Monthly Archives: August 2010

Harvest Time

Harvest used to be the centre of the year for pretty much the entire population, it is what the long school summer holiday was for, It wasn’t time off: it was time to do some real work! We may not be the agrarian society we once were but we all know of annual events that hold great importance and carry extra stress. Tax returns, exams, stock take; we plan for them, work towards them and celebrate with a drink when they are over, but we don’t really talk about them… unless something goes wrong.

So, harvest appears in folk tale as a marker in time or a backdrop of activity that was understood by any audience, in the same way that shopping in the third week of December might be nowadays. If the actual business of bringing in the crops is important to the plot then you can be pretty sure that trouble is on it’s way. Despite many tales from other times of the year indicating the superiority of the female intellect, sending a young wife off with a scythe to tackle a field on her own is apparently a bad idea as she is likely to fall asleep or accidentally cut her own clothes off, instead of cutting the crop, and then suffer a personality crisis as she fails to recognise herself and thinks she must be someone else!

The most well known tale of harvest is “The Tops And The Butts”. This simple tale has been told, with little variation, across the whole agricultural world for hundreds of years. Sometimes the protagonists are a fox and a bear, or some other animal pairing, but mostly it’s a human farmer and a devil / bogle / boggart / (insert supernatural being of choice). The farmer (or fox) is preparing a field for planting when their antagonist appears and claims that they own the land. After some negotiation the devil (or bear) allows the farmer to proceed on condition that they share the crop. The wily farmer (or… you’ve got the point by now) asks their new partner if they would like the tops or the bottoms and when the poor dupe says “tops” the farmer plants beets, resulting in a full harvest for himself and a pile of waste leaves for his “landlord”.

Naturally the next year the bogle requests the bottoms, whereupon the farmer plants wheat and pulls in a second harvest whilst leaving the fall guy with roots and stubble. Many versions end there with the stooge muttering “This land is rubbish! You can keep it.” and wandering off in a huff.

This breaks the story telling rule that ‘Anything that happens twice happens three times.’ and I rather like it for that. Some variants though, have a third year which I am sure has been added on to make up the magic three. The field is divided in two along it’s length, planted with wheat and both parties agree to a mowing match: whoever finishes their half first gets the whole field. So the farmer cheats by planting thin metal rods amongst the wheat in the other’s half which sufficiently slow their opponent, who thinks the scythe-blunting rods are “burdocks”, that he gives up the race.

Entertaining as it is, “The Tops And The Butts” does not stand up to examination if what you want is a moral at the end of your story. The boggart’s ownership of the land may not be proven but neither is it disputed and he gives no provocation for the farmer’s trickery save being different and maybe a little slow. The story seems to suggest it’s ok to cheat people of other races, that the ‘civilised’ farmer has a right to displace the ‘ignorant’ native from their ancestral foraging grounds.

For a more ethically palatable harvest tale I recommend “The Field of Genies” which not only teaches the whole process of preparation and planting but warns against the employment of forces we do not fully comprehend. The genies who own the field (and increase in numbers exponentially as the story progresses) enthusiastically repeat the actions of the farmer, which is tremendously helpful when doing the back-breaking tasks of digging and raking etc, but accidentally giving them the wrong actions to follow results in disaster.

As artificial fertilisers and indiscriminate pesticides deplete our soil or reduce our essential biodiversity and genetically engineered crops promise magical returns that are too good to be true, we would do well to listen to the message of this old yarn.

Be it harvest, exam or stock take, if you want to reap the rewards then you have to put in the hard work: There are no short cuts.

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



Filed under August, Folk Tale, stories, Storytelling, Summer

Inside A Storyteller

English is a cruel mistress, a temptress dressed in rich robes, with ruffles and rubies, elegant in smooth silks and satins.  I love her lines of Anglo-Saxon alliteration, as she dances forward in double stresses, stepping and stamping with pride and passion.  I love her softer side, scented prose, seducing with the smooth susurration of sweet assonance.  Her slyly smiling similes and magical metaphors beguile and entrance.  I love the very bones of her, words made of a calcium recycled long ago from some far off land, rugged enough for rigourous use yet still flexible enough to take on a new meaning in the mouths of our successive generations.

Yet her most sinuous moves seem always saved for the caress of another’s pen, her most delicate curves reserved for the brush of other lips.  With me her favourite game is hide and seek.  Here, at the computer I can draw and redraw her elusive beauty, tame her with tools, trap her with a thesaurus.  She teases me as I do so: “Too clumsy” she admonishes, “Too clever” she sighs, “Too much altogether!” she giggles and then hides.  Again.

But I am a spoken word artist.  I stand before you and invite language to dance on my tongue.  It’s live, real time action adventure, no tea breaks to ponder the next paragraph.  The matter in hand (or in mouth) is folk tale and, thankfully, the the choreography rarely requires the complexity of it’s more literary cousins: vernacular steps for vernacular material.  I release my love from the demands of convoluted contortions and ask only that she keeps going, a continuous forward motion.  Now, in peasants clothes and dirty, bare feet she kicks up her heels and she’s away, leaping and twirling, occasionally rewarding my generosity with a back flip and triple salco.  She still teases, hiding a word I need behind her back until the very last second or spinning, heart-stopingly, down a blind alley only to leap lightly on to fire escape that wasn’t there a moment ago.

Obviously keeping her in motion takes up a great deal of my attention but I am busy with other things too.  My internal director is barking orders: “Remember to make eye contact with the children in the front row.  There’s a princess coming up, find a woman to flatter with the description of her beauty.  Good work! Now back off – her husbands looking antsy.  Take it down, slowly now, almost a whisper, lets make this surprise really work, pause… and GO!  Now the king’s on in a moment, can you give him a bit more of an accent this time?”

For all our years of working together though, we are not in charge.  Above us all there is a higher power: the story itself.  I have chewed it over but, like a virus or a bacteria, it is not broken down by my digestive juices.  It has encysted inside me living a life of it’s own.  A strong story may even cannibalise some of it’s brothers, incorporating their best bits in to itself.  My internal team and I are only midwives assisting in the story’s re-entry to the world.  Older than the trees, it is used to waiting but it wants to be told, to burst forth and plant it’s seed in fresh ears.

As the story opens up before me I feed the pictures to Dame English and she dances on, step-step-jump-turn, and the Director does his best to keep the performance on track as it accelerates towards it’s climax.  This is the most dangerous moment, if we lose our footing now then all the work we have done is wasted.  My leading lady carefully sets herself up for the last dash while the director nudges me to centre stage and makes me do a quick sweep around the whole audience, meeting eyes, gathering you in.

But the story is a big boy now, asserting it’s reality on top of mine.  I can’t complain, I have encouraged it, but it is strange standing there in front of you, knowing you are listening while my eyes see another place and time entirely.  Under dragon attack for instance, my team flees screaming in to the distance.  As dust whirls and huge claws crash to the ground this side and that, I look down at the parched desert floor, scrabble for words to chuck out to you and catch only gravel, It spills from my mouth skidding beneath the hooves of the hero’s horse.  I duck and dive, weave this way and that as the scythe like claws whistle through the air just inches from my face.  Heart pounding, I babble a breathless commentary, my arms flailing wildly, hands reaching out for words half obscured amidst airborne sand and smoke, trying to pluck power and purpose from the hot unfocused air.

Deep, deep within, a small voice intones a constant prayer to the one eyed god of poetry: “Don’t let me die. Don’t let me die”.  I mean it both as the theatrical metaphor, and literally, as the dragon fixes me with it’s vast black eyes and raises his deadly claw to strike.  The story is running the show now – and it has an agenda.  Our stories tell us who we are, as individuals and as a nation.  This story reminds us we are heroes, that we can face our fears and overcome our monsters:  it has no intention of letting the claw come down.  Through the fog of combat it suddenly presents me with the hero’s magic sword and gratefully grasping the leather wrapped hilt, I-he-you-we are carried forward by our steadfast steed, between the dragon’s very legs and swiftly strike upward delivering shining steel death to our ancient enemy.

My team have returned, the director exhorting cheers from the audience and Lady Language tap dancing lightly to “happily ever after”.  The Manager takes over, smoothly handling the PR, “Thank you, thank you, I’ve been The Travelling Talesman, you’ve been a wonderful audience, see you next time!”.  People come up to me asking “Where do you get your stories from?” and “How do you remember it all?”.  The manager trots out professional platitudes, giving them something they can take away with them.  I do not mention the deep, dark well of the unconscious mind or the chaos that goes on backstage.  Oh, I can tell them all sorts of ways to learn a story but would they understand if I said that, in the white heat of telling, it’s often the story that remembers me? …And even I don’t know how my leading lady stays on that narrow, narrative tightrope… maybe she returns my love after all.


Filed under Dragon, Folk Tale, Otherworld, stories, Storytelling

There are nine and sixty ways…

I’ve been rebuilding my bookshelves and sorting the massive collection of storybooks back into categories.  It’s amazing how many of them feature the same stories, only slightly different.   Some vary only in the voice in which they are told; some may be a name change here or there; sometimes the same story is in rhyme; in others the motivation for action is entirely different although the main plot features settle into their familiar pattern once things get going. Sometimes you come across entire stories welded on to the end of one you know… or maybe that was it’s original form and parts have been left out in later tellings.  I remember my surprise on discovering that the famous dragon slaying episode in St. George’s tale is near the beginning of a much larger adventure. For me these discoveries are part of the exciting detective work that leads to the heart of the story!

Take Cinderella (no please take her, she’s been overshadowing her folktale sisters for far too long),  you will find variations of this tale all over the world.  They go by the various names of Tattercoats; Cap o’ Rushes; Mossycoat; Nipitfit and Clipitfit; with never a glass slipper or a pumpkin coach in sight.

Many of them are more empowered than Cinderella and don’t rely on a fairy godmother to do the work for them (though Tattercoats does get a hand from her only friend the crippled goatherd). The sisters rarely play more than a cameo role, neither ugly nor evil, they simply contribute to a misunderstanding between our heroine and (this may surprise you) her father, the king, leading to her banishment from court and a stint in lowly service.  However the main plot reveals itself as the same over and again with the poor-maid-turned-anonymous-beauty winning the heart of the Prince at three successive balls.

Now for some of us reading a variation we may find ourselves missing the familiar elements, but if we can accept the differences they often show the story in a new light revealing valuable, previously obscured aspects of the tale. Without the special effects of transformed mice or the demonised step-mother, the climax of the story shifts from Cinderella’s ‘escape’ into marriage, to Cap  O’ Rushes’ clever reconciliation with her father, making it less of a black and white Good-Versus-Evil tale and more a triumph of wit and perseverance over foolishness and pride.

One of the skills of a storyteller is to search out these variants of a story, and in exploring their individualities, get to know the essence of each tale.  These different tales may have evolved through chinese whispers one to another, or sprung up simultaneously and spontaneously from the pool of human archetypes; either way the exploring storyteller may choose to weave them into a fresh, informed, new telling of the tale, their very own contribution to the evolutionary Folk process.

As Kipling says –

“There are nine and sixty ways
of constructing tribal lays
and Every Single One of Them

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

The Travelling Talesman

1 Comment

Filed under August, Cinderella, Fairytale, Folk Tale, stories