down, lost it, found it again, learnt it, and this afternoon I told it for a packed tent, much to the delight of the original requester.

It is a Hungarian folktale which follows a fairly standard pattern. A princess has gone missing and the king will give her hand in marriage to whoever brings her back. The oldest of three brothers goes out to search, meets two beggars but doesn’t share his food with them, wont feed the birds, finds an ogresses cave, fails to do the chore she sets him and is killed. Ditto brother two. Youngest brother gives the beggars and birds food and is rewarded with offers of magical help. In the Ogresses cave he is able to do all the three tasks he is set with the aid of the two beggars, Tritill, Litill and all the birds. Although the Ogress threatens to kill the youngest brother if he fails at the tasks she is also generous and offers him the choice of three things from her cave if he completes the third task. Tritill and Litill advise him to ask for the chest from the end of the bed and, more enigmatically, the thing that is on the bed and the thing that is under the side of the cave. These turn out to be a chest full of treasure, the missing princess and a boat that can sail on land as well as it does on the sea. He loads the first two in to the last one and is soon off to a life of royally wedded happily ever after.*

A couple of things struck me about the story. One was that the Ogress bore certain similarities to witchy antagonists in some other stories who turn out to be echoes of ancient earth goddesses, punishing the bad and rewarding the good. The other was an intriguing element common to a wide variety of folktales in which the protagonist is set tasks: On finding the task completed the antagonist, be they ogress, giant, witch or other monster, will pass a comment about the protagonist having had help, or having not done it on their own. From a modern perspective we tend to view this as if the Ogress is a teacher at secondary school where we were all expected to do our own work. However, it is clear that they know help was had, but they never do as your teacher would have done and dock marks, disqualify or, since they are not teachers but folklore characters, kill the quester.

This seems strangely out of character as they have generally been shown to be decidedly pedantic and disinclined to tolerate failure or deviation from the challenge as set. If doing it alone is important why do they let it slide when they know help has been given? If they are not going to act on the ‘cheating’ why mention it?

The answer can be found through an examination of the rest of the story. Two brothers gave their lives to demonstrate that the tasks are simply impossible when attempted alone. The youngest brother has only got as far as he has through giving and accepting help. The Ogress, a vestigial mother nature – the original teacher, mentions that youngest brother has had help after every task because this is the true point of the story: he does not do it on his own. Everything that he achieves is through co-operative action.

So as I prepare to go out for this evening’s late night performance, the set list for which is entirely made up of requests from the audience, at a festival that is only possible because of the volunteers who applied teamwork to overcome the elements, I will remind myself that the smiles and applause of the audience are for all of us and none of us did it alone.

Here’s to living happily ever after… Until the next adventure!

* The whole story: https://fairytalez.com/tritill-littil-birds/

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Legendary!


[This year I have been even more out of kilter with keeping the blog up to date than usual. I completely lost this article and had to retrieve it from the sent folder of Mail. It was written in July for August’s Morchard messenger]

I’m doing a bunch of Viking tales for an online gig in three day’s time. I know a lot of the mythological material really well, the stories of Odin, Thor, Freya, Loki and the other gods of Asgard as they struggle with the giants. I have been telling them on and off since I started nearly 30 years ago. It’s nice to keep things fresh though and I’ve been meaning to work up a version of the story of Halfdan, a young Viking warrior who has to fight assorted foes, traitors, brigands and wizards to eventually retain his father’s kingdom and win the hand of the fair Ingigerd. It’s a great tale! It’s got star crossed lovers, treachery, cross dressing, blood feuds, sea battles and magic dogs. What more could you want?

Well, I want it to be easier to learn. Being part of the saga material, huge amounts of the action are dependent on the relationships between the characters, often with respect to generations of animosity sparked by an ill-considered, fatal dust up between their grand uncles, or some other unburied hatchet, or unburied Dane axe, as it might be. On having a read through before starting work on memorising it I realised that every character comes with an entire genealogy, each ancestor emphasising their status in the hierarchy of the North, in one case traced back to Odin himself.

Now, you might think that one could simply ditch all this back-story and get on with the action, who cares about lineage? However, if you don’t know that Griff The Bald’s great grandad was stabbed in the back by Frank The Flashy’s grandmother in law in the wake of a bit of pillaging, that would strip the emotional power from their chance meeting on the deck of a longship in the middle of a battle. All that tedious “Bjarki The Bashful was the son of Bronji Boring Bonce from Birken” matters.


It’s not just the drivers of the drama that matter. Despite the more fantastic elements of the story, this is not a folk tale. Also, despite the occasional deity in the family tree it is not mythology because in mythology the gods are the main protagonists, or at least are responsible for a significant part of the plot. Halfdan appears in actual historic documents. Oh yes, he was a real person. Who was related to whom matters because some of it may be true. Now, if Halfdan was a historical person, if some of the things that we are told happened actually happened, and it then accrued a number of less believable elements, that makes his story technically (pauses dramatically)… a legend! Yep, because there truly was once someone called Halfdan Eysteinsson, king of Romerike and Vestfold, also known as Halfdan “The Mild”, the exploits in his saga are officially legendary.

Unfortunately that also means that editing it to make it easier to learn needs to be done with immense care, and getting down to the level of “There was a prince who went out to seek his fortune” is not going to happen. So Halfdan is going to have to wait to get his legend told and I am going to have to find some other tale to tell. One I can have ready to go in 3 days…

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

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Eye Eye


Theatre, I have recently learned, did not develop directly from storytelling. In several different cultures around the globe theatre evolved from religion via ritual performances of myth. The sacred dramas were, of course constructed on a foundation of earlier storytelling, so it is theatre’s ancestor, maybe not it’s mother as I have previously held, but in true mythological style, still a parent via an incestuous relationship with an earlier offspring.

Each of these three generations of the storytelling family have their own accepted range of physicality. When I run workshops one of the things I ask my students to play with and make a decision about is the basic concept of movement involved in their performance: are they a sitting or a standing teller? Static or mobile? As storyteller’s go, I am out on the extreme end of active, roaming the stage with imagined swords, opening non existent doors, leafing through transparent tomes taken from invisible shelves, pulling faces, waving my arms and sometimes even running from side to side. It must be a bit of a surprise for anyone who thinks that storytelling is someone sitting down and reading from a book.

We in the 21st century are very much an optical culture. Video may not have actually killed the radio star but it did push her in to an abandoned cellar and steal her lunch money…
And no one cared: out of sight, out of mind!

Storytelling though, is and interactive art form and the line of sight goes both ways. The bard of yore was given the best seat by the fire, not just because their status earned them the warmth (if they were anything like me they would be oblivious to the cold once the words start to flow), but because then the audience is lit by the blaze and their reactions can be seen, read, and reacted to in turn.

When storytellers give a narrative performance both performer and audience are lit so we can see each other. We will let the audience know that they are seen by making eye contact with them now and then, a universal sign of acknowledgement and inclusion. Since I am the only person on stage I can use these various lines of sight for different parts of the show. If two characters in the story are having a conversation I can clearly demonstrate that by stepping to one side, looking across the front of the audience, making eye contact with someone sitting near the opposite side of the room and talking to them as if I am the Giant and they are the Padishah’s Daughter. To continue the dialogue I simply step across the central line, turn to face someone on the other side of the room and they become the Giant while I speak the words of the Princess.
We all understand the visual convention, acclimatised to it through years of theatre and a vocabulary of camera angles learnt in the early days of the big screen and passed down through TV, yea, even unto the TicTok generation.

But now a new re-evolution is upon us. As the storytelling world has moved en-masse to the virtual firesides and feasting halls of Zoom and Google Hangouts we find ourselves restricted to a single eyeline. I have my web cam standing in front of a large screen which shows as many of the viewers as possible, each in their own rectangular box. I can see and react to them but I am unable to look from one side of the audience to the other as all eyes have become the same cyclopean orb, all engagement must be through the one unblinking lens. As we all adapt to the unfamiliar context I am intrigued and excited to see the full form of this new child that storytelling and technology are spawning before our very – universal, digitally integrated – eye.

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

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The Old Grey Waffle Test


“But how do you remember it all?” It is the question I am asked most often about my craft. I have answered it in this column at least twice. With two different answers of course, both of which are true. Today as I sat down to write this months FTC for you I realised I am going to give you a third answer.

“What is it about Three?” Is one of the questions I am asked most often about my material: “Why does everything happen in threes”; “Why is three the magic number?”
The observant among you may well have put three and three together and realised the answers to these questions are linked.

The thing is, folk stories, stories that stay alive by being told, heard, remembered, and told again do have a survival mechanism that has evolved in them. It came to my attention last night when I was reading Jo a bedtime story. I had chosen the tale of the Goddess Inana and her descent in to the Underworld. This is one of the Sumerian stories that was found on 5,000 year old clay tablets from the dawn of writing. A deeply significant tale of power, sacrifice, loyalty and resurrection. Having performed it on tour nine years ago I am re-learning it for a zoom gig in September. It is around twenty minutes in total but I only have to learn about 7 minutes of it. Here’s the trick: every element is repeated at least three times, sometimes quite cleverly.

Before Inana descends in to the Underworld she gives her minster, Ninšubur, a set of very specific instructions concerning the ritual mourning she must perform, including some quite shocking procedures, and a richly metaphorical request for help she must make to Inana’s father and two grandfathers. The story follows Inana down while Ninšubur waits. After three days have passed and Inana has not returned, that specific sequence is reprised as Ninšubur puts on the dress of a servant, covers herself in ashes and performs the series of lacerations to her eyes, nose, ears (in public) and buttocks (in private) as directed previously. She then makes the requests to all three ancestors. Father Enki grants the wishes of Ninšubur and produces the necessary help so we don’t hear the request sequence again, but we don’t need to; we’ve heard it six times by now. We have only experienced the mourning ritual twice though. Don’t worry, it’s coming up again soon.

After Inana has been restored to life she comes back from the Underworld accompanied by the Anuna, who are described variously as the “Judges of the Underworld” and as “Demons”. They are not just up for a jolly in the land of light but have to maintain the cosmic balance by taking back someone to fill Inana’s place in the realm of the dead. The first person they encounter is of course Ninšubur, waiting patiently by the gate. The Anuna are about to take her below when Inana stops them: “This is my minister of fair words, She did not forget my instructions…” and continues to run through the litany of mourning that Ninšubur executed, lacerations both public and private, the visit to the houses of the three gods and concludes “She brought me back to life. How could I turn her over to you?”. So we hear the same words three times but in very different contexts, first as impending imperative, second as action and third as both praise and a defence before the Judges, each repetition carrying a different emotional charge.

Much as musicians listen out for departing audience whistling one of their melodies, storyteller’s know we have got something right when someone quotes an oft repeated line back at us. After I’ve told The Field of Genies I enjoy hearing “Who gave you permission to do that then?” echoing across festival fields; those who have heard The Padisha’s Daughter Who Married a Donkey Skull find themselves approaching taps with the words “What fountain is this?”; and any audience that has made me run around at the end of The Hedgehog And The Devil will get up to leave afterwards with the words “Off we go again then” on their lips.

And there you have it, at the risk of repeating myself, repetition within a story makes that story easier to remember and the stories that have triple repetition are more likely to be told because they are more easily remembered.


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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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