Monthly Archives: April 2016

Rhyme And Reason


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

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

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

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


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

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

As it was Foretold


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

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

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Sweet Dreams


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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized